Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 20, 2011

Israel Shamir and Slavoj Žižek

Filed under: anti-Semitism — louisproyect @ 7:22 pm

Despite my general aversion to Slavoj Žižek, I want to defend him against the misrepresentations found in Israel Shamir’s Counterpunch article from July 14th titled “Doing a Full Monty for Tel Aviv: Žižek and the Gaza Flotilla“. As I will point out, Žižek is not above criticism but Shamir’s article is nothing but a hatchet job.

As is customary with Shamir, there is a tendency to make an amalgam between Israelis and Jews:

Without Europeans, passage of a pro-Palestinian resolution is unlikely – this as Europe agonizes over even the thought of upsetting Jews.

Never has Jewish stock climbed to such dizzy heights; it has surpassed its historical limits, ascending to loony peaks that bespeak the Dotcom madness of 2000.

This blurring of categories is typical of those who have not mastered a class analysis, a fault that regrettably is far too common with many Counterpunch contributors.

In order to answer Shamir, I forced myself to watch the entire Youtube video of Žižek’s talk to a small group of Israeli leftists. For the life of me, I can’t understand how he has become a celebrity on the left. Leaving aside the merits of his ideas, I find his “style” impossibly strained and irony-sodden to the point of capsizing.

Now, it is possible that a couple of the quotes Shamir attributed to Žižek that I could not find in the Youtube video were either made after the camera stopped rolling or were simply words put in his mouth. But leaving that aside, the more overarching question was one of reportorial accuracy. I simply could not recognize Žižek’s talk as an exercise in convincing his audience “that fighting anti-Semitism is more important than defending Palestinians.”

It is true that the talk was mostly about anti-Semitism but you cannot deduce from that any kind of hostility to the Palestinian cause. If Shamir were more of a serious student of Žižek’s views and willing to put in 10 minutes of background research he would realize that the talk was simply a recapitulation of an analysis that Žižek has been making for years. As the New Republic, an arch-Zionist publication, put it, “the form that Žižek’s remarks on Jews take is that of an exposition of the mentality of the anti-Semite.”

In other words, Žižek was interested in examining the difference between the anti-Semitism of a displaced Palestinian and that of an emerging right-populist/neo-fascist movement in Europe. He came down foursquare on the greater danger of the latter, while stressing the need for Arabs to eliminate anti-Semitism from their ranks. Shamir quoted Žižek as stating that “even the most oppressed and poor Palestinian should not be tolerated for being anti-Semitic.” Well, of course. This should be obvious. Not only is hatred of Jews as a people reactionary, it is also a weapon that the Zionists use against the Palestinian struggle. It would have been better for groups like Hamas and Hizbollah never to have made the kinds of verbal or written gaffes that allow Israeli leaders to demagogically liken them to the Nazis.

According to Shamir, Žižek said that “The real suffering, and the real problem, is European and American anti-Semitism”. He added, “Does the professor know something we don’t? Are European and American Jews being tortured in dark dungeons while their houses are confiscated by blue-eyed Aryans?” Now this is one of those quotes I could not pin down while watching the video, but it was clear to me that the real point was the one I alluded to above. For Žižek, there was much more of a history of genuine racial violence and oppression in Europe and America than there ever was in the Arab world. Furthermore, Žižek did not claim that there is any immediate threat of houses being confiscated but he was completely right to point out the growth of far-right movements in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union that hearken back to traditional anti-Semitism.

There’s another quote I could not locate: “The Slovenian philosopher spoke kindly of the swindler Bernie Madoff, who was ‘a scapegoat who was easy to blame, when in fact the real problem is the system that allowed and even pushed Madoff to commit his crimes‘”.

Now, I don’t know how “kindly” it is to characterize Madoff as a scapegoat, but Žižek is completely correct. By focusing so much on his Ponzi scheme, the media was able to portray the financial crisis as the work of “evil people” rather than the capitalist system itself. Shamir, who knows as much about Marxism based on the evidence of his writings as I do about the origins of the universe, would naturally be hostile to such an interpretation. As a crude conspiracy theorist who sees the Zionist lobby as a pulling the strings of the US government, he would naturally be disposed to seeing the economic system being run in the same fashion.

There is one quote that is disturbing and that I was able to pinpoint:

Žižek said that “someone from the Democratic Republic of Congo would sell his mother into slavery in a heartbeat for the chance to move to the West Bank”.

The problem is that Shamir omitted the words that immediately prefaced this, in which Žižek warned the audience that he was about to make a “provocative” statement. Žižek was talking about the tendency of some on the left to overstate the evil of Zionism, equating it with Nazism, etc. Clearly, a more precise characterization of Israeli society is required, especially in light of the left’s tendency to see fascism at all times and everywhere. Whenever I have run into such an equation, I tend to say, “No, Israel is not like Nazi Germany. It is much more like apartheid South Africa.”

This, however, points to a flaw in Žižek’s style, which is one of searching for attention—almost to the point of narcissism. The poor chap seems to hope for people to say something like “Did you hear what Žižek said?”, as if he were aspiring to be Marxism’s counterpart of Howard Stern. Clearly, a more grounded and measured approach is required.

Turning now to Shamir, the question of his anti-Semitism must be examined. Perhaps the most glaring example for most of his critics is an article titled “Bloodcurdling Libel” that is filled with weird theological free associations and essentialist humbug like this:

However, it is the belief in Jewish (not Palestinian) ritual child murders that was widespread and persistent. The old Jewish Encyclopaedia, Vol. III, 266, lists the following cases, beginning with William of Norwich: 5 other cases given for the twelfth century, 15 for the thirteenth, 10 for the fourteenth, 16 for the fifteenth, 13 for the sixteenth, 8 for the seventeenth, 15 for the eighteenth, and 39 for the nineteenth, going right up to the year 1900 (total 113). There have been more cases in the [6] 20th century. What is the reason for this belief? Was there a world-wide and centuries-spanning conspiracy to implicate innocent Jews in heinous crime or is there a crime behind accusations?

Normally, my instinct would lead me to get to the bottom of such a bizarre train of thought, but I realized that it would not be worth it. Clearly, you are dealing with a crank.

Most of Shamir’s articles that are written along these lines are not stereotypical racist attacks on Jews but rather attempts to give undue weight to those who make them. While such a distinction might be not worth making, I am simply trying to point out that the author is clever enough to have fooled the editors of Counterpunch who are a bit challenged when it comes to this sort of toxic waste.

Finally, let me differentiate myself a bit from Žižek on the question of “threats” to the Jews. While I agree that the Arabs are not the Nazis of today, I am less inclined than he is to fret about anti-Semitism as a serious looming “existential” menace to the Jews. Perhaps his lack of interest in social and economic history (i.e., historical materialism) explains his dwelling over “superstructure” but there is a world of difference between traditional anti-Semitism and the speech or writings of a Hamas leader or Ahmadinejad. The persecution of the Jews in Czarist Russia and Nazi Germany was intimately linked to the terminal decay of capitalism that could only resolved through war and the use of scapegoats.

We are decidedly moving into a deadly constellation of events that might precipitate new outbreaks of pogroms and even extermination but the targets will not be the Jews who are not easily identifiable through their isolation in ghettos or their economic role as pawnbrokers, shopkeepers, etc. Instead, it will be the Roma, the undocumented worker from Northern Africa, the Mexican, or the Arab.

The left has to be vigilant against any form of racialist stupidity, whether it comes from a disturbed individual lacking a social base like Israel Shamir or someone like Ahmadinejad who lacked the common sense to not invite David Duke to a symposium on the holocaust in Tehran. We do so primarily because their words weaken our movement by leaving it open to the charge of racism. This is especially a problem given the ability of the mass media to control the discourse and make the criminal into the victim and the victim into the criminal, as Malcolm X once put it.

July 18, 2011

What Ford did to the Ramapough Mountain Indians

Filed under: Ecology,indigenous,racism — louisproyect @ 8:17 pm

(Some idiot just wrote a defense of Ford under my review of “Mann V. Ford” because it was “legal” to dump toxic waste in the 1960s using Mafia haulers. This article that appeared in the Bergen Record is an antidote to such garbage.)

The Record (Bergen County, NJ)
October 2, 2005 Sunday

Ford, the feds, the mob: Making a wasteland


A slab of bright blue lies beside a mountain stream above the Wanaque Reservoir. It’s a sporty color, maybe the “Diamond Blue” that Ford sprayed on Galaxies in the late 1960s. It hardened like lava where it was dumped more than a generation ago.

When running high, the stream rinses over the slab and down the mountain, through marshes and past beaver dams, toward the reservoir.

It’s everywhere, this paint.

Chunks of it jut from the driveway of a house in Ringwood where a child got lead poisoning. It is so toxic he and his mom have moved out.

Piles of it, weathered and gray and wrinkled like an elephant’s skin, cling to a hillside. Nearby is the home of a boy who died of a rare tumor.

On the other side of the hill a spring-fed stream once ran clear and fresh. For generations, it quenched the thirst of the mountain’s residents, the Ramapoughs. Now the water is bright orange and laced with cancer-causing benzene.

Just upstream from Mahwah, a ridge of waste paint longer than a football field slowly leaches arsenic, lead and other heavy metals into the Ramapo River.

It is in countless other places – in landfills, on farms, along hiking trails in the woodlands that sweep across the northern edge of New Jersey and form the region’s important watersheds.

The paint sludge is from the Ford Motor Co.’s factory in Mahwah, once the largest auto assembly plant in the nation. Before closing in 1980, the behemoth plant spat out 6 million vehicles and an ocean of contaminants – including enough paint sludge to fill two of the three tubes of the Lincoln Tunnel.

Millions of gallons of paint sludge was dumped in the remote section of Ringwood that is home to the Ramapoughs. Their children played in it. The streams washed over it. Early this summer, state officials announced some cancer rates there are unusually high. The Ramapoughs blame the sludge.

For the past eight months, The Record has been investigating Ford’s toxic legacy. A team of journalists went house to house documenting health complaints among the Ramapoughs. They hiked through the mountains and found paint sludge that had been missed by four government-supervised cleanups in Ringwood. They found sludge near homes, in parks and in the watershed. Not far from the site of Ford’s Mahwah plant, they discovered sludge that had been tossed off the side of the road, even dumped near wells for public water supplies.

Tests commissioned by the newspaper found lead, arsenic and xylenes in the sludge – some at 100 times the levels the government considers safe. The tests indicate the contamination is spreading.

The Record found that Ford repeatedly dumped in poor communities and failed to clean up its mess. Documents reveal that Ford executives knew as early as 34 years ago that its waste had contaminated a stream that feeds the Wanaque Reservoir. They show that the company tried to evade responsibility by presenting tainted land as a “gift” to the state.

Organized crime played a key role in a vast assault on the environment. An analysis of public records and interviews with truckers who hauled Ford’s waste shows mob-controlled contractors dumped anywhere they could get away with it. They bribed, threatened, even murdered to maintain control of Ford’s trash.

Millions of gallons of hazardous waste vanished in their hands. Today, officials say they simply don’t have the staff to search for it all.

Government at all levels shares the blame. For years, it allowed mobsters to turn New Jersey into a toxic dumping ground. Initial attempts at statewide environmental regulation in the late 1970s only made the situation worse.

More recently, federal officials let Ford walk away from tons of industrial waste in Ringwood. The Environmental Protection Agency ignored many reports of widespread contamination when it assured residents that Ford had cleaned up their neighborhood. Only now, in the midst of a fifth cleanup in Ringwood, are federal officials paying attention to all the paint, solvents and other Ford debris buried deep in the mountain’s abandoned iron mines.

The contamination presents a threat to the region’s drinking water, The Record’s investigation found. Although officials responsible for the purity of North Jersey’s water are confident it is safe today, they worry the poisons may eventually work their way into the drinking water of 2.5 million people.

Ford says its dumping in Ringwood was legal. Indeed, from the time the plant opened in 1955 until 1970, industrial dumping was essentially unregulated. A law banning contamination of streams was not enforced.

Ford says others dumped in Ringwood and share responsibility for the pollution. The company also insists it is doing everything required by the EPA to clean up, in Ringwood and elsewhere. Ford declined requests for an interview and would answer questions from The Record only via e-mail.

The Ramapoughs and others scratching out a living in this remote section of Ringwood don’t believe Ford and don’t trust the government. They’ve watched this story unfold over 40 years.

They remember the 18-wheelers leaving brilliant puddles and splashes all the way up Peters Mine Road. They saw workers push the paint sludge, drums and other waste into the old iron mines that riddle the landscape. So many trucks arrived in the dark that residents started calling it the “midnight landfill.”

Later, they watched as men in white suits and masks dug contaminants from hills where children played. They got so frustrated about the contamination that remained after the cleanup crews had left that they took to carrying chunks of sludge to meetings with government officials. Now they’ve hired attorneys.

This summer, New Jersey’s environmental chief asked federal prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation of Ford’s cleanup in Ringwood.

“They can’t tell me that the stuff we’re walking in every day and the air we’re breathing up here isn’t killing people,” said Kelly DeGroat, a longtime resident.

Her son, Collin, died of a rare bone cancer in 2001.

He was 10.

Rolling out cars at top speed

The story of the paint begins 50 years ago this summer, when manufacturing was the lifeblood of North Jersey and Ford was the biggest operation around.

Shortly before noon on July 15, 1955, factory whistles sounded a salute as a caravan of trucks left Ford’s aged assembly plant in Edgewater. The trucks – laden with tools, equipment and assembly plant stock – snaked 26 miles north to Mahwah.

There, a new plant stood on a meadow just beneath the first vaulting slopes of the Ramapo Mountains and beside the Ramapo River.

Hours later, the production line sprang to life at Ford’s new factory. Billed as the largest auto assembly plant in the world, the $70 million factory would eventually roll out a new vehicle every minute, more than triple the rate of Edgewater. It was the cornerstone of an aggressive postwar expansion. Veterans had married, the baby boom had begun and Americans had a voracious appetite for the latest in Detroit horsepower.

