Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 10, 2013

Glenda Jackson on Thatcher

Filed under: Britain — louisproyect @ 10:58 pm

April 8, 2013

Tramp the dirt down

Filed under: Britain — louisproyect @ 1:53 pm

January 10, 2013

Lord Dunmore and the Ethiopian Regiment

Filed under: bourgeois revolutions,Britain,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:10 pm

Lord Dunmore: the great emancipator

Yesterday I posted a link to an article titled 10 Things You Should Know About Slavery and Won’t Learn at ‘Django’ to the Marxism mailing list written by Imara Jones, who has a BA in political science from Columbia University and an MA in economics from the London School of Economics.

Item 5 in Jones’s list (“Defense of slavery, more than taxes, was pivotal to America’s declaration of independence”) might have not sit well with some of our subscribers. Most are veteran Marxists and partial to the classical definition of 1776 as a bourgeois revolution, or what is sometimes referred to as “the first American revolution” that would be fulfilled—like Jesus’s second coming—by Lincoln’s Civil War.

One old hand said this:

I think this is a very questionable essay on the “Things” the essay lays out. I would proceed with caution on some of this stuff, especially on the economics and the ‘reason’ the colonies pushed for independence.

As it so happens, I keep a copy of Gary B. Nash’s “The Unknown American Revolution”, a “revisionist” study of the type I am particularly keen on in reserve for occasions like this. For those who have been following my analysis of the bourgeois revolution over the years, I am more than a bit skeptical of the “revolutionary” bourgeoisie—particularly when it comes to slavery. When the Communist Party was in the giddying heights of its pro-America populism during the New Deal, I wonder why nobody with both feet on the ground and a grasp of American history would have advised against the idea of naming the party’s school in New York after the slave-master Thomas Jefferson. But, hey, that’s just me.

Here are Nash’s credentials, while we are at it:

Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (1974-Present); Associate Professor (1968-1974), Assistant Professor (1966-1968)

Co-chaired the National History Standards Project from 1992-1996.

Past positions include: Dean of Undergraduate and Intercollege Curricular Development; University of California, Los Angeles; President, Organization of American Historians; Dean, Council on Educational Development, University of California, Los Angeles.

Complete CV is at http://www.history.ucla.edu/people/faculty?lid=953

What you see below is an excerpt from Chapter Four of Nash’s history, most of which deals with Lord Dunmore’s raising of the Ethiopian Regiment, something far scarier than the Nat Turner revolt since it was backed by British muscle. Immediately following it is Lord Dunmore’s emancipation proclamation of 1775. (Long live feudalism?) I encourage you to read the two in their entirety, but want to make sure that you don’t miss the last two paragraphs that substantiate Imara Jones’s point:

Regardless of the horrible death toll at the hands of smallpox, Dunmore’s Proclamation reverberated throughout the colonies and became a major factor in convincing white colonists that reconciliation with the mother country was impossible. Dunmore’s Proclamation, wrote South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge, was more effectual in working “an eternal separation between Great Britain and the Colonies … than any other expedient.”

Among African Americans, Dunmore remained the “African Hero,” as Richard Henry Lee, destined to be one of Washington’s generals, derisively put it. Indeed, Dunmore did seem like a biblical Moses to slaves. As far north as Philadelphia, where the Second Continental Congress was sitting, news of the “African Hero” galvanized blacks. Encountering a white “gentlewoman” on the street, a black Philadelphian insulted her. When she reprimanded him, he shot back, “Stay you d[amne]d white bitch ’till Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come, and then we will see who is to take the wall.” “Hell itself,” wrote one Philadelphian, “could not have vomited anything more black than his design of emancipating our slaves… . The flame runs like wild fire through the slaves.”

* * * * *

Gary B. Nash full excerpt:

A few weeks after the Second Continental Congress authorized a Continental army, white Carolinians uncovered the insurrectionary slave plot they anticipated. The leader was not a slave but a free black man. Jeremiah, a fisherman and boat pilot who knew the shallow waters of Charleston’s harbor, hoped to be the agent of deliverance for thousands of slaves. Several months earlier, he had spread the word that “there is a great war coming soon” and that the British would “come to help the poor negroes.” After arresting him, white authorities charged Jeremiah with plotting an insurrection and intending to pilot the Royal Navy over the treacherous sandbar that blocked the entrance to Charleston’s harbor. On August 18, 1775, white authorities hanged Jeremiah and burned him at the stake, despite the efforts of  William Campbell, the newly arrived royal governor, to save his life. Believing that the evidence against Jeremiah was very thin, the governor wrote home that “my blood ran cold when I read what ground they had doomed a low creature to death.” His efforts to save Jeremiah “raised such a clamor amongst the people, as is incredible,” wrote Campbell, “and they openly and loudly declared, if I granted the man a pardon they would hang him at my door.” Executions and burnings at the stake were acts of terror to keep rebellion-minded slaves intimidated. But reducing Jeremiah to ashes or cropping the ears of slaves did not hold back the waves of slave unrest in the summer of 1775.

The wave crested in late fall when Virginia’s governor, Lord Dunmore, made official what everyone had known he intended for months. On November 7, 1775, aboard the William, anchored in Norfolk harbor, he drafted a royal proclamation declaring martial law and labeling as traitors to the king any colonist who refused “to resort to his Majesty’s standard.” The proclamation included the dreaded words: “I do hereby further declare all indented servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to Rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing the Colony to a proper sense of their duty, to His Majesty’s crown and dignity.”

