Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 24, 2015

The Swedish model (part 1)

Filed under: socialism,Sweden — louisproyect @ 8:43 pm

Otto von Bismarck: a forerunner to Swedish socialism

Bob Schieffer: Let me just start out by asking you, what is a socialist these days? I mean, I remember when a socialist was somebody who wanted to nationalize the railroads and things like that.

Bernie Sanders: When we talk about Democratic socialism, I think it’s important to realize that there are countries around the world like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, who’ve had social democratic governments on and off for many, many years. And we can learn a whole lot from some of those countries.

Face the Nation interview, May 10, 2015

Sweden is a funny country to call socialist. In France or Austria the government owns a much larger share of industry, and I would expect that in a socialist country personal income taxes would be low and company taxes high, whereas in Sweden it is the opposite. It has the world’s highest personal income taxes and it’s a tax haven for companies!

–A statement made in 1976 by Rune Hagelund, a member of the board of the Swedish Employers’ Federation (SAF), a former professor of economics, and president and chairman of the board of two of Sweden’s major corporations.

In my freshman year at Bard I was a 16-year-old wet-behind-the-ears libertarian who got schooled by upperclassmen why Sweden’s welfare state was a good thing (from my unpublished memoir):

bard sweden 1

bard sweden 2

After being converted to a Camus-styled liberal, I naturally became predisposed to the welfare state and voted for LBJ in 1964 in the expectation that he would govern as a New Deal reformer, which he did for the most part.

When the war in Vietnam began, I radicalized and joined the Trotskyist movement out of a belief in part that the New Deal was a fraud, just something to help keep American capitalism afloat, which was after all FDR’s hope. I never thought much about Sweden in this period except to welcome its socialist Prime Minister Olof Palme as an ally of the antiwar movement. I was also happy to see Swedish material aid to Nicaragua when I was working with Tecnica. So, all in all, Sweden had a much more benign image for me even if I understood it operated on the basis of capitalist property relations.

In 2014, after having read a couple of Stieg Larsson novels and watching Swedish TV adaptation of Marxist detective novels by other writers, I began thinking more deeply about the Swedish model. It was these writers focus on the corporate/fascist presence that motivated me primarily but I always wondered in the back of my mind how Sweden became such a success story, at least enough of one to allow Bernie Sanders to embrace it unabashedly.

In writing about the ultraright, I discovered that Sweden had a chummy relationship with Nazi Germany during WWII. I didn’t realize at the time I was exposing this relationship in a CounterPunch article that it was the Social Democrats who were in power, not some rightwing party. Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson advocated a national front that included all the parties except for the CP.

While the image we have of Sweden is one of resistance to Nazism, based on the country providing a haven for Jews and Raul Wallenberg’s efforts on behalf of Hungarian Jews, it is worth noting that the Wallenbergs—arguably the most powerful capitalist family in Sweden—were capable of cutting deals with the Nazis after the fashion of the socialist Prime Minister as an article in a Bay Area Jewish newspaper reported:

The Wallenberg documents shed light on “Sweden’s involvement with and collaboration with the Nazis during the war,” Steinberg said.

“Sweden is clearly emerging as one of the places where the Nazis moved assets.”

According to the documents, The Enskilda Bank, owned by Jacob and Marcus Wallenberg, Raoul’s uncles, dealt in large black-market operations, money laundering and concealing German investments in the United States.

The documents also contain evidence disproving the belief in some circles that Marcus Wallenberg was on the side of the Allies. He traveled to the United States in 1940 on behalf of German interests to buy back a block of German securities being held by America, according to the documents.

The disclosed information about the collaboration between the Nazi regime and Marcus and Jacob Wallenberg suggests a reason for the feeble attempt to find their nephew.

“It’s long been out there that the Wallenberg family in Stockholm apparently did very little to locate Raoul after his disappearance into the Soviet gulag in January 1945,” Steinberg said.

Perhaps the main reason Sweden has such an elevated status is its ostensible commitment to the welfare state. In a period of deepening austerity, the fact that there was a nation like Sweden that apparently departed from the neoliberal model for well over a half-century had a tendency to mesmerize Bernie Sanders and allow the more Marxist-minded members of the left to cut it some slack.

In this, the first in a series of articles on Sweden, I hope to convince the left to think more critically about the Swedish model if for no other reason than to put Bernie Sanders socialism into some kind of context.

The first place to start is with some discussion about the real origins of the welfare state, which was not in 20th century Sweden (or the USA for that matter) but under Bismarck’s Germany.

For the best appraisal of Bismarck’s “state-socialism”, the term that the Lassalleans would apply to his regime, I recommend the chapter in volume four of Hal Draper’s “Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution” titled “Of State-Socialism”: Bismarckian Model”. Draper writes:

Bismarck was too shrewd to depend only on the policeman’s club. The stick to the donkey’s rear had to be supplemented by the carrot dangled in front.5 In the course of the 1880s Bismarck brought out a whole bunch of carrots. Familiar to us now, they then looked revolutionary to many: a series of social-welfare measures providing for accidents, illness, old age, and other workers’ disabilities.

Bismarck’s first proposal, for insurance against industrial accident. came in 1881 and was defeated in the Reichstag by the bourgeois parties. After all, Bismarck’s aim was not only to isolate the working class from the socialists but also to mobilize a “bodyguard proletariat” of its own i order to dish the liberal bourgeoisie and its demands for constitutional liberties, its aspirations for bourgeois dominance in the government and the weakening of absolutism. The new measures being proposed by the Bismarck government were going to be paid for by the class that was the government’s main target. The proletariat was not only supposed to come all over grateful to the state but also to turn antagonistic to the state’s main political opposition, the Liberals or “Progressive party.” But the bourgeois liberal deputies could not resist very long, in this as in anything else.

In 1883 a Sickness Insurance Act was passed, with the workers contributing only a third of the cost. In 1884 an Accident Insurance Law followed, with costs borne by employers alone. In 1889 an Old Age and Disability measure was adopted. In 1903 came a code of factory legislation, with a system of labor exchanges to promote employment. Many of these mea- sures were the first of their kind in the world; by the time of the world war Germany had become the model land of advanced social legislation, under the pressure of the absolutist state, not the bourgeoisie. (However, unemployment insurance was never passed; it took a revolution to achieve this reform under the Weimar Republic.) There was a connection between this beneficent program and the coming world war, for Bismarck’s social strategy had still another side: it was intended to ensure internal unity and class peace while the state intensified an aggressive foreign policy of colonialism and foreign-market penetration, thereby compensating the bourgeoisie (at least its upper reaches) for its social-welfare expenses. This foreign policy was also going to drive a wedge between the right wing and left wing of the Social-Democratic Party, but we will see only the beginning of this process before this chapter ends. In part to finance the technological substructure for war, Bismarck introduced another installment of “socialism”: a state tobacco monopoly in 1882 (a big source of revenue) and the nationalization of the railways. Here was something that began to really look like socialism to many people; at any rate, it was a definite intervention by the state into the economy, even if on a small scale.

As I will point out in my next post, the Swedish bourgeoisie and its partners in the social democracy had pretty much the same agenda.

May 23, 2015

Christian Parenti, William Cronon, and the Abbeyist agenda

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 3:35 pm

 Christian Parenti

As I stated in my article on Edward Abbey in last weekend’s CounterPunch, there are tensions between Marxism and ecological thought over the role of capitalist development. In the nineteenth century, there was a tendency to regard the bourgeoisie as a revolutionary class. The Communist Manifesto, includes “the subjection of nature’s forces to man” as part of capitalism’s forced march toward civilization. So when both FDR and Stalin viewed massive hydroelectric dams as necessary for social progress, it was logical for Communists to celebrate their creation even though they came at huge costs to the environment.

Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of ‘thirty-three,
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me,
He said, “Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea,
But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”
Now in Washington and Oregon you can hear the factories hum,
Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum,
And there roars the flying fortress now to fight for Uncle Sam,
Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam.

Woody Guthrie, “Grand Coulee Dam”

Not long after I wrote the article, the issues resurfaced in a Christian Parenti interview in Truthout on “The State, Humanity as Part of Nature and the Malleability of Capitalism” in which he offered his thoughts on a number of scholars who are trying to integrate political economy with ecology such as John Bellamy Foster, Jason W. Moore, and William Cronon. I am very familiar with Foster and Moore’s work—less so with Cronon’s. However, what I have read of Cronon makes me question Parenti’s praise of his work.

The key part of the interview is a reply to the question “What are the limitations to using Marx’s work when thinking about ecology?” Parenti claims that Moore’s approach is superior to John Bellamy Foster’s because it avoids a Cartesian duality between nature and society by placing humanity within nature. Although these distinctions might sound abstract, the political consequences are dramatic according to Parenti.

It’s very, very dangerous to see human beings as outside of something called nature. If that’s the basis from which one begins, then the conclusion is almost automatically Malthusian. If nature is this pristine Other being victimized by Man, then the solution is for humans to leave. Sadly, that notion is at the heart of most American environmentalism. Just look at the misanthropic politics of deep ecology.

As someone who confessed to “Abbeyism” in my last article, I felt a bit defensive reading this. Reading it carefully, however, I cannot help but wonder what Parenti meant by stating that “most” environmentalists want “humans to leave”. Maybe I haven’t been reading articles by John Bellamy Foster critically enough but I have never found anything resembling those space colonization schemes put forward by Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and company. (Granted, MRZine sometimes reads like it has been written by Martians.)

If Parenti is not quite in favor of ”man’s subjection of nature”, there are hints of coming too close for comfort. He states that when Native Americans burned the landscape, they increased biological diversity. This is the lesson he drew from William Cronon’s “Changes in the Landscape”, a book that reviewed native peoples in early New England history.

Pre-contact New England was not some sort of pristine, natural place. Native Americans didn’t necessarily tread lightly in the region. No, in fact, indigenous people throughout North America had a robust and quite aggressive role in shaping the ecosystem. Some communities would burn the landscape twice a year. This created edge habitat meadows amidst forests, the ideal environment for deer.

Now if this were all that there was to Cronon’s theories, it would be hard to mount any great objection even though it has a bit of a straw man character. As someone who has studied Blackfoot and Comanche history in some depth, I have never heard them described as living in “some sort of pristine, natural space”. They hunted bison and even created quasi-statal institutions that marked out their control of such resources. What distinguishes such precapitalist societies from “civilization”, however, is that they lived in balance with nature rather than seeking to dominate it. This was not a function of their spiritual beliefs but one dictated by the need for survival. If you hunt bison to extinction, you will die just like the beasts. It is only under capitalist “civilization” that we face such threats.

Indeed, as Cronon turns his attention to that very capitalist civilization that his theories begin to spin off the tracks. His 1992 “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” explored “ecological changes” in the Midwest that helped to create America’s most dynamic city as the Amazon blurb puts it. Undoubtedly the work was a major contribution to understanding the transformation of the American west but my reading made me wonder what it had to do with ecology. Was the creation of stockyards and the rail system that delivered steers “ecological”? If there is a place for a book that documents how capitalism transformed nature in a major American city, one can understand the acclaim for “Nature’s Metropolis”. However, nobody could ever mistake what Cronon was writing with Mike Davis’s on Los Angeles that were filled with a moral imperative to resist man’s subjection of nature.

It is only when Cronon decided to write “The Trouble with Wilderness” that the issues became more sharply posed. Like Moore, Cronon is a critic of Cartesian dualism: “This, then, is the central paradox: wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall.”

Once he gets past such abstractions, Cronon strays uncomfortably into a kind of contrarianism that suggests a detachment from the more practical matters of wildlife preservation:

The terms of the Endangered Species Act in the United States have often meant that those hoping to defend pristine wilderness have had to rely on a single endangered species like the spotted owl to gain legal standing for their case—thereby making the full power of the sacred land inhere in a single numinous organism whose habitat then becomes the object of intense debate about appropriate management and use. The ease with which antienvironmental forces like the wise-use movement have attacked such single species preservation efforts suggests the vulnerability of strategies like these.

This seems dubious at best. Arguments that I am familiar with over the spotted owl or the snail darter are presented in terms of the creature’s integration with the ecosphere. That which threatens the spotted owl or the snail darter threatens others in the food chain, including homo sapiens ultimately.

Cronon directs most of his polemical heavy artillery against Dave Foreman, the founder of Earth First!, a group that was inspired by Edward Abbey’s writings as I explained in my last article, especially Foreman’s view that our troubles began with farming:

In this view the farm becomes the first and most important battlefield in the long war against wild nature, and all else follows in its wake. From such a starting place, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that the only way human beings can hope to live naturally on earth is to follow the hunter-gatherers back into a wilderness Eden and abandon virtually everything that civilization has given us.

Given Cronon’s breathless take on the explosive growth of Chicago as a nature-transforming supplier of grain and beef to the rest of the country, there is something to be said about the problems of “civilization” and its handmaiden agriculture. While no doubt responsible for the emergence of urban life and modernity, agriculture has obvious costs as the midwife of class society. Without an agricultural surplus, there is no ruling class. Cronon belittles Foreman’s belief in the democratic norms of hunting-and-gathering societies but there is every reason to believe that Marx and Engels would find more to agree with in Earth First! than Cronon, if you are familiar with their writings on the American Indian, especially Engels’s take on the Iroquois constitution:

And a wonderful constitution it is, this gentile constitution, in all its childlike simplicity! No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits – and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected, by the gens or the tribe, or by the gentes among themselves; only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened-and our capital punishment is nothing but blood revenge in a civilized form, with all the advantages and drawbacks of civilization.

Finally, I was rather amused to read Cronon’s dismissive remarks on Theodore Roosevelt’s creation of a national park system, something he regards as elitist and reactionary:

The mythic frontier individualist was almost always masculine in gender: here, in the wilderness, a man could be a real man, the rugged individual he was meant to be before civilization sapped his energy and threatened his masculinity. [Owen] Wister’s contemptuous remarks about Wall Street and Newport suggest what he and many others of his generation believed—that the comforts and seductions of civilized life were especially insidious for men, who all too easily became emasculated by the feminizing tendencies of civilization. More often than not, men who felt this way came, like Wister and [Theodore] Roosevelt, from elite class backgrounds.

Thus the decades following the Civil War saw more and more of the nation’s wealthiest citizens seeking out wilderness for themselves. The elite passion for wild land took many forms: enormous estates in the Adirondacks and elsewhere (disingenuously called “camps” despite their many servants and amenities), cattle ranches for would-be rough riders on the Great Plains, guided big-game hunting trips in the Rockies, and luxurious resort hotels wherever railroads pushed their way into sublime landscapes. Wilderness suddenly emerged as the landscape of choice for elite tourists, who brought with them strikingly urban ideas of the countryside through which they traveled.

