Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 26, 2021

A Cineaste’s Picks for the Best Films of 2020

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:26 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, FEBRUARY 26, 2021

This film made $0 in North America and $27,136 worldwide. It is my pick for best narrative film of 2021

The pandemic has turned the yearly ritual of film awards ceremonies a molehill out of the mountain they once were. With major Hollywood studios shelving multi-million dollar prestige movies, except for Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” that was largely dismissed as a flop, it has been left to less costly and nominally “indie” films such as “Nomadland” and “Minari” to fill the gap. Both had full-page ads in the N.Y. Times usually reserved for films made by Stephen Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, et al, with fawning articles over their stars Frances McDormand and Steven Yeun. Instead of A-listers like Scarlett Johansson or Brad Pitt chatting it up with late-night TV show hosts, we see McDormand and Yeun on the guest sofa.

Having seen these films and others in the same vein (“The White Tiger”, “First Cow”, “The Nest”), my reaction has been lukewarm at best. At our yearly New York Film Critics Online virtual awards meeting, not a single one of these overrated works got my vote. Alongside my arch-contrarian colleague Armond White, my votes went for the far more obscure but groundbreaking films that would have never been the beneficiary of a full-page ad in the N.Y. Times. While Armond tilts rightward, my preference is for films that challenge political or dramatic conventions. My picks below reflect my tastes as well as my critical judgement. If you have found my reviews useful in the past, then I would urge you to check them out. All are available as VOD on Amazon Prime and all the other usual sites.

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February 21, 2021

Sacred Cow; Tribes on the Edge

Filed under: Ecology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

One of the vexing questions facing ecosocialists is how to create a sustainable society that breaks with meat consumption. There are contradictory tendencies at work, with the vegan left taking an abolitionist stance as well as ecomodernist support for meat-like products such as Beyond Meat. Meanwhile, Bill Gates has come out in favor of synthetic meats, arguing in MIT’s Technology Review as part of his book tour on “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” that rich nations should only eat synthetics. (It should be mentioned that is a Beyond Meat investor.)

Long before I began blogging, I wrote a series of posts on beef that were collected together on my Columbia website under the title “Cattle and Capitalism”. It included an excerpt from an Alexander Cockburn “Beat the Devil” column in the April 22, 1996 Nation Magazine:

Unsustainable grazing and ranching sacrifice drylands, forests and wild species. For example, semi-deciduous forests in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay are cut down to make way for soybeans, which are fed to cows as high-protein soycake. Humans are essentially vegetarian as a species and insatiate meat-eating bring its familiar toll of heart disease, stroke and cancer. The enthusiasm for meat also produces its paradox: hunger. A people living on cereals and legumes for protein need to grow far less grain than a people eating creatures that have been fed by cereals. For years Western journalists described in mournful tones the scrawny and costly pieces of meat available in Moscow’s shops, associating the lack of meat with backwardness and the failure of Communism. But after 1950, meat consumption in the Soviet Union tripled. By 1964 grain for livestock feed outstripped grain for bread, and by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, livestock were eating three times as much grain as humans. All this required greater and greater imports of grain until precious foreign exchange made the Soviet Union the world’s second-largest grain importer, while a dietary “pattern” based on excellent bread was vanishing.

While I was sympathetic to the idea that eating beef had to come to an end, I must confess that I used to stop at the bistro across the street from my high-rise and had a cheeseburger with fries two or three times a month. I also have to wonder if Cockburn ate meat himself. I bet Jeffrey St. Clair can fill me in.

Yet, at the back of mind I always wondered how you can reconcile an anti-meat agenda with Karl Marx’s analysis of the metabolic rift. At a Socialist Scholars Conference around 20 years ago, John Bellamy Foster gave what was probably his first talk on the crisis of soil fertility in the 19th century that Justin Von Liebig devoted himself to diagnosing and solving. Basically, Liebig’s research provided a context for Marx’s examination of the agrarian question. Like climate change today, the general crisis of soil fertility in the period from 1830 to 1870 not only provoked scientific research but wars over control over natural fertilizers like guano.

The depletion of soil nutrients was being felt everywhere, as capitalist agriculture broke down the old organic interaction that took place on small, family farms. When a peasant plowed a field with ox or horse-drawn plows, used an outhouse, accumulated compost piles, etc., the soil’s nutrients were replenished naturally. As capitalist agriculture turned the peasant into an urban proletariat, segregated livestock production from grain and food production, the organic cycle was broken and the soil gradually lost its fertility.

This being the case, wouldn’t the disappearance of livestock from agriculture simply perpetuate the need for chemical fertilizers and every ill associated with it? Since modern farming relies heavily on mechanization, ox-drawn plows would not suffice. Wouldn’t the integration of cattle, poultry and lambs as livestock into farming resolve the metabolic rift in the most effective manner?

Unless you are committed to the idea that slaughtering animals is evil, that possibility must be considered. Additionally, for homo sapiens, the most effective source of protein comes from animals, not plants. Leaving aside the animal rights question, an argument can be made for exactly that. You can find it made in a powerful new documentary available in the usual VOD venues, including Amazon, titled “Sacred Cow” that was directed by Diana Rodgers and based on a book of the same title she co-wrote with Robb Wolf.

On the film’s website, Rodgers writes, “As we’ve become more globalized, the entire world is now pushing towards the ‘heart healthy’ (and highly processed) Western diet. In the process, we’re destroying entire ecosystems and human health through industrial, ultra-processed food.”

