Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 19, 2009

Bard College terminates Joel Kovel

Filed under: bard college,Palestine,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 4:39 pm

Joel Kovel has been terminated from Bard College. You can read the full statement on the firing on his website. It begins:

In January, 1988, I was appointed to the Alger Hiss Chair of Social Studies at Bard College. As this was a Presidential appointment outside the tenure system, I have served under a series of contracts. The last of these was half-time (one semester on, one off, with half salary and full benefits year-round), effective from July 1, 2004, to June 30, 2009. On February 7 I received a letter from Michèle Dominy, Dean of the College, informing me that my contract would not be renewed this July 1 and that I would be moved to emeritus status as of that day. She wrote that this decision was made by President Botstein, Executive Vice-President Papadimitriou and herself, in consultation with members of the Faculty Senate.

This document argues that this termination of service is prejudicial and motivated neither by intellectual nor pedagogic considerations, but by political values, principally stemming from differences between myself and the Bard administration on the issue of Zionism. There is of course much more to my years at Bard than this, including another controversial subject, my work on ecosocialism (/The Enemy of Nature/). However, the evidence shows a pattern of conflict over Zionism only too reminiscent of innumerable instances in this country in which critics of Israel have been made to pay, often with their careers, for speaking out. In this instance the process culminated in a deeply flawed evaluation process which was used to justify my termination from the faculty.

Of particular interest to me was the participation of Bard College’s chaplain Bruce Chilton on Joel’s evaluation committee. Since this body must be based on impartiality, the inclusion of a hardened Zionist activist would in and of itself invalidate its findings. Joel comments:

The evaluation committee included Professor Bruce Chilton, along with Professors Mark Lambert and Kyle Gann. Professor Chilton is a member of the Social Studies division, a distinguished theologian, and the campus’ Protestant chaplain. He is also active in Zionist circles, as chair of the Episcopal-Jewish Relations Committee in the Episcopal Diocese of New York, and a member of the Executive Committee of Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East. In this capacity he campaigns vigorously against Protestant efforts to promote divestment and sanctions against the State of Israel… Of course, Professor Chilton has the right to his opinion as an academic and a citizen. Nonetheless, the presence of such a voice on the committee whose conclusion was instrumental in the decision to remove me from the Bard faculty is highly dubious. Most definitely, Professor Chilton should have recused himself from this position. His failure to do so, combined with the fact that the decision as a whole was made in context of adversity between myself and the Bard administration, renders the process of my termination invalid as an instance of what the College’s Faculty Handbook calls a procedure “designed to evaluate each faculty member fairly and in good faith.”

I should add that I listened to the abovementioned “Religion on the Line” radio show and wrote a piece examining Chilton’s defense of Israeli ethnic cleansing and war crimes.

In keeping with Bard College President Leon Botstein’s finely honed ability to speak out of both sides of his mouth, he managed to create the impression this week that he was the best friend that Palestinians ever had:

NY Times, February 15, 2009
Palestinian Campus Looks to East Bank (of Hudson)
By Ethan Bronner

JERUSALEM – It would be hard to find two institutions of higher learning that seem more different than Bard College, an upscale, bucolic college in Dutchess County, N.Y., and Al Quds University, a struggling, sprawling Palestinian institution in and near this disputed capital.

Yet the two schools have decided to join forces in an unusual venture aimed at injecting American educational values and expertise into Palestinian society, in hopes of contributing to a future democratic State of Palestine. Although the effort has been many months in the planning, those involved say the recent war in Gaza and a political turn rightward in Israel make it more important and urgent.

The plan, relying largely on outside financing, includes a liberal arts honors college and a master’s degree program in teaching, both located at Al Quds and granting joint degrees, as well as a model high school to serve as an educational laboratory. The starting date for the first two is September; the high school is to open in 2010.

This is not the first instance of Bard College “adopting” a college in some peripheral country. The Times reports:

Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds and a philosopher trained at Harvard and Oxford, who has been pushing to open his institution to outside influences; and Leon Botstein, president of Bard, a polymath whose college has set up special high schools in New York City, humanities classes for the homeless around the United States, and joint programs in Russia and South Africa.

Do you wonder where Bard gets all the money to fund such initiatives, especially when most colleges are being forced to slash budgets? Surprise, surprise. It comes from a famous benefactor of the underdeveloped world:

The initial financing is coming from the liberal financier George Soros, but Mr. Botstein is looking for more, and the Palestinian Education Ministry is being asked to provide help, since the joint degree program has what its proponents consider to be an important civic side.

There is a certain logic in propping up Nusseibeh in light of the decision by Hampshire College, another “progressive” college like Bard, to divest from Israel (even though there are multiple interpretations over whether this took place or not.) On May 19, 2005 Nusseibeh lent his name to a statement opposing a cultural and educational boycott. The NY Times reported:

Two university presidents, one a Palestinian and the other an Israeli, joined on Thursday to urge an end to an academic boycott of Israeli universities by Britain’s leading higher education union.

Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, and Menachem Magidor, president of Hebrew University, made a joint declaration here at an international gathering of scholars debating human rights.

“Our position is based upon the belief that it is through cooperation based on mutual respect, rather than boycotts or discrimination, that our common goals can be achieved,” the declaration said.

“Our disaffection with, and condemnation of, acts of academic boycotts,” it said, “is predicated on the principles of academic freedom, human rights and equality between nations and among individuals.”

The move comes one week before the higher education union, the British Association of University Teachers, plans to meet to reconsider a decision in April to bar Israeli faculty members at Haifa University and Bar-Ilan University from academic conferences and joint research.

The boycott was in response to an appeal by 60 Palestinian organizations complaining about Israeli actions in the conflict with Palestinians.

