Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 14, 2014

A reminder to imbecile trolls

Filed under: imbecile trolls — louisproyect @ 9:30 pm

I have a way of preventing crap like this from appearing as a comment. I only post it now to make a point.

Screen shot 2014-07-14 at 5.19.41 PM

How does it advance the Palestinian cause by baiting me as a “war mongering piece of shit”? Was I expected to approve a message that was so venomous? And from a bogus name and email address? When I flame some blogger, I always make sure to include my name and email address. What’s the pleasure in using a fake name and email address? Afraid that I will track him down in his parent’s basement in Lambeth and piss on his PlayStation? What a pussy.

I got a chuckle out of sp17@gogole.com. This cretin must have been so worked up he couldn’t get it together to spell google correctly. I approved an earlier message from him on the LTV post but only after pruning it of another gratuitous attack. The problem with jerks like him is that they lack the IQ to debate Syria or Ukraine. They are only capable of crude one-liners like the kind you would see on the wall near a latrine in a Mississippi truck stop.

 

Left Forum 2014 — Syriza panel

Filed under: Greece,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 4:15 pm

This is the sixth and final in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

The question of Syriza is very fresh in my mind after seeing Alex Callinicos attack it in his prolix article “Thunder on the Left”.

More generally, evidence of a new form of left politics emerging has proved more apparent than real. The profound economic and social crisis in Greece and intense working class resistance to the austerity policies imposed by the troika of the European Commission, ECB, and International Monetary Fund allowed Syriza to skyrocket into the dominant position to the left of centre in Greek politics. After Syriza’s spectacular advances in the parliamentary elections of May and June 2012, there was much tut-tutting about my description of its politics as left reformist which, or so it was claimed, failed to acknowledge the extent to which Syriza represented a break with the old polarities of reform and revolution. In the subsequent two years, under Alexis Tsipras, Syriza has marched firmly onto the centre ground in order to project itself as a responsible party of government, in the process marginalising its left opposition. This shift is epitomised by Tsipras’s coming out after the European elections in favour of the shopworn centre-right architect of austerity Jean-Claude Juncker for president of the European commission: left reformism would look good by comparison.

Callinicos’s distinction between reform and revolution is based on an idealist conception of politics. By idealist, I don’t mean like the Boy Scout pledge of honor but in Plato’s Republic where people living in a cave only have an impression of reality rather than reality itself. As Socrates puts it:

And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: –Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

The role of a philosopher-king in Plato’s Republic is to educate the unenlightened cave dweller about the realities beyond the cave. Thus, the role of Marxists is to educate the mass movement about the need for revolution. Callinicos (and his fellow Leninists) are a kind of priesthood that has achieved enlightenment. They go out among the cave dwellers to explain why a revolution is necessary. This involves pointing out the “historical lessons” of the 20th century in such a manner that the recitation on the Russian Revolution will cause the scales to fall from the listener’s eyes. In some ways, this is the same approach as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have literature tables at major subway stations throughout New York.

I have an entirely different take on Syriza, similar to that of Peter Bratsis—the panelist who begins just after 33 minutes into the video. Like Bratsis, I view Syriza as a reformist party that will never be able to lead a revolution but there is no use in lecturing the masses about that. They don’t see the problem in terms of capitalism but in terms of austerity. They vote for Syriza because the party is opposed to austerity. If Syriza is elected and continues to support austerity, that will raise the question of the need to transform the economic system that imposes austerity no matter the party that is in power.

In “Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder”, Lenin proposed that the Communists form an electoral bloc with the Labour Party led by Philip Snowden and Arthur Henderson. After WWI broke out, Ramsey MacDonald resigned in protest for its support for the war. Arthur Henderson, who joined Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, was his replacement. Has Alexis Tsipras been guilty of any crime more serious than this? People like Callinicos make a big deal out of Syriza sticking with the Euro as if the currency a nation is based on makes a real difference when it is dominated by imperialism. Greece’s problems do not revolve around the currency it uses but rather in its relationship to the rest of the world capitalist system.

Finally, the real issue facing the Greek left is how to unite people on a class basis against a ruling class that is tightly coupled to the German bourgeoisie. Syriza offers a framework for revolutionaries that will enable them to connect with millions of Greeks who have not yet achieved a revolutionary consciousness. Unlike the Greek Communist Party, Syriza is relatively open and transparent—a function of the “reformism” that Callinicos disdains. The alternative to the CP and Syriza is the tiny and inconsequential Antarsya that is united around the need for revolution but a “reformist” party that can begin to serve as a pole of attraction for revolutionaries. In the event that Syriza is elected and fails to carry out its mandate, it will be up to its left wing to push the agenda for overcoming austerity in the only way possible: overthrowing Greek capitalism.

 

July 12, 2014

Charlie Kimber, SWP and Bears – a Cautionary Tale.

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:28 pm

Originally posted on Tendance Coatesy:

Happier Days for ‘Red’ Charlie Kimber. 

How a respectable public schoolboy fell amongst reds and came to a horrible end.

“Young Charlie Kimber was a real hard red,

He even read Das Kapital in bed,

At Eton, where he studied hard,

The scholars thought him quite a card.

When Kimber, he was twenty-three,

His daddy bought him S.W.P.

His comrade, the honorable Alex,

Was both his helpmate and his bollix.

Charlie stopped the  port and vintage wine,

and going out to restaurants to dine.

Just mushy-peas and Mars-bars fried,

no more tomatoes ripe sun-dried.

He dropped his ‘aitches one by one,

And shouted when the Gunners won.

He drank white cider by the bucket,

And stacked his tinnies on the buffet.

One day their paper made a joke,

A first – against a younger Eton bloke.

A Bear and death, were cause for fun,

And a very  laboured pun.

View original 115 more words

Jazz radical Charlie Haden dead at 76

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

Jazz great Charlie Haden has died after a long illness.

