Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 13, 2018

The Dying Light

Filed under: Counterpunch,literature — louisproyect @ 1:28 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 13, 2018

The name Tony McKenna might ring a bell with CounterPunch readers since he has written a number of very informative articles here over the years, the most recent being one on “Trump, Obama and the Nature of Fascism”. When I learned that he had written a novel titled “The Dying Light”, I requested a review copy since I was curious to see if his fiction chops were as strong as his nonfiction’s.

Speaking for myself, I entertained hopes of writing fiction after I left the Trotskyist movement in 1978. It was only after reading the chapter in Saul Bellow’s “Herzog”, where he describes the bathroom toiletries of Herzog’s former lover in intimate detail as a way of casting light on her psychologically, that I decided to stick to politics. If I lived to a thousand, I could not write as brilliantly as Bellow. By the same token, if he could have lived to a thousand, he would not be able to write anything but trash when it came to politics.

On one level, “The Dying Light” might be described as a historical novel since it is based on a little-known aspect of life in London in 1940, when many of its citizens began living in abandoned subway stations, or what they call the Tube, to protect themselves from German bombs. In a nod to the “Newsreels” of John Dos Passos’s great U.S.A. trilogy, McKenna includes an editorial from a faux newspaper called the Birchington Gazette:

During the Blitz, when the bombing was at its most intense, hundreds of thousands of Londoners took shelter in the Underground. First realised as a temporary spontaneous measure, it was initially opposed by government who used the police to lock down tube stations. Nevertheless, large crowds pushed their w through, winning the right to occupy London subterranean levels.

The occupation, however, swiftly grew something more than a temporary means of escaping bombs. Rather, it became a way of life. People set up home in the spaces beneath the city. The social research organisation Mass Observation describes how “for the first time in many hundreds of years…civilized families conducted the whole of their leisure and domestic lives in full view of each other. Most of these people were not merely sheltering in the tubes; they were living there.

Using this premise, McKenna tells the story of children who have taken over an abandoned station that a child named Georgie calls Ruritania. He has a very active imagination just like the author.

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July 6, 2018

The Citizen

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

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 6, 2018

When I was in high school, I had a very good English teacher who after assigning Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” warned us to pay careful attention to the pistols in Act One that Hedda Gabler shows off to a houseguest. They were inherited from her father and supposedly useful for killing time in a stultifying bourgeois household. Whenever you see a pistol or a knife in a play early on, he told us, that creates an uneasy foreshadowing of their being used in the final act. The titular character, bored and frustrated in the same way as Madame Bovary and other Victorian-era housewives, does end up shooting herself in the head.

At the beginning of “The Citizen”, a Hungarian film directed by Roland Vranik that opens today at the Metrograph theater in New York, we meet the main character Wilson Ugabe, a refugee from Guinea-Bissau, being grilled by a Hungarian immigration official, a member of a three-person panel, to determine whether he is entitled to become a citizen. “Tell me something about Hungarian art in the Renaissance.” “Do you remember what the Corvins were?” “Humanism”? Wilson remains silent, as you’d expect from having to take the Hungarian version of a test African-Americans took during the Jim Crow era to become registered to vote.

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June 22, 2018

A Nikolaus Geyrhalter Retrospective on DVD

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:54 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, June 22, 2018

If the goal of a film, whether fictional or documentary, is to show rather than tell, then Nikolaus Geyrhalter is in a class by himself. Born in 1972, the Austrian documentary filmmaker has 52 credits to his name. Six of his greatest works have now been collected into a DVD set that is available from Icarus, a distributor of leading-edge, left-of-center films based in Brooklyn (where else?).

My initial exposure to Geyrhalter was back in 2006, when my review of “Our Daily Bread” referred to its preference for “showing” rather than “telling”:

“Our Daily Bread” studiously avoids editorializing of any sort. The images themselves are sufficient to reveal food production as a mix of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” and Frederick Wiseman’s “Meat,” a 1976 documentary about the livestock business that “Our Daily Bread” clearly reflects. The main difference between Wiseman and Geyrhalter is that the latter eschews sensationalism of all sorts. While his film might lack the visceral impact of Wiseman’s, it is arguably more persuasive because it depicts the food industry as somehow inextricably linked to advances in technology and science. Geyrhalter challenges the audience to reject the paradigm set forth in his film. In so doing, they might be rejecting civilization as we know it.

