Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 22, 2013

Recent debates in the British SWP over Leninism

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 8:19 pm

Martin Smith, aka “Comrade Delta” and formerly the national chairman of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, just resigned from the organization undoubtedly to relieve pressure on the party leadership that colluded to clear Smith of charges of raping a 19-year-old party member. As an irritant to the party minority (or looming majority), nobody could top Martin Smith even if they tried. When this young party member brought charges against Smith, the investigating committee asked about her drinking habits. Who could put up with such an affront except Smith’s cronies and party members who had surrendered their independence of mind? If this reminds you of how the Catholic Church, corporations, the military, and other bourgeois institutions deal with sexist behavior, you’d be right.

For me the interesting question has always been whether the party would have been roiled by mass resignations and open factional warfare if this incident had not taken place. Clearly the party was fragmenting along one political line or another for some time. The first significant split occurred in 2010 when John Rees and Lindsay German left the party to create a group around the website Counterfire mostly around differences over strategy for the mass movement.

In the more recent defections and drawing of factional lines by members still within the party, there have been debates over policy but also over the fundamental question of how to build a revolutionary organization. The members most publicly committed to the “Leninist” status quo, such as Alex Callinicos and John Molyneux, have had to put up with challenges from a range of party members including long-time Cuba “expert” Mike Gonzalez. If Gonzalez was only half as sharp on Cuba as he was on “Leninism”, I for one would be most grateful. Sam Farber, of course, is a lost cause.

After Callinicos wrote a piece for the January 2013 Socialist Review titled “Is Leninism finished?” that brazened out the sectarian status quo, he was answered by Gonzalez in an internal article titled “Who will teach the teachers” that has been circulated widely on the Internet, that dastardly petite-bourgeois medium. I liked the final paragraph best:

We should stop trading quotes from Lenin. Not that he has not much to teach us, but that the first lesson he will offer is that the forms and methods of organization of revolutionaries will be shaped by the historical circumstance, and will change constantly as those circumstances change. There are no rules to be applied, no constitutions to obey. There is a revolutionary method – one part of which acknowledges that the teachers must themselves be taught by those they set out to instruct.

While Gonzalez’s article was only for the eyes of party members, recent issues of Socialist Review reveal the debate spilling over into the public sphere. In the June issue, Ian Birchall wrote a piece titled “What does it mean to be a Leninist?” that echoed Gonzalez. This sentence pretty much encapsulated Birchall’s view and hopefully that of the faction that is challenging Callinicos:

There is no such thing as the “Leninist party”, outlined in What Is To Be Done? or any other instruction manual.

I was also pleased to see Birchall’s reference to Lenin’s worries over the organizational proposal of Wilhelm Koenen that exhibited a schematic approach to “Bolshevik” norms.

In his final speech to the Communist International in 1922 Lenin insisted: “The resolution [on organisation] is too Russian; it reflects Russian experience. That is why it is quite unintelligible to foreigners… They must assimilate part of the Russian experience. Just how that will be done, I do not know.”

I referred to Lenin’s remarks when I wrote an article titled “The Comintern and German Communism” back in 2000 or so. Now I am not so sure whether Lenin should get off the hook completely. Despite his uneasiness with Koenen’s resolution, he voted for it. More worryingly, he was adamantly for the 21 Conditions that represented a departure from the more 2nd Internationalist conceptions of party-building. Despite Lars Lih’s contention that Lenin remained a Kautskyist to the end, I am afraid that a “new party” did emerge under his stewardship. However, I am not referring to the Prague Conference of 1912 that people like Paul Le Blanc regard as a definitive break with Menshevism and the ratification of a “revolutionary” party-building model that groups like the SWP (and the ISO arguably) identify with. Instead I am talking about the efforts to impose rigid guidelines in the early 1920s under the hothouse conditions of the victorious revolution and the hatred for the Second International bred by its support for World War One.

Probably the worst part of Koenen’s resolution is item #46: “The party as a whole is under the leadership of the Communist International.” [emphasis in the original]. This, of course, is the conception fully embraced by Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev alike that led to a disaster in Germany. The best thing for Germany would have been for the Comintern to butt out.

Callinicos gets in the last word in an article in the latest issue of Socialist Review titled “What sort of party do we need?“ As might have been expected, he reduces the differences to one over “reform” versus “revolution”, as if belonging to a revolutionary party is some kind of condom that protects you against counter-revolutionary practice. Without adequate protection, you open the door to the nasty germs of reformism. One foolish act can haunt you for the rest of your life. This Platonic understanding of “revolutionary” has little in common with the way that the Bolsheviks functioned. It has more to do with sacraments taken in the Catholic Church that protect you from Satan.

Unfortunately Callinicos has nothing to say on the more interesting question, namely how the organizational principles of the SWP developed. To make a long story short, Tony Cliff embraced the more conventional understandings of democratic centralism that were handed down from Trotsky to his next generation of followers even if he decided that the “workers state” ideology was to be discarded. I doubt that any of the groups based on these precepts, from Cliff’s to Ted Grant’s, really gave much thought to the question of why you would form a group based on a given analysis of the “Russian question”. Did Lenin ever consider the position one takes on when the French revolution became degenerated a litmus test? Nor has Alex Callinicos ever considered why the norm of “internal documents” has some special hallowed importance in “Leninist” organizations. The truth is that none were published in Lenin’s day prior to the seizure of power in 1917. If it was a practice never carried out in the days of the printing press, how much more irrelevant does it seem today when everything is either digitized or easily converted from print to electronic format?