The NY Times has an exemplary obituary that makes sure to highlight his radical politics:

The Liberation Music Orchestra, which released its debut album in 1969, was Mr. Haden’s large ensemble, and an expression of his left-leaning political ideals. The band, featuring compositions and arrangements by the pianist Carla Bley, mingled avant-garde wildness with the earnest immediacy of Latin American folk songs. Mr. Haden released each of the band’s four studio albums during Republican administrations; the most recent, in 2005, was “Not in Our Name,” a response to the war in Iraq.

Mr. Haden, who liked to say he was driven by concern for “the struggle of the poor people,” hardly restricted his opinions to the Liberation Music Orchestra. While playing a festival with Mr. Coleman in Lisbon, in 1971, he dedicated his “Song for Ché” to the black liberation movements of Mozambique and Angola, and was promptly jailed.

I strongly recommend reading the entire obit.

This is a tribute I wrote to Haden in 1999. It overlaps with some of the material in the NY Times obit but from a fan’s POV. I follow it with some prime performances by Haden with various groups at the early, middle and late stages of his career.

Charlie Haden

I have been moved to write about jazz bassist Charlie Haden after listening to his latest and greatest CD, “The Art of the Song”. It is consistent with a number of others that he has released over the past half-decade evoking a sort of romantic and retro approach to jazz, strongly influenced by a vision of the more innocent Los Angeles of post-WWII years and of movie culture.

The songs on the latest include some decidedly obscure tunes drawn from even more obscure films. Typical is “You My Love”, a ballad originally sung by Frank Sinatra in the 1954 “Young at Heart”. With west coasters Ernie Watts on tenor sax, Larance Marable on drums and Alan Broadbent on piano, vocals by Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson, and a 28 piece string section, the lush mood created is reminiscent of Charlie Parker’s famous (infamous to some) Verve records backed by string section and led by Mitch Miller.

I am not sure what led Haden to make these kinds of old-fashioned CD’s, but I have a feeling that it is the same impulse that leads me to buy each one faithfully when they come out. Haden, like me, is somebody who was deeply involved with the 60s radicalization but on the cultural front. Although his politics have not changed, his mood has become more wistful and nostalgic, not unlike my own. Perhaps this is what it takes to keep old time radicals going in a cold and heartless world, where cash seems to be the only thing that matters.

Haden, who is white, burst on the scene in 1959 as the bassist in a combo led by African-American Ornette Coleman, who played a white plastic alto saxophone. Ornette Coleman had completely redefined the jazz idiom by emphasizing his own highly original approach to melody in a departure from the typical bebop style of the time. The beboppers, still strongly influenced by Parker who had died only 3 years earlier, played superfast improvisations over tightly wound “heads” derived from popular tunes, scarcely recognizable from their source.

Coleman believed the bebop obsession with chords or key changes had led down a blind alley. He also had ideas about rhythm at odds with conventional thinking of the time. His drummers sounded more melodic; his bass players were freed from having to signal chord changes. Ultimately, this type of music gave more freedom to the players, but it also required more responsibility. Coleman was constantly evolving each tune during performances and demanded that the musicians’ listen to each other with much more attention than the beboppers were used to. In a typical bebop performance, each musician took lengthy solos and it was not unusual for one to walk off the stage in the middle to go smoke a cigarette until it was their time to blow. The collective improvisation of the Ornette Coleman combos was in some ways a throwback to the earliest days of jazz in New Orleans, before the solo had been invented.

After 40 years of avant-garde jazz, none of this sounds particularly controversial but in its day it unleashed tremendous passions. In 1959, when Coleman’s band made its first appearance in New York at the Five Spot, fights broke out between Coleman partisans and those convinced that he was perpetrating a hoax. One night, Miles Davis showed up and sat in; another night, a stranger walked up to Coleman and punched him in the face. Coleman was 22 and his bassist, Charlie Haden, was the same age.

For all of their connections to the avant-garde, both Coleman and Haden had roots in working-class dance hall culture. When Coleman was traveling around the country in the ’40s and ’50s with rhythm-and-blues bands and in tent shows, Haden was performing with his family, a country-and-western troupe from Springfield, Missouri. In the liner notes of “The Art of the Song,” there’s a 1942 photo of the Haden family standing in front of the American flag at country station KWTO. They are all wearing cowboy boots, including the 5 year old “cowboy” Charlie. A January 19, 1997 LA Times profile on Haden reports:

His father, Carl, was an itinerant Midwestern country singer who married another singer, Virginia Day. A country vocal group with echoes of the Carter Family and the Delmore Brothers, they played the Grand Ole Opry. A little later, when children arrived, they became Uncle Carl Haden and the Haden Family. Charlie was born in Shenandoah, Iowa, in 1937, a brief stopover before the family settled in Springfield. Carl began broadcasting daily radio shows from the Haden home. The house was full of country music and products from radio sponsors–Green Mountain Cough Syrup, Sparkalite Cereal, Cocoa Wheats with vitamin G. Chet Atkins and Roy Acuff performed on the shows with the family, and Charlie remembers the Carter Family visiting and Mother Maybelle singing him to sleep.

“My mom would sing to me at night, but she didn’t know that I wasn’t really sleeping,” Haden says. “I was checking everything out, you know? Then all of a sudden one day, I started humming with her, and then one day I started humming the harmony with her. This was like when I was 11/2 or something, and when I was 22 months old, that’s when they first took me to the studio and I started singing. Charlie Haden made his musical debut with a version of “Little Sir Echo.”

Brother Jimmy was considered the black sheep of the family, drinking as a teenager, spending a few nights in jail; he also played bass on the show and was a jazz fan who owned Billie Holiday, Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie records. When Jimmy was out of the house, Charlie would play his brother’s bass. When Charlie and his dad caught Charlie Parker on a swing through town, the Future Farmers of America lost a prospect.

