Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 13, 2011

Crime and Punishment; Petition

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 10:42 pm

Opening today for a one week engagement at Anthology Film Archives in New York City are two documentaries by Zhao Liang who works in an austere cinéma vérité style but who leaves no doubt about where his sympathies lie, namely with China’s poor.

Despite being filmed with the cooperation of Chinese police, “Crime and Punishment” is just the opposite of “Cops”, the long-running Fox TV reality show that depicts different police departments around the United States as a kind of grown-up boy scouts with guns. The border guards in Liang’s documentary, who are a kind of militia operating under the PLA’s authority, beat and humiliate their prisoners in the police station as if it was part of their job description. Of note is the fact that Liang was all on his own during the filming, an incredible accomplishment given the standard crew of 20 or more in most documentaries made in the West. Perhaps working on his own allowed the cops to drop their guard, or—more likely—they didn’t really care if they were shown as sadists.

One segment captures the nature of Chinese law and order in its cruelly bureaucratic splendor. They have arrested a 43-year-old man for pickpocketing a cell phone at a nearby bazaar. In the station they grow increasingly frustrated with his failure to answer their questions adequately. A typical exchange as seen in the subtitles:

A cop: “Where do you live?”

The suspect: (unintelligible).

Since I don’t speak Chinese, it was a little hard for me to understand why the man had so much trouble answering the cops clearly, especially since it made them more and more vicious as the questioning proceeded. After a few minutes, they were slapping him in the face, all to no avail. He could neither give them the answers they were looking for (who were his accomplices?) nor enunciate them clearly even if he knew the answers.

The cops eventually escalated their interrogation methods. They made him stand in a semi-squatting position until he was ready to answer their questions. As his suffering increased, he kept returning to an upright position only to be remonstrated by the cops: “Don’t you understand that you must squat?” As always, he looked at them with a quizzical expression on his face.

Eventually we learned what the problem was. A cop is seen talking on the phone. Look, he says, we have a deaf-mute in the station here and we need somebody to interrogate him.

What a commentary on the People’s Liberation Army to see such behavior. It will remind you of how the IDF treats the Palestinians or how the American troops treat Iraqis or Afghans. It is all the more disgusting since the sadism emanates from a nominally socialist police force and against its own people. Of course, the class divisions in China today are as deep as those seen in conditions of neocolonial occupation.

The film is a good reminder that China is going through a kind of “primitive accumulation” that Karl Marx explored in Volume One of Capital. After the enclosure acts, peasants were forced to go into the work force or become vagabonds and thieves. Poaching and other forms of criminal behavior were the inevitable consequence of losing one’s means of production, namely land. In China today, people retain their farms in many cases but are forced to enter the “informal economy” or to steal to stay afloat. The gendarmes in “Crime and Punishment” have the job of keeping the riffraff in line.

In one case, they arrest a sixty-four year old junkman who does not have the proper papers. They seize his donkey and cart until he can prove that he is legally allowed to pick through the rubble of old buildings to find something worth salvaging, like scraps of plastic and paper. In another case, a group of young men are beaten repeatedly until they confess that they have chopped down a few trees on a mountainside to sell in town. New Year’s is coming and they need to buy gifts for their children.

Apparently one Chinese citizen got sick and tired of police brutality and arbitrary behavior and struck back as the New York Times reported on November 27, 2008:

A 28-year-old man convicted of killing six police officers was executed by lethal injection on Wednesday morning, according to state media, ending a case that drew a surprising amount of public sympathy for the man.

The execution came shortly after the nation’s highest court, the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing, rejected an appeal on behalf of the unemployed Beijing man, Yang Jia, who stormed a Shanghai police station on July 1 and stabbed six officers to death.

Mr. Yang said he had been wrongly accused of stealing a bicycle and been beaten by the Shanghai police in October 2007; the police have acknowledged that they questioned him about riding an unlicensed bicycle but denied beating him. Mr. Yang wrote to the Shanghai police and demanded compensation for psychological damage. He eventually called his assault at the police station a revenge attack.

To many Chinese, he became a symbol of the little guy standing up against police harassment and government injustice. During his two trials, supporters gathered in crowds outside the courthouse in Shanghai. Some wore T-shirts with Mr. Yang’s image; some called him a hero.

Outside of Shanghai, some Chinese newspapers published sympathetic portraits of Mr. Yang.

The title of Zhao Liang’s other documentary “Petition” refers to the process in which aggrieved citizens of China can win redresses against illegal or unjust actions of those in positions of authority. Petition offices in Beijing operate as a kind of ombudsman that is the court of last resort for ordinary citizens.

Zhao Liang has been filming petitioners since 1996 who have lived in a shanty town near the Beijing railroad station in the southern part of the city. Coming from both the rural peasantry and the middle class (including one professor who was refused tenure), they stand on line to get a hearing from petty bureaucrats who are about as cold as the cops in “Crime and Punishment”. At least they don’t see slapping and cursing the petitioners as part of their job description.

That can’t be said about the “retrievers” who are sent out as deputies from the rural hometowns of the petitioners. Once the petition officers decide that they have heard enough from some peasant who has lost his land or a factory worker who was fired illegally, they call up the authorities from their hometown to get some goons to pick up the inconvenient complainer. As was the case in “Crime and Punishment”, Liang is on the spot to film the violence taking place on the streets of Beijing as the hapless petitioners are slapped and kicked into submission, then hauled off into waiting cars.

Some of the most interesting scenes in the movie show groups of petitioners who have developed real bonds of solidarity with each other discussing what has to be done in China to rid the country of the gangsters in power. They harp on the need for democracy and an end to a single-party state even if it operates in the name of socialism.

Today’s NY Times reports on the struggle of an artist very much in sympathy with the petitioners, as well as the young man who killed the six cops:

The studio would have stood at the heart of an embryonic arts cluster on the outskirts of Shanghai, a draw for luminaries from around the world.

It took two years to build, and one day to tear down.

An order to raze the studio — designed by Ai Weiwei, a protean artist who is one of the most outspoken critics of the Chinese Communist Party — was issued last July. Mr. Ai took the move to be retribution for rankling the authorities. He said officials told him that the demolition would not take place until after the first day of the Year of the Rabbit, which falls on Feb. 3.

So he was shocked to discover that workers had begun knocking it down early Tuesday, Mr. Ai said in a telephone interview from Shanghai on Wednesday. Mr. Ai said a neighboring studio he had designed for a friend had also been destroyed.

“Everything is gone,” he said. “It’s all black now. They finished the job at 9 o’clock last night.”

Mr. Ai’s studio was to be used as an education center and a site for artists in residence. He had invited a group of university graduates from Oslo to come to the studio next month to study architecture with him.

Mr. Ai said he believed that his advocacy in two causes might have prompted Shanghai officials to order the razing. The first was that of Yang Jia, a Beijing resident who killed six policemen in a Shanghai police station after being arrested and beaten for riding an unlicensed bicycle. Mr. Yang became a hero among many Chinese, and was later executed. The second was the Kafkaesque case of Feng Zhenghu, a lawyer and activist who spent more than three months in Tokyo’s Narita Airport after Shanghai officials denied him entry. Mr. Ai made a documentary about Mr. Feng’s predicament.

