Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Quest for Evolutionary Socialism. Eduard Bernstein and Social Democracy. By Manfred B. Steger

Eduard Bernstein was a friend and protégé of both Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, who came to oppose orthodox communism. Bernstein saw that the predictions of his close friends (that capitalism would crumble by virtue of inherent economic tendencies and that workers would flock to communism) had not come to pass. Quite to the contrary, capitalism in the 1890s First World was healthier than ever, and both European and US workers were more interested in obtaining their piece of the capitalist pie than in risking their lives during a violent overthrow of the system. Because of this evidence, Bernstein concluded that a gradual approach to social change through participation in democratic systems would be more effective than revolution. As such, he became one of the revisionists of Democratic Socialism. However one may feel about socialism, communism or capitalism, one can admire Bernstein’s ability to change his mind based on empirical evidence, rather than remaining committed to a disproven orthodoxy. That change created a great deal of discomfort for Bernstein. Internally, he had to deal with the dislocation anyone who challenges their own long-held beliefs must face. Externally, his apostasy turned some friends into enemies and alienated him from his political cadre.

The book is arranged chronologically regarding the elements of both biography and developments in political theory during Bernstein’s life. It is composed of three parts. Part One: “Preparation,” takes us through the subject’s early life, focusing mainly upon the period of his political awakening, and extending to the time of his questioning of Marxist theory. Part Two: “Vision,” is necessarily the most theoretical of the sections as we pause to consider the political landscape and meaning of socialism in fin de siècle Europe, along with Bernstein’s defection and the alternatives he proposes. Part Three: “Disappointment,” removes the reader from her holding pattern in theoretical purgatory and drops her back into the whirling political fray of 1890s Germany. There, Bernstein is elected to Parliament and must battle both the orthodox Marxists and the opportunistic, instrumentalist politicians of his own party, the Marxist-Socialist SPD.

Manfred Steger is well-suited to the challenge of presenting both the biographical and theoretical components of his project. He brings-out the areas of conflict; those within the socialist movement and between the socialists and the autocratic Prussian Emperor, whose executive branch truly controls the political process. If parliamentary process, political maneuvering, wars of words and dissent, are exciting to the reader, she will not be disappointed. At the same time, the nuances of socialist theory are fully, (sometimes painfully), elucidated in an organized manner which even uninitiated non-fiction readers can follow. A brief epilogue permits Steger to flex his own ample theoretical muscles, as he addresses the role that Evolutionary Socialism can still play in a post-Soviet, information age of global economic challenges.

By the end, a reader will have attained three objectives:  First, a clear portrait of a remarkable, intellectually flexible, evidence-based figure. Second, an understanding of the political environment in fin de siècle Germany and its relation to socialism. Third, a grasp of the prevailing currents that existed among European socialists of the late 19th and early 20th Century. All told, the attainment of these objectives is no mean accomplishment.

Steger, Manfred B. The Quest for Evolutionary Socialism. Eduard Bernstein and Social Democracy. Cambridge: The University Press, 1997.

Friday, August 12, 2016

By The Books. A Bi-Partisan Chronology Rejecting Trump’s Claim That Obama Founded ISIS.

In the media, Donald Trump has consistently referred to President Barack Obama as “the founder of ISIS.”** It is just another in a long line of false claims that does not square with recorded history; but serves to inflame his supporters. There are numerous, reputable books and periodicals on the subject that present a clear-eyed view on which US president is responsible for the rise of ISIS, employing chronological evidence, rather than demagogic self-serving motives.

Richard Engel, author of And Then All Hell Broke Loose and Chief Foreign Correspondent for NBC News, wrote that “President Bush had been aggressive and reckless in the Middle East, attacking Iraq for no reason and then claiming to be fighting terrorism while actually creating more terrorists.” (Engel, p. 156). These terrorists became ISIS. But I expect Richard Engel to hold liberal views denigrating the Bush White House. Engel lived in the Middle East prior to becoming a reporter. He has a strong affinity for the people and empathy for their suffering. What I did not expect was to hear Richard Engel’s arguments coming from Doug Bandow.

