Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 31, 2010

Marty Hart-Landsberg on Korean tensions

Filed under: Korea — louisproyect @ 10:26 pm

What’s Happening On The Korean Peninsula?

by Martin Hart-Landsberg

What’s happening on the Korean peninsula?  If you read the press or listen to the talking heads, your best guess would be that an insane North Korean regime is willing to risk war to manage its own internal political tensions.  This conclusion would be hard to avoid because the media rarely provide any historical context or alternative explanations for North Korean actions.

For example, much has been said about the March 2010 (alleged) North Korean torpedo attack on the Cheonan (a South Korean naval vessel) near Baengnyeong Island, and the November 2010 North Korean artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island (which houses a South Korean military base).

The conventional wisdom is that both attacks were motivated by North Korean elite efforts to smooth the leadership transition underway in their country.  The take away: North Korea is an out-of-control country, definitely not to be trusted or engaged in negotiations.

But is that an adequate explanation for these events?  Before examining the facts surrounding them, let’s introduce a bit of history.   Take a look at the map below, which includes both Baengnyeong and Yeonpyeong Islands.

full: http://media.lclark.edu/content/hart-landsberg/2010/12/31/whats-happening-on-the-korean-peninsula/

December 30, 2010

Once more on democratic centralism

Filed under: democratic centralism,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

Yesterday Nick Fredman of the Socialist Alliance in Australia, a very promising attempt to transcend sectarianism initiated by comrades of the Democratic Socialist Party who have quite correctly dissolved into this broader formation, raised a very important question about caucuses, drawing implicitly into consideration the whole question of democratic centralism. He wrote a comment under my post about the SWP/Laurie Penny dispute:

Which is why I don’t understand at all Louis’ absolute stricture against caucusing before movement meetings. There’s a big difference between on the one hand, say, a small student action group meeting with the majority there members of far left groups each repeating points already made about the absolute necessity of a rally being on this date rather than that, before voting on “party lines” (been there, wish I hadn’t), and on the other, say, a large meeting of union delegates with a small minority of socialists who had worked out some proposals beforehand that were better than the bureaucrats’ course, and some sensible (and different) things to say in support if they get the chance, which may well win people over (been there, glad I was). One also doesn’t have to scream at or expel people who don’t follow such discipline (when it’s decided it’s worthwhile to have such), as opposed to a sense of proportion and a bit of patient explanation when appropriate.

This is absolutely correct. Caucuses are absolutely necessary in the mass movement. Socialist groups must expect their members to vote based on majority rule in such circumstances. That in fact is what the centralism part of democratic centralism is all about. It is anti-democratic for a socialist parliamentarian to ignore his or her party’s wishes. When workers donate their time and money to elect a member to parliament, the least they can expect is to see their wishes expressed there. One of the great scandals of 1914 is that some socialist deputies voted for war credits despite the party’s antiwar declarations.

The problem, however, is that for small, self-declared “Leninist” formations, the discussions about policy take place behind their organizational firewall. I saw this all through the Vietnam antiwar movement when the SWP held what we called “fraction” meetings before a key national gathering. We were told that we were for a, b and c and that we should follow the lead of our “floor captains” when a crucial vote came up. This was what made so many people hate “Trots”. It was so obvious that someone like Fred Halstead or Gus Horowitz was calling the shots.

The way to resolve this problem, of course, is to go back to the real Bolshevik Party rather than the fictional version cooked up by James P. Cannon or any other men (and they were almost exclusively men) from that generation. Lenin did not believe in organizational firewalls. He believed in absolute transparency, except when it involved the security of the party.

In June 1905, Lenin wrote an article titled “The First Steps of Bourgeois Betrayal” that defined the relationship between the mass movement (back then, exclusively proletarian) and the working class party, drawing a sharp distinction with the bourgeois democrats of the Cadet Party:

We Social-Democrats resort to secrecy from the tsar and his blood hounds, while taking pains that the people should know every thing about our Party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its programme and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party congress delegate said at the congress in question. The enlightened bourgeois of the Osvobozhdeniye fraternity surround themselves with secrecy… from the people, who know nothing definite about the much-talked-of “Constitutional-Democratic” Party; but they make up for this by taking the tsar and his sleuths into their confidence. Who can say they are not democrats?

Does that sound anything like the way that our latter-day “Leninist” parties operate? Methinks not.

Something else must be said. The Bolsheviks were not committed to democratic centalism as a method of functioning in opposition to the Mensheviks. When I was being indoctrinated into the Trotskyist movement, we always used to hear something that went like this. The Bolsheviks were “democratic centralists” who knew how to get things done, unlike the Mensheviks who hated democratic centralism like a cat hates water and who preferred “talk shops” of the kind that Irving Howe and Dwight McDonald hosted at Upper West Side salons.

In fact the term predates Lenin by many years and was first used in 1865 by J.B. Schweitzer, a Lassallean. (The discussion here owes much to Paul LeBlanc’s excellent “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party”.)

The Mensheviks first used it in Russia at a November 1905 conference. In a resolution “On the Organization of the Party” adopted there, they stated: “The RSDLP must be organized according to the principle of democratic centralism.” A month later the Bolsheviks embraced the term at their own conference. A resolution titled “On Party Organization” states: “Recognizing as indisputable the principle of democratic centralism, the Conference considers the broad implementation of the elective principle necessary; and, while granting elected centers full powers in matters of ideological and practical leadership, they are at the same time subject to recall, their actions are given broad publicity, and they are to be strictly accountable for these activities.”

There is virtually no difference between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks about the need for democratic centralism or its meaning. So claims that the two factions differed over this “Leninist” organizational breakthrough are simply mistaken. Moreover, the two groups had resolved many outstanding differences following the 1905 revolution. Menshevik leader Pavel Axelrod said, “on the whole, the Menshevik tactics have hardly differed from the Bolshevik. I am not even sure that they differed from them at all.” Lenin concurred: “The tactics adopted in the period of the ‘whirlwind’ did not further estrange the two wings of the Social Democratic Party, but brought them closer together…The upsurge of the revolutionary tide pushed aside disagreements, compelling the Social Democrats to adopt militant tactics.”

In any case, whatever differences would resurface in the period leading up to 1917, “democratic centralism” was not one of them. At a unity conference held in 1906, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks voted for a resolution that stated: “All party organizations are built on the principles of democratic centralism”.

A Menshevik, Zagorsky-Kokhmal, gave the report on the commission that adopted this resolution. It stated: “we accepted the formula for membership unanimously”. In other words, there was no objection to what some would characterize as “Leninist” norms. The reason for this is simple. Democratic centralism was never an issue.

Since Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin’s 1904 “One Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards” revolves around the charge that he was susceptible to “centralism”, you might get the impression that these differences revolved around the need for democratic centralism. In fact, this term does not appear in her critique that is online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1904/questions-rsd/index.htm

For example, Luxemburg writes, “Lenin’s thesis is that the party Central Committee should have the privilege of naming all the local committees of the party.” Whatever else might say about this, it is not what we think of ordinarily when we hear the term democratic centralism. It is instead a reference to a specific practice rooted in the exigencies of the Russian class struggle, forced to operate under repressive and clandestine conditions. For example, I don’t recall James P. Cannon ever favoring this practice, despite being committed to the sort of democratic centralism that evolved under Zinoviev’s authority.

Not that Luxemburg is opposed to centralism itself. She is not a Foucauldian. When it takes shape from the self-activity of the working class, it is a good thing. “Centralism in the socialist sense is not an absolute thing applicable to any phase whatsoever of the labor movement. It is a tendency, which becomes real in proportion to the development and political training acquired by the working masses in the course of their struggle.”

Of course, the democratic centralism that defines “Leninist” organizations today had little to do with Lenin’s call for “freedom to criticize, but unity in action”. Somewhere along the line it became a formula for ideological homogeneity. It states that the “freedom to criticize” is permissible during preconvention discussion, a period that tolerates atypical behavior every couple of years or so, more or less like Spock undergoing “Pon farr”, the Vulcan version of mating season.

