Eve's Review

The Anti-Fascist Professionals

December 10, 2018

Tags: fascism, terror, anti-fascism, socialism

“Fighting Fascism, How to Struggle and How to Win”
Clara Zetkin
Haymarket, 131 pages
$11.95

Eve Ottenberg

With the term fascism much in the news since Trump’s election, those concerned about it might want to consult the pros. They include Clara Zetkin, whose “Fighting Fascism,” originally published in 1923, was recently reprinted and Leon Trotsky’s “Fascism, What It Is and How to Fight It,” still, fortunately, in print. For both authors, a key feature of fascism is terror, violence on a massive scale against ordinary working people. By that standard, what we have seen so far in Trump’s America is not fascism. This doesn’t mean it’s good; in fact, what we see and what started long before Trump, which his racism and xenophobia amplify, is a kind of proto-fascism, because neoliberalism shades easily and imperceptibly into fascism. It does so through its savage assault on ordinary people’s living standards; by abolishing rent control (cited by Zetkin), by privatizing public enterprises (Zetkin also cites this), by slashing the social safety net, cutting food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, by suppressing wages and undermining unions. Indeed, with regard to these neoliberal economic policies, Mussolini said it all: fascists “are liberals in the classic meaning of the word.”

Fighting fascism is something it would seem everyone is able to agree on. After all, 75 years ago, half the world was anti-fascist, because half the world was fighting fascism; Americans and Soviets allied against it. So it’s always a bit of a surprise to hear the term anti-fascist disparaged on a major news network like, say, Fox. If Fox is against anti-fascism, it’s not unreasonable to assume it favors fascism. Even if this is not yet explicit, it soon could be. Which is all the more reason to consult original anti-fascists like Zetkin and Trotsky: “The historic function of fascism,” Trotsky wrote, “is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations and stifle political liberties, when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.” According to Zetkin, fascism has two essential features, “a sham revolutionary program…and the use of brutal and violent terror.” In Italy, she writes, “fascism found its breeding ground in the disintegration and weakness of the economy.” Indeed, Mussolini’s assault on revolutionary workers’ organizations has some parallels to today’s corporate attacks on unions and to Trump-inspired, right-wing hysteria over migrant workers.

For Zetkin, fascism opportunistically seizes power, when socialists fail to take advantage of a revolutionary situation. She blames reformists, who weaken left-wing militancy and open the way for a government that thinks “better the fascists than the socialists.” This reformist failure was evident in the 1920s and ‘30s and was certainly evident during the 2008 economic collapse. Bailing out financial criminals, Obama squandered his political capital with working people, who voted in a Republican congress in 2010, and then defected to Trump in 2016. Many working people just did not want another Wall-Street Democrat in power. When Clinton rigged the campaign through the Democratic National Committee against Sanders, she may well have handed Trump the presidency.

Zetkin lists Italian fascism’s failures to fulfill its promises, and the list brings to mind Trump’s faux populism, though it is far more detailed than Trump’s pledges. Despite promises, Italian fascism did not provide proportional representation, women did not get the vote, an economic parliament was not created, no national assembly was summoned to reform the constitution, there were no protections for the eight-hour day and the minimum wage, no insurance for the elderly and invalids, no funds for the unemployed, no demands that workers participate in factory leadership, no progressive tax on capital, no military reform, and religion returned to the schools. Today’s Republican party would applaud many of these betrayals, considering them sound policy.

Zetkin argues that fascism uses “either ‘democracy’ or a dictator,” provides the troops for the corporate capitalist assault on working people and “consists everywhere of an amalgam of brutal terrorist violence together with deceptive revolutionary phraseology.” She would not have been surprised at how Trump deployed populism in the 2016 election, nor at the subsequent fascist violence in Charlottesville, nor at the anti-Semitic slaughter in Pittsburgh. These are symptoms of the disease in its earliest stage. We’ve passed the window for a vaccine, and lukewarm Democratic polices will not provide a cure. The infection is present. It remains to be seen whether it can be controlled.


Neruda, Poet and Communist

May 27, 2018

Tags: poetry, communism, Stalinism, fascism, Spanish civil war

"Neruda, The Poet’s Calling"
Mark Eisner
HarperCollins, 628 pages
$35

Eve Ottenberg
Many know that Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize laureate and Chilean poet, was a communist. Less well known is that until the 1960s, he was a diehard Stalinist. Though he had an understandable reason for this – Stalin was the only world leader to support the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, whose fascists murdered so many of Neruda’s friends – still his blindness about the dictator who slaughtered twenty million people is startling.

