Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 12, 2014

The tide turns against Political Marxism

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:52 pm

Robert Brenner, the godfather of Political Marxism

One of the upcoming featured articles in the ISO’s International Socialist Review is titled “The poverty of Political Marxism”. Written by Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, it will obviously be a polemic directed against the academic trend dedicated to applying the “Brenner thesis” to various historical events, including the American Civil War.

Briefly summarized, the Brenner thesis claims that capitalism developed originally in the British countryside in the 17th century as a result of the introduction of tenant farming that put a premium on competition. Once it took hold in Britain, it diffused to the rest of the world.

Furthermore, Political Marxism has a fairly strict definition of capitalism. Without free labor, it simply does not exist. So, in the case of the Southern slave states, you had something called “precapitalism”, according to Charles Post. Needless to say, this category was not very prevalent in a Marxism that continued to stress the need for identifying social relations more exactly. Wouldn’t there be a need to distinguish 19th century plantations in Alabama from slave labor during Nero’s age?

Although Brenner never wrote much about the bourgeois revolution—as far as I know—his followers developed a theory that no such thing existed, especially in France in 1789 when, according to Brennerite George Comninel, the monarchy was toppled by aristocrats rather than the bourgeoisie.

I first learned about the Brenner thesis from Jim Blaut in the mid-90s when he showed up on the mailing list preceding Marxmail urging people to read “The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History” that was a reply in part to Robert Brenner. After reading it, I was motivated to begin writing my own articles on the Brenner thesis but from a somewhat different angle than Jim’s. As someone who remained very much committed to Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, I wanted to try to evaluate the Brenner thesis in terms of my own education in the SWP. I might have rejected the group’s sectarianism but continued to value the emphasis it put on Trotsky’s writings that saw the tendency for feudal social relations and modern capitalist property relations to co-exist as they did in Czarist Russia on the eve of the Russian Revolution.

Starting in the late 90s, I wrote 32 articles on the Brenner thesis that can be read here: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/origins.htm. Most were written after Jim had died of pancreatic cancer in 2000. At the risk of sounding either self-important or—more likely—like a crank, there was practically nobody criticizing the Brenner thesis except me. For the most part, this was a function of the thesis enjoying a kind of hegemony on the academic left. If you spent any amount of time on JSTOR as I did courtesy of my employment at Columbia University, you will discover dozens of articles paying tribute to Robert Brenner in the most glowing terms. What was the explanation for that? Jim Blaut tried to provide one in an essay on Brenner that was included in his follow-up to the Colonizer’s Model titled “Eight Eurocentric Historians”:

Robert Brenner is one of the most widely known of Euro-Marxist historians. His influence stems from the fact that he supplied a crucial piece of doctrine at a crucial time. Just after the end of the Vietnam War, radical thought was strongly oriented toward the Third World and its struggles, strongly influenced by Third-World theorists like Cabral, Fanon, Guevara, James, Mao, and Nkrumah, and thus very much attracted to theories of social development which tend to displace Europe from its pivotal position as the center of social causation and social progress, past and present. Euro-Marxism of course disputed this, and Euro-Marxists, while strong in their support of present-day liberation struggles, nonetheless insisted as they always had done that the struggles and changes taking place in the center of the system, the European world, are the true determinants of world historical changes; socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced European capitalism, or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will certainly not arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third World.

What was badly needed at this juncture was a strong Euro-Marxist theory of the original rise of capitalism, a theory demonstrating that capitalism and modernization originated in Europe, and evolved thereafter mainly in Europe and with little influence from the non-European world and colonialism. The crucial questions were matters of medieval and early-modern history, of proving that Europe was the source of innovation back in those times, and so the modern European world (joined lately by Japan) is still, by implication, the main source of innovation. Robert Brenner supplied such a theory in two long essays in 1976 and 1977, followed by another in 1982.2 These essays are among the most influential writings in contemporary Marxist historiography, influential among conservatives and Marxists alike.

Over the past few years I have been gratified to see others wading in on the Brenner thesis, especially Henry Heller, the author of “The Birth of Capitalism”, a book that came out in 2011. Heller had two motivations in writing such a book: first, to prove that the lease farming analysis was false and second, to reestablish the legacy of the bourgeois revolution. Heller is also the author of “The Bourgeois Revolution in France, 1789-1815”, a book whose title obviously indicates its theoretical orientation just as much as Neil Davidson’s “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?”, another rebuttal to George Comninel and the Political Marxists.

I was also encouraged to see the Deutscher Prize awarded to Jairus Banaji in 2011 for his collection of essays “Theory As History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation”. It came out the same year as Heller’s and was chosen over Charles Post’s “The American Road to Capitalism”. To my knowledge, Banaji has never referred to Brenner specifically in his writings but given his commitment to Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, it was inevitable that he would implicitly challenge some of the basic precepts of Political Marxism by referring, for example, in one essay to the theses on the Eastern Question proposed at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, where the colonial commission spoke of capitalism arising in the colonies on feudal foundations.

What I hadn’t counted on, however, was the new initiatives taken by younger scholars in the field, symbolized by the article by Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu that will appear in the next ISR. Some time invested in a Google search revealed quite a rich vein of scholarly research carried out by these two and other like-minded critics of Political Marxism and that is available online. Let me review them now in the hope that you will dig in to this important theoretical question: how did capitalism arise?

1. Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, “What’s at Stake in the Transition Debate? Rethinking the Origins of Capitalism and the ‘Rise of the West’”, Millennium – Journal of International Studies 2013 42: 78

Interestingly, the article is a defense of combined and uneven development from the charge of Eurocentrism mounted by Indian scholars and by John M. Hobson, the author of “The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics”, “The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation” and the great grandson of the man whose ideas on imperialism influenced Lenin.

The authors seek to resolve the contradiction between the “internal” explanation of capitalism defended by Brenner and the “external” (Italian city-state trade, Spanish plunder of the New World, etc.) defended by Sweezy and Wallerstein on a higher level. The article shows that the Ottoman Empire had a major role in creating the conditions for the rise of capitalism in Europe by undermining the possibility of European unity under the grip of an absolutist state:

Aside from these new commercial privileges, the effects of the Ottoman geopolitical buffer were especially pronounced in English intra-lord class relations and the peculiar development of the English state. A variety of authors have stressed the significance of England’s lack of involvement in continental geopolitical conflicts from 1450 onwards as a fundamental factor in its peculiar development of capitalism.

