Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 22, 2020

Victoria Woodhull and Cornelius Vanderbilt

Filed under: Woodhull — louisproyect @ 8:36 pm

Below you will find an excerpt from Barbara Goldsmith’s 1998 “Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull”. It deals with the unlikely hook-up between Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin with Cornelius Vanderbilt, the richest man in America. Woodhull and her sister put out a magazine called Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly that called for socialist revolution, free love and spiritualist values. As I pointed out in a CounterPunch article, Marxists in the USA were divided between the “Yankee” faction led by her and the “orthodox” faction led by Frederick Sorge and supported by Marx. Sorge and Marx led a drive to expel Woodhull and her comrades that culminated in them capturing themselves. Despite Woodhull’s idiosyncrasies, she was connected to the living pulse of America’s most exploited—the women, the African-Americans and the most militant workers.

In addition to being the first woman to run for president (her running-mate was Frederick Douglass), she and her sister were the first women to own a Wall St. stock brokerage. The excerpt shows how they got their hands on the money to fund the business and to pay for their revolutionary-minded magazine.

It will be immediately obvious that Goldsmith has not written a scholarly book. Since her previous biography was about Gloria Vanderbilt (the great-granddaughter of the patriarch discussed below), you can probably guess that she was writing for the mass market rather than Marxist ne’er-do-wells like me.

Apparently the book was optioned to become a Hollywood movie but nothing came of that until 2017, when Amazon announced plans to make such a film but not based on Goldsmith’s book as far as I can tell. Someone named Ben Kopit is working on the script and I wouldn’t expect much. Maybe the best bet would be for Paul Buhle to do a comic book since he is a Woodhull scholar among his many other assets.

As a mass-market biographer rather than a historian, Goldsmith paints a lurid picture but perhaps one not that remote from the reality. To balance this book, I also received a copy of Mark Lause’s “Long Road to Harpers Ferry: The Rise of the First American Left” that deals with the Yankee left. Mark has also written a book on “Free Spirits: Spiritualism, Republicanism, and Radicalism in the Civil War Era” that I am anxious to read.

IN THE world of the demimondaine the most open of secrets was Commodore Vanderbilt’s insatiable sexual appetite. In the world of the Spiritualists the most open of secrets was the Commodore’s support of any medium, fortune-teller, or healer who could aid him in his insatiable search for riches and immortality. He paid Mrs. Tufts, a medium from Staten Island, enough money to retire to Vermont when she rid him of two spirits: a boy of seven who had been crushed under the hooves of Vanderbilt’s four white-footed trotters as they sped around the reservoir in Central Park, and a railroad worker who had been mangled under the wheels of the Commodore’s Flying Devil and appeared before him in a bloody, shredded, and oil-stained condition.

Vanderbilt instructed his barber to collect his hair and burn it, for fear that someone who secured a lock would have power over him. He believed that through portraits one could communicate with those who had “passed over,” and kept a miniature of his late mother in his breast pocket above his heart. He despised doctors and followed the advice of Spiritualist healers, one of whom had instructed that saltcellars be placed under each leg of his bed to ward off evil spirits.

It was common knowledge that Commodore Vanderbilt saw all callers at his town house at 10 Washington Place, no matter who they were. He usually dispatched them promptly and rudely, but said he never knew where a good idea might come from. Within a month of his arrival, the ever alert Buck Claflin arranged a meeting between his Spiritualist daughters and the Commodore. When the crusty Vanderbilt peered over the balcony of his Greek revival mansion and saw the two women standing below, he could not have failed to be impressed: There stood Victoria with her delicate cameo features and Tennessee with her overblown figure. Vanderbilt had an eye for women, so much so that the housemaids frequently quit to escape his prurient advances.

The Commodore, for all his bluster, was old and lonely. Despite his fortune he was not welcome in society. He swore like a stevedore and spat tobacco juice onto his hostesses’ Persian carpets. He was nearly illiterate. His home life was bleak; he and his wife, Sophia, had barely spoken for a decade. Sophia had borne the Commodore twelve children, and when they were young and poor she worked at Bellona Hall, their Staten Island boardinghouse, with one child at her breast and several others trailing behind.

Two decades earlier, when Sophia mustered the courage to object to his pursuit of the children’s governess and refused to go along with his plan to move to a New York City town house, the Commodore established complete domination over her by having her committed to Dr. McDonald’s insane asylum in Flushing. His eldest son, the obese William Henry, arranged for his mother’s internment, and when the governess fled after being driven frantic by the Commodore’s sexual advances, William Henry found another young girl “to content” his father, saying, “The old man is bound to have his way and it is useless to oppose him.”

If not for the intercession of Vanderbilt’s mother, Sophia would have remained in the insane asylum while the Commodore played his beloved whist, raced his magnificent trotters, conducted business, and pursued women. Phebe Hand Van der Bilt summoned her son to Staten Island and told him he’d better fetch his wife back if he knew what was good lot him. (Sophia was not only his wife but his first cousin, the daughter of his father’s sister, Eleanor.) “I would never cross that woman,” he said of his mother. From that time on, Sophia had been compliant, uncomplaining and aloof.

The summer after the Commodore met Victoria and Tennessee, following his usual routine, he repaired to Saratoga for the racing season and to take the spa water. Sophia, having little place in her husband’s life, remained behind and moved into the home of her daughter and son-in-law, Mary Louise and Horace Clark. On August 17, 1868, Commodore Vanderbilt was sitting on the porch of the United States Hotel, drinking beer and smoking a black cigar when word came that Sophia had died of an apoplectic attack. Six hours later, he arrived in New York in his private railroad car, Duchess. Two days after that, Sophia was interred in the Vanderbilt Mausoleum at the Moravian Cemetery on Staten Island. Horace Greeley, who had been one of the pallbearers, wrote in the Tribune that Mrs. Vanderbilt had “lived nearly seventy-four years without incurring a reproach or provoking an enmity.”

Soon Victoria and Tennessee became daily fixtures in the Commodore’s household, for they answered his considerable needs: Although he was still slim and spry enough to race his horses and spend hours at his one-desk, one-secretary office on Fourth Street near Broadway, he was slowing down. His hearing was failing, and he suffered from heart trouble, a hernia, kidney stones, constipation, and an enlarged prostate. At meals he had been known to consume pâté de foie gras, woodcock, Spanish mackerel, and saddle of venison, accompanied by Burgundy or Veuve Clicquot or beer. Tennessee took over: She babied, cajoled, and disciplined Vanderbilt, removing the rich foods from his diet and insisting that he walk as well as drive his horses. She tried to get him to stop smoking, but he said, “When I have to give up smoking, you may give me up.” Tennessee’s treatments consisted of clystering (a high enema), manipulating the prostate, and magnetic healing. With her left hand acting as a negative magnet, the right as a positive, she claimed to reverse the polarity of his body and to expel negative energy.

Almost everyone was terrified of the Commodore, but not Tennessee. Their relationship was light and affectionate. She called him “old boy” and “the old goat.” He called her “my little sparrow.” Four servants were later to recall that they often found her occupying the Commodore’s bed in the morning. “Ample”—that was Vanderbilt’s word for Tennessee—ample breasts, ample hips, inviting. She was what she was and didn’t care what anyone thought. Her jealous sister Utica said that when Tennessee asked the Commodore how many women he’d had, he replied, “A thousand,” to which Tennessee laughingly responded, “Then I am only half as bad as you are, for I have had but five hundred.” Within a few months of Sophia’s death, in the fall of 1868, the “old goat” asked Tennessee to become the next Mrs. Vanderbilt.

