The Zhivago affair, literature and propaganda

Literature is certainly a separate and distinct field from politics. Political power should never be used to pressure writers into towing a party line. But literature can never be indifferent to, or isolated from, the political climate.

Literature, in this case Doctor Zhivago, was turned into an instrument of Cold War propaganda – by the United States. Despite strenuous denials from Washington, the promotion of the novel by Boris Pasternak, and the latter’s award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was part of a concerted ‘soft power’ campaign to promote literature as a political weapon. This effort was orchestrated at the highest levels of the US government, and involved the CIA and British intelligence.

Let’s unpack this issue, and explore what it means for us today.

The Zhivago novel, and the cultural and political firestorm surrounding its publication, is the subject of The Zhivago Affair: the Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, published in 2014. The authors describe how the US ruling institutions recognised the political value of secretly publishing novels the Soviet government had banned.

Pasternak’s novel, published in 1957, gained an international audience, and earned its author a Nobel prize, due to its promotion by powerful forces in the capitalist West. In fact, it is no exaggeration to state that Pasternak’s pathway to the Nobel prize was paved for him by the CIA.

The novel itself, partly autobiographical and part historical drama, revolves around the life of Dr Yuri Zhivago in the wake of the 1917 Russian revolution and subsequent developments. The author, Boris Pasternak, while not anti-Soviet, basically remained indifferent to the socialist revolution. Pasternak achieved great fame as a novelist in the Soviet Union, gaining prestige as a national treasure. Previously honoured as a great writer, the Kremlin decided to ban his novel as a work contrary to the ideals and goals of the Soviet government.

The CIA and British intelligence sensed an opportunity. Secret copies of the book were smuggled out of the USSR, to be published and circulated in the capitalist nations. The book was illegally circulated through underground channels inside the Eastern bloc, with the express goal of exerting ideological pressure and encouraging Soviet citizens to question their state.

Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, though he was forced to reject it by the Soviet authorities. Made into a movie in the early 1960s, Pasternak became a symbol of artistic and literacy defiance in the face of authoritarianism. It is interesting to note that the US and British governments, while claiming to defend artists and writers from political persecution, used novels and literature as political weapons in their efforts to combat socialist culture and ideas.

For decades, the role of the US and Britain, and its covert political motivations, remained hidden behind a mask of promoting artistic and literary freedom. Writers and artists, we were told during the Cold War, should be free from politics and government interference. The Soviet premier at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, admitted in his memoirs, written years after the Zhivago affair, that he had been wrong in banning the novel.

The Nobel committee, in mending fences with the Soviet authorities, awarded the literature prize in 1965 to prominent Soviet novelist Mikhail Sholokhov, in particular for his epic, historical four-volume novel, And Quiet Flows the Don, which examines the Soviet government’s sweeping economic and cultural changes in the with the revolution, civil war and collectivisation on the Don Cossacks.

The book itself, average in tone and unremarkable, was promoted for its propagandistic value. This may seem a strange concept to grasp – surely the capitalist West does not engage in vulgar propaganda? Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, the authors of the book mentioned above who have examined the Zhivago affair, wrote that:

During the Cold War, the CIA loved literature – novels, short stories, poems. Joyce, Hemingway, Eliot. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov. Books were weapons, and if a work of literature was unavailable or banned in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, it could be used as propaganda to challenge the Soviet version of reality.

Literature is not only a reflection of a given society, it can also influence the outlook of its readers, and become a potent force for shaping that society. The political ramifications of historical novels is something that cannot be handled by censorship, that is for sure. However, we would be deluding ourselves if we did not recognise the galvanising impact that a novel can have on political vision. This is not merely an academic question, but has real-world contemporary relevance.

Consider the case of The Turner Diaries.

Published in 1978 by American white supremacist and neo-Nazi William Luther Pierce, the Turner Diaries has achieved a kind of Bible-status among the white nationalist Right. The themes elaborated in the novel have inspired terrorist actions in the US, including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

The novel elaborates how ‘race traitors’, enemies of the white race, are eliminated, along with African Americans, Jews and other minorities. This book, rather than extolling a bygone era of slavery, shifted white nationalism onto a futuristic perspective. It provided a blueprint for white nationalist action, and served to unite splintered groups.

