Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 23, 2019

James Robertson (a guest post)

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 3:01 pm

(I can’t vouch for any of this but thought it was worth sharing.)

Jim Robertson: A Fragmentary Retrospective

By Stephen Goodman

In the long run a harmful truth is better than a useful lie.
–Thomas Mann

Now that Jim Robertson has left the scene, it is only fit and proper for those who knew him, even ever so slightly as I did, to share our memories of him. I will present two conversations I had with him over the years. No one else was present then, so I remain the only witness to and participant in these events. But first I wish to offer a rather startling observation.

At Dick Fraser’s memorial on 8 January 1989 Jim Robertson said, “I first ran into Dick Fraser about 31 years ago, and he was my last personal teacher.   ……… Dick Fraser is supposed to have said, ‘One of the best things I ever did in my life was sit Jim Robertson down at a kitchen table and pound at him for a few nights.’ Well it’s funny, because I’d just said across the country, at the same time, ‘The last guy that ever convinced me of anything in an argument was Dick Fraser.”

So we learn directly and indisputably from Robertson’s own words that in the course of the 31 years after Dick Fraser’s “pounding” no one could ever get Robertson to change his mind on anything. One reads these words in jaw-dropping disbelief! That means Robertson was always right on everything and that his intellectual opposition was always wrong on everything. Seriously? Did any member of the Spartacist League ever dare to challenge this monstrous megalomania and gross grandiosity?

In very modest contrast, the Pope is hailed by the faithful as “infallible,” but only when he speaks on Catholic doctrine. Yet Robertson soared far above the Pope. He was, in his own eyes, infallible across the board. Did Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Darwin, Einstein or any other genius ever lay claim to intellectual infallibility either on one subject, or, still less, on all topics in the world? Hubris seems far too humble and puny a word to have embraced Robertson’s titanic superego. This self-proclaimed unfailing infallibility falls in squarely with the following two encounters I had with him.

Robertson certainly could evince a most revolting sense of “humor.” About 1978 we were talking in the Prometheus Research Library. He said he wanted to play me a song on his stereo. I asked him sarcastically if it was the Horst Wessel Lied, the marching song of the Nazis. “Nah, it‘s not that,” he replied dismissively. I felt ashamed for having said this. But, as it turned out, my suspicion was spot on. It was an unknown German song which I asked him to identify. “It’s a song of the Nazi submariners,” he explained smirking broadly.

“Why are you playing this?” I asked, light years beyond astonishment.

“I play this for our maritime fraction and our Jewish comrades.” (I was only an SL sympathizer, but still I qualified for this “special” treatment.)

“Why?” I persisted.

“I like to see them get angry,” he replied with a broad and self-satisfied grin. He saw absolutely nothing wrong in this outrageous and utterly contemptible behaviour. On the contrary, he joyfully exulted in it. Can anyone imagine any Bolshevik from Lenin and Trotsky on down engaging in such an egregiously obnoxious act? Why would any self-respecting Marxist even own such a record, let alone play it just to infuriate others, especially potential victims of fascism? But then, no one could convince him of anything in an argument.

The second event occurred when I met him by chance about 1982 whilst in London. I challenged him on why the SL defended Sara Jane Moore who had attempted to assassinate U.S. President Gerald Ford. I told him that she was an FBI fink and clearly deranged, a thoroughly repulsive character by anyone’s reckoning. This argument had zero effect on him. He defended her thoroughly unpolitical and maniacal act as a legitimate protest against (in his own words) “the growing imperial presidency.” I found this to be bizarre politics, besides being utterly divorced from reality.

I then asked him if he defended Arthur Bremer, the man who had shot ultra-racist Alabama governor George Wallace. “No,” he replied, “That guy was just a nut!” As opposed to Sara Jane Moore? What was the difference? Where was the logic?

Yet I persisted. I told him that a defense of such an unsavoury lunatic and her unhinged act would bring nothing but opprobrium and ridicule to the SL. His amazing answer was that had I lived at the time, I would not have defended Alfred Dreyfus. Presumably he meant that though Dreyfus was an agent of French imperialism yet he still should have been defended, so likewise FBI fink Sara Jane Moore should be defended. This vacuous “logic” was worthless. I countered that I would have defended Dreyfus because he was the victim of a massive wave of anti-Semitism. Here the argument stopped cold as Robertson had nothing more to offer. He just couldn’t be wrong about anything or be convinced by anyone in an argument. Magister dixit, the master has spoken!

Robertson was the most well-read man I’d ever encountered. Bakunin once said of Marx, “He read widely and intelligently.” That was Robertson all over. One couldn’t reference an historical personage or event, however arcane, obscure or esoteric, that he hadn’t read about and knew thoroughly. Innumerable times I’d heard his brilliant public discourses. They were dazzling arabesques all. His mental landscape was breathtakingly broad and prolifically populated. Robertson was intellectually unique.

Robertson broke in turn from Stalinism, Shachtman, the SWP and Healy. He worked sedulously and patiently to restore and build Trotskyism in America and abroad. As far as I can judge, he never capitulated to reformism or anti-communism, two nearly impossible feats for the American left. For all of this he deserves to be remembered with honor.

