Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 15, 2009

Cautiva; The Monastery

Filed under: Film,Koch-Lorber — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

(Both movies are available from Netflix)

Although the 2003 “Cautiva” shares a plot very similar to the 1985 “The Official Story”, there is one crucial difference. In “The Official Story”, the adopted daughter of desaparecidos parents is only 5 years old and is too young to be emotionally torn apart by the knowledge that her adoptive parents were part of the system that killed her birth parents. Most of the drama in the 1985 Argentinean movie revolves around the mother’s mounting feelings of guilt and her eventual break with her husband, a conservative businessman.

In “Cautiva”, the adopted child is a teenager whose world is torn apart when she discovers that she is the daughter of desaparecidos as well. The movie begins by placing Cristina Quadri (Bárbara Lombardo) into her social context. She is an utterly conventional girl who goes to Catholic school and has just celebrated a birthday thrown by her adoring parents, who she adores in turn. Her family life can be described as one of utter middle-class normalcy.

A few days after her birthday party, Cristina is summoned to the principal’s office at school in a fashion that has all the mystery of Kafka’s “The Trial”. There she is introduced to a deputy of a federal judge who has been instructed to bring her to the judge’s office. He cannot tell her why she is being brought there, nor can she inform her parents of her destination. At the judge’s office, the mystery is lifted. It turns out that Cristina is actually Sofía Lombardi, the daughter of two architect parents who were killed in a local prison during the “dirty war”, and the court intends to turn her over to her grandmother who she has never seen. A blood test has revealed that she is indeed related to the grandmother and not her adoptive parents. As soon as Cristina hears this shocking news, she bolts from her chair, runs out of the judge’s office and out of the courthouse.

After she returns home, she is assured by her parents that there must be a mistake. Her father, a retired cop, curses the judge and promises to clear things up through connections he has in the legal system. But eventually the police show up at their house armed with a court order to bring Cristina to her grandmother, a woman named Elisa Dominich (Susana Campos).

Consumed with grief at being torn from the only parents she has ever known, Cristina holds Elisa at arm’s length and views living with her at first as practically living in captivity. The judge has given her strict instructions against returning home, warning her that her adoptive parents might even face jail terms if they open their doors to her. As much as justice was being served by returning Cristina to her blood relatives, there is a great degree of unintended pain associated with a separation that is bound to impact an adolescent much more so than any other age group.

Eventually Cristina begins to spend time in her blood mother’s bedroom, which has been preserved as a kind of altar by her grandmother. As she spends more and more time there, she begins to feel a deepening affinity for the woman who undoubtedly gave birth to her. When a schoolmate whose father was “disappeared” introduces Cristina to the prison nurse that was present at her birth and who then turned her over to her adoptive parents illegally, Cristina finally decides to accept her new identity and go forward in life as Sofía Lombardi.

While this ending cannot exactly be described as “happy”, it is by no means typical of what has happened in Argentina since the restoration of democracy. The epilogue to “Cautiva” states that of the tens of thousands of desaparecidos, only 87 children have been returned to blood relatives. And just as importantly, the epilogue states that not a single person responsible for murder or torture during “the dirty war” has been punished.

Much of the work of returning the estimated 500 children to their blood relatives has been assumed by Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, whose website explains:

History of Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo

Children Who Disappeared or Who Were Born in Captivity

The drama of children who disappeared in our country, the Argentine Republic, is one of the consequences of the National Reorganization Process enforced by the military dictatorship, which ruled the country between 1976 and 1983.

These children are the children of our children, who have also disappeared. Many babies were kidnapped with their parents, some after their parents were killed, and others were born in clandestine detention centers where their mothers were taken after having been sequestered at different states of their pregnancies.

We, the babies’ grandmothers, tried desperately to locate them and, during these searches, decided to unite. Thus, in 1977, the non-governmental organization called Abuelas (Grandmothers) de Plaza de Mayo was established, dedicated specifically to fighting for the return of our grandchildren. We also relentlessly investigated our children’s and grandchildren’s disappearances, in hopes of finding them.

Although the documentary “The Monastery” has absolutely no connection to the concerns that are typically addressed in my movie reviews, I can recommend it wholeheartedly. Rather than spend time trying to tell my left-oriented readership why it is worth their while, I will simply post Stuart Klawans’s brief review that appeared in the August 23, 2007 Nation Magazine. I agree with every word of it:

Of all the odd tasks people have undertaken in the movies–from setting the speed record for visiting the Louvre to building an opera house in the Amazon jungle–none is stranger than Jørgen Vig’s project in The Monastery. An octogenarian bachelor, long retired from a career as a university librarian and priest, Vig has installed himself in a crumbling, leaky, unheated castle that he bought cheap many years ago in Hesbjerg, far out in the Danish countryside. Now, he thinks, maybe he’ll hand this property to the Moscow Patriarchate so his castle can become the first Russian Orthodox monastery on Danish soil.

It’s all true. Directed and photographed by Pernille Rose Grønkjær, The Monastery is a sly, quiet documentary about Vig’s scheme and how it changes him, once the Patriarchate sends Sister Ambrosija as the head of a small delegation to live in his castle. Did Vig offer the property just to have such companionship? If so, he’d never admit it. Thin, stooped and toothless, with his face entirely circled by a wispy mane of white hair and his oversize eyeglasses propped far down his nose, Vig claims never to have felt love, or to have wanted to feel it. “I suppose I’m deformed in some way,” he says, with the frankness of a curmudgeon for whom all questions are settled. But you can sense his excitement as he cleans up in anticipation of the nuns’ arrival. (He does all the work himself.) And you see how respect, curiosity, gallantry and resentment mingle in him when the much younger Sister Ambrosija walks in and starts giving orders. She is taking charge of two wrecks: the building and Vig.

With its perilous castle in the forest, its creaky old wizard and intrepid heroine from a far-off land, The Monastery has been likened to a fairy tale. Grønkjær herself has made the comparison–but she’s had the wisdom to let those in the audience enter the enchantment gradually, in their own time. A popular selection on the festival circuit, The Monastery begins a US theatrical run on August 29, at Film Forum in New York.

(Both of these movies have been released on home video through Koch-Lorber)

January 14, 2009

The Final Question

Filed under: economics,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 5:08 pm

David Gregory: “What is the future of capitalism?”

From January 12, 2009 “Meet the Press”:

David Gregory: Let me ask a final question here in a conversation that will certainly go on. Mark Zandi, on the other end of all this, what’s the future of capitalism?

Mark Zandi: Oh, capitalism’s going to be fine. I mean, we’ve got a crisis of capitalism. We made a lot of mistakes as capitalists. And that’s why we have a government, and that’s why government has to be bold and step in the breach, and that’s what they’re doing. And on the other side of this, government will figure out a way to step out gracefully.

Paul Gigot: Well, I think capitalism will survive, but I think a good question now at this particular juncture is what kind of capitalism? Are we moving to a European brand; a, a much larger welfare state, a much larger entitlement state with slower growth, higher long-term unemployment? Or are we going to stick with what has been for the last 30 years, more or less, a relatively successful model? We’ve had this blowup. If we don’t make mistakes, we can get through this.

How remarkable for the most prestigious and longest running (61 years) television show to raise the question of the future of capitalism. Moreover, it is a sign of the times that there is a direct reference to the system itself rather than the usual euphemisms (free market economy, private enterprise, etc.) That is obviously a function of the severity of the crisis. In times like this it is difficult to be taken seriously when you use bland language to describe a condition that is anything but bland.

