Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 17, 2020

Seadrift; The Pollinators

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

In 1979, the village of Seadrift, Texas, about 3 ½ hours south of Houston, became a major focus of TV and newspaper coverage when clashes between Vietnamese and native-born fishermen climaxed with Sau Van Nguyen shooting Billy Joe Aplin to death. This in itself was enough to make the headlines but when a jury found Sau not guilty, the shit really hit the fan. Seadrift, already a magnet for the KKK because of earlier violent but non-fatal clashes, became a battleground between two camps that superficially had the same goals, to become wealthy fishing for crabs and shrimp just like Gary Sinise’s character in “Forrest Gump”.

Directed by Tim Tsai, a Chinese-American, it relies on interviews with surviving members of both camps, including Billy Joe Aplin’s daughter who in the closing moments of the film states that none of this would have happened if the US never invaded Vietnam in the first place. Since the Vietnamese fishermen in Seadrift were fleeing Vietnam, you might think that they’d have a lot in common with their Texas counterparts who must have been just as anti-Communist as them, including several who were Vietnam veterans.

However, the search for profit tends to trump ideology—in this case access to fishing grounds. Unlike farming or ranching, there is no such thing as property rights. You go out in the water and throw your nets wherever you please. The native-born fishermen would have resented the newcomers just for competing over a limited resource but all the more so when they began casting their traps in the same location as they regarded as their own turf. At first the crab traps owned by the Vietnamese were trashed behind their backs. When they began to show up en masse to defend what they saw as their private property, the fight escalated to the point of bullets fired into each others’ hulls.

To the credit of the native-born, they eventually repudiated the KKK in a remarkable town meeting. Now in their sixties and seventies, they look back on this period as escalating out of control largely because of an inability to respect each other’s identity and rights.

In an interview with the Madison, Wisconsin Cap Times, Tsai draws parallels with today’s problems. “As I was editing the film, it was just surreal to see that what the KKK was saying back then was almost word for word what the alt right is saying today against immigrants and refugees. It’s just a different group (being targeted).” I had the same reaction.

(“Seadrift” is currently available as a DVD. Check First Run Features for word on its availability as VOD).

As the title implies, “The Pollinators” is all about the threat of extinction facing honey bees, which in turn threatens our own survival since one-third of all fruits and vegetables rely on their pollination.

Although I have been reading any number of articles about the honey bee decline in recent years, this deeply informative and politically urgent documentary contained many new revelations, starting with the fact that most pollination taking place today is not done by “free range” honey bees but by commercial firms that transport truckloads of hives to customers, mostly in California, who pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure that their almonds, apples, apricots, etc. can bear fruit.

However, since fruit orchards tend to face any number of threats to the trees even reaching the point of bearing flowers, including insects and fungus, they rely on chemicals to ward them off. If you’ve been following reports on the demise of honey bees, you are probably aware that neonicotinoids, a class of insecticide, are seen as likely cause. What the film reveals is that they replaced organophosphates that were so harmful to farmworkers. Unfortunately, they are much worse for the bees since they only begin to degrade after a couple of years while organophosphates degrade within days.

In addition, despite the loving care that professional beekeepers provide for their “workers”, they are not as hardy as “free range” bees that grow robust from being near wild foliage such as clover, etc. The film reveals that most of the U.S.A. bread basket interior has been turned into a vast monocrop source of soybeans and corn that might be of commercial value but of none to the reproduction of hives.

The last half-hour of the film is devoted to the coverage of regenerative farming that seeks to reconnect the main pillars of pre-capitalist farming, including a diverse combination of crops, the restoration of native grasses, livestock, and bees all working together to create healthy food.

As someone who has seen and reviewed well over 25 documentaries on ecology for the past twenty years, I would put “The Pollinators” at the top of those I consider essential. It can be rented from all the usual sources. Just Google/Video “The Pollinators” and the links will appear.

June 16, 2020

Global Warming After 1.5°C Without Emissions

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:56 am

via Global Warming After 1.5°C Without Emissions

June 15, 2020

The Killing Floor

Filed under: african-american,Black Lives Matter,Film,trade unions — louisproyect @ 6:42 pm

Now showing as part of Film Forum’s pandemic-induced virtual cinema program, “The Killing Floor” is a striking illustration of the need to synthesize class and race. Based on the experience of trying to build a trade union in Chicago’s stockyards during WWI, it is an object lesson on the need to abandon “white privilege”.

“The Killing Floor” was a 1984 TV movie directed by Bill Duke that I had heard about over the years but never seen. Not without its limitations, it belongs alongside “Salt of the Earth” and “Matewan” as truly engaged, working-class cinema. The teleplay was written by Leslie Lee, an African-American playwright who worked with the Negro Ensemble Company, and is based on a story by Elsa Rassbach. Rassbach lives and works in Berlin, where she heads the “GIs & US Bases” project for the German affiliate of the War Resisters International. She is also active in Code Pink, No to NATO, and the anti-drone campaign in Germany.

Duke, an African-American, is probably best known to most people as a hulking, action film actor who was part of the team Arnold Schwarzenegger led in “Predator”. He has also directed blaxploitation films like “A Rage in Harlem” and, unfortunately, directed his black cast members in “The Killing Floor” to use the exaggerated rhetorical style of such films. That directorial misstep and the inability of the film to represent the large-scale violence that took place in 1919 between whites and blacks due to budget constraints are its only drawbacks. However, if you are looking for an accurate and thought-provoking dramatization of the class/race contradictions that must be overcome in order to make a revolution in the USA, no other film comes close.

Nearly all of the characters in “The Killing Floor” are drawn from history, including the lead Frank Custer (Damien Leake), a black man from Mississippi who “freighthops” a boxcar to Chicago with his best friend Thomas Joshua (Ernest Rayford) in search of work.

