Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 27, 2012

Over a Cliff and Into Occupy With Lenin

Filed under: Lenin,Occupy Wall Street,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 2:04 pm

Over a Cliff and Into Occupy With Lenin

by Pham Binh

Pink Scare’s (PS) response  to the debate ignited by my review  of Tony Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party affords me the opportunity to clarify issues of secondary importance like timing, judgments, method, and implications that did not fit with the content of my responses to the Cliff book’s two defenders, Paul Le Blanc and Paul D’Amato. In addition, I will discuss the role of Lars Lih in this little firestorm.

PS is appreciative but ultimately dissatisfied with Lih’s contribution because he does not spell out the practical implications of his research for revolutionary Marxists today and instead adopts a “non-political posture” of “scholarly neutrality.” Le Blanc and D’Amato also tried to fault my book review for similar reasons, namely, that it did not situate Cliff’s book in today’s context, although my views on party building today were made abundantly clear in two different articles prior to the Cliff debate and one article after it.

It seems no one is allowed to examine the historical record surrounding Lenin or challenge anyone else’s presentation of Lenin’s work without including a detailed how-to manual for today’s revolutionary.

This line of criticism fails to address a very basic point: why should a book review of Cliff’s Lenin (written in 1975) include a discussion of how what Lenin did is applicable today when Cliff’s book contains no such discussion of how its content should be applied by Cliff’s group, the International Socialists (successor to the British Socialist Workers Party) in their political context of the mid-to-late 1970s? Surely what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

I mirrored Cliff’s narrow focus on Lenin and the history of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). If my book review or Lih’s contribution suffered because neither of us drew up a balance sheet of applicable lessons for today, the same is equally true of Cliff’s book, although our contributions have not been shown to contain the kind of errors that marred Cliff’s Lenin.


So the question remains: why did I review Cliff’s book in early 2012?

Why re-litigate battles from a century ago as battles today rage in the streets of New York City, Athens, and Homs?

In fact, I began my review of Cliff’s Lenin began around the time I wrote The Bolshevik Experience and the ‘Leninist’ Model  in summer of 2011, before Occupy Wall Street (OWS) broke out almost literally on my doorstep. The lull in OWS activity following the November 15 eviction allowed me to complete this project, since I had far more important things to do during the encampment than re-read Cliff.

This explains the “odd” timing of the book review. What prompted me in the first place to look at Cliff’s book carefully, chapter by chapter, in summer of 2011 was Lars Lih’s response to Chris Harman and Paul Le Blanc in Historical Materialism 18. Here, Lih mentioned some of Building the Party’s factual errors. I was curious to see if there were any errors that Lih had not brought to light. The rest, as they say, is history.


Does it follow then, as PS claims, that, “Pham thinks Cliff’s book is of zero value and should be thrown in the dustbin of history. He makes it sound as if the most important debate right now is, in some sweeping sense: ‘Tony Cliff: Yay or Nay?’”

My book review never claimed that Cliff’s Lenin has “zero value and should be thrown in the dustbin of history.” I was much more careful and specific, arguing that the book was “useless as a historical study of Lenin’s actions and thoughts.” Believe it or not, plenty of books have value even if they are not historical studies of Lenin’s thoughts and actions. Cliff’s Lenin is no exception.

The value of Cliff’s Lenin is a separate issue from any sort of sweeping judgment of Tony Cliff as a man, writer, or revolutionary. He wrote about a huge range of subjects during the almost 90 years of his life. One book, no matter how awful or problematic, is an insufficient basis for making a “yay or nay” judgment on someone’s life and work. Anyone who read my book review and thought that my goal was to “get Tony Cliff” or make such a judgment has probably spent too much time in the marginal and unhealthy environment known as the socialist movement where strawmen, sweeping personalistic condemnations, and sweeping yays and nays have become the rule rather than the exception.


PS says that the body of my review consisted of “quibbling complaints about this or that error made by Tony Cliff.” Getting the meaning of democratic centralism wrong, distorting Lenin’s attitude towards party rules, failing to represent Lenin’s view of the famous 1903 Menshevik-Bolshevik dispute as expressed in painstaking detail in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, and ignoring the fact that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks did not become separate, independent parties until 1917 hardly constitutes quibbling for any serious student of Bolshevism.

If all of the above is quibbling, it begs the question of what exactly for PS would constitute significant distortions, inaccuracies, flaws, or factual errors? Should we rest content that the moral of the story – we must build a revolutionary party! – is the correct one? If so, why bother being accurate at all?

The Value of Accuracy

Historical accuracy is paramount if we are trying to use history as a guide to action.

We cannot learn from what happened unless we actually know (and acknowledge) what happened. History, like the present, will always be contested to some degree, but intelligent debate over what happened, when, and why is not possible when those involved in such disputes maintain their views despite a growing body of evidence that contradicts the factual basis for their particular interpretation. Paul Le Blanc’s insistence that the Bolsheviks became a separate party from the Mensheviks in 1912 at the Prague Conference falls into this category because, to adhere to this interpretation, one must ignore or downplay the testimonies of conference participants such as Lenin and Zinoviev as well as a slew of documentary evidence from the period since all of it points in the opposite direction. Why the 1912 issue is important I will examine later in this piece.

Cliff’s Lenin has value – as a cautionary tale of how not to approach the work of others (Lenin’s primarily, but also that of scholars) and how not to handle historical documents and complex issues. (Building the Party’s Russian-language citations are copied from secondary sources without proper attribution, making it almost impossible for anyone else to look at the material he used to write his book.)

The single most important lesson we can learn from Cliff’s Lenin is the necessity of putting the work of Lenin and the Bolsheviks back into its proper historical context, which is the international social democratic movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. This Cliff did not do in his zeal to “prove” this or that point about the nature of the revolutionary party (a loaded concept that deserves to be unpacked), the nature of said party’s internal regime, and its alleged leadership style. By contrast, Lih’s work will withstand the test of time and the harshest of critical examinations because he seeks to understand Lenin historically, as he was, as he evolved over time, regardless of the implications for revolutionary organizers today.

Lih has no dog in our fight, nor should he. Claiming that he “position[s] himself as a mere scholar—rather than activist—[who] repeatedly invokes his expertise and specific role as a ‘historian’” and, as a result of such so-called positioning, “offers little insight into the questions that really matter here” as PS does is ridiculous for the following reason: no matter how wonderful Lih’s scholarship on Lenin is, he is not going to do our thinking for us. Drawing out the implications of his work is our job, not his.

Any student of that era, those issues, or the man (Lenin) would do well to imitate Lih’s method in approaching the history of Bolshevism if they really want to mine that experience for the valuable lessons it undoubtedly contains.

When studying history we should focus on precisely that – history. Engaging in historical study focused on “advancing our understanding of the contemporary conjuncture and struggles within it” as PS suggests will inevitably distort what we get out of looking at events that occurred yesterday, yesteryear, and a century ago, especially when they happened in foreign countries whose cultures, languages, and traditions are not readily comparable to our own. Approaching the past with a “what do I get out of it in the here and now?” or a “what in this is immediately applicable to my situation?” mentality is to blind ourselves to history’s rich contradictions and nuances in favor of something simplistic and readily digestible.


The dedication of my book review “to anyone and everyone [who] has sacrificed in the name of ‘building the revolutionary party,’” has nothing to do with declaring that project to be a “bankrupt political goal,” despite what PS seems to think. If that is what I thought I would just come out and say it.

I don’t mince words.

The dedication is a reference to the fact that generations of socialists all over the world have made personal sacrifices of one sort or another in the name of the title of Cliff’s book, Building the Party under the assumption that their efforts would contribute in some way to the creation of a Bolshevik-type party. I have no problem with people choosing to make such sacrifices, but choosing to do so based on severe distortions or a nonexistent historical precedent is a different story.

PS’s concluding words compel me to clarify where I don’t stand on some questions as well:

If there is one relatively clear political implication of Pham’s intervention, it seems to be that Lenin was “an orthodox Kautsykist” and that the distinction between Second International reformism (associated with Kautsky and the SPD) and early Third International revolutionary politics (associated with Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Lenin) is historically inaccurate.

I am mystified how anyone could read my book review of Cliff’s Lenin and my replies to Paul Le Blanc and Paul D’Amato and write that Cliff getting Lenin wrong has “one relatively clear political implication” on issues such as Lenin’s relationship to Karl Kautsky or the Third International’s relationship to the Second. Cliff’s book did not delve into those topics at all and neither did I. Perhaps I am somehow being confused or conflated with Lih since he has actually done work on Lenin’s take on Kautsky?

Whatever the case, I would never be so stupid to think that the distinction between the Second and Third Internationals “is historically inaccurate.” I do believe that the character of those distinctions has been profoundly misunderstood by “Leninists.” That topic, along with “Leninism” and whether the Bolsheviks really constituted a “party of a new type,” will be addressed in a future piece that I began before OWS.

Stay tuned.

The Importance of 1912

To be candid, these debates have zero importance beyond the ranks of historians like Lih and those who continue to find inspiration in or lessons to be learned from the Bolsheviks. But the issue of 1912 looms large for those of us in the latter milieu because of statements like this from D’Amato:

The outcome of the period 1912-1917 was that two independent political parties entered the arena of struggle in 1917. The irreconcilable differences between these two parties, which led one to support soviet power and the other to oppose it, led to a Bolshevik victory over the opposition of the Mensheviks, and later to the founding of a new international that was based upon soviet power and the need for revolutionary Marxists to organisationally separate themselves from social-democratic reformism. Can a debate over the exact date when the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks split shed any more light in these critical developments in the history of the socialist movement?

My answer to his closing question is unequivocally “yes!”, although the evidence indicates that there is no single “exact date” in 1917 when this separation took place. It was a process, more like balding than a divorce.

