Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 7, 2020

My boat sank in Lake Travis

Filed under: humor,Trump — louisproyect @ 9:25 pm

September 6, 2020

Harry Braverman’s class analysis of early American history

Filed under: Historical Materialism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Harry Braverman, 1920-1976

In doing some research for an article on Harry Braverman for a major project underway on the left, I wanted to put some of his lesser-known work in the foreground. Even if the Wikipedia entry on Harry Braverman understandably devotes the lion’s share of its entry to his “Labor and Monopoly Capital,” there’s much more of his contributions to Marxism that need to be fleshed out.

Braverman was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) in the late 1930s, the youth group of Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party (SP). At that time, James P. Cannon’s Communist League of America had dissolved itself into the SP to engineer a left-wing split. In “History of American Trotskyism,” Cannon congratulated himself for carrying out the split that produced the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that left SP a “dead husk.” Braverman’s eventual affiliation with the Socialist Union and Monthly Review were acts that repudiated Cannon’s sectarianism.

Wikipedia has a brief mention of his writing for SWP periodicals as Harry Frankel, a name he used to avoid being blacklisted from industrial jobs long before McCarthyism began. Eighteen of those articles appear along with seven he wrote for The American Socialist, the Socialist Union magazine he co-edited with Bert Cochran. Available on the Marxist Internet Archives, they remain as relevant today as the day they were written. Braverman wrote for a working-class readership but never spoke down to it like some sectarian groups. His talent for combining scholarship with clarity led him to a long and productive career at Monthly Review.

In a series of four articles written for the SWP’s theoretical journal Fourth International in 1946, Braverman examined early American history from a Marxist perspective. Except for the Communist Party’s Philip Foner, scholars from the Progressivist tradition, like Charles Beard, dominated the field.

In “Class Forces in the American Revolution,” Braverman distinguishes himself from Communist Party leader Earl Browder who had proclaimed that “Communism is 20th Century Americanism.” You’ll find little of the breathless embrace of 1776 from bourgeois historians like Daniel J. Boorstin, or even leftists like Sean Wilentz. For Braverman, the goal was to identify the class alignments that Boorstin and Wilentz tend to obfuscate in the name of “democracy.”

Unlike the Communists, who created the Jefferson School to honor a founding father, Braverman used the tools of historical materialism to put Thomas Jefferson into context. Braverman quoted Jefferson’s statement when British merchants forced down tobacco prices, they left slave-owners like him in a bind: “A powerful engine for this purpose, was the giving good prices and credit, till they got him more immersed in debt than he could pay, without selling his lands or slaves.”

Braverman wrote, “In this paragraph, Jefferson reveals more of the springs of revolutionary action in his class than in the whole Declaration of Independence.” That’s about as succinct a summary of the American Revolution that you will ever find.

In a follow-up article titled “How the Constitution Was Written,” Braverman examined Alexander Hamilton, the man glorified in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway hit. He writes that “Hamilton’s system was unified by a single conception: The establishment of the rule of the bourgeoisie.” Dispensing with Founding Father chic, as Ishmael Reed puts it, Braverman saw Hamilton as a man consumed with the need to solidify capitalist rule:

The bourgeoisie stood on a too narrow base, a fact which Hamilton sensed and which he sought to correct by his feverish efforts in behalf of manufacturers. It was not until the middle of the 1840s that manufactures surpassed commerce in the relative composition of the bourgeoisie. In the meantime the opening of the western lands and the admission of new agricultural states to the union increased the weight of the planters. Already during the decade of the great struggle, two new states were admitted who cast their votes in the Jefferson column in the election of 1800.

After knocking Hamilton off his pedestal, Braverman next takes on Andrew Jackson. Sean Wilentz wrote a Jackson biography that downplayed his role as a defender of slavery and a mastermind of Indian removal. While young radical historians such as Tom Mertes took down Wilentz for “Whitewashing Jackson,” when “revisionist” history influenced by Howard Zinn was its peak, Braverman was far ahead of his times for charging Jackson with crimes against humanity.

