The man who dreamed of Zyklon B

George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw

Yesterday we examined George Bernard Shaw‘s enthusiasm for Hitler – and noted a 1933 letter to the New York Times in which he suggested that the Führer, instead of planning to exterminate Jews, should simply say: “I will tolerate Jews to any extent, as long as no Jew marries a Jewess. That is how he could build up a strong, solid German people.”

At other times, however, Shaw was gung-ho for extermination. A strong supporter of eugenics, he championed “the right of the State to make eugenic experiments by weeding out any strains they think undesirable.” He spelled out his ideas as follows:

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Zyklon B, the “gentlemanly gas” that Shaw hoped for

I think it would be a good thing to make everybody come before a properly-appointed board, just as they might come before the income tax commissioner, and say every five years, or every seven years, just put them there, and say, “Sir, or madam, now will you be kind enough to justify your existence?” If you’re not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then, clearly, we cannot use the big organizations of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yourself…. I appeal to the chemists to discover a humane gas that will kill instantly and painlessly. In short, a gentlemanly gas – deadly by all means, but humane not cruel.

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Beatrice Webb

Some Shavians have insisted vehemently that when Shaw offered this suggestion, he was kidding, in the same way that Jonathan Swift was kidding in his famous essay “A Modest Proposal.” But Shaw wasn’t kidding. He floated the same idea in a private letter to his friend Beatrice Webb, writing: “I think we ought to tackle the Jewish Question by admitting the right of the States to make eugenic experiments by weeding out any strains that they think undesirable, but insisting that they do it as humanely as they can afford to.”

The only thing left to say about Shaw’s pro-Nazi views is that they survived Nazism itself. After Hitler’s death, Shaw remembered him as a “national hero”; when some of the Führer’s highest-ranking honchos were put on trial at Nuremberg after the war, Shaw considered them martyrs.

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Shaw’s ultimate hero

Shaw’s admiration for the Nazis, however, was eclipsed by his enthusiasm for Stalin and company. When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, Saw was delighted because he was sure the results “would reveal to the world the real strength of Soviet Communism.” The rapidity with which the Bolsheviks transformed Russia impressed him, and caused him to dismiss the Fabian ambition of gradually turning Britain socialist. Scorning law-abiding activists who sought to effect change from within the system, he looked up to men with “iron nerve and fanatical conviction.” During a 1931 visit to Moscow, he announced: “I have seen all the ‘terrors’ and I was terribly pleased by them.”

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Shaw biographer Michael Holyrod

Shaw returned to Britain from Russia “filled with religious fervour for the communist cause” (as one journalist has put it) and eager (as one of his biographers, Michael Holroyd, has written) to “bring the light of the Soviet Church to new audiences round the world.” Indeed, just as Shaw had promoted the idea of the Nazi extermination of Jews and other human beings whom he viewed as undesirables, he also argued for the wholesale massacre of Russian opponents of Communism, arguing that “if we desire a certain type of civilization and culture we must exterminate the sort of people who do not fit into it.” All this, dear reader, from the second-greatest playwright in the English language.

GBS: So versatile that he loved Hitler and Stalin

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George Bernard Shaw

Dublin-born George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), author of such works as Caesar and Cleopatra, Pygmalion, Saint Joan, and Man and Superman, was widely considered the best playwright of his time, and is often described as the greatest playwright – with the exception of Shakespeare – in the history of the English language.

He was also a man of many opinions. He famously opposed vaccinations and crusaded for simplified spelling, among many other causes. He was an early member of the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party, both of which promoted socialism in the United Kingdom. To his credit, he was an early supporter of women’s rights and interracial marriage. Less attractively, while some intellectuals and artists in the West loved Hitler and hated Stalin or vice-versa, Shaw went on record as admiring both of these bloodthirsty dictators – not to mention Lenin and Mussolini, too.

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“Really interesting statesman”

He called Lenin “the one really interesting statesman in Europe”; in 1931, he met Stalin and came away with the impression that the strongman was “a Georgian gentleman.” Two years later, during the deliberately engineered Ukrainian famine, or Holodomor, in which several million people died, he wrote a letter to the Manchester Guardian defending the Soviet Union from what he called “slander” in the British press.

The same year, he greeted Hitler’s rise to power by calling him “very remarkable,” denied that Hitler was out “to establish a military hegemony in Europe,” and accepted the official German verdict that the Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933 – likely a false-flag operation by the Nazis – was the fault of Communist opponents of the Third Reich.

