Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 31, 2005

The bilious Fred Halliday

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:09 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on February 1, 2005

One thing that a number of high-profile self-described leftist enemies of “Islamofascism” have in common is that they were all once members of the editorial board of the New Left Review. What they also had in common was support for NATO’s war in the Balkans, which implied a much different attitude toward imperialism than that found in classical Marxism.

Ex-editors Quentin Hoare and his wife Branka Magas spent most of the late 1990s writing article after article demonizing the Serbs and demanding that they be bombed into submission.

In October 2000, the NLR asked Marko Attila Hoare, the progeny of Quentin and Branka, to write an article on the anti-Milosevic revolt. However, editor Susan Watkins nixed the article since it implied political support for the forced absorption of Yugoslavia into Western European economic and political institutions. (Watkins is married to Tariq Ali and appears to be one of the more radical-minded of the editors there. Apparently–despite her husband–she hates the idea of the left voting for John Kerry.)

While not as visible on the frontlines as the Hoare and Magas, Norman Geras and Chris Bertram were also being seduced by the notion of Cruise missiles as agencies of Yugoslav democracy. For reasons that remain somewhat murky, Hoare, Magas, Geras and Bertram all resigned from the NLR in 1993. What is clear, however, is that they are for Woodrow Wilson style imperialist interventions as the need arises–a variant on the bastardized socialism that compelled Lenin to draft the Zimmerwald manifesto at the start of WWI.

Although I don’t know if ex-NLR editor Fred Halliday left with this crowd back in 1993 and am not aware of any pronounced hostility toward the Serbs on his part, he certainly has emerged as a prominent supporter of military efforts to tame the unruly Moslem. Halliday’s earlier work, like “The Making of the Second Cold War” in 1983, is written from a fairly conventional academic leftist standpoint but more recent work reflects a kind of creeping Thomas Friedman sensibility about the need to punish “bad” Islamists and reward good ones. So, this means supporting the war in Afghanistan while at the same time pressing for Turkey’s admission to the European Union. You find a certain convergence between Halliday and the batty ex-radical and current Sufi neo-conservative Stephen Schwartz, whose latest book also makes the case for sorting out good Islam from bad. Needless to say, the bad Moslems are those who tend to attack Israeli or US interests.

Like others who have traveled this route, Halliday is developing a rather bilious personality that is rapidly encroaching on Christopher Hitchens’ turf. I refer you in particular to an item in last Sunday’s Observer penned by Halliday and titled “It’s time to bin the past” (http://observer.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,6903,1401742,00.html). It rather shamelessly appropriates Leon Trotsky’s verdict on the Mensheviks being consigned to the dustbin of history, since Halliday–an ex-Trotskyist–must surely be aware that Trotsky was attacking reformists just like him.

Halliday discusses three “dustbins” of history in his screed. The first two relate to the former Soviet Union and Washington and make rather obvious points about Putin and Bush. It is the third dustbin that gets Halliday into a proper lather:

“The Third Dustbin is that of the contemporary global protest movement, to a considerable degree a children’s crusade of intellectual demagogues, recycled 1960s bunkeristas with their fellow travellers in literary circles, dreamers and political manipulators, of the old and new lefts, whose claim to moral and analytic superiority too often masks a set of unexamined, and themselves often recycled, platitudes from the Cold War period and, indeed, from the ideology of the communist world.”

Which intellectual demagogues would Halliday be railing against here? Naomi Klein, the most prominent spokesperson of this global protest movement? Is she recycling ideology from the communist world? Sigh, if only this were the case. Halliday lurches ahead:

“Indeed the contents of this Third Dustbin are familiar enough: a ritual incantantion of ‘no war’ that avoids any substantive engagement with problems of international peace and security, or reflection on how positively to help peoples in zones of conflict; a set of vague, unthought out, uncosted and often dangerous utopian ideas about an alternative world; a pleasing but vapid invocation of global human values and internationalism that blithely ignores the misuses to which that term was put in the 20th century (for example by Stalin or Mao); a complacent attitude, innocent when not indulgent, towards political violence (witness the cult of Che Guevara, a cruel and dangerous man, and the invitees from Northern Ireland, Palestine and Iran, to name but three at the London Social Summit in October).”

One has to wonder if the editor assigned to Halliday’s piece was drunk when he worked on it, since the above citation can barely stand on its own feet. Not only is it a 129 word sentence in clear violation of the Gunning fog factor, it also spells ‘incantation’ wrong.

With respect to the “cult of Che Guevara, a cruel and dangerous man,” one can only wonder if Halliday must be upset by the hit film “Motorcycle Diaries,” which inspired an over-the-top verbal assault from Christopher Hitchens on Slate. One supposes that Che gets people like Halliday and Hitchens all upset because he reminds them of their long frozen-over youthful idealism. And those invitees from Northern Ireland, Palestine and Iran. They should have known better than to be born in such places. Far better for them to have been born elsewhere or at least to have forsaken radical politics as Halliday did long ago. Our angry professor concludes:

“We can assess the outcome of discussions in Davos and Porto Alegre to see if thinking on the current crises of the world has moved on. Here ideas and policies should meet what I term the ‘Vilanova Test’, named after the flinty Spanish writer Pere Vilanova, who, on the basis of years of political engagement and debate in Spain and the Arab world, has argued consistently for pensamiento duro, ‘tough thinking’, in the contemporary world. We certainly have, and may again be treated to, plenty of the other.”

What can I say, when I hear business about “tough thinking”, Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik comes to mind. This, after all, is what Halliday and his co-thinkers are about–reshaping the planet in pursuit of geopolitical goals. I don’t mind if that’s their agenda. The least they can do is can the leftish rhetoric.

January 30, 2005

On Michael Ignatieff’s latest NY Times Magazine article

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:52 am

Posted to www.marxmail.org on January 30, 2005

Dear Professor Mike

I am beginning to get the same kind of perverse pleasure out of reading your war whoops in the NY Times Magazine section that I used to get from reading Max Lerner on the Vietnam War in the NY Post during the 1960s or A.M. Rosenthal on Central America in the 1980s. Despite being much younger than Lerner or Rosenthal you really seem to have mastered the kind of pomposity and sanctimoniousness that comes with advancing years and power in the opinion-making class. It is good for a chuckle like watching the elderly George Jessel in a soldier’s uniform.

Although I am afraid that pointing out your errors in your latest offering -“The Uncommitted” http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/30/magazine/30WWLN.html would be an exercise in futility comparable to recommending chess openings to a chimpanzee I will do so anyhow. Since your article snipes at the antiwar movement whose members participate on the same Internet forum as me, it deserves a reply–at least to make the record.

To begin with you state that no other election in human history has been threatened by a campaign of violence as has today’s election in Iraq. I can understand why you might have a blind spot on questions such as these -as did your predecessor A.M. Rosenthal but the electoral process in Nicaragua was marked by systematic violence and intimidation far greater than what is occurring in Iraq today. Contras based in Nicaragua and funded by US tax dollars singled out Sandinista candidates for attack. In addition the entire country was basically intimidated into voting for a US-backed candidate in 1990. Unless the lever was pulled for Chamorro more war and economic blockade was threatened. In countries such as Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba, US military interventions were mounted repeatedly in the 20th century in order to reverse the people’s will manifested through free elections. You seem only interested in violence prior to an election when in fact the US military has wrought systematic violence far in excess of the Iraqi insurgency when election results were not to its liking. Perhaps the most striking example was when the USA took part in an expeditionary force consisting of more than 21 invading armies when the people of the USSR had the temerity to vote for Bolshevism in 1917. The counter-revolution cost the lives of millions of Russian peasants and workers to the great satisfaction of your ideological forefathers we might add.

You continue “Establishing free institutions in Iraq was the best reason to support the war–now it is the only reason–and for that very reason democracy has ceased to be a respectable cause.” This statement encapsulates the utter mendacity of Wilsonian imperialism which you are a grand master of articulating. Put simply, a foreign occupation army can never be the instrument of democracy. Democracy must be achieved internally not at the point of a bayonet wielded by outside military powers. In fact, the entire history of the USA and its junior partner Great Britain in the region has been to support dictatorship against democracy. The British ruled Iraq with an iron fist in the 1920s and even considered the use of poison gas against pro-democracy rebels. In the more recent past the CIA backed Saddam Hussein as he jailed and tortured leftwing and trade union opponents. I can certainly understand why despite all this evidence you would suspend all critical judgments with respect to the Anglo-American alliance now trying to maintain rule today. It goes hand-in-hand with the obtuseness of your President, the ineffable Larry Summers.

You state that “antiwar ideologues can’t support the Iraqis because that would require admitting that positive outcomes can result from bad policies and worse intentions.” It depends on which Iraqis you are talking about. Yesterday the NY Times quoted Ahmed al-Kauai a pro-Sadr cleric: “Ayatollah Sistani has his political statements and we have our own. We won’t be voting.” Does this mean that al-Kauai and others that think like him are enemies of democracy? The May 20 2004 Financial Times reported that Sadr was the most influential Iraqi after Sistani in a poll that showed a sharp decline in US support.

