Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 15, 2008

Bruce Kovner: capitalist pig of the month

Filed under: capitalist pig,real estate — louisproyect @ 6:05 pm

Bruce Kovner

Around 8 years ago I was puzzled to see scaffolding wrap the entire edifice of the International Center for Photography (ICP) on Fifth Avenue and 94th Street, about a five minute walk from my apartment. Was the museum, one of my favorite, being refurbished behind the metal cocoon? Nearly every museum in my neighborhood on the Upper East Side, where I am blessed to live at least for the time being, goes through expansion or remodeling from time to time.

Kovner’s house

I soon learned that the ICP had moved to midtown, something I found inexplicable. When a museum moves out of its long-time headquarters, something seemed deeply wrong, especially when I learned that some unnamed party had bought the building in order to turn it into his private mansion–an act I found barbarian.

In this week’s Nation Magazine, in a very good article on the “wealth gap” in New York by Gabriel Thompson, I finally learned the identity of the barbarian who purchased the ICP building. It was Bruce Kovner, a Jewish-American hedge fund manager who earned $715 million two years ago. Kovner is also one of the major funders of rightwing think tanks and journals in the U.S.A., including the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Manhattan Institute and the New York Sun. With such lavish sums at his disposal, Kovner decided to purchase yet another home:

The “upside” of income inequality is best considered from above: for example, with a view from the fifth floor of Kovner’s mansion overlooking Central Park, which he purchased in 1999 from the International Center of Photography for $17.5 million. With the infusion of another $10 million in renovations, the structure–which had contained two floors of gallery space, the museum school and offices–was transformed into his private fortress. In the basement is a rare-book vault, where Kovner presumably keeps copies of an edition of the King James Bible that he financed, with a price tag in excess of $20,000 per volume. Other vantage points from which to assess the benefits of growing income inequality in a clear-eyed fashion might include Kovner’s 200-acre estate in Millbrook, New York, or his twelve acres of linked oceanfront properties in Carpinteria, California, which he purchased last year for $70 million in what the Wall Street Journal called “among the largest U.S. residential real-estate deals.”

According to a profile on Kovner that appeared in New York Magazine (more below), the mansion features a two-story bedroom, a media room, a basement library to house his collection of rare European illustrated books, eighteen bathrooms, and one bidet. Since Kovner is supposed to be single, one wonders why he would feel the need for 18 johns. I guess he is a very shitty person.

Like Ira Rennert, the winner of my last capitalist pig of the month in January who provoked his Long Island neighbors into a rebellion against his garish 78,000 square foot mansion, Kovner also alienated his neighbors on 94th street with his plans for turning the ICP into a 35,000 square foot McMansion, as the N.Y. Times reported on October 5, 2003:

The stately, red-brick structure, once the headquarters of the International Center of Photography, was purchased by the hedge fund financier Bruce Kovner in 1999 for a reported $17 million. Mr. Kovner is converting the Federal-style building back to its original form, an opulent private residence. Neighbors, however, have complained of excessive dust, interrupted phone service and obstructed traffic.

Perhaps most frustrating is the timetable; construction began two years ago and will last until 2005, much to the dismay of residents already fatigued by the 7 a.m. wake-up calls via jackhammer. “It can be a royal pain,” Anna Olafsson, a resident of the block, said of the construction. “We don’t call this 94th Street anymore. We call it Construction Street.”

While these sorts of contradictions among the ruling class are of some interest, it is Kovner’s war on the poor that deserves much more of our attention. Gabriel Thompson fills in the details:

Over at AEI, labor unions are a target of visiting scholar Richard Vedder. In 2002 he co-wrote a report with Lowell Gallaway that concluded, with the help of a number of confusing charts, that between 1947 and 2000 unions cost the US economy more than $50 trillion in lost income and output. As an example of how unions damage our economy with their burdensome demands, the authors link the decline of the coal industry not primarily to a shift in other energy sources like oil and gas but to the militancy of the United Mine Workers. Another way to evaluate the worth of the UMW would be to study the number of lives saved through union-won protections, but such calculations hold little interest for Vedder. Vedder is also an enthusiastic cheerleader for Wal-Mart; he penned a book about the virtues of the company and has argued that Wal-Mart is a “force for good” that is “saving America.”

The living wage as socialist plot, unions as massive drain on the economy and Wal-Mart as corporate savior: this is the sort of scholarship that Kovner subsidizes. Without squinting too hard, the outlines of such a capitalistic dream world–imagined by well-paid fellows and funded by a billionaire–comes into focus: out from under the thumb of Big Labor, workers are free to work long hours for whatever wages a boss feels like paying. If they fall ill, they’re free to visit the emergency room. If they’re really sick, they’re free to declare bankruptcy. With Wal-Mart as the model, all workers become associates, free from the bonds of health coverage and overtime pay.

For a glimpse into the personal background of the publicity-shy Bruce Kovner, just one month younger than me, the best place to turn is a New York Magazine profile by Philip Weiss titled “George Soros’s Right-Wing Twin” that appeared in Jul 24, 2005.

As it turns out, Kovner’s ultraright politics ran counter to those of his grandfather Nathan and his great-uncle Benjamin, who were a couple of revolutionaries fleeing Czarist repression. And it didn’t stop there. Two of Kovner’s father’s cousins were accused by HUAC of being communists in the labor movement in the fifties. Both took the Fifth. Pat Kovner, Bruce’s cousin, recalled, “It was a terrible time of repression and people losing their jobs and being humiliated in public. People were frightened to death.” Around the same time, Kovner’s second cousin, Fay Kovner Mukes, was accused of heading the “Hollywood Communist Club.”

Bruce Kovner’s father, Isidore “Moishe” Kovner, a mechanical engineer who moved the family to California, did not share his relatives’ politics. Weiss reports that he crossed a picket line to work in an aircraft factory during World War II. Fay Kovner Mukes recounts, “He was visiting at [his cousin] Julius’s house, and when Julius found out he was a scab, he threw him out and said, ‘I want nothing to do with you.’”

Kovner entered Harvard College in 1962, where he became a prize student of Edward C. Banfield. Banfield had been in Roosevelt’s New Deal farm administration, but eventually became a reactionary, specializing in hatred of the poor. Kovner became part of Banfield’s intellectual circle alongside Daniel Patrick Moynihan, theorist of “benign neglect” and James Q. Wilson, a professor emeritus at Harvard University who argued on behalf of executing mentally retarded people thusly: “Why should being stupid excuse one from a penalty that is routinely imposed on people who are not stupid?” Where is the Jonathan Swift of our age who might be equipped to deal with the genuine stupidity of a James Q. Wilson?

After an unsuccessful attempt at writing a PhD, Kovner moved to New York where he tried began driving a cab while pursuing a free-lance journalism career. Not long afterwards, Kovner discovered the commodities market and began to make money, eventually going to work for an outfit called Commodities Corp that was absorbed by Goldman-Sachs. He started his own company in 1983 and began his long march to the top of the financial food chain.

Although it is beyond the scope of this post to explain hedge funds, a word or two might be useful. These are basically unregulated private investment corporations trading on behalf of extremely wealthy individuals and institutions. They traditionally “hedge” their investments by techniques such as “selling short”, which involves selling securities that one does not own, in the hopes that they can be repurchased at bargain basement prices when their market price has declined. Needless to say, hedge funds are extremely risky as the LTCM fiasco would illustrate. To show how risky they can be, Kovner’s own fortunes have declined in an increasingly unstable market. Last year he earned a paltry $100 million, hardly enough to keep his 18 bathrooms stocked with Charmin’s finest.

In the course of researching this article, I found myself increasingly and morbidly fascinated by Edward C. Banfield, who comes across as one of the meanest intellectuals ever. Banfield served as head of the Presidential Task Force on Model Cities under President Richard M. Nixon, one of the meanest presidents in our history. His best-known and most controversial work is the 1970 “The Unheavenly City”, an excerpt of which appeared in a N.Y. Times op-ed piece that year:

The tangle of social pathologies that people mainly have in mind when they speak of “the urban crisis” arises principally from the presence in the inner districts of the central cities and of their larger, older suburbs of a small “lower class” the defining feature of which is its inability (or at any rate failure) to take account of the future and to control impulses.

The lower (as opposed to working) class person never sacrifices any present satisfaction for the sake of a larger future one. He lives from moment to moment.

