Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 27, 2020

Eric Blanc endorses Joe Biden

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,Kautsky,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 9:52 pm


Eric Blanc

The first time I came across Eric Blanc’s writing was in 2016, when his article “Anti-imperial Marxism” was making the rounds. It was an important contribution, arguing that the “lesser nationalities” of the Czarist empire played a far more important role than had been acknowledged. Since I had been making the case for Ukrainian self-determination ever since the Euromaidan protests began in 2013, I was glad to see this:

While Iskra tended to assume that national consciousness and national movements would get weaker as capitalist development and proletarian struggle advanced, other Marxist currents believed that that the opposite would prove to be the case. Kelles-Krauz of the PPS argued in 1899 for the relevance of the fight for Ukrainian independence on the following grounds: “Economic evolution and the class struggle will give rise to—or revive—national sentiment, above all to the Ruthenians [Ukrainians], who will without a doubt create their own remarkable socialist movement.” Seeing the emergence of proletarian-separatist movements in the borderlands as key to the overthrow of tsarism, the PPS supported the Ukrainian socialist movement and advocated an independent Ukraine. When the Iskraist theoretical journal Zaria declared that it would be “strange” to demand political autonomy for “Little Russians” (Ukrainians) because they “do not need it,” the PPS replied that this was a “matter whose decision must be unconditionally left to the concerned nationalities themselves.”

Since most on the left equated Ukrainian national aspirations with fascism, it was reassuring to see at least one Marxist beside me, and a young one at that, willing to break with the consensus.

My first reaction to his next article on “Lessons from Finland’s 1917 revolution” was positive since it seemed to be in the same vein. Like Ukraine, Finland was under Czarist domination. I had no idea that Finland was part of the post-1917 revolutionary upsurge but was willing to take Blanc at his word:

Tsarism’s overthrow in February 1917 unleashed a revolutionary wave that immediately engulfed all of Russia. Perhaps the most exceptional of these insurgencies was the Finnish Revolution, which one scholar has called “Europe’s most clear-cut class war in the twentieth century.”

To my surprise, some Marxists found fault with his article, including one who I had a high regard for, namely Duncan Hart, a member of Socialist Alternative in Australia. In his critique of Blanc’s article, Hart takes issue with Blanc’s claim that the revolution led by Social Democrats “confirms the traditional view of revolution espoused by Karl Kautsky; through patient class-conscious organization and education, socialists won a majority in parliament, leading the Right to dissolve the institution, which in turn sparked a socialist-led revolution.” Hart saw the social democrats as putting a brake on the revolutionary process and thus helping to abort it.

I didn’t pay close attention either to Blanc’s article or to Hart’s rejoinder but the notion that, in Blanc’s words, the revolution confirmed “the traditional view of revolution espoused by Karl Kautsky” might have made me wonder where he was going politically. I only knew Kautsky’s writings as a didactic and fairly useful introduction to historical materialism but never considered him to be much of a revolutionary strategist, especially after 1917.

It soon became painfully clear to me that Blanc had become a disciple of Lars Lih, who has made a career out of scholarship that sought to prove that Kautsky was the ideological guiding light of the Russian revolution. This involved debunking the idea that the April Theses were a break with the traditional Bolshevik belief that a “revolutionary dictatorship” in Russia would prevail over capitalist property relations for an extended period.

Lih introduced these ideas in a 2011 article titled “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context” that appeared in Russian History, a peer-reviewed journal behind a JSTOR paywall. He followed up with a Jacobin article the same year titled “Questioning October” that sought to knock Leon Trotsky off his pedestal:

Back in the 1905–6 (the story goes), Leon Trotsky came up with his theory of permanent revolution and pronounced socialist revolution to be possible in backward Russia. Since his theory attacked the unimaginative dogmas of “Second International Marxism,” Trotsky was greeted with universal incomprehension. Fortunately, just in time, Lenin saw the light and caught up with Trotsky in April 1917. Together the two great leaders rearmed the Bolshevik Party, thus making the glorious October Revolution possible.

It took a couple of years following Blanc’s assertion that the Finnish revolution confirmed Kautsky’s Marxism to pen his own paean to Kautsky in Jacobin titled “Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)”. As someone who might have written something along these lines on behalf of Trotsky fifty years ago, it seemed strange to see the same type of hero worship. Kautsky wrote some useful articles but he never belonged on a pedestal, nor did Trotsky for that matter.

For Blanc, Kautsky was the ultimate antidote to the widespread belief in insurrection on the left:

Even at his most radical, Kautsky rejected the relevance of an insurrectionary strategy within capitalist democracies. His case was simple: the majority of workers in parliamentary countries would generally seek to use legal mass movements and the existing democratic channels to advance their interests. Technological advances, in any case, had made modern armies too strong to be overthrown through uprisings on the old nineteenth-century model of barricade street fighting. For these reasons, democratically elected governments had too much legitimacy among working people and too much armed strength for an insurrectionary approach to be realistic.

When I read this, I wondered how Blanc could have gone so wrong. Insurrectionary? I don’t recall the SWP ever using such a term and that was a group that was rife with ultraleft tendencies when I joined. Not long after reading his article, I pointed out that he had knocked down a straw man:

If this is not the stupidest thing I have read from a preeminent Marxist, I can’t imagine anything surpassing it. I am afraid that Blanc has Marx confused with Blanqui because what he describes above is Blanquism pure and simple. Louis Auguste Blanqui was a 19th century socialist who was a fearless opponent of both the bourgeoisie and the landed gentry but, unlike Marx, did not believe in mass action. He was an advocate of small, armed groups acting on behalf of the working class, a strategy that became known as Blanquism.

Insurrection is a loaded term, especially when applied to October, 1917. Keep in mind that there was zero barricade fighting in the weeks prior to the assault on the Winter Palace. Of course, the Mensheviks described the seizure of power as a coup since they considered the Constituent Assembly as the proper vehicle of working class struggle rather than the Soviets. Clearly, the logic of Blanc’s neo-Kautskyism would be to look back at the orientation to the Soviets rather than the Constituent Assembly as an act that legitimized the “old nineteenth century model of barricade street fighting”.

Although Eric Blanc has not written anything describing his ideological journey, I am generally under the impression that it follows this trajectory. As a red diaper baby, he joined Socialist Organizer, a tiny sect led by his father Alan Benjamin. From there he moved on to the ISO, but it is difficult to ascertain whether he was a member or a fellow traveler. He did write an article about Stalinism for them in 2017 but, other than that, there’s not much of a paper trail. What is apparent, however, is, if he was a member, he was certainly close to the faction that sought to dissolve the ISO and join the blissful caravan into the DSA.

It is as a DSA member and a regular Jacobin contributor that Blanc became a leading theorist of neo-Kautskyism, a bid to make the orientation to the Democratic Party consistent with Marxist orthodoxy. Even perhaps as an ISO member, Blanc argued in 2017  that a “dirty break” might be a useful tool to help build the revolutionary movement in the USA. This meant socialists using the Democratic Party ballot line as a clever trick to get a hearing and maybe even elected.

