Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 13, 2011

Texas is a unique place

Filed under: capitalist pig,conservatism — louisproyect @ 3:07 pm

NY Review September 29, 2011
Republican Days of Wrath
by Michael Tomasky

The national press has largely pigeonholed Perry into the “Tea Party” category, a designation that is certainly not without merit. It was, for example, outside a Tea Party rally in April 2009 that Perry made his remark about the possibility of Texas seceding:

Texas is a unique place. When we came into the union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that. You know, my hope is that America and Washington in particular pays attention. We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what may come out of that?

Yet calling Perry only a Tea Party candidate is misleading. He is also a candidate of the Republican establishment—the senior party members who raise millions of dollars and influence the party’s priorities—because that establishment today is itself quite right-wing. It is based chiefly not on Wall Street anymore but in Texas (and in Wichita, Kansas, where Koch Industries is located). The “tiny splinter group” of “a few Texas oil millionaires” whom Dwight Eisenhower famously disparaged in 1954 now is arguably the most powerful tendency within the party. The state’s rich Republicans have been the chief backers of everything from George W. Bush’s campaigns to attacks on Democrats like the Swift Boat ads used against John Kerry in 2004.


NY Times July 20, 2011
Child’s Play, Grown-Up Cash

APART from the open bar by the swimming pool, the main attraction at parties held at the Houston home of John Schiller, an oil company executive, and his wife, Kristi, a Playboy model turned blogger, is the $50,000 playhouse the couple had custom-built two years ago for their daughter, Sinclair, now 4.

Cocktails in hand, guests duck to enter through the 4 ½-foot door. Once inside, they could be forgiven for feeling as if they’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.

Built in the same Cape Cod style as the Schillers’ expansive main house, the two-story 170-square-foot playhouse has vaulted ceilings that rise from five to eight feet tall, furnishings scaled down to two-thirds of normal size, hardwood floors and a faux fireplace with a fanciful mosaic mantel.

The little stainless-steel sink in the kitchen has running water, and the matching stainless-steel mini fridge and freezer are stocked with juice boxes and Popsicles. Upstairs is a sitting area with a child-size sofa and chairs for watching DVDs on the 32-inch flat-screen TV. The windows, which all open, have screens to keep out mosquitoes, and there are begonias in the window boxes. And, of course, the playhouse is air-conditioned. This is Texas, after all.

“I think of it as bling for the yard,” said Ms. Schiller, 40.


September 12, 2011

Getting thrown out of an SWP memorial meeting for Eva Chertov

Filed under: sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 6:50 pm

(Received from Cliff Conner)

Dear friends,

A peculiar and somewhat disturbing thing happened to me and Marush yesterday, and in case you should hear about it in some indirect way, I wanted to be sure you heard it directly from me.

We had been invited to a memorial service for Eva Chertov, who recently passed away, too young, from a fatal illness.  Although we were never close friends with Eva, I had been in the SWP with her for fifteen years, from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, which meant that I considered her a comrade, and as many of you know, the bonds of comradeship are often deeper and more important than bonds of friendship.  The bottom line is that I had a great deal of respect for Eva as what James P. Cannon used to call a “stiff-necked rebel,” a fighter for social justice.  We went to the memorial service to pay that respect to her memory.

The morning before the service I received a phone call from an out-of-town friend who had also been in the SWP long ago.  After talking about other things, I said, “Guess where we’re going this afternoon?  To a memorial service for Eva Chertov.  I’ll probably see some of our mutual friends there.”  His reply surprised me: “You don’t think they’ll let you in, do you?”

“What do you mean they?” I asked.

“The SWP, of course.  Weren’t you expelled?”

“Yes, but that was thirty years ago.  It’s all water under the bridge.  They were personally hostile to me for a few years, but on those rare occasions when I run into any of them now, it’s all sweetness and light. I haven’t had any animosity toward them for a long time, and I’m sure they’ve forgotten all about me.  Besides, I don’t think this memorial service was organized by the SWP.  I got the invitation from one of Eva’s friends who isn’t a party member.  I think it’s an ‘ecumenical’ event.”

“No, you’re wrong on both counts.  It is being organized by the SWP, and they definitely haven’t forgotten about you.  It’s a cult and cults never forget anybody.”

“Nah, don’t be silly.  I’m just good-time Cliff.  Nobody’s afraid of me.  Why should they be?”

(Note to reader: I’m sure you can see where this is going.)

When we entered the hall and I saw that there was an entrance fee and envelopes for a fund pitch, I knew my friend was right that it was indeed an official SWP-sponsored event.  But we were warmly greeted—by people I had seen recently, by some I hadn’t seen in three decades, and even by people I’d never met before.  One fellow, who at first we both thought looked like Joe Biden, introduced himself as Dan Fein.

“Dan Fein!” I exclaimed.  “How nice to see you.  I didn’t recognize you at first.  Marush and I stayed with you and Jill in Phoenix for several days—I think it must have been 1981—when I was on a speaking tour for the party.”  Dan was extremely gracious and friendly, and at that point I was sure that bygones were indeed bygones.

We were about fifteen minutes early, so we sat down next to a couple of friends and settled in.  Marush got up to talk to someone else, and as I was sitting there, a young man who had a few minutes earlier been among those to welcome us came up and said, “May I have a word with you outside for a minute?”

“Sure,” I said, and followed him out.  He started to say something about this being an SWP event, and hoped I would understand if . . .

“Oh, yes, I understand,” I interrupted.  “Don’t worry.  I haven’t had the slightest interest in factional politics for a long, long time.  I’m just here for Eva’s memorial.”

But I soon discovered that I really hadn’t understood.  They were asking me to leave!  I was flabbergasted!  “Really?!”  I think I may have channeled John McEnroe:  “You cannot be serious!”

But they were serious.  I protested again that I had no interest whatsoever in doing anything that would upset anybody, but I was told, in solemn tones: “The decision has been made!”

Now, everything that had been said to me before that point had been said with gentle smiles and voices as sweet as maple syrup.  They didn’t want a scene, and making a stink is not my shtick, so after the absurdity of the whole thing had sunk in, I was ready to leave.  But when I started to go back in to get Marush, a woman (whose face I remembered from the old days, but whose name I couldn’t recall) stopped me and said, very gravely, “We can escort you out, if you prefer.”  The iron fist in the velvet glove!

“Well, I’m not leaving without my wife,” I replied.

“Wait here.  We’ll go get her.”

Poor Marush.  You may think me naïve for letting myself be blindsided by this, but you can hardly imagine her astonishment when it dawned on her that she was being ejected . . . from a memorial service!  She had never been thrown out of anything before in her life.  “Who are these people?,” she asked me when we were out on the street.  “What planet are they from?”

As we were going out the door, I saw Dan Fein again, and I said, as breezily as possible, “Well, Dan, it seems that we’ve been kicked out.”  Dan was staring off into the distance, pretending not to hear me; pretending that I didn’t exist.  I found this behavior absolutely astonishing.  I said to the woman who made sure we were all the way out the door, “Aren’t you even a little bit ashamed for doing this?”  But I could see in her eyes that she wasn’t at all ashamed.  Shame would be a normal human emotion.  Who, indeed, are these people?

And so that is how we spent our Sunday afternoon.  But wait . . . there’s a kicker.  A friend who had witnessed our ejection called later to say that he had stayed to hear the tribute to Eva.  It seems that the main speaker, SWP leader Jack Barnes, had words of high praise for the Chertov family’s wonderful spirit of “inclusiveness,” because they often had members of the Communist Party—the SWP’s bitterest rival—over to their house for social occasions.  What a lovely sentiment!  Ain’t inclusiveness swell?!

I suppose there is one thing about this affair that I should find at least a little gratifying.  I was wrong and my friend on the telephone was right.  I hadn’t been forgotten after all!


A report from someone who attended the meeting.


The Unrepentant Marxist visits the WTC site

Filed under: September 11 — louisproyect @ 4:07 pm

Also: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/reflections-on-the-stalled-wtc-rebuilding-project/


September 10, 2011

Storming the Israeli embassy

Filed under: zionism — louisproyect @ 12:39 pm

September 9, 2011

Three films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:37 pm

Two of the three films under consideration here were made in Mexico and deal with the super-exploitation of farm laborers and immigration, in other words just the kind of fare that deserves the widest viewing. The other is a documentary on American soldiers serving in Afghanistan, a well-traveled genre after a decade of imperialist war.

(Note the trailers for the Mexican films lack subtitles but they will be available obviously at screenings in NY.)

Opening today at the Anthology Film Archives, Eugenio Polgovsky’s “The Inheritors” (Los Herederos) is a cinéma vérité set in rural Mexico that gives a flesh-and-blood dimension to the economic processes that allow people in the United States to buy tomatoes, cucumbers, jalapeño peppers and string beans at low prices in local supermarkets in all seasons. If I had ever made good on my goal (long since abandoned) of teaching economics in college (obviously only at a place like U. of Utah or Massachusetts), I would have had my classes investigate the roots of the exploitation behind various grocery store staples. Despite the lack of any narration or text, “The Inheritors” makes it all crystal clear.

You will see a typical peasant village that rests on a mountainside where the land is rocky and where mechanization is non-existent. As ox-drawn tillers carve a groove in the unpromising soil, barefoot women toss in seeds presumably derived from the previous year’s harvest. Living in thatched-roof huts, the same women cook dinner on open hearth fires. Water is drawn from questionable-looking streams a mile or so from the village by young children in empty soda bottles nearly as tall as them.

Like most rural Mexicans who need hard cash to buy essential commodities, they have to work part of the year harvesting crops on the fields owned by agribusiness in the valleys beneath the mountainside where they live. The entire village participates, including the same young children who carried water to the village. Babies are left on the side of the field, precariously close to the monstrous machinery that only commercial farmers can afford. The work itself can be described as stoop labor and subject to cheating by those who pay their wages. Without a union to protect them and with no other work available, there are few opportunities to get a leg up economically. It is obvious that the title of the movie refers to the cycle of poverty that will condemn the children to the same bleak existence. They “inherit” the backbreaking labor that the Indian villages are condemned to repeat until a liberation movement greater than anything led by Zapata is victorious.

Next Friday, also at the Anthology Film Archives, is the opening date for “Northless” (Norteado), a fictional film that is part of their Genmex: Recent Films from Mexico series. (http://anthologyfilmarchives.org/film_screenings/series/37891) As an immigration “problem” film that can be grouped with “El Norte” or “Sin Nombre” (https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/01/01/2009-movies-wrap-up-part-two/), this debut work by Rigoberto Pérezcano eschews melodramatic formulas and concentrates on the small-scale trials and tribulations of the aspiring emigrant: loneliness, anxiety and a sense of vulnerability.

The film opens with Andrés (Harold Torres), a young man from Oaxaca, walking through the desert headed toward the American border. Just before he gets there, he is picked up by the cops and returned to a Tijuana hostel filled with other unsuccessful border crossers. The next morning, he runs into Ela (Alicia Laguna), a fortyish woman who is carrying garbage bags from her store and offers to help her. In no time at all, she offers him a job that he all too happy to accept, even if he is bent on crossing the border the first chance he gets.

Not long after starting the job, Andrés is invited to go out drinking with his boss. They go to a local cantina where they get tipsy on tequila and dance. She is anxious to have some physical release and he is in no position to refuse. As Andrés is vulnerable to the vicissitudes of both the workplace and the borderline, he tends to accommodate to anybody in a position of power, including his wanton employer. We soon learn that both of them are married. He has left a wife and kid back in Oaxaca and her husband has crossed the border, leaving her behind.

There are no “big” scenes in “Northless” but you will be impressed by the honesty of the film and its intimacy. As is also the case with “The Inheritors”, it will give you some genuine insights into the social reality of Mexico that is worth far more than the schlock at your local Cineplex.

Like “Northless”, the documentary “Where Soldiers Come From” that opens today at Village Cinema East avoids the sensationalism that you might expect from anything involving soldiers in Afghanistan. Unlike “Restrepo”, a very good film in its own right, the focus is more on the connection that the subjects have to their small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan than to any kind of adrenaline-soaked battlefield confrontations. That being said, there are a number of IED attacks that are unlike anything I have seen in a documentary, one leaving a major figure in the film a victim of physical and psychological aftermaths.

Director Heather Courtney comes from Hancock, Michigan, the same small town as Dominic Fredianelli, Cole Smith, and Matt Beaudoin—the three soldiers featured in her film that joined the Michigan National Guard right out of high school. This is a town of 4300 souls that has sunk economically since the local copper mining industry came to an end. Like countless other towns in 2007, this was a place long past its prime and fertile territory for military recruitment that would take advantage of young men and women with bleak prospects ahead of them.

By 2007 all of the fervor that led Pat Tillman to enlist had disappeared. The three young men who the movie tracks enlisted mostly because they hoped to take advantage of tuition assistance and because joining up seemed like an extension of hanging out.

Hancock, Michigan is nestled in a beautiful but slightly desolate woodland near Lake Superior whose fall colors are more spectacular than anything I have seen in upstate New York. The gorgeous scenery combined with the camaraderie of the three young men who decide to enlist at the same time reminded me of Michael Cimino’s 1978 “The Deer Hunter”, especially since one of the men—Matt Beaudoin—is an avid hunter. Apparently I was not the only one reminded of the similarity, since one of their mothers says not long after they join up: “Don’t this just remind you of ‘The Deer Hunter'”.

As is the case with Cimino’s film, they come home shattered and disillusioned—not that they had any grand illusions to start with. Despite Cimino’s reputation for having made an antiwar film, I found the Russian roulette scene offensive enough to make me walk out of the theater on the spot. As most people up to speed on the Vietnam war will tell you, the only incidents of Russian roulette were forced on the Vietnamese by their American captors and not the other way around.