Those who have experienced this version of “freedom to criticize” understand that it is no such thing. Instead it is mainly an opportunity for the secondary leadership of the party to salute the central leadership for the brilliance of the line resolutions presented to the convention. Those who reach the conclusion that the line resolutions are full of baloney are ultimately viewed as scratches that are in danger of turning into gangrene. In such organizations, however, the main danger from the standpoint of medical analogies is hardening of the arteries.

I will conclude with a point that must be made in relation to Nick Fredman’s comment. While I agree that discipline must be expected in hostile settings like a parliament or a trade union dominated by class-collaborationist bureaucrats, I think that a different attitude must prevail at movement gatherings like during the Vietnam War. Although the people gathered there might not be members of a socialist group, they deserve to be treated like comrades rather than raw material that can be shaped by the party’s iron will. Despite all its objections to Stalinism, the SWP’s characterization of itself as “the big red machine” smacked of the same kind of bureaucratic mentality that would be the undoing of the CPUSA and for that matter us after “the turn”.

Billy Taylor, Jazz Pianist, Dies at 89

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:05 am

(My first exposure to jazz was his TV show in the late 50s.)

NY Times December 29, 2010
Billy Taylor, Jazz Pianist, Dies at 89
By PETER KEEPNEWS

Billy Taylor, a pianist and composer who was also an eloquent spokesman and advocate for jazz as well as a familiar presence for many years on television and radio, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 89 and lived in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.

The cause was heart failure, said his daughter, Kim Taylor-Thompson.

Dr. Taylor, as he preferred to be called (he earned a doctorate in music education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1975), was a living refutation of the stereotype of jazz musicians as unschooled, unsophisticated and inarticulate, an image that was prevalent when he began his career in the 1940s, and that he did as much as any other musician to erase.

Dr. Taylor probably had a higher profile on television than any other jazz musician of his generation. He had a long run as a cultural correspondent on the CBS News program “Sunday Morning” and was the musical director of David Frost’s syndicated nighttime talk show from 1969 to 1972.

Well educated and well spoken, he came across, Ben Ratliff wrote in The New York Times in a review of a 1996 nightclub performance, as “a genial professor,” which he was: he taught jazz courses at Long Island University, the Manhattan School of Music and elsewhere. But he was also a compelling performer and a master of the difficult art of making jazz accessible without watering it down.

His “greatest asset,” Mr. Ratliff wrote, “is a sense of jazz as entertainment, and he’s not going to be obscure about it.”

A pianist with impeccable technique and an elegant, almost self-effacing style, Dr. Taylor worked with some of the biggest names in jazz early in his career and later led a trio that worked regularly in New York nightclubs and recorded many albums. But he left his mark on jazz less as a musician than as a proselytizer, spreading the gospel of jazz as a serious art form in high school and college lectures, on radio and television, on government panels and foundation boards.

He also helped bring jazz to predominantly black neighborhoods with Jazzmobile, an organization he founded in 1965 to present free outdoor concerts by nationally known musicians at street corners and housing projects throughout New York City.

“I knew that jazz was not as familiar to young blacks as James Brown and the soul thing,” he told Barbara Campbell of The Times in 1971. “If you say to a young guy in Harlem, Duke Ellington is great, he’s going to be skeptical until he has seen him on 127th Street.”

William Edward Taylor Jr. was born in Greenville, N.C., on July 24, 1921, and grew up in Washington. His father, William, was a dentist; his mother, Antoinette, was a schoolteacher. He had his first piano lesson at 7 and later studied music at what is now Virginia State University. Shortly after moving to New York in 1943 — within two days of his arrival, he later recalled — he began working with the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street, and he remained a fixture on that celebrated nightclub row for many years.

Dr. Taylor had the technique, the knowledge and the temperament to straddle the old and the new; his adaptability made him a popular sideman with both swing and bebop musicians and led to his being hired in 1949 as the house pianist at Birdland.

In 1951 he formed his own trio, which was soon working at clubs like the Copacabana in New York and the London House in Chicago. Within a few years he was lecturing about jazz at music schools and writing articles about it for DownBeat, Saturday Review and other publications. He later had a long-running concert-lecture series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He also became one of the few jazz musicians to establish a successful separate career in radio and television. In 1958 he was the musical director of an NBC television show, “The Subject Is Jazz.” A year later the Harlem radio station WLIB hired him as a disc jockey; in 1962 he moved to WNEW, but he returned to WLIB in 1964 as both disc jockey and program director, and remained in those positions until 1969. He was later a founding partner of Inner City Broadcasting, which bought WLIB in 1971.

Commercial radio became increasingly inhospitable to jazz in the 1960s, but Dr. Taylor found a home at National Public Radio, where he was a familiar voice for more than two decades, first as host of “Jazz Alive” in the late ’70s and most recently on “Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center.” That series, on which he introduced live performances and interviewed the performers, made its debut in the fall of 1994 and remained in production until the fall of 2002.

In 1968 Dr. Taylor was appointed to New York City’s new Cultural Council, along with Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers and other prominent figures in the arts. He later held similar positions on both the state and federal level and until recently was an adviser to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

In 1980 he was a member of an advisory panel that called for greater support for jazz from the National Endowment for the Arts. Many of the panel’s proposals were eventually enacted, and Dr. Taylor became a beneficiary of the endowment in 1988, when he received a $20,000 Jazz Masters award. He was also given a National Medal of Arts in 1992.

Dr. Taylor wrote more than 300 compositions. They ranged in scope and style from “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” a simple 16-bar gospel tune written with Dick Dallas that became one of the unofficial anthems of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, to the ambitious “Suite for Jazz Piano and Orchestra” (1973).

In addition to his daughter, Dr. Taylor is survived by his wife, Theodora. A son, Duane, died in 1988.

As much energy as his other activities required, Dr. Taylor never lost his enthusiasm for performing — or his frustration with audiences that, as he saw it, missed the point. “Most people say, ‘Hey, let’s go to the nightclub and have a few drinks, and maybe we’ll even listen to the music,’ ” he once said. “It’s a lack of understanding of the musicians and of the discipline involved.

“This is not to say that playing jazz is all frowning and no fun at all. But because you make it look easy doesn’t mean you didn’t spend eight hours a day practicing the piano.”

December 28, 2010

The Laurie Penny-SWP dispute

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,student revolt — louisproyect @ 6:09 pm

Laurie Penny

As a long time commentator on the British SWP, I could not help but notice the exchange between Laurie Penny, a 23 year old student activist, and a couple of leaders of the group, Alex Callinicos and Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb fame. Actually, I don’t know if Richard is a leader in the formal sense but my fondest hopes is that one day he will lead this organization that despite its boneheaded ideas about party-building has some of the sharpest minds anywhere in the world operating in the name of Marxism.

The first salvo was fired by Ms. Penny in a Comments are Free article in the Guardian newspaper, where she wrote:

It is highly significant that one of the first things this hydra-headed youth movement set out to achieve was the decapitation of its own official leadership. When Aaron Porter of the National Union of Students was seen to be “dithering” over whether or not to support the protests, there were immediate calls for his resignation – and in subsequent weeks the NUS has proved itself worse than irrelevant as an organising force for demonstrations.

Of course, the old left is not about to disappear completely. It is highly likely that even after a nuclear attack, the only remaining life-forms will be cockroaches and sour-faced vendors of the Socialist Worker. Stunningly, the paper is still being peddled at every demonstration to young cyber-activists for whom the very concept of a newspaper is almost as outdated as the notion of ideological unity as a basis for action.

This is pretty unfair, but something has to be said about street sales or free distribution of printed material, a hallmark of very few groups today outside religious sects like the Nation of Islam and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Marxist-Leninists like the British SWP, or the American SWP that I belonged to.

Around the time that the Comintern was launched, street sales of newspapers were quite common so socialists hawking the Daily Worker or the Militant did not stand out. But by the 1950s at least, this practice had died out.

