Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 18, 2019

Mayakovsky and Stalin

Filed under: Russia,theater — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1910

Playwright Murray Mednick as “Old Nana” in Coyote V: Listening to Old Nana at Padua Playwrights Workshop (circa 1980) (Photo by Margaret Von Biesen)

Although I stopped going to the theater in New York about 20 years ago, I made a point of seeing Murray Mednick’s “Mayakovsky and Stalin” several weeks ago at the Cherry Lane Theater just days before its closing. I was obviously interested in the subject matter but even more so to see something by Murray who grew up in Woodridge, my home town. For reasons I don’t fully understand, some people who graduated from my high school just four or five years ahead of me went on to distinguished writing careers.

Starting out as the ghost writer for V. C. Andrews following her death in 1986, Andrew Neiderman now writes novels in his own name and is now the 73rd best selling American novelist of all time. After graduating Fallsburg Central High School, my friend and fellow 60s radical Michael Elias went out to Hollywood and became a screenwriter for some of the greatest comedies of the 1970s, including “The Frisco Kid” and “The Jerk”. As for Murray, he founded Padua Playwrights Productions, a Los Angeles-based theater company, in 1978. Among the participants in Padua’s yearly festivals were Maria Irene Fornes, Sam Shepard, and John Steppling. The name Steppling might be familiar to CounterPunch readers, where his articles appear from time to time. He was also a contributor to Swans Magazine, where dozens of my articles can also be found.

After reviewing Murray’s play, I’ll offer my own thoughts on the Stalin/Mayakovsky connections.

Absent the conventional backdrops of a play such as furniture meant to lend a naturalist touch, “Mayakovsky and Stalin” comes across at first as a staged reading. Indicating that it is a play are the period costumes the cast wears, especially the Stalin’s white military tunic.

Essentially, there are two separate dramas that unfold in the course of this two-act play, with two separate ensembles having no interaction with each other. The entire cast first appears sitting on backless chairs at the rear of the stage. When it is their time to speak, characters from one ensemble come to the front of the stage, while the lights dim on the seated members of the other ensemble who wait their turn.

One ensemble features Stalin, his second wife Nadya, and Kirov, a close friend of Stalin who ran the CP offices in Leningrad. Kirov was killed by a gunman in the Smolny Institute in 1934, an event used as a pretext to begin the repression that culminated in the Moscow Trials. Victor Serge wrote a great novel titled “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” that was based on these events. As a character in Murray’s play, Kirov mostly functions as a Soviet toady, seeing the country’s future as infinitely bounteous, just as long as Stalin as was in the driver’s seat. Nadya is Kirov’s polar opposite. Growing increasingly disillusioned with the USSR, as reflected in her stormy confrontations with both her husband and his Panglossian comrade, she finally kills herself with a Mauser pistol in 1932.

Suicide with a Mauser pistol is what connects Stalin to the great Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Like Nadya Stalin, he killed himself with such a weapon in 1930. Although his suicide note did not reflect any disenchantment with Stalin’s rule, by this time he had become weary of criticisms from Stalinist officials who no longer saw any value in the kind of experimental poems Mayakovsky wrote. They were preparing the way for a “proletarian art” that lacked the poet’s complexity and wit. 150,000 people attended his funeral, the largest in Soviet history next to Lenin and Stalin’s.

As part of the Mayakovsky ensemble, the cast includes Osip and Lilya Brik, a husband-and-wife completely devoted to the poet. It also includes Lilya Brik’s older sister Elsa, who like her sister, was madly in love with him. As for Osip Brik, a wealthy Jew who providing funding for Russian futurist poets, he accepted his wife’s affair with Mayakovsky. He and the two sisters, however, were always arguing about how to evaluate his career, especially in a period when it was being devalued by the state.

Murray’s emphasis is not on Soviet society but on the thorny relations between Stalin and Nadya on one side and the complex relationship between the Briks, Elsa and the poet on the other. The Briks and Elsa lived together in a menage a trois until Mayakovsky’s untimely death at his own hand, when he was only 36. Without taking anything away from Murray’s play, their personal relationship figured more in its writing than Mayakovsky’s fall from favor in an increasingly bureaucratized USSR. Indeed, in the program handed out at the Cherry Lane Theater, there’s a note on the play by Guy Zimmerman, the artistic director of Padua, that describes Mayakovsky as a vainglorious figure who deserved the ridicule the Brik sisters direct at him throughout. There is little indication of his earlier charismatic engagement with the masses, a concession that Murray would very likely be unwilling to make to the Soviet experiment.

Like Sergei Eisenstein and Kazimir Malevich, Mayakovsky saw art as a revolutionary weapon. After 1917 and until the late 20s, the USSR allowed artists free rein, even during the NEP when police state measures first began to crop up. Despite the affinity between Bolshevik leaders and the artistic avant-garde, there were occasional clashes. In December 1918 Mayakovsky and Osip Brik met with Vyborg CP officials to set up a Futurist group affiliated to the party called Komfut. It was founded in January 1919, but dissolved by Anatoly Lunacharsky soon afterward.

Commemorating Mayakovsky a year later, Lunacharsky extolled his devotion to the revolution but frowned on a certain softness and sentimentality in his poems that demonstrated a failure to become fully proletarian in his outlook. He had a double psyche, one was cast iron and proletarian; the other was a flower and petty-bourgeois. Lunacharsky wrote:

This divided personality means that Mayakovsky is amazingly characteristic of our transitional times. It would have really been a miracle if he had not advanced battling on the way, if he had been able to kill this inner soft petty bourgeois, this sentimental lyric without any difficulty at all and immediately become a poet-tribune. Perhaps a true proletarian poet, coming from the ranks of the proletariat, a true social revolutionary of the Leninist type, a Lenin in poetry, will follow this road. But Mayakovsky was not such a poet. That is why the battles he fought, the obstacles he overcame, the struggle he waged to overcome himself were so significant.

Lunacharsky was a supporter of Leon Trotsky, who also weighed in on the poet’s suicide in a 1930 article:

It is not true that Mayakovsky was first of all a revolutionary and after that a poet, although he sincerely wished it were so. In fact Mayakovsky was first of all a poet, an artist, who rejected the old world without breaking with it. Only after the revolution did he seek to find support for himself in the revolution, and to a significant degree he succeeded in doing so; but he did not merge with it totally for he did not come to it during his years of inner formation, in his youth.

To view the question in its broadest dimensions, Mayakovsky was not only the “singer,” but also the victim, of the epoch of transformation, which while creating elements of the new culture with unparalleled force, still did so much more slowly and contradictorily than necessary for the harmonious development of an individual poet or a generation of poets devoted to the revolution. The absence of inner harmony flowed from this very source and expressed itself in the poet’s style, in the lack of sufficient verbal discipline and measured imagery. There is a hot lava of pathos side by side with an inappropriate palsy-walsy attitude toward the epoch and the class, or an outright tasteless joking which the poet seems to erect as a barrier against being hurt by the external world.

