Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 26, 2014

Outside agitators in Ferguson, Missouri

Filed under: african-american,revolutionary organizing,Trotskyism,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:16 pm

A week ago the popular news and gossip website Gawker published an article titled “Who Are the ‘Revolutionary Communists’ Allegedly Agitating in Ferguson?” by Michelle Deane, the author of illuminating pieces such as “Your End-of-August Cocktail Is A Lemon Rosemary Vodka Fizz”.

Since I confess to not being a regular Gawker reader, I thought I’d take a quick look at its provenance through the generally reliable Wikipedia. A Brit named Nick Denton, whose politics are rather hard to pin down, launched it in 2003. His main ambition seems to be making money. For some odd reason, he decided to launch a website inspired by the sorry career of Tina Brown, the former editor of “Vanity Fair”, the obvious inspiration for Gawker.

I was intrigued to see that Choire Sicha spent a couple of years as editor there. Sicha launched The Awl, a website covering pretty much the same terrain as Gawker. I have it bookmarked and spend about 15 seconds there each day in a futile attempt to find something worth reading.

N+1, a Marxist literary and political print magazine I read from cover to cover, published an article on Gawker that sums it up fairly well:

Gawker had always sold itself as mean but it now became, actually, very mean. Sicha, who liked to pretend to be a news organization, had sent “correspondents” and “interns” to official media events. Coen found more of them, and she sent them not only to launches and readings but also to private parties, where they took embarrassing party photos. This was the important development: the decision to treat every subject, known or unknown, in public or private situations, with the fascinated ill will that tabloid magazines have for their subjects.

It makes some sense that if you are following in the footsteps of Tina Brown, you are likely to cross paths. Brown founded The Daily Beast in 2008 and was largely responsible for the vast financial losses that Newsweek suffered after an ill-advised merger with her dubious project. Although the Beast no longer has no connections to Brown, her spirit lingers on.

At the Daily Beast you can find the same sort of article on Ferguson that Michelle Deane wrote. Titled “The Communist Agitators Trying to Ignite Ferguson”, it is the sort of thing that was once popular in the 1950s when communism was a force to be reckoned with. The article has a glaring typo in the second paragraph, a dead giveaway as to the Beast’s editorial standards:

The Revolution Club of Chicago took to the streets Monday, busy “working with people.” After darkness fell and while the crowd of protesters grew larger and more boisterous, Carl Dix walked along West Florissant Avenue with Joey Johnson and Lou Downey, members of the Chicago club. It was clear that Nix—a leader in the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP)—was the point man in this small operation, with Johnson, Downey and several others following him as committed political disciples.

Is it Dix or is it Nix? (It is Dix.)

Gawker’s coverage at least had the merit of being written with the obligatory “sassy” style that pervades the magazine:

According to a website called the Missouri Torch, the man French is referring to is one Greg “Joey” Johnson, of Chicago. They have a variety of other images and videos of Johnson and assorted “commie” — their word — friends being shown around Ferguson. It’s pretty plain they’ve identified him correctly.

Johnson has been kicking around the paranoid end of American politics for some time. (To be utterly clear to any conservatives getting excited just reading this, that paranoid end is a 360 degree circle, really, comprising members of all stripes of political thought.) But he hasn’t been wholly ineffective, as an activist. For one example: those of you who went to law school, might recognize him as the same Gregory Johnson who was the defendant in Texas v. Johnson, the case which held that flag-burning is a protected activity under the First Amendment.

The group with which Johnson is affiliated, the Revolutionary Communist Party, is nowadays largely regarded as crank-ish even by many self-identified Communists. It is routinely referred to as a “cult of personality” for its leader Bob Avakian. Avakian, who lives in self-imposed exile… somewhere, still believes that Communist revolution is possible and writes long tracts to that end, identifying the end of racial oppression as key to the eventual overthrow of capitalism. He is also the sort of fellow who writes like this:

One important aspect of boldly spreading revolution and communism everywhere is the work of building what we have characterized as a culture of appreciation, promotion, and popularization around the leadership, the body of work and the method and approach of Bob Avakian. Now, I recognize that some people (especially among the middle strata, frankly) may find it “immodest” (and perhaps, to some, strangely disturbing) for me to speak about this (and, for god’s sake, to refer to myself in the third person!). But, first of all and fundamentally, “modesty” (or “immodesty”) is not the essential issue, not the heart of the matter.

Unfortunately Deane relied heavily on the video coverage of Ferguson that appeared in the Missouri Torch, a far-right website that is published by the Missouri Alliance for Freedom, a group that seeks to:

  • Reduce taxes and decrease the size of government.
  • Protect parental and children’s rights while encouraging the traditional family unit.

Apparently Sarah Kenzidor, a contributor to al-Jazeera and other nominally progressive outlets, has been tapping the Missouri Torch as well to “expose” outside agitators.

Jacobin Magazine, which has been linked with N+! as the voice of the Marxist Young Turks, published an article by Richard Seymour that took issue with the “outside agitator” narrative without naming any of the culprits. In addition to Gawker and The Daily Beast, the same sort of article appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, CNN and the Wall Street Journal. Richard wrote:

The metaphor of exteriority, of being outside, has two important connotations. First, one is transgressing the spatial ordering of the state. States constitute social spaces like districts, wards, and counties — a process that is historically far from racially innocent in the US.

Second, is that one’s political being is “outside,” and thus traitorous and disloyal. It is not just that one traveled from one city to another — that’s fine, provided the political agenda one brings is benign for the system — but that one brought ideas that are not only not native to the destination, but actually foreign to the nation, the free world, civilization itself.

