Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 16, 2018

The Inner Dimensions of Socialist Revolution

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:16 pm

via The Inner Dimensions of Socialist Revolution

Thoughts provoked by the HM Symposium on “How the West Came to Rule”

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 3:48 pm

In 1976, Robert Brenner wrote an article titled “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe” in a scholarly journal that defined what would become known as “the Brenner thesis”. Based entirely on an accident of history, it was only in England in the late 14th century that agriculture became capitalist. There was a tripartite class relationship in which the landed gentry began leasing out land to tenant farmers, who then hired wage labor to produce for the market. Once capitalist farming kicked in, it paved the way for capitalism in general. So, if it weren’t for tenant farming, England never would have come to rule the world.

Before this miracle happened in England (and to a much lesser degree in Holland) and which would never be repeated elsewhere before the 19th century, most farming was done by peasants who only sold what was left over after satisfying family needs. These were “yeoman” farmers of the kind popularized in “The Little House on the Prairie” and many other heartwarming American sagas. They prospered until the redskins came along and destroyed their homes and kidnapped their children as depicted in John Ford’s “The Searchers”.

Now you would think that if tenant farming was a sine qua non for capitalist development, why didn’t yeoman farming in the USA inhibit the growth of manufacturing, especially in the north that fought for free labor in the Civil War? Charles Post has an explanation for this in his book on the origins of capitalism in the USA. It seems that the high price of land forced farmers to specialize and produce for the market rather than for their own subsistence. Once they became squeezed by competition, they sought ways of reducing labor costs, thus creating an impetus for farm machinery.

Now, it should be understood that this analysis cannot be found anywhere in Marx’s writings. In chapter 31 of V. 1 of Capital titled “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist” (can’t be more specific than that, right?), he states emphatically:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.

His main interest in the agrarian economy was not in tenant farming, etc. but how the landed gentry dispossessed yeoman farmers who would then be forced to become wage slaves. In chapter 27, titled “Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land”, he wrote:

The prelude of the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production, was played in the last third of the 15th, and the first decade of the 16th century. A mass of free proletarians was hurled on the labour market by the breaking-up of the bands of feudal retainers, who, as Sir James Steuart well says, “everywhere uselessly filled house and castle.”

In chapter 26, which also deals with primitive accumulation, Marx geolocated the first sprouts of the capitalist system. It wasn’t England:

Although we come across the first beginnings of capitalist production as early as the 14th or 15th century, sporadically, in certain towns of the Mediterranean, the capitalistic era dates from the 16th century. Wherever it appears, the abolition of serfdom has been long effected, and the highest development of the middle ages, the existence of sovereign towns, has been long on the wane.

Now this would likely cause most people on the left to shrug their shoulders and ask themselves what’s the big deal. After all, as Marx once said, the point is to change it—not to pinpoint where and when it got started. If these debates were taking place in obscure scholarly journals, that would likely have been the end of it. But a year after Brenner’s dry as dust article appeared, he took to the pages of New Left Review to turn his thesis into a litmus test. If you agreed with Paul Sweezy that capitalism started off because of expanded international trade in the late middle ages, a hypothesis associated with Henri Pirenne, you were some kind of ideological Menshevik. Sweezy, Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank were singled out as non-Marxist because they viewed colonialism and slavery as a sine qua non for the origins of capitalism in Europe. Considering what Marx wrote in chapter 31, you’d conclude that Brenner’s beef was with Karl Marx, not these three.

Today, the most vociferous Brennerite on the scene is Spencer Dimmock who wrote a book in 2015 titled “The Origin of Capitalism in England 1400-1600” that combines the kind of scholarly investigation of the material Brenner worked with in his first article with a slashing defense of Political Marxism (another word for the Brenner thesis) against its critics. The book can be downloaded from here.

I’ll give credit to Dimmock for a couple of reasons. It was he who made it downloadable, not someone trying to cheat him out of his royalties. (Ranked 1,611,042 by Amazon, they are probably rather modest.)

He is also the first PM’er to specifically address what Marx wrote about capitalism and slavery even if he gets it wrong. Referring to chapter 31, he cites Marx: “The different moments of primitive accumulation can be assigned in particular to Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and England, in more or less chronological order.”

However, according to Dimmock, the term “primitive accumulation” in that quote is derived from Adam Smith. It assumes that capitalism needed a “prior” accumulation of capital for a kick start. Even if Marx wrote that gold and silver from the New World from the sixteenth century onwards and super profits from the slave trade and plantations from the seventeenth century onwards were necessary, he was channeling his inner Adam Smith, just as Brenner accused Paul Sweezy in his NLR article. Gosh, who would want to be accused of promoting Smithian views? Not me.

Adam Smith did not use the term “primitive accumulation”. He called it “previous accumulation” instead. For Smith, this was a peaceful process, in which some workers worked harder and were thriftier than others. The money they put aside helped them become capitalists and build factories. Slavery, colonialism, dispossession and other violent measures did not enter the picture.

The latest issue of Historical Materialism has a symposium on Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism” that was published in the same year as Dimmock’s book. Dimmock and Post are among his critics, as well as Jairus Banaji, also a Brenner critic who is disappointed that the authors cede too much ground to Brenner. Neil Davidson, another critic, is also disappointed but mostly because they base their history on Leon Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development that in Davidson’s eyes (and Post’s as well) does not apply to precapitalist society. I can only say that HM deserves kudos for hosting such a symposium since the debate is just as urgent as it ever was. I suspect that for most people on the left it will only generate a shrug of the shoulders but for those who have been following the debate, it certainly is worth a trip to a research library to track down the latest issue. (Information on how to buy HM is at the end of this article.)

Post, like Davidson, came to his understanding of Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development through training in Trotskyist sects, just as was the case with me. His article is titled “The Use and Misuse of Uneven and Combined Development: A Critique of Anievas and Nişancıoğlu” and as the title implies makes the case that the theory is not useful in understanding world history in its totality. Of more immediate interest to me is Post’s critique of the authors’ reference to colonialism and slavery as being essential to the development of capitalism in England. He has a rather narrow view of their role: “The slave plantations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced exotic items (coffee, sugar, tobacco) for a large, but primarily well-off market made up of nobles and government officeholders on the Continent and capitalist landlords and farmers in England.” It was only when cotton entered the equation that such imports could make a difference but Post qualifies that by saying it was the ex post facto consequence of industrial capitalism having taken root.

