Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 8, 2009

Yanomami Science Wars, part seven

Filed under: Yanomami — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

The more I study the adventures of anthropologists in Yanomami-land, the more surreally cinematic they seem. From the pistol-packing Napoleon Chagnon in a loincloth to Jacques Lizot’s homosexual harem, the need for a Francis Ford Coppola or a Werner Herzog cries out.

I began reading Kenneth Good’s memoir “Into the Heart: One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomamo” mostly in search of information that ran counter to Chagnon’s “fierce people” thesis. (There are at least three acceptable ways of spelling their tribal name: Yanomami, the most common, as well as Yanomamo and Yanomama.) But the more I read, the more convinced I became that Kenneth Good is one of the most remarkable denizens of this world imaginable. Indeed, so compelling was his story that Hollywood took out an option to turn his memoir into a movie but it was never made. Now that would have been something I would have paid top dollar to see.

Kenneth Good first came to Yanomami territory in 1974 as a 34-year-old graduate student. Despite traveling there under the auspices of Napoleon Chagnon, he was much closer to Marvin Harris philosophically. As I discussed in a previous post, Harris challenged Chagnon’s “fierceness” theory on the basis of cultural materialism, making the point that it was a struggle for food rather than females that explained clashes among the Stone Age peoples.

As Good grew closer to the people he was studying, he was offered one of their daughters as a bride. As it turned out she was 9 years old at the time. More about this subsequently.

When Good arrived in the Venezuela rainforest, Chagnon and Lizot had not yet had their falling out. They welcomed the new arrival in a kind of hazing stunt that thoroughly antagonized him. His first night in their camp, the two anthropologists burst into his darkened tent screaming “Aaaaaaaaahhhhh!”, hoping to scare the living daylights out of him. Since the Yanomami had the reputation of being “fierce” and since they had welcomed Good earlier that day from the riverbank brandishing bows and arrows menacingly, Chagnon and Lizot anticipated that their MTV type “Jackass” stunt would have the desired effect. Not only was Good frightened out of his wits, the physical altercation resulted in his mosquito net being torn—not  a good thing in malaria country.

To give you an idea how polarized the Chagnon /Tierney dispute would become, the hazing incident became subject to multiple interpretations. Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine, a publication that has consistently taken the side of intrusive scientists against indigenous peoples, wrote one that favored Chagnon as a harmless prankster. Against Tierney’s description of the hazing as a violent and aggressive act, Shermer wrote in the March 24, 2001 The Globe and Mail (Canada) that:

It was a prank. Mr. Tierney turned good-natured horseplay into a horror story. Sure, Mr. Good was not amused by the caper. Regardless of how it was received, a practical joke before the long grind of fieldwork was to begin was not the same thing as a “raid.”

During the snowstorm of email communications set off by the publication of “Darkness in El Dorado”, Good set the record straight:

Shermer is playing here with semantics and intended meaning of words and informs his readers that it was just a “prank”. Neither I nor, I believe, Tierney ever meant that this was an angry, belligerent raid but rather an aggressive incursion designed to frighten and to “initiate” students who Chagnon over a long period of time had inculcated the dangers of living among the Yanomami. Call it what you will, I think the bursting into students hut in the night, drunk, destroying students essential equipment (mosquitoes nets are crucial in a malaria infested zone) and not even remembering much of it the next morning says enough in itself.

Kenneth Good, who was a big strapping lad at the time, could handle Chagnon or bigger threats to his health and safety. But he did not come looking for a fight. He was mainly interested in tracking the food intake of the Yanomami in the Hasupuweteri village, who would turn out to be anything but fierce.

Good’s first dwelling in the village was a hut that the Indians helped him build. Like many other jobs they did for him, they were paid in trade goods such as fishing hooks, machetes and metal pots. Jared Diamond might be a horse’s ass but he certainly was correct when it came to identifying the importance of steel in such primitive societies.

Yanomami shapono from above

Eventually he decided that living outside of the village was an obstacle to data gathering, which revolved mainly around observing and recording their food intake. So he moved into their shapono, a circular group home for Yanomamis that is made of thatched grass and contains nothing inside except for hammocks and hearth fires. If you are interested in privacy, the shapono is not for you. Good writes:

They slept on even when someone yelled out in anger or fright during a nightmare, or when a father awakened from a mournful dream of a child who had died and cried out his anguish, though the death might have happened years ago (which was what I had heard that first night). Meanwhile someone would get up to tend a fire whose warmth was needed by the family sleeping naked in their hammocks; someone else might walk outside to urinate, though not too far outside, because one didn’t venture far from the shapono at night.

In the middle of the night a shaman might decide he wanted to chant. He’d take his drugs, his conduit to the world of the hekura, the spirits. At that hour no one was up to blow them into his nose, so he’d inhale the epene powder like snuff from his hand, then stand up and chant for an hour or two, exactly as he would during the daytime.

At the beginning I was constantly cranky. The Yanomama have the ability to wake up and go back to sleep in a minute. I did not. When something got me up, I was up. I’d lie in the hammock for in hour trying to get back to sleep among all the nighttime noises in the shapono. Eventually I got used to this, too. Like the Yanomama, I’d spend eleven hours in my hammock at night to get seven or eight hours of actual sleep.

