Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 11, 2007

Eavesdropping on a phone conference

Filed under: antiwar — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Rabbi Michael Lerner has posted the transcript of a phone conference between major leaders of the mainstream peace movement (himself, Leslie Cagan, Medea Benjamin, et al) and Democratic Congressional “doves” Lynn Woolsey and Jim Moran on his website.

Politic.com explains Lerner’s decision:

A well-known anti-war leader has gone public with the transcript of a private conference call that shows peace activists are exasperated with the Democratic congressional leadership and at a loss for a long-term strategy.

The fact that a UFPJ leader would be in on this phone call is further proof that this coalition is hopelessly wedded to influencing the Democratic Party. In some ways, the war continues because there is not a sufficiently powerful political force inside the US that is seen as a genuine threat by the ruling class parties. No matter how many temper tantrums that Code Pink throws, there will always be the obvious impression that they are trying to influence mommy and daddy. In the 1960s and 70s, the antiwar movement had no interest in cajoling Democratic Party “doves”. It saw its job as raising hell in the streets to the point where both parties would succumb to the pressure. Of course, the antiwar movement of the 1960s tended to be much bigger and more militant because of the military draft. Young people like me saw protesting the war as an act of survival in some ways.

To extend the analogy with trying to get mommy and daddy’s attention, I always felt that becoming radicalized for me was a little bit like discovering that your parents were sexually abusing one of your siblings. Once you make this discovery, you will never see them in the same way. Some children might call the cops; others might take a gun and shoot the offending parent. But you would never sit on their lap again. That’s how I felt about the Democrats after 1967.

Lynne Woolsey kicks off the discussion by defending H.R. 508, a withdrawal plan submitted by her, Maxine Waters and Barbara Lee. Showing the fighting spirit that the Democratic Party has made famous, Woolsey admits that a similarly inspired proposal won’t get to first base: “Oh, well, the Senate won’t pass it, so it won’t get to the president.” Clearly, we’ll never see fistfights breaking out in the halls of Congress anytime soon between the two parties.

It seems that Woolsey has become uncomfortable with how some liberals complain about the Democratic Party caving in to Bush all the time. In particular, an ACLU ad depicting Reid and Pelosi as a couple of sheep was “embarrassing” to her. You can see the ad here:

Tim Carpenter of the Progressive Democrats of America says that his group has been working hard. It sent over 9,000 emails to Nancy Pelosi’s office in the last three weeks demanding that she support a peace proposal. If Pelosi is not moved by Code Pink staging a hunger strike on her front door, I doubt that she will be moved by 9,000 emails. I get about that much every day from the widows of Nigerian oil ministers. Woolsey tries to break the news to Tim Carpenter that email might not matter all that much: “Because people aren’t in the streets, because they’re electronically communicating, it’s easier for the Congress or the media to pretend that it isn’t happening, but it isn’t visible.”

Woolsey advises the conferees that they should focus on the moderate Democrats, who are gumming up the works:

Ok, here’s something. I believe that Nancy (Pelosi) is with us, and she’s counting on you guys and Barbara and Maxine and me to push from the Left in the Congress. But the people that need to hear are the moderate Democrats who are holding up the whole thing. They’re the ones who have to know that their people care, that they bring our troops home. They swear they don’t. They swear that they’ll lose their elections if they do the right thing.

This paints a dreary picture, doesn’t it? The blame keeps getting shifted in American bourgeois politics. It is a just like a 3-card Monty game. You can never turn up the right card. The leftwing of the Democratic Party says that the party’s moderates are the problem. And then the Democratic Party as a whole says that it can’t do anything to stop the war because it can’t override Bush’s veto. This, of course, is a lie. All the Democrats need to do is not pass a funding bill of any kind. That will bring the war to an end immediately, just as it did in Vietnam. When they continue to fund the war–crocodile tears and all–they are as complicit as the Republicans.

Leslie Cagan, the most left-leaning conferee, throws up her hands and says, “We don’t know how this war’s going to end. This has been a nightmare for five years—almost five years now, before the war began.” But there’s hope. She says that “September is a critical time, in terms of what Congress can do, what they might do, what they probably won’t do.” And if Congress doesn’t get it done next year, there’s always next year:

Beyond that, we’re beginning to look at 2008, as the country has already been forced to, in the election cycle. Both the Congressional and the Presidential races—not that we will support a particular candidate or political party, we certainly will not do that—but again, how do we begin injecting not only ending this war and occupation, but also preventing a war in Iran, preventing any other military operations like this, and beginning to put forward a much more thorough peace and justice agenda, and how to use the election process to work through that agenda.

In other words, mass demonstrations are just an adjunct to the real game, which is the “election cycle.” For those of you living outside the US, this is a buzzword that is used on Sunday morning talk shows. There are “news cycles” and there are “election cycles”. Within each cycle, you get issues and personalities that rise to the top like scum on a stagnant pond. When the cycle is over, things return to normal. Of course, for people living outside the US, like the beleaguered citizens of Baghdad, the “election cycle” might not mean a whole lot when you have to worry about being victimized by a car bomb, thrown out of your house by ethnic cleansing or picked up by a death squad.