It also stresses the importance of the New World plunder that served as kind of supercharger for capitalist development internally:

In the first instance, the bullion confiscated in the Americas lubricated the circuits of capital accumulation within Europe as a whole, providing the liquid specie for Europe’s vibrant trade with the East. By 1650, the flow of precious metals from the Americas reaching Europe is estimated to have amounted to at least 180 tons of gold and 17,000 tons of silver. Between 1561 and 1580, about 85 per cent of the entire world’s production of silver came from the Americas. This provided the capital for European merchants’ profitable trade with Asia and East Africa in textiles and particularly spices.

2. Kerem Nisancioglu, “Before the Deluge: The Ottoman Origins of Capitalism”, a paper presented to a Millennium conference in 2012

This paper expands on the findings in the article cited above. I was particularly interested in this question since in prior discussions I have had with people on the Turkish left, including my wife, I always had the impression that the Ottoman Empire was certainly not capitalist, even if it was not exactly like European feudalism. What was it exactly? Nisancioglu characterizes it as being based on the tributary mode of production, a more general category that includes European feudalism. In the Ottoman Empire, the state was much more powerful than it was in Western Europe and hence far more capable of achieving control over a vast territory through internal financing for a standing army. In its confrontations with Europe, the Ottomans inadvertently created the conditions for the rise of capitalism that would eventually be their undoing:

The Euro-Ottoman relation was therefore marked by the relative backwardness of the European ruling classes, and the comparative weakness in its form of social reproduction. These European ‘privileges of backwardness’ encouraged and compelled its people – both ruling and ruled classes – to develop and adopt new ways of securing their social reproduction. At the same time, the relative strength of the Ottoman social form entailed a ‘disadvantage of progressiveness’, wherein the stability of social reproduction provided no immanent impulse for change or development. This relation of unevenness goes some way to explaining why the so- called miracle of capitalism would occur in Europe, and why it would not be repeated in Ottoman territories. That this divergence was a product of Ottoman progressiveness and European backwardness suggests that Eurocentric assumptions of historical priority need to be reconsidered.

3. Jamie C. Allinson and Alexander Anievas, “Approaching ‘the international’: Beyond Political Marxism”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs

I suspect that this article anticipates some of the same criticisms that Anievas and Nisancioglu make in the upcoming ISR article, although given the venue it was obviously less polemical than what we can expect to see. As was the case with the previous articles, Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development is invoked as a corrective to Political Marxism’s tendency to draw a sharp distinction between social relations dictated by the market and “extra-economic” coercion of the kind that existed under both feudalism and the absolutist states of the early modern era. That being said, I do find the article making concessions to Political Marxism that I would not have made. For example, they write:

Only under capitalist property relations do we see the structured differentiation of the political and economic into distinct institutional spheres as methods of surplus-extraction become uncoupled from ‘extra-economic’ coercive means. In other words, under capitalism extra-economic coercion (that is, state power) and economic coercion (the compulsion to sell one’s labour in order to access the means of production) are necessarily separate. ‘As in every other exploitative system’, Wood (2006, 15) writes, ‘there are two “moments” of exploitation: the appropriation of surplus labour and the coercive power that sustains it. In capitalism, however these two “moments”: are uniquely separate from each other’.

Unless I misunderstand them, they would put the plantation system of the old South outside the sphere of capitalist property relations since it rests almost exclusively on “extra-economic” coercive means. As I shall explain later, the most recent research demonstrates rather conclusively that the plantation system was fully integrated into the world capitalist system, thus restoring Eric Williams “Capitalism and Slavery”, an analysis based on the combined and uneven development principles Williams learned from CLR James, to its rightful place in the arsenal of Marxism.

4. Jamie C. Allinson and Alexander Anievas, “The Uneven and Combined Development of the Meiji Restoration: A Passive Revolutionary Road to Capitalist Modernity”, Capital and Class

If free labor is a sine qua non for Political Marxism, how does it explain the Meiji Restoration in which feudal relations in the countryside were used to reinforce capitalist property relations in the city? Easy…it ignores it.

Thanks to Allinson and Anievas, we get some insights into what happened in Japan and as it turns out Junkers Germany as well. They write:

This combined formation is not, however, to be grasped in a mechanical way but rather as emerging in the crises and responses of the actors in Japanese society. The Meiji reforms abolished the legal and economic basis of the samurai class and prebendal power over the direct producers. However, the abolition of the dues of the samurai class was achieved at the expense of the peasants, rendered notionally free but in fact still subject to ‘semi-servile’ agrarian relations (Hirano, 1948: 4). By this time, ‘Japan’s uneven development had produced a highly concentrated urban capitalist sector, contrasting sharply with conditions in the countryside that many Marxists came to see as vestiges of feudalism’ (Hoston, 1986: 9). The origins of Japan’s agrarian class crisis, which intertwined with industrial class struggle in the 1920s and to which ‘imperial fascism’ was a response, lay in this ramified social structure.

Back in 1997 or thereabouts, I wrote my first article on the Brenner thesis in which I came to similar conclusions:

Turning to Japan, the question of whether capitalist agriculture is a requirement for the advent of capitalism in general becomes even more problematic. Japanese Marxist scholarship has been the site of intense debates inspired by the Sweezy-Dobbs exchange. The Meiji restoration of the late 19th century is widely seen as the advent of the contemporary economic system, but there is scant evidence of bourgeois transformation of agriculture.

In “The Meiji Landlord: Good or Bad” (Journal of Asian Studies, May ’59), R.P. Dore dates the controversy as arising in the 1930s, long before Dobbs, Sweezy and Brenner stepped into the ring. The Iwanami Symposium on the Development of Japanese Capitalism, held in 1932, marks the starting point of a sustained effort to date the transformation of Japan from a feudal to a capitalist society. Especially problematic was the role of class relations in the countryside, which never went through the radical restructuring of Brenner’s 16th century England.

Referring to Hirano Yoshitarö’s “The Structure of Japanese Capitalism” Dore writes:

Hirano’s work contains a good deal of original research concerning the economic facts of the agrarian structure of the early Meiji, and the creation of a highly dependent class of tenant farmers. The landlords of Hirano, for example, preserved the semi-feudal social relations of the countryside which provided the necessary groundbase for the peculiarly distorted form of capitalism which developed in Japan. The high rents, maintained by semi-feudal extra-economic pressures, not only helped to preserve this semi-feudal base intact (by making capitalist agriculture unprofitable) they also contributed to the rapid process of primitive capital accumulation which accounted for the speed of industrial development. Thus the landlords were to blame for the two major special characteristics of Japanese capitalist development–its rapidity and its distorted nature.

