Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 8, 2012


Filed under: Film,financial crisis,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 7:35 pm

If you are under the impression that there’s nothing more to be said about the demise of the auto industry and its terrible impact on working people after Michael Moore, you owe it to yourself to see “Detropia”, a documentary that opened yesterday at the IFC Center in New York (screening information for other cities is here). Dispensing with Moore’s by now narcissistic intrusion into the narrative, “Detropia” allows Detroit’s African-Americans to tell their own stories. Thankfully, it is also free of Moore’s mawkish Capraesque pieties about “turning things around” by getting Obama elected. Among the lessons we learn from “Detropia” is that General Motors has used taxpayer money courtesy of Obama’s “rescue” of the auto industry to set up shop in China to build the Volt, their new electric car.

Oddly enough, the Ford Foundation funded the film, something I would liken to the German high command furnishing the sealed train that returned Lenin to Russia in 1917. Apparently the liberal program administrators there hoped that the film would raise awareness about Detroit’s phoenix-like return to prosperity, embodied in the closing moments of the film by a couple of white out-of-towners who came there in search of a cheap loft. If so, their money was wasted since the ineluctable message of the film is that capitalism has destroyed the city that once symbolized its rise under the rubric of Fordism, the very engine of growth that made the Ford Foundation possible.

Serving as a Greek chorus on the city’s decline is a cross-section of the Black community, including Tommy Stevens, the owner of a blues bar who is a retired schoolteacher, a young blogger named Crystal Starr, and local auto union president George McGregor.

We meet Starr walking through the ruins of an old building taking pictures with her cell phone. She muses as she walks, “Who lived here?” “Where did they go?” “What the fuck happened”? Those, of course, are the same exact questions that any sensible person would ask who remembers Detroit from the 1950s as the steam engine that was propelling America into a glorious future.

The press notes provide some quantitative answers:

  • In 1930, Detroit was the fastest growing city in the world. (The Guardian)
  • Detroit’s population shrank by more than 25% in the last decade. The city’s population has fallen from over 1.85 million in 1950 to 713,777 in 2010; a drop of almost 240,000 residents in ten years. That’s 100,000 more than Katrina-ravaged New Orleans lost. (The New York Times)
  • Detroit has about 40,000 abandoned homes and 100,000 vacant residential lots. (The New York Times)
  • The average price for a home in Detroit $7,100, down from $73,000 three years earlier. (The Wall Street Journal)

As a UAW official, George McGregor has his own set of answers, revolving mostly around the greed of some of the major automobile companies and their suppliers, including American Axle Company that used to be one of the city’s main employers. Axel has left Detroit except for one plant whose workers have been presented with an ultimatum. Workers have to sign a contract based on wage cuts of up to 25% or else. When we see them at a meeting voicing opposition to the contract and a willingness to fight, we probably anticipate what happens next: American Axle shuts down the plant and moves production to Mexico.

One of the points made unintentionally by the film is that working-class weakness is tied directly to the disappearance of jobs. Classical Marxism has always been premised on the idea that struggles at the point of production will escalate until the workers realize that their only option is to seize the means of production and produce for their own benefit rather than that of the bosses.

In the 1930s, when Detroit was the fastest growing city in the U.S., a militant trade union movement found itself on a collision course with the Henry Fords of the world. Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler had no other option except to produce cars within our nation’s borders and workers could use their collective strength to force retreats. Ultimately, a reformist leadership of the UAW struck a Grand Bargain with the bosses that made business unionism acceptable and a good life for the workers the norm.

The emergence of powerful competitors in Japan, Korea and Europe made that Grand Bargain not worth the paper it was written on. Unfortunately for the working class, the UAW still acts as if it is still in place. But even if it didn’t, there is some question about its capacity to push back the bosses on their heels. In the late 70s, when the American Trotskyist movement embarked on its ill-fated “turn to industry”, it assumed that we would be reenacting the 1930s with the working class at “center stage”. As it turned out—in the words of Peter Camejo in 1983—the opposite was true:

If any class has stood in the center of U.S. politics in the last ten years, it has been the bourgeoisie. Following its sharp divisions during the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal, it has been able to reunify itself (a unity which may be once again coming into question), and go on the offensive. The industrial working class — along with the oppressed nationalities, white-collar workers, women and students — responded to the attacks in disarray and disunity. No leadership arose in these defensive struggles to promote an effective united response, nor has there yet been any nationwide class struggle political alternative to challenge the complete dominance of the bourgeoisie in electoral politics.

