Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 22, 2018

A multiple-choice test by the New York Times, answer correctly and you are DSA material

Filed under: DSA — louisproyect @ 7:04 pm

As part of its continuing PR effort on behalf of the DSA, the New York Times has a multiple choice/interactive feature titled “What is Democratic Socialism”. With this article reaching nearly 2.2 million readers, you can just see the membership figures for the DSA topping 100,000 before long. That’s the same number the CP reached in the 30s and was, like with the DSA, partly a result of its cachet among liberal elites.

Let’s take the multiple choice test together:

(1) Let’s start with the big question. In an ideal world, who would control the means of production?

a. Private Owners

b. The Government

c. Workers

For some reason, each of the questions includes one that is a giveaway. As if anybody who favors “private owners” is trying to make up their mind whether they are socialists or not.

It’s sort of a trick question since socialism, whether you identify it with Cuba or Sweden, does involve government control. If you chose b, however, you are not a democratic socialist since only “Leninist” governments are control freaks. If you chose c, you are in good company since that means workers will be in charge and who can oppose that? The DSA does allow that key industries like steel and energy would be “administered” by the government but everything else would be those apple-cheeked cooperatives that Richard Wolff is so gung-ho on. This begs the question whether steel and energy would be state-owned or not. After all, administration could also mean riding herd in the way that Cuba deals with foreign-owned hotels. As for cooperatives, what prevents them from becoming like Mondragon? A company making pressure cookers, as Mondragon does through its Fabor subsidiary, has to compete with other pressure cooker manufacturers in a market economy. Since there are always winners and losers, it always helps a firm be a winner if it pays attention to the bottom line. In a Fortune Magazine article titled “Defiant Spanish workers stage lock-in, resist layoffs”, we can see that cooperatives obey the same economic dictates as conventional firms do:

Almost 28,000 companies have declared bankruptcy during Spain’s five-year economic crisis, hitting a peak of 2,854 during the first three months of 2013. But Fagor Electrodomésticos is not just any business. Launched in 1956 by a Catholic priest named José María Arizmendiarrieta and five students from a technical college he started in the wake of the Spanish Civil War, Fagor is the foundational unit of Mondragón, the world’s biggest conglomerate of worker-owned cooperatives.

With 80,000 employees and operations in 18 countries outside Spain, Mondragón became a symbol of what a worker-owned cooperative model could achieve. In the late 1980s, Pedro Nueno, a professor of entrepreneurship at the IESE Business School, consulted with Fagor on ways to innovate for the “kitchen of the future.” He says he was struck by the leaders’ long-term vision and by how committed they were considering their low salaries (top executives at Mondragón make less than 10 times the lowest paid worker’s salary).

 “A person with the same responsibilities would be getting five times that in another company,” he says.

Similarly, when Richard Wolff, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, visited Fagor two years ago, he was impressed by the seriousness with which management handled buying assembly line equipment, which came from outside the Mondragón family of industrial companies. “They gave me a lecture on policy: You buy within Mondragón if quality or price was competitive. If not, you go outside,” he says.

But such commitment and seriousness has done little to help Fagor recently. Revenues fell from €1.75 billion in 2007 (about $2.58 billion at the time) to €1.28 billion in 2011, and the company has lost money for the last five years, racking up debts of €859 million. During that time, Mondragón lent it some €300 million.


(2) In a capitalist system, do you believe government regulations are helpful or harmful?

a. Helpful

b. Harmful

A giveaway.


(3) Do you believe that everyone is entitled to a certain minimum standard of living?

a. Yes

b. No

Another giveaway.


(4) Do you believe labor unions are a positive force?

a. Yes

b. No

Another giveaway. As you can see, questions 2 through 4 are set up to make people like Cynthia Nixon decide to declare that she is a socialist. In fact, probably 90 percent of the audience watching Rachel Maddow would choose the “correct” answers. The truth is that anybody who voted for Obama would be a “democratic socialist” on the basis of how they reply to those questions. Maybe the whole thing is calculated to make “democratic socialism” such an acceptable choice in order for the Democratic Party to regain the hegemonic status it possessed from FDR to LBJ. American capitalism has a rocky road in front of it and it requires adroit statesmanship to avoid a collision. Clearly, the new generation of people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and even Andrew Gillum, who eschews the label of socialist, are waiting in the wings to displace Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.


(5) Which of these best matches your views on health care?

a. The government should have minimal or no involvement in providing or funding health care.

b. The government should subsidize the cost of private insurance for people who can’t afford it, through a system more or less like the Affordable Care Act.

c. We should have a single-payer system, like “Medicare for all.”

d. The whole health care industry should be socialized. Health care would be funded through a single-payer government system, and doctors would be public employees, like in Britain.

If you chose c, you are partly a democratic socialist but if you want to be included in the inner circle that will save humanity from Armageddon, the right choice would have been d since that’s the most socialistic. Unfortunately, the health care system in Britain is being undermined by a thousand cuts, just like the shitty Obamacare is in the USA. Unless the political power of the bourgeoisie is ended, health care is subject to its whims. That political power rests on its economic power, of course, something that will resist relinquishing in the same way that the southern bourgeoisie resisted Lincoln’s abolitionist agenda: violence. This leads me to the final question that really needs to be sorted out since it is basically a trick question.


(6) Ideally, how should major social or political changes be achieved?

a. Through the traditional democratic process: elections, legislation and popular lobbying.

b. Through grass-roots organizing.

c. By any means necessary, including violence and/or revolution.

If you chose a, you’d be partially democratic socialist even though there’s not much to differentiate you from an ordinary Democratic Party ward-heeler. If you chose grass-roots organizing, what are you waiting for? Go to the DSA website, enter your name, address, etc. and click “submit”. That’s all there is to it. After all, being in favor of grass-roots organizing doesn’t actually obligate you to do anything. That would be so Leninist, after all.

Choosing c condemns you as a “communist”:

You disagree with democratic socialists. This is a common point of misunderstanding for people who conflate democratic socialism with communism. Democratic socialists don’t support a revolution to overthrow capitalism; they believe change should happen, well, democratically. “Any possible transition to socialism would necessitate mass mobilization and the democratic legitimacy garnered by having demonstrated majority support,” Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Schulman wrote.