I remember one of my early experiences selling the Militant at a Stop the Draft Week demonstration in 1969, before I had become totally acculturated to the Trotskyist movement. As a large group of mostly student youth assembled in the streets near the Whitehall Induction Center just a stone’s throw from the Staten Island Ferry, I stood a distance away with a bundle of papers in my left elbow and holding up one with my right hand, saying in just a decibel over conversational level: “Get your latest copy of the Militant”. The whole thing made me feel weird, but I was committed to building a socialist movement and assumed that if the leadership thought it was a good idea, who was I to quibble—especially being the son of a shopkeeper.

After about fifteen minutes or so, I felt a kind of rabbit chop to the back of my neck—not enough to cause me any real pain but enough to grab my attention. It was Dave Frankel, a “youth leader” who would eventually end up writing for the Militant. Frankel was one of the more obnoxious people I ever ran into in the SWP, and—mind you—he had some stiff competition. After I spun around to see who had administered the rabbit chop (an SDS’er?), I saw it was Frankel who glared at me with a cold grin on his face and said “Sell, comrade, sell.”

I should have followed my instincts and resigned on the spot. Indeed, about a month later I met with the SWP organizer to inform him that I had plans to go back to graduate school, which would leave me little time for party activities. He replied that my services were urgently needed in Boston where Peter Camejo was involved with a faction fight against a group of comrades who had adapted to the Worker-Student-Alliance wing of SDS. That sounded like fun to me, so I moved up to Boston leaving thoughts of graduate school behind.

Yes, I know. I am going off on tangents. That is what happens when you get to be my age.

For Penny, the real dividing line seems to be between spontaneity and social networking on one side and “old left” newspaper sellers with their top-down approach on the other. She wrote:

For these young protesters, the strategic factionalism of the old left is irrelevant. Creative, courageous and inspired by situationism and guerrilla tactics, they have a principled understanding of solidarity. For example, assembling fancy-dress flash mobs in Topshop to protest against corporate tax avoidance may seem frivolous, but this movement is daring to do what no union or political party has yet contemplated – directly challenging the banks and business owners who caused this crisis.

Unfortunately bold tactics can only go so far in a mass movement that rests on a relatively weak social base, like university students. Situationism does certainly have its appeal to art students and the like, but I am not sure whether the heavy battalions of labor are easily drawn in to such actions. Indeed, the decline of the anti-globalization movement can be attributed in large part to adventuristic street tactics that could only go so far in forcing the ruling class to abandon the WTO and the like.

Alex Callinicos clearly has a handle on this given his long background in Marxist politics. In his reply that appeared on Comments are Free, he notes:

The important question now is how the student movement can maintain its forward momentum – despite the passage of higher tuition fees through parliament – and invigorate much broader resistance to the coalition’s austerity programme. Penny rightly welcomes the support that Len McCluskey, the new general secretary of Unite, has given the student movement. But his intervention underlines the fact that old political problems don’t simply go away when a new movement emerges…

All this points to the fact that trade union leaders are a lot better at fighting talk than effective action. And this is a very old problem, one with which feminists and Marxists like Penny and me have been grappling since at least the beginning of the 20th century. One of the strengths of student movements is the speed and elan with which they close the gap between words and deeds. This was as visible in France in 1968 as in Britain in 2010. But students lack the collective economic strength that, for all the setbacks it has suffered, the trade union movement still possesses.

Callinicos is far too smart to repeat the formulas of the cruder Marxist-Leninist groups, but it is crystal-clear—especially to an erstwhile practitioner like me—that he was alluding to the need for a revolutionary party that can unite various social layers—students, workers, etc.—into a common fighting front, like fingers being transformed into a fist. You get the picture, right?

The only problem with this conception is that the SWP does not have porous borders like the student movement. The relationship is totally one-sided. The students discuss strategy and tactics openly at their meetings and come to a vote. Anybody can say what they want, as long as it is understood that a democratic decision will guide the actions of the movement. But the SWP’s borders are guarded carefully against penetration from the outside. Students understand that the SWP comes to its decisions at meetings that are limited to party members. Once a decision is made, the line is presented to the mass movement as a fait accompli. No matter how convincing the case made for a particular tactic by someone like Laurie Penny, the SWP’er will vote in strict discipline with his or her comrades.

To put it as succinctly as possible, this methodology has been the ruin of the Marxist-Leninist left even as it has served its narrow, short-term interests. In a way, the democratic centralism of the self-declared vanguard parties is a mirror reflection of the business model of late capitalism in which quarterly earnings reports trump the long-term viability of the system. In seeking to advance its own narrow interests through a mechanical understanding of democratic centralism that has little to do with the way the Bolsheviks operated, groups such as the SWP can mobilize its ranks to get things done in a hurry even if it means isolating itself in the mass movement. The American SWP used to call itself “the big red machine” after this fashion. It helped us win votes at antiwar conferences even if it meant alienating the independents–our versions of Laurie Penny. Their numbers were legion.

Let’s turn now to the always refreshing and insightful Richard Seymour, whose response to Penny appears in the Liberal Conspiracy blog, where Penny has held forth on a fairly regular basis. Richard concludes his article thusly:

SWP members are willing to accept serious flack and criticism from the Left. We’re not infallible, we have made mistakes, and we’re open to learning from experience. And even if you don’t agree with the lessons that we draw, it doesn’t matter.

We don’t make it a condition of unity that you agree with us, or even like us very much. But it would help if, when we’re actually trying to help build unity in the most urgent situations, such as the struggle against fascism, others on the Left don’t try to undermine that unity with spurious and ungrounded attacks on those they disagree with.

Again, the problem is with the understanding of unity. For Richard, unity means the ability of left groups to work with other left groups and with unaffiliated activists. Now it does not mean very much if the SWP has figured out ways in the past to work with Peter Taaffe’s group or the CP or with any other left party. It is understood that these parties will come to a conference with their agendas set pretty much in stone. Their goal is to persuade the unaffiliated to vote for their proposals. That’s the way that the American SWP operated and it is frankly little more than a charade. A truly living mass movement is democratic to the core. And how can you have true democracy when decisions are made beforehand at someone’s central committee?

As I said earlier, this is not the way that the Bolsheviks operated. Proof of this is in John Reed’s “Ten Days that Shook the World” where Reed refers to the fight in the Bolshevik party about whether power should be seized from Kerensky:

However, the right wing of the Bolsheviki, led by Riazanov, Kameniev and Zinoviev, continued to campaign against an armed uprising. On the morning of October 31st appeared in Rabotchi Put the first installment of Lenin’s “Letter to the Comrades,” one of the most audacious pieces of political propaganda the world has ever seen. In it Lenin seriously presented the arguments in favour of insurrection, taking as text the objections of Kameniev and Riazanov.

As it turns out, Rabotchi Put was not an internal discussion bulletin of the kind that we were warned never to allow “outsiders” to see in the American Trotskyist movement, but the daily Bolshevik newspaper that was sold on the streets all over St. Petersburg and elsewhere. Lenin’s article is found in an appendix to Reed’s book and it is a real eye-opener. Against Kameniev and Riazanov’s argument that “we have not a majority”, Lenin replies that they “simply don’t want to look the real situation in the face” and draws the readers’ attention to the peasant uprising sweeping Russia, which cannot be readily reflected in parliamentary totals.

Needless to say, this is simply not the way that modern-day self-styled “Leninist” parties operate. They think that having members disagree with each other in public is a “social democratic talk shop”. But in fact, that is the way that the Bolsheviks operated and that allowed them to win the majority of Russian workers and peasants. If you are of course content to run a closed-off sect that does not have to put up with the inconveniences of the unenlightened masses, then none of this is particularly attractive even if it is historically faithful to the real Bolshevik party.

