Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 3, 2009

Just received from the war chaplain

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 8:00 pm

This statement was recently drafted by the president of Bard College in order to answer inquiries in regard to Joel Kovel. Since my professional role in the evaluation prevents me from referring to its specifics, a fact that Joel Kovel knew when he defamed me, I use it to reply to inquiries, as well.

Professor Kovel was not fired, and most certainly not for his political views, which do not strike us at Bard as novel. In consultation with faculty, Bard elected not to renew Professor Kovel’s contract because, like all colleges, it faces severe fiscal constraints and is doing everything it can to preserve the employment of its full-time faculty. After fifteen years of serving as the full-time occupant of a non-tenured endowed chair, he voluntarily assumed part-time status in 2004. At that time he received a five-year contract, with the understanding that after those five years the college reserved the right to renew his position on a year-to-year basis. He knew it was possible that his position might not be renewed after the 2008-2009 academic year. Professor Kovel enjoyed a fine and productive career at Bard for more than twenty years. We are sorry for and astonished at his allegations, which have no basis in fact.

Bard recently became the first American institution of higher education to collaborate in a dual-degree program with a Palestinian university. If you would like to read about our partnership with Al-Quds in Abu Dis, please see: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/world/middleeast/15quds.html. Our goal is to improve the Palestinian education system.

Bruce Chilton
Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion
Bard College
Annandale, New York 12504
telephone: 845 758 7335
fax: 845 758 7628

In Response to Mick Armstrong

Filed under: democratic centralism — louisproyect @ 7:03 pm

Tom O’Lincoln, a member of Socialist Alternative in Australia, graciously invited me to submit a critique to their magazine Marxist Interventions of SA leader Mick Armstrong’s book From little things big things grow: strategies for building revolutionary socialist organizations. As many of you know, I regard groups such as Socialist Alternative claiming to be based on “Leninist” principles fundamentally mistaken on organizational questions. While I find little to differ with the comrades on programmatically (except for the “Russian questions”), I think that they are going about building a revolutionary party in the wrong way. While most of my efforts over the years have been devoted to reorienting their rivals on the Australian left, the Democratic Socialist Perspective, I welcomed the chance to get a hearing in their magazine, something the DSP has been averse to despite the polemic against me in its own pages some years ago.

I invite you to read the entire article but will only include the first few paragraphs here:

One of the more rapidly growing groups on the left is Socialist Alternative. Unfortunately it would appear from a book by Mick Armstrong that they remain wedded to party-building conceptions that will inhibit future growth. It is understandable why such self-styled Leninist formations would cling to counter-productive methodologies since the dead hand of tradition weighs heavily on any group seeking to establish itself as the avatar of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. Perhaps a better approach would be to start with a fresh sheet of paper, an approach virtually ruled out for small propaganda groups obsessed with ‘revolutionary continuity.’

Mick Armstrong’s party-building ideas are contained in From little things big things grow: strategies for building revolutionary socialist organizations. Apparently, the title of Armstrong’s book was inspired by a left wing song by Paul Kelly that deals with Aboriginal and labour struggles in Australia. Perhaps I am reading too much into the title, but I am afraid that it reminds me of the ‘nucleus’ analogy from chemistry or physics that is used so often in would-be Leninist circles. Basically, a mass revolutionary party starts with a nucleus of Marxists steeled with a correct program, which more often than not revolves around a correct interpretation of the ‘Russian questions’. If you don’t have the correct position on 1917 or some other ostensible benchmark date, you will not progress toward the final goal of seizing power. Thus, a ‘program’ and the initial cadre assembled around that program are like the nucleus of an element like carbon or uranium. What is misunderstood unfortunately by those who think in these terms is that a chemical nucleus rests on materialist foundations while a ‘program’ is simply a set of ideas.

