Archive for the ‘Russian Revolution’ Category

Pham Binh and the Egyptian Revolution

August 14, 2013

I first became aware of Pham Binh during the late 2000’s. Don’t ask me why, but I had developed a fascination with British political blogs at the time. Binh would often comment on their threads. He would give the impression of being an ISO member (he had actually just left the ISO), while making snarky comments about Alex Callinicos and the British SWP. This struck me as an odd thing for someone to do.

In recent years Binh has taken to writing articles for The North Star website, which is definitely a step up from making weird sectarian comments on British political blogs. His latest article is titled Egypt’s Revolution: Democratic, Not Socialist. It begins:

    In Marxist lexicon, there are two types of revolution: democratic and socialist, or more scientifically, bourgeois-democratic and proletarian-socialist. These two types of revolution involve different class alignments, have different tasks, and lead to different outcomes, although a two-stage uninterrupted revolution that is initially democratic and becomes socialist is possible. The socialist revolution is a battle between the whole of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat for political supremacy and ends with the victory of either the capitalist or socialist social systems. The democratic revolution is a battle against autocratic rule that removes fetters on capitalist development between a great variety of classes – peasants, workers, students, landlords, capitalists, small business owners. In democratic revolutions, bourgeois forces can be found on both sides of the barricades (unlike in socialist revolutions) and their concrete outcomes can vary tremendously because of their class heterogeneity. Making accurate generalizations about democratic revolutions is difficult since they have occurred on every inhabited continent in one form or another beginning at least 300 years ago.

This sounds ponderous, but it is actually simplistic. Some revolutions don’t quite fit the neat categories that Binh posits. The American Revolution, for example, involved a number of different class forces, and it was led by an alliance between Northern merchants and Southern plantation-owners who wanted to preserve slavery. Binh’s comment at the end about the “difficulty” of “making generalizations about democratic revolutions” is perhaps meant to acknowledge this. However, Binh then proceeds as if he never made this qualification.

Binh tells us that the Egyptian revolution is a bourgeois-democratic revolution, even though the Egyptian military is defending the interests of the Egyptian bourgeoisie. And Mohamed Morsi is a bourgeois democrat, even though he tried to assume dictatorial powers. Binh therefore argues that it was a strategic blunder for the Revolutionary Socialists and other Egyptian left groups to join the millions of Egyptians calling for Morsi’s ouster. So what should these leftists do about this? Binh tells us:

    Championing the democratic revolution in Egypt now means not only condemning the coup and the SCAF-controlled interim government in words but actively organizing to reverse the coup in deeds by literally breaking Morsi out of jail and returning him to his rightful office. The weapon of criticism cannot replace the criticism of weapons, condemnation without action is phrasemongering.

    Marxists are not supporters of Morsi, but letting him rot in a Republican Guard cell and allowing the coup to proceed as planned is a death-blow to a democratic revolution barely begun and without the freedoms its victory will bring, no powerful proletarian movement can develop. Our loyalty is not to Morsi (who we will not hesitate to overthrow and defeat) but to the working class specifically and the democratic revolution generally. Breaking him out of a military jail today does not preclude arresting, overthrowing, or un-electing him tomorrow, nor does it imply an ounce of political support for the bourgeois-obscurantist Muslim Brotherhood or Morsi’s reformist ineptitude any more than the Bolsheviks’ active defense of the Kerensky government from Kornilov’s coup make them supporters of Kerensky’s strike-breaking and repression of peasant committees.

So, Binh is saying that having called for Morsi’s overthrow, the Egyptian leftists should now call for reinstating him, so that at some unspecified future moment (“tomorrow”), they can again call for his overthrow. Is he serious? Let me me point out here that calling for returning Morsi to the presidency is supporting Morsi, so it is nothing at all like the Bolsheviks’ position on Kerensky during the Kornilov coup. One of the reasons the Bolsheviks were successful in 1917 was that they maintained more-or-less consistent positions. They did not make sharp reversals, such as what Bingh is urging Egyptian leftists to do.

The Egyptian Left is facing a difficult situation, and, unlike Binh, I don’t pretend to be able to tell them what course of action they should take. One thing, however, is clear to me: the worst thing they could do is adopt a hare-brained scheme that is based on over-simplified Marxist theory and a faulty historical analogy.


December 24, 2012


Warren Beatty’s 1981 film, Reds, tells the story of John Reed and Louise Bryant, two American journalists who were witnesses to the Russian Revolution. Beatty wrote the screenplay with Trevor Griffiths. Watching this film, one is impressed by the personal courageousness of Reed and Bryant, as well as by their commitment to social justice. They were interesting and inspiring people, so I wish I could give this film an unqualified endorsement, but unfortunately it has a number of problems with it.

