Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 19, 2012

Socialists of America, Unite!

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 2:41 pm

Socialists of America, Unite! on May 1, 2012

Occupy spread like wildfire, setting America ablaze. From large cities like New York City and Los Angeles to small towns like Martinsburg, Virginia and Mobile, Alabama, occupiers are consistently organizing, planning, discussing, and taking direct action for the 99%.

Not since the 1960s and 1930s have so many people taken militant action against the state and capital.

No matter what we think of Occupy’s calls for a general strike on May 1, the important thing is that those calls are resonating on a scale not seen since the days of the free speech fights and the call for “One Big Union” by the Industrial Workers of the World.

It is with this in mind that we, the undersigned, call on all socialists, regardless of organizational affiliation or lack thereof, to unite in joint action on May 1, 2012.

In places where there will be large permitted May Day marches like New York City, there will be a multi-tendency contingent with socialists from a variety of organizations and independent socialists as well. In places without May 1 marches, mass meetings or socials to celebrate May Day might be more appropriate.

Regardless what form it takes, on May 1, 2012 we should act together.

To be clear, we are not saying that socialists who are in unions, campus groups, or other organizations leave or separate from the contingents/actions those organizations are planning.

We are saying that whatever locally based action socialists take on May 1 should be united in order to maximize our visibility, impact, and influence.

Any individual or organization may sign this call by emailing may1socialistunity@gmail.com and/or “liking” our Facebook page.

For more information on how to link up with this initiative or organize a joint action in your area, contact may1socialistunity@gmail.com.

Signed*:

Ben Campbell, Occupy Wall Street

Bhaskar Sunkara, Editor, Jacobin magazine

Billy Wharton, Socialist Party USA

Bob Turansky, Solidarity

Clay Claiborne, Venice filmmaker and The North Star

Chris Cutrone, Platypus Society

Chris Maisano, Democratic Socialists of America

Carl Davidson, Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism

Dan La Botz, Solidarity

Jason Schulman, New Politics magazine, Democratic Socialists of America

Fernando Gapasin, Freedom Road Socialist Organization

Manuel Barrera, independent revolutionary socialist

Michael Hirsch, New Politics magazine

Steve Early, Labor journalist, organizer, and member of Newspaper Guild/CWA

Zak, Occupy Wall Street Class War Camp

 

*Organizations listed for identification purposes only.

Organizational endorsements: John Reed Society; Platypus Affiliated Society

April 17, 2012

Shake rattle ‘n roll

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

April 16, 2012

My pig snout sandwich days

Filed under: food,Pekar,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

I don’t know how many of you are aware that Doug Henwood began blogging a while back at http://lbo-news.com/. Bookmark it if you know what is good for you.

A post on April 13 (http://lbo-news.com/2012/04/13/the-nation-moves-money-again/) skewered the Nation Magazine in Doug’s inimitably informed and witty fashion:

Forgive me if I’m looking obsessed, but someone has to do it. The Nation was out with an email blast this morning touting its branded affinity VISA card issued by UMB Bank in Kansas City. The magazine’s associate publisher, Peggy Randall, helpfully identifies UMB as “a small, regional bank recommended by the Move Your Money project, a project we  support,” and therefore in accordance with the goals of the Occupy movement.

So who is UMB Bank, really? It’s yet another iteration of the classic Money Mover’s institution: flush with more money than it can invest locally, it loads up on securities. (Parenthetically, why should a magazine based in New York encourage doing business with a bank 1,200 miles away on localist grounds?) According to its latest annual report, 46% of UMB’s money is invested in securities, and another 6% is on deposit with other banks—which comes to over half. They don’t provide details on the securities, but they’re almost certainly a mix of Treasury bonds, mortgage bonds, and corporate bonds—utterly conventional financial market stuff. Just 37% is out in loans—and 0.8% in small-business loans, beloved of the small bank fanclub. They are big regional players in mutual funds, wealth management, and private banking, all moderately to seriously upscale stuff. And, like the big guys, they’re looking to make more money out of fees, rather than traditional deposit-taking and loan-making.

Although Doug was looking for a somewhat different answer to the question “So who is UMB Bank, really?”, I can offer these additional insights. When I was working at this bank in November 1978, I turned in my resignation from the SWP. By day I was a computer programmer but in the evenings I was studying milling machine and lathe at a local high school. That was to prepare me for a job in industry as an entry-level machinist. As this snapshot from my memoir–done in collaboration with the late Harvey Pekar and that is due to be published by Random House sometime in the 22nd century–would indicate, this was not the kind of training that came easy:

(That’s me to the right, with beard and eyeglasses.)

By some miracle I graduated from the classes with a certificate and was urged to apply at Bendix by my milling machine instructor who developed a liking for me. He understood that despite my not having any kind of industrial job in the past, I was able to learn how to grind a piece of steel to a thousandth inch tolerance. Unfortunately, I would never get past a security clearance at Bendix since the plant’s main business was building casings for nuclear weapons.

In late November, the branch organizer—a typical hack who had bet my best friend in the branch $10 that I would never be able to get a job in industry—gave a plenum report that clarified what kinds of jobs comrades should get as part of the “turn to industry”. It went something like this:

Comrades, we are about to make a turn within the turn. In the past too many comrades have been taking skilled jobs like machinists or welders. This does not put us in contact with the most oppressed layers of the working class. So from now on the priority is on jobs in garment, meatpacking and other unskilled arenas.

