Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 12, 2012

Was Che Guevara a Stalinist?

Filed under: cuba,Latin America,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 11:33 pm

Spain Rodriguez and Che Guevara

Working my way at a leisurely pace through Sam Farber’s egregiously wrongheaded “Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959”, I came across this remarkable comparison between Joseph Stalin’s foreign policy and Che’s:

The second major source of Cuba’s foreign policy was the independent Communist perspective of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who according to his biographers was a self-described admirer of Stalin even after Khrushchev’s revelation of the Russian leader’s crimes in 1956. Guevara was an ally of the old Cuba Communists from 1957 to 1960, a decisive period during which the key divisions about the kind of society that would be built in Cuba were made. But after 1960, Guevara’s views and practices began to differ from those of the USSR and the old Cuban Communists on matters of domestic and foreign policy. The Soviet Union and the old Cuban Communists were supporting the “right-wing Popular Front approaches, which as I earlier indicated, were initially developed in the mid-thirties by the Soviet Union and the Communist Parties involving alliances with forces to their right including the “progressive bourgeoisie.” Guevara’s approach was more similar, although not identical, to the far more intransigent and aggressive policies that Stalin adopted during other periods.

I really don’t want to make this article any longer than it has to be so I will not take apart all the factual and analytical errors contained in this excerpt but limit myself to Farber’s observation about Guevara adopting a policy “more similar” to the “the far more intransigent and aggressive policies that Stalin adopted during other periods.” They say that very observant Muslims can be identified by the appearance of a bruise-like marking on their forehead developed through a lifetime of prayer. I sometimes worry that I will develop the same kind of mark through slapping my forehead from reading such Farber howlers. What in god’s name is this professor emeritus talking about? Stalin’s “aggressive” policies? If this is a reference to the “third period”, then aggressive is hardly the operative term. Instead, imbecilic ultraleftism might obtain. There was nothing “aggressive” about the policy of lumping together National Socialism and “social fascism” (in other words, the German Social Democracy).

An obvious obligation for a scholar writing about Che’s foreign policy would be to examine the Organization of Afro-Asian Solidarity, the Tricontinental, or Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS), three groups that reflected both Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s foreign policy outlook. In a 1967 message to the Tricontinental, Guevara said the following:

America, a forgotten continent in the last liberation struggles, is now beginning to make itself heard through the Tricontinental and, in the voice of the vanguard of its peoples, the Cuban Revolution, will today have a task of much greater relevance: creating a Second or a Third Vietnam, or the Second and Third Vietnam of the world.

What in the world does this have to do with Joseph Stalin’s foreign policy (a wonkish term that I only use  to remain consistent with Farber’s Cubanology)? Most people at the time, including members of the Fourth International, recognized this call as a return to the proletarian internationalism of Leon Trotsky (as well as Marx, Engels, and Rosa Luxemburg) even if the practical application of it in Bolivia was poorly thought through.

If you go to the index of Farber’s book, you will find no reference to the Organization of Afro-Asian Solidarity, the Tricontinental, or Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS). As a rule of thumb, anything that inconveniences his ideological agenda gets swept under the rug. Furthermore, despite all his efforts to tarnish Che Guevara as a Stalinist, there is evidence that Farber found the Cuban Communist Party (called the Popular Socialist Party, the PSP) much more “Marxist” than the movement led by Castro and Guevara.

Ironically, although at the beginning of 1959 the PSP was neither popular nor prestigious and Fidel Castro and his Twenty-sixth-of-July movement were monopolizing mass support, the results of the revolutionary process would prove to be much closer to the PSP program than to any other Cuban political group or party.

Last but not least, the PSP was the only significant political force in Cuba that claimed to be socialist or Marxist and therefore stressed the importance of a systematic ideology and program as the basis for the development of strategy and tactics. Its ideology and program were tools used to win ideological support from radicalized Cubans seeking a systematic explanation of the country’s situation. This aspect of the PSP is even more noticeable when contrasted with the antitheoretical and antiprogrammatic stance of the Twenty-sixth-of-July movement.

“The Cuban Communists in the Early Stages of the Cuban Revolution: Revolutionaries or Reformists?”, Latin American Research Review, Vol. 18, No. 1 (1983), pp. 59-83

I want to call your attention to the use of the terms “program” and “ideology” in the excerpt above. They are a dead giveaway that the author is in the throes of what Marxists call idealism. This is not the idealism of boy scouts but of Plato. It is a philosophy that held sway until the mid-19th century when Marx appropriated materialism as a weapon in the class struggle. For Sam Farber the “positions” of the PSP matter much more than its role in the Cuban class struggle as a conservative enemy of the “putschism” of the young rebels. The irony in all this is that Farber got his political training in Max Shachtman’s YPSL, a group that when he joined in 1961 still had some Trotskyist blood flowing in its increasingly hardening arteries.

In September 2011 Jacobin Magazine published an article by James Bloodworth titled “The Cult of Che” that repeats the slander about Che’s Stalinism.

It was here [in Guatemala after Arbenz was overthrown] that Guevara, in his own words, became a communist, or more specifically, a believer in the quasi-religious doctrine of Stalinism: “At which moment I left the path of reason and took on something akin to faith I can’t tell you even approximately because the path was very long and with a lot of backward steps. ”Jorge Castañeda, in Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, describes how Che, writing to his aunt back in Argentina, had “sworn before a picture of our old, much lamented comrade Stalin that I will not rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated,” signing-off his letters as “Stalin II.”

I have a totally different interpretation of Che’s letter to his aunt. If you were a serious Stalinist in the 1950s, the last thing you would be talking about is seeing “capitalist octopuses annihilated.” The Communist Parties of Latin America were like those everywhere else in the world, committed to class-collaboration. In fact, it was a desire to see these octopuses (do you think that this was the inspiration for Matt Taibbi’s “vampire squid”?) annihilated that drew Che Guevara into the arms of the July 26th Movement despite its failure to adhere to the programmatic points of the PSP. (Now what was it that Karl Marx wrote in a letter to Bracke? Oh, I remember: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”)

Frankly, I would advise the Jacobin Magazine comrades to think twice about publishing articles by people who have given interviews to Norm Geras, the scabrous British professor emeritus and arch-Islamophobe—as James Bloodworth did in June 2012. I am generally not disposed to applying litmus tests, a hallmark of the Trotskyist movement, but if I were, high up on my list would be Norman Geras’s blog. Getting his approval is the kiss of death.

When asked by Geras what he was reading at the time, Bloodworth responded, “Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I’m quite embarrassed that I haven’t read this already.” One suspects that if Bloodworth had been asked to name his favorite blog, he might have answered Pam Geller’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

Geras’s last question was: If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be? Bloodworth replied: “Christopher Hitchens, Che Guevara, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.” If I was sufficiently motivated to do a follow-up with Bloodworth, I might have asked if Che Guevara was going to be the main course or dessert.

As an antidote to these sorts of noxious efflorescence, I can’t recommend Spain Rodriquez’s “Che: a graphic biography” highly enough. Published by Verso in 2008 (edited by the good Paul Buhle), it was sitting on my shelf for the past four years as one in a collection of books I had promised to review.

Spain Rodriguez’s death last week was just the impetus I needed to read the book and pull together some thoughts. For those who knew as little about Spain as I did, there’s an obit by Paul Buhle that should make it obvious why he would have developed a working relationship with the artist:

The whole comix artistic crowd moved to San Francisco around 1970, joining Robert Crumb and a few others already there, part of the acid-rock, post–Summer of Love setting. Underground comix, replicating the old kids-comics format but now in black and white, grew up alongside the underground press, whose reprinting of comix created the market for the books. Crumb was the artist whose work sold the best, in the hundreds of thousands, but Spain was widely regarded as the most political. He was heavily influenced by the most bohemian of the EC comics world, wild man Wallace Wood, whose sci-fi adventures depicted civilizations recovering from atomic war and whose Mad Comics stories assaulted the 1950s commercialization of popular culture. Wood’s dames were also extremely sexy, too overtly sexy for the diluted satire of the later Mad Magazine.

Trashman: Agent of the Sixth International was Rodriguez’s signature saga in these early years, serialized in underground papers, comix anthologies, and eventually collected in comic book form as Subvert Comics. These revolutionaries took revenge on a truly evil American ruling class in assorted ways, many of them violent, but they also had fun and sex, and were subject to many self-satirizing gags, in the process. By the middle 1970s, his work had broadened into more social and historical themes, often with class, sex, and violence highlighting his points. Histories of revolutions and anti-fascist actions (and all their complexities) inspired some of his closest reading of real events, but he had no fixed point on the left-wing scale. He admired and drew about anti-Bolshevist anarchist leader Nestor Makhno also anti-Stalinist Spanish anarchist Durruti, but he also drew about Red Army members facing death fighting the Germans, and so on. (Several of these pieces are now reprinted in Anarchy Comics: The Complete Collection, an anthology from that 1980s series, just published by PM Press.)