This is to say, he does not discipline himself to acquire an occupational or other skill, to hold down a regular job, to maintain stable family ties, or to stay out of trouble with the law. His bodily needs (especially for sex) and his taste for “action” take precedence over everything else. The slum is his natural habitat. He does not care how dirty, and dilapidated his housing is, and he does not notice or care about the deficiencies of public facilities like schools, parks, and libraries. Indeed, the very qualities that make the slum repellent to others make it attractive to him. He likes the feeling that something violent is about to happen and he likes the opportunities to buy or sell illicit commodities and to find concealment from the police.

When I read this garbage, a feeling of déjà vu comes over me. Where have I read this sort of thing before? And then it dawns on me, it is the same kind of hatred of the poor that you could find in the 19th century.

For example, Charles Loring Brace, the head of New York City’s Children’s Aid Society, argued that the “greatest danger” to America’s future was the “existence of an ignorant, debased, and permanently poor class in the great cities. . . . The members of it come at length to form a separate population. They embody the lowest passions and the most thriftless habits of the community. They corrupt the lowest class of working-poor who are around them. The expenses of police, prisons, of charities and means of relief, arise mainly from them.”

Meanwhile, the draconian British New Poor Law of 1834 was designed to save the poor from themselves:

We must make it evident that in the exercise of moral restraint, and by industry, sobriety, a peaceful demeanour, an economical management of their resources, and a far-sighted provision for the day of calamity from which few are exempt, they may escape the misery into which imprudent marriages, insobriety, irregularity, turbulence, infrugality and improvidence plunge men gifted by nature with every quality necessary to procure happiness.

By the end of the 19th century, the very same social process that had condemned the poor to lives of unremitting misery had allowed the Bruce Kovner’s of that time to live like Kings and Queens. If you stroll around Manhattan’s Upper East Side, you can see what their ill-gotten gains bought them. From the Astors to the Rockefellers, there are mansions dotting the landscape–most of which were turned eventually into consulates or museums.

In keeping with the historical regression we are now enduring, it is fitting that one of these very museums is now owned by somebody like Bruce Kovner, who was taught at Harvard University that it good for the poor to fend for themselves. With people like Kovner aspiring to become the new robber barons, it is only natural that outfits like the American Enterprise Institute are churning out propaganda by the day that seeks nothing less than to turn the clock back to 1890.

As it turns out, the mansion now owned by Kovner was built for somebody originally who embodied the contradictions of that age. Unlike an Edward C. Banfield or a Bruce Kovner, Willard Dickerman Straight–the original owner–did not accept Victorian era values unreservedly. Straight was an investment banker and diplomat who served in the hot spots of the American Empire, from Cuba to China. After an anti-colonial revolt in China forced Straight to high-tail it back to the United States in 1912, he founded a new magazine called The New Republic dedicated to the values of Progressivism, a movement that challenged the excesses of late-19th century capitalism. The first editor was Herbert Croly, the author of “The Promise of American Life”, a book that argued for a planned economy, increased spending on education and the creation of a society based on the “brotherhood of mankind”. Some of the frequent contributors to The New Republic in this period were Walter Weyl, Randolph Bourne, Charles Beard, Amy Lowell, Henry Brailsford and H. G. Wells.

Like the Nation Magazine, the New Republic was never quite able to take the side of the working class since its own middle-class prejudices induced the same kind of fears expressed by Banfield, but not to the same extremes. For example, the Progressives as well as their Fabian cousins in Great Britain looked to eugenics as a way of dealing with society’s underachievers. Wells, for example, once wrote: “It is in the sterilisation of failure, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies.” Some critics even believe that the “degenerate” man-creatures portrayed in The Time Machine exemplify Wells’s eugenic beliefs.

The recent stock-market slide and the subprime mortgage/credit crisis have led some Marxists and mainstream journalists to speak in terms of a new Great Depression. That decade looms large in our minds since it sparked a massive radicalization that could have succeeded in the abolition of capitalism in country after country if not for the bankrupt policies of Stalin’s Comintern.

I would suggest that the current crisis will eventually work its way through with the usual amount of pain and dislocation experienced by those who are not fortunate enough to live in 35,000 foot mansions on Fifth Avenue.

Moreover, it would appear that the proper time-frame analogy is not 1929 through 1940 but 1880 to 1900 or so. The fact that hedge fund robber barons are once again ensconced on Fifth Avenue, while Harvard Professors write screeds against the poor should wake us up to the period we are living in.

I think that Doug Henwood understands this completely as evidenced by his article in the Nation that appears side-by-side with Gabriel Thompson’s:

It has become a cliché to say that we live in a new Gilded Age. True enough, up to a point. Money, mostly new money, rules politics and culture. Corporations merge into ever larger corporations. You have to go back to before World War I to match today’s levels of income and wealth inequality.

In some ways, the second Gilded Age is worse than the first. Sure, we live longer now, more of us can read and you don’t have to be a white man to be able to vote. But to prove my point, consider two big parties, thrown 110 years apart.

In February 1897 elite lawyer Bradley Martin and his wife, Cornelia, threw a costume ball at the Waldorf. J.P. Morgan dressed as Molière, John Jacob Astor dressed as Henry of Navarre and brandished a sword covered in jewels, and fifty women dressed as Marie Antoinette. But the hosts were so nervous about “men of socialistic tendencies” that they surrounded the hotel with Pinkertons and had the first-floor windows nailed shut.

Given the similarity between our age and the first Gilded Age, we are invited to think about the possibilities for the rebirth of the kind of mass socialist movement that existed in the time of J.P. Morgan. If there is anything that remains true in politics to this day, it is that the poor and the working class will soon learn where their own class interests lie. As a weak and marginalized movement that is still bearing the brunt of the collapse of the USSR and social democracy in Europe and elsewhere, it will be a difficult job to organize a new movement when so many pundits tell us that our time in history has come and gone. We can only reply that as long as there are scumbags like Bruce Kovner lording it over us, we will find a way to struggle and to win.

June 11, 2008

Henryk Grossman as dependency theorist

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

Robert Brenner wrote an article titled “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism” for the July-August 1977 New Left Review that repeated his thesis that capitalism originated in the British countryside and had little to do with 17th and 18th century colonialism. In the name of defending classical Marxism, he also downplayed 20th century neocolonialism–his reaction to the perceived Third Worldist excesses of the 1960s. My comrade, the late Jim Blaut, saw it this way:

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

Brenner took aim at “dependency theory”, an analysis of the imperialist system developed by Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran in “Monopoly Capital”. Other writers associated with this school included Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank and Samir Amin. Basically, the theory stressed the division of the world into core and periphery nations and described the role of capitalism in the Third World as the “development of underdevelopment” to use A.G. Frank’s words, an idea that seemed uncontroversial to me after visiting Tanzania and Zambia in 1990.

Brenner’s article starts out by repeating some of his ideas on the origins of capitalism and then proceeds to a slashing attack on the dependency school whose ideas allegedly grew out of their failure to understand that capitalism owed nothing to slavery, colonialism and other forms of primitive accumulation in Latin America, India and elsewhere. From not understanding the key role of British lease farming in the 17th century, you end up tail-ending the Third World bourgeoisie. It must be understood that fears over scratches turning into gangrene were very pervasive in the 1970s, even in the academic left.

One of the key elements of the dependency school is “unequal exchange”, an idea generally associated with Samir Amin. Basically, it is just another way to describe the phenomenon of super-exploitation. Through their control of markets and natural resources and their superior technology and productivity of labor, as well as their military superiority, imperialist nations are able to extract profits that would not ordinarily be available from more industrialized countries. Brenner will have none of this, as should be obvious from his discussion of Immanuel Wallerstein:

Wallerstein seems to have two modes of explaining the putative transfer of surplus from core to the periphery: one directly ‘economic’, the other ‘political’. Thus, he states: ‘The division of the world-economy involves a hierarchy of occupational tasks, in which tasks requiring higher levels of skill and greater capitalization are reserved for higher ranking areas. Since a capitalist world-economy essentially rewards accumulated capital, including human capital, at a higher rate than “raw” labor power, the geographical maldistribution of these occupational skills involves a strong trend toward self-maintenance. The forces of the marketplace reinforce them rather than undermine them’. At the same time, Wallerstein argues that the system of labour control/rewards to labour gives rise to strong states in the core and weak ones in the periphery. As a consequence, the strong states are able to assure, ultimately by force it appears, an unequal economic relationship between the core economies and those of the periphery. ‘In [the core] states, the creation of a strong state machinery . . . serves . . . as a mechanism to protect disparities that have arisen within the world system’. ‘Once we get a difference in the strength of the state-machineries, we get the operation of “unequal exchange” which is enforced by strong states on weak ones, by core states on peripheral areas. Thus [agricultural] capitalism [of the early modern period] involves not only appropriation of the surplus-value by an owner from a laborer, but an appropriation of surplus of the whole world-economy by core areas’.

