Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 2, 2018

Paul Pines (1941-2018): the death of a poet and a friend

Filed under: literature,obituary,Paul Pines — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

Yesterday I was saddened to learn that Paul Pines died after a two-year struggle to fight off lung cancer, including the use of immunotherapy that can have painful side-effects. He was 77 years old and determined to return to a normal life, including a visit to New York for a poetry reading.

I considered Paul to be one of America’s most outstanding poets as well as a friend. He was one of the few whose roots were in the great new poetry of the Beat Generation and San Francisco Renaissance that played an important part in the lives of young people in the late 50s and early 60s. Like Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and any number of other new poets who eschewed the academy, Paul’s work came out of his lived experience as a fisherman, jazz club owner, merchant seaman and teenage juvenile delinquent.

I met Paul in 1961 when I was a puerile 16-year old freshman at Bard College. Paul was self-assured and relaxed, having transferred to Bard from some other school that was less congenial to a rebel like him. I have vivid memories playing ping-pong with Paul and Chevy Chase, who along with their good friend Kenny Shapiro of Groove Tube fame, were the best players on campus.

Paul struck quite an image on campus with a hairdo like those worn by the cast of “Grease”, well-developed biceps, tight black t-shirts, black motorcycle boots, and an unfiltered cigarette in the corner of his mouth. (I can’t help but think his chain smoking might have sealed his fate many years later.) I was always a little bit intimidated by Paul even though his general manner was at odds with his tough guy appearance. In fact, beneath the appearance was just another young person trying to develop a more spiritual side in a period when materialism was in the driver’s seat. The best thing you could have said about Bard College back then was its providing a nurturing environment for future poets and even a Marxist like me.

A year after Paul arrived, his brother Claude transferred to Bard as well. I couldn’t characterize my relationship with Paul back then as much more than an acquaintance but from the minute I met Claude, I knew that this was someone I really wanted to bond with. Claude was gentle, self-effacing, and wise beyond his years. After having lost touch with just about all my classmates, I tried to use the Internet to see if I could find any traces.

Some time in the early 2000s, I learned that Claude had been stricken with schizophrenia relatively late in life and was living in upstate New York, not far from where Paul was working as a psychotherapist and conducting writers workshops at a local college. I thought long and hard about getting in touch with Claude but lost my nerve after realizing that it would be a strain on me emotionally since my own brother had committed suicide after a psychotic break in the early 70s.

I continued to keep track of Claude through Internet searches until I was stunned to discover that he died of leukemia in 2006. After writing a tribute to him on my blog, Paul showed up to offer a comment:

Touching piece, Louis. Your observations are deceptively political in the fundamental meaning of that word as Aristotle meant it when he called man a “political animal.” By which I understand an animal connected to others of his kind by common interests and experiences that sometimes rises to the level of sympathy, the ability to feel with another. Your reflections on what mental illness can do, and does to many who a moment ago felt they had a unique destiny is in this sense profoundly political. In Claude’s case, his suffering was punctuated by laughter, and the wisdom that blossomed from his struggle with a mind that he found he could not trust. He learned, instead, to trust his heart. I also very much liked your piece on Barney Ross.

This comment, like everything Paul ever wrote, was suffused with a kind of humanism that has largely vanished from our world today. That led to a friendship with Paul that like many in recent years was mostly sustained in cyberspace. While staying in touch with Paul was a way for me to remember his younger brother, it also led to an ongoing commitment to tell my readers about each new book he wrote, including a powerful memoir titled “My Brother’s Madness”.

Just by coincidence, Paul was putting the final touches on the book when his brother died. It is a wonderful book that touches upon his struggles to provide emotional support for Claude as well as the world they lived in growing up in Brooklyn. When I came across the following paragraph, I got a better idea of how he developed his “look”:

Growing up a few blocks from Ebbets Field, Paul Pines was a true child of the 1950s, which was much more about looking tough than sensitive. This was especially true when you had to fend off rival gangs of Irish or Italian youths. As a perpetual truant and an unsuccessful car thief, Paul fit right into the neighborhood as this encounter with his high school principal would indicate:

We sit in straight back chairs. Bullethead [a nickname for the principal] tells us that he has been a cop and a trolley-car conductor and understands boys in motorcycle boots with ducks-ass hair welded in place by Dixie Peach. There are quite a few of us walking up Flatbush to Church Avenue every morning to the walled fortress spanning several blocks. Erasmus boils over with students in two overlapping sessions, out of which a small stream of elite students are siphoned off from the raging river of Irish Lords, Pig Town Tigers, Gremlins, and Chaplains into the top tier. I fall into the lower one, a Blackboard Jungle minus Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. Three days a week I take in the triple-feature cowboy movies at the Majestic Theater on Fulton Street instead of going to school.

Paul thought of himself as a budding gangster, fed by fantasies inspired by the pulp fiction of Mickey Spillane and Harold Robbins. After his father sent him off to Cherry Lawn, a progressive private school in Connecticut, he still saw himself as a rebel without a cause, but one with roots in Lord Byron as well as the mean streets of Brooklyn. After reading Freud, he discovers that being able to use his mind fills him with elation. “I am a wet chick burst from its shell.”

Besides our email exchanges, I always took advantage of Paul’s occasional poetry readings in New York to chat with him and his beautiful and brainy wife. I also met their talented and beautiful daughter at a gallery exhibit for the photography of Josephine Sacabo, the wife of Dalt Wonk. Josephine and Dalt were very close to Paul and I am sure that they are grieving his death as if he was a family member. In our in-person chats, Paul always expressed a joie de vivre that was nourished by his family ties and the confidence that his poetry was written for the ages and would certainly outlive him.

I have tagged my five reviews of Paul’s books here. I invite you to read them and better yet to buy his books since you will not find better poetry being written today.

Paul Pines website

June 9, 2018

Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018): an appreciation

Filed under: food,obituary — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

My wife and I had a special affinity with Anthony Bourdain. He lived just 4 blocks from our building on 91st and 3rd and we used to walk past him on the sidewalk on occasion. As all smart Manhattanites are accustomed to, we never would have dreamed of asking for an autograph, nor even telling him as we were passing by how much we loved his show. Too gauche. Too bridge and tunnel. This article is my way of doing that posthumously.

We watched “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel and then kept up with him when he moved to CNN. Two shows resonated with us deeply. The first was his visit to Istanbul, my wife’s birthplace, and the other was to Cleveland, where he hung out with my friend Harvey Pekar. These two shows epitomized his sensibility. Istanbul is a city with both the kinds of street fare he always sought out as well as one of the world’s great but under-appreciated cuisines. He also had a great time hanging out with Harvey even though Harvey put out a comic strip claiming that he never heard of Bourdain beforehand. Cleveland, like a lot of down-and-out places in the USA he visited (West Virginia, Provincetown), had some really offbeat dining spots that he and Harvey revealed to viewers. That was the basic charm of the show. It was like visiting a city that you’d never get to in your life, identifying with Bourdain’s bemused but affectionate reactions to its peculiarities.

Before sitting down to write this article, I was thinking about ways that you could put him into context. Although I never read “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly”, the book that helped him catapult into a TV career, it sounded like it was inspired by George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London”, a book I had read and loved. As I suspected, I found out in the course of doing some research that this was exactly the case. The book grew out of a long essay in the April, 1999 New Yorker titled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” that made the connection:

A good deal has changed since Orwell’s memoir of the months he spent as a dishwasher in “Down and Out in Paris and London.” Gas ranges and exhaust fans have gone a long way toward increasing the life span of the working culinarian. Nowadays, most aspiring cooks come into the business because they want to: they have chosen this life, studied for it. Today’s top chefs are like star athletes. They bounce from kitchen to kitchen—free agents in search of more money, more acclaim.

In a NY Times “By the Book” interview last year, he was asked what books he was currently reading. One of them was Thomas Ricks’s “Churchill and Orwell.” When asked which three people he would invite to a dinner party, living or dead, he replied William S. Burroughs, Joan Didion and George Orwell. Not that he was someone who was uncritical about a primary influence. When asked “What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?”, he replied (probably referencing Ricks’s book): “Orwell’s fastidiousness about smell is of interest. And to read of his anti-Semitism was dismaying.”

It should be obvious from the above that Bourdain was not the typical chef. I doubt that Mario Batali has read a single book in the last 20 years except something related to his job—or maybe some porn novel that made rape sound worthwile.

His father was part of Columbia Records classical division and his mother was a copy editor at the NY Times. Growing up in such a household would likely expose you to a lot of cultural and intellectual stimuli. He was accepted into Vassar College in 1973 but dropped out after two years. From there he went to the Culinary Institute of America (mischievously referred to as the CIA), where he learned to be a chef.

It occurs to me that a lot of Orwell rubbed off on Bourdain. Yesterday I noticed that Louis Allday, a member of Tim Hayward’s discredited Assadist propaganda machine in England, badmouthed Bourdain for his trip to Libya, where he spent all his time with people who hated and even fought against the dictator. Watch the show and judge for yourself.

