Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.

June 13, 2017

Theodor Bergmann, ¡Presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 12:23 pm

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Theodor Bergmann 1916-2017

I received word this morning that Theodor Bergmann has died, just a month before his 101st birthday.

I am sad to inform you that Theo has passed away.

Hinrich

13. Juni 2017
Mario Kessler / Redaktion Sozialismus
Die Stärksten kämpfen ein Leben lang: Theodor Bergmann (7.3.1916 – 12.6.2017)

http://www.sozialismus.de/nc/vorherige_hefte_archiv/kommentare_analysen/detail/artikel/die-staerksten-kaempfen-ein-leben-lang-theodor-bergmann-731916-1262017/

http://www.sozialismus.de/kommentare_analysen/

http://www.vsa-verlag.de/

http://www.vsa-verlag.de/nc/autorinnen/?tx_wtdirectory_pi1%5Bshow%5D=647&tx_rggooglemap_pi1%5Bpoi%5D=647

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Bergmann_(Agrarwissenschaftler)

I met Bergmann in New York, when he was in town to speak at the Brecht Forum (see below). He was the long-time editor of Sozialismus, a German magazine that published a couple of my articles in the early 90s. I have vivid memories of his recounting the divisions in the German left and his support for the right opposition in the CP. Back then, this meant being aligned with Bukharin, a Marxist whose ideas Bergmann defended in many venues, including a book titled Bukharin in Retrospect (Socialism and Social Movements) that was co-edited by Moshe Lewin, another heterodox Marxist I respect highly. The collection was the product of an international conference held in the autumn of 1988, around the time Nikolai Bukharin was officially rehabilitated during glasnost.

Theodor Bergmann speaks on Rosa Luxemburg

Last night I heard a lecture at the Brecht Forum in NYC on “Rosa Luxemburg and the Russian Revolution” by Theodor Bergmann, the co-editor of the journal Sozialismus. He was a member, along with Brandler and Thalheimer, of the German Communist Party Opposition during the Weimar Republic.. He has written a history of this organization and also has written a number of books on agrarian questions. His introduction to farming matters came about in a most unusual manner. He went into exile in Sweden after the rise of Hitler and became a farm laborer. Hence his interest in agrarian questions! The lecture was an analysis of an unfinished article by Rosa Luxemburg on the Russian revolution. Bergmann argued that many of Luxemburg’s criticisms of Bolshevik rule anticipated the subsequent rise of Stalinism and the recent collapse of the Soviet Union. What he was also anxious to make clear was that Luxemburg’s criticisms were offered in the context of support for the revolution and in solidarity with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union itself. Bergmann cites Leo Jogiches, a German Communist leader and close ally to Luxemburg, as having even more sympathy for the Bolshevik project than was indicated by this late article. If she had lived, there is little doubt that she would continued to deepen her understanding of the Soviet experiment and play a critical role in the fight against Stalin. Bergmann stated that Luxemburg resisted Kremlin control when the Communist Party of Germany was formed.

Now this was in the period that Trotsky was barking orders to the infant French Communist Party from his desk in the Comintern. It would have been interesting to see what Luxemburg would have told the Comintern brass around the time Zinoviev put through his “Bolshevization” measures at the 5th Congress.

This was the question I in fact put to him. I asked if there had ever been a critique of the “organization” question within the ranks of the German Communist Party Opposition. Since the Opposition was strongly influenced by Luxemburg’s ideas, wasn’t there resistance to the super-centralist model put forward by Zinoviev? He replied that indeed there was and that Thalheimer had written a lengthy criticism of the “Boshevization” turn. This is just the item I was looking for to complete my research on how Lenin’s free-wheeling Bolshevik party became turned into the grotesque “Marxist-Leninist” model adopted by Stalinist, Maoist and Trotskyist alike.

Louis Proyect

March 21, 2017

Robert Silvers, a Founding Editor of New York Review of Books, Dies at 87

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 3:31 pm

Robert Silvers

From the NY Times obituary:

Robert B. Silvers, a founder of The New York Review of Books, which under his editorship became one of the premier intellectual journals in the United States, a showcase for extended, thoughtful essays on literature and politics by eminent writers, died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.

Rea S. Hederman, the publisher of The Review, confirmed the death.

The New York Review, founded in 1963, was born with a mission — to raise the standards of book reviewing and literary discussion in the United States and nurture a hybrid form of politico-cultural essay. Mr. Silvers brought to its pages a self-effacing, almost priestly sense of devotion that ultimately made him indistinguishable from the publication he edited, and it from him.

He shared editorial duties with Barbara Epstein until her death in 2006, but it was Mr. Silvers who came to embody The Review’s mystique, despite, or perhaps because of, his insistence on remaining a behind-the-scenes presence, loath to grant interviews or make public appearances.

“I put my name on the paper, and the rest I don’t care to be known,” he told Philip Nobile, the author of “Intellectual Skywriting: Literary Politics and The New York Review of Books” (1974). In a 2008 interview for the online program Thoughtcast, Mr. Silvers said: “The editor is a middleman. The one thing he should avoid is taking credit. It’s the writer that counts.”

Continue reading


My take on the NY Review of Books from May 21, 2004:

In the winter of 1962-63, during a strike of the NY Times, Robert Silvers and a few close friends decided to launch the New York Review of Books, which is considered the premier intellectual print journal outside of academia.

When I first joined the SWP in 1967, I was a regular reader of the New York Review. Once when I was sitting at party headquarters thumbing through its pages, an old-timer named Harry Ring raised an eyebrow and said, “Oh, you’re reading the social democratic press.” Of course, I practically took the magazine out and burned it after hearing that. As I began shamefacedly apologizing for reading it, Harry reassured me that if he had the time, he’d read it too since it is important to keep track of the social democracy. These words were hardly reassuring. Did I have so much time on my hands because I was one of those half-digested petty-bourgeois elements that James P. Cannon railed against during the Shachtman-Burnham fight?

This is not to say that the New York Review of 1967 was something like the rancid Dissent Magazine of today. It regularly featured Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and even ran a famous article by Andrew Kopkind backing Chairman Mao’s dictum that “morality, like politics, flows from the barrel of a gun.” This was accompanied by do-it-yourself diagram of a Molotov cocktail on its cover.

Like nearly everything else that was going on in the 1980s and 90s, the NY Review of Books began a steady shift to the right. To a large extent, this was a function of the growing commercial success of the magazine. It also reflected a general malaise of New Yorkers that something was deeply wrong with their beloved city, which was under siege from homeless beggars, crack-inspired violence and other threats to a perfect urban tableau lifted from the latest Woody Allen movie.