The reason I say yes is because the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were part of the same broad multi-tendency party from 1903 until 1917 that “Leninists” today strenuously reject as a bankrupt model doomed to fail.

The 1917 Russian revolution proves that this model is anything but bankrupt or doomed in advance. The differences between the two factions were not always irreconcilable. To insist otherwise would be ahistorical (or undialectical, if you prefer). Lenin’s writings up until 1917 are filled with rejections of the notion that there could or should be two “organisationally separate” RSDLPs, one Menshevik, the other Bolshevik.

(Interesting fact: the phrase “Bolshevik Party” never occurs in Lenin’s Collected Works during the 1912-1916 period except as explanatory editorial notes written by people other than Lenin. Only in 1917 does Lenin himself speak and write of the Bolsheviks as a party.)

Conflating the liquidationists, the Mensheviks, and social-democratic reformists (Bernsteinists) with one another as D’Amato does makes all of this impossible to understand or even acknowledge. Neither Lenin nor the Bolsheviks were what we call “Leninists,” nor did they who build a “party of a new type” totally unlike and superior to their international social democratic brethren. The historical evidence indicates that they were revolutionary social democrats who defended what they considered to be orthodoxy from the likes of Eduard Bernstein and later, the man who did more than anyone else to create that orthodoxy, Kautsky.

All of this goes to show how history’s rich complexities and ironies clash with the simplistic and distorted accounts of the Bolsheviks and Lenin put forward by detractors and would-be imitators alike. What (if anything) this means for us today is a matter of debate, but historical falsehoods and fictions (when we know better!) should not be part of that debate.

Lenin and Occupy

Many socialists have cheered Lih’s demolition of the textbook interpretation of Lenin’s work without examining how many of our own preconceptions on the subject are now part of the same pile of rubble.

The fact that Occupy has functioned in practice like the much-sought-after but never replicated vanguard party that Lenin helped create in early 20th century Russia has also escaped much of the Marxist left. These two developments are not coincidental.

Leon Trotsky’s description of the party as “a lever for enhancing the activity of the advanced workingmen” captures exactly how Occupy has functioned. In the space of four weeks, OWS mobilized more workers and oppressed people than the entire U.S. socialist left combined has in four decades. OWS did not begin with a program or a series of demands but with an action that inspired tens of thousands of others to act, speak, march, occupy, and rise up in an elemental awakening (or stikhiinyi in Russian).

Inspirational leadership is the core theme of Lih’s Lenin biography and underpins Lenin’s writings as well. Consider his words from Left-Wing Communism explaining why and how the Bolsheviks triumphed against all odds during the 1917  revolution and the brutal civil war that followed:

[T]he Bolsheviks could not have retained power for two and a half months, let alone two and a half years, without the most rigorous and truly iron discipline in our Party, or without the fullest and unreserved support from the entire mass of the working class, that is, from all thinking, honest, devoted and influential elements in it, capable of leading the backward strata or carrying the latter along with them. … I repeat: the experience of the victorious dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia has clearly shown even to those who are incapable of thinking or have had no occasion to give thought to the matter that absolute centralisation and rigorous discipline of the proletariat are an essential condition of victory over the bourgeoisie. … This is often dwelt on. However, not nearly enough thought is given to what it means, and under what conditions it is possible.

It should go without saying that Occupy at six months does not resemble a disciplined, centralized organization steeled over two decades of battles. That is not the important part of the comparison. It’s what lies underneath the discipline that Lenin described as “an essential condition of the Bolsheviks’ success” that is the key:

The first questions to arise are: how is the discipline of the proletariat’s revolutionary party 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 tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism. Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people—primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people. Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct.

If there any words to describe the thousands of occupiers who continually defy cops in riot gear, risking beatings, arrests, and wanton brutality simply to maintain a presence in an ostensibly public space, they are tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism.

That same tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism led four college students to sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in the South, sparking a new phase of the civil rights movement as thousands launched similar sit-ins. That same tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism led a small band of Black activists to don leather jackets and berets and carry shotguns in one hand and law books in the other in 1966. Calling themselves the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, they succeeded at winning mass support in the Black community in short order. The tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism of the Industrial Workers of the World (or Wobblies) is the stuff of legend.

It was OWS’s tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism in the face of New York Police Department (NYPD) Inspector Anthony Bologna’s pepper spray  rampage on September 24, 2011 that ended the isolation that marked week one  of the occupation and allowed it to link up, maintain close contact, and merge with the masses in weeks two  and three. NYPD repression did for OWS what Bloody Sunday did for the Russian revolution in 1905 (although thankfully no one was killed).

The correctness of Occupy’s tactics and political strategy is deeply felt by huge numbers of people because both have proven to be unmatched in effectiveness. This mass feeling explains why the ideas, values, and methods that animated OWS such as General Assemblies, modified consensus, autonomy, horizontalism, direct action, and direct democracy dominate all corners of Occupy. All of this has become the uprising’s common sense, its animus.

Huge numbers of people look to Occupy for “how to live and how to die.”

The excitement over Occupy’s calls for a May 1 general strike and the anticipation felt by almost everyone about the prospect of an American Spring are a symptom of Occupy’s vanguard role. Occupy has also assumed another aspect of what is typically associated with Lenin and the vanguard party:

[T]he Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation.

OWS played this role from its inception, marching against the execution of Troy Davis. Solidarity was automatic. Shortly after Davis was murdered by the state of Georgia on September 21, 2011, signs appeared at OWS that read: “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one!” A “single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation” indeed.

By standing up to tyranny, oppression, and police brutality directed against people of color, Occupy has won enduring respect and created alliances  with a variety of racial and religious minority communities. It has gone from being for the 99% to being by the 99%, which brings us to the next compelling overlap between Occupy and Lenin’s ideas.

Derided by the Marxist left for being vague, populist, blurry, or class collaborationist, the 99% is in fact synonymous with Lenin’s vision of a revolution accomplished by the narod, which Lih rightly notes has an emotional punch in Russian that the English version (the people) lacks. Add the peasantry, students, and all of Russia’s oppressed peoples together with the working class and it would probably be numerically close to the 99% espoused by Occupy.

Lenin’s vision of revolution was fundamentally inclusive, not exclusive, and the same is true of Occupy’s vision. So where does all of this leave the socialist movement in the United States? Does that mean (try not to cringe) that Lenin is no longer relevant? The answer to these questions depends on what you take from the Bolshevik experience.

At one point in his career, Lenin set out to unify scattered local informal groups of intellectuals and workers known as circles into something resembling the German Social Democratic Party. Six months into the greatest explosion of mass struggle in almost half a century, today’s socialist left is much smaller numerically than the Socialist Labor Party was at its low point (6,000 in 1898) and growing at a snail’s pace, if that. Today, socialist groups generally do not have contact with, much less productive, ongoing, working relationships with one another nationally, or even locally.

Imagine the Russian circles that Lenin sought to unite all declaring that political differences with their counterparts across town or in other parts of Russia were too great  to be in the same organization. Instead of uniting, they formed separate membership organizations, published rival newspapers, and competed with one another for individual adherents. Do this and you get some idea of how the problems Lenin faced stack up to the problems we face.

Since we don’t have Tsarist repression to deal with, since we have the “air and light” Kautsky said  we needed for a successful political workers’ movement, the only people to blame for this sorry state of affairs is ourselves (and our predecessors). Any observer who looks at our movement will not feel inspired to join up and make sacrifices for a great cause; they are more likely to feel despair, frustration, and bewilderment at the foolish, needless, endless, and counterproductive divisions that are keeping us weak despite the greatest opening in a generation (or three).

Unless we start doing something different, we are not going to end up with anything different than what we have now, no matter how badly we want it or how hard we work. When you’re stuck in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.

If there’s anything we can learn from Lenin and apply now, it’s that if we rise to the tasks before us and get our act together, we can turn our movement around and make it a factor of the first order in American politics again.

Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Occupied Wall Street Journal and The Indypendent. Check out thenorthstar.info, the first national collaborative blog by and for occupiers.

March 26, 2012

Reed Elsevier connections

Filed under: racism,ultraright — louisproyect @ 7:54 pm

NY Times March 25, 2012

Lobbyists, Guns and Money


Florida’s now-infamous Stand Your Ground law, which lets you shoot someone you consider threatening without facing arrest, let alone prosecution, sounds crazy — and it is. And it’s tempting to dismiss this law as the work of ignorant yahoos. But similar laws have been pushed across the nation, not by ignorant yahoos but by big corporations.

Specifically, language virtually identical to Florida’s law is featured in a template supplied to legislators in other states by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-backed organization that has managed to keep a low profile even as it exerts vast influence (only recently, thanks to yeoman work by the Center for Media and Democracy, has a clear picture of ALEC’s activities emerged). And if there is any silver lining to Trayvon Martin’s killing, it is that it might finally place a spotlight on what ALEC is doing to our society — and our democracy.

What is ALEC? Despite claims that it’s nonpartisan, it’s very much a movement-conservative organization, funded by the usual suspects: the Kochs, Exxon Mobil, and so on. Unlike other such groups, however, it doesn’t just influence laws, it literally writes them, supplying fully drafted bills to state legislators. In Virginia, for example, more than 50 ALEC-written bills have been introduced, many almost word for word. And these bills often become law.

Many ALEC-drafted bills pursue standard conservative goals: union-busting, undermining environmental protection, tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy. ALEC seems, however, to have a special interest in privatization — that is, on turning the provision of public services, from schools to prisons, over to for-profit corporations. And some of the most prominent beneficiaries of privatization, such as the online education company K12 Inc. and the prison operator Corrections Corporation of America, are, not surprisingly, very much involved with the organization.