This clip will give you an idea of what’s in store:

In fact, in clear contradistinction to Allday, support for Palestinians and for Syrian rebels go hand in hand together. It was likely that, given his admiration for Orwell, Bourdain found occasion to read “Homage to Catalonia”, a book that defended socialism against both Franco and the Stalinists. Essentially, this is the same fight we are involved with today, with people like Allday lying through their teeth to defend Syria’s Franco. At least you could give the CP credit for opposing Franco in 1938. That “the left” can end up supporting people like Assad and Putin today cries out for someone with Orwell’s integrity. Fortunately, there are signs that the Assadist left’s credibility is rapidly sinking today.

Orwell was not the only influence on Bourdain. His love of street food and “local cuisine”, as opposed to fancy French restaurants in places other than France, suggested that he had also read Calvin Trillin. I have no proof of that but would recommend a June 11, 1984 article by Trillin in the New Yorker titled “A Report for Mr. Bryant” (behind a paywall unfortunately) that hails a funky, Black-owned barbecue restaurant in Kansas City as “the best restaurant in the world”. When I was in Kansas City in my final days in the SWP, I was taking lathe and milling machine classes at night in a vocational high school. When we graduated, the teachers took us to Bryant’s and treated us to barbecue. You know something, Trillin was right.

These were just the kinds of places that Bourdain sought out. He was not a snob and even liked to eat at The Shake Shack, a kind of upscale McDonald’s one block from his building that opened in 2011. At the time, he said “I dropped to my knees and wept with gratitude.” His favorite order, according to Eater? “I’m having a double cheeseburger naked, please. No lettuce. No tomato. No nothing. Just cheese and two burgers on a potato bun. I’ll have two of those and I’m happy. I’m singing America, fuck yeah!”

If you wanted to get a vicarious taste of exotic cuisine, you could have watched Bourdain’s TV shows, many of which can be seen on DailyMotion as those above. (Just Google “Anthony Bourdain” and “DailyMotion”). Or, if you are fortunate enough to live in New York, you can enjoy them first-hand since the city, in clear defiance of the sort of nativism that exists elsewhere, is a magnet to immigrants.

Yesterday, I had lunch with an old cyberpal that I met in person for the first time. I told him that we were going to Oda’s, a Georgian restaurant on Avenue B, to honor Anthony Bourdain. I am no food critic but I can tell you that the food is fantastic there. Over lunch, the subject of Bourdain’s show on Cuba came up. I told him that this was the only episode that put me off somewhat since the clear implication was that Cuba should abandon what he called “Communism”.

I doubt that Cuba would fare very well in a system that has worked so poorly in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean Islands but I told my friend that someone so engaged with small businesses like Bourdain probably only meant that he was for privately owned restaurants, B&B’s, farms, and other small-scale enterprises. It would probably reflect current thinking in the Cuban government as well.

I mentioned to him that when I joined the SWP in 1967, I got a defense of the Cuban Revolution that was prevalent in our ranks. The comrade who recruited me said that after Castro took power, they nationalized everything, down to the last nail in the last bodega. At the time, this sounded very radical. Today, I understand that a revolution should only target the “heights of industry” as Lenin actually pointed out in 1917.

This is something I understand a lot better today, especially when it comes to Georgia. In March, I reviewed a film titled “Our Blood is Wine” that documented the revival of kvevri wine in Georgia that we had with our lunch. The film can be rented for $3.99 on Youtube:

The tie-in to Bourdain and the need to preserve local culture against bureaucratic interference should be obvious from my review:

Quinn [the director] functions pretty much the same way that Anthony Bourdain does in his visits to various parts of the world to simultaneously try the local cuisine and give his take on socio-political matters. The film consists of him visiting various vineyards that all employ the same technique that existed 8,000 years ago, namely the use of kvevris (spelled qvevris in the film). A kvevri is a clay vessel usually over six feet tall that is buried in the ground in order to allow fermentation to take place. After Georgia became part of the USSR in 1917, Stalin decided that more revenue could be generated by industrializing the winemaking process using stainless steel vessels even if it turned out an inferior product and undermined Georgia’s national identity. As Quinn visits various practitioners of an ancient art undergoing a renaissance, he often ends up like Bourdain sitting around a dinner table sampling wines and the Georgian cuisine with men and women breaking into the polyphonic style that distinguishes the country’s music. It is an altogether joyous pastime that makes me want to spend time there the next time I am in Turkey, the country immediately to its south.

 

May 15, 2018

A ten year Kaddish for Ann Proyect (1921-2008)

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 5:41 pm

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.

downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph

the rhythm the rhythm—and your memory in my head three years after—And read Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas aloud—wept, realizing how we suffer

–Allen Ginsberg, “Kaddish”

Ten years ago, I wrote about the passing of my mother on Mother’s Day. At the time, I was overwhelmed by grief and the article reflected that. Now, a decade later, it is time to tell her story.

My mother was born in Kansas City in 1921, the daughter of a cobbler named Morris Rothstein and his wife Sarah, who used to peddle clothing from door to door in Kansas City’s Mexican-American neighborhood. Her Spanish was better than her English, mostly by necessity.

My maternal grandparents ended up in Kansas City as part of the Galveston Plan funded by Wall Street financier Jacob Schiff who helped to repatriate Polish and Russian Jews to the USA but not in areas where they were heavily represented like New York. Fearing that a surplus of Jews would antagonize the Gentiles, he sought to settle them in places where they would hardly be noticed—like Kansas City. It got the name Galveston Plan because that was the port of entry for people like my grandparents. Among the other Jews who ended up in Kansas City were the parents of actor Ed Asner and long-time Nation Magazine and New Yorker contributor Calvin Trillin who had this pithy take on Jacob Schiff:

According to Stephen Birmingham’s book Our Crowd, for instance, Jacob Schiff had displayed on his office walls two of the largest checks he ever wrote, one of them for $62,075,000. (Big k’nockerl)…Unlike Jacob Schiff, I point out, my Uncle Benny had never consorted with robber barons like E. H. Harriman (“When it comes to rapacious nineteenth-century capitalism, my family’s hands are clean”) and would have never put a framed check on his wall.

My mother had three older brothers. There was Benny who started out playing violin in big bands but became a liquor salesman after they died out in the late 40s, Joe who was an electrician and Abe who sold cars. With his income as a shoe repairman in the 1920s, Morris made enough money to buy a four bedroom house on Linwood Avenue in Kansas City, an indication of how relatively affordable housing was back then. When the Depression hit, the Rothsteins continued to pay their mortgage but could only afford meat once a week, the chicken they shared on Friday night.

My mother went to work as a secretary-typist after graduating high school for the CEO of an envelope manufacturer she revered. Like other Jews, she used to spend time at the Jewish Community Center that was part of the Reform Temple B’nai Jehudah. It was there that she became totally devoted to Irving Levitas who as education director gave classes on Jewish history.

Years later, after Irving had relocated to New York, I got to know him fairly well when I visited my mother in Woodridge. She used to have him come up to give the same kind of classes he gave in Kansas City and I would talk politics with him. Irving was a Labor Zionist and friendly to anarchism. The Levitas clan was on the left but not Marxist by any stretch of the imagination. His nephew Mitchel was the NY Times Sunday Book review editor for many years and embodied Cold War liberal politics. I am not sure of the exact family ties between Irving and Daniel Levitas but he could well be Mitchel’s son. Daniel is a long-time anti-fascist who was a board member of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights that might be described as a northern version of the SPLC but with a much more modest funding base.

Calvin Trillin wrote a brief profile on his fellow Kansas City native in an article about people who were customers of the Strand Bookstore in New York:

Levitas is a short, slight man in his sixties. A lifelong bachelor, he seems interested in luxuries only to the extent of keeping himself in cigarettes. His expenditures on books have always coincided roughly with his salary. For many years, Levitas made his living as the educational director of a Jewish temple in Kansas City, and several years ago he took the same job at Temple Emanu-El in Yonkers. He has always lectured on the side—most often to non-scholars at, say, a cultural series organized by the men’s club of a temple. “I’ve always considered myself a middleman in intellectual matters,” he has said, and his discussion of any scholarly subject is studded with “you know”s and “of course”s that may come from years of trying to explain Husserl or Spinoza or William James to businessmen without sounding patronizing. Levitas’s nephew—Mitchel Levitas, who is assistant metropolitan editor of the Times—believes that his uncle genuinely assumes that anyone he is talking to knows at least the context in which a Levitas observation about a Chinese emperor or a nineteenth-century American anarchist is made. “He has an innocent enthusiasm,” Mitchel says. “He is more than a dilettante and less than a pedant.”

Not only did he keep himself in cigarettes, he chain smoked them. He died of lung cancer in 1987 and for the last few months of his life, my mother nursed him at our upstate home.

During WWII, my grandparents opened their doors to Jewish soldiers who were used to having Friday night sabbath dinners. One of them was my father Jacob who was a mess sergeant stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas. You know that scene in “The Honeymooners” when Ralph Kramden and Alice are having an argument over one thing or another? Ralph concludes the argument with these words: “You never loved me. You fell in love with my uniform.”

