Sunday, August 13, 2017

Fire and Fury?

A commentary by Steve Halpern

This past week I’ve read comments by President Donald Trump that have been on the front pages of newspapers all across the nation. First, Trump threatened North Korea with, “Fire and fury.” Trump followed up this statement with the words: “Maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough.” He clarified these words stating that, “North Korea better get their act together, or they are going to be in trouble like few nations have ever been in trouble.” For Trump, these statements weren’t enough. Speaking from his private golf club, while he is reportedly, “working on his vacation,” a banner headline from the Philadelphia Inquirer read, “Trump: U.S. military ‘locked and loaded.’”

To the best of my knowledge President Trump hasn’t specifically threatened North Korea with nuclear warfare. However, the above statements clearly imply, that is exactly what he is doing.

Listening to these statements many have concluded that Trump is different from other presidents. However, when we look at the history of this country, we might argue that while Trump might be more blunt than other Presidents, the content of his words have been a matter of routine policy in this country for decades. This is the history the pro-capitalist press rarely, if ever, reports on. So, this blog is an outline of the history of mass murder, as well as the resistance to U.S. policy, since the Second World War.


Most people know about the fact that the United States dropped nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What most people don’t know is that the United States carried out a fire bombing campaign against Japan for six months before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The late E. Bartlett Kerr wrote a book documenting this history in his Flames over Tokyo – The U.S. Army Air Forces’ Incendiary Campaign Against Japan 1944 – 1945. Kerr reported that the U.S. military invented specialized phosphorous (fire) bombs to be used specifically against civilian areas of Japan. The military decided to use these bombs because most Japanese housing was made of wood that would easily burn. Experiments were carried out to ensure that these bombs were effective. Close attention was paid to the direction of the wind to ensure that there would be maximum destruction.

At the end of Kerr’s book he gave a list of sixty-seven Japanese cities that were firebombed. The largest city in Japan is Tokyo. Kerr claimed that 50.8% of that city was destroyed with these phosphorous bombs. Kerr also listed cities in the United States that had similar population as the 67 Japanese cities that experienced firebombing. New York City had a similar population as Tokyo at that time.

We might recall the horror of the three thousand deaths at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It is unimaginable to think about what it would have meant if half of the city of New York was burned to the ground. However, that is exactly what happened to Tokyo before the end of the Second World War.

E. Bartlett Kerr makes the seemingly insane argument that these bombings were necessary in order to force Japan to surrender. In fact, the United States went to war against Japan because both nations wanted to dominate Asia. The U.S. government was in a hurry to end the war because they knew that the Soviet Union was mobilizing their armed forces to go to war against Japan.

At that time, Japan was effectively defeated and posed no threat to the United States. As we will see, the U.S. wanted to be in a strong position to reverse the revolutions that were erupting in China, Korea, and Vietnam.


After the war, the Chinese Revolution erupted. China had been dominated by foreign powers since the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century. As a result, tens of millions of Chinese died of starvation.

This problem of massive starvation was new to China. The Chinese built their Grand Canal that stretched for about 1,500 miles. So, in the past when one section of China experienced food shortages, relief supplies were shipped on the Grand Canal.

The foreign powers, dominated by Britain, had no interest in maintaining this canal. These powers were only interested in the profits they could amass from China. So, when there were food shortages tens of millions of people starved to death.        

After the Second World War, China had a tremendous debt mostly due to their purchase of armaments. We might keep in mind that the Chinese government of those days was not only at war with the occupying Japanese army, but also with the Chinese forces under the command of Mao Zedong.

In order to attempt to pay this massive debt, the pro-capitalist Chinese government put in place a system of massive inflation. This policy literally destroyed the Chinese capitalist economy. So, the forces commanded by Mao Zedong took political control of the nation in a relatively bloodless revolution.

The political officials in the United States were enraged by the Chinese Revolution. They actually argued that they, “lost China.” So at the end of the Second World War, the U.S. government attempted to keep the armed forces mobilized in the Pacific. The reason for this continued mobilization was to attempt to bring down the new Chinese revolutionary government.

The problem was that the soldiers stationed in the Pacific wanted to go home. They experienced the horrors of war, and didn’t see any reason to continue fighting a war against China. So members of the U.S. military organized a movement to bring the GIs home. This movement forced the U.S. government to temporarily abandon their plans to place a puppet regime in China.   


Just as in Vietnam and China, there was an insurrectionary movement in Korea to free itself from Japanese occupation. After the war, those who fought against the Japanese took control over the entire nation. However, just a few days after Japan’s surrender, the U.S. armed forced invaded Korea and divided the nation into the northern and southern sections.

The U.S. government placed Syngman Rhee in charge of South Korea. Rhee lived in the United States for decades and had university degrees from George Washington, Harvard, and Princeton. He was also one of the few Korean supporters of the U.S. who was fluent in English.

While the press in this country has been highly critical of the repressive policies of North Korea, we read very little about the long history of repression in South Korea. These repressive policies began with Syngman Rhee. Rhee wanted to take control of the entire Korean peninsula and deliberately provoked the North to invade the South.

Because of his repressive policies, few in the South defended Rhee and the Northern Korea forces took control of the South in a short period of time. The only reason why there is a nation of South Korea today was because of a massive U.S. invasion.