At nearly three hours, Reds is too long, mainly because the first half largely consists of scenes of Reed (Warren Beatty) and Bryant (Diane Keaton), who were married, bickering with each other, as well as scenes of Bryant having an affair with Eugene O’Neil (Jack Nicholson). The film doesn’t get interesting until about halfway through when Reed and Bryant go to Russia. Beatty and Griffiths seemed to have had trouble making convincing characters out of historical figures. O’Neil, for example, mostly just drinks a lot and glowers at people. It’s hard to see why Bryant is attracted to him.

Lenin and Trotsky appear only briefly. Zinoviev (Jery Kosinski) and Radek (Jan Triska) are the only Bolshevik leaders depicted in any detail. Reed’s feud with Zinoviev provides much of the drama in the second half of the film. Zinoviev comes across as a bit of a bully and somewhat dishonest, although personally brave. Reed, on the other hand, comes across as a bit ultra-left. He opposes the idea of communists trying to work within the American Federation of Labor, for example. Unfortunately for the film, their conflict is left unresolved because of Reed’s untimely death.

Reds does not romanticize the Russian Revolution. There are discussions about the collapse of the Russian economy and the high-handed methods of the Bolsheviks. Yet the film also points out that sixteen foreign armies (including the U.S. army) invaded Russia. This is a point that often gets conveniently ignored in discussions about the Russian Revolution.

Beatty does possess skill as a director. The scene in which Bryant’s home is raided by government agents, for example, is effectively done, as is the scene in which White Army soldiers attack a train on which Reed is traveling.

The film includes interviews with “witnesses”, people who knew Reed and Bryant. Most of their comments are unilluminating, and some are downright inane. (George Jessel is inexplicably allowed to sing.) They mostly serve as a distraction from the story. I think the film would actually have been better if these had been left out.

While we are on the topic of historical portrayals, I must say I always thought Patrick Stewart would make a good Lenin. So you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I learned that Stewart actually did play Lenin in a BBC TV-series in the early 1970’s entitled The Fall of Eagles. Here is a clip from the series that depicts Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917:

Mad Russians and the American Left

August 31, 2012

Soon to be a contributor to CounterPunch and Dissident Voice.

Back in the 1930’s, there was a radio comedian named Bert Gordon, who was billed as the Mad Russian. His tagline was “How do you dooo!”, which you can hear in some Warner Brothers cartoons from that period. Gordon was enormously popular in his time, but, alas, he is largely forgotten today. Yet, the spirit of the Mad Russian lives on at some left-wing websites. At CounterPunch, Israel Shamir has become their resident authority on Russia, the Dreyfus Affair, and conspiracy theories.

Not to be outdone, CP’s rival, Dissident Voice, have their own mad Russian, Andre Fomine. His latest article is entitled Pussy Riot, the CIA, and Cultural Terrorism. In this article, we learn the shocking truth about Pussy Riot:

    No doubt it was not a single spontaneous act by a group of dissolute individuals but an episode of a much wider global campaign to shake and eventually ruin traditional societies and institutions. It is being carried out by the same powerful circles which inspired — e.g. offensive caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005.

Oh, my. From Pussy Riot to Danish cartoons. Who could possibly be behind this fiendish global conspiracy? Need you ask?

    It is an open secret that avant-gardism became popular in the West in 1950-1960s thanks to unprecedented support from the CIA and was used by the United States as a powerful ideological weapon.

The CIA. Why, of course! Aren’t they behind everything?

Fomine ends his article with a dire warning: “The puppeteers of Modern Art and Cultural Terrorism keep carrying out their mission.” [Emphasis in the original.]

Modern Art! Run! Flee! Hide!

In another article, entitled The Last Victory of Muammar Gaddafi, Fomine exposes the sordid truth behind the “Arab Spring”:

    First, there was nothing spontaneous in the wave of 2011 North Africa and Middle East revolutions. The popular unrests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, etc were carefully prepared, organized, financed and supported through international media. Quite surprisingly, Al-Jazeera played a critically important role in fueling the conflicts within Arabic societies spreading disinformation and blocking truthful and sober voices.

The media did it! And, as we all know, media = CIA. Fomine, however, ends his article on a cheerful note:

    Thus we are entering very interesting, perhaps decisive times. Muammar Gaddafi has won his last battle despite eluding vigor and insolent pressure from everywhere. Will there be any new Gaddafis born by Muslim mothers to resist the new world order? We hope and pray for that.

More Gaddafis! That’s exactly what we need! The comments on the thread for this article were adulatory. (“Excellent article. I am glad that the author had the courage to write it.” I’m not sure that “courage” is the right word.) When one commenter was churlish enough to point out that Fomine offers no evidence to support his claim about the Arab revolutions, he was promptly smacked down by another commenter who wrote:

    How do you expect the writer can supply you with what you call proof?!
    Do you expect him to hack computers or bulglarise certain offices and displays the documents here for you to see??!! Is that make sense?!
    There is something called commonsense combined with knowledge of history, precedents and good analytical ability!

