Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 28, 2020

Beanpole

Filed under: Film,Russia,WWII — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

Opening at the Film Forum in N.Y. tomorrow, “Beanpole” is a Russian film set in Leningrad just after the war has ended. In addition to the shattered buildings left behind in the 900-day siege, there are also shattered human beings who survived by their wits and a stubborn desire to enjoy a normal life once again.

Among those who will have the hardest time living a normal life again are the veterans in a military hospital who have suffered either grievous wounds and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. The nurses caring for them have suffered as well, including Iya, who is nicknamed beanpole because of her towering height and willowy build. When we first meet her, she is standing as still as a statue in the nurses’ quarters. As a former anti-aircraft gunner, her PTSD is manifested by unpredictable freezes that last for a few minutes and that made her unfit for further duty.

When she is not caring for the patients, she is in her room looking after Peshka, a toddler who craves both her attention and food. The first she can easily supply, the second on a hit-and-miss basis. Although the siege has ended, the population is just one step ahead of feeding on cats and dogs as had been the case during the war. One day, as she was playfully roughhousing with the boy, she freezes up when he is beneath her and becomes collateral damage of the Nazi’s genocidal attack.

Not long after the boy has died, Iya’s sister anti-aircraft gunner Masha shows up at the hospital to reunite with Peshka, who has been left in her friend’s care. Iya breaks the sad news that the boy has died but in his sleep rather than under her immobile body. Having been robbed of normal human reactions by four years of fighting on the front lines, Masha takes the news in stride and even remains dispassionate after learning later on that Iya was at fault.

After taking a job as a nurse, Masha hopes to rebuild her life. With her husband a casualty of the war, her top priority is finding a man who can provide the seed she needs to create a new life. Learning that battleground wounds have left her sterile, she insists that Iya must become pregnant on her behalf. Since Iya is suffering from PTSD and had little interest in men to begin with, that becomes a demand that threatens to destroy their friendship.

Unlike any film I have seen in decades, “Beanpole” hearkens back to the golden age of Russian cinema as seen in “And Quiet Flows the Don” or “The Cranes Are Flying”. Like the second film, it is a wrenching tale of the emotional and physical costs of WWII. Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1957 classic is a tale of redemption and concludes with the characters looking forward to life of peace and socialist prosperity. Given the post-Soviet sensibility of the 28-year old director/screenwriter Kantemir Balagov, hopes are placed most of all in the sisterhood the two principal actresses share.

In the director’s statement that accompanies this film that is the Russian entry for best foreign film in the upcoming Academy Awards, he stresses the importance of telling not just the story of the two women but a city that perhaps one day will be renamed Leningrad in honor of the resistance it made famous:

Beanpole is my second feature film. It is very important to me that my story takes place in 1945. My heroes, like the city they live in, are mangled by a horrible war. They live in a city that has endured one of the worst sieges in the history of warfare. This is a story about them and about people they meet in Leningrad, the obstacles that they have to overcome and the way they are treated by society. They are psychologically crippled by the war and it will take time for them to learn to live their normal lives.

I am interested in the fates of women and especially women who fought in the Second World War. According to data, this was the war with the highest participation of women. As an author, I am interested in finding an answer to the question: what happens to a person who is supposed to give life after she passes through the trials of war?

January 27, 2020

In Defense of the Green Party

Filed under: Green Party — louisproyect @ 10:43 pm

Howie Hawkins, attacked for trying to win votes for the Green Party in all fifty states

On January 24th, an Open Letter appeared on various leftist websites urging the Green Party to follow a “safe states” strategy in the 2020 presidential elections. It argues that if Howie Hawkins or any other Green Party candidate runs in contested states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, there is a danger that he or she would steal votes from the Democrat. Needless to say, if that candidate is Bernie Sanders, there will be that much more pressure on the Greens to tamp down their campaign.

Although formulated as recommendations to the Greens in general, the Open Letter is actually a polemic against Howie Hawkins’s CounterPunch article “The Green Party Is Not the Democrats’ Problem.”

As has been the case in most elections since Barry Goldwater was the Republican candidate in 1964, the threat of a “unprecedented danger” has become a talking point of the Communist Party, the Nation Magazine and a broad spectrum of liberal thinking epitomized by the articles of Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin, as well as the spectacle of Michael Moore getting down on his knees to beg Ralph Nader not to run for President on the Bill Maher show in 2004 .

In addition to holding up a second Donald Trump term as a bogeyman, the authors have the gumption to tell Howie Hawkins that even if the Greens run a low-key campaign, they will come out of the elections stronger:

We have no way to assess the claim that Greens would find it dispiriting to remove themselves as a factor that might abet global catastrophe via a Trump re-election. But wouldn’t Trump out of office much less Sanders or Warren in office not only benefit all humanity and a good part of the biosphere to boot, but also the Green Party? For that matter, weren’t more potential Green Party members and voters driven off by the party’s dismissal of the dangers of Trump than were inspired by it? Which grew more in the last four years, DSA or the Greens?

The Open Letter was signed by Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Fletcher, Leslie Cagan, Ron Daniels, Kathy Kelly, Norman Solomon, Cynthia Peters and Michael Albert. Some political background on these high-profile personalities is necessary.

To start with, Chomsky had a conversation that touched on lesser-evilism with Robert Scheer, the editor of Truthdig, where the Open Letter appeared among other places. I ordinarily have zero interest in any of these ubiquitous transcriptions of Chomsky’s profundities, but was curious to see his defense of “lesser evilism”. Scheer, an 83-year old leftist who has made a living since the 1960s publishing magazines like Ramparts and Truthdig, still has enough piss and vinegar inside him to be skeptical of Chomsky’s justifications for voting Democrat. Chomsky, now 91, is an old-fashioned pragmatist despite his anarchist pretensions. Here he is reassuring Scheer that voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016 or Joe Biden in 2020 would be good for us, just like cod liver oil:

There’s another word for lesser evilism. It’s called rationality. Lesser evilism is not an illusion, it’s a rational position. But you don’t stop with lesser evilism. You begin with it, to prevent the worst, and then you go on to deal with the fundamental roots of what’s wrong, even with the lesser evils.

The best you can say about Robert Scheer is that he keeps these meetings of the great minds to a minimum. Over on ZNet, fellow Open Letter signer Michael Albert has inflicted them on his readers dozens of times over the years. Besides putting Chomsky on a pedestal, Albert’s main interest has been to promote PARECON, or participatory economics. Unlike those nasty revolutions in Russia and Cuba, this is a blueprint for a future society that will be like the Big Rock Candy Mountain, where “the sun shines every day on the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees.” So, he has no strategy for getting to the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Nobody’s perfect.

As for Bill Fletcher Jr. and Barbara Ehrenreich, suffice it to say that they constituted half of the committee that initiated Progressives for Obama in 2008. Meanwhile, Ron Daniels was Deputy Campaign Manager for Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign and urged a vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Leslie Cagan was one of the founders of the Committees of Correspondence in 1991, a Eurocommunist split from the CPUSA that retained its orientation to the Democratic Party. Norman Solomon was a Sanders delegate at the 2016 convention. A most mutually reinforcing coterie.

Unlike those mentioned above, Kathy Kelly has no paper trail identifying her as a Democratic Party supporter; nor does Cynthia Peters. I have to assume that they are like most people on the left today, deathly afraid of Trump and harboring immense illusions in the difference that a Sanders presidency can make.

What unites all of them is a belief in gradual change, as if electing Democrats can serve as a brake on the inexorable decline of the capitalist system. There’s a real cognitive dissonance between the almost daily reports on one catastrophe or another, from the Australian fires to thirty percent of birds in North America dying since 1959, and the plodding, self-serving liberalism of the Democratic Party. This includes not only the regular Democrats from Joe Biden to Amy Klobuchar. It also includes the Presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, whose idea of socialism is to bring back the New Deal on a silver platter. It was WWII, after all, that broke the back of the Great Depression, not building roads for the WPA.

The Open Letter believes that it would help the Green Party grow if it incorporated a “safe state” strategy. Missing from its calculations is any understanding of its relationship to the two-party system. Whatever its flaws, and they are legion, it is the only party in the twentieth and now the twenty-first century that has functioned as a opponent of a rigged game that serves, first and foremost, to preserve the electoral shell-game.