Since the role of “Meet the Press” is to maintain the ideological hegemony of the ruling class cutting across party lines, it is no surprise that they would call upon the likes of Zandi and Gigot to reassure their audience.

Zandi, who is the chief economist for Moody’s, a bond pricing firm, is fairly typical of the tendency of bourgeois economists to believe that the system is invulnerable to crisis, as long as the short-term indicators look good. In 1997 he is practically intoxicated over the housing market:

St. Petersburg Times (Florida), November 22, 1997, Saturday
Economists, Realtors raise a toast to market future
Byline: Judy Stark

So who’s dismal? Not these economists.

It was all they could do to delay breaking out the champagne to toast the current thriving economy and the prospect of more of the same next year.

That delighted delegates at the annual convention of the National Association of Realtors last week.

“The current economic environment is nothing short of stellar,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Philadelphia-based Regional Financial Associates.

If anything, Gigot is even more of a pro-capitalist hack, as indicated by his position as editorial page editor at the Wall Street Journal. This is like inviting Hugh Hefner to muse on the subject of the future of large-breasted women. He will have plenty to say, all of it predictable.

It is also remarkable that this discussion is taking place just six months short of the 20th anniversary of the publication of an article by Francis Fukuyama in the Summer 1989 National Interest titled “The End of History” that would eventually become a full-length book. The article begins:

IN WATCHING the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history. The past year has seen a flood of articles commemorating the end of the Cold War, and the fact that “peace” seems to be breaking out in many regions of the world. Most of these analyses lack any larger conceptual framework for distinguishing between what is essential and what is contingent or accidental in world history, and are predictably superficial. If Mr. Gorbachev were ousted from the Kremlin or a new Ayatollah proclaimed the millennium from a desolate Middle Eastern capital, these same commentators would scramble to announce the rebirth of a new era of conflict.

And yet, all of these people sense dimly that there is some larger process at work, a process that gives coherence and order to the daily headlines. The twentieth century saw the developed world descend into a paroxysm of ideological violence, as liberalism contended first with the remnants of absolutism, then bolshevism and fascism, and finally an updated Marxism that threatened to lead to the ultimate apocalypse of nuclear war. But the century that began full of self-confidence in the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy seems at its close to be returning full circle to where it started: not to an “end of ideology” or a convergence between capitalism and socialism, as earlier predicted, but to an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.

As a barometer of confidence in the capitalist system, Fukuyama’s writings tend to reflect its decline over the past 20 years to the point that he was moved to write an article titled “The Fall of America, Inc.”  that appeared in the October 13, 2008 Newsweek. In keeping with the whistling in the dark character of Zandi and Gigot’s replies to Gregory, Fukuyama holds out hope that things will get better under an Obama administration that is ready to move against the core economic beliefs of the President he served in the 1980s:

Still, another comeback rests on our ability to make some fundamental changes. First, we must break out of the Reagan-era straitjacket concerning taxes and regulation. Tax cuts feel good but do not necessarily stimulate growth or pay for themselves; given our long-term fiscal situation Americans are going to have to be told honestly that they will have to pay their own way in the future. Deregulation, or the failure of regulators to keep up with fast-moving markets, can become unbelievably costly, as we have seen. The entire American public sector-underfunded, deprofessionalized and demoralized-needs to be rebuilt and be given a new sense of pride. There are certain jobs that only the government can fulfill.

Now if I had been a guest on “Meet the Press” along with Zandi and Gigot, this is how I would have answered Gregory’s question-until security guards dragged me off:

Unlike Mr. Zandi and Mr. Gregory, I don’t think capitalism has much of future at all. The financial crisis that we are passing through will prove resistant to Obama’s half-hearted attempts to stimulate the economy through public works projects and other pump-priming initiatives. If they did not work under FDR’s far more ambitious New Deal, how can they possibly work today? That is unless Obama wants to emulate FDR’s most successful public works project as Paul Krugman suggested in a November 10 2008 op-ed piece in the NY Times: “What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs.”

Notwithstanding Paul Krugman’s rather provocative suggestion, it seems doubtful that arms spending is a feasible solution for the current impasse even given the US’s insatiable appetite for war-making. Ironically, the growth of the American economy overall and reductions in the cost of making weapons has virtually excluded WWII type solutions for restoring the health of the economy. To quote Randolph Bourne, “war is the health of the state.” That being the case, it will take a lot more medicine to do the job today. Recent defense budgets have amounted to about 4 percent of GDP, while they ran 6.2 percent in the 1980s, 9.4 percent during the Vietnam War, 14.2 percent during the Korean War, and 38 percent during World War II. Simply put, the US cannot afford to spend 38 percent of GDP on the military today since the social costs of such a distorted budget would require the elimination of the very social safety net that FDR implemented in order to stave off socialist revolution.

Any way you slice it, the prognosis for capitalism is very poor indeed.

January 13, 2009

The American Ruling Class

Filed under: Academia,capitalist pig,Film — louisproyect @ 9:50 pm

Lewis Lapham counsels Yale graduates

Among the pleasures of John Kirby’s 2005 documentary “The American Ruling Class” is watching Doug Henwood coolly dissect a hedge fund manager in his own office. Since the movie was written by and features blue-blood Lewis Lapham as a kind of Virgil escorting two fictional recent Yale graduates into the hell of class society, it has access to the separate worlds that the two major social classes live in. From the corporate offices of the NY Times and Goldman-Sachs to the pancake house that employs interviewee Barbara Ehrenreich, you get to see all sides of a system that Lapham has condemned for decades in the pages of “Harper’s” despite his patrician roots. Like Gore Vidal, Lapham is distinguished by his hatred for the injustices of a society that his upper crust peers take for granted.

In some ways, “The American Ruling Class” is a mockumentary since the two Yale graduates who accompany Lapham in his peregrinations as he tries to get to the bottom of the question of whether there is a ruling class are fictional. One named Jack Bellamy (Caton Burwell) is from a wealthy family and is about to start work at Goldman-Sachs, a prospect for many Yalies in 2005 that is equivalent to winning the American Idol contest. The other Yalie is Mike Vanzetti (Paul Cantagallo), who comes from a more modest background, like fellow Yalie Doug Henwood’s in fact. And just like Doug, Mike Vanzetti’s main goal is to make a career as a writer and make America a better place to live. He is willing to take low-end jobs to allow him to concentrate on the important things.

Most of the movie consists of Bellamy trying to persuade Vanzetti to join him at Goldman-Sachs where their earnings could help fund worthwhile projects in an old-fashioned philanthropic manner. Lapham accompanies Bellamy and Vanzetti as they try to sort out the issues surrounding the philosophy of “doing good by doing well”, the excuse that many Yalies made to themselves when they went to work for Goldman (my former employee in the late 1980s.) These are issues that Doug himself had to contend with as a Yale graduate and steadfast Marxist. When some of our more deranged Marxism list subscribers in years past-particularly the Alternative Orange Collective from Syracuse University-would accuse Doug of “selling out” because he did not share their catastrophist outlook, he would remind them that he sacrificed millions by not taking a job at a place like Goldman-Sachs. Meanwhile, Doug is still going strong while the Oranges have scattered to the four winds.

With his connections to old money, Lapham was able to recruit a number of fascinating bourgeois figures to take part in the documentary. Vartan Gregorian, who has had a long career in the nonprofit and philanthropic world, defends the “doing good by doing well” philosophy by explaining that capitalist funding is beneficial no matter how it the money was earned:

“As my friend Mrs. Astor said, ‘Wealth is accumulated manure. If it’s collected, it stinks, so you have to spread it around.’ And there is nothing wrong with philanthropy, spreading it around.”