It is hard for me to understand why the Political Marxists are so little motivated to look closely at what might be called “capitalism from above”. Isn’t it about time that we concluded that even though Marx had good reasons to chronicle the origins of capitalism in Britain as it was the “purest form”, resting as it did on market forces rather than extra-economic coercion, this particular historical example was in many ways unique? After all, Marx told the Russian populists that Capital was not intended as a universal schema for social development.

A free market in labor developed in Britain because there was a surplus of labor generated by the enclosure acts that forced self-husbanding farmers to seek employment as wage workers. In the colonies, the Indians could not be relied upon since they would run away from a plantation and subsist as they always had through hunting and fishing. Naturally you would import slaves from Africa and keep them disciplined by the whip and the noose.

Two books came out recently that set a high bar for Political Marxists like Charles Post. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes trying to answer Walter Johnson and Edward E. Baptist who carried out rigorous research of primary material in order to make the case that slavery in the Old South was capitalist, even if it didn’t correspond to a schema wrenched out of V. 1 of Capital. I have Johnson’s “River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom” and Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” and can’t wait to sit down and work my way through them.

While there may be excerpts from Johnson’s book online somewhere, I think your best bet is to read Gilbert Winant’s review in N+1, a Marxist journal of the new generation. Winant writes:

For Johnson, slavery is not something outside of capitalism or the American liberal tradition but the clearest instance of each. (John Locke lodged no complaints against human bondage.) Slavery should be seen not as a sure sign of economic backwardness, but as a technically refined system for coordinating abstract knowledge and bodily violence: intelligence and torture, free trade and imperial war, financial data and brutal physical toil—all adding up to booming world trade, accumulating wealth, and ecological degradation. In this picture, the Cotton Kingdom looks like nothing less than the homeland of neoliberalism, and master and slave, the origin story of contemporary America.

I would only add that I found it most odd that Ellen Meiksins Wood regarded John Locke as the philosopher par excellence of the emerging capitalist system since he wrote the constitution for the Carolinas colony that enshrined slavery as a natural right. That contradiction is, of course, for her and other Political Marxists to unravel.

If anything, Edward E. Baptist is even more emphatic on classifying slavery as part of the American capitalist system. I would refer you to Charles Larson’s CounterPunch review:

The men (often with a thousand pounds of iron connecting them) were part of a coffle, enslaved migrants walking seven or eight hundred miles, chattel property, being moved from the north to the south because the profits when they were sold to their new owners were one hundred percent. The slave trade in Africa no longer mattered because slaves in the more northern states (Virginia, especially, but also Maryland) were reproducing so quickly that they created an entire new source of labor. Baptist gives the year as 1805, and states that eventually a million slaves were herded this way to the South. Tobacco farming in the North was less profitable than cotton farming in the South. “The coffle chained the early American republic together.” Slaves walked and walked for five or six weeks, performing their ablutions as they moved. There wasn’t an iota of dignity for the men. Baptist refers to the entire procedure as a “pattern of political compromise” between the North and the South and notes that eight of the first twelve Presidents of the United States were slave owners.

Well, of course. Slave-owners led the American Revolution that Lenin considered to be an exemplary “revolution from below”. They were certainly the most consistent defenders of bourgeois prerogatives, including the right to own men and women as if they were beasts of burden. And after the Northern bourgeoisie reconciled with its Southern former enemies in 1876, “extra-economic” coercion was restored in the South and continued through most of the 20th century until Blacks mobilized to end Jim Crow just as they had in the 1860s to end slavery. And during slavery, Jim Crow and modern ‘free labor’ conditions (excluding the profit-making penitentiary system), it has remained capitalism all along. I will conclude with this thought. Capitalism is about commodity production for the purposes of gaining what Piketty calls “capital”—wealth in other words. Whether the labor that produces the wealth is in chains or “free” to be sold to the highest bidder makes hardly any difference at all, least of all to the bastards who rule the world.


October 10, 2014

Why you should junk Netflix

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 10:55 pm
And Start Watching Films with a Brain and a Heart

Why You Should Junk Netflix


If any further evidence of the uselessness of Netflix was needed, I refer you to the recently concluded four-picture deal with Adam Sandler, who is to movies as Danielle Steel and Ken Follett are to the novel. Did you ever forget to bring a book with you on a long airplane trip and stop in at an airline terminal to look for something to read? Wall to wall Steel and Follett, right? Bummer. That’s the same reaction I have been having lately looking for something to watch on Netflix. That is not to speak of the cheesy menu that basically propagates the same junk across “Popular on Netflix”, “Recently Added” and “New Releases”. A quick look there turns up “Jackass presents: Grandpa” and “The Coed and the Zombie Stoner”. Considering the fact that most Netflix subscribers have never heard of Kurosawa or Godard, it is quite a statement that “The Coed and the Zombie Stoner” only garnered one and a half stars, an inflated grade considering the fact that you can’t rate something as zero stars.

As a sop to the art house crowd, one supposes, Netflix is also releasing the sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, a film that has all of the superficial characteristics of Hong Kong cinema but none of the substance, least of all the nimbleness of the classics like the 1978 “Drunken Master” starring Jackie Chan. Ang Lee should have stuck to what he knows best, tales of anomie in the aging yuppie milieu.

I just checked the archives of the Marxism list and discovered a message I wrote in 2006 recommending Netflix followed by an enthusiastic New York Times article that compared the service favorably to Blockbuster. That was true. Of course a sharp stick in the eye would have been better than Blockbuster as well.

read full article

trailers for films discussed in the article:

Waiting for August

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:16 pm

Opening today at the Quad in New York, “Waiting for August” is a cinema vérité Romanian documentary about seven children fending for themselves while their mother works as a housekeeper in Italy in order to provide the money the family needs to stay afloat. The father is unaccounted for—we don’t know if he is deceased or has simply bailed ship.