It would appear that Laurie Penny has the final word in The New Statesman, where she blogs regularly. In a reply to Alex Callinicos, she is more right than wrong, particularly this observation:

The question of the paper is fantastically indicative. The notion of a communistic worker’s revolution developed smack in the middle of the golden age of newspapers, which is why Lenin’s ideas about the function of a party paper – that it ought to be a key organising tool produced for the edification of the masses by an influential vanguard of radicals – were and remain so important to many radicals who see themselves as the inheritors of Marx and Lenin. At the time, Lenin was advocating revolution that utilised the structures of the most cutting-edge technology anyone had available to them. This new wave of unrest is happening at a similar turning point in the history of communications technology. New groups can exchange information and change plans via twitter and text message in the middle of demonstrations. It’s no longer about edicts delivered by an elite cadre and distributed to the masses, or policy voted on at national meetings and handed down by delegates. It’s not the technology itself so much as the mentality fostered by that technology that is opening up new possibilities for resistance.

The Socialist Workers Party and other far left organisations do not have a monopoly on class consciousness. Many organisers of this year’s student revolutions have a background in far left agitation, and many more do not – but nearly all of us know precisely what’s at stake. If any one group tries to claim ownership or exert control over this new movement, they will have missed the point entirely. Nobody can own this revolution: not the unions, not the far left, not the Labour Party and not the students. It’s far bigger than that.

I doubt that the SWP will agree with her, but I hope that at least she is listened to carefully for in many respects she is closer to the spirit of Lenin’s party than they might have gathered. As some self-proclaimed and unrepentant Marxists try to recapture the spirit of the messy, free-spirited and even anarchic (in the sense of uncontrolled) nature of the Bolshevik party, we will eventually find ourselves converging not only with Laurie Penny but the real mass movement that exists, which by its very definition will not belong to any closed-off party but to the entire population of working people and its allies.

UPDATE

Richard Seymour has a lengthy reply to Laurie Penny here:

http://leninology.blogspot.com/2010/12/in-defence-of-old-hierarchies.html

It is mostly a defense of newspapers that makes every point in the world worth making but that fails to grasp that the SWP newspaper does not function like Lenin’s Iskra. The sooner these comrades come to terms with this, the better off they will be. I would not hold my breath waiting, however.

Discussing best and worst films of the year

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 2:36 pm

This is an interview I did with my colleague Prairie Miller on WBAI radio. You can hear me trashing “True Grit” as well as praising some of my favorites, especially “Prince of the City” that cost $35,000 to make.

http://archive.wbai.org/files/mp3/101228_040001Tue4am5am.MP3

December 25, 2010

True Grit? Humbug.

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 10:37 pm

Although most of this article is concerned with political issues that would lead me to award “True Grit” with the rotten it deserved, I want to start off by highlighting its major flaw that has not been identified by critics, to my knowledge. Unlike most of the great movies in this genre from “The Magnificent Seven” to “Unforgiven”, “True Grit” has shallow and underdeveloped villains. This is either due to the original material in Portis’s novel or in the Coens’ screenplay. Not having read the novel, I cannot be sure.

This is especially true of the Tom Chaney character hunted throughout the film. Perhaps the casting of an actor normally assigned “good guy” roles (Josh Brolin), the Coens give tacit acknowledgment that the man is simply not in the same league with memorable villains such as the gunslinger Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) in “Shane” or the sadistic Sheriff Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) in “One -Eyed Jacks”, so clearly an inspiration for Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) in “Unforgiven”. Unlike all these powerful, carefully etched characters, Chaney is amorphous and seemingly unmotivated. Perhaps the film would have had more dramatic power if the Coens had included an initial scene that depicted Chaney brutally attacking Mattie Ross’s father and taunting him while he was dying. But who am I to give the Coens advice. After all, they are the John Fords and Howard Hawks of our age (god help us) and I am merely the unrepentant Marxist.

If the drama in “True Grit” fails in terms of the traditional hero-villain narrative of this genre, then we are left to the interaction between the 14-year-old girl Mattie Ross seeking vengeance and her two partners, the dirty cop Rooster Cogburn and the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. Critics seem smitten with the arch dialog of the three characters that is filled with odd constructions seemingly lifted from a Dickens novel.

For example, Cogburn—a poorly educated drunk by all accounts—says at one point: “I’m struck that LaBoeuf has been shot, brambled and near severed his tongue. Not only does he not cease to talk, but he spills the banks of English.” Perhaps this works on the written page, but my reaction to such speeches in the film was what a bunch of hooey.

Speaking of which, has anybody considered the likelihood that someone who has consumed buckets of alcohol over the years like Rooster Cogburn and who has only one eye would be able to shoot down four men while riding horseback with the reins of his horse in his teeth? Hooey, once again I asseverate—to use a Portis type formulation. I have seen more realistic gun duels in the most over-the-top Hong Kong policier.

But for you people who worship the ground that the Coens walk upon, feel free to answer me here. I try to maintain a free speech forum. Just don’t use sexist or racist language and try to stick within three insults per day.

* * * *

Let me turn now to the broader historical questions that provide the framework for both “True Grit” movies. Call me incorrigibly dogmatic and a “politically correct” bore, but I just can’t get on the bandwagon for the Coen brothers’ “True Grit”, their latest film that has earned high plaudits across the board, even from the curmudgeonly Armond White who wrote:

This view of the Western’s brutality challenges recent cultural standards regarding violence and sarcasm as established by Quentin Tarantino. Now, True Grit is no longer just a tall tale; it clarifies the Coens’ feelings about violence and America’s spiritual history.

Well, I am not sure about the Coen brothers’ feelings about much of anything. Mostly they are content to produce black comedic yarns, sometimes hitting (“Fargo”, “Blood Simple”), sometimes missing (“A Serious Man”, “No Country for Old Men”.)

I confess that I was prejudiced from the start, having had an extreme reaction against the original “True Grit” that starred Vietnam War hawk John Wayne in 1969. Looking back at Vincent Canby’s NY Times review that year, there is absolutely no reference to the war in Vietnam and John Wayne’s filthy role in promoting it through television appearances and his truly awful propaganda film “The Green Berets”. Most critics agreed with Canby’s assessment and the Academy gave John Wayne an award for best actor as Rooster Cogburn, motivated in part by recognition that the old buzzard did not have long to live after having lost one lung to cancer.

Ironically, Jeff Corey, a blacklisted actor in the 1950s, played Tom Chaney, the “bad guy” being pursued by Rooster Cogburn. When Wayne was making the red scare garbage film “Big Jim McClain” in 1952, Corey could not find work. An LA Times obit on Corey that can be found on the actor’s website recounts what befell him:

The actor was scheduled to appear at the hearing in downtown Los Angeles in September 1951. He was 37 and had a wife and three daughters to support. But he took the 5th Amendment and didn’t work again as an actor in Hollywood for more than a decade, missing out on countless movie opportunities and what would later be considered the golden age of television.

“Most of us were retired reds. We had left it, at least I had, years before,” Corey told Patrick McGilligan, the co-author of “Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist” who also teaches film at Marquette University. “The only issue was, did you want to just give them their token names so you could continue your career, or not? I had no impulse to defend a political point of view that no longer interested me particularly …. They just wanted two new names so they could hand out more subpoenas.”

Now, forty-one years after the original was made, my distaste for “True Grit” runs deeper, mostly as a function of studying the history of the Southwest over the past year or so in conjunction with a research project about the Comanche Indians, who were the “bad guys” in many a classic Western, including Wayne’s “The Searchers”. My study of this period gives me a totally different appreciation for the role of the Texas Rangers, who were whitewashed in Charles Portis’s novel. While Matt Damon’s Texas Ranger character LaBoeuf was depicted as relatively benign compared to Cogburn, the typical Texas Ranger of American history had more in common with the Ku Klux Klan.

As for Cogburn, he fought with the bushwhackers during the Civil War. My study of Jesse James, a bushwhacker veteran, left me with the conclusion that they too were just like the Klansmen, staging robberies wearing white robes. Perhaps it was possible to make a movie featuring two heroes who had ties to the Texas Rangers and the bushwhackers in the 1940s, but not so today if you have any understanding of the rights and wrongs of American history. Of course, in a period where elected officials defend flying the Confederate flag from government buildings, anything is possible.

