Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 19, 2018

David McReynolds in the context of American radicalism

Filed under: Gay,obituary,revolutionary organizing,socialism — louisproyect @ 9:16 pm

David McReynolds and long-time companion Shaman

The first time I ever heard the name David McReynolds was shortly after joining the SWP in 1967. At the time, the antiwar movement was a tripod made up of the Trotskyists, the CP and the pacifists. As the executive director of the War Resisters League (WRL) and a colleague of A.J. Muste who was to the peace movement in the USA as Bertrand Russell was to the British peace movement, David was a key figure.

David arrived in New York in the early 50s and eventually took an editorial job in 1957 with Liberation, a radical pacifist magazine closely tied to the WRL whose founders included three leaders of the pacifist leg of the peace movement tripod: Sidney Lens, David Dellinger and Muste himself. Both Lens and Muste were Trotskyists in the 30s before evolving in a pacifist direction. Lens was a member of Hugo Oehler’s ultraleft Revolutionary Workers League and Muste was the chairman of the American Workers Party that fused with Cannon’s Communist League of America in 1934 to form the Workers Party.

Although I was too much of a rank-and-filer to sit in on strategy meetings with these people, I always had the impression that the SWP got along better with Lens and Muste than they did with people who were ideologically pacifist from the get-go like David Dellinger and Norma Becker. They tended to bloc with Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman at the time because they all were into “propaganda of the deed”, which didn’t mean setting off bombs but getting arrested in a civil disobedience protest. Despite not seeing these people interact with each other directly, I suspect that David helped to keep the various factions together since he was such a warm and empathetic figure.

But there was no doubt about his commitment to the sort of actions pacifist groups were carrying out for most of the 20th century. David participated in some of the more important civil disobedience actions in New York under the impact of the Cold War. In the 1950s, there were civil defense drills meant to minimize the effects of an H-Bomb being dropped on the city. Instructions were utterly lunatic as David pointed out in an oral history interview with the NY Public Library. People on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building were supposed to go to the 40th floor while those on the 40th floor and below were supposed to go into the basement. Here’s a newsreel from the time showing a drill. So you can imagine how a 9-year old like me would be scared out of his wits.

Those who refused to take cover during these drills were subject to a misdemeanor arrest. David, A.J. Muste, and Catholic Worker leader Dorothy Day took part in protests at City Hall. Muste and Day served 6-month sentences and David somehow slipped through the fingers of the cops.

During the 50s, such protests managed to take place because it was difficult to smear pacifists using Red Scare tactics. The anti-nuclear movement was one of the few areas in which open socialists could operate since it involved issues that did not touch directly on the Red Scare. Like climate change, the fear of extinction was palpable especially since the slogan “Better dead than red” was gaining popularity in the 1950s.

David adopted civil disobedience tactics once again in November, 1965 when he burned his draft card at a protest in Union Square. I remember how the SWP wrestled with these tactics as they grew more popular. Clearly, they were helping to deepen antiwar resistance but they didn’t follow our Bolshevik norms. To show how warped we were, a few months before I joined the party I attended the SWP convention held in a NY hotel as an observer. A debate had ensued over whether our newspaper should take exception to the growing popularity of speaking out against the war as being “immoral, illegal and unjust” since it fostered pacifist illusions. Harry Ring, a leader of the party’s antiwar fraction, got up to oppose such a sectarian position. The fact that it was even considered showed how isolated we were from normal thinking.

In the oral history interview, David includes a fascinating anecdote that speaks volumes about his political approach. It seems that as a gay man who never hid his sexuality but never made a point of it, he never felt quite satisfied with such a defensive position. At one point he went to a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg in the East Village in which during the Q&A a woman asked him why he wrote so much about homosexuality in his poems. He replied that he did so because he was a queer. That impressed David so much that he went up to Allen later and introduced himself, the beginning of a deep friendship. At a certain point, David became responsible for persuading Ginsberg to become a public figure opposed to the war. Ginsberg was wary at first since he saw himself as a poet and not a politician. David won him to our cause by making the point that writers had a responsibility to oppose the war. Thereafter, Ginsberg became omnipresent at protests.

In 1972, the Socialist Party of America (SPA), whose lineage went back to Debs, suffered a split. Some of its rightwing leaders, who would soon become aligned with or even members of the Reagan administration, renamed the group Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA). Sensing where they were headed, Michael Harrington led a faction into the newly formed Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) that would merge with the New America Movement to form the DSA. Wary of Harrington’s orientation to the Democratic Party, a small faction went ahead and formed the Socialist Party USA (SPUSA) that David belonged to until recently. He was the party’s presidential candidate in 1980 and 2000. Unlike the DSA, you don’t find much Marxist analysis being spouted by its members such as the kind you will find in Jacobin. Also, unlike the DSA, the SPUSA hearkens back to Debs’s opposition to the two-party system. Like Debs and Norman Thomas, David had no use for the donkey or the elephant. He preferred cats and radicalism.

I am not quite sure when I hooked up with David but around twenty years ago I began making it my business to learn more about what you might call native radical traditions. Since so much of the Trotskyist experience involved applying the Bolshevik legacy mechanically to our country, I decided that David’s experience would help me fill in the blanks.

For about a year, we would get together for lunch down in the East Village where we would chew the fat. One time I got a big kick out of how he was warmly greeted by Quentin Crisp when we walked into a restaurant, where Crisp was sitting at a table by himself. It reminded me of how bohemianism, including sexual openness, and socialist politics go together.

When I joined the SWP in 1967, being outed as a gay could get you expelled. Party leaders defended the policy since supposedly the FBI could get a party member to “turn” by threatening to out him or her to the party. Marxist scholar Christopher Phelps, who was working on an article about gays in the SWP titled “The Closet in the Party”, had gotten in touch with David to sound him out. This led to David writing an article for New Politics titled “Queer Reflections” that I urge everybody to read since it epitomized his sensibility and political instincts.

I EXPERIENCED LITTLE BIAS WITHIN the Socialist Party. The late, and nearly great, Samuel H. Friedman (a Jew who kept kosher and whose wife was an Irish Catholic) said to me “I’ve heard some nasty things about you, Comrade McReynolds, but I don’t believe them.” Dwight MacDonald once said “You aren’t one of those, are you?” But it was never used against me except by some of those around Max Shachtman (I always thought it ironic that Max ended up with Tom Kahn, whose homosexuality was an open secret, as one of the few who remained on his side to the end). Within the War Resisters League (WRL), where I worked on staff for 39 years, it was never an issue, not because there was some secret gay cabal in the WRL, but because the radical tradition of the secular pacifists was much more profoundly radical than that of most Marxists. Bayard Rustin wasn’t hired by WRL because he was gay (or black) but because he was incredibly talented. (Let it be noted, as part of the historical record, and as a reminder that even great leaders have feet of clay, that A.J. Muste, so clearly a mentor for me, resigned from the executive committee of WRL in protest against the hiring of Bayard, because he felt Rustin’s record of making indiscreet homosexual passes would threaten the organization. And Bayard himself, in 1969, when the WRL magazine WIN had a “gay liberation” issue, with pieces from Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg and myself, phoned Ralph DiGia to say, “you guys are going to have to fire David — he will destroy the organization.” I never held this against Bayard, understanding only too well what his own experience had taught him.)

What makes David McReynolds so special was his ability to reflect the deeper traditions of the American left that go back to the early Communist movement, what Timothy Messer-Kruse called the “Yankee International”. Victoria Woodhull, who worked closely with Frederick Douglass, launched a Marxist current in the USA that competed with the one sanctioned by Karl Marx and that was led by Friedrich Sorge, a German immigrant. Sorge was not only exceedingly dogmatic, he was also hostile to Black-led protests since they might divide the working class.

Woodhull’s group made no such concessions, as their political traditions were rooted in the abolitionist movement. Indeed, when they called for a mass demonstration in New York City to commemorate the martyrs of the Paris Commune, the first rank in the parade went to a company of black soldiers known as the Skidmore Guard. The demonstration passed by a quarter million spectators and the sight of armed black men in the vanguard was electrifying. Sorge’s group complained that the demonstration was a distraction from working-class struggles, whose participants would lose a day’s pay by participating. He called for a boycott.