Haden eventually moved to LA, where his jazz career began in earnest. Paul Bley, the famed pianist, remembers the country boy bassist showing up barefoot for his audition. One night Haden went to a club to hear Gerry Mulligan’s group. The LA Times reports,

“The place was packed; there was barely room to stand. And then a well-dressed guy carrying a white plastic saxophone squeezed his way to the front. This was how Ornette Coleman performed back then: a shy, deferential insurgent requesting to sit in.”

“He starts playing, man, and it was so unbelievably great I could not believe it. Like the whole room lit up all of a sudden, like somebody turned on the lights,” Haden says. “He was playing the blues they were playing, but he was playing his own way. And almost as fast as he asked to sit in, they asked him to please stop.” Spotting a kindred spirit, Haden ran out after Coleman into the alley, but the saxophonist had already disappeared into the night.

Haden eventually tracked down the musician with the white plastic saxophone. Haden describes the scene at Coleman’s apartment:

There was music blocking the door; you couldn’t get the door open. Finally it opened, and the place was filled with music. Manuscripts, things he had written out all over the rug and chairs and bed and everywhere. I got my bass out, and he picked up one of the manuscripts off the rug and said, ‘Lets play this.’ I said, ‘Sure,’ but I was scared to death. He said, ‘Now I got some chord changes written below the melody here that I heard when I was writing the melody. You can play those changes when you play the song, but when I start to improvise, make up your own changes from what I’m playing.’ I said, ‘With pleasure.’ Man, we played all day and all night. And the next day we stopped to get a hamburger and we came back and we played some more.

Coleman solidified his free-jazz ideas at the Hillcrest Club, which closed down years ago. Like many famous venues for jazz, there’s only a barred front door today and no historical marker. (These are the Buena Vista Clubs of North America.) The Coleman group’s Hillcrest perfromances earned Haden a reputation among Hollywood hipsters. Actors Dean Stockwell and Bobby Driscoll came to hear him, and Martin Landau advised Haden that he might do well to try acting. Coleman’s band caused a stir that led him to the East Coast where fame and notoriety awaited them.

Haden eventually separated from the Coleman band and hooked up with the thriving avant-garde scene in NYC, where his political beliefs took shape. He eventually formed the Liberation Jazz Orchestra, which was co-led by Carla Bley, Paul’s ex-wife, and an outstanding songwriter and pianist in her own right. The 1970 classic recording of this band includes Spanish Civil War tunes “Song Of The United Front and “El Quinto Regimiento (Fifth Regiment) as well as “We Shall Overcome” and “Song For Che.”

A January 31, Minneapolis Tribune article on Haden describes the willingness of Haden to act on the belief that “music can’t be separated from politics.” In 1971, while appearing with saxophonist Ornette Coleman at a festival in Lisbon, Portugal, Haden dedicated his “Song for Che,” to the black liberation movements in the Portuguese African colonies. The day after the concert, he was arrested at the Lisbon airport. “I would actually have done some time if Ornette hadn’t gotten the American Embassy to come and get me,” recalled Haden. “It was really a fascist government then, and this was the first jazz festival that they had allowed there. But as soon as I made this dedication, they canceled the rest of the festival. It was scary.”

“Music can bring people of all races together,” he said. “My mom used to take me into the African-American church when I was, like, 8 or 9, and we’d sit in the back row and listen to the choir. That was one of the most meaningful experiences in my whole life.”

This is from an Ornette Coleman 1960 album titled “Change of the Century”. Although described as “avant-garde”, I regarded the album as clearly in the Charlie Parker tradition, in the same way that Charlie Parker was in the Lester Young tradition. I love the tune.

This 1983 record was undoubtedly the most political made by jazz musicians ever. Plus, it is great music.

This is from 2007 and displays Haden’s command of his instrument. Along with another Charlie–Mingus–he was one of the greats.

“Jesus, I don’t want to die alone…” Charlie Haden, friends, and family performs a musical tribute to himself.

July 11, 2014

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”; “How to Train Your Dragon 2”

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:41 am

Counterpunch WEEKEND EDITION JULY 11-13, 2014

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2”

A Survival Guide to Summer Blockbusters

by LOUIS PROYECT


“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2” are sequels to two films that made it to my five best list in years past. Two nights ago I attended a press screening for the first film that opens everywhere on Friday, while the second I saw in a neighborhood theater as probably the only person eligible for senior discount to have done so. The films deal with a question that is at the heart of the human condition under late capitalism, namely how to relate to animals—the quintessential Other. Of course, dragons never really existed but in the animated feature they have much more in common with horses and dogs. Even though they breathe fire and can fly, they turn out to be anxious to be domesticated, the conceit that makes the animated feature so endearing—even to an old crab like me. Unfortunately the Dragon sequel is not nearly so good as the first in the series, a victim of Hollywood’s lust for profits. But the Apes movie fares much better, to the point of topping the original. Of course, leaving James Franco out of the sequel would guarantee that.

For those who did not see the first film, “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is a canny fictionalization of the questions posed in the documentary “Project Nim”. Franco plays a scientist attempting to teach the chimpanzee Caesar how to communicate after the fashion of the experiments conducted by Columbia University professor Herb Terrace on Nim Chimpsky from an early age. The animal was named after the MIT linguist who was firm in the belief that only human beings can use language, either spoken or signed.

read full

July 9, 2014

Firestorm

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

This is the third and final installment on the 2014 NY Asian Film Festival.

Tonight’s feature “Firestorm” is a Hong Kong policier that can best be described as 118 minutes of blazing machine-gun battles between cops and gangsters rendered as artistically as a Balanchine ballet.

Veteran Hong Kong actor Andy Lau plays Inspector Lui (no relation), who seeks to capture or kill a gang that picks out targets on the basis of how “exciting” they are. It turns out that armored cars are their favorites, just as lions prefer wildebeests. In each of the robberies about as many bullets fly back and forth as in the Battle of the Bulge.