As is generally the case with documentaries on men and women soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, the director assures us that she is “more interested in focusing on the emotional and human aspects of the story” rather than making a “political statement”. One supposes that this effort to appear non-political goes along with getting  the military’s assistance in filming on location in Afghanistan. A unambiguously antiwar film would have not gotten to first base.

In one scene, we see the three friends in their barracks watching the movie “Zeitgeist”, a conspiracist movie that I declined to review when it premiered a while back for reasons that might be obvious to my regular readers. However, the three soldiers agreed strongly with one of the film’s themes, namely that three wars of the United States during the twentieth century were waged purely for economic gain by what the film refers to as “international bankers”.

In 2008 we see their parents glued to the TV screen watching the election returns and cheering for Obama’s victory. They, like many voters, expected peace but have been rewarded with more war and deeper economic misery.

In order to understand why young men and women continue to enlist in the killing machine that the imperialist bourgeoisie will continue to rely on as economic misery grows around the world, there is no better place to start than the appropriately titled “Where Soldiers Come From”.

Was the plantation slave a proletarian?

Filed under: economics,slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 2:08 pm

Generally I don’t find Facebook useful for much else besides clever repartee and birthday greetings but on Richard Seymour’s FB page there was a very useful discussion about whether the plantation slave was a proletarian that benefited from the participation of Charles Post whose PhD thesis that applied the Brenner thesis to the American civil war has been turned into a book. I tried to debate Post on his analysis some years ago to no avail. He did not even respond to my emails. This time around he did manage to refer to me once, calling my attention to the fact that Ashley Smith was a man, not a woman. That’s better than nothing, I suppose. I  particularly recommend the last entry in this log by Richard Drayton. Drayton is a brilliant historian who wrote “Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World”, a book about how the British navy of the 18th century combined scientific exploration with colonialism.

A slightly edited transcription of the discussion follows:

Richard Seymour
So, question: was the plantation slave a proletarian? (Charles Charlie Post says no, as does Eugene Genovese and John Ashworth), but I believe this chap says yes. (The chap is Sidney Mintz, whose article can be read here: http://marxmail.org/slave_proletarian.pdf)

Sebastian Wright
Surely they are the ultimate proletarians? How could one be more proletarian than a slave labourer?!

Matthijs Krul
Marx certainly didn’t think so.

Richard Seymour
It’s a question of whether slave labour is a capitalist or precapitalist form. If you read Charles Post’s latest book, building on insights first developed in the New Left Review, you’ll see he takes the argument, siding with Eugene Genovese, that antebellum slavery was a non-capitalist form of production with very low productivity, which could only expand by territorial augmentations – thus driving some of the competition with mercantile capital and petty commodity production in the North, and the colonisation of Indian Country. Personally, I have some reservations about this line of argument, but it’s worth thinking about in light of the articulation of modes of production and its relation to concrete social formations.

Matthijs Krul
But surely capitalism subsumes all sorts of non-proletarian labor under it anyway? From peasant quasi-subsistence labor to slavery to non value-producing work, there’s always a considerable amount of non-proletarian labor that nonetheless is pushed along a capitalist logic.

Sebastian Wright
Ah ok, well in Marxist terms its different, but in the generic sense of the word they certainly are.

Michael McCarthy
We had a long discussion of this at NYU recently with Charlie Post. If you are interested it was recorded and is available here: Charles Post, The American Road to Capitalism (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Charles-Post-The-American-Road-to-Capitalism/187949994581652)

Paul Levi Bryant
It’s difficult to see how slaves can be proletarians given that they don’t sell their labor for a wage. “Proletarian” doesn’t mean “manual labor” but someone who sells their labor as a commodity. Perhaps slavery would be a form of “primitive accumulation”?

Richard Seymour
Well, their labour power was certainly bought and sold as a commodity, even if not by the actual slaves themselves…

Michael McCarthy
But what distinguished the capitalist mode of production from earlier forms is most centrally the separation of the economic from the political. Labor has to be “free” for the theory of relative surplus value to make any sense at all. And that, capitalist competition, is the heart of capitalism, no?

Richard Brenner
Ok so they have some characteristics of the proletariat but not others. I think Marx says somewhere that the value of the slave’s labour-power is not zero, ie the capitalist pays the cost of the reproduction of slaves’ ability to work; but the distinction between the modern proletarian and the slave or indeed the bonded labourer is their freedom to contract with the employer (a strictly formal freedom if course) but one which means the worker presents as a commodity (labour power) owner in the wage labour-capital relation. This contradictory freedom makes the modern class struggle both difficult and uniquely promising, because it conceals the reality of exploitation beneath the wage form, while at the same time creating a universal class bearing no new future form of class division in its basic makeup.

Jim Farmelant
I think that the plantation system combined both pre-capitalist and capitalist aspects in a contradictory manner. Slavery was essentially a pre-capitalist mode of production, but plantations functioned within a global economy that was predominantly capitalist. Planters therefore had function on a profit-or-loss basis. I think that Genovese was correct in arguing slavery as a mode of production imposed intrinsic limits as to how far planters could improve labor productivity, whcih forced planters to turn towards territorial expansion in order to keep the system going.

So in that sense, slaves were not proletarians. On the other hand, many planters did pay some of their slaves wages in order to get extra work out of them. These slaves still had to perform all their normal duties, for which they were not compensated in the form of wages, but some planters would, nevertheless, pay some of their slaves wages in turn for their performing extra assignments that went beyond their normal duties as slaves. So, at this point one can see how slave labor being eventually superseded by wage labor. To this extent, some slaves were ALSO proletarians too.

Matthijs Krul
Yeah I think what Jim Farmelant said is basically right. Although I don’t think slave labor need ‘necessarily’ disappear from actual capitalism. Proletarian labor is at the heart of capitalist reproduction and in its pure form only proletarian labor would exist, but of course there is not and never will be a pure capitalism of that kind. In reality, all sorts of pre-capitalist formations persist subsumed under capitalism, and often this subsumption makes it stronger than it would be if there were only wage labor. E.g., the quasi-subsistence peasants in India are probably in the colloquial sense more exploited than the fully proletarian wage labor in that country.

Michael Rosen
Thus the distinction between ‘wage-slave’ and ‘slave’ – a distinction he must have made in German – a German speaker here will tell us what it is, in order to make clear that the working class were being exploited in a way which involved the exchange of their labour-power at a negotiated price below the value of what they produced. The trickier question is re ‘indentured labour’ which was, as it sounds, a kind of hybrid between slavery and wage-slavery.

Michael Rosen
re paying for the cost of the reproduction of the slaves’ labour-power…hmmm, yes, they provided the most rudimentary of housing, the house-slaves got some food, but the field slaves where the major part of the exploitation went on – often had the ‘right’ (!) to grow their own food. (Thus the ‘retention’ of African foods in the Americas.) In other words, the outlay in terms of reproduction of that labour-power was minimal.

Ruairidh John Dugald MacLean
It’s pretty dodgy to define slaves in exact same terms as wage labourers. But it’s worth noting that capitalism, in periods of very rapid expansion has made use of slave labour more than once- especially if you include indentured servitude- I’m thinking not only of the American westwward expansion, but also of Stalinist Russias militarisation of labour, Jewish and political slaves in Nazi Germany…I know there’s another one but I can’t quite remmember what it is.

Ruairidh John Dugald MacLean
Oh yeah, everyday commen or garden PRISON LABOUR. Are prison labourers “proletarian”? There are a lot of them in America.

Richard Brenner
You may be thinking of the Khmer Rouge (if you’re a state capitalist)

Michael Rosen
See also the Nazis’ use of both ‘slave’ labour and what was in fact ‘pressed’ labour. Millions of workers were employed forcibly by the Nazi state and German industry. Some of this was effectively slave labour eg (the work details from the concentration camps – though many of these didn’t actually produce much of value) others were forced labour, minimally paid and fed. Some of this was crucial for the system eg the arms manufacture.

Michael Rosen
And talking of ‘pressed’ labour, of course the idea of the ‘press’ was behind the employment of seamen in Britain for several hundred years. Again, for minimal pay and food.

Louis N. Proyect
I dealt with Post’s thesis here:


Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 1 (Engerman-Fogel and Genovese)

Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 2 (Class and racial oppression prior to Reconstruction)

Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 3 (Reconstruction)

Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 4 (Marx, Lenin and various Trotskyists)

Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 5 (Henry Villard: portrait of a Radical Republican)

Ruairidh John Dugald MacLean
Maybe the problem is the way the question is posed- that is to say “can slaves be proletarians”. I mean, we don’t expect capitalism to be everywhere a pure model of the “two great classes”, so maybe its various incidences don’t need to be that simple either- perhaps there are degrees of proletarianisation. So the real question is to what extent does coercion exist in “free” loabour.

Michael Rosen
Indeed, RJDM – Marx was writing in the tradition of the natural scientists (Boyle et al) who dealt in ‘ideal’ laws eg Boyle’s law which never prevails but all cases tend towards it, and it’s law which is ruling the main process of the relations between volume, pressure and heat. The capitalism that Marx is describing in the first instance is the ‘ideal’ model and what actually takes place are many variations on that theme, with exploitations at different moments going on in different ways and within different structures. After all, it was the ‘state capitalist’ theory which posited the notion that the Soviet ruling class extracted surplus labour from the Soviet working class and used it and controlled it as a class. But the conditions of labour were very different from eg a Detroit car worker.

Louis N. Proyect
I have written more than a hundred thousand words on the “origin” debate including a number of articles prompted by Richard’s defense of the Brenner thesis on his blog. All of it is contained under the URL I posted above. Put briefly, the confusion stems primarily from differing interpretations of the term ‘capitalism’. As a mode of production, it undoubtedly entails free labor. As a system, it combines free and unfree labor. I obviously lean toward the latter definition.

Jamie Allinson
Enforced labour definitely exists under capitalism and large-scale plantation slavery (as opposed to personal slavery) isn’t actually that common in history so it’s difficult to see slavery as a mode of production in the sense of a historical epoch – there is a section in the collection ‘Precapitalist formations’ where Marx describes slavery as an auxiliary form. I haven’t read Charlie Post’s book but I think plantation can be described as ‘pre’ or at least ‘non’ capitalist for the reasons others have given above. The particular position of the slave – who is herself a commodity – means a different kind of class struggle for the mode. As CLR James shows in ‘The Black Jacobins’, masters employ savage violence against slaves’ bodies in a way that would not do to ordinary means of production nor be able to do to free labourers who could leave easily. This is because the slave is a conscious means of production, whose consciousness must be continually terrorised to maintain this status. For the slave on the other hand, resistance usually took the form of flight or rebellion that would permit large-scale flight (I know that the role of slaves in the US civil war is different here, which is why it’s interesting as a kind of permanent revolution)

Ruairidh John Dugald MacLean
Yeah, I don’t see why anyone would have a problem with that. Marx calls it the “capitalist system” because the capitalist mode of production is dominant within the system, and because capitalist productive relations determine the shape of other modes of production to which they are connected- not because the system is uniform in it’s modes of production.

Ruairidh John Dugald MacLean
Sorry, that last post was aimed at Louis.

Jamie Allinson
The most interesting thing is the combination/ articulation of modes of production, though. The plantations oriented towards the market of the then hegemonic capitalist power, Britain and if we take that final destination of the product as the most important thing then that tends to a view of plantation slavery as capitalist and slaves as proletarians. But uneven and combined development suggests that we can see this link to the world market as actually strengthening pre-capitalist forms, and that the resultant political tensions bring about revolutionary situations – I wonder if this is a way to read the US civil war?

Louis N. Proyect
Speaking of sugar plantations, the topic of Sidney Mintz’s article I made available (as well as his book “Sweetness and Power”), I recommend a new book titled “The Sugar Barons” that appears very much in the Mintz, Eric Williams, CLR James tradition:


Charlie Pottins
tricky. Insofar as the plantation produced for the capitalist market, the slave and the Lancashire mill worker were part of the same workforce. But because the slave was actually owned by the master they were also a form of capital and subject to depreciation. And as property slaves could not choose their place of exploitation or even keep their family together. But taking the minimum definition of proletarian as that class which owns no share of the means of production; in the slave’s case does not even control the means of reproduction. the slave was surely a proletarian , what else? cf also the slaves in the Nazi camps who unlike those in ancient times perhaps could be scrapped and replaced when they were not productive enough.

Louis N. Proyect
It is not just slavery that exists outside of the parameters of the Brenner-Wood thesis. It is all forced labor. So, based on that definition, there was no capitalism in apartheid South Africa outside of the mostly white skilled sector. This makes no sense–at least to me.

Louis N. Proyect
I should add that Laclau’s articles on Latin America adhere to this strict definition of capitalism as a mode of production and lead to all sorts of questionable applications. For example, most of these countries relied on debt peonage in the 19th century (just read Traven’s jungle novels for a literary treatment). That was the form that capitalism assumed in places like Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Mexico and so on.

Charlie Post
On the substantive issue. I argue that the “second slavery”– 19th century slavery in the US South, Cuba and Brazil– were non-capitalist forms subordinated to industrial capitalism on a world-scale (the 17th and 18th century slave plantations were, with the exception of the English colonies, subordinate to pre-capitalist/Absolutist social formations like France). While the slave-owning planters were compelled to “sell to survive,” they responded to the demands of the capitalist world market in distinctly non-capitalist ways. While there was accumulation of land and slaves, there was no specialization of output or labor-saving technical innovation.

