Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 16, 2021

Genocide and Survival

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:35 pm

I moderated this panel discussion this afternoon. I think it went very well.

March 12, 2021

Socially Relevant Film Festival 2021

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Vietnam,war — louisproyect @ 9:40 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 12, 2021

Starting next Monday and ending on Sunday March 21st, the Socially Relevant Film Festival will present dozens of films through a virtual theater. Like last year, the pandemic has had an impact not only on this festival but all theaters in New York that cater to leading edge independent work. The big commercial theaters like AMC have opened under conditions of social distancing but the best leading-edge houses like Film Forum are streaming only. On the plus side, people everywhere will be able to see SR Festival films for $7 each, with a festival ticket available for $75. If you need any motivation to see one or all the films and have also found yourself appreciating films I recommended on CounterPunch, let me repeat my testimonial to the SR Film Festival in 2015. I would only add the words “unending economic crisis and pandemic”:

I had an epiphany: “socially relevant” films have a higher storytelling quotient than Hollywood’s for the simple reason that they are focused on the lives of ordinary people whose hopes and plight we can identify with. With a commercial film industry increasingly insulated from the vicissitudes of an unending economic crisis, it is only “socially relevant” films that demand our attention and even provide entertainment after a fashion. When the subjects of the film are involved in a cliffhanging predicament, we care about the outcome as opposed to the Hollywood film where the heroes confront Mafia gangsters, CIA rogues or zombies as if in a video game.

The four documentaries s under review below constitute just a tiny minority of the festival offerings. As is universally the case, I found all of them compelling. Except for the last, they deal with issues close to my heart and I suspect that they will be close to yours as well.

The Boys Who Said NO! (Monday, March 15, 4:00 PM)

Directed by Judith Ehrlich, who made the superlative “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” in 2009, the film is a history of the anti-draft movement that began in 1964 and lasted until 1972. While focused on the civil disobedience wing of the antiwar movement, it also serves as a terrific overview of the war and a reminder of why people my age were willing to go to prison for up to five years for burning a draft card or joining a “subversive” organization and risk careers because of a COINTELPRO. Hoover’s FBI provocations even caught me in its web.

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March 9, 2021

The People vs Agent Orange

Filed under: Ecology,Film,Vietnam,war — louisproyect @ 7:59 pm

Just by coincidence, the documentary “The People Vs. Agent Orange” that opened on March 6th in virtual theaters could have easily been released to coincide with International Women’s Day that is celebrated on March 8th. The film is a profile of two women who have dedicated their lives to terminating the use of a deadly chemical herbicide that cost the lives of both Americans and Vietnamese. You might rightly assume that the Americans were GI’s serving in Vietnam like Leo Cawley, an economist who hosted “Fearful Symmetry” on WBAI-FM in the late 80s—the best program on a network that has lost its way. Leo died of complications from a bone-marrow transplant, the after-effects of being exposed to Agent Orange when he was a marine in Vietnam.

But you didn’t have to be in Vietnam to get sick or die from Agent Orange. Unbelievably, after its use was banned in 1971, it eventually was sprayed by the millions of gallons in Western Oregon upon the soil that once held millions of trees. After they were cut down, Agent Orange was used to kill the weeds left behind as an aid to reforestation.

Around that time, a woman named Carol Van Strum moved close to the forest with her four young children in a kind of “back to nature” retreat so common in the 60s and 70s as people my age sought a healthy and more spiritual life. Not long after building a house and a barn for the animals she was raising, the children began to complain about various illnesses that remained a mystery. It was only after driving her car closer to the clear cut forest that she noticed a sickly odor. Suspecting the worst, she took samples from the soil and water, sent it off to a lab, and finally learned that entire area was drenched with Agent Orange, whose main toxin is called dioxin. The EPA, which tends to give back-handed support to corporations like Dow Chemical that manufacture it, categorizes it as a carcinogen. As soon as she discovered the source of her children’s ailments, as well as others living near the forest, she went on a crusade against the corporations and the “experts” who sanctioned the poisonous herbicide.

One of these experts was Mike Newton, a Professor of Forest Ecology at Oregon State University College in Corvallis, OR, who labeled Dioxin as harmless in an article titled “I’ve Had More Exposure To Agent Orange Than Anyone: Here’s What I Know” that can be read on the American Council on Science and Health website. There you will find other pearls of wisdom such as “Prominent Anti-GMO Activist Changed His Mind After Learning The Science” and “(Nuclear) power to the people!”.