Like the best cinema vérité, especially early Frederick Wiseman, the film is making a point about society but without being too obvious about it. The subject under consideration is the precariousness of post-Communist Romania. At one point, just before Christmas, the children, who range from 15 to 4 by all appearances, are chatting about the upcoming holiday. One of the older children says that the TV will be showing pictures of that guy who was killed around Christmas time years ago. Who do you mean, asks the other? Ceausescu is the reply. He was the dictator under Communism when we had it so bad. You had to stand on line for bread rations. The irony is not lost on the audience who cannot help but be dismayed by the thin line that separates the seven kids from disaster. When you see a ten year old cutting potatoes for dinner, you wonder how long it will take for her to cut her hand. That is the feeling you are left with throughout the film. The suspense is whether they will all make it safely until August, when mom returns.

Seen in economic terms exclusively, a capitalist ideologue might argue that the film makes the case for capitalism since the kids use cell phones, watch cable TV, Skype to their mom on the family computer, and have the bare necessities for staying alive, including food, clothing and a roof over their heads. But crowded into no more than four rooms, their only pleasure besides their own companionship is watching soap operas on TV and passively taking in other electronic diversions on the computer. If Communist austerity was made possible by police repression, capitalist austerity is maintained by the free market—especially in labor as mom—like so many other Romanian parents apparently—is free to work in Italy to keep her children under the same roof. We learn that a nun who is aware of the family situation is on the verge of calling in the authorities to have the children put into an orphanage. It is not too hard to understand how so many young woman from Eastern Europe end up in the sex trade after seeing “Waiting for August”.

Not everything is grim in this documentary. In fact you are impressed with the strength and the love of the older children who function as surrogate parents. It can only make you feel, however, that they are losing the freedom of normal children who are able to make their lives their own growing up.

On the film’s website (http://waitingforaugust.be/), the 33 year old director Teodora Ana Mihai explains her motivation for making the film:

My parents fled Romania in 1988 and were granted political asylum in Belgium. I stayed behind as a guarantee for the secret services that my mom and dad would return: it was the only way for them to flee the country. In the absence of prospects, parents sometimes take risks whose consequences are difficult to calculate in advance. In the end I was lucky: about a year later, after some diplomatic interventions, I was able to leave Romania too and was reunited with my parents. But that one-year absence during my childhood left a significant mark on me.

I remain in close contact with my country of birth, intrigued and preoccupied by its current fate. It’s this connection with Romania that made me realize that, in a way, history is repeating itself there. The difference is that children are no longer left behind for political reasons, but for economic ones. The impact on the child though, remains the same.

The economic migrants are occasionally given a voice by the media, but we hardly ever hear from the young ones left behind. That is why I wanted to tell their story – the story behind the story.

But telling the story of children who are left behind by their parents is a delicate matter. It is a taboo in practically all cultures, as no one is proud of ending up in such circumstances. It was not an easy task to find a family who were not only expressive enough, but who also agreed to be filmed in an open, uncensored way.

As is the case with so many Romanian narrative films like “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”, this documentary turns a gimlet eye toward the contradictions of post-Communist society. Is there an alternative to Communist police state austerity and the insecurities of capitalism? One imagines that director Teodora Ana Mihai hopes that her audience will be inspired to answer that question for themselves, a question that most of Eastern Europe and the entire planet ponders much of the time in an epoch of declining economic expectations.

October 9, 2014

Jews and the left

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 3:48 pm

A few days ago I received this query:

Mr. Proyect,

     I’m seeking some reading suggestions about the historical involvement of jewish folks in socialist organizations/parties etc, everywhere really but especially in the U.S. Do you have any suggestions? I’d appreciate any you had! Really just curiosity on my part, although I am a socialist.

As is my customary practice, I will reply to this publicly.

I would start with Paul Buhle’s scholarship. He co-edited a book titled “The Immigrant Left in the United States” with Dan Georgakas, a collection of articles that includes his own “Themes in American Jewish Radicalism” that is about 90 percent complete on Google books. Just do a search on the book’s title and you will find it.

Next I would look at Irving Howe’s “World of Our Fathers”. It has been many years since I read it but I am fairly sure that this study of the Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side will have a lot of material that you are looking for. Howe was a member of the Trotskyist movement in the USA who moved in a rightwing social democratic direction in the 1960s but I strongly recommend “World of Our Fathers”. I also recommend his memoir on life inside the Trotskyist movement titled “A Margin of Hope”. It is very much an examination of how Jews got involved with the left in the 1930s.

Speaking of the 1930s, I would also recommend the documentary “Arguing the World” that interviews Howe as well as a number of the CCNY students who became Trotskyists or Stalinists during the Depression. All of them were Jewish. The film can be seen on Amazon.com for a small rental fee.

Next there is Vivian Gornick’s “The Romance of American Communism”, an excellent study of the lives of ex-members, many of whom were Jewish. It has been many years since I read the book but consider it must-reading for trying to understand the CP experience.

It would also be worth looking at Walter and Mirian Schneir’s “Invitation to an Inquest”, a book on the Rosenbergs that mostly sought to refute the claim that they were Russian spies. Subsequently the Schneirs had to accept conclusive evidence that Julius was (but not Ethel) was a spy.  That does not invalidate much of their findings that the trial was a mockery of justice. The book has lots of interesting material on how Jews got involved with the CP. Like many Jewish members of the CP, the Rosenbergs remained culturally Jewish even as they adopted the atheism that goes along with Marxist politics. This is true of myself as well.

There’s also a magazine called Jewish Currents that has its origins in the Communist Party. (http://jewishcurrents.org/) The journal was edited for many years by Morris Schappes, who died in 2004 at the age of 97.

Moving a bit forward in time, there’s Mark Rudd’s article “Why were there so many Jews in SDS”. (http://www.markrudd.com/?about-mark-rudd/why-were-there-so-many-jews-in-sds-or-the-ordeal-of-civility.html). There’s also a chapter from the book “The Ballad of Ken and Emily: or, Tales from the Counterculture” titled “Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Growing Up as a New Left Jew” that should be of interest. (http://www.voicesfromtheunderground.com/articles/Abbie_Jerry.pdf).

That covers the American left. There’s also lots of interesting material about Jews and socialism in other countries. Fortunately Isaac Deutscher’s essay “The Non-Jewish Jew” can be read online at: http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/amersocialist/deutscher01.htm. It would probably be worth tracking down Deutscher’s book “The Non-Jewish Jew” that has that article plus others that deal with Jews on the left.