In Chomsky’s chat with Robert Scheer, he refers to the need for staying in the streets even if a Democrat is elected, even Bernie Sanders. That’s the same advice the Progressives for Obama gave in 2008. Even if Obama was elected, we’d have to put pressure on him to promote progressive legislation. They use the analogy with FDR, who supposedly pushed through New Deal legislation because of trade union militancy.

Our problem, however, is the lack of a genuine radical movement in the USA that can coordinate such forceful actions, let alone a militant trade union movement. In the 1930s, there was a powerful Communist Party that despite tail-ending FDR was in the forefront of social struggles everywhere. Over 20 years ago, I wrote an article that gave them their due:

In an essay “Remaking America: Communists and Liberals in the Popular Front”, [Mark] Naison discusses how the CP made the decision to implement the Popular Front in a very aggressive manner. Browder and the American Communists made a big effort to stop speaking in “Marxist-Leninese” and discovered many novel ways to reach the American people.

They concentrated in two important areas: building the CIO and fighting racism. There is an abundance of information about its union activities, but new research is bringing out important facts about its links to the Black community.

A “Saturday Evening Post” writer observed in 1938 that CP headquarters “is a place where every Negro with a grievance can be sure of prompt action. If he has been fired, the Communists can be counted on to picket his employer. If he has been evicted, the Communists will guard his furniture and take his case to court. If his gas has been cut off, the Communists will take his complaint, but not his unpaid bill to the nearest office… There is never a labor parade, nor a mass meeting of any significance in the colored community in which Communists do not get their banner in the front row and their speakers on the platform.”

After WWII, the Cold War kicked in and reduced the CPUSA to a ghost of its once domineering past. However, there was a new upsurge in radical energy as the Maoists and Trotskyists provided the backbone of militant activism in the 1960s and 70s, even making an impact on the trade union movement. Sectarian mistakes and a steep decline of industrial jobs once again led to a decline in radical activism that only began to reappear during the Occupy movement.

Our problem today is we have a renewed interest in using the Democratic Party as an instrument of reform but with a blunt instrument like the DSA leading the charge. Unlike the highly disciplined CPUSA, the DSA seems incapable of using its 60,000 strong membership in a coordinated assault on capitalist power. I try to imagine what things would look like today if the 10,000 or so Maoists and Trotskyists of the mid-70s had not gone off their rocker thinking the revolution was around the corner. If they had dropped their sectarian pretensions and learned to work together, they would have been able to better confront the nativism, racism, and environmentally destructive policies of the Trump administration.

As a DSA member, I get regular communications from Maria Svart, the group’s chairperson. Almost all of it is consumed with electoral projects like going to New Hampshire to go door to door for Bernie Sanders. When Trump authorized the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, there was a genuine fear that this might have led to a new, major war in the region. What was Jacobin’s reaction to this threat? It urged people to work for Sanders’s election to prevent such a war. Talk about electoral cretinism.

There’s some real confusion about leftist parties today, even—I’m afraid to admit—in the Green Party. It runs candidates not exactly in the same way as the Democrats but mostly in the hope of getting elected to local offices that don’t require the kind of money that you need to run for Governor, Congress or the Presidency. The purpose of Howie Hawkins would not be to get elected but to raise awareness of the uncompromising stance of the Green Party on all the important issues of the day.

My idea of the Greens is strongly influenced by the example of the Peace and Freedom Party of the 1960s that was mostly a vehicle for radical activism. It never amounted to much outside of California but for much of the 60s and 70s, it was a key part of the left that drew in many leftists wary of the lunacy of the “Leninist” left, as well they should have been.

When I went to the Madison Square Garden rally for Ralph Nader in 2000, I was stunned to see the sold-out audience of mostly young people filled with energy. It dawned on me that the Greens could draw upon this energy and become the badly needed, nationally coordinated backbone of the left. Unfortunately, the people who believed in a “safe state” strategy, like the Open Letter advocated, maneuvered themselves into a leadership position that was strong enough to deny Ralph Nader the candidacy in 2004. Instead, the Greens ended up with David Cobb as the candidate who was very good at making sure it kept a low profile.

Jill Stein ran a much more energetic campaign in 2012 and 2016 but she doesn’t really have a vision of what the Greens can become. Additionally, she relies on the advice of David Cobb, her campaign manager, who is still bent on preventing the party from exploiting the possibilities that lie ahead of it in a period of deepening crisis.

Howie Hawkins has that vision and that is why I am supporting his candidacy. If he is the Presidential candidate in 2020, I will do everything in my power to back his campaign even if he draws votes away from Bernie Sanders in competitive states. The way to build a party is to go full-bore. Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead. The Republicans are very good at it even if the goal is to turn back the clock to 1895. In politics, you have to have a killer instinct. Lenin had it. So did Fidel Castro. While the USA is nothing at all like Russia in 1917 or Cuba in 1957, the conditions are ripening for immense class battles within a few years.

It will take a revolutionary party to change this country from top to bottom and the time to begin moving toward its formation is now. I do not think that the Green Party can become that party but its growth will create the fertile soil that can determine the outcome, just like the abolitionist parties that gave rise to the Republican Party of Abe Lincoln. The USA had a revolution that put an end to chattel slavery in the 1860s. It is high time to make a new revolution that destroys wage slavery.

 

 

January 26, 2020

When the N.Y. Times referred to elected black officials as members of a “mongrel party”

Filed under: african-american,racism — louisproyect @ 10:49 pm

Since this post will be commentary on a Sunday NY Times book review that is behind a paywall, I am including the entire review at the bottom. In “When White Supremacists Overthrew an Elected Government,” Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the head of Princeton’s African-American Studies department and a frequent commentator on cable news, looks at David Zucchino’s “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy”. Zucchino, a contributing writer to the NY Times, has written a history of a white racist attack in Wilmington, North Carolina that left 30 African-Americans dead and their mass exodus from the city.

Wilmington had the largest percentage of blacks in any American city in the south. Still loyal to the Republican Party, they elected blacks to many offices in a manner that was reminiscent of Reconstruction. Whites, who voted Democrat, felt like they were being “replaced” and carried out a pogrom. You get a feel for Zucchino’s chronicle through this quote from the review, which I encourage you to read in its totality below:

The leaders of the violence went on to celebrated political careers. Josephus Daniels was appointed secretary of the Navy by Woodrow Wilson and later named ambassador to Mexico by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Furnifold Simmons served 30 years as a United States senator. No one was ever held responsible for the brutal murders in Wilmington.

After reading this review, I made a bet with myself that the NY Times coverage of these events in 1898 would be from a perspective consistent with the racist policies of the Wilmington terrorists and the liberal icons Woodrow Wilson (revered much less so today than when I was young) and FDR.

Taking advantage of my subscription to the Times, I did some investigation in the paper’s archives. My intuition was correct. The Gray Lady wore a white hood and its editors, for all I know, were invited to Woodrow Wilson’s White House screening of “Birth of a Nation”.

The first sign that Wilmington was on the NY Times radar was on November 4th when it reported on “Race Troubles in the South: The First Red Shirt Parade held at Wilmington, N.C.”

WILMINGTON, N. C., Nov. 3.—The first red shirt parade on horseback witnessed in Wilmington was held today. It created enthusiasm among the whites and consternation among the negroes. The whole town turned out to see it, and hundreds of ladies waved flags and hand-kerchiefs as the long column of horsemen rode by. While the riders frequently cheered, the parade was otherwise quiet and orderly. Not an insulting word was uttered to a negro.

How about that? Not an insulting word was uttered. You’d think that the Times might have mentioned that the Red Shirts had a history of doing much worse than insulting black people. Wikipedia states that they and other such groups were the “the military arm of the Democratic Party” and were even more effective than the KKK in intimidating and assassination black Republican elected officials. On the same day, the racist Raleigh News & Observer had an article that sounded exactly like the NY Times:

The first Red Shirt parade on horseback ever witnessed in Wilmington electrified the people today. It created enthusiasm among the whites and consternation among the Negroes. The whole town turned out to see it. It was an enthusiastic body of men. Otherwise it was quiet and orderly.