If Tennessee ministered to the Commodore’s body, Victoria ministered to his soul and eventually to his purse as well. Sitting in the darkened parlor under Phebe Hand Van der Bilt’s portrait, Victoria transmitted messages to him from his mother, who had died fifteen years earlier. When Victoria was in the room, the Commodore said he could even smell his mother’s presence—a combination of strong soap and lavender. His mother was the only woman he had truly loved. He liked his eight daughters well enough but told people, “After all, they’re not Vanderbilts.” His two living sons, William Henry and Cornelius Jeremiah, he called a “blatherskite” and a “sucker,” respectively. William Henry was hardworking and dull and, what was more irritating to the Commodore, prudent and obedient: He’d bring round his sons, Willie K. and Cornelius, for hymn singing and money-grubbing, but the Commodore said there was no life in any of them. The Commodore refused to see Cornelius Jeremiah, an epileptic, because he was unable to admit that he could produce a less-than-perfect human being. He also felt that Cornelius Jeremiah was God’s reprimand to him for having married his first cousin. This poor son nevertheless loved his father deeply and would stand for hours on the back porch hoping to catch a glimpse of the Commodore. Horace Greeley occasionally lent Cornelius Jeremiah money. The Commodore told Greeley that he would never pay him back for the loans to his son. “Who the devil asked you?” Greeley shot back.

The Commodore had once despised his father as well, but he softened his attitude in his old age. Convinced that Victoria Woodhull truly was able to go in a trance and relay messages from his beloved mother, Vanderbilt offered her $100,000 if she would go into a trance and conjure up his father, then describe the man well enough for an artist to paint a portrait. Prudently, she declined but soon Victoria was to make a great deal more money than that by conjuring up some numbers for the Commodore.

In February 1868, Commodore Vanderbilt engaged in a battle with Jim Fisk and Fisk’s partner, Jay Gould, for control of the Erie Railroad. Fisk and Gould had won because at a secret meeting in a suite at the American Club Hotel at Broadway and Seventeenth Street, the Erie directors decided to print more than one hundred fifty thousand new shares of Erie stock. The suite was the residence of a friend a friend of Victoria Woodhull’s from their acting days in San Francisco. As Fisk remarked, “If this printing press don’t break down, I’ll be damned if I don’t give the old hog all he wants of Erie.” Finally, on March 10, having bought the one hundred fifty thousand shares without gaining control of the Erie, the Commodore caught on. The humiliation was as painful as the swindle. With Victoria Woodhull’s help, it would not happen again.

The world of high finance and the low life of prostitutes seemed separate, but in fact they converged in the elegant brothels Victoria visited. At these establishments, women entertained the richest and most powerful men of the day in their beds, and yet they were considered insensate and invisible. Some madams, including Annie Wood, undoubtedly made the most of the opportunity this provided. As Wall Street traders, city officials, businessmen, and politicians gathered in her parlor, Annie listened carefully to what they said. She also trained her “girls” to encourage the men to boast about their financial maneuverings, instructing these women both in the art of exacting information and in seeming ignorant of what they had heard.

Victoria was an intimate of Annie Wood and knew many of the prostitutes who worked in her house. It was there that Vicky became reacquainted with her friend from San Francisco, Josie Mansfield. Josie and husband, Frank Lawlor, had come to the city in 1864 in the hope of finding employment in the theater. They were unsuccessful and soon Lawlor admitted that Josie had married him only to escape the sexual abuse inflicted upon her by her stepfather, found that his wife was “going astray” and divorced her. According to Annie Wood, Josie became so impoverished that she had but one dress and could not pay her rent. It was then that she began to frequent Annie Wood’s house on Thirty-fourth Street, where she set her sights on the overblown Jim Fisk, a regular patron.

Josie knew of Fisk’s wild behavior, his quiet wife in Boston, and his free spending: He would give $100 bills to any pretty prostitute who caught his eye. In November 1867, Fisk arrived at the bordello for an evening’s entertainment and was immediately taken with the buxom Miss Mansfield. Although Josie professed to find Fisk intelligent and manly, she refused his money and rebuffed his advances. For three months Josie skillfully withheld her favors, thereby inflating her worth. Then she allowed Fisk to pay the overdue rent on her tiny room on Lexington Avenue, after which he installed her in the American Club Hotel suite. Fisk underwent a remarkable change: He trimmed his unkempt red mustache and waxed the ends to handlebar perfection, he wore French cologne and kept his boots shined. This besotted lover bought Josie a roomful of dresses and gave her $50,000 in cash and about five times that in Tiffany emeralds.

Josie became a lady of fashion. Daily the hairdresser called, teasing her hair into a variety of puffs, curls, and frizzes. Once every two weeks the enamelist painted her face, shoulders, neck, and arms with a compound of bismuth and arsenic that gave her skin a much-desired deathlike pallor. To be a woman of fashion was a full-time occupation carried to an absurd degree. George Ellington described the requirements:

The elite do not wear the same dress twice . . . she has two new dresses of some sort for every day in the year, or seven hundred and twenty. . . . She must have one or two velvet dresses which cannot cost less than five hundred dollars each; she must possess thousands of dollars’ worth of laces, in the shape of flounces, to loop up over the skirts of dresses as occasion shall require. Walking-dresses cost from fifty to three hundred dollars; ball-dresses are frequently imported from Paris at a cost of from five hundred to a thousand dollars. . . . Nice white llama jackets can be had for sixty dollars; robes princesse, or overskirts of lace, are worth from sixty to two hundred dollars. Then there are . . . dresses for all possible occasions. A lady going to the Springs takes from twenty to sixty dresses and fills an enormous number of Saratoga trunks.

Fisk complained that in one year he spent $30,000 to equip Josie ($5,000 more, he noted, than the president’s salary). Her casket of jewels contained her fabulous emeralds, a set (necklace, earrings, tiara) of diamonds, a set of pearls, a set of corals, a medallion set, and twenty-five finger rings. Within the year Fisk had given Josie a house in her own name at 359 West Twenty-third Street, only half a block west of Fisk’s Opera House. He also supplied her with several maids, a cook, butler, and coachman. Yet Josie’s demands on Fisk escalated: He said that she was more temperamental than an opera diva. Once when she asked Fisk for an extra $30,000, he sent Boss Tweed himself to mediate. Tweed asked her what it was she really wanted. “I want more,” she replied. One of Fisk’s business associates was a startlingly handsome playboy with jet-black hair and classic features named Edward (Ned) Stiles Stokes. Stokes was married to the daughter of a furniture tycoon, and both his father and father-in-law paid his debts and supplied him with cash to disport himself at well-known restaurants and Broadway gambling houses, Fisk, taking a liking to Stokes, lent him some money for an oil venture, named one of his 125 canaries after him, and introduced him to Josie.

Several times a day, Fisk sent a messenger to Josie’s house with notes out-lining his plans. Woodhull was to observe of Mansfield that “she obtained not only Fisk’s money but she also participated in his business secrets. He concealed nothing . . . of his business plans and aspirations from her.” Although both women denied any business association, there is little doubt that, for a price, Josie Mansfield shared these plans with Victoria Woodhull. And on the client register of Woodhull, Claflin & Co. (a Wall Street investment firm formed in the winter of 1869) there was listed an H. J. Mansfield. Josie Mansfield’s given name was Helen Josephine.

