Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 14, 2015

Three films of note

Filed under: Brazil,Film,immigration,workers — louisproyect @ 11:18 pm

Opening at the IFC Center on November 20th, “Mediterranea” is a timely narrative film about immigration, an issue that has been dominating the media for the past year or two. In this instance, the characters are not political refugees but a couple of brothers from Burkina Faso who are trying to make to Europe in hope of a better life.

While most people who have been following the immigration story are aware that the voyage across the Mediterranean Ocean on rickety boats has cost the lives of more than 2000 people this year, the film dramatizes the hazards that must be faced even before they reach the boat. The two brothers, Ayiva and Abas, join a group of about twenty people who must reach their point of departure in Algeria by first traveling through the Libyan desert. Relying on a guide who they are told to trust implicitly, they are ambushed by Libyan bandits who obviously got tipped off by the guide. They are ordered to surrender their hard-earned cash and other valuables. When one man begins complaining loudly even as he has complied with their demands, he gets a bullet in the head.

Eventually the two brothers make it to Italy—just barely—where they make their way to a small town in the countryside where they hope to hook up with other Burkina Faso immigrants. After being warmly greeted in town by their brethren, they are escorted to their new home—a room in a shantytown hovel. Between the two brothers, there are conflicts over their situation with Ayiva seeing the glass half-full and Abas seeing it as ninety percent empty.

Like most of the other male immigrants, they end up as farmworkers picking oranges for an Italian family that looks upon them kindly but patronizingly. The grandmother insists on being called Mother Africa while the teenaged granddaughter turns over a carton of oranges because she is feeling bitchy. Her father is fair to his workers but only so far as it goes. When Ayiva practically begs him to help secure the papers necessary for permanent residence, the man lectures him about his grandfather who relied on nobody except his family when he came to the USA.

The film is remarkable by staying close to the realities of immigrant life without resorting to the melodrama that many of these types of films deem necessary. It is about the daily struggle to make a living in difficult circumstances and the small pleasures that come with the gatherings of fellow Burkina Faso men and women at night as they share drinks, listen to Western music, and shore each other up for the next day’s travails.

The press notes indicate how the director came to make such a film:

It would be pretentious on my part to claim that I have experienced anything remotely close to what the immigrants are experiencing —I can only be an outside observer here. However, because of my own background, I could approach the story of African immigrants in Italy with some personal connections. My mother is African-American and my father is Italian. And I’ve always been very interested in race relations, with a particular interest in the role of black people in Italian society. So when the first race riot took place in Rosarno in 2010, I immediately went down to Calabria to learn more about the circumstances that lead to the revolt. It was an event of historical proportions because it opened up for the first time the question of race relations in an Italian context. So I started talking to people and collecting stories about their lives. I settled there permanently and began to think about a script.

Although it should not be a factor in either reviewing or seeing this exceptionally well-made and politically powerful film, a few words about Burkina Faso would help you understand why such people would take the arduous trip across the Mediterranean to an uncertain future.

In 1983 Captain Thomas Sankara, who was to Burkina Faso as Hugo Chavez was to Venezuela, led a popular revolution in Upper Volta, a former French colony. Once in power, he changed the name of the country to Burkina Faso, which meant “Land of Upright Men”, and embarked on a bold series of social and economic reforms targeting the country’s poor, especially the women. Called the “Che Guevara of Africa”, he consciously modeled his development program on the Cuban revolution.

Unlike in Venezuela where Hugo Chavez was saved from a coup attempt by the power of the people, the Burkina Faso experiment had a tragic outcome. Blaise Compaoré, acting on behalf of Burkina Faso’s tiny but powerful bourgeoisie and their patrons in France, overthrew Sankara in 1987.

For the next twenty-seven years Blaise Compaoré created the conditions that forced people like Ayiva and Abas to risk everything on a voyage that could cost them lives at worst and at best to end up picking oranges for minimum wages. In 2006 the UN rated Burkina Faso as 174th in human development indicators, just three places from the bottom. With cotton plantations dominating the rural economy, the country is locked into the traditional neocolonial, agro-export dependency.

Last year when Compaoré proposed a change to the constitution that would allow him to run for office once again after the fashion of Robert Mugabe, the country erupted in protests and he fled the country. In the aftermath, there have been various attempts by military figures to run the country temporarily until elections were held next year. Suffice it to say that none of them measures up to Thomas Sankara. One hopes that the same kind of courage and determination that led the characters in “Mediterranea” to make the arduous trip to Italy will serve to make Burkina Faso the “Land of Upright Men” once again.

Following in the footsteps of this year’s “A Second Mother”, a Brazilian film about class divisions between master and servant in a wealthy household, “Casa Grande” incorporates much of the same tensions and even a central character—a teenage son who is uncomfortable with privilege.

In “Casa Grande”, which opened yesterday at the Cinema Village in New York, we meet Jean the teenage son early on as he sneaks into the bedroom of Rita, one of the family’s two maids. Overloaded with raging hormones, he can barely restrain himself as Rita—a beautiful young woman—tells him about a tryst she had with a motorcyclist whose name she did not even know. He took her to an alley, lifted up her skirt, and began kissing her bottom. As Jean begins to make a move on Rita, she holds him off and sends him back to his room—the only power that she can exercise in a house where class privilege is on display every minute of the day.

Hugo, Jean’s father, is impatient with Jean who has a slacker temperament. It is not just that the youth is unmotivated, although that is a problem, it is more that he is not very smart—the same flaw that existed in the young man in “A Second Mother”. That does not stand in the way of the close relationship he has built with the hired help and in fact makes it more possible. For someone barely capable of passing Brazil’s onerous entrance exams for college, there is little point in pretending that he is something other than a kid who likes music and women. When Severino the chauffeur drives him to school in the morning, the main topic of conversation is how to “score”. It is clear that Jean has much more of a rapport with the driver than his martinet of a father who expects him to join Brazil’s bourgeoisie.

This is a bourgeoisie that Hugo is barely clinging to having lost his job as an investment adviser and who is now deeply in debt, so much so that every penny must be accounted for in Casa Grande. Before the family gathers for dinner in the evening, he reminds them to shut out the lights in their room before they sit down at the table. We eventually learn that Hugo, despite all his displays of privilege, has not paid the servants for the past three months and that he will be forced to sell their mansion in a gated community designed to keep out people from the lower classes.

When Jean develops a relationship with Luiza, a young woman of mixed ancestry, race joins class in forcing Jean to decide where his loyalties lie. The main topic of conversation at dinner gatherings is Brazil’s new affirmative action law that will allot 40 percent of the posts in many public institutions to Black or brown people, including Luiza. When she insists to Hugo that she deserves a spot in college because of the new law’s commitment to compensating for slavery, he spits out that he earned his place in society. Nobody ever gave him anything.

His place in society is exactly what is in jeopardy now. Although the information will be familiar to Brazilian audiences, I had to research the nature of Hugo’s immanent downfall on the net. It seems that he owned thousands of shares in OGX, the second largest oil and gas company in Brazil after Petrobras. This is a company that would go broke eventually because of the mismanagement of its CEO Eike Batista, who was an even bigger screw-up than Hugo.

In 2008 Forbes listed Batista as the 8th richest man in the world. Five years later he would be ruined because OGX was pumping only 15,000 gallons of oil out of the ground rather than the 750,000 it predicted. This year Brazilian cops seized seven cars from Batista, including a white Lamborghini Aventador, and all the cash he had left.

If you want to understand the turmoil in Brazil today, there’s no better place to go than the Cinema Village to see this brilliant dissection of a society falling apart at the seams.

Finally, there’s “Barge”, a 71-minute documentary showing tomorrow at the Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas on 260 W 23rd St, between 7th and 8th Avenues as part of the NY Documentary Film Festival that runs until the 19th (the schedule is here: http://www.docnyc.net/schedule/).

In this marvelous work by Ben Powell, we accompany a crew as they navigate the Mississippi River from Rosedale, Mississippi to points northward. The film alternates between gorgeous vistas of the river, the men at work on the boat, and interviews that you have to strain a bit to understand since the drawls are so thick you can cut them with a knife. (Will Patterson’s minimalist film score is a winner, the best Philip Glass-inspired work I have heard in decades.)

