Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 12, 2013

Mike Gonzalez and the ideological priesthood

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:17 pm

Mike Gonzalez

A faction in the British SWP calling itself “In Defense of our Party” was declared in early January. It was formed to strengthen democracy in the party, issuing a warning about how “false polarisation and caricature will only obscure this process.” It also called for an “end to the punishment of party workers who have expressed concerns over the dispute.” It does not mention what kind of punishment is being meted out but I strongly doubt that is of the corporal nature.

What fascinated me was that Mike Gonzalez was one of the sixty SWP members who had come on board. Gonzalez functions as the party’s guru on Cuba, writing very much in the same vein as Samuel Farber, which is to say heavily reliant on Cubanology scholarship such as Carmelo Mesa-Lago’s. Gonzalez is not only an expert on Cuban ills. He has served as master diagnostician of what went wrong in Nicaragua under FSLN leadership in the 1980s and has more recently focused on the vain hopes pinned on Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution.

Gonzalez, an Emeritus Professor of Latin American Studies at Glasgow University, belongs to a hoary tradition that came out of the Left Opposition in Soviet Russia. Based on a critical examination of the sins of Stalinism or state capitalism, the Trotskyist or post-Trotskyist group will know which mistakes to avoid. In many ways it is the Marxist equivalent of those training films they used to show to draftees in WWII on preventing venereal disease. One look at the penis of someone with advanced syphilis is enough to make you want to wear two condoms, not one.

But somehow the thousands of pages that Mike Gonzalez has written did little to prevent Alex Callinicos, Charlie Kimber and Martin Smith from acting like pint-size versions of Fidel Castro. At least with the Cubans, there has been the open recognition that centuries of a macho culture suffused with sexism, racism, and homophobia has left its imprint and that struggle is needed to create a more just society. But how in hell does the leadership of a group of a couple of thousand people trained in Tony Cliff’s “socialism from below” philosophy end up acting like a bunch of bureaucrats insensitive to the demands of a female comrade that her alleged rape be properly investigated? I don’t think it is an adequate explanation to say that Tony Cliff wrote some nonsense about feminism in the 1980s—reminiscent I should add of what Gus Hall wrote in the 1970s. You don’t have to have a fully evolved consciousness to understand that you don’t ask such a comrade about her drinking habits, her sexual experiences, etc.

Since that faction was declared, there are signs that things have degraded further. The faction associated in the left public’s mind with Richard Seymour and China Mieville just issued a statement titled “Stop the Bullying” that states:

Comrades across the party have been heckled, shouted down and intimidated at aggregates and branch meetings. When they have complained about this they have been heckled, shouted down and intimidated. Young comrades have received nasty messages from those much older than them. They have been threatened with violence.

Threatened with violence? How does an organization that treats Tony Cliff’s writings in the same fashion that the Catholic Church treats the Sermon on the Mount end up threatening people with violence? The answer is obvious. In both cases, you are dealing with institutions that are governed more by expedience than principle. Whether you are a Cardinal in Rome or a full-timer in London, you have material interests that sometimes clash with lofty ethical, political or religious beliefs.

And what really boggles the mind is Alex Callinicos’s warning that faction members face ‘lynch mobs’ of angry members if the debate continues after the special conference. Even if this is only a metaphor, what kind of fucked-up metaphor is that to use? Maybe the CC comrades should watch “Django Unchained”.

Unfortunately all institutions are susceptible to abuse of the sort that is taking place in the SWP. What occurs to me, however, is that the lofty ideological basis upon which such “vanguard” groups are built paradoxically sets it up for violation of its core beliefs.

When you develop a theory such as “state capitalism”, it becomes a kind of litmus test used against the rest of the left and as such logically implies that you are superior to it. This is not that different than the warring sects of Hasidic Jewry, all based on a particular interpretation of the Talmud and loyal to its founder or the founder’s male descendant. The same arrogance that is directed toward “opponent” groups often carries over to the rank and file of your own.

Such groups necessitate a priesthood that is keeper of the faith. Only those who have fully mastered Cliff-thought (or Cannon-thought) are fully capable of steering the party through the white-water rapids of bourgeois society. One false move to the left or the right and the boat capsizes, thus leaving the world bereft of the leadership it needs to challenge the capitalist order.

In my view people are not megalomaniacs prior to assuming leadership of a group like the SWP. It is only the heavy mantle of responsibility of being the “Lenin of today” that makes you a tin-pot dictator.

In my view we need to unite everybody on the left however they view the Castro brothers, Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales. Everybody can agree that the embargo has to end and that the 5 Cuban political prisoners in the U.S. should be freed immediately. But on the questions of how Cuban society is organized and how the population deals with the contradictions of trying to build a just society in an unjust world, that can be dealt with in the back pages of a theoretical magazine.

But the most important task facing the left is to unite across ideological lines and to build a leadership based on its ability to have led people in battle, not on their priestly grasp of what went wrong in the USSR, Cuba, Venezuela, Angola ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

Eric Alterman: what an asswipe

Filed under: Academia,BDS,zionism — louisproyect @ 3:00 pm

Brooklyn College And The BDS Debate

by Feb 7, 2013 11:45 AM EST

The second, far more difficult question raised by the controversy was what should one’s position be with regard to BDS itself, and by extension, the political science department’s decision to lend legitimacy to a talk at which its arguments would be presented without opposition or clarification from its opponents. Because of the base threats made by the likes of a Brooklyn-based politicians like the demagogue state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, Assistant Majority Leader Lew Fidler, and the semi-supportive position taken of them by the famously argumentative BC alumnus, Alan Dershowitz, many people felt that the content of the BDS platform and the arguments that Barghouti and Butler were less important than the fact of the threats itself. Feeling a degree of heat that it perhaps did not anticipate when the department jumped into the BDS kitchen, political science chair Paisley Currah, sent out an email to all other department chairs asked them to support its decision by joining it as a cosponsor of the evening. That’s when the real debate amongst us began.

History may not repeat itself, but human behavior sure does. Ironically, given the central role that City University (and indeed, Brooklyn College) played in the debates over Communism and in the middle of the previous century, this debate—for BDS opponents—raised many of the same kinds of issues faced by liberal and democratic socialist opponents of the Communist Party and its allies during the McCarthy period. As Daniel Bell explained of their predicament, “What the Communists could have done was say, ‘Yes, I’m a communist, and I will go to jail for my opinions.’ In effect, justify themselves as people having beliefs. But they didn’t. And they were trying to manipulate the situation by scaring the liberals, by saying, ‘You see? We’re under attack, and then you’ll be under attack!’” And the liberals did not know what to do. Issue after issue arose during this period for which liberals had no ready response, given their confusion about principle versus political palatability, coupled with their understandable refusal to appear to be on the side of people who were arguing deceptively on behalf of a cause they found abhorrent, or the naïve idealists they had snookered into embracing their cause. Bell’s friend and ally Nathan Glazer admitted decades later, “we never managed to figure out a good position. By good I mean not one that was politically defensible but that was respectable and moral and responsive to all the complicated issues raised. And I still don’t think we have one.

full: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/02/07/brooklyn-college-and-the-bds-debate.html

* * * *

NY Observer April 13, 2003
The Avenging Alterman
By George Gurley

Eric Alterman, the liberal author of the new book What Liberal Media?, was standing in the middle of Michael’s restaurant, the liberal-media hangout on West 55th Street in Manhattan. After a warm embrace with lefty novelist E.L. Doctorow, he took a seat.

Mr. Alterman reeked of success. Forty-three years old. Four books under his belt, with bold titles like Who Speaks for America? Media columnist for The Nation magazine. A Web blogger who is paid by MSNBC.com to write whatever the heck is on his mind every morning. Degrees from Cornell, Yale and Stanford. Best man at his wedding? George Stephanopoulos. Divorced now, but living with a cool lady-who hasn’t insisted he marry her!-and their cute kid on the Upper West Side.

He’s the kind of guy whom even close friends call “arrogant,” “intolerable” and “asshole”-but always affectionately and always followed by praise.

He apologized for being late for lunch. A reporter for NPR’s All Things Considered had called to interview him. (By the way, according to Mr. Alterman’s book, NPR ain’t so liberal.) He ordered foie gras, the Kobe beef and a glass of pinot noir. Earlier, he’d said he liked his lunches “expensive.” He has a brainy-little-kid quality, with large fish-like eyes behind glasses and a neatly trimmed goatee. He has a distinctive laugh that begins at raucous and ends in high, whinnying hysteria.

He was wearing a gray blazer, a purple button-down shirt and faded jeans, which was dressy compared to his normal attire. That evening Justin Smith, publisher of the magazine The Week , was throwing him a dinner party, which would be attended by liberal pals like Mark Green, writer Calvin Trillin, The Nation’s Victor Navasky and even three ex-models.

Although his book is positioned as a counterweight of sorts to two best-selling books by right-wingers- Slander by Republican blonde Ann Coulter and Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News by Bernard Goldberg, which Mr. Alterman called “a long white-man’s whine”-not all of his targets are firmly on the right. Also coming in for criticism are New Republic editor in chief Marty Peretz, ABC comedian Bill Maher (“foolish”) and filmmaker Michael Moore (“Naderite”).

“I think what’s really valuable about the book is, it’s become such a given that the press is liberal. He’s poked some holes in that,” New York Times columnist Frank Rich told me. “And he’s done it with a lot of research and reportage. On both sides-the left and the right-there’s a tendency just to blather and use invective. On the right, you have an example like Ann Coulter-that The Times should be blown up because it’s such a left-wing den of iniquity. But the left can go over the top, too, about how right-wing the press is, and be driven too crazy by Fox News Channel, which is, most of all, entertainment. This book is a very reasonable , backed-up-by-argument case by someone who I think is a very sophisticated media critic.”

