Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 5, 2021

1942: Unknown Battle

Filed under: Film,ussr,WWII — louisproyect @ 10:20 pm

Recently a list of the 10 top Russian war movies cropped up on Facebook, most of which I hadn’t seen. If I were putting together my own list right now, I’d put the newly released “1942: Unknown Battle” at the top of the list. It is based on the battles that took place in Rzhev between January 1942 and March 1943 that turned the tide against the Nazi invaders. Because of the disproportionate losses suffered by the Soviet Army, the campaign became known as the “Rzhev Meat Grinder”.

The film recreates the fighting that took place in and around the tiny farming village of Ovsyannikovo that encapsulated the desperate attempt by an understaffed, underequipped and undertrained Soviet company equipped only with small arms against a Nazi battalion with tanks and heavy artillery and many more men.

The opening scene of this powerful film depicts the Reds driving a smaller detachment of Nazis out of Ovsyannikovo in the most gruesomely graphic fashion of any war film I’ve ever seen outside of Stephen Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”. Unlike Spielberg’s “greatest generation” film that ended with America triumphant, “1942: Unknown Battle” concludes with an exhausted and lightly armed marching toward certain disaster. The contrast between the triumphalist tone of American WWII movies and this Russian film could not be more glaring. The American victory led to the USA becoming the world’s hegemon and ultimately accomplishing what Hitler could not: the ascendance of capitalism in the USSR.

Unlike the war movies made during the USSR, “1942: Unknown Battle” dramatizes the conflict between the average soldier motivated to defend the motherland and the counterintelligence officers imposing repressive Stalinist regulations that threaten to weaken the resolve of those willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of the nation. After a Nazi plane floods the village with leaflets promising safe passage for any Red soldier that defects, the counterintelligence officer threatens the men with a court-martial if a leaflet is found in their pockets. When a grizzled old fighter confesses that he does have a leaflet but only for use as rolling paper for his cigarettes, he is taken into custody and marched across no-man’s land between the two opposing armies. When the counterintelligence officer is wounded by Nazi gunfire, the old fighter drags him into a foxhole, which leads to an extended dialogue about their clashing values. As much as I valued the action scenes throughout the film, it was this scene that will stick with me.

“1942: Unknown Battle” can be rented now from the usual VOD sites listed at Kino, the film’s distributor, for a mere $3.99. For those of us who understand that it was the USSR that was mainly responsible for the destruction of the Third Reich, this film is a must.

The Wikipedia entry for Battles of Rzhev will give you a sense of its troubled legacy. As much as humanity can thank the USSR for the sacrifices the country made, historians have demanded that a full recounting of the toll it took be made.

In 2009, a television movie was aired in Russia entitled Rzhev: Marshal Zhukov’s Unknown Battle, which made no attempt to cover up the huge losses suffered by Soviet forces. As a consequence, there were public calls in Russia for the arrest of some of those involved in its production. In the movie, the casualties of Soviet forces are given as 433,000 KIA. The journalist Alina Makeyeva, in an article of Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper which was published on 19 February 2009, wrote: “The number presented by the historian is too low. There must be more than one million Soviet soldiers and officers killed! Rzhev and its neighboring towns were completely destroyed.”; however, Alina could not present any proof. Journalist in her article which was published in the newspaper The Violin (Russia) on 26 February 2009 also claimed that more than 1,000,000 Soviet soldiers were killed at Rzhev. The number of casualties again was raised with the claim of journalist Igor Elkov in his articled published in the Russian Weekly on 26 February 2009. Igor said: “The accurate number of casualties of both sides is still dubious. Recently, there are some opinions about from 1.3 to 1.5 million Soviet soldiers was killed. It may reach the number of 2 million”.

In my view, the film reflects the thinking of people like Alina Makeyeva, Elena Tokaryeva and Igor Elkov.

March 1, 2021

The New History of Capitalism, its detractors, and the American Indian

Filed under: indigenous,slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 10:57 pm
Is this our destiny?

For most people, Project 1619 is controversial because Nikole Hannah-Jones dissed Abe Lincoln, having the temerity to write that Lincoln regarded free black people as a “troublesome presence” incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people.

None of the other articles raised Sean Wilentz’s dander as much as this but there was another controversy that probably passed beneath the radar of the average NY Times reader, namely the project’s support for the New History of Capitalism (NHC) spearheaded by Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist and Walter Johnson. One of articles assembled under the Project, written by Matthew Desmond, was titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation”. It cited Sven Beckert and fellow NHC’er Seth Rockman: “American slavery is necessarily imprinted on the DNA of American capitalism” and defended the proposition that slavery was essential to the birth of American capitalism. Clearly, this argument was not one that traditional historians, even those on the left, would accept.

John Oakes, who co-signed the letter with Sean Wilentz demanding that the Times “correct” Project 1619, weighed in on NHC in an interview with the sect-cult WSWS.org newspaper:

Desmond, following the lead of the scholars he’s citing, basically relies on the same analogy. They’re saying, “look at the ways capitalism is just like slavery, and that’s because capitalism came from slavery.” But there’s no actual critique of capitalism in any of it. They’re saying, “Oh my God! Slavery looks just like capitalism. They had highly developed management techniques just like we do!” Slaveholders were greedy, just like capitalists. Slavery was violent, just like our society is. So there’s a critique of violence and a critique of greed. But greed and violence are everywhere in human history, not just in capitalist societies. So there’s no actual critique of capitalism as such, at least as I read it.

This is what they call a straw man, isn’t it?

Oakes also wrote a longer and more ostensibly scholarly attack on NHC for the Economic Historian blog that sought to discredit their work. Naturally, Oakes found himself on the same side as James Clegg and Charles Post who have also written attacks on the NHC:

Charles Post and John Clegg are both sociologists. Like myself, they are not economic historians. But although we arrive at different conclusions, we all start from Robert Brenner’s definition of capitalism as systemic market dependency. This definition is similar to the one that emerged separately some decades ago among historians who debated the transition to capitalism in the northern states in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Post is probably familiar to most of my readers since his articles have appeared frequently in Jacobin and other magazines of the Marxist left. Clegg is less well-known outside of the ranks of the professional historians and because of his preference for writing in JSTOR type journals. Both reject the idea that slavery was implanted in America’s DNA but disagree on whether slave plantations were capitalist. Post describes them as “pre-capitalist” while Clegg sees them as capitalist. It is hard to pin Post down on what “pre-capitalist” means since that would include 8th century Rome as well as the cotton plantation but let’s leave that aside for now. The important matter for both these muscular defenders of Marxist orthodoxy is that slavery was a fetter on the more authentic capitalism in the north that was ready to crush the south to make free wage labor inviolate. Without free wage labor, you can’t have Grade A capitalism, after all. That’s what Marx believed supposedly, even though on an off day he might mistakenly say something like “Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map.”