The interviews are what make this film stand out. If you have read Studs Terkel’s “Working”, you’ll get an idea of what inspired Ben Powell to make such a film. In a period when workers are undervalued, you’ll be impressed with how the crew see themselves—as men who help keep the country going. One nails it this way: most of everything you touch gets there on a barge, including the concrete of the sidewalks you walk on and the plastic your groceries are packaged in. With so much of American society consumed with “making it” on an individualist basis, it is great to see a collectivist ethos that goes back centuries at least.

November 1, 2015

Going into industry

Filed under: Trotskyism,workers — louisproyect @ 9:05 pm

As I pointed out in my last post that excerpted Vivian Gornick’s poignant and politically astute “The Romance of American Communism”, I was struck when I read it in the early 80s by how much the CP experience was like our own. This was particularly true of the “turn to industry” that began in 1977. As you will see in the excerpt from Gornick below, both the CP and the SWP used the same jargon. Can you imagine how much stupidity was involved in using the term “colonize” to describe what we did? As if we were missionaries going into the Congo to convert the natives? In fact the passage below refers to conversion three times. We never used that term ourselves (and for all I know the CP did not either) but it certainly describes what we were about. We “went into industry” to sell subscriptions to our stupid newspaper just like Jehovah’s Witnesses going door to door, not to participate in labor struggles which were far and few between. But at least if you were in the CP, you got involved in living struggles. For that matter, the SWP’ers had the same experience in the 1930s and 40s. However, in 1977 the chances were slim that such an experience could be repeated—a function of the low ebb in the class struggle as well as our own ineptitude.

Going into Industry

“GOING into industry” (otherwise known in ironic Party parlance as “colonizing”) is the phrase used to describe the Communist Party’s practice during the Thirties, Forties, and early Fifties of sending Party organizers out to take up jobs as workers in the factories, plants, laboratories, and offices of America for the purpose of educating workers to class consciousness, converting them to socialism, and recruiting them into the Communist Party. Over nearly a quarter of a century thousands of American Communists spent the greater portion of their adult working lives “in industry.” The collective history of the life and work of these CP “colonizers” is one of glory and sorrow.

While for the most part they did not convert American workers to socialism, and certainly they did not recruit them in any significant numbers into the Communist Party, they most certainly did exert tremendous influence on the growth of worker consciousness in this country and contributed vastly to the development of the American labor movement. Throughout the Thirties and Forties, wherever major struggles were taking place between American labor and American capital, it was almost a given that CP organizers were involved. In the fields of California, in the auto plants of Flint, in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, in the mines of West Virginia, in the electrical plants of Schenectady: they were there. They fought for the eight-hour day, the minimum wage, worker compensation, health and welfare insurance. And for one glorious moment—during the brief life of the CIO —they brought genuine worker politics to the American labor movement. What happened to many of the organizers, in fact, was that while they were unable to convert the nation’s workers to socialism, they themselves became gifted American trade unionists.

Karl Millens is fifty years old. He was raised in The Coops, named for Karl Marx, and was for twenty-three years a member of the Communist Party. Between the ages of twenty and thirty-seven he worked in industrial plants all over the Midwest on assignment for the CP. Today, Karl is an instructor in political science in a small community college in the New York area. He has written one book he was unable to get published and is now at work on a second. Publication, he says, is really a minor concern for him; he is happiest when sitting at the typewriter.

“The typewriter,” Karl says, holding out his large, well-shaped hands, “is a machine that fits my hands. The machines I used when I worked in the plant, they never fit my hands. They never felt natural to me, the way the typewriter does ”

Karl Millens is not bitter about his life as a Communist, but he is a sad man. He is divorced, estranged from many of his old friends, lives in a shabby one-room apartment in lower Manhattan, works at a low-paying, intellectually unrewarding job, and seems continually to be repressing a tide of emotional bewilderment that threatens daily to engulf him. It is visibly difficult for him to talk about the past. He is intelligent enough to know that if he could make sense of the past he would live more easily in the present, but he seems to have no confidence in the notion that he ever can make sense of the past. On this cold December night, however, he tries, he tries.

“Growing up in The Coops . . .” he begins vaguely. He passes a hand wearily across his wide forehead grown wider by virtue of a receding hairline. “It was like growing up in a hothouse. We were the hothouse kids of the Left. And like all creatures of the hothouse, we bloomed more intensely, more radiantly, precisely because the atmosphere was artificial. You know, in a very real sense America was a foreign country to us. Electoral politics meant nothing to us. But for weeks before May Day every wall, every storefront, every lamp post in the neighborhood was plastered with ‘All Out May One.’ And on the day itself the local grade school was empty. That was our election day, our July Fourth, our Hannukah, and our Christmas.

“I think almost every other Communist in America was more realistically involved with the country than we were. And more realistically involved with how they could best serve Communism in America than we were We grew up inside a language and a culture that was so dense, so insular, and finally so abstract. It’s incredible, when I think of it. We were all working class. Now, most working-class Communists didn’t romanticize working. But we, having grown up inside the theoretical jargon of Marxist-Leninist thought, adopted the stance of middle-class Party intellectuals and conceived our mission as revolutionaries to join the proletariat as fast as possible. No matter that we really were half-way to being intellectuals, that we felt at home only talking theory, ‘going into industry’ was all most of us dreamed of from the time we were teenagers.

“God! That language. This was supposed to be a movement of liberation, but every time I turned around I felt more and more constricted. Constricted by my language, which was either acceptable or nonacceptable. Constricted by my actions, which were definitely either acceptable or nonacceptable. Books I should or should not be reading, thoughts I should or should not be having. .. The Marxist-Leninist jargon was supposed to be evidence of high intelligence. But I found it put to uses of intimidation, and finally I felt it evidenced more a fear of life than it did of genuinely high intelligence. I remember when I left my wife and went into psychotherapy, I felt like a light had gone on inside my head. I saw a shape to my life I had not imagined before. When I tried to tell my oldest friend in the Party some of the things that were happening inside me, he talked to me as though I were counterrevolutionary vermin, fit only to be isolated in a laboratory or—under the right, the correct regime—taken out and shot. But all that came later, much later, these realizations of mine. First, I had to put in seventeen years in industry, serving the revolution around the corner.

“What can I tell you about the years in industry? They were, for me, slow, imperceptible, pointless death. I spent seventeen years working beside men I never had any intimacy or shared experience with, doing work which numbed my mind and for which I had no physical facility. Its sole purpose was to allow me to grow close to the men and be ready to move when a radically pregnant situation arose. Well, I was never close to the men and no situation arose, at least none I would ever know how to move into. I discovered very quickly I had no talent—repeat none—for organizing, for unionizing, for negotiating. I was slow-witted, clumsy on the uptake, half the time I didn’t know what the hell was going on around me. When a real, a natural organizer arose among the men, not only did I see how far away I was from the action, I couldn’t even encourage the guy in a radical direction. I’d open my mouth and out would come, I’m sure, I can hardly remember now what I said, some Marxist-Leninist formula The guy would just stare at me, shake his head, and walk away. I know he liked me, but I’m also sure he thought I was retarded. “I know that many people who went into industry were terrific organizers and turned out to be great trade unionists. But I have a feeling not too many of them came from The Coops.”


July 29, 2015

Richard Bernstein and New York’s nail salons

Filed under: sexism,workers — louisproyect @ 2:43 pm

Richard Bernstein

In May the NY Times ran a series of investigative reports on the city’s nail salons that depicted a trail of abuse that consisted of sub-minimum wage pay, exposure to toxic chemicals and a work week that might consist of 66 hours according to one report.

I found the articles compelling both for what they said about super-exploitation and as a welcome exposure of one of the city’s more dubious enterprises. When I moved to New York in 1979, they were beginning to take root. Like everything else that has transformed the city into a playground for the rich and the superrich, they always struck me as a kind of decadent reminder of colonialism with white women having their hands and feet catered to by Asian women. Sarah Maslin Nir, who deserves a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting, wrote:

The juxtapositions in nail salon workers’ lives can be jarring. Many spend their days holding hands with women of unimaginable affluence, at salons on Madison Avenue and in Greenwich, Conn. Away from the manicure tables they crash in flophouses packed with bunk beds, or in fetid apartments shared by as many as a dozen strangers.

Ms. Ren worked at Bee Nails, a chandelier-spangled salon in Hicksville, N.Y., where leather pedicure chairs are equipped with iPads on articulated arms so patrons can scroll the screens without smudging their manicures. They rarely spoke more than a few words to Ms. Ren, who, like most manicurists, wore a fake name chosen by a supervisor on a tag pinned to her chest. She was “Sherry.” She worked in silence, sloughing off calluses from customers’ feet or clipping dead skin from around their fingernail beds.

