Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 8, 2019

First Iranian Film Festival at the IFC Center in NYC

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 2:44 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 8, 2019

Ever since 2014, I have made the case for Iranian films on CounterPunch (see links to the articles below).

At the risk of sounding like one of those reviewers addicted to superlatives for Hollywood films that appear in full-page ads in the NY Times, let me say that the five films I have seen in advance of the Iranian Film Festival that opens next week at the IFC Center in New York on January 10th beat the pants off of Roma, Widows, The Favourite, The Green Book or any other films that have the inside track for Academy Awards.

They incorporate the elements that have draw attention to Iranian films worldwide for the past forty years, including a swan song for Abbas Kiarostami, a director/screenwriter that Martin Scorsese describes as having “the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” It is a supreme irony that a state with a well-deserved reputation for censorship is capable of serving as an incubator for great art but then again the greatest music ever written catered to the tastes of both church and nobility.

Let’s be grateful that the batch of five films discussed below, which push the envelope of Iranian cultural norms, can still be made. To some extent this reflects a cultural thaw under Hassan Rouhani who is determined to open up the country’s economy to foreign investors, even if Donald Trump is just as determined to keep the doors closed. I was ecstatic to see that one of the five films was directed by Jafar Panahi who I consider one of the world’s greatest directors. Though under house arrest between 2010 until 2015, he was still defiant enough to make a film in 2011 on an iPhone inside his home titled “This is Not a Film” that was up to his usual high standards. He still cannot leave Iran, even if in film circles he is considered to be on a par with Kiarostami.

At the risk of indulging in hyperbole, I advise seeing as many of these films as possible at the IFC. They will remind you of not only how films can reach the level of fine art but provide insights into a country that is as important geopolitically as any on earth.

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January 4, 2019

Sanders, Warren and the DSA

Filed under: Counterpunch,DSA — louisproyect @ 3:43 pm

Michael Harrington: the DSA’s founding father

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 4, 2019

For the past few months, dating back at least to Bhaskar Sunkara’s October 23rd Guardian op-ed piece titled “Think Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the same? They aren’t”, the “democratic socialist” wing of the Democratic Party has mounted an ideological offensive against the Senator from Massachusetts, laying the groundwork for Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign. Though likely almost as happy to get behind a Warren candidacy, it faults her for backing “Accountable Capitalism” rather than the Scandinavian-style socialism Sanders embraces. From the perspective of the Republican Party, and likely the Biden/Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, there’s not much difference between the two Senators. The “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism”, issued by Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers in the same month as Sunkara’s op-ed, had this take on the two:

The Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who cited Marxism as the model for his country, described “the ruthless economic exploitation and political oppression of the peasants by the landlord class” (Cotterell 2011, chap. 6). Expressing similar concerns, current American senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have stated that “large corporations . . . exploit human misery and insecurity, and turn them into huge profits” and “giant corporations . . . exploit workers just to boost their own profits.”6

Can you guess which Senator’s quote was which? Take 5 minutes to decide but no cheating, please. Okay, the answer is that Sanders’s quote came first. But wouldn’t any DSA’er be nearly as happy to see Warren become President in light of her belief that “giant corporations . . . exploit workers just to boost their own profits”? It is worth noting that some on the left—including Boris Kagarlitsky and Diana Johnstone—took Trump’s populist rhetoric to heart, so maybe something more than words have to be taken into account.

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December 28, 2018

Russia Without Putin

Filed under: Counterpunch,Russia — louisproyect @ 5:05 pm

For the longest time Vladimir Putin has assumed the role of an Ian Fleming super-villain in the imaginations of both liberal and neoconservative pundits. Like one of those well-worn set pieces in a James Bond novel, he sits opposite our British super-spy in a chess game with the world hegemony awarded to the winning side. Or in the case of a draw, multipolarity.

Any book on Putin and Russia that departs from these stereotypes would be most welcome. When it turns out to be a first-rate Marxist analysis, it should be added to your must-read list for 2019. The good news is that book has arrived in the form of Tony Wood’s Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War, a ground-breaking study that departs from the lurid personality-driven narratives that are the stock-in-trade of MSNBC or the Washington Post. Additionally, for those on the left whose ideas are shaped by Stephen F. Cohen’s pro-Putin apologetics, the book will serve as a wake-up call to return to a class rather than a chess analysis. If Rachel Maddow is for the chess-master playing white, there is no reason to uncritically root for who is playing black. In keeping with the palette analogy, it is worth recalling Lenin’s citation of Mephistopheles’s words from Goethe’s Faust in his 1917 Letter on Tactics: “Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life.”

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December 21, 2018

Can the Working Class Change the World?