Mr. Ai has also demanded democracy for China, criticized government corruption for playing a role in the deaths of schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and stridently supported Liu Xiaobo, a political prisoner who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

Like many on the left, I viewed the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo with some suspicion especially since the man was on record as supporting the war in Iraq. While this statement was unforgivable, I feel somewhat different after having seen these two documentaries. The simple truth is that the political system in China crushes the human spirit no matter how many consumer goods, cars, and houses are now available to the population. As socialists, we must never forget that the freedom from arbitrary arrest, torture both petty and grand, the right of assembly, etc. must expand under socialism, not disappear. The discussion about China on the left tends to have an abstract quality. Nothing else will help to make the discussion more concrete and more real than these two powerful documentaries that I strongly recommend to anybody in the greater New York area.

January 12, 2011

Frank Marshall Davis’s warning to Barack Obama

Filed under: african-american,Obama — louisproyect @ 5:33 pm

Frank Marshall Davis

In Barack Obama’s “Dreams from my Father”, there’s a minor character named Frank who Obama identifies as an 80 year old Black poet who he met as a teenager in Hawaii through his grandfather. While Obama’s recollections about Frank are affectionate, they are also patronizing: “It made me smile, thinking back on Frank and his old Black Power, dashiki self. In some ways he was as incurable as my mother, as certain in his faith, living in the same sixties time warp that Hawaii had created.”

It turns out that Frank is Frank Marshall Davis, a life-long member of the Communist Party. From the wiki on Davis:

Davis used his newspaper platform to call for integration of the sports world, and he began to engage himself with community organizing efforts, starting a Chicago labor newspaper, The Star, toward the end of World War II. In 1945, he taught one of the first jazz history courses in the United States, at the Abraham Lincoln School[10] in Chicago.

In 1948, Davis and his second wife, who had married in 1946, moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, at the suggestion of Davis’s friend Paul Robeson. During this time Hawaii was going through a non-violent revolution between colored labor workers and the white elite known as the Democratic Revolution. There, Davis operated a small wholesale paper business, Oahu Papers, which mysteriously burned to the ground in March 1951. In 1959, he started another similar firm, the Paradise Paper Company.

Davis also wrote a weekly column, called “Frank-ly Speaking”, for the Honolulu Record, a labor paper published by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) headed by Harry Bridges.[11]Davis’ first column noted he was a member of the national executive board of the Civil Rights Congress,[12] cited as a Communist subversive organization by President Harry S. Truman’s Attorney General Tom Clark.[13] The paper had been founded in 1948 by Koji Ariyoshi , and closed in 1958. Davis’s early columns covered labor issues, but he broadened his scope to write about cultural and political issues, especially racism. He also included the history of blues and jazz in his columns.

You can find all sorts of attempts in the rightwing blogosphere to turn Obama into some kind of Manchurian Candidate based on his grandfather’s friendship with Frank Marshall Davis and his supposed tutelage at the red poet’s knees. But it would appear that Obama and Frank were a world apart based on this excerpt from Obama’s memoir. He is just about to start his freshman year at Occidental College and Frank is warning him about how he would be indoctrinated to serve the ruling class in college rather than the Black community. Frank had the gift of prophecy, it would appear.

The only thing that Frank gets wrong is Obama occupying a “corner office”. It turned out that he landed the grand prize, the oval office. His ambition, his Machiavellian skills, his shrewdness and his chameleon qualities propelled him into an office where he could exercise real power as opposed to just merely being a “well-trained nigger”, to use Frank’s words.

Dreams from my Father, page 97:

What had Frank called college? An advanced degree in compromise. I thought back to the last time I had seen the old poet, a few days before I left Hawaii. We had made small talk for a while; he complained about his feet, the corns and bone spurs that he insisted were a direct result of trying to force African feet into European shoes. Finally he asked me what I expected to get out of college. I told him that I didn’t know. He shook his big, hoary head.

“Well,” he said, “that’s the problem, isn’t it? You don’t know. You’re just like the rest of those young cats out here. All you know is that college is the next thing you are supposed to do. And the people who are young enough to know better, who fought all those years for your right to go to college—they’re just so happy to see you in there that they won’t tell you the truth. The real price of admission.”

“And what’s that?”

“Leaving your race at the door,” he said. “Leaving your people behind.” He studied me over the top of his reading glasses. You’re not going to college to get educated. You’re going there to get trained. They’ll train you to want you don’t need. They’ll train you to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore. They’ll train you so good, you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit. They’ll give you a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners, and tell you that you’re a credit to your race. Until you want to actually start running things, and then they’ll yank on your chain and let you know that you may be a well-trained, well-paid nigger, but you’re a nigger just the same.”

January 11, 2011

Was there a link between Black nationalism and Colin Ferguson?

Filed under: Tucson killings — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

The Washington Times
December 9, 1993, Thursday, Final Edition
Racial hatred suspected in N.Y. rampage


NEW YORK – A black gunman who killed five persons and wounded 18 others on a crowded New York commuter train was someone who “hates whites, Asians and black conservatives” and his random shooting rampage apparently was carried out in the suburbs to avoid embarrassment to Mayor David Dinkins, authorities said yesterday.

Colin Ferguson, 35, of Brooklyn was arraigned and charged with the carnage that began shortly after 6 p.m. Tuesday, just two minutes before the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) train pulled into the Merillon Avenue station in Garden City.

Wielding a 9mm Ruger semiautomatic, the Jamaican-born loner walked through a passenger car, methodically firing 15 shots and reloading at least once, police said. Police said they found 100 more rounds of lethal Black Talon ammunition in a canvas bag carried by the gunman.

After the rampage, the suspect is reported to have said, “I’ve done a bad thing.”

All those shot were white or Asian.

“I consider this an outrageous crime motivated by bias,” said Nassau County District Attorney Denis Dillon.

At a mobbed news conference conducted by Nassau County Police Commissioner Donald Kane and other officals, a picture emerged of a severely disturbed man, unemployed and single, obsessed by deep-seated feelings of racial hatred. The commissioner said that Mr. Ferguson had targeted Nassau County instead of New York City because of his high regard for Mr. Dinkins.

“It did not appear it was a random thing. . . . He had severe hostilities toward a lot of people, and he boarded the train because he targeted Nassau County,” Mr. Kane said.

One note said to have been written by the suspect read: “New York City was spared because of my respect for Mayor David Dinkins and [New York Police] Commissioner Raymond Kelly who is officially still in office. Nassau County is the venue.”

Mr. Dinkins condemned the shooting spree but said it could happen anywhere.

Mr. Kane said four papers of handwritten notes found in Mr. Ferguson’s pockets revealed that he had “strong hostility” for Caucasians, including Mr. Cuomo and his staff; blacks, including “so-called civil rights leaders,” “rich black attorneys” and “Uncle Tom Negroes”; and “Chinese racists.” The entries apparently were disconnected, composed of “small notes” and “individual references” rather than complete sentences.

Mr. Kane said the gunman also condemned some institutions, such as the compensation board and Adelphi University in Garden City, from which he reportedly was suspended in 1991 for disciplinary reasons. Some reports said he also had attended Nassau County Community College, where he was a good student, but then was expelled after an altercation with a professor, apparently over a grade.

The shooting drew reactions from across the nation:

* President Clinton condemned the “terrible human tragedy,” saying it should spark new gun-control initiatives. “I hope that this will give some more impetus to the need to act urgently to deal with the unnecessary problems of gun violence in the country,” Mr. Clinton said.

