Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 30, 2013

Notes on modern art, part 1

Filed under: art,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 10:01 pm

Meyer Schapiro

It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that Picasso bankrolled the post-war French Communist party, and underwrote various causes associated with it. In 1949, for example, L’Humanité acknowledged his donation of one million francs for striking miners in the Pas de Calais. The party basked in the reflected glory, and pocketed the cash. One of its cells felicitously took his name: Cellule Interentreprise du Parti Communiste Français Pablo Picasso.

–Alex Danchev, “Picasso’s politics”, The Guardian, Friday 7 May 2010

Less than two weeks after SAC Capital Advisors, the hedge fund owned by the billionaire trader Steven A. Cohen, agreed to pay the government $616 million to settle accusations of insider trading, Mr. Cohen has decided to buy a little something for himself.

A renowned art collector, Mr. Cohen has bought Picasso’s “Le Rêve” from the casino owner Stephen A. Wynn for $155 million, according to a person with direct knowledge of the sale who was not authorized to speak publicly. Although prices for top works of art have soared to new heights recently, Mr. Cohen’s acquisition is one of the most expensive private art sales transacted.

–Carol Vogel and Peter Lattman, “Million Poorer, Hedge Fund Owner Still Buys Art”, NY Times, March 26, 2013

Why would hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen lend nearly half a billion dollars worth of art to Sotheby’s for a glamourous exhibition if the art isn’t for sale? Art worlders were mystified by the Sotheby’s announcement that twenty of top collector Cohen’s paintings by Picasso, de Kooning, and van Gogh — plus Richard Prince’s nude of Brooke Shields, Spiritual America — will go on view April 2 through April 14 at the auctioneer’s York Avenue headquarters.

Mystery solved: It turns out Cohen has every motive to make Sotheby’s look good. In a filing Monday with the SEC, Cohen disclosed that his SAC Capital has amassed a 5.9 percent stake in the auction house since October 1, becoming one of its larger shareholders. Sotheby’s said the decision to show the Cohen works was made by the collector and Sotheby’s top executives at a recent dinner party at his Greenwich, Connecticut, home.

http://www.vulture.com/2009/03/whys_steve_cohen_showing_sothe.html

You could hear them a block away; their whistles and chants preceded them. About a hundred protesters stood outside Sotheby’s at the beginning of the auction house’s contemporary evening sale, the last important art sale of the year. ”We’re fired up! Won’t take it no more!” The crowd outside Sotheby’s was made up of N.Y.P.D., the auction house’s security, students from Hunter College, union members and Scabby, the oversize balloon rat who never seems to miss a strike, as well as a Scabby-sized balloon fat cat who squeezed a cigar in one paw and a union worker in the other. Picketers hoisted cutouts of the heads of Sotheby’s COO and CEO at the ends of long poles.

The Observer was crowded in behind a wooden police barrier just in front of the door. We prodded the Teamster to tell us who the buyers were. “The Mugrabi family is already in there,” he said. “Oh! Larry Gagosian is here.” A spectacled man with a bloated face walked brusquely by and slipped into one of the revolving doors. “Steve Cohen!” our guide identified. “That was Steve Cohen, the billionaire art collector.”

–Adrianne Jeffries, “Class War? Occupy Wall Street, Unions Protest at Sotheby’s–8 Arrested, NY Observer, November 10, 2011

If there’s anything that symbolizes the paradoxical relationship between the cultural avant-garde and the capitalist ruling class it supposedly seeks to subvert, it is the replica of Tatlin’s Tower at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art” show that closes on April 15th. I urge New Yorkers to check it out if for no other reason to see the thirty-foot version of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International.

That being said, there is little effort made to connect that work or any other work to the social and political upheavals of the early 20th century that led Picasso, Kandinsky and others to break with representational art. The word “radical” in the exhibit’s title is not a reference to politics but to esthetics.

The recorded lecture that accompanies the exhibit is useful even if it leaves out the broader context. The show was curated by Leah Dickerman who conceives of abstract art as the happy outcome of a process that was nurtured by men and women connected through a network based on a feeling that the old ways of doing art were obsolete, either in literature, music or art. For example, Guillaume Apollinaire was a key figure. The lecture makes a big deal out of Kandinsky being inspired to strike out in an abstract direction after going to a Schoenberg concert in 1911. The unexamined question, of course, is how anybody can conceive of a painting by Kandinsky or a composition by Schoenberg as experimental a century after the fact. Abstract art became just as entrenched as the representational art it was supposed to overthrow, while atonal compositions were cranked out by the boatload in music departments all across the civilized world for most of the twentieth century.

If you can’t make it to the show, I urge you to visit the MOMA website that has some interesting material, especially the video: http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1291.

The network diagram found there is Dickerman’s key contribution to demonstrating how all these artists and writers knew each other and fed off each other. It is interesting in a six degrees of separation sort of way but obviously inadequate to describe the social forces that acted on the artists. It is a personality-driven approach to art history that is clearly in sync with the museum’s “great man” approach, even if it is offered up as an alternative in terms of the network being more important than any individual.

Screen shot 2013-03-30 at 4.03.44 PMLeah Dickerson’s Network Diagram

The mainstream press has been pretty worshipful of the show, even if New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz made some pointed criticisms:

These days, abstraction is normal, not shocking, the expected thing in schools, galleries, and museums. Too many artists still ape the art in this show, throwing in Abstract Expressionism, post-minimalism, or surrealist twists and tics, adding things their teachers have told them about.

Really, the title of MoMA’s show could be “High Museum Abstraction: History Written by the Winners.” Or “White Abstraction.” On some level, this show is MoMA talking to itself, looking for ways around its ever-present deluded, limited narrative. If it doesn’t open up this story line soon, MoMA will be doomed to examine the imagined logic of its beautiful ­bellybutton, alone and forever.

In doing some background research on the show, I came across an article that helps to put the MOMA into context. In 1936 the museum mounted a show titled “Cubism and Abstract Art” that was very much in the same spirit of today’s show. Art was disconnected from the social and political conditions that the artists reflected. Alfred Barr, the museum’s first director and a determined modernist, curated the show that would serve as a template for other shows dedicated to High Modernism until now.

An art historian named Meyer Schapiro wrote a critique of the show titled “Nature of Abstract Art” that appeared in Marxist Quarterly, a journal geared to intellectuals opposed to Stalinism. The article can be read at http://abstractpossible.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Nature-of-Abstract-Art-Schapiro-i.pdf.

While endorsing the modernist project, Schapiro felt that the exhibition lacked the dimensions that I found lacking in the show curated by Dickerman. He complains that Barr’s catalog for the show betrays a conception of abstract art that “remains essentially unhistorical” and goes on to elaborate:

He gives us, it is true, the dates of every stage in the various movements, as if to enable us to plot a curve, or to follow the emergence of the art year by year, but no connection is drawn between the art and the conditions of the moment. He excludes as irrelevant to its history the nature of the society in which it arose, except as an incidental obstructing or accelerating atmospheric factor. The history of modern art is presented as an internal, immanent process among the artists; abstract art arises because, as the author says, representational art had been exhausted. Out of boredom with “painting facts,” the artists turned to abstract art as a pure aesthetic activity.

I was struck by Schapiro’s reference to plotting a curve, full anticipating Ms. Dickerman’s flowchart.

