Sunday, October 22, 2017

Alexandra Kollontai – The Lonely Struggle of the Woman Who Defied Lenin


By Cathy Porter
Dial Press - 1980

A review

With the advent of electronic books, large bookstores that have hundreds of thousands of titles have become very rare. On a recent vacation, Judi and I discovered one of these used bookstores in the Kennet Square area of Pennsylvania. It was here that I found Cathy Porter’s biography of the Russian revolutionary Alexandra Mikhailovna Kollontai. A hard copy of this book is also available at Amazon.com.

I’ve read several books on the Russian Revolution that include Leon Trotsky’s invaluable work on the subject. However, I found Porter’s biography of Kollontai to be unique. While I don’t agree with all of Porter’s conclusions, I found her meticulous study of the life of Alexandra Kollontai to be, at times, inspiring.

So, before I give a summary of the life of Alexandra Kollontai, I feel the need to clarify some issues. First, I don’t like the title of this book. Yes, it is true that Vladimir Illyich Lenin had disagreements with Kollontai. However, this book also makes a clear argument that Lenin was an important influence on Kollontai. This book also shows how Lenin, at times, appreciated the contributions of Kollontai and encouraged her activities. So, arguing that she was the woman who defied Lenin, in my opinion, is a bit simplistic.

I believe that this distinction is important because the mainstream capitalist press rarely, if ever, has anything positive to say about the life of Vladimir Illyich Lenin. In my opinion, Lenin’s example was probably the most important of the twentieth century.

Another aspect of Kollontai’s life was the fact that she chose not to support Leon Trotsky’s opposition to the regime of Josef Stalin. Stalin betrayed the core values of the Russian Revolution and organized to murder its leaders. 

However, Kollontai understood that had she joined with Trotsky, she, in all probability, would have been one of those who was murdered. Supporting Trotsky also might have also meant the murder of her son, her daughter-in-law, as well as her grandson.

So, understanding these facts, now we can take a look at the life of Alexandra Kollontai.

Early life

Alexandra Kollontai was born into an aristocratic landowning family in St. Petersburg.  At that time, Finland was a province of tsarist Russia and is located in close proximity to St. Petersburg. Young Alexandra enjoyed her summers at the family home in the countryside of Finland. Her familiarity with that nation would become an important asset in her later life.

Alexandra had a tutor who gave her a foundation for the life she would lead. She learned to dedicate herself to working diligently to achieve a goal. At that time, women weren’t expected to pursue intellectual ideas. Kollontai clearly broke that mold.

Young Alexandra became conversant in several languages. She also developed a discipline for learning new languages.

Her tutor also taught Alexandra about the profound injustices of tsarist Russia. As a child, Alexandra had a friend who was born into a peasant family. One day she learned that her friend had died. One clear cause of his death was that in the frigid Russian winter, he had no shoes. Overcoats were also a luxury for most peasant families.

At the age of 22 Alexandra married Vladimir Kollontai who was an engineer and had a liberal political outlook. Her husband was awarded a contract to install a ventilation system in a factory and thought this was an important opportunity. Alexandra toured this factory and was horrified by what she saw.

The factory needed a ventilation system because there was dust everywhere. At that time Russian corporations had been replacing their male workers with women because women, at best, received salaries that were 50% of the wages of men.

Women were expected to work through their pregnancy and delivered their babies in the factory. Alexandra toured a stark room where infants were kept while their mothers might toil for 16 hours per day. In this room she saw a baby who had died, and was assured that the corpse would be taken away when there was an opportunity. Infants often died because their mothers were malnourished and there was insufficient breast milk.

Visiting this factory was a turning point in Alexandra’s life. She eventually decided to leave her husband and son, Misha, to study Marxism in Zurich, Switzerland.

Kollontai becomes a revolutionary

Between the years 1899 and 1908 Kollontai lived mostly in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. Urban centers like St. Petersburg were becoming industrial centers financed largely with French capital. One way French capitalists dealt with the rising wages of French workers was to invest in Russia. This industrialization had a profound impact on the politics of the nation.

In the countryside the royal lords had the power to use the knout or whip to beat or murder peasants. As we’ve already seen, Russian peasants lived in perpetual poverty. In order to leave their homes and travel they needed written permission.

Perhaps millions of former peasants changed their lives to work in factories. Here they might toil for 12 to 16 hours per day under horrendous conditions. They might not have their own place to live, so many lived in dormitories.

Russian police had the right to viciously beat anyone. People could be arrested for any reason and police routinely raped women. In fact the tsar openly supported the Black Hundreds (similar to the Ku Klux Klan) who carried out pogroms against Jews where thousands were murdered.

During these years Kollontai gave Marxist classes to workers. In these classes, she needed to be careful of what she said. Spies working for the secret police (Okrana) regularly attended her classes, so she needed to speak in a kind of code language.  

Peasant women also came to these industrial centers. There was a Russian word baba that meant peasant hag that was insulting to all women. These peasant women were used to being beaten by their husbands. They were mostly illiterate and lived difficult lives where the thoughts of women weren’t taken seriously. When they came to the cities, they were effectively forced to work in factories, or as maids, or prostitutes.  

