Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 6, 2020

Walter Benn Michaels: the Elvis superstar of class-reductionism

Filed under: affirmative action,class-reductionism,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

Walter Benn Michaels

After posting a critique of Adolph Reed Jr.’s class-reductionism, the aggrieved professor emeritus who has written for Harpers, the Atlantic, the Nation, the NY Times, the Washington Post, and countless other peer-reviewed and non-peer reviewed magazines over the years felt the need to chew me out on my blog that is rated 154,154 globally. His invective-filled comment charged me with racism. Just two days ago, I posted a link on Facebook to an article I wrote in 2016 critiquing Reed for endorsing Hillary Clinton in the DP primary. And for that transgression, Todd Cronan, one of his sycophants, repeated the charge, “Your fixation suggests you might be a racist.”

Cronan is the editor of nonsite.org (don’t ask me what that means), a peer-reviewed journal out of Emory University, where Cronan is a tenured art historian. So, what prompted someone regarded as one of America’s leading African-American Marxists, and a professor at a prestigious university regarded as the Harvard of the south, to resort to such a crude and demagogic attack? The answer is simple. Neither is prepared to defend an indefensible idea, namely that BLM is anti-leftist.

While Reed and Cedric Johnson have been critiqued on this blog over the past month or so for their class-reductionism, they are not nearly so bad as Walter Benn Michaels, a literature professor at University of Illinois at Chicago. (Michaels is white so if he bothers to respond to this article, I trust that he won’t accuse me of anti-Semitism since we are both Jews. I happen to like Jews. I just don’t have much use for self-important academics.)

Lately, Michaels has entered the fray over BLM just like Reed and Johnson before him. Like Reed, Michaels got a softball interview on a Jacobin podcast conducted by Jennifer Pan. Pan writes for Jacobin but you’d have to read her article on New Republic on “Why Diversity Training Isn’t Enough” to understand why she’d refuse to ask Michaels tough questions. In her article, she takes up “whiteness” studies and particularly a book by Robin DiAngelo titled “White Fragility”. It was already a NY Times best-seller but it went totally viral after the George Floyd protests because it charged white Americans with benefiting from structural racism, a not very controversial analysis in my view. However, when she decided to make an amalgam between DiAngelo, Ted Allen and David Roediger, that seemed kind of nutty. How can you link a pop sociologist with these two Marxists? Pan refers to Cedric Johnson’s dismissal of their work:

From a practical point of view, the political scientist Cedric Johnson has recently argued that whiteness studies promote a fatalistic view of white workers as too hopelessly committed to their racial identity to be won over to a multiracial left coalition. Such a perspective, he writes, inevitably prioritizes reeducating such workers over attempting to organize them.

I guess comrades Johnson and Pan have no idea that Ted Allen worked as a coal miner in West Virginia as a member of the United Mine Workers, serving as an organizer and president of one Local and later a member of another. He also co-developed a trade union organizing program for the Marion County, West Virginia Industrial Union Council, CIO. (From a useful article in Wiki.)

Listening to the 109-minute schmooze-fest between Pan and Michaels was almost as agonizing as listening to Bhaskar Sunkara interviewing Adolph Reed Jr. on another Jacobin podcast. If you need any evidence that Jacobin is deep into class-reductionism, just listen to these podcasts which are as devoid of critical questions as a Charlie Rose interview with Bill Gates.

In preparing a response to Michaels based on this podcast, I found a 2011 interview Sunkara did with Michaels that really needs some commentary. I missed it at the time since I was preoccupied with the Arab Spring but reading it now makes me wonder if Sunkara is even more politically degraded than I ever suspected. He let Michaels off the hook on some really rancid remarks.

Titled “Let Them Eat Diversity”, it gives Michaels a platform to denounce anti-racism as a capitalist plot to exploit immigrant labor at the expense of our good citizens. At the higher tier, it enabled Asians to get positions as doctors and lawyers in the USA. At the lower tier, it enabled Mexicans to fill dirty, low-paying jobs of the sort that has made them victims in the pandemic. In order to get red-blooded Americans to tolerate those flooding into the country, either legally or illegally, it was necessary to promote anti-racism so that Chinese, Indians, or Mexicans wouldn’t be victimized. Human Resource departments were analogous to Pinkerton guards defending scabs.

The agents of this anti-racism plot are HR officers that have seminars on diversity so as to make white people more open to the invasion of our homeland by those bent on stealing our jobs.

You might ask yourself at this point if I am misrepresenting Walter Benn Michaels. Let him speak for himself. Sunkara does offer a featherweight challenge to his narrative about identity politics trumping good old fashioned, virile class politics. Could HR departments really be nipping class-based movements in the bud? This is where Michaels jumps the shark. It seems he sees “neoliberalism” everywhere. In the HR departments. In the radical movement. Nobody seems to be ready to fight it except guess who… The Tea Party. He tells Sunkara:

The truth is, it’s hard to find any political movement that’s really against neoliberalism today, the closest I can come is the Tea Party. The Tea Party represents in my view, not actually a serious, because it’s so inchoate and it’s so in a certain sense diluted, but nonetheless a real reaction against neoliberalism that is not simply a reaction against neoliberalism from the old racist Right. It’s a striking fact that what the American Left mainly wants to do is reduce the Tea Party to racists as quickly as humanly possible.  They’re thrilled when some Nazis come out and say “Yeah, we support the Tea Party” or some member of the Tea Party says something racist, which is frequently enough. But you can’t understand the real politics of the Tea Party unless you understand how important their opposition to illegal immigration is. Because who’s for illegal immigration? As far as I know only one set of people is for illegal immigration, I mean you may be [as a Marxist], but as far as I know the only people who are openly for illegal immigration are neoliberal economists.

Next, Sunkara delicately asks how he felt about The Nation’s Richard Kim referring to his opposition to affirmative action as “Seething, misplaced, amnesiac resentment…masquerading as class-consciousness.” To which, Michaels replies, “Are you kidding me, I’ve been called a racist for twenty years.” Maybe so, but at least he can be consoled by the support of Bhaskar Sunkara and Jennifer Pan.

Probably because he has been writing books about topics like “The Beauty of a Social Problem” and writing articles like the kind submitted to the yearly Modern Language Association conferences ever since he became a don in 1974, Michaels sees everything through the prism of the academy. He is so worked up about diversity and affirmative action being a tool for the upward mobility of petty-bourgeois elements, rather than one for the lunchbox-toting proletariat, that he misses how such programs got started.

The basic flaw in Michaels’s thesis is that he fails to distinguish between the gains made by some Blacks and women who have broken into the corporate board rooms and the fate of the overwhelming majority. This can only result from a cherry-picking of the data, all designed to make it appear that they have never had it so good. In other words, he is repeating ruling class propaganda. One would understand why the Elvis superstar of class-reductionism would be get so riled up about the selection of a Black CEO or cabinet member. His fiery attacks on privileged blacks like Barack Obama must make him feel like Lenin taking apart Kautsky. Too bad that he didn’t pay attention to what is happening at the grass roots level.

For example, minority admissions to law schools, a traditional portal into the upper middle class, had been dropping around the time Sunkara sat down with Michaels. A study published by the Columbia University Law School, a place that can certainly be described as “elitist”, painted a discouraging picture:

Web Site Shows Drop in Minority Enrollment at US Law Schools

December 28, 2007 (NEW YORK) – A new Web site created by Columbia Law School documents a disturbing drop in enrollment by African-American and Mexican-American students in America’s law schools. Even though African-American and Mexican-American students have applied to law schools in relatively constant numbers over the past 15 years, their representation in law schools has fallen.

Even more worrisome is the fact that during the same period, African-American and Mexican-American applicants are doing better than ever on leading indicators used by law schools to determine admissibility – undergraduate grade point average and LSAT scores. In addition, the size of law school classes and the total number of law schools have increased – making room for nearly 4,000 more students.

