Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 22, 2014

Grace Lee Boggs; The Hypnotic Brothers

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 5:58 pm

Two documentaries arriving in New York this week are stirring testaments to the political and cultural heritage of the Black community. Ironically, the first—“American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs”—that opened yesterday at the AMC Loew’s on 19th Street is about a 98 year old Chinese-American woman whose entire political life was so enmeshed with the Detroit Black struggle that everybody regarded her as an African-American. The other film is “Brothers Hypnotic”, a film about the young sons of an alumnus of the Son Ra Orchestra who formed a brass ensemble that simultaneously reflects their father’s Black consciousness while stubbornly sticking to its own musical agenda. It opens on Monday at the Maysles Theater in Harlem, the go-to place for outstanding documentaries engaged with the Black experience.

For those who follow my film reviews, you are probably aware that I avoid the kind of hyperbolic praise that gets attached to those full-page ads in the NY Times. So when I tell you that “American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs” is the greatest documentary about an American leftist I have ever seen, I mean it. Granted that they are far and few between, this is still a movie that had me spellbound from beginning to end. It reminded me—and would remind anybody who ever passed out a leaflet—what it means to challenge the system and why such a life is so much worth living, no matter how many times your nose gets bloodied in the process.

Grace Lee Boggs, the daughter of a man who owned a successful Chinese restaurant, began studying at Barnard College just as the Great Depression was at its deepest point. Like so many other children of privilege, she decided that her lot was with the unemployed and the working class. But unlike most of her peers, she gravitated toward the Trotskyist movement rather than the CP. Obtaining a PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr in 1940, she found herself deeply influenced by Hegel and particularly the role of the dialectic that she thought useful in understanding capitalist society. This Hegelian predisposition naturally led her to the Workers Party shortly after hearing CLR James speak in Chicago. James had been a co-leader of the “Johnson-Forrest” tendency in the SWP (he was Johnson and Raya Dunayevskaya was Forrest) and a leading theorist of the Black struggle.

The film does not really delve too deeply in the Byzantine twists and turns of the Trotskyist movement (broadly defined) but James and Dunayevskaya broke with the Workers Party because of what they considered its foot-dragging in the Black struggle and rejoined the SWP in 1947. In 1950 the Johnson-Forrest tendency abandoned the SWP and set up shop as the Correspondence group, named after their magazine.

One of the more important members of the Correspondence group was James Boggs, a working-class African-American from the Deep South who after meeting Grace Lee wasted no time in proposing marriage. The Boggs’s closest collaborator was Marty Glaberman who was the editor of the magazine.

Chinese-American director Grace Lee’s first film was “The Grace Lee Project”, an attempt to find namesakes who defied the stereotype of an Asian woman who was as Rotten Tomatoes described it: “a quiet, studious over-achiever who was cheerful, Christian, and never got into trouble.” Nobody could be more unalike from that than Grace Lee Boggs who not only didn’t think of herself as Chinese but also was just one step ahead of being thrown in jail as a subversive. The new film includes footage of the 2005 documentary with a spry 84-year-old Grace Lee Boggs walking so fast that the director could barely keep up with her.

“American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs” includes a generous helping of James Boggs footage, a man I regret never having read. When the couple moved to Detroit, James took a job at Chrysler in order to understand the changes in the working class as well as changes in the industry. This was not a “colonization” effort but much more of an attempt to make a living while conducting research on the class struggle. Boggs wrote a book titled “The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook” that includes some of the earliest insights into the role that automation would play in the capitalist system. It is interesting that both he and Harry Braverman, another defector from Trotskyist dogmatism, would explore such a major transformation of American capitalism during its infancy.

Grace Lee Boggs is nowhere near as spry today as she was in 2005 but her mind is as sharp as it ever was. The film shows her interacting with young activists for whom she is a legendary figure. Although Detroit has pretty much become “Destroit” as SWP comrades from that city used to refer to it in the 1970s, she remains optimistic about its future. Her most recent projects include community gardening and safe street initiatives seemingly different from her more militant activism of 50 years ago but that still incorporate her deepest humanistic impulses.

Toward the end of the film, there is a fascinating exchange between the director and her subject over her unceasing optimism. Doesn’t she have any regrets about what she did with her life, including her decision not to have children? And how could she feel fulfilled when so many of her projects withered on the vine?

In 1999 Paul Buhle wrote a review of her memoir “Living for Change” that addressed the question of the disjunction between goals and the achievements that is worth quoting:

Lee herself moved to Detroit in 1953, married black auto worker James Boggs, and commenced a life of unceasing local activism. Much of the rest of Living For Change settles into a detailed description of personal life that defies summarization, but offers a rewarding, intimate study of ideas and activities in the cauldron of race and class contradictions during the 1950s-1990s. I remember once calling Detroit information without Grace’s home address and the telephone operator exclaiming, “You mean Grace Boggs!” It is no exaggeration to say that tens of thousands of Detroiters regarded the couple as perennially scrappy but beloved members of an extended family.

In some ways the story is heartbreaking. The group around C.L.R James disintegrated and one by one, the Boggses broke with their erstwhile comrades over personal and political differences. The early promise of the civil rights movement, which so roused black Detroit and the Boggs’ supporters, was stifled by the waves of massively destructive “urban renewal,” suburbanization and plant closings, bringing increased poverty and despair. New organizations, like the groupings around the Manifesto for a Black Political Party and their own National Organization for an American Revolution, failed after making a contribution to educating young (especially black) radicals through pamphlets, study groups and endless personal appearances by the two at conferences. In the end, as once-radical mayor Coleman Young bowed to the corporations to keep Detroit afloat, and the black middle class followed whites in abandoning the inner city, the Boggses with the rest of the Left were outgunned, bypassed by the postindustrial recklessness of capitalism.

But Grace Lee Boggs was never one to be kept down by mere defeats. As memorable volumes by James Boggs for MR Press pushed beyond received truths to creative adaptation-sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but always creative-race found new ways to make herself useful. ln identifying with the black community for decades, she emerged during the 1970s-1980s as a public speaker and intimate advisor for (and to) Asian-American Studies. Meanwhile, she joined with other community activists in new coalitions against drugs, violence, and casino-gambling in Detroit, among many other causes. Ossie Davis catches the spirit when he says about her story, ” Here is a book for the hungering heart, or even a picnic.” With Grace Lee Boggs, it could not be otherwise.

My very highest recommendation for “American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs”.

In one of the more memorable comments from Grace Lee Boggs in the aforementioned film that dates from the early 60s, she says that Blacks are not trying to become equal to whites but equal to the image they have in their mind of a fulfilled and free Black American.

That would describe Phil Cohran to a tee. Born in 1927, he was a successful jazz musician who turned his back on moneymaking gigs and founded the Affro-Arts Theater and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago during the 1960s, projects associated with cultural and political challenges to the status quo.