By the end of 1868, Vanderbilt was giving Victoria and Tennessee a percentage of the profits from his business transactions. In a trance state, Victoria offered him uncannily accurate financial advice, and the Commodore was shrewd enough not to question whether her sources were from this world or another. In December, Vanderbilt made the boldest move of his career. He declared an 80 percent stock dividend on the Central Pacific Railroad (issuing four extra shares for every five now owned). On Christmas Day, Victoria visited the Commodore and offered advice from the spirits. That evening, he told a young widow to place all her savings in Central stock. “It’s bound to go up. . . . Mrs. Woodhull said so in a trance,” he declared. On the Monday after Christmas, the Central stock opened at $134. By the time the exchange closed, it had bounded up to $165. It was rumored that the Commodore had allocated the profits on three thousand shares, or $93,000, to Victoria and Tennessee. When the Commodore was asked how he made such astute financial decisions, he laughed and replied, “Do as I do. Consult the spirits.”


February 21, 2020

Encountering Malcolm X

Filed under: Black nationalism,Counterpunch,socialism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm


Watching the six-part documentary “Who Killed Malcolm X?” on Netflix stirred up powerful memories of how important he was to my political evolution. While the documentary is focused on exploring the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) role in his murder, it also sheds light on Malcolm’s post-NOI political odyssey. By creating a rival movement to the pseudo-Islamist sect, he risked a fatal encounter with four assassins on this date fifty-five years ago at the Audubon Ballroom in New York.

Just six weeks before his death, I heard Malcolm X speak at the Palm Gardens in New York. I went with my girlfriend Dian, who was on midterm break from Bard College, just like me. I remember taking a seat about ten rows from the podium and being perplexed by the five or so leaflets on the chair that advertised rallies or meetings geared to radicals. Although I was much more of an existentialist liberal a la Camus in 1965, I was eager to hear Malcolm speak. Little did I know at the time that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a sect I would join two years later, organized the meeting. The Trotskyists placed leaflets on the chairs to draw people closer to the party, an approach that the Internet would supersede just as Facebook would supersede the mimeograph machine.

Continue reading

February 18, 2020

A History of Humanity’s Future

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

A History of Humanity’s Future

Our variety of the human species, homo sapiens sapiens, emerged from out of bands of more primitive yet contemporaneous older variants of humanity well over 200,000 years ago and rapidly expanded in both their numbers and the range of their occupancy on our planet. The competitive pressure by this efflorescence of homo sapiens sapiens against the older variants of humanity reduced the numbers of the latter to the point of extinction over the course of 1600 centuries, leaving just our variety of the human species to range over the Earth for 40,000 years up to the beginning of the 21st century. The story of our species from then up to the present moment is the subject of this work.

via A History of Humanity’s Future

February 17, 2020

John Clegg, Bhaskar Sunkara, and the deeper implications of Project 1619

Filed under: Jacobin,Project 1619,racism,reparations,slavery — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

Most of the vitriol directed against Project 1619 centers on Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, especially her observation: “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does the belief, so well articulated by Lincoln, that black people are the obstacle to national unity.” The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) and its allies hope to put Lincoln back on his pedestal and refute the notion that black Americans have tended to fight against racism on their own. All of this is subsumed under the opposition’s main idea that they are fighting “identity politics” that undermines class unity.

There is another beef that the class fundamentalists have against Project 1619 that has generated less commentary. They don’t care for Matthew Desmond’s support for the New History of Capitalism, as it has been dubbed. Or NHC, for short. Titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation,” the article cites two of the key NHC’ers:

“American slavery is necessarily imprinted on the DNA of American capitalism,” write the historians Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman. The task now, they argue, is “cataloging the dominant and recessive traits” that have been passed down to us, tracing the unsettling and often unrecognized lines of descent by which America’s national sin is now being visited upon the third and fourth generations.

For some academics, including Marxists, the idea that slavery is part of the DNA of American capitalism is a metaphor as objectionable as Hannah-Jones’s usage. They discount the importance of slavery as key to the growth of American capitalism and even go so far as to argue that it was a ball and chain on economic progress.

Writing for Jacobin in the sole article dealing with Project 1619, John Clegg, who disagrees with Charles Post’s analysis of slavery as “pre-capitalist”, describes the southern plantation as capitalist but concurs with Post’s description of it as retrograde. Unlike Sean Wilentz and company, Clegg is not that interested in a discussion of whether racism is in America’s DNA. Instead, his goal is to refute the NHC’ers Desmond cites:

Desmond begins his article by drawing on the Harvard historian Sven Beckert who argues that “it was on the back of cotton, and thus on the backs of slaves, that the U.S. economy ascended in the world.” Yet Desmond neglects to mention that this claim has been widely rejecte by specialists in the economic history of slavery.

If you click the link to “rejected” in the citation above, you will be directed to an article by economists Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode titled “Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism” that is the source of one of Clegg’s key rejoinders:

It’s true that cotton was among the world’s most widely traded commodities, and that it was America’s principal antebellum export. But it’s also true that exports constituted a small share of American GDP (typically less than 10 percent) and that the total value of cotton was therefore small by comparison with the overall American economy (less than 5 percent, lower than the value of corn).

I understand that Clegg is an accomplished academic with a post in the U. of Chicago history department but I have to wonder if he bothered to do anything except take Olmstead and Rhode’s claim at face value. They wrote, “More than this, cotton was not even the nation’s most important agricultural commodity in terms of value—that distinction always went to corn.” They don’t back that up with statistics and Clegg follows suit.

Clegg also takes their findings on exports as a percentage of American GDP at face value, but did he bother to put that under the same kind of critical scrutiny as he puts the NHC’ers? As a Columbia University retiree, I have access to the online Cambridge Historical Statistics that will likely never be checked by the Jacobin readers who walk away from Clegg’s article assuming that slavery was less important than corn in the take-off of American capitalism.

There’s a bit of a problem, however. The GDP that Olmstead and Rhode refer to was a product of their own research and not some independent data-gathering body. Since Olmstead is one of the six editors who put together the five-volume Cambridge series, it is entirely possible that his own biases might have crept into how the data is presented. It doesn’t help that one of the other editors is Gavin Wright, whose own attack on the NHC’ers is linked to in the word “widely” in Clegg’s citation above. Wright lets the impudent historians know that they are in for a good biffing: “Having thus allowed the editors to dig their own rhetorical graves, let me urge economic history readers not to overreact to the bluster and bombast.”

I should add that there was no government agency collecting data for GDP during slavery. If you do a search on “GDP” in the online Cambridge Historical Statistics, you will find the following disclaimer:

The official estimates of national income and product provided by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) begin in 1929. The broad interest in long-term trends has generated a number of attempts to estimate national product for the earlier period… It is important to note that all pre-1929 estimates are based on fragmentary data that were not originally collected for the purpose of making national product estimates. This means that the series are less precise than the official estimates.

In fact, prior to the publication of the Cambridge Historical Statistics, the only available data was from the census bureau but only beginning in 1869. In the essay on GDP in the Cambridge Historical Statistics, you will learn that economists have no uniform opinion on such matters. It even warns that Robert Gallman’s statistics on GDP dating back to 1839 “are not appropriate for studies of economic fluctuations or dynamics.” But never mind, let John Clegg cherry-pick the statistical findings in an article by Olmstead and Rhode that is congenial to his thesis that slavery retarded American capitalism. Others will dig deeper than the U. of Chicago sociologist.