Is there some connection between Sari Nusseibeh’s opposition to a boycott and Bruce Chilton’s activism against church and university-based divestment campaigns? I will allow you, dear reader, to decide. Being somewhat suspicious of the motives of the George Soros’s of the world, I  believe that he invested wisely when he decided to back Sari Nusseibeh. As one of the capitalist class’s most far-sighted defenders of its long-term interests, Soros has learned to hedge his bets. He has decided in this case to risk alienating Zionist opinion in the U.S. by funding a college run by a nominally anti-Zionist president but made sure to put his money on a safe bet.

Perhaps it was Nusseibeh’s collaboration with the former head of Israeli intelligence that brought him to the attention of George Soros and Leon Botstein:

A modest start for a joint bid to galvanize public support for a permanent peace accord

In the spring of last year, when suicide bombings were at their height and Israeli troops were combing Palestinian cities for terrorists, former Shin Bet security services Chief Ami Ayalon quietly visited East Jerusalem to discuss a peace plan with al-Quds University president Sari Nusseibeh. The two had met a few months before at a London conference and been struck by the similarity of their views. They agreed that violence was leading nowhere and that Israeli and Palestinian leaders should get back to the negotiating table and tackle the tough “final status” issues.

(The Jerusalem Report, July 28, 2003)

It should be mentioned that Nusseibeh and Ayalon settled on a plan that would drop the Palestinian right of return. It seems that Nusseibeh had a much easier job currying Israeli favor than that of his own people, as this item from the July 18th 1989 Jerusalem Post would indicate:

A leaflet distributed yesterday in Nablus strongly attacks public figures in the West Bank, calling them traitors and collaborators, and targets Bir Zeit University teacher Sari Nusseibeh for the brunt of its attack. In Nablus, a well informed source has claimed that the Unified Leadership of the intifada has lost its power.

A leaflet distributed yesterday in Nablus strongly attacks public figures in the West Bank, calling them traitors and collaborators, and targets Bir Zeit University teacher Sari Nusseibeh for the brunt of its attack. In Nablus, a well informed source has claimed that the Unified Leadership of the intifada has lost its power.

The leaflet, signed by the Popular Army of the State of Palestine, asks sarcastically: “Why has the Lord Doctor secretly left the country?” (Nusseibeh left for England about a month ago with his British wife and three children).

The leaflet accuses Nusseibeh of being a “traitor and collaborator” because of the fact he has not been arrested despite depositions by Palestinians in court that he helped finance the intifada. The leaflet also claims Nusseibeh bought a piece of land in Jabel Mukaber with intifada money.

In other words, the perfect candidate for a collaborative project with Leon Botstein and George Soros.

UPDATE

An atrocious article on Kovel’s termination appeared on Inside Higher Education that could have been written by Bard’s public relations officer. You can read it here to get an idea of how Bard will be defending itself in the court of public opinion, not to speak of the actual legal court in which Joel will be pursuing redress.

Joel and I offer corrections to the crappy report in the comments section but I would be remiss if I did not include this comment from a Bard graduate, class of ’97:

I am very impressed by the way in which many posters cite their “Zionism” along with their academic credentials. It gives me great faith in their impartiality.

As Botstein quite rightly pointed out, Kovel’s views are not terribly radical, but they surely must rankle the passionately pro-Zionist president and chair of the religion department at Bard. This is as clear-cut a case of Bard’s grotesquely pro-Israel stance as anything I have seen (and this is not the first instance). Bard claims to be “a place to think.” Perhaps more apropos would be to describe it as “a place not to think bad things about Israel.”

I’m disgusted. You won’t be getting any alumni dollars from us. Sorry, I learned way too much about critical thinking at Bard to ever let this kind of intellectual bullying stand. Bravo, Mr. Kovel, and to those who live comfortable academic lives in the USA and claim to be “Zionist,” I suggest you go see what’s really happened in Gaza before you let your smug assurance that you’re in the right strangle your sense of decency.

UPDATE 2

Facebook group created to discuss Joel Kovel termination

UPDATE 3

Excellent letter to Botstein by Noel Bush, Bard graduate 1996

February 18, 2009

Californication

Filed under: television — louisproyect @ 5:10 pm

The Showtime series Californication has a fairly well-worn plot: Hollywood versus the writer. From the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, we are used to watching the writer as anti-hero writhing in a spider’s web woven by mammon-worshipping production studios.

Hank Moody is a one-hit wonder. After his sardonic and sexually explicit novel God Hates Us All has been turned into a crappy but commercially successful movie titled A Crazy Little Thing Called Love, he moves out to Hollywood with his girlfriend and their teen-age daughter. Once there, he discovers that he can no longer write and spends all his time cheating on his wife and boozing until she finally throws him out. Played by David Duchovny, Hank Moody is a charming lout of the kind once played by Clark Gable or Errol Flynn. Oddly enough, Duchovny is also playing the same character he played in X-Files, despite all the sexual escapades in Californication. Like Mulder, Hank Moody has a bemused and boyishly self-deprecating manner that he deploys to great advantage-except in this go-round it is in encounters with Hollywood nymphettes rather than with space aliens.

In addition to the trapped-in-Hollywood genres alluded to above, Californication is strongly influenced by Sex in the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm, two of the flagship series on HBO, the rival premium cable network. From Sex in the City it derives the envelop-pushing sexual explicitness. For instance, in season one (now available from Netflix) Hank wanders into a church in search of the spiritual counseling he so sorely requires, only to be met by a nun who convinces him that he really needs a blow job that she proceeds to deliver. Even though this was only a dream sequence, it was enough to rouse Christian fundamentalist groups into action.

Like Curb Your Enthusiasm, the show relies heavily on the interaction between a writer and his agent. Played by Sex in the City regular Evan Handler, Charlie Runkle is Jeff Green to Moody’s Larry David. Much of the show is devoted to the two discussing Moody’s writer’s block and various screw-ups as father and lover. Like Larry David, most of Moody’s woes are self-generated. While Curb Your Enthusiasm relied heavily on improvisation between the cast’s characters (most of whom had a long background in comedy club improv acts), the writing in Californication is thoroughly scripted and thoroughly good.