“We feel the plant is more than an intent to knock the socks off competition,” Henry Ford II said at the plant’s dedication that September. “We feel this plant is a substantial lasting contribution to the living standards of all Americans.”

Along the factory’s 10 miles of assembly lines, there was one dictum: Keep the line moving.

“You ain’t gonna put a car out just relaxing,” said Frank Dollbaum, a 28-year Ford employee and longtime Mahwah worker.

Rolling out all those LTDs, Galaxies and Fairmonts required careful choreography. Raw materials had to arrive on time. Cardboard, leaky batteries and waste paint had to be cleared away quickly.

Russell Kerestes’ disposal crews struggled to keep up with the waste.

“You have no idea unless you were there what a high-power, stressed-out place that was,” he said. “They had a bottom line and ‘move it out’ was the name of the game.”

In the paint department, men wielding spray guns applied an undercoat, primer and topcoat. They pointed and sprayed, and a lot of paint missed its mark. For each Willow Green truck or Rangoon Red convertible, 5 gallons of paint sludge was produced – 6,000 gallons a day.

The cars went to the parking lot out front. The paint sludge – a combination of paint and the chemicals and water used to aid in its disposal – was dumped out back, where the Leni-Lenape Indians once held powwows.

“Not only sludge, but lacquer, thinners,” said Jakob Unger, who worked in various departments at the plant, including industrial-waste treatment. “Nobody cared. Who knew about the environment?”

As the relentless production continued and dumpsites on its own property filled up, Ford gave more paint sludge to its trash contractors. Paint and solvents ended up in landfills, alongside roads – even buried on farms in upstate New York.

“The haulers would tell the farmers, ‘Listen, man. I’ve got a contract for six months. You have a little valley in your property near the side of the road. I’ll fill it in.’ And they just dumped the stuff off,” said Stanley Greenberg, a retired lieutenant in the Rockland County Sheriff’s Department.

Greenberg, who spent parts of three decades investigating illegal dumping in New York State, said farmers, landfill workers and some Ford employees were paid to remain silent.

“People were getting paid all over the place,” he said. “Ford was known for doing business. They had stuff to get rid of and no place to put it.”

No Ford employee was ever charged in the dumping.

“Everything that Ford Motor Co. did was in accordance with the law,” said Charles Kiorpes, the plant manager in the late 1960s. “Everything was hauled away in accordance with local regulations.”

Still, all the waste worried Richard Mosolgo, the plant’s engineering manager in the mid-1970s. He says he wanted to import a Swiss system that would incinerate the sludge on-site. The incinerator generated steam, which Mosolgo wanted to use for power.

“I remember,” Mosolgo said, “it used to cost more to get rid of the paint sludge than it cost to buy paint.”

He said Ford executives never bought into the idea.

Silenced by fear

Early on, Ford showed its willingness to dump its trash on the poor.

Carol Dennison was just a girl in the late 1950s, when trucks began dropping loads of sludge and industrial junk near a small cluster of ramshackle rental homes in the woods just north of the plant.

She remembers the stench got so bad the residents had to go down to the river to escape it.

“You could smell that paint,” she said. “It was always there.”

Her small community just across the New York border was known as the Meadows. It had been a place where children spent summers building homemade wagons and playing ball while adults gathered on porches to catch up with neighbors.

Then the trucks rolled in.

Ford didn’t own the property and didn’t have permission to dump there, according to Arcadis, a company Ford hired to manage cleanups. But that didn’t stop them from dumping only yards away from the tiny homes. Up to 2 million gallons of sludge was spread over nearly 3 acres. Drums, trash and more than 20 tons of tires littered the neighborhood.

Few if any residents complained. Most were Ramapoughs. The Ramapoughs claim to be descendants of American Indians, Dutch settlers and freed slaves. Most are poor, clan-oriented and wary of outsiders. Those in the Meadows kept quiet for fear of being evicted.

“We all saw the drivers dumping – sludge, barrels, all kinds of stuff, but no one said anything,” said former resident Victoria DeFreese Powell. “It just became a part of our lives.”

The neighborhood was abandoned by the early 1970s, the residents pushed out by flooding after the river was diverted for a highway project. Only the foundations of the houses remain.

But a huge ridge of sludge, 6 feet deep in some places, is still there. All-terrain vehicles have torn rutted paths through the solidified glop. Bulging drums litter Dennison’s old playground. Trees grow through tires dumped decades ago.

Near the ridge of sludge, there is evidence the pollutants are spreading. The Record tested a pool of standing water about 20 feet from a storm culvert and found lead at 14 times government safety standards for groundwater. Levels of chromium and arsenic were also elevated. The culvert drains directly into the Ramapo River, a source of drinking water for southern Passaic County and elsewhere. The area flooded early this year, high enough to cover the paint sludge.

Mobsters vie for Ford’s waste

To mobsters, Ford’s waste was pure gold.

They were the enforcers of a cartel that called the shots in the trash industry. They set the rates and made sure there was no competition, according to a report by the State of New Jersey Commission of Investigation.

Not all haulers were mobsters, but those who were had free rein. Even a big company like Ford had little choice but to deal with mob-controlled haulers. In the early years of the Mahwah plant, environmental regulation was minimal, so government officials weren’t asking questions about where waste was dumped.

Ford – with its tons and tons of packing material, paint sludge and other waste – was the biggest prize in the state.

A prize worth killing for, it seems.

Joseph “Joey Surprise” Feola was said to have learned that lesson the hard way.

In conversations taped by authorities, mob figures said the Genovese family gangster was lured to a garage in 1965 and strangled as a favor to the notorious godfather Carlo Gambino.

His offense? Stealing the Mahwah stop from a Gambino-controlled company.

Feola’s disappearance made the newspapers. They reported that the case had prompted a federal investigation into mob control of waste hauling.

Soon after, Ford changed the way it handled its trash. Mahwah’s waste would be going to property that the company owned in Ringwood. To get it there, Ford turned to Charles M. O’Connor, a small-time hauler who had been removing cardboard from Ford’s assembly plant in Metuchen.

The decision was bad news for the Ramapoughs in Ringwood, who had lived for generations on the land that Ford would turn into its dumping ground. But it had a broader impact. It brought thousands of tons of industrial waste to a watershed that serves more than a quarter of the state’s population.

Grocery money from trash

The big rigs barreled past the Wanaque Reservoir as they hauled fresh paint sludge and Ford’s castoffs up the dirt roads in Ringwood.

Gobs of it splattered over the humps in Peters Mine Road. Residents remember how the dust clouds swirled as the rigs rumbled by their homes. The trucks rolled past chicken coops, kids collecting mealworms to sell as bait and hunters working over their kill in skinning sheds.

Folks didn’t seem to mind all that industrial waste being carted to their mountain. In fact, the poor families queued up inside the dump, waiting for the trucks. The residents were eager to scavenge for copper and car parts to sell as scrap. Their children helped sort through the muck.

“That was grocery money for some families,” said Bob DeGroat, like most Ramapoughs a lifelong resident of the mountain.

Good money for people scraping by in the old miner’s shacks built back when the mountain was still giving up iron ore. In many homes, three generations of Van Dunks, DeGroats or Manns – three of a dozen last names that prevail among Ramapoughs – lived together without running water and only wood stoves for heat. Most families survived on vegetables grown in their gardens and game they hunted on the mountain.

Every morning, Charles DeFreese grabbed an old fruit basket and headed down to the mines early enough to beat his neighbors. He climbed down into the paint sludge near St. George Mine and looked for anything that would bring a few bucks. By the time his wife brought his lunch, he was covered in black.

The jackpot was a “snake,” a long copper wire. It was worth $30.

“What else were you going to do – work for the town for 75 cents an hour?” asked DeFreese’s wife, Linda.

Jack Walker, who lived closest to the dump, waved the truckers through the gates at the top of Peters Mine Road, night and day.

“They was in and out of here like bees,” he said.

He said the truck drivers paid him $30 or so every week to make sure only Ford’s waste – and nobody else’s – was dumped on the mountain. But the real money was in the scavenging.

Walker slogged in his work boots through the muck. Carburetors, wiring and tires stuck out of the fresh piles of sludge, like trash bobbing in an angry sea. The vapors from the solvents and paint thinners nearly overwhelmed him. He had to work fast before the bulldozers moved in. Whatever he missed, the giant claw shoveled into the gaping pit of the mine – the sludge, the barrels, the cardboard, every last scrap of it.

The gear-grinding and racket up and down Peters Mine Road got unbearable some nights. The drivers dumped everywhere. The sludge oozed like wet cement. It was pushed deep into old mines. It went into swamps and covered mountain hollows. The paint ended up right next to the neighborhood swimming hole.

Back then, the residents didn’t know the sludge was loaded with lead and chromium, a carcinogen that also causes nosebleeds. Walker never envisioned a Superfund site 150 yards from his front porch.

“We didn’t think at that time that maybe this stuff ain’t too good,” Walker said.

Choked with debris, the mines sometimes caught fire, burning out of control for weeks and spewing a terrible smoke through the yards. By then, the sludge had become just part of life on the mountain.

Susan Mann, then a schoolgirl, remembers racing from her house when she heard the clanging tailgates of the trucks. The piles of pink- and purple-streaked sludge were pretty. All that Candyapple Red paint Ford used in 1968. It squished under her sneakers and smelled like her mama’s nail polish.

As a boy, Mickey Van Dunk chased raccoons at night. He and his cousins would sprint through the woods with flashlights, past weirdly colorful slabs of sludge. He fished for walleye and caught turtles for soup in streams tinted with paint. He molded the sludge into baseballs. Other kids made sludge mud pies. They’d turn over old wrecked car hoods, pile on and slide down a massive mountain of gray paint. They called it Sludge Hill.

Children went home with terrible nosebleeds after playing in the muck.

Years later, many of them would suffer much worse.

A mountain ravaged

Even before O’Connor’s trucks arrived, the area bore the scars of a long history of exploitation. For nearly 200 years, miners – many of them Ramapoughs – labored beneath the earth there, harvesting one of the richest lodes of iron ore ever discovered. Peters Mine alone had 17 levels that reached nearly 2,000 feet underground. By the time the mines closed for good in the 1950s, the hills were a honeycomb of shafts, tunnels and caverns.

The Ringwood Mines area, as it was known to the outside world, was no paradise. The borough had used it as a municipal dump. Old cars and tires were routinely abandoned there. In one notorious episode, town officials allowed a contractor to spread waste oil on the roads to keep dust down. The oil was later determined to be contaminated with PCBs, now-banned industrial chemicals linked to neurological and skin defects in humans and to cancer in animals.

As early as 1965 – two years before the first truckload of sludge made its way to Ringwood – officials were warning Ford that dumping or building on the mountain could have serious consequences for the watershed.

A Ford subsidiary, Ringwood Realty, had come to town with a grandiose proposal to build a $50 million mini-city – complete with housing, schools, a shopping center and an industrial park – on a 900-acre tract it had acquired for $500,000.

The plan was opposed by the protectors of the Wanaque Reservoir. The city was never built.

In 1967, Ford’s subsidiary again ran afoul of local officials. Ringwood health officials chided the company for allowing two garbage haulers to dump in Cannon and Peters mines. The haulers, according to Ford, were dumping tree stumps and grass clippings from Connecticut – not waste from the factory. But health officials said they had not been notified of the dumping as required by law. They ordered the dumping stopped.

Seven days later, Ford signed O’Connor to haul the factory’s sludge the 10 miles from Mahwah to Ringwood. The state and local health departments and the New Jersey Bureau of Mines complained that the mines were a bad place for industrial waste, but they didn’t stop the dumping this time.

No state permits were needed until 1970 – at which point O’Connor got a landfill permit and continued hauling sludge up the mountain.

The land may have been used before as a dump, but O’Connor was bringing in industrial waste, and in quantities that boggle the mind. In 1969 alone – O’Connor hauled to Ringwood for four years – the Mahwah factory generated 84,000 cubic yards of waste, including 1.3 million gallons of paint sludge. That’s enough waste to fill 25 Olympic swimming pools.

“The disposal of Mahwah plant waste at the Ringwood site was approved by the appropriate authorities; it was not illegal,” said a Ford spokesman, Tony Bianchini of Holt, Mulroy & Germann.

Much of the sludge remains where it was dumped. The federal government listed the tract as a Superfund cleanup site nearly 20 years ago, but declared the mountain clean after Ford removed sludge from just a portion of its old dumping ground. Since then, Ford’s contractors have been called back four times to finish the job. In May, a federal official said only half the sludge has been removed.

Alarming ingredients

How dangerous is paint sludge?

In June, a consultant hired by The Record tested a chunk of sludge dug from Angie Van Dunk’s driveway at Peters Mine Road and Margaret King Avenue. It contained lead at 100 times the state safety standard for soil. Antimony, a silvery-white metal that can cause heart and lung problems, was also 100 times the level considered safe. Arsenic was nearly nine times the safety standard. Chromium was double the safety level.

Volatile organic compounds like xylenes and ethylbenzene were also present in hazardous concentrations, according to the analysis of the testing company, Aqua Pro-Tech Laboratories of Fairfield.

Long-term exposure to any of these chemicals is dangerous: Arsenic can cause lung cancer and skin disorders. Chromium increases the risk of lung cancer. Xylenes can wreak havoc on liver and kidneys and damage fetuses. Exposure to even low levels of lead can cause permanent damage, especially to a child’s developing brain.

Some of those elements served as thinners or resins; others gave the paint its color.

How much sludge did the plant produce in its 25 years? Thirty million gallons, according to an estimate based on Ford’s documents.

Some cleanup work in Ringwood has been temporarily halted. The sludge is just too contaminated to be accepted by the toxic landfill in Michigan where it was being carted, EPA officials say.

Sickness up and down the lane

On a humid night in June, government scientists came to Ringwood to confirm what the Ramapoughs have believed for a generation: Some cancer rates are elevated in the neighborhood.

