Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 26, 2015

Gunther Schuller Dies at 89; Composer Synthesized Classical and Jazz

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 8:36 pm

The NY Times obituary  for Gunther Schuller is must-reading for anybody interested in contemporary music. It pays tribute to him both as an avant-garde composer of atonal music but also as a pioneer of what was known as the “Third Stream” in the 1950s and 60s, an attempt to bridge the gap between classical music and jazz that was epitomized by the Modern Jazz Quartet. To some extent, Schuller was merely expanding upon earlier works of synthesis such as George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, Igor Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” that was written for Woody Herman, and Darius Milhaud’s “Creation of the World”, a ballet score that the composer wrote after being exposed to jazz in Harlem in the 1920s.

Although I have no deep insights about Schuller’s politics except that he hated racism, the MJQ saw the Third Stream as a way of breaking with the notion that jazz was “entertainment” served up for white audiences as some kind of “jungle music”. Ironically, Duke Ellington, one of the men most responsible for attempting to bridge the gap between classical and jazz, performed “jungle music” in the 1920s himself. Who said that popular culture and race were not complicated matters?

Schuller certainly was aware of the cognitive dissonances in his discussion of Paul Whiteman and Jimmy Lunceford, who was about as close to Duke Ellington in his mastery of the big band style even if he never reached Ellington’s prominence. To some, the aptly named Whiteman was the prototypical white appropriator of a Black style, in effect the Elvis Presley of his day who was the first to perform “Rhapsody in Blue”. In Schuller’s indispensable “The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945”, he ties the strands together in a brilliant synthesis:

Paul Whiteman in his biography Jazz writes of his father that he was “the best-balanced man” he ever knew—”He never had a drink until he was fifty-five and never smoked until he was sixty”—and he added that he was always “keen on athletics.” That happens to be also a perfect description of Lunceford.’ After taking a bachelor’s degree in music at Fisk University, followed by graduate work there and at New York’s City College (while working with the bands of Elmer Snowden and Wilbur Sweatman), Lunceford went to Memphis and taught music and athletics (sic) at Manassa High School. Here he met Wilcox and Smith, and when they went on to Fisk for further study, Lunceford followed them, and became an assistant professor of music at Fisk. By the time Wilcox and Smith graduated, the band, conceived back in Memphis, developed further at Fisk, and having added in the meantime two outstanding rhythm men—Moses Allen (bass) and Jimmy Crawford (drums)—had already acquired a considerable reputation throughout the South.

It is clear that Lunceford tried to emulate his teacher, Whiteman, Sr., in the same way that Wilcox and Smith at heart regarded Lunceford as their teacher and emulated his sense of discipline and exacting musicianship. Lunceford in fact was in some ways a black Paul Whiteman—down to leading his band with a long white baton.

But the similarities go further. Like the Whiteman orchestra, Lunceford’s band carried a whole retinue of arrangers; he insisted on painstaking rehearsing to achieve the highest possible technical and musical proficiency; he insisted further on playing a wide variety of that music most favored by audiences, developing among other things, like Whiteman, a superb dance orchestra. Lunceford also stressed in the band’s on-stage behavior—as John Lewis was to do with the Modern jazz Quartet twenty-five years later—that music was a profession to be respected and that, if musicians wanted to be considered respectable, they might begin by treating their music and their profession with respect. This was in startling contrast to the conduct ascribed to jazz musicians, then—and, alas, even now—as rather vulgar gin-guzzling inebriates, disreputable Don Juans, and worthless spendthrifts.

Lunceford would have none of that attitude in his band and cultivated a quite different image. As Wilcox said of Lunceford: “He didn’t like anything done sloppily, and that carried into his music.”

I am aware that for many jazz fans to link a musician to classical and “serious” training and, worse yet, to portray him as a disciple of Paul Whiteman amount to absolute anathema. But that is another myth that jazz in its maturity might finally dispense with. The notion that a black musician “tainted- by formal training of one kind or another is thereby inherently less of a jazz musician reveals a special inverse racism, as deplorable as its opposite. The theory of pedigree in jazz is simplistic at best. A man, a musician, is what he is; and what he produces as a musician is the sum total of all his talents. A musician’s antecedents and heritage neither guarantee nor preclude talent and quality, although they certainly may define and predetermine some of its characteristics. It is precisely those specific personal. intellectual, emotional, and psychological qualities in Lunceford’s makeup, influenced by his background and early training, that determined to a very large measure the quality of the Lunceford band’s music-making—its strengths as well as its weaknesses. That it was for some years one of the very finest jazz orchestras of its time is undeniable; and we cannot rewrite history in order to reconcile it with some preconceived premise. Not all white influences on black music are automatically negative in impact—starting with the early black ragtime and jazz musicians’ assimilation of white European harmony.

One thing that is not mentioned in the NY Times obituary was at least for me one of his greatest accomplishments—hosting a show in the early 60s on WBAI called “Contemporary Music in Evolution”. You can get a feel for how much the station has degraded by looking at program guide from 1960:

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It was that year that I first heard about WBAI and became determined to listen to it in my tiny village in the Catskill Mountains, a hundred miles from NYC. I had read somewhere, probably in Time or Newsweek, that there was this radio station in NY that had some daring offbeat programming. So hungry was I for something like this that I persuaded my father to have our local TV repairman mount an FM antenna at the top of a telephone pole in our backyard. You can imagine my glee when the signal came through loud and clear.

Up until I started listening to  “Contemporary Music in Evolution”, my knowledge of classical music was limited to the records I got from the RCA Victor Record Club or occasional jaunts into NYC to pick up vinyl at Sam Goody’s near Times Square. Mostly that meant listening to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, et al. Schuller’s goal was to illustrate how late 20th century atonal music, including the 12 tone style he favored, had antecedents in Debussy, Ravel, Mahler, and other composers who were still wedded to tonality. This meant serious and discussion on the air of excerpts from a piece like “Afternoon of a Faun” to point out how chromaticism opened the door to atonality. It was the most mind-blowing education I got in music that a lower middle-class child of high school graduates could have possibly gotten.

God bless Gunther Schuller. May he rest in peace.

May 18, 2015

Gilles d’Aymery ¡Presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 3:28 pm

From the NY Times obit page:
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My tribute to Gilles written last December

March 29, 2015

John Renbourn, 70, Eclectic Guitarist Who Founded the Pentangle, Dies

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:39 pm


John Renbourn in 1966, before he founded the group the Pentangle with with the guitarist Bert Jansch. Credit: Brian Shuel/Redferns

John Renbourn, an English guitarist known for his light-fingered fusion of classical, folk, blues and jazz and for his work with the group the Pentangle, was found dead on Thursday at his home in Hawick, Scotland, near the English border. He was 70.

He had been touring with another guitarist and singer, Wizz Jones, who was one of his earliest influences. When he did not show up for a concert in Glasgow on Wednesday, his agent contacted the police. The cause had not been determined, but a police spokeswoman said there were “no suspicious circumstances.”

Mr. Renbourn was both an antiquarian and an innovator — part of a generation of British and American guitar virtuosos who in the 1950s and ’60s reached deeply into traditions but were not bound by them.

As early as the 1960s, Mr. Renbourn delved with scholarly dedication intomedieval and Renaissance music; his “Complete Anthology of Medieval and Renaissance Music for Guitar.” a sheet-music collection of 28 pieces, was published in 1995. He learned British folk songs and sang them in an amiable tenor, and he was drawn to ragtime and the blues, particularly the fingerpicking complexity of early rural blues.

Mr. Renbourn at the Moseley Folk Festival in 2010. Credit: Simon Hadley/Rex Features, via AP

His music also used the harmonies and phrasing of jazz guitar and an occasional hint of flamenco, and he studied the sitar and the shakuhachi, the Japanese wooden flute.

He was a founder of the Pentangle — which he named after the five-pointed star, symbolizing five virtues, on the shield of Sir Gawain in the medieval Arthurian poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” — in 1968 with the guitarist Bert Jansch, the singer Jacqui McShee, the bassist Danny Thompson and the drummer Terry Cox.

The core of the group was the pairing of Mr. Renbourn and Mr. Jansch, who made their first duo recordings in 1965. They forged a tandem style that became known as “folk-baroque,” full of gnarled harmonies, spiky counterpoint and melodic filigree.