“Saadoun Duleimi head of the centre said more than half of a representative sample – comprising 1600 Shia Sunni Arabs and Kurds polled in all Iraq’s main regions – wanted coalition troops to leave Iraq. This compares with about 20 per cent in an October survey. About 88 per cent of respondents said they now regarded coalition forces in Iraq as occupiers.”

The poll revealed that “Respondents saw Mr Sadr as Iraq’s second most influential figure after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani the country’s most senior Shia cleric. About 32 per cent of respondents said they strongly supported Mr Sadr and another 36 per cent somewhat supported him.”

Now, Professor Mike, you say that you favor democracy. If 88 percent of the Iraqi people tell pollsters that they regard the US and British as occupiers, it would appear to me that the best way to respect democracy is to leave the country at once.

In any case you know that this is not about “freedom”. It is about oil. The USA never invades a country to allow free elections to take place. It invades in order to protect vital economic interests. As Smedley Butler once said:

“It may seem odd for me a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major General. And during that period I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short I was a racketeer a gangster for capitalism.

“I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all members of the military profession I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.

“I helped make Mexico especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of raceteering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

“During those years I had as the boys in the back room would say a swell racket. Looking back on it I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

Yours truly

Louis Proyect

January 28, 2005

The Other Side of the Street

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:52 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on January 29, 2005

Marcos Bernstein wrote the screenplay for Walter Salles’s excellent road movie “Central Station.” (Salles also directed the much acclaimed “Motorcycle Diaries,” another road movie!) Bernstein has now made his own debut as director in the soon-to-be-released “The Other Side of the Street” (O Outro Lado Da Rua), which stars 75 year old Fernanda Montenegro, who also starred in “Central Station.”

Montenegro plays Regina, a lonely, retired, middle-class woman living in the beachfront Copacabana neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. With sterile looking high-rises and a preponderantly elderly population, this neighborhood bears a striking resemblance to Miami Beach.

Regina has nothing much to keep her going except occasional visits by her grandson (she is alienated from his father and her ex-husband for reasons that are never spelled out in this often elliptical film), walking her dog who is as old as her in dog years, and serving as a police auxiliary. Like other retired folks, she keeps an eye out for drug dealers and muggers in her neighborhood. Her “undercover” name is Snow White.

Either out of boredom or in keeping with her unpaid job as a snoop, she trains her binoculars on the windows of the high-rise across the street (hence the title of the film) after waking up in the middle of the night. While scanning through the windows in a fashion somewhat after channel-surfing on television, she fixes on what appears to be a murder. After an elderly man injects his wife with a hypodermic needle, she dies in her bed. She then calls her contact at the police department, who comes to investigate. Since the elderly man is Camargo (played by Raul Cortez, a celebrated Brazilian actor), a highly-placed judge, and since the death appears to be from illness (indeed, the woman–his wife–was in the final throes of cancer), the cops decide that the investigation will go no further. This does not satisfy Regina who begins her own investigation and begins trailing the perpetrator around the Copacabana neighborhood.

Although this sounds suspiciously like a Brazilian version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” the film goes off in an entirely different direction not long after Regina is confronted by her nemesis in a local restaurant. Camargo wants to know why he keeps running into her, wherever he goes. Although Regina feels menaced by him, she agrees to meet him on the beach the next day to talk some more. At this point the film goes off in a completely unexpected direction as Camargo expresses amorous feelings toward her. From their first meeting in the restaurant and until they finally consummate their relationship, it is never totally clear what he is really up to. Does he have ulterior motives? Will he kill her in an unguarded moment? We are also not sure whether the death of his wife, which he finally admits his role in, is a mercy killing requested by her or his own desperate act intended to relieve him from a burdensome marriage.

In other words, the lack of clarity and resolution is exactly what one encounters in real life but so infrequently in the cinema, especially Hollywood cinema which seeks to wrap denouements up in a tidy package with a red-ribbon.

“The Other Side of the Street” is a highly nuanced, superbly acted character study that defies conventional expectations. It is also a quintessentially Brazilian film that is also quintessentially universal. As a study of old age and loneliness, two decidedly unmarketable subjects, it is peerless.

The film opens at the Quad Cinema in NYC on February 25. Highly recommended.

January 26, 2005

Terra Trema

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:44 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on January 26, 2005

“Terra Trema” tells the story of the Valastro family, who live in the impoverished fishing village of Trezza in Sicily. It stars Antonio Arcidiacono as ‘Ntonio, the eldest son and chief income provider. Like the rest of the cast, Arcidiacono was not a professional actor.

The film was shot in the actual village of Trezza and has the kind of grittiness one might expect from a neorealist film. However, the film also incorporates languorous views of the sea and the village streets that suggest an entirely different and riper esthetic. The screenplay is based on “I Malavoglia,” a 19th century novel written by Giovanni Verga, who also wrote “Cavalleria Rusticana,” upon which the ‘verismo’ opera was based. This suggests that the film makers were as much inspired by late romanticism as they were by more contemporary styles. In addition, the presence of the young Franco Zeffirelli as assistant director must have pushed the film in an even more operatic direction. Some still shots from the film at: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/Reviews/terra.htm#t will give you sense of the raw visual beauty of this film, which in many ways supersedes the political message.

“Terra Trema” was intended to be the first in a documentary trilogy produced by the Italian Communist Party. Visconti felt constrained by this format and elected to use Verga’s novel as the basis for a more theatrical production. However, in his voice-over narration, Visconti made sure that viewer got the message. In perhaps an overly obtrusive fashion–the result of his own youth and his Communist commitment–Visconti continually reminds us of how unjust class society is.

While the film was shaped by Marxist politics, there is little in the way of facile propaganda about what workers can do when they unite. ‘Ntonio is a tragic victim of his own overconfidence in the possibility of class solidarity. The fishermen of Trezza do not own their own boats, but work for pittance wages advanced by the local wholesalers. He decides that the answer is to bypass them and sell directly to the retail markets. After taking out a mortgage on his house to buy his own boat, he is ruined after a storm batters the boat beyond repair. The final hour of the film tells the grim downfall of the Valastros, as they are reduced to crime, drunkenness and physical collapse brought on by the loss of their livelihood.

The village of Trezza is not really a place where one might expect to see advanced class consciousness to begin with. When ‘Ntonio decides to buck the system, other fishermen condemn him for breaking with tradition. In the final scenes, the villagers practically bow to the local countess who has given them the gift of a few boats. While Visconti certainly hates the existing system, there is a sense that it might be permanent.

Although he was always a leftist, there is a sense of fatalism mixed with nostalgia for the past that exists in other of his films dealing with class society. In “The Leopard,” his 1963 masterpiece, we feel a kind of pity for the fallen aristocrat Prince Salina (played by Burt Lancaster) despite the clear message that the feudal class deserved to be overthrown. Since Visconti himself came from the landed gentry, he was probably more keenly aware of how social change impacted his class.

Visconti died in 1976. A 2003 retrospective of his films in London prompted an article on his career in the Guardian, which included these interesting background details:

“Count Don Luchino Visconti di Modrone was born in Milan in 1906, into one of the most important aristocratic families in Italy. His father, the Duke of Modrone, was a man of many extravagant houses, a famous bisexual, a lover of the queen of Italy; Visconti’s mother was a member of a hugely wealthy family in the pharmacy and cosmetics business. By the early years of the second world war, with both parents dead and an older brother killed at El Alamein, Visconti was probably the wealthiest man ever who elected to become a film and stage director.

“The Arena documentary shows us some of the houses – and the ways they were used in subsequent films – and leaves us in no doubt about the emotional importance to Visconti of distinction, property and command. He was a man who needed fine things, who kept many servants (and kept them in their place), who believed passionately in money, property and the poignant situation of an upper class inevitably seeming more archaic or stranded. All of these conservative attitudes were bound up with the life of a homosexual who was not initially comfortable about revealing himself.

“As a young man, Visconti dabbled in painting and collecting, but his greatest enthusiasm lay in the breeding and racing of fine horses. His life had been sheltered; he moved and travelled with the ease of great wealth. But then in 1936, a trip to Paris seems to have woken him up. Through the agency of fashion designer Coco Chanel, he fell in with the circle of Jean Renoir. It was a startling encounter. Perhaps Visconti bought his way into a troubled production, but he became an assistant to Renoir on Une Partie de Campagne , and then on Les Bas-Fonds . And in his talks with the Renoir group (very much leftwing), somehow, magically, the count discovered that he was a communist. He visited the US too, around this time, but with far less reward.”

“La Terra Trema” is available in DVD. If one has patience for its length (160 minutes) and its grim narrative, you will be rewarded by ravishing cinematography and compelling performances by an amateur cast.

January 24, 2005

Joanne Landy does it again

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:58 am

posted to www.marxmail.org on January 24, 2005

I suppose it was only a matter of time before New Politics editor and Council on Foreign Relations alumnus Joanne Landy would get involved in the brouhaha over slain Iraqi trade unionist Hadi Salih. She really has a nose for “third way” sanctimoniousness when it comes to matters such as these.