You can get a sense of Schapiro’s approach from his discussion of the Italian futurists in this article, who are well represented in the current exhibition:

Barr recognizes the importance of local conditions when he attributes the deviations of one of the Futurists to his Parisian experience. But he makes no effort to explain why this art should emerge in Italy rather than elsewhere. The Italian writers have described it as a reaction against the traditionalism and sleepiness of Italy during the rule of Umber to, and in doing so have overlooked the positive sources of this reaction and its effects on Italian life. The backwardness was most intensely felt to be a contradiction and became a provoking issue towards 1910 and then mainly in the North, which had recently experienced the most rapid industrial development. At this moment Italian capitalism was preparing the imperialist war in Tripoli. Italy, poor in resources yet competing with world empires, urgently required expansion to attain the levels of the older capitalist countries.

The belated growth of industry, founded on exploitation of the peasantry, had intensified the disparities of culture, called into being a strong proletariat, and promoted imperialist adventures. There arose at this time, in response to the economic growth of the country and the rapid changes in the older historical environment, philosophies of process and utility―a militant pragmatism of an emphatic anti-traditionalist character. Sections of the middle class which had acquired new functions and modern urban interests accepted the new conditions as progressive and “modern,” and were often the loudest in denouncing Italian backwardness and calling for an up-to-date, nationally conscious Italy.

The attack of the intellectuals against the provincial aristocratic traditions was in keeping with the interest of the dominant class; they elevated technical progress, aggressive individuality and the relativism of values into theories favorable to imperialist expansion, obscuring the contradictory results of the latter and the conflicts between classes by abstract ideological oppositions of the old and the modern or the past and the future. Since the national consciousness of Italy had rested for generations on her museums, her old cities and artistic inheritance, the modernizing of the country entailed a cultural conflict, which assumed its sharpest form among the artists.

Machines as the most advanced instruments of modern production had a special attraction for artists exasperated by their own merely traditional and secondary status, their mediocre outlook in a backward provincial Italy. They were devoted to machines not so much as instruments of production but as sources of mobility in modern life. While the perception of industrial processes led the workers, who participated in them directly, toward a radical social philosophy, the artists, who were detached from production, like the petit bourgeoisie, could know these processes abstractly or phenomenally, in their products and outward appearance, in the form of traffic, automobiles, railroads, and new cities and in the tempo of urban life, rather than in their social causes.

The Futurists thus came to idealize movement as such, and they conceived this movement or generalized mobility mainly as mechanical phenomena in which the forms of objects are blurred or destroyed. The dynamism of an auto, centrifugal motion, the dog in movement (with twenty legs), the autobus, the evolution of forms in space, the armored train in battle, the dancehall-these were typical subjects of Futurist art. The field of the canvas was charged with radiating lines, symbolic graphs of pervading force, colliding and interpenetrating objects. Whereas in Impressionism the mobility was a spectacle for relaxed enjoyment, in Futurism it is urgent and violent, a precursor of war.

This is about as sharp a take on futurism as I’ve ever seen and one that is sadly missing from the MOMA website or guided tour.

Schapiro was a professor at Columbia University for many years and unlike most of the Partisan Review intellectuals never stopped believing in socialism. There’s a superb article by Andrew Hemingway on Schapiro titled “Meyer Schapiro and Marxism in the 1930s” that appeared in the 1994 Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 17, No. 1. It’s one of those fucked-up JSTOR articles that Aaron Swartz liberated. I would be happy to send anybody a copy if they contact me privately. Here are some passages that should give you an idea about the character of this remarkable intellectual.

Schapiro is associated with a group of philosophers, writers, and critics who were involved in varying degrees with the anti-Stalinist left, a group which centered on the city of New York and has acquired the sobriquet of the ‘New York Intellectuals’. This group, which includes Clement Greenberg, Sidney Hook, Mary McCarthy, Dwight McDonald, William Phillips, Phillip Rahv, Harold Rosenberg, and Lionel Trilling among others, achieved its identity partly through a number of independent magazines, and initially took shape around Partisan Review in the years after 1937.

Arriving in the United States from Lithuania in 1907, when he was three years old, Schapiro grew up in the Jewish working-class district of Brownsville in Brooklyn, from where many commuted in to work in the sweatshops and factories of the Lower East Side.7 The years of Schapiro’s childhood and youth were the heyday of Jewish socialism in New York. His father, who had been influenced by the Jewish socialist Bund, was a reader of the Jewish Daily Forward and the New York Call (Yiddish and English-language socialist papers, respectively), and Schapiro himself listened to street-corner socialist speakers and joined the Young People’s Socialist League in 1916. While the Russian Revolution was in the main greeted with enthusiasm by American Jewish socialists, differences over the Bolshevik model contributed to a violent factional struggle among the strongly unionized New York garment workers in the 1920s between an intransigent left wing dominated by communists, and a socialist led right wing, which was generally more prepared to negotiate for short-term gains. These disputes culminated in the disastrous cloakmakers’ strike of 1926, which discredited the Communist Party among most of the union membership, with the notable exception of the fur workers.8 As an undergraduate and graduate student at Columbia University from 1920-28, Schapiro was doubtless somewhat removed from these struggles, but he had worked in a succession of low-pay jobs in his school years and continued to do so during his student period at Columbia. (When he made his first trip to Europe in 1923, he worked his way over as a seaman on the Holland-America Line, and travelled to Berlin without the proper papers.) Writing to the novelist James Farrell twenty years later, Schapiro recalled being barracked by fellow-students for advancing a socialist position in a freshman course on Contemporary Civilization, but that in his second and third years he lost interest in ‘social questions’, and stopped attending meetings of the Young Socialist League and the League for Industrial Democracy. However, like a substantial number of American intellectuals Schapiro was radicalized by the coming of the Depression, and by 1932 he was an active supporter of the Communist Party.

At the beginning of 1936, the party’s leaders were still denouncing Roosevelt as little different from Hoover, but on instructions from the Comintern leadership in March 1936, they began a change of course which led them to tacitly endorse the president’s re-election in November, and into support for the New Deal in the following year. ‘Public Use of Art’ appeared in the same month as the presidential election, in which Schapiro voted not for the Communist Party candidate, Earl Browder, but for the Socialist Party’s Norman Thomas who ran a disastrous campaign on the slogan ‘Socialism versus Capitalism’. While Schapiro denied being a Trotskyist, at this time he was certainly making similar calculations about which party represented the best hope for socialism in the United States as the tiny Trotskyist Workers’ Party, which had entered the Socialist Party in the spring of that year. Given Schapiro’s criticisms of the New Deal, this was entirely consistent, for the Socialist Party under Norman Thomas rejected the Popular Front as an abandonment of revolutionary principles in the interests of a discredited Soviet state. From its point of view, the CPUSA had allied itself with a government in the United States which was no more than a holding operation for capital, and socialists should work for revolutionary change rather than support- ing bourgeois regimes which were heading for another imperialist war in which the working classes of all countries would be the main losers. In addition, Thomas had already associated himself with those who doubted the entire credibility of the Show Trials, the first of which began in August 1936. The point of Schapiro’s final break with the Communist Party occurred then with the first of Stalin’s purges of the Old Bolsheviks, and he associated himself with the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, which had been formed earlier in that year, and which issued in the Dewey Commission of Inquiry into the Charges against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials in April 1937. (Needless to say, it was Trotskyists who did most of the organizing in these bodies.)