It was in this environment that Kollontai advanced her lifelong struggle in support of women’s rights. Initially she realized that the women’s organizations of those years were composed of affluent or middle class women. These organizations argued that women’s liberation could be achieved with reforms of the capitalist system. Kollontai countered that the goals of these organizations didn’t include the millions of working and peasant women of Russia. This is how Kollontai explained her views:

“Surely (the middle-class woman) cannot but see how little the general women’s movement has done for proletarian women, how incapable it is of improving the working-class living conditions. The future of humanity must seem bleak and uncertain indeed to those women fighting for equality who have not adopted the proletarian world outlook or developed any firm faith in the coming of a more perfect social system. While the capitalist world remains unchanged, liberation must seem incomplete and partial—what despair must grip the more thoughtful and sensitive of these women.”

In her studies of Marxism, she discovered that Frederick Engels argued that the family, private property, and the state were all invented to uphold the capitalist system. Women not only needed the right to vote, but they needed to be freed of routine discrimination, household drudgery, as well as the dictates of men. Kollontai argued that this would only happen when capitalism was pushed aside and workers took power in a socialist state.

These ideas appeared fantastic in a nation where working women were routinely illiterate and lacked the confidence to make political arguments in support of their interests. However, throughout her life Kollontai would gain support for these ideas and they continue to be relevant.

By the year 1905 the profound contradictions of tsarist Russia erupted. Workers organized a wave of strikes. A demonstration marched to the home of the tsar asking for relief. The ruling powers responded by ordering Cossacks to murder hundreds who participated in this demonstration.

The 1905 revolution was defeated and followed by a rein of repression. The Duma was the Russian parliament. The tsar ordered Social Democratic members of the Duma to be arrested. They were sentenced to long terms of hard labor.

During this period Kollontai also wrote about the horrendous working conditions in Finland. Her writings on this subject were published in a Bolshevik periodical. However, at this time Kollontai joined the Mensheviks because she felt they had a better perspective on women’s liberation.

Vladimir Illyich Lenin

At this point I should give a background to the life of Vladimir Lenin so people will have an idea of how he influenced Alexandra Kollontai’s life.

Lenin was very fond of his brother Alexander who joined a secret organization that attempted to assassinate the tsar. In this failed effort Alexander was arrested and refused to identify his co-conspirators. So, the Russian authorities executed Lenin’s brother Alexander Ulyanov.

My opinion is that this had a profound effect on Lenin. He understood that his brother was a decent person who gave his life in an attempt to free Russia from despotism. However, Lenin also understood that even if his brother had been effective, absolutely nothing would have changed. In fact, these kinds of isolated acts of terrorism always lead to increased repression.

So, Lenin dedicated his enormous talents into advancing a political orientation that had a real chance of liberating the Russian people. We see this dedication in Lenin’s pamphlet: What is to be done?

Before writing this pamphlet the social democrats of Russia all worked independently and did what they thought was appropriate to advance the movement. Lenin argued that given the extreme repression of Russia, this was counterproductive.

He felt that what was needed was a centralized political party where the leadership would have control of the basic party activities. There would be conferences where the membership would have a right to make counter-proposals. However, after the majority voted on a political line, the entire party would need to carry out that orientation.

Many social democrats, including Kollontai, did not support this point of view. Kollontai and Leon Trotsky joined the Mensheviks and Lenin became the leader of the Bolsheviks.      

Years living outside Russia

By the year 1908 the repression in Russia caught up with Kollontai and a warrant was issued for her arrest. She left the country to live in Berlin and joined the German Social Democratic Party. From her base in Germany, Kollontai utilized her knowledge of languages and gave speeches throughout Europe. She continued her writing and attended conferences of women and social democrats.

During these years Kollontai wrote about sexual relations and how men and women had different ideas about this important aspect of our lives. This is what she had to say:

“The normal woman seeks in sexual intercourse completeness and harmony.” “whereas the man, reared on prostitution—which destroys all the complex vibrations of the sensations of love—follows only his pallid, monotonous physical inclinations, leaving sensations of spiritual hunger and incompleteness on both sides.”

Kollontai continued to write about her ideas of how the “new woman” was developing:

“asserting her individuality instead of naively attempting to absorb and reflect the alien nature of the ‘beloved,’ insisting on her right to earthly happiness instead of hypocritically donning the mask of virtue, and finally, putting the expression of love in a subordinate place in her life.” By moving in this direction the new woman would have a new appearance: “before us stands not a mate—the shadow of a man, before us stands a new personality—a whole and human woman.”

Also during this period Kollontai agreed to make a four-month speaking tour of the United States. During these exhausting months Kollontai spoke four languages in every region of this country. She spoke at a memorial for the songwriter Joe Hill who was framed-up and executed in the state of Utah. She spoke on the same platform as Eugene Debs, the most prominent socialist of those days.

She also viewed the extreme poverty and discrimination that Black people experienced. This reminded her of the discrimination of tsarist Russia. She was also taken aback by the racist sentiments of some of her sponsors who claimed to be socialists.

The First World War

As the First World War erupted, Alexandra’s world was dramatically changed again. At this time, her home was in Germany and her son Misha was visiting her from Russia. Both Alexandra and her son were a part of the Russian exile community and Germany was going to war against Russia. Alexandra, her son, as well as the Russian exile community were arrested and sent to prison.

We should consider that the German social democrats had real power in Germany in those years. Alexandra was a prominent member of their party. However, with the exception of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the large majority of the social democrats supported the war and refused to protest the arrest of Alexandra and her son.