Most of you are probably familiar with the plot of “True Grit”. A 14-year-old girl hires Rooster Cogburn (played by Jeff Bridges) to track down her father’s murderer in Choctaw Territory, a portion of the area that would become Oklahoma eventually. All the Indians living in this area got there as a result of Andrew Jackson’s genocidal “Trail of Tears”. While the movie is not really about whites killing Indians, there is one scene that really got me riled up.

Cogburn and Mattie, the fourteen year old played by Hailee Steinfeld, come upon a meager looking farmhouse in Chocktaw Territory that is home to Indians, including a couple of children sitting on the porch. As he enters the house to find out if the inhabitants have any knowledge of the whereabouts of Tom Chaney, he kicks the children on his way up the stairs. For good measure, he kicks them on the way out. What point were the Coens trying to make, that Cogburn was not a nice guy? I think that was pretty well established from the outset. Audiences would probably get a chuckle out of this since it is part and parcel of the sadism that pervades Coen movies. But using Indian children as butts for this kind of humor is pretty tasteless in my view. One imagines that it would be off-limits to see Black children being kicked around in this manner, but Indians are a different story apparently.

Critics love “True Grit” the novel, as well as the movies, because Rooster Cogburn is such a violation of the stereotypical good guy lawman of the old west. He is also a comic figure, almost Falstaffian. I guess that my exposure to the gritty details of American history would make me hostile to anybody who fought on behalf of slavery. The bushwhackers lynched slaves by the hundreds in Missouri. The most recent Jesse James movie that starred Brad Pitt as the bushwhacker crook was an advance over past films insofar as James was depicted as a violent psychopath. But it didn’t begin to address the villain’s racist terrorism. If I had my way, Hollywood would make a movie that showed the bushwhacker in his true colors, as some of America’s most filthy reactionary dogs.

Turning to LaBoeuf (played by Matt Damon), you are getting the stereotypical good guy of the classic western, a part usually played by Alan Ladd or Gary Cooper. His only fault it would seem is to treat Mattie Ross with sexist contempt, spanking her at one point.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to get into a detailed history of the Texas Rangers, some points have to be made. They were formed by Stephen Austin in 1823 and became a key contingent of the war against the Comanches in the 1860s. They also became foot soldiers of the Confederacy around the same time. The most brutal Texas Ranger in this period was Leander Harvey McNelly, who had been a Confederate officer as well. The wiki on McNelly paints him in colors exactly like Rooster Cogburn, who was a “Dirty Harry” of the Old West for all practical purposes:

McNelly’s methods have been questioned throughout the years, and although he recovered many cattle stolen from the Texan Ranches while aggressively dealing with lawlessness on the Mexican border, he also gained a reputation of taking part in many illegal executions and to confessions forced from prisoners by extreme means. McNelly also made himself famous for disobeying direct orders from his superiors on several occasions, and breaking through the Mexican frontier for self-appointed law enforcement purposes. His actions proved to be effective, however, and he was responsible for putting an end to the troubles with Mexican bandits and cattle rustlers along the Rio Grande that were commonplace during the 1850-75 period.

Sounds just like the men running the American military today, doesn’t it? Why the Coens, known for their “edgy” sensibility, would waste their time making a movie glorifying such scum is beyond me.

Back in the 1970s, Peter Camejo spent a couple of evenings at my apartment in Houston when he was on tour. Digging through my records, he found something by The Band. Picking it up like it was a dog turd, he looked at me with a sour expression and asked how I could possibly own a record with a song like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” on it, a song that mourned the passing of the slavocracy in effect. At the time, I wondered if Peter was overdoing things. Bless his soul, he was right.

Christmas Truce 1914

Filed under: religion — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

December 24, 2010

Des Derwin on the United Left Alliance in Ireland

Filed under: Ireland,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

Des Derwin

I want to call your attention to an article that appeared in the Irish Left Review by Des Derwin, a long-time labor and left activist. Titled ULA! “No one would have believed….”, it takes a close and detailed look at a new electoral formation that has arisen in the wake of the devastating financial crisis. Derwin has apparently been following the debate about party-building methodologies internationally since he supplies a very informed appendix of links to various articles on the topic, including a couple that I have written.

It might be useful to summarize three approaches on the far left to building socialist or anti-capitalist parties:

1. “Old School” Marxism-Leninist: This is the type of party that considers itself to be based on Lenin’s Bolsheviks. It believes in “revolutionary continuity”, a kind of ideological bloodline that can be traced back to Karl Marx. It sees its duty as defending the revolutionary kernel of Marxism against petty-bourgeois germs in much the same manner that General Jack D. Ripper fought against the presence of fluoride in water supplies in Stanley Kubrick’s “Doctor Strangelove”. By waging an ideological war on behalf of a pure Marxist program and by participating in “united fronts” under their tight control, such groups have deep faith that they can lead proletarian revolutions.

2. Socialist Alliances: These formations have been tried exclusively in English-speaking countries over the past decade or so. They came into existence largely because groups in the first category found it useful to work within a broader framework that addressed the concerns of working people, thus facing the reality that the average left-minded citizen is not ready to accept the direct leadership of some group calling itself the Communist Workers Party that festoons its newspaper with hammer-and-sickles and lengthy articles about “the lessons of October”. Within the Socialist Alliances, they operate under their own discipline and no matter how persuasive the arguments of independent members of the alliance about one or another tactical question, the Leninists vote on the basis of what their own central committee considers correct. In some ways, the Leninist groups that operate in such electoral coalitions see unity as a temporary arrangement or even a maneuver in the classic United Front manner of the 1920s that was captured by the motto “March separately, strike together”. Unfortunately, this approach applied to party building does not foster a transparent and mutually respectful internal culture. Speaking of respectful, one might say that it led to the undoing of RESPECT, a socialist alliance led by George Galloway that came a cropper with the British SWP, one of the more intelligent groups operating in the first category that has never really come to terms with what Lenin was really about.

3. Broad left parties: Although these types of formations (NPA in France, Die Linke in Germany, etc.) appear brand new in a European context, this has been the modus operandi in much of Latin America for decades now. Whether in conditions of civil war (FSLN, FMLN) or in the new left electoral framework of Venezuela or Bolivia, Marxists have tended to supersede the sectarian small proprietor mentality of the self-styled Leninist left. Venezuela, in particular, has been most instructive. Marxists have always seen their formations as temporary, serving mainly as stepping-stones toward the larger goal of transforming society. You can find the history of this process in Richard Gott’s book on Hugo Chavez that I wrote about in 2007. Here’s a relevant excerpt from my article:

After an unsuccessful coup attempt in February 1992, Chavez was sent to Yare Prison. Just like Fidel Castro’s imprisonment after the unsuccessful raid on Moncada, Chavez began making new plans for the seizure of power from behind bars. For the next two years, the political mood began to change radically in Venezuela. The ruling party began to fall apart at the seams, while leftist coalitions like Convergencia (which included Movimiento al Socialismo) and parties like Causa R began to grow rapidly. From within his prison cell, Chavez began to reach out to them. He did draw the line, however, when it came to ultraleftists like Bandera Roja that claimed to be the inheritor of the mantle of the guerrillas of the earlier period. Chavez never had much time for such ultraleftists:

Groups like them appear to have given themselves the holy mission of proclaiming themselves to be the only revolutionaries on the planet, or at any rate in this territory. And those who don’t follow their dogmas are not considered genuine revolutionaries. I have never talked for more than five minutes with a single leader of Bandera Roja.

So, to make myself crystal clear, I advocate that the left in the developed countries adopt a mindset much closer to Convergencia or Causa R. Rather than trying to build parties that are the kernel of modern era Bolsheviks, it should think much more in transitional terms. Even though he was a paradigm of category one, James P. Cannon, the father of American Trotskyism, had it right when he said, “The art of politics is knowing what to do next.”

