Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 31, 2008

2008 movies–a consumer’s guide

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:04 pm

These are capsule reviews of DVD’s I received from publicists in connection with the NYFCO awards meeting that took place earlier this month. They exclude four movies that I found outstanding and have reviewed at length:

Frost/Nixon

Revolutionary Road

Slumdog Millionaire

Wendy and Lucy

Also are excluded are a batch of movies from Magnolia Productions that ranged from very good to outstanding. They are reviewed as a group here.

I have divided the movies into two main groups, watchable and unwatchable. For those who question my right to condemn a movie without sitting through to the conclusion, I can only say that I don’t do this for a living. If I were paid to sit through Clint Eastwood’s latest piece of crap, it would be another story entirely. Also, I exercise the same type of judgment when it comes to other art forms. I don’t have to listen to an entire Kenny G. tune to know that I am listening to garbage, etc. Some of the movies are now playing in movie theaters everywhere, others are already available on Netflix. I will so indicate.

Watchable, in order of preference:

The Visitor (Netflix)

This movie focuses on the friendship between Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a jaded middle-aged economics professor, and Tarek, an undocumented musician from Syria and his Senegalese girlfriend who have been squatting in Vale’s fancy apartment near NYU. Normally he is at his equally fancy home on the Connecticut college campus where he is marking time. He has gone to the city for a conference at NYU dealing ironically enough with globalization and underdevelopment, the very problems that have driven the couple to the U.S. In the musician’s case, there is an additional complication: the Syrians have targeted his family as political opponents. Taking some liberties with the likely behavior of a senior economics professor, the screenplay has him allowing the couple to continue living in the apartment. Eventually the two men bond over drumming. After hearing Tarek rehearsing in the bedroom, Vale is instantly hooked. He wants to learn to play the drums himself. The first part of the movie traces the two men as they go to gigs in modest nightclubs or jam sessions in Central Park. This New York City is far more appealing than the one in “Sex and the City” reviewed below. The second part of the movie deals with Vale trying to come to Tarek’s rescue after he gets caught in Homeland Security’s immigration web. To the movie’s credit, the official website has some links to worthwhile links on immigration issues.

Burn After Reading (Netflix)

This is the latest from the Coen brothers. I was all set to hate this after enduring “No Country for Old Men” but was pleasantly surprised. This is a satire on the CIA that features John Malkovich as a laid off spook who begins writing his memoir. A CD backup copy is discovered by dimwitted health club employees Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand, who basically reprises her “Fargo” role but with more of an emphasis on the character’s stupidity. The movie is not so much about conventional gags but more about the patented absurdist sensibility of the Coen brothers. One typical scene has Pitt and McDormand trying to hawk the CD to the Russian embassy, not quite understanding that the Communists are no longer in charge.

Last Chance Harvey

Not the kind of movie that I expected to like. Basically a date movie that combines late to early middle-aged characters in romance, namely Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) and Kate Walker (Emma Thompson). Shine, a composer of advertising tunes, is in London to attend the wedding of his daughter who keeps him at arm’s length. Shine is a schlemiel, a kind of character that Dustin Hoffman has played well in the past. We first meet Kate Walker as she goes on a blind date that ends typically in failure. As accustomed as she is to failure, she holds Harvey at arm’s length as well. The movie is about him trying to get her to trust him. An altogether conventional movie, but written with some panache and acted brilliantly.

Sex and the City (Netflix)

I was a huge fan of the HBO series despite its flagrant disregard for Marxist principles. I enjoyed it in the same way I enjoyed Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. While the producers of the TV show understood that people (women, particularly) in East Jesus, Nebraska who might never get to N.Y. might tune in to become vicarious Park Avenue co-op owners feasting on $40 per entrées, the main appeal was comic. The characters were always getting into absurd situations arising from sexual or hygienic taboos. For example, in one show a newly married Charlotte has to explain to her husband, a Jewish divorce lawyer, that when he goes around the apartment naked, he leaves “skid marks” on the sofa and elsewhere. The movie leaves that sort of thing out entirely and dwells on the love life of Carrie Bradshaw, the main character, and Mr. Big-a Donald Trump type character. When Mr. Big decides at the last minute not to go through with their wedding, Carrie’s heart is broken and the rest of the movie involves her and her friends going to Acapulco to help her drown her sorrows in tequila. Rock Hudson and Doris Day were much better at this sort of thing.

The Dark Knight (Netflix)

I sat through this milling, nonstop procession of car chases with the same degree of interest as watching a well-stocked tropical fish tank. Lots of colors (and sounds) but amounting to not much of anything. Critics seem mesmerized by Heath Ledger’s performance as the joker. I found it mostly to be a joke. What this movie lacks is the sly humor of the Tim Burton Batman’s. Here’s David Walsh’s slashing attack on the movie.l

The Matador

A documentary about bullfighting, as you might have guessed from the title. It is mostly about the ritual inside and outside the ring featuring a monumental bore of a subject, David Fandila. There is a morbid fascination in the initial bullfighting scene but after the second or third, you feel a mixture of boredom and disgust. The documentary alludes to the burgeoning animal rights movement in Spain, which dogs Fandila everywhere he goes but there is no serious attempt to understand their point of view. There might be an interesting story about the bullfighting tradition being linked to Spain’s continuing feudal legacy but the director has much more interest in watching Fandila put on his sequined costume, an almost homoerotic spectacle.

Milk

A big disappointment. To begin with, why couldn’t they have found a gay actor to play Harvey Milk? I have too many associations with Sean Penn in macho roles to accept him as Harvey Milk. It is like watching Robert DeNiro trying to play Harry Hay in a biopic. More to the point, the script is a dud. Written by Dustin Lance Black, a gay who grew up in a Mormon family, it fails to do justice to Harvey Milk who comes across as an object of worship rather than a real person. If you want the real story on Milk, you are better off renting the 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk”. If you enjoy biopics like “Gandhi”, you’ll probably go for “Milk”.

Happy-Go-Lucky

If Mike Leigh’s latest movie was welcomed by critics as a break from his characteristically depressed affairs, I advocate going back to depression. Its main character is a kind of Pollyanna who meets her match in a saturnine driving instructor, who for me is by far the more interesting character. Victoria Alexander, a fellow critic on Rotten Tomatoes, started her review on this note: “I kept hoping Miss Happy-Go-Lucky would get cancer.”

Unwatchable, in order of offensiveness

The Wrestler

Sorry, even though I do admire Mickey Rourke’s acting skills, I simply could not get interested in the problems of a professional wrestler.

Nothing But the Truth

A very strange flick based loosely on the Valerie Plame affair. After an assassination attempt on the president of the U.S. by a Venezuelan operative, a reporter discovers from a source in the CIA that the Venezuelans were patsies. After she refuses to give the name of her source, she goes to jail. This is all played as family drama and a rivalry between the two women. What the movie is utterly lacking is politics. What makes the Valerie Plame/Judith Miller story interesting is the connection to the war in Iraq. “Nothing But the Truth” is not interested in Venezuela or any aspect of foreign policy. A waste of time even bigger than “The Wrestler”.

What Doesn’t Kill You

I had high hopes for this since the lead characters are small time hoodlums from Boston. The opening scenes in the movie make you think that you are about to watch an Irish version of “Goodfellas”, but it really goes nowhere.

Doubt

Based on the stage play by John Patrick Shanley, it involves a duel between a truly repulsive nun played by Meryl Streep and a priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who may or may not be molesting their parochial school’s first African-American student. Someday they might make a compelling movie about the crimes of the Catholic Church but this is not it. Although I am no fan of Anthony Lane, the film critic of the New Yorker magazine, I think he did a nice job summing up this movie:

This film, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who adapted it from his own play, unfolds in 1964, at a Catholic school in the Bronx. A jovial priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is accused by the principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), of interfering with an altar boy. He denies it, she yearns to believe it, and we don’t care. Collectors of large narrative signposts will spend a happy couple of hours at Shanley’s movie, enjoying the window-rattling thunderstorms that he uses to indicate spiritual crisis, and the grimness with which Sister Aloysius, narrowing her red-rimmed eyes, delivers the line “So, it’s happened.” I didn’t know you could hiss, groan, and murmur at the same time, but Streep can do anything. She is, of course, wasted on this elephantine fable; if only “Doubt” had been made in 1964, shot by Roger Corman over a long weekend, and retitled “Spawn of the Devil Witch” or “Blood Wimple,” all would have been forgiven.