Among the more remarkable interviews is with former Senator Bill Bradley who is visibly discomfited by Lapham digging up a rather radical-sounding statement from when Bradley was an idealistic student in the 1960s. It is a little bit like John Kerry being reminded of his statements about US war crimes in Vietnam when he was a presidential candidate in 2004. Nowadays Bradley, an establishment figure if there ever was one, believes:

The most important power lies in the human spirit, quite frankly.

Some [corporations] are very responsible corporate leaders who think about their people and who try to use their corporation as an agent of change. I know corporations like that. There are obviously others that are more exploitative.

Frankly, I found this kind of self-serving double-talk far more offensive than what came out of the mouth of James A. Baker III, another interviewee who is much more open about the right of American corporations and the military to rule the world.

The most important idea that Lapham and director John Kirby are trying to get across in this remarkable film is that the American ruling class is relatively fluid. If you are particularly talented and particularly unscrupulous you can go very far. Some of the interviewees are quite candid about how the system works after this fashion, particularly former TV newsman Walter Cronkite:

The ruling class is the rich, who really command our industry, our commerce, and our finance. And those people are so able to manipulate our democracy, that they really control the democracy, I feel.

The more sensitive to our democratic needs who join the ruling class, the more successful our democracy will be and the more likely its survival.

The irony of course is that in 4 short years the moral dilemmas presented in Kirby’s movie no longer exist. While Wall Street investment banks were all too happy to open their doors to a young Ivy League graduate in 2005, nowadays they no longer exist (Bear-Stearns; Lehman Brothers) or are in such bad straits that they are not even hiring. And for those who remain, the bonuses are piddling compared to the good old days.

Given the realities of the commercial movie-making industry, I am not surprised that the distribution and publicity for “The American Ruling Class” were less than zero when it premiered. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, you can now watch it for free:



Official Film Website (The DVD can be purchased for a very reasonable price here, which I encourage people to do. The director needs funding to continue with worthy projects such as these.)

January 12, 2009

Pious warmongers

Filed under: bard college,Palestine,religion — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

As someone who tunes in to WABC AM from time to time in order to get a handle on what the rightwing is up to, I was not surprised to hear Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and Catholic Deacon Kevin McCormack blathering on about Gaza yesterday morning. What did surprise me, however, was the identity of one of their guests who was invited on to help them make their warmongering case: Bruce Chilton, the chaplain at Bard College, my alma mater.

Protestant minister Bruce Chilton: cheering on the IDF in Christ’s name

Chilton is on the board of directors of Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, just one part of the sleazy web of advocacy groups connected to the Israel Lobby. It was founded by Sister Ruth Lautt (pronounced lout, I wonder?), a Roman Catholic nun who was profiled in a June 14, 2008 NY Times article. The article makes the specious claim that she has no contact with AIPAC, as if she needed marching orders from them.

Sister Ruth Lautt: used to work for Israel’s high-powered legal firm

A former litigator for the noxious corporate law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Lautt works hard to defend Israeli interests at religious conventions, especially to defeat divestment motions that are increasingly being adopted by mainstream Protestant denominations. In fact, her office is in 475 Riverside Drive, the Interchurch Center (aka “The God Box”), where many of these denominations have offices. I eat in their basement cafeteria from time to time. The NY Times reports:

“We are informed by the Christian mandate to stand for justice and to raise our voices when we see someone being falsely accused,” Sister Ruth, 44, said in an interview at the God Box. “The issue isn’t divestment. Divestment is a symptom, a symptom of bias against the state of Israel and an attempt to lay the blame on the shoulders of Israel.”

Such a viewpoint collides with the political and theological direction of the mainline Protestant churches. Influenced by a version of liberation theology espoused by the Palestinian Christian activist Naim Ateek and his organization Sabeel, which likens Palestinians to the persecuted Jesus, all five of the mainline denominations in the United States (Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Evangelical Lutheran and United Church of Christ) have debated and in some cases adopted policies intended to bring direct or indirect economic pressure on Israel to compromise.

Now I wouldn’t want to question the depth of Sister Lautt’s conversion but I would be remiss in not pointing out what Skadden, Arps states on their website:

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and affiliates (“Skadden, Arps” or “Skadden”) is one of the leading U.S. legal advisers to Israeli companies doing business and raising capital outside of Israel and to U.S. and other non-Israeli companies doing business in Israel or investing in Israeli companies. Many of our attorneys are thoroughly familiar with the legal structure, business environment and political system of Israel, and several have been admitted to the bars of both Israel and New York and are fluent in Hebrew and English.

Returning to Bard College’s good chaplain, the very reverend Bruce Chilton, I could not refrain from dashing off a note to him not long after his appearance on “Religion on the Line”:

What’s next? Drinking the blood of Palestinian children?

Louis Proyect, Bard College ’65

Usually the recipients of such emails from me are smart enough to ignore me. I have written George Packer numerous times but have never gotten a reply. For me these emails just serve as a way of blowing off steam but every so often they do seem to get under the skin of their recipient, in the case of Bruce Chilton fairly deeply. It appears that good Christians like him don’t want to be accused of bad faith-especially when they know deep down that it is true.

While “Religion on the Line” does not have transcripts, you can read what Chilton has to say about Gaza on the Christians for a Fair Witness on the Middle East Website:

Qassam rockets are deployed by their namesake, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas. Fired over the border between Gaza and Israel at civilian centers, they put into action the stated aim of the Hamas Charter of 1988: “Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors.” By intent and impact, Qassam rockets terrorize Israeli civilian populations in an attempt to galvanize action across the Muslim world in order to eliminate the State of Israel.

Israel’s attacks in Gaza involve civilian casualties, although that is not their purpose. At every stage — deployment, preparation, and design — Qassam are in such proximity to residential populations that even well targeted strikes bring calamitous results. But the aim of Israel is not the elimination of Gaza, but the end of Qassam attacks. The willingness of the Israeli authorities to halt their attacks in the hope that Qassam sites will be dismantled is a positive development.

It reads, as you would expect, as if it were written by the Israeli consulate.

For most of Sunday, emails went back and forth between Chilton and me and began including a host of other characters including the president of Bard College who usually ignores me but sometimes rises to the bait. (This time he didn’t.) Chilton probably should have known better to take a sarcastic tone with me since I practically invented sarcasm. After I began cc’ing other interested parties at Bard, he took me to task:

To save you the trouble, I have already written to my colleagues in the Departments of Religion and Theology, and to Joel [Kovel, a professor at Bard who is a well-known Marxist]. If you like, I can give you my mother’s e-mail address, as well.

To which I replied:

Sure, send it along. I am sure she’d want to know that her little boy has wasted all the money that was spent on divinity school by becoming an apologist for an apartheid state.

Caleb Crain’s obfuscations

Filed under: repression,workers — louisproyect @ 3:27 pm

Caleb Crain

Caleb Crain wrote a review of a new book by Thomas G. Andrews titled “Killing for Coal” in the latest New Yorker magazine. The review is worth reading even if  Crain draws the rather perplexing conclusion:

In the end, though, government was the redneck’s [miner’s] ally and even his salvation. Without the intervention of federal troops, trusted by both sides to behave neutrally, the coal war would almost certainly have lasted longer and taken even more lives. It was a federal bureaucrat who praised the miners’ effort as “a strike of the twentieth century against the tenth-century mental attitude.” After a journalist was murdered for trying to expose the Ludlow sheriff ‘s political corruptions, a federal district attorney called it “a political killing,” and the Colorado Supreme Court deposed the sheriff, writing of his vote rigging that “no more fraudulent and infamous prostitution of the ballot is conceivable.”