While I am in total agreement with Richard’s analysis, I do want to take a few moments to look at the RCP intervention that some on the left view somewhat more benignly than I do. Blogger Stanley W. Rogouski wrote in conclusion to an article on Ferguson and outside agitators:

The RCP got it right with World Can’t Wait. Radicals had to take over liberal outrage against the Republicans or watch the “Bush Regime” become the new normal. That they proposed, and with a very straight face, that the alternative to George W. Bush could be Bob Avakian was hilariously delusional. But they were onto something. Perhaps that’s why, now, they’ve become the face of the “outside agitator” in Ferguson.

Sarah Kendzior knows her competition when she sees it.

With so much attention riveted on Avakian’s group, I thought I’d go pay their website a visit. The last time I had any contact with them was back in the 1980s and early 90s when I used to visit their well-stocked bookstore in Chelsea.

The home page of Revolution, their newspaper, made clear who was their main man:

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As I trawled through their coverage of Ferguson, I found plenty of militant rhetoric:

We stand with the defiant ones. We stand with the angry ones, the rebellious ones, the ones who will not take it, the ones who tell the truth—and the ones they lie about. Without defiance, without rage, without righteous rebellion, without people insisting on their rights and defending those rights in the street—very few people would even know about Michael Brown and how he was shot over and over with his hands up, murdered by pigs and then left to lie there in the streets, as if he were an animal. Very few people would have shared the grief of his parents for the terrible loss of this young man, at the very beginning of his life. Without the rebellion, this terrible state-done murder would just be another rerun of the same old all-too-familiar story, the same murderous stuff that happens to Black and Latino youth over and over again.

But because of the defiance and rebellion, the whole world knows the story. Now everybody has to deal with this. And people all over the country and all over the world support this fight. You, the defiant ones, are changing the thinking of millions and millions of people… you are calling out to everyone NOT TO TAKE IT… you are making history—in the way it badly needs to be made.

So, yes we stand with the defiant ones—and we will defend them and stand with them in deed as well as word.

But it was not exactly clear what this meant in terms of strategy and tactics. This is not surprising since the RCP is what might be called a “maximalist” organization. Their preoccupation is with REVOLUTION, not any mealy-mouthed intermediate steps that can move the struggle forward. Although I have very little use for James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, I live by his observation that the art of politics is knowing what to do next.

In 1938 Trotsky wrote the Transitional Program in an effort to address the task of knowing what to do next. He described it as an alternative to the minimum/maximum divide that existed in the social democracy:

Classical Social Democracy, functioning in an epoch of progressive capitalism, divided its program into two parts independent of each other: the minimum program which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum program which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future. Between the minimum and the maximum program no bridge existed.

Although Trotsky does not delve into this, the two programs effectively became the banner of the Second International and Third Period Stalinism before the two movements began to overlap through the Popular Front period. In the late 20s and the early 30s, the CP would organize foolish adventures along “maximalist” lines that backfired against the workers movement. In Germany, they united with the Nazis to unseat a socialist party politician embodying their belief: “After Hitler, Us”.

If you want to understand the RCP politically, their primary influence was Third Period Stalinism, which in the USA was expressed through the period in which William Z. Foster led the CP.

Trotsky proposed the Transitional Program as a way of circumnavigating the treacherous waters dominated by the CP and the social democracy in the late 1930s, two massive movements that had little to fear from the Fourth International that was based on a sectarian model even if its emphasis on “transition” was perfectly lin line with Marxist theory.

When I first came across the Transitional Program in 1967, I was struck by Trotsky’s very first sentence: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” That is just as true today as it was when I read it 47 years ago. Just look at the Middle East and North Africa.

It is also true of Black America that many analysts have begun to compare to oppressed people in MENA, particularly the residents of Gaza who carried signs hailing the struggle in Ferguson.

I was struck by the anger and distrust directed against the official Black leadership in Ferguson, even expressed by some Black elected officials. Back in 1967 the SWP was propagandizing for an independent Black political party, one that could begin to organize and generalize struggles such as those occurring around cop killings now. It had hopes that the Panthers could become that party but they succumbed to Maoist maximalism unfortunately.

As the Black membership of the SWP grew in the 1970s, it became capable of helping to move toward such a party. There were national conferences to launch such a party that withered on the vine, partly out of the participation of Black CP’ers who wanted to squelch any potential challenges to the Democratic Party. The same thing happened with efforts to build a Labor Party, with officials lacking the guts to organize election campaigns that would antagonize their allies in the labor movement.

In the 1970s and 80s, efforts to build such parties was undermined by both the generally more sanguine state of the economy and by the sectarian madness of the organized left, including the SWP. Now that the economy has turned to shit and the sectarians—including the SWP and the RCP—have been reduced to cults around a believe leader, the time is ripe for moving once again to build class struggle alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans in the electoral arena.

August 25, 2014

He passed muster at the U. of Illinois

Filed under: Academia,racism,Steven Salaita — louisproyect @ 7:32 pm

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Weissberg speaking at American Renaissance Conference, an organization whose journal promotes racial supremacy. Weissberg himself has written that Blacks are genetically inferior to whites.


Chief Illiniwek

Filed under: Academia,indigenous,repression,Steven Salaita — louisproyect @ 3:42 pm

Chief Illiniwek performing at a football game

“As a university community, we also are committed to creating a welcoming environment for faculty and students alike to explore the most difficult, contentious and complex issues facing our society today. Our Inclusive Illinois initiative is based on the premise that education is a process that starts with our collective willingness to search for answers together – learning from each other in a respectful way that supports a diversity of worldviews, histories and cultural knowledge.”

–Phyllis Wise, U. of Illinois Chancellor

From Wikipedia:

On January 17, 2007, the Executive Committee of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, issued a resolution asking that the University of Illinois return the regalia to the family of Frank Fools Crow and cease the use of the Chief Illiniwek mascot. The resolution was delivered to the university’s Board of Trustees, UI President B. Joseph White, and Chancellor Richard Herman. The campus’ Native American House was authorized by the Oglala Sioux to distribute the resolution to the public.