Reading Trotsky’s words “There is a hot lava of pathos side by side with an inappropriate palsy-walsy attitude toward the epoch and the class” only makes me feel much more sympathetic to the poet Mayakovsky. If this was the attitude of someone who would be murdered by Stalin just a decade later, imagine how lost and how depressed Mayakovsky must have become by the bureaucratic hardening of the Soviet state that was even influencing its most committed revolutionary leaders.

As for the suicide of Stalin’s wife, it is shrouded in mystery. She left no note and there’s very little historical accounts of her marriage to the dictator. It is worth considering what Isaac Deutscher wrote in his biography of Stalin that was considered practically Stalinist by James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism. In Deutscher’s view, Nadya killed herself in November 1932 after she spoke her mind about Communist Party purges and the famine and was met by a flood of vulgar abuse from Stalin.

If Deutscher was basing his analysis on reports from those close to her in 1932, there was even more of a connection between Mayakovsky and Stalin than Murray Mednick attempted to make in a play that deserves to be made available online or—better yet—staged again in New York or any other city that has an adventurous theater company willing to challenge an audience’s understanding of the 20th century’s tragic devolution.


November 16, 2019


Filed under: Argentina,Film — louisproyect @ 9:58 pm

Now available on Amazon Prime for a $4.99 rental, “Rojo” is an Argentine film set in a provincial small town in 1975, a year before the coup that toppled Isabel Perón. Despite the obvious hatred director/screenwriter Benjamín Naishtat has for this coup and all other manifestations of rightwing terror, it is not agitprop by any imagination. Instead it is a thriller with absurdist elements reminiscent of Buñuel but more in terms of laughing to keep from crying.

The film opens with a lawyer named Claudio (Darío Grandinetti) sitting by himself in a crowded restaurant studying a menu. He is then accosted by a younger man who basically asks him to give up the table to him if he couldn’t make up his mind about what to order. They go back and forth, with the younger man growing increasingly hostile. Finally, Claudio gives up his seat but does not leave the restaurant. Instead he leans against a wall about fifteen feet from the interloper and proceeds to lacerate him verbally, accusing him of not being raised properly by his parents, etc.

The man leaps from his table after hearing Claudio’s lawyerly prosecution and begins assailing everybody seated at their tables, yelling at the top of his lungs, “You are all Nazis” until he is thrown out. Claudio now returns to the table and is soon joined by his wife, who is habitually late.

After dinner, they return to the parking lot and begin driving off until they are blocked on the driveway by the man who was thrown out. After he hurls a rock through his window, Claudio goes off into the darkness to punish his assailant. Catching up with him, his plans are spoiled after the young man pulls a pistol out of his pocket and trains it on him. Within a minute or two, the man, who is obviously unhinged, instead shoots himself in the head. Still breathing (or wheezing to be exact), he remains alive if mortally wounded. Claudio makes a decision that will haunt him until the film’s stunning climax. Instead of taking him to a hospital emergency ward, he drives off into the desert and drags his still breathing body into the bushes. This act, while not exactly homicide, epitomizes the moral unaccountability of middle-class Argentineans. It foreshadows their willingness to put up with the growing militarization of the country and eventually the coup that turned their country into a living hell a year later.

I strongly recommend renting “Rojo”, which is one of the best narrative films I have seen in 2019, as well as the interview director Benjamin Naishtat gave to Filmmaker magazine.

Filmmaker: Tell me about some of the stories contained in Rojo. Claudio and one of his colleagues get involved with a house that was burnt down, mysteriously — it begins to dawn on the viewer that leftists may have lived there before the “accident.”

Naishtat: Researching Rojo was easy because many of the stories are from my family. My grandparents and my father were visiting the city of Córdoba in 1975; they were leftist militants, and my grandmother was a prominent union lawyer. She was disappeared into a secret prison, and her house, my family house, was torched. My father escaped before a commando unit came to his house, and he had to flee. He lived 10 years in exile, which is how he met my mother, in Paris—another exile. Some of the pictures in the house are from my family.

November 15, 2019

Noel Ignatiev’s Long Fight Against Whiteness

Filed under: Noel Ignatiev — louisproyect @ 11:48 pm

(Liberated from behind New Yorker’s paywall)

The New Yorker, Nov. 15, 2019

Noel Ignatiev’s Long Fight Against Whiteness

By Jay Caspian Kang

In 1995, Noel Ignatiev, a recent graduate of the doctoral program in history at Harvard, published his dissertation with Routledge, an academic press. Many such books appear then disappear, subsumed into the endless paper shuffling of the academic credentialing process. But Ignatiev was not a typical graduate student, and his book, “How the Irish Became White,” was not meant to stay within the academy. A fifty-four-year-old Marxist radical, Ignatiev had come to the academy after two decades of work in steel mills and factories. The provocative argument at the center of his book—that whiteness was not a biological fact, but rather a social construction with boundaries that shifted over time—had emerged, in large part, out of his observations of how workers from every conceivable background had interacted on the factory floor. Ignatiev wasn’t merely describing these dynamics; he wanted to change them. If whiteness could be created, it could also be destroyed.

“How the Irish Became White” quickly broke out of the academic-publishing bubble. Writing in the Washington Post, the historian Nell Irvin Painter called it “the most interesting history book of 1995.” Mumia Abu-Jamal, the activist and death-row inmate, provided an enthusiastic back-cover blurb. Today, many of the ideas Ignatiev proposed or refined—about the nature of whiteness, and about the racial dynamics that unfold among immigrant workers—are taken for granted in classrooms; they influence films, literature, and art. But Ignatiev found it hard to accept the academic rewards that came with his book’s success. Committed to radicalism, he spent much of his time in academia doing what he had done on the factory floor: publishing leaflets and zines about the possibilities of revolutionary change.

He was still at it on October 27th, when Hard Crackers, a journal that Ignatiev edited with a collection of friends and old collaborators, threw a launch party for its latest issue, at Freddy’s Bar, in Brooklyn. Wearing a white Panama hat and a loose-fitting suit, Ignatiev spoke briefly: Hard Crackers, he said, had been founded with the conviction that American society was a “time bomb,” and that its salvation could only come through the stories and actions of ordinary people. In that spirit, the journal published short, memoir-driven portraits of working Americans, in the style of Joseph Mitchell’s “Up in the Old Hotel.” This portraiture served a political purpose. Ignatiev and his fellow editors hoped to provoke small but potentially explosive moments of revelation in their readers—to create instants of autonomy which, they thought, might allow those readers to forge coalitions with other seekers of “a new society.” This philosophy, inspired by the work of the Trinidadian writer C. L. R. James, had run through all of Ignatiev’s work as a radical youth, a radical factory worker, and then, finally, a radical scholar.