In “The Jackson Period in American History,” he wrote, “Andrew Jackson became a link of special configuration in the chain of planter Presidents that began with Thomas Jefferson and ended forever with Jefferson Davis. The attitude of this group of Presidents towards slavery was progressively modified as cotton fixed the “peculiar institution” on the South. Thomas Jefferson was a passive opponent of slavery. Jackson takes his rightful place in the progression as an active defender of slavery, as the planters travelled the sixty-year road to Jefferson Davis.”

As for Indian removal, Braverman was an outspoken defender of indigenous rights. He wrote, “It is only necessary to add that when the bourgeoisie, through the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, tried to block the planters from the Indian lands, Jackson paid no heed, saying, ‘John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.’”

Finally, in “Three Conceptions of Jacksonianism,” he offers a critique of Frederick Jackson Turner, a Progressivist historian who argued that the frontier was decisive in American history and that its chief result was “democracy.” Braverman regards this as the heart of Turner’s thesis and stresses that his writings deal mainly with the Jackson era.

Braverman’s goal is to a group of historians who borrow from Marxism at the same time they hurl “envenomed shafts” against consistent and avowed Marxists. They include Charles A. Beard, Vernon L. Parrington, Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Jr., and Louis Hacker. Referring to Beard’s claim that Jackson created a farmer-labor democracy, Braverman presents a class analysis that remained consistent through his forty-year commitment to socialist values:

But the historian may protest that the workers and farmers got a hearing in Washington from the Jackson administrations. What of the protection of the land interests of the farmers? The ten-hour laws? The mechanics lien laws? The progress made, especially by the workers, is beyond dispute. First of all, however, it must be understood that such concessions did not directly endanger the planting class, and, for that reason, they could countenance reforms which gained for them national electoral support. Let us recall how John Randolph, planter spokesman in Congress, challenged the bourgeoisie: “Northern gentlemen think to govern us by our black slaves, but let me tell them, we intend to govern them by their white slaves.”

September 5, 2020

Watch List

Filed under: Film,Phiiippines — louisproyect @ 6:08 pm

Despite its innocuous sounding titled, “Watch List” is the harrowing story of a Filipino woman forced to join a police-led death squad in order to have her name taken off a list of suspected drug users targeted for assassination by the very same type of death squad.

Starring as Maria, Filipino-Italian actress Alessandra De Rossi gets my nomination for best actress of 2020. Filmed on location in one of Manila’s poorest, crime-ridden slums, director and co-screenwriter Ben Rekhi maintains the kind of realism rarely seen in films today. In addition to telling a gripping story about a woman’s struggle to protect her family, he lets a Western audience know exactly how it feels to be trapped in a web of economic circumstances that force so many Filipinos to sell drugs.

As the film begins, we meet Maria and her husband Arturo (whom she calls Turo) and their three children in their tiny apartment. Both are former drug dealers and users but have put that all behind them for the sake of their children. It doesn’t matter to the cops, who barge in one night with an order forcing them to go into a rehab program, that they are clean. If they refuse, they will be arrested for drug violations. The rehab program is something of a joke, with Maria and Turo joining other dragooned slum residents dancing to a disco tune, while cops stand guard over them. After the music ends, the top cop gives them a “just say no” pep talk practically plagiarized from Nancy Reagan.

Since they are both allowed to go home at night and since Turo will still be able to go out at night on a scooter for what appears to be his second job, they settle back into poverty-stricken but contented family life. However, catastrophe strikes when vigilantes, likely in cahoots with the cops, gun him down on the streets. Maria soon learns that he was on a watch list, as was he. People from their slum are targeted by the cops and their paid assassins to kill people on the list, whether they are innocent or guilty of using or selling drugs. Furthermore, she also learns that the only way she can get off the list is by becoming an assassin herself. As someone with a drug-using and selling past, she can be a useful informer as well as a killer. She soon learns that killing does not come easy. Torn between getting off the watch list and the guilt that comes with killing innocent people, she ends up walking a tightrope that would be too much even for Phillipe Petit.

With an all-Filipino cast, the film has an authenticity that belies the director’s career making American films. Born into an Indian family and growing up in Silicon Valley, he studied film  at New York University. After, interning for the Coen brothers production of “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, he said that he learned more about film production than as a student.

He has made a great film that can now be seen on Amazon Prime for only $3.99. It is not to be missed.