It is too bad that Marx regarded Woodhull as a spiritualist crank. Who knows? If she had received his benediction, we might be living under communism today. The tension between the Marxist high priesthood symbolized by Karl Marx in the 1870s or V.I. Lenin in the 1920s on one hand and the indigenous radical roots of living movements that sprout up according to their own rhythm and affinities has plagued us for nearly 150 years.

When people like Victoria Woodhull, Eugene V. Debs or David McReynolds come along, they deserve pride of place in building the revolutionary movement that is so desperately needed. The last time I saw David was in 2005 or so when I went to a brunch at Cynthia Cochran’s apartment on West 94th Street. She knew David for many years and admired him for the same reason she went with the “Cochranites” in 1954. In my discussions with David over lunch, we always came back to the need for a revolutionary movement that broke with the dogmatic obsession over the “Russian questions”. Like Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, David knew how to put things into perspective. Sooner or later, the left will cohere around a program that emerges out of our living experience as Americans. David had a talent for sensing the mood of ordinary Americans.

Finally, for a really sweet and revealing interview with David that includes his story of how he decided to accept his homosexuality after meeting Alvin Ailey as a young man. It also includes some great photos of the young David McReynolds who was a handsome devil.

August 17, 2018

Memoir of War

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, AUGUST 17, 2018

“Memoir of War” is an adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s La Douleur (The Pain, published in English as The War), a 1985 semi-fictional memoir about her experiences living in Vichy France in 1945 and during the immediate post-liberation period. Her husband Robert Antelme was a member of the Resistance and a Communist like her. With Antelme a prisoner in a slave labor camp in Germany, she tries to prevent him from being transferred to an even more lethal camp like Dachau by forming ties to a Vichy collaborator who has a double agenda: to extract information about the Resistance and to seduce her. She walks a tightrope, trying to exploit her relationship with him to keep her husband alive while avoiding a Harvey Weinstein moment.

The film is among the best I have seen about living under fascism and a reminder of how great a writer Marguerite Duras was. “Memoir of War” relies on her character’s (played brilliantly by Mélanie Thierry) voiceover drawn from the text of La Douleur. I generally find such a device intrusive but in this instance it worked perfectly since the literary text meshed so well with the cinematic texture. Setting the tone for the remainder of the film, we hear Duras’s words before the credits role as she sits alone in her apartment smoking a cigarette while pacing the floor:

I found this diary in the blue cupboards at Neaulphe. I don’t remember writing it. I know I did though. I know it was me. I recognize the handwriting and the details of what happened. I can picture the place. The Gare D’Orsay. My itineraries. But not myself writing. What I found was evenly filled pages, the letters tiny, unbelievably placid and regular. What I found was a phenomenal chaos of thought and feeling that I dare not amend, besides which literary polish strikes me as shameful. One thing is sure, obvious. It is unthinkable that these words were written whilst waiting for Robert.

Of course, the claim that she didn’t “remember writing it” has to be taken with a grain of salt. To understand why she would double-reflexively write, “I don’t remember writing it”, you have to place her in the context of French postwar culture. Now obscure to most young people except maybe those who major in French literature at your better universities, Duras was among France’s leading literary figures in the 1950s. She worked in many genres, including fiction, theater, essays, and screenwriting. In 1959, she was nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay for “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”, an antiwar film that relies heavily on the interior monologues of the two main characters. (This classic film can be seen here.)

Continue reading

August 16, 2018

The Ritchie Boys

Filed under: Film,Jewish question,WWII — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Not too long ago I discovered that Werner Angress, the historian from whose “Stillborn Revolution: The Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921–23” I have been posting excerpts, was a Ritchie boy. After he died in 2010, The American Historical Association commemorated his life, including information on Ritchie:

Drafted into the army in 1941, he was trained as an interrogator at Camp Ritchie (he is featured in the film, The Ritchie Boys, about this remarkable institution), and parachuted (his first jump) into France with the 82nd Airborne on D-Day. Despite his extraordinarily youthful appearance and rather small stature, Angress was a tough and resourceful soldier who was eventually promoted to Master Sergeant and awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

In going through a backlog of DVDs received from publicists about a decade ago, I discovered that I had one for “The Ritchie Boys”. In extracting it from the package, it accidentally was damaged. Not willing to be deterred from seeing the film, I got a copy through the Columbia Library and was richly rewarded by a documentary that might be regarded as the ultimate alternative to Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”.

Although Werner Angress and all the other German and German-speaking Jewish immigrants had every reason to want to kill every Nazi they got their hands on, the allied cause was better served by them functioning as “soft cops” to get information that could save the lives of fellow soldiers as well as civilians. Additionally, the Ritchie boys discover that many if not most of the German soldiers were ordinary workers forced to kill or be killed as deserters. The same thing was true of the German civilians they came in contact with.

Every Ritchie boy interviewed in the film was as ethically and politically informed as Angress, with some demonstrating the leftist politics they probably absorbed growing up in Weimar Germany. Among the most interesting is Si Lewin, a Polish Jew who was born in 1918 and died two years ago at the age of 97. Like all the other Ritchie boys, including Angress whose parachute got caught in a tree in Germany not long after D-Day, he has an amazing story to tell.

He was assigned to convince German soldiers to surrender by speaking to them through high-powered speakers wired to a batteries in a jeep. Routinely, German artillery honed in on Lewin and his comrades by geolocating the sound of the speakers until they figured out how to position them far from the jeep.

Si Lewin’s website is still up and running. In the about page, we learn that he was a close friend of Art Spiegelman who wrote “Maus”. In a Harpers Magazine article, Spiegelman describes “Parade”, one of Lewin’s most celebrated works:

By 1950, Si was pursuing an idea that had begun to gestate while he was still a soldier. Inspired by a lifelong love of movies — and in conscious resistance to the pure nonrepresentational abstraction that was coming to dominate contemporary art — he made the Parade.

The work begins with an excited crowd of flag-waving parents and children who gather to cheer a military procession of soldiers that turns into an abstract engine of war. Little boys playing with toy guns are beckoned from the arms of their mothers into the arms of a shrouded Grim Reaper, who transforms the children into helmeted, goose-stepping cannon fodder — interchangeable cogs in a relentless war machine. A series of vignettes focuses on scenes of escalating havoc and suffering — the disasters of war — replete with bayoneted mothers and babies, terrorized families fleeing bombed-out cities, and devastated farms. The images accumulate into a panoramic harvest of blood and death. The parade turns into a hanging row of severed heads, a procession of the wounded and maimed, a march of ravaged survivors staggering under the weight of the coffins they carry.

I had to make a tough decision in writing an article about “The Ritchie Boys” since it was neither available as VOD or even as a DVD with the standard pricing. The director Christian Bauer, a German, died in 2009 and the distribution company he founded died along with him. The only way to see the film is to buy a DVD on Amazon that is now going for $70 when it was available.

I saw no alternative except to put it up on Youtube, which took a bit of time and money to accomplish. Since the DVD is copy-protected, I had to pay $100 to have someone bypass the copy protection and make it uploadable. I doubt that Youtube will be hearing from anybody about copyright protection but just in case I wouldn’t waste any time watching this film since it is absolutely terrific.

August 14, 2018

Samir Amin, dependency theory, and the multipolar world

Filed under: colonialism,imperialism/globalization,socialism — louisproyect @ 5:39 pm

As might have been expected, there has been a flurry of vitriolic attacks on Samir Amin from Facebook friends who share my views on Syria and Ukraine. Amin, who died on August 12th at the age of 86, is well-known as a dependency theorist and advocate of a multipolar world. Since I am both a dependency theorist after a fashion and a critic of multipolarity, at least as it is understood by most of the left, this forces me to come to terms with Amin’s legacy—a task I would not shirk from since tough questions such as this help me deepen my understanding of Marxism.

To start with, I have never read Samir Amin except for articles and interviews that have show up on Monthly Review over the years. That being said, I am fairly well-informed on dependency theory having read some of the classics long before I was on the net, even going back to my days in the SWP when I was always looking for solid, well-written analysis outside the sect’s orbit such as Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America”, Pierre Jalee’s “The Pillage of the Third World”, and Walter Rodney’s “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”.