For residents, this was a moment of mixed emotions. For years, nobody had believed them. Not when thyroid cancer struck Bob DeGroat’s boy or when Fayelynn Van Dunk’s little girl nearly bled to death from a rare platelet disorder. And not when young Collin Milligan died of a tumor.

In fact, in the years since residents stormed an EPA hearing in 1988 to complain about all the sickness on the mountain, federal officials had issued two reports saying the contamination posed no health risks. They did so without ever talking to residents or their doctors.

Now, the Ph.D. stood in front with his PowerPoint presentation at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, a hub in the Ramapough community, where they’ve mourned their dead and plotted lawsuits against Ford. He stated that six male residents had developed lung cancer over the years – three times what epidemiologists expected to find.

The lung cancer cases are “statistically significant,” said Jerald Fagliano, program manager for the state Department of Health’s hazardous site health evaluation program.

Charles DeFreese – the man who got up early all those years to pick through Ford’s castoffs – was most likely one of those statistics. He died four years ago at age 55.

Other cancers were also elevated: bladder cancer in men and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in both sexes. But scientists can’t be sure whether the statistics show a real cancer cluster, with an environmental cause, or just a terrible coincidence. There just aren’t enough numbers – or large enough numbers – to know. Was the cancer caused by the arsenic and chromium in the soil or by all the cigarette smoking? What about all the unexplained skin rashes, the asthma and rare blood disorders?

The answers may never come, experts say.

“It’s incredibly difficult to untangle,” said Daniel Wartenberg, director of environmental epidemiology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway.

The Ramapoughs have retained attorneys – with the Alabama branch of the Johnnie Cochran law firm and the firm of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – but they have not filed any lawsuits.

“No one ever told us that stuff was dangerous, and they never asked anyone up here if we want all the things that have been put in our neighborhood – recycling center, power lines, and all that stuff they dumped,” said Linda DeFreese, Charles’ widow. “They just did whatever they wanted to us, and now we’re all sick from it.”

The Ramapoughs are convinced the government doesn’t really want to know the truth. Even the latest report on cancers was based on disease and death records. Health officials still refuse to go door to door to document the tales of suffering.

“That’s not how we operate,” said Arthur Block, senior regional representative of the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. “We don’t do individual health assessments.”

If only they would come, says Myrtle Van Dunk, they would see there is sickness in house after house, sickness far out of proportion to a community of 400 or so.

“How can they tell us how sick we are when they haven’t even sat down to talk to us?” she asked. “Their numbers are wrong. We have a lot more sick people than they say we do.”

Indeed, on tiny Van Dunk Lane, folks tell story after story of misery.

A while back, the EPA hauled away a huge swath of the lava-like sludge – the size of two minivans – from Bob DeGroat’s back yard. Small patches still pock the front yard. He wonders if this is what gave his son Robert thyroid cancer when he was 10. He wonders if it caused his granddaughter’s nosebleed this winter, so severe she had to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.

Down the road is the house where Collin Milligan used to live. The boy had Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. His mother, Kelly DeGroat, said the chemotherapy and radiation couldn’t stop the tumors. They attacked first his spine, then his pelvis.

He died at home on Oct. 26, 2001, blind and paralyzed.

Three weeks after they lost Collin, his older cousin next door died. Pauline Wright was a young mother and pretty preschool aide aching to be a real teacher.

That was cancer, too. Now Pauline’s parents are raising her two kids.

The suffering on Van Dunk Lane doesn’t stop. Five-year-old Donovan Van Dunk was born with a kidney defect as well as a rare autoimmune disease, Henoch-Schönlein purpura, said his mother, Fayelynn Van Dunk. Recently, she said, his backside and legs were covered in a rash, his testicles swollen and his leg joints aching. Experts aren’t sure what causes the disease, but they say exposure to chemicals may be one of the triggers.

Donovan’s sister Brianne, a beautiful girl with dark eyes and a mane of curls, was diagnosed with a similarly rare blood disorder when she was 3, Fayelynn said.

“She started throwing up blood,” Fayelynn said. “She was almost bleeding to death and we didn’t know it.”

A nurse told The Record that the girl has outgrown the illness, immune thrombocytopenic purpura. But Fayelynn fears it could return.

And that’s not the end of the family’s troubles. All four children have asthma. One afternoon, 13-year-old Oceania puffed on her inhaler. Asthma caught Fayelynn’s breath, too, as she trudged up the sharp incline to her faded blue house. As her breathing returned to normal, she pulled a lighter out of her tight top and smoked.

“I shouldn’t,” she acknowledged. “But I get bitchy if I don’t.”

Betrayed by the land they love

Kelly DeGroat knows what outsiders say: “Those mine people.”

Poor folks who don’t take care of themselves.

Making up stories so they can sue Ford and get rich.

Poor folks, they say, whose genes have been weakened by marrying for generations within their own little community of Van Dunks and Manns and DeGroats, related every which way.

Whatever the cause of the Ramapoughs’ health problems, the fact is their environment is contaminated. Because their very existence depends on the vegetables they grow, the fish they catch and the animals they hunt, the contamination is inescapable.

“I’m not just worried about my children, but my children’s children,” Kelly DeGroat said. “What will this place be like for them? Will our children even be around to have their own children?”

The Record tested a stream in the neighborhood and found it tainted with benzene, a chemical known to cause leukemia and other blood disorders. Residents say paint sludge was dumped near the stream’s source. The stream flows DayGlo orange – colored by iron – beside a spot where children used to wait for their school bus. The iron could come from the indigenous ore in the area or from ferric chloride, a chemical found in paint sludge.

Francine Van Dunk remembers when the stream ran clear and she collected it in jugs for drinking water.

In 2001, her husband, Arthur, got the terrible news. He had a tumor so rare it bewildered even the experts. “It’s in God’s hands,” they told Francine.

Arthur, a deliveryman who’d spent much of his life hiking and hunting on the mountain, had pancreatic cancer. Dr. Audrey Hamilton, his oncologist at the Denville offices of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, called the tumor “a very rare bird. We were perplexed.”

He died two years ago at age 54.

A toxicologist who once worked for the EPA has surveyed the area for the Ramapoughs. He says there’s an added health threat from what scientists call “toxic synergism” – the hazard that can occur when chemicals interact.

“People are living cheek to jowl in this stuff,” said Bruce Moholt, the toxicologist.

Angie Van Dunk is convinced the sludge in her driveway – sludge tested by The Record – gave her 4-year-old son lead poisoning. The Record’s test found even the dirt alongside the sludge exceeded safety standards for lead and arsenic.

“He keeps putting his hands in his mouth while he plays in the dirt,” Angie said, as her son chased his cousins across the yard, fingers to lips.

Scientists recently concluded that there is no safe threshold for lead exposure in children.

Doctors told Angie to keep her little boy away from the dirt when tests on file at Chilton Memorial Hospital in Pompton Plains found the lead in his blood was at 16 micrograms per deciliter – well over the 10 per deciliter the CDC considers unsafe. Angie and her kids moved out of her house in August and now shuttle between a cousin in West Milford and a sister in Paterson.

Angie doesn’t know if they’ll ever be able to return home. Sludge removal around houses has been delayed, EPA officials said, because the residents’ lawyers won’t allow them onto the properties. So the sludge just sits there in Angie’s driveway.

“This place is just dangerous,” Kelly DeGroat said.

Her son’s birthday is coming up. Time once again for Kelly and her surviving boys to hold hands in a circle around the pear tree in the yard that has become Collin’s memorial. They’ll say a prayer and release balloons with messages to Collin from his brothers.

Nearly four years after Collin’s death, there’s still sickness in the tidy ranch house adorned with pictures of Native Americans. Kelly’s 18-year-old, Devin, and 10-year-old, Deion, have asthma. At 35, Kelly underwent a hysterectomy because of painful fibroids.

Now, Devin has joint pain and swelling that keep him from playing sports. The doctors say it’s nothing.

That’s what they used to say about Collin.

Early warnings ignored

Even those who dumped the paint were anxious about its impact.

O’Connor didn’t like hauling sludge from the plant, but did so under pressure from Ford, according to Russell Kerestes, who ran the Ford operation for O’Connor.

“There was a great deal of concern on O’Connor’s part about the sludge. But it was our feeling that when it dried it became inert,” he said. “The paint sludge was a very small part of the whole operation. Wood and cardboard overwhelmed everything else.”

There were few environmental regulations at the time, Kerestes said. “The environment didn’t have the priority it has now,” he said. “The only real test for a landfill back then was if it was flammable or not.”

Shareholders in O’Connor’s Ford venture included Kerestes, a former banker who would go on to lead a trash-industry lobbying group, and attorney Joseph Letcher, a Bergen County undersheriff and later a municipal judge in Ho-Ho-Kus. The business was financed by a bank run by Garfield Mayor Gotthold Rose, a prominent Republican who once led the Bergen County detective squad.

Even so, O’Connor Trucking and Haulage was soon in deep financial trouble.

The company fell behind in removing Ford’s waste. Equipment kept breaking. Vandals set so many fires in Ringwood they had to hire a local man to guard the site with a pistol, Kerestes said.

“It was a 24-hour-a-day operation and all kinds of things happen in that type of operation,” Kerestes said.

Worse, organized crime wanted the Ford contract. Letcher said O’Connor talked to him about the mob in the late 1960s.

“He said they were putting pressure on him to turn over his business to them,” said Letcher, who maintains that he merely incorporated O’Connor’s Ford venture and had no role in the business beyond that.

O’Connor died in 1983. Attempts to reach a son in Pennsylvania were unsuccessful.

The company also ran afoul of Dean Noll, the vigilant and persistent protector of the Highlands watershed. Now deceased, Noll was chief engineer of the Wanaque Reservoir. He urged state agencies to close dumps and opposed development that might taint the reservoir.

Noll was farsighted. In a letter written to state environmental officials in the late 1960s, he warned that a generation could pass before the full impact of pollution became obvious.

In 1967, the year Ford began trucking plant waste to Ringwood, Noll fired off a protest. He kept up a steady drumbeat of objection. By 1971, he was taking dead aim at Ford’s dumping:

“Drainage through the existing landfill operation is polluting [a stream through the site] which is only 8,000 feet along the run of the stream from the Wanaque Reservoir,” Noll wrote to state environmental officials.

Ford’s own documents from the time show company officials felt Noll was right.

In an interoffice memo the automaker gave to the EPA recently, one Ford executive said: “The area used as a dumpsite for many years is leaching into a public water supply and represents a contingent liability.”

In another document, a second Ford executive blamed O’Connor for getting the company in trouble in Ringwood: “This stream became definitely polluted as a result of paint and other refuse finding its way into the water course.”

Ford officials decided O’Connor had to go.

In April of 1971, the company fired O’Connor and hired Industrial Services of America, a Kentucky-based firm that held disposal contracts at Ford plants in Louisville. ISA would go on to become a national player in the waste business. In making the move, Ford expected that ISA would be able to dump in Ringwood. But the permit for dumping there was already in jeopardy – and would ultimately be revoked.

“I go to a big meeting with these Ford people and they say we have this land, these mines, but they also have these people that live on it,” recalled ISA founder Harry Kletter in an interview this summer.

Kletter said he told Ford executives that, as an out-of-state company, he needed to bring in a local hauler to help with the job. Kletter, now semiretired as ISA’s “chief visionary officer,” said one of his company’s local salesman recommended a carting family based in New York’s Orange County.

“I didn’t know too much of their background, he said, “but having been around for a while, I knew there were some shadows.”

Truckers dodge police

During the eight years he hauled Ford’s sludge, Charlie Oetzel played a cat-and-mouse game with the police. He and other truck drivers would leave the Ford plant with a 20-cubic-yard truckload of waste and get directions on the road via radio.

The sludge went wherever the cops weren’t watching, he said.

Oetzel remembers unloading sludge by a stream that fed the Ramapo River. The water ran green, blue, red and yellow, he said. The battery acid burned through work gloves.

“It stunk like the devil, it did,” said Oetzel, now 76 and retired in Monroe, N.Y. “Especially in the warm weather. … You got a lot of fumes coming off the load. You’d look in the mirror and you could see the fumes coming off of it.”

In the 1970s, Oetzel drove for the Mongellis. The Mongellis were the family that Kletter’s ISA brought in. The family had had a tenuous connection with Ford before ISA arrived. Ringwood Realty had allowed their trucks to dump in Ringwood in 1967.

The family’s mob connections would come to light later. The 1989 report of New Jersey’s SCI said that Louis J. Mongelli was an associate of Vincent “Chin” Gigante, the muttering, bathrobe-wearing boss of the Genovese crime family. The Chin’s brother was on the Mongelli payroll, the report said.

In 1992, Louis and brother Robert pleaded guilty to federal racketeering, bribery and money laundering charges related to their hauling business. Two years later, Louis vanished into the federal witness-protection program. The Record couldn’t locate Robert or Louis Mongelli, but in an interview this summer their younger brother Joseph denied that the family had any connections to organized crime.

Kletter maintains that Ford’s Mahwah waste was handled properly while he was on the job.

“I was up there a lot. I had [contracts at several] plants and I was responsible to Ford,” he said. “So I had people going up there all the time to make sure it was handled correctly.”

Within two years, Kletter said, his company was out of the picture and the Mongellis were in control of Ford’s toxic waste.

In the Mahwah plant’s final years, haulers dumped Ford’s waste anywhere they could – in landfills, on farms, near streams that fed the Ramapo River and above waters that fed the Wanaque Reservoir. Organized crime ruled the trash business, and the automaker employed contractors that dumped according to the mob’s rules.

Oetzel remembers routinely being ordered by the Mongellis to break the law. He covered his truck’s logos with magnetic signs to conceal their identity from police.

Oetzel said he dumped Ford’s paint sludge in more than a dozen landfills and other sites in New Jersey and upstate New York between 1972 and 1980.