Neruda never left the communist party. As Marc Eisner documents in his new biography, "Neruda, The Poet’s Calling," the communists claimed him to the bitter end, finally and fearlessly right in the teeth of Pinochet’s fascist regime. Eisner’s description of Neruda’s 1973 funeral, after the coup and Allende’s suicide, is powerful: tens of thousands walked behind the coffin in defiance of Pinochet’s troops, who essentially had to stand down. “Communist youth of Chile!” A leader called out. “Companero [brother] Pablo Neruda!” And the crowd answered, “Presente! [he is present] Companero Salvadore Allende! Presente! Companero Victor Jara! Presente! Companero Pablo Neruda! Presente!” This, right under the eyes of the troops, defending the CIA-backed dictator.

For Neruda, the Spanish Civil War was a formative experience. Though a renowned poet before it, that struggle permanently altered his character and art; his youthful melancholy vanished, as Eisner documents. Neruda’s rival Jorge Luis Borges said: “When he became a communist, his poetry became very strong. I like Neruda the communist.” After Spain, Neruda became “a people’s poet.” He argued for “a dirty poetry, grimy from the hands of the worker, smelling of both ‘urine and lilies.’” Heartbroken by the fascist murder of his great friend, poet Federico Garcia Lorca, he wrote 21 poems in response to the civil war, collected in "Spain in the Heart." His friend, Rafael Alberti, who fought in the civil war, called Neruda’s poems “sacred verses for us.”

The list of writers who attended Neruda’s Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture, “as the bombs fell on Madrid,” reads like a who’s who of early twentieth century literature: Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Octavio Paz, Langston Hughes and many others. Later, campaigning in Santiago for a presidential candidate, Neruda read from "Spain in the Heart" to members of the porter’s union: “They were completely silent while he read. When he ended, many applauded…then a man…[a] leader of the union said, ‘Companero Pablo, we are a much forgotten people. I can tell you that we have never felt such great emotion…’ The worker started to cry, as did others.”

As a diplomat, Neruda saved the lives of over two thousand Spanish Republicans, who would certainly have perished in Franco’s prisons and concentration camps, had he not arranged for a boat to bring them to South America and then for them to reside in Chile. Eisner writes: “Newspapers across the world described the venture, with Neruda, Chile’s ‘foremost poet,’ as The New York Tribune described him, identified as the director of the operation…One of the immigrants remembered: ‘The change could not have been more striking. We, the damnable reds, the humiliated, the dangerous, the murderers, transformed into heroes of democracy, treated marvelously, praised, cheered by crowds at the Mapocho station.’” Later there were accusations about Neruda conspiring against Trotsky in Mexico, there was his poem on Stalingrad, his campaigns for electoral office as a communist party candidate, his time as a senator, his poem against the United Fruit Company in Guatemala, more poems, his support for strikers, his newspaper articles throughout Latin America, his travels to the Soviet Union, his dramatic escape and exile from Chile during anti-communist years, when he could have ended up in a concentration camp for communists, run by the young Pinochet, his friendship with the radical Mexican muralists Rivera and Siqueiros, more poetry, his friendship with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and many other writers, his meetings with Castro and Che Guevara, his frantic travels all over the world – what a life!

Appended to this biography’s end are shocking allegations, made in recent years, that Neruda was murdered by Pinochet’s henchmen, while in the hospital for prostate cancer. He reportedly told his communist driver that he had been injected with poison. A few years ago, with the exhumation of his remains, it became clear that the official cause of death – cancer – was untrue. Whether these allegations of murder are confirmed remains to be seen. But it would not be surprising to learn that Neruda not only lived for his communist beliefs, but died because of them as well.

Dictators Are Lousy Writers

April 10, 2018

Tags: dictators, fascism, communism, genocide

"The Infernal Library"
Daniel Kalder
Henry Holt, 379 pages
$32

Eve Ottenberg
Dictators are lousy writers. Yet many have felt the urge to commit their thoughts, such as they are, to paper and then to compel their captive audience not only to read them, but also to rhapsodize about them. Given the abysmal nature of this genre, one can only conclude that Daniel Kalder – whose book "The Infernal Library, On Dictators, The Books They Wrote and Other Catastrophes of Literacy", required him to slog through thousands of pages of hogwash – has uncommon stamina. How he did it, and wrote so well about it, is something to marvel at. He ploughed through the oeuvre of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Gaddafi, Franco and many others and adroitly summarizes their banal pensées. Having read his book, one feels no need to consult the original sources. Of Mussolini’s "Fascism Its Theory and Philosophy," Kalder writes that it “sounds like the work of a clever autodidact, way out of his depth, drowning in his own pretension.” Of Hitler he remarks, “it seems that Hitler’s ideas were fluctuating, and that as late as 1919 he was interested in pursuing career opportunities other than crazed ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic genocidal tyrant.” The ghastly "Mein Kampf" sold well in Nazi Germany, but could never compare with the market share of another dictator tome: “The billion selling 'Quotations from Chairman Mao' was coming.”