Funny to hear sugar being reduced to an exotic item marketed to the wealthy. By the mid-18th century, it had become the most valuable commodity in Europe and one savored by rich and poor alike. In a 1989 article titled “Colonialism and the Rise of Capitalism”, Jim Blaut identified sugar as a key commodity:

After the plantation system had proven its profitability in the Atlantic islands it leaped to Brazil and became even more profitable and much more important. Here, at the close of the 16th century, it was producing a profit permitting a doubling of productive capacity every two years, a profit which amounted, early in the 17th century, to £1,000,000 sterling per year. By the year 1600, the annual value of sugar exported from Brazil already amounted to £2,000,000 sterling – twice the annual value of England’s total exports to all the world; this should be viewed against the backdrop of the traditional view that England’s exports in that period, principally of wool, were paradigmatic for the “awakening” or “rise” of capitalism.

Turning to Dimmock, whose article can be read online just like his book, you get a restatement of the Brenner thesis and a dismissal of most of the “How the West Came to Rule” as a failure to understand the thesis or, understanding it, misrepresenting it. As for colonialism and slavery, Dimmock minimizes its importance in the same fashion as Post:

Without the super-profits of slavery, the history of capitalism and industrial development may have taken a different course. But given that the symbiotic development of agrarian and industrial capitalism had already taken great strides by the 1620s, when Virginia and Bermuda were only just emerging, and that the social structure of England had been irreversibly transformed by then, it is difficult to see how the force of this structure could have been restrained or ‘choked off’ so easily.

Well, for most people the term “industrial capitalism” evokes textile mills in Birmingham two centuries later but I’ll leave Dimmock to his own devices on this.

For me, the more interesting question is whether it took the tripartite agrarian class relationship central to the Brenner thesis to generate profit-seeking in the countryside. He writes:

Because in an established feudal/absolutist society peasants possess the vast majority of the land, and are able to derive their subsistence from that land without becoming overly dependent upon the market for their inputs through wages or trade income, the surplus from their production can only be sufficiently extracted from them by political force or its threat.

In Anievas and Nişancıoğlu’s reply to Dimmock, they refer to a Dutch historian named Jessica Dijkman who rejects the “idea that peasants were by nature subsistence-oriented and only turned to the market if they were forced to”. In her book titled “Shaping Medieval Markets”, she points to a significant degree of farmers producing for the market rather than for their family. Although she is hardly combatant in the Political Marxism debates, she refers to Brenner in a footnote as someone tied to that idea.

She compares Holland, Flanders (ie., contemporary Belgium) and England and produces statistics that belies the Brenner thesis. Let’s start with Holland:

By 1500 not just non-agrarian activities in the Holland countryside were market-oriented, but so too were most agrarian activities. This may seem surprising, since this development had not been accompanied, as it was in England, by the rise of large landownership, tenant farming, and wage labour. In Holland, for the time being, peasants held on to their land: the structure of small family farms remained in place until at least the middle of the 16th century. By then, about 20% of labour input in agriculture was performed as wage labour.

In inland Flanders, subsistence farming generally held sway but in the coastal areas, profit-seeking held sway. Large farms emerged that conformed to Dimmock’s accidental miracle of capitalist tenant farming in England and around the same time. Dijkman writes:

The result was a predominance of middle-sized and large leasehold farms that mainly produced meat, dairy, and commercial crops. The Veurne district is a good example. In the early 16th century, the polders around Veurne were an important cattle-farming region. Although very little information on the marketing of meat and dairy produced on the large farms in this district is available, there can be no doubt that most of these products were sold on the urban markets in the vicinity.

And when you line up the numbers, Holland and Flanders were far more advanced in terms of their use of wage labor, a sine qua non for the PM’ers:

The PM’ers are in unenviable position. Most joined this school decades ago and rarely go outside their comfort zone. I doubt that you will ever find someone like Dimmock or Post working on a global survey of how the tripartite agrarian institutions of late 14th century England can be seamlessly tied to the emergence of the industrial revolution. Mostly they are content to use inductive reasoning to make their case. Honestly, I would love to see someone as erudite as Dimmock produce data that leads to the conclusion that the British East India Company was inconsequential. Even if it was wrong, it would give me something to work with.

Essentially, they are not interested in the capitalist system. What they were looking for is evidence of the kind of class relations that Marx identified in V. 1 of Capital with its strict focus on the textile mills. This entails a kind of ideological selectivity that makes all those statements from Marx to the contrary disappear. Ones like this:

But as soon as peoples whose production still moves within the lower forms of slave-labour, the corvée, etc. are drawn into a world market dominated by the capitalist mode of production, whereby the sale of their products for export develops into their principal interest, the civilized horrors of over-work are grafted onto the barbaric horrors of slavery, serfdom etc. But in proportion as the export of cotton became of vital interest to those [southern] states [of the American Union], the over-working of the Negro, and sometimes the consumption of his life in seven years of labour, became a factor in a calculated and calculating system. It was no longer a question of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products, but rather of the production of surplus-value itself.


Historical Materialism availability

The best way to support HM and make sure we can continue with conference and network activities is to subscribe to the journal, either personally or through your institution. We are currently offering a special 25% discount subscription, so don’t wait any longer!

You can email Brill Customer Services
Email: brill@turpin-distribution.com [1] citing *Discount code 70250 * or you can write to:

Turpin Distribution Services Ltd. Pegasus Drive, Stratton Business Park,
Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, SG18 8TQ, United Kingdom, citing *Discount code
70250*

Telephone number: 0044 (0) 1767 60 4954

Fax number: 0044 (0) 1767 60 1640

To purchase single printed copies of HM, going back pretty far, please contact directly sasha@centralbooks.com [2].

For normal subscription details (without the discount)
see https://brill.com/view/journals/hima/hima-overview.xml.

[1] mailto:brill@turpin-distribution.com
[2] mailto:sasha@centralbooks.com

October 11, 2018

Art and the capitalist mode of production

Filed under: art — louisproyect @ 6:31 pm

Unlike the Corvair, a commodity worth more after its destruction

I had at first considered the possibility of concluding my review of 3 films dealing with the commodification of art with an attempt at situating this tendency within Marxist theory but abandoned that plan because the literature on the topic was much more expansive than I had realized and because my review would have been far too long and perhaps abstruse for most CounterPunch readers. In this article, I want to take a tentative look at one analysis and conclude with my own take.

