Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 21, 2015

The Maids

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:19 pm

Maid to Order: Scenes of Class Struggle in the Household

August 14, 2015

Cenk Batu; Salamander

Filed under: Counterpunch,television — louisproyect @ 2:50 pm

Probing the Deep State — On TV

Back in 2012 James Wolcott told Vanity Fair readers “the action has left the Cineplex and headed for broadcast and cable.” In making the case for television, Wolcott offered up “Downtown Abbey” and “Mad Men” as fare that trounces Cineplex flicks geared to the 14-year-old comic book fan. With all due respect to Wolcott, my preference would have been for the European TV series that I have covered for CounterPunch in the past starting with Swedish Marxist detective stories such as Wallander and more recently Danish shows such as Dicte, which by no means Marxist were certainly superior to anything coming out of Hollywood, including the typical Oscar honoree.

Now moving southerly into Europe, I am once more struck by the artistic superiority of a couple of TV series that thankfully are freely available on the Internet. Hailing from Germany, “Cenk Batu, Undercover Agent” is a police procedural that can be seen on Youtubewhile “Salamander”—a tale of the Belgian Deep State that should appeal to Stieg Larsson fans—is available on DailyMotion, a video sharing website that was launched by a couple of Parisians in 2005.

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July 31, 2015

Merchants of Doubt

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 12:49 pm

Manufacturing Denial

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming”, the 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, is required reading in order to understand the threats to our health and overall survival posed by the well-funded pseudo-scientific think-tanks that have their origins in Cold War anti-Communism. As unlikely as it might seem, the very scientists who ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers pay to cast doubt on climate change are part of a network that got started in the 1950s when scientists, including those who worked for the tobacco industry, were at last coming to the conclusion that smoking causes cancer. The tobacco companies needed “experts” to obfuscate the issues just as they need them today to cast doubt on climate change.

How and why this kind of bogus science was rooted in the anti-Communist crusade of the post-WWII era is laid out in compelling detail in “Merchants of Doubt”, a book that combines investigative reporting by a couple of science historians with a flair for detective work that would impress Agatha Christie.

As a companion piece, I can also recommend the 2014 documentary of the same name that the book inspired. Ably directed by Robert Kenner, it can now be seen on Amazon.com streaming. Both the book and the film will leave you with the conclusion that some of America’s richest and most powerful corporations prostituted a group of scientists into betraying science to boost their patron’s profits. But on further reflection, it is likely that these men would have lied even if they had never received a penny since their ideological predispositions made them the perfect tools to carry out the corporate mandate. And on even further reflection after that, it probably does not make sense to refer to prostitution since it is an honorable profession compared to what these scientists were up to.

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July 24, 2015

In defense of Counterpunch

Filed under: Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 7:52 pm

Jeff St. Clair

On June 25th a guest post by Amith Gupta appeared on my blog criticizing Jewish Voice for Peace’s decision to terminate relations with Alison Weir, a supporter of Palestinian rights because of her appearances on the radio show of Clay Douglas, a reactionary racist according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

Since their objection is not so much about what she said in the interview but about her mere appearance on the show, it begs the question about her views. Are you to judge someone by the venue they appear on or write for? I ask because I have now been Weired, to coin a term.

On June 19th a blogger named Elise Hendrick wrote a long attack on CounterPunch for supposedly promoting the agenda of the far right and named me as an enabler. Three days later Tony Greenstein crossposted the same article and embellished it with a nice photo of me taken by my good friend the late Fred Baker about 17 years ago. Greenstein added a caption characterizing me as an “ex-Marxist”. Very nice.

I know Greenstein by reputation as a very sharp critic of Zionism but like many pro-Palestinian activists he has the unfortunate tendency to repeat Baathist propaganda such as blaming the FSA for carrying out a slaughter of villagers in al-Houla. He followed that up with the standard pro-Assad propaganda about the Syrian rebels using sarin gas on their supporters in East Ghouta as a false flag operation. I can understand why well-meaning people like Greenstein, Tariq Ali and Robert Fisk would serve Baathist aims even if unintentionally. When so much of the left is ready to put a plus where the American ruling class puts a minus, why swim against the tide? Their heart is in the right place even if their brain is not.