I do want to turn my attention now to Mick’s rebuttal, which appears immediately after my critique. I once again urge you to read both pieces in their entirety but want to respond to some of his points here:

Mick writes, “Proyect opposes building clear cut revolutionary socialist organisations and is a supporter of the ‘broad party’ model for building the left today.” Actually, I do have a model and that is Lenin’s Bolshevik Party. Despite their commitment to building “Leninist” parties, Mick and other advocates of “democratic centralism” have no explanation for the differences between Lenin’s party and their own. In the entire history of the Bolshevik Party, only a single member was ever expelled: Bogdanov. Even after members of Lenin’s central committee broke discipline and spoke out against seizing power in 1917, none of them were expelled. Furthermore, the Bolsheviks carried out their debates in public. Probably the best documentation for this is John Reed’s 10 Days that Shook the World, in which Reed refers to the fight in the Bolshevik party about whether power should be seized from Kerensky in chapter 2:

However, the right wing of the Bolsheviki, led by Riazanov, Kameniev and Zinoviev, continued to campaign against an armed uprising. On the morning of October 31st appeared in Rabotchi Put the first installment of Lenin’s “Letter to the Comrades,” one of the most audacious pieces of political propaganda the world has ever seen. In it Lenin seriously presented the arguments in favour of insurrection, taking as text the objections of Kameniev and Riazanov.

As it turns out, Rabotchi Put is not an internal discussion bulletin of the kind that we were warned never to allow “outsiders” to see in the American Trotskyist movement, but the daily Bolshevik newspaper that was sold on the streets all over St. Petersburg and elsewhere. Lenin’s article is found in the appendix to Chapter 2 and it is a real eye-opener. Against Kameniev and Riazanov’s argument that “we have not a majority”, Lenin replies that they “simply don’t want to look the real situation in the face” and draws the readers’ attention to the peasant uprising sweeping Russia, which cannot be readily reflected in parliamentary totals.

Needless to say, this is simply not the way that modern-day self-styled “Leninist” parties operate. They have convinced themselves that public debates will lead to social democratic deviations. Unfortunately, the only conclusion that you can draw is that internal debates will strengthen sectarian tendencies.

Mick ends up by making an amalgam between my ideas on party-building and the degeneration of the Workers Party in Brazil, a group that I have spent the past five years denouncing on the Marxism mailing list. It seems rather far-fetched to explain their downfall in terms of having debates in public. In fact, the Communist Party of Vietnam is totally committed to “democratic centralist” principles and has basically followed the same trajectory as Lula.

Of more interest is Mick’s claim that Socialist Alliance type formations in Great Britain and Australia somehow prove that straying from democratic centralism will lead you down the road to perdition. Although I have doubts that Mick has ever read what I have written about such formations, his comrade Tom O’Lincoln must surely know that I thought they were doomed to failure since the dominant tendencies tended to be “Leninist” parties maneuvering in the self-seeking manner devised by the Trotskyist movement during the “French turn”.

The only French turn I advocate is the one that the LCR has taken. I sincerely hope that small propaganda groups like SA and the DSP will pay close attention to French developments, which have the potential to reinvigorate the revolutionary left everywhere. While nobody can predict that the new anti-capitalist party will take power someday, one thing is certain. The “democratic centralist” model clung to like a security blanket by SA, the DSP, et al does not work. History has rendered its merciless judgment on that.

March 2, 2009

Wall-E

Filed under: Ecology,Film,racism — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

The Disney animated feature Wall-E received many Academy Award nominations including one for best original screenplay. It was also named the best animated feature by my colleagues in NYFCO, a group that I obviously have much more respect for. Since the movie supposedly embraces environmentalist values, I finally decided to order it from Netflix despite my misgivings over anything associated with Walt Disney.

It turns out my misgivings were well-founded.

Wall-E is the acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class, the robot star of the movie who is a blend of R2-D2 and ET, in other words just the kind of cuddly creature that can lend itself to vast ancillary sales in toy stores. (One Wall-E replica sells for $49.95 on amazon.com.)