The more time he spent as a fellow villager, the more he began to see the kinds of aggression that Chagnon doted on.  However, most of it was ritualized to the point that death or serious injury was excluded. In fact the fighting generally functioned as a way to let off steam that could have led to more serious conflicts in such a confined space. He writes:

The other thing is that in Yanomama land you’re dealing with a society that doesn’t have any laws and doesn’t have any method of enforcement, even if they did have laws. Looking at the occasional domestic violence in the shapono, I would try to get a perspective on it. How many men in the West, I thought, would beat their wives if there were no social sanctions and laws about it? How many do anyway? Not that that’s an excuse of any sort. But it certainly happens, and even in some so-called civilized societies it happens with disturbing frequency.

The more I thought about Chagnon’s emphasis on Yanomama violence, the more I realized how contrived and distorted it was. Raiding, killing, and wife beating all happened; I was seeing it, and no doubt I’d see a lot more of it. But by misrepresenting violence as the central theme of Yanomama life, his Fierce People book had blown the subject out of any sane proportion. What he had done was tantamount to saying that New Yorkers are muggers and murderers. If you go out on the streets of New York, they will mug you and knife you and take your money. Of course these things do take place. But that doesn’t mean it’s an accurate or reasonable generalization to make about New Yorkers. It doesn’t mean that someone would be justified in writing a book entitled New Yorkers: The Mugging and Murdering People.

Besides the different values and ideals of Yanomama and Western societies, I began to feel that one essential contrast between us and them was not in the frequency of wife abuse and other forms of violence, but in the fact that in their world such behavior is visible. An American anthropologist can easily observe, record, and even film Yanomama violence—all of which makes for dramatic presentations in textbooks, lecture halls, and classrooms. A Yanomama anthropologist, by contrast, would have a hard time getting into American kitchens and bedrooms to watch angry or drunken husbands battering their wives and children.

Eventually Chagnon figured out that Kenneth Good was not ideologically reliable and would likely take Marvin Harris’s side in the ongoing debate. While there is no way to prove the link between Chagnon’s likely animosity and his treatment of Kenneth Good, the evidence is rather strong that Chagnon was highly vindictive. Chagnon refused Good the use of his aluminum canoe and to send him anti-malarial Camoprim tablets. The two defaults conspired to nearly end Good’s life when he was navigating the Orinoco rapids on a flimsy dugout during a nasty bout of malaria, when he, the boat, and all his anthropological records were thrown into the water. He managed to swim to the shore where he fought off a high fever for three days until anti-malaria workers rescued him. It was the beginning of the end of his ties to Chagnon, who until this point had been his dissertation adviser.

After the boating accident took place in 1974, Good returned to confront Napoleon Chagnon at Penn State with “blood in his eye”. When Chagnon learned that he was going to transfer to Columbia University and study with Marvin Harris, taking all his fieldwork notes with him, he read the riot act to Good. Chagnon said, “Okay, this is obviously not going to work out. So let’s just drop it. Let’s forget it. But, Ken, tell me, what are you going to do with yourself, go to work in your brother’s dental lab? Because you are not going to get into any other anthropology department. I’ll see to that.”

When Good returned to the Hasupuweteri village, making himself at home again in the shapono, he was approached one day by the headman who broached a most delicate subject with him: “I’ve been thinking that you should have a wife. It is not good for you to live alone.”

To humor the headman, Good told him “Sure, okay, I’ll take a wife”. “Good”, the headman said. “Take Yarima. You like her. She’s your wife.” The only problem, leaving everything else aside, was that Yarima was 9 years old.

It was understood that she would only become his real wife when she reached puberty, a transition that while making some sense still did not qualify as “normal” in the outside world and was in fact against the law in most parts of the U.S. Always the anthropologist, Good has a way of making such an arrangement sound sensible, at least in Yanomami terms:

From an anthropological point of view, the Yanomama custom of child betrothal made a lot of sense. First of all, it created or strengthened ties between families in the community and between different lineages (marriages within i lineage are prohibited as incest). Second, since girls are already spoken for when they reach adolescence, there is no competition for them. A lot of potentially destructive rivalry is precluded this way, as are the problems of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. In Yanomama land every woman is considered sexually available once she has begun to menstruate. And since there are no moral inhibitions against premarital or extramarital sex, having unattached adolescent girls around would create all sorts of difficult and disruptive conflicts.

That was from an anthropological point of view. From a personal point of view, this was not particularly serious. These were an inventive people in some respects, and one of the things they were inventive at was in devising ways to keep a nabuh [outsider] around, with his immense and distributable wealth. The origin of Longbeard’s approach may well have been simply to provide me with an additional attachment to the Hasupuweteri. He was the headman, and it was his responsibility to think of the group’s well-being. Or it might have been a gesture of friendship, a surge of brotherly feeling—an indication that he and his lineage felt I was really a part of the community. Certainly no one at the beginning ever thought of it as an actual marriage. Who ever heard of marrying a nabuh? You might as well marry an alien from outer space. And as for me, in my wildest dreams it had never occurred to me to marry an Indian woman in the Amazon jungle. I was from suburban Philadelphia. I had no intention of going native.