Lord Dunmore did not publish the proclamation for another week. But the timing and place of the public proclamation were poignant. On November 14, a contingent of British soldiers under Dunmore’s command, supplemented by escaped slaves, thrashed a Virginia militia unit at Kemp’s Landing, on the Elizabeth River south of Norfolk. Dunmore’s force killed several militiamen, captured both militia colonels, and put the rest of the Virginians to flight. One of the colonels, Joseph Hutchings, was captured by two of his own escaped slaves. Flush with this victory, Dunmore issued his proclamation.

Among the first to flee to Dunmore were eight of the twenty-seven slaves who toiled at the stately Williamsburg dwelling of Peyton Randolph, Speaker of Virginia’s House of Burgesses and one of Virginia’s delegates to the Continental Congress. Hearing almost simultaneously of Randolph’s sudden death in Philadelphia and Dunmore’s Proclamation, Aggy, Billy, Eve, Sam, Lucy, George, Henry, and Peter slipped away from Randolph’s house. Eluding the slave patrols walking Williamsburg’s streets, they reached the British forces not far from town. Three weeks after Dunmore issued his proclamation, Lund Washington, manager of his cousin George’s Mount Vernon estate, warned the general that among the slaves “there is not a man of them but would leave us, if they could make their escape. . . . Liberty is sweet.”

Within several months, between eight hundred and one thousand slaves had flocked to Dunmore, and many hundreds more were captured while trying. Many of them, perhaps one-third, were women and children. Mustered into what Dunmore named the Ethiopian Regiment, some of the men were uniformed with sashes bearing the inscription LIBERTY TO SLAVES. The slaves of many of Virginia’s leading white revolutionary figures now became black revolutionary Virginians themselves. They soon formed the majority of Dunmore’s Loyalist troops. Commanding the Ethiopian Regiment was the British officer Thomas Byrd, the son of patriot William Byrd III, one of Virginia’s wealthiest land and slave owners.

Dunmore retreated to Norfolk and ventured out on December 9, 1775, with six hundred troops, half of them escaped slaves, to take on the Virginians at Great Bridge on the Elizabeth River. The Ethiopian Regiment fought “‘with the intrepidity of lions,” according to one observer; but the Americans vanquished Dunmore’s forces, convincing the governor to withdraw from Norfolk and board his contingent on ships in the harbor.20 Slaves seeking sanctuary now had to commandeer boats and slip down the rivers emptying into Chesapeake Bay in order to clamber aboard the British ships. Cruising the Chesapeake Bay on Dunmore’s ships, they went out in foraging parties to procure provisions for the British.

Escaping slaves augmented Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment day by day. But an outbreak of smallpox soon reversed these gains. Crowded together on small ships, black men and women who had tasted freedom only briefly contracted the infection rapidly. By June 1776, Dunmore admitted that the killer disease had “carried off an incredible number of our people, especially blacks.” Dunmore briefly occupied Gwynn’s Island, near the mouth of the Piankatank River, but here, too, smallpox tore through his ranks. By July, he withdrew his disease-riddled forces, sending part of them to Saint Augustine and the Bermudas and others, including three hundred of the strongest and healthiest black soldiers, northward to New York City, then to be sent south-ward a year later for a land assault through Maryland to Pennsylvania.

The dread of slave insurrection that swept South Carolina and Virginia in 1775—76 also engulfed North Carolina. Especially in the coastal towns of Edenton, New Bern, and Wilmington, patrols searched slave huts for hidden weapons. In the Cape Fear region, where slavery was extensive, white officials nipped a slave insurrection in the bud just before July 8, 1775, when slave leaders, according to the Pitt County Safety Committee chairman, planned “to fall on and destroy the family where they lived, then proceed from house to house (burning as they went) until they arrived in the back country where they were to be received with open arms by a number of persons there appointed and armed by government for their protection, and as a further reward they were to be settled in a free government of their own.” “Armed by government” meant that Governor Josiah Martin, who had recently deplored the military force used by his predecessor to crush the Regulators, was the instigator of this slave insurrection. About forty slaves who had fled their plantations were found with arms and arrested. Many were whipped and had their ears severed; one was executed. Governor Martin fled to Fort Johnston, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, and tried to recruit Loyalists to strengthen the small royal garrison there. Unwilling to keep this serpent in their nest, the Wilmington Committee of Safety, infuriated by the governor’s “base encouragement of slaves eloped from their masters, feeding and employing them, and his atrocious and horrid declaration that he would incite them to an insurrection,” raised a militia to attack Fort Johnston on July 17, 1775.

Destroying the fort was easy enough, since Governor Martin and his small contingent withdrew without a fight to a Royal Navy ship in the Cape Fear River. When Martin recruited immigrant Scottish Highlanders, especially those who had just arrived in North Carolina and whose land grants depended upon their willingness to uphold the king’s authority, the patriot cause became more difficult. But in a pitched battle at Moore’s Creek on March 27, 1776, the Americans routed the charging Loyalist Scots and dashed the slaves’ hopes for a British victory. However, a powerful British fleet arrived at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in the spring of 1776. This opened the door of opportunity for Cape Fear slaves once again.

One such slave, who has been forgotten in the fog of historical amnesia, was Thomas Peters. Captured in what is now Nigeria in about 1760, he had been brought to New Orleans on a French slave ship. Shortly thereafter, this Egba African of the Yoruba tribe started his own revolution in America, be-cause he had been deprived of what he considered to be his natural rights. He needed neither a written language nor constitutional treatises to convince himself of that. And no amount of harsh treatment persuaded him to accept his lot meekly. This personal rebellion was to span three decades, cover five countries, and entail three more transatlantic voyages.