This was the result of the non-capitalist social property relations of slavery. What made the master-slave relation non-capitalist was NOT the juridical unfreedom of the slave (I have a lengthy review of Jairus Banaji’s THEORY AS HISTORY that I have submitted to HISTORICAL MATERIALISM and will e-mail to anyone who contacts me on FB mail with their e-mail address that deals with the distinction between slavery and legally coerced forms of wage-labor). Instead, it is the fact that under slavery, masters’ do not purchase LABOR-POWER for a set period of time, but buy the LABORER as a “means of production in human form” (DuBois).This has two important results. First, the slave laborer must be maintained whether or not their labor in order to preserve their value as fixed capital (thus the need for physical coercion in the organization of the labor-process). Combined with the disjuncture between production and labor time in agriculture (the existence of a “slave season”), this leads planters to seek to keep their slaves busy “year round”– including producing their own subsistence, undermining productive specialization. Second, labor cannot be easily expelled from production in order to introduce labor-saving tools/machinery. Thus the most rational way for planters to increase output/cut costs was geographic expansion–moving slaves to new/more fertile lands. In the specific conjuncture of the US after c. 1840– after the completion of the subordination of rural households/family farmers to market coercion– creates a situation in which the expanded reproduction of capitalism and slavery become incompatible. It is this incompatibility that underlies the class struggles that culminate in the US Civil War.

Sorry for the multiple entries and going on for so long. But again, thanks for the discussion of my work. If you want to be updated on reviews, book launches, etc., please “like” https://www.facebook.com/pages/Charles-Post-The-American-Road-to-Capitalism/187949994581652?ref=ts. Again, many thanks!

Gary McNally
@Jamie Allinson “The plantations oriented towards the market of the then hegemonic capitalist power, Britain and if we take that final destination of the product as the most important thing then that tends to a view of plantation slavery as capitalist and slaves as proletarians.”That seems a bit of a jump. Capitalism to this day contains many vestiges from previous modes of production. The monarchy in the UK being one example. They are clearly a product of fuedal superstructure that have survived to live side by side with capitalist relations of production.

Slavery in America can be seen as one moment termporally strectched across two modes of production but was only the product of the first.

James Fiorentino

Gary McNally
Slaves aren’t proletarian in any Marxist sense I know of. Hence, as Michael Rosen pointed out, Marx makes use of the term wage-slave to describe proletarians. Labour Power is the commodity sold by the proletariat to the capitalist. Whereas a Slave is a commodity that is sold to a capitalist.

I think Gramsci’s term Subaltern is better for describing slaves.

Michael Rosen ‎
…and capitalism isn’t capitalism because of the value extracted (crudely expressed as price and profit) but because of the exact composition of the process of exploitation. Most post-hunter-gatherer systems accrue value and surplus, but aren’t necessarily capitalist.

Gary McNally
Exactly, there is a huge qualitive difference in the process of exploitation.

Richard Seymour
“Slavery in America can be seen as one moment termporally strectched across two modes of production but was only the product of the first.” That’s a strange sort of argument. If it was only the product of feudalism, one would expect it to wane under capitalism, rather than expand as it in fact did. The specific form of colonial slavery that produced the antebellum system in the US surely owes itself to the capitalist imperatives dominant in England and increasingly North America at the time.

Aaron Hess
Ashley Smith’s review of Charlie’s book is on the ISR website– it references Banaji’s new book “Theory as History,” which is the best theoretical treatment of hybrid labor forms I’ve yet come across. http://isreview.org/issues/78/featrev-amcapitalism.shtml

Louis N. Proyect
I recommend Robert Miles’s “Capitalism and Unfree Labour: Anomaly or Necessity?”, fortunately available for under $4 on amazon.com–as well as university libraries of course.

Louis N. Proyect
Ashley Smith’s review is quite on target but I don’t know where he picked up the term “political Marxist” which is used in a fairly dismissive fashion. Odd…

Richard Seymour
The term “political marxism” was coined by Ellen Wood, I believe.

Aaron Hess
According to Paul Blackledge, Guy Bois actually came up with the term in an article critiquing Brenner, but Ellen Wood and Robert Brenner have both embraced it.

Charlie Pottins
Slavery in the USA was actually intensified by the development of industrial capitalism in Europe, increasing demand for cotton. Something similar had happened with serfdom in eastern Europe as market for grain grew in western towns. But the South’s backwardness which geared it to Europe became an obstacle to the rise of US capitalism. The civil war was the second American revolution. But this raises another difference -the proletariat is not only exploited but contains in its struggle the seed of a classless society, based not on reverting to small proprietorship but on collective ownership and control.

Sayan Bhattacharyya
See CLR James on the Haitian revolution, on this topic. In “The Black Jacobins”, he had interesting things to say on this topic.

Penny McCall Howard
See also Jairus Banaji

Richard Brenner
Charlie Post: you say the distinction is *NOT* the juridical form of freedom but that in the one case the capitalist buys labour power and in the other buys the labourer. But these two things are different aspects of the same concrete phenomenon: the slave is purchased as labourer, the wage slave”s labour power is purchased by the capitalist…AND SOLD by the ‘free labourer’, the owner and seller if the commodity labour power.

Robert Wood
Obviously, slavery is defined by a set of forms of coercion, domination, and violence that make it without analogy to wage labor at the experiential level, but it clearly operates within the commodity system. Additionally, the cotton gin was clearly a significant labor saving device, and Roediger amongst others has pointed out that the modern factory (plant) has organizational principles that draw from the organization of plantation.

Louis N. Proyect
“the modern factory (plant) has organizational principles that draw from the organization of plantation.”


Well, it’s not just that. Ellen Wood describes John Locke as the ultimate philosopher of the early capitalist system but he wrote the constitution for the Carolinas that defined slavery as a fundamental property right.

Matthijs Krul
I find this an interesting discussion and thanks particularly to Louis Proyect and Charlie Post for their efforts. I’m worried though we might have reached the point where we are fruitlessly arguing about definitions. If we all agree 19th century slavery was subject to capitalist logic but not a form of labor intrinsic to capitalism (in the sense it has no part in a ‘pure’ capitalism), then surely that suffices?

Ganesh Trichur
This article by Sidney Mintz in “Review” (Fernand Braudel Center) is not accessible. The simultaneous presence of slavery in one space (Caribbean, southern North America, and South America) and wage-labor relations in other spaces (whether in England or in the northern New England states) is probably not all that contradictory. Why can’t coerced labor and free-wage-labor coexist as complementary labor-systems organized by agencies of capitalist accumulation

Duncan Brown
What puzzles me is that is if the slave was a proletarian, then it would seem that there lived proletarian labour pre capitalism. France was feudal and yet had a sysytem similar to the slave system that existed whithin capitalist England.

Richard Seymour
I think the claim would be that this form of labour was, under capitalism, subordinate to capitalist imperatives, and that slavery in the plantation was quite different in terms of work patterns etc to, say, Ancient slavery.

Jim Farmelant
Wouldn’t the Althusserian notion of social formations in which different modes of production exist side by side, sometimes symbiotically, sometimes antagonistically, be useful here for understanding slavery in the modern era? Then slavery could be regarded as a pre-capitalist mode of production that was able to exist symbiotically with capitalism (which was already the dominant mode of production) during periods of primitive accumulation.

Charlie Post
A couple of quick points. It is absolutely true that New World slave plantations– especially the “second slavery” of the 19th century (cotton in US south, sugar in Cuba, coffee in Brazil)- prefigured features of the capitalist factory. In response to the necessity of “selling to survive,” planters organized a labor-process with a detailed division of labor, closely supervised and coordinated work gangs, and the like. In fact, one neo-classical economic historian (Fleisig) argued that the origins of Taylorism/Scientific Management could be found in the plantations of the Americas.

However, the non-capitalist structure of the master-slave relation meant that the ONLY means of increasing output was intensifying ABSOLUTE SURPLUS LABOR EXTRACTION. While the plantation, at any given point, resembled the capitalist factory, we do not see the relatively continuous introduction of labor-saving technology (limited to new frontiers and new crops). What Blackburn, in his latest book, describes as the planters’ “addiction to absolute surplus labor” was not a choice/pathology, but inscribed into the rules of reproduction of the master-slave relation.

The master-slave relation also produced the non-capitalist anomaly of plantation self-sufficiency, which had profound impact on the trajectory of the slaves’ class struggle. The need for planters to keep slaves laboring year round led them to put slaves to work, in gangs (cotton plantations growing corn) or universally on small garden plots growing food stuffs. The slaves not only supplemented their rations through their own independent production, but were generally allowed to market their own surplus. Thus plantation slavery combined a centralized labor-process under the masters’ command producing commodities for the world-market AND independent household production that included marketing of physical surpluses under the slaves’ (usually the eldest male) control.

On the one hand, the centralized labor-process gave rise to forms of class struggle on the plantations that were similar to those in a capitalist factory: struggles over the collective pace of work, length of the working day, gender/generational composition of work force, etc. On the other, the division of the work week/day between the masters’ plantation and the slaves’ garden plots gave the slaves’ struggles a distinctively non-capitalist bent. Much of the struggle over the length of the working day/week was framed as a means of allowing more time for independent household production (this division of work-time also shaped slave parents’ struggle to control their children and their labor, with slave parents’ wanting children to be available for work on the garden plots rather than the plantation). As a result, the slaves equated SLAVERY with growing commodities and working in gangs and equated FREEDOM with independent household production–producing their own subsistence (and a small marketable surplus to enhance their consumption) under their own (patriarchal) control. Thus it is not surprising that at the high points of slaves’ REVOLUTIONARY struggle (St. Domingue, post-Civil War South, post-emancipation Jamaica, etc.), the slaves sought to become PEASANT producers rather than collective control of the plantation.

Louis N. Proyect
“However, the non-capitalist structure of the master-slave relation meant that the ONLY means of increasing output was intensifying ABSOLUTE SURPLUS LABOR EXTRACTION.”

As if the abolition of slavery introduced relative surplus labor extraction. The plain fact is that the plantation system continued well into the 20th century, abetted by Jim Crow which effectively chained Blacks to their shacks. The notion of a “capitalist revolution” has to be closely examined in light of a mountain of contrary evidence. The Northern big bourgeoisie, as opposed to the middle-class base of the radical wing of the Republican Party, had no interest in a truly emancipated Black population. If you want documentation on that, just read the fucking Nation Magazine of the 1880s that railed against anti-Klan legislation. And if you want to see the limitations of the “radical” Republicans, check my article on Henry Villard, who became publisher of the Nation after founder E.L. Godkin died.

On his own initiative, Villard became the foreign agent of the Wisconsin Central Railroad and persuaded German bankers to buy bonds, out of which he pocketed a handsome commission. It was this sort of entrepreneurial spirit that eventually recommended him to Ben Holladay, the founder of the Oregon and Western Railroad. Although Villard was originally hired to raise capital from European investors, he took over the company from Holladay, as well as the Oregon Steamship Company and a few other Oregon companies in 1876, just one year before the North washed its hands of Reconstruction. Pleased with his takeover of the railroad and assorted assets, Villard wrote his wife Fanny, who was becoming ever more enthusiastic about his business success, that “I knew you would be mad at me for not returning to-day, but I am sure that the wrath of my little wife will be appeased when I tell her that her great ‘schemer’ has now in his pocket nine thousand Dollars clear profit made this week and that he expects his labors to be eventually rewarded by more than as much more!” His pet name for Fanny was “darling greediness”.

Charlie Post
Given that there is no necessary sequence of modes/forms of production– no direction to history given by the spread of markets or the development of the productive forces– it is not surprising that the class struggles in the Reconstruction period created new, non-capitalist forms in the south. No question the Radical Republicans de-radicalized significantly after 1868– under the impact of growing northern working class struggles in the north. I agree that the notion of the “bourgeois revolution”– in particular it’s bastard child the “bourgeois-democratic revolution”– needs to be seriously reconsidered. It was Brenner, Wood, Cominel and other “political Marxist” who have initiated that process…

Louis N. Proyect
On bourgeois revolutions:



Duncan Brown
Yes of course I know ancient slavery was fundamentally different from modern slavery.

My question is, what difference was there between the slavery on French plantations at a time when France was feudal and English plantations at a time when England was capitalist ie for most of the 18th Century?

Was an English slave a proletarian? If so, did that make a French slave one as well? If not why not?

Louis N. Proyect
I don’t think there was much difference between sugar plantations in Haiti and in Jamaica. They were both distinguished by chattel slavery. Precapitalist slavery was not about commodity production. It was about extending the power of potentates through conquest. The Ottoman Janissaries were typical. In Ethiopia, slaves carried guns for their masters during hunting expeditions. It is hard to imagine such a thing happening in Mississippi in the 1850s.

Richard Brenner
Thanks Charlie Post for fascinating observations

Charlie Post
Richard– you are welcome!

Charlie Post
The difference between plantation slavery in St. Domingue did not result in different class relations and labor-processes on those islands. Instead, the differences showed up in the origins and impact of plantation slavery on the “metropolis.” Only the English slave colonies settlement/development were the work of “new merchants” who did not enjoy exclusive royal monopolies on the sale of slaves or importation of sugar. As Brenner argues in MERCHANTS AND REVOLUTION the emergence of the new merchants was directly tied to the breakthrough to agrarian capitalism in England. By contrast, French colonialism was fueled by the crisis of revenues of the French absolutist state (limits to taxing the peasantry), and was organized by “royal” merchants who enjoyed monopolies for the importation of slaves/marketing of sugar. Even more marked it the effects of slavery/slave trade on France and England. In England, the expansion of colonial markets and profits from the slave/sugar trade promoted capitalist industrialization. In France, the profits of slavery went into buying offices (tax farming) in the pre-capitalist Absolutist state.