Filed under: Counterpunch,revolutionary organizing,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 3:17 pm

The cover for Michael Yates’s “Can the Working Class Change the World?” was a stroke of genius. Ralph Fasanella’s “The Great Strike (IWW Textile Strike, 1912)” sets the tone for a book that has deep roots in working-class struggles in the USA and that shares the artist’s solidarity with the people who take part in them. Fasanella’s father delivered ice to people in his Bronx neighborhood and his mother worked in a neighborhood dress shop drilling holes into buttons. In her spare time, she was an anti-fascist activist. The family’s experience informed his art just as Michael Yates’s working class roots and long career as a labor activist and educator shapes his latest book.

Many years ago when I was a Trotskyist activist, the party was consumed with how to reach working people. To be frank, we would have learned more from Michael’s books than reading Leon Trotsky especially given the life experience outlined in the opening paragraph of the preface:

BY ANY IMAGINABLE DEFINITION of the working class, I was born into it. Almost every member of my extended family—parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins—were wage laborers. They mined coal, hauled steel, made plate glass, labored on construction sites and as office secretaries, served the wealthy as domestic workers, clerked in company stores, cleaned offices and homes, took in laundry, cooked on tugboats, even unloaded trucks laden with dynamite. I joined the labor force at twelve and have been in it ever since, delivering newspapers, serving as a night watchman at a state park, doing clerical work in a factory, grading papers for a professor, selling life insurance, teaching in colleges and universities, arbitrating labor disputes, consulting for attorneys, desk clerking at a hotel, editing a magazine and books.

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December 14, 2018

That Way Madness Lies

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,psychology — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

The first word that came to mind after watching “That Way Madness Lies”, Sandra Luckow’s documentary about her older brother’s Duanne’s wildly destructive tendencies brought on by paranoid schizophrenia, was courageous. As a film professor at Yale, Columbia and Barnard with a long career in filmmaking, Luckow could have made any number of films that would have been less painful and confessional. However, she surely must have understood that this was not just a bit of family history that would draw an audience in the same way a roadside accident draws the stares from bypassing cars. Its broader interest is in showing the terrible lack of institutional support for families that have to cope with a walking time-bomb like Duanne Luckow. While it is beyond the scope of this article, I can say that I have seen such problems up-close and can empathize deeply with what Sandra Luckow had to endure.

As American as apple pie, the Luckows hailed from Portland, Oregon where her father operated an antique car repair shop. Mechanically gifted, he built a tiny helicopter that he flew for pleasure. Showing the same aptitude as his father, Duanne soon became his partner. In addition to his talent for repairing cars, Duanne also became an avid home movie buff, varying between the typical vacation fare and ambitious works depicting himself as a James Bond type super-spy. He also was an accomplished still photographer who managed to entice young women into cheesecake type shoots that oddly enough substituted for any real intimacy. Looking back at this and other eccentricities, Sandra wonders whether the family might have sought professional help early on. Obviously, those eccentricities were normal enough in a country that is a breeding ground for maladjustment.

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December 11, 2018

WWII ended the Great Depression, not New Deal economics

Filed under: Counterpunch,financial crisis,WWII — louisproyect @ 2:04 pm

My views on these matters were first put forward in a blog post titled “Did World War Two End the Great Depression”, written in September, 2011. It cited a Paul Krugman Op-Ed piece written in 2008 and titled “Franklin Delano Obama?”. Krugman made the case that “What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs.” With respect to the public works projects mentioned by Al Ronzoni, Krugman described them as “largely offset by other factors, notably a large tax increase, enacted by Herbert Hoover, whose full effects weren’t felt until his successor took office.”

In Krugman’s view, FDR was someone who “thought he was being prudent by reining in his spending plans.” Sounds rather like Obama, doesn’t it? In fact, Krugman’s op-ed was a cautionary tale warning Obama, the supposed new FDR, not to be as tightfisted with government-funded recovery programs as occurred during the New Deal unless he wanted to take “big risks with the economy and with his legacy.”

Well, given the high costs of another world war (after all, those H-Bombs can make a real mess of things), Obama didn’t even create a public works program—the only option open to him. In fact, as I have argued, Obama was inspired more by Herbert Hoover than FDR. As someone who relied heavily on U. of Chicago economists, he was not likely to embark on a new New Deal despite all the advice he got from Paul Krugman, The Nation Magazine, Huffington Post, et al.

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December 7, 2018

Boy Erased; The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,religion — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 7, 2018

This year two narrative films shared the same subject matter: the damage that conversion therapy does to gay people following a regimen based on Christian fundamentalism and bogus psychotherapy in order to “change”. “The Boy Erased” had a bigger budget and a more conventional Hollywood distribution path than the indie “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” that played in arthouses but both are excellent. The first is currently playing in theaters everywhere, advertised heavily, and considered as possible Oscar-bait while the second that opened over the summer can now be seen as VOD. I made a point of seeing both films after watching a segment on Sunday Morning CBS News a couple of months ago about conversion therapy, a practice that struck me as utterly barbaric. After saying something about the two films, I will conclude with some observations about how the “sky religions” have managed to maintain utterly inhuman practices based on a couple of sentences in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, notwithstanding shifting attitudes toward same-sexers over the eons.

