Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 12, 2008

Atom spies

Filed under: repression,ussr — louisproyect @ 4:53 pm

Around 40 years ago I had dinner at Dick Roberts’ place in New York. Also in attendance was his girl friend Laura and David Thorstad. All of us have left the SWP, but Dick-to my knowledge-was the only one to have become a committed Christian. (Right, Dave?) At the time Dick was the SWP’s economics expert and a rather blustering opinionated individual not without certain charms. He was also a notorious drunk. His path into organized Christianity, as I understand it, was greased by sessions at Alcoholics Anonymous.

At some point in the evening, the topic turned to the Rosenbergs. Dick, who enjoyed being provocative especially after a few scotches under his belt, stated emphatically that they were guilty-number one. Number two, he thought that they should have admitted their guilt and crowed about it along these lines: “Yes, we helped socialist Russia develop the A-Bomb because we believe that the U.S. would have destroyed the country if had no adequate defenses. In fact, Truman stated that he only dropped A-Bombs on Japan in order to show the Russians that he meant business. We acted on behalf of peace and social justice. Punish us if you must, but history will absolve us.” In other words, give the same kind of speech that Castro gave after going on trial for the attack on the Moncada barracks.

Morton Sobell, from today’s N.Y. Times

Today’s New York Times contains an admission of sorts of Julius Rosenberg’s guilt from a now self-confessed spy:

In 1951, Morton Sobell was tried and convicted with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on espionage charges. He served more than 18 years in Alcatraz and other federal prisons, traveled to Cuba and Vietnam after his release in 1969 and became an advocate for progressive causes.

Through it all, he maintained his innocence.

But on Thursday, Mr. Sobell, 91, dramatically reversed himself, shedding new light on a case that still fans smoldering political passions. In an interview, he admitted for the first time that he had been a Soviet spy.

And he implicated his fellow defendant Julius Rosenberg, in a conspiracy that delivered to the Soviets classified military and industrial information and what the American government described as the secret to the atomic bomb.

In the interview with The New York Times, Mr. Sobell, who lives in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, was asked whether, as an electrical engineer, he turned over military secrets to the Soviets during World War II when they were considered allies of the United States and were bearing the brunt of Nazi brutality. Was he, in fact, a spy?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that,” he replied. “I never thought of it as that in those terms.”

I got to know Morton Sobell in 1989 after he showed up at a Tecnica meeting. I had already read his memoir “On Doing Time,” an extremely powerful account of his radicalization in the 1930s, his trial, and his 19 years at Alcatraz. He had returned recently from Vietnam where he had been working on a project to develop low-cost hearing aids and now wanted to do something similar in Nicaragua. I could be wrong, but I seem to remember the staff in our California office holding him at arm’s length because of his past. We would soon be charged with running an espionage ring out of Nicaragua, so perhaps caution did make sense in retrospect. Of course, it didn’t help matters with Morton being even more cantankerous than me on most occasions.

The Rosenberg trial has been one of the most important issues for the left since the 1950s, when an international campaign mounted on their behalf could not stave off Cold War hysteria. Their sons Robert and Michael Meeropol spent decades trying to establish their innocence, while journalists Walter and Miriam Schneir’s “Invitation to an Inquest” made in my opinion a powerful case for their innocence in one of the century’s most blatant show trials. The judge Irving Kaufman, a Jew like the Rosenbergs, did everything he could to prejudice the jury against the defendants in order to establish his credentials as a “good American”.

Ronald Radosh: Satanic neoconservative

In October 1983, the Nation Magazine and the New Republic organized a debate on the Rosenberg trial between the Schneirs on one side, and Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton on the other. Radosh and Milton had written a book making the case for their guilt, which the New Republic endorsed. The Nation, of course, had long been associated with defending both the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss, also accused of spying for the Soviets. His main attacker was Whittaker Chambers, the repulsive renegade from Communism.

Radosh had a lot in common with Chambers. He had been a Communist in the 1950s and 60s but began to become disillusioned with radical politics after a trip to Cuba in 1973 revealed crowded buses. I don’t know. The fucking number #96 bus that I took across town this morning made me feel like a sardine, but I am not about to dump my beliefs.

In the 1980s, his evolution to the right was consummated by the Sandinista revolution that he saw as an omen of the spread of Cuban style communism in Latin America. Before long he became a full-fledged anti-Communist. Not only did he try to sink his teeth into the corpses of the Rosenbergs, he became a supporter of Generalissimo Franco and Joe McCarthy.

So imagine how painful it is to hear now that this skunk was more right than the Schneirs. After reviewing the Venona documents that became available after the collapse of the USSR, the Schneirs acknowledged that Julius Rosenberg was guilty but that his wife was not.

Even the Meeropols have been forced to confront the Venona documents, but still obviously refusing to admit the obviously false claim that the Rosenbergs gave away the “secret” of the A-Bomb. In an interview with PBS conducted on the occasion of a documentary about atom spies, Robert Meeropol said:

The United States government executed two people for the reason, as the prosecutor said, that they stole the greatest secret known to mankind. The judge said that they committed a crime worse than murder, they caused the Korean war. President Eisenhower in saying “I am denying clemency” said essentially the same thing. All of this was because they stole the secret of the atomic bomb. That’s why they were executed, and the writing on the wall if you believe Venona is that neither Julius nor Ethel Rosenberg did the crime they were killed for. That seems to be the most important question to me.

While I don’t particularly regard spying for the USSR as a crime against humanity (as opposed to a violation of U.S. penal codes), it does gall me to see people like Ronald Radosh vindicated. It is a little bit like what the left might have felt if a team of inspectors had discovered an atomics weapon lab in Baghdad in early 2004. “You see,” Christopher Hitchens would have said, “we were right all along.”

Robert Meeropol’s formulation was a far cry from what Dick Roberts would have said if he had been Julius and Ethel’s son. Perhaps this gets to the bottom of the difference between the Trotskyist and Communist Party outlooks. The CP would have found it very difficult to defend self-admitted atom spies since their entire trajectory since the Popular Front turn was in the direction of confirming Earl Browder’s belief that “Communism is 20th Century Americanism”. In New York, the CP educated its cadres at the Jefferson School, an institution named after someone who owned slaves and once wrote on the topic of Indian “removal”:

“If ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or is driven beyond the Mississippi….they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.”

The CP was also faced with a quandary. If its members were required to resign before taking on dangerous assignment like Julius Rosenberg’s, a paper trail connecting them to the party would be much harder to erase. After all, the Rosenbergs were typical party members, with a long involvement raising funds for the Lincoln Brigades, etc. It would have been far better for the USSR to recruit left-minded people for such work who had never had any connections at all to the party. After all, there were thousands of them in the 1930s and 40s, such as the British spies from the upper class.