Clegg wrote an article titled “Capitalism and Slavery” for the September 2015 Critical Historical Studies that is available online. His broadside against NHC had two main complaints. One was that it failed to provide a theoretical definition of the capitalist system. The other was that it overstated the roe of violence in expanding cotton production, the cornerstone of Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”. Clegg was more inclined to accept the findings of econometricians Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode’s October 2016 article “Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism” that, like Oakes, was aimed at total annihilation of the NHC. They argue, “However, to agree that slavery was important and evil does not mean that it was economically essential for the Industrial Revolution, for American prosperity, or even for the production of cotton in the United States. The new literature makes spectacular but unsupported claims, relies on faulty reasoning, and introduces many factual inaccuracies.”

It is almost impossible to verify Olmstead and Rhode’s article since it relies on sources that are impossible to track down, even for people like me who have access to Columbia University’s online resources. For example, on page 18 they refer to a graph that lists American exports by value. Supposedly, cotton is unimportant:

Figure 2 graphs the values of cotton exports as a share the value of U.S. merchandise exports, and then both U.S. cotton and merchandise export values as shares of GDP.30 As the bottom line makes clear, cotton exports were a very small share of national product—less than 5 percent over much of the of the antebellum period (Engerman and Gallman 1983, p. 28).

Footnote 30 states, “The data are based on Series Ee571 (Value of Cotton Exports). Series Ee366 (Value of U.S. Merchandise Exports), Ca10 (Nominal GDP, as interpolated with Ca9 and Ca13 for 1821-29 and 1831-39) from Millennial Historical Statistics (Carter, et al. 2006).

The problem for me is that GDP was not collected in the 19th century so where do their numbers come from? In 1934, Simon Kuznets developed the modern concept of GDP to use in a report to Congress in 1934. I suppose I could have gotten my hands on Carter’s Millennial Historical Statistics but the Columbia Library was shut down during the pandemic. What about people without such access? How could they verify this claim about cotton’s lesser role? They wouldn’t know where to begin. As for the Engerman and Gallman article, it is not in JSTOR and hence unavailable—at least until the pandemic is over.

Some scholars almost consider it an exercise in futility trying to extract national income figures before Kuznets. Angus Maddison was considered one of the leading experts on measuring national income. In his authoritative “Development Centre Studies : The World Economy: Historical Statistics” he writes that between 1800 and the First World War, there was a proliferation of national income estimates, but little improvement in their quality or comparability. They provided little help for serious analysis of economic growth, and there were significant differences in their coverage and methodology.

It is also worth noting that sometimes a close reading of the Olmstead-Rhode article can turn up anomalies that undermine their thesis. For example, on page five they make the case that Sven Beckert exaggerated the importance of cotton being picked by slaves in the Louisiana Purchase, claiming that farming was mostly done by yeomen who raised cattle and grain. The footnote to support this argument cites Columbia University economist Stuart Bruchey’s “Cotton and the Growth of the American Economy, 1790-1860.” Surely, they should have known that Bruchey’s view on cotton production was much closer to the NHC’ers than theirs. He saw the concentration of southern resources on exports, particularly cotton, as a dominant growth factor in pre-Civil War America since it stimulated the development of northern manufacturing and western agriculture. Export earnings enabled the South to purchase the manufactured goods and commercial services of the North and the food supplies and livestock of the West.

As for Post, he is just as convinced as Clegg that Olmstead and Rhode have the final word:

Baptist takes as his point of departure the striking finding of Alan J. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode, in their pathbreaking studies on biological innovation and productivity growth in the antebellum cotton South,11 that during the first sixty years of so of the nineteenth century “cotton picked per slave quadrupled, with picking efficiency increasing at 2.3 percent per annum, substantially faster than the advance of labor productivity in the overall economy.”

Whether either one has had the motivation to critically examine Olmstead and Rhode is open to question. As often happens in these debates, you pick a side and then cherry-pick your scholarly resources to beat the other side into a bloody pulp.

It should hardly come as a surprise that there is a racial divide on the question of slavery’s contribution to capitalism. Foundational African-American figures such as W.E.B. DuBois and Eric Williams make the case that it was substantial while those minimizing its role tend to be white. There is one exception to this divide, of course. Black professor emeritus Adolph Reed Jr. is adamantly opposed to the idea that slavery was a midwife to capitalism, telling the sectarians at WSWS.org, who have crusaded against Project 1619:

What are the stakes that people imagine to be bound up with demonstrating that capitalism in this country emerged from slavery and racism, which are treated as two different labels for the same pathology? Ultimately, it’s a race reductionist argument.

Like other controversies I’ve engaged with, numbers not only play a major role but can often be wildly discrepant according to the side you identify with. Just one example. For those who have an unaccountably nostalgic affection for Stalin’s USSR, the numbers of Ukrainians who died during the forced collectivization tend to be close to the floor while Ukrainian scholars, especially nationalists, place them close to the ceiling. Additionally, they have different interpretations of what the numbers mean. For the Stalinophiles, they absolve the bureaucracy from the charge of genocide, arguing that the deaths were caused by a famine or by the wealthy peasants acting self-destructively in the face of a necessary social transformation. For Ukrainians, the numbers reflect Stalin’s genocidal commitment to breaking the back of Ukrainian national aspirations.

I would be loath to reduce the animosity Oakes, Post, Clegg, et al have toward the work of the NHC’ers (and implicitly, DuBois and those who follow in his footsteps) to racial insensitivity. However, it must be said that the political stakes over the relationship of slavery to the hegemonic growth of American capitalism are considerable. They relate to the question of whether reparations are in order. I wouldn’t read too much into both Post and Clegg having attacked the NHC’ers in Jacobin, a magazine whose publisher opposes reparations. However, I have seen the Black chairman of an African-American Studies department, who shall remain unnamed, use language against Jacobin on these matters that would make the face of a drunken sailor turn red.

In pouring through articles that touch upon the slavery and capitalism nexus, I took a look at James Parisot’s “The Two Hundred and Fifty Year Transition: How the American Empire Became Capitalist: How the American Empire Became Capitalist”. Parisot is also the author of “How America Became Capitalist: Imperial Expansion and The Conquest Of The West”, a book that shares the perspective of the NHC but is much more engaged with Marxist theory.

In 2019, Parisot gave a presentation on his book at a Historical Materialism conference in New York, with Post and Clegg as discussants. I came away with a very favorable impression of his approach and hope to find the time before long to read his book. In the meantime, I was anxious to read the article, which Parisot told me was a capsule version of the arguments in his book. Since the word “Empire” is in the article’s title, it made me sit up and take notice. Wasn’t it entirely possible that the axis of discussion had to be expanded to take into account the total ensemble of territorial grabs that made capitalism possible? When Thomas Jefferson spoke about an “Empire of Liberty,” he used the word Empire advisedly. It anticipated the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny and every other murderous scheme that would allow the USA to replace Britain as the world’s hegemonic power.

The abstract for Parisot’s article reads:

This paper aims to rethink United States history from the colonial era through the Civil War and Reconstruction by examining how capitalism and empire joined together as the logic of expansion increasingly became driven by the logic of capital over approximately two hundred and fifty years. Specifically, it argues that (what became) the United States originated as a ‘society with capitalism’ and became a ‘capitalist society’. This transition was a highly complex and uneven process as a variety of social forms developed and interacted, and in which there was not one road to capitalism, but a variety, depending on the historical circumstance.