General Douglas MacArthur felt that the U.S. armed forces would overwhelm the Koreans. He also believed that these armed forces could proceed to invade China and take control of that nation.

Well, the Koreans and Chinese allowed the U.S. forces to move north all the way to the Chinese border on the Yalu River. Then, the Chinese and Koreans counterattacked and trapped an entire battalion of U.S. soldiers.

As a part of the U.S. war against Korea General Curtis LeMay claimed that U.S. bombers destroyed about 20% of North Korea. The Air Force dropped about 32,000 tons of napalm bombs. These bombs literally burned Koreans. The Air Force also dropped 630,000 tons of explosive bombs on the country. Many of these bombs were dropped on the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. The residents of this city didn’t leave their homes for days because many of these bombs were time-delayed and the residents had no idea when they would explode.

It was General Curtis LeMay who was the Air Force Commander during the wars against Japan, Korea, as well as Vietnam. In Vietnam, LeMay argued that, “We should bomb Vietnam back into the stone age.” In the war against Korea and Vietnam, literally millions of people were killed by the U.S. forces. In other words, U.S. politicians gave the Air Force permission to carry out LeMay’s horrendous vision.

However, Vietnamese resistance, as well as the anti-war movement that erupted around the world, forced the United States to leave Vietnam. That anti-war sentiment continues to this day.


This blog gives just some of the facts that demonstrate how the current statements threatening war against Korea by President Trump are nothing new. In fact, most of the U.S. wars of the twentieth century took place when there was a Democratic Party President.

Today, South Korea is the only nation that I know of that changed from being underdeveloped to a highly developed nation. We should also keep in mind that, as in all capitalist nations, there is large-scale poverty in South Korea. People around the world know of the corporations Samsung, LG, and Hyundai. I believe that we can say that South Korea isn’t just a developed nation, but it has taken on imperialist characteristics. All of this happened because of massive capitalist investment in the nation.

We might keep in mind that the cause of the First and Second World Wars was the competition of the world powers for which one would dominate the world. Clearly, the United States capitalists have an interest in restricting South Korean global interests.

Clearly the Korean people don’t want another U.S. war against their country. Clearly, China doesn’t want that war either.

Yet, today there are about 80,000 U.S. soldiers stationed on Korean soil. While U.S. politicians portray the North Korean government as crazy, history tells another story. We don’t need to embrace the government of Kim Jon-un to understand that the United States has been the aggressor in Asia for quite a long time.

President Donald Trump isn’t a worker. He has no idea what it means to work for a boss in order to support his family. All wealth comes from working people who provide all the goods and services we all need and want. Donald Trump has no idea of what it means to be a garment worker, or a farm worker, or what it means to work in a factory or a meat processing plant. He was born into wealth, and probably didn’t need to work a day in his life.

Understanding this I believe that Donald Trumps threats to Korea underscore the idea that he has no idea what the word courage means. No, in my opinion Trump and his democratic and republican co-thinkers are motivated by another emotion: fear.

Trump ran for President because he sees the instability in the world. He clearly doesn’t like to think about the fact that this instability can lead to the loss of all the obscene amounts of wealth he owns. Trump believes in the impossible dream that his policies of, “America First,” will create some kind of stability in the world. He is learning that this idea has no more chance of success, than an elephant attempting to dance and the head of a pin.

I believe that there are enough nuclear weapons in the world to destroy this planet five times over. We who live here have literally every reason to oppose all U.S. moves towards war.       

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Place Called Freedom

By Ken Follett
Published by Random House 1995

A review

Ken Follett’s 1995 novel A Place Called Freedom gives us a glimmer of what life was like during the 1700s. This novel traces the life of Follett’s character Malachi McAsh from his time working as a coal miner in a small town in Wales, to his job unloading ships of coal in London, to his life as a slave in Virginia. We also see the contrast between the life of McAsh and the lives of people who had wealth and power during those years.

We would expect that the technology of those years was quite different from what we see today. However, when we see the social relations of those years, we can also see striking differences that most people are unaware of. Then again, when we look at the differences between the social relations of those years and today, we also see many similarities.

When the character of McAsh was born into the world, he became a slave to a Welsh lord. At the age of seven McAsh started working in a coalmine hauling seventy-five pound bags of coal up the stairs that led out of the mine. Adult women carried 150-pound bags of coal for fifteen hours per day.

Most of the coal miners were illiterate, but McAsh’s mother could read. His mother sent a letter to a radical lawyer who informed her that miners had the right to escape slavery for one day on their twenty-first birthday.

This was stunning news to the miners. One miner had attempted to escape, but was apprehended. He was then forced to wear an iron collar to remind everyone of the penalties for disobedience.

McAsh desperately wanted to escape his fate as a slave. He decided to speak at a church service where he would read the letter of the lawyer. McAsh understood that doing this could be viewed as a crime punishable by death. We should keep in mind that the lord who had the power to sentence McAsh to death attended this church service.

After McAsh made his speech in the church many of the miners appreciated what he had to say. However, the royal families were enraged. McAsh was confronted by the character Lizzie Hallin who argued that McAsh should be grateful for the opportunity of making a living by working in the mine. McAsh responded that if she had ever worked in a coal pit, she wouldn’t think this this was something to be grateful for.