To conclude, it seems obvious that things are very fluid on the far left in terms of the “Leninism” question. There are three approaches that appear to be crystallizing, largely out of discussions prompted by Lars Lih’s book on “What is to be Done”, initiatives being taken in Australia and France by groups committed in the past to one degree or another to Zinovievist practices, and perhaps most powerfully by the crisis in the SWP. One approach is supported by Callinicos and other Trotskyist groups such as those led by Alan Woods and Peter Taaffe. Basically, nothing has changed for them. There is a clear line that connects them to Wilhelm Koenen’s organizational guidelines presented to the Comintern in 1921, even if not carried out to the letter. These guidelines were absorbed and deepened in the 1924 “Bolshevization” Comintern presided over by Zinoviev.

The second approach is embodied by groups like the Socialist Alliance in Australia and the NPA in France that have moved radically to drop the Zinovievist baggage. Groups moving in this direction are the ISO in the USA and the Socialist Alternative in Australia that understand that something was wrong in the way that the SWP conducted itself but are reluctant to go so far as to break with some key “Leninist” norms, most particularly being organized around a program that is fairly tightly circumscribed. This leads to a party that is homogeneous and by necessity subject to a glass ceiling on future growth.

The third approach was first developed by Solidarity in the USA, a group launched in 1986 as a multi-current formation dispensing with Leninist norms. Unfortunately inertia and aging cadres have served to limit its usefulness. Today, I look forward to multiple initiatives taking place in Britain to break with “democratic centralism”, at least in the way it is understood by groups like the SWP. I am very encouraged by the example being set by the comrades who resigned en masse from the SWP now known as the International Socialism Network. They are iconoclasts organizationally in exactly the fashion that is needed. By, for example, publishing their steering committee minutes on the Internet, they are clearly thinking outside the box. More power to them.

Finally, there are the young people associated with the North Star website who are becoming a pole of attraction for others in the USA who want to lay the groundwork for a new left committed to socialism and the right of every member of an organization that emerges out of a long and necessary process to be treated with respect. Revolutionary organizations operating in capitalist society are not some kind of coming attraction of the socialist world we all seek, but we can certainly hope that they can at least operate on the basis of genuine equality. In my time in the American SWP, I always felt that there was a hierarchy in some ways worse than the banks and insurance companies that employed me. This was a complaint I heard repeatedly about the British SWP’s central committee that in its own way was as unaccountable as a corporate board.

Those days must come to an end, not just from the standpoint of respect for the individual, but out of a need for collective thinking—the only way to make an organization powerful. If the American SWP had paid more attention to the concerns that the ordinary member had over the “turn to industry”, perhaps the group might have not imploded (this leaves aside the question of course whether it could have ever developed into a mass party.) If the British SWP had not taken the word of a top leader like Martin Smith automatically over the word of a 19-year-old female, the crisis would have not happened.

In any case, without ceding any ground to some of the lamer conceptions that go along with the word favored so much in autonomist circles, a whole lot more “horizontalism” is needed—the sooner the better.

July 21, 2013

Syrian cognitive dissidents

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 10:47 pm

Shamus Cooke: It’s true that many Egyptians have a semi-idealized view of the Egyptian military; but this is not a sheepish bow to authority, but a uniquely Egyptian perspective based on real history. Former Presidents Nasser and Sadat were military-linked heads of state who played a progressive role in many arenas of Egyptian life, especially in economics and national independence (in recent polls Sadat and Nasser remained the two most popular Egyptian politicians to date, regardless of both having died decades ago).

Full: http://www.zcommunications.org/whats-next-for-the-egyptian-revolution-by-shamus-cooke

* * * * *

Israeli military analyst Roni Daniel revealed on Sunday that the Egyptian General Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi informed Israel of his efforts to remove President Mohamed Morsi three days before the coup.

Speaking to the Israeli TV channel 2, Daniel said that Al-Sisi asked Israel to monitor the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip. He said Al-Sisi was afraid of Hamas, but his fear faded after the Israeli assurance that everything in Gaza has been under strict surveillance. Israel advised Al-Sisi to destroy the tunnels. Daniel asserted that the military coup in Egypt is useful to Israel and it had been an “urgent demand” for Israeli and its security.

Military analysts did not hesitate to confirm news about contacts between Al-Sisi and Mohamed El-Baradei from the Egyptian side and government officials from the Israeli side. He said that El-Baradei met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once before the coup and again after the coup. According to Daniel, Israel promised Al-Baradei to help lobby for Western recognition with the new government (after Morsi).

The Egyptian army started damaging tunnels to Gaza several days before the coup took place. The tunnels are the main lifeline for Gaza residents who have been living an Israeli, internationally backed siege since 2006.