The film’s other fearless heroine is Tran To Nga, who is a septuagenarian like Van Strum. She comes from a family that opposed both the French and American colonizers, first as leaders in the Viet Minh and then with the NLF. Nga was in the Vietnamese forests when American planes were showering them with Agent Orange. As a result, her first-born child died in infancy. Her health has been affected as well. Long after the war ended, her body contains traces of Dioxin that some scientists view as much of a threat to human health for generations as plutonium.

She is now suing the American chemical industry for poisoning her in Vietnam – a lawsuit she filed in 2014 against the corporations that produced and sold the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange. The suit includes U.S. multinational companies Dow Chemical and Monsanto, now owned by the German conglomerate Bayer.

The film was co-directed by Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna. In the press notes, the directors state:

Documents are a leitmotif.  Storms, rain and flowing surface water are a recurring visual theme that evokes the lethal dioxin run-off and dioxin contamination.   Similar images tie together the contamination of Vietnam and America’s Pacific Northwest as helicopters spray the ancient mangrove forests of Vietnam and Oregon’s majestic conifers. The scenes of the deformed and handicapped Vietnamese child victims, difficult as they are to watch and as sensitively as we try to present them, are a stark testimony to the film’s core message. We chose not to shy away from images the world might rather not see. They are indelible evidence of corporate greed and man’s inhumanity to man.

I doubt I will see a documentary this year that is more powerful and more urgent than this one.

March 5, 2021

1942: Unknown Battle

Filed under: Film,ussr,WWII — louisproyect @ 10:20 pm

Recently a list of the 10 top Russian war movies cropped up on Facebook, most of which I hadn’t seen. If I were putting together my own list right now, I’d put the newly released “1942: Unknown Battle” at the top of the list. It is based on the battles that took place in Rzhev between January 1942 and March 1943 that turned the tide against the Nazi invaders. Because of the disproportionate losses suffered by the Soviet Army, the campaign became known as the “Rzhev Meat Grinder”.

The film recreates the fighting that took place in and around the tiny farming village of Ovsyannikovo that encapsulated the desperate attempt by an understaffed, underequipped and undertrained Soviet company equipped only with small arms against a Nazi battalion with tanks and heavy artillery and many more men.

The opening scene of this powerful film depicts the Reds driving a smaller detachment of Nazis out of Ovsyannikovo in the most gruesomely graphic fashion of any war film I’ve ever seen outside of Stephen Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”. Unlike Spielberg’s “greatest generation” film that ended with America triumphant, “1942: Unknown Battle” concludes with an exhausted and lightly armed marching toward certain disaster. The contrast between the triumphalist tone of American WWII movies and this Russian film could not be more glaring. The American victory led to the USA becoming the world’s hegemon and ultimately accomplishing what Hitler could not: the ascendance of capitalism in the USSR.

Unlike the war movies made during the USSR, “1942: Unknown Battle” dramatizes the conflict between the average soldier motivated to defend the motherland and the counterintelligence officers imposing repressive Stalinist regulations that threaten to weaken the resolve of those willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of the nation. After a Nazi plane floods the village with leaflets promising safe passage for any Red soldier that defects, the counterintelligence officer threatens the men with a court-martial if a leaflet is found in their pockets. When a grizzled old fighter confesses that he does have a leaflet but only for use as rolling paper for his cigarettes, he is taken into custody and marched across no-man’s land between the two opposing armies. When the counterintelligence officer is wounded by Nazi gunfire, the old fighter drags him into a foxhole, which leads to an extended dialogue about their clashing values. As much as I valued the action scenes throughout the film, it was this scene that will stick with me.

“1942: Unknown Battle” can be rented now from the usual VOD sites listed at Kino, the film’s distributor, for a mere $3.99. For those of us who understand that it was the USSR that was mainly responsible for the destruction of the Third Reich, this film is a must.

The Wikipedia entry for Battles of Rzhev will give you a sense of its troubled legacy. As much as humanity can thank the USSR for the sacrifices the country made, historians have demanded that a full recounting of the toll it took be made.

In 2009, a television movie was aired in Russia entitled Rzhev: Marshal Zhukov’s Unknown Battle, which made no attempt to cover up the huge losses suffered by Soviet forces. As a consequence, there were public calls in Russia for the arrest of some of those involved in its production. In the movie, the casualties of Soviet forces are given as 433,000 KIA. The journalist Alina Makeyeva, in an article of Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper which was published on 19 February 2009, wrote: “The number presented by the historian is too low. There must be more than one million Soviet soldiers and officers killed! Rzhev and its neighboring towns were completely destroyed.”; however, Alina could not present any proof. Journalist in her article which was published in the newspaper The Violin (Russia) on 26 February 2009 also claimed that more than 1,000,000 Soviet soldiers were killed at Rzhev. The number of casualties again was raised with the claim of journalist Igor Elkov in his articled published in the Russian Weekly on 26 February 2009. Igor said: “The accurate number of casualties of both sides is still dubious. Recently, there are some opinions about from 1.3 to 1.5 million Soviet soldiers was killed. It may reach the number of 2 million”.