Democratic socialists support and participate in the electoral process, but they believe that ideally, workers should achieve changes for themselves — for instance, through unions and tenant organizations — rather than relying on people in traditional positions of authority.

“We would prefer, for example, for us to win universal rent control in New York through organizing millions of New Yorkers,” Ms. Svart said. “We believe that it’s through the process of pushing for these changes that people empower themselves.”

The Schwartz and Schulman referred to above are Joseph Schwartz and Jason Schulman who co-wrote “Toward Freedom: Democratic Socialist Theory and Practice” on December 21, 2012. They see themselves as more advanced than Karl Marx since, unlike them, “Marx did not make clear his commitment to political democracy”. Poor Karl Marx did not understand the need for “political pluralism” that obviously means having free elections that include parties arguing for the overthrow of socialism. Leaving aside whether Chile or Nicaragua were socialist, Salvador Allende and Daniel Ortega tried that. Look how far it got them. Nasty old Cuba did not permit that. Yeah, it meant that you were living under authoritarian rule but given Cuba’s proximity to the USA, it is doubtful that anything else would have allowed the socialized medicine DSA supports to be possible.

This business about “violence” is the stock-in-trade of sleazy liberal journalists going back for a century. I used to hear it all the time when Malcolm X was alive. This is how he used to handle it:

Malcolm X was sympathetic to the Socialist Workers Party and for good reasons. He and the party understood this question of violence to the marrow of their bones. When James P. Cannon and other party leaders were on trial for violating the Smith Act in 1941, he spoke about the SWP’s position on violence. I recommend reading his entire “Socialism on Trial” but will conclude with the section dealing with question of violence:

Q: Now, what is the opinion of Marxists with reference to the change in the social order, as far as its being accompanied or not accompanied by violence?

A: It is the opinion of all Marxists that it will be accompanied by violence.

Q: Why?

A: That is based, like all Marxist doctrine, on a study of history, the historical experiences of mankind in the numerous changes of society from one form to another, the revolutions which accompanied it, and the resistance which the outlived classes invariably put up against the new order. Their attempt to defend themselves against the new order, or to suppress by violence the movement for the new order, has resulted in every important social transformation up to now being accompanied by violence.

Q: Who, in the opinion of Marxists, initiated that violence?

A: Always the ruling class; always the outlived class that doesn’t want to leave the stage when the time has come. They want to hang on to their privileges, to reinforce them by violent measures, against the rising majority and they run up against the mass violence of the new class, which history has ordained shall come to power.

Q: What is the opinion of Marxists, as far as winning a majority of the people to socialist ideas?

A: Yes, that certainly is the aim of the party. That is the aim of the Marxist movement, has been from its inception.

Marx said the social revolution of the proletariat—I think I can quote his exact words from memory—“is a movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority”[2] He said this in distinguishing it from previous revolutions which had been made in the interest of minorities, as was the case in France in 1789.

Q: What would you say is the opinion of Marxists as far as the desirability of a peaceful transition is concerned?

A: The position of the Marxists is that the most economical and preferable, the most desirable method of social transformation, by all means, is to have it done peacefully.

Q: And in the opinion of the Marxists, is that absolutely excluded?

A: Well, I wouldn’t say absolutely excluded. We say that the lessons of history don’t show any important examples in favor of the idea so that you can count upon it.

Q: Can you give us examples in American history of a minority refusing to submit to a majority?

A: I can give you a very important one. The conception of the Marxists is that even if the transfer of political power from the capitalists to the proletariat is accomplished peacefully—then the minority, the exploiting capitalist class, will revolt against the new regime, no matter how legally it is established.

I can give you an example in American history. The American Civil War resulted from the fact that the Southern slaveholders couldn’t reconcile themselves to the legal parliamentary victory of Northern capitalism, the election of President Lincoln.

Q: Can you give us an example outside of America where a reactionary minority revolted against a majority in office?

A: Yes, in Spain—the coalition of workers’ and liberal parties in Spain got an absolute majority in the elections and established the People’s Front government. This government was no sooner installed than it was confronted with an armed rebellion, led by the reactionary capitalists of Spain.

Q: Then the theory of Marxists and the theory of the Socialist Workers Party, as far as violence is concerned, is a prediction based upon a study of history, is that right?

A: Well, that is part of it. It is a prediction that the outlived class, which is put in a minority by the revolutionary growth in the country, will try by violent means to hold on to its privileges against the will of the majority. That is what we predict.

Of course, we don’t limit ourselves simply to that prediction. We go further, and advise the workers to bear this in mind and prepare themselves not to permit the reactionary outlived minority to frustrate the will of the majority.

Q: What role does the rise and existence of fascism play with reference to the possibility of violence?

A: That is really the nub of the whole question, because the reactionary violence of the capitalist class, expressed through fascism, is invoked against the workers. Long before the revolutionary movement of the workers gains the majority, fascist gangs are organised and subsidised by millions in funds from the biggest industrialists and financiers, as the example of Germany showed—and these fascist gangs undertake to break up the labor movement by force. They raid the halls, assassinate the leaders, break up the meetings, burn the printing plants, and destroy the possibility of functioning long before the labor movement has taken the road of revolution.

I say that is the nub of the whole question of violence. If the workers don’t recognise that, and do not begin to defend themselves against the fascists, they will never be given the possibility of voting on the question of revolution. They will face the fate of the German and Italian proletariat and they will be in the chains of fascist slavery before they have a chance of any kind of a fair vote on whether they want socialism or not.

It is a life and death question for the workers that they organise themselves to prevent fascism, the fascist gangs, from breaking up the workers’ organisations, and not to wait until it is too late. That is in the program of our party.

September 21, 2018

Fahrenheit 11/9

Filed under: comedy,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, SEPTEMBER 21, 2018

Michael Moore fans will be happy to hear that “Fahrenheit 11/9”, which opens today at theaters everywhere, is his best film in years, even in spots achieving the brilliance of “Roger and Me”. As pure entertainment, it is on a par with the best of Saturday Night Live, the Stephen Colbert show or any other pop culture attempts to rally people against Donald Trump even if it is unlikely that any such comedy so wedded to the Democratic Party will have any effect.

