Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 16, 2011

Thoughts on Zizek’s “The Idea of Communism” conference

Filed under: Academia,Lenin,liberalism,postmodernism,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

In a striking inability to gauge the mood of a good portion of its targeted audience, Verso Press distributed an announcement for this weekend’s “The Idea of Communism” conference with a couple of blurbs referencing its éminence grise and majordomo Slavoj Zizek as follows:

“Superstar messiah of the new left.” – OBSERVER

“Slavoj Zizek is a superstar of Elvis-like magnitude–a bogglingly dynamic whirlwind of brainpower.” – DAZED AND CONFUSED

Superstar… Elvis-like… Messiah…

No wonder so many people bought into the hoax that Zizek and Lady Ga Ga were intellectual soul mates.

To some extent this obsession with celebrity is understandable because the powers that be at Verso Press and New Left Review must see themselves in the same terms. Whether this has anything to do with the proletarian orientation of the movement that Marx founded is of course another story altogether. How odd that the goal of some “revolutionaries” today is a guest appearance on the Charlie Rose show or a profile in Vanity Fair.

While I was put off by the publicity, I felt I owed it to myself and my readers to take advantage of Verso’s live streaming of the event. I have become more and more aware of a kind of trend emerging around Zizek, Jodi Dean and Alan Badiou that is distinguished by its insistence on using the term communism as well as its admiration for Lenin. It is a barometer of opinion in the academy that “communism” and Lenin can be placed in the center of a professor’s escutcheon (likely after attaining the safety of tenure.)

While Zizek refers to himself frequently as a “die-hard” Leninist, there is some question whether he understands the fundamental basis of Lenin’s politics, namely class independence. In a October 29, 2009 interview with Jonathan Derbyshire in the New Statesman Zizek said:

I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it. Do whatever is possible. This is why I support Obama. I think the battle he is fighting now over healthcare is extremely important, because it concerns the very core of the ruling ideology. The core of the campaign against Obama is freedom of choice. And the lesson, if he wins, is that freedom of choice is certainly something beautiful, but that it only works against a background of regulations, ethical presuppositions, economic conditions and so on. My position isn’t that we should sit down and wait for some big revolution to come. We have to engage wherever we can. If Obama wins his battle over healthcare, if some kind of blow can be struck against the ideology of freedom of choice, it will have been a victory worth fighting for.

While many are the charlatans who spoke in the name of Karl Marx, starting with Eduard Bernstein, Zizek has the distinction of saying the most anti-Leninist things in the name of Lenin, it would appear.

Unlike Zizek, whose “Leninism” is of recent vintage, Badiou is a soixante-huit Maoist. While Badiou’s fellow Maoists (André Glucksmann, Bernard-Henri Lévy et al) became turncoats, he remains true to his youthful beliefs. That, plus the fact that the Kasama Project speaks highly of him, gives him a certain legitimacy. That being said, Badiou seems to share the prevalent philosophical idealism of his fellow conferees (illness prevented Badiou from making an appearance).

Zizek, Dean, Badiou are clearly in the tradition of what Perry Anderson diagnosed in his 1976 “Considerations of Western Marxism”. Back in 1992 or so, when I was first exposed to the academic left on the Internet, I was so perplexed by all of the philosophical mumbo-jumbo that I found myself searching for an explanation of where it came from. I had given up my pursuit of a philosophy PhD in 1967 to join the Trotskyist movement and could not fathom why so many Marxist intellectuals were touting exactly the thinkers who I had abandoned 25 years earlier: Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger et al. As Marx had put it, the point was to change it. Right?

Anderson, no matter his confusion over so many things nowadays, had a pretty good explanation:

Western Marxism as a whole thus paradoxically inverted the trajectory of Marx’s own development itself. Where the founder of historical materialism moved progressively from philosophy to politics and then economics, as the central terrain of his thought, the successors of the tradition that emerged after 1920 increasingly turned back from economics and politics to philosophy – abandoning direct engagement with what had been the great concerns of the mature Marx, nearly as completely as he had abandoned direct pursuit of the discursive issues of his youth. The wheel, in this sense, appeared to have turned full circle. In fact, of course, no simple reversion occurred, or could occur. Marx’s own philosophical enterprise had been primarily to settle accounts with Hegel and his major heirs and critics in Germany, especially Feuerbach. The theoretical object of his thought was essentially the Hegelian system. For Western Marxism by contrast – despite a prominent revival of Hegelian studies within it – the main theoretical object became Marx’s own thought itself. Discussion of this did not, of course, ever confine itself to the early philosophical writings alone. The massive presence of Marx’s economic and political works precluded this. But the whole range of Marx’s oeuvre was typically treated as the source material from which philosophical analysis would extract the epistemological principles for a systematic use of Marxism to interpret (and transform) the world – principles never explicitly or fully set out by Marx himself. No philosopher within the Western Marxist tradition ever claimed that the main or ultimate aim of historical materialism was a theory of knowledge. But the common assumption of virtually all was that the preliminary task of theoretical research within Marxism was to disengage the rules of social enquiry discovered by Marx, yet buried within the topical particularity of his work, and if necessary to complete them. The result was that a remarkable amount of the output of Western Marxism became a pro­longed and intricate Discourse on Method. The primacy accorded to this endeavour was foreign to Marx, in any phase of his development.

For Anderson, the key to understanding the “philosophical” turn was the series of defeats in the 1920s and 30s that left many intellectuals in despair. If Stalinist and imperialist hegemony militated against the revolutionary project, then the next best thing might be an academic career where a kind of watered-down Marxism might be tapped for interesting lectures on Alfred Hitchcock movies and the like for audiences at conferences in places like London or Paris, with travel and hotel paid by one’s employer. That would be much more profitable than writing analyses of the capitalist economy in order to help develop strategy and tactics for the workers movement. That might have been how Lenin became a celebrity of sorts in Czarist Russia but that route was excluded for the modern and chastened left academy. Plus, Alfred Hitchcock movies were a lot more fun than pouring over land tenure or labor demographics.

Household chores and other research projects prevented me from watching the entire conference, but I did manage to check out the Saturday morning talks by Bruno Bosteels and Susan Buck-Morss, and Sunday’s with Jodi Dean and Zizek. The brunt of my comments will be directed at Dean and Zizek, but I do want to say a few brief words about Bosteels and Buck-Morss.

Bosteels’s talk was a mild polemic directed against Zizek’s attempt to reconcile Marxism and Christianity, the subject of his 2001 “The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?” Bosteel’s talk first appeared as an article titled “Are There Any Saints Left? León Rozitchner as a Reader of Saint Augustine” in the 2008 Polygraph (19/20). It is essentially an indictment of St. Augustine as a precursor to modern day imperialism, a rather uncontroversial thesis given the fact that his “City of God” was essentially a defense of the Holy Roman Empire. As my senior thesis at Bard College was a study of this book, I confess to having no inkling of its sinister motives at the time. I was a big fan of St. Augustine’s Confessions that resonated with my own adolescent angst and assumed that “The City of God” would be more of the same.

At the time (1965), I never once considered that a book might serve reactionary aims. My only problem with Bosteels’s approach to this classic is that it can easily be interpreted as idealistic. In other words, St. Augustine’s bad ideas explain the horrors of the Crusades, etc. At the risk of sounding hopelessly old-fashioned, I would look at the Crusades as driven more by a need to challenge Muslim commercial interests and to open up trade routes, but that’s just me and my moldy fig Marxism.

The first half of Susan Buck-Morss’s talk on communism and ethics was largely incomprehensible, dwelling on ontology and other matters related more to philosophy than political economy. The second half was what Teresa Ebert once called a “postal” attack on Marxism, including the usual complaints that it prioritizes a working class that no longer exists, instructs women and Blacks to wait until capitalism is overthrown for its problems to be solved—in other words, a mindless caricature.

Buck-Morss is an Adorno expert and as such found herself in the good graces of the Platypus Society that is striving after a synthesis of the Spartacist League and the Frankfurt School. In an April 2011 interview with the group, Buck-Morss told the boys what was wrong with people like Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh:

The whole discourse of “the enemy” or “the class enemy” in the Old Left was about putting people against the wall and shooting. I do not consider it progressive anymore, if it ever was, to justify violent insurrection on the basis that the state was not going to fall on its own.