Last March, in conjunction with a discussion of “crisis theory” on the Introduction to Marxism mailing list on Yahoo, I read Rick Kuhn’s biography of Henryk Grossman—winner of the Isaac Deutscher Prize last year—and Grossman’s most important work “The Law of Accumulation and Collapse of the Capitalist System”. While most of the scholarly attention, including Kuhn’s, is focused on Grossman’s attempt to develop a theory of crisis out of Marx’s examination of the organic composition of capital, there is a very important discussion of the role of imperialism in mitigating the impact of crisis. It appears in part two of the final section of Grossman’s book, titled “Restoring Profitability through World Market Domination.”

After having read it the third time at this point, I am struck by its affinity with dependency theory. I am also struck by Grossman’s ability to ground his ideas in Marx’s Capital. Ironically, despite the tendency to see Lenin’s writings on imperialism as a fountainhead, I find Grossman’s ideas more grounded in basic Marxist theory and a useful rejoinder to Brenner’s claims on orthodoxy.

Robert Brenner to the contrary, Grossman regards Karl Marx’s scope as far wider than the British countryside.

Yet Marx himself repeatedly underlined the colossal importance of foreign trade to the development of capitalism; in 1859 he proposed a six-book structure for his investigations of the capitalist economy and intended the ‘world market’ to be one of the six. Although the structure of the work was later changed, its object of inquiry remained basically the same. In Capital we find the ‘creation of the world market’ listed as one of the ‘three cardinal facts of capitalist production’ (1956, p. 266). Elsewhere Marx writes: ‘Capitalist production does not exist at all without foreign commerce’ (1956, p. 474).

Grossman also pinpoints a highly revealing passage in chapter 21 of Marx’s “Theories of Surplus Value” that establishes foreign trade as a sine qua non for capital accumulation:

But it is only foreign trade, the development of the market to a world market, which causes money to develop into world money and abstract labour into social labour. Abstract wealth, value, money, hence abstract labour, develop in the measure that concrete labour becomes a totality of different modes of labour embracing the world market.

“Thus”, according to Grossman, “the limits on the production of surplus value are extended; the breakdown of capitalism is postponed.”

Brenner seems to have problems with Wallerstein’s assertion that “The division of the world-economy involves a hierarchy of occupational tasks, in which tasks requiring higher levels of skill and greater capitalization are reserved for higher ranking areas.” You can find exactly the same analysis in Grossman:

Due to mass production British industry, which was the workshop of the world down to the 1870s, could carry through a division of labour, increases in productivity and cost savings to a level that was unattainable elsewhere. Whereas weaving and spinning were originally combined, later they were separated. This resulted in geographical specialisation. Burnley made the traditional calico prints, Blackburn clothed India and China, Preston manufactured fine cottons.

In the subsection titled “Foreign trade and the sale of commodities at prices of production deviating from values”, Grossman makes a strong relationship between the ability of the capitalist system to extract super-profits from the colonial world where the organic composition of capital is lower. In other words, he is calling attention to the presence of the production of absolute surplus value (lengthened work-day, child labor, etc.) in countries such as India or the Congo. In industrialized countries, the production of relative surplus value is facilitated by the wide-scale use of advanced technologies which enables the imperialist countries to dominate the markets in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This advantage is described in language startlingly similar to the “unequal exchange” referred to by Brenner:

International trade is not based on an exchange of equivalents because, as on the national market, there is a tendency for rates of profit to be equalised. The commodities of the advanced capitalist country with the higher organic composition will therefore be sold at prices of production higher than value; those of the backward country at prices of production lower than value. This would mean the formation of an average rate of profit of 18.5 per cent so that European commodities will sell for a price of 118.5 instead of 116. In this way circulation on the world market involves transfers of surplus value from the less developed to the more developed capitalist countries because the distribution of surplus value is determined not by the number of workers employed in each country but by the size of the functioning capital.

To establish his consistency with Marx’s writings on this topic, Grossman cites chapter 20 of “Theories of Surplus Value” which states: “The relationship between labour days of different countries may be similar to that existing between skilled, complex labour and unskilled, simple labour within a country. In this case, the richer country exploits the poorer one…” You will note that Karl Marx writes, “the richer country exploits the poorer one…”, something that is anathema to Robert Brenner who understands exploitation strictly in terms of the relationship between capitalist and worker.

Grossman continues:

In effect price formation on the world market is governed by the same principles that apply under a conceptually isolated capitalism. The latter anyway is merely a theoretical model; the world market, as a unity of specific national economies, is something real and concrete. Today the prices of the most important raw materials and final products are determined internationally, in the world market. We are no longer confronted by a national level of prices but a level determined on the world market. In a conceptually isolated capitalism entrepreneurs with an above average technology make a surplus profit (a rate of profit above the average) when they sell their commodities at socially average prices. Likewise on the world market, the technologically advanced countries make a surplus profit at the cost of the technologically less developed ones.

This paragraph is about as succinct a definition of imperialism as you are going to find. And once again, Grossman finds support for his analysis in Marx’s writings—in this case Volume 3 of Capital:

Capitals invested in foreign trade can yield a higher rate of profit, because, in the first place, there is competition with commodities produced in other countries with inferior production facilities, so that the more advanced country sells its goods above their value even though cheaper than the competing countries. In so far as the labour of the more advanced country is here realised as labour of a higher specific weight, the rate of profit rises, because labour which has not been paid as being of a higher quality, is sold as such … As regards capitals invested in colonies, etc, on the other hand, they may yield higher rates of profit for the simple reason that the rate of profit there is higher due to backward development, and likewise the exploitation of labour, because of the use of slaves, coolies, etc.

You will note that Grossman refers to backward development, a contradiction in terms. How can there be “backward development” unless of course you agree with A. G. Frank’s characterization of imperialism as the “development of underdevelopment”. And to cinch the connection with the dependency school, Grossman refers to “unequal exchange” in the very next paragraph:

In the examples cited above the gain of the more advanced capitalist countries consists in a transfer of profit from the less developed countries. it is irrelevant whether the latter are capitalist or non-capitalist. It is not a question of the realisation of surplus value but of additional surplus value which is obtained through competition on the world market through unequal exchange, or exchange of non-equivalents.

Finally, Grossman has no use for the idea that capitalism can be a source of modernization and progress in the colonial world, stating:

Kautsky sees the essence of imperialism in a striving to conquer the non-capitalist agrarian parts of the world. He therefore sees imperialism as merely an episode in the history of capitalism that will pass with the industrialisation of those parts of the world. This conception is totally false. Imperialism must be understood in the specific form that Luxemburg gives to it in her theory of the role of the non-capitalist countries. Imperialist antagonisms subsist even among the capitalist states in their relations to one another. Far from being merely an episode that belongs to the past, imperialism is rooted in the essence of capitalism at advanced stages of accumulation. Imperialist tendencies become stronger in the course of accumulation, and only the overthrow of capitalism will abolish them altogether.

As I have stated in previous articles on the Brenner thesis, it had the unfortunate effect of fostering Kautskyist tendencies in the left academy which took the form of looking for the kind of dynamic growth associated with 18th and 19th century Europe. Colin Leys is just one example of this. Starting out as a dependency theorist, Leys was converted by the brilliance of Brenner’s 1977 NLR article:

Brenner, correctly in my view, stresses the centrality of the class relations which [Adam] Smith took as given. On this view, what is decisive for the development of capitalist production relations is the prior configuration and character of classes–for instance, the availability or otherwise of ‘free’ labour, the respective political power of non-landed and landed classes affecting the possibility of capital investment in land, and so on.

Applying the Brenner thesis to Kenya, Leys came up with some startling observations. He said that “Passenger road transportation was also in African hands by 1977 as were tour companies, laundries and dry cleaning, and a rapidly growing share of the hotel and restaurant sectors.” This exciting development led Leys to endorse comments made by an unidentified Kenyan state official, “In 15 years, if the political climate of Kenya and the world economy stay stable, 90% of manufacturing will be Kenyan owned.” All this rapid growth in the dry cleaning and tour business will amount “an example of a ‘systematical combination of moments’ conducive to the transition to the capitalist mode of production.”