After going to night school for 3 months, this was not the news I wanted to hear. I turned to my friend and said, “I feel like I am in the back seat of a car going down the interstate at 80 miles an hour and there’s nobody in the driver’s seat.” I resigned a couple of days later.

As should be obvious from the picture above, the memoir covers my Chaplinesque attempts to save my soul by getting a job in industry, but Doug’s reference to United Missouri Bank (UMB) persuaded me to say a few words about this job since it was like all my programming jobs—something to remember.

United Missouri Bank is in downtown Kansas City, a warren of nondescript office buildings and parking garages. Once upon a time it was a thriving section of town with department stores and nightclubs that could be reached by streetcar, the most common mode of transportation. I have vivid memories of taking the streetcar to downtown Kansas City with my mom when she was staying at her mother’s house on Linwood Avenue, about 30 blocks to the north, during a trial separation from my cold and laconic father. Even as a 5 year old, I could tell that Kansas City was a rocking place.

My job at UMB entailed working on the software for the bank’s NCR ATM machines. I was a kind of assistant to a 300 pound farmer’s boy named Danny who reminded me a lot of Baby Huey. He used to come to work on Saturday in bib overalls and hump the machines for laughs.

About a month after going to work for UMB, our boss asked me to make a change to the software that I screwed up. The net result was that when someone was issued a new card, the machine would reject it under the impression that it was expired. I wrote “greater than” some date in my program rather than “less than”. I was lucky I didn’t get fired since the people whose cards failed to work probably were skeptical of electronic banking to begin with.

I actually have fond memories of the people I worked with who generally were as disgruntled with management as any place I have ever been. The new department manager was someone who had been recently promoted from their ranks and was acting like a real shithook. They loved cracking jokes about him in the cafeteria at lunch.

My favorite guy there was K.O. Barnes, who looked kind of like a bulldog as his name would indicate. K.O. stood for Kenneth Orville but his nickname was “Smitty”, as I recall. In an attempt to raise some funds when I was in K.C., I sold my newish Datsun to my best friend and bought a 12 year old Impala sedan from K.O. that had belonged to his dad, a gas station owner. It was what they called a “mechanic’s special”. I wish I had held on to it. It would probably be worth $50,000 today.

K.O. had returned to Kansas City from Cincinnati, a city that he found lacking. He once put it to me this way in his Missouri drawl, “Louis, in Cincinnati they roll up the sidewalks at 10pm. There ain’t nothin’ happening there.”

As was the case when I worked for a bank in Houston when I was in the SWP, my workmates viewed me as a kind of “exotic”. After all, how many people moved from New York to Houston or Kansas City? If I hadn’t been a member of the SWP and assigned to go to these places, I would have stayed in New York where I was destined to be like a minor character in a Woody Allen movie. I should add that the only reason I chose Kansas City is that I was born there. When given a choice between my birthplace and Morgantown, West Virginia where I would be expected to get a job as coalminer, Kansas City was number one by far. I figured that if my political life was coming to an end, as I anticipated it would, why not let it end in my birthplace?

One day my workmates, including K.O. and Danny, decided to play a kind of practical joke on me. They organized an excursion to Agnos’s Sandwich Stand about 10 blocks from UMB where I would be able to buy a local treat. They assumed that a New Yorker would be appalled by what it turned out to be: pig snout sandwich.

It looked exactly what it sounds like, a pig’s nose between two buns. Since I had pretty much the same attitude toward food that contestants on “Fear Factor” have, I wolfed it down much to the surprise of my workmates. I don’t know if they have the analogy of “good old boy” in Missouri but that was what I became that day in their eyes.

They did not know that part of the motivation in going to Agnos was its connection to Charlie Parker, arguably Kansas City’s most famous denizen. In “Bird Lives”, Ross Russell writes:

The same area was also a permanent location for one of the lunch wagons owned by John Agnos, who, under Pendergast, enjoyed a monopoly of after-hours on-the-street sales of food and light beverages. The menu listed food items and unusual sandwiches served only in Kansas City in those days—crawdads, “short thighs” (of chicken), and a choice of sandwiches made from chicken wings, brains, pigs’ feet, and pigs’ snouts. Everything was priced at a dime. Jars of homemade hot sauces were provided for garnishment according to the customer’s taste. Charlie Parker picked up his nickname Yardbird when the Basie band was working at the Reno Club. Parker used to hang out in the rear lot, mostly to listen to Lester Young, and his favorite food was the “short thigh” served by the lunch wagon. Chicken was known colloquially as yardbird. Later the nickname was shorted to Bird. It stuck with Parker throughout his life.

Agnos sandwich stand at the Reno Club in 1940

April 14, 2012

A simple proposal for a new anticapitalist left

Filed under: anti-capitalism,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:23 pm

http://www.facebook.com/notes/simon-hardy/a-simple-proposal-for-a-new-anticapitalist-left/10150680129112399

I along with a number of other members of Workers Power in Britain, Austria and the Czech Republic have resigned from the organisation. The global capitalist crisis has posed tremendous questions for the radical left about how to go forward. We have increasingly drawn the conclusion that the historical legacy of the post-war left, in particular the Leninist-Trotskyist left, needs to be subjected to far-reaching critique and re-evaluation in light of the contemporary challenges.

