Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 30, 2017

Gary Cohen: the death of an SWP diehard

Filed under: cults,obituary — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

After I transferred to the Boston branch in 1970 to shore up the SWP majority faction, I moved into a two-bedroom apartment on Howard St. in Cambridge, about a fifteen-minute walk from Harvard Square. My first roommate was a closeted gay member who transferred out of Boston to the Portland branch. From time to time, I Google his name to see what has become of him. Like most people I knew from the Trotskyist movement in the early 70s, he seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth.

After he left town, the spare bedroom was taken over by a comrade named Gary Cohen who has just died. Like my mom who used to read the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle long after she had moved to upstate NY with my dad, I read the Militant newspaper mostly to see who has passed on (as well as to see the latest bizarro article).

Like most of the memorial articles that appear in the Militant, instead of getting a sense of the person, you only get the cookie-cutter version of how they functioned as a “Bolshevik”. Unlike most SWP’ers, Gary never “made the turn toward industry”. I myself tried one morning to make the turn as a spot welder (the longest 3 hours of my life) and decided to quit the job after the lunch whistle blew.

The article passed judgment on Gary:

“Gary was a lifer, who joined the party as a young man and remained committed to the SWP and the fight for a better world,” said [Paul] Mailhot. “He didn’t participate in the party’s turn to industry in the late 1970s through the 1990s, when all members of the party were getting jobs in union mines, mills, factories and railroads. He wasn’t in the center of the party’s work then. Later, in 2001, he dropped out of the party and became a supporter.”

Talk about damning with faint praise.

In fact, Gary was a dentist when he moved in with me. The article does give him credit for how he spent his years before joining the sect: “Cohen became involved in protests and sit-ins against racist segregation in the 1950s. He joined the Air Force and was stationed in Japan in the early 1960s, where his experiences deepened his opposition to imperialist militarism and war.”

Joining the Trotskyist movement in 1960 and dropping out in 2001,  his tenure in the SWP was a long slog: forty-one years. A real diehard. And after dropping out, Gary became a “sympathizer” for another 16 years, a status roughly equivalent to being in Dante’s limbo. Someone like myself would be seen as dwelling in Hades, if not in the Ninth Circle. (The truth is that I rule the realm of ex-SWP’ers like Lucifer.)

A week or so ago, an ex-member told me that the sect is down to 88 voting members that rely on the support of about 250 sympathizers who are called upon to scan books for the Pathfinder project, contribute money, and take on “Jimmy Higgins” tasks. I would guess that the average age of these people is about 65. As their numbers dwindle, the SWP will someday give up the ghost just like Daniel De Leon’s SLP. What keeps it going for the time being is the slavish devotion of the voting members to cult leader Jack Barnes who has not written a single article for the party press in at least a decade.

When I got up to Boston, Gary and Linda Sheppard (now known as Linda Thompson) were the two most committed supporters of the SWP majority that was trying to purge the branch of Larry Trainor’s tendency that was uneasy with the orientation to the student and antiwar movement. Trainor, like Farrell Dobbs, was always expecting the 1970s to turn into the 1930s. As such, it was necessary for SWP members to be “implanted” in mines, mills, factories, and railroads as Mailhot indicated.

By 1978, the year the turn began, Cohen must have been close to fifty and in the third decade of both a dentistry career and SWP membership. He used to work on the teeth of SWP members for free, including me, in an office near Cambridge’s Central Square. I don’t think he liked dentistry very much but it certainly made for a fairly lucrative career that was reflected in the tens of thousands of dollars he contributed as a member and then as a sympathizer.

Gary probably understood better than the people who were pressuring him to “go into industry” that he could not make the turn. In a normal left party, this would have not been expected from someone who had been a member for over 25 years but this was a cult that was always testing members’ True Faith.

The obit does not give you much sense of Gary’s personality except that he had “a wicked sense of humor”. Well, not exactly. Gary was a compulsive punner (in the clinical psychology sense) who would inevitably take something you said in conversation and turn it into a pun. Afterwards, he’d laugh at his joke—a bit hysterically.

Probably the only thing that anchored this fragile personality was his party duties that the article does not mention. Gary was the Militant Labor Forum director in Boston for many years and very good at it. These were weekly public meetings at headquarters where a party representative would speak alongside someone from the mass movement. In the early 70s, the most common topics for these meetings were the antiwar movement, the woman’s movement that was just taking off, Black nationalism, etc.