Jobs were plentiful in the stockyards since so many able-bodied men had enlisted in the army. Like other blacks fleeing the misery of sharecropping, Frank and Thomas head directly to the YMCA on Chicago’s south side, the home of recently transplanted blacks. There they are told that they should go directly to the stockyards the next morning and expect to be hired on the spot. The YMCA’s role in funneling black men into the stockyards is just one of the many historically accurate details of the film.

Frank learned that a job in the stockyards paid well ($1.50 a day!) but in the most miserable conditions possible. With his experience slaughtering hogs on the farm back home, he was a natural for butchering cattle on the killing floor. However, he could not start right away since he didn’t have the knife necessary for the job. It took him days to put the money together. Unlike Frank, Thomas had neither the stomach for slaughtering cattle nor the willingness to put up with white worker racism. The Irish and eastern European immigrants who preceded them were spat upon in the old country. Now, in the U.S.A., they took every opportunity to spit upon those in a lower caste. Thomas, a “new Negro” who would not put up with such indignities, joins the army to leave all that behind.

Not all of the whites are racist. Some, like trade union organizer John Fitzpatrick (James O’Reilly), believe in black-white unity and bend every effort toward getting someone like Frank Custer to join the union. Like most of the newly arrived blacks, Frank is skeptical but eventually sees the wisdom of working-class unity and strength. My friend and fellow CounterPunch contributor Paul Street wrote about the role of people like Frank Custer in his 1996 Journal of Social History article “The Logic and Limits of ‘Plant Loyalty’: Black Workers, White Labor, and Corporate Racial Paternalism in Chicago’s Stockyards, 1916-1940” (the SYLC referred to below was the Stockyard Labor Council):

“Northern” Black workers joined unions in roughly the same proportion as white workers. Ninety percent signed up by early 1918. Barrett notes that they “created the type of institutions commonly associated with stable working-class communities-unions, cooperatives, fraternal groups, and an independent political organization [the Colored Club of the Cook County Labor Party].” They provided a “nucleus of Black union activity, serving on [SYLC] floor committees and recruiting for the SYLC.” Within that nucleus were such individuals as Robert Bedford and Frank Custer, both long-service packinghouse workers and elective SYLC floor committeemen on the Wilson plant’s cattle-killing floor. While they possessed a strong consciousness of race, Bedford, Custer, and other Black SYLC militants braved the scorn of anti-union Blacks (one of whom called them “a lot of white folks’ niggers”) to advocate labor unity “irrespective of race, creed, color, nationality or sex.” Their struggle reminds us that there were individuals within the Black working class striving for industrial unionism prior to the 1930s. It also suggests that Black workers’ race consciousness was not completely or inherently opposed to working-class solidarity.

Inside the plant, Moses Gunn plays Heavy Williams, a black worker deeply hostile to the union. When Thomas returns from Europe, he is forced to work in the stockyards and just as resentful of white racists as he was when he left. He takes Williams’s side against the union. No matter how often Frank tries to sell Thomas on the need for class unity, he sees few differences between white workers and their white boss.

Paul Street attributes this distrust to real factors that had to be overcome before a strong and lasting union could be built.

Black workers’ “loyalty” to the packers, then, was no simple, undiluted expression of docile Black paternalization. It was mediated by a proud “race consciousness” and by a realistic calculation of Black self-interest. It reflected both t core, self-active Black impulses behind the Great Migration and the influence a race-conscious Black middle-class leadership. It was offered because the packers (for all their racism) were especially favorable to Black workers, because labor movement and the working-class community in and around the stockyard were tinged by racism, because stockyards employment was a ticket to the relative racial freedoms of the North and (though this is the most difficult to gauge because of the dream of an independent Black metropolis built on wages earned in white-owned industries. It was contingent, and therefore reversible when if—as occurred during the 1930s—employers came to be seen as working against “the race,” northern opportunities waned, and a new unionism could emerge meet “the race’s” needs.

Once WWI came to an end, the veterans entered the job market once again and crowded out the blacks in a pattern aptly described as “last to be hired, first to be fired.” There had always been tensions between whites and blacks but as long as everybody had a job, they could be contained. With the post-WWI slump, class peace came to an end.

In the summer of 1919, the so-called Red Summer (named after blood, rather than communism) came to Chicago. That year and for a few years later, blacks were set upon by racist whites across the country, with the most devastating results in Tulsa, Oklahoma where Trump will visit soon in an obvious salute to white riots (good, rather than the bad black riots.) What makes Chicago exceptional was the willingness of returned black veterans like Thomas Joshua to use weapons in self-defense.

While the willingness of Chicago’s black community to defend itself against white pogroms was encouraging, it had the result of destroying any possibility of building a strong union. In the 1992 International Review of Social History, Rick Halpern deals with this sad failure to integrate race and class in an article titled  Race, Ethnicity, and Union in the Chicago Stockyards, 1917–1922”. He writes:

The most important force working to preserve order was the Stockyards Labor Council. Union leaders recognized how much was at stake. In a plea entitled “For White Men to Read”, the New Majority implored union members to use their influence in the community to shield blacks from the frenzy of race prejudice. Portraying the riot as their movement’s “acid test”, the article explained that a critical juncture had been reached: “Right now it is going to be decided whether the colored workers are to continue to come into the labor movement or whether they are going to feel that they have been abandoned by it and lose confidence in it.” This crucial question remained unresolved during the troubled days of early August. Anxious to preserve their strained ties with the black workforce, the SLC took the bold step of holding mass interracial meetings. Later, when it became impossible for blacks to reach the Yards safely, the Council organized relief for them and other victimized families.

These efforts proved insufficient. A week after the start of the riot, a new crisis arose which widened the gulf between black and white packinghouse workers. On 2 August, arsonists torched forty-nine homes in a Lithuanian’ enclave in Back-of-the-Yards. Although blame later was fixed upon the Irish gangs, rumors that revenge-seeking blacks committed the deed gained quick currency. While some spokesmen pointed out the absurd improbability of blacks sneaking undetected into the area, the moderation that prevailed in the neighborhood evaporated and was replaced with hatred and malice.