Defiance

A truly misbegotten affair based on the story of the Bielski partisans, Jews who organized a guerrilla resistance to the Nazis in WWII. Since I obviously have a keen interest in such a topic, I tried to stick with the movie for as long as I could. I finally had to shut it down because it was simply awful. Where do I start? To begin with, how in god’s name do you cast Daniel Craig, the star of the last two James Bond movies, as a Jew? On top of that, Craig and all the other characters deliver their lines in a kind of Boris and Natasha Russian accent. If it had been up to me, I would have cast somebody like Larry David rather than Daniel Craig and would have had him speak in a Yiddish accent. I suppose I could have lived without these enhancements if the movie was not so stupid. Here’s an excerpt from the review of Edward Douglas, a NYFCO colleague:

Even after all the Holocaust and WWII movies released this season, it’s hard to be completely cynical when talking about movies that handle such a serious subject matter, and yet somehow Edward Zwick’s attempt at telling one such story relies so much on filmmaking formulas and genre clichés, it’s equally hard not to sneer snidely at the epic failure that has resulted. The Bielski brothers are essentially criminals who did a good deed by setting up a makeshift camp where Jewish survivors of the Nazi invasion could be protected, and one major difference from other Holocaust movies is that it makes a big deal about showing how some Jews fought back rather than just complaining or going meekly into the gas chambers. And yet, most of the time in the forest, we watch as the survivors kibbitz and kvetch about their situation, as the three brothers squabble and get into fistfights about how to run the camp before Liev Schreiber goes off to join the Revolution and get more directly involved in the fight against the Germans, and Craig’s character starts running the camp in a tyrannical fashion that foreshadows the coming Communism.

All I can say is thank god I didn’t keep this movie on long enough to see “Craig’s character…running the camp in a tyrannical fashion that foreshadows the coming Communism.” That would have been enough for me to organize guerrilla warfare against the studio responsible for this crap.

Gran Torino

I already called this one “Crash 2″. A preachy, liberal Hollywood movie about the need for people of different ethnic backgrounds to “understand” and tolerate each other. This genre goes back to “The Defiant Ones” and includes Sidney Poitier 9 out of 10 times. In this version directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Nick Schenk (he also has “BodogFight”, “I Shot Myself”, “Factory Accident Sex” and “Let’s Bowl” to his credit), Walt Kowalski (played by Eastwood) is a retired auto worker who can be described as a combination of Dirty Harry and Archie Bunker. He is either chasing kids off his lawn or shooting those that are not fast enough getting off. After a Hmong family moves in next door, Kowalski gets involved in their lives and all for the better. This is what David Edelstein, the New York Magazine film critic, had to say about “Gran Torino”:

The problem is that for all Eastwood’s twilight-of-life ambivalence about his own mythical persona, his is still a paranoid universe of predators and the preyed-upon, so there’s never a need for distracting shades of gray or the kind of every-man-has-his-reasons drama in every episode of The Wire. These are simpleminded moral dilemmas, and the scenes with the Asian gang are almost as crude as anything in Sudden Impact. To think Gran Torino is a masterpiece, you have to accept the contrived setups and sledgehammer melodrama. You have to grade the movie on that same meathead-vigilante curve. As Harry once said, “Man’s got to know his limitations,” and Eastwood has a gift for making his look like brave artistic choices.

December 30, 2008

Man With the Movie Camera

Filed under: Film,ussr — louisproyect @ 9:35 pm

After watching a Netflix DVD of Dziga Vertov’s “Man with the movie camera”, I began doing some background research in order to prepare a review of this 1929 Soviet avant-garde masterpiece. Lo and behold! You can now watch it on the Internet. If you want to watch the silent version, then go to google/video. But if you want to watch it with an excellent film score (the same production as Netflix), go to the 9-part youtube version (part one immediately below).

Netflix’s capsule description should motivate you to watch this classic:

Cinema pioneer Dziga Vertov’s controversial 1929 film still pulses with energy, innovation and genius. This landmark silent masterpiece from the Soviet avant-garde director stylishly highlights the buzz of everyday city life (shops, traffic, children, coal miners, nature) as seen through the eyes of a roving cameraman. Many filmic devices are used to comment on vision, life, Marxism and modernity in the Soviet Union.

I became curious about Vertov after learning that he was a victim of Stalin’s ham-fisted interventions in the excellent documentary “The Last Bolshevik” that dealt with another great Soviet film-maker Alexander Medvedkin.

Like Medvedkin’s 1934 silent comedy “Happiness”, “Man with the movie camera” demonstrates a kind of peaceful coexistence between artistic innovation and the increasingly totalitarian government that supposedly ruled on behalf of the same principles that motivated the film director. By the end of the 1930s, those illusions could no longer be sustained.

Born to a Jewish family in Bialystok in 1896, David Abelevich Kaufman adopted the name Dziga Vertov (spinning top) during the Russian revolution. His brothers Boris Kaufman and Mikhail Kaufman were also important filmmakers and Mikhail serves as the cameraman for “Man with the movie camera”. Boris worked for directors such as Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet in the U.S.

The wiki on Vertov notes:

After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, at the age of 22, Vertov began editing for Kino-Nedelya, the Moscow Cinema Committee’s weekly film series, and the first newsreel series in Russia. While working for Kino-Nedelya he met Elizaveta Svilova, who at the time was employed in film preservation; she was later to become his wife. The first issue of the series came out in June 1918.

Vertov worked on the series for three years, helping establish and run a film-car on Mikhail Kalinin’s agit-train during the ongoing Russian Civil War between Communists and counterrevolutionaries. Some of the cars on the agit-trains were equipped with actors for live performances or printing presses; Vertov’s had equipment to shoot, develop, edit, and project film. The trains went to battlefronts on agitation-propaganda missions intended primarily to bolster the morale of the troops; they were also intended to stir up revolutionary fervor of the masses.

Although Vertov’s output declined radically after Stalin’s diktat on behalf of Socialist Realism was imposed, his early work inspired later generations so much so that French directors, including Jean-Luc Godard, formed the Dziga Vertov Group in 1968 in his honor.

Although it is a joy to behold, there is a sad poignancy to “Man with a movie camera”. It is a reminder of how much was lost when Stalin’s regime was consolidated. By 1929, the forces of backwardness were gathering speed but still had not achieved the power to affect Dziga Vertov. Considering how passionate Vertov was about socialism, technology and communications, in his instance symbolized by the peripatetic cameraman, he would be pleased no doubt by the fact that his work can be enjoyed for free on the Internet.

December 29, 2008

Cargo 200; My Mexican Shivah

Filed under: Film,Jewish question,ussr — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Movies about the Jewish subculture in Mexico City and the social rot of the USSR in 1984 would have nothing in common except that both are worth viewing. “My Mexican Shivah” was directed by Alejandro Springall, a Mexican with a Jewish grandmother, and produced by John Sayles, the leftist U.S. film-maker who has worked with Springall before. “My Mexican Shivah” should be available from Netflix before long, while Alexei Balabanov’s “Cargo 200″ opens at the Cinema Village in NYC on January 2nd.

Balabanov’s movie can best be described as a very dark comedy that views the USSR as a cesspool of corruption. In a 2007 interview with the WSJ, Balabanov described “Cargo 200″ as follows: “I show what filth we lived in. Society was sick from 1917 onwards.” It would be a mistake to view Balabanov as the typical anti-Communist since his breakthrough 1997 film “Brother”  is just as critical of newly “liberated” capitalist Russia. Leaving aside his politics, one can say with some certainty that he is one of the most interesting Russia film-makers on the scene today who simply seeks to mine the USSR and post-Soviet society for the same kind of material that is found in one of Quentin Tarentino’s more interesting productions. The Russian bureaucrat or gangster is less a subject for a probing social analysis than he is as a comic villain, like the hit men in “Pulp Fiction”.

Cargo 200 is a euphemism for the zinc coffins that contained the corpses of Russian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Such double talk appears to have been widespread in 1984, at least on the basis of the evidence of Artem, the Professor of Scientific Atheism who we meet in the initial scene. For Artem, the discourse of “base-superstructure” that he sprinkles in conversation has less to do with any kind of deeply felt Marxist convictions than it does as cant necessary for career advancement.

Late one night his car breaks down on a country road and he seeks help from Alexei, a nearby farmer who makes a living mostly from selling vodka on the black market. He will help fix Artem’s car but only in exchange for sharing some drinks with him as they debate the relative virtues of communism versus Alexei’s vodka-laced faith. In accord with Balabanov’s finely-honed nihilism, Alexei’s home-grown ideology has nothing to offer the Russian people except a powerful hangover, just like his home-grown booze.

As Alexei’s farm is a well known beacon for Russians desperate for a late night drink after the bars and liquor stores have closed, a thirsty youth named Valera (Leonid Bichevin) shows up just after Artem has departed. Valera is accompanied by Angelika, the teenage daughter of a local Communist official. Just after Valera has passed out from one drink too many, a sinister character shows up and carries off Angelika into a shed. He is Zhurov (Alexei Poluyan), a local cop who is friends with Alexei as well as a sadistic psychopath.