As an acolyte of Max Shachtman, she has perfected the art of striking moralistic poses when US imperialism is on one of its periodic crusades against evil. She initiated the Campaign for Peace and Democracy during the waning days of the Cold War in order to differentiate herself from both the evil Pentagon and the evil Kremlin. That’s how Max Shachtman started off obviously, but as his career in the Cold War establishment took shape, he began to discover that some evil empires are more evil than others. Entirely missing from his equation and those of his followers is any sense of class. Politics becomes a struggle between good and evil. Ronald Reagan, George Bush Senior and Junior, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein and Milosevic are evil. The people who sign her stupid petitions are good, of course. The admission for entry into the kingdom of heaven in these days of diminished expectations is pretty low, I guess.

Landy makes sure to cover her left flank by writing, “we disagree strongly with the IFTU’s support of UN Resolution 1546, which supports the U.S. military presence in Iraq.” This is in line with her support for the Cuban fifth column that was quite rightly jailed by the government after it conspired with the US consulate James Cason. Back then, she wrote, “Many dissidents (and non-dissidents) in Cuba look to the United States, some because they actually favor an unbridled U.S.-style capitalist system, others because they sincerely believe that the U.S. is interested in promoting genuine political and social democracy in Cuba. The latter are terribly mistaken, because Washington’s interest is in reconstructing a society of private wealth and privilege and in promoting a conservative, and probably repressive, pro-U.S. government in Havana.” The phrase “probably repressive” sums up the foolish and altogether dangerous terrain that Landy and her friends operate on.

For some interesting comments on the murder of Hadi Salih, you can turn to Doug Ireland’s blog. Although Ireland has joined up with Landy’s campaign, he was at least forthright enough to circulate a contrary position:

Boston University Prof. Assaf Kfoury, a member of the editorial team at Occupation Watch whose judgment I respect, analyzed this history in private correspondence a few days ago (from which I quote with his permission):

“This IFTU business, and the wider context of what happened to Iraqi communists (I should perhaps write Communists with an upper case “C”), has been a really sad story. The Iraqi CP is the oldest political party in Iraq, with separate socialist groups started in the early 1920’s coalescing into a single party in the early 1930’s. The ICP was perhaps at its apex of power and influence in the Arab world during the 1958-1963 period, after the British-installed monarchy was abolished and before the first Baathist coup and mass slaughter of ICP members and sympathizers (some 12000 activists and labor organizers) in 1963. From that time and on, it has been downhill for the ICP. Yes, they were among the most persecuted by the Baathists, but I think the ICP lost its bearings completely since the early 1990’s.

“Perhaps you are familiar with this history. The ICP is now riven with dissent, factionalism, and debilitating internal struggles. The official leadership of the ICP has two ministerial posts in the Allawi government, one very minor and one of average importance, while the big posts (defense, foreign affairs, interior) are occupied by representatives of the pre-occupation exile groups or the two pro-US Kurdish parties.

“The ICP people inside the Allawi government are targets of the resistance, just as much as other members of the government. But there are ICP factions against the government, one of them called the “ICP-cadre wing (or faction)” (my poor rendering of the Arabic), which is vociferously attacking the US, Allawi and the rest. To confuse things even more, the ICP-cadre faction refuses to split and considers itself the “‘egitimate’ ICP. There are other communist/leftist groups around, such as the Workers Communist Party of Iraq.

“Because the ICP has been historically rooted in the labor unions of the large cities (Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, etc.), with really dominant positions in them at one time, they still have a very strong presence among labor organizers (not much heard of in the US corporate media) who are of course paralyzed by the internal factionalism or utterly confused. I think, in time, the current ICP will turn into a relic of the past, surviving but with no significance, somewhat like the CP USA….

“…It is most unlikely that Salih was killed by ‘fascist Saddam loyalists’ [as the IFTU is claiming]. Much of the armed resistance is carried out by an assortment of unemployed city and small town people, politically marginalized groups, often using religion to find an ideological context, some of them disabused ICP people who had been suppressed by the Baathists…. I think we should condemn the targetting of all trade unionists, many of whom are not in the IFTU or have broken with it (I can’t give you statistics or firm evidence on this, but there are many anecdotal stories that point to this).”

In any case, the petition is not about trade union rights. It is about creating a kind of anti-antiwar movement. In Great Britain, where the controversy around Salih’s murder first arose, it was used as a cudgel against the British antiwar movement. New Labor ideologues demanded that the movement take a stand against Salih’s murder even though it was already on record against killings of this sort. For a skillful analysis of this affair, I recommend the Lenin’s Tomb blog (http://www.leninology.blogspot.com/) once again. He writes:

The ‘open letter’ also conflates the actions of a few lunatics on the fringe of the resistance with the resistance tout court, and attempts to imply guilt by association with a flimsily constructed syllogism: You support the right to resist the occupation; some of those alleged to be part of the resistance carry out acts of extreme brutality; you must therefore support these acts. You would think that any fool would notice that the conclusion does not follow from the premises, but not these fools.

The bulk of the LFoI’s “open letter” is therefore based on nonsense and spin. The fact that it has been sent to local StWC groups supports the claim that this is part of an attempt to split the coalition before the elections. LFoI enjoys rather convivial relations with some senior Labour ministers, including the surrealist Ann Clwyd MP who is a leading member. Its sole political accomplishment to date has been to contribute to achieving union backing for the Blairite stance on the occupation of Iraq at the last Labour conference. It, of course, supports continuing the occupation and does not support the right of Iraqis to resist that occupation.

You can excoriate them at: info@labourfriendsofiraq.org.uk

Landy really gets to the heart of the matter when she writes:

“We also oppose the victory of those elements of the resistance whose agenda is to impose a repressive, authoritarian regime on the Iraqi people, whether that regime is Baathist or theocratic-fundamentalist.”

In other words, she is neutral between US imperialism and those who take up the gun to resist it. Given the relationship of forces in the *class struggle* between US imperialism and those who have the audacity to resist it, this is about as much of a “third way” as Max Shachtman’s. Shachtman developed a career out of this kind of duplicity. One imagines that you still can nowadays.

January 23, 2005

Two rock-and-roll band documentaries

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 4:13 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on January 23, 2005

Besides being about famous rock-and-roll bands the subjects of the Ramones documentary “End of the Century” and “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” have much else in common. Both bands were torn by personality conflicts. Both were paradigms of rock genres punk in the first case and metal in the second. Both bands also underwent wrenching personnel changes driven by the need to stay consistent with the founder’s creative vision or to protect themselves from disruptions caused by drug or alcohol abuse.

The differences were also revealing. The Ramones never enjoyed the commercial success of Metallica but a case can be made that they were far more important as innovators. The Ramones were the quintessential New York band but Metallica is echt-California. The films are also stylistically divergent. In the Ramones documentary the narrative moves forward through penetrating interviews. In “Monster” the film-maker adopts the passive but highly revealing perspective of a fly on the wall.

Leaving aside questions of how the groups differ with each other both films implicitly address the question of how capitalism casts its dark shadow across just about every human enterprise–even something as rebellious as rock-and-roll.

Since three of the four Ramones died within the last three years including founder Johnny Ramone who succumbed to prostate cancer last September the film has added poignancy. Although the group’s most recognizable figure was the tall homely lead singer Joey Ramone who died after a long battle with lymphoma 3 years ago Johnny Ramone was the leader. Born John Cummings he was working in construction in 1974 when he thought up the idea for the band.

In the documentary he explains that he was unhappy with the state of rock-and-roll back then even though he hungered to make it as a musician. He rejected groups like Emerson Lake and Palmer because their technically demanding but bloated compositions were boring to him. And even if he spent twenty years trying to learn to play a guitar in that style he could never succeed. So he came up with the idea of playing a stripped-down kind of rock-and-roll based on a few chords that also avoided the kind of arty pretentiousness on display in the mid-1970s.

Although Johnny Ramone was musically adventurous he was politically conservative. When the remaining Ramones -Joey had died are shown accepting their inauguration into the rock-and-roll hall of fame Johnny tells the audience that he wants to thank George W. Bush and America! Punk magazine reports that Cummings used to enjoy beating up hippies when he worked in construction.

Joey Ramone was Jewish. His real name was Jeff Hyman and he grew up in Forest Hills along with other members of the band who knew each other from the neighborhood. Like many rock-and-roll musicians he yearned for the acceptance on stage that he could never enjoy in high school. Not only was he physically unsightly he also suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to the extent that he checked himself into a mental asylum when the symptoms became unbearable. Even after he became a popular artist he was never able to shake OCD. As the film about Howard Hughes “The Aviator” demonstrates this is a disease that strikes the lowly and the powerful without discrimination.