Rosa Luxemburg and other Jews are discussed in Jack Jacobs’s book “On Socialists and ‘the Jewish Question’ After Marx”. Corey Robin, a Brooklyn College professor with radical politics who is also observant, brought Jacobs’s scholarship to my attention on FB, writing “I read the manuscript version of one of Jack Jacobs’s chapters and I found it totally riveting. So much new archival information in this book (especially about Fromm and Marcuse and their relationship to Israel; a lot more too but I was really surprised by these revelations). Will be of major interest to those interested in either the Frankfurters or in Jewish Studies.” He was referring to this book: “The Frankfurt School, Jewish Lives, and Antisemitism”, which might not be of interest to you but deserves to be mentioned in light of Corey’s recommendation.

Finally, there are many articles on “Jews, Marxism and the Worker’s Movement” at the Marxism Internet Archives (http://www.marxists.org/subject/jewish/) that should be useful to you. Finally, the Wikipedia article on Jews and the left should open up other possible reading material: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_left

Let me conclude with a few words on my own experience.

I am named after my grandfather, who died before I was born. He was the chairman of the Workman’s Circle in Woodridge, NY, a Jewish fraternal association that provided assistance such as insurance, burial costs, etc. to its Yiddish speaking membership. While not revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination, it was nominally socialist. I can’t be sure of this but my grandfather was also supposedly the chairman of the local Socialist Party.

I had very little communication with my father growing up but as I was about to go up to Boston to work with the local branch of the SWP in1970, he became sufficiently alarmed to warn me about “the commies”—as it turned out he was very unhappy that I had broken with Zionism. He said that he was a communist himself a long time ago. All that amounted to was a brief membership in the American Labor Party after WWII.

I grew up in the Borscht Belt, where many Jews from my father and grandfather’s generation joined the SP or the CP. I wrote about this phenomenon in an article titled “Borscht Belt Reds” that you might want to take a look at: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/jewish/borschtbelt.htm

Last year I interviewed a woman in her nineties who was very much in the heart of Jewish radicalism in my hometown. You can watch the video here: Jewish leftist chicken farmers of the Catskills. (http://louisproyect.org/2013/01/01/jewish-leftist-chicken-farmers-of-the-catskills/).

I also put together a video on Fred Baker that might be of interest. He was a red diaper baby who had a career both as a pornographer and as a legitimate filmmaker. His “Lenny Bruce without Tears” is his most important work. Fred’s father opened up the Second Avenue Delicatessen after winding down his involvement with the CP. Fred never joined but was a lifelong radical. The video is here: http://louisproyect.org/2012/01/05/the-house-he-lived-in-conversations-with-fred-baker/.

Finally, my own experience is fairly typical of baby boomers that got involved with the left in the 1960s. By the time I was ready to join the SWP, I had pretty much stopped identifying as a Jew. I had residual Zionist leanings but they disappeared when I discovered that Israel supported the war in Vietnam. Over the years I have written a lot about Jewish culture because I think it is great, ranging from Larry David to Harvey Pekar. I would not be surprised that in 20 years or so being Jewish will mean being orthodox as more and more Jews become assimilated. Ironically, the two things that are accelerating that process is the savagery of Israel and the general acceptance of Jews into mainstream society wherever they live. Sooner or later secular-minded Israeli Jews will abandon ship and move to countries that are less oppressive, including—ironically—Germany, the nation that is regarded in some circles as the eternal foe of the Jew. In the final analysis, the Jews have more to worry about those who are supposedly their friends, like the Christian Fundamentalists whose Zionism rests on the notion that the Second Coming of Christ will rest on the universal acceptance of Jesus as redeemer.


October 8, 2014

How Alexander Cockburn’s ancestor torched Washington and freed 6,000 slaves

Filed under: african-american,slavery — louisproyect @ 11:37 pm

Harpers Magazine, September 2014
Washington is Burning
Two centuries of racial tribulation in the nation’s capital

By Andrew Cockburn

On a sunny Saturday in June, thousands gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Francis Scott Key’s composition, officially adopted as the national anthem in 1931 following news that leftist members of the Erie, Pennsylvania, city council were opening meetings with a rousing chorus of “The Internationale.” As the melody rang out over the grass and along Constitution Ave- nue, it echoed off neighboring memorials and galleries, including the partly built National Museum of African American History and Culture a block and a half down the street.

Although preceded by a lengthy program of musical performances, the anthem it- self got short shrift. As usual, only the familiar opening verse was sung, because of various ideological stumbling blocks in subsequent verses—most especially the third, with its fervent hope that

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.

For myself, the words always evoke a glow of family pride, because Key’s malign desire that fleeing slaves should find no refuge was directly inspired by the actions of my distinguished relative Admiral Sir George Cockburn of the Royal Navy. Two hundred years ago this August, he fought his way to the White House at the head of an army partly composed of slaves he had freed, armed, and trained and torched the place, along with the Capitol and much of official Washington. In the course of a two-year campaign, he rescued as many as 6,000 slaves, and despite Key’s hopeful verse, not to mention angry demands from the U.S. government, he sailed them away to freedom.

Obviously, the admiral qualifies as one of the great emancipators, and I am proud to claim a connection. In a recent conversation with Dr. lonnie Bunch, who is over- seeing the creation of the African-American museum as its director, I suggested that he include George Cockburn in a Hall of the Righteous, cheek by jowl with Abraham Lincoln and William Lloyd Garrison. He was nice enough to hear me out, although he made it clear that his intention is not to produce a black version of the nearby Holocaust Memorial Museum, with its Wall of Rescuers, but something far broader in scope. The real challenge, Bunch told me, is to avoid a “rosy view of the past. Romanticized memory is not history.”

(Read full article in the print edition of Harpers. I have been subscribing since 1981 or so and have looked forward to each copy.)

October 7, 2014

Hunted: the War Against Gays in Russia

Filed under: Film,Gay,Russia — louisproyect @ 7:04 pm

Thirty years ago when I was working closely with Peter Camejo on getting the North Star Network off the ground, I totally agreed with him that the left should not be divided on historical questions like when and if the USSR became capitalist. Or on international questions such as whether to support Eritrea or Ethiopia, etc. You can obviously have sharp differences that must be debated openly but they are not “split” questions as is the norm in the Trotskyist movement.