Although Schapiro never joined either of the tiny and fractious Trotskyist parties, of his personal enthusiasm for Trotsky and his close reading of Trotskyist journals there is no doubt. He maintained relations with SWP activists such as Felix Morrow and George Novack, and in 1943 expressed willingness to write for a new Marxist magazine proposed by the former. (It is significant that although he admired Novack’s commitment to revolutionary work, he was put off by his ‘humorlessness’ and rigid political orthodoxy. Schapiro took no part in the disputes which divided the Socialist Workers Party in 1940, and felt that it should not split over the Soviet invasion of Finland. However, since he regarded the invasion as imperialist aggression, his sympathies seem to have lain more with the Shachtman-Burnham faction than with James Cannon and his followers. This, of course, means that he disagreed with Trotsky’s own position on Soviet expansion and probably also with his definition of the USSR as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’. However, of Trotsky’s stature as a revolutionary leader he had no doubt.

In my next post I will have a look at Gerhard Richter, the renowned German (mostly) abstract artist and Ai Weiwei, the Chinese conceptual artist and fearless critic of the bureaucratic capitalist system, based on two very good documentary films that came out in 2012.

March 29, 2013

Weathered Underground

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 1:02 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition March 29-31, 2013
Robert Redford’s Libels Against the American Left (and Film-Making)
Weathered Underground
by LOUIS PROYECT

Of the 647 film reviews I’ve written over the past 13 years, most cover political documentaries. When I review a narrative film, it is often about one made in a neorealist style with nonprofessional actors. My goal is to create a consumer’s guide for a leftwing audience more than anything else. When I review the occasional Hollywood film, it is in the hope that it will be something of substance. More often than not, as was the case with “Django Unchained” or “Lincoln”, I walk out of a press screening scratching my head muttering to myself, “What was I supposed to get out of that?”

Once in a blue moon, I go to a film with zero expectations, mostly out of a feeling that I have a job to do akin to taking out the garbage or cleaning the toilet. That was the case with “The Company You Keep” that opens on April fifth just about everywhere given its pedigree. From the publicist’s email:

Jim Grant (Robert Redford) is a public interest lawyer and single father raising his daughter in the tranquil suburbs of Albany, New York.  Grant’s world is turned upside down, when a brash young reporter named Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) exposes his true identity as a former 1970s antiwar radical fugitive wanted for murder.  After living for more than 30 years underground, Grant must now go on the run. With the FBI in hot pursuit, he sets off on a cross-country journey to track down the one person that can clear his name.

As Grant reopens old wounds and reconnects with former members of his antiwar group, the Weather Underground, Shepard realizes something about this man is just not adding up.  With the FBI closing in, Shepard uncovers the shocking secrets Grant has been keeping for the past three decades. As Grant and Shepard come face to face in the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, they each must come to terms with who they really are.

Robert Redford as a Weather Underground fugitive? Barbra Streisand’s love interest? The con man who avenged Luther Coleman? I supposed that the director might have picked the aging Adonis even though the notion of a 76-year-old playing an ex-Weatherman is a casting mishap of major proportions. When it turned out that the director was none other than Redford himself, I could see the logic. If the septuagenarian Woody Allen could cast himself in roles far too junior, why would some equally narcissistic and powerful Hollywood icon resist the same temptation?

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/03/29/weathered-underground/

March 28, 2013

Momentive Workers Hope Third Time’s the Charm

Filed under: workers — louisproyect @ 10:35 pm

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Chemical workers at Momentive in Waterford, New York, fought a losing battle against drastic wage cuts in 2010. This time they roundly rejected the company’s deal and are gearing up for a showdown.

Photo: Jon Flanders.

March 28, 2013 / Jon Flanders

Fourteen ballots were disqualified because “NO” was scrawled on the outside. But it didn’t matter—the vote was overwhelming. Members of IUE-CWA Local 81359 rejected a one-year extension of their contract, which expires in June, despite the intensive in-plant meetings that Momentive management organized to push for the deal.

“At first [the contract extension] looked fairly good,” said Frank Farina, a silicone operator for 26 years at Momentive Performance Materials in Waterford, New York, near Albany. The plant makes silicone products that go into caulks, adhesives, foams, cosmetics, and tires.

“Then I started looking back at what they did to us three years ago,” Farina said. “They violated our national contract, eight major violations, the main one being failure to negotiate in good faith, and I started thinking about it more and more, and you know what? I don’t think I can trust anything they tell me.”

There is speculation that the opening of a Momentive plant in China lies behind management’s interest in a contract extension. An extra year without a showdown in Waterford would have given the Chinese plant time to ramp up production and potentially undermine any industrial action in the U.S. in 2014.

Lived to Fight Again

Labor Notes readers may remember that the chemical workers of Local 81359 fought a losing battle against wage cuts a few years ago.

Momentive executives approached the union in early 2008 saying they needed to transform the business. The private equity firm Apollo Management had just taken over the plant from GE. They sought steep wage cuts and outsourcing, especially of jobs where veteran workers were employed.

Local 81359 offered many ideas to save the positions, including work area flexibility, fewer supervisors, and lower starting wages for new hires—all to no avail. Management imposed the cuts unilaterally, violating the contract. But by this time the economy had crashed and orders were way down, leaving the local little leverage.

When the next contract came due in 2010, management’s offer didn’t rescind the cuts but offered big lump sums. The local narrowly voted it down, but the votes of two smaller Momentive locals not affected by wage cuts (technicians in Waterford and quartz products workers in Willoughby, Ohio) were enough to put the contract over the top 388-337—leaving 400 Waterford workers still suffering pay cuts that in some cases approached 50 percent.

This year, the landslide of “no” votes in Local 81359 made the votes of the small locals irrelevant, though they passed the extension. The final tally at 81359 was 64 for extending the contract, 467 against.

“I am so proud of my members for standing up and fighting back!” said President Dominick Patrignani.

Patrignani, the executive board, and the members have put together proposals that would go a long way toward amending the hatred and disparity left in the plant by the 2010 contract. They are determined to use the fact that economic conditions for the industry are relatively favorable.

Momentive workers are gearing up for a showdown that will test the resolve of both labor and management. IUE-CWA 81359 members are now familiar sights at area picket lines—which has created favorable conditions for labor solidarity in the Capital District. Activists in the Troy Area Labor Council and other councils in the Capital District Area Labor Federation plan to pitch in for a serious contract campaign this spring.

www.labornotes.org/blogs/2013/03/momentive-workers-hope-third-times-charm#

Jon Flanders is a member of Machinists Local 1145 and of the Troy Area Labor Council.
IUE-CWA is the Industrial Division of the Communications Workers.

Macabre JSTOR image

Filed under: Academia — louisproyect @ 8:31 pm

For a while now, JSTOR–the database of scholarly articles liberated by Aaron Swartz–has been using a new home page:

Screen shot 2013-03-28 at 4.24.59 PMClearly somebody made a decision to use a model who resembled Aaron Swartz:

March 24, 2013

The New Deal, Leon Trotsky, and the bureaucratic state

Filed under: language,liberalism,racism — louisproyect @ 9:27 pm

Louis Menand

Ira Katznelson

The March 4th 2013 issue of The New Yorker Magazine has an uncharacteristically interesting article by Louis Menand on Ira Katznelson’s new book “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time” differentiated from the usual dreary rot by Jon Lee Anderson, David Remnick, Hendrik Hertzberg, et al.