Under these circumstances Kollontai gravitated to the politics of Lenin and the Bolsheviks who took a strident position against the war. Kollontai collaborated with Lenin at this time and found his writings to be extremely useful. She, however, questioned Lenin when he argued that soldiers needed to turn their guns away from each other and point them towards the ruling powers. Initially Alexandra found this idea to be unrealistic, but in dealing with this issue she developed an orientation that would serve her well in the future.

At this time, Alexandra wrote a popular pamphlet against the war. This is what she had to say:

“Comrade and worker of a foreign army. I know you are not my enemy; so give me your hand comrade. Both you and I are victims of lies and violence. Our main enemy is in the rear. So let us turn our guns on him, our real and common enemy. For my enemy is not one, like me, deprived in his own land of all rights, not one whose life like mine is crushed by capital and a struggle for bread. No, my enemy is at home, the enemy of the working class of all lands, and that enemy is capitalism! For it is that enemy that has made slaves of the working class.”   

During this period Alexandra developed a relationship with Alexander Shlyapnikov. Shlyapnikov was a Bolshevik and an assistant to Lenin. He was charged with the difficult task in illegally transporting Lenin’s writings from Zurich, Switzerland to St. Petersburg, Russia. Alexandra’s relationship with Shlyapnikov also helped in transforming herself into a Bolshevik.

As the Russian Revolution erupted in February of 1917, Alexandra delayed her return to her homeland. She used this trip to transport Lenin’s pamphlet Letters from afar so it could be distributed in St. Petersburg. Upon arriving at the border of Russia, a guard ripped up her arrest warrant that had been issued by the government of the tsar.

The Russian Revolution

The revolution that erupted in February responded to the increasingly intolerable conditions the Russian people faced. Literally millions of soldiers would loose their lives in the war. The war bankrupted the country. In a country that was a breadbasket to the entire region, there was massive starvation.

Women replaced men in the factories. It was a strike by women that sparked the revolution. Unlike in the revolution of 1905, the Cossacks communicated with the workers and refused to disband their demonstrations.

However, while the workers were the ones who made the revolution, a parliamentary Duma took power. These were upper class bureaucrats who organized to depose the tsar and then run a new capitalist Russia.

The Bolsheviks initially weren’t opposed to this point of view. They thought that because of the relative backwardness of Russia that capitalism was a necessary stepping-stone to the emancipation of the working class.

Because of Alexandra’s collaboration with Lenin on this topic, she saw the weakness of this argument. Leon Trotsky also returned to Russia and became a Bolshevik.

By April, Lenin returned to St. Petersburg and called for giving all power to the workers organizations known as Soviets. We can see Lenin’s thinking at this time in his April Thesis. In order to advance this perspective he needed to reverse the orientation the Bolsheviks advanced before his return. The new orientation called for all power to the Soviets as well as peace, bread, and land.

Lenin also wrote two other pamphlets in 1917 that outline what he thought was happening in the world at that time. One was Imperialism—the highest stage of capitalism. In this pamphlet Lenin argued that imperialism as well as imperialist wars do not erupt merely because of mistakes by politicians. No, imperialism as well as world war are a necessary outgrowth of the natural functioning of capitalism.

While capitalist politicians imagined that the First World War was “The war to end all wars,” this war was followed by the Second World War. Both these wars decided which capitalist power would rule the world. According to the estimates I’ve seen, there were eleven million deaths due to the First World War and sixty-seven million deaths due to the Second World War.

The other pamphlet is titled The State and Revolution. In this pamphlet Lenin argued that the state or the capitalist government was invented in capitalism as a “repressive force.” This was to rob workers and farmers of the fruits of their labor. Clearly this is different from the idea that in the United States we have “liberty and justice for all.” Lenin went on to argue that after the revolution that created the United States, the government actively repressed the interests of the British. Lenin also argued that in a workers revolution the revolutionary government would need to actively repress the interests of capitalists. 

The Duma viewed this orientation as an act of treason because it opposed the war. Kollontai and Trotsky were arrested and a warrant was issued for Lenin’s arrest. Alexandra spent two months in horrendous conditions in prison before she was released.
     
By this time the Bolsheviks understood that they needed to organize a second revolution that took place in October. Alexandra attended the meeting where the revolution was organized. At that meeting Lenin wore a wig in order to avoid arrest for his alleged crime of treason. By the end of the day Lenin didn’t need to wear a wig any more.

On the night when the Bolsheviks organized to give power to the Soviet, Lenin drafted his first proposal that would be adopted into law. This was to give land to the millions of peasants who worked that land. The Bolsheviks had promised peace, bread, and land. Lenin didn’t waste any time in delivering on his promise of land for the peasants.  

The Bolsheviks in power

Alexandra Kollontai became the Commissariat of Social Welfare. We should consider that at this time millions of Russian soldiers had lost their lives in the First World War. Millions more died from disease and hunger.

One cause of these deaths Cathy Porter didn’t mention. This was what was known as the Spanish Flu. This was a bird flu that originated in Kansas and was spread by United States soldiers who were sent to Europe in the First World War. According to John M. Barry’s book The Great Influenza, about one out of every ten people in the world died of this horrendous disease around the time of the Russian Revolution.

Because of this immense loss of life, there were millions of children who roamed the streets and didn’t have parents. It was Alexandra’s job to begin to find homes for these orphaned children.

She finally found a place for an orphanage, but this was in need of repair. Alexandra worked tirelessly to get this building suitable for children.

After the completion of this building, Alexandra received a phone call informing her that the orphanage was lost to a fire. This was, no doubt, the result of arson. An enemy of the revolution blamed Kollontai for the fire and attempted to strangle her. She survived and continued her work in Social Welfare.

