Saturday, May 29, 2010

A case of political hypocrisy: the WSWS's 'defense' of jailed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi

by Frank Brenner
May 29, 2010

The surrealist poet and revolutionary Andre Breton once declared with obvious exasperation that “the intellectual trade is plied with such impunity.” What he meant is that intellectuals often get away with flagrant contradictions and inconsistencies in their positions, which they never bother to account for. Alas, the same could also be said for many supposed Marxists. A case in point is a recent statement by the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) in defense of jailed Iranian film director Jafar Panahi.

Panahi is a world-famous director, whose films include “The White Balloon” and “Offside”, which won the Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear award. He was arrested at his home along with family members and friends, and while the others were quickly released, the director has been held now for two months in the notorious Evin prison in Teheran. He was jailed for his support for the opposition protest movement against the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad last year. Panahi has recently begun a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment. [1]

(In the latest update on this story, Panahi was released from jail on bail on May 25, clearly as a response to the international outcry over his arrest. However, the unspecified charges against him have not been withdrawn and will be referred to an Islamic revolutionary court for trial.)
Jafar Panahi at his home shortly after his release from prison.
As anyone familiar with our website knows, we have for years provided a detailed analysis of the evolution of the ICFI away from Marxism and towards an increasingly hardened sectarianism. We have long since given up charting every example of this degeneration, though it would be possible to cite articles from the WSWS on a weekly and at times even daily basis that could confirm our analysis. But the article on Panahi is such an egregious case of the kind of intellectual dishonesty Breton was talking about that it deserves a brief comment.

It should go without saying that Marxists defend Panahi and demand his immediate and unconditional release. This the WSWS article does, but it ends with “a word of caution”, stating that “while Panahi and many other artists and intellectuals are sincere in their opposition to the Islamic regime, the Green Movement offers no way forward for the working class and is deeply antagonistic to its social interests. Headed by Mir Hossein Mousavi, a big business politician, this movement represents a section of the Iranian bourgeoisie who are hostile to genuine democratic rights and are seeking a new deal with the US and other imperialist powers.”

This greatly understates the vehemence with which the WSWS denounced last year's mass demonstrations, which posed the most serious challenge ever to the Islamic regime. As we explained elsewhere, [2] while it was necessary for Marxists to expose the bourgeois leadership of Mousavi, it was equally essential to solidarize ourselves with the democratic aspirations of the millions of demonstrators who were risking life and liberty to oppose the hated regime of the mullahs.

But the WSWS coverage of these events was, as we pointed out, “noteworthy precisely for its antipathy to the masses.” The WSWS made no distinction between the leadership and the demonstrators even though there was lots of evidence “even before the election that many of those who backed Mousavi were only doing so because they felt there was no other viable choice and that their opposition to the Islamic Republic went far beyond what their candidate stood for. Those contradictions came out in the demonstrations themselves, which were often organized to a large extent outside the official control of Mousavi’s Green movement and increasingly replaced the approved slogans of reform with the revolutionary challenge of 'Death to the Dictator.'”

The WSWS also insisted on portraying the demonstrations as a purely middle class movement, ignoring reports that sections of the working class were joining the protests. There was also the clear implication that the protest movement was being manipulated, if not directly hatched, by US imperialism.

The WSWS line on the Iranian events was epitomized by the following statement: “To the extent that students, young people and any workers opposed to the regime have been swept up in the opposition movement, they are being exploited as pawns in what can only be described as an attempted palace coup.” [3]

We pointed out that as a consequence of this vilification of the demonstrators as “pawns in an attempted palace coup”, the WSWS “said nothing for months about the brutal repression meted out to the protestors by Ahmadinejad’s thugs, including mass arrests, beatings, murders while in custody and judicial frame-ups.”

Now, in the high-profile case of Jafar Panahi, the WSWS has chosen to end this shameful silence. What accounts for this? There's no indication of any rethinking of the WSWS political line: that's evident not only from the “note of caution” at the end of the Panahi statement but most tellingly from the links to the recommended articles appended to the statement, which includes the same article I just cited, the one that characterizes the demonstrators as “pawns in an attempted palace coup.”

One has a right to ask: if this characterization is still valid, then on what grounds is the WSWS defending Panahi? After all, if Panahi is just another of the “pawns in an attempted palace coup,” isn't there some legitimacy to the Ahmadenijad regime's jailing of these “pawns”?

But listen to Panahi, in a message he sent from prison, thanking those who were working for his release: “Your voices are joined with those of my wife, my children, and those of all of my compatriots working for my freedom, that reach me from beyond these prison walls. But let us not forget the thousands of defenseless prisoners here, who have no one to pass on the message of their distress. Like me, they have committed no crime. And my blood is no more important than theirs.”