Probably because I was much closer to Latin America as an amateur Marxist scholar and semi-professional activist, I naturally gravitated toward Andre Gunder Frank who had the same kind of relationship to Latin America that Amin had to Africa.

Out of curiosity, I took a quick look at Amin’s “Unequal Development” and was struck by how much his 1976 book made the same points I have been making over the years, albeit crudely.

For example, he refers to petty-commodity production in North America as an intermediate stage between feudalism and capitalism, a point I made in a recent critique of Charles Post. Furthermore, his reference to the role of the New World in facilitating the transition to capitalism is one I have made repeatedly over the years. Not surprisingly, Marx himself made the same points in the chapter on the genesis of the industrial capitalist in V. 1 of Capital:

After a period of pure and simple plundering of Amerindian treasures, intensive mining enterprises were inaugurated, and had recourse to a tremendous squandering of human resources, as a condition for the profitability of their activity. At the same time a slaveowning mode of production was introduced in order to facilitate production of sugar, indigo, etc., in the Americas. The entire economy of the Americas was to revolve around these areas of development for the benefit of the center. The raising of livestock, for example, served the purpose of providing food for the mining areas and those where the slave-run plantations were located. The “triangular trade” that began with the seeking of slaves in Africa fulfilled this essential function: the accumulation  of money-capital in the ports of Europe as the result of selling products of the periphery to members of the ruling classes, who were then stimulated to transform themselves from feudalists into agrarian capitalists.

I also happened to borrow his 1989 MR book “Eurocentrism” from the Columbia Library since my interest in these questions were piqued by Jim Blaut back in 1997 or so after he showed up on the Marxism list that preceded Marxmail to announce the publication of his “Colonizer’s Model of the World”, a book that was clearly influenced by Amin. From a quick browse of “Eurocentrism”, this is a book that I will find time to read before long since it is filled with stunning observations such as this:

Marxism did indeed advance a new explanation of the genesis of capitalism, which appealed neither to race nor to Christianity but based itself on the concepts of mode of production, base and superstructure, forces of production, and relationships of production. In contrast to bourgeois eclecticism, Marxism gives a central place to the question of universal social dynamics and at the same time  proposes a total method that links the different elements of social reality (the material base and the political and ideological). However, this double property of Marxist theory, while it gives Marxism its power, also constitutes a threat to its development. With the help of natural laziness, the temptation to find definitive answers to everything in it is great. Critique and enrichment of the theory give way to dogmatics and the analysis of texts. Limited by the knowledge available at his time, Marx developed a series of propositions that could suggest either the generality or the specificity of the succession from Graeco-Roman slavery to feudalism to capitalism. What was known in the middle of the nineteenth century about non-European peoples? Not much. And for this reason, Marx was careful about making hasty generalizations. As is well known, he declares that the slavery-feudalism-capitalism succession is peculiar to Europe. And he leaves his manuscripts dealing with the “Asiatic mode of production” in an unsystematic state, showing them to be incomplete reflections. Despite these precautions, Marxism succumbed to the temptation to extrapolate from the European example in order to fashion a universal model.

Therefore, despite Marx’s precautions, Marxism yielded to the influences of the dominant culture and remained in the bosom of Eurocentrism. For a Eurocentric interpretation of Marxism, destroying its universalist scope, is not only a possibility: It exists, and is perhaps even the dominant interpretation. This Eurocentric version of Marxism is notably expressed in the famous thesis of the “Asiatic mode of production” and “the two roads”: the European road, open and leading to capitalism, and the Asian road, which is blocked. It also has a related, inverted expression. In claiming the universality of the succession primitive communism–slavery–feudalism–capitalism–socialism (Stalin’s theory of the five stages), the European model is applied to the entire planet, forcing everyone into an “iron corset,” condemned, and rightly so, by its adversaries.

This is the kind of Marxism I live by. It reflects Marx’s letters to Zasulich, even though they are not mentioned. It rejects the kind of mechanical stagism that was adopted by Plekhanov and the Mensheviks that led them to oppose the seizure of power in 1917. It obviously reflects the lingering influence of the Cuban, Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions that with all their flaws demonstrated that we were still living in the epoch of world revolution.

Within two year or so after “Eurocentrism” was published, the USSR ceased to exist. Arguably, without the USSR, Cuba, China and Vietnam would have remained neocolonies. Indeed, the collapse of the USSR was so precipitous that China and Vietnam have returned to capitalist property relations and Cuba’s future is clouded at best.

It was this reality that led Amin and others to support the idea of multipolarity even if it was improbable that Putin or Mao Zedong’s successors would ever be one-tenth as reliable as the USSR in terms of material, military and diplomatic aid.

Taking a position against NATO encroachments on post-Soviet Russia was obviously the right stand to take as was support for financial institutions outside of the IMF/World Bank system. Among the books by Samir Amin that can be read online is “Beyond US Hegemony: Assessing the Prospects for a Multipolar World” that was published in 2006. Despite kneejerk tendencies to reduce Amin to a shameless propagandist, he refers to China as follows: “The real project of the Chinese ruling class is capitalist in nature, so that ‘market socialism’ becomes a shortcut enabling it gradually to establish the fundamental structures and institutions of capitalism, by reducing as much as possible the frictions and difficulties of the transition to capitalism.” Putin’s Russia is even worse in his eyes:

‘Open’ Russia is not only an ‘exporter of raw materials’ (oil first and foremost), it is liable to become no more than that. Its industrial and agricultural production systems no longer benefit from the attention of the authorities and are of interest to neither the national private sector nor foreign capital. There has been no investment worthy of the name to make their progress possible and they only survive at the expense of the continued deterioration of their infrastructure. The capacity for technological renewal and the high-quality education that underpinned it in the Soviet system is being systematically destroyed.

Who is responsible for these massive declines? First, of course, the new ruling class, which for the most part originated from the former Soviet ruling class, made fabulously rich, no doubt, through the privatization/ pillage from which it has benefited. The concentration of this new class has, moreover, reached uncommon proportions, to the extent that the term ‘oligarchy’ suits them perfectly. The similarity with the oligarchies of Latin America is certainly striking.

Published in 2006, the book obviously had little to say about the Middle East. After 2011, Amin began speaking out on the region as was understandable. He grew up in Egypt and had written many articles and some books focusing on development issues there. Among the points he stressed was the need to develop an alternative to political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.

For those who have been involved in Syria solidarity, there is a tendency to condemn anybody who does not conform to what they see as the rules for membership. So, when I wrote about my intention to vote for Jill Stein, blogger Clay Claiborne began to lump me with white racists and Max Blumenthal.

Naturally, Samir Amin got the same treatment even though he wrote this about Bashar al-Assad:

The Syrian situation is extremely complex.  The Ba’ath regime, which enjoyed legitimacy for a long time, is no longer what it was at all: it has become more and more autocratic, increasingly a police state, and, at the same time, in substance, it has made a gigantic concession to economic liberalism.  I don’t believe that this regime can transform itself into a democratic regime.

In the same interview, he also said, “Moreover, compared with Egypt and Tunisia, the weakness in Syria is that protest movements are very much a mixed bag.  Many — though I don’t want to generalize — don’t even have any political program other than protest, making no link between the regime’s political dictatorship and its liberal economic policy choices.” Despite Amin’s failure to look more deeply into the protest movement in Syria, this is a far cry from what people like John Pilger or Seymour Hersh were writing.

And even if he began to veer more in their direction, I doubt that this justifies the kind of vilification that has been directed at him. Once some people reach their seventies and eighties, there is a tendency to rely on ideas that they have lived by for decades. This accounts for any flaws in Amin’s writings that will live on for the ages just as Marx and Engels’s writings do. In all the articles I have been reading about Amin in the past two days, this one make the case for his importance convincingly:

Perhaps Amin’s central thesis is somewhat obvious, but it’s often forgotten – that a true revolution must be based on those who are being dispossessed and impoverished. But he goes further in undermining the assumption that any thinking emerging from the South will lack enlightenment, or that a lack of enlightenment should be excused.

He believes the Enlightenment was humanity’s first step towards democracy, liberating us from the idea that God created our activity. He has caused controversy in his utter rejection of political Islam. This ideology, embedded for example in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, obscures the real nature of society, including by playing into the idea that the world consists of different cultural groups which conflict with each other, an idea which helps the centre control the peripheries.