Shortlisted for the 2015 Deutscher Memorial Prize, Dave Beech’s “Art and Value” rejects the idea that the paintings and other art works sold at Sotheby or Christie’s auctions are capitalist commodities. While I have not read his book, I did read the introduction that is online here. I was struck by the influence that the Brenner thesis has on his approach:

The many ways in which art and artists have adjusted to capitalist society require special study, but I shall neglect all those that have nothing to say about whether art corresponds to the capitalist mode of production. Both the nature of the capitalist mode of production and its relationship to the pre-capitalist mode of production was elucidated during the Marxist debates on the transition from feudal- ism to capitalism in the 1950s and the Brenner debate in the 1970s.15 These debates, which did not put any emphasis on the fate of art, have an enormous bearing on the question of art’s economic and political ontology, if we pursue the Marxist analysis of art’s mode of production.

This suggests to me, especially through its use of the term “capitalist mode of production” rather than “capitalist system”, that Beech uses wage labor as a litmus test for using the word commodity. If you applied that test to slavery, then you would conclude that slaves existed outside the sphere of capitalist commodity production. While nobody would ever mistake what Renoir was doing with picking cotton, it seems to me that both were involved in commodity production within the capitalist system.

Although Beech is not exactly a Political Marxist, he clearly shows their influence. Perhaps they wouldn’t invite him into their club since it is Maurice Dobb that gets cited far more than Brenner in the introduction. For those of you not familiar with these arcane and acrid debates, Dobb had a series of exchanges with Paul Sweezy that anticipated Brenner’s slashing attack on Sweezy in the 1977 NLR. As it happens, Dobb did not meet Brenner’s exacting standards since he argued that slavery and colonialism were essential to the origins of capitalism in England alongside the enclosure acts.

Focused on the “transition” question, Beech writes: “Instead of theorising art’s relationship to capitalism through the concepts of commodification, culture industry, spectacle and real subsumption, all of  which have a superficial ring of truth, the key to understanding art’s relationship to capitalism must be derived from questioning whether art has gone through the transition from feudalism to capitalism.”

Referring at length to Dobb’s analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, Beech draws a distinction between the commodity production that has existed from time immemorial to that which exists under capitalism. By this standard, the artist is not involved in capitalist production since he or she is an independent proprietor having more in common with the guild artisans of the Middle Ages:

The artist is also a commodity producer today insofar as she owns her own ‘petty implements’ and, unlike the wage labourer, continues to own the product she produces. However, since the independent craftsman was neither a capitalist nor a wage labourer, and handicraft production does not conform to the capitalist mode of production, then the artist can be a commodity producer without this fact suggesting by any means that the artist has been economically transformed by the capitalist mode of production. Thus, the evident ‘commodification’ of art is not proof that art has become capitalistic.

It is easy to understand why it is difficult to understand art production in conventional Marxist terms. To start with, art is one of the few commodities that is neither consumed like food or wine, nor integral to the functioning of the capitalist economy such as a lathe, a truck or a computer. Once it is produced, it is meant to be preserved for eternity unless it is something like Banksy’s “Girl with Red Balloon” that after being auctioned off at Sotheby’s auction for a cool $1.4 million was shredded by remote control. In keeping with the torrid and irrational art market, its value increased immediately upon its destruction.

The other quality unique to art is that it is meant to be unique—that is to say, never repeated. Except for lithographs and other such works, the artist aspires to novelty both within his own body of work and within the artistic population as a whole. Of course, when an artist has achieved a measure of fame, he or she may defy this convention as Andy Warhol did with his Campbell Soup and Brillo Boxes. Surely, if this is how he started out, the paintings would have never sold for millions.

Obviously unwilling or unable to define the social role of the artists, Beech assigns the term economic exceptionalism to define their relationship to the capitalist system even though they are outside the sphere of the capitalist mode of production:

In presenting this study, I hope to achieve two related objectives: to provide a new basis for the economics of art, and to develop a coherent theory of economic exceptionalism in general using art as a lens through which exceptionalism can be understood. This book also contains the first ever account of a Marxist theory of art’s economic exceptionalism, developing the argument that art is exceptional specifically to the capitalist mode of production. Art’s economic exceptionalism – that is to say, art’s anomalous, incomplete and paradoxical commodification – explains art’s incorporation into capitalism as the very basis of art’s independence from capitalism, because it shows that art has not been fully transformed by the capitalist mode of production.

This sounds more reasonable than the rigidly Brenner/Dobb framework defined at the beginning of the introduction but I will defer judgement until getting my hands on “Art and Value”. I should add that Beech is an artist himself and involved with the Freee [not a typo] Art Project that incorporates his socialist values.

I think that Beech is right to identify the transition to capitalism as key to understanding the role of the artist but I would approach it from a different angle. Under feudalism, the artist was funded by the church or the court. This includes both composers and artists who were expected to write Masses and paint Nativities to earn their keep. Secular works were also permitted but only under the strict guidelines put down by the aristocrat they worked for.

The bourgeois revolution allows them to go off on their own. Composers made independent livings as suppliers of symphonies, chamber music and operas to the various institutions now benefiting from subsidies by the manufacturers rather than the landed gentry or church.

For most of the 19th century until the early 20th century, they had about the same social weight as providers of high culture. What eventually allowed artists to achieve considerable fortunes was the emergence of the museum/gallery/auction world that capitalized on the catapulting of artists into the stratosphere. When he died, Picasso was worth $500 million while his contemporary Claude Debussy died in debt. Leaving behind a score like “La Mer” that could be purchased for very little, relatively speaking, the composer was not entitled to royalties once the work fell out of copyright. Unless you can draw people to pay for a concert ticket, that score will not generate revenue. In a museum, art will also generate revenue but not accrue to the living artist who made it. His or her interest in having it on display is to escalate his profile in the art market and hence his or her income.

Part of the difficulty in assigning a specific social role to the artist of any sort including painters, composers, novelists, etc. is that they occupy a middle position in class society—the so-called petty bourgeoisie. Occupying the same position as a guild artisan of the Middle Ages, they enjoy the possibility of becoming as wealthy as any capitalist. Unlike the more traditional petty-bourgeoisie such as doctors, lawyers, farmers, etc., the painter or sculptor has limitless horizons even if 99 percent of those in the business will likely make little more than a factory worker—if they are lucky.

The United States is in an odd position today with the petty-bourgeoisie constituting a major swath of the population even if supposedly the growth of capitalist property relations would force them into the working class. Fortunately for the left, the artists, rap musicians, professional athletes, novelists, poets, college professors, and fashion designers are on our side. It is the farmer, lawyer, doctor and shopkeeper we have to contend with and many of them constitute the base of the Republican Party.