All in all, reading Olmstead/Rhode and Wright reminds me of Sean Wilentz’s gate-keeping that keeps historians like Nicholas Guyatt beyond the pale. Wilentz huffs and puffs about how the impudent Hannah-Jones does not pay proper respects to Lincoln while the economists are beside themselves over the nerve of Sven Beckert and company exaggerating the importance of cotton and slavery. How dare they.

For some, there’s good reasons to cheer on Olmstead and Rhode since their debunking of the NHC’ers has the added value of rendering the need for reparations obsolete. If slavery did not turbocharge capitalism, why should black people be entitled to reparations? Maybe they should be paying back American corporations to compensate for lost profits under slavery.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Nikole Hannah-Jones said:

If you read the whole project, I don’t think you can come away from it without understanding the project is an argument for reparations. You can’t read it and not understand that something is owed. But there’s not a piece that looks at that in the project, so I’m going to be working on a piece that is actually asking the question of: If we understand that the legacy is alive right now and that so much of the conditions of black Americans can be traced to that legacy, then what do we actually owe? What is the restitution that is owed?

The WSWS, a bastion of opposition to Project 1619, will have none of this. “But the race-based interpretation advanced by the 1619 Project, reflecting the social aspirations of the more affluent sections of the African-American middle class, serves to bolster demands for reparation payments. This is not incidental to the Project’s aims. Hannah-Jones has already announced that her forthcoming project will be a demand for racially based reparations.”

Opposition to reparations also comes from the rightwing cesspool, just as was the case with Project 1619. When both the National Review and WSWS line up against Project 1619, you have to ask what the hell is going on. Same thing with the NHC and reparations. On August 26, 2019, an article appeared in National Review that gloated over Olmstead and Rhode’s “stinging rebuke” of NHC historian Edward Baptist. Since Baptist’s work was cited by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s in a call for reparations, naturally the government will have to say, no thank you.

Bhaskar Sunkara also came out against reparations in The Guardian but without the WSWS’s vitriolic class-fundamentalism or the National Review’s obvious white supremacist baggage. Instead, he finds the idea of reparations beyond the capability of government agencies to administer and unfair to non-black citizens who will be getting short shrift (the reference to Coates below is Ta-Nahisi Coate’s 2014 article in the Atlantic calling for reparations):

But what kind of bureaucratic process would be necessary to identify who gets to receive the reparations Coates supports? It can’t simply be race, because recent immigrants from Africa wouldn’t qualify, nor would the descendants of slaves held in former French or British colonies. Would we need a new bureau to establish ancestry? Is that overhead and the work it will involve for black Americans to prove that they qualify worth it compared to creating a universal program that will most help the marginalized anyway?

Or consider this dilemma: money for reparations will come from government expenditure, of which around half is funded by income tax. Could we be in a situation where we’re asking, say, a black Jamaican descendent of slaves, or a poor Latino immigrant, to help fund a program that they can’t benefit from? Reparations wouldn’t be quite such a zero-sum game, but it would hard to shake the perception. Is this really the basis that we can build a majoritarian coalition?

A blogger named Paul Sowers, about whom I know nothing, took exception to Sunkara in an article titled “Fuel for the Journey: Bhaskar Sunkara, Black Exclusion, and Reparations.” He begins by pointing out that the New York State county that Sunkara grew up in was sued by the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, a private civil rights group. It made the case that local government in Westchester County was violating the terms of an agreement to receive federal funds contingent upon their being allocated to undo obvious, longstanding patterns of segregation.

He caustically added: “Sunkara was born and raised in the village of Pleasantville, N.Y., which—when the lawsuit was initially filed in 2006—had an African-American population of 0.0%. It is referenced explicitly in Beveridge’s sworn declaration. And like many jurisdictions in Westchester County, it appears to have remained particularly keen on preserving the broader region’s rich history of enforced separation of black people.”

He then lets the hammer drop:

Which is what makes Sunkara’s most recent commentary on the issue of reparations in The Guardian so totally objectionable; because his life in America simply does not exist in any recognizable way without the fact of that manufactured black failure. Jacobin arguably does not exist without that black failure (Sunkara’s parents’ names both appear on Jacobin Press LLC’s business license filings, with his dad listed as the company principal, and the company address being listed at an apartment that the family owns in the Bronx). And so the question is, then, what does it mean for an individual whose life and professional career, which in so direct and unambiguous a way has been made wholly possible by the specific oppression suffered by black people, to then use his position in the media to promote the message that specific policy designed to redistribute such opportunities back to those very people “can’t adequately address racial inequality”?

In my view, the assault on both the NHC and on reparations demonstrates that racism remains part of the DNA of the U.S.A. as Nikole Hannah-Jones points out. In keeping with his undying loyalty to Bernie Sanders, Sunkara used his opposition to reparations as a cudgel against Elizabeth Warren.

Although I have all sorts of problems with Ta-Nehisi Coates, he makes some very good points in his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations”. Like is the case with Nikole Hannah-Jones’s reflections on her father’s experiences in her Project 1619 essay, Coates examines the costs racism extracted from a black man named Clyde Ross, who was born into a family fortunate enough to own 40-acres as promised by the Radical Republicans.

Unfortunately, his father was swindled out of his land by racists:

When Clyde Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes. The elder Ross could not read. He did not have a lawyer. He did not know any-one at the local courthouse. He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land. They seized the buggy. They took the cows, hogs, and mules. And so for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping.

Coates offers an impassioned case for reparations in contrast to Sunkara’s pettifoggery. It makes a good companion-piece to the articles that appeared in the Project 1619 special issue of the Sunday Times Magazine. If you have trouble getting past Atlantic’s paywall, contact me at lnp3@panix.com and I will send you a copy.

February 15, 2020

Four narrative films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:44 pm

After wasting my time watching a bunch of crappy Hollywood movies to fulfill my obligation as a NYFCO member to judge front-runners like “Joker” or “1917” for our awards meeting in early December, I am finally returning to my kind of films. These are generally featured in art houses like the Film Forum in New York and the Laemmle in Los Angeles. The four under review here are worth seeing if you spot them playing in your home town. There’s a good shot that they will eventually end up on Amazon, the only real contribution Jeff Bezos has made to humanity.

Corpus Christi (opens February 19th at the Film Forum)

In 1936, Ignazio Silone wrote the anti-fascist novel “Bread and Wine” that told the story of a young revolutionary who assumes the identity of a priest in order to throw the cops off his trail. He lives in a poverty-stricken village made up by the kind of backward peasant that Marx had in mind when he called religion the opium of the people. It was not exactly a call for abolishing religion since he also writes, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”

Once he assumes this identity, the revolutionary is besieged by peasants who need someone to minister to their spiritual and economic needs. This forces him to improvise, often calling upon the good sense and humanitarian instincts that made him a revolutionary.

In “Corpus Christi”, a Polish film directed by the 38-year old Jan Komasa, we have a similar plot but the main character Daniel is not a revolutionary. Instead, he is a young man who has just been released from prison to serve the rest of his term for second-degree murder through a work-release program. He is sent to a rural town to labor for a pittance in a saw-mill. The town is not nearly so poor economically as the one in “Bread and Wine” but just as spiritually bereft, if not more so.

When he was in prison, Daniel became an assistant to the chaplain. Over time he became more and more spiritually-minded and especially looked forward to singing hymns at prison masses. On the day he was to be released, he asked the priest if there was any possibility of being recommended for the Catholic seminary. He was told that his prison term made that impossible. So much for Jesus’s teachings about forgiveness.