As the economic crisis has grown, generating an increasing number of unemployed and worsening conditions both on the job and in life in general, there has been a reaction reaching into the industrial unions. The capitalists, forced by their drive to maintain their profits under increasingly difficult economic conditions, have begun testing and challenging the power of the industrial unions. The results at this stage are a stand-off. While the ruling class has made some important gains and has forced a series of concessions, they have not been able in open struggle to destroy any major industrial union. All their victories, at least in terms of the relationship of forces, can be rapidly put in question by the first generalized upsurge of the industrial workers.

The only modification I would make to Peter’s words, with the benefit of nearly 30 years of hindsight is to change “The results at this stage are a stand-off” to “The results at this stage are a blitzkrieg victory of the ruling class.”

It would be too much to expect co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who worked together on the excellent “Jesus Camp”, to tackle the problems facing the working class, who in the final analysis is the only force capable of changing Detroit, America and the planet, and put forth any kind of strategy for social change. If they did, you can bet that the Ford Foundation would have opened the trap door beneath them.

Despite the lack of an answer to Detroit’s problems, the filmmakers have performed a major service to the left and to the socially aware film audience (my readers, in other words) by putting the challenge on the front burner. This is a film that is must-viewing for anybody who is unhappy with the mounting class divisions in the U.S. today.

As blues bar owner Tommy Stevens put it, America is facing a situation in which the ruling class has more wealth than at any time in our history while the middle class (in other words, the Fordist working class of the 50s and 60s) is rapidly disappearing. Those left at the bottom will only have a single recourse, and that is to overthrow the capitalist system. Those are his words, not mine.

September 7, 2012

Final thoughts on Richard Aoki

Filed under: Richard Aoki — louisproyect @ 9:55 pm

So it turns out that Richard Aoki was an FBI informant after all. Seth Rosenfeld got his hands on over 200 pages of FBI files that make claims of “snitch jacketing” impossible unless you are willing to believe that the files seen here are fabricated.

Part of the problem we have been dealing with is Rosenfeld’s unfortunate blurring of the distinction between informant and provocateur. He explicitly names Aoki as an informant but implicitly as a provocateur as well. The business about giving guns to the Panthers and proposing that Berkeley students rob armories to get weapons to use against the National Guard lends itself to the interpretation that Aoki was entrapping people in the same fashion used against Muslims in the U.S.

As an informant, there was not much harm that Aoki could have done to groups like the SWP. Our members were not involved in illegal activity and had the reputation of avoiding adventures of the sort that some Maoist groups embraced.

But as a provocateur, Aoki could have wreaked havoc with inexperienced and impatient student youth. Yet Rosenfeld really makes little effort to connect the dots to the FBI even if political veterans like myself will inevitably make such a connection. This blurring of lines is of course a function of Rosenfeld trying to make a political point at the expense of clarity.

A deep mystery lingers over who Richard Aoki was and what made him tick. After reading his words in Diane Fujino’s “Samurai among Panthers”, I found it impossible to consider him an FBI informant except for a brief period when he was in high school. He struck me as an exemplary radical leader, even if his ultraleftism was counterproductive some of the time.

I wonder if there was an element of gamesmanship involved in his deception. Apparently he was a fan of Frederick Nietzsche long before he read Marx. Was there an element of the Superman and Beyond Good and Evil going on? I also am reminded of some of the classic Hong Kong policiers like Andrew Lau’s “Infernal Affairs” that was remade as “The Departed” by Martin Scorsese. In such films, cops are always penetrating triad gangs, although it would be difficult to imagine anybody in their right mind confusing the Panther’s Breakfast program with drug smuggling.

My guess is that there is a certain personality who is both drawn to infiltrating left groups as an informant and good at it to boot. In Peter Camejo’s memoir there is a chapter on the SWP’s suit against the FBI. At one point Judge Griesa orders the FBI to reveal the name of all the informants, including Ed Heisler who was Peter’s campaign manager.