He remembers dumping near the Wanaque Reservoir and in Wanaque’s municipal landfill, now the upcounty campus of Passaic County Community College. In the woods behind the school, The Record this summer found about a dozen 55-gallon industrial drums, the kind sometimes used by Ford. No paint sludge was visible on the land.

Oetzel often headed south to Kearny or other landfills in the Meadowlands. A trail of spilled sludge would slop behind him on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Even farmers waved the trucks in. Another retired Mongelli driver, who asked to remain unidentified for fear of retribution, said he dumped in woods and swamps next to upstate New York farms. The farmers were paid about $1,000 a truckload by the Mongellis, the second driver said.

Oetzel said he usually dumped at landfills authorized to accept only household trash – in early morning or late afternoon, when no one was around to see. Dump workers bulldozed a hole in the garbage for Ford’s waste. Oetzel would back up his vehicle, tip back the truck bed and let sludge slide out like melted cheese. The hole was quickly covered, the evidence buried.

Oetzel hauled to the Warwick landfill, a private dump in the woods above Greenwood Lake. The lake drains into the Wanaque Reservoir system.

Bill Decker, the landfill’s caretaker, described the illegal dumping in a tape-recorded interview later used as evidence by a New York State Assembly committee investigating toxic waste haulers. He told of a steady stream of “paint, lacquer, brake fluid – all that [expletive] from the Ford plant; that’s what’s running down in there; that’s what’s going in the water table.”

New York shut the landfill in 1980. Weeks later, Decker was found dead on local railroad tracks. The cause was listed as heart failure, though neighbors told New York State’s Assembly Environment Committee that the middle-aged Decker had no heart problems.

At the Wallkill landfill in Orange County, Donald “Dutch” Smith ran a bulldozer from 1971 until the dump closed in 1974. Once a week, he remembers, trucks pulled in with metal and cardboard barrels stamped “Ford Motor Co.” and “Mahwah Plant.”

“They dumped stuff way up in the back, in different places, in special holes and stuff like that, so you know they was dumping stuff that wasn’t supposed to be dumped,” said Smith, 75, who still lives in a ramshackle trailer next to the landfill. “I was digging down right to the water table to dump stuff, and you wasn’t supposed to do that either.”

The government tried to bring some order to this toxic Wild West in 1976. Congress imposed new rules on the disposal of hazardous waste. Every shipment of industrial waste would have to include a manifest, paperwork meant to track the material “from cradle to grave.” Two years later, New Jersey imposed its own manifest system.

The Mongellis and others ran their trucks right through those laws.

Mobsters set up shell companies. Truckers falsified manifests. New Jersey, praised for some of the country’s toughest laws, had only four inspectors to track thousands of truck movements each month.

The environmental laws had an unintended consequence: Unscrupulous haulers got rich. They used the stringent new requirements to justify higher fees – then went ahead and dumped hazardous waste wherever they could get away with it.

A 55-gallon drum of chemicals that had been hauled for $20 now cost up to $100, said Harold Kaufman, a star government informer who worked for mafia haulers while undercover for the FBI.

Moving the Mahwah sludge could mean as much as $500,000 a year in profit. And that didn’t include the old batteries, cardboard, waste oil and other trash the Ford plant pumped out every day.

“The biggest contract in New Jersey,” Kaufman called it.

As the dumping continued, the Mongellis prospered. Joseph Mongelli said the family also hauled for four Ford facilities in Michigan.

He said the company properly disposed of all of Ford’s sludge at the old Bergen County landfill in Lyndhurst, now part of the massive EnCap development.

Ford’s sludge will probably never be completely accounted for. Millions of gallons essentially disappeared. Mob-connected haulers didn’t keep records – at least, not honest ones.

What Ford officials knew about the dumping is less clear.

The police officers and prosecutors who pursued illicit dumpers during the last years of the Mahwah plant say mob haulers had to have inside help to keep their exorbitant contracts.

“Somebody at Ford had to be greased,” said Dirk Ottens, a retired state police detective who led several toxic-dumping investigations in New Jersey in the 1970s.

Ottens and former partner Jack Penny said many industries fell under the sway of shady carters at the time.

“The mentality then was: I give it to a licensed hauler, he’ll take care of it,” said A. Patrick Nucciarone, who tried environmental cases at the time for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark. “Is that criminal? Probably not. Is it negligent? Probably so.”

No one inside the Mahwah plant was ever charged. Ford, for its part, declined to answer questions about past waste haulers and practices, telling The Record it had “limited historical records.”

But it’s clear that even after the last car – a two-tone Fairmont Futura – rolled off the line in Mahwah, Ford couldn’t escape the mob. Four years after the plant closed in 1980, it hired the Mongellis to help clean up the waste still on its property.

A man’s dreams upended

Trucks have been hauling sludge in Ringwood again. Only this time, they’ve been taking it off the mountain.

Surveyors came out this summer to search the woods for sludge now hidden under lush tangles of weeds. They marked tree branches and rocks with pink fluorescent spray paint, though they never told residents what the marks meant.

A tractor-trailer rumbled past Mickey Van Dunk’s house as he gardened one May afternoon. He tended the tidy rows of onions peeking out of the earth. There’s not much else he can do. The OxyContin quits working in half the time it’s supposed to.

Hardened boils look burned into his 34-year-old face. He’s found it’s just easier to tell people it’s from a car accident.

A massive scar runs across his back where doctors removed a kickball’s worth of pus and tissue. He lost huge swaths of skin when they cut out infected sweat glands. In all he’s had surgery 17 times since his skin first erupted in boils when he was a teen.

He has a rare condition called hidradenitis suppurativa. “He’s one of the most severe cases I’ve ever seen. He has it on his face even, which is unusual,” said his surgeon, Dr. Parmad Ganchi, a Harvard-trained expert at UMDNJ in Newark.

The disease seems to be genetic in some respects; but many who have studied it believe exposure to pollutants can make it worse.

In his dreams, Mickey Van Dunk is outdoors, wading in water or ice fishing. All the things he used to do on the mountain before he was sick. He dreamed of having a brood of boys and driving backhoes and dump trucks at construction sites. They’d live in the house where he grew up, where Mickey and his brothers wore a path from the yard up the hill into Ringwood State Park. That’s were he worked 12 years ago as a laborer, his last job.

The smell of his skin and the pus drives him crazy some days. He’s thought of suicide. “I’m so tired of going under the blade,” he said.

He learned to undress in the dark to spare his wife, Linda. They tried to have children, but Mickey is sterile now, he says.

“They told me there’s something in my body that keeps building this pus,” he said. “I really believe it comes from all this crap.”

Janet, his mom, is convinced her boy was sickened by the contamination that is all around them, in the woods they hunt in, the fish they eat, maybe even in the 20 pounds of deer meat in the freezer.

“Nobody’s going to change my mind,” she said.

She’s certain of something else. Mickey won’t have any more surgery.

“Why keep cuttin’ on him?” she said as she smoked a cigarette on the front porch. “There’s nothing left to cut.”

Staff Writer Clint Riley contributed to this article. E-mail: toxiclegacy@northjersey.com.

(SIDEBAR, page A18)

How paint becomes pollution

Ford had come a long way from the days when its headstrong founder was quoted – perhaps apocryphally – in a classic misreading of the car-buying market. By 1955, when the Mahwah assembly plant opened for business, Ford buyers could choose from an artist’s palette of color when ordering their vehicles – Monte Carlo Red, Academy Blue, Meadow Green. But that high-gloss finish came with a cost to the environment. The painting of cars produced vast quantities of waste, from volatile organic compounds in thinners to heavy metals in the pigments. Up to 5 gallons of paint sludge was produced in the manufacture of each vehicle. Today, sludge amounts are reduced by recycling and other process improvements. What follows is a simplified description of how paint was handled at the Mahwah plant.

Henry Ford


Partially assembled vehicle bodies rode the assembly line to the paint shop. There the sheet metal was chemically cleaned, then primed, then topcoated. Paint was applied in booths, using hand-held spray guns.

Making sludge

The overspray was blown out of the booth through a screen of water – essentially a small waterfall that stripped the paint from the air. The paint-laden water flowed into a large clarifying tank, where chemical compounds such as ferric chloride and lime were added to extract heavy metals and other paint solids from the solution. The water was discarded. Often the resulting sludge was disposed of as slurry; it had the consistency of molten lava and an intense paint smell. Other times, it was allowed to harden before disposal.

Dumping it

The sludge was loaded onto 20-yard container trucks and transported to landfills, where bulldozers plowed it into position. For the most part, it sat there and hardened over time, with little further evaporation of solvents or water. As a result, the volume of the sludge stayed the same, with the solvents still trapped within. Even decades later, a strong smell of paint solvents is released when chunks of paint sludge are broken apart.

Sources: Ford documents filed with Mahwah officials; Richard W. Chapin, P.E., Chapin Engineering; former Ford and hauler employees.

(SIDEBAR, page S22)

Ford’s plant in Mahwah

It was an icon of a different time in America – when a generation emerged from World War II with an insatiable hunger for the good life and the American cars that were its hallmark. Detroit stoked that appetite, churning out model after model with ever more horsepower, flash and comfort.

The No. 2 American automaker boasted its Mahwah plant was the largest of its kind in the world. Built at a cost of $70 million as a replacement for a ’30s-era factory in Edgewater, the behemoth ultimately occupied 50 acres of a 177-acre meadow between Route 17 and the Ramapo River, just south of the New York State line.

In 1955, Detroit had a near-monopoly on the American car market; by 1980, it faced stiff competition from Japanese and European rivals. Still, in its 25 years of operation, the plant produced nearly 6 million vehicles, from full-size Galaxies and F-150 trucks in its early years, to downsized Monarchs and Fairmonts.

But that productivity had a cost: It generated vast amounts of waste.

25 years of cars and castoffs

In just three years, from 1968 to 1970, the Mahwah plant produced:

*-Paint sludge: 3,403,644 gallons

*-Kolene sludge: 28,478 gallons*

*-Thinners, oils, liquids: 73,000 gallons

*-Wood dunnage: 1,525,000 cubic feet**

*-Paper: 190,000 tons

*-Cardboard: 490,000 cubic feet

*-Cars: 495,088

*-Commercial vehicles: 163,968

*-Vehicles produced in the life of the plant: 4,594,243 cars and 1,318,522 trucks

* Kolene is a chemical compound used to clean paint from assembly-line equipment.

** Dunnage is packing material used in the shipping of parts.

Source: Ford Motor Co. documents provided to EPA

The EPA has no records on total sludge amounts. Our estimate is based on information contained in state Department of Environmental Protection documents.

Facts and figures

*-First car, specially equipped for the disabled, rolled off the line on July 16, 1955. Last car, a two-tone, two-door Fairmont Futura, was produced in June 1980.

*-The plant tripled the output of the Edgewater plant, which had opened in 1930 and produced 1,817,938 cars in its 25 years.

*-During the transition from Edgewater to Mahwah, only 16 hours of operation were lost, as equipment and stock were moved 26 miles in a convoy of trucks.

*-The Mahwah tract was a golf course before Ford acquired it. Indians had once held powwows on the land; it was also used by Colonial troops as a bivouac area during the Revolutionary War.

*-Opened at 1.5 million square feet, the plant was expanded to 2.3 million square feet.

*-The plant had 10 miles of production aisles, including assembly lines and storage areas. It also held experimental labs, a 93,000-square-foot shipping and receiving platform, three air-conditioned cafeterias, medical facilities, a physics lab, a metallurgy lab, and a chemical lab.

*-Payroll in 1960 was around $25 million for 4,350 workers, rising to $84.9 million in 1979. The average worker made $159 a week in 1965.

*-At its peak, the plant turned out a car every minute.

* The plant produced 6,200 1958 Edsels, the car that quickly became synonymous with failure.

*-Vehicles made at the plant included LTDs, Galaxies, Granadas, Mercury Monarchs, Fairmonts, Zephyrs and light trucks.

*-In 1974, 2,400 workers lived in New Jersey and 2,050 in New York. Ford was the largest employer in Bergen County.

*-In 1962, the plant consumed 235,320 kilowatt-hours of power a day, enough to supply a small city. The monthly electric bill was around $68,000 and had grown to more than $500,000 at closing.

*-The factory used 1.2 million gallons of water every production day and 1.3 million cubic feet of natural gas.

(SIDEBAR, page A23)

A Ford timeline

*-July 1955: Ford opens new assembly plant in Mahwah to replace a 1930 factory in Edgewater. Ford boasts that its new plant is the largest in the world.

*-January 1965: A Ford subsidiary buys 900 acres in Ringwood from an iron-mining company. Hiding its connection to the auto giant, Ringwood Realty first proposes a development, but gives up on the idea amid problems trying to relocate occupants of the miners’ homes and concerns raised by the operators of the nearby Wanaque Reservoir, the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission.

*-October 1967: Water district asks the state Department of Health to withhold approval of a landfill in Ringwood until the plan can be evaluated. Later, in a letter to the Ringwood borough council, chief water district engineer Dean Noll says the agency opposes the plan because of the risk of contamination.

*-December 1967: Ford contracts Harrison-based O’Connor Trucking and Haulage to remove waste from Mahwah. Over the next four years, paint sludge and other waste is dumped in the mines and forests on the tract by O’Connor. Sludge is later found in many places there.

*-March 1969: A Ringwood police report describes how a bulldozer had fallen into the open pit of Peters Mine. It is never recovered. Later reports detail numerous fires and complaints about nighttime visits by waste-hauling trucks.

*-April 1971: Ford executives decide to fire O’Connor, citing performance issues and financial problems. Instead, they hire ISA, a Kentucky company that hauls waste for a Ford plant in Louisville. ISA forms a partnership with a mob-connected carter based in Orange County, N.Y. Over the next decade, Ford waste is handled by firms that routinely dispose of the paint sludge, chemicals and other castoffs in unauthorized locations throughout New York and New Jersey.