So instead of printing articles on the need for armed struggle, they ran countless articles by Felix Rohatyn, the investment banker/philosopher who was the George Soros of his day. Anxiously warning his upscale readers about the crisis of the system, his recommendations included the need for a more enlightened management in politics and a willingness on the part of the masses to accept austerity. During this period, Rohatyn was a frequent guest at a salon run by Robert Silvers and his literary and academic pals.

Around this time, novelist William Styron said, “I don’t regard it any longer as a journal with a specific point of view.” John Leonard, editor of The New York Times Book Review during the early 1970s and a respectable liberal, said, “I don’t think anyone would describe it as left-wing politically.” Citing The New York Review’s preference for such contributors as Felix Rohatyn on economic issues and Stanley Hoffman on foreign policy topics, Leonard commented, “It’s a lot closer to Commentary than it is to The Nation.” (The Washington Post, October 27, 1988)

The magazine became just the place for intellectuals to write an open letter about the treatment of some writer in a Communist dungeon, but not the sort of place to read a truly trenchant analysis of what was wrong with American capitalism. It was also a kind of command center for the wars in the Balkans with Tim Judah writing a flood of articles defending plucky Bosnian Muslims against murdering Serb hordes.

Considering this background, I was somewhat startled (but not too much so) to discover the magazine championed in the latest Nation by a chap named Scott Sherman. Titled “The Rebirth of the NYRB“, it advises the reader that the magazine is once again “a powerful and combative actor on the political scene.” Why? It seems that it published the resignation letter of Brady Kiesling, a career US diplomat, which stated among other things that: “Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America’s most potent weapon of both offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson…. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security.”

I don’t know how to quite break it to comrade Sherman, but at this stage of the game just about everybody in the USA except Bush, Rush Limbaugh and Donald Rumsfeld are beginning to feel exactly the same way. This morning, the 80 year old publisher of “USA Today”, a bland periodical that defends US interests nearly blindly, called for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. As Willy Loman said just before his suicide, “The woods are burning.”

Sherman is cheered by Bard professor Ian Buruma’s scathing review of Paul Berman’s “Terror and Liberalism,” a liberal call for war on Wahhabism. Perhaps Sherman did not grasp that Buruma might have seen Berman as competition in a field that he was carving out for himself. Buruma’s own “The Origins of Occidentalism” makes practically the same arguments as Berman’s, although ostensibly with less pomposity. I suppose anything is an improvement over the wretched Paul Berman, but hardly worth crowing about in the Nation Magazine.

In trying to explain the New York Review’s alleged shift to the left, Sherman calls upon Mark Danner, another Bard College public intellectual and frequent contributor to the magazine after graduating from Harvard in the early 1980s. According to Sherman, Danner “has recently produced some searching essays in the Review about Iraq”.

Just like “plastic” was a key word in “The Graduate”, Danner has a one word explanation for the New York Review’s return to the barricades: “Vietnam.” Danner is quoted as saying that, “If you look back over the Review’s history, you’ll find that periods of crisis bring out the best editorial instincts of the leadership of The New York Review. It certainly happened with Vietnam and Iran/contra. It gets the juices flowing.”

Characteristically, what Sherman fails to see is that despite all the “searching” in Danner’s articles, he remains a supporter of the war as should be clear from a recent New York Review article:

“President Bush’s audacious project in Iraq was always going to be difficult, perhaps impossible, but without political steadfastness and resilience, it had no chance to succeed. This autumn in Baghdad, a ruthless insurgency, growing but still in its infancy, has managed to make the President retreat from his project, and has worked, with growing success, to divide Iraqis from the Americans who claim to govern them. These insurgents cannot win, but by seizing on Washington’s mistakes and working relentlessly to widen the fault lines in occupied Iraq, they threaten to prevent what President Bush sent the US military to achieve: a stable, democratic, and peaceful Iraq, at the heart of a stable and democratic Middle East.”

I supposed beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this just strikes me as apologetics for the same old shit.


My take on the NY Review of Books coverage of Syria:

Arguably, the New York Review of Books and its counterpart the London Review of Books have served as latter day equivalents of Action Française, serving propaganda for a vicious dictatorship that has little connection to its self-flattering image as a beacon of human rights.

Even when the title of an NY Review article foreshadows a condemnation of the Ba‘athists, the content remains consistent with the “plague on both your houses” narrative that pervades this intellectual milieu. In a December 5th 2013 article titled “Syria: On the Way to Genocide?”, Charles Glass ends up echoing the talking points of more openly Ba‘athist elements:

The introduction of chemical weapons, which have been alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well, was only the most dramatic escalation by combatants who seek nothing short of the annihilation of the other side.

As is so often the case, the use of the passive voice allows the writer to condemn the rebels without any evidence. “Alleged to have been” leads to the obvious question as to who is responsible for the allegation. Was it Vladimir Putin? Assad’s propaganda nun Mother Agnes Mariam? Inquiring minds would like to know.

On August 20th 2012 Glass penned another article for the Review titled “Aleppo: How Syria Is Being Destroyed” that portrayed the rebels as a wanton mob invading the civilized city. He wrote:

While the urban unemployed had good reason to support a revolution that might improve their chances in life, the thousands who had jobs at the beginning of the revolution and lost them when the Free Army burned their workplaces are understandably resentful. There are stories of workers taking up arms to protect their factories and risking their lives to save their employers from kidnappers.

Since Charles Glass is a Middle East analyst for NBC News, it is not surprising that he can allude to ‘stories’ of workers taking up arms against the rebels to protect the bosses. NBC is a subsidiary of General Electric, and naturally its analyst will find arguments for preserving Ba‘athist rule. You can do business with al-Assad, but the plebian rebels might be as difficult to deal with as the Libyan militias.

Glass was in the graduate program of the American University in Beirut, but did not complete his PhD. His best-known work is “Tribes With Flags: A Dangerous Passage Through the Chaos of the Middle East”, a title redolent of Orientalism. In a March 22nd 2011 NY Times column, Thomas Friedman adopted Glass’s thesis to explain why the natives might not be ready for self-rule:

[T]here are two kinds of states in the Middle East: “real countries” with long histories in their territory and strong national identities (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Iran); and those that might be called “tribes with flags,” or more artificial states with boundaries drawn in sharp straight lines by pens of colonial powers that have trapped inside their borders myriad tribes and sects who not only never volunteered to live together but have never fully melded into a unified family of citizens.

Libya and Syria were unfortunate enough to be the kinds of ‘artificial states’ that were unsuited for democracy.