Full: http://occupiedpalestine.wordpress.com/2013/07/16/al-sisi-informed-israel-of-the-coup-three-days-prior/

* * * * *

NY Times July 20, 2013

Egypt to Take New Look at Syrian Ties

By KAREEM FAHIM and ASMAA AL ZOHAIRY

CAIRO — Egypt’s interim foreign minister on Saturday sought to distance the new government’s policy on Syria from that of former President Mohamed Morsi, who helped make Egypt a hub for Syrian opposition groups and a destination for refugees fleeing the war.

The foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, also singled out Ethiopia for criticism for not working to resolve a dispute over access to water in the Nile River.

Before the military deposed him on July 3, Mr. Morsi severed diplomatic relations with Syria and called for a no-fly zone to help the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad. His government also seemed to condone the participation of Egyptian militants in the Syrian war. On Saturday, Mr. Fahmy said that while Egypt would continue to support the “Syrian revolution” and was not considering restoring relations with its government, a political solution was necessary. He added that “there is no intention to go for jihad.”

Mr. Fahmy’s remarks, at a news conference, were the most wide-ranging on foreign policy by Egypt’s new leaders since Mr. Morsi was ousted. Analysts expect changes in both the tone and the substance of Egypt’s foreign policy, as its new leaders move quickly to dismantle what remains of Mr. Morsi’s yearlong experiment in Islamist rule.

Full: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/world/middleeast/egypt-to-take-new-look-at-syrian-ties.html

* * * * *

Delivered to 10 Downing Street

Thursday 9 May 2013

Dear Prime Minister,

We are writing to express our alarm at the increasing intervention by the UK government in the civil war which is now taking place in Syria. We believe that the future of Syria is for the Syrian people alone to decide, and that your actions can only worsen the situation.

(clip)

We therefore urge you to abandon your interventionist policy.

Yours,

Jeremy Corbyn MP Chair Stop the War Coalition

Lindsey German Convenor Stop the War Coalition

Full: http://www.stopwar.org.uk/index.php/resources/stop-the-war-coalition-statements/2449-syria-letter-to-david-cameron-no-uk-intervention-in-syria

* * * * *

The Guardian, July 21, 2013

Syria’s Assad is stronger now, says David Cameron

Prime minister says Britain will not be supplying arms to Syrian rebels despite pressing for lifting of EU arms embargo

by Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent

David Cameron has admitted the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has strengthened his position in recent months as he warned that the country faced a “depressing trajectory”.

In an interview on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1, the UK prime minister also gave his clearest indication to date that Britain will not be supplying arms to the Syrian rebels despite pressing for the lifting of the EU arms embargo.

Cameron insisted he was still committed to helping the Syrian opposition but admitted its numbers included “a lot of bad guys”. He also acknowledged that Assad had strengthened his position.

The prime minister said: “I think he may be stronger than he was a few months ago, but I’d still describe the situation as a stalemate. And yes, you do have problems with part of the opposition that is extreme, that we should have nothing to do with.”

But Cameron said it would be wrong to abandon the opposition – although he indicated Britain would provide only non-lethal equipment.

Full: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/21/syria-assad-david-cameron

July 20, 2013

Young woman plays with the big boys in Central Park baseball

Filed under: sports — louisproyect @ 11:51 pm

As I mentioned some time ago, I like to take in an inning of baseball or so when I run in Central Park on the weekend. I generally prefer the games involving men over 21 or so since their skill level is qualitatively higher than the high school kids who play there as well. There’s nothing like standing right behind the catcher and watching a capable pitcher throwing a ball at 85 miles per hour or so.

Today when I stopped in the park, the catcher on the field was quite a bit smaller than most and wore a pony tail, which in itself might not have meant that much. Lots of Latino players are smaller than Anglos but make up for it in toughness. I watched the catcher throw the ball to the second baseman on an attempted steal but he was off by a second or so, which is fairly typical in these games. But when he asked the ump how many outs there were, I was shocked to discover that the he was a she unless the he had a very feminine voice. After the side was retired, the catcher returned to the bench with the rest of the players and took off his mask. He was a she, no doubt about it.

I went up to her and struck up a conversation. Her name was Hera and she had been playing baseball for 13 years. She loved playing catcher because she liked working with pitchers. She also found no resistance to her being on the team. When I got home, I googled “Hera” and “baseball catcher”. This is what came up from the New York Daily News:

High School

Baruch College Campus HS catcher Hera Andre-Bergmann feels right at home behind the plate

By / DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER

Friday, October 21, 2011, 12:05 PM
Hera Andre-Bergmann will be lone girl in Saturday's PSAL Senior Baseball Showcase.

Howard Simmons/News

Hera Andre-Bergmann will be lone girl in Saturday’s PSAL Senior Baseball Showcase.

You don’t ask a tough ballplayer about such trivial matters as a little injury – even an ailment that requires 14 stitches to repair.

Joe Bergmann learned that lesson two years back when his daughter, Hera Andre-Bergmann, opened a deep gash on her thigh while trying to block home plate during a nasty collision with a baserunner.

“It doesn’t matter,” Hera – then a sophomore at Baruch College Campus HS in Manhattan – told her dad after she was treated at Roosevelt Hospital. “The son of a (gun) was out at home.”