The next sign that the NYT had lined up behind the growing white power movement was a November 5th article written just before local elections. It was titled “North Carolina: The Combination of White Voters to Resist the Possibility of Negro Domination.” No byline is attached to the article. It is openly racist in its analysis and as was customary back then uses lower case for the word “negro”. It even speaks of a political revolution:

WASHINGTON, Nov. 4.—Statements received here in reference to the race conflict which it was feared was imminent in North Carolina indicate that there will be no trouble at the polls on election day at Wilmington or elsewhere. The opinion prevails among those familiar with the situation that the white people will not resort to intimidation and. that the negroes will be allowed to vote without molestation, but that a large number of the latter have become disgusted with the Republican Party managers` failure to nominate candidates for county officers and will stay away from the polls.

The movement for a combination of the white inhabitants of the State to overcome the possibility of negro domination is reported to be gaining ground, and a political revolution is foreshadowed by observers of the situation. A Democratic victory is predicted, the members of that party expecting, with the aid of white Republicans and Populists, to elect the State judicial ticket, five of the nine Congressmen, and a majority in the State Legislature, although the Senate, they say, will possibly be close.

The former adversaries of Democracy who are now flocking to that party’s standard. say that they have not changed their political opinions, but that the combination of the white forces is necessary at this election, if for no longer, in view of the exigencies of the situation.

You’ll note that the Populists are forming a bloc with the racist Democratic Party in keeping with its retreat from a multiracial, class-based fight against the capitalists, while white Republicans are just as willing to sell out black voters as they were in 1877. With so many prestigious civil war historians rankled by Project 1619’s claim that blacks mostly fought on their own, you have to wonder whether they have an idea about what happened in Wilmington in 1898.

A day later, the NY Times published an article titled innocently enough “North Carolina’s Negroes: Offices Which They Hold in Several Counties of the State”. It was almost entirely a routine listing of those offices with likely the implication that they had to be put in their place, based on the final paragraph:

The number of negro office holders in some of these counties is small, and they are nearly all east of the centre line, but they give a pretty strong indication of what we may expect if the mongrel party which has put these negroes in office wins. If they make such a showing in a few years, what may we not look for if their party triumphs and they get on top again?

Mongrel party? If this is what the newspaper of record was writing, you can only imagine the sort of thing that was being published in the local white-owned newspapers in Wilmington that were whipping up the racist frenzy that would produce the pogrom.

To get an idea of how black activists reacted to Wilmington that year, you need to read a December 11th article titled “President Blamed By Negroes”. It is a reminder that black militancy and the need for black self-defense was not invented by the Black Panther Party:

WASHINGTON, Dec. 20.—Washington is pretty generally condemning a speech made ire last night at a meeting of the National Racial Protective Association by T. Tomas Fortune of New York.

There were devotional exercises and resolutions of complaint against the President not insisting upon protection to the colored people in North and South Carolina, and then came Fortune’s speech. He referred to the prayer that had included a request for the divine blessing upon the President as being specially pertinent to a present need, sneered at the choice of Gen.

Wheeler as “a side partner” to the President, and declared that if Confederate graves are to be cared for by the Government, Confederate widows and orphans must be pensioned and a monument erected to Benedict Arnold. A specimen utterance was this:

“If all the black and yellow people stood on the same ground as myself, there would have been no thirty colored men killed in Wilmington unless there were also thirty white men killed. If the colored people did not have Winchester rifles, they had pitch and pine, and while the whites were killing, the blacks should have been burning. The negroes will never get their rights until they stand up for them. The worst organization which ever existed was the organized chivalry of the South, and as a result w have 250,000 mulattos in this country. Why, the very men killed at Wilmington were the sons and grandsons of the men who killed them.”

The speaker went on railing at the President and Gov. Tanner, and said that he was in favor of mixed schools, mixed marriages. mixed churches, and “a fair deal in everything.”

I had never heard of T. Thomas Fortune before reading this. He was a remarkable figure and way ahead of his time. Once again citing Wikipedia:

With Fortune at the helm as co-owner with Emanuel Fortune, Jr., and Jerome B. Peterson, the New York Age became the most widely read of all Black newspapers. It stood at the forefront as a voice agitating against the evils of discrimination, lynching, mob violence, and disenfranchisement. Its popularity was due in part to Fortune’s editorials, which condemned all forms of discrimination and demanded full justice for all African Americans. Ida B. Wells’s newspaper Memphis Free Speech and Headlight had its printing press destroyed and building burned as the result of an article published in it on May 25, 1892. Fortune then gave her a job and a new platform from which to detail and condemn lynching.

Toward the end of his writing career, he became the editor of Marcus Garvey’s newspaper. For those on the left so worried about “black identity politics”, especially the crew around Sean Wilentz and the bat-shit WSWS, it’s high time they woke up and got off their white horse. As for the NY Times, I am glad they are pushing Project 1619, but they still have a lot to atone for.

When White Supremacists Overthrew an Elected Government
By Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
Jan. 7, 2020

WILMINGTON’S LIE
The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy
By David Zucchino

Today we Americans find ourselves struggling with the ghosts of our past. Some among us reach for histories that affirm the established view of who we are as a nation. Many believe the United States is, and must always be, a white nation. But moments of storm and stress also occasion the telling of different stories. We have seen this with The New York Times’s 1619 Project. Now we have David Zucchino’s brilliant new book.

“Wilmington’s Lie” is a tragic story about the brutal overthrow of the multiracial government of Wilmington, N.C., in 1898. The book is divided into three parts. The first details how white supremacists rejected the goals of Reconstruction and chafed under what they called “Negro domination.” We are introduced to characters like “Colonel” Alfred Moore Waddell, who would play a central role in the coup, and to the overall sense of moral panic that engulfed the white community as it confronted black self-assertion — like that of Abraham Galloway, the first black man in North Carolina to campaign in a statewide race — in the aftermath of the Confederacy’s defeat.

The second section charts the campaign to reassert white rule in Wilmington. Zucchino shows how Josephus Daniels, the editor and publisher of The News and Observer, the state’s most important daily, and Furnifold Simmons, the state chairman of the Democratic Party, exploited the prejudices and fears of white North Carolinians. As Zucchino writes, “More than a century before sophisticated fake news attacks targeted social media websites, Daniels’s manipulation of white readers through phony or misleading newspaper stories was perhaps the most daring and effective disinformation campaign of the era.” This was most clearly seen in the exploitation of a column about race, sex and lynching in the black newspaper The Daily Record to justify the coup. The article, written by one of the paper’s publishers, Alexander Manly, became Exhibit A in the case that black men had forgotten their place and represented a clear and present danger to the sanctity of white womanhood.

The first two parts of the book move in a deliberate fashion. Zucchino, a contributing writer for The New York Times, does not overwrite the scenes. His moral judgment stands at a distance. He simply describes what happened and the lies told to justify it all. A generalized terror comes into view as the white citizens of Wilmington mobilized to seize power through violence and outright fraud.

The details contained in the last part of the book are heart-wrenching. With economy and a cinematic touch, Zucchino recounts the brutal assault on black Wilmington. A town that once boasted the largest percentage of black residents of any large Southern city found itself in the midst of a systematic purge. Successful black men were targeted for banishment from the city, while black workers left all their possessions behind as they rushed to the swamps for safety. Over 60 people died. No one seemed to care. The governor of North Carolina cowered in the face of the violent rebellion, worried about his own life. President William McKinley turned a blind eye to the bloodshed. And Waddell was selected as mayor as the white supremacists forced the duly elected officials to resign.

In the aftermath of it all, the white community of Wilmington told itself a lie to justify the carnage, a lie that would be repeated so often that it stood in for the truth of what actually happened on Nov. 10. The editors of one newspaper wrote, “We must hope that by far the greater part of Negroes in this city are anxious for the restoration of order and quiet and ‘the old order’ — the rule of the white people.” The leaders of the violence went on to celebrated political careers. Josephus Daniels was appointed secretary of the Navy by Woodrow Wilson and later named ambassador to Mexico by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Furnifold Simmons served 30 years as a United States senator. No one was ever held responsible for the brutal murders in Wilmington.

In the end, Zucchino pulls the story into our present moment. He interviews descendants of those who perpetrated the violence and those who bore the brunt of it. What becomes clear, at least to me, is that memory and trauma look different depending on which side of the tracks you stand. The last sentence of “Wilmington’s Lie,” which quotes the grandson of Alex Manly, makes that point without a hint of hyperbole. “If there’s a hell, I hope they’re burning in it, all of them.”