I would argue that if Paul had an affinity for Spain, Spain obviously had one for Che who in many ways was the same kind of eclectic rebel. If Che signed a letter to his aunt “Stalin II”, this by no means precluded him carrying around Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” (a gift from Regis Debray) in his knapsack in the Bolivian countryside.

And quite frankly, there is a dotted line between Paul and me and through him, Spain and Che as well. Not long after I had decompressed from 11 years of membership in the Socialist Workers Party, I began to draw away from the sorts of “litmus tests” that people like Farber and Bloodworth were wont to impose. Some fifteen years ago or so I became good cyberfriends with Mark Jones, a Briton who was about as pro-Stalin as you can get. He was even brassy enough to defend Stalin’s purge of the Red Army officers’ corps, a position that by the 1960s was only popular among Hoxhaite circles. But it was our shared belief in the need to confront the environmental crisis that made us political allies. The other stuff was secondary.

Turning now to Spain’s book, the conclusion that you will be left with is that Che Guevara was a man of deep principle whose hatred of injustice guided his every step.


This page from early in the book is drawn from “The Motorcycle Diary”. It gives you both a flavor of Spain’s amazing graphic capabilities as well as his insight into what made Che Guevara tick. In the top right Che says farewell to a miner and his wife who he met on his way through Chile. He says, “Even if communists are a danger to ‘decent life’ it seems like the natural longing for something better, a protest against persistent hunger.” That says it all, a protest against persistent hunger.

Despite all attempts to either demonize or sanctify Che Guevara, he was simply a product of his generation. Seeing the exploited and oppressed with his own eyes, either on his father’s plantation or “on the road” in Latin America served as a categorical imperative: you must help make the socialist revolution.

Che Guevara called himself “Stalin II” not because he had conducted a meticulous study of the writings of Leon Trotsky versus Joseph Stalin and decided that the ideas of the latter were more correct. The powerful historical momentum that begun just ten years earlier when the Red Army wiped fascism off the face of the earth was the decisive factor. So was the colonial revolution that was to turn the Congo, Algeria and Vietnam into a maelstrom. Che was not a “Stalinist”. He was simply a servant of history.

One of Karl Marx’s most frequently citations is from the 18th Brumaire:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

The problem with people like Farber and Bloodworth is that they are not interested in historical context. Everything takes place in a vacuum that has more in common with a graduate school political science seminar than the beating heart of the class struggle. Che Guevara arrived at his ideas in the same way that millions of young radicals did in the immediate post-WWII era. That period of history came to an end a long time ago. For the radicals of today we have the obligation to identify the progressive historical forces today that are gathering momentum today and help midwife them to victory. About the best thing you can say about Che is that he rose to the occasion. Let us not succumb to the easy temptation in a period of deep reaction to treat him as our enemy. While no revolutionary leader should be mythologized, the martyrdom of Che Guevara was something that should be respected by each and every one of us no matter our ideology.

The Associated Press Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Bolivian President Pays Tribute to Guevara

LA PAZ, Bolivia — President Evo Morales celebrated the birthday of Che Guevara Wednesday, the first time a top Bolivian leader has paid tribute to the revolutionary who was executed in the Andean nation four decades ago.

Surrounded by Cuban and Venezuelan officials, Morales observed the 78th anniversary of Guevara’s birth, using the occasion to praise his close allies President Fidel Castro of Cuba and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Guevara, an Argentine, launched an armed revolt in 1966 to bring communism to Bolivia after helping lead the 1959 Cuban Revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista and thrust Castro into power.

He waged a guerrilla insurgency for 13 months in Bolivia but was captured and executed by the Bolivian army at age 39.

Morales flew in a helicopter loaned by Venezuela to the small town of La Higuera– the site of Guevara’s execution– 480 miles southeast of La Paz.

Local children and nearby residents blew out a birthday cake with 78 candles representing how old Guevara would be if were alive.

He said in a speech that a decade ago he had a dream that there would be other Cubas in Latin America.

“I wasn’t wrong,” he said. “Now we do have another commander, colleague Chavez.” He also praised Castro’s Cuba, and he said both leader have shown they unafraid of “the empire,” a reference to the United States.

Since taking office in January, Morales has forged close alliances with Cuba and Venezuela, which have flooded Bolivia –South America’s poorest country– with aid.

Morales thanked Venezuela and Cuba for their aid and said he would make Castro a cake for his next birthday made of coca — the leaf from which cocaine is derived.

The coca leaf has traditional and legal uses in Bolivia although the U.S. has long backed its eradication.

Three musical titans pass on

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

Charles Rosen, Scholar-Musician Who Untangled Classical Works, Dies at 85
Published: December 10, 2012

Charles Rosen, the pianist, polymath and author whose National Book Award-winning volume “The Classical Style” illuminated the enduring language of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, died on Sunday in Manhattan. He was 85.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Mr. Rosen at home in 2007.

The death, at Mount Sinai Hospital, was of cancer, said Henri Zerner, a friend of many years.

Published in 1971, “The Classical Style” examines the nature of Classical music through the lens of its three most exemplary practitioners. Given that these titans were working with the same raw materials — the 12 notes of the Western musical scale — as the Baroque composers who had preceded them, just what was it, Mr. Rosen’s book asked, that gave their music its unmistakable character?

full article

Galina Vishnevskaya, Soprano and Dissident, Dies at 86
Published: December 11, 2012

Galina Vishnevskaya, an electrifying soprano who endured repression and exile as one of the postwar Soviet Union’s most prominent political dissidents, died on Monday in Moscow. She was 86.

Galina Vishnevskaya in 1961, when she sang “Aida” at the Metropolitan, one of her rare appearances in the West at that time.

Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images
Ms. Vishnevskaya with her husband, Mstislav Rostropovich, in 1959.

Her death was confirmed by a spokesman for the Vishnevskaya Opera Center in Moscow.

Ms. Vishnevskaya, the wife of the celebrated cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, was renowned both as an emotional singer with a polished technique and as a charismatic actress. She had performed in operettas and music hall revues before joining the Bolshoi Theater of Russia, the country’s premier opera company.

At the Bolshoi she breathed new life into stodgy Soviet-era productions with dynamic interpretations of Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” Marina in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” and Natasha Rostova in Prokofiev’s “War and Peace.” In 23 years at the Bolshoi, from 1952 through 1974, she performed more than 30 roles.

Though Ms. Vishnevskaya was rarely allowed to sing in the West at the height of her powers in the 1960s and ’70s, she drew rave reviews when she did. “Galina Vishnevskaya’s appearances at the Metropolitan Opera are like a comet’s, sudden, infrequent, capable of lighting up the sky,” Raymond Ericson wrote in The New York Times, reviewing her performance in the title role of Puccini’s “Tosca” in 1975.

In the mid-1970s, Ms. Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich were hounded by the Soviet authorities for their liberal political views and their friendship with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel laureate novelist and dissident.

In 1978, while traveling abroad, the couple were stripped of their Russian citizenships by the Kremlin. They were allowed to return to the Soviet Union and regain citizenship only in 1990 at the behest of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last head of state before the collapse of the Communist regime a year later.

full article

Ravi Shankar, Sitarist Who Introduced Indian Music to the West, Dies at 92
By Published: December 12, 2012

Associated Press
The Beatles’ George Harrison with Ravi Shankar in 1967.

Ravi Shankar, the Indian sitarist and composer whose collaborations with Western classical musicians as well as rock stars helped foster a worldwide appreciation of India’s traditional music, died Tuesday in a hospital near his home in Southern California. He was 92.

Mr. Shankar had suffered from upper respiratory and heart ailments in the last year and underwent heart-valve replacement surgery last Thursday, his family said in a statement.

Mr. Shankar, a soft-spoken, eloquent man whose performance style embodied a virtuosity that transcended musical languages, was trained in both Eastern and Western musical traditions. Although Western audiences were often mystified by the odd sounds and shapes of the instruments when he began touring in Europe and the United States in the early 1950s, Mr. Shankar and his ensemble gradually built a large following for Indian music.

full article

December 8, 2012

The blood on Alice Tepper Marlin’s hands

Filed under: Asia,workers — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

In the second and concluding article on sweatshop safety prompted by the Tazreen disaster in Bangladesh on November 24th, the New York Times focused on the nonprofit organization founded by Alice Tepper Marlin that gave Ali Enterprises in Karachi a clean bill of health. Just two months before the Tazreen fire that resulted in the death of 112 workers, Ali Enterprises was the scene of another and more devastating version of the latter-day Triangle Shirtwaist disasters wrought by corporate greed:

Fire ravaged a textile factory complex in the commercial hub of Karachi early Wednesday, killing almost 300 workers trapped behind locked doors and raising questions about the woeful lack of regulation in a vital sector of Pakistan’s faltering economy.

It was Pakistan’s worst industrial accident, officials said, and it came just hours after another fire, at a shoe factory in the eastern city of Lahore, had killed at least 25.