When Alexei’s wife discovers that Zhurov has seized Angelika, she sends their Vietnamese hired hand to rescue her. Zhurov kills him with a shotgun on the spot and then dumps a handcuffed Angelika into the sidecar of his motorcycle, and next drives her to the house he shares with his booze-addled mother. In captivity, she alternates between pleading to be released and threatening him with retribution, warning him that her father is a powerful functionary and that her boy friend is a paratrooper in Afghanistan who will kill him as soon as he returns to Russia. She does not realize, however, that he is in the process of being returned only as Cargo 200.

I can certainly recommend “Cargo 200″ but its overwhelming negativity left a bitter taste in my mouth. I much preferred “Brother” since the main character, a veteran of the Chechen wars, was a sympathetic character who was adept at knocking off bad guys in more or less the same style as the samurai hero of “Yojimbo”. With “Cargo 200″, there are no good guys–only the “filth” alluded to in Balabanov’s interview with the WSJ. If you are willing to accept the film on its own terms, you will certainly appreciate the director’s dark comic sensibility as well as his gift for story-telling.

“My Mexican Shivah” is a delight from beginning to end. Using ritual mourning as a plot device is fairly well-established. From 1983’s “The Big Chill” to last year’s “Death at a Funeral”, it allows the living to recreate the character of the dead as well as interact with each other in typically cathartic fashion.

In that respect, “My Mexican Shivah” has a strong affinity with the 2006 “Go For Zucker“, a 2006 German film about the impact of a mother’s death on two brothers; one is a pious Jew and the other a Communist sportswriter. It also evokes the 2004 Uruguayan movie “Whiskey” whose main character was a 60 year old Jewish businessman who is organizing the unveiling of his mother’s tombstone, a ceremony that I too observed only two months ago.

In the opening scene of “My Mexican Shivah”, a tumultuous party is in progress in Polanco, Mexico City’s tiny Jewish neighborhood. While dancing to the tune of a klezmer band, the 75 year old Moishe Tartakovsky keels over and dies instantly of a heart attack.

As is customary in observant Jewish families, they sit shivah (or mourn) for seven days-the word shivah is Hebrew for seven. Although beloved by friends and families, Moishe had a tendency to pit people against each other, especially his middle-aged daughter Esther who promises to kill his father’s long-time shiksah (non-Jewish) mistress if she has the nerve to show up for the shivah.

Esther’s brother Ricardo has clearly inherited his father’s wandering eye and attempts to persuade a mourner, a physician by trade, to do an abortion for his own mistress when he isn’t busy putting the make on his father’s mistress who eventually shows up.

Ricardo’s son Nicolas is an ultra-orthodox Jew who lives in Israel and who would seem to be cut from a different cloth the rest of the clan, at least on first blush. We soon learn that he ended up in Israel to avoid a prison term for drug dealing. We also learn that he has eyes for his first cousin Galia, Esther’s daughter, who also has eyes for him. Nicolas might observe all the 613 mitzvahs (commandments) that are incumbent on religious Jews but apparently screwing one’s first cousin is not one of them.

One morning only 9 mourners have materialized, one short of a minyan (quorum for a service). Rubinstein, an elderly Jew standing on the sideline, notes their quandary and volunteers to be the tenth man, even though he is an atheist and a Communist. It turns out that long ago Moishe helped save his life when he was imprisoned.

Trying to decide whether the inclusion of a red atheist is in keeping with the Talmud, two angels debate the merits. They are invisible to the mourners, but we see them as two long-bearded old men in Hasidic garb who speak to each other in Yiddish. This is one of the casting coups of this remarkable film, since they appear for all purposes in real life to be identical to their characters, namely elderly Hasidim.

The original title of “My Mexican Shivah” is Morirse está en hebreo, which is the title of the Ilan Stavans short story that it is based on. According to the wiki on Stavans, a Mexican Jew who now teaches at Amherst College in Massachusetts: “He has portrayed Jewish-American identity as Eurocentric and parochial. He has been a critic of the nostalgia generated by life in the Eastern European shtetl of the 19th century.”

He also counts Edmund Wilson and Walter Benjamin, two Marxist intellectuals, as primary influences. He also claims to be influenced by Argentina fiction writer Jorge Luis Borges but trying to find his own voice in the early stages of his career decided to burn all his Borges books. Having read some of Borges’s preciously obscurantist work at a much earlier point in my life, I can’t say I blame him entirely although my motivations obviously would have been entirely different from Stavan’s.

UPDATE

In light of the debate about Balabanov taking place in the comments section, it might be useful to have a look at the clip below from his movie “Brother”. When two thugs refuse to pay their fare on a trolley car, the movie’s anti-hero steps in. As I tried to point out, “Cargo 200″ lacks such a figure. In essence, all the characters are like the thugs on the trolley car.

December 28, 2008

The fight in the SWP, conclusion (What kind of party we need)

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:28 pm

On Christmas day, Joonas Laine, a Marxmail subscriber from Finland, raised some interesting issues through a comment on my response to Alex Callinicos:

I’ve been reading Louis’ writings with interest for several years (since 2004 or so), also the ones on the Marxmail list about DSP etc. As I don’t really know so much about the parties that he’s discussing, I can’t know how spot-on his analyses are in this respect, but I find the general organisational questions very interesting, also re what I’m involved with at the moment.

However, having much less experience with being involved in organisations (apart from volunteer based and rather loose NGOs or various kinds, plus some ineffective communist organisations), I think Louis is discussing only one side of the issue. I guess that’s called bending the stick, but to a person with less experience, it would be interesting to read also about the other side, i.e. what is it that is valid in “organisation building” or whatever you want to call it..? To me Louis seems to emphasise first and foremost what SHOULDN’T be done (and a lot of that I find persuading), but I can’t be sure just what he takes for granted in “organisation building” so that it doesn’t need to be mentioned.

In particular I’m thinking, when the organisation has developed so that it has physical assets like buildings and business activities to raise money for political activities, surely there has to be some principles to defend these resources from takeover etc. Who can be trusted with control over these resources etc., surely political questions have to play a part there too. Also I’m not sure how Louis sees the issue of “professional revolutionaries”, i.e. people getting paid by the organisation to do political work for the cause.

While I will try to answer the specific concerns raised in the last paragraph, I also want to try to deal with the broader question of what kind of organizational approach I advocate. So instead of the usual Zinoviev-bashing, I am going to focus more on what needs to be done.

I am not exactly sure if this is what Joonas was driving at, but it reminded me very much over the fight for assets in the aftermath of a  CPUSA split:

The Communist Party, U.S.A. is celebrating its 75th anniversary at a time when its public profile seems to have hit a new low, with the Soviet variety of Communism that the party has long venerated now repudiated at home and abroad.

But now the party has been decimated by a new spate of defections. It is at war with former comrades over money and property it says they stole, and over the direction of what remains of the American far left.

Many of the party’s best-known members have quit to form a new organization, the Committees of Correspondence, which says it is looking for a new path to socialism.

The party is suing some of those defectors, charging they have absconded with its property — holdings in San Francisco that the party values at more than $1 million and money it says had been willed to it.

Quite honestly, I don’t have any answers to this except what might sound like a platitude, namely the need to have accountability to the ranks and democratic control over the organization. When you build a party, there will always be assets like a printing press, buildings, etc. that will be up for grabs in a split. Unlike a divorce, there is no provision for joint custody. Just as is the case in the business world, winner takes all.

Beyond the question of democracy, there is also the matter of what type of infrastructure is appropriate for the 21st century. Keep in mind that Lenin sought to build a party that was in sync with the latest developments in capitalist industry. By 1905 Russian factories were among the most modern on the planet despite the overall backwardness of the economy. Lenin believed that the Bolshevik party needed to reflect the division of labor, etc. that typified the latest industrial techniques. Hence the concept of professional revolutionaries, a kind of changeable part that could be replaced when a comrade was hauled off to prison. He saw the Economist trend as reflecting earlier phases of the Russian economy that were based in the handicrafts. Their refusal to adopt a nationwide and fully accountable structure based on democratic centralism reflected outmoded thinking that was connected to a more backward mode of production.

Within in this context, isn’t it about time that we thought in the same terms about how our movement broadly speaking fits in with the latest changes in the capitalist mode of production? Aren’t the printing press and the party headquarters a kind of throwback to smokestack industries? Inevitably, when a new aspiring “vanguard” party is established, the very first thing on the minds of the leadership is how long it will take them to launch a weekly newspaper, a full-time staff, and a headquarters-elements of which constituted a kind of sine qua non for Marxist-Leninist parties of the 20th century.