To elevate the conversation somewhat, Rabbi Michael Lerner tries to interject some political theory:

Because we know that many people who oppose the war are nevertheless unsure about how the US can get out without making the situation worse and without abandoning its role in the world, we are trying to encourage a national conversation about the fundamentally flawed idea that lies behind the war in Iraq, which is what we call “the Strategy of Domination.” The core bad idea is this: that the world is full of hurtful people who will hurt us unless we hurt them first, that they will dominate us unless we dominate them and so we have no choice but to take strong aggressive action lest they come to our very homeland and attack us. And of course, that could happen, but it will happen because we’ve been acting on that fear for decades, and attempting to dominate the world, in the course of which we’ve spread a great deal of pain and hence generated a great deal of anger.

Silly me. I always thought that war’s take place because the US is interested in protecting its overseas investments and expanding into new areas for super-exploitation. I guess I should go home and burn my Lenin and begin reading transformational psychology textbooks, or whatever fount of wisdom Lerner plucks his platitudes from.

But let’s not assume that Lerner is all pie in the sky. He has concrete proposals:

Specifically, that leads us to advocate for a Global Marshall Plan, and our call to dedicate between 1 and 2 percent of the GDP each year for the next twenty, for the purpose of eliminating global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, and inadequate healthcare, both domestically and abroad.

1 to 2 percent of the GDP can do that. But the specific Global Marshall Plan only makes sense in the context of a general assault on the underlying ideology that makes this war and every other war seem plausible.

Actually, he has it ass backwards. It is global GDP inequality that leads to ideological differentiation. When there was slavery, a system of ideology had to be produced to rationalize racial inequality–like Black people being closer to the apes, etc. When you have the US controlling something like 75 percent of the world’s resources, you need an ideology to legitimize this. It used to be the need to uphold democracy against Communism. Now it is the need to defeat “Islamofascism”. If there was equality among the world’s population, there would be no need for violence, or philosophical explanations for the status quo.


September 9, 2007

Ruminations on the antiwar movement

Filed under: antiwar — louisproyect @ 10:38 pm

Today’s New York Times Magazine has an article titled “Can Lobbyists Stop the War?” which is focused on the efforts of an outfit called Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (A.A.E.I.), an offshoot of moveon.org. It is led by a 32 year old moveon.org veteran named Tom Matzzie, whose most recent strategy “stresses Democratic unity and driving a wedge between Republicans and President Bush.” Matzzie feels that this approach makes much more sense than demonstrating in the streets. The Times explains:

The playbook for opposing a war has changed markedly since the street-protest ethos of the anti-Vietnam movement. Tie-dyed shirts and flowers have been replaced by oxfords and BlackBerries. Politicians are as likely to be lobbied politely as berated. And instead of a freewheeling circus managed from college campuses and coffee houses, the new antiwar movement is a multimillion-dollar operation run by media-savvy professionals.

Matzzie told the paper: “Last time [it] was done in the streets. People were concerned about civil society breaking down. You have to play in politics, which is something we do very explicitly.”

Tom Matzzie: promises not to rock the boat

Matzzie is close to the Democratic Party leadership and meets with Pelosi and Reid about once a month. Last year when the Democrats caved in and gave Bush money to continue the war, Matzzie took the position that to do otherwise would be essentially “a vote for a war without end.” Obviously, Matzzie has loftier career goals in mind than lobbying politicians. This kind of double-speak would qualify him to be a press secretary for Hillary Clinton. Fellow liberals at the grass roots level were less than delighted with his position and accused him of “having been co-opted by the party leaders with whom he frequently rubs elbows.” Mattzie supposedly believes that “political and lifestyle radicalism was a gift to supporters of the Vietnam War that his allies will not give again.”

One of Matzzie’s lieutenants is a middle-aged New Yorker named Alan Charney who feels that the 1960s radicalism got in the way of the movement he had always intended to build. He claims that he “had been waiting for this moment for a long time.” As it turns out, Charney is a former national chairman of Democratic Socialists of America who organized a meeting billed as “Save the Soul of the Democratic Party!” at the DP convention in 1996. Given this, I can certainly understand why he would have found a home in the A.A.E.I.

Earlier this summer, A.A.E.I. and some senior Democrats organized a peace vigil outside the Capitol building. Some rowdy audience members began chanting slogans at the Democratic leaders onstage: “Stop the funding!” and “Stop giving them what they want!” One of them was in such an agitated state that the Democrats onstage privately discussed calling off the rally. Matzzie stepped forward and positioned his imposing frame between the loudest screamer and his masters on stage.

In deference to the need for journalistic balance, the New York Times offers its readers a glance at the “radical” alternative to Matzzie, moveon.org and A.A.E.I. This is embodied in Medea Benjamin’s Code Pink, a group of women who wear pink clothing and put pressure on Pelosi and other Democratic Party leaders to cut off funding for the war. Far be it for me to question the newspaper of record, but I can’t tell any real difference between moveon.org and Code Pink. They both trust the Democratic Party to respond to the wishes of the American people, an act of credulity that can best be likened to sending your social security number to one of those email pitches on behalf of the estate of a deceased Nigerian oil millionaire.

In a September 5th posting to CommonDreams.org, Benjamin appeared to have given up on persuading Nancy Pelosi to see things her way. After Code Pink had camped out on her doorstep to begin a hunger strike, the top Democrat screamed “Get away from my house” when she saw the activists. One supposes that the activists were seen by “mommy” Nancy Pelosi as throwing a tantrum. It will take more than camping out on her doorstep and going on a hunger strike to turn this millionaire politician around. Meanwhile, Benjamin still proffers advice to Pelosi: “Use your power as Speaker to only allow bills to the floor that include a fixed timeline for withdrawal or stipulate that funds only be used for the safe and speedy withdrawal of our troops.”