When Kenneth Good was 39, he consummated his marriage with Yarima who was now 15. Despite their age differences and despite having completely different cultural backgrounds, they appear to have been happy with each other. Part of the mystery of Good’s memoir is his steadfast refusal to describe the exact nature of their relationship, other than the fact that it was sexual. Most of the time, he comes across more as her big brother than her husband, a perception reinforced by this photo from his memoir:


No matter how much Kenneth Good admired Yanomami values, he was never completely part of their world. “Going native” was only possible if he cut his ties to the academic world, which kept beckoning him out of the rainforest for professional obligations and that left Yarima at the mercy of predatory men in her village. If Chagnon’s “fierce people” thesis is revealed as bogus in the course of this memoir, there certainly are aspects of Yanomami society that refute any “noble savage” stereotypes.  Mostly they revolve around the rampant sexism in Yanomami villages where every woman is considered fair game for sexual abuse, including rape. So poor is the status of women in the tribes, who are described by some Indians as “vaginas” and nothing else that incidents of rape are generally met with a shrug of the shoulder.

When Kenneth Good is off on anthropology business in 1985, Yarima is raped by a number of men and has part of an ear sliced nearly in half during the altercation. Not only were Yanomami men determined to take advantage of Yarima, Venezuelan government officials were putting all sorts of obstacles in his path as he sought to continue his fieldwork with the Yanomami. In the eyes of officialdom, he was considered to be as much of an exploiter of Yarima as the men who raped her. In their eyes, anthropologists had no business getting into relationships with Indian women, especially ones young enough to be considered jailbait in the USA, as Jerry Lee Lewis once learned.

The last section of the book is devoted to Kenneth Good’s struggle to protect his marriage against the authorities and against threats within Yanomami society. Eventually he reaches the decision that the only answer was to return to the USA and take a teaching job. Yarima, who would go on to have three children, moved to New Jersey with him and struggled in vain to adjust to suburban living. She found the omnipresent diet of television and shopping malls so oppressive that she fled New Jersey and returned to the rainforest in 1991, leaving her children behind her.

Now 66, Kenneth Good is likely retired from the academy. Googling his name reveals virtually no new contributions to the field or to the Chagnon debate since the early 1990s. As someone who lived life to the hilt, one can certainly understand why this most unusual scientist would want to retire to the side of the road. As for Yarima, who would be 41 or so, we’d like to think that she is happy living the live she was accustomed to, although pressures on this proud and independent people from rapacious mining and logging interests make this problematic at best.

September 4, 2009

A critique of Walter Benn Michaels

Filed under: african-american — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

Professor Walter Benn Michaels

Yesterday somebody posted a query on my blog:

I’m wondering if you’ve read Walter Benn Michaels’s recent article on race and class in the LRB? Here it is: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n16/mich02_.html. I’d love to read your take on it, and I’m sure that other loyal readers would as well!

In answering this, I should mention first of all that the always brilliant Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb fame has taken up Michaels’s article

I should also mention that Michaels has written another provocative article on race, gender and class in the New Left Review. Titled “Against Diversity”, the NLR article can best be summarized as an old-fashioned defense of class trumping race and gender. Although this has associations with the kind of dogmatic Marxism that allowed the CPUSA to stigmatize Malcolm X as a Black fascist and attack the Equal Rights Amendment, it is really a widespread tendency and has a long history as we shall see.

For example, shock jock Don Imus could be heard in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina explaining the neglect of Black New Orleans residents as a “class” issue rather one of “race”. I don’t believe that NLR invited Don Imus to write something on these questions, however.

Written during the 2008 primaries, Michaels was trying to debunk the notion that the Obama and Clinton bids marked a triumph over racism and sexism. Some points are unexceptionable:

In 1947—seven years before the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, sixteen years before the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique—the top fifth of American wage-earners made 43 per cent of the money earned in the US. Today that same quintile gets 50.5 per cent. In 1947, the bottom fifth of wage-earners got 5 per cent of total income; today it gets 3.4 per cent. After half a century of anti-racism and feminism, the US today is a less equal society than was the racist, sexist society of Jim Crow.

Unfortunately, Michaels goes overboard and blames the struggle against race and gender discrimination for a growing class divide:

Furthermore, virtually all the growth in inequality has taken place since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965—which means not only that the successes of the struggle against discrimination have failed to alleviate inequality, but that they have been compatible with a radical expansion of it. Indeed, they have helped to enable the increasing gulf between rich and poor.

Capitalism is thus represented as the best hope for those suffering from past injustices:

In fact, one of the great discoveries of neoliberalism is that they are not very efficient sorting devices, economically speaking. If, for example, you are looking to promote someone as Head of Sales in your company and you are choosing between a straight white male and a black lesbian, and the latter is in fact a better salesperson than the former, racism, sexism and homophobia may tell you to choose the straight white male but capitalism tells you to go with the black lesbian. Which is to say that, even though some capitalists may be racist, sexist and homophobic, capitalism itself is not.

The London Review article is a review of a book titled “Who Cares About the White Working Class?” edited by Kjartan Páll Sveinsson that repeats the same kinds of points made in the NLR article and which originated in Michaels’s 2007 book “The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality”. The guy is obviously on some kind of crusade.