Lizzie was an independent minded woman, and thought of McAsh’s statement as a challenge. She persuaded a son of the lord to escort her into the mine and this is how readers learn of some of the realities of mine workers in the 1700’s.

Ultimately the lord found McAsh’s statement as well as his example to be intolerable. He ordered McAsh to be tied to a horse and forced to run backwards all day long as an extreme method of torture. Then the lord decided that letting McAsh escape might be his best alternative and McAsh winds up in London.

Here McAsh discovers that it is very difficult to find gainful employment, but eventually he gets a job unloading ships loaded with coal. Then McAsh learns that his wages are only a small percentage of the wages he was promised. He also learns that this kind of treatment was routine.

Eventually McAsh organizes a strike of the coal heavers. Then the people who had power in those days organized to frame up McAsh. A mob attacked and began to try and brutalize the coal haulers. An official called this attack a riot and ordered everyone to disperse. However, the mob continued to attack the striking workers who had no choice but to defend themselves.

The armed forces had been mobilized because they were well aware of the frame-up. These armed forces intervened murdering several coal haulers and they arrested McAsh. The charge was violation of the riot act.

At his so-called trial McAsh’s lawyer was not allowed to speak on his behalf. This was a normal feature of these so-called trials. However, McAsh gave an effective defense and called several witnesses who testified that the coal haulers had no choice but to defend themselves against a mob. He also established that this incident was clearly a frame-up.

However, in the so-called justice system of the 1700s none of this mattered. Since someone from a royal family testified against McAsh, this was all that was needed to find him guilty and sentence him to death by hanging.

McAsh’s life was spared only because a deal was made and his arresting officer pleaded to have his life spared. His sentence was transportation. This meant being loaded onto a slave-ship to be transported to Virginia. In Virginia McAsh was sentenced to be a slave for seven years.

In some of the histories I’ve read that many of the original settlers to the British thirteen colonies were criminals. Looking at the reality of the so-called justice system of Britain in the 1700’s we get a different picture entirely. The so-called criminals were oftentimes workers who became desperate in their desire to merely survive. The real criminals were the ruling powers who profited from a system of unimaginable horrors.

In Virginia we see what life was like for McAsh as a slave on a tobacco plantation. We learn that the Black and Caucasian slaves lived in separate buildings. However, escaping from slavery was a common practice. Follett reported that slaves routinely gave those who escaped shelter and food, while never betraying them to an owner.  

Eventually McAsh escaped from slavery with Lizzie Hallin who once chastised him for being critical of a lord. There is an attempt to apprehend or murder McAsh and Lizzie, in their attempt to travel to the west beyond the Allegheny Mountains in what Follett referred to as, A Place Called Freedom.

While I found this book compelling and worth a read, my biggest problem with it is the title. The British colonies and the United States were never “a place called freedom.” I’m talking about hundreds of years of genocide against Native Americans as well as hundreds of years of chattel slavery. While Follett’s characters escape many of their hardships, the United States continued to have this horrendous history.

How have things changed?

Clearly the standard of living has improved for many workers since the 1700’s. We usually live longer. There are many technological innovations that make our lives easier. Our working conditions are usually better than those of the slaves of the 1700’s. We are supposed to have the right to be charged with a crime before we are arrested. We are supposed to have a right to a jury trial. We are supposed to have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

However, we might also ask the question: What are the facts?

Today, the cell phones we use might be built by Chinese workers who are paid ten dollars for a work day that might be fourteen hours. Some of the clothes we wear might be produced by workers in Bangladesh who might receive one dollar in wages per day. The beans used to make the coffee we drink might be picked by workers who are paid two dollars per day. In fact, about half of the world’s population lives on two dollars per day or less.

Workers who toil under these conditions have similar motivations to escape as Follett’s character McAsh had in this novel. Yet both democratic and republican party presidents have made it their top priority to deport millions of immigrant workers from this country.

We might also think about the fact that the Department of Agriculture estimates that one out of every six people in this country doesn’t have enough food to eat. President Obama cut the food stamps program by $8.7 billion.

Clearly citizens in this country have a right to a trial when we are accused of a crime. However over 90% of those who live in jail never had a trial. These people accepted a plea agreement where they were coerced to plead guilty rather than run the risk of an extremely long prison sentence. This practice is known as plea-bargaining.

So, while we can argue that profound changes have been made over the years, in many ways there are distinct similarities to our past. The main reason why there have been improvements, flow from the fact there working people engaged in tenacious struggles. However, only on the island of Cuba have working people taken power and managed to defend this conquest for over half a century.

When we look at this history, there is one inescapable conclusion. As long as there is an affluent class dedicated to exploiting workers, the human race will never be liberated. The determination of working people to advance our cause gives us hope that we have the capacity to free ourselves from the rule of the affluent who have controlled the governments throughout the world for hundreds of years. 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Century Trilogy

Fall of the Giants—2010

Winter of the World—2012

Edge of Eternity—2014

By Ken Follett
Published by Penguin Group

A review

I happen to be a student of history. For me, studying history is like looking at one huge story. Reading an informed and compelling history uncovers another piece of the puzzle of our past. Looking at our history from a working class perspective has given me a better understanding of current events.

Many of us feel that the immense problems we face are unsolvable. However, when I look at history I see many stories of people who experienced much more difficult times, but were able to participate in struggles that made this a better world.