For the first 20 minutes or so, we follow Wall-E on his daily rounds as he wheels around an uninhabited metropolis that is literally deluged with garbage. His job is to sweep up the garbage, compact it, and stack it in heaps that are now as tall as the buildings. Although we don’t learn why or how it came to pass, the robot possesses a human personality that leads it to salvage bits and pieces of junk that strike its fancy, including a diamond ring in a blue velvet box. He throws out the ring and saves the box, one of the few genuinely comical touches in this grating film.

We eventually learn that the earth has become uninhabitable. All of its inhabitants are now in a space station far from earth where their every need is attended to by robots. So pampered are they that they have lost the ability to walk on their feet. More corpulent than anybody ever seen in a Minnesota shopping mall, they look rather like Jabba the Hutt. One gets the strong sense that director Andrew Stanton doesn’t care much for overweight people. Ironically, he cast Jeff Garlin as the voice of the captain of the space station. Best known for his role as Larry David’s agent on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, Garlin has struggled with weight issues all his life. A N.Y. Times magazine profile reveals how serious his problems are:

I eat some food and gain some weight. If it were a logical thing, I’d be having a great time all the time. But it’s not, and I don’t know how to fix it. I know that I don’t want my kids to have eating issues. My mother didn’t understand a proper serving, but I don’t blame her. That’s how she was taught. But you’ve got to say, “I’m not passing that down.”

A robot named Eve (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) eventually joins Wall-E on the ruined planet. She has been sent there from the space station in order to look for vegetation. Like other Disney movies, the two robots fall in love just like Lady and the Tramp, or Bambi and Faline. Since the two robots are rather weak in the character development department, their relationship just doesn’t generate a lot of warmth-at least that was my reaction. It is rather like seeing one vacuum cleaner French kissing another, if you gather my drift.

As it turns out, Wall-E has already discovered a plant before Eve’s arrival. Once she discovers it in his shack, her mission is accomplished and a space ship returns to earth to bring her back to the space station with her discovery. Since poor Wall-E can’t live without her at this point, so to speak, he hitches a ride on the rocket and returns with her for the final two-thirds of the movie, which I found utterly uninspired. It turns into a struggle between our lovable robot couple and the computer controlling the space station, which has decided that a return to earth is futile.

Played by Sigourney Weaver, the computer is an obvious imitation of the one that ran the space ship in 2001. Indeed, one of the more notable aspects of this movie is its almost feverish desire to recycle movie iconography from the past 50 years or so. The plot itself borrows from Waterworld, I, Robot, and Artificial Intelligence: AI. Meanwhile, Wall-E’s comical peregrinations are an obvious homage to Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen’s robot turn in Sleeper. I strongly suspect that a failure of imagination led to this reliance on pastiche.

But my real problem was with the movie’s faux environmentalism. While the planet is suffering from a crisis of corporate pollution and waste products, the movie is so detached from what is happening today that its message would be lost on any analytically minded child, or adult for that matter.

There is also the issue of the movie’s fat phobia. Despite my distaste for Spiked Magazine, a libertarian publication out of Great Britain, I think that they are on to something when it comes to fat phobia:

One of the more depressing things about the constant talk of an obesity epidemic that is killing us all, and most particularly our children, is the media’s constant readiness to give room to almost any nonsense so long as the word fat appears in it, while ignoring significant research that fails to fit the now-conventional wisdom that ‘being fat = death’.

Recently this trend has been on display in the way in which the British press has uncritically reported the views of Professor David Hunter of Durham University. Described by the Daily Telegraph as a ‘leading public health expert’, Hunter has claimed that the UK National Health Service (NHS) will become unaffordable due to the costs of treating obesity-related diseases, opined that obesity requires ‘strong action’ from government, and demanded that the government require tobacco-like warnings on foods that are high in fat, salt or sugar. Claiming that the obesity epidemic posed as significant a threat as terrorism, Hunter derided the official response as nothing more than ‘piddling’. According to Hunter, half the British population will be obese by 2032.