The revelations about the Rosenbergs will of course be used to keep the spirit of the Cold War alive. The Ronald Radosh/Joyce Milton book on the Rosenbergs was published as part of the “Annals of Communism” series out of Yale University that is run by Jonathan Brent. Brent now occupies the Alger Hiss Chair at Bard College (my alma mater), a chair once occupied by ecosocialist Joel Kovel and that was most certainly established to honor Alger Hiss’s memory. It is characteristic of the degradation of American political culture, including an ostensibly liberal bastion like Bard College, that a red-baiter like Jonathan Brent would be appointed to this chair.

September 11, 2008

Jews and American Comics

Filed under: Jewish question,popular culture — louisproyect @ 3:54 pm

Last night I attended an event at the KGB Bar on the Lower East Side launching Paul Buhle’s latest foray into the interrelated topics of American Jewry, popular culture and the left-namely “Jews and American Comics,” an anthology that ranges from Rube Goldberg to Art Spiegelman.

In an interview by Brian Heater of the Daily Cross Hatch, an online publication devoted to the comic genre, Paul is asked whether he embarked on the project because of his involvement with underground comics in the 1960s. Paul replies:

No, really, a lot of it is based on my growing up reading Mad comics, before it became Mad Magazine. When it became Mad Magazine, it wasn’t as good, but it was still sort of Jewish liberal and New York reaching out to me, in the middle of Illinois, which was appreciated, but also, Classics Illustrated, which we always called “Classic Comics.” That was the place I where I first read my classics. Since my sister, who is four years older, taught me how to read after kindergarten using those books, comics always had a really warm spot in my heart. Mad comics, because it was so wonderful about showing what was stupid and hypocritical about the coporate world, it was sort of like my book of knowledge. I wrote a high school paper as a junior about Harvey Kurtzman. I got a B from a teacher who liked me, but always thought that comics were degraded, as almost everyone did think.

I picked up a copy of “Jews and American Comics” at the event and browsed through it on my way to work this morning. As a fan of Mad Magazine in the 1950s, I was pleased to see Harvey Kurtzman’s work in Paul’s anthology. Kim Deitch, a veteran underground comic book artist and an invited panelist who is from the same generation as Paul and I, told the audience that Mad Magazine was not just a source of humor for 12 year olds like us. It was a window into broader culture. For many of us, it was the way we were introduced to literature or film, even as they were being satirized. For example, Deitch first learned about “My Fair Lady” through a lampoon interestingly enough revolving around radioactivity “on the street where you live”.

I would add that it was not just Mad Magazine that acted as a portal. Watching the Sid Caesar show in the 1950s was the way that I learned that “cool” be-bop hipster musicians existed. Here’s Carl Reiner as Edward R. Murrow interviewing Progress Hornsby, the famous saxophone player, in a parody of “Person to Person”.  Only a couple of years later, I would discover Charlie Parker, who Progress Hornsby was clearly modeled on.

The dotted lines between Jewish pop culture, the comics and the Sid Caesar show are connected with the story titled “Mel Brooks: Yiddish Comedian” that appears on page 164. Set in 1942, the first panel shows a housemaid in a Catskill Mountain hotel locked in a closet. Knocking loudly on the door, she cries out “Los Mir Arois”, Yiddish for “Let me out”. In the next panel, we see a 16 year old named Melvin Kaminsky, a drummer in a borscht belt hotel, standing in for a comedian on a hotel stage. The first words out of his mouth are “Los Mir Arois”, which cracks up the audience. That launches the career of Mel Brooks, who would become one of Caesar’s writers along with Woody Allen and others during the golden age of TV comedy.

During his remarks Kim Deitch thought out loud about what comic books cannot do. He said that while they are valuable, they cannot be a substitute for the novel which allows for much greater psychological and intellectual depth.

I have been wrestling with this question after agreeing to collaborate with a comic book writer on a project about my life growing up in the very same Catskill resort area where Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks got started as comedians, as well as my often comical career in the Trotskyist movement.

In order to satisfy the requirements of the genre, I had to cut down on the number of words and very possibly the complexity that the topics deserved. Understanding the dogmatic nature of much that appears on the World Socialist Website, I could not be struck by what they wrote about “Persepolis”:

By 1979, the Tudeh Party Stalinists had already done immense damage, subordinating the working class to one or another section of the Iranian national bourgeoisie and making it possible for the clerics to take power in what was a massive social upheaval with enormous revolutionary potential. Persepolis touches on many aspects of these tragic experiences, more openly than any films produced in Iran, but it is by no means simple to draw out their lessons.

Which leads one inevitably to raise the question (and not for the first time in a WSWS review-similar issues arose in regard to Sin City and V for Vendetta): Can a graphic novel, or a film based on one, successfully handle material that is complex and contradictory, or is the form itself inherently too confining?

Satrapi’s Persepolis maintains the most appealing visual aspects of a cartoon-as well as its weaknesses. Whether the form keeps the narrative from penetrating more deeply, or whether the inability to penetrate more deeply led Satrapi to resort to a limited and limiting form, is difficult to say. Whichever is the case, the unfortunate result is that Persepolis ultimately lacks the nuance and depth required.

After taking in Deitch’s remarks, I raised my hand during the discussion period and offered my thoughts on the limitations of the comic book genre particularly as applied to my own project. I said that I now recognized that the book will essentially be a standup comedian type riff on growing up in the Catskills, getting radicalized by the war in Vietnam, and being a Trotskyist activist for over a decade. If I can get people to laugh about my mishaps, that would be satisfaction enough considering the grim times we are living in.

September 10, 2008

Theorizing imperialism in today’s world

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 5:41 pm

(This was just posted to the Introduction to Marxism mailing list on Yahoo.)

Below you will find a provisional outline for readings apropos of “current debates on imperialism” that we will be pursuing in common weeks. But first I want to try to explain why imperialism has become such an important topic in our epoch, which I date roughly from the end of WWII.

From the days of Karl Marx to the end of the 1930s, the focus was much more on how to make a revolution in advanced capitalist countries since the objective possibility existed in a way that it does not today. Economic crisis seemed intractable in countries like Italy, France, and Germany while even Great Britain was shaken by a general strike in 1926.

With the end of WWII, the advanced capitalist countries entered a period of economic expansion that has persisted until today. Even though there are frequent convulsions-such as with the subprime crisis of the current moment-there is nothing like the mass unemployment workers faced in the 1930s.

Many Marxists began to re-theorize class relationships after WWII with an eye toward understanding the period better. One of the earliest attempts to grapple with the new situation was mounted by Felix Morrow in the American Socialist Workers Party. Party leader James P. Cannon predicted a new depression and inter-imperialist war while Morrow was much more cautious, especially with respect to Germany where Trotskyism expected working class militancy of the sort seen in the 1920s:

To put it bluntly: all the phrases in its prediction about the German revolution — that the proletariat would from the first play a decisive role, soldiers’ committees, workers’ and peasants’ soviets, etc. — were copied down once again in January 1945 by the European Secretariat from the 1938 program of the Fourth International. Seven years, and such years, had passed by but the European Secretariat did not change a comma. Exactly the same piece of copying had been done by the SWP majority in its October 1943 Plenum resolution in spite of the criticisms of the minority.