In my view, there is an element of combined and uneven development that is hinted at in his formulation “This transition was a highly complex and uneven process as a variety of social forms developed and interacted, and in which there was not one road to capitalism.” Essentially, Parisot sees forced labor and “free labor” as existing on a continuum rather than as mutually exclusive. This formulation bears this out: “While Marx’s overall analysis of the capitalist mode of production centered on wage labor, his methodology permits an analysis of capital’s exploitation of a variety of labor forms into an analysis of capitalism’s systemic dynamics. In this way, for example, while not all slavery throughout world history was necessarily capitalist, plantation slavery was capitalist due to the structuration of the social relations of production and the ways in which surplus value was generated through forced labor.”

Working my way through his 30-page article, I came across a passage that finally resolved some misgivings I had about the slavery and capitalism connection, even though it was unintended by the author. In fact, it was my somewhat negative reaction to the passage that led to some insights about what has been missing from the debate.

On page 599 of Parisot’s article, he discusses Livingston Manor, a huge (250 square miles) feudal-like parcel of land the Crown had bestowed on Robert Livingston in the 18th century. Even though tenant farming prevailed, it was combined with capitalist profit-making. Parisot writes:

New York manors operating for profit by using tenant farmers blurs the categories between a non-capitalist and capitalist mode of production. Tenancy forced farmers to produce commodities to sell on markets to obtain some goods. Additionally, the results of their la- bor (for example, one tenth of their wheat in the case of the Livingston manor) went to the head of the manor, who then sold it for a profit. Overall, this seems to be a case of household production sub- ordinated to the law of value in a capitalistic way. It is something much more complex and closer to capitalism than ‘quasi’ feudalism.

While Lord Livingston’s manor was enormous, there was another entity called Livingston Manor that, despite the name, ended up as a tiny village in Sullivan County about 15 miles from where I grew up. Both the big Livingston Manor and the tiny one were tied to the same family. My high school used to play and beat their basketball team on a regular basis.

While I completely understand why Parisot would dwell on this example, it stirred up a different train of thought for me. As many of you know from my past posts, Sullivan County was home to the Munsee Indians for hundreds of years before the arrival of white men like Robert Livingston. A subgroup of the Lenape (also known as the Delaware) Indians lived along the Hudson River Valley that includes the foothills of the Catskills where I grew up. Like the Pumas that gave the mountains its name (Kaaterskill is Dutch for cat+river, with kill meaning the Hudson, not the claws of the Puma.) They were driven out of Sullivan County in the 1700s, just as Indians were ethnically cleansed throughout the state around the same time. As for the name of the county, that dubious distinction belongs to General Sullivan who conducted a genocidal war against the Iroquois tribes that backed the British against the colonists.

Without the ethnic cleansing of the American Indians in New York and Massachusetts, could capitalism have “taken off”? The problem with equating the origins of capitalism in the USA with either slavery (per the NHC’ers) or Post’s plucky yeoman farmers and manufacturers of the north who became Radical Republicans is that it effaces the native peoples who stood in the way of both cotton plantations and textile mills.

Primitive accumulation, the sine qua non for capitalism, begins with both slavery and removal of indigenous peoples. Trying to make slavery the starting point for the origins of capitalism is problematic. Don’t ever forget what Marx wrote in chapter 31 of V. 1 of Capital, the aptly titled “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”:

The treatment of the aborigines was, naturally, most frightful in plantation-colonies destined for export trade only, such as the West Indies, and in rich and well-populated countries, such as Mexico and India, that were given over to plunder. But even in the colonies properly so called, the Christian character of primitive accumulation did not belie itself. Those sober virtuosi of Protestantism, the Puritans of New England, in 1703, by decrees of their assembly set a premium of £40 on every Indian scalp and every captured red-skin: in 1720 a premium of £100 on every scalp; in 1744, after Massachusetts-Bay had proclaimed a certain tribe as rebels, the following prices: for a male scalp of 12 years and upwards £100 (new currency), for a male prisoner £105, for women and children prisoners £50, for scalps of women and children £50. Some decades later, the colonial system took its revenge on the descendants of the pious pilgrim fathers, who had grown seditious in the meantime. At English instigation and for English pay they were tomahawked by red-skins. The British Parliament proclaimed bloodhounds and scalping as “means that God and Nature had given into its hand.”

Without this kind of “treatment”, New York, Massachusetts, and Mississippi never would have become the ideal seed bed for capitalism. Remember that scene at the end of Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist”, when the family’s travails come from having built (as well as sold) a house over an American Indian burial ground? While the descendants of those who drove them off their land (Robert Livingston was an ancestor of the Bush family) deserve punishment like in “Poltergeist”, we’d be much better off carrying out a socialist revolution that would put the ecological values of the Munsee and all the other indigenous peoples into practice once again.

February 27, 2021

Solidarity with Amazon workers in Alabama

Filed under: trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 9:13 pm

February 26, 2021

A Cineaste’s Picks for the Best Films of 2020

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:26 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, FEBRUARY 26, 2021

This film made $0 in North America and $27,136 worldwide. It is my pick for best narrative film of 2021

The pandemic has turned the yearly ritual of film awards ceremonies a molehill out of the mountain they once were. With major Hollywood studios shelving multi-million dollar prestige movies, except for Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” that was largely dismissed as a flop, it has been left to less costly and nominally “indie” films such as “Nomadland” and “Minari” to fill the gap. Both had full-page ads in the N.Y. Times usually reserved for films made by Stephen Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, et al, with fawning articles over their stars Frances McDormand and Steven Yeun. Instead of A-listers like Scarlett Johansson or Brad Pitt chatting it up with late-night TV show hosts, we see McDormand and Yeun on the guest sofa.

Having seen these films and others in the same vein (“The White Tiger”, “First Cow”, “The Nest”), my reaction has been lukewarm at best. At our yearly New York Film Critics Online virtual awards meeting, not a single one of these overrated works got my vote. Alongside my arch-contrarian colleague Armond White, my votes went for the far more obscure but groundbreaking films that would have never been the beneficiary of a full-page ad in the N.Y. Times. While Armond tilts rightward, my preference is for films that challenge political or dramatic conventions. My picks below reflect my tastes as well as my critical judgement. If you have found my reviews useful in the past, then I would urge you to check them out. All are available as VOD on Amazon Prime and all the other usual sites.

Continue reading

February 21, 2021

Sacred Cow; Tribes on the Edge

Filed under: Ecology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

One of the vexing questions facing ecosocialists is how to create a sustainable society that breaks with meat consumption. There are contradictory tendencies at work, with the vegan left taking an abolitionist stance as well as ecomodernist support for meat-like products such as Beyond Meat. Meanwhile, Bill Gates has come out in favor of synthetic meats, arguing in MIT’s Technology Review as part of his book tour on “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” that rich nations should only eat synthetics. (It should be mentioned that is a Beyond Meat investor.)