*-June 1972: Ford drops plans to keep dumping in Ringwood after deciding it can’t meet state environmental requirements.

*-December 1973: Ford donates 109 acres, including the heavily polluted Peters Mine dump area, to the state, which adds it to Ringwood State Park in 1979. The transaction completes Ford’s divestiture of the entire 900-acre property; other portions had been sold to utility companies for transmission lines and to a private developer. Another tract is donated to Ringwood.

*-June 1980: Ford closes the Mahwah plant. The company ultimately spends nearly $10 million to clean up the site, which is sold to developers.

*-September 1983: Ringwood tract becomes a Superfund site. By 1988, Ford contractors remove 7,000 cubic yards of paint sludge, at cost of $1.6 million.

*-January 1988: Sheraton Crossroads opens on the Mahwah site.

*-September 1988: EPA chooses the least expensive of five follow-through options for Ringwood: For 30 years, Ford must monitor groundwater in areas where sludge was removed. The agency could have insisted that landfills be capped, groundwater treated, and leaching prevented.

*-January 1990: Ford is called back to Ringwood to remove 727 tons of paint sludge and 61 drums of waste from the O’Connor landfill. The waste had been uncovered during site work for a proposed radio tower.

*-November 1994: EPA declares the site clean enough to be delisted by Superfund.

*-April 1995: Ford is called back to Ringwood to remove 5 cubic yards of paint sludge from back yard of a home.

*-December 1997: Ford is called back to Ringwood to remove 30 cubic yards of paint sludge from O’Connor landfill.

*-March 2002: Less than halfway through its groundwater-monitoring program, Ford petitions the EPA to stop tests, saying that nothing hazardous is being detected; Ringwood and the Sierra Club object.

*-Spring 2004: EPA orders Ford to do another cleanup; tests by the company detect elevated levels of lead, benzene and arsenic in groundwater.

*-February 2005: EPA orders search for paint sludge around all 48 homes in the Ringwood Mines area. Ford conducts survey of the original 900-acre tract.

*-March 2005: The New Jersey Environmental Justice Task Force, a group charged with ensuring that minorities and the poor receive fair treatment in environmental matters, recommends relisting of Ringwood as a Superfund site.

*-June 2005: State Health Department releases survey that confirms what residents of the Ringwood dump area have suspected for years: They suffer from elevated rates of some cancers.

*-September 2005: Excavation work stopped in Ringwood after a Michigan landfill that’s been accepting the sludge refuses to take any more, saying it’s too contaminated.

Marxism and Keynesianism

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 4:38 pm

Over the past month, the Crooked Timber blog (referred to below as CT) has posted three attacks on Marxism by John Quiggin, an Australian economist who I have a particular distaste for after he deleted something I wrote about Yugoslavia that went against the liberal/social democratic orientation of the blog’s professorial co-owners five years ago.

The first installment was titled Marxism without revolution: class that makes about as much sense as writing about Christianity without god or Opera without singing. It is basically a Panglossian vision of the world in tune with the privileged status of a don: “The creation of a democratic welfare state, funded primarily by progressive taxation, produced societies with a more equal distribution of economic and political power than any seen since the emergence of agriculture, and with better standards of living for virtually everyone in the developed world.” Who needs revolution when things are going so good? Since Quiggin has never written a single word about people living in places like the Congo or the Philippines, one can understand his fat and jolly burgher stance.

The next was titled Marxism without revolution: crisis. In it he accuses Marxists of being incapable of offering proposals that can “stabilise the capitalist economy.” Well, fancy that. By contrast, Quiggin offers up Keynesianism as just the ticket: “I read the historical evidence as showing that the system can and should be stabilised to a significant extent, as was done during the postwar decades, using Keynesian macroeconomic policies and tight regulation of the financial system.” Of course, the question of what Keynesianism can offer those underdeveloped countries that play such a secondary role in his ideological worldview is never considered. More about that anon.

The last was titled Marxism without revolution: Capital. It is perhaps the 2000th attempt to dismiss the labor theory of value that is the foundation for Marx’s analysis of politics and much else. There’s not a single thing that Quiggin writes that hasn’t already been written before, starting with Eugen Bohm-Bawerk’s 1896 Karl Marx and the Close of His System. The never-ending assault on the labor theory of value reminds me of the tale of the princess and the pea. Like the pea that is Marxism concealed under a dozen thick mattresses, princesses like Quiggin are so irritated by the thing jabbing at their ribs that they cannot get a proper night’s sleep.

Just to make sure that his readers get his point, Quiggin throws in another tidbit titled You say you want a revolution  that opines “Most attempts at revolution fail, leaving the participants and the oppressed worse off than before.” The article unsurprisingly does not refer to the role of imperialist armies in making them fail. Of course, given Quiggin’s record on Yugoslavia, we must assume that he saw NATO as freedom fighters when they were raining uranium-tipped bombs on the dastardly Serbs.

Quiggin’s thoughts are exceedingly banal and hardly worth commenting on, but the most recent item on Marxism at CT does deserve some attention. It is a link to an article titled Zombie Marx by Mike Beggs  that appears in the latest issue of Jacobin, a print quarterly edited by Bhaskar Sunkara, a DSA’er who was subbed to the Marxism mailing list briefly. CT excerpts a Joan Robinson article titled Open Letter from a Keynesian to a Marxist that Mike Beggs considered as complementary to his own article, stating that he “would rather have the kind of Marx in Joan Robinson’s bones than either a Frankenstein Marx pieced together from scraps of quotations, or a Zombie Marx, embalmed in the 1860s and reanimated whole.”

It is a bit difficult figuring out what this “embalmed” version of Marxism amounts to. Beggs doesn’t appear to appreciate what economist Andrew Kliman (a member of a tiny sect grouped around the thoughts of Raya Dunayevskaya) is up to:

But in each generation, there are others who have defended an “orthodox” Marxian economics as a separate and superior paradigm, which can only be contaminated by absorbing ideas from elsewhere. The pugnacious Andrew Kliman, for example, opens his Reclaiming Marx’s Capital with the line “The economists have changed Marx, in various ways; the point is to interpret him – correctly.”

Kliman certainly is a piece of work. A one-time member of a listserv established to “discuss controversial issues in political economy”, he was so volatile over interpretations of the LTV that differed from his own that the moderator was forced to unsub him. He was also involved in some legal action against a journal put out by the URPE collective after they rejected one of his submissions.

But Beggs doesn’t even have Kliman in mind. He writes:

What I call Zombie Marx is different – the reanimation of a corpse which still holds organically together in some way. This is the reconstruction of Marxist economics as a coherent body of thought, not a collection of quotations. … It is unfair to single out Marxists. Rather, it is scholasticism that is the problem – the need to ground everything in a 140-year-old text. It would be wrong to say that the likes of Kliman are dogmatic in the sense that they demand unthinking acceptance of everything in Capital – it is obviously a lot of intellectual hard work to “interpret Marx correctly.” It cannot be taken for granted that Marx was right; it must be proven anew with each generation, against both rival interpretations and the revisions the previous generation had found necessary to make.

I understand Beggs’s unwillingness to name names, but without an example of what he is talking about when it comes to “Zombie Marx”, I remain somewhat at a loss to understand what the problem is. Ultimately we have to rely on his own approach to Karl Marx’s writings that sounds okay, as far as it goes.

Mostly Beggs has an aversion to the kind of Talmudic-like exegesis of Karl Marx’s Capital that Kliman engages in. Others more prominent than Kliman are guilty, including David Harvey who Beggs describes as being susceptible to the same tendencies, relieved however by his “empiricism”. Beggs does not seem to mind if Marxist economists ground themselves on Marx’s Capital as long as they stay true to the underlying goals of Marx’s work, which is to “demonstrate the social preconditions that lie beneath the concepts of political economy, and especially their dependence on class relationships; and second, to demonstrate these social relations as historical, not eternal.”

It is a bit harder to figure out what Beggs thinks about the labor theory of value since his article is so heavily qualified when it comes to this business:

But the labor theory of value had problems of its own, most prominently the awkwardness involved in modifying labor values to take account of differences in capital intensity. Both Ricardo and Marx were well aware of the problem, but it is hard to avoid seeing Marx’s “transformation” solution as ad hoc in the manner of Ptolemy’s epicycles, even if put in a logically coherent form.

Ptolemy, just to remind you in case you had forgotten, wrote that the Sun revolved around the earth. I don’t think that Beggs finds Marx as outdated as Ptolemy but you have to assume that Joan Robinson’s wholesale rejection of the labor theory of value must have recommended itself to him sufficiently to state at the very end of his article: “As undead Marxes go, I would rather have the kind of Marx in Joan Robinson’s bones than either a Frankenstein Marx pieced together from scraps of quotations, or a Zombie Marx, embalmed in the 1860s and reanimated whole. That is a spirit that might haunt again.”

This brings me to my own take on such matters, which comes at things at a totally different angle. As I alluded to above, Keynesian economics makes very little sense outside of the framework of countries like Britain, the USA, Germany and Japan that are heavily based on manufacturing and that are capable of launching the kinds of ambitious programs that were identified with Roosevelt’s New Deal, British Labour governments, and the Swedish social democracy. What possible relevance do they have to countries that are not suffering from some downturn in the business cycle but a permanent structural weakness that is related to their place in the global economy? For example, what role could deficit spending play in a nation like Malawi or Zambia, where agriculture or mining are the primary revenue generators? Such nations will never escape from the poverty trap unless they free themselves from foreign domination and begin producing for human need rather than private profit. They will not become prosperous in Western European terms, no matter what propaganda Thomas Friedman writes, but at least they will be able to provide the basic necessities of life for its citizens, as Cuba has done despite embargo and military interventions from the “democracies”.

To go one step further, there is not much in Marx’s Capital that directly relates to the problems of countries like Malawi or Zambia. Marx was trying to analyze the origins of the prototypical capitalist society in writing about Britain, as well as illustrating the fundamental class relations embodied in the formula M-C-M’. As a sign of how insufficiently engaged he was in the problems of a nascent imperialism when he wrote Capital, just look at the preface to V. 1: “The country that is more developed industrially only shows to the less developed, the image of its own future.”

It was only toward the end of his life that Marx rejected this notion, seeing Britain’s role in India as one of “larceny”.

As someone who has a great deal of respect for Joan Robinson and even someone who questions the value of abstruse discussions of the labor theory of value (when I first came across the abbreviation LTV on the Internet in the early 90s, I could not figure out why some leftists were so exercised about the aircraft company Ling-Temco-Vought), I want to conclude with some thoughts on one of her most famous dictums.

In chapter 2 of her “Economic Philosophy,” she wrote:”As we see nowadays in South-East Asia or the Caribbean, the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”

Although he did not mention her name, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof repeated her observation in a January 14, 2009 article:

Mr. Obama and the Democrats who favor labor standards in trade agreements mean well, for they intend to fight back at oppressive sweatshops abroad. But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.

Fundamental to the Keynesian worldview is the notion that capitalism is dynamic enough of a system that it can generate jobs for everybody, even if they come as a result of imperialist domination. This view was challenged by the Monthly Review dependency theory school that was launched ironically by Paul Sweezy who by all accounts was as much of a Keynesian as he was a Marxist. However, I doubt that he would have ever recommended such policies to the people in Malawi or Zambia, a function of the Marxism that had much more weight in his thinking in the long run.

Finally, a word should be said about his long-time collaborator Harry Magdoff who actually held a post in FDR’s New Deal and who based on such prima facie evidence might have been seen as some kind of Keynesian in his own right. However, the evidence is much to the contrary according to this letter to a contributor that was made public in the January 1998 Monthly Review:

There are two aspects to the faith in what Keynesian interventionism can accomplish. One has to do with moderating or eliminating the business cycle. For this, there has to be confidence in the ability to foretell where and how far the economy is likely to turn. With this knowledge, followed by the requisite changes in monetary and fiscal policies, the business cycle can be tamed and economic insecurity overcome. As it turned out neither of these claims have substance. Forecasting is at best an art, not science, and even as an art, untrustworthy. Moreover, the tinkering with money, interest rates, and federal finance are more often than not lesser influences among the gale-force winds that tear through the economy. I don’t mean that money and fiscal policy are totally unimportant. Money has to be centrally managed for the economy to work. And at times the actions of the monetary authorities can make a real difference. For example, in a society which lives on credit, a sharp rise in the interest rate for the sake of controlling inflation may be able to hold back an inflationary wave, while at the same time causing heavy unemployment and many business failures. In general, the Fed’s fiddling with the money supply and interest rates is mostly a response to the needs of the financial community and has little, if anything, to do with creating jobs and promoting economic growth. The simple refutation about the claims for Keynesian intervention, however, is that there were three recessions during the “golden age.”

Read the letter here http://monthlyreview.org/1998/01/01/a-letter-to-a-contributor

Mann V. Ford

Filed under: Ecology,indigenous,racism,television — louisproyect @ 1:19 am

If someone asked you what came to mind when a huge multinational corporations was dumping toxic waste on indigenous peoples’ land, you are likely to think of far-off places like Ecuador where Chevron refuses to pay for the damage to land, water and the health of native peoples caused by oil run-off. This conflict between Indians and Chevron was documented in the film “Crude” that represented advocacy film-making at its finest.

As it turns out, a similar drama unfolded not 40 miles from New York in the 1990s when the Ramapough Mountain Indians sought damages against Ford Motor for dumping the toxic waste from their Mahwah plant into the soil, water and abandoned iron mines where the native peoples lived. A documentary titled “Mann V. Ford” that is every bit as powerful as “Crude” tells their story tomorrow night at 9pm on HBO, the premium cable channel that is one of the best places to go on television for hard-hitting political material. It is a sad commentary on the state of PBS’s Frontline that you need to go to cable TV to see such a film.