At night she returned to sleep jammed in a one-bedroom apartment in Flushing with her cousin, her cousin’s father and three strangers. Beds crowded the living room, each cordoned off by shower curtains hung from the ceiling. When lights flicked on in the kitchen, cockroaches skittered across the countertops.

The articles were so well researched and so filled with righteous indignation simmering beneath the surface of the typically neutral reportorial style that they were enough to spur NY State’s neoliberal governor into action. On May 18th he announced a series of bills that would curtail such abuses and that would include a Bill of Rights to be posted in every workplace informing workers of their rights to a decent wage and normal working hours.

Four days ago, however, a blog post titled “What the ‘Times’ Got Wrong About Nail Salons” appeared in the New York Review of Books, a high-toned journal that has been around since 1963. During the Vietnam War it reflected the popular mood, publishing articles by Noam Chomsky and other leftists. As it has gotten older, it has moved to the center and become complacent. So in that sense, it was no surprise that Bernstein would submit his article to the NY Review and that they would publish it.

Bernstein traded on the fact that he used to work for the Times and that his Chinese wife and sister-in-law run a nail salon:

As a former New York Times journalist who also has been, for the last twelve years, a part owner of two day-spas in Manhattan, I read the exposé with particular interest. (A second part of the same investigation, which appeared in the Times a day later, concerned chemicals used in the salon industry that might be harmful to workers.) Our two modestly-sized establishments are operated by my wife, Zhongmei Li, and my sister-in-law, Zhongqin Li, both originally from China, and “mani-pedi” is a big part of the business. We were startled by the Times article’s Dickensian portrait of an industry in which workers “spend their days holding hands with women of unimaginable affluence,” and retire at night to “flophouses packed with bunk beds, or in fetid apartments shared by as many as a dozen strangers.” Its conclusion was not just that some salons or even many salons steal wages from their workers but that virtually all of them do. “Step into the prim confines of almost any salon and workers paid astonishingly low wages can be readily found,” the story asserts. This depiction of the business didn’t correspond with what we have experienced over the past twelve years. But far more troubling, as we discovered when we began to look into the story’s claims and check its sources, was the flimsy and sometimes wholly inaccurate information on which those sweeping conclusions were based.

Today I was pleased to see the NY Times response to Bernstein that basically stated that Bernstein was trying to depict his own nail salons as typical of the industry when the investigative reporting team’s work was based on a broad cross-section and backed up by Department of Labor statistics. It concluded with this knockout punch:

Mr. Bernstein produced much fine and admirable work during his lengthy tenure at The Times. He has many friends here. To his credit, he has been upfront about being part of the salon industry and having a vested financial interest in its health. Still, that doesn’t alter the fact that he has taken on the role of a partisan defender, not a journalist.

In an exchange prior to his story, Mr. Bernstein argued that our stories failed to highlight how being a manicurist can lead to a successful career as a salon owner. We concede he made a valid point about certain positives in the industry that could have been amplified. But we are nonetheless disappointed that the New York Review of Books chose to publish what is essentially an example of industry advocacy, not unbiased journalism.

Out of curiosity, I checked out Bernstein’s articles in the NY Times archives just to see why someone would try to put a positive spin on an industry that was just one step up from slave labor. With 1,867 articles to his credit, I could find none that were particularly obnoxious.

But what did catch my eye was a review of a book he wrote in 2009 titled “The East, The West, And Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters”. Hmm. What was up with that? Reviewer Simon Winchester found this observation of Bernstein’s troublesome: “the sexual advantage of the Western man in the East is an aspect of Western dynamism, the questing spirit of Europeans, compared with the relative passivity of Asian in these matters.” Talk about Orientalism!

Winchester was relatively charitable to Bernstein, as you would expect for a review of an alumni’s book, but Salon.com not so much as might be indicated by the tile of Laura Miller’s review: “White male seeking sexy Asian women”. She wrote:

However, sexual freedom, to a greater and more intimate degree than any other freedom, is a paradoxical thing. Unless you’re talking about masturbation, then someone else — a human being with his or her own desires and dislikes — is involved. If you define sexual freedom as being able to do whatever you want with whomever you please, then (except in very rare cases of perfect compatibility with one’s partner at every moment) one man’s freedom is another woman’s compulsion. Women in traditional harem cultures languished in a condition of de facto slavery, where they had no right to determine anything about their own lives, let alone their sexual partners and activities. Their very survival was predicated on pleasing men. They were treated for the most part as animate commodities, like livestock, to be bought, sold and discarded at will. And if Eastern men’s adulterous shenanigans were regarded as “natural,” in women such behavior was punishable by extreme social ostracism and frequently by death.

No wonder that a man who wrote a book that was indifferent to Asian women languishing in “a condition of de facto slavery” and being treated “like livestock” would put the best possible spin on nail salons.




July 3, 2015

Native Land

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

On Native Land


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

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

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

read full article

June 24, 2015

When Junius Scales went into industry

Filed under: trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 1:39 am

Today I started reading “A Red Family: Junius, Gladys and Barbara Scales”, a review copy of a book that had been sitting on my shelves for about five years. I wish I had gotten to it sooner since it is a great read, especially for the parts of this essentially oral history that is devoted to Junius who I had the great pleasure to meet and interview a couple of years before his death in 2002. He was a leader of the CPUSA in the south and a scion of a very wealthy North Carolina family and the first CP’er to be convicted on the Smith Act.

What follows below is my write-up on my meeting with Junius long before I began blogging followed by an excerpt from his memoir “Cause at Heart”, which for my money is the best memoir ever written by a radical. It concludes with an excerpt from “A Red Family” that deals with him “going into industry” as we used to put it in the SWP. I imagine that when I went into industry in 1978 if I had anything remotely similar to his experience in a textile company town in 1940, I would have stuck with it. In the back of my mind I knew that the whole thing was a fantasy in contrast to Junius’s transformative experience.

My meeting with Junius Scales:

I had a grand old time yesterday with Junius Scales at his country home up on the side of a mountain near Pine Bush, New York. We sat on the porch while he offered pointed observations about well-known and not so well-know figures on the left.

The question of how people shift to the right after leaving Marxist-Leninist groups has come up on this list time and again. Junius’s trajectory seems far more typical. After leaving the CPUSA in disgust back in the mid 1950s, he has continued to embrace socialist or progressive values which were very much in evidence when he recently spoke at a conference at the University of North Carolina on campus radicalism in the 1940s. He was in the thick of things back then as the leader of a 150 member (!!!) party club there in 1947.

We spoke some about Trotskyism which he never had the pleasure of encountering until he left the CP. When he was a proofreader at the New York Times, he met Dave Weiss who worked in the same department and who was the brother of Murray Weiss, married to Myra Tanner Weiss. These were two SWP leaders in the 1950s. Dave Weiss, a rank-and-filer, eventually became a documentary film-maker of some repute while Murray and Myra were typical party leaders, intolerant to a fault and convinced of their own intellectual and political superiority to everybody else.

At a big cocktail party in the 1950s, Junius was having a pleasant chat with Alger Hiss who spotted Myra Tanner Weiss. Also at the party was a left-wing Labour Party MP who Hiss mischievously decided to introduce to Myra. He brought the two together and within a matter of minutes the two of them were castigating each other loudly and had drawn a circle of onlookers about them, as if a fist-fight was going on. Hiss stood on the sidelines enjoying the spectacle thoroughly.

Junius was pretty close to the Robeson family and is convinced that the psychological collapse of the great man was linked to his bad faith over Stalin. Robeson had enormous affection for the dean of the Yiddish stage in the Soviet Union, Isaac Pfeffer, who Stalin had executed. Robeson found a way to justify this. A lifetime of making excuses must have taken its toll. Junius visited Robeson in the 1950s when the psychosis was in full sway. They sat in the living room chatting pleasantly with Robeson’s wife and children when all of a sudden Robeson himself emerged from the bedroom and confronted the group with a wild, unrecognizing look on his face.

Junius became very close to Earl Browder after Browder was expelled from the CPUSA. He says that despite Browder’s support for a more open and less dogmatic socialism, that he personally was extremely dogmatic in the way he promoted these beliefs. It was impossible to disagree with him.