The tone of the novel is lurid and violent – with misogyny and anti-Semitism dripping from its pores. Its impact cannot be underestimated – it has become a seminal text in the canon of racist hate literature. It has served to inspire terrorist violence, and has spawned a veritable genre of racist literature. A hero fighting against the odds is not a new idea in American literature – but Pierce gave it a white supremacist spin. Canada, among a number of countries, has deemed the book hate literature, and has outlawed its importation.

It is time to face the reality that literature, even when not overtly political, is part of the political and cultural climate. It has the ability to set the framework through which millions of readers understand political and historical issues. The Soviet programme at cultural and social engineering was more ‘sledgehammer’ in form that in the United States. But make no mistake, capitalist cultural engineering, while subtle and psychological, is no less powerful and saturates the public mind.

Israel and the Gulf States – a partnership emerges from the shadows

Israel and the Gulf monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, have no formal ties.

However, this has not stopped a covert and sustained campaign of cooperative measures and socioeconomic linkages between Israel and the Gulf nations. Tamara Nassar, an assistant editor at Electronic Intifada, has written that political and economic connections between Tel Aviv and its Gulf partners has been justified under the rationale of encouraging inter religious cooperation between Muslims and Jews.

Israel and the Gulf states are pushing towards a normalisation of ties, entrenching cooperative measures that go back decades. By solidifying relations with the Gulf monarchies, Tel Aviv aims to isolate the Palestinians, score diplomatic and economic victories, and formalise an anti-Iranian alliance. Saudi Arabia has been advocating an anti-Iranian axis since the early 2000s, and is being encouraged in this course by US President Donald Trump.

In October 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Sultanate of Oman, with the goal of boosting relations with that country. Oman has maintained cordial ties with Israel, and has provided a sympathetic voice for Tel Aviv among the Gulf nations. This visit comes on top of extensive back channel ties and communications between the Gulf states and Tel Aviv.

In February this year, two senior Israeli intelligence figures visited the nation of Qatar, for talks about security cooperation between the two nations. Qatar has hosted pro-Zionist political operators in the past, and has provided a platform for pro-Israeli evangelical Christian groups to advocate their millenarian apocalyptic visions for the Middle East.

Back in 2015, journalist and political commentator Murtaza Hussain, writing for The Intercept, noted that the extent and depth of the burgeoning and clandestine Israel-Gulf states alliance was gradually being revealed. With the Arab uprisings, and the removal of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, the GCC nations and Israel stepped up their cooperative outreach.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has maintained longstanding security and economic connections with Tel Aviv. In the wake of the pandemic crisis, Abu Dhabi sent a plane load of COVID-19 medical aid to Tel Aviv, the first direct flight between the two countries. The Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, hailed this step, and expresses his hope that this would accelerate the normalisation process.

Warming business relations and security arrangements are increasingly coming into public view. Israel intended to open its own pavilion at the World Expo 2020, slated to be held this year, but postponed due to the pandemic. Ties have been promoted under the cynical excuse of interfaith dialogue and Muslim-Jewish understanding. Such a rationale is a perverse deployment of a commendable goal to disguise coldly calculated political and economic objectives.

In fact, portraying the Israel-Palestine conflict as one originating primarily in religious differences between Jews and Muslims only serves to obscure the settler-colonialist ideology of Zionism, the underpinning which motivates the Israeli ruling class’ measures to create a Jewish-only state. Rather than some nebulous, historic ages-old animosity between Judaism and Islam, the conflict is underscored by the colonialist mentality and programme of the Zionist political project.

Ian Black, scholar and former Middle East editor for the Guardian, wrote an article elaborating why Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations, led by Saudi Arabia, are quietly cozying up to each other. He wrote:

Evidence is mounting of increasingly close ties between Israel and five of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – none of which have formal relations with the Jewish state. Trump highlighted this accelerating change on his first foreign trip as president – to the Saudi capital Riyadh – by flying on directly afterwards to Tel Aviv.