While Glass could never be considered a world-class intellectual, NY Review regular David Bromwich occupies a rather lofty perch at Yale University, where he is Sterling Professor of English. A Sterling Professorship is the highest academic rank at Yale, awarded to the elite’s elite. It has nothing to do with silver but is named after John William Sterling who graduated in 1864 and founded the white shoe New York law firm Shearman & Sterling. He bequeathed a ten-million-dollar endowment to feather the nest of superstar academics like Bromwich, who combines an academic career with less than stellar analyses of current events.

Bromwich wrote an article for the NY Review on June 20th 2013 titled “Stay out of Syria!” It was a collection of pro-Ba‘athist talking points.

While directed against NY Times editor Bill Keller’s urging that the US conduct an Iraq-style invasion, a position that was likely to offend the sensibilities of the NY Review’s readers and even more likely to never happen, Bromwich slid easily into slander against those who were forced to take up arms against a vicious dictatorship.

Our Sterling Professor takes the word of ‘qualified investigator’ Carla Del Ponte, a UN commissioner who denied the Ba‘athists had deployed sarin: ‘This was used on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.’ This is the very same Del Ponte investigated for prosecutorial misconduct for her role in the aftermath of the Yugoslavia wars as the Guardian reported on August 18th 2010:

“Some of the witnesses had referred to pressure and intimidation to which they were subjected by investigators for the prosecution,” said a statement from the judge in the Seselj case. “The prosecution allegedly obtained statements illegally, by threatening, intimidating and/or buying [witnesses] off.”

One Serbian witness said he was offered a well-paid job in the US in return for testimony favourable to the prosecution.

Bromwich makes sure to mention the crazed rebel who took a bite out of a dead Syrian soldier’s heart. Among those whose goal it is to make al-Assad seem reasonable by comparison, this singular act of a shell-shocked fighter has taken on iconic proportions. We must conclude that in our Yale professor’s moral calculus, the act of firing rockets originally intended to pulverize battleships or hydroelectric dams into tenement buildings is a normal way of conducting warfare, analogous perhaps to prizefighting.

The NYRB occupies a unique space in American belles lettres. Through its pages academics can address a broad audience about important matters on a weekly basis. It was launched by Robert Silvers and a few close friends during a strike at the New York Times in the winter of 1962-63. Previously Silvers held editorial posts at the Paris Review and Harper’s. As the Vietnam War and student radicalization penetrated American consciousness, the magazine regularly featured Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and even ran an article by Andrew Kopkind backing Chairman Mao’s dictum that ‘morality, like politics, flows from the barrel of a gun.’ This was accompanied by a do-it-yourself diagram of a Molotov cocktail.

As Silvers and his staff grew older and wealthier, and as the 1960s radicalization faded, the magazine, with American liberalism, shifted toward the center – no longer a sounding board for the McGovern wing of the Democratic Party but just another voice recognizing the inevitability of Clinton-style neoliberalism.

If Silvers ever feels the need to defend himself against charges that the magazine is giving backhanded support to al-Assad, he points to the occasional article decrying rights violations in Syria, such as Annie Sparrow’s February 20th 2014 piece on the polio epidemic she describes as a ‘a consequence of the way that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has chosen to fight the war—a war crime of truly epidemic proportions.’ While nobody would gainsay the need for such articles, they are undermined by mendacious reporting of Glass and Bromwich which almost makes the case for the crimes of ‘truly epidemic proportions’.

The editors are reflecting the foreign policy imperatives of the Obama administration, which decided long ago that the preservation of Ba‘athist rule served American interests. Elite opinion is very sensitive to America’s role as hegemon, the first line of defense for liberal civilization. Just as it once decided that this meant holding the line against Communism, it now sees Islamic extremism as the first enemy.

For all the hysteria over looming American intervention in Syria, if it does come it’s more likely to strike jihadist elements of the rebel forces than the dictatorship. On March 13th 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported:

The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, according to current and former U.S. officials.

‘Extremists’ might be interpreted to encompass every fighter not conforming to the Obama administration’s definition of “moderate”, almost certainly including those who cry “Allahu Akbar” on destroying a regime helicopter.

December 1, 2016

Erwin Baur, presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 6:44 pm

Erwin Baur died last night December 1, 2016 at 101 years old. Erwin was a tireless fighter for the working class, labor unions, and socialism. He placed himself deep in the trenches, modest, but intensely dedicated to promoting social change and the cause of labor. We owe to him and people like him much of the progress that was made in the US around working conditions and workers rights in the 1930s and later on. Born in Hilden (Düsseldorf) Germany, he was brought to North America at age 11 by his parents and after years of work in Ohio and Michigan retired to California where he died. Erwin Baur Presente!

My interview with Erwin:

October 30, 2016

Suzanne Haig Memorial Meeting

Filed under: obituary,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

Suzanne Haig (1946-2016)

Yesterday I attended a memorial meeting for ex-SWPer Suzanne Haig at the Greater Astoria Historical Society in Queens. Except for friends and relatives, the attendees were mostly ex-members like me. I really didn’t know Suzanne except by reputation from when I was in the party long ago. I was there mostly out of respect to Gus Horowitz, her husband and former leader of the SWP as well as curiosity about who she was.

When I joined the party in 1967, I always found Gus much more approachable than other leaders who adopted a kind of icy manner found especially in people like Larry Siegel and Joel Britton. In his remarks to the gathering, it was obvious that he had found Suzanne to be a kindred spirit as the two hit it off from the start 30 years ago and stayed together until her death. In 2013, they decided to make it legal and tied the knot. A few months later she learned that she had cancer of the pancreas, one of the deadliest forms.

I only knew Suzanne as someone who always greeted me with a smile and a hello when I bumped into her and Gus at some event. After the memorial meeting concluded, I regret not having known her better.

Ironically, the meeting was chaired by Cliff Conner who was thrown out of a memorial meeting for Eva Chertov held in 2011. She had remained a member (or perhaps a sympathizer) of the SWP until her death. Cliff wrote an account of the ejection that I posted on my blog:

Now, everything that had been said to me before that point had been said with gentle smiles and voices as sweet as maple syrup.  They didn’t want a scene, and making a stink is not my shtick, so after the absurdity of the whole thing had sunk in, I was ready to leave.  But when I started to go back in to get Marush, a woman (whose face I remembered from the old days, but whose name I couldn’t recall) stopped me and said, very gravely, “We can escort you out, if you prefer.”  The iron fist in the velvet glove!

“Well, I’m not leaving without my wife,” I replied.

“Wait here. We’ll go get her.

Now we can understand why they might have wanted to keep Cliff out. Since he had been expelled for upholding Trotskyism in the early 80s, they might have worried that he would jump up during the middle of a eulogy and called right then and there for a debate on permanent revolution. Or who knows what they thought. They are batshit crazy.