Since Greenstein is a pretty smart guy (just ask him), it is astonishing why he would swallow the statistics that Hendricks put together that supposedly proved CounterPunch was promoting the far right:

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 1.41.01 PM

This is really quite pathetic, a classic example of “lies, damned lies, and statistics”. If you really want to characterize CounterPunch, it would be necessary to conduct an analysis of all of the articles that appear there, not just a sampling. How do I and the other “left/progressives” (god, what an awful term) exhaust the inventory of all those on the left who write for CounterPunch? All you need to do is look at a typical weekend edition, like the one that came out today, to get a handle on what it stands for. There are 40 articles and not a single one has even the slightest whiff of rightwing politics. Speaking of which, one has to wonder what criteria Hendricks used to categorize some of the people as rightwingers. She includes Franklin Lamb and Paul Larudee. Unless I am missing something, they have never written anything I would associate with the Republican Party. For that matter, mostly what they do is circulate pro-Baathist propaganda after the fashion of Tony Greenstein.

It would seem to me that the bloggers at Jews sans Frontieres have served as the shock troops on all this and particularly someone known as “levi9909” (Mark Elf, I am not sure?) who posted 18 times underneath Amith’s article and who shows an alarming interest in my activity on the Internet that makes me feel like I was being stalked. To some extent, I have become a proxy for Amith Gupta who had little interest in debating someone like “levi9909” who reminds me of how James P. Cannon once described Trotskyists: the kind of people who stayed later at meetings than anybody else trying to get called on by the chair to make their point one more time, all along hoping that everybody else would get exhausted and go home.

Unlike “levi9909”who has written me frenzied emails on several occasions demanding that I confess for my sins, Amith is someone I know in real space as opposed to the lunatic asylum cyberspace can often resemble. He first came to my attention when Leon Botstein had fired Joel Kovel at Bard College. Amith, who was a leader of the International Solidarity Movement on campus, was an outspoken supporter of Kovel in a place where hipster liberalism was hegemonic. As a graduate with the class of 1965, I am always happy to be connected to someone who represents the real values of Bard College, the place that Walter Winchell called the little red whorehouse on the Hudson.

I want to conclude with some words about CounterPunch, which I am proud to have written for since August 2012 (I should add that I have written 168 articles not the 59 that Hendricks counted, at least according to the grep/wc command I ran on my server.)

It really has a lot to do with my esteem for Alexander Cockburn who I count as my most important political influence next to Peter Camejo. No matter how many times I wrote attacks on his global warming denialism, he was always someone who held a special place in my heart for helping me rebound from the post-traumatic stress syndrome I was experiencing after 11 years in the Trotskyist movement. In 1979 when I moved to New York from Kansas City, I had resolved to put politics behind me but when I stumbled across his column in the Village Voice, it was like being reborn. The clarity of his prose, the sharpness of his analysis and his biting humor were like nothing I had ever read in the Militant newspaper. Three years later, when I was still sorting out my experiences in the SWP, I read Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism”, an article that had the same bracing effect as Alexander’s columns. With their help, I was able to land on my feet and keep going for another 36 years.

It is Alexander’s spirit that lives on in CounterPunch and it is to Jeff St. Clair’s everlasting credit that he has kept the ship afloat after the captain passed on. No matter how many times people complain about articles in CounterPunch, it is the essential voice of the left in the USA and one that has a global presence. When I began writing about Swedish Marxist detective stories, a Swede contacted me with his own take on the country’s darker side and remains an occasional correspondent.

The idea that it is promoting rightwing ideas is patently absurd. While everybody knows that Paul Craig Roberts was a member of the Reagan administration, there’s not a single word that he writes that can be mistaken for a Fox News report. Like Kevin Phillips, he has turned against the increasingly plutocratic nature of American politics. In fact, the idea of a left-right alliance is not limited to CounterPunch. Ralph Nader has promoted the same strategy, including on CounterPunch. In years past, he was vilified for saying things that sounded like Pat Buchanan. If we are about building a movement based on ideological purity, we might as well go the route of the Marxist-Leninist left that has largely proven itself irrelevant. In any movement with the social weight capable of confronting the ruling class, you can expect that there will be clashing ideas in our ranks. It happened in Cuba in the late 50s and it will happen here. You’d better get used to the idea.