These gangsters are merciless. How merciless, you ask? Merciless enough to toss a 10-year-old girl out a 3rd story window as her father watches helplessly. That was his punishment for being a snitch.

Caught in the middle is a guy named Bong who upon getting out of prison returns to gangster life despite the threat that poses to his marriage. This is about as much human drama you are going to get out of a Hong Kong flick that makes “Kill Bill” look like an Eric Rohmer story. Gordon Lam plays Bong. Like Lau, he is a veteran of Hong Kong gangster movies well known to those addicted to the genre like me.

Alan Yuen wrote the screenplay and directed “Firestorm”. You almost get the sense that he was trying to establish a new benchmark for wild shoot-outs, one that would make John Woo retire from filmmaking or at least stick to Chinese counterparts of Eric Rohmer.

The climax of the film lasts for about 20 minutes and includes a mind-boggling exchange of gunfire that sets off a huge gas main explosion that leads to a sinkhole swallowing up cops, cars, buses, subway trains, and countless law-abiding citizens. It is the most breathtaking series of images I have seen since the closing moments of Takashi Miike’s “Dead or Alive” in which a standoff between a cop and a gangster leads to a nuclear Armageddon.

You will likely forget about “Firestorm” the minute you leave the theater but while it is rolling, you will have as much fun as if you were on a roller coaster. I loved it.

Check http://www.filmlinc.com/films/series/new-york-asian-film-festival-2014 for time and place.

 

July 8, 2014

Separated at birth

Filed under: separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 9:59 pm

jonkere

Raymond Jonkhere, the villainous banker behind the Salamander conspiracy in the Belgian show of the same name on Netflix

botsteinLeon Botstein, President of Bard College

Questions about socialism and value theory

Filed under: economics,socialism — louisproyect @ 8:42 pm

Recently a correspondent posed some questions to me that I would like to respond to publicly since others might get something out of my response.

Q: “How would a socialist system account for jobs that don’t occur on property? Or small businesses that adhere to the service industry where minuscule amounts of profit comes from labor time as opposed to capital investment? i.e., I get paid $22 per hour / 89.50 labor rate. 60 otherwise goes overhead. And I sell the parts my boss invests in with his capital.”

I’ve been faced with this question and I’m unsure how to respond; what is a fairly short explanation of how a social system based on workplace democracy would replace this? What’s the socialist solution to this problem?

A: In general, I shy away from questions about how a future socialist system will work but in the Russian revolution the original intent was to only expropriate the big capitalists. In the immediate period, however, a policy of War Communism led to the expropriation of all privately owned firms, large and small. This was a function more of the need to disempower a middle class that was hostile to the revolution rather than comply with any socialist blueprint—which of course Marx never intended to begin with.

Once the civil war ended, War Communism was abandoned. From that point on, large enterprises remained collectivized but small to medium sized peasants were given a lot of leeway—similar to the experiment taking place in Cuba today. Cuba adopted something similar to War Communism in its early years but this was a function more of the prevailing understanding of what “socialism” was about in 1960 than anything else. It really made no sense to expropriate small hotels, restaurants, retail shops and the like.

I am not exactly sure I get the drift of you math but in a way it is beside the point. If the American working class ever seizes control of Exxon, IBM, Chase, GM, Pfizer, Monsanto et al, it will be absolutely unnecessary to take over small enterprises. The important thing to understand is that unlike a pizza parlor or a nail-polishing shoppe, Exxon and Monsanto have enormous social and economic power. Negligence by Exxon destroyed wildlife in Alaska for a generation. Monsanto’s drive to make GM hegemonic will lead to huge risks for the ecosphere. These are our big concerns not whether a bike shop or a frozen yogurt shop adheres to the labor theory of value.

Q: Hello, I’m getting ready for a debate on Marxism and my opponent has in the past pointed out that value is in fact subjective. I may value a pot at $100 yet he may value it at $50. If it is true that Labor determines the value of this pot, how do I argue against the Subjective Theory of Value?

I myself do not possess too much of an understanding of the Labor Theory, and most attempts at reading long articles do little to advance my knowledge. If I’m understanding the Labor Theory wrong, can you give me a simple explanation of it devoid of confusing rhetoric and such?

Thanks a lot.

A: This is a variation I have heard on arguments against the labor theory of value that involve art, which in a way a pot can be seen as. For example, how does a painting by a well-established abstract artist command prices of a million dollars when it was executed in a day while a landscape by a mediocre artist that took a year to paint is valued at $1000?

Marx was far more concerned to explain the pricing of more mundane items like a yard of cotton textiles, which do not involve taste or training. Capitalist production does not involve esthetics. Steel production, mining, manufacturing, rail transportation, etc. all revolve around basic commodities and services that can be produced anywhere. That is why offshoring has become such a powerful weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie.  There was a book review recently in the NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/06/business/a-game-of-chairs-and-globalization.html) that takes a close look at what takes place with the Bassett furniture company:

There are superb scenes in which Mr. Bassett’s son, and then Mr. Bassett himself, go in search of the Louis Philippe, finally finding it being made in a grim plant in a remote corner of northeast China near the North Korean border. Their quest climaxes when Mr. Bassett meets face to face with the owner, who is planning a mammoth factory complex that threatens to eradicate what remains of the American industry. Mr. Bassett is coldly informed that the only way Vaughan-Bassett can survive is to shut its factories and sell Chinese furniture.

The furniture company managed to resist offshoring but the overall prospects for that kind of manufacturing is grim.

Another book that I would strongly recommend is “Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-year Quest for Cheap Labor” by Jefferson Cowie that I read when it came out in 1999. Much of it can be read online:

http://books.google.com/books?id=Pyggeea2yj0C

I should add that the labor theory of value is best understood as a way of understanding  the class relationships between worker and boss rather than as a way of pricing commodities—although a couple of British economists have written extensively about how computers would make such a thing possible under socialism: http://users.wfu.edu/cottrell/eea97.pdf. It is very technical, I’m afraid.