In other words, the lesson of Ludlow may be that, in the pursuit of energy and in combats between capital and labor, there is one more force to reckon with. When a representative democracy wins people’s trust, it is capable of moderating disputes among corporations, the market, and the individual.

I have to laugh at this summary, especially with the memory of a movie titled “Cautiva” fresh on my mind. This Argentine movie with a plot similar to “The Official Story” (a desparacido’s baby is adopted by a junta-supporting cop) ends with text on the screen indicating that not a single cop or military officer involved with torture or disappearances has ever been brought to justice in Argentina.

Barack Obama has apparently been studying the Argentine example since he has just announced that he is not interested in legal proceedings against the lawbreakers of the previous administration.

Nobody was ever punished for killing them

Meanwhile, following the Ludlow massacre, not a single militia member or National Guardsman in Colorado ever was punished for having killed 66 miners and their family, nor did the miners win trade union recognition.

The author of the New Yorker article is also the guy who wrote the piece on radical literature geared to children that appeared in yesterday’s NY Times book review section. Taking a second look at his article, I now notice this:

After all, most parents want their children to be far left in their early years – to share toys, to eschew the torture of siblings, to leave a clean environment behind them, to refrain from causing the extinction of the dog, to rise above coveting and hoarding, and to view the blandishments of corporate America through a lens of harsh skepticism. But fewer parents wish for their children to carry all these virtues into adulthood. It is one thing to convince your child that no individual owns the sandbox and that it is better for all children that it is so. It is another to hope that when he grows up he will donate the family home to a workers’ collective.

I don’t know quite how to put this to Caleb Crain, who apparently is bright enough to have garnered a PhD from my employer Columbia University, but Marx never advocated donating “the family home” to a workers collective. He was far more interested in seizing the means of production like auto plants, etc. Included in the means of production, of course, are newspapers and magazines like the NY Times and the New Yorker who are bent on keeping their readers mystified about who creates wealth in this society and how that wealth is a product of unpaid labor.

January 10, 2009

The LCR reply to Alex Callinicos on the NPA

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

Building the New Anti-capitalist Party

Issue: 121
Posted: 2 January 09

François Sabado

Alex Callinicos’s article1 in the most recent issue of International Socialism shows well the changes that have taken place in the radical left in recent months. The characteristics of the situation, and in particular the deepening of the crisis of the capitalist system and the social-liberal evolution of social democracy, confirm that there is a space “to the left of the reformist left”. This space opens up possibilities for the building of new political formations or for initiatives such as the conferences of the anti-capitalist left,2 processes that require clarification. Certain experiences involve a diversity of currents. Although the political frontiers between these currents do not always appear clearly, the question of support for, or participation in, centre-left or social-liberal governments is a fundamental dividing line in the politics of alliances or regroupment.

There are not only “paths that diverge”, but different politics and distinct projects. When Callinicos evokes “more positive experiences” in connection with Die Linke in Germany and the New Anti-capitalist Party (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, NPA) in France, he is, in fact, speaking of two different projects.

In the case of Die Linke we are dealing with a left reformist party. This is a party integrated into the institutions of the German state. The great majority of its members come from the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS)—the party of the bureaucracy of the former East Germany. Die Linke is a party that has come out in favour of a common government with the Social Democrats (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) and, finally, a party whose project comes down to a “return to the welfare state”. Admittedly this party also reflects, in the west of Germany, a movement of radicalisation of certain sectors of the social movement, a step forward for the workers’ movement. But revolutionaries should not confuse these processes with the leadership of Die Linke, its reformist policies, its subordination to capitalist institutions and its objective of participation in government with the SPD.

The NPA on the other hand presents itself as an anti-capitalist party. It is a party whose centre of gravity revolves around struggles, around social movements and not parliamentary institutions. The founding characteristic of this party is the rejection of any alliance or participation in government with the centre-left or social liberalism. The NPA does not stop at anti_liberalism. Its politics are directed towards a break with capitalism and the overthrow of the power of the ruling classes.

In each case we are confronted with political formations—there are delimitations, programmes, policies—but they are not the same ones.

read full article

January 8, 2009

Ghoulish Israelis

Filed under: Palestine,zionism — louisproyect @ 11:39 pm

Wall Street Journal, January 8th, 2009 11:11 am
Israelis Watch the Fighting in Gaza From a Hilly Vantage Point

They Come With Binoculars and Lawn Chairs; Nurse Znaty: ‘I’m Sorry, but
I’m Happy’

By Charles Levinson

GAZA BORDER — Moti Danino sat Monday in a canvas lawn chair on a sandy
hilltop on Gaza’s border, peering through a pair of binoculars at
distant plumes of smoke rising from the besieged territory.

An unemployed factory worker, he comes here each morning to watch
Israel’s assault on Hamas from what has become the war’s peanut gallery
— a string of dusty hilltops close to the border that offer panoramic
views across northern Gaza.

He is one of dozens of Israelis who have arrived from all over Israel,
some with sack lunches and portable radios tuned to the latest reports
of the battle raging in front of them. Some, like Mr. Danino, are here
to egg on friends and family members in the fight.

Others have made the trek, they say, to witness firsthand a military
operation — so far, widely popular inside Israel — against Hamas, the
militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.

Over the weekend, four teenagers sat on a hill near Mr. Danino’s, oohing
and aahing at the airstrikes. Nadav Zebari, who studies Torah in
Jerusalem, was eating a cheese sandwich and sipping a Diet Coke.

“I’ve never watched a war before,” he said. A group of police officers
nearby took turns snapping pictures of one another with smoking Gaza as
a backdrop. “I want to feel a part of the war,” one said, before
correcting himself with the official government designation for the
assault. “I mean operation. It’s not a war.”

The spectators share hilltop space with an army of camera-toting Israeli
and foreign journalists, who have so far been banned by the Israeli
military from entering Gaza to report on the conflict.

Mr. Danino has a personal link to the fighting. His 20-year-old son,
Moshe, is a soldier in an infantry unit fighting somewhere below his
hilly perch. From the sidelines, he is here to root for his son the
soldier, he says, just as he once sat on the sidelines of soccer fields
cheering for his son the high-school athlete.

“The army took all the soldiers’ cellphones away before the attack, so
this is my way of staying in contact,” he says..

On another hilltop overlooking Gaza, Sandra Koubi, a 43-year-old
philosophy student, says seeing the violence up close “is a kind of
catharsis for me, to get rid of all the anxiety we have inside us after
years of rocket fire” from Hamas.

Jocelyn Znaty, a stout 60-year-old nurse for Magen David Adom, the
Israeli counterpart of the Red Cross, can hardly contain her glee at the
site of exploding mortars below in Gaza.

“Look at that,” she shouts, clapping her hands as four artillery rounds
pound the territory in quick succession. “Bravo! Bravo!”

Ms. Znaty lives in Sderot, the immigrant community on Gaza’s border that
has long been a target for rockets fired from Gaza by Palestinian
militants. Her daughter lives on Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, an Israeli
community even closer to the Gaza Strip.

Last year, Gaza-launched rockets struck Ms. Znaty’s home twice in a
single week. She escaped both attacks unscathed but has a simmering
anger for those living on the other side of the Gaza fence.

She acknowledges an uncomfortable, self-conscious awareness that she is
cheering on a deadly war. Israeli planes, ships and artillery have
blasted the small, sealed-off territory for more than a week, killing
more than 680 Palestinians and injuring about 3,000. Ten Israelis have
been killed, including three civilians, according to U.N. officials.