The organised left is dogged by sectarianism and opportunism. There are quite literally hundreds of competing orthodoxies, with each sect promoting and defending its own, typically very narrow, conception of revolutionary theory and practice without subjecting their ideas to the critical re-evaluation which we believe is necessary if Marxism is to reach out to far wider layers.

We came to the conclusion that a method of organising exclusively focused on building specifically Leninist-Trotskyist groups prevents the socialist left from creating the kind of broad anticapitalist organisations, which can present a credible alternative to the mainstream parties.

The post 1991 world presents new challenges to the left and the workers’ movement. Marxism is no longer the natural ‘go-to politics’ of radical activists coming into the movement today. The dramatic shift to the right by social democracy and the business unionism of the trade union movement all took their toll on the capacity of the workers to fight. Now the task of regenerating a movement that can overthrow capitalism is serious one, but in a sense the left has barely begun this task.

As a step forward, in recent months we launched a call for a new anticapitalist initiative in Britain as a way of uniting sections of the left around a strategic perspective whilst emphasising the creation of a democratic space that is so urgently needed to debate and test out our slogans and tactics. We did not want to simply declare a new organisation, but to carry out patient and serious discussions with broader forces about what such an organisation should look like.

We launched this initiative whilst we were in Workers Power, and although there was agreement that such an organisation was needed, there was growing disagreement on the role of groups like Workers Power within it. This boiled down to whether we saw it as a tactic to achieve a larger Workers Power, or whether the anticapitalist organisation that came out of it would look very different; more plural, more open, much looser, but still clear on the strategic questions.

As part of this perspective we drew the conclusion that there needed to be an open, ‘blue skies’ discussion on the radical left, involving matters of theory and history, drawing on the new as well as the old, but trying to come to practical conclusions on how we might go forward today. So, we increasingly rejected the model of democratic centralism that states revolutionary organisations should conduct their debates in private and only present their conclusions to the class. While, we don’t reject democratic centralism, our conception of it is unity in action around democratically determined goals, and free and open discussion. We showed in the course of the debate that this was the norm in the revolutionary movement in the decades prior to 1917.

Another problem we encountered was the attitude – far from a problem of Workers Power alone on the post-war left – to how Marxist ideas came to be engaged with. It is to Workers Power’s credit that from its foundation it has sought to address the problems of the post-war Trotskyist left in political and ‘programmatic’ terms; the critique had power in identifying a loss of revolutionary continuity in the pre and post war years. But the way that Marxism came to be conceived as a result led to a narrowness; thinkers outside of the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Trotsky (and partially Luxemburg) axis tended to be subjected to a form of black and white critique that undermined the kind of engagement necessary for a living and evolving body of thought to develop. This naturally places constraints on critical thinking as the concern to “get it right” tends to undermine the development of an attitude that recognises that a degree of plurality in the evolution of ideas is necessary to try and uncover objective truth, something which is needed for Marxism to develop. (Paul LeBlanc makes similar points in relation to the American SWP http://links.org.au/node/2817)

Ultimately, we felt there was a conservative intransigence on a part of the majority leadership to alter course on fundamentals, so a parting of the ways became necessary.

We are committed to taking steps towards an anticapitalist organisation that is opposed to austerity, privatisation, racism, sexism, imperialist war and supports the Palestinians. We believe that mass strikes and demonstrations are needed to bring down the government. We support the building of a rank and file movement across the unions, an essential goal in the context of the pensions sell out by sections of the union movement.  We are committed to working towards unity in the anticuts movement and overcoming unnecessary divisions which hinder our movement. We still believe that the working class is a crucial agent of revolutionary change, though we want to explore new and more creative ways of fusing socialist ideas with the kind of struggles that are going on today.

We have no illusions that unity can be created by simple decree, and we are aware that divisions built up over decades can be hard to break down. But we think it is necessary to build a new kind of left, one that overcomes our fragmentation, that unites the best of the (though we seek to critique these labels) new left with the old left.

As part of our commitment to the founding of a new plural and broader anticapitalist organisation we are not establishing yet another group on the left or establish a new orthodoxy in the sense of a new narrowly conceived appraisal of ‘what went wrong’ in the 20th century. While we need to think about historical questions, discuss and debate where we think the mistakes were made, this needs to inform the strategy we choose today, rather than imagining we can simply repeat the past.

Ultimately, the whole left needs to look forwards, not back. To the organisations still around today that were created in the 1950s, 1970s and more recently, all the many splits and splinters, we ask a simple question. Do you think your organisation is up to the challenges and tasks posed by the current crisis of capitalism? We do not think that any left group can honestly answer that in the affirmative which is why we all need a radical rethink.

Although we know we need mass forces to launch a new party, we are not content to merely wait for a new party to be formed by the trade unions – there is a pressing need for the radical left to take steps towards unity in the hear and now. We need an energetic and active campaign to build the kind of organisation that can bring the left into the mainstream. This anticapitalist initiative we see as being a stepping stone for something greater and not an end in itself. Galloway’s success shows what is possible, as does the support for Melenchon in France. Will the Marxists and radical left seize the initiative and prove itself capable of a radical rethink, or will we get more of the same?