Among the first Marxists to step outside the box and look dispassionately at the new situation were Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran of the Monthly Review. They drew two conclusions about the postwar period: one, monopoly capitalism (ie., imperialism) defined the current epoch; two, the primary contradictions were not between capitalist and worker in the advanced countries-at least not to the same extent as the pre-WWII period-but between the advanced countries as a whole and the 3rd world as a whole. As might be expected, Monthly Review began to evolve in a Maoist direction.

The MR analysis has been called “dependency theory” and began to be challenged in a serious fashion in the 1970s, largely sparked by Robert Brenner’s attack in the New Left Review. Additional voices were heard from that shared some of Brenner’s approach, including Bill Warren, an Irish Marxist, who went much further and argued that imperialism actually benefited 3rd world countries by introducing capitalist property relations and more dynamic and prosperous economies.

Debates around the question of “dependency theory” have not been limited to Marxist journals. Within the academy, the debate has raged since the 1970s with proponents of World Systems theory such as Immanuel Wallerstein debating Robert Brenner in the pages of academic journals. There was also a prolonged debate within Latin American studies over these issues, particularly in the pages of Latin American Perspectives. Andre Gunder Frank was pilloried above all. He was accused of abandoning Marxism, adapting to the national bourgeoisie and worse.

The other controversial aspect of the Monthly Review current was its seeming dismissal of the working class of the advanced countries, who were seen as hapless victims of the consumer society rather than agents of revolutionary change. While Monthly Review was not so nearly as pessimistic as Herbert Marcuse, the journal did serve as a pole of attraction for New Leftists who understandably skeptical about claims made by the Trotskyists on behalf of a revolutionary working class (this would change in 1968 with the French events).

Despite the tendency to regard the MR as “revisionist” when it came to the revolutionary role of the working class, there is some precedent in classical Marxism for their stance. In 1916, Lenin wrote an article titled “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” that states that “the political institutions of modern capitalism-press, parliament associations, congresses etc.-have created political privileges and sops for the respectful, meek, reformist and patriotic office employees and workers, corresponding to the economic privileges and sops.” Does that not describe workers today in the U.S., particularly white workers?

Closely related to this is the theory of an aristocracy of labor that the Australian Democratic Perspective group has adopted. They insist that it is grounded in classical Marxism but many Marxists disagree with them. We will review this concept in some detail, especially since the question of the revolutionary capacity of the working class in imperialist countries is probably the most critical question facing our movement today.

If socialist revolution is not on the agenda today for the reasons just alluded to, perhaps the best thing that radicals can hope for today is a decline in U.S. power. Is there any basis for seeing American hegemony coming to an end? By the same token, is the rise of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) a way out of the current impasse of imperial invasion and CIA subversion?

These issues have been very much the focus of the academic left. At an Edward Said Conference on Imperialism at Columbia University in 2003, there were various takes on this question with David Harvey arguing that hegemony exists in the military realm but only as a way of compensating for declining economic power. Meanwhile, some scholars associated with Socialist Register in Canada-including Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin-see the U.S. as just as powerful as ever, particularly in the economic realm. We will review some of the more important contributors to this debate.

Finally, if the chief goal of radicals today is to oppose American imperialism, which is arguably the most dangerous enemy of humanity in its entire history, shouldn’t the major focus be on opposing imperialism even when the government under attack does not exemplify socialist ideals and that moreover represses radicals and socialists within its territorial boundaries?

“Anti-imperialism” as a movement has always operated according to its own logic. For example, Andrew Carnegie was a member of the same anti-imperialist movement that Mark Twain belonged to, even though he had no trouble shooting strikers at his steel mills. I am also learning a bit about the “anti-imperialism” of E.L. Godkin, the founder of the Nation Magazine, who opposed the annexation of the Dominican Republic in 1870 because the policy of “absorbing semi-civilized Catholic states” was ill-advised.

Socialist internationalism seems to have to a Scylla and a Charybdis when it comes to anti-imperialism. The Scylla would be “humanitarian interventions” of the sort that Christopher Hitchens and company have defended. The Charybdis would be adaptation to the governments that are currently the enemy d’jour, such as Mugabe’s or Ahmadinejad’s. Trying to navigate between these two obstacles might be easier if we can get a better understand of how Marxism dealt with such problems in the past.

So the agenda for the weeks to follow:

1. Dependency theory

–Sweezy, Baran
–Robert Brenner
–Various Latin American specialists on both sides of the debate
–Bill Warren

–etc

2. Imperialism and the revolutionary potential of the working class

–Lenin
–The Australian DSP and the aristocracy of labor
–The making of a white working class (Ted Allen, David Roediger, et al)

3. U.S. hegemony

–Immanuel Wallerstein
–David Harvey
–Ellen Meiksins Wood
–Peter Gowans
–Gindis/Panitch
–Patrick Bond

4. Anti-imperialism

–Leon Trotsky (on Finland, Ethiopia, Brazil)
–Sam Marcy’s theory of contending blocs
–Selected readings (Michael Chussodovsky et al)

September 9, 2008

Obama disappoints

Filed under: Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 5:25 pm

I just got off the phone with Jeff, an old friend from college who described himself as disgusted with Obama’s interview with Keith Olbermann on the MSNBC Countdown show. He saw Obama’s performance as smacking of just the kind of superiority and condescension that the Republicans were trying to cynically exploit-turning the contest into a referendum on “who you would want to drink beer with”, just as was the case in the 2004 election.

I should add that my friend is a longtime Nation Magazine subscriber who plans to vote for Obama. His views were shared by Richard, another friend of ours from college, who posted the following comment underneath one of my blog postings on Obama:

C’mon now, who cares what Obama does or says between now and November, IF HE GETS ELECTED! He’s not the “lesser” in this race. Consider, for example, the Supreme Court. The Next President will probably name 3 or 4 Justices. Do I have to ask? What about the thousands of federal office holders, throughout all the federal regulatory agencies? Can you really believe Obama will appoint the same people McCain will? American elections are all about WINNING. We don’t have a Parliamentary system. It’s WINNER TAKE ALL in the USA. The choice is Obama or McCain. Is that really hard to make?

Not only did Richard share Jeff’s take on Obama, so did Jeff’s friend Iris who actually went out to Ohio as an Obama volunteer. I would describe the mood of all three, from what Jeff told me, as one of despair over Obama’s unwillingness to take the fight to the Republicans.

Obama’s interview with Olbermann will be accessible on the Countdown transcript page either later today or tomorrow morning. Since I have access to Lexis-Nexis, I couldn’t resist taking a look at what Obama had to say, since it had such a dismaying effect on 3 of his supporters.