The weekend ground assault has sent civilian casualties climbing,
overwhelming hospitals and triggering the International Committee of the
Red Cross to declare a humanitarian crisis inside the small, seaside
enclave of 1.5 million.

On Tuesday, the UN said one of its schools in Gaza was hit by an Israeli
strike, killing 43 civilians who had sought refuge from the attacks and
injuring about 100.

“It’s weird that we have to take lives in order to save lives,” Ms.
Znaty says. “But we were held hostage by Hamas while our government
ignored us, and now we fight back. I am sorry, but I am happy.”

War watching is not a new phenomenon. Up until World War I, when more
powerful weapons began to be used on the battlefield, it was common for
civilians to perch on grassy lookouts on a battlefield’s periphery.

Nor is it unique to Israelis in the current conflict. On the Egyptian
side of the border, across from southern Gaza, Arabs, too, were coming
from miles away to watch the aerial bombardment.

But at Gaza’s border crossing in the dusty town of Rafah, the mood was
of anger and somber resignation amid the punishing Israeli attacks.
Egyptians in Rafah, and many of the Arab aid workers who have flocked
there to help evacuate Gaza’s wounded, share deep ethnic, family and
economic ties with the territory.

Over the weekend, as ambulances ferried out bloodied Palestinian
casualties, plumes of black smoke, accompanied by dull thuds and
trembling earth, rose across the border, just a hundred yards across a
no man’s land marking the border with Egypt.

“We feel helpless. We feel like we are so close but we can’t do
anything,” said Rami Ibrahim Shahin, a 20-year-old mechanic, whose
family is originally Palestinian. His brother lives on the other side of
the border, now under Israeli fire. They talk every day, when phone
connections work. Each evening, Mr. Shahin walks several miles to reach
the border crossing, where he can get a better view of the attacks.

“All day long, it’s like this, we see the attacks with our own eyes,”
shrugs Rafah resident Osama Al-Beyali, a 51-year-old porter in torn gray
coveralls. As blasts ring out across the border, onlookers swear at
Israel or offer prayers for victims.

A father of six, Mr. Al-Beyali says he thinks of the Palestinian
children suffering in the cold, with little food or safety, under the
barrage. “When I see my children, I feel ashamed and guilty. I feel like
I should find a way to go over there and fight the Israelis.”

“Injustice, injustice,” he mumbles.

Many Israelis see the Gaza offensive as a welcome change. “I come here
because our army is finally doing something, showing the world that we
are not weak,” says Mr. Danino, the unemployed factory worker. On his
hilltop overlooking Gaza, Mr. Danino has taken to quarterbacking the
assault from his folding chair.

Having sat here for much of the past week, he now fancies himself
something of an expert. He says, for example, that Palestinian militants
are fond of firing rockets from the cover of a distant block of greenhouses.

When a plume of smoke — the result of an Israeli attack — rose from
what appears to be empty farmland Monday, Mr. Danino shook his head.
“No, no, no,” he said. “We should be hitting the greenhouses.”

Steven Soderbergh’s “Che”

Filed under: cuba,Film — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

I was apprehensive about Steven Soderbergh’s “Che” before seeing it yesterday, mostly fearing a Hollywood director’s attempt to “interpret” Che. While I didn’t expect anything as outrageous as the 1969 “Che!” starring Omar Sharif as Che and Jack Palance (!) as Fidel Castro, which Roger Ebert described as having a dramatic level that “aspires toward comic strips,” I wondered what the director of “Oceans 11” might possibly have to say about a revolutionary socialist.

As it turns out, “Che” is a serious and honest attempt to represent at least one aspect of Che Guevara’s career, namely the guerrilla fighter. The movie is divided in two parts, one based on “Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War” and the other on the Bolivian diary. As a sign of Soderbergh’s bona fides, he used Jon Lee Anderson as a consultant for part one. Anderson’s biography of Che Guevara is quite good, up until the point when revolutionaries begin governing. Anderson was happy to write about Guevara’s heroism in battle, but much less willing to give credit to the socialist experiment now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary.

It should be added that Soderbergh has serious ambitions as a film-maker, despite projects like “Oceans 11” that pay the rent (and which obviously he has fun making.) I strongly recommend “Bubble“, a technically innovative murder mystery involving blue-collar workers in the rust belt. Another Soderbergh film that critics regard as high-minded and daring is “Traffic”, a policier about the Mexican drug trade into the U.S. Soderbergh’s movie was based on the British TV movie “Traffik” that focused on the connections between those involved in the Pakistani heroin trade, from lowly poppy growers to super-rich exporters, and the British users, including the daughter of an anti-drug crusading MP. As I tried to explain in my review of “Traffic”, Soderbergh failed to deliver the kind of subtle class analysis found in the British teleplay. Indeed, despite all the critical raves, he sought nothing more than to make an elevated version of “Miami Vice” as this excerpt from my review would make clear.

Soderbergh is quite open about his desire to flatter law enforcement agencies in the USA, while simultaneously maintaining a hip “war on drugs can not succeed” ‘tude. In a profile that appears in the Jan. 3-9 Village Voice, Soderbergh states

“I didn’t want to come off like we had answers. The idea that some silly filmmaker after two years could sort it out would be outrageous. But there seems to be a huge vacuum in the public debate and I guess this is one of the few times I felt a movie could actually help. The funny thing is, everybody who sees it thinks it puts their point of view across, and I was expecting exactly the opposite. We had a screening in Washington for Customs, DEA, and the Department of Justice and they all came out saying they really liked it. The following night, there was some hardcore leftie NPR/PBS [!!!!] screening in L.A. and some guy stands up and goes, ‘Thank you for making the first pro-legalization movie.’ Then the other night, Commissioner Safir came to a screening and said he thought it was the most accurate representation of law enforcement he’d seen in a long time. And I have, you know, stoner friends who are going, like, ‘Dude, yeah, great . . . ‘”

Since the “hip” movie-makers of today would never get caught dead making “propaganda” films like “Battle of Algiers” or “Land and Freedom”, I suppose that we can be grateful for what amounts to a positive image of Che Guevara. The portrait that emerges from Soderbergh’s epic is that of a heroic, deeply idealistic and self-sacrificing revolutionary. One scene stands out. As the guerrilla army is headed toward Havana in 1959 for the final assault on the old regime, Che (Benicio Del Toro) spots a group of combatants in a fancy Chrysler convertible. He speeds ahead in his jeep and after forcing them to the side of the road, orders them to return the car to its owner, even if he was a Batista official. The revolution must operate on different principles than the old regime, including the need to avoid personal gain.

Earlier in the movie, Che has tracked down a couple of men who were in his guerrilla column briefly but who after leaving began demanding money from peasants in the name of the revolution. One of the men even raped one of their daughters. Once the two were apprehended, Che had them executed. This scene conveys Che Guevara’s determination to uphold the reputation of the movement, but it also serves to illustrate a kind of ruthlessness that is essential to Soderbergh’s portrait. In another scene, he invites any of the men or women under his command to step forward if they are tired of fighting and wish to return home. As they do, he begins denouncing them as “cowards” and “faggots”. In my view, this scene was essential for preserving Soderbergh’s reputation as somebody too cool for Che Guevara hero worship. Whether or not Che Guevara ever behaved this way or used such homophobic language is another story altogether.