The quintet added Ms. McShee’s soprano — she had sung on Mr. Renbourn’s 1966 album, “Another Monday” — and a jazz-inflected rhythm section to make music that was mostly acoustic (although Mr. Renbourn played some electric lead guitar), intricately arranged and pointedly eclectic. Its repertoire included the group’s new songs, an a cappella medieval dirge, a girl-group remake, Charles Mingus pieces, blues tunes and traditional ballads.

The Pentangle first visited the United States in 1969, appearing at the Newport Folk Festival, at Carnegie Hall and — opening for the Grateful Dead — at the Fillmore West. The original version of the group made its last studio album, “Solomon’s Seal,” in 1972 before touring and then disbanding. The group reunited in the early 1980s, but Mr. Renbourn left before it made any new records.

The original quintet eventually regrouped for the BBC Folk Awards in 2007, and went on tour in 2008. It also played concerts in 2011, its last shows before Mr. Jansch’s death in October 2011.

Mr. Renbourn had a prolific career both before and after the Pentangle years. Born in London on Aug. 8, 1944, he got his start in folk clubs there and made his first album in 1965 with Dorris Henderson, an American singer based in London.

He also recorded extensively on his own and in collaboration with many luminaries of British and American folk music, among them the American folk-blues guitarist Stefan Grossman, with whom he made four studio albums and a live album, and Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band. Their collaboration (“Wheel of Fortune,” 1994) brought Mr. Renbourn a Grammy nomination.

Mr. Renbourn’s final studio album was “Palermo Snow,” released in 2010.

He had a pedagogic side. In the early 1980s, well into his career, he enrolled in a three-year music course at Darlington College in England, where he would later teach. He published sheet-music anthologies, including a piece from the revered Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan, and an instruction book, “John Renbourn Fingerstyle Guitar.” He taught guitar at universities in the United States (including Columbia), Canada and Britain, and held guitar workshops across Europe.

His marriages to Jo Watson and Judith Hills ended in divorce. He is survived by three children, Joel, Jessie and Ben.

Mitch Greenhill, who produced three albums by Mr. Renbourn, recalled him in an email: “He was most at home in his practice studio, sheet music on a stand, guitar on his knee, trying to channel the muse that hovered just beyond the temporal world.”

March 12, 2015

Roger Burbach ¡Presente!

Filed under: obituary,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 12:51 pm

Roger Burbach

I just learned that Roger Burbach died. I never met Roger but kept up an email conversation with him over the years. About five years ago he told me that he was dealing with multiple myeloma, the likely cause of his death.

Federico Fuentes, a member of the Socialist Alliance in Australian group who co-authored “Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism” (http://www.zedbooks.co.uk/node/20723) paid tribute to Roger yesterday on Facebook:

Saddened to hear that, two years to the day of the passing away of Hugo Chavez and almost exactly one year after the killing of Ali Mustafa, my friend and colleague Roger Burbach has also left us.

I had the privilege of working with Roger and Michael Fox on our book Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions. Without a doubt, despite being almost double our age, he was the driving force that keep me and Mike inline and ensured we completed what turned out to be the last book he published while alive.

Roger was truly a remarkable man who never let adversity hold him back. He had been in a wheelchair since 1989 after a terrible swimming accident, and lived most of the last decade with multiple myeloma and constant medical treatment. Despite these hurdles that life threw at him he accomplished so much in his life. Although completely inadequate in describing all that he did, i am posting his bio from our book to give you some idea:

“Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written extensively on Latin America and US foreign policy for over four decades. His first book, Agribusiness in the Americas (1980), co-authored with Patricia Flynn, is regarded as a classic in the research of transnational agribusiness corporations and their exploitative role in Latin America. His most notable book is Fire in the Americas (1987), co-authored with Orlando Núñez, which is an informal manifesto of the Nicaraguan revolution during the 1980s. With the collapse of twentieth-century socialism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe he began to study the emergent system of globalization and to write about the new Latin American social movements and the renewed quest for socialism in the twenty-first century.”

Rest in power Roger. You may have left us, but your work and example will live on.

I also received email this morning announcing a memorial service:

Dear Friends,

Please join us in commemorating the life and work of ROGER BURBACH who passed away on March 5, 2015.

A memorial will be held:

Sunday, March 15, 2015
2:30 p.m.
Berkeley City Club
2315 Durant Avenue
Berkeley, CA

We also invite you to join us afterwards for a celebration in honor of Roger at the garden patio of Gather Restaurant, 2200 Oxford Street, Berkeley.

There will be opportunities for you to share at the memorial. If you cannot attend but have anything you would like to share at the memorial or with the family, please feel free to email Roger’s son Matthew at salvadorburbach@gmail.com

We look forward to seeing you.

The Burbach Family

I want to add a few words in remembrance of Roger that I would have said if I had the opportunity to be at the memorial meeting.

In 1988 I picked up a copy of “Fire in the Americas” alluded to above and was so impressed with its analysis that I bought 10 copies and sent them to friends around the country who had left the SWP in disgust. This was before the days of email so I told them over the phone that I was sending them a book that applied the lessons of the Sandinista revolution to the United States. Unlike the misguided attempts of the 1920s to adopt “Bolshevist” norms, “Fire in the Americas” was simply a call for a socialist movement that abandoned those norms. About twenty years ago, I wrote an article titled “Lenin in Context” that was strongly influenced by “Fire in the Americas”, an analysis that has a lot more traction today given the exhaustion of the “Leninist” project.

Fortunately you can now read this book that is as timely and relevant today as it was when it was written on Open Library (https://openlibrary.org/books/OL2393527M/Fire_in_the_Americas), a project initiated by the martyred Aaron Swartz. It certainly is a fitting tribute to both Roger and Aaron that the book found a home there.

Just in case you don’t have the time to read “Fire in the Americas” right now, here’s a brief excerpt starting with “Pluralism in the Revolution” to give you a feel for its analysis:

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February 22, 2015

Clark Terry, Influential Jazz Trumpeter, Dies at 94

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 4:33 pm

NY Times, February 22, 2015

Clark Terry, Influential Jazz Trumpeter, Dies at 94

Clark Terry, one of the most popular and influential jazz trumpeters of his generation and an enthusiastic advocate of jazz education, has died at age 94.

His death was announced late Saturday by his wife, Gwen. She did not say where he died or provide any other details.

Mr. Terry was acclaimed for his impeccable musicianship, loved for his playful spirit and respected for his adaptability. Although his sound on both trumpet and the rounder-toned flugelhorn (which he helped popularize as a jazz instrument) was highly personal and easily identifiable, he managed to fit it snugly into a wide range of musical contexts.

He was one of the few musicians to have worked with the orchestras of both Duke Ellington and Count Basie. He was for many years a constant presence in New York’s recording studios — accompanying singers, sitting in big-band trumpet sections, providing music for radio and television commercials. He recorded with Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and other leading jazz artists as well as his own groups.


Clark Terry in 2003.CreditTodd Feeback/Associated Press

He was also one of the first black musicians to hold a staff position at a television network, and one of the most high-profile proponents of teaching jazz at the college level.

His fellow musicians respected him as an inventive improviser with a graceful and ebullient style, traces of which can be heard in the playing of Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis and others. But many listeners knew him best for the vocal numbers with which he peppered his performances, a distinctively joyous brand of scat singing in which noises as well as nonsense syllables took the place of words. It was an off-the-cuff recording of one such song, released in 1964 under the name “Mumbles,” that became his signature song.

The high spirits of “Mumbles” were characteristic of Mr. Terry’s approach: More than most jazz musicians of his generation, he was unafraid to fool around. His sense of humor manifested itself in his onstage demeanor as well as in his penchant for growls, slurs and speechlike effects.

Musicians and critics saw beyond the clowning and recognized Mr. Terry’s seriousness of purpose. Stanley Crouch wrote in The Village Voice in 1983 that Mr. Terry “stands as tall in the evolution of his horn as anyone who has emerged since 1940.”

The seventh of 11 children, Clark Terry was born into a poor St. Louis family on Dec. 14, 1920. His mother, the former Mary Scott, died when he was 6, and within a few years he was working odd jobs to help support his family. He became interested in music when he heard the husband of one of his sisters play tuba, and when he was 10 he built himself a makeshift trumpet by attaching a funnel to a garden hose. Neighbors later pitched in to buy him a trumpet from a pawn shop.

His father, Clark Virgil Terry, discouraged his interest in music, fearing that there was no future in it, but he persisted. He played valve trombone and trumpet in his high school orchestra and secured his first professional engagement, which paid 75 cents a night, with the help of his tuba-playing brother-in-law.

