September 20, 2016
August 15, 2016
Gareth Stedman Jones
Gareth Stedman Jones is a 73-year-old professor of history at the University of London who was educated at St. Paul’s and Oxford. This, plus a brief infatuation with Marxism in the 1960s, was just the ticket for landing a seat on the editorial board of New Left Review where many editors and contributors over the years share the same kind of background.
In a 2012 interview, Jones described his eventual breach with the far left, especially its Trotskyist component, as a result of being put off by the idea of a “revolutionary Europe”. Instead he realized that unlike his erstwhile comrades, he really was a “crypto-Fabian”.
For most people who have a youthful fling with radical politics, this is something easy enough to put behind them. I am acquainted, for example, with a man who was my YSA organizer in NY in 1968. He dropped out of the movement about 5 years later, moved out to California, and started a very profitable company that sold and installed industrial carpeting in office buildings. When I visited his ranch about 15 years ago, the last thing he was interested in was politics. He much preferred to drink cognac, smoke cigars and talk about the horses he was breeding.
In my view, that man does a lot less harm than Gareth Stedman Jones who has carved out a very successful career at elite British universities, including Cambridge, teaching young people all about working class history and what’s wrong with Marxism. On his webpage at the U. of London, he names his PhD students including one Kate Connelly, whose dissertation is on “Marx, Engels and the Urban Poor”. As is commonly understood, dissertation students make sure to hold views in sync with their adviser so we can assume that she will disorient her future students in the same way Jones disoriented her.
One of the most ironic contradictions of Marxism is that some of its most diehard critics speak in the name of Marxism. With the intellectual clout they might gain from serving on the NLR editorial board and having written a rafter of books with titles like “Outcast London”, a 1971 Verso book that was an exercise in E.P. Thompson “history from below”, people such as Gareth Stedman Jones can speak out of both sides of his mouth. He is for the working class in a charitable Dickensian fashion but against it becoming the ruling class.
In his latest exercise in undermining Marx while praising him, Jones just came out with a 768-page book titled “Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion” that has been reviewed in the Guardian and the Financial Times. Writing for the Guardian, Oliver Bullough states that “Stedman Jones eventually comes to the conclusion that the pioneers of 20th-century socialism would have found Marx’s true dreams incomprehensible, since they were formed in a pre-1848 world that would have had little if any relevance to them.”
In a nutshell, Jones argues that the 20th and 21st century Marxist understanding of socialism is influenced much more by Engels than Marx. Bullough explains: “Stedman Jones argues that much of what we now think of as Marxism – and, thus, much of what went on to inspire socialist and communist parties – was the creation of Engels, who codified Marx’s theories after his death, thus making them palatable for people unable or unwilling to wade through his dense texts.”
The idea that Engels was somehow to blame for the bastardization of Marxism and even partially responsible for the Stalinist travesties of “dialectical materialism” is part of the arsenal of people like Gareth Stedman Jones, even though there is little basis for this.
Mark Mazower, a Columbia University professor, wrote the FT review titled “The value of Karl Marx’s 19th century thinking in today’s world”. As I have noted in the past, the FT has published a number of articles, especially during the depth of the 2008 financial crisis, arguing for the relevance of Karl Marx even if his call for the abolition of capitalism was all wet.
Relying on Mazower’s reading of Jones, we are expected to believe that Marx neglected to deal with the problem of state power:
At the same time he continued his voluminous reading, in particular of Ludwig Feuerbach, a critic of Hegel and the thinker who did most to point Marx towards the idea of man as an alienated being who thrived best as part of a larger collective. It was this conception that allowed Marx to imagine the future as one great human society, and to relegate to an entirely unimportant position the state itself, which had been so potent in Hegel’s thought. One consequence of this downplaying of the state was that Marx developed his entire critique of capitalism with almost no reference to the role of the state: the upshot was that after 1917, when his Russian followers found themselves running the government of a very large country, they had a free hand to invent a role for the bureaucracy and ended up creating a polity in which the state played a greater role than ever before or since.
Speaking of neglect, it is obvious to me that Jones failed to take into account one of Karl Marx’s most important writings on the state—“The Civil War in France”—that was the basis for Lenin’s “State and Revolution”. I understand that Gareth Stedman Jones has more awards than Heineken beer but if he can’t make the connection between Marx and Lenin on the theory of the workers state, then he has no business teaching about Marx. But then again, the people who hired him for his various august positions saw this inability to make such a connection essential to training the future leaders of bourgeois society who might dismiss Marxism while wisely praising Marx as an important 19th century thinker.
In 2002 Penguin came out with a version of “The Communist Manifesto” with a 185-page introduction by Jones, three times the length of the Manifesto. Among the spurious points made in the introduction is that the manifesto and much of 19th century socialism was a quasi-religion. This, of course, is another key talking point against Marxism that I personally first heard in junior high school back in 1958 or so. It was “the god that failed”, a “secular religion” that replaced heaven with the communist ideal. This is a rather banal interpretation and exactly what you would expect from someone like Gareth Stedman Jones.
In a shrewd review of Jones’s packaging of The Communist Manifesto for the New Left Review, Jacob Stevens wrote:
Stedman Jones’s organizing thesis—that Marxism is another form of religion—is, of course, one of the oldest tropes of Cold War literature, predating even the equation of communism and fascism as two sides of the totalitarian coin. During the thirties, Waldemar Gurian and Eric Voegelin argued that Marxism and Nazism caricatured the fundamental patterns of religious belief, diagnosing the resulting immanentist heresies as by-products of secularization in a decadent world, fuelled by Enlightenment myths of social transformation. After World War Two, Jules Monnerot’s Sociology of Communism (1949) explained that Bolshevism was a ‘religious sect of world conquerors’ that should be viewed as a ‘twentieth-century Islam’. Raymond Aron’s Opium of the Intellectuals (1955) offered a fully fleshed-out analogy with Christianity: the ‘sacred history which Marxism extracts from the penumbra of plain facts’ offers a messianic role for the Party.
For Jones the last important work of Marx was “The German Ideology”. Apparently everything went downhill afterwards. Perhaps Jones might have done less harm if he had simply focused on social history and not written counter-revolutionary drivel. This part of his legacy might have inspired another of his dissertation students to have chosen a topic like “Carnivals in Greater London, 1890-1914: Locality, Leisure and Voluntary Action on the Metropolitan Periphery”, one that thankfully will not carry his adviser’s ideological baggage.
Then again, that might be problematic given Jones’s attempt to purge class from the history of the Chartist movement. Once again doing his best to obfuscate revolutionary history, he claims that it was liberalism rather than socialism that fueled the growth of this movement. Crypto-Fabian indeed.
In 1983, Jones came out with a book titled “Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History 1832-1982” that included a chapter titled “Rethinking Chartism”. It turned language into a fulcrum of analysis rather than class dynamics. The speeches and articles of Chartist leaders that reflected a commitment to traditional values of bourgeois democracy were taken at face value by Jones whose words reflected the baleful influence of post-structuralism:
What both ‘experience’ and ‘consciousness’ conceal – at least as their usage has evolved among historians- is the problematic character of language itself. Both concepts imply that language is a simple medium through which ‘experience’ finds expression- a romantic conception of language in which what is at the beginning inner and particular struggles to outward expression and, having done so, finds itself recognized in the answering experience of others, and hence sees itself to be part of a shared experience. It is in some such way that ‘experience’ can be conceived cumulatively to result in class consciousness. What this approach cannot acknowledge is all the criticism which has been levelled at it since the broader significance of Saussure’s work was understood – the materiality of language itself, the impossibility of simply referring it back to some primal anterior reality, ‘social being’, the impossibility of abstracting experience from the language which structures its articulation. In areas other than history, such criticisms are by now well known and do not need elaboration. But historians – and social historians in particular – have either been unaware or, when aware, extremely resistant to the implications of this approach for their own practice, and this has been so most of all perhaps when it touches such a central topic as class.
So interesting to see how Gareth Stedman Jones is inclined to draw upon intellectual traditions hostile to Marxism in an effort to simultaneously speak for the left while undermining it. If the essay on the Chartists was filled with intellectual hijinks like this, the next chapter “Why is the Labour Party Such a Mess?” was refreshingly straightforward even if the ideas were just as repugnant. It seems that the solution to the Labour Party’s problems in post-Thatcher England was to ditch the “homogeneous proletarian estate whose sectional political interest is encompassed by trade unions.”
In 2004, Jones wrote an op-ed piece for the Guardian titled “Tony Blair needs a big idea. Adam Smith can provide it”. It is a totally ahistorical think piece that abstracts Adam Smith from his contemporary context and urges readers to appreciate that Smith’s “original reputation was that of a progressive whose work provided the foundation of the radical critique of aristocratic monopoly and of the bellicose state that protected it.” He adds, “But an accurate account of this period shows that the pursuit of equality can be conceived in terms quite other than those of socialism.”