In his first year in office, Mr. Clinton has signed the Brady Bill, with its five-day waiting period for handgun purchases, and supported banning certain types of ammunition, taxing ammunition and requiring all gun owners to pass a standards test.

* Larry Pratt of Gun Owners of America said Mr. Clinton “is laying down, if he can, the foundation for gun confiscation.” Gun enthusiasts noted that the gunman bought the handgun in Long Beach, Calif., after complying with a 15-day waiting period.

* Gun-control advocates in Congress, among the nation’s mayors and police chiefs, and James Brady, the White House press secretary shot by a gunman aiming at President Reagan in 1981, laid out plans for even tougher regulations.

* FBI Director Louis J. Freeh called for a complete ban on the manufacture, sale and distribution of assault-style weapons.

* In a statement, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo called for “swift judgment” and “harsh punishment” for the gunman.

* Blacks offered a mixed reaction, with outrage for the senseless killings but sympathy for the gunman’s mental condition.

Of the 18 wounded, one is in critical condition and on life-support systems, the police said. Two more people were injured in the crush of terrified commuters trying to get off the bloodied car.

The heavyset Mr. Ferguson, wearing a blue detention uniform, kept his head down as he stood sullen and silent before the bench in Hempstead District Court yesterday. He did not enter a plea to charges of weapons possession, four counts of depraved indifference, murder and four counts of second-degree intentional murder.

Judge Sandra Fierstein ordered him to be held without bail and given a psychiatric screening. Another hearing is set for tomorrow.

At one point, a reporter yelled out to the suspect, asking whether he hated whites. Mr. Ferguson replied: “That’s a lie.”

Cynthia Roe, who said she was a cousin of the suspect, attended the arraignment and told reporters that she had never seen any evidence that he hated whites.

Police said a search conducted of the suspect’s rented room in a Brooklyn house uncovered a number of papers and a box that had contained the suspect’s weapon. Federal authorities later said that Mr. Ferguson had purchased the weapon legally in Long Beach.

Race, always a highly sensitive issue here, dominated the mayoral election in November. Black leaders, however, for the most part remained silent yesterday about the tragedy. Black radio stations, often confrontational during the campaign, also refrained from comment.

The ill-fated commuter train left Pennsylvania Station at 5:33 p.m. bound for Huntington, Long Island. The suspect is thought to have boarded at Jamaica, Queens. Ten minutes later, with about 100 passengers in the compartment, he started shooting from the back of the third car, went briefly into the No. 2 car and then returned to the third to continue firing.

“The shots just kept going off,” passenger Diane McCleary said. “He just wouldn’t stop shooting.”

John Skramko, another passenger, said: “He emptied his gun out, just randomly shooting people in the head and neck. He then reloaded and continued shooting.”

During the shooting, commuters were screaming and frantically trying to get off the train. According to some, the doors remained shut for some moments. LIRR President Charles Hoppe said the failure of the train doors to open immediately was “under investigation.”

When the train stopped, the gunman was wrestled to the floor by three passengers.

One man said he had seen nothing like it since he was in Vietnam, “Except there I could fire back.”

January 10, 2011

Thoughts on Arizona

Filed under: Fascism,repression,tea party — louisproyect @ 9:58 pm

In my view it is a mistake to view the Tucson killings as some kind of trend attributable to the Tea Party Movement. For example, Lenin’s Tomb writes:

So, in light of that, who cares if Jared Lee Loughner looked on Sarah Palin’s website, or heard a speech Sharron Angle made? It was enough for him to exist in a particular context of American life, in this era. It was enough to live in Arizona, where the murders took place, and which has been nominated by a local County Sheriff as “the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry”. That would have been more than sufficient to drive a vulnerable man out of his mind.

After watching Loughner’s Youtube videos and reading reports in the New York Times and Washington Post, it seems fairly obvious that he had much more in common with mentally ill college or high school students who go on shooting sprees. In Loughner’s case, the indications strongly suggest paranoid schizophrenia. In other words, his act is best understood in terms of brain chemistry rather than prejudice and bigotry as was the case, for example, with Timothy McVeigh.

On Oct. 7, Pima Community College sent a letter to Loughner stating that he would have to get a letter from a mental health official indicating “his presence at the College does not present a danger to himself or others.”

In a NY Times article titled Suspect’s Odd Behavior Caused Growing Alarm, we learn about what alarmed school officials and other authorities:

In a community college classroom here last June, on the first day of the term, the instructor in Jared L. Loughner’s basic algebra class, Ben McGahee, posed what he thought was a simple arithmetic question to his students. He was not prepared for the explosive response.

“How can you deny math instead of accepting it?” Mr. Loughner asked, after blurting out a random number, according to Mr. McGahee.

A classmate told the Times: “He would laugh a lot at inappropriate times, and a lot of the comments he made had no relevance to the discussion topic.” The staff at the YMCA was just as alarmed:

At the Y.M.C.A. where Mr. Loughner worked out, he would ask the staff strange questions, like how often they disinfected the bathroom doors. Once he asked an employee how he felt “about the government taking over.” Another time, he sat in the men’s room for 30 minutes, leaving front-desk staff members to wonder what he was doing. When he emerged, he asked what year it was.

Now I agree that Loughner absorbed the culture around him. Psychotic people are not that detached from reality that they don’t realize and reflect what is going on about them. They do reflect social forces. If Loughner developed schizophrenia in a society where the rightwing was not as feral and where guns were not so easily accessible, then a different result might have been expected. The closest analogy would appear to be with John Hinckley, the young man who shot Ronald Reagan and James Brady in 1981 in order to “impress Jodie Foster”.

Now this is not to say that political violence, including assassination, is not a real problem in the U.S. There have been 8 people working at abortion clinics who have been killed since 1993, the last of these being Doctor George Tiller who was shot by a fanatic in Tiller’s church in May, 2009. The killer, Scott Roeder, did not commit this act to impress Jodie Foster or because the government was plotting to brainwash people through its control of grammar. Roeder killed Tiller in order to prevent doctors from providing abortions. The militant anti-abortionist movement has been far more of a threat to democracy than Tea Party activists who have not engaged in terrorist acts no matter the kind of rhetoric heard on Glenn Beck’s television show.

I think what leftists have to understand is that violence and repression today directed against the popular movement is far more based on legality than mob violence or terrorism.

For example, the day before the gun attack, this assault on the rights of Mexican-American students in Tucson took place sanctioned by law:

The class began with a Mayan-inspired chant and a vigorous round of coordinated hand clapping. The classroom walls featured protest signs, including one that said “United Together in La Lucha!” — the struggle. Although open to any student at Tucson High Magnet School, nearly all of those attending Curtis Acosta’s Latino literature class on a recent morning were Mexican-American.

For all of that and more, Mr. Acosta’s class and others in the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American program have been declared illegal by the State of Arizona — even while similar programs for black, Asian and American Indian students have been left untouched.

So reported an article in the New York Times titled Rift in Arizona as Latino Class Is Found Illegal. This is the real strategy of the Tea Party movement, to elect politicians who pass such racist laws—not to organize mobs to go into the barrio and brutalize activists. If the left cannot figure out what phase of the struggle it is in, we will not be effective, I’m afraid.

