Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 29, 2013

Dianne Feinstein joins the staff of the Militant newspaper

Filed under: sectarianism,Trotskyism,ultraleftism — louisproyect @ 11:22 pm

But there is no push for Big Brother repression. Spying by the propertied rulers isn’t currently directed against the entire population, nor is it primarily aimed today at working-class militants. The data-mining programs Snowden leaked details on are aimed at Islamist-jihadist terrorists.

full: http://www.themilitant.com/2013/7726/772653.html

From 2006, before the SWP became unmoored from the planet earth:

Today, as before, the main targets of the FBI, NSA, and other “homeland security” cops are the unions, Black rights fighters, and other opponents of government policies. The billionaire families that rule the United States through the government and their twin parties—the Democrats and Republicans—know their profit system has entered today a turbulent period of economic depression and wars. They know that in the coming years they must resort to rougher methods against workers and farmers, who will resist the effects of this social crisis. At the same time, they do not face the explosive political conditions of the 1960s and ’70s, generated by the Black rights and related struggles, that imposed restraints on their political police operations.

full: http://www.themilitant.com/2006/7003/700320.html

 

June 28, 2013

Alan Knight: Brennerite Subalternist

Filed under: Mexico,transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

Alan Knight

Although I picked up volume one (From the Beginning to the Spanish Conquest) of Alan Knight’s 3-volume history of Mexico mainly to get some background information on the Aztec ruins I visited there last month, I was intrigued to discover that he—like Adolfo Gilly, another leftist authority on Mexican history—had no problem tipping his hat to subaltern studies, supposedly something shunts you off into the vaporous world of postcolonialism and all the other trendy nonsense at odds with the muscular analysis Marxists learn in the weight rooms of dialectical materialism. If you’ve been listening to Vivek Chibber, you’ll know that subaltern studies is an entry level drug that might lead to more heavy stuff.

From Knight’s introduction:

I have tried to give a good deal of attention to ‘subalterns’ even though I have not used the term, at least not systematically. So I think I write ‘subaltern history’ just as I write prose, but I do not make an issue of it. At any rate, there is a fair amount of ‘bottom-up’ (popular) history in these pages, not least because ‘top down’ (elite) history cannot be understood in isolation; the two are dialectically related. It is true, however, and quite deliberate, that my ‘subalterns’ are seen more at work than at play, more in acts of protest than in moments of recreation, more on the streets and in the fields than in their own homes.

But as I skimmed through Knight’s book, I discovered—believe it or not—that his embrace of subaltern studies does not prevent him from also embracing the rock-ribbed “Political Marxism” analysis of the social system that existed in colonial Mexico, namely that there was no capitalism in colonial Mexico—not even in an embryonic form:

Nevertheless, the key determinants of Mexican development were to be found within the colony itself, and the character of colonial society was formed, above all, by the economic structures which underpinned it, by the labour systems which it engendered and by the forms whereby surplus was extracted from producers, be they miners or artisans, peasants, peons or slaves. Structures, systems, forms were all varied and mutating. We will examine and categorize them in due course. But the initial point to make is this: if such varied forms are to be given a single, encompassing title, it would be wrong to term them ‘capitalist’. Conversely, the only justified umbrella term – to be found within the conventional repertoire – would have to be ‘feudal’. Returning to the initial division of scholarly opinion, therefore, we prefer to conceptualize colonial Mexico as a feudal creation of a feudal Spain.

I suppose that we should be thankful to Knight for coming out and using the term feudal that I find much more useful than the “precapitalism” favored by most of the people who swear by their Robert Brenner. 1789 France? Precapitalist, of course. The United States in 1776? Same thing, silly.

As an old-fashioned kind of Marxist, I tend to go by what the classics stated, namely that feudalism rested on the production of use-values rather than commodities. Marx is fairly clear about this in the very first chapter of volume one of Capital:

A thing can be a use value, without having value. This is the case whenever its utility to man is not due to labour. Such are air, virgin soil, natural meadows, &c. A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity. Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values. (And not only for others, without more. The mediaeval peasant produced quit-rent-corn for his feudal lord and tithe-corn for his parson. But neither the quit-rent-corn nor the tithe-corn became commodities by reason of the fact that they had been produced for others. To become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use value, by means of an exchange.)

Putting it in more succinct terms, the feudal estate involved peasants turning over a portion of their product to the lord. If they grew crops, the knights would eat them, etc. Right? I guess others can use the term feudal as they like. It is a free country after all.

The other thing worth mentioning is that feudalism was a fetter on production. I always refer back to Michael Perelman’s description of peasant life before there was capitalism, from his “Invention of Capitalism”:

Although their standard of living may not have been particularly lavish, the people of precapitalistic northern Europe, like most traditional people, enjoyed a great deal of free time. The common people maintained innumerable religious holidays that punctuated the tempo of work. Joan Thirsk estimated that in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, about one-third of the working days, including Sundays, were spent in leisure. Karl Kautsky offered a much more extravagant estimate that 204 annual holidays were celebrated in medieval Lower Bavaria.

Any resemblance between this state of affairs and colonial Mexico is purely coincidental. I tend to agree with John Cockcroft’s take in chapter one of “Mexico”, a world in which I doubt that Indians enjoyed a “great deal of free time”:

Merchant capital in New Spain, as in Europe, was a key agent in the development of capitalist institutions: if mining was the economic motor, merchant capital was the grease. By 1604 it had helped establish some 25 textile mills (obrajes) in Mexico City alone, plus many others in Cuernavaca, Puebla, Texcoco, Tlaxcala, and Queretero. One of the largest employed 120 workers, while others employed from 50 to 100—sizable figures for any manufacturing enterprise at the time. Producing mainly cotton and wool textiles (silk manufacture prospered for a century but gave way to competition from the Orient), the obrajes concentrated laborers in sweat-shop conditions. Some obrajes used the “putting out” system, permitting nearby Indian villagers to do the initial spinning. Trapiches (one or two loom producers) were common and, though partly competitive with obrajes, were generally subordinated to them in the network of marketing, credits, and supplies. Some weavers and spinners were able to continue to work at home, but the tendency in most places was toward the concentration of production under one roof (manufacture) and toward centralized control by obraje owners or the merchant bourgeoisie, often one and the same.

Odd to see that there were sweatshops in Mexico City in 1604. Not much has changed.

Of course, Political Marxists deny that Merchant Capital has anything to do with capitalism. For them, it is a “precapitalist” social formation that amounts to buying cheap and selling dear, like the Indians selling Manhattan for some beads.

Long before I read Cockcroft, I had come around to the same analysis. Referring to Perelman’s description of feudal life, I wrote:

Did any such wasteful practices exist in the New World? Were Spanish lords this lenient with their indigenous subjects? Complicating these sorts of questions is the fact that the Spanish used a feudal lexicon, referring to the ‘encomienda’ or ‘repartamiento’ (kinds of vassalage or fiefdom respectively) in the same manner as in earlier periods.

However, the underlying class relations that typified Spanish colonial society had nothing in common with the Old World feudalism as described by Perelman. To dramatize the difference, we need only to look at the ‘mita,’ a corvee-like form of labor servitude that replaced the ‘encomienda.’ The ‘mita’ was based on the Incan ‘m’ita,’ a form of labor servitude that existed in the Incan empire, itself a legitimately feudal system with its own characteristics. In “Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640,” Steve Stern is careful to retain two different spellings just to prevent confusion. He writes, “Traditionally, native society supplemented joint labor by the community as a whole with a rotation system. Peasants served a m’ita, or turn, out of the community’s total labors. The rotations allowed communities and ayllus to distribute collective labor needs or obligations in accordance with local reciprocities, which called for equal contributions of labor-time by the community’s kindreds.”3

The Spanish ‘mita’ had virtually nothing in common with this. When a Spanish lord dragooned an Indian into the mine or ‘obraje’ (early sweatshop, particularly for textile manufacturing), he set production quotas at a level beyond what a ‘mitayo’ worker could produce through his own labor. In order to meet them, the Indian would have to bring his children into the mine or ‘obraje’ to work, just as is the case in places like Bangladesh today. In extreme cases, the working conditions in New Spain (Mexico), Peru and Bolivia anticipated Nazi slave labor camps of the twentieth century. Operating ostensibly on the basis of feudal social institutions, sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish colonies were actually in the process of removing all of the “feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations” that Marx referred to in the Communist Manifesto.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that Marx had an entirely different take on Merchant Capital, one that is much closer to my own reading and that of Cockcroft’s. This is from chapter twenty of volume three of Capital, “Historical Facts about Merchant’s Capital”:

There is no doubt — and it is precisely this fact which has led to wholly erroneous conceptions — that in the 16th and 17th centuries the great revolutions, which took place in commerce with the geographical discoveries and speeded the development of merchant’s capital, constitute one of the principal elements in furthering the transition from feudal to capitalist mode of production. The sudden expansion of the world-market, the multiplication of circulating commodities, the competitive zeal of the European nations to possess themselves of the products of Asia and the treasures of America, and the colonial system — all contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production.