Drawing upon a wide range of academic researchers in favor of the consumption of meat products and the regenerative farmers who produce them, the film effectively makes the case for solving the metabolic rift in the way that Karl Marx proposed but without mentioning his name or the theory once.

There are two important considerations that the film takes up. To start with, it calls for abolition of the current method of raising livestock in factory-like conditions since they are far removed from the crops that need organic fertilizer and because they are so cruel to the animals. Instead, the farmers interviewed throughout the film show exactly how they must be deployed in and around the fields where crops are being grown rather than cooped up in monstrous conditions. In a very short time, the re-introduction of cattle and lambs can return topsoil to the conditions that existed before Alexander Cockburn decried for its inevitable role in desertification.

If your first impulse is to question whether an old-fashioned method of raising livestock can supply a hungry world, the film points out that ruminants such as cows and sheep can feed themselves from the grasses that grow along hillsides that are not suitable for raising crops. In one of the more eye-opening scenes, we meet a Mexican regenerative farmer named Alejandro Carrillo who has begun to reintroduce cattle into a seemingly barren part of the state of Chihuahua. The animals have not only begun to enrich the soil and make it suitable for farming but transform the ecosphere so that birds now flock to it for their own well-being.

Finally, on the ethical questions. These farmers and their supporters in the academy are not opposed to ending an animal’s life in the greater pursuit of keeping humanity and the natural world in balance. The film shows a new slaughterhouse based on the principles of Temple Grandin who compassion for all creatures large and small is suffused with humanitarianism.

Another new film available as VOD, including Amazon, takes up the question of humanity and the natural world’s survival even though the people who are its subject matter could not be more vulnerable to the ecological crisis. Directed by Céline Cousteau, the granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau, “Tribes on the Edge” is an impassioned plea for the survival of around 7,000 indigenous Brazilians who call Vale do Javari their home. Constituting an area about the size of Portugal and on the border with Peru, the natives are facing extinction as a result of epidemic cases of hepatitis and malaria.

Although the documentary does not connect their plight to the years of Workers Party rule, it implicitly blames both Lula and Dilma Rousseff for allowing the support network for indigenous people to wither and die. It seems obvious that FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, has been a victim of neglect under their two administrations. Even worse, Bolsonaro seems intent on doing to it what Donald Trump did to agencies supposedly dedicated to protecting natural resources—namely, throttling them.

The film does not attempt to pinpoint the cause of the epidemics except to say that the border between Peru and Brazil being porous. When indigenous peoples cross the border into Javari, there are no border guards. They bring their illnesses with them, especially hepatitis that is very contagious. This is not to speak of the ranchers, miners, farmers and oil companies that are beginning to encroach on Javari in spite of legal protections afforded by the state.

At the end of the film, we are told that only 4 percent of the world’s population are indigenous, but they nurture 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity on their land. Although written four hundred years ago, John Donne’s poem could not be more timely:

No Man is an Island

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

February 18, 2021

Ernie Tate on socialist organizing before the 60s

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 8:45 pm

February 17, 2021

Judas and the Black Messiah

Filed under: african-american,Film,repression — louisproyect @ 3:27 pm

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is the story of Fred Hampton’s assassination by the Chicago police in 1969. Co-written by Will Berson, a Jew, and Shaka King, an African-American, it unites a team that worked together in the past on featherweight TV comedies. In addition to co-authorship of the screenplay, King served as director.

They have made a well-researched, by-the-numbers biopic that will help many young people understand the depravity of the FBI, just as Aaron Sorkin’s “Trial of the Chicago 7” helped expose the city’s cops and judicial system. Unlike Sorkin, Berson and King did not twist the story to suit their own political agenda. However, by relying on the unfortunate mythology that has arisen around the Black Panther Party in the past half-century, some further analysis will be necessary for a deeper understanding of the period and how the ruling class was able to murder a promising young leader.

As should not come as a big surprise, this unheralded, debut film had major players bootstrapping it. Ryan Coogler, the black director of “Black Panther”, was one benefactor. His Panthers were not activists but African demigods originating in Marvel Comic books that unaccountably was hailed by Jamelle Bouie as “the most political movie ever produced by Marvel Studios”. As producer, he raised millions as did Charles D. King, a black former super-agent who founded MACRO Media so that such films could be made (he is no relation to the director.)

Apparently, Shaka King was thinking big when he decided to make his first feature film. He hoped to make our era’s version of “Battle of Algiers”. As I will try to explain in my political analysis that follows, it is doubtful that he has the kind of Marxist politics that served Pontecorvo so well. Nor did he have Pontecorvo’s cinematic genius. The 1950s and 60s were years in which Marxism exercised a major influence over European filmmaking. Those days are long gone.

Berson and King made a major mistake in analogizing an FBI undercover asset with Judas Iscariot, who was not only a disciple of Jesus Christ but one of the twelve original Apostles.