The film is a blunderbuss attack on the Trump administration and the Democratic Party establishment that includes Bill and Hillary Clinton. Even Barack Obama gets the Michael Moore treatment in an obvious display of buyer’s remorse. If you’ve seen the 2009 “Capitalism, a Love Story”, you might recall that the film portrays him as a knight in shining armor. Two days after Obama was elected for his first term Moore said, “The Republicans aren’t kidding when they say he’s the ‘most liberal’ member of the Senate. … He is our best possible chance to step back from the edge of the cliff.” In keeping with the general drift of the left, Moore now regards him as a total sell-out. In a lengthy segment on the Flint water crisis, we see Obama as a total jack-ass making a “joke” at a mass meeting of parents worried sick about their children’s health by asking for a glass of water. He repeats this stunt at another meeting with doctors and community leaders.

For Moore, the original sin was Bill Clinton becoming the equivalent of a moderate Republican in his first term. Since organized labor was not as powerful as it was in the past, especially in places like Moore’s hometown Flint, Clinton decided to cater to big business that would provide the necessary funding for him to be elected and then re-elected. This meant putting an end to Glass-Steagall, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and other policies falling under the rubric of neo-liberalism.

Continue reading

September 19, 2018

Ocasio-Cortez endorses Cuomo while he flips her off

Filed under: two-party system — louisproyect @ 10:33 pm

From “State of the Nation”, CNN, September 16:

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Cynthia Nixon did a phenomenal job.

JAKE TAPPER: She lost your district by 30 points.

OCASIO-CORTEZ: Right, right, but we focused on our local candidates, and we focused on the legislatures.

But I think that what she did was that she centered a lot of phenomenal issues. She centered racial justice. She centered criminal justice reform. She centered the legalization of marijuana, single-payer health care. And a lot of down-ballot candidates benefited from that.

And what I also look forward to moving forward is us rallying behind all Democratic nominees, including the governor, to make sure that he wins in November.


The Guardian, September 14, 2018

Andrew Cuomo says progressive wave is ‘not even a ripple’ after primary win

Governor discussed his vision of the Democrat party at a press conference on Friday, calling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win ‘a fluke’

‘I’m not a newcomer. But I am a progressive. And I deliver progressive results,’ Andrew Cuomo told reporters.
 ‘I’m not a newcomer. But I am a progressive. And I deliver progressive results,’ Andrew Cuomo told reporters. Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, has said the so-called insurgent progressive wave in his party is “not even a ripple”, arguing that it’s pragmatists like him who can get things done who are the true progressives.

Cuomo, a two-term Democratic incumbent, on Thursday defeated challenger Cynthia Nixon by a 30-point margin – turning back the latest attempt by a newcomer from the left to unseat a Democrat favored by the establishment.

The governor, viewed as a potential 2020 presidential contender, used a victory lap press conference on Friday to make a forceful case for his own vision of the party.

“I’m not a socialist. I’m not 25 years old … I’m not a newcomer,” he told reporters at his Manhattan office. “But I am a progressive. And I deliver progressive results.”

Cuomo was fighting back against another narrative that has taken hold in the party: that the upset win by New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic socialist who knocked off the powerful representative Joe Crowley, set off a domino effect in primaries around the country, including upset wins by progressives running for governor in Georgia and Florida and for a congressional seat in Massachusetts.

“Where was that effect yesterday? Where was it?” Cuomo asked.

Instead, he said the win by Ocasio-Cortez in Queens in June was merely “a fluke”, explained by the timing of the vote which resulted in low turnout.

The statewide primary this week, by contrast, saw a spike in turnout, and Cuomo bragged that he got more primary votes than any governor in history.

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“That is a wave,” he said. “On the numbers – not on some Twittersphere dialogue where I tweet you, you tweet me, and between the two of us we think we have a wave. We’re not even a ripple.”

Cuomo won despite a series of missteps in the closing days of the campaign, when he drew criticism for a mailer sent out linking Nixon to antisemitism, which his camp and the state Democratic party were forced to disavow.

And after Cuomo hosted an event alongside Hillary Clinton to mark the opening of a new bridge named for his father, the span was forced to stay closed due to structural dangers.

Cuomo ruled out a presidential run during the primary race, promising to serve a full term as governor unless “God strikes me dead”, but there are already rumblings he could change his mind.

To have a chance, he would have to make the case that a politician like himself – the son of a former governor, known more as an operator and dealmaker than an ideological purist – is the best standard bearer against Donald Trump, an argument that was apparent in his remarks on Friday.

He pointed to his track record of raising the minimum wage, creating a paid family leave program, and legalizing gay marriage.

“A progressive Democrat, a Democrat in New York state – these are not ivory tower academics. These are not pontificators. These are not people who live in the abstract or the theoretical. New York Democrats, these are hard-working men and women,” he said.

“They opened the envelope and they looked at their check, and they saw that their check went up. That’s how they know a $15 minimum wage meant something to them.”

 

September 17, 2018

Rodents of Unusual Size; Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco

Filed under: Ecology,fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 7:23 pm

At first blush, the two documentaries “Rodents of Unusual Size” and “Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco” seem to have very little in common. The first is about the introduction of nutrias from Argentina into Louisiana in the 1930s, an invasive species that has wreaked havoc on the wetlands on the southern coast. The second is about a charismatic fashion illustrator who was part of the wild party scenes at places like Max’s Kansas City in New York and Club Sept in Paris in the 1970s. But what they have in common is the fashion industry and social history with fascinating glimpses into Cajun country and the cultural underground that swirled around figures such as Andy Warhol, Karl Lagerfeld and models like Grace Jones. It turns out that the nutria were introduced in order to launch a native fur industry in Depression-wracked America while Antonio Lopez was a product of the subculture of a fashion industry deeply influenced by the 1960s radicalization that unlike Depression-era has left profound markers on race, gender and sexuality. As distant as the labor struggles of the 30s seem today, the 1960s remains relevant 50 years after its passing as symbolized by the endless controversies over “diversity”.