Lenin had promised that the Bolsheviks would bring peace to the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. However, Germany demanded a huge section of what was then Russia in order to end the hostilities.

Alexandra believed that the revolution could not survive on its own and needed support from other countries where workers would take power. For this reason she joined with those who opposed ending the war in hopes that this would spark revolutions in other countries.

Lenin was adamant in opposing this point of view. The Bolsheviks had promised peace, and he didn’t believe the revolution would survive if this war continued. This perspective won out and the Bolsheviks signed a peace treaty with Germany at Brest-Litovsk.

During these years Alexandra had a close relationship with Pavel Dybenko. Dybenko was a leader of the sailors in the armed forces who supported the revolution. Dybenko was about ten years younger than Alexandra and she helped to educate him about the Bolsheviks. Their relationship lasted for four years and they eventually married.

Dybenko was from the Ukraine and could not bear the thought that his homeland would be handed over to Germany in order to end the war. He tried to organize his own resistance to the German occupation and ended up in a German prisoner of war camp. The Bolsheviks negotiated for his release and Dybenko became a military leader defending the USSR in the civil war. Years later, agents of Josef Stalin murdered Dybenko as well as thousands of officers in the Red Army.

These were extremely difficult years for the revolutionary government. The infrastructure of the nation had been almost completely destroyed. There was famine and disease. Then, fourteen nations invaded the country determined to overthrow the revolutionary government.

We might consider that while Germany signed a peace treaty with Russia, this didn’t stop that nation from joining with other nations in an effort to overthrow the revolutionary government. Germany carried out a bloody war against it’s capitalist rivals and signed an insulting peace treaty at Versailles. This didn’t stop the German capitalist government from joining with it’s adversaries in an attempt to overthrow the Soviet government..

However, the Soviet Red Army surprised their adversaries and successfully defended itself against this invasion. However, the problems inside the nation continued.

At this time the government needed to recruit technicians in order to get the industries of the nation running. These technicians came from the middle classes and this situation led to inequality within the factories.

For this reason Alexandra supported a faction of the Bolsheviks known as the Workers’ Opposition. The goal of this faction was to give the trade unions more control over the organization of the factories.

I don’t agree with Kollontai’s point of view on this issue. First, trade unions are immensely important because they organize workers to resist the dictates of capitalists collectively.  However, Lenin understood that the unions, on their own, were incapable of organizing a revolution that would place workers in power. For this Lenin believed that a revolutionary vanguard party is necessary.

So, after a revolution trade unions take on a different role. These unions now work in collaboration with the government to organize the workplace. If unions were given an independent role after the revolution, this would, in my opinion, place the unions at odds with the government and the revolution would be compromised. I believe this is why the majority of the Bolsheviks opposed the Workers’ Opposition.

The Zhenotdel

Alexandra also worked with the Bolshevik women’s organization known as the Zhenotdel. Working with the leadership of the Bolsheviks this organization pioneered numerous advances for women.

The humiliating word baba (peasant hag) was officially removed from the Russian language.

The USSR became one of the first nations in the world where women won the right to vote.

The USSR became the first nation in the world that gave women the right to abortion. Therefore the USSR became the first nation where women had the power to decide if and when they would become mothers.

For the first time, women won maternity leave during and after pregnancy.

The USSR was a vast nation that included numerous nationalities with unique cultures. One thing these cultures had in common was the brutal repression of women. Women from all over the USSR came to the cities and worked with the Zhenotdel. This experience began to transform the way women looked at themselves, as well as the changing way they related to their communities.

Stalin

A legitimate question to be asked at this point is: How could a revolution that had so much promise be betrayed by the ruthless tyrant Josef Stalin?

First I’ve attempted to show the immense difficulties experienced by the revolutionary government. In the midst of these difficulties Lenin passed away at a time when Stalin was organizing his ascendency.

One way Stalin did this was by recruiting members of the former middle classes into the Bolshevik Party. This was something Lenin was adamantly opposed to. By doing this, Stalin was able to allow the former middle class to maintain their relative material advantages, in return for their acquiescence to his dictatorial rule.

In order to consolidate his rule Stalin murdered the entire leadership of the Russian Revolution. Leon Trotsky made a principled stand against Stalin, but he was exiled from the country. Eventually Stalinist agents murdered Trotsky along with his son Leon Sedov.

It was in this atmosphere that Alexandra Kollontai refused to join with Trotsky’s opposition and worked as a diplomat for the regime of Josef Stalin. During those years Kollontai was continually concerned that she too, as well as her family, would become victims of Stalin’s rein of terror. As a diplomat Kollontai was clearly aware that she was no longer a part of an international revolutionary movement. She told her close associates that she was merely following orders.

I believe that we should keep in mind that with all revolutions, there are always counter-revolutionary movements. We can see this clearly in the history of the United States.

During the Civil War about 350,000 Union soldiers died in the effort to remove slave owners from their positions of power in the United States. As a result, slavery was formally abolished and the Constitution was amended so all men, including former slaves, would have full rights in this country.

Then, after little more than a decade the federal government made a deal that effectively gave power to segregationist forces organized by the Ku Klux Klan. This act, as well as the military defeat of the reconstruction governments, effectively eliminated all citizenship rights for Black people in this country. As a result, thousands of Black people and their supporters were lynched and the government did nothing to prosecute the murderers.

