December 21, 2013
August 3, 2013
Enjoying what deejays call heavy rotation, Bob Wing’s article on “Rightwing Neo-Secession or a Third Reconstruction?” has not only popped up on ZNet and Counterpunch, but even unsolicited in my mailbox at Columbia University, a receptacle generally for notifications on overdue books from the library and the usual spam with “My Beloved” in the subject heading. If I had to rate my mail by interest, I am not sure where Wing’s article would end up. I have been getting arguments from my Marxist brethren about the need to elect Democrats since 1967 and doubt that anything new could come along. After reading Wing’s article, I am glad that I stubbed my big toe on it since it raises some interesting questions about what the original Reconstruction meant and why Wing’s call for a “Third Reconstruction” is so, so wrong.
Before dealing with the substance of Wing’s article, some historical background might be useful for young people coming around Marxism that would help explain a seeming paradox—why someone like Wing, who can quote Marx like the devil quotes scripture—would make the case for electing candidates from a party that was totally committed to slavery in the 19th century. If anything, the open-and-shut case against the Democrats was made in the 1840s.
Wing was a leader of something called Line of March (LofM), a Marxist-Leninist sect that was part of the “New Communist” movement in the 70s and 80s. Unlike most of the groups that identified as Maoist, LofM was fixated on the early CP as a model. In a somewhat vain hope of spawning a party after this fashion, LofM focused on the shortcomings of the CP in its newspaper reminiscent of the CPGB’s fixation on the SWP in Britain.
The main leader of LofM was Irwin Silber who died in 2010. He used to review films for the Guardian, an American radical newsweekly. His approach was to “expose” Hollywood movies for racism, sexism, imperialism and the like. My approach is somewhat different. I generally avoid Hollywood and am mainly interested in drawing my readers’ attention to documentaries and independent films that get short shrift in the bourgeois press. By the 1990s Silber had become pessimistic about socialist revolution. He wrote a book titled “Socialism—What Went Wrong” that concluded Lenin was wrong. Capitalism continued to be a dynamic system and socialists had to learn to live with that fact. I recommend Reihana Mohideen’s article “Has capitalism won? A reply to Irwin Silber” that appeared in the April 12, 1995 Greenleft Weekly. (http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/9497)
I first ran into LofM when I was a member of Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) in the early 80s. They and the Communist Workers Party were the only left groups who worked in CISPES. The CWP, a Maoist sect, was best known for its disastrous confrontation with the KKK in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1979 that left five of their members dead. They had made the mistake of choosing to utilize armed self-defense as a tactic rather than building a mass movement against Klan terror.
In 1984 the CWP, LofM and the CISPES leadership decided to support the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign. For Marxists coming out of the CWP and LofM tradition, voting for Democrats is a tactical question. If there was ever any tactical motivation for voting for a Democrat, Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition might meet all qualifications. Many people, including me, hoped that the Rainbow Coalition could develop into a third party but Jackson was too much of a careerist to make the kinds of tough choices Ralph Nader made. One year after the end of the Jackson campaign, the CWP dissolved itself with a number of its members finding a home in the Democratic Party, including Ron Ashford, a very capable African-American who represented the CWP in CISPES. Today Ashford is a HUD bureaucrat.
The Line of March dissolved in 1989 with some of their former members deciding to work with Peter Camejo on a magazine called Crossroads. When it finally stopped publishing in 1996, the magazine reflected on its experience:
On the ISES Board [that published Crossroads], members of the Communist Party, Democratic Socialists of America, and smaller groups from the Maoist and Trotskyist traditions worked alongside ‘independents’ and former members of Line of March and North Star–not in a tactical, single-issue coalition or in organizing a one-shot conference, but on a common, ongoing socialist project. This was almost unprecedented on the U.S. left, and was decisive in institutionalizing CrossRoads non- sectarian character. Even further, the interaction between once-warring activists proved to be substantive, democratic and exciting. People found it politically and intellectually stimulating to get to know one another and tear down previously insurmountable barriers.
Bob Wing was a member of the ISES board and probably had a major role in the editorial policy of Crossroads. In keeping with the erstwhile attraction LofM members had to the CPUSA, Wing was solidly behind the formation of the Committees of Correspondence in 1992, a Eurocommunist split from the CP. Peter Camejo, who was probably adapting somewhat to the views of the ex-LofM’ers he worked with on Crossroads, joined the CofC and, if I remember correctly, backed the Jackson campaign. I was still not ready to vote for Jackson but did join the CofC. After going to one of their meetings, I resigned. It was filled with people, mostly in their sixties, getting up and talking about the work they were doing in their Democratic Party club. Camejo quit not long afterwards, writing a sharp rebuke of their orientation to the DP. I will try to find that article one of these days.
At the time of Crossroad magazine’s demise, I wrote an appraisal that I think holds up pretty well:
A closely related question is why the 1996 convention of the Committees of Correspondence drew only 300 people. The two events are symptomatic of the same process, and that process is the exhaustion of “regroupment”. While regroupment was necessary, it could not by itself fuel a new revivified left. In CrossRoads’ view, the warning signs had been apparent for some time:
Less tangible but more important were the limits that soon became evident in the broader left dialogue process. The interaction between activists from different traditions produced a certain energy by its very novelty, and many harmful stereotypes were laid to rest. But soon the excitement of getting-to-know-each-other sessions passed. Beyond consensus on a few generalities–democracy, non-sectarianism, etc.– little was produced in the way of strategic unity or theoretical insight into a new model of socialism. Better ties between activists were built, but the ‘socialist regroupment’ current was unable to generate sufficient momentum to conduct large-scale campaigns or undertake any major cross-tendency realignment. A noticeable ‘generation gap’– few under-30 activists were attracted to socialist renewal efforts– began to registered as a serious problem.
I concur with these observations and want to amplify on them, as well as draw out some other ideas on what the problem may be and what solutions are possible.
To begin with, it is a mistake to think that any single organization can be the vehicle for a new resurgence of the left. Not only does C. of C. suffer from this illusion, so does Solidarity. While neither, to their credit, sees themselves as a “nucleus of a vanguard”, both have trouble seeing a new Marxist left emerging outside of their own framework.
In the case of the C. of C., there are obvious reasons for this. To a very large extent, the C. of C. exists as spin-off from the CPUSA. Much of the functioning and attitudes of key leaders is identical to what they picked up in decades of experience in the CPUSA. I attended one C. of C. meeting over a year ago and was struck by how “routine” things seemed. All of the behavior and discussion suggested to me that most of these people had known and worked with each other for decades. Alas, this was probably true. When one old-timer got up during a discussion period and suggested that the C. of C. follow the example of the CP of Japan, which had cleaned the streets of working-class neighborhoods, I knew we were in troubled waters.
The plain fact of the matter is that newly radicalizing youth are likely to be put off by a meeting with such a character. Why would you want to join an organization whose culture and internal life seem so rigid and one-dimensional?
Turning now to Wing’s article, it likens the differences between the Republicans and Democrats to those that existed in the time of Lincoln but with a complete role reversal. In 1860 the Democrats were the pro-slavery party and the Republicans would eventually become the abolitionist party under the pressures of the battlefield. He writes:
The main precedent in U.S. history for this kind of unbridled reactionary behavior was the states rights, pro-slavery position of the white South leading up to the Civil War. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called out the attempts at nullification in his famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” and the movement of the sixties defeated it. As shown in the ultra-conservative playground that is the North Carolina legislature, the new laws and structures of today´s rightwing program are so extreme and in such stark contrast to the rest of the country that I believe both their strategy and their program should be called “Neo-Secession.”
Does anybody believe that the white South is a secessionist threat today? Frankly, this sounds like a variation on the “fascist threat” rhetoric that has been deployed since the Goldwater campaign in 1964 to stampede voters into backing Democrats. The danger of secession is less than zero. There is a simple reason for this, one that does not enter Wing’s calculations. There are no class differences between the ruling class in North Carolina and New York. As Malcolm X once said, everything south of Canada is the South. In 1860 the South seceded because it wanted to preserve chattel slavery. What mode of production exists today in the South that needs to be preserved against Northern designs? Wal-Mart? The oil companies in Louisiana whose toxic dumping has been protected against regulations by Democrats and Republicans alike for most of the last century? The big three auto plants located in the South that cut deals with the UAW to create a two-tier labor system? And what about the crackdown on undocumented workers, a form of racial oppression just one step above peonage? What hope should we pin on electing Democrats when the President of the United States deported 409,849 immigrants in 2012, breaking all records under the evil Republican administration of George W. Bush.
As a sign of an utter lack of political discretion, Wing cites Melissa Harris-Perry’s call for “a Third Reconstruction that builds on the post-Civil War first Reconstruction and the Civil Rights/Second Reconstruction.” (In Harris-Perry’s schema, the second Reconstruction was the civil rights movement of the 60s that ended Jim Crow.)
If you have access to Nexis, as I do, you can find the source of Harris-Perry’s quote above, an MSNBC show from July 7, 2013 that encapsulates everything that is wrong with her way of thinking. The show originated from the Essence Festival in her native New Orleans. She spoke about some of the sponsors:
On this show, we spent a lot of time scrubbing with big corporation over their treatment of their workers and their consumers.
Coca-cola has tried to escape blame in its roll for the obesity epidemic. Workers for McDonald`s and in other fast-food chains have gone on strike in multiple cities this year to demand better pay. And then there is Walmart with its everyday low wages.
But credit where credit is due. All three of those companies, no matter how evil their policies maybe are here at the essence festival, putting in their time and making the effort to connect with the African-American community.
What Harris-Perry left out was that all three of these corporations were in favor of the Voter ID laws that Wing singled out as a prime neo-secessionist danger. They only backed off after consumer boycotts were threatened. But more to the point, how can anybody deny the reality that the Democrats, the ostensible salvation of the South, have had an incestuous relationship to these corporations for many years now? Deval Patrick is a Coca-Cola board member. Bill Clinton relied heavily on the Waltons for campaign contributions. Meanwhile, McDonald’s has gone one step further and named an African-American as its CEO in July 2012. Walmart and Coca-Cola have corporate headquarters in the South. Does anybody in their right mind think that the Northern bourgeoisie has class interests opposed to those in the South? Frankly, does it really matter to Bob Wing who sees politics as some kind of battle between “reactionaries” and “progressives”, as if what people think is the main cause of racial oppression in the U.S.