Perhaps as a sign of his yearning for the life of a priest, Daniel purloins a priest’s vestment and takes it with him to the town where he is to become just another parolee carrying out what amounts to indentured servitude. Once there, he stops in at the local church to meditate. When he learns later that day that the local priest is about to go on a leave of absence, he puts on the clerical clothes he brought with him and convinces the priest that he is legitimate and willing to sub for him. Was he succumbing to baser motives such as higher pay and an easier way of making a living? Or did the time spent in religious services in prison transform him?

The screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz, who is only 27 years old, told 28 Times Cinema: “What fascinated me from the beginning was the ambivalence of the premise. We have somebody who maybe just does it for money. Perhaps, it’s also for some emotional profit. He wants to feel he’s someone better than he really is. Maybe it’s a whole different reason. This multi-dimensionality was what kept me going working on the story.”

They say that clothing makes the man. In his case, Daniel turns out to be much more of a holy man than the one he has replaced. In a town that is tormented by a terrible automobile accident (or deliberate homicide), he brings solace to the families that lost a son or daughter. At the same time, he comforts a woman whose husband was judged guilty for plowing his car into the one that was carrying the young people still being mourned, a year after the tragedy. The town has ostracized her in a manner reminiscent of Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”.

As someone with not a spiritual bone in my body, I found “Corpus Christi” deeply moving. It lacks the political edge of the kind of films I tend to write about but the story-telling is first-rate. It moved me in the same way that Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” did. As Daniel, Bartosz Bielenia is unforgettable.

The Whistlers (opens February 28th at the Film Forum)

This is a Romanian film directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, whose work I am not familiar with. “The Whistlers” is a crime story with a very fresh take on the genre involving crooked cops and the drug trade. The main character is a middle-aged cop named Cristi who teamed up with a Romanian drug dealer to rip off some Spanish dealers.

The plot is far too complicated to go into any kind of detail so suffice it to say that Cristi ends up on the Canary Islands to meet with the Spanish gangsters who will coerce him into leading them to the stash he and his partner have buried back in Romania. To make sure they are not found out by honest cops (a scarcity in Romania, as the film will point out) on their trail, they communicate through a whistled language that is unique to the people of the Gomera island in the Canaries. It has between 2 and 4 vowels and between 4 and 10 consonants.

“The Whistlers” was likely made for an international audience and lacks the darkly introspective character of Romanian films of 10 to 15 years ago that explored the corruption of both Communist and post-Communist rule. In its favor, it is a throwback to Alfred Hitchcock’s confections like “To Catch a Thief” or “Marnie”. Intricately plotted and swiftly paced, it is far more entertaining than the lead-footed movies I endured in the weeks before the NYFCO awards meeting in early December.

Sorry We Missed You (opens at the Film Forum on March 4th and at Nuart in Los Angeles on March 6th)

This is Ken Loach’s 55th credit as a director since 1964. Now 83 years old, he still is capable of making the kind of gut-wrenching, pro-working class film that has distinguished his career.

In the opening scene, we meet Ricky Turner, a man in his mid-forties, who is being interviewed for a job delivering packages in an unnamed British town. Formally speaking, he will not become an employee but a “franchisee”. Like Uber or Lyft, he is supposedly self-employed but no more so than the people who used to spin cloth at home in the earliest stages of capitalism. That’s a sign of the combined and uneven nature of capitalism today that the most up-to-date technology is used to exploit a worker like Ricky Turner in the same way his fellow Brits were 600 years ago.

To qualify for the position, Ricky needs a van. He can rent one from the subcontractor but at a hefty price. Like most men or women desperate enough to work in such a position, he takes a risk and puts a down payment on a van for a thousand pounds. To raise the cash, his wife Abbie sells their car, something that makes her job much more difficult. She is a home nurse who goes from house to house looking after the elderly, most of whom are suffering from dementia or some other severe geriatric illness. The job is low-paying and emotionally draining. Without a car, Abbie is forced to take the bus. When they get home late at night, they can barely communicate with their children, a teen boy named Sebastian and a grade school girl named Liza Jane.

Their absence only accelerates the self-destructive tendencies of Sebastian whose only pleasure in life is going out with his mates spray-painting graffiti, one step ahead of the cops. When he is arrested for shoplifting spray paint, Ricky has to give up a day’s pay to sort things out at the police station.

In the final moments of the film, everything is falling apart around the famuly. This, of course, is not just a story about a family. It is the story of the English working class today, as heart-felt and as compelling as Engels’s “Conditions of the Working-Class in England”. In many ways, Ricky is a casualty of the collapse of this class since the drying up of construction jobs, his mainstay over the years, has plummeted him into the depths of contingent labor.

For background on how such workers fare, I recommend an April 14, 2019 Guardian article:

The Observer has been contacted by three drivers who have delivered parcels for Amazon. They report shifts of 12 hours or more on zero hours contracts, unpaid overtime and penalties for failing to meet onerous targets. Because they are classed as self-employed, they are obliged to pay for their vehicles and expenses and do not receive sickness or holiday pay. They claim long, unpredictable hours and transport costs mean that pay can amount to less than the minimum wage.

Better yet, I recommend going to Film Forum to see this extraordinary film by our greatest living radical filmmaker.

Burnt Orange Heresy (Opens March 6th at the Landmark in New York)

This stars Claes Bang, the brilliant Danish actor, as a chain-smoking, pill-popping art critic named James Figueras who makes a living giving lectures to tourists in Italy. Author of “The Power of the Critic”, he lives beyond his means and has even been caught misusing funds meant for business expenses for his lavish life-style. This bit of thievery came this close to landing him in prison.

At his last lecture, he meets a stunning blonde and they begin a passionate affair. A week or so into the affair, he is contacted by one of the world’s most successful art dealers, a man named Joseph Cassidy, who is played by Mick Jagger to serpentine perfection.

Cassidy lives in a palatial home overlooking Lake Como. On his grounds, living in a modest cabin, is one of the twentieth century’s most famous artists, an elderly man named Jerome Debney, who is played by Donald Sutherland. Debney shocked the art world by setting fire to his studio out of weariness with the art world and its critics. Since all his paintings were destroyed, Cassidy has hopes that Figueras can persuade Debney to do one last painting so as to cash in on its rarity—and hence its value.

I imagine that Bang was cast in this role since he was so great playing the shady director of a museum a lot like the Whitney in New York. It traffics in the questionable avant-garde, even more so than the Whitney. I reviewed the film in 2017 and invite you to see it now as VOD. It is fantastic.

“The Burnt Orange Heresy” is based on a novel by Charles Willeford, who died in 1988. I was not familiar with Willeford. Before he became a writer, he knocked around as a professional boxer, actor, horse trainer, and radio announcer. He was a noir novelist like James M. Cain who one critic described as the “genre’s equivalent of Philip K. Dick’s best science fiction novels.” That’s a pretty good recommendation.

Head’s up to trolls

Filed under: Trolls/stalkers — louisproyect @ 7:21 pm

I have made it clear in the past and will repeat it now. If you use a proxy server, you will get the boot. In the 15 years this blog has been in existence, I have had nothing but trouble with people using this technology. For some reason, using it brings out the worst in people. I have no idea why they bother since a regular IP address will not help me track you down in order to punch you in the nose. An IP address is as confidential as an unlisted telephone number.