Peters never adapted well to slavery. He may have been put to work in the sugarcane fields in Louisiana, where heavy labor drained life away from plantation laborers almost as fast as in the Caribbean sugar islands. Whatever his work role, he tried to escape three times from the grasp of bondage. Three times, legend has it, he paid the price of being an unsuccessful black rebel: First he was whipped severely, then branded, and finally fitted with ankle shackles. But his French master could not snuff out his yearning for freedom and seems to have eventually given up on trying to pacify the resistant slave. Sometime after 1760, he sold Peters north. By 1770, Peters was the property of William Campbell, an immigrant Scotsman who had settled in Wilmington, North Carolina, on the Cape Fear River.

In all likelihood, it was in Wilmington that Peters learned his trade as millwright. Three-fifths of the slaves in the Cape Fear region worked in the production of timber products and naval stores—pine planking, turpentine, tar, and pitch. As sawyers, tar burners, stevedores, carters, and carpenters, they were essential to the regional economy’s mainstay. The details of Peters’s life in Wilmington are obscure because nobody recorded the turning points m the lives of slaves, but he appears to have found a wife and to have begun a family at this time. His wife, Sally, gave birth to a daughter in 1771. Peters may have gained a measure of autonomy because slaves in urban areas were not supervised so strictly as on plantations. Working on the docks, hauling pine trees from the forests outside town to the lumber mills, ferrying boats and rafts along the intricate waterways, and marketing various goods in the town, they achieved a degree of mobility, a knowledge of the terrain, and a taste of freedom.

Like many other slaves in the 1770s, Peters got caught up in the anticipation of what the colonial resistance movement might mean for enslaved Africans. His own master had become a leading member of Wilmington’s Sons of Liberty in 1770 and later the Committee of Safety. Peters heard much about the rhetoric of white patriots attempting to secure for themselves and dieir posterity those natural rights that they called unalienable. In a town of only about 250, it was impossible to keep anything a secret. By summer 1775, Peters was keenly aware of the rumors of British intentions to inspire a slave insurrection that would bring the cheeky white colonists to account. In that month, the town’s Committee of Safety ordered all blacks disarmed and declared martial law when they heard that Governor Martin was “collecting men, provisions, warlike stores of every kind, spiriting up the back counties and perhaps the slaves.” The visiting Janet Schaw wrote that white Carolinians in the Cape Fear region believed that the Crown had promised “every Negro that would murder his master and family that he should have his master s plantation…. The Negroes have got it amongst them and believe it to be true. Tis ten to one they may try the experiment. . . .”

When Dunmore’s Proclamation reached the ears of Thomas Peters and other slaves in Wilmington in November 1775, a buzz of excitement must surely have washed over them. But the time for self-liberation was not yet ripe, because hundreds of miles of pine barrens, swamps, and inland waterways separated Wilmington from Norfolk, where Lord Dunmore’s British forces were concentrated, and slaves knew that white patrols were on watch throughout the tidewater area from Cape Fear to the Chesapeake Bay. The opportune moment for Peters arrived four months later. On February 9, 1776, white Wilmingtonians evacuated the town as word arrived that the British sloop Cruizer was tacking up the Cape Fear River to bombard the town. A month later, four British ships arrived from Boston, including several troop transports under Sir Henry Clinton. For the next two months, the British controlled the river, plundered the countryside, and set off a wave of slave desertions. Seizing the moment, Peters and his family made their escape. Captain George Martin, an officer under Sir Henry Clinton, organized the escaped slaves from the Cape Fear region into the company of Black Pioneers, as Peters testified seven years later at the end of the war. Now, in the spring of 1776, the days of an uncertain freedom began for Peters’s family.

Regardless of the horrible death toll at the hands of smallpox, Dunmore’s Proclamation reverberated throughout the colonies and became a major factor in convincing white colonists that reconciliation with the mother country was impossible. Dunmore’s Proclamation, wrote South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge, was more effectual in working “an eternal separation between Great Britain and the Colonies … than any other expedient.”

Among African Americans, Dunmore remained the “African Hero,” as Richard Henry Lee, destined to be one of Washington’s generals, derisively put it. Indeed, Dunmore did seem like a biblical Moses to slaves. As far north as Philadelphia, where the Second Continental Congress was sitting, news of the “African Hero” galvanized blacks. Encountering a white “gentlewoman” on the street, a black Philadelphian insulted her. When she reprimanded him, he shot back, “Stay you d[amne]d white bitch ’till Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come, and then we will see who is to take the wall.” “Hell itself,” wrote one Philadelphian, “could not have vomited anything more black than his design of emancipating our slaves… . The flame runs like wild fire through the slaves.”