By contrast, Bill O’Neal was a shadowy and nondescript snitch who like most FBI plants did it for the money and to avoid being sent to prison for a previous offense. Like most of the agent-provocateurs that the FBI and red squads implanted in mosques, O’Neal was a grubby opportunist. But unlike the cases in which feckless, observant Muslims were talked into terrorist stings by the FBI, Fred Hampton was supposedly no babe in the woods. Why would he ever have allowed someone with a dicey past like O’Neal ensure his safety, especially since he was not as politically committed as the average Panther? When Hampton becomes suspicious of O’Neal’s claim of being a car thief, he forces him at gunpoint to hotwire his stolen car to prove his bona fides. When he passes the test, Hampton is assuaged. If this was the kind of acid test new members had to pass rather than understanding Panther politics, Berson and King unwittingly revealed how inexperienced this group really was. And perhaps their own inexperience with the period.

In every scene, O’Neal comes across as a man with no particular qualms about being a Judas. He only seeks to cut his ties to the FBI when it becomes clear that he might be picked off by a cop in the gun battles that were bound to ensue in a period of rising violence between an angry Black community and the class enemy. In a scene close to the conclusion, O’Neal barely dodges a bullet during a shootout that ends with Panther HQ being torched.

By contrast, the Jesse James films were more dramatic because Robert Ford, the “dirty coward who killed Mr. Howard (James’s assumed name)” of folk-song fame, was continuously wracked by feelings of guilt for betraying his fellow outlaw. Playing Ford in the 1949 “I Shot Jesse James”, John Ireland was nonpareil. The filmmakers failure to invest more in this character, even if fictionally, robbed it of its possible power. Why not have O’Neal become swept up in the revolutionary fervor surrounding him, like Patty Hearst and the  Symbionese Liberation Army while still being coerced to be a snitch? By the standards of anti-heroes going back to the New Testament, O’Neal was not nearly Judas enough. Jejune was more like it.

Given the intense drama that surrounded Hampton’s assassination, it is unfortunate that Belson and King sought to embellish it with staged confrontations that had more in common with cheap action movies than real life. Hampton had the political acumen to create a de facto united front with various outsider groups in Chicago that, like the Panthers, had collided with the cops. In an amalgam of youth gangs won to the side of left politics, they create a group called the Crowns that has a summit meeting with the Panthers in a capacious auditorium that looks like nothing you’d expect to see in a Chicago slum. Dozens of Crowns are armed with automatic rifles and shotguns that we’d expect to be used against the Panthers if Hampton missteps. Fortunately for him, he makes the case for revolutionary action and is rewarded with an automatic rifle by the Crown’s leader. None of this seems plausible. It would have worked far better if the melodrama had been abandoned and the politics amplified.

Ditto for a showdown between Hampton and the Young Patriots, a group of poor white men and women who flocked to Chicago from the South to escape poverty, just like blacks. The scene opens with the Patriots sitting at a table beneath a huge Confederate flag, giving an audience unfamiliar with such meetings the impression that Hampton was risking his life by meeting with KKK types. In reality, the Patriot leaders had a background as community organizers  with Jobs or Income Now (JOIN). This group grew out of Students for a Democratic Society efforts to organize the neighborhood where poor southerners lived. As co-founders of the Young Patriots, Jack “Junebug” Boykin and Doug Youngblood had been involved with JOIN. If I had a hand in writing “Judas and the Black Messiah”, I would have dropped the Judas part and expanded such characters and even created a buddy relationship between Hampton and Boykin. That would have been far more politically relevant than themes of betrayal and subterfuge.

Having said all this, I still recommend the film since it will be of obvious benefit to young people trying to understand the tumultuous sixties. As someone deeply immersed in activism fifty years ago when news of Hampton being killed and other assaults on the Panthers were part of my daily intake, I have a different analysis of their legacy.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” errs much too far in the direction of hagiography. You never get the sense that the young filmmakers have a deeper understanding of their failure or even more importantly a critical approach to their major success: the free breakfast program and other elements of their “survival” turn such as medical clinics. Surely it was a major breakthrough in serving breakfasts to 20,000 children per day at its height. Supposedly the program was something that kept J. Edgar Hoover up at night and thus led to Cointelpro and the death squads that would lead to Hampton’s murder in December 1969.

The free breakfasts were inspired by the Maoist “serve the people” ideas that flourished on the left in the 60s and 70s. For the mostly white groups led by Bob Avakian and Mike Klonsky, it was interpreted mainly as a paternalistic approach to organizing with their cadre going into working class areas like missionaries for socialism.

At least with Avakian et al, the “serve the people” notion was an element of a strategy meant to challenge the capitalist state. So, for example, the Maoists went into coal-mining regions with the goal of strengthening the leftwing of the UMW. But for the Panthers, there was nothing like this at work in the breakfast program. To some extent, it was simply a turn away from the gun-toting adventures that had begun to decimate their ranks. How could you send the cops against a group making breakfasts for poor Black children? That was the idea anyhow.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, they never dropped the stupid rhetoric about offing the pig that continued as the breakfasts were being served. If you were reading their paper, as I was in this period, you could not help but be appalled by pictures such as this:

This ultraleft image of a gun being trained on a pig was very much a product of the times just as the Weathermen’s tone-deaf “kill the rich” rhetoric that ultimately evolved into outright terrorism. In either case, bold imagery and words were meant to distinguish the “revolutionaries” from ordinary society that lagged behind their advanced consciousness.

The obsession with guns and bombs obviously was connected to the Vietnam war and the Cuban guerrilla initiatives that gave many—including me—the sense that American imperialism was surrounded by revolutionary forces closing in. To some extent this led to the feeling that emulating the NLF or Che Guevara’s fighters meant breaking with bourgeois society and showing solidarity with foreign fighters by breaking the law. It was ironic that for the Panthers this meant simultaneously carrying out an armed struggle at some point and engaging in free breakfast meliorism.