Adolf Hitler, Austrian born dictator of Nazi Germany, 1938. Hitler (1889-1945) became leader of the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) party in 1921. After an unsuccessful coup attempt in Munich in 1923, for which he was briefly imprisoned, Hitler set about pursuing power by democratic means. His nationalistic and anti-semitic message quickly gained support in a Germany humiliated by defeat in World War I and the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles and, from the late 1920s, suffering from economic collapse. Hitler came to power in 1933, and persuaded the Reichstag (parliament) to grant him dictatorial powers. He proceeded to crush opposition both within his own party and throughout German society, and set about re-arming Germany. Hitler's aggressive policy of territorial expansion to secure 'lebensraum' (living space) for the German people eventually plunged the world into the Second World War. A print from Kampf um's Dritte Reich: Historische Bilderfolge, Berlin, 1933. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
“I have backed his regime…to the point of making myself unpopular”

“The Nazi movement,” Shaw once wrote, “is in many respects one which has my warm sympathy; in fact, I might fairly claim that Herr Hitler has repudiated Karl Marx to enlist under the banner of Bernard Shaw.” In a 1935 letter to an Austrian colleague, he asked that his best wishes be communicated to Hermann Göring and noted that “I have backed his regime in England to the point of making myself unpopular.”

While he did criticize Hitler’s emphasis on anti-Semitism, Shaw was hardly free of that poison himself. Far from it: as Saul Jay Singer demonstrated at length last year in an article for the Jewish Press, the playwright was “an open and rabid Jew-hater.”

shaw2For example, Shaw accused Jews of “craving for bouquets” and called it “a symptom of racial degeneration.” He called Jews “obnoxious creatures” and pronounced that “it would have been better for the world if the Jews had never existed.” He described Jews as “the real enemy” and defended Hitler’s mistreatment of them as a reasonable “product of mass discontent over Jewish wealth.” And in 1933 letter to the New York Times he proposed that the Nazis should “make it punishable incest for a Jew to marry anyone but an Aryan….Instead of exterminating the Jews, he [Hitler] should have said, I will tolerate Jews to any extent, as long as no Jew marries a Jewess. That is how he could build up a strong, solid German people.”

But if Shaw was awfully fond of Hitler, he was even more of a fan of Stalin. More tomorrow.

Joris Ivens: Stalin’s and Mao’s Riefenstahl

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Joris Ivens

Today, a quick look at Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens (1898-1989). He started out making short experimental films in which he sought to capture atmosphere, much in the way of an impressionist painter. He also helped establish Amsterdam as an early center of filmmaking, and helped bring directors like René Clair and Sergei Eisenstein to the city.

EH5408P c.1937-1938 Ernest Hemingway with a film cameraman and two soldiers during the Spanish Civil War, 1937-1938. Photographer unknown in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
With Hemingway and two soldiers in Spain

Then, in 1929 and again in 1931, he went to the USSR. He was hooked. And he started making propaganda pictures. Song of Heroes (1931), about industry in the city of Magnitogorsk, promoted Stalin’s Five-Year Plan. In 1936 he relocated to the U.S., where the next year he screened his film The Spanish Earth at the White House. The movie, funded by a consortium of left-leaning writers including Lillian Hellman and John Dos Passos, was a paean to the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Ivens presented the Republicans as uniformly fighting for liberty – ignoring the fact that many so-called Republicans were, in fact, Marxists who enjoyed the support of the Kremlin and who sought to turn Spain into a Communist satellite of the Soviet Union. It was transparent wartime propaganda, but it attracted the participation of many top-flight talents, including Marc Blitzstein and Virgil Thomson, who composed the music, Ernest Hemingway, who wrote and read the voice-over narration, and Jean Renoir, who did the French-language voice-over.

Three years later, Ivens did the same favor for Mao Zedong that he had for Stalin in The Spanish Earth, releasing a film, The 400 Million, that told the story of the Second Sino-Japanese War, emphazing the contributions of Mao, his compadre Zhou Enlai, and their Communist cohorts while underplaying the role played by Chaing Kai-shek and his anti-Communist Nationalists.

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Frank Capra

In 1943, at the height of World War II, American director Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life), who had been asked by the U.S. War Department to make a series of films entitled Why We Fight, invited Ivens to direct a movie for the series about the Japanese. Ivens was soon fired, however. Why? For (no kidding) making the movie too pro-Japanese.