 

October 10, 2018

The commodification of art examined in 3 documentaries

Filed under: art,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 1:05 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, OCTOBER 10, 2018

The three documentaries considered chronologically in this review deal with various aspects of the commodification of art. Opened on October 19that the Quad Cinema in New York, “The Price of Everything”, an HBO documentary directed by Nathaniel Kahn, explains why paintings by the old masters are now auctioned off routinely for fifty million dollars and up. Now available on Youtube for $2.99 and worth every penny is “Art Bastard”, a tribute to artist Robert Cenedella who turned his back on the auction houses and posh galleries that are held up to scrutiny in the first film. Finally, there is the 2009 “Art of the Steal”, directed by Don Argott and now available on YouTube for free, chronicles the liquidation of the Barnes Foundation collection by the unscrupulous museum potentates, foundations and politicians in Philadelphia that its founder Albert C. Barnes loathed. That the documentary can be seen for free probably reflects the eagerness for its makers to get the broadest exposure.

I strongly advise seeing the three films in tandem since put together they will give you a keen sense of the cultural decay of late capitalism that puts a price tag on everything. Essentially, the commodification of art is just as injurious to the body politic as fracking, a profit-seeking assault on the environment that was fostered by Governor Ed Rendell, who also led the assault on the Barnes Foundation when he was mayor of Philadelphia. All the people you hear from Sotheby’s and Christie’s in the first film and the smooth operators who paved the way for the destruction of Barnes’s legacy are exactly those you would hear bemoaning Donald Trump on MSNBC. At least Donald Trump doesn’t have their fake patrician pretensions.

continue reading

October 9, 2018

Shahed Hussain, the FBI sting artist whose unsafe limousine cost the lives of 20 people

Filed under: crime,disaster,entrapment — louisproyect @ 2:11 pm

In today’s NY Times, there is a report on a limousine company that was responsible for the death of 20 people in upstate NY–the driver, 17 passengers and two pedestrians. The first paragraph: “A driver with an improper license. A limousine company with a trail of failed inspections and ties to a scheme to illegally obtain driver’s licenses. And a limousine that had also been deemed unsafe.”

We learn that owner of the limousine company was an FBI informant named Shahed Hussain who participated in stings and who was known to his victims as “Malik”.

Mr. Hussain, the man whose name seems to be associated with the limousine company, posed as a wealthy Muslim radical and was the central prosecution witness in a 2004 federal sting focusing on a pizzeria owner and an imam at an Albany mosque. Six years later, Mr. Hussain, who posed as a terrorist, played a key role in the government’s case in a plot to blow up two synagogues in the Bronx.

He became an F.B.I. informant after being charged in 2002 with a scheme that involved taking money to illegally help people in the Albany area get driver’s licenses.

Shahed Hussain first came to my attention in 2009 when I was compiling a dossier on FBI entrapment.

His first sting occurred in 2004 as mentioned above. I referred to a NY Times article from 2006 that identified Shahed Hussain’s role in Albany:

The New York Times, October 11, 2006
2 Albany Men Are Convicted In Missile Sting
By MICHAEL WILSON; Dennis Gaffney contributed reporting.

A federal jury on Tuesday convicted two Muslim immigrants of participating in a plot with a man who said he was helping plan a missile attack on a Pakistani diplomat in New York City in 2004.

The man to whom the immigrants were linked was actually an informant working with the F.B.I. in a sting operation against the two defendants, Yassin M. Aref, 36, an Iraqi refugee and the imam at an Albany mosque, and Mohammed M. Hossain, 51, a Bangladeshi immigrant and the owner of a pizzeria here. The gestation of the case, with the government’s informant ingratiating himself with the men and initiating all the conversations about a shoulder-fired rocket launcher, led to claims of entrapment from Mr. Hossain’s lawyers during the three-week trial in Federal District Court.

The case began when the undercover informant, Shahed Hussain, who used the name ”Malik,” introduced himself to Mr. Hossain at the Little Italy Pizzeria on Central Avenue in July 2003, bringing gifts for the restaurateur’s children, according to testimony. The two became friends, and the informant offered to lend Mr. Hossain $50,000 for improvements to the pizzeria. At later meetings, Mr. Hussain testified that he told Mr. Hossain that the money he was going to lend to him came from the sale of a missile launcher that would be used to kill a Pakistani diplomat in New York.

In reality, there never was a plot. In one meeting, captured on a video that was played at the trial, the informant showed Mr. Hossain a launcher. The restaurateur said he had only seen such a weapon on television, and he asked if it was legal, and the informant replied, ”What is legal in this world?”

This was not the last of Hussain’s dirty tricks. Three years later he conned four very marginal men into staging attacks on Jews that would help bolster the “war on terror” hysteria of those days. The NY Times reported on May 23, 2009:

The members of the mosque now believe that Maqsood was the government informant at the center of the case involving four men from Newburgh arrested and charged this week with having plotted to explode bombs at Jewish centers in New York City. The government has said that the four men, several of whom visited the mosque in Newburgh and all of whom spent time in prison, were eager to kill Jews, and prosecutors charged that they had actually gone so far as to plant what they believed to be bombs on the streets of New York, an act the F.B.I. captured on videotape.

It turns out that Maqsood was none other than the owner of the limousine company that now has the blood of 20 people on his hands:

The informant was not identified in court papers unsealed on Wednesday in Manhattan. But according to a person briefed on the case, the informant is Shahed Hussain, the central prosecution witness in a 2004 federal sting focusing on a pizzeria owner and an imam at an Albany mosque.

Lawyers for those men argued that Mr. Hussain, who had posed as a wealthy Muslim radical, had entrapped their clients in an ultimately fictional plot to kill a Pakistani diplomat with a missile. But a federal jury convicted the two men, and they were sentenced to 15 years in prison.

HBO made a very good documentary about the second sting that I reviewed in 2014. I stated:

Five years ago I posted a Dossier on FBI entrapment in “war on terror” prompted by what had happened to four men in Newburgh who were arrested by the FBI for their alleged role in a plot to attack Riverdale synagogues and fire a missile at airplanes on the Stewart Air Force base tarmac. The NY Times displayed some skepticism about the arrest. An FBI agent provocateur had no luck recruiting men from a local mosque who regarded him as suspicious. Instead he approached someone who had only a fleeting connection to the mosque and who was more interested in a quick buck than in jihad. In claiming that the four men were Islamic terrorists, the District Attorney did not let the facts get in the way:

Law enforcement officials initially said the four men were Muslims, but their religious backgrounds remained uncertain Thursday. Mr. Payen reported himself to be Catholic during his 15-month prison sentence that ended in 2005, according to a state corrections official. Mr. Cromitie and Onta Williams both identified themselves as Baptists in prison records, although Mr. Cromitie changed his listed religion to Muslim upon his last two incarcerations; David Williams reported no religious affiliation.