The article is filled with anxiety about how whites are being treated:

White people, for example, make up about 70 per cent of the US population, and 62 per cent of those are in the bottom quintile. Progress in fighting racism hasn’t done them any good; it hasn’t even been designed to do them any good. More generally, even if we succeeded completely in eliminating the effects of racism and sexism, we would not thereby have made any progress towards economic equality. A society in which white people were proportionately represented in the bottom quintile (and black people proportionately represented in the top quintile) would not be more equal; it would be exactly as unequal. It would not be more just; it would be proportionately unjust.

Furthermore, he insists that the “left” must be distinguished from movements against racism and sexism:

My point is not that anti-racism and anti-sexism are not good things. It is rather that they currently have nothing to do with left-wing politics, and that, insofar as they function as a substitute for it, can be a bad thing. American universities are exemplary here: they are less racist and sexist than they were 40 years ago and at the same time more elitist.

The basic flaw in Michaels’s thesis is that he fails to distinguish between the gains made by some Blacks and women who have broken into the corporate board rooms and the fate of the overwhelming majority. This can only result from a cherry-picking of the data, all designed to make it appear that they have never had it so good. In other words, he is repeating ruling class propaganda. One would think that a contributor to New Left Review would be able to understand that the selection of a Black CEO or cabinet member, or even a broader social development that enabled a privileged layer reflected by Barack Obama himself to emerge, is much less important than what is happening at the grass roots level.

For example, minority admissions to law schools, a traditional portal into the upper middle class, have been dropping in the past few years. A study published by the Columbia University Law School, a place that can certainly be described as “elitist”, paints a discouraging picture:

Web Site Shows Drop in Minority Enrollment at US Law Schools

December 28, 2007 (NEW YORK) – A new Web site created by Columbia Law School documents a disturbing drop in enrollment by African-American and Mexican-American students in America’s law schools. Even though African-American and Mexican-American students have applied to law schools in relatively constant numbers over the past 15 years, their representation in law schools has fallen.

Access the data on the new Web site by clicking http://www2.law.columbia.edu/civilrights.

Even more worrisome is the fact that during the same period, African-American and Mexican-American applicants are doing better than ever on leading indicators used by law schools to determine admissibility – undergraduate grade point average and LSAT scores. In addition, the size of law school classes and the total number of law schools have increased – making room for nearly 4,000 more students.

But even if enrollments were on the upswing, the real question is whether capitalism is a system that promotes racial equality. The worst thing about Michaels’s pseudo-Marxist theorizing is that it lends credence to the discredited “Black capitalism” promoted by the Nixon administration, as if the workings of the marketplace can reduce inequality between white worker and Black.

This misplaced faith in capitalism as a battering ram against racial inequality (and implicitly gender inequality as well) receives a thorough investigation in David Roediger’s recently published “Are We In a Post-Racial America?”, which I reviewed for Swans a while back.

In a Counterpunch article prompted—like Michaels’s NLR piece—by the Obama candidacy, Roediger draws the opposite conclusion. Instead of obsessing about the likelihood that we are entering a New Age in which a black Lesbian can become Head of Sales, Roediger looks at the men and woman at the bottom, the overwhelming majority:

Indeed in stark contrast to pleasant narratives of progress, white family wealth in the U.S. is nine times that of African American family wealth and black young men are seven times as likely as whites to be incarcerated. The diseases of the poor in the U.S. are the diseases of poor people of color. 75 percent of all active tuberculosis cases afflict them. In Obama’s home state of Illinois, a majority of HIV-AIDS cases occur among African Americans. Three in ten black and Latino children live in poverty, triple the white child poverty rate.

In trying to understand how Michaels could have come up with such a boneheaded perspective, it is important to recognize that he is simply the latest in a long line of self-described Marxist or leftist thinkers who believe that anti-racist or anti-sexist struggles divide the working class. Indeed, they have been around since the days of the First International when Marx was alive and kicking.

I first discovered the existence of such a workerist dogmatism in a very fine book by Timothy Messer-Kruse titled “The Yankee International: 1848-1876”. My review, written about 10 years ago, appears below. Sadly, it appears that Marxism still has many of the same hang-ups that existed in Marx’s day that were even reflected by the founding father of revolutionary socialism himself:

Marx, Woodhull and Sorge

Dogmatic Marxism’s hostility toward “non-class” demands has been around for a very long time, judging from the evidence of Timothy Messer-Kruse’s “The Yankee International: 1848-1876.” (U. of North Carolina, 1998) Furthermore, you are left with the disturbing conclusion that this problem existed at the very highest levels of the first Communist International, and included Marx himself.

The people who launched a section of the Communist International in the USA were veteran radicals, who had fought against slavery and for women’s rights for many years. They saw the emerging anti-capitalist struggles in Europe, most especially the Paris Commune of 1871, as consistent with their own. They saw revolutionary socialism as the best way to guarantee the success of the broader democratic movement. What European Marxism would think of them is an entirely different matter.