Duncan Brown
I think part of the answer is that in the 18th Century the proletariat didn’t really exist anywhere, but was being created as the capitalist mode of production developed. So the hand loom weavers had more than ‘nothing but their labour power’ to sell, but actually owned the means of production. The creation of the factories mechanised and removed from them the means of production, thus transforming them into the proletariat.

The fact that England was capitalist and France was not, really doesn’t determine whether the slaves were proletariat. In England, itself the proletariat didn’t really come in to existence until over 100 years of capitalism.
If we take Marx’s definition then the slaves were not proletarian.

Louis N. Proyect
“I think part of the answer is that in the 18th Century the proletariat didn’t really exist anywhere, but was being created as the capitalist mode of production developed.”

You have to understand that with the Brenner thesis, you can have capitalism without a proletariat. What matters is that landlords began to compete with each other in the 16th century British countryside, which led to technological innovation. Meanwhile, the existence of the largest concentration of workers in the world–Potosi, Bolivia–in the same period is of no interest to Brenner since landlords operated on a “feudal” basis. If you scour through the writings of Wood, Brenner and all others that are part of this current, I doubt if you will find more than a thousand words on Latin America.

Richard Brenner
Charlie – I meant your comments on absolute surplus value. But I should say I don’t agree about the non-directional impulse of capitalist development or your comment on the utility of the term ‘bourgeois revolution.

Richard Drayton
For many Caribbean historians, by which I mean those who are both from the region as well as students of it, there is in the organisation of plantation slave labour a form of proletarianization. I think here in particular of the marxists C.L.R James of Trinidad and Richard Hart of Jamaica, and those they influenced including Eric Williams of Trinidad, and a generation later the American anthropologist Sid Mintz.

It is a theme I turn to myself in my essay: “The Collaboration of Labour: Slaves, Empires, and Globalizations in the Atlantic World, c. 1600-1850”, in A.G. Hopkins, ed., GLOBALISATION IN WORLD HISTORY (2002). The key issue for us is that labour is organised by a modern division of labour and bought and sold as a commodity.

They/we note on the sugar plantations of the 17th century: labour is not given as part of a system of mutual obligation but is instead sold as a commodity; work units much larger than the family, subjection to strict time discipline and spatial constraint; task specialisation; alienation of worker from tools; production for non‑local markets; dependence on long distance markets for food and subsistence. By these criteria the plantations were the avantgarde of the process of capitalist market modes of production, as Mintz put it “The plantation as a synthesis of factory and field. . . was really quite unlike anything known in mainland Europe at the time . . . [it was] probably the closest thing to industry that was typical of the Seventeenth century.” Plantation sugar production was large‑scale, capital‑intensive, and machine‑dependent like no other industry in the world in its time.

By the late 18th and 19th century also, there is in urban slavery (eg. Trinidad or Rio), the phenomenon of slaves being hired on day wage rates, and by the nineteenth century being used as factory workers in Richmond Virginia.

The comparison of modern plantation slavery with ancient slavery is entirely false. The correct comparison is the with other forms of unfree or semifree labour operating in the early modern world from press ganged sailors and soldiers, to apprentices and journeymen, to workers selling their labour in the shadow of factory owners on whom they depended for housing etc. We need to keep sight always of the modernity of the plantation.

September 8, 2011

Bourgeois pundits ponder Marx

Filed under: economics,financial crisis,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:08 pm

Over the past few months there has been a bumper crop of articles in elite publications such as the Financial Times making the case that Karl Marx was right—or mostly right. This is understandable given the perilous times we are living through. The kind of Panglossian message found in Fukuyama’s End of History is ill-suited to a world edged on the precipice of economic ruin, largely beyond the capability of the world bourgeoisie to resolve.

Nouriel Roubini

The first to weigh in was Nouriel Roubini who was interviewed by the WSJ on August 11th. Roubini, whose bearishness generally makes him open to Marx’s pessimistic take on the long-term outlook of capitalism, must have shocked the Journal with his nod to their bête noire:

WSJ: So you painted a bleak picture of sub-par economic growth going forward, with an increased risk of another recession in the near future. That sounds awful. What can government and what can businesses do to help get the economy going again or is it just sit and wait and live it out?

Roubini: Businesses are not doing anything. They’re not actually helping. All this risk made them more nervous. There’s a value in waiting. They claim they’re doing cutbacks because there’s excess capacity and not adding workers because there’s not enough final demand, but there’s a paradox, a Catch-22. If you’re not hiring workers, there’s not enough labor income, enough consumer confidence, not enough consumption, not enough final demand. In the last two or three years, we’ve actually had a worsening because we’ve had a massive redistribution of income from labor to capital, from wages to profits, and the inequality of income has increased and the marginal propensity to spend of a household is greater than the marginal propensity of a firm because they have a greater marginal propensity to save, that is firms compared to households. So the redistribution of income and wealth makes the problem of inadequate aggregate demand even worse.

Karl Marx had it right. At some point, Capitalism can self-destroy itself because you cannot keep on shifting income from labor to Capital without having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand. That’s what has happened. We thought that markets worked. They’re not working. The individual can be rational. The firm, to survive and thrive, can push labor costs more and more down, but labor costs are someone else’s income and consumption. That’s why it’s a self-destructive process.

I am not sure how schooled Roubini is in Marxism, but essentially he is laying out an underconsumptionist analysis which is not quite what Marx put forward. I deal at some length with the theory here: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2008/02/23/a-laypersons-guide-to-crisis-theory/

I would only say at this point that any argument made for an open assault on the privileges of the rich is most welcome, but that in itself is no guarantee that the economy will revive. Basically, underconsumptionism addresses how the pie is divided but not how it expands. The grim reality facing bourgeois economists is the likelihood that such expansion is precluded on the basis of how the global capitalist system is structured now. The exceptional growth in the American economy from 1945 to 1970 or so was directly related to its commanding position as the major victor in WWII. Those days are over.

Samuel Brittain

The next to weigh in was Samuel Brittain, who penned “Mistaken Marxist Moments” in the August 25th Financial Times (the only way to read the article if you are not subbed to the FT is to google “mistaken Marxist moments” and then click the link that comes up there.) Unlike Roubini, Brittain is a pretty reactionary slug, having studied with Milton Friedman at Cambridge and defending Margaret Thatcher’s policies against 364 leading economists who had written an open letter in the London Times.

Despite his rightwing politics, Brittain allows that some kind of deficit spending might be necessary. You’ll note that he like Roubini accepts some of the precepts of underconsumptionism:

What did Marx mean by the contradictions of capitalism? Basically, that the system produced an ever-expanding flow of goods and services, which an impoverished proletarianised population could not afford to buy. [emphasis added] Some 20 years ago, following the crumbling of the Soviet system, this would have seemed outmoded. But it needs another look, following the increase in the concentration of wealth and income. Indeed, a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, Raghuram Rajan, has attributed the recent credit explosion partly to real wage stagnation, which encouraged people to borrow.

But even if the analysis is right, the remedy is wrong. The justification for redistribution is ethical. If the only thing wrong with capitalism is insufficient mass purchasing power then surely the remedy is the helicopter drop of money envisaged by Milton Friedman. For this we need not so much a political as an intellectual revolution, namely the overthrow of the balanced budget fetish.

The fact that a Thatcherite can call for the “overthrow of the balanced budget fetish” shows how deep the crisis is, even if this kind of heresy has not reached the Republican Party in the U.S. which has become more and more like a suicidal cult. With respect to the “helicopter drop”, this is essentially what Bush and Obama have done since 2008, largely to no avail. Perhaps the economy would have been worse off without an injection of liquidity but that’s of little consolation to people who have had their homes foreclosed or lost their jobs. People expect an expanding economy and deficit spending will likely fail to accomplish this.

George Magnus

Three days after Brittain’s article appeared, George Magnus proposed that we “Give Karl Marx a Chance to Save the World Economy” on Bloomberg.com, the voice of NYC’s billionaire mayor.  Considering the fact that Magnus is the Senior Economic Adviser to UBS Investment Bank, we’re talking about a major loss of confidence among the elite. Like the two aforementioned experts, Magnus adduces an underconsumptionist message to Marx that is really not there:

Marx also pointed out the paradox of over-production and under-consumption: The more people are relegated to poverty, the less they will be able to consume all the goods and services companies produce. When one company cuts costs to boost earnings, it’s smart, but when they all do, they undermine the income formation and effective demand on which they rely for revenues and profits.

This problem, too, is evident in today’s developed world. We have a substantial capacity to produce, but in the middle- and lower-income cohorts, we find widespread financial insecurity and low consumption rates. The result is visible in the U.S., where new housing construction and automobile sales remain about 75% and 30% below their 2006 peaks, respectively.

As Marx put it in Kapital: “The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses.”

Unfortunately Magnus omitted the conclusion of Marx’s sentence, which reads in full: “The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses as opposed to the drive of capitalist production to develop the productive forces as though only the absolute consuming power of society constituted their limit.”

That is something that bourgeois economists can’t seem to get their head around. It is not just that the masses lack consumption power; it is that the “revolutionization” of the means of production continues to replace living labor with dead labor to the point that more and more workers either become unemployed or underemployed. That is a dilemma that no amount of “helicopter drops of money” can solve.

Derek Thompson

You can get an admission that the problem exists in another mainstream publication, the Atlantic Monthly. In a highly revealing article titled “The Greater Recession: America Suffers from a Crisis of Productivity“,  senior editor Derek Thompson states:

Americans have a complicated relationship with productivity. We obsess about our personal efficiency, but we don’t think much about efficiency across broad swaths of the economy. Productivity is the not-so-secret sauce in our GDP. We’re the second-largest manufacturer in the world even though manufacturing jobs have shrunk to less than 10 percent of our economy. We’re the world’s third-largest agricultural nation even though only 2 percent of us farm. The reason we can do so much work with so little is that the U.S. economy is incredibly, and increasingly, efficient at making some things cheaply.

Don’t ask David Allen to explain this. Ask David Autor. He’s the MIT economist who, in last month’s cover story, “Can the Middle Class Be Saved?”, told Don Peck that technology and offshoring is replacing jobs for the middle-educated middle-class. “Almost one of every 12 white-collar jobs in sales, administrative support, and nonmanagerial office work vanished in the first two years of the recession,” Peck writes, and one in six blue-collar jobs disappeared in production, craft, repair, and machine operation.

We know where the jobs are going — to machines, software, and foreign workers. We also know why they’re going away. Global competition gives companies the incentive to be more productive, and technology and foreign labor gives companies the means to be more productive. Automation lets one employee handle the work of three, or three hundred. Off-shoring lets ten Asian workers receive the salary of one. As these corporate Getting-Things-Done strategies make the typical worker increasingly expendable, real wages have stagnated, or declined, to their 1950s levels.

Capitalist apologists have always maintained that breakthroughs in technology such as the automobile create new jobs. Blacksmiths might be eliminated, but jobs at Ford will open up. That, at least, is what they taught us in high school. Like much else that we learned there, it is simplistic. Oddly enough, Derek Thompson seems to have a better handle on what Marx stood for without giving him the credit that the other pundits do.

John Gray

Moving right along, there’s John Gray who penned “A Point of View: The revolution of capitalism” for the BBC New Magazine on September 3rd. Despite the article’s title, Gray gives his props to Marx as well as acknowledging the inability of the system to “deliver the goods” that bourgeois politicians promise us:

Marx was wrong about communism. Where he was prophetically right was in his grasp of the revolution of capitalism. It’s not just capitalism’s endemic instability that he understood, though in this regard he was far more perceptive than most economists in his day and ours.

More profoundly, Marx understood how capitalism destroys its own social base – the middle-class way of life. The Marxist terminology of bourgeois and proletarian has an archaic ring.

But when he argued that capitalism would plunge the middle classes into something like the precarious existence of the hard-pressed workers of his time, Marx anticipated a change in the way we live that we’re only now struggling to cope with…

Fulfilling careers will no longer be the prerogative of a few. No more will people struggle from month to month to live on an insecure wage. Protected by savings, a house they own and a decent pension, they will be able to plan their lives without fear. With the growth of democracy and the spread of wealth, no-one need be shut out from the bourgeois life. Everybody can be middle class.

In fact, in Britain, the US and many other developed countries over the past 20 or 30 years, the opposite has been happening. Job security doesn’t exist, the trades and professions of the past have largely gone and life-long careers are barely memories.


Unlike those who see a light at the end of the tunnel, Gray only sees an oncoming train. A deeply pessimistic thinker, he rejects Marx’s socialism as a solution to the world’s problems and instead adopts a kind of Millenarian gloom but without the theological underpinnings. Throughout his writings, there is a rejection of the idea of progress, either one based on the Fukuyaman appropriation of Hegel or anything that Marx ever wrote. More recently he has become a partisan of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and accepts with an alarming degree of equanimity that the human race faces extinction. This is not exactly the kind of person we need defending Karl Marx, to say the least.

Umair Haque

Finally, we come to the Harvard Business Review, ostensibly the last bastion of capitalist ideology. There we find Umair Haque, the Director of the Havas Media Lab and author of The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business, asking the question “Was Marx Right?” After presenting in a somewhat oversimplified but fairly accurate manner some of Marx’s major concepts (alienation, commodity fetishism, false consciousness), Haque states:

Marx’s critiques seem, today, more resonant than we might have guessed. Now, here’s what I’m not suggesting: that Marx’s prescriptions (you know the score: overthrow, communalize, high-five, live happily ever after) for what to do about the maladies above were desirable, good, or just. History, I’d argue, suggests they were anything but. Yet nothing’s black or white — and while Marx’s prescriptions were poor, perhaps, if we’re prepared to think subtly, it’s worthwhile separating his diagnoses from them.