Now, five years after their arrest and five years into their 25-year sentences, HBO has begun airing a documentary titled “The Newburgh Sting” that is both a stunning exposé of the entrapment but a timely warning to all people involved in social struggles to maintain a watchful eye against those who urge “more revolutionary” actions such as planting bombs. From the looks of things, they are likely to be FBI operatives.

Much of the film consists of footage that was recorded by hidden FBI cameras to make its case. There is something both pathetic and comic about the discussions that take place between the “brains” behind the conspiracy and his unwitting dupes. Sadly, the four men, who are not very bright, show little appetite for killing anybody and are far more interested in talking about what they are going to do with the money they make. As happens universally in such cases, there was less than a zero possibility that any of them would have gotten involved in such a plot if the FBI had not set the gears in motion, particularly a Haitian youth who was barely capable of taking care of himself even if he had a bankroll. The NY Times reported:

Payen, described as a nervous, quiet sort who took medication for schizophrenia or a bi-polar disorder, was unemployed and living in squalor in Newburgh. His last arrest, in 2002, was for assault, after he drove around the Rockland County village of Monsey, firing a BB gun out of the window — striking two teens — and snatching two purses. A friend who visited Mr. Payen’s apartment on Thursday said it contained bottles of urine, and raw chicken on the stovetop.

For those of you who are HBO subscribers, you are probably aware that it has supplanted PBS as a primary source of cutting edge documentaries. It broke the story on the West Memphis Satanic Cult miscarriage of justice and is continuing in that vein with “The Newburgh Sting”.

Fortunately, you can now see the HBO documentary on YouTube:

I hope some radical filmmaker can make a new film that connects the dots between this scumbag’s entrapment operations and his homicidal limousine business. It will illustrate how FBI stings and wanton disregard for safety regulations are driven by the same deadly logic that puts the national security state and the sorry state of consumer protection on the same footing.

October 8, 2018

Deborah Eisenberg: short stories with a superiority complex

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 9:42 pm

Deborah Eisenberg

You couldn’t miss the arrival of Deborah Eisenberg’s latest short story collection titled “Your Duck is My Duck” if you are into socially aware, well-written fiction. The NY Times review of September 25th stated:

In a classic Deborah Eisenberg short story, “Holy Week,” a travel writer visiting an unnamed country in Central America complacently compiles adjectives as he reviews a restaurant: “relaxed,” “intimate,” “romantic.”

This being Eisenberg, things take a turn. A very different set of words are required to actually summon the day; let’s say, “anxiety,” “empire” and “guns.” These might be the same words we would compile to describe a visit to the world of Eisenberg.

Apparently, the new collection is not quite as explicitly political as those in “Under the 82nd Airborne”, a 1989 collection that referenced the wars in Central America. In the new collection, she remains political but more obliquely so. Once again from the review:

The later work is about emerging from isolation and complacency, about larger questions of what it means to live an ethical life — and, as Eisenberg has said, whether such a thing is even possible for an American. These stories emerge from the ashes of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, out of despoliation and environmental plunder.

Eisenberg was in the back of my mind when I came across a long and fawning profile of her in yesterday’s Times magazine section titled “Deborah Eisenberg, Chronicler of American Insanity”. It turns out that she has been living with Wallace Shawn for forty years. Shawn is the son of William Shawn, the long-time editor of The New Yorker Magazine under whose stewardship veered left on a fairly consistent basis. After his departure, it shifted to the right although you can find an occasionally trenchant analysis amidst the liberal dross.

I don’t want to call this nepotism but Eisenberg first got published in The New Yorker. I suspect that her writing was publishable even if the reviews over the years would have you believe that she is the second coming of Anton Chekhov.

The magazine profile describes the couple as elderly radicals just like me but certainly without a Trotskyist past. When he isn’t acting in Hollywood movies as an impish figure such as Vizzini in “The Princess Bride”, Shawn is mounting off-off-Broadway productions of his leftist plays. The 1996 “Designated Mourner” depicts, according to Wikipedia, “an unnamed Western country that is undergoing political conflict similar to what occurred in many Latin American countries during the Cold War: a ruling oligarchy with fascist tendencies, threatened by a communist guerrilla movement based in the lower class, is imprisoning and executing anyone suspected of subversion, including writers and intellectuals who have no direct connection to the guerrillas.” I refrained from spending $40 for a ticket to see the play since it was too close to my lived experience.

Reading the magazine section profile on Eisenberg left me with the impression that the couple was like many in Manhattan’s bourgeois (I use the word advisedly), bohemian left. The second sentence: “She works at a desk overlooking the gently curving stairwell in her spacious, light-soaked Chelsea apartment.” In case you aren’t up on New York real estate, this is the most expensive neighborhood in the city.

Wallace Shawn’s plays are distinguished by their hectoring tone. Americans are beasts who are responsible for the country’s ills. In “Aunt Dan and Lemon”, a play with two female characters, Lemon comes to the realization at the play’s end that ordinary people owe killers like Hitler and Kissinger a debt of gratitude for making their self-deceit possible. Was Shawn connected to the SDS Weathermen? Not as far as I know but the ideological affinities are obvious.

After visiting Central America in the 1980s, the two got into the habit of guilt-baiting those liberals who enjoy the same kind of privileges. The Times reports:

Back in New York, Eisenberg and Shawn had trouble persuading people of the full extent of what they’d seen. “There was no faster way to shut down a dinner party,” she told me.

Out of curiosity, I decided to have a look at the short story “Under the 82nd Airborne” that provides the title for her 1989 collection. I generally don’t spend much time reading fiction because I have my hands filled reading history and political analysis but reading Eisenberg’s short story was useful since it gave me insights into the mindset of a high-profile and acclaimed writer of the American left, who like her counterparts would never dream of writing anything so gauche as “Grapes of Wrath” or “Bread and Wine”. Oh, did I mention that gauche is the French word for left?

The first two sentences are not very auspicious from a stylistic perspective:

Two pallid eggs, possibly the final effort of some local chicken, quivered on the plate as the waitress set it in front of Caitlin. The waitress raised her canted black eyes, and behind her. Caitlin saw Holly entering at the far end of the room, flanked by two men.