The Affro-Arts Theater was a regular venue for Black militants, so much so that it became the obsession of the local Red Squad. After Stokely Carmichael spoke there, the cops convinced a judge to shut it down.

His personal life was just as radical as his artistic life. In addition to the eight children he fathered with one wife, he initiated relationships with two other women who moved into his Chicago home. At one point twenty-four of their offspring were living with Phil and his three wives in a sort of benign version of Philadelphia’s MOVE. The house was a vegetarian and Black consciousness haven dedicated most of all to the religion of Black music, particularly jazz. As luck would have it, all three women were trained musicians.

8 of the Cohran boys would study brass instruments from an early age. Like any other young men, they rebelled against their father without any likely nod to Freud’s Oedipal Complex. Instead the rebellion was based on their own ideas about what kind of music they would play.

The band they formed, Brothers Hypnotic, was an eclectic blend of jazz, gospel, hip-hop and what sounds to my ears a lot like Gabrieli—with a complex polyphonic texture. They started off as a street band but later evolved into a more conventional concert venue act that toured Europe and performed with stars like Prince and Mos Def.

Directed by first-timer Reuben Atlas, the film adheres pretty much to concert tour documentaries that have been made about groups like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. Most of it consists of performances or the musicians talking about music and their lives.

What they seem to share with their father after all is said and done is a fierce independence of mind that makes them wary of becoming just another band signed with a commercial label. Unlike so many hip-hop artists with a crass devotion to filthy lucre, the Hypnotic Brothers are committed above all to their artistic vision. As such, this documentary has inspirational value in a period of history lacking much in the way of inspiration.

January 20, 2014

The Wayland Rudd Collection: the Red and the Black

Filed under: african-american,art,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Wayland Rudd

For a number of years now, Russian émigré artist Yevgeniy Fiks has been examining the cultural legacy of the USSR, both within its borders and in the U.S. Although politically to the left, Fiks is no simple dispenser of Soviet nostalgia as is prominently on display in the Back to USSR restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. (But if you ever find yourself there, don’t miss the Red Snapper. It is to die for.)

No, Fiks’s interest is in revealing the contradictions of being a Communist, if I might be indulged in using a bit of Marxist/Hegelian jargon. In his last show at the Winkleman Gallery on far West 27th Street, an area that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, he focused in on the Red/Gay hysteria of the 1950s when being a Commie and a “fag” was deemed inimical to American values. As anybody familiar with the Soviet Union can attest, gays had it just as bad. Despite the early Soviet Union’s openness to different forms of sexual identity, Stalin’s counter-revolution included a law enacted in 1933 that made homosexuality punishable by a 5-year prison term.

In November 2012, I conducted an interview with Fiks that my readers would find most interesting, I’m sure. He covers his various projects, including portraits of CP’ers in the USA as well as his rather witty experiment in donating copies of Lenin’s essay on imperialism to major American corporation’s libraries.

I also invite you to check out Fiks’s website where he describes his esthetic in these terms:

My work is inspired by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which led me to the realization of the necessity to reexamine the Soviet experience in the context of the history of the Left, including that of the international Communist movement. My work is a reaction to the collective amnesia within the post-Soviet space over the last decade, on the one hand, and the repression of the histories of the American Left in the US, on the other.

I’ve been interested in discovering and reflecting on repressed micro-historical narratives that highlight the complex relationships between social histories of the West and Russia in the 20th century. Having grown up and having been educated in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, my work is about coming to terms with the Soviet experience by carving out a space for critique both without and within the Soviet experience. Having lived in New York since 1994, I’m particularly interested in the history of the American Communist movement and the way it manifests itself in the present-day United States.

My work has been influenced by the writings of Susan Buck-Morss about discovering sites of the “post-Soviet condition” in today’s US and the effects of the Cold War on present-day American society and culture, and I am interested in the activist use of that legacy.

His latest installment in this ongoing project that I had the good fortune to attend on Friday evening–once again at the Winkleman Gallery–is devoted to the experience of African-Americans in the former Soviet Union. The key figure that unites the visual art on display is émigré Black actor Wayland Rudd, who moved to Russia in 1932 to escape American racism. He became an icon in the USSR, with a fame that rivaled Paul Robeson’s. On display in the gallery are a number of works that might not have an obvious relationship to Rudd but that invite meditation on the underlying tensions between Black identity and official Communism.

The exhibition is crowned by Fiks’s 200 plus collection of Soviet posters, etc. that deal in one way or another with the image of Black people. They range from the heroic to at least one piece of advertising that evokes the Aunt Jemima picture of old.

To be sure, whatever racial stereotyping existed during the worst days of Stalinism, there was nothing to match the naked bigotry on display in a post-Soviet world:

Financial Times (London,England)
June 14, 2003 Saturday

Black in the USSR Xenophobia is on the increase in Russia, propelled by groups of violent extremists. Their victims, says Hugh Barnes, range from embassy elite to a few hundred black students, marooned when the collapse of the Soviet system cut off their financial support

Vladimir Putin raises a glass to a packed hall of distinguished guests and foreign academics, mostly from developing countries, nearly all black. They are graduates of Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University, now renamed Friendship University. Founded in 1970 at the height of the cold war to educate students from Africa and Asia, the university was named in honour of the Congolese leader assassinated by the CIA, and it was designed to inculcate its graduates with the values of Soviet socialism. The Russian President makes a toast to higher education – “a great tradition always open to talented young people, independent of class, wealth, religion or ethnic origin”. There is applause. “I want to repeat: in Russia, dear friends, you are always the most welcome guests.” More, rapturous, applause.

Outside the hall, in the main plaza of the university, a gang of 20 skinheads attempts to mount the latest in a series of racist attacks. Similar attacks have, in the past, resulted in murders. On this occasion, only the presence of a reinforced security cordon to protect the visiting dignitaries (rather than the university’s remaining black students) foils the attempt to wreak havoc. Inside the Friendship University all is official friendship. The incidents outside are not commented on, now or afterwards.

Yet Russia is suffering from a rise in xenophobia. The Russian leader has warned of “inflammatory slogans and fascist and nationalist symbols, which threaten human rights and lead to pogroms and people being beaten up and killed”. Most of those who are being beaten up and killed are the students at Friendship University and elsewhere, marooned when the collapse of the Soviet system cut off their financial support. But others are the kind of people who applauded the president in the hall: visiting dignitaries and diplomats.

By targeting the embassy elite, the swastika-emblazoned thugs have spread concern through the ranks of foreign envoys living in Moscow. A Madagascan, a Kenyan and a Malian diplomat were set upon by racists last year, and skinheads attacked the wife of South Africa’s ambassador as she was shopping in an upscale neighbourhood, burning her with cigarettes.