When Olbermann asks Obama if Palin is experienced enough and qualified enough to become president of the United States in the relatively short-term future, he refuses to go for the jugular about her totally unacceptable ultra-right positions and offers up bromides like this instead:

You know, those are going to be I think the issues that ultimately matter to the voters, and that’s why I’m trying to offer to them a very clear set of prescriptions, very clear ideas about what we intend to do, how we want to change the tax code, stop giving tax breaks to companies that ship jobs overseas, give 95 percent of Americans tax relief.

Have an energy policy that is serious about climate change, is serious about weaning ourselves off of Middle Eastern oil, investing in solar and wind and biodiesel so we’ve got energy independence and creating jobs here in the United States, having a health care system that makes sure that we don’t have 47 million people without health insurance.

This is exactly the kind of bloodless, policy wonk type message that has been delivered up by Democratic Party candidates going back to Jimmy Carter. The refusal to attack their opponents with the same kind of vehemence that they are attacked fosters the impression that the Democrats are brie-eating losers from the Eastern Seaboard. Olbermann makes it clear that another approach is required:

I mean, sixty years ago Harry Truman went out and campaigned very simply, looked out at people in trouble because of a Republican Congress at that point and the impact it had on their lives and he said, “How many more times do you have to be hit over the head until you figure out who’s hitting you?” I mean, has your campaign in some way not kept it that simple?

As I tried to explain to my friend Jeff earlier today, Obama will not take the brass knuckles approach of an FDR, a Harry Truman or even LBJ-the last of the New Deal politicians-because the Democratic Party has lost its class moorings. Through the 1960s, the trade unions were a powerful constituency of the Democratic Party. With the steady erosion of industries that provided the kinds of union jobs of the past, the Democrats have become much more of a middle-class party. With relatively well-off constituents in the “New Economy”, the Democrats do not feel the need to go into the trenches to fight for jobs and social benefits. The typical Democratic candidate for President today is a policy wonk like Obama, who reminds me more and more of Michael Dukakis.

If the performance on Countdown could be described as lackluster, it was far worse on the O’Reilly show where Obama tried to mollify the right-wing FOX-TV audience. Part one of the interview can be read here. It starts off with Obama showing that he is ready to “bring it on” with the terrorists, just as long as we don’t attack the wrong country.

O’REILLY: OK. Let’s start with national security. Do you believe we’re in the middle of a War on Terror?

OBAMA: Absolutely.

O’REILLY: Who’s the enemy?

OBAMA: Al Qaeda, the Taliban, a whole host of networks that are bent on attacking America, who have a distorted ideology, who have perverted the faith of Islam, and so we have to go after them.

Considering the news this week about dozens of Afghan children ending up as “collateral damage” in a bombing raid, one might have hoped that the Democratic candidate might have ratcheted down the war propaganda a bit. No such luck.

When O’Reilly keeps pressing Obama to admit that the surge “worked”, he finally has to admit: “Bill, what I’ve said is – I’ve already said it succeed beyond our wildest dreams.” Since Obama’s opposition to the war in Iraq has always been based on the criterion of whether it is the “wrong” war, it is to be expected that he would fall in line around the surge. No Democrat has had the guts to denounce the American occupation on grounds other than it is a waste of the taxpayer’s money, so naturally they will always appear to be indistinguishable from the Republicans on the all-important question of principle. No American presidential candidate since George McGovern has made the obvious point that the U.S. has no right to act as the world’s policeman, least of all the ever-so-cautious Barack Obama.

September 8, 2008

Constantine’s Sword

Filed under: religion — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

With its seamless blend of compelling autobiographical material and laser-sharp political analysis of Christian fundamentalism past and present, “Constantine’s Sword” impressed film critics almost universally when it was released last year. This was one of those rare occasions when the movie was even better than the praise lavished on it. Available on Netflix and other venues after September 16th through the auspices of First Run Features, a distribution company specializing in bold independent fiction and documentary film, this movie is an absolute must for anybody concerned about the growing influence of rightwing Christian sects on the body politic today, including the world’s most powerful and sinister sect: the Catholic Church.

Based on narrator and co-script writer James Carroll’s 750 page book of the same name, the documentary flows from the personal and political transformation of a most unlikely critic of organized religion. Born in 1943, Carroll had two passions as a youth: the Air Force and the Catholic Church. As a teenager, he was obsessed with Jesus Christ in the same way that others his age were with Mickey Mantle.

His father was Joseph P. Carroll, a working-class Irish Catholic Chicagoan who went to night school after his shift in the stockyards ended. After getting a college degree, he went to work for the FBI as an Elliot Ness type gang-buster. His crime-fighting renown attracted the attention of the U.S. Air Force which recruited him as a Lieutenant General to head up their newly formed top-secret intelligence-gathering unit after WWII. General Carroll was the Pentagon official responsible for alerting President Kennedy to Cuban missile bases in 1962, thus unleashing a chain of events that came close to ushering in nuclear Armageddon.

James Carroll’s mother probably would have been ready for Armageddon given her fanatical devotion to the Catholic Church. In 1959 he accompanied his mother on a trip to Trier in Germany in order to witness a rare unveiling of the robe that Christ allegedly worn during the crucifixion. This garment was the theme of the cheesy 1953 movie titled “The Robe”, excerpts of which are seen in the documentary. I distinctly remember Victor Mature as a muscle-bound convert to the Cross.

As Carroll explains, the Cross was not the original symbol of the Christian church. In its earliest years, it was the fish or the loaf of bread that symbolized eternal life, an altogether positive image in comparison to the blood-soaked icon that inspired Mel Gibson and the Roman Emperor Constantine as well.

Selecting Christianity for geopolitical reasons more than anything else, the Roman Emperor found the Cross a more useful symbol for his conquests against the heathen than a loaf of bread or a fish. He instituted a new type of state that integrated the sword and the Cross that came to a bloody climax in the Crusades.

Carroll explains that one of the first targets of mass slaughter in the Crusades was the Jews of Trier who had been invited in by the Christian nobility because of their mercantile skills. This act and others to follow should remind any Jew that it has been tormented by the Christian church and not Islam.

The documentary operates on multiple levels, almost like a novel. In addition to telling his own compelling story, Carroll introduces the viewer to Mikey Weinstein, a Jewish air force veteran who had taken vocal exception to the pressure mounted on his son Jason at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado by Christian fundamentalists. Jason could not understand why he had to see leaflets on the chairs in the dining commons for Mel Gibson’s “The Passion.” What had happened to separation of Church and State? The elder Weinstein was no Michael Moore. He too had graduated from the Air Force Academy and had served in the Reagan administration as a loyal Republican.