I could probably write five hundred words about the clumsiness of this prose but will let this suffice. What is a “pallid” egg? If the eggs were scrambled, they’d be yellow. If they were sunny side up, they’d be white circles with a smaller yellow circle in the middle. Pallid leaves the reader questioning what kind of egg that would be unless Caitlin ordered fried egg whites as part of a health-conscious diet. As for the “final effort of some local chicken”, did the dying chicken lead to the “pallid” egg because it had chicken leukemia or something? And how does an egg sitting on a plate “quiver” unless it was an egg Jell-O omelet? As for “canted” black eyes, I felt put off by having to consult an online dictionary to understand what this means? Okay, let me look it up. I have nothing else better to do. So, it turns out that canted means at an angle. What are angled eyes? Is that a less racist way of saying “slant-eyed”? Was the waitress Asian? What was Eisenberg trying to say? The hell if I know.

Okay, enough about style. Let me turn to the politics.

Caitlin is a stage actress in her forties who is having trouble getting a part. Holly is her daughter who absolutely hates her. When Caitlin gives her a phone call, Holly asks, “Did someone just dump you, Mama? Is that it?” Holly was the result of a one-night stand with a fellow actor named Todd. Not long after Holly was born, the couple split up.

Anxious to see a daughter who obviously can’t stand her, Caitlin invites her to come to New York so they can hang out. Holly replies that she can’t make it because she is going on a business trip with her fiancé Brandon. The engagement was news to her mother, another sign of their distance. Showing an uncanny inability to pick up on her daughter’s cues to get lost, Caitlin invites herself along on the business trip, which turns out to be to Honduras just before the arrival of paratroopers intervening on behalf of Ronald Reagan and the contras.

This allows Eisenberg to tell a familiar story about an innocent American plunged into a hellish landscape. Done right, as in the travelogues of Paul Theroux and the novels of Graham Greene, this can make for compelling literature. In Eisenberg’s clumsy hands, however, the results are anything but. Every paragraph screams at the reader that Honduras is hot, ugly and poor. Not a single Honduran character appears in the story except a street vendor who is there as a symbol of the country’s Third World grubbiness:

She joined the grimy crowd and saw at its center a man sitting on a blanket, surrounded by small heaps of dried plants, a large trunk, and jars of smoky liquid, inside of which indistinct shapes floated. Of course, Caitlin couldn’t understand what he was saying, but his voice rose and fell, full of crescendos and exquisitely disturbing pauses, and his eyes glittered with irony as he gathered up all the vitality that had dissipated from his dusty audience and their torpor burned off in the air crackling around him.

The women in the crowd giggled and tilted their heads against one another’s shoulders; the men squirmed and smiled sheepishly. Suddenly the man on the blanket went still. He stared, then lifted his arms high and plunged them into the trunk, from which he raised, as the women screamed and scattered, a great snake that seethed luxuriantly in his hands. Caitlin found herself clinging to a barefoot woman, who smiled to excuse herself, and then, as the crowd drew together again, the man on the blanket placed the twisting snake around his shoulders and reached into the trunk for a second time. This time what he drew forth was a small white waxy-looking block. The crowd peered and craned. The man looked sternly back and silence fell. He passed his hand across the block, and as the crowd sighed like a flock of doves rising from a tree, the block began to foam.

The great snake seethed luxuriantly in his hands? How did it seethe? Like King Lear in Act Five? And why use a puzzling adverb like luxuriantly, one that might more appropriately be used to describe the life style of a Saudi prince? The New Yorker magazine became notorious for its minimalist short stories under William Shawn’s reign. Perhaps he decided to publish Eisenberg to give purple prose equal time.

As the story unfolds, Caitlin keeps running into the kind of characters found in Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American”. Either they are CIA agents or people operating in Honduras to make a fast buck like Brandon, her future son-in-law who pilots a plane delivering war material to an American base.

A man named Lewis, who is pals with Brandon, is predictably evil. He tells Caitlin: “Oh, we all know each other down here. Not like Guatemala. Here, everything’s under control. A place for everyone, everyone in his place. Small operation, enough pie to go around; smoothly functioning system of checks and balances”.

While not so nearly as compromised as Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon, Caitlin can’t seem to grasp what is going on all around her. Her wandering about Tegucigalpa has led her to a hotel filled with spooks, including a man who informs her that “The White House has announced that Nicaragua has invaded Honduras last night”. She responds cluelessly:

“Oh, that’s what it is,” Caitlin said, trying to remember. “Honduras and Nicaragua are at war—”

In a Brooklyn Rail article on Eisenberg, Andrea Scrima writes: “Eisenberg’s characters frequently possess no more than a faulty understanding of current events. She shows Americans as they all too often appear: lacking a basic grasp of political context and without a working knowledge of the cultures and histories of even the countries closest to them.”

That might be the case but any of them unfortunate enough to stumble across an Eisenberg short story in a copy of The New Yorker in the reception area of a dentist’s office will likely have even less of a working knowledge after reading it.

October 5, 2018

The Great Buster: A Celebration

Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 7:56 pm

Opening today at the Quad Cinema in New York is a documentary on the life and work of Buster Keaton titled “The Great Buster: A Celebration”. Celebration is the operative term since it is a heart-felt tribute to a great comedian and filmmaker whose best films were made in the 1920s and stopped abruptly just at the time “talkies” began. What happened to Keaton? Why didn’t his career continue to flourish? We learn from Peter Bogdanovich, who produced, directed and was the narrator of the film, that it was studio executives at MGM who were responsible.

To understand what happened, it is best to consider a more recent example of how commercialism can trump art. In many ways, Jackie Chan was the Buster Keaton of our era. In dozens of films made in Hong Kong, he combined comedy and action in films that capitalized on the haplessness of his character who always triumphed in the end. Like other highly successful Hong Kong cinema luminaries such as John Woo, he was lured by the big bucks to begin making Hollywood films that were lead-footed duds even if they made money. In Keaton’s case, the films he made for MGM were so awful that they effectively destroyed his career. Additionally, it was his own alcoholism and the collapse of a marriage that led to his being hospitalized by what they used to call a “nervous breakdown”. He ended up being taken to a mental hospital in a straightjacket evoking the same fate of Jonathan Winters years later. In such cases, an abundance of talent can often cause collateral damage in a world that does not appreciate the comedian’s gift.

While the film was certainly obligated to tell this part of his story, most of it is upbeat and a treat to anybody young or old who has never seen a Keaton film. Along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton made films that people will be enjoying centuries from now while Judd Apatow will likely be forgotten a few years after he has given up the ghost. Like Jackie Chan, Buster Keaton did all of his own stunts that were memorable not just for the great physical agility they took but how they served the narrative arc and character development. By contrast, the visual gags of most modern comedies are just thrown in after the fact to make sure the audience does not fall asleep.

