Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 9, 2011

Manuel Galbán, Guitarist With Cuban Bands, Dies at 80

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 3:45 pm

(I own a Los Zafiros CD. It is great!)

NY Times July 8, 2011
Manuel Galbán, Guitarist With Cuban Bands, Dies at 80

Manuel Galbán, a Cuban guitarist best known for his work with the all-star ensemble Buena Vista Social Club and its various offshoots, died on Thursday in Havana. He was 80.

The cause was cardiac arrest, said World Circuit Records, the British label for which he most recently recorded.

Mr. Galbán was not on the 1997 album “Buena Vista Social Club,” produced by the American guitarist Ry Cooder, which created an international sensation by showcasing a number of veteran musicians who were virtually unknown outside Cuba. But he quickly became part of the extended Buena Vista Social Club family after Mr. Cooder tracked him down in 1999 to play on an album by Ibrahim Ferrer, one of the Buena Vista singers.

He went on to collaborate with Mr. Cooder on the album “Mambo Sinuendo,” which won a Grammy as best pop instrumental album in 2004, and to record with the bassist Orlando Cachaito López and other Buena Vista musicians.

Mr. Galbán made his initial splash in the 1960s as the guitarist with the vocal group Los Zafiros, which mixed traditional Cuban music with calypso, rhythm and blues and other styles. During his decade-long tenure, Los Zafiros was among the most popular groups in Cuba and developed an international following.

“Mr. Galbán was one of the wonders of Cuban music in the 1960s,” Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote in 2003. “His playing pulled together two almost contradictory approaches: the floating reverb of surf guitar and the percussive, snapping sound of the tres, the small guitar that’s a fulcrum between rhythm and melody in Cuban son groups.”

In an interview published this year in the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma and reprinted in English on the newspaper’s Web site, Mr. Galbán explained his approach to the guitar: “I combine fast passages with arpeggios, while making appropriate use of the bass strings. In that way I give the sensation that more than one musician is playing.” It was this unusual approach that led Mr. Cooder, who played a crucial role in the later phase of Mr. Galbán’s career, to call him a “guitar wizard.”

Buena Vista Social Club, an ensemble organized by Mr. Cooder that took its name from a membership club where many of its musicians had performed in pre-Castro Cuba, was the subject of a celebrated 1999 documentary directed by Wim Wenders.

Born in 1931 in the small fishing town of Gibara, Cuba, Mr. Galbán began his professional career — playing piano and drums as well as guitar — with the Villa Blanca Orchestra in 1944. He moved to Havana in 1956 and joined Los Zafiros in 1963. After leaving Los Zafiros in 1972 (the group disbanded shortly afterward), he worked with Cuba’s national music ensemble and toured for more than two decades with Grupo Batey.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

July 8, 2011

Obama and FDR

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 2:45 pm

Fortunately, the decline of conservatism and the advent of Barack Obama are occurring at the same time that there’s a new online technology capable of harnessing citizen energy nearly cost-free to pressure for a program of Progressive Patriotism, much as the Internet, social networks, and ardent bloggers helped lift Obama into office.

Then, if he and his base can credibly claim success by 2012 or 2016 in, say, seven or more of these ten goals–especially healthcare and democracy–President Obama will be regarded as a twenty-first-century FDR and credited with inspiring an era of positive progressive governance.

–Mark Green, Nation Magazine, Jan. 13, 2009

* * * *

I ran for President because I believed in an America where ordinary folks could get ahead; where if you worked hard, you could have a better life. That’s been my focus since I came into office, and that has to be our focus now. It’s one of the reasons why we’re working to reduce our nation’s deficit. Government has to start living within its means, just like families do. We have to cut the spending we can’t afford so we can put the economy on sounder footing, and give our businesses the confidence they need to grow and create jobs.

–Barack Obama, Jul. 2, 2011 Radio Address

* * * *


How FDR Did It
Ronald Dworkin

We now have a President we can admire and respect. But he seems unaware that his opponents are not patriots anxious to help govern through a decent consensus but fanatics who would destroy the country if that would lead to his defeat. We think he should understand that this is a time for confrontation not compromise. He should therefore remember the words of another president running for reelection in the middle of an even graver economic catastrophe, words that seem eerily relevant now.

Here is Franklin Roosevelt, in Madison Square Garden, in 1936:

For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up. We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred. I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

President Obama might recall that Roosevelt won re-election by the largest majority before or since.

July 7, 2011 2:38 p.m.

July 7, 2011

Behind the collapse of the SWP: a reply to Alan Wald

Filed under: sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 10:24 pm

In the latest issue of Against the Current, a nominally independent magazine that reflects the viewpoint of Solidarity, there is a long (11,562 words) article by Alan Wald on two recent memoirs by former SWP leaders. Since Wald attempts his own post-mortem report on Leon Trotsky’s favorite party that differs from those offered by memoirists Les Evans and Peter Camejo, it is understandable why the article is so long. Ever since I began writing about this topic on the Internet, I probably have devoted something close to 100,000 words. Since this party had an enormous grip on the psyche of its younger members like Wald and me, and since its decline was so precipitous, there is a natural tendency for former members to go on at length. And when those people are writers, who are either professionals like Wald or patzers like me, you can expect buckets and buckets of prose.

Unlike Wald, me, and Les Evans, Peter Camejo was not a writer. Before I present my own analysis of why the SWP turned into a cult, I’d like to say something about Wald’s contemptuous attitude toward Camejo. Since Camejo is dead, he does not have the opportunity to defend himself.

Wald sneers that Camejo’s memoir “North Star” contains no “revelations of new political plans regarding ‘what is to be done.’” What an implicit admission that the reviewer had no idea of what the book was about. Camejo’s main objective in his post-SWP evolution was exactly to avoid such prescriptions. What was Wald expecting? An entry in the appendix titled “A Transitional Program for the 21st century”?