Medea Benjamin: will hold her breath until she turns blue for peace

Watching Matzzie and Benjamin grovel before these ruling class politicians makes me appreciate all the more what Osama bin Laden said in his latest communiqué:

So in answer to the question about the causes of the Democrats’ failure to stop the war, I say: they are the same reasons which led to the failure of former president Kennedy to stop the Vietnam War. Those with real power and influence are those with the most capital. And since the democratic system permits major corporations to back candidates, be they presidential or congressional, there shouldn’t be any cause for astonishment – and there isn’t any- in the Democrats’ failure to stop the war. And you’re the ones who have the saying which goes, “Money talks.”

Moving a few degrees to the left of Medea Benjamin, we end up with United for Peace and Justice, a group that ostensibly still tries to mobilize people in the streets after the fashion so despised by Tom Matzzie. It has sponsored some of the larger actions but tends to deemphasize them in election years. Like Matzzie and Benjamin, UFPJ believes that we have to persuade the Democrats to stand up to Bush more forcibly. I get at least one email a week from their chairperson Leslie Cagan urging me to get in touch with my Congressperson. With all due respect to her, I might as well pray to god to hurl lightning bolts at George W. Bush.

With the Communist Party and its split-off, the Committees of Correspondence–a Eurocommunist type formation– sitting in the driver’s seat of UFPJ, I wouldn’t expect anything much different.

In a June 24 article in the CP’s newspaper titled “The dubious history of a slogan,” Tim Wheeler defends a perspective in line with Mattzie and Benjamin’s, namely relying on the Democrats. Using an addled history of the Vietnam War antiwar movement, Wheeler advises against getting too rowdy with the Democrats. Like Tim Matzzie, he is ready to intercede on their behalf especially when it comes to raising “unrealistic slogans” like immediate withdrawal:

When I hear activists opposed to the Iraq war chant, “Out Now,” it brings back memories of 1971, when the slogan “Out Now” was a cause for sharp division in the movement to end the Vietnam War.

Today, as in 1971, the antiwar bloc is growing on Capitol Hill, with Democrats holding a slim majority. Even as we push for the strongest measures possible, we must be supportive of the compromises the antiwar bloc is forced to make to win a bipartisan majority against the war.

The 2008 elections are 19 months away. Having seen what happened to their pro-war colleagues in last November’s election, many Republican lawmakers are beginning to shift on the war. We may well reach a point where a veto-proof majority will approve binding legislation to end the war. The peace movement, representing the vast majority sentiment against the war, can play a big role in pushing that process forward. If we limit ourselves to reciting “Out Now,” we cannot help these lawmakers build that majority. Once again, there is the broader alternative: “Set the Date!” At this writing, a large bloc of antiwar lawmakers is saying they will vote ‘no’ on a supplemental spending bill because a timeline has been removed.

During the Vietnam antiwar movement, the Trotskyists were just as strong as the CP. They would unite periodically with the pacifists in a coalition that would mount powerful demonstrations in Washington and in major cities around the country.

The CP survived the 1960s with enough forces to be able to pull together a movement modeled on Tim Wheeler’s orientation to the Democrats. It is identical to Alan Charney’s approach but with a different pedigree, the Comintern of the 1930s as opposed to Mitterand’s Socialist International. In either case, you are dealing with naked opportunism.

In the mid 1970s, the American Trotskyist leaders became disoriented by the end of the Vietnam War and the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. They worried that the hundreds of members who were recruited in the 1960s, like me, would spread a middle-class virus in the organization and turn it into a counter-revolutionary force. As a prophylactic, they prescribed a pell-mell “turn” to the proletariat which involved getting jobs in basic industry, whether or not there were political openings. To get recalcitrant members like me to make the turn, the leaders made a point of depicting the factories of the US as about ready to rise en masse against the bosses in a general strike. In 1978, a year marked by the Carter presidency, disco and cocaine, we were told that the workers were more radical than at any time in the 20th century. When I sat in meetings listening to such nonsense, I felt like I was in a Superman episode with the leaders I had so respected being transformed into sectarian nutters. Had Clark been exposed to purple kryptonite or something? Why was he acting so strangely?

Within a decade, the American Trotskyists had lost 80 percent of their members, who voted with their feet.

Shortly before they had committed political suicide, a much smaller group called the Workers World Party began to fill the vacuum they had created. In one crisis after another, they worked with Ramsey Clark to build “coalitions” that would oppose intervention in Panama, Iraq and elsewhere. The reason I put the word coalition in quotes is that they never really were that. A genuine coalition has tensions because they bring together significant political forces with opposing outlooks, like the CP and the Trotskyists in the 1960s. They are difficult to sustain because of contradictions, but they are the best hope for building a mass movement. ANSWER has dispensed with these contradictions by relying on “safe” member groups that would never dream of challenging Brian Becker’s decisions. As somebody who has seen Becker hold forth as if he were Lenin at Zimmerwald, I can’t say that I blame them. It would be an exercise in futility.

So here we are in 2007. ANSWER has called for a “mass march” on Washington next weekend and UFPJ has its own action planned for October 27th. I imagine that ANSWER’s slogans will ignore Tim Wheeler’s warning not to go too far. We can be grateful for that, I suppose. Meanwhile, I expect the UFPJ action to be larger, even if it is meant more as an appeal to Congress than a threat to the existing order.

