Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 15, 2015

The Life, Loves, Wars and Foibles of Edward Abbey

Filed under: anarchism,Counterpunch,Ecology,Film,literature — louisproyect @ 12:56 pm
Monkeywrenching the Machine

The Life, Loves, Wars and Foibles of Edward Abbey

by LOUIS PROYECT

Fifty-three years ago, long before I had heard of Edward Abbey and Abraham Polonsky, I saw a film titled “Lonely are the Brave” that was based on Polonsky’s adaptation of Abbey’s novel “The Brave Cowboy”. The film remains one of my favorites of all time with Kirk Douglas’s performance as a fugitive on horseback trying to elude a sheriff played by Walter Matthau permanently etched into my memory.

Many years later I would have the pleasure of hearing Abraham Polonsky speak at Lincoln Center at a screening for “Odds Against Tomorrow”, a film for which he wrote the screenplay three years before “Lonely are the Brave” but for which he did not receive credit. Using a “front” of the sort Woody Allen played in Walter Bernstein’s very fine movie about the witch-hunt, Polonsky was taking a first step toward reestablishing himself as a screenwriter.

In the panel discussion following the screening, Polonsky was asked whether he had problems writing a script with criminals as central characters when he spent so many years in the Communist Party and still retained progressive politics even after his resignation. He replied that American society itself was criminal and that the film’s characters were just trapped within the system.

“Lonely are the Brave” was by contrast a film with a most sympathetic character, a cowboy named Jack Burns who provokes a bar fight just to land in jail to help break out his old friend, a sheep rancher who has been arrested for sheltering undocumented workers from Mexico. I had no idea at the time how radical the film was, an obvious result of Edward Abbey’s ability to make such an outlaw look like a saint compared to the corporate malefactors that were destroying America’s greatest asset: its wilderness.

The very fine new documentary “Wrenched” that is available from Bullfrog Films is a loving tribute to Edward Abbey’s life as an artist and activist as well as a very astute assessment of Earth First!, the radical environmentalist group that was inspired by Abbey’s writings. Directed by ML Lincoln, a young female director and activist since her teens, it is a follow-up to her first film “Drowning River” that recounts the struggle against the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona that found a fictional counterpart in Abbey’s most famous novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, from which her new film derived its title.

We learn that Abbey, who was born in 1927, became drawn to anarchism at a very early age under the tutelage of his aptly named father Paul Revere Abbey who was both a socialist and an anarchist—and obviously from a different ideological tradition than the one to which Abraham Polonsky belonged. As he matured and began to develop his own worldview, the son obviously aligned completely with anarchism, a result of his commitment to preserving wilderness—a goal unfortunately that has not been fully appreciated by Marxists, as I will explain later on.

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May 1, 2015

Trial by Fire in Syria

Filed under: Counterpunch,Syria — louisproyect @ 4:39 pm
Returning to Homs

Trial-by-Fire in Syria

by LOUIS PROYECT

Recently published by Verso Press, Jonathan Littell’s “Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising” is welcome both as an important document of Syria’s trial by fire as well as an indication of this august publisher’s willingness to break with the pro-Assad consensus that prevails on the left. Although Littell’s chronicle is hardly the work of an FSA partisan, he at least puts a human face on a movement that so many were willing to reduce to one fighter’s shocking act–eating the heart of a fallen Baathist soldier.

Written between January 16 and February 2, 2012, Littell’s notebooks are literally that, a day by day diary of what he saw and what he did in Homs, a city that was a citadel of resistance to Bashar al-Assad, particularly in the working-class neighborhood of Baba ‘Amr, where Littell spent most of his time.

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April 17, 2015

Water, capitalism and catastrophism

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,fracking,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 2:47 pm

Living Under the Shadow of a Sixth Extinction

Water, Capitalism and Catastrophism

by LOUIS PROYECT

Two films concerned with water and environmental activism arrive in New York this week. “Groundswell Rising”, which premieres at the Maysles Theater in Harlem today, is about the struggle to safeguard lakes and rivers from fracking while “Revolution”, which opens at the Cinema Village next Wednesday, documents the impact of global warming on the oceans. Taking the holistic view, one can understand how some of the most basic conditions of life are threatened by a basic contradiction. Civilization, the quintessential expression of Enlightenment values that relies on ever-expanding energy, threatens to reduce humanity to barbarism if not extinction through exactly such energy production.

