Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 14, 2018

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

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

COUNTERPUNCH, SEPTEMBER 14, 2018

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

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

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September 7, 2018

Operation Finale

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:13 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, SEPTEMBER 7, 2018

Having seen both a documentary and narrative film about Hannah Arendt that focused on her famous (and to some, infamous) reporting on the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker magazine, I was curious to see what “Operation Finale” had to say. Directed by Paul Weitz, who is best known for commercial work like “American Pie” and “The Twilight Saga”, it chronicles the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann in May 1960 by a team of Mossad agents led by Peter Malkin, who is played by Oscar Isaac. Ben Kingsley co-stars as Eichmann and makes a trip to your local movie theater worthwhile. Matthew Orton’s screenplay develops the Eichmann character close enough to Arendt’s “banality of evil” to have provoked the Times of Israel to fulminate:

Having barely outlined Eichmann’s role in the genocide, the film proceeds to humanize him with the assistance of the Mossad team. Eichmann is spoon-fed like a bird, toasts a L’Chaim with Malkin, and performs calisthenics. There’s also a scene with Eichmann on the toilet bowl, during which he makes the Mossad agents laugh by telling Nazi jokes.

I doubt any actor could have done a better job than Kingsley who steals every scene, something not hard to do in a film that has not much to work with dramatically. Making a film about the abduction of Eichmann is hardly the stuff that would draw Mission Impossible fans to a theater. Even if “Operation Finale” devotes an inordinate amount of time in fleshing out the technical details in an elaborate plot to evade Argentina’s police, there is no suspense in a film that has a preordained conclusion.

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August 31, 2018

The Little Stranger

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:25 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, AUGUST 31, 2018

Opening at theaters nationwide today, “The Little Stranger” is a most unusual blend of class politics and Stephen King-type horror set in a shabby manor house in England called The Hundreds just after the end of WWII. Once home to wealthy aristocrats of the Ayres clan, the 18th century estate now finds itself in the mid-20th century occupied by descendants who are aristocrats in name only. For reasons never detailed in the film, they are barely scraping by economically and the dilapidated house shows it.

The matron of the house, only referred to as Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), lives there with her two grown children, Roderick (Will Poulter, who is referred to as Roddy except by those beneath him socially) and Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who tries to keep the sprawling house in decent shape—a hopeless task. Once served by a staff of over a dozen, the Ayres only have Betty to serve them now, a teenager from the nearby village that is so spooked by the British version of Count Dracula’s castle that she feigns illness just so that she can get away from The Hundreds for a week or so—and maybe even permanently. Betty, you see, is convinced that The Hundreds is haunted.

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August 24, 2018

Gerald Horne’s The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean

Filed under: Counterpunch,slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 12:30 pm

I had high hopes for Gerald Horne’s The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean for a couple of reasons. It might help me develop a deeper understanding of the genocidal tendencies of Dutch and British colonialism I reviewed in a CounterPunch article about the ethnic cleansing of Munsee Indians from New York State in the 17thcentury. While Horne’s history is focused on slavery, there are frequent allusions to what he calls the “indigenes” or native peoples. Just as importantly, I expected it to be in line with his provocatively titled “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America” that was a timely debunking of our Founding Father myths. Turning the clock back a century, this time around Horne zeros in on the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that was glorious only to the slave-trading merchants of England and their colonial cohorts. For the indigenes or slaves who were victimized throughout the 17thcentury, there was no glory in being shot down by a musket.

My hopes were not only met, they were exceeded. Horne has written both a scholarly treatment enriched by primary sources excavated from archives three hundred years old but also a fierce polemic that hearkens back to those of CLR James and WEB Dubois. The end notes of “The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism” support some astonishing insights into the social reality of the emerging “revolutionary” North America. For example, in the penultimate chapter titled “The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688” (scare quotes were never more appropriate), Horne refers to a French Protestant exile remarking in 1687 that “there is not a house in Boston however small be its means that has not one or two” enslaved Africans, and even some that have five or six. The endnote reveals that this report originated in Box 19 of the Daniel Parrish Slavery Transcripts in the New York Historical Society. There are hundreds of such notations in Horne’s book, which attest to his perseverance in making the cruelty of the 17thcentury palpable. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, scholarship is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Buckets of sweat were probably accumulated in countless libraries and museums in the years it took to put together this groundbreaking text.

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August 17, 2018

Memoir of War

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, AUGUST 17, 2018

“Memoir of War” is an adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s La Douleur (The Pain, published in English as The War), a 1985 semi-fictional memoir about her experiences living in Vichy France in 1945 and during the immediate post-liberation period. Her husband Robert Antelme was a member of the Resistance and a Communist like her. With Antelme a prisoner in a slave labor camp in Germany, she tries to prevent him from being transferred to an even more lethal camp like Dachau by forming ties to a Vichy collaborator who has a double agenda: to extract information about the Resistance and to seduce her. She walks a tightrope, trying to exploit her relationship with him to keep her husband alive while avoiding a Harvey Weinstein moment.