When you think of American Indians and environmental racism, you are likely to visualize reservations in New Mexico or Arizona where nuclear waste material is dumped. But the Indians who lived in suburban-style tract housing in New Jersey suffered more than any Indians in recent history. As children, they swam in nearby streams and rolled around on fields that contained paint and other toxic waste, including PCBs, Freon, heavy metals, lead and arsenic. Now in their forties and fifties, they are suffering cancer rates triple those of other people in New Jersey, a state infamous for environmental health hazards. Today, almost every home in Upper Ringwood, the town where they are based, has someone who died from cancer, or is suffering from diabetes, kidney stones, miscarriage, asthma, gastrointestinal disease or skin disorders.

Ford decided that these people were not worth worrying about since the general perception—racist to the core—was that the Ramapough Mountain Indians, who are descended from the Lenapes, were “trash” that deserved everything they got. They were seen as backward hill people who were culturally akin to other mountain peoples in the Ozarks or West Virginia. The assumption is that anybody who kept a car seat on his or her porch deserved to get cancer from Ford Motor toxic waste.

The documentary focuses on Wayne Mann, the lead plaintiff in the case. Mann is an articulate and passionate spokesman for his people. Like other members of this ethnic group, Mann obviously has African-American as well as Indian roots. This is the case for the Seminole people in Florida as well. He is advised by one of the lead attorneys, a feisty Blond-haired woman named Vicky Gilliam who hails from rural Louisiana and who had seen the impact of agricultural chemicals and oil spills on her own farming community. She is their Erin Brockovich.

Back in 1958, when I was in 8th grade, we went on a field trip to the Mahwah plant that had opened up three years earlier. The Ford employee who escorted around the plant kept making the point that this was the most modern and efficient auto plant the world had ever seen. Little did we suspect that 9 years later the plant management would decide to dump their waste in Upper Ringwood, obviously to save money. This was at a time when the reputation of American corporations was at an all-time high. The General Electric Theater aired on Sunday evening at 9pm, considered one of the most prestigious shows on television. Speaking for GE, Ronald reminded us that progress was their most important product. And all the while GE was dumping PCB’s in the Hudson River, the same way that Ford was dumping it in Indian country.

As is customary with HBO documentaries, they can be viewed on-demand from Time-Warner and other cable providers. If not, you can watch them on your computer if you are an HBO subscriber—a new feature available at www.hbogo.com.

July 16, 2011

Bolshevik newspapers: myth and reality

Filed under: media,revolutionary organizing,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

Premier issue of Pravda

For most aspiring vanguard party builders, the Bolshevik Party serves as a kind of gold standard worthy of emulation, even if the actual historical experience of that party remains far removed from contemporary versions of that history which tend to project back into the early 1900s patterns of behavior that Lenin would have never recognized.

Perhaps nothing is more essential to the task of building a new “Bolshevik” type party than a newspaper that will promulgate the party “program”. When James P. Cannon returned from Moscow in 1928, he resolved to create a new communist party that would be true to Lenin’s vision. Nothing was more necessary in that process than creating a newspaper based on a revolutionary program. Wasting no time, Cannon launched the Militant. That newspaper was seen as in the tradition of the Bolshevik press but the actual living history of the Bolshevik press had little to do with Cannon’s idealized version. As is so often the case, idealized versions of Bolshevik history can get the contemporary left in all sorts of trouble.

There are only two newspapers that can be considered the equivalent of the Militant in Bolshevik history, but neither of them turned out to be much of an equivalent—for better or for worse.

The first of the two is Iskra, the paper that consumed Lenin’s attention in “What is to be Done”. If you’ve ever read this article that was written in the heat of battle and that Lenin considered outpaced by events not five years after it was written, you might assume that the newspaper advocated by Lenin materialized following the 1903 conference where Lenin put forward his proposal.

In fact, Lenin’s proposal was defeated and Iskra remained under the control of his Menshevik opponents: Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich, Potresov and Martov; with strong support from Trotsky. Furthermore, the paper was published for only two years.

One interesting side-note on this. In his open letter Why I Resigned from the Iskra Editorial Board, Lenin reserved the right of a minority to express its views in a manner that is utterly at odds with our modern understanding of how to build a Leninist party: “Every circle, even of Rabocheye Dyelo-ists, is entitled, on joining the Party, to demand the opportunity to express and advocate its views.” Rabocheye Dyelo was, of course, the journal of the Economist tendency. Keep in mind, however, that Lenin wrote this article in 1903, long before the idea of a homogenous revolutionary party organized around the thoughts of Trotsky, Mao or Stalin had calcified.

Following the unsuccessful bid to establish Iskra as a revolutionary tribune, the next major attempt at publishing a Bolshevik newspaper in Czarist Russia was made in 1912 with the launching of Pravda, the same name as the ghastly official newspaper of the USSR years later.

Most of what will follow at this point is based on the article “Lenin and Pravda: 1912-1914” by R.C. Elwood that appeared in the June 1972 Slavic Review. I knew nothing about Elwood before reading this article, but was impressed enough to persuade me to put his “Reconsidering the Russian Revolution”, a collection of articles, on my “to-read list”, as well as his biography of Inessa Armand.

In 1910 when the Mensheviks approached Lenin, who was living in exile in Western Europe at the time, about the possibility of launching a legal worker’s daily, he was cool to the idea. He felt that a legal paper would foster the illusion that change could come through evolutionary means.

The Mensheviks managed to persuade the Bolsheviks who were still based in Russia to go ahead with such a newspaper, agreeing that it should be a true workers newspaper written by the workers themselves free from the factional disputes of the illegal émigré press. Lenin was persuaded to endorse the formation of a legal newspaper after he decided that the elections for the Fourth Duma allowed revolutionaries to exploit legal openings to make their case.

The first issue of Pravda appeared on April 22, 1912. Most of the articles were contributed to this new daily by Russian workers in more or less the same spirit as many online publications today, especially those that report directly from the fields of struggle. The paper was a big success initially, selling 40,000 to 60,000 copies of each issue in April and May. This was a period when workers were mobilized to protest the killing of gold miners at Lena on April 4th and eager to read a paper published in their own interests.

Despite this initial success, Lenin was not pleased. Pravda was far too conciliatory toward the Mensheviks. Stalin, who would ultimately gain a reputation as a factional thug, wrote an article that must have annoyed Lenin to no end. Titled “Our Aims”, it called for “unity at all costs”.

When Lenin submitted articles that ran contrary to this spirit, the editors routinely deleted passages that they found offensive. Lenin wrote them in complaint: “Why does Pravda persistently and systematically strike out any mention of the Liquidators both from my articles and from those of other colleagues?” Not only did the editors cut his articles, they occasionally rejected them completely. Lenin complained again: “To write ‘for the wastebasket’, that is, articles to be thrown out, is not very enjoyable.”

Despite heavy pressure from Lenin, the editorial board failed to publish articles that drew clear class lines for the upcoming Duma elections. Lenin might have been the nominal leader of the Bolshevik Party but Pravda enjoyed a kind of independence that no “Leninist” paper would think possible. Indeed, if Lenin had his way, that independence would have to be sacrificed in the name of the revolution. The point being made here is not that Pravda was the kind of newspaper that we should aspire to today but that the Bolshevik Party was not the well-oiled machine that so many people speaking in its name today would have us believe. It was a lot messier affair, reflecting no doubt the contradictions of the political situation in Russia.

Lenin grew even angrier when he learned that Pravda was publishing Bogdanov’s articles. He wrote Maxim Gorky, who had put up the funding for the paper, that Bogdanov’s articles were “the same old Machism-Idealism concealed in such a way that … the stupid editors of Pravda could not understand them.”

Matters came to a head on December 15, 1913 when 11 Menshevik deputies from the Fourth Duma voted to merge their newspaper with Pravda. Being too much for Lenin to accept, he called a high-level meeting to resolve what he saw as a crisis even if the unity-minded members of the two factions of the Russian social democracy saw otherwise. He managed to push through a reorganization of the editorial board that resulted in Iakov Sverdlov being named chief editor.

Before Sverdlov had a chance to purge the Mensheviks, he was arrested.  The paper suffered from other problems besides its inability to educate its readers about the dead-end of the kind of gradualism that was being promoted by the Cadets and implicitly supported by the Mensheviks. The paper’s leading contributors were always being arrested. The paper might have been legal but the Czarist cops thought nothing of illegally jailing its writers and editors.

In 1913, the repression escalated. On July 5th, the cops closed it down. But one week later it reemerged as Rabochaia Pravda. In 1914, Kamenev assumed editorial leadership, thus guaranteeing that the paper would at last reflect the thinking of the Central Committee. The paper did make big gains under Kamenev’s direction, reaching a circulation of 130,000 on its second anniversary. Just as Pravda was coming into its own as the definitive voice of the Russian social democracy, it was closed down for good in July 8, 1914.

Three years later, the paper began publishing again under the editorial co-direction of Kamenev and Stalin, advocating a policy of “pressuring” Kerensky for reform (not unlike the policy some leftists pursue with respect to Obama today) and advocating the continuation of the war on “revolutionary defensive” terms. At the March conference of the Bolshevik Party, Stalin advised unity with the Mensheviks. Writing from exile, Lenin began submitting articles to Pravda once again and as before they ended up in the wastebasket.

So except for the one year that Kamenev edited Pravda in 1914, you might make the case that a Bolshevik newspaper was more of an idea than a reality. The irony is that its vicissitudes were a reflection of the strength of the movement overall. The Russian social democracy reflected massive social formations in motion that were never operating at the same tempo or with the same immediate goals until October 1917.

Lenin was frustrated much of the time because he was dealing with people who were reflecting the relative backwardness of the social layers they emerged from or that they were responding to. It was a little bit like herding cats, as they put it, but these cats numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

The modern-day self-declared Bolsheviks do not have to bother with such distractions because they do not emerge out of a mass movement but out of the minds of small groups of people inspired by Lenin’s party but not fully understanding it. They think that by launching a newspaper modeled after a Bolshevik newspaper that never really existed in the real world they will be able to unleash forces through the power of their words that will ultimately transform the world.

Unfortunately, the class struggle does not move in a straight line and least of all in compliance with the directives of an ideologically purified newspaper. Without being too precise about this, I would propose that a newspaper might usefully follow the example of Pravda at least in one respect. In 1912 this newspaper was made up primarily of articles written by workers themselves. In the age of the Internet and in a period of deepening social crisis, something very much in the same spirit is urgently needed.

July 14, 2011

Three samurai movies

Filed under: Film,Japan — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

Now running concurrently with the NY Asian Film Festival is the Japan Society film series titled Japan Cuts that includes ten films that are co-presented with the NYAFF. This is a review of three samurai movies, two of which were part of the Japan Cuts festival and that I saw on Tuesday night: Hideyuki Hirayama’s “Sword of Desperation” and Shigemichi Sugita’s “The Last Ronin” (a ronin is a samurai without a master—just like Toshiro Mifune in “Yojimbo”.) The third is a NYAFF “director’s cut” version of “13 Assassins” by Takashi Miike that was shown on July 2nd, and also playing in a shortened form at the Cinema Village in New York that I saw last night.

A colleague at work, who is an expert on Japanese film, informed me that the director’s cut of “13 Assassins” includes scenes that are classic Miike. As someone who appreciates this director’s darkly florid imagination, particularly in his treatment of cruelty and violence (essential elements of samurai movies), I hope to see the director’s cut some day but have no problem recommending the shortened version that has a 96 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This review will make it even fresher.

I imagine that just about everybody has seen at least one samurai movie in their life. Ever since I saw Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” in 1961, I have made a point of taking in every work in this genre I can, treasuring above all the Samurai Trilogy directed by Yoji Yamada, an 80 year old who was once a member of the Japanese Communist Party and on record as saying that he tried to make some reference in his films “to man’s disaffection with society.”

These films are imbued with the bushido (way of the warrior) ethic that stresses blind loyalty to the master, bravery, chivalry, and willingness if not enthusiasm to face death in pursuit of such values up to and including seppuku or ritual suicide. Obviously, if I had to live in a society that was organized around such values, I’d try to find the first boat leaving for a country that eschewed them. But in the highly romanticized version found on the big screen, it’s another story altogether. Or perhaps not, as my comments on the two Japan Cuts films will indicate.

“Sword of Desperation” begins with a Kabuki play being performed in the palace of Lord Tabu Ukyou (Jun Murakami). As the performance ends, the audience remains silent. It is only when Renko (Megumi Seki), Ukyou’s concubine, begins clapping that everybody else joins in. This is an early hint at her power.

As the audience streams out of the recital hall, a samurai named Kanemi Sanzawmon (Etsushi Toyokawa) accosts Renko. Without saying a word, he pulls a dagger from beneath his robes and plunges it into her heart. As she is taking her last breath, he bends over her and says, “Forgive me, madam”.

Kanemi is arrested immediately and the Lord’s vassals are seen discussing what punishment awaits him. Will he be beheaded or forced to commit seppuku? All of them, including Kanemi, are astonished to learn that he will be treated leniently. After spending a year in confinement (house arrest, basically) and having his rice allotment halved, he will be freed. Even more surprisingly, he learns that not long after his release, he will be promoted to become the Lord’s top bodyguard. As we will learn eventually, this promotion was a scheme devised to ultimately punish Kanemi. Since this film might eventually make into general release, I will not divulge how this plays out.

Through a series of flashbacks, we learn why Kanemi killed Renko. She is a villainous creature in the mold of Lady Macbeth who holds a tight grip on her master, persuading him to divert funds on wasteful projects at the expense of his peasant subjects who face starvation as a result of higher taxes. When they protest at his front gates, she convinces him to make an example of the leaders who are beheaded.

The dilemma for those of us trying to get into the spirit of a traditional morality tale is that perhaps one of her greatest sins is being a too powerful woman. Those who would have her put down seem as offended by her intrusions into court deliberations as much as her role in having peasant leaders beheaded. The sexism is almost palpable.