For the definitive account of what is going on with the Tea Party in Arizona, I can’t recommend highly enough Ken Silverstein’s article Tea Party in the Sonora: For the future of G.O.P. governance, look to Arizona that originally appeared in the July 2010 Harpers but now can be read on the magazine’s website, no doubt an attempt to shed light on the Tucson incident. Whether Ken thinks that the killings are a direct outcome of the Tea Party movement, as his former co-editor at Counterpunch Alexander Cockburn does, is another question altogether.

Ken writes:

Arizona lawmakers have shown little enthusiasm for dealing seriously with the state’s insolvency. They have instead preferred to focus on matters that have little to do with the crisis. Lawmakers have turned racial profiling into official policy, through a new law that requires police to stop suspected illegal immigrants and demand to see their papers; anyone not carrying acceptable proof of citizenship can be arrested for trespassing and thrown in jail for up to six months. But this is just one bill in what has been a season of provocative legislating. Another new law bans the funding of any ethnic-studies programs in the public schools, while a third prohibits “intentionally or knowingly creating a human-animal hybrid.” Lawmakers declared February 8 the “Boy Scout Holiday,” took time out to discount fishing-license fees for Eagle Scouts, and approved a constitutional right to hunt.

In January, Senator Jack Harper, an immaculately combed zealot who speaks in the patter of an infomercial voiceover, submitted a bill that would allow faculty members to carry guns on university campuses, saying it was “one very small step in trying to eliminate gun-free zones, where there’s absolutely no one who could defend themselves if a terrorist incident happened.” The house passed a measure that would force President Barack Obama to show his birth certificate to state officials if he runs for re-election, as well as a bill that bars Arizona from entering into any program to regulate greenhouse gases without approval from the legislature. “There are only two ways to vote on this,” said Representative Ray Barnes of the latter initiative. “Yes, or face the east in the morning and worship the EPA because they own you.”

This is Tea Party politics in its essence. It is an attempt to carry out an ultraright agenda through control of the courts, the legislature and the executive offices on a state and national level. In order to succeed, it has to be careful the way it manages its image. That is why a leader of the movement was forced to resign after making explicitly racist statements. It is also the reason it must take great care to avoid any connections with terrorists such as the kind that blow up abortion clinics. It is a deeply reactionary movement but is not terrorist or fascist at this point.

I would also urge the left to understand the history of Arizona, a country that arguably provided the launching ground for the modern conservative movement when its favorite son Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964. Although Goldwater was defeated, many Republicans including Ronald Reagan endorsed his program. Reagan managed to succeed where Goldwater failed—largely a function of his own demagogic gifts and the understanding by the ruling class that an attack on the welfare state had to be mounted.

I especially recommend Elizabeth Tandy Shermer article Origins of the Conservative Ascendancy: Barry Goldwater’s Early Senate Career and the De-legitimization of Organized Labor that appeared in the Journal of American History in 2008. Shermer writes:

The threat of a labor and liberal ascendancy spurred conservatives to political action. Although they benefited from federal dollars, many business leaders in the Southwest had no intention of supporting corporatist arrangements. The specter of the growing labor movement and the expanding federal government united corporate titans with local business owners in the region. Opposing them were employers in retail, service, agricultural, and extractive enterprises, which were either labor intensive or structured in a way that gave workers power at the work site. Throughout the 1940s, southwestern state legislatures were key arenas in the fight against the New Deal. As one tactic, business leaders supported laws designed to remake the region into an oasis for heavily taxed and unionized firms fleeing the Northeast. In 1949, the members of the Reno Chamber of Commerce pushed a “free-port” bill through the Nevada legislature, which permitted manufacturers to avoid property taxes on goods officially “in transit.” The state assembly relaxed those rules throughout the 1950s, attracting warehousing and manufacturing companies to Nevada. Curbing labor’s growth was also a key strategy for conservatives. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, state governments across the South and Southwest introduced right-to-work legislation, similar to the 1946 Arizona law.12

Barry Goldwater’s rise exemplified the politics of this emergent counteroffensive. The Arizonan was well known even before he ran for the Senate because of his family’s stylish department store, Goldwater’s, and his daring exploration of the Grand Canyon in 1940, which he captured on film and presented to audiences during the 1940s across the state. He cultivated the image of a compassionate capitalist. His firm was renowned for its positive employee relations as well as its medical and pension plans. Like the benefits offered by other welfare capitalists, the perks at Goldwater’s were an important argument against charges of business malfeasance and employer indifference to workers’ welfare. Local papers lauded Goldwater’s, cementing the Phoenician’s reputation as a model employer. A Prescott newspaper reported that upon the opening of a store in that city in the early 1940s, Goldwater treated fourteen of his new employees to a fancy dinner. “Perhaps it’s pretzels and beer for run-of-the-counter sales ladies,” the editors noted, “but it’s champagne and chicken if they’re on Goldwater’s payroll . . . and a chance to ‘dine out’ with the dashing bon vivant, Mr. Barry Goldwater.” “Pity the poor working girls? Not if they work for Goldwater’s.”13

This is the kind of analysis that the left should be producing today. Arizona’s reactionary stew is a product of class antagonism that is leading toward a showdown between the rulers and working people. The ruling class is using “legal” methods to keep working people and oppressed nationalities under its thumb, even as we understand that its tactics might change in the future, as antagonisms grow irreconcilable. But if we cannot base our own strategy and tactics on the true relationship of class forces, then we will end up making mistake after mistake.

January 9, 2011


Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 3:53 am

January 8, 2011

Bob Herbert rips Obama a new one

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 9:01 pm

Bob Herbert

New York Times Op-Ed January 7, 2011

Misery With Plenty of Company


Consider the extremes. President Obama is redesigning his administration to make it even friendlier toward big business and the megabanks, which is to say the rich, who flourish no matter what is going on with the economy in this country. (They flourish even when they’re hard at work destroying the economy.) Meanwhile, we hear not a word — not so much as a peep — about the poor, whose ranks are spreading like a wildfire in a drought.

The politicians and the media behave as if the poor don’t exist. But with jobs still absurdly scarce and the bottom falling out of the middle class, the poor are becoming an ever more significant and increasingly desperate segment of the population.

How do you imagine a family of four would live if its annual income was $11,000 or less?

During a conversation I had this week with Peter Edelman, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a longtime expert on issues related to poverty, he pointed out that the number of people in that tragically dismal category has grown to more than 17 million. These are the folks trying to make it on incomes below half of the official poverty line, which is $22,000 annually for a family of four.

No one talks about these families and individuals living in extreme poverty. Certainly not the Republicans who were having a dandy time this week deliberately misreading the Constitution and promising budget cuts and other initiatives that will hurt the poor even more.

If you’re still having trouble deciding whose side the Republicans are on, just keep in mind that the House G.O.P. bigwig Darrell Issa sent a letter to 150 businesses, trade groups and think tanks asking them to spell out which federal regulations they dislike the most. These are lifeguards on the side of the sharks.

Scared to death of being outdone, President Obama and his sidekicks climbed into their spiffy new G.O.P. costumes and promised in humiliatingly abject tones to shower the business world with whatever government largess they could lay their hands on. The first order of business (pun intended) was the announcement that William Daley, the Chicago wheeler-dealer and former Clinton administration official who landed a fat gig at JPMorgan Chase, would become the president’s chief of staff. Mr. Daley was a loud critic of recent financial regulatory reforms and has been obsessed with getting Democrats to be more subservient to business.

read full article

Some comments from NY Times readers on this column:

“… Darrell Issa sent a letter to 150 businesses, trade groups and think tanks asking them to spell out which federal regulations they dislike the most. These are lifeguards on the side of the sharks.”