As it happens, the Irish gangs behind the raids were known as Rogan’s Colts, an “athletic club” sponsored by Democratic alderman Frank Rogan. Like the Irish race riots against the draft during the Civil War, the Democrats often show their true color: white.

Never that keen on white support during the best of times, black stockyard workers crossed the picket line and stayed on the job during these confrontations. The film ends with Frank Custer joining them in the plant with his union button concealed. In the locker room, he begins recruiting to the union once again—thus ending on a positive if not exactly convincing note.

In an interview with Time Out last year, Elsa Rassbach tells why she got interested in writing about a trade union struggle that took place a century ago but one that seems like it was torn off today’s front pages:

Though my family was neither left-wing nor union, I’ve been drawn to the struggle for social justice ever since high school, when we engaged in sit-ins at Woolworth’s in my hometown, Denver, in protest against the firm’s segregationist policies in the South. Following college in the U.S., I studied at the film academy in West Berlin, where people scoffed at the saying that “messages are for Western Union” and honored the work of politically committed artists like Berthold Brecht. My first short films were on feminist themes, but I soon developed a passionate interest in untold stories of history. I returned to the U.S. in 1972 and began reading more and more about the fascinating history of working people, who have played such an important role in our history, for which they have never been recognized. I found it astounding that I had never learned about these stories in school or college. Meanwhile I had been hired at the public television station in Boston, WGBH, to work on the first seasons of the NOVA series, and I received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a public television series on the history of the American labor movement. In William Tuttle’s book about the Chicago Race Riot I happened upon a footnote in which I discovered the two main characters in The Killing Floor: Frank Custer and Heavy Williams. These two black men, who both worked on the killing floor of a Chicago slaughterhouse, were testifying before a white federal judge, and the two were entirely at odds with each other in how they viewed the causes of the mounting racism from which they were both suffering. I was drawn to the complexity—the race riot was of course not just about black people vs. white people. So I ordered from the National Archives the entire transcript of the hearing in which the two testified. All of the characters who work on “the killing floor” in our film, both black and white, leapt out of the thousands of pages of testimony by a group of workers at the Wilson Meatpacking Company in June of 1919. I knew immediately that a film about them had to be made. I felt that the film needed not only to be dramatically compelling but also to be as accurate as possible—people should know this really happened. In the film the names of the main characters have remained the same as in the original testimony. And I founded a nonprofit production company to tell this story.



June 13, 2020

Putting class-reductionism under a microscope: Adolph Reed Jr., Jacobin, and the George Floyd protests

Filed under: Black Lives Matter,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 5:42 pm

Adolph Reed Jr.
(Photo by Dan Creighton)

Recently three blips popped up on my radar screen that reminded me it was time once again to look at the tortured race/class debate that dominates, if not haunts, the American left.

On June 5th, Philly DSA issued a statement on George Floyd’s killing that epitomized the class-reductionism that has festered in the group for some time now. So much static was generated over the statement, especially on social media, that they issued a Maoist-style self-criticism3 days later:

On Friday, Philly DSA posted a statement on our website titled “Against Police Violence and Austerity, For Worker Power”. In doing so, we made a mistake that we deeply regret. Our statement did not sufficiently address the disproportionate impact of police violence on people of color, specifically Black Americans, and the significant anti-racist character of the protests. George Floyd’s life mattered, and all Black lives matter.

Along the same lines, Cedric Johnson, a black professor and class reductionist par excellence, wrote an article for Nonsite titled “The Triumph of Black Lives Matter and Neoliberal Redemption”. It asserted, “This moment has been a triumph for Black Lives Matter activists, but once the plumes of tear gas dissipate and compassion fatigue sets in, the real beneficiaries will likely be the neoliberal Democrats and the capitalist blocs they serve.” Johnson also reminded his readers that the silent majority in the black community is pro-cop:

While a slim majority of Americans now believe police are more likely to use excessive force against blacks than other groups, millions more do not share the most militant calls to defund or dismantle police departments voiced by some activists. Most Americans are upset by police killings, but they also want more effective policing. Over the last five years, satisfaction with police has strengthened among all ethnic and racial groups, including African Americans (from 50% “at least somewhat satisfied” in 2015 to 72% now).

To bolster his arguments, Johnson cited an article by Adolph Reed Jr. titled “How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence” that also appeared on Nonsite, where Reed serves on the editorial board alongside fellow class-reductionist Walter Benn Michaels. Like Reed and Johnson, Michaels (who is white) sees any pro-black movements as a particularism that ultimately supports the goals of the capitalist liberal elite.

Reed’s article crows triumphantly over his revelation that white people constitute the majority of victims of police shootings, even if blacks are disproportionately affected. He cites a Washington Post article that reveals that the states with the highest rates of police homicide per million of population are among the whitest in the country. The only problem with his data-driven analysis is that it doesn’t account for how and why these homicides take place. Would Derek Chauvin have kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes if he was white? Or would Timothy Loehmann, a white cop, have shot Tamir Rice, a 12-year old black boy playing with a toy pistol in a Cleveland park? To even pose the question renders you brain-dead, no matter your academic credentials. For the class-reductionist left, suggesting that cops single out blacks for shooting first and asking questions later puts you in the same category as the kente-wearing Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer.