Doug Bandow is a former special assistant to Ronald Reagan. His writings include Beyond Good Intentions. A Biblical View of Politics. In spite of his conservative credentials, Bandow writes in terms that strongly condemn the son of Ronald Reagan’s Vice President. He does so in The National Interest, a bi-monthly publication of the Center for the National Interest created by Richard Nixon. In his article “The Collapse of Iraq and the Rise of ISIS: Made in America?” Bandow lays out his case:

“First, President Bush used a terrorist attack conducted by Saudi citizens trained in Afghanistan as an excuse to invade Iraq…Second, after ousting the Sunni dictator whose authoritarian rule held the nation together, the administration…disbanded the military, creating a large pool of angry and unemployed young men…[and Third] continued to support the Maliki government even as it ruthlessly targeted Sunnis.” (Bandow, p. 1).

The pool of angry, unemployed men became the soldiers of Al-Quaeda in Iraq (which did not exist before the Bush invasion). The unemployed Ba’athist generals of Saddam Hussein became their generals. The Sunni community, under attack by the Shiite Maliki government, looked to Al-Quaeda to save them. “Al-Quaeda in Iraq survived, mutating into the Islamic State.” (Bandow, p. 1). Bandow closes his article with “Although President Barack Obama shares the blame, George W. Bush made the most important decisions leading to the destruction of Iraq and rise of ISIL. No candidate unable or unwilling to learn from their disastrous mistakes is qualified to sit in the Oval Office.” (Bandow, p. 3). See the link below for the full article.##

Both Engel and Bandow lay the fault for the destruction of Iraq and the rise of ISIS directly at the feet of George W. Bush. They also agree that Obama shares the blame, but that his role was secondary. When individuals from opposite ends of the political spectrum agree on an interpretation, it has a greater likelihood of being true.

The media today, which includes our worldwide internet, has the capability of sharing vast quantities of information for the benefit of humankind. It is one of the instruments that can supply us with hope against the socio-political challenges we face. Unfortunately, those same media tools also have the capability of transmitting falsehood around the globe. When opportunists like Trump lie about history and current events to serve their own quests for power, it is up to world citizens to employ their incisive and reflective abilities. We must sift through that vast quantity of information and come to responsible conclusions which set the record straight.


Engel, Richard. And Then All Hell Broke Loose. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Village. By John Strausbaugh.

John Strausbaugh’s portrait of Greenwich Village is sometimes romantic, often squalid, and most frequently magnetic in its ability to sustain a reader’s attention. It is a story told by a writer who has a deep bag of tricks to dazzle his audience, and who transparently employs them all in the service of creating a popular history. In the process, he advances the thesis that the Village was a “culture engine—a zone that attracts and nurtures creative people…creating work and developing ideas that change the culture of the world…Classical Athens was a culture engine, and Elizabethan London, and Paris and Berlin in the 1920s.” (Strausbaugh, p. ix).

But Strausbaugh will wander distantly from that point, presenting short biographies of colorful, forgotten eccentrics (like the emotionally disturbed poet Else Plotz or the poet/barfly/alcoholic Maxwell Bodenheim). Even exciting, unconnected events (like John Stanley Wojtowicz’s robbery of a downtown bank; subject of the film “Dog Day Afternoon”), pop-up. If it allows him to mesmerize his readers further, he’ll try it. To be fair, unsuccessful poets and mentally ill people are always part of a creative scene. They are attracted by the cheap living arrangements and expressive freedoms that also draw innovative artists or thinkers. Sometimes the only difference between the two is luck or critical recognition. Both groups are part of an unconventional landscape and presenting that scene fully can be defended, even if it leads to writing excesses and complete non-sequiturs. Sometimes the lost and mentally ill faction whom Strausbaugh exposes can inspire their more successful counterparts with expressions of individuality or abandon. Creativity can be overlooked by conventional society if one is not an effective self-promoter. While this is so, Strausbaugh will occasionally go beyond the bounds of what is suitable or relevant. His choice to begin the chapter “Off-Off-Broadway” with the graphic suicide of a little-known dancer is a questionable. Though he does make one pay attention.

