Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 20, 2012

Korean film festival at the Museum of Modern Art

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 5:21 pm

For those who follow my film reviews, you will know that I regard Korean film as among the best being made anywhere in the world today. I will be covering this year’s “Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today” festival at the MOMA that began yesterday and runs through the 30th. This is the schedule. I strongly urge film buffs in NY to give it a shot:


September 19, 2012

Ethiopian 70s pop revival band

Filed under: Africa,music — louisproyect @ 2:15 am

September 18, 2012

A conversation with Jeffrey Marlin and Richard Greener

Filed under: bard college,television — louisproyect @ 5:44 pm

Now into the middle of the third season of “Mad Men” on Netflix, I continue to be bemused by the lofty critiques of the show in places like the London Review of Books and the journal that inspired it, the New York Review of Books. In the October 2008 LRB, Mark Greif complained:

Mad Men flatters us where we deserve to be scourged. As I see it, the whole spectacle has the bad faith of, say, an 18th-century American slaveholding society happily ridiculing a 17th-century Puritan society – ‘Look, they used to burn their witches!’ – while secretly envying the ease of a time when you could still tie uppity women to the stake. If we’ve managed to become less credulous about advertising, to make it more normal and the bearer of more reasonable expectations, perhaps in 50 years’ time viewers will look back on the silly self-congratulatory subtexts of Mad Men, shake their heads, and be grateful that gender and sexual tolerance have likewise been normalised.

In February 2011, Daniel Mendelsohn told NYR readers that the show was pretty much a load of crap:

The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.

He also repeats Greif’s charge that the show maintains an ill-deserved superiority complex:

To my mind, the picture is too crude and the artist too pleased with himself. In Mad Men, everyone chain-smokes, every executive starts drinking before lunch, every man is a chauvinist pig, every male employee viciously competitive and jealous of his colleagues, every white person a reflexive racist (when not irritatingly patronizing). It’s not that you don’t know that, say, sexism was rampant in the workplace before the feminist movement; it’s just that, on the screen, the endless succession of leering junior execs and crude jokes and abusive behavior all meant to signal “sexism” doesn’t work—it’s wearying rather than illuminating.

When I first posted about Mad Men, after viewing the entire first season, I defended it against such charges, drawing upon my experiences at Metropolitan Life in 1968, on the very floor that served as a backdrop for Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment”. If you’ve seen “The Apartment”, you’ll recognize the similarities between it and “Mad Men” right off the bat. This is no accident since Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, counts this movie as one of his prime influences:

Billy Wilder wrote it with I. L. Diamond – this is like one of the great writing teams of all time, and just the cinema in it, the stuff that’s done…I’d like to claim a relationship to ‘Mad Men’ for that, too. Spoiler alert: Things like the champagne cork going off and you think it’s a suicide. The tennis racket. The compact with the crack in it. The restaurant with the drinks in it. How things are shaping up ‘cookie-wise.’ That’s a contemporary movie. People were seeing people that they knew. It was done in a very sort of classic kind of way. It’s masterful storytelling.

That’s my relationship to it: that it’s one of my favorite movies. I saw it and realized that it was the apex of a period that I had already been fascinated with. I loved the characters, and just writing-wise I always try and emulate that kind of storytelling, where the payoffs are visual and there’s a lot of misunderstanding, but they’re believable. And the bad guys have a reason for what they do. And casting. Do not forget who Fred MacMurray was when they put in that part. The grimiest guy that he had ever been was in ‘Double Indemnity.’ He was the schmuck in that. In this thing he was really a dark character.

If I was really a bit young to be a character in “Mad Men”, that can’t be said about my two old friends from Bard College I interviewed above. A good five years older than me, they are exactly the same age as the junior copywriters who would have worked under the lead character Don Draper.

Both of them had a connection to advertising, one brief and one fairly long term. Jeffrey Marlin’s first job was as a copywriter for a direct mail outfit. Trudging off to work in an office each day (one likely much smaller than Met Life) persuaded him to look for a gig that he could do at home. This led to a very long career with Xerox Learning Systems that ended a few years ago. I understand what went into this decision psychologically since I used to return home from Met Life each day wondering whether I would be able to do this for the rest of my life. Fortunately I found computer programming less of a drag, if not something akin to playing games, than just about any other corporate job.

Richard Greener’s long career in radio started off selling advertising but evolved into a management position, including serving as president of WAOK in Atlanta, a Black radio station that he helped to push in a progressive direction—including sympathetic reporting on Sandinista Nicaragua.

But a good friend of Richard and Jeffrey probably epitomized the “Mad Men” ethos a lot more than either of them. Leonard Leokum, who died about five years ago, was the son of acclaimed author Arkady Leokum and a figure without about the same clout in the advertising business as Don Draper. Although I never really knew Leonard, I used to get a chuckle out of Richard and Jeffrey referring to him as the brains behind the Juan Valdez coffee commercials. We differed on the “political correctness” of the ad, with my friends making the case that Juan Valdez was a subtle symbol of Latin American national aspirations.