Following this revelation that there were no revelations in “North Star”, Wald goes all Spartacist on us by claiming: “Camejo champions familiar clichés of the populist Left.” Since Wald is a trained academic with more articles in his CV than spots on a leopard, one might have expected him to cite an example of such “clichés”. When I want to belittle someone, I try to quote the person. This is something I learned from reading Lenin, who liked to hoist people on their own petards. What clichés is Wald referring to, I wonder? If Wald wanted to substantiate this charge, he might have referred to the Avocado Declaration, arguably Peter’s most important written programmatic statement, that includes the following commentary on the New Deal:

One quite popular myth is that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was pro labor. Continuing the policies of Woodrow Wilson who oversaw a reign of anti-union terror, including black listing and deporting immigrant labor organizers, FDR’s administration sabotaged union drives every step of the way. When workers overcame their bosses’ resistance and began winning strikes, FDR turned on them and gave the green light for repression after police killed ten striking steel workers in 1937. As FDR said himself, “I’m the best friend the profit system ever had.” After WWII Truman used the new Taft Hartley Anti-Labor Act to break national strikes more than a dozen times.

I could be wrong, but this is exactly the sort of thing I read in a much longer version in Art Preis’s “Labor’s Giant Step”. I really can’t go any further in trying to read Alan Wald’s mind but in the future he should at least try to provide an example of someone’s deviation from Marxism when he sits down to write his next hatchet job. I should add that Barry Sheppard did exactly the same thing in his own review of Camejo’s memoir, which accuses Peter of rejecting “the basic program of Marxism.” A few sentences later he explains that this was the conclusion he drew from the fact that “Peter nowhere affirms Marx’s program”. You might as well accuse me of rejecting sexual intercourse because I never affirm on my blog that I favor it.

In the early 80s Peter once told me that he regretted not having resigned from the SWP a year after he joined. After reading Sheppard, one can understand why. And after reading Wald, maybe that explains why he never joined Solidarity.

Perhaps seeking to settle old scores, Wald identifies the 1971 convention of the SWP as the root of its degeneration. At that convention, the SWP majority went full-blast at a minority that included Wald and that had submitted a document titled “For a Proletarian Orientation”. The minority was referred to as FAPO or PO in the ranks of the majority.

As someone who had a fairly major role in the Boston branch speaking for the SWP majority, I want to offer my own take on the fight.

In late 1969, I met with the SWP organizer in NYC to discuss the possibility of resigning from the group. Although I agreed with the party politically, I felt a general sense of alienation. The organizer, a closeted gay man named Charles Bolduc, came up with a counter-proposal. He urged me to take an assignment to transfer up to Boston and help shore up the SWP majority that was being led by Peter Camejo, the branch organizer. I suppose, looking back in retrospect that I made a Camejo-like mistake in not following through on my decision to drop out.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that the minority in the branch that would organize itself as the FAPO tendency at the next convention was workerist to the core. I had been first exposed to workerist ideas at the New School in 1967, shortly before joining the SWP. A friend from Bard College had become a supporter of the Progressive Labor Party that would go on to constitute itself as the leadership of the Worker-Student Alliance in SDS. Back in 1967, SDS and the PLP were very formidable groups and I had every reason to take them seriously, enough so to go to a “meet the PLP” meeting at Jake Rosen’s apartment in Washington Heights. In hushed tones, my friend told me that Jake was a carpenter. For young radicals wet behind the ears, the fact that someone was a carpenter gave him credibility that a computer programmer or a librarian could never have.

I have vivid recollections of listening to Jake Rosen, as he lay stretched out on his living room sofa picking out the lint from between his toes, telling us over and over that the working class was the only class that could overthrow the bosses and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. I was not bowled over, even though I had a hard time arguing against a proletarian membership. How could anybody who claimed to be a Marxist? Of course, the real question was not about the goal but how to get there.

Not much later, I joined the SWP because the antiwar movement was more important to me than anything. Whatever accusations could be hurled at the SWP, indifference to the need for mass demonstrations was not one of them. But Jake Rosen’s words stuck with me. How would the SWP reach the workers?

A month or two after I joined the party, I discussed this question with Bob DesVerney, a brilliant African-American intellectual who was the author of “Why White Radicals Are Incapable of Understanding Black Nationalism,” a smoking hot polemic against the CP, the SP and other opponents of Black nationalism.

He told me, “The way the SWP will recruit workers is by recruiting lots and lots of students”. That was his provocative way of saying that workers will be attracted to a movement that is getting things done, not because of some professed allegiance to the working class.

About a year later, after I had transferred up to Boston, I witnessed a confirmation of what Bob had been talking about. We had just recruited a guy named John McNamara to the Young Socialist Alliance who had decided to join after hearing Peter Camejo speak on how to make a revolution in the USA. John knew about Camejo from his speech to the rally at Boston Commons on Moratorium Day and liked what he heard.

John had shoulder length blond hair and a beard but was not a student at Boston University despite his appearance. He was in fact a longshoreman and a “Southie”, a denizen of South Boston, the tough and at times racist Irish stronghold.

John went to Oberlin that year for the first conference the SWP ever held there. One night I spotted John sitting in the lobby of the student union building with two large books on his lap. Unlike most SWP’ers, I was always interested in talking to people, especially new members who were as alienated as I had been in my first few months. “Hey, John,” I asked, “what are you reading?” He looked up at me and told me that one book was Marx’s Capital, volume one, and the other was a dictionary that he was using to look up words he didn’t know. John was a high-school dropout so this was not a surprise.

Unlike the FAPO supporters in Boston, John was a real worker. A year before I got up to Boston, the SWP youth had washed their hands of the antiwar movement and had gotten jobs in hospitals where they could hobnob with the PLP/SDS members who were on a colonizing drive.