Not only does Reed turn a cold shoulder to the protests against George Floyd’s murder, he probably is grumbling at all the statues now being overturned. Writing for the Lens, a New Orleans ‘zine, in 2017, he urged readers not to be duped: “The clamor to take down the monuments falls short of a truly radical movement.” Among the statues he would defend against the unruly mob was Andrew Jackson, the slave-owner and Cherokee mass murderer whose portrait adorns Donald Trump’s Oval Office:

Already the group has over-reached in its tone-deaf demand that the statue of Andrew Jackson be removed from Jackson Square because Jackson was a slaveholder and architect of genocidal suppression of Native Americans. The Jackson statue against the backdrop of St. Louis Cathedral is one of the city’s most iconic, internationally known images, and Jackson, never really my cup of tea, fought to save the young republic and extend its reach, not secede from it in an act of treason. Indeed, when the city was under Union occupation, Gen. Benjamin F. Butler emblazoned the Jackson statue with the legend, “The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved,” thus rendering it an emblem of Confederate defeat.

Never his cup of tea? WTF? Sure, he fought to defend the young republic, whatever that means. As for his being on the side of preserving the Union, it should never be forgotten that Jackson was the first DP president. And what does Reed mean by extending the reach of the U.S.A.? Does this refer to Jackson’s ability to wrest control of land owned by American Indians? After the War of 1812 ended, General Jackson was directed to secure the southern borders of the United States. He used his military muscle to get the Creeks, Chickasaws, Cherokees and Choctaws to sign treaties ceding huge tracts of land to the U.S., thus leaving them confined in much smaller territories. The only other academic I’ve run into who has this unaccountable devotion to Jackson is Sean Wilentz, the only opponent of the 1619 Project that not even WSWS would touch with a ten-foot pole.

To avoid being co-opted by the liberal elite, it is supposedly necessary to abandon “anti-racism” and advance economic demands that can unite black and white workers. In putting this position forward, Reed and Johnson are continuing with a very long ideological tradition going back to Eugene V. Debs. In his 1905 “The Negro and the Class Struggle”, he wrote, “We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races.” In distinction to the SP, the CPUSA did see race and class as interlinked, even if in practice it fell short such as in opposing A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington during WWII.

However, by the early 60s, it too began to sound a lot like Debs. When Malcolm X began to develop a following, James E. Jackson, a black CP leader, ripped into him in Political Affairs in 1963:

The Muslim organization, in general, and Malcolm X, in particular, are ultra-reactionary forces operating in the orbit of the Negro people’s movement, with the strategic assignment to sow ideological confusion, to dissipate the organization energies of the Negro masses, to promote divisionism within the Negro movement, and to alienate the Negro movement from fraternal ties with and support of comparably deprived or democratically inclined white masses.

The Muslim movement objectively serves the interests of the main enemies of the cause of Negro freedom and equality.

The Trotskyist movement saw Malcolm much more positively, even if he was still under the sway of his sect’s obscurantism. This should not come as a great surprise since Leon Trotsky spoke favorably of Marcus Garvey in his discussions with American co-thinkers, including CLR James.

Some SWP members felt the same way as James E. Jackson. Tim Wolforth and James Robertson regarded black nationalism as divisive, so much so that this would convince the two to start their own groups based on the mechanical black-white unity defended by Debs and Jackson.

Wolforth’s group folded long ago but much of his thinking is preserved in the World Socialist Web Site, the online newspaper of the Socialist Equality Party that has been on a campaign against the 1619 Project launched by the NY Times last August. In addition to providing a space for civil war historians appalled by the idea that slavery was a major factor in black oppression today, the WSWS allowed Adolph Reed Jr. to recite some of his talking points. He disparaged those who are dwell on killer-cops and racial profiling. Despite his willingness to trash the 1619 Project, he failed to understand that its basic premise is correct, namely that this was the year that slavery first appeared in this country. He says, “Those first 20 people weren’t slaves. There wasn’t chattel slavery yet in British North America.” Implicit in these words is the notion that they were indentured servants, when in fact they were nothing of the sort. Whites who became indentured servants signed a contract under duress, usually to pay off a debt. But the Africans were simply kidnapped by Portuguese, who then ended up on a privateer’s ship alongside such genuine indentured servants.

I’ll give Jacobin credit for publishing a critique of Reed in 2016 written by Paul Heideman and Jonah Birch. In defending BLM against the charge that it is a tool of Nancy Pelosi, et al, they point to its success in changing young peoples’ minds: “At this point, BLM has majority support among young white Americans.” Only 4 years later, it now has the support of a majority of American voters by a 28-point margin, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began. One can imagine Reed and Johnson sitting in the chairs at home watching all these protests and gnashing their teeth over such a wasted effort.  They’d be better off, I guess, ringing doorbells for the latest round of “democratic socialists” as the next election approaches.

Reed and Johnson get more articles published in Jacobin than any other black people, as far as I can tell. It is clear that Bhaskar Sunkara endorses their analysis, which coincides with his own social democratic gradualism. That affinity also exists between the Philly DSA and Reed, who developed ties with the chapter’s leadership when he was still teaching at the U. of Pennsylvania. One might hope that the self-criticism alluded to at the beginning of the article shows that the material reality of people in the streets in numbers might have changed their minds.

Over the past year or so, Jacobin has become more and more stuck in the rut of electoral politics. With the collapse of the ISO, there are fewer more openly revolutionary articles in its pages or on the website. And for those ex-ISOers who still have an in with Sunkara, there must have been an understanding that spouting the old-school opposition to the Democratic Party was a no-no. Ex-ISOer Paul Heideman, who once skewered illusions in the DP in Jacobin, is now just as vehemently a Sandernista ideologue.

It will be interesting to see whether Sanders’s swan dive into the Biden election campaign, as well as his opposition to police defunding, will have an impact on rank-and-file DSA’ers and/or Jacobin subscribers. As of now, Reed is on record as opposed to Biden, having co-authored a Guardian op-ed with Cornel West titled “Joe Biden wants us to forget his past. We won’t”.