Maybe the Political Marxists need to write a book on how Marx was so badly mistaken to believe that merchant capital contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production. I am sure that it would go over big at some academic conference, even if it is totally bogus.

Scenes of Indian flooding

Filed under: disasters,india — louisproyect @ 5:06 pm

The photos below were forwarded from Yahoo by Vijay Kumar Marla, a long-time activist in India. At least a thousand people have died in Uttarakhand and many more are unaccounted for.

For an analysis of the man-made causes of the disaster, you can read an article by G. Sampath that makes some essential points:

According to media reports, when the floods struck, about 28 million tourists were visiting the state, while the local population is close to half that number. First of all, it is irresponsible to let such a huge volume of human traffic into an ecologically sensitive area, that too in the monsoon season. But once the decision had been taken to milk tourism to the maximum, you would naturally need to build infrastructure to cater to such tourist inflows. This requires planning. And given the fragile nature—of both the climate and eco-systems—of the Himalayan region, it also requires a strict adherence to building and environmental norms. The first principle of disaster management is prevention—by taking the necessary precautionary measures. But Uttarakhand, captive to local interest groups, has been doing the exact opposite: actively soliciting disaster.

As recently as February 2013, the Uttarakhand high court had passed an order asking the state government to demolish structures that had come up within 200 metres of the river banks. But the administration did not act. When the floods came, many of those illegal structures got demolished anyway.

 Such short-sightedness and flawed (or zero) planning is not unique to Uttarakhand. It is a unique Indian tradition that finds expression even in the most modern of our achievements, and in triumphs we take pride in, such as, for instance, the Delhi Metro. According to a new UN study, the Delhi Metro “ignored disaster threats during planning” as a result of which 50 stations were at high risk, leaving it susceptible to massive casualties when disaster strikes in the form of floods or earthquakes.

flood9 flood8 flood7 flood6 flood5 flood4 flood3 flood2 flood1

Israeli Propaganda, With Warts

Filed under: Film,zionism — louisproyect @ 1:00 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition June 28-30, 2013

Israeli Propaganda, With Warts

by LOUIS N. PROYECT

Out of a sense of duty to CounterPunch readers, I went to a press screening for “Israel: a Home Movie” that opens at the Film Forum in New York on July 10th. It might be more accurate to say that I went to monitor it since it had all the earmarks of a typical Israeli film geared to the liberal to left audiences at the Film Forum, a premier art house. Unlike “World War Z”, the new zombie movie that apparently includes 10 minutes of full-blast Zionist propaganda (Israel becomes a Zombie-free zone largely on the efforts of a muscular and merciless IDF standing guard at the borders), “Israel: a Home Movie” is anxious to show Israel with warts and all, as the announcement from the Film Forum publicity department made clear:

Israel goes from a young, optimistic, albeit naive nation, to one in which the realities of middle-age (and worse) settle in. There is a description of “shell-shock”; a young soldier who declares “God bless morphine”; images of a relative “killed in a terrorist attack at about age 30″; the demolition of a minaret and discussion of whether it was a holy site; David Ben-Gurion visiting transit camps in 1956, and glimpses throughout of Ariel Sharon, Moshe Dayan, and Anwar Sadat. Perhaps nowhere in the world could home movies so intimately reflect the changing political face of a nation. As early as the late 1970s, one feels that tragedy has become the norm, that life inevitably leads to death and that – in Israel as we have known it – peace inevitably leads to war.

As the title implies, the film is entirely made up of home movies shot  mostly on 8mm film cameras like the kind people used to take on vacation. As such, most of the footage is fairly banal stuff that ostensibly would only be of interest to people who get a kick out of watching strangers frolicking in the ocean or—worse—babies waddling into their parents’ arms. The men or women who made the films or their children provide narration. The perspective is mostly that of old-style kibbutz “socialism” or Peace Now liberalism, just the sort of thing that would resonate with the film’s target audience.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/06/28/israeli-propaganda-with-warts/

June 26, 2013

New York Asian Film Festival 2013 — Korean films

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 10:05 pm

If like me, the thought of shelling out $11 to watch “The Bling Ring” and similar dreck at your local Cineplex leaves you cold, I urge you to check out the schedule for the 2013 N.Y. Asian Film Festival (http://www.filmlinc.com/films/series/new-york-asian-film-festival-2013) that begins on June 28th and runs through July 15th. I have been attending these festivals for the past two decades and they make living here worth it.

This year the organizers made nine Vimeo screenings available to the press in keeping with the gradual move away from DVD’s. While some of my colleagues in NYFCO are unhappy with this, it presents no problems for me. The nine films are not necessarily the ones that I would have liked to see but they are broadly representative of the fare being offered. Over the next few days I am going to be blogging about the films on a country-by-country basis. Today I start with Korea, whose film industry continues to impress me for its overall level of brilliance.

Scheduled for Wednesday, July 03, 3:00pm, “Confession of Murder” is Jeong Byeong-Gil’s first film. Like 2010’s Chinese-made “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”, the film owes more to Agatha Christie than John Woo. It is complicated story with a surprise ending. While nominally a policier, a genre that South Korea has virtually made its own, it does make much of an effort to psychologically probe its central characters—a function of their not being what they seem.

The film is based on the premise that Lee Du-seok, a serial killer of ten women, has come out of hiding just after the statute of limitations has run out. At his press conference, the handsome and charismatic killer announces the publication of a book based on his evil deeds that turns him overnight into a media celebrity. The film strives for satirical commentary on the rot at the heart of TV shows like Entertainment Tonight (or its Korean version to be more exact) but it is best when the attention shifts to Detective Choi, who was knifed in the face by Lee just after his final killing. Choi is a typical tough-as-nails anti-hero who breaks departmental rules almost every day but is deferential to his mom who treats him like an impertinent 16 year old she is sending to bed without supper. Their moments together on screen were much more entertaining to me than the car chases or convoluted plot twists.

“Juvenile Offender” that plays at Friday, July 05, 2:15pm and Thursday, July 11, 6:00pm is Korean filmmaking at its best. Directed by Kang Yi-Kwan, it is riveting character study of two of Korean society’s “losers”. We first meet Ji-gu, a sixteen year old who lives in poverty with his sickly grandfather, as he and some friends break into a house that the gang-leader describes as belonging to his uncle. “Take anything you like”, he says. The cops eventually arrest everybody but only Ji-gu goes to jail because he is unable to afford a lawyer and has nobody to vouch for him. After spending close to a year in jail, he is told by the warden that they have located his mother Hyo-seung who abandoned him as a baby when she was just his age. To complete the cycle of “irresponsibility”, Ji-gu has impregnated his own girl friend just before getting picked up by the cops.

She picks him up from jail and takes him with her to the apartment she shares with Ji-Young, the proprietor of a hair-styling salon who she knew from high school and who has given her a job sweeping the floor and other menial tasks. Although she has been generous to Hyo-seung, who lives with her for free, she never tires of reminding her that she is nothing but a deadbeat. Hyo-seung is the classic “victim” psychologically while Ji-young is the classic passive-aggressive. The tense standoff between the two women breaks down, however, as soon as Ji-gu shows up. Unlike his mom, he does not feel particularly grateful. Nor does filial respect describe his ambivalence toward his mother, who he asks where she has been all her life. After seeing the two hapless souls trying to fend for themselves after being evicted from Ji-young’s apartment, you can understand why she never came around for him. She can barely take care of herself. The two work menial jobs and stay just barely one step ahead of homelessness, while working to make for lost time as mother and son.