After Camejo came up to Boston, he persuaded most young people in the branch who were sitting on the fence ideologically on the “workerism” question to commit themselves to the majority orientation. As is the case so often in politics, actions speak louder than words. When you can mobilize 50,000 people into the streets of Boston, that tends to vindicate your ideas.

Not long after John joined, he dropped out. He probably did not feel comfortable around the arrogant student government types in Boston who learned to function from Jack Barnes’s lieutenants and dominated the SWP and YSA. As someone who had been working in an office for a few years, my reality was almost as different from the full-timers as John’s. But at least I had the political understanding to put my discomfort aside.

In 1973, I was asked to take an assignment in Houston where my polemical skills would be deployed against a new threat to the party leadership. Many of the former members of FAPO had organized a new tendency called the IT (Internationalist Tendency) that retained the workerist orientation of FAPO but combined it with the urban guerrilla orientation of the European Trotskyist movement.

The SWP was in an alliance with a group in Argentina led by Nahuel Moreno that we were told was just like us, an orthodox, mass-action oriented party. The Europeans supported a group that was hijacking meat trucks and dispensing the goods to poor people. In my presentation to the branch, I had a good time mocking the guerrillas and their supporters in the branch.

Within two years, the SWP and Moreno had fallen out like rival gang lords on “The Sopranos”. And just a few years after that, the guerrilla movement in Nicaragua had taken power using some of the same adventurist tactics that the majority had derided in Argentina.

Peter Camejo once told me that he had a funny encounter with a Sandinista leader in Nicaragua when he learned that Peter was high up in the Fourth International (this was before the SWP had split with the FI, I believe). The Sandinista clasped his shoulders and told Peter how grateful he was for the support the Trotskyist movement had given the FSLN. Peter was puzzled. He couldn’t remember any kind of material aid. In fact, the SWP had initially been hostile to the FSLN. It turned out, Peter said with a chuckle, that he was talking about the European Trotskyists who had raised some money for machine guns or something like that.

Not long after this encounter, the SWP had become the FSLN’s biggest boosters. And not long after that, it would implement the program of the FAPO, going much further in its workerism than any minority member of the Boston branch would have dreamed possible.

And throughout all these dizzying changes, the one thing that remained consistent was a belief that anybody who challenged the leadership’s wisdom was a petty-bourgeois element who needed either to be convinced of the error of his or her ways or given the boot. This was just as true of the minority leaders as the majority. Larry Trainor, an old-timer in the SWP who trained the young leaders who wrote the FAPO document, would have been just as vicious had he been running the SWP.

I say this as someone who became very close to a couple of the surviving Cochranites who had been ostracized in the same way that FAPO had been in the 1970s. Cynthia Cochran told me about the time that Farrell Dobbs had visited her husband Burt in 1953 to tell him that his days were numbered. She felt sick for days afterwards. And in my conversations with Sol Dollinger, I came to realize how disgusting the charge of “petty-bourgeois” could be. In 1953 most of the Cochranites, including Sol, were autoworkers. When Cannon decided to get rid of them, he accused them of being “embourgeoisified” workers who had gotten disoriented by post-WWII prosperity and high wages.

Furthermore, this is the same crap that was thrown at Max Shachtman and his grouping by Trotsky.

And when you really get down to it, this was the method of the Comintern long before Stalin took over. (For a complete discussion of how this destructive methodology took root, read my article on the Comintern and the German CP.)

Alan Wald believes that this kind of bad behavior was introduced into the party in 1971:

Nevertheless, in the process of the internal political struggle in 1971, the crucial changes occurred that created the new paradigms for handling disputes and precedents for organizational control; the positive traditions of the SWP were shown to be subject to the expedient aims of the new leadership. In other words, the 1971 convention was a “test run.” The patterns it set would be more fully enacted when Barnes and his circle went on to change policies and expel organized oppositions in 1974 and 1982-3, and target other individuals, such as Camejo, along the way and afterwards.

One wonders how things would have turned out if someone a bit less batty than Jack Barnes had been running the SWP, someone maybe like Alex Callinicos. What would have happened? My guess is that the SWP would very possibly become as large a group as the British SWP, experiencing both influence and the hostility directed toward it from independents who resent its bullheaded style of “intervention” in the mass movement.

In reality, there is a spectrum of possibilities for such “democratic centralist” groups that extends from the fairly normal like the British SWP to the lunatic fringe that includes the Spartacist League and the American SWP. At either end of the spectrum, you are faced with the reality that such groups are not the proper vehicles for organizing a massive assault on the capitalist system.

To focus on the American SWP’s transformation into a cult, you are missing the real problem. If you want to understand why the conditions for such a transformation existed long before 1971, there is no better place to go than the remarks that Morris Stein, James P. Cannon’s top lieutenant, made to the 1944 convention:

We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery. We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.

I should mention that I discovered this quote in Alan Wald’s excellent essay in the book “Trotskyism in the USA”. You can get a used copy on Amazon.com for only $332.74. It is worth every penny.

When you bring together a character like Jack Barnes, who obviously had mental problems all along as great as Gerry Healy or any other notable Trotskyist megalomaniac, and the kind of bullheaded bravado encapsulated in Stein’s remarks, you have a formula for disaster. In the case of the SWP, this disaster began almost immediately after the 1960s radicalization came to an end. But if someone else less crazy than Barnes had been in charge, like Barry Sheppard (well, maybe not Barry), then the SWP would have muddled through the 70s, 80s and 90s until the present day running its sectarian campaigns, selling newspapers, and “intervening” in the mass movement.

But, comrades, something much more is needed. And the sooner the better.