What that has to do with the 21st century when capitalism had become so decadent that it was capable of fomenting two world wars is anybody’s guess. It seems that despite his formidable reputation as a historian, Jones’s grasp of history is rather weak. Adam Smith was an enemy of state monopolies like the East India Company. How would that exactly translate into Labour Party policy? In the late 18th century, Britain was on the verge of an industrial revolution that combined with its overseas empire could turn it into the wealthiest nation in the world. Adam Smith was the prophet of that trend. But in 2004 England was deep into deindustrialization that both Labour and Conservative politicians were either enthusiastic about or reconciled to. One supposes that Gareth Stedman Jones lacked the intellectual and political insights to grasp this.
I am sure that none of my readers would waste $35 on his worthless book but for those with a morbid curiosity I would urge you to read an interview with him that is a transcript of a 2005 PBS show called “Heaven On Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism” that was hosted by Ben Wattenberg, an obnoxious neoconservative. As should be obvious from the title of the program, Jones must have jumped at the opportunity to chat with Wattenberg since they agreed that socialism was a kind of religion.
It is a pile of shit from beginning to end but reached the deepest level of shittiness when Wattenberg posed the question: “Did the writings of Lenin change people’s ideas about Socialism?” Jones replies:
Well, it absolutely moves the center of gravity from the idea that socialism is something which is going to come through the development of capitalism at its highest point, something which all socialists have believed before 1914 to the idea that building socialism in the primitive country, ninety-percent of whose population were peasants and so on, the point from which he had to redefine socialism.
Lenin tries to do so by his famous arguments that capitalism is as strong as its weakest link, and pre-revolutionary Russia has presented it as being the weakest link. So really he cuts through this whole argument about whether there are enough workers as a proportion of the population to produce a viable socialist society. Clearly, there weren’t and the Soviets learned to their costs. I mean, the forces of real socialism were thin in the country and much, therefore, was done by brute force. And of course it changed the image of socialism ever afterwards to that of being a very top-heavy, authoritarian, ruthless state machine, which was if anything, the opposite of what people would have thought socialism was meant to be in the mid-nineteenth century.
So the forces of real socialism were thin in the country and much, therefore, was done by brute force. Very interesting. Speaking of brute force, does Jones have any idea of what kind of brute force was deployed against Russia in 1918 when 21 invading armies sought to destroy the socialist experiment?
About 8 million people lost their lives during the Russian Civil War. Wikipedia also indicates the crushing of the industrial infrastructure:
Estimates say that the war cost the Soviet Russia around 50 billion rubles or $35,000,000,000.00 in today’s price. Production of industrial goods fell to very low level. For example, The Soviet Union was producing only 5 % of the cotton, and only 2 % of the iron ore, compared to the production of 1913. Generally, the production had fallen to 20% of the production of 1913.
The counter-revolutionary war had the intended effect even if “socialism” survived. The loss of Bolshevik cadre led to the rise of Stalinism, and after that the rise of fascism since the working class in Europe lacked the revolutionary leadership that could have blocked the victory of both Hitler and Franco.
As Perry Anderson pointed out in “Considerations on Western Marxism”, it was such terrible defeats that led to a retreat from revolutionary socialism among a class of intellectuals who, anticipating Gareth Stedman Jones, began to criticize Marxism from within the academy. The only thing that will reverse this trend is a new upsurge of the working class that will inevitably be produced by the irrationality of the capitalist system. Even though Gareth Stedman Jones disparages The Communist Manifesto, it is worth quoting on this point:
The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.
July 26, 2016
If you like me appreciate good writing about what it means to be a working stiff, don’t waste any time. Send in a check to subscribe to Hard Crackers: Chronicles of Everyday Life that is edited by Noel Ignatiev, a long-time revolutionary scholar, journal and activist. A check for how much, you are probably asking. Unlike many journals on the left, particularly the high-toned ones that are peer reviewed, the operating principles for Hard Crackers is—how shall we put it?—socialistic. As they say on the inside cover, “There is no set price for either single issues or subscriptions. Pay what you can. Bulk orders are particularly appreciated.”
Send checks and printed material to:
Hard Crackers, PO Box 28022, Philadelphia, PA 19131
Communications to firstname.lastname@example.org
There is something decidedly old school about Hard Crackers. There is no website, a gesture that is consistent with the esthetic of the magazine that has the redolence of the factory floor, the billiards parlor, the bowling alley and the saloon whose juke box features Hank Williams and Hank Ballard.
The articles in the premiere issue of Hard Crackers were just the kind that I dote on. They remind me of Harvey Swados’s classic 1957 Bildungsroman “On the Line”, a collection of stories about being an auto worker in the Mahwah Ford Plant. Or Michael Yates’s In and Out of the Working Class. Or even the novels and short stories of Charles Bukowski, who while by no means being a Marxist, conveyed through his fiction the observation made by Karl Marx in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844: “…the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.”
It is not just about the experiences of workers. It is also about what Ignatiev refers to in his Editor’s Introduction: “virtually every article in this issue of Hard Crackers deals directly or indirectly with race—no surprise since race remains a major concern in the U.S.”
As it happens, I cited Race Traitor, the journal that Hard Crackers grew out of, in my review of the new movie “Free State of Jones” since the main character Newton Knight was the ultimate race traitor, a Mississippi farmer who joined with the Union army to break the back of the Confederacy. I had never read Race Traitor but knew enough about Noel Ignatiev to understand that the connection was real. Indeed, so did he, as evidenced by what he wrote in the introduction:
Southern non-slaveholding whites played an important part in bringing about the downfall of the Confederacy, resisting the draft, deserting the army in large numbers and joining the general strike of white and black la-bor. The alliance between those who owned thousands of acres and hundreds of people and those who eked out a hardscrabble existence on the poorest land was unstable and could not endure.
The intersection between working class existence and racial oppression is at the heart of Ignatiev’s own contribution to the first edition of the magazine, a chronicle of one of his factory jobs as a drill press operator titled “Influence”. It deals with the experience he had with a genial old-timer named Mike who was just the kind of white worker who now supports Trump. Mike was a loyal employee all too ready to cooperate with speed-up at the small manufacturing plant, as well as to assert his role in the microcosm of American society on the shop floor:
As I was going over in my mind plans for getting the guy to slow down before he killed the rate on the job (including breaking his other eight fingers if necessary), one of the assemblers, a black man, turned the corner to head into the shop. Mike muttered something.
My mind elsewhere, I didn’t hear him clearly. “What did you say?” I asked.
“Are you from out of state or something?” said Mike. “I called him a nigger. Don’t they use that word where you come from?”
“Well, I don’t,” I said.
“Oh, I forgot, you’re at the University. They’re all liberals there,” he said with a laugh.
Before I could reply, the buzzer sounded, calling us to our devotions.
Now Mike, although brought up in a neighborhood world-famous for its resistance to school integration, lived on a street where the majority of residents were black. In response to questions from whites on the job, he simply explained that he liked living with black people. He got along well with most of the black workers. I wanted to learn more about how he thought. But first, I would have to straighten something out: no one was going to get away with calling me a University liberal. When mid-afternoon break came around, I walked over to Mike’s work station and said, “I want to ask you a question and I want you to think before you answer. I’ve spent twenty years in places like this. Do you real think that a couple of years of college makes that much different in what I am?”
I strongly urge you to take out a subscription to Hard Crackers. It is much closer to the grass roots than some of the other trendy Marxist journals that get fawned over in the NY Times and elsewhere for its millennial bloodlines. Since Ignatiev was born in 1940, he certainly couldn’t be mistaken for one.
If you need any other motivation to take out a sub, you might want to read the editor’s invitation that appeared in CounterPunch in February:
Attentiveness to daily lives is absolutely essential for those who would like to imagine how to act purposefully to change the world. During the 1940’s and 1950’s The New Yorker ran a series of profiles by Joseph Mitchell of characters around New York. Mitchell wrote, “The people in a number of the stories are of the kind that many writers have recently got in the habit of referring to as ‘the little people.’ I regard this phrase as patronizing and repulsive. There are no little people in this book. They are as big as you are, whoever you are.” The profiles are collected in Up in the Old Hotel. A reader will find there hardly a single “political” reference, yet there is no doubt that Mitchell and many of the people he wrote about would have happily adapted to life in an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
There is a need for a publication that focuses on people like the ones Mitchell profiled. It would not compete with publications that analyze developments in the capitalist system and document struggles against it, nor with groups formed on the basis of things their members oppose and things they advocate; still less would it substitute for participation in actual struggles. It would be guided by one principle: that in the ordinary people of this country (and the world) there resides the capacity to escape from the mess we are in, and a commitment to documenting and examining their strivings to do so.