In my interview with Jeffrey and Richard, they told me that they had no interest in the show with Richard adding that it would probably make him sick to watch it. After doing the interview, I reflected a bit on the show and what is probably its greatest failing, something not truly addressed in the LRB and the NYRB articles—namely the absence of any character working in the industry who saw through its bullshit.

“Mad Men” has a character or two who spout Marxish comments about advertising but are mainly portrayed as hypocrites whose leftist politics are disjoined from ethical lapses of one sort or another. There are also some characters who seem aware of the beat generation but again don’t truly “get it”. In Bob Dylan’s words:

Something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones

Well, there were people who knew what was happening, especially Jeffrey and Richard (and Leonard as well, I’m sure). At some point during my retirement, I plan to do a series of interviews with ex-SWP members who will be willing to share their experiences with the young activists of today, just as I benefited from conversations with George Novack back in 1967.

But I doubt that any conversation I have with them will be half as stimulating and as eye opening as that I had with Jeffrey and Richard.

By Jeffrey Marlin:



Jeffrey Marlin has also just released a 1300-page opus on Amazon Kindle. It’s entitled Tales of the Great Moral Symmetry, by J. Marlin, and includes five complete verse-novels: The Three Wicked Pigs; Jack and the Time Stalk; Boots: By Puss Possessed; The Outlaw Rumplestiltskin; and Snow White and the 7 Deadly Sins. You’ll find some more-or-less progressive social commentary around the edges, and whether or not it’s your idea of great literature, I can guarantee you’ve never read anything like it. Comrades with Kindles may want to have a look.

My review of Richard Greener’s “The Knowland Retribution: the Locator”:


September 17, 2012

Radio Unnameable

Filed under: Pacifica — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

Opening on Wednesday at the Film Forum in New York, “Radio Unnameable” is a loving tribute to WBAI’s Bob Fass as well as an examination of the station’s sad decline. For anybody who has listened to a Pacifica station over the years, this is a film not to be missed. Established in 1949 as a listener-sponsored radio network by a pacifist named Lew Hill, it is one of America’s most important voices for the cultural and political outsider. And as this documentary by Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson demonstrates, there was probably nobody at WBAI who better expressed the affinities between cultural and political rebellion than Bob Fass, who is now 79 and approaching his fiftieth year at the station.

Like Lew Hill and many other important on-air hosts at WBAI and other Pacifica stations over the years, Bob Fass has been a long-time member of the largest group on the left in the U.S. This is the non-party “different drummer” tendency whose patron saint Henry David Thoreau once said, “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.”

Fass showed up at the station in 1963 to audition for a gig as a player in on-air dramas and readings from classic literature, a type of show that sadly disappeared long ago from a station now largely devoted to preaching to the choir.  Once he got his foot in the door, he wrangled himself a show that came on at midnight and deserved the name “unnameable” in the sense of uncategorizable. It consisted of free-flowing conversations with his listeners over the phone and in-studio guests, including some of the marquee names of the past half-century from Arlo Guthrie to Allen Ginsberg.

Although a good ten years older than most people who got involved with radical politics in “the sixties”, Fass made connections with Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman who despite all their foibles did define the “new left” for millions on campus and in the streets. What Fass shared with the “yippies” was a hatred for authority and a Dada-like sensibility that was expressed on a fairly regular basis in “flash mob” type happenings organized out of the WBAI studio.

One of the most controversial such events was a “yip-in” at Grand Central when hundreds of his listeners showed up at Grand Central to raise a non-violent ruckus. When a couple of anarchists removed the hands from the railway station’s landmark clock in a protest against rules and “the man” one supposes, the cops waded in with billy clubs and tear gas. As the confrontation unfolded, Fass kept track of the melee from behind his WBAI microphone.

But for the most part, Fass has become best known not for his activism but for his intimate and even familial ties to his listeners, who are termed “the cabal”. With his avuncular and soothing manner, he is the polar opposite of the typical commercial radio call-in hosts like Howard Stern even if Stern would be the first to admit that he learned about “free form” radio from listening to Bob Fass.

As befits a documentary about radio, most of the content is aural with prime examples of Bob Fass in conversation with his legion of fans. While the conversation progresses, we see some fascinating photos or motion pictures of New York in the 60s or 70s that have a distinctly film noir quality in keeping with the schedule for “Radio Unnameable”, from midnight to 3am. When Fass first broached the subject of launching the show at midnight, when the station traditionally went off the air, the management asked whether anybody would be up to listen. Fass replied that people worked at night getting the city ready for the next day, from people at switchboards to taxi drivers. One of the interviewees is a Verizon technician (with a nose-ring no less) who tells us how much Bob Fass has meant to her over the years.

