Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 6, 2015


Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:29 pm

Why “Trumbo” is One of the Most Important Films Ever Made

When I ran into a fellow member of New York Film Critics Online last night following the press screening of Trumbo that opens everywhere on November 6th (unlike most films that I review, this one gets full-page ads in the NY Times), he asked me what I thought. My response: “If you can see only one film this year, it should be Trumbo. Furthermore, if you can see only film for the rest of your life, it might also be Trumbo, a desert island selection next to Citizen Kane orModern Times.

This is a film that obviously matters a lot more to me than the average Hollywood film that has become not only distressingly escapist but poorly made as well, the quality of which tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of money it costs to make. Making a biopic in 2015 about the famous blacklisted screenwriter with a cast of notables including Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad in the lead role should get the attention of any CounterPunch reader but when such a film is so head and shoulders over every American film made this year in terms of direction, screenplay, acting, incidental music, and costume design, it becomes one for the ages.

read full review

October 30, 2015

Sembène and the Spirit of Rebellion

Filed under: Africa,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:40 pm

Saul Bellow once asked tauntingly “who was the Zulu Tolstoy” in an obvious dismissal of African potential. Considering the career of filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, who is the subject of the great documentary “Sembène” that opens on November 6th at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, you would conclude that the potential is enormous, held back only by what Andre Gunder Frank once called the development of underdevelopment.

Although I have been following Sembène’s film career for decades, “Sembène” offered new insights into what a genius he was. Born in 1923, his father a fisherman, Sembène fell in love with movies at an early age after seeing scenes of Jesse Owens’ track victories in Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi Olympics documentary. “For the first time,” he told the LA Times in 1995, “a black honored us by beating whites. . . . It became the film for the young people of my generation.” We can be sure that this was not Riefenstahl’s intention.

Sembène quit high school after punching out a teacher who had hit him first. He then joined the Free French army during World War II. After the war he became a rail worker, participating in an epochal Dakar-Niger railroad strike in 1947-48. After stowing away in a ship to France, he became a longshoreman in Marseilles and a member of the French Communist Party.

In France he started writing fiction in order to depict the reality of modern African life that could best be represented by the African. As the documentary points out, he was to become a modern version of the griot, the travelling storyteller who was to Africa as Homer was to the Greeks. Indeed, the real question is “who was the African Homer”, not Tolstoy. The answer is that Ousmane Sembène comes pretty close.

His first novel “The Black Docker” was published in 1956. But in the early 1960s, Sembène decided to turn his attention to filmmaking (“the people’s night school”) because most Africans were illiterate and could only be reached with this medium. His films would follow the same road as his writing, to offer an alternative to Tarzan movies and garish epics like “Mandingo.” “We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms,” he said.

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October 25, 2015

CounterPunch fund drive

Filed under: Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 7:18 pm

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 3.13.38 PM

Twenty-two years ago I took out a subscription to a newsletter that was advertised in the back pages of the Nation Magazine. It was called CounterPunch and edited by Ken Silverstein. It was the same back pages where I had found out about Doug Henwood’s Left Business Observer a few years earlier. In the early 90s such newsletters were carrying on the tradition of I.F. Stone’s Weekly. Even though the Internet was gathering momentum, it was still a time when the worldwide web was still in its relative infancy.

After Ken had written an article about Goldman-Sachs, I sent off an email (the only use of the net for most people at the time) letting him know about a mass firing that took place at my old workplace. In the next issue he recounted my story about how a bunch of managers with names ending in vowels had been sent home in town cars because the new manager, a scumbag West Point graduate named Rick Adam who would also be fired later on, decided that they lacked the proper credentials. Years later I ran into one of these ex-managers at Columbia University who told me that he was washing windows there. I was delighted to see CounterPunch spilling the goods on those rotten bastards at Goldman.

A year later Alexander Cockburn joined Silverstein as the City Paper reported. The opening grafs pretty much sum up the spirit of CounterPunch to this day:

Hitting Back
CounterPunch Editors Ken Silverstein and Alexander Cockburn Assail the Right—and the Center
By Lisa Gray • October 21, 1994

“The left in general tends to be wimpy,” rages journalist Ken Silverstein, himself a confirmed leftist. He quivers with indignation: “They’re chickenshit about going after people.” To remedy that ill, Silverstein last year founded CounterPunch, a bloodthirsty little newsletter that covers official Washington from a shamelessly radical perspective. “Rush Limbaugh is not a role model,” he says. “But the idea of actually going after people and hitting hard makes sense.”