If anything, they have gotten even crazier over the past five years. Nelson Blackstock was an old friend and comrade of Cliff’s from Atlanta who joined around the same time as him and me. Unlike Cliff, Nelson never had any political differences and only resigned out of general exhaustion like so many others during the party’s inexorable decline. Nelson had been particularly close to Harry and Priscilla Ring who were in their fifties when he and I joined and they treated Nelson like a son. I never knew the Rings all that well but their closeness to Nelson was all I needed to donate dozens of blues records to Harry when I was switching over to CD’s.

When Priscilla Ring died in January 2016, Nelson called party headquarters to find out where the memorial meeting was to be held. They told him that he was excluded from the meeting just like his old friend Cliff Conner had been 5 years earlier. Nelson’s sin? I guess it was being friends with me, who is regarded as Satan incarnate by Jack Barnes, the cult leader.

Getting back to more inspiring matters (and what true camaraderie means), the speakers described Suzanne as a committed revolutionary until the day she died. I learned that she joined the movement as a graduate student at the University of Chicago because of the war in Vietnam, just as was the case for me when I was dodging the draft at the New School.

Based in Chicago for an extended period, she made the transition to the woman’s liberation movement after the war ended and took on major responsibilities for the ERA and abortions rights movement.

In 1976 she ran for Governor of Illinois and afterwards moved to New York to begin writing for the Militant newspaper when Nelson Blackstock was the editor. As a Militant reporter (I assume), she traveled to Poland with Ernest Harsch to meet with Solidarity members. Speaking briefly but with great effectiveness, Harsch commented on the meeting they had with a young Polish grad student and his wife–both Solidarity members–about the movement. When he saw Suzanne’s button that stated “Capitalism fouls things up”, he shook his head and said, “No, it is socialism that fouls things up”. Always hard-nosed and maybe even more argumentative than me, Suzanne defended socialism and tried to explain to the young man why that was not what they had lived under in Poland—largely to no avail. It was only when the couple moved to the USA that they learned for themselves what capitalism was like. The absence of child-care and affordable health care came as such a shock to them that they admitted to Harsch that Suzanne probably had a point.

Suzanne Haig was Armenian. Her father (or perhaps grandfather) fled Turkey to escape the 1919 genocide. They adopted the name Haig not in honor of the very fine Scotch (apparently Suzanne enjoyed her whiskey, wine and beer) but the Hayg, who was the patriarchal founder of the Armenian people according to legend. She grew up in a household where Turkish was spoken much of the time just as is the case in mine.

Besides being very compatible as lovers, Gus and Suzanne shared an aptitude for software development that led to the formation of Two Rivers Computing. It seems that Suzanne became a talented hacker and found ways to download British TV shows that she passed on to friends before they ever became available on Netflix, including Downton Abbey. That show was more to Gus’s taste than hers. Suzanne, like my wife and I, prefers noir crime shows from Sweden and the like. I would have loved to discuss Wallander with her. Finding that their tastes diverged, that was no problem. They tended to watch their favorite shows in separate rooms.

At some point, the two decided to get degrees at NYU in Computer Science, a project they eventually abandoned. But one good thing came out of an artificial intelligence course they took together, a project to match harmonies to a database of Bach compositions. You can read their paper online.

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Like me, Suzanne remained politically involved after leaving the SWP. While I focused on Central America issues largely on the advice of Peter Camejo, she became an avid environmentalist. She and Gus owned a weekend cottage close to nature where they enjoyed birdwatching and—believe it or not—batwatching. At some point when the bats stopped filling the air around their cabin, she decided to investigate and take action if needed. It led to this:

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The Day
By Rita Christopher Courier Senior Correspondent

New London, CT, August 12. 2010

Say “Bats” and what do people respond? Vampires? Dracula? Eeek?

No doubt about it, bats have a public relations problem. But what Suzanne Haig would like people to know is that bats are vital to our ecosystem: They eat mosquitoes (some pollinate flowers) and are nature’s way of ensuring insect control. One bat, Suzanne says, can eat as many as 1,000 mosquitoes each night.

Bats, however, are disappearing from the Northeast, prey to a condition called white nose syndrome, and Suzanne wants people to know what the consequences of their loss will be. The result is a program on why bats have disappeared and why people should care that Suzanne has been instrumental in organizing at the Chester Meeting House on Sunday, Aug. 15 (See “When it Comes to White Nose Syndrome, Scientists Are Stepping Up to the Bat” on page 30 in the Living section).

The meeting involves not only the Deep River Land Trust, of which Suzanne is a member, but also some 11 other land trusts and environmental agencies.

“We can’t look at this as individual towns. This needs to be regional,” Suzanne says.

Suzanne believes that there are challenges to our ecosystem of which all communities should be aware.

“People are stewards of the earth,” she says.

You can also read Suzanne’s obviously well-researched analysis of the problem here.

“Where have all the Bats Gone?”

By: Suzanne Haig, Vice President Deep River Land Trust, for the Lower Connecticut River and Coastal Region Land Trust Exchange

Last August 15th, some 150 people attended a forum “Where have all the Bats Gone?”, held at the Chester Meeting House. Jenny Dickson, Supervising Wildlife Biologist of the Ct. DEP, briefed the audience on the status of a disease known as White Nose Syndrome (WNS) that has killed over 1 million bats in the US.

The condition, named for a previously unknown fungus, Geomyces destructans, first appeared on bats in upstate New York caves in 2006 and has now spread from the northeast to states south and west as far as Virginia and Tennessee and into Ontario, Canada. It is believed that the disease erodes, and invades the skin, particularly the wings, of hibernating bats. While scientists have discovered that the fungus responds to some antiseptics, there is no method at this time for curbing the disease and many questions remain unanswered. Furthermore, most bat species give birth to only one pup per year, which means that it is unlikely that affected populations can recover quickly from the devastating effects.

Jenny Dickson has been surveying caves in Connecticut and tracking the mortality rates of bats in the state since the inception of the disease. Connecticut has eight species of the eleven hundred known species of bats in the world, and the two most common here and in much of the northeast are the Little Brown Bat and the Big Brown Bat.

In Connecticut, WNS is affecting the Little Brown Bat and the Indiana Bat which is already on the Federal Endangered Species List. Some fear that the Little Brown Bat faces regional and possibly total extinction. Three of the other species in Connecticut are tree roosting bats which are not affected by the fungus. Why some are infected and others are not is unknown at this time.

Suzanne was always the activist even at the cooperative building where she and Gus lived. A sixtyish African-American man got up to speak about running into her in the lobby with a clipboard in her hand. She was recruiting people to take on assignments in the building just like an SWP organizer.