We have no bad feelings towards the comrades in Workers Power. We want to work with them and other groups and individuals to build a united, plural organisation in which splits can be avoided and the inevitable differences are factored into the day to day practice of the organisation; we recognise there will be debate, see this as a good thing, and have a practical unity where we agree.

The experiences that we have from our time in Workers Power are invaluable. We were in the antiwar movement, in solidarity visits to Palestine, active in the student movement and reported from Tahrir Square during the early days of the Egyptian revolution. We have taken strike action in defence of pensions and campaigned in defence of the NHS. We learnt the foundation of our Marxist ideas. In particular, the group has played an important role in recent years in emphasising the need for a rank and file movement in the unions, when few socialist organisations took seriously the need for one, nor took practical steps in that direction.

All these experiences help to inform our current views. We believe that there is common ground for large parts of our movement, and that there is tremendous potential in the fightback against austerity to go beyond resistance to discuss new strategies. Any socialists, anticapitalists, radical trade unionists or social movement activists who are interested in discussing these ideas should get in touch and begin a dialogue with us at thisissimonhardy@gmail.com. We hope these discussions can inform the building of a healthier radical left.

There is a meeting at University London Union at 1pm on 28 April for anyone who is interested in a new anticapitalist project. We will not be establishing a new group overnight, we know it will take time and a long process of building up trust. But we need to start that process sooner rather than later. If you want to contact the new initiative then email anticapitalistalternative@gmail.com.

 

April 13, 2012

Occupy Wall Street – for Real This Time

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 3:45 pm

Occupy Wall Street – for Real This Time

by Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street on April 13, 2012

Armed with nothing more than sleeping bags and revolutionary spirit, dozens of occupiers have slept on Wall Street for the past few days. Under a recently uncovered 2000 federal court ruling, protesters have a right to sleep on the sidewalk in New York City provided they only take up half of it and do not engage in disorderly conduct.

full: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=516

April 11, 2012

A mole at Fox TV (must read)

Filed under: ultraright — louisproyect @ 11:10 pm

http://gawker.com/5900710

Erectile dysfunction and a Bard College honorary doctorate

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 4:15 pm

Most people realize that there are two types of honorary doctorates handed out at college commencements each year. The first goes to people who really deserve them, like a Dizzy Gillespie or an Allen Ginsberg. Then you have recipients whose being honored has more to do with the amount of money they lavish on the institutions than anything else. It is a charade that has much in common with the awarding of ambassadorships to major donors of either party. For example, the bootlegger Joseph P. Kennedy was FDR’s man in London and Mel Sembler, a Republican appointee, held posts in Italy and Australia under Bush ’41 and Bush ’43 respectively. Sembler is a shopping mall developer who also ran a drug treatment center that was convicted of the false imprisonment of a 20 year old patient. Nice, very nice.

Since Lynda Resnick is a major donor to the Democratic Party who enjoys throwing lavish parties, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her become ambassador to Liechtenstein or Monaco someday. In the meantime, she is picking up a Doctor of Humane Letters from Bard College, my alma mater, on May 26th. I wish I could be there to hear the bullshit put forward to justify this award since she is certainly one of the more reprehensible people connected to the school, mostly through her husband Stuart who sits on the board of trustees with other knaves like Bruce Ratner, the real estate developer responsible for foisting an ugly and wasteful megaproject on downtown Brooklyn.

Even though I have supplied dossiers on the Resnicks before (Stuart Resnick as Noah Cross; Bard’s Lumpen Bourgeoisie), I can’t resist drawing from the well of resentment once again. If Colonel Kilgore of “Apocalypse Now” got the juices flowing after smelling napalm in the morning, all it takes for me is an alumni newsletter with the latest outrage from a once-proud institution that Walter Winchell—perhaps apocryphally–called “the little red whorehouse on the Hudson.”

It must be understood above all that when the Resnicks give money to a college or to a hospital, it is in effect a PR exercise. These pay-offs are meant to compensate for their diverting precious water resources in California from working class households into their pomegranate and almond plantations, and from Fiji into their disgusting mineral water business. To paraphrase Marie Antoinette, let them drink piss. All billionaires who fund libraries, hospitals, colleges, operas, et al do it to improve their bottom line in the same way as campaign contributions. They amount to bribes. Shower enough money on the masses and maybe they’ll put down their pitchforks. The robber barons of the 19th century paved the way for this, with the marauding railroad tycoon and nativist Governor of California Leland Stanford founding Stanford University.

In perhaps a sign that some institutions have higher standards than those prevailing under Bard College’s sleazy President-for-Life Leon Botstein, the UCLA Law School struggled with the ethics of receiving major donations from Lowell Milken and the Resnicks last year. An August 22, 2011 article by Julie Creswell and Peter Lattman titled Milken’s Gift Stirs Dispute at U.C.L.A. Law School  describes the dilemma facing the institution’s legal minds: should they take money from law-breakers? Or, in the case of the Resnicks, law-benders.

In a controversial deal with the government, Michael pleaded guilty to securities law violations after the government agreed to drop criminal charges against Lowell. Michael served a 22-month prison term and paid $600 million in fines and restitution.