In 1938, E.A. McIlhenny, whose Tabasco sauce is a key ingredient of Bloody Marys, started a nutria farm on Avery Island, Louisiana near his factory. For reasons unknown, he decided to release them into the wild where they began to proliferate. For the next 30 years or so, they had no big environmental impact comparable to the introduction of rabbits into Australia, another invasive species.

This was because they were a plentiful and cheap alternative to mink, chinchilla, ermine and other furs that wealthy women could afford. Trappers poured into the wetlands and bagged dozens per day, which were turned into coats in New York’s garment industry. For the wives of the men working in garment factories making mink coats, it was only nutria or muskrat that their wives could show off in Catskill hotels.

PETA changed all that when activists began to throw red paint on fur coats, not distinguishing between a 2,000 dollar mink coat and a 200 dollar nutria. This led to a collapse of the trapping industry and a mammoth expansion of the nutria population that led to vegetation being consumed to the point that swamps were turned into deserts. Under assault already from oil and gas exploration, the nutrias were destroying the natural obstacles to flooding that devastated New Orleans in 2005.

One of the victims of Hurricane Katrina was a septuagenarian fisherman whose 5 bedroom house near the shoreline was destroyed by flooding. Ironically, his part-time work trapping and shooting nutria has helped him to rebuild.

“Rodents of an Unusual Size” provides insights into the Cajun world that has had a remarkable talent for survival going back into the 19th century. We hear one man liken the local hunters to the beasts they are killing for bounty money. They feel a duty to thin their numbers in the interests of environmentalism even though they have an admiration for an animal that has become part of the local culture, to the point where sports teams use mascots resembling the 20-pound, orange-fanged rodents.

The film is currently playing at the Laemmle in Los Angeles and will open at the IFC Center in New York on October 23rd. Consult http://www.rodentsofunusualsize.tv/screenings.html for screenings elsewhere.

Now playing at the IFC in New York, “Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco” chronicles the life and times of a Puerto Rican artist who worked for Vogue Magazine and other glossy periodicals. I say the word artist advisedly since he was as much of a visionary as Andy Warhol who not only greatly admired Lopez’s work but began as a commercial artist just like him.

For those of you who were born after 1975 or so, the film might come as a surprise since it reveals the porousness between a milieu largely considered decadent and what veterans of the 1960s, like me, were all about.

Lopez was not political in an obvious way but he was the first to begin using African-American models who became part of his entourage, including Grace Jones. He was also the first to push the envelope in terms of how women were represented in his drawings. Instead of being stiff and mannequin-like, they were bold and defiant. Grace Jones represented that aesthetic perfectly.

Lopez was also a gay icon who like his good friends Karl Lagerfeld and Yves St. Laurent were open about their sexuality. Lopez, who had the faun-like appearance of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, loved being the center of attention and was adored by men and women alike.

He died of AIDS in 1987, although the film only mentions that close to the end. Instead, it is an affirmation of a life lived to the fullest and a testament to the spirit of the time where rebelliousness was reflected in both campus sit-ins and fashion shoots for Vogue.

September 15, 2018

The DSA, Julia Salazar and the future of the left

Filed under: DSA — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

About six months ago I went to the DSA website and became a member. That amounted to making a $5 contribution and nothing else. My main interest was being apprised of their goings on and as such my $5 was worth it since I get emails from Maria Svart, their elected leader, a subscription to their membership forum and their print newsletters.

In a FB conversation with long-time Marxist Democratic Party activist Carl Davidson about whether DSA’s membership figures were inflated based on an interloper like me being included as a member, Carl assured me that I really wasn’t a member. Well, just a couple of days ago I got snail mail indicating that I was one of the 50,000 members for real. My only question is how many others are only paper members like me.

Obviously not all since they were largely responsible for ringing the doorbells that helped get Julia Salazar elected, who by their reckoning is tantamount to the Bolshevik Party having a party member elected to the Duma. As it happens, there was one–Roman Malinovsky who turned out to be a Czarist spy. Now I don’t want to equate Julia Salazar with Malinovsky but she appeared to be living a double life as well. To her comrades, she was a working-class immigrant and Sephardic Jew from Colombia who was radicalized by her experience working as a domestic and by the treatment of Palestinians. The creeps at Tablet magazine looked into her background and discovered that she came from a wealthy family with no Jews in their past and enjoys a $685,000 trust fund from her deceased father. Also, she had a rightwing past that included defending Israel on Glenn Beck’s talk show. I suppose DSA’ers accepted all that like in the final scene of “Some Like it Hot” when Jack Lemmon pulls off his wig and confesses to Joe E. Brown: “We can’t get married because I am a man” (the reality of the period). Whereupon, Brown answers: “Nobody’s perfect”.

I’ll accept that she has made a legitimate political and religious conversions even though some cynics might have concluded that being self-identified as a Jew and a leftist is a good way to get elected in New York. My only question is why she did not disclose her past to her comrades. Unless, of course, that would have triggered suspicions that they were dealing with an opportunist. But, on second thought, that doesn’t hurt when you are running as a Democrat. Opportunism probably is a good way to get higher up in the DP machinery just like downing 20 Jello Shots when applying to become a member of a fraternity or sorority.

Over on Jacobin, there’s an article by DSA member and trade union steward Ben Beckett ebulliently titled “We’re On a Winning Streak” that offers up-to-date thinking among the young Marxist Democratic Party activists who will become the next generation’s Carl Davidson.

Showing a bit of buyer’s remorse, Beckett explained Nixon’s loss to Cuomo as a result of her lack of interest in working class issues. Of course, in the unlikely event that she had bested Cuomo, I am sure that Jacobin and DSA would have been basking in her glory. That’s how that kind of politics based on pragmatism works.

Beckett drew attention to the bourgeois press’s putting her past under a microscope, something that does not customarily take place when a candidate is running for a relatively minor post like State Senator. This could have only meant that the real estate industry was out to get her. That undoubtedly was true but it was also true that the democratic socialists have been getting more press than the marriage of Prince Harry & Meghan Markle so what else would you expect? It sells newspapers and is clickbait supremo.