In “Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)”, Blanc connected the dots between Kautsky’s Marxism and the dirty break, linking “ballot line” to his earlier article:

First, moving away from dogmatic assumptions about the generalizability of the 1917 model should help socialists abandon other political dogmas, including on pressing issues such as how to build a Marxist current and whether it’s okay to ever use the Democratic Party ballot line. Though there are still many positive lessons to be learned from Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution, the era of building small groups each dedicated to defending their particular conception of Leninist continuity is thankfully over.

Once he immersed himself in the DSA political culture, the references to Kautsky began to disappear, especially in the heat of the Sanders campaign that had Blanc positively giddy with excitement. In October 2019, he wrote:

Political openings like this don’t arise very often — we need to seize the moment to rebuild working-class power by leaning on the Bernie campaign to elevate labor militancy and rebuild an organized socialist Left rooted in the multiracial working class.

Did it matter that Sanders was hardly an example of a “dirty break” or that his notion of socialism was bringing back the New Deal? Of course not. This was long before Sanders got clobbered in the South Carolina primary and it was easy for Jacobin and DSA to have rose-colored fantasies about a Sanders presidency.

Once Sanders was eliminated and became a fervent supporter of Biden, who he unaccountably described as the most progressive DP candidate since FDR, it was necessary for DSA/Jacobin leaders to reconcile their soft left perspectives with the vote of the DSA convention to support no other DP presidential candidate than Bernie Sanders. At the time of the convention, that prospect seemed realistic.

Now, just a week before the election, Blanc has joined the Biden club just like Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Barbara Ehrenreich and every other old fart that has ever spoken at a Left Forum plenary session. This is the kind of “socialism” that is indistinguishable from the McGovern wing of the Democratic Party, except for the empty invocation of the term.

Blanc is a member of the Bread and Roses caucus of DSA that generally hews to Jacobin editorial talking points. He has co-authored a piece with Neal Meyer titled “This Time Is Different: Socialists and The Lesser Evil” that is identical to what you’d read in The Nation or any other liberal magazine. Since calling for a vote for Biden is so contrary not only to his past ortho-Marxist convictions but to his own caucus’s vote for a Sanders-only campaign for President, he and Meyer have to dig deep into the most obscure crevices of Bolshevik history:

And contrary to what some on the Left seem to assume, there is no timeless principle dictating that socialists can never lend critical support to a capitalist candidate. Even Lenin at times advocated that his comrades vote for liberals to prevent a far-right electoral victory, arguing in 1907 that “when a socialist really believes in a Black-Hundred danger and is sincerely combating it — he votes for the liberals without any bargaining.” Similarly, the Bolsheviks’ 1912 electoral strategy gave the green light to common lists and electoral agreements with liberals to prevent the election of right-wingers to the State Duma.

I’ve heard these arguments before but not from Blanc. Instead, they were voiced by Mike Ely, the founder of the now-defunct Kasama Project, an attempt to build something like Bob Avakian’s RCP but without the cult leadership. Ely, a Maoist, did not go around defending a vote for a DP candidate but maybe he had that in the back of his mind when he “corrected” me for insisting that Lenin never advocated voting for a capitalist party, particularly the Cadets.

This was my reply to Ely, who vanished into obscurity, 10 years ago:

Since many people who read and comment on Kasama have a “Marxist-Leninist” past, it is not surprising that one person asked “Didn’t Lenin talk about participation in legal elections too?” It should be understood that in such circles, Lenin’s imprimatur will count as much as the Pope’s for Catholics. It should also be understood that there is an unfortunate amalgam made during the entire discussion on Kasama between “electoral work” and supporting the Democrats. The two really have to be separated, in my opinion.

I tried to put Lenin’s position in context:

The peculiar condition was the continuing ability of the parties of the Second International and British Labour to draw working-class votes in the 1920s. Lenin advocated that the Comintern parties urge a vote for their candidates in order to get a hearing from such voters, understanding that once they got elected they would sell out–thus helping to persuade workers to join the CP. In any case, this had nothing to do with supporting bourgeois parties like the Democrats in the USA. For people who want to understand how Lenin regarded such parties, go to the Marxism Internet Archives and do a search on “Cadet” within Lenin. This, after all, was the major difference between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks: how to understand bourgeois liberalism. It is regrettable that a century after these debates took place, ostensible revolutionaries are dusting off Menshevik arguments.

This led Mike Ely to correct me: “actually there were situations in the Duma elections where the Bolsheviks would support Cadets against the Black hundreds.”

Now this was not the first time I heard such a claim. Back in November 2008, just around the time that Obama was in all his glory, one Marxmail subscriber cited an article by Lenin from 1912 that advocated blocs with “bourgeois democrats”. But he did not realize that Lenin was referring to the SR’s and not the Cadets.

When I asked Mike Ely to document his claim, he cited a book written by a Bolshevik deputy A.E. Badaev. Titled “Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma”, it seemed to support his claim:

The Bolsheviks thought it necessary to put up candidates in all workers’ curias and would not tolerate any agreements with other parties and groups, including the Menshevik-Liquidators. They also considered it necessary to put up candidates in the so-called “second curiae of city electors” (the first curiae consisted of large property owners and democratic candidates had no chance there at all) and in the elections in the villages, because of the great agitational value of the campaign. But in order to safeguard against the possible victory of reactionary candidates, the Bolsheviks permitted agreements respectively with the bourgeois democrats (Trudoviks, etc.) against the Liberals, and with the Liberals against the government parties during the second ballot for the election of electors in the city curias.

Well, that seemed pretty solid evidence for a Lenin who the Committees of Correspondence could love. A “practical” kind of guy who could urge a vote for the Obamas of his day against the really scary Black Hundreds, the Sarah Palins of Czarist Russia.

This was worth checking out. Although I don’t think it is very useful to base one’s politics in 2010 on what Lenin or A.E. Badaev wrote in 1912, as an amateur Lenin scholar I was curious to figure out what was going on. So I assiduously searched through Badaev’s book looking for more detail on the “agreements” between the Bolsheviks and the Cadets but could only come up with items like this that are hardly redolent of Carl Davidson’s popular front maneuvers:

Despite their failure on the question of chairman [a reference to an invitation from the Cadets to the left parties to support their nomination], within the next few days the Cadets made another attempt to draw the Social-Democratic faction into some agreement. They invited our fraction to a joint meeting of the “united opposition” to discuss certain bills which were being drafted by the Cadet fraction. In reply to this invitation the Social-Democratic fraction passed a resolution stating that they would undertake no joint work with the Cadets, that the Cadets were essentially counter-revolutionary and that no friendly relations were possible between them and the party of the working-class.

So I scratched my head and tried to figure out which Badaev was the true one, the one who Mike Ely cited or the one that comes across repeatedly throughout the rest of the book like an early version of Glenn Ford or Paul Street? It reminded me a bit of that old television show “To Tell the Truth”. Would the real A.M. Badaev please stand up?  I decided to reread the citation that Mike Ely found so convincing for the 12th time. Maybe there was something I was not getting.

Finally, I figured it out.

Badaev wrote:

with the Liberals against the government parties during the second ballot for the election of electors in the city curias.

The election of electors? What was an elector? I felt that this was the key to unraveling the mystery of Bolshevik “agreements” or blocs with the Cadets, the “bitter enemies” of the Black Hundreds in the same way that the Democrats are toward the Republicans. Ha-ha-ha.