As we discussed politics and personalities, we watched large birds soaring in the skies above the mountain-tops. Were they hawks, I asked him? If they flap their wings every five minutes or so, they’re hawks. If not, they are buzzards. He had become an expert bird-watcher living in the mountainous wilderness over the past twenty years or so. Black bears were frequent visitors to his property.

My mother sat in the living room reading the Sunday New York Times while Junius and I chatted. When we broke for lunch, my mom announced that she had found an interesting quote. The judge in the Vincent Gigante trial had once presided in a case against the terrorist Jewish Defense League. He told the accused that it was more Jewish to uphold the book rather than the bomb.

I informed my mom that it was a small world, since Gigante had saved Junius’s life when he was at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary doing time for a Smith Act violation. Junius had mentioned to a Mafia prisoner that Daniel Bell’s new (at the time) book “The Decline of Ideology” had a chapter making the case that there was no such thing as organized crime. This chapter was read by all the Mafia prisoners who passed the information on to their lawyers. Gigante, a boss of the Mafia both in prison and outside, felt that a debt was owed to Scales. When a hulking, murderous prisoner threatened to kill Junius, Gigante stepped in and told him to lay off and that was that.

I will take up Junius Scales’ book “Cause at Heart” in a subsequent post.

From “Cause at Heart”:

Suddenly I remembered a bright autumn morning fifteen years before, when I had been a Communist for only a few months. I had been going cheerfully to my job in the tax office in the county courthouse in my native Greensboro, North Carolina, when I looked up at barred windows on the top floor of the white stone building and stopped in my tracks. “My friends and I will go to jail someday,” I had imagined in my idealistic innocence, “because our belief in the socialist world is something that these grim lawyers and smug pillars of society I work among will never tolerate; they will hunt us down and box us in, even though what we advocate they hear preached in church and even mad about in the New Testament.” I had felt a twinge of fear raise gooseflesh on my neck and scalp, even as I felt it then in Memphis, waiting that evening to take my lumps at last, like many another radical “do-gooder” and “bleeding heart.” I had a fleeting moment of self-doubt during which I wondered how I could have allowed my adversaries to entangle something as beautiful as the advocacy of a better world in criminal proceedings; I myself must have botched the job somehow.

It was 7:28. As I walked past the apparently empty FBI car at the next intersection, I was overwhelmed with the helplessness of my situation. I was like an animal surrounded by hunters and with no bushes to hide in. Inside the peaceful lower-middle-class houses around me, people were finishing dinner, washing dishes, reading the paper, watching TV. Meanwhile, ahead of me, the gathering FBI cars were making their own traffic jam in the otherwise deserted, rainswept streets.

From “A Red Family”:

But when I got back to North Carolina I was really a “professional revolutionary” and completely committed. I had no intention of going back to college. I went to see my mother, and she was very distressed.

I went to live in the mill village in High Point and boarded with one of the families I had met with Bart [CP organizer for North Carolina] I liked them tremendously and lived with the man, his wife, and three daughters in a miserable three-room company house.

You could tell if the stars were out at night by looking through the cracks in the wall. In the wintertime, a thread would stand almost horizontal from the breezes through the cracks. There was no water inside and a cold-water faucet out back. Twenty-five feet back of the house was a little outhouse. When you got off, the seat flew up, and an automatic flush business occurred.

The entire family slept in the same bedroom. There were beds jammed into this one room: the mother and father the older daughter in one, and the two youngest daughters shared the other. The living room was mostly for ornament. It was a wasted room, because in the wintertime the only room heated was the kitchen. ‘The kitchen was the social room, and both stoves were needed to keep it warm it didn’t stay warm for too long because the house wasn’t insulated. But that’s where the whole family lived during the entire winter. And all the houses in the village were about the same.

They were a lovely family. The husband and wife were about thirteen years older than I. She was always very motherly to me, and he was like a big brother. He was quite sophisticated, a worldly sort of guy, and she was a woman of wonderful courage and drive, very strong and yet very tender. And their kids were absolutely delightful. I got a tremendous case on the older daughter. I didn’t know her age at the time, and I assumed she was at least seventeen, because she sure looked it. I swear, it absolutely frightened me when, after we’d been going together pretty steady for about six months I discovered that she was only fourteen. I was twenty at the time. Her mother told me, and I nearly died. Then she had her fifteenth birthday and I felt a little bit better.

I even liked their dog. Through this family I got to know most of their relatives, and it was a big family on both sides. I must have stayed there for three or four months, and it was darn cold when I left. The mother didn’t think I was going to survive the winter in that living room, so she switched me over to her sister’s house.

Like many people’s, the sister’s marriage had broken up, and I lived there with her mother and son for what seemed like years. In spite of everything I survived the first winter there. I had so many covers on that if Ir tried to raise my feet upright I’d have broken my toes off. I had two sets of overalls: I’d work in one and sleep in the other. There’d be frost in the house sometimes, and I’d make a mad dash for the kitchen in the morning. They kept the stove going. And the lady of the house had the most marvelous breakfasts. Country food. Sunday morning would usually be pork chops and hominy grits, eggs, and biscuits.

I got a job in the Burlington mill in walking distance of the village. I worked the night shift at Hillcrest and devoted all my days to Party activity. I just got wedded to life there. I got to know practically everyone In the plant where I worked. I just loved the people there. Burlington was pretty hopeless for a union. They had about  eighty mills, and if anyone tried to organize a Burlington mill, they just closed the mill down and transferred operations to another. They’d leave four or five hundred people out of work and desperate, and then blacklist them. You couldn’t get a job anywhere. So we had no intention of organizing at Hillcrest. I just had to get a job someplace, and that was fine.

I made thirteen bucks a week, the minimum wage, thirty-two cents an hour, and had money to spare. I was in awfully good physical shape, but it was fantastically hard work. And what amazed me was that guys my age working there had faces like they were thirty-five or older. I’d find out some of them were younger than I. They were used to hard work, and they were wiry, but they absolutely couldn’t take the pace.

Burlington was the most rationalized of all the mills down there. They knew how to take every last drop of energy out of you on an eight-hour shift. To survive I rationalized my job, too, and it didn’t crush me. It’s true I wouldn’t have a dry seam in my clothes when I’d come out of the place. You’d have to take salt pills all night to keep from sweating yourself into heat prostration. It was about ninety degrees most of the time and very humid because of the rayon yarn.

These working-class guys my age would be old men by the time they made forty, if they made it, and they were just drained most of the time. The women had it even worse. A girl who started at nineteen was an old woman by twenty-nine. Usually the height of the machine was such that the women would have to sort of stoop their shoulders forward and poke their abdomens out, and the same was true in the cotton mills. The spinners had the same business: a pooched-out abdomen and slumped shoulders. It was the most frightful thing, and they all looked really old by the time they were thirty.

This place was organized by time-study experts. The speedup was incredible. One girl was twenty-five, and when I think back, she looked more like she was thirty-five. She was the star operator. She could do almost twice as much work as anybody else, their “show” operator. My God, she’d go around like she had six hands. It was just dizzying to watch her. Then one day she went stark-raving mad right at her machine, and it took five people to haul her out screaming and kicking. And she never came back. She ended up in a mental institution.

Even though I was working in another plant, I joined the cotton mill union so I could edit the monthly union paper and attend all the meetings. The chairman used to make me his parliamentarian, and I used to help smooth the meetings out. And I was always willing to do any kind of leg work.

After every union meeting on Saturday night, there’d be a big social gath-ering. In these days, you worked a half-day on Saturday, and that afternoon all the men in the village would go to the barbershop. This was the only bath you could take during the whole week, so we all lined up and tackled their six stall showers. They gave you a little bar of Lifebuoy soap and a towel for quarter.

Meanwhile, back in the houses, the women moved into the kitchens. No man could go into the kitchen because all the women, from infant to grandma, would be bathing. Every house had a huge corrugated iron tub, and hot water would be heated in everything that could hold it. Everybody would use this big tub. They couldn’t go dumping it out, and you couldn’t give everybody a new tub of water. So you’d just add water to it, and it’d get pretty raunchy by the time the last one got their turn. But, one way or an-other, everybody would go to the union meeting all sweet and clean.