But alcoholism warped his mind. That’s the inevitable mental end-product of that psycho-physical disease. Furthermore, his ego was both inflated and deformed by his near-apotheosis as the object of an uncritical, adoring, obsequious and worshipful personality cult. When the people around you chorus for decades on end that you are always right, you start believing in your own infallibility. Louis XIV’s regal conceit “I am the state” found a modern incarnation in Robertson’s egotistical boast “I am never wrong.”

There was a dialectical relationship between his rampant alcoholism and titanic egotism, on the one side and the cloying cultism of his membership on the other. They exacerbated each other and were the twin black holes that dragged Robertson down inexorably to his cringeworthy degeneration. They inexorably led the Spartacist League into the twilight of inconsequentiality. That was a great loss for the Spartacist League and Trotskyism. It is a sad object lesson and dire warning for the future. Alcoholism and personality cultism can be tolerated only at a Marxist organization’s greatest peril.

February 14, 2019

Lyndon LaRouche (1922-2019): a political assessment

Filed under: Kevin Coogan,LaRouche,obituary — louisproyect @ 12:08 am

Lyndon LaRouche

On July 31, 2017, I posted the first of a series of five articles on Lyndon LaRouche that I recommend to my readers for an analysis of his movement’s place in American history. Unlike most people on the left, I do not regard Trump as a fascist. LaRouche, on the other hand, was a fascist and quite a dangerous one, especially in the 1970s and 80s when he networked with the KKK, had strategy meetings with the CIA, promoted Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and used violence against the left. In this earlier period, the man, who was psychologically unbalanced to say the least, did dream of becoming an American führer. When it became clear to him that this was an unattainable goal, he changed gears and became a hustler, bilking old and often rather dotty Reagan supporters out of millions of dollars. This led to his arrest in 1986 and being sentenced to 15 years for mail fraud two years later.

When he came out of prison, his fascist beliefs were maintained but toward a different end. Instead of positioning himself as someone destined to lead the United States into a new world order as was routinely stated in his television informercials, the role of his movement became one of influencing men at the top especially in those countries seen as a counterweight to the decadent Anglo-American empire.

Specifically, LaRouche and his lieutenants became propagandists for the Chinese and Russian governments, seeing them in terms familiar to those who keep track of websites like Consortium News. Since he had obviously become too frail to serve as a spokesman for his movement, his wife Helga Zepp-LaRouche stepped into the breach. In 2017, she was one of the keynote speakers at a Nov. 29 conference in Zhuhai, Guangdong on International Communication and Chinese Companies Going Global.

Roger Stone schmoozing with Lyndon LaRouche 

Even in his dotage, LaRouche was still capable of giving an interview to Roger Stone in November 2016 that was a remarkable meeting of the minds but probably not much more so than Stone and Randy Credico. Stone, like much of the Trump gang, shares LaRouche’s passion for Vladimir Putin. If Trump was willing to break American laws to line up a real estate deal in Moscow, LaRouche’s ambitions were far more modest. Like Helga, he only sought to promote Russian interests worldwide as an alternative to the West.

Not long after his release from prison, he and his acolytes began promoting Putin as an old-school “development” oriented strongman of the kind that the USA sorely needed. If LaRouche’s shot at playing that role had misfired, he was happy to serve as John the Baptist to the Second Coming of Alexander Hamilton, his favorite founding father (as well as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s). This was destined to be a tripartite Messiah: Trump, Putin and Xi JinPing.

In June 2016, LaRouche proclaimed that the future of mankind will be determined by Putin’s creative interventions over the coming period. That’s even going further than Oliver Stone. The article that made this claim sounded like it could have been written by Pepe Escobar, Mike Whitney or Diana Johnstone. It was positively breathless over these developments:

  • Xi Jinping has just completed a brilliant strategic intervention into the Eastern and Central European region with visits to Serbia and Poland, bringing win-win development policies along the New Silk Road where Obama is attempting to provoke nuclear war;
  • The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is holding a Summit in Tashkent to expand the strategic and economic cooperation between Russia, China and the four Central Asian nations;
  • Indian President Modi will meet with President Xi on the sidelines of the SCO;
  • India and Pakistan will begin the process of joining the SCO at the Summit, while Iran is expected to join soon. Other nations of Southwest and Southeast Asia are SCO partners and may also join;
  • Putin will attend the SCO Summit, then proceed to Beijing for a state visit to China, to advance the two nations’ collaboration in development, space exploration, cultural exchange, and more. Plans for the Eastern Economic Forum, scheduled to take place in Vladivostok on Sept. 2-3, will be discussed. The Forum brings business and government representatives together to discuss the economic development of Russia’s Far East and the Asia-Pacific region.

As painful as it is for many on the left to come to terms with, the true goal of LaRouche’s movement was not that different from many on the left who began identifying with the Kremlin, the Chinese Communist Party, and other BRICS players in the early 2000s. This counter-hegemonic bloc solidified in the period circumscribed by the Arab Spring and Euromaidan. Articles that appeared in his movement’s press were not about recreating a Third Reich globally but only rescuing the world from Anglo-American imperialism.

If your politics begins and ends with anti-imperialism, there’s something seductive about recent vintage LaRouchism. That’s the only explanation for good people like Ray McGovern and Nomi Prins allowing themselves to be interviewed by his underlings. I suppose that it is this sort of thing that melts their hearts:

During the past centuries, the British Empire, through fraud and aggression, acquired vast territories throughout the world and maintained its domination over other nations and peoples in the various regions by keeping them pitted and engaged in conflict one against another. On the other hand, the United States which, by taking advantage of the disorder and confusion in Europe, had established its supremacy over the American continents spread its tentacles to the Pacific and to East Asia following its war with Spain.