“I think a great many people were waiting for something like this to be said,” said Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker ’s senior editor and a friend of Mr. Alterman’s for 20 years. “It sure has struck a nerve. He’s moved up in weight class. He’s a light heavyweight at least, which is not bad-that’s what Sugar Ray Robinson was.”

Mr. Alterman told me he was “enormously gratified” by the reception to his book (good review in The Times ), but added that he was also disappointed because the book had “been crowded out by the war,” and thus it had been hard to get “traction.”

“I had a lot of reasons to be anti-war, and the book was a small one,” he said. “Everything was dominated by the war, and still is.”

On The Daily Show on Comedy Central, Mr. Alterman told Jon Stewart that he thought there was more diversity in the Soviet Union under Stalin than on American talk radio today.

“Come on now,” Mr. Stewart said. “Now, I may have a great leaning toward your point of view-but Stalin? Now you’re just throwing crazy stuff out there!”

But Mr. Alterman sees himself as battling a huge tide of “crazy stuff”-first and foremost, anything that comes out of Ann Coulter’s mouth or pen.

“Coulter’s book is evil,” he said.

(Ms. Coulter told me she’d “never read anything” by Mr. Alterman and added, “I hear he’s practically become my newest stalker.”)

Mr. Alterman looked around the restaurant.

“Truthfully, I don’t dispute that just about everybody in this room is pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights, pro-campaign finance,” he said. “I feel I’m allowed in here. I mean, I’m not exactly at home . There’s no perfect place for me in the media-I’m the most liberal person in it, or one of them.”

Why was it good to be a liberal in 2003?

“There’s two reasons,” he said. “One is, if you’re a liberal about most things, you’re more likely to be right than not. But here’s an interesting reason: The rest of the country agrees with you. It’s basically a liberal country.”

(Another good reason might be that casting directors from The Sopranos know your name: A few weeks ago, Georgianne Walken e-mailed Mr. Alterman and asked if he would audition; The Sopranos was looking for someone to play a TV reporter. “I said, ‘Sure-provided this is not an April Fool’s joke,’” he said. “They faxed me my lines the next morning.” He auditioned for Sopranos creator David Chase-as did New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier and journalist Philip Gourevitch. But the tweedy would-be thespians lost out to a writer from the show, who got the part.)

I told him I saw liberal bias all over the media. For instance, I said, The New York Times actually wants Bush to fail in Iraq.

“I don’t know that,” he said. “I agree that the editorial page is against Bush …. I’m against Bush. I don’t want the war to fail. I want Bush to resign in ignominy-and the war to be a great success.”

What was ever in The Times that could possibly bother a liberal? I challenged.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” he said. “They endorsed George Pataki ! Look at what this man is doing to New York City. I have a daughter in New York City public schools. He’s destroying them!”

After a few more mouthfuls of Kobe beef, I again asserted that The Times under executive editor Howell Raines was a liberal tool.

“Well, why did Howell hate Clinton so much, then?” Mr. Alterman said. “Why did he love Ken Starr and hate Bill Clinton? He liked Ken Starr. You can’t be a liberal and like Ken Starr. He loved Ken Starr. It’s like liking Idi Amin.

“Here’s my question for you conspiracy nuts about The Times, ” Mr. Alterman continued. “Why did Howell Raines ask Frank Rich to stop writing his column? Frank Rich is the most literate, eloquent liberal writer we have. Why would Howell go to the single best writer of all the liberal columnists and say, ‘Stop doing it’?”

Because people were complaining about him?

“Nobody was complaining about him-people loved him. This is New York; this is the Upper West Side! Because there’s no goddamn conspiracy -that’s why!”

Eric Alterman was born in Queens and grew up upper-middle-class in Scarsdale. His mother was a school psychologist, his father a salesman and engineer. Young Eric was a bookish athlete who by age 18 was smoking pot every other day after high school. Bruce Springsteen saved his life, according to a book he wrote in 1999 ( It Ain’t No Sin to Be Glad You’re Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen ). The song “Born to Run,” he wrote, “exploded in my home, in my mind and changed my life.” Once, Mr. Alterman hurled a pair of his hightops onto the stage at a Springsteen show.

He attended Cornell-where he smoked pot once a week-and said he was “all set to be like a New York Jewish literary intellectual.” He did his honors thesis on Jewish intellectuals, including I.F. Stone. The two got to know each other.

“I can’t risk being accused of dropping names of famous people,” he said. “We were very close until he died. I felt enormously lucky for that. We used to go to the movies. I was friends with his wife. He would tell me stories about hanging out with Albert Einstein. He’s sort of my external conscience. I often ask myself, ‘What would Izzy do?’”

Mr. Alterman spent his 20’s between Washington, New Haven and Paris, where he tried to be a writer and attended graduate school at Yale. He did freelance writing for The Nation , Harper’s Magazine , Mother Jones , The New Republic and The Times Magazine , for whom he profiled the late Republican political strategist Lee Atwater.

“I never had any more fun than I had with Lee Atwater,” he said. “He had a genius for the jugular of American politics, and without Lee Atwater there would be no Karl Rove, and without Karl Rove there would be no George W. Bush, and hence we’re all a lot worse off for his influence.”

Mr. Alterman’s first book came out in 1992, when he was pursuing a doctorate in U.S. history at Stanford. It was titled Sound and the Fury: The Making of a Punditocracy . He said he’d expected that his book would make people like George Will “afraid to show their faces in public again, because I had so humiliated and revealed them for the charlatans that they were-but in fact, nothing changed at all. Everything went back to the way it was.”

To promote the book, he appeared on The Today Show and The Tonight Show .

“I was more famous then,” he said. “When I was still in graduate school, I had my 15 minutes. And now I’m not that impressed with myself.”

“I don’t think that he had a sophomore slump after Sound and the Fury ,” said a friend. “But I think he expected to be big and famous after it.”

In 1996, Mr. Alterman became a regular on MSNBC with Ms. Coulter. (“I seem to have made a greater impression on him then he on me,” she told me.)

In July 1997, The Village Voice published an article by Ken Silverstein, in which he called Mr. Alterman’s ascension to the punditocracy “hypocritical,” accusing him of such sins as summering in the Hamptons and fawning over Melanie Griffith in a piece he wrote for Vanity Fair .

“He is incredibly rude and arrogant,” one intern who had worked for Mr. Alterman told The Voice . “He constantly wants to remind you that he’s Eric Alterman, that he knows a lot of important people, and that you’re a lowly intern.”

But he also earned fans. Freelance writer Katie Rosman was an assistant at Elle magazine when she first got to know Mr. Alterman, who was then a contributing editor at the women’s fashion magazine.

“He would call and be relatively demanding about silly little things-messengers for this or car service for that,” she said.

Now they’re close friends.

“I’ll poke fun at him now and say, ‘You were just one of those snotty writers that assistants hate,’” Ms. Rosman said. “And he says, ‘I was just doing it on purpose . I thought I was being funny !’”

“He has shocked me with the things he’s done,” she said. “He’ll call me and his line is, ‘So, do you want to be arm candy tonight?’ I’ll ask him what the event is, and he won’t tell me-I have to decide before. And then he’s taking me to George Soros’ apartment or some New Yorker party, and he introduces me to everybody . So I really admire him for that. He takes me to good parties.”

Currently, Mr. Alterman lives in the tidy Upper West Side apartment he shares with Diana Silver, a research scientist at New York University. They met in high school and worked together at the Bronx Zoo, smoking dope around the corner from the apes. They married other people, divorced them, and had a daughter together in the late 1990’s. Her initials are the same as her father’s; Mr. Alterman calls himself “E.R.A.” and his daughter “E.R.A. 2.”

His place is decorated with the usual “New York semi-single male” stuff-photos of Sinatra, Babe Ruth at bat, Springsteen, arty naked-lady pics, Mets stuff. Hundreds of books arranged by subject. Once a month, Mr. Alterman and Ms. Silver host a salon in his apartment for fellow lefties and “chicks,” he said.

How ambitious is Eric Alterman?

“If my life were about ambition, I wouldn’t have my politics,” he said. “And I would have a reputation for being a lot nicer. I’m just not very political-I make all kinds of enemies that are stupid of me to make.”

One would be fellow Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn.

“We hate each other,” Mr. Alterman said. “I like George Bush and Dick Cheney better than I like Alexander Cockburn. I’m not kidding. They are at least honestly misguided. I just think he’s a disgraceful writer. I don’t think he’s an honest person.”

“He has some sort of obsession with me, which I suppose is flattering,” Mr. Cockburn said. “I’ve never known a fellow to unify so many otherwise mutually antagonistic people in dislike of him. Long ago, I concluded his stuff is worthless-one more bedraggled little plume on the funeral hearse of the Democratic Party. The furthest I’ve gone is to call him a twerp-part brown-noser, part cheeky chappy.

“Eric is difficult,” said Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. “But behind that difficult, gruff exterior is someone who cares deeply about progressive ideas and democracy in this country.”

“He’s very hard to understand,” said a friend of Mr. Alterman’s who did not wish to be identified. “Because he really is an unbelievable asshole and a really, really great person. He is the worst name-dropper in the world-because he only uses first names. He’ll say, ‘Oh, I had dinner with Paul [Newman] and Joanne last night …. ‘ He is a huge literary starfucker.”

Mr. Alterman was finished with his Kobe beef.

“I’m done,” he said brusquely to a waiter. “I’m done,” he repeated-slightly impatiently, meaning: “Take the plate away.”