The names of some of the early recruits should give you an indication of the political character of the new movement. Included were abolitionists Horace Greely, Wendell Phillips and Charles Sumner. Feminist Victoria Woodhull joined in and put her magazine “Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly” at its disposal. The weekly not only included communications from Karl Marx, but spiritualist musings from Woodhull. The native radical movement of the 1870s was a mixed bag. Socialism, anti-racism, feminism, pacifism and spiritualism co-existed comfortably. The Europeans were anxious to purify the movement of all these deviations from the very start. Unfortunately they put anti-racism, feminism and spiritualism on an equal footing.

Victoria Woodhull was unquestionably the biggest irritant, since she defended all these deviations while at the same time she spoke out forcefully for free love, the biggest deviation imaginable in the Victorian age:

The sexual relation, must be rescued from this insidious form of slavery. Women must rise from their position as ministers to the passions of men to be their equals. Their entire system of education must be changed. They must be trained to be like men, permanent and independent individualities, and not their mere appendages or adjuncts, with them forming but one member of society. They must be the companions of men from choice, never from necessity.

Marx decided to put an end to all this nonsense and threw his weight behind the German-American Frederic Sorge, who was assigned to clean house. Against the Yankee swamp, Sorge would ram through a “scientific socialism” that was true to the tenets of Marx and Engels. Furthermore, the orientation of the American section would not be to women and blacks, but only to the white workers and their embryonic trade unions. It seemed to matter little that Sorge understood next to nothing about American politics. His mastery of Marxist doctrine would produce the desired results: “Fellow-workman,” he proclaimed, “Keep our standard pure & our ranks clean! Never mind the small number! No great work was ever begun by a majority.” With sectarian nonsense like this, it should surprise nobody that Sorge’s group remained small in number. What does surprise us is that Sorge was Marx’s hand-picked leader.

The Yankees and the German-American “orthodox Marxists” split and began to carry out their respective orientations, which are instructive to compare. Although the Sorge group was formally in favor of racial equality, their actions often fell short of the verbal commitment. The simple explanation for this is that they adapted to the prejudices of the white workers whom they curried favor with.

Woodhull’s group made no such concessions, as their political traditions were rooted in the abolitionist movement. Indeed, when they called for a mass demonstration in New York City to commemorate the martyrs of the Paris Commune, the first rank in the parade went to a company of black soldiers known as the Skidmore Guard. The demonstration passed by a quarter million spectators and the sight of armed black men in the vanguard was electrifying. Sorge’s group complained that the demonstration was a distraction from working-class struggles, whose participants would lose a day’s pay by participating. He called for a boycott.

Black militias were an important fixture of northern urban politics in this period. When black men donned uniforms and marched in formation, they were making a statement not only about their full rights as citizens, but their determination to back these rights by any means necessary. The black Eighty-Fifth Regiment in NYC was one of the more radical and internationalist militias in the city. They had marched alongside Irish New Yorkers in honor of Fenian heroes and gave their units names like the “[Crispus] Attucks Guards” and “Free Soil Guards.” This regiment decided to name Tennessee Claflin, Victoria Woodhull’s sister, their commander and supplied her with a uniform. Woodhull had become the presidential candidate of the Equal Rights Party in 1872 and her vice-presidential running mate was none other than Frederick Douglass. This combination symbolized the commitment of the Yankee Marxists to racial equality and woman’s liberation.

While the Sorge faction held the black struggle at arm’s length, they at least gave lip service to it. No such concessions were made to Chinese workers whom they treated as outright enemies of the white worker. Woodhull’s group took a strong stand against immigration bans, but the “orthodox” Marxists caved in completely to white prejudice. Unfortunately Karl Marx was little help in standing up to bigotry, since he regarded Asians as locked in “hereditary stupidity” and the unproductive Asiatic Mode of Production, an economic theory that had no basis in fact. Marx also warned about the importation of Chinese workers as “rabble” who could “depress wages.”

At the NYC branch of Sorge’s section, a San Francisco worker addressed his comrades:

The white working-men see and feel daily the effects of the Chinese labor in that State. We cannot only perceive how it affects us, but know assuredly that it will seriously affect the destiny of the working classes of this country. The Chinese have driven out of employment thousands of white men, women, girls and boys…. They are in all branches of the manufacturing business, and it is only a matter of time when they will monopolize all branches of industry; as it is impossible for white men to exist on the same amount and sort of food Chinamen seem to thrive upon.

The Yankees refused to go along with the anti-Chinese xenophobia and viewed the Chinese as brothers and sisters in struggle. Woodhull wrote:

The population of the country is forty millions. If the Chinese should at the rate of five thousand a week, even that figure will nothing near equal the present ratio of the Irish and German immigration, and it would a hundred and fifty years to import forty millions. . . The economical idea of immigration is that every new comer is a producer; he directly contributes to the wealth of the community; he will not consume all that produces. . . As for any immediate influence of John Chinaman on the labor market and rate of wages that is an impossibility. The workingmen of New York protest against two or three hundred foreigners. What injury can accrue to them?