Some Illiniwek were forcibly removed from the state of Illinois during the time of Indian removal. The forced relocation of Indian nations between 1818 and 1833 made way for non-Indians to claim the territory as the state of Illinois. Due to government-sponsored assimilation programs, many Native people moved in the 1950s to large urban areas such as Chicago. Founded in 1953, Chicago’s American Indian Center is the oldest urban Indian center in the country, and there is a substantial American Indian population in Chicago.

In 2006, the University Board of Trustees opted to study the issue and passed a resolution calling for “a consensus conclusion to the matter of Chief Illiniwek.” Many on both sides of the issue found this resolution problematic, given that former trustee Roger Plummer determined that a compromise on the issue was not possible. At that point, the Board of Trustees has not consulted on the matter with the faculty of the American Indian Studies Program.

On March 13, 2007, the University of Illinois board of trustees voted to retire Illiniwek’s name, image and regalia.

In October 2012, the Chief made an unsanctioned halftime appearance at Memorial stadium, in the Homecoming football game against Indiana.

Students and fans still chant “Chief” during the performance of Three In One during halftime. Since neither the NCAA nor the University have any control over what the fans chant, opposition groups have called to additionally ban the Three In One performance.

In April 2014, an indigenous student, Xochitl Sandoval, sent a letter to the university administration (which she also posted on her Facebook page) describing her thoughts of suicide resulting from the daily insults she felt due to the continued presence of “The Chief” on campus, including other students wearing the old image and name on sweatshirts and the continued “unofficial” performances the current “Chief”, Ivan A. Dozier at some events. She stated that these thoughts came as a result of her feeling that she had no recourse because the university had not enforced its own policies regarding racism and the creation of a hostile environment for indigenous students such as herself; but had instead stated her only recourse would be personal action.[51] Soon afterward there was a gathering on the Quad organized by the president of the Native American Indigenous Student Organization in support of Sandoval, and calling for further action by the University to eliminate the presence of the Chief on campus. The Campus Faculty Association (CFA) also issued a statement in support of Sandoval.



U. of Illinois: caught with its pants down

Filed under: Academia,repression,Steven Salaita,Uncategorized,zionism — louisproyect @ 12:40 pm

August 24, 2014

Antisemitism and Salaita

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:33 am


The following letter by Michael Rothberg originally appeared on his website. Rothberg is the Head of the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Director of the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies. He is the author of Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation (2000) and Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (2009), and the co-editor of The Holocaust: Theoretical Readings (2003) and Cary Nelson and the Struggle for the University: Poetry, Politics, and the Profession (2009).

August 17, 2014
Dear Chancellor Wise,

I am sorry that I cannot join my colleagues in their meeting with you on August 18. I truly appreciate your making yourself available for dialogue with faculty members concerned about the university’s handling of the Steven Salaita case. Dialogue between the administration and the faculty is precisely what has been missing thus…

View original post 909 more words

August 22, 2014

Another murder of a Black man in St. Louis–how Abraham Lincoln responded

Filed under: african-american,Obama,racism — louisproyect @ 9:29 pm

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In St. Louis, Missouri on April 28th, 1836, a lynch mob burned Francis McIntosh alive. He was a mixed-race freeman who worked on a riverboat. His crime was refusing to assist two cops who were chasing after another sailor who had been in a fight. When under police custody, he learned that he would have to spend five years in prison. In an attempt to flee from an obviously unjust punishment, he stabbed one of the cops to death and wounded the other.

Wikipedia reports on what happened next:

After a brief chase, McIntosh was captured and placed in jail; however, a white mob soon broke into the jail and removed McIntosh. The mob then took him to the outskirts of town (near the present-day intersection of Seventh and Chestnut streets in Downtown St. Louis), chained him to a locust tree, and piled wood around and up to his knees. When the mob lit the wood with a hot brand, McIntosh asked the crowd to shoot him, then began to sing hymns. When one in the crowd said that he had died, McIntosh reportedly replied, “No, no — I feel as much as any of you. Shoot me! Shoot me!” After at most twenty minutes, McIntosh died. Estimates for the number present at the lynching range in the hundreds, and include an alderman who threatened to shoot anyone who attempted to stop the lynching.

During the night, an elderly African-American man was paid to keep the fire lit, and the mob dispersed. The next day, on April 29, a group of boys threw rocks at the corpse in an attempt to break the skull. When a grand jury was convened to investigate the lynching on May 16, most local newspapers and the presiding judge encouraged no indictment for the crime, and no one was ever charged or convicted. During the grand jury trial, Judge Luke E. Lawless remarked in court that McIntosh’s actions were an example of the “atrocities committed in this and other states by individuals of negro blood against their white brethren,” and that with the rise of abolitionism, “the free negro has been converted into a deadly enemy.”

On January 27, 1838 Abraham Lincoln gave the first important speech in his life to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. A Lyceum was a place where politicians or other celebrities could give talks to the up and coming professional, sort of like the 92nd Street YMHA. Titled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions”, it was a plea to resist mob rule and adhere to the rule of law. He referred to the lynching of Francis McIntosh as a threat the American republic:

Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic, if anything of its length, that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.

Such are the effects of mob law; and such as the scenes, becoming more and more frequent in this land so lately famed for love of law and order; and the stories of which, have even now grown too familiar, to attract any thing more, than an idle remark.

At first blush, this sounds like the Lincoln we know from Stephen Spielberg’s biopic—a man committed to emancipation. But not so fast. Lincoln goes on to say:

He had forfeited his life, by the perpetuation of an outrageous murder, upon one of the most worthy and respectable citizens of the city; and had not he died as he did, he must have died by the sentence of the law, in a very short time afterwards. As to him alone, it was as well the way it was, as it could otherwise have been.–But the example in either case, was fearful.–When men take it in their heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they should recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn some one who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of to-morrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake.