In keeping with the discussion now taking place on Marxmail over the appropriateness of Marxist print journals with their expensive subscription rates, I want to suggest that the Internet is the appropriate medium for newspapers as well. In the late 1990s, I met with Barry Cohen of the Committees of Correspondence (and formerly the editor of the CPUSA newspaper before the split) to raise the idea of a weekly to replace the Guardian newspaper that had been the de facto voice of the radical movement in the U.S. until it had gone under just a year or two earlier. Barry was cool to the idea and stated that economic factors militated against print publishing, either bourgeois or radical. Looking at the recent bankruptcy of the Tribune company and the nosediving of Rupert Murdoch’s stock, it is clear that Barry was quite prescient. Essentially, the Internet is undermining print, especially when it comes to classified advertising-the lifeblood of newspapers.

For socialists, there is a more relevant question than revenue and that is the ability of the Internet to act as a kind of universal medium that the printing press represented when Gutenberg introduced it. With the printing press, the masses could spread the word without having to rely on Catholic monks who had in the past been responsible for printing books one at a time in the ultimate labor-intensive profession. The printing press made it possible for people like Tom Paine to V.I. Lenin to put out incendiary tracts as the struggle dictated.

With the Internet, the process of disseminating information and proposals for action is further enhanced. As A.J. Liebling once observed in the course of a critique of the bourgeois press: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” With the Internet, freedom is guaranteed for everybody-at least until the bourgeoisie figures out a way to subvert the medium. Since so much of 21st century commerce rests on the free access to goods and services, they will be frustrated from this end. That is the ultimate contradiction of electronic communications. It is the ultimate technology for the marketplace as well as its ultimate undoing.

With the Internet playing the same role today as Iskra played in Czarist Russia, there is also an ancillary matter of what kind of “professional staff” is appropriate for today’s world. I would argue that we would be better served by keeping full-timers to a minimum. One of the things that the SWP debate keeps coming back to is the problem of full-timers being unresponsive to the ranks. It reminded me of a serious problem that I took note of as soon as I joined the American SWP in 1967. Adopting Lenin’s concept of a professional revolutionary in a mechanical fashion, the full-timers in the SWP always implicitly thought of themselves as the real party. Somebody who had a day job was never up to their standards. This, of course, was never acknowledged within the party but it was just the way things operated.

I now want to turn to the question of what kind of party we need. To some extent I tried to answer this question with “The Speech that Jack Barnes Should Have Given in 1974“. Here’s an excerpt that should give you a sense of what I have in mind:

One of the things I hope never to hear again in our ranks is the reference to other socialists as our “opponents”. Let’s reflect on what that kind of terminology means. It says two things, both of which are equally harmful. On one hand, it means that they are our enemies on a permanent basis. When you categorize another left group in this fashion, it eliminates the possibility that they can change. This obviously is not Marxist, since no political group–including ourselves–is immune from objective conditions. Groups can shift to the left or to the right, depending on the relationship of class forces. The SWP emerged out of a merger with other left-moving forces during the 1930s and we should be open to that possibility today.

The other thing that this reflects is that somehow the SWP is like a small business that competes for market share with other small businesses, except that we are selling revolution rather than air conditioners or aluminum siding. We have to get that idea out of our heads. We are all struggling for the same goal, which is to change American society. We only disagree on the best way to achieve that.

Unfortunately we have tended to exaggerate our differences with other small groups in such a way as to suggest we had a different product. This goes back for many years as indicated in this quote from a James P. Cannon speech to the SWP convention nearly 25 years ago. “We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.”

Comrades, we have to conduct an open and sharp struggle against this kind of attitude. The differences between the SWP and many other left groups is not that great and we have to figure out ways to work with them on a much more cooperative basis. For example, La Raza Unida Party in Texas shares many of our assumptions about the 2-party system and they are open to socialist ideas, largely through the influence of the left-wing of the party which has been increasingly friendly to the Cuban Revolution. We should think about the possibilities of co-sponsoring meetings with them around the question of Chicano Liberation and socialism. The same thing would be true of the Puerto Rican Independence movement in the United States, which shares with us a positive attitude toward the Cuban revolution. In terms of the Marxist movement per se, we have to find ways to work more closely with the activists around the Guardian newspaper. While many of them continue to have Maoist prejudices, there are others who have been friendly to our work in the antiwar movement. The idea is to open discussion and a sure way to cut discussion off is to regard them as “opponents”. Our only true opponents are in Washington, DC.

Finally, I want to say a few words about a very important development on the left that seems to be in sync with my party-building concepts. It appears that the LCR, the French Trotskyist group that had been the official Mandelista section since the 1960s, has finally decided to break with “Leninist” orthodoxy and move in a fresh, new direction. They are dissolving themselves and joining a new anti-capitalist party that they are helping to found. Unlike the British SWP and the Australian DSP, who both had major disappointments functioning as a “Leninist” vanguard in broader electoral formations, the LCR is ready to try something new.

In an interview conducted by Jim Jepps that can be read in Links, an online publication published by the DSP, John Mullen, the editor of the British SWP affiliated Socialisme International, explains what the LCR is doing differently. It should be obvious from Mullen’s reply that he doesn’t quite understand what the goal of the new party should be and approaches it in the same petty-minded fashion as the SWP approached Respect.

Jepps asks: “What’s the position of the LCR, as the most significant organised current in the NPA, on this tricky balancing act between retaining distinct organisation within the NPA and submerging their efforts into it?”

Mullen replies: “To emphasise that the aim of the LCR is not to control the NPA, the LCR is officially dissolving itself just before the foundation of the NPA, and there is no plan to maintain an LCR current inside the NPA. I think it likely that the different currents that were in the LCR will end up setting up three or four currents in the NPA, which seems fine to me. As Socialisme International, our tiny group of comrades, along with a couple of dozen others will certainly set up openly a current based on IS ideas (close to British Socialist Workers Party’s theories).”

I would say that the LCR understands that the way to build a true vanguard today is to begin with dissolving a false one. As a key component of the Fourth International, let’s hope that their example will inspire other sections around the world, as well as some groups that maintain friendly ties-most especially the DSP’ers who have learned from bitter experience how futile the approach of “tiny groups” can be.

December 25, 2008

The fight in the SWP, part five (Lindsey German)

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 10:56 pm

This response to Lindsey German’s article is the fifth and concluding entry in a series of posts that is less about the specifics of the strategic and tactical differences between the SWP’ers and more of an attempt to take a step back and put the fight into a broader context. (I should add that I have a postscript planned that will present my own ideas about how to build a revolutionary party. Mostly they boil down to ideas I absorbed from Peter Camejo in the early 1980s and have since embellished with my own.)

In my view, the SWP’ers are simply reaping the fruits of a sectarian party-building methodology that will defeat the efforts of any Marxist to build a party like Lenin’s. Ironically, the Leninist party that they have in mind when they go about their tasks is not like the historical Bolshevik party but a schematic attempt to create a cookie cutter version of Bolshevism good for all countries and all times.

The man most responsible for this flawed methodology was Gregory Zinoviev, who made the same kinds of mistakes found in Regis Debray’s  “Revolution in the Revolution”. Just as Debray sought to mechanically apply a rural guerrilla warfare strategy throughout Latin America that was based on a one-sided understanding of the Cuban revolution, so did Zinoviev seek to impose a one-size-fits-all version of the Russian party on the rest of the world. While it took about ten years for Latin American Marxists to figure out that the Debrayist conception was in error, the Zinovievist model persists until this day-75 years after it was conceived. Perhaps if Lenin had lived, another approach would have been taken. Even before Zinoviev came up with his party-building concepts, Lenin felt instinctively that something was wrong as this comment made in 1922 about attempts to codify a “Bolshevik model” would indicate:

At the third congress in 1921 we adopted a resolution on the structure of communist parties and the methods and content of their activities. It is an excellent resolution, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is taken from Russian conditions. That is its good side, but it is also its bad side, bad because scarcely a single foreigner–I am convinced of this, and I have just re-read it-can read it. Firstly, it is too long, fifty paragraphs or more. Foreigners cannot usually read items of that length. Secondly, if they do read it, they cannot understand it, precisely because it is too Russian…it is permeated and imbued with a Russian spirit. Thirdly, if there is by chance a foreigner who can understand it, he cannot apply it…My impression is that we have committed a gross error in passing that resolution, blocking our own road to further progress. As I said, the resolution is excellent, and I subscribe to every one of the fifty paragraphs. But I must say that we have not yet discovered the form in which to present our Russian experience to foreigners, and for that reason the resolution has remained a dead letter. If we do not discover it, we shall not go forward.

Lindsey German, who is John Rees’s partner, was a co-leader alongside him in Respect and her article is similar to his in trying to put the best possible spin on the Respect fiasco. She writes:

We were right to do it: it is hard to remember now how much enthusiasm there was for an electoral alternative to Labour in the aftermath of the Iraq war. It was palpable and could have organised tens of thousands.