More to the point, affirmative action had little to do with the academy or becoming a Goldman-Sachs partner when it was first conceived. It was a legal tool made necessary by the racism that had infected the United Steelworkers Union, one of the flagship CIO unions that the Sandernista left and its class-reductionist contingents look back at as if it was the Garden of Eden.

NAACP leader Herbert Hill cited an open letter written by a Black member of the union to I.W. Abel, the USW president at the union’s 1968 convention:

The time has come for black workers to speak and act for ourselves. We make no apologies for the fact that we as black workers and loyal trade unionists now act on our own behalf. Furthermore we are fully prepared to do so…Blacks were in the forefront during the formation of this union 25 years ago. Through the acceptance of crumbs down through the years instead of our just desserts, we now find ourselves hindmost…

Problems were deepest in the south where Blacks were confined to menial positions in steel mills. White workers got used to viewing them as inferior. When you enforce racial equality on the job, attitudes tend to change in accordance with the reality that Blacks are just as good as whites at a job, even better.

Tired of being relegated to second-class citizenship in steel mills as janitors and other menial positions, Blacks supported affirmative action that would afford them preferential treatment to make up for discrimination endured in the past. About the Sparrows Point plant of Bethlehem Steel (one of the Little Steel companies and long shut down), Herbert Hill wrote:

[I]n steel manufacturing, in the building trades, on the railroads, and in virtually every other industry, a clear distinction exists between desirable jobs and those that are not. An extensive body of law based on many court cases supports this. Federal courts have analyzed in great detail and described in various industries the jobs that have higher pay, that involve less dangerous and cleaner work, and that provide opportunity for advancement, comparing them with jobs that are more dangerous, that provide lower pay, and little or no opportunity for advancement. In the racialized steel industry labor force there was no ambiguity between “white men’s jobs” and “nigger jobs.” In his opinion in the Bethlehem Lackawanna case, a federal Judge made a clear distinction between desirable and not desirable jobs. This was how affirmative action became the law of the land, not by co-opting black college graduates into Wall Street jobs but by allowing blacks to have access to well-paying and desirable jobs in factories.

In 1979 Brian Weber, a white worker employed by Kaiser aluminum, sued the USW for violating his civil rights. It seems that the union had complied with an affirmative action program that allowed Blacks and whites into a training program on a one-to-one basis even though there were far more white employees (as you might expect in Louisiana).

From that point on, affirmative action has been a lot like abortion rights. Republicans push to get rid of it and Democrats put up a feeble defense. With Jacobin authors trash-talking about diversity and affirmative action, they hardly act in the interests of black working people.

A socialist movement that disavows particular Black demands and those of other sectors of the population acting on their own interests on the basis of gender, sexual preference, etc. will inevitably lack the universality it needs to triumph over a unified capitalist class. To state it in dialectical terms, denying the existence of contradictions and a refusing to resolve them will only lead to deeper contradictions.

July 3, 2020

Following the money is not a useful guide for understanding mass movements

Filed under: african-american,Black Lives Matter,class-reductionism,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 2:09 pm


Over the past fifty-three years as a socialist, I have seen repeated calls for purifying the left of capitalist influences, both governmental and corporate. The latest flare-up was a Jacobin article titled “Don’t Let Blackwashing Save the Investor Class” by Cedric Johnson, a black African American studies professor. Just as Deep Throat advised Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men,” Johnson followed the money:

While antiracist protesters were tough on long-dead oppressors, these same protests have delivered a public relations windfall for the living investor class. Within weeks, corporations pledged upward of $2 billion dollars to various antiracist initiatives and organizations. The leadership of Warner, Sony Music, and Walmart each committed $100 million. Google pledged $175 million, mainly to incubate black entrepreneurship. YouTube announced a $100 million initiative to amplify black media voices. Apple also pledged $100 million for the creation of its racial equity and justice initiative.

These payoffs were supposed to dull the edge of the protests and keep the capitalist system safe from pitchfork-wielding mobs. Oddly enough, they didn’t seem to be making much headway in light of the continuing worries about capitalist instability. Most of the young people organizing the protests hardly seemed to be cooptation-bait as indicated by a New York Magazine interview with the female, teenage organizers of a Louisville protest that drew 10,000:

New York Magazine: Have you faced any backlash since the protest? And what does it mean to you three to be doing this work in the South?

Kennedy: I was actually surprised that we had a lot of support, because we do live in the South, and I’ve encountered various types of racism from people in the South. We did get backlash from a lot of people saying we’re brainwashed or that we’re being paid to do this or that we’re secret people the Democrats are using to win.

Emma Rose: We’re not even Democrats.

Kennedy: I’m not even a Democrat. I’m a radical.

Continue reading

July 2, 2020

The World Socialist Web Site and the toppled Washington and Jefferson statues

Filed under: indigenous,slavery — louisproyect @ 8:46 pm

There was a time when I kept closer track of the World Socialist Web Site, when Syria and Ukraine were on the front burner politically. As apologists for Assad and Putin’s genocidal-like war in Syria, their talking points filtered out into the “anti-imperialist” left.

As for Ukraine, I got into a series of exchanges with their cult leader Joseph North back in 2015 when WSWS began running hysterical articles about nuclear war about to break out over Ukraine. I had written an article titled “Is the U.S. contemplating a nuclear attack on Russia?” that questioned their reliability as journalists and, more importantly, their grasp of geopolitics. Like many who make a hodge-podge of conspiracy-mongering and Marxism, they always see world events in apocalyptic terms, mostly as a way of generating website traffic.

According to Alexa, wsws.org is rated 13,097 in global internet engagement, which is extraordinarily high. For comparison’s sake CounterPunch is rated 47,413. The interesting thing is the Socialist Equality Party’s inability to turn those page reads into raising its profile on the left. Because of its cultish demeanor and its chicken-little hysterics, there’s little chance that a 21-year old young radical is going to join.

It’s only gain lately has been to line up a group of septuagenarian history professors in their crusade against Project 1619 that began as a special issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine. It included an article by chief editor Nikole Hannah-Jones that charged Lincoln with viewing free black people as a “troublesome presence” incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people. This got under the skin of both WSWS and the historians who saw the USA as a model of revolutionary democracy, unlike, for example, Gerald Horne who argued that 1776 was an attempt to preserve slavery.

I weighed in on the Project 1619 debates in February but had little to say until now. Only recently has WSWS shown up on my radar screen when someone on the Facebook Leftist Trainspotters group posted a link to an article that was positively livid over the threats to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Grant monuments arising during the George Floyd protests. I would have advised young activists to leave Lincoln and Grant alone (not that they would pay me much attention) but I’d be happy to take a sledge hammer to Washington and Jefferson myself.

The article’s treatment of Washington sounds like something that would have shown up in my social studies textbook in 1959:

George Washington was the commander of the Continental Army in the American Revolution (1775-1783), in which the 13 colonies asserted their independence from their British colonial masters. Washington, in a decision that electrified the world, left behind his military post and returned to private life, helping to institute in practice the separation of the civilian from military power in the republic.

Are these people for real? George Washington owned more than 100 slaves and signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which authorized the capture of runaways in free states and criminalized coming to their aid. When one of his slaves, a woman named Ona Maria Judge, escaped, he made every effort to re-enslave her, even if he had to break the law.

This is not to speak of Washington’s genocidal assault on the Mohawks who had fought with the British in 1776, mostly because the colonists were aggressively seizing Indian land with Washington’s approval. Washington gave the marching orders to his underling General John Sullivan, who was in charge of Indian removal: “The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.”