He ordered a cappuccino low-fat and bantered with the waitress.

“Another thing I do that liberals don’t do is, I admire the beauty of waitresses,” he said. “That’s a beautiful waitress.”

February 11, 2013

Porfirio

Filed under: disabled,Film — louisproyect @ 9:20 pm

When Brazilian director Alejandro Landes saw the headline “Paralyzed Man in Diapers Hijacks Plane to Bogota” in 2005, he was inspired to make the film “Porfirio” that is showing at the Museum of Modern Art until Thursday. (Film schedule is here.) This is the third praiseworthy film I have seen in the past couple of months that features a leading character in a wheelchair and by far the best. Considering the fact that one of them is Michael Haneke’s acclaimed “Amour”, nominated for best picture of the year in the upcoming Oscar ceremonies, it faces stiff competition. Although I thought that Haneke did good work, I would rank it only as a “show” in the wheelchair movie sweepstakes behind the ebullient “The Intouchables” that “placed”. (For more information on win, place and show, Google “horseracing”. I should add that I find the notion of awarding films on this basis rather questionable to begin with as it goes against my communist principles.)

As it turns out, the eponymous Porfirio Ramirez had more than a fleeting connection to horseracing. As a rancher and horse breeder in the southern Colombian city of Florencia, Porfirio had organized horse races for its citizens’ amusement. While one might expect Landes to focus on the ostensible high drama of the hijacking , it is not even shown in the film (Ramirez had smuggled two hand grenades in his diaper– the wheelchair’s wide berth made navigation through the metal detector check impossible.) As the victim of a policeman’s stray bullet in 1991, Porfirio was demanding indemnity from the government. After being sloughed off one too many times, he decided to take direct action. However, the hijacking ended peacefully when government representatives hoodwinked Ramirez into thinking that $43,000 had been deposited into his account back in Florencia. He was put under arrest once he got off the plane.

Instead Landes is far more interested in the daily struggle of being a paraplegic. Most of the action, such as it is, consists of Pofirio being showered, fed, clothed, and catered to by his son Lissen who loves his father but resents being an unpaid care-giver. The household gets by on the income that Porfirio receives for renting out minutes on his cell phone to neighbors even too poor to have their own, something that is ubiquitous to most denizens of the Third World. Landes holds nothing back. Early on, he shows Porfirio defecating from the back of his wheelchair and his son cleaning up after him. Despite Haneke’s reputation for defying the tastes of a conventional middle-class movie audience, he would never have dared show such a scene, especially since the man playing Porfiro Ramirez does not simulate the act but actually does it.

Not everything is so grim. Despite his disability, Porfirio is an irresistible sexual partner for his young and pleasantly plump neighbor Jasbleidy, played by Yor Jasbleidy Santos—a nonprofessional. For those who expect steamy sex scenes on the silver screen to involve people who look like the young Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, you’d be amazed at how these two distinctly ordinary people can get your blood pumping. Since the sex, like the defecation referred to earlier, happens for real rather than being simulated, its erotic quotient is raised considerably.

Porfirio’s days consist of him sitting in his wheelchair on his front porch watching the world go by. Filmed on location in the sleepy, backwater Florencia, Landes has a brilliant eye for how to make the quotidian compelling. In one scene a door-to-door “medicine” vendor approaches Porfiro with his sample case. For only 50,000 pesos, he will cure him of his disability, just as he has cured AIDS and cancer in others deemed incurable. Porfirio explains that he would be very interested in the product but unfortunately poverty prevents him from actually buying it.

In another powerful scene, Porfirio takes his wheelchair to a local repair shop to be worked on. The master mechanic is a man who is congenitally paraplegic and gets around through what looks like an improvised duck squat. Despite this, he not only is capable of the most challenging mechanical tasks but even helps lift Porfirio up from the chair to be worked on. The subject of dreams comes up as they exchange small talk. Porfirio says that he dreams about running across an open field, as free as the wind. The mechanic shrugs his shoulders and says that is natural since mobility was robbed from him in adulthood but for those like him who were born with a disability, the dreams are always based on one’s permanent condition.

As might be expected, his financial claims with the government are uppermost in Porfirio’s mind. When the public attorney handling his case refuses to return his phone calls, Porfirio wheels himself downtown to the man’s office where he confronts a steep staircase with no wheelchair ramp in sight. This affront is woven into the same blanket of neglect that forces Porfirio to finally take dramatic action.

The real surprise is that none other than Porfirio Ramirez himself plays Porfirio Ramirez. Landes not only had the audacity to make a movie about a man deemed partly crazy and completely uncharismatic in cinematic terms, but to cast the man himself in the leading role. (Jasbleidy is his actual next-door neighbor and lover but a very fine actor Jarlinsson Ramírez Reinoso plays Lissen.)

Given Landes’s decision to make a film about such a decidedly noncommercial subject and seeing how all-consuming the project became, I could not help but think that Werner Herzog might not be the last of the auteurs. It is remarkable that a young Brazilian director can take on a project in the best traditions of the European avant-garde and have such wild success. The press notes for “Porfirio” will give you some indication of the kind of unique esthetic Landes adheres to:

On the 12th of September 2005, I read a headline that lingered with me: Paralyzed Man in Diapers Hijacks Plane to Bogotá. Three months later, I found myself knocking on the door of the jailed man the press had nicknamed the “air pirate.” Porfirio grew out of my time spent with him, his chair, bed, house and family. Though I had my video sketch camera in hand on my first visit, it was of little use; I encountered a closed man. But I kept going back to visit and he thawed, revealing a mixture of bravado and dramatic flair, that, coupled with the fact he was forbidden to leave his house, captured my imagination. I began to video sketch and write but though Porfirio understood I was preparing a film, he did not suspect I would cast him as himself until days before the shoot. “Who will play me?” he kept asking me.

I moved to Florencia and lived in the places and with the people I wanted to work with for five months before shooting the first frame. During that time, I shot sketches of Porfirio, watching him move made me particularly conscious of time as well as the Catholic and Socratic notion of the body as prison to the soul. It was then that I developed the visual identity of the film: the low, frontal, still and symmetrical frame that, with a cinemascope aspect ratio pushing the horizon lines, would speak of the character and his relationship with the world around him.

The first draft of the screenplay read like a stream of consciousness, yet my time with Porfirio brought it down to its essence: the drama of a man’s character without dramatic devices. I decided never to show him the screenplay but rather I read him lines—mostly out of order—and asked him to say them back to me so I could rephrase, making the language his, not mine.

I strongly urge New Yorkers to take a trip over to MOMA to see this striking new film. Hopefully it will be booked at one of New York’s art houses down the road. If so, I will be sure to send out a head’s up.

February 8, 2013

Lore

Filed under: Fascism,Film,Germany — louisproyect @ 8:22 pm

Opening today at the Lincoln Plaza in New York today is a most unusual film titled “Lore”. The lore in question is not a reference to folk tales but the nickname of Hannelore, a sixteen-year-old German girl who is charged with the responsibility of leading her younger sister, even younger twin brothers, and baby brother from the Black Forest to Hamburg in the months before the end of World War Two where they will be housed by their grandmother until being reunited with their parents.

What makes the film unusual is the openly pro-Nazi sympathies of the parents and of Lore herself. When the film begins, Mutti (German for “mom”) and Vati (“dad” is an SS officer) are gathering up the family’s belongings in their spacious Berlin apartment for a trip in an army truck he has commandeered. Their destination: a farm in the Black Forest where they will try to survive the certain collapse of the Third Reich. The camera pans in to a bookshelf in the apartment where a book with a title like “The Diagnosis of Abnormal Human Specimens” sticks out like a sore thumb. You cannot help but suspect that Mutti was an aide to Josef Mengele. Even more of a fanatic than Vati, she accuses him of cowardice and shrieks that the Nazi army will beat back the barbarians at the gate as if a member of the cast in “Downfall”.

Not long after the family reaches its destination, the war comes to an end and Vati turns himself in to the victorious American army. (He is shrewd enough to stay away from the Russians.) And not long after that Mutti turns herself in as well, assuring her children that she will only be in a camp rather than a prison.

Lore is forced to take over for her parents and lead the children through the hills, back roads, and small farming towns that lie between them and the railway station where they can catch a train to Hamburg. With very little money and only a few family heirlooms to trade for food, they are obviously skating on thin ice. After a week on the road, they look like what they are: poor and hungry people forced to migrate under wartime conditions. No longer the children of the Master Race, they have much more in common with the hundreds of thousands forced to leave Syria. Except that they remain sympathetic to the Third Reich and regard the allies as dangerous scum.

The film is a “road” movie having something in common with “The Road”, a film based on the Cormac McCarthy novel with Viggo Mortenson trying to find a safe haven for himself and his son. You sit on the edge of your seat wondering what’s the next calamity awaiting our plucky heroes and heroines.

But even more it is very much in the tradition of “Gone With the Wind”, another tale of a reactionary class trying to get back on its feet after a war leaves them homeless and poverty-stricken. When Lore picks potatoes from the soil for their infrequent meals, you cannot help but be reminded of Scarlett O’Hara doing the same thing with turnips, vowing: “As God is my witness, I will never be hungry again”.

Unlike O’Hara who remained a reactionary until the bitter end, Lore goes through a transformation in the film, largely through her exposure to a character named Tomas who is in his mid-20s and really quite a hunk. Unfortunately he is a Jew and forced to put up with Lore’s tirades. When she first meets up with him in a barn, she demands that he sleep on the other side of the hayloft.