But Respect faced problems from the very beginning, principally that no Labour MP other than Galloway broke from Labour, and that we didn’t win significant trade union or other left forces. That was to do with the enduring, if decaying, hold of Labour, and the refusal of especially the CPB to join us.

The result was that the project at a national level revolved around an agreement between George Galloway, Salma Yaqoob and the SWP. There was a tension from the beginning in the sense that both our main allies refused to accept an overtly socialist name and that Salma always tended to follow her own agenda (including rewriting the agreed founding statement when she got back to Birmingham and pressurising the rest of us to accept the changes).

There is no need for me to recapitulate my take on the Respect affair and would only refer you to my post of November 2007.  However, something needs to be said about German’s griping over the refusal of Galloway and Yaqoob to accept “an overtly socialist name”. This to me encapsulates the sectarian and idealist framework of the Marxist-Leninist left today. If your main goal is to construct a leftwing alternative to Labour, why insist on naming it socialist? Doesn’t it occur to German that many people, who had not fully developed a socialist consciousness but were angry over the “war on terror” and attacks on Muslim people, were ready to join a leftist but not explicitly socialist party? In the end there must have been some kind of compromise since the “s” in Respect stands for socialism. (RESPECT = Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environmentalism, Community, and Trade Unionism.)

In 1981, when I hooked up with Peter Camejo in order to help build a new, non-sectarian left in the U.S., he told me that he chose the name North Star Network in order to break with a sectarian past in which every new group had to have the words socialist, communist, proletarian or workers in its name. He chose “North Star” because that was the name of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper and a symbol of our own struggle rather than that of the Russians. He was inspired to a large extent by the example of the Nicaraguan revolution which also decided to use a Nicaraguan icon (Sandino) rather than a hammer and sickle.

German also blurts out what might have been in the back of the minds of many SWP’ers when they began to complain about the presence of Muslim “notables” in Respect:

Accident also played a role: if I had been elected to the London Assembly in 2004 (as I very nearly was) then the balance of forces in Respect would have been very different. If white socialists had been elected in 2006 in Newham and Tower Hamlets (as they very nearly were) then the balance of forces and level of politics in those areas would have been raised. If Gordon Brown had not flirted with calling an election in autumn 2007 then maybe Galloway would not have attacked so rapidly.

While I have no problem understanding how German would have liked to have seen more “white socialists” elected in 2006, I simply cannot understand how she would have allowed herself to put such a racist formulation in print. If anybody wrote something along these lines on Marxmail, they would be unsubbed immediately.

Near the end of her article, German refers to Neil Davidson’s attempt to rethink the “organization” question:

An even more serious development it seems to me is coming not from the CC itself but in some documents, especially that by Neil Davidson, which appear to involve a whole rethinking of the methods of organisation we have followed since 1968 and which have got us to where we are.

There is a kind of revisionism going on which appears to be challenging the whole way in which Cliff built the party. Neil argues that a sign of the maturity of the party will be when it can have a more objective assessment of Cliff’s weaknesses as well as his strengths.

For those interested in Tony Cliff’s ideas about how to build a revolutionary party, the Marxism Internet Archive has a lot of material including his 2-volume book on Lenin. While I am much more familiar with Cliff’s writings on “state capitalism”, I took a look this time at what he had to say about party building questions. In “Lenin: His Ideas are the Future” (an article I nearly refused to read just for the ponderous title), Cliff has the good sense to include this quotation from Lenin:

A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfills in practice its obligations towards its class, and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions that have led up to it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification – that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and then the masses.

I couldn’t agree more. It is too bad that today’s “Marxist-Leninist” organizations have proven utterly incapable of acknowledging a mistake, especially the SWP’ers when it comes to the matter of the Respect fiasco.

Back in the early 1980s, around the time I was getting involved with CISPES and working with Peter Camejo to get the North Star Network off the ground, I bought a copy of Playboy for the interview they had conducted with Sandinista leaders. (Trust me, I would never waste $5 to look at Playboy models.) When Playboy asked them about the problems with the Miskito Indians on the Atlantic Coast, Tomás Borge replied along these lines if I may paraphrase him:

Yes, we made a serious mistake. We sent inexperienced and arrogant party members to the Atlantic Coast who made terrible errors that turned the Indians against the revolution. We are doing everything in our power now to rectify these mistakes and hopefully will see peace on the Atlantic Coast in a year or two.

Borge was correct on both scores. The FSLN made mistakes and peace came to the Atlantic Coast before long. While I find next to nothing worth emulating from today’s FSLN, the party of the early 1980s still represented a kind of breakthrough. In my final post, I will try to explain how a revolution in a desperately impoverished country like Nicaragua can help us figure out as Lindsey German puts it in the final section of her article: Where do we go from here?

Email and coal ash trails

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 3:05 pm

Not hazardous, according to Obama’s new energy czar

Seasoned Regulators to Lead Obama Environment Program
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008; A09

The Obama administration has ambitions for a radical change in U.S. environmental policy. But President-elect Barack Obama did not pick radicals to lead it.

Instead, the three officials tapped for leadership posts on the environment are not activists but regulators who have spent years in the weeds of such issues as mercury emissions, brownfields and black-bear hunts.

They will inherit the usual issues — dirty air, dirty water, brownfields and red tides — plus an unprecedented one. Obama has promised to cut back U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases — a proposal that could set off an enormous political fight.

A review of their records and past statements reveals little about the exact policies they would pursue under Obama. It shows they have won over some environmental activists with an open attitude and disappointed others who felt they were not pushing hard enough.

Their expected efforts to limit greenhouse gases would be more ambitious than changes they have sought in previous positions.

“It’s going to be an enormous challenge,” said Felicia Marcus, the western director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “To call it ‘herding cats’ would be to oversimplify it. It’s like herding dogs, cats, wolves and sheep.”

Democratic sources say Obama plans to name Carol M. Browner, a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to a new position overseeing energy, environment and climate change policy from the White House.

Full article

—-

Washington Times
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Climate czar left no electronic trail
Jim McElhatton (Contact)

Don’t bother looking for any electronic records of Carol Browner’s first stint as a federal government executive. The soon-to-be Obama administration climate czar intentionally didn’t keep many.

In sworn testimony obtained by The Washington Times, Ms. Browner disclosed that she refused to use e-mail when she served as President Clinton’s Environmental Protection Agency chief in the 1990s for fear of leaving a digital trail. She also ordered her government computer hard drive wiped clean of records just before leaving office.

“It was a conscious decision not to use a piece of equipment or to learn how to use a piece of equipment because I didn’t want to be in a situation similar to what I had been in Florida,” she testified about government computers. The testimony referred to her days as an environmental regulator in Florida, where an e-mail message sent to her surfaced in litigation.

“This is why I made this decision not to use my computer,” she said. “I was very careful.”

Full article

—-

Waste News, May 1, 2000, Monday
U.S. EPA rules on coal waste; Material termed not hazardous
BYLINE: Susanna Duff
WASHINGTON — Coal combustion waste is not hazardous and can continue to be land disposed or used as mining fill, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said last week.

However, the agency will develop national standards under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Combustion waste currently is exempt from federal regulation, but fossil fuel combustion has toxic metals that could potentially contaminate ground water, the EPA said.

The EPA’s April 25 proclamation came after several extensions from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which last year ordered the agency to determine whether fossil fuel waste is hazardous. The agency since had given two opposing answers. Last year, the EPA gave Congress a report based on a 19-year scientific study that found coal combustion waste was not hazardous and should be regulated as solid waste under RCRA Subtitle D.

But this February, the EPA determined combustion waste is hazardous and should be regulated under Subtitle C.

The agency caved under pressure from environmental groups, argued industry groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Edison Electric Institute and several state environmental agencies.

Environmentalists, including the National Environmental Trust and the Clean Air Task Force, had sent a letter dated Jan. 13 to EPA Administrator Carol Browner stating a hazardous determination would “hasten the building and operation of newer, modern plants using clear fuels, thus reducing the full range of air emissions.” The groups are thought to recently have sent the deciding report to the EPA.

The agency’s reversal to call combusted waste hazardous had surprised members of Congress and industry groups.

In a Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee hearing, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., expressed concern that the agency was going against its own scientists under the influence of environmentalists. Inhofe indicated that the EPA’s final decision could affect the budget of the agency’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

“If the states and industry do not take steps to address these wastes adequately in a reasonable amount of time or if EPA identifies additional risks to public health, EPA will revisit this decision to determine whether a hazardous waste approach is needed,” said Michael McCabe, EPA acting deputy administrator.