A decade later I saw another Geyrhalter film titled “Homo Sapiens”, that like “Our Daily Bread”, defiantly lacked a single spoken word either by through narration or dialog. Nor is there a film score, one of the more annoying and omnipresent presences in documentary films today.

This silent film, however, did not need much “telling” since the images and haunting background sounds spoke for themselves. You see the detritus of cities and towns that have lost their raison d’être, namely their role in the circulation of capital. Once again, sans narration, you can only surmise that the abandoned hospitals, factories, schools, jails, laboratories, forts, etc. were abandoned because they became redundant just like the homo sapiens who lived and worked in the cities and towns where they were located. You get some of the same feeling of desolation and loss traveling around Sullivan County where I grew up—the Borscht Belt. When I strolled around the ruins of the once glamorous and thriving Nevele Hotel in Ellenville, I could not help but feel that I was in a kind of graveyard.

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June 15, 2018

The Chinese Exclusion Act; The Unafraid

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:25 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, June 15, 2018

Since nativism is largely responsible for the election of Donald Trump, the left is obligated to understand its roots as well as the impact it is having on those who are its most visible victims. Two new documentaries will help us develop both the historical and personal dimensions of the great stain across the body politic that has existed almost since the beginning of what Robinson Jeffers called our “perishing republic”.

The Chinese Exclusion Act” premiered last month on PBS but is thankfully available now on-demand. Directed by Ric Burns, it is not filled with the sort of flag-waving liberalism found in his brother Ken’s work. It is a history of a racist immigration law that was passed in 1882 and remained on the books until it was repealed by the Magnuson Act in 1943 when China became a key ally in the war against Japan. FDR knew full well how embarrassing such a racist law would appear in Asia, especially when Japan was pushing anti-colonial rhetoric as part of its Co-Prosperity Sphere. Using the standard Burns brothers documentary techniques the film paints a portrait of the real contribution Chinese labor made to economic development, all the while struggling to overcome white racism, including that of trade unions and political parties upholding the rights of the “working man”.

To be shown at the Human Rights Film Festival in New York on June 21st, “The Unafraid” derives its title from the chant of DACA students sitting in at a state college in Athens, Georgia: “We are undocumented; we are unafraid!” It tracks the struggle of four high school seniors brought to the USA from Mexico as young children to now overcome the obstacles they face in one of the country’s most viciously anti-immigrant states. They formed a local activist group called Freedom University that sought to end the punitive practice of forcing undocumented students to pay non-resident tuition fees even though they lived nearly their entire lives in Georgia. Coming from hard-pressed families barely scraping by, the non-resident tuition fees costing triple what residents paid stood in the way of getting a college degree.

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June 8, 2018

Human Rights Film Festival 2018

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,human rights — louisproyect @ 8:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, June 8, 2018

In advance of the 2018 Human Rights Film Festival that opens on June 14th, I was able to preview three scheduled documentaries that would be of great interest to CounterPunch readers both for the subject matter and for their artistic merit. Given Hollywood’s indifference to character development as it pursues blockbuster ticket sales based on special effects and car chases, your only recourse is to watch films like “The Distant Barking of Dogs”, “Naila and the Uprising” and “The Silence of Others” that are deeply humanistic treatments of people living through the real dramas of our epoch, namely the struggle to live in a free and just society.

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June 1, 2018

The Last Witness

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Poland — louisproyect @ 1:35 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, June 1, 2018

Now rentable on iTunes, Amazon and other VOD platforms for $5.99, “The Last Witness” is a narrative film about the Katyn massacre of 1940. This joint Polish-British production is well worth seeing both for its dramatic power and for its probing examination of how England served Stalin’s Great Russian chauvinism by covering up the massacre that left 22,000 elite members of the military, academy, church and legal professions secretly buried in the forest near Smolensk, even after the Cold War had begun.