As part of a settlement in a related civil matter, the Securities and Exchange Commission permanently barred the two brothers from the securities industry.

Lowell Milken did not admit to any wrongdoing.

Kenneth W. Graham Jr., a retired U.C.L.A. law professor, said it was a mistake to take the gift from Mr. Milken, a 1973 graduate of the school and longtime donor to it. “To say that I was outraged would be something of an understatement,” wrote Mr. Graham in an e-mail.

The Resnicks are described in the article as being little better than the snake-oil salesmen who used to go from town to town back in Leland Stanford’s day:

Mr. Milken is not the only leading donor in the current campaign that has tussled with regulatory authorities. The capital drive also led to the creation of the Stewart and Lynda Resnick Endowed Fund in Support of Public Interest Law. The Resnicks are the Beverly Hills beverage industry entrepreneurs who own Fiji Water and Pom Wonderful.

Last fall, the Federal Trade Commission filed a civil lawsuit against the Resnicks, accusing them and their company, Pom Wonderful, of making “false and unsubstantiated claims” that their pomegranate juice product helped reduce the risk of heart disease and erectile dysfunction.

Don’t you love the business about erectile dysfunction? Who needs Viagra when you can suck down a bottle of Pom juice?

You can read the proceedings of the Federal Trade Commission’s lawsuit here. It is a reminder of how sordid the capitalist system is, with hucksters trying to sell fruit juice on the basis that it can make your dick hard. That’s not the worst of it. The document refers to a youtube clip where Lynda Resnick claims that it can cure Alzheimer’s as well. Naturally, she is the guest of another crook, Martha Stewart.

Listening to WFAN, a sports talk radio station in New York,  through much of the day I get a little nuts having to put up with all the commercials—a good half of which fall into the same category as what got the Resnicks into hot water with the FTC. The Boston Medical Group with its erectile dysfunction cure that paid a $8.5 million fine for making the same kind of bogus claims. That’s not the end of it. There are ads for magic potions that can pump up your testosterone level. I put up with the ads because I want to hear other fans like me putting in their two cents about the NY Knicks.

Lynda Resnick got started as a 19 year old running an advertising agency. Ever watch “Mad Men”? That’s a pretty good take on the role of advertising in the U.S. As products continue to go downhill, from automobiles to the canned goods on your supermarket shelves, you need advertising agencies to con the consumer.

That’s essentially what Lynda Resnick should be honored for, her remarkable ability to con the American consumer. As should be obvious at this point in his illustrious career, Leon Botstein has a remarkable ability for lining up such people to fund Bard College. If he had only half as great an ability to see himself as he really is, and not the idealized portrait that this academic version of Dorian Gray imagines.

April 10, 2012

Santa Fe Trail

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

Last night at 6pm when I was surfing through my Verizon TV “favorites”, I noticed that the Turner Classic Movie (TCM) network was airing “Santa Fe Trail”, a 1940 movie that was described in the following terms: “Romantic rivals get caught in the battle to stop abolitionist John Brown.” What the fuck? The battle to stop John Brown? This I had to see.

Although the film is a reactionary and racist piece of trash, I urge my readers to watch it online through Youtube since it is an essential cultural artifact of the New Deal. The writer/director team consisted of Robert Buckner and Michael Curtiz, the same people who brought you “Mission to Moscow”.

Despite the title, the movie has nothing to do with wagon trains or fighting off Indians. It is, as stated in the TCM blurb, an account of the military campaign against John Brown led by J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart that climaxed with the raid on Harper’s Ferry, John Brown’s capture and eventual hanging. The opening caption says it all:

1854 – The United States Military Academy – West Point. When the gray cradle of the American army was only a small garrison with few cadets, but under a brilliant Commandant, named Robert E. Lee it was already building for the defense of a newly won nation in a new world.

Civil war buffs probably do not need to be reminded of who Robert E. Lee was, but Jeb Stuart’s role in fighting for the slavocracy was nearly as critical. He commanded the Northern Virginia confederate troops and took part in the Battle of Gettysburg. The wiki on Stuart cites historian Jeffery Wert:

Stuart had been the Confederacy’s knight-errant, the bold and dashing cavalier, attired in a resplendent uniform, plumed hat, and cape. Amid a slaughterhouse, he had embodied chivalry, clinging to the pageantry of a long-gone warrior. He crafted the image carefully, and the image befitted him. He saw himself as the Southern people envisaged him. They needed a knight; he needed to be that knight.

Stuart, who is played by Errol Flynn, is the hero and Brown (Raymond Massey) is the villain. His villainy is made quite explicit: it was he and he alone that precipitated a tragic war between North and South. In one scene, Stuart—who has been captured by Brown’s followers—argues that the South was changing and that peace was possible. Against Stuart’s reasonableness, Brown and his fighters are the living embodiment of dead-end fanaticism.

The rival referred to in the blurb is none other than General George M. Custer, who is played appropriately enough by Ronald Reagan, who deserved the same fate as the character he played: an arrow through the heart. They both love the same woman, ‘Kit Carson’ Holliday, who is played by Olivia De Havilland. Her character warns at one point that the clash between the North and the South was unnecessary. It made sense for De Havilland to be cast in this role, given the part she played as a Southern belle in “Gone with the Wind”.