However, Tomas is street wise and mature beyond his years. What’s more he takes an interest in the children and helps them navigate their way out of one rough spot after another. He is also attracted to Lore and takes every opportunity he can get to put his hand up her skirt. With her hormones raging, Lore is torn between letting him have his way and biting his hand off as a way of showing allegiance to the defunct Nazi project. She finally relents when it is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that their survival rests on his leadership. The untermensch becomes obermensch.

Cate Shortland, who is absolutely brilliant, directs the film. Don’t believe the hype about “Zero Dark Thirty”. If you want to see a female director working her magic on morally questionable material, Shortland has her beat to hell. This is a film that has striking images throughout, tremendous performances, and a powerful screenplay co-written by the director and Robin Mukherjee, who has mostly worked in British television.

At the press screening, the publicist was handing out copies of “The Dark Room”, a novel written by Rachel Seiffert in 2001 upon which the film is based. While I read very little fiction nowadays, I was curious to see how the two compared. The novel has three parts involving Germans who were touched by World War Two in one way or another. The first part, titled “Helmut”, recounts the misery of a congenitally disabled photographer’s assistant who becomes homeless during the bombing raids on Berlin at the end of the war. The last part is titled “Micha”, which is short for Michael, a schoolteacher whose grandfather was in the Waffen SS and who travels to Byelorussia in 1998 to inquire about the man’s deeds there. Was he a killer?

It was most interesting to see how Shortland transformed Seiffert’s prose. In the middle section, titled “Lore”, Tomas is an older and rather unattractive man who never tries to put the make on Lore. Furthermore, his Jewishness never comes up as an issue with her. Since there is no conflict, the story lacks the drama of the film. More to the point, the film would risk being unpalatable to today’s audiences if Lore did not become “enlightened” about Nazi evil. While this satisfies Aristotelian dictums about the need for catharsis, it is not really faithful to Seiffert’s intentions.

She has little interest in saying mea culpa over Nazi crimes. When Micha finally lands an interview with an elderly man who was in town under Nazi rule, he fully expects the old man to have painful memories of being tortured, losing family members, etc. It turns out that the man was a Nazi collaborator only too happy to shoot Jews whenever asked. His take on killing Jews? An Eichmannesque: “Someone else was responsible”.

Despite being homeless and impoverished, Helmut manages to have salvaged the cameras and film from his workplace and spends his days photographing Berlin during its Götterdämmerung. One day he spots something happening on the street that cries out for preservation, the Nazis are rounding up a bunch of Roma to send to the death camps. What is his interest in filming this scene? Dramatic evidence of Nazi barbarism? Not really.

The gypsies are divided and loaded into the trucks. They shout back at the men in uniform, gold teeth bared. Children cry on their mothers’ hips and hide beneath their wide, bright skirts. Girls bite the soldiers’ hands as they pull the jewels from their ears and hair. Men kick those who kick them and are kicked again. Women push away the hands which push them, and one runs but doesn’t get far and is soon unconscious and in the truck with the rest of her family.

Helmut is afraid, exhilarated. His hands sweat and shake. He clicks and winds and clicks again, photographing as quickly as the camera will allow: not quick enough. He reloads, curses his fingers, feeble and damp, fumbles and struggles with the focus.

In other words, Helmut is looking for a great photograph, not to document genocide. Indeed, one can only wonder if Rachel Seiffert has the same motivation in writing about wartime Germany, to tell a good story.

Of German descent but educated in Britain, Seiffert tried to explain her motivations to the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2001. When asked if she was a fan of Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust”, a book that condemned all Germans for being responsible for the Judeocide, she replied that she was much more influenced by Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland”, a book that argued—correctly, in my view—that ordinary Germans, in this case a bunch of cops, did everything they could to thwart orders from higher-up’s. The Globe and Mail reports:

What impressed her about Browning was that he allowed Nazis to speak through interviews and in the letters they had sent home during the war. “He emphasized that they were very ordinary people who weren’t driven by a particular hatred,” she explains. “He was much more interested in exploring group behaviour and what becomes clear is that killing was part of everyday life, but that doesn’t mean that people didn’t find it hard.”

In my view Seiffert is a very good novelist and Shortland is a very good director. What bothers me, however, is how such talented people can devote so much time and energy making art out of the lives of essentially worthless people.

(Lore also opens today in Los Angeles. Check local papers for details.)

Donald Byrd is dead

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 2:47 pm

Legendary jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd has died, says nephew

Influential musician’s nephew reports that he died on Monday in Delaware, where he lived

David Batty
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 7 February 2013 20.01 EST

The influential jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd died on Monday at the age of 80, his nephew has said.

Alex Bugnon, a jazz pianist, reported his uncle’s death on Thursday, though it has yet to be confirmed.

Bugnon wrote on his own Facebook page: “Donald passed away Monday in Delaware, where he lived. His funeral will be held in Detroit sometime next week. I have no more patience for this unnecessary shroud of secrecy placed over his death by certain members of his immediate family.”

Byrd was born Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II in Detroit in 1932 and began his career with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the 1950s, performing alongside the likes of John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock.

While his roots were in bebop he later became equally renowned for soul and funk, and particularly jazz fusion. He went on to become one of jazz label Blue Note’s most significant artists, for whom he recorded most of his releases, including the 1973 album Black Byrd, which became the label’s biggest ever seller.

Long after his commercial peak, Byrd’s influence continued to be felt in popular music, sampled by hip-hop artists including Public Enemy, Nas, the Pharcyde and Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and house producer Armand Van Helden.

Byrd’s legacy is summed up by his nephew’s Facebook tribute: “Let’s remember Donald as a one of a kind pioneer of the trumpet, of the many styles of music he took on, of music education. In sum, Donald was an avid, eternal student of music, until his death. That’s what I try to be, everyday!! Rest in peace, uncle!”

Dancing to Ferlinghetti’s Beat

Filed under: Film,literature — louisproyect @ 2:35 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition February 8-10, 2013

America’s Revolutionary Poet

Dancing to Ferlinghetti’s Beat

by LOUIS PROYECT

As you watch the 93-year-old Lawrence Ferlinghetti with shoulders squared back like a 21-year-old athlete striding briskly through the streets of San Francisco in the marvelous new documentary “Ferlinghetti: a Rebirth of Wonder”, it might occur to you that poetry and radical politics are the magic elixir that Ponce De Leon was searching for in vain.

As a seminal figure of the Beat Generation, Ferlinghetti is still going strong as are a number of other poets who pay tribute to him throughout the film, including Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Amiri Baraka (who started out as a beat poet named LeRoi Jones.) Though having departed to higher spiritual realms, Allen Ginsberg makes a striking appearance as well, sitting side by side with Ferlinghetti as they are interviewed on art and politics. The connection between the two is particularly intimate since Ferlinghetti risked prison time for publishing “Howl” back in 1956 through the auspices of City Lights Books, an offshoot of the bookstore he had launched a few years earlier.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/02/08/dancing-to-ferlinghettis-beat/

February 7, 2013

Marxist Idealism and the Arab Spring

Filed under: middle east — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

by Pham Binh on February 7, 2013

in analysis

marxtf

The bourgeois-democratic revolutions known as the Arab Spring have ruthlessly exposed the methodological and analytical deficiencies of many Marxists. Evidence-based, detailed, rigorous, and critical evaluation of the social, political, and human contradictions driving these revolutions is rare (rarer still is any sense of what is to be done to aid these struggles) while lazy thinking, abstractly correct positions, and we’ll-have-to-wait-and-see-how-things-turn-out passivity are common.

These deficiencies became painfully obvious once the Arab Spring spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya and Syria. The revolutions that swept Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak from power were “clean” and “pure” for Marxists because they were against U.S.-backed dictators and vindicated our bias towards general strikes and working-class action.

This was the good Arab Spring.

The revolutions in Libya and Syria, on the other hand, were unclean and impure, tainted by U.S. imperialism, backed by reactionary powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and quickly devolved into armed struggle, with little or no role played by the working class acting as a class. These revolutions were not nice, worker-based, and peaceful but vicious, militarized, and complicated by foreign powers and Islamic extremists who played a prominent role.

This was the bad Arab Spring.

Missing from both the good and bad Arab Spring narratives are the complex layers of interlocking contradictions between and within classes, parties, governments, and peoples as well as any appreciation of the intangible, non-material factors that revolutions involve (the moods of the masses, the feeling in the streets). Instead, Marxists have used each revolution as fodder for pre-set political morals – “strikes are more effective than arms” (Syria), “no to U.S. intervention” (Libya), “the need for a revolutionary Marxist workers’ vanguard party” (Egypt) – without any regard for the actual political, social, or historical terrains or even the wishes and aspirations of the people making these revolutions.

read full: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=5759

February 5, 2013

Jim Zarichny on the New Left

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,student revolt — louisproyect @ 10:09 pm

The early days of SDS

For the past several months, I have been bringing down boxes and boxes of stuff from my attic and trying to organize the pamphlets, handbills, and newspapers. This is because the library of the local university has expressed a desire to get my collection and I feel they can put it to better use.

I have been looking at the contents of the large box holding my early Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) material. This past week marks the fortieth anniversary of what I consider to be the most important SDS national council meeting.

This national council meeting took place between Christmas and New Years Day in 1964. The announcement for the meeting said it would be in a union hall in midtown Manhattan. But in actual fact, most of the sessions were in the auditorium of McBurney YMCA at 23rd St, and 7th Avenue.