This is now the second film about Katyn I have reviewed for CounterPunch, the first being Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 “Katyn”. Like Wajda, the director and screenwriters of “The Last Witness”—Piotr Szkopiak and Paul Szambowski—are Polish nationalists. For the Poles, the 1940 occupation and mass murder of the country’s elite has cast a shadow over their history just as the 1932-33 famine does for Ukrainians.

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May 25, 2018

Requiem for a mountain lion

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,indigenous — louisproyect @ 12:57 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, May 25, 2018

Last Saturday, an emaciated mountain lion (50 pounds underweight) killed a mountain biker on the foothills of the Cascade Range near North Bend, Washington, a small town not far from Seattle. The city’s name is an anglicization of Chief Si’ahl, a Suquamish leader best known for what was likely an apocryphal speech addressed to the territory’s governor Isaac Stevens that warned about the threats to mother nature and native peoples posed by capitalist development. It was occasioned by the 1855 Treaty of Port Elliot that Stevens forced on them at the point of a gun:

Your dead cease to love you and the homes of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb. They wander far off beyond the stars, are soon forgotten, and never return. Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, its great mountains and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely hearted living and often return to visit and comfort them.

Day and night cannot dwell together. The red man has ever fled the approach of the white man, as the changing mists on the mountain side flee before the blazing morning sun.

American history is replete with stories of Indian removal and species extinction. After all, they go hand in hand. Perhaps the first occurrence was in upstate New York in the Catskill Mountains, an area I am intimately familiar with. I grew up in Sullivan County, the home of the Borscht Belt in the southern Catskills. While I loved the countryside growing up, there were hardly any Catskill mountains to speak of. We were blessed by the presence of the Shawangunk Mountains that I could see from our living room window. After graduating high school, I entered Bard College and eventually lived in a dorm that overlooked the Catskill Mountains proper just across the Hudson River.

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Diana Johnstone versus CounterPunch

Filed under: Counterpunch,Red-Brown alliance — louisproyect @ 12:10 am

Diana Johnstone

Following her Consortium News attack on Tony McKenna, Diana Johnstone now directs her polemical pea-shooter at CounterPunch (CP) and once again the article was published by Consortium News. Since she has written about a hundred articles for CP over the years, I wondered what might have ticked her off.

I subsequently learned from CP co-editor Joshua Frank that after he and Jeff St. Clair decided to publish an article that took exception to her kind words on behalf of Marine Le Pen’s brand of nativism, she saw them as the enemy. Among other things, the article stated:

Johnstone’s torrent of unsupported claims takes a dark turn when she focuses her attention against immigration. In effect, she calls for the left to reconsider its pro-immigrant stance, because “a left whose principal cause is open borders will become increasingly unpopular.” This is a nationalist argument, suggesting that political opportunism is of more importance than the lives of refugees and immigrants.

What could make Johnstone think that her opposition to immigration will resonate with the left? It reeks of the xenophobia that we are dealing with in the USA and that most people have taken a firm stand against, whatever their differences on other questions.

She says that in the current fund-drive, CP has teamed up with Russia-bashers like Rachel Maddow, Max Boot, et al because their slogan for the fund-drive is “We Have All the Right Enemies”, which supposedly means that they are on the Kremlin’s shit-list. But there is no indication that the “right enemies” is a reference to Russia. Go to https://store.counterpunch.org/ and try to find something to that effect. And, while you are there, make a donation to the best magazine on the left.

In her blinkered vision, Jeff St. Clair wasn’t like Rachel Maddow and Max Boot back in the day. He was just as much of a Putin-booster as Diana Johnstone, even though Jeff wrote one of the most vicious take-downs of Putin you’ll find anywhere. She refers to an attack on CP that was written by a German blogger that tried to demonstrate that published articles were stacked in favor of the rightwing and white supremacists. Jeff St. Clair answered the blogger effectively but perhaps Johnstone was miffed that he did not come out and say that he was in favor of the red-brown alliance she has been advocating for years.

At the time, I was amused to see that Franklin Lamb was included in the German blogger’s group of rightists in light of the fact that for the past year or so he has written some of the most hard-hitting critiques of the Assad dictatorship found anywhere. Lamb’s ability to change his views based on new information should be lauded. It is too bad that writers like Johnstone remain evidence-averse.