July 6, 2011

2011 NY Asian Film Festival: a spotlight on Korean movies

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 7:37 pm

Some of the best films I have seen in my capacity as a member of the New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) are those shown at the yearly New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF), and among those Korean films rank the highest. One in particular—”Save the Green Planet!”—was impressive enough for me to nominate as Best Film at NYFCO’s award ceremony in 2005. That was enough to raise eyebrows among my colleagues to astral levels, a function no doubt of their unaccountable preference for “The Squid and the Whale”. My advice to Netflix members is to rent “Save the Green Planet! right away to see what you’ve been missing. If you don’t love this film, then clearly something is wrong with you.

Although there was the usual embarrassment of riches at this year’s NYAFF, time constraints and personal preferences persuaded me to focus on Korean film offerings. In no particular order of preference, here goes:

1. Battlefield Heroes:

Imagine one of Shakespeare’s history plays written from the viewpoint of the lowliest of soldiers and you get an idea of what this raucous costume drama is about. Set in the seventh century, it pits the Silla kingdom allied with the Chinese Tang dynasty against its larger Korean rival, the Goguryeo (the same word as Korea) kingdom. If you’ll recall Henry V’s speech to his assembled army that was about to take on a much larger French force, you’ll get an idea of exactly what “Battlefield Heroes” was about:

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Instead, director Lee Jun-Ik’s “heroes” do everything they can not to shed blood. They are peasants dragooned into the army who are promised land and money to fight for Silla’s glory. It becomes obvious from the start that they would be much happier at home with less land and less money in exchange for their lives.

“Battlefield Heroes” is a debunking of a powerful tradition in Asian film that treats the battlefield as hallowed ground. The frightened peasants forced to don armor do everything in their power to escape the fighting, relying on the experience of one peasant who has served in an earlier and just as senseless battle. He urges his comrades to keep a low profile and run from the fighting on the first opportunity.

This is the kind of war movie we need more of–an antiwar film actually—something in the spirit of “Catch 22” or “MASH”.

2. Haunters

If you’ve seen David Cronenberg’s “Scanners”, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this film is about. The “scanners” are human beings who have the power to compel other people to carry out criminal or violent acts through mind control. As much as I like Cronenberg’s debut film, it can’t hold a candle to director Kim Min-suk’s movie which takes itself far less seriously. If Korean humor is an acquired taste, then I can assure you that five minutes is all it takes to get in the groove.

The mind-controlling “haunter” is one Cho-in, who we meet as a child in the opening moments. He has been blindfolded by his mother who understands that his power to control people comes from his eyes. When his abusive father (a character found frequently in Korean film as we shall see in the next film under review) begins beating his mother for no good reason, Cho-in removes the blindfold and compels his father to go out into the street and break his own neck.

Years later Cho-in has become a thief, using his mind-control powers to get pawn shop owners to open their safe, his favorite modus operandi. This time he has chosen the shop whose owner has just hired Kyu-nam, a junior high school drop-out whose last job was in a junk yard. For reasons never explained (and there was no need to given the film’s supple subversion of logic), Kyu-nam cannot be controlled. When Cho-in kills the owner of the shop for no good reason, Kyu-nam resolves to track his nemesis down and defeat him.

The spirit of this film owes a lot to Tim Burton’s Batman movie with all sorts of wacky sight gags and over-the-top characters. Particularly likeable among them are Ai and Bubba, Kyu-nam’s friends from his last job at the junkyard. These are a Turk and a Ghanaian whose Korean is flawless, a delight one can be sure for local audiences—as well as me.

3. Bedevilled

In 1964, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered on the streets of Queens. When neighbors ignored her screams, the case became a symbol of urban alienation and inhumanity. This pattern appears to exist in Korea as well, if the opening scene in “Bedevilled” has any relationship to current realities, which I fear it does.

Hae-won, a female loan officer at a Seoul bank, would have been the last person to come to Kitty Genovese’s aid. In the beginning of the film, she is seen observing a rape but when called upon to identify the assailants to the cops, she refuses. She is also hostile to an old woman applying for a loan, a touch that would hit home with audiences impacted by the current financial crisis which has likely had some impact on Korea. When Hae-won discovers that another loan officer, like her a female, has granted the loan, she goes ballistic and slaps her in the face in full view of the staff.

After her boss orders her to take a leave of absence, she decides to go to a remote island where she used to visit her grandfather when young. On the island she is greeted by her childhood friend Kim Bok-nam who is thrilled to have a visitor from the outside, all the more so since just about everybody who lives there abuses her in a kind of grand guignol version of Cinderella. Bok-nam is driven like a mule, forced to pick potatoes all day long and put up with abuse from her husband in the evening, including sexual.

The film is a relentless and horrifying depiction of sexism that is similar to what I have seen in other Korean movies, but ratcheted up to the point where you feel like screaming. Eventually Bok-nam takes action against her tormentors in a style that evokes slasher films. However, this is not really a horror movie in a conventional sense. It is much more about the failure of one woman to bond with another who once meant very much to her. This lack of human solidarity is much more frightening than Halloween or Friday the Thirteenth.

4. The Unjust

This is a film about crooked cops who conspire with corporate bigwigs to victimize a hapless sex offender for a crime he did not commit. The moral rot of the society depicted in this movie is like that of Kurosawa’s “The Bad Sleep Well” and American film noir of the immediate post-WWII period. There are no heroes to speak of, only men whose flaws are less pronounced than others’.

An epidemic of child murders has created a political crisis in Korea. Failing to catch the perpetrator, the authorities decide to pick a scapegoat. The job of organizing the miscarriage of justice falls on the shoulders of detective Choi Cheol-Gi, who is bitterly resentful over having been bypassed for a top post only because he has not graduated from the prestigious police academy. He decides to pin the rap on Lee Dong-Suk, a sex offender who has an air-tight alibi. To get Dong-Suk to confess, he enlists the aid of Jang Suk-Gu, a heavily tattooed gangster (a Korean yakuza in effect) who has sunk his tentacles in the construction industry.