Ivens left the U.S. in the 1940s, and before long was living in Stalin’s newly conquered and Communized Eastern Europe. During the Vietnam War, he made a couple of pro-North Vietnam documentaries. In 1967, he won the Lenin Peace Prize. And he spent six years in the 1970s making How Yukong Moved the Mountains, a more than twelve-hour account of China’s Cultural Revolution, in which millions were removed from their jobs, torn from their homes and families, tortured, “re-educated,” and/or killed. As it happened, Ivens – by now a profoundly convinced Communist and close friend of Mao and Zhou – thoroughly approved.

It is telling to observe that Ivens’s lifelong cinematic efforts on behalf of Stalin and Mao did not prevent him from being treated in his homeland as a local hero. In 1989, he received a knighthood from the Dutch government. Shortly afterwards, he died. Such was the life of Stalin’s and Mao’s Leni Riefenstahl.

Debra Messing’s favorite Maoist?

This week we’ve been covering the life of Bob Avakian, longtime head of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (RCP). An ardent promoter of the ideas of Stalin and Mao, he’s been a staple of the left ever since the 1960s.

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Bob Avakian with Cornel West at Riverside Church

And he’s still out there slugging. In November 2014, Avakian broke with his longtime secretiveness to appear onstage with his good buddy Cornel West, the former Princeton and Harvard professor and frequent guest on Real Time with Bill Maher. The event took place at Riverside Church in New York City and was billed as a discussion about “Revolution and Religion.”

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Carl Dix

In fact, there was less discussion than there was haranguing by Avakian. After being introduced by his underling Carl Dix, who told the audience that the RCP leader had “brought forward a new synthesis of Communism,” Avakian – in the windy oratorical tradition of Fidel Castro and any number of other Communist dictators – stood at a lectern and ranted for two hours straight without saying anything particularly interesting or original. (Israel, he charged, is guilty of “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide.”) Then he and Cornel West sat down together and talked for almost two more hours, with Avakian, again, taking up most of the time pontificating. The RCP paid $70,000 for a full-page ad in the New York Times promoting the event.

mao-zedong1In June 2015, a student journalist at Harvard, Gram Slattery, probed the RCP, which drew his interest because of its bookstore in Harvard Square. Despite efforts to arrange an interview with the Dear Leader, he didn’t get to meet Avakian, but did get a sit-down with another party leader who, echoing RCP doctrine, dismissed the “narrative that Mao was a mass murderer, that he was personally responsible for 50 to 100 million deaths,” and asserted that Avakian “has dedicated himself to looking at what actually happened” in Mao’s China. Avakian, stated the RCP member, is “precious for humanity.” The RCP, reported Slattery, clung fast to “its reverence for Mao” and its defense of Stalin. (In the party’s view, “the Soviet Union went downhill once Khrushchev took over.”) Slattery also pointed out that the RCP, for a long time, had regarded Peru’s Shining Path terrorists – who “executed thousands of peasants and even took to torturing deviant Marxists in the early ’90s” – as role models.

inthenameofhumanityposter17x22-600-enAvakian ain’t down yet. He and his party have made a big splash since the election of Donald Trump. It was the RCP that was behind a widely published campaign to stop a Trump presidency before the inauguration.The centerpiece was an ad headlined “We REFUSE to accept a Fascist America!” It was signed by (among others) actor Ed Asner, activist Bill Ayers, comedian Margaret Cho, playwright Eve Ensler, director John Landis, actress Debra Messing, novelist Alice Walker, and (of course) Cornel West. One wonders how  many of them knew they were part of an initiative run by unreconstructed Maoists.  

To promote the campaign, West and RCP co-founder Carl Dix appeared on The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News on January 5. You can watch the interview below. Perhaps the highlight was when Dix likened Trump to Hitler. Interesting words indeed from a representative of a party that still celebrates the glorious legacies of Stalin and Mao.

Which, by the way, brings us to the question: what is Carl Dix’s story? We’ll get to him tomorrow.

The man who’s even too radical for The Nation

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Bob Avakian

Yesterday we met septuagenarian Bob Avakian, who’s spent his adult life as a Communist radical. Since 1975, he’s been head of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (RCP), which holds aloft the torch of Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong – and, not least, of Avakian himself, who has striven to make himself the center of a personality cult modeled on those of Stalin, Mao, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and the Kims in North Korea.

