We Social-Democrats resort to secrecy from the tsar and his blood hounds, while taking pains that the people should know every thing about our Party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its programme and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party congress delegate said at the congress in question. The enlightened bourgeois of the Osvobozhdeniye fraternity surround themselves with secrecy… from the people, who know nothing definite about the much-talked-of “Constitutional-Democratic” Party; but they make up for this by taking the tsar and his sleuths into their confidence. Who can say they are not democrats?
March 1, 2014
February 28, 2014
Counterpunch Weekend Edition Feb 28-Mar 02, 2014
John Davidson’s “The Obedient Assassin”
Although the movement he created is on its last legs, Leon Trotsky is still a compelling figure for the artist based on the evidence of three novels focused on his sojourn in Coyoacan that have appeared in the last several years.
Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” came out in 2009. Like the 2002 film “Frida” (screenplay by CounterPunch regular Clancy Sigal), Kingsolver put Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo into the foreground. For her the two characters enabled her “to examine the modern American political psyche, using artists as a vehicle”, as she states on her website. The World Socialist Website frowned on the novel’s treatment of Trotsky and its deficiencies in the dialectical materialism department, which I suppose is reason enough to recommend it.
That very same year Leonardo Padura, a Cuban, wrote “The Man who Loved Dogs”, a nearly 600-page novel about Trotsky now available in English translation. Naturally the N.Y. Times reviewer, a Mexican novelist named Álvaro Enrique, saw it as a parable on Cuban society with the artist in mortal danger of being killed by a state inspired by the Moscow Trials: “Cuba may be the last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.” One must conclude that Enrique does not consider reporters to be writers since a hundred have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, with most of the cases being unsolved.
I imagine that I will get around to reading Kingsolver and Padura at some point, but I had a keener interest in what John P. Davidson had to say about Trotsky in the brand new “The Obedient Assassin”, a novel that turns Ramon Mercader—Trotsky’s killer—into the major character.
I was surprised if not shocked to discover that this was the same John P. Davidson who had written a supremely witty and thoughtful account about going to butler’s school in the January 2014 Harper’s titled You Rang?, where he writes:
For some time, becoming a servant had been one of those idle dropout fantasies I entertained, along with becoming a shepherd or joining a monastery. Now, having sold my house and spent ten years and a great deal of money writing a novel that my agent hadn’t been able to sell, I had a somewhat more urgent interest in the six-figure jobs the Starkey Institute dangles before prospective students.
Assuming that the unsellable novel is “The Obedient Assassin”, we can only thank our lucky stars that he was a washout as a butler and that his agent finally hit pay dirt. As someone who has been a professional journalist for thirty-five years for reputable outlets like Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, Davidson brings to the table an ability to write briskly and without a single superfluous word. Nor will you find the trendiness favored by MFA graduates. Sometimes it is easy to forget that some of the greatest novels were written by men and women who started out as journalists, first and foremost among them Ernest Hemingway.
February 18, 2014
Counterpunch February 18, 2014
It might be obvious from articles appearing on CounterPunch (“A Response to Our Socialist Worker Critics”, to name just one) that former members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) have decided to subject the self-described “Leninist” group to a withering critique.
In a recent development, current members constituted as the Renewal Faction have joined the chorus of critics as well, something that will obviously irk a leadership accustomed to fawning approval from the ranks. Indicating the general movement toward web-based debate and discussion and away from the print-based medium favored by small propaganda groups operating in the “Leninist” tradition, the faction launched a website titled “External Bulletin”, a term that very likely challenges the notion of the “Internal Bulletin”, the members-only medium that allows such groups to conduct their discussions without the prying eyes of non-members.
Unfortunately for the ISO, the internal bulletin might have become a relic of the Leninist past after a disgruntled member or members decided to forward PDF’s of 30 (at last count) documents to selected critics of the ISO, including me. Over the past few days, I have read maybe 100 pages worth of internal discussion articles and want to offer my analysis of what is happening with the largest “Leninist” organization in the United States (I exclude the CP, which operates more as a wing of the Democratic Party.) As someone who spent nearly 12 years in the American Socialist Workers Party from 1967 to 1978 (now there’s a screenplay begging to be written: “12 Years a Sectarian”), I can recognize the pressures operating on the ISO that will inevitably generate discontent.
February 8, 2014
From the 2012 tax returns of the Anchor Foundation:
Vol. 77/No. 33 September 23, 2013
Workers send ‘on-time’ blood money
bonuses to SWP fund
“Blood money” contributions to the Socialist Workers Party Capital Fund have totaled $620 over the summer. The ongoing fund helps finance the long-range work of the revolutionary party.
“Blood money” is a term communist workers use to describe one-time payments from bosses — safety, attendance and production bonuses, contract-signing incentives, holiday gifts and other such bribes — intended to pressure workers to accept speedup, wage cuts, concession contracts and dangerous working conditions. Class-conscious workers turn them into contributions to the Capital Fund.
“Enclosed are two ‘blood money’ checks,” wrote John Benson and Janice Lynn, who work at a food preparation facility near Atlanta. Their quarterly bonus checks for $465 are based on the bosses’ tally of “productivity, appearance, on-time delivery, etc.” Their goal with the bonuses “is to try to get workers to work faster,” wrote Benson and Lynn. “The result? More workers with aching backs, wrists, knees, etc.”
United Airlines worker Eric Simpson from San Francisco sent in $90, from three bonuses the company gave him, “‘rewards’ to the workforce for ‘on-time’ takeoffs,” he wrote. “But ‘customer satisfaction’ with the airline is reported to be at 30 percent! Members of our union, the Machinists, weren’t too ‘satisfied’ with the latest contract the company proposed and we turned it down overwhelmingly. Send the companies’ ‘blood money’ bonuses to the working-class movement and get 100 percent ‘worker satisfaction!’”
To make a contribution to the Capital Fund, write to or call the Militant distributor nearest you. The directory is on page 10.
— SUSAN LAMONT
January 27, 2014
For reasons not clear to me, there’s been a bumper crop of novels about Trotsky in Mexico published recently. The first was Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” that came out in 2009 and is very pro-Trotsky. I have not made time for it, however, because most critics view it as a lesser work.
