Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 22, 2019

You Say You Want a Revolution: SDS, PL, and Adventures in Building a Worker-Student Alliance

Filed under: Counterpunch,Maoism,SDS — louisproyect @ 2:04 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 22, 2019

On a number of different levels, John Levin and Earl Silbar’s “You Say You Want a Revolution: SDS, PL, and Adventures in Building a Worker-Student Alliance” is a must-read book. To start with, it represents an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle known as SDS. For many, SDS meant either the New Left of the Port Huron Statement or the organization that imploded in 1970, leaving behind the wreckage strewn behind it, including the Weathermen and the various Maoist sects such as Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party that came out of RYM and RYM2. Missing until now from this puzzle was arguably SDS’s most disciplined and serious component, the Worker-Student Alliance (WSA) that was well-represented in the landmark student strikes at San Francisco State and Harvard University.

In addition, it is a close look at the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), a group that was the backbone of the WSA as well as the group that had the official blessing of Beijing in the 1960s until the party leadership broke with China over its “revisionism”.

While being essential for professional historians and those simply trying to understand what was happening on the left 50 years ago, it is also a breathtakingly dramatic story of how people from my generation burned their bridges in order to become revolutionaries. As someone who has read and written about a number of Trotskyist memoirs, none of them comes close to the story-telling power of the 23 people included in this 362-page collection that you will find impossible to put down.

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March 15, 2019

Ben is Back; Beautiful Boy

Filed under: Counterpunch,drugs,Film — louisproyect @ 12:51 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 15, 2019

Given the enormity of the drug crisis in the USA, particularly centered on opioid overdoses that are the largest cause of death of people under the age of 50, it was inevitable that Hollywood would begin to produce “problem” movies such as “Ben is Back” and “Beautiful Boy”. It also just as inevitable that such films would be based on the suffering of well-to-do families and suffused with clichés.

“Ben is Back” stars Julia Roberts as Holly Burns, the matriarch of a generally happy family eagerly awaiting Christmas day, the happiest time of the year, especially if you live in the suburbs and have lots of money to lavish on presents. Pulling into her driveway with a carload of gifts to place under the Christmas tree, she sees the ghost of Christmas past, namely her college-aged son Ben (Lucas Hedges) who has cut short his stay in a drug rehabilitation facility to return home from the holidays.

The entire family treats Ben as if he was the scariest ghost showing up in Scrooge’s bedroom. He is there not to remind them of their lifetime of sins but the pain he has visited on them in the past as an opioid addict. Hoping to enjoy a happy time with the family, he is put on the defensive by his mom’s insistence that he take a drug test in the upstairs bathroom right off the bat. As he pees into a bottle, she stands behind him with her arms folded to make sure he is not turning in a fake sample.

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March 8, 2019

Socially Relevant Film Festival 2019

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 8, 2019

Beginning next Friday on March 15th and lasting until March 21st, the SR Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York will be offering a welcome respite from the violent, comic-book, escapist, and misogynist films appearing in your local cineplex. I have been covering the festival each year since it began in 2015 and am happy to report that this year’s offerings remain at the high level founder Nora Armani has maintained over the past four years.

SR’s mission statement states that it “focuses on socially relevant film content, and human interest stories that raise awareness to social problems and offer positive solutions through the powerful medium of cinema. SR believes that through raised awareness, expanded knowledge about diverse cultures, and the human condition as a whole, it is possible to create a better world free of violence, hate, and crime.”

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March 1, 2019

China, Saudi Arabia and the Fate of the Uyghurs

Filed under: China,Counterpunch,Saudi Arabia,Uyghur — louisproyect @ 3:18 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 1, 2019

Beginning with the 9/11 attacks, much of the left decided that Saudi Arabia was the chief engineer of a Wahhabi plot to impose its reactionary, feudal, and patriarchal values on the rest of the world. Supposedly, the USA was being punished for its licentious and ungodly ways even if it was one of Saudi Arabia’s chief supporters in the Middle East, alongside Israel. While 9/11 Trutherism is hardly worth taking seriously, another line of investigation has implicated the Saudi state as providing the logistical support that made the attack possible while the USA looked the other way. The truthers claim that the FBI and CIA ignored the threat because they were in cahoots with al-Qaeda. What could American imperialism have possibly gained by such an attack? The answer is an excuse to invade Iraq, a ridiculous idea. But is it any more ridiculous to believe that Wahhabism, the official religion of Saudi Arabia, explains the attack or Saudi foreign policy in general?

If you are looking for grounds for this, the 9/11 Commission Report  is a good place to start. It does not blame the Saudi state but its evil spawn al-Qaeda. The report stated:

In the 1980s, awash in sudden oil wealth, Saudi Arabia competed with Shia Iran to promote its Sunni fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism. The Saudi government, always conscious of its duties as the custodian of Islam’s holiest places, joined with wealthy Arabs from the Kingdom and other states bordering the Persian Gulf in donating money to build mosques and religious schools that could preach and teach their interpretation of Islamic doctrine.