I would also recommend a documentary titled “On the President’s Orders” that deals with the mass campaign of intimidation and murder unleashed by President Duterte. If you sign up for a seven-day trial subscription to PBS documentaries on Amazon Prime, you can watch it for free. I reviewed it for CounterPunch last year In the first paragraph, you will see an actual killing that is represented dramatically in “Watch List”:

On the President’s Orders (Saturday, June 15, 8:30 pm, Film at Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center)

This is set in Caloocan, a slum in Manila that is one of the main targets of President Duterte’s war on drugs. In the very beginning of the film, we see two men on a motorcycle drive next to a man standing next to his minicab. One pulls out a gun and shoots him twice, once in the jaw and again in the chest.

Later on, we discover that he is the father of a son who is one of the main subjects of the film, a Caloocan denizen who would be the next target of the police death squad that killed his father. His father, who was on a watch list for being either a seller or user of drugs, had stopped using drugs right after Duterte became president. That was not enough to keep him alive and as a breadwinner for his family.

However, most of the interviews are conducted with the cops who, like Brazil’s, operate as vigilantes. Hung on their own petard, they openly admit to there being an open season on Caloocan’s poor but describe it as necessary to put an end to drugs.

We hear Duterte at the beginning of the film during a state visit to Israel, where he is the guest of another gangster. In an address at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, he says, “Critics compare me to Hitler’s cousin…Hitler massacred 3 million Jews … there’s 3 million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.” He added, pointing to himself, “If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have …”


September 4, 2020

Donald Trump, Russian interference, and Democratic Party ineptitude

Filed under: Counterpunch,Russiagate — louisproyect @ 3:42 pm


In April of this year, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee issued a two-part report concluding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election campaign. While ruling out the kind of collusion that MSNBC has been touting for the past four years, volume two is of some interest since it coincides with the front-page news this week that Facebook and Twitter are warning of Russian interference once again.

Like in 2016, the report accuses the Internet Research Agency in Russia for manufacturing fake social media accounts that spread talking points to boost Donald Trump’s fortunes. Going even further, the Russians hired real Americans to write for a new website called PeaceData that had the appearance of a legitimate news organization.

Graphika, a company specialing in tracking and exposing Internet disinformation, issued a blockbuster report that must have factored in Facebook and Twitter’s decision to cancel PeaceData. After reviewing their evidence, I am not convinced that such a botched operation could threaten American “democracy.”

Continue reading

September 2, 2020

Facing Extinction, My View

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:28 am



Facing Extinction, My View

I read Ms. Catherine Ingram’s essay:

Facing Extinction

The data she cites seems realistic and reasonable;

the inferences she draws about potential, likely and current forms of consequential social and societal breakdown seem logical;

the observations she makes about the feelings, reactions, sadnesses and denial many people will respond with to the facts about global warming and biodiversity loss — and the dire implications for the long-term health and even survival of the human species — also seem rational and accurate;

and the recommendations she makes for managing one’s own state-of-mind — consciousness, psychology, expectations, mood, calmness — are helpful.

My comments on Ms. Ingram’s essay

You have to remember that (1 to 4):

1. Despite science being able to make credible estimates (from climate and socio-economic models with super-computers) about the pace at which the climate and environment will degrade, nobody…

View original post 1,532 more words

September 1, 2020

Robin’s Wish

Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm

I am not a great Robin Williams fan and even found his most interesting performances done against type such as the psychopath in “One Hour Photo”. When I learned that a documentary about his death titled “Robin’s Wish” was premiering today on Amazon Prime and the spanking new Google Play, I requested a screener. Whatever qualms I had about his skills as a comedian or an actor gave way to the sympathy I had for a man cursed by Lewy Body Dementia, an illness that combines the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and schizophrenia. It is a miracle that he didn’t take his life sooner given the suffering he endured.

With generous excerpts from his scripted and improvised performances, you have to give him credit for being possibly the most versatile talent of the past half-century. We learn from the film that he entered Julliard mostly to become a serious actor. When it became difficult for him to land the kind of roles he sought, he began doing standup just to pay the rent.

Unquestionably, his brain was remarkably endowed with an ability to improvise on the spot, using words like a bebop musician uses notes. That brain also allowed him to easily slip into different characters even though it was hard not to see Robin Williams’s unique persona at their core.