Well, as discouraging as all this is, we can take heart at one thing. We know that American capitalism will spawn new wars down the road. As with the scorpion that bit the eagle that flew it across the river, it is in its nature. We need to take a good look at what works and what does not work. Contrary to the views of a hustler like Tom Matzzie, the 1960s are still worth studying. In this war and in wars to come, we must rely on the power of people in the streets and not on the bourgeois politicians with their endless string of broken promises. We may not have the millions of dollars that pour into the coffers of moveon.org and A.A.E.I. but we have the truth on our side and that ultimately is a more powerful weapon.

September 8, 2007

Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 4:37 pm

“Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea” is a new documentary on an infamous body of water in southern California that forces us to think deeply about the environmental contradictions of capitalist society. Additionally, it is a glimpse into the lives of the quirky population that chooses to live on the shores of this looming ecological disaster. Think of a mixture of a more sophisticated version of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and Errol Morris’s study of eccentric characters in “Vernon, Florida” and you’ll end up with “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea.”

Directed by Christ Metzler and Jeff Springer, the film starts with some fascinating history. Before there was a sea, there was something called the Salton Sink that was a geological depression near Palm Springs in Imperial Valley. Palm Springs is a famous golf resort area for the wealthy, while the Imperial Valley is a site of some of the state’s biggest agribusinesses. The only thing going on in the Salton Sink just under a century ago was salt mining.

In a bit of history that evokes Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” Imperial Valley farmers used their clout to divert water from the Colorado River to irrigate their fields. The canal that was used to transport the water suffered a breach in 1905, just like New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and water flowed downhill into the Salton Sink, converting it into a thirty-five by fifteen mile wide sea. As a consequence of the underlying mineral beds, the waters became saltier than the ocean.

In an effort to turn the Salton Sea into a tourist attraction, local politicians stocked the sea with salt-water fish like the tilapia. Fifty years after its formation, Salton Sea became a mecca for working class vacationers who could not afford Palm Springs. It was also popular with water-skiers and motor boat enthusiasts. Along with Lake Mead, another very large inland body of water formed by the artificial diversion of the Colorado River, it became a symbol of the post-WWII good life. Vintage newsreels from the 1950s describe towns clustered around the Salton Sea as a kind of miracle in the desert.

As is so often the case with ill-conceived exploitation of natural bodies of water, there are unforeseen consequences. Just like the Soviet Union’s Aral Sea, the Salton Sea began to look more like an inferno than a paradise as the years wore on. This could be attributed to natural and manmade causes. In the first instance, a series of tropical storms swept through the area and flooded most of the homes and businesses that had cropped up in earlier years. Since the Salton Sea has no natural outlet, there was no way for the water to escape. Think of a permanent Hurricane Katrina aftermath and you’ll get the idea of what happened to the Salton Sea area.

Additionally, the water itself became increasingly polluted from runoffs from the Imperial Valley. As is also the case with the Mississippi River, chemical fertilizers have a way of increasing the growth of algae as well as the salinity level. At one point, the Salton Sea was 25 percent saltier than the Pacific. Such conditions led to spectacular fish die-offs. The high water temperature and the dead fish were a natural breeding ground for botulism bacteria and nearby birds began dying in vast numbers as well. The film shows game wardens hauling off dead Pelicans and dumping them into a crematorium, dozens at a time. It is a ghastly site.

As the Salton Sea’s reputation as a sinkhole began to grow, vacationers went elsewhere. The only people who remained were the poor and the elderly, who lacked the funds or the mobility to go elsewhere. There were also some who felt at home in this peculiar environment. Quintessential Californians, they found the natural environment–odd as it was–the perfect place for the purposes. One of them is a nudist in his 70s or 80s who conducts an interview with the film-makers wearing nothing but a pair of tennis shoes. Another is a folk artist who builds a mountain from old car tires, etc. on top of which can be found various Christian icons. The quirkiest, however, is Laszlo Orosz, aka “Hunky Daddy,” a Hungarian “freedom fighter” who came to the US after the Soviet tanks smashed the rebellion. His days are spent drinking beer and schmoozing with local children who are mostly Black or Latino. After a few cans of beer, he shows off what appears to be break dancing poses or pulls down his pants (only to his underwear) to “moon” the children. We learn that eccentrics such as “Hunky Daddy” are accepted on their own terms in the netherworld of the Salton Sea.

It should be mentioned that the film is narrated by John Waters, a perfect choice given the quirky nature of the film’s various characters.

Against the long, steady decline of the area, a savior eventually came along in the personage of Congressman Sonny Bono, who was voted into office by Palm Springs Republicans. As a long-time environmentalist, Bono felt that the Sea was worth saving and sponsored legislation to preserve the Sea. This involved creating an outlet for excess water as well as measures to reverse legislation that cut off inflows from the Columbia River. The Sea existed in a delicate balance with the outside world and might be lost forever without proper safeguards. Unfortunately, a skiing accident that cost his life nipped these projects in the bud and the future of the Sea remains in doubt.

Despite its dubious origins, the Sea evolved into an extremely important bird habitat. With “development” rampant all across California, migrating birds have made the Salton Sea area a key nesting place on routes north or south. In one of the films many fascinating interviews, an environmentalist asks where the birds are supposed to go if their habitat is destroyed. If rich people in California could care less about the birds, they certainly will have to deal with the dust storms from the dry beds of a Salton Sea that is allowed to evaporate. Golf-playing Republicans in Palm Springs would have their days ruined by a mouthful of dust.

For information on how to preserve the Salton Sea and for film screening schedules, go to the official website at: www.saltonseadoc.com.