The article is behind a paywall unfortunately but I am going to quote the opening paragraphs that should be of particular interest to my regular readers:

In September, 1939, just as the Second World War was beginning, a left-wing Italian shoe salesman named Bruno Rizzi published a book, in Paris, called “The Bureaucratization of the World.” Rizzi brought the book out at his own expense; he couldn’t find a publisher. In early 1940, he was charged by French authorities with racial defamation–there was an anti-Semitic chapter in his book–and he was fined and received a suspended sentence. Remaining copies of the book were confiscated and pulped.

Rizzi hadn’t used his full name on the cover–he identified himself as Bruno R.–and he more or less disappeared from view in the chaos of the war. (He resurfaced afterward.) “The Bureaucratization of the World” might have slipped into oblivion but for one thing: Rizzi had managed to get a copy to Leon Trotsky, who was living in exile in the village of Coyoacan, outside Mexico City. Trotsky read the book and was sufficiently exercised to write an article criticizing it. The article was published, in November, 1939, in a journal called The New International, an organ of the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist organization based in New York City.

Rizzi had argued that under Stalin’s leadership the Soviet Union had a political system that was neither capitalist nor socialist. It was something that Marx had not foreseen: a system that Rizzi called “bureaucratic collectivism.” The Soviet Union was being ruled by a new class of Party functionaries and industrial technicians, who exploited the workers the same way the capitalists had. It had become just like the fascist states of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

What was more, Rizzi said, the United States was headed in the same direction. With Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a ruling class of government administrators and corporate managers was taking over. Bureaucracy was emerging as the form of government everywhere. “A monstrous new world . . . is being born,” Rizzi wrote, “and born so evil that it is resurrecting slavery after two thousand years of history.” He predicted that the planet would eventually be dominated by seven or eight of these bureaucratic autocracies.

To Trotsky, this was heretical. Even after Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler and the Red Army invaded Poland, Trotsky’s position was that the Soviet Union was a genuine workers’ state. It had a planned economy and state ownership of property. In his New International article, Trotsky held Rizzi up as a comrade who had got things wrong. What Rizzi failed to understand, Trotsky explained, was that, although Stalin himself was a counter-revolutionary aberration, the Stalinist phenomenon had to be understood dialectically (Marxian for “the opposite of what it appears to be”). Stalinism was only an evil hiccup in the course of history–the course, correctly predicted by Marx and Engels, that led to the classless society.

Like all Marxist theoretical disputes, this was really a dispute over a practical question: Should people on the left continue to support the Soviet Union now that Stalin was an ally of Hitler? Trotsky insisted that they should. (For his pains, he was murdered by a Stalinist agent, in August, 1940.) But many of his American followers disagreed. The dispute split the Socialist Workers Party. One of the editors of The New International, Max Shachtman, resigned (or was expelled; accounts differ) from the Party. The other, James Burnham, also defected and soon rejected Marxism altogether, quickly becoming one of the most hawkish anti-Communist intellectuals in America. After the war was over, he recommended a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.

In 1941, Burnham published a book called “The Managerial Revolution.” He hadn’t read “The Bureaucratization of the World,” which, in 1941, was about as out of print as a book can be. But he had read Trotsky’s summary of it–he was Trotsky’s editor, after all–and his argument was basically Bruno R.’s argument. The economies of the major powers, Burnham said, had fallen into the hands of a new elite: the managers, executives, financiers, and stockholders who owned and ran corporations, and the government administrators who regulated them.

Burnham had earlier described the New Deal as “preparing the United States for the comparatively smooth transition to Fascism,” and he folded the United States easily into his picture of a world headed toward top-down managerialism. He thought that the nations farthest along the road were Russia, Germany, and Italy, which suggested that totalitarian dictatorship was managerialism’s natural political form. Rizzi had imagined a world dominated by seven or eight autocratic states; Burnham foresaw three, centered in the areas where advanced industry was already concentrated–the United States, Japan, and Germany. Wars of the future, he said, would be struggles among these superstates for world control.

Burnham, too, had trouble finding a publisher, but, when the book finally appeared, it was a huge success. Time listed “The Managerial Revolution” as one of the top six books of 1941; a critic at the Times named it one of the year’s notable books. A hundred thousand copies were sold in the United States and Britain, and it did even better in paperback. One of its keenest readers was George Orwell, and “The Managerial Revolution” was a major influence on “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” with its three totalitarian monster states.

This discussion of sectarian minutiae would probably make the average New Yorker reader’s eyes glaze over. A more typical article in the latest issue by Lena Dunham that begins “When I was a child, my greatest dream was to find a box full of puppies” had the same effect on me.

Menand, who is a literature professor with an interest in pragmatism, uses the Trotsky-Burnham debate as a background to introduce Katznelson’s latest book that makes the case that after the death of Roosevelt, “a belief in the common good gave way to a central government dominated by interest-group politics and obsessed with national security.”

Katznelson takes issue with the standard hagiographies, including Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.,’s unfinished “The Age of Roosevelt” (1957-60), William E. Leuchtenburg’s “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal” (1963), and David M. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Freedom from Fear” (1999). For Katznelson, the notion that FDR was some kind of great democratic leader had to be revised. A dispassionate and critical view of the historical record would tend to put him much closer to the Orwellian nightmare.

Katznelson describes a sorry record at odds with Schlesinger’s worshipful treatment, as Menand’s capable summary reveals. To start with, the New Deal rested on a racist foundation as well as a barrier to trade union rights and economic reform:

But there was a worm in this fruit. During the entire period that Roosevelt was President (and well beyond it), seventeen states mandated racial segregation, and almost every senator and congressman from those states was a Democrat. Katznelson argues that the members of this Southern bloc were “the most important ‘veto players’ in American politics.” They maintained what he calls a “Southern cage” around New Deal legislation.

Southern Democrats were almost unanimously supportive of progressive economic policies, but they were, in one respect, solidly reactionary. They were vigilant to resist any threat to what they sometimes euphemistically referred to as the Southern way of life but more often called, quite proudly, white supremacy. “The colored race will not vote, because in so doing . . . they endanger the supremacy of a race to which God has committed the destiny of a continent, perhaps of the world,” Senator Claude Pepper, of Florida, said in 1937. And Pepper was a liberal. In 1950, he lost his seat to the conservative Democrat George Smathers, who campaigned against him by calling him Red Pepper.

The South was the most impoverished region of the country, and the Depression made conditions there worse. Katznelson says that the average annual income for all Americans in 1937 was $604; in the South, it was $314. The gross annual income of the average Southern farmer was $186. Almost a tenth of the population was illiterate. Southern Democrats were therefore happy to have railroads, public utilities, the financial industry–and, as Katznelson puts it, “other Northern-controlled capitalist firms”–regulated. As representatives of a region whose economy was mainly agricultural, they were also happy to support measures to help farmers. And since their principal goods, cotton and tobacco, were manufactured for export, they were eager to promote free trade. They were additionally pleased, in light of their economic circumstances but also in light of their history, to vote for programs that effectively redistributed wealth from the industrial North to the rural South.

Southern Democrats affected New Deal legislation in several ways. They carved out exceptions in bills regulating business–such as bills setting a minimum wage–for farming and domestic service, since that was work performed in the South predominately by African-Americans. They retarded the growth of the labor movement and tried to block efforts to unionize in the South, suspecting, rightly, that unions were motors of racial integration. They defeated anti-lynching legislation by arguing, first, that lynching was technically illegal already and, second, that, since people are regularly murdered elsewhere in the United States, a federal anti-lynching law would be discriminatory.