From ALEC website:


Private Enterprise Board Members

Ms. Sano Blocker Energy Future Holdings

Mr. Don Bohn Johnson & Johnson

Mr. Jeffrey Bond PhRMA

Ms. Teresa Jennings Reed Elsevier, Inc.



UPDATE 1/2/12 It is now possible to restrict the costofknowledge list by subject. So it has become easy to work out, for example, that (at the time of writing) 2632 people have left their names, of whom 613 are mathematicians.

Many thanks to Tyler Neylon for designing a website where one can declare one’s unwillingness to work for Elsevier journals. Already, without any announcement apart from brief mentions quite some way into the comments on the last post, it has 31 signatures, many of them from France, where for various reasons they are particularly annoyed with Elsevier.

This post is primarily to give the site some visibility, which I’ll also do on Google+ (if you support the venture, then please spread the word). It is not necessarily to persuade you to sign. I well understand that we are all in different situations and signing is easier for some people than others. But one thing I would definitely say is that if you already have a private non-cooperation policy (as I myself have done for years) then you will have much more effect if you go public about it. As I said in my previous post, the more people who sign, the more morally and socially acceptable it becomes to sign too: a private protest is just a nuisance to other mathematicians, but larger and more public one may have a chance of achieving something. So I hope that each signature will beget several others, at least for a while.

In the interests of balance, let me briefly mention two arguments against signing. (If you can think of others, then please let me know in the comments.) One is that Elsevier already allows authors to keep versions of their papers on the arXiv. This considerably weakens the argument that Elsevier papers, once published, disappear behind a very expensive paywall. (It also means that submitting to an Elsevier journal and not putting your article on the arXiv is a dereliction of duty.) Nevertheless, having to make do with arXiv versions is an inconvenience. For example, the page references in the arXiv version will be different from those in the journal. (Another principle: if you refer to an Elsevier paper, do so in a page-independent way such as, “See the discussion just after Lemma 3.1 in [XYZ].”) Also, it is not standard practice to refer to the arXiv versions of other papers if there are print versions.


The Militant newspaper goes nuke

Filed under: nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 3:44 pm

Since the Socialist Workers Party of the United States is so small and so wacky, I had misgivings about whether it was worth my time writing about the latest idiocy in the Militant, a newspaper I was thrilled to sell in a previous lifetime. I suppose that having had a chance to browse through the second volume of Barry Sheppard’s memoir about the party helped me make a decision. Given the utter disconnect between the party of my youth and the moribund sect of today, there is always the pathologist’s need for an explanation.

In a lead article titled Fukushima 1 year later: nuke panic vs. real disaster, the erstwhile Trotskyist group of over 1500 members now reduced to just over a hundred makes the case that socialists should support nuclear power, not just in the Third World as they have argued in the past, but everywhere. The lesson they draw from Fukushima is how minimal the threat was and how necessary it is to stay the course:

The basic facts today are well known. The plant used a cheaper containment vessel for fuel rods prone to rupture in the event of a cooling system failure. Tepco’s owners never adequately raised the elevation of the backup generator, despite the potential for tsunamis in the area. Company officials deliberately delayed action to cool down the reactors in order to protect their investment. Surely, if private profit didn’t drive the reactor’s operation, the entire incident would have been avoided.

But we see this approach everyday in every part of the world where capitalist social relations dominate production. It flows from the way the capitalist system always has and always will function: to maximize profits while simultaneously undermining the source of all wealth, the earth and the worker.

Despite all this, zero is the number of people who have reportedly died as a result of nuclear radiation poisoning related to the Fukushima plant. Another striking figure, given the combination of the bosses’ recklessness and the destructive power of earthquakes and tsunamis. The basic facts about what is considered the second worst nuclear disaster in world history actually provides a very strong argument against the assertion that nuclear power presents a special inherent danger to humanity.

The so-called environmentalist opposition to nuclear power—or other forms of energy—is anti-scientific and reactionary. The various “green” forces and their nostrums provide no earthly option for maintaining modern civilization, let alone for advancing industrial development. They stand in opposition to the development of semicolonial nations oppressed by imperialism and are antagonistic to the needs of the great majority of humanity.

In contrast, the communist movement champions the expansion and extension of electrification and industrialization worldwide, and along with it growth of the proletariat and culture. This is essential for closing the gap between the imperialists and semicolonial world and bringing the world’s toilers closer together in common struggle.

These arguments will be familiar to anybody acquainted with Spiked Online, the latest permutation of a group of former members of the Revolutionary Communist Party in Britain. Despite the name, this is not the same sect led by Bob Avakian. Instead, it originated as a split from Tony Cliff’s organization led by sociology professor Frank Furedi that went on to publish Living Marxism, a “contrarian” outlet that championed nuclear power, genetically modified crops, massive hydroelectric dams, and other projects that were designed to expand “industrialization worldwide” as the SWP puts it. Eventually, the Furedi-ites dropped all pretensions to Marxism (except for one or two individuals like James Heartfield) and became indistinguishable from the libertarians at Reason Magazine that they have worked closely with in the past.

For comparison’s sake, here is Spiked Online’s Rob Lyons on Fukushima one year later:

[A]ccidents can happen. Not everything that happens is reasonably foreseeable or easily preventable. The important thing is to learn the right lessons when bad events occur. Unfortunately, in all the hype about Fukushima, the wrong lessons are being learned.

Not a single person has died because of exposure to radiation as a result of the Fukushima accident, though two plant workers did die in a flooded basement room as a direct result of the tsunami. But lesson four is that overreaction to a problem can be worse than the original problem. For example, it was reported that 45 patients died after the botched and hurried evacuation of a hospital in the Fukushima prefecture, and this was not the only such case. One centenarian committed suicide rather than be forced from his home in the exclusion zone…

This is the most important lesson, one year on, from the earthquake and tsunami: it is the crisis of politics that is holding society back. We have the technical capability to move society forward, to cope with natural disasters and to learn from serious accidents. But without a sense of purpose about what society should look like in the future, and how to get there, the uncertainty of society’s elites – and the absence of a capacity for the wider population to give them a genuine democratic kick-up-the-arse – could prove to be the biggest disaster of all.

If there is any difference between this libertarian’s call for moving “society forward” and the SWP’s business about the extension of industrialization, I can’t detect it. Basically this is the same message you are getting from Tepco, the American nuclear industry, and the heavy battalions of the ruling class that are determined to push ahead with nuclear power over the objections of the Japanese people. Popular resistance to nuclear power, as well as elite concerns about their viability, in Japan has resulted in 53 out of 54 nuclear power plants being shut down. Without a doubt, if the SWP had a satellite “Communist League” functioning in Japan, its 5 or 6 members would be agitating to re-open them. Imagine the slogan: “For a communist atom!”

This has not always been the position of the sect. In 1996, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Chernobyl, the Militant editorialized:

Even if no accident occurs at a nuclear plant, there is no method of safely disposing of the mounting tonnage of nuclear waste. For example, a nuclear waste facility that just opened in Aiken, South Carolina, uses chemicals that have generated large amounts of explosive compounds during the processing of the deadly material.

There is only one way to protect people from catastrophic accidents at nuclear plants, from the cancer and genetic damage caused by nuclear power, and from the growing accumulation of deadly radioactive waste that cannot be stored safely. Shut them down! Workers and farmers must take the lead in dismantling these facilities, as well as demanding the resources be made available to aid those affected by Chernobyl and other nuclear disasters.

I am not sure if Barry gets into this in his memoir, but one of things that characterize the post-sanity SWP is the failure of the Militant newspaper to ever explain why a line changes. The same party members who would have seen the wisdom of the 1996 editorial now support the new tilt toward nuclear power wholeheartedly. Ironically, a party that came into existence as an alternative to the sheep-like obedience to the Kremlin now follows the same pattern, all the more peculiar since the SWP’s version of Stalin has so little clout outside his ranks. Stalin once derisively asked how many battalions the pope had, after the Vatican issued some statement on human rights abuses in the USSR. In the case of the SWP, you are not dealing with battalions but an aging platoon of the politically bereft.

Turning to the substance of the Militant article, there are a couple of points that can be made. It alleges that the Japanese government failure to provide adequate protection against tsunami flooding:

The Japan Meteorological Agency erroneously projected that day that a 10-foot plus tsunami would hit northeastern Japan.

Concrete walls line about 40 percent of Japan’s coastline, many places 33 feet high. But in the region hit by the tsunami, the walls were about 10 feet high. The waves turned out to be 40 feet high on average. The whole warning and protection system had been built for a lesser case—and cost-saving—scenario.

So, would higher flood walls made a difference? Perhaps so, but there is also the possibility that it was the earthquake itself that led to the Fukushima incidents, as the Independent reported:

The suspicion that the earthquake caused severe damage to the reactors is strengthened by reports that radiation leaked from the plant minutes later. The Bloomberg news agency has reported that a radiation alarm went off about a mile from the plant at 3.29pm, before the tsunami hit.

The reason for official reluctance to admit that the earthquake did direct structural damage to reactor one is obvious. Katsunobu Onda, author of Tepco: The Dark Empire, explains it this way: A government or industry admission “raises suspicions about the safety of every reactor they run. They are using a number of antiquated reactors that have the same systematic problems, the same wear and tear on the piping.” Earthquakes, of course, are commonplace in Japan.

Mitsuhiko Tanaka, a former nuclear plant designer, describes what occurred on 11 March as a loss-of-coolant accident. “The data that Tepco has made public shows a huge loss of coolant within the first few hours of the earthquake. It can’t be accounted for by the loss of electrical power. There was already so much damage to the cooling system that a meltdown was inevitable long before the tsunami came.”

