Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Trotsky's killer (1978)

From the December 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ramon Mercader, the man who murdered Leon Trotsky, died in Havana on October 18th. Four days later his ashes were flown to Russia, the country whose secret policy, in 1940, recruited Mercader to kill Trotsky in his Russian exile.

"I was a Trotskyist until one day I realised that the leader who claimed to be struggling for the liberation of the working class was in reality just a fanatic thirsty for revenge against Stalin." These were the words Mercader, who afterwards served a 20-year prison sentence, used to explain to the Mexican police his motives for splitting Trotsky's skull with a pickaxe.

How close to the truth was Mercader's appraisal of Trotsky? Well, Trotsky;s writings do manifest an intense personal hatred of Stalin, the man who robbed him of what he considered his rightful place as leader of Bolshevik Russia. But they also expose with substantial accuracy the terrible cruelties which members of the former Bolshevik hierarchy and the Russian people were subject to under Stalin. And as for fanaticism it would be hard to beat Stalin himself. He had a special branch of his secret police set up at New York employing agents with the sole duty of eliminating Trotsky, a defeated rival who had long since ceased to be a direct threat.

Following Trotsky's murder the sympathy evoked by his failure in the struggle for power and the circumstances of his death, led many people to the opposite view of Mercader. They came to believe that had Trotsky, and not Stalin, succeeded Lenin at the head of the Russian ruling group in 1924 the terror and suffering endured by the Russian people would have been avoided and Russia would have achieved genuine socialism.

All the evidence militates against this hypothesis. Trotsky had been a party both to the outlawing of other organisations by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and to the murderous activity of the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka, in the years following. He favoured exterminatory measures against minorities such as the Jews (despite being one himself) and in 1921 personally supervised the smashing by artillery fire of a revolt by sailors at Kronstadt,, who had passed a resolution seeking relaxations of the regime's laws on forcible requisitioning of food from the peasants.

So quite clearly Trotsky had no compunction about shedding blood and inflicting suffering on those who stood in his way. But even had he been a different kind of man, once in power the circumstances of a huge, backward country dragging itself up out of feudalism into the modern industrial world would have inevitably imposed upon him policies which, while perhaps not as harsh as the excesses of Stalin's reign, would have involved trampling on all opposition to the speedy development of Russian state capitalism.

Several years before his death Trotsky expressed the view that socialism would develop out of a second world war, soon to occur. He was only partly right. A second world war did occur but of course socialism did not come out of it. And perhaps we should be thankful; for it socialism looks anything like what Trotsky helped to rule over in Russia before his fall from grace, we want none of it. The use of the term 'socialist' by Trotsky and his ilk to describe repressive one-party dictatorships makes all the harder the spreading of the idea of a democratic world society based on majority will.
Howard Moss

Greasy Pole: Making the President (2000)

The Greasy Pole Column from the October 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
To accept the spectacle of the presidential election requires a massive feat of amnesia or delusion by the working class
Throughout almost the entire length of this year's American presidential elections the pollsters—those obsessive people whose finger is always firmly on the pulse of public opinion—said that Republican George W. Bush was the nation's favourite. And then they suddenly changed their mind and put Democrat Al Gore out in front. This sent all the strategists and analysts into confusion but it did not take them long to come up with the reason for the dramatic turnaround. It was all down to what happened at the Democrats' convention in August. Gore's success since then was due, not so much to what he said—indeed he had assured the convention that he is a pretty boring man—but because he had kissed his wife. Nothing unusual in that, of course—politicians often kiss their spouse at moments of intense vote-cadging or before numbingly compliant audiences. The difference was that the Gore kiss was, in the words of more than one witness, a snog—prolonged and smothering enough to raise anxieties about whether Mrs Gore was about to be suffocated. But she survived, breaking and smiling and supportive and Gore's ratings began to rise and rise . . .
It was just as well that Gore did something out of the ordinary because there was nothing in his speech to the convention to set the blood racing. "Every hard-working American family," he said, "deserves to open the door to the American dream." This is not the first time we have heard about this elusively defined thing. It has been around in politicians' rhetoric for long enough to make us wonder why, after all this time, there are any people in America who are stopped from enjoying it by a closed door. "I ask for your support," Gore clamoured, "on the basis of a better, fairer, more prosperous America." He did not explain why, after eight years as Vice President, he still thinks there s so much room for improvement in the country. But he did say he wants another four years.
It was no better with Republican candidate George Bush. In a sideswipe at Bill Clinton and his peculiar handling of cigars he promised to change the tone of Washington to one of "civility and respect". Shortly afterwards he gave an example of this by describing a journalist at one of his press conferences as "a Major League asshole". After outlining some of his policies to the convention he assured them, "We will seize this moment of American promise. We will use these good times for great goals . . . We will extend the promise of prosperity to every foreign corner of this country . . ." The assembled Republican faithful loved it and gave it, according to one reporter, an "ecstatic, deafening response". They would not have been in the mood to reflect that Bush spoke in the vaguest of platitudes; to analyse his rantings would have been like trying to hold smoke.

