Monday, September 30, 2013

Lenin, Zionism, and THE PROMISE (2011)

If there is one figure who I truly hate grappling with as a student of cinema, it's Lenin.  Most Americans  may obviously ask why bother in the first place, but the reason is pretty simple: a great deal of formal academic film theory, especially from the Silent Era, owes a debt to the Russian theorist and film maker Sergei Eisenstein, whose career serves as a barometer of free speech in the early part of Soviet history.  And because one or another iteration of Leninist thinking obviously influenced his writing, it is almost unacceptable to try and grapple with cinema without at least acknowledging the role of Leninism in the ideological heritage of film studies.
Part of my hatred is rooted in the fact that, as an Anarchist and a Syndicalist, there is a long history of in-fighting between Bolshevik Communist and Libertarian Socialist parties.  Noam Chomsky probably best articulates these points in the following video:
Obviously, Leninism was problematic from the outset, at least in Chomsky's view, and the insight is quite correct, as shown by the writings of Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and Voline, Anarchist thinkers who repudiated the Bolshevik regime.
But if we recognize from the outset that practical Leninism is inherently a failure, what benefit does it have?
I would refer back to Slavoj Zizek's anthology REVOLUTION AT THE GATES: ZIZEK ON LENIN: THE 1917 WRITINGS to begin with, particularly the essay REPEATING LENIN, which presents a set of ideological coordinates and the prism through which one should try thinking about an kind of post-Soviet Marxism.  In Zizek's view, any sort of 'neo-Bolshevism' that will stand in stark contrast to neo-Fascism (such as the multi-national Golden Dawn Party, now even opening offices in New York, as of this writing) must begin by taking a cue from the Right and create a militant Religious Left, a sort of 'Major Morality' political action front that will use religion as powerfully as the Jerry Fallwell-types have.  In this regard, Zizek sees Lenin as a Pauline evangelist and his writings as epistles to this Church.  However, make no mistake, this is also not to be seen as the sort of 'Liberation Theology' of Latin America; in that case, the most hardline Marxist and the most hardline Catholic mutually agree that Liberation Theology was a 'Marx-ified' Christianity.  Rather, this is quite the opposite, in that it is 'Christian-izing' Leninism, transposing the ethos and praxis of the Church into the shell of the old concept of a Vanguard Party.
Of course, when Ilyitch has ceased to be that Soviet institution and becomes the evangelist in a wilderness, preaching sanity in an insane world he was born and raised in before renouncing, our own moral judgements about Paul begin to affect our judgements on Lenin.  For example, Paul was from a respected and well-regarded position in society, just as Lenin was the son of a teacher and public intellectual.  Also, in the eyes of many Liberal Christians, Pauline Christianity was a 'right-wing deviation', much in the way Chomsky views Leninism.  For example, the only references to homosexuality that occur in the New Testament are in the Epistles, as with several other much more sexually-focused dogmatic positions in Christianity.  This Liberal Christian attitude towards Paul indeed is the same perspective I intend to take here with Lenin, and it augments the traditional literary history of Lenin's writing in several ways.
First, Lenin ceases to be a rigid doctrinaire lacking humor, but the voice chronicling and leading his Church in the face of heresies.  For our example, we will focus on two pairs of essays, DOES THE JEWISH PROLETARIAT NEED AN “INDEPENDENT POLITICAL PARTY”? (Iskra, No. 34, February 15, 1903) and THE POSITION OF THE BUND IN THE PARTY (Iskra, No. 51, October 22, 1903), both of which dealt with a schism in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party between a sub-group of Russian Jews and the greater Russian socialist movement.  In these essays, Lenin is confronting something he calls outright Zionism, through the educated Reader knows he is doing so in the typical gut-shot fashion he was known for in his biting polemics.  By seeing how Lenin battled, and failed to ultimately overcome, this issue of separatism by an ethnic group, we begin to see some of the underlying concepts that remain at play today in the Israel-Palestine question.  It would be immature and outright absurd to apply a dogmatic attitude to these articles, as seen in many neo-Stalinist parties today, but they serve as insight into a place and time long forgotten.