Their encomium to Thomas Jefferson is even more bizarre:

Thomas Jefferson was the author of what is arguably the most famous revolutionary sentence in world history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” That declaration has been inscribed on the banner of every fight for equality ever since 1776. When Jefferson formulated it, he was crystalizing a new way of thinking based on the principle of natural human equality. The rest of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence spells out in searing language the natural right of people to revolution.

This is a throwback to the turn the CP took under Earl Browder, who once said, “Communism is 20th Century Americanism”. Under his leadership, the party created the Jefferson School in New York to train cadres. One can understand why the muddleheaded Stalinists would take this approach but what does this have to do with a group that claims to have inherited the mantle of Leon Trotsky?

Compared to Jefferson, Washington was mere piker with his 100 slaves. Jefferson had six times as many on his Monticello plantation. One of them was Sally Hemings, a slave that bore six children to Jefferson. When he was a 44-year old widower, he began screwing her (maybe even raping) during his post as minister to France. She was 14 at the time. Nice.

Like Washington, Jefferson was just as vicious toward native peoples. As president, Jefferson believed that land in the west had to come under white ownership. In 1776, he was growing frustrated with the inability of the colonists to bring the Cherokees under control. He wrote, “Nothing will reduce those wretches so soon as pushing the war into the heart of their country. But I would not stop there. I would never cease pursuing them while one of them remained on this side of the Mississippi.”

As the newly formed United States began to expand westward, they ran into resistance from the Shawnee and other tribes in the Great Lakes region. He invited their leaders to Washington in 1809 and warned that “the tribe which shall begin an unprovoked war against us, we will extirpate from the earth or drive to such a distance as they shall never again be able to strike us.” Showing the kind of racist arrogance that typifies treatment of native peoples, he added, “In time you will be as we are. You will become one people with us; your blood will mix with ours, and will spread with ours over this great land.” The blood was not mixed with the whites, however. It was scattered on the soil as the genocide began.

If war on the Indians marked the beginning of internal colonizing, it was manifest destiny that served as the foundation for the USA becoming one of the world’s greatest imperial powers. In a letter to James Monroe, Jefferson wrote about how this glorious new democratic republic could transform the entire western hemisphere, “it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent.” Yes, that southern continent. From the seizure of Texas and other Mexican land in 1845, US domination proceeded across the entire southern continent.

WSWS also credits Jefferson with inspiring the Haitian revolution, as if this was some kind of proof that he had no imperial designs on the southern continent. “The American Revolution delivered a powerful impulse in that direction that led to the French Revolution of 1789 and the greatest slave revolt in history, the Haitian Revolution of 1791, in which slaves liberated themselves and threw off French colonial domination.”

The facts on Haiti and Jefferson are not quite what you get from these great American patriots at WSWS. As president, Jefferson encouraged Haitian independence from France, but refused to recognize the new black republic and even embargoed trade with it. Jefferson’s attitude toward Haiti was a variation on Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik. If Haiti threw out the French, that was good for American interests as well as British. On the other hand, Haiti’s independence as an emancipated new society might pose a threat to southern slaveowners so you could not go overboard with that democracy stuff. In a meeting with the British, Jefferson thought it was a good idea to prevent the freed slaves from having “any Kind of Navigation whatsoever or to furnish them with any Species of Arms or Ammunition.”

The Haitian revolution scared the hell out of the plantation-owners. While Jefferson had given lip-service to abolitionism, he shared their worries about armed black people who might be able to topple slavery in other places like Brazil or Cuba. This was a real fear over an 19th century domino effect.

In Tim Matthewson’s article “Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haiti” that appeared in the March 1996 Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, he describes Jefferson’s realignment with the slavocracy:

During the debates over the Haitian trade, Jefferson acknowledged a significant shift in his attitude toward slavery. He abandoned optimism about emancipation. “I have long time given up the expectation of an early provision for the extinguishment of slavery among us,” he wrote to William Burwell. Never abandoning the general goal of emancipation, his letter marked an increasingly pessimistic trend in his thoughts on slavery. In a man of such sanguine temperament, this shift suggested the transmutation of the post-Revolutionary South associated with the expansion of slavery and the southern reaction to the Dominguan revolution. Since the 1780s, he had publicly favored the exclusion of slavery from the West, but in 1804 he had expressed no objection to the extension of slavery into Louisiana and the southwest. His shift acknowledged that the die had been cast and the future had been sealed, perhaps for generations, and it also suggested that his commitment to emancipation had been reduced to a theoretical concern.

My only question is whether the geniuses at WSWS knew this and still decided to write a puff-piece about Jefferson or perhaps they were just ignorant. In either case, they don’t seem equipped to lead Americans to socialism or even lecture young activists about which statues they shouldn’t take down.

June 30, 2020

Eating Up Easter

Filed under: Ecology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:20 pm

Available today on Music Box Virtual Cinema, “Eating Up Easter” documents the difficult balancing act that the Rapanui people have to carry out on Easter Island. They live 2,500 miles from Chile and walk a tightrope with their culture on one side and global capitalism on the other. Capitalism makes the tourist industry possible, allowing them to enjoy a higher standard of living than other Chileans (Chile annexed the island in 1877), but that also poses real threats to their culture, both through the trash that tourists leave on the island and the rampant consumerism new-found wealth brings. For those who have been following Cuba’s opening up to the tourist industry ever since the “special period”, the mixed blessings will be obvious.

Directed by the Rapanui husband-and-wife team of Sergio and Elena Rapu, the film features native peoples who are highly representative of the island’s trajectory. His father Sergio senior was a college-educated archaeologist and Rapanui’s first native governor. He decided to push strongly for integration with Chile and making the island “successful” economically. Part of that meant his abandoning archaeology and becoming a real estate developer. We see him supervising the construction of the first shopping mall on the island

We also meet Enrique Icke and Mahani Teave, a young husband and wife who see music as a way of preserving their culture. Enrique is also a trained engineer and anxious to solve the island’s environmental challenges, part of which entails building a music school with recycled material like beer bottles and automobile tires.

Finally, the most compelling character is a septuagenarian native woman called Mama Piru who is fiercely committed to Green values. Like Honduras’s Berta Cáceres, she won’t take no for an answer when it comes to ecological sustainability. Unlike the martyred Cáceres, the threat she faces is not assassination but being overwhelmed by capital’s power to transform “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions.” That was how Marx put it in “The Communist Manifesto”. Unfortunately, some Marxists today view that as progressive per se when in fact a return to “ancient and venerable” practices carried out by precapitalist societies must be considered especially when it comes to respect for Mother Nature.

In 1993, the Rapanui people became integrated into capitalist property relations in the most unexpected manner. Kevin Costner came to Easter Island with a massive production crew to make “Rapa-Nui”, a film that required practically every islander to be used as an extra. At $40 a day, they hit the jackpot.

The film depicts the islanders as victims of their own anti-environmentalist practices, with deforestation resulting from the building of the huge statues called moai. The only criticism I have of the film is the directors’ failure to counter this oft-cited explanation of how Easter Island became a case study in not respecting Mother Nature.

In Jared Diamond’s Collapse, you get the same version of the island’s decline as in Costner’s idiotic film but without the soundtrack and cinematic panache.

One of the more impressive record-correcting exercises of the mainstream account of Easter Island is Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo’s Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, and the Myth of “Ecocide”. In Collapse, Diamond judged Easter Island as one of the more egregious examples of “ecocide” in human history, a product of the folly of the island’s rulers whose decision to construct huge statues led to deforestation and collapse. By chopping down huge palm trees that were used to transport the stones used in statue construction, the islanders were effectively sealing their doom. Not only did the settlers chop down trees, they hunted the native fauna to extinction. The net result was a loss of habitat that led to a steep population decline.

Diamond was not the first observer to call attention to deforestation on Easter Island. In 1786, a French explorer named La Pérouse also attributed the loss of habitat to the “imprudence of their ancestors for their present unfortunate situation.”