By 2013, it was becoming obvious to many people, especially his wife whose interviews are the thread that connect all the shifting episodes in the film, that he was ill. One of the first signs was a trembling left hand that he tried to conceal in a pocket. When the couple first went to a neurologist, the diagnosis did not seem so bad. He had Parkinson’s, which specialists view as a disease that might take at least ten years to leave the patient incapacitated. However, in a small minority of cases, a disease called Lewy Body Dementia sets in. The film relies on Williams’s wife, co-workers and friends (including Mort Sahl, who is still alive at 93) for reflections on his decline as well as medical specialists.

When the media first reported on his suicide by hanging on August 11, 2014, there were rumors that he suffered from depression. Indeed, he did suffer from depression and substance abuse all his life—like his good friend John Belushi—but it was the Lewy Body Dementia that made him decide to take his own life.

It was only after his death that the cause of his suicide was revealed. An autopsy revealed that he had the most advanced case of Lewy Body Dementia they’d ever seen. In the press notes, his wife Susan Schneider Williams, who brought him great happiness after they were married in 2011, explains why the film was made:

During the last year of his life, Robin was confronted with anxiety, paranoia, insomnia, scary  altered realities and a roller coaster of hope and despair. With our medical team’s care we  chased a relentless parade of symptoms but with very little gain. It wasn’t until after Robin’s  passing, in autopsy, that the source of his terror was revealed: he had diffuse Lewy body disease. It was one of the worst cases medical professionals had seen.

Armed with the name of a brain disease I’d never heard of, I set out on a mission to  understand it, and that led me down my unchosen path of advocacy. With invaluable help  from leading medical experts, I saw that what Robin and I had gone through, finally made  sense — our experience matched up with the science. And what I discovered along the way  was bigger than me, and bigger than Robin. The full story was revealed during the making of  this film and it holds the truth that Robin and I had been searching for.

August 31, 2020

Marxism and looting: a response to Vicky Osterweil’s NPR interview

Filed under: rioting — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

Volunteers clean up fire damage at MIGIZI Communications in Minneapolis. (Photo-MIGIZI, Facebook)

The Marxist Internet Archive has over 180,000 articles but there are none favorable toward riots before the 1960s when they became commonplace in the USA and eventually inspired similar actions in Europe. The handful that were written post-1960s were hardly celebratory.

For example, in a long and interesting article by Chris Harman titled “The Summer of 1981: a post-riot analysis”, you get a justification of them as an inchoate response to racial oppression but with a caveat. They can never have the staying power and impact of a political strike organized by the workers movement, as was typical in the 1930s:

Riots, by contrast, cannot by their very nature last very long or result in the building of rooted, permanent organisation. They are characterised by clashes with the forces of the state on the streets. Yet a riot cannot hold the forces of the state back from a particular neighbourhood for more than a couple of days at most (unless of course, it develops into something more than a riot, into a revolution that destroys the ability of the state to concentrate its forces in one locality.) Once the police have retaken control of the locality, the crowds that provided people with a feeling of collective power are dispersed. People are driven back into the isolated homes, the segmented experiences, from which the riot drew them. Within days collective exhilaration, the festival of the oppressed, has been replaced by the old atomisation, powerlessness, apathy. The riot always rises like a rocket – and drops like a stick.

In the excerpt above, the notion that a riot turning into a revolution is simply advanced as a theoretical possibility but not one upheld by Harman who continues to make the point that riots are temporary rifts in capitalist society.

Given the low level of class struggle since the end of WWII, it is to be expected that some on the left would inflate the importance of riots. For example, poet and English professor Joshua Clover wrote a Verso book titled “Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings” that tries to make a virtue out of the poor conditions we operate under. Since the days of Minneapolis teamsters fighting to build a union are dead and gone, the next best thing is arson and looting since they destroy “the power of the police” and make “your neighborhood uninhabitable for people you don’t want there.” I deal with Clover here but recommend Socialist Alliance’s Ben Peterson’s article for a supreme take-down of Clover:

The book rightly goes to length to argue against reducing riots to mindless outbursts of mob violence. However, the formula suggested reduces both the strike and the riot to economic struggle. In both cases, this is insufficient. It plays down, and plainly doesn’t see the history of the political strike, which should be essential for those who want to see a revolutionary alternative.

