Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 6, 2016

Left Forum 2016: The Truth is Out There

Filed under: conspiracism,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 5:02 pm

Ever since I left the SWP in late 1978, I have been attending the yearly Left Forums in NY that were known as the Socialist Scholars Conference prior to a split in the leading bodies in 2004 over Yugoslavia. Veteran social democrat Bogdan Denitch, who died a few months ago, was viewed as a Serbophobe by the faction that would go on to form the Left Forum in 2005. That year there were two conferences, one in the name of the Socialist Scholars Conference and the other as the Left Forum. Next year there was only the Left Forum as many of the figures aligned with Denitch reconciled with their erstwhile ideological opponents.

From 2005 until 2015 (excluding 2007 for some reason I can’t recall), I have written reports on the Left Forum and more recently produced videos of the sessions I attended. This year I have decided not to attend since it has reached the point where quantity has turned into quality as Plekhanov might have put it. Or more accurately, it has reached the point where quantity has turned into excrement. In a nutshell, the same sort of idiocy that has taken over the left on Syria has become so pervasive this year that I cannot justify spending $70 to attend. Are there panel discussions that would be worth my while? I suppose so but that is almost like someone trying to convince me to tune into WBAI. The station exudes such a stench that my hand refuses to obey my brain’s order to dial up 99.5FM.

In a very real sense, the Left Forum has been transformed into something resembling WBAI—leading to the pun that it has been subject to Pacification. The other night the hand got the upper hand over the brain and I listened to WBAI for a couple of minutes. I was not surprised to see that they were in the midst of one of their biweekly fund-drives. Nor was I surprised to see that they were offering premiums for a 5 DVD documentary titled “The Great Lies of History”. One, of course, is about 9/11. Another is: “Cancer: The Forbidden Cures”. It claims that the “drug-dominated medical profession” has suppressed cures including Mistletoe and Bicarbonate of Soda. I suppose they are geared to oral and stomach cancer respectively. I don’t think that Lew Hill had this in mind when he launched Pacifica in 1946.

While WBAI is much more fixated on such quackery from the likes of Gary Null, it too traffics in the sort of “anti-imperialism” that has swamped the Left Forum. Amy Goodman, the station’s star for what that’s worth, has allowed Seymour Hersh to babble on about Syria in the very week that Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami were in NY on a book tour for “Burning Country”. When Goodman was approached about doing an interview with them, she said no.

Meanwhile, Goodman and Slavoj Zizek are doing the closing plenary on Sunday night. At this stage of the game, inviting Zizek to speak to a left audience is almost as much of an insult as inviting Donald Trump. I have heard through the grapevine that Verso Press has cut its ties to the Elvis Superstar of Marxism over his filthy insistence that Syrian refugees adapt to Western norms but he is good enough for the Left Forum apparently.

I have to give credit to Amber A’lee Frost who sized up the 2015 Left Forum conference accurately in The Baffler.

That’s right: If you pay your registration fee and fill out the proper forms, you get a room and a table and a spot on the schedule. So in addition to all those experienced and intelligent rabble-rousers, Left Forum is a home for 9/11 Truthers, those who would save us from the terrors of “mandatory fluoridation,” and the generally batshit and/or pathologically anti-social. No one is required to observe their lectures, but they wander into other people’s and there is something truly dispiriting about not being able to distinguish self-identified radicals from the parodies of us imagined by the right wing.

Frost singled out a panel from 2014 as a “wackjob nadir”, the infamous “Žižek Delenda Est” (“Žižek Must be Destroyed.”).

The thesis of the panel—which featured at least one “tankie,” slang for Soviet apologist, or actual Stalinist—was that Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek is some kind of COINTELPRO crypto-Nazi.

What’s odd about their obsession with Zizek is a failure to see how close he is to them ideologically. With his disparagement of the Syrian rebels as “a mess of fundamentalist Islamist groups”, you’d think he’d be hoisted on their shoulders. Of course, on the far left some of the bitterest quarrels take place among sects that were born from the same womb. Just look at the Trotskyists.