* * * * *

November 7, 1775

Proclamation of Lord Dunmore Offering Freedom to the Slaves Belonging to the Rebels in Virginia, November 7, 1775

“As I have ever entertained hopes that an accommodation might have taken place between Great Britain and this colony, without being compelled by my duty to do this most disagreeable, but now absolutely necessary duty, rendered so by a body of men, unlawfully assembled, firing on his majesty’s tenders, and the formation of an army, and an army now on its march to attack his majesty’s troops, and destroy the well disposed subjects of this colony. To defeat such treasonable purposes, and that all such traitors, and their abettors may be brought to justice, and that the peace and good order of this colony may be again restored, which the ordinary course of the civil law us unable to effect, I have thought fit to issue this my proclamation, hereby declaring that until the aforesaid good purposes can be obtained, I do, in virtue of the power and authority to me given, by his majesty, determine to execute martial law, and cause the same to be executed throughout this colony; and to the end that peace and good order may the sooner be restored, I do require every person capable of bearing arms to resort to his majesty’s standard, or be looked upon as traitors to his majesty’s crown and government, and thereby become liable to the penalty the law inflicts upon such offences; such as forfeiture of life, confiscation of lands, etc., etc. And I do hereby further declare all indented servants, negroes, or others (appertaining to rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining his majesty’s troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing his colony to a proper sense of their duty to his majesty’s crown and dignity. I do further order and require all his majesty’s liege subjects, to retain their quit-rents or other taxes due, or that may become due in their own custody, till such time may again be restored to this at present most unhappy country, or demanded of them for their former salutary purposes, by officers properly authorized to receive the same.

“Given under my hand on board the ship William, off Norfolk, the 7th day of November in the 16th year of his majesty’s reign.

"DUNMORE,

"God save the KING."

December 21, 2012

Why not nuke Canada?

Filed under: antiwar,Britain — louisproyect @ 10:24 pm

  • Emerging world power feared British reaction to its ambitions
  • Plan Red was code for massive war with British Empire
  • Top-secret document once regarded as ‘most sensitive on Earth’
  • $57m allocated for building secret airfields on Canadian border – to launch attack on British land forces based there

Details of an amazing American military plan for an attack to wipe out a major part of the British Army  are today revealed for the first time.

In 1930, a mere nine years before the outbreak of World War Two, America drew up proposals specifically aimed at eliminating all British land forces in Canada and the North Atlantic, thus destroying Britain’s trading ability and bringing the country to its knees.

Previously unparalleled troop movements were launched as an overture to an invasion of Canada, which was to include massive bombing raids on key industrial targets and the use of chemical weapons, the latter signed off at the highest level by none other than the legendary General Douglas MacArthur.

The plans, revealed in a Channel 5 documentary, were one of a number of military contingency plans drawn up against a number of potential enemies, including the Caribbean islands and China. There was even one to combat an internal uprising within the United States.

read full article

July 3, 2012

What is the Anticapitalist Initiative and where is it going?

Filed under: Britain,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 11:09 pm

http://anticapitalists.org/2012/07/03/the-case-of-the-anticapitalist-initiative/

What is the Anticapitalist Initiative and where is it going?
Simon Hardy | July 3, 2012 | 0 Comments

Has the left woken up?

Anyone who thinks the British left is in a good state needs to take a reality check. Despite the biggest capitalist crisis for a generation, there is a desperate lack of new thinking and a failure to reappraise old assumptions. We need to use the next few months to get take stock of where we are going and reflect upon how we might build a stronger, more united, left.

The potential for the left is certainly very real. We have a series of historic opportunities; to build a mass movement against austerity, to build a strong revolutionary alternative to Labour, to revitalise the union movement, and to forge new organisations and movements in defence of the oppressed. But front-building and lack of a critical mass (in the sense of a united fightback) to deliver victories against the austerity offensive obstruct our collective ability to advance and fritter away these crucial opportunities.

I would go so far as to say that we risk losing much of what has been gained in the last decade of struggle. The left has proven it can help mobilise the numbers, but if we can’t score some victories that capture new ground then why should more people get involved? A radical departure from the way the left normally works is required.

If we seize this opportunity then the gains could be phenomenal.

But this will not be an easy task, and will require a flexibility and tolerance not regularly seen on the British left, but is an absolutely necessity, if we are to overcome the isolation and marginalisation that has plagued us for decades.

This is why some organisations and activists got together to launch the Anticapitalist Initiative.

We want to change the culture on the left and introduce some “common sense” thinking into the equation. As such, although we are only just starting out, I think we have made excellent progress.

Some people are asking what direction is the ACI heading in?

That is a very good question and people involved in the initiative have different ideas. At the moment the ACI is a space for discussion and organisation: a place for people to gather and think about how we can do things differently.

Some critics have argued that it won’t be possible to build a common organisation given the differences that exist amongst the socialists, anarchists, libertarians, and anti-cuts campaigners who have joined the project. Others have said that unity can only be successful if a Marxist programme is adopted at the outset. Meanwhile others still, who are involved in the initiative, see it as a step towards a Leninist-Trotskyist organisation and a new working class party.

These are important debates and I don’t intend here to give a lengthy reply to these positions, but merely state my position, and how I think the Anticapitalist Initiative should develop in the future.

Ultimately, I believe that a political organisation is necessary, not yet another micro-socialist grouping on the left, of which there are obviously many, but a large, broad-based revolutionary grouping: a genuine realignment of the left.

I know this won’t be easy and I don’t naively believe everyone and anyone can unite in the same organisation. Neither do I want to trivialise the important differences we have about the strategy we need to transcend capitalism.

But, in the first instance, I believe we can bring together organisations and individuals who want to build democratic campaigns, rather than the fronts that litter the British left, that fight bureaucracy in the unions and overcome sect divisions by building a plural, dynamic organisation.

Does this mean people should leave their existing groups? No, no one has to give up their existing organisation, all can remain in their groups, but, we believe they and their organisations should join the ACI. This does not mean that the ACI is merely a regroupment initiative, neither is it only a united front. But it is trying to provide a space, for discussion, for practical collaboration, that can clarify our differences, and carefully move towards political unity where we agree.