It was political strikes which overthrew the Russian Tsarist monarchy 1917, and which dissolved the Cuban state with the flight of the dictator Batista in 1959. Both would fall outside of this definition of strike. In Australia, there is a long and important history of strikes for non-industrial reasons- such as the Green Bans to save the environment, and the refusal to send pig-Iron to Japan in support of the anti-colonial struggle in China. In 1969 one million workers took strike action to call for the release of a jailed Tramways Union leader, Clarrie O’Shea. For radicals and revolutionaries, it is actions like these that go beyond purely wage struggles which have an amazing emancipatory and revolutionary potential, but the book has nothing to say on these events.

Going much further than Clover, journalist Vicky Osterweil’s “In Defense of Looting” argues “that looting is a powerful tool to bring about real, lasting change in society”, according to her interviewer for NPR, Natalie Escobar. Given NRP’s flaccid liberalism, it is difficult to figure out what Escobar means by “real, lasting change”. In any case, her softball interview allows Osterweil to put forward some truly batty ideas.

When asked to define looting, she describes it as a subset of rioting:

…looting is more common among movements that are coming from below. It tends to be an attack on a business, a commercial space, maybe a government building—taking those things that would otherwise be commodified and controlled and sharing them for free.

I am not sure how looting a government building has much to do with commodification as if ripping off a photocopier was inspired by Bakunin. On the other hand, we all know what a “business” is. They are mainly big stores like Target that was hated by many rioters in Minneapolis but they are far out-numbered by the many shops typically run by the owner: clothing and liquor stores, etc. For Target, it’s no big deal to have a store looted with its 78 billion dollar valuation. If one store is valued at 10 million dollars, that represents only .000128 of Target’s total value. That’s equivalent to me finding a quarter under a sofa cushion. For the owner of a shoe store, the loss of his goods would throw him into poverty. That’s of little interest, of course, to someone walking off with a pair of Nike’s but it certainly doesn’t advance the cause of BLM.

Maybe having read but clearly misunderstanding Bakunin if she did, Osterweil sees looting as prefigurative of some decommodified future :

It also attacks the very way in which food and things are distributed. It attacks the idea of property, and it attacks the idea that in order for someone to have a roof over their head or have a meal ticket, they have to work for a boss, in order to buy things that people just like them somewhere else in the world had to make under the same conditions.

I don’t know to break it to her but you will have to work to produce the Nike sneakers or any other goods that are looted, even after capitalism is abolished. The difference between then and now is that they will be based on use value rather than exchange value. Most importantly, the decisions as to what is produced and how it is produced will be made by democratic working-class bodies, not by the individual. When someone loots, this is an individual act that most often is never repeated as the goods vanish after the riots are consummated. The possibility of a looter becoming involved with grass-roots organizing is almost nil.

In her concluding remarks, she states:

But looters and rioters don’t attack private homes. They don’t attack community centers. In Minneapolis, there was a small independent bookstore that was untouched. All the blocks around it were basically looted or even leveled, burned down. And that store just remained untouched through weeks of rioting.

I don’t know if Osterweil was aware of it or not, but in Minneapolis rioters torched the local post office. Weren’t they aware that they were in a united front with Donald Trump when they threw their Molotov cocktails? Just last week, there were fifty people protesting Trump’s attack in front of the post office just beneath my high-rise. Didn’t rioters have the slightest notion that poor people rely on the post office for a welfare or unemployment check? Or a medical report? Or a letter from a relative? In “State and Revolution” Lenin describes the postal service as furnishing the example for a socialist economic system: “To organize the whole economy on the lines of the postal service . .. this is our immediate aim.” Along with the public library, the post office is the prime example of the efficiency and value of publicly-owned institutions. Oh, I forgot about libraries and rioters:

The East Lake Library after rioters “liberated” it from commodity production

From the June 2, 2020 Minneapolis StarTribune:

Among the buildings extensively damaged was Hennepin County Library’s East Lake branch in south Minneapolis, near the heavily damaged Third Police Precinct and a little more than 2 miles from the corner where police officers fatally pinned George Floyd to the street last week.