While the Marxism mailing list is obviously more ideologically focused than CounterPunch, we try to maintain diversity even if some disgruntled souls believe I am a tyrant (don’t listen to a word they say or you’ll regret it.) Mark Jones, one of my closest comrades who died of oral cancer in 2003, was an ardent admirer of Joseph Stalin who argued that it was necessary to purge the Soviet officer corps on the eve of WWII. Despite that, our views on the environmental crisis and the character of American imperialism bound us together as comrades. Another Marxmailer, who I hold in the highest regard, was a global warming skeptic and vociferous about it (until he changed his mind.) Sol Dollinger, an old-timer who died in 2001, was a member of the Socialist Union, a group led by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman in the 1950s that I strongly identify with. During his time on Marxmail he stated his concerns about undocumented workers undermining the trade union movement on numerous occasions sounding for all the world like someone writing for VDare, the nativist magazine that Paul Craig Roberts writes for. In the radical movement we need to build in the USA, you can expect all sorts of differences to develop. That’s the kind of party we need if we are to have any possibility of attracting millions of people rather than hundreds.

I am enormously glad to have the opportunity to write for CounterPunch even though there are articles that I obviously disagree with, starting with what Franklin Lamb and Paul Larudee write about Syria. I am reconciled to the reality that my views are in a distinct minority and that those of Lamb, Larudee and Greenstein are those of the overwhelming majority.

That being said, I give Jeff St. Clair and Joshua Frank a lot of credit for publishing an article I had written about Syria that went against the current. For that matter, Jeff invited me to become a regular contributor to CounterPunch after I had blogged a complaint about how one article supported the arrest of Pussy Riot. Jeff said that if I disagreed with the article, why don’t I write my own. Frankly, if we had more people like Jeff St. Clair editing electronic and print media nowadays, the left would be in a lot better shape.

Dicte; Borgen

Filed under: Counterpunch,television — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 10.32.12 AM

The Female Power of Danish Noir

CounterPunchers, particularly those who watched those Marxist Swedish television detective series I recommended last year, will likely appreciate “Dicte” and “Borgen”, two shows that appeared originally on Danish television. Both feature superb writing and performances even if the artistic teams behind them are not exactly Marxist. As Joe E. Brown said in the final seconds of “Some Like it Hot”, nobody’s perfect.

Whatever they lack politically, they more than make for in storytelling, character development, dialog, and plot—the ABC’s of writing going back to Aristotle. And most of all, they are distinguished by powerful female characters that put American television with its “Astronaut Wives Club” et al to shame.

“Dicte”, which can be seen on Netflix streaming, is the eponymous character–a female crime reporter in her late 30s who has taken a job with a newspaper in Aarhus, which is Denmark’s second largest city and where she grew up. In broad outlines, it has the same sort of plot found in the Swedish series “Annika Bengtzon, Crime Reporter” that was included in the survey referred to above. “Dicte” ends up as an amateur detective in almost every episode, one step ahead of the cops. In researching her articles, she inevitably finds herself being targeted by some bad guy who has decided that she knows too much and must be terminated.

Every time the town’s homicide detective runs into her at a crime scene, he warns her about interfering with an on-going investigation but in the end Dicte proves to be a better sleuth than the cops and finally vindicated.

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July 10, 2015

The Lives of American Communists After Communism

Filed under: Counterpunch,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 11:34 am

causeatheart

The Lives of American Communists After Communism

When history moved beyond the Cold War, it became possible for historians to develop a more nuanced understanding of the role of the Communist Party in American society. Books such as Mark Naison’sCommunists in Harlem during the Depression and Maurice Isserman’s Which Side Were You On?: The American Communist Party during the Second World War treated party activists as men and women organically linked to the great conflicts of the 20th century in which they played major roles. There were of course scholars like Harvey Klehr who continued to insist that they were automatons serving almost as foreign agents but it was difficult to square that view with the evidence found in the new historiography or in films like “Seeing Red” or “The Good Fight: Story of The Abraham Lincoln Brigade” in which people like Bill Bailey talked about their experiences in the party, including the time he tore down the Swastika flag from the mast of a German luxury liner in 1935—anticipating the young woman who recently tore down a Confederate flag in South Carolina.

As a former member of the Trotskyist movement I found myself identifying very strongly with the experiences of these dedicated veterans of the CP left even though I had a much different ideological background. When I read Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism not long after dropping out of the Socialist Workers Party, I was struck by how similar my own experience was to that of ex-CP’ers, particularly those who took factory jobs in the hope of converting workers to the socialist cause. Gornick’s book combines her own reflections with oral histories, mostly those of rank-and-filers, including Karl Millens who recollects “Going into Industry” (a term we used as well) in brutally frank terms:

What can I tell you about the years in industry? They were, for me, slow, imperceptible, pointless death. I spent seventeen years working beside men I never had any intimacy or shared experience with, doing work which numbed my mind and for which I had no physical facility. Its sole purpose was to allow me to grow close to the men and be ready to move when a radically pregnant situation arose. Well, I was never close to the men and no situation arose, at least none I would ever know how to move into.