As someone who is not that fond of Lincoln’s ornate circumlocutions, let me paraphrase it in Proyectesque terms. Lincoln said that McIntosh deserved to die but only after being found guilty in a court of law. One can only imagine what a jury made up of his “peers” would have decided in a state that passed a law in 1825 stating that Blacks were not competent to testify in cases that involved Whites.

Even more worrisome was Lincoln’s remarks on abolitionism. In the South, there were laws that banned the promotion of abolitionist ideas. Lincoln warned against “mob rule” that would attempt to circumvent the rule of law. Once again, you have to put up with the circumlocutions: “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law. In any case that arises, as for instance, the promulgation of abolitionism, one of two positions is necessarily true; that is, the thing is right within itself, and therefore deserves the protection of all law and all good citizens; or, it is wrong, and therefore proper to be prohibited by legal enactments; and in neither case, is the interposition of mob law, either necessary, justifiable, or excusable.”

When I first got wind of Barack Obama in 2007, I noticed that he was a big fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals”, a study of Lincoln’s presidency that found great merit in his appointment of men who were hostile to abolitionism. Obama, of course, was inspired to appoint a bunch of shithooks every chance he got, to show how determined he was to be like Lincoln.

Upon taking office, Obama told a reporter: “”I will tell you, though, that my goal is to have the best possible government, and that means me winning. And so, I am very practical minded. I’m a practical-minded guy. And, you know, one of my heroes is Abraham Lincoln.” He referred the reporter to “a wonderful book written by Doris Kearns Goodwin called ‘Team of Rivals,’ in which [she] talked about [how] Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his Cabinet because whatever, you know, personal feelings there were, the issue was, ‘How can we get this country through this time of crisis?’”

Well, we know how that turned out. Badly.

We have had six years now of an administration that is to the right of Richard Nixon’s. It harasses reporters, favors the rich, sends drones to blow up wedding parties, creates health care “reform” more beneficial to the insurer than the insured, and caves in to the Republicans every chance it gets.

And, now returning to the crime against a Black man in St. Louis once again, we have Obama following in Lincoln’s footsteps. Which means trying to straddle the fence and be acceptable to Black voters and to the white racists who would as soon see them get the short end of the stick just like the Palestinians. No wonder the people of Ferguson carry signs in solidarity with Gaza.


Gunning for Vandana Shiva

Filed under: Ecology,farming,science — louisproyect @ 1:20 pm
The New Yorker, GMOs and Chemical Farming

Gunning for Vandana Shiva


Perhaps nothing symbolizes the decline of the New Yorker magazine more than the hatchet job on Vandana Shiva that appears in the latest issue. Written by Michael Specter, the author of “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress”, the article is a meretricious defense of genetically modified organisms (GMO) relying on one dodgy source after another. This is the same magazine whose reputation was at its apex when Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking articles on DDT appeared in 1962. If DDT was once a symbol of the destructive power of chemicals on the environment, GMO amounts to one of the biggest threats to food production today. It threatens to enrich powerful multinational corporations while turning farmers into indentured servants through the use of patented seeds. Furthermore, it threatens to unleash potentially calamitous results in farmlands through unintended mutations.

Specter represents himself as a defender of science against irrational thinking. Since many activists regard Vandana Shiva as grounded in science, it is essential that he discredit her. For example, he mentions a book jacket that refers to her as “one of India’s leading physicists”. But when he asked her if she ever worked as a physicist, she invited him to “search for the answer on Google”. He asserts that he found nothing and furthermore that no such position was listed in her biography. Not that I would ever take an inflated publicity blurb that seriously to begin with (having read one too many of those for Slavoj Žižek), I wondered what being a physicist would have to do with GMO in the first place. Is a degree in particle physics necessary for understanding the transformation of vast portions of the Gulf of Mexico into a dead zone because of fertilizer-enriched algae?

read full article


Wouldn’t you just know it? Bard College hired GMO hustler Michael Specter as a Visiting Professor of Environmental and Urban Studies.

I suppose that makes sense given that Stewart Resnick is on the board of trustees, the agribusiness billionaire who has diverted water from the commoners in Fiji and California to improve his bottom line and buy more politicians. When a college hires a big-time promoter of GMO to lecture on the environment, you just chalk that up to Leon Botstein’s Wizard of Oz con artistry.


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Lynn Henderson on Nat Weinstein’s political legacy

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 1:57 am

Nat Weinstein 1924 – 2014
His Political Legacy
By Lynn Henderson

I’ve known Nat a long time and I get the feeling that a lot of people here today also knew Nat a long time. I was trying to think back when Nat recruited me to the Socialist Workers Party. It was in 1960, 53-54 years ago. To tell the truth it’s a little scary when I think about how long ago that was.

I was in New York City as a graduate student at the New School for Social Research. I went there because I had the impression that it was a progressive, kind of liberal, even radical institution. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was staffed by professorial types who had been reactionary social democrats in their flaming youths and their politics had continuously gone south since then. While there, I quickly developed a stomach ulcer and every class I went to my ulcer got worse. As bad as their politics were and even though I considered my self some kind of socialist and Marxist, I just didn’t have the political and intellectual tools at the time to take these people on. It drove me crazy.