Ironically, “Sword of Desperation” is based on a novel by Shohei Fujisawa, whose “Love and Honor” was turned into the screenplay for the final installment of Yoji Yamada’s altogether progressive-minded Samurai Trilogy. One must conclude that “Sword of Desperation” was simply establishing the context for a samurai’s desperate act without endorsing any of the oppressive social conventions that made Renko a target of the nobility’s resentment. At least we hope so. The fact that we can identify with Kanemi and cheer for him is a reminder that art operates on its own level, independent of the values that any open-minded society holds dear. This, of course, is the paradox of all samurai films.

“The Last Ronin” is a kind of back-story to “47 Ronin”, a historical incident that has been adapted many times in literature, theater and film, including the 1962 classic “Chushingura” directed by Hiroshi Inagaki. This is a story about 47 ronin who took vengeance on the cruel Lord Kira who had forced their master to commit seppuku. After they succeed in killing Kira, they take their own lives. This movie embodies the bushido spirit as well as any I can think of. (In an introduction to “The Last Ronin”, the Japan Society’s film program director mentioned that a Hollywood version of “47 Ronin” will come out next year, in 3D and starring Keanu Reeves no less. You heard it from me first: this will not be competition to “The Magnificent Seven”.)

In “The Last Ronin”, we discover that one of the forty-seven did not die. Kichie (Koichi Sato) was ordered by their leader to travel the countryside and provide assistance to the surviving family members. In the course of his travels, he spots Magoza (Koji Yakusho) in a small village who manages to elude him. Kichie wants to ask him why he ran away from his co-conspirators just one night before the attack on Kira’s palace. The assumption is that he violated bushido.

We learn eventually that Magoza has abandoned the life of a samurai and makes his living as a trader, looking for antiquities that he can sell to the wealthy. He lives in a modest house in the forest with a sixteen year old girl that he has raised from infancy. Again, since this film might eventually make its way into general release, I will not divulge the relationship between Magoza, the young girl he has raised, and the mystery of why he went awol.

As was the case with “Sword of Desperation”, there is a sense of futility in Magoza’s ultimate redemption. There is little doubt that the director Shigemichi Sugita was questioning a core element of Japanese culture.

“Thirteen Assassins” is a remake of the 1963 film directed by Eiichi Kudo. The plot is very similar to “Chushingura”, with thirteen men this time organizing a plot against the evil Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) who is the Shogun’s half-brother and totally out of control, to put it mildly. Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) summons the samurai Shimada to his manor to propose an assassination plot. To help motivate him, Doi introduces him to one of Naritsugu’s victims, the daughter of a peasant leader who had her arms and legs hacked off and her tongue cut out. When Shimada asks what happened to the peasants her father had been leading, she takes a brush in her teeth and writes out the words: “Massacre them all”. This is what Naritsugu cried out just before their deaths. And it is these words that Shimada will act on when his plucky band of assassins takes on a troop of 200 warriors under Naritsugu’s command.

Shimada is played by Koji Yakusho, who played Magoza in “The Last Ronin”. He is an exceptionally talented actor who I would compare to Toshiro Mifune in his prime. That should be ample reason to see this film, without mentioning the climactic battle scene that is Miike at his best. I will only add that a number of Takashi Miike films are available from Netflix, including “13 Assassins”.

Is there any connection between bushido and the predicament Japan is in today, with blind loyalty to corporate heads leading to the disaster at Fukishima? I suppose no more so than there was a connection between frontier lawlessness in Dodge City and the war in Vietnam.

Furthermore, one historian has questioned whether bushido had any real role in the development of the Imperial Army as the killing machine that was made infamous through the rape of Nanking and the ensuing horrors of the Pacific War (not that America was any more civilized in light of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

In an article provocatively titled “Bushidō or Bull? A Medieval Historian’s Perspective on the Imperial Army and the Japanese Warrior Tradition” that appeared in the May 1994 “The History Teacher”, Karl Friday makes an essential point that the term bushido was not used to designate a code of honor until the late 19th century. There was a code of conduct for samurai but it came into existence in the 17th and 18th centuries when Japan was at peace.

The samurai of the post-medieval era were bureaucrats and administrators, not fighting men. Indeed, there is a reference to this in “13 Assassins” when the leader Shimada says that it might be difficult to organize a conspiracy since so few samurai use a sword nowadays. Further evidence of this exists in Yamada’s trilogy where one of his samurai heroes is a clerk not much different from Bob Cratchit in “A Christmas Tale”.

With respect to a desire to embrace death, Friday states that even when the samurai was a practicing warrior, he preferred to use guile than exercise the kind of zealous self-sacrifice seen in a typical Japanese movie, no matter how thrilling the sword play of 13 men against 200 is to watch. One wonders if the medieval era samurai had more in common with the wild west’s gunmen who more often than not were trying to figure out a way to shoot an enemy in the back than meet him at high noon in the village square.

Friday also questions the blind obedience that is so pervasive in these films. He asserts that Confucianism has more to do with this than bushido, a point that makes sense considering how the same kind of authoritarian behavior can be found in Chinese society as well.

He also has some interesting things to say about the actual historical incident that gave rise to the 47 ronin literature and films. Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a samurai who lived during the time of the incident and who wrote a book on samurai ethics, was leery of the decision made by the conspirators to wait two years before carrying out their vendetta. He said that a real samurai would not have wasted time and should have carried out their attack immediately.

Whatever relevance bushido has to a modern Japanese society that seems stuck in a rut, there is little doubt that there is an authoritarian mentality that sustains an increasingly unsustainable status quo. The persistence of a blindly obedient warrior mentality, however, is not unique to Japanese society as a cursory look at the United States will reveal. The failure of the military to get to the root of war crimes that was widespread in Vietnam and in the “war on terror”, the “corporate mentality” that made the subprime meltdown possible, and more generally the inability of those in power to make capitalism work on even their own terms suggests that a new code of honor is necessary throughout the world. That code of honor has to be based on the equality of men and women and the elimination of social classes that breeds authoritarianism. This period of history, in a time of deep environmental and economic crisis ranging from Daichi to Wall Street, is as good a time to start as any—perhaps better.

July 12, 2011

The Belarus Formula

Filed under: Belarus,financial crisis,ussr — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

Yes, I know, the title of this post sounds like it’s a review of one of those spy novels you see in airport newsstands that have something on the back cover like “Soon to be a major motion picture starring Matt Damon…” But this not what it is about. Instead it is about a formulaic way of thinking about Belarus and a whole host of other countries run by dictators that the American ruling class demonizes. In my view a whole section of the left that seems more interested in “anti-imperialism” than socialism tends to give the rulers of such countries more credit than they deserve. If you can’t tell the difference between an Ahmadinejad and a Fidel Castro, then what is the point in calling yourself a socialist?

I was prompted to write this after someone brought an article to my attention from Counterpunch (no surprise there) that elevates Belarus’s President Lukashenko to a status that he does not deserve. The article follows certain guidelines that are essential when you are trying to make the case for someone like him (or Qaddafi, et al).

Titled “Belarus Under Siege“, author Michèle Brand makes some excellent points about U.S. attempts to subvert the government:

In February of this year, citing the recent elections, the US State Department announced an increase of its “democracy assistance” to Belarusian civil society by 30% to $15 million for the year. In 2009, the National Endowment for Democracy gave $2.7 million to finance Belarusian “independent” media, civil society (promoting “democratic ideas and values… and a market economy”), NGOs and political groups. A Wikileaks cable (VILNIUS 000732, dated June 12, 2005) confirmed money smuggling into Belarus on the part of USAID contractors, though such proof is hardly necessary. Also in February, the EU, individual European countries, Canada and the US put together a “war chest” of 87 million euros aiming toward regime change in Belarus.

We need to oppose this kind of meddling in the affairs of a sovereign country. But in the sentences that complete this paragraph, Brand sets herself up as an apologist for authoritarian rule.

With so much money being offered to anyone who wants a job as an activist, it’s not hard to find takers. Youth who run into trouble are offered free education in the West. There is evidence that many of those who partook in the violent acts of the night of December 19th were paid for their participation, by either Western or Russian elements.

What evidence is she talking about? If a government is going to appear credible in such matters, there has to be proof that money exchanged hands. For example, when Cuba arrested a group of people for taking money and marching orders from an American diplomat stationed there, the court heard and saw incontrovertible evidence.

Furthermore, Cuba has laws against receiving funding from the USA or any other foreign country. Does Belarus have the same kind of laws? One wonders if this matters since the Belarus cops are free to arrest people on the flimsiest of grounds as Brand shamelessly admits:

According to Western media, the protests are being violently repressed and protesters arbitrarily arrested. According to Belarusian authorities, participants have been arrested because they were shouting profanities at police and pushing them.

It amazes me that radicals who write for Counterpunch can give any kind of credence to “Belarusian authorities” who grant themselves the right to throw people in jail because they are “shouting profanities” at police or pushing them. Apparently there are two standards, one for use in the U.S. or Britain where such police behavior would be considered a naked assault on free speech but permissible for Belarus or Syria or fill in the blanks.

This is the first element of the Belarus formula: give permission to a country that the imperialists hate or fear to jail dissidents even if they have not committed any crime.

The next important element of the Belarus formula is to draw class distinctions between the protesters and the “silent majority” that supports President Lukashenko. Brand’s presentation of these differences is drawn from the same palette of those who defended the crushing of the “Green Movement” in Iran:

What is clear in the videos is that the crowd [of demonstrators] is well-off… Clearly, the Belarusian working class has reasons not to support the current movements: they are generally satisfied with the policies of President Lukashenko. If the movements are limited to the Western-oriented elite, Western or Russian financed operatives, and youth wanting to have a street party, then they have no future, no matter how many millions the US and others throw at them.

Haven’t we heard all this before? The Chablis-drinking, cellphone-using yuppies from the north of Tehran on one hand and the modest, religiously observant, tea-drinking workers from the southern neighborhoods? In fact, the more I read this kind of “analysis”, the more I am reminded of Richard Nixon or Chicago’s Mayor Daley. This willingness to give a green light to cops to beat the crap out of demonstrators for cursing and the demagogy directed at “effete” middle class liberals who don’t go to church on Sunday (or a mosque on Friday) shows an amazing affinity between those who defend law and order in bourgeois society and those who rally around authoritarian states that happen to find themselves in Washington’s crosshairs. Now, everybody must oppose sanctions, NED subversion, military intervention and all the rest but socialists must understand that workers have different class interests from the Obamas and the Lukashenkos of the world. Socialism is all about working class power, not “condescending saviors” as The Internationale puts it.

For Brand, the hostility of the West has everything to do with the social gains made under a benignly paternalistic ruler. This is the third and final element of the formula. It boils down to a defense of dictatorship if and when its UN human development indicators pass muster. Of course, by this criterion, the Soviet bureaucracy deserved the undying support of leftists everywhere, even when it was throwing dissidents in prison for long stretches when not torturing or killing them .

The United States and other Western countries have been attacking the government of President Alexander Lukashenko ever since it refused to follow the path of the other ex-Soviet countries in the 1990s, which famously sold off the state-owned industries to oligarchs, destroyed the social protection system and allowed kleptocratic mafia capitalism to take over. Under Lukashenko, Belarus has developped [sic] gradually into a strong socially-oriented market economy with the highest growth rate in the CIS even during its current financial troubles (according to the CIS Interstate Statistical Committee, between January and April 2011 Belarusian industry grew 12.9% year-on-year), while still maintaining its free health care, job protection, social services, retirement programs, low unemployment, state-subsidized housing and utilities, and high level of education. This is one reason why the country is naturally in the line of fire of the West, whose bankrupt governments are now obsessively telling their citizens that “there is no alternative”: we must drastically decrease or kill pensions and other social programs, fire government employees, flexibilize the work force, privatize education, health care, infrastructure and everything possible, etc. etc. Located just next door to crisis-stricken Europe, Belarus is more than a thorn in its side; it is living proof that European and American neoliberal propaganda is only lies.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to track the ups and downs of the Belarus economy, the current economic crisis appears to be the result of Russian corporate malfeasance, as Brand readily admits:

For the West is not the only source of financing, nor of interventionist pressure. One of the most important ex-candidates was financed by the Russians. While Western pressure is a known quantity in Belarus, Russian attempts at destabilization are relatively new. Russian oligarchs have been ogling the profitable Belarusian state enterprises, and since the government has historically refused to sell them, the Russian kleptocracy has begun to try to topple Lukashenko. The Russian media have begun a concerted campaign against the Belarusian government, airing pro-opposition documentaries and indulging in smearing and misinformation. Russian operatives are now making inroads; on the Minsk-Moscow highway, my Belarusian friend pointed out the expensive Russian cars with tinted black windows heading into Minsk. Russian oil prices have risen sharply — 30% in January — and the price of natural gas imported from Russia has quadrupled in four years. Although the economy has diversified since independence, it is still reliant on importing energy and raw materials for its production. The hike in energy and commodity prices has had a harsh impact in Belarus, where the cost of energy now makes up 78 cents of every dollar of goods produced. High commodity prices explain the trade deficit despite strong industrial and export growth.

Stabbed in the back by the Russians, the Belarus government has turned to the West for assistance and all the negative consequences that go along with it. The IMF is demanding privatization and cutbacks in social services, as one might expect.

The hardships have led to mass protests that the government has repressed with little regard to the niceties of civil rights or due process. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that the same pattern taking place in Belarus has taken place already in Libya where IMF-type austerity has led to mass discontent and then a revolutionary movement.

Even under the best of circumstances, a small and economically vulnerable country like Belarus is at the mercy of economic forces it cannot control. When Russia was more favorably disposed to subsidizing the Belarus economy through a crude oil export tariff far below market value, Lukashenko could afford the generous welfare spending that Brand alluded to.

In order to withstand this kind of economic dislocation, governments must have the support of the people. Belarus is not the first country that has suffered from a Russian betrayal. Cuba went through a “special period” in the early 90s after a post-Communist regime decided to throw the socialist country to the mercy of world markets. Whatever future Belarus has as a sovereign nation that can withstand the hammer blows of the market system, the best way to navigate through treacherous waters is by giving the working class the democratic control over the social product. This means transforming the country along socialist lines and looking for allies internationally moving in the same direction. As quixotic as that might seem right now, there are no alternatives.