It must be said at the outset that the people who run the Left Forum are not identified with this kind of conspiracism. It just so happens that it is a Big Tent that allows virtually anybody to schedule a panel discussion. The fact that this year’s conference is flooded with “Žižek Delenda Est” type barking dogs only reflects the siren’s call of conspiracism on the left, one in which a Marxist class analysis is so sorely lacking.

Let me walk you through a few of the panels to give you an idea of what you can get for your $70, starting with Deep State: The Fabricated Global War on Terrorism — Why the Left Should Unite to Expose and Rebel Against It that pretty much epitomized the malaise that afflicts the Left Forum. The organizers breathlessly announce:

The yellow-journalism press rarely reports that ISIS was 100% planned, created and controlled by US/NATO/Israel/Turkey/Saudi forces. Publicly this newest bogeyman is reviled and used to whip up fear and bellicosity. Behind the scenes, ISIS is our shock troops, the go-to mercenaries to effect regime change in places like Libya and Syria, and ensure wavering countries like France tow the line.

One of the speakers is Wayne Madsen, an “investigative reporter” and author of “Unmasking ISIS”. He is a 9/11 Truther, as are many in this neck of the woods. As part of his investigative reporting, he came up with the startling revelation that Barack Obama is a homosexual who belonged to the same Chicago gay bath house as Rahm Emmanuel. Madsen was able to provide about the same amount of proof as those who allege that Obama was born in Kenya. Madsen’s articles have appeared in  CounterPunch, In These Times, The Progressive and The Village Voice. Don’t ask me why.

For more of the same, you can attend How Universal U.S. Sovereignty Threatens World Peace. It features Sarah Flounders of the Workers World Party and Michael Perino, who once told CounterPunch readers that about 50,000 Blacks were “massacred” in Libya. Since the highest estimate for all casualties in the Libyan civil war was half of that, who knows where Perino got his number.

Want to know about The Situation in Ukraine? Then haul your ass over to a panel organized by UNAC, the “coalition” made up of Socialist Action members and other like-minded leftists who have succumbed totally to the “axis of resistance” disease now an epidemic on the left. The SA members were educated in the Socialist Workers Party, a group that was distinguished by its embrace of Ukrainian opponents of Soviet domination in the 1960s. One of the speakers is Bruce Gagnon, who like many in this milieu blames Kiev for starting the civil war in Ukraine when it threatened to remove Russian as one of the official languages as if the people in Donetsk and Luhansk would suffer the same kind of fate as Kurds in Turkey. This was essentially a Goebbels type of big lie. The truth is that Russian would continue as a regional language along with 17 other languages including Yiddish but Ukrainian would be the sole official language, which only meant that it would be used in driver license applications, etc. Was that a reason for Putin to dispatch thousands of special forces into Eastern Ukraine? Obviously not. His real intention was the same as Catherine the Great’s—to keep Ukraine under Russia’s thumb.

You can guess from the title The US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and War in the “Middle East” (I have no idea what the scare quotes in the title indicate) what this one is about. Organized by the pro-Assad International Action Center, it includes Kazem Azin as one of the speakers, a contributor to Workers World newspaper and an ardent supporter of the Islamic Republic who once claimed that “Imam Khomeini was able for the first time to unite all religious groups and the majority of the people under the banner of Islam.” Of course, if you were stiff-necked enough to refuse being so united, you might end up being tortured in Evin prison.

If you miss the X-Files, as I certainly do, you might want to check in on Deep State: False Flags — How a United Left Could Defeat a “Global Gladio” Agenda since it features Richard Dolan as a panelist. Dolan is the author of “A History of False Flag Operations” but he is probably best known for his books on UFO’s and the National Security State. This leftist version of Fox Mulder once met with a CIA agent referred to as “Anonymous” who on his death bed revealed that The Truth Is Out There:

Facing impending kidney failure, this individual felt compelled to disclose secret information he feels is too important to keep secret. In the video, he claims to have served in the U.S. Army, worked for the CIA, and worked on the U.S. Air Force’s Project Blue Book–one of the USAF’s official studies of UFOs. And he refers to the project as “partially a fraud.” Asking for clarification, Dolan states, “You’re saying some of the Blue Book cases were completely fictitious?” The anonymous man responds, “Yes.”