Yet, he was not above urging a vote for someone cut from the same cloth as Biden, once upon a time. In an April 28, 2008 Progressive article that starts off with the ostensibly insurrectionary-minded title of “Obama No”, we learn that it could have just as easily been titled “Hillary Yes”:

I’m hardly a Clinton fan. I’m on record in last November’s issue as saying that I’d rather sit out the election entirely than vote for either her or Obama. At this point, though, I’ve decided that she’s the lesser evil in the Democratic race, for the following reasons: 1) Obama’s empty claims to being a candidate of progressive change and to embodying a “movement” that exists only as a brand will dissolve into disillusionment in either a failed campaign against McCain or an Obama Presidency that continues the politics he’s practiced his entire career; 2) his horribly opportunistic approach to the issues bearing on inequality—in which he tosses behaviorist rhetoric to the right and little more than calls to celebrate his success to blacks—stands to pollute debate about racial injustice whether he wins or loses the Presidency; 3) he can’t beat McCain in November.

Eight years later, Reed made another pitch for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in a July 7th radio interview on Doug Henwood’s “Behind the News”:

DH: The movement that has catalyzed with the Sanders campaign, how can we keep it from dissipating as November approaches. “Trump is so horrible, you know, hold your nose and vote for Hillary. etc.” There’s a great possibility for induced amnesia to set in. How do we fight that?

AR: What one does in November lies in a different dimension from the movement building concerns. From a pragmatic point of view there really is nothing else to do except to vote for Hillary. But that only becomes a big to-do if you have an exaggerated sense of the significance of your own vote anyway.

DH: People get so obsessed with something that takes five minutes to do in early November. It’s really remarkable.

AR: Absolutely. On some level it only comes down to a matter of taste and existential choice. I could vote for Gore in 2000. I lived in Connecticut and it was easy not to vote for Gore in 2000 and to vote for Ralph. I’d argue that this is a different moment and especially with Republican control of Congress-even if they lose the Senate which is a long shot . . . we’re going to be in the same position on the Wednesday after the election than we were on the Monday before the election. The real challenge is to try to disconnect the organizing from it being driven by the election cycle.

What was it that Molotov said to reporters after signing a non-aggression pact with the Nazis? Oh, I remember: “fascism is a matter of taste”. As far as existential choices are concerned, I would say that celibacy is an existential choice. Or assisted suicide. Or masturbating with a vacuum cleaner. That sort of thing, if you gather my drift.

Living With Global Warming

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:38 am

via Living With Global Warming

June 12, 2020

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2020 (virtual cinema)

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:20 pm


While Hollywood remains moribund because of the pandemic, the noncommercial film world plows ahead. This year the Human Rights Watch Film Festival will be available to everybody through VOD. Starting on June 11 and ending on June 20, it offers documentaries on topics that go to the heart of the current crisis, ranging from immigration to the rights of indigenous peoples. I have seen five of the films and could easily nominate any one of them as best documentary of 2020 for the New York Film Critics Online awards meeting in December. We still don’t have word on whether this will happen or not in light of Hollywood’s shutdown. Unlike most of my colleagues, I review films that are as doggedly uncommercial as my politics. In this batch, you will meet real supermen and women far more compelling than any fictional character.

Continue reading


June 10, 2020

The Communist Party’s liberal turn

Filed under: CPUSA — louisproyect @ 7:15 pm

In 1993, I bought a copy of “New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism”, a Monthly Review collection co-edited by Michael Brown, Randy Martin, Frank Rosengarten and George Snedeker—four New York area professors on the left. I just bought a used copy for $4.94 on Amazon and thoroughly recommend to anybody interested in CP history. For my money, it is the very best overview of a party that once dominated the left. The articles originated in a conference organized by the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy that was held at the CUNY Graduate Center to mark the seventieth anniversary of the CPUSA.

All of the contributors were part of the “revisionist” current that sought a fresh approach to the party that broke with the old-school, social-democratic, and Cold War tendencies of people like Theodore Draper. Among the editors, Michael Brown was a CPer but the kind that might have left with the Committees of Correspondence. That was the impression I gathered from Frank Rosengarten, who I knew from the SWP. Frank had left the party at this point and was putting all his efforts into launching the journal Socialism and Democracy. Frank died from cancer in 2014. Randy Martin, who died much too young from brain cancer a year later, was never in a party as far as I know. He was best described as a major Cuban solidarity activist. Finally, George Snedeker is still alive and is a Marxmail subscriber who solicits contributions to Socialism and Democracy from time to time.

One of the main reasons I wanted to have a copy of the book once again is that I seemed to remember one of the articles having a fascinating account of the CPUSA’s electoral pirouettes that I thought would be useful to those perplexed by Jacobin’s “dirty break”/Sandernista exercises. After scanning through the book, I discovered that it was in an article by Mark Naison titled “Remaking America: Communists and Liberals in the Popular Front”. Naison and Maurice Isserman are two of the most important and respected “revisionists” and Naison’s article is a prime example of looking at the party’s track record in the USA that he largely finds admirable. Oddly enough, he finds the slippery electoral maneuvers carried out by Earl Browder among its achievements.

Below are excerpts from the article that I find highly perceptive even if I might not necessarily draw the same political conclusions as Naison, who concludes that the party’s turn toward New Deal liberalism was implicitly superior to Marxist orthodoxy. In his formulation, “unity of progressive forces, even at the expense of socialist principles”.

Once again, let me recommend this book. It is a great collection that alongside Naison’s piece includes those by Gerald Horne, John Gerassi, Annette Rubinstein, Marvin Gettleman, and Alan Wald.