Black notes that since the founding of the Zionist state in 1948, involving the expulsion of 700 000 Palestinians from their homeland, the Arab states have shared a collective opposition to Tel Aviv. Israel, for its part, has attempted to break out of this hostile environment by forging alliances with Gulf nations that are historically supportive of Anglo-American interests and imperial objectives. In this way, the Zionist state acquires friendly Arab allies, and isolates the Palestinians.

Outreach measures by Tel Aviv are neither new nor original. Since its inception in 1948, Israeli ruling circles have made concerted efforts to find allies in sub-Saharan Africa. Reaching out to non-Arab African states, with promises of security and technological cooperation, has been a crucial programme. Falsely portraying itself as an ‘anti-colonial’ venture, Israel has formed relationships with numerous African countries as they declared independence in the 1950s and 60s.

While sub-Saharan African nations have been supportive of the Palestinians, this has not stopped Israeli PM Netanyahu from establishing friendly relations with numerous African states. Ramzy Baroud, Palestinian journalist and scholar, noted that breaking Afro-Arab unity is a primary objective of the Israeli administration. It is no secret that Israel supports moves towards an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, as a reliable non-Arab ally in that region.

Never has the aphorism “you are known by the friends you keep” been more relevant and applicable.

The end of World War 2 – patriotic myths mark a carnival of racial nationalism

This month – May 8 to be exact – marks the 75th anniversary of the conclusion of World War 2. Numerous commemorative activities were held to honour those who fell in that conflict. Of course, the current pandemic put a dampener on the numbers of people attending outdoor commemorations. Each nation celebrates the end of WW2 in their own way. Britain allowed outdoor events to mark the occasion.

The way that historical anniversaries are remembered is as instructive as the events themselves. The nature of commemorative celebrations tell us about the political vision of those who organise them, and the way the public is encouraged to engage in collective memory. Britain’s VE Day celebrations were a carnival of racialised nationalism, engaged in rehabilitating the British empire rather than an act of WW2 remembrance.

Celebrating Victory in Europe (VE) Day is about commemorating the collective action and multinational solidarity that led to the military victory over fascism. The millions who died fighting the horrifying racial doctrines of Nazi fascism did not do so to reimpose another set of racial hierarchies in the form of English (or French or other white European) colonialism.

The patriotic myth of Britain standing alone against the might of the Nazi war machine may have served a galvanising, morale-boosting purpose in the 1940s, but it is a historical fiction now deployed to promote a narrative of British ‘uniqueness‘ and imperial nostalgia. David Olusoga, writing in the Guardian, addresses this particular issue. Rather than standing alone, Britain had the support of all the nonwhite peoples of its empire:

Britain went to war in 1939 in the name of freedom and democracy, but fielded armies within whose ranks were black and brown men who were regarded and often treated as second-class citizens. To manage this contradiction the government attempted to recast the British empire as a project of partnership, rather than one of domination.

The racial divide of the English empire had to be disguised – it was one thing to combat the white supremacy of Nazi Germany, but quite another to question white nationalism within your own dominions:

To convince Asians and Africans that victory for Britain was in their interest, concerted propaganda efforts were deployed to make them aware of the true nature of Nazism and its underlying racial theories. But in August 1941 a Nigerian newspaper put its finger on the dilemma, when it asked, “What purpose does it serve to remind us that Hitler regards us as semi-apes if the Empire for which we are ready to suffer and die … can tolerate racial discrimination against us?”

The British Eighth Army, the strong unit deployed to defend the Suez Canal from Nazi – and Italian fascist – invasion, was multiracial, composed of Indians, Sri Lankans, Australians, Kenyans, Nigerians – among others. It also fought in the battle of Tobruk. From 1940 and the Blitz, Britain received military volunteers from India and the Caribbean. The contribution of these soldiers breaks the myth of British isolation and exceptionalism carefully cultivated after the end of the war.