“Anonymous” alleges that, after an invasion threat from President Dwight Eisenhower, he and his superior at the CIA were allowed inside the secretive Area 51 in Nevada to gather intel and report back to the president. There, “Anonymous” describes seeing several alien spacecraft, including the craft that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. Then, he and his superior were taken to the S-4 facility southwest of Area 51 where they observed live extraterrestrials.

On Sunday there’s more from UNAC at The Fight to End US Wars as well as two 9/11 Truther panels, one titled Time to Take Down the Wall Between the Left and the Truth Movement and the other Exposing 28 Pages of 9/11 Evidence, Legislating Transparency. Don’t forget to bring the Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle in case your mind begins to wander. Also, for vintage conspiracy theory navel-gazing, you can’t top The JFK Murder Cover-up: Your Rosetta Stone to Today’s News, Elections, Policy. I suppose that one of the speakers will argue that Al Qaeda was on the grassy knoll at the rate things are going.

Just to be clear, 90 percent of the workshops are more conventional in nature. I wish I could say that this would be sufficient for me to shell out $70 but I am afraid that far too many are empty theorizing that I have little use for. For example, something titled Marx, Hegel, and the Current Situation  is a non-starter. Apparently the participants have been studying Hegel for years at the Brecht Forum and at the Marxist Education Project at the Brooklyn Commons. With all due respect to the speakers, I studied Hegel fifty years ago at the New School mostly to maintain a student deferment and don’t want to go back there now. But if Hegel works for you, don’t let me get in the way. That’s a helluva lot better than nattering about Area 51 but then again just about anything else is–especially for $70 that can be better spent on dinner for two at a Thai restaurant.

 

May 5, 2016

Kwame Somburu, ¡Presente!

Filed under: african-american,obituary,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:35 pm

Yesterday I learned that Kwame Somburu had succumbed to cancer at the age of 81. Although he was a Facebook friend for a few years, I really had no personal connections to him previously. As was the case with any number of other people I knew from a previous lifetime in the Trotskyist movement, we had reconnected in cyberspace. After spending a few hours doing some Internet research on him, I regret that I had never spent time chatting with him back in the late sixties when we were both members of the NY branch of the SWP. About a month or two after joining the party, there was an incident involving Paul Boutelle, as Kwame was known at the time, that made it into my memoir:

UnrepMarx 1_Page_055 UnrepMarx 1_Page_056

It was that incident and Paul’s appearance on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” that year that had always been stamped indelibly in my memory. After watching Kwame Somburu: A Conversation with a “Rabble Rouser”?, the superb interview with Paul made two years ago in Albany, NY by Kush Nuba and linked to below, I have a much better idea who he was and why I stayed in the Trotskyist movement as long as I did. It was smart and charismatic people like Paul Boutelle, his running mate Fred Halstead, and Peter Camejo that will always define the party for me—not the bizarre workerist cult I left in 1978.

Although I encourage everybody to watch the entire interview, I’d like to extract a few essential biographical points to put Kwame into context. His father was a small businessman doing radio repairs in Harlem where the family lived. From an early age, he was sensitive to racism starting with being forced to read Little Black Sambo in grade school. He has vivid memories of the people of Harlem spontaneously pouring into the streets after Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling in 1938.

In 1951 he quit high school because he was bored. He used to sit in the back row of the classroom reading a book and ignoring the teacher. Despite being a high school dropout, he had a tremendous intellectual curiosity reading everything that came his way from Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlets to Karl Marx and Irish history, which interested him as an example of how other people can be colonized and exploited. Anything that was off the beaten track intrigued him.

As an autodidact, he was ideally suited to selling the World Book encyclopedia in the 1950s. Before there was an Internet, that’s the way that many families could do simple research without going to the library. My parents bought a copy of the Book of Knowledge, a children’s encyclopedia that I read ravenously.