Referring to research about Easter Island by scientists equipped with the latest technologies, the authors maintain that the deforestation had nothing to do with transporting statues. Instead, it was an accident of nature related to the arrival of rats in the canoes of the earliest settlers. Given the lack of native predators, the rats had a field day and consumed the palm nuts until the trees were no longer reproducing themselves at a sustainable rate. The settlers also chopped down trees to make a space for agriculture, but the idea that giant statues had anything to do with the island’s collapse is a fiction in keeping with Costner’s film.

Unfortunately, Diamond is much more interested in ecocide than genocide. If people interested him half as much as palm trees, he might have said a word or two about the precipitous decline in population that occurred after the island was discovered by Europeans in 1722. Indeed, despite deforestation there is evidence that the island’s population grew between 1250 and 1650, the period when deforestation was taking place — leaving aside the question of its cause. As was the case when Europeans arrived in the New World, a native population was unable to resist diseases such as smallpox and died in massive numbers. Of course, Diamond would approach such a disaster with his customary Olympian detachment and write it off as an accident of history.

“Eating Up Easter” is a beautiful and thought-provoking film. The islanders are wrestling with the same contradictions as the rest of the planet. At one point, Enrique Icke has a conversation with an environmental consultant who scoffs at the idea that the Green renewal projects on Rapanui are of much use to countries with five million people. (Rapanui has 7,750 citizens.) Enrique defends the tiny islands role as an example of what can be done once the entire society is behind a Green transformation. Seen as a laboratory for the projects this planet much undertake for its survival, the example set by the people of “Eating Up Easter” is a good place to start.

June 27, 2020

Chris Maisano’s class-reductionism apologetics

Filed under: class-reductionism,DSA,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 7:19 pm

Chris Maisano

On June 23rd, Ross Douthat, one of the NY Times’s rightwing opinion writers, came out with a piece titled “The Second Defeat of Bernie Sanders” that saw him as being out-of-step with the BLM protests over George Floyd’s murder. Perhaps as a result of reading Adolph Reed Jr. or Cedric Johnson’s class-reductionist articles, Douthat smeared BLM as a corporate tool:

The fact that corporations are “outdistancing” even politicians, as Crenshaw puts it, in paying fealty to anti-racism is perhaps the tell. It’s not that corporate America is suddenly deeply committed to racial equality; even for woke capital, the capitalism comes first. Rather, it’s that anti-racism as a cultural curriculum, a rhetoric of re-education, is relatively easy to fold into the mechanisms of managerialism, under the tutelage of the human resources department. The idea that you need to retrain your employees so that they can work together without microaggressing isn’t Marxism, cultural or otherwise; it’s just a novel form of Fordism, with white-fragility gurus in place of efficiency experts.

This was not the first NY Times article that described Sanders as being superseded by these protests. On June 19th, an article titled “Bernie Sanders Predicted Revolution, Just Not This One” took on the question of class-reductionism frontally:

When Mr. Sanders spoke about racial equality, it was often in the context of economic equality, championing proposals and prescriptions that he believed would improve the lives of all working Americans. He said that policies like single-payer health care would address higher maternal and infant mortality rates in black communities. And he wanted to legalize marijuana and end cash bail, policies he said were aimed in particular at helping black Americans and other people of color.

This is essentially the analysis put forward not only by Sanders but by Reed. Instead of raising race-based demands like defunding the police (which Sanders opposes) or—god forbid—reparations, Sanders, Reed, Sunkara, the Bread and Roses caucus in DSA, and the “democratic socialist” movement in general stresses economic demands to create black-white unity. In fact, this has been the foundation-stone of socialist groups since the time of Debs. Except for a brief period when the CPUSA raised the idea of a Black Belt, the party also envisioned a movement based on economic demands. In the 1930s, this meant getting workers of all races into a CIO union even when FDR was stabbing black people in the back. So irked by charges that FDR was a racist, Reed defended his record in a New Republic article titled “The New Deal Wasn’t Intrinsically Racist”.  Oh, did I mention that the word “lynching” doesn’t appear in the article?

The NAACP had persuaded Democratic Senators Robert Wagner and Edward Costigan to sponsor an anti-lynching bill but it needed FDR’s support. When he met with the two Senators, he said, “Somebody’s been priming you. Was it my wife?” FDR was annoyed by these men interfering with his New Deal reforms. He reminded them that if he backed an anti-lynching bill, the Dixiecrats “will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take the risk.” It also must be said that FDR was every bit of a racist as Teddy Roosevelt, whose statue is finally being removed from the front of the Museum of Natural History. In the chapter on FDR in  Kenneth O’Reilly’s “Nixon’s Piano”, we get the goods on the “friend of the Negro”:

Roosevelt had few contacts with African Americans beyond the odd jobs done for an elderly widow while a student at Groton. The servants at the Hyde Park estate where he grew up were all English and Irish. When serving in the New York State Senate he scribbled a note in the margin of a speech to remind himself about a “story of a nigger.” Telling jokes about how some “darky” contracted venereal disease was a habit never outgrown. He used the word “nigger” casually in private conversation and correspondence, writing Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt of his trip to Jamaica and how “a drink of coconut water, procured by a naked nigger boy from the top of the tallest tree, did much to make us forget the dust.”

Despite it being obvious that Jacobin was fully behind Sanders’s class-based “socialism” that most black leaders regarded as woefully blinkered, Chris Maisano insisted that Jacobin/DSA was for combining  class and race demands. Like most left groups, the DSA is not into self-criticism. With 70,000 members, they are feeling their oats.

Maisano is astute enough to acknowledge the similarities between what Douthat wrote and what Reed and Cedric Johnson have written in dozens of articles. He even considered the possibility that Douthat was wooing the DSA in the same way that Tucker Carlson has wooed Max Blumenthal (or maybe the other way around in this case.)

Ideologically attuned conservatives like Douthat are surely aware of the seemingly endless conflict between, for lack of better terms, “class-oriented” and “intersectional” conceptions of radical politics. They want to drive a wedge into the new US left and perhaps even win over a segment of the class-oriented left by mimicking some of its vocabulary and concerns.

Maisano clears the air by making the record that when Douthat counterposes demands for “Medicare for All and taxing plutocrats” to demands for “racial justice and defunding the police,” the protesters themselves are, by and large, not doing so. This might be true but you better bet your ass that Adolph Reed Jr. and Cedric Johnson are not into demands for “racial justice and defunding the police,” Is there anything clearer than their opposition to anti-racism? All you have to do is Google Reed and anti-racism and you come up with something like this:

Notwithstanding its performative evocations of the 1960s Black Power populist “militancy,” this antiracist politics is neither leftist in itself nor particularly compatible with a left politics as conventionally understood. At this political juncture, it is, like bourgeois feminism and other groupist tendencies, an oppositional epicycle within hegemonic neoliberalism, one might say a component of neoliberalism’s critical self-consciousness; it is thus in fact fundamentally anti-leftist. [emphasis added.]

Got it? All those mass actions, including one organized by five Louisville teens that produced a rally of 10,000 people, are “anti-leftist”. What a job that Jacobin has on its hands in trying to resolve the contradictions between what Reed writes and Maisano’s hollow attempt to put some distance between him and them. For Christ’s sake, his boss Bashkar Sunkara does an hour and twenty minute interview with Reed on June 10th and the George Floyd protests are not even mentioned.

To give the appearance that he is trying to deal with Reed and Johnson’s class-reductionism, he offers this:

The threat of corporate “blackwashing,” as Cedric Johnson has called it, is very real. But this is not sufficient grounds on which to reject the protest movement as hopelessly liberal or incompatible with working-class politics.