That pretty much describes my parents. As you can see from the photo below taken in 1947 or so, he was a handsome devil and my mom wasn’t bad-looking herself. Me in the middle, filled with existential angst.

My father had just returned from fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and hoped to return to a life of normalcy running the fruit store he inherited from grandfather Louis who operated a small empire of businesses in Woodridge.

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 11.05.25 AM

Louis Proyect on the left, a hotel builder and small business entrepreneur who also was chairman of the local Workman’s Circle and Socialist Party. Photo taken sometime in the early 40s.

Around the time I got to be 10 or so, it dawned on me that my father didn’t like me very much. He never spoke to me and when he did, he was judgmental. He would have preferred someone less bookish than me. When I was a kid, there was nothing I loved better than sitting in my bedroom pouring through the pages of the Book of Knowledge, a kid’s encyclopedia. Since my mom preferred that her kid be a good student rather than a good Little Leaguer, they tended to bicker over how he treated me as well as his patriarchal attitudes toward her. Since my mom had a mouth even bigger than mine, any customer in our fruit store who showed some kind of attitude would get told off by my mom until he banned her from the store.

My mom was not one to sit around watching TV. She was involved in the Hadassah, a woman’s Zionist organization, and the PTA. Just like she was in the store, she had a big mouth. Even out of the store, my father had to urge her from time to time not to make enemies because he didn’t want to lose customers. She also wrote a column for the local newspaper called “Woodridge Whirl” that reported on who had vacationed in Florida or whose kid had been bar mitzvahed. She also threw in wisdom she had absorbed from one of Irving’s lectures.

After my father died in 1970, she was forced to go back to work as a secretary since my father’s life insurance was a paltry sum. I guess he thought he’d live forever after coming out of the Battle of the Bulge in one piece. She worked at the Homowack Hotel in Ellenville that was still thriving at the time, mostly I suppose for its strictly kosher kitchen. When that job dried up, she went to work for a home for the developmentally disabled in South Fallsburgh, a town near Woodridge.

Since these jobs didn’t pay very much, I used to send her a monthly check to help out. This obligation made it impossible for me to go on full-time for the Socialist Workers Party so inadvertently she helped save me from going full-tilt cultist.

Although strongly self-identified as a Jew, my mother grew increasingly disaffected from the synagogue in Woodridge that was orienting more and more to the Hasidim that had begun to colonize our village. She was also upset with the attraction that eastern religions had to local kids. As the Borscht Belt hotels like the Homowack collapsed, a number became ashrams geared to New Yorkers looking for a weekend where they could eat vegetarian food, do yoga and achieve some form of spirituality that organized Judaism could not deliver.

For my mom, it was only reform Judaism that could deliver so she began attending services at the Monticello reform Temple Sholom. She really loved the place and soon began a relationship with a man named Victor Gordon whose wife had died not long after she became part of the congregation. Like my mother, Victor was no stranger to tragedy. His son was a pilot who made a living smuggling marijuana until he died in a crash.

Around the time I began bringing my wife up to Woodridge for visits in the early 2000s, my mom had become an ultra-Zionist. I tend to think that if Irving had not succumbed to cancer, he might have helped her think more clearly about Israel even if she remained a Zionist. Her views led to clashes with me and my wife but we never stopped loving her. In my last phone call with her on Mother’s Day, when she was in the ICU, she told me that she was so happy that I found my wonderful wife (even her father was named Hasan!) and could leave this life with a full heart.

Below are excerpts from the comic book I did with Harvey Pekar that will help you understand her story.

May 2, 2018

Joel Kovel (1936-2018): an appreciation

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

Going through something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder following my forced exit from the Trotskyist movement after 11 years, I began looking for medical help for what turned out to be a psychosomatic low-grade fever. On the advice of my old friend Nelson Blackstock, who died 3 months ago, I picked up a copy of a book he recommended by Joel Kovel written in 1976 and titled “A complete guide to therapy: From psychoanalysis to behavior modification” as a kind of shopping guide. Nelson was particularly enthusiastic about behavior modification, whether specifically behavioral or cognitive, its offshoot. I only wished that I had looked into behavior modification before I joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1967.

Joel’s book is totally brilliant. Apart from being a shopper’s guide, it is permeated with a certain degree of skepticism about all these therapies since they so often fell short of dealing with the underlying problem, a sick society that could only become healthy through the overthrow of the capitalist system. He would make these ideas more focused in a 1988 book titled “The Radical Spirit” that was an attempt at synthesizing Marx and Freud. By this point, despite my post-Trotskyist depression having lifted, I jumped at the opportunity to register for a class on ecosocialism that Joel was giving at the Brecht Forum in N.Y. To this day, I can remember Joel explaining what the environmental crisis was about and can even see his face in front of me, with the words coming out of his mouth that struck me like a lightning bolt.

He said that capitalist growth is like a metastasizing tumor. Whether it is chemicals used for farming, plastics or aluminum, such highly profitable commodities also have the capability of killing human beings, animals and plants. This was in line with Barry Commoner’s “The Closing Circle” that I had read shortly before taking the class with Joel and that had also made an indelible impression on me.

Joel’s ideas eventually found their way into print in the 2007 “The Enemy of Nature” that can be read online. On page 39, he elaborates on the cancer metaphor:

We need to examine why we talk of capital as though it has a life of its own, which rapidly surpasses its rational function and consumes ecosystems in order to grow cancerously. Capital is not in itself a living organism, needless to say. It is, rather, a kind of relationship like that set up by a cancer-causing virus that invades living human beings, forces them to violate ecological integrity, sets up self-replicating structures, and polarizes the giant force field. It is humanity living as capital, people who become capital’s personifications, that destroys ecosystems.

After finishing Joel’s class at the Brecht Forum, I became a committed environmentalist and tried to persuade Marxists both on and off the Internet to become Green as well.

Around the same time, Joel and I both became passionately committed to the Sandinista revolution, which was for many of us in the 1980s a sign of hope for socialist renewal. Joel wrote “In Nicaragua” in 1988 as an act of solidarity in much the same way that my involvement with Tecnica was intended. When he lived in Nicaragua in 1986, Joel found himself drawn to the liberation theology wing of the Catholic Church that was a pillar of support for the Sandinistas. In a two-part article explaining his conversion to Christianity that appeared in Mondoweiss, Joel describes the initial and ineluctable attraction the church had for him:

The other thing is, every one of us that’s a leftist, with very few exceptions–we’re fearful. We’re afraid of the cops, afraid of the corporations, the authorities. Well, a common admonition in the New Testament is, Be not afraid, because I am with you. So you have that presence with you, and you’re not afraid. You’re not happy as a pig. You’re happy because you’re in the thick of the universal. I saw that in Nicaragua. I took communion at Casa Jesuitica. I made four trips and on one of them, we’re sitting around with the Jesuits. “Let’s have communion.” I said, “No no, oh no.”But they told me to stay, and we passed the bread and the wine. So I said, Well, ok, I’ll do it. It was the first time I did it. And it came around a table, there was no hierarchy. It was Ok– Ok. So I took communion. Then I said alright, I have to go home, I had to walk a half a mile to the place I was staying. And I was walking– I suddenly had a sense of I wasn’t walking anymore, I was floating through the air. Well how did that happen?

I guess I feel the same way about this sort of thing that I felt when Stan Goff turned to Jesus. Whatever gets you through the night…

In 1988, Joel Kovel was appointed to the Alger Hiss Chair of Social Studies at Bard College, my alma mater. A year earlier Leon Botstein, the school’s president for life, also appointed Martin Peretz to Bard’s board of trustees. This led me to write a letter (you remember what they were, right?) to Botstein complaining about the appropriateness of having a supporter of Nicaraguan contras, who were in the habit of burning down schools, to such a post. Leon was so stung by my letter that he took the trouble to write one reprimanding me. As you might expect, he argued that Bard did not apply litmus tests to board members. He was so much for free speech that he defended Bard College inviting a member of the neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany to speak at a conference on “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times”.

Twenty-one years after his appointment, Joel learned that Botstein’s free speech absolutism did not include the right to attack the state of Israel. Two years before his firing, Joel wrote a book titled “Overcoming Zionism” that had become the target of the Israel lobby. The U. of Michigan Press came under so much pressure from its major donors that they dropped the book. (Eventually, counter-pressure forced them to reinstate it.) Do you think that Leon Botstein came to Joel’s right to academic freedom? Don’t be foolish. In an article on his firing, Joel recounts the circumstances:

  • 2007. Overcoming Zionism was now on the market, arguing for a One-State solution (and sharply criticizing, among others, Martin Peretz for a scurrilous op-ed piece against Rachel Corrie in the Los Angeles Times. Peretz is an official in AIPAC’s foreign policy think-tank, and at the time a Bard Trustee — though this latter fact was not pointed out in the book).  In August, Overcoming Zionism was attacked by a watchdog Zionist group, StandWithUs/Michigan, which succeeded in pressuring the book’s United States distributor, the University of Michigan Press, to remove it from circulation.  An extraordinary outpouring of support (650 letters to U of M) succeeded in reversing this frank episode of book-burning.  I was disturbed, however, by the fact that, with the exception of two non-tenure track faculty, there was no support from Bard in response to this egregious violation of the speech rights of a professor.  When I asked President Botstein in an email why this was so, he replied that he felt I was doing quite well at taking care of myself.