Long before I began blogging, I wrote a series of posts on beef that were collected together on my Columbia website under the title “Cattle and Capitalism”. It included an excerpt from an Alexander Cockburn “Beat the Devil” column in the April 22, 1996 Nation Magazine:

Unsustainable grazing and ranching sacrifice drylands, forests and wild species. For example, semi-deciduous forests in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay are cut down to make way for soybeans, which are fed to cows as high-protein soycake. Humans are essentially vegetarian as a species and insatiate meat-eating bring its familiar toll of heart disease, stroke and cancer. The enthusiasm for meat also produces its paradox: hunger. A people living on cereals and legumes for protein need to grow far less grain than a people eating creatures that have been fed by cereals. For years Western journalists described in mournful tones the scrawny and costly pieces of meat available in Moscow’s shops, associating the lack of meat with backwardness and the failure of Communism. But after 1950, meat consumption in the Soviet Union tripled. By 1964 grain for livestock feed outstripped grain for bread, and by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, livestock were eating three times as much grain as humans. All this required greater and greater imports of grain until precious foreign exchange made the Soviet Union the world’s second-largest grain importer, while a dietary “pattern” based on excellent bread was vanishing.

While I was sympathetic to the idea that eating beef had to come to an end, I must confess that I used to stop at the bistro across the street from my high-rise and had a cheeseburger with fries two or three times a month. I also have to wonder if Cockburn ate meat himself. I bet Jeffrey St. Clair can fill me in.

Yet, at the back of mind I always wondered how you can reconcile an anti-meat agenda with Karl Marx’s analysis of the metabolic rift. At a Socialist Scholars Conference around 20 years ago, John Bellamy Foster gave what was probably his first talk on the crisis of soil fertility in the 19th century that Justin Von Liebig devoted himself to diagnosing and solving. Basically, Liebig’s research provided a context for Marx’s examination of the agrarian question. Like climate change today, the general crisis of soil fertility in the period from 1830 to 1870 not only provoked scientific research but wars over control over natural fertilizers like guano.

The depletion of soil nutrients was being felt everywhere, as capitalist agriculture broke down the old organic interaction that took place on small, family farms. When a peasant plowed a field with ox or horse-drawn plows, used an outhouse, accumulated compost piles, etc., the soil’s nutrients were replenished naturally. As capitalist agriculture turned the peasant into an urban proletariat, segregated livestock production from grain and food production, the organic cycle was broken and the soil gradually lost its fertility.

This being the case, wouldn’t the disappearance of livestock from agriculture simply perpetuate the need for chemical fertilizers and every ill associated with it? Since modern farming relies heavily on mechanization, ox-drawn plows would not suffice. Wouldn’t the integration of cattle, poultry and lambs as livestock into farming resolve the metabolic rift in the most effective manner?

Unless you are committed to the idea that slaughtering animals is evil, that possibility must be considered. Additionally, for homo sapiens, the most effective source of protein comes from animals, not plants. Leaving aside the animal rights question, an argument can be made for exactly that. You can find it made in a powerful new documentary available in the usual VOD venues, including Amazon, titled “Sacred Cow” that was directed by Diana Rodgers and based on a book of the same title she co-wrote with Robb Wolf.

On the film’s website, Rodgers writes, “As we’ve become more globalized, the entire world is now pushing towards the ‘heart healthy’ (and highly processed) Western diet. In the process, we’re destroying entire ecosystems and human health through industrial, ultra-processed food.”

Drawing upon a wide range of academic researchers in favor of the consumption of meat products and the regenerative farmers who produce them, the film effectively makes the case for solving the metabolic rift in the way that Karl Marx proposed but without mentioning his name or the theory once.

There are two important considerations that the film takes up. To start with, it calls for abolition of the current method of raising livestock in factory-like conditions since they are far removed from the crops that need organic fertilizer and because they are so cruel to the animals. Instead, the farmers interviewed throughout the film show exactly how they must be deployed in and around the fields where crops are being grown rather than cooped up in monstrous conditions. In a very short time, the re-introduction of cattle and lambs can return topsoil to the conditions that existed before Alexander Cockburn decried for its inevitable role in desertification.

If your first impulse is to question whether an old-fashioned method of raising livestock can supply a hungry world, the film points out that ruminants such as cows and sheep can feed themselves from the grasses that grow along hillsides that are not suitable for raising crops. In one of the more eye-opening scenes, we meet a Mexican regenerative farmer named Alejandro Carrillo who has begun to reintroduce cattle into a seemingly barren part of the state of Chihuahua. The animals have not only begun to enrich the soil and make it suitable for farming but transform the ecosphere so that birds now flock to it for their own well-being.

Finally, on the ethical questions. These farmers and their supporters in the academy are not opposed to ending an animal’s life in the greater pursuit of keeping humanity and the natural world in balance. The film shows a new slaughterhouse based on the principles of Temple Grandin who compassion for all creatures large and small is suffused with humanitarianism.

Another new film available as VOD, including Amazon, takes up the question of humanity and the natural world’s survival even though the people who are its subject matter could not be more vulnerable to the ecological crisis. Directed by Céline Cousteau, the granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau, “Tribes on the Edge” is an impassioned plea for the survival of around 7,000 indigenous Brazilians who call Vale do Javari their home. Constituting an area about the size of Portugal and on the border with Peru, the natives are facing extinction as a result of epidemic cases of hepatitis and malaria.

Although the documentary does not connect their plight to the years of Workers Party rule, it implicitly blames both Lula and Dilma Rousseff for allowing the support network for indigenous people to wither and die. It seems obvious that FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, has been a victim of neglect under their two administrations. Even worse, Bolsonaro seems intent on doing to it what Donald Trump did to agencies supposedly dedicated to protecting natural resources—namely, throttling them.

The film does not attempt to pinpoint the cause of the epidemics except to say that the border between Peru and Brazil being porous. When indigenous peoples cross the border into Javari, there are no border guards. They bring their illnesses with them, especially hepatitis that is very contagious. This is not to speak of the ranchers, miners, farmers and oil companies that are beginning to encroach on Javari in spite of legal protections afforded by the state.

At the end of the film, we are told that only 4 percent of the world’s population are indigenous, but they nurture 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity on their land. Although written four hundred years ago, John Donne’s poem could not be more timely:

No Man is an Island

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

February 18, 2021

Ernie Tate on socialist organizing before the 60s

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 8:45 pm

February 17, 2021

Judas and the Black Messiah

Filed under: african-american,Film,repression — louisproyect @ 3:27 pm

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is the story of Fred Hampton’s assassination by the Chicago police in 1969. Co-written by Will Berson, a Jew, and Shaka King, an African-American, it unites a team that worked together in the past on featherweight TV comedies. In addition to co-authorship of the screenplay, King served as director.

They have made a well-researched, by-the-numbers biopic that will help many young people understand the depravity of the FBI, just as Aaron Sorkin’s “Trial of the Chicago 7” helped expose the city’s cops and judicial system. Unlike Sorkin, Berson and King did not twist the story to suit their own political agenda. However, by relying on the unfortunate mythology that has arisen around the Black Panther Party in the past half-century, some further analysis will be necessary for a deeper understanding of the period and how the ruling class was able to murder a promising young leader.