In my view, the film reflects the thinking of people like Alina Makeyeva, Elena Tokaryeva and Igor Elkov.

February 26, 2021

A Cineaste’s Picks for the Best Films of 2020

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:26 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, FEBRUARY 26, 2021

This film made $0 in North America and $27,136 worldwide. It is my pick for best narrative film of 2021

The pandemic has turned the yearly ritual of film awards ceremonies a molehill out of the mountain they once were. With major Hollywood studios shelving multi-million dollar prestige movies, except for Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” that was largely dismissed as a flop, it has been left to less costly and nominally “indie” films such as “Nomadland” and “Minari” to fill the gap. Both had full-page ads in the N.Y. Times usually reserved for films made by Stephen Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, et al, with fawning articles over their stars Frances McDormand and Steven Yeun. Instead of A-listers like Scarlett Johansson or Brad Pitt chatting it up with late-night TV show hosts, we see McDormand and Yeun on the guest sofa.

Having seen these films and others in the same vein (“The White Tiger”, “First Cow”, “The Nest”), my reaction has been lukewarm at best. At our yearly New York Film Critics Online virtual awards meeting, not a single one of these overrated works got my vote. Alongside my arch-contrarian colleague Armond White, my votes went for the far more obscure but groundbreaking films that would have never been the beneficiary of a full-page ad in the N.Y. Times. While Armond tilts rightward, my preference is for films that challenge political or dramatic conventions. My picks below reflect my tastes as well as my critical judgement. If you have found my reviews useful in the past, then I would urge you to check them out. All are available as VOD on Amazon Prime and all the other usual sites.

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February 21, 2021

Sacred Cow; Tribes on the Edge

Filed under: Ecology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

One of the vexing questions facing ecosocialists is how to create a sustainable society that breaks with meat consumption. There are contradictory tendencies at work, with the vegan left taking an abolitionist stance as well as ecomodernist support for meat-like products such as Beyond Meat. Meanwhile, Bill Gates has come out in favor of synthetic meats, arguing in MIT’s Technology Review as part of his book tour on “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” that rich nations should only eat synthetics. (It should be mentioned that is a Beyond Meat investor.)

Long before I began blogging, I wrote a series of posts on beef that were collected together on my Columbia website under the title “Cattle and Capitalism”. It included an excerpt from an Alexander Cockburn “Beat the Devil” column in the April 22, 1996 Nation Magazine:

Unsustainable grazing and ranching sacrifice drylands, forests and wild species. For example, semi-deciduous forests in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay are cut down to make way for soybeans, which are fed to cows as high-protein soycake. Humans are essentially vegetarian as a species and insatiate meat-eating bring its familiar toll of heart disease, stroke and cancer. The enthusiasm for meat also produces its paradox: hunger. A people living on cereals and legumes for protein need to grow far less grain than a people eating creatures that have been fed by cereals. For years Western journalists described in mournful tones the scrawny and costly pieces of meat available in Moscow’s shops, associating the lack of meat with backwardness and the failure of Communism. But after 1950, meat consumption in the Soviet Union tripled. By 1964 grain for livestock feed outstripped grain for bread, and by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, livestock were eating three times as much grain as humans. All this required greater and greater imports of grain until precious foreign exchange made the Soviet Union the world’s second-largest grain importer, while a dietary “pattern” based on excellent bread was vanishing.

While I was sympathetic to the idea that eating beef had to come to an end, I must confess that I used to stop at the bistro across the street from my high-rise and had a cheeseburger with fries two or three times a month. I also have to wonder if Cockburn ate meat himself. I bet Jeffrey St. Clair can fill me in.

Yet, at the back of mind I always wondered how you can reconcile an anti-meat agenda with Karl Marx’s analysis of the metabolic rift. At a Socialist Scholars Conference around 20 years ago, John Bellamy Foster gave what was probably his first talk on the crisis of soil fertility in the 19th century that Justin Von Liebig devoted himself to diagnosing and solving. Basically, Liebig’s research provided a context for Marx’s examination of the agrarian question. Like climate change today, the general crisis of soil fertility in the period from 1830 to 1870 not only provoked scientific research but wars over control over natural fertilizers like guano.