Buster Keaton got started in vaudeville just like WC Fields, the Marx Brothers and other great comedians of the 20s and 30s. He started performing as a young kid whose parents integrated him into their act as the butt of what appeared to be child abuse. They threw him around mercilessly to the point that they were arrested for cruelty to children on occasion. However, he and his parents were skilled at making things look much worse than they really were, like professional wrestlers today. We see Keaton showing another comedian how to take a fall at one point, showing him how extended hands can soften the blow. Of course, just like professional wrestlers, he often suffered injuries carrying out a stunt. In one of them, he suffered a broken neck that he lived with for decades until a doctor asked him how he got it. Keaton replied that he had no idea he had a broken neck.

Between the thirties and forties, Keaton was a sad, neglected figure—a comic version of the character dramatized in Michel Hazanavicius’s neo-silent film “The Artist”. Things turned around in the fifties when he began making commercials and appearances on various TV shows, including Ed Sullivan’s variety show. None of them, of course, could compare to the great films he made in the 20s but they at least allowed him to live in comfort with his wife Eleanor who comes across as a guardian angel.

Eleanor Keaton was a good friend of Richard Lewis who is among the comedians that pay tribute to Keaton in the film. We hear Mel Brooks acknowledge Keaton as a major influence on his own classic comedies. Other filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Quentin Tarantino having little connection to comedy describe Keaton as a great director, even transcending the comedy genre. One of the most unexpected fans is none other than Samuel Beckett who made a 1965 short titled “Film” that Keaton was happy to star in, even though he admitted he had no idea what it was about. Like just about everything else that once appeared on film, it can now be seen on the Internet and even for free.

October 2, 2018

Russia and the Western Far-right: Tango Noir

Filed under: Counterpunch,Red-Brown alliance — louisproyect @ 1:03 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, OCTOBER 2, 2018

On September 20, 2013, Vladimir Putin gave a speech at a Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in the Novgorod region that announced his new orientation to the far-right internationally:

Another serious challenge to Russia’s identity is linked to events taking place in the world. Here there are both foreign policy and moral aspects. We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.

The excesses of political correctness have reached the point where people are seriously talking about registering political parties whose aim is to promote paedophilia. People in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation. And people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.

I discovered this hair-raising speech in Anton Shekhovtsov’s “Russia and the Western Far-right: Tango Noir”, a carefully researched book that was published in August 2017 and that is must-reading for anybody trying to make sense of the deep divisions on the left about Russia’s role in world politics. Information about the book can be found on Shekhovtsov’s website alongside a blog that keeps up with the same kind of research. For example, a June 2018 post reveals that ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky hosted a conference in Moscow intended to connect like-minded Russians with groups like the National-Democratic Party (NDP) in Germany that is regarded as the country’s most significant neo-Nazi party since 1945.

Continue reading

October 1, 2018

Not learning from the New Communist Movement

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,Maoism — louisproyect @ 3:51 pm

Max Elbaum, author of “Revolution in the Air”

Micah Uetricht, Jacobin assistant editor

There’s an interview with Max Elbaum on Jacobin today titled “Learning from the New Communist Movement” that is mostly unobjectionable. As I pointed out in a review of Max’s “Revolution in the Air” in 2002, “I strongly recommend this recently published Verso book to anybody trying to make sense of the state of the left today. While focused on the ‘New Communist Movement’ of the 70s and 80s (that I prefer to call Maoist), the lessons Elbaum draws are applicable to all vanguard party-building projects including those of the Trotskyist movement that I participated in.”

Clearly, there is an affinity between Jacobin/DSA and the Maoist movement that Elbaum belonged to and that is chronicled in this book. With both the DSA and the “New Communist Movement” of yore recycling the politics of the Popular Front, you might even wonder why it took so long for them to have a friendly chat. Max was a leader of the Line of March (LOM) in the 1970s, a Maoist group founded by Irwin Silber, the film critic of the now defunct American radical newsweekly The Guardian.

The LOM had a most peculiar political agenda. They wanted to either convince the CPUSA to return to its glorious past or carry out that task themselves. Whatever complaints they had about the CPUSA, being embedded in the Democratic Party was not one of them.

In the early 80s, I was active in the New York chapter of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) that was mostly made up of political independents like me but had some LOM and Communist Workers Party (CWP) members playing an important role as well. The CWP is best known for its ultraleft strategy in North Carolina that played into the hands of the KKK. As two important trends in the New Communist Movement, they both were very active in Democratic Party campaigns involving Black progressives who were the Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the day: Harold Washington, who would be elected mayor of Chicago, and Jesse Jackson.

In 1984, CISPES passed a motion that its members would work closely with Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Still allergic to anything connected to the Democratic Party, I began to wind my CISPES activism down. Micah Uetricht, the Jacobin assistant editor who conducted the interview with Elbaum, stigmatizes people like me: “Planting the banners and waiting in a left-wing stronghold for people to come to us will not cut it.” This almost sounds like a plagiarism of Hal Draper’s “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect” if you ignore the fact that Draper opposed the Democratic Party on a principled basis.

The full exchange appears below:

Micah Uetricht: In the book, you quote Vladimir Lenin: “Politics begin where the masses are, not where there are thousands, but where there are millions.”  Then you write that revolutionaries must not “accept marginal status as a permanent fact of life — much less a mindset that glorifies marginality as a sign of true revolutionary faith. … Planting the banners and waiting in a left-wing stronghold for people to come to us will not cut it.”

When I read that, I think of the critiques of mass campaigns like Medicare for All or for politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which have shown that they can bring the idea of socialism to mass numbers of people who have never heard this term before. Some of those critiques are valid, like the worry that engaging too heavily in electoral politics will water down DSA’s radical politics to the point that the organization ceases to advance a bold socialist vision. But most of them seem more rooted in people clinging to that “pure” marginality — at a moment when socialism has an opportunity to become a truly mass movement. The opportunity to reach the “millions” that Lenin references is here, but orienting a leftist organization in that direction involves ditching some of the habits of glorifying marginality.

Max Elbaum: I think the Bernie campaign, the insurgent campaigns, the way people are learning to speak to large numbers who are envisioning moving the country as a whole — all of that is extremely positive. Politics is a matter of looking at the balance of forces and where the masses are at and intervening in a way that moves the needle. We have to speak to the majority and build a majoritarian movement.