Some of the best histories that I’ve read are biographies. The authors of these books examined the life and times of their subjects. In doing this, we can gain an appreciation of how individuals have influenced our lives.

Ken Follett is a talented writer of historical fiction. He has amassed an immense amount of information to give us a three volume fictional portrayal of the twentieth century. In this effort, we see the day-to-day lives of families living in the United States, Britain, Germany, and Russia.

While the writer of nonfiction must stick religiously to the facts, Follett used the facts of history to create his own story. Clearly, this has been effective since Follett has sold about 130 million books in total.

While these books have deeply compelling stories, there is one big problem to Follett’s narrative. Follett appears to have a social-democratic or liberal political outlook. At the conclusion of the third volume of this series, Follett viewed the fact that Barrack Obama became President as a watershed event. In other words, it appears that Follett felt that the election of Obama to the Presidency was the culmination of all the trials and tribulations of the twentieth century.

Clearly, Black people in the United States have experienced a viciously racist past. The question is: Did the election of Obama, in any meaningful way, change that reality? The facts are that millions of people who voted for Obama also voted for Donald Trump. This happened for one basic reason. The standard of living in the United States has been deteriorating for the last forty years. Yet, President Obama made no meaningful changes in his eight years as President.

So, even though Follett’s trilogy has this and other basic problems, I found these books well worth reading. Why?

The coal mines of Wales

In The Fall of the Giants Follett introduced us to what it meant to work in the coalmines of Wales at the beginning of the twentieth century. Follett lived in Wales as a child. His character started working in the mine at the age of thirteen.

Follett also wrote a book titled A Place Called Freedom that took place in the eighteenth century. In this book Follett reported that children started working at the age of seven and carried loads of seventy-five pounds every day. At that time, women carried loads of 150 pounds for fifteen hours every day.

Today many people believe that women are the weaker sex. However, in the Welsh coal mines of the eighteenth century women were significantly stronger than most men are today.

In the eighteenth and twentieth centuries we see how the drive for profits was more of a priority than the safety of the miners. One of the hazards of working in a mine is the flammable gas, that when sparked, can create a devastating explosion. Follett showed how the mine owners routinely compromised safety and the lives of the miners in their drive to maximize profits.

Then, Follett introduced us to the Welsh nobility who had literally everything money can buy. We see how this nobility viewed the gross exploitation of mine workers to be beneficial. While the mineworkers did all the necessary work, this nobility felt that they were the ones who owned the wealth, and gave the miners the opportunity to earn a living. We might argue that the capitalist class of Britain and Wales continue to believe in this absurd logic.

The Russian Revolution

One of the biggest priorities of the United States government over the past hundred years has been criticism of the government that came to power after the Russian Revolution. Clearly the primary reason for both the wars against Korea and Vietnam was the argument that communism needed to be stopped. According to the capitalist press, the government in the former Soviet Union was communist and this was a threat to the entire world.

In his Fall of the Giants Follett told a compelling story of why the Russian Revolution erupted. Rarely do we see this information in the capitalist media.

The father of two of Follett’s Russian characters was a farmer who raised cattle. One day his cattle grazed on the land of a member of the nobility. For this so-called crime this farmer was executed by hanging. His sons were forced to watch the execution of their father, so they would think twice about committing a similar offense.

Then, we see how the Russian people protested against this atmosphere in the year 1905. The Tsar’s armed guards attacked a peaceful protest and murdered about 1,000 of the participants. The mother of two of Follett’s characters was among those who were murdered.

Then, we see how the Tsar ordered millions of soldiers to go to war against Germany in the First World War. The soldiers learned that they had no chance of victory and millions would die as a result. In this atmosphere, the soldiers had little respect for the abusive commanding officers. At times, Follett showed how murdering these officers was the best way of saving the lives of the soldiers.

Along with the war came shortages of food. Workers needed to toil all day and then wait in bread lines all night so they might have access to bread in the morning. Babies died because mothers weren’t eating enough food to give their babies breast milk.

Under these conditions Russia experienced two revolutions. First to free itself from tsarist rule and then to overthrow a capitalist government that was determined not to make any basic changes.

Then, Follett portrayed a history that flies in the face of the facts. His narrative argues that the politics of Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin were the same.

The facts are that Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia because they were determined to deliver on the demands of Peace, Bread, and Land. The Provisional Government did everything in their power to block those demands from becoming a reality.

Under Lenin’s leadership the many nationalities of the Soviet Union experienced a cultural flowering. Lenin organized the Third International in order to encourage a world movement of workers and farmers against the horrors of the capitalist system.

As Leon Trotsky argued, the policies of Joseph Stalin represented a betrayal of everything that Lenin and the Bolsheviks stood for. He instituted a crackdown of the nationalities of the Soviet Union. He also advanced a strategy of compromise with the capitalist powers that undercut communist parties all over the world.

Ken Follett documented the effects of Stalin’s pact with Nazi Germany. The armies under the command of Adolph Hitler were able to invade the Soviet Union with little opposition. Stalin didn’t believe his own intelligence officers who gave him conclusive evidence that the Nazis were preparing to invade. This horrendous error must have cost the lives of millions. Not until the Nazi armies were outside of Moscow did the Red Army begin to stop their offensive.