I looked up this passage in Gornick’s book a few days after I read what the late Gladys Scales had to say in A Red Family: Junius, Gladys & Barbara Scales,  an oral history collected by Mickey Friedman that is an essential contribution to understanding the Communist experience.

The Party knew they had talented people and used their talents, yet many stupid things were done with people. One was a period of “industrial concentration,” where intellectuals and students were taken out of school and put into factory work. They were going to organize the workers. First of all, they stuck out like sore thumbs. You can’t take an intellectual and put blue jeans on him and make him look like a worker. The workers didn’t particularly trust him. They weren’t really at ease and neglected their own talents. It was like putting a square peg into a round hole.

Gladys was married to Junius Scales, a man I met in 1997 at his mountaintop home in Pine Bush, NY about a half-hour’s drive from Woodridge, the tiny village where I grew up. Not long after I interviewed him, I read his memoir Cause at Heart: a Former Communist Remembers, a book that I consider to be the finest ever written about the Communist Party experience. Reading “A Red Family” reminded me of why Junius has remained a hero of mine ever since reading his memoir. Born into a blueblood family in North Carolina with a thirty-six room mansion, and with a grandfather who was a “big slaveowner”, Junius Scales seemed like the last person in the world to join the CP but as Karl Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto, capitalist crisis can often lead some to betray the class they were born into.

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July 3, 2015

Native Land

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,workers — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm
A Triumph of the Cultural Front

On Native Land

by LOUIS PROYECT

Recently I have begun a project that should be of some interest to radicals, particularly film buffs like me. I will be creating a database of links to radical films that can be seen on the Internet for free, or for a nominal fee. Most of these films will be viewable on Youtube but one that I saw this week is available on veoh.com, a Video streaming website that is part of qlipso.com, a social networking company that was launched out of Israel. My advice is to not let this stand in the way of watching “Native Land”, a 1942 documentary co-directed by Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand, two leading figures in the Communist Party-led cultural front that was so brilliantly analyzed in Michael Denning’s “The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century”.

The film was a virtual who’s who of the CP artistic community. In addition to Hurwitz, who was blacklisted during the 1950s, and photographer Paul Strand, who was not a party member but embodied their esthetic, it featured Paul Robeson as narrator and music by Marc Blitzstein best known for his musical play “The Cradle Will Rock” that was directed by Orson Welles. (In 1999 Tim Robbins directed a serviceable film based on the play’s difficulties getting staged.)

“Native Land” consists of a series of dramatic reenactments of how corporate America used gun-thugs and spies to crush the trade union movement, especially in the Deep South. The technique might be familiar to you if you’ve seen Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line” or Andrew Jarecki’s “The Jinx”, which had actors reprising the alleged crimes of real estate heir Robert Durst. In one reenactment, Howard Da Silva plays a snitch named Jim hired by the bosses to secretly take down the names of trade union members for blacklisting purposes. (This was a time when the CIO was nothing close to the immensely powerful machine it would become.) There was an immense irony in this since Da Silva was a CP’er who was blacklisted in the 1950s. Jim’s fellow spy was played by Art Smith, another victim of the witch-hunt whose career effectively came to an end in 1952.

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June 26, 2015

New York Asian Film Festival 2015

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:57 pm
The New York Asian Film Festival 2015

Turning Oppressive Reality Into Great Art

by LOUIS PROYECT

In 1956, when I was 11 years old, I saw my first Japanese film or more accurately a parody of a Japanese film shown on the Sid Caesar show. Called “U-Bet-U”, it was obviously a take-off on “Ugetsu Monogatari”, a 1953 film that along with “Rashomon” helped introduce Japanese films to American audiences.

Three years later I saw the original at a special screening at my local high school one evening. My mother had heard that it was a masterpiece and brought me there to see an alternative to Martin and Lewis comedies and John Wayne westerns. I can’t say that I understood “Ugetsu” but it was my first inkling that a hipper world existed. The appearance of the SUNY New Paltz film professor who came there to introduce the film made more of an impression on me than the movie. With the suede patches on his tweed sports jacket and his closely cropped beard, he was the first bohemian I had ever laid eyes on.