Heisler was a national committee member of the SWP for a number of years, largely on the strength of his leadership in the UTU (United Transportation Union), a railway union. He wrote a book titled “A Struggle for Union Democracy: The Story of the Right to Vote Committee in the United Transportation Union” that is still for sale as a used book on Amazon.com for only $54.60. I imagine that anybody reading the book without foreknowledge of Heisler’s ties to the FBI would have the same reaction I had to Aoki’s “told to” narrative in Fujino’s book—what a great comrade. I have no idea what made Ed Heisler tick, except that it was well known that he used to patronize prostitutes when he was in the SWP and lived in rundown rooming houses. The first offense would have gotten him expelled if the party leadership had been on its toes. The second wasn’t really an offense but simply an indication that he was not socially integrated into our movement.

Of course, the most skilled informant of all time was Roman Malinovsky who represented the Bolsheviks in the Duma. In 1914 Malinovsky resigned his post, a violation of discipline that led to his expulsion.  When Lenin’s “liquidationist” comrades, with whom he split in 1912, made a big stink about Malinovsky’s resignation, he reminded them of what they said about him only two years earlier—words that Lenin most certainly concurred with:

The deputy elected by the workers of the Moscow Gubernia is Roman Malinovsky, former secretary of the St. Petersburg Metalworkers’ Union. In his person the Social-Democratic group in the Duma acquires for the first time a prominent practical worker in the trade union movement, who in the grim years of reaction played an active part in the legal working-class organisations…

The years of Malinovsky’s secretaryship was a period in the life of the Union in which it had to contend, not only with severe external conditions, but also with the apathy of the workers themselves. Malinovsky’s personal example served as an effective weapon against this “internal enemy”.

His energy seemed inexhaustible. He undertook the responsible task of leading a strike with the same ardour as he carried out the painstaking work of organisation.

The Wikipedia entry on Malinovsky states:

By now he was an alcoholic, drinking vodka from teapots. His real identity was unveiled by his ex-mistress Elena Troyanovskaya, and he went into exile in Germany. When World War I broke out, he was interned into a POW camp by the Germans. Lenin, still standing by him, sent him clothes. He said: “If he is a provocateur, the police gained less from it than our Party did.” This refers to his strong anti-Menshevism. Eventually, Lenin changed his mind: “What a swine: shooting’s too good for him!”[6]

I for one would have made a terrible informant for the simple reason that I hate to lie. For long stretches in my life (except for the past 10 years of a blissful marriage) I have been single because I was incapable of lying to a woman in a relationship. If I was ever asked the question, “Do you love me?”, I could only tell the truth even if a no caused the woman to walk out on me. (Sometimes saying yes worked against me as well.)

I did lie on occasion using Bolshevik guile, bending the truth in order to advance the class struggle. After I started a job at Texas Commerce Bank in 1973, I was elected a delegate to the SWP convention months before I was eligible to get a vacation. So I went into my boss—the good Billy Penrod—and told him a lie straight out of a Seinfeld episode: my mother had died in an automobile accident. A few weeks after I got back to work I found out that Billy had made a donation to some charity in honor of my mother’s passing. I felt awful for months afterwards.

September 6, 2012

Report on September 2nd rally for Syrian revolution

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 11:38 pm


When Egyptian activist Asmaa Mahfouz visited the U.S., she told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman why she came down to Zuccotti Park to offer solidarity with the protesters:

The U.S. were sending every day for Mubarak regime, and now the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces]. While they giving money and power and support to Mubarak regime, our people, Egyptian people, can success against all of this, against the U.S. power. So, the power to the people, not for the U.S. bullets or bombs or money or anything. The power to the people. So that I am here to be in solidarity and support the Wall Street Occupy protesters, to say them, “the power to the people,” and to keep it on and on, and they will success in the end.