Although I am not at all familiar with Des Derwin, I have great confidence that he understands all this, even though he is much more tactful than me. Frankly, everybody is.

Derwin refers his readers to an announcement of the United Left Alliance that appeared on the People Before Profits website:

At a meeting held in Dublin last Sunday, 24th October, involving the People Before Profit Alliance, the Socialist Party, the Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Group, and Cllr Declan Bree and his local group in Sligo, a historic decision was taken to establish a left alliance to contest the next general election and to take the first steps towards a new, left, anti capitalist formation to represent working people.

It is to be called the United Left Alliance. A strong, left wing, anti capitalist and anti coalition with right wing parties, programme has been agreed. This will be circulated as soon as a few small agreed amendments are made. The alliance will be open to anyone who accepts its basic programme and aims, but the aim is to attract as many workers and young people as possible.

We learn from Derwin that the Irish section of the international movement founded by Tony Cliff is behind People Before Profits:

Since the turn of the millennium some of the world wave of left liaison has lapped these shores. There have been several political alliances of varying life spans: The Socialist Alliance briefly brought together the SWP [the Socialist Workers Party, the Cliffite group named after its mother ship in England], Socialist Democracy and independents. Some of these independents (recently described on the blogosphere as “the usual left unity suspects”) are a common denominator along this many-leagued road of leagues. The Socialist Environmental Alliance comprised the SWP, environmentalists and some others in Derry. The People Before Profit Alliance consists of the SWP plus various and varying activists, groupings and independents. The Campaign for an Independent Left enfolded at one time the Dublin South Central based Community and Workers Action Group, now in the PBPA, the South Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group, the Irish Socialist Network, and some independents. The rump of CIL [Campaign for an Independent Left] is now in the PBPA and still meets occasionally. Last year the SEA [Socialist Environmental Alliance] in Derry joined the PBPA.

In addition to the SWP, the Socialist Party of Ireland is playing a major role, which was reflected in an article that appeared on its website:

The newly established United Left Alliance, which will be publicly launched at a rally in the Ashling Hotel , Dublin on Friday 26 November, involves the Socialist Party, the People Before Profit Alliance, the South Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group and the Independent Socialist group of Declan Bree in Sligo.

The ULA is a joint slate or alliance of candidates that will put forward a real left alternative in the general election and challenge the austerity and capitalist consensus amongst all the parties in the Dail, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, the Greens but also clearly including Labour and Sinn Fein.

The ULA flows from a process of discussions initiated some time ago by the Socialist Party. It is a necessary and principled attempt at serious co-operation between left groups and while we will have to see how it goes over the next months, the Socialist Party hopes that the ULA will be an important first step in the formation of a new mass party for working class people, based on socialist policies.

The Socialist Party is the Irish section of the Committee for a Workers International led by Peter Taaffe. This is the Trotskyist group that is best known for its deep entryist tactic in the Labour Party. Formed by Ted Grant shortly after the death of Leon Trotsky, it came on the scene just around the time that Tony Cliff became convinced of the theory of state capitalism and decided to launch his own international movement. With figures like Grant and Cliff, as close to Trotsky as the apostles were to Jesus, it is not surprising that Trotskyist concepts of party-building pervade their respective movements.

It should be mentioned that Grant and Alan Woods broke with Taaffe in the early 1990s and started their own international movement. I would be hard pressed to distinguish the two formations politically, except for Woods’s well-known affinity for Hugo Chavez’s movement, despite his failure to grasp its non-sectarian essence. By the same token, the British SWP has endured the same kind of splintering. Around the same time that Grant and Woods got the heave-ho, the American Cliffites—the ISO—were expelled from their world movement. More recently, the British SWP split over issues raised by the RESPECT fiasco, with John Rees and Lindsey German starting their own new group. As was the case with the Taaffe-Woods split, I would be hard pressed to find any major theoretical differences between Rees/German and Alex Callinicos, the chief of the SWP. Needless to say, all this does not bode well for any electoral formation they get involved with.

Derwin has a good grasp of the need for something like the ULA and the possible pitfalls given the history of the prime players:

It is by no means just in the electoral field that cooperation must replace competition on the left. In the trade unions the scattered forces of the left  – as well of course as the general weakness of organised labour – have allowed a pathetic and pampered peerage to prostrate the unions and propose in perpetuity, as the only ‘alternative’ they perceive, a depreciated partnership that has been passed over by patrons and politicians. In the face of impending catastrophe – not my words – the trade union leadership, or sections of it, has begun to stir into life. It could be only another false beginning like February, March, November and December 2009. Yet the preparatory machine, authoritative call and turn out for Saturday 27th November contrasted clearly with the meagre mobilisations wrought by the left throughout the year. So clearly that we surely must be open to some lessons in intra-left pooling and modesty and extra-left orientation to union and community structures however professionalised they are at present.

And during the very birth of a new alliance the same old crap repeats itself even among the allies, reminding us how far we have yet to travel.  One organisation, a ULA participant, through a closely associated campaign, organises a march for Budget Day. Another organisation in the ULA, along with almost all the rest of the radical left, wishes to organise a joint left march for the same time. This might have been sorted out in the spirit of the new departure. But after some diplomatic efforts the original organisers refused to convert the march to a joint one and ‘the rest of the left’, in those circumstances, declined to row in behind the original march. The march therefore proceeded with the weight of just one section of the left, while the ‘rest of the left’, rather than gritting their teeth, raising their eyes to heaven and joining the march anyway, held a separate rally at the Dáil before the march arrived there. ULA? Ooh alors! The ULA will either merge the train sets or derail.

Despite my skepticism about the long-term prospects for the ULA, I think it is a good thing that socialists are getting together to fight against the disastrous cuts being forced on Irish working people. Perhaps in the crucible of struggle people will begin to figure out that it is high time to dump the “Russian questions” as a litmus test and begin to make the Irish question for the people of Ireland paramount just as it is necessary to make American questions primary for my own countrymen.

As Des Derwin said most eloquently, “The ULA will either merge the train sets or derail.” This is the question facing the revolutionary left in one form or another everywhere in the world today. Let’s fight against derailment, comrades.

December 21, 2010

The Rabbit Hole; Secret Sunshine

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

Among the 67 screeners I received this year in conjunction with the NYFCO awards meeting was something called “The Rabbit Hole”. After seeing it, I decided to relegate it to a capsule review alongside other commercial detritus from Hollywood. But since it was so closely thematically related to a new Korean movie called “Secret Sunshine”—the grief of a parent for a young child killed senselessly—I decided to say a few more words than it deserves, mainly as a way to draw a contrast between commerce and art. While pundits decides the pros and cons whether America is a dying empire, one thing is for sure. East Asia is far more dynamic when it comes to making movies.

“The Rabbit Hole” was originally written for the stage by David Lindsay-Abaire and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. He adapted the play for this year’s film version starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckart as Becca and Howie Corbett, who are mourning the death of their young son in an auto accident. While both have been devastated by the event and are attending group therapy sessions with other parents who have suffered such a loss, Becca makes a point of virtually stalking Jason (Miles Teller), the teenage driver of the car. When she finally tracks him down, it is not to berate him but to engage in philosophical discussions about the meaning of life and death. After Jason eventually becomes a bosom buddy of Becca, he gives her a gift: a comic book with drawings of a rabbit descending into a hole, hence the name of the movie.

Her husband has become fed up with her, especially over her refusal to have sex. She is still mourning the loss of their son and has no appetite for the good things in life, other than having soul sessions with the kid who killed him. When her husband learns that she has been hanging out with their son’s killer, he goes ballistic and she returns his vituperation in kind. This stagey catharsis is all that the screenplay needs to resolve the conflict and to tie a red ribbon around the box that this drama by the numbers comes in. While the author clearly intended the play/movie to be a tearjerker, I found myself obsessing over the scaffolding that held the edifice together. The work smacks of a thousand writers workshops and it amazes me that practically nobody else detected its artificiality. While being promoted for an Academy Award by a number of critics, I find it indistinguishable from any number of network TV movies I have seen in the past, back when CBS et al were scheduling such fare rather than reality shows about becoming rich by eating worms or surviving a sting with Donald Trump.