For those who viewed Saudi Arabia as so devoted to ascetic values that it would be willing to mount a devastating attack on the WTC, a symbol of the financial system it was closely tied to, and the Pentagon, its chief military benefactor, there were some counter-indicators best left under the rug. For someone like Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, the former Saudi ambassador in Washington, who was supposedly the quartermaster supplying the jihadi hijackers, those values were not to be taken too seriously as Christopher Dickey reported in The Daily Beast: “When the prince was the ambassador he was the toast of Washington, and plenty of toasts there were. Bandar bin Sultan smoked fine cigars and drank finer Cognac.”

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February 22, 2019

Netflix series on the Sinaloa drug cartels

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,drugs,Mexico,television — louisproyect @ 2:55 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, FEBRUARY 22, 2019

Not only was Ernest Mandel the leading Marxist economist of his time, he was also a big fan of crime stories. In his 1984 Delightful Murder: a Social History of the Crime Story, he made an essential point about organized crime from a Marxist perspective as well as showing a remarkable grasp of popular culture:

Organized crime, rather than being peripheral to bourgeois society, springs increasingly from the same socio-economic motive forces that govern capital accumulation general: private property, competition and generalized commodity production (generalized money economy). The Swedish pop group Abba summed up the situation eloquently in their song: ‘Money, money, money — It’s a rich man’s world.’ (Their own fate is a vivid illustration of this law: with the huge income generated by their records they promptly created an investment trust and contributed on a large scale to the election funds of the bourgeois party coalition.) But a rich man’s world is also a rich gangster’s world particularly since the top gangsters have grown richer and richer in relative terms, and are certainly qualitatively richer than even richest police, or the overwhelming mass of politicians. (Nixon himself was conscious of the disparity.)

A couple of months ago my wife reminded me that season four of Narcos and season three of El Chapo were up and running on Netflix. Although I hadn’t written anything about the El Chapo series, it seemed like a good opportunity to cover both since they dealt with the drug cartels in Mexico that were very timely given El Chapo’s trial. In addition, they are about the best entertainment available on Netflix. The two series are closely related since they deal with the Sinaloa cartel that El Chapo ruled over. In season four of Narcos, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is only a bit player. Primary attention is on Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna), the founder of the cartel for which El Chapo served as a sicario (hitman). Another important character is Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), the DEA agent who was tortured and killed by Gallardo’s henchmen in 1985. His death became a cause célèbre that led to the first in a series of escalations of the drug war.

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February 15, 2019

A Raymundo Gleyzer retrospective

Filed under: Argentina,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:14 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, FEBRUARY 15, 2019

Between Friday, February 22nd and the 28th, Anthology Film Archives will be presenting a retrospective of the films of Raymundo Gleyzer, a revolutionary born in 1941 and who died in a military prison in 1976 as one of thousands of desaparesidos. Like the myth of Sisyphus, the Latin American left seems to be perpetually condemned to being crushed by a boulder rolling back on it, just after it was pushed to the top of a mountain. For many young leftists, the sight one “pink tide” government after another being replaced by rightwing, pro-American forces is painful but this has been happening for generations.

In the early 70s, the stakes were much higher since the workers of Chile and Argentina were far more ready to seize power through a socialist revolution than has been the case more recently with temporizing governments like Lula’s. Gleyzer made films that were to the Argentine class struggle that Che Guevara’s AK-47 was to the guerrilla movements that were sweeping the continent. For putting the epochal struggle for the liberation of the South into a broader context, one that spans Simon Bolivar to today, Gleyzer’s films are essential. We should be grateful to the curators at Anthology Film Archives for scheduling this retrospective and urge my readers in the Greater New York area to make time to see his powerful body of work.

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February 8, 2019

Eugene V. Debs: a Graphic Biography

Filed under: Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 6:22 pm

For reasons that might be obvious, there has been a resurgence of interest in Eugene V. Debs in recent years. With the USA returning to a new Gilded Age, there is naturally a tendency to see how earlier generations confronted plutocrats like John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the politicians he consorted with.

John D. Rockefeller Jr. lived in the penthouse of 740 Park Avenue, the city’s most expensive real estate. His 34-room apartment now belongs to Stephen Schwarzman, the head of Blackstone and a close friend and adviser to Donald Trump, who is notorious for the vulgar ostentation of his birthday parties. He celebrated his 70thin 2017 by throwing a party that cost 9 million dollars. It featured strolling camels and was capped off by Gwen Stefani singing “Happy Birthday” to the plutocrat whose asset-stripping operation of nursing homes in England led to the death of 19 patients suffering from dementia.

In 1914, John D. Rockefeller Jr. was the strategist behind the Colorado National Guard and Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency assault on the Ludlow miners that left 21 people dead, including the wives and children of the miners. Although Woodrow Wilson appeared to disassociate himself from the murderous attack, he and the Presidents who preceded him were opposed to the right of workers to form trade unions. As I pointed out in a review of Chad Pearson’s “Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement”, a President’s “neutral” stance was just a ploy to allow the boss to have his way after the fashion of FDR’s “a plague on both your houses” during the Little Steel Strike.