Because the truth might just be that the global economy is in historic, generational trouble, plagued by problems the orthodoxy didn’t expect, didn’t see coming, and doesn’t quite know what to do with. Hence, it might just be that if we’re going to turn this crisis upside down, we’re going to have to think outside the big-box store, the McMansion, the dead-end McJob, the bailout, the super-bonus, and the share price.

The future of plenitude probably won’t be Marxian — but it won’t look like the present. And if we’re going to trace the beginnings of better, more enduring, more authentic, more meaningful, fundamentally more humane paradigm for prosperity, perhaps it’s worthwhile exploring — even when we don’t agree with them — the critiques and prophecies of those who already challenged yesterday’s.

I doubt that Haque has read any recent Marxist literature but the idea that there is a spirit of “overthrow, communalize, high-five, live happily ever after” anywhere except perhaps the Spartacist League is pretty laughable. Marxism, ever since its inception, has been a philosophy that seeks to relentlessly criticize everything that exists. For those who equate the USSR with Marxism, that might come as a surprise. At any rate, it is of some interest that kudos for Karl Marx can be found in the enemy camp even if they are misguided. We are apparently reaching a point in history that Karl Marx described in “The Communist Manifesto”:

Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.

George Kuchar is dead

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 2:46 pm

NY Times September 8, 2011

George Kuchar, Made Underground Films, Dies at 69


George Kuchar, a filmmaker whose campy yet ardent low-budget movies inspired underground directors like John Waters and David Lynch in the 1960s, and helped kindle the do-it-yourself moviemaking aesthetic now ubiquitous on YouTube, died on Tuesday in San Francisco. He was 69.

The cause was prostate cancer, his twin brother, Mike, said.

Mr. Kuchar and his brother started making films together as boys, using the eight-millimeter camera they received for their 12th birthday, props from their family’s apartment, and actors enlisted among friends and neighbors in the Bronx.

George and Mike Kuchar (pronounced KOO-char) began receiving attention in the underground film world in the early ’60s with sardonic sendups like “I Was a Teenage Rumpot,” “Night of the Bomb” and “Lust for Ecstasy.” The films spoofed the Hollywood schlock the brothers devoured during weekend marathons at the local movie house, where they essentially grew up, while conveying what The New York Times, in a 1983 retrospective, called “a compassionate sense of the human condition, especially of loneliness.”

As the two developed individual styles, George Kuchar directed the 1966 film short “Hold Me While I’m Naked,” a semi-autobiographical rumination on the frustrations of a maker of soft-core pornographic films. Many movie scholars consider it one of camp’s defining texts. Along with his “Weather Diaries,” a series of films he made on annual visits to a trailer park in Oklahoma during tornado season, it is his best-known work.

Mr. Kuchar’s ability to make movies on a shoestring during a prolific career in which he sometimes made two or three films a year for the art-house circuit was a point of pride for him, and an inspiration to several generations of young filmmakers.

“He was a liberator,” said P. Adams Sitney, a founder of Anthology Film Archives in the East Village, a nonprofit organization that collects and preserves experimental films. “He showed you how to make a film for absolutely nothing, using your friends and your ingenuity. His influence is incalculable — the whole world of YouTube is where you see it. He was a guy who just wanted to keep making films. I don’t think he even wanted to be ‘discovered’ by Hollywood.”

Mr. Waters, who crossed over from cult to mainstream with his 1988 movie “Hairspray,” said in an interview on Wednesday that the Kuchar brothers were “the people who made me want to make movies.”

“They were the first ‘experimental’ filmmakers I ever read about when I was 15,” he added. “They were giants. They inspired four to five generations of militantly eccentric art fans. To me they were the Warner Brothers of the underground.”

George Andrew Kuchar was born in Manhattan on Aug. 31, 1942 (an hour after his brother), and grew up in the Bronx. His father, also George, was a truck driver whose taste for pornographic films triggered an initial interest in what the younger George called “the sordidness of adults” and the power of film to “suddenly make it so alive.”

Their mother, Stella, bought the brothers their camera.

After graduating from the School of Industrial Art (now the High School of Art and Design) in Manhattan, Mr. Kuchar worked briefly drawing weather maps for the New York television meteorologist Dr. Frank Field; then tried drawing comics. He settled on being a full-time filmmaker after The Village Voice and The New York Herald Tribune wrote glowing articles about some of his early work. (A reviewer in Newsweek called the brothers “the holy innocents of the underground.”)

In 1971 he was invited to teach filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he remained on the faculty until his illness forced him to stop work this year. Teaching provided him with not only a steady income but also hundreds of amateur actors — his students — willing to be cast in some of his later movies, including “Carnal Bipeds” (1973), “I Married a Heathen” (1974) and “I, an Actress” (1977).

Mr. Kuchar, whose speaking voice never left the Bronx, was always prosaic in describing his work. In the many documentaries and print interviews that quote him, he almost never uses the term avant-garde. He is more likely to brag about how little money he spent making a film, or to compare the costs of using film and videotape, than to articulate his theory of film.

“Normally, I don’t have much of a personal life,” he said in one taped interview, answering a question about why he made movies. “Making a movie is very personal. You get to interact with people. It’s like a party. You make a party and then you’re home alone for a long time. You edit it, and put it together and then you go — and another party happens when you show the rushes. So it helps your social life.”

In an interview videotaped in 2009, however, he probably came as close as he ever would to explaining his motives as a filmmaker: “Makin’ movies, see, sometimes you see a very beautiful person. And the first thing that comes to my mind is, I want to make a movie of that person. ’Cause I like puttin’ gauzes — ah, cheap, black cloth on the lens with a rubber band — and creating these, what look like 1940s movies, or movies of a beautiful Hollywood style, and blowing these people up bigger than life and making them into gods and goddesses. And I think in the movies that’s a wonderful way of pushing them on the public, and infusing the public with great objects of desire, and dreams, and things of great beauty.”

He added, after a long pause, “Living human beings of beauty.”

September 6, 2011

Louis C.K. on George Carlin

Filed under: comedy — louisproyect @ 8:18 pm

A response to Alan Wald’s article on the SWP

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 4:07 pm

(A guest post by Dayne Goodwin)

Dayne Goodwin

Alan Wald wraps his review of the recently published memoirs of Peter Camejo and Les Evans, two leaders of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party from the 1960s into the beginning of the 1980s, into an essay on ‘what went wrong’ with the SWP [“A Winter’s Tale Told in Memoirs,” in _Against the Current_ magazine July-August 2011.   The ‘what went wrong with the SWP’ discussion is most important to those of us grew up politically under SWP tutelage and who continue to be politically active with a socialist perspective, aware that there will be no socialist revolution without creation of an effective revolutionary organization.

Almost twenty years ago Alan summarized and evaluated the SWP experience in a presentation to the 1993 Solidarity educational conference titled “The End of American Trotskyism?.”  This presentation was published in three parts in successive issues of Against the Current magazine in 1994 and 1995 (part 1 in ATC 53 September/October 1994; part 2 in ATC 54 January/February 1995; part 3 in ATC 55 March/April 1995 ) and it was also published as the last chapter in the book “Trotskyism in the United States: Historical Essays and Reconsiderations” put together by Wald and Paul LeBlanc (published in 1996 by Humanities Press International).

I am sympathetic with the brief foundational statement Alan made in this earlier article:

The goal of socialist political cadres must be the development of a broad and democratically functioning team leadership, based on an organization institutionalizing multiple tendencies and pluralism, that balances out strengths and weaknesses in order to sustain a movement diachronically as well as synchronically.

My version of the statement would be different:  “The goal of socialist political cadres must be the development of a broad team leadership working together in a democratically functioning organization, practically united in strategic perspective and tactical projects, allowing multiple tendencies and pluralism, thus balancing out strengths and weaknesses over time and in different places.”

In his current article, Alan indulges in a more passionate review of ‘what went wrong.’  He balances this more personal view of the latter ’60s to early ’80s SWP experience with what I consider to be appropriate deference to the continuing work of Paul LeBlanc and to the work of the Fourth Internationalist Tendency of which LeBlanc was a central leader.  The FIT published the monthly Bulletin in Defense of Marxism (for over a decade and then less frequently until 1999) and three books/collections of documents on the SWP experience.*   LeBlanc’s review of the Camejo and Evans’ memoirs “Making Sense of Trotskyism in the United States. Two Memoirs” is available at <http://www.laborstandard.org/New_Postings/Camejo_Evans_Review.htm> (prior to its publication in Revolutionary History magazine) .


I was recruited to the YSA in the spring of 1969 in Logan, Utah by Sterne McMullen who had arrived in Utah in the fall of 1968 fresh from the battle for Telegraph Avenue and several years experience in the Oakland/Berkeley YSA/SWP.  Sterne had been hired on the faculty of the English department at Utah State University with a three year contract running through the spring of 1971.  Sterne was a great admirer of Peter Camejo and after reading the text of Peter’s speech on “How to make a revolution in the United States” in the May 30, 1969 issue of The Militant, I became a Camejo enthusiast too.

At nearly 23, I was a bit older than the growing number of young activists being recruited to the YSA from campuses around the country.  From high school in Utah I had entered the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. on a full-ride scholarship.   Going to AU was not the result of clear career aspirations and I didn’t even know that the SIS was dedicated primarily to turning out career Foreign Service Officers for the State Department.  My major motivation was to get far away from the stifling cultural climate of the Utah-hegemonic LDS (Mormon) church in which I had grown up.  Politically I hadn’t yet seriously questioned the right-wing Republicanism of that culture and I proudly sported my Goldwater for President button during Freshman orientation in the fall of 1964.

Three years later I walked away from the SIS program as an opponent of the Vietnam war and U.S. foreign policy in general.  I had benefited too much from the good liberal arts education and a solid introduction to the realities of world politics.  Simply being a young college student in D.C. in those years had radicalized me but with friends from rural Utah getting drafted and going to Vietnam I also had influences like a 1965 letter from my year-older friend Cordell Nyman who wrote from Nam that “Everything the government is saying about Vietnam is a lie.  These people don’t want us here, were not helping them.  We’re just killing lots of people and fucking up their country.”

Other intense experiences contributed to my political about-face.  Brainy fellow student Ted Joffe took me into his confidence as he used our professors’ connections with the State and Defense departments to bamboozle staffers and secretaries and get access to classified documents for his intensive study of Vietnam (i.e. he had a large map of Vietnam covering most of his dorm room ceiling).  In early January of 1965 when we all turned in our end-of-first-semester mandatory research papers, Ted’s methods resulted in an SIS scandal.  Far more unsettling to me was Ted’s thesis that the Johnson administration had been preparing for major military intervention into Vietnam all during the election campaign against ‘warmonger’ Goldwater and that the military escalation would begin at the first available pretext following Johnson’s inauguration.

Another experience was spending the summer of 1965 in Pakistan, primarily in the Peshawar area, where I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with U.S. diplomatic personnel and I watched a war break out between India and Pakistan.  This experience led me into an educational focus on South Asia during my junior year but it also was the particular precipitant to my departure from AU.  Because of my personal experiences in Pakistan, including hanging out with young military personnel at the ‘secret’ airbase near Peshawar (from which CIA U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers departed on his famous failed flight in 1960), I knew that the SIS faculty expert on South Asia, Donald Heimsath, was misleading students about U.S. policy in South Asia.

I returned to Logan and joined the very small but growing radical circles engaged in antiwar and civil rights activism, not sure what to do about the military draft to which I was now exposed.  I worked odd jobs from picking fruit to both blue collar and white collar work at the University, a secondary consideration to my main concerns of radical activism, keeping up with what was going on around the world, and trying to figure out what to do with my life.  In the spring of 1968 I was back in D.C. as three of us drove out to spend weeks participating in the Poor Peoples March on Washington.

In little isolated Logan, Utah I was ‘overdetermined’ into radical prominence, participating in the production of  two ‘underground’ newspapers (“The Pot” in 1967-68 and “Genesis” in 1968-69) and helping to organize an SDS chapter in the summer and fall of 1968.  I was involved with the Peace and Freedom Party election campaign in the fall of 1968 when Sterne aggressively made his presence known with large ads in the USU student newspaper for the Halstead/Boutelle SWP presidential campaign and several public educational talks held at his house.  Sterne was the first person I met who proudly said that he was a Marxist, a revolutionary socialist.

I took leadership in welcoming Sterne into the radical community in Logan.  I learned that Sterne had come to Logan against the wishes of SWP leadership who wanted him to stay where there was an existing SWP branch.  Sterne rationalized accepting the teaching job at USU as an opportunity to spread support for workers revolution into the vast western hinterlands. Sterne’s pioneering spirit resonated with me and significantly modeled that even as a member of the SWP you could keep your own counsel about life choices.

The growth of the movements for social change, the success of the YSA and SWP in those years, and our accomplishments in building a strong Logan YSA and a regional antiwar coalition solidified my commitment to the politics of the SWP.  In August 1971 Sterne moved to Denver to join the SWP branch there.  By late August I was looking forward to functioning as ‘organizer’ of the relatively large and confident Logan YSA when I was unhappily bludgeoned by telephone calls from YSA regional organizer Steve Bloom and from Dave Frankel in the national office in NYC.  They told me that there was a political emergency in the California Bay area and that the SWP/YSA needed me to move there to help out.  They both answered my repeated requests for an explanation of this urgent situation with ‘this can’t be discussed over the telephone.’  Against my strong opposition to moving they argued that if I was ‘a serious revolutionary’ I must go to California immediately.