I spent a few minutes trying to decipher these two sentences and wondered why Maisano wasn’t more straightforward and capable of writing this instead:

The threat of corporate “blackwashing,” as Cedric Johnson has called it, is very real. But this is not sufficient grounds on which he or Adolph Reed Jr. reject the protest movement as hopelessly liberal or incompatible with working-class politics.

The last time anybody wrote something critical of Reed on Jacobin was back in 2016 and that was when the authors Jonah Birch and Paul Heideman were still in the ISO and capable of independent thinking. Now, after having drunk the Sanders Kool-Aid, they’ve seen the light.

Toward the end of his apologetics, Maisano urges patience with these young activists who haven’t been exposed to the brilliance of NYU sociologist Vivek Chibber or neo-Kautskyite legend Eric Blanc:

More important, so long as American police are able to kill and abuse people with impunity, and so long as there are clear racial disparities in police violence — even after accounting for class — it is unrealistic to expect activists with no connection to a severely diminished labor movement to spontaneously link race and class the way socialists might want them to do.

Yeah, okay. Maybe if Jacobin/DSA cadre had been spending more time getting behind organized anti-racist activism, they’d have been in a better position to “educate” these raw youth. I only hope that they don’t recommend Adolph Reed Jr. to the young’uns. To paraphrase what Jeeves said to Bertie Wooster, they might say, “You would not enjoy Adolph Reed Jr. He is fundamentally unsound.

June 26, 2020

The Last Tree, Madagasikara

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:30 pm


Two new films debut as Virtual Cinema today. Both address the hopes and the suffering of Africans, both in diaspora and on the continent.

“The Last Tree” is a coming-of-age story about Femi, a Nigerian boy growing up in a British housing estate. Despite the word “estate”, these buildings have much in common with housing projects in the USA and Paris’s banlieues. Grenfell Tower, where 72 people died in a fire as a result of negligence, was part of a housing estate. Coming-of-age films are not my favorite genre. “The Last Tree” soars above any I have seen since the sixties and is sure to be one of my picks for best films of 2020.

“Madagasikara,” the Malagasy name for Madagascar, documents the struggle for survival in an island nation just 250 miles off the east coast of Africa. This is a country of 26 million people with a per capita GDP of $471 per year, about half of Haiti’s. Although most people are aware of how Haiti became so poor, very little is known about Madagascar’s steep decline. Real income is only a third of what it was fifty years ago and imperialism is to blame.

Continue reading

June 23, 2020

The Ghost of Peter Sellers

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

Peter Medak is an 82-year old director who went through the harrowing experience of working with Peter Sellers in a comedy titled “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” in 1974. Like Ishmael quoting Job in the final page of “Moby Dick”, his latest film about this fiasco could have ended with the same words rolling across the screen before the closing credits: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

Titled “The Ghost of Peter Sellers”, Medak’s documentary reunites all the survivors who went through this experience with him. They exchange atrocity tales about working with Sellers on a movie that never should have been made in the first place. Octogenarians like Medak, they bring a wealth of experience about filmmaking over long careers. If “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was a colossal flop, you can credit it with one of its redeeming features. It inspired a documentary that will be of keen interest to anybody who loves film. It will make you appreciate the efforts that go into a film production that is difficult enough in the first place. When your star is a complete madman like Peter Sellers, it turns into a ticking time-bomb.

In 1974, Medak was a relative newcomer to directing films, with four credits to his name, including “The Ruling Class” that is described on the Turner Classic Movies website as a commercial failure that became a cult classic. The words commercial failure do not begin to do justice to “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” that never made it into theaters. Columbia shit-canned it after seeing the director’s cut. It was stillborn but should have been aborted after the first week of filming.

The screenplay was written by Spike Milligan, who was Peter Sellers’s partner in a long-running BBC radio show called “The Goon Show” that I used to listen to on WBAI centuries ago when it was still a great radio station. The show incorporated ludicrous plots with surreal humor and bizarre sound effects. It was the inspiration for future comedy shows like Monty Python and Firesign Theater.

The documentary includes many excerpts from “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” that strike me as an early attempt at making something like “Pirates of the Caribbean” but with far less success. As the pirate captain, Sellers in a fright wig comes across as if he were performing in one of the more stupid SNL sketches. With Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers having much more leverage on the production than Medak, the whole thing struck me as a vanity project gone very, very wrong. Like the Pequod in “Moby Dick”, the ship featured in “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was doomed from the start.

The portrait of Peter Sellers as an actor and a human being is what makes this film so compelling. As the greatest comic actor of our generation who had the fame and power of Charlie Chaplin in an earlier era, he comes across as a total asshole. When Medak and Sellers first get together in a Mediterranean villa to discuss how they would approach the film, Sellers spots a Who’s Who book on a nearby shelf. He then picks it up and finds entries for the film’s producers who he then orders to be fired. Given his superstar power, he got his way just as he got his way through the entire production, making one bad decision after another.

If his domineering style wasn’t bad enough in itself, it was made worse by his indifference to the film’s outcome. He routinely came late to meetings, antagonized the crew and generally acted more as a saboteur than a team player. In one stunning episode, he feigned a heart attack during a scene so that he could return to England ostensibly for treatment. Medak was shocked to see Sellers on the front page of a British tabloid coming out of a restaurant with Princess Margaret.

Hobbled by a sloppily conceived script, the film encountered insurmountable technical problems based on the misguided attempt to film at sea in an ancient boat that had been retrofitted to look like a 17th century pirate ship. Out on the sea filming the entire day, the crew and the cast were beset by seasickness. Made long before digital cameras were available, the boat had to tow a smaller boat equipped with a generator to power the cameras.

Medak is the star of his own film, using it as a kind of psychotherapy to purge what amounts to a major trauma. With the wisdom of his advanced age and that of the other men and women who worked on the film, he offers an object lesson in the art of filmmaking. While it is easy to understand why you might watch Kurosawa or Godard in film school, this documentary should be must-viewing in film schools across the world. Medak and the production team made this film in order to get paid. Unlike writing a novel or a poem, filmmaking is part business and part art. It was obvious that all the participants were anxious to make this film because Sellers was so bankable. It turned out that he was as bankable as Lehman Brothers in 2008, at least when it came to a misbegotten project like “Ghost in the Noonday Sun”.

The film opened today on Amazon Prime. It will likely be one of my nominations for best documentary of 2020.

June 22, 2020

Toward a new Marxist left

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 7:27 pm

They organized a 10,000 strong BLM protest in Nashville. Will they be leaders of a new revolutionary movement?

The handwriting is on the wall. The Sandernista/Jacobin/DSA project is now exhausted. While the USA is poised on the edge of cataclysmic economic decline against the backdrop of the most dangerous plague in a hundred years and powerful protests against killer-cops, the Sandernista left is mired in electoral routinism.

One wonders if there is even the slightest degree of soul-searching in these circles as everybody else seems to grasp that we are in a new period. On June 9th, the NY Times had an article titled “Bernie Sanders Predicted Revolution, Just Not This One” that showed how irrelevant he and his cheerleaders have become:

Yet amid a national movement for racial justice that took hold after high-profile killings of black men and women, there is also an acknowledgment among some progressives that their discussion of racism, including from their standard-bearer, did not seem to meet or anticipate the forcefulness of these protests.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, the legal scholar who pioneered the concept of intersectionality to describe how various forms of discrimination can overlap, said that Mr. Sanders struggled with the reality that talking forcefully about racial injustice has traditionally alienated white voters — especially the working-class white voters he was aiming to win over. But that is where thinking of class as a “colorblind experience” limits white progressives. “Class cannot help you see the specific contours of race disparity,” she said.

With Bhaskar Sunkara giving a fawning interview to Adolph Reed Jr., it is doubtful that the Sandernista left can make a turn toward new realities. “Intersectionality”, an academic term that I would never use myself, is a dirty word in their lexicon. It is one thing to believe that a “social democratic” program based on Medicare for All is what the country needs but that’s only the start. The left must recognize that today’s racism is based on hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow and de facto segregation that requires an anti-racist socialist movement, not warmed over Bayard Rustin.