Whoa, that’s right on as we used to say in the 1960s. Guess who said it. None other than Prime Minister Tojo in a speech to the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere on November 5th 1943.

For those interested in a blow-by-blow account of the rise of Lyndon LaRouche, I recommend my articles that relied heavily on Dennis King’s great reporting. The first of my articles appear here and Dennis’s “Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism” can be read here.

We are in a strange political period. With people like Oliver Stone, Max Blumenthal and Stephen F. Cohen on the left doing everything they can to burnish the reputation of Vladimir Putin, perhaps Lyndon LaRouche might be regarded as someone who left his fascist beliefs behind him insofar as his ideas and those of the men and women who will take his place now  overlap so much with this wing of the left.

With people like Xi Jinping, Putin, Modi, Bolsonaro, Orban, Trump, and Marine LePen, you are not quite in the same political universe as the 1930s. Indeed, for much of the left China is a city on the hill with its “ecological civilization”. Yes, it is bad to force a million Uyghurs into de facto concentration camps, but isn’t that compensated by its Green New Deal type reforms?

The LaRouche movement has been pretty much defanged, compared to what it was in the 1970s and 80s. Helga Zepp-LaRouche will continue to attend conferences in China and Russia while politically muddled sorts such as Nomi Prins and Ray McGovern will always accept an invitation to be interviewed. That’s not much different from Norman Finkelstein allowing himself to be named as a columnist on Ron Unz’s neo-Nazi website.

The real task is to educate the left about class politics. LaRouche’s appeal to SDS’ers at Columbia in 1968 was based on his peculiar interpretation of Karl Marx as a prophet of economic growth. In that respect, he was similar to Frank Furedi whose narrow “productivist” understanding of Marxism led him down the primrose path to Reason magazine type libertarianism.

Instead of being preoccupied about uniting the “anti-imperialist” powers like China, the left has to orient to class. Wage labor is rising up in China against the ruling party and the billionaires whose interests it defends. When Maoist students solidarize themselves with the workers, isn’t it time to find ways to connect with them rather than a government that invites Helga Zepp-LaRouche to speak at one of their conferences?

Class matters.

January 24, 2019

Fond memories of Erik Olin Wright (1947-2019)

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 9:20 pm

Erik Olin Wright

University of Wisconsin–Madison sociologist and former president of the American Sociological Association Erik Olin Wright died from acute myeloid leukemia on January 23, 2019. He was 72 and both respected as a scholar and as a human being. Part of what made people feel empathy for him was the honesty and openness that marked his career. I only learned about his illness a couple of weeks ago when someone posted a link to the journal he had been keeping on CaringBridge, a website that allows you to connect with someone in failing health. His farewell post from three days ago conveys his stoicism in the face of death:

Recent blogs have been pretty heavy, understandably. I’m in the last days of my life. That kind of focuses the mind around the biggest questions. And that’s been combined with some health crises that had such powerful physical impact on me that I needed to share that as well. So while I hope the spirit of these blogs is not just relentless gloom and doom, they have certainly not been lighthearted. Now, so you can get a fuller picture of what my life is like, even in the midst of this, I thought I would share with you the section of the letter to my grandchildren that Becky and I have just completed, Becky typing and me dictating.

There has been an outpouring of remembrances of Wright from colleagues and students. I will include those that I have seen and update this post as new ones arrive:

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Although I was neither a colleague nor a student of Erik Olin Wright, there were always be a place in my heart for him as a prestigious scholar who was not above engaging with me over a book that he wrote in 2009 titled “Envisioning Real Utopias” that was miles apart from my own understanding of Marxism. It was obvious from my initial post 12 years ago based on a preliminary draft of his book that I considered him to be a real mensch:

I had kicked around the idea of responding to sociologist Erik Olin Wright’s manuscript-in-progress “Envisioning Real Utopias” a few months ago, but decided against it mainly out of respect for Wright’s overall scholarship. Although I have big problems with Analytical Marxism (his methodology) and utopian thinking of any sort, he did have an excellent track record when it came to the nitty-gritty empirical research around class questions, starting with the 1973 “The Politics of Punishment: A Critical Analysis of Prisons in America.” If more leftist professors did this kind of yeoman scholarship, we’d all be better off.

When references to Wright’s work-in-progress turned up on recently on Crooked Timber and Political Theory Daily Review, I reconsidered since these two websites are excellent barometers of academic trends. As an outsider to this world, I find it endlessly fascinating–especially when it takes up questions of how to eliminate the capitalist system. So without further ado, here are some scattergun observations on the manuscript.

To start with, we should thank Wright for using the Internet to get feedback in this fashion. Over the years, I have found people such as Robert Brenner to be extremely uncomfortable with email debates. The preferred mode of operation for established Marxist scholars is to go into the woodshed for a couple of years or so and then unleash their finished product on the outside world. I am not sure what motivated Wright to take a different approach, but I hope it inspires others to follow his example.