The Internet has its place, but paper carries a permanency and weight no digital form can equal. Before John Garvey and I published the first issue of Race Traitor, we sent a prospectus to everyone we knew, asking those who supported it to send us ideas, articles and money. We were so unsure of the future that we didn’t ask for subscriptions. By the third issue we had attracted a new kind of audience and had become part of the public discourse on race. Thus we were able to publish sixteen issues over the next twelve years—without once having to ask readers for financial contributions. I think something similar is possible today.
Right the fuck on.
UPDATE: There is a website for Hard Crackers as indicated in Noel’s comment below.
June 23, 2016
For most people on the left, including me, American labor struggles begin with the 1877 railroad strikes and come to a climax with the CIO organizing drives of the 1930s. This is especially true if you have read Philip Foner’s “The Great Labor Uprising of 1877”, a Pathfinder book I read in the early 70s. It was a companion piece to Art Preis’s “Labor’s Giant Step”, another Pathfinder book that served as a great guide to the 1930s labor struggles and still does.
I would recommend both of these books to people who want to learn about labor history even if the money goes to a group that has lost the thread completely on the labor movement if not to speak of the class struggle in general. To these two must-reads, I would add a new book by Mark A. Lause, a former member of the Socialist Workers Party who has followed in the footsteps of Philip Foner and Art Preis with the magisterial “Free Labor: The Civil War and the Making of the American Working Class”.
When you hear the term “free labor” in the context of the Civil War, the first thing that springs to mind is the Radical Republican agenda to abolish slavery but Lause uses it in a broader sense. His study amasses an astonishing collection of historical detail to demonstrate that the worker soldiers who fought for emancipation also thought the term applied to their own struggle against bosses, whether they owned a shoe factory in Massachusetts or a plantation in Mississippi.
In the very first sentence of the Acknowledgments, Lause states: “Work on this subject has gone on for decades, as I gathered up what has become the bits and pieces from almost every library or archive I’ve ever visited.” Support for this statement can be found on just about every page of a work that is studded with amazing profiles of personalities and events that have languished in obscurity for far too long.
As an experiment, I opened “Free Labor” randomly and felt positive that I would land upon the kind of revelation that makes the book so compelling. So on page 80, I read:
[DeWitt Clinton] Roberts went from Charleston to Atlanta for work, but, as the weeks wore on, the prospect of Confederate conscription once more threatened him. He had gotten a thirty-day leave from his employer, the Southern Confederacy, to visit Charleston, and then told the provost marshal that he wanted to visit his relatives near Oxford, Mississippi. On December 20, 1863, he abandoned his “trunk, books, and clothing,” saving what he “could carry in a handtrunk.” He found that war had crippled the Southern railroads, but he reached Oxford nevertheless, eight days later. There, he persuaded the Confederate cavalry to permit him through the lines to Holly Springs. Circumstances soon forced Roberts, who had thought so disparagingly of the blacks attacking Fort Wagner, to rely entirely upon African Americans for assistance in reaching Union lines.
Roberts was a printer from the North who had ended up in the South for work before the start of the war and became part of the modest trade union initiatives that were cropping up there as well, often incorporating the region’s racist ideology. When the prospects of being drafted into the Rebel army confronted him, he had no choice except to depend on Blacks to escape to the North. Whatever his racial attitudes, and as Lause points out he was no William Lloyd Garrison, he made common cause with those seeking freedom.
The printers are to the labor struggles of the 1860s that railway workers were to 1877 and auto workers were to the CIO in the 30s. This was a function of the vanguard role played by craftsmen in the 1860s, a period long before Fordism and assembly lines became dominant. Like the men who volunteered to fight against Franco in Spain, printers enlisted in the Union army as a way of defeating chattel slavery in the South and what was commonly known as wages slavery in the North at some point in the future. Lause cites a newspaper that observed in 1861 that every volunteer regiment had enough printers to open an office of its own.
The National Typographers Union was to the labor vanguard of the 1860s that the UAW was to Flint sit-down strikes even if it like the UAW failed to break the color line at General Motors. Lause points out that after the war the Washington, DC printers deferred to the Confederate veterans who refused to work alongside Blacks, including Lewis H. Douglass, the son of Frederick Douglass, who worked in the Government Printing Office.
For New Yorkers, there is a great pleasure in store to read about the most militant bastion of free labor in the city, the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Lause writes:
There, too, a vicious dispute in the Navy Yard among radicalized workers was raised. One of their leaders, Moses Platt, “made an extravagant speech about capital and labor,” calling on workers to throw off their yoke. At a meeting of a Brooklyn trade union meeting, one of the members rose to discuss working-class political action, adding that “the nearest approach to success was made in France during the last revolution, when the combination of labor became so strong that capitalists in all countries became alarmed and combined to put it down, and – did so through Napoleon.”
Employers reacted coherently when workers beyond the Navy Yard showed signs of militancy: stonecutters, blacksmiths, carpenters and laborers went on strike as did painters and hatters, while piano makers faced a lockout, and plasterers, molders, jewelers, machinists, and musicians organized for a pay increase. A “Farmers’ Protective Union of the counties of Kings, Queens, Suffolk, Westchester, Richmond and Rockland” formed. At the same time, the use of convict labor drew the molders and other trade unionists into politics, urging a bill to regulate such innovations.
You get a sense of the craftsmen character of the early labor movement from the inclusion of jewelers, musicians and piano makers fighting for higher wages. Many years ago just after I had completed a training program as a machinist in Kansas City in order to help me get a factory job as part of the SWP’s “turn to industry”, the word came down that party members should only work in unskilled jobs like in the meatpacking industry. Clearly, they had a very poor grasp not only of the role of skilled workers in this period but how workers become politicized in the first place. As was the case during the Civil War and will surely be the case in the next radicalization, workers will move against the class enemy not because of their role in surplus value creation but as a reaction to social crisis in general. When Lenin wrote in “What is to be Done” that a socialist party has to respond to every injustice, including the right of artists to paint as they please, he was polemicizing against the “point of production” mentality that has confused so much of the left over the years into adopting a “workerist” orientation.
African-Americans, either those still enslaved or those in the ranks of “wages slavery” were on the front lines of the labor movement. In the South, they engaged in mass resistance to the Confederacy as they abandoned their slave-master’s plantation or carried out sabotage and arson to undermine the rebel cause.
In the general insurrectionary mood, poor whites in the South began to make common cause with Blacks as Lause points out:
The growing numbers of aggrieved nonslaveholders, including armed Confederate deserters and escaped Union prisoners, provided slave rebels a growing number of whites ready to transgress the color bar. Civilian authorities far from Federal lines clamored for martial law and the assignment of troops to suppress small bands of armed blacks. Increasingly, Confederates feared a convergence of “deserters from our armies, Tories and runaways.” By early 1864 Confederate officials in South Carolina reported “five to six hundred negroes” not in “the regular military organization of the Yankees” who “lead the lives of banditti, roving the country with fire and committing all sorts of horrible crimes upon the inhabitants.” Florida officials reported “500 Union men, deserters, and negroes . . . raiding towards Gainesville,” while similar groups formed to commit “depredations upon the plantations and crops of loyal citizens and running off their slaves.” At Yazoo City, Mississippi, they not only attacked such private estates but successfully burned the courthouse.
As it happens, this is the scenario of a film I saw at a press screening last night. Titled “The Free State of Jones”, it is about the pro-Union resistance of Newton Knight, a poor farmer in Mississippi who deserted from the Confederate army, and his Black allies. It is a great film just as “Free Labor” is a great book and one that I will be reviewing in a day or so.
November 14, 2015
Opening at the IFC Center on November 20th, “Mediterranea” is a timely narrative film about immigration, an issue that has been dominating the media for the past year or two. In this instance, the characters are not political refugees but a couple of brothers from Burkina Faso who are trying to make to Europe in hope of a better life.
While most people who have been following the immigration story are aware that the voyage across the Mediterranean Ocean on rickety boats has cost the lives of more than 2000 people this year, the film dramatizes the hazards that must be faced even before they reach the boat. The two brothers, Ayiva and Abas, join a group of about twenty people who must reach their point of departure in Algeria by first traveling through the Libyan desert. Relying on a guide who they are told to trust implicitly, they are ambushed by Libyan bandits who obviously got tipped off by the guide. They are ordered to surrender their hard-earned cash and other valuables. When one man begins complaining loudly even as he has complied with their demands, he gets a bullet in the head.