Finally Beckett gets down to brass tacks and deals with the questions of dinosaurs like me blasting DSA for its Democratic Party orientation. Well, not me exactly. More like the ISO’ers who have benefited from exposure in Jacobin even if they help give it credibility on its left flank.

Here is Beckett’s excuse for supporting the Democratic Party:

However, any prospects of forming a working-class party in the future will also fail if that party cannot gain the support of a large number of people who currently identify as Democrats. By running in Democratic primaries now, socialists can sharpen the contradictions between voters and party heads and help accelerate the process by which founding an independent party will become feasible.

If you apply this formula to the last great collision between reaction and revolution in the USA, you’d have to conclude that it was a mistake to form the Free Soil or Liberty Parties. It would have been better to stay in the Whig Party since that was where most of the gradualist opponents of slavery could be found. Of course, it is difficult to reconcile your abolitionist beliefs with membership in such a party but even more so today when you are dealing with a party that has a vast funding base and propaganda machine rooted in wage slavery rather than chattel slavery.

Recognizing the swamp-like nature of the DP, Beckett advises:

To avoid…potential pitfalls, the Left must follow Salazar’s lead and work to cohere a distinct and consistent collective political identity based on a material analysis of society, the centrality of working-class solidarity and struggle against the capitalist class, and simple-to-understand, class-wide reforms that bring concrete benefits to voters at the expense of capitalists.

The problem is that a “materialist analysis of society” would in of itself dictate against running as a candidate in the oldest, still functioning capitalist party in the world. Formed by Andrew Jackson’s supporters in 1828, it was supposed to be the party of the “common man” even though commoners of the Cherokee nation and chattel slaves were not included.

He was succeeded by his protégé James Polk who launched a war against Mexico in 1846 that Ulysses S. Grant described as “as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation” and “an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”

The next two Democrats to occupy the White House were white supremacists who make Donald Trump look like Ralph Nader. Franklin Pierce signed the Fugitive Slave Act and Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed those living in the two states to decide whether they wanted slavery or not. After him, it got even worse with James Buchanan backing the Dred Scott decision that denied the right of a slave taken to a free state by his owner to sue for his freedom.

Grover Cleveland was a Democrat who embodied imperialism. There’s not much else to say.

Woodrow Wilson, the first Democrat to supposedly fight for progressive economic policies, showed “Birth of the Nation” in the White House and had Eugene V. Debs charged with ten counts of sedition.

After a century of these kinds of Democratic Party administrations, we had FDR, Truman and LBJ who were idealized by social democrats and Stalinists as our equivalent of European social democrats even though they were warmongers who dropped atomic bombs, used biological warfare in Korea and killed millions of Vietnamese. Notwithstanding this monstrous history, Bernie Sanders demonstrates a certain affinity:

Screen Shot 2018-09-15 at 1.39.30 PM

To understand what the Sandernista movement and its offshoot in the DSA represents, you have to step back and look at the broader developments in the Democratic Party since the New Deal. Every so often, a significant portion of American society becomes deeply alienated by conditions naturally occurring under the capitalist system and the DP serves the ruling class by containing the discontent through reforms and/or promises of reform.

Under FDR, it was the working class that was ready to break with the system. It was up to the Communist Party and New Deal liberals to sustain the illusion that things would be set right.

With LBJ, it was Black America that was in open revolt. Thus, it was necessary to open the doors to Black politicians like DSA member John Conyers so they could bring working class Blacks back into the fold.

Today it is young people who are angry. A college or high school degree do not guarantee steady work. Furthermore, it is becoming more and more difficult to afford the necessities of a middle-class life like home ownership and raising a family even if you are lucky enough to get a decent job. So Bernie Sanders comes along to fight for a return to New Deal glory when economic conditions militate against that. We are in a long-term decline of American capitalism and no amount of tariffs, Keynesian gimmickry or winning State Senate offices will reverse that trend.

Even though the idea of revolution might come to the average American as a cure worse than the disease, that is what is needed. You got a glimmer of that being understood during the Occupy movement but the anarchist leadership (sorry for the contradiction in terms) could not see beyond the “prefigurative” nonsense that was swept away by Obama’s cops.

Starting in the early 1980s, I began working with Peter Camejo to promote the idea of a non-sectarian left. As you might have noticed, the North Star website that was dedicated to this goal is hibernating right now. Whether it wakes up or something else comes along to replace it, there is still a crying need for left unity but on a revolutionary basis.

The democratic socialists or social democrats or Marxist Democratic Party activists—whatever you want to call them—are opposed to revolutionary politics. Despite the lip-service they pay to changing the system, they are basically America’s Mensheviks. Despite the hoary character of Lenin’s polemics, we are dealing with the same issues with the Democratic Party seducing the DSA leaders and Jacobin editors in the same way the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) seduced Julius Martov. Socialists have to support socialist parties, or at the very least “petty-bourgeois” parties that Lenin blocked with such as the SR’s. We have the equivalent of such parties today in the Greens. We should only be so lucky to see them as having the same weight. Maybe we’ll be lucky enough to see a radical working-class party come along before long. After all, the conditions are rotten-ripe for it.

September 14, 2018

Icarus Film Retrospective

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:14 pm

Beginning tonight and lasting through the 30th, the Metrograph theater in New York will be featuring an Icarus film retrospective. Icarus is a distribution company whose leading-edge, radical films are generally not available on Amazon, iTunes or other popular streaming services. I have been covering Icarus films for close to decades now and can attest to their tremendous value as uncompromising artistic and political statements.

The Metrograph website introduces Icarus as follows:

In the summer of 1978, Ilan Ziv, fresh off his work helping to organize the first “Middle East Film Festival” in the United States, found himself in possession of a collection of little-seen films and of a passion to expose US audiences to the different points of view that they represented. Towards that end he created the distribution company Icarus Films, helmed since 1980 by Jonathan Miller. Now, forty years on, Icarus Films remains committed to the founders’ pluralistic, embracing vision of cinema, championing socially and artistically significant films that give voice to marginalized communities and express a vital, dissident version of history that’s not always written by the winners. Metrograph celebrates Icarus Films’ milestone birthday with a program of landmark films from South America, Africa, Europe, and points beyond, a program that includes crucial works by Chantal Akerman, Chris Marker, and the other epochal artists they’ve represented through the years.