This was irrelevant to the obligation of a college to protect its faculty from violation of their rights of free expression — all the more so, a college such as Bard with a carefully honed reputation as a bastion of academic freedom, and which indeed defines such freedom in its Faculty Handbook as a “right . . . to search for truth and understanding without interference and to disseminate his [sic] findings without intimidation.”

I am eagerly awaiting Joel’s final book, a memoir titled “The Lost Traveller’s Dream”, especially for its caustic take on his time at Bard that I browsed in Book Culture near Columbia University.

I had my political differences with Joel, especially when he was on the editorial board of “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism”. CNS had trouble with basing ecosocialism on Marx’s writings as Foster had done in “Marx’s Ecology”. To this day, I support Foster’s approach no matter how wrongheaded he has been about Syria. I summarized the debate between Monthly Review and CNS here: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/ecology/foster-o’connor.htm.

Joel was a true public intellectual, in the same league as Cornel West or David Harvey. He was also a friend. Not long after I moved into the Studebaker Building on in 2007 that was the initial outpost of Columbia University’s expansion into Manhattanville, I bumped into Joel a few blocks from my office. I was surprised and pleased to see him there. He explained that he had just moved into a co-op close by. From that point on, we used to have lunch together 2 or 3 times a year. I loved to draw him out on his experience at Bard as well as exchange ideas on the wretched American political situation. He was like me, incorporating pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

At one point, I asked him to do a video interview that except for the crappy lighting was one of my better efforts. I will close with that.

February 3, 2018

Nelson Blackstock, ¡Presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 8:21 pm

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Nelson Blackstock, 1944-2018

Yesterday, Nelson Blackstock, a comrade and friend for nearly 50 years, died from the complications of Parkinson’s. He was a central leader of the SWP in the 1970s, serving as the editor of the Militant newspaper and on the political committee. Under ordinary circumstances, someone with those kinds of credentials would deserve an obituary in the Militant but Nelson became persona non grata to some extent because he was perceived as my friend. But it is just as possible that his death would have gone unnoticed since there were other “offenses” on his record after he had left the party in the mid-80s having nothing to do with me. When he and his wife Diane decided to take a trip to Cuba, they were told that sympathizers were not permitted to make such an unsupervised trip. They ignored the party’s instructions just as Nelson ignored my banning.

Being ostracized from the SWP and its periphery of sympathizers has Kafkaesque dimensions. Last year, when Priscilla Ring died, Nelson called party HQ in Los Angeles to find out where the memorial meeting was being held but was told that he could not attend. I surmised that this was because he was seen as my friend. This mattered more than his close ties to Harry and Priscilla Ring who had treated Nelson like a son in many ways. More recently, when Nelson tried to contact Jeff Powers, another diehard supporter of the SWP who was Nelson’s friend even longer than me, he got the cold shoulder. I doubt that the Jehovah’s Witnesses “shunning” behavior is more inhumane than this.

Nelson was born on September 7, 1944 to a working-class mother and father in suburban Atlanta. For most of his youth, they used an outhouse. His father sanded floors for a living and could easily be reduced to the status of a “deplorable” since his racial views were like those of other Southern whites. There’s a photo of his father holding a dead snake by its tail that Nelson treasured. If you look at it, you’d conclude that he was the least likely father to raise a son who would devote many years to opposing racism and capitalism.

Nelson started out sharing the same views as his father and his peers. Always a gifted draftsman, who used to draw caricatures of comrades in executive committee meetings in the Houston branch, Nelson used to draw pictures of the Confederate flag in the margins of his notebooks during elementary school classes.

All that changed when he began to read Harry Golden’s columns in the Carolina Israelite. Golden was a Jew who had immigrated from the Ukraine and become an outspoken opponent of Jim Crow in the 1930s. For many of us who grew up in the 1950s, people like Golden and talk show host Steve Allen were the only source of liberal ideas.

Besides being a political liberal (and dogmatic anti-Communist), Allen was tuned into the beat generation, enough so to feature Jack Kerouac reading his poems while he played jazz piano as background. Kerouac was a major influence on Nelson, and me as well. Since we were a bit older than most of the people who would join the SWP in droves during the Vietnam antiwar movement, we had one foot in the beat generation. When I first met Nelson in 1969, we found ourselves talking as much about “On the Road” as Marxist theory.

Before joining the SWP, Nelson had been a leading figure in the Southern civil rights movement. He helped to found the Southern Students Organizing Committee (SSOC) in 1964, a group that was intended to be a combination of SDS and SNCC for white students. You can see Nelson’s application for the Mississippi Summer Project in the University of Southern Mississippi’s digital archives here that identifies him as an SDSer, where his political career began.

Nelson took part in an obscure initiative that was part of the Mississippi Summer. Called the White Folks Project, this was an attempt by SNCC to organize poor whites. As part of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), it sent volunteers like Nelson into Mississippi in order to try to win men and women who shared his father’s prejudices to the cause of desegregation. Nelson’s report can be read here.

It shows the prose mastery that Nelson would display later on writing for the Militant newspaper when it was of such relevance and intelligence that Malcolm X himself recommended it to a largely Black audience at a meeting organized by the SWP. I suspect that the Jeff mentioned in the report is his old friend Jeff Powers.

I entered the barber shop alone – leaving Jeff at door. I had on Levis and Jeff dressed in usual manner. One old man was cutting another bald-headed old man’s hair, No one else inside, As soon as I sit down the man getting haircut mentions seeing a man about 22 or 23 and a girl 19 “just a’eatin’ with Lem” in a “colored” restaurant. Says a couple of white restaurants have integrated last week and he expects that it is going to happen that “black and white” will eat together. The barber breaks into a wheezing, coughing tirade about how only a sorry son of a bitohin’ white man would eat with the black filthy-ass bastards. (I suspect that I have been recognized.) Barber goes on to say he would drive his car all over U.S. before he would eat in some place as a stinkin’ nigger. Bought car to get out of riding trains and busses. They take up all front seats. The other man reverts to using nigger in recounting how he has eaten with then at VA hospital but hover at same table. They have sat down beside him but he has gotten up.

Nelson came up to N.Y. in 1969 to edit the Young Socialist, the magazine of the Young Socialist Alliance. When we were introduced at party headquarters, we hit it right off. I found most SWP leaders back then to be aloof characters with a manner I associated with student government types but Nelson was funny, smart and warm. After I left N.Y. in 1970 to reinforce Peter Camejo’s faction in the Boston branch of the SWP, we lost touch.

We were reunited in 1973 when I was sent to Houston in order to take up the fight against the local opposition to Jack Barnes. This group, amounting to nearly half of the branch,  raised the same objections I countered in the Boston branch as well as new ones that were associated with Ernest Mandel’s Fourth International. One of the people I was sent down  to “crush” in Houston was a young man named Mark Lause, who is now a respected Civil War historian and the comrade I feel closer to politically than any other human being. Mark was allied at the time with Peter Gellert, who is also a long-time friend and comrade who was the first to send me email after hearing about Nelson’s death.

Nelson and I grew much closer in Houston. We used to spend time hanging out at Liberty Hall where we would always make sure to hear Asleep at the Wheel when they were in town. This was a Bob Wills tribute band that was led by Ray Benson, a great Western Swing vocalist and a Jew who grew up in Philadelphia. As much as I enjoyed spending time with Nelson, I began to become deeply alienated by the SWP, so much so that told people that I was boycotting the next “social” because it would be nothing but a bunch of people getting drunk as they talked about party matters. By this time, Nelson had departed to Berkeley where he was once again taking up the fight against the “Mandelistas”. Like Mark and Peter, the respected Marxist literary scholar Alan Wald was opposed to the Barnes leadership. I received this note from him just after I informed him that Nelson was dying:

Very sorry to hear this–and I appreciate being kept informed. If it is helpful to send a message of support or solidarity to anyone, I’m happy to do it.

Of course, Nelson and I fought like cats and dogs in the late 60s/early 1970s when he was Oakland/Berkeley SWP organizer and I was the YSA organizer (until I was “removed” in fall 1971). But we had a half-dozen or so pleasant exchange in the last few years.

1) Nelson was the first person who showed me a bound volume, personally owned in his apartment, of all issues of FI/NI/ISR from the 1930s-40s onward. He must have gotten them from his time in New York when he designed/edited YS. I was very jealous but only able to start collecting individual copies. (Now they are all on line.)