But the WSWS has indeed forgotten these “thousands of defenseless prisoners.” Panahi is right – “my blood is no more important than theirs” – which means that anyone who fails to defend them isn't really defending Panahi. But that is exactly the sort of 'defense' of Panahi the WSWS is putting forward.

Defending these prisoners doesn't mean endorsing Mousavi and the bourgeois leadership of the Green movement. To anyone not blinded by sectarianism, it should be evident that Marxist politics has to work on two fronts – solidarizing ourselves with the democratic aspirations of the demonstrators while doing everything we can to show them that those aspirations will only be met through a politically independent movement of the working class for a socialist Iran. The WSWS is happy to issue calls for socialism in Iran but it completely isolates those calls from the living struggles of the masses, which means that its calls are nothing more than empty rhetoric.

To go back to the question of why the WSWS chose to issue a statement defending Panahi, it is clear that factors other than political principle were involved. One doesn't need to be a Sherlock Holmes to figure out what is going on here.

Panahi's case had become a cause celebre within the film community. Many prominent filmmakers, actors and intellectuals had come out with statements demanding Panahi's release. At the Cannes film festival earlier this month, his case was raised time and again: renowned Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami praised Panahi at a news conference, actress Juliette Binoche told the audience at the closing night ceremony that Panahi's so-called crime was “to be an artist, to be independent,” and since Panahi's jailing prevented him from participating as a judge for the prestigious Palme d'Or, the other judges left one chair empty during their deliberations as a sign of protest.

The WSWS has worked for many years now to develop ties in the film community, especially through regular attendance at various film festivals. Arts editor David Walsh covers film festivals in North America, Richard Phillips (who wrote the Panahi statement) does the same in Australia, Stefan Steinberg has the German beat.

(For a tiny movement this is an extraordinary investment of resources, to what end it's hard to say. How endless reams of film reviews are supposed to raise the cultural consciousness of the working class – or contribute to a Marxist theory of art – is very much a mystery. Nor has this work produced anything noticeable in the way of recruitment among filmmakers or actors. What it has done is given the WSWS a superficial credibility as a commentator on cultural issues. And that matters in a movement that has little contact with workers and exists almost solely as a website.)

In any case, if you spend a lot of time at film festivals, you can't avoid responding to the pressures emanating from these circles. The Panahi case was a big deal in those circles, and for a supposedly revolutionary socialist website to say nothing on this matter would have raised a lot of eyebrows. In other words, the decision to make a statement on Panahi had less to do with defending the democratic rights of a jailed filmmaker and more to do with 'practical', i.e. cynical, considerations. The statement amounts to a fig leaf to hide the unpleasant truth about the WSWS's reactionary vilification of the Iranian masses.

Even at that, the WSWS waited an unconscionably long time – two months – to make its statement, though WSWS film reviewers like Walsh and Phillips undoubtedly heard about Panahi's arrest soon after it happened. In other words, grudgingly and only in the case of someone too famous to ignore, would the WSWS come out in defense of one of the “pawns in an attempted palace coup.”

(The contrast between this slow-motion reaction on the Panahi case and the rapid response of the WSWS in defending famed film director Roman Polanski – who is facing extradition to and imprisonment in the US – is striking. To be sure, the defense of Polanski is justified, but there is nothing overtly political about the charges he is facing, though of course there are many political implications to his case. With Panahi, however, the politics are front and center – and that's precisely why the WSWS waited so long before commenting.)

Sectarians have often been known to combine ultra-left rhetoric and reactionary politics. Underlying this apparent contradiction is the sectarian's distrust of, and even hostility towards, the living struggles of the masses. That is really what is behind the WSWS stance on Iran. While wanting to be on record as defending Panahi, the WSWS has actually served as a de facto apologist for the regime that put him in jail. To call this hypocrisy is an understatement.

[1] “Jailed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi on hunger strike,” WSWS, May 24, 2010:

[2] The Downward Spiral of the International Committe,Conclusion:, p. 210, n. 11

[3] “For workers' power and a socialist Iran,” WSWS, June 17, 2009:

Saturday, May 1, 2010

May Day and the International

THE CHARACTER of the entire workers’ movement during the era of the Second International is reflected in the history and the fate of the May Day holiday.

May 1 was established as a holiday by the Paris International Socialist Congress in 1889.

The purpose of designating it thus was, by means of a simultaneous demonstration by workers of all countries on that day, to prepare the ground for drawing them together into a single international proletarian organization of revolutionary action having one world centre and one world political orientation.

