Karl Marx would have turned 200 on May 5, and during the last couple of weeks we’ve been noting that more than a few bien pensant types on both sides of the Atlantic manage to ignore – or explain away – the disastrous history of the twentieth century and to view Marx’s legacy with fondness. On Tuesday we examined a recent piece in the Independent, the British broadsheet, arguing that Marx’s time has finally come; today we’ll look at another contribution to the Independent, this one by Kaleem Aftab, who interviews celebrated director Raoul Peck about his new film The Young Karl Marx.
The film is, by Aftab’s account, a hagiography – a loving account of the close friendship between Marx and Friedrich Engels, his collaborator on The Communist Manifesto. Aftab likens the movie to Walter Salles’s 2004 biopic TheMotorcycleDiaries, a cinematic billet doux to Che Guevara. “Both films,” Aftab explains, “are more interested in the youthful antics of the protagonists than their later work and exploits.”
This makes sense, if you think about it: such films are intended not for mature, serious audiences who have faced the truth about Communism but for those who still romanticize it. The better, then, to view these figures in their early years, through the pink lens of youthful idealism and intellectual excitement. Better to observe the germination of the ideas than the bloody results thereof.
The other people we’ve been profiling during the past two weeks see Karl Marx as being more relevant now than he ever was. Peck agrees. Like others, he cites the 2008 financial crisis as definitive evidence of capitalism’s unworkability and inevitable failure, even as he refuses to recognize that the deterioration and collapse of one Communist regime after another demonstrates anything whatsoever. “You sum up the articles [by Marx] and it is exactly the description of the 2008 crisis,” says Peck, who was nominated for an Oscar for his 2016 documentary feature I Am Not Your Negro, about the author James Baldwin. “It’s like the children’s book of the history of capitalism and you can trace it until today. So what other proof do you need?”
Peck’s “desire to connect to the present,” writes Aftab, “has led to him make a movie that at times seems like an overly theoretical political analysis, and in other moments like a fun bromance, capturing the hijinks of ordinary young men.” Terrific – a totalitarian buddy movie! Peck’s hope is “that young people will recognise themselves in the film” and take inspiration from it in their efforts to “fight back.” And precisely what, Aftab asks, is crying out “to be fought against right now?” Like others whom we’ve discussed this week, Peck’s answer can be reduced to a single word: Trump.
Not everyone who fought against the Nazis was fighting for freedom. The Red Army, after all, was fighting for Communism, which the Soviets promptly forced upon the occupied countries of eastern Europe after the war.
In the same way, not all of those who battled apartheid were believers in liberty.
Meet Ronnie Kasrils.
Born in 1938, the grandson of Baltic Jews who fled tsarist pograms to live in South Africa, Kasrils has been called Africa’s “highest-profile revolutionary from the white race.” A member of both the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party since 1960, he spent 27 years in exile owing to his ANC activities, studying at a military academy in the USSR and then doing ANC work in London and in various African capitals. The ANC in exile, wroteR. W. Johnson in the National Interest in 2013, “was both corrupt and Stalinist,” supporting the Soviet invasions of both Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and Kasrils was nothing if not an ardent devotee of Stalin, who at one point described George Orwell’s Animal Farm as “crude, anti-Communist propaganda.”
Returning home after the end of apartheid, Kasrils joined the ruling committees of both the ANC and the Communist Party. But he was dissatisfied with the new regime, criticizingNelson Mandela for taking the ANC down a “bourgeois” path instead of forming a “people’s republic” – that is, a Communist government. Instead of holding “on to its revolutionary will,” he charged, the ANC had “chickened out,” making a “devil’s pact, only to be damned in the process.” Citing Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Che Guevara, Kasrils insistedthat a “true rebel would not have accepted” the “global corporate capitalism” that, in his view, was deforming South Africa.
Naturally, he lamented the loss in 1991 of “our once powerful ally, the Soviet Union,” whose collapse destroyed his faith in “the ability of our own revolutionary masses to overcome all obstacles.” Still, he predicted in his 1993 autobiography, Armed and Dangerous, that “in years to come humanity will look back to Soviet achievements as a source of profound inspiration.”