Most significant, though, they insured that the administration of New Deal policies was decentralized. They pried open the tax-levy coffers in Washington, but exercised strict control over how and to whom that money trickled down in their states. They tried to expand the regional economy without undermining apartheid. As the South has always done, they asserted the claim of states’ rights at just the point when the shoe started to pinch, and not a moment before.

The Dixie states benefited heavily from arms manufacturing in the South during WWII. At the end of the war, the military-industry state that operated in partnership with the USSR and that was administered by people like Harry Magdoff took on a new political coloration. The assembly lines continued to turn out tanks and planes but now the target would be Communism and decolonized states with the temerity to be aligned with the Kremlin.

Southern Democrats stoutly supported the Truman Administration’s military buildup, much of which was concentrated in the South. By the time Eisenhower took office, in 1953, $52.8 billion of the nation’s $76.1 billion budget was being spent on defense. Southerners also supported the granting of broad, nonspecific authority to the new Central Intelligence Agency, congressional investigations of subversives, and the creation of the Federal Employee Loyalty Program.

That program, established by executive order in 1947, assigned the F.B.I. and other agencies to undertake investigations of employees suspected of disloyalty. Over the next nine years, more than five million federal employees were screened. Twelve thousand resigned, and an estimated twenty-seven hundred were fired. (No espionage was ever discovered.) Beyond these cases–this is the subject of Landon R. Y. Storrs’s convincing account in “The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left” (Princeton)–the loyalty program had a chilling effect on government workers who regarded themselves as in the tradition of New Deal progressivism. Reform, planning, and organizing started to look un-American.

We tend to understand the rise of the national-security state as an overreaction to Cold War tensions, but the pieces were put into place during Roosevelt’s Presidency. The two War Powers Acts (December, 1941, and March, 1942) gave Roosevelt, as Katznelson puts it, “more power over American capitalism than he had achieved even during the New Deal’s radical moment.” Truman inherited a big government with enormous power already vested in the executive. When he was persuaded by advisers like Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze that the Soviet threat was real and that it demanded heightened military preparedness–ultimately, an arms race–the system was ready to accommodate him. He didn’t have to reinvent government.

While it is difficult to figure out whether Menand is speaking for himself or for Katznelson, there’s a happy ending to all this. The Democrats reinvented themselves “as the party of civil rights and individual liberties.” In 1964, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, five Southern states backed Goldwater instead of Lyndon Johnson. With Richard Nixon’s embrace of a “Southern Strategy” 4 years later, the realignment was virtually complete. The Democrats then tried to figure out a way to win a national election without the backing of Southern states. They seemed to have found it in 2008, a success repeated in 2012.

Maybe Menand hasn’t been reading a newspaper or been on the Internet lately but a case can be made that Obama is the most Orwellian president we have ever had, even more so than Nixon. If there is strong if not febrile opposition to the president in the South from White voters, this does not mean that the national-security state dictates of the post-WWII period have abated. Obama’s use of drones, his attacks on civil liberties, the stiff sentences meted out against whistle-blowers during his presidency, his secret kill lists, his nauseating flattery of the Zionist apartheid state, his failure to prosecute any of the banksters responsible the ruining of the lives of millions of working class families, etc. are exactly the sort of thing that Orwell had in mind when he wrote “1984”.

In fact, we should avoid all temptations to downgrade Orwell on the basis of guilt by association with all the scum that have carried on in the recent past about how great he was and how they are trying to carry on in his tradition, especially Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman. It is worth having a look at the sort of thing that Orwell was saying in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

Euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness? Surely Orwell was foreshadowing this sort of thing:

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

–Barack Obama, 2009 Inauguration Speech

While I would have been an unrepentant Marxist during the New Deal, there is one thing that you could say about FDR. He (or his speechwriters) would never have written such stultifying vapor. Here is a reminder of what convinced voters to pull the lever for FDR even when unemployment remained punishingly high.

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace–business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.

I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

– Address Announcing the Second New Deal, October 31, 1936

March 23, 2013

Kinder, Küche, Kirche propaganda in Bookforum

Filed under: feminism,journalism — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

Nick “Shoe Polish” Gillespie

Jonathan V. Last–mugshot taken at time of intellectual prostitution arrest

Over the past couple of years I’ve taken out subscriptions to a handful of edgy, left-leaning print journals that satisfy my appetite for better quality writing that cannot be found on the Internet: Bookforum, The Baffler, and N+1. I generally ignore the fiction and reviews of fiction found there and look for the social and political commentary I am addicted to. There’s an overlapping group of writers and editors that can be found in these journals including the ubiquitous Chris Lehmann and Choire Sicha, both of whom I encountered first on awl.com, a website that incorporates the same Young Turk sensibility that can be found in these print publications but sometimes makes me wonder if their unstated goal is to become as influential as The New Yorker Magazine. I hope that does not sound too cynical.

Lehmann is the editor of Bookforum, a magazine that was the progeny of Artforum, a publication of little interest to anybody like me who steers clear of Chelsea galleries, the Whitney Biennial, etc. Two days ago the April/May issue arrived in my mailbox and the table of contents looked promising. There was an article by George Scialabba, a sort of intellectual’s intellectual, on Camus’s newly published “Algerian Chronicles”, a collection of his wartime journalism. As someone with an intense interest in the Sartre-Camus wars over pacifism, French colonialism, etc., I was looking forward to sitting down with a glass of Johnny Walker’s Black Label and the article.

But what was that just three entries below Scialabba’s in the table of contents? What the fuck? Nick Gillespie reviewing some book about “America’s Coming Demographic Disaster”? Gillespie is the editor of Reason Magazine, a Koch-funded libertarian publication that fancies itself “rebellious” after the fashion of Spiked Online in Great Britain. In fact Gillespie has adopted the slightly punkish look of many Spiked writers, wearing a black leather jacket for his occasional Bill Maher appearance. My only advice to this 50-year-old man is to stop dyeing his hair. The shoe polish tint is just a bit too Reaganesque.

My first reaction to spotting this article in a magazine I paid good money for was akin to seeing a hair on an entrée that had just been delivered to my table at a pricey restaurant. It turned my stomach. At least in a restaurant I could send the dish back but what was I supposed to do with the Bookforum? Send it back to Chris Lehmann with instructions to replace Gillespie’s article by something written by Scott McLemee or Liza Featherstone? Fat chance of that.

After taking a swig of Kaopectate, I sat down to read Gillespie’s article. I figured that Lehmann, being a pretty smart young fellow, might have seen some wisdom in it that made it worth publishing. Boy, was I wrong.

The article begins with a reference to Paul Ehrlich, the neo-Malthusian who wrote a book about “the population bomb” in 1968. According to Jonathan V. Last, the author of “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster”—a book whose message Gillespie is touting, the opposite problem is looming:

As Jonathan V. Last notes in What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, Ehrlich was so way off that it’s stunning anyone ever took him and his neo-Malthusian assessment of overpopulation seriously. There were no mass starvations, and the famines that occurred all had political, not agronomic, causes. “What’s so wonderful about Ehrlich’s silly book,” writes Last, a senior writer at the conservative Weekly Standard,” is that he was wrong at the exact moment when the very opposite of his prediction was unfolding.” Total fertility rates, or the number of babies a woman is expected to bear over the course of her life, were already declining in the United States, but starting in 1968 “they sank like a stone.”

They continue to. By 1979 the global fertility rate was 6.0, and now it’s 2.52, according to UN data. All first-world countries are already below a 2.1 rate, the “replacement level” needed to keep a population constant, and fertility rates are plummeting through-out developing nations as well. “Today,” writes Last, “only 3 percent of the world’s population lives in a country whose fertility rate is not declining.” The UN projects that world population, currently around seven billion, will peak over the next eighty-five years between ten billion and twelve billion people before starting a long and inexorable decline.