Joe nearly flew off the couch on Wednesday while recounting the story in their apartment near Times Square. Hera, sitting a few feet away, mustered a small smile.

“That’s her,” he said. “She’s tough.”

For the past two seasons, Bergmann has occupied a unique position in high school sports: baseball catcher. She may be the only girl to start on her school’s varsity team, and she’s most certainly the only girl to don knee pads and a mask.

In recent years, girls across the country have been gravitating toward such traditionally male-dominated sports as wrestling, football and ice hockey, but the notion of a girl playing baseball hasn’t received similar attention.

Bergmann, 17, routinely absorbs collisions, calls pitches and controls baserunners with a strong throwing arm. Saturday, she will participate in the PSAL’s annual Senior Fall Baseball Showcase at MCU Park in Coney Island, a platform to give players exposure to college coaches and pro scouts. Bergmann is expected to be the only girl participating.

“When you’re practicing, you’re not seen,” she said. “So it’s good to be able to show off what you’ve been working on.”

Bergmann is relaxed and reserved. Her father says she badly wants to fit into the fabric of the city’s baseball community without calling too much attention to herself.

“It’s important for me to be seen as just another player,” she said. “I want to let my play speak for itself.”

That’s not to suggest that Bergmann is bashful about her role with the Blue Devils, who went 1-10 last spring in the PSAL Manhattan “B” South.

She changes into her uniform alongside her teammates in the dugout and has repeatedly declined invitations from the school’s softball coach, always answering with the same response: “I don’t play softball.”

She never considered switching to softball, even though her chances of winning a scholarship in that sport would be exponentially greater.

“I don’t play for a scholarship,” Bergmann said quickly, minutes before she would trek to a private coaching session with Gabe Diaz, who coaches the N.Y. Gothams travel team. “I play because I love the game.”

Howard Soskind, Baruch’s athletic director and new baseball coach, had to petition the PSAL to allow Bergmann to try out for the baseball team as a freshman. She gained approval but failed to crack the team, reaching the varsity as a sophomore. “I worked hard to get better,” she said. “And they couldn’t deny me.”

Bergmann won the starting catcher’s position last season, but struggled while playing through a nagging shoulder injury that hampered her throwing and contributed to her difficulties at the plate. In eight games, Bergmann batted .083, although her on-base percentage was a respectable .353.

At tomorrow’s showcase, the 5-2, 147-pound senior will try to establish her standing among the city’s top players while trying to determine whether it’s possible for her to continue playing after high school.”I wanted to give her an opportunity for this,” said Soskind, who nominated Bergmann and Baruch pitcher Charles Porcaro for the showcase. “It was an easy call to make. It wasn’t like I picked her because she’s a girl. She was deserving of it.”

Bergmann, who also plays goalie on the girls soccer team, displays an intensity that has helped her to convince both her teammates and opponents that she belongs.

“She’s amazing,” said Elvis Valdez, the coach at divisional rival Health Profession/Human Services HS.

“When we first saw her, my players were concerned with hurting her or hitting her with a pitch, but she’s a true warrior, the way she plays, how she handles herself. Now, they accept her on the field as an equal. I applaud what she’s doing.”

Fact versus fiction in three new films

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:13 pm

Perhaps just by coincidence or perhaps as a reflection of the zeitgeist in the film world today, three movies premiered this week that straddled fact and fiction. “Act of Killing”, that has opened to rave reviews, is the documentary result of what might seem to be an American filmmaker’s conning of Indonesian mass murderers into believing that he was making a fiction film based on the 1965 anti-Communist massacres. Meanwhile, both “Computer Chess” and “Colossus” are mockumentaries in the style of “This is Spinal Tap”. What all these films have in common is exploiting serious issues in order to spin a glossy postmodernist web rather than deliver some prosaic and didactic lesson on, for example, the causes of the 1965 mass murder in Indonesia.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s “Act of Killing” that he describes as  “a documentary of the imagination” opens with a totally mystifying but eye-dazzling scene of young and beautiful women dancing down a gangplank from what appears to be a huge fish toward an obese man in drag to some Indonesian pop tune. (See image above.) The man turns out to be Herman Koto, a militia leader who killed hundreds of Communists by his own admission.

Koto and Anwar Congo, another mass killer, are the “stars” of this specious film that the New York Times review describes as occupying the same space as Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah”, an interpretation that I would liken to comparing Adam Sandler to Charlie Chaplin.

The film consists of two hours or so of Koto, Congo, and a host of other death squad leaders reenacting their crimes for a film that Oppenheimer is supposedly going to produce for world audiences. The killers become both actors and assistant directors on the set, telling frightened villagers hired for a day of shooting to display more fear. Supposedly, Congo is a big film buff, having seen all sorts of gangster movies growing up that inspired him to use the techniques shown on screen to kill his Communist victims, including a piano wire garrote. I imagine that many of the people who go to see this movie because it is so “out there” will have a different reaction to the film than me, a person who identified with the Communists even if their idiotic strategy facilitated the coup.