In many blogs, you need a legitimate email address to post comments. WordPress.com does not allow this and it doesn’t pay to upgrade my blog to take advantage of it. Frankly, I don’t even care if you use some bullshit name and email address like “Janet Avery”. And I even care less if you come here to abuse me for living on the upper east side of Manhattan or whatever sick obsession you have. I am as thick-skinned as a rhinoceros. Just don’t USE A FUCKING PROXY SERVER.

Here, btw, is the report on the proxy IP address this jackass was using:

February 14, 2020

Marx, Lincoln and Project 1619

Filed under: Civil War,Counterpunch,Project 1619,slavery — louisproyect @ 2:23 pm

Victoria Woodhull: Spiritualist and leader of the first socialist international in the United States


It must have enraged the historians who signed Sean Wilentz’s open letter to the New York Times and their World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) allies to see Abraham Lincoln knocked off his pedestal. How insolent for Nikole Hannah-Jones to write in her introductory essay for Project 1619 that “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does the belief, so well articulated by Lincoln, that black people are the obstacle to national unity.” Lincoln was not only an iconic figure for the average American. Karl Marx admired him as well for his war on slavery. Since the primary goal of the critics of Project 1619 was to prioritize class over “identity”, naturally Karl Marx was just the authority to help make their case against the bourgeois New York Times intent on dividing the working-class.

Since the WSWS sets itself up as a Marxist gate-keeper par excellence, we can assume that the historians also had the Karl Marx-Abraham Lincoln in mind when they hooked up with the Trotskyist sect. James McPherson is probably the closest to WSWS ideologically, having granted them interviews over the years. When they asked him if he read Karl Marx’s writings on the Civil War, the historian replied, “Well, I think they have a lot of very good insight into what was going on in the American Civil War. Marx certainly saw the abolition of slavery as a kind of bourgeois revolution that paved the way for the proletarian revolution that he hoped would come in another generation or so. It was a crucial step on the way to the eventual proletarian revolution, as Marx perceived it.”

In this article, I will look critically at what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote about these questions. Although I have been a Marxist for 52 years, I have little patience with those who put him (or Lenin and Trotsky) on a pedestal. I believe that Nikole Hannah-Jones had good reasons to question his sanctity. More to the point, I will argue that Marx and Engels lacked the political foresight to see how black Americans would be short-changed after the Civil War. Keeping in mind that the first socialist international was located in the United States, we must examine its relationship to the newly emancipated black population. Based on my reading of Timothy Messer-Kruse’s “The Yankee International,” my conclusion is that it fell short.

Continue reading

February 12, 2020

The rancid politics of the Douma false-flag brigades

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

Medal of Freedom awardee and Syria false flagger speaks out

Almost a year ago, a group of pro-Assad academics in England organized as the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media and led by the odious Tim Hayward posted a report on their website written by former OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) employee Ian Henderson. It was a highly technical rebuttal to the official report, which concluded that dozens of Syrians living in Douma were killed by gas released from a weaponized chlorine tank dropped by a regime helicopter.

Delivered as a series of bullet points, Henderson’s report concluded:

  1. In summary, observations at the scene of the two locations, together with subsequent analysis, suggest that there is a higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered from aircraft.

“Manually placed” could have only meant one thing. Even though Henderson stopped short of stating it, the pro-Assad academics said it for him. This was a “false flag” intended to provoke American intervention. Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, they concluded that jihadis planted the chlorine tanks. Part of the conspiracy also involved killing dozens of Douma residents beforehand just to lend an air of realism to the staged event, like in a Hollywood film: “As we have previously noted, if the Douma attack was staged the only plausible explanation for the deaths of the victims is that they were murdered as captives by the opposition group in control of Douma at the time.” Most recently, one of Hayward’s henchmen went so far as to claim that they used a “gas chamber”. 

Eventually, another “whistleblower” turned up, an ex-OPCW employee first identified as “Alex”. He eventually turned out to be one Brendan Whelan. Like Henderson, Whelan stuck to the technical details that he presented to a conference organized by Wikileaks in October 2019. Wikileaks has also been posting leaked OPCW documents intended to absolve Assad of the Douma chemical attack. As part of the propaganda offensive by Wikileaks, an open letter was signed by former OPCW director José Bustani, Noam Chomsky and Richard Falk. They hoped that  their good names would help draw attention to “alternative hypotheses on how the alleged chlorine munitions came to be found in the two apartment buildings.” It is sad that these model citizens’ reputations will be stained forever by serving such filthy ends.

Grayzone has joined the British academic Assadists and Wikileaks in a tripartite propaganda campaign, posting and commenting on leaked material. As you probably know, Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton were well-known opponents of Assad but had a change of heart after Blumenthal had an all-expenses paid trip to Moscow for the purpose of celebrating RT’s anniversary. Once he returned, he started writing articles of the kind that he formerly denounced. Some people believe that he is getting paid by Russia to write propaganda. I have no proof one way or another.

Adding to these fairly high-profile outlets, there are other defenders of Assad who rally around the OPCW leaks. They include individuals like Jonathan Cook and Robert Fisk, as well as websites such as Mint Press, Off-Guardian, Consortium News and Moon of Alabama.

For the most part, the debate around Douma has been focused on technical issues such as whether there was forensic evidence of chlorine gas poisoning or whether the placement of the weaponized chlorine tanks was consistent with a helicopter attack or not. Much of it has been probably far too arcane for the average leftist to absorb. The best of it has originated from Eliot Higgins’s BellingCat or from Brian Whittaker’s articles on https://al-bab.com/. I have written a number of articles myself that are focused on the objective factors that make a false flag unlikely, such as the difficulty of securing weaponized chlorine tanks, but will take a look at Douma from a different angle today.

I want to show how the entire notion of a “false flag” runs counter to the agenda of the Trump administration that could care less about Syrians being gassed. In fact, Douma had been subject to three chlorine gas attacks in 2018 prior to the one that left over 40 people dead. Not a peep was heard from the White House before then. All told, there have been 336 chlorine gas attacks in Syria and 98 percent of them have been linked to the dictatorship.

Only once has the USA retaliated and that was after the attack on Douma in 2018, when Trump authorized a missile attack on buildings in Damascus that were supposedly part of its chemical weapons development program, as well as some air bases. Since chlorine can be purchased by practically anybody involved with sterilizing swimming pools and the like, the missile attack was mostly for show. The Economist reported that the USA contacted Russia in advance just to make sure that it didn’t become collateral damage. NBC News described it as an “empty gesture”, especially since the advance warning allowed the dictatorship to evacuate its war planes and helicopters to safety.

The propaganda offensive around Douma is based on the notion that Donald Trump is bent on “regime change”, whereas in fact he had zero interest in such a project. The only reason he retaliated after the Douma gas attack was to show that the USA was still capable of unleashing a well-orchestrated military offensive even if it was pulling its punches. The false-flaggers fail to acknowledge that Trump never had a problem with Baathist rule in Syria. Unlike George W. Bush, who was determined to topple it in Iraq, Trump never saw Syria as a threat to American interests except perhaps for Iran’s presence.

Keep in mind that Trump marched to the tune of a different drummer. Instead of listening to Max Boot or William Kristol, he was attuned to the commentary on Fox News that is for the most part on the same wave-length as Grayzone, et al. This should be obvious from the red-carpet treatment afforded Max Blumenthal during his appearances on Tucker Carlson’s show. But you might be surprised by how extensive sympathy for Assad was not only on Fox News but other rightwing media voices that Trump took to heart.