I for one am worried more about the world’s population peaking at between ten billion and twelve billion in the next 85 years than I am about the “long and inexorable decline” afterwards. With the enormous strain on water and other natural resources with our current population of seven billion, what can we expect with a near doubling of that population, particularly in light of the greenhouse gases that will be produced to sustain the consumerist life-styles extolled by the idiotic magazine that Gillespie edits. Of course with funding by the Koch brothers, one can hardly expect that to matter much.

But the title of the book reveals Last and Gillespie’s true agenda: America’s loss of power due to a declining population. He cites Stalin’s attempt to increase the fertility rate in the USSR by awarding “Motherhood Medals” to women who bear six or more children, as well as Japan’s stipends and cash bonuses to women who agree to be breeders for the fatherland. Ah, just what an edgy magazine like Bookforum should be up to, giving space to books that fret over the consequences of women deciding that their bodies belong to them and not to the state.

Indeed, Last’s primary interest is in America being able to remain a hegemonic power in the face of declining population, as his April 23, 2012 Weekly Standard article would indicate. Even though it references Japan, it is clear that the U.S. faces the same dilemma:

Population is the wellspring of power, both economic and military, and the reordering of global power is…inherently destabilizing. Consider Japan. Faced with some of the lowest fertility rates on earth, Japan’s population has already begun aging and shrinking…In a sense, Japan could fall into the same trap that Western Europe already faces: the inability to formulate proportional military responses.

So you get the idea, American women have to have more babies in order to be able to police the world better.

Last also sides with the Catholic Church’s opposition to Obamacare on the grounds that its right to control a woman’s body took priority over any government health plan, biased as it was to corporate interests:

It is now a requirement of Obamacare that every Catholic institution larger than a single church—and even including some single churches—must pay for contraceptives, sterilization, and morning-after abortifacients for its employees. Each of these is directly contrary to the Catholic faith. But the Obama administration does not care. They have said, in effect, Do what we tell you—or else.

God, I feel like Larry David in that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode with the hair stuck in my throat. At least that hair was a result of enjoying oral sex with his wife. Mine is the result of reading Kinder, Küche, Kirche propaganda in a magazine that I spent good money on.

March 22, 2013

You Don’t Need Feet to Dance; Benda Bilili

Filed under: Africa,disabled,Film,music — louisproyect @ 10:43 pm

A new film opening day in New York and one that opened last year focus on African musicians who overcome disabilities—polio in particular—to make a life for themselves. They succeed both as inspiring testimonies to the ability of the disabled to surmount steep odds as well as the irresistible charm of African music and culture.

Opening today at the Quad Cinema, Alan Govenar’s documentary “You Don’t Need Feet to Dance” is a portrait of Sidiki Conde, a 52-year-old man from Guinea, West Africa who was stricken by polio in 1975. Initially almost completely paralyzed by the virus-borne ailment largely a thing of the past in richer countries, he regained the use of his entire body above his waist through strenuous exercise so much so that he gets around in most places by walking on his hands. When he was confronted by the need to dance in an initiation rite, he satisfied the requirements by by dancing on his hands rather than his feet.

First Run Features provides some background on Sidiki’s musical accomplishments:

Sidiki ran away to Conakry, Guinea’s capital city, where he and his friends organized an orchestra of artists with disabilities recruited from the city’s streets. They toured the country, striving to change the perception of the disabled. In 1987, he became a member of the renowned dance company Merveilles D’Afrique, founded by Mohamed Komoko Sano. Sidiki became a soloist and served as rehearsal master, composing and directing the company’s repertoire. He also worked as a musician and arranger with Youssou N’Dour, Salifa Keita, Baba Maal and other popular musicians.

In 1998 Sidiki relocated to New York City where he continues his efforts as a professional musician and a trainer to the disabled, especially children. In one of the more intriguing moments of the film, you see him rehearsing with a band called Afro-Jersey that includes Terre Roche on guitar. If that name rings a bell, it is because she was one of the Roche sisters, a fabulous band that developed a cult following in the 1980s. I confess to being a member of that cult and have no regrets—something I can’t say about my membership in the Trotskyist movement.

As a kind of parallel story to Sidiki’s, this is also about the glories of life in New York. As you see Sidiki wending his way through the streets of New York, relying occasionally on the kindness of strangers, you understand that beneath its gruff exterior, there is no better place on earth to live. It is also a deep pleasure to see Sidiki taking part in African customs, going to a mosque, in other words all the things that drive Fox TV nuts. When I think about Golden Dawn terrorizing African immigrants in Athens, it makes my blood boil. If anything like this ever developed in New York, expect to see me going out to confront the fascists even though I am something of a physical coward.

Staff Benda Bilili is a Congolese band made up of disabled musicians just like Sidki Conde. In 2010 Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye made a documentary titled “Benda Bilili” (the words mean “look beyond appearances” in Linglala) that is now available as a DVD from Netflix. Additionally, you can watch the movie on Vimeo although only with French subtitles: https://vimeo.com/48679055

In addition to making music, the band campaigns around the need to bring Congo’s senseless and brutal civil wars to an end. I confess to not having seen the film but plan to watch the DVD from Netflix the first chance I get. That being said, I have heard them play on Youtube and they are terrific. Here is what David DeWitt had to say about the film in his September 29,  2011 NY Times review:

The joy is palpable when Staff Benda Bilili plays the World Music Festival in Oslo. A heart-racing energy pumps the musicians and transports the audience. The band celebrates by sipping wine with the Argentine ambassador, smoking substances in hotel rooms and reflecting on an improbably successful European tour.

The back story of these moments is uplift and then some: the core band members are middle-aged and disabled by polio, performing from wheelchairs and on crutches. Other players are teenagers of the street. All have known nights sleeping on cardboard in the urban misery of Kinshasa, Congo.

The documentary “Benda Bilili!,” in French and Lingala, captures five years in the lives of this intergenerational street band, five years in which the buskers move from practicing at the decaying Kinshasa zoo to performing for enraptured crowds on the strength of their album, “Très Très Fort,” French for “Very Very Strong” — which they are.

A critique of Alex Callinicos’s Marxism

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 2:31 pm

On The Two Souls of Socialism

by Joaquín Bustelo on March 22, 2013

Originally posted on the Marxism List in August of 2005, this article takes up the arguments presented by British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) leader Alex Callinicos in a debate with John Holloway on “Can we change the world without taking power?” The debate was held at the World Social Forum in January of 2005 and the transcript was presented in issue 106 of International Socialism, which is available online.

My contention is that the argument presented by Callinicos, centered on the “two souls of socialism” meme, is quite distant from a rigorous Marxist analysis. Useful as the “two souls” idea and especially “socialism from below” may be in explaining certain concepts in a popular way, trying to use these as fundamental analytical categories, as Callinicos does, following the example of Hal Draper’s famous 1960′s article, is a mistake. It creates a catchall category of “socialism for above” that doesn’t really tell you anything because it is so broad, and sets up impossibly high barriers to any revolutionary process being blessed with the “from below” label.

I am republishing it at The North Star because I believe crises like the one in the SWP involve more than organizational practices. Also involved is an idealist approach that turns preservation of a doctrine into a central task and the very reason for being of a revolutionary organization. I follow it with another post in that discussion thread where I expand on some points.