Ignatiev’s speech was energetic, funny, and shot through with brio and irony. But it included a note of reflection. Ignatiev said that he had spent most of his life around people who vehemently disagreed with everything he said; he was confident that he had always been right, but also pretty sure that being right had amounted to nothing. He seemed to be posing a difficult question for those who believe, as Ignatiev did, in spontaneous revolutionary change: How do you measure success if the revolution hasn’t yet come? A few days later, Ignatiev flew out to Arizona to see his daughter and grandchildren. On November 9th, he died, at the age of seventy-eight.

The question of what Ignatiev accomplished is especially hard to answer because his radicalism took so many different forms. He was born in 1940, in Philadelphia, into a family of working-class Russian Jews. By seventeen, he had joined the Communist Party; after dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania, he moved to Chicago to work in the steel mills. He would be a factory laborer for over two decades, always with an eye toward provoking his fellow workers into looking at their struggle in new ways. In 1967, he composed a letter to the Progressive Labor Party that outlined his views. “The greatest ideological barrier to the achievement of proletarian class consciousness, solidarity and political action is now, and has been historically, white chauvinism,” Ignatiev wrote. “White chauvinism is the ideological bulwark of the practice of white supremacy, the general oppression of blacks by whites.” He argued that it would be impossible to build true solidarity among the working class without addressing the question of race, because white workers could always be placated by whatever privileges, however meaningless, management dangled in front of them. The only way to change this was for white working-class people to reject whiteness altogether. “In the struggle for socialism,” Ignatiev wrote, white workers “have more to lose than their chains; they have also to ‘lose’ their white-skin privileges, the perquisites that separate them from the rest of the working class, that act as the material base for the split in the ranks of labor.”

Many scholars have cited Ignatiev’s letter as one of the first articulations of the modern idea of “white privilege.” But Ignatiev’s version differs from the one we often use today. In his conception, white privilege wasn’t an accounting tool used to compile inequalities; it was a shunt hammered into the minds of the white working class to make them side with their masters instead of rising up with their black comrades. White privilege was a deceptive tactic wielded by bosses—a way of tricking exploited workers into believing that they were “white.”

In the late sixties, when Ignatiev was still working in steel mills and factories, he and a number of collaborators started the Sojourner Truth Organization, which aimed to approach labor organizing through the lens of race. S.T.O. members entered factories with two main goals: collaborating with black and Latino worker organizations, and putting Ignatiev’s theory of white-skin privileges into action. The white workers, Ignatiev believed, were capable of repudiating their whiteness; they needed only to be provoked into consciousness. The S.T.O. hoped to accomplish this through the dissemination of workplace publications, such as the Calumet Insurgent Worker, and constant conversation. In an essay titled “Black Worker, White Worker,” from 1972, Ignatiev examined what he called the “civil war” in the minds of his white colleagues in plants and steel mills. It begins with an anecdote:

In one department of a giant steel mill in northwest Indiana a foreman assigned a white worker to the job of operating a crane. The Black workers in the department felt that on the basis of seniority and job experience, one of them should have been given the job, which represented a promotion from the labor gang. They spent a few hours in the morning talking among themselves and agreed that they had a legitimate beef. Then they went and talked to the white workers in the department and got their support. After lunch the other crane operators mounted their cranes and proceeded to block in the crane of the newly promoted worker—one crane on each side of his—and run at the slowest possible speed, thus stopping work in the department. By the end of the day the foreman had gotten the message. He took the white worker off the crane and replaced him with a Black worker, and the cranes began to move again.

A few weeks after the slowdown, several of the white workers who had joined the black operators in protest took part in meetings in Glen Park, a virtually all-white section of Gary, with the aim of seceding from the city, in order to escape from the administration of the black mayor, Richard Hatcher. While the secessionists demanded, in their words, “the power to make the decisions which affect their lives,” it was clear that the effort was racially inspired.

To Ignatiev, these contradictions revealed a white mind perpetually battling with itself. On one side were the learned behaviors, expectations, and falsehoods associated with being “white”; on the other was the recognition, however suppressed and forbidden, that black and white workers’ concerns were aligned. The learned behaviors triumphed, Ignatiev thought, because of “the ideology and institution of white supremacy, which provides the illusion of common interests between the exploited white masses and the white ruling class.” In the workplace, Ignatiev had seen white people who seemed to be enforcing their whiteness only out of habit, or because they feared social rebuke, or suffered under the illusion that they might one day ascend to the ownership class. Their “civil war,” he thought, was winnable: one just had to show the white workers that their true enemies were the bosses.

Around that time, according to Ignatiev’s longtime friend and collaborator Kingsley Clarke, the steel industry had placed racist restrictions on black and Latino laborers, who were given dangerous jobs in blast furnaces and ovens and blocked from moving into safer and higher-paying positions within plants. The federal government eventually intervened, through an early iteration of the Affirmative Action program, and Ignatiev and the S.T.O. created smaller organizations that aimed to force the larger trade union to comply with the new law. Ignatiev found that many black workers were receptive to those efforts; he felt that he never quite broke through with whites. “The only white people who seemed to sympathize were the evangelical Christian types,” Clarke told me. “But when it came to asking them to open up the jobs for the black workers, none of them wanted to do that.” Ignatiev was discouraged; at the same time, Clarke never saw him waver in his beliefs. “Noel kept saying, look, if we can just change five people’s minds, we can change the world!”

In the eighties, the economy began to shift. Automation took root, and plants began laying off workers. Contemplating the large, industrial workforces of prior decades, Ignatiev had been able to imagine workers forming councils, seizing the means of production, and deposing their bosses. But, as factories emptied out, he no longer knew where to look. In his forties, he, too, was laid off. He decided to go back to school. A friend from S.T.O., who had gotten into Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, persuaded the administration to admit Ignatiev, despite the fact that he lacked a bachelor’s degree. Ignatiev enrolled, then transferred to the history department, where he worked toward his doctorate.

Ignatiev was now a student at the most prestigious university in the world. But he still believed in creating literary projects unencumbered by the traditional press and its credentialled demands. In 1993, he and his friend John Garvey, a former New York City cab driver whom he’d met on the radical labor circuit, started Race Traitor, a journal with the motto “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” John Brown, the white man who led a small militia of black men as they raided an arsenal, at Harpers Ferry, in hopes of sparking an armed slave rebellion, became their lodestar—an example of what it might look like to reject one’s whiteness. Ignatiev and Garvey, who is also an editor at Hard Crackers, called for an “abolition of the white race.” This prompted the expected outrage from right-wingers, who heard a call for extinction, but also upset liberals, who saw them as impractical troublemakers.