Flames and smoke swept the cramped textile factory in Baldia Town, a northwestern industrial suburb, creating panic among the hundreds of poorly paid workers who had been making undergarments and plastic tools.

They had few options of escape — every exit but one had been locked, officials said, and the windows were mostly barred. In desperation, some flung themselves from the top floors of the four-story building, sustaining serious injuries or worse, witnesses said. But many others failed to make it that far, trapped by an inferno that advanced mercilessly through a building that officials later described as a death trap.

–NY Times, September 12, 2012

The brothers who owned Ali Enterprises are now awaiting trial for murder. They claim that they are innocent since the factory had gotten a stamp of approval from Alice Tepper Marlin:

Despite survivors’ accounts of locked emergency exits and barred windows that prevented workers from leaping to safety, the Bhailas’ lawyer says their SA8000 certificate, issued under the auspices of Social Accountability International, a respected nonprofit organization based in New York, proves they were running a model business.

The certificate that Ali Enterprises boasts about is considered the most prestigious in the industry. It is the creation of Alice Tepper Marlin, a Wellesley College graduate and former Wall Street analyst who, after starting an activist group in 1969 to push for greater corporate responsibility, eventually settled on trying to make the world’s sweatshops less horrid.

The problem is that the SA8000 certificate is awarded after local subcontractors have had a look at the factory, in many instances serving as a rubber stamp for unsafe conditions. Recently UNI Global Union, a grouping of 900 labor unions, quit the board of Marlin’s outfit to protest its ineffectiveness. According to Khalid Nadvi, an expert on monitoring at the University of Manchester in England, certification systems like the SA8000, said, are “very patchy and in many cases totally ineffective.” He added, “Factories often know when the inspectors are coming. You have workers being coached what to say. There may be two sets of books.”

Buried within the article is a quote from Marlin that explains her differences with people like Khalid Nadvi and the labor movement:

Mr. Nadvi recommended that the voluntary monitoring system be replaced by a government-run system developed in consultation with industry and the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency.

But Ms. Tepper Marlin warned that jettisoning certification programs could cause an exodus of apparel orders and jobs from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

“This type of trade and development has played an important role in bringing people out of poverty,” she said. “Do we really want to say that we should move away from it because there are some factories with problems?”

You know what I’d like? To see Alice Tepper Marlin and her “power couple” husband John Tepper Marlin, a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School, put in one of those locked-door sweatshops and see an “accidental” fire burn their sorry bodies into a pile of smoking ashes.

The Marlins are superstars of the liberal left going back for decades. Here’s a profile on them from 2008:

The Tepper Marlins are, in many respects, old-line Kennedy-era liberals, from blueblood backgrounds, steeped in sixties ideals, with Harvard and Wellesley, Wall Street and City Hall prominent on their impressive resumés. Yet just as they eschew the obstreperous, vein-popping Type A personas you might expect from such a pair of intellectual power brokers, they’ve also avoided becoming relics of a bygone era. Instead, they’ve evolved, adapting their careers to changing trends, responding to the events of the times.

Alice is acknowledged as the architect of corporate social responsibility in America. “She invented the field, which is now conventional wisdom and very hot,” says John, who cheerfully admits to being the second most famous person in the family.

What the Tepper Marlins represent is the ability of the ruling class to create the illusion of reform through nonprofits and NGO’s that use all sorts of progressive rhetoric reminiscent in many ways of Obama’s campaign speeches. For example, if you go to the website of Social Accountability International (SAI), you will see it described as “a non-governmental, multi-stakeholder organization whose mission is to advance the human rights of workers around the world. It partners to advance the human rights of workers and to eliminate sweatshops by promoting ethical working conditions, labor rights, corporate social responsibility and social dialogue.”

But if you go to the SAI board of directors page, you’ll see that the emphasis is on corporate rather than social responsibility.

The president of the board is one Tom DeLuca, who was vice president of imports and compliance for Toys “R” Us, a company that was inducted into the Sweatshop Hall of Shame in 2008. Sweatfree Communities detailed how they earned the award:

 According to the National Labor Committee, Guangzhou Vanguard Water Sport Products Company Ltd in Guangzhou, China produces swim gear and sporting goods for its major clients Speedo, Toys ‘R’ Us, and the giant French retailer Carrefour. Workers’ routine shift is 14 ½ hours a day, from 8:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., seven days a week. Workers report going for months at a time without a single day off. One worker, forced to toil a 23-hour shift at a compression molding machine, shed tears as he described how exhausted he was, and terrified that his hands would be crushed by the relentless motion of the machine if he slowed down for even a second.

You also have one Don Henkle, who is Gap Inc.’s Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility. “In this capacity, he heads a team of over 90 employees worldwide, responsible for the company’s social responsibility efforts improving working conditions in garment factories.”

Since many of the people who buy clothes at the Gap are young students tuned in to the evils of sweatshops, Gap Inc. has orchestrated an ambitious PR campaign to sell the public that it is different from the typical scumbag multinational. Somehow, the campaign has yet to meet the advertised goals, by the corporation’s own admission:

Between 25 percent and 50 percent of the inspected factories supplying Gap from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean paid their workers below the minimum wage at some point last year. Between 10 and 25 percent of the factories in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and South America shortchanged their workers, the report said.

Now that’s not the minimum wage in the U.S. but the minimum wage in some hellish country like Honduras.

Another board member is Dana Chasin, a lawyer who used to be on the staff of Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler. Heard of them? I hadn’t myself but a bit of investigation revealed that the training he got there served him well as overseer of SAI policy:

NY Times, March 3, 1992
U.S. Moves to Freeze Assets Of Law Firm for S.& L. Role

The Federal Government sued a leading New York law firm and its former managing partner for $275 million today and moved to freeze their assets for their role in representing Charles H. Keating Jr., the convicted savings and loan executive.

The lawsuit is the largest ever to be brought by the Government against an adviser to a failed saving institution. It is the first time the authorities, who are stepping up their prosecution of lawyers and accountants linked to the savings and loan scandal, have tried to freeze a firm’s assets before going to trial.

Throughout the 1980’s, the firm, Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler, and its managing partner, Peter M. Fishbein, represented Mr. Keating, the founder of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, who was convicted of fraud in one of the costliest of savings failures.

In their lawsuit filed today in an administrative court, the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Justice Department contend that Mr. Fishbein and other lawyers at Kaye, Scholer repeatedly misled thrift examiners by overstating Lincoln’s worth, and engaged in obstructionist tactics that kept the institution open and hemorrhaging for many more months and at a much greater cost than necessary.

The way I see it, if you are setting up a nonprofit whose goal is to protect Walmart’s profits, who else would you put on the board of directors except someone who worked for a law firm that helped pull off one of the most massive bankster crimes in American history. Who would you expect them to invite? Ralph Nader? Don’t be an idiot.

With credentials equaling Dana Chasin’s, there’s Nicholas Milowski, an audit manager for KPMG, one of the country’s leading accounting firms. Since most of you are aware that outfits like Arthur Anderson (put out of business for its role in facilitating Enron’s crimes) exist mostly to help their clients evade regulations and oversight, it should not come as any surprise to learn that KPMG was a bunch of crooks. From Wikipedia:

The KPMG tax shelter fraud scandal involves allegedly illegal U.S. tax shelters by KPMG that were exposed beginning in 2003. In early 2005, the United States member firm of KPMG International, KPMG LLP, was accused by the United States Department of Justice of fraud in marketing abusive tax shelters.

Under a deferred prosecution agreement, KPMG LLP admitted criminal wrongdoing in creating fraudulent tax shelters to help wealthy clients dodge $2.5 billion in taxes and agreed to pay $456 million in penalties. KPMG LLP will not face criminal prosecution as long as it complies with the terms of its agreement with the government. On January 3, 2007, the criminal conspiracy charges against KPMG were dropped. However, Federal Attorney Michael J. Garcia stated that the charges could be reinstated if KPMG does not continue to submit to continued monitorship through September 2008.

In 2003, whistleblower Michael Hamersley testified before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee and assisted the investigations of U.S. Senate Homeland Security Governmental Affairs Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The subcommittee’s report (S. Rept. 109-54) detailed the misconduct.

On 29 August 2005, nine individuals, including six former KPMG partners and the former deputy chairman of the firm, were criminally indicted in relation to the multi-billion dollar criminal tax fraud conspiracy.

If you want to see how truly outrageous these people can be, you have to go to the board of advisers page that is broken down into three groups, including one for business. In this group you can find Manuel Rodriguez and George Jaksch from Chiquita Brands International, formerly known as United Fruit Company. If I were to spell out all of Chiquita/United Fruit’s misdeeds, it would take me hundreds of pages. Of course, a good place to start is Stephen Kinzer and Stephen Schlesinger’s “Bitter Fruit”, a book that indicts the multinational for its role in overthrowing Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and causing decades of near-genocidal suffering. You really have to wonder how shameless Alice Tepper Marlin was in lining up these bastards. I guess it was her way of telling the big bourgeoisie that she could be relied on to protect their vital interests, like Kerberos the three-headed dog guarding the gates of hell.