The ringing, empty phrases spewed out by Bush and Gore had been painstakingly crafted over hours of toil and argument, to promote an image of each of them as historically clever, strong, sincere, honest. This is not an original technique. For example in May 1991, Bill Clinton, then a rising star in the Democratic Party with his ambitions centred firmly on the White House, said to the party's leadership council: "Our burden is to give the people a new choice rooted in old values. A new choice that is simple, that offers opportunity, demands responsibility, gives citizens more say, provides them responsible government, all because we recognize that we are a community." It sounded very will, enough to convince a lot of people—a typical piece of Clinton oratory. An earlier speech, on the same lines, had persuaded a disillusioned campaigner to become enthused enough to tell Clinton "I feel two emotions in this room that I haven't experienced in a long time—pride and hope." It would be interesting to know what emotions that man feels now, after eight years of Clinton sleaze.
Yet the fact is that such blind enthusiasm is capable of surviving the most compelling reality. No American president has come to power with such favourable prospects as John F. Kennedy. Rich, handsome, politically slick, bathed in glamour and the style which came to be called Camelot, he convinced millions of people throughout the world that we would leave the place in a much better state than it was when he took office. Such was the devotion for him that nobody threw up when Marilyn Monroe, in that dress, before a huge audience, sang Happy Birthday to him.

In all the excitement it was largely overlooked that the Kennedy family fortune was principally due to some nasty deals during Prohibition. There was a convenient blanket of amnesia over the President's father, the odious Joseph Kennedy, who can best be described as a ruthless gangster with an obsession that one of his sons would one day inhabit the White House, whatever it costs. In the massive publicity surrounding Kennedy there was little attention given to his connection to Chicago Mafia boss Sam Giancana—a friendship fertilised with large, regular bundles of money. Giancana's influence was applied to ensure that Kennedy won the 1960 presidential elections. At the time the defeated Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, knew that the election had in effect been bought. But he was no slouch himself at such tactics so he allowed that particular sleeping dog to lie.
In 1963, before the Vietnam war got under way, the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, was showing a willingness to negotiate with the Vietcong. If the negotiations had happened it is possible that tens of thousands of people on both sides might not have been killed. But at that stage a negotiated settlement did not fit in with the Kennedy government's policies in the area. The situation was dealt with by Washington tacitly supporting a military coup in which Diem and his brother were executed. The fact that Diem was supposed to be a personal friend of Kennedy did not save him. It was a solution worthy of the president's Mafia friends. Diem's charge d'affaire in Washington remembered the affair: "You had a group of people who pursued personal and political ambitions. It was like the Mafia."
Kennedy's Mafia connection was useful to him in other ways. He had an affair with Judith Exner, who at the time was in a relationship with that same Sam Giancana who had manipulated his 1960 election victory. Exner was only one of a veritable mass of such liaisons for Kennedy. One of the Secret Service agents assigned to protect the president "grieved that he would conduct himself in such a way as to make us so vulnerable and make the country so vulnerable."