Sorge’s group picked up a new recruit in 1872, an English immigrant and cigarmaker named Samuel Gompers. Gompers was impressed with the “working-class” and trade union tilt of the German-American followers of Marx, while regarding the Woodhull section as “dominated by a brilliant group of faddists, reformers, and sensation-loving spirits.” He was as repelled by them as some old leftists were repelled by the 1960s New Leftists. Gompers was tutored by Ferdinand Laurell, a fellow cigarmaker who he met at the Manhattan Lower East Side factory where both were employed. Laurell initiated him into the profound scientific socialism of the Communist Manifesto and placed special emphasis on the centrality of the trade unions. “Study your union card, Sam, Laurell said, “and if the idea doesn’t square with that, it ain’t true.”

What gradually happened is that Gompers let the revolutionary socialism fall by the wayside while allowing trade union fundamentalism to take charge, including the virulent racism of the time. As Gompers climbed the ladder into officialdom, he found that anti-Chinese racism gave him a foot up. He endorsed the labeling of cigar boxes as made by white men, to be “distinguished from those made by the Chinese.” After Gompers attained the AFL presidency, women, ethnic minorities, African Americans and those who did unskilled work found themselves without a friend in organized labor. The Bolshevik revolution inspired a new Communist movement in the US 50 years later, which began to remedy this injustice. The Cold War reversed this progress.

The Sorge section of the First International began to fall apart because its sectarian, workerist and essentially reactionary politics guaranteed this. The immediate heir of Sorge’s politics was a group called the Socialist Labor Party, founded by Daniel De Leon in 1877. This group also saw itself as the guardian of Marxist orthodoxy, but never even made the attempt to intervene in the trade union movement. It was content to issue racist broadsides from the sidelines like condemning the “importation of Coolies under contract.” It survives today as an embalmed purist sect-cult with zero influence in the labor or social movements, thank goodness.

Marxism as a revolutionary idea transcends the dogmatic mistakes of people such as Sorge and De Leon. What is even more confounding is that it transcends Marx’s own mistakes. Marx was wrong to back the workerist backwardness of Sorge. One of the great things about Marx is that he was capable of change, even when he was in the late stages of his career. After denouncing Russian populism for most of his adult life, he became persuaded that he did not understand the movement adequately and saw great possibilities for it. To maximize his understanding, he began to study the Russian language in his 60s.

The greatest obstacle to the development of Marxist thought has been the tendency of its adherents to not see contradictory aspects of society and politics dialectically. Clearly Sorge’s failure was to see the dialectical connection of the black struggle to the trade union movement. If anything, the naïve Yankee radicals understood the dialectical connection better than the “orthodox” Marxists.

Even though there is a tendency for small sectarian groups of today to search for a “revolutionary continuity” going back to Marx, it is better to understand Marxism as the product of deep internal tensions that can only be resolved through struggle. If the “workerism” of the First (and Second) International had not been confronted and defeated, then the Marxist movement would have not had the impact it has had in the 20th century. Although these very same sectarian groups see Lenin as the Pope who succeeded Pope Marx, in reality Lenin was more like a Protestant Reformation revolutionary who attacked old beliefs at their root. His articles were nailed to the door of institutionalized Marxism.

Lenin was the very first Marxist to synthesize the proletarian and non-proletarian elements of the revolution. Unlike Sorge, Lenin was eager to embrace every form of rebellion against the absolutist state and not question whether it was “orthodox” or not. His most radical departure was to support the demands of the Russian peasantry who had been regarded by orthodox Marxism as an alien and hostile class. Closely related was his support of self-determination for oppressed nationalities, which he understood as having an anti-capitalist dynamic. Even when the oppressed nationality was led by reactionary or clerical fakers, he still backed their demands.

Although all of our latter-day Bolsheviks pay lip-service to Lenin’s example, there is evidence everywhere that they have more in common with Frederic Sorge. When the black nationalist, feminist and gay revolts erupted in the 1960s, the Marxist-Leninists found every excuse they could to repudiate the new mass movements. These movements were petty-bourgeois “diversions” from the real class struggle based in the trade unions.

A true synthesis of class, race and gender won’t be found in books published by the University of Minnesota or Duke. It will be found in struggle. You get some sense of this in a film like “Salt of the Earth,” about Chicano miners and the women who found ways to express feminist demands in the course of a bitter strike, while convincing their husbands that these demands were just. It will be found in AMNLAE, the Sandinista woman’s rights government agency. Or the black caucuses of the UAW in the early 1970s, which eventually inspired white workers to follow their militant lead. Marxists should be looking for every opportunity to promote such class, race and gender alliances. If the early American Marxist movement screwed up, let’s at least study what they did wrong and avoid the same mistakes. A good place to start with is Messer-Kruse’s brilliant scholarly research.

September 3, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

In preparing reading material for an Introduction to Marxism mailing list on Yahoo, I scanned in a chapter of Jose Carlos Mariategui’s “Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality”. One thing led to another and before long I had scanned in all seven essays which were then added to the Marxism Internet Archives.

Recently I decided to finish the job and scanned in the rest of the book, including an Introduction by Jorge Basadre, an author’s note, and a glossary.