Got the picture? The SAI boards are filled with characters who, to put it in the immortal words of Woody Guthrie, will “rob you with a fountain pen”. Now if it was just a question of robbing a worker of a living wage or the American taxpayer of their hard-earned savings, it would be bad enough. But we are talking about hundreds of workers being burned alive–all because fucking SAI was complicit in issuing clean bills of health for factories turning out cheap goods for Walmart.

A couple of people, who I consider good friends, had SAI figured out long ago. Liza Featherstone and Doug Henwood got under Alice Tepper Marlin’s skin for writing a Nation Magazine article in 2001 that questioned the effectiveness of the SA8000 Certificate that gave the Karachi factory the go-ahead to put hundreds of workers’ lives at risk. Miffed at their impudence, Marlin wrote a letter to the Nation stating:

Unfortunately this article, lauding people who fight to improve the plight of workers, misrepresents a code of conduct with the same goals and an effective implementation record: SA8000, the Social Accountability International standard for decent working conditions, and its independent verification system. This information is readily available on SAI’s website, www.sa-intl.org.

I include Doug and Liza’s reply in all its glory:

New York City

Nowhere do we say that SAI is “led by multinationals”; we quote an outside observer who calls it a “PR tool for multinationals,” a characterization repeated by many sources. Watching Alice Tepper Marlin fawn over a Toys ‘R’ Us exec at the SAI conference this past December lent considerable credence to this view. On the advisory board, business members outnumber labor members by more than two to one (not counting the New York City comptroller, who manages one of the world’s largest stock portfolios).

Inspections every six months sounds reassuring, but scheduled at predictable intervals and announced in advance, they’re unlikely to expose abuses. Snap visits would be much more effective. We’re happy to hear that the offending factory eventually lost its certification, but it’s troubling that it got approved in the first place; auditors are supposed to see through managers’ attempts at bamboozlement. SAI’s auditor on the scene, Det Norske Veritas, told the South China Morning Post that it’s impossible to do reliable audits in China: “The factories always manage to find a way around the auditors.” We’re also happy SAI is broadly trying to improve the lot of workers in China, but certifying factories there implies that they meet the criteria of free association in SAI’s high-minded code, which they clearly do not. We don’t see how “parallel means,” whatever they are (and they sound like company unions), could possibly be a substitute for independent organizing.

As for Tepper Marlin’s “economic argument,” we’re always amused when NGO directors suggest they know more about running businesses than managers. If profits are fatter when workers are well paid and well fed, why are there so many miserably exploited people in the world? Businesses pay higher wages only when they’re forced to.



December 7, 2012

Emergency assistance needed for Syrian refugees

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 4:16 pm

Winter campaign for Syria: #KeepSyrianKidsWarm



Visit to Atme by Syrian Assistance in September

As winter closes in, and the conflict in Syria continues, the humanitarian situation for Syrians both outside and inside the country is deteriorating rapidly. Even the large agencies are suffering a financial shortfall faced with the immense task of providing assistance to hundreds of thousands of people. As a small group we can only help to scratch the surface of this impending disaster, but we have the means and contacts to reach some of those who are most in need of help. Our target: the children in the countryside of Idlib and Aleppo, many of whom, having been forced to flee, are desperately short of clothing for the winter. We aim to provide complete clothing packages for two groups: young toddlers, and kids up to the age up of about 13/14. These packages will include tops. trousers, shoes, hats, gloves and underwear. In addition for the youngest we will include baby formula. We expect the cost of each package to be between $25 – $40. Our initial target is $10,000. Please help us and donate what you can. Every dollar helps! We aim to be able to distribute the major share of the clothing in early January. Please help us help the children of Syria! Thank you so much.

Please go to http://www.syrianassistance.com/our-activities.html to help.

December 6, 2012

Hyde Park on the Hudson

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:24 pm

Starting in mid-November, I begin to receive “A-List” type screeners from Hollywood’s big-time production companies and distributors such as The Weinstein Company, Focus Features, et al. The films are generally marketed to a middle-class audience more interested in serious drama than car chases. The prototypical film is Spielberg’s “Lincoln”, something I detested but that is likely to garner multiple Oscars.

Coming very close in spirit but with less fanfare is “Hyde Park on the Hudson”, a movie that dramatizes the affair that FDR had with his fifth cousin in the late 30s, as well as a visit that the stuttering King George VI of England and his wife the Queen made in the summer of 1939. I was all set to hate this film just as much as “Lincoln” but was pleasantly surprised to enjoy every minute of it, so much so that I will be nominating it as one of the three best movies of the year for our annual New York Film Critics Online meeting on Sunday.

When I advised my colleagues in NYFCO to try to find the time to see it among the tsunami of DVD’s sent by the studios, one member replied: “Time Magazine called it one of the worst movies of the year.” I responded: “Ha-ha. That’s funny. I felt the same way about Lincoln. Like I said, film reviewing is very subjective.”

Intrigued by Time’s dismissal, I took a look at the review and spotted the following:

Daisy [FDR’s paramour] isn’t the only woman who lacks a middling IQ or the filmmakers’ sympathy. This Queen is no bright, warm Helena Bonham Carter from The King’s Speech; she’s portrayed as a pompous prig who, in one of her pique fits, shouts at George to “Please stop stuttering!” So many arguments take place among guests in bedrooms with thin walls that Hyde Park on Hudson almost becomes some unseen Fawlty Towers episode about a visit from the Royals. There’s also quite a lot of talk about George’s fear of eating hot dogs, which no one has bothered to inform him are just sausages — like bangers on a bun. In the movie ickiest scene, FDR says, “Daisy, would you show how to put on the mustard?”, and his mistress does so, with a lubriciousness that suggests the application of KY jelly to an engorged member.

How in the world can any of my readers resist such a movie that refused to take FDR seriously, keeping in mind that Henry R. Luce, Time Magazine’s founder, wrote this just two years after the events depicted in the film? This was a landmark essay that not only made the case for the pact adumbrated in the King’s visit to Hyde Park but for America assuming the role of world hegemon once enjoyed by Britain:

As America enters dynamically upon the world scene, we need most of all to seek and to bring forth a vision of America as a world power which is authentically American and which can inspire us to live and work and fight with vigor and enthusiasm. And as we come now to the great test, it may yet turn out that in all our trials and tribulations of spirit during the first part of this century we as a people have been painfully apprehending the meaning of our time and now in this moment of testing there may come clear at last the vision which will guide us to the authentic creation of the 20th Century – our Century.

–From Henry Luce’s The American Century

Now that we are in the 21st Century, with both America and Britain in their dotage, it seems appropriate that we are invited to watch a film that depicts two powerful figures from the preceding century as a couple of clowns. Time marches on.

Unlike “Lincoln”, the makers of “Hyde Park on the Hudson” did not seek to use the film as a bully pulpit to give moral instruction to the American people. While it is only very partially a celebration of the pact between American and British imperialism concluded on the eve of WWII, it is much more about the foibles of the men and women who rule bourgeois society.

While I doubt that the creative team behind “Hyde Park on the Hudson” had any kind of subversive intent, they certainly had no interest in hagiography. Indeed, the casting of a world-class clown like Bill Murray was a tip-off that they had no such intentions. Murray, I should add, is simply brilliant. Unlike Daniel Day-Lewis he was not trying to convince anybody that he was FDR’s avatar. Instead, his character was one part FDR and one part Bill Murray, the devilish comic who is closer in spirit to Groucho Marx than anybody today, including Woody Allen whose attitude toward Groucho is worshipful.

Indeed, the best thing that can be said about “Hyde Park on the Hudson” is that it is a romantic comedy of the sort that Woody Allen is no longer capable of making. In 1982 Woody made a lead-footed film titled “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy”, whose first mistake was the title. If you are making a comedy, the first thing you should not do is advertise that intention in the title of your work, not to speak of its claim to the bloodlines of Shakespeare’s greatest comedy. The work should speak for itself. Allen’s movie was an homage to Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 “Smiles of a Summer Night” that was also inspired by Shakespeare’s comedy but far more accomplished.

That is the way to approach “Hyde Park on the Hudson”. Forget about didactic political lessons. This is a deeply lyrical film that has some of the most haunting images I have seen in a film in a very long time. When FDR takes Daisy for a jaunt in a convertible on the sprawling grounds of Hyde Park, they come to a stop at the top of hill covered in wild flowers. It is enough to take your breath away.