I also find Wing’s take on the New Deal outrageous, with its ostensible distinction between FDR and racists. Is he kidding? He describes Southern racists as having “survived” the New Deal, as if they were trees confronting a forest fire. He also says “Since the Nixon and especially the Reagan administrations, the rightwing has sought to rout both the New Deal and the Civil Rights reconstruction, and replace it with an updated version of racism and reaction.”
Maybe I have my facts wrong but the Southern Democrats were a solid base of the New Deal. Racism did not have to “survive” the New Deal. Indeed, it flourished under Roosevelt.
Back in September 2008, I dealt with FDR and racism and invite you to read the article that includes these facts:
To begin with, the political reality of the Democratic Party is that it catered to the racist wing of the party based in Dixie. Roosevelt felt it imperative to retain the support of politicians like Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, an open white supremacist who proposed an amendment to the federal work-relief bill on June 6, 1938 that would deport 12 million black Americans to Liberia at federal expense to relieve unemployment.
While most people are familiar with Roosevelt naming Hugo Black, a former Klan member, to the Supreme Court, there was just as much insensitivity involved with naming James F. Byrnes, a South Carolina politician, to the same post. Byrnes once said “This is a white man’s country, and will always remain a white man’s country” and most assuredly meant it.
If you are worried about neo-secessionism, you’d better stop kidding yourself that FDR was a “friend of the Negro”.
I do think it is useful to analogize from secessionist the Civil War, and Reconstruction but not in the manner found in Wing’s article. Today the question that confronts the left is not chattel slavery but wage slavery. In Lincoln’s day, there was a Democratic Party and a Whig Party that both supported slavery. There were some Whigs who opposed slavery but not so much so as to bolt from the party. In some ways the far left of the Democratic Party were like the anti-slavery Whigs. But it took independent political action in the form of the Free Soil Party to begin to set in motion the forces that would eventually become the Republican Party, a revolutionary party in terms of its challenge to the backward agrarian wing of the capitalist class in the South.
Our goal today is to create equivalents of the Free Soil Party but along the lines of the Nader campaign, the Greens or any other initiative that refuses to compromise with the two-party system. In 1959 Carlos Fonseca joined a guerrilla group in Nicaragua because the two-party system there had excluded the possibility of reforming the system. In taking such a chance, he risked death.
In the U.S., opposing the two-party system will not get you killed but it will earn you the scorn of people who are committed to piecemeal reform, especially those who enjoy a good living working for a nonprofit funded by some liberal hedge fund manager or real estate magnate. With hundreds of millions of dollars devoted each year to magazines and newspapers that routinely include articles dismissing socialists as hopelessly Quixotic, it is a miracle that any of us keep tilting at windmills. I guess the fact that we are dealing with real horrors rather than imaginary ones is what keeps us going.
July 28, 2013
On July 19th Barack Obama spoke to reporters about the Trayvon Martin killing. This time he said that he could have been Trayvon Martin 35 years ago, a follow-up to his March 23, 2012 observation that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. Although I generally have little use for Melissa Harris-Perry, there was little to disagree with in her remarks during an MSNBC round-table discussion of Obama’s remarks later that day: “But part of what the president did today in that sort of groping authentic conversation where you saw him saying, I don`t have all the answers here, I`m not quite sure — heck, have you noticed racism in America, big problem, you know, multiple generations, I don`t have all the answers.” Yes, big problem, I know.
But things are definitely getting better, according to the Chief Executive:
And let me just leave you with — with a final thought, that as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean that we’re in a postracial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.
Despite denying that we are in a postracial society, others perceive Obama as moving “past race”. In a perceptive August 10, 2008 NY Times article titled “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?”, Matt Bai—a DLC-minded inside-the-beltway pundit—clearly saw what was in store and liked it very much. An Obama aide was very much in the post-racial mode:
‘‘I’m the new black politics,” says Cornell Belcher, a 38-year-old pollster who is working for Obama. ”The people I work with are the new black politics. We don’t carry around that history. We see the world through post-civil-rights eyes. I don’t mean that disrespectfully, but that’s just the way it is.
”I don’t want in any way to seem critical of the generation of leadership who fought so I could be sitting here,” Belcher told me when we met for breakfast at the Four Seasons in Georgetown one morning. He wears his hair in irreverent spikes and often favors tennis shoes with suit jackets. ”Barack Obama is the sum of their struggle. He’s the sum of their tears, their fights, their marching, their pain. This opportunity is the sum of that.
After speaking to Corey Booker, Newark’s mayor who is cut from the same cloth as Obama, Bai learned that such politicians are not renouncing Black identity only the responsibility to defend Black people:
Even so, Booker told me that his goal wasn’t really to ”transcend race.” Rather, he says that for his generation of black politicians it’s all right to show the part of themselves that is culturally black — to play basketball with friends and belong to a black church, the way Obama has. There is a universality now to the middle-class black experience, he told me, that should be instantly recognizable to Jews or Italians or any other white ethnic bloc that has struggled to assimilate. And that means, at least theoretically, that a black politician shouldn’t have to obscure his racial identity.
This pretty much sums up what the Bill Cosby Show meant to most white Americans, a look at a family you would not mind living next door to even if they preferred shooting hoops to playing tennis, or listening to Mary J. Blige rather than Barbra Streisand.
Speaking of belonging to a Black church, Obama took advantage of the controversy surrounding Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s militant comments about racism in America to evoke postracial themes:
Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity. Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white Americans.
Of course, this begs the question of how you are going to get that Confederate Flag off the South Carolina state capitol unless you have some of Reverend Wright’s spine and big mouth.
In contrast to the Clintons, who built ties with the old guard civil rights leaders particularly those who became elected officials, Obama sought out fresh faces unburdened by the past. Bai reported:
For some black operatives in the Clinton orbit — people who have functioned, going back to Jesse Jackson’s campaigns in the 1980s, as Democratic Washington’s liaisons to black America — the fallout from an Obama victory would likely be profound. ”Some of them will have to walk the plank,” an Obama adviser told me bluntly. In their place, an Obama administration would empower a cadre of younger black advisers who would instantly become people to see in Washington’s transactional culture. Chief among them is Valerie Jarrett, a Chicago real estate developer who is one of Barack and Michelle Obama’s closest friends. ”She’s poised to be one of the most influential people in politics, and particularly among African-Americans in politics,” Belcher told me. ”She may be the next Vernon Jordan.” In fact, the last time I saw Clyburn, he told me he had just spent two and a half hours at breakfast with Jarrett.
As Obama’s Senior Adviser, Valerie Jarrett amounts to his Karl Rove. She was key to Obama’s early fundraising success, putting him in touch with powerful and wealthy figures on Wall Street and Chicago’s big bourgeoisie.
Robert Fitch, a NYC adjunct professor and long time Marxist author who died much too young at the age of 72 in 2011, gave a speech titled “The Change they Believe In” in November 2008 that was characteristically laser-sharp.
For almost a hundred years in Chicago blacks have lived on the South Side close to Chicago’s factories and slaughter houses. And Cellular Field, home of the White Sox. The area where they lived was called the Black Belt or Bronzeville—and it’s the largest concentration of African American people in the U.S.—nearly 600,000 people—about twice the size of Harlem.
In the 1950s, big swaths of urban renewal were ripped through the black belt, demolishing private housing on the south east side. The argument then was that the old low rise private housing was old and unsuitable. Black people needed to be housed in new, high-rise public housing which the city built just east of the Dan Ryan Expressway. The Administration of the Chicago Housing Authority was widely acclaimed as the most corrupt, racist and incompetent in America. Gradually only the poorest of the poor lived there. And in the 1980s, the argument began to be made that the public housing needed to be demolished and the people moved back into private housing.
But what does this all have to do with Obama? Just this: the area demolished included the communities that Obama represented as a state senator; and the top black administrators, developers and planners were people like Valerie Jarrett—who served as a member of the Chicago Planning Commission. And Martin Nesbitt who became head of the CHA. Nesbitt serves as Obama campaign finance treasurer; Jarrett as co-chair of the Transition Team. The other co-chair is William Daley, the Mayor’s brother and the Midwest chair of JP Morgan Chase—an institution deeply involved in the transformation of inner-city neighborhoods through its support for—what financial institutions call “neighborhood revitalization” and neighborhood activists call gentrification.
This is the real meaning of Blacks and whites coming together around an Obama presidency. On one side you have Obama, Jarrett, and Nesbitt—all African-American—and on the other side William Daley. The only color that matters to them is green, not the ecology green but the dollar bill green.
Given the deepening of racial injustice in the USA during Obama’s administration, he has to walk a tightrope. On one hand, he calls on people to serve under him who are inimical to Black interests such as Lawrence Summers, who is in line to become the head of the Federal Reserve. This is the same character that dressed down Cornel West for making a hip-hop record and argued for exporting toxic waste to African nations using the following logic: “The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City.”
Even more troubling is the possibility that Obama will follow through and install Raymond Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security. In an interview with Univision, a Spanish-language TV station (), Obama praised Kelly to the skies:
Well, Ray Kelly has obviously done an extraordinary job in New York and the federal government partners a lot with New York. Because obviously our concerns about terrorism oftentimes are focused on big city targets. And I think Ray Kelly is one of the best there is. So he’s been an outstanding leader in New York.
Kelly is one of the best there is? Kelly was the architect and dead-end defender of stop-and-frisk. In a study conducted by the NY Civil Liberties Union, it was revealed that in the cops stopped people on the street 532,911 times. 55 percent were Black, 32 percent were Latino, and only 10 percent were white. The NY Daily News, which has evolved recently into a critic of stop-and-frisk and which carried bold attacks on George Zimmerman ostensibly in order to assuage its largely Black working-class readers, nailed the top cop:
At bottom, the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk regime represents a civil rights violation — one that disproportionally targets young black and Latino men. Though they make up only 4.7% of the city’s population, black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 41.6% of stops in 2011. The number of stops of young black men exceeded the city’s entire population of young black men.