Moving closer to the current day, there are two books about the assassination of Leon Trotsky that have just been published. One is titled “The Man who Loved Dogs” and written in 2009 by Leonardo Padura, a Cuban. A translation by Anna Kushner now makes the nearly 600-page novel available to English readers. The N.Y. Times review would have us believe that Padura wrote the novel to discredit the Cuban government:
In the context of a plot that revisits the grim mockery of Stalin’s show trials, these acts of compulsive self-incrimination are not only loaded with significance but are also — given that Mr. Padura is a Cuban author writing in Cuba — charged with an additional layer of meaning.
Fidel Castro’s most scandalous show trial was not mounted against a political figure but against a writer: Heberto Padilla. In 1971, after 38 days of detention, Mr. Padilla was forced to “confess” at the Cuban writers’ union to the charges of “subversive activities.” He had published a book of poems faintly critical of the regime.
I don’t know if all this self-incrimination is part of the novel because Mr. Padura wants to make the point that in Cuba, writing is an activity fraught with fear, or because it is the involuntary reflex of someone who has awaited the day of his own political trial. In any case, it stands as a clear register of the author’s circumstance: Cuba may be the last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.
As it turns out, the Times assigned one Álvaro Enrique to review Padura’s book. Enrique is a Mexican novelist who perhaps does not consider journalists to be writers. If he did, he surely must be aware that a hundred reporters have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, with most of the cases being unsolved.
One should certainly not prejudge Padura’s novel based on the use that Enrique is making of it since the wiki on Enrique states:
Padura’s novel El hombre que amaba a los perros (The Man Who Loved Dogs) deals with the murder of Leon Trotsky and the man who assassinated him, Ramon Mercader. At almost 600 pages, it is his most accomplished work and the result of more than five years of meticulous historical research. The novel, published in September 2009, attracted a lot of publicity mainly because of its political theme. The main argument of the author seems to be that Joseph Stalin betrayed socialism and destroyed the hope of creating a utopian society in the 20th century. It leaves open the possibility that such a society might still be possible in the 21st.
The novel that I am looking forward to reading the most, however, is John P. Davidson’s “The Obedient Assassin”. I had the great pleasure of experiencing his writing in a long article that appeared in the January 2014 Harper’s titled “You Rang: mastering the art of serving the rich” that chronicled his experience at butler school! It is exceedingly witty and socially aware:
Getting the details right was especially important when there were several houses, so that consistency could be maintained from property to property in the remotes for television sets, the controls for lighting and security systems, the organization of kitchen and bathroom cupboards. Principals did not want to fumble around, lost in their own houses. Ms. Fowler used Excel spreadsheets to stock refrigerators with soft drinks, then lined up and photographed the contents so that a glance would tell what needed replenishment. She religiously checked the expiration dates on cans of soda: if you own seven houses and each has as many as six refrigerators — two in the kitchen, one in the garage or storeroom, one in the pool house, one in the master suite, one in the screening room — for a total of forty-two refrigerators, it’s possible that years could pass before a can of soda is opened.
One hopes that Mr. Davidson has found better uses of his talents than checking on soft drink expiration dates, such as his new novel. On his website he describes how became interested in the Trotsky assassination:
My decision to write the novel came gradually, starting on a visit in 2001 to the Trotsky Museum in Coyoacán. As I walked through the Trotsky compound, I sensed an old turmoil, a kind of narrative static electricity. Trotsky’s life in Mexico was so unexpectedly romantic, and the assassination so dramatic, I didn’t understand how it could be that I didn’t know the story.
Or rather, I didn’t understand how I had forgotten the story, because I had been to the museum on earlier visits to Mexico, walked through the rooms, read the documents, and looked at the old black-and-white photographs of the Trotskys with Frida Kahlo, Diego River and André Breton.
I wondered if decades of anti-Soviet propaganda had kept me from grasping Trotsky’s humanity. Or perhaps my perspective had been changed by 9/11 and my own maturity. But whatever the cause, I was certain there must be a compelling book about Trotsky’s exile and the assassination. I began to search for that book but found nothing that was accessible or in print.
In the chapter that I have reproduced below, Davidson describes the encounter between Trotsky’s assassin and Joe Hansen, Trotsky’s chief bodyguard. I only knew Hansen well enough to say hello after joining the Socialist Workers Party in 1967 but I was much closer to George Novack who spent a lot of time in Coyoacan and was one of the main organizers of the Leon Trotsky Commission of Inquiry chaired by John Dewey.
Hansen was 57 when I joined the SWP and still quite vigorous. Despite the fact that I was not that familiar with him personally, his approach to political problems was a great influence on me. To this day, I have Hansen’s methodology in the back of my mind when I am writing about some vexing problem in the class struggle such as how to figure out what is going on in Ukraine and Thailand where class lines are not sharply delineated.
I have only browsed through “The Obedient Assassin” to this point but what I have seen impresses me a great deal. Davidson’s background is as a journalist and this probably accounts for the lean but compelling character of his prose.
The other day Stephen Colbert interviewed novelist Michael Chabon about Ernest Hemingway in a show devoted to the novelist Chabon regarded as always sounding fresh. Although Chabon did not mention it, I think a lot of what we like about Hemingway can be attributed to his training as a journalist. With so many novelists today writing 800 page novels trying to capture What Life is Like Today, it is refreshing to read prose that is focused mainly on capturing human drama in a pellucid style such as how Davidson writes:
Row after row, eight abreast, thousands of Mexicans marched down Reforma. Many looked Aztec or Mayan, with straight black hair and sharply sculptured features. Plumbers, carpenters, electricians, painters, the rank and file of the Communist Party in Mexico, they carried cardboard placards demanding that Trotsky get out of the country. Afuera Trotsky! Trotsky, get out! They walked silently, their faces so impassive, it might have been a funeral procession but for the trucks with loudspeakers that passed at regular intervals bearing large pictures of Trotsky looking satanic with his white goatee, eyes glaring intensely through his spectacles, a harsh metallic voice ringing from big cone-shaped speakers. “Trotsky is a traitor and terrorist!” the voices would cry from the distance, grow painfully loud, then fade away as the trucks moved on. All the while, the shuffling of the workers’ feet on pavement remained soft and constant.