Eventually the two brothers make it to Italy—just barely—where they make their way to a small town in the countryside where they hope to hook up with other Burkina Faso immigrants. After being warmly greeted in town by their brethren, they are escorted to their new home—a room in a shantytown hovel. Between the two brothers, there are conflicts over their situation with Ayiva seeing the glass half-full and Abas seeing it as ninety percent empty.
Like most of the other male immigrants, they end up as farmworkers picking oranges for an Italian family that looks upon them kindly but patronizingly. The grandmother insists on being called Mother Africa while the teenaged granddaughter turns over a carton of oranges because she is feeling bitchy. Her father is fair to his workers but only so far as it goes. When Ayiva practically begs him to help secure the papers necessary for permanent residence, the man lectures him about his grandfather who relied on nobody except his family when he came to the USA.
The film is remarkable by staying close to the realities of immigrant life without resorting to the melodrama that many of these types of films deem necessary. It is about the daily struggle to make a living in difficult circumstances and the small pleasures that come with the gatherings of fellow Burkina Faso men and women at night as they share drinks, listen to Western music, and shore each other up for the next day’s travails.
The press notes indicate how the director came to make such a film:
It would be pretentious on my part to claim that I have experienced anything remotely close to what the immigrants are experiencing —I can only be an outside observer here. However, because of my own background, I could approach the story of African immigrants in Italy with some personal connections. My mother is African-American and my father is Italian. And I’ve always been very interested in race relations, with a particular interest in the role of black people in Italian society. So when the first race riot took place in Rosarno in 2010, I immediately went down to Calabria to learn more about the circumstances that lead to the revolt. It was an event of historical proportions because it opened up for the first time the question of race relations in an Italian context. So I started talking to people and collecting stories about their lives. I settled there permanently and began to think about a script.
Although it should not be a factor in either reviewing or seeing this exceptionally well-made and politically powerful film, a few words about Burkina Faso would help you understand why such people would take the arduous trip across the Mediterranean to an uncertain future.
In 1983 Captain Thomas Sankara, who was to Burkina Faso as Hugo Chavez was to Venezuela, led a popular revolution in Upper Volta, a former French colony. Once in power, he changed the name of the country to Burkina Faso, which meant “Land of Upright Men”, and embarked on a bold series of social and economic reforms targeting the country’s poor, especially the women. Called the “Che Guevara of Africa”, he consciously modeled his development program on the Cuban revolution.
Unlike in Venezuela where Hugo Chavez was saved from a coup attempt by the power of the people, the Burkina Faso experiment had a tragic outcome. Blaise Compaoré, acting on behalf of Burkina Faso’s tiny but powerful bourgeoisie and their patrons in France, overthrew Sankara in 1987.
For the next twenty-seven years Blaise Compaoré created the conditions that forced people like Ayiva and Abas to risk everything on a voyage that could cost them lives at worst and at best to end up picking oranges for minimum wages. In 2006 the UN rated Burkina Faso as 174th in human development indicators, just three places from the bottom. With cotton plantations dominating the rural economy, the country is locked into the traditional neocolonial, agro-export dependency.
Last year when Compaoré proposed a change to the constitution that would allow him to run for office once again after the fashion of Robert Mugabe, the country erupted in protests and he fled the country. In the aftermath, there have been various attempts by military figures to run the country temporarily until elections were held next year. Suffice it to say that none of them measures up to Thomas Sankara. One hopes that the same kind of courage and determination that led the characters in “Mediterranea” to make the arduous trip to Italy will serve to make Burkina Faso the “Land of Upright Men” once again.
Following in the footsteps of this year’s “A Second Mother”, a Brazilian film about class divisions between master and servant in a wealthy household, “Casa Grande” incorporates much of the same tensions and even a central character—a teenage son who is uncomfortable with privilege.
In “Casa Grande”, which opened yesterday at the Cinema Village in New York, we meet Jean the teenage son early on as he sneaks into the bedroom of Rita, one of the family’s two maids. Overloaded with raging hormones, he can barely restrain himself as Rita—a beautiful young woman—tells him about a tryst she had with a motorcyclist whose name she did not even know. He took her to an alley, lifted up her skirt, and began kissing her bottom. As Jean begins to make a move on Rita, she holds him off and sends him back to his room—the only power that she can exercise in a house where class privilege is on display every minute of the day.
Hugo, Jean’s father, is impatient with Jean who has a slacker temperament. It is not just that the youth is unmotivated, although that is a problem, it is more that he is not very smart—the same flaw that existed in the young man in “A Second Mother”. That does not stand in the way of the close relationship he has built with the hired help and in fact makes it more possible. For someone barely capable of passing Brazil’s onerous entrance exams for college, there is little point in pretending that he is something other than a kid who likes music and women. When Severino the chauffeur drives him to school in the morning, the main topic of conversation is how to “score”. It is clear that Jean has much more of a rapport with the driver than his martinet of a father who expects him to join Brazil’s bourgeoisie.
This is a bourgeoisie that Hugo is barely clinging to having lost his job as an investment adviser and who is now deeply in debt, so much so that every penny must be accounted for in Casa Grande. Before the family gathers for dinner in the evening, he reminds them to shut out the lights in their room before they sit down at the table. We eventually learn that Hugo, despite all his displays of privilege, has not paid the servants for the past three months and that he will be forced to sell their mansion in a gated community designed to keep out people from the lower classes.
When Jean develops a relationship with Luiza, a young woman of mixed ancestry, race joins class in forcing Jean to decide where his loyalties lie. The main topic of conversation at dinner gatherings is Brazil’s new affirmative action law that will allot 40 percent of the posts in many public institutions to Black or brown people, including Luiza. When she insists to Hugo that she deserves a spot in college because of the new law’s commitment to compensating for slavery, he spits out that he earned his place in society. Nobody ever gave him anything.
His place in society is exactly what is in jeopardy now. Although the information will be familiar to Brazilian audiences, I had to research the nature of Hugo’s immanent downfall on the net. It seems that he owned thousands of shares in OGX, the second largest oil and gas company in Brazil after Petrobras. This is a company that would go broke eventually because of the mismanagement of its CEO Eike Batista, who was an even bigger screw-up than Hugo.
In 2008 Forbes listed Batista as the 8th richest man in the world. Five years later he would be ruined because OGX was pumping only 15,000 gallons of oil out of the ground rather than the 750,000 it predicted. This year Brazilian cops seized seven cars from Batista, including a white Lamborghini Aventador, and all the cash he had left.
If you want to understand the turmoil in Brazil today, there’s no better place to go than the Cinema Village to see this brilliant dissection of a society falling apart at the seams.
Finally, there’s “Barge”, a 71-minute documentary showing tomorrow at the Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas on 260 W 23rd St, between 7th and 8th Avenues as part of the NY Documentary Film Festival that runs until the 19th (the schedule is here: http://www.docnyc.net/schedule/).
In this marvelous work by Ben Powell, we accompany a crew as they navigate the Mississippi River from Rosedale, Mississippi to points northward. The film alternates between gorgeous vistas of the river, the men at work on the boat, and interviews that you have to strain a bit to understand since the drawls are so thick you can cut them with a knife. (Will Patterson’s minimalist film score is a winner, the best Philip Glass-inspired work I have heard in decades.)
The interviews are what make this film stand out. If you have read Studs Terkel’s “Working”, you’ll get an idea of what inspired Ben Powell to make such a film. In a period when workers are undervalued, you’ll be impressed with how the crew see themselves—as men who help keep the country going. One nails it this way: most of everything you touch gets there on a barge, including the concrete of the sidewalks you walk on and the plastic your groceries are packaged in. With so much of American society consumed with “making it” on an individualist basis, it is great to see a collectivist ethos that goes back centuries at least.
November 1, 2015
As I pointed out in my last post that excerpted Vivian Gornick’s poignant and politically astute “The Romance of American Communism”, I was struck when I read it in the early 80s by how much the CP experience was like our own. This was particularly true of the “turn to industry” that began in 1977. As you will see in the excerpt from Gornick below, both the CP and the SWP used the same jargon. Can you imagine how much stupidity was involved in using the term “colonize” to describe what we did? As if we were missionaries going into the Congo to convert the natives? In fact the passage below refers to conversion three times. We never used that term ourselves (and for all I know the CP did not either) but it certainly describes what we were about. We “went into industry” to sell subscriptions to our stupid newspaper just like Jehovah’s Witnesses going door to door, not to participate in labor struggles which were far and few between. But at least if you were in the CP, you got involved in living struggles. For that matter, the SWP’ers had the same experience in the 1930s and 40s. However, in 1977 the chances were slim that such an experience could be repeated—a function of the low ebb in the class struggle as well as our own ineptitude.