Despite his misgivings about the direction South Africa took after apartheid, Kasrils accepted one high-ranking government position after another, serving as a member of Parliament (1994-2008), as Deputy Minister of Defence, as Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, and as Minister of Intelligence. In the last-named post, according to one informed observer, Kasrils managed to turn the country’s intelligence service into “an international laughingstock,” marked by “unending, ungovernable, internecine battles” and other horrors that went beyond “even the ugliest Stalinist traditions of the African National Congress.”
Meanwhile, Kasrils became a leading booster of the Palestinian cause and a fierce critic of Israel, which he routinely described as an apartheid state – a charge that outraged some South Africans, one of whom called it “a gross insult to every black South African who suffered under apartheid.” In a 2007 speech,Kasrils went even further, maintaining that Israel was subjecting the Palestinians to “hardships and methods of control that are far worse than anything our people faced during the most dreadful days of apartheid.” In an interviewthe same year, he further intensified his rhetoric, calling Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “a thousand times worse” than apartheid. He also compared it to “what my grandmother used to tell me about the pogroms: The Cossacks are coming, the Cossacks are coming.” Finally, pulling out all the stops, he accused Israel of “genocide.”
While accusing Israel of the most horrific kinds of crimes against humanity, Kasrils has routinely made excuses for even the most barbaric actions by Palestinians – for example, calling suicide bombers “martyr bombers.” He’s even urged Israeli Jews “to succumb to Islamic rule,” maintaining “that the Jews actually thrived under Islamic rule.” It was no surprise to see his name, a few years back, on the list of members of the notorious Russell Tribunal on Palestine (2009-12), which whitewashed Palestinian atrocities and demonized Israel. As South African justice Richard J. Goldstone wrote in the New York Times just prior to its third session, in Cape Town, the convocation was not really a “tribunal” at all: “The ‘evidence’ is going to be one-sided and the members of the ‘jury’ are critics whose harsh views of Israel are well known.”
James Kirchick, writing in the DailyBeast last year, called him “perhaps the most infamous American apologist for the Russian government.” Eschewing the word “perhaps,” Jonathan Chait of New York magazine identified him as “[t]he most prominent intellectual apologist for Putin.” And Cathy Young of Slate called him “the Kremlin’s No. 1 American apologist.”
We’re talking – again – about Stephen F. Cohen, America’s highest-profile Russia “expert.” He’s vigorously rejected his critics’ characterizations of him, insisting: “I am the only American patriot.” He’s made a career of labeling those who don’t share his take on Russia as ignoramuses and/or liars, but these days he’s gotten into the habit of expressing righteous outrage at those lesser beings who now dare to put him down for his outrageously Putin-friendly views. To criticize him on such grounds, he says, is “scurrilous” and “defamatory.” His critics, he declares, are “neo-McCarthyites” who “are trying to stifle democratic debate by stigmatizing” him. And yet, himself using a McCarthyite term, he’s argued that it’s “un-American” for his critics to challenge his pro-Putin statements as robustly as they have; such intense criticism, he says, is “a form of censorship.”
Funny that a guy who defends Putin – who engages in real censorship, to the point of having his critics beaten up, imprisoned, tortured, and killed – should accuse other folks of censorship just because they don’t share his perverse admiration for this tyrant.
Funny, too, that a radical leftist who used to shill for the USSR should become an equally fervent apologist for Putin – a man who, despite his KGB history, is usually categorized as a right-wing nationalist. Or maybe not so funny? After all, the Kremlin is still the Kremlin. No, Moscow’s corridors of power may no longer be decorated with portraits of Marx and Engels and Lenin, but, hey, you can’t have everything.