His career got off to a bumpy start. After working with local bands like Dollar Bill and His Small Change, he joined a traveling carnival and found himself stranded in Hattiesburg, Miss., when it ran out of money.

In 1942 he joined the Navy and was assigned to the band at the Great Lakes Training Station near Chicago. When the war ended, he returned to St. Louis and joined a big band led by George Hudson.

“George put the full weight of the band on me,” he told the jazz historian Stanley Dance in 1961. “I played all the lead and all the trumpet solos, rehearsed the band, suggested numbers, routines and everything.”

The regimen paid off: When the Hudson band played at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Mr. Terry’s work was heard by some of the most important people in jazz, and he soon had offers. He worked briefly with the bands of the saxophonist Charlie Barnet and the blues singer and saxophonist Eddie Vinson, among others, before joining Count Basie in 1948. Times were getting tough for big bands in the postwar years, and Basie reduced his group from 18 pieces to a sextet in 1950, but he retained Mr. Terry. The next year, Duke Ellington called.

It was the opportunity he had been waiting for. Working with Basie, he would say many times, was a valuable experience, but it was like going to prep school; his ultimate goal was to enroll in “the University of Ellingtonia.”

Nonetheless, after close to a decade with the Ellington band, he decided it was time to move on. “I wanted to be more of a soloist,” he said, “but it was a seniority thing. There were about 10 guys ahead of me.”

In late 1959 he joined a big band being formed by Quincy Jones, who not that many years earlier, as a youngster, had taken a few trumpet lessons from him. The original plan was for the band to appear in a stage musical called “Free and Easy,” with music by Harold Arlen. But the show folded during a tryout in Paris, and Mr. Terry accepted an offer to join NBC-TV’s in-house corps of musicians.

The first black musician to land such a job at NBC, he soon became familiar to late-night viewers as a member of the band on “The Tonight Show,” led for most of his time there by Doc Severinsen. He also led a popular quintet with the valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and worked as a sideman with the saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and others.

When Johnny Carson began his popular “Stump the Band” feature on “The Tonight Show,” in which members of the studio audience tried to come up with song titles that no one in the band recognized, Mr. Terry would often claim to know the song in question and then bluff his way through a bluesy half-sung, half-mumbled number of his own spontaneous invention.

He recorded one such joking vocal in 1964, as part of an album he cut with the pianist Oscar Peterson’s trio. As he recalled it, the song, “Mumbles,” was recorded only because the session had gone so smoothly that the musicians had extra studio time on their hands. Much to his surprise he found himself with a hit.

When “The Tonight Show” moved to the West Coast in 1972, Mr. Terry stayed in New York. Jazz was at something of a low ebb commercially, but he managed to stay busy both in and out of the studios and even found work for a 17-piece band he had formed in 1967. Between 1978 and 1981 he took the band to Asia, Africa, South America and Europe under the auspices of the State Department. Most of his concert and nightclub work, though, was as the leader of a quartet or quintet.

Mr. Terry also became active in jazz education, appearing at high school and college clinics, writing jazz instruction books and running a summer jazz camp. He was an adviser to the International Association of Jazz Educators and chairman of the academic council of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. For many years he was also an adjunct professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., to which he donated his archive of instruments, sheet music, correspondence and memorabilia in 2004.

Mr. Terry was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1991 and was given a lifetime achievement award by the Recording Academy in 2010. A variety of health problems forced him to cut down on touring in the 1990s, but he remained active into the new century. He was appearing in New York nightclubs as recently as 2008, doing more singing than playing but with his spirit intact.

And he continued to be a mentor to young musicians after his performing days were over. An acclaimed 2014 documentary, “Keep On Keepin’ On,” directed by Alan Hicks, told the story of his relationship with a promising young pianist, Justin Kauflin, whom Mr. Terry first taught at William Paterson, and with whom he continued to work even after being hospitalized.

“The only way I knew how to keep going,” Mr. Terry wrote in his autobiography, “Clark,” published in 2011, “was to keep going.”


January 31, 2015

Randy Martin 1957-2015: an appreciation

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 7:41 pm

I was sad to learn that Randy Martin succumbed to brain cancer. He was a 57-year-old NYU professor with a long-standing commitment to Marxist scholarship and activist causes. I kept looking in vain for some personal recollections of Randy on the net but have seen none so far. Mostly what you get is résumés of his accomplishments, which are considerable. Duke University Press, for example, issued this statement:

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I didn’t know Randy well enough except to say hello to him as I passed him by at the Socialist Scholar Conference/Left Forum yearly events. But I know enough about him to acknowledge his contributions to the grass roots movement, which gets mentioned neither by Duke nor by NYU. I also want to say a word or two about what I learned from Randy on some important theoretical questions that have divided the left.

Like Frank Rosengarten, who also succumbed to cancer last year, Randy was an important figure in the Brecht Forum in New York. He gave classes there over the years and likely made substantial financial contributions as well. He was also on the advisory board of the Left Forum. Until its demise because of the hostile real estate market in NYC, the Brecht Forum was an important resource for the left where public intellectuals like Randy could speak on an informal but informed basis to a wide range of students. A search of “Randy Martin” and “Brecht Forum” yields over 3000 items, including this one that is fairly representative:

“All That Is Solid Melts Into Air – The Red Power Mixtape” – annual Intensive Introduction to Marxist Theory & Praxis. This year’s intensive features Matthew Birkhold, Jodi Dean, Harmony Goldberg, Richard Levins, Randy Martin, Liz Mestres, Donna Murch, Alondra Nelson, Eric Ribellarsi, Tim Schermerhorn, Shahid Stover, Astra Taylor, Ganesh Tricur, Rick Wolff et al.

“The Working Class has nothing to lose but their chains… They have a world to Win”

The call of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto still echoes today in the streets of major cities around the world. While capital is on the offensive imposing austerity, the working class is coming into being with self activity in the streets.

The Brecht Forum’s annual Summer Intensive is designed as an introduction to the theoretical and practical traditions that trace their origins to the works of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels.

Unlike many professors on the left, Randy Martin always offered solidarity to Cuba and Nicaragua understanding that the revolutions that took place there faced insurmountable odds. In 1995 he and Michael Brown, a leftist professor who co-founded the journal Socialism and Democracy with Frank Rosengarten, co-authored an article for that magazine titled “Left Futures” that was a very astute commentary on how to relate to countries that were struggling to create a new society under the shadow of American imperialism. (Unfortunately it is behind a firewall but I would be happy to send you a copy.) It is pretty much the same thing I was trying to say in my post on “Against Manichaeism”:

One of the more dramatic casualties of seeing the history of the left undialectically, exclusively in terms of failures which reflect dispositions built into socialist and communist politics, was a weakening of support on the part of many democratic socialists for the Cuban and Nicaraguan Revolutions, on the grounds that neither government was “democratic.” The principle of this rejection was undefineable as typically stated, and in no case was it or could it have been generalized rationally to other more favored nations. The judgment was, in that form, anti-historical and inconsistent with any notion of politics as a self-reflective and complexly mediated development of organization, consciousness, direction, definition, and power.

When we refer to this as a casualty, then, we mean that it is a casualty for the North American left’s understanding of itself: In particular for attempts to reconcile prescriptions for reforming that left with descriptions and analyses of what is happening elsewhere in the world. We are not claiming that particular cases should never be evaluated and criticized, but only that being judgmental in so categorical a way is inconsistent with respecting the types of non-institutional political processes which are inevitable as such under conditions which generate a left (including the left attempting to reform itself). Such a categorical attitude assumes as well that referring to historical conditions of those instances of social/political action which make it necessary and possible to reflect on further prospects of action is merely incidental to such reflections and, indeed, can only be disruptive of them.

The efforts to generate socialism within and against the global dominance of capital are recognizable along two dimensions. The first includes attempts, however fitful, deformed, or immature, to struggle for a social economy, for which the production of social life in general has priority over production for profit. The second includes all organizations in which the forms of participation–and their mediations–are conceivably consistent with the interdependence and forms of association which Marx referred to as the society of the producers beyond the producers of society. It follows that socialism and democracy are two aspects of the same politics as they are of the same theoretical problematic even when their expressions are historically compromised. It also follows that any process by which the left can be said to develop will be one which is as internally critical as it is externally articulate. From this point of view, the left’s future is, as always, now; and “now” is a distinctly historical present, both in its need to incorporate a past it nevertheless must transcend and in its need to recognize the activist, ideological, and theoretical elements which continue to constitute it despite the momentary desire of so many to redefine it beyond recognition and, apparently, beyond hope.