I was living on a minimal income, working as a cook at “The Aggie Grill” (named to appeal to the Utah State University “Aggie” campus community), and had no means to get to California.  Then a USU student from California who was a member of the Logan YSA said he was willing to drive his pick-up out to the Bay Area and I decided to go.

Although I had read through some of the 1971 SWP pre-convention printed discussion and was aware of the “For a Proletarian Orientation” tendency, i did not see them as a danger to the party.   I understood that the organization of dissenting tendencies was not unusual.  The PO tendency was a small minority, maybe ten percent, clearly out of step with the vast majority of the SWP.

But I had not gone to the convention and must have missed a combative atmosphere.  Upon arriving in California, it came as a shock to me to find that I was among some fifty young campus-oriented antiwar activist YSAers from all around the country who had been dispatched to Oakland-Berkeley to numerically overwhelm the PO-tendency supporters who were in the majority in the YSA there.  So this was the “emergency situation?”   Many among us were not pleased and proud of being used in this organizational maneuver.   While most were eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the party, I also associated with those who complained that we were crudely expected to be simple “hand-raisers” for the party-line majority.

I was assigned by the SWP/YSA to work on the staff of the Northern California Peace Action Coalition; I was to work on finances and fundraising.  The first day I reported to work at the NCPAC office in San Francisco I was given a car and directed to drive out to a psychologist’s home in Sausalito to pick up a large donation.  It was explained that the CEO of Security National Bank, Pete Stark, had arranged to make easy loans of one to three thousand dollars to the antiwar movement simply on the signature of ‘middle-class liberals’ with a decent income.  NCPAC would pay back the loans from the large collection at the next demonstration.  The huge April 24 demonstration of the previous spring (where I had sold large numbers of Militants) had been financed this way and I was told that it had worked out well.

As the Sausalito psychologist signed the papers taking ultimate responsibility to pay back a loan of $2,000 which would be given to NCPAC by Security National Bank, he asked for and got my assurance that the antiwar movement would definitely pay back the loan.  The next day I took my first call from an angry April 24 donor who wanted to know when we were going to pay back the $3,000 loan we had secured on his name.  More troubling, I found a list of dozens of unpaid April 24 loans in a drawer in ‘my’ desk.  Some of the other staffers told me not to worry about ‘ripping off the liberals’ but I thought that attitude was a big mistake that would probably blow up in our faces.  I was gradually shifted into doing other aspects of the antiwar work.

Later I was contacting people seeking organizational sponsors for the fall antiwar conference we were organizing (which we expected to endorse our call for a demonstration on November 7).  When I talked with “Popeye” Jackson of the United Prisoners Union he said they would be happy to endorse the conference if UPU could put on a workshop.  I thought that was a reasonable request but told Popeye I would check with other organizers and call him back.

I was upset when NCPAC director Roger Rudenstein told me that ‘we can’t have a workshop on every issue under the sun.’  George Jackson had been killed at San Quentin a few weeks earlier.  The Attica uprising had just been drowned in blood.  The prisoners movement was on the front page of the The Militant.  I was sure that Roger was making a political mistake, but what should I do about it?

Working at NCPAC was somewhat like working at a regular job – although for a minimal ‘volunteer stipend’ of $40 a week that didn’t always get paid in full.  I had been assigned to work on the NCPAC staff and report to Roger by the same SWP/YSA which had made Roger the director of NCPAC – but NCPAC was a separate antiwar organization.  How should I go about questioning Roger’s decision?

The previous summer I had been at the SWP’s inaugural Oberlin conference.  I attended the two-session educational by Farrell Dobbs on ‘the organizational principles of the party.’  This educational was mainly a historical narrative of the party’s experience with dissenting minorities.  Dobbs strongly drove two lessons into my head: 1) every faction that has opposed the party’s line and leadership has been exposed as petit-bourgeois and happily gotten rid of, 2) the first step in the development of these petit-bourgeois heresies is for a disgruntled member to start grumbling to another member.  A major emphasis of the latest revision of the party’s proletarian behavior code was that upstanding members only bring up political disagreements during the appropriate period of preconvention discussion and they do not otherwise privately communicate with other individual members about their political disagreements.

I learned that there would be a NCPAC staff meeting in a few days.  I asked around and was told that the entire NCPAC staff of around thirty people were all members of the SWP and/or YSA.  Carefully not discussing my concern with anyone ahead of time, at the meeting I got the floor at an appropriate moment and asked ‘what is the proper procedure for disputing a decision made by Roger’?   ‘What was the theory of NCPAC’s organizational structure and decision-making process’?

All hell broke loose.  One of the older NCPAC leaders challenged me to explain what I thought the organizational structure should be.  I said I wasn’t sure but that I would be satisfied with democratic centralism.  She responded ‘that’s what all the ultralefts say.’    Afterward I learned that there was one staffer who did media work who was not in the SWP/YSA,   I was damned for embarrassing the SWP in front of a non-member.

A meeting was set up for me to discuss my concerns about the prisoners workshop issue with Roger and other NCPAC leaders.  I felt vindicated when Roger’s initial decision was reversed.  I was invited to a meeting with Roger and the organizers of the San Francisco and Oakland/Berkeley SWP branches to discuss my organizational questions.  Roger explained that he did not have an explicit organizational theory for the functioning of the antiwar coalition itself or comprehensively even for it’s relationship with the SWP, he was just trying to replicate the way they had done things in the first largely SWP-administered antiwar coalition office in New York City.  No one seemed confident to answer my questions and I was told that sometime in the coming months the party’s national antiwar director Ed Shaw would come to town and I could meet with him and ask him my questions.

To put my criticisms in perspective, NCPAC and the national umbrella NPAC were doing a tremendously effective job of building the antiwar movement.  The huge spring 1971 mobilizations turned out to be the peak of the anti-Vietnam War movement.  Fred Feldman and other SWP members who were the hardest working segment of the local coalition succeeded in making the rally at the November 7 demonstration of “only” about 70,000 the first major Bay Area antiwar rally that wasn’t disrupted by an ultraleft takeover of the stage.  SWP rally speaker Stephanie Coontz was excellent but it was the right-on Bring All The Troops Home Now!/Out Now! politics she expressed that aroused the crowd.

In the NCPAC office I had gotten to know Celia Stodola, Alan Wald’s companion, who was doing labor outreach work for NCPAC.  I wanted to learn more about “FAPO” and their views so I made a point of ignoring the signals to shun these ‘dissidents’ and developed a friendly relationship with Celia and then with Alan.  I learned that the PO supporters called us new arrivals “the Lenin levy,” comparing us to the mass recruitment campaign ‘in honor of comrade Lenin’ of several hundred thousand new members engineered by Stalin in the three months following Lenin’s death (which nearly doubled the size of the CPSU**).   Being seriously compared to “the Lenin Levy” was not justified but I couldn’t deny that it had some traction metaphorically.

My prior experience with the SWP had left me in awe of this amazing organization.  Besides Sterne, I had only met Les Evans and Kipp Dawson (when they came to Logan in summer 1969) until going to that first 1970 Oberlin conference where I listened to the impressive series of evening talks by Barry Sheppard, Peter Camejo, George Breitman, Derrick Morrison, Mary-Alice Waters and Jack Barnes.  Then there were classes taught by people with a lifetime of revolutionary experience like Farrell Dobbs, Frank Lovell and George Novack.  In other classes or workshops, I saw younger party leaders like Caroline Lund and Betsy Stone in action.  It took strong motivation five months later to drive through winter blizzards to get to the YSA convention in New York City.  The YSA leaders were clearly in training but their awkwardness hadn’t dented my absolute confidence in the SWP.

Considering how I was coerced into moving to the Bay Area, and some of my experiences there, I began losing confidence in the organizational functioning of the SWP/YSA.  I had made up my mind to carry through on my commitment to build the November 7, 1971 demonstration and then resign from the YSA.  My two-sentence written resignation simply said that I had decided to resign and that I was not prepared to be “a disciplined member”.  I also resigned because I had made up my mind to return to Utah and I was dubious that I could amicably get the SWP/YSA to ratify and accept my decision.  After several months of volunteer stipend income, living on food stamps and barely able to pay rent, I was really broke.  I needed a job, found work at Monarch Steel in Oakland and started to save up some money.

I stayed in Oakland for a few months and then rented an apartment in Berkeley.  Initially I stayed away from the SWP/YSA but enjoyed occasionally running into individual members.  One member saw me reading Intercontinental Press at a laundromat and was surprised that I seemed to be reading it from cover to cover.  ‘Nobody does that,’ he said.  I continued studying revolutionary politics, at first using the public library then paying for a library card at UCBerkeley and patronizing local bookstores including the SWP’s “Granma Books.”  I attended radical events, including some SWP forums, with mixed feelings about no longer selling The Militant since I had been good at it.  My support for the general political views of the SWP/YSA was stronger than ever, reinforced through interactions before and after November 7 with the vibrant left-wing political topography in the Bay area.

In April 1972 Sterne and Kathy visited in the Bay Area from Denver and we went to the national antiwar demonstration in Los Angeles together.  Sterne was hankering to return to California so at the end of the summer Sterne and Kathy moved into my Berkeley apartment and I moved back to Logan.  Once back in Logan among old friends and comrades, I rejoined the YSA.  My view that the SWP was the best revolutionary socialist organization in the U.S. was now coupled with private skepticism about the party’s organizational methods.  This organizational skepticism was reinforced by the panoply of experiences I had as an indigenous local member involved with an eventually larger number of members coming from SWP branches elsewhere as we established an SWP branch in Salt Lake City in fall 1976.  National leaders of the SWP tried to make us believe they were asking for our advice and consulting with us as they implemented decisions about the organization of the new branch that had been made in New York City months before.

Among the political developments that led to the establishment of an SWP branch in Salt Lake City was a side-effect of the SWP’s suit against the FBI for political harassment and repressing freedom of speech.  One batch of pre-trial disclosure documents accidentally included a few pages of CIA documents which indicated the CIA had illegally been involved in domestic spying on activists at three U.S. universities.  I remember that one of the three was Brown in Rhode Island, and one was Utah State University.

I was roused by a phone call early one January 1976 morning from a local Logan Herald-Journal daily newspaper reporter.  She asked me how I felt about being spied on by the CIA.  I didn’t know what she was talking about; I said that I had just awakened and would call her back.  I called the national office in New York and learned that the SWP had held a news conference the day before revealing the CIA documents.  They hadn’t bothered to tell any of us in Logan.

The Logan YSA did a good job of scandalizing the CIA spying and getting visibility in the regional news media centered in Salt Lake City.  We were able to recruit several leading Salt Lake activists to the YSA, including Harry Baker who had been a well-known Maoist, a veteran of SDS and the Progressive Labor Party.  I moved to Salt Lake, helped to set up a Salt Lake YSA and worked closely with Harry who _en passant_ damaged my confidence that the SWP was always politically right-on if not always organizationally right-on.  I had to agree with Harry that the SWP’s position then that there was no justification for particular support to any one of the three rebel movements in Angola versus the others (among the MPLA, FNLA, UNITA) was mistaken, the Cuban-supported MPLA was clearly preferable.

The organization of the Salt Lake SWP branch during 1976 came at about the peak of ‘the sixties’ radicalization in U.S. politics.  Revolutionary socialist organizations had been growing throughout the 1960s era of civil rights and radical upsurge, the Vietnam war, and then the U.S. government was further weakened and discredited by the Watergate and related scandals and exposes.   The SWP leadership expected ongoing dynamic growth.  Establishment of the Salt Lake Branch was part of a new “turn” of establishing many more branches, breaking up large branches in major cities into several smaller branches, and projecting an era of expansion based on proliferating and growing community-based branches.

Instead the SWP stopped growing.  By 1978 we were making another ‘turn’ aimed at ‘immediately organizing to get a large majority of the membership of the SWP into industry and the industrial trade unions’, seeing the way forward based on deeper proletarianization of the membership.  In order to become a truly communist party of “worker-bolsheviks” it was necessary that practically every member get a blue-collar job in an industry organized by certain key industrial unions.  Concentrating on this primary goal, the SWP turned inward, started shrinking and began to consolidate into fewer branches.

It was challenging for the largely college-recruited latter-’70s SWP to attempt to become rooted in blue-collar unions.  The SWP leadership motivated the turn by claiming party members must rush into the unions or get left behind by the fast-approaching industrial workers’ revolutionary upsurge.  Sterne had moved back to Salt Lake and found work as a machinist.  In a late night conversation with visiting party leader and house guest Fred Halstead, Sterne said that he hadn’t seen any sign of a revolutionary workers upsurge.  Fred told Sterne that the ‘turn to industry’ had an unspoken goal of getting at least hundreds of SWP members into good paying union jobs which would increase party income.

Meanwhile the brigades of SWP members who weren’t just leaving the party and were rushing into industrial workplaces, were taking casualties as many became disillusioned and discouraged.  Sterne and I kept discussing whether or not the SWP was being led astray, becoming hopelessly isolated and sectarian.