New York Magazine, best known for its restaurant reviews and celebrity puff pieces, is even more attuned to new realities than the Sandernista left. In a piece titled “6 Teens Organized a Protest. 10,000 People Showed Up”, it sounds out what young activists in the BLM protests think about electoral routinism. This stuck out:

New York Magazine: Have you faced any backlash since the protest? And what does it mean to you three to be doing this work in the South?

Kennedy: I was actually surprised that we had a lot of support, because we do live in the South, and I’ve encountered various types of racism from people in the South. We did get backlash from a lot of people saying we’re brainwashed or that we’re being paid to do this or that we’re secret people the Democrats are using to win.

Emma Rose: We’re not even Democrats.

Kennedy: I’m not even a Democrat. I’m a radical.

If you look at the last sixty years of the left in the USA, you’ll see the broad contours of a movement trying to keep up with shifting social and economic changes. Between 1970 and 1990, the “Leninist” left was a pole of attraction for young people, including me. It was based on the notion that the sixties radicalization was the opening salvo in a march toward proletarian revolution. Since the whole idea was a repeat of 1917, the left adopted a mechanical understanding of Lenin’s party that led to sectarianism and ultimately collapse. The ISO was the last hurrah of this trend that ironically got started after such experiments were way past their shelf life.

Starting in 1999 with the Seattle anti-WTO protest, the left abandoned Leninist illusions and unfortunately adopted a new set of illusions based on half-baked anarchist theories. These included the idea that busting Starbucks windows was a litmus test for a successful protest. It also fetishized occupations such as those that occurred around the Occupy movement as a result of “prefigurative” fantasies. As if camping out in Zuccotti Park was the embryonic form of a future classless society.

Although the George Floyd protests started off with a mixture of anarchist adventurism and mass actions, within a week or so, the tide had turned. Young people, like those interviewed by New York Magazine, decided that political power rested in the masses, not in “bold” tactics.

In 1968, the novelist and art historian John Berger wrote an article titled “The Nature of Mass Demonstrations” that these young activists seem to understand instinctively. He wrote:

The demonstration, an irregular event created by the demonstrators, nevertheless takes place near the city centre, intended for very different uses. The demonstrators interrupt the regular life of the streets they march through or of the open spaces they fill. They ‘cut off these areas, and, not yet having the power to occupy them permanently, they transform them into a temporary stage on which they dramatise the power they still lack.

The demonstrators’ view of the city surrounding their stage also changes. By demonstrating, they manifest a greater freedom and independence – a greater creativity, even although the product is only symbolic – than they can ever achieve individually or collectively when pursuing their regular lives. In their regular pursuits they only modify circumstances; by demonstrating they symbolically oppose their very existence to circumstances.

Increasingly, people will be “voting with their feet” because the Democratic Party has become so hostile to change. With the Jacobin/DSA left pirouetting around the question of its support for a Biden vote, the radicals, including the young woman cited above, will have no other option except to reach out to like-minded young people, working class, black and immigrants, in search of a national organization that can be used to coordinate their struggles. Ultimately, this is what Lenin was up to when he wrote “What is to be Done”, even if he admitted that it was obsolete only five years after he wrote it.

Despite its size (70,000 members), the DSA will eventually be bypassed by a new movement that corresponds to the urgency of the tasks we face. When I joined the SWP in 1967, SDS had 100,000 members and it was easy to cower before it as if our “old left” notions were somehow woefully behind the times. Within 3 years, SDS had collapsed and the SWP had become the most powerful group on the left and the largest after the CPUSA. Like SDS, the SWP collapsed because it failed to adjust to the realities of post-1975 America.

There is considerable intellectual and theoretical ferment to the left of the DSA. Despite my reservations about their old-school Leninism, I consider the people who write for Left Voice to be among the most astute analysts of the current state of the capitalist system and how to challenge it. I also appreciate the group blog The International Socialism Project that is the voice of some of the former ISO leaders that were ousted by a new group that obviously intended to dissolve the ISO and take as many people into the DSA as possible. Unfortunately, a cover-up of a rape discredited the old leadership to the point that it was vulnerable to a Sandernista leveraged buyout. In thinking through these incidents that have wreaked havoc with both the ISO and the British SWP, I sometimes wonder that the only thing that makes sense is for female (or male) members to go straight to the police when a sexual assault takes place. Trying to adjudicate these crimes within a left group tends to be self-defeating.

Finally, there is Cosmonaut. The people who write for this online magazine are among the sharpest I’ve seen in the newly emerging Marxist left. I have it bookmarked and make sure to read and crosspost every article that appears there. The latest article, titled “Structuring the Party: The Case of the DSA” and written by Diego AM, “explores the organization conundrums of the modern left, looking at the Democratic Socialists of America and the alternatives proposed by base-builders and Maoists.”

He begins by identifying two organizational forms. One is made up of “centralizing” groups like the SWP and the ISO that have a leadership with “a stronghold on the party, and can barely be challenged.” Been there, done that. The other approach is “horizontalism”, which obviously describes the anarchist milieu. Although they never lead to the kind of stultifying internal life of the Leninist left, “they cannot hope to significantly challenge the established order with their numbers and the organization.”

This leads to an examination of the DSA that has allowed people to join on their own terms. This, plus the strong identification with the Bernie Sanders campaign, has led to its explosive growth. Although the DSA is a welcome alternative to the sect form, its loosey-goosey organizational norms make it ineffective when presented by the challenges we face today:

[The] DSA in effect functions more like a horizontal collective than a socialist party. This comes with all the problems known as the tyranny of structurelessness: the lack of structure on paper just means that there is an unacknowledged structure and unacknowledged channels for leveraging influence in the shape of passing resolutions or directing chapter money towards certain projects. And while anarchist affinity groups almost never exceed dozens of people, DSA members are faced with this problem in an organization that operates at a very different scale, in the tens of thousands of members nationally, and within chapters which are composed of thousands of members.

Of course, DSA has a national organization that provides vertical integration through dues, newspapers, national mailing lists and even a forum. But this is not what is important. To understand how the center operates, we must answer the question: if DSA is multi-tendency and in practice functions closer to a horizontal quasi-anarchist collective than a socialist party, why does it seem so wrapped up in electoral and reformist approaches? Why is it seen from the outside as a platform for progressive Democrats to be elected, even if the actual work on the ground is much broader? The answer to this question is that the most important of the vertical integrators are the electoral campaigns, especially those at the national level. This is what determines how the organization as a whole is seen from the outside, regardless of the work done at the local level.

In a section titled “Fighting for a socialist center: The Maoist and the base-building critiques”, Diego points to an alternative. Although I am not sure what Maoist groups he is referring to, it sounds to me like he has the comrades of the Marxist Center in mind. As a long-time supporter of the Philly Socialists, which was a prime mover of the Marxist Center, his endorsement was most welcome:

[It] is worth taking seriously the base-building critique. In my interpretation, this critique says that the left needs to consciously change its composition by choosing work that will bring in the dispossessed. This will help change its character by making it more tied to day-to-day struggles, and at the same time provide us with worker power which can actually stop the capitalist gears.

Concretely, this has meant organizing classes in English for immigrants in Philadelphia, action to block evictions, etc. I think these types of activities are essential but, to some extent, they are susceptible to the “horizontalism” that prevents groups affiliated with the Marxist Center to act in a coordinated and disciplined nation-wide fashion.