Eugene V. Debs, who received six percent of the popular vote as a Socialist in 1912, was never neutral. In a September 4, 1915 article in the Appeal to Reason, the voice of the Socialist Party, he eulogized Louis Tikas, a Greek immigrant who led the Ludlow strikers and who was felled by three bullets during the massacre:

Louis Tikas made Ludlow holy as Jesus Christ made Calvary!

He was the loyal leader of the persecuted colony ; the trusted keeper of the tented village. He was loved by every man, woman and child, and feared only by the fanged wolves and hyenas that threatened to ravage the flock.

Strong as a giant yet gentle as a child; utterly fearless yet without bravado, this great and loving soul cast his lot with the exiled slaves of the pits and kept his vigil over the defenseless women and children of the village as a loving mother might over the fledglings of her brood.

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February 1, 2019

The best films of 2018

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:47 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, FEBRUARY 1, 2019

Up until a few years ago—I really can’t say exactly when—all of the “art-house” movies I reviewed for CounterPunch or my blog were out of the reach of most readers unless you lived in New York or other cities where theaters like the Film Forum or the Laemmle could be found. Some eventually made their way to art-house versions of Netflix like Fandor or Mubi but they entailed a monthly subscription fee.

Despite my hostility to Jeff Bezos and everything he stands for, Amazon Prime Video is a reliable outlet for such films. So is iTunes, Starz, Hulu and other VOD venues that have helped to keep art-house cinema alive. Along with the digital camera, another breakthrough benefiting independent film makers, such venues ensure that an envelope-pushing film shown at an art-house will have a good shot at reaching a broader audience. As I did last year, I worked my way through the films I reviewed in 2018 to determine which are now available on Amazon (and likely other VOD sites) in order to come up with my decidedly non-Hollywood recommendations.

I should state, however, that the best film of 2018 listed below is a Hollywood film: Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed”. Rumor has it, however, that the film will be snubbed at next month’s Academy Awards because Schrader Tweeted that he would like to work with the disgraced Kevin Spacey. It is worth mentioning that Ethan Hawke, who played the tortured minister in Schrader’s film, has addressed these issues in a Vanity Fair article titled “Ethan Hawke: “There’s a Whole Generation That’s on Trial Right Now” that is in keeping with the actor’s shrewd understanding of the film industry. I particularly liked this quip:

The real problem, Hawke says, is concepts like the best-popular-film Oscar, which would have detracted from awards season’s true goal: to boost the signal on under-seen, artistically challenging films. “There already is a popular Oscar. It’s such a dumb thing to say. The popular Oscar is called the box office,” he said. “They’re mad they don’t get prizes. You know, well—guess what, dude? Your car is your prize. Those of us who don’t have a car need a prize.”

As for the films that will walk away with a wheelbarrow of Oscars, I found that most were unbearable to watch. After 15 minutes, I ejected the following from my DVD player: “The Favourite”, “A Star is Born”, and “Crazy Rich Asians”. Of course, I haven’t gotten around to “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “First Man” yet.

Below are my recommended films. Since the idea of rating anything is abhorrent to me in the first place, they appear in alphabetical order. I will excerpt from my review and provide a link to the original. As stated before, the list was culled from Amazon Prime Video but if your hatred for Jeff Bezos understandably keeps you from spending a few dollars there, you can try iTunes, et al. (Not that Apple is any bargain, either.)

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January 25, 2019

Radical America Komiks

Filed under: Counterpunch,humor — louisproyect @ 3:42 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 25, 2019

By a happy coincidence, I received a review copy of “Radical America Komiks” from PM Press on the very day my review of Allen Young’s autobiography appeared on CounterPunch. Allen Young worked for Liberation News Service (LNS), a radical version of the Associated Press that forwarded articles to SDS chapters around the country, while Radical America was an official SDS publication launched by Paul Buhle meant to raise awareness on the left about the long history of anti-capitalist resistance in the USA. Unlike the old left, LNS and Radical America absorbed the counter-culture of the period. The one-off publication of Radical America Komiks in 1969 was arguably the most fully developed expression of this cross-fertilization and as such we are grateful to PM Press for publishing a replica of the ground-breaking comic book.

Back in 1967, about a month or so after joining the quintessentially old-left Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, fellow New School Graduate philosophy Ph.D. student Arthur Maglin who had recruited me to the sect, was showing me around the bookstore at party headquarters near Union Square. He picked up a copy of Radical America and described it as great reading. Just a decade later, something like Radical America would never be found in an SWP bookstore and recommending it might have gotten you expelled. When I got on the Internet in 1991, it did not take long for me to establish a connection with Paul Buhle whose vision of left unity coincided with my own as a refugee from sectarianism. I only wish that I could have gotten into a time-machine and returned to 1967 to help write for Radical America. I once asked Peter Camejo if he could have turned back the clock, when he would have made the decision to quit the SWP—knowing what he then knew. Without skipping a beat, he replied the week after he joined.

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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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