Conclusion

Some people might conclude from this amazing story that revolution is a thing that is destined to fail. I clearly do not agree with that point of view.

Leon Trotsky managed to recruit an international movement of people who chose to continue the initial traditions of the Russian Revolution. In the United States members of the Socialist Workers Party became leaders of both the labor movement, as well as the movement that demanded an end to the war against Vietnam.

This past May I was in Havana, Cuba and witnessed over one million Cubans giving their enthusiastic support to the revolutionary government. Before the revolution the masses of Cuban people lived in abject poverty, as well as vicious government repression. Today, while Cuba doesn’t have many of the conveniences of the developed nations, every Cuban has a lifetime right to health care and education.

I read a pro-capitalist newspaper every day. These newspapers attempt to ignore the basic realities of the world.


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The United Nations estimates that 30,000 children in the world die every day due to easily preventable diseases. At the same time capitalists are investing $1.2 quadrillion in a paper fund called derivatives. This seeming madness will one day explode. When this happens, and it is happening now, we have a lot we can learn from those who dedicated their lives to making the Russian Revolution happen and in continuing it’s traditions.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

30,000 Children Died Today



On the morning of October 3, I read the following banner headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer: Massacre—Gunman kills 59 in worst U.S. mass shooting in modern times. Clearly the murder of 59 people was an unimaginably horrific event. People who were no doubt, enjoying themselves, suddenly became targets of a mass murder.

However, we can question why the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Associated Press framed their story as, “worst U.S. mass shooting in modern times”? The answer is clear. There was a mass murder in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1920. There was another mass murder in Rosewood, Florida that was made into a Hollywood movie. These and other mass murders were racist invasions of the Black communities. The perpetrators were not arrested or prosecuted by the government.

Then, we can look at the massacres at Wounded Knee and Sand Creek that were carried out by U.S. government armed forces. These massacres reflected one more chapter in the 100 year war against the original inhabitants of the nation that calls itself the United States of America. So, the government of this country did not consider the worst shootings in our history to be crimes.

However, when we talk about unnecessary deaths, we need to take a look at what happens in the world every day. According to a United Nations report issued in the year 2005, 30,000 children die of preventable diseases every day. Why are so many children dying?

Many of these children have no shoes. Parasites enter the feet of these children and they develop bloated stomachs and diarrhea. If these children do not receive simple antibiotics, they can die of dehydration. We should also consider that a child’s immunological system is not fully developed until the age of five.

Children also die because there are hundreds of millions of people in the world that don’t have enough food to eat. When mothers are malnourished they aren’t able to supply their children with a sufficient amount of breast milk. Since one out of every four people in the world don’t have direct access to electricity, there is no way to refrigerate milk.

The television news commentary 60 minutes reported that a peanut butter supplement called Plumpynut has been used to begin to deal with this problem. Plumpynut is highly nutritious but needs no refrigeration. While plumpynut may aid many children as well as adults, no one is arguing that this supplement will solve the enormous problem of unnecessary deaths of children.

They say there is no money

Those people who have political power in the capitalist world argue that there are no funds to deal with this enormous problem. In the United States, Democratic and Republican politicians are agreed that funding the military to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars is perfectly acceptable.

However, the funding of the military is small potatoes compared to the financial speculation that is a routine part of the system. Anyone who reads this blog can Google the question: How much money is invested in derivatives? The answer to this question is $1.2 quadrillion. That is one-thousand-two-hundred trillion dollars.

We should keep in mind another number that might give us some perspective. The Gross National Product is the total value of goods and services of a nation in a given year. If we add the GNP of all the nations in the world, we come up with a number of about $60 trillion. So, the value of the amount of money invested in derivatives is equivalent to the international GNP for about 20 years.

What are derivatives? These are extremely complex bets that the future of the economy will be all right. As we might imagine, sooner or later this bubble of derivatives will break, and the world will be plunged into an international depression.

Bernie Madoff and others have gone to prison for violating laws regulating the sales of bonds. Derivatives are unregulated by the government.

Understanding this reality, we can state clearly that the resources are available to eliminate poverty in the world. Yes, resources do exist to save the lives of the 30,000 children who die unnecessarily every day.

So when the press reports on the mass murders in Las Vegas as well as on September 11, 2001, we should not forget about those 30,000 children who perished on those same days. While the press talks endlessly about how to prevent these mass murders, we need to understand that the resources have been available to save the lives of the 30,000 dying children for the last 100 years.

Instead of investing in saving the lives of these children, massive amounts of money have been invested in killing machines, as well as financial derivatives that in reality have no value at all.

Cuba

For more than half a century the United States government has a trade embargo against Cuba. While Cuba has a tiny fraction of the wealth of the United States, their priorities are completely different.

After the Cuban Revolution the new government organized to bring electricity to every part of the island. This is just one reason why Cuba was able to respond to hurricanes that we have seen recently.

Every Cuban goes through training, so they will be prepared for what needs to be done before and after a hurricane strikes. The Cuban people understand that this might mean that one million or more people might be evacuated to avoid a hurricane. Every Cuban knows where they will stay if they need to be evacuated.

These measures have meant that there have been only about 45 deaths due to about seventeen hurricanes that struck Cuba. I believe about 1,833 people died in the single hurricane Katrina in the United States.

The Cuban Constitution says that all children on the island have a right to milk. Every Cuban also has the right to health care and education.

One of the most important ways of dealing with poverty is to provide education to women. So, when there are problems in Cuba, the Cuban people find creative ways of dealing with them.