Geffen displayed two photos showing that locals had posted cardboard over the library’s broken windows and written, “Respect this community-owned library.”

Other damaged buildings provide an array of services to residents and are relatively new as part of the county’s recent move to decentralize outside downtown Minneapolis.

At the county’s South Minneapolis Regional Service Center, at Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue, every window was broken and the building was flooded with water from fire sprinklers.

As for Regional Service Centers, they are described on the county’s website as providing “access to the full range of financial, social and public health services the county offers, such as access to medical, emergency, child care and food assistance, child support and homeless services.” Sure, a perfect symbol of capitalist exploitation. Let’s trash it.

Not only was the post office destroyed, another building on the same block went down with it as the flame spread, namely the Migizi Communications building, a nonprofit that served the needs of impoverished American Indians in Minneapolis. Indian Country reported:

Migizi provides training in media arts such as radio, film and social media. It is the home of First Person Productions and also provides training for “green” jobs, such as solar energy.

Around 400 youth a year receive job training at Migizi, which employs eight people, Drummer said.

Drummer, 46, (Executive Director Kelly Drummer, Oglala Sioux) said Migizi — “eagle” in Ojibwe — was the only minority-owned building on the block as other enterprises are leasing.

All these buildings, including the Third Precinct whose burning Osterweil lauded in The Nation can easily be replaced—just like Starbucks replaced broken windows during anarchist “actions”. What can’t be easily replaced are revolutionary ideas. When I was won over to socialism in 1967, the ideas that moved me back then are the same that move me to write in defense of socialism today. But it wasn’t just a classmate at the New School who helped me reject capitalism, it was taking part in antiwar demonstrations that gave me a sense of the power of mass actions. When are marching with 250,000 people chanting “Out Now!”, you get a feel for what the masses can do when they are ready to challenge the ruling class.

My good friend Ernie Tate, who is dealing with terminal cancer right now, once explained to me how he became a socialist. He was vacationing in Paris in the summer of 1954 and stepped out on the street in the morning, when he heard some kind of parade taking place a block away. When he got there, he saw hundreds of thousands of CGT and CP workers marching under huge red banners with hammers and sickles celebrating the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu. For him, it was like a Road to Damascus conversion that led him to begin reading socialist literature and then joining the Trotskyist movement.

This is the kind of actions I identify with. If others, even in the name of Marxism, remain intoxicated by the sight of arson and looting, there’s not much I can do. In the epochal struggles facing us, we will have to deal with both reformism and ultraleftism. It is no surprise that Osterweil basks in the glow of NPR and The Nation, two primary outlets of liberal politics. They prefer futile acts of impotent rebellion to any attempts at building a revolutionary movement in the USA. The only advantage to maintaining a mass action perspective is that history is moving in an inexorable direction toward working-class resistance. When American workers begin marching down the street under revolutionary banners, bystanders will be drawn to them in the same way I was drawn to antiwar demonstrations in the 60s. Time is on our side.

August 29, 2020

Made in Bangladesh

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,trade unions — louisproyect @ 9:26 pm

Yesterday, “Made in Bangladesh” opened as Virtual Cinema and on Amazon Prime. It is a gritty neo-realist tale of an attempt to form a union in a small garment shop in Dakha, the capital of Bangladesh. Like “Norma Rae”, the film has a plucky woman challenging the boss and the leadfooted government agency that certifies trade unions.

The film is set in an actual sweatshop in Dakha and shows the super-exploitation and personal humiliation the 68 female women operating sewing machines and irons have to put up with. Written and directed by a woman–Rubaiyat Hossain—it depicts how patriarchy oppresses women both as workers and as wives. The lead character is named Shimu (Rikita Nandini Shimu), a 23-year old who ran off to Dakha in her teens to escape being married off to a 40-year old man. To help her make it through the first few days in Dakha, she steals her father’s wallet. This is a woman with little regard for patriarchal norms.

Shimu is married to  Sohel (Mostafa Monwar), an observant, unemployed Muslim, who despite being reliant on his wife’s meager wages, lords it over her—or at least tries to. When she takes on the role of getting co-workers to sign up for the union, she gains self-confidence in herself and finally the nerve to act independently of Sohel’s dictates.