Gary also had a weekly radio program on some university radio station that followed the same format. He was known to the listening public as Gary Kane and very good at what he did.

Gary and Linda Sheppard were the scourges of Larry Trainor’s followers. Gary took every opportunity at branch meetings to denounce “workerism”. The irony is that within 5 years, the SWP had adopted Trainor’s perspective—or more accurately, taken that perspective to the extreme. I am quite sure that if Larry had lived to see the party he built dwindle down to less than 90 members because of driving people like Gary Cohen out of the movement, he would curse Jack Barnes the same way he did in the early 70s.

As the SWP grew weirder and weirder, it must have had an effect on Gary psychologically. I heard through the grapevine that he had a nervous breakdown in the 1980s but responded well to electroconvulsive therapy (ie., shock treatments), so much so that he ditched the dentistry career and became an ECT technician.

Looking back at the days I spent in the SWP, I can see how most of us—including me—were psychological misfits. What saved me from becoming a 57-year combined member and sympathizer of the SWP was my highly developed passive-aggressive tendencies. The first inkling I got that someone like Jack Barnes was trying to screw me, that’s when I bared my fangs.

The crowning irony is that the memorial meeting for Gary was held in Boston, where the SWP folded shop two years ago. You can read my obit for the Boston branch here.

September 29, 2017

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz on the Ulster-Scots

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

Reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s new book “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States” for a CounterPunch review, I came across this extraordinary passage that deals with the Scotch-Irish, who can more properly be described as Ulster-Scots. They were the Scots that the British used to colonize Ireland—the ancestors of those who marched under the Orange flags during “the troubles”. In the same way that they were the shock troops for colonizing Ireland, they helped to dispossess the American Indian. When I first got wind of Roxanne’s book, I mistakenly referred to it as a history of indigenous peoples. She corrected me on the spot—it was instead a history of the USA from the perspective of those who were living here and doing quite nicely at the time. It is a sorely needed complement to Howard Zinn’s history and one that deserves to be on everybody’s collection of essential radical histories of this misbegotten settler state.


The core group of frontier settlers were the Ulster-Scots—the Scots-or “Scotch-Irish,” as they called themselves.” Usually the descendants of these Scots-Irish say their ancestors came to the British lies from Ireland, but their journey was more circuitous than that. The Scots-Irish were Protestants from Scotland who were recruited by the British as settlers in the six counties of the province of Ulster in northern Ireland. The British had seized these half-million acres from Ireland in the early seventeenth century, driven the indigenous Irish farmers from it, and opened it to settlement under English protection. This coincided with the English plantation of two colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America and the beginning of settler colonialism there. These early settlers came mostly from the Scottish lowlands. Scotland itself, along with Wales, had preceded Ireland as colonial notches in the belt of English expansion. Britain’s colonization of Indigenous lands in North America was foreshadowed by its colonization of northern Ireland. By 1630 the new settlers in Ulster—21,000 Britons, including some Welsh, and 150,000 Lowland Scots—were more numerous than British settlers in all of North America at the time. In 1641, the indigenous Irish rebelled and killed ten thousand of the settlers, yet Protestant Scots settlers continued to pour in. In some formerly Irish areas, they formed a majority of the population. They brought with them the covenant ideology of Calvinism that had been the work of the Scotsman John Knox. Later John Locke, also a Scot, would secularize the covenant idea into a “contract,” the social contract, whereby individuals sacrifice their liberty only through consent. An insidiously effective example, the US economic system, was based on Locke’s theories.”

So it was that the Ulster-Scots were already seasoned settler colonialists before they began to fill the ranks of settlers streaming toward the North American British colonies in the early eighteenth century, many of them as indentured servants. Before ever meeting Indigenous Americans, the Ulster settlers had perfected scalping for bounty, using the indigenous Irish as their victims. As this chapter and the following one show, the Scots-Irish were the foot soldiers of British empire building, and they and their descendants formed the shock troops of the “westward movement” in North America, the expansion of the US continental empire and the colonization of its inhabitants. As Calvinists (mostly Presbyterian), they added to and transformed the Calvinism of the earlier Puritan settlers into the unique ideology of the US settler class.” In one of history’s great migrations, nearly a quarter-million Scots-Irish left Ulster for British North America between 1717 and 1775. Although a number left for religious reasons, the majority were losers in the struggle over Britain’s Irish policies, which brought economic ruin to Ireland’s wool and linen industries. Hard times were magnified by prolonged drought, and so the settlers pulled up stakes and moved across the Atlantic. This is a story that would repeat itself time and time again in settler treks across North America, the majority of migrants ending up landless losers in the Monopoly game of European settler colonialism.