I got a big chuckle out of one fan’s devotion to the show, a man who lives in Ellenville, New York, just about ten miles from where I grew up, and 90 miles from Manhattan. Since there is a mountain range that blocks the FM signal, he jerry-rigs a solution that involves connecting a cable from his car radio to the radio in his house.

This is a solution that reminded me of my own in 1959 when I begged my parents to help me find a way to listen to NY FM stations, especially WBAI. My father hired our TV repairman (back then you did not replace TV’s since they were so expensive) to erect a 25-foot antenna in our back yard. This was before Fass was a fixture at the station and even if he were, his virtues would have been lost on a 14 year old kid whose only goal was to listen to interesting music. Dion and the Belmonts et al were deluging the local stations, and I wasn’t having any of that.

WBAI introduced me to some of the most incredible programming I ever could have imagined. Gunther Schuller was the host of a 60 part series on the evolution of classical music in the 20th century. I can remember almost like it was yesterday Schuller explaining how the shifting harmonies of Debussy’s <em>Afternoon of a Faun</em> influenced Schoenberg. He would play a moment or two of the Debussy side by side with some of Schoenberg’s 12-tone music and explain their kinship. Composer Henry Cowell, who surveyed folk music of the world from the Roma people to China, hosted another memorable show. Cowell was a left-wing composer who was part of the broad popular front of the 1930s and 40s. His interest in folk music, which was reflected in his own great compositions, reflected the same kind of internationalism found in Paul Robeson.

After moving to NYC in 1965, shortly after graduating college, I began listening to WBAI in order to get uncensored news about the war in Vietnam. Their reporter Chris Koch was based in Vietnam and exposed administration lies on a daily basis. It helped me to turn definitively against the war, which led to my radicalization. After joining the Trotskyist movement, I lost track of WBAI. In the various cities I traveled to on behalf of the SWP, there was only one that had a Pacifica station. That was in Houston, Texas where Pacifica radio and the SWP were two of the main targets of the Ku Klux Klan. Our bookstore had been destroyed by a pipe bomb a few months before I had arrived in late 1973. Meanwhile the Pacifica station’s transmitter had been dynamited twice.

After leaving the Trotskyist movement, I returned to NYC and made WBAI an important part of my life. During the decade of the 1980s, I was deeply involved with Central America solidarity and the station was literally part of the movement. I became friends with fellow CISPES activist Will K. Wilkins, who hosted a morning show. Will was also a big fan of world music, which WBAI scheduled frequently. I also listened to the last generation of free form radio personalities, like Larry Josephson. Josephson was a neo-conservative crank who hated the leftists who dominated WBAI’s programming. Like many 60s liberals, Josephson had shifted to the right. The only thing that made him interesting was his confessional approach, which was a combination of Woody Allen’s self-deprecating shtick and bitter tirades against the women who had dumped him. Anybody who listened to him for a few moments would understand why he was so lonely. He was an amusing but creepy person.

In the 1990s, program director Samori Marksman, a black Caribbean Marxist and no-nonsense sort of guy, purged the station of such personalities. The station became even more left-wing and more earnest. As somebody with a taste for the neurotically offbeat, I found myself listening to the station less and less, especially since the Internet has become my main form of entertainment.

I had hopes that the revolt against the “NPR-ization” of the station in the early 2000s would have led to a renaissance but unfortunately the station has gone downhill steadily. Essentially the station has become a kind of fiefdom for various shows that appeal to a defined demographic and that are ultimately designed to preserve the host’s “right” to an hour or two of airtime. This would not be so half as bad if the hosts had an ability to engage or entertain the listener. Mostly they came across as slightly obsessed, if not bordering on the insane on occasion. The station has become a hotbed of conspiracy theories, mostly involving 9/11. If Bob Fass has been associated with the nomenclature “Radio Unnameable”, the station unfortunately can best be described as “Radio Unlistenable”.

Much of the film appears to owe a lot to a profile on Bob Fass that appeared in the December 4, 2006 New Yorker titled “<a href=”http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/12/04/061204fa_fact_fisher”>Voice of the Cabal</a>” that I highly recommend. Although this magazine has gone into a decline as precipitous as Pacifica’s, the article is definitely worth reading. Marc Fischer, the author, states:
<p style=”padding-left: 30px;”>The station’s programming, which in Fass’s early years featured literary readings, classical music, and political discussions of an academic bent, has become a Balkanized schedule of shows such as “First Voices Indigenous Radio,” “Out-FM,” “Joy of Resistance” (“multicultural feminist radio”), “Beyond the Pale” (“progressive Jewish politics”), “The Largest Minority” (“issues affecting people with disabilities”), “Afrikaleidoscope,” and “Asia Pacific Forum.” Fass’s show is one of the few on the station seeking a broad audience. “It’s become very tough to be at the station,” Fass said. “I feel like there’s no ‘us’ anymore, just each group with its own little corner. There are black nationalists who don’t have much patience for white people. There are young people who don’t want any old fogies around. I always thought unity makes a lot more sense than separation. But a lot of people don’t want to hear that anymore.”</p>
The malaise at Pacifica can of course not be separated from the malaise facing the left in general. The health of the station from the early 60s until the mid-70s or so was very much related to the cohesion of the left and its esprit. An antiwar movement and a counterculture combined to maintain a focus at the station that inspired some great programming. As the movement declined, and as corporate America began to dominate our lives more and more, the health of the station was impacted. If there is any hope for the station, it is in a revived mass movement that can pull us all together—Black and white, male and female, gay and straight, and young and old. The Pacifica stations can prove invaluable in a period of deepening class crisis. Let’s hope that the station can return once again to its glorious status, even if the odds against it are formidable. Nothing less than the future of humanity is at stake.