In my opinion, the lesson here is that humanity has the potential to eliminate poverty. In Cuba people mobilize to deal with their problems. In the United States politics and economics are organized on the capitalist model. This means that while one out of every six people in this country doesn’t have enough food to eat, the number one priority is to maximize profits for the most affluent people in the world. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

The unintended message of Ken Burns so-called documentary on the war against Vietnam



The Vietnam War

A film directed by
Ken Burns &
Lynn Novick

A review

The Burns—Novick documentary titled The Vietnam War has many problems. When we begin to view this film, the very title, The Vietnam War, appears to be a problem.

The nation known as the United States of America became a nation because of a revolutionary war for independence. The Declaration of Independence outlined the reasons for the revolution. The following words were taken from that document.

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

Looking at the totality of this film, we see how there was indeed a “long train of abuses” established by puppet governments that were supported by the French and United States governments. So, a more accurate title of this so-called documentary would have been, The Vietnamese Revolution. However, that title would have undermined the theme of the film.

This is just one of many examples of how the theme of this film contradicts the story that the film portrays. So, first I will look at the theme of the film, and then I’m going to look at the story portrayed by the film.

First, we can say that most of this film is portrayed from the perspective of the United States. Yes, there are extensive interviews with the Vietnamese where we see a bit of their perspective. However, a basic theme of this film is about how the United States government made a series of horrendous mistakes that led to it’s defeat in Vietnam. 

For me, the theme of this film was best portrayed in the funeral of Pascal Cleatus Poolaw Sr. who was a United States soldier who lost his life in Vietnam. Poolaw was a decorated soldier in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. His three sons were also soldiers who served in Vietnam. He was also a Native American of the Kiowa nation.

At his funeral, his wife Irene had this to say:

“He has followed the trail of the great chiefs.

His people hold him in honor and highest esteem.

He has given his life for the people and country he loved so much.”

So, we see a clear and unequivocal message in this funeral. A highly respected member of the Kiowa nation gave his life because he loved the United States as well as all the people who live here.

This documentary failed to mention the history of the Kiowa people. The Kiowa are one of hundreds of Native American nations who actively fought against a genocidal war of the United States government for over 100 years. Their leaders were murdered and sent to prison. The government signed treaties with the Kiowa that allowed them to live on reservations. The U.S. government has acknowledged that it violated hundreds of these treaties with Native Americans.

So, while I respect Pascal Poolaw’s decision to support the war against Vietnam, I do not agree that this war supported the interests of the people of this country.  

What are the facts this film uncovers that in no way support the theme presented by Burns and Novick?

We can start with the number of people of Southeast Asia who were murdered because of the war. The film gives a number of five-million deaths during about eight years of the war against Vietnam. This number is equivalent to about half of the population of the cities of New York or Los Angeles.

We can also look at this horrendous number of five-million deaths from the point of view of the My Lai Massacre. On March 16, 1968 soldiers from Charlie Company under the command of Lieutenant William Calley murdered about 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians. These murders only stopped when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson landed his helicopter between the murdered Vietnamese and Charlie Company. Thompson said that his crew would fire on Charlie Company if they continued to murder the Vietnamese.

Several members of Charlie Company went on trial for these murders. Only Lieutenant William Calley served time for this horrendous crime. Calley served three years under house arrest.

The Burns–Novick documentary failed to do the basic arithmetic that places the My Lai Massacre in perspective. The war against Vietnam lasted about eight years. Burns and Novick estimated that about five-million people lost their lives because of the war. Most, if not all these deaths were because of the United States invasion of the region.

So, if we divide five-million by 365 days of a year, and then divide that number by the eight years of the war, we get a number of 1,712 deaths for every day of the war. This means that there were the equivalent of more than three My Lai Massacres for every day of the eight years of the war against Vietnam.

We can also see from the facts presented by Burns and Novick that this massive number of deaths was no accident of war. The documentary shows how the U.S. government had a goal of reaching a “crossover point.” This crossover point was a goal to murder so many Vietnamese that the liberation forces would be unable to continue the war.

The administration of Lyndon Johnson reached this crossover point and believed that they were winning the war in 1967. Then, the Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive and attacked the over 500,000 U.S. soldiers at every location where they were stationed.

This horrendous number of deaths needs to be contrasted to the claims by the United States government that this war was about giving aid to Vietnam. Clearly there were many U.S. soldiers in Vietnam like Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson who honestly wanted to aid the Vietnamese. As we have seen, Thompson threatened Charlie Company if they continued the My Lai Massacre.

The U.S. forces also constructed infrastructure projects that helped modernize the country. President Johnson argued that the Mekong River could be used to generate massive amounts of electricity.

However, Johnson’s hypocrisy was exposed in a private conversation he had with the CEO of the CBS broadcasting company. One of CBS’s reporters, Maurice Shaffer, reported on a story of how U.S. soldiers were burning the homes of Vietnamese civilians.

After this story went on the air, President Johnson made a phone call to the CEO of CBS. Johnson asked this CEO, “Are you trying to f­­––– me?" Johnson then demanded that CBS fire Shaffer because he reported this story. The Johnson administration then labeled CBS as the “Communist Broadcast Service.”

What was the horrendous crime Maurice Shaffer committed? He reported the truth about what was happening in Vietnam. Given President Johnson’s response to this story, we see how reporting the truth was completely unacceptable to the United States government.