Cornelius Pettus, owner of Payless market, throws a bucket of water on the flames at next-door business Ace Glass on 4/30/1992. Hyungwon Kang / Los Angeles Times.
An image from the 1992 L.A. riots

A high point for the RCP was the 1992 race riots in L.A., in which party members – who had relocated from Massachusetts to southern California for the purpose – sought to stir up racial discontent and transform it into full-fledged revolution. That’s not all. One reporter has conclude that in the 1990s, the RCP probably “penetrated the underground punk rock world” and even “owned a punk rock club in Houston.” In a 1994 interview with SPIN, Tom Morello, the lead guitarist of Rage against the Machine, apparently recommended an RCP bookstore and “vigorously” defended Shining Path – leading one to wonder whether Morello had fallen under the influence of Avakian and company. Another punk group, Outernational, featured RCP spokesman Carl Dix in a music video. The cultivation of celebrities and the effort to develop a personality cult around the founder are among the things that can make the RCP look very much, at least from some angles, like Scientology.

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Michelle Goldberg

After a period of relative quiescence, the RCP jumped back into action after 9/11, becoming a major behind-the-scenes player in such antiwar groups as Not in Our Name and ANSWER. One antiwar group, The World Can’t Wait, appears to have been “entirely a creation of the party.” All these groups, notes Gram Slattery, “managed to rise to prominence in large part because few people actually knew of their affiliation with the revolutionary left.” Even a columnist for The Nation, Michelle Goldberg, had harsh words for the RCP, writing in 2002 that its members “aren’t just extremists in the service of a good cause – they’re cheerleaders for some of the most sinister regimes and insurgencies on the planet.”

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Todd Gitlin

Goldberg wasn’t alone in her criticism: over the years, Avakian gradually came to be viewed by many on the left at as something of a relic, an oddball, and an embarrassment to the movement. A decade or so ago, Todd Gitlin, the prominent sociologist and former SDS leader, cited him as an example of “the ludicrous feebleness of the unreconstructed left.” But while Avakian may be a bit of a clown, he’s no fool: a few years back he managed to get plenty of well-known academics to sign a New York Review of Books ad defending his right to free speech – even though nobody was trying to deprive him of free speech.

America’s #1 Commie

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Cornel West

Cornel West, the former Harvard and Princeton professor and author of Race Matters, has called him “a long distance runner in the freedom struggle against imperialism, racism and capitalism.” Howard Zinn, the late author of A People’s History of the United States, praised his memoir as “a humanizing portrait of someone who is often seen only as a hard-line revolutionary.” Among his other admirers are Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson, the author of Race Rules, and activist Cindy Sheehan.

The man in question? Bob Avakian, longtime chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (RCP). Now 73, he’s been a veritable Zelig of the American far left, described in a 2005 profile as “the marathon man of the international anti-imperialist struggle.”

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Bob Avakian

Attracted in his youth (he was an undergraduate at – where else? – Berkeley) to various New Left groups – among them the Students for a Democratic Society, the Free Speech Movement, the Weathermen, and (although he’s white) the Black Panthers – Avakian became a community organizer in Richmond, California, where he sought to convert workers to Communism. In 1968, he and several Bay Area comrades founded their own organization, the Revolutionary Union, which took its inspiration from both Stalin and Mao, whose deadly Cultural Revolution was then in full swing.

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Mao Zedong

During a 1971 visit to China, Avakian experienced the Cultural Revolution firsthand, finding it “wondrous”; four years later, under his leadership, the Revolutionary Union morphed into the Mao-besotted RCP. Though upset by Mao’s death the next year and by China’s subsequent embrace of capitalism, Avakian soldiered on, declaring that, with Beijing’s betrayal, he and his RCP brethren were now “the true upholders of Maoism” on the planet. Around this time, the RCP shifted its emphasis from “workplace organizing [to] an increasingly hysterical militancy in the streets”; after he and other party members were arrested for rioting, assaulting cops, etc., etc., during Deng Xiaoping’s 1979 visit to Washington, D.C., Avakian skipped bail and fled to France from what he has called America’s “suffocating climate of intolerance.”

stalin1Ever since, Avakian has consistently insisted on the greatness of Mao and Stalin. “If the bourgeoisie and its political representatives can uphold people like Madison and Jefferson,” he wrote in his memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond, “then the proletariat and its vanguard forces can and should uphold Stalin.” And he’s devoted his life to the RCP, which runs a newspaper, a website, and a chain of stores called Revolutionary Books, all of which serve to advance the cause of Mao and Stalin.