Her grasp of economics is as sure-footed as her grasp of the nature of the state. The next morning she took the mike after Jodi Dean’s talk and relayed her concerns about the OWS 1/99 percent distinction that did not address the fact that many people in the United States were “capitalistic” because of their mortgages and their 401-k’s. When I used to sell the Militant newspaper door-to-door in the Columbia University dormitories in 1969, I used to hear the same argument. Little did I expect to hear it from a relatively famous almost-Marxist professor.

Google “Jodi Dean” and “Communist Desire” and you’ll be able to read the talk she gave this morning. It is a kind of psychoanalysis of the left:

If this left is rightly described as melancholic, and I agree with Brown that it is, then its melancholia derives from the real existing compromises and betrayals inextricable from its history, its accommodations with reality, whether of nationalist war, capitalist encirclement , or so-called market demands. Lacan teaches that, like Kant’s categorical imperative, super-ego refuses to accept reality as an explanation for failure. Impossible is no excuse—desire is always impossible to satisfy.

My take on this is somewhat different than Professor Dean’s. My RX for combatting melancholia is victories, no matter how minor, against the bourgeoisie. To achieve such victories, it will require strategy and tactics that Malcolm X once described as  “designed to get meaningful immediate results”. Such actions are surely aided by a solid analysis of the relationship of class forces that can only be derived by a study of bourgeois society such as the kind found in classical Marxism and not Frankfurt-inspired philosophizing, I am afraid.

Zizek’s talk was a bad boy exercise in epater la bourgeoisie that he is famous for. He scoffed at the priority that the left had put on winning democracy and urged the need for violence, calling attention to how demonstrators in London had broken windows earlier in the year. Without breaking the windows, nobody would have noticed. Fortunately, the mass movement no longer pays attention to such provocative suggestions.

Dean unfortunately has bought into Zizek’s bad boy routine and even defended it against his critics. Google “Jodi Dean” and “Zizek Against Democracy” and you will be able to read a document that states:

Some theorists construe Zizek as an intellectual bad boy trying to out-radicalize those he dismisses as deconstructionists, multiculturalists, Spinozans, and Leftist scoundrels and dwarves.  Ernesto Laclau, in the dialogue with Zizek and Judith Butler, refers scornfully to the “naïve self-complacence” of one of Zizek’s “r-r-revolutionary” passages:  “Zizek had told us that he wanted to overthrow capitalism; now we are served notice that he also wants to do away with liberal democratic regimes.”   Although Laclau implies that Zizek’s anti-democratic stance is something new, a skepticism toward democracy has actually long been a crucial component of Zizek’s project.  It is not, therefore, simply a radical gesture.

Indeed, part of Zizek’s talk this morning dealt with exactly this question, scoffing at those leftists who care about which judge will be elected. He reminded the audience that Marx believed that it was only through seizing state power and abolishing capitalist property relations that true freedom could be achieved. That of course would be news to Marx scholars like August Nimtz, whose “Marx and Engels: their contribution to the democratic breakthrough” revealed their commitment to what Zizek writes off. The book includes this epigraph that obviously Zizek would regard as liberal mush:

The movement of the proletarians has developed itself with such astonishing rapidity, that in another year or two we shall be able to muster a glorious array of working Democrats and Communists — for in this country Democracy and Communism are, as far as the working classes are concerned, quite synonymous.

–Frederick Engels, “The Late Butchery at Leipzig.-The German Working Men’s Movement

And as far as the “ruthless” Lenin, scourge of democratic half-measures, was concerned, this was his assessment in “What is to be Done” of what the Russian socialists (he used this term much more frequently than communist) had to do to live up to the standards of the German social democracy, a party he was seeking to emulate:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

That’s the Lenin we must learn from, not Zizek’s cartoon-like figure who comes out of a 1950s Red Scare B-movie.

October 14, 2011

Me, my mom, and Lazlo Toth

Filed under: antiwar,humor,Iran — louisproyect @ 6:57 pm

About ten years before my mother’s death at the age of 87, a friend of hers told me on a visit to mom in upstate NY, while she was out of the room, that she was “slipping”. When I asked her to give me some examples, she said that her driving had deteriorated—a function largely of cataracts. She had also begun to lose her temper more and more easily. And the biggest problem apparently was her obsession with Israel, writing letters to the local newspapers on practically a daily basis with the latest hasbara talking points she discovered on the Internet using the Macintosh computer I bought her. The bad driving and the hair-trigger temper I could discount but the Zionism surely was a sign that she was losing it.

