This morning when I checked in on the North Star website, I spotted a Youtube clip of George Galloway’s speech to parliament opposing British intervention in Syria. As much as I enjoyed Galloway’s debate with Christopher Hitchens and as much as I am opposed to Obama launching missiles against Syria (or anywhere else in the world), my reaction was similar to the one I would have had if after turning on my favorite classical radio station, I heard the strains of Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” instead. What the fuck? George Galloway? The guy who gets paid 80,000 pounds a year by the Syrians and the Iranians to make their case?
As some of you may know, Pham Binh resigned from the North Star editorial board three days ago, stating that he was “retiring from political writing to take care of long-neglected problems and people in my personal life”. This leaves C. Derick Varn and Pavel Dubrovsky as co-editors in chief. Despite lip-service they are paying to the idea of continuing with the mission of North Star, I doubt that this will be possible even if that is their stated opinion. I know nothing about Dubrovsky but Varn’s political past sets off all sorts of warning bells even if I cannot regard him as politically retrograde. In fact, it is hard to get any kind of fix on his political views, something that obviously was not the case with Pham Binh. I will be returning to the question of North Star’s future but will now take a look at its past—starting with its birth.
I can’t remember exactly when I wrote it, but about a year before I retired I alluded to some projects that would be possible after I retired. One of them was an online newspaper that would be in the spirit of Lenin’s Iskra, a place where socialists could post articles, interviews, Youtube videos, etc. as well as debate with each other.
In late 2011 Pham Binh broached the subject of launching a website along these lines but focused on the Occupy movement. Since I was impressed with Binh’s writings and since we had agreement about the “party” question, I gave it the green light. As far as I was concerned, this was Binh’s baby. I put up the three or four hundred dollars for the WordPress template and the hosting. I also provided technical support early on. That was my total involvement.
The website was called “The North Star” in honor of Peter Camejo’s network that I was part of in the early 80s, and ultimately in honor of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper whose name Peter had adopted. He was committed to the idea that American socialists had to dump the icons of the Russian (or Chinese past) like the hammer-and-sickle and utilize images and themes that resonated with our own history.
Binh and I had high hopes that the Occupy movement could develop into something long-lasting and powerful but a combination of factors led to its demise. After the repression that Obama helped to organize wrested the activists from the public spaces, they had trouble refocusing their energy. Despite some successes around opposing evictions and aid to Hurricane Sandy victims, the movement wound down. This meant that the North Star would have to change focus. Binh made the decision to take up party-building questions more directly, as well as the dynamics of the Arab Spring. The articles he wrote about “Leninism” for North Star were extremely valuable, especially the one that made the case rather convincingly that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were never separate parties but factions of the same party—an analysis that Lars Lih came to support.
With respect to the Arab Spring, Binh and the North Star became lightning rods after his articles defending the right of the Libyans to call for a no-fly zone put him in the same category as Christopher Hitchens for the “anti-imperialist” wing of the left. To his credit, Binh defended his views against all comers. His willingness to debate anybody who dared to cross swords with him reminded me of the viral Youtube video of the honey badger, the one that shows the beast sticking his snout into a beehive with the narrator saying, “Honey badger gets bit but he doesn’t give a shit. He wants his honey.”
In the course of participating in Occupy Wall Street, not far from his workplace, Binh came in contact with Ben Campbell, a Canadian neuroscience PhD student who had become radicalized in the struggle and had begun studying Marxism in earnest. Ben, like Binh, was both brilliant and a quick learner. Unfortunately, like Binh, he had personal problems that would eventually make it impossible for him to continue with North Star.
In his naiveté, Ben joined the Platypus Society, a group that consists of highly educated graduate students and professors who are self-avowed enemies of the left today in the name of rescuing Marxism from itself. It is a curious mixture of the philosophy of Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt school doyen, and the Spartacist League. The founder of the Platypus group, an art historian named Chris Cutrone, was a member of the Spartacist League and has never gotten over their kibitzing style. The approach is to sit on the sidelines castigating the left for its failures. Back when it was still on the left, Frank Furedi’s sect in Britain had the same illness.
Since I had become detached from the internal workings of the North Star, I can’t be sure about this but I have a strong suspicion that it was through Ben Campbell that connections with Platypus members was made, including C. Derick Varn—a former member. Here’s an interview of Ben Campbell by Varn in February 2013, when he was still a member, on the blog of Ross Wolfe, another Platypus member.
Just around the time that Varn became an editor along with Binh, Binh’s personal situation began to deteriorate. I can’t be sure when Varn came on board, but my impression is that Binh was so deluged by personal woes that having any kind of support was welcomed even if Varn’s provenance had little to do with the North Star’s mission. I think perhaps in Varn’s mind, there was a connection between the two projects since they both involved sweeping attacks on the existing left. The key difference, however, was that Binh had an activist orientation and sought more than anything to lay the groundwork for a new left, in the same manner as Peter Camejo in the early 80s and Bert Cochran in the early 50s. In a way, it is unfortunate that just at the time that the conditions are most propitious for such a development, Binh’s personal situation has forced him to retire from writing.
Turning back to the North Star website, I really have no idea what Varn and company intend. The sad fact is that not a single one of the editors has ever written an article there. Varn and fellow editor Dario Cankovich have posted interviews there from time to time but unlike Binh have never written a single article. Of course, a preemptory search turned nothing up and I accept the possibility that I might have missed something but to be sure their views were not dominant.
Frankly, I would not have a problem with them using the North Star for their own ends, even if they were opposite Binh’s. If I can get something out of Crooked Timber, I can surely get something out of a rival band of well-educated grad students. Maybe Varn will tire of this venture and move on to other things. As he put it once: “I have the nasty habit of flirting with various ideological tendencies, going through a myriad of variations of each, and seemingly changing colors with each of them like a demented chameleon.”