The final scene consists of Shimu in a stand-off with the bureaucrat who has been sitting on the papers she has submitted for approving the union. It is truly inspiring. Three years ago I reviewed a documentary about Indian textile workers titled “Machines”. My strong advice is to see the two films in tandem. (“Machines” is available on Amazon Prime.) What I said about “Machines” applies to “Made in Bangladesh” as well:

Filmed almost entirely in a vast dungeon of a textile mill in Gujarat, it is hard not to see the workers as being an extension of the machines they operate. Marx described such factory life in Chapter 10 of V. 1 of Capital, titled “The Working Day”:

It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It higgles over a meal-time, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is given to the labourer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery.

This is exactly what you see in “Machines”, a process in which workers are slaves to the machine. It is what Charlie Chaplin depicted comically in “Modern Times” and Fritz Lang depicted more darkly in “Metropolis”. As long as capitalism exists, this is the fate of the working class. In the USA, many workers wax nostalgic for the $20-40 jobs that prevailed in the 60s but for the Gujarat textile workers, the hope is for an 8-hour day and a wage that enables them to send a bit home to their family, some living thousands of miles away. Most of them appear to be ex-farmers who have been crushed by debt and drought. In the decades before Marx was born, it was the Enclosure Acts that accomplished the same results. Peasants were robbed of their means of self-subsistence and forced into the textile mills of Birmingham and Manchester that William Blake referred to as dark and satanic.




August 28, 2020

Epicentro; Enter the Forbidden City

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

Around fifty years ago I saw “I am Cuba”, a documentary made by a Russian director. Nothing I ever saw since then came close to it except a new film titled “Epicentro” that is now available as Virtual Cinema through Kino Marquee starting today.

Directed by Hubert Sauper, it allows the Cuban people to speak for themselves and boy do they do. The stars of the film are various 10 to 14 year old Afro-Cuban girls who hold forth on the bombing of the battleship Maine, Teddy Roosevelt, imperialism and why they have self-esteem despite being poor. When I used to visit Nicaragua in the late 80s, I was struck by the things I heard from teens who had a better grasp of American politics than 90 percent of the idiots that live in this country.

The word utopia gets discussed quite a bit in the film. It has dual meanings, both as a perfect world and as no place. Cuba is utopian in a dual sense. As the world’s remaining socialist society, it embodies the hopes of a better world despite the poverty. It is also no place since its enemies regard it as a country that does not deserve to exist.

Sauper is a poet with a camera. Watching pastel-colored American cars from the 1950s brings back fond memories. They are reason enough to visit Cuba even though the best reason is to help bring foreign currency to the country.

It is impossible to describe the film since it has such a kaleidoscopic quality with characters, street scenes, the ocean crashing on the beach near Malecón, and daily life in Havana apartments cycling throughout the film.

The last Sauper film I saw was “We Come as Friends” that highlighted the “vulturistic” assault on the newly formed state of South Sudan by both the West and China in search of oil, cheap land and any other wealth that can be extracted in a 21st century version of what Karl Marx called primitive accumulation. In my review, I noted:

In a scene that will remind you of how Manhattan was “sold” to the Dutch, an elderly tribesman shows Sauper a contract he signed without understanding what it meant. It allows a Texas company to have a lease in perpetuity on hundreds of thousands of acres that belonged to a group of native villages in order to “develop” the land and extract any minerals therein. Meanwhile villagers here and everywhere else that he visits are being evicted from land they lived on for a thousand years in some cases.

Not only is Sauper a committed anti-imperialist, he is a film-making genius. Don’t miss this one if you know what is good for you. If you need any further motivation, read this Q&A with the director in the film notes:

Q: Domination and the colonial mindset are always under scrutiny in your films. They offer windows into history. How does EPICENTRO reflect on our current world politics, and more specifically, American geo-politics?