This challenge not only faces those of us now living under capitalism but our descendants who will be living under a more rational system. No matter the way in which goods and services are produced, for profit or on the basis of human need, humanity is faced with ecological constraints that must be overcome otherwise we will be subject to a Sixth Extinction. Under capitalism, Sixth Extinction is guaranteed. Under socialism, survival is possible but only as a result of a radical transformation of how society is organized, something that Marx alluded to in the Communist Manifesto when he called for a “gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.”

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April 10, 2015

Slave Rebellions on the Open Seas

Filed under: Counterpunch,slavery — louisproyect @ 4:27 pm
Slave Rebellions on the Open Seas

The Black Struggle Against Slavery

by LOUIS PROYECT

Greg Grandin’s “The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World” and Marcus Rediker’s “The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom” share both subject matter—slave rebellions on the open seas—and an unabashed commitment to the Black freedom struggle. Beyond the fortuitous combination of topic and political passion, however, the greatest reward for any reader is how both authors make history come alive. Despite their remoteness in time and place, the stories they tell have an obvious affinity for the Black struggle today as a new civil rights struggle takes shape to secure the final victory sought by ancestors Babo and Cinque.

“The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World” is an exploration of the events that inspired Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno”, an 1855 novella about the ruse orchestrated by slaves fifty years earlier to convince Captain Amasa Delano, a distant relative of FDR, that their vessel remained under their ex-master’s sway. This excerpt from Melville should give you a flavor of this droll and macabre tale:

Three black boys, with two Spanish boys, were sitting together on the hatches, scraping a rude wooden platter, in which some scanty mess had recently been cooked. Suddenly, one of the black boys, enraged at a word dropped by one of his white companions, seized a knife, and though called to forbear by one of the oakum-pickers, struck the lad over the head, inflicting a gash from which blood flowed.

In amazement, Captain Delano inquired what this meant. To which the pale Benito dully muttered, that it was merely the sport of the lad.

“Pretty serious sport, truly,” rejoined Captain Delano. “Had such a thing happened on board the Bachelor’s Delight, instant punishment would have followed.”

At these words the Spaniard turned upon the American one of his sudden, staring, half-lunatic looks; then, relapsing into his torpor, answered, “Doubtless, doubtless, Senor.”

If Grandin’s history is a fitting counterpart to Melville’s fiction, a work of high culture for the ages, we can see “The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom” as a necessary corrective to Stephen Spielberg’s pop culture film that like his “Lincoln” told a tale of paternalistic white intervention when the real history would have revealed something much more like self-emancipation.

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April 3, 2015

The Hand that Feeds

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH WEEKEND EDITION APRIL 3-5, 2015

Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick’s “The Hand That Feeds”
The New Face of the American Class Struggle
by LOUIS PROYECT

A 1954 film titled “Salt of the Earth” told the story of a courageous strike by the mostly Mexican-American zinc miners against a ruthless corporation that was based on a 1951 strike in New Mexico. Produced by Paul Jarrico and directed by Herbert Biberman, two Hollywood blacklistees, it was remarkable for both its power as film and for its fearless radicalism in a time when the left was being hounded out of existence. It derived much of its strength from the casting of New Mexican miners in leading roles, such as Juan Chacon, the president of a miner’s union, as a strike leader. And of critical importance in a time when reaction was running full throttle, the film depicted a victory of workers against insurmountable odds, just as had taken place in 1951.

I could not help but think about the 1954 classic when watching a screening of “The Hand that Feeds”, a documentary that opens today at Cinema Village in New York. If “Salt of the Earth” was a fictional film based on the facts of a real life strike, “The Hand that Feeds” is by contrast a factual film with all of the heartrending drama of a fictional film blessed with a “star” who led a struggle of twenty workers at Hot and Crusty, a bagel shop that was a stone’s throw from Bloomingdales in New York. In a panel on storytelling I chaired at this year’s Socially Relevant Film Festival, a documentary filmmaker explained that casting is as important for the documentary as it is for narrative films. One cannot imagine better casting for this documentary than the mostly undocumented Mexican workforce at Hot and Crusty, starting with Mahoma López, the 2014 counterpart to the Juan Chacon of sixty years ago.