It is really quite striking how much of Callinicos’s theoretical arsenal is derived from what is a transparently idealist, not Marxist analysis. In his debate with Holloway, Callinicos, a leader of the British SWP says:

I absolutely sympathise with one of the impulses behind the slogan ‘Change the world without taking power’. Among a lot of the traditions on the left worldwide there has been what has been called ‘socialism from above’. Whether it is a Communist party with Stalinist traditions or a social democratic party like the Workers Party in Brazil today, it involves the idea that the party changes things for you and everyone else remains passive.

The political tradition I stand in is a very different one. It is that of socialism from below summed up in Marx’s definition of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class. Socialism is about the oppressed and exploited of the world effectively liberating themselves.

My fundamental difference with John is that I believe this process of self-emancipation requires us to confront and overthrow the existing state and replacing it with a radically different form of state power.

This will immediately be recognized by many as a line of argument derived from the idea that there have been historically two “souls” of socialism — socialism from above versus socialism from below. Now, this may have some propaganda utility in the same sense that Lenin said that the phrase “socialism is my religion” might be a permissible pedagogical adaptation by a Marxist to make certain ideas more accessible. But I believe if one delves deeply in the source text of this theses, Hal Draper’s 1960′s article, “The two souls of socialism,” one will find rather less than meets the eye.

read full article: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=8036#comment-42936

March 21, 2013

A.J. Ayer confronts Mike Tyson

Filed under: philosophy,sports — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

From Ben Roger’s biography of the analytical philosopher:

It was at another party, given a little later in the year by the highly fashionable clothes designer, Fernando Sanchez, that he had a widely reported encounter. Ayer had always had an ability to pick up unlikely people and at yet another party had befriended Sanchez. Ayer was now standing near the entrance to the great white living-room of Sanchez’s West 57th Street apartment, chatting to a group of young models and designers, when a woman rushed in saying that a friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. Ayer went to investigate and found Mike Tyson forcing himself on a young south London model called Naomi Campbell, then just beginning her career. Ayer warned Tyson to desist. Tyson: ‘Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.’ Ayer stood his ground: ‘And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both preeminent in our field; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.’ Ayer and Tyson began to talk. Naomi Campbell slipped out.

Kirill Medvedev’s “It’s No Good”

Filed under: literature,Russia — louisproyect @ 4:53 pm

A few months ago I got a copy of this book from Keith Gessen, a contributor and editor at N+1 who covers the Russia beat. Keith is a friend of Marxmailer Thomas Campbell who is a member of Chto Delat (What is to be Done), a collective of artists and intellectuals in Russia who share Medvedev’s leftwing politics. Whether they share Medvedev’s love of Charles Bukowski, whose poems he has translated into Russian, I don’t know…

I was surprised that the NYT would review Medvedev’s book and even more surprised that it would be so flattering. I am including an excerpt from the review below as well as a  passage from “My Fascism”, a wonderful rant about the cultural and political rot in Putin’s Russia-that wonderful BRIC power that has the blood of 80,000 Syrians on its hands.

A Litany of Betrayals, Petty Yet Terrifying
‘It’s No Good’ by Kirill Medvedev
By DWIGHT GARNER
Published: March 20, 2013

The feminist Russian punk band Pussy Riot, some of its members recently imprisoned, stands for many things, notably opposition to the policies of Vladimir Putin. One of its best-known songs contains the line “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” Another is titled, depending on the translation, “Putin Is Wetting Himself.”

Kirill Medvedev

IT’S NO GOOD
poems/essays/actions
By Kirill Medvedev
Translated by Keith Gessen with Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill and Bela Shayevich
278 pages. n+1/Ugly Duckling Press. $16.

The band rejects the criminal capitalism so prevalent in Russia. When Madonna and Björk offered to perform alongside the group, a Pussy Riot member replied: “The only performances we’ll participate in are illegal ones. We refuse to perform as part of the capitalist system, at concerts where they sell tickets.”

This stance echoes one taken years earlier by the young Russian poet Kirill Medvedev, whose writing is introduced to American readers in “It’s No Good,” a spirited compendium translated by the novelist and n+1 magazine editor Keith Gessen, along with Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill and Bela Shayevich.

It’s not often you open a book, flip to its title page, and read a declaration like the one printed here: “Copyright denied by Kirill Medvedev, 2012.” He’s opted out of the literary world. He’s decided that his books will appear in pirate editions or not at all. Mr. Medvedev notes, in an observation that hangs over this book, “It’s strange now to think that business was once portrayed as the enemy of authority.”

In his introduction to “It’s No Good” Mr. Gessen calls Mr. Medvedev “Russia’s first genuinely post-Soviet writer.” It’s no surprise to learn that Mr. Medvedev and members of his folk-protest band, Arkady Kots, were detained by the police for performing in support of Pussy Riot.

(clip)

From “My Fascism”:

Just as culture didn’t take advantage of the post-Soviet moment (to develop, to interrogate itself, to change), neither did business. There was no bourgeois revolution, no “rise of the middle class”; instead, we had the creation of a vulgar, vicious, largely ethnic-based clan capitalism. It was Komsomol activists who taught the new generation about contemporary values: careerism, success, drive, the “quick buck,” etc. These men told the young: “It’s best not to work at all, but if you must work, make sure you are paid for it well, unlike the losers who work as doctors, miners, teachers. He who has the money also has the power.” It’s strange now to think that business was once portrayed as the enemy of authority. During the 1990s, big business quietly tried to amass and secure power; now those in power are trying to do the same to big business. During the ’90s, it was “commercial structures” that evicted Muscovites from their apartments and shut off their electricity; now it is the government that does it, passing in the process what-ever laws it needs.

The rise of criminal capitalism in Russia in the 1990s took its toll on books as well. Toward the end of the decade, the publishing industry experienced a real boom. I’m not sure it was a particularly healthy or thriving industry, but somehow or other publishers were making money from books. This engendered the notion that a book could be an object of consumption. And in this way the anti-literary sentiment of the 1990s acquired, in a sense, an economic foundation. Russian literature-centrism seemed to be a thing of the past.

Around the same time, literature began to develop a more acute sense of politics. Literary critics became more sophisticated in this realm than art critics, who, along with the artists they studied, had previously enjoyed something of a monopoly on the analysis of contemporary life. The same phenomenon took place in literature proper. And so there was a breakthrough: tons of books were being published, including many from the West, but the translation and production of these books was carried out cheaply, as the spirit of economic competition was prioritized over aesthetic concerns. As a result, the concepts of rebellion, marginality, and political incorrectness, much like literature itself, were suddenly on the verge of total devaluation. Whether this is good or bad—whether in general it is good or bad when literature and other kinds of art become objects of merciless “Russian consumption” as though they were any other material commodity, depends on whether one approves of the social/political system that has taken shape in Russia, or not, and whether one believes that art has the power to change it. Either way, the triumph of consumerism eventually begat a backlash, a movement in the opposite direction—toward a more politicized literature. Scandals erupted, lawsuits against authors were filed, and some books were even publicly and symbolically destroyed while others were banned from bookstores. Technically all these bannings and lawsuits came from the authorities, but at the center of them, in my view, was a resurgent sense that literature was a central element of Russian consciousness—a sense that had started to lose its footing in the post-Soviet chaos.