Their alliance is countered by that of a prosecutor named Joo-Yang who has corrupt ties to a powerful company that is Jang’s rival. Joo-Yang suspects detective Choi Cheol-Gi of criminal activity on the side and is anxious to get the goods on him. The film consists of a steadily mounting conflict between the two rotten blocs until they are resolved in the end in a bloody climax that will leave you emotionally and psychologically drained. No country in the world is capable of making such powerful policiers today, including the United States where Martin Scorsese could learn a thing or two by watching such a film.

5. City of Violence

This was directed by Ryoo Seung-Wan, who also directed “The Unjust”. It is a vengeance tale that the Koreans are so good at, embodied in works like “Old Boy”.

It is the story of a group of high school buddies who reunite in their home town after one of their band, a tough ex-con, has been murdered outside of the beer joint he runs. At his ceremony, one of them—a cop from Seoul—decides to team up with another former gangster to track down their buddy’s killer. He turns out to be the sole remaining member of their band, a man named Pil-Ho who exudes evil and who has the city in a vice-like grip. To make room for a gambling casino, he is evicting working people from their homes, a plot element that no doubt rings true with Korean audiences. Unlike “The Unjust”, this is an old-fashioned story of good versus evil.

If it is old-fashioned in its plot elements, it is certainly quite forward looking in its cinematic vision. The city where the action takes place is overrun by gangs, who in a set piece do battle with the cop and his ex-gangster comrade. One gang is dressed in baseball uniforms and uses their bats as weapons. While one can never tell how much a Korean film-maker has absorbed from Hollywood, this is exactly what you can see in Walter Hill’s 1979 film “The Warriors”, which was based on Sol Yurick’s novel. Yurick, for what it is worth, was one of the country’s most respected Marxist writers of fiction and who is still going strong at the age of 86, god bless him.

New York Asian Film Festival information is here.

July 5, 2011

Alex Callinicos considers the horizontalists

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:45 pm

In the latest issue of International Socialism, the quarterly journal of the British SWP, you can read an interesting article by party leader Alex Callinicos titled “Unsteady as she goes”  that is a high-level analysis of world economic and political developments.

The part that interested me in particular came at the end when he turned his attention to the mass movement in Europe and the Middle East that appeared to be bypassing traditional Marxist formations:

Recent mass struggles—including the student movement in Britain and the Arab revolutions—have been marked by the relative lack of involvement of substantial political forces (with the important, but complicated, exception of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt). The problem here isn’t simply the general weakening of political parties, but also the fact that what were the great ideologies of emancipation in the 20th century—socialism (the workers’ movement), nationalism (the anti-colonial struggles), liberalism (the revolutions of 1989)—have much less of a hold than they did a generation or two ago. Liberalism has been discredited by the experience of neoliberalism, and in the Middle East by its association with US imperialism; socialism has had to carry the burden of Stalinism and social democracy; and nationalism has been caught up in the failure of so many postcolonial regimes. These experiences are part of the story of the erosion of mass parties in recent decades.

None of these ideologies are in any way dead, and all are capable of revival. But the weakening of their influence means that mass movements tend not to have any clear ideological articulation. This doesn’t mean that these movements are purely spontaneous or that no political activists are involved in them. On the contrary, revolutionary socialists, for example, can be proud of the role they have played in struggles as diverse as the British student movement and the 25 January Revolution in Egypt. But, for much wider layers, suspicion of all political organisation and the belief that movements can sustain themselves through their own horizontal networks have become a kind of common sense. This then helps to sustain the kind of illusions in social media so effectively criticised by Jonny Jones in our last issue.

None of this alters the fact that we are experiencing an international renewal of struggle that continues the process of radicalisation beginning with the Seattle protests in November 1999. But revolutionary socialists have to recognise that this radicalisation doesn’t automatically lead those affected towards Marxism in the way that tended to happen during its predecessors in the 1930s and the 1960s and early 1970s. We have to fight to make our voices heard. This is no great injury—no one has the right to imagine they are the voice of history, but it is a challenge.

There are some things I find troubling about this.

When he says that “socialism has had to carry the burden of Stalinism and social democracy”, there is a failure to grasp that the far left has had its own responsibility for socialism’s decline—especially in Europe. While I understand that the British SWP is unlike other groups that have made serious mistakes in the mass movement, largely a result of its more profound understanding of the class struggle going back to the days of Karl Marx, other revolutionary-minded young people and workers might have gotten a bad taste in their mouth over the party’s record in RESPECT and other arenas the party has prioritized.

Such activists have tended to bypass the traditional far-left groups, most of which have their roots in the Trotskyist or Maoist movements, and relied on social media and a “horizontalist” organizational model. Jonny Jones’s article is not online but one must assume that he made many of the same points Callinicos himself made in his debate with Laurie Penny. In a January 8th article, Callinicos defended his party from charges that it was some kind of alien presence:

Laurie also seems to regard the presence of Socialist Worker sellers on student protests as a claim to “own” and dictate to the movement. This is absolutely not so. We understand that to defeat the coalition, let alone to overthrow capitalism, will require a mass movement of millions, far deeper and broader than the biggest revolutionary party.

In this, we are acting on our understanding of the Marxist tradition, at the heart of which is the self-emancipation of the working class. So when Laurie says, “Nobody can own this revolution: not the unions, not the far left, not the Labour Party and not the students. It’s far bigger than that”, of course we agree. We never imagined anything different

But we also believe that we are entitled to consider ourselves as an organic part of the movement, not alien outsiders. As Laurie acknowledges, activists from the revolutionary left (not just the SWP) have been involved in building the protests from the start.