You have to understand that the Czar set up a Duma on pretty much the same basis as our electoral college, in order to preempt the will of the people. You did not vote directly for Bolshevik, Trudovik, Black Hundred or Cadet candidates. Instead you had to vote for electors who came from four different “curiae”, or electoral groups: the landowners, urban middle class, peasants and workers. So the Bolsheviks came to an agreement with the Cadets not on a common electoral slate, but on who should be an elector. In some ways, this reminded me of all the flak that Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo got in 2008 when they used the ballot designation in some states that had belonged to a 3rd party that originated out of the Pat Buchanan campaign. You would have to be daft to accuse them of supporting Pat Buchanan’s politics, even though of course there were plenty of nuts who did, starting with the Demogreens, Eric Alterman et al.

Now I would be willing to be persuaded that Badaev was actually referring to political agreements between the Bolsheviks and the Cadets, but I would not hold my breath waiting–especially in light of the long and unambiguous record of Lenin’s hostility to the Cadets at all times and under all circumstances.

Although I don’t think it is very useful to base one’s electoral strategy on Lenin’s writings and prefer to understand our problems in terms of what Eugene V. Debs said (“I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don’t want, and get it”), I do think that there are some similarities between the challenges Lenin faced and what we face today. In December 31, 1906, Lenin wrote an article titled “The Attitude of the Bourgeois Parties and of the Workers’ Party to the Duma Elections” that strikes me as sounding quite contemporary. Lenin wrote:

Hence, the whole of the Cadets’ election campaign is directed to frightening the masses with the Black-Hundred danger and the danger from the extreme Left parties, to adapting themselves to the philistinism, cowardice and flabbiness of the petty bourgeois and to persuading him that the Cadets are the safest, the most modest, the most moderate and the most well-behaved of people. Every day the Cadet papers ask their readers: Are you afraid, philistine? Rely on us! We are not going to frighten you, we are opposed to violence, we are obedient to the government; rely on us, and we shall do everything for you “as far as possible”! And behind the backs of the frightened philistines the Cadets resort to every trick to assure the government of their loyalty, to assure the Lefts of their love of liberty, to assure the Peaceful Renovators of their affinity with their party and their election forms.

No enlightenment of the masses, no agitation to rouse the masses, no exposition of consistent democratic slogans— only a haggling for seats behind the backs of the frightened philistines—such is the election campaign of all the parties of the liberal bourgeoisie, from the non-party people (of Tovarishch) to the Party of Democratic Reforms.

Substitute the words Democratic Party for Cadets and you pretty much get an idea of why there is non-stop and hysterical chatter about the Tea Party from MSNBC, the Nation Magazine, and all the other ideological heirs of the Cadets and their best friends on the left at that time, the Mensheviks whose spineless reformism is apparently alive and well.

October 25, 2020

Three political films on-demand

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

With very little coverage in either the capitalist or left media, “The Man Who Mends Women” is a wake-up call to what is one of the greatest assaults on human rights today, the assaults on women in the remote eastern hinterlands of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, once known as Zaire. The subject of the documentary is Doctor Denis Mukwege, who received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2014 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for his struggle against sexual violence. He has provided free treatment to 46,000 sexually abused women in twenty years of professional practice.

Although the film does not take a political stance as such, it cannot but help point out that Hutu fighters and refugees fleeing the Tutsi reconquest of Rwanda have wreaked havoc in the peasant villages of South Kivu, a region in the DRC just west of Rwanda. Unlike the case of ISIS raping Yazidi women out of some warped commitment to Wahhabist beliefs, there is little evidence of Hutu depravity flowing from ideology. Instead, it simply appears that hatred of women motivates these soldiers to victimize women in the most sadistic fashion. Much of the film tracks Mukwege in the operating room where he is trying to surgically repair a young woman who had a bayonet stuck up her vagina.

Made in 2015 by a team of French filmmakers sympathetic to Denis Mukwege’s work, “The Man Who Mends Women” is not easy to take. Nonetheless, it is an important film to watch since it will give you some insights into the misery of a country that is potentially the richest in Africa. There is a fleeting reference to the extraction of cobalt that is essential to the manufacture of iPhones.

In a 2017 article, Vox pointed out the incestuous relationship between Apple and a Chinese company that suggests the spirit of King Leopold still hovers over the Congo:

Reports that major corporations such as Apple, Sony, and Samsung use cobalt sourced from so-called “artisanal” mines — small-scale mines where workers use the most basic tools — with little to no labor regulations in the DRC have come out for years. The Sky News investigation found children as young as 4 years old working in the mines, crippling health issues linked to fumes, and pay equivalent to around a dime for a day’s worth of backbreaking labor.

One of the most prominent players in the flow of cobalt from Africa to manufacturers in Asia is Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Company. The Chinese company is the largest buyer of artisanal cobalt in the DRC and supplies most of the world’s biggest battery makers, including Apple.

While Doctor Mukwege sticks mostly to medicine and human rights, it is clear that he understands the economic plight of his nation. He refers to it as a jewelry store without any security guards.

The film can be rented from ArtMattan, its distributor.

In 1972, when the 60s radicalization was still going strong, 10,000 African-Americans met in Gary, Indiana for the National Black Political Convention. On hand for the event, the Black documentary filmmaker William Greaves made “NationTime” that until now was only available as a heavily-edited 60-minute version. The full 80-minute film is now available from Kino-Lorber and owes it existence to a serendipitously discovery in a warehouse in Gary in 2018.

Greaves made more than 200 documentary films in a long and distinguished career. In the 1960s, he was the executive producer of Black Journal, a PBS show that was far more radical than anything that can be seen there today. In his spare time, he made experimental films like “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” that NY Times critic Manohla Dargis called “highly entertaining and, at moments, revelatory about filmmaking as a site of creative tension between individual vision and collective endeavor”. The film can be seen for free on Youtube.

“NationTime” is done in cinéma vérité style. With his camera trained on men and women making speeches as well as participants networking in the lobby during breaks, you get a bare-bones introduction to one of the most promising political developments from my generation. There’s a fiery speech by Jesse Jackson basically calling for Blacks to get a bigger share of the pie but the most politically powerful one is by Mayor Richard Hatcher who in welcoming the throng made a powerful case for a Black political party. He said that the black vote could no longer be counted on and that a new party would not only serve black interests but those of left-out America, from Latinos to young white radicals.

It is tragic that nothing came of this. If you listen to the speeches carefully, especially Jackson’s, you’ll come away with the conclusion that the convention was meant to extract concessions and not much else. I recommend Lee Sustar’s article in Socialist Worker newspaper, where he writes:

The illusion of Black unity was destroyed at the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., on March 10-12, 1972. Attended by over 8,000 people, the convention marked the first large-scale gathering of the various currents in Black politics: radical nationalists, cultural nationalists, socialists, Maoists and Black Democratic elected officials. The conference was hosted by Hatcher, one of the Black elected officials whose numbers had risen fourfold to 1,860 between 1967 and 1971.

The promises of continued support for the Democrats were not enough to stop a walkout by the convention’s Michigan delegation. These delegates, many of whom were NAACP leaders and trade union officials, were worried that any association with the National Black Political Agenda would damage their relationship to the Michigan Democratic Party.

Ironically, both the failure of the National Black Political Convention and the International Socialist Organization to sustain a long-term oppositional posture is a sign of how difficult it is to withstand pressures on the left in the most backward industrialized country in the world.