Wayland Rudd’s decision to move to the USSR was completely understandable given the terrible oppression Black people faced in Jim Crow days. You can read Black autoworker Robert Robinson’s “Black on Red: My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union” to get another glimpse into the émigré experience. The Wikipedia article on Robinson refers to others who made the journey:

He described acquaintances in the Soviet Union: Henry Smith, a journalist; Wayland Rudd, an actor; Robert Ross, a Soviet propagandist from Montana; Henry Scott, a dancer from New York City; Coretta Arle-Titz, actress and music professor; John Sutton, an agronomist; George Tynes, also an agronomist; and Lovett Whiteman, an English teacher. He noted meeting in the 1930s the American writers Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson, who had traveled to the Soviet Union.

One of the works on display in the gallery was a book by artist Suzanne Broughel that collected the statements of participating artists in the show, including Yevgeniy Fiks who commented on his own experience as an émigré. In Russia, he was a Jew but in the U.S. he was a Russian.

In a brief chat with Yevgeniy at the show, I mentioned to him that I saw all sorts of contradictions involving Jews, Communists and Blacks growing up in Woodridge, New York—a village that the leftist newspaper PM described as a working-class Utopia in 1947. In the late 1950s there was a thriving group of leftists that included both Communists and American Labor Party activists that was spearheading an organizing drive of mostly Black workers in Woodridge’s plantation-like commercial steam laundry that served local hotels. So popular was the left in my village that even my father held a brief membership in the American Labor Party. But whatever messages the party was propagating on Black-white equality were lost on my father who was always sure to unload spotted fruit to the “schvartzes”, as he put it.

I am not sure of the status of this documentary-in-progress but it will surely add to the body of knowledge about the Red-Black connection once it is completed:

November 11, 2013

UCLA racism

Filed under: Academia,african-american — louisproyect @ 2:01 pm

November 8, 2013

Kanye West — what a schmuck

Filed under: african-american,capitalist pig — louisproyect @ 3:26 pm

Kanye West leaves Barneys wearing a jacket with a rebel flag. Here is the explanation.

August 23, 2013

Hollywood and Black America

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 12:27 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition August 23-25, 2013

The Weinstein Treatment
Hollywood and Black America

Recently The Butler and Fruitvale Station, both Harvey Weinstein productions, arrived at my local “better” movie theater and settled down next to Woody Allen’s latest navel-gazing exercise. At the same time HBO was running The Help, a 2011 film that garnered BET’s Best Movie award. Harvey Weinstein was fresh on my mind from an article I had written on “How Commerce Trumped Art at Miramax” for the launch of the new journal Class, Race, and Corporate Power.

Over the last decade or so Weinstein has turned into an old-time studio boss. That made me curious to see what influence he had on two very different films about the Black experience in racist America. Meanwhile, the Disney Corporation, the parent company of Miramax for 17 years, distributed The Help, a film that I suspected would have much in common with Lee Daniels’ The Butler. According to Peter Biskind, the author of Down and Dirty Pictures, a history of independent filmmaking in the 1990s, Miramax had become “Disneyfied” while Disney was being “Miramaxized”. As arbiters of mainstream politics and culture, it is hard to imagine anything that could surpass Disney and Weinstein. Of course, the wild card was Fruitvale Station, a film by a young Black director that dramatized the cop killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland on the night of December 31, 2008, hardly the sort of fare expected to run cheek-by-jowl to Woody Allen’s privileged, white, narcissistic, fantasy.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/08/23/hollywood-and-black-america/

June 24, 2013

Three documentaries of note

Filed under: african-american,comedy,Film,Russia — louisproyect @ 4:54 pm

As a wistful look at funeral homes in the Black community, the documentary “Homegoings” that opens today at Maysles Cinema in the heart of Harlem is the perfect companion piece to Spike Lee’s first movie “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads”. Although Lee’s movie is a fairly conventional crime melodrama with the owners of the barbershop having stolen money from racketeers, it is best when it is about the small talk that goes on in one of the Black community’s longest standing institutions. As two barbers are playing checkers, the subject turns to straightening hair. “Processes ruin the hair and the brain too. That’s why we’ve got so many dumb brothers,” says one barber to the other.

“Homegoings”, a euphemism for death that speaks volumes, features Harlem funeral director Isaiah Owens, a sixtyish man who really brings this ostensibly morbid subject matter to life. An obvious geek when he was young, Owens was obsessed with burying dead animals—frogs, cats, dogs, you name it. He also loved to simulate funerals with miniature objects in the same way that I used to play with toy soldiers, something he reenacts in the course of the film.

Last Thursday I almost ventured down to a “Death Café” in downtown Manhattan, a group that meets monthly to discuss death—obviously. At the age of 68, this is a subject that has more currency than it had when I was 28. Four decades ago I understood intellectually that I was not going to live forever (I can hear many of my readers shouting “Hurray!”) but it was nothing to brood about. Nowadays that’s mostly what I have on my mind, when I am not brooding about the Brenner thesis or the sorry state of Hollywood movies. The NY Times reported on the death café:

Socrates did not fear death; he calmly drank the hemlock. Kierkegaard was obsessed with death, which made him a bit gloomy. As for Lorraine Tosiello, a 58-year-old internist in Bradley Beach, N.J., it is the process of dying that seems endlessly puzzling.

“I’m more interested, philosophically, in what is death? What is that transition?” Dr. Tosiello said at a recent meeting in a Manhattan coffee shop, where eight people had shown up on a Wednesday night to discuss questions that philosophers have grappled with for ages.

The group, which meets monthly, is called a Death Cafe, one of many such gatherings that have sprung up in nearly 40 cities around the country in the last year. Offshoots of the “café mortel” movement that emerged in Switzerland and France about 10 years ago, these are not grief support groups or end-of-life planning sessions, but rather casual forums for people who want to bat around philosophical thoughts. What is death like? Why do we fear it? How do our views of death inform the way we live?

I was not surprised to learn from my friend Jeffrey, who is even older than me believe it or not, that his mind is wrapped around the same questions. I think to some extent this is a function of both of us having parents who went through a fairly lengthy experience being ground down by lengthy illnesses—in his father’s case Parkinson’s and in my mother’s case heart disease. It tends to focus the mind.

In “Homegoings” you get a totally different take on dying. As the title of the movie implies, there is a joy that awaits the average devout Harlemite serviced by Owens’s specialized trade, which involves among other things applying a kind of botox treatment to make a 92 year old dead person look years younger so that the funeral service will be more upbeat. One supposes that this is essentially what religion is about, making you believe that there is everlasting life in heaven. Of course, for those unlucky enough to be raised in a Jewish household, where such beliefs are understated, and beyond that to have matured as atheists, there’s little to console us except the knowledge that we don’t have to worry about going to hell—a real bonus for someone like me.