The performances of Jung-hyun Lee as mother and Rae-yeon Kang as son are deserving of the awards they have garnered from three different film festivals. Jung-hyun Lee is a mixture of truculence and vulnerability as is her son. The screenwriter and director clearly understand how such qualities become endemic in those not on the inside track of the race for the survival of the fittest in today’s South Korea. We are thankful to blogger A.J. Albone for transcribing a panel discussion with the director last April:

I interviewed police, to know what was the real present situation of Korea, which were the social problems of young offenders and young single mothers. I shot the film in real locations, for instance, the scenes shot in the reformatory were a real location. For me it was very important to make a very realistic film.

When I started making this film, I decided to convey a very real situation – the situation of social issues, but at the same time I wanted to make a beautiful film, thinking of the Korean audience. I wanted to make a film that was not only interesting in terms of content, but also beautiful.

I had never had such experiences before. I was absolutely not at all acquainted with the problems of juvenile offenders and young single mothers. After finishing this film I got interested in such social problems. I started also to try and find more information about such issues. I started becoming very aware of present Korean social problems.

ADDENDUM

Screen shot 2013-06-26 at 6.03.21 PMA scene from “The House”

While it is not part of NYAFF 2013, I would put in the good word for “The House”, an animated film presented by Korea Society out at The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens on Saturday, June 29, 2013 at 1 PM.

This is an animated film that never quite figures out whether it was intended for adults or children. It is about a slum neighborhood facing demolition in order to pave the way for the kinds of high-rises that make Seoul and most of China such a sterile eyesore. It is a critique of gentrification and beyond that the modernization that is transforming Korea along the lines of Karl Marx’s observation in the Communist Manifesto: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

As an obstacle to the developer’s plans, spirits dwelling in the slum housing create all sorts of obstacles in his path. At first the young heroine Ga-young, who has lost all her money when her mutual fund goes bust, is anxious to regain her old wealth and move into a fancy high-rise but as she gets to know the spirits around her made visible by a magic bracelet she is persuaded to resist the incursion by real estate developers. All in all, the plot will remind any New Yorker of what has been happening in downtown Brooklyn and Williamsburg over the past few years.

The biggest problem with the film is that it can’t decide whether to go full-tilt toward making a film exclusively of interest to adults or one for kids. There is a bit too much “Disney” in it, reminiscent of Casper the Friendly Ghost, but all in all worth seeing.

 

June 25, 2013

Who were the Cochranites?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 5:34 pm

Harry Braverman

In the latest of an ongoing series of exchanges with Luke Cooper, a young British revolutionary whose critique of “Leninism” I share, Paul Le Blanc referred to some fairly ancient history that will likely be obscure to most on the left, even those who have been following this debate and others like it for the past decade or so.

In trying to paint James P. Cannon, the father of American Trotskyism, as someone open to the kinds of broad left unity taking place in Britain today, Le Blanc refers to the “regroupment” period of the mid-50s which had Cannon sounding sweet and reasonable at a 1958 public meeting:

Socialists of different tendencies have begun to think of each other as comrades. Free discussion and fraternization, and sentiment for united action and regroupment of all the scattered forces, are the order of the day for us now everywhere. I say that’s a good day for us and for our cause – the cause of American socialism.

This is part of a delicate balancing act being undertaken by the International Socialists Organization. They recognize that lip-service must be paid to the powerful historical tides are moving in the direction of broad left unity but are loath to give up the sectarian framework that has worked so well for them in the past. When you can build up an organization of more than a thousand committed activists in a relatively brief period based on the party-building methodology of people like Tony Cliff, James P. Cannon, Ted Grant et al, you feel vindicated. There is of course a need to speak in terms of becoming part of a broader vanguard party down the road but until history comes knocking on your door, why give up on the “market share” approach that has worked so well in the past?

In trying to burnish the image of Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party, Le Blanc offers a disparaging portrait of Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s Socialist Union, which existed from 1954 until 1960:

I was not recruited … by the group around Bert Cochran that left the SWP in the 1950s but had disappeared by the early 1960s. All of these had important things to say, offered compelling insights, contained admirable people, made genuine contributions. But none of them survived as an organized force, with revolutionary perspectives intact and some credibility, capable of recruiting and helping to political train the person that I was in the 1960s and 1970s. The SWP did survive as such a force, and it was able to grow and play a very positive role before succumbing to the contradictions that I have analyzed elsewhere.

There is of course a problem with the whole concept of recruitment that probably eludes Paul Le Blanc. If you go back to the early 1900s in Czarist Russia, the Social Democracy did not go out and recruit people. It was instead an organic outgrowth of a pre-existing socialist movement that had not yet cohered into an organization. Lenin wrote “What is to be Done” in order to accelerate such a cohesion.

This business about the “Cochranites” not having the same shelf life as the SWP is something I have heard before, including a crasser version made by a former member of the SWP who is a fan of the ISO. This was his comment on my blog:

And where are the Cochranites now? As they say, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”

Well, I suppose if the criterion is being “rich”, the Socialist Union was a loser. But I wouldn’t put much stock in longevity as a sign of wealth or health considering the fact that Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labor Party has the SWP beat by a mile.

The interesting thing for me is how incapable Paul Le Blanc was in understanding what Cochran and Braverman were up to. They had broken completely with the “recruitment” model of the SWP and were committed to a genuine regroupment of the sort that Cannon only paid lip service to.

In 1955, the radical weekly Guardian newspaper approached the SWP with a proposal to run a “united socialist” ticket, a hallmark of the regroupment period that often focused on electoral campaigns that could unite the left. Cannon wrote a letter to SWP leader Murray Weiss revealing what he thought of the Guardian, a paper that probably had 5 times as many readers than the Militant in the 1960s:

The American Guardian Monthly Review outfit, as far as I know … does not object to the general ideology of Stalinism on any important point. They are willing to endorse everything from the Moscow Trials to the Second World War and the pacifist ballyhoo for co-existence, if only they are allowed to do it as an independent party… The great bulk of these dissident Stalinists are worn-out people, incurably corrupted by Stalinist ideology, who haven’t the slightest intention or capacity to do anything but grumble at the official CP and to demand a stagnant little pond of their own to splash in.

When I joined the SWP in 1967, they organized a class on party history that featured the key leaders on all the famous fights and maneuvers calculated to convince us raw “recruits” that we had hooked up with the smartest people on earth. I can’t remember who gave a class on regroupment but I am damned sure that this was the consensus in 1967: regroupment was designed to recruit some of the best of the disillusioned CP’ers to the “vanguard party”, a rescue operation in effect. The highest-profile ex-CP’er to join the party was Clifton DeBerry, an African-American who ran for president on the SWP ticket in 1964.

Unlike the SWP, the Cochranites took the project seriously and no distinction could be made between their private and public utterances. Bert Cochran uttered these words to a meeting of 800 people in Chicago in November 1956 and you can be damned sure he meant them:

What we have to ask ourselves, I think, is this: Is it possible now in the light of the dolorous experience of American radicalism, and the greater knowledge we possess today of the Russian experiment, is it possible to look at Russia from higher vantage ground, and from the viewpoint of our own American needs even if we have some differences in our precise appreciations? Can the Left free itself from unthinking idolatry and the whitewashing of Russian crimes against socialism; and, on the other extreme, from the embittered hostility which misses the epic movement of historic progress, and can see in the Soviet bloc only the anti-Christ of our time.

IN other words, I am making a plea for sanity, for more mature judgment, for deeper historical insight, for an end to Left bigotry and Babbittry, for a cease-fire in our own cold war, for an effort at cooperation, and where possible, reconciliation.

For those who are impressed with longevity, there’s not much that can be said about the Socialist Union that lasted half a decade. But it is important to remember that Karl Marx, the founder of our movement, was not always involved in building organizations. I urge you to look at an article on Democratic Centralism written by Joaquín Bustelo for Solidarity that might fault Marx as well for not being “rich” in the terms outlined above.

Now one very important thing to note about Marx and Engels’s conception of the Communist Party as a leading force in the working class struggle is that this did not in the slightest cause them to hesitate in dissolving the organized expression of that party, the Communist League, only a few weeks after having written those lines in the Manifesto, when a revolution broke out in Germany.