Back in 1989, while an intern at the Nation, Silverstein had discussed such a fiery newsletter with his mentor, columnist Alexander Cockburn. Cockburn knows fire: A master of invective, he has for years positioned himself to the left of the left, championing Maoist values, admitting that he preferred Brezhnev to Gorbachev, and writing that Stalin didn’t kill all that many people. Cockburn liked the idea of a feisty newsletter, a fortress from which to attack the “bipartisan blotch of evil.” He laments, “Even the Nation feels it necessary to defend Clinton occasionally.” As editors of a newsletter, he and Silverstein would feel no such compulsion.

Two years later Ken would move on and Jeff St. Clair took his place in a project that would become an exemplar of radical journalism on the worldwide web. Ever since it premiered online, I read it every day as most of you certainly do as well. Like many of you, the experience of reading CounterPunch is probably akin to drinking a double espresso for the first time after a lifetime of drinking PBS or HuffingtonPost warm milk. It will be a hair-raising experience as Ken and Alexander certainly intended.

Just over three years ago, I began writing for CounterPunch after a decade of fulminating against Alexander Cockburn. After reading my complaint about how people like Mike Whitney were trashing Pussy Riot, Jeff St. Clair invited me to write a response, which I did. Contrary to the view that some have that CounterPunch is some kind of “line” publication, nothing could be further from the truth. It is instead a voice for the radical movement as well as some non-radicals like Paul Craig Roberts who have valuable insights into economic malfeasance.

Over the past three years I have written close to 200 articles for CounterPunch. I am very proud to be writing for a publication that includes Arno Mayer, Ralph Nader, Jesse Jackson, Clancy Sigal, Ruth Fowler and Kim Nicolini as contributors. If there is any recommendation that can be made on behalf of CounterPunch, it is its amazing variety of voices such as these.

I have just donated $100 and strongly urge you to chip in. As some guy once said, from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. The other day I posted a complaint that someone had sent to Jeff St. Clair about my writing for CounterPunch. The malcontent thought it was some kind of trick that I was allowed to write film reviews since the net effect would be to encourage Obama to bomb Syria (Russia got a green light obviously.)

This led someone to post a comment: “I’ve no objection to Proyect’s articles, from what I’ve read. Always food for thought. But I also pass on contributing to Counterpunch, because they do not pay writers.”

In fact I would pay CounterPunch just to publish not only me but also all the others who appear there on a daily basis. In the entire 11 years I was in the Trotskyist movement, I had the same relationship. I paid my dues in order for the Militant to get published. At this stage of my life, after the accumulated wisdom of 48 years on the left, I can assure you that anything you contribute to CounterPunch will be the best investment you can make for a more just world.

Please be generous.

October 23, 2015

Somebody doesn’t like me

Filed under: CIA,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 6:30 pm

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 2.29.18 PMLouis Proyect

(Sent to Jeff St. Clair by one of my detractors who apparently thinks that my film reviews are more dangerous than a TOW missile.)

To whom it may concern:

Why aren’t your revenues and dispersements/expenditures totally transparent and easy to find and revenue?

Different opinions are valuable, but clumsy disinformation agents and sleazy attack dogs like Louis Proyect as a regular contributor on your magazine seems like something is incredibly amiss in your fundamental mission.

Honest critique is valuable–but Proyect’s style isn’t principled or even coherent.

It seems that you have made a bargain with this guy–where you only let him post essays in a narrow parameter (reviews of film and literature).

This seems an unseemly arrangement.

I don’t mind right wing views on issues–but only if the writer is cogent and ethical.   Thus my objection is not left/right ideological.

Regrettably,  I have watched a huge swath of what passes for left/progressive media dissolve into humanitarian imperialists and propagandists for US state violence abroad.

Libya , Ukraine, and now Syria have torn the mask off the left intelligentsia.

You featuring this dishonest man, Proyect, among your your cast of thinkers at Counter Punch is simply so incongruous that there is no way I will donate any money.

If you allowed this Proyect close to actually debate his absurd propositions it would be valuable–but your venue doesn’t even allow comments.

Eric Draitser’s work is compelling, and I especially like the one hour a week podcast.

Why only one hour a week?

Not worth my donating money for so paltry an offering.

You could arrange three or four hour podcasts per day, and generate revenue for providing cogent analysis on timely domestic and world events.