September 7, 2007

I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With

Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 7:55 pm

Jeff Garlin

Back in 1980 my creative writing instructor at NYU School of Continuing Ed made a point that has stuck with me all these years. He said that it is harder to write comedy than serious drama or fiction. When I think of all the garbage that Hollywood churns out, I am grateful for something as sharp and as adult as Jeff Garlin’s “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With.” There is practically no publicity for the film. Even though Garlin is a star of the popular “Curb Your Enthusiasm” show, HBO has not even seen fit to spread the word. Since it will probably close before I even finish this review, I strongly urge New Yorkers or anybody fortunate to live in a city that is not monopolized by “Superbad” and “Balls of Fury” to go check it out. It is something special.

Garlin wrote, directed and stars in the film. As executive producer and co-star of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, it should not come as any surprise that the movie has a strong family resemblance. Like Larry David, the Jeff Garlin character is a professional comedian whose daily vicissitudes serve as a plot mechanism. Garlin’s cast includes a number of familiar faces from the HBO show, including Mina Kolb, who plays his mother in the film and on HBO. Garlin, Kolb and a number of other the crew are veterans of Chicago’s Second City comedy improvisational troupe. Second City has been a spawning ground for many of Saturday Night Live’s top talents, from Danny Aykroyd to John Belushi.

Indeed, the movie probably incorporates autobiographical elements since the main character James Aaron, who is played by Garlin, is a member of Second City who lives in Chicago. Unlike the high-powered talents of Second City, James Aaron is something of a loser. He lives with his mother, is grossly overweight, and can’t find a girlfriend. His career is also going nowhere. When the film begins, we see Aaron doing a television gig that involves “Punked” type gags against unsuspecting, everyday people including an auto mechanic played by Tim Kazurinsky, another veteran of Second City, SNL, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Playing a television personality who supposedly reunites long-lost relatives, James Aaron introduces a teenage girl as the auto mechanic’s daughter from a youthful one-night stand. Just about as he is to embrace her, Aaron lets him in on the “joke”–she is just an actress hired for the spoof. As the broken-hearted mechanic walks away, he tells Aaron that it was not funny at all. Clearly, this is Garlin’s take on the cruel nature of most comedy today.

Eventually Aaron discovers that a new version of Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” is being filmed in Chicago. Eager to star in a movie that seems made for him, he shows up at a casting call only to discover that a heartthrob teen idol is playing the overweight butcher who lives with his mom. Clearly, the real remake of “Marty” is not the film Aaron auditions for, but “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With,” which unlike the original is played for laughs. Despite the comic intent of Garlin’s film, it retains the wistfulness of Chayefsky’s classic. When James Aaron sits at the dinner table with his mom discussing his lonely life, we are witnessing the same kind of heartbreak that Marty, as played by Ernest Borgnine, suffered.

In the original “Marty,” there’s a happy ending as the butcher discovers a homely spinster who is ready to share her life with somebody like him. In keeping with the somewhat more shark-infested waters of the entertainment industry as opposed to retail butcher shops in the Bronx, James Aaron’s love interest is an oversexed and somewhat malicious character named Beth who works part-time in an ice cream shop that he has visited to drown his sorrows in. Played by Sarah Silverman, the “edgy” young comedienne who has a mean streak like her character, the female part of this budding relationship seems iffy at best. One cannot escape feeling that Jeff Garlin has run into a fair amount of Beths in his life.

Although the comedy in Garlin’s flick appears to be drawn from the same well as “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” I was reminded of more than anything Jules Feiffer’s classic comic strips from the Village Voice in the early to mid-1960s when his characters sat around discussing their frustrations in love or in making a living. Garlin has a golden ear for the way that real people talk to each other and complete sympathy for their survival mechanisms.

In real life Garlin has struggled with a weight problem as well as with Adult Attention Disorder (ADD). Doctors have warned him that it is a matter of life and death for him to shed pounds. Only 7 years ago, he suffered a stroke at the age of 37. A June 25, 2006 NY Times Magazine profile on Garlin summed up his outlook on this and other challenges. Given the obsession with fame and wealth cultivated by the entertainment industry and its publicists, his take on things is a breath of fresh air:

Garlin recently appeared in the documentary ”Fired” because, he said: ”I’m notorious for getting fired and A.D.D. has led to a lot of it. I was fired from Fashion Conspiracy at the Broward Mall — I was a stock boy — for pushing my friend, who was also a stock boy, into the mannequins. Every time the manager would go, ‘What happened?’ I’d say, ‘It’s a conspiracy.’

”As a stand-up comedian,” he went on, ”I’ve been fired a dozen times easily. I got fired from a pilot with Julianne Moore. My show not being picked up is essentially being fired. But I think everyone should aspire to get fired. There’s nothing better when you’re down, those moments of picking yourself back up. And that even goes for having heart problems, having epilepsy, Type 2 diabetes, a stroke. Man, to battle through adversity, to rise above it and beat it — there’s nothing better than that. I don’t look for adversity. I deal with adversity.”

Despite this, Garlin has been a tremendous success in getting people to laugh. Go see “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With” and you’ll see what I mean.