“The Radium Girls” is a narrative film about the young women who painted the dials on glow-in-the-dark wristwatches in the 1920s. Like “NationTime”, it can be rented from Kino-Lorber.

Set in New Jersey, its main characters are Italian-American sisters who worked for many such companies at that time, earning a penny a for each dial they painted. Bessie Cavallo (Joey King) is always getting bad job reviews because she doesn’t put a fine point on her brush by licking it. The foreman lectures her about the sloppy work. Meanwhile her sister Josephine (Abby Quinn) makes the grade because she, like most of the women, follows company rules. They had another sister named Marie who also worked at the plant until she died a couple of years earlier. The cause, according to a company doctor, was syphilis—the false diagnosis they used to avoid lawsuits.

After Josephine starts showing the same symptoms as Marie, Bessie looks for help. The only person willing to spend time and energy to find out what’s wrong with her sister is Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), a Communist Party member who also has a romantic interest. Walt introduces her to a woman working for a nonprofit defending women’s rights on the job as well as social events thrown by the party. Bessie is anxious to get help from the leftists on how to make the company pay for its willful neglect but not so much about proletarian revolution.

The film is worth seeing but there are some artistic decisions that undercut its power. To start with, there is a saccharine film score that hardly meshes with the deadly subject matter. Just as wrong-headed was the decision to give the film a flowery, pastel-shaded look with costumes and homes looking like something out of Masterpiece Theater or Merchant-Ivory rather than the lives of women making a penny a product in a factory.

Other than that, the film is fairly faithful to the history. This is not the first film made about the grandmother of all occupational hazard stories. According to Wikipedia, there have been over twenty fictional accounts of the Radium Girls story, including one that is real eye-opener. Titled “Nothing Sacred”, this 1937 screwball comedy was written by Ben Hecht with input from Budd Schulberg, Ring Lardner Jr., Dorothy Parker, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman.

“Nothing Sacred” is about a radium girl named Hazel Flagg who is supposed to be dying. A reporter goes to interview her. But when he tracks her down, she is distraught to have learned from her doctor that she is not dying. She despairs from the prospect that she might be stuck in Vermont for the rest of her life. Screwball comedy indeed. See for yourself on YouTube.

October 23, 2020

The Return of the Chicago Seven

Filed under: Counterpunch,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 1:17 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, OCTOBER 23, 2020

Looking back at the choices I made, I often rue the 11 years I wasted in the SWP. While other people from my generation like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were having fun, I was something of a worker bee. I remember one cold and drizzly night in September 1967, when I was with a team of comrades wheat-pasting posters on Broadway between 59th and 96th streets for the October demonstration in Washington. Just after we finished, the cops told us to take them all down. Our only reward was seeing a massive turnout that included Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Hoffman and Rubin trying to levitate the Pentagon. During the trial of the Chicago 7, Hoffman used his puckish sense of humor to make prosecutor Richard Schultz look foolish as he tried to make an amalgam between this stunt and the charge of fomenting a riot in August 1968. When Schultz asked Hoffman to explain why he urinated on the Pentagon that day, you could not help but laugh at the exchange.

After having seen Adam Sorkin’s Netflix docudrama and one that aired on HBO in 1987, I can’t remember which film recreated this exchange. What I can remember, however, is the significant political differences between the two, as well as my take on the Chicago protests and the ensuing trial at the time. The seven men on trial were committed to the politics of the spectacle, to put it in DeBordian terms. By the summer of 1968, Dellinger et al. had grown frustrated with the failure of the mass demonstrations to end the war. They believed that “resistance” was necessary as a tantrum by several thousand young people could force the warmakers into withdrawing from South Vietnam. On December 29, 1968, SWP leader Fred Halstead debated Jerry Rubin over “What Policy for the Antiwar Movement.” The Militant newspaper carried excerpts from Rubin’s speech:

The war in Vietnam will be stopped when the embarrassment of carrying on the war becomes greater than the embarrassment of admitting defeat. A lot of things embarrass America. A lot of things embarrass a country so dependent on image: Youth alienation, campus demonstrations and disruptions, peace candidates, underground railroads of draft dodgers to Canada, trips to banned countries, thousands of people giving their middle finger to the Pentagon over national television …

The long-haired beasts, smoking pot, evading the draft and stopping traffic during demonstrations is a hell of a more threat to the system than the so-called politico with leaflets of support for the Vietcong and the coming working-class revolution. Politics is how you live your life, not who you vote for or who you support . . .

Only seven months later, the Chicago Seven led actions based on these premises. Unsurprisingly, the war continued despite the embarrassment generated by the police riots and the kangaroo court that the two documentaries depicted.

Continue reading

October 22, 2020

Noam Chomsky jumps the shark on Syria

Filed under: Chomsky,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:51 pm

One might say that Noam Chomsky can be excused for stupidity since he is now 91 and clearly a victim of the aging process, as are eventually all of us. However, when it comes to Syria, he has speaking foolishly since 2015. I say “speaking” since he seems to have the lost the ability to write substantive articles. Most of the pearls of wisdom are plucked from interviews with his fans at myriad websites. Like fellow professor emeritus Stephen F. Cohen, whose “articles” in The Nation were transcribed from chats with far-right WABC personality John Bachelor, anything “written” by Chomsky is a transcription.

The first sign that not all was right was an interview he gave at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics in 2015.

You’ll find him saying that Russian intervention in Syria could not be considered imperialism because Assad invited him in. With that benchmark, the American intervention in Vietnam was not imperialism either, since it was “invited” in by the South Vietnamese government. He condemns Saudi Arabia for supporting “the jihadi movement” but doesn’t bother to consider the Iranian and Hizbollah intervention since ostensibly their Shi’ite fundamentalism is benign. Like many on the left, including me, Chomsky was speaking against American intervention. It’s too bad that he reduced everybody opposed to Assad as inevitably coming under the authority of “jihadis”. Perhaps if the CIA had not intervened in 2012 to block the shipment of MANPAD’s to the FSA, the rebels would have been a position to create a new government that met with Chomsky’s approval.

Two years later, after Assad’s air force used a sarin gas missile in Khan Sheikhoun that killed 92 people, Chomsky stuck his foot in his mouth again. Speaking at UMass Amherst on April 13, he told the gathering that “actually we don’t [know what happened]”. He invoked Theodore Postol, whom he regarded as “one of the most sophisticated and successful analysts of military strategic issues”. He was satisfied that Postol had reviewed the White House Intelligence Report “in detail” and tore it “to shreds.”

It turns out that Postol turned in an article expanding on his initial reaction to Khan Sheikhoun to a journal titled Science & Global Security, upon whose editorial board he sits. After doing the peer review that such journals must follow, they decided to reject it. A statement on their website states:

To ensure the high standards of editorial control, integrity, and rigor that this journal has always sought to maintain, we conducted an independent internal review of the editorial process for this manuscript. This review identified a number of issues with the peer-review and revision process. As a result, the editors have decided to withhold the publication of this article to examine whether the editors can rectify the problems that we identified.

One doubts that this matters much to Chomsky since his esteem for Postol transcends scholarly norms, especially when it comes to the nasty jihadis in Khan Sheikhoun. Why bother getting upset over 92 of their supporters being gassed to death, when they might have received funding from Saudi Arabia.