As might be expected, the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) rejected this claim since, as Wikipedia points out, it is virtually an arm of the nuclear industry:

According to a government report to the International Atomic Energy Agency in June 2011, “NISA’s lack of independence from the trade ministry, which promotes the use of atomic power, hampered a quick response to the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant this year”. Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, there have been questions raised about whether the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has been fulfilling its function as an industry regulator, and whether it should continue to exist.

More to the point, what kind of “precautions” can be taken to ensure that a nuclear power plant can be isolated from the impact of a powerful earthquake even if it is located inland? While most Americans worry about the impact of a large earthquake on nuclear power plants in California, the real threat appears to be further north in the Cascadia subduction zone (where tectonic plates collide) that straddles Oregon, Washington State and Vancouver, Canada. The always reliable McClatchy press  reported:

The only part of the United States where a 9.0-scale earthquake is expected again (geologists discovered that one occurred there on Jan. 26, 1700) is the 750-mile-long Cascadia subduction zone off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and northern California. A subduction zone — a place where faults in the Earth’s crust are wide enough for plates of rock to “slip” past each other — also produced the March 11 Tohoku earthquake in Japan.

Robert Yeats, a geology professor at Oregon State University, was one of the first to suggest in the 1980s that the Pacific Northwest might be vulnerable to a 9.0 subduction zone earthquake.

Just for comparison’s sake, the earthquake in Japan registered 8.9 on the Richter scale.

The Militant is also full of crap when it refers to “zero” people dying as a result of radiation, especially given its claim to be speaking in the name of science. Cancer does not develop overnight. After you are exposed to radiation, it might take 10 to 15 years for cancer to develop. And, more importantly, cancer is the one disease that lends itself to clashing interpretations of causality based on one’s material interests. For example, it took decades for the tobacco industry to be reined in. Its “experts” were always able to make the specious case that one person who never smoked a cigarette in his or her life might get lung cancer, while a heavy smoker would not.

For example, my mother-in-law, who lives in Istanbul, had thyroid cancer. How can anyone establish whether this was related to Chernobyl, a town in the Ukraine that is located just across the Black Sea from Turkey?

Needless to say, fossil-based energy sources such as coal, oil, and gas have their own problems. This has led some progressives like George Monbiot to embrace nuclear power. My own take on this is that it is a fool’s errand for the left to take up the question of whether nuclear power or greenhouse gases are the “lesser evil” under capitalism. It is entirely possible that some mix of such forms of energy will be combined with solar or wind power under socialism and rendered less threatening with the absence of a profit motive. But in the meantime, it is incumbent upon us to build forms of resistance to the capitalist energy sectors whenever they threaten us in the here and now because of that very profit motive. For example, the resistance of the Japanese people to nuclear power is not only progressive; it might even lead to a departure from the political slumber that has existed there for decades.

In the United States, campaigns against coal company mountaintop removal and unsafe working conditions in the mines are exactly the sort of thing that revolutionaries should get involved with. With respect to natural gas, the fight against “fracking” and the Keystone XL Pipeline are crucial. Frankly, it does not matter whether natural gas is “better” than coal or nuclear power—as some environmentalists like the Sierra Club have argued (likely abetted by donations from the natural gas company owners). The whole point is to resist capitalist abuse, whichever sector of the energy industry has responsibility for. This is even true for the “green” wind-power industry that has been driving people crazy in various small towns around the country with their low-frequency hum and other health hazards.

Our goal is to fight for a society that is not organized around the profit motive. The bourgeoisie will always defend its assaults on our health and safety in the name of the extension of “industrialization” worldwide. But it has its apologists like Thomas Friedman to make its case and has no need for socialist volunteers to pitch in, even though it is doubtful that the wacky cult around Jack Barnes can ever be relied on with its steadily evaporating apparatus and influence.

March 24, 2012

4:44 Last Day on Earth; The Hunter

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 5:33 pm

While both of the films under review here are not without their flaws—to put it charitably—both share the same assets: the main character is played by Willem Dafoe, one of the most interesting film actors for the past thirty years, and the theme of extinction, one of the most relevant to the period we are living in, monopoly capital in its dotage.

Opening last night at the IFC Center in New York, Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth is a sort of poor man’s version of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. The apocalypse does not arrive in the form of colliding planets but an ozone layer so depleted that the earth will be burned to a crisp at the appointed hour: 4:44 am. Nearly all the action takes place in a Soho loft rather than the lavishly appointed mansion of von Trier’s vastly overrated work. Dafoe plays an actor named Cisco and Shanyn Leigh—Ferrara’s long-time companion–is his girl friend Skye, an artist who devotes herself in her final hours to working on a large, dark-hued canvas. When they are not talking to each other about doomsday, they are having sex. All in all, the impression is one of improvised dialog in the style of John Cassavetes.

Unlike von Trier, Ferrara is far more concerned about the state of the planet rather than the emotional state of his principal characters. As zero hour approaches, TV newsmen give updates on the firestorm that is about to devour the earth. Since Ferrara’s budget probably did not exceed what I make in a year as a programmer, there are no special effects such as the kind that attend Hollywood blockbusters in this vein like 2012 or Knowing. Indeed, the street scenes shot from the window of the loft depict a New York City not that much different from normal. Taxis ply the streets of Soho and pedestrians stroll by casually. There are gestures to the supposed calamity that ensues such as Cisco’s neighbor jumping to his death from an adjoining roof but that’s about it.

About the best thing you can say about the film is that it probably conveys a more realistic psychological portrait of how people much like us will behave in their final hours than in any kind of overwrought scenario involving grand gestures. Mostly Skye is content to do more or less the same thing he ordinarily does, like hanging out with some friends. In the most memorable scene in Ferrara’s film, Skye enters a neighborhood hangout through a window and joins his cronies in a final drink. Among them is Diana, played by Anita Pallenberg, Mick Jagger’s old girlfriend. There’s nothing like watching old Bohemians having fun, even if it is one minute to midnight.

Even at his less than best, Abel Ferrara is always a compelling figure whose works are very close in spirit and theme to very early Martin Scorsese. For example, Bad Lieutenant stars Scorsese regular Harvey Keitel as a cocaine-addicted cop with Catholic guilt hang-up’s. It is simply brilliant. Another Ferrara film worth seeing is The Addiction that IMDB describes: “A New York philosophy grad student turns into a vampire after getting bitten by one, and then tries to come to terms with her new lifestyle and frequent craving for human blood.” Who can ask for more?

Since Ferrara hardly seems like the kind of director who would be concerned about environmental issues such as the ozone layer, one might ask what motivated him to make such a film. In his own words as related in an interview with A.V. Club, Ferrara saw things not that differently than Frederick Engels: “More civilized places than this have ended up gone from the fucking world. Why should we not be one of them? As barbaric is we are, it’s a miracle we haven’t blown ourselves off the face of the earth so far.”

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries … Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

–Frederick Engels, The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man

Opening on April 6th in New York’s Sunshine Cinema and elsewhere (check here for details), The Hunter stars Dafoe as a professional hunter who has been hired to track down and kill a Tasmanian Tiger, a species that supposedly became extinct about a hundred years ago, on behalf of a shadowy multinational that wants to use a toxin in the animal’s flesh for military purposes.

While it shared the stripes of a tiger (and the body of a wolf), this animal had much more in common with the Tasmanian Devil, the creature that should be familiar to anybody old enough to enjoy the Warner Brothers cartoon character and that appears to be going the same route as the Tiger: extinction.

The publicity notes I got from the film led me to believe that it was concerned about environmental questions, not only species extinction but over the clash between logging and wildlife preservation. The Tasmanian Tiger that Dafoe tracks is in the middle of a forest that is being encroached upon by loggers who harass him, not knowing that he is as mercenary as them.

Indeed, the film is much more about hunting than Green issues. In the press notes, director Daniel Nettheim tells us:

One of the great revelations for me in the making of this film was the intricacy involved in the laying of traps and snares. There can be a great deal of artistry, and philosophy, involved in the act of hunting … Although the hunting sequences in the film may appear as cruel or brutal to some, hunting is one of the oldest pursuits known to mankind, and carries with it a long tradition of wisdom and skill.  I hope we have been able to capture some of its inherent beauty.

And producer Vincent Sheehan advises that the film was neutral on the logging question: “It is a sensitive issue but also such a significant part of the culture that you could not avoid it.  We didn’t want to sanitize the issue but our story doesn’t take sides.  The Loggers on site and at the pub were real, the protestors were too.”

So what is the film really about? It is not about the fate of wildlife, but about the existential dilemmas faced by the hunter, who is torn between his job and his belief that the Tasmanian Tiger should be preserved, as well as his self-imposed isolation as a kind of hit-man and the love offered him by the women and children whose home he is sharing in Tasmania on a temporary basis. The tale has more in common with Hemingway than Edward Abbey.

The Hunter is based on Australian Julia Leigh’s 1999 novel. A sympathetic academic article on the novel titled Australian Writing, Deep Ecology and Julia Leigh’s The Hunter describes it in terms familiar to anybody who has read the screeds on Spiked Online or any other libertarian outlet hostile to environmentalism:

The narrative has a number of features which are heretical to the orthodoxy of Australian environmental writing. Firstly, it repudiates the harmonious language of heritage in which the works of Nature and the works of Man should be protected and celebrated as part of the national estate.

No thanks—I’ll stick with Edward Abbey.