But this “now” is also a process of self-reflection and learning. For whether part of a distant and glorious past or an as yet unachieved future, an idealized conception of socialism–negative or positive–makes the future utterly obscure if only because practice, infinitely mediated as it can only be, is never perfectible. Therefore the idealist prospect of practical perfection can never be a basis from which to cross the utopian divide into a perfectly progressive state of being. Indeed, it can only render all present efforts as in perfect error. It is, as we hope we have shown, just such an implicitly negative utopian perspective which yields the current self-defeating desire for a yet newer, true left.

Finally, I have to say that Randy Martin opened my eyes to a way of looking at Marx that was distinct from both the postmodernist critique of him as a “master narrative” peddler and those defenders who ironically accepted the postmodernist critique after a fashion. If Marx is nothing but a variation on the Enlightenment tradition, as Vivek Chibber alleges, then this misses how Marx was really offering a critique of the Enlightenment.

Just about twenty years ago I took a class with Randy at the Brecht Forum that forced me to reevaluate my tendency to buy into the Marx as Enlightenment thinker analysis as I commented on Marxmail:

I’m taking a seminar with Randy Martin at the Marxist School in NYC. Randy teaches at Pratt and is the author of “Performance as Political Act” and “Socialist Ensembles: Theater and State in Nicaragua and Cuba”. The seminar involves a re-reading of some basic works of Marx in the context of contemporary critiques by postmodernists, feminists and postcolonialists.

I came to the seminar expecting to pick up some ammunition to use against all those trendy “post” thinkers, but have discovered, much to my initial dismay, that Randy Martin has a more nuanced view of things. Since I am a rather crude fellow, both personally and intellectually, this has required me to alter my habits of thought. But it may pay off in the long run–who knows. In any case, I would like to submit a statement by Randy on some of the basic issues being discussed in the seminar for your consideration. As you will see immediately, they are the same issues that were discussed recently in the postmodernism thread in this list.

Randy Martin: A certain amount of mischief has been done under the sign of the prefix “post.” It is often inserted in front of a noun not as a modifier, but as a total break with what it is manifestly attached to. It seems to me more useful to inquire into the nature of this attachment, and to repose the “post” as a complication within rather than complete rupture from the subject in question. It is within this in mind that I would like to examine the relation between marxism, postmodernism, feminism and postcolonialism.

My interest is not in subsuming the last three terms into the first, but in exploring their mutual articulation. It is not uncommon to construct a rather brittle and straw figure of marxism in order to constitute a critical project that can strengthen an understanding of politics that have typically been difficult to perceive from a marxist optic. One risk in this procedure, however, is to reproduce internally the very features one is attempting to correct through the critique of marxism. An example of this can be found in certain treatments of postmodern politics, exemplified in the radical democracy of Laclau and Mouffe.

Their declaration of the end of master narratives has all the ring of a universalizing proclamation, and their newly decentered subjects may not be able to recognize what they share with the old ones. More specifically, the claim that Marx is the source of a master narrative of history ending with the victory of communism and the industrial proletariat as universal subject, rests on a reading of Marx that would greatly simplify any text. As noted by Foucault, Marx shares with Nietzsche and Freud a view of history as internally discontinuous, and therefore contributes to the very theory of decentering that contemporary theorists depend upon.

The notion that, for Marx, history can be apprehended as a narrative, has been greatly problematized by Althusser and others. Careful attention to the opening pages of the Manifesto bear out these assertions. There, as in the 18th Brumaire, as in Capital, Marx is vigilant in presenting the ambivalent and divided movement of history, not as an inexorable synthesis that is the same everywhere it appears, but as a contradictory process that destroys boundaries only to reconstitute new societal divisions, that depends upon a socialization of labor that it subsequently flees, that levels distinctions only to reinscribe them more extensively. This account of creative destruction is helpful in grasping the dynamics of the postcolonial condition.

But doing so assumes that is possible to extract what is analytic in Marx, rather than reading him descriptively and generalizing form a specific situation. To do so can only produce a eurocentric account of marxism. This is not to say that Marx’s (or anyone else’s work) could be transcribed in toto to account for contemporary situations of postcoloniality or other phenomena. The same would have to be said regarding the relation of marxism to feminism. Yet feminism’s success in showing that the separation between public and private is itself a political construct, is not at all inconsistent with Marx’s efforts to analyze how the disarticulation of production and reproduction (and of circulation) is generative of politics. Clearly this does not exhaust feminist analysis but makes a case for a certain supplementarity among critical endeavors that share a given epistemic context.

In doing some research to prepare this post, I discovered that Randy’s class was most likely based on the analysis he developed in “On Your Marx: Relinking Socialism and the Left” that can be read on Google books. It looks like chapter two titled “Fragmentation and Fetishism: The Postmodern in Marx” can be read in its entirety. It is very closely related to the discussion he led in his class at the Brecht Forum. This is an excerpt that I find particularly insightful:

Impatience reigns when the terms postmodernism and Marxism appear side by side in discussion. A justifiable part of the unease stems from the sense that, while arguing over words, a clarity of political focus has slipped from the Left’s grasp. With the destructive effects of corporate capital’s grip on the direction and details of society’s development receiving increasing attention in the conventional press and from quarters of the right, it would seem less controversial than it has in a long while that some version of a critique of the profit-driven market would have purchase on the public imagination. In this context, dwelling on the nuances of theoretical dispute might appear to be a deferral of politics altogether.

Like any disagreement, this one presents prospects and problems. Criticisms of Marx’s work have too often suffered from illiteracy, decontextualization, aphoristic reduction, or personal attack. Marxists are left in the uncomfortable position of having to redefine the alien ground to which they have been relegated. Ironically, the attacks on postmodernism have often suffered the same fate, in which the connections to and dependencies on Marx have been read out of postmodernist writings by Marxists themselves, at the expense of their own influence on current theoretical discussions. It should be acknowledged that clarity of thought can be a casualty in these interludes. There is an understandable resistance to specialized vocabulary and complex sentence structure that can seem unnecessarily obscure or elitist. But also, the term postmodern, as it is used polemically, overconsolidates a range of intellectual tendencies, political impulses, and social phenomena. Calling someone a postmodernist, if they accept particular features of contemporary culture, is a bit like calling Marx a capitalist because he begins his analysis by accepting the prevalence of the commodity. As Fredric Jameson (1996) has noted, Marxism has suffered the conflation between its identification as a philosophy, a social movement, and an historical project. Yet, so too have the distinctions between postmodernist (an advocate of certain critical principles), postmodernism (a cultural logic) and postmodernity (a formation of societal development), been lost or misplaced in the rough and tumble moniker, ‘‘pomo’’.

All of this has added poignancy in light of Randy Martin’s role in approving Alan Sokal’s spoof for Social Text in 1996, just around the time I was taking his class at the Brecht Forum. My initial tendency was to sell him short because I was still committed to the Marx as Enlightenment thinker analysis that was widespread on the left.

It was only after thinking more deeply about these questions that I began to see the wisdom of the Social Text editorial board in pulling together an extremely important issue even if Alan had conned one of its editors (I have over the years grown more tolerant of such indiscretions in light of understanding better through my submissions to Swans and CounterPunch what a job it is to publish a journal.)

That issue of Social Text was an enormous contribution to the debate about Marxism, science, postmodernism and “enlightenment values” that Randy could have been proud of despite the scandal. It was prompted in large part by a “Science Wars” conference in 1995 that Andrew Ross described as follows in the introduction to the issue:

The shrill tone of this backlash was set by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994). In spite of the authors’ claim that they are not “stalking horses for social conservatism,” Higher Superstition belongs fair and square to the tradition of Alan Bloom, William Bennett, Roger Kimball, Hilton Kramer, and Dinesh D’Souza. Presented as a wake-up call to unsuspecting scientists, it identifies and caricatures “science-bashers” in the same systematic fashion as those before had fingered the defilers of their Great Books tradition: “The relativism of the social constructionists, the sophomoric scepticism of the postmodernists, the incipient Lysenkoism of the feminist critics, the millenialism of the radical environmentalists, the racial chauvinism of the Afrocentrics” (252). Gross and Levitt’s effort generated its share of coverage in the scholarly media and began to draw cutting responses from the ranks of those who demolished The Bell Curve; this early attention was fol- lowed by a series of lavishly funded, high-publicity conferences intended to mobilize a broad coalition from the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. The most well-publicized conference, “The Flight from Science and Reason,” hosted in June 1995 by the New York Academy of Sciences, clearly laid out the agenda of linking together a host of dangerous threats: scientific creationism, New Age alternatives and cults, astrology, UFO-ism, the radical science movement, postmodernism, and critical science studies, alongside the ready-made historical specters of Aryan-Nazi science and the Soviet error of Lysenkoism.