Such rubbish was quite common in the 1980s as a left academy revolted against the dependency school which supposedly had gone astray from classical Marxism. My response has been to react against the reaction in keeping with Grossman’s insight that “Imperialist tendencies become stronger in the course of accumulation, and only the overthrow of capitalism will abolish them altogether.”

June 10, 2008

Michael Heinrich versus the crisis-mongers

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 7:13 pm

Michael Heinrich

After having waded through Rosa Luxemburg, Henryk Grossman and various lesser figures in the course of a discussion of “crisis theory” on the Introduction to Marxism class, I was curious to see what Michael Heinrich had to say in an article titled “The Current Financial Crisis and the Future of Global Capitalism” on MRZine. I know next to nothing about Heinrich except that his work is highly touted by a Marxmail and LBO-Talk subscriber from Germany who uses the tag Angelus Novus. Heinrich has something of a following there apparently.

The thrust of Heinrich’s article is to make the case that Marxists are wrong to speak in terms of crisis leading to the downfall of capitalism. Not only is it theoretically incorrect, there is nothing in Marx’s writings to support such an idea—at least in their most mature phase. Marx supposedly expected the European-wide financial crisis of 1858 to unleash revolutionary movements, but was somewhat surprised to see that the capitalist system came out of the crisis “greatly strengthened”, to use Heinrich’s words. Heinrich writes:

Marx learned a lesson: in capitalism, crises function as brutal acts of purification. The destruction wreaked by crises removes previous impediments to accumulation and frees up new possibilities for capitalist development.

Joseph Schumpeter

This formula, of course, found its most refined expression in Joseph Schumpeter’s writings, a highly esteemed bourgeois economist who had read his Marx and who postulated the theory of “creative destruction” in “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy”:

Every piece of business strategy acquires its true significance only against the background of that process and within the situation created by it. It must be seen in its role in the perennial gale of creative destruction; it cannot be understood irrespective of it or, in fact, on the hypothesis that there is a perennial lull. . . .

Even though Marx dispensed with the notion that capitalist crisis could lead to the collapse of the system, his followers remained wedded to this unsupportable idea. Heinrich writes:

The fact that Marx, with good reason, bid farewell to theories of capitalist collapse did not prevent many Marxists from remaining loyal to such ideas. In the “Marxist” Social Democracy before the First World War as well as in the Communist Parties of the 1920s, it was regarded as a foregone conclusion that capitalism would perish as a result of the increasingly strong crises it generated. Every recovery was interpreted as a last rearing up before the final and inevitable collapse, which frequently led to grotesque political misjudgments.

It is hard to make much sense of this rather terse historical account especially since Heinrich does not bother to name names. Before the First World War, there was no consensus in the Social Democracy that capitalism “would perish as a result of the increasingly strong crises it generated.” If that was the case, Rosa Luxemburg would have not felt the need to write “The Accumulation of Capital” which defended what amounted to a dissident perspective of capitalism being prone to collapse. Probably most social democrats agreed with Karl Kautsky who believed that “super-imperialism” was a stabilizing force. With respect to the Communist Parties of the 1920s, that covers a lot of terrain. Could Heinrich be referring to the “Third Period”, which was marked by millenarian lunacy? It certainly wasn’t Lenin’s view who urged the adoption of the united front strategy in light of the obvious recovery of capitalism following the stormy period in the immediate aftermath of WWI.

Heinrich then skips ahead 80 years to once again polemicize against unnamed ideological adversaries:

In the early 1990s, the theory of capitalist collapse celebrated a joyful resurrection in the newly-united Germany, furnished with the pretence of being a new idea. The crises that followed — the East Asian crisis of 1997/98, the stock market crash that heralded the collapse of the “New Economy” bubble in 2000/2001, and the crisis in Argentina in 2001/2002 — were interpreted each and every time as a sure sign of the final crisis of capitalist collapse. But all these crises were over relatively quickly. They led to processes of enormous immiseration (particularly the crises in East Asia and Argentina), but the capitalist system, contrary to all prognostications of collapse, emerged rather strengthened from these crises.

Once again, I have no idea who he is referring to. The Ted Grant-Alan Woods ortho-Trotskyist current that is distinguished by predictions of capitalist collapse that appear like clockwork? David Harvey? Patrick Bond? There have, of course, been ongoing debates involving contributors to Socialist Register over these questions for 20 years at least. Even at his most millenarian, Patrick Bond has never written anything that smacks of the notion that crisis leads to collapse and the inexorable rise of a revolutionary movement. To put it bluntly, Heinrich has created a straw-man that is all too easy to knock down.

Next Heinrich analyzes the real estate/credit crisis that has been so much in the news lately. There is nothing particularly objectionable in it nor is there anything particularly groundbreaking.

In some ways debating “crisis theory” serves the same kind of purpose as “the transformation problem” or “the transition to capitalism question.” It allows Marxist academics to sink their teeth into a weighty theoretical problem in the same way that Jane Austen novels provide fodder for sessions at the yearly Modern Language Association conferences. No matter how many words are expended, there will always be a new interpretation.

Despite its reputation for “doom and gloom” prognostications, classical Marxism has really paid little attention to predicting the future. When a crisis occurs, the main emphasis is always on trying to draw political conclusions about what has to be done.

Furthermore, I doubt if any serious harm can come from “the sky is falling” projections as long as the strategy and tactics flow from the current situation. For example, nobody knew in 1929 whether the stock market crash would usher in 10 years of global capitalist collapse or whether it would be like the 1858 financial crisis that Heinrich alluded to in his MRZine article. How one came down on this question hardly mattered so long as the direct and immediate questions of the class struggle were confronted intelligently. They involved:

1. How to build industrial unions.

2. How to resist fascism.

3. How to prevent imperialist war.

The same thing is true today. When people come together politically, the question of the depth and length of the current real estate/credit crisis hardly matters. What relevance does it have for defending immigrant workers? Or pushing for immediate withdrawal from Iraq?

As somebody who has been reading Michael Heinrich’s occasional interventions on MRZine and elsewhere with a mixture of curiosity and bemusement, I have to ask myself why such questions seem to matter so little to him. In the course of building a new revolutionary movement worldwide, it will be correct answers to such questions rather than the battle against crisis-mongering that will have decisive importance.

June 8, 2008


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

When I got an invitation to the premiere of “Mongol-Part One”, the new film about Genghis Khan playing in theaters everywhere as they say, I jumped at the opportunity since it would give me exactly the excuse I needed to read Jack Weatherford’s 2004 “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World”. After seeing the film, I can happily report that even if the movie was not a joy to watch (which it is) it jibes with the Weatherford’s version of the great Mongol conqueror.

Weatherford, an anthropologist at Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minnesota, has devoted himself to challenging prejudices about the “savage” and showing their contributions to historical progress. Arguably, Genghis Khan is the most stunning example of this ever seen. As Weatherford puts it in the introduction to his book:

The only permanent structures Genghis Khan erected were bridges. Although he spurned the building of castles, forts, cities, or walls, as he moved across the landscape, he probably built more bridges than any ruler in history. He spanned hundreds of streams and rivers in order to make the movement of his armies and goods quicker. The Mongols deliberately opened the world to a new commerce not only in goods, but also in ideas and knowledge. The Mongols brought German miners to China and Chinese doctors to Persia. The transfers ranged from the monumental to the trivial. They spread the use of carpets everywhere they went and transplanted lemons and carrots from Persia to China, as well as noodles, playing cards, and tea from China to the West. They brought a metalworker from Paris to build a fountain on the dry steppes of Mongolia, recruited an English nobleman to serve as interpreter in their army, and took the practice of Chinese fingerprinting to Persia. They financed the building of Christian churches in China, Buddhist temples and stupas in Persia, and Muslim Koranic schools in Russia. The Mongols swept across the globe as conquerors, but also as civilization’s unrivaled cultural carriers.

The movie, the first installment in a trilogy, was directed by Russian director Sergei Bodrov. It covers the period from Temudjin’s boyhood to the first great military victory that sealed his control over the Mongol homeland, a territory previously divided by petty clan feuds. (Genghis Khan’s birth name was Temudjin. Like another great nation-builder, Mustafa Kemal, he was renamed at his ascension to power.)

Although it takes liberty with the biographical material found in “The Secret History of the Mongols”, an account of Genghis Khan’s life written by Mongol scholars and discovered in the 19th century, “Mongol” does retain some of the more important details, especially the death of his father at Tatar hands, his family’s consequent ruin, his marriage to Börte–a woman he chose as his wife when he was nine years old, and the rivalry between Temudjin and his blood brother Jamukha.