Saturday night was always a light dinner, and about half the village would show up at the union meeting. The meeting would begin about seven o’clock, and we’d usually try to get the business over by eight-thirty. There would be very wide participation, and if it was near strike time, there’d usually be some pretty fancy oratory, mostly delivered by women. They were much more , verbal than the men, generally, and God, they were effective. I’d love to have been able to record some of those speeches.

As soon as the gavel pounded, the meeting adjourned, and a little string band would strike up, usually of union talent, with a couple of banjos, guitars, and a fiddle or two. The chairs would disappear like magic, and the whole huge hall became a dance floor. For a nominal fee, anybody could come to these marvelous dances, and we had our committee to keep things orderly and throw out the drunks.

I didn’t know how to square dance worth a hoot, and some of these real tough textile women took me in hand. I swear to God, there was one woman there who was a little five-by-five but strong as an ox, and every time I’d find myself in the wrong place, she would absolutely pick me up and put me where I belonged. I had to learn in a hurry in self-defense. She’d have killed me or at least taken my arm out of the socket. I got to be a real good square dancer and used to enjoy it immensely.

I think the social part of the evening was actually more important than the meetings, because those square dances were just unforgettable, and probably did more than anything to solidify the union. Everybody from toddlers on up would take part. The old folks would sit and watch the young’uns and relive their youth, and the little squirts would be dancing with each other just so they wouldn’t get trampled. The young squirts were dancing for real. The older folks up to forty or fifty were just having a marvelous time, and, of course, the teenagers were romancing like crazy. It was an extremely wholesome and delightful business. Some of my student friends from Chapel Hill would come over, and they absolutely got hooked. They’d be back every time they could.

These textile workers were about one generation, if that much, off the farm, and they had come to the city because life on the farm got tough. They had all of the country ways. One of the problems in the mill village was to try and stop people from keeping hogs in their small yards. Much of their charm and lingo was strictly farm and country. Yet they had acquired new ways, and many of them had been proletarianized by a lifetime in the mills.

The trade-union movement had really created a social revolution in the South, and I saw it in this mill village. This had been a place where the fore-man reigned supreme. It was a company town with a company store and a company church. The company paid the minister, and the minister preached that the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] was the antichrist. And if anybody fell afoul of the company, his credit was stopped at the company store. The company owned all the houses in the village. And if someone re-ally fell afoul, he could be evicted from his company house. So they lived under a real reign of terror.

Well, the organizing drive was undertaken with great risk and difficulty, and a lot of people joined together and pulled a strike. The strike staggered the company, and they put on a lot of police pressure. It was a tremendously educational thing for the people there, who thought if they stayed on the good side of the foreman they would make out pretty well.

The village split down the middle on whether or not to go to church. The union people didn’t want to hear the company say that the CIO was the agent of the devil, so a great many of them quit going.

The WPA at the time had some educational programs going, so the union (and the Party had considerable influence in the union) began encouraging and organizing adult-education classes on everything you can think of. People who had never finished sixth grade were enrolling and just getting the biggest joy out of it. Some learned things like typing and were able to get part-time jobs. It gave everyone a tremendous sense of self-confidence, and they were able to hold their heads up. It was a true social revolution, and most of these people became missionaries for unionism. It’s true that it lost most of its momentum after a while, but at that time it was a tremendously exciting thing to participate in. The union became the social center of the whole village.

Of course, it’s easy to remember the pleasant events and forget the horrors of poverty. One Saturday, I’d just gotten paid and had so much money I didn’t know what to do. I decided I’d take the three kids in the family to the movies. Well, next door was a family named Tysinger, and Ot and Mary Tysinger were probably in their late thirties and had nine children. They both worked in the mill. But Mary had been sick and hadn’t been able to work,which meant that Ot’s salary—he’d been working there for twenty years, since his teens, and was making fifteen dollars a week—had to support the family of eleven. The entire family was surviving on fifteen dollars a week.

When the kids, naturally excited, announced that Junius was taking them Iii the movies, I saw these nine Tysinger kids next door looking at me with big sad and dejected eyes. So we got hold of the Tysinger kids. I think the bus fare was a nickel each way, and the kids could get in for a dime at the movie, so I spent quite a bit. But it was the first time any of these Tysinger kids—and the oldest was twelve—had seen a movie. So I got to see the horror of living on this kind of a wage in a textile village. The oldest Tysinger child, Carrie, was a lovely little girl, but she was skinny, and her color was bad. She had a kidney ailment, and the doctor said she should have a lot of fresh vegetables, and this and that and the other, you know, an elaborate diet, which on Ot’s fifteen dollars a week was about as feasible as a snowball in hell. They ate white beans, the staple. They had biscuits sometimes, corn bread, cabbage, and fatback, but that was about it. If they had anything else, they considered it a gala occasion. And for Carrie’s kidney ailment, this was not the thing.

One day, these God-awful screams came from the Tysingers’ outhouse, and I ran over to find that Carrie’s guts had collapsed, and she had eight inches of intestines hanging out of her. I pushed them in with the handle of a hearth broom. This was the horror this poor kid lived with. Later I heard she was married and had moved away, but it was just nip and tuck whether she would grow up or not. And I bet you anything that by the time she was thirty she was a physical wreck, if she even lived that long. You’d see kids with rickets from undernourishment, bowed legs toddling around.

What poverty and those incredible wages did to these people was horrible. And, yet, the mill owner was always putting on the dog, as we would say, flashing his money, and you’d read about all his doings, all about his family, in the society section of the High Point Enterprise, and here were these poor people, and it was all wrung out of them.

If anyone could doubt the existence of the class struggle, you surely couldn’t while living in a mill village. It was unforgettable, especially when somebody stopped being a case and became a person. They weren’t welfare cases: they were people you lived with and loved and spent your time with. It just increased my dedication and determination to do anything and everything I could to change this kind of thing.

The union grew and prospered and in the winter of ’41 I was named chair-man of the organizing committee of the Textile Workers’ local. Actually, we had one little foothold of organized workers in a sea of unorganized workers. And seamless hosiery, men’s socks and cheap women’s hose, was one of the largest industries at the time. I began to collect names and contacts in various hosiery mills to see if we couldn’t eventually stage a drive to organize some of those unorganized workers. I was planning to leave Hillcrest to get a job in a hosiery mill.

I was going with a girl at the time, a southern Jewish girl, a sophomore at Chapel Hill, and began courting her pretty seriously. In June of ’41, the day after the invasion of the Soviet Union, we got married.

Back at Hillcrest, the company had gotten on to me and had discovered I was a union bug. The day after my wedding weekend, they fired me. I got a job in an unorganized cotton mill, and we got a two-room apartment nearby the village. It had a toilet outside in the hall, and the walls were painted a shit brindle, the most horrible color I have ever seen. But we were happy, and I was working day and night building up my contacts among seamless hosiery workers in about thirty different textile mills. I had a little file case of names on three-by-five cards, which I kept hidden in the chimney.

It was an easy walk to the Pickett Cotton Mill, but it was a killer of a job. I lasted about three months and learned to do most of the jobs there. They fired me for union activity.

Then, with elaborate phony references, I got a job at Thomas’s Hosiery Mill, a long bus ride away. And, of course, working in a seamless hosiery plant made it that much easier to make contacts. There were about eighty mills in the vicinity of High Point and something like five thousand seam-less hosiery workers. Anybody with twenty thousand dollars’ capital could go into business and get a couple of knitting machines.

The American Federation of Hosiery Workers had been eyeing this area because it was such a wide-open shop and ripe to be organized. The wages were so terribly low and the working conditions awful. But It was tough to organize because the companies were blacklisting right and left. They soon found out that I had made contact with all the best and likeliest union people. So in the fall of ’41, our union and the American Federation of Hosiery Workers decided on a joint organizing drive.

A busload of hosiery workers came in from Roanoake, Virginia, and the president and several vice presidents of the national union and a whole crew of organizers came down. We had a big meeting in the High Point union hall officially launched the drive. I was to quit my mill job the next day and join the union payroll as an assistant chief organizer.

The meeting adjourned Sunday afternoon in early December, and as we got downstairs, somebody told us Pearl Harbor had been bombed. And that watt the end of the hosiery drive because, within forty-eight hours, the government had frozen all the raw rayon and silk. By the end of the week, practically all the seamless hosiery workers were heading for Norfolk, Virginia, and Wilmington, North Carolina, to get jobs in shipbuilding and other port-related industries. It was a major exodus, and one hosiery mill after another dosed down. The industry just melted away, and all my contacts and my little card  file just went to pot. It didn’t take me more than twenty-four hours to realize that all my organizing plans had gone down the drain, and the following day I volunteered to enlist in the army.