Despite the fact that most critics agreed with the N.Y. Times’s A.O. Scott that the movie advances “a critique of corporate consumer culture”, director Andrew Stanton disavows any such intention, stating in one interview:

I hate to not be able to fuel where you want to go, but it’s not where I was coming from. I knew I was going into that kind of territory, but I didn’t have a particular message to push. I don’t have a political or ecological message. I don’t mind that it supports that view, it’s a good citizen way to be, but everything I wanted to do was based on the love story.

Just a final word on the Disney corporation, which has the gall to distribute this movie and produce others like Madagascar in the save the planet vein. This is a predatory corporation that seeks to impose its culture on the rest of the world. Before Disney sold WABC radio to Citadel Broadcasting (the financially ravaged company has just be delisted from the NY Stock Exchange), it gave a voice to some of the worst pro-corporate and pro-pollution personalities on the planet, from Rush Limbaugh to Sean Hannity.

Earlier Disney products

And that’s the “enlightened” Disney Corporation of today. Let’s never forget how it got started:

Green Left Weekly, March 31, 2004
An American icon
Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince

By Marc Elliot

Andre Deutsch, 2003
305 pages, $30 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon

“Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Walt?”, read the placards of striking Disney cartoonists in 1941, mocking the popular lyric from Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs. They were on to something, because Disney, whose name is synonymous with “wholesome family entertainment”, had a dark side every bit as bad as his cartoon wolf.

Disney spied for the FBI for a quarter of a century, red-baited and wrecked Hollywood careers and lives, and teamed up with organised crime to deny his workers a union. He was a virulent anti-Semite strongly sympathetic to fascism.

Disney, whose films were praised by the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover as “dedicated to the highest standards of moral values”, had a self-serving understanding of good and evil. Marc Elliott’s new muckraking biography demonstrates that Disney was as capable of black deeds as the next reactionary capitalist.

Terrifying paternal violence had left its mark on the young Disney, who was to bully and intimidate his employees, particularly the restive ones, throughout his career.

Born in 1901, Disney broke through to animation success in 1928 with Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie (Disney did Mickey’s screen voice for seven years). The non-sexual, apolitical, harmless mouse made Disney a favourite of a conservative film industry. His Silly Symphonies set to classical music, and his “golden age” (1937-42) of animated features (Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo, Fantasia) consolidated Disney’s reputation as a major, and politically safe, animator. Wealth and Oscars were his reward.

How Disney made his fame and riches, however, is the ugly underbelly to his celebrated cartoons. In a labour-intensive industry (it took 14,000 drawings to make a 10-minute cartoon), Disney was obsessed with keeping wages low and unions out, thus generating chronic grievances in his workforce of more than 1000.

While Disney was pocketing US$2000 a week in 1941, his highest paid artists got only $300, inkers and painters (the lowest paid of the creative staff) only $18, and apprentices a less-than-subsistence US$6. Favourites were unfairly rewarded, hours were long and overtime unpaid.

Wages were docked for minor breaks from work, all employees having to punch a Bundy time machine every time they left their drawing board for whatever reason – getting a drink, going to the toilet or sharpening a pencil. There was arbitrary dismissal for “immorality” whenever Disney’s puritanical “house rules” were breached. Disney took all public credit for the creative process, the lack of screen credits for his animators resulting in non-recognition and poor career prospects in the industry.

Disney’s workers were ripe for organising. The Screen Cartoonists’ Guild (SCG) had become a local of the Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers union in 1941 and secured good contracts at Warner Brothers and MGM. Disney had formed a “company union” to ward off the SCG, but 400 of Disney’s workers rejected it and signed SCG pledge cards. Disney’s illegal sacking of 20 leaders of the organising drive and his refusal to recognise the SCG, drove Disney workers to strike in May 1941.