When she learned that he was into gardening, she signed him right up. That led to a conversation about his background. It turned out that he was a retired TWU officer who had taken responsibilities in the Mike Quill-led subway and bus strike of 1966 in New York. This was all she needed to hear. She began discussing politics with him and it was soon obvious as he admitted that they didn’t quite see eye to eye. Even so, he eventually ran with her to bring “fresh blood” into the coop board and stayed good friends until her death.

Finally, Suzanne was a lover of cats as all civilized people should be. In January I will be reviewing a Turkish documentary titled “Kedi” (the Turkish word for cat), which is about the amazing street cats of Istanbul. You can see a trailer just beneath this family photo of Suzanne’s 3 Persian cats that she lovingly groomed each day, taken from her Facebook page, and another photo of a cat lover.

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October 24, 2016

Tom Hayden (1939-2016): a political assessment

Filed under: obituary,parliamentary cretinism,student revolt,two-party system — louisproyect @ 11:31 pm

Tom Hayden

I knew nothing about Tom Hayden in 1967 except that he was an SDS leader. I developed a better understanding after reading an article he wrote in the New York Review of Books on August 24, 1967 titled “A Special Supplement: The Occupation of Newark” that reflected the editorial position of the journal at the time, one much further to the left than it is today although not nearly as radical as me back then or now for that matter.

That very week I had decided to join the SWP because the war in Vietnam and the racial oppression in Harlem I had seen working for the Department of Welfare pushed me over the edge. Hayden’s article is worth reading both for its reporting on the realities of Newark, a city that he and other SDS’ers had “colonized” in a kind of neo-Narodnik fashion, and as a gauge of this SDS elder’s thinking at the time:

This is not a time for radical illusions about “revolution.” Stagnancy and conservatism are essential facts of ghetto life. It is undoubtedly true that most Negroes desire the comforts and security that white people possess. There is little revolutionary consciousness or commitment to violence per se in the ghetto. Most of the people in the Newark ghetto were afraid, disorganized, and helpless when directly facing automatic weapons. But the actions of white America toward the ghetto are showing black people that they must prepare to fight back. The conditions are slowly being created for an American form of guerrilla warfare based in the slums. The riot represents a signal of this fundamental change.

In 1965 I had only the foggiest notion of what SDS stood for. I went directly from early 60s existential liberalism a la Camus directly to Trotskyism without passing go. There were SDS’ers at the New School where I was avoiding the draft by studying philosophy at the time but I had zero interest in joining the chapter there. It was only through contact with an SWP member over a two-year period that led me to break radically with my past.

Hayden eventually outgrew SDS and became a celebrity leftist like Jerry Rubin, Abby Hoffman, Benjamin Spock, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis et al. He, Herbert Aptheker and Staughton Lynd had traveled to North Vietnam in 1965 as guests of the government. From that point on he became identified with a wing of the antiwar movement that tended to waffle on the question of immediate withdrawal. Although the notion of traveling to Vietnam seemed quite radical at the time, the primary emphasis of Tom Hayden and his allies was to push for “peace” in Vietnam.

Divisions in the Democratic Party in 1968 were very much like those this year with Hubert Humphrey roughly equivalent to Hillary Clinton and Eugene McCarthy to Bernie Sanders. In the summer of 1968 Tom Hayden called upon young people to come to Chicago to demonstrate against the war in Vietnam and for Black liberation but the obvious subtext to the protests was to pressure the Democrats into nominating McCarthy.

When the cops attacked the protests, the press widely described the violence as a “riot” but in reality it was a police riot just like we see today in many of the Black Lives Matter protests. In the aftermath, Hayden, Bobby Seale, and six other leftists were arrested for conspiracy and incitement to riot. All the charges were eventually dropped.

After Nixon was elected, Hayden continued to press for a negotiated settlement even though his rhetoric made it sound like such a demand was in and of itself anti-imperialist. With Nixon all too willing to sit down with the Vietnamese while continuing to bomb all of Indochina, the call for Out Now seemed more urgent than ever.

In 1971 Hayden launched the Indochina Peace Campaign, a group that adopted lobbying rather than mass protests to end the war in Vietnam. In a Huffington Post article written on March 20th, 2007, Hayden described the period as one in which people like him were “recovering from the intense radicalism, sectarianism, militancy, and resistance to repression that occurred throughout the late 1960s.” A new approach was needed, one that foreshadowed Moveon.org and other pressure groups in and around the Democratic Party. Hayden wanted to turn the page on the 60s radical movement, even if there were some diehards that “opposed lobbying Congress and electoral politics for ideological reasons”. He added, “They believed in an escalation of radical tactics.”

You can get an idea of how Hayden thought about politics through his reference to “radical tactics”. Was he talking about the Weathermen? Was bombing a federal building “radical”? One suspects that the radicalism he was trying to put behind him was mass action independent of the Democratic Party, the sort of thing that would interfere with a budding career as a bourgeois politician.

While nobody would gainsay the right of the Vietnamese to use negotiations in pursuit of their ultimate goal of independence and national unification, Hayden’s tendency was to downplay the slogan of Out Now that the SWP advanced in the antiwar movement and to promote Negotiations Now, which dovetailed with the CPUSA’s orientation. Since the CP was deeply embedded in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that had begun work by 1967 to Dump LBJ, Hayden and his allies did much to weaken the movement.

It wasn’t only the Trotskyists who got on Hayden’s case. I.F. Stone wrote an article for the NY Review on November 30, 1972 questioning the efficacy of the peace negotiations that were hailed by Hayden:

If such are the terms, why does Thieu balk at them and the other side insist that we sign? The answer I believe is that the Vietnam war has been bypassed by the detente among Washington, Peking, and Moscow. Peking has been promised US troop withdrawal from Taiwan once Southeast Asia is “stabilized.” Moscow is being bailed out of the worst food crisis in years by Nixon. Hanoi’s patrons are tired of the war, and each seems somewhat miffed by the much too independent Vietnamese. In short, Nixon can pretty much write his own terms and has. Mme Binh told a visitor during the period when these latest terms were being negotiated, “Every time we take a step forward, the United States takes a step backward and the same gap remains between us.” The terms disclosed on October 26 were the outcome of a tight squeeze on Hanoi.

I think Stone got this right basically.

On January 25th, 1973 Hayden answered Stone in a letter to the NY Review that opened by describing himself as “puzzled to find so many antiwar activists, especially intellectuals, expressing the cynicism summarized by I. F. Stone in your November 30 issue.”

In a way, Hayden was correct in saying that the Vietnamese were using the negotiations to their own end. By wresting concessions from the Nixon administration that allowed “Vietnamization” to unfold, the North Vietnamese were finally in a position to roll into the South and achieve what negotiations could never achieve: final victory.