As should not come as a big surprise, this unheralded, debut film had major players bootstrapping it. Ryan Coogler, the black director of “Black Panther”, was one benefactor. His Panthers were not activists but African demigods originating in Marvel Comic books that unaccountably was hailed by Jamelle Bouie as “the most political movie ever produced by Marvel Studios”. As producer, he raised millions as did Charles D. King, a black former super-agent who founded MACRO Media so that such films could be made (he is no relation to the director.)

Apparently, Shaka King was thinking big when he decided to make his first feature film. He hoped to make our era’s version of “Battle of Algiers”. As I will try to explain in my political analysis that follows, it is doubtful that he has the kind of Marxist politics that served Pontecorvo so well. Nor did he have Pontecorvo’s cinematic genius. The 1950s and 60s were years in which Marxism exercised a major influence over European filmmaking. Those days are long gone.

Berson and King made a major mistake in analogizing an FBI undercover asset with Judas Iscariot, who was not only a disciple of Jesus Christ but one of the twelve original Apostles.

By contrast, Bill O’Neal was a shadowy and nondescript snitch who like most FBI plants did it for the money and to avoid being sent to prison for a previous offense. Like most of the agent-provocateurs that the FBI and red squads implanted in mosques, O’Neal was a grubby opportunist. But unlike the cases in which feckless, observant Muslims were talked into terrorist stings by the FBI, Fred Hampton was supposedly no babe in the woods. Why would he ever have allowed someone with a dicey past like O’Neal ensure his safety, especially since he was not as politically committed as the average Panther? When Hampton becomes suspicious of O’Neal’s claim of being a car thief, he forces him at gunpoint to hotwire his stolen car to prove his bona fides. When he passes the test, Hampton is assuaged. If this was the kind of acid test new members had to pass rather than understanding Panther politics, Berson and King unwittingly revealed how inexperienced this group really was. And perhaps their own inexperience with the period.

In every scene, O’Neal comes across as a man with no particular qualms about being a Judas. He only seeks to cut his ties to the FBI when it becomes clear that he might be picked off by a cop in the gun battles that were bound to ensue in a period of rising violence between an angry Black community and the class enemy. In a scene close to the conclusion, O’Neal barely dodges a bullet during a shootout that ends with Panther HQ being torched.

By contrast, the Jesse James films were more dramatic because Robert Ford, the “dirty coward who killed Mr. Howard (James’s assumed name)” of folk-song fame, was continuously wracked by feelings of guilt for betraying his fellow outlaw. Playing Ford in the 1949 “I Shot Jesse James”, John Ireland was nonpareil. The filmmakers failure to invest more in this character, even if fictionally, robbed it of its possible power. Why not have O’Neal become swept up in the revolutionary fervor surrounding him, like Patty Hearst and the  Symbionese Liberation Army while still being coerced to be a snitch? By the standards of anti-heroes going back to the New Testament, O’Neal was not nearly Judas enough. Jejune was more like it.

Given the intense drama that surrounded Hampton’s assassination, it is unfortunate that Belson and King sought to embellish it with staged confrontations that had more in common with cheap action movies than real life. Hampton had the political acumen to create a de facto united front with various outsider groups in Chicago that, like the Panthers, had collided with the cops. In an amalgam of youth gangs won to the side of left politics, they create a group called the Crowns that has a summit meeting with the Panthers in a capacious auditorium that looks like nothing you’d expect to see in a Chicago slum. Dozens of Crowns are armed with automatic rifles and shotguns that we’d expect to be used against the Panthers if Hampton missteps. Fortunately for him, he makes the case for revolutionary action and is rewarded with an automatic rifle by the Crown’s leader. None of this seems plausible. It would have worked far better if the melodrama had been abandoned and the politics amplified.

Ditto for a showdown between Hampton and the Young Patriots, a group of poor white men and women who flocked to Chicago from the South to escape poverty, just like blacks. The scene opens with the Patriots sitting at a table beneath a huge Confederate flag, giving an audience unfamiliar with such meetings the impression that Hampton was risking his life by meeting with KKK types. In reality, the Patriot leaders had a background as community organizers  with Jobs or Income Now (JOIN). This group grew out of Students for a Democratic Society efforts to organize the neighborhood where poor southerners lived. As co-founders of the Young Patriots, Jack “Junebug” Boykin and Doug Youngblood had been involved with JOIN. If I had a hand in writing “Judas and the Black Messiah”, I would have dropped the Judas part and expanded such characters and even created a buddy relationship between Hampton and Boykin. That would have been far more politically relevant than themes of betrayal and subterfuge.

Having said all this, I still recommend the film since it will be of obvious benefit to young people trying to understand the tumultuous sixties. As someone deeply immersed in activism fifty years ago when news of Hampton being killed and other assaults on the Panthers were part of my daily intake, I have a different analysis of their legacy.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” errs much too far in the direction of hagiography. You never get the sense that the young filmmakers have a deeper understanding of their failure or even more importantly a critical approach to their major success: the free breakfast program and other elements of their “survival” turn such as medical clinics. Surely it was a major breakthrough in serving breakfasts to 20,000 children per day at its height. Supposedly the program was something that kept J. Edgar Hoover up at night and thus led to Cointelpro and the death squads that would lead to Hampton’s murder in December 1969.

The free breakfasts were inspired by the Maoist “serve the people” ideas that flourished on the left in the 60s and 70s. For the mostly white groups led by Bob Avakian and Mike Klonsky, it was interpreted mainly as a paternalistic approach to organizing with their cadre going into working class areas like missionaries for socialism.

At least with Avakian et al, the “serve the people” notion was an element of a strategy meant to challenge the capitalist state. So, for example, the Maoists went into coal-mining regions with the goal of strengthening the leftwing of the UMW. But for the Panthers, there was nothing like this at work in the breakfast program. To some extent, it was simply a turn away from the gun-toting adventures that had begun to decimate their ranks. How could you send the cops against a group making breakfasts for poor Black children? That was the idea anyhow.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, they never dropped the stupid rhetoric about offing the pig that continued as the breakfasts were being served. If you were reading their paper, as I was in this period, you could not help but be appalled by pictures such as this:

This ultraleft image of a gun being trained on a pig was very much a product of the times just as the Weathermen’s tone-deaf “kill the rich” rhetoric that ultimately evolved into outright terrorism. In either case, bold imagery and words were meant to distinguish the “revolutionaries” from ordinary society that lagged behind their advanced consciousness.

The obsession with guns and bombs obviously was connected to the Vietnam war and the Cuban guerrilla initiatives that gave many—including me—the sense that American imperialism was surrounded by revolutionary forces closing in. To some extent this led to the feeling that emulating the NLF or Che Guevara’s fighters meant breaking with bourgeois society and showing solidarity with foreign fighters by breaking the law. It was ironic that for the Panthers this meant simultaneously carrying out an armed struggle at some point and engaging in free breakfast meliorism.

One of the faintly remembered events that had the same kind of cinematic intensity was the shootout between Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Hutton and other Panthers on one side and the Oakland cops that took place on April 6, 1968. Cleaver had become a leader of a faction in the Panthers that was dubious about the breakfast program and sought to “bring it on” as urban guerrillas. In any armed confrontation between a tiny group with thin support in the Black community and the cops, the revolutionaries were likely to end up on the losing side. Apparently, Cleaver embarked on this adventure as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. two days earlier.