In a very real sense, this was the reason Lenin wrote “What is to be Done”: to unite a scattered left into a powerful force that could topple the Czarist system. For Lenin, a newspaper was essential. It was a way for local workers circles to coordinate their activities. Under “Leninist” organizational norms, the newspaper became fetishized to the point of becoming an obstacle to future growth. Its “line” served as a litmus test to see if you were capable of joining the purified ranks of the future vanguard party. Lenin had a different idea entirely. The newspaper was a place where socialists could exchange ideas and even debate with each other. The Left Voice comrades rightfully give credit to Lenin for conceiving of a newspaper as something far less of a “brand” than most sectarians associate with the party press:

Revolutionary press plays a different role from bourgeois press. It is the most suitable means to influence events and organize the militant and revolutionary base of a workers’ party.

Lenin’s political intransigence would not keep him from discussing with the great leaders of the international social democratic movement. Lenin invited Rosa Luxemburg and Kautsky, among others, to write in Iskra (despite their political differences) in order to fuel debate and critical spirit. This was central in his idea of journalism, debunking historical falsifications that portray Lenin as an “authoritarian leader.”

Frankly, I have not been keeping up with the Marxist Center in the past three years or so. I had high hopes that it could have tapped into the growing ferment of the BLM protests today and maybe even become part of the support network for Howie Hawkins campaign. This would require an adjustment to their customary practices that might go against the grain. In any case, what they had been doing was of great value even if it falls short of catalyzing the kind of mass revolutionary party that is so badly needed.

The last section of Diego’s article is titled “Where to go from here?”, which obviously evokes Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet. He is to be congratulated for striking such a note since it is so appropriate for the period we are entering. With so many on the left burdened by old habits, it is necessary for smart young people such as those writing for Cosmonaut to speak out forcefully.

He has exactly the right idea about the need for a program but not in the same sense of the Leninist sects that see it in the same way that Catholics see a catechism:

For the first, I would propose a unifying center of programmatic cohesion rather than commitment to this or that branch of revolutionary Marxism. A program should be understood in the sense of something you can accept for the basic conditions under which you would take power. This is different from historical or theoretical agreement, or a current strategy such as “get union jobs” or ”support Bernie Sanders for president”. Accepting the program means you may disagree with some or many points but are willing to put yourself behind it as the overall expression of the movement’s aims. A program should direct the elemental energy of the masses, recently seen in the protests around the killing of George Floyd, into a purpose. Otherwise, this energy is dissipated like steam, failing to turn the engine of revolution.

I tried to make the same points in a 2011 article titled “Rethinking the question of a revolutionary program”:

It should be clear what I am leading up to. I believe that a new left movement or party has to return to these roots. It is a big mistake to think in terms of program as the accretion of doctrinal statements made by a particular aspiring “nucleus of a vanguard party”.

Socialism, or anti-capitalism, has to be reconstituted on a much broader basis. Without a doubt, a program similar in spirit could be reconstituted from all of the points that the myriad of sects in the U.S. agrees on. I doubt that you will find the ISO and the Workers World fighting over, for example, the need to provide free medical care or the need to ban “fracking”. But in their fight to the finish line—the proletarian revolution of the distant future—they seek to protect their intellectual property, the sum total of all the resolutions voted on at all their conventions and all the newspaper articles, books and pamphlets churned out by their party press.

Diego ostensibly makes recommendations to the DSA even though he is “unsure whether the DSA with its current form and class composition would be able to provide an adequate minimum/maximum communist program in the Macnairist model.” The Manairist model is a reference to the writings of Mike Macnair, a leader of the CPGB in England who is best known for defending Karl Kautsky’s party-building precepts but understood much differently than the Jacobin intellectuals who find Kautsky’s writings amenable to supporting DP candidates.

In any case, his article ends on a very good note:

These prescriptions are very general and open to debate. The organizational ones will require constant evaluation to check if they are solving the problems designed to solve. But I believe that they point in the direction of what is needed to construct a proper vehicle for fighting. The final idea I believe must be digested is an understanding that we are comrades and not friends. We have responsibilities to each other because we committed to a larger movement, not because we like each other. It is fine to disagree on the details, and this should not be taken personally. We stand together because we accept the broader goals of the movement. We do not have to share hobbies or feel affinity towards each other. We have to trust each other and know that we play on the same team. In that spirit, I provide this piece as a good faith attempt to solve some of the problems I see around me.

June 20, 2020

2020 Socially Relevant Film Festival–the Virtual Cinema reboot

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

On Friday, March 13th, CounterPunch published my survey of films appearing at the 2020 Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York. On the following Monday, I received word that all of the festival theaters were shutting down because of the pandemic. I am reposting my article to give you an idea of what will now be available as part of the Virtual Cinema reboot of the festival. At six dollars per film, you will be able to see some leading edge narrative and documentary films.

Click the image above or the festival home page to get scheduling information for the screenings that begin next Tuesday. I have been covering the festival since its inception in 2013 and feel that this is the best one in a series of really great alternatives to the mindless, violent and commercially-driven Hollywood products.

My CounterPunch review:

Feature films

Good Morning

In 1981, Louis Malle made a film titled “My Dinner With Andre” that had a cast of two: Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. They wrote the screenplay and played semi-fictional versions of themselves. During the entire 111 minutes, the cameras were trained on the two as they sat eating and chatting at Café Des Artistes, a luxurious restaurant on the upper west side. Despite defying Hollywood film conventions across the board, the film impressed Roger Ebert enough to name it best of the year.

“Good Morning,” a Lebanese film, is this year’s “My Dinner With Andre.” Every morning an 80-year-old former General in the Lebanese army and an 84-year-old military doctor meet at a coffee shop in Beirut to spend time working on crossword puzzles together. They, like me (I am a bit younger), enjoy doing such puzzles both intellectually and therapeutically. They hope that by exercising the brain, they will stave off dementia just as jogging or bicycling will stave off heart disease.

Unlike “My Dinner With Andre,” which featured Andre Gregory as a flamboyant raconteur and Shawn as his timid interlocutor, the dialog between the General and the doctor is far more mundane. The drama, however, flows from their uphill battle against declining cognitive and physical abilities that puts their long-time friendship into bold relief. They become Everymen facing the inevitability of death just Max Von Sydow’s Knight faced off Death, the hooded chess master in “The Seventh Seal.”

Each day, the General habitually approaches total strangers in the coffee shop to ask them if they’d like to hear a joke. For most of the film, we don’t make too much of this since we accept this as the attempt of an elderly man to enjoy interaction with younger people, even if fleetingly. Toward the end, he begins to overstay his welcome at tables to the point that the doctor warns them that it has become a sickness with him. The look of consternation on the hapless General’s face is enough to bring tears to your eyes.

Against the human drama taking place within the four walls of the coffee shop, Lebanon is sinking into the regional crisis. Suicide bombers attack every so often while Syrian refugees beg on the street beneath them. Like most old-timers, they are nostalgic for the Lebanon of their youth. When they are not working on crossword puzzles or sharing their latest medical complaint with each other, they sing classic Arabic songs.

Considering the likelihood that the director Bahij Hojeij used an actual coffee shop and modest technical gear to make “Good Morning,” this film would educate aspiring filmmakers that a work of art does not require a $10 million budget. It requires instead deep humanist instincts and a flair for storytelling, traits that remain priceless.


With a Russian director (Alexey Zlobin) and a mixed Russian and Armenian cast, “Lorik” tells the story of a middle-aged actor in Yerevan that Freud would have diagnosed as a case of extreme narcissistic disorder. He cares nothing about the people around him and only expects them to cater to his needs. When a makeup artist is a bit late supplying him with the fake nose he needs to play Cyrano de Bergerac, he throws a tantrum. Upon further reflection, you might say that in the world of actors and actresses, he is fairly normal.