According to the German blogger, the bad guys wrote 674 articles while those penned by the good guys only numbered 245, with me accounting for 59 of them. At the time, I scoffed at the blogger’s bogus statistics:

This is really quite pathetic, a classic example of “lies, damned lies, and statistics”. If you really want to characterize CounterPunch, it would be necessary to conduct an analysis of all of the articles that appear there, not just a sampling. How do I and the other “left/progressives” (god, what an awful term) exhaust the inventory of all those on the left who write for CounterPunch? All you need to do is look at a typical weekend edition, like the one that came out today, to get a handle on what it stands for. There are 40 articles and not a single one has even the slightest whiff of rightwing politics. Speaking of which, one has to wonder what criteria Hendricks used to categorize some of the people as rightwingers. She includes Franklin Lamb and Paul Larudee. Unless I am missing something, they have never written anything I would associate with the Republican Party. For that matter, mostly what they do is circulate pro-Baathist propaganda after the fashion of Tony Greenstein.

The reference to Greenstein was prompted by his own attack on CP that along with Jews Sans Frontieres made the case for it being anti-Semitic. Trust me. If I ever saw evidence on CP of the kind of Jew-baiting that goes on at Russia-Insider, where Johnstone’s article was crossposted, I would stop writing for CP. On January 15th, Russia-Insider’s editor wrote that “hostility to Putin’s Russia is largely a Jewish phenomenon.” Despite this David Duke-type rhetoric, Consortium News accepts tax-deductible donations for Russia-Insider as a fiscal sponsor. Go figure.

Make no mistake about it. Johnstone had high hopes for CP being much more like Consortium News, Russia-Insider, The Saker, The Duran, 21st Century Wire, Global Research or any of the fifty other websites that pass along RT.com talking points to the conspiracy-minded pinheads who lap this stuff up.

She was particularly upset that CP ripped alt-right fan Caitlin Johnstone a new asshole (no, the two are not related except ideologically.) After Green Party misleader David Cobb advocated following Caitlin Johnstone’s advice to bloc with people like Mike Cernovich, CP co-editor Joshua Frank blasted Cobb and Caitlin Johnstone:

Back to the disgusting Mike Cernovich, who hates gender equality and believes that white men are oppressed by big bad feminism. He’s tweeted that, “Not being a slut is the only proven way to avoid AIDS. If you love black women, slut shame them.” Fuck him. He doesn’t give a shit about women, class issues, climate change or the ugly side of capitalism.  Cernovich even told Andrew Marantz of the The New Yorker, “I believe in strong borders, including keeping out Islamic terrorists. If people think that’s inherently racist, fine—but I’m an American nationalist, not a white nationalist.”

Diana Johnstone didn’t think that this sort of thing should get in the way of a “single-issue antiwar movement” like the one we had in the 1960s. Of course, back then this meant uniting pacifists, CP’ers and Trotskyists on the need to get out of Vietnam. Nobody in their right mind would have asked someone like Cernovich to speak at an antiwar rally. What Johnstone means by “antiwar” is much different than what we were involved with back then. Instead, she wants everybody to get behind Assad’s war on the Syrian population marching along with her, Caitlin Johnstone and Mike Cernovich.

One of the other CP critiques of Caitlin Johnstone was written by Yoal Litvin, who served in the Israeli military before relocating to the USA. If that is a litmus test, what do we make of long-time CP contributor Uri Avnery who during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War fought on the southern front in the Givati Brigade as a squad commander, and later in the Samson’s Foxes commando unit (and also wrote its anthem)? Maybe Litvin and Avnery, like Lamb, changed their views. Too bad that, unlike them, Johnstone’s thinking is so calcified.

Reading Johnstone, you’d think that Alexander Reid Ross sets the tone for CP. She can’t stand that he wrote an article that denounced the red-brown alliances that she and Caitlin Johnstone advocate. To show how off-base Ross is, she refers to how an article he wrote for the Southern Poverty Law Center making such points was subsequently deleted. She does not mention, however, that it was only deleted after Max Blumenthal threatened legal action. Back in the 60s, the left understood that it should settle its differences through debate and not through the bourgeois courts. Maybe Johnstone forgot about this or maybe she never viewed this as a principle. That’s another difference between us.