As I march inexorably toward my own “slipping” moments, I wonder when people will begin to take notice of me. My eyes are considerably worse than hers were when she was my age. I just got my driver’s license renewed—a stroke of luck—but I will not drive after dark. On losing one’s temper, I am probably even crazier than her considering my inability to tolerate a lot of the bullshit I read on the Internet or hear on television or radio. With the age of email upon us, I can’t resist giving some jerk a piece of my mind. Mostly the recipient is smart enough to ignore me, since I am obviously a bit “off”. Frankly, if someone like me wrote me a hostile email, I’d ignore it. I guess I often get a reply because I don’t write the conventional “you are such an asshole” thing but tend to be more sarcastic than anything else. I also use my Columbia email address to get attention. For some reason, big muck-a-mucks take my email address seriously even though there are lots of idiots at the university, starting with President Lee Bollinger and the dean of the business school Glenn Hubbard.

Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci

About ten years ago I reported on some exchange I had with some politician or academic “expert” who got on my wrong side to the PEN-L mailing list which prompted economist Max Sawicky to compare me to Lazlo Toth, a persona adopted by Don Novello, to goad big shots into replying to his goofy letters. Novello was better known for his Father Guido Sarducci character on Saturday Night Live back when it—like Woody Allen movies–was funny. A typical Toth exchange looks like this:

Air Canada

From: Lazlo Toth …… November 19, 1977

To: Commanding Officer, AIR CANADA

Dear Sir: I recently flew on your airline and I must say I was more than somewhat disappointed! First of all, the stewardess asked me if I wanted to see the movie. I said, “No, thank you.” Later, when I asked for some earphones, she said, “I thought you didn’t want the movie?” She thought right, I didn’t want the movie, I just wanted to listen to some music, I told her. She said the music was only for people who paid for the movie! “Otherwise, how would we know you weren’t listening to the movie,” she said. How about the honor system? In my country they don’t go around accusing paying customers of cheating! I could afford to fly to Canada, do you think I couldn’t afford $2.50 for a lousy movie? Besides, that’s $2.50 in Canadian dollars — cheaper still! I saw a lot of people watching the movie who didn’t pay for it! Why don’t you charge to watch the movie instead of to listen to it? Why can you watch a movie for nothing but have to pay to listen to some records? It’s just not fair! Next thing you know, you’ll probably be charging people to look at record albums! Also, my tomato soup was ice cold! I thought it was because I was the only one polite enough to wait until everybody got served before I started eating, but when I told the stewardess my soup was cold, she said it wasn’t tomato soup, that it was tomato juice! How was I suppose to know it was tomato juice? What was the soup spoon there for then? I wasted two or three minutes eating it like that! Why don’t you label those things? If you can label “salad dressing,” why not juice and soup? I knew the salad dressing was salad dressing — what else could it have been — jello? Come on! Why do you label something that doesn’t need a label and not label the thing I mistook for something else? I think that by labeling the soup and the juice and starting free music you can make a giant step towards better understandings between both of our countries. Things are unstable enough without these things getting in the way, too. Your neighbor,

To: Lazlo Toth …… December 29, 1977

From: A.R. Godbold, Manager, Customer Relations, Air Canada

Dear Mr. Toth: We were very sorry to learn of your disappointment in some aspects of our service during your travel with us in November, but appreciate your giving us your observations. Recorded music is available on some of our flights at no charge; however, on flights where music is provided in conjunction with a movie, it is felt that, in fairness to all passengers, the charge for the movie must be levied on all passengers making use of the earphones. Soup is very seldom served by the airlines, because of the difficulties inherent in its provision, and it is regretted that this was not clarified with you. Thank you for your interest in writing. Yours very truly,

When I got up yesterday morning I spent my customary 30 minutes or so listening to AM radio. If WBAI was half as good as it was in the 1980s, that’s what I would listen to. No such luck, I’m afraid. So I listen to a few minutes of Boomer and Carton, a sports talk show, until I get tired of discussion about Alex Rodriguez’s contract. Then I’ll give the aging, crapulent shock jock Don Imus a few minutes until the right-wing guest he is schmoozing with becomes too much to bear. After Imus got fired by WFAN (he was replaced by Boomer and Carton), he moved over to WABC and became oriented to the reactionary pigs there. Ornery as ever, Imus will call Rush Limbaugh a fat, drug-taking idiot but will bend over backwards to be courteous to Sean Hannity.