Although Andrew Ross does not mention it, the Olin Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation funded the conference alluded to above. You probably already know that the Olin Foundation was to the 1990s what the Koch brothers are to rightwing causes today, a bottomless piggy bank. Then there is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation that is less known but deserving closer scrutiny. Sourcewatch.org advises:

Harry Bradley was one of the original charter members of the far right-wing John Birch Society, along with another Birch Society board member, Fred Koch, the father of Koch Industries’ billionaire brothers and owners, Charles and David Koch.[5]

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “from 2001 to 2009, it [Bradley] doled out nearly as much money as the seven Koch and Scaife foundations combined.”[6]

So was Norman Levitt, who by Alan Sokal’s admission gave him the idea to con Social Text, standing up for Enlightenment values when he went knocking at the door of the Olin and Bradley foundations? If so, then call me an enemy of the Enlightenment.

January 14, 2015

Frank Fried 1927-2015

Filed under: Cochranites,obituary — louisproyect @ 12:55 pm

(Frank was one of the last surviving Cochranites. I never interviewed him but had a couple of phone conversations with him over the years. There will be an article commemorating his life at some point but for the time being it is worth noting that he transitioned from working in steel mills in Chicago to becoming a rock concert producer like Bill Graham. I invite you to look at his blog: http://www.showbizred.com/. On the home page it states: “My name is Frank Fried. In the middle years of the 20th century I produced concerts and tours for some of the most influential and profitable musical acts of the day, such as Pete Seeger, the Beatles, Frank Zappa, Miriam Makeba, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. What a lot of people didn’t know is that this pop music impresario had started out as a socialist revolutionary — a heritage I tried to honor throughout a tumultuous show business career. On this web site, I do my best to tell you what happened.”)

Dear Friends & Comrades,

Our dear friend and comrade, Frank Fried, passed away peacefully today, Tuesday, Jan. 13. His loving wife of 27 years, Alice, is planning a memorial and you will all be notified.

It was only a few days ago that four close friends, Seymour Kramer, Jack Gerson, Robin David and myself were at Frank’s bedside talking politics for several hours. Frank was unable to speak but he was able to muster enough energy to give us the middle finger and the raised fist at separate points during our discussions. Just like old times!

Both gestures were well deserved by the way.

We all loved Frank.

In Solidarity,
Carl Finamore


Family’s Obit for Frank Fried – Presente! Jan. 24 Memorial Service in Alameda, CA

Frank Fried, 1927­-2015, Presente!

Franklin Fried, who devoted more than 70 years to supporting and fighting for freedom, justice, equality, and liberation for working and oppressed people in the U.S. and around the world, died Tuesday, Jan. 13, at his home in Alameda, California. He was 87.

Frank Fried was the principal presenter of folk and popular music in Chicago for a quarter of a century, but he always thought of himself, first and foremost, as a revolutionary socialist. In his own view, his signal achievement was a historic 1968 series of benefit concerts for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he organized at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He also produced the Beatles’ 1964 and 1965 Chicago appearances, along with innumerable concerts by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Miriam Makeba, Pete Seeger, Frank Zappa, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and many other artists.

Frank was a radical, a socialist, and a labor and civil rights activist throughout his life, and he took great pride in never having abandoned his principles of fair play throughout his storied show business career. “After shaking hands with some managers and promoters in the business, you would have to check if you still had all your fingers,” he would half jest. The colorful story of how he tried to be different, with mixed success, is recounted on his website, showbizred.com.

Frank was born in 1927 on Chicago’s north side. His father, a lawyer in private practice, died when Fried was a child. His mother, who worked as a secretary for the Illinois State Athletic Commission, felt compelled to send Fried to a military school for proper discipline. After military school, he attended the University of Chicago. He dropped out after two years to serve in the United States Navy at the end of World War II.

After the war, Fried joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) as a teenager and worked as a welder in Chicago’s booming U.S. Steel South Works plant. He was attracted to the SWP’s democratic vision of world socialism. In 1947, he and his Chicago comrades helped lead a broad and successful defense campaign for James Hickman, who was up on murder charges. Hickman, an African­American sharecropper who had recently moved his family to Chicago from the South, was accused of shooting the landlord who had burned his family out of their apartment, killing three of Hickman’s children. With help from SWP organizers, community pressure got the charges reduced and Hickman released. The dramatic story is recounted in a recent book from Haymarket Press, People Wasn’t Made to Burn, which is dedicated to Frank.

Frank called the campaign “perhaps the party’s finest hour” and credited that organizing experience for much of his later success in building broad coalitions for social justice. Frank had a remarkable ability to collaborate with folks from across the left spectrum, and to help others reach out and build in ways they would not have done without his help and counsel.

A few years later, Frank was expelled from the SWP along with prominent dissident Bert Cochran and many of the party’s foremost intellectuals and labor activists. In 1954 Fried helped that group launch the American Socialist, a magazine that aimed to free the idea of socialism from its association in the American mind with Stalinist dictatorship, and he traveled the country promoting it.

The magazine folded in 1959, a victim of the poisonous cold war atmosphere, Frank said later. “The trajectory that we expected of hooking up with militant sections of the labor movement and a new beginning of the radical movement never happened,” he explained. “The group did not leave much of a footprint, but individuals played an important role in the labor and civil rights movement, and the attractive style and open tone of the magazine did leave an imprint on the New Left that came after us,” he added.

For Frank, the value of the American Socialist group lay in reaching out and attempting to regroup with other socialists without rejecting its Trotskyist background. “We attempted to bring our heritage to the problems and radical language and organization of the modern world without ever forgetting the legacy of Leon Trotsky, who had an incredible impact on me as he stood up for workers democracy against the tides of history,” he said.

Frank stumbled into show business when he met the Austrian folk singer Martha Schlamme at the Gate of Horn, an early folk music venue in Chicago, in 1958. In need of a job and intrigued by the power of folk songs to move people emotionally and politically, Frank went to work as an assistant to Albert Grossman, the club’s owner. On a trip to San Francisco the following year on Grossman’s behalf, Frank met the Gateway Singers, a racially integrated folk­singing group, and managed the group through their period of greatest commercial success. He had a knack for managing, and by the end of the 1950s he was also handling the Chad Mitchell Trio and numerous other prominent folk and popular music performers.

Frank opened Triangle Productions in 1959, with fellow socialist Fred Fine, in order to raise money for leftist projects through benefit concerts. When folk music became a pop craze during the Kennedy administration, the business took off. This was a major turn away from the repression of the 1950s, both culturally and politically. Many of the folk artists were unabashedly radical, and some, like Pete Seeger, were still blacklisted. Frank took special pride in being one of the first commercial promoters to book Seeger, whose sold­out concerts on Frank Fried’s stage in 1957 marked a defeat for the McCarthyite blacklist.

When Bob Dylan’s turn from folk toward rock resulted in an explosion of psychedelic, blues­ and country­inflected music, Frank recognized that the new groups would seize the spotlight from both acoustic folk groups and more traditional, pasteurized pop. He moved quickly on his hunch. By the early 1960s,

Triangle shows dominated live entertainment programming in Chicago and the surrounding area. Triangle Productions ran tours and concerts for the Rolling Stones, the Mothers of Invention, and many other major acts of the time. Meanwhile Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mathis, and Barbra Streisand remained regulars on his stages.

Throughout his career, Frank tried to weave themes of social justice into his cultural promotions, paying special attention to Miriam Makeba and other politically engaged artists. In 1963 Frank served as producer for “We Shall Overcome,” the only commercial recording by the SNCC Freedom Singers, on Mercury Records and he also took an active role in the movement against the Vietnam War as a leader of Business Executives Move for Vietnam Peace.

In 1977 he returned to his roots in the steel industry as a key backer of Ed Sadlowski’s insurgent “Steelworkers Fight­Back” campaign. Frank traveled the country with Sadlowski, working plant gates and union halls in an attempt to divert the Steelworkers Union from what Sadlowski had dubbed “tuxedo unionism” and toward a militant working­class perspective. He and Sadlowski became lifelong friends.