The Paris Congress, which had taken the above decision, was treading the path of the International Communist League and of the First International. For the Second International to adopt the pattern of these two organizations was impossible from the start. In the course of the 14 years which had passed since the days of the First International class organizations of the proletariat had grown up in every country which carried out their activity quite independently within their territory and were not adapted to international unification on the principles of democratic centralism.

The celebration of May Day should have prepared them for such a unification and therefore the demand for the eight-hour working day was introduced as its slogan, which was conditioned by the development of the productive forces and was popular among the broad working masses of all countries.

The effective task which was assigned to the May Day holiday consisted of facilitating the process of transforming the working class as an economic category into the working class in the sociological sense of the word, into a class, conscious of its interests in their totality, and striving to establish their dictatorship and the socialist revolution.

From this point of view demonstrations in support of the socialist revolution were most appropriate to May Day. And the revolutionary elements at the congress achieved this. But at the stage of development through which the working class was then passing the majority found that the demand for the eight-hour working day provided a better answer for carrying out the task in front of them. In any case this was a slogan capable of uniting workers of all countries.

Just such a role was also played by the slogan of universal peace which was subsequently put forward.

But the congress proposed and the objective conditions of the development of the workers’ movement disposed.

The May holiday gradually turned from the means of struggle of the world proletariat into a means of struggle of the workers of each separate country for their local interests. And this was made more possible by putting forward the third slogan—universal suffrage.

In the majority of states May Day was celebrated either just in the evening after work was finished or else on the following Sunday. In those places where the workers celebrated it by a stoppage of work as in Belgium and Austria it served the cause of realizing local tasks but not the cause of closing the ranks of workers of all countries into one world working class. Side by side with progressive consequences (as a result of bringing together the workers of a particular country) it had therefore a negative conservative side—it linked the workers too tightly with the fate of a particular state and in this way prepared the ground for the development of social-patriotism.

The task which had been placed on the order of the day by the Paris Congress has not been realized. The formation of an International as the organization of international revolutionary proletarian action, with one centre and with one international political orientation, had not been achieved. The Second International was merely a weak union of workers’ parties which were independent of each other in their activity.

May Day turned into its opposite and with the war its existence came to an end.

Such were the consequences of the inexorable logic of the dialectical process of development of the workers’ movement.

Wherein lies the cause of this phenomenon? What guarantee is there against its repetition? What is the lesson for the future from this? Of course the basic cause of the failure of the May Day holiday lay in the character of the given period of capitalist development, in the process of its deepening in each separate country and the struggle conditioned by this process for the democratization of the state system and for the adaptation of the latter to the needs of capitalist development. But even in the development of a capitalist or of any other type of system there exist tendencies of two sorts— the conservative and the revolutionary.

With the working class, which is the active participant in the historical process, its vanguard, the socialist parties, is destined to go ahead of this process and counterpose its revolutionary tendency to the conservative trend at every stage of the workers’ movement and to put forward and defend the overall interests of the whole proletariat in its totality independent of nationality. This is the very task which the socialist parties during the period of the Second International did not fulfil and this had a direct influence on the fate of the May Day holiday.

Under the influence of the party bosses made up of intellectuals and the labour bureaucracy, the socialist parties in the period described concentrated their attention on very useful parliamentary activity which was in its essence national and not international or of a class character. The organizations of workers looked on their activity not as a means of class struggle but as an end in itself. It is sufficient to recall how the leaders of German Social-Democracy argued for transferring May Day to the following Sunday. They said that one could not expose an exemplary party organization, parliamentary activity and numerous rich trade unions to danger merely for the sake of a demonstration.

The present epoch is directly contrary in character to the past epoch. Opened by the war, and in particular by the Russian October Revolution, it reveals itself as the epoch of the direct struggle of the proletariat for power on a world scale.

Its character is favourable to May Day fulfilling that role to which the revolutionary elements at the Paris Congress of 1889 attempted to assign it. It is presented with the task of facilitating the formation of a Third Revolutionary International and of serving the cause of the mobilization of proletarian forces for the world socialist revolution.

But to assist in the carrying out of this great role the lessons of the past and the demands of the present epoch powerfully dictate to socialists from all countries:
  1. a radical change in their policy,  
  2. putting forward appropriate slogans for May Day.

In the first instance the following steps are necessary:

  1. concentrate efforts on the formation of the Third Revolutionary International;  
  2. subordinate the interests of each country to the general interests of the international proletarian movement and subordinate parliamentary activity to the interests of the struggle of the proletarian masses.
The main slogans of May Day in the present epoch should be:
  1. The Third International.  
  2. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat.  
  3. The World Soviet Republic.  
  4. The Socialist Revolution.

Izvestia VTsIK, No.87 (351), May 1, 1918