The Education Activist Network, which brings together students and workers in higher and further education, and which the SWP helped to initiate at the beginning of the year, has played an important role. One of the movement’s most prominent spokespeople, Mark Bergfeld, is a member of the SWP.

What Alex misses, however, is the way in which such “interventions” are perceived by non-party members. They understand quite rightly that strategy and tactics are hammered out within the SWP and then proposed at mass meetings that are supposedly the place where such strategy and tactics can be debated out publicly and voted on democratically. The discipline that SWP’ers operate under—a practice that is endemic to all “Marxist-Leninist” groups—is virtually guaranteed to turn people like Laurie Penny into resentful opponents of the party.

Perhaps the comrades are operating under the assumption that such “interventions” were developed by the Bolsheviks as a norm. Unfortunately, a mechanical application based on Lenin’s writings can lead to a disaster, especially if you misread Lenin’s “Ultraleftism, an Infantile Disorder” with its stress on the need to participate in the trade unions with their reactionary leaderships. One can certainly understand the need to caucus before a meeting presided over by the likes of James Hoffa Jr. but the Education Activist Network is a horse of another color. In fact, the one thing that the SWP could do to burnish its image among such activists is to occasionally quarrel with each other in public meetings. If Richard Seymour would rush across the room and tweak Alex Callinicos’s nose, can you imagine the good will that would create?

All that being said, there are compelling reasons for “horizontalism” to be examined just as critically as “Marxist-Leninist” functioning. Over on the Kasama Project, an article appeared on June 29th that came from Reuters originally, of all places. Written by Peter Apps, it raised the question: Do “leaderless” revolts contain seeds of own failure?. Apps writes:

(Reuters) – From the streets of Cairo and Madrid to online forums and social media sites, “leaderless” protests are on the rise. But the very qualities that led to their short-term success may condemn them to failure in the long run.

Activists in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere say the lack of top-down management has been an important element in their recent success in rallying crowds disillusioned with the ruling establishment, using social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Anti-austerity protesters in Europe have used similar tactics to organize mass street protests they hope will put pressure on governments to rethink spending cuts…

But the model has its limits. In Egypt and Tunisia, where protesters successfully ousted President Hosni Mubarak and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, there are already signs the protesters are being sidelined by more established power centers.

In elections likely only weeks away, the westernized activists of Tahrir Square may be barely represented as power shifts back to the military — who remain in control — and the more organized Muslim Brotherhood.

In Libya and Syria, where popular uprisings turned into outright armed intervention and insurgency, initially leaderless rebels found themselves at an immediate disadvantage.

Whether at the ballot box or on the battlefield, some experts say that without some form of command and control leaderless groups will simply be outmaneuvered. That might leave them a simple choice: build more coherent leadership structures or join with other organizations that already have them.

“If leaderless movements are not wholly self-destructive, they might… fizzle out allowing the pre-existing power elites to take advantage,” said Hayat Alvi, lecturer in Middle East politics at the U.S. Naval War College. “They need a general consensus about what they seek in the future.”

That can prove difficult. One of the strengths of the “leaderless” model, protesters say, is the way it can quickly bring together disparate groups working toward a common goal. But as frustration mounts, so does demand for change.

Given the lack of an authoritative leadership in a place like Egypt, for example, it is good news that socialists from different ideological backgrounds have put aside their differences and formed a new umbrella organization. On May 11th Ahram reported:

Five Egyptian political parties and movements unite to form the Coalition of Socialist Forces, they announced in a meeting on May 10, 2011. The newly formed coalition is made up of the Social Party of Egypt, the Democratic Labour Party, the Popular Socialist Coalition Party, Egypt Communist Party and the Revolutionary Socialists. It aims to include under its umbrella other socialist movements in Egypt, which are considered fragmented.

“We [social political activists] are optimistic that the Coalition of Socialist Forces will bring a stronger socialist presence onto Egypt’s political scene”, said Gigi Ibrahim, a political activist.

During the May 10 meeting, there were intense discussions regarding the recent turn of events in the country and how it impacts the revolution.

The Coalition of Socialist Forces has appealed to all Egyptians, irrespective of their ideologies, to amass in Tahrir Square on Friday May 13 in a bid to protect the demands of revolution and for national unity.

While this is a step forward, one can only hope that it will avoid the mistakes of the Socialist Alliance experiments, primarily in English-speaking nations, that sought to coalesce socialist parties into a broad organization designed mostly to contest elections. Unfortunately, organizational inertia prevented these formations from becoming more than the sum of their often quarrelsome parts. Most dissolved because the constituent groups decided they were better off peddling their own wares.

Now that we are living through a period of deep crisis, one might hope that Marxists can transcend the narrow sect-mentality that has been as much of an obstacle to our growth as the sorry legacy of Stalinism and social democracy that Callinicos alluded to.

This is an exciting time to be a revolutionary and let’s hope that we can rise to the occasion.

July 3, 2011

Crime after Crime

Filed under: Film,prison,racism — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

For the first few minutes of “Crime after Crime”, I began to lose interest because the documentary lacked the kind of flair found in better-funded works directed by veteran filmmakers like Michael Moore or Charles Ferguson. To describe it as prosaic would be the understatement of the year.

Eventually I learned that the director Yoav Potash’s first experience in movie making was as the legal videographer for a couple of pro bono lawyers who were trying to secure the release of Deborah Peagler, an African-American woman sentenced to life in prison for first degree murder of her husband, a pimp who used to beat her with a bullwhip. They were trying to reopen the case since the original trial had not taken domestic violence into account.

In 2002, the law had been changed to provide for such extenuating circumstances and Peagler was just one of many cases that public defenders had been assigned to. Potash’s role was simply one of recording the interviews so his role was more or less the same as a passport photographer. To draw an analogy, the net effect of seeing Peagler’s story on film is like looking at what amounted to one of Dorothea Lange’s greatest photographs but one taken by a complete amateur.