The arrangement of The Village follows a traditional chronology. Beginning with the Dutch settlement of Manhattan, it moves quickly to the first Bohemians of the 19th Century. This is where the book begins to flourish. Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman make early appearances as Village residents. The first LGBT and freed African American communities are established. Political radicals like Emma Goldman, John Reed and Max Eastman begin populating its streets. Artists find their studios in former industrial buildings. Now famous dives, as well as more organized salons like those of Mabel Dodge Luhan and Marie Jenny Howe, allow creative cross-pollination. Institutions like the New School are devised by educators dissatisfied with stultifying orthodox ways of learning. At this point, the number of artists and innovators begins to astound. One Village acting class of then unknowns includes Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Walter Matthau, Elaine Stritch, Wally Cox, Bea Arthur and Tony Curtis. (Strausbaugh, p. 279). The late 1940s – early 1950s music scene includes innumerable Jazz and Folk figures who collaborate with Post-Modern Dancers and Beat poets. The Village’s creativity explodes into the Sixties as the careers of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendricks, Andy Warhol and a hoard too vast to recount here, share their inventiveness. Then Stonewall happens, and the LGBT movement changes the culture in ways that continue to reverberate fifty years later. The seemingly perpetual culture engine continues to generate talent and ideas even through the recession of the 1970s, when abandoned buildings allowed Off-Off Broadway plays to triple in number. It only begins to run down into the 1980s as rents become more and more untenable.

The Village ends by describing the current, vapid, yuppie shadow of what it once was. But Strasbaugh has some of his protagonists make the point that, while the zeitgeist may be over in the Village, it exists elsewhere. Rock photographer, Bob Gruen, states “Who cares…if people are not making art in downtown Manhattan anymore…the Village isn’t what it used to be…Nothing will ever be the way it used to be. Things always change… [innovation] didn’t disappear. There are still young people and young bands.” (Strausbaugh, p. 549). This is the positive note on which the story ends: There will always be culture engines in the world. Unknown artists and intellectuals will find other refuges of low rents and open permissive attitudes that are invisible to the conventional aspects of a civilization. There, they will create, innovate and change the culture without most people noticing where that transformation is happening.

Strausbaugh, John. The Village. 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The German Genius. By Peter Watson.

Peter Watson’s The German Genius is a comprehensive study of German intellectual history. The author does a superb job of marshalling secondary historical resources to present an informative chronology. However, a reader is required to overcome some retrograde editorializing by the author.