My wife at the time, Mary Henderson and I, just by dumb luck, had gotten a rent-controlled apartment right in the heart of Greenwich Village on 8th Street between 5th and 6th avenues, a short half a block north of Washington Square. I think we paid $87.50 a month rent. It was a top floor, four-story walk up but we were young so we didn’t mind that. One day I’m sitting in the apartment, nursing my ulcer, being more frustrated than ever and I hear something and look out the window and across the street, where if you know New York was the old 8th Street Bookstore on the corner of MacDougal St. was a socialist street corner meeting taking place. I looked down and there were about 20-25 people gathered around it listening to the speaker so I scurried down there and there were about five or six members of the Socialist Workers Party, some of them were selling the Militant, others were talking to people in the crowd and the speaker standing on a ladder for a platform was Nat Weinstein. I was enthralled with this thing.

I had never heard of the Socialist Workers Party; never saw anybody ever holding a street corner meeting on socialist ideas. There were questions and answers going on with the audience too, and there was one guy there that I could tell immediately was a exact clone of the professorial types I was dealing with at the New School. He had a tweed jacket on, with suede patches on the elbows and was puffing on a pipe. Nat was making remarks on the role of U.S. imperialism at the time and this guy comments, “Well, you know, colonialism wasn’t all bad” he says, “The British empire introduced a modern educational system into India, they introduced parliamentary democracy into India and all this was very helpful in India’s subsequence independence, blah – blah – blah. Well, Nat took him on and just politically devastated him, not in a mean way, but he was able to answer him and make him look ridiculous. And not only did he make this guy look ridiculous, but I could tell that he was winning over numbers of the people in the crowd, he was having an impact on them. I thought, “Wow”, these are people that have the political tools to answer phonies like this guy. I could feel, or at least I thought I could feel, a sharp reduction in the acid that was usually flowing down onto my stomach ulcer. I thought, I’ve got to know more about this. I was really kind of torn. I wanted the meeting to go on so I could learn more from the speakers and I also wanted it to end so I could buttonhole them and learn more about them, who they were and how I could learn from the things they were talking about and acquire the political skills they were demonstrating.

Well, needless to say, within weeks I was a member of the Socialist Workers Party. I never went back to the New School for Social Research, as a matter of fact I ended up in the next weeks going to meetings that Nat organized in Brooklyn where he lived, I think it was called the Brooklyn Educational League. It was a meeting of a small number of Black workers, kind of a socialist discussion club the core of which were the Franklin brothers who if you were around the New York SWP at that time you might remember. One of the Franklin brothers was an ex-prize fighter who was a member of the SWP. I learned more in those four or five meetings that I attended every week for a month or so than I learned in my whole previous political education. So that’s how Nat Weinstein recruited me to the Socialist Workers Party.

Nat, even at that time, was a leading worker activist in the SWP; I think he was already on the National Committee. He was part of a thin layer of workers that were recruited toward the end of World War II, really the last layer to be recruited to the SWP directly out of the working class. He was a merchant seaman and was recruited by an SWP shipmate while working a ship to Venezuela. As a worker activist he was a leader and an activist in all the events that were going on and would continue to develop in the emerging civil rights movement. He was a defender of Robert Williams and Malcolm X, and was a defender of Black Nationalism. He was instrumental in having Malcolm speak at an SWP forum at the New York branch headquarters. The SWP was the only organization on the left that had an appreciation of Black Nationalism. Trotsky in meetings with SWP leaders during his exile in Mexico had educated the party on the revolutionary nature of the Black Nationalist movement and had predicted its re-emergence.

Nat was also a defender of the Cuban Revolution and a union activist in the painters union in New York City. That’s how he ended up in San Francisco. He came out here because there was a fight in the painters union in San Francisco against the conservative bureaucracy and Nat came out to participate in that.

As significant as Nat’s role was as a leading worker activist in all these areas, Nat’s most important historical contribution, in my opinion, was later on. It was leading the fight against the political and programmatic degeneration in the SWP that was subsequently and surreptitiously organized by Jack Barnes. Nat emerged as the principal leader in that fight. In some ways this is surprising. There were others in the Fourth International and the SWP that certainly seemed to have more impressive intellectual and theoretical credentials for leading that fight, but they did not. It was this worker activist, Nat Weinstein, who recognized, analyzed and consciously organized against the break with the SWP’s political program and the core programmatic acquisitions that Barnes was determined to jettison. These included abandoning Trotsky’s concept of Permanent Revolution; abandoning the transitional program, as embodied in the founding document of the Fourth International; and rejecting the 1928 Program of the Left Opposition that launched the fight against the Stalinist bureaucracy. Barnes had come to the conclusion that all of these fundamental positions of the Fourth International and SWP were fatally flawed and from their inception anti-Leninist. He didn’t present his ideas for democratic discussion in the party but rather kept quiet about them until he could prepare an organizational terror campaign after which they would be unilaterally imposed.

It was Nat Weinstein then who authored the key programmatic and theoretical documents answering the new Barnes politics, and defending the program of revolutionary socialism. He played the key role. Barry Sheppard, who is here, not too long ago wrote a two volume work documenting his time in the SWP and the history he went through. I believe it’s a valuable two volumes and anybody here who hasn’t read it and wants to know about the history of this period, I encourage you to read it. The first volume dealt with the SWP before the organizational degeneration and in general is an excellent account reminding us of how valuable the healthy SWP was in intervening in the class struggle and moving it forward.

The second volume deals with the organizational degeneration of the SWP. Sheppard gives us an insider’s look, often in horrific detail, of the organizational degeneration carried out under Barnes direction. In this he is uniquely qualified, functioning for most of the period as Barnes chief organizational enforcer. Expressing what I believe is sincere regret, he details the pressure that led him personally, step by step, into playing this role. Many devoted and talented political activists went through the trauma of the SWP’s degeneration. Some were expelled, some became demoralized and resigned, others just drifted away. Many were completely disoriented by the experience. For many, what happened and how it happened remains a political mystery. To his credit Barry Sheppard survived that experience still defending today the founding program of the Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International – that is defending Marxism-Leninism.