The Revolution Betrayed: Obama and the Syrian Uprising

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:42 pm

The North Star

The Revolution Betrayed: Obama and the Syrian Uprising

by Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp on September 16, 2012

in analysis, debate

The first peaceful protest in Syria in January 2011 was directed not at the regime of Bashar al-Assad but against that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Protestors gathered in front of the Egyptian embassy, heavily armed with candles (provided by the Central Intelligence Agency, no doubt) and placards that said “yes for freedom” (in the background) and “no for killing the Egyptian youth” (in the foreground).

This innocuous solidarity demonstration was squashed by the Assad regime.

Evidently the thirst for political freedom is highly contagious, and the Syrian people had to be protected from it at all costs, including their lives.

Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, martyred but not forgotten

Stamping out peaceful protests by force — the tried and true method of the Assad regime ever since Hama in 1982 — succeeded at first but failed in the long run. In March of 2011, children who wrote anti-government slogans on walls in Dara’a were detained, beaten, and tortured. This barbaric act, the first of many to come, sparked what is rightly considered the beginning of the Syrian uprising.

Not long after, in April 2011, the regime handed the broken body of 13-year-old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb to his parents sans genitals, dignity, and life. His crime?

Attending a peaceful protest in Jiza.

read full article

September 16, 2012

RAW VIDEO: CTU Pres. Karen Lewis speaks at Union Park rally | Video | abc7chicago.com

Filed under: Education,workers — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

RAW VIDEO: CTU Pres. Karen Lewis speaks at Union Park rally | Video | abc7chicago.com.

September 15, 2012

The North Star: Progress Report and Fund Appeal

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 4:30 pm

Please go to http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=2412 to help out. I am totally in support of this project and urge others to join in.

From “About North Star”

The North Star’s name is a conscious reference to the The North Star network set up by Peter Camejo in the 1980s after he left the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (it is also the name of his wonderful autobiography). At the time, Camejo concluded that the future of radical politics in this country lay not with the plethora of three-letter left groups but elsewhere; Occupy has born this out in way he could not have imagined, creating an entire infrastructure of ongoing protest and resistance almost overnight independently of the existing left.

Occupy succeeded because it was and is uncompromisingly inclusive. In a very different context, the radical left coalition in Greece (SYRIZA) has succeeded for much the same reason, and in Britain, there is the Anti Capitalist Initiative, a left unity project which is off to a promising start.

What the American anti-capitalist, anti-austerity left needs more than anything else to win victories is unity, and that unity cannot occur without rigorous and honest debate, which is just the first step in a long, protracted process of recreating a radical left in this county with meaningful political.

Facilitating this will be The North Star’s new focus.

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:25 pm

The North Star

Barack Obama’s Courtship of Bashar al-Assad

by Clay Claiborne on September 15, 2012

in analysis


I have been a Linux advocate since 1996 but today I am using the term “open source” in a new context with a new meaning. I have known it to mean computer software for which the all-important source code is freely available and generally under some degree of “copy-left” protection, but in the intelligence world, i.e. spyville, it refers to publicly available information of the sort found in newspapers, press releases and government publications; the kind of stuff we all have access to.

This history of the relationship between the Obama administration and the regime of Bashar al-Assad has been done as an investigative partnership organiszed by WikiLeaks.

I have been privileged to have access not only to the usual open source medias but also to three generally “closed source” databases highly relevant to my search, thanks to Wikileaks.

The first is the Cablegate database of secret US State Department cables published by Wikileaks. This gave me a window into what the US government was really doing and saying.

The second were the Syria files that WikiLeaks published. This collection of emails and their attachments to and from high Syrian officials, allowed me to see things from their point of view, you might say.

Finally, there are the 5 million emails of the global intelligence company Stratfor obtained by WikiLeaks. I have joined the Wikileaks  Global Intelligence Files research and publication team on this new treasure trove of information from the company commonly known as the “private CIA.”