More recently, Chomsky has gotten involved with “investigations” proving that the chlorine gas attack in Douma in 2018 was a “false flag”. 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.

In a recent gaffe-filled interview with Grayzone’s Aaron Maté, he tries to take the high ground as a free speech absolutist and anti-imperialist. Grayzone has published numerous articles absolving Assad and Chomsky seemed happy to carry their water. In the interview, Chomsky was indignant that the UN Security Council voted against hearing testimony from José Bustani, the former head of the OPCW who has joined the Wikileaks Douma “false flag” brigade.

Chomsky saw a pattern here. There was a nefarious conspiracy to silence whistleblowers who, after all, were only corroborating what an expert in the region had already established. Chomsky told Maté, “Well what happened certainly arouses very severe suspicions. The OPCW came out with a report blaming Syria for a chemical attack. Reporters like Robert Fisk and others thought it was pretty shady at the time, but didn’t know.”

Actually, it was Fisk’s reporting that was shady and it only shows how out of touch Chomsky was to uphold it. Richard Hall, a former editor at the Independent, where Fisk’s reporting appears, took to Twitter to debunk Fisk’s reporting:

Robert Fisk is allowed access to Douma before OCPW inspectors are allowed in. Doesn’t speak to any witnesses of the attack, only a doctor who didn’t see it, but says everyone “knows what happened.”

Fisk seems perplexed why victims of the attack did not hang around in Douma when the government took over the area. And doesn’t seriously deal with the fact that those who stayed behind might not be able to speak freely.

Fisk is among a handful of journalists given regular access by Syrian government. He and others are shepherded in on minded trips when it is useful for the government. Journalists who do make it in and write something that counters the government narrative are not allowed back.

Fisk notes in his piece that he was granted access to the site before chemical weapons inspectors. As were a number of other journalists who — let’s be generous here — toe the government line. That feels like an attempt to muddy the waters ahead of an independent investigation.

As for Douma itself, the whole notion of a “false flag” can only be maintained by assuming a scenario that defies reason. If you believe that bearded bad guys manually placed chlorine tanks in a Douma apartment building on April 7, 2018, you must be able to answer such questions:

  • If the Jaish el-Islam (the Army of Islam that controlled Douma) was capable of weaponizing chlorine gas tanks, why wouldn’t they have used them in confrontations with Assad’s military especially since it was closing in on them in 2018? According to Tobias Schneider and Theresa Lütkefend of the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute, there have been 336 chemical weapons attacks in Syria since 2012. They attribute two percent of them to ISIS and all the rest to the dictatorship. A search in Nexis for “chlorine & attack & Syria” in Lexis-Nexis will return 5,404 articles sorted by relevance. After a review of the first twenty-five, I found not a single one referring to rebel usage. You’re welcome to work your way through the remaining 5,379.
  • Procuring chlorine tanks might have been relatively easy, but how could Jaish el-Islam construct the fins, harness, axis, and wheels that are necessary for both loading into and then dropping them from helicopters? If you are going to frame Assad, you’d better be in a position to replicate the weapon he has been using for at least five years. Would Henderson and Alex argue that the pictures of the two weaponized chlorine tanks seen in the OPCW report were photoshopped? If not, how do you construct the fins, harness, axis and wheels from scratch? Did Jaish el-Islam make them in a machine shop? As someone with a night school diploma in lathe and milling machine from my days colonizing industry, I can tell you that this is not an easy task during constant bombardment and electrical blackouts.
  • The Jaish el-Islam had to use a pneumatic drill or sledgehammers to create large holes in concrete ceilings or find apartments that had them already. If the apartment already had a hole, what accounted for the rubble on the floor beneath it? And what about the attention such tools would draw during a heavy-duty penetration of concrete ceilings? The racket would be enough to awaken the dead. Furthermore, what would their neighbors make of them hauling 300-pound chlorine tanks to the building and up the stairs? Clunkety-clunkety-clunk. Anybody spotting them would figure out that they were up to no good, especially since Douma tenement buildings were not likely to have rooftop swimming pools in need of sterilization.
  • To make sure that the forty to fifty people who were to become sacrificial lambs in this unlikely false flag operation, the Jaish el-Islam had to prevent them from fleeing from the bottom floors, where they had taken refuge. But what if they tried to flee the minute chlorine gas was detected? If anybody escaped, wouldn’t they finger Jaish el-Islam ? How would Jaish el-Islam not lose all support immediately? The Jaish el-Islam might have been authoritarian, but it was not about to risk its reputation killing innocent civilians, especially those they were supposed to be protecting. Groups like the Jaish el-Islam were not the same as ISIS, after all. In Idlib today, there are frequent protests against hard-core Islamist groups. Less than a month ago, hundreds of people in Idlib protested against the self-proclaimed National Salvation Government, an affiliate of the Jaish el-Islam . Not a single person was injured or killed. By the standards of Baathist or ISIS rule, they are enjoying freedoms that remain as tangible gains of the revolution that began in 2011.

I tried to raise these questions with Chomsky in an email. He showed zero interest in engaging with the problems raised by a false flag. Back in 1967, he wrote an article in the NY Review of Books titled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”. It was about how subservient intellectual culture was to power. I guess when the power is Russian or Syrian, it’s not as bad as if it was American. Here he is, now in his 90s, chatting it up with Grayzone, some of the most rapacious and cynical supporters of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping on the left. Grayzone goes so far as to deny repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This would disqualify them in my eyes for an interview. Maybe Noam’s standards are lower than mine, despite his infinite self-regard.

Maybe Chomsky should reread “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” to get his head straightened out. It’s never too late.

October 19, 2020

The Big Scary “S” Word

Filed under: DSA,Film,Jacobin,reformism — louisproyect @ 9:44 pm

A half-century ago when our horizons seemed unlimited, Socialist Workers Party members were delighted to see a movie about our party shown at Oberlin College, where our yearly conferences took place. It was directed by party member (or perhaps fellow-traveler) Nick Castle whose Wikipedia page does not even mention the word socialism. Nick’s claim to fame was playing Michael Meyers in the first of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” movies and then becoming a director himself with credits like “The Last Starfighter” and “Dennis the Menace” to his name. I can’t remember anything about the SWP documentary but can at least state that its irrational exuberance reflected our self-importance at the time. Not only did someone with Hollywood credentials want to tell a story about us, we also managed to score a profile in the Sunday Times Magazine section written by Walter and Miriam Schneir. Unfortunately, the Times decided the article wasn’t critical enough and turned it down. The Schneirs took it to The Nation, which was happy to publish it. (Contact me for a copy.)

In the early 70s, the terms socialism and communism were interchangeable even though it led to some confusion when I was selling subscriptions to The Militant door-to-door in Columbia University dormitories. When I asked a student if they would be interested in a socialist newsweekly, they’d always ask if the socialism was like in Sweden or in Cuba.

Today, the term communism has lost its power, mainly because the Cold War is over and because what’s left of it is like a boxer on the ropes. On the other hand, socialism is more popular than ever. A Pew Research Poll a year ago found that 42 percent of Americans have a positive view. Of course, they don’t mean Cuba. They want the USA to be more like Sweden, at least what it was like around the time Nick Castle made his movie about the SWP.