The slogan “power to the people”, of course, comes from the Black Panther Party of the 1960s just as the slogan “revolution is the only solution” heard on the Syria protest in Washington on September 2nd also comes from the left. The young people who have put their bodies on the line in Syria, whether through peaceful protest or by going up against al-Assad’s military with nothing but an automatic rifle, are fighting for a just cause that everybody on the left should support whether or not they understand it or not.

In 1848 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels took part in a democratic revolution sweeping Germany and the rest of Europe even if “socialist” demands were not being raised by the masses. They understood that without democratic rights working people could not put forward their own class-based demands with maximum effectiveness. Syria and Libya were hostile to trade union rights even if their dictators mouthed “socialist” rhetoric. Without the right to publish a newspaper, to gather peacefully in public, to hand out leaflets, to set up a picket line, etc., it is impossible to push for full social emancipation. That is why the social democracy in Russia fought against Tsarism and that is why the best and the brightest in the Arab world are fighting for democracy.

Today I was dismayed to learn that Venezuela has been sending oil to Syria. The al-Assad dictatorship has the blood of 25,000 of its own citizens on its hands. If the country were the same size as the U.S., this figure would be 300,000. Can you imagine what it would be like if that number of people died in a little over a year? This is one of the most bloodthirsty regimes in recent history, going back to Pinochet in Chile.

Understanding the Syrian revolution as one of the deepest movements for human freedom in this period of human history is a challenge for the left. I offer the video below as a way of seeing the humanity that is fighting for a better world without bias. There is so much confusion on the part of the left about who to support in Syria that it would practically take a miracle to get some of the pro-Assad left to change its mind. Indeed, there is some question whether the term “left” applies at all. If you are sitting on the fence, I hope that these sounds and images will help you get off the fence and on the side of freedom.

Technical note

I am still getting the hang of video editing, not to speak of my JVC camcorder that has more buttons than can be found on a  Boeing 747 cockpit.

I tried to include some information on speakers at the rally but obviously the jpeg’s cannot be read unless you use a full-screen version of the video. The basic problem is that both jpeg’s and IMovie titles are not really suited for explanatory text. The jpeg is a particular problem because it is limited to a page frame rather than a full video frame. I am going to figure out how to do this if it kills me. I think the obvious solution is to use the camera to capture the words on a piece of paper in close-up but maybe there is another solution.

In any case, here is the information on the speakers:

Omar Offendum

Omar Offendum has had a diverse group of artists who have inspired his work which contributes to his diversity. Hip hop groups such as Public Enemy and even reggae artists like Bob Marley have inspired him in one way or another. American artists were not his only inspirations; he has several Arabic classical musicians such as Abdel Halim Ali Shabana, Oum Kalthoum and Fairouz. He is also inspired by poets such as Langston Hughes an American poet and a key individual that influenced some of his songs on the SyrianamericanA album was Nizar Qabbani, a Syrian poet.

Omar Offendum’s song #Jan25, inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, became popular in 2011. It went viral via the internet, which Offendum sees as a key factor in the spread of international hip-hop. It was released in February 2011, shortly before the resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Omar Offendum has often collaborated with Yassin Alsalman also known as The Narcicyst and Shadia Mansour, “the first lady of Arabic hip hop.

from Wikipedia

Hatem Bazian

At San Francisco State University in the late 1980s, Bazian became the first Palestinian to be elected president of SFSU Associated Students and the Student Union Governing Board. He was the first student to win a second term as president in the history of SFSU. The election came as a result of a united front formed under the Progressive Coalition that brought together all the students of color organizations on a common platform and a joint political strategy.

At the national conference United States Student Association (USSA) held at UC Berkeley in 1988, Bazian co-lead a major walk-out that culminated in the organization adopting a progressive board of directors structure granting by a 2/3 vote at least 50% of the Seats to Students of Color.

Bazian was elected as a Chair of the National People of Color Student Coalition (NPCSC) and an executive board member of the USSA. In both, he took the lead on affirmative action, access to education, anti-apartheid efforts on college campuses, and the Central American Solidarity Movement. He authored resolutions, which were adopted by the USSA national conference in 1991 calling for cutting US aid to Israel and imposing sanctions for its sales of military equipment to apartheid South Africa.

from Wikipedia

Zahid Shakir

Born in Berkeley, California, he accepted Islam in 1977 while serving in the United States Air Force. He obtained a BA with honors in International Relations at American University in Washington D.C. and later earned his MA in Political Science at Rutgers University. While at Rutgers, he led a successful campaign for divestment from South Africa, and co-founded New Brunswick Islamic Center formerly Masjid al-Huda.