I think James Devine, a California economist, wrote one of the best things: http://myweb.lmu.edu/jdevine/notes/Law-of-Value.html

Here is an excerpt:

In an e-mail discussion, Brad deLong of U.C.-Berkeley economics wrote that: “The LTV [labor theory of value] is not true: average market prices are not labor values, and the deviations of the average prices of particular commodities from their labor values are not simple redistributions of ‘surplus value’ from boss to boss…. “

It’s hard to say that Marx’s “labor theory of value” is “not true” if one doesn’t understand it, just as it’s hard to say that it’s “true” if one doesn’t understand it. In fact, there are a lot of questions about what “it” is. In fact, it’s unclear what to call “it.” Below, I present one interpretation of the “LTV” which I hope will make these questions clear, allowing us to move on to other issues.

Finally, there’s a very good piece by Brian McKenna on CounterPunch titled “If Marx’s Math is Fundamental, Why Do So Few Teach It?” that is very good. It is drawn from his personal experience:

I’ve had several fast food jobs. I’ll never forget my first. I was 19 and I flipped burgers at Gino’s (a competitor of McDonald’s) in 1975 in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I was earning money for college. Ginos advertised “flexible hours” to cater to college student’s busy needs. I signed on at $1.90 an hour, plus one free hamburger per shift.

One day I was called in at the last minute for an evening shift of four hours. Not owning a car, I took public transportation to the place, about 4 miles away, for the 4:00 shift. It started to rain. When I arrived, soaking wet at 4:00, I was told, ‘we don’t need you anymore tonight, Brian.

“But it took an hour to get here and I want to work. Please let me do something.”

“Can’t you see?” the manager pointed out the window, “it’s raining out, hard, and no one is coming into Ginos. We don’t need you. Can you work a shift on Saturday at 11:00 to 2:00?”

“Can I at least have my hamburger?”

“But you didn’t work!” he said.

Needless to say, those bastards at McDonald’s and Ginos will be on the expropriation block the day after the workers seize power.

July 7, 2014

I found it at the movies

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm

Over the past month I have watched two films for the first time since 1959, when I was 14 years old. Neither one of them will make it on the top hundred films of the 20th century, probably not even one I compiled, but both were my introductions to cinema, as well as having a profound impact on my world outlook and psychological development.

The first was “Sailor of the King”, a 1953 British war film about a Canadian sniper concealed in the cliffs of a South Pacific island just west of Chile holding off Nazi sailors trying to repair a battleship. It didn’t make it to the USA until 1959 apparently. For 54 years that film haunted me. I could never remember the title but just by happenstance a search of the NY Times archives using some combination of words like “Nazi”, “rifle”, “island”, “ship” turned up a 1953 review. Not only did I finally know the name of the film, I was able to track down a DVD from Amazon.com. The film was just as thrilling as when I first saw it even if it was “greatest generation” hooey.

The other was “Roots of Heaven”, a 1958 John Huston film based on a Romain Gary novel about a small band of outsiders, as Godard would put it, who conduct nonviolent guerrilla warfare against elephant ivory poachers in French Equatorial Africa. It was the first film I ever saw that gave me a sense of the joy and honor of political resistance.

But before I get into the films, I’d like to tell you about the movie house culture of the period. “Going out” in a small town in the Catskill Mountains back then meant one of two things, going to a restaurant or going to the movies. For those of us living in the village of Woodridge, this meant a 5-mile trip to South Fallsburgh’s Rivoli Theater and almost always on a Friday night.

Tony Balducci ran the theater with an iron fist. If he spotted some kids throwing jujubes at the screen, he’d trod down the aisle to accost the guilty party. You could hear him coming a mile away since he had a wooden leg, the result of a Japanese attack on his ship during WWII. Ka-thump, Ka-thump, Ka-thump. Just like Captain Ahab on the deck of the Pequod.

Here’s a local resident commenting on Tony Balducci at the Cinema Treasures website, where the above photo was found:

I too remember Tony Balducci-ie. Peg Leg. He was the terror of the entire kid population of Fallsburg. For if he ever had to discipline you in the theatre or eject you – there was double trouble ahead. Since he knew every child in town, he would call home and inform your parents of your crime and you caught hell when you got home. Tony had a son and a daughter – once I remember the son opened the forbidden door behind his father’s office desk that led to the vast dark and dank cellar of the theatre. I can still remember the sight and smell of the cellar.

Friday night was “date night”. Other than the yearly junior or senior prom, this was the only place where a young man and woman could “go out”. Generally those on a date sat toward the rear of the theater where they could avoid prying eyes. It was understood that if you were on a date, the boy would be entitled to drape his arm around the girl’s shoulder. Those who were “going steady” would “neck” during the film. Those of us who were a bit younger used to spend as much time looking at them as at the screen because we were curious about the dating game.

When the feature ended (usually something like “The FBI Story” featuring James Stewart”), we’d go outside and get picked up by our parents or hitch a ride home depending on the weather. A big part of the after-movie scene was older guys driving back and forth in front of the theaters in their prize cars, just like in George Lucas’s “American Graffiti”. A cool car would typically be something like a Ford convertible with a continental kit, fender skirts, and glasspack mufflers that sounded bad. Something that looked like this:

However, from time to time we went to a weekday feature, almost always when there was no school the next day. I am not exactly sure what went into Tony Balducci’s programming decisions (or perhaps his schedule was dictated by some higher corporate body) but the weekday features tended to be more substantial.