Last stop on the AM express is the Mark Riley show on WWRL a black-owned and black-oriented station that used to be devoted to Air America programming until that liberal garbage dump went under. Riley is an African-American and in Obama’s back pocket just like Al Sharpton who has a show on the same station at 9pm. Mostly I listen to the show for the men and women calling in from the Black community, about half of whom are disgusted with Obama.

Barry Blechman

That day I turned to Riley’s show when he was in the middle of an interview with Barry Blechman, the director of the Stimson Center. Blechman was making the case that Iran was guilty of conspiring to kill the Saudi ambassador. Feeling some pressure to maintain a progressive veneer, Riley asked Blechman to explain some of the obvious inconsistencies—like why Iran would want to deal with a used car salesman who was in no position to line up Mexican drug cartel gunmen, let alone his next month’s rent.

Blechman assured him that there was hard proof of Iran’s involvement, starting with the wire transfer of money to said used car salesman. That was enough to set my hair on fire.

When I got to work an hour or so later, I dashed off this email to Blechman:

You said that the wire transfer of money proved that Iran was behind the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador. Aren’t you aware that wire transfers from Iran to American banks are prohibited? How in the world did you get into the position of speaking as an expert? Or is your role the same as Judith Miller’s?

I had a feeling that this would get under his skin, as would later be borne out:

Dear Mr. Proyest, [sic]

        Thanks for your comment; it’s nice to know that someone was listening.   According to the sworn affidavit of the FBI official submitted in support of the indictment, two transfers of $49,960 each were made from Iran to an unnamed US bank.  Now you may believe that FBI officials will swear to information they know is false in legal proceedings, but I don’t.  One explanation might be that knowing of the plot, the government permitted the transfers to be made, even though they are prohibited by sanctions legislation.

The actual 21-page indictment can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/10/11/us/Iran-Plot-Indictment-Doc-Viewer.html?ref=us. It may answer some of your questions of fact.    Barry Blechman

My reply will surely irritate him further, hopefully enough to prompt another email:

“Now you may believe that FBI officials will swear to information they know is false in legal proceedings”

Well, I for one am not shocked that gambling is going on at Rick’s place either.

As far as the wire transfer is concerned, this is absurd on the face of it—leaving aside the question of the sanctions legislation. Haven’t you ever seen a good spy movie? Payments are not made by wire transfers. They are made in cash transported around in a good, solid aluminum briefcase by a character named Abu Hassan. You know the kind of dirty Arab or Iranian I am talking about—they get killed by Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger in the bloody finale.

Btw, have to chuckle about your credentials as a nuclear disarmament expert running something called the Stimson Center. That’s like an environmentalist running the James G. Watt Center.

“…in [July] 1945… Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. …the Secretary, upon giving me the news of the successful bomb test in New Mexico, and of the plan for using it, asked for my reaction, apparently expecting a vigorous assent.

“During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude…”

- Dwight Eisenhower, Mandate For Change, pg. 380

In a Newsweek interview, Eisenhower again recalled the meeting with Stimson:

“…the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”

- Ike on Ike, Newsweek, 11/11/63

Look to this space for updates to the great Lazlo Toth/Unrepentant Marxist-Barry Blechman debate.

One percenter

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 1:50 pm

October 13, 2011

The Leopard and the New Deal

Filed under: financial crisis,liberalism — louisproyect @ 9:14 pm

“Everything must change so that everything can stay the same”

Prince Tancredi Falconeri’s observation in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard”

* * * *

“I think I am still a conservative, but I believe that a new set of plans is essential to preserve the conservative order of things. The trouble is that most of our business and professional friends do not understand that the old methods will not serve. New arrangements are necessary to save the economic structure. I think it is not radical, certainly not revolutionary, to change the methods of business leadership and the relations both with employees and with customers . . . the methods you and your associates are inaugurating are necessary in order to retain the existing industrial order.”

From Chicago lawyer Charles Leroy Brown’s letter to NRA (National Recovery Administration) director Donald Richberg

Emergency call to action on Wall Street

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 6:57 pm

EMERGENCY CALL TO ACTION: Prevent the forcible closure of Occupy Wall Street!
Posted Oct. 13, 2011, 2:14 p.m. EST by OccupyWallSt

Bloomberg handed a notification to #OWS that the City is planning to
clean the park, etc. Nasty notification. Bloomberg needs his head


Tell Bloomberg: Don’t Foreclose the Occupation.
Join us at 6AM FRIDAY for non-violent eviction defense.