To the casual observer, the May Day parade was a stunning turn-around. Trotsky had been a hero to peasants and workers when he arrived in Mexico, and now he was an archvillain. To Jacques, the parade was a demonstration of Eitingon and Caridad’s prowess They had brought the power of the Kremlin and Comintern to bear upon the Communist Party of Mexico. Moving behind the scenes never showing their hand, they purged the Communist newspapers in Mexico, replacing the editors and writers who had accepted the presence of Trotsky. Brought to heel, the Communist press mounted a campaign against Trotsky, all but calling for blood. Trotsky was not a friend of the worker. He was a terrorist and a Fascist.
Eitingon and Caridad had applied the same sort of pressure to the largest and most powerful labor unions in Mexico, which were Communist-run. Union bosses had turned out twenty thousand Mexicans to protest against Trotsky. Eitingon and Caridad had their kinds on the levers of power and were pulling all of the elements of their plan into alignment. Everything was running according to schedule. The attack on Trotsky would take place soon. It was the first of May; Hitler’s troops had invaded Denmark and Norway. France, the Netherlands, and Belgium were next. The free world would watch in horror as a Fascist dictator marched through West-ern Europe. Hitler would provide all the cover needed for Stalin to settle an old score.
After the parade finally passed, Jacques got in his car and started for Coyoacan. He would have preferred not going on that particular day, but Marguerite had asked him, and he feared it would look strange if he didn’t appear.
As Jacques pulled up in front of the house, lightning flickered in the dark clouds clustered against the volcanoes. He recognized Julia and Ana, the women Siqueiros had hired to spy on the house. Dressed like peasant girls, they were flirting with the policemen in front of their hut. They had rented cheap flats on the next street, where they entertained the police, pumping them for every last detail about their post.
Jacques waved to Jake Cooper in the machine-gun turret, then heard the electric lock snap open as he approached the reinforced door. The heavy metal bar scraped against cement; Sheldon opened lie door, stepping aside, his eyes wide in the dim light of the garage.
“What are you doing, letting me in like that?” Jacques asked in a low voice.
“I heard your car. I knew it was you.”
“You have to be careful.”
“Marguerite had to go out, but Hansen wants to see you.”
“Me? Why does he want to see me?”
“I don’t know, but he said to send you in. He’s in the library.”
Walking up the flagstone path, Jacques felt as if some great gravitational force were taking hold of him, a strong ocean current that would drag him out to sea. The doors to the library stood open a waiting trap. As he stepped beneath the bower of bougainvillea he removed his dark glasses, his eyes and mind working rapidly, taking notes for Siqueiros. The room resembled a battlefield command station, spartan, improvised, orderly with unfinished plank floors thick adobe walls plastered a deep mustard color, bare lightbulb hanging on long cords from the rafters of the ceiling. There were two desks and a worktable, two big black typewriters, filing cabinets, a telephone, a map of Europe, and a small bookshelf filled with volumes of an encyclopedia.
Jacques had imagined the room so often, assembling a picture from bits and pieces of information. He was surprised to find it empty, except for Joe Hansen, who sat at the desk toward the back of the library. He gazed up from a typed document, studied Jacque, for a moment, then got to his feet. Wiry and of moderate height Hansen was like a character from the Wild West, his dark blond hair cut badly by a Mexican barber, pale blue eyes, and a prominent Adam’s apple riding above the knot of his tie and the frayed collar a holstered pistol hanging from a wide leather belt.
“Marguerite asked me to give you this,” he said, handing Jacque, an envelope.
“I’ve seen you outside. I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Yes, I know who you are.”
“The Old Man wanted me to talk to you. He keeps hearing abo you and has begun to wonder what it is you’re doing here.”
Jacques felt his mouth go dry. “I’m in Mexico on business. M wife, Sylvia, introduced me to the Rosmers.”
Hansen frowned. “What about this false passport?”
“Yes, I had to buy a Canadian passport in Paris. I’m Belgian but couldn’t get a passport there.”
“Why was that?” Hansen asked, crossing his arms.
“A problem with my family, a legal difficulty.”
“By legal, do you mean criminal?”
“No.” Jacques recoiled a bit as if offended. “I don’t believe this is your business, but I was commissioned as an officer in the army. Later, after I was discharged, my family pulled strings to have me lecalled so I wouldn’t leave the country. I was eventually cleared hut with the war and all, my visa was tied up in red tape. Buying a passport was a matter of convenience, nothing more.”
Hansen chewed on that for a moment, nodding. “The Old Man also wants to know about your politics.”
“I stay clear of politics.” Hansen gave a slight shrug. “Well, I’ll let you get on your way.”
Leaving, Jacques found Sheldon waiting in the garage. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The tin roof above ticked as the afternoon sun abated. The area smelled of dust and oil and tires and grease. A straight-back chair, a clipboard, and a stack of old magazines sug-gested the monotony of waiting.
“What did he want?” “Nothing. He had a note from Marguerite for me.”
“Why didn’t he give it to me?”
“I don’t know.” Jacques took out his cigarette case, offered one to Sheldon, and took another for himself. As he lit their cigarettes, he observed the young man’s hand tremble slightly. Jacques put a hand on his shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “Can you get away tonight?”
He nodded. Yes. “Come to the Shirley Courts. I’ll bring you home.”
“When should I come? Is seven too early?”
“No, that’s good. Now, you’d better let me out.”
He watched Sheldon move the heavy iron aside. The door opened to the smell of rain coming across the valley.
“The Obedient Assassin” can now be ordered from Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/The-Obedient-Assassin-A-Novel/dp/1883285585).
July 31, 2013
(Received from Paul Buhle who is indicated as PB in the interview below.)
This is an interview made in Seattle, c.2000, with a leader of the local SWP going way back (his wife left him in the 60s and formed the Freedom Socialist Party, which still exists), it was incomplete because I loaned the tape to a friend who was going to do a full transcription and… lost it.