Just the other day, Trump awarded Rush Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom. I bet you didn’t know that Rush was a false-flagger in good standing. Here he is in 2013 (as shown in the YouTube clip above) blaming the rebels for using sarin gas on their own supporters in East Ghouta:

And then late last night, early this morning, I run across this piece by Yossef Bodansky. And I look him up, find out who he is, just shared his resume with you, and his story, his article here is that there is evidence, mounting evidence that the rebels in Syria did indeed frame Assad for the chemical attack. But not only that, that Obama, the regime, may have been complicit in it. Mounting evidence that the White House knew and possibly helped plan this Syrian chemical weapon attack by the opposition.

Just four days after the April 7, 2018 Douma attack, Ann Coulter called the experts who blamed Assad a bunch of liars.

Steve Doocy: shares the concerns of Grayzone, et al

Although the name Steve Doocy might not ring a bell, he is one of the hosts of Fox and Friends, the morning talk show that Trump starts his day with. Just a few days after the Douma chlorine attack, Doocy said, “I was reading this morning in Newsweek … that apparently this group called the White Helmets, … there are stories that they staged bodies to make it look like there was a gas attack.”

Glenn Beck, a former Fox TV star who went on to form his own media company called TheBlaze TV, was also caught in the act of  false-flagging. On April 17, 2018 his website posted an article titled “The war machine springs to life over Syria,” a title that sounds like it might have appeared on Grayzone. It stated:

Are these so-called “moderate rebels” morally capable of using poison gas on civilians, children especially? You bet they are. These are proven head-choppers, supported by the US, who have publicly posted numerous videos of themselves beheading children. Morals are not part of their framework or this war.

Plus, the gas war crime certainly serves their interest more than it does Assad’s at this time.

Between the two suspects, it’s far more likely that the increasingly desperate jihadists, who are clearly losing the fight at this point, would use any and every method at their employ to their advantage.

Finally, you have Michael Savage who is probably the most ardent supporter of Donald Trump on talk radio. He, like the others, drew the line on bombing Syria. Here he is in a scathing attack on what he called a “Potemkin raid”:

It was not just the Fox News talking heads that rejoiced in Trump’s repudiation of neoconservative-type warmongering. There were probably hundreds of articles from the left that saw him as a welcome departure from both George W. Bush and Barack Obama interventionism.

Gareth Porter, a perennial false-flagger, wrote an article for Middle East Eye titled “US intervention in Syria? Not under Trump” that was subtitled: “The Trump administration may recognise that the Syrian army is the only institution committed to resisting terrorism in its country.” Specifically:

The US military leadership was never on board with the policy of relying on those armed groups to advance US interests in Syria in the first place.

It recognised that, despite the serious faults of the Assad regime, the Syrian army was the only Syrian institution committed to resisting both al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

It seems likely that the Trump administration will now return to that point as it tries to rebuild a policy from the ashes of the failed policy of the Obama administration.

Dave Lindorff, a long-time contributor to CounterPunch with impeccable anti-imperialist credentials, chimed in as well with an article titled “Trump does something right for once”. It celebrated his announced withdrawal of 3,000 troops from Syria—a bit prematurely. But it did give him credit for at least making such an announcement that included this provocative encomium: “Hell, I’ll be the first to endorse him for a Nobel Peace Prize!”

Although American policy in Syria is still filled with contradictions, there is little doubt that Trump has given Putin carte blanche to have his way. Idlib is being bombed to oblivion, while the Max Blumenthal’s of the world are warning about American intervention being prepped by another false flag.

In yesterday’s Grayzone, there’s an article by the halfwit Aaron Maté that recapitulates all of the false flag themes that have been oozing out of the pores of the pro-Assad “left” for the past two years. One thing in particular caught my eye. He wrote:

Alex revealed that a delegation of three US officials visited the OPCW at The Hague on July 5th, 2018. They implored the dissenting inspectors to accept the view that the Syrian government carried out a gas attack in Douma and chided them for failing to reach that conclusion. According to Steele, Alex and the other inspectors saw the meeting as “unacceptable pressure.” In his statement to the UN Security Council, Henderson confirmed that he attended the meeting.

I mean, for fuck’s sake, they implored? Who authorized them to do so when clearly the Trump administration was well on its way to washing its hands of the entire resistance to Assad. A year before that delegation showed up at OPCW headquarters, Trump had cut off all funding to the rebels as the July 19, 2017 NY Times reported:

President Trump has ended the clandestine American program to provide arms and supplies to Syrian rebel groups, American officials said, a recognition that the effort was failing and that the administration has given up hope of helping to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The decision came more than a month ago, the officials said, by which time the effort to deliver the arms had slowed to a trickle.

It was never publicly announced, just as the beginnings of the program four years ago were officially a secret, authorized by President Barack Obama through a “finding” that permitted the C.I.A. to conduct a deniable program. News of the troublesome program soon leaked out.

In light of all the evidence that Trump has zero interest in a military intervention in Syria of the kind that Obama mounted in Libya, why do Wikileaks, Tim Hayward’s gang and Grayzone continue to act as if it is 2002 and Colin Powell is making speeches about WMD’s in Iraq? After 9 years of asymmetrical warfare in Syria that has included the bombing of hospitals, chemical attacks, the torture and murder of captive rebels by the thousands in Syrian prisons, the starvation siege of places like Aleppo and East Ghouta, these contemptuous apologists for mass murder like Max Blumenthal, Tim Hayward, and Julian Assange flunkies continue to act as if they are heroic antiwar activists and investigative journalists. In fact, they are swimming with the tide. The reality is that they are likely acting on the basest of motives that might include payoffs from the Kremlin and an intoxication with strongmen like Assad and Putin that only a psychiatrist could explain.

February 10, 2020

My NYFCO ballot for 2019

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:30 pm

New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) had its annual awards meeting on December 8, 2019. As is usually the case, my ballot and the membership majority were not quite aligned. You can check out their awards here, which agreed with the Academy Award’s choice of “Parasite” for best film of the year. I usually don’t pay much attention to awards since I don’t believe in competition but since someone on Facebook asked me what my nomination for best documentary was, I decided to post my ballot. (I told him that “American Factory” was not my first choice but defended it as a good film notwithstanding it being produced by the Obamas.)

New York Film Critics Online 2019 Awards Nomination Ballot

NAME: Louis Proyect

Breakthrough Performance (name actor/film)


  1. Adam Driver (Marriage Story)


  1. Taron Egerton (Rocketman)


  1. Adam Pearson (Chained for Life)


Supporting Actress (name actor/film)


  1. Laura Dern (Marriage Story)


  1. Jess Weixler (Chained for Life)


  1. Marziyeh Rezaei (Three Faces)


Supporting Actor (name actor/film)


  1. Joe Pesci (The Irishman)


  1. Jamie Bell (Rocketman)


  1. David Call (Depraved)


Screenplay (name film)


  1. The Irishman


  1. Marriage Story


  1. Chained for Life


Cinematography (name film)


  1. Arctic


  1. Joker


  1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


Use of Music (name film)


  1. Rocketman


  1. Joker


  1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


Debut Director (name directors/film)


  1. Joe Penna (Arctic)


  1. Adam Egypt Mortimer (Daniel Isn’t Real)


  1. A.B. Shawky (Yomeddine)


Director (name directors/film)


  1. Martin Scorsese (The Irishman)


  1. Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story)