Twentieth Century Germany

One of Follett’s German characters was an intelligence officer who had social democratic politics. This officer was adamantly opposed to German participation in the First World War. However, we see how the Kaiser and the German capitalist powers were adamant in extending their global empire. The capitalist powers of Britain, France, and the United States were just as adamant in extending their global control. This meant that millions of soldiers would die to decide which capitalist power would dominate the world.

Follett introduced readers to a written version of what the battlefield looked like in the First World War. He also imagined what it was like in a Christmas Eve celebration when both sides put away their arms and celebrated the holiday together.

 After the war Germany needed to adhere to the Versailles Accords. This would eventually mean that one-billion German marks were worth less than a single dollar bill. Under these conditions a communist party similar to the one led by Lenin could have reorganized Germany so the needs of workers and farmers would be the top priority. Because this didn’t happen, fascists were able to organize and received huge subsidies from capitalists.

Follett’s German social democratic character argued against workers using the force of arms to defend themselves against the Nazis. In my opinion, this was the only way the fascists could have been stopped. Even prominent Nazis acknowledged that they could have easily been defeated in their early years when they were a tiny minority party.

After the Second World War, Follett showed what the reality of Berlin was like. The city was occupied mostly by women because so many men died in the war.

At this time there was horrendous poverty. Follett reported that families sold their furniture for cigarettes. These cigarettes became the best currency for purchasing necessities like food. Furniture was also burned in order to heat homes. Much of Berlin had been reduced to rubble.

We might also keep in mind another aspect to the war most people are unaware of. Many people know that the Nazis bombed civilian areas in London. However, Follett reported that these bombing raids happened as a response to British bombing raids on German civilian areas.

Today, we see how the standard of living is better in the western part of Germany than in the east. Follett reported that one of the main reasons for this was because of the massive funding by the United States under the Marshall Plan.

The United States and the Civil Rights Movement

In the last book in this series one of Follett’s main characters is a Black Harvard Law School graduate who is also a freedom rider in the civil rights movement. His name is George Jakes. Here we see how those freedom riders were attacked and beaten by racists sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan.

George Jakes then uses his degree and his connections to get a job working for the Attorney General of the United States, Robert F. Kennedy. At this job Jakes sees one of the racists who attacked the freedom riders holding a prestigious government job.

We also see how government officials who were sympathetic to the civil rights movement compromised the goals of the movement because of political expediency. However, Follett gives his saving grace as the fact that all of these compromises at least culminated in the election of Barrack Obama to be President of the United States.


While we see many compelling stories in The Century Trilogy, Follett has one central theme to these books. He believes that his version of capitalist so-called democracy is superior to what he believes is communist totalitarianism. The evidence he uses to make this claim is his comparison of the capitalist developed nations, to the totalitarian societies of Eastern Europe. Clearly there are a few problems with this point of view.

In this trilogy Follett rarely mentions the nations of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Today we see that in these parts of the world there are billions of people who live on two dollars per day or less. In these nations hundreds of millions of people lack direct access to food, running water and electricity.  

The relative underdevelopment of these nations is directly related to the development of the United States, Britain, and Germany. In fact, in the United States the economy has been transformed in the past forty years. Most manufacturing jobs have gone to these nations where wages are a tiny fraction of the wages here.

In fact, when the Stalinist Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, this signaled a clear defeat for capitalism. At that time the Stalinist government that had influence throughout the world was no more. That government had been used as a break on revolutionary movements throughout the world. One reason for the international instability we see in the world today is because there no longer is a Stalinist government that works to peacefully coexist with capitalism.

In Follett’s final volume in this series, I don’t believe he has any primary characters that are workers. The facts are that the Department of Agriculture in the United States estimates that one out of every six people in this country doesn’t have enough food to eat. Yet, while President Obama was in office he literally dumped trillions of dollars on some of the most affluent people in the world in his quantitative easing program. Obama also cut the Food Stamps program by $8.7 billion.

Today Cuba has shown the world that it is indeed possible for humanity to escape the capitalist nightmare. Cuba is a largely underdeveloped nation. However, every Cuban has the right to a lifetime of health care and education and these services are among the best in the world.

The bottom line is one that Follett ignores completely. The resources have been available to eliminate poverty throughout the world during the entire twentieth century. This didn’t happen because capitalists made mistakes. No poverty exists because it is necessary to the day-to-day functioning of the capitalist system.

We are unable to understand the complete reality of capitalism unless we look at the fact that in the year 2008 the banks almost closed their doors. This would have had unimaginable consequences. Follett reported on some of the consequences of the last depression. Yet, this crisis has merely been postponed and workers of the world will experience a capitalist collapse in our future.

With all these limitations why did I find Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy worth reading? Looking critically at these books we see that the twentieth century was a century of struggle. We see how people continued to struggle under the most difficult conditions. Understanding this history we can have confidence that working people will continue to struggle and will have a real possibility of true liberation in the future.      

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Russian Revolution: The Facts and the Fantasies

A review of two reviews in the New York Times Book Review Section

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. We might also argue that this year marks 100 years of slander against the leaders of the Russian Revolution. We can list all the wars carried out to supposedly save the world from the so-called communist onslaught.