These activities would have been of no concern except that at the same time as he was devoting so much of his time to them Kennedy was being portrayed as a devoted husband and father, with the kind of family ideal to society. After his assassination a memorial fund was set up and publicised with a photograph of Kennedy walking barefoot along a lonely beach hand-in-hand with his toddler son—a touching picture of a supposedly caring family man. The contrast with the reality of Camelot illustrate the extent of the cynicism which powers the presentation of political leaders—and the miseries of delusion among the voters.
Nixon & Reagan 
Kennedy was not unusual in this. During Richard Nixon's time as president he was represented as very different from the man who drank too much, depended on prescribed drugs and sometimes beat the wife who, in the customary pattern, was supposed to be the object of his adoration. Nixon died with the reputation of the president who brought peace to Vietnam. In fact, in the run-up to the 1968 election he tried to boost his chances by doing his best to undermine Lyndon Johnson's first moves to negotiate an end to the war.

Ronald Reagan's popularity was so overwhelming that one Democratic strategist moaned that the party had given up running against him. His support was based on an image of a decisive, self-confident representative of homely values, modest courage and happy endings, like an old cowboy movie. In fact he was often detached from the process of government, with the job of articulating the myths so beloved of the voters—America the best country in the world, strong and proud and free where every decent main's wife was called Nancy . . . He was very, very adept at playing that role which the political manipulators around him polished and packaged and publicised.
That is a good point at which to sum it up. The majority of people—the working class, the useful, productive people in this society—are content to keep capitalism in being under the delusion that it is rather like a movie in which the baddies come to a sticky end and the hero and heroine just have time to embrace before the end. The problem is that there are so many baddies—war, poverty, starvation, mental stress, homelessness, alienation, crime, disease . . . And the "heroes" and "heroines"—Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan and the rest—are powerless to do anything about it. To accept all this and to forget the impotence of those leaders requires a massive feat of amnesia or delusion by the working class. And to help them to be like that there are all those speech writers, strategists and spin doctors—the kind of people whose job is to tell Al Gore that if he didn't stop being boring and serious he would lose the election so he had better get out on stage, get hold of his wife and . . .

Together In Electric Dreams (2015)

The Proper Gander Column from the August 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
Ever fancied having a robot around to do the household chores? Or, indeed, ever fancied a robot? Channel 4’s drama series Humans imagines if robotics had reached the point of developing lifelike walking, talking androids – or ‘synths’ – for us to use as servants and colleagues, or in ‘fight clubs’ and brothels. Some of the synths have acquired consciousness, and the story follows the people living with them and searching for them.
There’s little that’s original about the series. It’s a remake of the Swedish drama Real Humans, and most of its themes were explored decades ago by Karel Capek, Isaac Asimov and Philip K Dick, among others. Where the show breaks with tradition is that it’s set in a ‘parallel present’ rather than the future. This approach may have been taken to avoid the cost of producing futuristic clothes, cars and sets, but it also reflects a lack of confidence in the viewer to be interested in how society would be changed by this technology. The series doesn’t dwell on how a ‘class’ of robots could impact on workplaces and the economy. Instead, the synths are plonked into our current way of life, and disappointingly used in a storyline borrowing tropes familiar from umpteen crime dramas. The show would have been more thought-provoking if it had been programmed with more emphasis on possible political and philosophical implications.
Despite this, Humans does consider what it might be like to have a robot as part of the family. Generally, most of the women characters become fixated on their synths, and most of the men end up being emasculated by them, while the damage done to relationships outweighs the benefits of not having to do the cooking and ironing. The script may also be saying that it’s easier to use someone if we lack empathy with them, or that when we use someone, we’re treating them as if they’re just an object. But it might be giving the drama too much credit to say that it’s a detailed analogy of how workers are used.
Humans doesn’t quite live up to its potential, but remains worth watching, especially for Gemma Chan’s eerily believable portrayal of synth Anita.
Mike Foster