March 22, 2012

The New York Times’s neoliberal crap on Greece and Italy

Filed under: Greece,Japan,media — louisproyect @ 6:38 pm

Last Sunday I attended a workshop titled Understanding the Essential Economic Role of the N.Y. Times at the Left Forum that included Robert Chernomas and Ian Hudson, the co-authors of The Gatekeeper: 60 Years of Economics According to the New York Times, a chapter of which appears on New York Times Examiner: An antidote to the “paper of record”. Chris Spannos, who founded NY Times Examiner, was the third speaker. Chernomas’s talk consisted of a reading of the same chapter that includes this observation:

The ability of the media to shape stories and issues has long been recognized. The press became known as the Fourth Estate precisely to acknowledge that while the first three estates (nobility; clergy; and commoners, which in those days meant the middle class with property) had a formal voice in democracy, the press was the institution most able to advocate for and frame political issues. Over time, those discontented with what they saw to be the cozy role of the mainstream press in supporting the status quo coined the term the Fifth Estate to describe forms of media that challenged the powers that be. In this context we will demonstrate how the Times can be seen as the preeminent example of the Fourth Estate, using its prestige and formidable skills to advocate for the U.S. capitalist class as a whole by helping to frame political issues.

Almost as if on cue, the N.Y. Times offered up two articles on the following morning that confirmed its role in “using its prestige and formidable skills to advocate for the U.S. capitalist class as a whole by helping to frame political issues.”

On the front page, you could have read an article by Suzanne Daley that was titled A Tale of Greek Enterprise and Olive Oil, Smothered in Red Tape. Judging solely by the title, you can figure out that this is the expected neoliberal diatribe against regulation. Daley’s lead paragraphs:

It was about a year ago that Fotis I. Antonopoulos, a successful Web program designer here, decided he wanted to open an e-business selling olive products.

Luckily, he already had a day job.

It took him 10 months — crisscrossing the city to collect dozens of forms and stamps of approval, including proof that he was up to date on his pension contributions — before he could get started. But even that was not enough. In perhaps the strangest twist of all, his board members were required by the Health Department to submit lung X-rays — and stool samples — since this was a food company.

“I laugh about it now,” he said. “But it wouldn’t be so funny if I didn’t have a very good job with very good pay. It would have been an absolute nightmare.”

With Greece’s economy entering its fourth year of recession, its entrepreneurs are eager to reverse a frightening tide. Last year, at least 68,000 small and medium-size businesses closed in Greece; nearly 135,000 jobs associated with them vanished. Predictions for 2012 are also bleak.

But despite the government’s repeated promises to improve things, the climate for doing business here remains abysmal. In a recent report titled “Greece 10 Years Ahead,” McKinsey & Company described Greece’s economy as “chronically suffering from unfavorable conditions for business.” Start-ups faced immense amounts of red tape, complex administrative and tax systems and procedural disincentives, it said.

Even if it occurred to Daley that small and medium businesses were closing because unemployed workers lacked the money to buy their products, her editors would have surely deleted any reference to that in her article. My guess, however, is that she believes her own bullshit.

Filing numerous reports from Greece since the financial roof caved in, Daley finds fault with just about everybody and everything except private property and the profit drive. On October 10, 2010, the problem once again was red tape:

Antonios Avgerinos, 59, a retired army pharmacist, always wanted his own pharmacy here. And why not? Greek law ensures that pharmacists get a 35 percent profit on all drugs sold, even over-the-counter medications.

But Greek law also limits just about everything else about pharmacies. They must be at least 820 feet apart and have a likely market of no fewer than 1,500 residents. To break into the business, an aspiring pharmacist generally has to buy a license from a retiring one. That often costs upward of $400,000.

”It is an absurd system,” Mr. Avgerinos said recently. ”But it has been that way my whole life.”

Maybe not for much longer.

As the government of Prime Minster George Papandreou struggles to get the nation’s financial house in order — reducing the size of its bloated civil service, chasing after tax evaders and overhauling its pension system — it has also begun to tackle a much less talked about problem: the cozy system of ”closed professions” that has existed here for decades, costing the economy billions of dollars a year.

In reality the Greek economy has cratered not because of such regulations but because the Greek bourgeoisie and its friends at Goldman-Sachs decided to keep the interest rate of Greek bonds artificially high as Mark Weisbrot points out:

In fact, this whole crisis and recession could have been prevented very easily if the European authorities had simply intervened to maintain low interest rates on the Greek debt a year and a half ago. It is possible that some restructuring might still have been necessary, but the cost would still have been very small relative to the available resources of the European authorities. Because they refused to do this, and instead shrank the Greek economy, increased its debt burden, and allowed its borrowing costs to skyrocket – the crisis spread to the weaker countries of the eurozone, including Italy.

Speaking of Italy, the very same day that Daley’s article appeared you could have read another pile of crap blaming the labor unions on Italy’s woes. In an article titled Stuck in Recession, Italy Takes on Labor Laws That Divide the Generations, Rachel Donadio uses the same exact kinds of generation gap arguments that Peter Peterson has been making for decades, focusing mostly on Social Security. Peterson, who is the obvious inspiration for Obama’s entitlement “reform” task force, makes scapegoats of the elderly (my peeps). If only they would be less piggish, the young will prosper—just as Donadio argues:

Assunta Linza, a bright-eyed 33-year-old with a college degree in psychology, has been unemployed since June, after losing a temporary job as a call-center operator. Her father, who is 60 and has a fifth-grade education, took early retirement with full benefits at age 42 from a job as a workman at the Italian state railway company.

“Everyone said that kids should study to get ahead, but I graduated with highest honors, and the only thing my degree is good for is to hang on the wall,” Ms. Linza said dryly.

The Linza family is emblematic of a yawning generational divide that experts say is crippling the Italian labor market. While older workers came of age with guaranteed jobs and ironclad contracts granting generous pensions and full benefits, younger Italians — the best-educated in the country’s history — are now paying the price. They are lucky to find temporary work, which offers few benefits or stability.

It is precisely that two-tier labor market that Prime Minister Mario Monti is proposing to correct with changes to Italian law that are the subject of intense, politically delicate negotiations. The government is proposing measures to make it easier for companies to hire and fire, and to create shorter-term contracts with greater pension and unemployment benefits, a middle ground in a divided market.

As I continued digging into Rachel Donadio’s track record, I discovered another N.Y. Times article along these lines that I posted on June 23, 2011. Apparently she has also been proffering advice to the Greek bourgeoisie just as her colleague does. In forwarding the article, I made the Peter Peterson connection:

(The NY Times is shameless. They cite an expert in this article from the Peterson Institute for International Economics about the need for drastic cuts in Greece. So which Peterson do you think this institute is named after? You guessed it. Peter G. Peterson.)

NY Times June 22, 2011

Some Greeks Fear Government Is Selling Nation


ATHENS — They are the crown jewels of Greece’s socialist state, and they are now likely to go to the highest bidder: the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki; prime Mediterranean real estate; the national lottery; Greek Telecom; the postal bank and the national railway system.

And then comes the mandated deeper round of austerity measures, which will slash the wages of police officers, firefighters and other state workers who are protesting in Athens, and raise the taxes of citizens already inflamed by a recession-plagued economy and soaring joblessness.

Some independent economists accept that Greece has no choice but to try a fresh round of cuts. Edwin M. Truman of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington said Greece had to go through more pain because it had run a budget deficit even before making payments on its debt, meaning it needed loans to pay off its loans.

Only after Greece reorganizes its budget, tax collection and labor market and is running a surplus — not including interest payments on the debt — can economists begin to calculate how much in debt payments Greece is actually able to afford, and then figure out how big a debt restructuring it needs.

“As long as they’re running a primary deficit, they need to keep tightening the belt,” Mr. Truman said. “Rescheduling now doesn’t relieve Greece of the burden of fixing the economy to create a surplus.”

One of the main points made in The Gatekeeper: 60 Years of Economics According to the New York Times is the Grey Lady is forced to play both sides of the fence, appearing liberal and conservative at the same time:

This book will argue that the usual liberal-conservative dichotomy that has been used as the previous spectrum of media bias, while accurate, overlooks a more profound bias. Casting the debate in such a narrow fashion is, in fact, very misleading because the liberal/conservative or Democrat/Republican spectrum is remarkably limited. An economic debate that limits itself to options pursued by these two camps would be similarly limited. It is also misleading because it omits the real bias of the Times, which is that it supports the long-term interests of U.S. business involving both liberal and conservative policies.

So this boils down to writing fairly accurate articles about European suffering while at the same time cheering on the economic policies that are fueling that suffering. In order to maintain some kind of credibility, the paper has to assign reporters to cover financial collapse and the culpability of the powerful men and women responsible. That is why Goldman-Sachs director Greg Smith published his open letter of resignation on the N.Y. Times op-ed rather than the N.Y. Post.

The underlying cause of economic suffering will go unreported, however. You will find book after book reviewed in the Sunday edition that go into the most minute details about subprime mortgages, but nothing that deals with the declining rate of profit or any other structural defect—the kind of study that is published by Verso or Monthly Review. In fact a search of Lexis-Nexis turned up not a single book from these august publishers being reviewed  in the N.Y. Times.

That is what I would call a conspiracy of silence.

March 21, 2012

The Island President

Filed under: Film,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

My first inkling that there was something a bit “off” about The Island President, a documentary opening at the Film Forum in NYC on March 28, was when the opening credits revealed that the Ford Foundation was a co-producer. Since the film is a profile of recently deposed Maldives Islands president Mohamed Nasheed’s efforts to reverse the global warming that is threatening to turn his country into a new Atlantis, I had to wonder how such mainstream backing would influence the film’s editorial content.

The Island President is directed by Jon Shenk, who is best known for Lost Boys of the Sudan, a film that deals with the problems two Sudanese youth have adjusting to American life. This is a deeply moving film that thankfully eschews Nicholas Kristof moralizing about Sudan’s civil wars despite the fact that they were fleeing Janjaweed violence.