But in addition to promoting Mao and Stalin, Avakian has unashamedly promoted himself. As Mark Oppenheimer wrote in a 2008 profile, the RCP – thanks in part to Avakian’s Stalin-like purges of other party leaders – gradually became “a cult of personality focused on him.” One tool in Avakian’s effort to turn himself into a cult figure was invisibility: for a long time almost nobody knew where he lived, and he never appeared in public; in his frequent writings (as in North Korea and Mao’s China, the shelves of his bookstores groan with copies of the Dear Leader’s works), Avakian continued to describe himself as being in exile, even though all charges against him were dropped in 1982, and even though he returned to the U.S. from Europe some time after the turn of the century. As Oppenheimer put it, “the chairman is still on the run, even if nobody is chasing him.”

More tomorrow.

And what a web they wove!

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The Webbs, early in their marriage

A century ago, the Webbs, Sidney (1859-1947) and Beatrice (1858-1943), were the power couple of British Labour. Together they help form the Fabian Society, whose devotion to the idea of a socialist UK played a major role in shaping Labour Party policy and creating the modern British welfare state. They took part in the founding of the London School of Economics. They carried out research, published studies, and sat on committees, all with the goal of establishing an entirely new social and economic order. For a time Sidney was a Labour minister.

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The Webbs in later years

“Together, we could move the world,” Sidney once said of their relationship. “Marriage is a partnership. It is the ultimate committee.” (That last sentence should give you a pretty good idea of how their minds worked.) The immense scale of their influence is undeniable; the merits of their efforts to alter the British system are subject to debate. Certainly much of what they helped to achieve was genuinely admirable. But the activity that capped off their careers can only be described as a world-class example of useful stoogery.

We’re referring here to their promotion of Soviet Communism.

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With George Bernard Shaw, a fellow Fabian

The Webbs didn’t start out as admirers of the USSR. During the 1920s they recognized that Soviet Communism and Italian fascism were two sides of the same coin – and equally appalling.

But that changed. In 1935, after visiting the USSR and perusing economic data supplied to them by the Kremlin, they published a book of over a thousand pages entitled Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? It was nothing less than a celebration of Stalinism. The Webbs cheered on forced collectivization, applauded the Gulag, even rationalized the mass murder of the kulaks. (“It must be recognised,” they wrote, “that this liquidation of the individual capitalists in agriculture had necessarily to be faced if the required increase of output was to be obtained.”)

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In Russia, 1932

“Old people,” Beatrice said, “often fall in love in extraordinary and ridiculous ways – with their chauffeurs, for example: we feel it more dignified to have fallen in love with Soviet Communism.”

Despite their private qualms about the Moscow show trials, in which Stalin railroaded his rivals, they publicly gave the trials their support. They acknowledged that the Soviet people were being fed a diet of pure propaganda, but argued that the BBC was doing essentially the same thing to the British populace. They flat-out denied that any famine had occurred in the Ukraine. They also denied that Stalin was a dictator, characterizing him instead as “a shrewd and definitely skilful manager.” And they gushed endlessly over the wonderfulness of everyday existence in the Soviet Union, where people lived “in an atmosphere of social equality and of freedom from servility or ‘inferiority complex’ that is unknown elsewhere,” and experienced an utter “absence of prejudice as to colour or race.” In the USSR, they enthused, “The Worship of God is replaced by The Service of Man.”

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Nick Cohen

Between 1935 and 1937, Stalin had amped up the terrorization of his people to a level unmatched in human history. Nick Cohen has summed it up as follows: “Whole races were being transported, the Communist party was being massacred, every petrified citizen knew they must denounce or be denounced.” How did the Webbs respond? By taking out the question mark in the title of their book. In the 1937 second edition, it was entitled Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation. If, as Cohen puts it, that question mark had “delicately suggested it was possible to doubt that the Soviet Union was a workers’ paradise,” now all doubt was gone: “The Webbs responded to the creation of a slave economy by dropping the question mark.”

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Malcolm Muggeridge

Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, pronounced that the two editions of the Webbs’ Russia book were “about the most unrealistic books ever produced by able people.” The historian A. J. P. Taylor said that Soviet Communism was “the most preposterous book ever written about Soviet Russia.” Malcolm Muggeridge – who had reported (honestly) from the Soviet Union – later wrote that the Webbs “knew about the regime,” including the evils of the Cheka secret police, “but they liked it.” Once Beatrice said to him, “Yes, it’s true, people disappear in Russia.” Muggeridge recalled that she had “said it with such great satisfaction that I couldn’t help thinking that there were a lot of people in England whose disappearance she would have liked to organize.”