A: EPICENTRO is Cuba. This beautiful island is the epicenter of the Americas, in many ways. Geographically, it’s in the very center between north and south. Politically, it’s at the crossroads of capitalism and communism. Historically, it’s been the epicenter of Spanish America as well as the nucleus of US-American expansionism. The first U.S. flag to be raised overseas was in February 1898 on a hill overlooking Guantánamo Bay. To me this explains why Guantánamo will never be given back to Cuba. It’s symbolically too important for the empire. Havana itself is a living indictment of American history, a window into time. It is not surprising that Americans are so charmed and hypnotized by the beauty of Havana [with] its billboards from the 1950s and the amazing American architecture and old cars, which have been on the road 80-plus years. Some people dream about “making Cuba great again.” A famous American real estate tycoon has long planned a tower with his name on it. It’s the “T-word”… I don’t want to spell it. When you think that most of the hotel towers on the Malecon sea promenade were made by the Mafia kings in the 50’s, when you think that their “religion” was abuse of power, luxury, gambling, prostitution … history seems like a dirty running gag.

Now available on Amazon and Vimeo, “Enter the Forbidden City” is a touching film that recreates the fortunes of a Chinese opera cast in the Qing Dynasty of the seventeenth century

period before the art form became legitimized through the Peking Opera. Directed by Hu Mei, it stars Jinghan Ma as Runsheng, an up-and-coming star of the Chuntai Opera company and Dalong Fu as Yue Jiu, the current superstar who plays the female leads in their works.

Both men are dealing with crises brought on by their work in what the Emperor deems as vulgar. Runsheng wants to marry Chunrong, but her parents forbid it because they consider him to be riff-raff. Meanwhile, Yue Jiu has been exiled from the Forbidden City (Beijing) for the same reason. The film revolves around their respective quests, one to marry the woman he loves and the other to be accepted in China’s capital city.

Much of the film consists of Chinese opera performances, which could not be more remote for Western audiences. For me, that’s reason enough to see the film since I crave to experience different cultures unlike the average yahoo in the U.S.A. that prefers Lawrence Welk or marching bands during college football half-times. That’s one benefit of the pandemic—putting the kibosh on Division One football games.

Director Hu Mei is one of China’s leading female filmmakers and a leading member of the Fifth Generation, the constellation of artists that began to make some of the great art films of the past 30 years.

The press notes describe Hu’s aspirations for the film:

She hopes that the movie creates a bridge for Western audiences. Peking opera is similar in many ways to Western opera, Hu said.

“Chinese opera, from singing and playing, to the vocalization production method, to the structure of lines and story, is similar to Western operas. It’s also a comprehensive performance system,” Hu said.

She said the film also brings viewers into the lives of Peking Opera artists, who didn’t enjoy a high status in society as entertainers during the Qing Dynasty.

“In Chinese history, Chinese operas, including Peking Opera, play an important role in passing down the heritage of China from generations to generations,” Hu said.

“Peking Opera is not as popular as before, especially to the younger audiences, but its artistic value is very high. We hope that we can bring Peking Opera into thousands of households through our film creation, and bring it to the people around the world,” Hu added.

Class-reductionism’s blind-spot: environmental racism

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch,Ecology,racism — louisproyect @ 2:06 pm

Screen Shot 2020-08-28 at 10.08.17 AM

Image by Wake Forest University with caption “The fight for environmental justice is a fight for your life.”


On August 14th, the N.Y. Times reported on the clash between Adolph Reed Jr. and the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus in DSA over an event scheduled back in May by the LES and Philadelphia branches. The caucus advocates stepped up support for BLM protests while Reed views them as tools of corporate America. Naturally, when the event organizers scheduled a Zoom lecture for Reed, the caucus demanded a debate, surely expecting to be ignored. When Reed grew wary over the possibility that the upstarts might crash his talk, he canceled himself.

The Times article summarized the Reed position as shared by a class of historians, political scientists and intellectuals who argue against overstating race as a construct. Even if they accept the existence of racism in the U.S., they reject the need for an anti-racist movement. Instead, the goal is to create class unity around programs like Medicare for All since poor whites would benefit as well. When you “fixate” on race, you risk dividing a potentially powerful coalition and play into conservatives’ hands.

Of course, this vulgar Marxism seems even more outlandish than ever in the face of the massive resistance to the status quo now underway. After the George Floyd murder, anti-racist protests became the largest in American history. Without skipping a beat, the NBA has gone on strike to protest the cops who left Jacob Blake permanently paralyzed. To counterpose Medicare for All to these struggles is foolish, if not outright reactionary.

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