As it turns out, Theodore Roosevelt’s wilderness preservation program found eager backers in a place that was arguably much more important for the legacy of Marxism than anything that William Cronon ever wrote—I speak of the Soviet Union in its early years before Stalin’s forced industrialization took shape as an exercise of the “subjection of nature” gone mad.

The Communist Party issued a decree “On Land” in 1918. It declared all forests, waters, and minerals to be the property of the state, a prerequisite to rational use. When the journal “Forests of the Republic” complained that trees were being chopped down wantonly, the Soviet government issued a stern decree “On Forests” at a meeting chaired by Lenin in May of 1918. From then on, forests would be divided into an exploitable sector and a protected one. The purpose of the protected zones would specifically be to control erosion, protect water basins and the “preservation of monuments of nature.” This last stipulation is very interesting when you compare it to the damage that took place in China as a result of the Yangtze dam. The beautiful landscapes which inspired Chinese artists and poets for millennia disappeared, all in the name of heightened “productiveness.”

What’s surprising is that the Soviet government was just as protective of game animals as the forests, this despite the revenue-earning possibilities of fur. The decree “On Hunting Seasons and the Right to Possess Hunting Weapons” was approved by Lenin in May 1919. It banned the hunting of moose and wild goats and brought the open seasons in spring and summer to an end. These were some of the main demands of the conservationists prior to the revolution and the Communists satisfied them completely. The rules over hunting were considered so important to Lenin that he took time out from deliberations over how to stop the White Armies in order to meet with the agronomist Podiapolski.

Podialpolski urged the creation of zapovedniki, roughly translatable as “nature preserves.” Russian conservationists had pressed this long before the revolution. In such places, there would be no shooting, clearing, harvesting, mowing, sowing or even the gathering of fruit. The argument was that nature must be left alone. These were not even intended to be tourist meccas. They were intended as ecological havens where all species, flora and fauna would maintain the natural equilibrium that is a crucial factor in the life of nature.

Podiapolski recalls the outcome of the meeting with Lenin:

Having asked me some questions about the military and political situation in the Astrakhan’ region, Vladimir Ilich expressed his approval for all of our initiatives and in particular the one concerning the project for the zapovednik. He stated that the cause of conservation was important not only for the Astrakhan krai, but for the whole republic as well.

And where did the inspirations for such measures come from? Chris Williams supplies the answer in “Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis”:

In 1924, the All-Russian Society for Conservation (VOOP) was created through the Conservation Department of the Commissariat of Education to help build a mass social base for conservation and to incorporate conservation and the study of nature into school curricula. VOOP published its own journal, Okhrana prirody (Conservation), which carried vigorous debates inside its pages on critical academic issues in ecology, the history of ecological research in Russia, news from national parks in other countries, including translations of Theodore Roosevelt’s thoughts on Yellowstone, articles for and about children, special profiles on various endangered species, and articles for biological pest control and against monocultures. The journal even discussed the positive role shamans had historically played in ensuring sustainable yields of game in Siberian culture. Ecology as a separate field of academic study began to appear in Russian university curricula by 1924.

If it is William Cronon versus the shamans, Abbeyism and V.I. Lenin, I’ll go with the latter group—thank you very much.

North Star workshop at Left Forum

Filed under: Left Forum,North Star — louisproyect @ 3:08 pm

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 11.06.52 AM

Those of you attending the Left Forum at John Jay College next weekend might want to check out a workshop titled “Toward a Mass Left Party” that was organized by Matt Hoke, a member of the North Star editorial board. It meets at 12pm on Sunday in room 1.124

The abstract for the workshop is as follows:

Since the economic crisis of 2008, nor since the contraction of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, no mass pole of attraction has arisen to address the suffering of working people in the USA. Meanwhile, new mass parties have spawned in Europe in quick and stormy expansions, while also facing contradictions and difficulties. In the US, a new attraction towards intertendency politics and electoral action has emerged as expressed by the Electoral Action Conference in Chicago, and certain groups are experimenting new tactics to directly engage people’s needs, whether the $15 movement, serve the people projects, or solidarity networks.

The chairperson for the session is Loren Anderson of the Philly Socialists who has provided technical support for North Star and other related projects

Participants include:

Louis Proyect

Affiliation: North Star founder & editor

Bio: Louis Proyect was a member of the North Star Network launched by Peter Camejo in the early 1980s, an experiment in regroupment around a nonsectarian outlook that inspired the current website. Louis also identifies with efforts by the Socialist Union of the 1950s that was led by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman.

Abstract: Louis will be focusing on international developments in Syriza and Podemos.


Jim Brash

Affiliation: North Star & Green Party

Bio: Jim Brash has been a member of UFCW Local 1262 for 15 years, and is a green council member of the Green Party of New Jersey. He is also the green party candidate for New Jersey’s 26th Legislative District. Interests include studying American history, political theory, economics, religious philosphy, & miltary strategy.

Abstract: Jim will be mainly be talking about the nuts and bolts of his own electoral efforts.


Stephanie Altimari

Affiliation: Philly Socialists

Bio: Stephanie was an early member of Philly Socialists who has coordinated a wing of its serve the people project based around tutoring for English as a Second Language.

Abstract: Stephanie will be talking about the service model, solidarity networks, and the social network theory of building an organization.


May 22, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:40 pm

I went to see “Mad Max: Fury Road” in 3D with no other intention except to kick back and enjoy some mindless entertainment. Mindless it was—entertaining, not so much.

Fifteen minutes into the film, it began to dawn on me that nearly the entire film would consist of Mad Max behind the wheel of a truck fending off the bad guys to the accompaniment of a film score with the same percussive phrases being repeated over and over again like a needle stuck in a record groove. The combination of the roar of the automobiles, the gunfire and the bursting bombs, and the insistent music that was meant to remind you of how exciting the whole thing was made it impossible to hear the dialog—such as it was. In an interview with the NY Times, director George Miller was asked about the near absence of dialog. His reply:

I was very influenced by a book written by the critic Kevin Brownlow called “The Parade’s Gone By.” He said the main part of the parade has gone by the advent of sound in cinema. This new language that we called cinema had mostly evolved in the silent era. What differentiated it from theater were the action pieces, the chase pieces. And I really got interested in that. Hitchcock had this wonderful saying: “I try to make films where they don’t have to read the subtitles in Japan.” And that was what I tried to do in “Mad Max 1,” and I’m still trying to do that three decades later with “Fury Road.”

With all due respect to George Miller, I don’t think that Alfred Hitchcock should be taken too seriously on this. While nobody can gainsay the visceral pleasure of watching Cary Grant fighting with James Mason in Abe Lincoln’s nostril, that scene from “North by Northwest” hardly stands on its own. It was the dialog between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint that gave the film its panache:

Eve Kendall: How do I know you aren’t a murderer?

Roger Thornhill: You don’t.

Eve Kendall: Maybe you’re planning to murder me right here, tonight.

Roger Thornhill: Shall I?

Eve Kendall: Please do.

Violent clashes such as those that take place in this film and others of this ilk made by J.J. Abrams, Michael Bay and just about any other based on Marvel comic books are exciting but only in small doses, functioning in a way like sex scenes. But who would want to have watched Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider fucking for 90 percent of “Last Tango in Paris”? That’s the problem with “Mad Max: Fury Road”; there’s too much of a good thing.