After seeing some of the obvious mainstream environmentalist bias of The Island President, I did a bit more investigation of Shenk’s previous work and was disconcerted but not that surprised to learn that he co-directed Democracy Afghan Style, a documentary shot in 2003-2004that features Larry Sampler, described on Shenk’s website as “a logistical expert whose military precision is balanced by a hard-won understanding of how things can go wrong in the field.” In fact Sampler is a long-time USAID functionary, part of the killing machine that has made life miserable for the average Afghan.

Notwithstanding all these warning signs, The Island President is a stunning look at what amounts to the canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change. If there is a rise of three feet in sea level, the Maldives will be completely inundated. You can imagine the impact of a tsunami there, as the one that occurred in 2004. But even more threatening would be a “normal” rise in sea level that would have little impact on, for example, most cities in the imperialist North. But not every city would be immune, as President Nasheed pointed out when he arrived in New York for a speech to the United Nations. The island of Manhattan is at about the same sea level as his nation’s capital. Just this week the N.Y. Times reported about the danger that New York and other coastal cities faced:

About 3.7 million Americans live within a few feet of high tide and risk being hit by more frequent coastal flooding in coming decades because of the sea level rise caused by global warming, according to new research.

If the pace of the rise accelerates as much as expected, researchers found, coastal flooding at levels that were once exceedingly rare could become an every-few-years occurrence by the middle of this century.

By far the most vulnerable state is Florida, the new analysis found, with roughly half of the nation’s at-risk population living near the coast on the porous, low-lying limestone shelf that constitutes much of that state. But Louisiana, California, New York and New Jersey are also particularly vulnerable, researchers found, and virtually the entire American coastline is at some degree of risk.

“Sea level rise is like an invisible tsunami, building force while we do almost nothing,” said Benjamin H. Strauss, an author, with other scientists, of two new papers outlining the research. “We have a closing window of time to prevent the worst by preparing for higher seas.”

Mohamed Nasheed was Maldive’s Nelson Mandela, leading a 20 year pro-democracy movement against the brutal kleptocracy run by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. After suffering torture and repeated imprisonments with long periods of solitary confinement, he was elected president in 2008.

Of all the urgent tasks a reform administration was facing, catastrophic flooding was at the top of the list. In a cabinet meeting, he told his appointees that the world had to understand that Maldives was like Vietnam. Global warming was like communism. Unless it was stopped in the Maldives, dominoes would fall everywhere else—a remark that evoked embarrassed laughter from a top official who apparently had a better sense of recent history than the President. When Nasheed drew the same analogy in a speech to the United Nations, one could hardly escape the feeling that his worldview was far too much in line with Cold War mythologies, a weakness that would inevitably shape his approach to Climate Change.

This was confirmed by the role he played at the Copenhagen Conference that amounted to taking sides against India and China for selfishly putting their own development needs above those of the planet. While India and China’s rulers have as about as much regard for sustainable development as do the imperialist powers, they rightfully make the point that their nations are not nearly as responsible for greenhouse gases as the U.S. and other advanced countries. In an article titled Rich Countries Sabotaging Climate Talks that appeared in the October 5, 2009 Guardian, John Vidal observed:

The G77 plus China group is incensed that rich countries appear to be seeking to establish a new agreement that would force developing countries to cut emissions, but allow rich countries to do little.

In the talks, the US has said it wants a new approach which would move away from a legally binding world agreement to one where individual countries pledged cuts in their national emissions without binding timetables and targets. It is a change from the top down approach of Kyoto, in which total emissions targets are determined by the science, to one in which individual countries pledge their own emissions cuts.

This is seen as undermining the Kyoto framework, which took many years to build, and has until now been the foundation for committing all countries to cut their emissions. The US team in Bangkok declined to respond to today’s criticism.

Developed countries have so far refused to show their hand on what their emission cuts should be. The UN’s Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that to keep below a 2C rise in temperatures they need to cut their emissions by 25-40% by 2020, compared with 1990 levels. But developing countries are calling for an aggregate cut of at least 40%.

But with fewer than 10 days of formal negotiations left before the Copenhagen talks begin, poor countries are complaining that they are being expected to cut emissions but the US and others are being allowed to get away with minimal cuts.

The film is more urgent than ever in light of the coup that removed Mohamed Nasheed from office on February 7th this year. Although he was replaced by his vice president Mohammed Waheed Hassan, there are suspicions that the military was acting at the behest of the former dictator. Reporting in the N.Y. Times and Washington Post have been singularly useless at pinpointing the exact causes.

In one of the more spurious takes on the coup, the Wall Street Journal blamed Islamists:

This paradise for wealthy tourists has shown a very different face in recent days, where hard-line Islam is an increasing part of the political scene and played a role in overthrowing the democratically elected government.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s ouster of President Mohamed Nasheed, his political adversaries fomented opposition among conservative Muslims by claiming Mr. Nasheed’s government was trying to undermine their faith.

A group of Islamist organizations organized a rally in December in Male, the capital, which was attended by thousands of people protesting against Mr. Nasheed for failing to defend Quranic law and calling for a ban on spas and liquor parlors catering to foreign tourists.

On Friday, after prayers at Male’s central mosque—a donation from Brunei—Ahmed Yusry, an eloquent 22-year-old with a bushy beard who works on a tourist boat, said he had attended the December rally because of fears Mr. Nasheed was pushing a Western secular agenda.

“We are a 100% Muslim county. We should go with all the rules of Islam,” he said.

Although the Wall Street Journal had a reputation for maintaining a firewall between its lunatic-right editorial pages and its impeccable reporting, one cannot help but feel that Murdoch’s ownership of the paper is eroding that firewall based on this unlikely scenario.

Haruge.com, a Maldives-based website committed to democracy and human rights, makes the case that the coup was orchestrated by some of the nation’s superrich hotel owners:

In the series of events that led to the 7 February 2012 coup in the Maldives that ousted the first democratically elected President of the country Mohamed Nasheed, several Maldivian businessmen joined the 200 or so protestors who gathered on the Republican Square, adjacent to Police and Defense Headquarters in Male for close to three weeks. The protest, and the ensuing coup, is believed to be funded by key businessmen in the Maldivian tourism industry as well as by a half brother of former president Gayoom, MP Abdulla Yameen. Both Gasim and Yameen were seen addressing the protesters as well as the Police and Defence officers attending them, offering them to ‘join with us in return for taking care of them’.

Meeting with the press yesterday, ousted President Nasheed said “at least four resort owners are heavily involved in this” but he mentioned only Mr Gasim Ibrahim, owner of the Villa Group, “only because he was seen in the protests and has been openly vocal about his support to topple the government”, and refused to comment further until an investigation was carried out. Mr. Gasim Ibrahim has been running a hate campaign on Villa TV, a local channel he owns along with several five star hotels in the Maldives, an airline, airport, as well as several other businesses. He fell out with President Nasheed soon after he lost the 2008 Presidential Elections to Nasheed. Although he was an initial coalition partner in the Nasheed Administration, he resigned within weeks into the new government citing dissatisfaction with President Nasheed. Both MPs Gasim and Yameen were also arrested in 2009 for allegedly attempting to ‘bribe’ Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) parliamentarians.

Not surprisingly, the United States was eager to embrace the undemocratic regime that ousted a popularly elected and widely supported reformer, as Agent Press Francais reported:

The United States on Thursday recognized the new government of Maldives President Mohamed Waheed as legitimate and urged him to fulfill a pledge to form a national unity government.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland also said Robert Blake, the top US diplomat for south Asia, telephoned former president Mohamed Nasheed to tell him Washington backed a “peaceful resolution” of the crisis on the archipelago.

“We do,” Nuland told reporters when asked if Washington recognizes the new government as the legitimate government of the Maldives. She called Waheed the president and Nasheed the former president.

Blake, the assistant secretary of state for south Asian affairs, will travel Saturday to the Maldives to meet with both Waheed and Nasheed, who charges he was ousted in a coup, as well as civil society.

“He will be encouraging this national unity conversation,” she added.

In other words, another Honduras.

March 19, 2012

Left Forum 2012

Filed under: Left Forum — louisproyect @ 6:59 pm

The Left Forum is always a mixed bag but even if some panel discussions turn out to be duds, there is always enough there to warrant the time and money spent. Apparently about 4000 other lefties agree with me, at least based on Stanley Aronowitz’s announcement of registration figures at Friday night’s plenary. What follows are my impressions of various workshops I attended with no pretense of objectivity. In fact they will be highly opinionated so please be forewarned.

After the Crisis, is a New New Deal Possible? Do We Want One?

To start with the best, After the Crisis, is a New New Deal Possible? Do We Want One? was just what I hoped it would be: a debunking of the FDR presidency in the spirit of chapter 13 of Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States”. Ironically, the participants were all from the economics department of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a city college nominally geared to training cops. I am not sure how this came about, but the school apparently has a fair share of leftists. Michael Meerpol, who recently retired from the economics department, had been the chair of a lecture series on social justice with my good friend Paul Buhle a recent guest. Perhaps there’s a certain cachet in having socialists on a faculty of a school with an ostensible reputation for being politically backward. The Mormon-oriented University of Utah also has an economics department with a bunch of Marxists, including the good Hans Ehrbar who hosts the Marxism list.

The first speaker was Ian Seda-Irizarry, a graduate of the U. of Massachusetts, another haven for left scholarship. Ian is a Marxmail subscriber whose dissertation on the Latin music industry in New York sounds like just the thing that can be turned into a good book, unlike the usual sterile credentials-earning exercise.

The talks, delivered from notes, were a model of concision and clarity, qualities missing from many others I heard over the weekend. My suggestion to any of my readers who plan to be a featured speaker at future Left Forums is to not read papers and if you do so, please try to make eye contact with your audience and to pause between sentences occasionally as if you were speaking one-on-one otherwise you will put people to sleep.