July 11, 2011

Facundo Cabral, Singer of Conscience, Dies at 74

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 7:00 pm

NY Times July 10, 2011
Facundo Cabral, Singer of Conscience, Dies at 74

Facundo Cabral, an Argentine singer-songwriter who was one of the most eloquent voices of protest against military dictatorships in Latin America from the 1970s onward, died on Saturday, shot to death while on tour in Guatemala. He was 74 and lived in Buenos Aires.

Mr. Cabral was killed when the car in which he was a passenger, on its way to the airport in Guatemala City, was ambushed by unidentified gunmen in three vehicles. His road manager, Davíd Llanos, and a concert promoter and nightclub owner from Nicaragua, Henry Fariña Fonseca, were seriously wounded in the attack.

The death of Mr. Cabral, who in 1996 was designated a “worldwide messenger of peace” by the United Nations, caused consternation throughout the Spanish-speaking world. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela sent a message via Twitter: “Oh what pain! They have killed the great troubadour of the Pampas.” René Pérez, leader of the Puerto Rican hip-hop group Calle 13, wrote, “Latin America is in mourning,” and other leading pop-music figures, among them Ricky Martin, Alejandro Sanz and Ricardo Montaner, also sent Twitter messages lamenting his loss.

Guatemalan government officials said that Mr. Fariña, the nightclub owner, was most likely the gunmen’s intended target. But Rigoberta Menchú, the Guatemalan Indian leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, seemed to contradict this view when she said Saturday, “I can’t help but think he was assassinated for his ideals.”

Rodolfo Enrique Facundo Cabral was born on May 22, 1937, the eighth child of a poor family that soon thereafter emigrated from Buenos Aires province to Tierra del Fuego; it was in that remote region that he was first exposed to Argentine folk music. As a child Mr. Cabral was rebellious, running away from home several times and serving time in a juvenile reformatory: as the story was told years later, at age 9 he even sneaked into the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, where he met Eva Perón and persuaded her to find a job for his mother.

At 14, while in the reformatory, Mr. Cabral was taught to read and write by a Jesuit priest and acquired the love of words that would make him famous. In addition to recording more than two dozen albums, Mr. Cabral wrote numerous books, both novels and nonfiction, the best known of which is probably “Borges and I,” an account of his friendship and conversations with the writer Jorge Luis Borges.

After holding a series of menial jobs and learning to play guitar, Mr. Cabral began performing in 1959, under a stage name, El Indio Gasparino, suggesting that he was of Indian extraction, like his idol and inspiration Atahualpa Yupanqui. It was only in 1970 that he had his first major success under his own name, the spiritually infused song “No Soy de Aquí, ni Soy de Allá” (“I’m Not From Here, I’m Not From There”).

That hit, which has been recorded or performed in various languages by artists including Julio Iglesias and Neil Diamond, was followed by others, and by the mid-1970s Mr. Cabral was firmly established in the top echelon of folk-inspired singer-songwriters in Latin America.

Many of Mr. Cabral’s songs mixed expressions of mystical spirituality with a desire for social justice, which gave him a reputation as a protest singer. That proved dangerous after the Argentine military seized power in a coup in March 1976, and he fled to Mexico, where he remained in exile until after the collapse of the Argentine dictatorship in 1982. On his return, in 1984, Mr. Cabral was more popular than ever.

His sold-out concerts were an unusual mixture of music and the spoken word, with songs preceded by long introductions in which he would muse on philosophy and religion and often quote from his favorite poets, including Borges and Walt Whitman, and spiritual masters like Gandhi and Mother Teresa.

It was not immediately clear if any immediate family members survived. Mr. Cabral’s wife and infant daughter died in an airplane crash in 1978, which he regarded as just one of many painful episodes in a life full of hardships: “I was without a voice until I was 9, illiterate until I was 14, became a widower at 40 and only met my father when I was 46,” he often said in interviews.

Still, Mr. Cabral’s work was suffused with optimistic aphorisms that have become common figures of speech. “Never allow yourself to be confused by a handful of killers, because good predominates,” he once said, adding, “A bomb makes more noise than a caress, but for each bomb that destroys, there are millions of caresses that nourish life.”

Paul LeBlanc on Marxism and Organization

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 4:57 pm

This was a talk that he gave at the ISO conference a week ago. I carved out some time today in order to prepare a response. I agree with Paul on many things but have found him veering too much in a “Zinovievist” direction for my own tastes (for lack of a better word.)

Surprisingly or maybe not so surprisingly, I found nothing to disagree with here:


I quote the section “Not getting it wrong” that is truly inspired:

One way of looking at it is to think of it [a socialist organization] as a club, like an organisation for those who have a special interest or hobby. If you are interested in history, you might join a history club. If you are into stamp collecting, you might join a stamp collecting club. If you have an incredibly high IQ, you might join Mensa in order to be able to get together with really smart people like yourself. One could see a socialist organisation as a sort of affinity group for those who like socialism.

If that is how you see it, I hope you won’t be offended when I say that I believe this is a stupid reason for organising a socialist group. Because if you would really like to see socialism come into existence, you won’t be able to make that happen in such a group.

A key to getting at the answer to the question is to realise that Karl Marx and his co-thinker Frederick Engels — politically active in Germany, France, Belgium, Britain and elsewhere — developed their thinking, what they called “scientific socialism”, through a serious and ongoing interaction with working-class activists.

This scientific socialism — which after Marx’s death came to be called “Marxism” — is a complex and multi-faceted body of thought with multiple sources. It was grounded in the ideas of the Enlightenment and also of heroic Romanticism, drawing from German philosophy, French revolutionary thought and British political economy, powerfully influenced as well by the capitalist Industrial Revolution and the rise of the working class, and by the struggles of the working class.

It involves five basic components. One of these is a dynamic philosophical orientation, or methodology, which is dialectical, materialist and humanistic. Another of these involves a theory of history — which sees economic development and class struggle as shaping the way history unfolds. A third component involves an analysis of capitalism — how it is structured, how it works, how it exploits a growing number of people (the working class), how it opens up new possibilities but also is incredibly irrational and destructive when it comes to human needs. A fourth component of Marxism is based on the notion that the working-class majority has the power to replace capitalism with socialism, so here Marxism provides a basic political program for the working class. And the fifth component — which we have already touched on — involves the vision of a socialist future.

What is essential to Marxism is the key notion that there must be a fusion of socialism with the working class if they are each to have a positive future.

The working class, the way Marx and Engels defined it, is composed of those who make a living by selling their ability to work (which consists of energy for manual labour, intellectual labour, or both). It is those whose labour creates the goods and services all of us depend on. It also includes family members and others dependent on the paychecks of those who sell their ability to work — and also unemployed and retired workers. It is the creative majority, whose labour creates and sustains the economy on which society depends, those without whom capitalism could not function. Marxists see this as a force that potentially has the interest and the power to challenge capitalism. If they join together, the workers have the power to bring to birth a new and better world.

This provides the basis for defining the purpose of a socialist organisation — but there is still room to get it wrong. If we simply see ourselves as a bigger, better affinity group whose purpose is to share our wisdom with the workers and recruit them into our ranks, we may be in for a big disappointment.

Some of us may have had the kind of experience of being part of a socialist group that appeals “from outside” to a romanticised abstraction, the Heroic Working Class, urging people to listen to our socialist ideas, buy our socialist literature, come to our socialist meetings and join with us in thinking revolutionary thoughts. This can be a way to attract some handfuls of thoughtful people. It is actually because of such activities that some of us may have become socialists and have become members of a socialist organisation. But some of us have also had enough experience to know that this doesn’t work as a means for mobilising a working class majority in the effort to replace capitalism with socialism.

There has been a temptation for some anti-capitalists to conclude that it is not possible to mobilise a working-class majority, and that — few as we are — we should simply take matters into our own hands, substituting ourselves for the “revolutionary proletarian masses” who stubbornly refuse to materialise. Perhaps if we take drastic action, we can shake up and radicalise a working-class majority — or at least we can become militant avengers of the oppressed.

July 9, 2011

Sholem Aleichem; Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish

Filed under: Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 6:05 pm

Just by coincidence it would seem, two films opened yesterday in New York that would be of particular interest to any Jew who, like me, has affection for the Yiddish language and more generally those who are curious about Jewish culture. The more successful of the two is the documentary “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” playing at Lincoln Plaza Cinema. Since it persuaded me to read some of the fiction of a writer I had never considered worth my time, one can say that at least one goal of the film’s makers had been achieved.

The other is playing a couple of blocks away at Lincoln Center’s brand-new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Titled “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish”, it is a Godardesque attempt at showing the attempts of an aspiring Yiddishist, played by writer-director Eve Annenberg, at creating a Yiddish version of Shakespeare’s classic with actors drawn from the Satmar sect in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Since the cast is made up primarily of young people who broke with the Satmar sect, whose real-life struggles to define themselves are woven into the film, it is noteworthy on that basis alone.

Born in 1859, Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich started out writing in Russian and Hebrew, the liturgical language of the Jews, but decided early on that he could reach more people by writing in Yiddish. He eventually used a pen name that meant “Good Health”, linking him to the American writer he is most often compared to: Mark Twain.

Using some of the most amazing archival film footage and photographs of the Russian shtetl (Jewish village) that in and of themselves are worth the price of admission, the film sets the context for Aleichem’s fiction. Despite the utter backwardness of Jewish life, there were young, educated people like Solomon Rabinovich who were grappling with the problem of “modernization”.

The Russian and Polish Jews who lived in the Pale were burdened by traditions that had little to do with the relentless wave of capitalist development that Karl Marx once described this way:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The film includes a lengthy discussion of “Tevye’s Daughters”, the novel that would be turned into the Catskill Mountain summer theater favorite “Fiddler on the Roof”, and a movie that I never found reason to watch. As it turns out, one of Teyve’s daughters runs off with a Jewish Marxist revolutionary and the other with a Russian Christian who persuades her to convert. They are the Jews of the future and Teyve represents “Tradition”, as one of the better-known songs from the musical puts it. This dramatic tension still exists in the Jewish community but mostly around the question of Israel. Ironically, Aleichem was an ardent Zionist who died long before he could see how Israel organized a campaign to wipe out Yiddish, something that the movie points out. One of the saddest things about Israel, other than the brutality it shows Palestinians, is the lobotomy it has performed on Jewish culture. The Yiddish language is a singularly expressive language even though its demise is understandable given the inexorable processes described by Karl Marx.

Early on in “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish”, we see Romeo/Lazer Weiss, who is wearing the black garb and side-curls of the Satmar in the claims room at an airport trying to get paid for a bunch of items that were supposedly lost in transit. When the airport agent asks him for proof of his ownership, he dumps a pile of tickets on the man’s desk and begins whining in broken English about his rights. Assuming that anybody that religious (Lazer begins praying out loud while the clerk pours through the tickets) is on the level, the clerk approves his claim.

A few minutes later we see Lazer hooking up with his two cronies, renegades from the Satmar sect like him, who are living in the back of a van. He takes off his black clothing and dons a warm-up suit, and removes his fake side-curls. They then light up a joint that they pass among each other. They are what are called gonifs in Yiddish, or thieves.

This is not the only film that dramatizes Hasidic criminality. In April of 2010, I reviewed “Holy Rollers”, a film based on true events, namely the participation of Hasidic youth in a drug-running scheme that took advantage of their seeming “holiness”, the same scam run by Lazer Weiss in the airport claims office.

What makes Lazer Weiss’s performance as a con artist interesting is that this is exactly what he was doing in real life before director Eve Annenberg recruited him to play Romeo. Melissa Weisz, another renegade from the Satmar sect, plays Juliet. In real life the two reprobate youth have become lovers. What makes their performance so compelling is their ability to speak Yiddish fluently (the film is subtitled in such instances.) Unlike people like Eve Annenberg, who developed a scholarly interest in Yiddish as an adult, these are people for whom it is the mameloshn, or mother tongue.

I have no problems recommending this film despite my feeling that Annenberg bit off more than she could chew. The script never completely reconciles the characters on and offstage and you get the feeling that she is stretching the point by seeing Satmar feuds as anything remotely as deadly as the Montague-Capulet feud that Shakespeare wrote about, or—for that matter—the rumble between Puerto Ricans and gringo gang members in “West Side Story”. There are feuds among Hasidic sects, but none that have ever led to killings.

Despite this, she has accomplished a major artistic and cultural achievement by putting Yiddish at center stage, a language that I loved listening to as a young man in the Catskills where people from Sholem Aleichem’s shtetls used to vacation. My mother and father both spoke Yiddish, particularly when they didn’t want me to understand what they were saying. Some of their expressions had a power that I imagine Hebrew will never be able to complete with, or English for that matter. When a customer would give my normally patient father a hard time over what he was charging for a pound of tomatoes (39 cents back in 1958, like nothing you can buy today), he might say something like Gai kaken oifen hoyz, which means go shit on your house.

Fifty years ago my Yiddish was a lot better than it is today. One of the projects I have on my to-do list (I refrain from thinking in terms of a bucket list) after retirement is to study Yiddish. A year ago or so I bought a book titled “Born to Kvetch” by Michael Wex that I hope to get to around that time to kick things off. Kvetching means complaining–something that all Jews are good at (me particularly). I will conclude with this passage from Wex’s book:

If you really want to impress someone who asks if you speak Yiddish, you don’t say yo (yes); you don’t say, a frage! (some question) or tsi red ikhyidish (do I speak Yiddish?). No, just say halevay voltn ale azoy geret, “if only everybody spoke it the way I do,” and you won’t have to say anything else. You will have shown that you know not only the words but also the worldview: no one speaks Yiddish like you do and no one ever will. Much as you’d like to be able to converse with your equals-in-Yiddish, it just isn’t going to happen on this side of heaven.


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