It is worth noting that Ross has written 11 articles for CP but only a single one was in the vein that Johnstone objected to. Meanwhile she has written 100 articles all saying just about the same kinds of things, namely that Putin is a great guy, that Marine Le Pen is part of the left and that Assad is leading a war on terror. There was a time before her brain became so calcified that Johnstone could write some interesting stuff, even if it was wrong. I can’t stand Seymour Hersh’s politics but I would never dream of ignoring something he wrote. As for Johnstone, I tuned her out about a decade ago unless it was something as egregiously wrong-headed as this that deserved a reply.

The last couple of paragraphs sound like the sort of thing that Stephen F. Cohen tells ultrarightist John Batchelor every time he makes an appearance on his WABC radio show:

Vladimir Putin is clearly in the Westernizing tradition. Not an ignorant buffoon like Yeltsin, ready to give away the shop to get a pat on the back from Bill. But rather someone who, as an intelligence agent (yes, KGB people learn a lot) lived in the West, spoke fluent German, and wanted Russia to have a dignified place in Europe – which was the dream of Gorbachev.

But this aspiration has been rudely rebuffed by the United States. Russians who yearned to be part of Europe have been disappointed, humiliated, and finally, angered. All their efforts at friendship have been met with increasingly outlandish portrayals of Russia as “the enemy”.

What the hell does this pop psychology have to do with radical politics? It almost makes you think that Johnstone was getting paid by the Kremlin to write such drivel. If so, they better ask for their money back since it has about as much impact as a wet noodle.

May 18, 2018

First Reformed

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:36 pm

For most film buffs, the movie “Taxi Driver” and the name Martin Scorsese are inextricably linked. But for me, the essence of a film is the screenplay. It all goes back to Aristotle who in defining tragedy in “Poetics” placed plot and character at the top of the six necessary ingredients (the other four are diction, thought, spectacle, and melody). Martin Scorsese did not write the screenplay for “Taxi Driver”. It was written by Paul Schrader, who also wrote “Raging Bull”. If there is anything that defines these masterpieces, it is the brilliant storytelling (plot) and character development of the screenplay (think Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta). Scorsese deserves credit for helping Robert De Niro fully realize two memorable characters and creating the spellbinding background against which they stand (think of spectacle as cinematography and melody as film score) but without Schrader’s screenplay, it would have been all for naught.

In addition to being a screenwriter, Schrader was also a director—sometimes with mixed results. I am pleased to report that his latest film that opens nationwide today is not only his greatest achievement but one of the great American films of the decade. “First Reformed” tells the story of Toller (Ethan Hawke), the grief-stricken pastor of the eponymous upstate N.Y. Protestant church who delivers sermons to less than ten people on an average Sunday. The drawing card for the church is not spirituality, but its status as a landmark building that draws tourists, including some that can be persuaded to buy a coffee cup, baseball cap or t-shirt from the church’s tiny souvenir shop.

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May 11, 2018

Capitalism: a Horror Movie

Filed under: Counterpunch,economics,Film — louisproyect @ 4:46 pm

As part of its special series celebrating the 200thbirthday of Karl Marx between May 18-22, the Anthology Film Archives will be screening “Capitalism”, a 320-minute, six-part documentary that is both supremely intelligent and briskly entertaining, on May 20th at 3:45. Directed by Ilan Ziv, the founder of Icarus Films, it is like no other film I have ever seen about the horror we face in our daily lives that is much more frightening than slasher movies like Halloween or Friday the Thirteenth. After all, the idea of nuclear holocaust or global warming—just two of the threats we face from an economic system gone mad—are not something a plucky hero or heroine in a John Carpenter movie can stave off.

The film operates on two levels. It is both a history of how this system came into existence as well as a profile of the men who have put themselves at its service ideologically (Hayek) and those who either fought against its worst abuses (Keynes) or hoped to abolish it altogether (Marx).

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