Think of it this way: for Cohen, this whole business isn’t just about Russia. It’s also very much about America. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that, in the eyes of far-left types like Cohen, the fall of the Soviet Union wasn’t a blessing but a disaster – because it made America the world’s sole superpower. We’re talking here about people who, quite simply, don’t view America as a benign force in the world. They’re eager to see America contained, humbled, kept in check. And the simple fact is that an aggressive, autocratic, nationalistic Russia can do that just as well as an aggressive, autocratic, Communist USSR.
Indeed, to listen to Cohen, it’s America, not Putin’s Russia, that is the real aggressor in this match-up. Take the Magnitsky Act of 2012, which denies U.S. visas to Russian officials responsible for the 2009 death of human-rights lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The law passed both houses of Congress with strong bipartisan support and was signed by President Obama. Human-rights groups around the world praised the law, as did pro-democracy activists in Russia; polls showed that most Russians supported it, too. But Cohen savaged the act, calling it “a very harsh Cold War law,” and even signed a statement denouncing it.
Or consider his take on NATO – a classic case of through-the-looking-glass thinking. Consistently, Cohen speaks of NATO as a brutal threat – not a defense against a brutal threat. Putin’s saber-rattling in Eastern Europe is understandable, Cohen argues, because “twenty years of NATO’s eastward expansion has caused Russia to feel cornered.” He ignores entirely the fact that if Russia were a genuinely free country with no belligerent international ambitions, it wouldn’t perceive NATO expansion as a threat; on the contrary, a truly free Russia could itself be a member of NATO.
But then again, just as in the Cold War days, the word “freedom” is barely in Cohen’s vocabulary. He actually told an RT interviewer that the U.S. has, in effect, said to NATO members in Eastern Europe that they “can punch Russia in the nose and hide behind NATO.” In other words, Cohen has the nerve to depict countries like Estonia and the Czech Republic – which for decades were subjugated and brutalized by Moscow – as anti-Russian aggressors. And he talks as if NATO had forced itself on these countries, rather than being invited and gratefully welcomed by them as a bulwark of their freedoms.
It’s bizarre: Cohen endlessly asserts Russia’s right to act in its own national interest, but he seems not to recognize the right of any former Soviet republic or satellite to its own national interest. If Poland or Ukraine or Latvia perceives Putin’s Russia as a threat to its freedom and sovereignty, why shouldn’t it be allowed to do whatever it feels is necessary in its own defense – including join NATO?
For a long time, Cohen’s routine answer to this question was simple and confident: Putin, he averred, doesn’t represent a threat to any of his neighbors. In speech after speech and interview after interview, Cohen contended it was “ridiculous” to think Putin would make a military move into Ukraine or Poland or the Baltics.
Then Putin invaded Ukraine.
Yet even that invasion didn’t silence Cohen. He continued to treat the liberation of the Eastern European and Baltic nations a quarter-century ago – and the aspiration of their citizens to become full members of the Free World – as offenses against Russia by an aggressive U.S. Clearly, the very concept of a “Free World,” or of its opposite, is off Cohen’s radar. For him, none of this is about freedom or tyranny – it’s about spheres of influence. Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union for most of the twentieth century; it’s been an independent country for just over a couple of decades; ipso facto, it’s a part of Russia’s proper sphere of influence.
Which, for Cohen, means that the Ukrainian people’s own desires are irrelevant. If most of them want to be closer to the West, which for them means freedom and peace and prosperity, than to Russia, which means the opposite of all those things – well, too bad for them. Ditto the Lithuanians, the Slovaks, and the rest. Because they were once part of the totalitarian Soviet empire, Russia has the right to an unquestioned “sphere of influence” over all of them – a right, even, to re-conquer them, if it wishes, and turn these now free and democratic nations back into exploited and terrorized subject states. Freedom be damned.
It’s a detestable way of thinking – a morally repellent legitimization of the Russification of the Soviet “republics” after 1917, and of Stalin’s Communization of Eastern Europe after World War II. But this is precisely the view of Putin’s Russia that Cohen now preaches in the media – and, presumably, to his students at New York University.
Which raises the question: how does NYU feel about the fact that a member of its faculty is a one-man PR outfit for a tyrant?