They track everything happening in world affairs and they run their own string of agents and informers, including in the highest offices in Washington, D.C. and Damascus. This source of material gave me invaluable insights into what was really going on. The material from the GI Files incorporated into this essay is being published by Wikileaks at the same time as this essay. I want to thank Pham Binh of the North Star for editing my rough draft.

Donate to Wikileaks. They deserve and need your support to make projects like these possible.

read in full

September 14, 2012

Chris Hedges and B. Traven debate the black bloc

Filed under: black bloc idiots — louisproyect @ 12:31 am

With his feline features, rail-thin yoga instructor body, and white-boy dreadlocks down to his buttocks, B. Traven might have won the debate against the pear-shaped, tan Dacron summer suit wearing, and dour-faced Chris Hedges on looks alone. It was the biggest mismatch I had seen since the Yippie tag-team of Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman went up against SWP leader Fred Halstead in 1969 over “Which Way for the Antiwar Movement?” You probably know what Rubin and Hoffman looked like but Fred Halstead can best be described as a 350 pound, 6’6” behemoth with a face like a delegate’s to a Republican Party convention.

Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman

Fred Halstead

For me the appearance of SWP leaders like Fred Halstead was an asset since I had come to the conclusion that the mainstream of American society had to be won to our cause. Fred had been the leader of a G.I.’s “bring us home” movement in 1946 that led indirectly to the victory of a socialist revolution in China. As a long-time cutter in the garment industry and a housing project resident, Fred was totally “salt of the earth” and a marked contrast to Rubin and Hoffman both culturally and politically.

Ironically the debate between Hedges and Traven was a rehash in many ways of the 1969 debate. While Rubin and Hoffman were not interested in breaking windows, they definitely sought to create “confrontations” with the cops that would lead to billy club and tear gas attacks on protestors with the ultimate goal of radicalizing those who were beaten and jailed. Fred recounts the differences in “Out Now”, a history of the Vietnam antiwar movement:

SDS was bent on “doing its own thing,” which Rubin kept inviting people to do, in line with his dream of initiating wholesale disruption. Dellinger tended to dismiss the wilder statements of SDSers, Rubin, and others in those milieux as idle rhetoric. There was truth to this, but the rhetoric itself was hurting the mass character of the march. It was also the height of folly, in my view, because it gave the police a ready-made excuse to physically attack the demonstration. To counter this the SWP demanded assurances as to the peaceful, legal character of the mass march and rally. We pressed for this to be made publicly clear.

There were also some of the pacifists—like Brad Lyttle and Peter Kiger—who were uneasy about the “do-your-own-thing” rhetoric. They wanted assurances as to the nonviolent discipline. The SWP joined in these demands. But the area of rapprochement with those bent on “doing their own thing” was narrow.

Dellinger in this period was in the unenviable position of negotiating with Rubin and SDS on the one hand and some of the moderate groups on the other. He was, after all, a pacifist committed to nonviolence across the board. The SWPers were not. To him our stand may have seemed like a hypocritical maneuver against Rubin and SDS. But it wasn’t. We simply held to the position that the nonviolent tactic was necessary in order to maintain the mass character of the action under the given circumstances. A free-for-all fight—rhetorical or otherwise—was not part of the agreement.

This had nothing to do with “vacillation and timidity.” It had to do with keeping the movement’s statement clear and attracting the masses. One thing the new-guard SDSers had difficulty understanding was that ordinary people stay away from physical fights they can’t possibly win, not because they lack courage or conviction, but because they think it’s crazy or too costly.

In essence Chris Hedges defended an SWP-type position against B. Traven even though he has made a point of attacking both Marx and Lenin on occasion. I believe that Hedges has not really conducted a rigorous study of Marxism to this date and hope that he will at some point. He has said in the past and during last night’s debate that the Russian Revolution was peaceful and that the violence came from the Czarist forces. That demonstrates to me that he has at least gotten past Cold War Kremlinology even if he has on at least one occasion referred to Lenin “hijacking” the revolution.

The key point that Hedges made over and over again is the same as Halstead’s, namely the need to involve the mainstream. In his article likening the black bloc to cancer (I would have been more specific and likened them to intestinal cancer), he made a point that could have been lifted from “Out Now”:

This is a struggle to win the hearts and minds of the wider public and those within the structures of power (including the police) who are possessed of a conscience.

The Black Bloc’s thought-terminating cliché of “diversity of tactics” in the end opens the way for hundreds or thousands of peaceful marchers to be discredited by a handful of hooligans.

Dave Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, Abby Hoffman and SDS all turned toward “confrontationism” out of frustration with the inability of mass demonstrations to end the war two or three years into the movement. They calculated that a “temper tantrum”, especially by middle-class white kids, would cause such angst among the ruling class that the war would end. A strong corollary of this approach was a belief in supporting “peace candidates” such as Eugene McCarthy. The 1968 convention was selected as a protest site in order to put pressure on the Democrats to adopt a peace platform.