The majority of Ulster-Scot settlers were cash-poor and had to indenture themselves to pay for their passage to North America. Once settled, they came to predominate as soldier-settlers. Most initially landed in Pennsylvania, but large numbers soon migrated to the southern colonies and to the backcountry, the British colonies’ western borders, where they squatted on unceded Indigenous lands. Among frontier settlers, Scots-Irish predominated among settlers of English and German descent. Although the majority remained landless and poor, some became merchants and owners of plantations worked by slaves, as well as politically powerful. Seventeen presidents of the United States have been of Ulster-Scots lineage, from Andrew Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party, to Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama on his mother’s side. Theodore Roosevelt characterized his Scots-Irish ancestors as “a stern, virile, bold and hardy people who formed the kernel of that American stock who were the pioneers of our people in the march westwards.”16 Perhaps as influential as their being presidents, educators, and businessmen, the Scots-Irish engendered a strong set of individualist values that included the sanctity of glory in warfare. They made up the officer corps and were soldiers of the regular army, as well as the frontier-ranging militias that cleared areas for settlement by exterminating Indigenous farmers and destroying their towns.

The Seven Years’ War between the British and the French (1754-63) was fought both in Europe and in North America, where the British colonists called it the French and Indian War because it was mainly a British war against the Indigenous peoples, some of whom formed alliances with the French. The British colonial militias consisted largely of frontier Scots-Irish settlers who wanted access to Indigenous farmland in the Ohio Valley region. By the time of US independence, Ulster-Scots made up 15 percent of the population of the thirteen colonies, and most were clustered in majority numbers in the backcountry. During the war for settler independence from Britain, most settlers who had emigrated directly from Scot-land remained loyal to the British Crown and fought on that side. In contrast, the Scots-Irish were in the forefront of the struggle for independence and formed the backbone of Washington’s fighting forces. Most of the names of soldiers at Valley Forge were Scots-Irish. They saw themselves, and their descendants see themselves, as the true and authentic patriots, the ones who spilled rivers of blood to secure independence and to acquire Indigenous lands—gaining blood rights to the latter as they left bloody footprints across the continent.

During the last two decades of the eighteenth century, first- and second-generation Scots-Irish continued to pour westward into the Ohio Valley region, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. They were the largest ethnic group in the westward migration, and they maintained many of their Scots-Irish ways. They tended to move three or four times, acquiring and losing land before settling at least somewhat permanently. Scots-Irish settlers were overwhelmingly farmers rather than explorers or fur traders. They cleared forests, built log cabins, and killed Indians, forming a human wall of colonization for the new United States and, in wartime, employing their fighting skills effectively. Historian Carl Degler writes that “these hardy, God-fearing Calvinists made themselves into a veritable human shield of colonial civilization.”18 The next chapter explores the kind of counterinsurgent warfare they perfected, which formed the basis of US militarism into the twenty-first century.

The Calvinist religion of the Scots-Irish, Presbyterianism, was in numbers of faithful soon second only to those of New England’s Congregationalist Church. But on the frontier, Scots-Irish devotion to the formal Presbyterian Church waned. New evangelical off-shoots refashioned Calvinist doctrines to decentralize and do away with the Presbyterian hierarchy. Although they continued to regard themselves as chosen people of the covenant, commanded by God to go into the wilderness to build the new Israel, the Scots-Irish also saw themselves, as their descendants see themselves, as the true and authentic patriots, entitled to the land through their blood sacrifice.

 

The best documentary on the Vietnam war

Filed under: Vietnam,war — louisproyect @ 4:42 pm

It was not funded by the Koch brothers and can now be seen for free.