The last speaker, who is in the audience, was Josh Mason, an URPE member who teaches at William Patterson University and who speaks in favor of a new New Deal. Again, that’s another good idea. When you stack a panel with speakers who agree with each other, it is counterproductive. Marxism is based to a large extent on dialectics, a Greek word for dialog involving opposing different viewpoints.

One of the points that had the biggest impact on me during the workshop was made by Eric Pineault, the chairperson who teaches sociology in Montreal. In drawing a contrast between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of today, Pineault referred to the different forms that the attack on the working class took. In the 1930s, the problem was obviously massive unemployment but today working people are being crushed by debt much more than by joblessness. He used the term debt peonage to describe the problems faced by millions as they confront home foreclosure and collection agencies trying to get a worker to pay for a huge Visa or Mastercard bill.

In the 1930s, layoffs in a place like Detroit or Chicago would affect workers as a social layer. Since this was at a time when workers tended to live near the factory and even walk to work in many instances and when they hung out at the same saloons or parks, they tended to think in terms of joint action.

But today someone in debt will tend to see themselves as an individual whose adversary is another individual at a bank or a collection agency. Since going into debt often strikes people as a personal failing, they will also tend to blame themselves rather than larger social and economic forces. I was reminded of this the other day when I was speaking to a very old friend about my age who hasn’t worked in a couple of years. Not only is the job market poor, he has developed Parkinson’s, an ailment that will make getting hired as a salesman even harder. It doesn’t matter how good a salesman you are (and my friend was great at this) if your hands are trembling. That is the reality of a fucked-up system that places so much emphasis on appearances.

To keep a roof over his head and to pay for other basics, he has gone into debt—owing over $40,000 on various credit cards. He now pays $300 per month, the minimum required. At this rate he will be paying until he dies and have not made a sizable dent into a debt that mounts steadily as he continues to dip into Visa or Mastercard to pay for food or other necessities. This is the same treadmill that millions of other Americans are on, with no end in sight. We might be living under advanced capitalism, but the social relationship is not that different than the one described in B. Traven’s novels. Fortunately, there are no debtors’ prisons today—at least for the time being.

I was reminded of this at a panel discussion on Capitalism in India: Glitter, Commodities, and Blood presented by Sanhati, a network of academics and activists committed to social justice in India, and chaired by my friend and fellow Marxmailer Taki Manolakos.

Deepankar Basu, another good Marxist economist ensconced at U. of Mass., spoke on peasant suicides, a problem that Sanhati has devoted much attention to.  During the discussion period, with Eric Pineault’s comments on debt peonage fresh in my mind, I asked Deepankar if the epidemic of suicides might be related to the phenomenon noted earlier in the day. Was debt peonage in India leading to mass suicide rather than mass struggle for the same reason that debt-burdened workers in the USA were tending to seek individual solutions?

A bit of research this morning turns up some evidence that connects the two societies. From a blog post by Barbara Ehrenreich on July 28, 2008:

Suicide is becoming an increasingly popular response to debt. James Scurlock’s brilliant documentary, Maxed Out, features the families of two college students who killed themselves after being overwhelmed by credit card debt. “All the people we talked to had considered suicide at least once,” Scurlock told a gathering of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys in 2007. According to the Los Angeles Times, lawyers in the audience backed him up, “describing clients who showed up at their offices with cyanide, or threatened, ‘If you don’t help me, I’ve got a gun in my car.’”

India may be the trend-setter here, with an estimated 150,000 debt-ridden farmers succumbing to suicide since 1997. With guns in short supply in rural India, the desperate farmers have taken to drinking the pesticides meant for their crops.

Dry your eyes, already: Death is an effective remedy for debt, along with anything else that may be bothering you too. And try to think of it too from a lofty, corner-office, perspective: If you can’t pay your debts or afford to play your role as a consumer, and if, in addition – like an ever-rising number of Americans – you’re no longer needed at the workplace, then there’s no further point to your existence. I’m not saying that the creditors, the bankers and the mortgage companies actually want you dead, but in a culture where one’s credit rating is routinely held up as a three-digit measure of personal self-worth, the correct response to insoluble debt is in fact, “Just shoot me!”

For reasons I can’t quite fathom—maybe it is just psychological—I decided to check out a couple of workshops run by the ISO. Unlike the New Deal discussion described above, the comrades felt no need to include a point of view opposed to their own. Despite everything that Paul Le Blanc has written, I strongly doubt that they are open to the idea of a multi-tendency left organization since their actions suggest a preference for something far more homogenous if not quite so stifling as the American SWP of yore. The SWP of my youth would have been as open to the idea of publishing an article in the Militant that went against the party line as they would be to running ads for tobacco (even though Iskra did in Lenin’s day.)

Their workshop on Evo Morales was chaired by Jefferey Webber, the author of a book titled From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia that the ISO speakers agreed with, but in terms probably more extreme than anything Webber has ever written. One of them, a young man named Jason Farbman who compared Morales to the former dictator Hugo Banzer, felt compelled to repeat a Facebook comment on a confrontation between the Bolivian police and a protest of the disabled:

The handicapped BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF THE COPS. The cops only covered themselves with their shields. They didn’t do shit. The handicapped went loco, BUT REALLY LOCO. Hardcore, they were blowing up firecrackers in [the cops’] faces and [the cops’] helmets barely protected them. They threw real rocks at them…

I should add that after I forwarded a London Review blog post about this incident to Marxmail, Richard Fidler, a long-time subscriber, offered this comment:

“Cambio dwelled on the injuries sustained by the police and blamed the violence on a group of infiltrados posing as disabled people….

“As evidence of the violent infiltration, Cambio unveiled a photograph of a man in a striped sweater standing in front of a policeman in riot gear, accompanied by the caption ‘Activist beats up policemen at disabled protest’. Below that were two more photographs, purportedly of the same man protesting against the TIPNIS road.”

The story says nothing about Cambio alleging the disabled themselves attacked the police — which would be pretty incredible to begin with.

It would have been nice if the ISO had invited someone with a different perspective, one like Frederico Fuentes whose critique of Jefferey Webber the ISO was nice enough to print in their magazine. (My guess is that Fuentes’s membership in the Socialist Alliance in Australia gave him the clout necessary to get a hearing.)

As I pointed out in the discussion period, there has been an ongoing debate about these questions and recommended that people check out Fuentes’s and Roger Annis’s responses to Webber (I mistakenly referred to Annis when I meant John Riddell, who works closely with Annis–and Richard Fidler as well.)

Despite my recommendation to the audience that they check out what Fuentes et al had to say, my own view was different from both the ISO and the other side in the debate. I never thought that Morales was going to make a socialist revolution in Bolivia but welcomed the kind of changes that he was likely to foster. Perhaps they do not measure up to the ISO’s yardstick but nothing ever would, when you stop and think about it.

The competition, as I pointed out in my comments, is between a living social reality with all its contradictions and the ideas in the cranium of Ahmed Shawki, Tom Lewis and all the other people who write for the ISO press about how socialism should work. Living reality obviously can never compete with someone’s ideals. I had an uncle like that in Kansas City. No matter how many women my mom introduced him to, they could not match his ideal which was a combination of Betty Grable’s looks and Katherine Hepburn’s wit. He died a bachelor.

There was more of the same the next day at a workshop titled State and Revolution in the 21st Century: Is Lenin Still Relevant? that included Todd Chretien, one of my favorite ISO’ers who was fairly close to Peter Camejo. Another speaker was Sam Farber, who the ISO’ers dote on for some unfathomable reason. Farber has written loads of bullshit about Cuba in the ISO press that I have tried to clean up over the years, like the guy with a dustpan following the elephants in a circus parade. This is the same Sam Farber whose new book on Cuba Jefferey Webber blurbed as follows: “Samuel Farber’s work on Cuba has long championed revolutionary democratic socialism from below.” I can only wonder if Webber has ever read Farber since the Cuban-American professor emeritus much preferred the Stalinist party in Cuba to the July 26th Movement:

Last but not least, the PSP [Popular Socialist Party, the pro-Kremlin official party] was the only significant political force in Cuba that claimed to be socialist or Marxist and therefore stressed the importance of a systematic ideology and program for the development of strategy and tactics. Its ideology and program were tools used to win ideological support from radicalized Cubans seeking a systematic explanation of the country’s situation. This aspect of the PSP is even more noticeable when contrasted to the antitheoretical and antiprogrammatic stance of the Twenty-sixth-of-July movement.

Yeah, we know how important it is to claim that you are “socialist” or “Marxist” to stay friends with the ISO, a group for whom ideals loom so large. Who cares if the PSP’s socialism was compatible with support for Batista? That’s not half as bad as being “antitheoretical”, I suppose.

Farber’s talk took the form of a lecture to the Occupy movement over its refusal to formulate demands on the state. He invoked the history of the civil rights movement to instruct the anarchists, who would not be found dead in a workshop like this, that in order to achieve genuine reforms you have to put demands on the state. He was generous to a fault to the young people who risked police attack and other hardships to occupy Zuccotti Park but felt that for the need for their full development as revolutionaries they had had to take a different path.

Radhika Desai, a political science professor at the U. of Manitoba, was far more polemical than Farber, lacing her talk with references to neo-Proudhonism and anarchism that were practically spitted out. We learned from her that there were petty-bourgeois tendencies in the Occupy movement that had to be combated. She recommended that the young people who were getting their heads busted at Zuccotti Park find the time to read Lenin’s State and Revolution, a work that was recommended in the same spirit that a navy doctor used to recommend prophylactics to sailors on shore leave.