Despite himself, B. Traven demonstrated the same kind of impatience during the debate but over a different war. When Chris Hedges referred to the futility of breaking windows, Traven responded by pointing to the 2003 demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq. Look, he said, these were the biggest protests in decades and what did they accomplish? The invasion took place anyhow. Hedges responded ably by pointing out that the antiwar movement essentially closed shop in 2004 in order to elect John Kerry, so the mass action approach was not really given a chance to work. This, of course, was a function of the CPUSA leadership of the peace movement. Given its craven support for the Democratic Party, the liquidation of the movement was a foregone conclusion. The only alternative to the CP was the SWP of the 1960s and 70s when people like Fred Halstead were around. Nowadays it is nothing but a cult around Jack Barnes whose newspaper gave implicit support for the invasion by characterizing the 2003 demonstrations as “anti-American”.

I came to the debate with the heightened expectations that it would approximate the fireworks of the Halstead-Yippie debate. Would B. Traven take out a spray-paint can in the middle of the debate and write “Death to Capitalism” across Hedges’s forehead? No such luck. For the most part he served as a kind of attorney for the black bloc or even a social worker or priest in the style of those 1930s to 1950s movies about juvenile delinquents.  You know the kind of film I am talking about, with someone like Spencer Tracy telling the judge, “Your Honor, these boys are not bad. They are just a product of their environment and have to be understood.”

That’s what I heard from Traven when he explained why the black bloc was so strong in Oakland. It was because Oscar Grant was shot and killed by transit cops in 2009 and none of them were charged with a crime. Evidently there must be something wrong with New York City activists since a string of such killings, including Amadou Diallo, has prompted no Starbucks windows being broken or riots in the Black community for that matter. The reaction has mainly consisted of mass mobilizations led by Al Sharpton that have since abated since his absorption into the Obama/MSNBC liberal machinery.

Traven also tried to put vandalism into a global context, demanding to know why people like Hedges hail the Egyptian mass movement while opposing the black bloc here. After all, 100s of police stations were burned to the ground in Egypt. Hedges calmly replied that Egypt was a dictatorship with hundreds, if not thousands, of its citizens being denied the right to form opposition parties and forced to endure imprisonment, torture or state-sponsored executions. When the mass movement defended itself against police terror in Tahrir Square, that’s a far cry from spray-painting a Whole Foods window. If and when class polarization in the U.S. deepens to the point when we have to face such repression, it will make sense for the masses to use whatever means necessary to defend their rights. My guess is that under such conditions, the last place they will look for help is from the trick-or-treat, spring break in Fort Lauderdale boys behind the masks wearing black.

The last thing I want to do is waste my time exploring the thinking of Crimethinc.com, the website/collective that B. Traven belongs to but there is one article that I found quite revealing even if its points were not made during the debate by its dreadlocked spokesman. In an article titled “What Does Democracy Mean?”, they reach the interesting conclusion that it is not worth fighting for:

Our forebears overthrew kings and dictators, but they didn’t abolish the institutions by which kings and dictators ruled: they democratized them. Yet whoever operates these institutions—whether it’s a king, a president, or an electorate—the experience on the receiving end is roughly the same. Laws, bureaucracy, and police came before democracy; they function the same way in a democracy as in a dictatorship. The only difference is that, because we can cast ballots about how they should be applied, we’re supposed to regard them as ours even when they’re used against us.

Can you imagine someone passing out a leaflet with such ideas inscribed to sharecroppers in Mississippi in 1962? Or to someone living under Mubarak’s iron fist? Democracy means rule of the people, an idea of course that can only be fully realized under socialism. But the fight for socialism cannot be advanced unless working people have the right to form unions, to publish newspapers, to assemble in public and enjoy the freedoms afforded us under the Bill of Rights.

The sneering attitude toward democracy of course goes hand in hand with the whole black bloc modus operandi, where an affinity group decides unilaterally what it will do and when it will do it. Those who have studied the origins of the tactic will know that the autonomist movement in Germany initiated it. The autonomy they sought was not just from the capitalist state but also from the trade unions and left parties that workers built—with all their flaws. It did not matter that millions of workers decided that a General Strike would culminate in a peaceful demonstration. If the autonomists decided that Molotov cocktails had to be thrown, it was up to them and not the stupid workers to decide. My suspicion is that if we ever reach such an advanced stage in the U.S., we will have to be on close guard to make sure that young men in masks don’t act in unaccountable fashion. Vigilance will be necessary to defend the workers movement that surely will be arising under the conditions of permanent economic decline.

Chris Hedges observed during the debate that the Occupy movement never died, it just took different forms such as the Teachers strike in Chicago that is using mass mobilization. Can you imagine what the impact on the strike would have been if black bloc idiots had decided to start breaking windows during the mass demonstrations? Thank goodness they figured out that they would have been effectively drummed out of the movement if they did. Let’s hope that they figure out better ways in the future to oppose corporate rule. The movement needs unity at all costs today and everybody’s help is needed in moving forward. Everybody.