One of the faintly remembered events that had the same kind of cinematic intensity was the shootout between Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Hutton and other Panthers on one side and the Oakland cops that took place on April 6, 1968. Cleaver had become a leader of a faction in the Panthers that was dubious about the breakfast program and sought to “bring it on” as urban guerrillas. In any armed confrontation between a tiny group with thin support in the Black community and the cops, the revolutionaries were likely to end up on the losing side. Apparently, Cleaver embarked on this adventure as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. two days earlier.

In essence, this convergence of events symbolized the inability of the Panthers to understand what King was about and their failure to develop a program that might be modeled on what King was doing in Memphis—a working class mass action that threatened racist and capitalist power to such an extent that it cost him his life.

Unlike King, who went to Memphis to build solidarity for striking garbage men, neither Cleaver nor Huey Newton saw their role as building a working class movement. They oriented to lumpen elements in the Black community, something that always struck me as perhaps being inspired by “The Battle of Algiers” with its main character Ali Le Pointe abandoning a life of petty crime to join the FLN. In essence, Berson and King made a film about men and women who lacked the mass base of the FLN. Pontecorvo’s Marxism enabled him to build a foundation based on the class struggle rather than analogies with Judas Iscariot.

What an opportunity was lost for a Black revolutionary movement to focus on organizing Black workers. Keep in mind that this was before the phenomenon of runaway plants and when Detroit et al were still thriving industrial centers. Auto, steel, rubber, oil, etc. were still profitable industries with very large—if not majority—African-American workforces. These were workers who were open to radical ideas as the Black caucuses in the UAW would indicate.

If the Panthers had built a movement in the ranks of the Black working class, it might have become a powerful deterrent to the runaway shops that have devastated black America.

Although I could be wrong, it strikes me that Black nationalism will never undergo a revival. Black youth today who oppose police brutality are inspired much more by Martin Luther King Jr. than the Panthers. That being said, I still hold out hope that some day there will be a real engagement with Malcolm X’s ideas that while being Black nationalist were evolving toward working class internationalism. That, of course, is what probably got him killed just as it got Martin Luther King Jr. killed.

February 11, 2021

And So It Is Written For None To Read

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:49 am

While America closes its door-to-the-future to its youth, its aspiring hotshots smash their guitars onto the impervious consciousness of the video-streaming narcoleptic herd, furiously hammering away at the portals of hipness lusting for penetration into the voluptuous folds of affluence and renown they want so badly to deserve and which are only never-to-be-achieved potentialities in their feverish imaginations.

And so they “smash fascism” in virtual print while parading their righteous revolutionary irrelevance for all to see, if all those others bothered to look as a few pseudo-intellectual armchair hobos do to help survive their consumerist boredom.

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February 10, 2021

Paul Street, Antonio Gramsci, and understanding fascism

Filed under: Fascism — louisproyect @ 10:07 pm
Paul Street

At nearly 4,500 words, Paul Street’s article titled “The Anatomy of Fascism Denial” is just the first half of a polemic against those on the left who do not share his analysis that Trump was an imminent fascist threat.

This is part of a campaign he has been waging for the better part of four years. It started off harmlessly enough by focusing on Trump’s bad behavior. Yes, he wasn’t breaking any new ground but at least his heart was in the right place. It was only in the last year that our intrepid radical journalist’s campaign began to take on an obsessive character. Like Noam Chomsky and other “lesser evil” voices, Street began to make voting for Biden a sine qua non for the left. I never paid much attention to his daily blizzard of FB posts defending this position until one showed up that was obviously an attack on me. My support for Howie Hawkins had gotten under his skin to such a degree that he flamed me as an effete, well-off yuppie who was helping to elect someone as bad as Hitler, or maybe even worse.

Reading through his article, I noticed a reference once again either to me or perhaps his confused notion of what I stand for:

Mid-way through the Trump years, it dawned on me that many of the older and upper-middle -class white former New Left (now “old new left”) fascism-denying thinkers I knew wouldn’t be willing to see fascism as a problem in the U.S. until paramilitaries came to their comfortable homes and dragged them off to detention camps. Among the affluent Caucasian males who predominate among Trumpism-fascism-deniers (this is no accident given how their race, class, and gender-privilege insulated them from the worst outcomes of the Trump regime), it has been common to advance an idiotic all-or-nothing black and white litmus test for fascism: either [A] a triumphant consolidated fascist regime on the maximal model of Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Third Reich or [B] “no fascism.” Serious contemporary analysts of neofascism are working instead with a more reasonably nuanced attention to gray areas, “fascist creep” (“creeping fascism,” if one prefers), and fascist movements in the neoliberal era.

Suffice it to say that I was never part of the New Left. When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, it was a conscious decision to become an apprentice to people like Farrell Dobbs and Joe Hansen who learned their Marxism from Leon Trotsky. Really, who in their right mind would rather line up with Tom Hayden than Trotsky? It was like picking Kenny G. over John Coltrane.

If you scan through all the names of the people Street wants to crucify, not a single one has ever written for New Left Review or even Jacobin. The name Marx only appears once and not as someone whose writings would have some bearing on the question of fascism.