Making the case for proselytizing at the academy was Colorado Springs mega-Church pastor Ted Haggard who tells Carroll that it is in the interest of free speech to be able to put leaflets for Gibson’s anti-Semitic screed on cadets’ chairs. He had to watch Coke ads on TV even though he liked Pepsi, so why should a Jewish cadet object to such material or presumably people asking him why his people killed Christ, for that matter.

For those who have difficulty keeping track of fundamentalist Christian corruption, as well they should, this is the same Ted Haggard who resigned his post after revealing that he was a speed freak who had conducted a two year affair with a gay man.

The movie is particularly excoriating when it comes to the popes, particularly Pope Pius whose close even affectionate relationship to Adolph Hitler is revealed in all its sordid detail. Carroll shows in eye-opening detail, even to an old adversary of Christian hypocrisy like me, how the Vatican sprang to the head of the line when it came to recognizing the criminal, anti-Semitic dictatorship. Carroll also reveals how the current Pope, a rightwing German, is working overtime to cover up for Pope Pius as well as preparing his Church for new crusades against Islam.

Carroll entered the priesthood in 1969 and became a pacifist opponent of the war in Vietnam almost immediately. When he delivered a service decrying the use of napalm (without even using the word Vietnam), his father became incensed. Eventually Carroll left the Church, became a writer, and now has a regular column in the Boston Globe. Here is a sample of his writing:

The “surge” is touted as proof that American armed might can improve things, even though daily news reports say otherwise. That is because American “success” is not the same thing as success for the people of Iraq. By itself, the US military will never prove capable of providing them with stability and security. Worse, the US occupation will continue to prevent the development by Iraqis themselves of authentic, trans-sectarian security forces.

The occupation is the mistake that keeps on taking.

The healing of Iraq would be far more readily achieved by an American acknowledgment of failure, and by the engagement of other nations that such an acknowledgment would immediately invite. But insanely holding on in Iraq until Washington can claim something like “victory” means that this globally oriented geo-political ambition – America’s standing in the world – is being bought at the price of Iraqi blood.

Not that I aspire to be an arbiter of who is a good Christian or not, this seems far more in keeping with these words from the martyred rabbi than anybody from Ted Haggard’s neck of the woods:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven; for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

September 7, 2008

Bipartisan threats against Social Security

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 6:51 pm

Back in December 1982, former Lehman Brothers CEO Peter G. Peterson and Nixon administration Secretary of Commerce, wrote an article in the New York Review of Books warning about “Social Security: The Coming Crash”. It was one of the earliest calls to “reform” the system, which basically meant either slashing benefits or privatizing the system. It also introduced a theme that while being sounded on a regular basis has had very little traction among the constituency in whose name it was being advanced, namely the youth: “The only alternative to reorganizing Social Security is to sit by while the system collapses, either through an ugly revolt of young taxpaying workers against their elders or through a catastrophic flood of deficits.”

Peter G. Peterson: long-time enemy of “entitlements”

Luke A. Repici: young anti-entitlement activist

It should be mentioned that Peterson’s appearance in the once left-liberal N.Y. Review marked just one more notch in its downward spiral. The journal also provided a platform for Felix Rohatyn, the Lazard Frere CEO who also peddled his own deficit hawk solutions designed to make the poor subsidize the rich.

Twenty-six years later, Peterson is still hammering away at Social Security and other “entitlements”. In today’s N.Y. Times, there is a 2 page open letter that cost in excess of $50,000 paid for by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. You can read the ad here.

It contains all the usual alarmist nonsense about “Unsustainable Entitlement Spending,” including Medicare and Social Security that account for $41 trillion out of a total $53 trillion liability. An “out-of-control” health care system threatens American competitiveness supposedly but the open letter fails to mention the only sensible solution: single-payer. It also fails to hone in on what the Pentagon costs the taxpayer, but this is what you might expect from Peterson who wrote the following in a Sept./Oct. 2004 Foreign Affairs article:

Whatever they may feel about Iraq, most Americans seem to agree with the president’s premise that in the war on terrorism, the best defenses are a good offense and forward deployment. Along with augmenting the capabilities of its armed forces, the United States is sharing intelligence with friendly governments around the world and training and equipping their antiterrorist forces as needed. Sea-and land-based ballistic missile defenses, long under development, are now being deployed at a growing cost ($10.3 billion in the fiscal year 2005 budget).

Yes, quite the ticket. Those ballistic missile defenses are just what could have preempted civilian jetliners being flow into the WTC.

Peterson had tried to position himself as transcending party politics. This would explain the inclusion of three Democrats in the letter. Two of them are not much of a surprise. Bob Kerrey, the war criminal who is president of the New School, is co-chairman of the anti-“entitlement” Concord Coalition, along with Peterson, its founder, and Republican Party hack Warren Rudman. The other is Concord board member, the former Senator Sam Nunn who was mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate with Obama. That speaks volumes about Obama’s liberal pretensions, or perhaps more accurately the liberal illusions of his supporters. Other Concord board members of note are Robert Rubin, my old boss at Goldman-Sachs and one of Obama’s chief economic policy advisers. So is Obama supporter Steven Rattner who succeeded Felix Rohatyn at Lazard Freres.

There are a second tier of open letter signatories who by all appearances look like the kind of youngsters who watch MTV or go skateboarding when the spirit moves them:

Michael P. Davidson
CEO, Gen Next

Yoni Gruskin
Executive Director, Concerned Youth of America

Luke A. Repici
President, Association of Young Americans

Patrick Wetherille
Co-Founder, Secure our Future/Students for Saving Social Security

Peterson has had a strategy for the longest time for convincing the American people that is anxious to avoid a “revolt” of young taxpayers, who are represented in media accounts generally as Generation X’ers ready to storm the barricades against baby boomers like myself. (Strictly speaking, I am not a boomer since I was born in January 1945 when the war was still raging.)

A September 20, 1992 Boston Globe article reported on the early sightings of some of these “young taxpayers” ready to throw bombs at me:

A move that’s capturing the young;
By David Nyhan, Globe Staff

What may be the most intriguing development of the political year is percolating up from the bottom.

The media, as usual, are looking elsewhere. What else is new?

Flying below the media radar screen is a generational revolt against politics-as-usual conceived by a pair of twentysomethings. The nascent movement was hatched over coffee in a bull session between friends. The spark was a fax to Paul Tsongas [a deceased Democratic Party board member of the Concord Coalition] as he was bailing out of his presidential campaign. And it’s been fanned into flames by the reception Rob Nelson and Jon Cowan get from the MTV generation as the two of them go around the country talking up “Lead or Leave.”

Cowan and Nelson have a shoestring operation, operating on $ 55,000 they’ve raised with help from people such as Tsongas, his new sidekick, retiring Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) and former commerce secretary Pete Peterson.

Tsongas and Rudman have started something called The Concord Coalition to build support for hard choices in cutting entitlements, Social Security, Medicare. How many calls in the first two days of operation for Concord Coalition’s 1-800-231-6800 number? “Over 17,000,” beamed Tsongas.