Where Sheppard’s account comes up short is explaining the political degeneration of Barnes and subsequently the SWP. One thing that we were always taught in the healthy SWP was that political questions come first; organizational questions are secondary and flow from the more fundamental political questions. Sheppard’s narrative implies that the primary factor in the SWP’s degeneration was a sudden (and essentially unexplained) personality change in Jack Barnes. Barnes inexplicably began functioning as a “star”, as a “one man band” and morphed into a cult leader.
The rise of the so-called “Barnes cult” was not the result of some new personality shift, rather it was the result of a fundamental shift in his political views Having secretly reached sweeping political conclusions, which in reality represented a rejection of the historic program of the SWP and the Fourth International, Barnes concluded, not illogically, that he had little chance of reshaping the party in this completely new political direction by openly presenting his views and engaging in a democratic political discussion of them. He consciously chose a different course. Barnes deliberately avoided openly expressing or debating his new views in the party but instead opted for changing the party through organizational intimidation and expulsions.

One of the first manifestations of Barnes’ new politics was his announcement for a turn to industry, which in its initial presentation sounded pretty good. But very quickly this turn to industry morphed into an absolutely bazaar policy called “talking socialism”. One thing the SWP had a long and successful history at was doing trade union work. In the 1930’s they had an influence in the Auto-Lite strike in Toledo and in the San Francisco general strike, and played the key leadership role in the Minneapolis Teamsters strike by applying the transitional program in a revolutionary way in the union movement. All of that was rejected by Barnes, who proposed instead a policy of going into the unions but not engaging in the struggles of the unions, not engaging in a struggle against the conservative class collaborationist bureaucracies, but going in as kind of socialist missionaries to “talk socialism”. It was a disastrous policy. It isolated those members who actually carried the line out and made them appear, in the eyes of healthy union members, like some kind of Jehovah Witness weirdoes. Other members, who maybe were a little more perceptive, went in and while they continued to support the line and vote for the line and even attack anyone who criticized the “talk socialism” line didn’t actually carry it out in their unions because they knew it would make them look like jerks.

This had a devastating effect on the membership. You see, there is nothing more demoralizing then to play-act at politics, to say and vote for one thing and do another thing. And we challenged that, Nat challenged that in the 1981 convention. At that convention, Nat and I as the two minority NC member’s, presented two documents. I presented (written jointly by Nat and myself) the Minority Trade Union Report and Nat presented the other document, The Transitional Program, The Road Forward. And we took on the “talk socialism” policy. Nat also at that convention, because we could foresee Barnes move toward denouncing and breaking with Permanent Revolution — so Nat posed to the Barnes steering committee the question, do you still support Permanent Revolution? Well you know the whole Presiding Committee got up and said, Oh yeah. As a matter of fact I think they were honest in this because Barnes had not yet told them that Permanent Revolution was not going to be any longer a part of the program of the Socialist Workers Party. And when Barnes, not very long after that, did reveal that Permanent Revolution was anti-Leninist from top to bottom, none of these people raised any objections, and from taking the position of saying that it was silly to say they were breaking with Permanent Revolution they flipped over completely.
What then followed was a long series of trials and expulsions of members, and not just people who had minority views. Most of the people that eventually were expelled in these trials didn’t directly express any minority views; they were expelled for completely arbitrary and sometimes silly reasons. Barnes was doing that because he wanted to create an atmosphere in which you could be expelled at any time for all kinds of reasons, if you showed any kind of opposition to the Barnes regime, no matter what it was.

The most sweeping organizational move Barnes made was then in 1983, as the 1983 pre-convention discussion period was to begin, he canceled the party convention. This was a direct violation of the SWP constitution which required a convention of the party every two years. I think he did this for two reasons. One, even though the minorities had been expelled and even though he had carried out this suppression of any workers democracy in the party, he was still afraid to have a convention in which any of the political questions could come up for a discussion and a vote. So that was one reason, but there was another reason. I think Barnes wanted to test the membership that was left in the party. Would they accept this blatantly illegal organizational move without any opposition? The test proved positive for him. Not one person got up and objected to the cancellation of the 1983 party convention which was in direct violation of the SWP constitution. Barnes then finally felt free to reveal his new political positions which ipso facto would be the party’s new political program. Even then these were not presented to the party for a vote by the party but rather published as two articles in a public magazine the New International — Their Trotsky and Ours: Communist Continuity Today, in the Fall 1983 issue; under Jack Barnes’ name, and The Workers and Farmers’ Government: A Popular Revolutionary Dictatorship, in the Spring 1984 issue; under Mary-Alice Waters’ name.

You know, the pace and timing of historical events are almost impossible to predict. Marx and Engels, with all their political skills, thought there was a good possibility of decisive socialist revolutions in 1848 in Europe. But they were wrong. While the pace of events and how they actually unfold are very difficult to predict, the re-emergence of a working class radicalization cannot and will not be postponed indefinitely. You can be sure that at some point, we don’t know when, we don’t know how it will emerge, but there will be a reaction in the United States and other countries to what is happening and a working class radicalization in response to that. When that occurs, the ideas that were expressed by Barnes in his rejection of the revolutionary program will play no role, they will be irrelevant, they will be largely forgotten. But Nat’s programmatic and theoretical defense of the revolutionary program will not be irrelevant, will not be forgotten. It will be a part of the rich Marxist heritage available to guide the working class in coming revolutionary struggles. In leading a defense against the Barnes programmatic degeneration, Nat, in my opinion, proved himself to be the most significant worker intellectual of his era. It was not the people who had written big theoretical works on economics and Marxist theory that led this fight. It was this worker activist who took on and wrote the theoretical documents and the political analysis that became the basis of the fight, not just in the United States, but throughout the whole Fourth International against the Barnes attack on the revolutionary program.