September 5, 2007

Ernest Mandel

Filed under: economics,Film,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

Last night I watched two excellent documentaries about Ernest Mandel that are available in a 2-DVD package. Details, including pricing, can be obtained from mandeldvd@gmail.com. The first film, which runs for 40 minutes, is titled “A man called Ernest Mandel” and is directed by Frans Buyens. It consists of an interview given to Buyens in 1972, at a time when Mandel was at the height of his fame and his power. It is a remarkable display of his intellect and forceful personality. Directed by Chris Den Hond, the companion film is titled “A life for the revolution” and runs for 90 minutes. Alongside interviews with Mandel, we hear veterans of the Trotskyist movement like Tariq Ali, Michael Warschawski, Alain Krivine and Catherine Samary offering their views on his political legacy. It also includes commentary by academic leftists, who were unanimous in recognizing his contributions to Marxist economic and political theory. But most importantly, it contains stirring footage of class battles that Mandel responded to internationally over his remarkable career thus dramatizing his revolutionary activism. Despite his commitment to “intellectual work,” he was always ready to mount the barricades.

Although I now view the Fourth International as a project that was doomed at the outset, the film reminded me of why I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967. More than anybody, except for Peter Camejo, Mandel could make you feel that such a decision was the most important a human being could ever make. When Mandel was 13 years old, he made such a decision himself. His father, who was sympathetic to the Trotskyist movement, had invited a circle of like-minded people in Belgium to discuss how to respond to the Moscow trials, whose defendants included people he knew well. On the spot, Mandel decided that he too was a Trotskyist and only 3 years later became a militant in the movement.

Within 5 years, WWII would break out and Mandel became part of the resistance to Nazi occupation in Belgium. He tells an interviewer that he was arrested twice but managed to escape. He shrugs his shoulders and says that he was lucky not to have been executed. Although the film does not mention it, one of the escapes was facilitated by a German guard who responded to his socialist appeals, as Socialist Action member Barry Weisleder recounts:

Twice, early in his political career, Mandel came close to his demise. Both times he escaped incarceration by the Nazis. The first time he was arrested for distributing anti-fascist leaflets to the occupying German soldiers. As a revolutionary and a Jew, Mandel was sent to a transit camp for prisoners en route to Auschwitz. Ernest was a strong believer in his own capacity to convince anyone of the merits of socialism. On this basis he started talking to his jailers. The other Belgian and French prisoners regarded their captors as hopelessly reactionary, even sub-human. But Ernest talked to them, soon discovering that some of them had been members of now-banned Social Democratic and Communist parties. He impressed them so much that they helped him to escape. This experience also deepened Mandel’s internationalism. He refused to write off a whole nationality because of the crimes of its leaders.

As a Marxist economist, Mandel’s reputation was second to none. We learn that Che Guevara had read his “Marxist Economic Theory” and invited him to Cuba to discuss the “transition” problem. As someone who was particularly concerned about the problems of bureaucracy, Guevara (the film reveals that he proposed that government officials make no more than an ordinary worker), he sought out Mandel’s advice on how to fight it. This took a certain amount of nerve on Guevara’s part since the visit coincided with new initiatives by the Cuban government to cement ties with the USSR. There is extraordinary footage of Che Guevara in the film, including a speech to the UN in which he excoriates American imperialism. It is worth the price of the DVD just to hear Che tell it like it is.

We also learn that Sandinista leader Henry Ruiz kept one of Mandel’s books in his knapsack when he was a guerrilla operating in the mountains. Since survival in the mountains required carrying only that which is essential–like food, ammunition and medicine–this is a testament to Mandel’s authority on the left.

Mandel became a central leader of the Fourth International when it was a marginal tendency on the left. Den Hond’s documentary explains that whatever it lacked in numbers, it made up for in audacity. The Trotskyists decided to do everything they could to help the Algerian revolution, including sending the top leader Michel Raptis (Pablo) to work with Ben Bella after the triumph. Notwithstanding the importance of Mandel’s writings on workers control finding their way into the Algerian constitution, perhaps the largest contribution was made by a Belgian machinist and rank-and-file Trotskyist who traveled to North Africa to set up machine shops that turned out machine guns for the FLN. For its part, the French CP threatened expulsion if any party member took part in such activities. In an altogether enchanting interview, this militant realized that after arriving in Morocco he was in an entirely different world. Instead of hearing church bells in the morning, he heard the sounds of “Allah Akhbar” streaming from the minarets.

It was work on behalf of the FLN that inspired a number of French Communist youth to affiliate with the Trotskyists, including Alain Krivine, who would become a central leader and whose observations figure heavily in Den Hond’s film. Only a few years later, a new layer of radicalized youth–including me–would join on the same basis, as the Vietnam War forced one to take a stand. Perhaps the best known of them was Tariq Ali, a Pakistani intellectual who had become a leader of the British antiwar movement.

Although I am by no means in Tariq Ali’s league (just as well in many ways), I learned that we left the Trotskyist movement for exactly the same reasons. As the sixties radicalization was dying down, the American Trotskyists decided that something had to be done about the large number of “middle class” youth who had recently been recruited. In order to make sure that capitalist pressure would not turn them into a corrosive force within the proletarian vanguard, they would be transformed into proletarians by “colonizing industry.” Although political “openings” in the working class was the ostensible purpose of the “turn,” the real purpose was prophylactic so to speak.

Apparently Mandel agreed with the turn and urged the European Trotskyists to follow suit. This led to demoralization and the loss of thousands of cadre. Ali was so shocked at Mandel’s susceptibility to the “turn” especially in light of his supposed mastery of Marxist sociology and economics that he decided to resign.