Amin’s view is that organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood, with their cultural and economic conservatism, are actually viewed positively by the US and other imperialist governments. And he doesn’t limit his critique to Islam either, launching similar criticism on political Hinduism practiced by the BJP in India and Political Buddhism, expressed through the Dalai Lama.

Samir Amin decribes himself as a ‘creative Marxist’ – “to begin from Marx but not to end with him or with Lenin or Mao” – which incorporates all manner of critical ways of thinking even ones “which were wrongly considered to be ‘alien’ by the dogmas of the historical Marxism of the past.”

These views are surely more relevant today than when Amin started writing. A creative Marxism takes proper account of the perspective and aspirations of the truly dispossessed in the world, break out of historical dogmas and rejects attempts to stick together a broken model, but equally sees the impossibility of overthrowing this model tomorrow.

Climate Change Bites Big Business

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:57 pm

via Climate Change Bites Big Business

August 12, 2018

Political Marxism and petty commodity production

Filed under: farming,transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:14 pm

1854 Engraving of New England farmers engaged in petty commodity production

In his Catalyst critique of books by the New Historians of Capitalism (Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert and Edward Baptist), Charles Post levels the charge that they don’t ground their history of slavery in Marxist theory, in other words Political Marxism. Recently I have been reading books and articles about agriculture and capitalism that suggest it is Charles Post who needs to sharpen his own understanding of Marxist theory.

Part of the problem with the Brenner thesis is that it speaks in the name of Karl Marx on agriculture and capitalism even though Marx never spent much time in developing his own analysis. In fact, there has been an extensive record of theorizing about agriculture that basically starts at ground zero, from Lenin to Kautsky.

Just consider the chapter in V. 1 of Capital on “The Genesis of the Capitalist Farmer”. It is only 542 words long and repeats what is common knowledge, namely that starting in the latter part of the 14th century landlords leased large amounts of land to tenant farmers who then hired wage labor.

You can also find chapters on ground rent in V. 3 of Capital that begins by stating: “The analysis of landed property in its various historical forms is beyond the scope of this work.” In other words, the type of detail found in V. 1 of Capital about the origins of manufacturing and wage labor is utterly absent here. However, those looking for a definition of capitalist farming should take note of this in his introduction to the chapters on ground rent:

The prerequisites for the capitalist mode of production therefore are the following: The actual tillers of the soil are wage labourers employed by a capitalist, the capitalist farmer who is engaged in agriculture merely as a particular field of exploitation for capital, as investment for his capital in a particular sphere of production. This capitalist farmer pays the landowner, the owner of the land exploited by him, a sum of money at definite periods fixed by contract, for instance, annually (just as the borrower of money-capital pays a fixed interest), for the right to invest his capital in this specific sphere of production.

That certainly describes what took place in the English countryside but does it apply to the United States? Considering Charles Post’s emphasis on the small farmers of the north being the catalyst who made the transition to capitalism in the USA possible, it is worth considering what Marx wrote about them in the final chapter of V. 1 of Capital titled “The Modern Theory of Colonisation”. It basically draws a sharp contrast between England and “the colonies”, which means the USA and Australia. Quoting E. G. Wakefield’s “England and America,” Marx describes agrarian society as not based on capitalism, “In the Northern States of the American Union; it may be doubted whether so many as a tenth of the people would fall under the description of hired labourers…. In England… the labouring class compose the bulk of the people.”

Marx is emphatic: “So long, therefore, as the labourer can accumulate for himself — and this he can do so long as he remains possessor of his means of production — capitalist accumulation and the capitalistic mode of production are impossible.” Those who possess the means of production can refer to, for example, weavers of cloth in Medieval Europe who owned a loom and worked out of their house. The first step in moving toward capitalism consisted of a wealthy weaver setting up a shop with looms and hiring men and women to work for him.

Early farmers in New England operated on the same basis. With land grabbed from the Wampanoags et al, they used horse-drawn plows to prepare the soil as shown above, planted seed by hand and finally harvested the crops using a scythe. These were his “means of production” and the family members were his workforce, sometimes augmented by seasonal wage labor.

Among Marxists, this has been termed petty (or simple) commodity production. For example, Ernest Mandel writes: “Petty commodity production has its own characteristics which are neither those of feudalism (serfdom) or of capitalism (wage labour). The predominant form of labour is the free labour of small proprietors or semi-proprietors, owning their own means of production.” In England, it was possible to make the transition to capitalism because petty commodity production was wiped out through the Enclosure Acts. This was a key part of primitive accumulation, according to Marx:

Communal property — always distinct from the State property just dealt with — was an old Teutonic institution which lived on under cover of feudalism. We have seen how the forcible usurpation of this, generally accompanied by the turning of arable into pasture land, begins at the end of the 15th and extends into the 16th century. But, at that time, the process was carried on by means of individual acts of violence against which legislation, for a hundred and fifty years, fought in vain. The advance made by the 18th century shows itself in this, that the law itself becomes now the instrument of the theft of the people’s land, although the large farmers make use of their little independent methods as well.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that family farms existed outside the realm of capitalist property relations in the USA, Post sees them as the sine qua non for the birth of capitalism. What is critical for him is that the small farmer became a supplier of commodities to the home market in a period when manufacturing was taking off. Instead of producing goods mostly for home consumption, farmers began to specialize and use machinery to meet the growing demand:

Merchant-capital, through the mechanisms of land-law, land-speculation and the promotion of internal improvements, was responsible for the enforced dependence of free farmers on commodity-production for their economic reproduction. In particular, federal land-policy promoted the transformation of land into a commodity through the public auction of the public domain. This policy encouraged the speculative purchasing of large blocks of land, which forced actual settlers to purchase land from large land-companies at prices well above the minimal prices charged by the federal government. The cost of land-purchases and the burden of mortgages to the land-company forced the farmers to special- ise their crops and increase their production of commodities, thus becoming dependent on the sphere of commodity-circulation for their economic reproduction. The merchants also promoted internal improvements projects, such as canals and railways in the 1820s and 1830s, which lowered the costs of commodity-circulation, further promoting commodity-production.

The subordination of free farming to the law of value unleashed a process of increasing labour-productivity, technical innovation and social differentiation in the 1840s and 1850s. This period saw a sharp rise in the productivity of the farms of the old Northwest and the eastern Great Plains. This increase in the productivity of labour was accomplished through the introduction of labour-saving farm-implements, such as the mechanical reaper, new seed- drills and new ploughs.

You’ll notice what’s missing here, any mention of wage labor. So what if Marx stipulates that as long as the farmer possesses the means of production, the capitalist accumulation and the capitalistic mode of production are impossible. Charles Post knows better.

So you might ask yourself what’s the big deal. Even if these farmers were not capitalist farmers as defined by Karl Marx, who would deny that they were a cog in the machinery of capitalism? I would grant this as long as you grant the possibility that the same thing can be said about cotton plantations in the South. They were not capitalist, strictly speaking, but they made a major contribution to capital accumulation in the USA, something easily understood by everybody not blinded by Political Marxist orthodoxy—including Karl Marx, I might add:

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map.

–Letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, 1846

It is also worth mentioning that the family farm never went the way of the dinosaur in the USA. According to the USDA, 97 percent of the 2.1 million farms in the USA in 2015 were family-owned. More importantly, 88 percent of them were categorized as small businesses. It is also true that roughly 2/3rds of the food we eat are produced by only 3 percent of the family farms but in many cases these are heavily capitalized and mechanized. For many of the wealthier farmers, the debt involved in maintaining such agrarian factories is like a huge bet made in Las Vegas. One mistake and you can go bankrupt.

An article by Mieke Calus and Guido Van Huylenbroeck in the Autumn, 2010 Journal of Comparative Family Studies includes a graph that shows how persistent family farming is, not just in the USA:

In 1978, Harriet Friedmann wrote an article for the Journal of Peasant Studies about “Simple Commodity Production and wage labor in the American Plains” that by its very title indicates the stubborn persistence of small family-owned farms. She studied wheat farmers in Cass County in North Dakota in the 1920s, the very people who identified with the Nonpartisan League featured in the documentaries I reviewed a while back. They were a mixture of populists and socialists who were descendants ideologically of the “free soil” abolitionists of the New England countryside.