When Kwame wasn’t selling encyclopedias, he was driving a cab—a job he had in 1968 when I first ran into him at party headquarters. He had joined the movement three years earlier but had first run into the Trotskyists in 1960. He was walking down the street in Harlem when he spotted a couple of white guys collecting signatures to put SWP candidates on the ballot. Since he was always curious to see what out of the ordinary people were up to, he struck up a conversation with the party members. Because he had already been reading Marx, it was almost inevitable that he would end up at party headquarters even if McCarthyism lingered on. That year he joined the Young Socialist Alliance and kept loose ties to the party until he became a member 5 years later.

Kwame was one of the old-timers who left the SWP in 1983 as Jack Barnes finalized the purge of all those who resisted his bureaucratic assault on party norms and Trotskyist politics. What is striking about the interview with Kush Nuba is the sharpness of his mind and his ability to recall events from fifty years earlier in great detail. Is it possible that a lifetime of revolutionary politics can keep the mind in fighting trim? Cancer might have wreaked havoc with his body but his mind shined like a star until his last breath.

May 4, 2016

Sin Alas

Filed under: cuba,Film — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

Sin Alas (Without Wings) is a flawed film made in Cuba by a young American who has a real flair for cinema—for Cuban politics and history much less so. The film is based on a Jorge Luis Borges short story titled “The Zahir”, which is about how its narrator became obsessed with the zahir—an Argentine coin that he associates with the Arabic word meaning “visible” or “evident”. For the Arabic-speaking masses, it summoned up the power of certain objects to have “the terrible power to be unforgettable, and whose image eventually drives people mad.”

After reading “The Zahir” prior to writing this review, it dawned on me why I never felt motivated to read Borges. The story is a study in erudite obscurantism of the sort that can fuel a thousand literature dissertations and one screenplay that had trouble deciding whether to be consistent with Borge’s ultra-subjectivism or to tell a story about life in Cuba today with all its social contradictions. In trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, director Ben Chace ended up with an interesting failure. If his ambitions exceeded his talents, at least you can admire a film that took considerable risks on behalf of a decidedly uncommercial project. If nothing else, the film is a stunning look at Havana street-life today, something that is surely worth the $4.99 to see it on Amazon or ITunes where it premieres today.

The main character in Chace’s film is Luis Vargas (Carlos Padrón), a seventy-year old who used to write dance reviews for Bohemia, a Cuban journal of the arts and culture. As the film begins, he sits on the sidewalk in front of the apartment building he took over from his father, an accountant with an American agribusiness who fled the island immediately after the revolution triumphed. Unlike his father, Luis stuck around since as he puts it, “I wanted to see where this thing was going”.

As he reads Granma, he discovers that a dancer named Isabela Munoz (Yulislievis Rodriguez) he had a brief affair with in 1967 has just died. After going to her funeral, he begins to become haunted by the strains of a tune that he remembered from the days he spent with her but cannot place. It becomes his zahir, so to speak.

To help him track down the composition, he recruits his oldest friend Ovilio (Mario Limonta), an accomplished guitar player who has the brilliant idea to walk around Havana asking oldsters like them if they can “name that tune” as they put it in a popular 1960s TV show. The chemistry between the two veteran Cuban actors and the obviously nonprofessionals they interact with on the streets is what makes the film so memorable and bordering on greatness.

What undercuts its success is Ben Chace’s sketchy understanding of Cuban history and politics since 1959. Although he is a minor character, Isabela’s husband—a top Cuban military officer—is rather cartoonish. At one point, Vargas tells Ovilio he was taking a big chance having an affair with his wife since such a big shot could have had him killed. This sounds much more like the sort of thing that might have happened when Batista was in power. If Chace had simply said that the man could have had him fired from Bohemia, it would have been much more plausible.

Another false note occurs when in the lobby following a performance by Isabela, her husband questions whether the ballet was “revolutionary” enough since it romanticized the sort of domestic strife that could be found in any Havana neighborhood. Vargas remonstrates with the officer, telling him that art has its own imperatives and must only be judged on its basis to stir the emotions. One wonders if Chace has any real familiarity with Cuban art and culture, which departed from socialist realist norms from its birth. Cuban ballet has never been under the thumb of bureaucrats, nor has any other art form.