The commissioner contends that this happens only because officers go where the crime is. But last year, large percentages of blacks and Latinos were also stopped in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, where 77% of people stopped were black or Latino.
So why does Obama speak out of both sides of his mouth? Or perhaps more accurately, why does he say that he is opposed to racial profiling while he is at the same time ready to put a racist like Raymond Kelly in his cabinet?
Clearly the answer is that the Democratic Party needs Black votes to win elections. Unlike any issue in recent memory, the vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin has activated the Black community. Just this week, Willie Louis, the Black youth who testified against the killers of Emmett Till in 1955, died at the age of 76. Despite the obvious differences between the state of lawlessness that existed in the Deep South in 1955 and today, there is still a problem with racists declaring an open season on Black youth–both of whom coincidentally had just returned from an innocent visit to a convenience store. Obama was under some pressure to take a clear stand on this matter, even if his words were in contradiction to his actions past and future.
In 2009 I wrote an article for Swans on “Are We Living in a Postracial America?” that reviewed David Roediger’s recently published “How Race Survived U.S. History: from settlement and slavery to the Obama phenomenon”. I recommend a look at my article but more importantly Roediger’s book that was published by Verso. Let me conclude with a few paragraphs from my review. In deference to the editors of Swans, I will keep my excerpt brief—understandably as they are opposed to the sort of crossposting that is endemic to the Internet.
As part of the euphoria surrounding the election of Barack Obama, members of the punditocracy speculated that the U.S. had entered a “post-racial” epoch. Typical was The Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland who editorialized on Election Day last year:
Barack Obama has succeeded brilliantly in casting his candidacy — indeed, his whole life — as post-racial. Even before the votes have been cast, he has written a glorious coda for the civil rights struggle that provided this nation with many of the finest, and also most horrible, moments of its past 150 years. If the results confirm that race was not a decisive factor in the balloting, generations of campaigners for racial justice and equality will have seen their work vindicated.
After deploying data in his introduction to How Race Survived U.S. History to the effect that racism continues unabated (one in three children of color lives in poverty as opposed to one in ten of white families, etc.), David Roediger poses the question: “How did white supremacy in the U.S. not yield to changes that we generally regard as constant, dramatic, and, in the main, progressive?” The remainder of his brilliantly argued and researched book gives the definitive answer to this question. As such, it belongs on the bookshelf next to Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and other such works that offer a “revisionist” history of this country in accordance with truth and — more importantly — justice.
The theme that Roediger keeps coming back appears initially in Chapter One on colonial Virginia in the 17th century (“Suddenly White Supremacy”); namely, that a white identity was created in order to unite men and women of conflicting classes against the most exploited groups of the day: the slave and the Indian. And when necessary, blacks were also recruited to the master’s cause against the Indians. As has always been the case, the British — including the freedom-loving colonists who would form a new republic in 1776 — have been adept at dividing and conquering. Roediger writes:
The most spectacular example of revolt, Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, took Virginia to the brink of civil war. Broadly arising from the desire for good land among European and African servants and ex-servants, the rebellion therefore also had anti-Indian dimensions, demanding and implementing aggressive policies to speed settlement onto indigenous lands. Bondservants joined those who had recently served out “their time” under the leadership of the young English lawyer and venture capitalist Nathaniel Bacon, laying siege to the capital in Jamestown, burning it, driving Governor William Berkeley into exile, and sustaining insurrection for months. Authorities offered freedom “from their slavery” to “Negroes and servants” who would come over into opposition to the rebellion. Rebels, meanwhile, feared that they would all be made into “slaves, man, woman & child.” Both the promise of liberation and the language registering fear of retribution suggest how imperfectly class predicaments aligned with any firm sense of racial division.
(I will be following up on this post with something about Obama’s doublespeak on the economy.)
July 15, 2013
July 14, 2013
A couple of days ago I was talking to an old friend and chess partner who lives out on the Rockaways about the George Zimmerman trial. He had trouble understanding why I was so sure that Trayvon Martin’s killer would go free. He referred to all of the problems with the defense that came up on almost a daily basis on MSNBC, CNN and other cable stations except for the racist Fox News. Zimmerman was told by the cops not to follow Martin. Zimmerman’s injuries were superficial. Zimmerman demonstrated implicitly racist animosity telling the cops that “they” always get away with it. But in the final analysis, I was sure that none of this would matter. Instead, racist solidarity would trump all evidence. An all-white jury stuck up for one of their own. Additionally, the cops that the prosecution lawyers called upon as witnesses effectively functioned as defense witnesses since they obviously thought it was a good thing that a Black youth was terminated. After all, anybody walking around in a hoodie is looking for trouble.
It is very likely that if Trayvon Martin’s parents were less ready to stand up to racist inertia in Florida, the case never would have come to trial. Three weeks after he was killed, the media began to take notice. The N.Y. Times reported on March 17, 2012 that the chief of the Sanford police saw no reason to arrest Zimmerman:
”The evidence doesn’t establish so far that Mr. Zimmerman did not act in self-defense,” Chief Bill Lee of the Sanford police said this week, responding to why Mr. Zimmerman had not been arrested. He said he would welcome a federal investigation. ”We don’t have anything to dispute his claim of self-defense at this point.”
A month after making this statement, Lee resigned after the city fathers realized that Lee was far too antagonistic a figure in a period when the spotlight was being turned on their town.
Sanford has a long history of bigotry, starting with its namesake Henry Sanford, a nineteenth century orange grower who advocated sending Blacks back to Africa in order to “draw the gathering electricity from the black cloud spreading over the southern states,
In 1947 Jackie Robinson was to play on an integrated minor league team in preparation for his start with the Brooklyn Dodgers but when the white citizens found out they came out to the stadium and physically blocked the team from taking the field.
While there were never any lynchings or cross-burnings like there were in Mississippi, the reality of life is that racism pervaded city life in the same fashion as it did in cities like New York or Boston. There’s plenty of evidence of that in Patricia Dillon’s article “Civil Rights and School Desegregation in Sanford” that appeared in the Winter 1998 edition of The Florida Historical Quarterly.
In addition to citing the Jackie Robinson incident that has been referred to frequently on the Web, she points to less well-known but drearily familiar assaults on racial equality.
On September 25, 1950, citizens jammed the city council office to protest the re-zoning of a white neighborhood to accommodate black housing. A delegation of white citizens presented the council with a petition containing over two hundred signatures objecting to the proposed zoning program. The Sanford Housing Authority quickly capitulated to the white residents’ demands and revoked its zoning recommendation.
This, of course, is the same thing that would happen in Levittown, Long Island where Blacks were prevented from owning low-cost homes as part of the post-WWII suburban utopia.
Blacks were also blocked from using recreational facilities available to whites but were even ready to accept them on a “separate but equal basis”. Dillon reports:
The most contentious disagreement between the white and black communities continued to revolve around the use of recreational facilities. The minimal funding appropriated for black playgrounds and recreational centers failed to match those that the city allocated to the white football fields, swimming pool, civic center, and baseball diamonds. In the late 1950s, African Americans demanded either the integration of the superior white facilities or the construction of “separate but equal” recreational centers.
In July 1958, between forty and fifty black teenagers marched on the Sanford Civic Center’s Youth Wing. Though the Center allowed blacks daytime use of the facilities for recreational activities, officials barred them from entering the building at night for social functions. Within ten minutes after the teenagers reached the Center, Police Chief Roy Williams disbanded the group. He recounted: “There was no disorder. All of the Negro youth left in an orderly manner when told they were approaching the problem in the wrong manner.”
Eventually the civil rights movement gathered enough strength so that de jure segregation was made illegal. Sanford no longer had Jim Crow but residential de facto segregation kept the town as divided as ever, just as is the case with most northern cities.
The elimination of de jure segregation in the 1960s, followed by the election of Black politicians in significant numbers crowning with the election of Barack Obama has led many to believe that we were living in a post-racial society. Determined to maintain this fiction, the judge in the George Zimmerman trial ruled out any reference to racial profiling.
Despite all the blather about a post-racial America, racial inequality is as deep as ever. Today Juan Cole blogged about Whites and African-Americans by the numbers. Those numbers were most revealing.
- Average household net worth of whites: $110,000.
- Average household net worth of African-Americans: $5000
- 1 in every 15 African American men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men
The ruling class was most adroit in selecting Barack Obama as president who has kept Black Americans in a state of stupor approximating Odysseus’s crew’s encounter with the Lotus Eaters, an island-bound people whose diet functioned as a narcotic, lulling those who ate there to sleep in peaceful apathy.
In 2009, I wrote a review of David Roediger’s “How Race Survived U.S. History: from settlement and slavery to the Obama phenomenon” for Swans titled “Are We In A Post-Racial America?” I urge everybody to check out Roediger’s book that I described in my concluding paragraphs:
Despite the Democratic Party’s reputation for opposing racism, given a new lease on life with the election of Barack Obama, there are indications that not much has changed since the mid-19th century. The Democratic Leadership Council emerged in the post-Reagan era in order to woo the white “Reagan Democrat” back into the fold, which meant backing politicians like Bill Clinton who offered only the most tepid resistance to Republican assaults on affirmative action and who scuttled Aid to Dependent Children, a welfare measure that was perceived (incorrectly) as favoring people of color.
Even under the “post-racial” epoch of Barack Obama, there are few signs that the Democratic Party is willing to attack the institutional basis of racism as long as the party is under the control of Wall Street banks, real estate developers, and other sectors of the capitalist economy that prosper on the super-exploitation of non-white workers. Obama signaled his intention to adhere to the status quo even before he became president. In his speech to the 2004 Democratic Party convention, he stated “Go into the [blue] collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don’t want their tax money wasted by a welfare agency or the Pentagon.” Considering how welfare budgets have been slashed in the past 25 years or so while the Pentagon drains tax coffers in order to fend off one enemy or another overseas (mostly people of color in the colonial world), Obama’s remarks can only be considered cheap demagogy.
Furthermore, his willingness to condemn Jeremiah Wright for alluding to the truths self-evident to everybody in the black community and receiving a scholarly treatment in Roediger’s book demonstrate that the task is the same as it was from the beginning: to unite the victims of the capitalist system against those who benefit from it. Since we have hundreds of millions that we can count on eventually against a tiny minority, our final victory is assured as long as we have the courage to march forward without illusions in temporary fixes.