Going into Industry
“GOING into industry” (otherwise known in ironic Party parlance as “colonizing”) is the phrase used to describe the Communist Party’s practice during the Thirties, Forties, and early Fifties of sending Party organizers out to take up jobs as workers in the factories, plants, laboratories, and offices of America for the purpose of educating workers to class consciousness, converting them to socialism, and recruiting them into the Communist Party. Over nearly a quarter of a century thousands of American Communists spent the greater portion of their adult working lives “in industry.” The collective history of the life and work of these CP “colonizers” is one of glory and sorrow.
While for the most part they did not convert American workers to socialism, and certainly they did not recruit them in any significant numbers into the Communist Party, they most certainly did exert tremendous influence on the growth of worker consciousness in this country and contributed vastly to the development of the American labor movement. Throughout the Thirties and Forties, wherever major struggles were taking place between American labor and American capital, it was almost a given that CP organizers were involved. In the fields of California, in the auto plants of Flint, in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, in the mines of West Virginia, in the electrical plants of Schenectady: they were there. They fought for the eight-hour day, the minimum wage, worker compensation, health and welfare insurance. And for one glorious moment—during the brief life of the CIO —they brought genuine worker politics to the American labor movement. What happened to many of the organizers, in fact, was that while they were unable to convert the nation’s workers to socialism, they themselves became gifted American trade unionists.
Karl Millens is fifty years old. He was raised in The Coops, named for Karl Marx, and was for twenty-three years a member of the Communist Party. Between the ages of twenty and thirty-seven he worked in industrial plants all over the Midwest on assignment for the CP. Today, Karl is an instructor in political science in a small community college in the New York area. He has written one book he was unable to get published and is now at work on a second. Publication, he says, is really a minor concern for him; he is happiest when sitting at the typewriter.
“The typewriter,” Karl says, holding out his large, well-shaped hands, “is a machine that fits my hands. The machines I used when I worked in the plant, they never fit my hands. They never felt natural to me, the way the typewriter does ”
Karl Millens is not bitter about his life as a Communist, but he is a sad man. He is divorced, estranged from many of his old friends, lives in a shabby one-room apartment in lower Manhattan, works at a low-paying, intellectually unrewarding job, and seems continually to be repressing a tide of emotional bewilderment that threatens daily to engulf him. It is visibly difficult for him to talk about the past. He is intelligent enough to know that if he could make sense of the past he would live more easily in the present, but he seems to have no confidence in the notion that he ever can make sense of the past. On this cold December night, however, he tries, he tries.
“Growing up in The Coops . . .” he begins vaguely. He passes a hand wearily across his wide forehead grown wider by virtue of a receding hairline. “It was like growing up in a hothouse. We were the hothouse kids of the Left. And like all creatures of the hothouse, we bloomed more intensely, more radiantly, precisely because the atmosphere was artificial. You know, in a very real sense America was a foreign country to us. Electoral politics meant nothing to us. But for weeks before May Day every wall, every storefront, every lamp post in the neighborhood was plastered with ‘All Out May One.’ And on the day itself the local grade school was empty. That was our election day, our July Fourth, our Hannukah, and our Christmas.
“I think almost every other Communist in America was more realistically involved with the country than we were. And more realistically involved with how they could best serve Communism in America than we were We grew up inside a language and a culture that was so dense, so insular, and finally so abstract. It’s incredible, when I think of it. We were all working class. Now, most working-class Communists didn’t romanticize working. But we, having grown up inside the theoretical jargon of Marxist-Leninist thought, adopted the stance of middle-class Party intellectuals and conceived our mission as revolutionaries to join the proletariat as fast as possible. No matter that we really were half-way to being intellectuals, that we felt at home only talking theory, ‘going into industry’ was all most of us dreamed of from the time we were teenagers.
“God! That language. This was supposed to be a movement of liberation, but every time I turned around I felt more and more constricted. Constricted by my language, which was either acceptable or nonacceptable. Constricted by my actions, which were definitely either acceptable or nonacceptable. Books I should or should not be reading, thoughts I should or should not be having. .. The Marxist-Leninist jargon was supposed to be evidence of high intelligence. But I found it put to uses of intimidation, and finally I felt it evidenced more a fear of life than it did of genuinely high intelligence. I remember when I left my wife and went into psychotherapy, I felt like a light had gone on inside my head. I saw a shape to my life I had not imagined before. When I tried to tell my oldest friend in the Party some of the things that were happening inside me, he talked to me as though I were counterrevolutionary vermin, fit only to be isolated in a laboratory or—under the right, the correct regime—taken out and shot. But all that came later, much later, these realizations of mine. First, I had to put in seventeen years in industry, serving the revolution around the corner.
“What can I tell you about the years in industry? They were, for me, slow, imperceptible, pointless death. I spent seventeen years working beside men I never had any intimacy or shared experience with, doing work which numbed my mind and for which I had no physical facility. Its sole purpose was to allow me to grow close to the men and be ready to move when a radically pregnant situation arose. Well, I was never close to the men and no situation arose, at least none I would ever know how to move into. I discovered very quickly I had no talent—repeat none—for organizing, for unionizing, for negotiating. I was slow-witted, clumsy on the uptake, half the time I didn’t know what the hell was going on around me. When a real, a natural organizer arose among the men, not only did I see how far away I was from the action, I couldn’t even encourage the guy in a radical direction. I’d open my mouth and out would come, I’m sure, I can hardly remember now what I said, some Marxist-Leninist formula The guy would just stare at me, shake his head, and walk away. I know he liked me, but I’m also sure he thought I was retarded. “I know that many people who went into industry were terrific organizers and turned out to be great trade unionists. But I have a feeling not too many of them came from The Coops.”
July 29, 2015
In May the NY Times ran a series of investigative reports on the city’s nail salons that depicted a trail of abuse that consisted of sub-minimum wage pay, exposure to toxic chemicals and a work week that might consist of 66 hours according to one report.
I found the articles compelling both for what they said about super-exploitation and as a welcome exposure of one of the city’s more dubious enterprises. When I moved to New York in 1979, they were beginning to take root. Like everything else that has transformed the city into a playground for the rich and the superrich, they always struck me as a kind of decadent reminder of colonialism with white women having their hands and feet catered to by Asian women. Sarah Maslin Nir, who deserves a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting, wrote:
The juxtapositions in nail salon workers’ lives can be jarring. Many spend their days holding hands with women of unimaginable affluence, at salons on Madison Avenue and in Greenwich, Conn. Away from the manicure tables they crash in flophouses packed with bunk beds, or in fetid apartments shared by as many as a dozen strangers.
Ms. Ren worked at Bee Nails, a chandelier-spangled salon in Hicksville, N.Y., where leather pedicure chairs are equipped with iPads on articulated arms so patrons can scroll the screens without smudging their manicures. They rarely spoke more than a few words to Ms. Ren, who, like most manicurists, wore a fake name chosen by a supervisor on a tag pinned to her chest. She was “Sherry.” She worked in silence, sloughing off calluses from customers’ feet or clipping dead skin from around their fingernail beds.
At night she returned to sleep jammed in a one-bedroom apartment in Flushing with her cousin, her cousin’s father and three strangers. Beds crowded the living room, each cordoned off by shower curtains hung from the ceiling. When lights flicked on in the kitchen, cockroaches skittered across the countertops.
The articles were so well researched and so filled with righteous indignation simmering beneath the surface of the typically neutral reportorial style that they were enough to spur NY State’s neoliberal governor into action. On May 18th he announced a series of bills that would curtail such abuses and that would include a Bill of Rights to be posted in every workplace informing workers of their rights to a decent wage and normal working hours.
Four days ago, however, a blog post titled “What the ‘Times’ Got Wrong About Nail Salons” appeared in the New York Review of Books, a high-toned journal that has been around since 1963. During the Vietnam War it reflected the popular mood, publishing articles by Noam Chomsky and other leftists. As it has gotten older, it has moved to the center and become complacent. So in that sense, it was no surprise that Bernstein would submit his article to the NY Review and that they would publish it.
Bernstein traded on the fact that he used to work for the Times and that his Chinese wife and sister-in-law run a nail salon:
As a former New York Times journalist who also has been, for the last twelve years, a part owner of two day-spas in Manhattan, I read the exposé with particular interest. (A second part of the same investigation, which appeared in the Times a day later, concerned chemicals used in the salon industry that might be harmful to workers.) Our two modestly-sized establishments are operated by my wife, Zhongmei Li, and my sister-in-law, Zhongqin Li, both originally from China, and “mani-pedi” is a big part of the business. We were startled by the Times article’s Dickensian portrait of an industry in which workers “spend their days holding hands with women of unimaginable affluence,” and retire at night to “flophouses packed with bunk beds, or in fetid apartments shared by as many as a dozen strangers.” Its conclusion was not just that some salons or even many salons steal wages from their workers but that virtually all of them do. “Step into the prim confines of almost any salon and workers paid astonishingly low wages can be readily found,” the story asserts. This depiction of the business didn’t correspond with what we have experienced over the past twelve years. But far more troubling, as we discovered when we began to look into the story’s claims and check its sources, was the flimsy and sometimes wholly inaccurate information on which those sweeping conclusions were based.