George Miller’s first installment in the Mad Max series was made in 1979. Despite his reputation for making post-apocalyptic films with some kind of message about gas and now water disappearing, his main motivation for using a future world as a backdrop was his worries that an audience would find all the road kill unbelievable. As it turns out, Miller—who was a doctor in an emergency ward in Sydney at the time tending to exactly the kinds of accidents depicted in the film—decided to set it in a dystopian future in order to make the story more plausible. Like the most recent film, the first one was pretty much unrelieved highway mayhem with very little character development (none actually) and dialog.

It was with the 1981 “Road Warrior” that Miller began to hit his stride. Mad Max becomes a kind of mercenary fighting on behalf of the good people defending a small-scale oil refinery against marauders after the fashion of “Seven Samurai” that his talents as a screenwriter and director begin to emerge. What I remember most about the film was Mel Gibson’s interaction with the feral youth and his deadly boomerang. Watching his joyous reaction to the music box that Mad Max gives him was worth the price of admission.

The masterpiece, of course, was “Beyond Thunderdome”, which once again had Mad Max interacting with children and was justifiably celebrated for the casting of Tina Turner as Aunty Entity, the chief of the bad guys.

In doing some research on Miller, who is just about my age, I was startled to discover that he is not limited to the Mad Max series. He directed “The Witches of Eastwick”, a witty tale based on a John Updike novel about the devil—played to a tee by Jack Nicholson—seducing three women. He was also screenwriter and director for “Happy Feet”, one of the finest children’s movies I have ever seen.

Just a final word on the politics of the film. The Internet has been abuzz over a controversy about the film’s “man hatred”. Apparently some idiots from the “men’s rights” movement are upset with the supposed feminist message of the film. Since Eve Ensler, the author of “The Vagina Monologues”, served as a consultant on the film, we are led to believe that it was a statement about gender equality. Since Charlize Therzon’s character fights side by side with Mad Max with about as much effectiveness and has antagonized the bad guys’ chief by attempting to rescue a group of women forced to bear his children after the fashion of ISIS, we are led to conclude that this is a film with a message.

I do think that Miller is capable of making a film with a message. “Happy Feet” was sort of a penguin’s version of “Billy Elliot”, making the case that there’s nothing wrong with a boy wanting to dance. The only message I got out of “Mad Max: Fury Road” is that a fool and his money are soon parted.

May 21, 2015

I said goodbye to Letterman long before he said goodbye to his viewers

Filed under: comedy,television — louisproyect @ 5:03 pm

When “Late Night with David Letterman” came on the air at 12:30am in 1982, I became such a fan that I was willing to put up with the early morning grogginess that came with staying up so late. The show came on after Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show”, something that I had little use for at the time since it was so predictable. I ha no idea at the time that Letterman’s deepest desire was to become the next Johnny Carson and host the same kind of show.

In 1982 I was three years out of the SWP, working for a consulting company called Automated Concepts that was run by an EST devotee named Fred Harris, and working with Peter Camejo on the North Star Network. I watched almost no television at all except for the Letterman show and football games. Most of the time I listened to WBAI, which was probably at one of its high points artistically and politically. Although it is hard to believe, the Letterman show was just as edgy in its own terms as a few clips from the early period should illustrate. They reflect a distinctly “downtown” vibe that was in its way the TV counterpart of the thriving punk rock, performance art, and underground Super-8 movie scene.

Brother Theodore (his last name was Gottlieb) was not just a comic genius; he was a genius period who led an extraordinary life as this Wiki entry should indicate. Can you imagine someone like that being featured on Jimmy Kimmel (not that I have ever watched that show.)

Gottlieb was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Düsseldorf, in the Rhine Province, where his father was a magazine publisher. He attended the University of Cologne. At age 32, under Nazi rule, he was imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp until he signed over his family’s fortune for one Reichsmark. After being deported for chess hustling from Switzerland he went to Austria where Albert Einstein, a family friend and alleged lover of his mother, helped him escape to the United States.

He worked as a janitor at Stanford University, where he demonstrated his prowess at chess by beating 30 professors simultaneously, and later became a dockworker in San Francisco. He played a bit part in Orson Welles’s 1946 movie The Stranger.

Chris Elliot was the son of Bob Elliot of the radio show “Bob and Ray” fame who certainly inherited his dad’s sense of absurdist comedy. He was a regular on the Letterman show for a number of years and always pushed the envelope. To give you an idea of the affinity that Letterman had with WBAI, long-time early morning show host Larry Josephson curated the Bob and Ray shows for an acclaimed CD reissue.

No commentary is necessary

Sandra Bernhard was a lesbian standup comedian who was by the far the best at making Letterman squirm even though he knew that this was essential for the show’s success.

What can I say? Harvey was my favorite guest on the Letterman show if for no other reason that he expressed exactly what I would have said if I had been on the show myself. Years later when I hooked up with Harvey to do a comic book about my life, I was more excited to be working with him than to be a guest on the Letterman show.

When Letterman moved to the 11:30 slot in 1992, I was happy to be able to watch my favorite show and still get a good night’s sleep. But within a year or so, I realized that it was a different show. It did not happen all at once but it no longer became a place for Brother Theodore but more for some idiot actor or actress to talk about their next film. On top of that, the shtick that remained like the “Top Ten List” grew stale.

What had happened?

I got the answer in Bill Carter’s 1994 book “The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night”. Carter explained in convincing detail that Letterman harbored a desire from an early age to be the next Johnny Carson instead of David Letterman. The 11:30 slot allowed him to drop the edgy guests who would have either bored or annoyed the people who expected the standard late night fare.

In August 2001 I posted some comments about Letterman to Marxmail that never made it to my Columbia University website (this was long before I began blogging or when blogs existed for that matter). This is the appropriate time to post them again.

Early in February, top CBS television president Les Moonves and six other top entertainment executives spent several days in Cuba with the approval of the U.S. government. The visit was capped by lunch with Fidel Castro. When news of the trip became public, Late Night host David Letterman began making fun of his boss relentlessly. Among the many rightwing jokes revolved around the “differences” between Moonves and Castro: “On one hand, you have a ruthless dictator surrounded by ‘yes’ men. And on the other, you have Castro.”

Another Late Night show pushed the envelope even further with a sketch titled “Lunch With Fidel.” And one of the entries on a recent Top 10 List was, “Last week, at Castro’s Grammy party, he let me beat a political prisoner.”

This follows a controversy surrounding the guest appearance of radical folk singer Ani DiFranco. Producers canceled her scheduled appearance tonight after the folk singer refused to substitute a more “upbeat” song for one about racism. DiFranco’s manager, Scot Fisher, told The Washington Post that the singer planned to perform “Subdivision” in the show’s final segment. The song begins, “White people are so scared of black people, they bulldoze out to the country.”

One can understand why Letterman would object to such a performance. Mostly what his shtick is about nowadays is projecting an out-of-towner’s fear and loathing of non-white New Yorkers to his dwindling audience. To preserve market share, Letterman makes sure to include at least one racist jibe each night about smelly foreign cab drivers or other aspects of its polyglot culture. The aging Letterman, who lives in Connecticut, is reverting more and more to his nativist Indiana roots. The state was home to the most powerful Ku Klux Klan chapter in the north throughout the 1920s. As the camera pans out to his sycophantic audience each night, you are hard-pressed to find anybody who is neither white, nor overweight for that matter. In his shift to the bland (and now racist) tastes of heartland America, he has attracted the audience he deserves: Corn-fed out-of-towners wearing fanny-packs, knuckle-head frat boys and visiting servicemen.