The first area of difficulty appears in his introduction. Watson states “Hitler and the Holocaust are preoccupying the world to such an extent, I suggest, that we are denying ourselves important aspects elsewhere in German history. We must not forget the Holocaust…but at the same time we must learn to look past it.” (Watson, p. 28). To explore German history beyond the period of 1933 to 1945 is a perfectly reasonable suggestion. If one is to understand a culture, focusing only upon the period of its greatest atrocities does not offer a complete picture. If Watson had stopped there, few would have opposed his plea for balance. Unfortunately, he begins to employ a not so subtle technique used by conservative US political organizations. Often, when conservatives wish to argue against voting laws that benefit minorities, they use a minority spokesperson; when they wish to oppose abortion legislation, they use a female spokesperson. Similarly, Watson employs Jews where he wishes to make some  of his more unjust points: When he wants to say that he wishes the  Holocaust would just go away, he uses Charles Maier saying “[keeping the Holocaust alive] has disadvantages” (Watson’s brackets) and “It is possible to make a fetish of Auschwitz.” (Watson, p. 28). When he wishes to smear Holocaust victims to reduce sympathy and interest, he uses Peter Novick saying “those who have survived are not the  fittest…but are largely the lowest Jewish elements, who by cunning and animal instincts have been able to escape the terrible fate of the more refined and better elements who succumbed.” (Watson, p. 8).  Watson does not recognize that Germany and the rest of the world have chosen to carefully examine the Holocaust because there is value in that study; value that is specifically related to an important concept that runs throughout his book: “bildung.” Bildung “refers to the inner development of the individual, a process of fulfillment through education and knowledge, in effect a secular search for perfection, representing progress and refinement both in knowledge and in moral terms, an amalgam of wisdom and self-realization.” (Watson, pp. 53-4). Examination of the Holocaust has greatly contributed to international and German bildung. Internationally, knowledge of this period has expanded Holocaust studies into genocide studies and contributed to efforts to prevent genocides. In Germany, required study of the Holocaust in the schools has given that nation one of the most humane outlooks in the world. Compare Austria, who killed Jews but did not take responsibility through education, with Germany, who did, and one sees a tremendous difference: When Austria elected ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim as its leader; Germany elected Nobel laureate Willy Brandt. Austria’s minority party is the racist “Freedom Party;” Germany’s is the “Green Party.” Perhaps it is more useful and healthy for the world to have Holocaust education than to have knowledge of the great German poets and composers. But there is no reason why we cannot have both. Who among us couldn’t benefit from learning a little more? In Watson’s defense, he does spend more than 100 pages upon the Nazi period and its destruction of German intellectual life. In addition, he includes numerous Jews in his tome, representing them, as they would have wished, as German citizens.

Another area of difficulty is misleading chauvinism. Among the more easily debunked claims of Watson’s are: 1) “The Italian Renaissance was a German idea.” (Watson, p. 91). Jules Michelet would disagree as he is the individual who coined the term. 2) “Only in 1885 did Karl Benz, in Mannheim, construct a machine that would lead to the automobile age.” (Watson, p. 375). This statement ignores the 25 years of automobile construction prior to Benz. 3) Germany created “the first coherent school of sociology.” (Watson, p. 441). One would have to overlook August Comte, who is widely regarded as the founder of this field. These are just a few examples of chauvinism. A writer’s identification with his subject is one thing; but exaggeration to the point where history is misrepresented is quite another.

Practically every culture has had a period of cultural and educational efflorescence; of genius. Italy’s 200-year Renaissance, France’s 75-year Enlightenment, Greece’s 200-year Golden Age, India’s 300-year sultanate, China’s 300-year Tang dynasty, these are just a few of the notable long-term periods of cultural contribution to the world by  a people at their best. During each of those ages, a short-sighted chronicler could have made an argument for that culture’s superiority; and many did. Germany’s chief period of cultural achievement, as elucidated by Watson, was a 185-year stretch from about 1750 to 1935. He does make a markedly weaker argument that this period continued after Hitler’s demise. Nonetheless, this is a tiny period of time in human history. Additionally, it is a mistake to pronounce a definitive value judgment on Germany, or any culture, based upon either a golden age or upon a period of atrocities. Peter Watson’s attempt to define German culture by the book’s time frame is flawed to its core exactly because of this myopia. This period, even if one were to include the post-war era, is a bubble on an ocean-long continuum.

So what can one say for Peter Watson after describing him as a short-sighted chauvinist who wants to avoid the nasty bits of history so that he can gush about Schiller? In spite of his failed perspective, his book is still worth reading. Watson will introduce one to a glittering time of brilliant minds from Herder to Nietzsche; of brilliant composers from Bach to Schubert; of brilliant scientists from Humboldt to Einstein. The contributions are magnificent and the story of this period is uplifting. Golden ages give us hope for the future of humanity and show us what a culture can accomplish with enough persistence. Watson does a thorough job of researching and elaborating this history. There is a great deal to learn and avenues for further exploration.

Watson, Peter.  The German Genius. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.