It should be mentioned that Duchovny, who is an executive producer of the show, is much more literate than the average actor. A wiki article on him points out:

He also holds a Master’s degree in English Literature from Yale University and began work on a Ph.D. that remains unfinished. The title of his uncompleted doctoral thesis was Magic and Technology in Contemporary Poetry and Prose… In 1982, while at Princeton, his poetry received an honorable mention for a college prize from the Academy of American Poets and the title of his senior thesis was The Schizophrenic Critique of Pure Reason in Beckett’s Early Novels.

Evan Handler is an interesting character as well. Although his background is exclusively that of an actor and all the superficiality that entails, he had a brush with death that left him a bit more sensitive to deeper spiritual and philosophical questions than his peers. When he was 24, he developed leukemia that he survived successfully although the chemotherapy left him permanently bald. He makes a point of never using a toupee. His memoir Time on Fire, which is based on his one-character stage play, is uncommonly insightful. Here’s Handler being interviewed by the very funny cable TV host Chelsea Handler (they’re not related) about his latest book:


Just as I began working on this review, I strolled over to a co-worker to ask some grammatical advice. When he discovered that I liked Californication as well as Sex in the City, he was genuinely surprised. What would an unrepentant Marxist get out of shows such as these? The answer was simple. Entertainment. In an age when Hollywood movies no longer provide the kind of escapist pleasure that a Fred Astaire musical once did, you have turn to cable TV to get your mind off of financial crisis, imperialist war and environmental devastation. If you are like-minded, then I can recommend Californication.

February 17, 2009

Reflections on Marc Saint-Upéry

Filed under: socialism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

Marc Saint-Upéry

Last Sunday I put an article written in 2004 titled “The Limits of Social Movements: An untimely reflection” by Marc Saint-Upéry on the Marxmail website. It was translated by Ethan Young, a Marxmail subscriber, who quite rightly viewed it as an important contribution to an ongoing debate, even though history has more or less superseded it.

In the late 1990s the “anti-globalization” movement spawned efforts to theorize revolution on non-Marxist terms, even though lip-service was occasionally paid to Marx. In works such as Hardt-Negri’s “Empire” and John Holloway’s “Change the World Without Taking Power” there was an attempt to write off traditional Marxist concepts of taking state power in order to construct a more just economy based on human need rather than private profit. Evoking ideas found in autonomism, ultraleft or council communism and anarchism, Hardt-Negri and Holloway became fixated on the act of struggle itself rather than the goal of seizing power. In its aversion to centralized political power through the dreaded “Leninist” party, this sector of the left squandered opportunities to make a revolution in Argentina. Setting up piquetero roadblocks became an end in itself, while the need to coordinate strategy on a national level was dismissed as outmoded Leninist thinking.

Saint-Upéry writes:

As soon as they take part in the dispute over the common good and the social order, social movements move openly and directly to politics and contribute to the definition of the political agenda. Nevertheless, the relation of the social movements with politics – much less politicians – is not usually understood in the sense of state institutions, public policy and electoral competitions. In the latest debates on social movements in Latin America, there was a certain tendency to presuppose the existence of an emphatic split between social self-organization and political institutions. This absolute dichotomy often reflects a slippery attempt at moralizing the strategic debate, and a new version of old fundamentalist impulses. Nowadays, the question is: just what is the revolution, who are the revolutionaries and the reformists, how best to distinguish the “pure” from the “impure” in order to defend the virginity of idealized social movements against any institutional contamination. The most extreme form of this purism is found in a curious book by John Holloway. However, I believe that Holloway’s thesis is only the hyperbolic crystallization of a vague but insistent ideological mood that other authors offer in more qualified forms.

He also points out certain internal contradictions in the Zapatista movement, which in Holloway’s sector of the left amounts to a kind of model:

The case of the Zapatistas is very particular for its creation of armed “self-limited” insurrection and its subsequent trajectory. In any context outside of pure coercion or institutional anarchy, the most general problem of social movements is that their essential “internal institutionality,” while original and autonomous in form, cannot overlook “external” institutionality and the problems that it raises: Who holds sovereignty? Who is the legitimate representative? – and so on. The autonomy of social movements from the political-electoral market, especially its corrupt, “for sale to the highest bidder” versions, is indispensable. To believe, all the same, that this autonomy lessens the problems of the struggle for state power, of the contentious formation of the general will, of the institutionalization of the rules of social coexistence and of public deliberation, of the equitable administration of resources, of the representation of citizens and of their active participation in public matters, is the coarsest of illusions.

I weighed in on Holloway and the Zapatistas in a 2003 article titled “Fetishizing the Zapatistas: a critique of ‘Change the World Without Taking Power‘”. The fact that my article and Saint-Upéry’s are more than 5 years old might tell you something about how its relevancy to today’s world. In a series of blows following the 9/11/2001 events, the “anti-globalization” movement of the imperialist nations has been superseded more or less by the “war on terror” and economic crisis. In the first instance, the tasks of the antiwar movement were simply of no interest to the more ideologically-driven foot soldiers of the “anti-globalization” movement who preferred fighting in the streets over maximalist demands like “Stop capitalism” to mass actions designed to force the U.S. out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the 3rd world, there were even more powerful forces at work that would render Holloway’s schemas obsolete. In a series of countries in Latin America, radical governments came to power through elections, a means of struggle that the Zapatista left regarded as irredeemably tainted.

A few days after sending me Saint-Upéry’s article, Ethan Young followed up with a translation of an interview that the author gave to “Le Monde Diplomatique” in November, 2008. Despite the 2004 article’s aversion to “social movement” ideology, it is clear from the interview that Saint-Upéry is less than enthusiastic about 21st Century Socialism.