A.O. Scott suggests that the facts behind the 1965 coup might not be so well known to the audience as those of other mass murders such as Pol Pot’s in Cambodia. It would have been useful if he called attention to what his paper was saying at the time. Blogging at the New Yorker magazine, Johan Weiner commented:

On June 19, 1966, James Reston published a column in the New York Times titled “A Gleam of Light in Asia.” Nearly two thousand Americans had died in Vietnam the year before, followed by six thousand more in 1966, and Reston, a Pulitzer Prize winner who would soon become the Times executive editor, sought to acknowledge “more hopeful political developments elsewhere in Asia.” He emphasized the case of Indonesia, which had recently undergone an elaborate and bloody regime change “from a pro-Chinese policy” to “a defiantly anti-Communist policy.” … Despite the savagery, Reston argued that Sukarno’s ouster was something about which Americans could feel not only optimistic (“control of this large and strategic archipelago is no longer in the hands of men fiercely hostile to the United States”) but proud. “It is doubtful if the coup would ever have been attempted without the American show of strength in Vietnam,” Reston wrote, “or been sustained without the clandestine aid it has received indirectly from here.

That’s far more blood-curdling than anything in Oppenheimer’s flick.

Two of the executive producers reflect where Oppenheimer is coming from. One is Werner Herzog, who as much as I admire him, has a tendency to gravitate toward subjects who are outside of society’s norms. In one case, this has led him to direct a film lionizing an American jet pilot of German ancestry who was captured by the Vietnamese after his plane was shot down. In my view, this was a questionable choice of a “hero” even if it made for a fascinating character study.

Even more questionably, Errol Morris’s role as the other executive producer brings to mind his documentary on Robert McNamara where the mass murderer was allowed to shed crocodile tears on camera. In contrast to McNamara, the killers of Oppenheimer’s film make jokes about what they did and are utterly unrepentant. At one point, one of the killers makes the same observation I once heard from Ward Churchill, namely that the winners of a war—such as they were—do not have to pay for their crimes.

Turning to the question of fact versus fiction, there’s something about “Act of Killing” that does not pass the smell test. The reenactment scenes are so poorly acted and scripted that anybody taking part in them would probably be winking to himself the whole time. The project would have made Ed Wood look like Orson Welles. I strongly suspect that the killers were in on the deception and went along with it anyhow. They had nothing to lose, especially from a Western imperialism that shares James Reston’s assessment that the killings were a good thing.

The last five minutes shows Anwar Congo up on a roof deck where he used to torture and kill people. In the course of describing his crimes, he suddenly begins to feel nauseous and the camera lingers on him as he dry heaves up nothing. I have a strong suspicion that he was faking it in order to make for a suitable redemptive conclusion. It cost nothing but it will certainly help Mr. Oppenheimer’s ticket sales since it makes his sordid enterprise more balanced than it really is.

“Act of Killing” is playing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York City.

Since I didn’t read the publicist’s note carefully, I assumed that “Computer Chess” was a documentary about the development of the earliest versions of the software that I literally spend an hour on each day ever since I got my first computer—a Mindset—in 1986, just 6 years after the events depicted in the film took place. I thought there would be serious interviews with computer programmers and chess masters.

In the first ten minutes of the film, I had no reason to think that it was other than what I expected. The clothing and the eyeglasses and the clunky machines, filmed in primitive black-and-white video, struck me as authentic. But maybe a bit too authentic as it is on “Mad Men”.

But when the characters began getting involved with drug deals and sex trysts, I figured out that this was a fictional film made to look like a documentary. The capper was an encounter group that was holding its meetings in the same room where a machine versus grand master competition was being held. The encounter group was portrayed as even sillier than it was in reality back when they were fashionable.

What is utterly lacking in the entire film is a look at how chess software works, something that would have intrigued me. Instead it was an affectionate if a bit patronizing look at the geeks who were supposedly the heroic vanguard of a technological revolution. It was a character study—with the emphasis on character—not that different from the one found in “Act of Killing”. The emphasis is on characters getting on their freak.

Like “Act of Killing”, this film has garnered very good reviews. It is showing now at the Film Forum.

Finally, there’s “Colossus”, a fictional film about the making of a documentary of an “artificial” rock band in post-Soviet Russia under the auspices of one Clark Larson, a Brit who has been living there for 17 years. But it turns out that Larson is actually an American who is putting on an act. In fact the entire movie is a meditation on putting on an act.

The plot revolves around Larson’s struggle to make the movie, which is constantly dealing with challenges from the impromptu band he has assembled over directions to take, Russian gangsters who want to muscle in on the film and the band which has been gaining popularity, his wife’s opposition to what amounts to a hare-brained scheme, and finally the ordinary artistic and financial problems involved with making a film. This last matter is what interested me as a one-man production company.

Clearly, the director Mark Hendrickson, who plays Larson, is fascinated with the truth versus fiction tension. There are segments in the film where he walks down a mysterious looking tunnel philosophizing about such matters. It may ring a bell to anyone who has seen Orson Welles’s documentary “F for Fake” will know where Hendrickson got his inspiration. Trust me, Welles is a lot better at this sort of thing.