Letterman is a truly sad story. In the 1980s he was the inventive host of an NBC show that came on after Johnny Carson. Since this time-slot was traditionally (and still is) geared to a more adventurous programming, his bad boy creativity could find full expression. When he wasn’t interviewing quirky writers such as Hunter Thompson, he was skewering the pretensions of show business phonies like Cher. The rest of the show consisted of “found humor” like throwing watermelons off a 12 story building or “stupid pet tricks”.

When he made a bid for Carson’s time-slot after his retirement, NBC executives opted for Jay Leno instead whose conventional humor would satisfy the least common denominator and sell more beer and laxatives in the process. The jilted Letterman took a job with CBS in the same time-slot as Leno and vied for the same audience.

This meant changing his format. Instead of a Hunter Thompson, you would end up with some vapid B-movie actor promoting his or her next film. The conversation would inevitably revolve around how married life was treating them or what they did on their vacation. In other words, the same idle chatter that his audience has over dinner in their split-level homes in East Jesus, Nebraska. Nothing like making overweight white people feel at home. Meanwhile the “found humor” became ever more formulaic, following the same tendency found on Saturday Night Live. If an audience laughs at a sight gag, this becomes an invitation to repeat it every week until it becomes as irritating as a garden rake being dragged across a blackboard.

I suppose that Letterman’s turn to the right was inevitable. If you pander to middle-class fears and loathing about the NYC Casbah, you will naturally find yourself catering to the hysterical tics that define US foreign policy. Poor Letterman, he aspired to be the next Johnny Carson. Instead he has become the next Bob Hope.

May 20, 2015

Call for Papers: Toward a Mass Party, Bernie Sanders

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,third parties — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm


How will we achieve a mass socialist party, or mass left party, in the USA?  If we have a special opportunity to do so in this specific era, how will we manifest those possibilities?

Electoralism is a particular theme here at North Star.  However, we are happy to entertain alternative routes to a mass party, especially in response to this call.  But instead of just rejecting or critiquing the electoral path, we would prefer pieces that outline your path, your model, articulated in detail!

This is also an opportunity to discuss the 2016 elections broadly — how should we interact with the recent Electoral Action Conference’s network?  Could we get some report-backs on that?  Should we contend the 2016 elections?  Local, Congressional, Presidential, both/any?  Jill Stein?  Vermin Supreme?  What kind of politics?  Let it rip.

And that guy Bernie Sanders.  He talks about class war, he’s running for President.  He has a huge following, he openly identifies as socialist, he is all but a veritable Ron Paul of socialism, and then he has to kick us in the groin by running as a Democrat.  Not that this is a surprise, but as the meme goes, It’s Happening.

Support/oppose?  Join the campaign?  Condemn it?  Engage the conversation without giving support?  Why/why not?

Send submissions to: submissions.northstar@gmail.com

Christian Parenti, William Cronon, Alexander Cockburn

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 6:20 pm

William J. Cronon

Christian Parenti, Truthout Interview, May 17, 2015 (http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30756-christian-parenti-on-the-state-humanity-as-part-of-nature-and-the-malleability-of-capitalism)

Anthropogenic fire has long played an important role in the universal metabolism of nature. It was our ancestor Homo erectus that tamed fire, used it to cook, and most likely to shape the landscape either intentionally or by mistake. Homo sapiens have used fire on a vast scale. Native Americans and pastoralist societies in southern Africa used fire to create fecund, hunt easier, open forests and grazeable grasslands. A lot of this goes back to William Cronon’s first book Changes in the Land in which he examined the environmental history of New England before and just after White settlement. Pre-contact New England was not some sort of pristine, natural place.

* * * *

Alexander Cockburn, “Beat the Devil”, Nation Magazine, April 8, 1996

Until a new president is found, the daily operations of the Wilderness Society will be overseen by Kim Elliman, a Rockefeller heir, and former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, the Strom Thurmond of the environmental establishment. But don’t expect the Wilderness Society to change into an aggressive environmental advocate anytime soon. The Society recently invited onto its governing board the historian William Cronon, who is the general editor of the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books Series at the University of Washington Press. (Don’t be shocked. In Oxford, Balliol College is welcoming a Flick Chair, endowed by German slave labor and death camp sponsors.) Cronon kgues that the focus on wilderness protection has been a misguided and counterproductive endeavor. After all, Cronon muses, wilderness is really just a state of mind.

 * * * *

William J. Cronon, letter to the Nation, June 7 1996

Alexander Cockbum implies that I am an enemy of wilderness protection and of environmentalism in general. I trust that those who , know my work will recognize how unfair this is. Cockburn’s complaint is twofold. He correctly notes that I edit the Weyerhaeuser Endronmental Books series for the University of Washington Press but fails to point out that the Weyerhaeuser Corporation has no relationship to the series andnothing whatsoever to say about its editorial content. I would not have accepted tlhis editorship had there been any ideological constraints on what I could publish. In this, I am no different from the thousands ofAmerican academics (and journalists) who accept financial support from philanthropies with names like Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon or Guggenheim or who teach at universities with names like Stanford or Duke or Cornell-names whose environmental records are far from spotless. Cockburn asserts that I believe wildemess io be mere& a state of mind. This grossly dislorts my position. Although I strongly support protecting biodiversity and wild land, I believe this is best accomplished by seeing such things as part of a larger system in which “the human” and “the natural” are not set in stark opposition to each other. Cockbum and Susannah Hecht ‘eloquently make a similar point when they criticize First World fantasies about tropical rainforests as “Edens under glass.” Like them, I believe we should pay close attention to the troubling linkages that sometimes exist between environmental advocacy and elite class politics. If these views render me ecologically suspect, then I have a feeling that many.environmentally committed Nation readers may wish to be suspect in precisely the same way.

 * * * *

Alexander Cockburn’s reply

I thank Bill Cronon for his kind words about The Fate of the Forest, and indeed he wrote a marvelous book about Chicago and the West, Nature’s Metropolis. But Uncommon Ground, a collection boiled down from a seminar at U.C., Irvine, was a pretentious mess, full of banalities about nature as a human construct, as if Marx had not said it better and shorter more than a hundred years ago: “The nature that existed before man no longer exists anywhere.” Its politics were bad too. Anent Cronon’s series under the sponsorship of the Weyerhaeuser timber company: As the Chinese proverb puts it, Do not adjust your hat under a plum tree or tie your shoes in a melon field if you wish to avoid suspicion.

May 18, 2015

Socialist revolution in Greece–easier said than done

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 8:20 pm

As bad as Alex Callinicos’s analysis of Greece has been, at least you can give him credit for not issuing the kind of calls for socialist revolution that landed in my inbox last Wednesday, courtesy of Alan Woods’s “In Defense of Marxism” (IDOM) website. Woods and company are “old school” Trotskyists who have perfected the art of outflanking “fakers” like Syriza from the left even though—to their credit—they have had remarkable patience with the Chavistas in Venezuela. In an article titled “Greece: Neither ‘honourable compromise’ nor ‘accidental rupture’ – the only way forward is a Socialist policy – part one”, Stamatis Karagiannopoulos, a member of the “Communist Tendency” in Syriza, makes the case for socialist revolution:

Comrades of the SYRIZA leadership are accustomed to deriding the Communist Tendency’s patient defence of an anticapitalist-socialist programme with their metaphysical aphorism that: “this isn’t the time for socialism”. We – the communists – respond in this way: “life itself indicates exactly the opposite to what you claim! Never has capitalism been so incapable of satisfying even the most basic of human needs, and never has socialism been so necessary to satisfy those needs”! The fact that the voice of SYRIZA’s communists is incomparably weaker than those of the leadership’s ‘celebrity’ ministers does not mean that our positions, perspectives, and warnings are incorrect. On the contrary, these are the only positions that are based on a realistic evaluation of reality and of the prospects of a system doomed to go from crisis to crisis.