His world is turned upside down when he learns that the local government has decided to renovate his beloved theater. Robbed of a stage where he is in complete control, he makes the mistake of ordering the construction crew to cease and desist. Unaware that goons from the local government are providing security at the site, he gets the heave-ho and lands on his head on the pavement below the theater. When he regains consciousness, he is shocked to discover that people no longer see him as Lorik the famous actor. In their eyes, he has become Johnik, a parking garage attendant his neighbors regard as the village idiot.

Through some sort of supernatural process, Lorik—so used to playing larger-than-life characters like Cyrano—is now transforming into real-life characters who represent the social contradictions of Armenian society, both male and female, young and old. Among the youngest is a bed-ridden girl who requires costly surgery to recover from a serious illness. Not long after he sheds her “role,” he turns into the crooked politician who ordered the closing of the theater. He plans to turn into headquarters for his nationalist party.

Whether or not the screenwriter Michael Poghosian, who also plays Lorik, intended it or not, the film has a strong affinity with Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Lorik is Scrooge and the sickly girl is Tiny Tim. In the course of stepping into the roles of Yerevan’s divided society that overthrew a nationalist oligarchy last year, Lorik experiences redemption. Poghosian is excellent as Lorik. Despite my impatience with magical realism in other films, I found “Lorik” altogether enchanting.


Microplastic Madness

Like Greta Thunberg taking on the fossil fuel energy producers, the fifth graders in PS15 in Red Hook, Brooklyn are taking on the fossil fuel plastic manufacturers threatening marine life.

Like most kids, they love whales and other creatures living in the ocean. When their teacher takes them on a field trip to Jamaica Bay, they are disgusted to see all the plastic garbage strewn across the beach and in nearby bushes. They are even more disgusted to learn that the plastic stiffens under years of sunlight and then fragments into tiny particles. Swept up by the tides and into the ocean’s depth, the fish cannot distinguish them from food. Consequently, they eat them and perish. All in the name of a corporation’s bottom line.

Seeing the interaction between the students, mostly black and Latino, and their dedicated teacher, you wonder why can’t every school in the USA be following their example. They examine plastic fibers under a microscope connected to an Apple laptop. Imagine the most exciting science project that ever took place in your school and you’ll get an idea of the intellectual and political energy taking place at PS15. I taught fifth grade for a week in 1968 and would have stuck with it if I had the training to teach science to kids like these.

In addition to chronicling the intellectual odyssey of these youngsters, the film is also a primer on plastic pollution in the oceans. The website has information on the movement to reduce plastics in New York City that resulted in the elimination of Styrofoam in their school and plastic shopping bags in local grocery stores. The task of building a sustainable society will require a crusade against petrochemical energy and plastics companies. We are fortunate to have kids like Greta Thunberg and these fifth graders on the front lines.

Undermined: Tales form the Kimberley

The Kimberley is the northernmost of the nine regions of Western Australia. Bordered on the west by the Indian Ocean, Aboriginals make up forty percent of the population. The documentary describes their efforts to defend their homeland against mining companies and corporate agriculture. For those who have been following the struggles of the Lakota in the U.S.A. and the Wet’suwe’en in Canada against energy company incursions, seeing this film will help you understand that they are global in character.

Like Montana, Wyoming, and other rugged western states, Kimberley is a magnet for billionaires who buy land by the thousands of acres and build luxurious ranch estates. Ted Turner owns two million acres and fifteen ranches in 10 different states. Australian versions of Ted Turner have also moved in on Kimberley. Worth $15 billion, mining company owner Gina Rinehart is at the forefront of “developing” Western Australia. She was involved with a secessionist movement that would allow capitalists to exploit the region’s valuable natural resources at a faster rate than the government in Canberra would allow.

Besides her, the Aboriginals also have to contend with Kerry Stokes, who has major investments in mining and media companies. He is also a big-time rancher like Ted Turner. Stokes bought 1,563 square miles of land in the Kimberley and then stocked it with 20,000 head of Red Brahman cattle worth up to 40 million Australian dollars. To give you an idea of his commitment to environmental values, Stokes is on record as stating that the fires that raged last year in Australia do not have much to do with climate change.

Gratefully, the film does not pay much attention to such characters. It mostly allows Aboriginals, some of whom are small ranchers devoted to a pastoral lifestyle, to make the case for keeping predatory big businessmen out. If memory serves me correctly, this film gives Australia’s indigenous people the biggest opportunity to speak for their culture than any I have ever seen in a film.

Speaking most eloquently for the Aboriginal cause, Albert Wiggan seemed to be poised to enjoy the benefits of urban life as a college graduate and a professional. Instead, he returned to Kimberley and became a tribune of a struggle to maintain a civilization that goes back thousands of years. He belongs to the Bardi-Kija-Nyul Nyul people who live near Cygnet Bay on the Dampier Peninsula. When the government tried to build the world’s largest LNG plant at James Price Point, he lobbied the Supreme Court and led a blockade until the developer withdrew from the project. He now works as an environmental consultant with the Nyul Nyul Rangers and is Deputy Chair of the Kimberley Indigenous Saltwater Science Project. Like the fifth graders in Red Hook, Brooklyn, he is on the front lines of the struggle to make this planet livable for thousands of years into the future. Like “Microplastic Madness,” “Undermined” is a powerful tool on its behalf.

Stonewall With A ‘T’

Directed by Samy Nemir Olivares, a gay Puerto Rican immigrant and media activist, this film examines the rift between transgender people and the gay movement in the years following the Stonewall riot. While you are accustomed to seeing the case for LGBT rights today, for a number of years the T was absent.

Despite being sympathetic to transgender rights, gay men in leadership positions felt that legislators in both Albany and Washington would not pass a bill that included gender identity. The irony, as the film points out, is that it was transgender women who finally stood up and resisted the cops back in 1969.

Stonewall was not a club patronized by closeted stockbrokers or lawyers. Owned by the Mafia, it was popular with the poorest and most marginalized people in the gay community. They were up-front about their identity: butch lesbians, effeminate young men, drag queens, male prostitutes, transgender people, and homeless youth.

The film celebrates the leading roles played by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, black and Latina transgender activists who were to the transgender movement that Harvey Milk was to the gay movement. To get an idea of the oceanic gulf between a Tim Cook and such people, I recommend a Washington Post article that celebrates Stonewall :

Sylvia Rivera even credited Johnson with saving her life — a life marked by hellish trials from the beginning. Her father abandoned her at birth, and her mother killed herself when she was 3. As a child, Rivera would try on her grandmother’s clothes and makeup, and was beaten when caught. By 11, she was a runaway and child prostitute.

She met Johnson on the streets in 1963, when she was still a preteen.

“She was like a mother to me,” Rivera said later. Johnson gave Rivera a measure of stability and love she had never experienced.

There are many stories about what Johnson and Rivera did in the early-morning hours of June 28, 1969, when the Stonewall riots erupted. Almost everyone agrees they were there. One legend has Johnson throwing the first “shot glass heard around the world”; another has her throwing the first brick. Stonewall historian David Carter concluded it was “extremely likely” that Johnson was among the first people to resist the police.

June 19, 2020

Icelandic Noir

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iceland,television — louisproyect @ 5:10 pm


Over the past couple of months, I have been bingeing on Netflix like most house-bound CounterPunchers. In case you haven’t seen them yet, I highly recommend two series that originated on Iceland television: The Valhalla Murders and Trapped. Both are close relatives to the Swedish Marxist detective stories that I reviewed on CounterPunch in 2014. They succeed both as social commentary and art.

What’s surprising is that a tiny nation (364,134, a population smaller than Wichita, Kansas) can produce the type of television drama that not only competes with Sweden’s but leaves HBO and Showtime in the dust. After reviewing the two TV series and a couple of Icelandic films that also merit watching during these pandemic social isolation days, I’ll conclude with some thoughts about Iceland that CounterPunch author and Iceland citizen José Tirado helped stimulate.

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