By far the most dramatic scene in part one of “Che” is a battle scene set in Santa Clara, the last city that had to be taken before the final assault on Havana. This is an exciting firefight involving an attack on an armored train and other heavily fortified strongholds of Batista’s troops. One of these is a church that has a clear firing line across the city. Since it is too dangerous to make a direct assault on the church, the guerrillas break through the walls of five houses adjacent to the church. As each wall gives way to a sledge hammer, the tension mounts. As much as I enjoyed this scene, I couldn’t help but wondering if Soderbergh saw much difference between choreographing this action and that of breaking into the vault of a Las Vegas hotel in one of the Oceans 11 series.

Although most of the film is devoted to the technical issues of training guerrillas and preparing for battle, concerns that are uppermost in the minds of Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman (his previous credits are “Eragon”, a children’s movie about dragons, and “Jurassic Park III” for what that’s worth), there are references to politics scattered throughout the movie. In flash-forward’s, we see Che giving rousing anti-imperialist speeches to the U.N. that will generally not be heard at your local Cineplex’s.

You also hear differences of opinion between Che and Fidel (played rather effectively by Demián Bichir in what is admittedly a secondary role) over the usefulness of urban-based mass action. Fidel is for it, Che is dubious. Clearly, Soderbergh is ill-equipped to dig too deep into the political questions revolving around this debate since it would take much more of an engagement with the Cuban revolutionary process. Julia E. Sweig’s “Inside the Cuban Revolution: Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground” makes a rather convincing case that without the trade unions and student movement, the guerrillas would not have succeeded. A movie that deals with the Cuban revolution in all its facets has yet to be made and when it is made, I doubt that any Hollywood film-maker would be up to the task.

Even when “Che” pays lip-service to the idea of mass action, the real message is that an armed struggle by a determined minority is what transformed Cuba. In one of the cities that has fallen to the guerrillas, a citizen approaches Che to thank him for being delivered from the Batista tyranny. Che chides him by saying that it was the people who were responsible, not the guerrillas. Since the movie does not show a single scene of people being mobilized, except for briefly putting up barricades in the Santa Clara fighting, the politically unsophisticated audience member would have no idea what Che was talking about. Despite the words he puts in his character’s mouths, Soderbergh’s revolution was more Blanquist than Marxist.

Since part one was based on “Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War”, I decided to take a quick look at some of the chapters that are online at the Marxists Internet Archives as a kind of reality check. This is a book that I have not read before, but am indirectly familiar with its contents since it provides much of the substance of Jon Lee Anderson’s biography.

While much of it jibes with the portrait of Che in Soderbergh’s movie, there are passages that reveal Che to be a much more complex figure. Missing from the movie is any sense of the vulnerability expressed in “Alegría De Pío”, chapter 3 of part one of the Reminiscences. Che writes:

This might have been the first time I was faced, literally, with the dilemma of choosing between my devotion to medicine and my duty as a revolutionary soldier. There, at my feet, was a backpack full of medicine and a box of ammunition. They were too heavy to carry both. I picked up the ammunition, leaving the medicine, and started to cross the clearing, heading for the cane field. I remember Faustino Pérez, on his knees in the bushes, fi ring his submachine gun. Near me, a compañero named [Emilio] Albentosa was walking toward the cane field. A burst of gunfire hit us both. I felt a sharp blow to my chest and a wound in my neck; I thought for certain I was dead. Albentosa, vomiting blood and bleeding profusely from a deep wound made by a .45-caliber bullet, screamed something like, “They’ve killed me,” and began to fire his rife although there was no one there. Flat on the ground, I said to Faustino, “I’m fucked,” and Faustino, still shooting, looked at me and told me it was nothing, but I saw in his eyes he considered me as good as dead. Still on the ground, I fired a shot toward the woods, on an impulse like that of my wounded companion. I immediately began to think about the best way to die, since in that minute all seemed lost. I remembered an old Jack London story in which the hero, aware that he is about to freeze to death in Alaskan ice, leans against a tree and prepares to die with dignity. That was the only thing that came to my mind. Someone, on his knees, shouted that we should surrender, and I heard a voice – later I found out it belonged to Camilo Cienfuegos – shouting, “No one surrenders here!” followed by a swear word. [José] Ponce approached me, agitated and breathing hard. He showed me a bullet wound that appeared to have pierced his lungs. He told me he was wounded and I replied, indifferently, that I was as well. Then Ponce, along with other unhurt compañeros, crawled toward the cane field. For a moment I was alone, just lying there waiting to die. Almeida approached, urging me to go on, and despite the intense pain I dragged myself into the cane field. There I saw the great compañero  Raúl Suárez, whose thumb had been blown away by a bullet, being attended by Faustino Pérez, who was bandaging his hand. Then everything blurred – low- flying airplanes strafing the field, adding to the confusion – amid scenes that were at once Dantesque and grotesque, such as an overweight combatant trying to hide behind a single sugarcane stalk, or a man who kept yelling for silence in the din of gunfire, for no apparent reason.

About part two of “Che”, the less said the better. Like Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, it is pretty much two hours of fairly graphic suffering, all intended to resonate with the popular image of Che Guevara as martyr to the cause. I only sat through it because I felt obligated to review both parts of the movie. But all in all, part two did not have anything to say that wasn’t already said in the 1994 documentary “Ernesto Che Guevara, The Bolivian Diary” that is a nonstop nightmare of asthma attacks, betrayal, and futility.

Finally, I would recommend that you look at what the Cubans had to say about Soderbergh’s movie. On December 5th 2008, Granma’s film critic Rolando Perez Betancourt advised his readers:

Among the films that most interest filmgoers at Havana’s New Latin American Cinema Festival is The Argentine and The Guerrilla, centered on the figure of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the two films were scheduled to be premiered over the weekend. A first rapprochement to this over four-hour ambitious story allows us to speak about a respectful approach to such a legendary figure, without leaving out the controversies both in terms of the treatment of certain historical contents and its aesthetic connotations.

When we watch The Argentine and The Guerrilla, the first thing that comes to mind, especially with respect to the first one, is the kind of audience it will have, because, if movie goers overseas and less seasoned in Cuban history can find credibility and authenticity, both in the development of characters and in the performance of actors, someone who has grown up in these lands detects the false tone of some recreations, or the histrionic imitation trying to make up for a real complex character.

Allow me to cite two examples, among many: the image of late Cuban leader Camilo Cienfuegos. The actor has a startling resemblance with him but he is conceived in the script in such an oversimplified way that he seems to be a comedian from a fair. The Fidel Castro interpreted by Demian Bechir, whose work has been praised, depicts the gestures that became an iconographic collection of the first years of the Revolution, but don’t go beyond an exact replica; he lacks charisma and depth.

At this point of evolving aesthetics, in which very few people would think of demanding absolute fidelity between historical facts and their artistic transposition, the aforementioned aspect can’t stop being risky in a story that takes place on the most faithful tracks of realism. In its first part it displays an efficient style of documentary narration, in black and white, making reference to Che’s visit to the United Nations and the interview he gave a US journalist, all of which lends itself to set out, from the astuteness of his thinking, the ideological his convictions.

The first part, shot after the second one, has a linear structure made up by a series of historical facts –the journey of the Granma yacht, the battles in the Sierra Maestra mountains, the treatment given to traitors, the new forces joining the guerrillas, the battle of Santa Clara–, which is imposed as a mere graphic reconstruction of something already known. And between episodes of combat and historical characters that don’t convince due to their lack of depth on the script, the filmmakers barely approach the decisive factor in movies of this type: emotion.

The Argentine lacks dramatic writing, and not precisely because it avoids seeking the “exact” nature of facts, but rather because every now and then the director gives the impression of losing his way amid so much abundance of material and characters.