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is the chair of the department of African-American studies and the James S. McDonnell distinguished university professor of African-American studies at Princeton.

 

January 25, 2020

Color Out of Space

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:38 pm

Based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story, “Color Out of Space” opened yesterday at the IFC Center in Manhattan and the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn. It was directed and co-written by Richard Stanley, a relative of the man who said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” The film stars Nicholas Cage as Nathan Gardner, the head of a household that goes off its rocker after a small meteorite lands near their rural home.

Unlike the more typical space invasion movie that pits such a family against little green men with ray guns, the only threat to their well-being is the odd clouds of colored light that have begun appearing nearby. They have the effect of making food taste weird and inducing strange behavior in human beings, such as Mrs. Gardner slicing off her fingers while dicing carrots. It also makes their pet dog, plants, and mother nature in general go off-kilter as well.

Cage, who is—as you must know by now—America’s greatest actor turns in a scenery-chewing performance as a husband who ignores his children’s warnings that things are getting weird. Even as the family starts behaving like the Texas chainsaw murderer’s worst nightmare and flowers start growing that look like they were painted by Salvador Dali on LSD, he soldiers on.

Something told me that he was cast as Nathan Gardner after his command performance in “Mandy”, a brilliant 2019 film that had him on a one-man, battle-ax wielding, vendetta against a Charles Manson-like cult after they kill his wife. Both films come off the assembly line of SpectreVision, a studio founded in 2010 by Hobbit star Elijah Wood “a home for creator-driven projects that test the boundaries of the genre space”, according to the press notes. In addition to these two vehicles for Cage, SpectreVision also produced “Daniel Isn’t Real”, another mind-blowing horror movie.

If you want to read the short story that the film is based on, go to the H.P. Lovecraft website. Lovecraft, who lived in Providence, Rhode Island from 1890 to 1937, was the Stephen King of his day. Although he never attained King’s popularity, there is a good chance that people will be reading his works a thousand years from now (that is, of course, if capitalism hasn’t destroyed the planet.) Just consider how his short story begins:

West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight. On the gentler slopes there are farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages brooding eternally over old New England secrets in the lee of great ledges; but these are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs.

The old folk have gone away, and foreigners do not like to live there. French-Canadians have tried it, Italians have tried it, and the Poles have come and departed. It is not because of anything that can be seen or heard or handled, but because of something that is imagined. The place is not good for the imagination, and does not bring restful dreams at night. It must be this which keeps the foreigners away, for old Ammi Pierce has never told them of anything he recalls from the strange days. Ammi, whose head has been a little queer for years, is the only one who still remains, or who ever talks of the strange days; and he dares to do this because his house is so near the open fields and the travelled roads around Arkham.

Who knows where the film industry would be without H.P. Lovecraft? He has 204 credits as writer, including such gems as “Re-Animator” and “Cthulhu”. Although it is beyond the scope of this review to describe the writer in all his complexity, suffice it to say that he was strongly influenced by Oswald Spengler and obsessed with the idea that the barbarians are knocking at the gate. Like Spengler, he was a racist. Wikipedia reports that in an early poem, the 1912 “On the Creation of Niggers”, Lovecraft describes black people not as human but as “beast[s] … in semi-human figure, filled with vice.”

Having seen a number of films based on his works, I can happily report that this is not reflected in them. He is part of a long tradition of writers who reflect the dark night of the American soul with Edgar Allen Poe, being acknowledged by him as a major influence. As for King, I’ll let him speak for himself:

“Now that time has given us some perspective on his work,” says Stephen King, “I think it is beyond doubt that H. P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” Around 1960 a young Stephen King came across an old paperback edition of Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear and Other Stories . It was a decisive moment for today’s pre-eminent horror writer. “Lovecraft. . . opened the way for me,” writes King, “as he had done for others before me…. it is his shadow, so long and gaunt, and his eyes, so dark and puritanical, which overlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.”

 

January 24, 2020

Isabel dos Santos and the African lumpen-bourgeoisie

Filed under: Africa,capitalist pig,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 10:57 pm

Isabel Dos Santos, 46, with her Congolese husband Sindika Dokolo, 47, in Cannes in May 2014

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 24, 2020

Thirty years ago, I was part of a Tecnica delegation that visited the African National Congress headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia. We were there to discuss the feasibility of a technical aid project for the ANC and the frontline states with Thabo Mbeki, the future president of post-apartheid South Africa. Back then, the term frontline referred to a group of other sub-Saharan nations that were also fighting for liberation.

Chief among them was Angola that had defeated the Portuguese colonial army and gained independence in 1975. However, peace did not ensue. Three rival guerrilla armies began to fight for control over the newly liberated country. The international left identified with the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Unfortunately, the MPLA had to contend with both the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Israel backed the FNLA, an alliance that most would view as unsavory. However, China also backed the FNLA, which only goes to show that Maoism had its own unsavory aspects. As for UNITA, it was wholly reliant on CIA support and guilty of the same kind of war crimes the Nicaraguan contras were carrying out.

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January 22, 2020

We the Workers; American Factory

Filed under: China,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm

Now available from Ovid, the Netflix for radicals, “We the Workers” is a 174-minute cinema vérité study of labor organizers in China. Despite its economy of means, is an impressive and inspiring take on one of the  most significant class struggles taking place in the world today. Directed by Huang Wenhai, it is shot mostly indoors without much fanfare and consists almost entirely of strategy discussions by men working for the Panyu Migrant Workers Center between themselves and with the workers they serve.

Additionally, as you might expect from a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the cinema vérité genre, you see them coping with daily life—trying to strike a balance between the duress of standing up to an all-powerful state and living a normal life. Often, the scale is tipped toward the duress side. This was the case with an organizer named Peng Jiayong confessing that his wife broke up with him because she couldn’t share the burdens of being married to someone with such a single-minded devotion to changing a seemingly unchangeable system.

As the film begins, we see Peng Jiayong being dressed down by his colleagues for losing his temper with the cops. Joining a protest of 11 women being denied rights guaranteed by the Chinese constitution, Peng refuses to leave the headquarters of the government-backed trade union where the women have gathered to lodge their complaint. When the cops arrive, they sensibly leave. He stays behind and demands to be arrested, even though such defiance will only weaken his efforts on their behalf.

Next we see a meeting between other members of the Panyu staff and some workers who are being conned by the state labor bureau into resigning from their jobs and thus losing benefits accrued over 20 years. Panyu’s lawyer Duan Yi advises them to go as a group to the boss’s office the next day and insist on their legally guaranteed rights, making sure to capture the entire discussion with their smartphones. As becomes obvious throughout the film, the Panyu organizers and the workers they represent are as dependent on the Internet as CIO organizers in the 1930s were reliant on mimeograph machines.

When I saw this scene, I was reminded of a debate in the Boston branch of the Socialist Workers Party in 1971 between Peter Camejo and a minority that viewed support for the Shea bill as reformist. H. James Shea Jr. was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives who drafted a bill challenging its constitutionality of the Vietnam War, thus enabling Massachusetts residents to ignore the draft. The minority denounced the bill as reformist since it was based on bourgeois legality. Peter replied that Lenin used to stay up late at night poring through the Czarist law codes looking for loopholes that would allow workers to go out on strike with legal cover. That’s essentially the strategy of the labor organizers trying to strengthen collective bargaining in China today.

Later in the film we meet up again with Peng Jiayong, who was beaten badly by the cops without him giving them any kind of excuse. As he lies in the hospital bed, his only interest is in figuring out how his injuries might be exploited to further the workers struggle.

Lin Dong, Peng’s comrade-in-arms who wisely left with the 11 women before the cops came, has spent time in prison for his organizing efforts. We see him on a street handing out a labor law handbook that can be used by workers to understand their rights. One worker probably spoke for most when he told him that “laws are useless in China.” In many ways, the struggle for working class power in China faces the same obstacles as in the USA. Workers feel weak and vulnerable in the face of Republican open hostility and the Democratic Party’s reorientation to urban, middle-class voters. Throughout the film, we see Panyu organizers hammering away at the idea that a united working class can win victories.