However, in the long run the USA was victorious. By drawing China into the peace process, Nixon was able to lay the foundations for the dismantlement of the Maoist economy, which despite its bureaucratic distortions did exclude the kind of rapacious capitalism that the nation eventually succumbed to. It also achieved a partial victory in Vietnam as Chomsky pointed out:

Indochina at least survives; the US did not resort to nuclear weapons as it might well have done had the population remained docile and quiescent, as it was during the terror of the US-imposed regime in the South, or when Kennedy launched the direct US attack against the South in 1962. But the “lesson of Vietnam,” which was taught with extreme brutality and sadism, is that those who try to defend their independence from the Global Enforcer may pay a fearful cost. Many others have been subjected to similar lessons, in Central America as well.

In his trips to Indochina, Hayden got introduced to and eventually married Jane Fonda, a Hollywood superstar and leftist. Her deep pockets allowed him to launch a career as a Democratic politician. He was in the State Assembly and State Senate from 1982 to 1992 and helped to convince many people that social change could be achieved through electoral means.

From that point on, he became a conventional liberal that nobody could possibly mistake for a fiery radical. His most memorable performance in that capacity was initiating Progressives for Obama in 2008 alongside Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Fletcher Jr. and Danny Glover. Appearing as an open letter in The Nation, it

We intend to join and engage with our brothers and sisters in the vast rainbow of social movements to come together in support of Obama’s unprecedented campaign and candidacy. Even though it is candidate-centered, there is no doubt that the campaign is a social movement, one greater than the candidate himself ever imagined.

This is pretty much the same kind of rhetoric that accompanied the Sanders campaign and about as believable.

But even the Sanders campaign was too far to the left for Hayden. In April 2016, he wrote an article in The Nation explaining why he called for a vote for Clinton rather than Sanders in the Democratic primary in California. Already stricken from the after effects of a stroke that would end his life yesterday at the age of 75, he sounds like a casualty of the reformist swamp. Although I will never would have achieved his fame and fortune or marry someone like Jane Fonda (I much prefer my feisty wife from Istanbul), I am glad to have never made my peace with bourgeois society.

 

May 12, 2016

Remembering Michael Ratner

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 2:33 pm

Michael Ratner, one of the most effective and respected constitutional rights attorneys in the USA and president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, died of cancer yesterday. The NY Times ran an obit that was noteworthy for its recognition of his accomplishments (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/12/us/michael-ratner-lawyer-who-won-rights-for-guantanamo-prisoners-dies-at-72.html). When a leftist gets such a tribute from a newspaper infamous for its corporate loyalties, that is a sign of his importance.

I also recommend the obit that appeared in the Nation (http://www.thenation.com/article/michael-ratner-1943-2016/) by David Cole, an outstanding constitutional rights attorney in his own right. Cole’s article concluded:

In an era of globalization, Ratner adapted the tactics of the classic civil-rights lawyer to concerns about global justice. Many of his lawsuits challenged US interventions abroad, especially in Central America. He pioneered the use of the Alien Tort Statute, a law enacted in 1789, to bring human-rights claims in US courts for torture and other grave human-rights abuses. He invoked the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which permits countries to prosecute torturers wherever they are found, to pursue accountability for US torture in German, Spanish, and French courts, when US avenues were blocked. In the latter cases, he did not prevail. But as he would have put it, “We filed 100 percent on principle.”

As someone who had a brief encounter with Michael Ratner and his former wife Margaret Ratner Kunstler in 1987, I can attest to the importance of his work and more generally that of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

At the time I was the President of the Board of Tecnica, a group that recruited volunteers to work with government agencies in Nicaragua. The focus was on programmers like myself but delegations included machinists, welders, physicians, engineers and other types of skills—either blue or white-collar. When people returned from a week in Nicaragua, they frequently returned for a longer period to begin work with a government ministry, a cooperative or other entity committed to the Sandinista revolution. Those that were not placed often became activists in their community as part of a broader movement in solidarity with a revolution Reagan was trying to crush.

In April 1987 the FBI launched an offensive against Tecnica that involved interrogating returned volunteers at their workplace about our group supposedly being involved in an espionage network transferring technology from Nicaragua to Cuba and then to the USSR. The Washington Post editorialized against the harassment on May 14th:

The Washington Post
May 14, 1987, Thursday, Final Edition

Questioning Nicaragua Volunteers

IT IS NOT ILLEGAL to travel to Nicaragua. Any American has a right to go there and to teach, repair tractors, help with the harvest or work in a clinic. Many do go, some as a concrete expression of political opposition to the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America, others for purely humanitarian reasons. This can be extremely dangerous. One American volunteer, Benjamin Linder, who went under the auspices of a group called Tecnica, was killed there last month. And it can be unpopular, since the Sandinista government understandably does not have many friends in this country. But it is not illegal.

In spite of all this, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been questioning large numbers of those who have returned from volunteer stints in Nicaragua. More than two years ago, Director William Webster testified that about 100 people had already been interviewed, and the pace has apparently picked up in recent months. The FBI will not discuss the reasons for these interviews other than to say that they are related to “foreign counterintelligence investigations.” This may be so, but in justifying inquiries such as these the bureau has a particularly heavy — and thus far unmet — burden of proof to bear.

That is all the more so given the unpleasant method in which some of the most recent questioning is said to have been conducted, which has prompted a House subcommittee to look into this matter. According to some who were subjected to the process last month, agents have arrived unannounced at work places. They have gone directly to personnel managers and asked to see specific employees in connection with a national security investigation. One volunteer charges that an agent threatened to deal directly with her boss if she refused to answer questions on the spot.

Those questioned believe they are being harassed for their political beliefs and activities. They say there is no evidence that any person who has traveled to Nicaragua in support of the contras, for example, has been treated in a similar manner. Public faith in the FBI depends critically on the perception that it will not be used for political purposes. The agency and the administration both owe a full explanation.

Michael Urmann, the founder and executive director of Tecnica who died four years ago, came to New York to meet with Michael Ratner and Margaret Ratner Kunstler at Bill Kunstler’s townhouse on Gay St. in the village. I joined him to go over the ramifications of the FBI intervention. Basically the two regarded it as a form of harassment and doubted that it would lead to arrests since clearly—as the Post editorial pointed out—we were doing nothing except sending volunteers to work in Nicaragua.

That being said, it was reassuring to have their commitment to handling our legal defense in the event that things escalated. I was very impressed with Michael Ratner’s ability to put this incident into historical perspective and to make us feel as if we had powerful allies against whichever obstacles would be put in our path.