We must applaud Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro, the actor that efficiently manages to make the public get closer to a flesh and blood hero of high spiritual stature and for accepting the challenge of taking this story to the screen, taking into account that Che Guevara is one of the most loved and at the same time hated figures in the history of humankind, and there’s no need to underline the ideological and social differences of those both sides.

The purpose of the two artists has been, undoubtedly, to reflect a man that has become a legend without turning the story they’re telling into a myth. If we talk about results, I wouldn’t hesitate to affirm that in spite of its defects, these two films are more positive than negative in an international framework in which Che Guevara’s figure is the object of the most dissimilar manipulations.

We all know what the figure of Che Guevara has been in the hands of the Hollywood, which in no way should be interpreted as a consolation of what is now admissible (Soderbergh’s Che Guevara) compared to the garbage made before. Cuban cinematography will have to assume, at some point, its own challenge of telling these stories with their most authentic nuances and not exempt from controversy.

If in the first part of this long movie there’s a deficient artistic making, in the second, The Guerrilla, we can appreciate that Soderbergh has grown up as a storyteller, in command of a visual density of higher caliber. However, for those who have read Che’s diary and other documents about those days in Bolivia the same question comes to surface: why the producers preferred to highlight less important events over others that were more significant, or changed the names and attitudes of some of the guerrillas.

And, on this point, the critic stopped writing to knock on the door of the Center for Che Guevara Studies, an entity that since the beginning of Soderbergh’s project was in contact with the director and put in his hands the most varied documents and the historical advise he needed, both in terms of theory and facts. This was hard work that, according to the Center’ executives, never questioned the logical changes historical facts could have on the screen, but yes, seeing to it that their essence was not distorted.

Hence the Center -which helped to correct mistakes on the first drafts and threw light over several confused aspects-, has some reservations and dissatisfactions with respect to the finished work, among them -just to mention one- the lightweight treatment given to the character of Tania la guerrilla.

All these aspects should be taken into account at the time of watching Soderbergh’s Che Guevara on the Havana big screens.

January 6, 2009

Sorry, we’re full

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 7:27 pm

From the LCR to the NPA

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 1:05 am

Olivier Besancenot

There’s a development taking place in France that has enormous implications for a new left. The Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) has announced that it is dissolving itself into a new formation, the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA). Twelve LCR leaders, including 1960s veterans Daniel Bensaid, Alain Krivine, and Pierre Rousset, have announced the LCR’s intention on International Viewpoint, an official publication of the Fourth International led by Ernest Mandel until his death in 1995:

The NPA will be clearly defined politically. Its preliminary documents set out some unmistakable terms: class struggle and support for all the struggles of the exploited and oppressed; unity in action of workers and their organizations; a break with the capitalist system; an eco-socialist project; opposition to any policy of managing the capitalist economy and the central executive powers of capitalist institutions; the struggle for a workers’ government; the revolutionary transformation of society; socialist democracy; and an internationalist program and practice. To be sure, a number of questions will remain open: the nature of revolutions in the 21st century; problems of the transition to socialism; and a whole range of other questions having to do with the reformulation of the socialist and communist project. But we are not beginning from scratch; and the NPA will collectively determine its own positions on the basis of new common experiences.

In other words, unlike practically every “Leninist” formation, the NPA does not expect its members to defend a particular analysis of “the Russian question”. In this respect, it has something in common with Solidarity, a U.S. group that is made up of people who rejected a mechanical “Bolshevik” approach at the time of their founding and are happy to accept multiple interpretations of what the LCR called “problems of transition to socialism”. Their founding document states:

Theoretically, some of us view these states as post-capitalist societies whose transition toward socialism is blocked by bureaucratic ruling castes and the pressures of imperialism.  Others of us regard the bureaucracies as ruling classes, exploiting the working class in a new way, in a social formation which is a rival to capitalism but is no less reactionary.  Others of us regard them as essentially a new form of capitalism itself, state capitalism; while still others do not have a firmly held theory or regard all existing theoretical explanations as inadequate.

We are determined that these differences will not prevent us from extending active solidarity to workers’ struggles in Eastern Europe, nor from building a common socialist organization here in the U.S.

For an interesting discussion of the LCR/NPA evolution, you can read Jim Jepps’s interview with John Mullen, an activist in a small group in France that agrees with Tony Cliff’s state capitalist analysis but has no formal connection to the world movement he founded. Mullen, who has joined the NPA, describes the kind of political diversity that will be found there:

The only big organization involved is the (soon to be ex-) LCR. And a few thousand individuals, quite a few of them well known local or even national leaders of the non-party radical Left, which has been quite big here for a number of years. Inside the NPA, some activists want to draw the lines of the party fairly narrow, to be absolutely sure not to include people who are too quick to ally in local or regional government with the Socialist Party and their acceptance of neo-liberalism. Others would like to make the party considerably broader, because they are worried that people who put mass movements and strikes at the centre of their politics, and are firmly opposed to the dictatorship of profit, will be kept out of the party if the lines are drawn too narrowly. Discussions continue on this. But the present name of the party “anti-capitalist” represents the compromise position at present. We want people who are opposed to capitalism, who generally believe that capitalism cannot be durably given a human face.

This means that inside the party you have people close to anarchism, close to radical green politics, close to Guevara’s ideas etc etc. The debates are very interesting every time each current avoids simply affirming its identity and makes sure the questions are looked at in depth.

Although Mullen is encouraged by this development, he does not quite get what it is about:

To emphasize that the aim of the LCR is not to control the NPA, the LCR is officially dissolving itself just before the foundation of the NPA, and there is no plan to maintain an LCR current inside the NPA. I think it likely that the different currents there were in the LCR will end up setting up three or four currents in the NPA, which seems fine to me. As Socialisme International, our tiny group of comrades, along with a couple of dozen others will certainly set up openly a current based on IS ideas (close to SWP theories).

Here’s a safe prediction. Mullen’s “tiny group of comrades” will likely remain tiny.

Although I have not paid much attention to the LCR in recent years, there was a time when my main political assignment was to expose them as enemies of “Leninism” and “Trotskyism”. The Socialist Workers Party nationalist office had transferred me to the Houston branch in 1973 to “smash” a group that was allied with the European Trotskyists over a number of issues, including the use of guerrilla warfare in Latin America. We had convinced ourselves that the LCR was a kind of virus carrier bringing in all sorts of foreign ideologies into the Fourth International, from Guevarism to Maoism.

Fourth Internationalist “orthodoxy” has a troubled history, to say the least. If the LCR had followed Cannon’s example, they might have ended up like the followers of Pierre Lambert who along with Cannon and the lunatic Gerry Healy constituted the International Committee for the Fourth International. These three leaders split with the International Secretariat in the 1950s because it was supposedly adapting to Stalinism. They were determined to remain free from the taint of Stalinism just as General Jack D. Ripper was determined at all costs to avoid fluoride.

In 1968, the members of Pierre Lambert’s sect were distinguished by their hostility to the student revolt. An article in Worker’s Liberty, a newspaper that I generally don’t have much use for, does manage to get the Lambertist’s role right:

Twenty thousand people stood their ground against police aggression, piling up branches, petrol-soaked pieces of wood and even cars to fend off a police attack. The JCR [precursor to the LCR] occupied a flat as a command base and communicated to activists over the radio. But where were the Lambertists?