To my astonishment, Erik took up my criticisms as comments on my blog: https://louisproyect.org/2007/03/07/erik-olin-wright-replies/

In my final exchange, I began by thanking him for his consideration and would from that point on always have a special place in my heart for this thoughtful, warm, and democratically-minded Marxist sociologist:

First of all, I want to thank Erik Olin Wright for taking the trouble to write such a thorough and considered response to my critique. In keeping with remarks I already made, it demonstrates his true respect for the democratic culture of the Internet, which will certainly be as key to our future revolutions as the Gutenberg press was for the peasant revolts of an earlier epoch.


September 3, 2018

Remembering Jesse Lemisch through his fiery assault on Popular Front culture

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 5:57 pm

On August 26th, FB friend Marcus Rediker announced the death of another FB friend Jesse Lemisch. I am posting the entire item since some of you—for good reasons, I might add—are not on FB.

Rest in Peace, Jesse Lemisch (1936-2018), radical historian and fun-loving contrarian. I first met Jesse in 1978. I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania who would study eighteenth-century sailors, just as Jesse had done so memorably in his famous article “Jack Tar in the Streets.” I visited him in his small Greenwich Village apartment. We sat on the sofa in one corner of the room as his wife, the brilliant feminist psychologist/neuroscientist Naomi Weisstein, wore headphones and pedaled a stationary bike in the other. Jesse was animated, funny, irreverent, brash, and helpful. It was a joy for me to sit and talk with the person who had done so much to give meaning to the phrase “history from the bottom up.”

There was much to like about Jesse – his fierce intelligence, his endearing warmth, his larger-than-life spirit. He was a red-diaper baby and radical to the bone, a natural-born fighter. We worked together on various projects over the years. When his legendary dissertation, “Jack Tar vs John Bull,” was finally published in 1997, I wrote the introduction, link below. That intro begins with a description of an adventure Jesse and I had as we searched the massive Hotel Rossiya in Moscow in 1991 for a group of Siberian miners who had come to the capital city to wage a hunger strike.

It was my pleasure to dedicate my book Outlaws of the Atlantic to Jesse in 2015. I hope he knew how much he meant to me. I lament the passing of someone who showed us how to write history from below.


Rediker announced that he will have a short article on Lemisch in the Nation Magazine this week, so look for it there.

I was obviously not as close to Lemisch as Rediker but I enjoyed the electronic camaraderie I had with him. Whatever you want to say about the rottenness of FB, and it is undoubtedly true, there is still something valuable about its ability to connect you to people you never would have encountered, let alone “friended”, in the pre-Internet days. Besides Rediker and Lemisch, I also value the friendship I have with historians Greg Grandin, David Roediger and Richard Drayton, who also come out of the “history from below” perspective.

My first encounter with Lemisch was in the old-fashioned print media days when I read an article in the October 18, 1986 Nation Magazine that had everybody on the left buzzing, including me. It is an all-out assault on the culture of what Yale historian Michael Denning called “The Cultural Front”, in other words the films, novels, music and dance of the Communist Party and its periphery during its heyday. I loved the book, not least of all for the reason that Denning’s dad taught Latin and French in my high school and was part of the subculture of leftist teachers who cautiously discussed politics at Fallsburg Central in the early 60s.

My first reaction to Lemisch’s article was “what the fuck”? But even if I was annoyed with it, I found it 10 times more compelling than anything I had read in The Nation that year. At this point, I am still with Leadbelly and “Salt of the Earth” rather than MTV and “Sorry to Bother You” but if there was anybody who could dissuade me from my moldy fig preferences, it would be Jesse Lemisch.

Since Lemisch’s article, titled “I Dreamed I Saw MTV Last Night”, cannot be read unless you are a Nation Magazine subscriber like me (only for the cryptic crossword puzzles), I reproduce it below. If you find his arguments overlapping with the aesthetics of Jacobin Magazine, I can’t blame you. It is also funny to see MTV being described on the leading edge. I guess it was 32 years ago. In any case, Lemisch was the kind of polemicist we need more of on the left, not afraid to speak his mind and let the chips fall where they may. The contrast between his vitriolic article and his sweet, gentle presence on Facebook could not be more striking. They were just two sides of his personality, god rest his soul.

The Nation Magazine, October 18, 1986
I Dreamed I Saw MTV Last Night
By Jesse Lemisch

My friend, a fellow red diaper baby, has modified his politics, but he is still locked into the Popular Front culture that we grew up with: Pete Seeger, songs of the Spanish Civil War and some New Left versions of the same thing. He gave up trying to get me to Pete Seeger concerts. I had bad reactions, somewhat surprisingly, since, in my heart, I like Seeger. Sullenly, I mumbled things like “blue overalls,” “disingenuous,” “archaic aesthetic” and “dead end for the left.” So my friend gave up on me. Then one day he called to ask me to go to a Si Kahn concert with him. Kahn, he told me, is a rabbi’s son who came out of the New Left and has played an honorable role in labor, civil rights and community organizing for twenty years, and who sings in new ways about new causes.

My friend’s instinct proved unerring: it was Pete Seeger all over again, but offensive in ways that Seeger is not. Kahn makes a much longer leap than does Seeger into a culture and voice that are not his own. His singing raises some important general questions about left thought and culture, concerning authenticity, class, the relation between the left and the rest of America, yd a variety of issues at the intersection of aesthetics and politics. Some of the same questions are raised by the documentary films Seeing Red, The Good Fight and Union Maids.