—-

NY Times, December 25, 2008
Coal Ash Spill Revives Issue of Its Hazards
By SHAILA DEWAN

KINGSTON, Tenn. – What may be the nation’s largest spill of coal ash lay thick and largely untouched over hundreds of acres of land and waterways Wednesday after a dam broke this week, as officials and environmentalists argued over its potential toxicity.

Federal studies have long shown coal ash to contain significant quantities of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and selenium, which can cause cancer and neurological problems. But with no official word on the dangers of the sludge in Tennessee, displaced residents spent Christmas Eve worried about their health and their property, and wondering what to do.

The spill took place at the Kingston Fossil Plant, a Tennessee Valley Authority generating plant about 40 miles west of Knoxville on the banks of the Emory River, which feeds into the Clinch River, and then the Tennessee River just downstream.

Holly Schean, a waitress whose home, which she shared with her parents, was swept off its foundation when millions of cubic yards of ash breached a retaining wall early Monday morning, said, “They’re giving their apologies, which don’t mean very much.”

The T.V.A., Ms. Schean said, has not yet declared the house uninhabitable. But, she said: “I don’t need your apologies. I need information.”

Even as the authority played down the risks, the spill reignited a debate over whether the federal government should regulate coal ash as a hazardous material. Similar ponds and mounds of ash exist at hundreds of coal plants around the nation.

The Tennessee Valley Authority has issued no warnings about the potential chemical dangers of the spill, saying there was as yet no evidence of toxic substances. “Most of that material is inert,” said Gilbert Francis Jr., a spokesman for the authority. “It does have some heavy metals within it, but it’s not toxic or anything.”

Mr. Francis said contaminants in water samples taken near the spill site and at the intake for the town of Kingston, six miles downstream, were within acceptable levels.

But a draft report last year by the federal Environmental Protection Agency found that fly ash, a byproduct of the burning of coal to produce electricity, does contain significant amounts of carcinogens and retains the heavy metal present in coal in far higher concentrations. The report found that the concentrations of arsenic to which people might be exposed through drinking water contaminated by fly ash could increase cancer risks several hundredfold.

Similarly, a 2006 study by the federally chartered National Research Council found that these coal-burning byproducts “often contain a mixture of metals and other constituents in sufficient quantities that they may pose public health and environmental concerns if improperly managed.” The study said “risks to human health and ecosystems” might occur when these contaminants entered drinking water supplies or surface water bodies.

In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed stricter federal controls of coal ash, but backed away in the face of fierce opposition from utilities, the coal industry, and Clinton administration officials. At the time, the Edison Electric Institute, an association of power utilities, estimated that the industry would have to spend up to $5 billion in additional cleanup costs if the substance were declared hazardous. Since then, environmentalists have urged tighter federal standards, and the E.P.A. is reconsidering its decision not to classify the waste as hazardous.

A morning flight over the disaster area showed some cleanup activity along a road and the railroad tracks that take coal to the facility, both heaped in sludge, but no evidence of promised skimmers or barricades on the water to prevent the ash from sliding downstream. The breach occurred when an earthen dike, the only thing separating millions of cubic yards of ash from the river, gave way, releasing a glossy sea of muck, four to six feet thick, dotted with icebergs of ash across the landscape. Where the Clinch River joined the Tennessee, a clear demarcation was visible between the soiled waters of the former and the clear brown broth of the latter.

By afternoon, dump trucks were depositing rock into the river in a race to blockade it before an impending rainstorm washed more ash downstream.

The spill, which released about 300 million gallons of sludge and water, is far larger than the other two similar disasters, said Jeffrey Stant, the director of the Coal Combustion Waste Initiative for the Environmental Integrity Project, an environmental legal group, who has written on the subject for the E.P.A. One spill in 1967 on the Clinch River in Virginia released about 130 million gallons, and the other in 2005 in Northampton County, Pa., released about 100 million gallons into the Delaware River.

The contents of coal ash can vary widely depending on the source, but one study found that the mean concentrations of lead, chromium, nickel and arsenic are three to five times higher in the Appalachian coal that is mined near Kingston than in Rocky Mountain or Northern Plains coal.

Stephen A. Smith, the executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said it was “mind-boggling” that officials had not warned nearby residents of the dangers.

“The fact that they have not warned people, I think, is disastrous and potentially harmful to the residents,” Mr. Smith said. “There are people walking around, checking it out.”

He and other environmentalists warned that another danger would arise when the muck dried out and became airborne and breathable.

Despite numerous reports from recreational anglers and television news video of a large fish kill downstream of the spill, Mr. Francis said the T.V.A.’s environmental team had not encountered any dead fish. On Swan Pond Road, home to the residences nearest the plant, a group of environmental advocates went door to door telling residents that boiling their water, as officials had suggested, would not remove heavy metals.

Environmentalists pointed to the accident as proof of their long-held assertion that there is no such thing as “clean coal,” noting two factors that may have contributed to the scale of the disaster. First, as coal plants have gotten better at controlling air pollution, the toxic substances that would have been spewed into the air have been shifted to solid byproducts like fly ash, and the production of such postcombustion waste, as it is called, has increased sharply.

Second, the Kingston plant, surrounded by residential tracts, had little room to grow and simply piled its ash higher and higher, though officials said the pond whose wall gave way was not over capacity.

Environmental groups have long pressed for coal ash to be buried in lined landfills to prevent the leaching of metals into the soil and groundwater, a recommendation borne out by the 2006 E.P.A. report. An above-ground embankment like the one at Kingston was not an appropriate storage site for fly ash, said Thomas J. FitzGerald, the director of nonprofit Kentucky Resources Council and an expert in coal waste.

“I find it difficult to comprehend that the State of Tennessee would have approved that as a permanent disposal site,” Mr. FitzGerald said.

The T.V.A. will find an alternative place to dispose of the fly ash in the future, Mr. Francis said. He said that at least 30 pieces of heavy machinery had been put in use to begin the cleanup of the estimated 1.7 million cubic yards of ash that spilled from the 80-acre pond, and that work would continue day and night, even on Christmas. The plant, which generates enough electricity to support 670,000 homes, is still functioning, but might run out of coal before the railroad tracks are cleared.

About 15 houses were affected by the flood, Mr. Francis said, and three would likely be declared uninhabitable. “We’re going to make it right,” he said. “We’re going to restore these folks to where they were prior to this incident.”

A spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, Laura Niles, said the agency was overseeing the cleanup and would decide whether to declare Kingston a Superfund site when the extent of the contamination was known.

United States coal plants produce 129 million tons of postcombustion byproducts a year, the second-largest waste stream in the country, after municipal solid waste. That is enough to fill more than a million railroad coal cars, according to the National Research Council.

Another 2007 E.P.A. report said that over about a decade, 67 towns in 26 states had their groundwater contaminated by heavy metals from such dumps.

For instance, in Anne Arundel County, Md., between Baltimore and Annapolis, residential wells were polluted by heavy metals, including thallium, cadmium and arsenic, leaching from a sand-and-gravel pit where ash from a local power plant had been dumped since the mid-1990s by the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company. Maryland fined the company $1 million in 2007.

As it grew dark in Kingston, a hard rain enveloped Roane County, rendering the twin smokestacks of the steam plant, as locals refer to it, barely visible amid the dingy clouds.

Angela Spurgeon, a teacher and mother of two whose dock was smothered in the ash-slide, said she was worried about the health effects, saying that on the night of the accident everyone was covered in sludge.

“The breathing is what concerns me, the lung issues,” Ms. Spurgeon said. “Who knows what’s in that water?”

Felicity Barringer and Robbie Brown contributed reporting.

December 24, 2008

The fight in the SWP, part four (Alex Callinicos)

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:47 pm

When you read Alex Callinicos’s reply to John Rees on the Socialist Unity blog, the first thing you note is the well-placed reproaches. As somebody striving to hold high the banner of proletarian discourse, Callinicos is disappointed that Rees “has had to engage in quite a lot of inflation, distortion, and innuendo.” Unlike Rees, Callinicos assures his readers that he’ll “try to stay on the high ground.”

Whenever I read this sort of nonsense in a Marxist polemic, I cannot help but think of Seth Pecksniff, one of Charles Dickens’s most memorable characters who inspired the term Pecksniffian, which Webster’s defines as unctuously hypocritical. I couldn’t describe it better, especially when you keep in mind that Callinicos was the hatchet-man responsible for booting the American ISO out of their international movement.

Callinicos in fact directs a spitball at the ISO in the course of answering Rees’s charge that the SWP was dragging its feet in its response to the financial crisis:

In the first place, I completely reject the claim that the present leadership has been slow to face up to the impact of the crisis. As a theoretical tendency we have consistently defended an analysis of the prolonged period of crises and slow growth that capitalism entered at the end of the 1960s as a result of a pronounced fall in the general rate of profit against bourgeois boosters of globalization, sundry reformists and academic leftists, and even some of our sister organizations (this analysis was an issue in the debates with the International Socialist Organization in the United States at the end of the 1990s).