Churchill definitely gave rousing speeches to boost morale, and he made abundantly clear his objective of maintaining the empire after the defeat of the Axis powers. Self-determination was to be applied to the nations occupied by Nazi Germany – Britain‘s colonial adventures were not to be questioned. English nationalism, up to and including its Tory Brexiteer variety, forcefully imposed its racially stratified society in the aftermath of WW2.

To be certain, the British ruling establishment is not the only one that quickly sought to retain its colonial possessions, and rehabilitate its empire’s reputation, after the war. On May 8, the Free French forces moved speedily to reimpose French control over its erstwhile colony of Algeria, after the Axis powers were defeated in North Africa. While May 8 is a day of celebration in Europe, it is a somber day of mourning in Algeria, where French colonists, supported by the French army, launched a wave of killings that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Algerians.

As the racist killings of the Nazi war machine became public knowledge, cries of ‘Never Again’ rang out throughout the world. The mass, industrialised killing of the Nazi concentration camps forced us to ask questions about ourselves, and to evaluate how this criminal endpoint was reached by an underlying ideology of European white supremacy. After the camps were closed and Allied armies returned home, the Anglo-French empire-builders revived their particular white nationalist projects with a vengeance.

We are committing a terrible disservice to those who engaged in anti-fascist and anti-racist struggles by rehabilitating the doctrines of their killers. Owen Dowling, writing in Varsity magazine, states that:

The reconsolidation of Anglo-French colonial regimes after May 1945 represented a betrayal of the principles upon which the anti-fascist struggle had been waged, that will forever stain the flags of those victorious Empires. In some territories, notably the Indian sub-Continent, the edifice of colonialism had been so eroded by war and anti-colonial agitation that a sustained reimposition of imperial rule had been made infeasible.

Bellicose nationalism and imperial nostalgia are a violation of the international spirit that motivated the anti-Nazi war effort. Victory in Europe belongs to the millions of workers who organised and fought tenaciously against the fascist threat. When Russian President Vladimir Putin commemorates the end of WW2, he thanks everyone for their sacrifice, including the Americans and British all the while upholding the Soviet Union’s vastly greater and primary effort in defeating the Axis powers.

No, this is not an exercise in hating Britain, or France, or any other nation. It is an exercise in refocusing our commemorative gaze on the defenders of Leningrad and Stalingrad, the rescue workers of London, Coventry, Plymouth and Portsmouth; the anti-fascist resistance in Yugoslavia, France and the Netherlands – these are the real victors of World War 2. We would do well to remember them.

Oil companies should be denied a bailout

Oil corporations have been environmentally destructive for decades. They have funded a tsunami of misinformation about climate change, actively undermining the public’s trust of science and state institutions. Their product is now technically worthless. So why should public money be used to rescue a harmful industry?

Let’s examine all of this. Before we do, let us put aside the objection that workers employed by the oil corporations will lose their jobs. The executives who own and manage these companies have never been concerned with the welfare of their workers. Please stop cynically exploiting the ostensible ‘we are worried about our employees’ to demand yet another multi billion dollar government handout.

There has been an avalanche of commentary regarding the speed and seriousness of the global oil industry’s collapse. Much of the discussion has focused on the unprecedented scale of the decline, and the remarkable speed with which this has happened. The current pandemic compelled the economy – at least what we used to define as constituting the economy – to grind to a halt. This has severely reduced the demand for oil consumption.

Billions of dollars was wiped off from the balance sheets of major oil companies, the price of a barrel of oil plummeted to historic lows, and hundreds of smaller oil producers declined into bankruptcy. This was just in the month of April 2020. The price of oil dropped to negative 37 dollars – oil suppliers were paying others to take oil out of their hands.

The glut of oil on the market meant that oil producers had to pay to store all that excess oil – usually in supertankers dotting the oceans. Each supertanker, capable of storing millions of barrels of oil, and costing oil suppliers 200 000 dollars a day, were left idling on the world’s oceans. This is the latest emblem of the wild irrationality of the capitalist economic model.

The fragility and irrationality of the global oil industry has been exposed and magnified by the Covid-19 crisis – the oil companies were already in trouble prior to the pandemic, but the speedy collapse of the entire industry only illustrated its structural weaknesses. Throughout the 20th century, the oil energy industry was marked by volatility, experiencing periodic boom-bust cycles.