After watching “Hunted: the War Against Gays in Russia”, I am not so sure any more, at least on the international question. This 48 minute documentary that can be seen on HBO Go, a streaming service available to HBO subscribers, left me in a complete state of rage both for what is happening to Russian gays but also for the open affection for Vladimir Putin that exists on wide sectors of the left.

Needless to say, the Western left would never support a politician who was responsible for fostering a war on gays in the USA or Britain. Furthermore, in all of the pro-Putin propaganda in the “anti-imperialist” left, you will never see him applauded for his anti-gay legislation that serves as legal cover for the vigilante movement exposed in the HBO documentary. That instead is what you will hear from the rightwing movements that also back the Kremlin, including just about every neofascist group in Europe, including Jobbik, Golden Dawn and the National Front in France. They love Putin because he stands up for “traditional values”. One imagines that in their heart of hearts, the “anti-imperialists” have no problems with crackdowns on NGO’s that defend gay rights in Russia since they are obviously a necessary defense against plots concocted in the basement of the State Department by George Soros, Nicholas Kristof and Samantha Power. After all, if you were going to make a choice between gays being forced to drink piss by skinhead vigilantes and coming down on the same side of an issue as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, you’d naturally opt for gays drinking piss.

Fortunately, you can see the documentary as well on Youtube. This is identical to what is being shown on HBO but with a different narrator:

The film will give you a good idea why a sixteen-year-old gay youth sought political asylum in the USA. Here on an exchange program, the boy decided that he would stay in the USA rather than put up with the kind of bigotry seen in the film. Tass said that this was all the result of a gay cabal and Russia said it would no longer participate in the exchange program.

Directed by Ben Steele, the documentary takes a look at two of the major vigilante organizations in Russia, Parents of Russia and Occupy Pedophilia. Leaders of both groups were more than willing to allow the cameramen to film every one of their attacks. Naturally, this would be the case since the cops are their accomplices.

To give you an idea of how the cops operate in tandem with the ultraright, you see gay rights activist Yekaterina Bogatch hounded by the cops for simply standing on the sidewalk holding a sign calling for equal treatment of all citizens. If she had put the word gay on the sign, she risked arrest.

Parents of Russia is a group that is dedicated to exposing gays by putting information about where they live, etc. on the Internet. Yekaterina Bogatch, a schoolteacher, is one of their prime targets. They want her fired from her job even if she is straight. Gay teachers, who are not even involved with protests, have just as much to worry about since Parents of Russia deems them as pedophiles.

That is basically the strategy of the vigilantes, the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin’s base of support in elected officialdom. Although laws against homosexuality were lifted fifteen years ago, the attacks are mounted as against pedophiles rather than gays. Occupy Pedophilia is a prime example. It tells Steele that is only after pedophiles but in the one entrapment scene that involves their activists openly tormenting a gay man they have lured through the Internet, there is not the slightest evidence that pedophilia was involved.

I have often scratched my head trying to figure out the attraction that Putin has for the “anti-imperialist” left. It reminds me of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer’s Night Dream” when Puck puts a potion in Titania’s eyes. Upon waking, she falls madly in love with Bottom, a man whose head has been replaced by that of a donkey. Who has put such a potion in the eyes of Pepe Escobar, Andre Vltchek and Michel Chossudovsky, I ask you?

For an unrepentant Marxist like me, the Russia I adore is the Russia of the 1920s when laws against homosexuality were not only lifted, there was a pervasive sense that sexual freedom and socialism went hand in hand. Ironically, despite the Workers World Party’s tendency to fall in line behind the Kremlin, one of their activists has written some very useful material on sexual freedom in the early USSR:

During the 1920s, in the first decade of the Russian Revolution, signs that the struggle to build socialism could make enormous social gains in sexual freedom–even in a huge mostly agricultural country barely freed from feudalism, then ravaged by imperialist war and torn asunder by civil war–were apparent.

The Russian Revolution breathed new life into the international sexual reform movement, the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement, and the revolutionary struggle as a whole in Germany and around the world.

It was a historic breakthrough when the Soviet Criminal Code was established in 1922 and amended in 1926, and homosexuality was not included as an offense. The code also applied to other republics, including the Ukrainian Republics. Only sex with youths under the age of 16, male and female prostitution and pandering were listed. Soviet law did not criminalize the person being prostituted, but those who exploited them.

For example, author Dan Healey states, “The revolutionary regime repeatedly declared that women who sold their bodies were victims of economic exploitation, not to be criminalized, and campaigns to discourage them from taking up sex work were launched.” The growth of prostitution had of course been spurred by the chaos and dislocation of people accompanying war.

Historian Laura Engelstein summarizes, “Soviet sexologists in the 1920s participated in the international movement for sexual reform and criminologists deplored the use of penal sanctions to censor private sexual conduct.” (“Soviet Policy”)

In 1923, the Soviet minister of health traveled to the German Institute for Sex ual Science and reportedly expressed there his pride that his government had abolished the tsarist penalties against same-sex love. He stated that “no unhappy consequences of any kind whatsoever have resulted from the elimination of the offending paragraph, nor has the wish that the penalty in question be reintroduced been raised in any quarter.”

Also in 1923, Dr. Grigorii Batkis, director of the Moscow Institute of Soviet Hygiene, published a pamphlet titled “The Sexual Revolution in Russia.” It stated, “Soviet legislation bases itself on the following principle: it declares the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, as long as nobody is injured, and no one’s interests are encroached upon.”

And the pamphlet spelled this out clearly, “Concerning homosexuality, sod omy, and various other forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offenses against public morality–Soviet legislation treats these the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse.”

Me and my great-uncle

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 2:16 pm

I know absolutely nothing about the dude except that he was my maternal grandmother’s brother and a soldier in the Russian army. With his EuroAsian features that I obviously inherited, I have to wonder if some woman on that side of the family got raped by a Cossack in the nineteenth century.


October 6, 2014

Socialism and democracy

Filed under: democracy,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

Karl Marx in the offices of The Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Organ der Demokratie (“New Rhenish Newspaper: Organ of Democracy“), a German daily newspaper he published between June 1, 1848 and May 19 1849.

Four days ago I received a query from a Latin American journalist:

Dear Louis:

I am an editor at a leading newspaper in Quito, Ecuador, and I will like to make a you one question (if you agree of course) for an article I am trying to write, after the international leftist meeting that was held this week here in this city.

My piece is about, how is it that the new and modern left is so tolerant with authoritarian regimes. Castro, Chávez and even Correa have been very sympathetic with leaders such as Lukashenko, Mugabe and Kaddafi.