Frank sold his production company in the early 1980s and moved to Los Angeles with his wife Françoise, hoping the weather might help ease her congenital degenerative disease. After Françoise’s death in 1985, Frank moved to New Orleans as the CEO of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. He remarried there in 1988 and moved to the hills above Oakland, California with his second wife, the mystery writer Alice Wilson­ Fried, and their daughter Teasha.

Frank’s friendship with Miriam Makeba inspired him to active solidarity with the fight against Apartheid in South Africa. After Apartheid, he was a stalwart supporter of the struggle to build a Socialist alternative as the only way to guarantee the promise of Liberation. He helped launch Amandla!, a popular radical opinion magazine associated with the Democratic Left Front, and remained a valued advisor to its editors.

Frank met the writer Daniel Singer when they fought together to defend Solidarnosc against the Polish and Soviet Stalinist parties and in the 1990s, Frank led the launch of the Daniel Singer Prize, an annual essay competition for young people on topics related to socialism.

In 2011 Frank plunged into supporting the renovation of the Trotsky Museum in Mexico City, organizing a U.S. tour by Esteban Volkov, Trotsky’s grandson. He also recently joined the Solidarity chapter in the San Francisco Bay Area as a means of being connected to the movement he invested so much of his hopes in. His longtime comrade Carl Finamore reported that even when Frank was too frail to speak, “he was still able to muster enough energy to give us the middle finger and the raised fist at separate points during our discussions.”

Preceded in death by his first wife, Francoise Nicolas, and his elder sister, Vivian Medak, Frank is survived by his wife Alice, his children Pascale, Isabelle, Bruno, Troy, and Teasha, and many grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Frank’s memorial celebration will be held January 24, 1­4 p.m. at the Grand View Pavilion, 300 Island Drive, Alameda, California. In lieu of flowers or gifts, the family requests that donations in Frank’s memory be sent to Amandla! Magazine (in care of editor Brian Ashley, brian@amandla.org.za) or to the Center for Constitutional Rights (http://goo.gl/H4Cmcr).

January 11, 2015

Pat Grogan, the SWP and the Hoboken waterfront

Filed under: obituary,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

Ever since the Militant went online, I’ve made a point of skimming through it looking for obits. I have zero interest in the group’s politics but have remained curious about what happened to people I knew in the sixties, especially since our generation is increasingly vulnerable to the sorts of geriatric illnesses that take you down for good. Of course, the law of diminishing returns applies here since the group has shrunk to such an alarming degree. Even when it was larger, it was likely that the people I really cared about would never get an obit since they had become unpersons like Peter Camejo. The only way an ex-member could rate an obit was if they were number one not an “enemy” of the party, and number two someone who had contributed time and money to keep the sect-cult afloat.

Pat Grogan was one of those people.

Her obit was typical. Stripped of anything that might have touched on her personality, it was a virtual CV of her deeds on behalf of the party, making sure to emphasize her commitment to the “turn”. It makes perfect sense for the SWP to publish such a bloodless summary of a person’s life since they expect robotic behavior from the few people still ready to be moved about like a piece on a chessboard.

The heading says it all: “Pat Grogan: 45 years in building communist party”. You get a sense of how much the group has shrunk from this:

A nearly five-decade builder of the communist movement, Grogan died in San Diego Dec. 1 after a battle with cancer. Fifty people attended the celebration, organized by party supporters in the Los Angeles area, drawing participants from Seattle, San Francisco and San Diego.

I imagine that half the attendees were ex-members. If so, it means that an event that had been announced weeks ago in the Militant drew only a couple of dozen members.

Not that it makes much of a difference, but the paper got her early history wrong:

Pat met Young Socialist Alliance members selling the Militant newspaper when she was a 21-year-old student at Columbia University. She joined the YSA and soon after the SWP, and never looked back,” Sandler said. He pointed participants to attractive displays reflecting different events in Grogan’s political life and the nearly 30 messages sent to the meeting from around the world.

In fact, she was a Barnard student. Columbia University did not become co-educational until 1983. I have a pretty good recollection of the period since I was a member of the YSA when she joined and became friendly with Pat almost immediately. What I am going to recount now is my own memory of Pat that is obviously coming from a different angle than the SWP’s. Her story about joining the party was an exceptional one and deserves to be told.

Pat was the daughter of John J. Grogan, the former mayor of Hoboken and before that president of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America. The IUMSWA was a typical craft union that included the Brooklyn Navy Yard within its bargaining control. After WWII ended, the shipbuilding industry collapsed thus taking away the power base of bureaucrats like Grogan. Here’s a photo of him and union members protesting the lack of government funding for new shipbuilding projects:

Screen shot 2015-01-11 at 2.17.07 PM

In a September 17, 1968 NY Times obituary for John J. Grogan, there’s an excerpt from a speech he gave to the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists in 1951: “We’ve adopted new tactics against the Communists. Now we treat them rough, and we don’t seem to have so many problems with them.”

I know for a fact that Pat regarded his death that month as an outcome of her joining the Trotskyist movement because she told me so at the time. Pat was distraught about losing her father but nothing would have stopped her from joining, not even a call from Jay Lovestone. Over a beer she told me that her dad had pulled out all the stops to prevent her from becoming a commie, including recruiting a classic “god that failed” labor official to the cause.

Pat threw herself into party activities with a vengeance after joining. I remember how she and the two other Barnard students who were comrades (Cindy Jacquith and Paula Reimers) had their hands filled with trying to connect the antiwar movement we were building with the student strike. Believe me, it was a tough time to be a Trot when SDS was the only show in town—with Mark Rudd marching at the head of the parade.

I lost touch with Pat after moving up to Boston in late 1969 but was always happy to see her at national gatherings. She was a tall woman, maybe 5’10”, and big-boned. She had a great sense of humor and was sharp as a tack. It is sad that her talents went wasted in a group that hardly knew how to use them.

This was not my last encounter with the Grogan brand name. In 1975 I returned to NY from Houston, Texas in order to work with a team of programmers automating the Militant subscriptions and Pathfinder’s finances. After starting a job at Salomon Brothers, I found an apartment in Hoboken in a new high-rise called Grogan Towers. Guess who it was named after.

Last year I went out to Hoboken with my Istanbul in-laws to do some sightseeing. Grogan Towers was gone, its place taken by a newer generation high-rise. My first residence in Hoboken was back in 1966 when the town had not begun to be gentrified. It was the Hoboken of John G. Grogan, Frank Sinatra and Marlin Brando, not that of hedge fund managers, brick-wall exposed restaurants and boutiques.

The 60s have definitively passed from the scene. Like the 30s, this was one of those periods when the magnitude of events could change one’s life. Pat and I joined a movement because of a war. The commies that her dad and Jay Lovestone would persecute joined a movement because the capitalist system was failing to provide livelihoods to millions of people. Now as we move deeper into the 21st century, the same circumstances will likely drive a new generation into making the sorts of choices we made, with the added dimension of environmental crisis.

What will happen to the people living along the Hudson River in Hoboken when the next Hurricane Sandy hits? The global warming that has threatened the survival of people living on Pacific Ocean island nations will pose the same dangers to city dwellers as ClimateProgress reported on October 24, 2013:

But Hoboken residents and city officials are less eager to talk about one annoying detail: Much of the rapidly gentrifying old industrial port city, where apartment prices can rival those found across the Hudson in Manhattan, is built on a swamp.

For Jon Miller, an ocean engineering professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, the fact that the floodwaters essentially made an island out of the city is not at all surprising.

“Historically, the area of land we now call Hoboken was an island.” said Miller. “All those new apartment buildings on the west side of town are built on marshland. Superstorm Sandy just returned the city to its natural state – a thin strip of land between a river and a tidal marshland.”

Even Mayor Dawn Zimmer, always eager to advertise the city’s nightlife, shopping and restaurants, referred to the city as a bathtub in a New York Times’ article in the days following the storm. While reluctant to voice a position on the causes of climate change, calling the issue “politically charged,” she has been resolute as to the need for Hoboken to prepare for rising waters.

Politically charged. Words to live by.

November 17, 2014

Tomas Young, Army Veteran, Dies at 34; Critic of Iraq War in Film

Filed under: antiwar,Iraq,obituary — louisproyect @ 6:23 pm


Tomas Young, who was paralyzed in the Iraq War, with his wife, Claudia Cuellar, in March 2013. Credit: Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star, via Associated Press

Paralyzed from the chest down, the Iraq War veteran is seen in a 2007 documentary film taking dozens of pills for spasms, pain and depression. He speaks agonizingly about his sexual problems. Viewers watch him marry and, eight months later, divorce.