Having refused to cancel a planned “vanguard” meeting at the Mutualité to organise the demonstration for 13 May, the Lambertists’ five hundred-strong contingent did not reach the Latin Quarter until one in the morning, marching up to the barricades in close formation and holding red banners aloft. Upon their arrival on the front line the group’s leaders grandly announced to the protestors that they refused to “risk the necks of the revolutionary vanguard” in a supposedly pointless fight, and – calling upon the students to “disperse and organise strike committees” – promptly marched away again. Révoltes explained that “without the revolutionary party, there can be no victorious struggle. We know that we represent the only force able to organise the workers’ and students’ fight.”

This kind of insanity is obviously contagious. In 1999 when young workers and students fought the police in the streets of Seattle, the Militant newspaper published by the U.S. Socialist Workers Party took a stance similar to the Lambertists, as this editorial would indicate:

The events in Seattle organized to protest the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) present socialist workers and youth with an opportunity to campaign for communism and recruit to the Young Socialists, the Socialist Workers Party in the United States, and sister organizations in Canada and elsewhere.

A swirl of political protests and forums whose program and character smacks of economic nationalism and America Firstism surround the WTO conference, which Washington is using to campaign for rationalizing aggressive postures and missile buildups – aimed primarily against China and other workers states.

Fortunately, the workers and students of Paris and Seattle found it easy to ignore the purist advice of these two sects.

Although I have plenty of criticisms of the Mandelistas in this period, they were correct to reject this kind of boneheaded “we are the vanguard” arrogance. Instinctively, they understood that posturing as the “true Marxists” had to be avoided like the plague. In the eyes of the SWP, the LCR was like a disease that had to be isolated. Over and over again, Trotskyist groups split once the debate has reached such a stage. Of course, the classic instance of thinking in terms of disease was Trotsky’s debate with Max Shachtman that he saw in terms of preventing a scratch from turning into gangrene. Trotsky was fond of these medical analogies. The Communist Parties were the “syphilis” of the workers movement. I suppose this makes some sense to some degree. My last 5 years in the SWP were experienced as a kind of irritable bowel syndrome, all in all.

The most egregious offender against orthodox Bolshevist-Leninism in our eyes was Livio Maitan, an Italian Trotskyist who wrote a document calling for a “new mass vanguard”. What he had in mind was a loose alliance of far-left groups, including the Maoists. Unfortunately, the far-left of those times was far too sectarian to even consider such an alliance. Maitan was trying the best he could to think outside the box, but his thinking was marred by impressionism and a kind of old-fashioned spontaneism.

The SWP split from the Fourth International in the mid-1970s and would soon set upon a course of trying to set up a highly centralized international led out of New York. This international consisted mainly of tiny English-speaking groupuscles in places like New Zealand that sold the SWP’s newspaper and organized a “turn toward industry” slavishly imitating the mother ship’s example.

Throughout the 1980s, I paid little attention either to the American SWP or to the French Trotskyists. Most of my time and energy were devoted to Central American solidarity activity and working with Peter Camejo and others to foster non-sectarian politics in the U.S.

In 1992, shortly after coming to work at Columbia University, I began to write about the problem of sectarianism, taking advantage of the scholarly material available in the university library-including the collected Lenin that I went through fairly systematically. I was inspired to do this by Peter Camejo, who took a leave of absence from the SWP in the early 1980s to read Lenin at his father’s ranch in Venezuela-an episode in his extraordinary life that hopefully will be covered in his soon to be published memoir.

If you can reduce my thinking on the problem of sectarianism to a sentence or two, it goes something like this. I believe that revolutionary parties can only arise out of a mass movement, such as was the case with the Bolsheviks. In the 1930s and 1960s, there were opportunities to create such a party but were squandered on Stalinist opportunism and ultraleft sectarianism respectively. When such opportunities present themselves, they must be responded to intelligently or else they are lost. Revolutionary politics is very unforgiving in that way.

I only became aware of the LCR through the election campaigns of Olivier Besancenot, who received 1.2 million votes (4.25%) as a revolutionary socialist candidate in the 2002 presidential elections. Unlike the rest of the Marxist left, the LCR has not worried that much about its “revolutionary program” being watered down. Last September 13th the N.Y. Times profiled Besancenot:

The Saturday Profile
Light on the Left Guides His Comrades Toward France’s Mainstream

HE looks like a sprite: boyish, handsome in his black Hugo Boss T-shirt and blue jeans. He reminds some of Tintin, the eternally young comic-book hero of so many childhood adventures.

But Olivier Besancenot, 34, is the extremely adept leader of the hard French left, a beacon for disaffected young members of the Socialist Party and the remnants of the once-powerful Communists. Having already run twice for the French presidency, and as an articulate presence on news and talk shows, Mr. Besancenot has higher favorability ratings in some polls than established politicians like Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party presidential candidate who lost last year to the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy.

In the 2007 presidential election, Mr. Besancenot won 4.1 percent of the vote with the slogan, “Our lives are worth more than their profits.” But in the year since, as the Socialist Party has squabbled over its leadership and Mr. Sarkozy has picked off a few Socialist figures for his own cabinet, the young radical has become almost mainstream – serious surveys show that more than 60 percent of the French regard him favorably.

In a poll last month by the firm CSA, 49 percent of respondents said Mr. Besancenot was currently Mr. Sarkozy’s leading opponent, behind the Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë (54 percent), but ahead of other Socialists like Martine Aubry (36 percent) and Ms. Royal (32 percent).

Mr. Besancenot is a postman, a member of the working class, who delivers the mail part time in the wealthy Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.

But he is also the leader of the Communist Revolutionary League, and in a long interview here, in party offices above a printing factory in this racially mixed city just east of Paris – where cheap clothing stores abut shops selling North African and Middle Eastern spices and take-out food – he describes himself without blushing as a revolutionary.

But given the travesties of the past, from the bureaucratic savagery of Soviet Communism to the chaos of Mao, he said, “revolution needs to be reinvented, for no revolutionary experiment has ever succeeded.” They have only been betrayed, either crushed by an armed elite or destroyed by “bureaucratic counter-revolution,” he said, adding, “We are trying to strike that balance of taking power without being taken by power.”

CAPITALISM is in a deep crisis, he said, “losing the leeway to buy social peace” in the massive credit crunch that began with subprime mortgages and has not finished. “This time it’s not on the periphery,” he said, but it “touches the heart of the system” and so has a domino effect, he believes. “This is a major turn in the evolution of the world economy.”

The credit crisis is pointing up further contradictions, Mr. Besancenot said. “We are heading straight for catastrophe from a social standpoint, the human standpoint, from war and the environment. For us, today, to be environmentalists means to understand that this model of socio-economic development is out of breath, and if we don’t change we will destroy our own planet.”

He is media savvy and understands that the name of his party, affiliated with the Trotskyist Fourth International, is wrong for the modern world, having a stink of dead ideology and the last bloody century. “We asked ourselves about finding a name based on what unifies everyone,” he said.

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I don’t know if Steven Erlanger was putting words in Besancenot’s mouth, but I particularly liked the idea of rejecting the name Revolutionary Communist League as “having a stink of dead ideology”. When Peter Camejo and I used to discuss party politics in the early 1980s, he told me how happy he was to be launching something called the North Star Network, named in honor of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper. When groups feel compelled to include the words revolutionary, workers, communist, socialist, etc. in their title, they are demonstrating a complete lack of imagination. In some ways, politics is like art. You have to be creative. For the past 25 years or so, it has been difficult to approach the task of movement-building creatively since the objective conditions have been so poor. Now with the potential of a growing tide of anger against corporate greed and imperialist war-making turning into a new radicalization, let’s think creatively about avoiding the mistakes of the 1930s and 1960s. Keep your eyes on the prize and on particularly on what’s happening in France, the country with the world’s greatest revolutionary traditions.

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