Joey Ramone was on the left politically. The film shows him speaking at a rally for Jerry Brown who ran for president on a platform similar to Nader’s. Although most Ramones songs are drenched in irony there are more than a few that reflect Joey Ramone’s politics including Planet Earth 1988:

the solution to peace isn’t clear
the terrorist threat is a modern fear
there are no jobs for the young
they turn to crime and turn to drugs
battle ships crowd the sea
16 year olds in the army
our jails are filled to the max
discrimination against the blacks

Two months after they were accepted into the hall of fame bassist Dee Dee Ramone -Doug Colvin who in addition to Joey wrote most of the band’s songs died of a heroin overdose. Colvin had little in common temperamentally with the other band members. The film reveals this ex-male prostitute as having much more in common with glam rock figures such as David Bowie than with the image put forward by the band. Indeed he felt constricted by the strictly regimented image of the band that included a virtual uniform of black leather motorcycle jacket torn jeans and long hair. Although Dee Dee denies that the song was about him “53rd and 3rd” -a street corner that used to be frequented by male hustlers it certainly describes an experience that was close to his own:

If you think you can well come on man
I was a Green Beret in Vietnam
No more of your fairy stories
‘Cause I got my other worries

53rd and 3rd Standing on the street
53rd and 3rd I’m tryin’ to turn a trick
53rd and 3rd You’re the one they never pick
53rd and 3rd Don’t it make you feel sick?

Then I took out my razor blade
Then I did what God forbade
Now the cops are after me
But I proved that I’m no sissy

The other founding member of the band was drummer Thomas Erdelyi who was born in Budapest but grew up in Forest Hills. When Erdelyi was a classmate of Johnny Ramone in high school they formed a band called The Tangerine Puppets that incorporated a lot of the elements that would surface later in the Ramones. Erdelyi eventually left the band in 1977 to become a record producer. In the film he comes across as the most interesting and dispassionate commentator on the band’s history.

The documentary focuses on two essential conflicts that are at the center of the band’s unhappy life story. The first involved the contradiction between their critical acclaim as innovators and their failure to sell records. Although virtually every punk band of any note from the Clash to the Sex Pistols is on record as saying that without the Ramones they never would have been born the band never was a commercial success. By the 1980s they were already on the downward spiral. In a kind of scaled down version of Grateful Dead concerts they traveled around the country for most of the last 20 years performing the same songs to diehard fans at smaller clubs and auditoriums. With their middle-aged jowls the band members seem slightly pathetic striking punk rocker poses at the end of their career.

The other major conflict involved Johnny and Joey Ramone who hated each other. Although they relied on Johnny’s business acumen to keep their careers going they resented his authoritarian methods especially Joey who had exactly the kind of hippy sensibility that Johnny detested. Even though this set them apart early on what really drove a wedge between the two men was the fact that Johnny stole Joey’s girl-friend. Ever the romantic Joey felt that he was forever robbed of true love. In the hermetically sealed world of the rock-and-roll band such triangles can have a powerfully corrosive effect. Since Joey Ramone was never up to the task of making it on his own he was forced to stick with a band whose leader he reviled.

Although the band never enjoyed commercial success their tunes are part of our cultural legacy and can even be heard in the commercials of some of America’s most powerful corporations. An ad for AT&T’s wireless service features the opening to the Ramone’s “Blitzkreig Bop”: “Hey-ho let’s go.” Needless to say it does not include the next lyric: “Shoot ’em in the back now.”

“Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” also details a bitter personality conflict between two members of a rock-and-roll band. Unlike the Ramones who learned to play together despite acrimony Metallica was on the verge of breaking up until a psychotherapist by the name of Phil Towle came into help them manage -if not overcome conflict to the tune of $40000 per month. Towle had been employed by professional sports teams in the same capacity in the past. The film consists of him conducting therapy sessions with the band during the course of their uphill battle to come up with a groundbreaking new record.

Like the Ramones Metallica was held in thrall to their own rigidly defined artistic self-image. During one particularly nasty confrontation between Jim Hetfield the lead singer and drummer and co-founder Lars Ulrich Ulrich kept referring to Hetfield’s guitar riffs as “stock.” Since the band operated within metal’s strict conventions this tendency toward stale repetition would appear ineluctable.

During this period Hetfield checked himself into rehab for more than six months to overcome alcoholism. Early clips of Metallica in performance show Hetfield toasting cheering fans with a glass of beer and inviting them to get drunk like him. Twenty years of maintaining this kind of public image on stage takes its toll. Although Hetfield manages -at least temporarily to go on the wagon there are other forms of rebelliousness that he cannot or will not overcome. He is addicted to fast cars motorcycles and tattoos. Now in his middle age and a family man with a young daughter he struggles to balance the need to develop and mature as a human being while catering to the male adolescent fantasies of his fans.

Lars Ulrich is a much more sophisticated and urbane personality than Hetfield. Born in Denmark to a professional tennis player who once owned a jazz club he collects modern art. A scene in the film depicts him putting the work up for auction at Sotheby’s including an enormous Basquiat painting. The sale netted him millions of dollars.

As a careful investor -he explains that the paintings were a kind of savings account that allowed him to have his cake and eat it too and successful entrepreneur -Metallica has sold over 80 million records one can easily imagine why he would get into a fight over Napster. Ulrich was one of the highest profile opponents of free downloaded music. In testimony to Congress Ulrich said “My band authored the music which is Napster’s lifeblood. We should decide what happens to it not Napster — a company with no rights in our recordings which never invested a penny in Metallica’s music or had anything to do with its creation. The choice has been taken away from us.”

The film shows Metallica fans smashing their CD’s on the ground and vowing never to buy another.

Perhaps it is just a function of my musical tastes but I never felt as engaged with the personalities in the Metallica film as I did with the Ramones. The psychobabble that dominates the scenes with the psychotherapist put me off as well as perhaps they were intended to. The general picture that emerges is that of a typical bunch of California narcissist superstars seeking “personal growth” in a narrow careerist vein. For these rock stars psychotherapy would fill the same need that Scientology fills in the lives of Tom Cruise or John Travolta. By contrast the Ramones were operating on a deeper level of introspection and self-awareness. They are also more complex personalities.

In either case the films yield deeper insights into the rock and roll business and are well worth watching. In keeping with their respective commercial fates the Ramones film is not available in DVD while the Metallica film is.

Although it is beyond the purview of either film to address the deeper questions of the social role of punk and metal they do deserve some comment. Punk has really had a major impact on American society. In a profile on Jay Bakker -the son of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker in today’s NY Times Magazine titled “The Punk-Christian Son of a Preacher Man” we learn that he has formed something called Revolution Ministries that caters to troubled youth who feel alienated by traditional churches. The Times reports:

“Revolution is one of several thousand alternative ministries that have emerged in the last decade meeting in warehouses bars skate parks punk clubs private homes or other spaces in a generational rumble to rebrand the faith outside of what we think of as church. To travel among them is to feel returned to the alternative-rock scene of 15 years ago just before Nirvana and Lollapalooza put it on the map. Instead of criticizing major record labels these ministries criticize megachurches; instead of flattening the status of the rock star they flatten the status of the pastor. They cluster in cells rather than in denominations or arenas and connect through D.I.Y. zines online. They are a counterculture on two fronts: at odds with both their secular peers and conventional churches.”

So one might ask how punk rock can be deployed on behalf of such a conservative mission namely convincing the young drug user or alcoholic that heaven is their salvation. The answer perhaps can be found partially in Johnny Ramone’s conservative politics and his appetite for beating up hippies. In a very real sense the decision to take a radically different direction from mid-1970s progressive rock implicitly involved a rejection of the counter-culture that spawned it. The groovy “peace and love” zeitgeist of the 1970s was replaced by “Blitzkreig Bop” irony and political nihilism. Despite the obvious political commitment of groups like The Clash it would seem that the overwhelming drift of punk rock is against idealism and against collective action. In this light the convergence between the punk rock lifestyle and the skinhead scene is no accident.

Metal would appear to be even one step removed from politics beyond punk. Groups such as Metallica Megadeath -started by somebody drummed out of Metallica AC-DC et al seem to exist mainly to provide a raw testosterone injection to their youthful male fans.

This does not prevent its message from being deployed however in a context that is highly political. When the US Marines went into Fallujah they played heavy metal music including AC/DC’s “Shoot to Thrill” to energize themselves:

I’m gonna take you down – down down down
So don’t you fool around
I’m gonna pull it pull it pull the trigger

Shoot to thrill play to kill
Too many women with too many pills
Shoot to thrill play to kill
I got my gun at the ready gonna fire at will

In addition Iraqi prisoners are forced to listen to heavy metal for hours on end at high volume as a kind of torture. Apparently Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” is a favorite of the torturers.

The November 21 2004 St. Petersburg Times Floridian reports:

James Hetfield who co-founded Metallica said the military hadn’t asked his permission or paid him royalties to blast his band’s music in Iraq. But he’s proud he said that his tunes are culturally offensive to the Iraqis. “For me the lyrics are a form of expression a freedom to express my insanity” Hetfield told radio host Terry Gross last week. “If the Iraqis aren’t used to freedom then I’m glad to be part of their exposure.”