Potash’s footage eventually became the foundation for “Crime after Crime”, a film that will leave you emotionally drained despite its modest means, a victory of substance over style. In an epoch of Hollywood fiction film degeneration, we are reminded that in all great art—including documentary film—character is essential. By making this a story about Deborah Peagler, a Jean Valjean of our time, and her tireless attorneys, Potash demonstrates once again that documentary succeeds when it takes on a subject that all people of conscience would care about. As opposed to the miserable escapism of the latest multimillion-dollar garbage heap out of Hollywood, this is a great story of good and evil. As symbols of evil, it would be difficult to find more loathsome examples than the District Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, foremost among them District Attorney Steve Cooley and Assistant DA Lael Rubin, infamous for her role in the McMartin daycare “repressed memory” miscarriage of justice.

Deborah Peagler was 15 years old when she met Oliver Wilson, a handsome and charismatic 23 year old that made his living as a pimp and drug dealer. After consummating his relationship with her, Wilson took her to the front of a donut shop in L.A. and ordered her to start selling her body. Like all pimps, he used a combination of violence and paternalism to keep Deborah in line. After the violence grew to much for her to bear (one relative interviewed in the film says that Wilson would beat her like he would a man), she appealed to her mother for help. Her mother lined up a couple of Crips gang members who ambushed Wilson and strangled him to death.

The DA offered her a deal. If she pleads guilty to murder, she would get a 25 year to life sentence otherwise she faced the death penalty if found guilty.

Peagler’s pro bono attorneys were Joshua Safran, an observant Orthodox Jew and Nadia Costa, an ultra-marathon runner, a perfect preparation for a legal battle that took years.

Without giving away too much on this utterly transformational documentary, it is a searing indictment of the American legal system. The monstrous refusal of the DA’s office to allow an African-American female prisoner to go free after more than 20 years, even after acknowledging her status as a battered wife is enough to make you scream.

Fortunately, there are better ways to express your outrage. The film’s website has a Get Involved page that lists a number of ways to help battered women. The film’s closing credits mentions that 80 percent of the women behind bars have been battered so clearly we are dealing with a social problem of widespread dimensions.

The film opened Friday at the IFC Center in New York and will make appearances around the country in major cities (screening information is here).


July 1, 2011

Jared Loughner/Henry Cockburn follow-up

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition
July 1 – 3, 2011
Living With Schizophrenia — Part One
The Trees Were Calling Me


Alexander Cockburn:
In 2002 my nephew Henry was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 20. Harrowing times for Henry, his parents – Patrick Cockburn and Jan Montefiore – and his younger brother Alexander followed. Henry was expert at escaping from the various institutions in which he was supposedly secured. He would flee into the countryside around Canterbury east of London, often naked in the depth of winter  (as described below in one of his closest brushes with death)  and our whole family would wait bleakly for news, as the police searched for him and the snow fell.

After five years Henry started to recover. Patrick, as he writes in the preface to “Henry’s Demons”, “began to think he and I should write about our experiences. He was ideally placed to write from the inside about what it was like to have an acute mental illness in which trees and bushes spoke and voices called him to flee into the night or to plunge into icy water where he might drown. I believed that Henry and I could serve a broader public purpose by making schizophrenia and illness in general less of a mystery which people are embarrassed to discuss.”

Henry liked the plan.  As he overcame bouts of self-doubt the words flowed and as Patrick rightly  says, “his style had a sort of radiant simplicity and truthfulness about his actions.” Earlier this year “Henry’s Demons” was published, to great acclaim, on both sides of the Atlantic. There were chapters by Henry and by Patrick, also a long, striking excerpt from his mother Jan’s journal.

Beyond the raw immediacy of the family’s recollected experiences “Henry’s Demons” raises serious issues  about the treatment of schizophrenia,  whether by therapy or drugs. In the first of three excerpts we start here with Henry’s account of his escape into the winter countryside and his experiences in some of the institutions where he was locked up.

Henry Cockburn:
I was moved from Anselm after about six months to a rehabilitation centre in Ramsgate called the Grove. It was near the sea, and I would walk the whole length of the seafront, from Ramsgate to Broadstairs. Near the house I discovered a giant plum tree, and I would drag my dad there to eat fresh plums. I felt I wanted to have once again the experiences of the previous autumn—talking trees and following the wind. Most of the time, I was spitting out my medication. I wanted to run away because running away had become crucial to my life. I felt for a moment that I was being liberated and I was being brave. My plan was to walk to Canterbury, about fifteen miles away, and I went by the railway line after walking through a few fields. I remember walking through a cornfield where there was a huge spiderweb. I jumped over it, and the spider looked crossly at me as if I should have walked through his web. I went by the railway line and took my shoes off. The tree talked to me in a sort of Shakespearian rhyme:

You must not act the knave
When others rant and rave.

I asked about the monsoon that the tree I had talked to nearly two years earlier had predicted, and it said, “The towers will be surrounded by water” (I thought the tree meant the enormous towers of the power station near Ramsgate). I walked on a little and heard a very loud woof, and a big dog was staring at me. I took my clothes off and felt cold. I walked by the train tracks until I stepped on a thorn and fell over just seconds before a train raced past.

I was lucky that I wasn’t seen. If someone had seen a naked man walking by the train tracks, they would have told the police. I could see the two towers near Ramsgate, and I knew it would be a long way to Canterbury. At first I walked through the bracken that grows by the railway tracks. Then I decided to walk by a field that was covered in thistles. This hurt my feet. I got to a ditch that had water in it. I rested there until dawn and it was very cold.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/henry07012011.html

Dark Days

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:43 am

Opening today at the Cinema Village in New York, “Dark Days” is a documentary about homeless people living in the Amtrak tunnels beneath the city’s streets. Made 10 years ago, this is a very deserving revival since it was an achievement on many different levels. As a debut film from Mark Singer, a young man from Britain, it showed how “mole people” are not much different than those living aboveground, seeking solidarity with each other and creature comforts. That they achieved a kind of normalcy in dangerous and gloomy conditions is a testament to the will of humanity to prevail against the most difficult circumstances.