One of the chief problems in left expression centers on the question of authenticity. Can people on the left speak honestly in their various voices, or must they pretend to be somebody else and speak in a voice that they imagine, erroneously, to be mainstream American? For Kahn it is the latter. He writes and sings songs of love, some of them touching, and of current causes: labor, feminism, gay liberation, Central America, disarmament. He accompanies himself on the guitar, singing of new issues in the old style. Unlike Seeger, whose songs genuinely move audiences, Kahn’s songs are so bad that it’s hard to see how any of the people whose voice he affects would want to sing them. In an updated version of what we used to call white liberal tolerance, Kahn, singing as a man who “loves women,” celebrates his friendship with a gay man:

There’s no need to keep it from me
You can come right out and tell me
You know I love you just the way you are.

A cry of “Thanks, Si” rises from a thousand gay throats.

When he spoke for the victims of sexual harassment- “they say it’s oil yer fo1t”–the women in the audience around me winced. “They call you in their office/And they stare straight at your breasts,” he sang. The sentiments are fine, but Kahn is completely unaware of the arrogance and condescension of his setting himself up in this way as definer of the pain of sexual harassment. Finally, perhaps the ultimate in misplaced authenticity: he sang of his ancestors’ flight from the Cossacks, proceeding to a song of the concentration camps, accompanied by a dulcimer, and, again, in the voice of the cracker.

Kahn imitates the old forms nicely, but why bother? There is much that is noble in these traditions and in the struggles associated with them, but isn’t there sufficient dignity and significance in the causes that Kahn sings about to let them be expressed in a modern voice? Why are they the real people, and not us? To return to Seeger-who is currently on tour with Kahn and has just released a joint recording with him-what goes through the minds of his many college-educated listeners when he leads them in singing Malvina Reynolds’s anthem of middle-class embarrassment, “Little Boxes,’’ in which people go to college, become doctors, lawyers and executives-“And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky/And they all look just the same”? Why must the left dress up in workers’ garb? The whole guilt-trip associated with the notion that blue overalls and only blue overalls, are where it’s at is sexist, aesthetically retrograde and deeply out of touch with the realities of class in America today. Why does authenticity reside only in the accents of the South and West, anywhere but in New York City? How was it determined that this must be the voice in which we speak to-America? Why is it such a bad thing to be a Jew in left folk song? Why, at a time when so much of avant-garde culture is crossing over toward a mass audience, does the left, with more important messages to convey, intentionally remain so isolated? What we have is a culture descended from a noble tradition of popular struggles–one whose public rehearsal is an important ritual of affirmation for those of us who grew up in it–that leaves us speaking a language that more and more Americans don’t understand.

A related complex distorts left film and documentary, where the question of truthfulness is raised more directly. The dominant aesthetic of this genre, which we might call first-person heroic, became the documentary style of the New Left, but it has its origin in the aesthetic of the left of the 1930s. In its older version we were presented with-the voice of the people, apparently unmediated. The style strongly expressed the idea that the testimony of those who participated in great events is the truth, needing no comment or analysis. In fact, as William Stott shows in Documentary Expression and Thirties America, the alleged voice of the people was deeply mediated in the documentaries of the 1930s, sometimes through the selection of data and sometimes through misrepresentation and outright deception.

Seeing Red and other left documentaries are descended from that aesthetic. Their stories are told largely in the first person, with contemporary clips and- with narration playing a secondary role. Truth and art are seen to be at odds, with  truth given a lower priority as a merely academic concern. The films and their “unsung heroes” are described in the promotional literature as “inspiring” and “stunning, ” and no one would deny their power.

But the films mishandle first-person testimony, leading to ahistoricity, and, finally, to falsehood. First-person testimony is important in the reconstruction of history, particularly for getting at the lives of ordinary people. Social. historians have been turning to material like the- Works Progress Administration’s extraordinary collection of slave reminiscences, which was largely ignored by the profession until the 1960s. A new history that focuses on biographies of ordinary people has produced modern classics such as Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre and Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms. These works rely on first-person testimony, but never uncritically, and never alone. History is complicated; people disagree. For all the filmmakers’ antiacademicism, their characters take on the authority that we associate with the textbook. There is little sense of the complexity of the past and little confrontation between conflicting views. Interviewers’ questions are admiring and credulous. The simple repetition of pieties and platitudes by people who were “there” is not history.

Despite the subordination of truth to story-telling, the irony is that, ultimately, these documentaries are boring. They are didactic and klutzy. They look like the 1930s, and they speak in-the-ancestral visual language. Pete Seeger praises Union Maids: “No, it’s not wide screen, not color. Hell with all that. It’s real.” The assumption is clear: plainness and antiquated presentation translate into truth. As Seeger’s statement suggests, the appearance of these films has as much to do with ideology as with money; it’s militant amateurism. Seeger’s assumptions dominate contemporary left aesthetics, reinforcing a New Left notion that concern with form is “bourgeois” and elitist. Those assumptions are present in film, in new but old-fashioned agitprop theater, and in public-access cable television, an area of enormous potential but one in which the impact of otherwise promising left efforts has been limited by the rejection of mainstream technology and the use of such devices as handheld and hand-lettered signs. The same applies to much left journalism. A direct-mail solicitation from a brand-new left magazine boasts that it “isn’t slick,” has “no lavish color spreads” and is “printed entirely on newsprint.” In these ways the left fails to address people raised on and thoroughly at home with a more advanced, “bourgeois” aesthetic.