Now it is not exactly clear whether Callinicos is making an amalgam between the ISO and “bourgeois boosters” et al, or just stating that they have the same theoretical weaknesses on this particular question. More to the point, the real issue was not theoretical but the ISO’s refusal to bend to the will of the SWP’s Central Committee. After they built the largest group on the left in the U.S., why should they allow themselves to be bossed around, even if they relied initially on the support of the SWP?

For all of their knowledge of revolutionary history, it is too bad that the SWP leaders have learned nothing from it. Indeed the complaints of the ISO leadership sounds exactly like that of the German Communist Party in the early 1920s with respect to the Comintern:

The politics and organization of international socialism have suffered a severe blow. The tragedy is not the alleged hopeless sectarianism of the ISO, but the fact that the SWP failed to provide the leadership necessary for the tendency to grow in the 1990s. This is not a crime. The crime is to cover up that failure and then search for scapegoats abroad. In spite of our expulsion, we remain proud adherents to the traditions and politics of the international socialist tendency, and will continue to work with any organizations who are willing to have open, fraternal relations with us, whatever our disagreements may be.

There is no precedent for expelling an organization wholesale from the tendency in this manner-and we intend to answer the slanders about us, defend our organization and urge others to join us in fighting the bureaucratic degeneration of the tendency’s leading group.

The SWP leadership has now been involved in six splits in as many years in IS Tendency groups internationally. Whatever the immediate cause of each split, these splits point to a method that the SWP has applied throughout the tendency. For all the talk of nonsectarianism and of new methods of work, our expulsion has been conducted along the lines of the worst traditions of the sectarian left.

Judging by the sharp tone of Callinicos’s reply to Rees, one might expect a seventh to be in the works.

On the question of whether or not the SWP reacted to the financial crisis in a timely fashion, it would of course be inappropriate for me to render an opinion. Much of the discussion taking place between the SWP leaders involves difficult issues of strategy and tactics that would remain challenging even if they dumped their sectarian framework. My only interest in the fight in the SWP, of course, is to highlight the sectarian misconceptions in the hope that some of their members who read my blog will be in a position to influence things in the right direction.

For Callinicos, and every other SWP leader involved in the debate, the problem is fundamentally one of growth. They are agonizing over the fact that they are stuck in a kind of rut. For Davidson, the failure to grow is a function of misguided strategy. Obviously, for people in a position of authority like Callinicos, the fault must be displaced outside of the Central Committee. He explains the low growth rate as a function of a benign intention to make the party more immersed in the mass movement. Rather than having the party being based on branches, the SWP simply assigned its members to organizations in the mass movement like Respect or the antiwar coalition. Callinicos states:

But the collapse of the branches meant that all sorts of other party activities were undermined. The distribution and sale of party publications was, for example, badly weakened. In his effort to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the present CC majority, John complains about the chronic difficulties of party finances. This is surprising since these difficulties date back at least a decade, and John has, like the rest of us, taken part in many discussions about how to overcome our financial problems.

I will have much more to say about this question in my final post, but at this point must simply point out once again that the concept of “recruitment” which remains at the heart of self-described Leninist organizations today guarantees that they will never reach mass proportions. When people decide to join the SWP, it is with the understanding that they will be expected to defend the party line in public, including all the shibboleths of “state capitalism”. In their desire to create an ideologically homogeneous “vanguard party”, the SWP fails to understand exactly how the Bolshevik party emerged out of a mass movement. In the early 1900s there was widespread sympathy for socialist ideas in Czarist Russia and Lenin sought to build a nation-wide organization that united socialists in action. There is no evidence that Lenin had a “program” of the sort that defines all of the Marxist-Leninist groups today. As Peter Camejo once told me, a program only emerges through a dialectical interaction of theory and activity. To build a party on the basis of a pre-existing “program” that includes all of Tony Cliff’s sacred texts is nothing but idealism and an obstacle to the kind of massive growth that these SWP comrades so desperately seek to achieve.

December 22, 2008

The fight in the SWP: part three (Chris Harman)

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Like John Rees, SWP leader Chris Harman feels the need to respond to an article by Neil Davidson that I dealt with in part one of this series. As always, we are grateful to Socialist Unity for making Harman’s article available.

Harman is troubled by Davidson’s claim that there is more democracy in the trade unions than in the SWP:

First, it is simply not true that party members have fewer rights than members of unions. We do not have the mass purges and intimidation of dissidents that characterises UNISON at the moment. Any comrade or group of comrades can raise matters directly at party councils.-a far more direct route than in any union. We actually have a disputes committee whose reports most years are characterised by the fact that they involve no expulsions-and the committee is chaired by a comrade who was outspoken in defending certain positions opposed to the CC just three years ago. There has never been any restriction on what people write for the preconference bulletins.

I am afraid that comrade Harman misses the point entirely. Unlike the more obvious bureaucratic practices of the Stalinist movement, the Trotskyist movement maintains orthodoxy through peer pressure rather than trials and expulsions. Here is how it works.

The leadership of these self-declared vanguards is based on the notion of “revolutionary continuity”, a term that was bandied about incessantly in the American SWP. Basically, it is closely related to the notion that the current leader or leaders of the “vanguard” grouping are descendants of Marx-not genetically but programmatically. You also have a preoccupation with “grooming”. For example, much was made in the American SWP about how Jack Barnes was “groomed” by Farrell Dobbs, who was in turn groomed by James P. Cannon, who was in turn groomed by Leon Trotsky. Instead of a race horse getting brushed down, you have a profound thinker at party headquarters channeling the essence of Marx-thought. When you decide to write a sharply critical article for a convention, your fear is not that you will be expelled but shunned because you had the temerity to question the disciple of Karl Marx.

This leads to self-censorship of the most extreme form. When, for example, I became convinced in 1977 that the “turn toward industry” was based on a hallucination, I would not dare write a document making this point. So instead I got up at a New York meeting of the SWP and made an idiotic speech about how the workers were waiting for our comrades’ leadership with bated breath. It was like a scene out of Costa-Gravas’s “The Confession”.

It is only after a deep political crisis sets in that you find factions forming in such groups, as they have in the DSP and now in the SWP. Eventually, the factions vie with each other as to who is best able to provide “revolutionary continuity” and don the crimson robes handed down from past Jeddi masters of the class struggle. Needless to say, there was no peer pressure like this in the Bolshevik Party before 1917. After 1917, the Kremlin became something like the Vatican and a culture of toadyism alien to the workers movement set in. The toadyism was enforced in the Stalinist movement by threats of expulsion and sometimes loss of life. In the Trotskyist movement it was enforced by peer pressure. Both forms of compulsion have to disappear in order for our movement to grow and flourish.

In trying to demonstrate to Neil Davidson that it is not easy to come up with organizational solutions, Harman appeals to the example of German Communism in the 1920s:

I suspect that whatever new structures we adopt may well need to be further reshaped in the light of practical experience. Neil points to the structures of the German Communist Party in 1922. He will be aware that it is a far from perfect example for us. The party had only the year before lost up to half its members and expelled one of its leading figures, Paul Levi. And it was plagued by a fight between two factions, one led by Heinrich Brandler, with years of exemplary practical experience, rooted in a strong working class district; the other led by the young intellectuals with ultra left tendencies, Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow. When Germany entered a new phase of very intense economic, social and political crisis in 1923, neither grouping was able to provide the leadership needed. The ultra lefts saw a revolutionary situation where none existed in the first months of the year, while Brandler did not have the confidence to follow his own instincts and fight for a decisive shift to the left required when the situation changed in June. The result was a party which certainly was not “considerably more flexible and open” than us, as Neil seems to believe.

Entirely missing from this brief analysis is any consideration of the role of the Comintern. As is customary in Trotskyist literature on the problems of German Communism, the blame is put entirely on the failure of the Germans to build a “vanguard” up to the high level of Lenin’s party. My reading of this history reveals something else entirely. The Germans would have been better off if they ignored the Comintern entirely, including one of its foremost leaders Leon Trotsky. In an article I wrote some time back, I questioned their heavy-handed intervention as follows:

When Brandler got to Moscow, the Bolshevik leaders cornered him and pressured him into accepting their call for a revolutionary showdown. What was key in their calculations was the likelihood that a bold action by the Communist Party would inevitably galvanize the rest of the working class into action. Once again, an element of Blanquism had colored the thinking of the Bolshevik leaders. They assumed that the scenario that had occurred in Russia in 1917 would also occur in Germany. This was an unwarranted assumption that was fed by a combination of romanticism and despair. Romanticism about the prospects of a quick victory and despair over the USSR’s deepening isolation…

The Bolshevik leaders finally wore Brandler down and he agreed to their plans, which involved the following:

1) The Communists would join Zeigner’s government in Saxony as coalition partners and arm the workers. The state of Saxony would then provide a base for a military and political offensive in the rest of Germany.