Toward the end of the film, we see a group of workers celebrating such a victory. The mostly female staff of Lide Shoe Factory are at a banquet organized by Panyu, where they get up one by one to express gratitude for its support. In 2015, the China Labor Bulletin wrote about their struggle:

After two strikes and three rounds of bargaining, Taiwanese-owned Lide agreed on 17 December to pay social insurance contributions dating back to 1995 and to a one-off compensation package of between 2,000 yuan and 12,000 yuan, depending on employees’ years of service. The company was also forced to disclose any future relocation plans and continue the dialogue with the workers’ representatives. Management further agreed in writing that it would not retaliate against those representatives.

I first came across the China Labor Bulletin not long after I started the Marxism mailing list in 1998. One of its editors began sending me newsletters about the work of labor organizers such as shown in “We the Workers”. In many ways, the newsletters were analogous to Labor Notes in the USA but documenting much sharper battles. In China, there is a deeper awareness about being exploited than there is in the USA, especially since independent labor action is virtually seen as a crime. In the USA, trade unions are legal but hamstrung by open-shop legislation, the threat of runaway shops, and a general feeling that unions can’t deliver the goods.

Last July, Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton published an attack on a conference co-sponsored by the DSA, Jacobin, and the disbanded ISO. As a supporter of “anti-imperialist” governments like the one led by Xi Jinping, it singled out China Labor Bulletin and other such groups as tools of the CIA and other groups bent on overturning what they regard as Chinese socialism. Ajit Singh, a Grayzone regular, wrote an article for Telesur claiming that “While capitalists exist in China today, unlike in capitalist societies, they are isolated and not organized in pursuit of their collective interests. Instead, they exist under the rule of the socialist state to aid national economic development.”

If aiding national economic development—a term utterly devoid of class criteria—means cheating workers out of benefits and beating up labor organizers who defend them, then what’s the difference between Chinese socialism and capitalist rule? Nothing would make Grayzone happier than to see China Labor Bulletin shut down. They write that “China Labour Bulletin (CLB) is actually based in Hong Kong, and it is funded by the US government.” As proof positive of its “regime change” intentions, they revealed that CLB’s founder Han Dongfang was a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests as if army tanks were defending socialism against fanatics inspired by Ludwig von Mises. They also attack Han for using Radio Free Asia to push “anti-communist” propaganda. If communism involves cheating workers out of back pay and beating up men who fight on their behalf, then I guess I am anti-communist myself.

At the banquet for the Lide workers, Xiaomei, a female Panyu organizer, addresses her sisters: “The liberation of workers’ rights can only come through workers. Only when workers have power will the government and companies make concessions and society show its support. But how do workers get power? Through unity. There’s only one way. Unity. Coming together.”

Given the repressive nature of Chinese society, one can understand why there is no footage inside a Chinese factory where you might have seen workers confronting the boss. Ironically, the best way to see how such clashes unfold is to see “American Factory” on Netflix. This film was released last August as part of a five-film deal between Netflix and the Obamas. I avoided press screenings since I assumed that anything produced by the Obamas had to be tainted.

After seeing it for the first time this week, I can happily report that it makes an ideal accompaniment to “We the Workers”. It shows auto workers in Moraine, Ohio dealing with Fuyao, a Chinese firm that had purchased the recently closed GM plant that turned glass into automobile windows. The film was co-directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, who have collaborated on a number of films since 1990. On her own, Reichert has directed “Union Maids” and “Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists”, two of my favorite documentaries.

Like most workers, those who had been working for GM enjoyed excellent pay and benefits. When GM shut down, they became like the people Michael Moore spoke to in “Roger and Me”. Hopeless and broke. One woman in her fifties, a former forklift operator, has had her house foreclosed. We meet her living in the basement of a relative with nothing but a bed to sleep on and her belongings spread about in boxes on the floor.

When she and other workers in her position find out that Fuyao has bought the plant and begun recruiting from the pool of laid-off GM workers, they feel rejuvenated. Things start out with a bang. Fuyao founder and CEO Cao Dewang shows up in Moraine to give the marching orders to the Chinese managers who will be working side by side with their American counterparts. In a strategy meeting with just the Chinese managers and the workers who have relocated from China, Cao warns them that Americans are not as motivated as them.

Once production begins at the resuscitated factory, things come to a head rapidly. To begin with, safety has been sacrificed in order to meet new, much more ambitious, production quotas. An American supervisor who is fluent in Chinese meets with his Chinese counterpart to discuss the failure to meet the new quotas. The American is told that his countrymen in the factory talk to each other and joke around too much, which sounds like most factories in the USA. The American says that duct tape is the answer. The Chinese supervisor looks at him with a puzzled expression as if the duct tape was supposed to be used on machines. No, the American explains, we tape their mouths.

An African-American worker in his fifties says that throughout the decades he worked for GM, there was never a single accident at the factory. Now, under Chinese ownership, there have already been 11 in the first year.

One of the more telling scenes in the film involves the forklift operator who has been able to move out of her relative’s basement. She frets that the forklift operators at Fuyao are being asked to move around heavy loads of glass that the machinery could not handle safely. She turned out to be right. A year after Reichert and Bognar filmed this scene, her worries were confirmed:

Fuyao Glass America Inc. forklift operator Ricky Patterson was discovered early Tuesday morning nearly five minutes after more than 2,000 pounds of glass fell on him, trapping the 57-year-old Dayton man against his vehicle, according to Moraine Police Division documents.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the events that led to Patterson’s death. Fuyao, Moraine’s largest employer with about 2,000 workers, was fined $100,000 by OSHA last year for “serious” safety violations. Employees have repeatedly expressed concern about workplace safety.

It was not only accidents that began to stir the American former-GM workers to take action. It was also encroachments on their rights as human beings. For example, the on-premises lunchroom was converted into a production unit, thus leaving them without a place to have a meal in comfort. Even more crucially, they were not getting the kind of wage they used to earn. Starting pay was $14 per hour, about the same as you might make at McDonald’s or Walmart. One worker speaks at a UAW hall, where plans are being made to organize the plant. He points out that his daughter polishes nails out of her apartment and she made $17,000 more than him last year.

Like in other auto factories, especially in the south, getting a UAW local off the ground is very difficult as Volkswagen employees found out in Tennessee. The bosses use heavy-duty indoctrination against union organizers and the threat of permanent replacements or relocation outside of the USA to pressure workers into voting against a union shop. This is what happens in Moraine as well.

While most of the film is devoted to the events transpiring in Ohio, we also see how Fuyao runs its operations in China. You learn that management exploits the legacy of the Maoist revolution to keep workers in line. We see large posters of the Chinese presidents starting with Mao and ending with Xi Jinping lined up in a reception area with a Fuyao trade union official explaining that factories, the Communist Party, and the state-backed unions working like interlocking gears. As it happens, the trade union official is the brother-in-law of the plant manager.

In a review of “American Factory” for Jacobin, Joe Allen complains that “American Factory Stops Short of Class Conflict”. In his view, “the film leaves the door open to anti-Chinese xenophobia.” This conclusion is drawn not on the basis of anything in the film itself but because of an interview the Obamas gave. In keeping with their cluelessness about the problems facing working people, they said, “If you know someone, if you’ve talked to them face-to-face, if you know what their story is, you can forge a connection. You may not agree with them on everything, but there’s some common ground to be found and you can move forward together.” There’s little connection between what they said and what Reichert and Bognar wanted to say in this film.

My strongest recommendation to those trying to understand problems the labor movement is facing both here and in China is to see the two films in tandem. As I have said on multiple occasions, Ovid is the go-to place for leading edge cinema. If you are not yet a subscriber, I urge you to start now (https://ovid.tv/). It will be the only place to see “We the Workers”, a film that prefigures major class battles that have the potential to shake up the world’s second wealthiest nation in the world, one that is communist in name only. With workers determined to win the rights that the American trade union movement once enjoyed, both here and in China, the stakes are enormous. Just before his assassination, Trotsky was preparing an article on the trade unions that including the following observation. It is as true today as it was back in 1940:

From what has been said it follows quite clearly that, in spite of the progressive degeneration of trade unions and their growing together with the imperialist state, the work within the trade unions not only does not lose any of its importance but remains as before and becomes in a certain sense even more important work than ever for every revolutionary party. The matter at issue is essentially the struggle for influence over the working class. Every organization, every party, every faction which permits itself an ultimatistic position in relation to the trade union, i.e., in essence turns its back upon the working class, merely because of displeasure with its organizations, every such organization is destined to perish. And it must be said it deserves to perish.