Blacks are portrayed in the film in the same way as they are portrayed in “Gone with the Wind”, as bamboozled victims of Northern do-gooders. John Brown is depicted as a manipulative fanatic who cares little about their fate, once he has freed them from their owners. At one point, a male ex-slave tells Stuart that all he wants is to go back to Texas and live a normal life once again. That, of course, can only mean a return to slavery.

Lewrockwell.com, a reactionary and racist website that publishes Counterpunch fave Paul Craig Roberts, published an adulatory review that sided with the film’s political perspective and that coincides with contemporary “revisionism”:

A very telling scene occurs when Brown announces to a group of escaped slaves in his keeping that he is leaving them to continue his work elsewhere. He tells the slaves that they are now free. But the slaves are skeptical and one asks Brown: “Does just saying so make us free? How are we going to live? Get food and shelter?” This is one of the practical considerations that ivory tower abolitionists failed to address. In typical abolitionist fashion, Brown tells the slaves to find other people to help them and dismisses their concern with: “From now on you must fend for yourselves as other free men do.”

When you mull over the arguments regarding how to end slavery presented in Santa Fe Trail, you are left with the disturbing realization that the War Between the States should have been avoided. Throughout the South there was a growing awareness that the institution of slavery could not be sustained much longer. Emancipation could have been accomplished peacefully as it was where it existed everywhere else in the west.

The interesting question, of course, is why the creative team behind “Mission to Moscow” would make such a racist film. You can find an entirely reasonable explanation in the history class notes posted on the Internet by Laura Poisson from Northern Virginia Community College, the same part of the country that Jeb Stuart hailed from:

Pals Custer and Stuart were the good guys in the film—the heroes. They were always shown as perfectly dressed and well-mannered gentlemen and officers, constantly with a smile on their faces. They didn’t mix politics and soldiering; they took their orders and followed through. Their eventual representation of different sides in the Civil War was to show audiences that putting differences aside and working together enables good to prevail over evil.

Why tell the story this way….and why now?

Most Americans in December 1940 weren’t ready to jump into WWII with two feet, but England was getting heavily bombed and people were starting to worry about Hitler. [See below for more detailed history.]

Santa Fe Trail was the first of many Westerns with Civil War characters or plots designed to build “American nationalism.” These movies endeavored to unite Americans of all “regional, ethnic or political” persuasions in order to prepare them for the possibility of entering WWII. The movies defined America’s enemy and showed that the nation needed to stay together in order to “save Democracy.” The U.S. could and did defeat John Brown; they could defeat Hitler if necessary.

Bruce Chadwick, Ph.D. The Reel Civil War, Mythmaking in American Film. NY: Vintage Books 2002

In other words, the political purpose of “Mission to Moscow” and “Santa Fe Trail” were not that far apart: to convey and justify to the American people through the medium of pop culture the overriding foreign policy goals of imperialism.

April 9, 2012

British liberals versus Karl Marx; Marx wins by a TKO

Filed under: economics,liberalism,Red Plenty,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

Francis Spufford

John Lanchester

The heavyweight champ

For someone deemed so obsolete and irrelevant, Karl Marx has a way of getting under the skin of liberal intellectuals 193 years after his birth. For example, John Lanchester—a British novelist and nonfiction writer born in 1962—spends 6016 words (!) trying to drive a stake through the heart of Marx’s ideas in an essay titled Marx at 193 that appears in the left-leaning London Review of Books:

The most obvious mistake in his version of the world is to do with class. There is something like a classic Marxian proletariat dispersed through the world. But Marx foresaw that this proletariat would be an increasingly centralised and organised force: indeed, this was one of the reasons it would prove so dangerous to capitalism. By creating the conditions in which labour would be sure to organise and assemble collectively capitalism was arranging its own downfall. But there is no organised global conflict between the classes; there is no organised global proletariat.

About a month before this article appeared, Crooked Timber—a group blog hosted by liberal academics also obsessed with burying Karl Marx—advised its readers that Francis Spufford’s new mixture of fact and fiction (faction in more senses than one) titled “Red Plenty” is “a mosaic novel that simultaneously speaks intelligently to the Soviet calculation debate, and has engaging characters.” Like Lanchester, two years his senior, Spufford writes both novels and nonfiction and is British. Since both Lanchester and Spufford were too young to be part of the sixties radicalization when socialist revolution had more of a palpable reality than it does today, one suspects that there might be a generational thing going on. Or Oedipal, if you are into Freud.

Oddly enough, the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the general decline of a revolutionary movement are not enough to assuage them. Could it be possible that if there was only a single human being committed to socialism living on the planet Earth at some point in the distant future, outlets like the London Review of Books and Crooked Timber would still be writing broadsides against this “irrelevant” movement? What the liberal intelligentsia fails to understand is that Marxism will exist as long as there is capitalism. Capitalism generates its negative critique—Marxism—through the creation of class antagonisms born out of the brutal reality this unnatural social system generates. If Karl Marx had never been born, someone else would have come along to develop an analysis of the capitalist system and a program to eliminate it. That’s the dialectic the liberals cannot understand.