2) A date would be set for the seizure of power. Trotsky was the main advocate of setting a date. Over the objections of Brandler, Trotsky insisted that the date be November 9th. This was meant to coincide closely with the Bolshevik revolution of November 7th, 1917. Trotsky said, “Let us take our own October Revolution as an example…From the moment that the Bolsheviks were in the majority in the Petrograd Soviet…our party was faced with the question–not of the struggle for power in general, but of preparing for the seizure of power according to a definite plan, and at a fixed date. The chosen day, as it is well known, was the day upon which the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets was to convene…” Trotsky simply could not perceive that Russian revolutionaries setting a date for themselves is much different than setting a date for revolutionaries in another country. This distinction would have been lost on Trotsky who had gotten in the habit of laying down tactics for other Communist Parties in his capacity as Comintern official. He had the audacity to tell the French Communist Party, for example, what should go on the front page of their newspaper L’Humanite.

What does any of this have to do with the SWP? Let me give you some hints: International Socialist Organization; Seattle.

The remainder of Chris Harman’s article is a defense of the appropriateness of calling Respect a “united front” and not worth a reply since this defense has been so obviously refuted by real world events.

The obvious choice

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 3:07 pm

From Harper’s

December 21, 2008

The fight in the SWP, part two (John Rees)

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 10:22 pm

This is a reply to John Rees’s article “Where We Stand” that appeared on the Socialist Unity blog.

As many of you know, Rees was in the eye of the storm over Respect. The SWP assigned him to work in the party, where he became National Secretary. He also ran as a Respect candidate in the 2004 elections.

One of the main theoretical documents that underpinned the SWP’s intervention in Respect was written by Rees. Titled “The broad party, the revolutionary party and the united front“, it is deeply flawed by confusion over what Lenin and Trotsky meant by a united front. They never applied this tactic to electoral politics, but to specific actions that united socialists, communists and other left formations on a temporary basis. Since Respect did grow out of the genuine united front against the war in Iraq that involved George Galloway as a leading figure, it is understandable how Rees would make such a mistake. However, the British anti-war coalition was understood by its participants to be a bloc of parties who agreed on little else except the need to fight against the war. Turning that alliance into the more homogenous political culture required to build an electoral party is another story altogether as the ultimate breakup of Respect would indicate. Divided loyalties between the SWP and Respect would be the undoing of the SWP.

It is not surprising that Rees repeats the talking points of the SWP in his article, starting off with the proposal that Respect was a “coalition”:

Respect was always a coalition involving forces that came together in the antiwar movement. Much of the left including the Communist Party of Britain abstained from the beginning, as did other left Labour MPs. So we were left with George Galloway, a talented and high profile anti-war campaigner but one whose record historically was not on the hard left of Labour; radicalised Muslims; a number of other activists radicalised by the war and disenchanted with Labour, and the far left, predominantly ourselves.

Missing from this calculation is any understanding of the potential minefield represented by a disciplined “Leninist” party working in a party with people whose main loyalty was to Respect and not the SWP. When those “radicalized Muslims” had tried to persuade John Rees of the wisdom of this or that motion at a supposedly democratic decision-making meeting of Respect, they surely expected that he took their ideas more seriously than those of his comrades on the SWP Central Committee. When they began to figure out that the decisions had been worked out in advance at the CC meeting and presented to Respect as a fait accompli, no wonder they might have felt alienated.

These dimensions of the problem are of absolutely no interest to the SWP, which sees the fight in Respect in Manichean terms. They are the forces of Light fighting for trade union and woman’s liberation demands, while the “radicalized Muslims” come across as horse traders from a Mideast bazaar with little interest in politics.

After discussing the problems in Respect, Rees airs out the dirty laundry in the SWP, most of which involves money as you would expect. None of this really interests me at all. I did find the next section on “recruitment” to be of much more interest since it gets to the heart of the flawed party-building methodology of the SWP. Here’s how Rees describes the problem:

The first serious division on the CC was not over the crisis in Respect. But immediately  after the Respect split last November there was a discussion on the CC about SWP recruitment. It seemed obvious to us that party recruitment was lower than it should be and that the end of the Respect project and the interregnum in the ‘war on terror’ meant that we could launch full scale a recruitment campaign.

Ask yourself this: did Lenin ever write about “recruitment” to the Bolshevik Party? If you do a search in MIA, you will find virtually nothing except something like this from Lenin’s 1905 “New Tasks and New Forces” :

To sum up, we must reckon with the growing movement, which has increased a hundredfold, with the new tempo of the work, with the freer atmosphere and the wider field of activity. The work must be given an entirely different scope. Methods of training should be refocussed from peaceful instruction to military operations. Young fighters should be recruited more boldly, widely, and rapidly into the ranks of all and every kind of our organisations. Hundreds of new organisations should be set up for the purpose without a moment’s delay.

It is not clear from this whether Lenin is talking about getting people to join the Bolshevik Party or the mass movement instead. Indeed, one of the most striking things about all of Lenin’s writings is the utter inattention to “organizational” issues per se. Despite being regarded as a master organizer, Lenin never wrote anything remotely resembling Rees’s bookkeeper-like concern with membership numbers. This is because the Bolshevik Party was much more loosely organized than any party constituted as a “Leninist” party today. If today’s Leninist parties have to go through periodic purges to make sure that the integrity of the proletarian program remains intact, you have to ask yourself why so few people were ever expelled from Lenin’s party. Except for Bogdanov, I can think of not a single expulsion.

Furthermore, what springs to mind when you talk about recruitment? This is a term that obviously has a connection to the military. Young men and women from all walks of life get recruited to the military and are turned into fighting machines. Ex-members of the nutty American SWP used to be just as obsessed with recruitment as Rees. We assigned people to the mass movement in order to advance its goals (of course) but also to recruit “healthy independents”, in other words those people who had not been tainted by beliefs that were inconsonant with Trotsky’s profound insights. I was the perfect “healthy independent” since I had never read a single Marxist book in my life. After being recruited to the SWP and concluding a new members class, I was just like a young Marine who had graduated from boot camp: molded into a fighting cadre ready to do the party’s bidding.

In genuine mass revolutionary parties, there is no recruitment on this basis. Instead the party is formed out of the mass movement and includes the natural leaders of the working class who have clearly emerged as leaders on the basis of their mastery of class struggle principles, whether or not they have read the 18th Brumaire. It also will include Marxist intellectuals who have developed their own ideas about “the Russian question” through years of study and are not likely to give up their beliefs to conform to the expectations of a group like the SWP. If the SWP simply dropped the state capitalist ideology, or at least made it a back burner type question relegated to the back pages of their magazine along with discussion of the Brenner thesis et al, it will solve their “recruitment” problems. But that ideology serves to distinguish them the competition on the left just as some special ingredient in a detergent is designed to protect market share.

I should add that Rees’s ideas about recruitment were most likely influenced by the founder of the Trotskyist movement, which included SWP founder Tony Cliff in its earliest stages. In January 1940, Leon Trotsky wrote an open letter to James Burnham which stipulated:

The disintegration of capitalism, which engenders sharp dissatisfaction among the petty bourgeoisie and drives its bottom layers to the left, opens up broad possibilities but it also contains grave dangers. The Fourth International needs only those emigrants from the petty bourgeoisie who have broken completely with their social past and who have come over decisively to the standpoint of the proletariat.

This theoretical and political transit must be accompanied by an actual break with the old environment and the establishment of intimate ties with workers, in particular, by participation in the recruitment and education of proletarians for their party. Emigrants from the petty-bourgeois milieu who prove incapable of settling in the proletarian milieu must after the lapse of a certain period of time be transferred from membership in the party to the status of sympathizers.

God knows that I love Leon Trotsky, but it is this sort of thing that made me realize that the cultification of the SWP could not be blamed solely on Jack Barnes. What does this sound like? It sounds exactly like a Church doing missionary work. When the Trotskyist movement recruits “emigrants from the petty bourgeoisie” who then break completely with their social past, they are then expected to settle in the “proletarian milieu” and begin to recruit and educate proletarians. This is the formula that led to the disastrous “turn toward industry” in the late 1970s.

Trotsky could not be blamed entirely for adopting a party-building methodology that appears to have so much in common with the Mormons. He simply assumed that the Zinovievist version of Bolshevik history was valid for any revolutionary organization, including the Fourth International. As history has demonstrated, it has unfortunately led to nothing but a thousand and one splits.

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