2) I used to hang out in a bookstore called PM in San Francisco (open only in the evening) owned by Jac Wasserman. Wasserman had been the founder of the SWP’s Pioneer Publishers–hardly even recognized in SWP history because he became a Shachtmanite in 1940. When Jac came back from WWII his marriage broke up and he moved down South, to Alabama. There he became deeply involved in sharecroppers rights and in the 1960s ran into Nelson. Jac really admired Nelson and praised him to high heaven–but he said that, after Nelson joined the YSA/SWP, he changed. I had always planned to try to get Jac and Nelson together to see what might happen, but by that time either Nelson and I were on bad terms or else Nelson had gone to Texas. Years later I went back to visit Jac with a tape recorder in hopes of an interview; he had been in the John Reed Club before the SWP and was friends with a famous Brazilian art critic (Mario Pedrosa) who lived in NYC in the 1930s and was on the International Executive Committee of the FI.. But I found Jac alone in his apartment with his memory entirely gone…

Nelson’s next assignment after Berkeley was to become the editor of the Militant newspaper. In that capacity, he began writing about the FBI’s Cointelpro program that had been used against our members (including me) as well as many others on the left, including Martin Luther King Jr. His articles were collected into “Cointelpro: The FBI’s Secret War on Political Freedom” in 1975, a book that profiled victims of this attempt to create dissension in the SWP and to get people fired from their jobs as this excerpt would indicate:

In still another poison pen episode, the FBI tried in April 1969 to get Maude White (now Wilkinson) “separated from her employment” as a preschool teacher in Washington, D.C. The local FBI sent an anonymous letter signed “A Concerned Citizen,” purporting to be from Wilkinson’s neighbor, to the superintendent of the D.C. school system. The letter said that “Miss White has held weekly meetings of a socialist youth group” in her apartment.

After expounding upon the classical FBI distortions of the YSA as a group supporting “violent activities against established authority,” the letter continues, “I bring this information to your attention in order to protect the D.C. School System from the menace of a teacher who does not have the interests of the children or the country at heart.”

But it was precisely the interests of the children and the American people that led Wilkinson to become a socialist: “Being a teacher, especially in the D.C. schools, I saw how rotten the schools were, how much money was spent on war and how little on education,” she says.

Four years later, Nelson became the organizer of the Birmingham, Alabama branch of the SWP that as part of “the turn to industry” was colonizing the coal mines. To help win workers to the socialist cause, party members would sell the Militant newspaper on the road leading to a coal mine. One morning as Nelson was out on a sale, he and a comrade were attacked by Klan members who left permanent damage to Nelson’s hip as this article from the Militant details:

You can get some more detail on this incident from page nine of the Militant newspaper dated June 22, 1979.

Afterward, Nelson walked with a cane and as a result was not able to get a job in industry. This led to his being sidelined politically and becoming willy-nilly a less than worthy party member. Within a couple of years, I had become part of Peter Camejo’s North Star Network and a fierce critic of the party. This did not make any difference to Nelson.

When I used to go out to Los Angeles to visit friends working in the film industry, I would always spend time with Nelson and his wife Diane Jacobs. He listened patiently to my charges against the party leaders even if he thought that they indicated that I “lost faith in the working class” or something like that.

Me (l) and Nelson (r) in my living room in the mid-80s, probably after drinking bourbon

In the mid-80s (I am not sure exactly when), Nelson dropped out of the SWP for personal reasons. In weighing the benefits of being the book store director against enjoying Saturday afternoon reading novels and smoking his pipe or a cigar from the terrace of his apartment in Lago Vista condos overlooking Echo Park lake, he went with the novels and the smokes. This unique modernist complex, designed by architect Allyn E. Morris, is known as the “Crown Jewel” of Echo Park and was beloved by Nelson and Diane who were both art students when young. I used to take great pleasure sitting out on the terrace with Nelson discussing music or film, even if I was rude enough to bring up the degeneration of the SWP from time to time.

I think Nelson finally figured out that there was something wrong with the party when the N.Y. Observer reported that Jack Barnes had sold his condo in the West Village near party HQ for nearly $2 million. It was literally large enough to fit two of the Lago Vista apartments into.

Nelson began to lose interest in politics by this point. His only project that could be described as political was to begin work on a documentary about SWP leaders like George Novack. Unfortunately, declining health and a failure to master the editing software that could turn the videos into a finished product got in the way. I worked with Nelson to interview some of the leading Cochranites, however. They can be seen on my Vimeo channel. My hope is to finish Nelson’s project since the videos would be critically important oral history.

Nelson’s health began to decline in the mid-80s with a series of issues that made him into a modern-day Job. First there was the hip injury that was finally overcome through an artificial hip joint. Next there was the loss of the sight in one eye because an ophthalmologist had urged him to continue using steroids after cataract surgery even though it was damaging the nerves in one eye. Adult attention deficit disorder worsened to the point that he occasionally missed plane flights because he lost track of the departure time. But the worst problem was with his spine. He underwent surgery to relieve pain from a herniated disk only to discover that a few  years later that scoliosis had worsened to the point that he needed to have a titanium rod attached to his spine if he wanted to stay out of a wheelchair. An 8 hour surgery a few years ago relieved this problem even if it meant him not having the mobility of a normal person.

And, just as the spine problems seemed to be under control, he came down with Parkinson’s. Nelson was trying hard to live with Parkinson’s but the illness made it difficult for him to function. He was hospitalized twice with pneumonia, an illness caused by the aspiration of food into the lungs—a common hazard for Parkinson’s patients who have difficulty swallowing. The finale began two months ago after a series of falls and a weakened condition led to him being cared for in a hospice a few days ago.

When I think of the kind of revolutionary party I want to belong to, it will be made up of people like Nelson Blackstock whatever their skin color, nationality, gender or sexual orientation. That was the kind of party I thought I was building in the 1960s and 70s. Maybe the tumultuous period we are living through will lead to the real thing. I hope to god that it does or else we are doomed.

January 25, 2018

How can you not love Mark E. Smith?

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 10:07 pm

Mark E. Smith, 1957-2018

I just counted 16 CD’s of The Fall, more than any other group or single artist in my collection. Led by Mark E. Smith who died just yesterday, The Fall was not a group in the sense that the Beatles or the Rolling Stones were. If Smith died 30 years ago, The Fall would have died with him. With his mercurial temperament, Smith hired and fired musicians the way that George Steinbrenner hired and fired managers. Unlike Smith, Steinbrenner’s only gift was being born with a spoon in his mouth. Born to a humble working-class family, Smith never achieved the fame or fortune of a Bob Dylan but for my money he was a much better writer than Dylan and as deserving of the Nobel Prize in literature as W.B. Yeats or T.S. Eliot.

Unlike Dylan until he went “surreal”, Smith’s lyrics were not endowed with any particular message about saving the world. But unlike Dylan’s highly self-conscious surrealism, Smith’s lyrics were far more evocative since they employed plain language rather then linguistic tricks. For example, “I am Damo Suzuki” begins:

Generous of lyric, Jehovah’s Witness (2)
Stands in Cologne Marktplatz (3)
Drums come in
When the drums come in fast
Drums to shock, into brass evil  (4)
What have you got in that paper bag? (5)
Is it a dose of Vitamin C? (6)
Ain’t got no time for Western lesson (7)
I am Damo Suzuki
The park alight with acid rain
Give it to me, danke, every day (8)
Who is Mr. Herr Stockhausen? (9)
Introduce me
I’m Damo Suzuki
Soundtracks, Soundtracks (10)
Melched together, the lights
The lights above you

It should be emphasized that it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern the words in a Mark E. Smith performance since he deliberately slurred his words as if he had marbles in his mouth. In his earliest records, the words were crystal clear. Perhaps as a punk musician (he was inspired to start a band after seeing the Sex Pistols), this was the ultimate rejection of commercialism. But this didn’t matter if you saw his slurring in the same way you saw Dylan’s reedy, nasal twang. If you were looking for beautiful singing, you might as well listen to Gordon Lightfoot. What you got in Dylan was drama, after all.

Mark E. Smith was dramatic in his own way. The snarling, slurring, syncopated delivery—akin to Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme—was as much poetry as it was singing. It didn’t matter that much if some of the words got lost in the shuffle. What you gained was exposure to the ultimate outsider musician, as antithetical to the norms of polite society as Charles Bukowski. Like this:

A cottage industry grew up to decipher the lyrics of Mark E. Smith’s songs. The words above to “I am Damo Suzuki” were decoded on the The Annotated Fall website, whose unnamed owner offers these rather democratic recommendations:

This site is dedicated to annotating the lyrics of the Fall (the vast majority of which are written by Mark E. Smith) and corrections and suggestions are always very welcome. A quick word about interpretation: many of the Fall’s lyrics are resistant to a single reading, and none of the interpretations offered here are meant to be the final word or claim to be the only correct way to understand a lyric. I also encourage readers to freely use the comment section below each song to expound on the matter in any direction they choose, as well as to offer suggestions and corrections.

The annotations are a labor of love. As you can see from the footnotes to “Damo Suzuki”, this requires the same kind of research as interpreting T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”. For example the Annotated Fall explains in footnote two that Damo Suzuki, a singer with the German experimental rock group Can, became a Jehovah’s Witness. And so on. Frankly, this matters less to me than the sheer incongruity of starting a song with the words “Generous of lyric, Jehovah’s Witness”. When you’ve listened to Fleetwood Mac or Beatles songs for a decade or so, such a lyric is elevating—not that you can really make out the words. You only go to a website dedicated to deciphering Mark E. Smiths if you, like me, are dedicated to Mark E. Smith.