January 17, 2020

The best films of 2019

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 9:39 pm

What a genuinely radical movie looks like:

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 17, 2020

This is now the third “Best of” survey I have posted to CounterPunch. It might be subtitled “The anti-Oscar awards” since none of the films listed would have ever been nominated for an award in the Tinseltown-dominated ceremony.

As was the case in my 2017  and 2018 “Best of” round-ups, these are all films that were screened originally at art houses in New York or Los Angeles but can now be rented for less than $5 on Amazon Prime. Thanks to Jeff Bezos (and for little else), they enjoy a second life.

As a member of New York Film Critics Online, I receive well over fifty DVD’s at year-end for consideration of an award in our December voting. This allowed me to evaluate the kind of films that dominate the Academy Awards. Except for “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story”, I found them uniformly dreadful. Among the most disappointing were “Parasite”, “Joker” and “1917”  that each will likely walk off with a wheelbarrow full of Oscar statuettes.

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January 16, 2020

What does Bernie Sanders mean by political revolution, anyway?

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 9:42 pm

Something’s been nagging away at me for the longest time. I was reminded of it when reading Daniel Denvir’s “What a Bernie Sanders Presidency Would Look Like”, article number 7,631 reminding Jacobin’s readers to vote for the democratic socialist. He writes:

Sanders consistently argues, “Beating Trump is not good enough.” This is an understatement. The world quite literally depends upon a political revolution. And only Sanders has a plan for that.

So, what exactly does a political revolution involve? Outside of the Trotskyist movement, Marxism does not refer at all to such a phenomenon. Whether it is people who come out of the pro-Moscow, pro-Beijing, or pro-Coyoacán cathedrals, the word revolution stands on its own. It is qualified by bourgeois or socialist, with France 1789 or Russia 1917 being accepted by all Marxists as examples of such revolutions.

For Trotsky’s followers, the term political revolution entered the vocabulary as a way of describing mass movements trying to overturn Stalinist bureaucracies but that left post-capitalist economic structures intact. Suffice it to say that there have only been attempts at consummating a political revolution, such as Czechoslovakia in 1968. Generally, such movements have either petered out or been suppressed, leaving behind a passive, undemocratic, neoliberal regime in their place.

You can find numerous references to political revolution in Jacobin, a journal that, in its fan-boy (except for Meagan Day) devotion to Bernie Sanders, refers to it as constantly and as fervently as Maoist newspapers of the 1960s referred to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

For Branco Marcetic, it is tantamount to seizing power as indicated by the title of his article “Bernie’s First Political Revolution” that puts his election as Mayor of Burlington in 1981 almost on the same level as Fidel Castro riding victoriously on a tank into Havana in 1960. A “a deeply entrenched city establishment” was replaced by one that would “place that power in the hands of the working people of the city”, according to Sanders—making it sound like the Paris Commune to continue with the analogies. Sanders did push through some badly needed reforms, such as adjusting the property tax burden to fall more on corporations than on homeowners. While the local New England Telephone Company was probably pissed off about paying higher property taxes, I doubt that they worried much about being nationalized like the oil refineries in Castro’s Cuba. When Shell Oil refused to pay the new, higher taxes needed to build socialism, he made their refinery public property. That’s what you call a real revolution.

For Keeanga-Yamahtta and Taylor Maurice Mitchell, the political revolution was the election campaign of Working Families Party (WFP) candidates Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke who were running for city council in Philadelphia last November. Brooks and O’Rourke promised “affordable housing, school funding, wages, and a local Green New Deal.” I am not exactly sure if promising “wages” is particularly revolutionary but perhaps the Jacobin authors were just overlooked by the eagle-eyed editorial assistants at America’s leading democratic socialist journal. With respect to the WFP, I don’t want to sound like a Debbie Downer but it is not exactly the kind of party that has revolution on the agenda, either in Sandernista or Marxist terms. In 2018, the NY WFP, the most powerful in the country, allowed Andrew Cuomo’s name to appear on their ballot. To return the favor, he pushed for a new law that would make getting ballot status so onerous that it effectively shut off the electoral access to any party to the DP’s left.

In Jacobin’s most recent contribution to political revolution theory, Chris Maisano maintains that “If we want to make Bernie Sanders’s political revolution a reality, we can’t just propose bold policies to make people’s lives better — we have to rebuild popular confidence in the possibilities of politics itself. And we can’t rebuild that confidence without democratizing the United States’s decidedly undemocratic political institutions.”

Written as a way of avoiding Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to be elected, Maisano urges the Sandernista movement to avoid his big mistake: tending not “to foreground a vision of radical democratic reform and popular political empowerment.” Yes, Corbyn did propose economic benefits to the working-class but as long as they remained alienated from electoral politics, there was always the danger that they would vote for a slug like Boris Johnson. To avoid Donald Trump beating Bernie Sanders in 2020, it is not sufficient to call for Medicare for all. You must energize the masses, something that Sanders has made happen:

Sanders has made a massive contribution to the cause of political regeneration by introducing the concept of “political revolution” to American political discourse. This is the sort of overarching, integrating theme the Corbynite project lacked and which the British right found in Brexit. It also differentiates him from Democratic Party politicians who have no problem proposing ambitious spending programs but lack Bernie’s lifelong commitment to a genuinely insurgent, anti-establishment brand of politics.

Looking back into American history, Maisano believes that the abolitionist movement could be a guide to fleshing out “political regeneration”:

How might we start making “government of the people, by the people, for the people” a substantive reality and not just a line from a textbook? One possibility is the formation of a convention movement to discuss and promote measures for overhauling our country’s broken political system. It would take inspiration from the Colored Conventions Movement that swept northern black communities before the Civil War, which articulated numerous demands and promoted the establishment of new political organizations. These would be informal gatherings lacking official sanction, but over time they could potentially gain legitimacy and serve as a source of popular pressure and demands that politicians would ignore at their peril.

This historical reference brings us back to the question of how Marxists view the term revolution. For them, it boils down to class war with the stakes of property relations placed on the agenda with burning intensity. For black Americans, this meant abolishing slavery as part of a thorough-going bourgeois revolution that placed the class interests of northern industrialists, yeoman farmers, workers, and slaves above that of the plantation owners bent on extending their form of property relations into the western states.

If you were serious about taking inspiration from the Colored Conventions Movement, you’d have to make abolishing wage slavery a top priority even if it discomfited Nancy Pelosi or Tom Steyer for that matter. That’s what Eugene V. Debs campaigns stressed, after all. The democratic socialist—or I should say, revolutionary socialist—who would never resort to circumlocutions like a “political revolution” that boiled down to electing progressive Democrats, WFP’ers or any other careerist hoping to make the kinds of millions that Bernie Sanders has stashed away.

IN THE struggle of the working class to free itself from wage slavery it cannot be repeated too often that everything depends upon the working class itself. The simple question is, can the workers fit themselves, by education, organization, co-operation and self-imposed discipline, to take control of the productive forces and manage industry in the interest of the people and for the benefit of society? That is all there is to it.

The capitalist theory is that labor is, always has been, and always will be, “hands” merely; that it needs a “head,” the head of a capitalist, to hire it, set it to work, boss it, drive it and exploit it, and that without the capitalist “head” labor would be unemployed, helpless, and starve; and, sad to say, a great majority of wage-workers, in their ignorance, still share in that opinion. They use their hands only to produce wealth for the capitalist who uses his head only, scarcely conscious that they have heads of their own and that if they only used their heads as well as their hands the capitalist would have to use his hands as well as his head, and then there would be no “bosses” and no “hands,” but men instead—free men, employing themselves co-operatively under regulations of their own, taking to themselves all the products of their labor and shortening the work day as machinery increased their productive capacity.

Such a change would be marvelously beneficial all around. The idle capitalists and brutal bosses would disappear; all would be useful workers, have steady employment, fit houses to live in, plenty to eat and wear, and leisure time enough to enjoy life.

That is the Socialist theory and what Socialists are fighting for and are ready to live and die for.