In 1995, Ignatiev finished the dissertation that would become “How the Irish Became White.” Not long ago, someone asked him why he had written the book. “The country is divided into masters and slaves,” Ignatiev wrote:

A big political problem is that many of the slaves think they are masters, or at least side with the masters at crucial moments—because they think they are white. I wanted to understand why the Irish, coming from conditions about as bad as could be imagined and thrown into low positions when they arrived, came to side with the oppressor rather than with the oppressed. Imagine how history might have been different had the Irish, the unskilled labor force of the north, and the slaves, the unskilled labor force of the South, been unified. I hoped that understanding why that didn’t happen in the past might open up new possibilities next time.

The book was a hit, by academic standards. Ignatiev now had a powerful platform. But he was also a decade removed from the steel mills, and he was unsure how much a book could really do. Privately, he questioned the value of his new life in the highest reaches of the academy. His on-campus provocations—which included a 1992 incident in which he called for the removal of a Kosher toaster oven in a student dormitory—only caused bewilderment amongst students and administrators.

By 1998, it was time for him to move on. He accepted a post at Bowdoin College, a small school in Maine that mostly catered to white New England prep schoolers. The first class he taught there was a freshman seminar on the making of race; his most adoring student that semester was me, a naïve, vain eighteen-year-old Korean immigrant from North Carolina who desperately wanted to live outside the confines dictated by his race and his own privilege. Ignatiev, with his stories of working in the steel mills, his scorn for credentialled people, and his unwavering belief that a society free from white supremacy was possible, provided a model of a life worth living. I attended all of his office hours, learned to idolize John Brown, and read everything he put in front of me. In my dorm room and in the cafeteria, I talked excitedly to my confused friends about revolutionary politics and abolishing whiteness. At the end of that year, I dropped out and enrolled in Americorps, in hopes of becoming a radical.

I learned, ultimately, that I didn’t have the strength of his convictions. I could never see a new society in my co-workers or, perhaps more importantly, in myself. Even so, I kept looking for traces of what Ignatiev was talking about. There are moments—observing a seemingly small gesture of kindness between two protesters in St. Paul, or noticing the elegant design of the food halls at Standing Rock—when some great possibility seems to reveal itself. When that happens, I think immediately of Ignatiev and his belief in the revolutionary potential of ordinary Americans.

A couple of months before he died, I drove up to see Ignatiev at his home in Connecticut. His illness prevented him from swallowing, but he wanted to cook dinner for me in his back yard, where he had fitted a large wok over a rusty propane ring. “Even though I can’t eat anymore, I still find it relaxing to cook,” he told me. As we chopped up the vegetables in a light rain, we talked about all the things we had discussed in his office—John Brown, labor movements, the need to break away from credentialled society. Just as he would a few weeks later, at Freddy’s Bar, he expressed doubt about whether his work had amounted to anything.

I am not so vain as to believe that Noel’s influence on my life provides proof that his work, in fact, made a difference. If his ideas about whiteness and of “white privilege” became fashionable within the academy, they later took on forms he could barely recognize, and oftentimes, despised. He was bewildered by the rise of a style of identity politics that reified the fictions of race and, through its fixation on diversity in élite spaces, abandoned the working class. And as a lifelong radical he took little solace in the rise of a young, insurgent left drawn to the reformist revolution of Democratic Socialism. These movements, I imagine, must have felt like defeats to Ignatiev. We are very far from the abolition of the white race, and there are very few people who believe that changing the minds of five, much less five hundred thousand people, could potentially revolutionize the world.

And yet, from another perspective, there is no political or literary trend—or President—capable of derailing Ignatiev’s true lifelong project. In his writing, and in Race Traitor and Hard Crackers, Ignatiev demonstrated the transformative power of working-class stories. His radicalism was always tethered to specific people, who, in their own ways, inspired sympathy and a desire for connection. That specificity will always be relevant; it may be especially so at a moment of cynical alienation, when identities have become recitations rather than communities. There is enduring power in the narratives he collected and shared—the stories of people he met as a child, in Philadelphia, or in the plants and mills of Chicago, or in his classrooms. My favorite of these stories is included in the introduction to “How the Irish Became White”:

On one occasion, many years ago, I was sitting on my front step when my neighbor came out of the house next door carrying her small child, whom she placed in her automobile. She turned away from him for a moment, and as she started to close the car door, I saw that the child had put his hand where it would be crushed when the door was closed. I shouted to the woman to stop. She halted in mid-motion, and when she realized what she had almost done, an amazing thing happened: she began laughing, then broke into tears and began hitting the child. It was the most intense and dramatic display of conflicting emotions I have ever beheld. My attitude toward the subjects of this study accommodates stresses similar to those I witnessed in that mother.

Sometimes, while walking around gentrifying Brooklyn, I will see young, white progressives talking to the people whom they are displacing. There’s an officiousness—an almost disingenuous toadying—to these interactions that I, with my modern, fashionable prejudices, find a bit funny and gross. Do they believe that the contradictions between their stated politics and their actual lives can be cleansed through ritualistic bonhomie? Or are they just saying an extended goodbye to their temporary neighbors? Ignatiev might have looked at those same conversations and seen people who desperately wanted to be saved from their whiteness. He might have walked by, with a generosity of spirit that I do not possess, and dropped a few leaflets at their feet, filled with enthusiastic, optimistic provocations, and unreasonable demands.

Noel Ignatiev: Remembering a Comrade and a Friend

Filed under: Counterpunch,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:29 pm


For all of the opprobrium Facebook deserves, it is still essential for building ties on the left when there are so few opportunities for networking in real space as opposed to cyberspace. Just checking now, it seems that I became a FB friend with Noel Ignatiev sometime in 2015. It was worth it to me to make such a connection, even if it meant putting up with all the ads and heavy-handed automated interference into saying what was on my mind. (I lost FB posting privileges twice for no good reason.)

Back in the mid-nineties, when I was working at Columbia University, I used to make frequent stops during lunchtime at Bookforum, an excellent source of scholarly literature, including that written by Marxists. One day I spotted a new book by Noel Ignatiev titled “How the Irish Became White” that stopped me in my tracks. I had dispensed with the notion long ago that white workers would join a Marxist group just by selling them copies of the Militant newspaper. Even if the book focused on the Irish, it might offer insights into the question of American political backwardness.

Despite being based on Ignatiev’s Ph.D., it read nothing like a dissertation. It was a politically engaged attack on white privilege supported by in-depth research. It also demonstrated a grasp of the broad contours of American culture that suggested the author’s ability to think outside the box. For example, Ignatiev made the case that Huckleberry Finn was Irish based not only on his last name but what Mark Twain wrote in a May 7, 1884 letter: “I returned the book-back [book cover for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn]. All right and good, and will answer, although the boy’s mouth is a trifle more Irishy than necessary.”