But far more important than such details in terms of establishing authenticity is the way that Bodrov and screenwriter Arif Aliyev capture the essential social relations that governed life on the steppes in the early 13th century. The Mongols were a semi-nomadic pastoral people who raised horses, yaks, camels and other animals for transportation and food. They lived in gers, which were tents held up by poles and covered with hides. They were master horsemen and relied heavily on bows and arrows for both hunting and raids on their adversaries. Class divisions did not run as deep as they did in urban-based agricultural societies but there was an aristocracy that required tribute from vassals, usually taking the form of ceremonial gifts.

In other words, the Mongols were socially not that different from the great tribes of the American Plains, including the Lakota, the Blackfoot and the Comanches. By analogy, imagine if you had a relatively advanced indigenous society in Canada that was structured like the Aztecs or the Incas. Further, imagine the Plains Indians united across tribal lines and conquering the more advanced societies to the north and to the south. Finally, under the rule of somebody like Sitting Bull, all of the Americas were joined through commercial ties over trade routes protected and maintained by the Lakotas. That was the achievement of the Mongols.

The world of young Temudjin is filled with constant threats from warring clans and an unforgiving environment. He appeals to the gods and to his extended family in order to survive slavery, warfare and betrayal. His ability to surmount these difficulties and rise to the level of Khan, or king, is a tribute to his own talents and also to the traditions of the Mongol people that has successfully adapted to a brutal environment.

“Mongol” describes a series of obstacles that Temudjin meets successfully, starting with the death by poisoning of his father. Rivals to his father within his own tribe seize this opportunity to steal his family’s herd, drive them from camp, and take Temudjin into captivity. Played by a young Japanese actor named Odnyam Odsuren (the older Temudjin is also played by a Japanese actor named Tadanobu Asano), Temudjin shows no fear of or deference to his captors.

One of the major complaints of some reviewers is that Odsuren and Asano’s performances are forgettable, a function no doubt of Bodrov and Aliyev’s refusal to make the characters in “Mongol” more recognizable to contemporary audiences. It is to the credit of the creative team that they have not created characters bent on chewing up the scenery like Mel Gibson in “Braveheart”. The world of the Mongol warrior was undoubtedly inhospitable to the kind of histrionics that mark nearly all the best-known historical epics and thank goodness for that. The audience, at least its smarter members, will understand that it is not being patronized.

This is not to say that drama is lacking in “Mongol”. For those who have seen and enjoyed recent Mongolian films such as “The Story of the Weeping Camel” and “Mongolian Ping Pong”, “Mongol” conveys the mixture of stoicism, good humor and bawdiness that makes life at such extremes for such peoples possible.

Most of Bodrov’s movie focuses on the personal drama of Temudjin as he escapes from slavery, reunites with his wife and begins his rise as a supreme military tactician. There are some indications of what would finally allow him to emerge as Genghis Khan, the unifier of the Mongol people and conqueror of the largest territory in history.

In a bid to build an army that was capable of defeating his old enemy Jamukha, Temudjin declared that loyalty to the group and to its leaders was paramount. A people that had been divided by shifting loyalties based on immediate gains could never become powerful. When two of Jamukha’s men seek Temudgin’s favor by turning over their master to him, he has them executed. If they would betray Jamukha, they would betray him just as easily.

Currently I am studying the history of the Apaches and the Comanches as part of a project to answer Cormac McCarthy’s version of the Texas-Indian wars of the 19th century found in “Blood Meridian”. Anybody who studies the defeat of the Indians will be struck by their inability to unite against their common enemy. If it would have been impossible under any circumstances for a non-industrialized people to fend off the more technologically advanced land thieves, they could have at least dictated a more favorable outcome if they had been united. Instead the Comanches betrayed the Apaches and both groups fought among themselves for momentary advantages. If a Genghis Khan had emerged from the American indigenous peoples, our history would have had a different outcome.

Just some parting words on the movie itself since this is supposed to be a movie review.

“Mongol” is one of most visually spectacular movies I have seen in a long time with breathtaking vistas of the mountains and steppes of Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. Some locations were so remote that Bodrov had to build roads to get to them. The film score is also first-rate with references to Mongolian throat-singing used to great effect.

Finally, some words on the irony of a Russian director taking on a project like this. In a June 1, 2008 interview with the L.A. Times, Bodrov stated: “Genghis Khan’s name was forbidden in Mongolia for 70 years because of the Communists and because he was a Russian enemy.” Of all the stupidities associated with Stalinist rule, this vies for the most egregious.

In a 2000 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Weatherford described the lengths to which the Kremlin sought to suppress any recognition of Genghis Khan’s role in history:

Our team’s attempt to do a scholarly assessment of Genghis Khan is not the first one. The 1961 admission of Mongolia to the United Nations came almost 800 years after Genghis’s birth, in 1162. Tumurochir, then the second-highest-ranking official in the Communist government of Mongolia, sponsored a national scholarly symposium on Genghis Khan. To commemorate the occasion, he appropriated cement to allow people to build a historical marker at Genghis’s birthplace.

For the crime of promoting the study of Genghis Khan and thus promoting Mongol nationalism, the Communists removed Tumurochir from office and had him chopped to death with an ax.

The Communists’ wrath also descended on Mongolian scholars of Genghis Khan, many of whom were killed or jailed. Perlee, a respected archaeologist, was imprisoned in extremely harsh conditions merely for having been Tumurochir’s teacher. Even the relatives of scholars lost their jobs, were expelled from their homes in the harsh Mongolian climate, or were sent into exile. The purge destroyed a whole generation of linguists, historians, archaeologists, and any other scholars who specialized in topics even remotely connected to Genghis or the Mongol Empire.

Happily, the collapse of the Stalinist system has made it possible for Mongolians and foreign scholars like Weatherford to once again examine the historical record and put Genghis Khan into the proper context at odds with Voltaire’s demonization of him as a “destructive tyrant”.

Unfortunately, Stalinism has been replaced by a system that appears to rob the Mongolian people of their material welfare at the same time it is providing new freedoms. In an article aptly titled “The marketization of Mongolia” by K.L. Abeywickrama that appeared in the March 1996 Monthly Review, we learn about the impact of neoliberal reforms:

The dismantling of large-scale agricultural cooperatives and state farms has also led to the contraction of agriculture. By breaking up farms into small units owned by former cooperative members or workers, farming has been denied the capital resources, machinery, and technical services that existed earlier. Farmers are reverting back to subsistence agriculture. Food shortages have occurred and will become more frequent as subsidized imported grain replaces locally grown wheat.

Though stabilization was slated to be in sight by 1994, both agriculture and industry declined even in 1993. Livestock declined by 2 percent, industrial production by about 13 percent. The Consumer Price Index was 109 percent in 1993, down from 154 in 1992. Real average household incomes fell 28.2 percent. The trade deficit has been con trolled and inflation is declining due to a tight money policy. But there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Beggars and the homeless are now on the streets in freezing winters that reach minus 40 degrees. Though restaurant waiters and hotel staff may proudly decline service tips, and rural herding families in their ghers (traditional dome-shaped tents) still offer free meals to passing travellers, pickpockets now haunt buses, prostitutes line the karaoke bars, and some children live in sewers. And the Western NGOs, churches, and charities have joined the armies of aid-workers to perform their good deeds in Mongolia.

Clearly, the proud descendants of Genghis Khan deserve better.

“Mongol” trailer

June 6, 2008

Take Out

Filed under: Film,immigration,workers — louisproyect @ 2:58 pm

As should be obvious to people who have been following my film reviews over the years, I search out works that take the struggles of ordinary working people as their subject matter. When they succeed artistically, they earn my highest plaudits. As “Take Out” met those goals with a budget of only $3000, you truly feel like you have entered the realm of the miraculous.

Co-directed by Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou, “Take Out” is a documentary-like look at the working day of Ming Ding, an undocumented Chinese restaurant deliveryman. The film starts inauspiciously enough with the incursion of two loan-sharking thugs into the roach-infested two-bedroom apartment Ming shares with a number of other Chinese immigrant workers. Like everything else in this neorealist jewel of a movie, the apartment is real. Ming has to come up with the money he owes them for the fee they exacted for smuggling him into the U.S. or else. As a taste of what awaits him if he can’t come up with the money, they beat him with a hammer.