Hitler’s brown-shirts didn’t run around smashing heads and killing people chanting “Let’s Build a Corporate State with a State Command Capitalist Political Economy!” They went about beating up and murdering Marxists and Jews, two threats they merged in the phrase “judeo-bolshevism.” They were very much about white nationalism.

For Street and others like him, you can have constitutional rights such freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, a secret ballot in a multi-party state and other gains won over centuries of struggle by working people and still end up living under fascism—or more exactly as is de rigeuer in his circles—neo-fascism. By sticking on the prefix ‘neo’, everything is possible.

Those of us who saw and see Trump and Trumpism as fascist never posited or expected an exact replication of German Nazi or Italian fascism in the contemporary U.S. A 21st Century Neoliberal-era American fascist regime would be considerably less state-command-oriented than the classic historical European fascism of the last century.

It is absurd to call American neoliberal corporate and financial rule “the opposite of fascism.” The opposite of fascism, a brutal form of capitalism, is democratic socialism.

You’ll notice the binary opposition between neoliberal/corporate/financial rule and democratic socialism. Isn’t it the case that neoliberal corporate and financial rule will be continuing under Biden? For that matter, there are qualitative differences between bourgeois democratic states and fascist states. What Street doesn’t seem to grasp is the preference of the ruling class for parliamentary democracy since it allows it to rule on the basis of what Gramsci called hegemony. Drawing from Marx’s idea that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force”, Gramsci saw the capitalist state as being made up of two overlapping spheres, a ‘political society’ (which rules through force) and a ‘civil society’ (which rules through consent). Under fascism, civil society no longer exists unless of course you adhere to the theory of “neo-fascism”, which allows everything under the sun.

Even more critically, Gramsci refers to the “manufacture of consent”, the term more familiarly associated with Noam Chomsky. Civil Society creates the conditions under which the working class can control itself. If there is a free press, etc., the illusion of democracy can be sustained. If Donald Trump decided after being re-elected to put the Murdoch corporation in charge of the NY Times, the Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC, that illusion would disappear and the ruling class would have to resort to naked force. The media, the universities, the religious bodies, the nonprofits, the vast array of clubs and professional institutions of bourgeois society constitute what Gramsci called civil society. While defenders of civil society like George Soros see it as a crucial factor in strengthening democracy, they in fact are essential to the stabilization of bourgeois society by serving as a pressure valve. Upset over Donald Trump? No problem. Form a group that will get out the vote for Joe Biden or some other enlightened bourgeois politician like Pete Buttegieg. His father Joseph, one of the USA’s leading Gramsci scholars, explained how all this worked in an article titled Gramsci on Civil Society (boundary 2, Vol. 22, No. 3, Autumn, 1995):

Gramsci regarded civil society as an integral part of the state; in his view, civil society, far from being inimical to the state, is, in fact, its most resilient constitutive element, even though the most immediately visible aspect of the state is political society, with which it is all too often mistakenly identified. He was also convinced that the intricate, organic relationships between civil society and political society enable certain strata of society not only to gain dominance within the state but also, and more importantly, to maintain it, perpetuating the subalternity of other strata. To ignore or to set aside these crucial aspects of Gramsci’s concept of civil society is tantamount to erasing the crucial differences that set his theory of the state apart from the classic liberal version.

All of the advanced capitalist countries see the need for protecting civil society even at the same time they tried to erode it as the need arises. Under Donald Trump, there was little attempt to throttle it. Under fascist rule, the main goal is to rule by force because the masses lack the means to affect public policy. In classical fascism, Hitler and Mussolini created an alternative to civil society (Nazi boy scouts, sports clubs, etc.) that worked as long as the system could provide the material conditions that kept the working-class placated. Once the economy begins to shrink, especially during wartime austerity, there are attempts to use counter-force to return to “normality”. Under Vichy France and Mussolini’s Italy, resistance movements arose that threatened the long-term viability of the capitalist system. Fortunately for the ruling class, the Communists essentially sought the same goal: bourgeois democracy. In Germany, where the totalitarian grip was deepest, the resistance was weaker. It fell to the student activists of White Rose and the military brass organized through Operation Valkyrie to defeat fascism but not capitalism.

A word or two on Street’s nasty demagogy. This bullshit about “the affluent Caucasian males” was obviously aimed at people like me. Of course, it would apply to Frederick Engels who was a textile mill owner. My entire life has been spent as a computer programmer, a job that was enough to pay my rent, put food on my table and give me the leisure time I needed to do political work. I have no idea what Street does besides lecturing students but I have been a revolutionary since 1967. After I broke with sectarianism, I became active in the solidarity movement for the revolution in El Salvador. That led in turn to my work with Tecnica, a volunteer organization that sent people to Nicaragua and South Africa after Nelson Mandela became president, as well as other frontline states.

While I doubt that he will take my advice, it would behoove him to lay off this class baiting. Affluence does not come from writing Cobol programs. It comes from owning real estate or succeeding on Wall Street. Ernest Mandel, who was one of the foremost Marxist economists of the post-WWII period, tried to theorize the new working class that included programmers. I admit that I saw very little initiatives taken by fellow programmers over the years except for the formation of Computer Professionals for Peace that campaigned against Reagan’s Star Wars program. However, the winds might be shifting. People working for Google have formed a union that can easily become part of a transformed labor movement that will be as key to our epoch as the CIO was in the 30s. NPR reported:

After the death of George Floyd, Google engineer Raksha Muthukumar sent an email to colleagues.