Friedmann’s research revealed that the average household size was 5.2 people and that 85 percent of the wheat farms in Cass County were run by the family. Furthermore, when wage laborers were used on these farms in harvest periods typically, a goodly portion were the children of neighbors who saw lending out a son as a form of mutual aid. This has little resemblance to the wage labor used on English farms in the 18th and 19th century.

Ultimately, Marx’s business about wage labor being intrinsic to capitalist agriculture can be explained by an understandable tendency to think in terms of the factory system. In some cases this makes sense when you are talking about the immense meat and poultry production systems that have mechanized the raising, slaughtering and packaging of animals according to the Fordist model.

But producing wheat and other grains, fruits and vegetables is far too reliant on nature to become industrialized. Growing wheat in a place like Cass County involves a long growing cycle in which labor is not necessary. Indeed, that is the reason so much of American agriculture exploits immigrant, seasonal labor. Additionally, farms are not operating on raw material. In a factory, machinery can run 24 hours a day but on a farm a tractor might lie idle for months on end.

Despite Post’s insistence that the slave plantations were “pre-capitalist”, it was where factory-like conditions prevailed universally. If free labor was subject to the iron laws of the market in order to comply with the boss’s speedup, demands for wage reductions, it was the whip that maintained order in the south. If African slaves had not been available, maybe free labor would have taken root in the South just as it did in other cotton-producing countries in the 19th century such as Egypt that relied more on child labor.

According to Post, forced labor persisted in the South because of the failure of Reconstruction to root out the reactionary institutions that remained after the end of the Civil War. If there were competitive pressures on the gentry, they would have been forced to mechanize. At least, that’s the theory.

As it happens, the South did not mechanize cotton production until the 1940s and it had more to do with policies adopted by Roosevelt than anything else. In many ways, cotton was the best crop for investors since it was not subject to the contingencies of weather that made fruit and vegetables so risky. Since it was not perishable, it could be stored indefinitely until market conditions favored its sale. (This finding and what follows in the paragraphs below comes from Susan A. Mann’s “Agrarian Capitalism in Theory and Practice.”)

In rushing to meet the demand for cotton in WWI, Southern farmers ramped up production using credit. Since capitalist production is not rational, this led to a crisis of overproduction as soon as the war ended. When faced by rural unrest after taking office, FDR sought to stabilize production in the same fashion as he did with other agricultural sectors. He created the Agricultural Adjustment Act that benefited wealthy farmers but ruined sharecroppers who received a far lower payment for reducing the yields. This should come as no surprise since the Southern racist ruling class was solidly tied to the Democratic Party at the time.

In the absence of a sufficient sharecropping labor pool, the big planters were forced to invest in labor-saving machinery. However, it was not as if this machinery was for sale and the gentry refused to pay for it because sharecropping was cheaper. A cotton harvester, a key labor-saving device, only went on sale in 1941. Like much of agriculture, including tea, coffee, tobacco and much of the goodies we buy at Gristede’s or Whole Food that come from Mexico or California’s Central Valley, rely on stoop labor. And, for the most part, those who supply such labor are subject to the kind of coercion—including threats of deportation—that make the Brenner thesis based on free wage labor so irrelevant to capitalist farming.

August 10, 2018

In the Spirit of the Departed Munsees

Filed under: Catskills,Counterpunch,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:38 pm

Four years ago the Stockbridge-Munsee Indians decided to cancel plans to build a gambling casino in Sullivan County since Gov. Andrew Cuomo had approved another Indian-owned gambling casino in Orange County that was closer to New York, thus putting theirs at a disadvantage. Starting in the early 2000s, there was a growing momentum to build such casinos in the economically-ravaged Sullivan County. Like Flint, Michigan after the departure of General Motors, Sullivan County bled jobs after the Borscht Belt hotels closed down due to New York City’s changing Jewish demographics. In the 1940s and 50s, garment workers sent their wives and kids up to the Catskills in the summer to escape the oppressive heat of tenement apartments. When their children became lawyers, doctors or accountants after graduating from a CUNY college, they could afford to move to Long Island, install air conditioners in every room, and fly to Europe instead.

When Donald Trump first found out about these casinos, he went ballistic. He said, “We’re giving New York State to the Indians.” If you know the real history of New York, you’d say instead that “We’re giving New York State back to the Indians.”

Some politicians objected to the plans since it went against the norms of gambling casinos being located exclusively on reservations. How could the Wisconsin-based Stockbridge-Munsees build a casino so far away from their home? As it happens, the pols in Albany calculated that offering the Indians the right to build a casino in exchange for dropping a land claim in Madison County, NY for 23,000 acres illegally seized hundreds of years ago made sense. But then again, how could a tribe in Wisconsin be entitled to New York land? What’s going on here? The answer should be obvious to anybody who has studied Native American history. Ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Continue reading

Making sense of Nathaniel Rich’s “Losing Earth”

Filed under: climate,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 1:21 am

I just finished reading last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine article “Losing Earth” by Nathaniel Rich on the failure of elites to respond to the climate change crisis between 1979 to 1989. Since the author is the son of leading liberal pundit Frank Rich, it should not come as any surprise that it is something of a morality play with Al Gore, Friends of the Earth staff member Rafe Pomerantz and James Hansen on the side of the angels and John Sununu, Bush ‘41’s Chief of Staff, playing Satan.

In such a personality-driven article, you don’t get any sense of the institutional and social pressures that led to inaction. Indeed, you might even draw the conclusion that if Sununu had been more enlightened, the planet would be in much better shape today.

The article has generated angry denunciations by Naomi Klein in Intercept and Alyssa Battistoni in Jacobin. They agree that the main flaw of the article is that keeps talking about “our” failure to respond to the crisis, an analysis that does not address the class distinctions that shut the door on mass participation to avert climate change. Battistoni writes: “Rich recognizes that the problem is political, but again, he draws the wrong conclusions. At one point, he wonders, “if science, industry and the press could not move the government to act, then who could?” I don’t know — how about the people?”

For her part, Klein writes:

And yet we blew it — “we” being humans, who apparently are just too shortsighted to safeguard our future. Just in case we missed the point of who and what is to blame for the fact that we are now “losing earth,” Rich’s answer is presented in a full-page callout: “All the facts were known, and nothing stood in our way. Nothing, that is, except ourselves.”

Yep, you and me. Not, according to Rich, the fossil fuel companies who sat in on every major policy meeting described in the piece. (Imagine tobacco executives being repeatedly invited by the U.S. government to come up with policies to ban smoking. When those meetings failed to yield anything substantive, would we conclude that the reason is that humans just want to die? Might we perhaps determine instead that the political system is corrupt and busted?)

I think their critiques are well-taken but why would you expect anything different from the NY Times? Years ago, Alexander Cockburn wrote a piquant critique of FAIR, with its frequent campaigns against the NY Times and the Washington Post for dispensing ruling class propaganda. Why, he asked, would you expect them to write anything that did not promote the interests of the class it serves? Of course, with this in mind, you have to ask yourself why both newspapers have been functioning as PR flaks for Jacobin for almost a decade now.

My attitude toward the Rich article was somewhat more positive since I saw it as a briskly-paced examination of how inside-the-beltway maneuvering takes place. You know the sort of thing I am talking about. As sports radio is to the machinations taking place in the NY Yankees management before a trade deadline, so is this article to how climate change  policy-wrangling took place three decades ago. It makes you want to bathe in a disinfectant.

Both Klein and Battistoni seem to think that Jacobin and the DSA honchos are like men and women on horseback riding in to save the day. Klein is practically breathless:

These are the stakes in the surge of movement-grounded political candidates who are advancing a democratic eco-socialist vision, connecting the dots between the economic depredations caused by decades of neoliberal ascendency and the ravaged state of our natural world. Partly inspired by Bernie Sanders’s presidential run, candidates in a variety of races — like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Kaniela Ing in Hawaii, and many more — are running on platforms calling for a “Green New Deal” that meets everyone’s basic material needs, offers real solutions to racial and gender inequities, while catalyzing a rapid transition to 100 percent renewable energy. Many, like New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon and New York attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout, have pledged not to take money from fossil fuel companies and are promising instead to prosecute them.