The depletion of soil nutrients was being felt everywhere, as capitalist agriculture broke down the old organic interaction that took place on small, family farms. When a peasant plowed a field with ox or horse-drawn plows, used an outhouse, accumulated compost piles, etc., the soil’s nutrients were replenished naturally. As capitalist agriculture turned the peasant into an urban proletariat, segregated livestock production from grain and food production, the organic cycle was broken and the soil gradually lost its fertility.

This being the case, wouldn’t the disappearance of livestock from agriculture simply perpetuate the need for chemical fertilizers and every ill associated with it? Since modern farming relies heavily on mechanization, ox-drawn plows would not suffice. Wouldn’t the integration of cattle, poultry and lambs as livestock into farming resolve the metabolic rift in the most effective manner?

Unless you are committed to the idea that slaughtering animals is evil, that possibility must be considered. Additionally, for homo sapiens, the most effective source of protein comes from animals, not plants. Leaving aside the animal rights question, an argument can be made for exactly that. You can find it made in a powerful new documentary available in the usual VOD venues, including Amazon, titled “Sacred Cow” that was directed by Diana Rodgers and based on a book of the same title she co-wrote with Robb Wolf.

On the film’s website, Rodgers writes, “As we’ve become more globalized, the entire world is now pushing towards the ‘heart healthy’ (and highly processed) Western diet. In the process, we’re destroying entire ecosystems and human health through industrial, ultra-processed food.”

Drawing upon a wide range of academic researchers in favor of the consumption of meat products and the regenerative farmers who produce them, the film effectively makes the case for solving the metabolic rift in the way that Karl Marx proposed but without mentioning his name or the theory once.

There are two important considerations that the film takes up. To start with, it calls for abolition of the current method of raising livestock in factory-like conditions since they are far removed from the crops that need organic fertilizer and because they are so cruel to the animals. Instead, the farmers interviewed throughout the film show exactly how they must be deployed in and around the fields where crops are being grown rather than cooped up in monstrous conditions. In a very short time, the re-introduction of cattle and lambs can return topsoil to the conditions that existed before Alexander Cockburn decried for its inevitable role in desertification.

If your first impulse is to question whether an old-fashioned method of raising livestock can supply a hungry world, the film points out that ruminants such as cows and sheep can feed themselves from the grasses that grow along hillsides that are not suitable for raising crops. In one of the more eye-opening scenes, we meet a Mexican regenerative farmer named Alejandro Carrillo who has begun to reintroduce cattle into a seemingly barren part of the state of Chihuahua. The animals have not only begun to enrich the soil and make it suitable for farming but transform the ecosphere so that birds now flock to it for their own well-being.

Finally, on the ethical questions. These farmers and their supporters in the academy are not opposed to ending an animal’s life in the greater pursuit of keeping humanity and the natural world in balance. The film shows a new slaughterhouse based on the principles of Temple Grandin who compassion for all creatures large and small is suffused with humanitarianism.

Another new film available as VOD, including Amazon, takes up the question of humanity and the natural world’s survival even though the people who are its subject matter could not be more vulnerable to the ecological crisis. Directed by Céline Cousteau, the granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau, “Tribes on the Edge” is an impassioned plea for the survival of around 7,000 indigenous Brazilians who call Vale do Javari their home. Constituting an area about the size of Portugal and on the border with Peru, the natives are facing extinction as a result of epidemic cases of hepatitis and malaria.

Although the documentary does not connect their plight to the years of Workers Party rule, it implicitly blames both Lula and Dilma Rousseff for allowing the support network for indigenous people to wither and die. It seems obvious that FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, has been a victim of neglect under their two administrations. Even worse, Bolsonaro seems intent on doing to it what Donald Trump did to agencies supposedly dedicated to protecting natural resources—namely, throttling them.

The film does not attempt to pinpoint the cause of the epidemics except to say that the border between Peru and Brazil being porous. When indigenous peoples cross the border into Javari, there are no border guards. They bring their illnesses with them, especially hepatitis that is very contagious. This is not to speak of the ranchers, miners, farmers and oil companies that are beginning to encroach on Javari in spite of legal protections afforded by the state.