Despite Time Magazine’s reference to Fawlty Towers, this is not really a bedroom farce. Instead it is a comedy of manners that is much subtler. For example, FDR has the King and his wife, Lady Elizabeth, stay in a room festooned with antique satirical paintings of the British troops from the War of 1812 that she strenuously objects to. Unlike “The King’s Speech”, Lady Elizabeth is played for laughs as an up-tight snob having much in common with the kind of role played by Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers films. The King is referred to as “Bertie” throughout, a reference to his first name Albert. While I have no idea if this was screenwriter Richard Nelson’s intention, it was hard for me to resist the notion that the character owed much to P.J. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, the upper-class twit who had to be rescued on every occasion by his street-smart butler Jeeves. This is a King of England who is not only hampered by a stutter but by what Time Magazine rather accurately describes as a “middling IQ”.

Richard Nelson is no slouch when it comes to the theater. He was formerly the chair of the playwriting department of Yale’s School of Drama and the author of the 2000 Tony Award winning “The Dead”, based on a James Joyce short story. His first play, written in 1978, was “The Killing of Yablonski”, a dramatization of the murder of a militant United Mineworkers leader by an assassin hired by bureaucrats opposed to change. In 1984 he adapted Dario Fo’s The Accidental Death of an Anarchist. He is also the author of “The General”, a play that attempted to find some good in Benedict Arnold. Now, there’s a playwright after my own heart.

December 5, 2012

Up the Anti: Initial Reflections

Filed under: anti-capitalism,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 9:21 pm
by Simon Hardy (ACI, U.K) on December 5, 2012in report

Up the Anti had something of an experiment-like character. We wanted to build a broad, left wing conference, that appraised the big questions facing radical politics in a fraternal atmosphere of critical debate, where people from different political traditions (and none) could discuss the future of the movement and progressive politics more generally.

By those criteria, the event was a success.

Given that it was co-sponsored by a collection of left wing websites, networks and magazines with a small number of activists amongst them, the event still attracted about 300 people (we had 322 registrations in total but not all advance ticket holders turned up so attendance was below that).

Sessions on debt strikes, trade unions, and Greece attracted good numbers of people with lively discussions. The journalism session was informative and good spirited. Radical interpretations of the crisis had mixed, indeed many negative, reviews that were summed it up by one person as “four middle-aged white men arguing with each other”. The session on the extradition of Talha Ahsan and Islamophobia saw moving, powerful talks from Victoria Brittain and Talha’s brother Hamja Ahsan that were incredibly composed and balanced, given the scale of the injustice discussed.

full: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=3672

Dave Brubeck, Who Helped Put Jazz Back in Vogue, Dies at 91

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

New York Times December 5, 2012

Dave Brubeck, Who Helped Put Jazz Back in Vogue, Dies at 91


Dave Brubeck, a pianist and composer whose distinctive mixture of experimentation and accessibility made him one of the most popular jazz musicians of the 1950s and ’60s, died Wednesday morning in Norwalk, Conn. He would have turned 92 on Thursday.

He died while on his way to a cardiology appointment, Russell Gloyd, his producer, conductor and manager for 36 years, said. Mr. Brubeck lived in Wilton, Conn.

In a long and successful career, Mr. Brubeck helped repopularize jazz at a time when younger listeners had been trained to the sonic dimensions of the three-minute pop single. His quartet’s 1959 recording of “Take Five” was the first jazz single to sell a million copies.

Mr. Brubeck experimented with time signatures and polytonality and explored musical theater and the oratorio, baroque compositional devices and foreign modes. But he did not always please the critics, who often described his music as schematic, bombastic and — a word he particularly disliked — stolid. His very stubbornness and strangeness — the polytonality, the blockiness of his playing, the oppositional push-and-pull between his piano and Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone — makes the Brubeck quartet’s best work still sound original.

Outside of the group’s most famous originals, which had the charm and durability of pop songs (“Take Five,” “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” “It’s a Raggy Waltz”), some of its best work was in its overhauls of standards like “You Go to My Head,” “All the Things You Are” and “Pennies From Heaven.”

David Warren Brubeck was born on Dec. 6, 1920, in Concord, Calif., near San Francisco. Surrounded by farms, his family lived a bucolic life: his father, Pete, was a cattle buyer for a meat company, and his mother, Elizabeth, was a choir director at the nearby Presbyterian church. When Mr. Brubeck was 11, the family moved to Ione, Calif., where his father managed a 45,000-acre cattle ranch and owned his own 1,200 acres.

Forbidden to listen to the radio — his mother believed that if you wanted to hear music you should play it — Mr. Brubeck and his two brothers all played various instruments and knew classical études, spirituals and cowboy songs. Dave learned most of this music by ear: because he was born cross-eyed, sight-reading was nearly impossible for him through his early development as a musician.

When he was 14, a laundryman who led a dance band encouraged him to perform in public, at Lions Club gatherings and Western-swing dances; he was paid $8 for playing from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m., with a one-hour break. But until he went to college he was an aspiring rancher, not an aspiring musician.

At the College of the Pacific, near Stockton, he first studied to be a veterinarian but switched to music after a year. It was there that he learned about 20th-century culture and read about Freud, Marx and serial music; it was also there that he met Iola Whitlock, a fellow student, who became his wife in 1942.

He graduated that year and was immediately drafted. For two years he played with the Army band at Camp Haan, in Southern California. In 1944 Private Brubeck became a rifleman, entering basic training — first in Texas, then in Maryland — and was shortly sent to Metz, in eastern France, for further preparation for combat.

When his new commanding officer heard him accompany a Red Cross traveling show one day, Mr. Brubeck recalled, he told his aide-de-camp, “I don’t want that boy to go to the front.” Thereafter, Mr. Brubeck led a band that was trucked into combat areas to play for the troops. He was near the front twice, during the Battle of the Bulge, but he never fought.

Finished with the Army at 25, Mr. Brubeck moved with his wife into an apartment in Oakland, Calif., and, on a G.I. Bill scholarship, studied at Mills College with the French composer Darius Milhaud. Milhaud asked the jazz musicians in his class to write fugues for jazz ensembles, and Mr. Brubeck played the results at a series of performances at Mills College. Mr. Brubeck had such admiration for his teacher that he named his first son, born in 1947, Darius.

Mr. Brubeck had met his most important musical colleague, Paul Desmond, in an Army band in 1943. Mr. Desmond was a perfect foil; his lovely, impassive tone was as ethereal as Mr. Brubeck’s style was densely chorded. In 1947 they met again and found instant musical rapport, fascinated by the challenge of using counterpoint in jazz.

Mr. Brubeck’s first group, an octet formed in 1946, contained five of Milhaud’s students and played pieces influenced by his teachings, using canonlike elements. The group’s earliest recorded work predated a much more famous set of similarly temperate jazz recordings, the 1948-50 Miles Davis Nonet work later packaged as “Birth of the Cool.”

In the late 1940s and early ’50s Mr. Brubeck also led a trio with Ron Crotty on bass and Cal Tjader on drums. It was around this time that he started to develop an audience. He was given an initial boost by the San Francisco disc jockey Jimmy Lyons, later the founder of the Monterey Jazz Festival, who plugged the band on KNBC radio and helped secure it a record deal with the Coronet label.

In 1951 the trio expanded to a quartet, with Mr. Desmond returning. (The permanent lineup change was perhaps inevitable, as Mr. Desmond was desperate to join his old friend’s increasingly popular band, but it may also have had to do with physical necessity: Mr. Brubeck had suffered a serious neck injury while swimming in Hawaii, limiting his dexterity, and he needed another soloist to help carry the music.)

Quickly the constitutionally different men — Mr. Brubeck open, ambitious and imposing; Mr. Desmond private, profligate and self-effacing — developed their lines of musical communication. By the time of an engagement in Boston in the fall of 1952 they had become one of jazz’s greatest combinations.

The next part of the equation was a record label, and for that Mr. Brubeck had found another booster: Fantasy Records, just started by the brothers Max and Sol Weiss, who owned a record-pressing plant and had little interest in jazz apart from wanting to make a profit from it.

They did, eventually, with Mr. Brubeck. But Iola Brubeck also played a role in the growth of his audience. Before Mr. Brubeck became a client of the prominent manager Joe Glaser, she handled his business affairs. In 1953 she wrote to more than a hundred universities, suggesting that the quartet would be willing to play for student associations. The college circuit became the group’s bread and butter, and by the end of the 1950s it had sold hundreds of thousands of copies of its albums “Jazz at Oberlin” and “Jazz Goes to College.”

In 1954 Mr. Brubeck was only the second jazz musician (after Louis Armstrong) to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. That same year he signed with Columbia Records, promising to deliver two albums a year, and built a house in Oakland.

For all his conceptualizing, Mr. Brubeck often seemed more guileless and stubborn country boy than intellectual. It is often noted that his piece “The Duke” — famously recorded by Miles Davis and Gil Evans in 1959 on their collaborative album “Miles Ahead” — runs through all 12 keys in the first eight bars. But Mr. Brubeck contended that he never realized that until a music professor told him.