These candidates, whether or not they identify as democratic socialist, are rejecting the neoliberal centrism of the establishment Democratic Party, with its tepid “market-based solutions” to the ecological crisis, as well as Donald Trump’s all-out war on nature. And they are also presenting a concrete alternative to the undemocratic extractivist socialists of both the past and present. Perhaps most importantly, this new generation of leaders isn’t interested in scapegoating “humanity” for the greed and corruption of a tiny elite. It seeks instead to help humanity — particularly its most systematically unheard and uncounted members — to find their collective voice and power so they can stand up to that elite.

I hate to sound like an old stick in the mud but I doubt that electing Sandernistas will have even the slightest impact on climate change. The truth is that it will take many years for a Sanders type administration to occupy the White House and even when in power it will have its hands tied when dealing with the massive inertia the capitalist system imposes on governmental action.

To reverse climate change requires revolutionary action and that is something that is beyond the DSA’s capability to carry out. Given every opportunity to present their analysis of the environmental crisis, both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez never really make clear that capitalism is the main obstacle to climate justice. Corporations will always put their profits ahead of social need, even if alternative energy sources in the USA begin to resemble the kind of advances being made in Europe and China. Given the need to avoid red ink, corporations will always fall back on fossil fuels even if they are supposedly “clean” such as natural gas.

Ultimately, humanity will need to abolish the private ownership of the means of production in order to ensure that its future needs are safeguarded. If you think that Donald Trump is a fascist danger right now, you haven’t seen capitalism in its final, most deadly stages defending itself against the rabble. Twenty-five years from now, when the struggle had reached a fever pitch, you can surely expect George Soros’s son to be funneling money to Richard Spencer and the Proud Boys. I guarantee it.

 

August 7, 2018

The excuses some Marxists make for voting Democratic (part two)

Filed under: DSA,electoral strategy,Lenin — louisproyect @ 5:58 pm

Ramsay McDonald, reformist politician and the illegitimate son of a farm laborer and housemaid

As I stated in my article on young Marxist intellectuals and the Democratic Party, the level of sophistication is far in advance of the “lesser evil” arguments I used to hear from the Communist Party. While I referred to the academic contributors to Jacobin as exemplifying this trend, others outside the academy have shown the same kind of erudition, even if steeped in casuistry.

In a Marxmail discussion touched off by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Joe Crowley, I made the point that socialists have no business supporting bourgeois parties and that this practice dates back to the Popular Front. When an Australian Socialist Alliance member and A. O-C supporter asked why it would be acceptable to vote for a Labour Party candidate in Australia that has positions worse than the Democrats on some questions, I replied that the “The key difference between a reformist Labor Party and the Democratic Party is based on class.”

This prompted a very well-read young DSA member (isn’t that a redundancy?) to correct me:

There is a shibboleth in the Trotskyist movement that this is from Lenin, but it’s not actually what Lenin argued. He said “the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party” (https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/2nd-congress/ch13.htm — and this is just one example). There’s a history to arguing that a “bourgeois labor party” is a party based on the workers but with bourgeois leadership and that that was Lenin’s concept. However, as one can see reading this https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/oct/x01.htm, in context the term Lenin used was “bourgeois Labor Party”, i.e. “the Labor Party is a bourgeois party” (note the capitalization–which can be inconsistent in various editions but again, in context this becomes clear).

One can make an argument for this idea of voting or working with based solely on the class-basis of parties and ignoring everything else, but it should at least be made with the awareness that this isn’t what Lenin argued and I haven’t seen anyone do that: he was for the CP working in and voting for the British Labor Party and he thought that party was a bourgeois party. For Lenin, the class-basis did matter in that that was why he urged the building of a separate working-class political organization, but it did not tie down his thinking from considering a range of tactical and strategic options–including working within and voting for–in relationship to other parties, including bourgeois ones.

After reading Richard Seymour and Simon Hannah’s books on British Labour, I was left with the conclusion that any resemblance between Labour and the Democratic Party is purely coincidental. While analogies between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are fairly obvious, subjecting Labour and the DP to a historical materialist analysis reveals massive differences. Above all, the entire history of Labour has revolved around bitter struggles between the leftist and working class base against the party’s elite. But that elite has little in common with the Democratic Party’s elite. For example, Ramsay McDonald, a notoriously rightwing leader who betrayed the 1926 General Strike, was the illegitimate son of a farm laborer and a housemaid. When McDonald served a brief term as Prime Minister in 1923, his colonial minister promised that there would be “no mucking about with the British Empire”. His name was J.H. Thomas, a man who was the son of a young unmarried mother. Raised by his grandmother, he began working when he was 12, soon starting a career as a railway worker and eventually becoming the head of their trade union. This reflected the social base of Labour that was not only overwhelmingly proletarian but had institutional ties to the unions, even if their leaders—like Thomas—were the Samuel Gompers of their day.

Now you certainly cannot deny that Lenin described Labour as “bourgeois” but I am not exactly the sort of person who follows Lenin’s writings as if he were infallible. Nor Trotsky, for that matter. These men and some women like Rosa Luxemburg who have been deified deserve better than to be cited by us as if we were Christian fundamentalists citing scripture.

Unlike his much more analytical analysis of Russian political parties, Lenin’s references to Labour were polemical and designed in the heat of the moment to shepherd ultraleft Communists into Labour—like putting a candy coating on a bitter pill.

Before he turned his attention to weaning his comrades off of ultraleftism, Lenin offered a more dispassionate appraisal in 1913: “The British Labour Party, which exists side by side with the opportunist Independent Labour Party and the Social-Democratic British Socialist Party, is something in the nature of a broad labour party. It is a compromise between a socialist party and non-socialist trade unions.” That sounds about right. We should only be so lucky to have such a party in the USA today.

If I was alive when Lenin was writing “Left Wing Communism, an infantile disorder”, I would have sat him down and urged him to use the term “petty-bourgeois” rather than bourgeois to describe Labour. Although that term left a bad taste in my mouth after 11 years in the SWP, I do think that if applied in strict class terms does have its uses. For Lenin, alliances between the proletarian Russian Social Democracy and middle-layer parties based on the peasantry were permissible but not with the bourgeois Cadets, the party that the Mensheviks adapted to just as the DSA adapts to the Democratic Party today.

In 1900, Lenin wrote “An Attempt at a Classification of the Political Parties of Russia” that can serve as a useful guideline. He described the Social-Democratic Party as a distinct type. “In Russia it is the only workers’ party, the party of the proletariat, both in composition and in its strictly consistent proletarian point of view.” Moving to the right, the next type was illustrated by the Trudoviks that he described as “petty-bourgeois” and whose ideological confusion reflected the extremely precarious position of the small producer in present-day society. Finally, there were the parties of the bourgeoisie with the Black Hundreds and Cadets corresponding roughly to the Republicans and Democrats of today.

Cadet politicians were typical bourgeois intellectuals and sometimes even a liberal landlord, according to Lenin. As for the Black Hundreds, “It is in their interests to perpetuate the filth, ignorance and corruption that flourish under the sceptre of the adored monarch”. Sounds rather like Fox News, doesn’t it?

Parties corresponding to the Cadets and the Black Hundreds exist all across Europe with Germany being a prime example. Angela Merkel is a typical Cadet politician while she is under pressure from the latter-day Black Hundreds. So is Macron and Hillary Clinton.

In the first years of Bolshevik power, there was an understandable triumphalism that tended to paper over the differences between true bourgeois parties and those of the Second International. When this led to the disastrous March 1921 Action in Germany in which semi-lumpen CP members treated SP workers as the enemy, Lenin reversed direction under the influence of Paul Levi’s critique. Levi had advocated a united front between revolutionary and reformist workers parties. This served as Communist strategy until Stalin’s disastrous “Third Period” turn that marked a return to the March 1921 insanity. Under the “Third Period”, the German CP backed a Nazi referendum that would have ousted a Socialist governor in Saxony and other kinds of madness.