January 19, 2005

Safe Conduct

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:39 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on January 19, 2005

Bernard Tavernier’s 2002 “Safe Conduct” (Laissez-passer) is a chronicle of the French film industry during the Vichy regime. It features two historical characters who resisted Nazism, each in his own way, as well as many others who struggled to maintain a sense of dignity if not their lives during this difficult period. One is director Jean-Devaivre, whose memoir the film is based on. The other is screenwriter Jean Aurenche, who exercised a kind of passive resistance to Nazi occupation and who wrote several screenplays for Tavernier, including the memorable 1981 “Clean Slate” (Coup de Torchon),” a noirish tale of a French colonial cop who decides to systematically kill off an African village’s riffraff.

“Safe Conduct” is an extremely ambitious film clocking in at 170 minutes with 134 (!) speaking roles. Although it is a flawed enterprise, it is a must-see for anybody interested in art and politics and how they interact.

Played by Jacques Gamblin, Jean-Devaivre is a decidedly non-ideological opponent of Nazi occupation. At one point when pressed to explain why he risks life and career against the Germans, he shrugs his shoulders and says, “I just don’t like them here.” In other words, he seems fuelled by the same kind of raw nationalism as the Iraqi resistance.

What makes Jean-Devaivre’s character all the more interesting is the fact that he (and the real-life director) chose to work for the Paris branch of Continental Productions, the German-owned film company. By day, he directs costume dramas, which are carefully chosen as vehicles for Aesopian anti-occupation messages. By night, he goes out on sabotage missions to blow up railroad trains.

By contrast, Jean Aurenche’s (Denis Podalydes) main goal is to avoid working for the Germans, rather than to get involved with the underground. This does not mean that he is afraid to speak his mind. When he is at a dinner party hosted by a shady businessman who appears to have ties to the Germans, he speaks up for the rights of Communists and Jews. After watching the businessman and his Gestapo associates beat up a elderly beggar in the courtyard below, he decides–helped by one drink too many–to confront him. Before he has a chance to get himself in trouble, his prostitute girl-friend crowns him over the head with an empty wine bottle, rendering him unconscious

Another key scene involves Jean-Devaivre stealing a top-secret memo from the cabinet of a Gestapo officer, who has an office at Continental Productions. He is flown to England, where he meets with British intelligence officers who have trouble understanding why a film director would stick his neck out in this fashion. Since Jean-Devaivre was motivated mostly by a desire to track down his jailed brother-in-law’s whereabouts than to uncover military secrets, it is possible to understand the British suspicions.

We eventually learn that the brother-in-law Jacques Dubuis (Olivier Brun) died in a German prison, but was immortalized in a bit role in a film directed by Jean-Devaivre. We see the historical Dubuis’s appearance in this film, along with numerous other scenes from French films made during Nazi occupation. Unlike Jean-Devaivre, Dubuis was an activist. On his way to Continental Productions for a day’s work, he is stopped by Nazi soldiers with anti-occupation pamphlets in his coat.

Last January I reviewed Alan Furst’s “Red Gold” for swans.com: http://www.swans.com/library/art10/lproy11.html. The main character in this very fine novel was one Jean Casson, a French film director who joins the Resistance. Recently I learned from Furst that his character is based on the director Marcel Carne, who while not included in the Tavernier film, clearly shared the values of the main characters.

A Nov. 1, 1996 NY Times obituary on the 90-year-old Carne reported that he refused to make propaganda films for the Germans and insisted that French audiences would regard his 1942 “Les Visiteurs du Soir” as an allegory for an occupied France. With backing from Continental Productions, Carne then began shooting “Les Enfants du Paradis” in 1943, but the Allied invasion interfered with the production. Carne concealed the Jewish origins of his set designer Alexander Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma from the Nazis. After French cops working for the Gestapo arrested a French extra during shooting, the man–like Dubuis–was never seen again. Carne said, “I will relive that scene for the rest of my days.”

Much of the film is devoted to behind-the-scenes representations of the difficult job of making movies under the German iron fist. Despite professions by the head of Continental Productions that he is devoted to art rather than politics, he functions more as a gauleiter than a film company executive.

In one memorable scene, he comes to the prison cell where screenwriter Charles Spaak (Laurent Schilling) is being held. He cajoles him into writing a script from inside the cell with the not-too-subtle implication that death awaits him if he refuses. Since the real-life Charles Spaak wrote the screenplay for the masterpiece “The Grand Illusion,” which deals with French prisoners of war during WWI, there is a powerful resonance.

Unfortunately, Tavernier bites off much more than he can chew. This scene occupies only a minute or two, which is far too short to do it justice. Obviously, Tavernier was desperate to recreate this historical period without sacrificing any of these heroic characters but failed to understand that something would have to give. Perhaps the most egregious flaw in the film is decision to include the totally unrelated narratives both of Jean-Devaivre and Jean Aurenche, who had no contact with each other. In effect, you have two movies in one. It would have been far better to concentrate on Jean-Devaivre rather than Jean Aurenche. Since Aurenche was a long-time collaborator with Tavernier, however, it is understandable why he would want to tell his story as well.

There was a lot of controversy around “Safe Conduct” when it came out. Despite the fact that Jean-Devaivre was a member of the resistance, the prestigious Cahiers du Cinéma accused Tavernier of justifying collaboration with Vichy. In a November 1, 2002 article in the Independent, Tavernier compared the fate of French film-makers under Nazi occupation to that of American film-makers under McCarthyism:

He’s lately been quite vocal about Hollywood and the Academy for failing to apologise for the 1950s blacklist while giving special Oscars to McCarthyite stooges like Elia Kazan. On a US paper’s criticism that you need a PhD in French film studies to understand Laissez-passer, he says to me: “It’s a simple idea: how can you work for a German company without compromising yourself? It’s very simple. I say to the American critic, just replace the German element with Senator McCarthy and everything will be clear!”

Jean Aurenche is no stranger to controversy either. In January 1954, François Truffaut wrote a vicious attack on mainstream French cinema in the journal of the Cahiers du Cinéma, accusing it of making fashionably vulgar, patriotic, anti-clerical films. He singled out Jean Aurenche and the directors he worked with as tricksters and imposters. They were “bourgeois making bourgeois films for bourgeois people.”

It is clear that Tavernier was making a subtle reference to this controversy in “Safe Conduct” by showing how the films Truffaut attacked were subtle attempts to subvert Nazi domination, or at least designed to do so. In another key scene, Aurenche tells off a Vichy film official. When he is asked how he has such nerve to speak to him in this fashion, Aurenche replies that it is because he is one bourgeois speaking to another.

“Safe Conduct” is now available in DVD. Despite its excessive length and its structural flaws, it is well worth seeing.

To Juan Cole

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:38 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on January 19, 2005

Dear Professor Cole,

I had a feeling that something was up when I discovered that Chris Bertram had included a link to your article “The Third Baath Coup?” (http://www.juancole.com/2005/01/third-baath-coup-if-as-i-have-argued.html) on the Crooked Timber blog (http://www.crookedtimber.org/). It was intended to shore up pro-occupation opinion on the left, despite the rapidly deteriorating situation. Bertram was cheered by your ambiguous observation that in face of Baathist attacks on government officials you fear that “the US is stuck in Iraq.” I say that it is ambiguous because you don’t make clear whether you are for this or not, although those astute in the studies of ambiguity might hazard a guess that you favor staying the course.

Bertram also includes a link to “an open letter circulated by Labour Friends of Iraq to protest against the silence of Britain’s Stop the War Coalition in the face of events like the torture and murder of Hadi Saleh, International Officer of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions on January 4.”

When you go to the open letter, you will discover that some of the key figures behind it have been heavily involved in pushing for the imperialist domination of Iraq from the beginning–like Peter Tatchell, David Aaronovitch and Norman Geras. Geras, as you probably know, is an ex-Marxist who now treads the same sorry path as Christopher Hitchens. I was also not surprised to see that Branka Magas and her husband Quintin Hoare were signatories as well. It appeared to me long ago that justifications for the invasion of Iraq were an outgrowth of those mounted on behalf of Nato’s war on Yugoslavia, which Hitchens, Magas and Hoare all waved pom-pom’s for.

Bertram, of course, has a trajectory very similar to Magas and Hoare, who were both associated with the New Left Review before drifting off into Hitchensville. On the Crooked Timber website, we learn that Chris Bertram “was until recently the editor of Imprints: A Journal of Analytical Socialism, now (2002) in its seventh year of publication and before that was once on the editorial committee of New Left Review, before resigning, along with nearly everyone else.” He adds, “These days I find the description ‘egalitarian liberal’ fits me better than ‘socialist’, but there’s lots of complicated autobiographical, cultural and theoretical stuff there which I won’t go into here.” I’d say thank goodness he didn’t go into all that “complicated” stuff, for at least to these ears “the god that failed” was a stale tune by the 1960s, although obviously good for career advancement in the intelligentsia.