As far as I can remember, “Sailor of the King” was the first “foreign” film I ever saw. Despite being a British film, or perhaps because it was a British film, it was light years away from what I had been accustomed to out of Hollywood. The witch-hunt had robbed the film industry of some of its sharpest writers and directors. Even when they weren’t trying to smuggle in a progressive message (which turned out to be very rarely, even in the 1930s), they were always determined to push the artistic envelope—manifested most often as film noir rather than socialist realism.

C.S. Forester adapted his novel into the screenplay for “Sailor of the King” just as he did for “The African Queen” and “Sink the Bismarck”, two other Union Jack war stories. He is also the author of the Horatio Hornblower series of novels that celebrated British warfare on the open seas in the 18th century. Among the fans were Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway.

The film is something of an oddity in that it contains two separate stories with only a tenuous connection. In the first part we meet British naval officer Richard Saville shortly after the end of WWI. He is in the same train compartment as Lucinda Bentley on his way to his first assignment. The two fall madly in love at first sight and go off to a hotel to consummate their passion. It was all done very tastefully but still had enough heat to make a 15-year-old feel realize what he was missing.

Michael Rennie, the actor who played the spacemen in “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, plays the officer while Wendy Hiller plays his love. Hiller was arguably the greatest actress of her time, performing Shakespeare on stage and Eliza Doolittle in a 1938 film.

After they part ways, the film skips ahead to WWII where we meet the crew of the cruiser Amesbury, one of three under the command of Richard Saville. They hope to find and sink the Nazi battleship Essen wreaking havoc in the waters off the Chilean coast. The Amesbury manages to hit the Essen with a torpedo but sinks after suffering heavy damage itself, leaving only two survivors in the water taken prisoner by the Essen. One of them is Andrew Brown, the long-lost son of Richard Saville, who is played by Jeffrey Hunter—John Wayne’s sidekick in “The Searchers”.

On board the Essen, Brown discovers that they plan to do repairs on the Essen in the inlet of an island in the South Pacific just out of range of the two remaining British cruisers. If they manage the repairs within twenty-four hours, they will be able to escape the British snare. Brown decides that it is up to him to pin them down until the British catch up and destroys the Essen. This will be done by stealing a rifle from the ship’s armory, sailing to the island in the dead of night, and taking cover in the rocks overlooking the Essen. When they begin doing repairs at the break of dawn, Brown opens fire on them—thus jeopardizing the Essen’s escape.

By 1959 I had probably seen dozens of war movies. After all, WWII and Korea were not that far off and Hollywood had become accustomed to churning out flag-waving spectacles that had the GI heroes killing off hundreds if not thousands of krauts or gooks. “Sailor of the King” is completely different. Although a hero, Brown is doomed to be hunted down by the Nazis who vastly outnumber him. Not to stretch an analogy too far, this war movie has more in common with existential literature of the time than the typical gung-ho John Wayne flick. “Sailor of the King” can be ordered as a DVD from both TCM and Amazon.

My duty is to protect all the species, all the living roots that heaven planted into the earth. I’ve been fighting all my life for their preservation. Man is destroying the forest, poisoning the ocean, poisoning the very air we breathe with radiation. The oceans, the forests, the race of animals, mankind are the roots of heaven. Poison heaven’s roots and the tree will be done and die. The stars will go out and heaven will be destroyed.

That was the response of the character Peer Qvist to a colonial administrator charged with the responsibility of tracking down and persuading the small band protecting elephants to give up their struggle. When asked to justify his membership in a subversive group after pledging only to do scientific research in French Equatorial Africa, Qvist (played by Friedrich von Ledebur, who also played Queequeg in John Huston’s “Moby Dick”) gives the only possible answer for someone who values all life. It would be hard to exaggerate the impact those words had on my when I first heard them in 1959, long before terms like animal rights and ecology had entered our vocabulary.

“The Roots of Heaven” was very much in the spirit of Edward Abbey’s 1975 “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, a novel that for all I know was inspired by “The Roots of Heaven”. While Abbey’s work celebrated sabotage against machines that were destroying the West’s natural habitats, Romain Gary’s heroes were using a monkey wrench against a system that had very little machinery to speak of. That system provided ivory for billiard balls and other ostentatious items, leaving the Africans without industry or wildlife. Indeed, some of the African nationalists who initially hook up with them—mainly for the publicity–view the elephants as an obstacle to progress and would be more than happy to see them sacrificed.

The peaceful guerrillas, whose main activity is shooting rifles in the air to disperse a herd just as poachers are arriving, are led by Morel, a former big-game hunter who grew sick of killing animals he admired. Trevor Howard, the actor who played the British officer in “The Third Man” as well as other roles incorporating the national stiff upper lip, plays Morel. Morel’s chief combatant is Forsythe, an alcoholic and disgraced ex-officer played by Errol Flynn, an alcoholic in real life who died less than a year after the filming. Huston wrote:

Errol Flynn was truly ill, but it had nothing to do with Africa. He had a vastly enlarged liver. He continued to drink, however, and he was also on drugs…. I remember seeing Errol sitting alone night after night in the middle of the compound with a book, reading by the light of a Coleman lantern. There was always a bottle of vodka on the camp table beside him. When I went to sleep he was there, and when I’d wake up in the middle of the night I’d see him still sitting there—the book open, but Errol not reading any longer, just looking into his future, I think, of which there not much left.

The most interesting casting in the film was Juliette Gréco as Minna, Morel’s love interest. Gréco, still alive at the age of 87, was the quintessential bohemian who was very familiar with the French West Bank scene, hanging out with Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre and Miles Davis (also her lover) at various times in her life—the Metropolitan counterparts of Morel’s band of outsiders.

In addition to her affair with Miles, Gréco was also the lover of Darryl Zanuck, the film’s producer. Most of you might reasonably associate Zanuck with Hollywood schlock like the 1938 “Little Miss Broadway”, a Shirley Temple vehicle but also more serious films like “The Grapes of Wrath”.