After a year of studying Arabic in Cairo, Egypt, he settled in New Haven, Connecticut and continued his community activism, co-founding Masjid Al-Islam, the Tri-State Muslim Education Initiative, and the Connecticut Muslim Coordinating Committee. As Imam of Masjid Al-Islam from 1988 to 1994 he spear-headed a community renewal and grassroots anti-drug effort, and also taught political science and Arabic at Southern Connecticut State University. He served as an interfaith council Chaplain at Yale Universityand developed the Chaplaincy Sensitivity Training for physicians at Yale New Haven Hospital. He then left for Syria to pursue his studies in the traditional Islamic sciences.

from http://www.newislamicdirections.com

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

Imam Hamza Yusuf, who runs an Islamic institute in California, is fast becoming a world figure as Islam’s most able theological critic of the suicide hijacking. This afternoon he will address British religious leaders at the House of Lords on the subject.

His speech will upset many Muslim radicals here. A charismatic and popular speaker, Yusuf openly declares his belief that Islam is in a mess. He wants Muslims to return to their “true faith”, stripped of violence, intolerance and hatred. Nor does he pay much deference to the states in which many Muslims live. When we meet, he declares: “Many people in the west do not realise how oppressive some Muslim states are – both for men and for women. This is a cultural issue, not an Islamic one. I would rather live as a Muslim in the west than in most of the Muslim countries, because I think the way Muslims are allowed to live in the west is closer to the Muslim way. A lot of Muslim immigrants feel the same way, which is why they are here.”

His rise to prominence is even more extraordinary given his unusual background. Hamza Yusuf, 42, started life as Mark Hanson, son of two US academics, only converting at 17. Thirty years ago, he seemed destined not for Islamic scholarship, but for the Greek Orthodox priesthood. Then, a near-death experience in a car accident and reading the Koran diverted him towards Mecca.

from The Guardian, Sunday 7 October 2001

September 5, 2012

Richard Aoki Reconsidered

Filed under: Richard Aoki — louisproyect @ 4:51 pm

The North Star

Richard Aoki Reconsidered

by Louis Proyect, Unrepentant Marxist on September 5, 2012

in analysis, debate, history

Although my Maoist comrades will probably be disappointed in my failure to do a full-scale breast-beating self-criticism, I am now ready to admit that my original take on the Richard Aoki controversy was shortsighted.

I placed far too much credit in Seth Rosenfeld’s investigation based on his having been honored with a George Polk award in 1992. Named after a CBS correspondent who died in the Greek civil war (1946-1949), it is often given to fearless journalists such as Robert Knight, the WBAI radio reporter who received the award for his coverage of the U.S. invasion of Panama.

I also took into account the fact that he was a staff member of the Center for Investigative Reporting whose board members include Ben Bagdikian, Bill Moyers, and Mark Dowie (the author of Losing Ground, a tough-minded investigation of mainstream environmentalism and American Foundations, an equally tough-minded take-down of the Pew Charitable Trust and company.)

Finally, I placed a lot of trust in Wesley Swearingen’s involvement with Rosenfeld’s investigation since this former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent is about as close to a Philip Agee as the bureau ever produced. In a January 15, 1979 New York Times profile on Swearingen, John Crewdson reported that the ex-agent accused the FBI of killing Fred Hampton in a “deliberate set-up.” I also heard Swearingen’s testimony first-hand on behalf of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) when it was suing the FBI as an occasional visitor to the courtroom in New York where the case was being heard.

So I was inclined to give Rosenfeld and Swearingen the benefit of the doubt. These are two men who appeared at first blush to be exemplars of integrity, and still are worthy of respect. However, I am afraid that Rosenfeld did not live up to past standards when writing about Aoki as I will now attempt to demonstrate. I have read his chapter on Aoki at least three times and have had the opportunity to read Diane Fujino’s Samurai Among Panthers, up to and including the chapter on the 1969 student strike at Berkeley.