Well, who can argue against positions that are based on a “realistic evaluation of reality”?

At the risk of defying reality, I think it would be worthwhile to think about what it would mean to “build socialism” in Greece. In fact, there’s very little engagement with that question in the IDOM website. Mostly there are calls for radical action such as the following: “Rather than requesting a European debt conference with bourgeois governments we should hold directly in Greece an international conference of the mass organisations of the working class and of the youth against capitalism!” (The comrades are fond of the exclamation point.)

There’s a bit of a disconnect here. If you wash your hands of the “bourgeois governments”, how exactly are “the mass organisations of the working class and of the youth against capitalism” supposed to come up with the dough to keep Greece functioning? In 1960 it was one thing for Cuba to kick out the Western corporations when the USSR existed. It is another thing, however, when the USSR no longer exists and Putin—despite his anti-imperialist bluster—is in no position to support Greece.

Maybe I am a bit more hesitant to take calls for socialist revolution in Greece seriously since I saw what happened in Nicaragua in the late 80s when the USSR still existed but was getting ready to close shop. Forced to rely on its own devices, the FSLN could not survive. Years later, there would be a new upswing of radicalism in Latin America but the left would be careful not to break with capitalism after the fashion of the Cuban model. Leaving aside Venezuela’s future prospects, I have never heard it described as socialist.

It would be useful to review what classical Marxism had to say about socialist revolution especially in light of the problems encountered in peripheral societies like Vietnam, Cuba, and China et al.

Karl Marx’s emphasis was on advanced capitalist countries like Britain, Germany and France. So was Engels. In an 1847 article, he answered the rhetorical question “Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone?” His answer:

No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others.

Further, it has co-ordinated the social development of the civilized countries to such an extent that, in all of them, bourgeoisie and proletariat have become the decisive classes, and the struggle between them the great struggle of the day. It follows that the communist revolution will not merely be a national phenomenon but must take place simultaneously in all civilized countries – that is to say, at least in England, America, France, and Germany.

But towards the end of his life Karl Marx seemed to reverse himself when he began looking closely at Russia since it was home to rural communes that could have served as the foundations for a communist society—at least based on the letters to Zasulich. However, it should never be forgotten that he saw Russia in terms of a peasant revolution that could only succeed in partnership with the West as this preface to the Second Russian Edition of the Communist Manifesto should make clear: “If the Russian revolution becomes the signal for proletarian revolution in the West, then Russia’s peasant communal land-ownership may serve as the point of departure for a communist development.”

You’ll notice the if-then formulation. This was pretty much the outlook of Russian Marxists as well, including Lenin. Many people on the left believe that Lenin was for a socialist revolution from the get-go and not just a bourgeois revolution that aimed for radical land reform and democratic rights—the sort of thing we associate with France in 1789. I was never convinced of this. There were just too many formulations such as this that was contained in the March-April 1905 article “A Revolution of the 1789 or the 1848 Type?” (emphases in the original):

Only history, of course, can weigh these pros and cons in the balances. Our task as Social-Democrats is to drive the bourgeois revolution onward as far as it will go, without ever losing sight of our main task—the independent organisation of the proletariat.

Or “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution“:

Marxists are absolutely convinced of the bourgeois character of the Russian revolution. What does this mean? It means that the democratic reforms in the political system and the social and economic reforms, which have become a necessity for Russia, do not in themselves imply the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule; on the contrary, they will, for the first time, really clear the ground for a wide and rapid, European, and not Asiatic, development of capitalism; they will, for the first time, make it possible for the bourgeoisie to rule as a class.

Leaving aside the question of whether Lenin abandoned this outlook in 1917, there is little doubt that following Marx’s if-then, Lenin saw the USSR’s survival as utterly dependent on the success of Communist Parties in Western Europe.  In a “Speech on the International Situation” delivered to the 1918 Congress of Soviets, Lenin said, “The complete victory of the socialist revolution in one country alone is inconceivable and demands the most active cooperation of at least several advanced countries, which do not include Russia.”

Despite the differences he had with Lenin on the character of the approaching revolution in Russia, Trotsky was in accord with the reliance on more developed nations. In “Results and Prospects”, written in 1906, he stated: “But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty–that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship.”

Keeping in mind that Russia was richly endowed with oil, timber, coal, iron ore, fertile soil, and a powerful army that had defeated the imperialist invaders, Lenin continued to worry about the USSR’s future without that help. In “Better Fewer, But Better”, written in 1923 a year before his death, he wrote that “It is not easy for us, however, to keep going until the socialist revolution is victorious in more developed countries…”

Stalin of course decided that it was possible to build socialism in the USSR even if it took subordinating the CP’s to the foreign policy exigencies of the Kremlin. History teaches us that the results were inimical to socialism in the long run. Despite the lessons of failure in the USSR and repeated retreats in the Third World, the comrades in Alan Woods’s Fourth International invite the Greeks to go full steam ahead.

Before Alexis Tsipras took office, I wrote the following:

Of course the real question is whether Syriza can deliver such reforms given the relationship of forces that exist. Germany, its main adversary, has a population of 80 million and a GDP of nearly 4 trillion dollars. Greece, by comparison, has a population of 11 million and a GDP of 242 billion dollars, just a bit more than Volkswagen’s revenues. Given this relationship of forces, it will be a struggle to achieve the aforementioned reforms. To make them possible, it will be necessary for the workers and poor of Greece to demonstrate to Europe that they will go all the way to win them. It will also be necessary for people across Europe to demonstrate their solidarity with Greece so as to put maximum pressure on Germany and its shitty confederates like François Hollande to back off. But if your main goal in politics is to lecture the Greeks about the need for workers councils, armed struggle and all the rest, you obviously have no need to waste your time on such measly reforms.

In my view, the best thing the left can do is to organize demonstrations of solidarity with Syriza—not write the sort of junk that appears in the British SWP and IDOM press. Yes, we know that they are weak-tea social democrats and that the Greeks deserve fearless leaders like Alex Callinicos and Alan Woods who will never retreat an inch. But for those on the left still moored to the “realistic evaluation of reality” alluded to above, my strongest recommendation is to hound the filthy bankers who are trying to make the Greeks cry uncle just as Reagan did to the Nicaraguans. There were those on the left who were all to anxious to point out the FSLN’s shortcomings in 1989 but I was content to do what I had been doing for three years—raising money and volunteers to keep a revolutionary experiment alive. With all proportions guarded, this is the way we should look at Greece in 2015.