Q: Regarding this crisis, does the “21st century socialism” preached in Latin America represent an alternative?

A: Let me tell you a little story. There is a leader, extremely popular in the lowliest subsets and the least educated population sectors who explains that “here, the citizens own the natural resources collectively and we share the wealth when the development of these resources occurs.” This same leader fought a battle without quarter to force the private oil companies to pay more taxes and royalties for the exploitation of the oil wells. Moreover, this person is perceived by the people as somebody “who understands our problems and speaks like us, not like the arrogant elites.”

This leader is named… Sarah Palin (her again), ultra-reactionary governor of Alaska and McCain’s running mate, who makes a gift each year of a four-digit check ($3,269 in 2008 ) to each citizen of this subarctic petro-state. Frankly, the idea that a new form of socialism will be invented from a nondescript experiment in neo- development, of caudillismo, extractivism and hyperdependence on the worldwide market and prices of raw materials, seems to me a joke in bad taste.

The global crisis will clarify the limits of so-called “21st century socialism.” In practice they are clear already, and they will be more and more so as the situation worsens. As for the “theory,” I have very closely followed some of the debates on 21st century socialism in Venezuela and Ecuador , among others. One can only be struck by the vague, spell-binding, purely emotional or abstract and sometimes quite simply delirious character of the speeches that circulate on this subject.

Beyond some well-intentioned but warmed-over declarations on the virtues of participatory democracy (which, however, functions today in Venezuela either as pure vertical manipulation, or as a security valve for popular frustrations with the feverish inefficiency of the central administration, and in general as an ambiguous mixture of both), I see no conceptual tool emerging, no proposal for a concrete institutional construction that could guide us in the search for an alternative to capitalism.

Despite everything, the socialist imaginary* seems to have recovered a certain role.

Although Saint-Upéry strikes me as a bright fellow, the comparison between Sarah Palin and Hugo Chávez is rather foolish. We should not forget that his government is a direct outgrowth of a working-class rebellion in 1989 called the Caracazo. Furthermore, Chávez has attacked the privileged bourgeois elements in the oil industry in order to reallocate profits to raise the standard of living of the poor. If he wants to equate this with Sarah Palin fighting “a battle without quarter to force the private oil companies to pay more taxes and royalties for the exploitation of the oil wells”, then who am I to quibble with a journalist using his imagination for literary effect. But the facts militate against this flight of fancy.

In fact, all Palin did was send $1200 checks to the citizens of Alaska in an obvious effort to bribe the taxpayers in an effort to secure her reelection. In contrast, Chávez’s use of oil has been as much about international solidarity as it has been about improving the living conditions of Venezuelans. In an effort that mirrors Cuba’s medical aid to poorer nations, Venezuela has supplied oil to countries on the front lines of struggle in Latin America in defiance of U.S. efforts to strangle them. Chávez has also built alliances with Iran and other OPEC nations in order to prevent the imperialist nations from exploiting a precious resource to their own advantages. This, more than anything, is what earns their reputation as “rogue states”. One supposes that Saint-Upéry missed this dimension because it did not satisfy his rather high standards for a “socialist imaginary”.

At the risk of sounding like Sarah Palin, I for one thing it is a very good thing that Venezuela uses oil to benefit the poor and that Bolivia intends to use natural gas and lithium for the same purposes. Here’s what indigenous peoples had to say about the discovery of enormous reserves of lithium in the February 2, 2009 N.Y. Times:

At the La Paz headquarters of Comibol, the state agency that oversees mining projects, Mr. Morales’s vision of combining socialism with advocacy for Bolivia’s Indians is prominently on display. Copies of Cambio, a new state-controlled daily newspaper, are available in the lobby, while posters of Che Guevara, the leftist icon killed in Bolivia in 1967, appear at the entrance to Comibol’s offices.

“The previous imperialist model of exploitation of our natural resources will never be repeated in Bolivia,” said Saúl Villegas, head of a division in Comibol that oversees lithium extraction. “Maybe there could be the possibility of foreigners accepted as minority partners, or better yet, as our clients.”

I regret that comrade Saint-Epuréy is left cold by this sort of thing, but this has a rather stimulating effect on my own “socialist imaginary”.

February 12, 2009

In reply to a comrade

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

The day before yesterday I received this email:

Hi Louis,

The longer that I am on the Marxism list the more that I find that we only disagree when it comes to the big organizational question. I see you defending the proper analysis on so many issues that I felt I had to take a very close at this organizational issue.

Given the recent developments in Italy, England and France this might be the foremost issue (for Marxists in/around the FI or non-stalinist marxists) of our time. Obviously we have a wealth of documentation detailing the debates in recent times (Callinicos, Sabad, etc), but I am interested in perspectives from the early 20th century to round this out. You often refer to Zinoviev as the originator of these views, and I was wondering if you know of anyone who called him on it in those days, or debated him? Basically, was there anyone else who put forward a different viewpoint? Also, how do you feel about the SWP entering and leaving the SP (I know it was before the SWP was formed) back in the 1930s? Would you criticize that move in the same vein as how you did with SWP (Britain) in Respect? Also, how do/did you feel about the Black Panthers, who purported to be a vanguard party as well but seem to have worked well with other groups better than most sectarian trotskyist groups of today?

I have read your blog posts on these issues to make sure I didn’t ask you something you’ve already answered, but if I somehow missed an answer I apologize. If you only have the time to answer one question I think my question on Zinoviev is the most important to me. Thanks for your perspective.

Since it would have required a fair amount of time and energy to prepare a reply and since the questions raised would be of general interest to Marxists, my correspondent gave me permission to answer him publicly.