June 19, 2015

Professors as contingent labor: a Left Forum 2015 workshop

Filed under: Academia,workers — louisproyect @ 12:37 am

This is the fifth and final video I recorded at the Left Forum over the weekend of May 29 to 31. Titled “Organizing Grad Student, Contingent, and Tenure-Track Faculty: A Fight Against Corporatization for the Soul of Higher Education”, it touched on matters close to my heart as a 21 year employee of Columbia University, someone very concerned about the corporatization of Bard College and the New School where I studied in the early to mid-sixties, and very close to someone who is both an adjunct and a tenure-track professor. For my earlier thoughts on what’s going on in academia, I’d refer you to my review of Frank Donoghue’s “The Last Professors” written in 2008. (http://louisproyect.org/2008/06/19/the-last-professors/)

Kathryn Eskew, who is a tenured professor at Hilbert College in upstate NY, chaired the meeting and spoke about her administration’s efforts to cut tenured faculty.

Ruth Wangerin is a long-time adjunct at the College of Staten Island, which is part of the CUNY system. She described a two-tiered labor system in her school and the rest of CUNY that undermines solidarity just as it does in the auto industry and other one-time strongholds of the AFL-CIO.

Joe Richard, who is a member of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, gave an inspiring talk about how the faculty and blue-collar staff joined forces to take on an administration bent on undermining wages and working conditions.

Natasha Raheja is with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee at NYU, a group that has had relative success in resisting an administration that practically defines corporatization.

May 12, 2015

Metropolis has arrived

Filed under: computers,workers — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

Screen shot 2015-05-12 at 1.58.24 PM

Whenever you drive up to a McDonald’s window, or push your grocery cart to a Stop & Shop checkout line, or head to the register at Uniqlo with a blue lambswool sweater in hand, you, too, are about to be swept up into a detailed system of metrics. A point-of-sale (P.O.S.) system connected to the cash register captures the length of time between the end of the last customer’s transaction and the beginning of yours, how quickly the cashier rings up your order, and whether she has sold you on the new Jalapeño Double. It records how quickly a cashier scans each carton of milk and box of cereal, how many times she has to rescan an item, and how long it takes her to initiate the next sale. This data is being tracked at the employee level: some chains even post scan rates like scorecards in the break room; others have a cap on how many mistakes an employee can make before he or she is put on probation.

Until recently, most retail and fast-food schedules were handmade by managers who were familiar with the strengths of their staff and their scheduling needs. Now an algorithm takes the P.O.S. data and spits out schedules that are typically programmed to fit store traffic, not employees’ lives. Scheduling software systems, some built in-house, some by third-party firms, analyze historical data (how many sales there were on this day last year, how rain or a Yankees game affects revenue) as well as moment-by-moment updates on the number of customers in the store or the number of sweaters sold in the past hour or the pay rate of each employee on the clock—what Kronos, one of the leading suppliers of these systems, calls “oceans of valuable workforce data.” In the world of retail, all of this information points toward one killer K.P.I.: labor cost as a percentage of revenue.

In postwar America, many retailers sought to increase profits by maximizing sales, a strategy that pushed stores to overstaff so that every customer received assistance, and by offering generous bonuses to star salespeople with strong customer relationships. Now the trend is to keep staffing as lean as possible, to treat employees as temporary and replaceable, and to schedule them exactly and only when needed. Charles DeWitt, a vice president at Kronos, calls it “the era of cost.”

from “The Spy Who Fired Me: The human costs of workplace monitoring” by Esther Kaplan. The article is behind a paywall in the March 2015 Harpers but thankfully can be read in its entirety here: http://populardemocracy.org/sites/default/files/HarpersMagazine-2015-03-0085373.pdf

April 15, 2015

Adalen 31

Filed under: Film,Sweden,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 4:48 pm

After a number of false starts, I was finally able to upload Bo Widerberg’s “Adalen 31” to Youtube, a film that I saw when it came out in 1969 and that has lingered in my memory all these years. The title is a reference to a general strike in the Adalen district by paper mill workers in 1931 that led to the first in a series of Social Democratic governments that for many people defined the word socialism. What I took away from the film, besides its stunning artistic power, was the idea that there was a dialectical relationship between revolutionary struggle and reform. If not for the four men and one young girl who were shot down in the village of Lunde on May 14, 1931, it is altogether possible that the modern Scandinavian welfare state never would have been born.

Yesterday I watched the film for the first time in 46 years and realize now why it has stuck with me. Despite the languid and pastoral quality of the first two-thirds of the film, which typified Widerberg’s “Elvira Madigan” made two years earlier, the final third is a powerful recreation of the armed attack on a demonstration that resonated with the struggles taking place around the world in 1969. And it will resonate now with people watching it for the first time who have the Marikana massacre fresh in their mind, or any other military attack on protesters in the Middle East and North Africa.

The film opens in the house of Harald Andersson, a man who has been out on strike for a number of months. He has three sons, the eldest of whom is named Kjell and is in his late teens. Kjell plays trumpet in the trade union marching band but probably prefers playing jazz.

The primary drama in the film revolves around Kjell’s romance with the daughter of one of the paper mill owners, a blonde girl named Hedvig who is troubled by the bitter strike but not to the extent of breaking with her father.

Widerberg is obviously interested in tensions between the personal and political since another story line involves Harald giving first aid to a wounded scab worker in his home. When he is confronted by his fellow trade unionists, he makes the case that violence undermines their cause and insists that negotiation was the only way forward.

When the army is brought in to defend the scabs’ barracks, the union organizes a march on their stronghold with the marching band in the front ranks playing the Internationale. In an interview with the NY Times’s Mel Gussow in October 1969, Widerberg revealed that 3,000 extras were used in the scene and that he developed the action just two hours before shooting began.

Despite the absence of the word Communist throughout the film, there is little doubt as to the affiliations of the leadership of the strike and many of the rank-and-file workers. Axel Nordström, who served 2 ½ years of hard labor for his role as a strike organizer, was a Communist member of Parliament from 1937 to 1940. In an article on the Adalen general strike that appeared in the Swedish section of Alan Woods’s International Marxist Tendency (http://www.marxist.se/artikel/adalen-31-det-vi-aldrig-far-glomma), there’s a report on the killings that day from Harry Nordlander, a member of the Communist youth group in Adalen:

As we approached the ferry pier near the meadow, where we said that we would turn, a soldier on horseback charged us. The rider shouted something and then fired his gun over his shoulder, probably frightened by a banner that fluttered. Some of the marchers saw bullet holes in the banner. Then we heard clearly a loud command: Fire! The bullets began to whistle through the air. They did not come from the front, but from the side a few yards from the lead.

Then we saw how one of the musicians rushed forward in the hail of bullets and blew “cease fire” [recreated by Kjell in the scene]. The guns fell silent. It was the young Communist Vera who showed courage and presence of mind to stop the killing. But there were already five comrades dead or dying and several more wounded. One of those killed was a young girl who stood in the garden at the side of the road. Her name was Eira Söderberg and was a member of our youth club in Svanö.

 The best account of the Adalen struggles can be found on the Global Nonviolent Action Database located at Swarthmore University. Interestingly enough, Axel Nordström is cited in this article as being opposed to violence against scabs—this despite the fact that the CP’s were aligned with the Kremlin’s ultraleft turn at the time:

In the fall of 1930, the management of a sawmill in Lunde in the Ådalen Valley announced wage cuts for all workers. In response the laborers began a strike.

The workers continued their strike through the fall, shutting down the mill. The director of the Lunde mill also had investments in two pulp mills in nearby towns. In January 1931 the laborers in these two mills began a sympathy strike. Meanwhile workers and management held ongoing negotiations.

Axel Nordström, a communist leader, was one of the leaders of the strike campaign and the workers also had ties to LO.

On May 12, when management called in outside strikebreakers to commence work in the three mills, the strike leaders immediately put up fliers against the strikebreakers. These fliers also called for further protests, work stoppages in other industries, mass demonstrations, and a meeting scheduled for the next day.