I reviewed the film when it first came out in 2000 and post my original view verbatim below:

In recent years, many regional theaters in the United States have staged Maxim Gorky’s “The Lower Depths”, a play that revolves around the lives of the dregs of society in a flophouse in Czarist Russia, with homeless people in the leading roles. Such productions were meant as a commentary on the downward spiral of the American economy, which for many marginalized people meant catastrophe on a par with the Great Depression.

Against insurmountable odds, a 21 year old Englishman named Marc Singer descended into the cavernous train tunnels beneath the Amtrak station in midtown Manhattan five years ago with a 16 mm camera. His goal: to make a documentary about the homeless people who had taken shelter in these lower depths. He is a Maxim Gorky for our era. Trying to avoid the inhumane city-sponsored shelters that had become a scandal in the press, they constructed “homes” made of scavenged building materials and filled them with the amenities of middle-class life, including pets and television sets (electrical power was tapped from lines in the tunnel.)

Not only did these fearsome people living in fearsome conditions open their lives up to the novice film-maker, they provided the crew, learning as they went along, much as he did. A profile on Singer in the NY Times reveals the kind of creativity that went into the production. “When they needed a dolly, they built one using an old grocery cart and an abandoned stretch of rail. They ran cable underground, hooked up to whatever power source they could find, and for lighting used hand-held floodlights mounted on metal crosses. He gave a dozen of the homeless — three of whom died before the film could be released — part ownership in the film, so they stand to profit if it makes money.”

Despite the fact that most of these people survived by panhandling on the street, not a single piece of equipment was stolen. Furthermore, since Singer–not knowing any better–utilized a old-fashioned 16 mm camera rather than the modern digital video camera, the documentary has a more burnished and professional quality than one would expect. It succeeds not only as social commentary, but as art.

The substance of the film consists of the tunnel people going about their daily routines, which includes cooking, cleaning, playing with their pets, socializing and going out into the daylight to find a way to eke out a couple of dollars. This means collecting bottles on the street or finding used goods in dumpsters that could be resold on the street. In New York City’s more bourgeois neighborhoods, defined as they are by conspicuous consumption, there are always pricey goods that are thrown out for no good reason. Indeed, the contrast between the misery beneath the city’s streets and the opulence above it constitute the main social comment in the film, despite the rather wise choice of the director not to preach such a message.

In an interview with the NY Times, Singer explained what he wanted to accomplish with “Dark Days”, least of all to preach any kind of message:

“I never wanted to go on a mission with this film. I never wanted to convert anyone into helping the homeless. But we look at them as if they’re not human. It’s like there’s an invisible wall there. But you go and meet them, and it turns out they’re just like me and you; they just don’t have a home.”

Most of the film’s subjects are crack addicts, including an African-American woman in her 50s named Dee who is shown smoking immediately after recounting the death of her two children in an apartment fire while she was high on crack. For all of these people crack is a way to deliver themselves from the miseries of their lives, even though the drug is also one of the main causes of their misery.

Most are aware of that, as becomes evident in a discussion between Dee and Ralph, a Puerto Rican man who has taken Dee in after her shack has been burned down by a tunnel dweller seeking revenge for some offense. (Although the film does not spell out the nature of the conflict, one can only assume it is over drugs.) Ralph has lost everything because of crack, including his marriage and a middle-class life-style. He hasn’t smoked crack in over 3 years, but admits that the temptation is always there. When he insists to Dee that the only way to stop smoking crack is to just stop it, she replies that his badgering her only makes her feel like going out and scoring some crack.

Ralph, like Dee, has his own traumatic memories about the cost of getting high to his immediate family. He confesses that his 5-year-old daughter was raped and mutilated while he was in jail on a drug charge.

That Dee and Ralph can live together fits in with the general absence of racial tensions in the tunnel, no doubt explained by the recognition that those in the lower depths need to rely on each other’s solidarity to survive. One of the other main characters is Tommy, a young white teenager who ran away from alcoholic and drug-addicted parents. He looks like the boy next door.

The film has a “happy ending” of sorts, as Amtrak is forced to back down from an assault on the shacks which it has deemed correctly as a danger the health of their inhabitants. (The film is filled with shots of marauding rats. Also, the sound of the trains is omnipresent. One tunnel dweller was hit by a train during the filming.) Through a combination of legal action and mass pressure, advocates for the homeless successfully establish the point that unless an alternative to the shacks is provided, the tunnel people will just end up on the streets or in the dangerous city-sponsored shelters. At the last minute, the tunnel dwellers receive modest new apartments in a clean, well-kept building provided through federal aid to the homeless.

The perpetually snide Village Voice did not like this ending, stating: “There are too many shots of the tunnel dwellers gleefully wrecking their shacks and of their happy faces and glib pronouncements as they take possession of their new dwellings.”

As a socialist, I have a totally different reaction than the postmodernist/liberal Village Voice. I see the happy ending as one that embodies the kind of message that socialists put forward. In a world divided between the super-rich and the countless numbers of those living in the lower depths, either in train tunnels or in the shanties of 3rd world countries, we explain that the former condition is tied to the latter. We also treasure the happiness of the great masses more than we do the right of the small minority to live like Croesus. Until those conditions are eradicated, we will not rest for a moment.

“Dark Days” is showing right now at New York’s Film Forum. It is not to be missed.

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