My experience in the SWP had convinced me that there was no possibility for rank-and-file bottom-up democratic reformation of SWP policies and perspectives.  At the 1979 SWP convention I was sitting on the lawn outside the convention center at Oberlin University talking with Alan Wald when Jack Barnes walked by and gave me a fraternizing-with-the-enemy scowl.  Alan and I were agreeing that it had been absurd in 1971 to try to force every SWP member, including those rooted in industrial unions, to become a student or worker at a college campus – especially now that we were engaged in a 180-degree turn to leave the campus and get into industrial unions.  Both of these turns had cost the SWP the loss of members who were politically dedicated but not prepared to fundamentally change their lives.  It would have been better to encourage those who were able and willing to lead in implementing a turn, treat them as praiseworthy and exemplary, but not drive out those who weren’t prepared to change their lives at each party turn.

To a rank-and-file member, the 1981 convention gave some signs of hopeful change.  The SWP had been embarassed by its obviously sectarian and workerist abstention from the first national ‘U.S. Out of Central America’ demonstration earlier in the spring.  This large and successful antiwar and solidarity mobilization ended up being led primarily by the Workers World Party as the SWP condemned the demonstration in advance for not having major labor union involvement and not being sufficiently proletarian.  Afterward there was an extremely unusual self-criticism in The Militant.  As far as I know, the 1981 SWP convention was unique in inviting other revolutionary socialist organizations to be involved.  Both the WWP and the Communist Workers Party tabled inside the convention grounds.  There was a WWP speaker at the major convention rally.

On the other hand, Peter Camejo was nowhere to be seen.  I was among many asking where he was all during the 1981 SWP convention.  At the previous, August 1979 convention he had been tumultously welcomed as a conquering hero bringing news from the front, from the triumph in Nicaragua and the coming revolution in El Salvador.  Now we were told that he had resigned from the party and ‘returned to his family’s bourgeois roots’.  Unbelievable, what a shock!  But explanations from every source I could explore were all the same.  Peter had decided to leave the party and make money.

At the 1981 convention there were two minority tendencies challenging SWP leadership perspectives on key issues.  I was impressed especially by the Lovell-Bloom tendency’s criticisms and suggestions on basic tactical issues and by the Weinstein-Henderson tendency’s defense of the historic Trotskyist strategic perspective of permanent revolution.  Mary-Alice Waters’ organizational report said that the SWP had ‘bent the stick too far’ in requiring every member to be an industrial worker.  She said that it had been a mistake to make Militant bookstores into party-line bookstores.  The earlier model of the SWP’s “Granma” bookstore in Berkeley as a general radical left bookstore and gathering place should be rehabilitated and spread across the country.  The party was going to reverse course and again actively participate in the political issues and life of activists and the left generally.

The party’s commitment to this step back from sectarian isolation lasted only a few months and then it was full steam ahead on the course of a steadily shrinking party of “worker-Bolsheviks.”   I learned that ‘behind the scene’ the SWP leadership was being narrowed to exclude anyone not fully supporting Jack Barnes’ perspective of blue-collar industrialization combined with an effort to be seen as pro-Cuban Communists and not as Trotskyists.  The stream of members walking away from the party became a river of hundreds.

I resigned from the SWP in the summer of 1982.  I remained a sympathizer, making a regular financial contribution, attending forums and reading the party publications.  I was wondering what would happen at the 1983 SWP convention as the two 1981 minority tendencies had apparently united and intended to fight to change the course of the SWP.   About the time that preconvention discussion would have begun in the spring of 1983, it was announced that the convention had been canceled.  The party that had maintained regular conventions during WWII and the incarceration of its central leadership, supposedly had to postpone the constitutionally mandated 1983 convention because of a lawsuit from an expelled former member in Los Angeles.


Alan Wald and I kept in infrequent contact with occasional snail mail.  When Alan was expelled from the SWP during the purges of 1983 – 1984 I was among those on his mailing list to receive a typewritten blow-by-blow account of what happened.   Despite being relatively isolated from the nationwide SWP as a sympathizing non-member in Utah, I belatedly heard of a mounting number of trials and expulsions of SWP members around the country – some well known life-long members.  Then in the year following the cancellation of the 1983 SWP convention, the expulsions became a Stalinist-style purge of apparently every known dissenter and independent thinker in the party.  The actual circumstances of many trials and expulsions were outrageous, clearly just pretexts for getting rid of targeted individual members.

It is apparent that Alan was shocked by the party’s treatment of the PO tendency in 1971.  Obviously referring to himself, Alan says “For novices, joining a political opposition tendency in the SWP was something of a bungee jump.  I had no idea that Barnes and others…would see the debate as a first class opportunity to hone their skills in knife fighting.”   I agree with Alan that the SWP’s treatment of the 1971 Proletarian Orientation tendency was a precursor manifestation of overdone centralism and disinterest in encouraging a democratic, egalitarian and inclusive internal party life.   It was the first dramatic manifestation of the fundamental organizational direction of the new Barnes leadership (later the Internationalist tendency of 1974 was brusquely expelled).  I don’t think that the treatment of the PO minority was unprecedented.

In Barry Sheppard’s 2006 memoir “The Party, Volume 1 The Sixties” he discusses the fact that when he got involved in the SWP at the end of the 1950s and through much of the 1960s there was a troublesome minority called the “Weissites” after Murray and Myra Tanner Weiss.  When I got involved a decade later, the Weissites were gone and never mentioned to me.   I wasn’t at all sympathetic to the early-1960s James Robertson and Tim Wohlforth minorities I did learn about but I was curious to learn much later that Myra Tanner Weiss, the SWP’s three-time candidate for Vice President of the U.S. in 1952, 1956 and 1960, had objected to their treatment by the party.  It wasn’t until Salt Lake born Myra Tanner Weiss died in the fall of 1997 and the Salt Lake Solidarity Branch, at my initiative***, held a political memorial for her that I started to learn about the Weissites and the internal state of the SWP in the decade before my time.

My initiative for a memorial was based on hearing about one organized by the Los Angeles Solidarity branch and on my friendship with Myra’s peace activist niece Deb Sawyer who lives in Salt Lake.  Through Deb we were able to involve Myra’s surviving siblings in the Salt Lake memorial.  I got to know Edmond Kovacs who came to Utah from Los Angeles and spoke at the memorial.  I had known Edmond as “Theodore Edwards” who had played a significant educational leadership role in the SWP.  He had been a close and longtime friend and comrade of Myra’s and he gave me a sympathetic account of ‘the Weissites’ and some written material about their experiences in the SWP.  Peter Camejo says in his 1995 essay “Return to Materialism“:  “At the time I joined the SWP in the late 1950s there was a loose grouping in the SWP that the Dobbs leadership referred to as “petty bourgeois” and that was eventually driven out, called the Weissites (named after Murry Wiess a leader of the SWP).”

“Democratic centralism,” the organizational theory of revolutionary socialist parties attempting to follow the model of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, can be more or less democratic and more or less centralized over a spectrum of possibility (and should be able to appropriately adjust to conjunctural conditions).  It seems to me that even the founders of the SWP were not fully aware of the democratic Lenin that Paul LeBlanc explicates in his 1993 book _Lenin and the Revolutionary Party_ [Humanities Press International].  Lenin became seriously ill and died so soon after the Bolshevik revolution that it was Zinoviev and then Stalin who defined democratic centralism in practice for revolutionaries around the world.  I’ve learned that Trotsky had to restrain James P. Cannon from more brutal centralism in the Shachtman split of 1940.  Cannon protested “Don’t strangle the party” in response to the Dobbs-Kerry tightening of party centralism in the mid-1960s.  The succeeding Barnes’ leadership moved further toward the very centralized and undemocratic end of the spectrum.   Farrell Dobbs and Tom Kerry were certainly party ‘hards’ in the sense which Les Evans describes Barnes in his memoir****, yet in November 1979 Kerry was protesting against the excessive centralization of the Barnes’ regime “If Ever You Surrender Your Right to Criticize, You’re Dead!“.

There was much about the SWP that was encouraging and positive, for me most basically the opportunity to promote an anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialism.   By 1977 I had participated in five straight national SWP conventions and conferences, five straight national YSA conventions, and two YSA national committee meetings in New York City.  From what I knew, I considered the SWP to be by far the most effective revolutionary socialist organization, but it was clear to me that the SWP was a centrally-controlled top-down relatively undemocratic organization and that the Barnes leadership would not tolerate opposition tendencies.  When it became evident that the SWP was in crisis at the end of the 1970s, I had no confidence that there could be any democratic resolution of the crisis coming from outside the existing Barnes leadership.  What was desperately needed in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a thoroughly open and democratic party discussion of ‘what is to be done’ even if it eventuated in a change of the current party leadership.  The 1981 SWP convention gave me some hope that this might still be possible.  Jack Barnes chose to close that possibility.  I stopped supporting the SWP in 1984 as it was becoming a sectarian cult around Barnes.

I don’t agree with Alan’s description of the SWP’s 1971 perspective as predicting “a permanent deepening and spread of the 1960s student radicalization as the premise for its strategy.”  My understanding is that, as George Breitman explained at the 1970 Oberlin conference, the SWP leadership saw the radicalization of minorities, youth, students and others as the beginning of a coming general working class radicalization.  In his critique of Alan’s article, Louis Proyect quotes the brilliant SWP National Committee member Robert DesVerney (“Robert Vernon’) explaining to young Louis in the latter 1960s that “The way the SWP will recruit workers is by recruiting lots and lots of students“.

It’s a shame that the incoming SWP leadership apparently didn’t assimilate and definitely did not stick with DesVerney’s understanding.  Barnes’ increasingly workerist turn a decade later was partially rationalized with the claim that non-SWP radicals and leftists were all moving to the right and deserting the working class (they were comparable to counterrevolutionary Cuban ‘Marielistas’).  As I recall, there was a written contribution to the 1981 SWP convention discussion by a “Rob” From Tucson criticizing the Barnes’ leadership argument that the industrial working class was radicalizing while every other social layer was moving to the right.  Rob asked ‘Weren’t we always taught that workers will radicalize within a context of radicalizing allies outside the unionized working class, including among the middle class?  That a working class radicalization will bring along middle class allies?’

I spent the summer of 1975 back in the Bay Area where Farrell Dobbs was working on his series of books on developments in the Teamsters union after the Trotskyist-led 1934 Minneapolis general strike, often researching and writing in the branch office.  I heard second-hand scuttlebutt from a young Dobbs relative that inclines me to accept Peter’s comment in _North Star_ that “the older, primarily worker-based segment of the party had grown concerned that the SWP would be changed by its newer members, most of whom were middle-class youth.”

Alan thinks that Barnes learned from older SWPers that “wavering was a trait of middle-class intellectuals, while certainty was the stance of he-man proletarians…Somehow, with no connection to the working class but aided by the support of Dobbs, Barnes acquired a mystique of proletarian authority…[that] had a special impact on the SWP members…because so many joining the YSA and SWP aspired to cast off middle and even upper-class backgrounds.”   I think Alan here reveals a key to Barnes’ success in dominating and eventually achieving personal control of the SWP,

I think that Alan goes overboard in his retrospective condemnation of the SWP for its “peculiar construal of ‘Leninism.'”   The SWP’s understanding of Leninism was as good as any of the other contemporary revolutionary socialist groups claiming a Leninist mantle.  You can see typical references to the “vanguard” in Camejo’s 1970 “How to make a revolution in the U.S.” speech.  Contrary to Alan’s statement, we did not think that the people of the Soviet Union “would” free themselves of police-state rule while retaining the USSR’s nationalized property relations.  We hoped and worked for that outcome while well aware that Trotsky’s original explication of this view also included the possibility that the CPSU could lead the way to a restoration of capitalism.

I do agree with Alan that “Barnes in particular seemed to think that the Party could be played like a piano.”  One of the Barnes recruits from Carleton College, Dave Wulp, once told me that Jack had a special ability to make an individual feel very important, to inspire, motivate and direct people by assuring them that they were playing a crucial role in the coming revolution.  Barnes was clearly and steadily building a group around him that was reliably loyal, using all the perquisites of party leadership that Alan mentions.   A favorite phrase of the Barnes group was that ‘you can’t suck strategy out of your thumb’ – you had to base strategy on objective reality.  I observed Barnes’ becoming increasingly empowered to argue whatever he wanted, without fear of contradiction from within the SWP.

I agree with Alan that “the true forte of the Barnes Group was skill at taking advantage of a factional mentality, not political genius.”   Certainly Jack Barnes gets the primary credit for the destruction of the SWP and the “outrage” for the expulsions of “George and Dorothea Breitman, George Weissman, Frank and Sarah Lovell, James Kutcher, Nat and Sylvia Weinstein, Jean Tussey, Asher and Ruth Harer, and so many more.”  Because I thought that the mid-70s SWP had the potential to actually become a revolutionary party, I think that Barnes’ is accountable not only for an outrage but for a crime against the working class.

According to some writing by John Cox on Louis Proyect’s marxmail list a few years ago, by the latter 1990s Barnes and Mary-Alice Waters lived a very comfortable life style, apparently using SWP resources they had privatized.  As I recall, Cox said that he had been a member of the SWP National Committee at that time (either that or the Political Committee) and they would routinely wait hours for Barnes to show up at scheduled meetings.


Louis Proyect’s critique of Alan’s article  begins with a sharp defense of Peter Camejo against Alan’s criticism.  I agree with Louis that Alan’s article presents a drastic underestimation and misunderstanding of Camejo.  Alan does acknowledge that Peter was writing during his fatal illness and did not finish his memoir _North Star_ but it seems in this article that Alan’s evaluation of Peter is based entirely on the text of _North Star_ [Haymarket Books, 2010.   Although Alan never worked with Peter, anyone who knew of Peter knew that he was primarily an activist and speaker, not a writer – and certainly not an accomplished literary scholar like Alan.