Second, his ideas about the State, as outlined in STATE AND REVOLUTION, become interesting commentaries and places of critical insight when grappling with various ideas surrounding nationality and identity, the essential themes underlying cinemas from various cultures.  I have found this especially true recently while reviewing the 2011 British miniseries THE PROMISE.
The series is typical of the offerings we get from the UK these days, 'issue dramas' that try to spice up the blood and gore with some topless shots and a few sex scenes between forbidden lovers.  Furthermore, while series is quite good in some areas ideologically, it is based around the tired framing device of a grand daughter who finds an old war diary belonging to the crusty old veteran grandfather she has become estranged from, which was the basic plot line of Ken Loach's 1995 film LAND AND FREEDOM, dealing with the Spanish Civil War rather than Mandatory Palestine.  They even re-stage the same tired romantic squabbles between lovers here as in the Loach film, and it gets quite absurd at some points.
However, as I have mentioned previously, this is really the only Western film made about the Nakba yet, and it is in the language that matters, English, because everyone knows the only real obstruction to the peace process is the American UN Ambassador and the government they represent.
What I am interested in discussing here is how THE PROMISE illustrates concepts in STATE AND REVOLUTION as a text while simultaneously disavowing any perceived alignment to a Marxist-Leninist/Maoist/Trotskyist party because I am fundamentally a film and media scholar, not a revolutionary.  However, it is also fair to note that the utopian dreams of Communism, both the Parliamentarian Marxist and Libertarian Bakuninist, are absolutely safe when confined to celluloid experimentation, and they may ultimately be dreams that teach us a great deal about our modern world of free trade capitalism on a global level.
Furthermore, it is worthwhile to recall the Mandate, with the Balfour Declaration, stemmed from British territorial interests after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, contemporary with the composition of STATE AND REVOLUTION, and that Zionism presented itself as an alternative to Bolshevism that would be able to rally Jews from across the class lines towards the 'redemption' of the land, ethnic cleansing in the name of Anglo-American hegemony akin to the treatment of the Pequot Native Americans.  Indeed, few today properly remember that the major clarion call of Lenin was not the abolition of Capitalism as much as militant anti-racism and gender equality, including some of the earliest pro-LGBTQQ and abortion provision legislation of the era.  Lenin and Trotsky presented themselves as those who would radically defend, in ways that had never been seen, the rights and livelihoods of the oppressed Jews of the Russian Empire.  Lenin's clashes with the Bund were symptomatic of how Zionism presented itself as a pro-capitalist alternative, and indeed it adapted many norms of Social Democracy, a topic Lenin has much to comment on in this pamphlet.  As such, think of this particular pamphlet as a relevant commentary on how the socio-economic realities of the Mandate were actualized by the British, written by someone who would ultimately fail in his own effort to answer the so-called 'Jewish Question'.
The members of the Bund who broke with Lenin and the Communist movement later were able to adapt aspects of both Revolutionary Bolshevism and Reformist Social Democracy, and the specific invocation of the word 'State', as opposed to 'Republic' or 'Nation', stemming from both the British Balfour Declaration and the American Biltmore Program, exposes the very concept to Leninist insights.  The obvious moments in the series that correspond with these lines are striking.  In the view of Ilyitch, Marx and Engels make clear
The State is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The State arises where, when, and insofar as Class Antagonism objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the State proves that the Class Antagonisms are irreconcilable...Engels elucidates the concept of the “Power” which is called the State, a Power which arose from society but places itself above it and alienates itself more and more from it. What does this Power mainly consist of? It consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons, et cetera, at their command...