At a Friday rally outside Faneuil Hall, where a blues band helped build a 400-person crowd, Tsongas juiced the noonday onlookers. The deficit means “we’re not going to be competitive. The pie’s going to shrink. Look at Germany and the skinheads. That’s just the beginning, when you have a shrinking pie.” Tsongas piled it on: “We’re a democracy. It’s not a spectator sport, it’s a contact sport. You have to get nasty. You have to get mean. Get angry. Get involved. Let’s put some heat on the politicians.” Whew! Paul. Chill, babes.

Even the lingo is generational: “It’s totally bogus – but it’s true . . . your share of the national debt is enough to buy a large pizza every day you’re in college . . . or take 500 friends to a U-2 concert.” Young voters eat it up.

Yes, that’s just the ticket. Throw the baby boomers to the wolves so you can take 500 friends to a U-2 concert. How emancipatory can you get.

Today’s versions of “Lead or Leave” are even more unpalatable if that could be possible.

To start with, Michael P. Davidson’s Gen Next makes no bones about its political orientation. The home page of its website states clearly that it provides a platform for “advocates who represent the right-of-center voice of the Next Generation of Americans.” Members of Gen Next must be under 50 years old and have to pony up $10,000 to become a member (by invitation only).

Moving right along, the Concerned Youth of America appears to be the youth group of the Concord Coalition for all practical purposes, stressing a bipartisan approach to “fiscal responsibility”. Gruskin is featured in a documentary funded by Peterson titled I.O.U.S.A. that will be appearing in local theaters at some point. It is, as you would gather from the title, a warning about the consequences of debt.

Luke A. Repici of The Association of Young Americans has exactly the kind of background that would prepare him for the role of deficit hawk. The organization’s website states that Repici interned with Congressman Robert L. Ehrlich, a Maryland Republican who while Governor of Maryland vetoed a bill that would require large corporations to spend 8 percent of their income on employee health care. Since Ehrlich’s official biography describes him as “unapologetically pro-business,” his veto was par for the course. Any sensible believer in fiscal responsibility understands that health care and retirement are issues that the private individual should attend to without Big Government interference, just as was true in the 1880s.

The Students for Saving Social Security website strives more than the others for an “edgy” appearance in keeping with the “Lead or Leave” fakery. Their “eye candy” page has photos of some of their members tabling at a campus somewhere, looking for all the world like SDS’ers. How daring of them to risk a billy club attack by campus cops. Patrick Wetherille, the group’s founder, has just the kind of background one might expect. In 2005, he was writing articles attacking Social Security for Human Events, which describes itself as “leading the conservative movement” since 1944. An August 8, 2005 Washington Post article on Wetherille and Jonathan Swanson, co-director of Students for Saving Social Security, fills in some background on the two “rebels”:

Swanson’s experience fits the trend. He and Wetherille joined what amounts to the Republican civil service last fall when they worked for a semester as White House interns. They were assigned to assist Bush’s Social Security guru, Charles P. Blahous. Although they hadn’t met before, by the end of their internships they were comrades in arms.

Their aspiration was to fill a strategic vacuum. Many senior citizens protested the president’s plan, but college-age people, who arguably have more at stake, were little involved in the debate.

So Swanson and Wetherille e-mailed their friends about what they saw as the benefits of private accounts and patched together the beginnings of a lobbying group. As a matter of pride, they hoped to establish themselves before Blahous and other Washingtonians noticed. Instead, the capital insiders caught wind of their recruitment e-mails and offered help within weeks.

Earlier I mentioned the two of the three signatories were Democrats but about whom there was a general understanding that they were cut from the Joe Lieberman cloth. Let me now turn to the third, one Mario Cuomo, the former Governor of New York about whom the Nation Magazine’s John Nichols wrote: “I think that I understand now why some folks that would have really made good presidents, Mario Cuomo being the best example, decided instead to take a pass.” Like Obama, Cuomo made a “great” speech to the 1984 Democratic Party convention that passed liberal litmus tests with flying colors:

We speak — We speak for young people demanding an education and a future. We speak for senior citizens. We speak for senior citizens who are terrorized by the idea that their only security, their Social Security, is being threatened. We speak for millions of reasoning people fighting to preserve our environment from greed and from stupidity. And we speak for reasonable people who are fighting to preserve our very existence from a macho intransigence that refuses to make intelligent attempts to discuss the possibility of nuclear holocaust with our enemy. They refuse. They refuse, because they believe we can pile missiles so high that they will pierce the clouds and the sight of them will frighten our enemies into submission.

As is always the case with capitalist politics, words have about the same value that they do in capitalist advertising, to gull the unsuspecting  consumer. With bipartisan support for an all-out attack on Social Security, including from Sam Nunn-a one-time possible running mate with Obama-and from liberal icon Mario Cuomo, the watchword is caveat emptor.

September 5, 2008

Yoji Yamada’s Samurai Trilogy

Filed under: Film,transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:46 pm

“Twilight Samurai” (2002) and “The Hidden Blade,” (2004) the first two installments in Yoji Yamada’s Samurai trilogy are now available from Netflix. “Love and Honor,” the final installment, showed at the Imaginasian Theater in New York last November and should soon be available in home DVD as well. Although I missed “Love and Honor” when it was at the Imaginasian, I am grateful for the loan of a press screener from a fellow programmer at Columbia University who has had an involvement with Japanese films for decades.

I am not sure of the 77 year old Yoji Yamada’s political associations today but the N.Y. Times reported in 1982 that he was “a member in good standing of Japan’s Communist Party” and usually tried to make “some reference in his films to man’s disaffection with society.”

For those of you who think of Kurosawa’s samurai movies as genre-defining, you are likely to be surprised by Yamada’s approach (even though both directors were men of the left) for Yamada sees the men not primarily as warriors but as court functionaries in a feudal system that was about to be replaced by the capitalism of the Meiji restoration. They are always pathetic in one fashion or another, but find a way in the climax of each of his great movies to redeem their honor in a display of swordsmanship against the feudal forces of oppression. These are very class conscious films, even if the alignment of class forces bears little resemblance to modern-day bourgeois society.

Twilight Samurai

“Twilight Samurai” is a double-entendre. The hero, Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), has been nicknamed “twilight” by fellow clerks since he goes straight home at sunset to look after his two young daughters or to plow his fields rather than join them for drinks at the local geisha house. The word “twilight” also describes the period in Japanese history immediately before the Meiji restoration that brought an end to samurai power and privilege.

By the 1800s, many samurai had descended to Seibi Iguchi’s status. They functioned as minor bureaucrats in a decaying feudal system rather than as warriors. Indeed, Seibei’s existence evokes Bob Cratchit rather than Yojimbo. His day is spent in the counting house of the local prince’s palace, where he sits and enters columns of numbers onto parchment. I was reminded of the social function of my ancestors since Proyect is Yiddish for the counting house of a tax-farmer, a role assigned typically to the court Jews of the Middle Ages.