So when we celebrate Nat’s life, we are also celebrating how this worker activist magnificently rose to the challenge of a sweeping petty-bourgeois attack on the program of revolutionary socialism and led the fight against it. That is Nat Weinstein’s giant political legacy and it will live on to the benefit of future class struggles for a more humane and truly democratic socialist society.

August 21, 2014

Three narrative films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:38 pm

While none of the films under review here will make it to my top five of the year list, I can recommend them as having something of interest to real film buffs. Not surprisingly, none were made in the United States, where filmmaking—along with everything else—is going down the tubes.

The first is “Starred Up”, a British film that opens on August 27th at the IFC and at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. “Starred Up” is prison slang for a juvenile offender who has been transferred to an adult facility because of chronic bad behavior.

Wikipedia reports that there have been 239 prison films made since 1929, including such favorites as “Each Day I Die”, “Bird Man of Alcatraz” and “Cool Hand Luke”. Filmmakers keep returning to this genre because it lends itself to the kind of climaxes all blockbuster movies aspire to—a prison break, a riot, a redemption of an unredeemable character, an execution, etc. If there’s a risk of being subjected to a stream of clichés, you have nobody but yourself to blame since probably every plot and character permutation has appeared in the 239 films in this category.

“Starred Up” is far more committed to realism than the average prison film. Indeed, if it weren’t for the very heavy working-class British accents (the film would have benefited from subtitles like Ken Loach’s “Sweet Sixteen”), you would think that you were watching one of those MSNBC Saturday afternoon reality shows set in prison. Filmed in an actual prison, “Starred Up” makes a genuine effort at conveying both the tedium of prison life as well as its stormy violent interludes. In one scene the main character fights off six cops who enter his cell to take him off for punishment, just as occurs on the MSNBC shows. Like the long-running “Cops”, there certainly is drama involved in police or guard combat with the criminal element. While MSNBC and “Cops” never show cops as sadistic lawbreakers, that is exactly what you will see in most prison films that from the very beginning, starting with “I was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”, take the side of the victimized prisoner.

Eric Love is a 19-year-old with a hair-trigger temper and a talent for fisticuffs to back it up. Played by Jack O’Connell, Eric is a young man who treats everybody as a potential enemy including his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) serving a long stretch in the same prison.

Anything and everything will set him off. Early on he beats a man half to death over a misinterpreted offense. When the guards come to haul him off to solitary confinement, he fights them to a standstill. Perhaps because of his youth and perhaps because of the challenge of reaching someone who appears unreachable, the prison psychotherapist (Rupert Friend) intercedes and recruits him to his ongoing group therapy sessions.

Eric is at first cynical about the therapist and refuses to take it seriously. But the other prisoners, who are Black and old enough to be his father, manage to get him to lose the attitude. Suffice it to say that this is not a “redemption” tale. Things conspire against such a pat ending, including his out-of-control father and the corrupt prison administration.

The best thing about the film is Jack O’Connell’s performance one—in a nutshell—that is more convincing than any I have ever seen from an actor. The ultimate anti-Jean-Claude van Damme performance, so to speak.

Jonathan Asser, a British poet and performance artist who was asked to do a show at the young offenders prison in Feltham, wrote the screenplay. Once he was exposed to prison life, he transitioned into a career as a therapist just like the character in the film whose methods were the same as the ones he used. Although the screenplay is rough around the edges, the film is a compelling portrait of society’s outcasts. To Asser’s credit and to the credit of everybody who took part in the film, this is one prison film that stands out from the pack.

Salvo opens up tomorrow at the Howard Gilman Theater in Lincoln Center. The title might evoke the gunplay that occurs in this film about a mafia hitman, another well-worn genre, but it is rather the first name of the character we meet in the truly exciting first five minutes of the film.

Salvo Mancuso is the driver/bodyguard for an aging Palermo don who kills five attackers in a bid on his boss’s life. As he stands before the sole survivor, who he has shot in the leg, he demands the name of the man who has organized the hit. Once he has extracted the information by squeezing on the bullet wound, he places his hand over the man’s forehead like a priest giving benediction—and then puts a bullet through it.

The next day he sneaks into the house of the boss’s rival and discovers that the sole occupant is the gangster’s sister, a beautiful blind woman. After he gags her and ties her up, he lies in wait for her brother’s return. After he arrives, Salvo dispatches him with ease—he is a master craftsman at his trade. But instead of killing his sister, he puts her in the trunk of his car and drives her to a hideout in the countryside where he buries her brother. For the next few days, he looks after her intermittently but without anything that would betray his attraction to her. As the film reaches its climax, we learn that he has violated his boss’s instructions to kill her as well as fallen hopelessly in love with her.

The plot owes much to Hong Kong cinema where hitman often have hearts of gold buried beneath a stony demeanor and fists of steel. But this is not a Hong Kong type action film. It is much more like the underrated George Clooney vehicle “The American”, a film in which he plays a moody assassin who would seem far more at home painting nudes in a garret on the Left Bank and drinking absinthe.

The film has an esthetic that is one part classic Antonioni and one part Calvin Klein commercial. There is not much in it that is believable but it is a visual feast with a knack for the unexpected, like a scene in which eats tuna out of can in the kitchen of his temporary host. This is the Sicilian mafia, after all, not the New Jersey nouveau riche.


I have subsequently learned that Salvo was played by Saleh Bakri, a Palestinian. Here is an excerpt from an interview he gave to the Conversations with Palestine website:

LMaDO: Israel calls itself the “Jewish State”, the State of and for the Jews even though more than 20% of its population is Palestinian. You’ve partly answered and it’s very interesting to hear your views, but you’ve received awards from Israel, as an Israeli actor. So are you a Palestinian or an Israeli actor?