We can also think about a statement by President Eisenhower. The United Nations had mandated Vietnam to have an election while Eisenhower was president. The U.S. government prevented this election from taking place. Eisenhower argued that if these elections had been allowed, the leader of the liberation forces, Ho Chi Minh, would have won about 90% of the vote.

The liberation of Vietnam

A legitimate question to be asked is: How did the Vietnamese people manage to decisively defeat the most powerful armed force in the history of the world?

First, we can say that the U.S. government did manage to use their influence and military might to overturn several democratically elected governments in the world. Some of those governments include: Arbenz in Guatemala, Lumumba in the Congo, Mosaddegh in Iran, and Allende in Chile.

However, the Vietnamese people had experienced literally centuries of foreign rule by the Chinese, Japanese, French, and the United States. Yes, we can find many problems with the leadership of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam. However, their leadership combined with the will of the Vietnamese people to resist further foreign domination proved to be a force a United States was unable to defeat.

In this film, a U.S. officer was asked about the fighting capabilities of the Vietnamese liberation soldiers. He responded that they were the best soldiers he had ever seen and wished that he could have 200 soldiers with their abilities and determination.

We should also mention the challenges the NLF soldiers faced. The U.S. had an immense advantage in the fact that it dominated the air war. When U.S. soldiers were trapped they could make a call to headquarters and order a bombing raid of the Vietnamese positions.

Oftentimes the U.S. air force dropped napalm on these targets. One U.S. airman observed Vietnamese soldiers firing at his aircraft moments before napalm bombs burned them to death.

In the book The Tunnels of Cu Chi by John Penycate and Tom Mangold we see how the Vietnamese built an extensive tunnel system. They used these tunnels to ambush their enemies and then retreat without ever being discovered. Some Vietnamese soldiers lived in these tunnels for years. These tunnels were also equipped with machine shops and hospitals.   

Because of the U.S. advantage in the air, Vietnamese forces developed a strategy of engaging with their enemy in close quarters. This strategy neutralized the advantage of the air because air raids would kill U.S. soldiers as well as the Vietnamese.

We also see how the Vietnamese mobilized to rebuild the north after massive U.S. bombing raids. The U.S. government thought that these raids would neutralize the NLF. Washington would learn that it was the U.S. armed forces that would be forced to leave Vietnam.

The international anti-war movement

Initially the overwhelming majority of the population in the United States supported the war. As the war continued, growing numbers of people were won to the demand of total, complete, and immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Vietnam.

While the U.S. government increased the number of soldiers they sent to Vietnam, people viewed televised reports of the gruesome realities of the war. Under these circumstances, it was only natural that large numbers of people joined in demonstrations opposed to the war. Towards the end, about eighty percent of the U.S. population opposed the war and supported the demand of bringing the troops home.

Many veterans of the war joined in the anti-war demonstrations and became leaders of the movement. There were reports that returning veterans were spit on by those who opposed the war. Apparently these reports were a complete lie designed to slander the anti-war movement. As far as I know, there was not a single incident where a soldier was spit on by someone who opposed the war.

To the contrary, anti-war protesters were murdered by the U.S. armed forces at Kent State, Jackson State, and in Los Angeles, California. These murders demonstrated that the government was more interested in stopping the anti-war demonstrations than they were interested in defending the constitutional right of freedom of speech.

The best source of information on the anti-war movement in the United States is by a leader of the movement, Fred Halstead, titled Out Now: A participant’s account of the movement in the United States against the Vietnam War.

Rebellions erupt in cities across the United States

We might also mention that at the same time as the Vietnamese were fighting for their liberation, Black people engaged in literally hundreds of rebellions in cities across this country.

We can start by recalling the Montgomery Bus Boycott. On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The ensuing Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 385 days and Black workers of that city walked for miles to work rather than sit on segregated buses.

We might also think about the fact that on May 7, 1954 the French military forces stationed at Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Vietnamese. This French defeat was the beginning of the end of the French occupation of Vietnam.

By 1965 the civil rights movement had so much influence that the government was effectively forced to adopt the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. These laws effectively overturned the segregationist Jim Crow laws that had denied Black people citizenship rights.

However, discrimination continued to exist throughout the United States. Black people were fed up with discrimination in housing, employment, and education. It was the issue of police brutality sparked open rebellions.

The recent film Detroit documented how police officers of that city kidnapped and then murdered unarmed residents in the year 1967. These officers were never convicted of those murders. Over 50 people lost their lives in the Detroit rebellions largely because of the National Guard invasion of that city.

In this same year a rebellion broke out in my hometown of Newark, New Jersey. I was fourteen years old at the time. At the time the National Guard had tanks running up and down the streets of Newark. Out of more than twenty people who were murdered during the rebellions, three were children.

If I had a different skin color and lived a short distance from our residence, I might have been one of the children murdered by the National Guard. Yet, when I graduated from high school a few years later, the government required me to register for the draft to fight in the war against Vietnam.         

We might also consider that while the U.S. government was ordering federal troops into the cities of this country, this same government ordered the Air Force to carry out Operation Rolling-Thunder in Vietnam. This was a bombing campaign aimed a crippling the economy of North Vietnam. As the rebellions in this country continued the Vietnamese forces of the NLF carried out their Tet Offensive where they attacked every U.S. military base in their homeland.

One Black soldier who was interviewed in the film said that he lost his fear in Vietnam. While he was stationed there, he felt that death was almost a certainty.

When this soldier returned to this country, he was ordered to join the National Guard troops that were occupying the Black community. He refused to obey this order.