Among subjects of interest: the anarchist and Yiddish connections in LA, the paucity of Jews among steelworkers (he claimed to be one of about 3 in the US), local Trotskyist activities, and so on
Tape 1 (Sides 1-2): Family history and Yiddish background in Los Angeles, general remarks about Jewishness and SWP
Tape 2: (Sides 3-4) Attempts by Trotskyists to put revolution on the agenda, versus the Habonim-Zionists, Communists, Social Democrats; Yipsels versus Norman Thomas and struggle within the Socialist Party. Shift to Seattle and struggles in the 1940s of the 1940s for racial equality and other issues.
Tape 3 (Sides 5-6) Backstairs struggle of union in later years and the nature of the steelmaking trade; struggle to maintain the Seattle SWP, especially leadership role of Clara, Dick Frazier and himself. Surviving McCarthyite period, door-to-door organizing activities. Attempting to recruit CP members, especially after 1956 revelations.
Tape 4 (Sides 7-8) Trotskyists and the Cuban Revolution; the degeneration of theory in the SWP, in regards the Russian situation, and the role of James Cannon in later years. Other groups including the Cochranites. Failure to recruit from and relate to the New Left.
Tape 5 (Sides 9-10) Attempts to reorganize in tune for the 1960s. Problem of Clara becoming a leader precipitating fight within branch on semi-valid grounds of Dick Frazier. Recalling the campus anti-war movement in Seattle with Frank’s son one of the leaders, and George Arthur the other leader.
Interview with Frank Krasnowsky (Yiddish folksinger and theater impresario, Seattle), with Paul Buhle May, 1996
PB: Let’s talk about your parents
FK : My mother was a Jewish and Yiddish anarchist, my father was an old Wobbly named Harry Paxton Howard. My mother was born in 1896 in Byeloruss, came to the US around 1904; my father comes from an old old American family, probably connected..Harry told her, probably connected to General Howard. He was probably from a wealthy family, but his father rebelled against his family and became a hermit–we used to look around and see if some hermit was his father–and my father was a Wobbly agitator in Chicago. I was named for Frank Little, the Wobbly lynched during World War One.
PB: Were your mother’s family political at all?
FK: Some were religious, some radical. My grandfather had a falling out with my mother when she married Harry Paxton Howard. She was already an atheist anyway. He actually disowned her for a while. But they were very fond of each other anyway.
She went to work in the garment trade at 8, she could pass for 12. The family was in a rough situation and she was the oldest daughter. He also brought his own mother with him, she lived to be 110. She died about 1945, just before he died. He still couldn’t speak English, she told people she would learn it pretty soon. Who figures at 60 and living in a Jewish community that she would have to learn a new language? But she could read and write in Yiddish, which gives the lie, as far as I’m concerned, to stories about Jewish girls not being able to read. They learned to read and write because their parents snuck it in.
One of the things I’m reading about in Yiddish is that girls used to get these novels. There’s almost no record in the middle of the nineteenth century of novels in Yiddish, they were published in just one edition. A lot of these stories were romance written by women, and just disappeared.
My mother’s parent’s came to escape the pogroms. I don’t know what her father did in Russia. Here he ran a fish store. He was lower middle class, like most of the Jewish business in Chicago. I don’t know what part of Chicago.
PB: Your father and mother met in Chicago?
FK: Probably thru the IWW or the garment workers. My mother knew Emma Goldman and went to meetings of the anarchists there. They had a nice torrid little romance as most people had at a young age. They also went to the theater together. When they left the US in 1917, to help the Russian revolution, she was already 21. That’s how I wound up with my name, Krasnowsky. They wanted to travel thru Sibera at the time of Kolchok’s Army. But after they arrived in Japan, where my mother was pregnant [they couldn't travel further]. They met hundreds of other Jews trying to get back. My father learned Russian on the trip over. They used my mother’s name because they couldn’t get in with the name Howard.
When they got to Yokohama–they stayed in Japan for 4 years, I was born there–and my father edited RUSSIA TODAY or NEW RUSSIA. He translated it from Russian to English, a straight Soviet publication.
PB: As Wobblies, they had communist leanings?
FK: This was THE revolution. It took a little while [before they become disillusioned]. Emma Goldman told Helen Richter, my mother’s friend: do what you want to do. No one was persecuting the anarchists as a whole.
PB: Your father?
FK: He soon had a deep hatred of the Communists in China. And he wrote for the PEKING REVIEW, he was politically at the left wing of the Kuomintang if anything. He would have been in China until 1939 or 1940. We were in Japan until 1922, I was born in 1921, and then he was deported, after the Japanese longshoremen’s strike. He was always convinced that the Japanese were spying on him.
Then he went to Shanghai, where he and my mother didn’t get along–he was pretty much of a snot–and my mother came back to the States. My grandfather had to put up $1000, that was 1923. About the same time as the Japanese earthquake, which is why we got in.
This a story about bureaucracies, she came in to Vancouver Island about a month early. They looked at it and said, you’re not supposed to come in, you’re on next month’s quota. So they finally made a decision to send her back to China and have her come back. She had never become a US citizen and as an anarchist was opposed. But then the earthquake hit and they had to use all the ships for that, so they put her up in a hotel for the month.
Then we came back to Chicago and stayed back with my grandfather. I remember he was very fond of me. My mother worked in the garment industry. Then she was blacklisted in about 1927, the big garment strikes. At the same time some doctor said there was something wrong with my sister’s heart. So we came to Pomona, actually Ontario, California, where there was an attempted to build an anarchist colony. There we stayed for a couple months before my mother decided it was easier working in a factory. These people had a farm and they tried to make it over, but they had no equipment, it was muddy….I remember living there and taking the bus to school. Then we came to Los Angeles and stayed with cousins. That would be 1927. We lived in Boyle Heights.
Some of our relatives were CPers, some were very religious, but my mother was a sort of a center person, people grouped around her. Her anarchism wasn’t political, my sister said, she just loved everyone. But she read every anarchist writer. She was very brilliant. Both of my mothers’ sisters, Dora and Sadie, grouped around her and took her politics, those who stayed in Chicago did not.
Los Angeles had one of the top leaders of the anarchist movement, Tom Bell, and a Yiddish anarchist group, the Kropotkin circle. These people were all in the Arbeter Ring. We always had a socialist environment, it was a family sort of thing. The split with the Communists came earlier in LA.