This morning I heard the pundits on various Sunday morning talk shows stating that the Justice Department has plans to prosecute George Zimmerman for “hate crimes”. I will defer judgment on its effectiveness until the wheels begin to move, but I will say this. It is incumbent on the mass movement, especially its Black vanguard, to raise hell. If it took protests to bring Zimmerman to trial in the first place, it will take even more vociferous and more massive protests to put him in prison for the decades-long sentence he deserves.
The time for eating Lotuses is over.
March 24, 2013
The March 4th 2013 issue of The New Yorker Magazine has an uncharacteristically interesting article by Louis Menand on Ira Katznelson’s new book “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time” differentiated from the usual dreary rot by Jon Lee Anderson, David Remnick, Hendrik Hertzberg, et al.
The article is behind a paywall unfortunately but I am going to quote the opening paragraphs that should be of particular interest to my regular readers:
In September, 1939, just as the Second World War was beginning, a left-wing Italian shoe salesman named Bruno Rizzi published a book, in Paris, called “The Bureaucratization of the World.” Rizzi brought the book out at his own expense; he couldn’t find a publisher. In early 1940, he was charged by French authorities with racial defamation–there was an anti-Semitic chapter in his book–and he was fined and received a suspended sentence. Remaining copies of the book were confiscated and pulped.
Rizzi hadn’t used his full name on the cover–he identified himself as Bruno R.–and he more or less disappeared from view in the chaos of the war. (He resurfaced afterward.) “The Bureaucratization of the World” might have slipped into oblivion but for one thing: Rizzi had managed to get a copy to Leon Trotsky, who was living in exile in the village of Coyoacan, outside Mexico City. Trotsky read the book and was sufficiently exercised to write an article criticizing it. The article was published, in November, 1939, in a journal called The New International, an organ of the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist organization based in New York City.
Rizzi had argued that under Stalin’s leadership the Soviet Union had a political system that was neither capitalist nor socialist. It was something that Marx had not foreseen: a system that Rizzi called “bureaucratic collectivism.” The Soviet Union was being ruled by a new class of Party functionaries and industrial technicians, who exploited the workers the same way the capitalists had. It had become just like the fascist states of Germany, Italy, and Japan.
What was more, Rizzi said, the United States was headed in the same direction. With Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a ruling class of government administrators and corporate managers was taking over. Bureaucracy was emerging as the form of government everywhere. “A monstrous new world . . . is being born,” Rizzi wrote, “and born so evil that it is resurrecting slavery after two thousand years of history.” He predicted that the planet would eventually be dominated by seven or eight of these bureaucratic autocracies.
To Trotsky, this was heretical. Even after Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler and the Red Army invaded Poland, Trotsky’s position was that the Soviet Union was a genuine workers’ state. It had a planned economy and state ownership of property. In his New International article, Trotsky held Rizzi up as a comrade who had got things wrong. What Rizzi failed to understand, Trotsky explained, was that, although Stalin himself was a counter-revolutionary aberration, the Stalinist phenomenon had to be understood dialectically (Marxian for “the opposite of what it appears to be”). Stalinism was only an evil hiccup in the course of history–the course, correctly predicted by Marx and Engels, that led to the classless society.
Like all Marxist theoretical disputes, this was really a dispute over a practical question: Should people on the left continue to support the Soviet Union now that Stalin was an ally of Hitler? Trotsky insisted that they should. (For his pains, he was murdered by a Stalinist agent, in August, 1940.) But many of his American followers disagreed. The dispute split the Socialist Workers Party. One of the editors of The New International, Max Shachtman, resigned (or was expelled; accounts differ) from the Party. The other, James Burnham, also defected and soon rejected Marxism altogether, quickly becoming one of the most hawkish anti-Communist intellectuals in America. After the war was over, he recommended a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.
In 1941, Burnham published a book called “The Managerial Revolution.” He hadn’t read “The Bureaucratization of the World,” which, in 1941, was about as out of print as a book can be. But he had read Trotsky’s summary of it–he was Trotsky’s editor, after all–and his argument was basically Bruno R.’s argument. The economies of the major powers, Burnham said, had fallen into the hands of a new elite: the managers, executives, financiers, and stockholders who owned and ran corporations, and the government administrators who regulated them.
Burnham had earlier described the New Deal as “preparing the United States for the comparatively smooth transition to Fascism,” and he folded the United States easily into his picture of a world headed toward top-down managerialism. He thought that the nations farthest along the road were Russia, Germany, and Italy, which suggested that totalitarian dictatorship was managerialism’s natural political form. Rizzi had imagined a world dominated by seven or eight autocratic states; Burnham foresaw three, centered in the areas where advanced industry was already concentrated–the United States, Japan, and Germany. Wars of the future, he said, would be struggles among these superstates for world control.
Burnham, too, had trouble finding a publisher, but, when the book finally appeared, it was a huge success. Time listed “The Managerial Revolution” as one of the top six books of 1941; a critic at the Times named it one of the year’s notable books. A hundred thousand copies were sold in the United States and Britain, and it did even better in paperback. One of its keenest readers was George Orwell, and “The Managerial Revolution” was a major influence on “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” with its three totalitarian monster states.
This discussion of sectarian minutiae would probably make the average New Yorker reader’s eyes glaze over. A more typical article in the latest issue by Lena Dunham that begins “When I was a child, my greatest dream was to find a box full of puppies” had the same effect on me.
Menand, who is a literature professor with an interest in pragmatism, uses the Trotsky-Burnham debate as a background to introduce Katznelson’s latest book that makes the case that after the death of Roosevelt, “a belief in the common good gave way to a central government dominated by interest-group politics and obsessed with national security.”
Katznelson takes issue with the standard hagiographies, including Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.,’s unfinished “The Age of Roosevelt” (1957-60), William E. Leuchtenburg’s “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal” (1963), and David M. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Freedom from Fear” (1999). For Katznelson, the notion that FDR was some kind of great democratic leader had to be revised. A dispassionate and critical view of the historical record would tend to put him much closer to the Orwellian nightmare.
Katznelson describes a sorry record at odds with Schlesinger’s worshipful treatment, as Menand’s capable summary reveals. To start with, the New Deal rested on a racist foundation as well as a barrier to trade union rights and economic reform:
But there was a worm in this fruit. During the entire period that Roosevelt was President (and well beyond it), seventeen states mandated racial segregation, and almost every senator and congressman from those states was a Democrat. Katznelson argues that the members of this Southern bloc were “the most important ‘veto players’ in American politics.” They maintained what he calls a “Southern cage” around New Deal legislation.
Southern Democrats were almost unanimously supportive of progressive economic policies, but they were, in one respect, solidly reactionary. They were vigilant to resist any threat to what they sometimes euphemistically referred to as the Southern way of life but more often called, quite proudly, white supremacy. “The colored race will not vote, because in so doing . . . they endanger the supremacy of a race to which God has committed the destiny of a continent, perhaps of the world,” Senator Claude Pepper, of Florida, said in 1937. And Pepper was a liberal. In 1950, he lost his seat to the conservative Democrat George Smathers, who campaigned against him by calling him Red Pepper.
The South was the most impoverished region of the country, and the Depression made conditions there worse. Katznelson says that the average annual income for all Americans in 1937 was $604; in the South, it was $314. The gross annual income of the average Southern farmer was $186. Almost a tenth of the population was illiterate. Southern Democrats were therefore happy to have railroads, public utilities, the financial industry–and, as Katznelson puts it, “other Northern-controlled capitalist firms”–regulated. As representatives of a region whose economy was mainly agricultural, they were also happy to support measures to help farmers. And since their principal goods, cotton and tobacco, were manufactured for export, they were eager to promote free trade. They were additionally pleased, in light of their economic circumstances but also in light of their history, to vote for programs that effectively redistributed wealth from the industrial North to the rural South.
Southern Democrats affected New Deal legislation in several ways. They carved out exceptions in bills regulating business–such as bills setting a minimum wage–for farming and domestic service, since that was work performed in the South predominately by African-Americans. They retarded the growth of the labor movement and tried to block efforts to unionize in the South, suspecting, rightly, that unions were motors of racial integration. They defeated anti-lynching legislation by arguing, first, that lynching was technically illegal already and, second, that, since people are regularly murdered elsewhere in the United States, a federal anti-lynching law would be discriminatory.
Most significant, though, they insured that the administration of New Deal policies was decentralized. They pried open the tax-levy coffers in Washington, but exercised strict control over how and to whom that money trickled down in their states. They tried to expand the regional economy without undermining apartheid. As the South has always done, they asserted the claim of states’ rights at just the point when the shoe started to pinch, and not a moment before.
The Dixie states benefited heavily from arms manufacturing in the South during WWII. At the end of the war, the military-industry state that operated in partnership with the USSR and that was administered by people like Harry Magdoff took on a new political coloration. The assembly lines continued to turn out tanks and planes but now the target would be Communism and decolonized states with the temerity to be aligned with the Kremlin.
Southern Democrats stoutly supported the Truman Administration’s military buildup, much of which was concentrated in the South. By the time Eisenhower took office, in 1953, $52.8 billion of the nation’s $76.1 billion budget was being spent on defense. Southerners also supported the granting of broad, nonspecific authority to the new Central Intelligence Agency, congressional investigations of subversives, and the creation of the Federal Employee Loyalty Program.
That program, established by executive order in 1947, assigned the F.B.I. and other agencies to undertake investigations of employees suspected of disloyalty. Over the next nine years, more than five million federal employees were screened. Twelve thousand resigned, and an estimated twenty-seven hundred were fired. (No espionage was ever discovered.) Beyond these cases–this is the subject of Landon R. Y. Storrs’s convincing account in “The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left” (Princeton)–the loyalty program had a chilling effect on government workers who regarded themselves as in the tradition of New Deal progressivism. Reform, planning, and organizing started to look un-American.
We tend to understand the rise of the national-security state as an overreaction to Cold War tensions, but the pieces were put into place during Roosevelt’s Presidency. The two War Powers Acts (December, 1941, and March, 1942) gave Roosevelt, as Katznelson puts it, “more power over American capitalism than he had achieved even during the New Deal’s radical moment.” Truman inherited a big government with enormous power already vested in the executive. When he was persuaded by advisers like Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze that the Soviet threat was real and that it demanded heightened military preparedness–ultimately, an arms race–the system was ready to accommodate him. He didn’t have to reinvent government.