To start with, nobody challenged Zinoviev’s organizational ideas on either side of the Stalin-Trotsky debate. In the 1920s and 30s, Trotsky never really paid much attention to “democratic centralist” norms since he was obviously far more preoccupied with questions such as fascism, the popular front, and the true nature of the USSR.

Trotsky had a tendency to dismiss leftist alternatives to the “democratic centralist” model as centrist, the most important example being the POUM in Spain. While the POUM made serious mistakes, they at least figured out how to reach the masses through constructing an organization that was far more rooted in Spanish culture and society. In a way, the POUM anticipated later developments such as the FSLN and FMLN.

In comparison to the POUM, the program of the Spanish Trotskyists was superior but they failed to make much of an impact on the mass movement. Although the American Trotskyists were far more rooted in the mass movement, largely as a function of James P. Cannon’s experience in the IWW and the broader left, there was still a tendency to view party-building as a kind of project rooted in “Defending the Program”, which unfortunately spawned sectarian tendencies everywhere it was attempted.

In 1929, the Militant published Trotsky’s letter to Cannon that included this tell-tale passage:

The revolutionary Marxists are now again reduced (not for the first time and probably not for the last) to being an international propaganda society….It seems that the fact that we are very few frightens you. Of course, it is unpleasant. Naturally, it would be better to have behind us organizations numbering millions. But how are we, the vanguard of the vanguard, to have such organizations the day after the world revolution has suffered catastrophic defeats brought on by the Menshevik leadership hiding under the false mask of Bolshevism? Yes, how?

For me, this encapsulates the problems that have dogged the Trotskyist movement since its inception. The assertion that you are the “vanguard of the vanguard” based on a set of ideas reflects-obviously-an idealistic approach to politics. It has led to innumerable splits in the Trotskyist movement as differences over one question or another have led small groups to split, and then split again.

The Communist Party never had such problems because they were blessed by rapid growth wherever they were founded. Even though they followed the same kinds of mechanical “party building” ideas as the Trotskyists, this did not stand in the way of them becoming massive. Such was the power of the USSR to inspire millions of workers to join the party even though the party always found ways to screw things up in the mass movement. A split in a CP might have been fairly easy to recover from, since there were always fresh bodies to fill the ranks. In the small and fragile Trotskyist movement, a split would often prove fatal.

To my knowledge, the review of the Zinovievist model did not really begin until after WWII when Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman decided to not only transcend the dead-end of the Stalin-Trotsky debate, but to adopt party-building methods that were far more geared to the tempo of the mass movement and the need to respect ideological diversity. This was a period in which many others were trying to figure out a new way of doing things. The Guardian newspaper and Monthly Review were both launched as an effort to break with sectarian and dogmatic habits of the traditional left. For his part, Hal Draper, who came out of a Shachtmanite background, was seeking similar ways of moving forward. I consider this period to be very instructive for the one that we are in now, since it too was on the cusp of a new radicalization.

But it was difficult for their efforts to bear fruit since the existence of the USSR tended to reinforce the old Stalin-Trotsky divide. The CP’s found “democratic centralism” useful in enforcing ideological conformity; so did the Trotskyists. The CP’s tended to use the bureaucratic hammer to stifle dissent, while the Trotskyists relied much more on peer pressure.

On the Trotskyists in the SP, I believe that this was a big mistake. While it might have been inevitable that the rightwing of the party find some excuse to get rid of the Trotskyists, the Trotskyists did not help their own cause by basically carrying out an “entryist” tactic, which should have been transparent to all members. For all of the bad reputation that the SP leaders deserve, the plain truth is that someone like Norman Thomas was far to the left of Ralph Nader today. If you read Sol Dollinger’s account of the Flint sit-down strikes, you will learn that Thomas was instrumental in building support for the strikers. If the Trotskyists had viewed the SP in more or less the same way that the French LCR now views the new anti-capitalist party, American politics would look a lot different today. The SP would have entered the Cold War as a party of 20,000 with a strong left wing and without the taint that the CP had earned to some extent by its own crappy policies during WWII.

On the Panthers, I have to be up front about this. In my view, they were far less important than Martin Luther King Jr., particularly during the end of his career when he was becoming more and more militant. He was able to mobilize Black workers in a way that the Panthers never did. Instead, the Panthers relied much more on “serve the people” efforts such as the breakfast programs which simply reflected a misguided effort to emulate the Maoist experience of the 1930s and 40s.

The other problem with the Panthers was their tendency to operate as a militia, which opened them up to victimization. It was far harder to mobilize public opinion against killer cops when their targets insisted on marching with guns and using “off the pig” rhetoric. If the Panthers had modeled themselves much more on Malcolm X’s Organization for African-American Unity, they would have had much more success. In Malcolm’s entire career, he was never photographed with a gun nor did he call for armed struggle. He always stressed the need for self-defense, which actually is what happens in all revolutionary struggles.

February 9, 2009

Mission to Moscow

Filed under: Film,ussr — louisproyect @ 5:24 pm

Quite by accident on Sunday morning I tuned into “Mission to Moscow” on the TCM cable network, which was already 15 minutes in progress. For a film buff and veteran of the Trotskyist movement like me, this is almost like spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker in Central Park. This is an exceedingly rare event, as this alert on IMDB.com points out:

Turner Classic Movies will be showing Mission to Moscow tomorrow (Sunday) morning at 11:15 Am (Est). This is a rare event, as Warner Brothers, which produced the film during WWII, has virtually tried to bury it out of embarrassment. It’s never been released on home video, as I learned when I taught a course at NYU I developed called Cold War Cinema. The film was essential viewing, but the only copies could be obtained on the collector’s circuit. The movie was the result of strong-arming by the Department of Defense to convince Hollywood studios to present the Soviet Union in a positive manner. This was no easy task. In the early stages of the war, Stalin was a strong ally of Nazi Germany had helped them invade several nations. However, when Hitler betrayed Stalin by invading the Soviet Union in 1941, the USSR immediately became an unlikely, but indispensable part of the Allied cause.