So my question is if you think that this is part of a stalinist legacy that has not been thrown away by the left, despise all the horrors that the stalinist regime was responsible for?

All the best

Since others might have the same sorts of questions, I am posting a public response as follows.

This is a very complex question. To start with, Hugo Chavez is something of a paradox on the question of democracy. Keep in mind that the entire premise of “21st Century Socialism” rested on the assumption that Stalinism tainted the 20th century version. In a speech to the World Social Forum in 2005, Chavez stated that “We have to re-invent socialism. It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union, but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition.” On the other hand, in the very same speech he said, “Today’s Russia is not Yeltsin’s… there is new Russian nationalism, and I have seen it in the streets of Moscow… there is a good president, Mr. Putin, at the wheel.”

That, in a nutshell, is the contradiction we see on the left. There is acknowledgement, at least verbally, that Stalinism was unviable. If you keep people repressed there is always a tendency for them to do as little as possible to keep the system going and to look for ways to game it. Stalinist societies rot from within. Even if there is pressure from imperialism, the bigger threat is always the spiritual and psychological disaffection of workers and farmers.

But what good does it do for Chavez to make this observation while at the same time nodding in approval of Vladimir Putin? It is obvious that there would be an affinity with Putin since he superficially had the same agenda as Chavez, namely to use the revenue from petro-exports to improve the conditions of life for the average citizen. Keep in mind that toward the end of his life, Chavez had moved away from the notion of building socialism entirely. His model was less and less based on what are commonly referred to as “communist” states but Western European social democracies, which are simply welfare states resting on capitalist property relations. So naturally he would tend to see all petroleum exporting states with a populist but repressive regime and enemies of his own enemy—the USA—as partners. This meant that Russia, Iran, Libya and Syria were hailed in the Venezuelan press as forward-looking societies even though their jails were filled with political prisoners.

You are absolutely right to understand this as rooted in Stalinism. The belief that socialism could be built in a single country was in contradiction to the core Marxist belief that socialism had to be built on a global scale, just as was the case with the social system that preceded it: capitalism. Despite the fact that the USSR was an enormous country with all of the resources advanced industry would require, Leon Trotsky warned that the system would collapse unless revolutions triumphed in Western Europe: “But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty–that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship.” (I should add that Trotsky used the term “dictatorship” in the technical Marxist sense of a particular class dominating the state rather than what exists in Zimbabwe et al.)

With Trotsky’s defeat, the USSR tended to see other countries less as candidates for social transformation and more as potential allies for “socialist development”. If there was a clash between the workers in a capitalist country and their rulers who were seen as favoring Soviet interests, the workers got short shrift. When Greek workers took up arms against a fascist dictatorship, Stalin decided to sell the workers out rather than jeopardize the friendly relations he had with FDR, who was amenable to allowing Eastern Europe to become a “buffer” against invasion. This was not a socialist foreign policy but a global chess game in which a struggling people were sacrificed as a pawn.

This is the same thing that is happening today even though capitalism has returned to Russia. It would probably make more sense to speak of neo-Stalinism since Vladimir Putin would be the last person on earth to favor a socialist Russia. If Stalin saw Ukraine as a kind of outpost dedicated to the defense of the USSR, not much has changed under Putin, except that the social relations being defended are based on private property rather than state ownership. Hitler invaded Russia in order to smash collective ownership while the West never had any such intentions. Why would it if Exxon is invited in as a partner in some of the biggest oil exploration deals in history, including drilling in the most ecologically sensitive areas?

It is understandable why some on the left would be anxious to smear every protest movement in the Russia/China orbit as an imperialist plot. There is ample evidence that Washington will exploit every movement to see its own agenda advanced. When I was involved with Nicaragua solidarity in the 1980s, I was incensed about reports that the NED was funding parties opposed to the FSLN. That explains why some are so anxious to write off the Hong Kong protesters as tools of the USA. But revolutionary politics is not based on algebraic formulas. You have to be able to understand that sometimes X can be equal to Y and not equal at the same time. In other words, Hegel is a better guide to social reality than Aristotle, the father of formal logic.

In places like Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Zimbabwe, Iran and Russia, the protest movements have both progressive and reactionary tendencies. To some extent, this is a function of the socialist left having lost its moral authority. In Ukraine, with the CP being an unabashed supporter of Russian domination, is it any wonder that ordinary people topple Lenin statues? Those statues, I should add, never had much to do with defending socialism. They were like George Washington statues in American parks, empty symbols of national sovereignty.

Very often when people begin fighting for freedom, they bring certain prejudices along with them. Although it would be best if a social movement had a crystal-clear agenda based on a combination of Enlightenment and socialist values, there is often a mixture of past, present and future that can be confusing to the onlooker. For example, there are many Syrians who have fought against the Baathist dictatorship who are for Sharia courts, a symbol to many on the left of a feudal past. But when you keep in mind that the judicial system in Syria was rigged to favor the Baathists, the temptations of Sharia law become more understandable. When the Irish rose up against British colonialism during WWI, the same kind of confusion cropped up on the Marxist left. Why support a movement that seemed to be tainted by Catholic dogma? Lenin tried to answer this question in an article titled “The Irish Rebellion of 1916″:

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie without all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.–to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.

It is regrettable that so few on the left can understand many grass roots movement today in the same light.

In order for the left to regain its moral authority, it has to once and for all stop functioning like the CP did in the 1930s, least of all when Russia and its allies lack even the economic justification that once existed for that type of “border guard” stance. Unless socialism and socialist politics are once again synonymous with democracy, the left will have nothing to say to young people fighting for social change.

When you stop and think about, Marx and Engels entered politics in the same spirit as the Syrians who marched in the streets of Homs and Aleppo in early 2011 for an end to a system that used torture and murder to enforce neoliberal rule. They were deeply involved with the movements for democracy in 1848 that challenged the old feudal order, the counterpart to Baathist rule in those days.