I never paid much attention to Smith’s biographical data but just might track down something that will flesh out the details in this must-read profile that appeared in the Independent in 2011:

The Fall were an unusual group from the start, in that they seemed to arrive fully formed: an aberrant powerhouse that, over the years, would prove to be, in John Peel’s words, “Always different, always the same.”

Peel once told me, talking about Smith, who was probably the DJ’s most consistently cherished protégé, how he found it odd to admire somebody’s work, “when you suspect you’d find some of their attitudes utterly unappealing”.

“It’s true,” says Smith, “that we didn’t meet often.”

“But you were a good left-wing boy when you started out, weren’t you?”

“Yes. SWP. Hard left.” He fell out with his local Labour group after they opposed military intervention in the Falklands.

“I’m much more left now, though. I think Stalin had the right idea. Take one out of five fucking newspaper editors, and MPs, and shoot them. Then they’d buck up.”

Smith bursts out laughing.

“Listen, you know I’m not really like that. Members of my family are social workers. They work hard. And now, after 13 years, they’re being sent for an interview to re-apply for their job, competing with some graduate from Wilmslow. A friend told me he met Cameron, who said he was at Live Aid. We have fucking Glastoheads running the country. People like Geldof, who is a dickhead. They’re not even as intelligent as him.”

How can you not love Mark E. Smith?

November 14, 2017

Reflections on James O’Connor (1930-2017)

Filed under: Ecology,obituary — louisproyect @ 11:05 pm

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James O’Connor in 1978 (photo courtesy of the UC-Santa Cruz Digital Collections)

Yesterday I learned on Facebook that James O’Connor had died. Born in 1930, he was one of the towering figures of academic Marxism who made an indelible impact on Marxist theory in a number of spheres. His 1964 PhD dissertation titled “The Political Economy of Pre-Revolutionary Cuba” was expanded into the 1970 “The Origins of Socialism in Cuba” that is the most rigorous application of historical materialism to Cuban revolution I have ever read. In 1973, his “Fiscal Crisis of the State” was a major contribution to Marxist theory about the contradictory nature of the state, which has to maintain the appearance of being independent of the ruling class while serving its needs.

But his most important contribution was founding Capitalism, Nature and Socialism: A Journal of Socialist Ecology (CNS) in 1988, a journal he edited until 2003. After 2003, he became much less of a presence in academic Marxism, a function of age and declining health.

I didn’t know O’Connor well enough to write an obituary but hope that someone much closer to him will supply one before long since he was such a commanding presence. Instead, I want to focus on my own connections to him both personally and as someone with a peripheral involvement in the debates that have raged in the field of ecosocialism in the past 20 years or so.

A few years before coming to work at Columbia University in 1991, I had attended a workshop at the Brecht Forum in New York led by Joel Kovel on ecology that struck me like a bolt of lightning, especially his comparison of capitalist growth to metastasizing tumors. So when I posted to Internet mailing lists, a medium that seems as dated nowadays as Nehru jackets, a lot of my messages had to do with ecology as well as my customary film reviews.

It turned out that O’Connor was subscribed to Doug Henwood’s LBO-Talk in 1998, as was I. He appreciated my messages on ecology as well as those touching on popular culture, especially when I referred to the crime novels of Elmore Leonard who was also one of his favorites. This led to a fairly regular exchange of emails with O’Connor who struck me as a decent, down-to-earth academic despite his prestige.

He was like a number of Marxist professors I became friendly with 20 years ago who were impressed with my ability to hold forth on a wide variety of topics but without the scholarly depth that they expected from their graduate students. When one of them invited me to submit an expanded version of something I had written for a mailing list, it could lead to misunderstandings. I simply did not have the patience or the motivation to go through a peer review process. Unlike my wife who is a tenure-track professor, there was no material incentive to jump through hoops in order to get an article published in a Taylor and Francis journal.

In 1998, I posted criticisms of David Harvey’s newly published “Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference” that O’Connor apparently appreciated since he followed up with an invitation to expand it into a full-length article for CNS. O’Connor was hostile to the basic thrust of Harvey’s book, as was I. Writing in the name of a class-based environmentalism that took aim—rightfully—at the middle-class inside-the-beltway orientation of groups like the Sierra Club, Harvey also came up with some questionable hypotheses. Worst of them was the idea that the Nazis were Green and that American Indians were no more ecological than the colonists who stole their land.

Spending far more time than I usually do on a blog post (back then, of course, blogging had not been invented), I explored the philosophical roots of Harvey’s ecological theories in the philosophy of Leibniz. Since I had spent 2 years studying philosophy at the New School and had read Leibniz, my intention was to remove the platform that Harvey’s book sat upon and bring it tumbling to earth. My attack on Harvey’s use of Leibniz was couched in a defense of materialism as I made abundantly clear in the opening paragraph of my submission:

David Harvey’s “Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference” surely has the distinction of being the only Marxist study of ecology to draw inspiration from Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). While openly admitting that Leibniz is a “deeply conservative theoretician in political matters as well as a foundational figure in the rise of that German idealist tradition against which Marx rebelled,” Harvey assures us that Leibniz’s relational approach to time and space has powerful implications for ecology. This article explores the theoretical issues raised by Harvey’s appropriation of Leibnizian dialectics, while attempting to explain why Marx’s rebellion against this idealist tradition was a precondition for understanding the ecological crisis of today.

About a month later, O’Connor wrote a rejection letter telling me that the article would not be of interest to his journal’s readers.

That led me to blast him publicly and to promise myself that I would never submit an article to a peer-reviewed journal again. Ironically, there was only one such submission that defied my self-imposed embargo and that was also to CNS in 2013 on the political economy of Comanche violence. The editor Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro had promised me in advance that the article would be published and developed a fruitful working relationship with me in the three months it took me to finalize the article. I only wish that there were more people out there in academia like him, at least for some of the grad students and junior professors trying to get past the gates of the Kafkaesque castle of academic journals.

In nursing the wounds created by O’Connor’s rejection letter, I turned to John Bellamy Foster who I had gotten to know through my connections to Monthly Review and especially my online articles in praise of Foster’s ecosocialism. He explained to me that my hard-core materialism probably didn’t go over too well with CNS that was firmly in the Frankfurt School tradition. To a large degree, there was an implicit belief that Marx was a “productivist” who could be blamed in part for the disasters that befell the USSR, including Chernobyl.

Clearly, Foster was on to something because he was shocked to discover O’Connor publishing an entire issue devoted to bashing his “Marx’s Ecology” in 2001. Interestingly enough, the aforementioned Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro faults Foster on grounds that likely prejudiced O’Connor against my submission on David Harvey: “On a non-directional, non-linear evolutionary process of scientific practices he uncritically superimposes the inexorable advance of science, whose pinnacle is the achievement of dialectical materialism embodied in Marx. This approach to the history of science approximates all too painfully the conventional narratives featuring a line of great (white male) thinkers contributing to scientific progress.”

Of course, using the term “dialectical materialism” hardly does Foster justice since that is not in his vocabulary let alone his methodology and even prejudices the reader since it is so closely associated with Stalinism.

I summed up the feud between O’Connor and Foster in an article that took the attack to all the contributors to the symposium on “Marx’s Ecology”, especially Joel Kovel whose emphasis on the need for a “spiritual” approach betrayed his Frankfurt School sympathies. From my article:

The final article in the symposium is by Joel Kovel and is titled “A Materialism Worthy of Nature.” Basically it is a defense of spirituality in the following vein:

“Foster’s errors are grounded in a misconception about the meaning of ‘spirit.’ We can infer (because, as with the Greens, there is no actual critique of the spiritual) that for him, to be ‘spiritual’ is synonymous with what is anti-scientific, irrational and superstitious, and is merely a kind of rough congener for the pole of ‘idealism’ in the classic materialism-idealism debate. He fails here to comprehend the distinction between spirit and religion, that spirit is an elementary property of being human, and that religions are the binding of spirit for the purposes of social cohesion. Therefore he also fails to appreciate that there is much more to spirituality than its religious elaboration, and much more to religions than their spiritual impulse.”

To the contrary, Foster’s book is not an attack on spirituality but on developing an analysis of the ecological crisis on other than a scientific and materialist basis. This is in keeping with the record of Marx and Engels, who both paid close attention to scientific matters throughout their life. While the rigorous attempt to develop a dialectics of nature based on the latest scientific findings was identified most often with Engels, Marx supported and consulted on each of these initiatives. Marx considered the soil chemist Van Leibeg to be more important to understanding European society than a dozen economists–in his own words. Marx’s Scientific Notebooks have been published recently and lend support to the notion that Marx was a consummate believer in rigorous scientific methods, both in understanding the natural and social world.