Half the workforce struck and picketed, for nine weeks. Solidarity actions upped the pressure – the Screen Actors’ Guild donated to the strike fund, printers forced the withdrawal of the Mickey Mouse comic strip from the dailies, Disney film processing was banned by technicians at the Technicolour and Pathe labs. Theatres were picketed and his films boycotted.

Nervously stressed, Disney’s facial tics, obsessive hand-washing and juvenile stubbornness to negotiate, forced his brother, Roy, to send him out of the country and settle the crippling strike. The SCG was recognised, all sacked activists rehired, wages increased and paid vacations granted.

Disney, however, was an anti-communist zealot who saw the strike as a Jewish-Marxist plot to destroy him. He sought vengeance. The day after the strike ended, he sacked a leading activist (for the fifth time), Art Babbitt (creator of Goofy and the best bits of Fantasia – like the dancing mushrooms piece). Babbitt, a brilliant animator, was described by Disney as “head sewer rat” of the Cartoonists’ Guild. Other top animators and activists were sacked or fled to studios with better working conditions, higher pay, on-screen credits and a chance to use their creative skills free from the cloying sentimentality of the Disney-cute style.

Propaganda films for the US military during World War II, heavily subsidised by the government, made Disney tidy wartime profits, though the “anti-fascism” of an anti-Semite who had attended American Nazi Party rallies and was entertained by Mussolini at his private villa, stopped short of supporting Hitler’s Jewish and socialist victims.

Disney rejected a request to make an animation film on Christian/Jewish unity in the face of the Nazi nightmare and the proposal to have cartoon farmyard animals stamping out ”weasel words of hate” against Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds was seen by Disney as “promoting communism” because a Rhode Island Red could only be a symbolic communist!

Disney, who believed the war should really have targeted the Soviet Union, took his anti-communist crusade into the heart of Hollywood. With Disney’s eager assent, he was made an FBI informer in 1940. He filed dozens of reports on Hollywood “subversives”.

As a founder member and vice-president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (a rabid anti-communist organisation of right-wing Hollywood celebrities funded by the major studio heads), Disney was instrumental in getting the government red-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate Hollywood. HUAC destroyed the careers, and sometimes the lives, of hundreds of Hollywood radicals and liberals.

Disney, who appeared at the hearings as a “friendly witness”, falsely named Herb Sorrell (1941 strike leader from the Painters’ Union) as a communist with the intention, successfully achieved, of destroying Sorrell’s progressive Conference of Studio Unions, which had succeeded the painters’ union, and allowing the gangster-run International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) to take control in the industry.

Sorrell never recovered, dying from a heart attack soon after. He was only in his 30s. The career of former Disney animator and strike leader, Dave Hilberman, was destroyed, too, after Disney named him to HUAC.

Disney actively supported the Hollywood blacklist which was insidiously effective – the merest whisper of a name was enough to do irreparable career damage. Depression, premature death and suicide could, and did, follow. Others were forced into exile – like Charlie Chaplin (‘the little Commie’, snarled a gloating Disney).

Disney continued to clean his own turf of all those not sharing his reactionary politics. The writer, Aldous Huxley, was working for Disney on Alice in Wonderland but was sacked after he protested the bloody beating of his picketing son by IATSE underworld goons.

When Disney died in 1966, Walt Disney Productions had become one of the wealthiest studios in the world and it continues to rake in the profits. Disney’s anti-worker and anti-union spirit lives on – strict dress and grooming codes (from fingernails to ‘fancy underwear’) – are enforced at Disney’s theme parks around the globe and when Disneyland staff in California threatened a strike in 1991 over a facial hair ban, their strike leader was sacked.

Walt Disney’s carefully cultivated image is that of a creative, and highly moral, genius. He did have a genius of a sort – a genius for making profits, for breaking unions, for exploiting workers, for glory-hogging, for spying and informing, and for red-baiting and ruining the lives of anyone who threatened to interrupt the flow of wealth to Disney. He is truly an ”American icon” – an icon of capitalist USA.

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