In it, she pointed to a list of criminal justice reform groups and bail funds for protesters who were seeking contributions. Soon after, Muthukumar was summoned into a meeting with Google’s human relations department.

“I remember that was such a scary experience. It was such a mysterious HR letter. And I was texting friends who had been involved with organizing and they were like, ‘Oh, this is my experience with HR. This is what has happened. Don’t forget to take notes on it,'” said Muthukumar, 25, who is based in New York City.

This is the kind of repression we have to worry about now, not the clown show that broke windows at the Capitol.

February 8, 2021

Ernie Tate’s “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s”

Filed under: biography,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s, Volume One, Canada 1955-1965
By Ernie Tate
268 pages. Resistance Books. $15.00

Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s, Volume Two, Canada 1955-1965
By Ernie Tate
394 pages. Resistance Books. $20.00

Exactly four years ago, as my wife and I were in the final week of our vacation in South Beach, we were pleasantly surprised to hear a female voice with a distinctly Scottish burr piping up just behind us on the sidewalk as we were going out for breakfast. “Is that Lou?” The distinctly Scottish burr belonged to Jess MacKenzie, the long-time partner of Ernie Tate, a veteran of the Trotskyist movement who had the audacity like me to vacation in a spot that in our youth would have been regarded as a decadent bourgeois swamp.

It turned out that Ernie and Jess were staying in a hotel right next to the apartment building where we had paid for a month-long sublet. I had run into Ernie and Jess at Left Forums once or twice and knew him as a Marxmail subscriber but beyond that mostly by reputation. In 1967, not long after I had joined the Socialist Workers Party in New York, members were still buzzing about how Ernie had been beaten up by Gerry Healy’s goons in London while selling a pamphlet critical of the cult leader outside one of their meetings. Since that incident loomed large in my mind even after decades had passed, I introduced my wife to him as the guy who Gerry Healy’s goons had beaten up. This prompted Ernie to remark genially but firmly that he preferred to be described as a leader of the British antiwar movement.

After enjoying dinner with Ernie and Jess that evening, I offered to bring my camcorder over to their hotel room where I would interview them. A decade ago I had begun an oral history project of Trotskyist veterans and Ernie’s reflections on a career as a revolutionary was one that deserved to be recorded, as did Jess’s.

As the camera rolled, the stories I heard from them transfixed me. Over the years I have learned that the lives led by people on the far left are often far more adventurous and dramatic than any novelist could concoct if for no other reason than their Sisyphean quality.

The son of an impoverished Protestant family in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Ernie dropped out of school when he was thirteen years old. Since his only hope for the future was factory work, he was relieved to find a job at a spinning mill where he would find himself in the sort of dead-end, low wage job that was at the heart of the textile-based industrial revolution of the British isles a century earlier.

In a much more low-budget vacation than the one he took in South Beach, a twenty year old Ernie went to Paris in the summer of 1954 to stay at a hostel. When he went out on the street one morning, he ran into an immense parade of trade unionists and Communists carrying banners with red flags and hammer-and-sickles. Dien Bien Phu had just fallen to General Giap and the French left was out on the streets celebrating. Ernie said that this was a transformative moment. As a young worker, he identified with the Vietnamese and the French workers even if he had no clear idea what socialism meant. He was sure, however, that the Soviet Union was on the right side of history.

Jess had her own amazing stories to tell, the most memorable of them involving her role in transporting money on Robert Williams’s behalf to his followers in the USA. When she was in Cuba as part of a delegation organized by the Canadian Fair Play for Cuba Committee, she had come into contact with the NAACP leader who had fled trumped-up charges of kidnapping a white couple. Williams’s real crime was to organize armed self-defense squads against KKK terror in North Carolina. Given the American Trotskyist campaign to defend Williams, he felt confidence enough in Jess to entrust her with substantial sums. Of course, given the high security alerts around Williams, she was taking a chance that she too might have ended up on J. Edgar Hoover’s enemies list.

A year or so later I learned that the stories Ernie related to me that day came to him with surprising fluency because at the time he was immersed in the research that would culminate in the publication of a two-volume memoir titled “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s”, one that is filled with such tales and, as I am sure Ernie would admit, of a Sisyphean character. For us, as it was for Max Horkheimer who put it memorably, “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.”

That being said, much of Ernie’s memoir can be described as a joy ride through history. As I related to him midway through reading it, it reminded me—despite myself—of the good times I enjoyed when I was out on the streets selling socialist newspapers. There’s very few pleasures, including a room facing the ocean on South Beach, that can compete with the ones you experience as a committed revolutionary secure in the knowledge that you are part of a movement challenging a capitalist class that is a threat to the survival of humanity and all life on earth.

Trying to escape the brutal poverty in Belfast, Ernie immigrated to Toronto, Canada in 1955 where he ran into Ross Dowson at the Labour Bookstore that was the headquarters for the tiny Trotskyist movement in Canada. Dowson was something of a hair shirt, leading a monk-like existence at the bookstore, where he hoped to replenish a movement that had been hollowed out by the witch-hunt. He lived in a tiny apartment in the back of the bookstore that did not even have a shower or bath. Over the years when he became a full-timer for the party, Ernie learned that Dowson was determined to make everybody live by his norms, even when it posed risks to their health and morale.