“The Roots of Heaven” was echt Huston material, even though it never achieved the fame of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” or “The African Queen”. Perhaps its meager box office figures simply reflected the failure of an audience to connect with realities that would become a lot more immediate in a couple of decades. 1959 was not a year for thinking in apocalyptic terms. That being said, there was a lot of concern about nuclear weapons, something that Qvist alludes to. In another scene, a minor colonial official is reading a book about the coming nuclear Armageddon.

The real inspiration for this film came from Romain Gary, a most compelling figure. Gary was born Romain Kacew, a Lithuanian Jew, in 1914, moving to France with his mother in 1928. After the Nazis occupied France, Gary joined the Gaullist wing of he Resistance and flew 25 missions as a fighter pilot.

Gary was married to Jean Seberg from 1962 to 1970, an American actress best known for her role in “Breathless”. Like Juliette Gréco, Seberg was an outsider—more of a radical than a bohemian. Well known as a sympathizer of the Black Panther Party, she was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO (as was I). In 1970, the FBI circulated a tale that she was pregnant with a child fathered by Black Panther member Raymond Hewitt rather than Romain Gary. Gary blamed the FBI for her suicide in 1979, a product of the harassment she had suffered.

Although Gary was very much a man of the left, he never got sucked into the Communist Party, a fact that very likely explains why he was able to fight the good fight for so many years. I got a big chuckle out of what Romain Gary biographer David Bellos said in “Romain Gary: a Tall Story” (according to Bellos, Gary was something of a bullshit artist):

Gary remained as skeptical of the inheritance of revolutionary thinking as he did of its source. Conventional left-wing intellectuals in 1960s and 1970s France continued to distinguish their role from that of the bourgeoisie, even though virtually all such figures were either active or former civil servants (as university or school teachers, like Sartre) or persons of independent means, like Philippe Sollers. So when Gary has his stand-in Bondy ask him in “A Quiet Night”, “What is your position with respect to the bourgeoisie?”, he is asking a highly coded question. No other prominent French writer of the day would have dared answer as Gary does: “Right inside it.”

“The Roots of Heaven” can be seen on Amazon streaming.

July 4, 2014

Alex Callinicos: take a look in the mirror

Filed under: British SWP,Lenin,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

Alex Callinicos

Alex Callinicos’s nearly 12,500-word article in the latest International Socialism (Thunder on the Left) reminds me quite a bit of the kind of explanation I heard from former members of the SWP in the USA over the years about the group’s collapse. It was not the fault of the leaders but of objective conditions that the SWP went from nearly 2000 members in 1978 to just over a hundred today. It was almost inevitable given the decline of the trade union movement that supposedly would have nourished the sect’s growth. That decline was in turn an inevitable outcome of a hollowing out of the industrial sector and the loss of blue-collar jobs. It should be noted that the SWP leadership itself never bothered to provide much of an explanation for the loss of 95 percent of its members. In their eyes the party was always poised to take advantage of great opportunities looming on the horizon. Indeed, if you do a search on “opportunities” on the Militant newspaper website, you will find links to 982 articles. This was typical:

In the months ahead, the party will reach out to get an expanded hearing among working people on the roots of the world economic crisis and a fighting road forward for our class; take advantage of possibilities to advance the campaign to free the Cuban Five and defend the Cuban Revolution; and opportunities to join strikes and social struggles of workers against attacks by the rulers and their government.

To Callinicos’s credit, he avoids this kind of cockeyed optimism even though, like Jack Barnes, he refuses to acknowledge his own role in a torrential loss of members. Like the sympathizers of the American SWP, he relates his sect’s trouble to objective conditions:

This decline is a consequence of two processes, one long term, the other more short term. In the first place, the general tendency in advanced capitalist societies towards the greater fragmentation and individualisation of social life erodes the bases of many mass organisations—not just political parties, but mainstream churches and many of the other institutions that helped to impose a degree of order and security during the early chaotic phases of capitalist development. This phenomenon was already visible during the post-war boom, when it was diagnosed as “apathy”, a disease of “affluence”.

Secondly, neoliberalism—a result of the ruling class response to this insurgency—has accelerated the tendency to fragmentation and individualism and weakened working class organisation. But it has also reshaped bourgeois politics as the mainstream parties have converged on acceptance of neoliberalism. What in France is called la pensée unique (the “sole thought”) ideologically integrates the political elite with media bosses, big capital more generally, and much of the academy in acceptance of market capitalism and bourgeois democracy as defining the horizons of rational social life.

My explanation differs from ex-members of the SWP in the USA and Callinicos’s. It paraphrases what Cassius said in Shakespeare’s play: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are hemorrhaging members.”

What they fail to grasp is the primary obstacle such groups face in becoming massive. Tens of thousands of socialist-minded workers, students and even middle-class professionals are not willing to join a group that imposes an ideological straitjacket on its membership. The “program” of both SWP’s was always understood to be virtual encyclopedia of positions on historical and international questions that it was almost impossible to support unless you had gone through an apprenticeship in the organization that included indoctrination in new members classes, etc. It was the kind of training a Jesuit would receive.

Despite such self-imposed constraints, groups such as the American and British SWP’s can enjoy relative success. At its high point, my sect was the largest group on the left just as was the case with the British SWP. Taking into account the revolving door tendencies of both groups to lose burned out members, they could have stayed close to the top of their game.

But both crashed on the reefs as a result of an inability to change course. If it was a single-mindedness of purpose and ideological homogeneity that allowed such groups to enjoy rapid growth, it was exactly the same tendencies that made it impossible to avoid a disaster. Although such “Leninist” groups have formal guarantees for the democratic rights of the membership, the leadership will always dig in its heels when it has a big stake in the outcome of a debate. In the American SWP, the top leader had become fanatically committed to the “turn toward industry”, to the point of likening party members who disagreed as “Marielitos”, the counter-revolutionary Cubans who arrived in Florida on boats. In the British SWP, the dividing line was not over policy but over the refusal of the leadership to take action against one of its own who had raped a younger female member. As I said, the American SWP lost 95 percent of its membership but so far the British SWP’s losses have been somewhat smaller—only 700 according to Callinicos. Of course, there is no doubt that as long as the current stonewalling tendencies of the leadership group remain intact, those numbers will grow.