(pp 50-51)

In their electoral activity, Communists displayed a similar determination to remain within the mainstream of working class sentiment and accommodate powerful allies willing to give them a “piece of the action.” After the Seventh Comintern Congress, Browder’s main electoral goal had been the creation of a “working-class-led farmer-labor party” fielding its own ticket in the 1936 elections. To advance this objective, Communists began joining third party movements they had previously assailed (in October 1935, Browder held a secret “peace” conclave with Minnesota Farmer-Labor Governor Floyd Olson) and began pressing for independent labor political action on a state and local level. Despite past indiscretions, Communists received a surprisingly warm welcome from strategically placed politicians who cultivated labor support. In Minnesota, Harvey Klehr points out, Governor Olson “welcomed the Communist Party as a legitimate partner in Minnesota politics” and incorporated them into his electoral machine by putting key party members on the state payroll. In Washington, Communists drew the executive director of the Commonwealth Federation, Howard Costikyan, into the party’s inner circle, enabling them to become “the single most powerful force in the organization.” Using similar inside dealing, Communists built a base in the Wisconsin Progressive Farmer Labor Federation and local labor parties in Michigan, Ohio, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. But Communist participation did not mean Communist control. Faced with a grass-roots New Deal groundswell among industrial workers and a CIO decision to support Roosevelt’s candidacy, Communists decided to confine agitation for a farmer-labor party strictly to state and local elections. With Comintern approval, they decided to use Browder’s independent candidacy largely to warn of the dangers of a Republican victory, thereby becoming the first party in U.S. history to use a presidential campaign largely to assure the victory of one of its opponents!’

Browder’s bizarre campaign strategy, while it did little to affect the outcome of the election, helped Communists expand their Influence in state and local politics. By 1937, party trade unionists and neighborhood activists had become securely ensconced in New York’s American Labor Party, while securing similar bases within the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, Washington’s Commonwealth Federation, and Wisconsin’s Progressive Farmer Labor Federation. Ironically, all four of these organizations had clauses barring Communists from membership, but in the atmosphere of the popular front, Communists blended into the scenery so effectively that there was little incentive to expel them. Presenting their organization as a disciplined secret fraternity willing to fight for liberal goals (a kind of left-wing version of the Masons!), Communists drew elected officials, administrators of state agencies and ambitious politicians into their inner circle. Possessed of the power to make careers as well as fight for social reforms, the party, Peggy Dennis recalled, attracted a new breed of recruit: “experienced activists, mainly from other organizations” who had little exposure to Marxism. Fearful of jeopardizing their liberal cover or driving them away with excessive demands, the party approached their political education on a hit-or-miss basis, undermining the core of common beliefs that united the party and blurring the lines that separated members from sympathizers and fellow travelers.

(pp 66-69)

By the beginning of 1939, Communists confronted a significant left opposition in academic and literary circles. Rooted in Trotskyist organizations and the board of Partisan Review, the anti-Stalinist left disseminated a devastating critique of the undemocratic features of Soviet life and of the hypocrisy of the CPUSA’s endorsement of liberal reform. The image of Communism as a movement at war with the humanistic impulses that had given rise to it had begun to enter the discourse of U.S. intellectuals, even though many hesitated to make the trials the occasion of an open break. But serious doubts had been raised about the party’s claim to leadership of the U.S. left, arguments that would surface with renewed force when Soviet diplomacy underwent its next radical reversal.

Rising opposition to the party in intellectual circles coincided with a larger conservative trend in U.S. life, directed against the New Deal and the CIO as well as the party. The unionization of millions of workers and the proliferation of New Deal agencies that regulated industries and gave jobs to the unemployed frightened local elites, particularly in parts of the country where paternalistic labor relations had once prevailed. The spectre of urban intellectuals reshaping the United States created a powerful backlash against New Deal reform, uniting white supremacists, Protestant fundamentalists and Catholic conservatives with large farmers and corporate spokesmen. When a severe recession struck in 1938, eroding popular hopes of recovery, grassroots anti-radicalism moved into the hall of Congress. In the spring of 1938, the House of Representatives formed an Un-American Activities Committee, headed by Martin Dies of Texas, which immediately launched investigations of Communist penetration of CIO unions and New Deal agencies. Parades of witnesses accused leaders of the Federal Theatre Project and key unions of Communist sympathies, arguing with some justice that it was impossible to distinguish between Communists and liberals on key social issues. Republicans used the Communist issue to great effect in fall 1938 elections, capturing eighty seats in the House, eight in the Senate, and eleven governerships previously held by Democrats.

The CP leadership responded to conservative attacks by further efforts to disguise its identity and tailor its program to the needs of liberal allies. During 1938, Earl Browder, with Comintern approval, redefined the popular front to conform in essence with the New Deal wing of the Democratic Party and announced that Communists would postpone agitating for socialism in the interests of the “unity of progressive forces.” Communists applauded Roosevelt’s cautious initiatives against fascist aggression, lobbied to protect New Deal legislation from conservative attacks, and virtually suspended independent electoral efforts in favor of campaigns for progressive candidates in the two major parties. More-over, the party took extraordinary steps to avoid compromising cadre who had achieved positions of power, or government and trade union leaders with whom it had secret understandings. In 1938, the party eliminated shop units and shop papers—the major manifestations of an independent party presence in the trade union movement. From now on, Communists in the trade union movement would not meet separately as a group; rather top trade union officials close to the party would communicate privately with party leaders, leaving the rank and file to discover party positions through neighborhood branches, the party press, or actions of union leaders.

The party’s new posture represented a startling admission of political vulnerability. Browder virtually conceded that Communists could achieve power in the United States only by pretending to be somebody else and by deferring to the interests of liberal allies. In the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, party leaders failed to protest when Philip Murray began systematically purging Communists from the union staff in 1938, fearful that opposition might jeopardize their relations with John L. Lewis. In the United Auto Workers Union, party leaders went to the 1939 convention to persuade their own members to vote against candidates of the Progressive Caucus who had the votes to win control of the union, arguing in favor of moderates favored by Sidney Hillman and John L. Lewis. In several CIO unions, Communists voted for resolutions that equated Nazism and Communism, rather than expose their identities to conservatives who wished to purge them from the movement.