Fast forward two years later and I am a freshman at Bard deeply immersed in some of the greatest films I have ever seen, including masterpieces made by Akira Kurosawa who was in his prime. Ever since those days, Japanese films have remained the gold standard for me, joined in later years by those made in China and Korea. I was never quite convinced that Andre Gunder Frank’s “Re-Orient” was correct in its projections that the East would become a global hegemon just as it was before Europe’s rise in the 15th century, but when it comes to film, I need no convincing—most often after I have seen some of the films offered at the annual New York Asian Film Festival whose latest installment runs from June 26th to July 11th (http://www.subwaycinema.com/nyaff15/). The four films under review below should persuade anybody in the greater New York area to check the schedule and buy some tickets. If the term “race to the bottom” is most often associated with factories moving to Asia, suffice it to say that it is just as applicable to the current morass in a bottom-line oriented Hollywood.

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Trailers for reviewed films:

Whistleblower — unavailable with English subtitles

June 12, 2015

Jurassic World

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:38 pm

The T-Rex Blues

Mindless Entertainment While Awaiting the Next Mass Extinction

by LOUIS PROYECT

Hard on the heels of “Mad Max: Fury Road”, George Miller’s attempt to exploit the success of his previous three films in this series, come “Poltergeist” and “Jurassic World”, retreads of two vintage films with a Stephen Spielberg imprint and playing at your local Multiplex (“Jurassic World” opens everywhere tomorrow). Spielberg wrote the screenplay for “Poltergeist” in 1982 and directed “Jurassic Park” in 1993. Haven’t had your fill of remakes? Then put “Terminator Genisys” on your to-see list. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role (you were expecting Ryan Gosling maybe?), you would have to adopt a suspension of disbelief to regard this 67-year old actor of being capable of terminating anything except an appointment with his urologist.

In technical terms, some in the film industry distinguish between remakes and reboots (or retools). A remake is fairly close to the original, like Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” while the other approach involves a new interpretation entirely—the most egregious case being the monumentally stupid “47 Ronin”, a travesty that starred Keanu Reeves as the leader of a samurai suicide mission. The only suicide worth considering is that risked by a serious film buff as a reaction to this CGI-laden mess that includes a shape-shifting monster. The inspiration appears to be the Hercules films rather than the austere 1962 classic “Chūshingura”.

After having been besieged by fans of “Mad Max: Fury Road” as a snob with a prejudice against action films for dubbing it “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, I wish I could make amends by saying that “Jurassic World” was “fresh”. Unfortunately, it shares the same flaws as the other film, namely a tendency to make such retreads only faster and louder than the original, as well as stripped of character development and wit.

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June 5, 2015

The Topless Dancer, Slavery and the Origins of Capitalism

Filed under: Counterpunch,humor,Pekar,transition debate — louisproyect @ 3:56 pm
The Tide is Turning

The Topless Dancer, Slavery and the Origins of Capitalism

by LOUIS PROYECT

Although I’ve written thirty-five articles about the origins of capitalism over the years, I never suspected that my first for CounterPunch would be prompted in a roundabout way by my relationship with a topless dancer forty years ago.

In the middle of May, I blogged an excerpt from an unpublished comic book memoir I did with Harvey Pekar in 2008. It covered my experience in Houston in the mid-seventies, part of which involved an affair with a comrade who had been dancing in Montrose just before I arrived, a neighborhood that mixed bohemia, gay and topless bars, and apartment complexes geared to swingers in double-knit suits.

About a week after the excerpt appeared, someone directed to a Facebook page that belonged to a well-known ISO dissertation student who having posted a link to my blog frowned on the idea that I would write a memoir without ever having done anything. Since the memoir was written under the direction of Harvey Pekar, who toiled for decades in obscurity as a file clerk in a veteran’s hospital in Cleveland, I doubt that the student had a clue about the memoir’s intention. It was not a saga about exemplary deeds in the revolutionary movement but recounted instead the humdrum life of a rank-and-filer who felt deeply alienated by what amounted to a cult. Plus, lots of jokes. After all, it was a comic book as Harvey insisted on calling his work.

Parenthetically I would advise against reading the blog of someone you hate. It is bad for your mental health. As a recommendation to the young dissertation student or anybody else with a grudge against me, let me paraphrase what Jeeves said to Bertie Wooster, substituting “Proyect” for “Nietzsche”: “You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”

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