On the third day of the meeting, the agenda brought them to a resolution introduced by Jim Brook. Jim was very concerned about the escalation of the war in Viet Nam as a result of the (non) incident four months earlier in the Gulf of Tonkin. His resolution proposed that SDS organize a protest march in Washington at Easter, 1965. Up to this time, no one had proposed a national action. Jim’s resolution proposed that the only point of the march be opposition to the war in Viet Nam. This upset third camp people who wanted to include a denunciation of the Viet Cong, a plaque on both your houses position that was later advocated by people such as Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington.

But the main opposition to the resolution came from people who were organizing a poor people’s movement via groups such as the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP). They felt that SDS had limited time and resources and what SDS had should be plowed into poor peoples organizing, which they regarded as having the highest priority. The debate became so intense that it lasted for two and a half days. The next point on the agenda was never reached. But in the end Jim’s resolution passed by a narrow margin. SDS printed posters and handbills that were widely distributed.

Among the people who supported the resolution was Steve Max. Steve was SDS national campus traveler at the time. He had helped a lot of campus chapters get organized and had a strong base of support among the campus activists. SDS had less than 4000 members nationally.

When Easter came, 32,000 people showed up for the march. This was in the era before large marches, so it drew a great deal of attention and a lot of television coverage. After the march, SDS expanded enormously. New chapters appeared everywhere. The national office was in contact with two chapters in Kansas, but a person who went to Kansas found eight chapters, six of which had never notified the national office of their existence. The Easter March made SDS a national force on campuses.

Both Jim Brook and Steve Max had come into SDS via the FDR Four Freedoms Club. In turn, the FDR Four Freedoms Club grew out of a study group that met in my apartment every Wednesday for over a year in the late fifties. The study group had focused on the question of how radical groups had developed in America. We looked at the abolitionist, populist, and labor movements. For example, we spent several sessions on the conflicting strategies of William Lloyd Garrison and James Gillespie Birney in the abolitionist movement.

After the study group had been functioning for more than a year, we participated in the late fifties in the march for integrated schools that was organized by Bayard Rustin. At the march, Steve and Jim met a number of young people who were interested in our study group, and the study group expanded rapidly. Soon it became much too large to fit into my small apartment. But some of our new members came from families that had much larger apartments.

About this time, Black students in the South began sit ins at the lunch counters of Woolworth stores demanding to be served. We were in contact with the Black preachers in New York. They asked us to organize protests at the three Woolworth stores in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Our membership grew to about 80.

Soon after this, we were contacted by Tom Hayden and Al Haber. They had gotten the leadership of the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID) and changed the name to Students for a Democratic Society. (SDS). At the time, national SDS had about 120 members. We had about 80. Steve felt that we should join forces with them and convinced the rest of us. At least a quarter of our members were red diaper babies. Even though their parents had left the CP, they were still leftists.

At the time, there was an existing chapter of SDS in New York with about 15 members, mostly graduate students. They were under the leadership of JoAnne Landy and her then husband Sy Landy. They called us Stalinoid and protested vehemently. They resigned from SDS to emphasize their protest. But the synergy of the merged organizations worked beautifully and SDS grew rapidly from 200 to a few thousand members. Very many of the former FDR Four Freedom people transferred to universities all over America, and many began SDS chapters in the universities they transferred to.

I was probably the oldest person in SDS.

More on SDS

Nowadays, some people view the 1962 convention near Port Huron as the founding convention of SDS. At the time, nobody saw it that way. It was seen as the final breaking of the linkage to the League for Industrial Democracy (LID). A linkage which had been tenuous for more than a year.

The original name of SDS was Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID). Formed before World War I, it eventually represented the right wing of the socialist movement. By 1947 or1948, Doug Kelley, at Michigan State University was using the name SDS locally. At a national level, the official name was not changed, I think, until 1959.

I think it important to document the confluence of forces that shaped SDS in the period prior to Port Huron. Probably the place to start is the article, YSA How It Began, by Guy Williams (probably a pseudonym for Tim Wohlforth)

http://members.optushome.com.au/spainter/YSA.html

Guy has a section on Steve Max who was a vice president of YSA as well as a member of the editorial board of their newspaper, the Young Socialist. Guy says that on May 18, 1958, Steve resigned.

A week or so earlier, Steve had attended a study group at my apartment in Manhattan. The people in the study group had very little in common other than all had come to New York from Michigan and all had been in or near the Communist Party in Michigan, and all were out of it.

The purpose of the study group was to do a detailed study of the various social movements in American history. How did they function within the framework of American culture and legal forms? Individuals were to research a topic and lead one or more discussions on the topic. Among topics planned were the American revolution, the struggle for universal adult male suffrage, We wanted to give especial attention to the abolitionist movement, in particular, to the competing visions of James Gillespie Birney and William Lloyd Garrison. Also we planned a heavy emphasis on the Civil War, reconstruction and its defeat. Other topics were women’s suffrage, Populist Party, labor unions, the Socialist Party of Debs, etc. There was even a session on Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.

No readings were assigned, but every body was expected to find something on the topic of the evening. We looked for the forms that radicalism assumed on American soil.

We started out with about 20 people that Steve had brought from YSA when he left that organization. But attrition set in and we were down to a steady seven or eight people. Included was Marty Wilner, who we later learned had been assigned by the FBI to monitor our group. I had never imagined that the FBI would assign an informant to a small study group that had no ties to any organization whatsoever.

This was the period when A Philip Randolph, Jackie Robinson, and Harry Belafonte were organizing the Youth March for Integrated Schools in Washington D.C. on October 25, 1958. Steve Max and Jim Brook worked enthusiastically to promote the march, and in the process, made many contacts among leaders of the African American community. The march was successful. It drew about 10,000 students.

In Washington, Jim and Steve met three girls from New York who were looking for an organization. The girls had also met Rachelle Horowitz, a leader of YPSL. (This is the Rachelle Horowitz who later married Thomas Donahue, who was national secretary treasurer of the AF of L CIO from 1979 to 1995). The three girls could not decide which way to go. They proposed an informal debate between representatives of the study group and YPSL. The debate was Steve and myself vs., Rachelle, with only the three girls as audience. They chose our study group.

The girls brought their friends, who in turn brought friends. Soon it became clear that my apartment was much too small. But among the newcomers were some wealthy kids whose living room could easily hold 80 people. The people wanted a more formal organization and chose the name Tom Paine Club. They also wanted more formal speakers and began inviting guest speakers. Especially popular were speakers from the magazine Monthly Review.

In February 1960, some Black students sat in at the lunch counters of the Woolworth store in Greensboro North Carolina asking for service. The Black ministers wanted demonstrations at every Woolworth store in New York. They asked the Tom Paine Club to coordinate picketing at the three Woolworth stores in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But one of the members protested that she had joined what was billed as a discussion group. She had not joined an action group. Steve hastily called a meeting where a new organization called the FDR Four Freedoms Club was formed. This group coordinated the picketing at the three Woolworth stores. The picketing was impressive. As a result, when Martin Luther King came to speak at the armory in New York, the Black ministers who were organizing the rally asked the FDR Four Freedoms Club to furnish half of the ushers for seating and for the collection.

Shortly afterwards, Tom Hayden and Al Haber got in touch with Steve Max. They wanted the FDR Four Freedoms Club to affiliate to SDS. A number of months earlier, they had gotten the leadership of SLID. They immediately changed the name to SDS. After discussion, the FDR-Four Freedoms Club decided to affiliate to SDS. At the time, national SDS only had 120 members, and the FDR Four Freedoms Club had 80. But the affiliation produced a minor crisis. The existing New York chapter of SDS had about 15 members. Under the leadership of Joanne Landy, and her then husband, Sy Landy they vigorously opposed the merger and when their opposition failed, all 15 resigned from SDS. As a result, the FDR Four Freedoms contingent was almost as large as the original SDS contingent. The Landys called the FDR Four Freedoms Club people Stalinoid. At least a quarter of the people, and possibly much more, came from families that had earlier been in the Communist Party. But as far as I know, by 1960, Jim Hawley  was the only supporter of the CP in the Four Freedoms Club. Because he was working constructively, no one felt like challenging his membership. But in 1962, the national LID leadership made him the central issue at the Port Huron meeting. The refusal to expel Jim became the central issue in the break with LID.

A couple of years earlier, when we first joined SDS, Steve became national traveller for SDS. Former members of the FDR-Four Freedoms club were transferring to universities all over the northeast and mid west. Steve would visit their campus and help to set up a local SDS chapter. Membership grew at an impressive rate. One estimate was that by the time of the April march against the Viet Nam war, membership had risen to 4000.

The April, 1965, march was planned at the National Council meeting in Manhattan held between Christmas and December 30, 1964. Because I had to work, I was not able to attend all of the sessions. Jim Brook presented the motion to organize the march on , I think, December 28. It immediately encountered enormous opposition from people close to Tom Hayden. Jim Brook had solid support from most people of the FDR-Four Freedoms tradition. The debate raged on Dec 28th, 29th, and 30th. The opposition felt such a march would take resources away from other SDS projects. I was not able to be present for the vote, but I have been told by people I regard as reliable that the majority of people from the FDR-Four Freedoms group voted yes on the march. A majority of people from Tom Hayden?s group voted against the march.. The march was approved by a very narrow margin.

SDS and the ERAP

M.Junaid Alam wrote:

It is precisely the task of our times to work side by side with those millions of Americans victimized by modern capitalism – workers, women, veterans, people of color, and immigrants ­ and join them in carving out the path that will lead all of us toward a more secure and humane future.