While there is not much point in covering all of the points made in Callinicos’s gargantuan article, there are a few worth honing in on.

In reviewing the tendencies of broad parties like Syriza to suffer “organizational implosion”, Callinicos puts the blame on the aforementioned economic tendencies. Leaving aside the question of whether Syriza has imploded, I was struck by his reference to a broad-based party that included the SWP as a constituent:

Disarray set in among the radical left before the onset of the economic crisis: thus George Galloway launched his attack on the role of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) within Respect in August 2007, just as the credit crunch was beginning to develop.

What a strange analysis. As if the collapse of Lehman Brothers would have been a green light for Galloway to launch his attack. Leaving aside Galloway’s mercurial personality and Labour Party bad habits, the real cause of the crisis in Respect was the SWP’s unaccountability. Whenever you have a “democratic centralist” entity operating in a larger mass movement or a broad party, there will be friction since decisions will be made at caucus meetings beforehand. I should know. That’s how the American SWP operated. We called ourselves “The Big Red Machine” and that’s why people outside our ranks hated us.

For those who bothered to read Callinicos’s attacks on the party members who fought against the rape cover-up, you will remember that he said that the real disagreement was over “reform versus revolution”. SWP members like Richard Seymour were renegades from Marxism, pinning their hopes on Syriza type formations rather than tried and true Leninist formations like the SWP. Feeling vindicated now that Greece is still a capitalist country, Callinicos says “I told you so.”

The proof of Syriza’s failure was its support for “the shopworn centre-right architect of austerity Jean-Claude Juncker for president of the European commission.” It turns out that Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras’s support for Juncker was highly qualified. Le Monde reported:

“If Europe doesn’t democratize soon, it will suffer a major cohesion” he said and when asked whether or not he supports the candidacy of Juncker for the president of the European Commission he explained that “although he’s a tough opponent of his policy”, he recognizes the right to preside, as long as his party won the largest number of seats.

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

Apparently this is not good enough for Callinicos. The leftists who are now in Syriza would be better advised to join Callinicos’s co-thinkers in Antarsya that got 20,389 votes in the 2012 elections as opposed to Syriza’s 1,655,022. You have to remember that the Bolsheviks started off small. As long as you have a correct program, victory is assured. That is why it was so necessary to hound Richard Seymour and friends out of the SWP. They were a scratch that could have turned into gangrene, don’t you know?

As might be expected, Callinicos returns once again to a defense of “Leninism”, the last refuge of a scoundrel. As might be expected, Callinicos feels the need repudiate Lars Lih’s argument that Lenin sought nothing more than to build a party in Russia modeled after Kautsky’s party in Germany since that comes uncomfortably close to an endorsement of the “left reformism” of Syriza. For Callinicos, Paul Le Blanc and Mick Armstrong of the Socialist Alternative in Australia, there is this thing called “Leninism” that was implicit as far back as 1903 but became fully manifested at the Prague Conference of 1912.

I will probably have more to say on this since Paul Blackledge, a case-hardened Callinicos lieutenant, attempts to refute Lars Lih in the same issue of International Socialism but will offer some thoughts on what Callinicos says here:

While a welcome corrective to the standard bourgeois caricature of Lenin as a demonic totalitarian, this interpretation has subsequently been used by Lih and others to argue that Lenin had no distinctive or original approach to revolutionary politics in general or party organisation in particular. This would have come as a surprise to Lenin himself, who after all wrote “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder in 1920 in order to introduce Western revolutionaries to the specific political experiences of the Bolsheviks, but also to contemporaries such as Georg Lukács, who, through the debates in the early Communist International, developed a hard-won understanding of Lenin’s originality.

Callinicos is right but that’s the problem unfortunately. There’s a lack of clarity in the above quote but basically it makes an amalgam of two separate questions. Lih’s contribution was less about “revolutionary politics” than it was about organizational questions. Keep in mind that Lih’s key work was an 888-page examination of “What is to be Done”, a work focused on questions such as the role of a newspaper, democratic centralism, etc. That being said, by 1920 Lenin had certainly come to the conclusion that an “original approach” to party organization distinguished the Comintern parties from the Second International. The 21 Conditions was the most obvious sign of that but even more obviously was the application of “democratic centralism” to the German Communist Party when Paul Levi was expelled with Lenin’s endorsement over his public attack on the ultraleftism that was jeopardizing the German revolution. It was the sort of narrow understanding of democratic centralism that would become enshrined at the Bolshevization Comintern conference three years later under Zinoviev’s command.

Displaying a shamelessness on the order of a Washington bourgeois politician, Callinicos spends a thousands words or so defending his party’s understanding of the “woman question” against Sharon Smith of the ISO who views Tony Cliff’s analysis as lacking to say the least. If Callinicos can’t make the connection between a certain theoretical deficiency in the SWP and the commission of inquiry that asked the female rape victim about her drinking habits, then he is beyond help.

In his conclusion, Callinicos writes:

The present crisis is much more diffuse, but in some ways more threatening, because the revolutionary left is much weaker than it was in 1979. This makes the attempts to split and even to destroy organisations such as the NPA and the SWP so irresponsible.

Now I have no idea what is going on in the French NPA since the comrades are not particularly engaged with the English-speaking left (who can blame them?) but I doubt it has anything to do with a rape investigation that had more in common with those conducted in the American military than what we would expect from a Marxist party. In terms of attempts to destroy an organization, my suggestion to Alex Callinicos is that he takes a look in the mirror at his earliest convenience. There he will find the miscreant most responsible.

 

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