Continue reading

November 13, 2019

Cardin, Halston, St. Laurent

Filed under: fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 11:51 pm

Before my wife became a tenure-track professor in the Economics and Business Department of Lehmann College/CUNY in New York (now successfully completed), she was an adjunct at the Fashion Institute of Technology, a SUNY school that was a first choice for many aspiring designers—many of whom were contestants on Project Runway.  In Project Runway, there were dozens of entrants but only one won the grand prize after weeks of contests involving, for example, making dresses out of paper shopping bags, etc. She was curious about how their work stacked up against other aspiring designers, all of whom hoped to get the first prize, $100,000 plus having a collection of their work showcased during Fashion Week in New York. My wife also enjoyed watching designer clothing being made since she is a stylish dresser unlike the women I knew from my Trotskyist days who would consider owning a Michael Kors handbag tantamount to crossing a picket line.

So what does this have to do with me? In the course of watching Project Runway, I became a devoted fan. Back in 2010, I wrote about a spin-off of the show titled “On the Road with Austin and Santino” that followed two finalists around the country designing a wardrobe for plain janes. I wrote:

The last episode…was particularly entertaining as the two men end up in Antler, Oklahoma, the self-declared deer hunting capital of the country, to design a 30th birthday gown for Alesha, a  mother of two whose wardrobe is filled with hunting camouflage outfits rather than Chanel. There are many funny and charming aspects to their intervention, but especially the way the small town locals accept them on their own cosmopolitan and homosexual terms. Austin Scarlett, the more openly gay of the two, tells Alesha at one point that he has probably worn more skirts than she has over the past year or so.

With Project Runway under my belt, I made a point of reviewing any film featuring haute couture designers, including a Karl Lagerfeld documentary, one about Valentino Garavani, and a CounterPunch review (!) of a narrative film about Yves St. Laurent.

Recently, I got my hands on three documentaries about the designers mentioned in the title of this article, including a documentary on Yves St. Laurent made by Olivier Meyrou in 2007. Titled “Celebration”, it was suppressed by his estate until now since it depicted a frail and pathetic 71-year old man in the early stages of dementia, but who was still capable of mounting one of his memorable shows.

Still alive at 96, Pierre Cardin is arguably the most important designer of the 20th century. “House of Cardin” was shown as part of the DOC NYC film festival and will likely make it into theaters sometime in 2020. For most people, including me, Cardin was only a brand name (I have his cologne, so there), but this fascinating documentary puts him into the larger context of social history.

To start with, his father was a wealthy landowner in Italy of French descent who moved back to France in 1924 because he opposed Mussolini. He apprenticed for a clothier at the age of 14 and then left home to work for a tailor in Vichy in 1939. After the war, he moved to Paris where his burgeoning career including designing the costumes for Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast”. Cocteau, an open homosexual, introduced the drop-dead handsome young Cardin to other gay film makers, including Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti with whom he had flings as the nonagenarian designer recalls with a smile.

To put Cardin into cultural context, he was a futurist in the tradition of both Italian and Russian artists of the early 20th century. His dresses and gowns employed stark geometric patterns that were a break with the frilly designs of the past favored by the bourgeoisie. These outfits on display at the Museum Pierre Cardin in Paris are typical.

In the 1960s, Cardin’s clothing was favored by the young and the rebellious who had money, of course. Once he introduced an affordable prêt-à-porter (ready to wear) line, his clothing became as popular as Levi jeans. Among the people who loved Cardin’s fashion were the Beatles who make a pitch for him here.

At one point Cardin refers to himself as a socialist designer, although I think he is going a bit overboard there. Perhaps if the capitalist class was made up primarily of homosexual dress designers, we’d be better off at least on the basis of all the films I’ve seen about this wing of the bourgeoisie. Dare I call it progressive?

Now available on Amazon Prime, “Halston” tells the story of Roy Halston Frowick, who was born in Des Moines in 1932, the son of a typical corn belt family. Like Pierre Cardin and just about every male designer I’ve seen in a documentary or on Project Runway, he showed an affinity for sewing and designing from an early age.

After moving to New York in 1957, he became the head milliner (hat designer) at Bergdorf-Goodman where he became friends with Andy Warhol, a window-dresser at the time. Later on they would reunite as Studio 54 regulars in the 60s. Halston, who had dropped the first and last name, became famous for designing the cloth dress and hat that Jacqueline Kennedy wore to her husband’s inauguration in sharp contrast to the mink coats other wives were wearing. Like Pierre Cardin, Halston had an aversion to haute bourgeois pretensions.

Once he gained fame for his hat designs, he went out on his own and became one of America’s most popular dress and gown designers. If Cardin was influenced by futurism, Halston made his mark by designing clothing that women felt comfortable in, almost like sleepwear. Often made out of a single piece of cloth, they never made a woman feel constricted. They were almost like the gowns of Greek and Roman antiquity. Here’s some examples:


Like Cardin, Halston wanted to reach as many customers as possible. Partly to make more money but also because he was no elitist. He made a deal with J.C. Penny for a ready-to-wear line that appalled Bergdof-Goodman’s management so much that they dropped his upscale line from their store. Cardin went through a similar experience. In 1959, he was expelled from the Chambre Syndicale for launching a ready-to-wear collection for the Printemps department store, but was soon reinstated.

In the 1960s, as his fame grew, his company was made offers that he couldn’t refuse. The Halston name and his business were purchased by Norton Simon, Inc and then by Esmark Inc. He was under enormous pressure to pump out designs for the sake of their bottom line but he grew frustrated by corporate interference. They were looking for someone more along the lines of those who made their mass marketing products,  but it was impossible for Halston to abandon the imperious stance of a star designer, all the more so since he had a major cocaine habit.

Finally, Esmark got fed up with him and changed the locks in his office in 1984 so that only those vetted by them could gain entrance. He could not even start a new business in his own name since Esmark had a lock on it as well.

Just four years after he was fired from Esmark, he learned that he had HIV and moved out to San Francisco to live with his brother. Until his death in 1990, he remained reclusive and was at least able to reunite with a family who loved him without qualifications.

Just acquired by KimStim, a leading-edge film distributor based in Brooklyn, “Celebration” will likely be available as DVD or VOD before very long. (Check their website for information).

We hear very few words from Yves St. Laurent in this cinéma vérité film but plenty from his one-time companion and business partner Pierre Bergé who functions pretty much as his care-giver in this poignant 74-minute documentary. At one point, he works with St. Laurent to prepare for the delivery of a speech thanking industry figures for one of his many awards. Bergé reminds him to stand up straight and to smile. For the entire film, we see a grim-looking St. Laurent who almost always had a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. Since his fingers tremble, that’s probably easier for him.