While it is difficult to figure out whether Menand is speaking for himself or for Katznelson, there’s a happy ending to all this. The Democrats reinvented themselves “as the party of civil rights and individual liberties.” In 1964, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, five Southern states backed Goldwater instead of Lyndon Johnson. With Richard Nixon’s embrace of a “Southern Strategy” 4 years later, the realignment was virtually complete. The Democrats then tried to figure out a way to win a national election without the backing of Southern states. They seemed to have found it in 2008, a success repeated in 2012.
Maybe Menand hasn’t been reading a newspaper or been on the Internet lately but a case can be made that Obama is the most Orwellian president we have ever had, even more so than Nixon. If there is strong if not febrile opposition to the president in the South from White voters, this does not mean that the national-security state dictates of the post-WWII period have abated. Obama’s use of drones, his attacks on civil liberties, the stiff sentences meted out against whistle-blowers during his presidency, his secret kill lists, his nauseating flattery of the Zionist apartheid state, his failure to prosecute any of the banksters responsible the ruining of the lives of millions of working class families, etc. are exactly the sort of thing that Orwell had in mind when he wrote “1984”.
In fact, we should avoid all temptations to downgrade Orwell on the basis of guilt by association with all the scum that have carried on in the recent past about how great he was and how they are trying to carry on in his tradition, especially Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman. It is worth having a look at the sort of thing that Orwell was saying in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.
Euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness? Surely Orwell was foreshadowing this sort of thing:
This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
–Barack Obama, 2009 Inauguration Speech
While I would have been an unrepentant Marxist during the New Deal, there is one thing that you could say about FDR. He (or his speechwriters) would never have written such stultifying vapor. Here is a reminder of what convinced voters to pull the lever for FDR even when unemployment remained punishingly high.
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace–business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.
I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.
– Address Announcing the Second New Deal, October 31, 1936
November 23, 2012
Starting today, New Yorkers will have an unprecedented opportunity to see two uniquely hard-hitting documentaries on race relations in the U.S. at Maysles Cinema in Harlem, one of the crown jewels of the nation’s most famous Black neighborhood. As a team, Albert and David Maysles were documentary filmmakers, whose work encompassed a wide variety of topics, from the hustling bible salesmen of the 1968 “Salesman” to the Rolling Stones concert flick “Gimme Shelter”. The younger brother David died of a stroke at the age of 55 in 1987. Now 86, Albert Maysles is still going strong. Only two years ago Albert served as director of photography on Oliver Stone and Tariq Ali’s “South of the Border”, a real inspiration to me as a 67-year-old aspiring Vimeo auteur. If Albert Maysles can gallivant around in the thin air of the Andes, then I should have twenty good years ahead of me as well.
The best thing you can say about “The Central Park Five” and “The Loving Story” is that they are the sorts of films that David Maysles must gaze upon with admiration from his perch in filmmaker’s heaven. They do him proud. Starting today and running through the 29th, “The Central Park Five” is a study of the naked racism of New York’s police department, district attorney’s office, and mass media collaborating together to carry out an act of injustice that is no exaggeration to compare to the Emmett Till case. As Malcolm X said in a 1964 speech: “America is Mississippi. There’s no such thing as a Mason-Dixon line—it’s America.”
“The Loving Story” is also a study of prosecutorial racism, in this instance the 1958 conviction of Richard Loving and his wife Mildred for violating the miscegenation laws in Virginia. Richard was white, and Mildred was an ethnic mixture of Black and American Indian. They were simple, rural people not at all interested in becoming civil rights activists but they insisted on the right to live as husband and wife in Virginia. Their case went up to the Supreme Court and in 1967 their legal victory had the effect of wiping such Jim Crow laws off the books everywhere except Alabama, which finally relented in 2000. When watching the film, you cannot but help be reminded of the struggle to legalize gay marriage—another seemingly “normal” ambition that strikes at the heart of American backwardness. “The Loving Story” opens on December 10th and runs through the 16th.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about “The Central Park Five” is that Ken Burns directed it. To me Burns is the Steven Spielberg of documentary films, focused on “feel good” narratives about uncontroversial subjects such as jazz or baseball that are calculated to serve as cinematic comfort food to PBS audiences. With such a powerfully engaged work like this to his credit, it should encourage everybody—including me—to check out his PBS series on the Dust Bowl now in progress.
The story of Burns’s decision to make such a film is most interesting. A New York magazine article starts off:
“They’re so full of shit,” says Ken Burns, railing against lawyers for New York, the city that’s been the glamorous star of so many of his documentaries. “The outrage that I feel comes from the fact that people were readily willing to sacrifice the lives of five young men, that they were expendable, that they’re still stuck in a lie, and that the institutional protectionism continues.”
The idea for the film came from his daughter Sarah:
It was her project from the start. Sarah met two of the Central Park Five back in 2003, when she was a Yale undergrad interning at a law firm that was preparing their civil case. Casting around for a senior-thesis topic in American studies, she wound up with a 50-pager on the media’s use of racial tropes in covering the case. Newspapers had coined the dubious term wilding to describe the “wolf pack” of 30-odd kids that had roamed the park that April night, beating and mugging passersby. (Other teens were convicted of lesser crimes; the Five were part of that group but probably not ringleaders.)
I have vivid memories of the incident that occurred back in 1989. I used to run along the same path that the jogger took and slowed down on 102nd Street to see the placards, candles and flowers left there by people who felt remorse over what happened to her. Like many New Yorkers, I began to worry about being attacked myself. This was a period in the city when the crime rate was much higher, largely a result of the crack epidemic that the film alludes to. When the five teenagers were arrested, the city saw this as just another instance of an out-of-control Black and Latino community. Just as Mayor Dinkins was accused of favoring his own race by creating the conditions that allowed a Jew to be stabbed during riots in Brooklyn, the “wilding” in Central Park was largely attributed to a breakdown of law and order. Shortly after the youths were arrested, Donald Trump paid for full-age ads in the city’s four daily newspapers urging the reinstatement of the death penalty—the only thing that could put a dent in what was implicitly a Black and Latino assault on white people.
As stated in the New York magazine article, the Central Park Five were involved with crimes in the park that evening but nothing more than physical attacks on white people. In a city so polarized back in 1989, such attacks were widespread and bidirectional. For example, if a Black or Latino accidentally wandered into an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn late at night, the consequences would be the same. It was their misfortune, however, to be arrested on the very evening when an investment banker was being savaged to the point of near death. The cops were under pressure to find the culprits and they would do.
A word must be said about Mahnola Dargis’s despicable review in the New York Times. She faulted the film for not telling the whole story:
[T]he Voice printed an investigation by Barry Michael Cooper that quoted residents of a housing complex across from Schomburg Plaza who identified several of the accused teenagers as belonging to a group of sometimes violent neighborhood troublemakers. Some of the accusations involved the usual kid stuff, like making noise, but there were also brutal attacks. A lengthy New York magazine cover article several months later also detailed violence.
The problem with this is that none of the youth were convicted of any crimes nearly so brutal as the rape and near-murder of the jogger. Furthermore, we have no access to the articles Dargis cites so we have no way of evaluating her take on what was written. Maybe this is her way of exculpating her employer that had this to say in the days following the arrests:
The ferocity of the attack – the repeated beatings, the use of a pipe as a weapon, the serial rapings – sets it apart, too. Every attack, every rape, particularly by gangs, is vicious; but this one suggests a sort of mindlessness, not so much an indifference to pain and suffering – to humanity, that is – as a rather joyful ignorance of it, as when a cat torments a mouse. But these assailants and this victim were not dumb beasts.
That’s from an op-ed piece by Tom Wicker, arguably the paper’s most liberal columnist. If that is what he was writing, you can imagine the racist vitriol in the pages of the Daily News and the Post.
Five young men spent seven years and upward for a crime that they did not commit. It was a miscarriage of justice that in some ways is reminiscent of the West Memphis Three case in Arkansas, when three outsiders were convicted of a murder solely on the basis that they were devil-worshippers. It is frightening to think that a Black or brown skin can amount to the same kind of offense in “civilized” New York. The Central Park Five will be in attendance at the Sunday matinee and I strongly urge you to buy tickets for that showing or any other for that matter. This film is on the inside track for my nomination for best documentary of 2012.
If you spotted Richard Loving in person sans identification, you’d look for the nearest getaway. With his blond crew cut and his passion for drag racing, the first thing that comes to mind is redneck, if not a suspicion that he was behind the drive to ethnically cleanse his rural village of a mixed-raced couple, if not worse. That his face screams out Klansman but in fact conceals the soul of an unprejudiced human being serves up the same lesson to be drawn from Ken Burns’s documentary but positively. You can’t rely on stereotypes.
Richard and Muriel knew each other from an early age. As they put it in Nancy Buirski’s hugely inspiring documentary, whites and Blacks lived among each other in their village and saw nothing wrong with hanging out together. Indeed, some of the most interesting recollections about Richard, who died in an auto accident in 1975, came from Black friends who worked on cars with him.
After they were wed, the last thing that the Lovings intended was to be some kind of Rosa Parks taking on the racist establishment. But when the local cop, an avowed racist, entered their bedroom in 1958 shining a flashlight in their eyes to inform them that they were breaking Virginia’s race laws, they refused to accept society’s verdict.
In exchange for a suspended sentence, they had to agree to leave the state of Virginia. After moving to Washington, they were never happy with urban life and yearned to return home. Eventually they found themselves represented by Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop whose reflections on the case permeate the film. Both are interesting characters in their own right as the press notes indicate. Cohen was born in 1934 and became involved with the case through a referral from the ACLU. Hirschkop has been involved with constitutional rights cases throughout his life and has been chief counsel of PETA since it began. More intriguingly—and going against stereotypes—he is also an ex-Green Beret.
This was Nancy Buirski’s debut film and as such an auspicious step into the world of documentary, a key element of the struggle for social justice in America today—as important in many ways as Iskra was to the fight against Czarism. When some on the left complain about our impotence, they need to be reminded of the role of people like Sarah Burns and Nancy Buirski who are leading the charge against injustice using the camera as a sword.