Engels explains it very straightforwardly in his article “On the History of the Communist League, “simply as a function of political tasks. The old propaganda league was not suitable for the new conditions of Germany in revolution, a newspaper was a much better political instrument, so they wound up the underground League and founded the daily Neue Rheinische Zeitung.

I want to conclude with a talk I presented on the Cochranites to a conference on American Trotskyism organized by Paul Le Blanc thirteen years ago. Although I was anxious to get out the word on a group I closely identified with and whose former members had become like family (particularly Cynthia Cochran who treated me like a son), there was a sense that my talk would fall on deaf ears. There was still a strong belief that “democratic centralism” was an organizational measure worth pursuing. Thank goodness we are in a new era.

The Cochran-Braverman Legacy

According to Al Hansen, who wrote the preface to “Speeches to the Party”, a mostly obscure collection of James P. Cannon’s anti-Cochranite rants from the late 1940s and early 1950s:

. . . Sol and Genora [Dollinger] expressed the following views. The party should not be trying to build branches, running election campaigns, or even trying to recruit members in this period. The country was facing the triumph of fascism and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it because of the conservatism of the workers and our party’s weakness. When fascism triumphed here, all known Trotskyists would be wiped out as had happened in Nazi Germany. Therefore the best thing that we could do as revolutionists was to spend as much time as we had writing down and printing our ideas, our program, and then hide this printed matter in attics, basements, etc., for future generations to discover.

So that’s the official version of the Cochranites: liquidationists panicked by McCarthyism. And then you mix this with Cannon’s crude sociological explanation of them as a privileged strata of the working class. These were UAW Joe Six-Packs tired of the class struggle and anxious to live the good life paid for by high union wages. When a raw recruit like me first heard about the Cochranites in a 1969 Frank Lovell lecture, I felt thankful that the good guys had won, just like they always did in the SWP. In revolutionary parties, as in politics in general, history is written by the victors.

In early 1970 I took an assignment to go up to Boston to fight against the Proletarian Orientation Tendency (POT). This workerist grouping around old timer Larry Trainor, included not only my friend Alan Wald then in Berkeley, but a number of party members my age. They numbered perhaps 5 to 10 percent of the SWP and YSA. The POT worried that the rapid influx of middle-class students would create alien class pressures on the proletarian party. The next thing you know we’d oppose the USSR’s invasion of Finland or something. I was never sure how I fit into all this because my father had been a truck-driver before he opened up a fruit store. As a computer programmer, I supposedly belonged to Ernest Mandel’s new working class. In any case, I never lost any sleep over this question.

The POT in Boston couldn’t wait for the rest of the party to wake up to the danger. They had begun to take jobs in hospitals and factories in order to transform themselves into workers. With its attention fixed on the factories, the Boston branch lagged behind the rest of the country in building the mass antiwar movement. Branch organizer Peter Camejo’s job was to destroy the Trainorites politically and reorient the branch toward the student movement. I was his one of his right-hand men in the faction fight.

As justification for this crackdown, the Cochranite heresy proved useful. In my remarks to the branch during the 1971 pre-convention discussion, I said that it was useless to take jobs in factories. After all, it had made no difference for the Cochranites. Even autoworkers were not above selling out the revolution.

Although the party apparatus was successful in destroying the POT, it turned around and adopted virtually its entire agenda only 7 years later. The “turn” toward industry was just another misguided attempt at colonization, not much more sophisticated than the one mounted by the Boston SDS Worker-Student Alliance in 1970 that had served as a model for the Boston branch.

Despite the turn, Peter Camejo remained a 1960s holdout. After spending time in Nicaragua witnessing a living revolution, he became convinced that the SWP was on a sectarian dead-end. He not only defended the 1960s orientation, he believed it necessary to work more closely with non-Trotskyist groups like the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. Basically, he was trying to work out a Cuban or Central American type orientation for the United States.

Questioning the “turn” got him thrown out of the party in 1980. That year I began wondering why the SWP was doing so little to organize protests against US intervention in Central America. Although I had been out of the party for two years, I read the Militant from cover to cover each week. If there was any deep concern with US imperialism’s designs in the region, I couldn’t see it. A chance encounter with Ray Markey, who was still in the party and who always seemed level-headed to me, prompted me to ask what was wrong the SWP. Had they turned into a workerist sect? He gave me a copy of Peter Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism” which said yes to that question. As I began reading it, I found myself in agreement with every word.

About 7 years ago J. Plant, who works with the excellent British journal “Revolutionary History,” raised a question on an Internet mailing list that led me to begin writing about party building questions. He asked people for their assessment of Trotskyism. I replied that Trotsky’s basic ideas on permanent revolution, fascism, the popular front, etc. remained sound. But we had to come to terms with the problem that his movement had a tendency to generate sectarian formations. I said that this was caused by a misreading of Lenin and the Bolsheviks and announced that I would write about these problems in some depth. So I wrote about the CP, the Trotskyists. and newer formations like the Cuban July 26th movement and the FSLN in Nicaragua. All of it is archived on the Marxism list website, along with links to material on the Cochranites.

I found myself questioning not only official versions of what it meant to build Marxist-Leninist parties, but the particular Cannonite version handed down in the SWP. Part of this re-investigation meant taking a new look at all of our various renegades. Since I was in a forgiving mood, I began handing out absolutions to everybody. Oehlerites, Shachtmanites, Cochranites–it didn’t matter. I no longer had any use for reading people out of the movement. Look where it had led.

At the time I had neither the motivation nor the resources to actually study what the Cochranites stood for in any great detail, especially since there was a paucity of documentation available to the general public. All that changed after Sol Dollinger showed up on a Marxism list I had launched in May of 1998. Over the past year or so, we have had discussions on the list about the legacy of the Trotskyist movement that have benefited from the insights of a living and breathing–and sometimes blunt–Cochranite. One of the first things we learned from Sol was that the charge of “privileged” Cochranite factory workers was absurd. He wrote:

Three decades later, I am amused by the explanations made by Frank Lovell that you heard as a new member of the SWP. He contended that the members of the auto faction had become embourgeoisified by high wages in the industry. My position as a Chevrolet worker is not much different than other auto worker members of the party. We rented in Flint and when I quit after seven years my wages were under five thousand dollars a year. When Genora’s father died of a heart attack in front of the Buick gate where he worked as a janitor, he left his four children $700 each. Genora rushed out to make a down payment on a house with a $3800 dollar mortgage with monthly payments of $35.

Keeping in mind that my criticisms of Trotskyism flow from a Cuban or Sandinista type perspective like Camejo’s, I found that Sol’s basic approach coincided with my own. That led me to look into the whole question of the Cochran legacy. Contrary to Al Hansen, this group did not liquidate itself in 1954. It made an audacious attempt to start a new Marxist left. Their organization was called the Socialist Union. Their journal the American Socialist began that year as well, only to cease publication at the end of 1959. Edited by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, it is not only one of the best Marxist journals ever published, it is also a guide to understanding the kind of revolutionary movement that we need today.

Over the past year or so, I have been scanning in articles from American Socialist, courtesy of Cynthia Cochran who lives here in NYC and making them available in electronic archives. Eventually I hope to have this published as an American Socialist Reader.

To start with, it does not make sense to speak of Cochran or Braverman in the same terms as CLR James or any other figure around whom disciples gathered. That being said, there is still a “Cochranite” approach to politics that revolved around overlapping concerns. Let’s take a look at them.

To begin with, the American Socialist rejected the “vanguard” model that James P. Cannon had promoted. Although the magazine never mentioned Cannon or the SWP after the first issue, there was no mistake that they were for a complete break with the sectarian model.

Unlike the Trotskyists, they believed that a genuine regroupment was necessary on the American left. I want to emphasize the word genuine because the SWP went through a regroupment period themselves in the late 1950s that can only be characterized as a fishing expedition to gain new members, particularly disaffected ex-CP’ers. Activists in the Socialist Union saw their work with other groups as a means to an end. They sought to build a broad-based socialist movement and not just another sect.