But you and the so-called “left” totally drop the ball when it is in your court.

Pacifica and Democracy Now! are horrendous–again, Libya, Ukraine, Syria.

It is as though they know they function as propagandists for the US empire on these topics so they choose to avoid compelling and regular discussion of these topics.

But back to my major point:  why would I contribute money to an organization of the way money is spent is hidden?

Part of the left being almost extinct is that people that pose as critics become cooped, commodified personalities–and this lends them to become corrupted cynics, propagandists for US humanitarian imperialism.

If you had guts and imagination, you would dare to become radically different that the dozens of suspect left/progressive media sites that offer up weak tea as a matter of course.

You would analyze the failure of Pacifica and develop a hub for information that is transparent and valuable for democratic and cultural renewal.

But, first, your money structure would have to be totally transparent.

That this isn’t axiomatic simply makes people like me assume that there is standard corruption operating behind the scenes.

Steven H.

Racing Extinction

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

The Politics of Extinction

Those dolphins that are slaughtered end up in Japanese supermarkets labeled as whale meat. Technically, this is true since dolphins are small whales. But the meat is hazardous to one’s health. Laced with mercury, an inevitable by-product of factory emissions, they can potentially cripple or kill you.

To his everlasting credit, Louie Psihoyos joined Rick O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer and subject of his film, in guerrilla raids on the dolphin killers using hidden cameras rather than AK-47s. “The Cove” can be seen on Youtube  for just $1.99 and is must viewing for anybody concerned about the massive threat industrial-fishing poses not only to the whales but to humanity as well. If the ocean becomes empty of sea-life, the earth itself is threatened since there is a delicate balance between the two biospheres.

This is essentially the theme of “Racing Extinction”, a film that Psihoyos has been working on for the past six years. I saw it on Wednesday night at a press screening introduced by Susan Sarandon and the director. He warned the audience that the film was a bearer of bleak tidings but that it was not too late to avert a Sixth Extinction, the subject not only of the documentary but one omnipresent in print and electronic media.

Read full article

October 16, 2015


Filed under: Counterpunch,psychology,television — louisproyect @ 3:59 pm

Hannibal: Television in the Spirit of Buñuel

As a rule of thumb, network television is the bottom feeder in popular culture while the novel, a medium we associate with classics such as “Don Quixote” and “Moby Dick”, dwells in the heavens. In a striking reversal, NBC television has aired a series called “Hannibal” that while based on the novels of Thomas Harris is far more complex and inspired than the source. As each episode begins, we see the words “Based on the characters of the book ‘Red Dragon’ by Thomas Harris”. Having just read “Red Dragon” to help me prepare this review, I would say the relationship between the source and its offspring is close to the one that exists between a banal tune like “Tea for Two” and how Thelonious Monk interpreted it.

The television show also borrows from the novel “Hannibal”, which like “Red Dragon”, was written after “Silence of the Lambs” in an obvious bid to cash in on the massive book sales that followed Jonathan Demme’s blockbuster film. The TV series omitted any reference to “Silence of the Lambs” and to Clarice Starling, a wise move since this overly familiar material would have undercut the goal of seeing the characters with fresh eyes. Once you’ve seen Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins square off, there’s no turning back.

For some Thomas Harris is a novelist to be reckoned with. David Foster Wallace includes “Red Dragon” and “Silence of the Lambs” as two of his top-rated ten novels. That being said, he is a fan of pulp fiction and includes Stephen King’s “The Stand” as well. (A confession: I consider King to be the finest novelist writing today.) In my view, “Red Dragon” is an engaging police procedural that includes lots of chatter about carpet fibers, fingerprints, blood samples, autopsies and the like. If you enjoy CSI, you’ll probably go for this novel in a big way. Given Harris’s background as crime reporter for a Waco, Texas newspaper, he is obviously familiar with the terrain.

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October 9, 2015

Uncivil Rites

Filed under: Academia,Counterpunch,Palestine — louisproyect @ 5:09 pm

The End of Academic Freedom in America: the Case of Steven Salaita

As such my attention has been riveted on the trials and tribulations of Steven Salaita who was unfortunate enough to be the victim of a combined assault by the Israel lobby and a university officialdom that was determined to make him pay for telling the truth, no matter how bitter that truth. Since I am very close to some tenure-track professors, I have a better handle than most on what it means to be robbed of a tenured position. Getting tenure nowadays is almost like winning the American Idol contest, so the very idea of being denied a position and thrown to the wolves (no offense meant to a member of the animal kingdom far more noble than the University of Illinois mucketymucks) struck me as a wantonly destructive act—all the more so since it was defended in Pecksniffian terms by the likes of Cary Nelson.