Mr. Brubeck’s very personal musical language situated him far from the Bud Powell school of bebop rhythm and harmony; he relied much more on chords, lots and lots of them, than on sizzling, hornlike right-hand lines. (He may have come by this outsiderness naturally, as a function of his background: jazz by way of rural isolation and modernist academia. He was, Ted Gioia wrote in his book “West Coast Jazz,” “inspired by the process of improvisation rather than by its history.”)

It took a little while for Mr. Brubeck to capitalize on the greater visibility his deal with Columbia gave him, and as he accommodated success a certain segment of the jazz audience began to turn against him. (The 1957 album “Dave Digs Disney,” on which he played songs from Walt Disney movies, didn’t help his credibility among critics and connoisseurs.) Still, by the end of the decade he had broken through with mainstream audiences in a bigger way than almost any jazz musician since World War II.

In 1958, as part of a State Department program that brought jazz as an offer of good will during the cold war, his quartet traveled in the Middle East and India, and Mr. Brubeck became intrigued by musical languages that didn’t stick to 4/4 time — what he called “march-style jazz,” the meter that had been the music’s bedrock. The result was the album “Time Out,” recorded in 1959. With the hits “Take Five” (composed by Mr. Desmond in 5/4 meter and prominently featuring the quartet’s gifted drummer, Joe Morello) and “Blue Rondo à la Turk” (composed by Mr. Brubeck in 9/8), the album propelled Mr. Brubeck onto the pop charts.

Initially, Mr. Brubeck said, the album was released without high expectations from the record company. But when disc jockeys in the Midwest started playing “Take Five,” the song became a national phenomenon. After the album had been out for 18 months, Columbia released “Take Five” as a 45 r.p.m. single, edited for radio, with “Blue Rondo” on the B side. Both album and single became hits; “Time Out” has since sold close to two million copies.

In 1960, realizing that most of the quartet’s work centered on the East Coast, the Brubecks, with their children, Dan, Micharl, Chris, Darius and Catherine, moved to Wilton. They stayed there permanently and later had one more child, Matthew.

Genial as Mr. Brubeck could seem, he had strong convictions. In the 1950s he had to stand up to college deans who asked him not to perform with a racially mixed band (his bassist, Gene Wright, was black). He also refused to tour in South Africa in 1958 when asked to sign a contract stipulating that his band would be all white. With his wife as lyricist, he wrote “The Real Ambassadors,” a jazz musical that dealt with race relations. With a cast that included Louis Armstrong, it was released on LP in 1962 but staged only once, at that year’s Monterey Jazz Festival.

When Mr. Brubeck’s quartet broke up in 1967, after 17 years, he spent more time with his family and followed new paths. In 1969 he composed “Elemental” (subtitled “Concerto for Anyone Who Can Afford an Orchestra”), a concerto grosso for 45-piece ensemble. He later wrote an oratorio and four cantatas, a mass, two ballets and works for jazz combo with orchestra. Most of his commissioned pieces from the late ’60s on were classical works, many had religious or social themes, and many were collaborations with his wife.

As a composer, Mr. Brubeck used jazz to address religious themes and to bridge social and political divides. His cantata “The Gates of Justice,” from 1969, dealt with blacks and Jews in America; another cantata, “Truth Is Fallen” (1972), lamented the killing of student protesters at Kent State University in 1970, with a score including orchestra, electric guitars and police sirens. He played during the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting in 1988; he composed entrance music for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Candlestick Park in San Francisco in 1987; he performed for eight presidents, from Kennedy to Clinton.

In 1968 he formed a quartet with the baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and later he began working with his musician sons Darius (a pianist), Chris (a bassist), Dan (a drummer) and Matthew (a cellist). He performed and recorded with them often, most definitively on “In Their Own Sweet Way,” a Telarc album from 1997. The classic Brubeck quartet regrouped only once, in 1976, for a 25th-anniversary tour.

Mr. Brubeck’s son Michael died a few years ago. In addition to his other sons, Mr. Brubeck is survived by his wife, Iola; a daughter, Catherine Yaghsizian; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Mr. Brubeck resumed working with a quartet in the late 1970s — finally settling into a long-term touring group featuring the saxophonist Bobby Militello — and thereafter never stopped writing, touring and performing his hits. To the end he was a major draw at festivals.

In 1999 Mr. Brubeck was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. Ten years later he received a Kennedy Center Honor for his contribution to American culture. He gave his archives to his alma mater, now renamed the University of the Pacific.

Despite health problems, Mr. Brubeck was still working as recently as 2011. In November 2010, just a month after undergoing heart surgery and receiving a pacemaker, he performed at the Blue Note in Manhattan. Nate Chinen of The Times, noting that Mr. Brubeck had already “softened his pianism, replacing the old hammer-and-anvil attack with something almost airy,” wrote that his playing at the Blue Note “was the picture of judicious clarity, its well-placed chordal accents suggesting a riffing horn section.”

Mr. Brubeck once explained succinctly what jazz meant to him. “One of the reasons I believe in jazz,” he said, “is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same anyplace in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear.”

Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.

December 4, 2012

The 900 Days

Filed under: Film,Russia — louisproyect @ 9:01 pm

In his November 25th hatchet job on Oliver Stone in the NY Times Sunday Magazine, Andrew Goldman had this to say:

Stone often comes to understand, too late, the consequences of his words. In Spain, he talked openly about the furor that ensued when, in 2010, a British journalist asked him why people were so fixated on memorializing the Holocaust, considering, as he told her, that “Hitler did far more damage to the Russians” than he did to the Jews and that the Russians lost “25, 30 million” in the war. It was, Stone claimed, because of what he called “the Jewish domination of the media” and Israel’s “powerful lobby in Washington.”

Goldman went on to mention Stone’s apology for the comment but dropped the more interesting question of how little interest there is in the West about the cost of WWII to the Russian people. While the Jews certainly lost more lives on a percentage basis than the Russians, Operation Barbarossa—the name Hitler gave to the invasion of the USSR–certainly did have a genocidal character, especially for the citizens of Leningrad.

In early October my comrade Thomas Campbell, who works with the Chto Delat collective in Russia, dropped me a line about a documentary titled “900 Days” that was directed by Jessica Gorter, a friend of his. She sent me the film about a month ago and I finally got around to watching it. What follows are some thoughts on the documentary and other relevant material.

Harrison Salisbury

I have had a keen interest in the siege of Leningrad ever since reading Harrison Salisbury’s “900 Days: the Siege of Leningrad” about a decade ago. Salisbury, who was The New York Times’ Moscow bureau chief from 1949-1954 and died in 1993, was not the typical Timesman. Wikipedia reports:

Salisbury was among the earliest mainstream journalists to oppose the Vietnam War after reporting from North Vietnam in 1966. He took much heat from the Johnson Administration and the political Right, but his previous standards of objectivity helped to sway journalistic opinion against the war. He is interviewed in the anti-Vietnam War documentary film In the Year of the Pig. He was the first American journalist to report on the Vietnam War from North Vietnam after having been invited there by the North Vietnamese government in late 1966. His report was the first that genuinely questioned the American air war.

Although his book is a painful read, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is not just a catalog of the horrors of living in conditions that were as dire in some ways as Auschwitz; it is also a story of heroism and even a commitment to socialist ideals that persisted despite Stalinist misrule. While Google Books is no substitute for reading the entire book, it is worth checking out to get a feel for his reporting. This excerpt refers to cannibalism, an act of desperation for a starving people who in many cases no longer had dogs, cats, or rats to eat—they had long since been devoured.

In the Haymarket people walked through the crowd as though in a dream. They were pale as ghosts and thin as shadows. Only here and there passed a man or woman with a face, full, rosy and somehow soft yet leathery. A shudder ran through the crowd. For these, it was said, were the cannibals. Dmitri Moklavsky met a man like that on the staircase of his apartment. The man had been to his mother’s flat, where he traded four glasses of flour and a pound of gelatin powder for some clothing. The man had a pink face and splendid, widely spaced blue eyes. Moldavsky thought he would never forget the sight. Instinctively, he wanted to kill this man with the tender cheeks and the too, too bright eyes. He knew what he was. Cannibals.  Who were they? How many were they? It is not a subject which the survivors of Leningrad like to discuss. There were no cannibals, a professor recalls. Or rather, there were cannibals, but it only happened when people went crazy. There was a case of which he had heard, for instance, the case of a mother, crazed for food, She lost her mind, went completely mad, killed her daughter and butchered the body. She ground up the flesh and made meat patties. But this was not typical. It was a kind of insane aberration which might happen anywhere at any time in fact, the professor recalled reading of a similar case before the war.

Jessica Gorter’s film is a powerful exercise in oral history with interviews of a number of men and women in their 80s and above who lived through these terrible days. And what is more, they have little use for the ceremonial misuse of the 900 days that has become part of Russia’s new nationalistic baggage. They are ashamed of the degraded deeds they were forced to carry out (cooking and eating a beloved family pet) and angry at the officialdom that was party responsible for their misery. For example, we learn that the main food storage site was not adequately protected from Nazi bombs, a mistake all too characteristic of a Soviet Union that was ill-prepared to defend against the blitzkrieg.