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November 30, 2018

At Eternity’s Gate; Lust for Life

Filed under: art,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:17 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 30, 2018

Last week, after watching a press screening of Julian Schnabel’s biopic of Vincent Van Gogh titled “At Eternity’s Gate”, I was so struck by its divergence from the memories I had of Vincent Minnelli’s 1956 identically themed “Lust for Life” that it struck me as worth writing about the two in tandem. While I have grave reservations about Schnabel’s politics and aesthetics, I can recommend his film that is playing in theaters everywhere that are marketed to middle-brow tastes, the kind of audience that listens to NPR and votes Democratic. These are the sorts of screeners I get from publicists throughout November to coincide with NYFCO’s awards meeting in early December, the “good”, Oscar-worthy films that Harvey Weinstein used to produce until he got exposed as a serial rapist.

Willem Dafoe is superb as Vincent Van Gogh in “At Eternity’s Gate” even though at 63 he can hardly evoke the almost post-adolescent angst of the artist who died at the age of 37. Like Willem Dafoe, Kirk Douglas not only bears a striking resemblance to Van Gogh in “Lust for Life” but was only 3 years older than the artist at the time of his death. Since “Lust for Life”, as the title implies, emphasizes turbulence, Douglas was just the sort of actor who could bring that vision of Van Gogh to life. In Minnelli’s adaptation of the Irving Stone novel, Van Gogh’s life was a succession of crises that finally became too much to bear.

Stone’s work faced the same obstacles as Van Gogh’s paintings that never sold in his lifetime. It was rejected by 17 publishers until its debut in 1934. Stone was not particularly known for his politics but did take the trouble to write a novel in 1947 based on the marriage of Eugene V. Debs and his wife Kate who had no use for socialism. The title was “Adversary in the House”, an allusion to her.

However, there must have been just enough politics in “Lust for Life” for screenwriter Norman Corwin to feature in his script. The first fifteen minutes or so of the film depicts Van Gogh as a lay priest in a coal-mining village in the region of Borinage who immerses himself into the daily life of super-exploited workers. As a hobby, he makes drawings of the miners and their families as a kind of homage to the people in need of what Marx called an opiate.

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November 27, 2018

The Dark Side of the New Deal: FDR and the Japanese-Americans

Filed under: Counterpunch,Japan,racism — louisproyect @ 1:36 pm

Boys Behind Barbed Wire (Norito Takamoto, Albert Masaichi, and Hisashi Sansui), 1944, Manzanar concentration camp

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 27, 2018

Not long ago, I had lunch with Arn Kawano, a friend and Marxmail subscriber whose parents had been interred during WWII for no other reason than being Japanese-Americans living in California. I was anxious to discuss a film with him that I had reviewed recently titled “Resistance at Tule Lake”, which described how Japanese-Americans stood up for their rights as citizens against FDR’s fascist-like Executive Order 9066 that gave the green light to the camps.

Arn, who has a law degree, told me that despite liberal obsessions with constitutional rights, there is very little to protect such citizens when a government acts in the name of a national emergency. If anything, FDR’s willingness to shred the constitution should alert those invoking the New Deal as some kind of golden era for democracy and human rights to look more closely and objectively at American history. To give you an idea of the inability of American liberals to comprehend the depravity of FDR’s internment camps, Herbert Wechsler, an attorney who was part of the Nuremberg prosecution team, was also the government’s lawyer in a case defending the legality of Executive Order 9066. Later on, when Wechsler was teaching at the Columbia University law school, a student named Arn Kawano asked him if he had to do it all over again, would he have defended 9066? When he answered yes, Arn gathered up his books and walked out of the classroom.

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November 16, 2018

The Mafia and the class struggle, part two

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,mafia — louisproyect @ 11:00 pm

(Apologies for not providing trailers for “Salvatore Giuliano” and “100 Steps” in English. There are none. However, the trailers can give you a flavor of the sort of intense drama you’ll find in the subtitled full versions, which are relatively easier to track down.)

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 16, 2018

Eleven years ago I went to a press screening at the Film Forum for the revival of “Mafioso”, a 1962 dark comedy directed by Alberto Lattuada. It was unlike any mafia film I had ever seen, either in the Scorsese/Coppola vein or comic fare like “Analyze This” and “Married to the Mob”.

It moved seamlessly from a satire on Sicilian customs in the village Calamo, which is dominated by a Godfather figure named Don Vincenzo, to the film’s climax when the main character, who had been visiting relatives in the village, was forced to carry out a hit on an American gangster–a total stranger to him. It was made clear to him by the gangster that if he did not follow orders, he and his family would be killed instead. As has been the case with the mafia going back to its origins in the 1860s, violence, extortion and comity are often mixed together. As Don Vito Corleone put it in “The Godfather”, “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse”.

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