The film is not so much about the fashion business as the other two films. Rather, it documents the ravages of old age and fading glory. My suggestion is to watch in in tandem with the narrative I reviewed for CounterPunch. While it was also painful for its depiction of how the French military made Yves St. Laurent suffer as a draftee during the French-Algerian War, it also shows his creative prowess that made him legendary in fashion circles. Like “Halston”, it is for rent on Amazon Prime.


November 12, 2019

The 2019 Other Israel Film Festival

Filed under: Film,Israel,Palestine — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

For as long as I can remember, I’ve received invitations to cover the Other Israel Film Festival in New York that I’ve consistently ignored. This was largely a reaction to the word Israel rather than Other. In the back of my mind, the idea of covering the festival was a violation of the BDS campaign even though I have been covering Israeli films for as long as I have been a Rotten Tomatoes critic. Recently, I wrote a review of an Israeli documentary titled “Advocate”, whose subject Lea Tsemel is a 73-year old Israel attorney who might be compared to William Kunstler in her willingness to take on cases of outcasts that are prejudged in the media just like The Central Park Five. Both her and her husband were members of the Israeli Trotskyist movement and utterly fearless in their anti-Zionist stance. If you haven’t seen this powerful documentary, you can do so now as part of the Other Israel Film Festival that opens on Thursday, November 14th.

It was only because of the persistence of publicist Isil Bagdadi that I took the trouble to look at the festival schedule. After having seen the films listed below and “Advocate” beforehand, my recommendation for attending the festival is unqualified. For both their subject matter and their cinematic mastery, they are evidence of both Israeli and Palestinian’s pride of place in the film world outside Hollywood. The festival is largely a result of the funding and hard work of the Marlene Meyerson Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Manhattan, which could not be more unlike the 92nd Street Y, just a block from me, that provides a regular platform for Israeli government officials. Even if the JCC embraces Zionist values, its support for the Other Israel film festival will likely shake up Jewish thinking about Israel as should be evident from the films discussed below

Schedule information is at https://www.otherisrael.org/oi-13-schedule-venues/.

“Comrade Dov” is Dov Khenin, a Communist Party member who served 13 years in the Knesset for the Jewish-Arab party Hadash, a coalition to which the CP belongs. Like Lea Tsemel, Khenin is an attorney but not one with a history of defending Palestinian militants, as far as I know. By the evidence of the documentary, he is a Zionist who supports a two-state solution based on his belief that it is impossible for two nationalities to co-exist within the same borders.

History would seem to be passing Khenin behind based on the evidence of opposition to his most recent run for the Knesset from within Hadash. Two young women, one Arab and the other a Jew, state that they can’t support him because Israel needs a revolution, not reform, even if well-meaning.

Well-meaning does describe Khenin. He sponsored a rise in the minimum wage that paralleled the campaign for $15 in the USA and which succeeded to his credit. He also took up the cause of workers in a small textile manufacturing company that was about to be shut down. Another priority for him was blocking the demolition of a Palestinian village in the West Bank and its replacement by settlers. Both of these campaigns failed.

Despite his inability to see beyond the Zionist facts on the ground, Khenin is a courageous and principled politician. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is him being interviewed by a TV reporter connected to the Lubavitcher Hasidim. When the reporter makes an Islamophobic comment, Khenin stops him in his tracks and tells him to never question other people’s faith. With leaders such as this, it is not hard to understand why the CP gained a foothold in Israel while revolutionary groups have functioned mostly on the margins.

Director Emmanuelle Mayer spent 10 years filming the attempts by a Ghanaian immigrant named Johnny trying to pick up skills in Israel that he could use back in Africa. Like most African immigrants, he has a dead-end job. He scrubs toilets and mops floors for an Israeli building owner but dreams of making a living as the owner of a fish farm like the kind that exist in China and other East Asian nations. As the son of a fisherman, he wants to avoid the vicissitudes of fishing in the coastal waters of Ghana but lacks the skills to get a fish farm off the ground. He is in a race to gain such skills before a nativist pogrom or immigration cops force a premature flight.

As an initial stab at this business, he gets his brother to dig a pond in his home village and fill it with catfish. It is only after Johnny gets an apprenticeship with an Israeli fish farmer that he understands how much technology and capital are required to be successful. Fish farming requires a deep knowledge of the chemicals and food required to keep hatchlings alive as well as tools such as microscopes to check on their progress. Without the director making a heavy-handed statement on Johnny’s chances, the film dramatizes the immense gulf between Third World countries and those that are fortunate enough to get a seat the imperialist table. It makes those Thomas Friedman articles about Africa’s pending rise look more foolish than ever.

Directed by Palestinian Bassam Jarbawi, “Screwdriver” is a gripping narrative film about the attempts of a man named Ziad to recover from the effects of 15 years in an Israeli prison. Although it is drawn from the collective experience of the Palestinian nation, it is much more of an existential and psychological portrait of a lost soul. As Ziad, Ziad Bakri captures the wraith-like quality of someone who is still a caged man despite his release from prison—caged by his psyche rather than iron bars.

When he was young, Ziad hung out with a posse that hardly fit the mold of Palestinian activism. Their favorite pastime was stealing a car, driving off somewhere, parking on the side of a road, and drinking beer. One night as they sat in one such car, someone shot at them from afar and killed Ramzi, a good friend of Ziad’s. A week or so later, when the posse—minus Ramzi—was driving down a road late at night in another stolen car, they spotted a man standing next to a car with Israeli plates. Except for Ziad, they decided to take revenge on the man. Taking a U-turn, they drove past the car and shot him. A few seconds later, Israeli cops pursued their car and chased them on foot as they fled. Only Ziad was apprehended. During his interrogation, he refused to finger his accomplices. No problem, the Israeli cop told him. You shot an Arab, not an Israeli. Despite the plates, he was one of them.

Upon Ziyad’s release from prison, he is regaled as a hero by the Palestinian politicos despite the problematic aspects of his imprisonment. Complicating things, the man they shot came to a ceremony to announce his forgiveness. It was part of the struggle, so to speak.

Meanwhile, Ziyad walks around with a perpetual headache and an inability to connect with any friends or family members emotionally. Although the term PTSD does not get mentioned in the film, it is obvious that this is his problem. The only person who is able to break through his invisible cage is a Palestinian filmmaker named Mina (Yasmine Qaddumi) who is making a documentary that focuses on human emotions rather than politics. Open to her initiative, Ziyad spends productive but often painful filming sessions with her until he finally decides that she is exploiting him. He accuses her of using the trapped people of the West Bank for her film until she makes it back to the USA, where she lives the good life. The theme of imprisonment, both literal and figurative, provides the narrative thrust of a powerful film breaking with Middle East filmmaking conventions.

Director Bassam Jarbawi put it this way in an interview with The Daily Sabah:

Since Palestine is a captive country, Jarbawi said: “I always wanted to make a film about Palestine and captivity; thus, I made this film.”