In October 1956 the Socialist Union organized a regroupment meeting in Chicago that drew 800 people. Besides Bert Cochran, the speakers included A.J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Sidney Lens, a writer and trade union official. Cochran told the audience:

Practically since its inception, the American Socialist has declared that a regroupment was necessary on the American scene, that the old movements had knocked each other out, and what remained of them had either succumbed to the slough of sectarianism, or had outlived their usefulness as vehicles of American radicalism. At first we were a lone voice, but today this idea is accepted by many. Nevertheless, as a result of many private conferences and conversations that we have been engaged in over these past months, we are convinced that the regroupment and the setting up of something new will necessarily involve a more or less protracted process of discussion, debate, and re-examination of many of the Left’s premises and solutions, before the ground is sufficiently prepared for the next organizational ventures.

Not only was the American Socialist immersed in the regroupment process, it also explained the importance of similar efforts underway in Europe that they characterized as the unfolding of a “new left”. This term, by the way, is used frequently in the pages of American Socialist to describe not the sorry mess we ended up with in the 1960s but something more in the way of a new Marxist left. It is unfortunate that objective circumstances militated against the Socialist Union’s best efforts to make such a new movement possible.

For example, in 1958 the American Socialist covered developments in Great Britain around the journals New Reasoner, which included E.P. Thompson as an editor, and Universities and Left Review. They eventually merged and became New Left Review. Here is Cochran sizing up the New Reasoner:

The weakness of the New Reasoner appears to be that most of its writers are still unduly pre-occupied with the world from which they have so recently broken, as evidenced in the subject matter which claims their attention, the problems that continue to dominate their thoughts, and the people to whom they are primarily addressing their writings. Moreover, trying to continue to rest on the Communist tradition by restoring it to its original pre-Stalinist pristine purity strikes me as a quixotic venture. Communism is bound by historical associations of a quarter of a century that neither god nor man can eradicate. To try to restore Communism to the meaning that it possessed in 1917 or 1848 is like trying to take Christianity away from the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist churches of today and restore it to the simple virtues of the Biblical Apostles. It is a subject matter for literary exercises. It has no use as a workable tradition for the Left in Britain, much less, in the United States.

The American Socialist also sought to ground itself in earlier radical traditions in the United States, before Bolshevik cloning became mandatory. This meant taking a fresh look at the Debs legacy. Not only did the editorial board of American Socialist include octogenarian George H. Shoaf, who had worked closely with Debs, it also published a special issue on the Socialist Party in which Cochran drew a contrast between Debs’ party and what had followed it:

PECULIARLY enough, the Communist movement that followed Debs, and became the mainstream of American radicalism in the thirties and forties, lost this trait all over again, and became too much of a Russian movement; not in the sense that most of its members were of Russian extraction (they were not), but because their thought was so largely concentrated on Russia. Their leaders uncritically tried to copy Russian patterns of behavior, and misconstrued socialist internationalism to mean loss of independence for one’s own party. A reawakened socialist movement will undoubtedly have to re-create much of the earlier Debs model in this respect.

The break with the SWP not only involved questions of the appropriateness of the ‘vanguard’ party-building model, it also challenged the sort of ‘catastrophism’ that marked the party’s post-WWII outlook. While Cannon predicted a new depression and working class radicalization, the Cochranites urged a more cautious and objective view of the American economy and society. As is obvious today, the Cochranite assessment was far more accurate.

Cochran’s co-editor Harry Braverman focused on the American economy’s strengths and weaknesses. In article after article, he examined the nature of the post-WWII prosperity. While first showing residual influences of the kind of ‘catastrophism’ found in the post-WWII SWP, he eventually found himself coming to terms with what would turn out to be the longest and deepest capitalist expansion in history. In a May 1958 article, written as a reply to British ex-Marxist John Strachey who believed capitalism had resolved its basic contradictions, Braverman openly and courageously dealt with the question of ‘immiseration’ which had been central to the concerns of 1930s radical movement:

All the above difficulties in Marxism obviously stem from the fact that the capitalist system has persisted, and restabilized itself repeatedly, over a much longer period than had been expected. The great expansion in labor productivity which has created such new and different conditions was not unexpected in the Marxian economic structure, a structure which, as no other before or since, focused on the technological revolutions which capitalism is forced to work continuously as a condition of its existence. What was unexpected was capitalism’s length of life and its ability to expand. Marx and the movement he shaped operated on the basis of imminent crisis. If he never gave thought to the kind of living standard inherent in a capitalism that would continue to revolutionize science and industry for another hundred years, that was because he thought he was dealing with a system that was rapidly approaching its Armageddon.

The capitalist expansion of the 1950s was not the only thing that was unexpected. It also saw the beginning of the automation revolution. In an effort to understand what was different from the 1930s, you could not ignore something this major. In October 1954, Cochran wrote:

Everyone has heard of ‘automation’ by now and knows it is a new giant stride in the elimination of human labor in production by the use of automatic machinery, electronic computers and feedback controls. Few factories are as yet built on complete ‘automation’ lines, which in its strict scientific definition describes electronic or magnetic-tape control of complete sequence operations. Partial use of the new technology, however, is already becoming common. In continuous-flow-process industries, such as petrochemicals, many plants are on the verge of complete automation. Fortune magazine analysts believe even more startling changes may come in the white collar field with the introduction of high speed ‘memory’ and computing machines such as ‘Univac’ or IBM’s No. 702.

So if Univac rather than Armageddon was on the agenda, what would be the best hope for social change? As we know, the civil rights movement was starting up. The American Socialist provided some of the best coverage of this new movement, including dispatches from Carl Braden and Albert Maund, the author of “The Big Boxcar” who is in his mid-80s now and living in New Orleans. The great civil rights attorney Conrad Lynn served on the editorial board. WEB DuBois was also an occasional contributor.

It also examined some of the social contradictions that would eventually give birth to the environmental movement. Reuben Borough, who had been the editor of Upton Sinclair’s EPIC (End Poverty in California) campaign in 1934, served on the editorial board of American Socialist as well. In September, 1957, long before the publication of Rachel Carsons “Silent Spring,” Borough began writing about the environment from a Marxist perspective.

The problem of the conversion of power from these various non-depletable sources has never been under sustained and organized inquiry in the United States. This is a job beyond the immediate capacities of the isolated laboratories of the private enterprisers—they cannot solve the problem in time. Public enterprise can and must solve it. The loyal citizen of the Earth Planet must marshal the political forces necessary to that end. The long and ruthless raid of Greed upon the basic wealth of Nature must be stopped. Loving care must take the place of the befoulment and destruction of man’s environment. This is the inescapable task and responsibility of the religion of conservation.

Let me conclude. There was no such thing as “Cochranism.” It neither added nor subtracted anything to Marxist thought. Instead the Cochranites represent one of the most advanced and sustained efforts to apply a classical Marxist analysis to American society in the mid 20th century. The fact that they failed to build a new Marxist left is not an indictment of their methodology nor their analyses. They were just ahead of their time. If a new Marxist left in the United States is to succeed today, it will be along the lines set down by Socialist Union. You can bet on that.

Solidarity represents an effort to move in the direction set down by the Cochranites. I would invite these comrades to study the archives of the American Socialist to see how an earlier generation confronted the task of building a non-sectarian socialist movement based on Marxist principles.

As Bert Cochran said to a gathering of the Socialist Union at its inception in May 1954:

We approach all these strata, however, in the spirit of Marx’s Communist Manifesto which proclaimed that the revolutionists had no interests separate and apart from the working class, that we are not a special sect, cult, or church, which seeks to draw people out of the broad currents into its backwater, but rather as American Marxists, we seek to join with others in advancing the existing struggles to a higher stage and on a broader front. We are convinced that out of these struggles and experiences, even before big mass forces take to the field, Left currents will arise with which we shall be able to cooperate and fuse; that the American Marxist tendency, as a stronger formation than at present, will thus be able to discharge its role as a left wing in the big movement-as part and parcel of the struggle to create the mass revolutionary party in the United States. That is our perspective.