On the question of Hadi Saleh, I am gratified to see that you have not jumped on the bandwagon to condemn the antiwar movement for not having “confessed” to the crime of supporting the CP leader’s killing. If indeed you are interested in reading a powerful defense of the antiwar movement, I’d refer you to the Friday, January 14, 2005 entry in the Lenin’s Tomb blog (http://www.leninology.blogspot.com/) titled “In Defense of the Stop the War Coalition.” It opens:

The recent spate of attacks by Johann Hari, Nick Cohen and Labour Friends of Iraq on the Stop the War Coalition is interesting for a number of reasons. They share the following characteristics:

1) Proximity in time (choreography).

2) Repetition of false claims (reading from a script).

3) Hysterical tone (histrionics).

I just want to conclude with an observation about the need for the left in general and leftist academics to eschew ambiguity. Turning to your blog entry, you say, “The police chiefs of many cities have been killed or kidnapped, or members of their family have, such that many more have just resigned, often along with dozens of their men. The US is powerless to stop this campaign of assassination.” Then, at the conclusion, you also say, “Sistani clearly fears a Sunni Arab coup, as well, and this is one reason he has not acted forcefully to end the military occupation, which he deeply dislikes. Is the Neo-Baath Coup scenario one that the US could live with?”

Am I projecting too much into your analysis when I say that you insinuate that the US might be accepting a Sunni Baathist regime in the same way that it supported Saddam Hussein? If so, this seems to disregard both the open ideological enmity and the systematic violence directed against “Baathism” in Iraq. I put “Baathism” in quotes because there is little evidence of a programmatic bid to re-institute the status quo ante in the same fashion that the NLF promised a socialist Vietnam. A video purportedly produced by the resistance has been circulating on the Internet. If it expresses Baathist values, then they are too subtle for me to discern.

In any case, I do hold you in the highest regard even when you are ambiguous or wrong.

January 12, 2005


Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:40 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on January 12, 2005

“We thank that whole generation for making America strong, for winning WWII, winning the Cold War, and for the great gift of service which brought America 50 years of peace and prosperity. My parents inspired me to serve, and when I was a high school junior, Kennedy called my generation to service. It was the beginning of a great journey – a time to march for civil rights, for voting rights, for the environment, for women, and for peace. We believed we could change the world. You know what? We did.”

–John Kerry, Acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention Jul 29, 2004

When discussing the poor, the blacks, the Jews, “he used to say, ‘Poor bastards.’ That was it. There were a lot of poor bastards in this world. There were people who either didn’t get jobs they wanted or they didn’t get programs they wanted. That phrase covered so many times when he would have turned someone down for a job, or would have turned down some legislation that was being pressed on him. You know, ‘Poor bastard, they’re going to feel terrible.'” Kennedy seemed to believe that “people who are different have different responses. The pain of poor people is different from ‘our’ pain.”

–An unnamed former lover of JFK, quoted in Seymour Hersh’s “Dark Side of Camelot”

On January 8, 2005, obituaries for JFK’s 86 year old retarded sister Rosemary appeared in all the major media. Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of this American dynasty, treated her like a character out of a 19th century Gothic Tale. Associated Press reported that “In 1941, Joseph Kennedy was worried that Rosemary’s mild mental retardation would lead her into situations that could damage the family’s reputation, and he arranged for her to have a lobotomy. She was 23.” The AP obituary quotes Laurence Leamer’s “The Kennedy Women: The Saga of an American Family”: “Rosemary was a woman, and there was a dread fear of pregnancy, disease and disgrace.”

If the criterion were social propriety, then the one person who probably should have suffered a lobotomy was Joseph Kennedy himself, rather than his unfortunate daughter. (Nor would it have occurred to the patriarch to control his son Jack’s philandering in this fashion, who suffered from a chronic venereal disease.)

In keeping with Balzac’s epigraph to “Pere Goriot” that “Behind every great fortune there is a crime,” the Kennedy dynasty owed its place in history to the ongoing criminal activities of Joseph Kennedy.

In “The Outfit,” Gus Russo’s definitive study of the Chicago mob, we learn that Joseph Kennedy made his millions through a combination of white-collar crime and bootlegging. Using the same kinds of illegal insider trading that people like Michael Milken made infamous, Kennedy sold short just before the 1929 crash and walked away richer than ever. As a banker-investor, Kennedy plundered the stock of Pathé Films in the 1920s, giving insiders like himself stock worth $80 per share, while leaving common stockholders $1.50 per share. When Kennedy attempted a hostile takeover of the California-based Pantages Theater chain in 1929, he paid a 17 year old girl $10,000 to falsely claim that she had been raped by the chain’s owner, who then served part of a fifty-year prison sentence that was ultimately reversed. Kennedy got control of Pantages at a bargain basement price.

With respect to bootlegging, Russo reports:

“Kennedy was up to his eyes in illegal alcohol. Leading underworld bootleggers from Frank Costello to Doc Stacher to Owney Madden to Joe Bonanno to Meyer Lansky to Lucky Luciano have all recalled for their biographers or for news journalists how they had bought booze that had been shipped into the country by Joseph Kennedy. On the receiving side of the booze business, everyone from Joe’s Hyannis Port chums to the eastern Long Island townsfolk who survived the Depression by uncrating booze off the bootleggers’ boats tells tales of Joe Kennedy’s involvement in the illegal trade.”

Connections made in this period would prove useful during JFK’s 1960 Presidential bid. Murray “Curley” Humphreys, the brains behind Al Capone, and his chief executioner Sam Giancana (nicknamed “Moony” because of his psychopathic reputation) had inherited control of the Chicago mob after Capone’s death and built up powerful alliances in the trade union bureaucracy all around the country that helped to tip the balance in Kennedy’s favor in the 1960 primaries race.

Using mob lawyer and ex-state attorney general Robert J. McDonnell as a liaison, the Kennedys met with Giancana in Chicago in 1960. According to Russo, a quid pro quo was worked out at this meeting. In exchange for the mob’s help, a Kennedy Justice Department would go easy on them. According to Humphreys’ widow, the mobster was leery of making a deal: “Murray was against it. He remembered Joe Kennedy from the bootlegging days–called him an untrustworthy ‘four flusher’ and a ‘potato eater.’ Something to do with a booze delivery that Joe had stolen. He said that Joe Kennedy could be trusted as far as he, Murray, could throw a piano.”

The gangsters focused their efforts on West Virginia, a key swing state. Mob-controlled jukeboxes all across the state began featuring Jack Kennedy’s campaign song, while a Kennedy aide paid tavern owners $20 each day to play it over and over. Meanwhile, a Giancana associate doled out $50,000 across the state to cash-starved local politicians. These bribes paid off handsomely, as Kennedy beat Senator Hubert Humphrey by a 60-40 margin.

In the general election, the same pattern could be seen. Trade union bureaucrats poured into Curley Humphreys’ office to receive their marching orders. According to Russo, “Among the regular visitors were Murray Olf, the powerful Washington lobbyist, Teamster official John O’Brien, and East St. Louis boss of the Steamfitters Union, Buster Wortman.”

Sam “Moony” Giancana would turn up again in another capacity. After John Kennedy became President, he would call on Mafia figures to assassinate Fidel Castro. Apparently, the Kennedys had as much respect for Cuban democracy as they did for their own. What could not be won through bribes on the revolutionary island would have to be taken through outright violence.

Connections between the CIA and such hired assassins had already been made during the Eisenhower presidency. Top Howard Hughes aide Robert Maheu, who had freelanced for the CIA over the years, was asked to assemble a hit squad to kill Castro. Maheu then contacted Giancana and Santo Trafficante, a top figure in the New Orleans Mafia. Both men had a vested interest in toppling the new Cuban government, since they owned substantial assets in Havana through partnerships with Meyer Lansky.

Just as Robert J. McDonnell served as a go-between in the earlier contact with the Chicago mob, Kennedy’s mistress Judith Exner would play the same role now. Since Exner was having an affair with Sam Giancana at the very same time she was sleeping with JFK, she was made to order. Exner became a bagwoman for Kennedy during the 1960 campaign, taking up to $250,000 in cash to Giancana on trips to Chicago. These payments were intended as bribes for trade union bureaucrats that Giancana and Humphreys had lined up. Eventually Exner would split up with Kennedy when he showed up at one of their trysts with another woman for a threesome.

If none of the mobsters had any success in getting rid of Fidel Castro, neither would the counter-revolutionary army assembled and supported by the Kennedy White House at the Bay of Pigs. Although Kennedy has been portrayed as a dove in comparison to Richard Nixon, the truth is that Kennedy positioned himself as a hawk on Cuba, blaming the Republican incumbents for inaction on Communist subversion in the Western Hemisphere. Since Nixon was forced to keep the impending invasion a secret, he could not defend himself from JFK’s hawkish attack. Kennedy himself had learned of the plans from Richard Bissell, a CIA official who was friendly with his father. He hammered away at Nixon cynically, knowing full well that the Republican candidate could not reveal the secret plan. Appalled by Kennedy’s bellicosity, some liberals actually kept their distance from him, while falling short of supporting Nixon. Liberal icon Murray Kempton wrote in the New York Post that “I really don’t know what further demagoguery is possible form Kennedy on this subject, short of announcing that, if elected, he will send Bobby and Teddy and Eunice to Oriente Province to clean Castro out.”