Martin Luther King gave a speech in 1967 where he opposed the war. In this speech King argued that given the immense damage the U.S. had done to their country, the people of Vietnam must have thought that the U.S. armed forces were “strange liberators.”

Malcolm X talked about the Vietnamese freedom fighters in the following passage:

“You think you can win in South Vietnam? The French were deeply entrenched. They had the best weapons of warfare, a highly mechanized army, everything that you would need. And the guerrillas come out of the rice paddies with nothing but sneakers on and a rifle and a bowl of rice. And you know what they did in Dien Bien Phu. They ran the French out of there. And if the French were deeply entrenched and couldn’t stay there, then how do you think someone else is going to stay there who isn’t even there yet?” 

Why did the United States government go to war against Vietnam?

This question was answered in a pamphlet written by Vladimir Illyich Lenin in the year 1917 decades before the war against Vietnam erupted. The title of this pamphlet is Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.

Lenin was raised in tsarist Russia and learned first hand about the effects of imperialist exploitation. At that time the French working class had made gains and French capitalists responded to these gains by building factories in Russia.

The working conditions in these factories were so horrendous it is difficult to even imagine. We are talking about sixteen hour working days where women received wages that were half of what men were paid. Women worked through their pregnancies and oftentimes delivered their children in the factory. Children routinely staved to death because their mothers were malnourished.

Lenin understood that these conditions didn’t exist because individual capitalists made mistakes where they weren’t sensitive to the needs of workers. No, he argued that these conditions existed because the capitalist system is driven to cut costs and to obsessively work towards world domination.

Lenin also saw how the First World War erupted as a direct consequence of this need by capitalists of competing nations to dominate the world. With the decline of the British empire, Germany and the United States went to war in order to decide which nation would dominate the world.

When we look at the war against Vietnam from this perspective, we can see how government officials in the United States were driven to win the war in spite of their clear hesitations about their capability of achieving this goal. Imperialism doesn’t happen because of bad government decisions, but because it is necessary to the capitalist system.

Remembering the days of the war against Vietnam, there was one fact that stood out to me. The United States spent about 350 billion dollars on the war. Had even one tenth of that amount been used in unconditional aid to Vietnam, the war not only would have been avoided, but we would be living in a much better world. However, I can’t even remember one media outlet that made this argument.

As Lenin once said: If capitalism were to have a genuine interest in feeding hungry people, it wouldn’t be capitalism. 

Communism

The U.S. government argued that the reason for the war was to “stop the spread of communism.” Since I’ve been a communist for the past 45 years, I believe I can offer some insight to this question.

I have been lucky that I’ve never served time in prison. This is becoming increasingly difficult for more and more workers in this country. However, the socialist Eugene Debs did serve three years in prison for giving a speech against U.S. participation in the First World War. Eighteen members of the Socialist Workers Party served time in prison because of their position in opposition to U.S. participation in the Second World War.

We might think about the fact that the idea of freedom of speech is supposed to be guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Today the nation of Cuba follows a Marxist point of view. Cuba has more doctors and teachers per capita than any other nation in the world. Education and health care are rights that every Cuban is entitled to. Yet Cuba is a relatively underdeveloped nation.

Not only does Cuba have more doctors and teachers, but that nation has trained thousands of doctors from all over the world. The only payment Cuba expects from these doctors is that they give medical care to communities that lack these services.

I happened to be in Cuba this year and was a member of 2017 May Day Brigade where people from all over the world came to learn about the Cuban reality. On May Day, I witnessed over one million Cubans giving their enthusiastic support to the government.

The recent hurricane Irma did a tremendous amount of damage to Cuba. However, Cuba sent it’s doctors to the other Caribbean islands to aid in their recovery.  

The United States had a different policy with respect to it’s colony in Puerto Rico. Recently the Puerto Rican government instituted massive cutbacks in order to pay off an astronomical debt of the island. Then, a hurricane hit Puerto Rico that eliminated all electrical power and most cell phone service. Residents now collect rainwater so they might be able to flush their toilets.

The United States government has responded to this crisis by sending 3,000 troops to Afghanistan. The war against Afghanistan is already the longest war in U.S. history.

When we look at this history there is one inescapable conclusion. Communism in no way is a threat to working people in this country. In my opinion, what we need in the United States is a government that makes human needs and not profits the top priority.

Conclusion

Today many people in this country have big problems with the seemingly mindless chatter coming out of the Donald Trump administration. When we think about these seemingly idiotic statements, we might also think about the reality of what the government of this country did to Vietnam.

Thinking about that reality, I believe that we can say clearly that the administration of Donald Trump isn’t the only problem facing working people in this country and around the world.

I believe that we need a government that will never go to war against poor people ever again. What we need is a government that makes it their top priority to eliminate poverty throughout the world.

I will end this blog with one of my favorite quotations from the novelist and social critic, James Baldwin.


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“Power, then, which can have no morality itself, is yet dependent on human energy, on the wills and desires of human beings.  When power translates itself into tyranny, it means that the principles on which that power depended, and which were its justification, are bankrupt.  When this happens, and it is happening now, power can only be defended by thugs and mediocrities––and seas of blood.  The representatives of the status quo are sickened and divided, and dread looking into the eyes of their young; while the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they can endure everything.  They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them.  They realize this––paradoxically––by the failure of the moral energy of their oppressors and begin, almost instinctively, to forge a new morality, to create the principals on which a new world will be built.”