September 11, 2012

Progressives for Obama, version 2.0

Filed under: liberalism,New Deal,Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm

On March 25, 2008 Tom Hayden, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Barbara Ehrenreich, and Danny Glover issued a statement launching “Progressives for Obama” that included a number of endorsers with impeccable Marxist credentials such as Robin D.G. Kelly, Immanuel Wallerstein and Francis Fox Piven. Meanwhile Bill Fletcher Jr. was a one-time member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a “New Communist Movement” (NCM) group that survived the 1980s implosion of Maoism described by Max Elbaum in “Revolution in the Air”. For most NCM groups, working in the Democratic Party was a tactic while for their Trotskyist adversaries it was rank class-collaborationism. Since the inspiration for the New Communist Movement was the “heroic” CPUSA of the 1930s and 40s, it was natural for them to keep an open mind about the Democrats even if the CPUSA itself was widely dismissed as “revisionist”.

Tom Hayden

The statement put forward the notion that pressure applied from below would work to move Obama to the left in much the same way that CIO activism in the 1930s acted on FDR:

However, the fact that Barack Obama openly defines himself as a centrist invites the formation of this progressive force within his coalition. Anything less could allow his eventual drift towards the right as the general election approaches. It was the industrial strikes and radical organizers in the 1930s who pushed Roosevelt to support the New Deal.

Maybe Obama himself bought into this formula since he put the burden of change on the grass roots in his 2012 speech to the Democratic Party convention:

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.

So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens – you were the change…

If you turn away now – if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible…well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves.

Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.

Immune to Obama’s charisma from the get-go, the NY Times’s Maureen Dowd had little use for the “you were the change” nonsense:

We were the change!

We were the change? Us?

How on earth could we have let so much of what we fought for slip away? How did we allow Mitch McConnell, Karl Rove, the super PACs, the Tea Party, the lobbyists and the special interests take away our voice?

“Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen,” the president chastised us. “Only you have the power to move us forward.”

We’re so lame. We were naïve, brimming with confidence that we could slow the rise of the oceans, heal the planet, fix the cracks in the Capitol dome.

After four years of White House catering to Wall Street banksters, Guantanamo, drone attacks on civilians, death lists that include American citizens, unparalleled deportations, and generally what looks like George W. Bush’s third term, selling Obama 2012 is about as daunting a prospect as opening a pork store in a Hasidic neighborhood.

As an eager albeit clumsy propagandist for the Democratic Party, Tom Hayden stepped into the breach with a challenge to Obama-haters everywhere: support the sleazy incumbent or be found guilty of “white blindness”.

Why Obama’s achievements are dismissed or denied by many on the white liberal-left is a question worth serious consideration. It may only be a matter of legitimate disappointment after the utopian expectations of 2008. It could be pure antipathy to electoral politics, or a superficial assessment of how near impossible it is to change intransigent institutions. It could be a vested organizational interest in asserting there is no difference between the two major parties, a view wildly at odds with the intense partisan conflicts on exhibit every day. Or it could even be a white blindness in perceptions of reality on the left. When African American voters favor Obama 94 percent to zero, and the attacks are coming from the white liberal-left, something needs repair in the foundations of American radicalism.

Tim Wise, who was one of the endorsees of the 2008 pro-Obama declaration, has a virtual monopoly on ferreting out “white blindness” so one hopes for poor Tom Hayden’s sake that Wise does not contact a good intellectual property lawyer.

Singled out as a “white blindness” miscreant is Harper Magazine editor Thomas Frank who had the temerity to conclude that Obama will never pursue a second New Deal because “that is precisely what Obama was here to prevent.” Frank, of course, is symptomatic of the wholesale disillusionment with Obama that Hayden is trying to dismiss. Like Hayden, Frank had a special place in his heart for FDR and devoted much energy and ink trying to advise Democrats how to get their mojo back. Once it became clear that Obama had no use for such advice (his chief aide, now Mayor of Chicago declaring war on the teacher’s union, dismissed anything coming out of “the professional left”), people like Thomas Frank decided that fighting back was the only thing that made sense. Tom Hayden, on the other hand, argued in the words of David Byrne that it was necessary to stop making sense.

Jason Schulman

Michael Hirsch

Proceeding from the ridiculous to the not quite sublime, we consider now an article written for the excellent Jacobin Magazine by two long-time DSA members, Jason Schulman and Michael Hirsch titled “Beyond November”, which starts off on a high note and then plummets downwards at lightning speed.

Marx wrote in The Civil War in France that every few years workers got to decide which members of the ruling class were to misrepresent them. How right he was. And is. That is uncontestable.

The rest of the article amounts to a contesting of exactly what Marx wrote, an exercise in advanced dialectics I guess.