As boundaries between Communists and liberals blurred, popular front Communism, in the words of Bert Cochran, assumed “something of the character of a religious encampment.” On its top levels, the party still functioned as an orthodox Marxist-Leninist organization. The Politburo, in consultation with the Comintern, defined the party line on key international and domestic issues and disseminated that line to heads of party publications and leaders of the district and state organizations. Its paid staff of 4,000 to 5,000 people functioned under tight discipline and defended party orthodoxy, particularly on matters relating to the Soviet Union. But the party rank and file, moving in and out of the party at a rapid rate, functioned with a great deal of autonomy. The popular front party attracted many upwardly mobile, ambitious people—trade union officials, government employees, teachers, social workers, lawyers and journalists. By allowing such “influentials” to disavow their party membership, the top party leadership inevitably relinquished control. Communication became irregular, meetings un-systematic, directives confined to “critical” issues. An atmosphere of pragmatism pervaded the movement, reflected by the huge number of individuals who chose to be sympathizers or fellow travelers rather than disciplined party members. “To this cate-gory,” Joseph Starobin observed, “a political movement was a vehicle, an instrument to be repaired when it functioned badly or abandoned when it had been wrecked.”

The atmosphere of popular front Communism infuriated both orthodox Communists and the party’s numerous enemies. Almost no prominent Communist academics, union leaders, and government officials would admit party membership; if pressed, they would say they were progressives! Because of the informality of popular front Communism, it was difficult to prove them wrong. How do you demonstrate that an influential state legislator is a Communist? He possesses no party membership card. He attends no party meetings. His meetings with top party leaders are secret and hard to document.

What all pop-fronters shared was a set of principles and affinities: unwavering support for the Soviet Union, domestically and internationally; unity of progressive forces, even at the expense of socialist principles; support for racial equality; vigilance against domestic fascism; suspicion of all groups on the left that did not defer to the Communist Party; identification of the CIO and the New Deal as major vehicles of social change. Hundreds of thou-sands of individuals espoused this ethos, some as a result of organizational discipline, more through personal choice or communal identification. With the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy to see grave inconsistencies in this world view. But in the dangerous, tension-filled atmosphere of the late 1930s, it had considerable appeal to strategically located constituencies. The Depression had given new vitality to ethnocentric impulses, threatening vulnerable peoples and nations with extermination, while simultaneously creating opportunities for sweeping political change. Groups who had historically been marginal in the United States—blacks, Jews, Eastern Europeans—saw an opportunity to make a major breakthrough in their social and political status, but also feared a backlash against their progress that might imitate the fascist movements wreaking havoc in Europe. To activists from these groups, popular frontism was a strategy that used the power of the Soviet Union to keep fascism at bay while encouraging pragmatic adaptations to achieve domes-tic reforms. The most important causes of the popular front left—the defense of the Spanish Republic, the battle for industrial unionism, campaigns for citizenship rights for blacks, resistance to Nazism and domestic anti-Semitism—all dramatized the heroism of Communists in defense of liberal goals. Because of this, many people who doubted that Communism had a future in the United States concluded they needed Communists to bring liberal visions to fruition.

June 6, 2020

Six millionth hit for the Unrepentant Marxist blog

Filed under: Marxist literature — louisproyect @ 7:38 pm

On August 2, 2017, I reached the five millionth hit on my blog. In my post announcing that milestone, I said I’d check back with my readers after I reach my ten millionth. Who knows if I’ll be around that long?  So, in the meantime, I’ve decided to mark each additional million hits with a post like this that takes stock of the blog and the left in general. The blog stats over to the right puts us at 6,000,477 so we only have another 999, 523 to go.

In 2017, Alexa rated the blog at 407,927 globally. Today it ranks 181,703. It’s a little difficult to figure out what this means since—to be honest—I average about 800 hits a day and am pretty sure it was about a 1000 back in 2017. Frankly, I am not even sure how Alexa collects its data since in its referral metrics, it claims that the top referral site is the fucking Militant.com with Marxmail second. Third is just as bizarre as the first: BenNorton.com. I can’t imagine any referrals coming from #1 and #3 since I am an unperson in both sites.

There are far fewer Marxist blogs like mine that are based on a single blogger’s efforts than there were twenty years ago. What tends to happen is people get the idea that it would be cool to start one but let them lapse after figuring out that churning out two or three posts a week is exhausting. As for group Marxist blogs, there’s only one I check daily: Cosmonaut.blog. Their Alexa rating is 257,457. Commune Magazine, another Marxist group blog that is much more academic and autonomist than Cosmonaut, ranks 593,807. What prevents me from feeling cocky about the comparative ranks is how Richard Seymour is so far ahead (358) of not only us but a popular (deservedly so) website like CounterPunch that comes in at 45,729. Grayzone, despite its notoriety and Russian funding (I would guess) only ranks 88,599. Rather surprisingly, Corey Robin’s blog is trailing far behind: 2,488,935. It probably doesn’t matter that much to him since he has a very high profile in dead tree media like The New Yorker, et al.

As for number of hits, I suppose that I get a slew of readers on CounterPunch who might find my combination of stand-up comedy and old-school Marxism amusing and edifying. I put more research and effort into my weekly posts for CounterPunch than I do with my own blog. I even use Grammarly to polish it up. With 1,500 subscribers to the Marxism list, 3,500 FB friends and 1,348 Twitter followers, I feel like I am reaching a sufficient amount of people on the left as it is. I made the decision about 15 years ago to use the Internet rather than Verso, HM or other more academically-based outlets for my analysis. I prefer the interaction on the Internet and feel a lot less constrained by peer review and other notoriously ingrown features of the left academy.