In the film, “Body of War,” Tomas Young is the body. Co-directed and underwritten by the television personality Phil Donahue, the film sought to show, through Mr. Young, the devastating human cost of a war that the filmmakers argued should have never been fought.

Mr. Young died at 34 on Nov. 10 at his home in Seattle. When asked the cause, his mother, Cathy Smith, said, “His body just wore out.”

“Body of War” received the National Board of Review award for best documentary. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave it strong consideration for an Oscar nomination. Reviews were mixed, but almost all said it was hard hitting. Mr. Young spoke of his ordeal on “60 Minutes,” “Nightline” and “Bill Moyers Journal.”

But the film, though applauded at film festivals, was not released theatrically; its producers could not find a distributor. (It can be found, however, on Internet streaming services.) In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Donahue suggested one possible reason distributors shied from it. “It’s not a take-your-girl-to-the-movies movie,” he said.

Another reason may have been its polemic tone. Images of Mr. Young’s agony are interspersed with shots of the congressional debate over the resolution giving President George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq in March 2003. The film shows Mr. Young in the forefront of demonstrations against the war by veterans and lobbying members of Congress to stop it.

Six years after the film came out, Mr. Young drew news media coverage when he announced that pain and depression had pushed him to decide to commit suicide. He wrote an open letter to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on behalf of “the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.”

The movie had its roots in Mr. Donahue’s antiwar commentary on his MSNBC talk show in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. In February 2003, the channel canceled his show, citing low ratings, particularly compared with its direct competitor on Fox News, “The O’Reilly Factor,” whose host, Bill O’Reilly, was a strong supporter of the war.

The seeds of “Body of War” were planted in the spring of 2004 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where Mr. Young had been taken after sniper fire severed his spine on his fifth day in Iraq. By her account, Ms. Smith asked her son, who had long been interested in politics, inspired by her liberal views, if there was anybody he wanted to meet in Washington. “Ralph Nader,” he said.

She called Mr. Nader’s office, and he agreed to meet Mr. Young. He asked Mr. Donahue to accompany him. The two had met on Mr. Nader’s presidential campaign bus in 2000. Mr. Donahue said he was “blown away” by Mr. Young’s wounds and came to see the young man as a potential vehicle for showing the sacrifices the troops were making in Iraq, which he thought had been deliberately hidden from the public.

Mr. Donahue said he had considered writing a book but was persuaded that a movie would be better. He teamed with Ellen Spiro, an experienced filmmaker, who shared producing and directing duties with him. Another veteran of Mr. Nader’s presidential races, Eddie Vedder of the rock group Pearl Jam, volunteered to write and perform two songs for the film.

In the movie, Mr. Young recalls enthusiastically enlisting in the Army after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But he became disillusioned, he says, beginning when he was sent to Iraq rather than Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden had masterminded the attacks.

“If I had been shot and hurt in Afghanistan, I’d have been upset about what I have to go through, but there would be no ‘Body of War’ film,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 2008. “I’d take my government check and sit home. I would not have felt my wounds were received in an invalid war.”

Tomas Vincent Young was born in Boise, Idaho, on Nov. 30, 1979, and grew up in Kansas City, Mo. His mother and father, Thomas Young, divorced when he was a boy. Tomas enlisted in the Army at 17 but was discharged because of a shoulder problem. Returning to Kansas City, he took a succession of minimum-wage jobs. Then came Sept. 11.

“I called my recruiter after hearing Bush say he was going to smoke the evildoers out of their caves,” he told the Kansas newspaper The Topeka Capital-Journal in 2007. His shoulder passed muster in February 2002, and after basic training he landed at Fort Hood, Tex., as a private in the First Cavalry Division.

He was shot in Baghdad on April 4, 2004, while lying in an open truck as it rolled through the Sadr City neighborhood. He had emergency surgery in Germany before being flown to Walter Reed.

The documentary shows Mr. Young at one point saying goodbye to his younger brother, Nathan, as his brother deploys for the first of two combat tours in Iraq. It shows him marrying his high school sweetheart, Brie Townsend, who says she can handle the challenges they will face. And it shows them divorcing eight months later.

While Mr. Young was in a rehab center in Chicago, he met Claudia Cuellar, who had volunteered to visit hospitalized veterans to cheer them up. Though his condition had deteriorated, they wed on April 20, 2012. He decided against suicide.

The couple moved to Portland, Ore., because medical marijuana was available there. They then moved to Seattle, partly because Mr. Young had come to regard Mr. Vedder, who lives there, as a friend.

Besides his mother, Mr. Young is survived by his wife, his father and his brother Nathan; his sister, Lisa Harper; another brother, Tim Weaver; and two grandmothers.

November 1, 2014

M. Junaid Alam: presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

M. Junaid Alam

On April 26th of this year M. Junaid Alam informed his Facebook friends that he had just learned that he had stage four cancer. Two days ago I got email from Joshua Frank letting me know that Junaid had died. He was 31 years old.

Although I have not had much contact with Junaid in recent years, there was a time when I used to meet with him and his good friend Derek Seidman from time to time about a decade ago. Yesterday I spent about a half-hour talking with Derek, trying to pull together some personal information about Junaid that would be of interest to those who knew him. While Derek spent a lot more time with him than I ever did, our conversation did not reveal any telling anecdotes about his friend. As he put it, Junaid was not that interested in talking about himself, nor in small talk for that matter. His all-consuming focus was on global politics and his role in moving the struggle forward. Junaid lived to write and it is a terrible tragedy that this gifted—even prodigious—writer is no longer with us.

Junaid was the son of M. Shahid Alam, an economics professor at Northeastern University originally from Pakistan who was a contributor to CounterPunch, as was his son. He showed up on Marxmail on November 9th 2001 with this announcement:

Hello Comrades,

My name is M. Junaid Alam. I’m 18, college student in MA, USA. I work largely with the CMI [Ted Grant’s tendency post 1984] and am an ISO branch-committee member. Wanted to bring to your attention the PTUDC, www.ptudc.org.

Additionally, in the Boston area there’s a big anti-war conference this weekend, organized by the Northeast section of the 4 regional coalitions in the country. Nader will be speaking in conjunction with it.

Take care,


The next day he clarified his name:

For the record, I am “Mohammad Junaid Alam”; my CP articles [obviously a reference to CounterPunch rather than the CPUSA] appear under “M. Junaid Alam”. Gone by “Junaid” since birth, since everyone on my father’s side of the family has that first name, but since this is an e-mail discussion list I didn’t really care who calls me Mohammad and who calls me Junaid, or who calls me M., etc.

I am not sure to what extent his dad was an influence on him but in one of our meetings at my place he told me that he did not share his father’s Muslim faith. Later on Junaid moved toward a reconciliation with Islam, something I will get to in a bit.

Sometime in 2003 Derek and Junaid met with me in NY to exchange ideas about creating a website that could serve as a pole of attraction for young leftists trying to regroup the movement around a non-sectarian approach. By this point, Derek had quit Socialist Action just as Junaid had quit the ISO. They had been reading my critique of “Leninism” on Marxmail and had come to the conclusion that it made sense. To make sure there is no misunderstanding, none of the ideas I had been promoting were mine originally. They were all plagiarized from Peter Camejo. Frankly, if I had not read his “Against Sectarianism”  in 1983, I probably would have remained in a deep funk. The only value I added to his original analysis was looking into the whole question of “Zinovievism” and redeeming the American Socialist project of Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman.

Derek and Junaid decided to launch a zine called Left Hook. I would surmise that it was a nod in the pugilistic direction of CounterPunch. This is a screen shot of the first issue dated February 4th, 2004 courtesy of the indispensable Wayback Machine. Just look for issues between 2004 and 2006. Anything after that was junk that spammers posted after they hijacked the domain. The art work was all Junaid’s. He had artistic as well as political skills.

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It had been a productive enterprise but was probably a bit ahead of its time. With the crisis of “Leninism” deepening, there have been relatively viable initiatives to create something in the spirit of Lefthook, mostly in Britain as a result of the crisis in the SWP. I suspect that even if the Leninist left in the USA never shoots itself in the foot as badly as the SWP leadership did, there will be a continuing discussion about how to move the left forward—spearheaded in part by ex-ISO members who left or were expelled over the past year or so.

After graduating Northeastern, Junaid came to New York where he began writing for a number of different outlets.