At the end of the film, we are told that only 4 percent of the world’s population are indigenous, but they nurture 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity on their land. Although written four hundred years ago, John Donne’s poem could not be more timely:

No Man is an Island

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

February 17, 2021

Judas and the Black Messiah

Filed under: african-american,Film,repression — louisproyect @ 3:27 pm

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is the story of Fred Hampton’s assassination by the Chicago police in 1969. Co-written by Will Berson, a Jew, and Shaka King, an African-American, it unites a team that worked together in the past on featherweight TV comedies. In addition to co-authorship of the screenplay, King served as director.

They have made a well-researched, by-the-numbers biopic that will help many young people understand the depravity of the FBI, just as Aaron Sorkin’s “Trial of the Chicago 7” helped expose the city’s cops and judicial system. Unlike Sorkin, Berson and King did not twist the story to suit their own political agenda. However, by relying on the unfortunate mythology that has arisen around the Black Panther Party in the past half-century, some further analysis will be necessary for a deeper understanding of the period and how the ruling class was able to murder a promising young leader.

As should not come as a big surprise, this unheralded, debut film had major players bootstrapping it. Ryan Coogler, the black director of “Black Panther”, was one benefactor. His Panthers were not activists but African demigods originating in Marvel Comic books that unaccountably was hailed by Jamelle Bouie as “the most political movie ever produced by Marvel Studios”. As producer, he raised millions as did Charles D. King, a black former super-agent who founded MACRO Media so that such films could be made (he is no relation to the director.)

Apparently, Shaka King was thinking big when he decided to make his first feature film. He hoped to make our era’s version of “Battle of Algiers”. As I will try to explain in my political analysis that follows, it is doubtful that he has the kind of Marxist politics that served Pontecorvo so well. Nor did he have Pontecorvo’s cinematic genius. The 1950s and 60s were years in which Marxism exercised a major influence over European filmmaking. Those days are long gone.

Berson and King made a major mistake in analogizing an FBI undercover asset with Judas Iscariot, who was not only a disciple of Jesus Christ but one of the twelve original Apostles.

By contrast, Bill O’Neal was a shadowy and nondescript snitch who like most FBI plants did it for the money and to avoid being sent to prison for a previous offense. Like most of the agent-provocateurs that the FBI and red squads implanted in mosques, O’Neal was a grubby opportunist. But unlike the cases in which feckless, observant Muslims were talked into terrorist stings by the FBI, Fred Hampton was supposedly no babe in the woods. Why would he ever have allowed someone with a dicey past like O’Neal ensure his safety, especially since he was not as politically committed as the average Panther? When Hampton becomes suspicious of O’Neal’s claim of being a car thief, he forces him at gunpoint to hotwire his stolen car to prove his bona fides. When he passes the test, Hampton is assuaged. If this was the kind of acid test new members had to pass rather than understanding Panther politics, Berson and King unwittingly revealed how inexperienced this group really was. And perhaps their own inexperience with the period.

In every scene, O’Neal comes across as a man with no particular qualms about being a Judas. He only seeks to cut his ties to the FBI when it becomes clear that he might be picked off by a cop in the gun battles that were bound to ensue in a period of rising violence between an angry Black community and the class enemy. In a scene close to the conclusion, O’Neal barely dodges a bullet during a shootout that ends with Panther HQ being torched.

By contrast, the Jesse James films were more dramatic because Robert Ford, the “dirty coward who killed Mr. Howard (James’s assumed name)” of folk-song fame, was continuously wracked by feelings of guilt for betraying his fellow outlaw. Playing Ford in the 1949 “I Shot Jesse James”, John Ireland was nonpareil. The filmmakers failure to invest more in this character, even if fictionally, robbed it of its possible power. Why not have O’Neal become swept up in the revolutionary fervor surrounding him, like Patty Hearst and the  Symbionese Liberation Army while still being coerced to be a snitch? By the standards of anti-heroes going back to the New Testament, O’Neal was not nearly Judas enough. Jejune was more like it.

Given the intense drama that surrounded Hampton’s assassination, it is unfortunate that Belson and King sought to embellish it with staged confrontations that had more in common with cheap action movies than real life. Hampton had the political acumen to create a de facto united front with various outsider groups in Chicago that, like the Panthers, had collided with the cops. In an amalgam of youth gangs won to the side of left politics, they create a group called the Crowns that has a summit meeting with the Panthers in a capacious auditorium that looks like nothing you’d expect to see in a Chicago slum. Dozens of Crowns are armed with automatic rifles and shotguns that we’d expect to be used against the Panthers if Hampton missteps. Fortunately for him, he makes the case for revolutionary action and is rewarded with an automatic rifle by the Crown’s leader. None of this seems plausible. It would have worked far better if the melodrama had been abandoned and the politics amplified.