Visit the Metrograph Box Office to purchase the Icarus Passport: a ticket to every program in the Icarus Films at 40 series for $50.

I am not sure when I began reviewing Icarus films but it was at least 11 years ago as this representative offering would indicate:

From my review (https://louisproyect.org/2007/05/19/six-days/):

The subtitle of “Six Days,” a documentary that opened yesterday at the Quad Cinema in New York, is “June 1967: The War that Changed the Middle East.” Directed by Israeli émigré Ilan Ziv, it generally follows the formula of PBS Frontline shows or the History Channel. Striving for a neutral approach that avoids any hint of editorializing until the final 20 minutes, it concludes with a devastating look at the impact of Israel’s blitzkrieg victory in 1967–leaving no doubt about the director’s progressive intentions.

Ziv was the founder of Icarus Films in New York City, which later merged with First Run, another like-minded distribution company. Over the years I have reviewed a number of their excellent films, including most recently “The Angry Monk,” a film about Tibet that debunks the “spiritualist” hype associated with the Dalai Lama. Ziv stepped down from Icarus in 1980 in order to devote himself full-time to documentary film making. To give you a sense of where he is coming from politically, he made “Shrine Under Siege” in 1985, an attack on Jewish and Christian fundamentalist efforts to destroy the Dome of the Rock, Islam’s third holiest shrine, and to build a new Jewish temple in its place.

By June 1967, I had become radicalized by the war in Vietnam and was rethinking everything I had believed in the past, including Israel’s progressive reputation. Ziv’s film is an excellent reminder of why so many young Jews began to break with Zionism. It makes absolutely clear that despite Zionist propaganda Israel was the dominant power in the Middle East capable of reducing its neighbors to rubble.

Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism

Filed under: Counterpunch,mechanical anti-imperialism — louisproyect @ 3:11 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, SEPTEMBER 14, 2018

Rohini Hensman’s recently published Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism is an important contribution to the debate that has divided the left since 2011, the year that Syria became a litmus test. For some, support for Bashar al-Assad became tantamount to backing Franco in the Spanish Civil War while others saw my perspective as lending support to the USA, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other reactionary states carrying out the same neoconservative foreign policy that turned Iraq into a failed state.

On practically all other questions, ranging from defending immigrant rights to opposing fracking, the left was fairly unified. The Green Party candidacy of Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka epitomized the contradictions roiling the left. Except for her appearance at an RT conference and his article hailing Assad’s electoral victory in 2014, there was little question that their campaign was a real alternative to both Trump and Clinton.

Continue reading

September 12, 2018

Hurricane Florence, 9-11 Climate Change Terrorism

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:15 am

via Hurricane Florence, 9-11 Climate Change Terrorism

September 11, 2018

Was Joseph Hansen a GPU agent? A reply to WSWS.org

Filed under: cults,journalism,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

Joseph Hansen

Last month on Leftist trainspotters, someone referred to a 4-part series of articles that appeared on WSWS.org making the case that Sylvia Callen, James P. Cannon’s secretary, and Joe Hansen, one of the long-time leaders of the SWP and Trotsky’s bodyguard in Coyoacan, were GPU agents. I wrote a brief rejoinder but did not bother to read the articles. More recently, a troll showed up on my blog to use my article on UNZ Review to bring up the same charges. He thought I had a lot of nerve “policing” Norman Finkelstein’s affiliation with the neo-Nazi website when I was a veteran of a group that was filled with agent provocateurs and finks. When I asked him to substantiate this accusation, he too brought up the WSWS.org articles.

After giving it some thought, I decided to have a look at the articles. Although many veterans of the left understand that the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) is a toxic cult, many less knowledgeable—including Chris Hedges—give it respect that it does not deserve.

This is not the first time I have examined these charges since I was in the SWP in the mid-70s when they were first raised. Before getting into the particulars, a bit of background is necessary, particularly for people like Hedges unfamiliar with the internecine squabbles of the Trotskyist movement.

In the 1950s, the Fourth International was divided into two factions. The International Committee (IC) included the SWP (prevented from formal membership by reactionary laws aimed mostly at the CPUSA) and Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labor League in England. The International Secretariat (IS) was led by a man named Michel Pablo who believed that the Cold War would force the CP’s to move in a revolutionary direction.

Essentially, the Cuban revolution laid the groundwork for reunifying most parties in the IC and the IS even though Healy remained adamantly opposed to the “petty bourgeois” adaption to Fidel Castro who they considered a nationalist defending capitalist property relations. After joining the SWP in 1967, I remember members of the Worker’s League, Healy’s satellite in the USA, showing up at Militant Labor Forums in New York to denounce the “Pabloite revisionists” during the Q&A. They looked rather like Diane Arbus photos.

Before delving into the articles, I should say a few words about Hansen. While generally considering my time in the SWP as mistake, I count Hansen as a major political influence alongside Peter Camejo. He was a master theoretician and polemicist whose critique of Guevarism was a major contribution to Marxism. In the mid-70s, just around the time Healy began explaining Hansen’s alleged Pabloite revisionism as a function of his secret ties to the Soviet Union, Hansen began his defense of mass action against guerrilla foquismo strategy, including a devastating summary of how Che’s failure to understand Stalinism led to his betrayal by the CP of Bolivia. If proof that Hansen was a GPU agent rested in his defending Cuba uncritically, then he should have been found not guilty.

Meanwhile, the Workers League was going through its own turmoil about secret agents at this time. Party leader Tim Wohlforth was married to a comrade named Nancy Field whose uncle was in the OSS, a precursor to the CIA, something that had never been revealed to their comrades. This led to the two of them being grilled by Healy in intimidating circumstances of the sort endured by Soviet dissidents and members of Larouche’s cult. As it happens, a radical being the relative of an CIA officer or any other high-ranking government official was typical of what was going on the 60s. For example, Robert McNamara’s son was an antiwar activist as were many other children of officials in both the Johnson and Nixon administrations as detailed in Tom Wells’s “The War Within”.