These united front policies were adopted formally at the 1922 Comintern Congress that legitimized Levi’s critique even if it foolishly decided to expel him for breaking discipline. If the united front was geared to specific actions such as demonstrations, there was also a call for a “workers government” that considered power-sharing between Communists and Socialists (and presumably Labour as well) as in the interests of class unity. John Riddell, the translator and editor of the proceedings of the 1922 Comintern gathering, has a number of articles categorized as “workers government” on his blog that are very helpful in understanding this part of the Comintern’s new approach. The one titled “The Comintern’s unknown decision on workers’ governments” contains the resolution itself, which states: “Instead of a bourgeois-Social-Democratic coalition, whether open or disguised, Communists propose the united front of all workers and a coalition of all workers’ parties, in both the economic and political arena, to struggle against the power of the bourgeoisie and ultimately to overthrow it.”

Is there any doubt what was meant by all “workers’ parties”? What would that mean in Germany except the SP and the CP? Or Labour and the CP in England?

If you follow the DSA’er’s logic, there would be no difference between the workers government advocated in 1922 and the 1934 Popular Front turn that was not only a sharp reversal from the “Third Period” but an overcorrection that effectively revived the Menshevik orientation to the Cadets. In Spain, France and the USA, you had the CPs either participating in coalition governments with capitalist parties or supporting them from outside the government. Obviously, this is what happened under Roosevelt but it also took place in Cuba. At its congress in 1939 the Cuban Communists promised to “adopt a more positive  attitude towards Colonel Batista”, who had relied on the CP-led trade unions for support. Batista was no longer “…the focal point of reaction; but the focal point of democracy”. (New York Daily Worker, October 1, 1939). The Comintern stated in its journal: “Batista…no longer represents the  center of reaction…the people who are working for the overthrow of Batista are no longer acting in the interests of the Cuban people.” (World News and Views, No 60 1938). Historian Hugh Thomas once commented that the Catholic laity had more conflicts with Batista’s dictatorship than the Cuban Communists did.

The role of Social Democracy (including its rejuvenated offspring in the DSA) and Stalinism historically has been to mediate between the two main classes in society, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Even when leaders like Leon Trotsky and V.I. Lenin come from privileged families, they devote themselves fully to the working class movement.

Today, there are few opportunities for young people to follow in their path since the working class is so quiescent. In the decline of manufacturing in the USA, blue-collar wage workers, either unionized or not, make up a smaller percentage of the population. Instead, the economy has shifted to the services such as hospital employees, fast food, information technology, etc. The last significant presence of socialists in the working class movement was in the early 70s when veterans of the state capitalist tendency helped to form Teamsters for a Democratic Union. As valuable as their work was, it came to naught because of terrible mistakes made by TDU leader Ron Carey.

For DSA’ers, the attraction to the Democratic Party is oddly enough related to the ultraleftism Lenin fought in 1922. Young radicals have little patience for the sort of long haul required for building a revolutionary movement in the USA. Unlike Colombia or Pakistan, where Marxist activism can earn you a bullet in the head, our biggest obstacle is indifference. When A. O-C can get on Meet the Press, why defend the Communist Manifesto, a stance that can only produce derision or hostility? Unless you are a miserable old cuss like me that refuses to bow down to bourgeois authority.

Andrzej Wajda survey

Filed under: Film,Poland — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

1963 photograph of Andrzej Wajda

When Andrzej Wajda died two years ago at the age of 90 after having just completed “Afterimage”, he was one of the last of the great auteurs of the 60s and 70s, leaving only Jean-Luc Godard (now 86) the sole survivor. Demonstrating their appreciation of his role in this golden age of cinema, the European Film Academy presented Wajda with a lifetime achievement award, only the third director to be so honored after Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. His body of work would be a topic in itself worthy of consideration by CounterPunch readers but beyond his achievements as a filmmaker there is something else that recommends his films, namely their focus on one of the big political questions of our epoch–especially after a full century. What was the impact of the USSR on its own people and those like the Poles living under its control? Widely recognized as an anti-Communist director, he might be a polarizing figure to many who see the geopolitical divide as demanding alignment with the Kremlin—either pre or post-Communism. As such, his work demands attention however you stand on this question insofar as his reputation and influence will persist long after his death. Was Wajda an enemy of communism or was his mission to create films that transcended narrow ideological considerations?

The films under consideration below are not only some of his most highly regarded works but ones still available through Youtube, Amazon DVDs, Fandor or Filmstruck, a new streaming service that contains the TCM and Criterion library. As I have suggested in previous CounterPunch articles about Wajda, it is worth a trial subscription to Fandor or Filmstruck if you are motivated to see some film masterpieces and even a permanent membership considering how low Netflix has sunk.

  1. The Promised Land (1974)

This film is a corrosive study of the take-off of industrial capitalism in Lodz in the late 19th century that will remind you of Bertolucci’s “1900” but without that film’s clear socialist message.

Based on Nobel Prize winning Władysław Stanisław Reymont’s 1898 novel, it is a tale about three friends seeking to enter the ranks of the bourgeoisie by starting a textile factory. Around that time, Poland was becoming a powerhouse of textile manufacturing and Lodz was like Manchester with all of its degradations as described by Engels in “The Condition of the Working Class in England”. A textile mill owner himself, Engels had little in common with the three ambitious friends in “The Promised Land” who had no other interests except in enriching themselves, at the expense of friends, lovers, the working class and each other.

The film begins with Karol, the Polish son of a downwardly mobile aristocrat, Max, the German son of the owner of an antiquated handicraft textile mill, and Moritz, a wheeler-dealer Jewish investor, toasting each other with champagne in the countryside near Lodz where they plan to open their new factory. Their social origins reflect the dominant ethnic groups in Lodz at that time as well as much of Poland.

There is not a single soul depicted in Wajda’s film that has managed to escape the oppressive social relations that make Lodz look like a fetid, money-hungry swamp. One of the successful capitalists, a German ethnically, has built a mansion that is filled with furniture that makes Donald Trump’s penthouse in NY look like an Amish household by comparison. However, he does not live there. He only built it to show it off to people like Karol, who he takes on a tour.

The film speaks to a criticism of Wajda’s work that I have even heard from a Polish Marxist friend on Facebook. The anti-capitalism is not based on a belief that a new social system can take its place but on a rejection of modernity tout suite. Like the feudal socialists decried in chapter three of The Communist Manifesto, “The Promised Land” looked backwards to an idealized vision of pre-capitalist society. Marx writes:

In this way arose feudal Socialism: half lamentation, half lampoon; half an echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core; but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history.

Accustomed to Stalinist censorship, Wajda ran into new obstacles when the film was pending release in the USA. Since the Jewish businessmen in “The Promised Land” were uniformly venal, Wajda was accused of promoting anti-Semitism and the film faced considerable problems being released in the 70s. It did not ever enter the mind of its censors that every ethnic group in the film was depicted negatively.

When released, the film was hailed as an anti-capitalist masterpiece by the Polish bureaucracy and especially for its graphic depiction of the misery of factory workers. When making his own case for the film, Wajda told a French film journal:

It is this ethnic diversity that gave the society of days gone by its colorfulness, its incommensurable riches, its beauty. All these Poles, Jews, Russians, and Germans who were living together, they were creating something—ah!  This really attracts me! I found this mix of several traditions and religions fascinating, including what each of them brings in terms of nobleness and pettiness, beauty and ugliness. This is, in my opinion, what gave rise to the spiritual and economical power of a city like Lodz in 1900.

Like a Rorschach test, “The Promised Land” offers different interpretations of its intent. However you judge the inkblot, you will likely be left with the impression that it compares favorably to Bertolucci’s “1900”.

(Available on Fandor)

  1. Man of Marble (1977)

I consider this to be Wajda’s masterpiece. It tells the story of a Stakhanovite worker named Mateusz who worked as a bricklayer in Nowa Huta, which means the new steel mill, in the early years of Polish Communism. The original Stakhanov was a Soviet factory worker of the 1930s whose ability to meet breakneck speed-up conditions during the rapid industrialization of the USSR turned him into an official hero even if his fellow workers resented him for forcing them to live up to his impossible standards.