All of those 60s veterans interviewed in Den Hond’s film who have remained politically active since Mandel’s death in 1995 seem quite a bit older and wiser. For the most part, Mandel’s career was tied up with the Soviet experience which shaped both the 1930s and 1960s radicalization that his career straddled. Those of us who live in a post-Soviet world are trying to feel our way through a new paradigm. If Mandel seems a bit overly “optimistic” looking back in retrospect, his passion for social justice will never be out of fashion. If for no other reasons, these two documentaries are must-viewing as a reminder of what it was like to be on the barricades because undoubtedly the contradictions of capitalism–particularly hastened by the latest brutal imperialist war–will call them into existence sooner or later.

September 3, 2007

Salvador Allende

Filed under: Film,Latin America — louisproyect @ 4:02 pm

Made in 2004, Patricio Guzmán’s “Salvador Allende” makes its debut at New York’s Anthology Film Archives from September 5-13. Guzmán, who fled Chile after Pinochet’s coup, also directed “The Battle for Chile,” a film trilogy on Allende’s government that I have not seen. Although there is a tendency to sidestep painful political lessons from the 1973 coup in “Salvador Allende,” I strongly urge New Yorkers to see it. It is an extremely moving account of the life and death of a socialist politician, whose career would seem to speak to the contemporary situation in Latin America, where a democratic transition to socialism seems to be unfolding to one degree or another in Venezuela. Given the hostility of the US and the upper classes in Allende’s Chile and Hugo Chavéz’s Venezuela, a documentary such as “Salvador Allende” offers much food for thought.

It is obvious from “Salvador Allende” and from reviews of “Battle for Chile” (a film that I have not seen) that Guzmán is a partisan of the Popular Unity government, a coalition of working class and bourgeois parties that campaigned successfully for Allende in 1970. Despite this, the film is not uncritical. In a gut-wrenching segment that occurs toward the end of the film, a group of worker-militants–now in advanced middle-age–think back ruefully on the period and wonder why they were so ill-prepared to resist the coup. One, barely holding back tears, says, “We should have done more to strengthen the cords.” As somebody who followed the events in Chile closely between 1970 and 1973, this reference was obscure even to me. What was a cord?

In the course of looking at some studies of the Popular Unity government days after seeing the film, I discovered the answer. Cord is the nickname for cordónes, the neighborhood and factory based committees that Chileans recognized as a form of “people’s power.” If organized and armed on a nation-wide basis, this institution and others like it could have successfully beaten back the coup. Unfortunately, Allende’s Socialist Party and the Communists were suspicious of the grass roots movement and relied almost exclusively on official state institutions such as parliament and the army to promote an agenda that while progressive stopped short of the elimination of private property.

“Salvador Allende” is filled with oblique references to this failure but focuses more on Allende the individual, whose tragic inability to remain in power obviously flows from his political roots. In one of the film’s very revealing interviews, the former mayor of Allende’s hometown Valparaiso, a self-described Communist and friend, states that Allende identified with the values of the French Revolution and never once defended Marxist ideas in private conversations, even though he was familiar with the literature. Another interviewee states that Allende’s earliest ideological influence was an Italian anarchist shoemaker. These two accounts add up to a portrait of somebody committed to the ideas of freedom, but not in the best position to realize them through the exercise of state power.

The film excels at bringing to life the long journey Allende made in Chilean politics. Contrary to the impression many people–including me–have of the Popular Unity government being something unique in Chilean history, the first popular front government was elected in 1938, a Latin American counterpart of the Spanish and French Socialist Party-led coalition governments. On that occasion, the 30 year old Allende became Minister of Health. Like Che Guevara, Allende was a trained physician. After the popular front was voted out of office, Allende continued to run for regional and national offices for the remainder of his political career. The film includes fascinating scenes of the young Allende speaking to crowds of working class people with joyful expressions on their face. If Allende lacked a clear vision of how their interests could be defended through the use of state power, he at least was always forceful about what those interests were.

If Allende was torn between revolutionary and reformist impulses, there was little doubt that his main coalition partners in the CP of Chile were far more dedicated to staying within the framework of bourgeois democracy and deferring to the rule of capital. On June 20, 1972, the NY Times editorialized:

President Allende has moved to resolve a severe crisis within his Popular Unity coalition in Chile by rejecting the radical counsel of his own Socialist party and adopting the more moderate and conciliatory approach urged by the Communists. In thus shifting back toward the center of Chile’s political spectrum, Dr. Allende has reduced the danger of large-scale civil strife and given his revamped Government its best chance to revive a sagging economy.

The Communists hurl such epithets as ‘infantile’ and ‘elitist’ at the M.I.R. and condemn its illegal seizures of farms and factories. They urge consolidation, rather than rapid extension, of the Allende Government’s economic and social programs, negotiations on constitutional reform with the opposition Christian Democrats and a working relationship with private businesses. Dr. Allende has now taken this road in an effort to curb unemployment and inflation and to boost production.

Whatever unwillingness he had to confront big business within Chile’s borders, Salvador Allende never backed down from global capital in various speeches, including one made to the United Nations on September 4, 1972 speech to the United Nations. Guzmán correctly points out that this speech was one of the first to recognize the problems of “globalization” in language that sounds strikingly to Naomi Klein or Walden Bello:

We are faced by a direct confrontation between the large transnational corporations and the states. The corporations are interfering in the fundamental political, economic and military decisions of the states. The corporations are global organizations that do not depend on any state and whose activities are not controlled by, nor are they accountable to any parliament or any other institution representative of the collective interest. In short, all the world political structure is being undermined. The dealers don’t have a country. The place where they may be does not constitute any kind of link; the only thing they are interested in is where they make profits.