What the alert leaves out and what I discovered not long after joining the SWP was the movie’s dramatization and defense of the Moscow Trials. Based on the memoir of Joseph E. Davies, the American ambassador to the USSR, it could have been written by a Communist Party member-which it was sort of. Screenwriting duties were shared by Davies and Howard Koch, who was blacklisted in the 1950s although the consensus was that he was not in the party. Despite the 1930s and 40s reputation of Hollywood being under the artistic influence of the CP, their screenwriters very rarely put anything resembling a “party line” into a movie.

“Mission to Moscow” was something else entirely. Featuring Walter Huston (the old codger who teamed up with Humphrey Bogart in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre) as Joseph Davies, it follows him on his tour of duty across Europe trying to first convince the Nazis to choose peace (they are strictly out of central casting, monocles and all) and finally setting up shop in Moscow where he feels right at home, despite being a “capitalist” as he admits to his Soviet hosts. Not surprisingly-given the popular front context-they are all right with that.

The movie makes no attempt to use a conventional plot with conflict and resolution over human problems. It is strictly a propaganda piece and exceedingly crude. Through Davies’s eyes (and filmed on location in the USSR), we see jolly workers in the mines and factories-including women to Davies’s surprise. Everything is going swimmingly well in the Soviet economy except for the occasional mysterious explosion or industrial accident, which plant managers attribute to sabotage. We are led to believe that it is the sinister Germans and Japanese who are behind the anti-Soviet conspiracy.

Finally, we see the GPU rounding up a number of party leaders who we have already met in the movie. They include Radek, Yagoda, and General Timoshenko. The last man to be arrested is none other than Nikolai Bukharin. One by one the suspects confess to Vishinsky that they were part of a plot to overthrow the Soviet government and install Leon Trotsky as the new head of state. The conspiracy was backed by Germany and Japan. It is entirely possible that their speeches came directly out of the Moscow Trials, especially Bukharin’s that had that peculiar mixture of confession and contempt that gave a subtle hint of his hatred for Stalin and the proceedings.

As a defense of the Moscow Trials, the movie completely fails. Since it gives no background on the characters, the audience is not prepared to take the confessions at face value. A more skilled propagandist would have had Radek, Timoshenko and Bukharin meeting with Nazi spies even though this would have been a lie. It would have also developed them more as villains, something that Howard Koch perhaps did not have his heart in. I imagine that most CP’er or fellow travelers in the film industry were far more enthusiastic about women miners in the USSR than they were about show trials.

The wiki on “Mission to Moscow” reports:

During production, Office of War Information officials reviewed screenplay revisions and prints of the film and commented on them. By reviewing the scripts and prints, OWI officials exercised authority over Mission to Moscow, insuring that it promoted the “United Nations” theme. An administration official advised the film’s producers to offer explanations for the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the Red Army’s invasion of Finland. After reading the final script, in November 1942 the OWI expressed its hope that Mission to Moscow would “make one of the most remarkable pictures of this war” and “a very great contribution to the war information program.”

The OWI report on Mission to Moscow concluded that it would “be a most convincing means of helping Americans to understand their Russian allies. Every effort has been made to show that Russians and Americans are not so very different after all. The Russians are shown to eat well and live comfortably, which will be a surprise to many Americans. The leaders of both countries desire peace and both possess a blunt honesty of address and purpose…One of the best services performed by this picture is the presentation of Russian leaders, not as wild-eyed madmen, but as far-seeing, earnest, responsible statesmen. They have proved very good neighbors, and this picture will help to explain why, as well as to encourage faith in the feasibility of post-war cooperation.”

In 1950 “Mission to Moscow” became a casualty of the Cold War as the USSR was now cast in the role that the Nazis once played. Jack Warner, the studio head who commissioned “Mission to Moscow”, testified before Congress and assured it that he received instructions from Davies and FDR to make the movie.

It is too bad that “Mission to Moscow” is not available in home video since it provides the same kind of laughs as “Reefer Madness”. Short of this, you can read Joseph Davies’s memoir in Google books, which fully captures the unintentional comedy of the movie. Here’s Davies on a talk he gave in 1941:

Passing through Chicago, on my way home from the June commencement of my old University, I was asked to talk to the University Club and combined Wisconsin societies. It was just three days after Hitler had invaded Russia. Somebody in the audience asked: “What about Fifth Columnists in Russia?” Off the anvil, I said: “There aren’t any-they shot them.”

February 8, 2009

A Flock of Dodos

Filed under: Film,science — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

The other night I stumbled across “A Flock of Dodos” on the Showtime cable network, a somewhat overly whimsical documentary on “intelligent design” that I still recommend heartily. It is directed by Randy Olson who received a PhD in evolutionary biology from Harvard while studying under Stephen Jay Gould. Olson changed careers in the mid 1990s and became a documentary film-maker with Michael Moore as his most obvious influence. Using himself as a central figure, Olson interviews both sides of the debate seeking to make it entertaining to a mass audience. He largely succeeds although nobody is better at this than Michael Moore obviously.

Olson got the inspiration for this movie in 1999 after he his mom began sending him clippings from her hometown newspaper in Kansas about the state school board’s decision to integrate intelligent design into the high school science curriculum. On top of that, she lived next door to John Calvert, a lawyer who was spearheading efforts to promote intelligent design both in Kansas and nationally.