No matter which party grasps the power, the working majority remain powerless while the capitalist minority rules the world. It is of no use to blame one party on the misfortune and misery of the people and hope the other party would come to people’s help. No any party will do any good. They are as corrupt as any henchman of the capital can be.

Even if the Democrats had taken power of the Capital’s House, nothing would have changed as far as the political corruption, economic monopoly and social regression are concerned. The question is how to convince capital itself that the current mainstream and orthodox political economic policy is not only wrong and detrimental to the working majority but also harmful to the dictatorship of the bourgeois minority.

Capital has taken it for granted that even though the economic crisis could be worse than the Great Depression in the 1930s, recovery has never been far away, time is on their side and patience will pay off. Its trusting to luck ideas keep a blear-eye in front of the danger ahead. Ever since China surrendered three decades, the Soviet Union folded two decades ago, and all-out confrontation ceased, capital started its barefaced onslaught on the working people of the world with candid exploitation and oppression as though there would be no tomorrow. Representative Democracy and profit sharing have died. Global discontentment among the working majority is never higher because of unemployment, bankruptcy, foreclosure, poverty and austerity. Capital as a hegemony is about to slip downward from its power peak.

Global overproduction relative to working people’s affordable demand has been the real cause of the economic crisis. Overproduction comes about from fierce competitions and cost reduction. Automation has made matter worse than better through reducing work force or underemployment or both. The 21th century Innovation is all cost-saving enterprise, especially on human capital. Global accumulation of capital, on the other hand, reaches it new high and entraps into the mire of over-accumulation that overproduction engendered over the past three decades. The profitable investment outlets other than the speculative financial bubble-prone money ports like housing and stock markets become so much rare that lack of outlets has forced capital to invest overseas en mass leading to deindustrialization on a global scale. A permanent global unemployment calamity has arrived and it has been hardly fleeting at all. For some similar viewpoints, see http://endnotes.org.uk/articles/1

Now as though that were not enough, overseas low-cost investment outlets in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere face either inflation or over-investment and unemployment as well. Capital, which looked as invincible as only yesterday, has been on tenterhooks almost daily by crises. Overseas investments may do down the drain if China’s economy falls.

Due to housing overproduction, housing crisis rivals the Great Depression. Housing price in 2010 dropped $1.7 trillion over last year when it shed $1 trillion or at a falling rate of 63% and a total drop of $9 trillion since 2006. “The U.S. housing market is now down around 25 percent from its peak in 2006. (During the Great Depression, home prices fell 25.9 percent in five years.) Housing bubbles are now bursting in China, France, Spain, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Eastern Europe, and many other regions.” (December 29, 2010, “Underneath the Happy Talk, Is This As Bad as the Great Depression?”) .

Due to over-accumulation of capital, “Indeed, top economists such as Anna Schwartz, James Galbraith, Nouriel Roubini and others have pointed out that while banks faced a liquidity crisis during the Great Depression, today they are wholly insolvent. Insolvency is much more severe than a shortage of liquidity.”

“So many Americans have been jobless for so long that the government is changing how it records long-term unemployment.

‘Citing what it calls “an unprecedented rise” in long-term unemployment, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), beginning Saturday, will raise from two years to five years the upper limit on how long someone can be listed as having been jobless.’ “The two-year limit has been used for 33 years.”

Darrell Issa, William Daley, Barak Obama and their ilk – the right-wingers – now put on their tax cut hawk facemasks, shift the financial burden of tax cut on social programs and scoop more lucre for their masters and themselves. The strategic plan of their class welfare is not only to starve the beast but, most importantly, also to starve the working class.

* * *

Scrooge asked, have they no prisons, no workhouses? America should bring back the workhouse for the poor. It worked for 19th century England, why not for 21st century America—the greatest, richest country in the world. We already have a large section of our citizens in prison, the better to take away their vote. Now we need to further the process of making the poor into indentured servants to work off their debt to society for food and shelter. We keep creating new poor people with our policies, especially sending jobs overseas, and letting major illness drive people into bankruptcy. These two policies alone should in future, create whole new classes of poor for us to exploit. And probably, these policies will continue and intensify with the increasing right wing turn of our politics and media. As the generations go by, the descendents of formerly middle class Americans will join the ranks of the poor, and provide even more fodder to be used. These people will be called irresponsible and unambitious. Not too bright. Otherwise they would keep themselves out of the pit of poverty. Oh well, they must not deserve much help then. Probably education would be wasted on them anyway. I guess god helps those who help themselves. What’s on TV tonight and what’s for supper?

* * *

I am still trying to figure out exactly what President Obama’s function is. Under his stewardship, the presidency of the United States seems to have devolved into being the chief public relations front man for Wall Street and the military industrial complex. He is in never-ending campaign mode and uses the charm offensive to try to fool at least some of the people into thinking he’s on their side. It turns out he never was, and he never will be. The man is a monumental fraud. Had he chosen Lloyd Blankfein as his chief of staff I wouldn’t have been at all surprised. I am just baffled about why he calls himself a Democrat.

The only time I ever heard Obama utter the word “poverty” was in an address he gave to the United Nations last year. Of course, he was referring to the poverty of third world countries, not ours. He occasionally puts in a token appearance at a soup kitchen with the family around the holidays, right before they jet off for their latest exotic vacation. Most of their charity seems aimed only at military families. The fact that one out of six Americans is now below the poverty level just doesn’t mesh with his road trip spinning of the economic recovery. It’s an inconvenient truth.

Right before the holidays. Obama had a secret meeting with the CEO of Walmart as part of his outreach to businesses. Soon after, Walmart cut the Sunday $1 pay differential for its associates in a cost-saving move. Apparently, discussion of how to improve workers’ lives was not on the Oval Office agenda that day.

The irony is that Tea Party bigotry is giving Obama perfect cover, It’s easy to be the shadow Corporation President when half the country thinks you’re a Kenyan socialist giving away the store to people who are too lazy to work. He and his Wall Street cronies must have a lot of laughs on the golf course over that one. Stay tuned for country club photo ops with John Boehner to get that bipartisany glow. They’re all just one great big happy family living in their own gated-community world.

Israeli humor

Filed under: zionism — louisproyect @ 4:19 pm

January 7, 2011

This commie’s favorite cowboy movies

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:13 pm

On December 30th, one Robert Knight (not the WBAI host) wrote this comment under my review of True Grit: “Sounds like communists just don’t know how to enjoy a good cowboy movie.”

Off the top of my head, I named these cowboy movies as my favorites in response:

1. Shane

2. One-Eyed Jacks

3. Unforgiven

4. Magnificent Seven

5. Johnny Guitar

6. High Noon

7. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

8. Ride the High Country

9. The Wild Bunch

10. McCabe and Mrs. Miller

I have one more to add to the list, the infamous “Heaven’s Gate” that destroyed director Michael Cimino’s career and, according to Steven Bach’s book “Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists” was responsible for the collapse of the production company launched by Charlie Chaplin and other actors in an attempt to control over film-making against the ham-fisted studio system.