We’re obviously a long way from a majority of the United States not just supporting fundamental change and an alternative to capitalism but taking steps and risks to make that happen. That’s not going to come about by offering only a maximalist program and trying to move in one leap from where we are now to that maximalist program.

It’s certainly legitimate and necessary to realize there’s uneven development in society — you’re going to have an advanced guard, what Lenin called the “conscious element.” That’s the point of having a socialist organization where people are united on the long-range goal. But it works in different layers. It has its immediate base and its periphery, and it works in coalition with outside forces.

So, I think that the purist tendencies, the ones that are critical of anything that is less than their total vision of what a revolutionary socialist program would be, are self-defeating. Because you never break out of the margins.

The idea that you just plant the flag and everyone will come to you if you have the correct line has never worked. That’s not how politics works. Politics is addition — you need to get more people on your team.

The Left has been marginal for a long time in the United States. For some people, that’s their comfort zone. When you mix it up in broad mass politics, there’s always a danger that you compromise some key principle and fall down a slippery slope. Those are real dangers. But every successful movement for radical reform or revolution has to engage in those broad mass politics. There’s no other way to build a majoritarian movement from where we are now to a majoritarian movement for socialism.

With all due respect to Max and Micah, it appears that the words “Politics begin where the masses are” do not appear in the Marxist Internet Archives. It seems to have about the same provenance as “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” None. In fact, the words attributed to Lenin could justify practically anything, including urging a vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016, as Max did.

The exchange between the hardened social democrat (or democratic socialist, whatever) and the hardened Eurocommunist is notable for leaving the words “Democratic Party” out. Instead, it frames the differences between “glorifying marginality” by “purist tendencies” and those who are involved with “electoral politics” like the DSA, the Communist Party and the Committees of Correspondence. You might even say that articles written for the Jacobin and People’s World in support of working to elect Democrats are virtually indistinguishable except for the fact that Jacobin articles tend to use the language of the graduate school rather than the AFL-CIO media bureau.

If Jacobin had decided to ask tough questions rather than the kind that Charlie Rose would feed to Henry Kissinger or Bill Gates, they would have brought up Jesse Jackson’s campaigns. For all practical purposes, the Rainbow Coalition was the Sandernista movement of its day with volunteers being drawn from various Maoist sects rather than the social democracy, which was pretty marginal at the time.

Just as Jacobin authors kid themselves into believing that Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez et al might eventually break with the Democrats as Lincoln did with the Whigs, you heard the same thing in 1984 and 1988. Most leftists thought there was a realistic possibility that the Rainbow Coalition could turn into a new third party when Jackson had as much of an intention of leading such a break as Sanders does today. You can understand how even more unlikely this would be for Sanders since he enjoys the perks of being an elected Senator.

Thirty years ago, Joanna Misnik wrote a pamphlet for Solidarity titled “The Rainbow and the Democratic Party— New Politics or Old?: A Socialist Perspective” that I highly recommend. It is written from the perspective of Lenin’s electoral strategy that has nothing in common with the exchange between Uetricht and Elbaum above. Instead of quoting non-existent words, they might have tried to grapple with Lenin’s polemics against the Mensheviks who advocating blocs with the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets), the Democratic Party of Czarist Russia.

Here is Misnik on the “Inside-Outside” strategy defended by the DSA:

The Rainbow includes a number of socialist and left organizations that hope the Coalition can ultimately precipitate a break from the Democrats in favor of a new anticapitalist political party. Groups such as the National Committee for Independent Political Action (NCIPA) typify the “inside-outside” strategy of the not-really Democrats in the Rainbow. They hold the position that the way to break the Democratic Party apart is to join it. They are urging people to register and vote Democrat!

“Inside-out” Rainbow activists are concerned about the decline of the movements for change during the past decade. They mistakenly identified the shift to the right of establishment politics as a rightward drift in the population at large. Sectors of the movement, buying into the idea that Reagan had a mandate, became fearful and hesitant. This timidity was fed by the collapse of the Black movement into the Democratic Party and the failure of the labor movement to mount a defense against concessions, plant closings, unemployment and the general effects of the recessionary economy.

The difficult political climate led to conclusions of the type offered by Rainbow leader Sheila Collins in her recently published The Rain­bow Challenge: the Jackson Campaign and the Future of U. S. Politics. Collins explains:

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 shocked many left activists into discovering the dialectical relationship between social movements and electoral institutions…. Electoral politics was no longer seen as a substitute for movement-building, but as a necessary complement. Although it was difficult to do both simultaneously, there was a growing realization that the two forms of political activity were dialectically related. (105-108)

This new “dialectic” for the ’80s is a high-toned way of sounding a retreat from what history has already taught. There isn’t a shred of evidence to support the idea that the Democratic Party, in or out of power, offers fundamental concessions to the locked-out when they loyally lock-in their votes in massive numbers. All successes in shifting the social relation of forces—from the rise of the CIO to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war victories—have been the direct results of unruly mass movements playing outside the acceptable channels of U.S. two-party politics.

In the case of both labor in the 1930s and the social movements of the 1960s, it was precisely at the point when major sectors of these movements decided it was time to move “from protest to politics” and act as a pressure group within and around the Democratic Party than reforms began to slack off and eventually disappear. In fact, the brevity of these two periods of major change is due to this very co-optation. Unable to defeat capitalist control of the party from the inside and claim it as their own, the reformers were themselves beaten and became the reformed.

Left Rainbow advocates may argue that all this does not apply. After all, they have an organization separate and apart from the Democratic Party that enables them to resist absorption while they use the “tactic” of Jackson’s candidacy to build a new, integral progressive force. Unfortunately this is not the case.

The Rainbow has only one tactic, one focus that glues all its components together: Jackson’s race for the Democratic Party nomination. No other goals were established at the Raleigh convention. By definition, this subsumes the Rainbow into the Democratic Party and hands it over to those who want it to be nothing more than an army of foot soldiers for the Jackson Campaign Committee.

This problem is not something only those outside the Rainbow can perceive. The powerful New Jersey delegation to the Rainbow Con­vention led a well-received fight to democratize the notoriously top-down Rainbow structure. They were motivated by the fear that the Rainbow will be dictated to by official campaign structures, stunting its growth and threatening its ability to exist beyond `88. Some structural changes were made, such as adding state chairs to the all-powerful Board of Directors and halving the minimum number of members required to receive a local charter.

However, the Rainbow chartering system still requires a minimum membership in a third of a state’s congressional districts. Using the districts as its basic unit shapes the vote-getting operation. It is a foreign and unwieldy organizational structure for activists accustomed to city-wide mobilizing.

Blog at WordPress.com.