Yeah, who needs evidence?

As you can imagine, I wanted to learn more about this truly original thinker, Andre Fomine. I found out that he edits a web journal called Oriental Review. There, you can find excerpts from a book by Nikolay Starikov entitled Who Made Hitler Attack Stalin. The latest installment is titled Leon Trotsky, Father of German Nazism. Lest you think that this title is meant as a joke, here is how the article begins:

    Who organized the February and October revolutions in Russia and the November revolution in Germany? The Russian and German revolutions were organized by British intelligence, with the possible support of the United States and France.

That’s right, British intelligence must have engineered the Russian Revolution, since it was a strategic defeat for the British empire. This is common sense. Displaying his extraordinary narrative skill, Starikov tells us:

    Dropped into Russia by British intelligence, thanks to a secret agreement with German secret services aboard the “closed wagon,” the Bolsheviks refused to leave the political scene.

That’s right, the Bolsheviks (all of them) were parachuted into Russia inside a sealed train car. (It must have been awfully uncomfortable, but they were willing to endure anything for the revolution.) Later, we learn:

    The main funding supplied to the Russian Revolution from American bankers was transferred through accounts in neutral Sweden and briefcases of inconspicuous figures stealthily entering the country.

Because there’s nothing bankers love more than a government that’s dedicated to abolishing capitalism.

Just by clinking on certain links on the Dissident Voice website, you can find this treasure trove of occult knowledge.

How do you dooo!

Two Films by Eisenstein : Battleship Potemkin and October

July 26, 2012

Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin, is loosely based on an actual incident in Russia’s 1905 revolution. The crew members of the Potemkin, which took part in the recent Russo-Japanese war, are given rotten meat to eat by their officers. When the captain finds out about this, he threatens the crew with severe punishments. He has a group of sailors rounded up, and he announces that they will executed as an example. A squadron of marines raise their rifles, but the sailors persuade them not to shoot. The sailors overpower the officers and throw them overboard, but one officer manages to shoot and kill Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov), the leader of the mutiny. The sailors take his body to the nearby port of Odessa, where it is put on public display with a sign reading “Killed for a bowl of soup.” The townspeople support the sailors, with the exception of a small group of men who shout, “Kill the Jews!”, but they are shouted down. Soldiers show up and open fire on the townspeople, killing many of them. The sailors of the Potemkin retaliate by opening fire on the soldiers.

The sailors learn that a naval squadron is coming to help the soldiers. They get together to decide what they should do. There are strong disagreements. (Some things never change.) They eventually decide to sail to meet the squadron. They will try to persuade the other sailors to join them. If that fails, they will almost certainly die, since they are outnumbered. They go to meet the squadron. They signal to the other ships, but they get no response. They load their guns and get ready to fire, but just then they receive a signal that the other ships will join them. The sailors rejoice.

Eisenstein clearly meant Battleship Potemkin to be propaganda. During the scene when the sailors are about to be shot, for example, we see numerous close-up shots of officers grinning ear to ear in eager anticipation of what is about to happen. And yet this film somehow manages to be something more than that. The massacre seen on the Odessa steps is extremely powerful to watch. It is impossible not to be moved by it. Eisenstein used this scene to test his theories about the use of montage in film. (The massacre did not happen in real life. Nor was it in the script. Eisenstein and the cast and crew improvised it on the spot.) Battleship Potemkin manages to be not just propaganda, but art as well.

Eisenstein’s 1928 film, October, is a commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917. (It is also known as Ten Days That Shook the World, although it is not actually based on John Reed’s book.) The film is shot in a documentary style. (I remember seeing it on TV as a child. I thought I was watching actual film footage of the Russian Revolution.) Many of the people we see actually took part in the revolution, and the scenes were shot in places where the fighting took place. Despite these efforts at authenticity, this film is basically propaganda. During the Kornilov coup, for example, we see Kerensky hiding underneath pillows. We also see Bolshevik soldiers smashing bottles in the Tsar’s wine cellar. According to Victor Serge, the soldiers drank the wine and got stinking drunk.

The storming of the Winter Palace is fun to watch, but it doesn’t have the same emotional power as the massacre scene in Battleship Potemkin. Also, Eisenstein used this film to test out a type of montage he called “intellectual montage”, in which a series of unrelated images are shown to illustrate an idea. We are shown a Russian Orthodox priest, and then a series of images of Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese, and Aztec sculptures. This is meant to be an attack on religion, but it doesn’t succeed, unless you think there is something inherently objectionable about sculpture.

Before this film was released, Eisenstein was forced to cut out a number of scenes that had Trotsky in them. Trotsky had just been expelled from the Communist Party. The irony here is that in commemorating the revolution, October marks the beginning of the counterrevolution.