I can understand Alan’s disappointment with the surficial treatment of Peter’s SWP experience in _North Star_.   Alan seems to suspect that this may be the result of the failure to see problems “until one’s own ox is gored” – a syndrome Alan describes in the third part of his early ’90s essay.  Actually it is the wonderful qualities Peter had in abundance that make _North Star_  a book aimed primarily at encouraging activism among the many and not a lingering lament over old grievances with in-depth analysis of what went wrong and who was to blame. Peter as a political activist was always an inspiring optimist, accentuating the positive and encouraging mass action.

In his remembrance of fifty years working with Peter, Barry Sheppard says “Peter was the best public speaker of our generation in the SWP and YSA. In fact, he was among the best public speakers who emerged in the entire youth radicalization. He was equally fluent in both Spanish and English, having grown up in both the United States and Venezuela. He spoke without notes, and had the ability to explain ideas in terms wide audiences could grasp, and a quick wit. He communicated his enthusiasm to his listeners, who knew that he passionately believed in what he was saying.”   (and see the remembrances by Claudette Begin and Jack Bloom in the same March-April 2009 issue of _Against the Current_ magazine).

Peter comments in _North Star_ that what was seen as his special rhetorical skill was simply his effort to avoid sectarian language and explain political points with easily understood everyday language and humor.  “My popularity in the SWP was deceptive.  The membership sensed that, unlike other party speakers, there was something unique in my presentations that attracted new people to the SWP. However, most people did not realize that it was the nonsectarian manner of my approach…” (p. 129)

I did have the opportunity to work with Peter over several decades.  In late 1983, as a leader of the Central America Solidarity Coalition in Utah, I was wondering how our unfunded organization could get a knowledgeable, attractive and inexpensive speaker for our upcoming February 1984 conference.  Somewhere ‘on the grapevine’ I heard that Peter Camejo was now living in the San Francisco Bay area.  I was surprised that I was able to get his number from telephone directory assistance and Peter answered my first attempt at a phone call.

I learned that I was among a growing number of former SWP members getting in touch with Peter and asking “what happened to you, what happened to the party?”  A loose network had formed called the “North Star Network” and I was able to get its first newsletter.  Peter also sent me his analysis of what had happened to the SWP “Against Sectarianism: the evolution of the SWP, 1978 – 83“.  It was the first credible and coherent overall explanation I had seen and I think it stands up very well.

Peter stayed in Salt Lake for several additional days beyond CASC’s two day February 1984 conference.  We organized a meeting of already seven former SWP members in Salt Lake who wanted to learn about the North Star Network, what Peter was thinking and doing.   Since the CASC conference had called for a spring demonstration, when Sterne (who had just returned to activism after a lengthy respite) learned about the new North Star Network organization he immediately proposed that we get to work making a North Star banner, honing our program and preparing leaflets we could use to recruit to the new revolutionary party.  Peter demurred that his intent wasn’t for North Star Network to go into competition as the true revolutionary party.

Sterne challenged “then what good is North Star Network?”

Peter answered that “North Star Network is primarily a deprogramming center for victims of the SWP cult.”

As that dramatic statement which I quote exactly sunk in, Peter went on to suggest that we should just be activists in building progressive movements like the Central America solidarity movement and try to influence and educate younger activists to avoid the mistakes we had made.  Much of Peter’s work through the North Star Network was teaching a few simple points, 1) we needed to avoid left jargon and reach out to people with clear language and reference to our own U.S. working class history and culture, 2) we needed to become more ecumenical toward non-Trotskyist activists and leftists and realize that we had become adjusted to extremely sectarian attitudes toward “opponents,” 3) we needed to break from the fetishistic and philosophically idealist perspective that we were inheritors of “the correct” program; political program is developed, tested and affirmed in mass struggle, 4) there is no such thing as “the nucleus” of a revolutionary party because a revolutionary party is only created in the process of actual leadership of mass struggles of millions of people, 5) one of the worst manifestations of philosophically idealist sectarianism is the idea that if there is a political disagreement among revolutionary socialists then one view must be petit-bourgeois, because there can only be one truly proletarian, correct revolutionary working class view.

I had the opportunity for most of one and part of another day of Peter’s stay in Salt Lake to interrogate him at length about “how things worked” in the SWP and what had happened.  Peter told me that through the sixties he had seen Jack Barnes, Barry Sheppard and himself as future leaders of the SWP.  Peter felt that he was the most talented political leader of the three.  Peter said that he saw Farrell Dobb’s choice of Jack Barnes as his successor as partly resulting from adaptation to the racism in U.S. society.

I realized that Peter came into the SWP with the attitude that his mission was to lead the SWP to the masses.  His creative political perspective and public leadership style was needed for the SWP to break out of its sectarian isolation.  Peter had often challenged what he saw as the SWP’s conventional practices with his new ideas, especially for electoral breakthroughs.  Peter had wanted to explore electoral involvement with the Peace and Freedom Party in California, had suggested supporting Black Panther candidates in Democratic Party primaries – encouraging them to break from the Democrats and take an independent stance in the final election.  He was in his element working with the La Raza Unida Party and as the SWP’s candidate for president of the U.S. in 1976 – but he was being constantly hemmed in and harassed by Jack Barnes who tarred Camejo as a free-lancer with dangerously unorthodox ideas.  Around 1980 Barnes put the kibosh on Peter’s proposal for a New York City electoral alliance with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party.

Peter said that Jack Barnes controlled the SWP with a personal clique that was the large majority of the Political Committee.  The Barnes’ clique lived in close proximity and frequently spent evenings socializing together.  By the time a Political Committee meeting was held, they had already discussed and agreed on the decisions that would be made (the PC was the drive wheel which turned the National Committee and the Branch leaderships).   In frustration, at one point Peter proposed at a PC meeting that the PC be reduced in size to the exact number of the Barnes clique.  Peter said that Jack became apoplectically angry and in retrospect he thought that this was the point where Barnes determined to get Peter out of the party.

Peter’s close association with the revolutionary upsurges in Central America contributed to growing discouragement and dissatisfaction with the SWP.  By the winter of 1980 – 81 several strands of motivation drove Peter to want to get away from daily SWP activity and responsibilities, one objective was to find time for a serious study of Lenin’s thinking.  I am not sure of exact chronology but I think that Peter asked for an extended leave from the SWP in the summer of 1981.  He was gone for a year or more, spending considerable time in Venezuela.

When Peter went to return to the SWP in 1982/83 he found that he had supposedly resigned over a year before.  During the time when Peter was gone. Barnes had strengthened his personal control of the organization and Peter had been slandered and defamed to the point that party leaders did not want to take his side.  Peter actually sat outside the door at one or more national committee meetings, asking to be allowed in to participate.  I think that Peter Camejo was Jack Barnes’ most threatening potential competitor for leadership within the SWP and Peter was Jack’s first purge victim.

I joined the North Star Network and Peter was my primary political mentor for the next decade.  At a North Star conference in the Bay Area, Peter introduced me to Jim Percy, leader of the Australian SWP which had worked closely with the U.S. SWP.  Percy and Camejo had become political allies in opposition to Barnes’ “sectarian” course.  My private conversation with Jim Percy convinced me that there was simply a convergence of political perspective on non-sectarian mass outreach and movement building and a shared appreciation of the growing importance of the Greens and the environmental movement.

In 1986 Peter attended the founding conference of Solidarity and told me was very impressed and that if he wasn’t already responsible for North Star Network he would probably join Solidarity.  Through North Star Peter had developed working alliances with several Maoist and former Maoist groups which had relatively strong support in the Bay Area.  Peter joined them in supporting Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 Democratic primary campaigns and he supported the Rainbow Coalition through much of the 1980s, encouraging participants in the loose North Star Network to do the same.   He also worked with the National Committee for Independent Political Action and longtime civil rights activists Anne Braden and Gwen Patton.

By the late 1980s, Peter had decided that the times weren’t propitious for continuing with the North Star Network and he allied particularly with Max Elbaum and activists from Frontline/Line of March to start publishing _Crossroads_ magazine.  When the CPUSA split in 1991 and about half of the CP supported the founding of Committees of Correspondence, Peter hoped this development might lead to cohering a new broad left organization that would be able to grow and influence masses of people.  The founding conference of CoC at Berkeley in 1992 showed promise with several thousand participating in the politically open proceedings.   In my opinion, the tragic death of former west coast CP leader Kendra Alexander in the spring of 1993 definitively put the balance of power in the CoC leadership in the hands of those ex-CPers who were not capable of breaking from their habitual reformism.

When the CoC endorsed Bill Clinton’s proposed “managed care” national health care reform in late 1993, I gave up on them several years before Peter did.  Peter went from that project to focusing his political activism in the Green Party.   Peter continued to influence and educate me but I stopped looking to him for direct personal political guidance.  We communicated and collaborated on political campaigns and projects right up until his last rally speech, April 2008 in Salt Lake City.

I agree with Barry Sheppard that Peter took a more conservative public political stance during the 1980s and 1990s, particularly as he initially distanced himself from his experience with the SWP [Barry’s review of _North Star_ and a valuable discussion is at http://links.org.au/node/1783 ]. At least every few years I would become an organizer/host for another of Peter’s visits and public events in Salt Lake. There were periods when he did not want to be publicly identified or introduced as a socialist.  Of course, he was always a political activist working for revolutionary social change in what he judged to be the most effective way to reach masses of people.  Peter never stopped thinking and working on ‘how to make a revolution in the U.S.’

Alan grossly shortchanges Peter to suggest that the sum of his post-SWP politics was to “champion[s] familiar cliches of the populist Left.”   You can not read his important contribution to discussion going on inside the Australian Democratic Socialist Party in the mid-1990s without seeing that he continued to study and debate revolutionary socialist strategy – “Return to Materialism“.  As Louis Proyect points out, Peter wasn’t spreading cliches when he fought for the Avocado Declaration within the Green Party (see also Peter’s comments in ATC  and in _Independent Politics: The Green Party Strategy Debate_ edited by Howie Hawkins, published by Haymarket Press in 2006).

Although Peter was at first cautious about it, in his last years he became proud to call himself a “watermelon green” – green on the outside, red on the inside.  He found that revolutionary socialists were among his strongest allies.  He worked closely with Todd Chretien and the International Socialist Organization  and participated in the rise of the green left [see _The Rise of the Green Left_  by Derek Wall, Pluto Press, 2010].

In his 1990s essay on the SWP, Alan identifies one of the most challenging problems in building an effective revolutionary socialist organization:  “A big problem, of course, is that, in an ‘individualist’ culture, such as that which holds sway in advanced capitalist countries like the United States, very few individuals who achieve recognition for leadership talents are willing to subordinate their egos to a team, a problem that has implications for revolutionary practice as for other activities.”   I think Alan is right that ultimately Jack Barnes was ‘a man of the apparatus,’ an organizational inside operator who needed to have control.  As a human being and an activist, Peter was outgoing and sociable, happy with egalitarian give and take.

Peter concludes his 1983 initial analysis of what went wrong with the SWP using a quote from the same source as Paul LeBlanc uses at the beginning of his “Conclusion” to  _Lenin and the Revolutionary Party_.  It is from  _”Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder_ written by Lenin in the spring of 1920 in an effort to educate revolutionaries around the world.  The section quoted is from “Part II: One of the fundamental conditions for the success of the Bolsheviks”:

And first of all the question arises – how is the discipline of the revolutionary party of the proletariat maintained?  How is it tested?  How is it reinforced?  First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its perseverance, self-sacrifice and heroism.  Secondly, by its ability to link itself with, to keep in close touch with, and to a certain extent, if you like, to merge with the broadest masses of the working people – primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian labouring masses.  Thirdly, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided that the broadest masses have been convinced by their own experience that they are correct.  Without these conditions, discipline in a revolutionary party that is really capable of being part of the advanced class, whose mission is to overthrow the bourgeoisie and transform the whole of society, cannot be achieved.  Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end in phrase-mongering and clowning.  On the other hand, these conditions cannot emerge instantaneously.  They are created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience.  Their creation is facilitated by correct revolutionary theory, which, in turn, is not dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement.

(emphasis in original)

#    #    #

*  Major documents and books published by the FIT are available at <http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fit.htm>, including the three volumes “In Defense of American Trotskyism:” “Rebuilding the Revolutionary Party,” (1990) <http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fit/rebuildindex.htm>, “The Struggle Inside the Socialist Workers Party, 1979-1983”, (1992) <http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fit/struggleindex.htm>, and “Revolutionary Principles and Working-Class Democracy” (1992) <http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fit/revprinindex.htm>).

**  In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky described “the Lenin levy” this way:  “The political aim of this maneuver was to dissolve the revolutionary vanguard in raw human material without experience, without independence, and yet with the old habit of submitting to the authorities. The scheme was successful.  By freeing the bureaucracy from the control of the proletarian vanguard, the ‘Leninist levy’ dealt a death blow to the party of Lenin” (pp. 97-98).

***  I have been an organized sympathizer of Solidarity since shortly after its founding in 1986.  In 1992 I became an at-large member and then participated in getting a Solidarity branch set up in Salt Lake in late 1995.  During 1999 the Salt Lake Solidarity branch dissolved and I decided to become a sympathizer again.  I remain a sympathizer now.

**** _Outsider’s Reverie_ by Leslie Evans, Boryana Books, Los Angeles, 2009   <http://boryanabooks.com/index.php?s=Leslie+Evans>

Louis Proyect’s review of _Outsider’s Reverie_ <http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy59.html>

and see also:

Louis Proyect’s review of _North Star_  <http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy62.html>

Steve Bloom’s severely edited response to Alan Wald’s original assessment of the SWP:


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