This reminds me a great deal of 1963. Most of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) people had reached a similar conclusion. So SDS decided on an ERAP strategy ERAP was the acronym for Economic Research and Action Project. They decided to send in teams of 8 to 16 people to move into chosen poor neighborhoods in about a dozen cities. Their guru was Saul Alinsky, but they had a slightly more redicalized version.. In most places, they succeeded in setting up small organizations that won very limited projects such as getting red lights installed on corners where children frequently crossed the streets, but they. never succeeded in expanding the groups. Later, more moderate groups such as ACORN took over the field. In the meantime, SDS organized the first massive anti war march, which brought in a new flood of members and a new leadership for SDS. The new members were not interested in ERAP and it was forgotten.

The definition of the task given above might be correct, but the problem is HOW? In many cities these people who are victimized are atomized and invisible.

The New American Movement

In drawing up a handbill to advertise a speech by Dorothy Healey, I also left out the final “e” in her name. She was very irritated and told me it was a sign of disrespect.

By that time she had left the CP and had led anywhere’s from 50 to 150 people into the New American Movement (NAM).

I had first heard of NAM in 1970 (I think) when I was visiting Steve Max in New York. At a NAM meeting in his apartment, I found many of the people I had known in early New York SDS. When I returned to Boulder, Colorado, I found a large NAM chapter that had been formed by the merger of three local radical groupings. NAM’s politics differed from. but were as close to EuroCommunist as could be found in America. Ideological differences in Boulder soon arose. Wave after wave of people gravitated to Maoism. I placed a special emphasis on avoiding bitterness and the splits took place peacefully.

The military recruiting offices were open Wednesday evenings and we had anti-military demos there.

NAM was possibly the largest left organization in the Rocky Mountain region. In addition to chapters in Montana, we had chapters in Laramie, Wyoming, and in Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs, and for a whle in Pueblo, Colorado.

Our politics were in many ways similar to the left wing of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC). Eventually, a movement for merger developed. I opposed it from the left. People like Irving Howe in DSOC opposed it from the right. But majorities in both organizations voted for the merger to form Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). I dropped out of DSA over differences with Leo Casey a quarter of a century ago.

Speaking of NAM’s anti-military campaigns, one of our members, Mary Sell, very cleverly maneuvered the ecology people and the Sierra Club types in the city council into supporting one of them

 

February 4, 2013

Jim Zarichny on the lives and struggles of the working class

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,workers — louisproyect @ 3:21 pm

Jim Zarichny, who died last week at the age of 89, was a Marxmail subscriber from the late 90s and was still subscribed at the time of his death. Apparently he began to suffer from Alzheimer’s in recent years and was not able to be of much help to younger radicals trying to pull together a collection of his work. Fortunately his papers have been turned over to the University of Colorado but probably not his email messages to Marxmail that are among the jewels that made all the idiotic flame wars worth putting up with over close to 15 years. (The list was launched on May Day, 1998)

Today I am posting Zarichny’s reflections on the lives and struggles of autoworkers in Flint, Michigan and in the Ukraine. Tomorrow I will post about his involvement with the new left of the 1960s. Amazingly enough, this was a man who remained politically active over a 70 year period.

Going to International Workers Order (IWO) picnics in Flint, Michigan in the late 30s

The Coldwater Road Picnic Grounds

Shall we be slaves and work for wages?      It’s outrageous!

Somebody bought the picnic grounds located just outside the city of Flint where Coldwater Road dead-ended about an eighth of a mile from the Flint River. Some people said the grounds belonged to a Hungarian doctor. Others said it was a Macedonian businessman. Jimmy never did find out whose it was.

From Memorial Day until Labor Day, every Sunday would be reserved by some organization for its annual picnic.

A large variety of organizations held picnics there. Mostly, they were foreign language groups, primarily IWO lodges. The International Workers Order (IWO) was a Communist led fraternal society that offered cheap life insurance policies. There were ten or fifteen IWO lodges in Flint. The larger lodges were the Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian lodges. But there were smaller Serbian, Polish, Croatian, and other Slavic lodges. At its high point, the IWO had nine hundred members in Flint. Typically, the picnics lasted all Sunday afternoon and well into the evening. Usually, the picnics drew from fifty to a hundred fifty people.

The picnic grounds were fenced in. Usually, some one was at the gate collecting an admissions fee. It was three or four miles out of town, so one needed an automobile to get there. Near the parking lot was a large roofed open-air dance pavilion. Often, the sponsoring organization would hire an orchestra to play polka music for people to dance to. Nearby was a booth where beer and soda pop were sold. Very rarely did they sell hard liquor because a one day hard liquor license was much more expensive than a beer permit. Food was sold. Sometimes it was ethnic specialties, but more often ordinary foods such as hot dogs.

The picnics were important fundraisers for the organizations, which were always in need of funds, especially to support their newspapers. At that time there were about thirty pro-Communist foreign language newspapers published in America. None of them got enough money from subscriptions. The various IWO lodges were always sending money to the national office of their newspaper to keep it afloat.

Tom (my dad) would take his family to three, four, or five picnics every year. He always went to the Russian IWO picnic, the Macedonian picnic, and the picnic put on by the Flint Communist Party. He avoided the Ukrainian, Polish, and Hungarian picnics. Jimmy looked forward to the picnics. Sometimes he would talk with the other boys of junior high school age. He could not swim. And he didn’t think he wanted to join with them in swimming in the Flint River after he noticed raw sewage floating in it. Instead, Jimmy helped to scrounge the second growth scrub forest for dead logs and wood to keep the campfire burning.

In the evenings, sometimes the campfire would be dominated by the older folk who would sing traditional songs in their native language. But on other occasions, it would be dominated by the younger adults who sang labor songs and songs of Wobbly origin. Songs by Joe Hill were still popular. Probably the most popular song was sung to the tune of Red Wing. Red Wing was still widely known by the general public. The original song was a raunchy, sexist, Chauvinistic song about an Indian maid. But the new words were probably of Wobbly origin. They began

“Shall we be slaves and work for wages?         It’s outrageous!”

The words seemed to hit a deep chord in the hearts of the young autoworkers.

But the thing Jimmy enjoyed the most was listening to the conversations of the young auto workers. One conversation that left a particularly deep impression on him was about the attitudes of workers in the factory. The man talking had observed that immediately after the sit-down strikes, the workers had spoken of the union as “we”. But within eight months, after the bargaining procedure had been formalized, the union became “they”. The speaker was concerned about this because he felt it reflected a growing gap between the workers and their union. Over the years, this theme of the bureaucratization of the labor movement was returned to again and again in the concerns of the local Communists. Concerns about this became especially pronounced years later when the Union got a contract saying that the company would collect union dues through a check-off system. Before that, the shop steward had to go around and collect dues from every union member. In the course of doing that, he could hear the complaints of individual members. This was a channel through which communication flowed between the membership and the union leaders. The Communists were troubled by the fact that the dues check-off broke this link and the bureaucratization hardened, but they could not oppose the check-off because they had learned from their study of the IWW experience that one of the reasons for the IWW failure was its refusal to institutionalize itself.

A long running discussion centered on how to develop class awareness among the workers. It was obvious that the American working class lacked class-consciousness. The problem was how to crystallize the working class into an entity that acted in its own behalf. At the time, a big chunk of the Flint working class was newly newly proletarianized. Many of the local youth had taken off for California, and big chunks of the working class in the local General Motors factories were farm boys newly arrived in Flint. The most frequent discussion centered on the theme of how to change the working class from a class in itself to a class for itself. The most popular position was a “stages” theory, which might have originated with the full time Party organizer, Earl Reno. According to this theory, mass awareness would proceed in three stages. The first stage was trade union consciousness. Workers would learn that they needed a labor union, and they could only get it through strike action, an almost spontaneous form of class struggle. In this first stage the workers would learn that they needed their own organization in the factory to defend their interests. According to this theory, they first had to consolidate the union victory. Later, the union would have to take up the interests of the workers that existed outside of the factory. This would require the entry of the union into political activity. From this, the workers would learn that they were in conflict with the capitalist class over a wide range of issues, and from this would grow the second stage, class-consciousness. Over a longer period of time, workers would become aware that their problems could not be solved within the framework of capitalism. This would lead to the third stage, socialist consciousness. This is why the local Communists were so concerned about bureaucratization in the union because if there were a gap between the workers and their union, it would slow down the development of class-consciousness. The opposition to the stages theory ran along the lines that issues such as fascism, women’s rights, Negro liberation, etc. had to be taken up immediately, and could not be made to wait for the appropriate stage. The stages theory was the more popular and it seemed to make sense to Jimmy, who was deeply aware of the lack of class-consciousness among the children of the autoworkers in his junior high school.

The Russian IWO picnics were always well attended. After the strike, the Russian IWO had grown to fifty or sixty members. Not only did its members come, but also people from the general non-political Russian community. They came because they wanted to be among Russian speaking people and to take part in the singing of traditional Russian songs around the campfire. As at all of the picnics, some local Communists and a large number of people from the other ethnic groups came because they wanted a relaxing Sunday afternoon.

But Jimmy gradually became aware that one significant element in the Russian community never came. These were the members of the Russian Progressive Club. From his parents, he learned how this had come about.

Twenty years earlier, the Russian community in Flint warmly welcomed the Russian revolution. Most of them were newly arrived young immigrants. They had left Russia for economic reasons and they believed that the Revolution would improve economic conditions there. Most of them had a limited education and the word democracy was absent from their thinking. One of their greatest concerns was that their children were losing the Russian language and culture. They conceived the idea of building a Russian Cultural Center. This Center would have weekend classes in which their children would learn the Russian alphabet and to read Russian books. There would be music classes where the children would learn to play the bayan and the balalaika. The children would learn traditional Russian folk dances. There would be a meeting hall that could be used as a dance hall for older teen-age children. This vision inspired a large number of fund raising events. By the late twenties, they had a substantial sum of money, almost enough to build a decent building.