As it happens, I broke all ties to Foster in 2006 or so after he hired Yoshie Furuhashi to run MRZine. I was not the only one, of course, Editorial board member Barbara Epstein, who was at U. Cal, Santa Cruz at the same time as O’Connor, quit the board because of Furuhashi’s pro-Ahmadinejad’s propaganda. Notwithstanding my disgust with Foster’s obvious Assadist sympathies, I have never found fault with the analysis found in “Marx’s Ecology”. Since Furuhashi has gone, the new MR website is far less associated with the “axis of resistance” politics of the left even though it obviously considers the Syrian revolt to be a Western conspiracy. Maybe in another 5 years or so, the comrades will have figured out that Assad was about as “anti-imperialist” as General al-Sisi.

For that matter, long after James O’Connor faded from the scene, his analysis of the environmental crisis has a remarkable staying power. CNS might have been overly influenced by the Frankfurt School with its submerged Heideggerian motifs, but O’Connor’s methodology was as true to the Marxist method as Foster’s. It is probably beyond the capability of any single Marxist thinker today to have the final say on ecosocialism since the scope of the project is not just global but galactic.

However, given the increasing devastation wrought by climate change, O’Connor’s basic approach is perhaps more timely than ever as I see in my references to his “second contradiction” of capitalism theory over the years. O’Connor defined the “second contradiction” as follows:

Examples of capitalist accumulation impairing or destroying capital’s own conditions, hence threatening its own profits and capacity to produce and accumulate more capital, are many and varied. The warming of the atmosphere will inevitably destroy people, places, and profits, not to speak of other species life. Acid rain destroys forests and lakes and buildings and profits alike. Salinization of water tables, toxic wastes, and soil erosion impair nature and profitability. The pesticide treadmill destroys profits as well as nature. Urban capital running on an ((urban renewal treadmill” impairs its own conditions, hence profits, for example, in the form of congestion costs and high rents.’ The decrepit state of the physical infrastructure in the United States may also be mentioned in this connection.

The theory has become ever more relevant as the capitalist mode of production in its mad rush for profits undermines the environmental basis for its long-term sustainability. Houston is a prime example of the second contradition with its real estate developments destroying the prairies that might have prevented the city from being swamped by Hurricane Harvey. Here are two other examples of the “second contradiction” at work:

https://louisproyect.org/2012/10/31/hurricane-sandy-and-the-second-contradiction-of-capitalism/

https://louisproyect.org/2016/01/16/flint-michigan-and-the-second-contradiction-of-capitalism/

James O’Connor, ¡Presente!

 

September 30, 2017

Gary Cohen: the death of an SWP diehard

Filed under: cults,obituary — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

After I transferred to the Boston branch in 1970 to shore up the SWP majority faction, I moved into a two-bedroom apartment on Howard St. in Cambridge, about a fifteen-minute walk from Harvard Square. My first roommate was a closeted gay member who transferred out of Boston to the Portland branch. From time to time, I Google his name to see what has become of him. Like most people I knew from the Trotskyist movement in the early 70s, he seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth.

After he left town, the spare bedroom was taken over by a comrade named Gary Cohen who has just died. Like my mom who used to read the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle long after she had moved to upstate NY with my dad, I read the Militant newspaper mostly to see who has passed on (as well as to see the latest bizarro article).

Like most of the memorial articles that appear in the Militant, instead of getting a sense of the person, you only get the cookie-cutter version of how they functioned as a “Bolshevik”. Unlike most SWP’ers, Gary never “made the turn toward industry”. I myself tried one morning to make the turn as a spot welder (the longest 3 hours of my life) and decided to quit the job after the lunch whistle blew.

The article passed judgment on Gary:

“Gary was a lifer, who joined the party as a young man and remained committed to the SWP and the fight for a better world,” said [Paul] Mailhot. “He didn’t participate in the party’s turn to industry in the late 1970s through the 1990s, when all members of the party were getting jobs in union mines, mills, factories and railroads. He wasn’t in the center of the party’s work then. Later, in 2001, he dropped out of the party and became a supporter.”

Talk about damning with faint praise.

In fact, Gary was a dentist when he moved in with me. The article does give him credit for how he spent his years before joining the sect: “Cohen became involved in protests and sit-ins against racist segregation in the 1950s. He joined the Air Force and was stationed in Japan in the early 1960s, where his experiences deepened his opposition to imperialist militarism and war.”

Joining the Trotskyist movement in 1960 and dropping out in 2001,  his tenure in the SWP was a long slog: forty-one years. A real diehard. And after dropping out, Gary became a “sympathizer” for another 16 years, a status roughly equivalent to being in Dante’s limbo. Someone like myself would be seen as dwelling in Hades, if not in the Ninth Circle. (The truth is that I rule the realm of ex-SWP’ers like Lucifer.)

A week or so ago, an ex-member told me that the sect is down to 88 voting members that rely on the support of about 250 sympathizers who are called upon to scan books for the Pathfinder project, contribute money, and take on “Jimmy Higgins” tasks. I would guess that the average age of these people is about 65. As their numbers dwindle, the SWP will someday give up the ghost just like Daniel De Leon’s SLP. What keeps it going for the time being is the slavish devotion of the voting members to cult leader Jack Barnes who has not written a single article for the party press in at least a decade.

When I got up to Boston, Gary and Linda Sheppard (now known as Linda Thompson) were the two most committed supporters of the SWP majority that was trying to purge the branch of Larry Trainor’s tendency that was uneasy with the orientation to the student and antiwar movement. Trainor, like Farrell Dobbs, was always expecting the 1970s to turn into the 1930s. As such, it was necessary for SWP members to be “implanted” in mines, mills, factories, and railroads as Mailhot indicated.

By 1978, the year the turn began, Cohen must have been close to fifty and in the third decade of both a dentistry career and SWP membership. He used to work on the teeth of SWP members for free, including me, in an office near Cambridge’s Central Square. I don’t think he liked dentistry very much but it certainly made for a fairly lucrative career that was reflected in the tens of thousands of dollars he contributed as a member and then as a sympathizer.

Gary probably understood better than the people who were pressuring him to “go into industry” that he could not make the turn. In a normal left party, this would have not been expected from someone who had been a member for over 25 years but this was a cult that was always testing members’ True Faith.

The obit does not give you much sense of Gary’s personality except that he had “a wicked sense of humor”. Well, not exactly. Gary was a compulsive punner (in the clinical psychology sense) who would inevitably take something you said in conversation and turn it into a pun. Afterwards, he’d laugh at his joke—a bit hysterically.

Probably the only thing that anchored this fragile personality was his party duties that the article does not mention. Gary was the Militant Labor Forum director in Boston for many years and very good at it. These were weekly public meetings at headquarters where a party representative would speak alongside someone from the mass movement. In the early 70s, the most common topics for these meetings were the antiwar movement, the woman’s movement that was just taking off, Black nationalism, etc.

Gary also had a weekly radio program on some university radio station that followed the same format. He was known to the listening public as Gary Kane and very good at what he did.

Gary and Linda Sheppard were the scourges of Larry Trainor’s followers. Gary took every opportunity at branch meetings to denounce “workerism”. The irony is that within 5 years, the SWP had adopted Trainor’s perspective—or more accurately, taken that perspective to the extreme. I am quite sure that if Larry had lived to see the party he built dwindle down to less than 90 members because of driving people like Gary Cohen out of the movement, he would curse Jack Barnes the same way he did in the early 70s.

As the SWP grew weirder and weirder, it must have had an effect on Gary psychologically. I heard through the grapevine that he had a nervous breakdown in the 1980s but responded well to electroconvulsive therapy (ie., shock treatments), so much so that he ditched the dentistry career and became an ECT technician.

Looking back at the days I spent in the SWP, I can see how most of us—including me—were psychological misfits. What saved me from becoming a 57-year combined member and sympathizer of the SWP was my highly developed passive-aggressive tendencies. The first inkling I got that someone like Jack Barnes was trying to screw me, that’s when I bared my fangs.

The crowning irony is that the memorial meeting for Gary was held in Boston, where the SWP folded shop two years ago. You can read my obit for the Boston branch here.

July 20, 2017

Clancy Sigal (1926-2017)

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,literature,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:28 pm

I just learned on Facebook from Clancy Sigal’s wife Janice that he has died. Born in 1926, he was an important voice of the left and well known to CounterPunch readers for his many contributions over the years.

Although I never met Clancy in person and regret not having done so, I considered him a real friend like others I have met and communicated with through email and Facebook. It was Clancy who initiated contact with me 14 years ago over a cringe-worthy matter. I had written a hatchet job on a film titled “Frida” about the artist Frida Kahlo that must have gotten under the screenwriter’s skin:

When I write film reviews, I try to apply the dictum of my late father who used to say, “If you can’t say something good about a person, say nothing at all.” I made an exception last week for “The Quiet American”, which I regarded as a disappointment both in terms as an adaptation of Greene’s novel and the novel itself.

Now I turn to an all-out disaster, although like “The Quiet American” it received rather favorable reviews when it came out. “Frida” is a really stupid biopic based on the life of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist and feminist icon who was married to Diego Rivera, the famed muralist. Since it touches on modern art and includes Leon Trotsky as a character, two subjects close to my heart, it is necessary for me to address the profound injustice done to them and to the rather interesting personality of Kahlo herself, who is reduced in this film to a cursing, drinking and brawling eccentric whose motivations seem driven more by her sexual/reproductive organs than her brain.