This particular collapse is unique in its suddenness, but is only a concentrated expression of the ongoing and recurrent instability that has characterised the global oil industry. While the oil price has never before declined into negative territory, oil price fluctuations have been numerous and have contributed to geopolitical tensions.

The acquisition of oil resources by the imperialist powers has erupted into warfare throughout the course of the 20th century. However, resource wars are not just a matter of historical interest. The oil-rich nation of Libya, for example, is still undergoing chaotic and internecine fighting as a result of the imperialist-driven intervention into that nation in 2011. The oil factor, while not the only reason, constituted an important motivation for the European states, backed by the US, to intervene.

The consequences of the oil industry decline have been amply documented in the corporate media. Rather than elaborate on that subject, let us look at another major reason why the oil corporations should be denied a bailout. They have been lying to the public – about the causes and impact of industrial-induced climate change. The oil companies, through various subsidiaries, have funded a network of fake climate groups, AstroTurf (fake grassroots) citizens groups and industry-friendly scientists to attack and undermine the scientific evidence for climate change.

Fossil fuel companies, such as ExxonMobil, have been promoting a false ‘equivalence’ debate on the issue of climate change, perversely exploiting the laudable notion of free and open debate to promote deliberate misinformation. Spending millions on propping up fake climate groups, the big oil corporations have spread distrust of scientific institutions among the public, and have funnelled support to climate change-denying politicians to influence the policy making process.

This network of dark money, funding climate change denial, is not just a side issue in matters of economic and political decision making. The denial of climate change by this billionaire-driven counter movement has sabotaged action on climate change, promoted the growth of ultra conservative and science-denying political parties, and contributed to policies favouring the oil sector.

The US government has enthusiastically turned on the spirit of money to fund bailouts of declining and crisis-ridden industries. With the use of government money to rescue failing industries, there has been a revival of an old idea – nationalising the fossil fuel companies. Stigmatised as a ‘socialistic’ measure, the nationalisation of faltering companies has long been a measure adopted by American and right wing governments.

In fact, it is precisely at times of economic crisis that governments have implemented nationalisation to stave off complete financial collapse, thus rescuing the private sector. Rather than bailing out the corporate polluters, government funds can be used to rescue the workers, who have been bearing the brunt of the oil industry’s collapse. Providing yet more bailouts to the oil conglomerates would only serve to prop up a failed business model.

A Green New Deal, as suggested by numerous climate activist groups, would move away from fossil fuels, boost renewable energy technologies, and transition to new jobs and industries. With the oil industry increasingly becoming an unreliable source of employment, as well as promoting a polluting product, it is time to rebuild the economy, not for the profits of shareholders, but to prioritise people’s needs and address the climate emergency.

While the pandemic has exacerbated economic problems, the economic order prior to the pandemic was already broken. The global oil industry was part of creating the capitalist crisis. We cannot afford to return to what was ‘normal’.

Shakespeare in quarantine, the Merchant of Venice and anti-Semitism

Shakespeare spent a good portion of his life in quarantine. England was being ravaged by the plague – Shakespeare lost older siblings to the disease, though he himself remained healthy. The theatres of London were ordered closed by the authorities, along with other businesses, to contain the spread of the plague. Did Shakespeare write King Lear while in quarantine, with the pestilence and death afflicting his nation? Strong circumstantial evidence suggests that he did.

That is an interesting question, but there is one question regarding the Bard’s work that has had Shakespeare scholars, academics and playwrights debating for at least 400 years – is The Merchant of Venice anti-Semitic? The plague was not the only contagion afflicting Elizabethan England – anti-Semitism had been rife among English society, and throughout Christian Europe, for centuries.

Let’s unpack this subject.

The England in which Shakespeare was born and raised was an anti-Semitic place. Jews were certainly not welcome in that country. King Edward I had expelled the Jewish population from the nation in 1290 – after centuries of anti-Semitic persecution. Jews who remained in England either converted to Christianity, or practiced their faith in secret. Jews who had endured life in Christian European countries, were often confined to small, cramped ghettos. The city-state of Venice, where the action of The Merchant of Venice is set, followed this practice.