It was strongly social democratic but one of the strongest branches was the anarchist branch, #413. They had a camp, and I went to the camp every year. I didn’t have any money but everyone supported one another. Everyone was a parent, all the children were close.
PB: Was there Yiddish content?
FK: Always. During the year we went to Yiddish school after public school, and in the summer we had Yiddish classes.
PB: Did you ever resent having to go?
FK: I accepted it. I didn’t like the Yiddish school after school, you wanted to play, but it wasn’t really that bad. My Yiddish didn’t get too good but I could read and write Yiddish years later. And we had some very fine teachers. I guess in a sense it was a kind of babysitting for parents who worked in the garment industry.
During the thirties, they were bringing in some very fine people [new from Europe]. To get into the US you had to have a job. Most of them were socialists, and some of them were real professors.
We also put on plays, a lot of things that were really well run. I remember the “Gericht,” the court, the kids would judge whether the person was guilty. It was a case of you decide and what should the punisment be? A kid writes on the toilets, so what to do? We decided to make him wash the walls.
PB: What was political there?
FK: We had the Young Circle League, the YCL. It became the Young People’s Socialistic League in the ‘thirties. There we had had a steady education on socialism. We had read the MANIFESTO, SOCIALISM UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC, these were basic for us kids in highschool. And we had an old social democrat that used to talk to us all the time.
The children were not treated like something in the way. I can remember sitting at a Mayday camp. If you had something to say, people would listen patiently, as if you were one of the adults. My mother would be very favorable if she liked it, she could also disagree. We were all involved in some kind of politics.
There were wars going on in the world, there were problems in schools like the ROTC. Our branch had an SWP [Trotskyist] entry, and Dave Weiss [later a trotskyist theoretician] was our counselor at camp. We loved him because he would always tell wonderful stories. We would lie there in bed at night hoping he would read and he wold tell us a story about his life or read from DUNT ESK, or NIZE BABY or by Abe Gross. I used one of his stories a lot later as an audition piece. He also spoke a beautiful Yiddish.
PB: How much was Yiddish used?
FK: The kids didn’t speak to each other in Yiddish but they spoke to the adults in Yiddish. We also put on plays in Yiddish. There was also a difference of about 5 years. The older group all spoke fluent Yiddish, ours was more on the zubrokene: we were the young ones, they were the old ones. They stayed in the Young Circle League til they were 23 or 24. Our whole group went into Yipsel, around 1937. And we all left with the Trotskyists.
PB: Had you been aware of another world of semi-Yiddishsts on the Left? Were they different in class or any social way.
FK: We knew the Communist world. They weren’t different at all socially. But we were not compromisers, even the social democrats in Los Angeles had a rule that you couldn’t vote for capitalist parties whereas the Communists were supporting Roosevelt and Democrats. But my mother used to speak about the “Roosevelt Anarchists.”
One of the big political influences on me was my mother, that’s probably the reason I was more tolerant than others. The CP had control of the ILGWU here, for a while, and others decided to put up a fight. We didn’t like Dave Dubinsky either, but Rose Pesotta came out to organize the anarchists against the Communists. We were sitting in the house, and there was this big discussion, against the compromise of Dubinsky and of the Communists. And after the whole discussion my mother leaned forward and said, about Dubinsky, “David means well.” She never attributed the policy to something personal. She thought the same thing about the Communists, but they were worse to us than Dubinsky.
What happened in the Soviet Union more and more bothered us. The story of the Stalin Hitler Act made us cry, even though Trotsky had predicted it. The Anarchists could say I told you so, but we were hoping that it wouldn’t happen.
PB: What was the size of the Communists compared to social democrats or anarchists?
FK: The Communists were probably 3 or 4 to one of ours. The Arbeter Ring just have had 500-800 people and the IWO might have had 2000 or more.
Every one one of the kids in the Young Circle League
were socialists of all kinds; but we did have cousins and aunts that were in the CP. They were very defensive [toward us].
PB: Let’s talk about the questions of Jewishness in later years, in the Socialist Workers Party
FK: We had to make an American party, that was one of the things that hung too heavy, that didn’t help it too much. That was involved in the actual Marxist analysis of the ethnic question, [fear of] being a middle class group. They ignored, somehow, the idea that this working class was really a proletarian group [of ethnics].
One of the things in the SWP is that they looked–there’s a statement in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO that the middle class would come over the provide leadership to the working class–they looked at the Jews in that sense. Middle class Jews in the SWP were always treated like they were great intellectuals, but the working class Jews never got anywhere. Quite a few of them were in the factories. So the SWP was oriented to workers in general and not to Jewish workers, and toward blacks in a different way; but the funny thing was that so many of their members were Jewish, but that they were not oriented to the Jewish community
In Seattle we had a branch of about 30, and unlike other branches, it was not predominantly Jewish, but on the executive board 4 our of 5 people were Jews.
PB: What does that tell you?
FK: The Jews did have a big socialist background. The big Israeli attack against communists and Marx is really against the diaspora Jews, not Marxism; all these years you didn’t know you were supporting an anti-semitic? Also the vanguard, the messianic idea, was important: you grew up believing that you had to make it, to have an important career. All of that was part.
June 29, 2013
But there is no push for Big Brother repression. Spying by the propertied rulers isn’t currently directed against the entire population, nor is it primarily aimed today at working-class militants. The data-mining programs Snowden leaked details on are aimed at Islamist-jihadist terrorists.
From 2006, before the SWP became unmoored from the planet earth:
Today, as before, the main targets of the FBI, NSA, and other “homeland security” cops are the unions, Black rights fighters, and other opponents of government policies. The billionaire families that rule the United States through the government and their twin parties—the Democrats and Republicans—know their profit system has entered today a turbulent period of economic depression and wars. They know that in the coming years they must resort to rougher methods against workers and farmers, who will resist the effects of this social crisis. At the same time, they do not face the explosive political conditions of the 1960s and ’70s, generated by the Black rights and related struggles, that imposed restraints on their political police operations.