Gilles d’Aymery ¡Presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 3:28 pm

From the NY Times obit page:
Screen shot 2015-05-18 at 11.22.47 AM


My tribute to Gilles written last December

May 16, 2015

In response to Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd

Filed under: Ecology,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:29 pm

A Makah family portrait

Yesterday Paul Watson wrote a commentary on my review of the documentary about Edward Abbey. Before replying to him, let me post what I said about him:

There are also contradictions between some deep ecologists and native peoples over their right to hunt and fish using traditional methods that are often related to their cultural survival. Among the people interviewed in “Wrenched” is Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd, a group that carries out civil disobedience to protect whales. Unfortunately, Watson decided to challenge the Makah in Washington State, a small Indian band that traditionally relied on whale hunting for both its sustenance and spiritual identity. One can understand Watson’s brave fight against Japanese industrial versions of Captain Ahab’s Pequod, but couldn’t an exception have been made for people who have suffered genocidal attacks?

Just in case it was not emphatic enough, let me repeat that I value Watson’s activism highly. The fight to protect whales is one that matters a great deal to me as should be obvious not only by what I wrote above but in other articles I have written over the years, including reviews of “The Whale” and “The Cove”. But I must insist that Watson was wrong to campaign against the Makah, as I will explain below his comments.

A Prejudiced Review by Louis Proyect of Wrenched.

Commentary by Captain Paul Watson

In the Review of Wrenched by Louis Proyect, he criticized me for our campaign against illegal whaling by the Makah Tribe of Washington State in 1998. He says it was unfortunate that we opposed the Makah although he endorsed our opposition to Japanese whaling.

Proyect’s understanding of the situation is very shallow. He does not understand that Sea Shepherd was not in Neah Bay to oppose the Makah Tribe but to oppose the Japanese fish buyers who pushed the Makah to kill whales. Japan simply needed to use the Makah to further their own agenda of commercial whaling.

We secured documents through FOIA to prove that the Makah along with the Japanese had discussions to use the Makah to set up a commercial whaling operation in the USA for profit and to embarrass the U.S. position of opposition to whaling.

Proyect also failed to see that we were invited to intervene by some Makah Elders who saw the truth of the scheme and it had little to do with reviving ancient traditions and everything to do with money. He ignored the fact that other First Nations people supported us and some supported the Makah. On my crew were Kwakutl, Haida, Gitksan-Wet’suwet’en, Cree, Mohawk and Kwakwaka’wakw. He ignored the fact that I participated as an activist with the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee in 1973.

He voiced the prejudiced position that all First Nations speak in one voice about all issues. They do not.

I knew at the time that we would open ourselves up to criticisms for challenging the killing but I also knew that it would be racist of us to ignore a violation of whaling by the Makah and not by the Japanese or Norwegians.

Sea Shepherd represents the interest of the nation of whales and to whales, the color of the skin or the language spoken means nothing. All that matters is the harpoon and it is the harpoon that Sea Shepherd opposes by anyone for any reason anywhere.

Whales are highly intelligent, socially complex, self aware sentient beings and no human has the right to kill a single one of them.

Makah Elder Alberta Thompson spoke to this in 1997 when she said at the IWC meeting in Monaco that “the men who wanted to kill whales had no interest in other Makah cultural practices, they did not even have any interest in learning the Makah language. All they wanted to do was murder a whale with an anti-tank gun. And that” she said, “is not a part of our culture.”

Ed Abbey was a Sea Shepherd advisor and a friend and I know he would have supported our position to go up against the Japanese puppets posing as traditional whalers yet armed with modern technology and weapons to blow away a whale they had no intention of eating themselves.

In fact during the campaign I said if the Elders asked us to leave we would leave. The Elders who invited us replied they wanted us to stay. So we stayed. One whale was killed by the Tribe, and none since, except for one that was illegally killed by Wayne Johnson, a crime for which he was sent to prison.

We will continue to oppose any plans to resurrect whaling by the Makah as we will continue to oppose whaling by anyone, anywhere for any reason.

My response:

On the FOIA documents

On October 9, 2006 Eric Scigliano wrote an article for the alternative Seattle Weekly that takes up this matter. I urge you to read the entire article but will recapitulate his main points:

–One document purports to show that the Makah sought to operate a whale-meat processing plant but Scigliano explains that the proposal came from a non-Makah official instead who they disavowed.

–Supposedly the Makah were combining with the Japanese industrial fishing firm Maruha to build a whale-meat processing plant but Scigliano states that Maruha was pretty much out of the fishing business when they were approached. The Makah were primarily interested in ship that could process whiting, a fish that they were invested in commercially. As such, Maruha was a likely contact.

On the Makah and wildlife preservation

The Makah voluntarily stopped whale hunting a full decade before it was outlawed in 1937 because they were concerned about their dwindling numbers. It was only when gray whale numbers increased in the 1990s that they requested an exemption from federal law to begin hunting again. Furthermore, they requested the right to hunt up to 5 gray whales a year and no more. Since there are between 20,000 to 22,000 gray whales in the north Pacific, it is doubtful that the Makah hunt would have any impact on their survival even if the meat of all 5 whales were sold to the Japanese.

Paul Watson’s reliance on Congressman Jack Metcalf for pushing through a ban on Makah hunting

This is probably the most troubling aspect of his activism around this issue. Jack Metcalf is a rightwing Republican who has a long history of opposing Indian fishing rights. He was the founder of S/SPAWN, a group that occasionally used violence against Washington State Indians trying to exercise their legal rights to fish for trout and salmon. While Watson claims that his efforts on behalf of whales is part of his overall commitment to the environment, the Sierra Club ranked him as among the lowest in environmental legislation.

Wounded Knee?

Paul Watson claims that he was there. If so, nobody on the front lines has any awareness of this. In an article by Jim Page on Watson at Dark Night Press, he got feedback from Ward Churchill who would have been in a position to know:

…it’s not just that his name doesn’t come up in any of the literature on Wounded Knee. I’ve queried Ron Rosen, who was in fact a medic at the Knee, and he doesn’t remember Watson being there. Uncle Wallace [Black Elk] doesn’t remember assigning any white guys to save a bunch of “buffalo of the sea.” Neither Russ [Means] nor Aaron Two Elk recall Watson as having been there.

More importantly, being at Wounded Knee does not give Paul Watson a license to crusade against the Makah. Nor does the fact that a Makah elder opposed whale-hunting. There is an element of self-aggrandizement in Watson’s use of such tropes that helps you to understand why he has been disavowed by Carter Camp, an AIM leader at Wounded Knee, even if Watson was there: “Whatever he did (if he was there), I am deeply offended by his assertions that he was guided in his misdeeds by a ‘vision’ he was given at WK’73. We who were there would like to re-interpret his vision for him to show him the Makah, not eco-terrorists, are the ones saving our whale relatives. His view is insulting to those of us who fought at Wounded Knee ’73 and more importantly it is insulting to the spirits of those buried there because of people like Watson himself.”

Finally, my own views on wilderness protection and indigenous rights

I first became interested in indigenous rights when back in 1996 or so when I ran into a magazine called Living Marxism that was put out by the people who became Spiked Online. Using Marxist jargon, they essentially came out in favor of forced assimilation. They were also against environmentalism, a cause that I had embraced long before I became committed to indigenous rights.

In the course of expressing my views on the latter, I became friends with James Michael Craven, an economics professor in Washington State of Blackfoot descent who was deeply involved with the right of the Makah to hunt whales. I recommend an article he wrote that came out of that struggle that was also written for Dark Night Press.