To give Chace his due, he has Isabela arguing with Vargas over the possibilities of leaving Cuba where they could enjoy a life together. She says that she is too committed to the revolution which allowed a poor girl from the provinces to become a successful artist.

There are inklings that the director, who also wrote the script, was sensitive to the pressures on Cuba that might make such a rags to cultural riches impossible in the future. A minor subplot involves a married couple from Vargas’s building named Yuni and Katrina who have been forced to live with her mother due to insufficient funds. Yuni drives a pedicab and can hardly make ends meet, while Katrina works in a restaurant owned by one of Cuba’s emerging petty bourgeoisie. As he begins to put the make on her, Yuni makes plans to leave Cuba by boat. An entire film could have been made about Yuni and Katrina, one that would have been an important artistic intervention into the key question facing Cubans today—namely whether it will be possible any longer for someone like Isabela Munoz to make the transition from an impoverished countryside into the top ranks of Cuban dance.

In an interview with the Hollywood Times, Chace sounded really good on the responsibility of artists, particularly those from the USA, to tell the truth about Cuba. Even if he succeeded only partially, he deserves our respect.

That’s the strange thing, and no one gets it. No one knows what the hell’s going on down there. I wanted to just show what people were going through and hopefully show that there’s just a lot of culture and humanity and great stuff there that in a way is suffering because of our ignorance of the situation. You know if we knew how fucked up it was down there we’d try to do something to change it but no one understands that we’re just given propaganda on all sides. We’re given this very thin and shallow idea of what is going on in Cuba you know? It’s like some woman dancing, Fidel, and what else do we know about it? A couple old cars. No one really knows what the daily struggle down there is like for people and my film I think touches on it, I think I did an okay job with this one character, but it goes deeper than that. You kind of have to go, and even if you go you have to spend a lot of time to get to the truth of it because people won’t say things out loud, there’s so much implicit stuff and there’s so much that you can say out loud and stuff you just have to witness. To me, it’s a labyrinth that’s why when I was like Borges, I was like what can I do to describe this, I need like a labyrinth blueprint to like tape images to and collect this thing and hopefully it will come close to representing something about the reality of that place.

May 3, 2016

Richard Greener: a life in radio

Filed under: commercialism,radio — louisproyect @ 2:47 pm

The interview with Richard Greener above was prompted by his commentary on the death of KGO, an AM station in San Francisco that featured local news and talk until it was bought by Citadel in 2007 and turned into a typical soulless syndicated programming automaton as former KGO on-air host Claudia Lamb put it in a Soundwaves article I sent to Richard a month or so ago.

Citadel, along with Cumulus, Entercom and Clear Channel (a.k.a. iHeart Radio) destroyed radio as we knew it. If you can’t stand to listen to radio anymore you can thank these companies. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed them to consolidate thousands of Mom-and-Pop radio stations into just a handful of owners. What was once a thriving marketplace of ideas and new music became a moribund feedback loop of homogeneity and satellite programs.

Richard summed up what was going on:

Thanks Louis…

I was one of 6 partners in US Radio, Inc., which was completely controlled by a limited partnership in which I was also a partner. All of this was more than 50% owned by a single investor, Ragan Henry. Ragan was a black attorney in Philadelphia. In 1985, when I was VP/General Manager of Radio Station WAOK in Atlanta, the flagship station for our group, Ragan called me and asked this question: “What is the price at which you cannot say ‘No’ to an offer to buy WAOK?” We sold WAOK, my radio station, for $4 million. This was the largest amount ever spent on what was called a Class 4 AM station. At the closing in Philadelphia I was heartbroken. I was losing my radio station. Yes, I was fabulously compensated. But my heart was broken. Money doesn’t count. At the closing table, Ragan leaned over to me and whispered: “I never fell in love with anything I’ve owned.” Well, of course not. That’s the difference between an investor and a broadcaster.