The remaining scenes take place either in the Chinese take-out restaurant, the streets of New York as Ming pedals along dodging traffic with his goods, or in the doorways of the apartments where deliveries are made. The restaurant was a real restaurant on the Upper West Side that accommodated the film-makers as people came in off the street to purchase their chicken lo mein, etc. Big sister, the woman who operated the cash register and took orders over the phone, was the actual employee of the restaurant. Her banter with the customers (she tells one who is over-demanding to fuck himself in Chinese) serves as a kind of aural connective tissue throughout the movie substituting for an obtrusive film score.

Watching her interact with the customers as the cooks go about their business of chopping, dicing and frying food in woks has the same kind of spellbinding effect as watching a Frederick Wiseman documentary. Despite the quotidian nature of the proceedings, you find yourself drawn into a world that you have only seen from the outside.

But this is not a Wiseman documentary. It is a story about the struggle of a simple man against economic odds that is as dramatically effective as Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thief”, in which a man’s bicycle is stolen–his sole means of economic survival. The rest of De Sica’s masterpiece is devoted to his and his son’s search to recover it. While Ming never loses his bicycle, he is just as desperate to pay off his debt. In both movies, you feel both terror and pity as society’s forgotten men mount unforgettable struggles. In their own way, they are like Odysseus trying to return home.

After watching “Take Out”, you will never see a deliveryman in the same light again. When you watch Ming turning over the bags of food to the people in the doorway (real New Yorkers who responded to the film-makers’ invitation in Craigslist), you pray that they will give him a good tip since it is a matter of life and death. Unless he can put together the money the loan sharks demand, he will be beaten up or worse.

Throughout the film, it looks like he will make his goal since it is pouring rain. He understands that New Yorkers tend to order take out meals when the weather is bad. As Ming drives through the torrential downpour, you suffer with him. Throughout it all, Ming maintains a sullen and stoic appearance. He has no choice. This is his economic fate. Young, his jovial fellow deliveryman who has generously allowed Ming to take over his own duties for the day, advises him that the tips will be bigger if he smiles broadly and tells the customers “Thank you very much”.

Ming spurns this advice since it is not in his character. His sole motivation is to keep working so that he can send money back home to China to the wife and son he has left behind. In keeping with the minimalist (but authentic) style that pervades this movie, the key reference to them is a scene in which Ming gazes longingly at their photo. No dialog is needed here.

The story of how “Take Out” made it to the screen is almost as inspiring as Ming’s. The directors decided to make a quintessential New York movie, which for them was not the New York of Woody Allen or Sex in the City. It is the New York of housing projects, cheap restaurants, undocumented workers and the barracks-like apartments they live in.

In an interview with IndieWIRE, Sean Baker was asked to elaborate on his and his co-director’s approach to making films and their goals for the project. He replied:

We read a lot on the subject before sitting down and writing. One of the most helpful books on the subject is “Forbidden Workers” by Peter Kwong, the chair of the Asian American Studies program at Hunter College. Then we had to go out and do our own research by speaking to illegals who worked at take-outs and people who were close to them. The bulk of our research came when we locked our location. We shot B-roll (cut aways) for over a month before actual production. It was during that time that we spoke to Ms. Lee (who plays the character of Big Sister) and the actual cooks at the restaurant. They guided us in terms of accuracy. They opened up very much so to Shih-Ching, being that she knows Mandarin and she’s a female. They would talk for hours while I went around with the camera and shot everything I could.

Our goal was to capture truth in every aspect of the film from the acting to the look to the sound design. I feel in the end we “faked” reality better than most films that are trying to do so. That may sound cocky but I feel that some of our scenes come as close to a documentary feel that a fiction film can get.

“Take Out”, the best film I have seen this year so far, is playing at the Quad Cinema in New York City and I strongly urge you to see it. It will change your perception of the world around you and the people who live in it forever.

Official Film Website

June 5, 2008

Heavy Metal in Baghdad

Filed under: Film,Iraq — louisproyect @ 3:19 pm

Iraq’s only heavy metal band in performance

If there is anything good to come out of the war in Iraq, it is film documentary. Over the past four years or so, there has been a steady stream of excellent movies. The latest of these is “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” that showed briefly in theaters to universal acclaim. With a modest budget, the documentary allows the principals to speak for themselves. Acrassicauda, the Latin nomenclature for the black scorpion that is found in the Iraqi desert, is the name of Iraq’s only heavy metal band. Their struggle for survival, both physically and culturally, is a reminder of the sustaining power of rock-and-roll.

“Heavy Metal in Baghdad” is related thematically to the excellent “Operation Filmmaker” that opened in New York theaters yesterday. Muthana Mohmed, the young aspiring Iraqi film-maker in this movie, simply wants to make art but events conspire against him. After a bomb blast has destroyed the only film school in Baghdad, he is forced to rely on the dubious charity of Hollywood actor Liev Schreiber for a job as a gopher. And not long after the war begins, the rehearsal studio of Acrassicauda is destroyed by an American missile. Unlike Mohmed, the band has no deep-pocketed benefactors and they are forced into desperate measures to continue with their art.

The members of the band were discovered by Vice Magazine, a more interesting version of Rolling Stone, in 2004 just as Muthana Mohmed was first noticed by MTV. Since Vice has a film company, it was a natural project for Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi—two of its executive producer/directors. They made a series of trips to Baghdad, conducted at extraordinary risk, in order to interview members of the band, particularly the leader Firas who expresses his dream at the film’s end after he has become an exile in Syria: “I hope I can live somewhere else, not in Iraq, so I can get long hair, long beard, Zakk Wylde-style, You know what I’m saying.” (Zakk Wylde was a guitarist with Ozzy Osbourne.)

Firas, a bass player, is a compelling figure. Although he describes himself and the band as non-political, nearly every word he has to say about Iraq would seem to accurately describe its descent into hell. After things took a turn for the worse in 2005, it became impossible for him to meet another band member even though they only lived 15 minutes from each other.

The final 30 minutes or so of “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” takes place in Damascus, where all of the band members have sought refuge. As such, it is one of the few documentaries that have described the terrible costs of the war on over 2 million Iraqis who have been forced from their country. Firas says that life in Syria is less than zero compared to the zero that was Iraq. At least in Iraq they knew the terrain, even if it might cost their lives. In Syria, they were safe but deprived from their livelihood as musicians. Apparently, despite the difficulties facing a heavy metal band there both under Saddam and afterwards, there was a fan base. One of the high points of the documentary is a performance by Acrassicauda at a hotel within the Green Zone before an audience of adoring fans, including some sprawled on the floor in an Iraqi version of a mosh pit.

The official DVD release date for “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” is June 10. Look for it in your better video stores or Netflix. It can also be ordered from the film’s website.

June 3, 2008

Remembering mom

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 5:20 pm

Like the madeleine in Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”, googling names of people I knew in my youth stirs up old memories.

Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, has tried to follow it into my conscious mind. But its struggles are too far off, too much confused; scarcely can I perceive the colourless reflection in which are blended the uncapturable whirling medley of radiant hues, and I cannot distinguish its form, cannot invite it, as the one possible interpreter, to translate to me the evidence of its contemporary, its inseparable paramour, the taste of cake soaked in tea; cannot ask it to inform me what special circumstance is in question, of what period in my past life.

That’s Proust, not me I should add.

A couple of days ago I googled “Rachmilewitz” and “Woodridge” to see what would come up. The Rachmilewitzes were a family that I knew in Woodridge, a tiny village in the Catskills that I grew up in. I was curious to see what ever happened to their son Philip, who was nicknamed “Rocky” after the family name. Rocky ran a mobile merry-go-round in the center of the village during the summer that I used to ride when I was 7 or 8 years old. A couple of months ago I began reminiscing about this period in my life quite a bit in the course of writing a brief memoir that might be turned into a comic book by someone well versed in the genre.

By coincidence, the google search turned up my mother’s name as well as the Rachmilewtizes in a pdf file for a newsletter on the Charlap-Yahya website. They describe themselves as follows:

A Jewish geneological organization and research initiative comprised of well over 17,000 entries, 7,000 of which are living and current members; this extended family spans multiple continents and hundreds of years.

The name of the organization originates with the first Ser, the son of Abraham Charlap, born circa 1740. At the time, Charlap was not a surname but an honorary title; an acronym consisting of four Hebrew letters, standing for “Chief Sage of the Exile in Poland.” The Charlaps are a distinguished rabbinic dynasty, whose yichus is well established. They stem from the Ibn Yahya (Don Yahya) rabbis of Spain and Portugal and before that go back to the Exilarchs in Babylonia and Persia.