A new film titled “The Big Scary ‘S’ Word” will certainly be embraced by the 42 percent of Americans in the Pew poll and even win over maybe another 9 percent. However, if 51 percent of Americans ever become the kind of socialist featured in Yael Bridge’s documentary, you can be assured that capitalist property relations will continue into the indefinite future. 51 percent having a positive view of communism is a horse of another color (red).

You can get an idea from Bridge’s political orientation by keeping in mind that she produced a documentary based on Robert Reich’s “Saving Capitalism”. The Daily Californian, the student and community newspaper of U. Cal Berkeley, where Reich teaches, had little use for it: “Yet there’s no examination of the shortcomings of the capitalist system at large, no nuance given through critical analysis on issues of privilege or generational poverty. The topic is briefly discussed through personal anecdotal interviews but never unpacked.”

The title of Bridge’s film is probably inspired by John Nichols’s book “The S Word”. For Nichols, socialism does not really mean abolishing capitalist property relations. Nichols is prominent throughout the film and argues throughout that socialism is not about Russia or Cuba. It is about our native-traditions going back hundreds of years. In one of the more interesting passages in the film, we learn that there was not only a socialist commune called the Wisconsin Phalanx in Ripon, Wisconsin in the 1840s, but that its leaders went on to form the Republican Party in 1854, which was of course revolutionary back then. The film does not go into much detail about the Wisconsin Phalanx but suffice it to say that it was a utopian experiment based on Fourier’s concepts. Yes, Farmers lived communally in a Long House, but it is somewhat far-fetched to call this socialism unless you also want to describe the Israeli kibbutz in the same terms. A Guardian review of Nichols’s book was critical of its “big tent” understanding of socialism:

Nichols distorts history by dragooning reformist liberals into his socialist tradition. For example, Tom Paine is posthumously drafted as a socialist hero because he favoured a version of a welfare state and progressive taxation, even though these are compatible with an economy based primarily on private property. Nichols does not mention Paine’s belief in minimal government or his support of an armed citizenry, which are cited today by American libertarians and opponents of gun control.

The film is a virtual who’s who of the Sandernista movement today, with Eric Blanc, Vivek Chibber, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Adaner Usmani, Kshama Sawant, Matt Karp, and Cornel West doing most of the heavy lifting in interviews. Not a single one ever takes up the question of making a revolution.

In one of the more revealing passages, we see Vivek Chibber providing a brief history of class society. He starts off by describing hunting-and-gathering societies that despite their primitive nature were examples of people working together to produce the goods they shared on an egalitarian basis. Next came feudalism that was made possible by the creation of a grain surplus and, thus, the creation of a ruling class made up of knights capable of defending farmers in exchange for a percentage of the food they produce. Finally, there is capitalism that is marked by the separation of the farmers from their means of production (i.e., the Brenner thesis). Once that happens, they have no other recourse except to become wage laborers. What’s missing? Can you guess? Yup. He never gets into the question of what happens after capitalism. Maybe, the director could have gotten him to answer that question. That would have led to an outright repudiation of what Karl Marx meant by socialism, even though he is widely regarded as the ultimate word on socialism. (Except maybe outside of Jacobin and the NYU Sociology Department.) Okay, maybe Marx is relevant but certainly not Lenin, as Chibber attests. In a Jacobin article from 2015, Chibber explains what it means to be an anti-capitalist today. It boils down to saying no to the entire project:

Today, the political stability of the state is a reality that the Left has to acknowledge. What is in crisis right now is the neoliberal model of capitalism, not capitalism itself.

There are only a couple of experts who stray from this neo-Bernsteinian path. One is Eric Foner, who sticks to American history—bless his heart—and stays away from the kind of banal identification between socialism and the welfare state that prevails throughout the film.

The other is Richard Wolff, who has some pithy comments on the New Deal that Bernie Sanders defines as socialism. Wolff refers to how the New Deal improved the lot of workers but that its gains began to evaporate under Reagan, Bush and even Bill Clinton. (Oh, forget that I said “even”.) He asks rhetorically in words like these, “Are we going to try to bring back the New Deal? That wasn’t permanent, was it? The answer is to change the system.” Unfortunately, Wolff does not think that revolutions are going to work, either. His answer is co-operatives. Like many on the squishy left, they have some bizarre ideas about how co-operatives can take root in the U.S. because they are so nice. Once they reach a critical mass, they can diffuse outward and turn the entire nation into an egalitarian model. You can only hold such positions by bracketing out the sordid history of Mondragon.

Apparently, Jacobin and the people behind the film are going to use it to educate people about their Swedish fantasies. The press notes state:

We have already received many requests for community screenings and partnerships with local organizations. Such screenings could be a major component of our distribution and marketing strategy. We are partnering with Jacobin magazine to create a robust curriculum around the film, including readings, timelines, and discussion questions to engage viewers watching in the classroom or in small groups. Community screenings, virtual or in- person are a great way to bring engaging speakers from the movie and local socialists and historians to underscore the relevance of this historical movement to the lives of all Americans disillusioned with politics.

I hate to break it to these people but the shelf-life on this documentary is pretty much exhausted. Just as Nick Castle’s film celebrated a sectarian vision of how a revolutionary party could transform the U.S., so does Yael Bridge’s sell an equally bogus proposition based on Kautsky and Michael Harrington. Even though the film has brief references to the pandemic and BLM, there’s not the slightest interest in addressing the current crisis that has left the Sandernista left looking clueless. The film spends an inordinate amount of time following Lee Carter around. Running as a “socialist” on the Democratic Party ballot in Virginia to win a seat in the state legislature, Carter comes across as a sincere and dedicated public servant. However, the notion that electing people like Lee Carter will eventually lead to the abolition of capitalism is utterly nonsensical even if it conforms to Vivek Chibber’s anti-revolutionary guidelines.

DIGITAL SCREENING – OFFICIAL SELECTION OF AFI FEST from Monday, October 19 through Thursday, October 22

October 18, 2020

Heller, Vonnegut, Melville, Twain, Maugham, and Guy de Maupassant

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:05 pm

https://manuelgarciajr.com/2020/10/18/heller-vonnegut-melville-twain-maugham-and-guy-de-maupassant/

October 16, 2020

China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse.

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 3:52 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, OCTOBER 16, 2020

On August 19, 2019, I unfurled my degrowth banner in a CounterPunch article titled “Ecological Limits and the Working Class” and followed it up with a review of leading degrowth theorist Giorgos Kallis’s “Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care” just six months later. Having read dozens of articles on degrowth over the past two years, I have concluded that the most persuasive argument on its behalf is Richard Smith’s China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse. Although there are only a few pages that reference the term specifically, the entire 286 pages will leave you convinced that unless China (and the rest of the world) begin to respect ecological limits, civilization will succumb to a new Dark Ages.

The references to growth and degrowth occur in chapter seven, cryptically titled “Grabbing the Emergency Brake,” a reference to the epigraph to chapter six. The words are from Walter Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project: “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.” With the title of Smith’s book referring to China’s “engine,” one might say that the emergency brake and degrowth are practically synonymous.