Fourteen nations, including the United States, joined in a war to overthrow the government in the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution.
The Nazi armies of Adolf Hitler caused the deaths of about 27 million people in their invasion of the Soviet Union.
In the United States, numerous people lost their jobs and were blacklisted because of a campaign against the idea of communism. This cowardly act was advanced by Joseph McCarthy and his House on Un-American Activities Committee. The future President John F. Kennedy served on that committee.
The United States government carried out holocausts in Korea and Vietnam. Literally millions of people died because of these wars. This was also motivated as attempts to stop the spread of communism.
The United States invaded Cuba and threatened the world with nuclear warfare also, in part, to stop the spread of communism. Today the United States continues a trade blockade against Cuba in spite of worldwide condemnation of this blockade.
The New York Times has continued it’s slanders against the Russian Revolution with two reviews in it’s June 11, 2017 Book Review section.
One of the many problems with the press in any capitalist country is that they look at the events of the world through the eyes of those who have power. Rarely do we see media portrayals of the day-to-day lives of working people and farmers.
We see this tendency clearly in Gregory Feifer’s review of Sean McMeekin’s book The Russian Revolution – A New History. Feifer cites an argument by McMeekin about the state of the Russian economy before the First World War. “Russia’s economy was surging before the war, with a growth rate of 10 percent a year­—like China in the early 21st century”
Both McMeekin and Feifer ignore the reasons why the Russian and Chinese economies surged. This was because of low wages and horrendous working conditions. Today, Chinese workers might work a fourteen-hour day for ten dollars. Russian workers toiled in factories for eleven-hour days. Both Chinese and the Russian workers of the past lived in dormitories away from their families. If McMeekin and Feifer worked under those conditions, I don’t think they would have a positive outlook on the economy.
Then, Feifer quotes Richard Pipes who also wrote a history of the Russian Revolution. Pipes argued that the revolution was not a revolution, but a coup by “identifiable men pursuing their own advantages.”
When we look at the facts of the Russian Revolution, this statement appears to be totally absurd. We might consider the fact that in revolutions the ruling powers have most of the advantages. They have an army, the police, the courts, the press, vast amounts of money, and as we will see, the government.
Revolutionaries typically have ideas. These ideas can transform the dissatisfaction of the people into a force capable of replacing the government with one that has completely different priorities. As the Cuban revolutionary José Martí once said: “One just principal from the depths of a cave can be more powerful than an army.”
Then, we have Joshua Rubenstein’s review of Catherine Merridale’s book, Lenin on the Train about Vladimir Illyich Lenin’s transport from Switzerland to Russia during the First World War. Lenin along with many other revolutionaries had been in exile from Russia because of his political ideas.
In the month of February a revolution broke out in Russia. The Czar, as well as the royal family, was replaced by a provisional government. This transition enabled Lenin and other revolutionaries to return to their homeland.
Rubinstein quotes Merridale about her view of the state of affairs in Russia after the February revolution. Merridale argues that, “Russia became the freest country in the world.”
Leon Trotsky was a leader of the Russian Revolution and wrote a comprehensive three volume History of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky gave overwhelming evidence that the basic problems that led to the February Revolution were not being addressed by the Provisional Government. The one thing that did change was the fact that the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, had the opportunity to organize a mass movement to put a workers government in power.
So, at this point, I will give some facts as to why Russian workers and farmers organized to place their own government in power. I will also give a summary as to how that government was betrayed by Joseph Stalin.           
The Russian Revolution
I have worked for a living my entire life as a factory worker and as a housekeeper. One thing all of my coworkers agree on is that politicians need to do the work we do every day and live on our wages. This would give them a completely different perspective towards politics.
So, I will attempt to look at the history of the Russian Revolution, not from the views of those who had power, but from the perspectives of the workers and farmers.
Before the Russian Revolution most people who lived on the vast farmland of Czarist Russia were not farmers but serfs. These serfs were tied to the land and needed written permission to leave.
In a nation that had some of the most fertile lands in the world, the Russian serfs lived in perpetual poverty and hunger. The weapon used to enforce these conditions was the Russian knout. This was a specially designed whip used to beat, or at times, murder serfs.
Russia was only one of many nations that were ruled by the Czar. Nations like the Ukraine and Georgia were routinely discriminated against. The language of those days routinely used abusive epithets to describe individuals of non-Russian nations.
The Yiddish word pogrom was invented to describe raids into the Jewish communities. In these pogroms organizations like the Black Hundreds murdered tens of thousands of Jews. The Black Hundreds had a similar racist outlook as the Ku Klux Klan in the United States.
Before the Revolution Czarist Russia was becoming a highly industrialized nation. While most people continued to live off the land, many migrated to the cities where they worked eleven-hour days in French financed factories. These Russian factories were known to have thousands of workers in a single location.
In the cities, Russian workers learned not to question the authorities. In the United States there have been protests against police murders of civilians as well as protests against the police policy of Stop and Frisk. In the cities of Czarist Russia workers understood that police could routinely beat them and there was little they could do about it.
Vladimir Illyich Lenin was the central leader of the Bolshevik party. He was exiled and sent to the frigid climate of Siberia for merely attending a meeting that was critical of the Czar.
In the year 1905 Russian workers organized to protest against these conditions. All they wanted to do was to present the Czsar with a list of their grievances. For this supposed offense, the Russian armed forces murdered hundreds or thousands of demonstrators.  