June 24, 2013

Three documentaries of note

Filed under: african-american,comedy,Film,Russia — louisproyect @ 4:54 pm

As a wistful look at funeral homes in the Black community, the documentary “Homegoings” that opens today at Maysles Cinema in the heart of Harlem is the perfect companion piece to Spike Lee’s first movie “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads”. Although Lee’s movie is a fairly conventional crime melodrama with the owners of the barbershop having stolen money from racketeers, it is best when it is about the small talk that goes on in one of the Black community’s longest standing institutions. As two barbers are playing checkers, the subject turns to straightening hair. “Processes ruin the hair and the brain too. That’s why we’ve got so many dumb brothers,” says one barber to the other.

“Homegoings”, a euphemism for death that speaks volumes, features Harlem funeral director Isaiah Owens, a sixtyish man who really brings this ostensibly morbid subject matter to life. An obvious geek when he was young, Owens was obsessed with burying dead animals—frogs, cats, dogs, you name it. He also loved to simulate funerals with miniature objects in the same way that I used to play with toy soldiers, something he reenacts in the course of the film.

Last Thursday I almost ventured down to a “Death Café” in downtown Manhattan, a group that meets monthly to discuss death—obviously. At the age of 68, this is a subject that has more currency than it had when I was 28. Four decades ago I understood intellectually that I was not going to live forever (I can hear many of my readers shouting “Hurray!”) but it was nothing to brood about. Nowadays that’s mostly what I have on my mind, when I am not brooding about the Brenner thesis or the sorry state of Hollywood movies. The NY Times reported on the death café:

Socrates did not fear death; he calmly drank the hemlock. Kierkegaard was obsessed with death, which made him a bit gloomy. As for Lorraine Tosiello, a 58-year-old internist in Bradley Beach, N.J., it is the process of dying that seems endlessly puzzling.

“I’m more interested, philosophically, in what is death? What is that transition?” Dr. Tosiello said at a recent meeting in a Manhattan coffee shop, where eight people had shown up on a Wednesday night to discuss questions that philosophers have grappled with for ages.

The group, which meets monthly, is called a Death Cafe, one of many such gatherings that have sprung up in nearly 40 cities around the country in the last year. Offshoots of the “café mortel” movement that emerged in Switzerland and France about 10 years ago, these are not grief support groups or end-of-life planning sessions, but rather casual forums for people who want to bat around philosophical thoughts. What is death like? Why do we fear it? How do our views of death inform the way we live?

I was not surprised to learn from my friend Jeffrey, who is even older than me believe it or not, that his mind is wrapped around the same questions. I think to some extent this is a function of both of us having parents who went through a fairly lengthy experience being ground down by lengthy illnesses—in his father’s case Parkinson’s and in my mother’s case heart disease. It tends to focus the mind.

In “Homegoings” you get a totally different take on dying. As the title of the movie implies, there is a joy that awaits the average devout Harlemite serviced by Owens’s specialized trade, which involves among other things applying a kind of botox treatment to make a 92 year old dead person look years younger so that the funeral service will be more upbeat. One supposes that this is essentially what religion is about, making you believe that there is everlasting life in heaven. Of course, for those unlucky enough to be raised in a Jewish household, where such beliefs are understated, and beyond that to have matured as atheists, there’s little to console us except the knowledge that we don’t have to worry about going to hell—a real bonus for someone like me.

Now available from Showtime on-demand, “Richard Pryor—Omit the Logic” is a fascinating account of the Dorian Gray-like rise and fall of arguably the USA’s greatest stand-up comedian next to Lenny Bruce. As was the case with Bruce, Pryor’s decline can be attributed to the abuse he took from industry heavies as well as the self-abuse of a major heavy drug habit.

But digging a bit deeper into the Pryor story, I am convinced that the comparison is better made with Miles Davis, another Black artist whose improvisational skills rivaled Pryor’s. What one did with a horn, the other did through stories and jokes.

The documentary is graced by interviews with both the people who knew him as friends or lovers, as well as knowledgeable students of African-American society—most notably Walter Moseley and Ishmael Reed.

The film of course includes footage from nightclub, television and film appearances but it does not try to compete with the 1979 Richard Pryor: Live in Concert or the 1982 Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, a film made two years after he set himself on fire—supposedly a free-basing accident. The film reveals, however, that this was a suicide attempt inspired by Pryor’s watching a newsreel of Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest the American-backed dictatorship in Vietnam in the mid-60s.

The film also goes into detail about Pryor’s decline and eventual death from multiple sclerosis, a disease that for the first time in his life made him dependent on others and very likely for the first time in his life to learn to trust them as a result.

Another documentary available as on-request from a premium cable station (and on Youtube above until the intellectual propery cops find out), HBO’s “Pussy Riot—a Punk Prayer” is both notable as a news story and as human drama. It is also a fundamental challenge to those on the left who would treat Vladimir Putin as some kind of anti-imperialist icon because he is the target of Nicholas Kristof or Thomas Friedman’s abuse. If after watching this documentary, you can still agree with the get-tough recommendations of “leftist” blogger Moon over Alabama, then maybe you should reconsider what it means to be on the left:

Abusing places of worship for a “free speech act”, especially when that act is subjectively blasphemous to the religion, is an infringement of the right of freedom of religion. In my view such an infringement, as in this case, can not be justified by the right of free speech. There are many other places where the free speech can be made. I therefore find the sentence against Pussy Riot quite obviously justified.

This of course is utter nonsense. In 2003 a couple had sex in the pews at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in N.Y. as a shock radio prank. While awaiting trial, the man died of a heart attack—not likely a result of overexertion—but the woman got 40 hours of community service, a proverbial slap on the wrist.

The hostility toward Pussy Riot from some sectors of the left makes you wonder if they were around when Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman were up to stunts like throwing dollar bills on the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. These people so anxious to see “law and order” prevail in Russia are nothing less than the purple Kryptonite reversal of the right-wingers who belonged to the Moral Majority.

In actuality, the Pussy Riot performance had little to do with shock radio. Instead, as the documentary makes clear, it was a political act that was cut from the same cloth as the Gezi Park protests in Taksim Square, but even far more engaged with anti-capitalist consciousness.

The background of the three women in Pussy Riot makes this completely clear. Maria Alyokhina, a 25-year-old single mother, was a member of Greenpeace who was active in the protests against the clearing of Khimki Forest that is part of the “green belt” around Moscow, obviously in the same spirit of the Taksim Square rebellion. The forest was to be leveled for an 8 billion dollar superhighway to connect Moscow with St. Petersburg.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is the 24-year-old daughter of an artist who was raised by her ardently communist grandmother after her parents divorced. Combing her father’s esthetics and her grandmother’s firebrand politics, she hooked up with the Voina street-art group that embodies autonomist values, including a “refusal to work” and commitment to provocative actions—thankfully excluding black block type adventurism. The film shows her and a man having sex along with other couples in the Biology Museum in Moscow, an obvious commentary on reproduction.

The thirty-year-old Yekaterina Samutsevich was the third member of the group. She took part in Operation Kiss Garbage that involved “ambush kissing” of female police officers in subway stations from January through March 2011. All told, the activities of the three women were assaults on Russian notions of propriety utterly in keeping with bohemian radicalism going back for more than a century. It was the sort of activism that was a core part of the 1960s but one that is now disavowed by many of the elderly survivors of that period who now equate radicalism with following the foreign policy initiatives of the Putin state machinery.

The film climaxes with the trial of the three women at which the prosecution expects them to grovel before the court in 1930s Moscow Trial fashion. The more they flagellate themselves, the more lenient the punishment. Defiant of the sexist, class-oppressive, environmentally destructive state apparatus, the women do not budge an inch from their principles, as their closing statement to the court makes clear:

Katya, Masha and I are in jail but I don’t consider that we’ve been defeated. Just as the dissidents weren’t defeated. When they disappeared into psychiatric hospitals and prisons, they passed judgement on the country. The era’s art of creating an image knew no winners or losers. The Oberiu poets remained artists to the very end, something impossible to explain or understand since they were purged in 1937. Vvedensky wrote: “We like what can’t be understood, What can’t be explained is our friend.” According to the official report, Aleksandr Vvedensky died on 20 December 1941. We don’t know the cause, whether it was dysentery in the train after his arrest or a bullet from a guard. It was somewhere on the railway line between Voronezh and Kazan. Pussy Riot are Vvedensky’s disciples and his heirs. His principle of ‘bad rhythm’ is our own. He wrote: “It happens that two rhythms will come into your head, a good one and a bad one and I choose the bad one. It will be the right one.” What can’t be explained is our friend. The elitist, sophisticated occupations of the Oberiu poets, their search for meaning on the edge of sense was ultimately realized at the cost of their lives, swept away in the senseless Great Terror that’s impossible to explain. At the cost of their own lives, the Oberiu poets unintentionally demonstrated that the feeling of meaninglessness and analogy, like a pain in the backside, was correct, but at the same time led art into the realm of history. The cost of taking part in creating history is always staggeringly high for people. But that taking part is the very spice of human life. Being poor while bestowing riches on many, having nothing but possessing everything. It is believed that the OBERIU dissidents are dead, but they live on. They are persecuted but they do not die.