Continue reading

October 15, 2020

From the final chapter of “China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse

Filed under: China,Ecology — louisproyect @ 3:44 pm

THE COMMUNIST PARTY’S EXISTENTIAL POLITICAL CRISIS

Why is a powerful country like China so afraid of a beauty queen?
— Anastasia Lin

Pan Yue was certainly prescient. The Chinese “miracle” has come to an end because the environment can no longer keep pace. The question is, can the Chinese find a way to grab the emergency brake and wrench this locomotive of destruction to a halt? One thing seems certain: The locomotive is not going to be stopped so long as the Communist Party has its grip on the controls. The CCP is locked in a death spiral. It can’t rein in ravenous resource consumption and suicidal pollution because, as a national superpower-aspirant, it needs to maximize growth to “catch up with overtake the USA,” maximize jobs to keep the peace, provide more bread and circuses to distract the masses, and build the glitziest “blingfrastucture” to wow the masses and the world with the “Amazing China” that it has built. The Communist Party doesn’t do subtlety or understatement. Given these drivers, I just don’t see how China’s spiral to ecological collapse can reversed by anything short of social revolution—one way or another.

The Party leadership presents itself as all-powerful, unassailable, monolithic, confident, and self-assured. It’s anything but. The Party is paranoid, terrified of independent thought and the slightest public disagreement, frightened of any personal or institutional autonomy, and shocked by the results of the explosive growth of capitalism that it has unleashed. It is strategically and ideologically bankrupt, demoralized and weakened by Xi’s relentless anti-corruption campaign and fracturing as wealthy cadres flee the country and send their families abroad.

For a government that presents itself as a superior model for the world, a deserving successor to the US and the “declining West”, its outwardly unflappable president is surprisingly thin-skinned, bristling at the slightest criticism, let alone mockery—more like Trump than Deng Xiaoping, Xi is terrified not just of beauty queens but Mongolian historians, Uighur professors, Tibetan linguists, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Google, Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Western movies, artists, democracy advocates, workers, trade unionists, environmental activists, human rights attorneys, Liu Xiaobo (even after his death) and his wife Liu Xia, Christian ministers, Hong Kong booksellers and high school students, Marxist university students, Maoist study groups, the NBA, Turkish soccer stars, and so many other real and imagined threats. In his current state of extreme paranoia, no perceived threat is too insignificant. Like the exasperated journalist Liang Xiangyi who rolled her eyes in disgust at another reporter’s unctuous and gushing question to a high official in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing during the March 2018 National People’s Congress. Captured by China’s national news broadcaster, CCTV, the moment went viral and the government responded by yanking her media accreditation, taking down her Sina Weibo page, and erasing her name from the internet. In recent years Xi’s censors have banned cartoonists, hip-hop, video games, the bawdy humor app Neihan Duanzi, Winnie the Pooh, Peppa the Pig, the letter “N,” celebrity gossip, Stephen Colbert, and Saturday Night Live.

Chinese women too are posing a threat, like the so-called “Feminist Five”. The #MeToo movement particularly worries the powers that be. As one commentator said: “The leadership has understood from the beginning that the movement has shades of anti-authoritarianism and they’re afraid the allegations will spread to officials.

In totalitarian self-parody worthy of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, Beijing recently banned exports of black clothing to Hong Kong as the color is favored by protesters. Today, China’s leaders face unprecedented threats—and not least from those black-clad protesters in Hong Kong.

October 13, 2020

Michael Perelman, ¡Presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 4:36 pm
Michael Perlman (1939-2020)

Yesterday, the New Castle News in Pennsylvania reported that Michael Perelman died on September 21 at the age of 80. I would assume that Michael grew up in New Castle, a small town just across the border from Youngstown, Ohio—a scene of major labor battles in the 1930s.

Michael was the author of 19 books on economics written for a general audience. Despite his decades-long career at California State University, Chico, he could hardly be described as a mandarin. Like many economists who were radicalized in the 1960s, he saw his profession as a way to change society, not angle for awards that most academics covet. Today, the Nobel Prize in economics awarded to Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson for auction theory. When I saw the news, I asked myself what the hell was auction theory and why would experts in the subject merit a Nobel Prize? It turns out to be a way of “scientifically” calculating how bidding works, etc. When the world is poised on the edge of a 1930s type depression because of the pandemic, how did they win out? It turns out that both teach at Stanford, a symbol of the academy’s incestuous relationship to capitalism second to none. I only wish that Michael had lived long enough to comment on such a bizarre Nobel Prize.

After starting a new job at Columbia University in 1991, I was puzzled by nearly daily emails informing me about new mailing lists that I could subscribe to. Most were devoted to topics like Jane Austin studies or Nature Photography but when I spotted Progressive Economics Network, I was intrigued. If I could figure out what the hell a mailing list was, I might sign up. I strolled over to Terry, who maintained the email system, to ask what a mailing list was. He replied, “Ha!, I guess you don’t know what the Internet is yet.” It turned out that most colleges were on the Internet long before it became as universal as it is today. Thirty years ago, it was strictly about mailing lists since the Worldwide Web was still in its infancy, let alone social media. I sent a subscription request to the mail server at Chico and that began a friendship with Michael that lasted for the better part of thirty years. Despite the whirlwind experience of 11 years in the Trotskyist movement, the ties I have made through both PEN-L and Marxmail run deeper.

Not long after joining PEN-L, my correspondence with Michael began. As was the case with Michael Yates, I felt an affinity with economics professors who were both against the capitalist system and wrote books and articles directed to working people rather than fellow academics.

There two aspects of Michael’s scholarship that stood out for me. Back in the early 90s, I was becoming more and more committed to ecosocialism and saw Michael’s focus on agriculture as essential. It is worth noting that he earned a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from the University of California, Berkeley. I strongly suspect that his first book “Farming for Profit in a Hungry World” was based on his dissertation. With a forward by Barry Commoner, you can assume that it took up questions that are at the heart of our crisis today, with large-scale capitalist farming undermining our survival. Michael did not just theorize these questions. Long ago, when I learned that he owned a tractor and grew his own food, he struck me as a Marxist version of Wendell Berry. Nothing captures Michael’s humanity better than the farewell he wrote for Barry Commoner on his blog:

Goodby, Barry Commoner

Not long after I graduated and began teaching, Barry Commoner invited me to Washington University because of my work on energy use in Agriculture. He also published my article in his magazine, Ecology, and even wrote a forward to my first book, Farming for Profit in a Hungry World: Capital and the Crisis in Agriculture.

I only ran into him a few times after that.  We would only exchange a few words. He was always engaged with other people and I did not want to disturb him. I wish that I had been able to spend enough time with Barry Commoner to call him a friend. Nonetheless, I am grateful for our brief time together and even more grateful for the wonderful work he did.

His obituaries cover some of his most important work, but they neglected something that impressed me. Many of the people who worked for him were “unqualified,” in the sense that they lacked the credentials normally required for their jobs.  I believe that they did a better job appreciating that Barry Commoner gave them a chance that others would deny them.

We many more Barry Commoners.  Thank you Barry.