Just to cover their left flank, Hirsch and Schulman write just the sort of thing designed to raise Hayden’s dander:

The prospects of selling Obama as the preferred candidate are daunting, if worth doing at all. With his proliferation of the national security state, his refusal to put juice behind the Conyers 
jobs bill, his water-carrying for the insurance companies and destruction of any near-term possibility for single-payer health care, his failures on card check and other labor law reforms, his refusal to treat Wall Street as a criminal enterprise, his embrace of reactionary education philosophies, his incursive black-ops foreign policy, and his ten o’clock scholar’s embrace of gay marriage, his is an administration not to praise but to damn.

Well, hurrah for damning. Where do I sign up?

Apparently our two intrepid leftists have a bait-and-switch scheme up their sleeves because they end up finding reasons to vote Democrat, even if it falls within the category of damning with faint praise. As an unrepentant Marxist, I won’t settle for anything less than pure damning—Dante 9th circle style.

After describing 3rd party election campaigns like the Greens as being based on a “prayer” rather than a “plan”, they make the hoary case for being practical:

The Democrats as a coalition are hegemonic because they provide a service, finite as it is, that is indispensable for institutions, whether they be unions, social service providers, or community-based organizations.

The article concludes with a call for reelecting Obama—if you read between the lines:

Allowing Obama to be reelected without any critique from the Left – even one that is purely propagandistic, as the Green and Socialist parties will offer – only ratifies his centrist approach of cottoning to and co-opting the Right while neutering the Left and any possibility for substantial social gains. We can do better.

In other words, it is okay to vote for Obama just as long as you make sure to make the record that he is something of a pig.

Maybe Michael Hirsch felt constrained to deemphasize the need to actually vote for Obama in 2012—the official position of the Democratic Socialists of America, the group he has been long associated with—because Jacobin’s editors are quite a bit to the left of the DSA, even if a few are members. If you go to the DSA website, you can find a position paper on the 2012 elections that makes the “lesser evil” case quite openly even while renouncing it. That’s the art of dialectics, after all:

In light of the threat that would be posed to basic democratic rights by Republican control of all three branches of the federal government, most trade union, feminist, LGBTQ and African- American and Latino organizations will work vigorously to re-elect the president. And in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and elsewhere, many DSA members may choose to do the same. But DSA recognizes that an Obama victory, unaccompanied by the strengthening of an independent progressive coalition able to challenge the elites of both parties, will be a purely defensive engagement in lesser-evil politics.

This is the same argument I have been hearing since 1968, a year after I joined the Trotskyist movement. Ironically, I became disillusioned with the Democratic Party three years earlier, just after graduating Bard College.

I was too young to vote in 1964 but if I had been old enough I surely would have voted for Lyndon Johnson. I was not that concerned with Vietnam since it was still a very much low intensity affair but the idea of Barry Goldwater’s finger on the H-Bomb trigger scared the bejeezus out of me.

He told audiences, “Some others are eager to enlarge the conflict. They call upon the U.S. to supply American boys to do the job that Asian boys should do. We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves. We don’t want to get . . . tied down to a land war in Asia.”

It turned out he had plans to escalate the war all along. I spent most of 1966 staring at the evening news on television trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. How could a “peace” candidate turn out to be such a warmonger?

Within a year I got educated into class politics through new members classes in the Young Socialist Alliance and particularly “Socialism on Trial”, which amounted to the court proceedings in the trial of SWP leaders in 1941 for violation of the Smith Act. James P. Cannon testified on the party’s attitude toward Roosevelt’s New Deal:

Q: What is the position of the party on the attempt of Roosevelt to improve the social system in this country?

A: How do you mean, “improve the social system”?

Q: To set capitalism into motion again, after the depression of 1929.

A: Well, all these measures of the New Deal were made possible in this country, and not possible for the poorer countries of Europe, because of the enormous accumulation of wealth in this country. But the net result of the whole New Deal experiment was simply the expenditure of billions and billions of dollars to create a fictitious stability, which in the end evaporated.

Now the Roosevelt administration is trying to accomplish the same thing by the artificial means of a war boom; that is, of an armament boom, but again, in our view, this has no possibility of permanent stability at all.

Q: With reference to the misery and suffering of the masses, what would you say as to the existence of that factor in the United States?

A: In our view, the living standards of the masses have progressively deteriorated in this country since 1929. They haven’t yet reached that stage which I mentioned as a prerequisite of an enormous upsurge of revolutionary feeling, but millions of American workers were pauperised following 1929; and that, in our opinion, is a definite sign of the development of this prerequisite for the revolution.

There’s not much that I retain from my ill-spent youth in the Trotskyist movement but I’ll take James P. Cannon over Tom Hayden’s circumlocutions and Hirsch-Schulman’s “dialectics” any day of the week. Hopes for Obama launching a new New Deal are all the more vain in light of the fact that the original was a con job to begin with. And that’s that.

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