Please take a minute to read this, and please take action and spread
the word far and wide.

Occupy Wall Street is gaining momentum, with occupation actions now
happening in cities across the country.

But last night Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD notified Occupy Wall
Street participants about plans to “clean the park”—the site of the
Wall Street protests—tomorrow starting at 7am. “Cleaning” was used as
a pretext to shut down “Bloombergville” a few months back, and to shut
down peaceful occupations elsewhere.

Bloomberg says that the park will be open for public usage following
the cleaning, but with a notable caveat: Occupy Wall Street
participants must follow the “rules”. These rules include, “no tarps
or sleeping bags” and “no lying down.”

So, seems likely that this is their attempt to shut down #OWS for good.

1) Call 311 and tell Bloomberg to support our right to assemble and to
not interfere with #OWS. If you are calling from outside NY use this
number 212-NEW-YORK.

2) Come to #OWS on FRIDAY AT 6AM to defend the occupation from eviction.

Occupy Wall Street is committed to keeping the park clean and safe —
we even have a Sanitation Working Group whose purpose this is. We are
organizing major cleaning operations today and will do so regularly.

If Bloomberg truly cares about sanitation here he should support the
installation of portopans and dumpsters. #OWS allies have been working
to secure these things to support our efforts.

We know where the real dirt is: on Wall Street. Billionaire Bloomberg
is beholden to bankers.

We won’t allow Bloomberg and the NYPD to foreclose our occupation.
This is an occupation, not a permitted picnic.

Dr. Margaret Flowers confronts the real death panels

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 5:49 pm

(Hat tip to Counterpunch)

October 12, 2011

Janos Starker plays Kodaly

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 5:57 pm

October 11, 2011

Belafonte on Herman Cain

Filed under: african-american — louisproyect @ 10:52 pm

Another Depression, another Occupation

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street,war — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

In 1932, three years after the stock market crashed and when the U.S. was in the throes of the worst depression in history, WWI veterans occupied a parcel of land not far from the White House to demand payment on the bonuses that were owed them. They were supposed to get paid for the difference between their military pay and their civilian wages according to legislation passed in 1924 but would have to wait until 1945. Since many were unemployed and destitute they demanded immediate payment.

Like today’s OWS, this occupation captured the country’s imagination and led to a political polarization. With Herbert Hoover still in the White House, there was little to expect in the way of justice but probably few of the veterans expected what eventually took place, a full-scale military assault led by General Douglas MacArthur that included six tanks. Under MacArthur’s command were Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. This was obviously a major offensive.

After an initial foray with fixed bayonets and adamsite, a vomit-inducing gas, Hoover called for a halt to the assault that MacArthur ignored, stating that he was trying to put down a Communist insurgency. At this point in his career, MacArthur showed the kind of defiance of civilian authority that would lead to his firing by Harry Truman years later.

In the video clip below, pay close attention to the orator in white shirt with rolled-up sleeves and suspenders. That is none other than General Smedley Butler!

The Bonus Army movement raised some of the same themes now being heard at OWS rallies. On June tenth, just a month before the men were attacked, their leader Walter W. Waters wrote an article in the NY Times (the paper was reasonably favorable toward the movement) using language that might sound familiar to you. He wrote:

We realize that the hue and cry is being raised by our opponents that payment of the bonus would be “class” legislation. But is not Federal assistance to broken-down railroads and defunct banks “class” legislation of a sort? Of course, the point is raised that assistance to industry is assistance to the working man.

Then, as now, there were certain problems that the occupiers had with the “Marxist-Leninist” left. Today that left is generally sympathetic to the movement but has no clue how to engage with it, a function unfortunately of seeing every mass movement as something to “intervene” in rather than become integrated with organically.

Back in 1932, the left was pretty much synonymous with the Communist Party which was deep into its “left turn”. A June 18 NYT article titled “Reds Urge Mutiny in the Bonus Army” that was not far from the truth. The CP urged the men to go back home and join with the working class in a fight for unemployment insurance. While the party’s call was cloaked in ultraleft rhetoric, it was clearly missing the point of the action, which was to implicitly put the rulers in Washington and their Wall Street funders on the defensive.