Read full article

September 3, 2012

Riff Raff

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 1:52 pm


NY Times September 2, 2012

Is Riff Raff Eccentric? Yes. Next Question?


The Riff Raff concert on Thursday night at Santos Party House began with a news conference, podium and all, except it wasn’t nearly a news conference. It was after midnight in a sweaty, crowded nightclub, and Riff Raff, wearing a pink neon windbreaker, mostly took banal questions from the crowd: Will Riff Raff bring the rice out? “Rice shall be brought.” (More on the rice later.) Does Riff Raff play basketball? “I hoop so good I damn near could’ve been Sheryl Swoopes.”

These are farcical answers to inane questions, or, viewed another way, one small act in a very long play.

There’s nothing transparent about Riff Raff, one of the most indelibly eccentric figures in contemporary hip-hop, engaged in either a grand act of performance art, or an equally grand act of outsider art. He is a character, through and through. He rebuffs efforts to draw out the details of his past. There may not be anything on the inside.

But what’s on the outside is deliciously absurd, often transfixingly interesting and sometimes actually great. Riff Raff is a white rapper originally from the Houston area with awesomely lustrous hair, a thin stripe of beard sometimes cut in a way that resembles an EKG, and tattoos that include the logos of BET and MTV. (He was once a contestant on “From G’s to Gents,” an MTV reality competition in which Fonzworth Bentley tried to spiff up a gaggle of hip-hop hoodlums.)

He does make songs too, lots of them, at a level of production almost on a par with his former mentor Soulja Boy in 2007-8, or Lil B in 2010. And like Lil B he’s cultivated his own shorthand and lingo. Like “bringing the rice out,” which in one version refers to cocaine, but in another is equivalent to living over the top. When he puts words together, it’s seemingly at random, and almost always fantastical: a game of Mad Libs come to life.

He also has a knack for inserting himself into the center of hip-hop Internet flares. When the pixie-rap starlet Kitty Pryde arrived, within days Riff Raff was on a plane to Daytona Beach to record “Orion’s Belt,” a deliriously amusing song and video with her. Similarly, not long after the menacing young Chicago rapper Chief Keef began to achieve YouTube infamy, there was Riff Raff, partnering with him for “Cuz My Gear,” one of the year’s oddest collaborations. Chief Keef is a literalist, all square jaw and mean thoughts. Riff Raff is something else, opening the song like this:

Holograms on my hand gave me a tan wrist

Diamonds dancing on my fist look like a blank disc

Teriyaki soup with the lemon Fanta

Heavyweight, heartburn, Mylanta.

He performed that last during this concert, capping a bizarre show that began with that news conference and lasted maybe 20 minutes, including a midset intermission. He wore a headset microphone that he sometimes rapped into and sometimes used to obscure the fact that he wasn’t rapping at all. His hype man wore a T-shirt with an airbrushed image of Riff Raff’s face on it.

As a concert it was mystifying; as a spectacle it was impressively committed. His best songs have unlikely, catchy choruses: “Deion Sandals” was a high point here, as was “Lil Mama I’m Sorry.” Only “Hologram Benz,” a blowzy dubstep track from his recent mixtape “Birth of an Icon,” was an obvious misstep.

Riff Raff recently signed with Mad Decent, the label of Diplo, the genre-crossing producer, which means that at least one part of his character is becoming etched in stone: He’s a rapper, not merely a cut-from-whole-cloth personality who uses rap as one of many mediums. Songs, albums, the money that changes hands in a record deal, those are tangible things, not fantastical ones.

This year Riff Raff suggested that the character played by James Franco in the coming Harmony Korine film “Spring Breakers” was based on him (and that he was initially offered the role). In a subsequent interview Mr. Franco rebuffed the notion. When James Franco is casting aspersions on your relationship to truth, you must be existing well beyond known boundaries. But Riff Raff is an inventor above all. Certainly Mr. Franco knows a kindred spirit when he sees one, but if it’s true that he’ll be playing a version of Riff Raff — a character based on a character — will Riff Raff himself cease to exist? No one asked him that.

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