The screenwriter was Clancy Sigal.

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July 17, 2017

George Romero (1940-2017): zombie politics

Filed under: Film,obituary — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

When “Night of the Living Dead” premiered in 1968, antiwar activists and socialists like me saw it mostly as escapist fun—a film like “The Wild Bunch” that would get our minds off the war and the difficulties of building the left in the USA. It was to the credit of documentary filmmaker Rob Kuhns to have discovered how close George Romero was to us politically. His “Birth of the Living Dead”, which can be seen on Amazon video, connects his film to the political climate in the USA in a break with the zombie genre.

Before Romero’s film, the zombie was featured in movies set in Haiti or some other Caribbean Island far removed from reality. It was Romero’s breakthrough to make the film unrelentingly realistic, including scenes of zombies eating entrails or lurching toward their prey in that characteristic gait. Also, unlike the traditional zombie movie set in Haiti, Romero made a movie about a society in advanced disintegration fully aware that it reflected what was happening in the streets of Newark or Detroit.

Romero got his start making commercials in the Pittsburgh area. Even then he was willing to push the envelope, making the first beer commercial actually showing people guzzling down a drink. After he worked on a film that showed Mr. Rogers, the benign host of a PBS children’s show, getting ready for a tonsillectomy, he was inspired to do a zombie movie since Mr. Rogers’s procedure struck him as gruesome rather than reassuring. Before going down that road, Romero considered doing an American version of Ingmar Bergman’s “Virgin Spring”. Fortunately, he saw that as unmarketable and moved onto a more feasible project that would make his mark as a director.

Romero is the star of Kuhn’s film, a likeably self-effacing and witty figure. He talks about how the film was cast, drawing from local personalities including many of the clients of his advertising agency who worked for free and had a blast doing so.

Besides Romero, we hear from a number of knowledgeable film critics and scholars including Elvis Mitchell, an African-American who explains the importance of casting an African-American actor—Duane Jones—in the lead role. Jones is an authority figure just as much as Rick Grimes, the sheriff in “Walking Dead”, but nobody ever says a word about not taking orders from a “Negro”. In its way, “Night of the Living Dead” was as much of a breakthrough for Black identity in films as the more obvious bids from directors working in the Blaxploitation genre. In the final scene Jones’s character is killed by a police-led posse that is as not that much different from vigilante squad just as the case today with an epidemic of cop killings.

After making a series of likable but inconsequential films for the next 37 years, Romero returned once again to the zombie genre with a film that I regard as his best and most political. As a blend of horror movie escapism and social commentary, his 2005 “Land of the Dead” succeeded wildly. (Available for $2.99 on Youtube linked above.) Romero audaciously used the conflict between the living and the ‘undead’ as a metaphor for the contradictions of late capitalist America but with sympathies for the zombie rather than those who were “protecting” private property.

The living dwell in a gated and heavily fortified city that is patrolled by centurions who have not earned the right to permanent residence there themselves. The centurions occasionally organize themselves into death squads and make forays into zombie territory where they kill at random and retrieve canned goods and booze for the consumption needs of the urban population. The shops in zombie territory are still staffed by the “stenches” who once worked there but who have only dim memories of their old occupations. An undead gas station attendant might hold up a nozzle but is clueless as to which end of the car it goes into; an undead gardener aimlessly pushes a lawnmower in circles in the middle of the street at midnight, and so on. These are lost souls who no longer fit into the commodity-producing scheme of things. What is worse, they subsist on eating the flesh of the living.

It is no accident that the city featured in the film is none other than Pittsburgh, director George Romero’s home town. This once bustling headquarters of America’s most powerful and prosperous steel companies was one of the first casualties of deindustrialization. It has been transformed into a citadel for service industries staffed by the college educated. The older, run-down working class sections of town that are home to unemployable steelworkers and other blue-collar workers made redundant by the “economic miracle” could easily have served as on-location settings for the zombie strongholds in “Land of the Dead.” (For economic reasons, however, most of the film was shot in Canada.)

Pittsburgh is ruled by Kaufman, a cynical capitalist played by Dennis Hopper. From a high-rise named “Fiddler’s Green” that dominates the city, he spies on the activities of the city’s population through television monitors. If anybody steps out of line, they will be picked up by the centurions, murdered and then dumped into zombie territory. This Pittsburgh has a lot in common with Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” another rigidly divided class society.

For that matter, “Land of the Dead” has enough cultural references to provide fodder for a dozen MLA panels. For example, you will find suggestions of “Bladerunner,” “Mad Max” or any of a number of other dystopian films.

The film also hearkens back to earlier classics like the Boris Karloff Frankenstein films, mostly in its capacity to make you feel a degree of sympathy for the monster. In “Land of the Dead,” you can’t escape feeling sorry for the flesh-eating zombies who only mount an assault on Pittsburgh after suffering one death squad raid too many. Led by “Big Daddy,” an African-American zombie (played skillfully and solely through grunting or howling by veteran actor Eugene Clarke) who was a pneumatic drill operator in his previous life and who still wears the coveralls of his trade, they lurch toward the city to take revenge. It is to Romero’s credit that he can nearly make you cheer for this uprising of the flesh-eating dispossessed.

The only thing that stands between Pittsburgh and the advancing zombie army is a heavily armed and armored troop carrier nicknamed Dead Reckoning. It bears a strong resemblance to vehicles on the streets of Baghdad today. Dead Reckoning has been commandeered by Cholo (John Leguizamo), a centurion who seeks revenge against Kaufman for not allowing him to buy an apartment in Pittsburgh. As somebody who has spent some time shopping for a co-op in Manhattan, I can identify with this character. Unless Kaufman turns over millions of dollars in ransom to Cholo and his gang, he will open fire on the city.

Kaufman sends Riley (Simon Baker), Dead Reckoning’s former commander, out to thwart Cholo’s plans and to save the city, which is the source of his wealth. Riley has been jailed for interfering in a gladiator type combat between two zombies that has been staged in a Las Vegas-like casino within the city. He, like the GI’s speaking out against the occupation of Iraq today, is one of the few centurions that has not been completely dehumanized by Kaufman’s system. If Riley and his friends are successful, they plan to hightail it to Canada and leave Kaufman’s madness behind. Obviously, such a plan will resonate with any filmgoer who has taken note of our northern neighbor’s more civilized stance on matters such as gay marriage or the war on terror.

In an interview with Los Angeles Weekly, Romero explains the importance of Pittsburgh:

When I got there — I went there to go to college and I’ve lived there ever since– the mills were all still open. Of course, you had to have your headlights on at noon and change your shirt three times a day. Nowadays, there are still people living in little towns like Braddock saying, “The mills will reopen someday. Don’t worry about it.” It is about lost potential. It was a thriving immigrant community. It was sort of the industrial American dream, but what nobody realized at the time was that it was the Carnegies and those boys who were keeping the city going. It seemed for a while like Pittsburgh was built on the backs of the workers, but it never really was. Those people have always been second-class citizens and the town has always been, at its core, very wealthy. So there’s a little bit of that in this movie too ­ it just so happens that it’s now a reflection of the entire country.

For George Romero, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” was “a soap opera with a zombie occasionally”. It is hard for me to argue with that especially since I have a soft spot for nighttime soaps like “The Desperate Housewives” or Spanish television’s “Grand Hotel”. As much as I love George Romero, I think that the show is popular because it is both entertaining and because it is socially relevant, just like “Land of the Dead”.

Since its inception, the show has honed in on repeated and futile attempts to escape both zombies and predatory human beings. In season four the main characters led by ex-cop Rick Grimes try to live at peace inside an abandoned prison that is protected by chain link fences from zombie attacks. You of course have to wonder how much difference there is between a prison and their gated community. The miniature commune grows its own food and lives by its own fairly civilized standards until they succumb to a combined attack by zombies and human predators, led by “The Governor” who has presided over his own safe haven that in reality is a concentration camp ruled by force.

In season five we see Rick’s band on the move again, this time hoping to become part of Terminus, supposedly another refuge from the zombies. Once they enter through its walls, they discover that the inhabitants are cannibals.

The existential bleakness of “Walking Dead” is clearly a reflection of the mood of despair that is widespread in a society constantly bombarded by news of nonstop war, jihadist terror, looming climate catastrophe, species extinction including our own, and a general sense that there is no alternative to the Dark Age that we live in. The inability of Rick’s band to find any sort of solidarity or mutual aid is ultimately more frightening than any zombie’s teeth.

Lately life has begun to imitate art as protestors at the G20 Summit in Hamburg took on the appearance of zombies. One of the event organizers, Catalina Lopez, told Reuters TV: “The goal of our performance today is to move the people in their hearts, to give them the motivation to get politically engaged again. We want to create an image, because we believe in the power of images…we want to motivate people to take part. To free themselves from their crusted shells, to take part in the political process.”

While I have to give them credit for inspired political theater, becoming free from “crusted shells” will finally take place not because of their performance but when capitalist society reaches such a unlivable state that people will be forced out of their routine into the streets by the millions as occurred 50 years ago when I entered radical politics.

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