“Colossus” is now playing at the Quad.

July 19, 2013

Henri-Georges Clouzot: the French Hitchcock

Filed under: Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 7:35 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition July 19-21, 2013
The Films of Henri-George Clouzot
The French Hitchcock
by LOUIS PROYECT

After proposing an article on radical Swedish detective novels to Jeff St. Clair, he responded positively and also mentioned parenthetically: “Speaking of French noir, have you seen Quai des Orfevres?” I drew a blank on the flick, but would have been just as lost if he had named the director, one Henri-Georges Clouzot, a surname that evoked Peter Sellers in a pratfall rather than film noir.

After a minute or two of Googling, a flood of associations welled up as if triggered by Proust’s madeleine. I discovered that Clouzot was the man behind “Wages of Fear”, one of my favorite movies. He also directed “Les Diaboliques”, another 1950s classic that shows up from time to time on TCM.

Since my memory is not as sharp as it used to be, I could not remember if I had ever seen “Les Diaboliques”. But I do distinctly remember what Laura, my high-school beatnik pal, had to say upon returning from New York in 1960 to our unhip village. She had seen the film at one of New York’s plentiful art houses of the time and told me that it was the scariest movie ever. This was just before Hitchcock came out with “Psycho”, a film that it was compared to largely on the basis of Simone Signoret killing a semiconscious man in a bathtub with coldblooded efficiency. As it turns out, Clouzot beat Hitchcock to the rights of the novel it was based on by a nose.

A year later I was ensconced at Bard College surrounded by Galuois smoking undergraduates who considered “Wages of Fear” to be the closest thing in film to Albert Camus’s essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”. Like the four men in Clouzot’s saga who transport TNT over a rocky mountainous road to bomb a raging oil fire into submission, Sisyphus was a Greek god who was condemned to push a huge boulder to the top of a mountain but upon reaching the summit would always roll back down to the bottom underneath the crushing weight of the rock. Camus wrote:

All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is a thing Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is, but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable.

Having evolved from the existentialism of my freshman year to Marxism in 1967, an absurd but necessary faith, I am now struck by Camus’s meditation on this myth of futility. One cannot help but feeling that being an unrepentant Marxist in 2013 is tantamount to a Sisyphean admission that  “The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing.”

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/07/19/the-french-hitchcock/

July 17, 2013

Homs today

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 10:52 pm

Homs-today

The necessary consequences of resisting jihadist/CIA/Salafist/Samantha Powers/Zionist threats to a secular and socialist bastion of Arab nationalism? Or is that Arab national socialism?

Cognitive dissonance

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 1:16 am

Walking out from the press screening after the conclusion of Johnny To’s great new movie “Drug War”, I ran into an Asian woman about 50 years old or so who said she’d like to ask me a question. I said shoot.

Her: What did you think of the movie?

Me: I loved it.

Her: Really?

Me: Absolutely. Johnny To is the greatest.

Her: What is your name?

Me: Why do you need my name?

Her: I am a reporter with Xinhua.

Me: Oh. (I said as I was writing down my name). That’s Louis Proyect. I’m on the Internet. The Unrepentant Marxist.

She looked at me after I identified myself as if I had two heads. Seeing the expression on her face, I added: “You know, Karl Marx.”

The cognitive dissonance was so thick you could cut it with a knife. To start with, this is a movie that is nominally Chinese but it is really a Hong Kong product that plays by its own rules. A typical mainland movie is a costume drama about wicked Emperors being challenged by lesser nobility. Hong Kong movies, by comparison, are ultra-violent policiers cynical to the bone. Meanwhile, it is the same capitalist system that the two areas are united under. So, if this was her first Hong Kong movie, it must have been a jarring experience. But on top of that, what do you make of a Marxist who is passionate about Hong Kong gangster movies? Life is strange.

Trailer for “Drug War”:

July 15, 2013

A Colossal Wreck

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn — louisproyect @ 8:51 pm

I just received a review copy of Alexander Cockburn’s 570-page “A Colossal Wreck” from Verso Press and could not be more excited. I had already ordered one from the CP website that I will present as a gift to a good friend who has been reading and supporting CP for as long as me.

“A Colossal Wreck” appears to be a journal that Cockburn kept from 1995 until a week before his death on July 21, 2012. As one might have guessed, there appears to be not a single word about his illness in the entire book.

While skimming through the book, I came across an entry that reminded me (as if I needed any reminder) about why I loved him. It was not just the politics (of course we did have our differences but as Joe E. Brown told Jack Lemmon at the very end of “Some Like it Hot”: nobody’s perfect) but also his writing that remained bracing until the very end. He hated shitty prose in the same way that he hated shitty politicians. In this exegesis on the jargonistic use of the word “grow”, he articulated what has bothered me for the longest time.

I first hear the term “growing the firm” when I was a consultant at Mobil Oil in the early 80s and thought it an assault on the English language. I am particularly irked by its use on the left, even if infrequent. When Carl Davidson talked about “growing the economy” in one of his flabby pieces on the American political scene, I gave him a piece of my mind. I only wish that I had this piece at my fingertips at the time, not that it would have made any difference.