Finally, for all its plainness and artlessness, sometimes what we see in this left genre just isn’t true. The euphemism “progressive” hangs heavily over some of the films, masking the presence of the Communist Party. This cuts both ways, suppressing the Communist role that is open to criticism and also concealing the party’s positive accomplishments. The Good Fight is, to say the least, a debatable view of the Spanish Civil War. Seeing Red has come under heavy fire from researchers who have compared the 400 interviews done by the filmmakers with the fifteen actually used. Looking at what was edited out, Phyllis Jacobson, writing in New Politics, accuses Seeing Red of presenting a “fairy tale version of Party life and history.” Harvey Klehr, writing in Labor History, has pointed out the disproportionately low presence of Jews in the film, and he objects to the film’s caricature of anti-Communism, as if the only critique of the C.P. came from Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. The film is one long platitude, epitomized in Seeger’s remarks on the C.P. (“Better to have loved and lost . . .”), followed by a scene of Seeger chopping wood in the cold. The left should be embarrassed by the authoritarianism, manipulation and falsehood in much of the current documentary-film genre.

There are new ways of looking at the world, some from inside the left, some from outside. Say what we will about the values of television advertising and MTV, we recognize their form as distinctly contemporary, and so does much of America. They offer us rapid movement, mobile cameras, quick cutting, excitement, condensed expression, wit, comedy and attractive color. While I hold plenty of reservations about content, anyone who wants to talk to Americans–as the left presumably does–must understand this language. MTV’s influence has pervaded the culture, and, as we will see, the left is beginning to produce some visual images that have a similar look. But even in the mainstream there are some fine examples of the use of music video to convey political messages. One thinks of the Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin’s video, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.” The strongest evidence that real songs of protest can be presented in the music video genre is Artists United Against Apartheid’s “’Sun City Rap’”, written by Little Steven Van Zandt and produced by Van Zandt and Arthur Baker, which topped both The Village Voice’s and The New York Times’s list of singles for 1985 [see “’Sun City Rap’,” The Nation, December 21, 1985]. “Sun City” delivers a hard political message in the contemporary idiom, reaching a mass audience and making what Robert Christgau calls “the essential rock and roll equation between celebration and revolt.”

The most powerful example I know of an emerging left aesthetic is found in the work of the American Social History Project, which, in its own way, draws on music video and underground comics, as well as other influences. Begun at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York under the supervision of the late social historian Herbert Gutman, the project has turned out a prize-winning collection of films and audiovisual productions, under the overall direction of Stephen Brier and with the magnificent art direction of Joshua Brown. This work represents a striking alternative to the traditional aesthetic and is a fascinating example of left culture in transition.

The project’s most ambitious production to date is the thirty-minute film 1877: The Grand Army of Starvation. In that year, propelled by economic depression and pay cuts, 80,000 railroad workers struck, and across the country hundreds of thousands of others joined a national protest which was called the Great Uprising. Describing these events, 1877 is full of visual excitement, much faster than what we expect from this genre. The color is beautiful, and the camera is wonderfully active: it pans, zooms in on detail, pulls back.

Among the basic materials used in I877 are nineteenth-century graphics: black-line wood engravings from the newspapers of the day. But they are put into motion by two deliberate anachronisms:, tinting and animation. Brown found that the engravings looked “archaic, static and murky to audiences accustomed to the photographic and moving image.” Rather than immerse us in this antique look, Brown tinted the engravings, as he says, “to bring out details and add dimensionality to the drawings.” Suddenly, we are looking at a colorful scene that conveys familiarity and reality, rather than a dead and impossibly unreal past. Sometimes the graphics are retouched and animated, and the film has the overall appearance of a cartoon. Based on stills, 1877 is more of a movie than are the left documentaries.

The sound of this film is also innovative. An original score by Jane Ira Bloom takes us far from the folk singer’s guitar to synthesizer, trumpet, percussion and soprano saxophone. Just as the period graphics were colored to avoid archaisms, so was a deliberate decision made to avoid folk music, with its archaic connotations.

Like Seeing Red, 1877 uses first-person testimony. But in 1877 there is a strong narrative for which the first-person testimony is illustration. The narrative is spoken, powerfully, by James Earl Jones. Seeing the past through the mediation of the narrator brings us closer to reality than does the unmediated presentation of first-person testimony. Oral history is not history; narrative is. Here we are not left on our own to worship past heroes.

Another of the project’s productions, a slide/tape presentation titled “Tea-Party Etiquette,” offers a fine example of a critical approach to oral history. “Tea-Party Etiquette” is an adaptation of Alfred Young’s biography of George Hewes, the shoemaker who was lionized late in life for having been at the Boston Tea Party. “Tea-Party Etiquette” shows a biographer interviewing and arguing with Hewes, challenging his memory of the event. The effect is like watching Mike Wallace hector someone on ’60 Minutes. It’s lively, but, more than that, it adds layers to our understanding of the complexities of the past at a point where Seeing Red closes down and presents a single sanctified vision.