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March 27, 2015

My Secret Fascination with Michel Houellebecq

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,literature — louisproyect @ 1:06 pm

A Quixotic Longing for a Benign Authority

My Secret Fascination with Michel Houellebecq

by LOUIS PROYECT

I attended the press screening for “The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq” with the expectation that I would learn something about the controversial novelist whose name has become synonymous with Islamophobia. Fully expecting his character (he plays himself) to be a cross between Pamela Geller and Salman Rushdie, I was surprised—if not shocked—to see him rendered as a genial, self-deprecating and altogether likeable individual who wins over his kidnappers in the course of the film. Since the film is fiction, it was up to writer/director Guillaume Nicloux to imagine a writer who met his own ideals—and implicitly that of Houellebecq as well. So instead of imagining the kidnappers as jihadists anxious to take vengeance on a writer who has insulted Islam, they are instead three apolitical but physically intimidating men hired by an unidentified party on a contract basis.

Luc the ringleader is a longhaired Roma with the body of a sumo wrestler who tells Houellebecq that he trained Israeli soldiers in the martial arts including the technique needed to rip off an enemy’s ear, not the sort of person you would want to trifle with. But in a scene that epitomizes the film’s off-kilter comic sense, the tensest moment between captors and captive is over some detail in Houellebecq’s first book—a biography of the Gothic novelist H.P. Lovecraft. Luc insists that the book describes Houellebecq purloining a sweat-stained cushion that belonged to Lovecraft from some museum, which he denies is in the book. As Luc grows increasingly angry at Houellebecq’s denial, the author follows the Falstaffian principle that discretion is the better part of valor and states that he might have forgotten what he wrote after all. Since Houellebecq has the appearance of a Bowery flophouse resident and drinks glass after glass of wine throughout the film (one suspects that it was not grape juice), we suspect that Luc had it right all along.

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March 20, 2015

No Good Men Among the Living

Filed under: Afghanistan,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 4:04 pm

 

Anand Gopal’s “No Good Men Among the Living”

Eyes Wide Open in Afghanistan

by LOUIS PROYECT

Combining first-rate investigative reporting and a mastery of New Journalism techniques, Anand Gopal’s “No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes” will help you understand the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan as well as introduce you to some of the people whose lives have been torn apart by American occupation. With the same kind of care that a gifted novelist devotes to character development, Gopal renders a Taliban fighter and a husband and wife victimized by Taliban violence in such finely grained detail and psychological depth that you feel as if you have walked in their shoes. This is the result of countless hours that he spent in Afghanistan interviewing his subjects at obvious risk to his life. So committed was Gopal to understanding the human drama in Afghanistan that he learned the Pashtun language before departing for an assignment that would last three years.

Unlike the average journalist who prefers being cocooned in a hotel room with other journalists or embedded with the state power’s military, Gopal has devoted himself to getting the story at the grass roots level, carrying out what might be described as “journalism from below”. I first encountered his reporting in an August 2012 Harper’s magazine article titled “Welcome to Free Syria” that described the flowering of democracy in a poor rural town called Taftanaz, where a farmer’s council had decided that “we have to give to each as he needs.” With all due respect to the Kurds in Rojova, many other Syrians had also been struggling for justice and equality until Baathist violence preempted such a possibility.

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March 13, 2015

The Socially Relevant Film Festival, 2015

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:12 pm
The Socially Relevant Film Festival, 2015

Films on the Lives of Ordinary People

by LOUIS PROYECT

After being asked to chair a panel discussion on storytelling at theSocially Relevant Film Festival 2015 in New York that runs from March 16 to 22 and previewing a dozen scheduled films, both narrative and documentary, I had an epiphany: “socially relevant” films have a higher storytelling quotient than Hollywood’s for the simple reason that they are focused on the lives of ordinary people whose hopes and plight we can identify with. With a commercial film industry increasingly insulated from the vicissitudes of an unending economic crisis, it is only “socially relevant” films that demand our attention and even provide entertainment after a fashion. When the subjects of the film are involved in a cliffhanging predicament, we care about the outcome as opposed to the Hollywood film where the heroes confront Mafia gangsters, CIA rogues or zombies as if in a video game.