In essence, this convergence of events symbolized the inability of the Panthers to understand what King was about and their failure to develop a program that might be modeled on what King was doing in Memphis—a working class mass action that threatened racist and capitalist power to such an extent that it cost him his life.

Unlike King, who went to Memphis to build solidarity for striking garbage men, neither Cleaver nor Huey Newton saw their role as building a working class movement. They oriented to lumpen elements in the Black community, something that always struck me as perhaps being inspired by “The Battle of Algiers” with its main character Ali Le Pointe abandoning a life of petty crime to join the FLN. In essence, Berson and King made a film about men and women who lacked the mass base of the FLN. Pontecorvo’s Marxism enabled him to build a foundation based on the class struggle rather than analogies with Judas Iscariot.

What an opportunity was lost for a Black revolutionary movement to focus on organizing Black workers. Keep in mind that this was before the phenomenon of runaway plants and when Detroit et al were still thriving industrial centers. Auto, steel, rubber, oil, etc. were still profitable industries with very large—if not majority—African-American workforces. These were workers who were open to radical ideas as the Black caucuses in the UAW would indicate.

If the Panthers had built a movement in the ranks of the Black working class, it might have become a powerful deterrent to the runaway shops that have devastated black America.

Although I could be wrong, it strikes me that Black nationalism will never undergo a revival. Black youth today who oppose police brutality are inspired much more by Martin Luther King Jr. than the Panthers. That being said, I still hold out hope that some day there will be a real engagement with Malcolm X’s ideas that while being Black nationalist were evolving toward working class internationalism. That, of course, is what probably got him killed just as it got Martin Luther King Jr. killed.

February 11, 2021

And So It Is Written For None To Read

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:49 am

While America closes its door-to-the-future to its youth, its aspiring hotshots smash their guitars onto the impervious consciousness of the video-streaming narcoleptic herd, furiously hammering away at the portals of hipness lusting for penetration into the voluptuous folds of affluence and renown they want so badly to deserve and which are only never-to-be-achieved potentialities in their feverish imaginations.

And so they “smash fascism” in virtual print while parading their righteous revolutionary irrelevance for all to see, if all those others bothered to look as a few pseudo-intellectual armchair hobos do to help survive their consumerist boredom.

Continue reading

February 10, 2021

Paul Street, Antonio Gramsci, and understanding fascism

Filed under: Fascism — louisproyect @ 10:07 pm
Paul Street

At nearly 4,500 words, Paul Street’s article titled “The Anatomy of Fascism Denial” is just the first half of a polemic against those on the left who do not share his analysis that Trump was an imminent fascist threat.

This is part of a campaign he has been waging for the better part of four years. It started off harmlessly enough by focusing on Trump’s bad behavior. Yes, he wasn’t breaking any new ground but at least his heart was in the right place. It was only in the last year that our intrepid radical journalist’s campaign began to take on an obsessive character. Like Noam Chomsky and other “lesser evil” voices, Street began to make voting for Biden a sine qua non for the left. I never paid much attention to his daily blizzard of FB posts defending this position until one showed up that was obviously an attack on me. My support for Howie Hawkins had gotten under his skin to such a degree that he flamed me as an effete, well-off yuppie who was helping to elect someone as bad as Hitler, or maybe even worse.

Reading through his article, I noticed a reference once again either to me or perhaps his confused notion of what I stand for:

Mid-way through the Trump years, it dawned on me that many of the older and upper-middle -class white former New Left (now “old new left”) fascism-denying thinkers I knew wouldn’t be willing to see fascism as a problem in the U.S. until paramilitaries came to their comfortable homes and dragged them off to detention camps. Among the affluent Caucasian males who predominate among Trumpism-fascism-deniers (this is no accident given how their race, class, and gender-privilege insulated them from the worst outcomes of the Trump regime), it has been common to advance an idiotic all-or-nothing black and white litmus test for fascism: either [A] a triumphant consolidated fascist regime on the maximal model of Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Third Reich or [B] “no fascism.” Serious contemporary analysts of neofascism are working instead with a more reasonably nuanced attention to gray areas, “fascist creep” (“creeping fascism,” if one prefers), and fascist movements in the neoliberal era.

Suffice it to say that I was never part of the New Left. When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, it was a conscious decision to become an apprentice to people like Farrell Dobbs and Joe Hansen who learned their Marxism from Leon Trotsky. Really, who in their right mind would rather line up with Tom Hayden than Trotsky? It was like picking Kenny G. over John Coltrane.

If you scan through all the names of the people Street wants to crucify, not a single one has ever written for New Left Review or even Jacobin. The name Marx only appears once and not as someone whose writings would have some bearing on the question of fascism.

Hitler’s brown-shirts didn’t run around smashing heads and killing people chanting “Let’s Build a Corporate State with a State Command Capitalist Political Economy!” They went about beating up and murdering Marxists and Jews, two threats they merged in the phrase “judeo-bolshevism.” They were very much about white nationalism.

For Street and others like him, you can have constitutional rights such freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, a secret ballot in a multi-party state and other gains won over centuries of struggle by working people and still end up living under fascism—or more exactly as is de rigeuer in his circles—neo-fascism. By sticking on the prefix ‘neo’, everything is possible.

Those of us who saw and see Trump and Trumpism as fascist never posited or expected an exact replication of German Nazi or Italian fascism in the contemporary U.S. A 21st Century Neoliberal-era American fascist regime would be considerably less state-command-oriented than the classic historical European fascism of the last century.

It is absurd to call American neoliberal corporate and financial rule “the opposite of fascism.” The opposite of fascism, a brutal form of capitalism, is democratic socialism.

You’ll notice the binary opposition between neoliberal/corporate/financial rule and democratic socialism. Isn’t it the case that neoliberal corporate and financial rule will be continuing under Biden? For that matter, there are qualitative differences between bourgeois democratic states and fascist states. What Street doesn’t seem to grasp is the preference of the ruling class for parliamentary democracy since it allows it to rule on the basis of what Gramsci called hegemony. Drawing from Marx’s idea that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force”, Gramsci saw the capitalist state as being made up of two overlapping spheres, a ‘political society’ (which rules through force) and a ‘civil society’ (which rules through consent). Under fascism, civil society no longer exists unless of course you adhere to the theory of “neo-fascism”, which allows everything under the sun.