The book can now be ordered from http://www.easycartsecure.com/CounterPunch/CounterPunch_Books.html. Be there or be square.

January 27, 2012

Last week revolutionary Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville announced the capture and imminent trial of “grow,” long sought in its counter-revolutionary mutation as a transitive verb governing an abstraction, as in “grow the economy,” a formulation popular among the Girondin faction. “Grow,” said the Prosecutor, was being held in the Conciergerie, under constant surveillance. I’ve no doubt that the Tribunal will not long delay in sending “grow” in this usage to a well-deserved rendezvous with the fatal blade. I associate the usage with the 1992 Clinton campaign, where talk about “growing the economy” was at gale force. My friends and neighbors here in Petrolia, Karen and Joe Paff, tell me that when they were starting up their coffee business, Goldrush, at the start of the 1980s, the local bank officials were already hard at it, talking about “growing the business.” I hate the usage, with its smarmy implication of virtuous horticultural effort. As CounterPuncher Michael Greenberg writes, “It sounds phony, aggressive, and even grammatically incorrect, not the nurturing ‘grow’ that one associates with living things.”

Joining “grow” in the tumbril will, I trust, be “blood and treasure,” used with great solemnity by opinion formers to describe the cost, often the supposedly worthy sacrifice, attached to America’s wars. The usage apparently goes back to Jefferson, but that’s no excuse. The catchphrase seeks to turn slaughter and the shoveling of money to arms manufacturers into a noble, almost mythic expenditure. Shackled to “blood and treasure” should be its co-conspirator, “in harm’s way:’ Jack Flannigan writes from Kerala, “Mr. Cockburn, Somebody might have beat me to it but my candidate for the squeaky old tumbril is ‘in harm’s way.’ It has, especially in the last ten years, acquired a treacly red, white, and blue patina about it that is over-whelmingly connected to the military and police. Someone sailing on a Gaza flotilla or staring down a line of sneering, rabid cops is not very likely to be referred by our political/media elites as ‘in harm’s way.’” Last week, dispatching the phrase to the tumbrils, I said the G. H. Bush campaign of 1979 for the Republican nomination hefted “It’s not over till the fat lady sings” to national prominence. Jeremy Pikser writes to say the phrase “was actually first popularized by the coach (or owner?) of the Baltimore Bullets basketball team in 1978. As usual G. H. Bush was only capable of feeble imitation when he used it, hoping to sound like a ‘real guy.’” Further research discloses its use in sports journalism has been attributed to writer/broadcaster Dan Cook around the same time, and in the mid-‘70s by a Texas Tech sports official.

From: Kevin Rath

Mr. Cockburn,

Recently I have been accosted with the phrase “reaching out to you” by sales people. While it may be inappropriate since your focus is the news, this stupid phrase people from marketing use in their email subject titles and language is really annoying.

Reaching out to your tumbril cart,

Kevin Rath, a CP member

Photo of Zimmerman jury released

Filed under: racism — louisproyect @ 1:42 am

July 14, 2013

Thoughts on a post-racial lynching

Filed under: racism — louisproyect @ 5:40 pm

Trayvon Martin and his father

A couple of days ago I was talking to an old friend and chess partner who lives out on the Rockaways about the George Zimmerman trial. He had trouble understanding why I was so sure that Trayvon Martin’s killer would go free. He referred to all of the problems with the defense that came up on almost a daily basis on MSNBC, CNN and other cable stations except for the racist Fox News. Zimmerman was told by the cops not to follow Martin. Zimmerman’s injuries were superficial. Zimmerman demonstrated implicitly racist animosity telling the cops that “they” always get away with it. But in the final analysis, I was sure that none of this would matter. Instead, racist solidarity would trump all evidence. An all-white jury stuck up for one of their own. Additionally, the cops that the prosecution lawyers called upon as witnesses effectively functioned as defense witnesses since they obviously thought it was a good thing that a Black youth was terminated. After all, anybody walking around in a hoodie is looking for trouble.

It is very likely that if Trayvon Martin’s parents were less ready to stand up to racist inertia in Florida, the case never would have come to trial. Three weeks after he was killed, the media began to take notice. The N.Y. Times reported on March 17, 2012 that the chief of the Sanford police saw no reason to arrest Zimmerman:

”The evidence doesn’t establish so far that Mr. Zimmerman did not act in self-defense,” Chief Bill Lee of the Sanford police said this week, responding to why Mr. Zimmerman had not been arrested. He said he would welcome a federal investigation. ”We don’t have anything to dispute his claim of self-defense at this point.”

A month after making this statement, Lee resigned after the city fathers realized that Lee was far too antagonistic a figure in a period when the spotlight was being turned on their town.

Sanford has a long history of bigotry, starting with its namesake Henry Sanford, a nineteenth century orange grower who advocated sending Blacks back to Africa in order to “draw the gathering electricity from the black cloud spreading over the southern states,

In 1947 Jackie Robinson was to play on an integrated minor league team in preparation for his start with the Brooklyn Dodgers but when the white citizens found out they came out to the stadium and physically blocked the team from taking the field.