Bruce Cumings on the Korean War

Filed under: Korea,war — louisproyect @ 2:23 pm

War for the Planet of the Apes

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:58 pm

One of the primary imperatives of the Hollywood film industry is to make money, just is it would be for laxative or automobile manufacturers. Unlike the lonely art of literature that only requires a computer or typewriter to get started (or even a pen or pencil for the Luddites among us), film-making is an expensive proposition. The average budget for an independent film is $750,000, something that is beyond the means of most aspiring filmmakers. For the big production companies that will spend $80 million for a film like “American Made” that opens today, the emphasis is on hiring “bankable” stars like Tom Cruise who plays the drug dealer and Oliver North operative Barry Seal. That $80 million was almost as much as Congress voted for Nicaraguan contra funding in the year that Seal was involved in a sting operation against the Sandinistas.

Once you have the bankable star, you need to consult with the studio’s top financial geniuses who likely will recommend bankable genres that are geared to the youth market that will see a film multiple times and that consumes large boxes of popcorn given its youthful appetites. Just yesterday, when I went to see the film that is the subject of this review at a Manhattan AMC Cineplex, I decided to pick up a small box of popcorn even though I knew it was be deluged with salt—a means of luring me back to the concession stand to slake my thirst. When the concessionaire told me that it would cost $8.37, I decided against the purchase since the raw materials only cost AMC ten cents.

The youth market is drawn to two kinds of films like moths to a flame. The first are those that are based on Marvel comic books and others in this vein. The second are sequels to a successful film largely based on the Marvel comic book or videogame sensibility such as Transformers or Mortal Kombat. Closely related to this genre are remakes of classic films such as Star Wars or The Magnificent Seven that are generally inferior to the original.

Ostensibly a remake product of the bookkeeping mentality, the film I saw yesterday was the third in a recent series of Planet of the Apes films. Since I had not seen a single Hollywood film this year, I realized that I would look like an interloper at the December NYFCO awards meeting unless I came up with a few plausible nominations. Unlike my colleagues, most of whom are trying to make a living as reviewer, I am under no obligation to see something like Transformers. In fact, when I received a pass years ago to see films being shown at AMC theaters after becoming a member of NYFCO, I almost never used it.

Despite having all the earmarks of Hollywood commercialism, “The War for the Planet of the Apes” is a singular instance of art trumping commerce.

Continue reading

The problem is fascists, not those who stand up to them

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:51 pm

Fighting back needn’t be physical, and generally does not need to be if there are sufficient counter-forces. I’ll draw here on two examples from late 1990s in New York City.In the first example, a small band of neo-Nazis were running loose on Staten Island, the city’s right-wing outpost situated at a distance from the rest of the city. There were five of them, apparently inspired by a truly loathsome “novel” called The Turner Diaries, which features scenes of vast groups of people hung by Nazis during a race war. (To give you an idea of the demographics there, Donald Trump won Staten Island even though he received only 18 percent of the overall New York City presidential vote.)A small group that I was then a member in, New York Workers Against Fascism, organized a coalition to confront the neo-Nazis. It was quickly decided to organize a series of peaceful demonstrations on the belief that a violent response would only alienate the community we were attempting to rally against the neo-Nazis. At one rally, in a park, the neo-Nazis actually showed up in uniform, across a busy street, and started giving Hitler salutes while shouting “white power.” They were simultaneously pathetic and representative of a potentially highly dangerous trend. In this instance, we had to hold back a group of anarchists from Love and Rage who wanted to charge, one of whom angrily told me “I came here to smash fascists.” I answered that today we were going to smash them peacefully. Conceding to the coalition’s consensus, he didn’t charge although he remained angry. Tactics had to be a serious consideration here.

Source: The problem is fascists, not those who stand up to them

September 27, 2017

Ken Burns’s War Stories

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:44 pm

Source: Ken Burns’s War Stories

September 26, 2017

Separated at birth

Filed under: separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 5:55 pm

Star of horror movie

Director of horrid documentary

 

Thoughts on Ken Burns’s Vietnam documentary

Filed under: Vietnam,war — louisproyect @ 12:26 pm

Ken Burns

Stuck in a motel in upstate NY last night, I decided to watch an episode of Ken Burns’s PBS series on the Vietnam war to kill some time. It was far worse than I expected.