–Eugene V. Debs, “Labor’s Struggle For Supremacy”, International Socialist Review , Vol. XII, No. 3. September 1911

 

January 15, 2020

Cinematters: NY Social Justice Film Festival

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 12:01 am

Last November, I discovered a new source of progressive documentaries in New York as a result of covering the Other Israel Film Festival at the Marlene Meyerson JCC. Now, only two months later, the JCC is presenting another important film festival called the Cinematters: NY Social Justice Film Festival. Opening this Thursday and running through Monday, January 20th, it features nine documentaries with one narrative film on the closing night, the newly released “Harriet,” a biopic about Harriet Tubman. After having seen five of the documentaries, I recommend the entire film festival to New Yorkers since it is an antidote to the mind-numbing crap featured in your local cineplex. Given the political stakes we face in a decaying capitalist society, these are the sorts of films that help orient you to the real struggles taking place in the USA.

Scheduling/ticket information is at https://jccmanhattan.org/arts-film/film/cinematters

“American Muslim” encapsulates the spirit that guides these JCC programs. Focused on the Muslim-dominated neighborhoods of New York City’s outer boroughs, it integrates questions of faith, social identity and political imperatives in a period of rising Islamophobia. Adam Zucker, a 61-year old Jew, was inspired to make this film as a way of challenging Trump’s agenda by introducing viewers to the city’s Muslims, about whom he knew next to nothing starting out. In a profile that appeared in the Times of Israel, he said, “New York has a very large Muslim population, and I am a lifelong New Yorker, but I hadn’t really met any Muslims.” The same goes for me and probably many of you.

The film takes us on a tour of Sunset Park, Bay Ridge, Jamaica, and Ozone Park, all of which have substantial Muslim populations. The first thing you will learn is that most come from South Asia rather than the Middle East. Among them is Shamshi Ali of Jamaica, Queens, an Imam who emigrated from Indonesia, a nation that has more Muslims than those in the entire Middle East. We discover that the film got its title from his observation that pressures to unite as Muslims in the USA for political reasons create a dynamic where your country of origin and its culture will begin to matter less. Like the American Christian or the American Jew, the American Muslim will become a unified body. More importantly, it is likely to be a progressive-minded component of a society that needs all the help it can get. Reaching out to Jews, Ali confesses to Zucker that it sometimes feels like he is spending more time in synagogues building bridges to Jews that reject Donald Trump than he does in mosques.

We also hear from Debbie Almontaser, another Muslim on the front lines fighting on behalf of immigrant rights and the broader struggle against racism. A Yemeni-American, she lost her position as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the city’s Arabic-themed school, after she was defended the use of the word “intifada” as a T-shirt slogan. Like Shamshi Ali, she is knowledgeable about the true spirit of Islam and the reactionary tendencies imposed on it by conservative elements, especially patriarchal norms that prevented women from driving cars in Saudi Arabia until recently.

As for the true spirit of Islam, you can see it manifested by the outreach program of Mohamed Bahi, an Algerian-American who founded and still directs Muslims Giving Back, a volunteer effort located at the Muslim Community Center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Bahi organizes fund-raisers for newly arrived Muslim immigrants at the community center, including, as the film shows, Syrians that just arrived from Turkey. Fled might be a better word than arrived since the Turks were hostile to them despite sharing Muslim beliefs. Originally from Aleppo, life had become unbearable until they arrived in Sunset Park just before Trump’s Muslim ban. Destitute, they ended up sleeping on the floor until Bahi arrived one morning with a truck full of furniture. Bahi believes that Islam is more about deeds than beliefs, a lesson lost on the nativist Turks, Bashar al-Assads and Mohammad bin Salman.

Like Flavio Alves’s narrative film about a transgender female, “Changing the Game” is a much-needed documentary that will open your minds to one of the most despised minorities in the USA. In this film, we meet a trans male and two trans females who are high school students competing in wrestling and track respectively. As you may know, this has become a major controversy lately as parents of cisgender athletes demand their expulsion from competitions. Mack (born Mackenzie) has been forced to compete with cisfemales even though his deepest desire is to wrestle other boys. That mattered much more to him than becoming the 110-pound class Texas state champion in 2017 and 2018. What makes this film so great in addition to the utter honesty and magnetic personalities of its principals is the support they get from their parents or, in Mack’s case, the grandparents who adopted him after his mom could not provide adequate financial support. They are quintessential Red State personalities but utterly on his side. The grandmother is a cop and the grandfather is a good old boy in bib overalls but don’t let their appearance fool you. Every word out their mouth spells compassion in capital letters.

We also meet Sarah Rose Huckman, a cross-country skier from New Hampshire. Referring to the state’s motto “Live Free or Die,” Sarah insists that her only wish is to be free to live her life without putting up with ignorance and hatred. That’s also the wish of Andraya Yearwood, an African-American runner from Connecticut, a state that permits trans teens competing in sporting events based on their sexual identity. Considering that 40 percent of all trans teens attempt suicide at one point in their lives, Connecticut’s attitude is most welcome. Even more welcome is Michael Barnett’s film that deserves the widest possible audience in a period of deepening intolerance. Rated 100 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, this documentary deserves its accolades.

Like “Changing the Game,” “The All-Americans” focuses on teen athletes targeted by Donald Trump’s bigoted administration, in this instance Mexican-American high school football players in East Los Angeles.

Each year, there is a big game called “The Classic” that pits two traditionally Mexican-American dominated high schools against each other, Roosevelt and Garfield. If playing football is a daunting task for any student trying to keep up with geometry, even more daunting is staying a step ahead of La Migra and helping your parents make ends meet in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. In addition to being a traditional sports documentary of the kind that would be produced by ESPN, it is a guided tour of a neighborhood like those we see in “American Muslim”. Although I’ve been to LA at least 15 times in my lifetime, I’ve never gone far from Hollywood, just as I’ve never been to Sunset Park or Jamaica in New York City.

Like the best documentaries, “The All-Americans” opens your eyes to peoples you’ve met and places you’ve never been. When I used to come back from Nicaragua in the 1980s, I was always struck by how despite being materially poor, the country was spiritually wealthy. As soon as I got off the plane, I was always reminded that it was just the opposite of the USA—materially rich and spiritually impoverished. After you’ve met the football players and their families in “The All-Americans,” you’ll understand why Trump wants to build a wall. It will be the only way he and his bigoted supporters can slow down the eventual and inevitable salvation of the country.

“Always in Season” is a study that reinforces the conclusion of Project 1619 that racism is in the DNA of the USA. It is both an investigation of the possible lynching of Lennon Lacy, a 17-year old African American teen who was found hanging from a swing set in Bladenboro, North Carolina, on August 29, 2014, as well as an overview of lynching in the USA.

This is a debut film by Jacqueline Olive, an African-American filmmaker with fifteen years of experience in journalism and film.

Lennon’s mother Claudia and his brother Pierre insist that he had no reason to kill himself. So do his classmates and friends. The only people who are fixed in their opinion about this being a suicide are the local cops, no big surprise there.

In addition to covering the events that took place prior to August 29, 2014, Olive shows us the yearly reenactment of a notorious lynching that took place at the Moore’s Ford Bridge near Monroe, Georgia in 1947. Like the Civil War reenactments that has men dressing up like Yankee or Rebel soldiers, these reenactments have white men and women playing those who shot two married black couples in 1947, also played by local blacks. They were tied to a tree while a white mob shot them sixty times. After the pregnant wife of one of the men was dead, a racist carved a fetus out of her womb.

To show that some whites have repudiated the past, one of the women reenactors was the daughter of a KKK member and takes part as an act of solidarity. After seeing her father participating in a lynching when she was three years old, she decided that racial hatred was not in her DNA, at least.

Unsurprisingly, the cops have refused to reopen the mysterious hanging of Lennon Lacy as well as deciding in 2015 that there were no sufficient grounds for prosecuting anybody involved with the Moore’s Ford Bridge murders.

Directed by BBC reporter Leana Hosea, “Thirst For Justice” is as timely as the other films reviewed above. It is about the contamination of the world’s waters with spotlights on three occurrences. First, uranium waste seeping into the water of New Mexico’s Navajo peoples; second, lead in the water of Flint, Michigan; and finally, the petroleum industry’s forcing American Indians to abide by the presence of a pipeline funneling fracking output through the sacred Standing Rock burial grounds.

With a clear identification with the struggles against the polluters, Hosea interviews activists and victims of the contamination. In New Mexico, the contamination led to a cancer epidemic while in Flint, it led to neurological illnesses, especially in children.