While there were never any lynchings or cross-burnings like there were in Mississippi, the reality of life is that racism pervaded city life in the same fashion as it did in cities like New York or Boston. There’s plenty of evidence of that in Patricia Dillon’s article “Civil Rights and School Desegregation in Sanford” that appeared in the Winter 1998 edition of The Florida Historical Quarterly.

In addition to citing the Jackie Robinson incident that has been referred to frequently on the Web, she points to less well-known but drearily familiar assaults on racial equality.

On September 25, 1950, citizens jammed the city council office to protest the re-zoning of a white neighborhood to accommodate black housing. A delegation of white citizens presented the council with a petition containing over two hundred signatures objecting to the proposed zoning program. The Sanford Housing Authority quickly capitulated to the white residents’ demands and revoked its zoning recommendation.

This, of course, is the same thing that would happen in Levittown, Long Island where Blacks were prevented from owning low-cost homes as part of the post-WWII suburban utopia.

Blacks were also blocked from using recreational facilities available to whites but were even ready to accept them on a “separate but equal basis”. Dillon reports:

The most contentious disagreement between the white and black communities continued to revolve around the use of recreational facilities. The minimal funding appropriated for black playgrounds and recreational centers failed to match those that the city allocated to the white football fields, swimming pool, civic center, and baseball diamonds. In the late 1950s, African Americans demanded either the integration of the superior white facilities or the construction of “separate but equal” recreational centers.

In July 1958, between forty and fifty black teenagers marched on the Sanford Civic Center’s Youth Wing. Though the Center allowed blacks daytime use of the facilities for recreational activities, officials barred them from entering the building at night for social functions. Within ten minutes after the teenagers reached the Center, Police Chief Roy Williams disbanded the group. He recounted: “There was no disorder. All of the Negro youth left in an orderly manner when told they were approaching the problem in the wrong manner.”

Eventually the civil rights movement gathered enough strength so that de jure segregation was made illegal. Sanford no longer had Jim Crow but residential de facto segregation kept the town as divided as ever, just as is the case with most northern cities.

The elimination of de jure segregation in the 1960s, followed by the election of Black politicians in significant numbers crowning with the election of Barack Obama has led many to believe that we were living in a post-racial society. Determined to maintain this fiction, the judge in the George Zimmerman trial ruled out any reference to racial profiling.

Despite all the blather about a post-racial America, racial inequality is as deep as ever. Today Juan Cole blogged about Whites and African-Americans by the numbers. Those numbers were most revealing.

  • Average household net worth of whites: $110,000.
  • Average household net worth of African-Americans: $5000
  • 1 in every 15 African American men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men

The ruling class was most adroit in selecting Barack Obama as president who has kept Black Americans in a state of stupor approximating Odysseus’s crew’s encounter with the Lotus Eaters, an island-bound people whose diet functioned as a narcotic, lulling those who ate there to sleep in peaceful apathy.

In 2009, I wrote a review of David Roediger’s “How Race Survived U.S. History: from settlement and slavery to the Obama phenomenon” for Swans titled “Are We In A Post-Racial America?” I urge everybody to check out Roediger’s book that I described in my concluding paragraphs:

Despite the Democratic Party’s reputation for opposing racism, given a new lease on life with the election of Barack Obama, there are indications that not much has changed since the mid-19th century. The Democratic Leadership Council emerged in the post-Reagan era in order to woo the white “Reagan Democrat” back into the fold, which meant backing politicians like Bill Clinton who offered only the most tepid resistance to Republican assaults on affirmative action and who scuttled Aid to Dependent Children, a welfare measure that was perceived (incorrectly) as favoring people of color.

Even under the “post-racial” epoch of Barack Obama, there are few signs that the Democratic Party is willing to attack the institutional basis of racism as long as the party is under the control of Wall Street banks, real estate developers, and other sectors of the capitalist economy that prosper on the super-exploitation of non-white workers. Obama signaled his intention to adhere to the status quo even before he became president. In his speech to the 2004 Democratic Party convention, he stated “Go into the [blue] collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don’t want their tax money wasted by a welfare agency or the Pentagon.” Considering how welfare budgets have been slashed in the past 25 years or so while the Pentagon drains tax coffers in order to fend off one enemy or another overseas (mostly people of color in the colonial world), Obama’s remarks can only be considered cheap demagogy.

Furthermore, his willingness to condemn Jeremiah Wright for alluding to the truths self-evident to everybody in the black community and receiving a scholarly treatment in Roediger’s book demonstrate that the task is the same as it was from the beginning: to unite the victims of the capitalist system against those who benefit from it. Since we have hundreds of millions that we can count on eventually against a tiny minority, our final victory is assured as long as we have the courage to march forward without illusions in temporary fixes.

This morning I heard the pundits on various Sunday morning talk shows stating that the Justice Department has plans to prosecute George Zimmerman for “hate crimes”. I will defer judgment on its effectiveness until the wheels begin to move, but I will say this. It is incumbent on the mass movement, especially its Black vanguard, to raise hell. If it took protests to bring Zimmerman to trial in the first place, it will take even more vociferous and more massive protests to put him in prison for the decades-long sentence he deserves.

The time for eating Lotuses is over.

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