The film is among the best I have seen about living under fascism and a reminder of how great a writer Marguerite Duras was. “Memoir of War” relies on her character’s (played brilliantly by Mélanie Thierry) voiceover drawn from the text of La Douleur. I generally find such a device intrusive but in this instance it worked perfectly since the literary text meshed so well with the cinematic texture. Setting the tone for the remainder of the film, we hear Duras’s words before the credits role as she sits alone in her apartment smoking a cigarette while pacing the floor:

I found this diary in the blue cupboards at Neaulphe. I don’t remember writing it. I know I did though. I know it was me. I recognize the handwriting and the details of what happened. I can picture the place. The Gare D’Orsay. My itineraries. But not myself writing. What I found was evenly filled pages, the letters tiny, unbelievably placid and regular. What I found was a phenomenal chaos of thought and feeling that I dare not amend, besides which literary polish strikes me as shameful. One thing is sure, obvious. It is unthinkable that these words were written whilst waiting for Robert.

Of course, the claim that she didn’t “remember writing it” has to be taken with a grain of salt. To understand why she would double-reflexively write, “I don’t remember writing it”, you have to place her in the context of French postwar culture. Now obscure to most young people except maybe those who major in French literature at your better universities, Duras was among France’s leading literary figures in the 1950s. She worked in many genres, including fiction, theater, essays, and screenwriting. In 1959, she was nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay for “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”, an antiwar film that relies heavily on the interior monologues of the two main characters. (This classic film can be seen here.)

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August 10, 2018

In the Spirit of the Departed Munsees

Filed under: Catskills,Counterpunch,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:38 pm

Four years ago the Stockbridge-Munsee Indians decided to cancel plans to build a gambling casino in Sullivan County since Gov. Andrew Cuomo had approved another Indian-owned gambling casino in Orange County that was closer to New York, thus putting theirs at a disadvantage. Starting in the early 2000s, there was a growing momentum to build such casinos in the economically-ravaged Sullivan County. Like Flint, Michigan after the departure of General Motors, Sullivan County bled jobs after the Borscht Belt hotels closed down due to New York City’s changing Jewish demographics. In the 1940s and 50s, garment workers sent their wives and kids up to the Catskills in the summer to escape the oppressive heat of tenement apartments. When their children became lawyers, doctors or accountants after graduating from a CUNY college, they could afford to move to Long Island, install air conditioners in every room, and fly to Europe instead.

When Donald Trump first found out about these casinos, he went ballistic. He said, “We’re giving New York State to the Indians.” If you know the real history of New York, you’d say instead that “We’re giving New York State back to the Indians.”

Some politicians objected to the plans since it went against the norms of gambling casinos being located exclusively on reservations. How could the Wisconsin-based Stockbridge-Munsees build a casino so far away from their home? As it happens, the pols in Albany calculated that offering the Indians the right to build a casino in exchange for dropping a land claim in Madison County, NY for 23,000 acres illegally seized hundreds of years ago made sense. But then again, how could a tribe in Wisconsin be entitled to New York land? What’s going on here? The answer should be obvious to anybody who has studied Native American history. Ethnic cleansing and genocide.

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July 27, 2018

The Prairie Trilogy

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:54 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 27, 2018

In March 2017, I reviewed Yale Strom’s documentary on Eugene V. Debs for CounterPunch, a work that looked at Red states when they were really Red. I wrote: “Indeed, the IWW and the SP reached the most oppressed members of the working class (fruit pickers, longshoremen, miners, lumberjacks) in the boondocks. Oklahoma, a state most liberals would consider particularly retrograde, was fertile territory for the radical left at the turn of the 20th century.” For those who missed Yale’s documentary at the festival last year or at its brief theater run in April of this year, the good news is that it is available now from iTunes.

And equally good news is the arrival of the Prairie Trilogy at the Metrograph Theater on Friday, July 27th. The trilogy consists of three documentaries made in 1978 by John Hanson and Rob Nilsson about the radical movement in North Dakota during the heyday of the IWW, the Socialist Party, and the Nonpartisan League (NPL). Since the radical movement in North Dakota in the early 1900s was largely made up of homesteaders, the focus is on the Nonpartisan League, a farmer’s movement motivated by the same grievances that fueled the Populist Party in the south.

Hanson and Nilsson also made a narrative film titled “Northern Lights” around the same time that depicts the formation of the NPL. It received the Caméra d’Or prize at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival for best first feature film and is probably worth tracking down based on the stunning Prairie Trilogy. Nilsson has his own credit for a documentary titled “What Happened Here” that can be seen on Fandor. SF Weekly described it as “little more than an intellectual crush on Leon Trotsky” so that should be recommendation enough. This is the sort of work you might expect from founding members of Cine Manifest, a collective that came together in 1972 as a political group making films instead of artists making political films. Their roots were in Karl Marx and Wilhelm Reich, and unabashedly so.

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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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