March 30, 2013
It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that Picasso bankrolled the post-war French Communist party, and underwrote various causes associated with it. In 1949, for example, L’Humanité acknowledged his donation of one million francs for striking miners in the Pas de Calais. The party basked in the reflected glory, and pocketed the cash. One of its cells felicitously took his name: Cellule Interentreprise du Parti Communiste Français Pablo Picasso.
–Alex Danchev, “Picasso’s politics”, The Guardian, Friday 7 May 2010
Less than two weeks after SAC Capital Advisors, the hedge fund owned by the billionaire trader Steven A. Cohen, agreed to pay the government $616 million to settle accusations of insider trading, Mr. Cohen has decided to buy a little something for himself.
A renowned art collector, Mr. Cohen has bought Picasso’s “Le Rêve” from the casino owner Stephen A. Wynn for $155 million, according to a person with direct knowledge of the sale who was not authorized to speak publicly. Although prices for top works of art have soared to new heights recently, Mr. Cohen’s acquisition is one of the most expensive private art sales transacted.
–Carol Vogel and Peter Lattman, “Million Poorer, Hedge Fund Owner Still Buys Art”, NY Times, March 26, 2013
Why would hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen lend nearly half a billion dollars worth of art to Sotheby’s for a glamourous exhibition if the art isn’t for sale? Art worlders were mystified by the Sotheby’s announcement that twenty of top collector Cohen’s paintings by Picasso, de Kooning, and van Gogh — plus Richard Prince’s nude of Brooke Shields, Spiritual America — will go on view April 2 through April 14 at the auctioneer’s York Avenue headquarters.
Mystery solved: It turns out Cohen has every motive to make Sotheby’s look good. In a filing Monday with the SEC, Cohen disclosed that his SAC Capital has amassed a 5.9 percent stake in the auction house since October 1, becoming one of its larger shareholders. Sotheby’s said the decision to show the Cohen works was made by the collector and Sotheby’s top executives at a recent dinner party at his Greenwich, Connecticut, home.
You could hear them a block away; their whistles and chants preceded them. About a hundred protesters stood outside Sotheby’s at the beginning of the auction house’s contemporary evening sale, the last important art sale of the year. ”We’re fired up! Won’t take it no more!” The crowd outside Sotheby’s was made up of N.Y.P.D., the auction house’s security, students from Hunter College, union members and Scabby, the oversize balloon rat who never seems to miss a strike, as well as a Scabby-sized balloon fat cat who squeezed a cigar in one paw and a union worker in the other. Picketers hoisted cutouts of the heads of Sotheby’s COO and CEO at the ends of long poles.
The Observer was crowded in behind a wooden police barrier just in front of the door. We prodded the Teamster to tell us who the buyers were. “The Mugrabi family is already in there,” he said. “Oh! Larry Gagosian is here.” A spectacled man with a bloated face walked brusquely by and slipped into one of the revolving doors. “Steve Cohen!” our guide identified. “That was Steve Cohen, the billionaire art collector.”
–Adrianne Jeffries, “Class War? Occupy Wall Street, Unions Protest at Sotheby’s–8 Arrested, NY Observer, November 10, 2011
If there’s anything that symbolizes the paradoxical relationship between the cultural avant-garde and the capitalist ruling class it supposedly seeks to subvert, it is the replica of Tatlin’s Tower at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art” show that closes on April 15th. I urge New Yorkers to check it out if for no other reason to see the thirty-foot version of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International.
That being said, there is little effort made to connect that work or any other work to the social and political upheavals of the early 20th century that led Picasso, Kandinsky and others to break with representational art. The word “radical” in the exhibit’s title is not a reference to politics but to esthetics.
The recorded lecture that accompanies the exhibit is useful even if it leaves out the broader context. The show was curated by Leah Dickerman who conceives of abstract art as the happy outcome of a process that was nurtured by men and women connected through a network based on a feeling that the old ways of doing art were obsolete, either in literature, music or art. For example, Guillaume Apollinaire was a key figure. The lecture makes a big deal out of Kandinsky being inspired to strike out in an abstract direction after going to a Schoenberg concert in 1911. The unexamined question, of course, is how anybody can conceive of a painting by Kandinsky or a composition by Schoenberg as experimental a century after the fact. Abstract art became just as entrenched as the representational art it was supposed to overthrow, while atonal compositions were cranked out by the boatload in music departments all across the civilized world for most of the twentieth century.
If you can’t make it to the show, I urge you to visit the MOMA website that has some interesting material, especially the video: http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1291.
The network diagram found there is Dickerman’s key contribution to demonstrating how all these artists and writers knew each other and fed off each other. It is interesting in a six degrees of separation sort of way but obviously inadequate to describe the social forces that acted on the artists. It is a personality-driven approach to art history that is clearly in sync with the museum’s “great man” approach, even if it is offered up as an alternative in terms of the network being more important than any individual.
The mainstream press has been pretty worshipful of the show, even if New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz made some pointed criticisms:
These days, abstraction is normal, not shocking, the expected thing in schools, galleries, and museums. Too many artists still ape the art in this show, throwing in Abstract Expressionism, post-minimalism, or surrealist twists and tics, adding things their teachers have told them about.
Really, the title of MoMA’s show could be “High Museum Abstraction: History Written by the Winners.” Or “White Abstraction.” On some level, this show is MoMA talking to itself, looking for ways around its ever-present deluded, limited narrative. If it doesn’t open up this story line soon, MoMA will be doomed to examine the imagined logic of its beautiful bellybutton, alone and forever.
In doing some background research on the show, I came across an article that helps to put the MOMA into context. In 1936 the museum mounted a show titled “Cubism and Abstract Art” that was very much in the same spirit of today’s show. Art was disconnected from the social and political conditions that the artists reflected. Alfred Barr, the museum’s first director and a determined modernist, curated the show that would serve as a template for other shows dedicated to High Modernism until now.
An art historian named Meyer Schapiro wrote a critique of the show titled “Nature of Abstract Art” that appeared in Marxist Quarterly, a journal geared to intellectuals opposed to Stalinism. The article can be read at http://abstractpossible.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Nature-of-Abstract-Art-Schapiro-i.pdf.