After the counter-revolutionary guerrilla force was smashed, the Kennedy White House continued to threaten Cuba verbally and to provide clandestine support for smaller guerrilla bands. American subversion cost the island at least $1 billion in the year following the Bay of Pigs invasion. The Cuban revolutionary leadership understood that it was only a matter of time when a new invasion was mounted, this time involving the US marines rather than an ineffective surrogate force.

This prompted Castro to seek a powerful shield against an invasion that took the form of Russia nuclear missiles. When Kennedy learned about this, he provoked one of the most dangerous confrontations of the entire Cold War. It did not matter to him that Cuba was a sovereign nation or that the USA had already supplied atomic missiles on the Soviet border in Turkey. In foreign policy, some countries were clearly more equal than others.

Although former NY Times editor Max Frankel’s recently published “High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Cuban Missile Crisis” is intended to flatter the foreign policy sagacity of the Kennedy White House, any impartial reader will not be reassured by the following excerpt:

McNamara’s blockade idea was gaining favor, but there was as yet no limit on the kind of action the Kennedy brothers were willing to examine. If the choice was to attack, the president still preferred a surgical strike at the missiles alone, but he told the chiefs to plan also for a full-scale invasion. Robert Kennedy even strained to find a pretext for invasion. He toyed with the thought of staging a fake attack on the American naval base at Guantanamo or staging another ship disaster in Havana–“sink the Maine again, or something.” He remarked with satisfaction that an invasion would get rid of Castro as well as the missiles.

These were attitudes brought over from a separate high-level meeting that day in which Robert Kennedy had complained about the slow pace of sabotage and subversion against Cuba under Operation Mongoose. But his wild mood shifts were surely confusing to the conferees as they tried to discern the direction of the president’s thinking. Only that morning, at the first ExCom meeting, Bobby had scribbled a note to Ted Sorensen saying, “I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor.”

Eventually, Kennedy and Khrushchev struck a deal. In exchange for the removal of Russian missiles, the USA would promise to not invade Cuba and to remove its own missiles from Turkey. In keeping with the general refusal of the Kennedy White House to tell the truth to its citizenry, this deal was not made public. Instead, Kennedy was portrayed as a fearless gunfighter who forced the Russians to back down.

Based on his reading of this period, Nation Magazine editor and staunch John Kerry supporter Eric Alterman decided to include Kennedy in his 2004 “When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.” In his NY Times Book Review of Alterman’s book, one-time Presidential candidate Gary Hart tried to salvage Kennedy’s reputation:

“It is unclear how the disclosure of the implicit trade of Jupiter missiles in Turkey for intermediate-range Soviet strategic missiles in Cuba was crucial to undermining the public trust, particularly since the Jupiters were to be replaced soon anyway by sea-based Polaris submarine missiles. Let’s assume the worst — that Kennedy was trying to fend off a right-wing backlash for bargaining with the Soviets. That seems much more like political self-preservation, which in any case did not result in loss of American lives and in fact may have saved millions of them.”

In a November 14, 2004 letter to the NY Times, Alterman tears Hart’s defense to pieces. He quotes Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in reply to the question of whether such a deal had been struck that: ”Absolutely not . . . the Soviet government did raise the issue . . . [but the] president absolutely refused even to discuss it. He wouldn’t even reply other than that he would not discuss the issue at all.” The same sort of lie was heard from Dean Rusk. It is no accident that both men would become associated with the Vietnam War, as both architects and dissemblers.

For many radicals, especially those who believe that the Democratic Party is not a “lesser evil,” it is difficult to grasp why John Kennedy has any kind of progressive reputation. Differences over how to assess the Kennedy White House, especially in the context of his role in the emerging Vietnam War, came to a head around the release of Oliver Stone’s “JFK.”

Based heavily on lawyer James Garrison’s version of the Kennedy assassination, the film argues that Kennedy had to be removed in order to pave the way for an escalation of the war. Lyndon Johnson is seen as a tool of the defense industry and rightwing military officers. By contrast, John Kennedy is a reasonable man who had the good sense to make plans to begin de-escalation and eventual withdrawal from Indochina.

It is no accident that left journalist and scholar Michael Parenti agrees with this perspective, given his support for John Kerry. Despite its obvious futility, the search for enlightened bourgeois leadership seems never-ending.

In his probing study of the Kennedy administration titled “Rethinking Camelot,” Noam Chomsky takes up the arguments of Oliver Stone, Michael Parenti and historian John Newman, author of “JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power,” another book which tries to prove that Kennedy intended to abandon Vietnam. In his scrupulously documented style, Chomsky hoists Kennedy on his own petard:

In Fort Worth, a few hours before the assassination, Kennedy made his last statement about Vietnam: “Without the United States, South Vietnam would collapse overnight.” In the speech he was to give in Dallas, he intended to say that “Our successful defense of freedom” in Cuba, Laos, the Congo, and Berlin can be attributed “not to the words we used, but to the strength we stood ready to use”; fair enough, with regard to his selection of Third World illustrations of his “defense of freedom.” Kennedy extolled his huge military buildup, undertaken to blunt the “ambitions of international Communism.” As the “watchman on the walls of world freedom” the US had to undertake tasks that were “painful, risky and costly, as is true in Southeast Asia today. But we dare not weary of the task.”

In internal discussion, Kennedy’s consistent position was that everyone must “focus on winning the war.” There can be no withdrawal without victory; the stakes are far too high. One can accuse the President of no duplicity. His public rhetoric accords closely with his stand in internal discussion.

Although one obviously prefers Chomsky’s take on Kennedy to that of Parenti, one might feel a sense of lingering disappointment that Chomsky refused to apply the same stringent criteria to John Kerry, who was just as bellicose as Bush, if not more so. One might attribute that to the kind of immense pressure applied to the left by the ABB campaign. With the abject failure of the Kerry campaign to deliver on its promises, one hopes that intellectuals such as Chomsky can return to the position of public critic of war and imperialism that they have served so well in the past.

What about Kerry’s claim that 1960 “was the beginning of a great journey – a time to march for civil rights, for voting rights?”

Certainly there was a struggle for black liberation in this period, but the Kennedys could hardly be represented as being in the vanguard. In “Nixon’s Piano: a study of Presidents and racial politics from George Washington to Bill Clinton,” historian Kenneth O’Reilly’s chapter on the Kennedy White House is most instructive and can be described as an exercise at damning with faint praise.

Kennedy came into the White House with a goal to hire as many token black faces as he could. This combined with New Deal social spending would keep black America mollified. Kennedy’s only true civil rights initiative was a voter-registration campaign modeled after the modest efforts of the Eisenhower administration’s final six months in office. He hoped that the largely judicial axis of such an initiative would help to short-circuit the more confrontational boycotts and sit-ins being pushed by CORE and other militant groups. He also hoped that increased black electoral numbers would strengthen the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

Kennedy saw the Justice Department as the main instrument of his civil rights agenda, not the Civil Rights Commission that had been established in 1957 under Eisenhower as part of the Civil Rights Act. Several degrees to the left of Kennedy, the Commission was seen as something akin to Reconstruction and, therefore, unwelcome. In his best-selling “Profiles in Courage,” Kennedy referred to Reconstruction as a “black nightmare…nourished by Federal bayonets.” When the Civil Rights Commission announced its attention to investigate racist violence in Mississippi, Robert F. Kennedy likened it to HUAC “investigating Communism.”

Not only were the Kennedys hostile to the Civil Rights Commission; they appointed 5 segregationist judges to the federal bench, including Harold Cox, who had referred to blacks as “niggers” and “chimpanzees.” Robert F. Kennedy preferred Cox to Thurgood Marshall whom he described as “basically second-rate.” Kennedy frequently turned to Mississippi Senator James Eastland for advice on appointments. According to long-time activist Virginia Durr, Eastland would “invite people over for the weekend and tell them to ‘pick out a nigger girl and a horse!’ That was his way of showing hospitality.”

Even in their selection of voter registration as the least confrontational tactic in the South, the Kennedys were loath to put the power of the federal government behind it. When the KKK targeted civil rights workers trying to register black voters, Robert F. Kennedy bent over backwards to appear conciliatory toward the racists. He said, “We abandoned the solution, really, of trying to give people protection.” This indifference was one of the main reasons the racists felt free to kill activists in the Deep South.

One such assassination took the life of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, who was gunned down in the driveway of his home. In keeping with his accomodationist policies, Robert F. Kennedy told the media that the federal government had no authority to protect Evers or anybody else. Such responsibilities rested with the state of Mississippi!