If our aim is to actually work towards unity in a serious and practical way, then it’s foolish to think that we should rush to try and impose a Marxist programme (and there are many differences on what exactly such a programme would look like) in the first instance. A programme worthy of the name, could not emerge fully formed from day one, but has to be a product of dialogue, of collective discussion, among much wider layers of activists, about the challenges we face.

I want the ACI to provide a space for that discussion to take place. That’s why we shouldn’t be worried at this stage about whether the differences within the ACI on strategy are so great it makes a common organisation impossible. We want to build the ACI in such a way as those differences can co-exist and be subject to continual fraternal debate and argument.

It would be a mistake for anyone to write off this new initiative, it is still in the process of being formed and deciding what its political line is. I think there is a lot of room for people from the libertarian tradition as well as people who are closer to Bolshevism or Trotskyism, and there is certainly room for people who are on the left but do not consider themselves in either category. The ACI is what people want to make of it as a democratic forum of debate and discussion. People who write such an initiative off before it has even got off the ground are displaying a terribly pessimistic and cynical view.

The fact of the matter is that the successes for the left in recent times have occurred because there has been a serious attempt to overcome divisions and create a more credible united force.Examples include Syriza, Antarsya, P-Sol, NPA, Front de Gauche, Die Linke, Left Bloc, United Left (Spain).

Naturally, we can and should debate the weaknesses and strengths of each separate organisation and why some suceeded and others failed, but they all point to shared experience of the left in recent years, that if we are to make any headway in the national arena then we must forge a credible and united organisation.

Will we all agree on every policy and bullet point of any future organisation or network? No, but I am sure we can all agree that we are weaker divided – and the welfare state is being torn down around our ears.

So if you want to be part of the alternative then come to Rebellion on the 14 July at Nailour hall in North London.

There will be plenty of space there to discuss key issues facing us today and how we can go forward.

We cannot promise any spectacular breakthroughs but we can promise a decent, honest debate about what to do next. If you are looking for an alternative and feel that the left needs a new way of doing things, then I hope to see you there.

About the Author (Author Profile)
Simon Hardy is a supporter of the Anticapitalist Initiative and was a spokesperson for the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts during the student movement of 2010-11. He is one of the contributors of ‘It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest’ (Verso 2012). You can follow him on twitter @Simon_Hardy1

March 30, 2012

George Galloway victory speech

Filed under: Britain — louisproyect @ 3:32 pm

January 15, 2012

Lula: Son of Brazil; The Robinson Trilogy

Filed under: Brazil,Britain,Film — louisproyect @ 12:00 am

In the press notes for “Lula: Son of Brazil”, screenwriter Denise Paraná, upon whose biography (originally a PhD dissertation) the script is based, advises: “This is not a political film but a human story about overcoming great odds.” Just so everybody gets the picture, director Fabio Barreto replies as follows to the question of why the film ends in 1980, long before Lula becomes president: “Because everybody knows the political life of Lula, but few know his personal life—and that is our focus and what interested us when deciding to tell this story.

In a way the absence of politics goes hand in hand with the creative team’s understanding of Lula’s legacy. With someone so resolutely beyond politics, how could anybody possibly make a political film, as Luiz Barreto states: “I followed Lula’s trajectory since the ‘70’s. I always thought he represented a new alternative in Brazilian political scene, without the left or right ideology, communism or not.”

Essentially, “Lula: Son of Brazil” is the same kind of rags-to-riches story as “Ray”, about Ray Charles, or “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, about Loretta Lynn. Instead of growing up to be a Grammy winner, Lula grew up to be the leader of a major trade union. As the director put it, “This movie is for people to see that even under the worst conditions, we can achieve great things. Lula is a migrant from the Northeast, a former laborer, one of our equals, who persisted, and worked hard, and became President.”

Ironically, despite their best (or worst) intentions, the end product is very much political since it depicts Lula very much as a careerist and an opportunist. He only gets involved with his trade union when his wife dies in childbirth, leaving him at his wit’s end. He tells his mother that he is keeping himself busy with the union just to get his personal tragedy off his mind.

The film creates an interesting tension between Lula and forces to his left and right. Like walking a tightrope, Lula always makes sure to stay on his feet. The right is symbolized by Claudio Feitosa, the piggish bureaucrat who runs the metalworkers union and who co-opts Lula on his re-election slate in order to bring “fresh blood” into the union.

Feitosa would never mistake Lula for his brother Ziza, who is a member of the Communist Party and the metalworkers union. Lula clearly regards his brother as a hothead and impractical but sticks with him through thick and thin. Their close ties are tested during a factory occupation in the 1960s in which a foreman is thrown to his death from a tall parapet in retaliation for the death of a striking worker. Lula recoils in horror, telling his brother that this is not what he believes in.

In another scene, once again involving a militant strike but this time with Lula in command, the workers are urged by him to go back to work. While such a decision is often made after a democratic discussion weighing the pros and cons, the movie depicts Lula as basically making the decision for the workers who are then asked to ratify it. When they accuse him of being a traitor to the cause, he calls a general meeting in which they are asked to vote in favor of his removal if they are unhappy. With absolutely no motivation other than hero worship, one supposes, they decide to keep him on as their Great Leader, chanting “Lula, Lula, Lula”.

The film ends with pictures of the real Lula shaking hands with Thabo Mbeki, Bill Gates and Bono—a perfect image to cap off what we have seen for over two hours.