Today I was pleased to see the NY Times response to Bernstein that basically stated that Bernstein was trying to depict his own nail salons as typical of the industry when the investigative reporting team’s work was based on a broad cross-section and backed up by Department of Labor statistics. It concluded with this knockout punch:
Mr. Bernstein produced much fine and admirable work during his lengthy tenure at The Times. He has many friends here. To his credit, he has been upfront about being part of the salon industry and having a vested financial interest in its health. Still, that doesn’t alter the fact that he has taken on the role of a partisan defender, not a journalist.
In an exchange prior to his story, Mr. Bernstein argued that our stories failed to highlight how being a manicurist can lead to a successful career as a salon owner. We concede he made a valid point about certain positives in the industry that could have been amplified. But we are nonetheless disappointed that the New York Review of Books chose to publish what is essentially an example of industry advocacy, not unbiased journalism.
Out of curiosity, I checked out Bernstein’s articles in the NY Times archives just to see why someone would try to put a positive spin on an industry that was just one step up from slave labor. With 1,867 articles to his credit, I could find none that were particularly obnoxious.
But what did catch my eye was a review of a book he wrote in 2009 titled “The East, The West, And Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters”. Hmm. What was up with that? Reviewer Simon Winchester found this observation of Bernstein’s troublesome: “the sexual advantage of the Western man in the East is an aspect of Western dynamism, the questing spirit of Europeans, compared with the relative passivity of Asian in these matters.” Talk about Orientalism!
Winchester was relatively charitable to Bernstein, as you would expect for a review of an alumni’s book, but Salon.com not so much as might be indicated by the tile of Laura Miller’s review: “White male seeking sexy Asian women”. She wrote:
However, sexual freedom, to a greater and more intimate degree than any other freedom, is a paradoxical thing. Unless you’re talking about masturbation, then someone else — a human being with his or her own desires and dislikes — is involved. If you define sexual freedom as being able to do whatever you want with whomever you please, then (except in very rare cases of perfect compatibility with one’s partner at every moment) one man’s freedom is another woman’s compulsion. Women in traditional harem cultures languished in a condition of de facto slavery, where they had no right to determine anything about their own lives, let alone their sexual partners and activities. Their very survival was predicated on pleasing men. They were treated for the most part as animate commodities, like livestock, to be bought, sold and discarded at will. And if Eastern men’s adulterous shenanigans were regarded as “natural,” in women such behavior was punishable by extreme social ostracism and frequently by death.
No wonder that a man who wrote a book that was indifferent to Asian women languishing in “a condition of de facto slavery” and being treated “like livestock” would put the best possible spin on nail salons.
July 3, 2015
Recently I have begun a project that should be of some interest to radicals, particularly film buffs like me. I will be creating a database of links to radical films that can be seen on the Internet for free, or for a nominal fee. Most of these films will be viewable on Youtube but one that I saw this week is available on veoh.com, a Video streaming website that is part of qlipso.com, a social networking company that was launched out of Israel. My advice is to not let this stand in the way of watching “Native Land”, a 1942 documentary co-directed by Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand, two leading figures in the Communist Party-led cultural front that was so brilliantly analyzed in Michael Denning’s “The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century”.
The film was a virtual who’s who of the CP artistic community. In addition to Hurwitz, who was blacklisted during the 1950s, and photographer Paul Strand, who was not a party member but embodied their esthetic, it featured Paul Robeson as narrator and music by Marc Blitzstein best known for his musical play “The Cradle Will Rock” that was directed by Orson Welles. (In 1999 Tim Robbins directed a serviceable film based on the play’s difficulties getting staged.)
“Native Land” consists of a series of dramatic reenactments of how corporate America used gun-thugs and spies to crush the trade union movement, especially in the Deep South. The technique might be familiar to you if you’ve seen Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line” or Andrew Jarecki’s “The Jinx”, which had actors reprising the alleged crimes of real estate heir Robert Durst. In one reenactment, Howard Da Silva plays a snitch named Jim hired by the bosses to secretly take down the names of trade union members for blacklisting purposes. (This was a time when the CIO was nothing close to the immensely powerful machine it would become.) There was an immense irony in this since Da Silva was a CP’er who was blacklisted in the 1950s. Jim’s fellow spy was played by Art Smith, another victim of the witch-hunt whose career effectively came to an end in 1952.
June 24, 2015
Today I started reading “A Red Family: Junius, Gladys and Barbara Scales”, a review copy of a book that had been sitting on my shelves for about five years. I wish I had gotten to it sooner since it is a great read, especially for the parts of this essentially oral history that is devoted to Junius who I had the great pleasure to meet and interview a couple of years before his death in 2002. He was a leader of the CPUSA in the south and a scion of a very wealthy North Carolina family and the first CP’er to be convicted on the Smith Act.
What follows below is my write-up on my meeting with Junius long before I began blogging followed by an excerpt from his memoir “Cause at Heart”, which for my money is the best memoir ever written by a radical. It concludes with an excerpt from “A Red Family” that deals with him “going into industry” as we used to put it in the SWP. I imagine that when I went into industry in 1978 if I had anything remotely similar to his experience in a textile company town in 1940, I would have stuck with it. In the back of my mind I knew that the whole thing was a fantasy in contrast to Junius’s transformative experience.
My meeting with Junius Scales:
I had a grand old time yesterday with Junius Scales at his country home up on the side of a mountain near Pine Bush, New York. We sat on the porch while he offered pointed observations about well-known and not so well-know figures on the left.
The question of how people shift to the right after leaving Marxist-Leninist groups has come up on this list time and again. Junius’s trajectory seems far more typical. After leaving the CPUSA in disgust back in the mid 1950s, he has continued to embrace socialist or progressive values which were very much in evidence when he recently spoke at a conference at the University of North Carolina on campus radicalism in the 1940s. He was in the thick of things back then as the leader of a 150 member (!!!) party club there in 1947.
We spoke some about Trotskyism which he never had the pleasure of encountering until he left the CP. When he was a proofreader at the New York Times, he met Dave Weiss who worked in the same department and who was the brother of Murray Weiss, married to Myra Tanner Weiss. These were two SWP leaders in the 1950s. Dave Weiss, a rank-and-filer, eventually became a documentary film-maker of some repute while Murray and Myra were typical party leaders, intolerant to a fault and convinced of their own intellectual and political superiority to everybody else.
At a big cocktail party in the 1950s, Junius was having a pleasant chat with Alger Hiss who spotted Myra Tanner Weiss. Also at the party was a left-wing Labour Party MP who Hiss mischievously decided to introduce to Myra. He brought the two together and within a matter of minutes the two of them were castigating each other loudly and had drawn a circle of onlookers about them, as if a fist-fight was going on. Hiss stood on the sidelines enjoying the spectacle thoroughly.
Junius was pretty close to the Robeson family and is convinced that the psychological collapse of the great man was linked to his bad faith over Stalin. Robeson had enormous affection for the dean of the Yiddish stage in the Soviet Union, Isaac Pfeffer, who Stalin had executed. Robeson found a way to justify this. A lifetime of making excuses must have taken its toll. Junius visited Robeson in the 1950s when the psychosis was in full sway. They sat in the living room chatting pleasantly with Robeson’s wife and children when all of a sudden Robeson himself emerged from the bedroom and confronted the group with a wild, unrecognizing look on his face.
Junius became very close to Earl Browder after Browder was expelled from the CPUSA. He says that despite Browder’s support for a more open and less dogmatic socialism, that he personally was extremely dogmatic in the way he promoted these beliefs. It was impossible to disagree with him.
As we discussed politics and personalities, we watched large birds soaring in the skies above the mountain-tops. Were they hawks, I asked him? If they flap their wings every five minutes or so, they’re hawks. If not, they are buzzards. He had become an expert bird-watcher living in the mountainous wilderness over the past twenty years or so. Black bears were frequent visitors to his property.
My mother sat in the living room reading the Sunday New York Times while Junius and I chatted. When we broke for lunch, my mom announced that she had found an interesting quote. The judge in the Vincent Gigante trial had once presided in a case against the terrorist Jewish Defense League. He told the accused that it was more Jewish to uphold the book rather than the bomb.