“Cause of Death” is an investigative report into the death of a Druze cop named Salim Barakat in 2002 based on the stubborn pursuit by his brother Jamal to get at the truth. On the evening of March 5, 2002, a terrorist opened fire on a Tel Aviv restaurant with an M-16. On patrol not far from the scene, Salim raced to the restaurant and began struggling with the man who stabbed him in the neck until either Salim’s weapon or those of another cop left him dead.

In the police report, Salim is credited with saving lives and portrayed as the stabbing victim of the terrorist in a ferocious struggle just outside the restaurant. However, Jamal, who was an investigator for an insurance company, is not satisfied with the report. Paying close attention to police recordings, he hears his brother announce that the terrorist is dead. But in a few seconds, another two shots ring out in clear contradistinction to the police claim that with the death of both the terrorist and Salim, calm returned to the scene.

This is a far more gripping tale than anything you can see on network TV like NCIS, especially since Jamal is so different from the cops he is investigating. Homespun and deferential to everybody he speaks to, he is convinced that someone dining at the restaurant fired a weapon that accidentally killed his brother but is frustrated by the man’s refusal to take responsibility and the police stonewalling his efforts.

The film is the first one ever made by Ramy Katz and amounts to a condemnation of the Israeli police for telling self-serving lies. If this can happen with the Druze, a sect that collaborates with Israeli authorities, what fate would Palestinians suffer under most other circumstances?

November 11, 2019

Saving Atlantis

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm

Starting tomorrow, “Saving Atlantis” will be available on iTunes. This is the definitive documentary on the loss of coral reefs as a result of global warming. It relies on the testimony of marine biologists and the people whose livelihood depends on their health. Such people, many of who are indigenous, are fisherman or small proprietors in the tourist industry who will be ruined by their disappearance. Others facing ruin include those who live near the seacoast where coral reefs are a natural barrier against flooding during hurricanes, cyclones and other storms that create monstrous waves. Finally, it will be a loss to our cultural heritage since the coral reef is one of the world’s great natural wonders, just as much as the Grand Canyon or the glaciers. With the irrational use of fossil fuels posing the danger to assets belonging to all of humanity, this film helps to raise awareness and should be seen and recommended to friends and comrades.

In the film, scientists explain how coral reefs come into existence. The coral is a tiny, tentacled polyp that enjoys a symbiotic relationship with algae that settle down in its innards. The coral keeps the algae alive while it provides its host with nutrients. When a coral dies, it leaves behind a calcium carbonate skeleton that starts off at the bottom of the ocean floor and soon reaches massive proportions over the millennia. When the water rises to a certain temperature (varying from one coral species to another), the algae is expelled from the host, which itself soon dies. The lifeless coral becomes a ghostly white, a process referred to as bleaching.

The film takes us on a journey to all four corners of the world where coral reefs can still be found. We meet fishermen in Colombia, Polynesian islands and Australia as well as surfing pros in Hawaii. In addition to preventing Hawaii’s coastal villages from being flooded, they also serve to create the giant waves that draws professional and amateur surfers to its islands from all over the world.

One of the main goals of marine biologists right now is to discover why some coral are more resistant to bleaching than others. A worldwide project is underway to identify their cellular makeup, including DNA, so as to bioengineer a strain that might be able to resist the effects of global warming. While this project is commendable, one must understand that it might lead to blind alleys over decades, just as the case with cancer research. In the meantime, all efforts must be made to join Greta Thurnberg and other activists on the front lines of the struggle to eliminate fossil fuels.

I recommend both seeing this film and consulting the official website that has an excellent collections of links to activists and scientists on the front lines. I particularly recommend the page on Coral Facts  that should be read, even if you don’t get around to seeing the film. Among them is this:

Coral reefs hold secrets to human health

Many drugs come from natural products, and we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what medicines that impact human health can be found in these habitats. According to one recent study, “the prospect of finding a new drug in the sea, especially among coral reef species, may be 300 to 400 times more likely than isolating one from a terrestrial ecosystem.” Coral reef products have been used for the treatment of everything from cancer to cardiovascular disease.

If this isn’t reason enough to preserve them, then we have lost the ability to understand the need for self-preservation. Given a choice between SUV’s and air conditioning on one side and a cure for cancer on the other, most people would choose the latter.

November 10, 2019

Capital in the 21st Century

Filed under: capitalism,Film,Keynesianism — louisproyect @ 8:21 pm

This minute, the documentary “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” is playing at the SVA Theater as part of the DOC NYC film festival. Obviously, this review is behind the curve but you will still be able to see it in theaters in April 2020. It is based on Thomas Piketty’s 816-page book of the same name, with Piketty reprising the same arguments found there. Since I doubt that many of my readers, including me, have read Piketty’s book, the film is must-viewing if for no other reason that it will familiarize you with the post-Keynesian foundation upon which the book rests. Besides Piketty, you will hear from other economists and social scientists who are trying to figure out a way to combat neoliberalism without going the whole hog and becoming—god forbid—Marxists. This includes among others Joseph Stiglitz, Gillian Tett of the Financial Times, and Suresh Naidu, a youngish Columbia University professor who organized a conference there celebrating the work of Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. Bowles and Gintis are famous (or infamous) for their criticisms of “orthodox Marxism”, i.e., Marxism. I have a strong suspicion that post-Keynesianism or post-Marxism (about the same thing really) will give you a leg up in a tight job market in the academy.

The film begins with Piketty reminiscing about a trip he took to Eastern Europe and Russia just after Communism collapsed. This weighed heavily on his mind since it dramatized the vulnerability of society when its economic foundations begin to be eaten away, as if by termites. The lessons he drew were a major inspiration for his book that essentially warned about capitalism’s vulnerability as its elites develop the same kind of indifference to the pain as that of the bureaucracy toward those on the bottom of the “Communist” world. To help him drive home these points, he includes another expert not ordinarily associated with post-Keynesian thought, namely Francis Fukuyama whose reputation was based on the idea that liberal capitalist democracies would soar above the wreckage of the USSR and other post-capitalist societies. In an interview with the New Statesman in October 2018, Fukuyama echoed the main idea found in Piketty’s writings, as well as Stiglitz, Krugman, et al. Asked how he viewed the resurgence of socialism in the USA, he replied:

It all depends on what you mean by socialism. Ownership of the means of production – except in areas where it’s clearly called for, like public utilities – I don’t think that’s going to work.

If you mean redistributive programmes that try to redress this big imbalance in both incomes and wealth that has emerged then, yes, I think not only can it come back, it ought to come back.

For the first half of the film (roughly 60 minutes), we get a history of capitalism from the 18th century to the current day. It is very informative and of great use even to people like me, who believe that New Deal economics is never coming back.