Mateusz was the subject of a documentary made by a Stalinist filmmaker on the occasion of his attempt to break a record for laying bricks in Nowa Huta. At the very end of his John Henry like feat, he picked up a final brick to put on the top level of a new building under construction only to find that it left a terrible burn on both of his hands. It was likely the result of a resentful fellow worker heating it up beforehand to punish a Polish Stakhanovite.

The long-forgotten documentary was dredged up by a young woman named Agnieszka, who was attempting to satisfy her requirements for graduating film school. Her goal was to uncover the real story of the “man of marble”, a reference to the ghastly socialist realism statues made in his honor.

That story includes Mateusz’s fall from grace. After his hands failed to recover fully from the burns, he was fortunate enough to land a job as a travelling spokesman for the Communist Party’s labor union, which unlike unions in capitalist countries was designed to enforce labor discipline. Not long after he begins going out on tour, he discovers that the secret police have arrested his best friend who worked on the bricklaying documentary alongside him. They have made him a scapegoat for the Mateusz’s burns, charging him with being a Western spy even though he fought in Spain against Franco. When Mateusz attempts to defend his friend before an audience of trade unionists, he is shouted down.

Of genuine interest is how this film was ever capable of being made in Poland. As it happens, the script for the film was written in 1962 and it only got the stamp of approval 15 years later. In 1977, Edward Gierek was the President of Poland in 1977 who had introduced liberalization “reforms” that initially led to an economic uptick but before long led to rising prices and stagnant wages that sparked Solidarity. Gierek, however, was not nearly so dictatorial as the regime of the post-WWII period that adopted repressive measures against artists as depicted in “Afterimage”. Indeed, Gierek styled himself as an intermediary between the Kremlin and the Western Eurocommunists. As we shall see in the next film review, when the Kremlin directed its supporters in Poland to crack down on Solidarity, Gierek had no other recourse except to support the USSR.

(Amazon DVD, $15.99)

  1. Man of Iron (1981)

Like “Man of Marble”, a media figure plays a key role. The film takes place against the backdrop of the rise of Solidarity, which Wajda embraced enthusiastically.

A radio journalist named Winkiel has been instructed by party bosses to prepare a damaging report on MaciekTomczyk, the son of the “man of marble” who is a leader of the shipyard workers in Gdansk (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, who also played the father in “Man of Marble”). Maciek has married Agnieszka, who he met in the final moments of “Man of Marble” when she was collecting information on his father. Both Maciek and Agnieszka have become targets of the secret police but remain unwilling to sacrifice their beliefs in freedom and economic rights for working people.

The film has a documentary-like quality with footage of Solidarity protests and Lech Walesa speaking to large crowds of workers. When the Polish government cracked down on Solidarity in 1981, the film was banned. Nominated for best foreign film that year in the Academy Awards, it was much more openly propagandistic than any other film ever made by Wajda. The Polish bureaucrats are depicted as sadistic bullies who will stop at nothing to achieve their aims, even forcing Winkiel to produce a radio show that violates his own journalistic standards. If he refuses to follow their orders, they will release a report on how his drunk-driving killed a pedestrian. Throughout the film, Winkiel is shown as a hopeless alcoholic until he begins to identify with the workers struggle.

A Polish critic named Pawel Jedrzejewski wrote, “In Man of Iron reality is cold and autumnal. Security agents are dressed in leather jackets or have their hats pulled down over their eyes. The so-called decision makers and VIPs are repulsive and unrecognizable from one hundred meters away. The world is unequivocal. The appearance of normalcy, so characteristic of earlier Wajda’s films, were missing.”

Although I agree with this assessment, I encourage readers to see “Man of Iron” to get a flavor of the spirit of rebellion that pulsed through Poland in 1980. Like the Arab Spring, it was a moment of great hope that was never realized for reasons I will try to explain in a subsequent article.

(Amazon DVD, $15.99)

  1. Danton (1983)

Frequently regarded as a commentary on the Polish bureaucracy with the cold and repressive Robespierre pitted against the effusive and charismatic Danton (Gérard Depardieu in the typecasting vein?), the film had Polish actors playing Robespierre and his supporters while French actors were used for the Danton camp. Clearly, Robespierre symbolized General Jaruzelski and Danton was a stand-in for Walesa.

The main parallel was with the hardships faced by Polish workers in the late 70s as Poland’s mixture of neoliberalism and a command economy began to crash and burn. When Danton returns to Paris to confront an every-increasingly despotic Robespierre, he is embraced by crowds of workers who have been standing on a bread line.

The film is based on a 1929 play by Stanisława Przybyszewska who wrote obsessively about the French Revolution. Unlike Wajda, she was a Communist and looked upon Robespierre favorably, considering him an early opponent of capitalism.

As head of the Committee for Public Safety, Wajda’s Robespierre was determined to silence Danton and his supporters for the sake of the revolution. Fully understanding Danton’s commitment to the original goals of the revolution but seeing the need for order, Robespierre agonized over the decision to have him sent to the guillotine.

Robespierre was played by Wojciech Pszoniak, a veteran actor who also played the Jew Moritz in “The Promised Land”. His performance is outstanding. In the repression against Solidarity, Pszoniak was forced to flee Poland and take political asylum in France.

In the trial of Danton that is dramatized in the film, the prosecution refers briefly to his corruption that in the eyes of French historians, particularly of the left, might have been regarded as a kid gloves treatment. When Mitterand attended the film, he walked out apparently outraged over the representation of Robespierre. In an interview with Wajda, Marcel Ophuls seems to have understood Wajda what was driving at by asking, “Admittedly, both (heroes of the French Revolution) had a great deal of blood on their hands. But should the virtuous, the incorruptible side of Robespierre be considered as nothing more than an infirmity, a psychoanalytic quirk, to be held up to ridicule?”

In posing this question, Ophuls reflected the mainstream leftist take on Robespierre that prompted Mitterand to walk out on the film but he was also wise enough to put Wajda’s revisionism into context:

For some reason, most of us expect artists and intellectuals from Eastern Europe, who have made their reputations behind what used to be known as the iron curtain, to remain sympathetic to the ideals of revolution, no matter how disenchanted and disillusioned they might have become with revolutions in their own time and their own countries… If after thirty years of Stalinist oppression, Nomenklatura corruption, broken promises and Pravda “truths,” a man like Wajda decides to make Robespierre and Saint-Just into what some of us might consider to be caricatures, that’s his privilege.

(“Danton” is available on FilmStruck”.)

  1. Katyn (2007)

As mentioned in my previous article on Polish history, Andrzej Wajda’s father was murdered by Soviet troops in the Katyn forest in 1940. His crime was serving as an officer in the Polish cavalry, an act in and of itself considered counter-revolutionary by Stalin and worthy of a death sentence.

The film depicts a cross-section of Polish society that is affected by Soviet colonization of eastern Poland after 1939. A young Polish captain named Andrzej keeps a detailed diary of his captivity and through whose eyes we see the senselessness and brutality of the treatment of Polish officers up until their execution in the USSR that is depicted most graphically by Wajda.

Like “Man of Iron”, the film makes extensive use of footage from the period including both Soviet and Nazi spokesmen accusing each other of the mass murder. Among all the films under review here, this one is the most easily accessible on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2ZYdiEE20Y) and one that would be a challenge to any leftist in the West who instinctively condemns Poles, Ukrainians or citizens of any other country in the former Soviet bloc as counter-revolutionaries for resisting Soviet domination.

While it is undeniable that ultraright and fascist elements supported by the West gained a foothold at different times and different places, the soil for such growth was fertilized by the Stalinist rulers of the USSR who would condemn more than 20,000 Polish officers to be killed for the offense of being Polish officers or who would cause the death of more than two million Ukrainians in an ill-conceived forced collectivization.

The fact that such cruelty was carried out in the name of communism or socialism does not excuse it. Indeed, it condemns it. Unless the left begins to support a universal standard of human rights irrespective of geopolitical considerations, it will not be capable of providing the leadership for a new world order based on the abolition of class society and its replacement by one that respects each human being as having inviolable rights including the right to live securely and in dignity. Whatever Andrzej Wadja’s ideological flaws, his films are a cri de coeur for the rights of the Polish people. Viewed as untermenschen by the Nazis and the butt of racist “Polish jokes” in the 1960s, Wajda’s films are a necessary corrective as well as some of the greatest filmmaking of the past half-century.

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