Opening today at the IFC Center in New York, “Secret Sunshine” is the literal meaning of the name of the Korean city Milyang that serves as a backdrop for this powerful drama directed and written by Lee Chang-Dong based on a story by Chong-jun Yi–one of Korea’s most important novelists who died of cancer two years ago. Born in 1954, Lee started out as a novelist himself and served as Korea’s Minister of Culture from 2003 to 2004. Now it might not be fair to compare such people with a hack like David Lindsay-Abaire but it does seem appropriate to point out that such people would never find any equivalent in Hollywood, unless it was the 1930s when people like Clifford Odets and William Faulkner were working for the studios. (Of course, the studios didn’t know what to do with them.)

“Secret Sunshine” begins with an attractive thirty-something woman named Shin-ae (Do-yeon Jeon) sitting by the side of the road leading to Miryang in her car incapacitated by mechanical problems. On the front seat with her is her young son Jun (Seon Jeong-yeob). Help arrives in the form of Jong-chan, a garage mechanic and something of a local bumpkin who drives mother and son into town, gabbing cheerfully all the while about the town’s charms. Song Kang-Ho, one of Korea’s outstanding actors, plays Jong. Cast most often as a “regular guy” from the provinces, he is cast perfectly here. Not professionally trained, he has starred in “The Host“, “The Good, Bad and the Weird” and “Thirst.

For Shin-ae, a piano teacher who once had aspirations to perform in concert, moving from Seoul to Miryang is a little bit like someone moving from Manhattan to a town of 20,000 in Kentucky or Iowa. She has decided to move to Miryang only because her late husband grew up there.

She is more than a little aloof and has no problem striking up a conversation with a local clothing store owner, advising her that her store is drab looking and needs a paint job. Her opinion of Jong-Chan is not much better, advising him repeatedly that she is not interested in dating him. Her brother, in Miryang for a visit, takes Jong-Chan aside and warns him, “My sister is not attracted to guys like you”. This does not deter the mechanic who dotes on her through thick and thin.

And there is plenty of thin awaiting Shin-ae. Not long after she has settled into Miryang and opened up a studio for piano lessons, her son is kidnapped and murdered by a local man who has overheard her talking about purchasing some land to build a home–the same man who gives her son and other local children elocution lessons.

In her grief, she wanders into a revival meeting at Protestant church and is somehow consoled by the idea that God loves her and is responsible for everything that happens in the world. When a pharmacist who owned the shop across the street from her studio had tried to recruit her to the sect before the death of her son, she had the attitude one might expect from a secular-minded resident of Seoul: barely disguised contempt. It takes the death of her son to open her up to becoming “born again”.

Although religion is touted as the opiate of the masses, it eventually begins to lose its narcotic effect on Shin-ae. The failure of anything to replace it, including Jong-Chan’s undying love—as unquestioning in its way like a Christian’s faith—leads to a mounting psychological crisis until the shattering climax of “Secret Sunshine”.

I am not sure who said it—Henry James, perhaps—but the key to all art, from the novel to the screenplay is the creation of powerful and interesting characters that tend to dictate the narrative once their identity is established. In effect, the characters write the work themselves, telling the author what should happen next. In “The Rabbit Hole”, you never lose the sense that the author is moving the characters around like pieces on a chessboard. This is what you might expect from a generation of writers who have been trained in writer’s workshops and guided above all by a desire to win a Pulitzer Prize catering to middle-class sensibilities.

Now a final word about Lee Chang-Dong, who was my introduction to Korean film. Although his “Peppermint Candy” is not available from Netflix, I strongly encourage you to track it down from bittorrent or from any of the Korean DVD vendors on the Internet, none of whom I can vouch for. There are versions available from amazon.com; a new one going for $275 and used for $233! It is a remarkable saga about contemporary Korean politics and society that I reviewed about a decade ago:

Peppermint Candy

Even if it were not a great film, “Peppermint Candy” would be worth seeing just as a guide to the dramatic changes in post-dictatorship South Korea. While ostensibly a Citizen Kane type morality tale about an evil man, it is really a mirror held up to a country whose two main pillars were military/police brutality and worship of mammon.

A group of people in their forties are at a reunion picnic on the bank of a river beneath a railway bridge. Into their midst wanders a man in a business suit who is either drunk or demented, or both. Soon they remember that he is Yongho, a fellow worker from 20 years ago. After encouraging him to take part in their gaiety, he begins to shriek and howl during a Karaoke performance. He climaxes this act by jumping into the river with his business suit on, slapping at the water like a madman. Then he mounts the railroad bridge, where he stands in the middle of the tracks awaiting a train that might come barreling out of a tunnel at any moment. Ignoring their calls to come down to safety, he finally meets an oncoming train with the cry, “I’m going back.”

In a series of flashbacks, we do go back with Yongho and discover what has driven him to suicide. His “Rosebud” is nothing less than the social role imposed by South Korean society in its rise to “success” in the post 1980s. “Peppermint Candy” is mainly an attempt to rip the pleasant facade off this image.

Yongho has decided to kill himself for two reasons. As the president of a small company wrecked on the shoals of the recent economic crisis, he has no other options. We learn through the most immediate flashback that he is living in a shack and can not afford the price of a cup of coffee. With the last little bit of his disposable income, he has bought a pistol. Before shooting himself, he ponders over who he will take with him. The list appears endless. In reality, it is the system that is at fault. He is also ready to kill himself for the pain he has inflicted on others, both those close to him and those who have wandered into his murderous path as soldier and cop.

Each flashback is preceded by camera shots of a train speeding along the South Korean countryside played in reverse. As people and animals walk backward along the track, we travel back in time to find out how Yongho went wrong.

Before becoming a businessman, he learn that he was a cop. In 1987 the cops have apprehended a student leader who is taken back to the station-house to be tortured. They want him to divulge the name of a leading pro-democracy activist. Yongho, the most sadistic and experienced cop, holds the student’s head under water while wearing an impassive, almost bored, expression on his face.

It wasn’t always this easy. In 1984 when he was a rookie cop, he was initiated into the art of torture. After a trade unionist prisoner shits on him during a session, he rushes into the bathroom to wash himself off. While peeing, another more seasoned cop casually mentions to him that he will not be able to forget the smell. That is what “Peppermint Candy” is about mostly, a man learning how, but never successfully so, to get over the smell.

Peppermint candy is something that Yongho is especially fond of. His first love is Sunim, who works in a candy factory. When he is in the army in 1980, she sends him candy to remind him of home and her love. One night his company is rousted from bed in the middle of the night for some sort of mysterious engagement. The sergeant abuses the men, calling them “bitches,” as they struggle to get their gear together. When Yongho’s peppermints pour out of his knapsack, the sergeant punches and kicks him because candy is not allowed.

The soldiers are dispatched to Kwangju, where students and workers have been protesting for democracy. Yongho, a raw recruit, kills a young student who is not part of the protests. She has wandered into the confrontation, just trying to make her way home. Besides this young woman, every other woman he knows on more intimate terms is treated badly by Yongho who treats the opposite sex as objects to be fucked and then ignored.

When we finally arrive at 1979, we discover an entirely different Yongho at the banks of the river, where the original picnic took place. He is a shy young man in love with nature who presents Sunim with a flower that he has picked from the banks. When he sits beneath the railroad bridge, tears come to his eyes perhaps because he is overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounds him. Like Citizen Kane, this kind of innocence will be stolen from him as he becomes part of the dominant culture in Korean society.