Mao’s bibliography reveals that in addition to theoretical works, the chairman wrote poetry, which Kalder describes as “not as bad as Hitler’s painting, but not as good as Churchill’s.” As dictators who murdered more people than anyone else in the history of civilization, Hitler, Stalin and Mao deserve their own category. But Kalder’s literary focus leads him to lump these mass murdering genocidal tyrants together with garden variety murderous dictators. And so "The Infernal Library" also considers the writings of Zaire’s Mobuto, of Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier, of Uganda’s Idi Amin, and of Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, who “took a break from declaring that he would build socialism while not actually building it,” to issue several tomes on the subject. And then there was Gaddafi’s unforgettable "The Green Book." “The problem is that the book is exceedingly awful,” Kalder writes. “It is not merely boring or banal or repetitive or nonsensical…It is quite simply stupid.” Even by the extremely low standards of dictator literature, "The Green Book" flunks.

There is only one point to quibble with here: Kalder refers to Khrushchev’s “naïve good Lenin/bad Stalin dichotomy.” But the man who dared stand before the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 and denounce Stalin to an audience of true believers, was anything but naïve. He knew the difference between a dictator like Lenin, who had killed people in a revolution and a civil war and a world-class mass murderer like Stalin, who had sabotaged any hope in the revolution with his purges, Terror and gulags and, in "On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences," reportedly deployed that difference to great effect. He found Leninism useful and Stalinism criminal.

Kalder aptly describes Khrushchev as “a jovial fat man of peasant stock,” who, coming to power, “had just spent two decades wading through gore on behalf of a capricious master, who had murdered many of his close colleagues.” But for all his savvy toughness and experience, Khrushchev was maneuvered out of power within a decade of his heart-stopping speech. After this came Brezhnev, who also produced tomes of deadly prose. Somehow Kalder read these too.

Addressing dictatorship itself, Kalder asks, could it happen here? And he answers, yes. “It couldn’t happen here? Why not? It happened there.” He cites the United States’ “long, deep experience with millenarian hopes and apocalyptic terrors that, in mutant form, played an important role in the rise of the twentieth century’s great dictators.” Kalder’s in-depth exposure to dictatorial prose gives him a well-informed appreciation of just how fragile and tenuous our exemption from tyranny really is.

Selected Works

Fiction
This comedy about a twenty-something making his way in the idiot world of climate change denial, satirizes the buffoonery, lies and greed impeding solutions to the problem of global warming
A novel about the struggles of undocumented immigrants in today's United States.
A novel about life in fracking country.
A novel about the human cost of a water crisis in a low-income city.
When two suburban retirees decide to go into the marijuana trade for extra spending money, it doesn't take long for things to go haywire, in this novel which could be called a comic meditation on mental illness.
This fourth and final volume in the series "The Human Struggle," reveals much about the causes of the war off-world, in which angels assist fighters in their battle against humanity's fascist enemies. It also traces the skullduggery of an enemy corporation here on earth, as it maneuvers to speed the planet's demise.
The third in the sci-fi fantasy trilogy, "The Human Struggle," this novel follows the fighters, Detective Orozco, head of the transuniverse orphanage, and Pavel Saltwater, computer genius. Both are heroes from the previous books.
Second in "The Human Struggle" series, this is a sci-fi fantasy about the collapse of an alternate reality and the human effort to avert it.
A sci-fi fantasy about a war of the worlds, and the human struggle to survive it.
A novel about a group of hippies, radicals and political activists in the 1960s and how they changed or did not in the ensuing decades.
This murder story, set in a great but second-rate East Coast city during the 1960s, portrays society from the top to its dregs, people fighting to survive, while struggling against powerful, ambiguous forces, deep within the human soul.
This tale of a teachers' strike pits beleaguered public workers against an ambitious official and the business model of education.
These stories and essays, a number previously published, make for a collection that is various and compelling.
A comic novel in dialogue about a group of daffy suburbanites and how they get tangled up with each other
A comic novel about a group of well-heeled ninnies who band together in a "not in my backyard" effort.
A novel about the human costs of the Iraq war.
A comic novel about a group of bumblers with a get-rich-quick scheme.
A dark drama about murder and betrayal in New York City in the 1950s.
A comic novel about real estate in Manhattan.