I want to say a few words about each of these movies, but want to explain right off the bat why there’s nothing by John Ford on the list. As for Ford, I respect his genius but I really have big problems with traditional “cowboy and Indians” movies. One of his greatest, according to critics and film scholars, is “The Searchers”, a film that is based loosely on the Comanche wars in Texas in the 1800s. According to most critics, it is a “revisionist” work that decries racism against the Indians. If I ever find the time to do a survey of popular and high culture (especially Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”) on the Comanche wars, I will probably revisit this movie but will likely be less generous than other critics.

There’s also Howard Hawks’s 1948 “Red River” that pits John Wayne, an ex-Confederate warrior, against Montgomery Clift in what some critics regard as a homoerotic story with the two men suggestively exchanging pistols at one point. Clift, of course, was a closeted homosexual. I saw the movie long ago and could not help but shake the feeling that it was cliché-ridden. This was probably a function of having seen so many cattle drive movies in the 1950s that were obviously derivative of Hawks’s movie, not to speak of the staple television shows of the time, including “Bonanza”.

Let me start with “Heaven’s Gate”. This film was trashed mercilessly in the press when it came out in 1980. Vincent Canby of the NY Times wrote:

The point of ”Heaven’s Gate” is that the rich will murder for the earth they don’t inherit, but since this is not enough to carry three hours and 45 minutes of screentime, ”Heaven’s Gate” keeps wandering off to look at scenery, to imitate bad art (my favorite shot in the film is Miss Huppert reenacting ”September Morn”) or to give us footnotes (not of the first freshness) to history, as when we are shown an early baseball game. There’s so much mandolin music in the movie you might suspect that there’s a musical gondolier anchored just off-screen, which, as it turns out, is not far from the truth.

”Heaven’s Gate” is something quite rare in movies these days – an unqualified disaster.

The movie closed before I had a chance to see it, a victim of such reviews. I am not sure when I got around to seeing an abridged version, but I was anxious to see anything described in these terms: “the rich will murder the earth they don’t inherit”.

The best way to describe “Heaven’s Gate” is as Cimino’s homage to Italian Marxist film: Visconti, Pasolini and especially Bertolucci. It is based on historical events, the Johnson County Range Wars that pitted ranchers against immigrant small farmers. Kris Kristofferson, who played a sheriff who crossed class lines to join the farmers, had this take on the movie’s failure at the box office:

The film was about a dirty piece of American history that was the Johnson County Wars, where the money people, the Cattlemens’ Association, had a death list, had an army of mercenaries that was okayed by the US government to go in and wipe out these citizens that were supposedly poaching their cattle. They were primarily immigrants. Unfortunately the film came out right when Ronald Reagan came in office and it was – I remember Alexander Hague had a meeting of all the studio heads right before Michael’s film was screened and he said, “There will be no more films made with a negative view of American history, like ‘Heaven’s Gate'”. And there was 100 per cent negative reviews of – I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve done 82 films.

The director’s cut (219 minutes) can be rented from Netflix today, thank goodness.

Okay, proceeding to the rest.

1. Shane: I saw this 1953 film not too long after it came out and loved it, as did any other child who yearned for some kind of bonding with a father figure. Shane (Alan Ladd) is a retired gunfighter who shows up one day at the farm of Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) and goes to work chopping wood. Joe’s son Joey (Brandon De Wilde) soon begins to idolize Shane who does everything he can to persuade the boy to see him just as an ordinary man. Like “Heaven’s Gate”, this is a classic rancher versus farmer movie, with Jack Palance in the memorable role of Jack Wilson, a hired gun for the ranchers. A.B. Guthrie Jr., a newspaper reporter and novelist, wrote the screenplay. I read his novel “The Big Sky” about 10 years ago, one of the only that deals with the Blackfoot Indians. He is a damned good writer.

2. One-Eyed Jacks: This is the only film directed by Marlin Brando, who stars as Rio, a bank robber intent on robbing the bank in a town whose sheriff is Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), who was Rio’s partner in crime at one time but betrayed them on their last job. Brando falls in love with Dad’s daughter and the plot thickens. Screenwriting duties were shared by three greats: Sam Peckinpah (uncredited), Calder Willingham and Rod Serling (early draft). For all the hoopla over the writing in “True Grit” (either one), I much prefer the plain language of this movie. Watching Dad Longworth beating Rio to a pulp from a distance, Rio’s new partners, Harvey and Bob, deliberate:

Harvey: We better get down there and do something.

Bob: Do something? Not this old horse; Longworth’s got enough shotguns down there to start a war. Besides, this might help get some of that snot-nose out of him.

Ah, that’s the way I’d like to think cowboys spoke, even if it is much more the product of Sam Peckinpah’s pen.

3. Unforgiven: This film is influenced by “One-Eyed Jacks” in my view, with Gene Hackman playing the tyrannical sheriff of a small frontier town after ending a career as an outlaw himself. As is the case with Rio, the outlaw Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood) gets beaten to a pulp by the sheriff. Munny has come to town with his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to kill some cowpokes who had carved up the face of a prostitute during a drunken binge. The story is as simple as they come, almost biblical, and Eastwood is great. David Peoples, who wrote the screenplay, also co-wrote “Bladerunner” so it is obvious he knows what he is doing.

4. The Magnificent Seven: A western movie based on Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” that is arguably equal to the original. Directed by the great John Sturges, who also did “Bad Day at Black Rock”, this is a story of gunslingers who go to work protecting Mexican farmers against bandits for a pittance. In keeping with the spirit of Kurosawa’s original, the villagers are the true heroes. In this dialog, the hired gun O’Reilly played by Charles Bronson sets a young villager straight:

Village Boy 2: We’re ashamed to live here. Our fathers are cowards.

O’Reilly: Don’t you ever say that again about your fathers, because they are not cowards. You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody says they have to do this. They do it because they love you, and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee anything will ever come of it. This is bravery. That’s why I never even started anything like that… that’s why I never will.

5. Johnny Guitar: Not really a great movie, but a must-see. This is a bizarre gender-bender with Joan Crawford playing Vienna, a gun-slinging saloon owner who takes up with Johnny Guitar, played by Sterling Hayden. Vienna’s nemesis is another woman Emma Small, played by Mercedes McCambridge. The two women have a duel at the end of the end of this odd Freudian 1954 movie. Director Nicholas Ray was widely admired by the French New Wave but then again so was Jerry Lewis.

6. High Noon: I guess that everybody knows about this one but I am not sure how many realize that this film reflected the witch-hunt in Hollywood:

In this spirit, High Noon set its sights on the political controversy settling over the most famous Western town of all. “What High Noon was about at the time,” its screenwriter Foreman admitted years later, “was Hollywood and no other place but Hollywood.” Translation: the Miller Gang were stand-ins for the gang from HUAC, the craven townspeople of Hadleyville were the cooperative witnesses who cowered before the committee, and the marshal followed the lone path of honor in a town without pity. Not too far under the surface, readily detectable by any viewer with the wits to spot a metaphor, High Noon acted out the high drama of conscience against expediency, personal codes against community values.