The hour and forty-five minutes was focused on events in 1968 and 1969, a period I am deeply familiar with. The methodology was apparent from the outset. Probably 75 percent of it was devoted to war stories from both American and Vietnamese combatants in an effort to be “balanced”. From the Americans, you get both Rambo-like regrets that we didn’t fight better as well as rueful thoughts about how futile it all was. One fairly high-ranking officer asserts that we backed the wrong side since the Communists were such better fighters—sounding as if he bet on the wrong team to win the Super Bowl. From the Vietnamese, we hear from a couple who were both part of the convoys in which arms and other material aid were sent to fighters in the South on the Ho Chi Minh trail. An American pilot spends 5 minutes reminiscing about how when they spotted a convoy, it was often a “turkey shoot” as they dropped bombs and strafed the slow-moving stream of trucks and men. It was like hearing a rapist describe how he beat up and then fucked a helpless woman.

Missing from these war stories from either side was any notion of why they fought. One supposes that the Americans were at a disadvantage since they enlisted (or were dragooned) into a war that was based on the most ludicrous of theories. Vietnam was a domino and if it fell, other dominos in East Asia would fall and the next thing you know, America goes Communist. Since Communism is a dead issue today (even if Trump is trying to revive it over the North Korea standoff), you need other Orwellian threats to keep society lined up behind the ruling class. It is al-Qaeda and ISIS that are the new dominos. The American bombing of Raqqa has killed 40,000 civilians and forced as many as one million more people from their homes. Back in 1968, the left would have organized protests against such a monstrous assault but today the left stands aside with its arms folded. Why? Because it is infected with Islamophobia.

Three passages in this unseemly documentary stuck in my craw.

Burns tells us that after the Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese and the NLF were forced to draft new recruits to keep the war going but morale was so poor that men were getting drunk all the time over the despair they felt for being cannon fodder. This is par for the course for television-based history. Where did Burns get this information from? What are his sources? If I was reading an article that made such an assertion, I’d want to fact-check it. I should add that I probably should be inured to this kind of bad faith since I have been putting up with it for six  years in all those articles about how Syrian rebels were acting on orders from the CIA.

In order to stanch the flow of arms and fighters to the South, the USA adopted the Phoenix Program—according to Burns. However, the Phoenix Program was initiated in 1965 and could be best described as death squads designed to break the back of the resistance. Most of the victims of torture and execution were civilians who made the mistake of opposing the American occupation. Doug Valentine, a frequent contributor to CounterPunch, described the program in terms that never would have been conveyed to PBS viewers:

By 1967, killing entire families had become an integral facet of the CIA’s counter-terror program. Robert Slater was the chief of the CIA’s Province Interrogation Center Program from June 1967 through 1969. In a March 1970 thesis for the Defense Intelligence School, titled “The History, Organization and Modus Operandi of the Viet Cong Infrastructure,” Slater wrote, “the District Party Secretary usually does not sleep in the same house or even hamlet where his family lived, to preclude any injury to his family during assassination attempts.”

But, Slater added, “the Allies have frequently found out where the District Party Secretaries live and raided their homes: in an ensuing fire fight the secretary’s wife and children have been killed and injured.”

I should add that Valentine’s article was inspired by news last year that former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey was going to be named chairman of Fulbright University, a US-backed college with ties to the State Department in Ho Chi Minh City. Kerrey’s tenure there was short-lived since there was so much furor over his role in the Phoenix Program. I only wish that my fellow alumni at the New School had produced such quick results when he was serving as president of the New School for Social Research, an institution that had gained fame for hiring scholars driven out of Europe by the Nazi equivalent of the Phoenix Program.

Finally, there is the ridiculous war story by a physician who had been a POW in one of those legendary sadistic compounds that kept them on the brink of starvation. One day a cat that lived in the camp wandered into their midst apparently. They were so hungry that they butchered the cat, removing its head and paws, and then roasted it while the guards weren’t watching. When the guards spotted the charred remains, the prisoners claimed that it was a weasel they had caught and killed. However, when the guard spotted one of the cat’s paws, their goose was cooked since the cat belonged to the commandant. To start with, killing a cat with your bare hands is almost as possible as killing a weasel. Cats are not only pretty damned fierce but capable of screeches and howls when under attack that would have woke the dead, not to speak of Vietnamese guards. The physician claims that he was beaten to within an inch of his life and forced to wear the cat’s carcass around his neck while tied to a pole. You can’t make this shit up but it ends up in a Ken Burns documentary anyhow.

September 25, 2017

Report from Germany

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:36 pm

Source: Report from Germany

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