I invite you to check out Michael’s blog that should remain up for the foreseeable future given WordPress.com’s permanence, especially the intellectual biography in which Michael describes the road he took:

Although I earned a degree in agricultural economics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1971, I never could bring myself to accept the ideological framework of conventional economics. Early on I noticed that the agricultural system was consuming ten times more energy than it was producing in the form of edible food. I looked more deeply into the environmental, social, and economic costs of the current agricultural system. These investigations finally led to my first book, Farming for Profit in a Hungry World (1977). In this book, I showed how the profit-oriented agricultural system created hunger, pollution, serious public health consequences, and environmental disruption, while throwing millions of people off the land.

I also had a strong interest in the history of economic thought, which led me to look into the historical evolution of the agricultural system through the lens of the major representatives of classical political economy. These economists, who wrote during a period that ranged from the late 17th century through the middle of the 19th century, lavished praise on free and unfettered markets in their theoretical works. In their more policy-oriented writings — letters, diaries, and more policy-oriented works — they promoted the active use of the state to apply extra-market forces in the interest of capitalists to the detriment of others. In particular, I looked at the fairly universal call of these political economists to undermine relatively self-sufficient small farmers to transform them into wage workers. This study led me to write Classical Political Economy, Primitive Accumulation and the Social Division of Labor (1983).

A central theme of this book was the creation of a social division of labor — the partitioning of the economy into separate commodity producing units. I then began to look at what light Karl Marx could throw upon this subject. Reading Marx in this light made me realize that most of his readers missed what I considered to be very important to understanding his work. These researches led to my book, Karl Marx’s Crises Theories: Labor, Scarcity and Fictitious Capital (1987). I found that Marx sometimes wrote in order to influence contemporary political conditions. This aspect of his work led him write in such a way that seemed mislead later readers. Failing to see that element of Marx’s work, modern readers generally are inclined to read his writings as if they were timeless truths. For example, his famous articles on India argued that England was promoting progress in India, but Marx knew little about India at the time. Instead, he was trying to undercut the influence of Henry Carey at the New York Tribune, where Marx also wrote. I also found that scarcity was important to Marx, but he obscured this aspect of his work within the category of the organic composition of capital. Within this perspective, Marx’s crisis theory was far more sophisticated than many modern readers had realized. For Marx, subjective valuations caused market prices to violently oscillate. As investors became more optimistic, prices would rise in an irregular fashion, preventing prices from guiding the economy in an appropriate manner. Crises were required in order to set the economy right again, although the violence of the cure would eventually cause the system to collapse

Finally, on a personal note. I valued Michael’s friendship deeply. Over the better part of thirty years, we had many private email exchanges and numerous phone calls discussing issues that had come up over PEN-L as well as the general political situation. We also made time to chat at Left Forums, where he came to give talks, often on the same panel as Michael Hudson, another academic public intellectual. He did not have an arrogant bone in his body and was anxious to get my opinion on American and world events.

In addition to writing 19 books, Michael had a prolific presence online both through his blog and articles for various left publications. Six of them are on the Monthly Review website and well worth reading. Although Michael did not have any kind of special ties to MR, I always saw him in the same way I saw Harry Magdoff, Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman. All such intellectuals understood exactly what Marx meant when he said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

October 10, 2020

Totally Under Control

Filed under: COVID-19,Film — louisproyect @ 7:00 pm

Esquire called Alex Gibney the most important documentary film maker of our time. Although I generally shy away from bestowing these kinds of accolades, such a case can be made for him in light of the fifty films he has made since 1980. Although many are political films like “Totally Under Control” that is available as VOD on October 13, he has also profiled James Brown, the Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra. “Totally Under Control” gets its title from Donald Trump’s response to a reporter on Jan. 22, who asked if there are worries about a pandemic. Trump replied: “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s — going to be just fine.”

On practically a day-by-day basis, Gibney and co-directors Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunan show how missteps, both intentional and unintentional, have cost the lives of 214,000 deaths and 7.71 million cases. There’s a tendency for COVID-19 denialists to focus on the deaths, often dismissing them as disproportionately falling on the elderly who after all are no longer producing profits for a boss. What’s the big deal, I’ve heard them argue, if the median age of deaths is 78? That’s the average life expectancy anyhow. But if you consider that among the 7.71 million cases, there might be at least one million Americans who have permanent damage neurologically or to their respiratory system, that’s a disaster. Since there are no ongoing statistical studies of the impact, it tends to be overlooked.

This is a very straightforward film. For the most part, it consists of scientists and physicians commenting on how we got there, with many familiar to you from appearances on CNN such as Kathleen Sebelius and Rick Bright. Others are not so familiar and give the documentary considerable weight, especially Dr. Taison Bell, the African-American COVID-19 ICU Director of the UVA Medical Center who talks about the uphill battle he had when the pandemic began as well as how the Black community suffered disproportionately.

However, the most eye-opening account comes from Max Kennedy Jr., the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy who volunteered with the COVID-19 Supply-Chain task force headed up by Jared Kushner. Despite his lack of epidemiological inexperience, having a background in consulting and investment, he and his team, who had the same minimal skills, had to track down desperately needed medical supplies. When he discovered how Kushner sought to keep government involvement to a minimum in favor of “market” solutions and saw Trump’s “totally under control” type remarks to the media, Kennedy broke his Nondisclosure Agreement and filed a whistleblower complaint to Congress about the Trump family’s malfeasance.

Even if the odds against an adequate response to the pandemic were heightened by Trump’s incompetence, there were also serious mistakes made by well-intentioned medical experts. Chief among them was the distribution of test kits that included probe sets for the specific detection of 2019-nCoV — so-called N1 and N2 assays — as well as one designed for the universal detection of SARS-like coronaviruses, called the N3 assay. Unfortunately, the N3 assay results contaminated the N1 and N2 assays; it took far too long for the CDC to put together a new test kit.

The documentary also hears from Dr. Kim Jin Yong, a Korean-American who headed the Incheon Medical Center. He is also an anthropologist who served as the 12th President of the World Bank from 2012 to 2019. You get an idea of America’s loss of prestige when you hear him state how dismayed he was by American incompetence. Despite serving on the World Bank and previously as the chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, he views the failure of the USA to even begin to match his own country’s response as symptomatic of its decay. When a citizen of a “peripheral” country feels sorry for the USA, something has changed. Big time. Yong was the architect of an aggressive five-point plan for ending the pandemic and reopening the economy. At the height of the pandemic, the United States reported 15 times more confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths than South Korea despite having about six times the population.

The film is extraordinary for being completed in what looks like record time to me. They built a special camera called the “COVID cam” that facilitated filming, while keeping to social distancing norms. Director Suzanne Hillinger explains in the press notes:

It’s basically a small camera that Ben [Bloodwell, the cinematographer] mounted onto a laptop tray with handles and then he put a laptop on it, rigged a microphone to it, and we’d have a local camera assistant drop it off on a subject’s front steps and we’d all be logged in on Zoom, so as soon as a subject opened the door, we could communicate with them to turn the camera on and our cinematographer would be able to control the camera from a different state. It was crazy. We figured out two options that we offered our subjects based on their comfort levels. We had a few do the remote COVID cam and we had a few who were willing to meet in person but we wanted to make sure we weren’t putting anyone at risk. So, you’ll see that there are shower curtains with a hole cut out so we could put the eye direct through it.

“Totally Under Control” is VOD on Tuesday, October 13th through Apple TV/iTunes, Amazon, Fandango NOW, Google Play/YouTube, Vudu. It will then be available through Hulu on October 20th.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.