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October 2, 2015


Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 7:40 pm

Scenes from the Class Struggle in Iran

Paradoxically, Jafar Panahi’s “Taxi” is now the third film the Iranian director has made despite the twenty-year ban on making films imposed by his nation’s morality police. What keeps him out of prison, you might ask? It is likely a function of his enormous prestige. Since he is widely recognized as one of Iran’s leading directors along with Abbas Kiarostami, with whom he has written two films, and Asghar Farhadi, it would be unacceptable to put him in prison. As a sign of the delicate balance between acclaim and censure, the state-controlled Cinema Organisation, congratulated Panahi for winning the Berlin Film Festival while at the same time accusing it of undermining the Iranian state. Its top executive Hojjatollah Ayyubi stated, “I am delighted to announce that the director of Taxi continues to drive in the fast lane of his life, freely enjoying all of its blessings.”

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September 25, 2015

Chess as Metaphor

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

More importantly, the game has entered the parlance of political science as a metaphor for the Cold War and its lingering traces with Washington and Moscow pitted against each other. If you Google “Geopolitical Chess Game”, you will encounter 363,000 results. Not surprisingly, Michel Chossudovsky’s Global Research is at the top of the heap, a website that sees every struggle on earth as involving pieces moved about on the board. Pace Chussodovsky, can we say that the white pieces stand for Moscow and the black ones for Washington? It is impossible to determine why the game’s inventors allowed white to move first but a preference for that color springs to mind.

“Pawn Sacrifice”, a film that opened in September and that is playing at middle-brow theaters everywhere, is about as close to the geopolitical metaphor as you are going to get since it is based on the historic showdown between the 29-year old Bobby Fischer and the reigning world champion Boris Spassky, who was six years older. As the title of the film suggests, Fischer was a foot soldier in the Cold War at the time even though he was one with superpowers. Arguably the greatest chess player that ever lived, Fischer had a burning hatred of the Russians based more on their Bill Belichick bending of the rules than anything that mattered to policy-makers in Washington. Indeed, despite the fact that his mother was a Communist Party member, his hostility to her was based not so much on politics but on his generally contrary nature. In an early scene in the film, Fischer, who is in his early teens, throws his mother and her boyfriend out of the house because their lovemaking noises seeping through the thin bedroom walls did not allow him to concentrate on his game.

read full review

September 18, 2015

BRICS: the anti-capitalist critique

Filed under: Counterpunch,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

Thick as BRICS: an Illusory Alternative to Neoliberalism

Author of Revitalizing Marxist Theory for Today’s Capitalism and other books written in defense of classical Marxism, University of Manitoba professor Radhika Desai probably spoke for the majority of the left when she wrote a Guardian op-ed piece titled “The Brics are building a challenge to western economic supremacy”. Key to this challenge was the creation of a Development Bank that can serve as an alternative to the IMF and the World Bank. As she put it:

The Brics countries do have a mortar that binds them: their common experience, and rejection, of the neoliberal development model of the past several decades and the western-dominated IMF and the World Bank that still advocate it. Their rapid development over the previous couple of decades was despite, not because of, this. Countries whose governments were able and willing to resist this model developed faster.

At the heart of her analysis is the notion of “development”, a term somewhat distinct from the socialist aspirations of earlier generations but one clearly in sync with a chastened left that while not quite agreeing with Margaret Thatcher’s TINA, does see some good in putting people to work on state-sponsored projects that generate tax revenues and raise the standard of living. If it isn’t socialism, at least it is some kind of New Deal. If a capitalism based on “neoliberalism” is to be avoided at all costs, why not opt for a more progressive and humane capitalism that is the “lesser evil”? If this sounds like the argument that some activists make for voting for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or even Bernie Sanders, you may be on to something.

At least some people resting on the foundations of Marxism disagree with Desai. In a newly published collection of articles by Patrick Bond and Ana Garcia titled BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique, you can find powerful arguments making the case that this supposed alternative to neoliberalism is no alternative at all. Whatever your stance on this debate, you would be well served by reading this book since it will enable you to make an informed political decision. It should be added that Pluto Press has published both Radhika Desai and this new book so they deserve kudos for helping the left keep abreast of important theoretical challenges.

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