The mass movement against racial discrimination continued unabated, without the support of the Kennedy White House. In 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama unleashed attacks by Police Commissioner Bull Connor who used nightsticks, police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses and mass arrests. JFK complained about the protests that they made the USA “look bad for us in the world.” His brother opined that 90 percent of the protestors had no idea what they were demonstrating about.

Despite Robert F. Kennedy’s specious comparison of the Civil Rights Commission to HUAC, he had no problem directing a witch-hunt against Martin Luther King Jr. When the FBI told the President that King’s advisors included a couple of Communists (Sanford Levison and Jack O’Dell), he directed the attorney general to put wiretaps on the civil rights movements most important leader’s telephone. He even met with King at the White House and told him, “They’re communists. You’ve got to get rid of them.” To his everlasting credit, King refused to kowtow to the red-baiters. Robert F. Kennedy would complain, “He sort of laughs about these things, makes fun of it.”

Relying on J. Edgar Hoover’s snitches says volumes about the character of the Kennedy White House. Feeling no constraints from its master, the FBI would eventually send letters to King’s wife accusing him of infidelity. It would also fail to protect civil rights demonstrators, who were obviously seen as Communist subversives.

If the Kennedy White House was about managing image, perhaps nothing succeeded on their own terms better than the Peace Corps. Embodying the President’s rhetoric about “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” this nominally volunteer program would benefit the world’s poor without asking for anything in return.

Beneath the rhetoric, the Peace Corps was a variation on a very old theme, namely the tendency for colonial powers to use civil administration as a means to co-opt hostile populations. Great Britain had perfected these techniques in India. Marshall Windmiller, a professor at San Francisco State who had participated in Peace Corps training programs in the early 1960s, spells out his disillusionment in “The Peace Corps and Pax Americana.” Referring to Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), he characterizes the Peace Corps as an exercise in “Macaulayism.” As a functionary in India, Macaulay argued that “To trade with civilized men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages.”

Of course, key to bringing civilization to the savages was a properly functioning civil service and an educational system that could inculcate the values of the colonizers. Seen in this light, the Peace Corps’s main function, according to Windmiller, is “to develop pro-American, English-speaking elites, and to make America’s role in world affairs, whatever it may be, more palatable.”

Windmiller focuses on the example of Rhoda and Earl Brooks, a husband-and-wife team who served in Ecuador from 1962 to 1964. They did the usual things that Peace Corps volunteers did, from teaching English to clearing streets of garbage.

When the USA intruded into Ecuadorian fishing waters during their sting, Communists organized protests against the “pirates.” Naturally, the Brooks felt compelled to present the American case. In their English conversation classes and at their homes, they tried to convince the Ecuadorian youth of the benefits of “democratic capitalism,” for whom many the word “capitalist” was synonymous for murderer. Because the Brooks were seen as modest and idealistic, their ideas were more easily accepted than if they came straight from the American consulate. That, of course, was the whole idea.

Kennedy himself occasionally spoke more candidly about the goal of initiatives like the Peace Corps. In National Security Action Memorandum No.132 directed to the Agency for International Development, that was cc’d to the Peace Corps director as well as the CIA, the President declares his intentions:

“As you know, I desire the appropriate agencies of this Government to give utmost attention and emphasis to programs designed to counter Communist indirect aggression, which I regard as a grave threat during the 1960s. I have already written the Secretary of Defense ‘to move to a new level of increased activity across the board” in the counter-insurgency field.

“Police assistance programs, including those under the aegis of your agency, are also a crucial element in our response to this challenge. I understand that there has been some tendency toward de-emphasizing them under the new aid criteria developed by your agency. I recognize that such programs may seem marginal in terms of focusing our energies on those key sectors which will contribute most to sustained economic growth. But I regard them as justified on a different though related basis, i.e., that of contributing to internal security and resisting Communist-supported insurgency.”

Eventually, some returned Peace Corps volunteers saw through the imperialist aims of their higher-ups and joined the Vietnam antiwar movement. Indeed, their number and the numbers of civil rights activists disgusted and radicalized by White House inaction probably numbered in the tens of thousands at the peak. One might conclude by saying that the main benefit of the Kennedy White House is that it spurred idealistic young people to transcend the limitations of an administration that was guided more by image than by substance.


1. Eric Alterman response to Gary Hart’s review: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/14/books/review/letters-final.html

2. Noam Chomsky, “Rethinking Camelot”: http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/rc/rc-contents.html

3. Gary Hart review of Eric Alterman’s “When Presidents Lie”: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9507E1D61538F933A25753C1A9629C8B63

4. Seymour Hersh, “Dark Side of Camelot”, Little Brown, 1997

5. Kenneth O’Reilly, “Nixon’s Piano”, The Free Press, 1995

6. Gus Russo, “The Outfit”, Bloomsbury Press, 2001

7. Marshall Windmiller, “The Peace Corps and Pax Americana”, Public Affairs Press, 1970

January 3, 2005

Counsellor at Law

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:33 am

posted to www.marxmail.org on January 3, 2005

As the name implies, the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable station shows old movies all day long. While channel surfing, I often watch a minute or two of whatever they’re showing. It always seems to involve a scene with a guy wearing a pencil-line moustache, a 3-piece suit and a fedora on his head. Smoking a cigarette and sitting on a desk, he talks to a blonde in the chair next to him: “Look, kiddo, I don’t care what your dad says. The two of us are going to get hitched in the spring. We’ll just make the best of things.”

Last night I stumbled across the 1933 “Counsellor at Law,” which had all the earmarks of the typical TCM movie. But when I clicked the “guide” button on my remote, I was intrigued to discover that the movie was about a wealthy and powerful Jewish lawyer caught between his lowly roots on the Lower East Side and his newfound status and connections.

The legendary John Barrymore plays the Jewish lawyer George Simon in the sort of powerful but stagy style he brought to all his roles. This is accentuated in the production itself, which is basically a film adaptation of a Broadway play written by Elmer Rice. Rice, who was born Elmer Reizenstein on Sept. 28, 1892, in New York City and trained as a lawyer, clearly was familiar with the characters and milieu described in this film. The FBI website, which has dossiers on many famous people, has this to say about him:

“Elmer Rice is a noted playwright, novelist, stage director, and producer. Rice was born on September 28, 1892, in New York City. Rice is a member of the New York Bar. The New York Times records reflect that Rice had made trips to Moscow in 1932 and 1936 to compare the Russian theater with the Theater’s in America.”

Although George Simon is clearly a social climber with many of the sleazy characteristics of somebody like Roy Cohn, he always has time for poor people from the old neighborhood, who are either Jewish or Irish in this screenplay.

His generosity has actually gotten him in trouble. He conspired to cook up a false alibi with a basically decent youth facing life imprisonment after a fourth conviction for petty theft. Another petty thief, now serving time in a prison upstate and who figured in the alibi, has now decided to rat out Simon in exchange for a reduced sentence. Simon’s enemies in the dog-eat-dog legal world are using this information to destroy his career.

Rice’s screenplay is filled with references to poverty-driven crime. It is not a movie in the escapist style of “Forty-Second Street” with Busby Berkeley dance numbers. It confronts the Great Depression head-on. Simon’s receptionist is so upset by all the economically ruined men jumping from windows in nearby buildings that she is on the verge of a nervous collapse. Meanwhile, Simon continues to get rich through inside information on stocks.

In a pivotal scene in the film, Simon meets with Harry Becker (Vincent Sherman), a Jewish Communist who has been beaten senseless by the cops during a protest and who faces a lengthy jail term for inciting to riot. In Simon’s opulent office, he advises the young man that he will defend him but that he has no time for his idiotic propaganda.

In response, Becker delivers a speech that is unlike any I have ever seen in a 1930s film. Standing up in front of Simon, he denounces him and the capitalist system. He calls him a parasite and an exploiter of his own workers. The language and the delivery make it clear that the director and screenwriter empathize with Becker.

“Counsellor at Law” was directed by William Wyler, who had a long and distinguished career in Hollywood. He got started as a director of silent films and made dozens of forgettable cowboy movies in the 1920s. He directed Lillian Hellman’s bitterly anti-capitalist “The Little Foxes” in 1941. Other credits include the 1946 “Best Years of Our Lives,” which deals with the difficult adjustments WWII veterans had to make, and the splashy but superficial 1959 epic “Ben-Hur.” Along with Larry Adler, John Huston, and Ira Gershwin, Wyler was a founding member of the Committee for the First Amendment, the group that stood up to the Hollywood witch-hunt in the late 1940s.

Besides being well-acted, well-written and socially relevant, “Counsellor at Law” has the additional merit of being a prime example of pre-Production Code film-making. Beginning in 1934, Hollywood films would be put through the scrutiny of censors. Films made before 1934 had a kind of vitality and honesty that would never be seen again.

In these pre-Code films, heroes weren’t angels but three-dimensional characters. In the case of Wyler’s film, suffice it to say that George Simon turns against the phony bourgeois world he has struggled to find a place in, but not entirely!

“Counsellor at Law” is available in VHS at your better stores and well-worth viewing, despite its staginess and tendency toward melodrama.

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