That being said, I can still recommend the film since it contains some very dramatic depictions of the class struggle in Brazil, no matter the commitment of its makers not to stray in that direction. One scene in particular will be overwhelming. Lula is addressing the workers in a soccer stadium where there is no sound system. Guess how his words make it throughout the stadium? Guess what! He uses the mic check method of Occupy Wall Street long before the technique became so closely identified with the new movement.

You can see “Lula: Son of Brazil” either at the Quad Cinema or at the Lincoln Plaza theater. For all its flaws, it is clearly superior to the currently playing biopic on J. Edgar Hoover–to be sure.

Back in the early 90s, I attempted to come to grips with the problems of “Marxism-Leninism”, the organizational form that had led to sect and cult formations, particularly in the Maoist and Trotskyist movement. I wrote an article titled “Lenin in Context” that looked at alternatives to that model, including the Workers Party in Brazil that had not yet taken power. I first learned about the Workers Party when I was in the Trotskyist movement in the mid-70s when it held out promise for becoming a genuine mass revolutionary party. My disappointment with what it became led me to excise the portion of my article dealing with Lula and the Workers Party. I include it below to give you an idea of the kinds of hope I had at the time. I should add that if there’s anything I have learn in politics over the years, it is the power of big capital to corrupt our movement:

One of the first fresh, new formations to emerge in this generally reactionary period was the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), or Workers Party, of Brazil. Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, a worker and a trade union activist, was part of number of workers, intellectuals, Catholic Church priest-activists who saw the need for a new socialist party in Brazil. They thought the CP and SP of Brazil were too ready to compromise with whichever politician on the scene who best represented the forces of the “progressive” wing of the capitalist class. Another ingredient in the formation of the Workers Party was the conscious leadership of ex-Trotskyists who gave the new group badly needed organizational knowledge. This is the best role for Trotskyists around the world today: to dissolve their parties and help to form broader, non-sectarian formations like the Workers Party of Brazil.

Lula was born in 1945 in the poor northeastern town of Garanhuns, Pernambuco. He was the youngest of 8 children born to Aristides and Euridice da Silva, subsistence farmers. In 1956, the family moved to Sao Paulo, where they dwelled in one room at the back of a bar. They shared the bathroom with bar customers.

At the age of thirteen Lula went to work in a factory that manufactured nuts and bolts. There were 12-hour work shifts at the plant and very little attention paid to the safety and health of the workers. Consequently young Lula lost the little finger of his left hand.

Lula, whose older brother was a CP’er, became a union activist in the early 1970’s. In 1972, he won election to the Metalworker’s Union directory board of Sao Bernando. Three years later, he became president of the union. He won with 92 percent of the vote from the 140,000 members.

In the late 1970’s, a wave of labor militancy swept Brazil under the impact of IMF-imposed austerity. Lula’s union struck the Saab-Scania truck company in May of 1978. It was the first large-scale strike in a decade. Lula spoke to a strike assembly for the first time there. On day one of the strike, workers showed up but refused to operate their machines. The struggle spread to other multinational automobile companies. At the end of the second week, some 80,000 workers were on a sit-down strike. Their strength caught the government by surprise and it could not mobilize the army in time. The strikers won a 24.5 pay increase.

This was the background of the formation of the Workers Party. A founding convention on February 10, 1980 launched the party. Lula addressed the 750 attendees, “It’s time to finish with the ideological rustiness of those who sit at home reading Marx and Lenin. It’s time to move from theory to practice. The Workers Party is not the result of any theory but the result of twenty-four hours of practice.”

At the Seventh National Conference of the Workers Party in May 1990, the party defended socialism without qualifications. The collapse of bureaucratic socialism throughout the Soviet bloc inspired the document appropriately called “Our Socialism”. The party upheld democratic socialism everywhere. The document said, “We denounce the premeditated assassination of hundreds of rural workers in Brazil and the crimes against humanity committed in Bucharest or in Tiananmen Square with the same indignation. Socialism, for the PT, will either be radically or it will not be socialism.”

In section seven of the document, the Workers Party explained its conception of how to build a revolutionary party. “We wanted to avoid both ideological abstraction, the elitist offense of the traditional Brazilian left, and the frazzled pragmatism of so many other parties. A purely ideological profundity at the summit would serve no purpose unless it corresponded to the real political culture of our party and social rank-and-file. Besides, the leadership also lacked experience that only the patient, continuous, democratic mass struggle could provide.”

Compare this with James P. Cannon’s declaration that his minuscule Trotskyist faction was the “vanguard of the vanguard” in 1930. The Workers Party leadership had already led mass strikes against the bosses, broad struggles for democratic liberties and peasant movements, including the one that took the life of Chico Mendoza, a party member. Yet it says that it lacked experience. This type of modesty coming from forces obviously so capable of leading millions in struggle is truly inspiring.

* * * *

If “Lula: Son of Brazil” is an exercise in avoiding politics, then the “Robinson Trilogy” now showing at the Anthology Film Archives until the 18th is an example of what a committed radical filmmaker is capable of given the social and economic crisis of Great Britain for the past seventeen years. Back in 1994, director Patrick Keiller made “London”, a lacerating look at the decay Tory rule left in its wake in the capital city. This first installment in the trilogy was followed three years later by “Robinson in Space”, which despite its title is all about the same kind of decay occurring throughout the country. The Anthology is pairing these two works with Keiller’s latest, “Robinson in Ruins”, that was made in November 2010.

The eponymous Robinson is a fictional character used as a device to structure these sui generis documentaries that owe as much to the written essay as they do to film. In the first two films, the late Paul Scofield narrates along the lines of describing what Robinson saw and did in his travels around the country. The unnamed narrator is a friend of the fictional character Robinson who symbolizes the country’s political and ethical soul. He wanders about taking in the contemporary rot, trying to place it in historical context making reference, for example, to the enclosure acts.