NY critics have had some trouble connecting South Korea with the individual Yongho. The program notes at the New Directors/New Film series state: “In epic style, it covers the dissolution of a man and the development of a nation.” It would be more accurately worded: “the simultaneous dissolution of a man and a nation.” The NY Times warns that “a political dimension to Yongho’s malaise is evident, but also, for one not intimately familiar with recent South Korean history, hard to grasp.” Perhaps the critic suffers from relying on the NY Times coverage on South Korea, which goes a long way to explaining why things are hard to grasp. The systematic brutality depicted in the film never made its way to the front pages of the newspaper, which was much more interested in “economic miracle” and the dictatorship’s support for anti-Communist initiatives in the region.

“Peppermint Candy” was directed and written by Lee Chang Dong and stars Sol Kyung Gu as Yongho in the most impressive acting performance that I have witnessed this year. In the unlikely event that “Peppermint Candy” is released for general distribution, it is not to be missed.

December 20, 2010

The comeback kid and bipartisan attacks on working people

Filed under: aging,Obama,workers — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

Almost immediately after Obama persuaded the Democrats to support an extension of the Bush tax cuts, the mainstream media began to trumpet his new-found effectiveness. Even before the deal was approved, the NY Times opined that a “political lift” for Obama was in store. The article reasoned that “In the Senate, Democrats were quicker to accept that Mr. Obama’s tradeoff could help reverse the party’s political misfortune, in which important swing voters, especially independents and women, turned toward the Republicans.”

And afterwards, the consensus began to mount that Obama was a “comeback kid” like President Clinton. USA Today put it this way:

Is Barack Obama the new Comeback Kid?

Six weeks after he acknowledged taking a “shellacking” at the polls, President Obama is on the verge of what may be a political rebound.

Late Thursday, he scored a big victory in Congress when the House followed the Senate in approving a deal he struck with Republicans to extend Bush-era tax cuts for two years for all Americans, including top earners.

Despite his ultraright politics or perhaps because of them, Charles Krauthammer told his Washington Post readers that he agreed with USA Today:

If Barack Obama wins reelection in 2012, as is now more likely than not, historians will mark his comeback as beginning on Dec. 6, the day of the Great Tax Cut Deal of 2010.

Obama had a bad November. Self-confessedly shellacked in the midterm election, he fled the scene to Asia and various unsuccessful meetings, only to return to a sad-sack lame-duck Congress with ghostly dozens of defeated Democrats wandering the halls.

Now, with his stunning tax deal, Obama is back. Holding no high cards, he nonetheless managed to resurface suddenly not just as a player but as orchestrator, dealmaker and central actor in a high $1 trillion drama.

Also basking in new-found glory is Senator Harry Reid, who, according to NY Times blogger John Harwood, a disgusting and ubiquitous presence on cable news shows, “boasted” that the tax-cut compromise was ”some of my greatest work”.

So, what will be act two as a follow-up to preserving a tax break for millionaires that Democrats railed against for so long? It will be an attack on deficits apparently, as Reid indicated in Harwood’s post: “His interpretation of the midterm election message: voters want both parties to cooperate on reducing the deficit.”

Obama and Harry Reid are united on the need to cut the deficit. If it is obviously not going to be solved by making millionaires pay taxes at the same rate as during the Eisenhower or even the Reagan presidency for that matter, how else do you expect the budget to be balanced except by taking out of the hides of working stiffs?

In a visit to Mr. Krauthammer’s employers on January 16 2009, Obama assured the Post’s editors that Social Security and Medicare were badly in need of “reform”:

President-elect Barack Obama pledged yesterday to shape a new Social Security and Medicare “bargain” with the American people, saying that the nation’s long-term economic recovery cannot be attained unless the government finally gets control over its most costly entitlement programs.

That discussion will begin next month, Obama said, when he convenes a “fiscal responsibility summit” before delivering his first budget to Congress. He said his administration will begin confronting the issues of entitlement reform and long-term budget deficits soon after it jump-starts job growth and the stock market.

“What we have done is kicked this can down the road. We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further,” he said. “We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else’s.”

While most of my readers are aware that Obama appointed former Republican Party Senator Alan Simpson and centrist Democrat Erskine Bowles to come up with some solutions that would victimize working people, the more important body to beware of has received less scrutiny. In my view, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) should be seen in the same light as the Project for the New American Century that had a major responsibility for crafting the war plans against Saddam Hussein. In one case, the Iraqi people were the enemies; now, in the latest phase of capitalism in decline, the American people are targeted. Such think-tanks, endowed with millions of dollars, are a crucial element of policy formulation. In the case of the Project for the New American Century, the fingerprints of the neoconservative movement were impossible to miss. In keeping with the agenda of the wretched Obama White House, the Bipartisan Policy Center falls all over itself to establish its “broad-based” credentials to the American people, who after all tend to vote for both parties on a habitual basis.

The BPC describes itself in the same terms as the idiotic No Label group that met recently in New York:

The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) is a non-profit organization that was established in 2007 by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell to develop and promote solutions that can attract public support and political momentum in order to achieve real progress. The BPC acts as an incubator for policy efforts that engage top political figures, advocates, academics and business leaders in the art of principled compromise.

Too often partisanship poisons our national dialogue. Unfortunately, respectful discourse across party lines has become the exception – not the norm.

Now Baker and Dole are key players from the Republican Party before the Tea Party began to leave its indelible stamp on the GOP. These are exactly the sort of people that Obama had hoped to build some kind of partnership with, not anticipating the venomous politicians who question whether he was born in the U.S. and who routinely brand him as a socialist. It is clear that Obama’s latest deal with the Republican Party will have an effect on isolating such elements:

The Tea Party dissent on tax cuts was clear in the House, where the movement’s supporters like Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. — founder of the Tea Party caucus — voted against the bill. Sen.-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky said he would lean against voting for it if he were in office, while Tea Party darling Sarah Palin called it a “lousy deal.”

As for Tom Daschle, you are dealing with someone very much in keeping with the Obama White House’s basic governing philosophy. Considering the fact that Daschle was forced to step down from consideration as Secretary of Health and Human Services due to his failure to pay $120,000 in back taxes, it makes perfect sense why he got together with the Republicans over cutting entitlements. As a rich bastard seeking to avoid paying his fair share to the IRS and as someone who was a high-profile supporter of Obama’s pro-insurance company health plan, he has exactly the right background.

George Mitchell is best known for his foreign policy exploits, including a major role in convincing the British ruling class that Sinn Fein could be a willing partner in keeping Northern Ireland a semicolony. He might be a cynical bourgeois politician, but he certainly is shrewd enough to help craft a plan that will screw American workers out of a decent retirement.

The Board of Directors of the Bipartisan Policy Center is a rogue’s gallery of long-time operatives in the National Security State and Wall Street. Here’s some scum off the top of the fetid pond:

  • Larry Higby
    Chairman, New Majority California; Retired CEO, Apria Healthcare
  • Norman R. Augustine
    Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (ret.) Lockheed Martin Corporation
  • John W. Rowe
    Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Exelon Corporation

Just the kind of people you’d expect to see advocating a retirement age of 75 or so.

The BPC has dozens of people working for it, all busily preparing white papers that NPR, PBS, the NY Times and the Washington Post can study in order to come up with high-minded arguments about why old folks might not be so bad off eating cat food.

The BPC is basically a retread of the Concord Coalition, another bipartisan effort to attack entitlements that was launched by Peter G. Peterson, the Wall Street billionaire who has been railing against Social Security for decades now. Like the BPC, the Concord Coalition’s top officers come from both capitalist parties.

It should be understood that this onslaught against the two pillars of Democratic Party liberalism, Social Security—a gain of the New Deal–and Medicare, a legacy of the Great Society–is not primarily motivated by hatred of workers or the poor. Ever since the recovery of Western Europe and Japan after WWII, the U.S. has been forced to adjust by cutting government spending. To remain competitive, it has to reduce expenditures on housing, hospitals, roads, schools and all the other accoutrements of the Welfare States just as much as Britain, Sweden, France and Germany are forced to do. This is a race to the bottom that will have no winners except the filthy bosses who expect nothing out of us except as a cheap supply of labor power.

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