Do you remember why the young Dostoyevsky was given the death sentence? All he had done was to spend all his time with Socialists—and at the Friday meetings of a friendly circle of free thinkers at Petrushevsky’s, he became acquainted with Charles Fourier and George Sand. At one of the last meetings, he read out Gogol’s letter to Belinsky, which was packed, according to the court, and I note, with childish expressions against the Orthodox Church and the supreme authorities. After all his preparations for the death penalty and ten dreadful, impossibly frightening minutes waiting to die, as Dostoyevsky himself put it, the announcement came that his sentence had been commuted to four years hard labour followed by military service.

Socrates was accused of corrupting youth through his philosophical discourses and of not recognizing the gods of Athens. Socrates had a connection to a divine inner voice and was by no means a theomachist, something he often said himself. What did that matter, however, when he had angered the city with his critical, dialectical and unprejudiced thinking? Socrates was sentenced to death and, refusing to run away, although he was given that option, he drank down a cup of poison in cold blood, hemlock.

Have you forgotten the circumstances under which Stephen, follower of the Apostles, ended his earthly life? “Then they secretly induced men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.’ And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and dragged him away, and brought him before the Council. And they put forward false witnesses who said, ‘This man incessantly speaks against this holy place, and the Law.’” He was found guilty and stoned to death.

And I hope everyone remembers what the Jews said to Jesus: “We’re stoning you not for any good work, but for blasphemy.” And finally it would be well worth remembering this description of Christ: “He is possessed of a demon and out of his mind.”

Read full statement.

Bobby (Blue) Bland, Soul and Blues Balladeer, Dies at 83

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 12:50 pm

NY Times June 24, 2013
By BILL FRISKICS-WARREN

Bobby (Blue) Bland, the debonair balladeer whose sophisticated, emotionally fraught performances helped modernize the blues, died on Sunday in Memphis. He was 83.

The cause was complications from an ongoing illness, The Associated Press reported, quoting his son Rodd.

Though he possessed gifts on a par with his most consummate peers, Mr. Bland never achieved the popular acclaim enjoyed by contemporaries like Ray Charles and B. B. King. His restrained vocals, punctuated by the occasional squalling shout, nevertheless made him a mainstay on the rhythm-and-blues charts and club circuit for decades.

Exhibiting a delicacy of phrasing and command of dynamics akin to those of the most urbane pop and jazz crooners, his intimate pleading left its mark on everyone from the soul singers Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett to rock groups like the Allman Brothers and the Band. The rapper Jay-Z sampled Mr. Bland’s 1974 single “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” on his 2001 album, “The Blueprint.”

Mr. Bland’s signature mix of blues, jazz, pop, gospel and country music was a good decade in the making. His first recordings, made in the early 1950s, found him working in the lean, unvarnished style of Mr. King, even to the point of employing falsetto vocal leaps patterned after Mr. King’s. Mr. Bland’s mid-50s singles were more accomplished; hits like “It’s My Life, Baby” and “Farther Up the Road” are now regarded as hard-blues classics, but they still featured the driving rhythms and stinging electric guitar favored by Mr. King and others. It wasn’t until 1958’s “Little Boy Blue,” a record inspired by the homiletic delivery of the Rev. C. L. Franklin, that Mr. Bland arrived at his trademark vocal technique.

“That’s where I got my squall from,” Mr. Bland said, referring to the sermons of Mr. Franklin — “Aretha’s daddy,” as he called him — in a 1979 interview with the author Peter Guralnick. “After I had that I lost the high falsetto. I had to get some other kind of gimmick, you know, to be identified with.”

The corresponding softness in Mr. Bland’s voice, a refinement matched by the elegant formal wear in which he appeared onstage, came from listening to records by pop crooners like Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett and Perry Como.

Just as crucial to the evolution of Mr. Bland’s sound was his affiliation with the trumpet player and arranger Joe Scott, for years the director of artists and repertory for Duke Records in Houston. Given to writing brass-rich arrangements that built dramatically to a climax, Mr. Scott, who died in 1979, supplied Mr. Bland with intricate musical backdrops that set his supple baritone in vivid emotional relief. The two men accounted for more than 30 Top 20 rhythm-and-blues singles for Duke from 1958 to 1968, including the No. 1 hits “I Pity the Fool” and “That’s the Way Love Is.” Steeped in feelings of vulnerability and regret, many of these performances were particularly enthralling to the female portion of Mr. Bland’s audience.

Though only four of his singles from these years — “Turn On Your Love Light,” “Call on Me,” “That’s the Way Love Is” and “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do” — crossed over to the pop Top 40, Mr. Bland’s recordings resonated with the era’s blues-leaning rock acts. The Grateful Dead made “Love Light” a staple of their live shows. The Band recorded his 1964 single “Share Your Love With Me” for their 1973 album, “Moondog Matinee.” Van Morrison included a version of “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do” on his 1974 live set, “It’s Too Late to Stop Now.”

Mr. Bland himself broke through to pop audiences in the mid-70s with “His California Album” and its more middle-of-the-road follow-up, “Dreamer.” But his greatest success always came in the rhythm-and-blues market, where he placed a total of 63 singles on the charts from 1957 to 1985. He signed with the Mississippi-based Malaco label in 1985 and made a series of well-received albums that appealed largely to fans of traditional blues and soul music.

Mr. Bland was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 1997.

Robert Calvin Brooks was born on Jan. 27, 1930, in Millington, Tenn., just north of Memphis (not in nearby Rosemark, as most sources say). His father, I. J. Brooks, abandoned the family when Bobby was very young. His mother, Mary Lee, married Leroy Bridgeforth, who also went by the name Leroy Bland, when Bobby was 6.

Mr. Bland dropped out of school in the third grade to work in the cotton fields. Though he never learned to write music or play an instrument, he cited the music of the pioneering blues guitarist T-Bone Walker as an early influence.

After moving to Memphis in 1947 Mr. Bland began working in a garage and singing spirituals in a group called the Miniatures. In 1949 he joined the Beale Streeters, a loose-knit collective whose members at various points included Johnny Ace, Rosco Gordon, Earl Forest and B. B. King, all of whom went on to become popular blues performers as solo artists.

Mr. Bland also traveled as a part of the Johnny Ace Revue and recorded for the Chess, Modern and Duke labels before being drafted into the Army in 1952. Several of these recordings were made under the supervision of the producer Sam Phillips at Sun Studios in Memphis; none of them had a significant commercial impact.

After his time in the service Mr. Bland worked as a chauffeur, valet and opening act for his fellow Memphis rhythm-and-blues singer Junior Parker, just as he previously had for Mr. King. He toured as a headliner throughout the ’60s, playing as many as 300 one-night engagements a year, a demanding schedule that exacerbated his struggles with alcohol, which he later overcame. He performed widely, in the United States and abroad until shortly before his death.

Mr. Bland’s synthesis of Southern vernacular music and classy big-band arrangements made him a stylistic pioneer, but whatever he accomplished by way of formal innovation ultimately derived from his underlying faith in emotional power of the blues.

“I’d like to be remembered as just a good old country boy that did his best to give us something to listen to and help them through a lot of sad moments, happy moments, whatever,” he said, with characteristic humility, in a 2009 interview with the syndicated “House of Blues Radio Hour.”

“Whatever moments you get of happiness, use it up, you know, if you can, because it don’t come that often.”