(In general, all this darting back and forth between scorn for Russian logocentrism and profound dependence on it must seem funny to anyone who holds a reasoned, Western view that the whole concept of national identity should be treated with extreme skepticism. What’s the point? What good does it do anyone? And is the root of evil in Russian logocentrism? In other words, is logo-centrism a compensatory mechanism in the face of irrelevance and ideological stagnation, or is it in fact our only bulwark against the kind of evil that does not utter any words at all and refuses to listen to anyone else’s? It’s possible that both are the case. Recall, for example, the fate of Russian Conceptualism, which in the process of tearing free from the overpowering mythology of Soviet literary culture developed its own ambitions to power, and achieved for itself influence and wealth.)

Right now the government has begun to take an interest in culture, and before long it may decide that it won’t be able to create a national idea without dragging literature into it. I mean, if it bothers to think that long about it. But even now there is talk of creating a government-sponsored system of literary prizes, and of creating a unified writers’ union, like in 1932, and so on.

In this way, literature, if it wants to have any kind of special status—whether privileged or shunned, which in some sense comes to the same thing—and therefore any kind of special effect, either needs to hope for help from the authorities in the form of direct repression (like the incarceration of Eduard Limonov), or else it needs to take itself out of the frame of the current cultural and economic paradigm—all the while knowing that these kinds of experiments are often in danger of total failure and collapse.

Here I’d like to move away from global problems and talk for a bit about my own small personal relations with culture and literature. I should say that I’m not urging anyone to do as I have done; I just want to explain my position.

Three years ago I wrote a poem about how I wasn’t going to translate anymore, because I didn’t want to work for publishers and participate in the formation of a new bourgeois culture. It’s not that I was dead set on following this rule, but it turned out that, for a while, I really didn’t translate much. It was hard for me to stop translating; I’d considered this my calling. But in my logocentric imagination, it was better to renounce one’s gift than to force it to depend on the market. And I still remember how not a single publisher wanted to print my translations of Charles Bukowski’s poetry. “POEMS??!!” they’d say. I’d get upset but also understand that this was the way of things. Now Bukowski is well-known in Russia and gets published all the time. A large publisher recently put out a book of his poems, but I felt like I was no longer interested, this was no longer what I was doing. I had a similar experience when the magazine Afisha asked me to participate in a photo shoot with other young poets, and I said no. What else could I say? What I should have said is: Why didn’t you come earlier, why didn’t you come three years ago? THEN I WOULD HAVE SAID YES. WHY ARE YOU SO BAD AT FOLLOWING THE CULTURAL PROCESS? In truth, I don’t enjoy any of this, these refusals, but there’s nothing I can do—if something is easy to get, you should probably refuse it, but more than that I always feel the dark corners of Moscow tugging at me—even now they still exist, even as they’re being destroyed and sterilized, and I need to return to them, to run from the glossy magazines, into those folds of humiliation and failure that I came from, and that have always produced the literature that means the most to me. I’m a child of the Russian intelligentsia, I’m a person of culture, and culture for me does not consist of rhymes and motifs, but of legends, of gossip, like a thread winding through the centuries, like a moral (as in the moral of a tale), like air—and that’s the only thing worth inheriting (not the “outlines of a poetics” or whatever). This is the only cultural inheritance that interests me. I’d like to be the descendant of Leonid Gubanov, the Moscow poet who was trampled and humiliated and yet never gave in to the Soviet authorities, and of Roald Mandelstam17, who died in poverty and obscurity. Their voices cry inside me, I want to record an album of their poetry, but I feel like I shouldn’t, or can’t, if I’m a poet with status who is part of the normalized mainstream.

Once, after performing in a poetry competition in Rome, I remember walking around that city, absolutely happy, a kind of successful poet on tour, half-Bukowski, half-Yevtushenko, a real VIP (and at the same time a child), sipping at a gigantic bottle of beer, which seemed to terrify the woman I was walking with, a young Swiss poet, and I remember thinking—or, no, at the time I couldn’t think it, but I felt it—that nothing better than this would ever happen to me, not, anyway, in this sense, and so I should probably not do it again. That all this recognition, such as it was, and the fact that I’d dreamed of this recognition for so long, changed nothing. You can’t change the world that way, you can’t rise to the next level of existence that way—you can only end up getting something for yourself, feeling like a conqueror for a short time. But your ambitions (my ambitions) won’t let you just be another conqueror in this city, in Rome. The people who came into the train station (the poetry competition took place in one of the chambers of the train station), and those reading my poems translated into Italian on the big screen in the waiting room, said that they liked the poems; I traveled there and back by bus, it was a long slow trip through daytime and nighttime Europe—I experienced a complete fugue state on the way—I felt like I could see and understand reality without actually coming into contact with it, I was untouchable, and on the way there and back I wrote a long poem whose reading six months later became my final public appearance as a poet.

I have a website, and I’m very happy that this is where my relations with the literary world end. I think this is a very simple and natural state of affairs. I see in this a kind of purity of genre, like a sonnet or haiku or a strictly organized architectural space. I understand that this is how thousands of poets exist. Many of them are talentless, but some are not, some are gifted, and there are probably those among them who are more gifted than I, but no one knows anything about them. In any case, I’m happy to be like them. And people will say: “You’re lying. Those poets are unknown and will die unknown, whereas you, in any case, won’t entirely disappear. This is just a game to you.” And yet I think that in the end this isn’t just a game.

I don’t like it when former victims, rebels, and avant-gardists become themselves masters of the culture. Like the actual revolutionaries they once modeled themselves on, they often become undisciplined and brutal masters. This is an old and boring story, as old as the world, one that one would really like to avoid in one’s own case.

The thing is that for worries such as I have, for qualms such as mine, people IN THIS SYSTEM often receive presents—and I would not like to receive any presents.

Of all the many kinds of artists that I know, the only one I like right now (and I should say that I am not this kind of artist yet myself, but I hope to be) is the artist-monk, who has (like a real monk) no rights, only responsibilities. His responsibility is to pray. That is, God in this instance is the social body, which gives some people the talent to move other people, and gives other people other qualities.., and in this context praying consists of living an honest life and creating uncompromising art so as to balance out the amount of dirt with which the rest of the social body is filled—be it a narrow stratum, or your nation, or all of humanity.

And the culture that I see around me is busy with other things—whether good things or bad things, they are things that don’t interest me, and so I don’t want to have any formal connection to this culture. Is that so hard to understand?

I am, of course, exaggerating. I’m forcing reality to fit under my favorite rubric of “it’s no good.” It’s not entirely true; some things are good; there are oases. It’s possible, for example, that there’s something interesting going on right now in the theater. I know for certain that in poetry at the beginning of this decade there was a surge, which went largely unnoticed within poetry circles, not to mention outside of them, because the world of poetry is still on the whole reactionary, even ideological liberals within it are aesthetically very reactionary. But the surge I’m talking about couldn’t help but happen, because tectonic shifts in the Russian language are taking place, there’s a very powerful process of rejuvenation, as at the beginning of the 19th century, and many successful experiments were attempted, by which you could easily measure the condition of contemporary Russian and its possibilities. You could even measure the condition and the possibilities of society in general by reading these poems.

The main conflict of this time—for Russia, a very serious one—was the conflict between received ideas of what poetry is and what it ought to be (simple and “soulful” versus intellectual and complex; rhyming versus free verse; “spoken” versus written, and so on) as against the idea, until recently foreign to these parts, that poetry is only the maximal expression, via the medium of language, of this or that authentic way of seeing, and that it is precisely this—the degree of its expressiveness—that is the only criterion by which you can determine its quality.

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