This was the period when the American Communist Party was trying to organize independent Communist led labor unions. At that time there was a substantial number of coal mines in Pennsylvania that had a predominantly immigrant work force. A Communist led union, the National Miners Union, tried to oust John L. Lewis’s union, the United Mine Workers of America. The National Miners Union called a strike, which turned out to be long and bitter. Many mines were closed for half a year by the strike. But strike funds ran out. Loyal strikers were on the verge of starvation. In desperation, the Communist leadership searched for every possible source of money. They appealed to the Russian Cultural Center of Flint to turn over its entire building fund to the strike support committee. This led to a long and bitter debate. The Communists organized and brought every possible supporter to the meeting. By a narrow margin, the organization voted to donate. In bitterness, the others left to form the Russian Progressive Club, an anarchist oriented organization. They were convinced the Communists had behaved in an unethical fashion and had betrayed the trust of the many people who had worked so hard as fundraisers. The victors evolved into the Russian IWO. It was not until World War II, when both groups supported Russian War Relief, that they ever talked to each other again.

Jimmy never thought about why his dad chose to go to the Macedonian picnics. Perhaps it was because Tom’s friend, Sidor Milnechuk, always went to them. Sidor was a Russian who worked along side him in Plant # 40 at the Buick. Sidor’s daughter was married to a Macedonian restaurant owner. Nor was it clear to Jimmy whether the Macedonians were an IWO lodge or some other organization. But the thing that Jimmy long remembered was the Macedonians bringing a butchered lamb to be skewered over the bon fire. After they roasted it, they cut it into pieces, put sauces on it, and sold it calling it “Shashlik.” Most of the Americans loved it, but Jimmy never tried it because it appeared unappetizing.

Over a long period of time, Jimmy pieced together a great deal of information about the Macedonian community in Flint. One of their key figures was Mrs. Evanoff. In the early years of the twentieth century, she still lived in the Balkans. Her father was an important figure in the Macedonian Orthodox Church. The region she lived in was still ruled by Turkey. Most of the Macedonian people wanted independence for their country and there were almost hopeless uprisings against the Turks. The extreme nationalists believed that everyone who was not an active supporter of their organization was a traitor. They assassinated Mrs. Evanoff’s father because he remained silent on the question of nationalism.

Shortly after World War I, many of the Macedonian nationalists as well as Mrs. Evanoff came to live in Flint. There, some Macedonians developed a uniquely Flint type of hot dog restaurant called the coney island. Before World War II, they were the most popular fast food places in the city. When Flint people asked the owners, “What country did you come from?” most of them replied “Greece.” That is how the mistaken notion developed that the coney islands were Greek restaurants.

Turkey was defeated in World War I, but Macedonia did not become independent. Earlier, it had been divided between Turkey and Greece. After the war, it was divided between Greece, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. In the twenties, the Communist International declared its support for an independent Macedonia. It declared its support for taking the Macedonian lands from Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Greece and uniting them into an independent nation. The Flint Macedonians were impressed. The Macedonian business community became an important source of funds for the Flint Communist Party. Mrs. Evanoff joined the CP where she became a key leader, a post she held for a number of years in the late twenties.

At one of the picnics late in the summer of 1938, one of the older IWO people asked Jimmy, “Why don’t you join the Twentieth Century Youth Club? You’re starting senior high school this fall, and there’s a lot of high school kids there. They meet every Friday evening above McKeighan’s Drug Store on North Saginaw Street.” This was the first that Jimmy had ever heard of the Twentieth Century Youth Club.

Sorry about not replying to M.N. Ryutin earlier. But I was off list for a couple of days to do some more urgent things such as house cleaning and going to Denver for the demo. I regard the Denver march as successful. People were eight abreast for several blocks. As we walked thru the crowded shopping district, I saw no hostility from the people watching us and I believe they were impressed by the size of the demo..

Recollections of the Flint Sit-Down Strikes challenged by Jack Lieberman, a young Trotskyist

M.N. Rvutin says “The Democrat party was never a labor party.”

I had hoped from the context that I was making it clear that I was talking only about Michigan and not the national party. People first heard about Stanley Nowak when he was a UAW organizer at the Ford factory. He used his enormous popularity to run for the Michigan Senate. By 1947, he was the floor leader of the Democratic Party in the State Senate. His record leaves no doubt that he was following the agenda of the CIO and not of the business interests. As I said in the prior post, it was a de facto labor party. They were hampered by the ancient state constitution which gave rural areas more votes than urban areas and were forced to be the minority party. Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court in its one man-one vote decision declared the clause in the state constitution unconstitutional. But in 1948, the decision of some of the leading Democrats to leave the Democratic Party to support Henry Wallace undercut all of this. But vestiges of it appeared when Coleman Young, who I first met when he was a militant in the Civil Rights Congress, was elected Mayor of Detroit. I should also point out That George Crockett, who was later elected to the U.S. Congress was one of the people who worked on the brief in my appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

M.N. Rvutin goes on to say:

“The book by Art Preis, _Labor’s Giant Step_, is very, very clear on this. Preis details the measures taken by Democrats from Frances Perkins, the Roosevelt Secretary of Labor, on down, against the Flint sit-down strikers.”

Preis may know this, but I wonder why is it that none of the sit-down strikers that I talked to knew about it.

This reminds me of an incident that happened while I was working in Tallahassee about 40 years ago.

Some of the SDS kids asked me to give a talk on the sit-down strikes because I had attended many of the pep rallies in the Pengelly building auditorium during the strike. I was a junior high school student then. In the summer of 1937, I was the president of the Junior Union. In senior high school, I was treasurer of the CIO youth Club.

After I had been talking a while, a young YSA’er by the name of Jack Leiberman got up very angry.

“What you are saying is a lot of bull shit! I know the real facts and people who want to learn should follow me to the next room where I will explain what really happened!” He walked out followed by 4 or 5 others.

I had started my speech by describing Governor Frank Murphy as a deeply conflicted individual. At a gut level, his sympathies were with the underdog. After all, his grandfather had been an Irish revolutionary who was captured by the British and executed.

After one of the big battles in Flint between the local cops and strikers in which more than 20 people were hospitalized, Murphy was obliged to act. He sent the national guards. At first it was not clear what the guards were sent for. John L. Lewis made his dramatic speech.

In the end, Murphy opted for the position of “no violence”. The guards would form a physical barrier and not allow the conflicting forces to fight each other. The most decisive question was food. Murphy finally agreed to let food reach the strikers inside the Chevrolet factory. The Chevrolet factory was surrounded by the troops. Once the strikers had food, they could hold the plant forever. So Genera Motors capitulated. The anger of the G.M. stockholders was intense. On election eve in 1938, HUAC brought in Witnesses to swear that they knew Murphy was a Communist. This was the main headline in the Detroit Free Press on the morning of election day. Murphy lost.

One of the top officials in the Buick local was a pall bearer at my Dad’s funeral. When I visited the official at his office, I noticed that he had a wall labeled LABOR’S HEROES. Among the photos was one of Frank Murphy.

My brother, who was a skilled tradesman in Chevrolet was in local 659 which was heir to the sit -down strike ,gave me a copy of their 50th anniversary calendar. The caption underneath one photo reads”

“Sit-down strikers at Plant #4 receive food supplies under the supervision and protection of the Michigan National Guard.

Incidentally, as regards Radical Jack, many years later we met at a demo at the bicentennial celebrations in Philly, and the hard feelings evaporated.

Unemployment in Flint in the early 50s

In 1950 or 1951, a lot of people were laid off from the factories in Flint because the factories were being reconverted to war production for the Korean War. We got the UAW to sponsor unemployed organizing. We passed out leaflets at the unemployment compensation office. All the unemployed had to go there to register every week. The older workers still worked but the younger workers were laid off. Each UAW local had its own unemployed organization with a total of over 300 activists. But just before the lay-offs ended, the local morning newspaper began an intense red baiting campaign against me.

The Flint City Council was considering a resolution asking the State legislature to increase the inadequate weekly unemployment compensation. I came to City Hall late. It was jammed with unemployed. All standing room and seats were taken. I could not get inside, but the doors were open and I sat on the stairs outside where, because of the microphone, I could hear everything. I did not say a word.

The next morning, the headline in the morning newspaper, the Flint News-Advertiser screamed ZARICHNY AT CITY HALL LAST NIGHT. The whole story was a rehash of the events three years earlier at my trial by the State Senate Committee on Un-American Activities. We were called back to work the next week. Some of the former unemployed would no longer talk to me.

I realize that red baiting is now diminished, but I suspect that if needed, the media will find its equivalent.

McCarthyism at Michigan State

When I got out of the army after World War II, I went to Michigan State University. One day I passed out handbills on campus for an organization called American Youth for Democracy (AYD) that had originally formed under the inspiration of Earl Browder. Michigan State University reacted sharply. They charged me with unauthorized distribution of literature on campus and put me on disciplinary probation. (Actually, I was unaware of their rule against literature distribution.) The probation basically said I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t join anything; I couldn’t attend meetings. Somewhat later, the State Senate of the State of Michigan formed a Committee on Un-American Activities and I was subpoenaed as their first witness. I wound up with a 17 hour suspended sentence for contempt of the Senate of the State of Michigan. This resulted in my name in the banner headline of the front page of the Detroit Free Press as well as my photo being there. (The Detroit Free Press is the primary newspaper in Michigan.)