Ditto for a showdown between Hampton and the Young Patriots, a group of poor white men and women who flocked to Chicago from the South to escape poverty, just like blacks. The scene opens with the Patriots sitting at a table beneath a huge Confederate flag, giving an audience unfamiliar with such meetings the impression that Hampton was risking his life by meeting with KKK types. In reality, the Patriot leaders had a background as community organizers  with Jobs or Income Now (JOIN). This group grew out of Students for a Democratic Society efforts to organize the neighborhood where poor southerners lived. As co-founders of the Young Patriots, Jack “Junebug” Boykin and Doug Youngblood had been involved with JOIN. If I had a hand in writing “Judas and the Black Messiah”, I would have dropped the Judas part and expanded such characters and even created a buddy relationship between Hampton and Boykin. That would have been far more politically relevant than themes of betrayal and subterfuge.

Having said all this, I still recommend the film since it will be of obvious benefit to young people trying to understand the tumultuous sixties. As someone deeply immersed in activism fifty years ago when news of Hampton being killed and other assaults on the Panthers were part of my daily intake, I have a different analysis of their legacy.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” errs much too far in the direction of hagiography. You never get the sense that the young filmmakers have a deeper understanding of their failure or even more importantly a critical approach to their major success: the free breakfast program and other elements of their “survival” turn such as medical clinics. Surely it was a major breakthrough in serving breakfasts to 20,000 children per day at its height. Supposedly the program was something that kept J. Edgar Hoover up at night and thus led to Cointelpro and the death squads that would lead to Hampton’s murder in December 1969.

The free breakfasts were inspired by the Maoist “serve the people” ideas that flourished on the left in the 60s and 70s. For the mostly white groups led by Bob Avakian and Mike Klonsky, it was interpreted mainly as a paternalistic approach to organizing with their cadre going into working class areas like missionaries for socialism.

At least with Avakian et al, the “serve the people” notion was an element of a strategy meant to challenge the capitalist state. So, for example, the Maoists went into coal-mining regions with the goal of strengthening the leftwing of the UMW. But for the Panthers, there was nothing like this at work in the breakfast program. To some extent, it was simply a turn away from the gun-toting adventures that had begun to decimate their ranks. How could you send the cops against a group making breakfasts for poor Black children? That was the idea anyhow.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, they never dropped the stupid rhetoric about offing the pig that continued as the breakfasts were being served. If you were reading their paper, as I was in this period, you could not help but be appalled by pictures such as this:

This ultraleft image of a gun being trained on a pig was very much a product of the times just as the Weathermen’s tone-deaf “kill the rich” rhetoric that ultimately evolved into outright terrorism. In either case, bold imagery and words were meant to distinguish the “revolutionaries” from ordinary society that lagged behind their advanced consciousness.

The obsession with guns and bombs obviously was connected to the Vietnam war and the Cuban guerrilla initiatives that gave many—including me—the sense that American imperialism was surrounded by revolutionary forces closing in. To some extent this led to the feeling that emulating the NLF or Che Guevara’s fighters meant breaking with bourgeois society and showing solidarity with foreign fighters by breaking the law. It was ironic that for the Panthers this meant simultaneously carrying out an armed struggle at some point and engaging in free breakfast meliorism.

One of the faintly remembered events that had the same kind of cinematic intensity was the shootout between Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Hutton and other Panthers on one side and the Oakland cops that took place on April 6, 1968. Cleaver had become a leader of a faction in the Panthers that was dubious about the breakfast program and sought to “bring it on” as urban guerrillas. In any armed confrontation between a tiny group with thin support in the Black community and the cops, the revolutionaries were likely to end up on the losing side. Apparently, Cleaver embarked on this adventure as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. two days earlier.

In essence, this convergence of events symbolized the inability of the Panthers to understand what King was about and their failure to develop a program that might be modeled on what King was doing in Memphis—a working class mass action that threatened racist and capitalist power to such an extent that it cost him his life.

Unlike King, who went to Memphis to build solidarity for striking garbage men, neither Cleaver nor Huey Newton saw their role as building a working class movement. They oriented to lumpen elements in the Black community, something that always struck me as perhaps being inspired by “The Battle of Algiers” with its main character Ali Le Pointe abandoning a life of petty crime to join the FLN. In essence, Berson and King made a film about men and women who lacked the mass base of the FLN. Pontecorvo’s Marxism enabled him to build a foundation based on the class struggle rather than analogies with Judas Iscariot.