Full: http://archives.econ.utah.edu/archives/marxism/2002w37/msg00058.htm

7. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: A pure confection in the same spirit of “The Sting” that also starred the very bankable Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Screenwriter William Goldman, who has written 16 novels, did research on real-life characters Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for 8 years with the intention of writing a novel but decided finally to do a screenplay instead—his first. Goldman says that his favorite authors are Miguel de Cervantes, Ingmar Bergman, Anton Chekhov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ross Macdonald, Somerset Maugham, Irwin Shaw and Leo Tolstoy. In a memoir titled “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, he stated that “Nobody Knows Anything” in reference to Hollywood. That sound about right.

8. Ride the High Country: This is a fairly conventional Western that stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea as aging ex-sheriffs hired to defend a gold shipment. This is, however, a Sam Peckinpah movie and that says a lot.

9. The Wild Bunch: This is Sam Peckinpah’s most famous movie and has the same kind of camaraderie as “The Magnificent Seven”, except that the protagonists are outlaws. The shoot-out between the gang and the Mexican army is legendary, with some film critics finding the violence gratuitous and tasteless. Since the film was made in 1969, it was natural that Peckinpah connect the movie with what was happening in Vietnam. The wiki on the film notes:

Director Peckinpah noted it was allegoric of the American war against Vietnam, whose violence was nightly televised to American homes at supper time. He tried showing the gun violence commonplace to the historic western frontier period, rebelling against sanitised, bloodless television westerns and films glamourising gun fights and murder. “The point of the film is to take this façade of movie violence and open it up, get people involved in it so that they are starting to go in the Hollywood television predictable reaction syndrome, and then twist it so that it’s not fun anymore, just a wave of sickness in the gut … It’s ugly, brutalizing, and bloody awful; it’s not fun and games and cowboys and Indians. It’s a terrible, ugly thing, and yet there’s a certain response that you get from it, an excitement, because we’re all violent people.”

10. McCabe and Mrs. Miller: This is my personal favorite and Robert Altman’s finest movie, in my opinion. Warren Beatty is John McCabe, a recent arrival to a tiny town in the Northwest where he sets up a brothel catering to miners. He soon becomes partners with Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), an experienced and opium-addicted Madam from England. After a mining company orders him to sell the brothel and his stakes in nearby mines, McCabe refuses at first hoping to land a bigger payment. The bosses then send in 3 professional killers to get rid of him. In the climactic gunfight, McCabe makes sure to shoot his enemies in the back, apparently a much more realistic treatment of gun fights in the old west than Rooster Cogburn riding with his reins in his teeth and his six-guns blazing in each hand. The film score consists mostly of Leonard Cohen songs. You can’t do much better than that.

January 5, 2011

Rethinking the question of a revolutionary program

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 11:15 pm


Talmud scholars debate

Back in 1967, not long after I joined the Socialist Workers Party, I once asked a veteran party member what our “program” was. I kept hearing references to “defending our program”, especially when Arnie Swabeck had been expelled at one meeting, and was curious what that meant. We were up on the second floor of 873 Broadway, home of the headquarters of the NY branch and the national office at the time, and a very well-stocked bookstore. The veteran smiled at me and gestured toward all the Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky books on the shelf and said triumphantly, “That is our program”.

I was fairly sure what he meant when he said it but it would sink in the longer I was in the Trotskyist movement. The “program” referred to all of the classics of Marxism, at least our particular fraction of the movement, as well as all of the approved resolutions of all our conventions. In many ways, the program represented the same thing to us as the Talmud meant to orthodox Jews. It was the record of all the ideological battles that we had fought and won since Marx had it out with Bakunin.

James P. Cannon, the father of American Trotskyism, put it this way in an obituary for “the old man”:

A great heritage of ideas he has left to us; ideas which shall chart the struggle toward the great free future of all mankind. The mighty ideas of Trotsky are our program and our banner. They are a clear guide to action in all the complexities of our epoch, and a constant reassurance that we are right and that our victory is inevitable.

Now, the curious thing is that all “Marxist-Leninist” groups have pretty much the same understanding but differ on the details. Almost all, for example, will concur that Marx, Engels and Lenin have “mighty ideas” but begin to differentiate among themselves not long after Lenin’s death. The CP and the Maoists tend to elevate Stalin and Mao, while the Trotskyists are into Trotsky—obviously. Then among this group you get competition over who is more faithful to Trotsky’s legacy. Depending on which group you belong to, it was James P. Cannon, Ted Grant, Gerry Healy, or Tony Cliff who was maintaining “revolutionary continuity”. Having the correct position on when and how the USSR became “state capitalist” or “bureaucratically degenerated” was a litmus test that would separate the pretenders to the throne from the legitimate leader. It should be stressed that the leader of the party was imbued with special powers, having the necessary gifts and training to maintain the purity of the program.

This interpretation of the “revolutionary program” actually had little to do with how Marx and the pre-1917 generation viewed things. Instead of trying to define and defend ideological bloodlines, they were far more interested in identifying a set of goals that the working class would fight for in the course of making a socialist revolution. Compared to the bookstore approach of the veteran SWP leader, the programmatic statements of Marx and others were minimalistic by comparison.

Let’s take the Communist Manifesto for example. This is about as fundamental a statement of goals that our movement has ever come out with. Let’s look at some of what Marx and Engels defined in terms of a program:

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.

4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.

6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.

It should be obvious that Marx and Engels did not conceive of a program much differently than bourgeois parties. When the Democrats or Republicans gear up for a presidential campaign, you can go to their website and find a similar statement of aims, but of course from an opposing class perspective. Where Marx and Engels call for ” Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State”, they would call for deregulation and privatization with the Democrats concealing their aims in a bunch of high-flung populist rhetoric.

Moving forward in time, we come to the Erfurt Program of the German Social Democracy of 1891. Like the Communist Manifesto, it is basically a statement of goals, including these first five:

1. Universal, equal, and direct suffrage with secret ballot in all elections, for all citizens of the Reich over the age of twenty, without distinction of sex. Proportional representation, and, until this is introduced, legal redistribution of electoral districts after every census. Two-year legislative periods. Holding of elections on a legal holiday. Compensation for elected representatives. Suspension of every restriction on political rights, except in the case of legal incapacity.

2. Direct legislation by the people through the rights of proposal and rejection. Self-determination and self-government of the people in Reich, state, province, and municipality. Election by the people of magistrates, who are answerable and liable to them. Annual voting of taxes.

3. Education of all to bear arms. Militia in the place of the standing army. Determination by the popular assembly on questions of war and peace. Settlement of all international disputes by arbitration.

4. Abolition of all laws that place women at a disadvantage compared with men in matters of public or private law.

5. Abolition of all laws that limit or suppress the free expression of opinion and restrict or suppress the right of association and assembly. Declaration that religion is a private matter. Abolition of all expenditures from public funds for ecclesiastical and religious purposes. Ecclesiastical and religious communities are to be regarded as private associations that regulate their affairs entirely autonomously.

It should be mentioned that this 1891 program could be dusted off and adopted by some new left party today with very few changes. More about that momentarily.

As we know (at least those of us who have read Neil Harding, Lars Lih and yours truly), Lenin sought nothing more than to create a socialist party in Czarist Russia modeled on the German party that had adopted the Erfurt Program.

Here a few words are in order on our attitude to the Erfurt Programme. From what has been said above it is clear to everyone that we consider it necessary to make changes in the draft of the Emancipation of Labour group that will bring the programme of the Russian Social-Democrats closer to that of the German. We are not in the least afraid to say that we want to imitate the Erfurt Programme: there is nothing bad in imitating what is good, and precisely to day, when we so often hear opportunist and equivocal criticism of that programme, we consider it our duty to speak openly in its favour.