As I began researching Blackfoot history, I became aware that the same clash that took place between the Makah and Paul Watson had taken place in Blackfoot territory. This excerpt from an article I wrote for “Organization and Environment”, a scholarly journal formerly edited by John Bellamy Foster until it became hijacked by the publisher and turned over to a more mainstream editorial team, should make this clear:

I want to conclude this article with an examination of an obscure moment in American history that involves the Blackfoot and the environmentalist movement. It is, as far as I know, one of the first instances of eco-imperialism on record and evokes more recent clashes between outfits like Sea-Shepherd and the Makah, or Greenpeace and the Innuit. The facts on this appear in Mark David Spence’s “Crown of the Continent, Backbone of the World: The American Wilderness Ideal and Blackfeet Exclusion from Glacier National Park,” an article in the July, 1996 edition of “Environmental History.”

The eastern half of Glacier National Park was once part of the Blackfoot reservation and the tribe insists that an 1895 treaty allowed them certain ownership privileges. These lands are of utmost importance to the Blackfoot because they contain certain plants, animals and religious sites that are of key importance to the cultural identity. The federal government considered the land to be one of its “crown jewels” and thought that the Blackfoot would tarnish it through their intrusions. This separation between man and nature of course goes against Indian wisdom. The park founders idea of “wilderness” owed more to European romanticism than it did to the reality of American history. The indigenous peoples and the forests, rivers and grasslands lived in coexistence and codetermined each other’s existence thousands of years before Columbus–the first invader–arrived.

The mountains within Glacier National Park contained powerful spirits such as Wind Maker, Cold Maker, thunder and Snow Shrinker. One of the most important figures in Blackfoot religion, a trickster named Napi or Old Man, disappeared into these mountains when he left the Blackfoot. The park is also the source of the Beaver Pipe bundle, one of the “most venerated and powerful spiritual possessions of the tribe.” “Chief Mountain, standing at the border of the reservation and the national park, is by far the most distinct and spiritually charged land feature within the Blackfeet universe.”

While pre-reservation life was centered on the plains and bison-hunting, the resources of the mountains and foothills contained within the park were also important to their livelihood. Women and youngsters dug for roots and other foodstuffs in the parklands at the beginning of the spring hunting cycle. At the conclusion of the bison hunting season, which was marked by the Sun Dance ceremony, the various bands would retreat to the mountains and hunt for elk, deer, big horn sheep, and mountain goats. They would also cut lodge poles from the forests and gather berries through the autumn months. All of these activities were as important to them spiritually as economically. By denying them this, the park administrators were cutting them off from something as sacred as the whale is to the Makah.

What gives the banning of the Blackfoot from Glacier National Park a special poignancy and sadness was that its architect was none other than George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell was not only a park administrator, but a friend of the Blackfoot. He won the trust of Blackfoot story-tellers and this allowed him to put into print the “Blackfoot Lodge Tales.” Although Grinnell said in the preface to the collection that “the most shameful chapter of American history is that in which is recorded the account of our dealings with the Indians,” this did not prevent him from declaring Glacier National Park off-limits to a people he supposedly admired. Of course, without any self-consciousness he also states in this preface that “the Indian is a man, not very different from his white brother, except that he is undeveloped.” Also, “the Indian has the mind and feelings of a child with the stature of a man.” When you stop and consider that Grinnell was a leading supporter of American Indian rights, it is truly frightening to consider the depths of racism that must have existed during the late 1800s, when he was collecting his tales from the Blackfoot while banning them from the park.

Spence has an astute interpretation of Grinnell’s contradictory attitudes. He says that for Grinnell the parks represented a living resource for American civilization. It would be a place for tourists to come and take photographs of the natural splendors. As for the Blackfoot, they were an important part of America’s past. They would live on through the “Blackfoot Lodge Tales” and dioramas at places like the Museum of Natural History.

Spence concludes his article with a description of how the clash between park administrators never really went away:

“By 1935, relations between the Blackfeet and the National Park Service had reached an impasse that remains in place to this day. On one side, the park service, tourists, preservationists largely made Glacier into the uninhabited wilderness that continues to inform potent ideas about nature and national identity. Blackfeet use of park undermined this idealized notion of wilderness and the tribe’s resistance to Glacier’s eastward expansion limited its physical expression. Tension between Indians and the park service subsided over the next few decades, but the issue of Blackfeet in the eastern half of Glacier never disappeared.

“By the 1960s, few Blackfeet actually hunted near the park, and fewer still went to the mountains to gather traditional plant foods and medicines. But the continuing importance of the Backbone of the World never depended on how many people went to the mountains. Although the Glacier region provided the tribe with a large portion of its physical sustenance in the 1890s, the issue of Blackfeet rights in the area always reflected concerns about cultural persistence and tribal sovereignty. In conjunction with the ‘Red Power’ movement of the 1970s, these concerns arose again as Blackfeet leaders pushed for recognition of tribal rights in the park. Their efforts met strong opposition from both park officials and environmentalists, who resisted the Blackfeet ‘threat’ as fervently as they did plans to mine coal and explore for oil in the park. The state of near-war that once characterized relations between the Blackfeet and park officials resurfaced in the early 1980s; the two sides only narrowly armed conflict on several occasions. Ultimately, continued Indian protests, ongoing risk of violence, and Blackfeet proposals for joint management of the eastern half of Glacier forced the National Park Service to revisit issues its leaders had been buried in the 1930s.”

A program for sweeping social and economic change in the United States has to put indigenous rights in the forefront. If the Indian is the canary in the mine, whose survival represents survival for everybody, then no other group deserves greater solidarity. Part of the enormous job in allying all the diverse sectors of the American population against an increasingly reactionary and violent government is explaining that the Indian comes first. This means that Sea-Shepherd and Greenpeace activists must understand that preservation of the “wilderness” makes no sense if the Indian is excluded.

The best way to restore the United States to ecological, economic and spiritual health is to reconsider ways in which the pre-capitalist past can be approximated in a modern setting. Just as it makes sense for the Makah to use whatever weapons they deem necessary in pursuit of the whale, it might make sense for the entire northwestern plains states to be returned to the bison under the stewardship of the Blackfoot Indian. They have a much better track record on taking care of resources than do the agribusiness corporations who despoil the land for profit. Timothy Egan thinks that this makes sense, as does Ernest Callenbach, the author of “Bring Back the Buffalo: A Sustainable Future for America’s Great Plains.” (Island Press, 1998) I will conclude with his suggestion for a new relationship between indigenous peoples and the land and animals that were once theirs:

“The basic Indian goal is the reestablishment on the reservations of the natural ecological balance or reciprocity among humans, plants, and animals that existed before Euro-American occupation. On the Plains, a restored population of bison would be a sign that things had been put back together again on a sustainable basis. As Fred DuBray puts it, ‘We recognize that the bison is a symbol of our strength and unity and that as we bring our herds back to health, we will also bring our people back to health.’ In Mark Heckert’s view, this could be called sustainable agriculture ‘because you can get what you need to survive without inordinately disrupting the system,’ and the result would be self-governing tribes in which the bison are thriving again, the ceremonies have been revived, and the bond between Indian people and the bison has been reestablished. At Pine Ridge there is an ongoing program of teaching stewardship: grandparents go into the schools and explain to the children that all the parts of the natural order are necessary and interrelated; they pass on the store of traditional knowledge that has been kept in the memories of the elders of the community The comeback of the sacred bison–and, more specifically, the appearance of a one-in-a-million white bison–would ‘mean a spiritual recharge for our people,’ as Alex White Plume puts it. ‘There’s talk locally that the time is approaching, so people are beginning to get ready, learning the old songs and revitalizing the ritual that they need to go through. It might be within the next ten years. I hope it’s during my time.'”

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