What an opportunity was lost for a Black revolutionary movement to focus on organizing Black workers. Keep in mind that this was before the phenomenon of runaway plants and when Detroit et al were still thriving industrial centers. Auto, steel, rubber, oil, etc. were still profitable industries with very large—if not majority—African-American workforces. These were workers who were open to radical ideas as the Black caucuses in the UAW would indicate.

If the Panthers had built a movement in the ranks of the Black working class, it might have become a powerful deterrent to the runaway shops that have devastated black America.

Although I could be wrong, it strikes me that Black nationalism will never undergo a revival. Black youth today who oppose police brutality are inspired much more by Martin Luther King Jr. than the Panthers. That being said, I still hold out hope that some day there will be a real engagement with Malcolm X’s ideas that while being Black nationalist were evolving toward working class internationalism. That, of course, is what probably got him killed just as it got Martin Luther King Jr. killed.

February 1, 2021

Who is Mr. Putin

Filed under: Film,Russia — louisproyect @ 11:31 pm

January 20, 2021

The White Tiger

Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 5:20 pm

There is a striking parallel between Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”, which received an Oscar last year for best picture, and this year’s “The White Tiger” that opens this Friday on Netflix. Both films have been widely described as “class struggle” thematically and both involve servants staging a revolt against their masters. In “Parasite”, a destitute South Korean family finagles their way into a wealthy household as hired help and uses their leverage to become the new masters. In “The White Tiger”, a Dalit named Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) from an even more impoverished family in rural India, maneuvers his way into becoming a chauffeur for Ashok, the son of a powerful landlord who has been oppressing Balram’s fellow villagers.

This is what happens in “Parasite” as well. The paterfamilias of the usurping family becomes a chauffeur after his offspring place soiled panties in the family’s car, thus leading to his dismissal for using the car for his sexual escapades. Balram uses a different ploy. When he discovers that the head chauffeur, who enjoys greater privileges and lords it over him, has been keeping his Muslim identity a secret, he rats him out and takes his place. It should be obvious at this point based on what you have read above that the subaltern characters have little in common with the revolutionary movement. The point of the films is more Hobbes than Marx. Society is a jungle and you have to become a wild animal to succeed.

Unlike the family in “Parasite”, Balram only resorts to the most immoral deed—murder—when he learns that his master has decided to replace him. (Spoiler alert) Driving him to make a hefty cash delivery to a politician, Balram pulls the car to the side of the road and asks Ashok, the privileged son with liberal pretensions, to help him change a tire. When Ashok is bending over examining the tire, Balram plunges a broken bottle into his neck and drives off with the fortune, thus allowing him to leave his Dalit identity behind and starting a new life as an entrepreneur in Bangalore, a city that is flush with leading-edge multinationals. Adopting the corrupt practices of his former employer, Balram pays off the cops to make sure that his bid to start a cab fleet has no competitors. In “The White Tiger”, there is not a soul with principles. That includes a “Socialist” politician who was a beneficiary of the landlord’s bribes. As a sign of the film’s distance from anything resembling true class struggle politics, there is no attempt to ground the character in India’s actual politics. She is basically a cardboard cutout.

Balram’s crime takes place close to the final fifteen minutes of a 125 minute film. Until that point, you have to put up with his obsequious posture vis-à-vis the entire landlord clan. Ashok’s father is a monster who curses Balram for the slightest infraction. I could not help but be reminded of “Gunga Din”, Kipling’s awful poem that was made into an even more awful film.

It was “Din! Din! Din!”
You ‘eathen, where the mischief ‘ave you been?
You put some juldee in it,
Or I’ll marrow you this minute,
If you don’t fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!

Like Gunga Din, Balram wears a smile no matter how cruelly he is treated. Besides reminding me of “Gunga Din”, I could not help but think of poor Butterfly McQueen in “Gone With the Wind”. Balram is almost masochistic. Every slap, every curse, every betrayal only results in him promising his masters that he will do better in the future. In some of the more cringeful scenes, Ashok and his wife Pinky Madam (no explanation how she ended up with such an absurd name) defend Balram from his father’s abuses but cap it off by reminding him that they are for the poor and downtrodden. Their liberalism is ultimately undone when they make Balram the scapegoat for a vehicular homicide that took place when Ashok was behind the wheel.

“The White Tiger” was directed by Ramin Bahrani, a film professor at Columbia University whose previous films were as overrated as the latest. Like “The White Tiger”, his first film “Man Push Cart” appeared to be another “class struggle” film featuring a Pakistani character trying to make it as a street vendor in New York. It turned out that Bahrani had something else in mind as I indicated in my review:

“Man Push Cart” sounds like my kind of movie. It is a study of a Pakistani operator of one of those ubiquitous stainless steel coffee and donut carts all over New York, mostly run by recent immigrants from Asia. As someone with a long-standing curiosity about the hidden economic life of this city, I was anxious to see if the film revealed any deep secrets.