The chief worry of Piketty is that we are returning to the 18th century when the common folk lived in terrible conditions. Economist Kate Williams claims that the average life expectancy was 17 years at the time (it was probably more like 40, which of course is also a horrible sign of inequality). It was also nearly impossible for a commoner to become middle-class or wealthy, a function of fortunes being handed down from generation to generation. A large part of Piketty’s critique of capitalism is its susceptibility to dynasty-building of the kind that existed under feudalism. Drawing upon a rich trove of stock footage and old movies, we see a snippet of a scene from “A Tale of Two Cities” that shows Basil Rathbone as a French aristocrat sneering at the idea that ordinary people should get a fair share of society’s wealth. To reinforce this point, we see excerpts from “Les Miserables”, a very good film based on the Victor Hugo novel.

Finally, relief came in the form of new societies created in virgin territories in the British colonies like North America, New Zealand (where the film was produced) and Australia where the class system did not have the chance to consolidate, or at least not to the extent of Europe. Unfortunately, the film does not refer to the fate of the indigenous peoples but frankly there’s not much attention paid to them in Marx either.

As capitalism matured in the 19th century, its growth slowed down because of rivalries between various empires, England and France the foremost. Eventually, the competition became so extreme that the solution took the form of intermittent warfare and, finally, the Great War that led to millions dying and capital going up in smoke. Piketty argues that one good thing came out of it: the dissolution of feudal privilege that had persisted under capitalism, particularly with the Junkers ruling class in Germany.

The Great Depression and WWII had the same contradictory effect. On one hand, it caused death and suffering. On the other, it led to social democratic reforms that allowed working people to be entitled to health, education and housing benefits that never would have existed in the 18th or 19th century. Once again, the film brackets out an important factor that would help make this understandable, namely the existence of the USSR as an alternative to the capitalist system. Would the New Deal, England under Labour, Sweden, et al have existed without the communist alternative putting pressure on the ruling classes? I would argue not. Suresh Naidu, the most impressive of the post-Keynesians heard from in the film, is also honest enough to say that the prosperity that made such programs possible owed a lot to WWII that put people back to work and fostered economic growth, a function of military Keynesianism, the only fruitful application of Keynes’s theories.

The second half of the film examines the worrisome tendency of capitalist economies to revert to the 19th century and earlier as all of the gains of the welfare state are eradicated. A good part of this is devoted to a searing critique of the Reagan and Thatcher regimes that set in place the neoliberal model that has led to the gross inequalities of today, including under New Labour and Clinton-type presidencies. Piketty maintains that the model was built on a lie. Workers were told that even if the gap between their income and the capitalist class would grow as a result of trickle-down economics, they would still be better off because the pie would also grow exponentially. The workers slice might decrease from 25 percent to 20 percent but if the pie doubled, they’d still be better off. Piketty, Stiglitz, et al supply the statistical evidence that shows most workers living only slightly better than decades ago, with the poorest among them even having a loss of real income.

The film ends with an appeal for political action that might reverse the by now 50-year decline of working class security and income. In April of this year, Stiglitz sat down with the dreadful Andrew Ross Sorkin of the NY Times to discuss the renewal of interest in socialism. Stiglitz reassured Sorkin that Sanders’s agenda is not focused on “ownership of the means of production” or a statist system. Instead, “He’s really concerned about the social contract of health, education.” As for Stiglitz, he also supports a return to the good old days of liberal democracy but under private ownership as indicated by the title of his new book “People, Power and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent.”

What Piketty, Stiglitz, et al don’t seem to grasp (or grasping it, disavow it) is the structural barriers to liberal democracy or even social democracy that Stiglitz correctly described as having little to do with socialism. The film pointed out that the pie has not been growing, a function no doubt of the tendency of the rate of profit to decline. In areas where it has been growing, it has been at the expense of democracy such as in China. As Suresh Naidu pointed out in the film, it was WWII that broke the back of the Great Depression, not New Deal measures.

WWIII anybody? No thanks.

November 8, 2019

Socialism in Our Time?

Filed under: Counterpunch,socialism — louisproyect @ 5:05 pm

Mr. Clean Break


Until now, Catalyst has not published an article defending the “dirty break”, “inside-outside” tactic. In the latest issue, however, you can read a gargantuan article (14,258 words) titled “A Socialist Party in Our Time?” that is behind a paywall. One imagines (ahem) that getting a copy will not be that difficult in an age when information yearns to be free.

The co-authors are graduate students, Jared Abbott at Harvard and Dustin Guastella at Rutgers. Both are also DSA members and—I’ll bet—Bread and Roses members. They start by offering a socialist version of the Goldilocks story. On the American left, there are three beds. One is “movementist”, preferring demonstrations to electoral politics. But it is too “narrow” a bed since it cannot translate its street actions into policy. The other bed is also too narrow since it belongs to the “sectarian” left that stubbornly avoids all contact with the Democratic Party and sees the fight for socialism only possible by joining up with one of their Leninist groupuscules.

Abbot and Guastella invite us to snuggle up into the only bed that is the right size for any sensible person. It is “like the mass parties of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: an organization that competes for elections, mobilizes a mass base, and has a democratic internal structure.” This describes the socialist parties of the early 20th century and the Communist Parties later on. Since the DSA is too small to effectuate a “clean break” for such a party, it instead has to be tactically clever and oh-so dirty.

Continue reading

The Archive: How McCarthyism forced an American lawyer into exile

Filed under: Film,McCarthyism,repression — louisproyect @ 4:34 pm

The six-year old David Drucker

Bronchitis prevented me from attending press screenings for this year’s DOC NYC Film Festival that runs from November 6th to the 15th but I did manage to see a documentary short titled “The Archive” that will be shown alongside other films at the Cinépolis Chelsea this Saturday, November 9th, at 9:30pm.

The Archive” tells the story of David Drucker who was a victim of McCarthyism in the 1950s like thousands of other Americans. His background will be familiar to anybody who has reviewed this history. His parents were Russian Jews who fled Czarist oppression at the turn of the century and came to live in New York City.

David Drucker got a law degree and went to work for a trading company set up to facilitate commercial ties between the USA and the USSR. During the 1930s and 40s, this would have been an entirely aboveboard professional association but as soon as the Red Scare began, anybody with Soviet ties began to be considered a traitor. The film deploys footage of J. Edgar Hoover’s testimonies before Congress and other sordid reminders of the past most effectively.

Director Peter Spence and Drucker’s daughter Emily Drucker Collins will be there for the Q&A.

Other shorts to be shown at the 9:30 screening include one on the legacy of cotton in the American South, a subject much on my mind now while reading Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton”. Another is on NY’s cab drivers, who are facing a deep crisis over medallion debts and competition from Uber. Put succinctly, these are my kinds of films and likely yours if you’ve been reading this blog over the years.

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