Basadre’s introduction is very informative, as this excerpt would indicate despite the reference to Christopher Columbus that might raise some eyebrows:

On March 31, Variedades, a Lima journal, interviewed Mariátegui for a series it was publishing. Mariátegui refused to define art or his concept of life “because metaphysics is not in style and the world is more interested in the physicist Einstein than in the metaphysicist Bergson”; and he stated that his ideal in life “is always to have a high ideal.” In his opinion, journalism, the daily episodic history of mankind, had been created by the capitalist civilization as a great material, but not moral, instrument. He confessed that six or seven years earlier his preferred poets had been Rubén Darío, later Mallarmé and Apollinaire, then Pascoli, Heine, and Aleksandr Blok, and that at the moment he preferred Walt Whitman. His favorite prose writers were Andreyev and Gorki. He considered the theater still too realist and analytic and hoped it would become impressionist and synthetic. “There exist, however, signs of evolution. The Russian genius has created the ’grotesque’ and the musical setting. In Berlin, in ’Der Blaue Vogel,’ I saw ten-minute musical scenes that had more substance and emotion than many dramas of three hours.” Eleanora Duse, by then tired and fading, was the actress who had most impressed him. Among composers he preferred Beethoven, and his favorite painters were Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Piero della Francesca, together with Degas, Cezanne, and Matisse and the Germán expressionist Franz Marc. He judged the contemporary epoch to be revolutionary, but more destructive than creative. As the men most representative of the times, he chose Lenin, Einstein, and Hugo Stinnes, in that order. From the past he admired Christopher Columbus and from the present “the anonymous hero of factory, mine, and fields, the unknown soldier of the social revolution.” He enjoyed travel because he thought of himself as essentially a wanderer, inquisitive and restless. When asked which of his writings he liked best and was most satisfied with, he replied that they were still to be written. Regarding the so-called decadence of the Old World, he said: “Europe’s decadence is this civilization’s decadence. The future of New York and Buenos Aires is tied up with the future of London, Berlin, and Paris. The new civilization is being forged in Europe. America has a secondary role in this stage of human history.”

Mariategui’s wonderful author’s note is worth quoting in its entirety:

I bring together in this book, organized and annotated in seven essays, the articles that I published in Mundial and Amanta concerning some essential aspects of Peruvian reality. Like La escena contemporánea, therefore, this was not conceived of as a book. Better this way. My work has developed as Nietzsche would have wished, for he did not love authors who strained after the intentional, deliberate production of a book, but rather those whose thoughts formed a book spontaneously and without premeditation. Many projects for books occur to me as I lie awake, but I know beforehand that I shall carry out only those to which I am summoned by an imperious force. My thought and my life are one process. And if I hope to have some merit recognized, it is that—following another of Nietzsche’s precepts —I have written with my blood.

I intended to include in this collection an essay on the political and ideological evolution of Peru. But as I advance in it, I realize that I must develop it separately in another book. I find that the seven essays are already too long, so much so that they do not permit me to complete other work as I would like to and ought to; nevertheless, they should be published before my new study appears. In this way, my reading public will already be familiar with the materials and ideas of my political and ideological views.

I shall return to these topics as often as shall be indicated by the course of my research and arguments. Perhaps in each of these essays there is the outline, the plan, of an independent book. None is finished; they never will be as long as I live and think and have something to add to what I have written, lived, and thought.

All this work is but a contribution to Socialist criticism of the problems and history of Peru. There are many who think that I am tied to European culture and alien to the facts and issues of my country. Let my book defend me against this cheap and biased assumption. I have served my best apprenticeship in Europe and I believe the only salvation for Indo-America lies in European and Western science and thought. Sarmiento, who is still one of the creators of argentinidad [Argentine-ness], at one one time turned his eyes toward Europe. He found no better way to be an Argentine.

Once again I repeat that I am not an impartial, objective critic. My judgments are nourished by my ideals, my sentiments, my passions. I have an avowed and resolute ambition: to assist in the creation of Peruvian socialism. I am far removed from the academic techniques of the university.

This is all that I feel honestly bound to tell the reader before he begins my book.

Lima, 1928

September 2, 2009

American Casino; The Most Dangerous Man in America

Filed under: antiwar,Film,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

This month has been a very good one for leftist documentaries. Joining “The Cove” and “Crude” are two  films at the Film Forum, a prime location for bold independent fare. The first is “American Casino”, which opens today. Directed by Andrew Cockburn (Alexander’s brother) and his wife Leslie, this amounts to a film version of Matt Taibbi’s hard-hitting Rolling Stone article on the subprime meltdown but without the gonzo flourishes. This will be followed by “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers” that opens on the 16th. Both movies are outstanding.

For those who ever been mystified by what the terms collateralized debt obligation or credit default swaps mean (including me most of the time), “The American Casino” will bring you up to speed. Calling upon industry experts like Professor Michael Greenberger, who was the Director of Trading and Markets at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission under Clinton, we find out that they are nothing more than crap games, hence the movie’s title. In one scene Greenberger sits at a computer terminal clinically dissecting a securitized mortgage courtesy as if it were a poorly executed counterfeit thousand dollar bill.

We also meet a former big shot at Bear Stearns, who is seen only in shadow. As a designer of the Byzantine financial products that brought his own company and the rest of Wall Street into the toilet, he must be taken at his word when he described the investments as “fourth dimensional”, adding that “the banks did not really care” whether subprime loans could be paid off. Given his rueful tone, you get the feeling that you are listening to somebody who ran a child prostitution ring.