On the day after the FBI visits to personnel offices took place, I have to admit that I was spooked. This was in the Reagan era when fears of an out-of-control executive were well grounded. In building up the Center for Constitutional Rights as an asset for activists taking considerable risks in building movements considered subversive by the national security state, people like Michael Ratner, Margaret Ratner Kunstler and Bill Kunstler himself performed a yeoman service to the revolutionary movement—god bless them.

 

May 5, 2016

Kwame Somburu, ¡Presente!

Filed under: african-american,obituary,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:35 pm

Yesterday I learned that Kwame Somburu had succumbed to cancer at the age of 81. Although he was a Facebook friend for a few years, I really had no personal connections to him previously. As was the case with any number of other people I knew from a previous lifetime in the Trotskyist movement, we had reconnected in cyberspace. After spending a few hours doing some Internet research on him, I regret that I had never spent time chatting with him back in the late sixties when we were both members of the NY branch of the SWP. About a month or two after joining the party, there was an incident involving Paul Boutelle, as Kwame was known at the time, that made it into my memoir:

UnrepMarx 1_Page_055 UnrepMarx 1_Page_056

It was that incident and Paul’s appearance on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” that year that had always been stamped indelibly in my memory. After watching Kwame Somburu: A Conversation with a “Rabble Rouser”?, the superb interview with Paul made two years ago in Albany, NY by Kush Nuba and linked to below, I have a much better idea who he was and why I stayed in the Trotskyist movement as long as I did. It was smart and charismatic people like Paul Boutelle, his running mate Fred Halstead, and Peter Camejo that will always define the party for me—not the bizarre workerist cult I left in 1978.

Although I encourage everybody to watch the entire interview, I’d like to extract a few essential biographical points to put Kwame into context. His father was a small businessman doing radio repairs in Harlem where the family lived. From an early age, he was sensitive to racism starting with being forced to read Little Black Sambo in grade school. He has vivid memories of the people of Harlem spontaneously pouring into the streets after Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling in 1938.

In 1951 he quit high school because he was bored. He used to sit in the back row of the classroom reading a book and ignoring the teacher. Despite being a high school dropout, he had a tremendous intellectual curiosity reading everything that came his way from Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlets to Karl Marx and Irish history, which interested him as an example of how other people can be colonized and exploited. Anything that was off the beaten track intrigued him.

As an autodidact, he was ideally suited to selling the World Book encyclopedia in the 1950s. Before there was an Internet, that’s the way that many families could do simple research without going to the library. My parents bought a copy of the Book of Knowledge, a children’s encyclopedia that I read ravenously.

When Kwame wasn’t selling encyclopedias, he was driving a cab—a job he had in 1968 when I first ran into him at party headquarters. He had joined the movement three years earlier but had first run into the Trotskyists in 1960. He was walking down the street in Harlem when he spotted a couple of white guys collecting signatures to put SWP candidates on the ballot. Since he was always curious to see what out of the ordinary people were up to, he struck up a conversation with the party members. Because he had already been reading Marx, it was almost inevitable that he would end up at party headquarters even if McCarthyism lingered on. That year he joined the Young Socialist Alliance and kept loose ties to the party until he became a member 5 years later.

Kwame was one of the old-timers who left the SWP in 1983 as Jack Barnes finalized the purge of all those who resisted his bureaucratic assault on party norms and Trotskyist politics. What is striking about the interview with Kush Nuba is the sharpness of his mind and his ability to recall events from fifty years earlier in great detail. Is it possible that a lifetime of revolutionary politics can keep the mind in fighting trim? Cancer might have wreaked havoc with his body but his mind shined like a star until his last breath.

January 6, 2016

Thoughts triggered by the passing of Paul Bley

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

In 1961 I was a sixteen-year old freshman at Bard College with a real hunger to hear jazz. It was a new-found passion dating back to the summer when I heard Miles Davis’s performance of “Summertime” on a juke box in a pizza parlor in South Fallsburgh, New York. As soon as it came on, it was like being hit by lightning.

At Bard I was bowled over by the availability of jazz records in the college library. The late 50s and early 60s were the heyday of hard bop and I became a fan of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Charlie Mingus.

But it was also an opportunity to hear live jazz for the first time. That year Paul Bley came to Bard, a pianist that a friend described as a be-bopper influenced by Bud Powell. Smoking a joint beforehand, I strolled over to Tewksbury Hall and sat down for my first live jazz concert. Wow! I can’t remember who the bass player and the drummer were but I’ll never forget the saxophone player: Pharoah Sanders (this is not the same spelling as the Egyptian kings but it was the one that Sun Ra gave to his young sideman who was born Farrell Sanders.)

I had no idea that Bley was on the leading edge of the avant-garde that was just taking shape. I can’t remember much about the rhythm section but Sanders blew my fucking mind. Each solo started off with the standard chord progressions but somewhere near their apex, he began what can only be described as screaming through his horn. Whether it was the pot or the sheer power of Sanders’s solo, or a combination of the two, I was converted to a style of jazz that would become known as the New Thing a year or two later. Other musicians in this movement were the Ayler brothers, Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman.

It was no accident that in my freshman year I also heard LeRoi Jones, as he was known at the time, reading from his “The System of Dante’s Hell”. Like Pharoah Sanders, who would go on to make recordings like “Black Unity”, Jones was an early exponent of Black Nationalism. For me, the jazz avant-garde and Black Nationalism were my guideposts long before I got involved with the political avant-garde and perhaps made my transition a little easier.

You can hear Sanders playing with Paul Bley and Don Cherry, another New Thing proponent here:

This was the second time Bley had played at Bard. In 1959 he was part of a jazz festival organized by pianist Ran Blake who would go on to an outstanding career as an avant-garde jazz musician himself. I had some dealings with Blake in 1965 when I organized a gospel concert at Bard. Ran was pushing for the Sweet Daddy Grace band but the college chaplain put the nix on them performing in the school chapel since the last time they were there, they were too rowdy for his Episcopalian sensibility. Instead we booked Johnny Peoples and the Brooklyn Skyways who put on a memorable concert in the gym.

I have to admit that despite being smitten by the concert of Paul Bley’s band in 1961, I never collected his records. Indeed, I have been much more into his ex-wife Carla Bley’s recordings, especially those done in conjunction with bassist Charlie Haden who was a leftist like her.