Seibi is a lowly 50-koku samurai, which means that he gets an annual stipend of rice that can feed 50 people (a koku is equal to five bushels.) This is insufficient to support himself, his two daughters and his elderly mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. (His wife has died of consumption, brought on obviously by poverty.) Forced to make ends meet, he spends every free moment tilling his fields or making cages for the crickets that were kept as pets in Shogunate households. A combination of exhaustion and depression has taken its toll on the lowly samurai. His fellow workers notice that he has body odor and that his kimono is frayed at the edges. When a high-level commissioner conducts an inspection of the palace warehouse, he instructs Seibei to take a bath and mend his clothes. Afterwards, his boss bawls him out.

Seibei is not a typical samurai, who are generally a misogynist lot-including the powerful 1000-koku samurai who has been divorced by Seibei’s childhood friend Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa) after years of drunken physical and verbal abuse.

When the ex-husband arrives at Tomoe’s house to retrieve her, Seibei intercedes to tell him that she is no longer his wife and that he must leave at once. The aristocrat is shocked by Seibei’s impudence and challenges him to a duel by the river banks the next day. When Seibei arrives armed with nothing but a stick, we assume that he will be slaughtered by Tomoe’s ex-husband, who is a feared swordsman. Instead, Seibei dodges the blade and a well-placed blow to his head ends the duel on favorable terms both to him and to his opponent. We soon discover that Seibei is actually a skilled swordsman who has forsaken combat long ago. Despite his prowess, he has lost the stomach for killing other human beings. Like a gunman from the old west who has given up killing (Alan Ladd in “Shane” and Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven” come to mind), Seibei soon learns that it is difficult to escape his past. Once again he is forced to take up the sword in the thrilling conclusion to “Twilight Samurai”.

The Hidden Blade

Like Seibei, the samurai in “The Hidden Blade” is something of an anti-hero. He is Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase), a low-level functionary who spends much of his time learning how to use the newly imported British cannons that his master plans to use against his enemies. Just as is the case with the Tom Cruise movie, the samurai bitterly resent being forced to use such a vulgar armament and profess their preference for the sword or bow and arrow.

The fortyish Katagari has never married and like a bachelor uncle is fretted over by his relatives. They even notice that he has stopped caring about his appearance. Indeed, there is not much to sustain Katagari psychologically since his role as a warrior is anachronistic. His duties do not consist of going out with sword in hand to defeat other samurais, but preparing a training manual on how to use the new artillery.

Midway into the film, Katagari discovers that Kie (Takako Matsu), his family’s young maid who has entered into an arranged marriage with a merchant, is being mistreated by her new family. They treat her as a beast of burden and do not feed and clothe her adequately. He shows up at their manor to discover her sick and weak in a darkened room. Enraged by her treatment, he hoists her on his back and brings her back to his home and nurses her back to health. Once she is fully recovered, she begins to attend to his every need. It is clear that she is drawn to him romantically and that he loves her as well. Unfortunately for the two, the rigid caste system of feudal Japan prevents them from marrying. He is an aristocrat and she is from a peasant family.

Despite never having used his sword in combat, Katagari trained in one of the finest schools along with an old friend Yaichiro, who has recently escaped from a cage on the local Retainer’s estate where he was being jailed in ignominy. Yaichiro was implicated in a plot against the Shogunate and was not even permitted the honor of hari-kari. Eventually Yaichiro escapes from the cage and flees to a farming village where he takes an old man and his granddaughter hostage. He boldly announces that he is ready to die there. Let the Retainer send his riflemen and they will die by his sword.

The climax of the movie pits Katagari and Yaichiro against each other. Using some techniques he learned from his former master, who has renounced the martial arts and now lives the life of a simple farmer, Katagari hopes against hope that he won’t have to use them against an old friend.

Masatoshi Nagase delivers a riveting performance as the aging samurai Katagari. Although the movie is focused on the duel between Katagari and Yaichiro, it is as much a love story between the crusty bachelor and the young peasant woman whose caste keeps them apart. Implicitly, it is as the N.Y. Times put it a strong reference to man’s disaffection from society, in this case a rotting feudal system.

Love and Honor (Spanish subtitles)

“Love and Honor” once again features a hapless lower-rung samurai. Shinnojo (Takuya Kimura) is a food taster for a local clan lord, a job that virtually symbolizes the stupidity of the old order. He and six other samurai take bites of a meal three times a day just to make sure that their overlord is not poisoned. The food is delivered in complete solemnity and when the samurai make small talk about the bites they take, they are reprimanded by a vassal in charge of the operation.

One day Shinnojo eats some bad shellfish and immediately falls into a coma. When he awakens a week or so later, he discovers that he has become blind. In feudal society, there are provisions made for the disabled but as one might expect there are concessions expected from the unlucky victims like Shinnojo, including his wife being coerced into serving as a sex slave for a powerful sub-lord.

In order to preserve his sense of honor, Shinnojo challenges the man to a duel. Unlike the popular “Blind Swordsman” series, “Love and Honor” is played without any kind of showboating involving superior sense of hearing or smell, etc. You get the very strong sense that the blind Shinnojo has bitten off more than he can chew.

Again, like “The Hidden Blade”, there is a deeply moving love story at the core of the film. No matter how many times Shinnojo demands that his wife start a new life without him, she remains faithful-even to the point of sacrificing her body to keep them fed and sheltered.

***

There is probably no better introduction to the historical period of Yamada’s films than Douglas R. Howland’s “Samurai Status, Class and Bureaucracy: A Historiographical Essay” that appeared in the May 2001 Journal of Asian Studies.

Howland states that there were two Marxist tendencies in the prewar Japan academy with varying interpretations of the pre-Meiji era. The Koza, or “Lecture” group, argued that the samurai were a purely feudal class and that the Meiji restoration resulted in the ascendancy of a reconstituted feudal ruling class, against which a bourgeois revolution must be organized. Not surprisingly, the “Lecture” group was supported by the Communist Party.

The Rono, or “Farmer-Labor” group, argued that the samurai had shifted class positions, with the lower rungs–people like the heroes of Yamada’s films, in other words-joining the urban working class and becoming critical to the Meiji restoration’s bourgeois revolution from above. I am sympathetic to these views. And despite Yoji Yamada’s membership in the JCP, his movies tend to support the “Farmer-Labor” perspective.

For Howland, the category “bureaucratic labor” describes the lot of the average samurai throughout the Shogunate era. He writes:

As an individual, a samurai was often on his own in securing an adequate livelihood. Kozo Yamamura’s important study of samurai income found that the stipend of a ‘houseman’ was always barely adequate, giving him in the early Tokugawa period the living standard of a merchant or artisan.