To some extent, searching for spies was to be expected in the Trotskyist movement since Stalin had every intention of destroying what he saw rightfully as his mortal enemy. Trotsky’s assassination was just one example of this campaign that forced his followers to fend off Stalinists at the same time they were dealing with FBI harassment and infiltration.

As for the FBI, the Socialist Equality Party claims that the leadership that evolved in the early 60s around Jack Barnes is made up of FBI agents because they all attended Carleton College in Minnesota. An obvious Healyite plant in the SWP, the lawyer Alan Gelfand was expelled as a provocateur in the mid-90s. Gelfand then sued the SWP for damages on the basis that his right to political expression had been denied. So, as you can see, this stuff about agents and spies has a long and tortured history on the fringes of the Trotskyist movement. However, it is odd that WSWS.org would bother in a new assault on the SWP since for all practical purposes it is a moribund sect that is not an obstacle to the growth of the SEP. The real obstacle to their becoming number one on the far left is their own crazy sectarian politics. As Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us”.

The bulk of the WSWS.org articles, which are written by Eric London, are focused on Cannon’s secretary who was known to the party as Sylvia Caldwell. After Max Shachtman and Albert Glotzer, two former leaders of the SWP who had left to form the Workers Party, heard rumors that Callen was a CP agent, they dropped in on Cannon in 1947 to urge him to conduct an investigation. One did take place that year, clearing her of all charges. One suspects that it was Cannon’s insistence that she was innocent that made the difference. Of course, this would implicate Cannon himself as an agent, a bridge too far even for conspiracy-minded sectarians. As soon as the investigation was completed, Callen resigned from the SWP and abandoned left politics altogether, either Stalinist or Trotskyist.

In 1950, ex-Communist and now McCarthyite tool Louis Budenz wrote a book titled “Men Without Faces” that was typical of the time. Like Whittaker Chambers, Budenz wrote about the CP as if it were indistinguishable from the GPU. This fed the paranoia of the witch hunt that made victimization of CP’ers so easy. Since Budenz identified Callen as a CP asset in the book, the SWP had no other recourse but to follow up and effectively re-open the investigation of 1947 even though she was no longer in the party. Cannon sent Farrell Dobbs out to speak to Callen who insisted that she was not guilty. This was enough for Cannon who wrote an article clearing her of Budenz’s charges.

The SWP continued to insist on Caldwell’s innocence even though she was named as a member of Jack Soble’s spy ring in a 1960 NY Times article. However, the Times refers to her as Sylvia Callen. That leaves open the question whether Cannon, Dobbs et al made the connection to Caldwell, Cannon’s secretary. The other curiosity is that despite being indicted, Callen never spent a day in jail. Considering the political climate 58 years ago, that is something of a mystery.

The first indication that the SWP might consider the possibility that Caldwell was a Stalinist agent occurred in 1976 when Healy’s accusations were roiling the left. In an article that appeared in Intercontinental Press defending Hansen by Betty Hamilton and Pierre Lambert, leaders of another Fourth International franchise,  the authors accepted the possibility that she might have been an agent and thought it appropriate for a new investigation to proceed. Looking back at this period, I doubt that the SWP would have found much use in establishing her guilt since Healy’s accusations only had the effect of deepening the isolation of his cult-sect. They hoped that he would hang himself on his own petard.

image

Sylvia Callen: interrogated by David North’s deputies

In 1976, the Workers League tracked down Callen to conduct their own investigation. At the time she was probably in her late 70s and appeared to have cognitive issues as this excerpt from the interview outside her trailer home would indicate:

Question: Do you have a memory block which begins after all these events supposedly took place?

Franklin: I don’t know. I wish you wouldn’t try to make me remember because I’ll have a breakdown. I can’t remember. It’s been many years, and I’ve put it out of my mind.

Question: Is it possible that you were in the Communist Party and simply have forgotten all about it?

Franklin: I don’t know. I don’t know. It could be one way. It could be the other. I can’t believe that person was me. I can’t believe that I worked in that office. That I was his secretary. I can’t believe anything.

In the view of the SEP, the SWP never held a new investigation of Caldwell because evidence about her GPU/CP connections would point in Joe Hansen’s direction. In the view of this batty sect-cult, it might have brought to light the letter that Hansen’s close friend Vaughn T. “Irish” O’Brien wrote in 1976:

In this letter, dated June 8, 1976, O’Brien recalled an encounter in the late 1940s or early 1950s—the general time frame of the control commission and the publication of Budenz’s books—with Pearl Kluger, a former member of A.J. Muste’s American Workers Party who knew Budenz personally. O’Brien wrote, “I had not seen Pearl for a considerable period of time, but she immediately said, ‘Budenz says your friend Joe Hansen worked with the GPU.’”

Wow, that’s the smoking gun, isn’t it? If Budenz said it, it must be true. For those curious about Budenz, you can find a bunch of his articles archived at the neo-Nazi UNZ Review—that should give you an idea of their provenance. As it happens, you can find O’Brien’s letter on Google books. It is exactly the opposite of what Eric London purports. O’Brien wrote the letter in order to assure Hansen that the charges against him were preposterous.

Indeed, immediately after the sentence above quoting Pearl about Joe working with the GPU, O’Brien follows up with: “I replied, with great earnestness, that while I was aware of circumstances which might lead Budenz to make such a charge, it was not true.” In fact, despite Pearl’s reference to Budenz charge, Hansen is not mentioned once in his writings. Imagine that. With such a potentially juicy expose about Trotsky’s bodyguard being in cahoots with the Kremlin, why wouldn’t Budenz have mentioned it somewhere in his books or articles? Probably because it wasn’t true and didn’t want to risk being sued for libel.

O’Brien clarifies Hansen’s contact with the GPU in 1938 that features so prominently in Healy’s demagogic attacks. What Healy leaves out is that Hansen made this contact with the full knowledge of Trotsky. The only other party members who knew what was really going on were Cannon and Shachtman, the two top leaders of the SWP. All of them were privy to a money-raising scam that Hansen was going to carry out. He would tell the GPU that he had become disillusioned with the movement and would be willing to sell the only manuscript of Trotsky’s biography of Stalin for $25,000 so that he could buy himself a “nice little ranch” in Utah and retire from politics. As it happened, the GPU was not interested in the manuscript but was much more interested in the layout of Trotsky’s house in Coyoacan for obvious reasons.