Somehow my mother had decided to include some genealogical and personal/political material that would have served as an obituary if I had not been forced to write one myself. She wrote:


Ann Proyect (2694,Pl.225) is the granddaughter of Aaron Leibel Sukiennik (2625) of Sokolow and Yente Sima Smolarczyk (2619) of Ciechanowiec, Poland. Yente Sima was one of seven children of Itche Smolarczyk (2614) and Dinah Rivka Kwiatek (2615). We are still investigating the connections of the Kwiatek and Sukiennik families to our tree. However, there is no question about the Smolarczyks. Itche’s father, Velvel (3102,Pl.140) was the great-great grandson of Kalman (13954, Pl. 3), a brother of David Charlap (4082) who was born circa 1718. The Smolarczyks are intermarried with several other branches of the family including: Mankuta, Tama, Ser, Lewin, and Kopyto. Annie’s parents emigrated to America and settled in Kansas City where she was born. Annie married Jacob Proyect (2695) and moved to Woodridge, New York where she has been active in the Jewish community for many years. Ann is proud of her son Louis (2696) who has been active in socialist and peace politics since 1967. He is writing a book on Marxism and the American Indian as an attempt to correct some dogmatic flaws in Marxism. Ann writes a regular column, “Annie Proyect Says” for her community newspaper. The following is an example.

Thank you to my editors who let me write about my religious faith.

Thanks to my son, Louis Nelson Proyect, who at 53 years of age has come to the realization that it is good to have religion. With the iMac and Hewlett Packard printer he bought for me, Louis wants to start me with a web page entitled “Ann Project. . .Levitas. . .Books.” But my other son, Alex Cherviok says, “No.” The Levitas stuff has to go into a project for Robert Seltzer, rabbi and student of Irving Levitas, and presently assistant dean at Hunter College. The idea is that if I am focused enough and will reproduce some of the three inches of letters that I have written to Irving Levitas of blessed memory, there will be something worth printing and most of all, good for humanity. After all, it was Irving Levitas who taught us, “If you go into a shul and don’t come out a better person, what is the point of going in.”

Somebody ought to write that to Hollywood and the motion picture people. If a movie doesn’t have a message – and when more needed than now – what is the point!

I don’t have the iMac connected yet. When my son was here a couple of weeks ago he, for the first time, criticized the appearance of my home. He started out with, “I can’t stand the clutter.” I answered, Well, I’m giving some things away.” He responded, “Give it away or burn it.” That is what living in an apartment does to a person. We in the country know that somewhere there is a need for things. There is a greater need to know where one comes from. I am amused and annoyed by professionals who claim, “I don’t believe in religion.” They don’t accept the fact that they have disciplines that were established even before the Bible was written.

We were taught to welcome the stranger. Hertz’s Chumash has meaningful commentary on the Five Books of Moses. For instance, Numbers, chapter VI, verse 26: “The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” On page 595 we read the verse and at the bottom of the page is a long commentary which essentially says, “Peace, say the rabbis, is one of the pillars of the world. Without it the social order would not exist. Therefore let a man do his utmost to promote it. Thus it is that the greatest sages made a point of being the first to salute passerbys in the street.” Please note: Arafat, Netanyahu, and Hussein of Iraq.

If we are busy shaking hands, perhaps we won’t reach for the gun. Well, that sounds pollyannish, but Annie says, we have to “do and learn.” I look forward to doing a column on “Tricks of the Trade in a World of Volunteers.” It would begin with, “If you are a leader, the goal you should have is to work one’s self out of the position or title and nurture someone else to be involved; do the job, have the title.” Then a leader goes on to do a higher level of work or sits quietly in the background, giving advice with kindness and good, good, good strokes.

* * * *

Reading my mom’s words from 10 years ago (I am now 63) reminds me of how much pleasure and frustration she could give me. With her outspoken devotion to the Jewish religion and the state of Israel, she could not help proselytizing with every breath she had left. Why she thought that I was taking religion seriously is something of a mystery to me. Wishful thinking perhaps.

The Irving Levitas mentioned in her piece was a major influence on my mother, about whom a word or two would be of some interest to people who read this blog since he was a kind of exemplary figure in the left-Zionist world. He hailed from Kansas City, as did me and my mom. I was born there in 1945, but moved to upstate NY after my father returned from the war. Levitas was not exactly a rabbi but gave classes in Jewish history at the local reform synagogue that was so important to my mother growing up.

Politically, Levitas was sympathetic to anarchism and even suffered major hearing losses when he served with the anarchists during the Spanish civil war. When I used to visit my mother in Woodridge in the 1970s, Levitas was a frequent houseguest. He gave classes in Jewish history and thought up there just as he had in Kansas City. Needless to say, he was not that thrilled with my Trotskyism but then again neither am I nowadays.

After I discovered my mother’s entry in Charlap, I printed out a copy and mailed it to her constant companion Victor who will turn 95 in August. Her death has been even a bigger blow to him than to me. The last time I spoke to him on the phone, he revealed that he still keeps a phone in his bedroom almost expecting a phone call from her. For the past 20 years at least, she made a habit of calling him every morning. As for myself, I had a dream about a week ago in which I spoke to my mom on the phone. With the strong effect she had on me, I expect such dreams to occur for the rest of my life.

June 2, 2008

A comment on successful rioting

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm

Over on Richard Seymour’s “Lenin’s Tomb” blog, there’s a guest post by “Roobin” titled “The just-about-Gramscian theory of successful rioting” that is a fairly awful exercise in ultraleftism. I am not sure of Roobin’s identity, but he wrote an excellent analysis of James Joyce there the other day. My initial comment on “successful rioting” was to advise Roobin to stick to James Joyce, which prompted Richard to demand a more considered response. So here goes.

Roobin begins by hailing the work of the British antiwar movement whose gains he describes as follows:

Though by no means permanent, the lasting benefits of the anti-war movement have been a generalised anti-imperialist consciousness, a suspicion of secretive, undemocratic government and a check on the racist backlash against Muslims. These gains must be defended.

I wonder why he didn’t choose to include the movement’s ability to restrain the war-making capabilities of British troops in Iraq. I don’t want to read too much into this, but during the Vietnam War period, there were sharp divisions between those who opposed the mass demonstrations because they were not “anti-imperialist” enough and those who pushed for massive numbers, which in my view amounted to objective anti-imperialism. This insistence on the movement being more radical can be found in the pages of the ISO press in the U.S., taking the form of “Support the Resistance”. My reaction to such an approach can be found here.

Now it is entirely possible that I have misunderstood Roobin on this matter, but I am afraid that his take on the question of “successful rioting” is not susceptible to misinterpretation:

The good news is, given preparation (the opportunity for which, of course, is normally denied), the average citizen can match a police officer blow for blow. A police officer has access to hand arms, in particular clubs, but the ordinary citizen can get and/or easily improvise these. The same is true of body armour and self-defence. The police have roadblocks, the people barricades. The police can use sturdy, powerful vehicles, so can the public. The police can use tools such as water cannons to disperse a crowd but a resourceful crowd can use similar devices to reverse effect. The police can use small firearms. Even in Britain it is not impossible for a member of the public to get hold of some. Any weapons won from the police in battle can immediately be used against them.

Not to mince words, this is complete idiocy and most unfortunate for the British left to have it aired on a prominent blog such as “Lenin’s Tomb”. When Roobin writes “Any weapons won from the police in battle can immediately be used against them,” he is indulging in the worst kind of ultraleft posturing that can open up the movement to victimization. The best defense against the cops is massive numbers, not tactical adroitness with “body armour”, etc. At least Roobin seems to understand this when he states in the very next paragraph that “when 2 million people are intent on using Hyde Park for a demonstration there is nothing the state can do to stop them (without seriously upping the ante).” It is too bad that he simply did not stick with this approach and wandered off into what amounts to urban guerrilla fantasies of the sort that helped to destroy the movement in the 1960s and 70s.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on mass action is dropped in the very next paragraph when the comrade demonstrates a fondness for black block forms of struggle:

During the anti-G8 demonstrations in Germany recently there was a very successful direct action that blocked the railway line to the summit resort. The police blocked every road route toward the resort. The marchers approached a blockade as a mass before raising a set of flags and dispersing in large, pre-organised groups into fields of shoulder high corn, following the flags. The police had not planned for this and could not cope with it; their organisation had been broken.