Unfortunately, the director Ramin Bahrani, a 30 year old Iranian-American graduate of Columbia University, had very little interest in the underlying social reality. The push cart vendor was merely a convenient symbol for his own existential outlook, borrowed liberally from Albert Camus. In an interview with New York Magazine, Bahrani explained what inspired him to make “Man Push Cart”: “When Bush began to bomb Afghanistan, I realized that all the Afghans I’d ever known were pushcart vendors in New York City. Then I began to think of Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, and pushing these carts seemed like a modern-day version.”

To help me get a handle on what was so wrong about the film, I decided to track down a review of the Aravind Adiga novel it was based on, which won the coveted Booker Prize in 2008. I found a review in the London Review of Books that was so good that it almost made the over 2-hour slog through the film worthwhile. Written by UCLA historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam and titled “Another Booker Flop”, it is both a review of the novel as well as the underlying social relations that make life miserable for the Dalit. Let me conclude with the final paragraph of Subrahmanyam’s review (contact me privately for a copy liberated from the paywall.)

Some two decades ago, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote a celebrated essay, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ At the time, a folklorist is said to have responded: ‘More importantly, can the bourgeois listen?’ We can’t hear Balram Halwai’s voice here, because the author seems to have no access to it. The novel has its share of anger at the injustices of the new, globalised India, and it’s good to hear this among the growing chorus of celebratory voices. But its central character comes across as a cardboard cut-out. The paradox is that for many of this novel’s readers, this lack of verisimilitude will not matter because for them India is and will remain an exotic place. This book adds another brick to the patronising edifice it wants to tear down.

January 16, 2021

‘Til Kingdom Come

Filed under: Evangelicals,Film,zionism — louisproyect @ 7:42 pm

At the height of Tulsi Gabbard’s popularity with the “anti-imperialist” left, I was buying none of it. I had been following her pro-Assad propaganda since the civil war began, the main attraction to Grayzone, et al. What seemed to escape their attention was her close ties to the pro-Israel Evangelical movement that was on full display when she was a featured speaker at John Hagee’s July 2015 Christians United for Israel Conference. Just six months later, the Evangelicals took advantage of Trump’s election in order to put into place the facts on the ground that simultaneously satisfied Likud’s expansionist goals and the Messianic fantasies of Hagee, Pat Robertson, speaking-in-tongue madwoman Paula White and every other bible-thumping, white supremacist piece of trash.

Directed by Maya Zinshtein, an Israeli opponent of Netanyahu, “’Til Kingdom Come” lifts up a rock and exposes all the creepy, crawly Christians and Jews involved with the Evangelical/West Bank settler alliance. Although she is heard grilling some of her subjects in the film, she mostly allows them to hang themselves on their own petard. The documentary was written by Mark Monroe, who directed three terrific documentaries: The Cove, The Biggest Little Farm, and Icarus. This new film is up to his usual high standards.

The film begins with some guy hanging a metal target from the limb of tree and taking practice shots at it with a semi-automatic rifle. It turns out that he is Boyd Bingham IV, the son of Boyd Bingham III, the pastor of the Binghamtown Baptist Church that is a much smaller and much poorer version of John Hagee’s Cornerstone mega-church in San Antonio, Texas. Located in Middlesboro, Kentucky, a town long abandoned by the coal industry, Bingham feels sorry for the misery of his unemployed, poverty-stricken, drug-addicted townspeople but continues to urge them to donate money to the Evangelical project in Israel.

In addition to Boyd Bingham IV, the other chief subject is Yael Eckstein, the president and CEO of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews—the most important wheeler-dealer in promoting settler interests within the Evangelical world. Her late father Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein founded the Fellowship in 1983, clearly anticipating the geopolitical forces that would reach fruition during the Trump presidency. She is loathsome.

One of the more eye-opening scenes—one that reflected the depth of research that went into the film—has Boyd Bingham IV visiting Israel where he sits down with a Palestinian Christian priest who tries to explain why Evangelical Christians are harming the interests of all Palestinians, Muslim and Christian alike. Afterward, Bingham rants about how the priest was anti-Semitic. Hung on his own petard, indeed.

Virtual Live Premiere – 8 PM EST – February 25, 2021

Nationwide Watch Now @ Home Cinema Release – February 26, 2021

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