A week after the Bonus Army had been driven from its encampment, the CP held a press conference where its leaders demonstrated unbelievable stupidity. The lead paragraph of a July 31 1932 NYT article states: “The Communist Party, at its headquarters here accepted responsibility yesterday for the demonstration that resulted in the Bonus Army riots in Washington.” Speaking for the party leadership, William Z. Foster said:

Under the banner of the world Communist party, fight imperialist war, defend the Soviet Union, make Aug. 1 the beginning of a gigantic struggle for the defense of the right of workers.

Rally behind the election fight of the Communist Party. Oust the Hoover-Wall Street government. Forward to the workers’ and farmers’ government.

Can you imagine that this was the largest party on the left? Using rhetoric that evoked the “social fascism” mindset of the German CP, the CP labeled Walter Waters as a “stoolpigeon” who was following Mussolini and Hitler.

In the same way that Obama’s election in 2008 brought hope that social justice would be served, so did FDR’s election in 1932 raise the country’s spirits. Surely, someone who would become famous for his New Deal achievements—at least in the hagiography of American liberalism—would see a way to meet the request of the Bonus Army. As it turns out, FDR was as opposed to granting the veterans’ demand as Hoover. The only difference between the two was in the rhetoric they used. Hoover opposed it for obvious plutocratic motives while FDR opposed it because it would divert resources from the New Deal. In other words, the two presidents were playing the same game that Bush and Obama would play 76 years later in tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum fashion.

As part of “the Hundred Days” that marks the onset of the New Deal shortly after taking office, Roosevelt pushed through the Bill to Maintain the Credit of the United States Government. Better known as the Economy Act, the bill drastically cut federal expenditures through a 400-million-dollar reduction in veteran pensions and benefits. If Obama had taken the advice of the Nation Magazine and Salon.com to create a new New Deal, this is a piece of legislation he surely would have embraced.

In an odd role reversal, the Veterans of Foreign Wars—nowadays a bastion of reaction—took FDR to task from the left. The Economy Act in their eyes demonstrated the continuing influence of “Big Business” and “Wall Street”.

With its ranks dominated by men who were suffering from the impact of the Depression, the VFW’s magazine Foreign Service did not mince words. In an April 1933 editorial titled “Blood Money”, they wrote:

It is apparent that the veteran has been forced to bear the burden of a depression that was caused by his enemies—the predatory interests that have their hands in the public till. The money that will be withheld from the disabled veteran…can only be regarded as blood money.

This is the same mood that can be seen among the veterans participating in OWS today even if in this instance the anger is directed more at Sean Hannity than the president.

By April 1933, the VFW had FDR pegged in pretty much the same terms as Paul Street had Obama pegged early on. While some pundits viewed FDR has having been duped into supporting the Economy Act, the VFW saw him siding openly with big business and nothing but a continuation of Hoover. Since the Economy Act had removed 501,777 veterans and their dependents from the pension rolls, the pain must have been excruciating. In the VFW magazine, the reference was from that point on to “the new deal” rather than the New Deal.

While the VFW has gone through an evolution obviously, the American Legion was not much different in 1933 than it is today. It supported the Economy Act and its leader Louis A. Johnson spent as much time at the White House as some labor fakers do today.

The VFW published Smedley Butler’s speech to the Bonus Army seen in the Youtube clip above under the title “You Got to Get Mad”. Butler agreed to go on a speaking tour to promote the veterans’ demands that year. A Roosevelt supporter in 1932, Butler was now angry at the administration’s cozy alliance with “Big Business”.

Under the impact of such activism, FDR was forced to back down but not without resistance. Congress, where Democrats held majorities in both houses, passed the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act in 1936 authorizing the immediate payment of the $2 billion in WWI bonuses over the President’s veto.

If there’s any lesson to be learned from the original occupiers, it is that you have to rely on your own power in the spirit of Frederick Douglass’s words: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Even if such demands are still pending!


Stephen R. Ortiz, The “New Deal” for Veterans: The Economy Act, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the origins of New Deal Dissent, The Journal of Military History, April 2006, Vol. 70, no. 2

October 10, 2011

By Mr. Fish

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 2:00 pm

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