I informed my mom that it was a small world, since Gigante had saved Junius’s life when he was at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary doing time for a Smith Act violation. Junius had mentioned to a Mafia prisoner that Daniel Bell’s new (at the time) book “The Decline of Ideology” had a chapter making the case that there was no such thing as organized crime. This chapter was read by all the Mafia prisoners who passed the information on to their lawyers. Gigante, a boss of the Mafia both in prison and outside, felt that a debt was owed to Scales. When a hulking, murderous prisoner threatened to kill Junius, Gigante stepped in and told him to lay off and that was that.
I will take up Junius Scales’ book “Cause at Heart” in a subsequent post.
From “Cause at Heart”:
Suddenly I remembered a bright autumn morning fifteen years before, when I had been a Communist for only a few months. I had been going cheerfully to my job in the tax office in the county courthouse in my native Greensboro, North Carolina, when I looked up at barred windows on the top floor of the white stone building and stopped in my tracks. “My friends and I will go to jail someday,” I had imagined in my idealistic innocence, “because our belief in the socialist world is something that these grim lawyers and smug pillars of society I work among will never tolerate; they will hunt us down and box us in, even though what we advocate they hear preached in church and even mad about in the New Testament.” I had felt a twinge of fear raise gooseflesh on my neck and scalp, even as I felt it then in Memphis, waiting that evening to take my lumps at last, like many another radical “do-gooder” and “bleeding heart.” I had a fleeting moment of self-doubt during which I wondered how I could have allowed my adversaries to entangle something as beautiful as the advocacy of a better world in criminal proceedings; I myself must have botched the job somehow.
It was 7:28. As I walked past the apparently empty FBI car at the next intersection, I was overwhelmed with the helplessness of my situation. I was like an animal surrounded by hunters and with no bushes to hide in. Inside the peaceful lower-middle-class houses around me, people were finishing dinner, washing dishes, reading the paper, watching TV. Meanwhile, ahead of me, the gathering FBI cars were making their own traffic jam in the otherwise deserted, rainswept streets.
From “A Red Family”:
But when I got back to North Carolina I was really a “professional revolutionary” and completely committed. I had no intention of going back to college. I went to see my mother, and she was very distressed.
I went to live in the mill village in High Point and boarded with one of the families I had met with Bart [CP organizer for North Carolina] I liked them tremendously and lived with the man, his wife, and three daughters in a miserable three-room company house.
You could tell if the stars were out at night by looking through the cracks in the wall. In the wintertime, a thread would stand almost horizontal from the breezes through the cracks. There was no water inside and a cold-water faucet out back. Twenty-five feet back of the house was a little outhouse. When you got off, the seat flew up, and an automatic flush business occurred.
The entire family slept in the same bedroom. There were beds jammed into this one room: the mother and father the older daughter in one, and the two youngest daughters shared the other. The living room was mostly for ornament. It was a wasted room, because in the wintertime the only room heated was the kitchen. ‘The kitchen was the social room, and both stoves were needed to keep it warm it didn’t stay warm for too long because the house wasn’t insulated. But that’s where the whole family lived during the entire winter. And all the houses in the village were about the same.
They were a lovely family. The husband and wife were about thirteen years older than I. She was always very motherly to me, and he was like a big brother. He was quite sophisticated, a worldly sort of guy, and she was a woman of wonderful courage and drive, very strong and yet very tender. And their kids were absolutely delightful. I got a tremendous case on the older daughter. I didn’t know her age at the time, and I assumed she was at least seventeen, because she sure looked it. I swear, it absolutely frightened me when, after we’d been going together pretty steady for about six months I discovered that she was only fourteen. I was twenty at the time. Her mother told me, and I nearly died. Then she had her fifteenth birthday and I felt a little bit better.
I even liked their dog. Through this family I got to know most of their relatives, and it was a big family on both sides. I must have stayed there for three or four months, and it was darn cold when I left. The mother didn’t think I was going to survive the winter in that living room, so she switched me over to her sister’s house.
Like many people’s, the sister’s marriage had broken up, and I lived there with her mother and son for what seemed like years. In spite of everything I survived the first winter there. I had so many covers on that if Ir tried to raise my feet upright I’d have broken my toes off. I had two sets of overalls: I’d work in one and sleep in the other. There’d be frost in the house sometimes, and I’d make a mad dash for the kitchen in the morning. They kept the stove going. And the lady of the house had the most marvelous breakfasts. Country food. Sunday morning would usually be pork chops and hominy grits, eggs, and biscuits.
I got a job in the Burlington mill in walking distance of the village. I worked the night shift at Hillcrest and devoted all my days to Party activity. I just got wedded to life there. I got to know practically everyone In the plant where I worked. I just loved the people there. Burlington was pretty hopeless for a union. They had about eighty mills, and if anyone tried to organize a Burlington mill, they just closed the mill down and transferred operations to another. They’d leave four or five hundred people out of work and desperate, and then blacklist them. You couldn’t get a job anywhere. So we had no intention of organizing at Hillcrest. I just had to get a job someplace, and that was fine.
I made thirteen bucks a week, the minimum wage, thirty-two cents an hour, and had money to spare. I was in awfully good physical shape, but it was fantastically hard work. And what amazed me was that guys my age working there had faces like they were thirty-five or older. I’d find out some of them were younger than I. They were used to hard work, and they were wiry, but they absolutely couldn’t take the pace.
Burlington was the most rationalized of all the mills down there. They knew how to take every last drop of energy out of you on an eight-hour shift. To survive I rationalized my job, too, and it didn’t crush me. It’s true I wouldn’t have a dry seam in my clothes when I’d come out of the place. You’d have to take salt pills all night to keep from sweating yourself into heat prostration. It was about ninety degrees most of the time and very humid because of the rayon yarn.
These working-class guys my age would be old men by the time they made forty, if they made it, and they were just drained most of the time. The women had it even worse. A girl who started at nineteen was an old woman by twenty-nine. Usually the height of the machine was such that the women would have to sort of stoop their shoulders forward and poke their abdomens out, and the same was true in the cotton mills. The spinners had the same business: a pooched-out abdomen and slumped shoulders. It was the most frightful thing, and they all looked really old by the time they were thirty.
This place was organized by time-study experts. The speedup was incredible. One girl was twenty-five, and when I think back, she looked more like she was thirty-five. She was the star operator. She could do almost twice as much work as anybody else, their “show” operator. My God, she’d go around like she had six hands. It was just dizzying to watch her. Then one day she went stark-raving mad right at her machine, and it took five people to haul her out screaming and kicking. And she never came back. She ended up in a mental institution.
Even though I was working in another plant, I joined the cotton mill union so I could edit the monthly union paper and attend all the meetings. The chairman used to make me his parliamentarian, and I used to help smooth the meetings out. And I was always willing to do any kind of leg work.
After every union meeting on Saturday night, there’d be a big social gath-ering. In these days, you worked a half-day on Saturday, and that afternoon all the men in the village would go to the barbershop. This was the only bath you could take during the whole week, so we all lined up and tackled their six stall showers. They gave you a little bar of Lifebuoy soap and a towel for quarter.
Meanwhile, back in the houses, the women moved into the kitchens. No man could go into the kitchen because all the women, from infant to grandma, would be bathing. Every house had a huge corrugated iron tub, and hot water would be heated in everything that could hold it. Everybody would use this big tub. They couldn’t go dumping it out, and you couldn’t give everybody a new tub of water. So you’d just add water to it, and it’d get pretty raunchy by the time the last one got their turn. But, one way or an-other, everybody would go to the union meeting all sweet and clean.
Saturday night was always a light dinner, and about half the village would show up at the union meeting. The meeting would begin about seven o’clock, and we’d usually try to get the business over by eight-thirty. There would be very wide participation, and if it was near strike time, there’d usually be some pretty fancy oratory, mostly delivered by women. They were much more , verbal than the men, generally, and God, they were effective. I’d love to have been able to record some of those speeches.
As soon as the gavel pounded, the meeting adjourned, and a little string band would strike up, usually of union talent, with a couple of banjos, guitars, and a fiddle or two. The chairs would disappear like magic, and the whole huge hall became a dance floor. For a nominal fee, anybody could come to these marvelous dances, and we had our committee to keep things orderly and throw out the drunks.
I didn’t know how to square dance worth a hoot, and some of these real tough textile women took me in hand. I swear to God, there was one woman there who was a little five-by-five but strong as an ox, and every time I’d find myself in the wrong place, she would absolutely pick me up and put me where I belonged. I had to learn in a hurry in self-defense. She’d have killed me or at least taken my arm out of the socket. I got to be a real good square dancer and used to enjoy it immensely.