But I do want to put in a good word for a record led by saxophone player Sonny Rollins made in 1963 titled “Sonny Meets Hawk” that included Bley on piano. Hawk, of course, is Coleman Hawkins. I consider it one of the 10 greatest jazz records of all time. It is distinguished by the affinity that Rollins, a modernist but not a New Thing musician, has with an ostensible swing relic Coleman Hawkins. In fact Hawkins was always eager to connect with younger modernist musicians going back to Charlie Parker who he played with in 1950:

In “Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation”, Eric Nisenson describes the great aplomb with which Hawkins met his younger cohorts:

The most amazing thing about this album is how unruffled Hawkins is by the often strange sounds being created by both Sonny and Paul Bley (the band was the same as at Newport. although Bob Cranshaw substituted for Henry Grimes at the second session). The first tune, on the album, “Yesterdays,” begins with Sonny’s unaccompanied introduction, during which he briefly alludes to the famous Bird blues “Now’s the Time.” As the tune goes into tempo, Hawkins states the theme, or rather implies the melody. His statement is typically dramatic and moving, never for a moment sounding anything but utterly modern and never sacrificing his inimitable musical persona. Sonny begins by emulating Hawkins’s brief trill at the end of his solo; Sonny makes it the core of his own improvised solo statement, using it as the basis of his solo just as he had in the past used melodic fragments for thematic development. The exploration of pure sound throughout this album prefigures the work of Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders and, in the last couple of years of his life, John Coltrane.

And here’s the performance of “Yesterdays”. I would only add that Bley’s piano playing keeps everything sewn together like a golden thread. I find every note played by every musician completely haunting. In fact it is the spirit of the lyrics of the tune that dwells in this post:

Yesterdays, yesterdays
Days I knew as happy sweet
Sequestered days
Olden days, golden days
Days of mad romance and love

Then gay youth was mine, truth was mine
Joyous free in flame and life
Then sooth was mine
Sad am I, glad am I
For today I’m dreamin’ of yesterdays

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Paul Bley on piano at a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert in 2000, accompanied by Charlie Haden on upright acoustic bass. Credit: Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos
Paul Bley, an obdurate and original pianist who began his career playing bebop and eventually became a major force in experimental jazz, died on Sunday at his home in Stuart, Fla. He was 83.

His record label, ECM, announced his death without giving a cause.

Mr. Bley’s style of playing was melodic, measured, bluesy, often polytonal and seemingly effortless. He took as long as he needed to finish a thought, and at the tempo he chose for it. He loved standards but distrusted the strictures of the 32-bar song form, and especially distrusted repetition. His notes could move slowly without telegraphing their destination, drawling down into nothing or cohering into bright, purposefully gapped lines, with backing chords that kept changing the tonal center.

Mr. Bley (pronounced “blay”) developed an influential language of phrasing and harmony — Keith Jarrett and Ethan Iverson were two of its many beneficiaries — but often talked about being eager to get outside his own habits. In the 1981 documentary “Imagine the Sound,” he professed not to practice or rehearse, out of what he called “a disdain for the known.” And he did not stake his work on traditional notions of acceptability, or the approval of the listener.

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A 1965 publicity photo of Mr. Bley for ESP Records.

“I’ve spent many years learning how to play as slow as possible,” he told the Italian pianist and writer Arrigo Cappelletti in a typically provocative 2002 interview, “and then many more years learning how to play as fast as possible. I’ve spent many years trying how to play as good as possible. At the present I’m trying to spend as many years learning how to play as bad as possible.”

Hyman Paul Bley was born in Montreal on Nov. 10, 1932. His father, Joe, owned an embroidery factory; his mother, the former Betty Marcovitch, immigrated from Romania to Canada with her family when she was 9.

He started studying violin at 5 and piano at 8, and as a teenager began playing piano professionally as Buzzy Bley. In 1949, as a senior in high school, he briefly took over Oscar Peterson’s job at the Alberta Lounge in downtown Montreal.

Mr. Bley left for New York in 1950 to attend the Juilliard School. During his early years there, he played with the saxophonists Lester Young and Ben Webster, among others.

Keeping a hand in his hometown jazz scene, he helped organize the Jazz Workshop, a musician-run organization in Montreal that set up out-of-town soloists with local rhythm sections; in February 1953 he booked Charlie Parker for a concert and accompanied him. That concert was recorded, one of his first extant recordings before his first album as a leader, made nine months later with a trio that included Charles Mingus on bass and Art Blakey on drums. Through the mid-’50s, he was an adept bebop player with a spare style.

He met the pianist and composer Carla Bley, then known as Karen Borg, when she was working as a cigarette girl at the jazz nightclub Birdland; the two of them moved west, finally settling in Los Angeles, where in 1957 Mr. Bley secured a job leading a band at the Hillcrest Club six nights a week for nearly two years.

Toward the end of his time there, in 1958, he hired the saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the trumpeter Don Cherry for his band. He noticed that Coleman, in his compositions did not follow the standard 32-bar AABA song pattern, but rather what Mr. Bley called “A to Z form.” In his 1999 memoir, “Stopping Time,” he remembered that “it didn’t take more than a second to understand that this was the missing link between playing totally free, without any givens, and playing bebop with changes and steady time.”

Paul and Carla Bley were married in California in 1957, and during the following years he recorded a lot of her music: Her compositions make up most of Mr. Bley’s records “Footloose!” (1963) and “Closer” (1965), as he found his way toward his own kind of free jazz, intimate and almost folklike.

During that time, playing with the saxophonists Albert Ayler and Sonny Rollins, he defined as well as anyone the blurry line between the scratchiness of free improvisation and the virtuosity of the jazz tradition.

Paul and Carla Bley’s marriage ended in divorce. Another relationship, with the singer and composer Annette Peacock in the 1960s, resulted in more collaboration. Her compositions, which make up all of the trio record “Ballads” (1971) and some of the solo-piano record “Open, to Love” (1972), were important to his “slow as possible” period; using synthesizers, well before they became common in jazz, they performed together on record as the “Bley-Peacock Synthesizer Show.”

In 1973, with the video artist Carol Goss — whom he eventually married — Mr. Bley set up the multimedia company Improvising Artists, which released his music and others’. Ms. Goss survives him, as do his daughters, Vanessa Bley, Angelica Palmer and Solo Peacock, and two grandchildren.

Mr. Bley did much of his performing and recording from the ’80s onward in Europe, often with musicians he knew from earlier days — notably the bassist Charlie Haden, from Coleman’s group; the bassist Gary Peacock (former husband of Annette); and the saxophonist and clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, with whom he made two chamberlike trio albums in 1961.

Increasingly he made solo records, full of his onrushing, nonrepeating ideas — the best way for him to express what he described as a series of questions.

“My solo piano playing is a question in itself,” he told Mr. Cappelletti. “The question is ‘why?,’ and after ‘why?’ comes ‘what?,’ and after ‘what?’ comes ‘when?’ ”

 

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