The Russian workers responded to these assaults by organizing their Soviets or workers counsels. These Soviets represented many Russian unions and banned together to protest victimizations against workers. However, these Soviets only had limited success before the Russian Revolution. Many of the leaders of Russian workers, like Lenin, needed to live outside of Russia because of the extreme repression in their homeland.
Thinking about this history, we might also consider Sean McKeenin’s view of the czar. “Russia in 1900 was a going concern, its very size and power a source of pride to most if not all of the czar’s subjects.” So, if most if not all of the czar’s subjects were proud of his rule, why was there a revolution that removed this royal family from power for all time?  
The February and October Revolutions
McMeekin argues that the czar made a mistake in going to war against Germany. This war brought all the problems in Russia to a head and created the preconditions for revolution.
However, we might consider that at that time Russian industry was almost entirely owned by French capitalists and Germany was invading France. We might also consider that if Russia had not gone to war against Germany, that Germany might have won the First World War. The entire history of the capitalist world might be different had Germany won the war.
We might also consider that when the Provisional Government held power, they continued the war the czar started. When the Bolsheviks took power, they sued Germany for peace, even though this meant giving up large amounts of land in the Russian west.
The Soviet government and Germany signed the Brest-Litovsk agreement that ended Russian participation in the First World War. Before those negotiations, Leon Trotsky invited all the powers that were participating in the war to join in this peace conference. Trotsky argued that if those powers refused to participate in those talks, they should explain in clear language why they were continuing to spill the blood of millions of soldiers in that senseless war.
Those powers that ordered soldiers to risk their lives in this war refused to state the real reasons for the war. Those reasons were the same as the reasons for the Second World War. These wars were about which capitalist nation would dominate the world. This was why the Bolsheviks had no reason to sacrifice lives in order to serve the interests of the most affluent families in the world.
Ken Follett—Fall of the Giants (Book one of the Century Trilogy)
While I was reading the reviews in the New York Times, I also was reading Ken Follett’s novel Fall of the Giants. This is the first volume of his Century Trilogy. These three volumes are an historical fiction of families in Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States throughout the twentieth century.
Unlike the histories reviewed in the New York Times, Follett’s novel attempts to give a compelling story as to why the Russian Revolution erupted. However, Follett’s narrative has several serious flaws. Throughout most of these books, Follett looks at the world through the eyes of the capitalists and their supporters who have power.
In Fall of the Giants, Follett has a character he named Grigori. Grigori sees his parents murdered in the 1905 Russian Revolution. He then becomes a factory worker who was brutalized by the police. Grigori then is drafted to fight for Russia in the First World War. There he experienced routine hunger and a lack of proper boots because the czar’s army didn’t receive sufficient supplies.
As a soldier Grigori resists fighting the Germans because he learns that this would be an act of suicide. When a commanding officer attempts to murder retreating Russian soldiers, Grigori murders that officer. Grigori’s fellow soldiers had no problem with his actions.
Grigori was sent to St. Petersburg where he was assigned to protect the royal family. In St. Petersburg he cares for a child who is the son of his wife. He learns that his wife needed to work all day and then get on a line at midnight in the frigid cold, just so she might be able to purchase of loaf of bread in the morning.
Then, we see Grigori finding the child he cares for to be ill. He discovers that the reason for this illness is that his wife isn’t getting enough food, and has no milk in her breasts to feed the child. These were common problems before the February Revolution.
Then, Grigori sees the February Revolution erupt. A commanding officer ordered Grigori to open fire on demonstrators and Grigori refused. Among the demonstrators were people he had known throughout his life.
Although Grigori would not fire on the demonstrators, the racist, sexist, and sadistic police began murdering civilians. Grigori and the other soldiers began to arm the civilians and opened fire on the police.
Grigori is there when Lenin returns to St. Petersburg. Lenin understood that the Provisional Government was not going to make any fundamental changes and proposed that the Soviets take power. Lenin made it clear that the Soviets were the only force in Russia that would grant the demands to the people of peace, bread, and land. These were some of the reasons why the fictional character Grigori became a Bolshevik. Although Fall of the Giants is a work of fiction, we can see how Follett’s narrative at this point closely resembles the reality faced by Russian workers and soldiers.
Understanding this reality we might also consider that Russian capitalists were reaping huge profits from their war related industries. This is why Lenin argued that it wasn’t necessary to argue for socialism, but merely to expose the theft of the state.
Lenin’s return to St. Petersburg
Another character in Follett’s book is named Walter, who works for the intelligence service of Germany during the First World War. In his book, Follett has Walter give a significant amount of money to Lenin during his return to Russia. This idea that Lenin received money from Germany to advance the Russian revolution is also supported in the reviews in the New York Times. What are the facts?
First, we can clearly understand why Lenin as well as other revolutionaries allowed German officials to assist them in returning to their homeland. The Russian people had endured centuries of the despotic rule of the czar. The aspirations of the Russian workers and peasants needed to be supported. If the February Revolution failed to do this, Russia would experience more years of despotism. For these reasons, revolutionaries accepted German transport to their homeland.
After the Russian Revolution the officials of the German government were alive. Had they given money to Lenin, they could have said so. They made no such statement. Clearly these officials were no supporters of the Russian Revolution.
In the year 1950 the German archives were opened and there was no evidence that any money had been given to Lenin.
We might also look at the character of Lenin. On several occasions Lenin advanced minority points of view and eventually won a majority to his position. History has shown that almost always Lenin advanced the only course that was capable of bringing about a successful revolution. Understanding all these facts, I see no reason to think that Lenin ever received money from Germany.