I spent 33 years in radio, including the last 7 years where I owned part of the company but was retired from active, daily management after my 4th heart attack. As much as I wanted to work, I couldn’t. Still, Ragan insisted I get paid. As a Director of the company I tried to stop my own salary and he ruled me “out of order.”

 From 1981 to 1996 we bought, operated and sold more than 30 radio stations from coast-to-coast, almost all Black Programmed. In the end, in 1996, we sold our last 18 stations, all of them to Clear Channel Communications. We made $219 million. Yes, I was a partner. Nevertheless, I was a broadcaster first. I know how Claudia Lamb feels.

That’s why the memoir I’m writing is titled, “The Last of the Radio Negroes.”

I have been thinking about the decline of radio lately largely because of my dissatisfaction with classical music programming on both FM stations and “the cloud” that are now accessible to me through a Sonos Playbar, a device that I bought to improve the sound of my flat screen TV as well as its ability to access Internet-based programming. With literally thousands of radio stations at my fingertips, I find myself as dissatisfied as I am with cable TV—the proverbial 500 channels and nothing to watch.

As I pointed out to Richard in the beginning of the interview, radio has been an important part of my life for more than sixty years as these vignettes would indicate:

  • 1952: My parents had still not bought a TV. In the evenings we sat in the living room listening to shows like “Mercedes McCambridge for the Defense” that was in the Perry Mason genre. My parents would sit on the sofa listening to the show as they read one of the ten or so magazines they subscribed to, including Colliers that featured short stories by Ring Lardner, Sinclair Lewis, J. D. Salinger, and Kurt Vonnegut. Once the TV entered our lives, the magazine subscriptions all lapsed.
  • 1960: I begin listening to WBAI over a high-power FM antenna that our TV repairman had installed on a tall pole in our backyard 90 miles from New York. I listen mostly to music, including Gunther Schuller’s amazing survey of 20th century music. Any resemblance to that station and today’s is purely coincidental.
  • 1966: I am living in Hoboken and studying philosophy at the New School, just across the river, mostly to maintain a student deferment from the draft. I usually go to sleep at 4am, having read Hegel or Kant all through the night as I listen to WNCN. “Listening with Watson” starts at midnight and ends at 6am. William Watson would typically start with the complete “Well-Tempered Clavier” by Bach performed on a piano by João Carlos Martins without any interruptions. Once the last record had been played, Watson would say something like “Wasn’t that wonderful? Let’s play it again” and he did.

I search desperately for something on the Sonos or the Boston Acoustics radio that sits on my night-table, a very fine receiver. All the classical music follows the same predictable pattern, drawn from the late romantic repertory. If I hear Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite one more time, I will be tempted to look into assisted suicide. Radio Survivor is a website that was started by Matthew Lasar, the author of “Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network”, and two other people who describe themselves: “We are obsessed with the future of radio and are charmed by radio historians, radio dramatists, radio bloggers, and anyone else who cares about radio as deeply as we do.” Lasar wrote about classical music programming today most eloquently:

I believe that contemporary classical music should be integrated into the larger classical music picture. Instead, most classical radio stations restrict themselves to a very limited and conservative version of the “common practice period” of classical music. You hear lots of Baroque (Bach), Classical (Mozart), and Romantic (Chopin) content on these stations, but not much else. Pre-Baroque content is filtered out because it is mostly vocal and most classical operations avoid music that foregrounds the human voice. Post-Romantic content is filtered for anything that smacks of twelve-tonalism, non-western scales, pop music hybridity, prepared instrumentation, and, of course, the human voice again.

The result is that your typical classical music radio station functions as a sort of a portable easy listening museum for the work cubicle. This is unfortunate and sad. Real classical music is the music of God, of history, of nations, of utopia, dystopia, empire, and revolution. It is a wonderful conversation about the past, present, and future of the human race full of tone poems, operas, sonatas, symphonies, song cycles, and solo performances. But for a long time San Francisco’s principal classical music station adopted the very odd motto “Everyone Remain Calm.” This has nothing to do with real classical music. Ludwig von Beethoven did not want everyone to remain calm. “Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman,” Beethoven famously declared.

 

« Previous Page

Blog at WordPress.com.