SB: I was born a Palestinian and will remain a Palestinian. I don’t believe that I could even be called an Israeli or that any Palestinian could be called Israeli because first of all Israeli is an hebrew name and I am not Jewish, I am Arab. It’s like calling Muhammad-Moshe. It cannot happen. It’s something that is not related to me in any way. Above all, Israel is not something that I feel any attachment to, anything good towards. It destroyed my life, my father’s life, my family, my nation’s life. And it’s still destroying it. I have nothing in common with this destruction, this racism, this separateness, this injustice. It’s the opposite, I care about Palestine as a place for everybody, as a place that was never Islamic, Christian or Jewish. Palestine was always a place for everyone, for every religion. It’s a shame that this place that has so much history and energy can be occupied by one religion. It should remain for everybody.

Finally, there is “The Auction”, a French Canadian film that can be described as a twist on the King Lear tragedy. The main character, a 63-year-old man named Gaby, owns a farm in the Quebec countryside where he raises sheep and lives in splendid isolation with his pet dog. His only friend is his accountant who has just brought over a computer that will help Gaby manage his finances. He has about as much interest in the computer as he does in the modern novel. This is a man close to the roots—at least that is our first impression.

He receives a visit from his daughter Marie who lives in Montreal with her younger sister Frederique resides as well. Like most young people with a hunger for art, culture and wine bars, a farm is a good place to leave behind. Marie has bad news. She is divorcing her husband and will take over their house, where she will live with her two young sons. But there’s a hitch. She needs $200,000 to become the owner. Could Gaby put up the funds, she asks. Since the two daughters never bother to visit or even to phone their dad, you would think that he would tell her to get lost. That is what a modern-day King Lear would do.

But Gaby immediately decides to sell the farm and move into a senior citizen’s complex in the nearby town where he would look for work. Not only will he give up the independence he once enjoyed but the company of his pet dog that he decides to put down.

As a taciturn and expressionless personality, it is hard to read Gaby. Is he doing this out of love for his daughter or is he simply tired of mending fences, shearing sheep, and tending to the never-ending list of chores that comes with farm ownership. It is to the everlasting credit of this remarkable film that you are never quite sure. Long after you have seen the film, you will be thinking about the remarkable main character.

“The Auction” can be rented from FilmMovement.com, one of the “alternatives to Netflix” I wrote about last Friday.

August 20, 2014

Is a Donetsk People’s Republic leader a Posadista?

Filed under: literature,Russia — louisproyect @ 4:00 pm

Fyodor D. Berezin

NY Times, August 20 2014
Plenty of Room at the Top of Ukraine’s Fading Rebellion

DONETSK, Ukraine — To outward appearances, Fyodor D. Berezin is the picture of a senior military commander. He wears camouflage, has bodyguards and confidently gives orders as the newly named deputy defense minister of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic. Yet, just four months ago he was an obscure author of 18 science fiction novels, one play and a dozen or so short stories.

In an interview, Mr. Berezin said he was as surprised as anybody by his rapid promotion through the rebel ranks. “Reality became scarier than science fiction,” he said in an interview over iced tea at the Havana Banana bar, a favorite rebel haunt. “I live in my books now. I fell right into the middle of my books.”

Mr. Berezin now serves under a little-known fellow Ukrainian, Mr. Kononov, who uses the nickname “the czar” in his duties as defense minister. Before the war, Mr. Berezin, 54, supplemented book proceeds with a day job as a purchasing official for a university, buying janitorial supplies. In the 1980s, he served in the Soviet Army with a rank of captain.

His eyes light up when talk turns to war, though not the kind raging on the outskirts of this besieged city, but rather battles fought in outer space between the Brashis and the Ararbacs, two civilizations on the planet Gaeia and in parallel dimensions from one of his novels.

Mr. Berezin met Mr. Strelkov last spring, and by Mr. Berezin’s account, the two got on well because of common literary interests, as Mr. Strelkov, too, is a science fiction fan. Mr. Strelkov had read one of Mr. Berezin’s books, “Parallel Cataclysm,” about a parallel dimension where the Soviet Union rules Earth and a red flag flies over the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Mr. Berezin said.

In the novel, a United States aircraft carrier group is sunk in the Pacific Ocean by a mysterious wing of fighter jets, later revealed to bear the red star of the Soviet forces from the parallel dimension, crossing over into our world to turn back the tide of American hegemony.

The author is soft-spoken, with a delicate turn of phrase, and a passion for writing that he came to late in life, after working odd jobs and raising a family. With dismay and self-deprecation unusual for a military man, he recounted his difficulties coping with his new command. When attention is diverted by one crisis, he said, another problem pops up, and people die, because this is a real war. “I am in charge of life and death decisions,” he said.

Asked about his plans for defending the city, Mr. Berezin was a little vague, saying the Ukrainian Army would bog down in urban combat. And he described an “international brigade of the future,” modeled on the legions of volunteers who flocked to Spain in 1936, rallying to the cause. For now, though, most volunteers are Russian, he said. “We really, really need help,” he said.

Still, he described the conflict here in sweeping, millennial terms, even as the territory under his command has shriveled to the city limits of his hometown.

“We are at the geopolitical pinpoint of the world,” he said. “The vectors converge here. Like an hourglass, the sides bend in here in Donetsk, and the sand passes and we are at this historical point. Depending on how the sand scatters, history will change one way or another.”

He also recounted inexplicable luck on the separatist side. One rebel, he said, miraculously killed five Ukrainians with the five bullets in a pistol magazine. Another time, a rocket-propelled grenade sailed right into the open window of an attack helicopter, “defying all the rules of probability.”

“I want the war to end, and I want to write about it all,” he said. “It’s an amazing fable. Every day, enough happens for a novel. I cannot talk about it all now, but when the war is over, I will write about it.”

full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/20/world/europe/plenty-of-room-at-the-top-of-ukraines-fading-rebellion.html

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