This is not to say that everyone shares this outlook. During a reunion meeting of Leningrad siege survivors, about half the participants retain fond memories of Stalin and are anxious to protect his reputation against his detractors.

One of the outrages the survivors had to endure occurred long after the siege had been lifted. Referring to “The Leningrad Affair”, Wikipedia provides some interesting details on a city Stalin long suspected as a rival of Moscow and home to his arch-enemy Leon Trotsky:

During the siege of Leningrad, the city leaders were practically autonomous from Moscow and still managed to build an impenetrable defense that saved the city during the 900-days-long siege and won the battle on their own, while Stalin and his Kremlin cabinet did not control Leningrad. Survivors of the siege became national heroes, and leaders of Leningrad again gained much clout in the Soviet Federal government in Moscow. Now Stalin needed to restore his dictatorial control.

In January 1949 Pyotr Popkov, Aleksei Kuznetsov and Nikolai Voznesensky organized a Leningrad Trade Fair to boost the post-war economy and support the survivors of the Siege of Leningrad with goods and services from other regions of the Soviet Union. The Fair was attacked by official Soviet propaganda, and was falsely portrayed as a scheme to use the federal budget from Moscow for business development in Leningrad, although the budget and economics of such a trade fair were normal and legitimate and approved by State Planning Commission and the government of the USSR. Other accusations included that Kuznetsov, Popkov and others tried to re-establish Leningrad’s historic and political importance as a former capital of Russia, thus competing with Moscow-centered communist government.

Six leading officials of Leningrad, including the Mayor, were executed by a firing squad while another 200 served prison terms between 10 to 25 years.

For an informative albeit odd perspective, one might have a look at the “Siege of Leningrad” that was part of the Battlefield series on PBS in the mid-90s. With almost no interest in the suffering of the Russians, it is a review of the tactics used by the Nazi armies that disconcertingly insists on referring to the ingenuity and bravery of the Northern Sector Army that surrounded Leningrad. As it turns out, the siege was dictated by Nazi weakness rather than strength. Hitler simply lacked the means to attack the city head-on as was the case with Stalingrad. To some extent this was a function of the loss of machinery that succumbed to dust during the long march from eastern Germany to the heart of the USSR. The documentary is worth watching even if it is frequently off-putting.

In trying to cover as many different bases as possible, I also had a look at the 2009 Russian narrative film “Attack on Leningrad” that can be seen on Netflix streaming. With a mostly Russian cast directed by Aleksandr Buravsky that includes a couple of Hollywood regulars Mira Sorvino and Gabriel Byrne as Western war correspondents, it is a sincere but altogether misconceived work. It depicts some of the horrors that Salisbury’s book and Gorter’s documentary detailed but is mostly about Sorvino’s character’s attempt to define herself in relationship to the Soviet Union. As the daughter of a top White Army officer who went into exile, she is both the target of impersonal Nazi weaponry and Stalinist secret police attempts to bring her “to justice”. In more capable hands, the film might have come to life. Unfortunately, Buravsky is fairly incompetent if well-meaning. I would only recommend the film to hardy souls willing to put up with a lot of nonsense in the course of experiencing a film that represents the working out of a terrible trauma to the Russian psyche.

But if you are interested in the real goods, there is no substitute for Jessica Gorter’s documentary that is available from Icarus Films but only at the considerable price of $398. (http://icarusfilms.com/new2012/900.html) Let’s hope that the film makes its way to PBS, Netflix, or general theatrical distribution. It deserves the widest viewing.

While not specifically dealing with Leningrad, I had a chance to see “White Tiger”, the film that is Russia’s Official Entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for this year’s Academy Awards.

Based on the novel “Tankman”, it is a “patriotic” film of the sort that the Putin regime would endorse, one that goes hand-in-hand with ritualistic parades commemorating the 900 days. It is focused on a Russian tank crewman who miraculously survived a direct hit by the “White Tiger”, a Nazi tank that seems to be resistant to all Soviet shelling. After it has destroyed dozens of Soviet tanks, the ghost-like tank disappears into the mist. To destroy the “White Tiger”, the Soviet brass calls upon the mysterious survivor and a crew willing to die in a battle against the Nazi invader. The film can best be described as a mixture of traditional “socialist realism” and Moby Dick. To give you an idea of its bloodlines, the opening credits state that is a joint production of Mosfilm and a top Russian bank. Welcome to the New Russia.

An interview with Cinema Without Borders‘s Bijan Tehrani should give you some idea about director Karen Shakhnazarov’s goals.

BT: As a film critic, I had been wanting to see war scenes in the same quality we had in Mikhail Kalatozov [director of “The Cranes are Flying], which you achieve while bringing a fresh mind. Were you influenced by the Russian cinema of that time?

KS: I myself have very great appreciation for the old Soviet war films; that was the tradition in which I was brought up and I wanted to link it with today’s new approach and new possibilities. Time passes but World War II remains the most important event. But at the same time, my sense is that a new approach is required today.

BT: You mentioned that this film is based on your admiration of Moby Dick. I can recognize this in the film. But there was also this sense of magical story-telling such as you can find in the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example believing the tanks have a soul and talk to the main character. Was this done intentionally in the film?

KS: Yes, it was done intentionally. It was my purpose to make the tanks look like a creature with a soul. If I succeeded, I am happy.

I would say that the director did succeed as well. Look for this film if and when it opens at your local art theater in 2013.

“White Tiger” ends with a conversation among characters from the Red Army musing about the disappearance of the White Tiger. One of them says that as long as there is a fascist threat, there is always the danger that the White Tiger reappearing. (My feeling is that there is an element of Stephen King as well as Herman Melville in the film.)

Despite the willingness of Vladimir Putin to appropriate symbols of Russia’s storied anti-fascist past, there are signs that this is mere lip-service as Thomas Campbell reminded me in a recent email:

If You Want to Commemorate the Murder of an Anti-Fascist in Petersburg, Police Will Treat You Like Scum

Saint Petersburg anti-fascists marked the seventh anniversary of the death of their comrade Timur Kacharava. After the sanctioned action was over, police demanded that the friends of the deceased man remove all the flowers laid at the site of Timur’s death.

The friends refused, so the police got a homeless man to do it.

Just a little taste of a life in a city where, once upon a time, over a million people perished during a Nazi siege.

Timur Kacharava was stabbed to death by neo-Nazis in broad daylight in downtown Petersburg on November 13, 2005. The murder took place just a stone’s throw away from an obelisk erected to mark the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two.

November 30, 2012

Columbia University President: opposition to WWI is treason

Filed under: Columbia University,war — louisproyect @ 10:03 pm

I have begun reading Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s “The Untold History of the United States” upon which the Showtime series is based. I can’t recommend it highly enough and will be posting a longer piece on Counterpunch the first chance I get. In the meantime I want to share this June 7, 1917 article with you that is excerpted on page 6 of the book, in a chapter dealing with Wilson and WWI. Simply jaw-dropping stuff.


Nicholas Murray Butler

New York Times June 17, 1917
Tells Alumni Columbia Rejects All Who Resist Government

President Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia University, in an address at a luncheon of alumni held in the university gymnasium at the close of the commencement exercises yesterday, denounced members of the university who resist the Government in time of war.

“Virtue and valor are so general among American youth,” he said, “as to be in danger of becoming commonplace, while vice and cowardice shriek out their horrid heads in ways that, at least for the moment, attract and often enchain public attention. For every instance of failure to rise to the high plane of patriotic duty and loyal service there_ have been here a hundred, yes, a thousand, instances of a splendid and a contrary sort.”

“So long as national policies were in debate we gave, as is our wont, complete liberty of assembly, of speech and of publication to all members of the university who, in lawful ways, might wish to influence and guide public policy. Wrongheadedness and folly we might deplore but were bound to tolerate. So soon, however, as the nation spoke by the Congress and by the President declaring that it would volunteer as one man for the protection and defense of civil liberty and self-government, conditions sharply changed. What had been tolerated before became intolerable now. What had been wrongheadedness was now sedition. What had been folly was now treason.

“I speak by authority for the whole university—for my colleagues of the Trustees and for my colleagues of the Faculties—when I say, with all possible emphasis; that there is and will be no place in Columbia University, either on the rolls of its Faculties or on the rolls of its students, for any person who opposes or who counsels opposition to the effective enforcement of the laws of the United States, or who acts, speaks, or writes treason. The separation of any such person from Columbia University will be as speedy as the discovery of his offense. This is the university’s last and only word of warning to any among us, if such there be, who are not with whole heart and mind and strength committed to fight with us to make the world safe for democracy.”

Ambassador James W. Gerard of the class of 1890 also made an address at the luncheon in which be brought the alumni to their feet with applause as he said: “Nothing this country has in life, property or honor will, be worth while if the German Empire wins this war.”