Of course, when you are young and full of enthusiasm for the imminent victory of the socialist revolution (Ernie thought that the revolution would take place no later than 1960), you are willing to make all sorts of sacrifices. For Ernie and a small cadre of adventurers, this meant going on newspaper and literature sales campaigns across Canada in rickety vans, one of which was a converted poultry truck that retained a fowl odor (pun intended) no matter how many scrubbings with strong disinfectants had been applied.

After a decade in the Canadian party, Ernie accepted an assignment to move to London where he would try to establish a Trotskyist party. Like the Americans whose orientation had a major influence on the Canadians, this meant placing a major emphasis on building the Vietnam antiwar movement and recruiting activists who had become radicalized through the protests. That was how I became a member of the American movement myself. After learning that the SWP was spearheading the antiwar movement, I decided that this was where I belonged.

For Ernie, this meant working closely with the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation that had established a Vietnam International War Crimes Tribunal. For a public anxious to learn about the origins and nature of an imperialist war that sought to turn the clock back to before 1954, this was in effect a European version of the teach-ins taking place in the USA. It was Ernie’s chance to turn the tide of history back to that summer when he was radicalized by the mass celebrations in the streets of Paris. A new victory would take place in the 1970s, finally establishing the right of Vietnamese to determine their own destiny.

Working with Bertrand Russell meant working with Ralph Schoenman, who was Russell’s secretary and who spoke in his name. At the time many people had a suspicion that given Russell’s advanced years it meant that directives issued in his name were actually traceable to Schoenman who some regarded as a Svengali taking advantage of a nonagenarian. Ernie makes a convincing case that Russell was intimately involved in the workings of the Tribunal and spoke entirely for himself even if he was forced sometimes by old age and infirmity to keep a low public profile.

The portraits of Russell and Schoenman are carefully etched in the memoir, the former coming across as a moral exemplar committed totally to the liberation of the Vietnamese people and the latter a force of nature confronting all sorts of obstacles standing in the way of the Tribunal. Reading Tate is a reminder of how difficult it was in the early years of the antiwar movement to establish the legitimacy of a war crimes tribunal. Charles De Gaulle, despite his reputation for being a thorn in Uncle Sam’s side, was hostile to it as was the Swedish government. As Schoenman was storming heaven and earth to establish its right to exist against elite resistance, he had to face all sorts of internal problems some of which were of his own doing. Prickly personalities serving on the tribunal were frequently at each other’s throats, including Jean Paul-Sartre who was all too ready to take offense even when it seemed that he was someone most prone to giving it.

As a kind of moderating influence, Isaac Deutscher’s role was indispensable. As one of the most respected Marxist scholars in the world and a journalist whose insights were respected universally, his background in the internecine struggles of the Trotskyist movement prepared him for resolving disputes within the tribunal, often conferring with Ernie Tate on how to deal with what appeared to be intractable problems.

In the course of consulting with Deutscher, a friendship developed. Despite having established himself as a revolutionary organizer and activist with a good command of his movement’s theory, Ernie was always aware of his working-class roots and somewhat capable of being intimidated by the intellectuals his work with the tribunal brought him into contact with. In my favorite passage in the memoir, he recounts a discussion with Deutscher that conveys in a few words the tension that often exists on the left between the intellectual and the worker-activist:

I remember once when he made a few disparaging comments in my company about the Fourth International, that I took to be a questioning of its very existence and which got my back up a little, I faced him directly on the issue, sort of poking fun at what he was saying. I posed a hypothetical situation to him, that of an imaginary apolitical young worker, who after reading a Deutscher book, for example, might become convinced of the need for socialism and shows up on Deutscher’s doorstep to ask him advice about what he, the young worker, should do to help bring about this fundamental change. For me, I said, I wouldn’t hesitate a moment because from what I knew from history, without their own organization, workers won’t get anywhere and I would tell the young worker to join my group as the first step in trying to build such an organization which could help lead workers in transforming society. What would you tell the young worker? I asked him, and I knew I was appealing to his background as an active revolutionary leader, of which I knew he felt proud. Momentarily, he looked a little bit non-plussed, probably thinking that I had a bit of a nerve challenging him like that, but he came back, surprisingly, saying he would recommend the same thing. Better that than nothing, he said, in a sort of backhanded compliment.

After his work with the tribunal was finished, Ernie turned his attention to the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign whose most prominent spokesman was Tariq Ali. Ernie’s memoir makes an interesting contrast with Ali’s “Street Fighting Man: an autobiography of the Sixties”, a very lively memoir that unsurprisingly puts the celebrated author in the foreground.

Perhaps because of his humble background, Ernie chose to downplay his own role and personality. You will find very little of the self-regard that goes into most autobiographies by veterans of the Trotskyist movement that was most egregiously on display in Irving Howe’s “A margin of hope: An intellectual autobiography”. For Ernie Tate, the real interest is in the personalities he encountered over a fifty-year career in the movement, for whom he retains considerable affection even when they were driving him a little crazy.

For someone like me or for veterans of the broader socialist movement, the memoir will be richly rewarding since it is a beautifully written and deeply thoughtful account of the revolutionary life. With his dry sense of humor and a perfect grasp of the psychology of his subjects, reading Ernie Tate delivers the pleasure that will never be found in fiction, especially in a period of history when the novelist is trained at places like the University of Iowa writers workshop to focus on personal and family matters.