Now available from Showtime on-demand, “Richard Pryor—Omit the Logic” is a fascinating account of the Dorian Gray-like rise and fall of arguably the USA’s greatest stand-up comedian next to Lenny Bruce. As was the case with Bruce, Pryor’s decline can be attributed to the abuse he took from industry heavies as well as the self-abuse of a major heavy drug habit.

But digging a bit deeper into the Pryor story, I am convinced that the comparison is better made with Miles Davis, another Black artist whose improvisational skills rivaled Pryor’s. What one did with a horn, the other did through stories and jokes.

The documentary is graced by interviews with both the people who knew him as friends or lovers, as well as knowledgeable students of African-American society—most notably Walter Moseley and Ishmael Reed.

The film of course includes footage from nightclub, television and film appearances but it does not try to compete with the 1979 Richard Pryor: Live in Concert or the 1982 Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, a film made two years after he set himself on fire—supposedly a free-basing accident. The film reveals, however, that this was a suicide attempt inspired by Pryor’s watching a newsreel of Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest the American-backed dictatorship in Vietnam in the mid-60s.

The film also goes into detail about Pryor’s decline and eventual death from multiple sclerosis, a disease that for the first time in his life made him dependent on others and very likely for the first time in his life to learn to trust them as a result.

Another documentary available as on-request from a premium cable station (and on Youtube above until the intellectual propery cops find out), HBO’s “Pussy Riot—a Punk Prayer” is both notable as a news story and as human drama. It is also a fundamental challenge to those on the left who would treat Vladimir Putin as some kind of anti-imperialist icon because he is the target of Nicholas Kristof or Thomas Friedman’s abuse. If after watching this documentary, you can still agree with the get-tough recommendations of “leftist” blogger Moon over Alabama, then maybe you should reconsider what it means to be on the left:

Abusing places of worship for a “free speech act”, especially when that act is subjectively blasphemous to the religion, is an infringement of the right of freedom of religion. In my view such an infringement, as in this case, can not be justified by the right of free speech. There are many other places where the free speech can be made. I therefore find the sentence against Pussy Riot quite obviously justified.

This of course is utter nonsense. In 2003 a couple had sex in the pews at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in N.Y. as a shock radio prank. While awaiting trial, the man died of a heart attack—not likely a result of overexertion—but the woman got 40 hours of community service, a proverbial slap on the wrist.

The hostility toward Pussy Riot from some sectors of the left makes you wonder if they were around when Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman were up to stunts like throwing dollar bills on the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. These people so anxious to see “law and order” prevail in Russia are nothing less than the purple Kryptonite reversal of the right-wingers who belonged to the Moral Majority.

In actuality, the Pussy Riot performance had little to do with shock radio. Instead, as the documentary makes clear, it was a political act that was cut from the same cloth as the Gezi Park protests in Taksim Square, but even far more engaged with anti-capitalist consciousness.

The background of the three women in Pussy Riot makes this completely clear. Maria Alyokhina, a 25-year-old single mother, was a member of Greenpeace who was active in the protests against the clearing of Khimki Forest that is part of the “green belt” around Moscow, obviously in the same spirit of the Taksim Square rebellion. The forest was to be leveled for an 8 billion dollar superhighway to connect Moscow with St. Petersburg.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is the 24-year-old daughter of an artist who was raised by her ardently communist grandmother after her parents divorced. Combing her father’s esthetics and her grandmother’s firebrand politics, she hooked up with the Voina street-art group that embodies autonomist values, including a “refusal to work” and commitment to provocative actions—thankfully excluding black block type adventurism. The film shows her and a man having sex along with other couples in the Biology Museum in Moscow, an obvious commentary on reproduction.

The thirty-year-old Yekaterina Samutsevich was the third member of the group. She took part in Operation Kiss Garbage that involved “ambush kissing” of female police officers in subway stations from January through March 2011. All told, the activities of the three women were assaults on Russian notions of propriety utterly in keeping with bohemian radicalism going back for more than a century. It was the sort of activism that was a core part of the 1960s but one that is now disavowed by many of the elderly survivors of that period who now equate radicalism with following the foreign policy initiatives of the Putin state machinery.

The film climaxes with the trial of the three women at which the prosecution expects them to grovel before the court in 1930s Moscow Trial fashion. The more they flagellate themselves, the more lenient the punishment. Defiant of the sexist, class-oppressive, environmentally destructive state apparatus, the women do not budge an inch from their principles, as their closing statement to the court makes clear:

Katya, Masha and I are in jail but I don’t consider that we’ve been defeated. Just as the dissidents weren’t defeated. When they disappeared into psychiatric hospitals and prisons, they passed judgement on the country. The era’s art of creating an image knew no winners or losers. The Oberiu poets remained artists to the very end, something impossible to explain or understand since they were purged in 1937. Vvedensky wrote: “We like what can’t be understood, What can’t be explained is our friend.” According to the official report, Aleksandr Vvedensky died on 20 December 1941. We don’t know the cause, whether it was dysentery in the train after his arrest or a bullet from a guard. It was somewhere on the railway line between Voronezh and Kazan. Pussy Riot are Vvedensky’s disciples and his heirs. His principle of ‘bad rhythm’ is our own. He wrote: “It happens that two rhythms will come into your head, a good one and a bad one and I choose the bad one. It will be the right one.” What can’t be explained is our friend. The elitist, sophisticated occupations of the Oberiu poets, their search for meaning on the edge of sense was ultimately realized at the cost of their lives, swept away in the senseless Great Terror that’s impossible to explain. At the cost of their own lives, the Oberiu poets unintentionally demonstrated that the feeling of meaninglessness and analogy, like a pain in the backside, was correct, but at the same time led art into the realm of history. The cost of taking part in creating history is always staggeringly high for people. But that taking part is the very spice of human life. Being poor while bestowing riches on many, having nothing but possessing everything. It is believed that the OBERIU dissidents are dead, but they live on. They are persecuted but they do not die.

Do you remember why the young Dostoyevsky was given the death sentence? All he had done was to spend all his time with Socialists—and at the Friday meetings of a friendly circle of free thinkers at Petrushevsky’s, he became acquainted with Charles Fourier and George Sand. At one of the last meetings, he read out Gogol’s letter to Belinsky, which was packed, according to the court, and I note, with childish expressions against the Orthodox Church and the supreme authorities. After all his preparations for the death penalty and ten dreadful, impossibly frightening minutes waiting to die, as Dostoyevsky himself put it, the announcement came that his sentence had been commuted to four years hard labour followed by military service.

Socrates was accused of corrupting youth through his philosophical discourses and of not recognizing the gods of Athens. Socrates had a connection to a divine inner voice and was by no means a theomachist, something he often said himself. What did that matter, however, when he had angered the city with his critical, dialectical and unprejudiced thinking? Socrates was sentenced to death and, refusing to run away, although he was given that option, he drank down a cup of poison in cold blood, hemlock.