Fundamentally, there was a disjunction between Allende’s obvious commitment to ending this dependency on imperialist corporations and his willingness to empower the only class in society that had the power to do so. In a delicate balancing act between a radicalized proletariat and peasantry and the more privileged classes in Chile and their American benefactors, Allende hoped to make incremental changes that would tip the scales in favor of the poor. Unfortunately, the rich and important sectors of the middle class would not respect parliamentary rules and began to plot to overthrow Allende, just as has been the case in Venezuela. While Guzmán is quite penetrating when it comes to the machinations of the rich, he tends to hold back when it comes to contradictions within the left.

Apparently, there is much more willingness in Guzmán’s “The Battle for Chile” to examine the clash between the Popular Unity government and its base. The World Socialist Website, which tends to sectarianism frequently despite its generally astute political analysis, was quite generous in its review of “The Battle for Chile,” which it regarded as a “heartfelt testament to Pinochet’s victims.” It made clear that the ambivalence about and or hostility to “people’s power” within the upper circles of Allende’s government were shared by the director, whose remarks in a Q&A following a screening of the film in London, demonstrated an unwillingness to come to terms with Mao’s observation that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun:

Guzmán described the trilogy at a question and answer session after the screening as a tribute to the Popular Unity government period and Allende particularly. This was clearly the intention of The Coup, but because of the way the film was made, a more critical picture of the situation in Chile still emerges. It is clear, for example, that the workers were a huge and potent force. In the middle of July workers took the streets of the Vicuna McKenna district. In the ensuing stand-off the mayor of Santiago had to be called in to move the police two blocks away. Workers are repeatedly seen demanding arms to defend Allende, arms which Allende was denying them. An old member of the Communist Party is seen warning that if the workers lose it will be like Spain after the civil war.

The issue of arms crops up repeatedly. Allende, who refused to create a workers militia, dismissed his police from La Moneda before the bombardment began, leaving only 40 bodyguards. As the coup approached, the military stepped up weapons searches in order to gauge the strength of the workers. At the question session, Guzmán expressly disagreed that the refusal to arm the workers had been a mistake. It would have been impossible, he said, because the military would have known it was happening. In any case, it was already known that the military were preparing a coup. In other words, once it began the coup was inevitably going to be a success. Yet even in the last few days before the coup, the streets of Santiago were filled with mass demonstrations in defence of Allende.

Despite both coming to power through the ballot, there are significant differences between Allende and Hugo Chavéz. First of all, Chavéz was a military officer himself with broad connections to leftist officers, perhaps the most striking characteristic of Venezuelan politics where an Air Force general is described by Richard Gott in “Shadow of the Liberator” as having “Trotskyist” politics. By contrast, Air Force officers in the US tend to be followers of the Christian Right.

But more importantly, the primary ideological inspiration for Chavéz’s movement is revolutionary socialism rather than 1930s style popular frontism. According to Gott, a number of Chavéz’s primary influences were Marxists to the left of the CP. In declaring for a 21st century socialism, Chavéz has made repeated references to the failure of Soviet socialism in terms that reflect the influences of the Trotskyist movement. Of course, as is always the case with Chavéz, he makes up his own mind based on what he thinks is right. This includes his willingness to stand up to the bourgeois parties in Venezuela, unlike Allende who kept making concession after concession to the Christian Democrats who were plotting his overthrow. To show that he was deferential to their interests, he kept bringing military men into his cabinet and even put Pinochet in charge of public security not 6 months before Pinochet overthrew his government.

Guzmán reflects a tendency that was very strong on the Chilean left and that even included the radical guerrillas of the MIR. It found itself torn between support for Allende’s government and support for the “people’s power” in the street that could have been Chile’s salvation.

In reviewing one of the better leftwing critiques of the Popular Unity government (the aptly titled “Chile: The State and Revolution” by Ian Roxborough, Philip O’Brien and Jackie Roddick), I came across the words of ordinary Chilean workers from this period reflecting an acute awareness of the danger they faced. This interview with a “Socialist militant” from the Cordón San Joaquín appeared in Chile Hoy a month before the coup:

Chile Hoy: What do the majority of the comrades in the cordon think of the new cabinet? [one that included military officers]:

Socialist militant from Cordon San Joaquin: We have not discussed it yet. But certainly people are very confused. In fact, the demonstration today lacks a sense of combativity, there is no common purpose, and there are no clear slogans. One can see that the masses don’t look on the incorporation of military men into the cabinet with much sympathy. There is no clarity. The parties should tell the masses what their reasons are for choosing this road. Neither Calderon nor Figueroa (both leaders of the CUT, and ex members of the government, the first Socialist, the second Communist) filled this need in their speeches. And it would have been difficult for them to do it, in this climate of agitation. The president of Cordon Vicuna Mackenna, where the movement to take over factories after June 29th was strongest:

We saw this cabinet as a betrayal of the working class. It shows that the government is still vacillating and has no confidence in the working class. The generals in the cabinet are a guarantee for the capitalists, just as they were in October, a guarantee for Vilarin (leader of the striking lorry owners) and not for the working class. We’ve already been through this solution: More tyres and trucks for Vilarin . . . the same thing again. For this reason, we think that the situation is quite dangerous, because we think the army’s searches will continue and we believe that many of those now fighting will fall, including those of us who are at this moment struggling for People’s Power.

Youtube: the final speech of Salvador Allende

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