Still later, I attended a meeting off campus at which Carl Winter spoke. Carl Winter was the State Secretary of the CP in Michigan and he had been indicted under the Smith Act. The meeting was in the conference room of People’s Church across the street from campus and about 50 people attended . The local newspaper ran a story about the meeting and featured prominently the fact that I had been there. Michigan State University reacted sharply and expelled me for violating probation. Actually, when I had been placed on probation, I thought the probation meant I could not attend meetings on campus. I did not realize that it meant I could not attend meetings anyplace in the world.

The Civil Rights Congress took up my case, and it was appealed all the ways up to the US Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. The Civil Rights Congress also formed a defense support committee on my behalf. As I look at their literature, I am impressed by the names listed. Among the signers are Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Dubois and Congressman Vito Marcantonio.

Eventually, I went to work in the Chevrolet factory in Flint, Michigan. In 1956, the level of political demoralization in Flint was so intense that nothing could be done there. I realized a totally fresh start was needed. I moved to New York to be able to start over again politically. A year later I decided that there was no future unless I returned to a university. So I enrolled in the school of General Studies at Columbia University so that I could study part time while I worked. I had to do this because the Veterans Administration had sent me a letter canceling my right to attend a university under the GI Bill. That is how I wound up among students a lot younger than myself.

Reflections on Genora Dollinger, Flint autoworkers, and the Democratic Party

In the pamphlet, STRIKING FLINT, on page 27, Genora Dollinger wrote:

“What else changed? Workers felt that they had the right to run for political office if they wanted to and they did. Many of the later legislative people in the state of Michigan and other political posts were either strikers themselves, if they were young enough , or the sons of former strikers. But the whole nature of the city changed.”

From reading the items submitted to this thread, it is clear that the majority disagree with Genora. They would say that she should not praise people who ran for office as Democratic Party people because in fact they were strengthening illusions in the Democratic Party.

But I agree with Genora. It was a period when, as the old song goes:

“When the union’ inspiration through the worker’s blood shall run,

There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun.”

My dad’s wages went up from 50 cents an hour to 75, cents, a fifty percent increase. In the new 40-hour workweek, he was making as much as in the old 60-hour workweek. The workers who had been doubters became believers. They trusted the union. When the Political Action Committee of the UAW endorsed Roger Townsend, an African American foundry worker at the Buick, he was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives in a constituency that was 90 per cent white.

This was the period when Michigan elected McNamara, an official in the plumbers union, to the U.S. Senate. How often do we hear of a senator who is a union leader?

About two years after World War II, I was subpoenaed By the Callahan Committee, formally known as the Michigan State Senate Committee on un-American Activities. Of course, I refused to cooperate with the Committee because I believed it was not proper for the state to inquire about a person’s political beliefs. Senator Matthew Callahan demanded that I be cited for contempt. This was when Michigan was under the old state constitution, which organized the state Senate along geographical lines, and the urban areas were a permanent minority, so most of the state senators were Republicans. The floor leader of the Democratic Party was Stanley Nowak. He believed I was in the right and except for one man who abstained, all of the Democrats voted against citing me for contempt.

At the time of my trial for contempt of the State Senate, there was a tremendous outpouring of fellow students from Michigan State University. Half an hour before the trial, the fire marshal blocked off the entrance to the state capitol because the huge crowds were a fire hazard. At a time when the Hollywood 10 were serving a year in prison, I wound up with a 17 hour suspended sentence after I was convicted.

That fall, Stanley Nowak and two others of my key supporters left the Democratic Party to campaign as Progressive Party candidates and lost

The conclusion I drew from these experiences is that the sit down strikes were crucial. They created a situation where locally, the Democratic Party became a de facto Labor party. We don’t know if this can happen again on larger scale. But at the moment, it does not seem to be an area that we should worry about. At the moment, the places where our forces can be built are outside the framework of the two party system, such as for example, the peace movement.

I want to close with the statement that we should aim at building a broad movement. To do this, we will have to engage in more respectful debate. Instead of attacking individuals who we believe to be wrong, we should try to win them over by presenting a better view, and by explaining the shortcomings of the other view.

My brother was a skilled tradesman in a General Motors factory in Flint, Michigan.  About two decades ago, he told me about his local union’s negotiations for a supplemental contract covering the skilled trades. The union used the points given to veterans as a precedent for the demand to give extra points to historically deprived groups such as women and racial minorities. The company agreed. Before, there had been no Black women in the skilled trades. As a result of accumulating points as veterans, as women, and as African Americans, a number of Black women entered the skilled trades in the plant. There is the old saying about making lemonade out of lemons.

Retirement in the Ukraine, workers under socialism

Can workers be exploited in government run factories? Obviously. it is possible. The question is, did the workers in Soviet factories perceive themselves as exploited?

Before I comment, let me introduce myself.

I decided to retire when I reached the age of 65. At first, I moved to Western Massachusetts and enrolled in a couple of classes per semester in economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I wanted to understand what bourgeois economists believed, and how the left critiqued those beliefs.

But in 1992, a friend pointed out that I could go to live in Ukraine. I had a minimal Ukrainian vocabulary from my childhood growing up in a Ukrainian speaking household in Michigan. It was perhaps no more than 3000 words. I did not even know the Ukrainian alphabet. So I began by enrolling in the intensive Ukrainian language program at Shevchenko University in Kiev for a year. Then I bought a condo in the city of Khmelnitsky in western Ukraine. I lived there from 1993 to the year 2000. My objective was to learn how ordinary people interpreted and reacted to Soviet rule. If at all possible, I wanted to put myself in their shoes and see things through their eyes.

Prior to going to Ukraine, I had met a Jewish student whose family had emigrated to Massachusetts from Kiev. His mother had an advanced degree in mathematics. In Kiev, she had worked in the price setting office. This was separate from the planning office. This office gathered information from every factory in the region: What quantity of goods was produced? How many hours of labor? How much did the various inputs such as raw materials, electricity, etc cost? From this information, they calculated a price that should be attached to the commodity. Prices were calculated by a small group of mathematicians. The market had no impact on prices. It took them about seven years to go thru all the factories in the Kiev region. At that point, they would start the process over again, recalculating prices.

After I got to Khmelnitsky, I visited the nearby village my mother left before the revolution. I was told that the late collective farm manager had been a relative. The village itself had been designated a model collective farm for the area. During the Breshnev period, the people were well paid. But the problem was the lack of commodities. Things that people wanted were not being produced in sufficient quantities. Nearly everyone had enough rubles to pay cash for a new automobile. But new automobiles did not exist in sufficient quantities. When you went to buy a car, you were placed on a waiting list and told it would take about seven years. But it actually took longer because people with a higher priority were inserted ahead of you. The same was true of telephones. Almost everybody that I talked to had had 8000 or 10000 rubles in a bank or hid under a mattress.

During my first year in Ukraine, I lived in Kiev in the graduate student dorm with the graduate students, the aspirante. I did not meet any graduate students that considered themselves Marxists. The only western Marxist that was ever mentioned was Alex Nove, the theoretician of market socialism. I was told that after Gorbachov came to power, he began to talk about market socialism, that the market should be given a role in setting prices. But the basic problem was that there was too much money chasing after too few goods, and inflation began under Gorbachov. After Ukraine became independent, the inflation galloped into hyperinflation. By the time I got to my mothers’ village, the inflationary process had wiped out everybodys savings. All of the villagers that I talked with believed that Gorbachov had set off the inflationary process and wiped out their life savings. They hated Gorbachov with a passion.

It was not only collective farmers that had huge savings, it was also factory workers in the cities. Based on the enormous savings that people had, I suspect that they did not feel exploited under Breshnev. But people were unhappy because they were denied access to certain stores. To enter certain stores they had to have documents that they were part of a group authorized to shop in the store. People without the documents could not enter certain stores that either had cheaper or higher quality goods.

At the other extreme, some poorly run collective farms paid part of their wages in fiat money issued by the collective farm. With the fiat money, they could only shop in the store owned by the collective farm. They could only use the fiat money in that store and nowhere else. I brought some fiat money back to America to show people.

After I had lived in Khmelnitsky for a while, people began telling me what had happened just before I arrived. There had been a major strike wave in Khmelnitsky. They told me that the strikes were to protest Communist exploitation. They claimed that surplus value was drained from the workers to support a parasite caste. As an example, they pointed to libraries in the factories, which had a librarian, and one or two assistant librarians. Since the libraries featured such books as the collected writings of Lenin or the collected writings of Breshnev, nobody actually used them. Another example was the Communist labor union, which was financed by deductions from the workers paycheck. Many people had cushy well paid jobs where they did no useful work. It was claimed that a full 25% of the work force consisted of such parasites and the demand was that they be fired. The strikers won.

Lenin had written favorably about the consumer cooperatives that had developed in Ukraine prior to the revolution. They had survived the entire Soviet period. When I arrived, they were on their last legs. All of them in the Khmelnitsky region were collapsing. With the hyperinflation, they had sold the goods for less than the price of replacements. None of the co-ops survived.

Among the older people, one could find a hatred for Hitler and fascism. But most younger people felt that Hitler and fascism were from a different era and had nothing to do with them.

February 3, 2013

Year One of The North Star

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

North Star statistics

by The North Star on February 3, 2013

in analysis

Inspired by Occupy’s initial success in uniting progressive forces under its banner, The North Star was launched one year ago with the aim of creating a community of participants cutting across the ideological and organizational fault lines that have traditionally divided—and neutralized—the left.

We aim to lead by example, to act as the left we aim to create, where vigorous and principled debates are firmly situated within the framework of common ends and goals—putting us all on the same side of the barricades.

full: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=5464

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