In the very same article, Lenin proposes that the Russian social democrats tailor their demands to their own social reality but retaining the spirit of the German program:

We think that the working-class party should define the demands made on this point more thoroughly and in greater detail; the party should demand: 1) an eight-hour working day; 2) prohibition of night-work and prohibition of the employment of children under 14 years of age; 3) uninterrupted rest periods, for every worker, of no less than 36 hours a week; 4) extension of factory legislation and the Factory Inspectorate to all branches of industry and agriculture, to government factories, to artisan establishments, and to handicraftsmen working at home; election, by the workers, of assistant inspectors having the same rights as the inspectors; 5) establishment of factory and rural courts for all branches of industry and agriculture, with judges elected from the employers and the workers in equal numbers; etc.

Interestingly enough, despite the hair-splitting of the Trotskyist groups over who has the best “program” (i.e., the doctrinal understanding of the Soviet state and other such states), Trotsky’s own efforts in that direction had much more in common with the Communist Manifesto and the Erfurt Program. The Transitional Program, that every Trotskyist pays homage to, is actually “minimalistic” in terms of its adherence to the finer points of Marxist theory. In fact, some of the demands were lifted directly from the mass movement of the 1930s. Some of what you will find in the TP remains very timely, including the following demands:

* Complete abolition of secret diplomacy;

* all treaties and agreements to be made accessible to all workers and farmers;

Now wouldn’t Trotsky have loved Wikileaks?

It should be clear what I am leading up to. I believe that a new left movement or party has to return to these roots. It is a big mistake to think in terms of program as the accretion of doctrinal statements made by a particular aspiring “nucleus of a vanguard party”.

Socialism, or anti-capitalism, has to be reconstituted on a much broader basis. Without a doubt, a program similar in spirit could be reconstituted from all of the points that the myriad of sects in the U.S. agrees on. I doubt that you will find the ISO and the Workers World fighting over, for example, the need to provide free medical care or the need to ban “fracking”. But in their fight to the finish line—the proletarian revolution of the distant future—they seek to protect their intellectual property, the sum total of all the resolutions voted on at all their conventions and all the newspaper articles, books and pamphlets churned out by their party press.

Whether or not they see the light, it is up to the rest of us to move forward as rapidly as possible drafting a program and building an organization that focuses on the real issues facing working people and not those that divide small propaganda groups from each other.

January 3, 2011

When I want to whistle, I whistle

Filed under: Film,Romania — louisproyect @ 10:55 pm

The latest film out of Romania opens on Wednesday at the IFC in New York. Directed by Florin Şerban, a 35-year-old Columbia University graduate, “When I want to Whistle, I whistle” shares many of the aspects of his country’s leading-edge film movement. American and Western European auteurs are strong influences on the movement despite its distinctly Romanian character. In an interview with Manhattan Chronicles, Şerban stated that “New York is the best place to be if you want to watch movies, films from all over the world, from different periods and tendencies, etc. ” Asked who he counts as major influences, he included Ken Loach. Indeed, one of the strongest recommendations for “When I want to Whistle, I whistle” is how much it reflects the best work of the British leftist director. Now that Romania’s romance with post-Stalinism is long forgotten, it is no surprise that the country’s filmmakers seek inspiration from artists well schooled in the class struggle.

Based on a play, “When I want to Whistle, I whistle” is a classic prison breakout movie that hearkens back to James Cagney’s “White Heat”. Filmed apparently on location at a Romanian juvenile prison and using actual convicts in supporting roles, the film has a gritty realism that departs from most prison melodramas past and present. The film has no musical score but there are key moments when a boom box or a chorus of prisoners supplies powerful dramatic accompaniment. Mostly, the accompaniment is the whistling of wind in the trees and the sounds of birds, sounding all the more plaintive in contrast to the draconian conditions of the prison.

The main character is Silviu, a tight-lipped and seemingly passive youth who has 15 days left on a 4-year robbery sentence. George Pistereanu, a non-professional but someone who has never been in prison, plays Silviu. Pistereanu delivers a memorable performance, starting off as a taut and mute ticking time bomb and finally exploding in the stunning climax of a very, very good film. At this point, I am obligated to supply a spoiler alert. Read no further, if you want to avoid learning about the stunning conclusion but certainly go see the movie at the IFC based on what you have read so far.

We learn that Silviu’s mother is a prostitute who plans to take his younger brother off to Italy with her. When she took Silviu on one of these trips when he was his brother’s age, she abandoned him as soon as she found a lover. He blames his misfortunes, including a life as a criminal, on her abuses and tells her that he will do anything to prevent his brother from suffering the same fate.

If Silviu’s family is a symbol of Romania’s economic distress, we meet some characters who appear to be enjoying a middle-class existence. The prisoners are being “studied” by a team of social workers who are determining their ability to function in post-prison life. One of them is Ana (Ada Condeescu), a beautiful young woman that Silviu develops a crush on. In the course of her interview with him, he says that there is not much difference between them and that if she met him outside of prison, she would enjoy drinking coffee with him on a date.

Desperate to thwart his mother from taking his younger brother to Italy, Silviu erupts at an interview session with Ana and takes her hostage. Unless his mother is brought to the prison to vow that the brother will be left at home, he will slash her throat with a shard of broken window glass. Despite his brutality toward Ana, it is clear that he still is attracted to her and would count a coffee date with her as fulfilling his fondest dreams, on a par with getting his mother out of his and his brother’s life.

For the longest time, Romania has been a poster child for the “what’s wrong with communism” contingent led by the insufferable Andrei Codrescu, an émigré who made a good living on NPR telling Americans how lucky they are not to live under Ceausescu. Times seem to be changing, no doubt hurried along by the failure of capitalism to deliver the goods.

For a report on current-day Romania that is gestating the conditions that inspired someone like Florin Şerban to consider the work of Ken Loach as an influence, I recommend Class struggle on the rise in Romania from the In Defense of Marxism website. Fred Weston writes:

In January 2007 Romania became a member of the EU. This was the final confirmation that western capitalists considered the country a fully-fledged market economy. Since the fall of the Ceauşescu regime in 1989 the country had adopted a series of measures, with large-scale privatisation and cuts in state subsidies, geared to transforming Romania into a capitalist country. Within five years the legal structures were in place and the country began a process of integration into world capitalism, and until 2008 foreign investment in the country had been increasing. That is when the trouble really started. The 2008 global financial crisis seriously affected the economy, pushing it into recession in 2009.

So long as the economy was booming, and with the added relief of emigration to other parts of the EU during the boom of the past decade, illusions in capitalism among some layers no doubt had increased. This also explained a reactionary political situation in the country. “Communism” seemed a thing of the past. This is not difficult to understand especially when one recalls the monstrous regime that governed the country under Ceauşescu.

And yet now that people in Romania have had a real taste of capitalism, not just in boom times, but in times of recession, opinions are changing. According to an opinion poll carried out by the “Institute Investigating the Crimes of Communism and the Memory of the Romanian Exile” – not exactly a Communist-friendly institution almost half of Romanians today, 49%, believe life was actually better under Ceauşescu! A higher standard of living and job security were given as the main arguments to sustain this opinion. Barely a quarter of the population believes conditions have improved since 1989.

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