Have you forgotten the circumstances under which Stephen, follower of the Apostles, ended his earthly life? “Then they secretly induced men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.’ And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and dragged him away, and brought him before the Council. And they put forward false witnesses who said, ‘This man incessantly speaks against this holy place, and the Law.’” He was found guilty and stoned to death.

And I hope everyone remembers what the Jews said to Jesus: “We’re stoning you not for any good work, but for blasphemy.” And finally it would be well worth remembering this description of Christ: “He is possessed of a demon and out of his mind.”

Read full statement.

April 2, 2013

Ring shout leader dead at 97

Filed under: african-american,music,obituary — louisproyect @ 8:13 pm

NY Times, April 1 2013

Lawrence McKiver, a Singer in Long Tradition, Dies at 97


Lawrence McKiver, a founder and the longtime lead singer of the McIntosh County Shouters, a Georgia group representing the last community in America to perform the traditional ring shout — a centuries-old black form of ecstatic worship that marries singing, percussion and movement — died on March 25 on St. Simons Island, Ga. He was 97.

photo by Margo Newmark Rosenbaum
Lawrence McKiver leading a ring shout — a form of worship that combines singing, percussion and movement — in 1983.

His death, at a nursing home there, was confirmed by a cousin, Carletha Sullivan.

The ring shout, rooted in the ritual dances of West Africa and forged by the Atlantic slave trade, is believed to be the oldest surviving African-American performance tradition of any kind. Centered in the Gullah-Geechee region of the coastal South, it differs from traditional black religious music in repertory, style and execution.

“The shouters, historically, had a separate body of songs that were used expressly and exclusively for the ring shout,” Art Rosenbaum, the author of “Shout Because You’re Free” (1998), a book about the tradition, said in an interview on Friday. “They are not the spirituals or gospel songs or hymns or jubilees that you’d hear in the church.”

Mr. McKiver, the Shouters’ last original member, appeared with the group until he was in his mid-80s and was widely acknowledged as the ring shout’s chief custodian.

A resident of Bolden, a tiny community about 50 miles south of Savannah, he had long helped perpetuate dozens of its traditional shout songs — including “Kneebone Bend,” “Move, Daniel,” “I Want to Die Like Weepin’ Mary” and “Hold the Baby” — whose subject matter can range from the devout to the secular and from the joyous to the apocalyptic.

With the founding of the McIntosh County Shouters in 1980, Mr. McKiver introduced the ring shout to wide audiences throughout the country.

Despite its name, the ring shout entails little shouting. That word refers not to the singing but to the movement: small, deliberate steps in a counterclockwise ring. (“Shout” has been said to be a Gullah survival of the Afro-Arabic word “saut,” the name of a ritual dance around the Kaaba, a sacred site in Mecca.)

Mr. McKiver was the Shouters’ songster, as the lead singer is known. A shout typically begins with the songster singing the opening lines; other singers, known as basers, reply in call-and-response fashion. The group’s “stick man” beats a syncopated rhythm on the floor with a tree branch or broomstick as other members clap contrasting rhythms.

The circular steps for which shouting is known are by no means dancing. To avoid even the faint appearance of dance (considered sinful in some Christian traditions), shouters may neither cross their feet nor lift them high. The result — a low, measured step that is sometimes described as a shuffle — is shouting’s visual hallmark.

On the plantations of the antebellum South, where it took on elements of Christianity, the ring shout flourished covertly for generations of slaves.

“They were just doing something to keep their mind off the past tense,” Mr. McKiver said, speaking in the local dialect, in an oral history in Mr. Rosenbaum’s book. “It was their happiness. They didn’t sing it for nothing at all sad.”

After the Civil War, the tradition endured in pockets where freed slaves had settled. By the mid-20th century, however, as Gullah-Geechee communities were increasingly swept aside by gentrification, the ring shout was presumed dead.

But in 1980 two folklorists, Fred C. Fussell and George Mitchell, were astonished to find it still being performed — a robust modern link in a chain stretching back generations — in Bolden, a coastal area in McIntosh County, Ga.

In Bolden (or Briar Patch, as the community is also known), ring shouting was, then as now, a vital adjunct to worship at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church. It was typically performed there on New Year’s Eve, also called Watch Night, to shout out the old year and shout in the new.

The folklorists encouraged the people of Bolden to take the shout public; under Mr. McKiver’s stewardship, a touring group, the McIntosh County Shouters, was assembled.

Over the years, the group (typically four men and five women, all related by birth or marriage) has performed at City Center in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington and the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C., as well as on many college campuses.

It can be heard on recordings, including “Slave Shout Songs From the Coast of Georgia,” released on the Folkways label in 1984, and in “Unchained Memories,” a 2003 HBO documentary built around slave narratives.

In 1993, the McIntosh County Shouters were awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Lawrence McKiver was born in Bolden in April 1915. (The family name is sometimes spelled McIver.) His mother, the former Charlotte Evans, was a shouter, as were his maternal grandparents, Amy and London Jenkins, slaves who were the wellspring of most of the shouts performed by the community today.

Mr. McKiver was educated in local segregated schools and served in the Army during World War II. Afterward he spent much of his working life as a shrimper, a job in which, he said, he “hauled till my hands be so sore till blood come out.”

Performing with the Shouters, Mr. McKiver took pains to explain to audiences the messages from slave to slave that were encoded in the lyrics of some songs.

Introducing “Move, Daniel,” for instance, he would say that “Daniel was not the Daniel of the Bible, but was a slave that had stolen some meat from the master’s smokehouse,” Mr. Rosenbaum recalled on Friday. “And the words of the shout — ‘Move, Daniel/Go the other way, Daniel’ — he understood to be instructions to Daniel about how to flee from the master’s whip.”

Mr. McKiver’s wife, the former Anna Mae Palmer, whom he married in 1934, died in 1962. Survivors include a daughter, Renelda Nelson; a son, Ricky Scott; five grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and a great-great-grandchild.

The ring shout, which is believed to have survived in Bolden because of the community’s stability — its young people tended to settle there — seems destined to endure: Mr. McKiver’s cousin Ms. Sullivan is a member of the Shouters, as are her daughter and grandson, the group’s current stick man.

This continuity is due in no small part to Mr. McKiver’s influence.

“I know I’m the one that got the songs alive today,” he told Mr. Rosenbaum. “And I don’t mind talking with a person on my heritage. I can bravely talk about my heritage, because my people come over the rough side of the mountain. Understand?”