August Nimtz, an American scholar, wrote a book titled “Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough” that reaffirmed their commitment to democracy that has unfortunately been forgotten by much of the left. In an interview with Socialist Project this year, Nimtz explained what his goals were in writing such a book:

As you probably know from my writings, I prefer to let Marx and Engels speak for themselves. And for this question there’s no better place to begin with than their Manifesto of the Communist Party, a document that sharply distinguished itself from the programmatic stances of other socialist tendencies in its position that the prerequisite for the socialist revolution was the democratic revolution—the necessity “to win the battle for democracy.” In related pronouncements clarifying their views they wrote that, like the Chartists in England, the German proletariat “can and must accept the bourgeois revolution as a precondition for the workers’ revolution. However, they cannot for a moment accept it as their ultimate goal.” And in no uncertain terms the Manifesto, in four successive locations, made clear that it would take “force” to “overthrow the bourgeoisie” in order to reach the “ultimate goal”. Nevertheless, they maintained to the end that the means to that goal was the conquest of the “bourgeois revolution.” When a critic charged in 1892 that they ignored forms of democratic governance, Engels demurred: “Marx and I, for forty years, repeated ad nauseam that for us the democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class can first be universalized and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat.”

Ultimately, this statement might serve as a litmus test for the left. Although I am too old to get involved with organizing a movement, this pro-democracy orientation would be at its core. I have not only seen the USSR collapse because of dictatorship, I have also seen the socialist organization I belonged to for more than a decade collapse as well. The right to speak freely and act freely is as natural as breathing. When it is taken away, we suffocate, as does society. Ultimately, as Nimtz points out, democracy is a means to an end: the creation of a new world based on a just and rational economic order. Anything that stands in the way has to be rejected. It is not even a problem if this is a minority viewpoint today because in the long run it is the only one that can succeed.


October 5, 2014

Purgatorio; Algorithms

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:31 pm

“Purgatorio”, a documentary about the horrors of contemporary Mexico as the title would imply, opened on Friday night at the Cinema Village in NY (and opens at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on the 10th). Like last year’s “Narco Cultura” (http://louisproyect.org/2013/11/24/three-documentaries/), it is a deeply pessimistic but compelling work that emphasizes the POV of the average citizen rather than academic experts who might have insights on the intractable character of the Mexican drug war and the massive emigration to “El Norte”.

For example, one of the characters we meet in Rodrigo Reyes’s film is an eccentric Texan whose mission in life is to walk through the brush frequented by Mexicans headed toward the border in order to pick up their rubbish, like empty water bottles or articles of clothing. As Reyes follows him about on the well-beaten trail, the man reflects on “illegals”, saying at one point that with all the resources in Mexico (oil, gold, etc.), the country could enjoy prosperity. They should stay at home and clean up their country was his advice.

Reyes, a 31-year old who was born in Mexico City and who despite having a degree in International Relations, was not that interested in the specific international relations that Mexico has with the USA. One supposes that a filmmaker has to make a choice when he or she sets about to make such a film. One that is geared to socio-economic analysis might not deliver the punch that something like “Purgatorio” can, a film that like Dante’s masterpiece is intended to engage more with the heart than the brain.

Reyes’s strategy is to take us to the front lines of the drug war and the border crossings to show us what the actors on the ground face as they struggle to survive. One of the most gripping scenes takes place toward the end of the film as we watch a 45-year-old grandfather, who says that his life is about nothing but work, scales a 25 foot high fence as if he were in a high school gymnastics class, but only on the third attempt. For him, scaling the fence is not exactly a transition into Paradise but at least an exit from the Inferno.

In another memorable scene, we encounter a group of boys who mug in front of Reyes’s camera, each one taking turns naming and imitating the sounds of their favorite weapon: AK47, AR15, 9MM pistol, sniper’s rifle, etc. Most 12 year old boys are fascinated with guns but it is only in Mexico that in a few short years many will be making a living using them to kill.

There is no gainsaying Reyes’s ability to present gut-wrenching anecdotal material but we are still waiting for a film that explains how Mexico became such a “failed state”, one that also showed the potential for renewal and transformation as well. One that would introduce the audience to Zapata and Pancho Villa, the EZLN, and the insurgent electoral campaign of Mexico City’s mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

If I was much younger and more of a professional filmmaker than an amateur critic and videographer, I’d do something that explored Mexico’s radical traditions. This article on Mexico on the left would be a good place to start for someone with those kinds of qualifications: http://louisproyect.org/2013/06/07/mexico-and-the-left/.

Opening at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on October 17th and the Quad in New York on October 24th, “Algorithms” is a portrait of two young men from India who compete in international tournaments for blind chess players.

As someone with serious eye problems and a lifelong passion for chess, the film was one I naturally looked forward to screening. It has the same kind of rooting for the underdog quality as “Brooklyn Castle”, the 2012 documentary that followed kids from a working-class public school who compete with those from elite institutions but in “Algorithms” the competition is mainly with their own disabilities than with sighted competitors.

Since chess is such a visually oriented game (or sport, as some would argue), one wonders how a blind person can make any headway. The film shows how it is done. It is all done by touch, just like braille. The white pieces have a tiny nipple at the top and each space has an aperture in which each piece is placed. As two blind players compete, you see each one fondling the pieces before making a move.

Although the film does not deal with the question of blind-sighted competition, Charudatta Jadhav, a blind adult who serves as surrogate father and tutor to the boys, was a chess champion who did well in competition with sighted players.

Perhaps the film, which was shot in black-and-white for reasons not obvious to me, was more interested in exploring disabilities and their transcendence than the game of chess. Like “Brooklyn Castle”, you get absolutely no sense of the games the boys participated in. While it would obviously take up too much time to follow each move, it would have been of great interest to see the last four or five moves. That’s what made the Bobby Fischer documentary such a memorable film.

For those who follow chess, you probably are aware that there is a new world champion—Magnus Carlsen who defeated India’s Viswanathan Anand. India has a very ambitious chess training program, one that no doubt explains why it pays attention to the disabled player as well. The game originated in 3rd century AD India where it was called chaturaṅga. From there it emigrated to Persia, where it was called chatrang. When I studied Turkish, I learned that the word for chess was satranç, pronounced satranch.

Over the past 50 years or so since I have been playing chess, I am not much better than I was at when I began. But my passion for the game continues unabated. If you are one of those people who love the game like me, I recommend “Algorithms”. It is probably the kind of sport that will survive the abolition of capitalism. Unlike football that leaves you with brain damage, a life-long engagement with chess will sharpen your mind—unless you are me, of course.

Monument to Cold War Victory

Filed under: art,ussr — louisproyect @ 4:13 pm

Cold War Exhibit Release-1

Cold War Exhibit Release-2

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