One of Olson’s first interviewees is Dr. Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University who wrote “Darwin’s Black Box”, a kind of bible for the intelligent design movement. Unlike the more openly fundamentalist advocates of creationism such as William Jennings Bryan, people like Behe try to couch their arguments in scientific terms, albeit in a specious manner. For example, they like to compare two mountain ranges, one in the Rockies and the other in South Dakota that just happens to include Mount Rushmore. Behe holds up the two pictures and asks Olson what conclusions you can draw from them. Obviously, it is easy to state that the first mountain range is a product of seismic events, erosion, etc. But you must conclude that Mount Rushmore was designed. By analogy, something as marvelous and as elegant as the eye must be a product of design as well since the contingency of Darwinian evolution would surely be incapable of producing such a result.

In one of the more successful attempts at humor in the movie, the frequently inelegant outcomes of evolution are depicted, especially those that relate to the digestive system, a rather less inspiring example of plumbing-particularly when it comes to rabbits. It seems that the rabbit first has to excrete out the semi-digested food it takes in and can only absorb it fully after eating it in the form of feces, which “A Flock of Dodos” films in its less than glorious dimensions.

Much of the film is devoted to an investigation of the Discovery Institute that is largely responsible for promoting intelligent design through its access to rightwing foundation funding. If you go to their website, you won’t find much in the way of dinosaurs being only a few thousand years old. When addressing the question of whether intelligent design theory is the same as creationism, their FAQ replies:

No. Intelligent design theory is simply an effort to empirically detect whether the “apparent design” in nature acknowledged by virtually all biologists is genuine design (the product of an intelligent cause) or is simply the product of an undirected process such as natural selection acting on random variations. Creationism is focused on defending a literal reading of the Genesis account, usually including the creation of the earth by the Biblical God a few thousand years ago. Unlike creationism, the scientific theory of intelligent design is agnostic regarding the source of design and has no commitment to defending Genesis, the Bible or any other sacred text. Honest critics of intelligent design acknowledge the difference between intelligent design and creationism.

Although there is little hope for serious change coming out of the Obama administration, it seems likely that public schools and colleges will not be as receptive to creationism and intelligent design over the next four years. After all, it doesn’t cost a Goldman-Sachs manager anything to preserve the separation of state and church.

For a good introduction to the issues surrounding intelligent design, rent “A Flock of Dodos” from Netflix.

February 7, 2009

The financial crisis explained

Filed under: financial crisis — louisproyect @ 1:15 pm

Source: http://www.gocomics.com/features/151/feature_items/409977

February 6, 2009

Black is…Black ain’t; Adam Clayton Powell

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 8:28 pm

In conjunction with Black History Month, Docuramafilms, a distribution company that specializes in cutting-edge movies, sent me  a couple of first-rate documentaries that are available from Netflix. The first was Marlon Riggs’s “Black Is…Black Ain’t”, an examination of the contradictions of Black identity that first aired on PBS in the late 1990s. As a gay African-American, Riggs was particularly attuned to homophobia in the Black community. He died of AIDS in 1994 and the film was completed by his supporters. The second is “Adam Clayton Powell”, an absolutely stunning portrait of the U.S.’s most powerful Black politician from the 1930s to his death of cancer in 1972. Seen together, these films help us understand the complexities of Black identity and politics.

An analysis of Marlon Rigg’s movie with clips

“Black Is…Black Ain’t” begins by reminding us of the importance of Black nationalism in the 1960s. Before the 1960s, as a number of the interviewees point out, there was no bigger insult than being called “Black” except to be called an “African”. Once nationalist sentiment permeated the Black population, the word Black replaced Negro. As one interviewee points out, this was probably the first time that African-Americans defined themselves, as opposed to being defined by others. The same thing was true with African identity. People began to be proud of their ethnic origins and made an effort to connect with the mother continent culturally and politically. This meant, as Angela Davis points out, allowing one’s hair to assume its naturally kinky look. She remembers being at a summer camp for Black children in the 1950s when a rain storm begins. All the other girls rush for cover since they worried that the rain would ruin their straightened hair while she lingered in the rain.

Despite its progressive dynamic, Black Nationalism did present challenges to some Black people who did not fit the mold. Barbara Smith discovered that other activists resented her because her speech was not “Black” enough. Michelle Wallace found macho attitudes in the movement so off-putting that she was inspired to write “Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman” in 1979. She states that the book made her a persona non grata in some Black political circles.

While everybody understands the central role of the Black church in politics and sustaining the community, Riggs hones in on the problem of the kind of social conservatism that allowed some pastors to back the anti-gay marriage referendum in California. He also interviews one Black teenager in Mississippi who became fed up with the church after a friend was forced to stand in the corner of her living room with the bible in her hand for hours on end repeatedly.

Rigg’s goal was to explode the myth that Black America is monolithic and succeeds admirably. As an interviewee in his own movie, often from a hospital ward fighting off another AIDS attack, he hearkens back to his home in Texas, where his mom made the best gumbo in town. She had the knack for making everything blend together, from crab’s legs to sausages. That was his hope for Black America as well.

A trailer for Adam Clayton Powell documentary

In his prime, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was the most recognizable Black politician in the world, probably rivaling Barack Obama today. Narrated by Julian Bond, Richard Kilberg’s 56 minute documentary is a totally compelling story of a tarnished hero. Unlike Obama, Powell was not interested in mainstream acceptance. Also, unlike Obama, Powell’s political power derived from his participation in mass struggles.

As the son of the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church–Harlem’s largest–Powell assumed his father’s post not long after graduating college in 1930. He returned to an economically ravaged Harlem that was desperate for leadership of the kind that Powell would supply. He used his church as an organizing center and led militant demonstrations to desegregate the shops that lined 125th street, the main drag. As hard as it is to believe, it was impossible for Blacks to get jobs as clerks in the stores that they patronized in their own neighborhood.

Powell was elected to city council and not long afterwards, when Harlem was allocated its own congressional district, became the first African-American member of the House of Representatives ever elected from the North. This was at a time when Dixiecrats were openly racist, including one Congressman who said that he would never sit next to a “colored man”. In a display of defiance, Powell made a point of taking the nearest open seat to this racist. One day, the racist changed seats 6 times, and each time Powell took a nearby seat.