I think the social part of the evening was actually more important than the meetings, because those square dances were just unforgettable, and probably did more than anything to solidify the union. Everybody from toddlers on up would take part. The old folks would sit and watch the young’uns and relive their youth, and the little squirts would be dancing with each other just so they wouldn’t get trampled. The young squirts were dancing for real. The older folks up to forty or fifty were just having a marvelous time, and, of course, the teenagers were romancing like crazy. It was an extremely wholesome and delightful business. Some of my student friends from Chapel Hill would come over, and they absolutely got hooked. They’d be back every time they could.
These textile workers were about one generation, if that much, off the farm, and they had come to the city because life on the farm got tough. They had all of the country ways. One of the problems in the mill village was to try and stop people from keeping hogs in their small yards. Much of their charm and lingo was strictly farm and country. Yet they had acquired new ways, and many of them had been proletarianized by a lifetime in the mills.
The trade-union movement had really created a social revolution in the South, and I saw it in this mill village. This had been a place where the fore-man reigned supreme. It was a company town with a company store and a company church. The company paid the minister, and the minister preached that the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] was the antichrist. And if anybody fell afoul of the company, his credit was stopped at the company store. The company owned all the houses in the village. And if someone re-ally fell afoul, he could be evicted from his company house. So they lived under a real reign of terror.
Well, the organizing drive was undertaken with great risk and difficulty, and a lot of people joined together and pulled a strike. The strike staggered the company, and they put on a lot of police pressure. It was a tremendously educational thing for the people there, who thought if they stayed on the good side of the foreman they would make out pretty well.
The village split down the middle on whether or not to go to church. The union people didn’t want to hear the company say that the CIO was the agent of the devil, so a great many of them quit going.
The WPA at the time had some educational programs going, so the union (and the Party had considerable influence in the union) began encouraging and organizing adult-education classes on everything you can think of. People who had never finished sixth grade were enrolling and just getting the biggest joy out of it. Some learned things like typing and were able to get part-time jobs. It gave everyone a tremendous sense of self-confidence, and they were able to hold their heads up. It was a true social revolution, and most of these people became missionaries for unionism. It’s true that it lost most of its momentum after a while, but at that time it was a tremendously exciting thing to participate in. The union became the social center of the whole village.
Of course, it’s easy to remember the pleasant events and forget the horrors of poverty. One Saturday, I’d just gotten paid and had so much money I didn’t know what to do. I decided I’d take the three kids in the family to the movies. Well, next door was a family named Tysinger, and Ot and Mary Tysinger were probably in their late thirties and had nine children. They both worked in the mill. But Mary had been sick and hadn’t been able to work,which meant that Ot’s salary—he’d been working there for twenty years, since his teens, and was making fifteen dollars a week—had to support the family of eleven. The entire family was surviving on fifteen dollars a week.
When the kids, naturally excited, announced that Junius was taking them Iii the movies, I saw these nine Tysinger kids next door looking at me with big sad and dejected eyes. So we got hold of the Tysinger kids. I think the bus fare was a nickel each way, and the kids could get in for a dime at the movie, so I spent quite a bit. But it was the first time any of these Tysinger kids—and the oldest was twelve—had seen a movie. So I got to see the horror of living on this kind of a wage in a textile village. The oldest Tysinger child, Carrie, was a lovely little girl, but she was skinny, and her color was bad. She had a kidney ailment, and the doctor said she should have a lot of fresh vegetables, and this and that and the other, you know, an elaborate diet, which on Ot’s fifteen dollars a week was about as feasible as a snowball in hell. They ate white beans, the staple. They had biscuits sometimes, corn bread, cabbage, and fatback, but that was about it. If they had anything else, they considered it a gala occasion. And for Carrie’s kidney ailment, this was not the thing.
One day, these God-awful screams came from the Tysingers’ outhouse, and I ran over to find that Carrie’s guts had collapsed, and she had eight inches of intestines hanging out of her. I pushed them in with the handle of a hearth broom. This was the horror this poor kid lived with. Later I heard she was married and had moved away, but it was just nip and tuck whether she would grow up or not. And I bet you anything that by the time she was thirty she was a physical wreck, if she even lived that long. You’d see kids with rickets from undernourishment, bowed legs toddling around.
What poverty and those incredible wages did to these people was horrible. And, yet, the mill owner was always putting on the dog, as we would say, flashing his money, and you’d read about all his doings, all about his family, in the society section of the High Point Enterprise, and here were these poor people, and it was all wrung out of them.
If anyone could doubt the existence of the class struggle, you surely couldn’t while living in a mill village. It was unforgettable, especially when somebody stopped being a case and became a person. They weren’t welfare cases: they were people you lived with and loved and spent your time with. It just increased my dedication and determination to do anything and everything I could to change this kind of thing.
The union grew and prospered and in the winter of ’41 I was named chair-man of the organizing committee of the Textile Workers’ local. Actually, we had one little foothold of organized workers in a sea of unorganized workers. And seamless hosiery, men’s socks and cheap women’s hose, was one of the largest industries at the time. I began to collect names and contacts in various hosiery mills to see if we couldn’t eventually stage a drive to organize some of those unorganized workers. I was planning to leave Hillcrest to get a job in a hosiery mill.
I was going with a girl at the time, a southern Jewish girl, a sophomore at Chapel Hill, and began courting her pretty seriously. In June of ’41, the day after the invasion of the Soviet Union, we got married.
Back at Hillcrest, the company had gotten on to me and had discovered I was a union bug. The day after my wedding weekend, they fired me. I got a job in an unorganized cotton mill, and we got a two-room apartment nearby the village. It had a toilet outside in the hall, and the walls were painted a shit brindle, the most horrible color I have ever seen. But we were happy, and I was working day and night building up my contacts among seamless hosiery workers in about thirty different textile mills. I had a little file case of names on three-by-five cards, which I kept hidden in the chimney.
It was an easy walk to the Pickett Cotton Mill, but it was a killer of a job. I lasted about three months and learned to do most of the jobs there. They fired me for union activity.
Then, with elaborate phony references, I got a job at Thomas’s Hosiery Mill, a long bus ride away. And, of course, working in a seamless hosiery plant made it that much easier to make contacts. There were about eighty mills in the vicinity of High Point and something like five thousand seam-less hosiery workers. Anybody with twenty thousand dollars’ capital could go into business and get a couple of knitting machines.
The American Federation of Hosiery Workers had been eyeing this area because it was such a wide-open shop and ripe to be organized. The wages were so terribly low and the working conditions awful. But It was tough to organize because the companies were blacklisting right and left. They soon found out that I had made contact with all the best and likeliest union people. So in the fall of ’41, our union and the American Federation of Hosiery Workers decided on a joint organizing drive.
A busload of hosiery workers came in from Roanoake, Virginia, and the president and several vice presidents of the national union and a whole crew of organizers came down. We had a big meeting in the High Point union hall officially launched the drive. I was to quit my mill job the next day and join the union payroll as an assistant chief organizer.
The meeting adjourned Sunday afternoon in early December, and as we got downstairs, somebody told us Pearl Harbor had been bombed. And that watt the end of the hosiery drive because, within forty-eight hours, the government had frozen all the raw rayon and silk. By the end of the week, practically all the seamless hosiery workers were heading for Norfolk, Virginia, and Wilmington, North Carolina, to get jobs in shipbuilding and other port-related industries. It was a major exodus, and one hosiery mill after another dosed down. The industry just melted away, and all my contacts and my little card file just went to pot. It didn’t take me more than twenty-four hours to realize that all my organizing plans had gone down the drain, and the following day I volunteered to enlist in the army.
June 19, 2015
This is the fifth and final video I recorded at the Left Forum over the weekend of May 29 to 31. Titled “Organizing Grad Student, Contingent, and Tenure-Track Faculty: A Fight Against Corporatization for the Soul of Higher Education”, it touched on matters close to my heart as a 21 year employee of Columbia University, someone very concerned about the corporatization of Bard College and the New School where I studied in the early to mid-sixties, and very close to someone who is both an adjunct and a tenure-track professor. For my earlier thoughts on what’s going on in academia, I’d refer you to my review of Frank Donoghue’s “The Last Professors” written in 2008. (https://louisproyect.org/2008/06/19/the-last-professors/)
Kathryn Eskew, who is a tenured professor at Hilbert College in upstate NY, chaired the meeting and spoke about her administration’s efforts to cut tenured faculty.
Ruth Wangerin is a long-time adjunct at the College of Staten Island, which is part of the CUNY system. She described a two-tiered labor system in her school and the rest of CUNY that undermines solidarity just as it does in the auto industry and other one-time strongholds of the AFL-CIO.
Joe Richard, who is a member of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, gave an inspiring talk about how the faculty and blue-collar staff joined forces to take on an administration bent on undermining wages and working conditions.
Natasha Raheja is with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee at NYU, a group that has had relative success in resisting an administration that practically defines corporatization.