The only other left documentary I know of that breaks with the frozen conventions of the 1930s“there must be others-is Jill Godmilow’s Far From Poland. Unable to make the trip to Poland to do a film on Solidarity, she instead uses all sorts of comic and imaginative devices. An actor walks through the countryside reciting the published reminiscences of a government censor who came over to Solidarity, the scene set to a laugh track. Blackout. With melodramatic piano music in the background, there’s Fidel on the telephone, delivering an apologia for Soviet policy on Poland and lecturing Godmilow on art and politics. (“It’s your nickel,” she tells him.) This film has the mark not of the 1930s but of Jean-Luc Godard, with a touch of Laugh-In. What all of this adds up to is not solely a question of aesthetics; it is also a question of politics and honesty. The aesthetic I’ve criticized is disingenuous; it has not and it will not serve the left well. If that is the best we can do, the American people show their good sense by not listening.

Jesse Lemisch is a professor of American colonial and social history on the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is currently a visiting professor of history at Baruch College, City University of New York.


August 19, 2018

David McReynolds in the context of American radicalism

Filed under: Gay,Kevin Coogan,obituary,revolutionary organizing,socialism — louisproyect @ 9:16 pm

David McReynolds and long-time companion Shaman

The first time I ever heard the name David McReynolds was shortly after joining the SWP in 1967. At the time, the antiwar movement was a tripod made up of the Trotskyists, the CP and the pacifists. As the executive director of the War Resisters League (WRL) and a colleague of A.J. Muste who was to the peace movement in the USA as Bertrand Russell was to the British peace movement, David was a key figure.

David arrived in New York in the early 50s and eventually took an editorial job in 1957 with Liberation, a radical pacifist magazine closely tied to the WRL whose founders included three leaders of the pacifist leg of the peace movement tripod: Sidney Lens, David Dellinger and Muste himself. Both Lens and Muste were Trotskyists in the 30s before evolving in a pacifist direction. Lens was a member of Hugo Oehler’s ultraleft Revolutionary Workers League and Muste was the chairman of the American Workers Party that fused with Cannon’s Communist League of America in 1934 to form the Workers Party.

Although I was too much of a rank-and-filer to sit in on strategy meetings with these people, I always had the impression that the SWP got along better with Lens and Muste than they did with people who were ideologically pacifist from the get-go like David Dellinger and Norma Becker. They tended to bloc with Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman at the time because they all were into “propaganda of the deed”, which didn’t mean setting off bombs but getting arrested in a civil disobedience protest. Despite not seeing these people interact with each other directly, I suspect that David helped to keep the various factions together since he was such a warm and empathetic figure.

But there was no doubt about his commitment to the sort of actions pacifist groups were carrying out for most of the 20th century. David participated in some of the more important civil disobedience actions in New York under the impact of the Cold War. In the 1950s, there were civil defense drills meant to minimize the effects of an H-Bomb being dropped on the city. Instructions were utterly lunatic as David pointed out in an oral history interview with the NY Public Library. People on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building were supposed to go to the 40th floor while those on the 40th floor and below were supposed to go into the basement. Here’s a newsreel from the time showing a drill. So you can imagine how a 9-year old like me would be scared out of his wits.

Those who refused to take cover during these drills were subject to a misdemeanor arrest. David, A.J. Muste, and Catholic Worker leader Dorothy Day took part in protests at City Hall. Muste and Day served 6-month sentences and David somehow slipped through the fingers of the cops.

During the 50s, such protests managed to take place because it was difficult to smear pacifists using Red Scare tactics. The anti-nuclear movement was one of the few areas in which open socialists could operate since it involved issues that did not touch directly on the Red Scare. Like climate change, the fear of extinction was palpable especially since the slogan “Better dead than red” was gaining popularity in the 1950s.

David adopted civil disobedience tactics once again in November, 1965 when he burned his draft card at a protest in Union Square. I remember how the SWP wrestled with these tactics as they grew more popular. Clearly, they were helping to deepen antiwar resistance but they didn’t follow our Bolshevik norms. To show how warped we were, a few months before I joined the party I attended the SWP convention held in a NY hotel as an observer. A debate had ensued over whether our newspaper should take exception to the growing popularity of speaking out against the war as being “immoral, illegal and unjust” since it fostered pacifist illusions. Harry Ring, a leader of the party’s antiwar fraction, got up to oppose such a sectarian position. The fact that it was even considered showed how isolated we were from normal thinking.

In the oral history interview, David includes a fascinating anecdote that speaks volumes about his political approach. It seems that as a gay man who never hid his sexuality but never made a point of it, he never felt quite satisfied with such a defensive position. At one point he went to a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg in the East Village in which during the Q&A a woman asked him why he wrote so much about homosexuality in his poems. He replied that he did so because he was a queer. That impressed David so much that he went up to Allen later and introduced himself, the beginning of a deep friendship. At a certain point, David became responsible for persuading Ginsberg to become a public figure opposed to the war. Ginsberg was wary at first since he saw himself as a poet and not a politician. David won him to our cause by making the point that writers had a responsibility to oppose the war. Thereafter, Ginsberg became omnipresent at protests.