In another manner distinguished from Obama, who seems bent on presenting his family as a kind of latter-day Norman Rockwell portrait, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. lived what can only be described as a “flashy” life-style. He liked to go nightclubbing and was something of a lothario, even when he was married. His second wife was Hazel Scott, the jazz pianist who used to perform regularly at Café Society, where the two were married. Although the documentary does not address this point, Scott was close to the Communist Party while Café Society was owned by Barney Josephson, a Communist. Café Society was famous for treating Black and white customers alike and encouraged politically-oriented performances, like Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”.

At the height of his power, during the Lyndon Johnson administration, Powell used his chairmanship of the House Education and Labor Committee to sponsor bills that were the crown jewels of LBJ’s Great Society.

Lavishing in his fame and power, Powell resented other civil rights leaders who might steal his thunder. He dismissed Whitney Young Jr. as “Whitey” Young and was positively hateful toward Martin Luther King Jr., to the point that he spread rumors that King and Bayard Rustin, a homosexual, were lovers. According to the wiki on Powell, he forced Bayard Rustin to resign from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1960 by threatening to discuss Rustin’s “immoral” homosexuality in Congress.

As his power increased in Congress, Powell began to rest on his laurels and spend more and more time at his luxurious hideaway in Bimini, in the Bahamas. Despite having the worst absentee record in the House, Harlem residents kept reelecting him. But repeated improprieties eventually persuaded his fellow Congressman to remove him from office, a determination no doubt strengthened by a racism that had by this time had learned to avoid the obviousness of the Dixiecrat era.

Eventually the Supreme Court ruled that Powell had been unfairly stripped of his powers and allowed him to take office again, but Congress stripped him of his all-powerful chairmanship. Since he was now weakened by cancer, he lacked the strength to regain his old position and died in 1972.

The interviewees are a virtual who’s who of the civil rights movement, ranging from Roger Wilkins to Julius Lester. This movie, like Marlon Rigg’s, is essential viewing at a time when Black identity and politics are in the foreground in a way that Adam Clayton Powell would never have imagined.

Hard Times 2009

Filed under: financial crisis — louisproyect @ 2:56 pm

From truthdig.com

February 5, 2009

Bernie Madoff performs public service

Filed under: crime,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 6:38 pm

http://dealbook.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/05/boldface-names-from-the-madoff-customer-list/

February 5, 2009, 10:03 am Boldface Names from the Madoff Customer List

For weeks, the list of prominent people known to be caught up in Bernard L. Madoff’s investing scandal has been growing. And the roster got a flurry of new additions late Wednesday, when the names of thousands of customers of Mr. Madoff’s now-infamous firm, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, were made public in bankruptcy-court filings.

The 163-page list included notable figures from the worlds of sports, politics and business; DealBook highlighted a few below.

Some caveats: The list includes anyone who responded to advertisements placed by the trustee overseeing the bankruptcy of the firm, and not every name on the list is necessarily a victim of Mr. Madoff’s reputed $50 billion Ponzi scheme. There was no indication how much money, if any, each customer invested.

From baseball: Sandy Koufax, the Hall of Fame pitcher and Dodgers legend (also an old friend of Fred Wilpon, the Mets owner who was also burned by the Madoff scheme) and Tim Teufel, a former Mets second baseman.

From entertainment and the media: John Malkovich, the actor; the estate of John Denver, the late singer; and Larry King, the talk-show host.

From politics: Frank Lautenberg, the Democratic senator from New Jersey, and Mark Green, the former public advocate of New York City.

From the business world: Larry Silverstein, the New York real estate developer.

As the media combed through the list for names, one in particular seemed to catch nearly everyone’s attention: Ira Lee Sorkin, Mr. Madoff’s own lawyer.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/1967317.stm

Saturday, 4 May, 2002, 08:21 GMT 09:21 UK

MP stunned at actor’s outburst A Scottish Labour MP is taking legal advice after the Hollywood star John Malkovich allegedly said he would like to shoot the politician.

Malkovich is reported to have said that the Glasgow Kelvin MP, George Galloway, was one of two people he would most like to kill.

The source of Malkovich’s anger appears to be Mr Galloway’s condemnation of Israel’s action against Palestinians and his criticism of the west’s policies on Iraq.

The actor was addressing students at the Cambridge union debating society when he was asked who he would most like to “fight to the death”.

Malkovich, star of movies including Dangerous Liaisons and the Killing Fields, replied: “I’d rather just shoot them.”

He named Mr Galloway and The Independent newspaper’s Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk.

Union spokesman Julian Blake said: “He had been speaking to the union president before the event and he mentioned then that he read the British press and had been following George Galloway’s comments.

“People were fairly surprised when he brought him up though.”

‘Terrorism climate’

The actor did not explain exactly why he disliked Mr Galloway. He said only that Mr Galloway did not tell the truth.

Mr Galloway said he was astonished that the actor should have such animosity against him.

The MP said he assumed that his outspoken criticism of American policy in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq was behind the outburst.

“In the current climate of terrorism and violence and so on, if it was a joke it is not very funny and if it wasn’t a joke, he will be hearing from my lawyers,” he added.

“We can have a high noon at the Old Bailey if he likes.

‘Very strange man’

“His comments are especially dangerous because in a couple of days’ time, I will be in the Palestinian Authority visiting President Arafat and there are a lot of bullets flying around there.”

Malkovich is in the UK filming Johnny English with Rowan Atkinson and Natalie Imbruglia.

Mr Galloway asked: “Who can get inside the head of John Malkovich, a very strange man offering a dangerous liaison – indeed, offering a killing field?”

Last month, Mr Galloway renewed his call for people in Scotland to boycott goods from Israel in response to violence in the Middle East.

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