While the ISO is not nearly as batty on these questions as the American SWP (nobody could be), you can’t escape the feeling that they approach it in the same spirit that they approach Evo Morales’s Bolivia. Somehow the articles in their magazine that defend classical Marxism against reformism or anarchism are meant to change people’s behavior.

In reality groups or individuals only modify their actions when a positive example becomes prominent and accepted by the great majority of the left. That is why Lenin’s party became the party of the Russian working class, not because its words were so convincing but because they led by example.

Unfortunately for the ISO, this new movement has emerged with zero input from them or any other “classical Marxist” groups. It has all the problems you might expect to see in such a movement, including bouts of adventurism as displayed by the black bloc or fetishism over consensus, horizontalism and all the other pet schemas of the anarchist or autonomist movements. But whatever the problems of the new movement, it has reached ordinary working people in a way that no Marxist movement has done since the 1930s. For that they deserve our respect and our collaboration, not patronizing lectures from above.

March 18, 2012

Lenni Brenner interview

Filed under: zionism — louisproyect @ 9:38 pm

March 17, 2012

Kony 2012 director flips out

Filed under: comedy — louisproyect @ 12:08 pm



March 16, 2012

Two important books on last year’s struggle in Wisconsin

Filed under: Wisconsin,workers — louisproyect @ 7:38 pm


At first blush the collections edited by Paul and Mari Jo Buhle for Verso Press and by Michael Yates for Monthly Review appear to cover the same territory. Now having read both books over the past month or so, I can report that the two have different emphases and should not be seen as competing with each other. Moreover, I strongly recommend that anybody trying to figure out where the class struggle is going in the U.S. pick up both and read them the first chance you get. They are essential guides to understanding a reality that has not been seen since the 1930s: a confrontation between the two major classes of American society whose outcome all of humanity has a stake in.

Titled It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest, the Buhles’ book is very much a participants’ account, often having the qualities of oral history—a genre that Paul Buhle has been identified with for decades. Considering the very long association that the state of Wisconsin has with progressive causes going back to the days of Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, it was a rich vein to be mined for such a collection. The book is also graced by some comic book material (a term that Paul Buhle’s former writing partner—the late and sorely missed Harvey Pekar—preferred to graphic novels, etc.), a medium that Paul Buhle has focused on for the better part of a decade now.

As a long-time labor educator and commentator on the trade union movement, Michael Yates sought to bring together a group of activists and writers who share his own concerns. For the contributors to Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back, the events in Wisconsin are of crucial importance in understanding where the labor movement has to go next. Considering the fact that attacks on labor are taking place in states with Democratic governors, the main lesson that the contributors tend to draw is that working people have to rely on their own strength and not favors from liberal politicians.

For those familiar with the American academy, it probably comes as no surprise that many of the shock troops of the Wisconsin struggle came out of the University of Wisconsin. Paul and Mari Jo Buhle got doctorates there in the mid-70s when the faculty was graced by such luminaries as William Appleman Williams.

As the most recent expression of these traditions, there is an article in the Buhle volume by the delightfully named Charity A. Schmidt titled Eyewitness: “Spread the Love, Stop the Hate: Don’t let Walker legislate”. Schmidt is a PhD student in sociology and an active member of the Teaching Assistants’ Association. When word got out to Schmidt and her teaching assistant colleagues that Governor Scott Walker’s “budget repair bill” would include massive cuts to higher education, they organized a sit-in at the capitol building in Madison, the same city that their university is located in.

By Tuesday morning word had spread widely among graduate and undergraduate students: plan to bring pillows, sleeping bags, and toothbrushes to the capitol, and prepare for the night shift. The goal was to keep the hearings alive in order to prevent the bill from going to a vote. Thus we needed a continuous stream of testifiers. If students and the Madison community could keep it going all night, reinforcements (buses of union members) would arrive in the morning and keep it going all the next day. So we showed up—in droves.

Another eyewitness contributor has an equally delightful name. David Poklinkowski, a member of the Executive Board of the South Central Federation of Labor and President of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, has an article titled Eyewitness: “This is what Democracy Looks Like”. Poklinkowski is a utility worker by trade, among whom you can find the sort of people who climb up electrical poles to work on transformers–like the character Richard Dreyfuss played in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You can’t really get much more mid-America than that.

Instead of pursuing flying saucers, Poklinkowski is out there looking for social justice. While utility workers were not quite as antagonistic to peace activists in the 1960s as construction workers, it would have been difficult to imagine a utility company worker in a hard hat being a natural ally. Now that the attack on labor is taking on the dimension of a war, those old divisions are breaking down, so much so that you can find cultural affinities between youthful rebels and an ostensibly Joe Sixpack figure like Poklinkowski as this passage from his article would indicate:

But if you want to know my very best day, it would have been one of the bitter cold ones, the kind you really had to bundle up for. I had learned from experience, so I had on thick wool socks inside my Sorel boots—for rallies on days like these, you had to dress like you were going to a Packers game in January. In these first few weeks of the struggle, it was the afternoon rally where the featured guest to be thanked was Tom Morello (aka The Nightwatchman from Rage Against the Machine). My favorite band would have to be The Clash, so Tom’s arrival was a very good thing for this struggle.

When a utility worker’s favorite band is The Clash, you know that the revolution cannot be that far off.

Turning to the Monthly Review collection, you will see some familiar names on the American left from Dan La Botz, the author of Rank and File Rebellion: Teamsters for a Democratic Union, to Dave Zirin, the radical sports journalist whose piece on the Green Bay Packers alone is worth the price of the book.

With all proportions guarded, the struggle in Wisconsin for this book amounts to a kind of dress rehearsal for future struggles—our version of Czarist Russia 1905, so to speak. And just as the lessons of 1905 were crucial for 1917, so will the events that took place in Wisconsin give us some clues as to how to move the struggle forward when future attacks on labor lead to new explosions. Given the prospects of an ongoing economic crisis, these confrontations seem inevitable.

One of the finest pieces in Michael Yates’s collection is the editor’s introduction, titled Something is in the Air. Drawing upon his family’s own blue-collar experience, he describes his hometown Ford City, Pennsylvania in terms similar to Michael Moore’s Flint, Michigan before it became part of the rust belt: “It was a hopeful and prosperous period for the white working class, and I couldn’t imagine anything but good times ahead. I never thought, much less worried, about the future.”

But “today the good times are all gone.” He adds, “Every day, the local paper lists a slew of arrests, jail admissions, and fines levied. The sad effect of the shoppers at Wal-Mart and the crowds in the store at midday—retirees and younger men and women who in a more prosperous time would be at work—are symptomatic of what has been happening.”

I can’t help feeling the same way when I check my local paper from upstate New York, the Middletown Times-Herald. In the early 1960s, when my family began subscribing, it was Norman Rockwell territory: ample and profitable harvests for the local farms, well-paying jobs with the county or the IBM plant in Kingston, and a general feeling of security that was reflected most of all by the tendency of families to leave their car doors and front doors unlocked.

Nowadays when I check the paper, this is the typical story:

KINGSTON — A longtime backer of nursing home privatization was selected Friday as the final member of the group to sell the Golden Hill infirmary.

Dare Thompson, League of Women Voters president for the mid-Hudson, was approved 4-0 as the final local development corporation member.

The league came out for privatizing in October 2010 – a full year before Ulster Executive Mike Hein took a position – and Thompson frequently backed the sale during public comment sessions.

Legislator Jeanette Provenzano – a vociferous critic of both privatization and the league’s advocacy – nominated Thompson. Former deputy executive Marshall Beckman, budget director J.J. Hanson, and deputy executive Bob Sudlow voted for the appointment.

Dr. Michele Iannuzzi abstained since she wished to interview the six candidates.

“I can’t fathom, with the importance of this decision, that it would be decided with a single sheet (resume),” she said.

The primary importance of Wisconsin was the peoples’ willingness to stand up to the one-percent’s austerity drive. For the first time, ordinary working people decided to use the same kinds of militant tactics once associated with the students’, women’s and Black/Latino movements, and even more importantly those that were shaking up the Arab world. Greetings were sent back and forth from Madison, Wisconsin to Tahrir Square.

Among all the fine articles in this book, I would single out Dan La Botz’s A New American Workers’ Movement Has Begun. It is notable most of all by its departure from the kind of routinist journalism about the trade union movement that is based on the premise that the struggles of today will be a repeat of the 1930s. La Botz writes:

The new movement that is arising does not focus on the usual issues of collective bargaining — working conditions, wages, and benefits — but focuses rather on the political and programmatic issues usually taken up by political parties: the very right of workers to collective bargaining, the state budget priorities, and the tax system which funds the budget. The new labor movement, because it has begun in the public sector, will not be so much about the process of class struggle as it will be about how class struggle finds a voice through political program. This will have tremendous implications for the traditional relations between the organized labor movement and the Democratic Party, especially since the Democrats, from Barack Obama to state governors like Cuomo, are also demanding that public employees give up wages, benefits, conditions, and rights.

Both books devote an ample amount of space to the problem of how to relate to the Democratic Party, complicated in the case of Wisconsin by the trade union leadership’s tie to the party as well as the willingness of Democratic legislators to defy the governor by going into hiding outside of Wisconsin in order to thwart his draconian legislation.

Ultimately the failure of a militant, nationwide working-class movement to take shape and reach critical mass makes this setback almost inevitable. As was the case with 1905, there is no reason to despair. The struggles taking place around the Occupy movement are in many ways a continuation of the Wisconsin struggle and a harbinger of continued worker-student solidarity.

As was the case in the 1930s, we are facing deepening class polarization that will make future Wisconsins and future Oaklands inevitable. Our responsibility is to understand the tasks before us and prepare for momentous battles ahead. These two fine books from Verso and Monthly Review will help arm us for that showdown between humanity and the reactionary forces that threaten it.

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