In the last film, Vanessa Redgrave is the narrator, once again giving voice to the fictional Robinson. Rather than trying to describe these unique documentaries, I invite you to look at “London”, the first film in the series. If this strikes you as worthy, then do not waste time. Go to the Anthology and catch all three.

December 9, 2011

There will always be an England

Filed under: Britain,Film — louisproyect @ 9:12 pm

Notwithstanding the fact that two of the films under review here are directed by an Algerian who grew up in France and a Swede, and the third stars an American actress as Margaret Thatcher, all three are explorations of the post-hegemonic sensibilities of both the rulers and the ruled in England but succeeding in only two of the three cases.

The biggest success is “London River”, despite its modest ambitions and budget. Director Rachid Bouchareb’s debut film was “Days of Glory” , a stirring celebration of the heroism of North African soldiers fighting for the French during WWII who had to fend off both Nazi bullets and their commanding officers’ racism. Less successful, at least from my viewpoint, was his next film “Outside the Law“, a revisionist take on the Algerian war of independence that adopted “a plague on both your houses” pacifism reminiscent of Camus’s.

“London River” is essentially a two character drama that brings together a sixtyish British widow who lost her naval officer husband in the war over the Malvinas and an even older French-speaking African man (whose country is never identified) working as a forest ranger in France. A few days after the July 2005 bombings in London, neither her daughter nor his son can be reached by phone so they travel there to track them down, hoping for the best but being prepared for the worst.

Eventually their paths cross since it turns out that their college-age children were lovers, something that Elisabeth, the widow, has trouble accepting. When she discovers that the daughter was studying Arabic at a local Islamic center, her first reaction is disbelief—as if learning that she was studying witchcraft. This is understandable but not really forgiveable given the widespread Islamophobia in Britain at the time. You begin to wonder—as do the parents—whether the children were suicide bombers.

The boy’s father is Ousmane, played by Sotigui Kouyaté, born in Mali but who grew up in Burkina Faso. He died at the age of 74 shortly after the film was finished. A one-time player on the Burkina Faso national football team, he launched an acting career in 1966 and eventually hooked up with the legendary Peter Brook on film and theater projects. His Ousmane is a quiet and pensive character. Tall, lanky and with chiseled features, he looks like a cross between African tribal art and a Giacometti sculpture.

As I watched Elisabeth interact with Ousmane in her tentative and guarded manner, working hard to overcome her initial distrust, I had a sense of déjà vu. She reminded me very much of the kind of plucky female character found in Mike Leigh movies who when confronted with a terrible situation put on a brave face or a stiff upper lip in keeping with British traditions admittedly under assault from all fronts in recent years.

It turns out that she is played by Brenda Blethyn, who starred in Leigh’s masterpiece “Secrets and Lies” as the working class mother whose brief affair with a Black Briton resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. When their child, who had been put up for adoption, grows up she contacts her mother out of the blue in the hopes of binding with her, but is rebuffed  for more or less the same reasons that Elisabeth holds Ousmane at arm’s length. As is the case with Mike Leigh’s drama, director Rachid Bouchareb finds a way to reconcile his lead characters. If you like Mike Leigh films—and who doesn’t—you will like “London River”.

Scheduled for general theatrical release sometime in December (I reviewed a screener submitted by a publicist for the 2011 NYFCO awards meeting), “The Iron Lady” has all the trappings of your typical fawning biopic of the rich and the powerful in line with “The King’s Speech”. Indeed, in one scene her consultants advise her in her first run for Prime Minister that she has to work on her voice–it is not authoritative enough. She then goes to speech lessons in a scene definitely evoking “The King’s Speech”. With Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher, I had additional trepidations since I expected a performance in line with her stilted portrayal of Julia Child.

What a pleasant surprise it was to discover that the film is a venomous attack on the “iron lady”. Admittedly, the politics are a bit unfocused—this after all is not a documentary—but the general impression you are left with is that the financial disaster of today is very much related to the policies that she and her fellow monster Ronald Reagan pushed through.

In one key scene, Thatcher is meeting with her cabinet to discuss a new tax that will be seen as favoring the rich. When her Tory advisers warn her that it will undermine her legitimacy, she scolds them as lacking backbone. The film is replete with archival footage of Britons fighting the cops during the period, leaving no question as to her legacy.

The film also has an almost sadistic streak as it shows Thatcher as entering the early stages of Alzheimer’s, with symptoms fairly obvious during the last year or so when she was in office, just as was the case with Reagan.

From foreign policy, especially the war for control of the Malvinas, to domestic policy with her determination to destroy trade unions and the social legislation won by their party, Thatcher is seen in the light of the “one percenters” of today. In some ways, the film is vaguely reminiscent of “Citizen Kane” with Thatcher becoming more and more malevolent and deranged the more power she attains.

Finally, Streep is terrific. As indicated above, I am not one of her biggest fans but her characterization of Thatcher is not just based on imitating her speaking voice and hairdo. She really got inside her head and figured out what made her tick. It is not very pretty.

Finally, despite my admiration for Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s last film “Let the Right One In”, I don’t think he did justice to John Le Carre’s novel. The screenplay for “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” was written by Peter Straughan who also wrote “The Debt”, another film about spies—in that case Mossad agents who fabricated the killing of a Mengele type war criminal who had escaped custody in order to avoid being shamed. He also wrote the screenplay for “Men who Stare at Goats”, a genial satire based on the experiments conducted by military intelligence to apply ESP to warfare. So apparently he is the man to go to when you want to make an spy movie with anti-heroes rather than James Bond types.