In a Close-Up Culture interview, Hosea is asked what inspired the film. Her reply:

This journey really started in 2010 when I first visited the South West to do a story for the BBC on the proposed resurgence of uranium mining in the Grand Canyon area.

As part of the report I visited the nearby Navajo reservation, where I heard there had been some historic uranium mining from the 1940’s to the 1980’s. But nothing prepared me for what I saw.

Communities were living amidst some 1,000 abandoned uranium mines and piles of waste. When the uranium price crashed in the mid-1980’s the big mining companies declared bankruptcy and left behind piles of mine waste and open pit mines, which filled up with rain water. Children swam in them and the sheep – the food staple of the Navajo – drank the water and so did the people.

Helen Nez, now an elderly lady, told me that her sheep were born with deformities, some without eyes. Then her children were born with a DNA depleting disease and died painful deaths at a young age.

Instead of investigating environmental factors, the white doctors told her it was because Indians practice inbreeding and labelled the disease Navajo neuropathy. This disease has now been linked to uranium contamination.

I had an interview with a lady one morning, but she didn’t turn up. With the roads as terrible as they are on this impoverished community, I assumed she had got a flat tire and didn’t think anything of it. But a week later I found out she had died the morning of our interview of kidney cancer. Drinking uranium contaminated water has been linked to kidney disease and reproductive cancer.

I knew this story was big and that I needed to spend more time to investigate it to do it justice. Soon after I returned to London as I got a BBC posting to the Middle East – just in time for the revolution and spent a number of years there. But I didn’t forget my time on the Navajo.

As I have said on numerous occasions, the people who make such films are the true vanguard of our time. My only hope is that the rest of the left can catch up with them. Without major financial backing assured, they risk arrest or hardship in making films at a place like Standing Rock, where journalists were considered enemies. Leana Hosea was arrested there and can likely be expected to be arrested again in some other filming project where the class struggle is at a fever pitch, god bless her.

January 12, 2020

1917

Filed under: Film,imperialism/globalization,WWI — louisproyect @ 9:33 pm

Unlike WWII, films about WWI tend to be bitter antiwar commentaries. This includes the 1930 “All Quiet on the Western Front, the 1937 “The Grand Illusion,” one of the greatest films ever made, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 “Paths of Glory.” Since WWI was such an obviously imperialist affair, it would be difficult to represent it as a heroic defense of freedom—even if the propaganda surrounding the war tended to make the “Huns” a demonic force.

Since, as Alexander Pope put it, fools rush in where angels fear to tread, it was no surprise that Sam Mendes would make a film titled “1917” that, while not nearly an attempt to turn the two British soldiers it features into freedom-fighters, does make their efforts to warn off their comrades from a surprise German trap look like a noble sacrifice.

“1917” is basically a two-character drama. As the film begins, we meet Blake and MacKay, two young lance corporals in a British unit embedded within a trench. The commanding officer calls in Blake, who has map-reading expertise, to lead a two-man operation that will inform another unit that the Germans are preparing a deadly trap. Blake has an added incentive to go on this mission since his brother is a soldier there. He is told to pick out someone to accompany him and he chooses MacKay, who has seen intense combat in trench warfare prior to this and earned a medal for his valor. Blake factors this into picking a seasoned soldier even if MacKay has lost his appetite for combat and, moreover, in seeing the medal as anything special. He tells Blake that it is just a ribbon.

The film evokes any number of smash hits in recent years that must have persuaded the Golden Globe judges to name it best film of 2019. The Golden Globe is made up of foreign correspondents in the USA whose taste, like the Academy Award judges, is mostly in their mouth. With separate awards for drama and comedy/musical films, “1917” won best drama although I guffawed at it a number of times. In 2018, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” was named best dramatic film, one I bailed on after 15 minutes.

First and foremost, “1917” tries to stir the same emotions produced by “Saving Private Ryan,” Stephen Spielberg’s tribute to the “greatest generation.” Like the two lance corporals, Tom Hanks and his men are trying to locate Private Ryan before he dies in combat like his three brothers. It also assumes that people would buy tickets to a film that promises the same flashy but empty battlefield scenes shown in “Dunkirk,” which director Christopher Nolan shot in 65 mm large-format film stock. Finally, it has the same kind of plot that worked so well in  Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Revenant.” For most of that film, the main character, a hunter played by Leonard DiCaprio, is trying to get back to civilization after being mauled by a bear. On his own for the most part, the drama is generated by DiCaprio trying to avoid American Indian warriors or hunger on the barren plains of the north during wintertime. In “1917,” except for banal conversation between the two lance corporals, they are mostly like the main character in “Revenant”, just trying to stay alive to deliver their message rather than being delivered from wilderness hazards.

If Nolan relied on a wide-screen perspective to wow his audience, Sam Mendes uses another technological trick to keep your eyes glued to the screen. The film is shot in a single take from beginning to end, something that I only realized after reading about it after the screening. The goal was to immerse you in the experience of the two soldiers even though for me it was much more like a video game. I have to add that I have never owned one but looked over my wife’s shoulders as she played them on her new iPhone after she begin using it for the first time. Typically, the hero of a video game—often a soldier like in Mendes’s film—has to pass through increasing difficult stages in order for victory to be declared. In a video game, this involves fire-breathing dragons. In “1917,” it involved dastardly Huns. She got bored with these games after a month, just like I got bored with “1917” after 15 minutes.

In a crucial scene, “1917” veered off into the propaganda realm. Blake and MacKay have taken temporary respite in a French farm that, like much else in no-man’s-land, is depopulated. From inside a barn, they watch a dog-fight between two British biplanes and one German that is shot down. The flaming plane heads straight for the barn in just one of many artificially choreographed “thrilling” scenes and crashes just in front of the two Brits. Showing the true mettle of the civilized Anglo race, Blake climbs on the burning wreckage and rescues the German pilot who takes out his knife and stabs his rescuer to death. From that point on, MacKay is forced to soldier on alone.

In addition to getting a Golden Globe award for best dramatic film, Sam Mendes picked up best director. In my view, the most appropriate award for Mendes is most confused motivation for making a film last year. In an article about the film in the NY Times last month, Mendes made the senseless, imperial bloodbath sound like a noble cause:

After directing the James Bond movies “Skyfall” and “Spectre,” Mendes was having trouble mounting a new film project. His agent Beth Swofford suggested that he explore the World War I stories he had once told her. In 2017, a year after the Brexit vote, Mendes found further inspiration. “I’m afraid that the winds that were blowing before the First World War are blowing again,” he said. “There was this generation of men fighting then for a free and unified Europe, which we would do well to remember.”

Is this guy for real? Those winds that were blowing had to do with blocs of capital defending their narrow class interests. Germany allied with the Ottoman Empire for narrow economic gains such as providing easier access to its African colonies and to trade markets in India. Meanwhile, the Ottoman ruling class picked Germany as an ally but might have just as easily teamed up with England, which was not open to such alliance. Wikipedia states that Talat Paşa, the Minister of Interior, wrote in his memoirs: “Turkey needed to join one of the country groups so that it could organize its domestic administration, strengthen and maintain its commerce and industry, expand its railroads, in short to survive and to preserve its existence.” That’s what WWI was about, not “fighting for a free and unified Europe.”

As for England, it demonstrated an uncommon disregard for the lives of its soldiers in real life as opposed to the myth-making of Mendes’s film. As lionized in both “Darkest Hour” and “Churchill”, the Tory politician deserves a thorough debunking, especially for his role in the Gallipoli disaster. Convinced of their military (and likely racial) superiority, Churchill ordered British troops to land on Ottoman soil Normandy-style, where they expected the enemy to flee for its lives. Led by Australian and New Zealand troops, they were annihilated by Turkish troops led by Mustafa Kemal. The British lost up to 20,000 men in June/July 1915, while the entire campaign to open up a safe passageway between England/France and its Russian allies cost the lives of 53,000 British and French soldiers. Which leads me to mention another key film about WWI futility. Now available on Youtube for $2.99, Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli” features Mel Gibson as a doomed soldier in the 1981 film, a time when he had not drunk the Christian/rightwing Kool-Aid. He remarked at the time, “Gallipoli was the birth of a nation. It was the shattering of a dream for Australia. They had banded together to fight the Hun and died by the thousands in a dirty little trench war.”

Dirty little trench war. That says it all.

 

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