While endorsing the modernist project, Schapiro felt that the exhibition lacked the dimensions that I found lacking in the show curated by Dickerman. He complains that Barr’s catalog for the show betrays a conception of abstract art that “remains essentially unhistorical” and goes on to elaborate:
He gives us, it is true, the dates of every stage in the various movements, as if to enable us to plot a curve, or to follow the emergence of the art year by year, but no connection is drawn between the art and the conditions of the moment. He excludes as irrelevant to its history the nature of the society in which it arose, except as an incidental obstructing or accelerating atmospheric factor. The history of modern art is presented as an internal, immanent process among the artists; abstract art arises because, as the author says, representational art had been exhausted. Out of boredom with “painting facts,” the artists turned to abstract art as a pure aesthetic activity.
I was struck by Schapiro’s reference to plotting a curve, full anticipating Ms. Dickerman’s flowchart.
You can get a sense of Schapiro’s approach from his discussion of the Italian futurists in this article, who are well represented in the current exhibition:
Barr recognizes the importance of local conditions when he attributes the deviations of one of the Futurists to his Parisian experience. But he makes no effort to explain why this art should emerge in Italy rather than elsewhere. The Italian writers have described it as a reaction against the traditionalism and sleepiness of Italy during the rule of Umber to, and in doing so have overlooked the positive sources of this reaction and its effects on Italian life. The backwardness was most intensely felt to be a contradiction and became a provoking issue towards 1910 and then mainly in the North, which had recently experienced the most rapid industrial development. At this moment Italian capitalism was preparing the imperialist war in Tripoli. Italy, poor in resources yet competing with world empires, urgently required expansion to attain the levels of the older capitalist countries.
The belated growth of industry, founded on exploitation of the peasantry, had intensified the disparities of culture, called into being a strong proletariat, and promoted imperialist adventures. There arose at this time, in response to the economic growth of the country and the rapid changes in the older historical environment, philosophies of process and utility―a militant pragmatism of an emphatic anti-traditionalist character. Sections of the middle class which had acquired new functions and modern urban interests accepted the new conditions as progressive and “modern,” and were often the loudest in denouncing Italian backwardness and calling for an up-to-date, nationally conscious Italy.
The attack of the intellectuals against the provincial aristocratic traditions was in keeping with the interest of the dominant class; they elevated technical progress, aggressive individuality and the relativism of values into theories favorable to imperialist expansion, obscuring the contradictory results of the latter and the conflicts between classes by abstract ideological oppositions of the old and the modern or the past and the future. Since the national consciousness of Italy had rested for generations on her museums, her old cities and artistic inheritance, the modernizing of the country entailed a cultural conflict, which assumed its sharpest form among the artists.
Machines as the most advanced instruments of modern production had a special attraction for artists exasperated by their own merely traditional and secondary status, their mediocre outlook in a backward provincial Italy. They were devoted to machines not so much as instruments of production but as sources of mobility in modern life. While the perception of industrial processes led the workers, who participated in them directly, toward a radical social philosophy, the artists, who were detached from production, like the petit bourgeoisie, could know these processes abstractly or phenomenally, in their products and outward appearance, in the form of traffic, automobiles, railroads, and new cities and in the tempo of urban life, rather than in their social causes.
The Futurists thus came to idealize movement as such, and they conceived this movement or generalized mobility mainly as mechanical phenomena in which the forms of objects are blurred or destroyed. The dynamism of an auto, centrifugal motion, the dog in movement (with twenty legs), the autobus, the evolution of forms in space, the armored train in battle, the dancehall-these were typical subjects of Futurist art. The field of the canvas was charged with radiating lines, symbolic graphs of pervading force, colliding and interpenetrating objects. Whereas in Impressionism the mobility was a spectacle for relaxed enjoyment, in Futurism it is urgent and violent, a precursor of war.
This is about as sharp a take on futurism as I’ve ever seen and one that is sadly missing from the MOMA website or guided tour.
Schapiro was a professor at Columbia University for many years and unlike most of the Partisan Review intellectuals never stopped believing in socialism. There’s a superb article by Andrew Hemingway on Schapiro titled “Meyer Schapiro and Marxism in the 1930s” that appeared in the 1994 Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 17, No. 1. It’s one of those fucked-up JSTOR articles that Aaron Swartz liberated. I would be happy to send anybody a copy if they contact me privately. Here are some passages that should give you an idea about the character of this remarkable intellectual.
Schapiro is associated with a group of philosophers, writers, and critics who were involved in varying degrees with the anti-Stalinist left, a group which centered on the city of New York and has acquired the sobriquet of the ‘New York Intellectuals’. This group, which includes Clement Greenberg, Sidney Hook, Mary McCarthy, Dwight McDonald, William Phillips, Phillip Rahv, Harold Rosenberg, and Lionel Trilling among others, achieved its identity partly through a number of independent magazines, and initially took shape around Partisan Review in the years after 1937.
Arriving in the United States from Lithuania in 1907, when he was three years old, Schapiro grew up in the Jewish working-class district of Brownsville in Brooklyn, from where many commuted in to work in the sweatshops and factories of the Lower East Side.7 The years of Schapiro’s childhood and youth were the heyday of Jewish socialism in New York. His father, who had been influenced by the Jewish socialist Bund, was a reader of the Jewish Daily Forward and the New York Call (Yiddish and English-language socialist papers, respectively), and Schapiro himself listened to street-corner socialist speakers and joined the Young People’s Socialist League in 1916. While the Russian Revolution was in the main greeted with enthusiasm by American Jewish socialists, differences over the Bolshevik model contributed to a violent factional struggle among the strongly unionized New York garment workers in the 1920s between an intransigent left wing dominated by communists, and a socialist led right wing, which was generally more prepared to negotiate for short-term gains. These disputes culminated in the disastrous cloakmakers’ strike of 1926, which discredited the Communist Party among most of the union membership, with the notable exception of the fur workers.8 As an undergraduate and graduate student at Columbia University from 1920-28, Schapiro was doubtless somewhat removed from these struggles, but he had worked in a succession of low-pay jobs in his school years and continued to do so during his student period at Columbia. (When he made his first trip to Europe in 1923, he worked his way over as a seaman on the Holland-America Line, and travelled to Berlin without the proper papers.) Writing to the novelist James Farrell twenty years later, Schapiro recalled being barracked by fellow-students for advancing a socialist position in a freshman course on Contemporary Civilization, but that in his second and third years he lost interest in ‘social questions’, and stopped attending meetings of the Young Socialist League and the League for Industrial Democracy. However, like a substantial number of American intellectuals Schapiro was radicalized by the coming of the Depression, and by 1932 he was an active supporter of the Communist Party.