The most significant aspect of the G8 demonstrations is not blocking a railway, but the participation of 80,000 opponents of the neoliberal system, many of whom came from the trade union movement. The notion of dispersed groups being somehow successful because they outmaneuvered the cops strikes me as going backwards politically. There was a serious reevaluation of this kind of cat-and-mouse, black block, tactical fetishism after 2001, which was never really put to some kind of test since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq more or less pulled the rug from underneath the anarchist and autonomist foot troops of the anti-capitalist movement.

Whatever Became Of What’s-His-Name, The Radical?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 2:01 pm

Swans – June 2, 2008

Whatever Became Of What’s-His-Name, The Radical?
Reflections on Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin, and Abbie Hoffman
by Louis Proyect

As a veteran of the American Trotskyist movement, I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the Chicago 7 (originally the Chicago 8 until Black Panther Bobby Seale’s case was separated from the others). In the late 1960s, there were very sharp differences over strategy and tactics in the antiwar movement pitting the mass demonstration approach of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) against the Debordian spectacle politics of Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and their allies in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Now, forty years after the event, my feelings remain ambivalent even if I no longer have any identification with the SWP. For what they are worth, here are my impressions of the political and personal trajectories of some of the defendants in the Chicago 7 trial, most of whom were my contemporaries.

Rennie Davis today: Venture capitalist and new age guru

Perhaps nothing illustrated the self-defeating approach of three of the defendants — Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Dave Dellinger (who was twenty years older than Hoffman and Rubin) — than their role at an April 5th, 1969, protest in New York, when the antiwar movement had begun to recruit active duty GIs to the cause. The coalition had invited Dellinger to speak about the Chicago defendants.

During the march, a group of “Crazies,” an obscure confrontationist split-off from Rubin and Hoffman’s Yippies that some suspected of being agents provocateurs, carried the butchered heads of pigs on a spike with which they taunted cops along the parade route. The march itself was so massive that the Crazies were hardly noticed, except by the cops.

The late Jerry Rubin: he did it (got rich)

The march terminated with a rally, including a contingent of active-duty GIs at the front of the speakers stand. You have to remember that these soldiers were risking victimization just for being there. During Dellinger’s speech, he invited Rubin and Hoffman to the stage and turned over the microphone to them even though the coalition had voted against having them speak. Keep in mind that Rubin and Hoffman had developed an extremely hostile attitude toward mass protests that they thought lacked “balls.” Both of them had a macho attitude toward politics that would soon be rendered obsolete by the women’s liberation movement. When they debated SWP leader Fred Halstead at SWP headquarters in New York over directions for the antiwar movement, they were accompanied by several women wearing what amounted to Playboy Bunny outfits.

As soon as Rubin and Hoffman took the mike, they began to urge the Crazies and the crowd to attack the few cops that were lined up nearby. The GIs were positioned between the Crazies and the cops and were in danger of being caught up in any violence that ensued. Fortunately, Rubin and Hoffman’s harangues fell on deaf ears.

Abby Hoffman in 1981: he never sold out

I soldiered on in the Socialist Workers Party until 1978 when I was effectively purged from this sect. I am not sure that my efforts were of all that much use in changing American society, but feel somewhat vindicated for having withstood the kind of pressures that would eventually disorient Jerry Rubin and Rennie Davis, a former SDS leader who shared Hoffman and Rubin’s politics but without their flamboyance.

Even as the war in Vietnam still raged, Rennie Davis became an acolyte of Guru Maharaj Ji, the 16-year-old leader of the Divine Light Mission. In November 1973, the Mission organized “Millennium ’73,” a three-day event at the Houston Astrodome, which they advertised as “the most significant event in human history.” For those still consumed with the need to push for an end to the war in Vietnam, it promised “a thousand years of peace for people who want peace.” In other words, peace could come to the world when individuals found inner peace.

Read full article at Swans

June 1, 2008

African music youtube sampler

Filed under: Africa,music — louisproyect @ 6:57 pm

In the course of finding some video clips of Zaire’s Wendo Kolosoy, the subject of the fine documentary “Up the Rumba River“, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a mother lode of African music, including some of my favorite musicians who I only knew by their music. Seeing them in performance for the first time was a delight.

Over the past few days, I have assembled a selection that try to satisfy some basic criteria. I have tried to stay away from lip-syncing even though some excellent music videos would necessarily rely on this approach. I have also ruled out some of the more amazing performances since they consisted of nothing but the music superimposed on an album cover or photographs of the artist’s native country. Finally, I have tried to pick out only the performances that have good audio/video quality. Unfortunately, some of the more striking videos were crudely recorded.

Here goes:

West Africa

1. Salif Keita, “Folon”

This is the great albino musician and direct descendant of the founder of the Mali Empire, Sundiata Keita, doing an “unplugged” performance in an intimate setting. Despite his royal lineage, he was ostracized from his family and community because of his albinism.

2. Oumou Sangare

Also hailing from Mali, Oumou Sangare is West Africa’s most important female vocalist. She is from the Wassoulo region and her music has political and feminist messages, although somewhat softened in order not to stir up too much controversy in a very traditional society.

3. Ali Farka Toure

As should be obvious from another musician from Mali, the country has quite a variegated mix of sounds and styles. Toure, who died of bone cancer in 2006, was a guitarist who supposedly channeled American blues musicians, especially John Lee Hooker. Perhaps it was the other way around.

4. Amadou and Mariam

Another of Mali’s great musical assets, this is a blind couple who met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind.

5. Mory Kanté

Kanté is from Guinea, but moved to Mali at the age of 7 where he was trained in the country’s musical traditions. In 1971 he became a member of the Rail Band, along with Salif Keita. Here he is performing “Yeke Yeke”, a song that he wrote and which became an international dance hit in 1987. To show its widespread influence, you watch a Romanian musician covering it here. It is not without its own peculiar charms.

6. Baba Maal

Another “unplugged” performance from one of Senegal’s two most famous musicians–the other being Youssou N’Dour. Like N’Dour, Maal has been trying to “crossover” in recent years, working with Brian Eno, Celtic musicians, etc. I much prefer the straight Senegalese sound.

7. Youssou N’Dour

N’Dour is a real pioneer of the style of Senegalese popular music called mbalax. He is also the most successful of all African musicians in crossing over to the World Music mainstream. Again, as with the case of Baba Maal, I prefer the straight Senegalese sound.

8. Orchestra Baobab

This is a Senegalese band that plays in a relatively undiluted Afro-Cuban style that both preceded and influenced mbalax.


1. Franco

Born François Luambo Makiadi, he was the leader of the OK Jazz band and died of AIDS in 1989. He was a superstar in the Congo who was both promoted by the dictator Mobutu as a symbol of the national culture as well as jailed for his occasional willingness to take on controversial political subjects in his songs. If you were permitted to own only one African music record, I would recommend the one that Franco made with Tabu Ley Rouchereau, who was the other top musician in Zaire. Someone once described it as the equivalent of James Brown recording with Ray Charles.

2. Mbelia Bel

A female superstar who recorded with Tabu Ley. She is singing “Boya Be”, a terrific song even though I have no idea what the words mean.

3. Kanda Bongo Man

This is a superstar group that plays in the Soukous style that is a speeded-up, more electrified version of the Rumba style of Franco and Bel. Here they are playing at SOB’s, a NY venue with a truly shitty sound system although it doesn’t seem to effect the quality of the youtube video.

4. Papa Wemba

I would rate him as my favorite musician from the continent. Here he is singing “Esclave”, a song about slavery. I believe I was in the audience for this performance. In 2004 Wemba was arrested for smuggling Congolese into Belgium who were supposedly members of his band and then spent 4 months in jail. I, of course, have no objection to his doing this but felt some regret that he charged money for doing so. His music, of course, stands on its own merits.

5. Zap Mama

Technically speaking, this is a Belgian group since the female members are based there. The leader has a Belgian father and a Congolese mother and the group incorporates pygmy music in their strikingly unusual songs.


1. Bonga

Born José Adelino Barceló de Carvalho, he hails from Angola and many of his songs deal with the struggle against Portuguese colonialism. He was exiled from Angola in 1972. He has become disenchanted from the country’s post-independence malaise in the same fashion as Zimbabwe’s Thomas Mapfumo.

2. Aster Aweke

One of Ethiopia’s top musicians who now lives in Los Angeles. For those who have never listened to Ethiopian music, it takes a bit of an adjustment since the harmonies have an off-kilter quality.

3. Lucky Dube

A reggae musician from South Africa who was killed by car-jackers in October 2007.

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