Even more critically, Gramsci refers to the “manufacture of consent”, the term more familiarly associated with Noam Chomsky. Civil Society creates the conditions under which the working class can control itself. If there is a free press, etc., the illusion of democracy can be sustained. If Donald Trump decided after being re-elected to put the Murdoch corporation in charge of the NY Times, the Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC, that illusion would disappear and the ruling class would have to resort to naked force. The media, the universities, the religious bodies, the nonprofits, the vast array of clubs and professional institutions of bourgeois society constitute what Gramsci called civil society. While defenders of civil society like George Soros see it as a crucial factor in strengthening democracy, they in fact are essential to the stabilization of bourgeois society by serving as a pressure valve. Upset over Donald Trump? No problem. Form a group that will get out the vote for Joe Biden or some other enlightened bourgeois politician like Pete Buttegieg. His father Joseph, one of the USA’s leading Gramsci scholars, explained how all this worked in an article titled Gramsci on Civil Society (boundary 2, Vol. 22, No. 3, Autumn, 1995):

Gramsci regarded civil society as an integral part of the state; in his view, civil society, far from being inimical to the state, is, in fact, its most resilient constitutive element, even though the most immediately visible aspect of the state is political society, with which it is all too often mistakenly identified. He was also convinced that the intricate, organic relationships between civil society and political society enable certain strata of society not only to gain dominance within the state but also, and more importantly, to maintain it, perpetuating the subalternity of other strata. To ignore or to set aside these crucial aspects of Gramsci’s concept of civil society is tantamount to erasing the crucial differences that set his theory of the state apart from the classic liberal version.

All of the advanced capitalist countries see the need for protecting civil society even at the same time they tried to erode it as the need arises. Under Donald Trump, there was little attempt to throttle it. Under fascist rule, the main goal is to rule by force because the masses lack the means to affect public policy. In classical fascism, Hitler and Mussolini created an alternative to civil society (Nazi boy scouts, sports clubs, etc.) that worked as long as the system could provide the material conditions that kept the working-class placated. Once the economy begins to shrink, especially during wartime austerity, there are attempts to use counter-force to return to “normality”. Under Vichy France and Mussolini’s Italy, resistance movements arose that threatened the long-term viability of the capitalist system. Fortunately for the ruling class, the Communists essentially sought the same goal: bourgeois democracy. In Germany, where the totalitarian grip was deepest, the resistance was weaker. It fell to the student activists of White Rose and the military brass organized through Operation Valkyrie to defeat fascism but not capitalism.

A word or two on Street’s nasty demagogy. This bullshit about “the affluent Caucasian males” was obviously aimed at people like me. Of course, it would apply to Frederick Engels who was a textile mill owner. My entire life has been spent as a computer programmer, a job that was enough to pay my rent, put food on my table and give me the leisure time I needed to do political work. I have no idea what Street does besides lecturing students but I have been a revolutionary since 1967. After I broke with sectarianism, I became active in the solidarity movement for the revolution in El Salvador. That led in turn to my work with Tecnica, a volunteer organization that sent people to Nicaragua and South Africa after Nelson Mandela became president, as well as other frontline states.

While I doubt that he will take my advice, it would behoove him to lay off this class baiting. Affluence does not come from writing Cobol programs. It comes from owning real estate or succeeding on Wall Street. Ernest Mandel, who was one of the foremost Marxist economists of the post-WWII period, tried to theorize the new working class that included programmers. I admit that I saw very little initiatives taken by fellow programmers over the years except for the formation of Computer Professionals for Peace that campaigned against Reagan’s Star Wars program. However, the winds might be shifting. People working for Google have formed a union that can easily become part of a transformed labor movement that will be as key to our epoch as the CIO was in the 30s. NPR reported:

After the death of George Floyd, Google engineer Raksha Muthukumar sent an email to colleagues.

In it, she pointed to a list of criminal justice reform groups and bail funds for protesters who were seeking contributions. Soon after, Muthukumar was summoned into a meeting with Google’s human relations department.

“I remember that was such a scary experience. It was such a mysterious HR letter. And I was texting friends who had been involved with organizing and they were like, ‘Oh, this is my experience with HR. This is what has happened. Don’t forget to take notes on it,'” said Muthukumar, 25, who is based in New York City.

This is the kind of repression we have to worry about now, not the clown show that broke windows at the Capitol.

February 8, 2021

Ernie Tate’s “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s”

Filed under: biography,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s, Volume One, Canada 1955-1965
By Ernie Tate
268 pages. Resistance Books. $15.00

Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s, Volume Two, Canada 1955-1965
By Ernie Tate
394 pages. Resistance Books. $20.00

Exactly four years ago, as my wife and I were in the final week of our vacation in South Beach, we were pleasantly surprised to hear a female voice with a distinctly Scottish burr piping up just behind us on the sidewalk as we were going out for breakfast. “Is that Lou?” The distinctly Scottish burr belonged to Jess MacKenzie, the long-time partner of Ernie Tate, a veteran of the Trotskyist movement who had the audacity like me to vacation in a spot that in our youth would have been regarded as a decadent bourgeois swamp.

It turned out that Ernie and Jess were staying in a hotel right next to the apartment building where we had paid for a month-long sublet. I had run into Ernie and Jess at Left Forums once or twice and knew him as a Marxmail subscriber but beyond that mostly by reputation. In 1967, not long after I had joined the Socialist Workers Party in New York, members were still buzzing about how Ernie had been beaten up by Gerry Healy’s goons in London while selling a pamphlet critical of the cult leader outside one of their meetings. Since that incident loomed large in my mind even after decades had passed, I introduced my wife to him as the guy who Gerry Healy’s goons had beaten up. This prompted Ernie to remark genially but firmly that he preferred to be described as a leader of the British antiwar movement.

After enjoying dinner with Ernie and Jess that evening, I offered to bring my camcorder over to their hotel room where I would interview them. A decade ago I had begun an oral history project of Trotskyist veterans and Ernie’s reflections on a career as a revolutionary was one that deserved to be recorded, as did Jess’s.

As the camera rolled, the stories I heard from them transfixed me. Over the years I have learned that the lives led by people on the far left are often far more adventurous and dramatic than any novelist could concoct if for no other reason than their Sisyphean quality.

The son of an impoverished Protestant family in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Ernie dropped out of school when he was thirteen years old. Since his only hope for the future was factory work, he was relieved to find a job at a spinning mill where he would find himself in the sort of dead-end, low wage job that was at the heart of the textile-based industrial revolution of the British isles a century earlier.

In a much more low-budget vacation than the one he took in South Beach, a twenty year old Ernie went to Paris in the summer of 1954 to stay at a hostel. When he went out on the street one morning, he ran into an immense parade of trade unionists and Communists carrying banners with red flags and hammer-and-sickles. Dien Bien Phu had just fallen to General Giap and the French left was out on the streets celebrating. Ernie said that this was a transformative moment. As a young worker, he identified with the Vietnamese and the French workers even if he had no clear idea what socialism meant. He was sure, however, that the Soviet Union was on the right side of history.

Jess had her own amazing stories to tell, the most memorable of them involving her role in transporting money on Robert Williams’s behalf to his followers in the USA. When she was in Cuba as part of a delegation organized by the Canadian Fair Play for Cuba Committee, she had come into contact with the NAACP leader who had fled trumped-up charges of kidnapping a white couple. Williams’s real crime was to organize armed self-defense squads against KKK terror in North Carolina. Given the American Trotskyist campaign to defend Williams, he felt confidence enough in Jess to entrust her with substantial sums. Of course, given the high security alerts around Williams, she was taking a chance that she too might have ended up on J. Edgar Hoover’s enemies list.