October 3, 2012
Eugene Genovese, who died last week, was one of only two major Marxist academics prominent in the 1960s to become a reactionary ideologue. The other was Ronald Radosh, who has opined in recent years that it was all for the best that fascism triumphed in Spain. For his part, Genovese became infamous for becoming a reactionary in the mold of the “Southern Agrarians” of the 1930s, a group of poets and novelists that included Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and John Crowe Ransom.
Scott McLemee, a long-time observer of the peregrinations of the academic left, wrote a review of Radosh’s memoir “Commies” that got under his skin. An excerpt should explain why:
In the 1970s, Radosh had made an uneasy alliance with socialist intellectuals such as Irving Howe and Michael Harrington — former protégés of Max Shachtman, men quite capable of holding their own in a political argument. (The Marxist god of History had given them that, mainly, to do.) They saw the radical project in America as a matter of pushing liberal democracy as hard as possible rather than replacing it with some streamlined authoritarian regime. This circle had no illusions about the innocence of the Rosenbergs. But from Commies it is clear that they always harbored serious misgivings about Radosh himself. No doubt they suspected that habits of thought cultivated while rationalizing brutal regimes of one sort are really very helpful when one shifts allegiance to thugs of a different political complexion.
If so, their misgivings were borne out. Radosh soon became a champion of the terrorist Contras in Nicaragua, cheering them as a genuine army of the people. More recently, in the course of research on the Spanish Civil War, he has discovered the virtues of General Franco — a fascist dictator, yes, but at least no communist.
At this point, it would be routine to cite the Cold War anthology The God That Failed (1950) — perhaps with a sneer, which is the preferred attitude toward the book adopted by soi-disant leftists who have never actually read it. But there is really very little resemblance between Commies and the essays of ex-communists such as Arthur Koestler or Richard Wright. Something is missing: the element of soul-searching.
Nothing in Radosh’s memoir conveys the painful ordeal of disillusionment, in the strong sense: an ordeal, a crisis in which one faces not only the morally repulsive consequences of beliefs and actions but also the qualities of willful self-deception and ideologically compulsory blindness that have sustained one’s previous commitments.
Instead, we get a chronicle of complaints and alibis. It is a commonplace that leftist dogma can be a way to avoid unpleasant realities about oneself. Commies makes a pioneering and rather daring use of right-wing rhetoric for the same end. When Radosh’s first (and by his own account quite miserable) marriage finally disintegrates, this is because his wife was influenced by the women’s movement. A few pages later, he finds himself having sex with an alcoholic girlfriend on top of Mount Rushmore. “I now don’t understand why or even how I did such things,” he writes. “Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of too much marijuana.” So much for personal responsibility. It was all the Zeitgeist’s fault.
Given his combination of erudition and mocking condescension, one might only hope that McLemee might be inspired to say something about Genovese’s passing. Yes, sports fans, it is all there in the latest edition of Inside Higher Education, where our intrepid public intellectual has at it:
As for the term “renegade,” well… The author of the most influential body of Marxist historiography in the United States from the past half-century turned into one more curmudgeon denouncing “the race, class, gender swindle.” And at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee, no less. The scholar who did path-breaking work on the political culture of the antebellum South — developing a Gramscian analysis of how slaves and masters understood one another, at a time when Gramsci himself was little more than an intriguing rumor within the American left – ended up referring to the events of 1861-65 as “the War of Southern Independence.”
Harsher words might apply, but “renegade” will do.
A couple of professor emerituses (emeriti?) on the Marxism list who remain renegades from capitalism and who were familiar with Genovese from the good old days weighed in shortly after his death was announced. Michael A. Lebowitz, who was editor of “Studies on the Left” from 1961 to 1965, said:
I thought he died a long time ago. He started out quite differently politically than he ended up. He was an editor of Science & Society, Studies on the Left, and the editor [I don't recall his nom de guerre] of the Marxist-Leninist Quarterly, the short-lived theoretical journal of Progressive Labor. He was a Marxist at that time [although one with a curious respect for the aristocracy], thought the university was the vehicle for the revolution and thus was horrified at the actions of students at Sir George Williams [now part of Concordia University in Montreal] against racism, denounced them and never looked back on his march to the right.
This led Jesse Lemisch, another veteran of left academia, to contribute this addendum: “Gene’s remark on the West Indian students at Sir George: ‘every once in a while some grit gets into the machine of the left, and must be wiped out.’”
I had more than a casual interest in Eugene Genovese since he was seen as one of the primary exponents of the view that slavery was not a capitalist institution, an analysis that Charles Post took great pains to distinguish himself from when he began applying the Brenner thesis to the civil war. For those of you who have not been following the academic left, the Brenner thesis falls within the purview of what has been called “the transition debate”, something that had its origins in a series of exchanges between Maurice Dobb and Paul Sweezy in the 1950s. It revolves around the question of how feudalism gave way to capitalism, with those in the Sweezy tradition arguing that slavery belongs to the capitalist stage because of its role in commodity production.
Genovese had some debates around the nature of slavery but not with Brennerites, to my knowledge. Mostly he was anxious to refute the findings of Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel, the authors of “Time on the Cross”, a book that made the case that slavery was capitalist but not from a Marxist standpoint. Mostly Engerman and Fogel looked at the plantation in terms of how it matched up against the factory system of the north using conventional microeconomics. Oddly enough, they concluded that the slaves had it better off than the factory workers, dovetailing with Genovese’s paternalistic take on master-slave relations despite their theoretical differences.
In a multi-part critique of Charles Post’s writings on the civil war that I wrote 9 years ago, I started with a discussion of the Genovese/Engerman-Fogel debate that in large part is reproduced below:
Post’s article also implicitly poses the question whether the Civil War was a “bourgeois revolution”. Although a staple of Marxist theory, this notion has been challenged in recent years by “revisionist” historians, including Francois Furet, who found evidence of powerful affinities between the gentry and the bourgeoisie in the French revolution. George Comninel, a Socialist Register editor, was convinced sufficiently by their findings to synthesize them with a Marxist interpretation in “Rethinking the French Revolution”. Although he worries that these new findings might undermine fundamental Marxist precepts about the bourgeois-democratic revolution, I am convinced that Marx himself was drawing away from them as early as 1852 when he observed the failure of the German bourgeoisie to take a resolute stand against the Junkers planter-aristocracy. I will foreshadow the conclusion of these series of posts by stating now that the same exact analysis can be applied to the American Civil War and its aftermath.
Turning now to Post’s article, we learn that it is focused on “economic development” and more particularly whether slavery hindered or fostered such a thing. I view this as a undialectical approach, especially if it is seen as dealing with an essentially “Southern” problem. One of the major weaknesses of the Brenner thesis is its refusal to see capitalism as a system that crosses national or even sectional boundaries. If it is seen as a “mode of production” applied exclusively to a regional or national economy, then it will always produce the expected self-vindicating results. In other words, there was capitalism in New England but none in Mississippi; or, in Great Britain but not in Jamaica. However, if one sees these various forms of exploitation as distinct but interrelated links in a great chain, then the contradiction is resolved.
Post considers two of the most prominent approaches to the slavery question within this framework and finds them lacking in comparison to the Brenner thesis, which prioritizes “class relations”. The first approach views the Southern plantation as an essentially capitalist phenomenon. The work most identified in the scholarly world with this approach is Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel’s “Time on the Cross”, a ‘cliometric’ attempt to demonstrate the dynamism and profitability of the slave system. The second approach is embodied in the writings of Eugene Genovese who defended the thesis that the Southern planters were a precapitalist class that had much in common with their wasteful and extravagant feudal counterparts in Europe centuries earlier.
For Post, the major flaw of Engerman-Fogel is that it fails to conform to Marxist theories on surplus value extraction–no surprise given the bourgeois microeconomic orientation of the authors. (Fogel, who went on to win a Nobel Prize, shared a CPUSA past with Genovese. He was editor of a party journal titled “New Foundations” that was published in the 1950s. Eventually both would break with Marxism, Fogel adopting neoclassical economics of the sort that was prevalent at the University of Chicago, where he taught. Genovese today is an outspoken reactionary. It appears that in the course of writing about the Southern bourbons, he became enamored of their traditional values. Of course, between the anti-capitalism of a Southern planter and that of the Communist Party there is a vast gulf.)
A careful examination of Fogel and Engerman and other proponents of the ‘planter capitalist’ model’s description of the plantation labour process actually contradicts their claim that the planters responded to competitive market imperatives in the same way as capitalists. The labour process under slavery was organized to maximize the use of human labour in large, coordinated groups under the continual supervision of masters, overseers and drivers. As we shall see, the tools slaves used were simple and virtually unchanged. Even with a detailed division of tasks in planting and cultivation, such a labour process left the masters few options to increase output per slave. Planters could either increase the pace of work through punishments or rewards, increase the amount of acreage each slave or slave-gang cultivated, increase the number of slaves working by tapping the capacities to work of female and juvenile slaves, or move the plantation to more fertile soil.
In the section on Genovese, we discover that his model of slavery “derived from Weber” and that it prevented him from “developing a consistent explanation of how slavery’s social property relations block relatively continuous labour-saving technical change.” I, for one, was rather surprised to see Genovese described in such terms because he described himself as strongly influenced by Maurice Dobb in “The World the Slaveholders Made”. There Genovese makes the case for “seigneuralism”, a term that was meant to capture the archaic character of the Southern plantation system but that relieved him from proving that this super-exploitative, commodity-producing system was “feudal”, a static system based on the creation of use-values. He writes:
Capitalism is here defined as the mode of production characterized by wage labor and the separation of the labor force from the means of production–that is, as the mode of production in which labor power itself has become a commodity… Dobb, in Studies in the Development of Capitalism, has brilliantly demonstrated the value of these definitions, and we need not pursue the matter here beyond one point of special relevance to the question of slavery. The great value of this viewpoint lies in its focus on human relationships inherent in labor systems. As such, it should be understood to transcend mere economic categories and to define each mode of production as a social rather than as a narrowly economic system.