I am currently about 40 percent through with “Red Plenty” and will be posting a critique but in the meantime I want to direct you to the introduction of Part Three where Francis Spufford dispenses with his fictional examination of Soviet characters involved with attempts to modernize the economy through automation and lays out “what went wrong” with the USSR. I have scanned the introduction, which can be read here: http://www.marxmail.org/Red_Plenty_Intro.htm. I want to single out a couple of sections to give you a feel for his approach:

Spufford’s take on Lenin comes out of the Cold War Sovietology playbook:

With almost no industrial workers to represent, the Bolshevik (‘majority) faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party was a tiny, freakish cult, under the thumb of a charismatic minor aristocrat, V.I. Lenin, who had developed a doctrine of the party’s, and by extension his own, infallibility. The Bolsheviks had no chance of influencing events, and certainly no chance at getting anywhere near political power, until the First World War turned Russian society upside down. In the chaos and economic collapse following the overthrow of the Tsar by disorganised liberals, they were able to use the discipline of the cult’s membership to mount a coup d’etat — and then to finesse themselves into the leadership of all those in Russia who were resisting the armed return of the old regime. Suddenly, a small collection of fanatics and opportunists found themselves [sic, should be itself, since “a small collection” is singular, not plural] running the country that least resembled Marx’s description of a place ready for socialist revolution.

Robert Service could not have put it better.

After several decades of Stalin’s forced march, the USSR began to catch up to the industrialized West, so much so that it became possible to consider a stepped-up investment in consumer goods. The term ‘Red Plenty’ alludes to the hopes of its various Soviet characters that they would have just as much as the Americans et al. Spufford writes:

Yet somehow this economy had to grow, and go on growing, without a pause. It wasn’t just a question of overtaking the Americans. There were still people in the Soviet Union, at the beginning of the 1960s, who believed in Marx’s original idyll: and one of them was the First Secretary of the Party, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. Somehow, the economy had to carry the citizens of the Bolshevik corporation all the way up the steepening slope of growth to the point where the growing blended into indistinguishable plenty, where the work of capitalism and its surrogate were done at last, where history resumed its rightful course; where the hunting started, and the fishing, and the criticising after dinner, and the technology of abundance would purr in the background like a contented cat.

For Spufford, the USSR of the 1950s and 60s is kind of a funhouse mirror of the United States of the same period—in other words a country aspiring to look like the hit television show “Mad Men”. Socialism becomes more or less equated with a hankering for more, rather than for freedom. Since Spufford is a man of the left, it is not surprising that he is appalled by consumerism, whichever ideology fosters it. He told the Guardian in August 2010:

Our version isn’t costless either. The steel and concrete required to sustain it are created for us elsewhere, out of sight, leaving us free to stroll around our pastel pavilion, on the side of which glimmers the word “Tesco”. Inside are piled, just as Khrushchev hoped, riches to humble the kings of antiquity. But terms and conditions apply.

While I will be on the lookout for any clues that Spufford has entertained the possibility that 21st century socialism will proceed on utterly different foundations than what Henry Miller once called the Air-Conditioned Nightmare, the prognosis seems guarded. The general impression I get from what I have read so far, both in “Red Plenty” and his musings elsewhere, is that of a jaded intellectual who believes that it is better to deal with the devil you know—an understandable stance if you are a college professor in London instead of a Greek pensioner.

Turning now to John Lanchester’s essay, you can at least be grateful to him for providing so many examples of how not to read Marx. It is a kind of clinical study in liberal confusion, mixed with deliberate misrepresentation, starting with the nonsense about the disappearance of the working class as a “centralized” and “organized” force. Perhaps the only thing worth stating at this point is if nobody ever wrote a single word from a Marxist standpoint after Marx’s death, Lanchester’s comments would be valid. However, Marxism continued after Marx’s death—surprise, surprise. While Lanchester refers to David Harvey in his essay (see below), he does not seem to have grasped his key theoretical contribution, namely the ability of capital to decentralize the working class through geographical displacement of its internal contradictions. With respect to it being “organized”, we can only say that this is not Marx’s responsibility—it is ours.

His essay tries for the umpteenth time to refute some of the basic precepts of Capital, especially Marx’s concept of value:

There are obvious difficulties with Marx’s arguments. One of them is that so many of the contemporary world’s goods and commodities are now virtual (in the digital-oriented sense) that it’s not easy to see where the accumulated labour in them is. David Harvey’s lectures on Capital, for instance, the best beginning for anyone studying Marx’s most important book, are of immense value but they’re also available for free on the internet, so if you buy them as a book – you can take in information much more quickly by reading than by listening – the surplus value you’re adding to is mainly your own.

Huh?

There is so much confusion packed into this brief paragraph that it would take a week to draw out and dissect it. To put it briefly (and this is all it deserves), the books, music and videos available for free on the Internet were either created originally through the process of surplus value creation (just ask the NY Times reporter if his work was originally “for free”) or by schnooks like me who want to win friends and influence people on a pro bono basis. If the writers, artists, and film-makers whose stuff gets circulated on Huffington Post never got paid, there never would have been anything to look at (except of course for the bloggers who got conned into writing for free.) How this invalidates Marx’s theory of value is anybody’s guess.