I get a deep satisfaction out of blogging because it puts me in touch with some of the most interesting and insightful people I’ve ever known: Karl Smith, Reza F., Michael Yates, Richard Estes, Farans Kalosar, Manuel Garcia Jr. and the late Kevin Coogan. For most people writing for New Left Review, HM or any of the Sunkara empire’s publications, there’s probably a sense of accomplishment for “making it”. I can understand that completely since there are so few ways to feel rewarded in the decadent society we live in. Besides being able to interact with the comrades mentioned above and anybody up for the kind of conversation that might go on in a pub favored by leftists, my biggest satisfaction comes from seeing my own words. I learned long ago that unless I write something about an issue that means a lot to me, it is entirely possible that nobody else will. Thank god my mom taught me how to touch-type when I was 13 years old. It makes pumping out the prose a lot easier, even if the journalist Marc Cooper was prompted to refer to me as the prolific buffoon.




June 5, 2020

Reflections on my COVID-19 antibodies

Filed under: Counterpunch,COVID-19 — louisproyect @ 1:45 pm


The last couple of months leading up to a Quest serology test that yielded “positive” antibodies for COVID-19 have been a roller coaster ride. Take a seat in the car behind me, strap yourself in, and let me recount a story that Agatha Christie might have written.

The tale began last October when I suffered through bronchitis for most of the month. This viral infection of the bronchial tubes is just another illness to which geezers like me are susceptible. It is usually not fatal but can lead to hospitalization. After recovering, I began taking measures to avoid getting sick again. They included using Purell, avoiding touching my face, and all the other defenses that should prevent exposure to any virus, including COVID-19. Being ahead of the curve, how the hell did I end up with antibodies?

Continue reading

June 2, 2020


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:57 pm

Opening as virtual cinema on June 5th, “Tommaso” is the greatest film by an American director I have seen since “First Reformed” in 2017. Like Paul Schrader, the director of “First Reformed”, the 68-year old Abel Ferrara, who is 5 years younger than Schrader, is a relatively obscure filmmaker with a long and controversial past. Interviewer Vittorio Carli asked Ferrara if religion a big influence on your work. He replied, “Well I was brought up Roman Catholic and I’m sure it did.” Schrader also comes from a religious background—Calvinist—but was deeper into it than Ferrara. Even though both left religion behind long ago, they make films where religious questions come deeply into play.

In “First Reformed”, the main character—a priest played by Ethan Hawke—is about to carry out a suicide bombing against corporate polluters. “Tommaso” is devoid of social issues but it ends with the lead character Tommaso, an obvious stand-in for Ferrara himself, being crucified on a busy Rome street. That Tommaso is played by Willem Dafoe, who also played Jesus Christ in “The Last Temptation of Christ”, a Scorsese film that Schrader wrote, will not be lost on most cineastes.

Essentially, “Tommaso” is Abel Ferrara’s take on Federico Fellini’s “8 ½”, a film about a famous director who is suffering from a loss of inspiration as well as marital difficulties. Like Fellini’s character, Tommaso is a tormented soul. Just four years younger than Ferrara, Dafoe was ideally cast as the Ferrara-like main character. That being said, he was also great playing Vincent Van Gogh only two years ago, even though Van Gogh was 37 years old. Dafoe is so great at becoming his characters that you don’t pay much attention to his wrinkles.

Despite the Italian first name, Tommaso is an American who has emigrated to Rome, the backdrop for the film. In an early scene, we see him in an Italian lesson that will help him adjust to his new home. Ferrara also moved to Rome after September 11, 2001 both to get away from the madness, plus to get better access to funding. Unlike Scorsese, a fellow Italian-American obsessed with religious questions, Ferrara never hit it big. His specialty was making extremely violent and sexually explicit independent films that might have satisfied his own aesthetic yearnings but not the Hollywood studios.

Tommaso is married to Nikki, a woman 35 years younger. They have a 3-year old daughter. Mother and daughter are played by Ferrara’s wife Cristina Chiriac and his real-life daughter Anna Ferrara. The film was also made in the couple’s apartment.

Whether or not they are going through the same difficulties as the characters they play cannot be determined but my guess is that such an extreme difference in age leads to the conflicts depicted in the film. Tommaso is far more needy than his young wife who feels dominated by the older and more professionally fulfilled director. Nikki misses her freedom and does not see eating dinner together as a litmus test for a good marriage. More worrisome is the fact that the daughter sleeps in the same bed as the parents and that they have not had sex in months.

Tommaso’s life is structured around a series of routines that define him as a human being. He attends alcoholics anonymous meetings. He leads a group of young men and women in acting exercises that often involve deep breathing and attempts to bring buried memories to the surface. Oddly enough, they evoke Tommaso’s yoga exercises to mind. Seeing the 64-year old actor standing on his head is worth the price of the rental.

A lot else is drawn from the quotidian existence of living in any major city. In one of the most powerful moments of the film, Tommaso and Nikki are disturbed by the drunken babbling of a man down the street from that prevents them and their daughter from going to sleep. Even when Tommaso yells out the window for him to cut it out or else get a punch in the mouth, the man continues. This leads the tightly wound director to barrel down the street to confront the man, who is as old him and obviously homeless. At first, you get the feeling that there will be an altercation but in a moment or two there is solidarity over having a shared experiencee of being an alcoholic and adrift in life.

“Tommaso” is not a conventional film. Like “8 ½”, it is a series of encounters that doesn’t neatly cohere into a narrative arc that most films require. Instead, it is vividly realistic portrayal of two people in a marriage that is hanging on by a thread. I hope for the director’s sake, this is all fictional.

“Tommaso” is part of Kino-Lorber’s virtual cinema series. The film can be rented from a theater where it was originally scheduled to be seen. Go to https://kinomarquee.com/ to buy a virtual ticket.

Finally, let me recommend “Bad Lieutenant”, a 1992 Ferrara film that starred Harvey Keitel as a corrupt, drug-addicted cop—very timely given the current situation. It was the first film I ever saw by Ferrara and that turned me into a devoted fan. It is available on YouTube, Amazon and all the other VOD sources. It is great.

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