For all of the seeming polarities between Engerman-Fogel and Genovese, there were underlying affinities that Post ignores. I would suggest that these affinities are symptomatic of an underlying malaise in a scholarship that focuses on the ruling class, whether it is ‘seigneurial’ or capitalist.
The first evidence of such an affinity is a 1975 collection titled “Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere” that was co-edited by Engerman and Genovese and that contained presentations given at the U. of Rochester in 1972 co-organized by the two professors. This is not just a question of genial scholarly cooperation in a joint project involving disparate interpretations. In Genovese’s concluding remarks to the conference, he leaves open the possibility that his own interpretation could “absorb” the work of Engerman-Fogel despite some reservations about their data on profitability.
Indeed, by 1983 Stanley Engerman and Eugene Genovese found themselves co-authoring a commentary on an article dealing with Brazilian slavery in “The Hispanic American Historical Review”. Apparently, the absorption process alluded to in 1972 had been consummated.
Their piece has all the familiar earmarks of their prior work. In examining the slave economy of Minas Gerais in late 18th century Brazil, they pose coldly clinical questions such as “What was the size of the units on which slaves worked”; “What would the price schedule of slaves looked like if Brazilian slavery had had the characteristics of Minas Gerais”, etc. In answering these questions, Engerman and Genovese allege that economic “subsystems” such as slavery can crop up in isolation from the market sector. If there were differences between the two by the early 1980s, none can be discerned in this article.
I now want to turn my attention to an aspect of Engerman-Fogel and Genovese that is ignored in Post’s article: the implicit racism of their analysis. While it is understandable that he needed to focus on the question of “economic development” for the purpose of his argument, it is in the interest of Marxist scholarship to give a full reckoning of their work, which transcends questions of the viability of slavery as a mode of production. Furthermore, my purpose in writing these articles is to address the broader intersections of race and class in American society.
(In the course of doing some background research, I was struck by the almost universal interest among Marxists on the topics of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction no matter their time and place. It is almost incumbent on any serious Marxist thinker to come to terms with both the left-academic scholarship and the writings of party activists such as Lenin, Peter Camejo, George Novack, Max Shachtman and others.)
Both Engerman-Fogel and Genovese tend to see a kind of paternalism at work in the slave-owning class. For Genovese, the paternalism is a function of ‘seigneurial’ values based on noblesse oblige. For Engerman-Fogel, the paternalism is based on the kind of enlightened “personnel relations” found in modern corporations like “Ma Bell” in the 1930s, when protection against layoffs and provisions for cheap lunches were the norm. In other words, take care of your workers and they’ll take care of you. As Genovese put it in his concluding remarks to the Rochester conference, “Professor Fogel and Engerman describe it [slavery] as a capitalist society modified by paternalism.” One then might characterize Genovese’s view of the system as seigneurial paternalism modified by capitalism.
When Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel’s “Time on the Cross” appeared, it was accompanied by the kind of publicity blitz enjoyed by Hardt-Negri’s “Empire”. With its full panoply of computer-generated tables and graphs, it preened itself as a scholarly work taking full advantage of the technological revolution then unfolding. (The source for this and the material that follows can be found in Charles Crowe’s “Time on the Cross: The Historical Monograph as a Pop Event”, which appeared in “The History Teacher” in August 1976.)
Peter Passell, a Columbia University professor and NY Times economics reporter, hailed the book as a “jarring attack on the methods and condition of traditional scholarship”. A Newsweek essay was even more effusive. Journalist Walter Clemons regarded the new conclusions based on “electronically sifted data” as “dynamite”. What were the new findings that so excited Clemons? They amounted to rejections of “old historical notions” and “myths” such as the “ubiquitous white overseer”. Tales of disruptions in the black family when a husband or wife was sold to another plantation were merely “abolitionist horror stories”. Indeed, Engerman and Fogel regarded many of these abolitionists as “racists”.
Time Magazine topped all others in its enthusiasm for “Time On the Cross” and its ethical implications for contemporary American society. Using the sort of linguistic glibness and insensitivity characteristic of this uniquely imperialist publication, it ran a caption “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Computer” alongside their feature article. It also tossed in another bit of song parody: “The young folks roll on the little cabin floor/Tis summer, the darkies are gay.”
Time writer Timothy Foote wrote that “the marriage and molasses nostalgia of a Stephen Foster may somewhat more accurately describe the relationship between slave and master than any serious historian has been willing to admit for years”. The plantations in “Time on the Cross” suggested “both a Victorian family and a paternalistic corporation eager to encourage worker morale”. Despite Sally Hemming and the palpable evidence of Malcolm X’s complexion, the “owners rarely exploited black females sexually” because “it was bad for morale”.
Unlike Eugene Genovese, who was considering ways in which his own work could “absorb” this sort of racist tripe, other Marxists were revolted by “Time on the Cross”. Herbert Aptheker, who might have been the last person in the world invited to present a paper at the Rochester conference co-organized by Engerman and Genovese, wrote a lengthy rebuttal in the pages of Political Affairs, the CPUSA journal. Titled “Heavenly Days in Dixie: Or, the Time of their Lives”, it linked Engerman and Fogel to William Schockley and Arthur Jensen, who wrote a book “proving” that blacks were genetically inferior to whites.
Aptheker’s main axis of attack was around Engerman and Fogel’s reliance on US census figures, which supposedly supported their conclusion that blacks were well off under slavery. Aptheker points out that census takers were white and subject to the racial prejudices of the time. If blacks were undercounted, as they certainly were, then attempts to come up with daily caloric intake on a per capita basis will overstate food input.
In his exasperated conclusion, Aptheker cries out, “Sometimes one is led to the point of near-despair when he reads books like ‘Time on the Cross’, by relatively young professors, and see how they are hailed and their book pushed and advertised and reviewed; a book that is as false, as contrived, as vicious as is this one. But, of course, one knows that it is only a dying social order that needs and produces such books–just as that of Calhoun and Jefferson Davis needed the work of Fitzhugh.”
Eventually more mainstream scholars began to discover that the emperor was not wearing clothes, including some of the scholars at the 1972 Rochester conference who made their devastating critiques in collegially deferential language. Martin Duberman was one of the first to open up an attack in the mass media. In the Village Voice he pointed to the book’s failure to distinguish between factual and evaluative statements and its skewed data about slave life. African-American historian Winthrop D. Jordan attacked Engerman and Fogel as “perversely self-righteous snake root salesmen”. Perhaps the most telling indictment of “Time on the Cross” came from Robert Fogel himself, who wrote “Without Consent or Contract” in 1989 as a way of atoning for the earlier work. Not only did he take a moral stand against slavery in this book, he admitted that he originally “did not emphasize the horrors and human cost of slavery”. (NY Times, Dec. 16, 1989) What he would not admit, however, was that the cliometric approach itself, with its number-crunching and single-minded focus on economic performance, could never do justice to the “peculiar institution” in all its complexity.
While Genovese never generated the kind of controversy that Engerman and Fogel did, there were some Marxist scholars who were just as adamantly opposed to his message. One of them was Herbert Gutman, the eminent labor historian who had also written a trenchant criticism of “Time on the Cross”.
In “The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925″, which some regard as a rebuttal in its entirety to Genovese’s scholarship, Gutman takes up the claim that slaves lived in an “elaborate web of paternalistic relations” as Genovese put it. Although Gutman acknowledges that slave masters viewed themselves in this light, he questions whether this was the way that their subjects perceived it. For example, in response to Genovese’s claim that a high rate of slave reproduction proved “the paternalistic quality of the masters”, he states that a high reproduction rate does not depend on “good treatment”.
Some years later Gutman gave an interview to Mike Merrill, the codirector of the Institute for Labor Education and Research in New York City. His comments on Genovese are worth quoting in their entirety:
This is the context, I think, in which we can best understand Eugene Genovese’s work. He posed some important questions. My difficulty is with how he went about answering them. A central question raised in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made is the effect slaves had on their owners. A splendid question. To answer it one needs to know who the slaves were early in time and how the master-slave relationship was formed and developed.
Think of it this way. Suppose one was writing a book on ironworkers and steelworkers in Pittsburgh called Roll, Monongahela, Roll: The World the Steelworkers Made. How would that book begin? It is not a book about the steel industry. It is not a book about class relations in the steel industry. It is subtitled The World the Steelworkers Made. Would it begin with a 150-page essay quoting from and explicating Andrew Carnegie’s Autobiography and his letters? If one writes about the world the steelworkers made, the book should begin with the men before they were steelworkers and study how they became steelworkers. It would begin with them before they experienced Andrew Carnegie and then watch a world being made as they become steelworkers and interact with Andrew and his factories. Obviously this is precisely the innovative and bold structure of The Making of the English Working Class. We don’t begin with industrial capitalism already imposed and study strands of upper-class ideology. We begin with the world of the artisan. We begin with the world of the handicraft weaver. We begin with the world before modern capitalism. Then the interaction is intense, painful, sometimes violent, and even creative.
The way in which you examine a world people make is to show that world in formation. A major conceptual problem in Roll, Jordan, Roll is that it ignores class formation. A static class relationship is probed for several hundred pages, sometimes imaginatively and brilliantly. We are presented with a fully developed slave system. Class relations and ideologies are described only in the late slave period, the decades immediately prior to emancipation.
The problem with such an approach is that when you freeze a moment in time to examine a structural relationship, you cannot neglect the process by which that relationship was formed, how it developed. If you either ignore or misunderstand that process, then you can give almost any meaning you want to the relationship and to its constituent parts. What struck me on rereading Roll, Jordan, Roll is that it is so very functionalist. It is as if we are being told, “This is the way that society worked, why there was so little rebellion, and slaves and their owners made it through the day and night.”
July 31, 2012
What follows is page 94-99 in Bruce Cuming’s brilliant “The Korean War: a history”, published in 2010. The book is not just a history of the war. It is a deeply insightful study of the politics and culture of the early 1950s, when the Korean War was raging. I simply can’t recommend this book highly enough. This passage that deals with a side of Karl Wittfogel that was unknown to me gives you an idea of the breadth of his knowledge and his ability to put “orientalism” on trial even when the viewpoint was that of a noted Marxist scholar like Wittfogel as well as Leon Trotsky.