After meeting the crooks who ran the gambling casino, we meet their victims. The Cockburns introduce us to three homeowners in Baltimore, where a virtual conspiracy by major banks like Wells Fargo lured the unsuspecting African-American to take out loans that they had no chance of repaying. We meet Denzel Mitchell, a social studies teacher with a special interest in human rights, packing up his books and his children’s toys after his house has been foreclosed. In his case, as is the case of all the other interviewees, we are dealing with a swindle. Unscrupulous mortgage brokers and bankers lied to people with good credit ratings in order to harvest fat fees. One woman, a therapist, shows up at her mortgage broker’s office with a check for most of the latest month’s payment but is refused.

One can only wonder if the election of an African-American president has helped to keep the lid on the housing crisis. Unlike the early 1930s, there have been far fewer angry protests at the doorsteps of people being evicted. Although the movie focuses exclusively on Bush’s role, attention must be paid to the failure of the new administration in keeping people in their homes. Even Jesse Jackson, who has never met a Democratic President he didn’t like, is starting to grumble. After seeing a new surge of foreclosures and a continued tilt toward the big banks rather than working class homeowners, he decided to lead a prayer vigil at the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta. Unfortunately, it did not occur to him to mount a militant mass demonstration. That would be so 1960s.

Speaking of the 1960s, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers” is the one to see if you are interested in the period. I have been trying to persuade myself to see Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” but not doing a very good job of it since my nostalgia preferences tend toward sticking a thumb in the eye of the national security state rather than LSD.

This movie belongs on the same shelf as “An Unreasonable Man” and “You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train” that celebrate the life and activism of Ralph Nader and Howard Zinn respectively. It is no accident that Zinn is one of the primary interviewees in the Ellsberg documentary since they have such strong affinities and actually were co-conspirators in the raucous Mayday Demonstrations of 1971. Seeing the enthusiasm and youthful demeanor of Ellsberg, now 78, and the 87 year old Zinn, you can only be left with the conclusion that radical politics is the best way to live long and prosper.

I suppose that most people know what made Ellsberg appear as the “most dangerous man in America”, in Henry Kissinger’s words, but it is worth mentioning that he “stole” a top-secret report on the Vietnam War that had been drafted by the Rand Corporation on request from the Pentagon in order to inform them what was really going on in the rebellious nation. As is so often the case, such truths were not to be squandered on the American people who might have gotten even more worked up than they were after learning that the Pentagon Papers implicitly described an imperialist adventure with no redeeming social or political or economic value. Indeed, Ellsberg, the Rand employee charged with the responsibility of overseeing the project, after realizing that this would be the effect, decided to make them available to the public.

Ellsberg did not wake up one morning in 1969 and decide to pull this off. He had been slowly evolving toward that position and was finally convinced of its necessity after seeing the failure of government officials to bring peace despite the campaign rhetoric. In other words, he was like many Democrats who hoped that Obama would finally pull U.S. troops out of Iraq and hoped further that he would stay out of Afghanistan, despite campaign statements to the contrary (this was less a case of hope than faith.)

Before Ellsberg had become a cautious dove believing that Nixon might deliver the goods, he was a gung-ho former Marine who led combat missions in Vietnam while not having official military status. In other words, he was not that different from the Blackwater contractors.

But mounting human suffering on both sides (obviously worse for the Vietnamese) finally persuaded him that drastic action was necessary. His girl friend Patricia Marx, a committed peace activist and soon to be his wife, helped him make that decision in a way that approximates Aristophanes’s “Lysistrata”. In other words, no peace activism, no sex.

After Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers to the N.Y. Times, the FBI sought his arrest. After eluding them for a while, he was arrested and charged with “theft” of government property. Other charges were added, including conspiracy. If convicted, he faced a sentence of up to 115 years. When Nixon offered the judge presiding over the trial the directorship of the FBI as a bribe, the judge declared a mistrial. Nixon was not done with his skullduggery, however. He convened a group of operatives to be led by a character named Howard Hunt, a former CIA agent and third-rate novelist, to bust into the offices of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to find damaging information on the peace activist. This is the same gang that would break into the Democratic Party’s offices at the Watergate Hotel, thus leading to Nixon’s resignation and the end of the Vietnam War 9 months later. So it would not be that much of an exaggeration to say that Ellsberg’s courageous and principal stance played a major role in ending the Vietnam War.

As I pondered over that question as the movie was winding down, a light bulb went on over my head. The truth is that Ellsberg never would have taken such radical steps if there had not been massive antiwar demonstrations for the preceding three years. Those demonstrations, derided by SDS ultraleftists as being safe and predictable, were just the kind of thing that could persuade a fence-setting Ellsberg to go over to our side. Or to persuade GI’s that they would be supported if they decided to organize antiwar meetings on base.

Furthermore, the failure of a new Daniel Ellsberg to step forward with a new version of the Pentagon Papers geared to Iraq and Afghanistan can only be understood as the failure of our movement to keep the pressure on Washington with massive and sustained protests. Perhaps the willingness of Barack Obama to commit our country to a new Vietnam in Afghanistan is just what we need to shake our movement out of our doldrums. In any case, go see this excellent documentary to get an idea of how powerful dissent can be in times of war in the America of 1969.

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