For young people coming around the radical movement today who are trying to figure out what to do next in a period of deepening reaction, the memoir is a reassuring testimony to how a mass movement can erupt when a people has decided that it can no longer endure existing conditions. If the mid-50s had the advantage of an actually existing socialism in Russia, China and Eastern Europe, we are in a period that lacking such “liberated territories” at least leads to the conclusion that capitalism no longer has the ability to satisfy the basic needs of millions—perhaps billions—of people demanding their place in the sun. For them, just as was the case for Ernie Tate in 1954, the need for revolution is more urgent than ever.

February 7, 2021

Simulation of a Nuclear Blast in a Major City

Filed under: nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 9:15 pm

February 6, 2021

Ernie Tate, ¡presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 11:25 pm

Last night at around 10pm I got a phone call from Jess McKenzie informing me that her husband Ernie Tate had finally succumbed to cancer of the pancreas, something Ernie had revealed to me about six months earlier. I counted Ernie and Jess as two of my closest friends and political confidantes and his passing has affected me deeply.

My first encounter with Ernie was in the early 2000s, when he showed up as a Marxmail subscriber. His name was familiar to me because when I joined the SWP in 1967, a defense campaign in England had been organized after Gerry Healy’s goons had beaten him up as he was selling a pamphlet critical of Healy outside one of their meetings. For me, almost like a word association game, the name Ernie Tate always summoned up this incident—until he smiled and said that he had put it behind him. Unlike me, Ernie did not hold a grudge even, according to Ian Birchall, having “some positive things to say about Healy’s SLL.”

Oddly enough, it was his calm and sunny disposition that was matched to my own surly nature that have complemented us over the years. Early on, Ernie asked me if I could post a 14,000 word article he wrote about “Changes in Russia” on my website. This was long before people began blogging, something that didn’t seem to interest Ernie. All his energy went into a two-volume memoir “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s & 60s.” on his lifetime in the trade union and revolutionary movement that is one of the best to come out of the Trotskyist movement. More about this book to follow.

Not long after Ernie subscribed to Marxmail, he invited me to meet with him at a Left Forum in New York to go over this and that. The Marxism list was well-known (and even notorious) as a forum for those trying to understand the wreckage of the SWP and its affiliated sects so I had a feeling that he wanted to compare his experience with my own. The conversation revealed that Ernie had left the Canadian section of the FI because of its “workerist” turn that was inspired by the American SWP. Keep in mind that Ernie had been a blue-collar worker since the early 50s so he was in a better position to evaluate the “colonization” project. He described a fumbling, amateurish operation that recruited not a single worker and led to an exodus from the party. It was our common understanding of this experience that led to our close political bonding, but there was much more to it than that.

In December 2011, my wife and I were walking out of the monthlong rental in Miami Beach, when I heard a woman’s voice in a distinctly Scottish burr about a dozen feet away: “Ernie, isn’t that Lou?” Just by coincidence, Ernie and Jess were staying for about the same length of time at a hotel close to where we were staying. We had dinner several times and really enjoyed the warmth and wisdom both radiated, especially my wife who does not share my surliness unless you get on her wrong side. I had ideas about doing a video when I was down there, mostly about the area’s history and to interview a former mayor who spent time in prison for taking bribes. But the only record I have of my trip was an interview I did with Ernie that was a very short version of his 2-volume memoir. It is shown above.

His story was spell-binding. Born in 1934, he was a working-class Irish Protestant kid from Belfast who took a vacation in Paris in 1954 just after the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu. The powerful demonstrations celebrating the victory organized by the CP were such an inspiration to him that he decided on the spot to become a communist.

Jess joined the movement in 1964 and before long found herself on a trip to Cuba that would put her in touch with Robert Williams, the NAACP leader who had organized a militia to defend African-Americans against Klan terror. She found herself functioning as a courier between Williams and his comrades in the U.S.

These were just two of the high points of this couple’s extraordinary voyage through the revolutionary left. Unlike the academic left, they lived the type of life that Max Horkheimer described “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.” Well, that does sound a bit too grim, doesn’t it? In fact, most of the time it was loads of fun. Whenever the topic of time travel comes up in idle chatter, I always say that if I could return to any year in the past, it would be 1968.

Much of Ernie’s memoir can be described as a joy ride through history. As I related to him midway through reading it, it reminded me—despite myself—of the good times I enjoyed when I was out on the streets selling socialist newspapers. There’s very few pleasures, including a room facing the ocean on South Beach, that can compete with the ones you experience as a committed revolutionary secure in the knowledge that you are part of a movement challenging a capitalist class that is a threat to the survival of humanity and all life on earth.

I loved Ernie as an older and wiser brother and will miss him dearly. My condolences to Jess, who is a formidable revolutionary in her own right. As our generation wends its way into the inevitable fate that awaits us, it is reassuring to know that there is a legacy that is being left behind in works like “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s & 60s.” And, keep your eyes out for this, for comic relief I will soon be serializing the graphic novel I did with Harvey Pekar called “The Unrepentant Marxist”.

February 5, 2021

Why Not Nuclear Power?

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:02 pm

By Manuel Garcia Jr.

I am asked in an e-mail:

“I’m assuming that in 30 or 40 years, everyone will (pretty much) be using nuclear power for their energy needs. By last count, there were 440+ nuclear reactors in the world, with dozens more planned for installation. France (of all countries) is roughly 70% nuclear. My question: Why are people still pretending that nuclear energy isn’t the cleanest, most efficient method available?

My answer: Because it’s not.

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