June 23, 2013

British fascist vists Syria as guest of Bashar al-Assad

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 10:27 pm
The Guardian, Tuesday 11 June 2013

BNP leader Nick Griffin visits Syria

MEP says he is on fact-finding mission to Damascus and wants to highlight risk of UK supporting opposition fighters

by , Middle East editor

Nick Griffin

Nick Griffin, who tweeted from Syria: ‘Why turn stable secular state into Iraq-style hell of sectarian hate?’ Photograph: Ian Nicholson/PA

Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National party, has waded into controversy by paying an officially sponsored visit to Damascus as part of a delegation of far-right and nationalist European politicians.

Griffin, an MEP for north-west England, used his Twitter account to publicise selected details of his “fact-finding” trip, calling the Syrian capital a “modern, bustling city”. Aside from “occasional explosions” in the distance, life in Damascus was normal, he tweeted.

Syrian state media reported that suicide bombings in Marja Square in the centre of the city had killed 14 people and injured 31. Griffin later visited the site and commented: “Vile … smells like an abbatoir. Hague wants your taxes to arm these terrorists!”

The BNP spokesman Simon Darby said Griffin was not being paid by the Syrian regime and did not want his presence in the country to be seen as an endorsement of President Bashar al-Assad. But anyone entering Syria – as Griffin did by road from Lebanon – needs a visa, which would require the approval of the information and foreign ministries.

Other members of his delegation are MEPs and MPs from Belgium, Russia and Poland. The BNP is part of the Alliance of European National Movements in the European parliament. Other members include Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, France’s National Front, Italy’s Tricolour Flame, Sweden’s National Democrats and Belgium’s National Front.

Damascus has the full support of Russia and Iran but in recent months the government has stepped up efforts to win sympathy in western countries to capitalise on waning support for the rebels, fading calls for outside intervention and the rise of extremist jihadi elements such as the Nusra front in the armed opposition.

Assad’s friend Khaled Mahjoub, an influential Syrian-American businessman, has sought to improve government PR by circumventing the slow-moving ministerial bureaucracy to obtain visas for journalists and others. In April the leader of France’s Voltaire network, Thierry Meyssan, author of a bestselling book claiming the 9/11 attacks were an inside job, was in Damascus.

“What he [Griffin] wants is to let people have a proper view of what is going on in Syria, because at the moment all we have is William Hague and his infantile war-mongering,” Darby said. “He wants to ascertain just how many British citizens are fighting out there for the so-called Free Syrian Army and other elements opposed to Assad.

“He is representing the point of view of ordinary British people who don’t want any engagement in the Middle East and its troubles, any more than they wanted to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“He is MEP for the north-west and he is sick and tired of seeing lads from Manchester and Liverpool coming back in body bags or with arms and legs missing because the government got them involved in business that isn’t any concern of ours.”

On Monday Griffin updated his followers on a day in Lebanon, describing Beirut as “less alien than the streets of London”. He praised Hezbollah, the militant Iranian-backed Shia group, who helped the Assad regime recapture the rebel-held city of Qusair last week.

Ghadars, Sikhs, M.N. Roy, German imperialism, and Alexander Berkman

Filed under: anarchism,Germany,india — louisproyect @ 4:49 pm

Har Dayal, founder of the Ghadar movement

When I had occasion to speak by phone with Hari Dillon, the former director of Tecnica, on the occasion of the untimely death of Michael Urmann, the group’s founder, I mentioned the interview I had done with a Sikh activist who I had met at work. Hari reminded me of the conversations we had had long ago about the Ghadar Party that a relative of his had been a member of in California, where it was particularly strong. The Ghadar (Hindi for mutiny) group was a revolutionary nationalist formation spearheaded by Sikhs that was an alternative to Gandhi’s pacifism. After chatting with Hari, I had made a mental note to look into the Ghadars but put them on the front burner after discovering that M.N. Roy worked with them to procure weapons from the Germans during World War One to use against British colonialism.

In the same chapter in Sibnayaran Ray’s biography that described Roy’s sojourn in Mexico City that I posted last week, we discover that he had hooked up with the president of Stanford University who had hired Ghadar founder Lala Har Dayal to teach at the school. You can get a feel for how much American higher education has changed through Ray’s account:

Meantime at Stanford Dhanagopal introduced Roy to the President of the University, Dr. David Starr Jordan, who was an eminent pacifist with a democratic socialist outlook and who had earlier given Har Dayal his appointment as a professor. He not only sympathised with the Indian aspiration for independence, but was also deeply interested in the political developments in neighbouring Mexico where one of his friends, General Savador Alvarado, was at that time engaged on some kind of a socialistic experiment as Governor of the province Yucatan. He gave Roy an introduction to Alvarado and advised him see the experiment himself if he ever went to that country.

One of the best introductions to the Ghadar movement is http://www.sikh-history.com. Here’s their entry on the Ghadars:

Many Sikhs and Hindu Punjabis who tasted freeddom outside colonial India in USA started Ghadr movement to free India from British rule in early 1900’s. These Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus were sent to Canada which was under British rule for labour work. They crossed the border over to USA and settled in Western Coast of USA in cities like Portland, San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles. These Punjabis created Gurdwaras [Sikh temples] and established societies. They were subject to draconian laws like “not allowed to marry to american woman” by many of these states at that time. The word Ghadr can be commonly translated as mutiny, was the name given to the newspaper edited and published for the Hindustani Association of the Pacific Coast which was founded at Portland, United States of America, in 1912. The movement this Association gave rise to for revolutionary activities in India also came to be known by the designation of Ghadr.

As I stated earlier, M.N. Roy worked assiduously to procure money and guns from Germany during WWI. Back then, when there was inter-imperialist rivalry and Britain ruled the world, it was considered a tactical question as to who you cut deals with. When WWII came along, the same outlook prevailed. Indian revolutionary nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose knocked on Nazi doors while Ho Chi Minh shook hands with the OSS. After WWII, there was no more inter-imperialist rivalry to speak of and it made perfect sense for the left and those fighting against colonialism to align with the USSR. Old habits unfortunately die hard and the pro-Baathist left continues to look at Putin and Assad as if they were Khrushchev and Castro.

Probably the best overall history of the Ghadar movement is Berkeley professor Maia Ramnath’s “Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism “, the first 90 pages of which can be read in Google Books. Most of Chapter three “Enemy of Enemies: the Nationalist Ghadar” can be read there.

I also recommend the 25 page history of the Ghadar movement that can be found on the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin website. It also details the alliance between Germany and Indian nationalists:

The German government had great sympathy with the Gadar movement because the German government and the Gadarites had the British as their common enemy. In September 1914, Indians formed Berlin Indian Committee (also known as the Indian Revolutionary Society) members of which were Har Dyal, Virendra Nath Chattopadhyay (younger brother of politician – poetess Sarojani Naidu), Maulvi Barkatullah (after his death, he was buried near Sacramento), Bhupendra Nath Datta (brother of Swami Vivekananda), Champak Raman Pillai (a young Tamilian) and Tarak Nath Das (a foundation is named after him in Columbia University, New York). The objectives of the society were to arrange financial assistance from German government for revolutionary activities and propaganda work in different countries of the world, training of volunteer force of Indian fighters and transportation of arms and ammunitions to reach the Gadarites for a revolt against the British Government in India.

The Indian Revolutionary Society in Berlin successfully arranged substantial financial aid for the Gadarites from Germany. The German Embassy in the United States engaged a German national to liaison with the Gadar leadership in San Francisco. Several ships were commissioned or chartered to carry arms and ammunitions and batches of Indian revolutionaries to India.

But what makes things even more interesting is how the anarchist movement fits into all these amazing conspiracies. This is from M.N. Roy’s memoir:

Barring Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, Har Dyal was the most important member of the Berlin Committee. Intellectually, he was by far the superior, but eccentric in emotion and erratic politically. From an orthodox Hindu he became an anarchist — a close associate of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman in the United States. But anti-British nationalism was still the dominating passion.

After having spent 14 years in prison for a failed assassination attempt against Henry Frick, the steel baron who drowned the Homestead strikers in blood, Berkman once again showed his willingness to put his beliefs on the line as the N.Y. Times of February 24, 1918 made clear. I especially love how Har Dyal was using an assumed name of Israel Aaronson. A novelist could not come up with something more mind-boggling.

berkman

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