At the beginning of 1936, the party’s leaders were still denouncing Roosevelt as little different from Hoover, but on instructions from the Comintern leadership in March 1936, they began a change of course which led them to tacitly endorse the president’s re-election in November, and into support for the New Deal in the following year. ‘Public Use of Art’ appeared in the same month as the presidential election, in which Schapiro voted not for the Communist Party candidate, Earl Browder, but for the Socialist Party’s Norman Thomas who ran a disastrous campaign on the slogan ‘Socialism versus Capitalism’. While Schapiro denied being a Trotskyist, at this time he was certainly making similar calculations about which party represented the best hope for socialism in the United States as the tiny Trotskyist Workers’ Party, which had entered the Socialist Party in the spring of that year. Given Schapiro’s criticisms of the New Deal, this was entirely consistent, for the Socialist Party under Norman Thomas rejected the Popular Front as an abandonment of revolutionary principles in the interests of a discredited Soviet state. From its point of view, the CPUSA had allied itself with a government in the United States which was no more than a holding operation for capital, and socialists should work for revolutionary change rather than support- ing bourgeois regimes which were heading for another imperialist war in which the working classes of all countries would be the main losers. In addition, Thomas had already associated himself with those who doubted the entire credibility of the Show Trials, the first of which began in August 1936. The point of Schapiro’s final break with the Communist Party occurred then with the first of Stalin’s purges of the Old Bolsheviks, and he associated himself with the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, which had been formed earlier in that year, and which issued in the Dewey Commission of Inquiry into the Charges against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials in April 1937. (Needless to say, it was Trotskyists who did most of the organizing in these bodies.)
Although Schapiro never joined either of the tiny and fractious Trotskyist parties, of his personal enthusiasm for Trotsky and his close reading of Trotskyist journals there is no doubt. He maintained relations with SWP activists such as Felix Morrow and George Novack, and in 1943 expressed willingness to write for a new Marxist magazine proposed by the former. (It is significant that although he admired Novack’s commitment to revolutionary work, he was put off by his ‘humorlessness’ and rigid political orthodoxy. Schapiro took no part in the disputes which divided the Socialist Workers Party in 1940, and felt that it should not split over the Soviet invasion of Finland. However, since he regarded the invasion as imperialist aggression, his sympathies seem to have lain more with the Shachtman-Burnham faction than with James Cannon and his followers. This, of course, means that he disagreed with Trotsky’s own position on Soviet expansion and probably also with his definition of the USSR as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’. However, of Trotsky’s stature as a revolutionary leader he had no doubt.
In my next post I will have a look at Gerhard Richter, the renowned German (mostly) abstract artist and Ai Weiwei, the Chinese conceptual artist and fearless critic of the bureaucratic capitalist system, based on two very good documentary films that came out in 2012.
January 2, 2013
Forgotten legacies (part II): the problem of ‘monopoly in the sphere of politics’
by Simon Hardy | January 1, 2013
Simon Hardy continues his look at the problematic interpretations of Bolshevism found in the modern day Trotskyist movement by critically reflecting upon the post-war collapse of the left into warring sects.
Part one of this essay considered the forgotten pluralism of Russian social democracy and specifically Bolshevism, in this second installment, I want to reflect upon how this might apply to smaller groups of revolutionaries who don’t enjoy mass support in the working class. These are groups that cannot claim to be a party that represents the leadership of a broad cross section of the working class and are therefore generally more modest in their reach and goals. In the 21st century, the Trotskyist-Leninist left has been mostly reduced to such organisations, that invariably concentrate on disseminating communist ideas and playing a role in developing wider social struggle. This description is seemingly uncontroversial, but the problem lies in the actual practice of small communist organisations in the context of the disintegration of the Trotskyist movement before and after the war, and their pronounced tendency to collapse into confessional sects. With Stalinism hegemonic on the left wing of the workers’ movement in the last century, and with its parties that identified with the states of Russia, China and Eastern Europe, the tendency was to create small, highly homogenous organisations that each claimed a monopoly on truth with their theoretical output seeking to elaborate a doctrine that can then be organisationally embodied in the small organisation. Much of the Trotskyist movement also tended to mimic and adapt to Stalinism, either in their organisational ‘party building’ practices, or in their political accommodation to the Stalinist regimes perceived to be more radical, e.g. Yugoslavia, China, and Cuba. The result was the creation of a myriad of new orthodoxies defended by the organisational form of the sect. Trotskyism was one, perhaps the most enduring, but in the context of the 1930s and 1960s there was competition from various other trends, from Branderlerites to the Maoists and council communists.
This article is largely a critique of the “sect-form” and a plea for greater plurality, organisational unity, and flexibility on the radical left.
Monopolists in the sphere of politics
The need for the sect to define itself against the rest of the left, and in turn school its adherents in the codified ‘fundamentals’ of its tradition, fosters a binary, “right or wrong”, conception of Marxism. The resulting tendency for party adherents to try and ”get it right” above all else undermines the encouragement of critical thinking, able to draw upon the plurality of viewpoints and theories, that is necessary for Marxism to develop as a living and scientific mode of thought. This outlook was sadly exemplified by US Trotskyist Morris Stein at the 1944 convention of the SWP(US) :
We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretence of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery. We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.
Even if the party in question could claim 80,000 members in a mass working class of millions it would be a hopelessly authoritarian approach to political discourse within the working class movement. Yet is down right ridiculous coming from a leader of a revolutionary organisation with around 1,000 members or less. You simply do not have the range of experiences, the intellectual resources, the organic relationship to broad cross section of the masses, that could justify a claim to have a monopoly on truth nor even a special claim to be the leadership in waiting of the working class.
December 21, 2012
From the Socialist Workers Party 2011 tax records (found on guidestar.org under the Anchor Foundation).