Take for example Eraldo Pacheco, the Chilean sheepherder who leaves his home in the Patagonian region of Chile and travels to Idaho for a three-year contract tending a herd of a thousand sheep. Hard times have forced him to leave his parents, wife and young son behind while he tends to chores not different from those seen in “Brokeback Mountain”. Unlike “Brokeback Mountain”, “Gaucho del Norte” is not a love story but one much more about scraping out a living as a farmworker, the fate that awaits so many immigrants, documented or undocumented. Eraldo Pacheco is an ordinary man but one endowed with extraordinary insights about his fate as a migrant worker, a good sense of humor (he says at one point, “What can be more boring than looking at a sheep’s ass for a living?”), and mastery of a skill that goes back five thousand years. He will linger on in your consciousness long after you have forgotten about Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger.

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March 6, 2015

“Maps to the Stars”; “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn”

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 8:44 pm


“Maps to the Stars” and “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn”

Two Movies About Making Movies

by LOUIS PROYECT

Just by coincidence two new films hold up a mirror to the industry that begat them—and the reflection is not very pretty. David Cronenberg’sGrand Guignol satire “Maps to the Stars” is playing now at the IFC Center in NYC and at art houses around the country–his usual venue. Liv Corfixen’s documentary “My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn” opened on February 27th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and can also be seen on VOD, including Amazon.com. Cofixen is married to Refn, a Danish director who like Cronenberg is famous (infamous?) for making ultraviolent art movies. Both films could be better but if you have the slightest interest in the morbidity of the film industry, as most of my readers do, you’ll want to have a look at them.

The title of “Maps to the Stars” derives from the opening scene when a young and attractive woman named Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) hires a limousine driven by Jerome, who is played by Robert Pattinson. Best known for his performances in the stupefying Twilight Saga series, the young actor has begun acting in Cronenberg features such as this and “Cosmopolis”. It is too soon to tell if he has much more than a pretty face, especially playing Jerome—a pretty face.

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February 20, 2015

Digital Rebellion: the Birth of the Cyber Left

Filed under: computers,Counterpunch,Internet,journalism — louisproyect @ 1:49 pm
Todd Wolfson’s “Digital Rebellion”

Can the Net Drive Social Movements?

by LOUIS PROYECT

Largely through the writings and public addresses of David Graeber, Marina Sitrin, John Holloway and others, “horizontalism” became a buzzword to describe various movements over the past fifteen years or so that were inspired by the Seattle protests and marked by direct democracy, communications through the Internet, militant tactics, and a belief that occupations of public spaces could prefigure a future, more just world. Ideologically, anarchism and autonomist Marxism loomed large—understandably so since the “verticalism” of the old Left seemed to have run its course.

As is so often the case, movements and institutions that appear to contradict each other can often be resolved on a higher level. In this instance, given the exhaustion of “horizontalist” initiatives over the past couple of years, an analysis of the contested ideological terrain is more necessary than ever. As a major contribution to the debate, I cannot recommend Todd Wolfson’s “Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left” highly enough. If you read an excerpt from the book’s introduction on last weekend’s CounterPunch, you will understand that the book is directed to the activist left and is not the typical academic work despite the author being a member of the Rutgers University faculty and the book being published by the University of Illinois Press.

Eminently readable, Digital Rebellion is a mixture of reporting and theory all designed to move beyond the horizontal-vertical duality and achieve a synthesis that draws from the best of both worlds. While the words Syriza and Podemos cannot be found in its pages (and of course Podemos was born after the book was published), their presence looms over its pages. As political parties, they were midwifed by the occupations of the horizontalist left–so much so that at least one well-known autonomist has broken ranks and come around to seeing the benefits of wielding state power, hitherto something seen as anathema. Jerome Roos of Roar Magazine, an autonomist stronghold, gave an interview to Syriza in which he said that “Syriza’s radical internationalism is uplifting and a positive contrast to the neoliberal cosmopolitanism of the business class.” These are welcome words indeed.

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