  1. Aaron Schimberg (Chained for Life)


Actress (name actor/film)


  1. Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)


  1. Carlie Guevara (The Garden Left Behind)


  1. Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir (Woman at War)



Actor (name actor/film)


  1. Robert De Niro (The Irishman)


  1. Adam Driver (Marriage Story)


  1. Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)


Ensemble Cast (name film)


  1. Knives Out


  1. Bombshell


  1. The Wild Pear Tree


Picture (name film)


  1. The Irishman


  1. Marriage Story


  1. Three Faces


Foreign Language (name film)


  1. Woman at War


  1. Rojo


  1. Styx


Documentary (name film)


  1. The Cave


  1. For Sama


  1. The Biggest Little Farm


Animated Feature (name film)


  1. I Lost My Body


  1. Weathering With You





February 8, 2020

Eric Blanc’s ersatz socialism

Filed under: DSA,reformism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 10:56 pm

Eric Blanc

For those trying to keep track of the ongoing attempt to seduce American radicals into Democratic Party politics, Eric Blanc’s articles are essential. Unlike most of the people who write for Jacobin, Blanc got some intensive training in Marxism starting with his membership in Socialist Organizer, a tiny sect affiliated with the U.S. fraternal section of the Organizing Committee for the Re-constitution of the Fourth International. His next stop was the ISO, where he was likely in the vanguard of the group’s mass exodus into the DSA. Now, comfortably ensconced there, he is a member of the Bread and Roses caucus that takes pride in itself as the Marxist redoubt of the group hoping to Re-constitute social democracy in the USA.

On top of all this, he has been something of a disciple of Lars Lih who has written millions of words extolling Lenin while at the same time making it clear that he is not a socialist. This deep immersion in Marxist lore has seen Blanc come up with some very fresh ideas, especially on the role of borderland socialists and the evolution of Bolshevism on national liberation. More recently, and unfortunately, his erudition has mostly been used to promote voting for Democratic Party candidates as a tactical “dirty break”. Unlike the crude “lesser evil”, “stop the fascist threat” analysis perfected by the Communist Party, Blanc frames his arguments in neo-Kautskyist terms, even though, as his critics make clear, Kautsky was adamantly opposed to voting for liberals.

Blanc’s latest foray into DP apologetics is available in an article titled “From Meyer London to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez”. In analogizing the two politicians, he is once again using an ersatz version of socialist theory and history in the same manner as his “dirty break” article that made the case for socialists using the ballot line of the two capitalist parties in primaries. Historically, this coincided with SP leader Meyer London being elected to the House of Representatives without such gimmicks.

London never used this dubious tactic since at the time the SP had massive support. In Eugene V. Debs’s run for president in 1912, he got an astounding 6 percent of the vote. As for Meyer London, he was one of the only two SP’ers who were ever elected to Congress. The other was Victor Berger, who, like London, was a “sewer socialist” with politics akin to Eduard Bernstein. Why in this day and age of deep capitalist crisis with fascism on the march all over the planet would anybody look to someone like Meyer London as some kind of positive example? Beats me.

Blanc believes we should study London’s career because he proposed New Deal type reforms in Congress long before the New Deal. In Blanc’s words, he had “only a light commitment to Marxism…, believed in an evolutionary transition to socialism and wavered in his opposition to the First World War.”

Notwithstanding these political flaws, Meyer London was more dedicated to the working class movement than any Democrat. He was a strong ally of the garment workers in New York City and pushed for “comprehensive social insurance for all in the form of national health care, unemployment and disability insurance, and public works jobs programs.”

Of course, there is a yawning gulf between London and A. O-C, who is obviously intent on serving as a Democrat despite her lip-service to socialism. In the second half of his article, Blanc explains why this decision was forced on her.

There are no easy answers or simple formulas for how to proceed in today’s novel context. Given the relative weakness of the socialist movement, and the well-known obstacles to electing third-party candidates in the US, it made tactical sense for Ocasio-Cortez, like Sanders before her, to run on the Democratic Party ballot line. At the same time, elected socialists will ultimately need full political independence from the party establishment in order to advance their class-struggle agendas. We’ll eventually need a party of our own. Playing by the rules of the game has led all too many honest politicians to cover for, and bend to, a corporate-funded Democratic machine whose built-to-fail centrism led to our current Trump nightmare.

It was only after reading this subtle exercise in Marxoid casuistry a second time that it dawned on me what he was carefully eliding. Meyer London was a member of a party. He had to operate within its political guidelines in order to get its financial and organizational support for his election campaigns. In other words, his relationship to the SP was like that of any politician in the European Second International parties. With all proportions guarded, he and Berger operated as parliamentarians that were expected to carry forward their party’s program in the same way that they did in Kautsky’s SPD. In fact, the term “democratic centralism” did not originate in Russia. It originated in Germany long before “What is To Be Done”.

As Paul LeBlanc explains in “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party”, the term predates Lenin by many years and was first used in 1865 by J.B. Schweitzer, a Lassallean. Furthermore, in Russia it was first used by the Mensheviks at a November 1905 conference. In a resolution “On the Organization of the Party” adopted there, they agree that “The RSDLP must be organized according to the principle of democratic centralism.” A month later the Bolsheviks embraced the term at their own conference. A resolution titled “On Party Organization” states: “Recognizing as indisputable the principle of democratic centralism, the Conference considers the broad implementation of the elective principle necessary; and, while granting elected centers full powers in matters of ideological and practical leadership, they are at the same time subject to recall, their actions are given broad publicity, and they are to be strictly accountable for these activities.”

So, what in the hell does this have to do with today’s “democratic socialist” movement? Not only is Bernie Sanders not a member of the DSA; he doesn’t even encourage people to join. Basically, they and Jacobin operate as his fan club. He is free to say whatever he wants and when he says or does something clearly problematic, they are free to say “tut-tut” or rationalize it, as was the case with the Joe Rogan endorsement.

While they are not in the same kind of exalted position as Sanders, A. O-C and the “squad” pretty much have the same kind of latitude even if they are members (Ilhan Omar is not). They rely on the DSA to do the grunt work and once they are elected they use their own judgement when they vote or say something dumb. In a Left Voice article titled “Does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Represent the Politics of the DSA?”, we see how far she can stray from democratic socialism, a program that would likely exclude support for Israeli war crimes:

Ocasio-Cortez’s statements about replacing ICE with a more humane INS have already garnered criticism from her left supporters. But a major source of concern for DSAers was Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks on the occupation of Palestine. Pushed a bit by Margaret Hoover on Firing Line about a tweet in which she denounced the Land Day Massacre, Ocasio-Cortez said not only that she “believes absolutely in Israel’s right to exist,” but also that she “just looked at that incident [as] just an incident.” When asked about her use of the term “occupation,” she replied, “I’m a firm believer in finding a two-state solution on this issue, and I’m happy to sit down with leaders on both of these.”

Although my politics are much more aligned with Rosa Luxemburg than Karl Kautsky, I would be a lot more sympathetic to the DSA if it was aspiring toward Kautsky’s model. Instead, it is much more reminiscent of the Young Democrats I used to run into during the Vietnam antiwar movement. They came to meetings wearing Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern buttons, politicians they saw as being capable of returning the Democratic Party to its New Deal traditions. In exchange for passing out campaign literature, the young activists might be rewarded with an early end to the Vietnam War just as DSA’ers hope that the USA will be transformed into Sweden if Sanders is elected.


Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.