The ‘lower samurai,’ who made up the majority of bureaucratic clerks and lowly functionaries and who felt unjustly cut off from positions of power and respect, increasingly voiced the rationalizing opinion that official appointments and positions should be based on merit rather than heredity.

Thus alienated from the Tokugawa state, motivated by notions of reform, and discovering alternative models, some younger samurai-Fukuzawa Yukichi, for example–began to interpret the question of political legitimacy in new terms, even those of representative institutions, and to replace relationships of loyalty with an identification with personal and national independence.

In other words, the samurai depicted in Yamada’s movies were the advance guard of democracy in the new Japan. Japan’s failure to deliver fully on that promise is obviously a subject for another post.

September 3, 2008

Excluding Reds from SDS?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

Some important issues have been raised on the Kasama blog by Mike Ely about anti-communist exclusionary policies in the new SDS.

The first entry, dated August 31, was titled “SDS: Ideology, Agendas and Raw Anti-Communism” and published an interview with SDS member Rachel Haut that originally appeared in Platypus, an online publication.

Ely prefaces the interview with the following comments:

The following interview appeared in platypus1917.org. It focuses heavily on Rachel Haut’ belief that communist politics have no legitimate place within a movement for an alternative society. Her discussion lumps some very diverse forces together under a single label “Maoists” i – but that superficial and questionable generalization is part of the overall anti-communist method. The interview raises issues about the meaning of democracy, the kind of society that should replace this one, and whether communists have “agendas” and “ideology” (while presumably non-communist democrats do not).

It also raises the question of how this approach of pressuring Obama is linked to a particular (and anti-communist) view of “democracy.”

Laurie Rojas is a member of Chicago SDS and editor of The Platypus Review. Rachel Haut is a member of the New York non-student SDS chapter. Both are participating in the Hundred Days campaign- which plans to mobilize people in the first hundred days of the next administration to put pressure on Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.

Haut’s interview expresses a need not just to exclude “Maoists” but “crazy anarchists” as well:

However, I think it is inappropriate to have conversations about ideological differences when we still have Maoists in the organization. Why should we be having these conversations with them, including them in the discussion, if their ideology is in direct opposition to building a democratic society? To say that the Maoists can be part of the ideological debate would mean to condone them being in this organization, which is something I don’t do. In the New York City SDS I have spoken numerous times with SDSers who are not Maoists about having the Maoists or certain kinds of anarchists in our organization, because both sides hurt us. If we want to build a democratic society, and we want to be relevant, both of these opposing forces are working against us. There are varying degrees of anarchism, definitely, as well as varying degrees of socialism. But, I think ideas that conflict with our vision and our goals need to be clearly defined and excluded before we can actually start talking about our ideological differences formally as a national organization.

It is a little hard for me to judge the role of anarchists in SDS but I am somewhat surprised by this characterization since I was under the impression that anarchists enjoyed something of a hegemony in SDS. I surmised that with the implosion of the anti-globalization movement, anarchists have been on the prowl trying to find an outlet for their tactical fetishism. Apparently, they must have worn out their welcome in SDS, at least with people like Rachel Haut whose politics are a bit hard for me to extract out of the interview. I guess she sounds a bit like one of the early New Leftists who operated in SDS until factional lines were drawn with an earlier generation of Maoists.

In a follow-up post, Ely tries to clarify the underlying politics, based on what he reads as an adaptation to the Obama campaign by Haut mounted as a typical “left pressure” bloc:

But, the point is that it is necessary to go far beyond the exposure of liberal hypocrisy [a reference to Obama’s imperfections]. There needs to be a speaking out about what the program, beliefs and activities of revolutionary communists are today – to speak about preparing for revolution, seeking to reach socialism, organizing the overthrow of imperialism, uprooting the oppression of Black people and immigrants within the U.S., about initiating a revolutionary fight for sustainable human activity within the biosphere, and shattering gender oppression.

All of that stands in contrast to the tepid politics of pressuring Obama (whether gently or rudely, loyally or critically).

Mike sort of lost me with a plea to speak out on “the program, beliefs and activities of revolutionary communists” since that kind of thing sounds more like overheated rhetoric than a real engagement with the tasks of the left today. Frankly, it would be best to retire terms such as “revolutionary communists” since they smack of the kind of in-group mentality on the Marxist-Leninist left. The SWP used to use another ungainly term: “worker-Bolshevik”. Ugh.

Moving right along, I also wonder if Mike really has the politics figured out since both Haut and the FRSO (both groups apparently) are soft on Obama. As he puts it:

There is a strong current within both Freedom Road Socialist Organizations toward supporting Obama (and the Democrats, despite all the crimes of their imperialist politics past, present and future). And so, some associated with those FRSO’s may have trouble pointing out the connection between Rachel Haut’s anti-communism and her softness on Obama.

Frankly, I have a bit of a problem following the peregrinations of Maoist formations like the FRSO and the RCP, but I definitely would not be surprised to see the FRSO lining up behind Obama since one of their more prominent semi-public figures Bill Fletcher has been making the case for the Illinois Senator for some time now.

Beyond the vexing political questions, there is a dimension to the problem that defies easy categorization as “red baiting” or “exclusionism”, even though I had to put up with this kind of threat when I was in the Trotskyist movement in the 1960s and 70s. Basically, the FRSO operates in SDS in the same fashion that any “Leninist” group operates in the mass movement. It caucuses beforehand and comes to the meeting with its own proposals etched in granite. No matter how persuasive the arguments of other members in SDS, the FRSO members are obligated to vote for what their own organization decided in advance. That is in the nature of “democratic centralism”, at least crudely understood in Maoist and Trotskyist sects.

Try to put yourself in the shoes of an ordinary SDS member. You see people whose minds are made up on debated issues, but always in accord with each other. This is sheer poison for any formation in the mass movement, particularly in a group like SDS that was destroyed by the machinations of a 1960s Maoist formation, the Progressive Labor Party.

As individuals I have high regard for FRSO’ers, at least those who I am familiar with in the “Refoundation” grouping-such as Stan Goff (who subsequently broke with the group and ideologically with Marxism, for what that’s worth.)

If I was a member of SDS, I’d argue strongly against any exclusionary measures but I would just as strongly hold the feet of any “Marxist-Leninist” intervening in the organization to the fire. Basically, the mode of operation they favor is a sad relic of our dogmatic past and should be retired ASAP. Furthermore, if the FRSO’ers want to stave off expulsion, the best thing that they could do is learn to differ with each other in public. Unfortunately, that is pretty much excluded by their understanding of “Leninism” so my advice would fall on deaf ears. Perhaps, as their influence continues to decline, they might wake up to the fact that a broader movement is needed. If the cry goes out for non-exclusion, it must be accompanied by one for organizational transparency-something that “revolutionary communists” have had no use for in the past.

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