January 1, 2013

Jewish leftist chicken farmers of the Catskills

Filed under: african-american,revolutionary organizing,trade unions — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

A couple of months ago I was exchanging email with Yevgeniy Fiks, the Russian conceptual artist who emigrated to the U.S. in 1994, and Allen Young, the veteran leftist who lived in the next village from me in the 1950s. Yevgeniy’s latest show was titled Homosexuality Is Stalin’s Atom Bomb to Destroy America, a subject that was right up Allen’s alley. As the closeted son of Communist parents, he knew firsthand what it meant to be up against the “red scare” and “pink scare” simultaneously.

In trying to provide Yevgeniy with some background information on Allen’s past, I sent him a copy of the obit that Allen wrote for his mom that included this item:

An active member of the American Labor Party of New York State in the 1940s and 1950s, she helped organize a successful civil rights campaign in the 1950s to improve the conditions of migrant African-American laundry workers in Woodridge.

Allen wrote back letting me know that a woman named Beryl Rubens had worked closely with Rae Young and the other activists in the community. Furthermore, she was living on the upper west side and still going strong. I followed up with a phone call and made a date to interview her on December 5th.

The Glen Wild chicken farmers who provided the backbone of the organizing drive were Communists. They were also deeply principled and fearless. They stuck their necks out in a time when CP’ers were losing their jobs or facing prison terms for their beliefs.

In my comic book memoir I try to pay homage to these dedicated souls whose example should serve us well in a period of deepening reaction. In many ways, the struggle to organize a trade union at a steam laundry in my little village in the Catskills was like the one depicted in Herert Biberman’s “Salt of the Earth” inasmuch as it combined class and racial dimensions.

If I ever get around to writing a novel about life in the Borscht Belt in the 1950s, such heroes and heroines will play a central role.

November 23, 2012

The Central Park Five; The Loving Story

Filed under: african-american,Film,racism — louisproyect @ 10:38 pm

Albert and David Maysles

Starting today, New Yorkers will have an unprecedented opportunity to see two uniquely hard-hitting documentaries on race relations in the U.S. at Maysles Cinema in Harlem, one of the crown jewels of the nation’s most famous Black neighborhood. As a team, Albert and David Maysles were documentary filmmakers, whose work encompassed a wide variety of topics, from the hustling bible salesmen of the 1968 “Salesman” to the Rolling Stones concert flick “Gimme Shelter”. The younger brother David died of a stroke at the age of 55 in 1987. Now 86, Albert Maysles is still going strong. Only two years ago Albert served as director of photography on Oliver Stone and Tariq Ali’s “South of the Border”, a real inspiration to me as a 67-year-old aspiring Vimeo auteur. If Albert Maysles can gallivant around in the thin air of the Andes, then I should have twenty good years ahead of me as well.

The best thing you can say about “The Central Park Five” and “The Loving Story” is that they are the sorts of films that David Maysles must gaze upon with admiration from his perch in filmmaker’s heaven. They do him proud. Starting today and running through the 29th, “The Central Park Five” is a study of the naked racism of New York’s police department, district attorney’s office, and mass media collaborating together to carry out an act of injustice that is no exaggeration to compare to the Emmett Till case. As Malcolm X said in a 1964 speech: “America is Mississippi. There’s no such thing as a Mason-Dixon line—it’s America.”

“The Loving Story” is also a study of prosecutorial racism, in this instance the 1958 conviction of Richard Loving and his wife Mildred for violating the miscegenation laws in Virginia. Richard was white, and Mildred was an ethnic mixture of Black and American Indian. They were simple, rural people not at all interested in becoming civil rights activists but they insisted on the right to live as husband and wife in Virginia. Their case went up to the Supreme Court and in 1967 their legal victory had the effect of wiping such Jim Crow laws off the books everywhere except Alabama, which finally relented in 2000. When watching the film, you cannot but help be reminded of the struggle to legalize gay marriage—another seemingly “normal” ambition that strikes at the heart of American backwardness. “The Loving Story” opens on December 10th and runs through the 16th.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about “The Central Park Five” is that Ken Burns directed it. To me Burns is the Steven Spielberg of documentary films, focused on “feel good” narratives about uncontroversial subjects such as jazz or baseball that are calculated to serve as cinematic comfort food to PBS audiences. With such a powerfully engaged work like this to his credit, it should encourage everybody—including me—to check out his PBS series on the Dust Bowl now in progress.

The story of Burns’s decision to make such a film is most interesting. A New York magazine article starts off:

“They’re so full of shit,” says Ken Burns, railing against lawyers for New York, the city that’s been the glamorous star of so many of his documentaries. “The outrage that I feel comes from the fact that people were readily willing to sacrifice the lives of five young men, that they were expendable, that they’re still stuck in a lie, and that the institutional protectionism continues.”

The idea for the film came from his daughter Sarah:

It was her project from the start. Sarah met two of the Central Park Five back in 2003, when she was a Yale undergrad interning at a law firm that was preparing their civil case. Casting around for a ­senior-thesis topic in American studies, she wound up with a 50-pager on the media’s use of racial tropes in covering the case. Newspapers had coined the dubious term wilding to describe the “wolf pack” of 30-odd kids that had roamed the park that April night, beating and mugging passersby. (Other teens were convicted of lesser crimes; the Five were part of that group but probably not ringleaders.)

I have vivid memories of the incident that occurred back in 1989. I used to run along the same path that the jogger took and slowed down on 102nd Street to see the placards, candles and flowers left there by people who felt remorse over what happened to her. Like many New Yorkers, I began to worry about being attacked myself. This was a period in the city when the crime rate was much higher, largely a result of the crack epidemic that the film alludes to. When the five teenagers were arrested, the city saw this as just another instance of an out-of-control Black and Latino community. Just as Mayor Dinkins was accused of favoring his own race by creating the conditions that allowed a Jew to be stabbed during riots in Brooklyn, the “wilding” in Central Park was largely attributed to a breakdown of law and order. Shortly after the youths were arrested, Donald Trump paid for full-age ads in the city’s four daily newspapers urging the reinstatement of the death penalty—the only thing that could put a dent in what was implicitly a Black and Latino assault on white people.

As stated in the New York magazine article, the Central Park Five were involved with crimes in the park that evening but nothing more than physical attacks on white people. In a city so polarized back in 1989, such attacks were widespread and bidirectional. For example, if a Black or Latino accidentally wandered into an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn late at night, the consequences would be the same. It was their misfortune, however, to be arrested on the very evening when an investment banker was being savaged to the point of near death. The cops were under pressure to find the culprits and they would do.

A word must be said about Mahnola Dargis’s despicable review in the New York Times. She faulted the film for not telling the whole story:

[T]he Voice printed an investigation by Barry Michael Cooper that quoted residents of a housing complex across from Schomburg Plaza who identified several of the accused teenagers as belonging to a group of sometimes violent neighborhood troublemakers. Some of the accusations involved the usual kid stuff, like making noise, but there were also brutal attacks. A lengthy New York magazine cover article several months later also detailed violence.