A year or so later I learned that the stories Ernie related to me that day came to him with surprising fluency because at the time he was immersed in the research that would culminate in the publication of a two-volume memoir titled “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s”, one that is filled with such tales and, as I am sure Ernie would admit, of a Sisyphean character. For us, as it was for Max Horkheimer who put it memorably, “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.”

That being said, much of Ernie’s memoir can be described as a joy ride through history. As I related to him midway through reading it, it reminded me—despite myself—of the good times I enjoyed when I was out on the streets selling socialist newspapers. There’s very few pleasures, including a room facing the ocean on South Beach, that can compete with the ones you experience as a committed revolutionary secure in the knowledge that you are part of a movement challenging a capitalist class that is a threat to the survival of humanity and all life on earth.

Trying to escape the brutal poverty in Belfast, Ernie immigrated to Toronto, Canada in 1955 where he ran into Ross Dowson at the Labour Bookstore that was the headquarters for the tiny Trotskyist movement in Canada. Dowson was something of a hair shirt, leading a monk-like existence at the bookstore, where he hoped to replenish a movement that had been hollowed out by the witch-hunt. He lived in a tiny apartment in the back of the bookstore that did not even have a shower or bath. Over the years when he became a full-timer for the party, Ernie learned that Dowson was determined to make everybody live by his norms, even when it posed risks to their health and morale.

Of course, when you are young and full of enthusiasm for the imminent victory of the socialist revolution (Ernie thought that the revolution would take place no later than 1960), you are willing to make all sorts of sacrifices. For Ernie and a small cadre of adventurers, this meant going on newspaper and literature sales campaigns across Canada in rickety vans, one of which was a converted poultry truck that retained a fowl odor (pun intended) no matter how many scrubbings with strong disinfectants had been applied.

After a decade in the Canadian party, Ernie accepted an assignment to move to London where he would try to establish a Trotskyist party. Like the Americans whose orientation had a major influence on the Canadians, this meant placing a major emphasis on building the Vietnam antiwar movement and recruiting activists who had become radicalized through the protests. That was how I became a member of the American movement myself. After learning that the SWP was spearheading the antiwar movement, I decided that this was where I belonged.

For Ernie, this meant working closely with the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation that had established a Vietnam International War Crimes Tribunal. For a public anxious to learn about the origins and nature of an imperialist war that sought to turn the clock back to before 1954, this was in effect a European version of the teach-ins taking place in the USA. It was Ernie’s chance to turn the tide of history back to that summer when he was radicalized by the mass celebrations in the streets of Paris. A new victory would take place in the 1970s, finally establishing the right of Vietnamese to determine their own destiny.

Working with Bertrand Russell meant working with Ralph Schoenman, who was Russell’s secretary and who spoke in his name. At the time many people had a suspicion that given Russell’s advanced years it meant that directives issued in his name were actually traceable to Schoenman who some regarded as a Svengali taking advantage of a nonagenarian. Ernie makes a convincing case that Russell was intimately involved in the workings of the Tribunal and spoke entirely for himself even if he was forced sometimes by old age and infirmity to keep a low public profile.

The portraits of Russell and Schoenman are carefully etched in the memoir, the former coming across as a moral exemplar committed totally to the liberation of the Vietnamese people and the latter a force of nature confronting all sorts of obstacles standing in the way of the Tribunal. Reading Tate is a reminder of how difficult it was in the early years of the antiwar movement to establish the legitimacy of a war crimes tribunal. Charles De Gaulle, despite his reputation for being a thorn in Uncle Sam’s side, was hostile to it as was the Swedish government. As Schoenman was storming heaven and earth to establish its right to exist against elite resistance, he had to face all sorts of internal problems some of which were of his own doing. Prickly personalities serving on the tribunal were frequently at each other’s throats, including Jean Paul-Sartre who was all too ready to take offense even when it seemed that he was someone most prone to giving it.

As a kind of moderating influence, Isaac Deutscher’s role was indispensable. As one of the most respected Marxist scholars in the world and a journalist whose insights were respected universally, his background in the internecine struggles of the Trotskyist movement prepared him for resolving disputes within the tribunal, often conferring with Ernie Tate on how to deal with what appeared to be intractable problems.

In the course of consulting with Deutscher, a friendship developed. Despite having established himself as a revolutionary organizer and activist with a good command of his movement’s theory, Ernie was always aware of his working-class roots and somewhat capable of being intimidated by the intellectuals his work with the tribunal brought him into contact with. In my favorite passage in the memoir, he recounts a discussion with Deutscher that conveys in a few words the tension that often exists on the left between the intellectual and the worker-activist:

I remember once when he made a few disparaging comments in my company about the Fourth International, that I took to be a questioning of its very existence and which got my back up a little, I faced him directly on the issue, sort of poking fun at what he was saying. I posed a hypothetical situation to him, that of an imaginary apolitical young worker, who after reading a Deutscher book, for example, might become convinced of the need for socialism and shows up on Deutscher’s doorstep to ask him advice about what he, the young worker, should do to help bring about this fundamental change. For me, I said, I wouldn’t hesitate a moment because from what I knew from history, without their own organization, workers won’t get anywhere and I would tell the young worker to join my group as the first step in trying to build such an organization which could help lead workers in transforming society. What would you tell the young worker? I asked him, and I knew I was appealing to his background as an active revolutionary leader, of which I knew he felt proud. Momentarily, he looked a little bit non-plussed, probably thinking that I had a bit of a nerve challenging him like that, but he came back, surprisingly, saying he would recommend the same thing. Better that than nothing, he said, in a sort of backhanded compliment.

After his work with the tribunal was finished, Ernie turned his attention to the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign whose most prominent spokesman was Tariq Ali. Ernie’s memoir makes an interesting contrast with Ali’s “Street Fighting Man: an autobiography of the Sixties”, a very lively memoir that unsurprisingly puts the celebrated author in the foreground.

Perhaps because of his humble background, Ernie chose to downplay his own role and personality. You will find very little of the self-regard that goes into most autobiographies by veterans of the Trotskyist movement that was most egregiously on display in Irving Howe’s “A margin of hope: An intellectual autobiography”. For Ernie Tate, the real interest is in the personalities he encountered over a fifty-year career in the movement, for whom he retains considerable affection even when they were driving him a little crazy.

For someone like me or for veterans of the broader socialist movement, the memoir will be richly rewarding since it is a beautifully written and deeply thoughtful account of the revolutionary life. With his dry sense of humor and a perfect grasp of the psychology of his subjects, reading Ernie Tate delivers the pleasure that will never be found in fiction, especially in a period of history when the novelist is trained at places like the University of Iowa writers workshop to focus on personal and family matters.

For young people coming around the radical movement today who are trying to figure out what to do next in a period of deepening reaction, the memoir is a reassuring testimony to how a mass movement can erupt when a people has decided that it can no longer endure existing conditions. If the mid-50s had the advantage of an actually existing socialism in Russia, China and Eastern Europe, we are in a period that lacking such “liberated territories” at least leads to the conclusion that capitalism no longer has the ability to satisfy the basic needs of millions—perhaps billions—of people demanding their place in the sun. For them, just as was the case for Ernie Tate in 1954, the need for revolution is more urgent than ever.

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