Does this story sound far-fetched? To me it does but if you are going to cite O’Brien, you need to do it in a way that follows elementary journalistic standards. He was not endorsing Budenz, or at least what he was purported to have said. Just the opposite. As for journalistic standards, they went by the wayside on the very day WSWS.org was launched.

 

 

September 8, 2018

Two new, problematic African films

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

Two films opened at art houses in New York yesterday that purport to say something meaningful about African society. I am afraid that they say more about the directors and screenwriters since the message they convey is carefully tailored for Western audiences in general and the film festival/art house circuit in particular. Generally, I cut such films some slack since they are made by creative teams trying sincerely to tell stories about real social and political issues. Rather than rating them as “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, I simply say nothing. To paraphrase my mother, “If you can’t something nice about somebody (in this case a film), say nothing”. I dispense with my mother’s advice on this occasion since both films reflect a creative and political default on a continent undergoing permanent crisis and badly in need of a new Ousmane Sembene.

Playing at Cinema Village, “Five Fingers for Marseilles” seeks to adapt a Sergio Leone film to the hinterlands of South Africa just as his “A Fistful of Dollars” was an attempt to adapt “Yojimbo” to the Old West. Leone’s films were straightforward escapist entertainment while director Michael Matthews and screenwriter Sean Drummond sought to entertain as well as to comment on post-apartheid South Africa. Although the film did put Black South African actors to work, Matthews and Drummond—two white South Africans—made a film that did not come close to achieving the goal set forth by the pair in an interview with “Cinema Escapist”. As Drummond put it:

If you look at the greater theme of the movie, [Marseilles] has never been free and it takes a new generation to fix it. The liberators often hold back from true liberation, which you see here [in South Africa] with the ANC (African National Congress, the party of Mandela who have been the dominant political power in South Africa since 1994). They lost sight of what the goal was – hope for a new generation without the baggage of the past – and a lot of White South Africans feel like Honest John, in this limbo and not knowing what their place is [in Post-Apartheid South Africa].

The Marseilles referred to in the title was an actual place historically. Colonists often named settlements after cities from their country of origin and this was one of them. At the start of the film set in the apartheid era, five young people—four boys and a girl constituted as the five fingers of a fist—have begun taking target practice with slingshots to use against the cops who come to their village to extort payoffs from shopkeepers and generally bully the long-suffering Blacks. When the cops arrest the girl and begin taking her off to jail, Tau, the group’s leader, rides off on his bike to rescue her. Although it is not exactly clear how a youth on a bicycle could have pulled it off, his riding in their path manages to spook the driver so badly that he takes a sharp turn that upends the paddy wagon. Tau then wrests a gun away from one cop and kills both him and his partner. All this takes place in front of the other three boys have caught up with them. They bring the girl back to Marseilles while Tau flees to parts unknown to escape arrest.

Instead of hooking up with Umkhonto we Sizwe, Tau becomes a common thief. The only benefit of living by the sword was that it gave him the skills he needed to return to the village and go to war with the Black gang that is making life unbearable for the dwellers  led by the villainous Sepoko, the “Ghost”. Sepoko and his crew serve the same purpose in this narrative as the gangs in both Leone and Kurosawa’s films—someone to hate. Unfortunately, writer and director neglect the most important part of developing villainous characters: complexity. If they function like the mustache-twirling bad guys in 1930s Tom Mix serials, dramatic intensity will not be achieved.

Tau has returned to Marseilles not to confront evil but perhaps escape from his criminal past. Since his character is exceedingly taciturn, who knows? From the minute he hits town, he is beset by Sepoko’s goons who have plans to take over and see him as a potential obstacle. Like both “Yojimbo” and “High Noon”, the local government is spineless and corrupt–and evidently ANC. Eventually, Tau rounds up a new gang of five that has a climactic gun fight that will remind you of “Gunfight at O.K. Corral”. Matthews and Drummond are obvious film buffs that like Quentin Tarantino enjoy recycling the classics. This tendency is fairly widespread among film school graduates in both the USA and South Africa.

The saving grace of the film is the spectacular landscapes around Lady Gray, the town in the Eastern Cape where it was shot. A couple of months ago I wrote about the Eastern Cape in the context of how desperate poverty was forcing locals to poach rhinos in order to sell the horns on the Chinese black market. Now that would have been a great theme for Matthews and Drummond. I doubt that my review will ever cross their desk but for budding filmmakers who read this blog, a word of advice should be sufficient. Make films that are socially relevant and fresh.

Rungano Nyoni, the director/screenwriter of “I am not a Witch”, was born in Zambia but moved to Wales with her parents when she was 9 years old. On a visit to Zambia a few years ago, Nyoni read about how women were being accused of witchcraft just like Salem in 1693. This gave her the idea to make a film about a young girl who after wandering into a village is accused of being a witch.

This leads a local official to consign her to a kind of leper’s colony where other accused witches, all old enough to be her mother or grandmother, are forced to work in the fields of local farms as virtual slaves. Since they have been found guilty of witchcraft, they must be prevented from escaping. In keeping with the ultra-dry humor of the film, they are not held back by chains but by ribbons extending by hundreds of feet and drawn from spools on a flatbed truck.

The young girl, who is called Shula by the other accused women, is treated differently. Local officials are convinced that she can identify who is a criminal from a large group of accused men, make rain fall on a parched land by casting a spell, and generally perform supernatural feats. Her celebrity grows to the point where she is interviewed on a Zambian talk show although she refuses to talk. Throughout the film, she is totally passive while being passed from one adult to another determined to exploit her non-existent powers. I found it totally impossible to believe that a young girl would not be screaming and kicking on every occasion. Despite the title of the film, she never once cries out “I am not a witch”.

Within five minutes of Googling, I was able to ascertain that the Zambian government has set up camps for women accused of witchcraft but they exist mainly to protect them from ignorant and vengeful villagers. The nearest analogy would be battered women shelters in the USA.

Shockingly, this exploitative film has garnered a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I am about to change that. If you’re up for something like this, you can see “I am not a Witch” at the Quad and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

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