ORIENT, OCCIDENT, AND REPRESSION: HOW THE BEST MINDS CREATE STEREOTYPES
The primary academic McCarthyite was Karl Wittfogel, who had a strange trajectory out of the same milieu as Bertolt Brecht: he was the leading ideologue of the German Communist Party in the early 1930s, and the leading proponent of Karl Marx’s theory of “the Asiatic Mode of Production.” Stalin purged him for reasons that are not entirely clear, and Wittfogel came to the United States and established himself as a scholar with his magnum opus, Oriental: Despotism. Marx’s theory appraised Asia by reference to what it lacked when set against the standard-issue European model of development: feudalism, the rise of the bourgeoisie, capitalism. A brutal satrap presided over a semiarid environment, running armies of bureaucrats and soldiers, regulating the paths of great rivers, and employing vast amounts of slave labor in gigantic public works projects (such as China’s Great Wall). The despot above and the cringing mass below prevented the emergence of anything resembling a modern middle class.
Leon Trotsky, his biographer Isaac Deutscher, the Soviet dissident Nikolai Bukharin, and Wittfogel all likened Stalin to Eastern potentates, especially Genghis Khan, and thought his regime was a species of Oriental despotism, the worst features of the “Asiatic mode of production” coming to the fore. It is stunning to see Trotsky open his biography of Stalin with a first sentence remarking that the old revolutionist Leonid Krassin “was the first, if I am not mistaken, to call Stalin an ‘Asiatic’”; Trotsky depicts “Asiatic” leaders as cunning and brutal, presiding over static societies with a huge peasant base. “Cunning” and “shrewd” were standard adjectives in stereotypes of Asians, particularly when they were denied civil rights and penned up in Chinatowns by whites-only housing restrictions, leading to uniform typecasting from a distance—peering over a high board fence, so to:speak. “Brutal” was another, at least since Genghis Khan, with Pol Pot and Mao reinforcing the image in our time. The broadest distinction, between static or indolent East and dynamic, progressive West, goes all the way back to Herodotus and Aristotle.
Marx never really investigated East Asia, but learned enough to know that if China fit his theory, Japan with its feudalism (and “petite culture”) clearly did not. Wittfogel, however, applied his notions of Oriental despotism to every dynastic empire with a river running through it—China, tsarist Russia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Incas, even the Hopi Indians of Arizona. By this time he had done a full-fledged, high-wire tenko ( Japanese for a political flip-flop), reemerging as an organic reactionary and trying to re-produce himself in, of all places, Seattle—the most thoroughly middle-class city in America. Wittfogel wrote for many extreme-right-wing publications and played a critical role in the purges of China scholars and Foreign Service officers during-the McCarthy period. Hardly any scholars would testify against Owen Lattimore, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s prime professorial target, but the University of Washington furnished three: Wittfogel, Nikolas Poppe (a Soviet expert on Mongolia who had defected to the Nazis in 1943), and George Taylor, a British scholar-journalist.
After teaching in the Philadelphia area in the mid-1970s– where I was pleased to meet Olga Lang, Wittfogel’s first wife (“Why did you divorce?” I asked. “Irreconcilable political differences,” she answered)—I wound up at the University of Washington, which has one of the oldest East Asian programs in the United States. Around that time Perry Anderson published Lineages of the Absolutist State. At the end of this magisterial book rests an eighty-seven-page “Note” on the theory of the Asiatic mode of production,’ where Anderson shows that Marx’s views on Asia differed little from those of Hegel, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and a host of other worthies; they were all peering through the wrong end of a telescope, or in a mirror, weighing a smattering of knowledge about Asia against their understanding of how the West developed. Nor did Marx ever take the “Asiatic mode” very seriously; he was always interested in one thing, really, and that was capitalism (even when it came to communism). Anderson called Wittfogel a “vulgar charivari” and recommended giving this theory an unceremonious burial, concluding that “in the night of our ignorance … all alien shapes take on the same hue.” I eagerly recommended his book to my colleagues: a good friend said, “He doesn’t know any Chinese.” Another responded, “Isn’t he a Marxist?”—meaning Anderson, not Wittfogel.
The theory never really got a proper burial, though, it just reappears in less-conspicuous forms. It isn’t politically correct to say “Oriental” or “Asiatic” anymore. Stalin is long dead, but Stalinism is apparently not, and it’s still okay to say almost anything about Stalinism. Furthermore, lo and behold, one set of “Orientals” has kept it alive: journalists use the term time and again to describe North Korea, without any hint of qualifying or questioning their position. The idea that the DPRK is a pure form of “Stalinism in the East” goes back to the 1940s, and was constantly reinforced by Berkeley’s Robert Scalapino, a Cold War scholar who came along in the late 1950s and benefited as Much as anyone from the post-McCarthy accommodation between the right and the middle. North Korean political practice is reprehensible, but we are not responsible for it. More disturbing is the incessant stereotyping and demonizing of this regime in the United States. When Kim II Sung died in 1994, Newsweek ran a cover story entitled “The Headless Beast.” Assertions that his son is simply crazy abound, but when they enter the thinking of fine analyst such as Steven Coll in The New Yorker, a magazine with a venerable tradition of fact-checking [except when it comes to Bob Dylan quotes], you might ask which psychiatrist diagnosed Kim? Another expert recently wrote, as if everyone knows this, that North Korea is “a hybrid of Stalinism and oriental despotism.
Kim Jong Il, of course, specializes in do-it-yourself stereotyping, masquerading as the Maximum Leader of a Communist opera bouffe in elevator shoes and 1970s double-knit pants suit, fattening himself while the masses starve, which makes it hard to argue that “Oriental despotism” is not the name of his politics. But there is no evidence in the North Korean experience of the mass violence against whole classes of people or the wholesale “purge” that so clearly characterized Stalinism, and that was particularly noteworthy in the scale of deaths in the land reform campaigns in China and North Vietnam and the purges of the Cultural Revolution. Nonetheless, North Korea remains everyone’s example of worst-case socialism and (until 1991) Soviet stoogery, leading American observers whether at the time or since to deem it impossible for the DPRK to have had any capacity for independent action in 1950.
In fact Kim and his late father, and the ideologues around them, continue the ancient monarchical practice in East and West of “the king’s two bodies,” a body politic and a “body natural.” The latter is an ordinary, frail human being who happens to be king, who will go to his death like anyone else: Kim Jong II, in short, with the dyspeptic, cynical, irritated face of a man who, from birth, had no chance of living up to his father—yet he has to be king. The other is a superhuman presence, an absolutely perfect body representing the god-king, maintained through the centuries as an archetype of the exquisite leader. (And with this you get North Korean inanities such as Kim Jong Il scoring eagles on his first golf round.) In death the body natural disappears, but the soul of the god-king passes on to the next king. In Pyongyang this translated into Kim II Sung’s “seed” bringing forth his first son, Jong II, continuing the perfect “bloodlines” that his scribes never tire of applauding. The family line thus becomes immortal, explaining why Kim Ii Sung was not just president-for-life, but remained president of the DPRK in his afterlife. The high-level defector Hwang Jang-yop told Bradley Martin that the two Kims “turned Stalinism and Marxism-Leninism on their heads by reverting to Confucian notions.”‘
North Korea is thus a modern form of monarchy, realized in a highly nationalistic, postcolonial state. “The social unity expressed in the ‘body of the despot,’” Jameson pointed out, is political, but also analogous to various religious practices. That the favored modern practice of such regimes should be nationalism (the leader’s body, the body politic, the national body) is also entirely predictable. But the Western left (let alone liberals) utterly fails to understand “the immense Utopian appeal of nationalism”; its morbid qualities are easily grasped, but its healthy qualities for the collective, and for the tight unity that postcolonial leaders crave, are denied. When you add to postcolonial nationalism Korea’s centuries of royal succession and neo-Confucian philosophy, it might be possible to understand North Korea as an unusual but predictable combination of monarchy, nationalism, and Korean political culture.
July 13, 2012
“Family Portrait in Black and White” opens today at the AMC 25 Theater on West 42nd St., a typical Cineplex featuring “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection” and other such junk. My recommendation to New Yorkers is to not hold its venue against it since this oddly compelling film has many interesting things to say about racism in a dysfunctional Ukraine and the efforts of a foster mother of 23 children, all but 7 of whom are biracial and tend to have male African exchange students and Ukrainian women as birth parents.
They are being raised by Olga Nenya in Sumy, a farming town. She is loved by all of her foster children even if she runs the ramshackle house without steam heat and indoor toilets as a tyrant. Kiril, a sixteen year old studying music and wise beyond his years, likens Olga to the old Soviet Union and the children—he especially—as repressed but cared for citizens.
The film eschews facile political commentary but one thing it is very clear about. Ukraine is infested by neo-Nazi skinheads who are interviewed throughout the film. They brag about beating up or killing their victims, who tend to be immigrants. Nenya’s children were all born and raised in Ukraine but that does not prevent them from being bullied in school as “niggers” or “black asses”.
One of the benefits of living with Olga Nenya, despite her heavy-handedness, is that having 16 brothers and sisters with a similar background creates a bond of solidarity that makes the racial animosity of Sumy easier to put up with. Oddly enough, there are signs that the children have absorbed some of the same prejudices shared by backward Ukrainians. When we see two of the brood walking down the main street of Sumy, they begin railing against Arabs who have no business living among “us Ukrainians” and trying to take “our women”. A mischievous grin on one of the boy’s faces suggests, however, that he is trying more to be outrageous for the benefit of the film-makers than anything else.
The main tension in the film, and what gives its dramatic drive, is between Olga Nenya’s determination to rule the roost and the children’s struggle to define themselves as independent human beings, reflected most of all by their efforts to be adopted by the wealthier Western European families that take them in over Christmas and the summer vacation. In many respects, the struggle is not that much different than what other “more normal” families experience.
Oddly enough, the film makes no effort to find out what makes Olga Nenya tick. The interviews are mostly with the children who are very comfortable speaking on camera and to maximum effect. Perhaps this was a bid to keep her as something of a mystery. Is she sympathetic to the former Soviet Union in ostalgie fashion? What made her decide to take in so many foster children to begin with?
Perhaps the fact that these questions linger in my mind three days after watching this poignant drama is what the film-makers intended.