The county government ordered police to protect the strikebreakers and sent several officers to the meeting. At the meeting Axel Nordström called for demonstrations, but did not condone violence against the strikebreakers. The strikers decided to march and demonstrate at one of the mills where workers were holding a sympathy strike. Once at the mill another leader spoke and a band played the workers’ theme song. The demonstrators there decided to get rid of the strikebreakers.

Police asked Nordström to prevent the protesters from hurting the strikebreakers, but he was no longer in control of the situation. Demonstrators pulled strikebreakers from the mill, and inflicted some minor injuries. The strikers then chose to hold another meeting the next day and follow it with a march to the mill in Lunde where the strike had begun. They continued protests that day, throwing stones at the strikebreakers’ barracks and knocking out electricity for the city of Lunde.

Bo Widerberg is pretty much a forgotten figure today with very poor representation on the usual sources. None of his films are available on Netflix or Amazon, and in the well-stocked Columbia film library you can only locate “Elvira Madigan”. Despite the fact that his films are now in the public domain, the only one that could be seen previously on Youtube was “Joe Hill”, a 1971 film about the martyred IWW member who was born Joel Emanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden.

Widerberg died on May Day 1997, a symbolic date for the radical filmmaker who was born into a working-class family in Malmo sixty-six years earlier. He started off as a film critic professionally, creating controversy with his 1962 book “The Vision of Swedish Cinema” that took aim at Ingmar Bergman and his followers for being “preoccupied with problems that didn’t interest me and my generation of comrades.” He found that the Sweden Bergman represented was “not contemporary at all”.

Clearly Widerberg was tuned into the Marxist detective novel authors that I wrote about for CounterPunch back in September 2014. Fortunately his 1976 “Man on the Roof” that was based on the Martin Beck novel co-authored by Marxist husband and wife writing team Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall can be seen with English subtitles at Daily Motion, something that I hope to see along with “Joe Hill” the first chance I get.

October 31, 2014

Braddock America; The Hadza: Last of the First

Filed under: Film,indigenous,workers — louisproyect @ 9:20 pm

Two very fine documentaries that opened today in New York serve as counterpoint to Joan Robinson’s observation in “Economic Philosophy” that “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”

“Braddock America”, which will be showing at the Anthology Film Archive, is an obvious confirmation of Robinson insofar as it demonstrates the terrible human costs of a Pennsylvania town losing 90 percent of its jobs as the steel mills closed down. By contrast, “The Hadza: Last of the First”, which opens at the Quad, suggests that the worst thing for a gathering-and-hunting tribe of a thousand souls that has lived outside the capitalist economy for millennia in Tanzania would be wage labor. Furthermore, the primitive communism of the Hadza points to alternatives to the current wage slavery that offers nothing but a Hobson’s choice to humanity: “take it or leave it”.

“Braddock America” was co-directed by a French team, Jean-Loïc Portron and Gabriella Kessler. If you’ve seen Tony Buba’s films, you will be familiar with the terrain. Braddock is a Detroit in miniature. The film opens with a drive past boarded up homes and abandoned factories. From an economic standpoint, there are obvious comparisons with the Great Depression but with one key difference. In the 1930s the factories were operating at full tilt and as such the workers could apply immense pressure on the bosses by withholding their labor. But when the factories are gone, there’s not much leverage. Presented with an ultimatum of “take it or leave it”, the former steel workers of Braddock leave it.

As a documentary, “Braddock America” takes a rather eclectic approach. It is a mixture of Frederick Wiseman cinema vérité, interviews with various Braddock residents affected by the collapse of the mills, and archival footage showing life as it was in the past. In its heyday, Braddock was a bustling town that in exchange for dangerous and backbreaking work could offer wages sufficient to buy a row house and consumer goods, as well as pay for the tuition  your kid needed to get a decent education and an exit out of the mills. One of the interviewees is a middle-aged African-American man who judging by his impressive art collection has benefited from the advantages his blue-collar father was able to provide. As he begins describing the sacrifices his father made, the man begins to cry, something that happens frequently with the shell-shocked interviewees.

Since I am familiar with Buba’s work, I was able to recognize a number of the townspeople who have appeared in his films, including Tony himself. Unfortunately, the directors made an unwise decision to avoid identifying the people who are featured in the film except in the closing credits. Since a number of them were obvious experts on the history of the town, I regretted not being able to follow up by Googling their name. Perhaps this was done in order to maintain the vérité effect but I would advise up-and-coming filmmakers to avoid this practice like the plague.

Although I would be very interested in the Braddock story on its own terms, it resonated even deeper with me as having a similar experience with the collapse of the tourist industry in my upstate New York county that is now one of the poorest in the state. As the counterpart of Detroit’s auto plants and Braddock’s steel mills, the hotels of my youth have either been demolished or abandoned. With no prospects for opening a small business catering to the tourist industry, local residents can also “take it or leave it”. Taking it means working as a prison guard or selling drugs, two jobs that reinforce each other.

“Braddock America” is a graphic reminder of how bad things have become in the United States. Economic collapse has produced a kind of radicalization in the ranks of the people who live there that is a reminder of Marx’s dictum that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” A local cop is heard saying that the CEO’s are destroying the country. A priest opens the service giving what amounts to a liberation theology sermon. All that is missing is the economic power that can put the ruling class on the defensive and ultimately bring its rule to an end. The problem we face in the 21st century is that Robinson’s observation cuts both ways. Not only does failing to be exploited lead to hunger and illness, it also robs the worker of the one thing that can stop the boss in his tracks: the ability to withhold one’s labor.

Of all the films I have seen over the years about precapitalist society, none has come closer to confirming Engels’s take on the Iroquois in “Origins of the Family, Private Property than the Hadza:

There cannot be any poor or needy – the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free – the women included.

The anthropologists who are interviewed in “The Hadza: Last of the First” concur that this tiny group of people living in the Rift Valley, where homo sapiens is first encountered, have a social organization that most closely resembles how humanity lived for upwards of 90 percent of its existence. Among the Hadza, there are no chiefs and nobody goes hungry, as long as there is sufficient food to go around. They are also people who try to avoid conflict as much as possible. When they first realized that the German and British colonizers threatened their way of life, they did not make war. They withdrew into the bush.

Unlike the slanderous accusation made by people like Shepard Krech about precapitalist societies being as wasteful as capitalist, the Hadza only kill what they plan to eat. They also are perfectly integrated into the ecosystem of their surroundings. When they come across a bee hive, they make sure to leave the combs that have been stripped of honey for the honeybirds that use them for their nests. They also enjoy a life of leisure that is unknown to the wage slave. When they have ample food, they stop their hunting and gathering, and rest. They are the perfect confirmations of what Marshall Sahlins called stone-age leisure. He accumulated data that demonstrated that in a representative hunting and gathering society, after adding up all the time spent in all economic activities (plant collecting, food preparation, and weapon repair), the average male worked three hours and forty-five minutes a day, while females worked on average just five minutes longer. Of course, they do not have cable television to stare at in their leisure time but after recently taking in a few minutes of Lena Dunham’s “Girls”, I wonder how much advantage there is in that.

While much of “The Hadza: Last of the First” is inspirational, the same sense of futility found in the Braddock film can be found here. If economic contraction has led to a crisis in a small Pennsylvania town, it is economic expansion that is leading to the same sort of social breakdown in Tanzania. Of the 1000 Hadza people, only 300 live by traditional means. In its haste to “develop” Tanzania, the ruling party has adopted economic policies that favor assimilation of precapitalist social formations into a new national identity based on a common language and state-sponsored agricultural projects—the “African socialism” of Julius Nyere that had little to do with socialism.

Export-oriented agribusiness has been accelerating in Tanzania just like the rest of Africa driven in large part by Chinese neocolonialism. The privatization of land forces pastoral societies to expand into Hadza territory. To create grazing land for the cattle, bush has to be cleared, thus reducing the number of animals that can be hunted.

The economic pressure on Tanzania from global capitalism threatens the existence of a people who are the closest link we have to a long-lost world where greed and violence were unknown. Despite the nonsense from Napoleon Chagnon and Jared Diamond, the evidence that Hadza society presents is one of peace and harmony even if it rests on a very thin margin. The mortality rate of the Hadza is very high due to diseases such as malaria and diarrhea, endemic to people living in remote areas where mosquito infestation is widespread and where water contains impurities.