The problem with this is that none of the youth were convicted of any crimes nearly so brutal as the rape and near-murder of the jogger. Furthermore, we have no access to the articles Dargis cites so we have no way of evaluating her take on what was written. Maybe this is her way of exculpating her employer that had this to say in the days following the arrests:

The ferocity of the attack – the repeated beatings, the use of a pipe as a weapon, the serial rapings – sets it apart, too. Every attack, every rape, particularly by gangs, is vicious; but this one suggests a sort of mindlessness, not so much an indifference to pain and suffering – to humanity, that is – as a rather joyful ignorance of it, as when a cat torments a mouse. But these assailants and this victim were not dumb beasts.

That’s from an op-ed piece by Tom Wicker, arguably the paper’s most liberal columnist. If that is what he was writing, you can imagine the racist vitriol in the pages of the Daily News and the Post.

Five young men spent seven years and upward for a crime that they did not commit. It was a miscarriage of justice that in some ways is reminiscent of the West Memphis Three case in Arkansas, when three outsiders were convicted of a murder solely on the basis that they were devil-worshippers. It is frightening to think that a Black or brown skin can amount to the same kind of offense in “civilized” New York. The Central Park Five will be in attendance at the Sunday matinee and I strongly urge you to buy tickets for that showing or any other for that matter. This film is on the inside track for my nomination for best documentary of 2012.

If you spotted Richard Loving in person sans identification, you’d look for the nearest getaway. With his blond crew cut and his passion for drag racing, the first thing that comes to mind is redneck, if not a suspicion that he was behind the drive to ethnically cleanse his rural village of a mixed-raced couple, if not worse. That his face screams out Klansman but in fact conceals the soul of an unprejudiced human being serves up the same lesson to be drawn from Ken Burns’s documentary but positively. You can’t rely on stereotypes.

Richard and Muriel knew each other from an early age. As they put it in Nancy Buirski’s hugely inspiring documentary, whites and Blacks lived among each other in their village and saw nothing wrong with hanging out together. Indeed, some of the most interesting recollections about Richard, who died in an auto accident in 1975, came from Black friends who worked on cars with him.

After they were wed, the last thing that the Lovings intended was to be some kind of Rosa Parks taking on the racist establishment. But when the local cop, an avowed racist, entered their bedroom in 1958 shining a flashlight in their eyes to inform them that they were breaking Virginia’s race laws, they refused to accept society’s verdict.

In exchange for a suspended sentence, they had to agree to leave the state of Virginia. After moving to Washington, they were never happy with urban life and yearned to return home. Eventually they found themselves represented by Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop whose reflections on the case permeate the film. Both are interesting characters in their own right as the press notes indicate. Cohen was born in 1934 and became involved with the case through a referral from the ACLU. Hirschkop has been involved with constitutional rights cases throughout his life and has been chief counsel of PETA since it began. More intriguingly—and going against stereotypes—he is also an ex-Green Beret.

This was Nancy Buirski’s debut film and as such an auspicious step into the world of documentary, a key element of the struggle for social justice in America today—as important in many ways as Iskra was to the fight against Czarism. When some on the left complain about our impotence, they need to be reminded of the role of people like Sarah Burns and Nancy Buirski who are leading the charge against injustice using the camera as a sword.

August 24, 2012

The Richard Aoki imbroglio

Filed under: african-american,repression — louisproyect @ 11:12 pm

Richard Aoki

Seth Rosenfeld

On August 20th an article by Seth Rosenfeld in the San Francisco Chronicle touched off a combination of soul-searching and finger-pointing on the left, particularly those segments that view Richard Aoki, a well-known activist who killed himself in 2009, as an icon. Rosenfeld claims that Aoki was an FBI informant who supplied the guns borne by the Black Panther Party in a famous photograph of the group on the steps of the state capitol building. Rosenfeld is on a publicity blitz for his new book “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power” that includes a chapter on Aoki’s alleged ties to the FBI.

For those who have a considerable stake in Aoki’s reputation, such as his biographer Diane Fujino, it became imperative to discredit Rosenfeld’s findings. It was also important for those who believe that the Panthers’ legacy is mostly positive to weigh in on Fujino and other Aoki supporters’ side. Rosenfeld became seen as a kind of gatekeeper for the 1960s who wanted to quarantine the Panthers in much the same manner as Chris Hedges was seen by black bloc supporters not only as an enemy of “diversity of tactics” but of the most effective group in the Occupy movement.

On August 23rd Rosenfeld and Fujino were the featured guests on Democracy Now where they aired out their differences. Rosenfeld stated that he has no way of knowing whether the FBI was involved in providing the guns or even if they knew Aoki was giving them to the Black Panthers. Fujino mainly urged the audience to not leap to any conclusions about Aoki based on the files obtained through FOIA since there was not enough to go on, including the incorrect reference to him having the middle name Matsui.

Fujino also raised the possibility that Aoki was the posthumous victim of “snitch jacketing”. If that was the case, one has to ask why retired FBI agent Wesley Swearingen, who reviewed the FBI files with Rosenfeld, would want to lend himself to this cause in light of what Rosenfeld reported:

One of the documents that was released was a 1967 FBI report on the Black Panthers. And this report identified Richard Aoki as an informant. It assigned him the code number, T-2, for that report. But I still wanted to find out more about it, so I spoke with a former FBI agent named Wesley Swearingen. Mr. Swearingen had been in the FBI for over 25 years. He had retired honorably. He had later become a critic of the FBI’s political surveillance, and particularly he had helped vacate the murder conviction of a Black Panther named Geronimo Pratt.

I should mention that the FBI directed Aoki to join the CP and the SWP before he ever got involved with the Panthers. Years later when the SWP sued the FBI, Swearingen proved to be more principled than the average snoop. As a witness, he revealed that the FBI was lying when it claimed that it was committed to protecting the identity of its informants. Why he would turn around years after he had retired to tarnish the reputation of Richard Aoki is something of a mystery, unless you believe that a plot is afoot to deradicalize the Occupy movement or something like that. And to establish his credibility even further, Swearingen took the trouble to write a book titled “FBI Secrets” for South End Press, with a laudatory introduction by Ward Churchill. Whew!

Scott Kurashige, the Director of Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies at University of Michigan, weighed in on Aoki’s behalf the day after Rosenfeld’s article had appeared in the S.F. Chronicle. Using Facebook, Kurashige claims that Aoki was exploited by Rosenfeld to serve a liberal political agenda by focusing on Aoki’s involvement with the TWLF (Third World Liberation Front) at Berkeley that was supposedly “violent” and turned off many white students. In contrast to the TWLF, Rosenfeld endorses the “good, wholesome” Free Speech Movement. This amounts to a “white liberal narrative of the 1960s that at least in part wants to blame violent activists of color (even if in this case they are steered by the FBI) for the demise of liberalism and the rise of neoconservativism.” Well, gee whiz, who wants to be part of a “white liberal narrative” so I guess it makes sense to defend Aoki against various and sundry charges.