In 1972, the Socialist Party of America (SPA), whose lineage went back to Debs, suffered a split. Some of its rightwing leaders, who would soon become aligned with or even members of the Reagan administration, renamed the group Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA). Sensing where they were headed, Michael Harrington led a faction into the newly formed Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) that would merge with the New America Movement to form the DSA. Wary of Harrington’s orientation to the Democratic Party, a small faction went ahead and formed the Socialist Party USA (SPUSA) that David belonged to until recently. He was the party’s presidential candidate in 1980 and 2000. Unlike the DSA, you don’t find much Marxist analysis being spouted by its members such as the kind you will find in Jacobin. Also, unlike the DSA, the SPUSA hearkens back to Debs’s opposition to the two-party system. Like Debs and Norman Thomas, David had no use for the donkey or the elephant. He preferred cats and radicalism.

I am not quite sure when I hooked up with David but around twenty years ago I began making it my business to learn more about what you might call native radical traditions. Since so much of the Trotskyist experience involved applying the Bolshevik legacy mechanically to our country, I decided that David’s experience would help me fill in the blanks.

For about a year, we would get together for lunch down in the East Village where we would chew the fat. One time I got a big kick out of how he was warmly greeted by Quentin Crisp when we walked into a restaurant, where Crisp was sitting at a table by himself. It reminded me of how bohemianism, including sexual openness, and socialist politics go together.

When I joined the SWP in 1967, being outed as a gay could get you expelled. Party leaders defended the policy since supposedly the FBI could get a party member to “turn” by threatening to out him or her to the party. Marxist scholar Christopher Phelps, who was working on an article about gays in the SWP titled “The Closet in the Party”, had gotten in touch with David to sound him out. This led to David writing an article for New Politics titled “Queer Reflections” that I urge everybody to read since it epitomized his sensibility and political instincts.

I EXPERIENCED LITTLE BIAS WITHIN the Socialist Party. The late, and nearly great, Samuel H. Friedman (a Jew who kept kosher and whose wife was an Irish Catholic) said to me “I’ve heard some nasty things about you, Comrade McReynolds, but I don’t believe them.” Dwight MacDonald once said “You aren’t one of those, are you?” But it was never used against me except by some of those around Max Shachtman (I always thought it ironic that Max ended up with Tom Kahn, whose homosexuality was an open secret, as one of the few who remained on his side to the end). Within the War Resisters League (WRL), where I worked on staff for 39 years, it was never an issue, not because there was some secret gay cabal in the WRL, but because the radical tradition of the secular pacifists was much more profoundly radical than that of most Marxists. Bayard Rustin wasn’t hired by WRL because he was gay (or black) but because he was incredibly talented. (Let it be noted, as part of the historical record, and as a reminder that even great leaders have feet of clay, that A.J. Muste, so clearly a mentor for me, resigned from the executive committee of WRL in protest against the hiring of Bayard, because he felt Rustin’s record of making indiscreet homosexual passes would threaten the organization. And Bayard himself, in 1969, when the WRL magazine WIN had a “gay liberation” issue, with pieces from Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg and myself, phoned Ralph DiGia to say, “you guys are going to have to fire David — he will destroy the organization.” I never held this against Bayard, understanding only too well what his own experience had taught him.)

What makes David McReynolds so special was his ability to reflect the deeper traditions of the American left that go back to the early Communist movement, what Timothy Messer-Kruse called the “Yankee International”. Victoria Woodhull, who worked closely with Frederick Douglass, launched a Marxist current in the USA that competed with the one sanctioned by Karl Marx and that was led by Friedrich Sorge, a German immigrant. Sorge was not only exceedingly dogmatic, he was also hostile to Black-led protests since they might divide the working class.

Woodhull’s group made no such concessions, as their political traditions were rooted in the abolitionist movement. Indeed, when they called for a mass demonstration in New York City to commemorate the martyrs of the Paris Commune, the first rank in the parade went to a company of black soldiers known as the Skidmore Guard. The demonstration passed by a quarter million spectators and the sight of armed black men in the vanguard was electrifying. Sorge’s group complained that the demonstration was a distraction from working-class struggles, whose participants would lose a day’s pay by participating. He called for a boycott.

It is too bad that Marx regarded Woodhull as a spiritualist crank. Who knows? If she had received his benediction, we might be living under communism today. The tension between the Marxist high priesthood symbolized by Karl Marx in the 1870s or V.I. Lenin in the 1920s on one hand and the indigenous radical roots of living movements that sprout up according to their own rhythm and affinities has plagued us for nearly 150 years.

When people like Victoria Woodhull, Eugene V. Debs or David McReynolds come along, they deserve pride of place in building the revolutionary movement that is so desperately needed. The last time I saw David was in 2005 or so when I went to a brunch at Cynthia Cochran’s apartment on West 94th Street. She knew David for many years and admired him for the same reason she went with the “Cochranites” in 1954. In my discussions with David over lunch, we always came back to the need for a revolutionary movement that broke with the dogmatic obsession over the “Russian questions”. Like Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, David knew how to put things into perspective. Sooner or later, the left will cohere around a program that emerges out of our living experience as Americans. David had a talent for sensing the mood of ordinary Americans.

Finally, for a really sweet and revealing interview with David that includes his story of how he decided to accept his homosexuality after meeting Alvin Ailey as a young man. It also includes some great photos of the young David McReynolds who was a handsome devil.

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: Kevin Coogan,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


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.

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