Czarist Russia becomes the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
In October of 1917 another revolution led by the Bolsheviks erupted in Russia. This revolution was relatively bloodless. The Provisional Government had become so discredited that few people rallied to it’s defense.
The Bolsheviks delivered on the demands they advanced. Although there were shortages of food, bread was distributed equally to the people and hording was punished as a crime. The Bolsheviks ended Russia’s participation in the First World War. Peasants were given land they had worked on their entire lives.
Russia became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This reflected the fact that there were many nations within the old Czarist Russia that would now have the power to develop their own cultures.
The new government rigorously defended the rights of workers. Those owners of industries who were used to abusing workers might have their enterprises confiscated.
As a result, there was a cultural awakening after the revolution that flowered in the arts and sciences.
However, those who had power in the capitalist world were horrified by these developments. They had grown accustomed to accumulating vast quantities of wealth from the labor of workers. Now, there was a workers government in the largest nation in the world that was dictating the will of the people to capitalists.
So, fourteen capitalist nations carried out a war attempting to overthrow the government in the Soviet Union. In this civil war there was a tremendous loss of life. However, the Bolsheviks managed to organize an army that defended the nation that had perhaps the longest border in the world.
Stalin betrays the revolution
Here we might consider the fact that with every revolution there are also counter-revolutionary movements. Those people who had been removed from power use whatever influence they have to regain political control.
In the United States there was the Civil War. This war removed slave owners from their positions of power in this country. Because of the Civil War the United States government adopted the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. These Amendments outlawed slavery and gave former slaves full rights in this country. All men received voting rights.
However, by the year 1877 the federal government made a deal where it removed the Union Army from the former Confederate states. This deal enabled those who were hostile to the interests of former slaves to mobilize. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan went to war and put in place governments that stripped Black people of their citizenship rights. Thousands of Black people were lynched and the federal government did nothing to prosecute the murderers. It wasn’t until the mid 1960s that the Civil Rights Movement forced the government to return many of the rights that had been taken away.  
We might consider that after the Civil War in the Soviet Union, the economy of the nation had been almost completely destroyed. Transporting food from one location to another became a challenge. The nation had lost millions of people due to the First World War and the Civil War.
Under these conditions Joseph Stalin, who was a Bolshevik, worked to betray everything the revolution fought for. Stalin recruited many individuals from the former middle class. He allowed these people to maintain their relative privileges as members of the Communist Party. He then worked to place the entire leadership of the Russian Revolution on show trials where most would be sentenced to death.
The Soviet Communist Party was in the leadership of an international movement. Under the leadership of Lenin, this movement supported the interests of workers all over the world.
Stalin reversed the political orientation of this movement. Time after time Stalin betrayed the interests of workers in the world, in order to advance his personal relationship with capitalist governments. This tendency was best illustrated when Stalin made a pact with Nazi Germany.
Today, the present Russian head of state is Vladimir Putin. Putin is openly critical of the policies of Lenin. Putin has amassed a fortune and he might be one of several billionaires in Russia. However, the standard of living for Russian workers is deteriorating. This state of affairs is merely a continuation of the betrayal of the Russian Revolution by Joseph Stalin.
We might consider that the union movement in the United States flowered after the Russian Revolution. Capitalists learned that they could loose everything if a workers government took power. This was a compelling reason to recognize unions and grant many of their demands.
Workers began to understand that employers were not all powerful. If employers failed to negotiate with workers, they could be forced out of power and replaced with a workers government.
Working people learned of Lenin’s pamphlet Imperialism—the highest stage of capitalism. This pamphlet explains how the economic and political domination of nations is not because of mistakes or insensitivity. No the mass poverty in the world is the inevitable result of the normal functioning of the capitalist system.
The First and Second World Wars were not wars for democracy. No, these wars were about what capitalist nation would dominate the world. The effect of these wars has been that today about one billion people in the world don’t have enough food, lack access to electricity, and running water, and are denied education, and health care.
Working people also learned that the only way for all workers to advance is to fight against all forms of discrimination. The institutionalized discrimination in the United States against Black people, women, Native Americans, and immigrants needs to be challenged by workers. This is the only way for working people to achieve the unity necessary to put in place a government where human needs are more important than profits.
We also learned that workers and farmers need a political party that works consistently to advance the interests of workers throughout the world. This organization can fight for concessions from capitalists, but it must also strive to put in place a government that represents the interests of workers and farmers.
The Russian Revolution also inspired Cuban revolutionaries. In spite the Stalinist betrayals, the Soviet Union gave significant aid to revolutionary Cuba. The Soviet Union also gave military aid to Cuba and Angola when the apartheid government of South Africa invaded Angola in an attempt to place their own government in charge of that country.

Understanding this history, we can begin to truly appreciate those who put in place the first workers government in the world. They managed to overcome the seemingly overwhelming obstacles that confront workers throughout the world. Then, for a time, they showed the world that it is possible to have a government where human needs are more important than profits.