According to Kurashige, Rosenfeld strongly suggests that Aoki working on behalf of the FBI sparked the TWLF’s “violent” turn. Diane Fujino’s version of Richard Aoki makes it even more unlikely that he would have acted to derail the student movement at Berkeley. He simply didn’t fit the profile of a “disruptive” element:

And in another way, Richard Aoki does not fit the profile because many times, especially if they’re agent provocateurs or even infiltrators, they’re either low-key or they are people who try to get people to constantly engage in provocative and disruptive and risky behaviors. And Richard was a scholar. He’s known for giving—the things that he’s best known for—well, until this week—was giving the first guns to the Black Panther Party to support their police patrols to stop police brutality in the black neighborhoods. And Richard was a scholar also. He was advanced theoretically and could spar theoretically with anyone around him. And that is not a typical profile of an infiltrator.

Hearing all these different versions of what Richard Aoki did or did not do motivated me to plunk down $43.55 for Seth Rosenfeld’s book and read the chapter on Aoki. Was he more like a Symbionese Liberation Front member or more like someone addressing a plenary session at a Modern Language Association conference? Maybe a bit of both?

Most of it was what I expected and what has been already reported but I stopped dead in my tracks when I read this:

On March 14, the TWLF central committee debated whether to end the strike. Richard Aoki argued for escalating the violence. “I was willing to risk everything for keeping the struggle going,” he told the author. “We’d have taken on the National Guard. Then it would have gotten real violent. I figured we would have gotten more if we continued it just a bit, even though I he threat of massive escalation, because of bringing in of the National Guard, would’ve really resulted in some stuff. But we had plans. I had plans.”

The plan was to steal guns from National Guard armories. “We’d have had their weapons,” he said. At that time, Aoki recalled, there were “National Guard armories all over this area, stocked with that stuff, and we knew where they were. My faction was willing to take the strike to a higher level.” At a meeting in Stiles Hall, however, weary strikers voted overwhelmingly to end the strike.

Frankly it did not matter to me at this point whether Aoki was urging the theft of guns from the armories to use against the National Guard in a firefight upon the instructions of his ostensible FBI handler or whether he was urging this course as a “sincere” genuine ultraleft numbskull. It is practically beside the point. The 1960s movement was largely destroyed because of such adventures, from Weatherman bombs to the kind of militarism that Aoki espoused. The left has to be grounded in reality, not fantasies drawn from “Battle of Algiers” or an NLF poster.

I should add that it was not just febrile notions of guerrilla warfare that destroyed the left. Spared for a time from ultraleft self-immolation, the SWP also crashed and burned largely as a result of a self-deception of another sort. Instead of styling itself as urban guerrillas, the SWP bought into another fantasy, namely that the late 1970s—the time of cocaine, disco, capitalist expansion and general retreat from the 60s radicalization—marked the onset of a working-class radicalization that would culminate in a bid for power led by the party’s brilliant leader. The collapse of the SWP assumed a different dynamic than that of the SDS or the Panthers but fell into the same general category: political psychosis.

I have no idea whether Aoki was an FBI agent or not, although if I was a betting man I would put money on it. And if he was, I would not be surprised if he maintained connections with the bureau all the while he was convincing his comrades that he was on the level. The mind of such people, who get paid to infiltrate left groups, can be exceedingly complex. Ed Heisler was a national committee member of the SWP for a number of years, largely on the strength of his work in the railroad workers union. He was someone who had fully absorbed Marxist theory even if he never believed a word of it. His speeches at Oberlin conventions were always a hit with the membership. And all the while he was on the FBI payroll.

This is something that the great and late Walt Contreras Sheasby posted to Marxmail in June 2004:

Hello Friends-

Paranoia is one of the biggest problems facing the left. But occasionally we discover suspicious interventions, such as a former FBI informant who may have continuing links to the government. We need to set this former informant aside from our Green Party discussions without implying that this person is currently acting as a government informant.

Apparently there is no doubt that the 61-year-old Ed Heisler who is on many Green lists is the same Ed Heisler who was an FBI informant in the late 1960s and 1970s. I was reluctant to reach such a conclusion without fairly conclusive evidence.

Heisler himself provides sufficient circumstantial evidence in his Yahoo profile for the camejoforpresident list, which is appended below. Immediately above that I have pasted a copy of a blurb on Heisler’s book in 1976 on the dissidents in a Teamster affiliate that I discovered.

Finally I want to say a few words about the Black Panther Party. Again I have no idea whether the FBI was behind Aoki providing guns to them but it really doesn’t matter. The initial splash that was made when they appeared armed in public was very good for the Black liberation struggle in the same fashion that Robert F. Williams’s NAACP-based (!) Black Armed Guard was a step forward in 1959. The idea of self-defense against racist terror was something that most people could understand to one degree or another even when the media tries to depict people like Williams or Malcolm X as promoting violence. When the Panthers marched on the California state house in 1967 carrying weapons in protest against a law that would prevent carrying them in public, they electrified the Black community and gave many young radicals, including me, the hope that revolution was on the agenda.

But by 1971 the Black Panthers were on the ropes, victims of FBI provocations and armed assaults as well as their own detachment from reality. The August 1971 issue of their newspaper should be seen by anybody who is inclined toward rosy-tinged nostalgia for a group that made terrible mistakes despite the best of intentions (of course, the same thing was true of Che Guevara in Bolivia.) There’s an article hailing “revolutionary suicide” as well as a cartoon of a Black Panther astride a dead cop with the words “The Lumpen Will Rise to Deal With the Oppressor”.

In many ways the orientation to the “lumpen” was what destroyed the Panthers. Instead of trying to figure out a way to build an organization of Black workers, including bus drivers, Con Ed utility people and sanitation workers, they oriented to petty thieves and drug dealers. In 1971 if you boarded a city bus, chances were good that the driver had an Afro out to here and a pick comb with the red-black-and-green nationalist colors. Were they for revolution? Damned right, even if most voted Democrat.

What was needed of course was a Black political party that could have drawn in such workers and given it the social weight to withstand police attacks, even if they were bound to come. In a very real sense, the political psychoses of most of the 60s left were a function of relative working-class quiescence. Blacks were ready to move but not on the terms of “revolutionary suicide”.

Now that we are 12 years into the 21st century and 4 years into a seemingly intractable financial crisis that has left perhaps up to 12 percent of the population without a job and millions with foreclosed homes, the conditions are ripening for a new left that is based on reality and not fantasy. Let’s not blow our opportunities since too much is riding on the outcome.

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