Kate Masur on Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

Filed under: Civil War — louisproyect @ 7:46 pm


A Filmmaker’s Imagination, and a Historian’s
November 30, 2012, 1:58 pm
By Kate Masur

As viewers flock to see Lincoln, and reviewers rave about Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, historians are raising different kinds of issues: How accurate is the film’s portrayal of emancipation? What does it leave out? The Chronicle Review asked several scholars to weigh in.

“You gave us the history from which we made our historical fiction,” Steven Spielberg recently told the historians in a crowd gathered to commemorate the 149th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Then the filmmaker drew a distinction. Historians “gather evidence” and produce “diligently reconstructed narratives.” By contrast, he said, “one of the jobs of art is to go to the impossible places,” to “enlist the imagination to bring what’s lost back to us.” The “resurrection” of the past by filmmakers, he continued, “is of course just an illusion. It’s a fantasy and it’s a dream.”

Moviegoers and historians alike should pay attention. Spielberg’s Lincoln is a work of art, a film about morality, democracy, and human agency that tells us something about its creators and—since Lincoln will be watched and loved by millions—about ourselves. Like any other movie, novel, or painting, the film ought to be discussed and critiqued. Indeed, it should be subjected to a particularly searching analysis precisely because of its prominence and power.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit in the wake of an op-ed I wrote about the film for The New York Times, in which I pointed out the passivity and generic nature of the black characters in the film. I argued that the filmmakers’ “imagination” (to quote Spielberg) was one in which white men gave the gift of freedom to African-Americans.

A rich debate has developed among historians and in the greater blogosphere about this film. Some writers have agreed with my points wholeheartedly, arguing that the film underemphasized the role African-Americans played in influencing the abolition debate in Washington. Others have said that black characters are unimportant to the film’s larger goals. Some critics have claimed that I would only have been satisfied with an entirely different film—perhaps one focused on slaves’ struggle to get free, or on Lincoln’s relationship with Frederick Douglass.

To be sure, I’d like to see more Hollywood films that feature prominent and complex black characters. My point, though, was that the filmmakers’ artistic choices revealed assumptions about black passivity and white agency that are inaccurate, damaging, and difficult to dislodge.

This is not a quibble about facts. Nor am I advocating a politically correct or anachronistic interpretation of history. To the contrary, it is now received wisdom among professional historians that African-Americans—both enslaved and free—were active participants in debates about slavery and race and that slaves’ refusal to stay put or side with their owners had enormous consequences. As Eric Foner wrote in a recent letter to The New York Times: “Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives.”

On the issue of facts, Harold Holzer, an eminent Lincoln scholar, found plenty of scenes that have no basis in the known history. Yet in an article for The Daily Beast, he concluded that, “In pursuit of broad collective memory, perhaps it’s not important to sweat the small stuff.”

I agree. It’s acceptable (even inevitable) that artists depart from the empirical evidence in order to capture something human and profound. But it is also reasonable to point out how a work of art can reveal and reinforce deeply held beliefs and unacknowledged assumptions.

In Spielberg’s treatment, Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade appear to be faithful White House servants who did little more than look after the comforts of their employers. They are archetypes rather than individuals. In reality, Keckley was a skilled dressmaker who had many different clients among Washington’s society women; she led an organization of African-American women that raised money to help needy runaway slaves; and she persuaded Mary Todd Lincoln to donate money to her cause. Slade, for his part, was president of an African-American civil-rights organization whose activities were known to members of Congress and, almost certainly, to Lincoln himself.

If evidence abounds of Slade’s and Keckley’s leadership and advocacy, then why didn’t the film allude to it? Perhaps because the filmmakers did not—or could not—imagine black servants who had lives outside their work and were activists in their own right.

To those who insist that it would have required a PBS miniseries or a wholly different feature film to portray black characters with more complexity and to suggest that African-Americans played a role in their own liberation, I offer the following dreams and fantasies of my own.

Thaddeus Stevens could have talked about politics at home with his supposed  lover, Lydia Smith, who was African-American. They might have discussed the tension between Stevens’s idealism and the president’s pragmatism; Smith could have given Stevens advice about how to handle himself during the House debate over the 13th amendment.

Robert Lincoln, strolling around Washington and mulling his conflict with his parents, could have come across a meeting of black activists who, under leadership of the editor Robert Hamilton of New York, had assembled in the capital to lobby Congress for emancipation and equal rights. Some of these men could have been among the group of African-Americans who filed into the House chamber to witness the amendment’s passage.

Keckley, in an effort to get the First Lady out of the house, could have taken Mary Lincoln to a meeting of her relief organization at 15th Street Presbyterian Church, the city’s most prestigious black church, where Slade was also a member.

A Northern black activist or two could have visited the White House to lobby for the amendment or to discuss which Democratic representatives could be persuaded to back the amendment. For that matter, Lincoln could have been shown discussing his dilemma with Slade.

Instead of showing Lincoln interacting with (passive) photographic images of slaves, the film could have shown him meeting actual fugitive slaves who had come into the city. An escaped slave might have described her decision to leave home, her calculus of the risks versus the potential rewards, and her understanding of the war itself. The interaction might have been shown to touch Lincoln emotionally. (As it stands, Spielberg imagines that Lincoln decided to prioritize the amendment over peace talks, not because anyone or any thing persuaded him, but because he meditated on a Euclidean equation.)

None of my fantastical scenes are any less accurate or more improbable than scenes that already exist in the movie. Any of them would have helped suggest that the black characters—though marginal to the film as a whole—had political views of their own. And any of them would have helped make the broader point that African-Americans participated in the abolition of slavery in a variety of ways.

Some critics argue that the film gives us powerful scenes of black men as soldiers and that these sufficiently demonstrate that African-Americans participated in the struggle for abolition. It’s worth acknowledging that there are black Union soldiers in Lincoln, though frankly, it would have been egregious if Spielberg’s vision of the military conflict in the winter of 1865 had not included them. In an appealing example of artistic license, an early scene shows two black soldiers talking with Lincoln and then, with two white soldiers, reciting the Gettysburg Address. I like how this scene lays out some of the stakes and possibilities of that historical moment. And the black soldiers’ speaking parts are probably longer and certainly more interesting than any other lines delivered by black characters in the film.

Another scene in which stoic black soldiers on horseback stare down the Confederate commissioners suggests more, I think, about the commissioners’ horror at black enlistment in the Union army than it does about the soldiers’ own agency. But I appreciate how the scene references the dramatic changes in Southern life that the Civil War would bring.

Even so, the scenes that feature soldiers—including the first one showing intense hand-to-hand combat and the later one in which the audience views, with Lincoln, scores of soldiers lying dead where they fell—mainly function to frame the film’s central concern: political deliberations in Washington. Violence, suffering, and death on the battlefield remind us of the stakes of Lincoln’s decisions and help us understand why he was (according to the film) tempted by the possibility of forging peace without emancipation.

As the political scientist Corey Robin wrote, this film de-centers Lincoln, giving us a cacophony of voices on the subject of abolition, but almost every one of those voices belongs to a white person. It is because the movie’s dramatic tension focuses on civilian life in general and on politics in particular that its creators’ failure to imagine the activities of black civilians is so disappointing.

In the end, Spielberg’s proposition that historians live in a world of facts while artists trade in dreams and fantasies is useful but incomplete. Historians use their imaginations all the time. In fact, some of the best history writing and teaching happens when we insist on exploring how our imagined version of a story stacks up against the evidence of complexity and contingency that we find in the sources. Conversely, of course, it’s hardly the case that Spielberg and Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, don’t care about knowable facts. Why else would they go to great lengths to get their hands on Lincoln’s watch or to record the ring of the bells at Lincoln’s church in Washington?

Perhaps the relationship between evidence and imagination is the crux of the matter. Many readers objected strongly to the assertion that the film could have alluded to African-Americans’ abolitionist activities without diminishing the larger story. There is ample evidence that doing so would have been historically accurate and manageable in a few minutes of screen time. Yet such activities were not part of Lincoln’s world as these readers (or the filmmakers) imagined it.

Spielberg’s remarks at Gettysburg were profound on the subjects of history, loss, art, and memory; it’s clear that he and Kushner have thought deeply about their work and its meaning. But this only brings into relief their blind spots about race. By failing to portray independent and verbally astute black characters—even on the periphery—they ended up making a film that perpetuates the culturally authoritative but historically inaccurate idea that white men alone were the authors of abolition.

We’re all entitled to imagine how we would make a blockbuster film about Abraham Lincoln—what scenes we’d include and what messages we’d drive home. No one, however, commands the resources, wherewithal, and audience of Spielberg and Kushner. Their power to shape our collective understanding of race and democracy is enormous. Their historical dreams and fantasies matter more than ours. That’s why it would have been nice if they had gotten this part of the story right.

Kate Masur, an associate professor of history at Northwestern, is the author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

« Previous PageNext Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,730 other followers