In Shakespeare’s lifetime, England witnessed the Lopez affair. Dr Rodrigo Lopez, a Portuguese Jewish convert to Christianity and personal physician to Queen Elizabeth I, was arrested on a charge of attempting to poison the Queen. Charged and convicted as a traitor in 1594, this trial contributed to an ongoing climate of anti-Semitism. One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Christopher Marlowe, wrote a play called The Jew of Malta. The main villain, Barabas, is a scheming, deceitful, money-lending Jew. This play undoubtedly influenced the literary community, including Shakespeare.

Jews formed a convenient scapegoat for society’s ills. They were blamed for spreading the Black Death, practicing the sin of usury, and consuming the blood of Christian children, among other things. However, it is the subject of money-lending, and its inclusion as the main feature of Shylock, that has formed one of the most enduring and culturally significant stereotypes down the ages.

As with all stereotypes, there is a grain of truth in the characterisation of Jews and their role as financiers. Excluded from all professions, corralled into ghettos and subjected to periodic pogroms and violence, Jews resorted to the one occupation that could sustain them – money-lending. Lost in the diaspora, Jewish communities kept a cohesive identity by emphasising religious literacy and education. With compulsory education in Hebrew texts, promoting internal cohesiveness and literacy, the Jews became well represented in business and finance. Shylock is a somewhat sinister caricature of the Jewish money-lender stereotype.

Without summarising the entire play, we can understand the character of Shylock as the principal antagonist of the drama. Antonio, the merchant to whom the title of the play refers, requires a loan. He and his good friend, Bassanio, have made clear their contempt of Shylock because the latter is Jewish. Shakespeare’s genius is demonstrated by his ability to humanise an otherwise contemptible, malevolent villain. Shylock demands a pound of flesh from Antonio, should the latter default on his loan.

This demand for a pound of flesh makes Shylock a uniquely vindictive character – among a cast of Christian characters all of whom behave disgracefully. Shylock is not only a victimiser, but also a victim. Shakespeare has Shylock express human emotions of outrage and anger at his mistreatment by the Christian protagonists. Not only does Shakespeare insert the now-famous monologue by Shylock – “I am a Jew” to humanise the character. He also has Shylock expressing caustic sarcasm, denouncing Antonio for his hypocrisy is having mocked him for his Jewishness, yet now asking for his financial help.

By humanising Shylock, Shakespeare is rebalancing the moral calculus of the play. Shylock may be a selfish, malevolent Jew, but he is behaving badly among a cast of reprehensible characters. Shakespeare left open the possibility of playing Shylock as a sympathetic, almost pitiable, character. In the end however, it is Shylock who loses everything – his own daughter turns against him, his wealth is confiscated, and there is only one way in which Shylock can escape with his life – conversion to Christianity. The villainous Jew is isolated and condemned. He can survive, but only by abandoning his Jewish identity.

There is a definite undercurrent of anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice. Portraying the Jew as villain, Shakespeare bequeathed to the world a cultural icon that has been cited by anti-Semites and white supremacists the world over to retroactively rationalise their own prejudices. It is no secret that the play was produced numerous times in Nazi Germany. However, we should also stop looking at Shakespeare exclusively through our post-Holocaust, post-20th century, lens.

The push to absolve the Bard of anti-Semitism derives from a desire to dissociate Shakespeare’s reputation from anything as repugnant as an ancient prejudice. Works of art and literature are inevitably products of their time, and will contain unsavoury and objectionable elements. Rather than banning the play, we must approach it as adults and be ready to confront its prejudicial stereotypes.

Let’s be mindful of the political and cultural circumstances in which we operate. The resurgence of ultranationalist and anti-immigration parties in Europe and the United States has been conducive to a rise in anti-Semitism. The stereotype of the shifty, greedy manipulative Jew, has made a comeback. The last thing we need now is a recycling of an old, outdated caricature.

With regards to The Merchant of Venice – don’t censor it, but let’s put it back in the archives.