The NY Times is positively rapturous over the film, stating about John Hurt’s performance as Control, the MI5 chief determined to root out a Soviet mole (Le Carre’s novel is based on the Kim Philby incident):

That face, a crevassed landscape that suggests sorrow and history, has the granitic grandeur of W. H. Auden in his later life. In tandem with Mr. Hurt’s sonorously melancholic voice (and its useful undertones of hysteria), it is a face that, when used by a filmmaker like Mr. Alfredson, speaks volumes about a character who would otherwise take reams of written dialogue to discover.

Well, that’s not true at all. All of Straughan’s characters are decidedly opaque, lacking the revelatory character that only Le Carre’s prose, that in many ways is about as close to Dickens as we have in our epoch, can endow. For example, this exchange is from the novel. George Smiley, a senior spy who lost his job when a kidnapping attempt in Budapest runs afoul, is talking to Rickie Tarr, a field agent who was the first to discover that there was a mole who alerted the Soviets to the kidnapping plot and other MI5 initiatives over the decades.

“I didn’t know you spoke Russian,” said Smiley—a comment lost to everyone but Tarr, who at once grinned.

“Ah, now, a man needs a qualification in this profession, Mr. Smiley,” he explained as he separated the pages. “I may not have been too great at law but a further language can be decisive. You know what the papers say, I expect?” He looked up from his labours and his grin widened. “‘To possess another language is to possess another soul.’ A great king wrong that, sir, Charles the Fifth. My father never forgot a quotation, I’ll say that for him, though the funny thing is he couldn’t speak a damn thing but English. I’ll read the diary aloud to you, if you don’t mind.”

By comparison, the Tarr character in the film is a one-dimensional figure of interest only for his being at the right time and the right place to discover that there was a mole. Speaking for myself (and who else matters?), I care less about his derring-do as a spy than I do for his musings on language.

It is understandable why Alfredson was selected to direct this film. His teen vampire movie “Let the Right One In” was brilliantly filmed, taking advantage of Sweden’s gloomy winter scenes and the downbeat look of the nondescript and slightly seedy look of the suburb it was filmed in. It was much more like Paramus, New Jersey than Transylvania. So he does get that part of Le Carre’s novel right. He evokes the downscale look of the declining British Empire–apartments filled with dusty furniture and MI5 offices that look more like the Bureau of Internal Revenue than anything James Bond ever visited.

What is missing in the film, however, is the slightly off-kilter character of Le Carre’s prose that is revealed through Tarr’s witty observation above and in numerous other places. You can get a much more faithful version of the novel in the British television movie from the 70s that starred Alec Guinness as Smiley (Gary Oldman is mainly content to do a Guinness impersonation). This opening scene borders on Monty Python, for which there is no equivalent in the terminally gloomy Alfredson version:

Finally, a word must be said about a certain failing in the source material itself. Missing entirely in the novel is any insight into the Kim Philby character’s motivation, who in Le Carre’s view became a serious agent only after the Suez Crisis, when he decided that Britain was no longer a world power and only a tool of American foreign policy.

In the introduction to the latest edition of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, Le Carre writes:

I never knew [George] Blake [another Soviet spy] or Philby, but I always had a quite particular dislike for Philby, and an unnatural sympathy for Blake. The reasons, I fear, have much to do with the inverted snobbery of my class and generation. I disliked Philby because he had so many of my attributes. He was public-school educated, the son of a wayward and dictatorial father—the explorer and adventurer, St. John Philby—he drew people easily to him and he was adept at holding his feelings, in particular, his seething distaste for the bigotries and prejudices of the English ruling classes.

Now my admiration for John Le Carre is unbound but my reaction to this is to really wonder whether he should have bothered to write a novel with a Philby-like villain (of course in his novels, the heroes and villains are pretty much reflections of each other) with such a built-in bias. Frankly, I would have found the story far more riveting if Le Carre had made the mole a key character and a sympathetic one at that. But then again, that’s what you might expect from the unrepentant Marxist.

August 9, 2011

BBC racist interviews Darcus Howe

Filed under: Britain,racism — louisproyect @ 2:01 pm

From the Wiki on Howe:

Howe was born in Trinidad and Tobago, the son of an Anglican priest. He left Trinidad for London aged 18[1] to enter the legal profession at Middle Temple, but he swapped the law for journalism. He returned to Trinidad, where his uncle and mentor, radical intellectual CLR James, inspired Howe to combine writing with political activism. A brief spell as assistant editor on the Trinidad trade union paper The Vanguard was followed by return to Britain as editor of British magazine Race Today.

He became a member of the British Black Panther Movement, and in August 1970, following a protest, Howe was arrested and tried for riot, affray and assault. He was acquitted after a trial at the Old Bailey. Later, he was the editor of the magazine Race Today and was imprisoned for three months for assaulting a police officer. The celebration following his release was recalled in the song Man Free by poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. The central lines of the song describe Howe’s legal fight: “I stand up in the court like a mighty lion, I stand up in the court like man of iron, Darcus out of jail, Shabba!”.

Howe organised the 20,000 strong Black People’s March 1981 claiming official neglect and inefficient policing of the investigation of New Cross Fire in which 13 black teenagers died.

 

November 11, 2010

British students raise hell

Filed under: Britain,Education,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 3:50 pm

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