Lanchester also believes that when you carry your own bags at the airport for free, you are proving Marx wrong:

Online check-in is a process which should genuinely increase the efficiency of the airport experience, thereby costing you less time: time you can spend doing other things, some of them economically useful to you. But what the airlines do is employ so few people to supervise the bag drop-off that there’s no time-saving at all for the customer. When you look, you see that because airlines have to employ more people to supervise the non-online-checked-in customers – otherwise the planes wouldn’t leave on time – the non-checked-in queues move far more quickly.

The same thing is true for the CVS pharmacy across the street from me that replaced most of its sales clerks with scanning machines. I ring up my scanned goods and pack them myself. But this is not what CVS is about. Mostly it is about commodities stocked on the shelves that are the products of alienated labor. For example, the paper products Vanity Fair, Angel Soft, and Northern Quilted are all made by Georgia-Pacific, part of Koch Industries. In December 2010, the workers at Georgia-Pacific in Portland, Oregon rallied against their bosses’ greed:

On the cold afternoon of December 4th, fourth generation Georgia- Pacific (G-P) employee Travis McKinney raised his voice above the frigid wind as he stood with close to one hundred of his co-workers, union allies and community supporters in front of the office at the company’s largest distribution center for paper products in Portland, Oregon.

He described to an outraged crowd, management’s cold-blooded refusal to allow him to tend to his daughter’s health: “When I had to take my daughter to the hospital to be diagnosed, the company told me I had to stay and work overtime instead.” Travis was eventually able to get medical help for his daughter – despite G-P’s lack of support – and found that she was autistic.

Doug Stilwell, another G-P employee, spoke at the rally about management’s constant pressure to speed up forklift operations. “There is no safety… ever since they put this computer system in here [to automatically direct workers when to move loads], we’re all taking shortcuts trying to get this stuff down, pushing their paper out. It’s wrong,” said Stilwell.

This is the underlying reality of CVS or American Airlines, another labor-bashing outfit, not me scanning my toilet paper or doing online check-in’s of my suitcases.

Lanchester’s trump card is just as what one might have expected: the welfare state. The fact that we are no longer working 12 hours a day and one step away from the poorhouse makes Marx obsolete:

The contemporary welfare state – housing and educating and feeding and providing healthcare for its citizens, from birth to death – is a development which challenges the basis of Marx’s analysis of what capitalism is: I think he would have looked hard at the welfare state and wondered whether it fundamentally undermined his analysis, just because it is so different from the capitalism Marx saw operating in his day, and from which he extrapolated. Perhaps he would argue that what has happened is that British society in its entirety has become part of a global bourgeoisie, and the proletariat is now in other countries; that’s a possible argument, but not one that’s easy to sustain in the face of the inequalities which exist and are growing in our society. But Scandinavian welfare capitalism is very different from the state-controlled capitalism of China, which is in turn almost wholly different from the free-market, sauve-qui-peut capitalism of the United States, which is again different from the nationalistic and heavily socialised capitalism of France, which again is not at all like the curious hybrid we have in the UK, in which our governments are wholly devoted to the free market and yet we have areas of welfare and provision they haven’t dared address.

How odd to see someone pointing to the welfare states of Europe nowadays when all of them are on a forced march to resemble the United States, with Greece a prime example of the fate that befalls them all—Germany and the Scandinavian countries to follow suit. All of them are under pressure to compete in a global market that is putting immense pressure on the more prosperous countries to drive down the wages of their workers so as to compete with the less prosperous.

It should be understood, however, that the existence of these welfare states is predicated not on the tendency of the bourgeoisie to operate against its own class interests. Historically, they came into being only because they were seen as a way to preempt proletarian revolution. In some ways, German’s Bismarck paved the way for FDR, the Scandinavian and British welfare states and all the rest.

Under Bismarck, the following pieces of legislation were enacted:

  • Health Insurance Bill of 1883
  • Accident Insurance Bill of 1884
  • Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill of 1889

He sponsored such legislation only because the German socialists were building a counter-force to German capitalism that had the potential to eliminate it. Even when he was pushing through welfare-state legislation well ahead of his time, Bismarck made sure to enact anti-socialist laws that resulted in the closing of 45 newspapers.

FDR was not that different. Widely recognized for fighting against the capitalists in order to preserve their own system, he made sure that the only threat to the status quo—the Trotskyists—ended up in prison at the beginning of WWII.

Whatever nostalgia you confront in “Red Plenty” for a fat and happy consumerist America of the 1950s or in Lanchester’s welfare state disappearing before your eyes like a Cheshire cat, the reality we confront is much more like Marx’s 1860s than either liberal is willing to accept. That is their problem, not ours.

April 6, 2012

Statement of Greek pensioner who killed himself outside parliament

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

This traitorous occupation government literally annihilated my ability to survive — which had been based on a decent pension, for which I had paid into (without any government help) for 35 years.

I am of an age that prevents me from offering a decent individual response (without of course ruling out the possibility of being the second person to take arms, should one person decide to do so).

I find no solution other than a dignified end, before resorting to going through garbage in order to cover my nutritional needs.

One day, I believe, the youth with no future will take up arms and hang the national traitors at Syntagma square, just like the Italians did with Mussolini in 1945 (at Milan’s Piazzale Loreto).

–Dimitris Christoulas, Syntagma, Athens, April 4th, 2012

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