After getting married, he adopted a name that incorporated his mate’s: M. Junaid Levesque-Alam. His page at Alternet states: “M. Junaid Levesque-Alam, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, writes about Islam and America at his blog, Crossing the Crescent. He has been published in several outlets, including Altmuslim.com, Antiwar.com, Colorlines, and The Nation’s website.”

Like Lefthook, Crossing the Crescent is archived on the Wayback Machine. Anything after 2012 has been hijacked, just as was the case with Lefthook. I found it reassuring to see Junaid taking a nuanced approach to Libya in 2012. I regret that by this point we had not been in touch since I would have looked forward to seeing how someone focused on Muslim culture and politics was able to see the dialectical contradictions of an aspect of the Arab Spring that so many on the left disavowed.

The heart of this anti-interventionist argument—“you are a hypocrite”—is a moral one: but it is a heart that does not beat.

For while it is deplorable that policymakers apply their moral outrage selectively (in accordance with perceived national interests), that does not mean we should abandon the moral impulse altogether for the sake of consistency.

Consider, for instance, a scenario where ten innocent men are lined up to be shot. A bystander intervenes and saves the life of one or two men, but, for whatever selfish reason, leaves the rest to die. Now consider a parallel scenario, wherein the only difference is that the bystander does absolutely nothing and leaves all ten men to their demise.

Which is the better choice: consistency or hypocrisy?

Some arguments against intervention deserve serious consideration. The “hypocrisy” mantra, however, is not one of them.

One of the more intriguing items that is still extant was written for MRZine in 2009. Titled “Muslim in America: Identity and Isolation”, it likely reflected the sorts of issues explored in Crossing the Crescent. Since it is such a perfect jewel of an essay, I will reproduce it in full as the best way of remembering our comrade:

Muslim in America: Identity and Isolation

by M. Junaid Levesque-Alam

An early morning flight to D.C., day-long conference and empty cityscape drained me of energy.

Exhausted, I stepped out of my nondescript hotel into the street and felt a heavy air pregnant with moisture. Heading down the sidewalk to find dinner, I came across the shadow of a man who had the unmistakable gait of a beggar.

The homeless in D.C. are different from the homeless back home in New York City, where amid a shifting and seamless mass of indifferent women and men they are frequently seated — if cold concrete can be called a seat — with despair dampening their eyes and quarters rattling in their cups. Here, the homeless seem to move with the crowd but are not of the crowd. They zigzag aimlessly, hands often outstretched — and equally often, empty — amid professionals in pressed suits who stride by with confidence and turn at square angles.

Tonight, however, there were no crowds. As the man in the street stumbled toward me, he asked with some urgency whether I knew where the nearest mosque was. I hadn’t gone to a mosque in years aside from Eid functions, never mind one in the capital. I responded flatly: “No.”

But his question was actually an introduction. The man came closer and began to relate his story; gesticulating with a hand two fingers short, he claimed that he had a wife and child but lost his job, and asked me politely and pleadingly for any spare change I might have.

I paused for a moment, nodding my head understandingly but not reaching for my wallet. As I contemplated what to do, the sky cracked loudly with thunder and a rumble tore through the air as raindrops tapped the pavement, as if on cue in a cliché movie scene. I took this as a sign that I should help this man in some small way, so I unfolded my wallet and handed him a five-dollar bill.

In the Qur’an, after all, God constantly and insistently speaks to Muslims about His signs as expressed through nature; each “verse” in Islam’s holy book is called an ayah, or Arabic for “sign.”

“Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for those who are endowed with insight” (3:190).

Taking the bill from my hand, the man smiled at me broadly and thanked me profusely. He reached slowly for my face and, with a laugh, tugged gently at the end of my beard, saying, “I knew you were a Muslim because this” — meaning the beard — “is Sunnah,” or a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad.

I returned his smile — even a smile is charity, Muhammad had said, although I suspect the money might be more helpful — and laughed appreciatively. I said nothing else as he thanked me yet again and went on his way. I did not bother to tell the beggar that my beard, which was neither close-cropped nor particularly long, wasn’t an example of Sunnah but apathy: I had simply not bothered to shave it amid the stress of the past few days.

Jogging back to the hotel to wait out the rain, I felt refreshed. In truth, I didn’t know whether this man had a child, a wife, or a need to find a mosque, but none of this really concerned me. What I was reasonably certain of already assured me: He was a Muslim, he was in need, and I felt a higher power had prompted me to brush aside the curtains of irritability and exhaustion and crack open a small window of kindness.

Meeting the poor man in the street reminded me of my own poverty in Muslim companionship. I realized that this was the first time I had even met another Muslim spontaneously in a long while. I had spoken to Muslims for articles, columns, and interviews, but this random, fleeting incident was the first time I had approached — or been approached by — a complete stranger because of a shared Muslim identity.

Despite my conscious attempt to learn, read, and write about the history, politics, and ethos of Islam, my personal lived experience with Islam in America was, I realized, impoverished.

My own neighborhood is only a mile away from significant Pakistani and Arab populations, where I frequently see women in gowns and headscarves and men in shalwar-kameez and prayer caps. Yet I had almost never introduced myself to any Muslims.

I often walk by a mosque and think about entering. But then I think again: Will they understand me? Are they “old uncles” with no experience of growing up as a Muslim in America? What is expected of me by others? Are there FBI informants here, those a little too eager to befriend and quiz newcomers? This barrage of questions has served as a barrier between me and a fuller realization of Muslim identity.

Such isolation may seem odd in America. Freedom of religion is a guaranteed and enshrined right. But the law does not preclude the existence of a chilling effect. Indeed, the very presence of law forces discriminatory groups to seek avenues more inventive than outright, crude repression. Consider, for instance, the vilifying smears, lies, and stereotypes paraded before the public in the run-up to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A naive observer may assume that such propaganda produces an impact only upon those predisposed to prejudice, leaving everyone else magically untouched. A more judicious observer, however, understands that the rhetoric of demonization ricochets and resonates: it creates a clanging noise that rings loudly in the ears of the target, and it desensitizes others such that the loud shouts of hatred gradually fail to register as even a whisper worth notice. How else to explain the relative ease with which reality has been stood on its head the past few years?

A monumental upset of reason has allowed forces once — and still — deemed “extreme” and “crazy” to implement deadly agendas with scant and scattered opposition: an invasion spun as liberation in Iraq, ethnic cleansing and occupation defended as justifiable security measures in Israel, a program of perpetual war hailed as part of the presumed path to peace, among other absurdities.

A complementary cavalcade of jargon, doublespeak, and coded terminology still marches triumphantly out of pundits’ mouths and across the newspapers, trampling plain language and clear thinking, which are conspicuous only by their absence.

What prominent national figures have spoken out in the last nine years not in the name of rubberstamped strategies, buzzwords, or mantras, but in the name of ordinary Muslims — the supposed beneficiaries of this gigantic war effort? Our television screens splash our retinas with images of young American soldiers killed in combat, and now, Iranian protesters brandishing a slain woman’s picture. Where on these screens are the images and names of the tens of thousands of ordinary women and children slain by our own bombs and bullets in the Middle East?

It is in this searing political context that I consider myself connected to Islam. I feel an inseparable link to those abroad, whose names I do not even know, who have suffered the impact of modern weapons unleashed on ancient pretexts. I insist on this connection precisely because the full weight of national propaganda is aimed at erasing, ignoring, and discarding the memory of these victims, these invisibles.

The cost of this remembrance, however, is alienation from Muslims around me. Just as an Islamophobe’s mind may produce menacing images when he encounters a Muslim, I see Muslims through the lenses of war, occupation, invasion, and torture.

If I see a woman in a hijab, my mind races to a recent surreal murder or questions about whether it reflects, for this particular person, a conscious choice of modesty, the inertia of tradition, or the weight of oppression. If I see a man in chapals and shalwar-kameez, I immediately begin to speculate about his politics, what grievances occupy and animate his mind and his degree of reconciliation with modern life.

In this politicized projection, the actual human being at the other end of one’s tinted lenses never comes into focus. The Muslim greeting assalam-alaykum, “peace be upon you,” is shorn of meaning because peace is neither in me nor bestowed upon most Muslims in these times; a few have violently rejected the concept altogether and have instead embraced a mindless nihilism.

The inversion of rational thinking that lies behind this absence of peace leaves me drained, tired and deflated. And it will, I think, take more than a chance encounter in the streets and a clap in the clouds to change it.

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