The answer of course is to combine the communism of our ancestors with modern technology. Marx spent much time compiling an ethnological notebook. He was determined to find justification for his belief in the unnaturalness of capitalism by compiling the record of how peoples lived in its absence. I can only imagine the big smile that would have come across his face as he sat through a screening of “The Hadza: Last of the First”.


September 27, 2014


Filed under: Film,workers — louisproyect @ 5:13 pm

Opening yesterday at three multiplex theaters in New York rather than in the art house circuit, “Pride” is calculated to appeal to a broader audience than one might expect given its theme: the alliance between a gay liberation group and the coal miners on strike against Margaret Thatcher in 1984.

This makes perfect sense since the art house venue would be the classic case of preaching to the choir.

As I sat through the press screening on Thursday night, I was impressed with director Matthew Warchus and screenwriter Stephen Beresford’s popular culture instincts. Basically, they put together a kind of musical comedy along the lines of “Footloose” in which a transgressive outsider from the big city breaks down the prejudices of a backward rural village. “Footloose”, made in 1984 when British gays and strikers were bonding with each other, is about the uphill battle a teenage boy has in overturning a local preacher’s ban on rock music and dancing. In “Pride”, the struggle is to gain acceptance from the miners and their families even when the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) have raised more money than any other support group.

There’s a key scene in “Pride” that not only evokes “Footloose” but two other icons of pop culture as well. The LGSM’ers have come to the miner’s village to drop off the weekly collections and to join in the festivities at a dance in the local union hall. As has been the case since they first began showing up, the miners stay as far from the gays as they can. They appreciate the solidarity but deeply rooted prejudices keep them at a distance.

In a flash of inspiration, one of the gay men has the DJ play a wailing disco tune that brings the women out on the floor. He joins them in a bravura performance that starts off mimicking John Travolta’s in “Saturday Night Fever” and comes to a climax with him dancing across the union hall’s bar like Pee-Wee Herman did in a biker’s bar in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”. In all instances, a smoking hot dancer breaks down the stiffest resistance. Even if Pee-Wee and Travolta were not explicitly gay, those in the know always knew they were.

In a way, it doesn’t matter that the film fails to point out that the miners went back to work because Thatcher broke the strike. The film ends with a Gay Pride parade with three busloads of miners joining in under the banner of the LGSM, as happened historically. While not a documentary by any stretch of the imagination, the film does not exaggerate the importance of the alliance between two groups shunned by bourgeois society. When the Murdoch press tried to drive a wedge between the two by publishing an “exposé” about “perverts” infiltrating the miner’s support movement, the LGSM came up with the brilliant idea of organizing a fundraising dance under the title “Pits and Perverts” that raised record sums. The lead group was the Bronski Beat, a fabulous band led by Jimmy Somerville, a gay man with a falsetto that would make an angel cry.

If the film gave short shrift to the outcome of the strike for obvious reasons, it was perhaps an even bigger failing that it neglected to identify the political orientation of Mark Ashton, the young man who came up with the idea for LGSM and who died of AIDS in 1987. The film alludes to him as getting involved because he was from Northern Ireland but there was more to it than that as the Guardian reported on September 20th:

But while many of those who inspired the film attended its recent premiere, Mark Ashton was absent. He died in 1987 of an Aids-related illness at the age of just 26. But now the film has sparked a surge of interest in his political activism. A memorial fund in his memory has received donations of more than £10,000 since the film’s release this month.

“He was an everything person,” said his friend Chris Birch. “He was an Irishman, a communist, an agitator, a lapsed Catholic who still went to mass very occasionally. He was very charismatic. His communism governed everything he did. He spent a couple of months in Bangladesh in ’82 and the poverty really politicised him. I miss him terribly. People tell me I didn’t smile for three months after he died.”

The Communist connection was always there, even if it was missing from the film. The Guardian article continues:

“We sought to broaden the struggle beyond the picket lines to what we called an anti-Thatcher broad democratic alliance,” recalled Hywel Francis, MP for Aberavon, and a former member of the Communist party, who helped forge links between the gay community and Welsh miners. “That is why our support group also set up the South Wales Striking Miners’ Choir and the South Wales Striking Miners’ Rugby Team.”

I can’t recommend this film highly enough for your friends and relatives who were too young to have lived through a period when the class struggle was still in the ascendancy. As the “sixties” began to wane, there was still enough of the lingering spirit of rebellion and solidarity that British miners and gays could make common cause.

Heading back home from the movie on Thursday, I reflected on how many years had passed when such things were possible. It was thirty years ago when LGSM was in the vanguard. When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, I had no idea what it meant to see the labor movement in action as was the case in 1937. I only wish someone had made a film about the auto workers in Flint that would convey what was possible long before I was born.

While the labor movement was not that much of a movement when I became an activist, there were still some signs that a broader mass movement could bring together disparate elements here just as would happen in Britain. This is a report on how truck-drivers, the American equivalent of the British miners, sought out student antiwar protesters to support their strike in 1970. David McDonald, who was a member of the student support group, is the author:

The Student Worker Action Collective got its start on the Monday after the Kent State killings. The UCLA Student Union building had been thoroughly trashed and its main assembly room was emptied of earlier stuff which had been replaced by over one hundred tables staffed by various organizations of do-gooders, radicals of all stripes, people handing out peanut butter sandwiches, you name it.

Up walks Steve __________ (God help me, I’ve forgotten his last name). He worked in the office of a trucking company. The week before the 1970 Master Freight Agreement had come up for a vote in Teamster Local #208, representing local delivery drivers. The membership had rebelled, because their prior local contract, like a few others around the country, had better provisions than the proposed contract. So it was a giveback contract, pretty unheard of in those days. This occurred because Hoffa wanted all the Teamster across the country to have the same contract (a worthwhile idea, of course). Anyway, just as the rebelling local drivers were about to vote down the MFA and go on strike the meeting was gavelled closed by the local leadership. The rump body voted to strike anyway, but of course their vote was technically illegal and the bosses instantly got the courts to limit their picketting to two people per terminal by injunction.

So Steve ________ came over to UCLA and said something like, you kids are on strike, we’re on strike, but we can’t walk our own picket lines, so what if you organized a bunch of kids to come out and walk the lines for us? It was absolutely the coolest proposition anyone had ever made to any of us, so we got started on it right away. There was nothing, absolutely nothing to organizing a turnout of 2-300 kids every day to go wherever the Teamsters wanted us. Our biggest problem was always finding the barns, tucked away in corners of south LA none of us was familiar with, but we got over that. There were lots of fights with cops and pretty soon the cops began bringing giant black and white buses to cart us off in. So the Teamsters adapted and started having us show up at different places each day. Once they sent us to one barn to draw away the cops, and set off a bomb at another. That got some attention. There was a kid named Attila who had one of the first video cameras I’d ever seen, and he got the Auto workers to pay him to do a documentary of the whole thing. I never saw it. It was a very cool introduction to working class politics.

Several strike leaders went to jail for reasonably short times because they would go up in the mountains and take pot shots at scabbing truckers. We went to their trial and supported them with our little newspaper. These efforts were appreciated and when they got sprung we were invited to the out of jail party, at which I order a Coors (scab, unknown to me) beer and got unmercifully kidded about it and had to drink it with about 50 guys watching me, laughing their asses off at my newbyness at union movement stuff. SWAC boiled down to about 25-30 regulars after the Teamster strike ended (in defeat, of course) who then got lost in search of more strikes to support. Meanwhile, lots of us graduated (or so we thought) to the IS, which with WWP was the only tendency to consistently view the radicals in SWAC as recruitment material. Through people we met in the strike we later got wind of a pension reform group called $500 at 50, whose initial meeting in Grover E.(Curly) Best’s garage Steve Kindred and I attended. They had no trouble spotting us for ringers, but they didn’t care, we were good kids as far as they were concerned, and they took us along to a national rank-and-file gathering in Toledo, Ohio where we were the only ones with a mimeo machine, which Kindred and I transported from LA in a 45-hour non-stop (except to pee) drive. This little grouping blew up in no time at all, but it was the direct precursor to Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and Ken Paff, its longtime organizer, was a Bay Area ISer who, in my view at the time, vamped on our group to do his own thing. It’s all pretty boring after that.

Those days will return. Trust me. You can’t keep kicking someone while they are down, especially when they number in the tens of millions and the people doing the kicking are in the thousands. If “Pride” succeeds in reminding a mass audience of how such things come about, it will be making a great contribution—not to speak of the wonderful music and dancing.


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