The first briefing at Stella Maris of the soldiers by British Command on how they will be the "meat in the sandwich" illustrates two major points mentioned in the passage above.  First, the obvious case of Arab-Jewish antagonism in the Mandate is the clear praxis of exploitation by the British and Americans at this point in history of the native population so to ensure hegemony in the region.  The Zionist movement, while certainly multi-national, was able to create a mutually-beneficial relationship with the most powerful of the post-Great War Empires, and this was reflected in how the Balfour Declaration would underlie a great deal of post-Mandatory trade, along with the Suez Crisis.  And second, to enforce this and actualize the flow of capital is a literal militia, the British soldiers whose story is the theme of the film.
A State arises, a special Power is created, special bodies of armed men, and every revolution, by destroying the State Apparatus, shows us the naked class struggle, clearly shows us how the ruling class strives to restore the special bodies of armed men which serve it...
The attacks by the various Zionist groups, such as the bombing of the King David Hotel and the kidnapping/execution of British soldiers, represents one Empire being violently relieved of their mandate over the land by an equally suppressive neo-colonialist enterprise hinged on an ethnic cleansing, rather than a Leninist purge, but can the motivations be psychologically similar, especially in the eyes of the ethnic cleanser?  For the devout Zionist, the Deir Yasin Massacre, portrayed in the film, was known as 'land liberation', that Zionist Labor would 'purify' it so to become part of Eretz Yisrael.  However, this is the same sort of Philistine talk Lenin mentions in referring to the Second International and the pro-war Revisionists.  The brutal and naked grab for the land, the Nakba, is not an instance of Middle Eastern Orientalism; it remains an example of that 'naked class struggle', divided along ethnic heritage lines but still focused around the trade and strategic benefits of a military partner like Israel.
The omnipotence of “wealth” is more certain in a Democratic Republic…A Democratic Republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell…it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the Bourgeois Democratic Republic can shake it. 
This statement underlies the final point the film, the paralyzed tear from the aged Len.  Throughout the film, the viewer is exposed to the essential issues underlying the Conflict in a fashion that makes clear the hinge of any sort of just and mutually-beneficial resolution is not about religion or culture as much as material and sociological respect for concepts of property and home.  The Palestine/Israel Conflict has always been an issue of colonization and land-grab with gratuitous exploitation of the native population in the name of capitalist expansion.  As a result, it is clear, at least for these Anglo television producers, that the challenge is akin to the de-colonization Britain faced after World War II.  However, because the viewer already knows how traumatic de-colonization can be, especially any British viewer should recognize these ethos as absurd; divestment was a bloody and needlessly violent affair, most obviously in the case of the India/Pakistan Partition, a population resettlement policy quite akin to the Levant.
In these regards, the miniseries is quite illustrative of the dynamics of the State and how the military underlines the maintenance of hegemony.  The transfer of power portrayed in the film, from the British to the newly-founded State of Israel, is a violent affair, most exemplified in Deir Yasin.  The death of the young boy in Len's arms is an obvious representation of this, that all 'statism' is inherently deadly.  And the modern-day experience of Len's grand daughter makes the clear connection that what is going on in Gaza and the West Bank is purely a continuation of the British experience, eliminating the idea that this is a wholly Jewish issue of national security in opposition to the anti-Semitic Arabs.  This deflation of anti-Semitic motivation is certainly problematic to the Hawks of the Knesset, whose English-language branches decried the series as Jew hatred.  However, any mature viewer can truly understand this is not so much pogrom incitement as Ian Fleming's vision of the Nakba.
However, it is this point, the immaturity and obvious lack of solemnity, that I think is worth contemplating much more.  Most will agree that the Western mythology around the Nakba is basically akin to the plot line of the Leon Uris novel EXODUS and the film adaptation starring the dashing Paul Newman as Ari Ben-Canaan.  In this regard, is it tenable to see THE PROMISE as perhaps a revisionist remake of the earlier film?  If we see the series in this light, the unbearably predictable love stories, the plodding archetypes, and the script you could write in your sleep become not just subversive but wholly new in their intent.  The series ceases to be crass and enters the realm of true maturity because it challenges the viewers on pre-existing notions of racial hatred and discrimination.

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