Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 24, 2005

Barry Sheppard’s “The Sixties: a political memoir”

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 4:21 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on April 24, 2005

Although–as soon will be obvious–I have many problems with Barry Sheppard’s “The Party,” I can recommend it without reservation as essential reading for anybody trying to understand revolutionary politics over the past half-century or so. Volume one, which is titled “The Sixties: a political memoir,” is now available from Haymarket books, the publishing arm of the International Socialist Organization:


Sheppard was a member of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States from 1959 until 1988, when he was expelled like hundreds of others before him in the course of the party’s degeneration. Although he understandably looks fondly on this Golden Age of the SWP (not by coincidence when he was second in command), others such as myself, Peter Camejo and literary scholar Alan Wald believe that the party was flawed all along by sectarian conceptions.

To give Barry his due, there is no question that the SWP was very good at what it did. If your goal is to create a “Marxist-Leninist” vanguard party, then his memoir will have useful hints about how such a formation can be constructed. With its combination of Trotskyist politics, stringent demands on time and financial contributions from the membership, and finely-honed organizational skills, the SWP blazed across the 1960s horizon until it burned out like a shooting star in the 1980s.

The SWP had a particularly strong relationship to Leon Trotsky. Unlike some of the European intellectuals who had been drawn to the Fourth International, American party leader James P. Cannon embodied the sort of proletarian no-nonsense spirit that pervades Sheppard’s memoir. From Cannon to Farrell Dobbs, who Sheppard’s memoir is dedicated to, you get a feeling that these are people who are not to be trifled with. With their single-mindedness of purpose and their plain talk, these party leaders made a young recruit like Sheppard in the late 1950s or a Louis Proyect in the late 1960s feel that we had made the right decision. The rest of the left smacked of petty-bourgeois dilettantism by contrast.

The down side of all this, however, is that the internal life of the party was often devoid of self-reflection. Readings tended to be narrowly restricted to the “Marxist classics,” which consisted of works like Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” or James P. Cannon’s party-building tracts. It would be very unusual for a party activist to spend (or waste) much time reading Mariategui, Gramsci, Paul Sweezy or any others outside of the fold. This is not to speak of scholars such as Neil Harding, whose 2-volume study of Lenin might have alerted a party member that we were going about things all wrong.

Although Barry Sheppard’s preface warns that “the project of building a nucleus of socialists that have as their objective the eventual formation of a mass revolutionary socialist party cannot be a repeat or replica of the SWP in ‘the Sixties,'” he seems committed to the idea of getting such a nucleus done right down the road. I have argued elsewhere that any notion of constructing a nucleus in terms understood by James P. Cannon or Farrell Dobbs is an exercise in futility. Since volume two of Barry’s memoir will address the thorny questions of why the SWP imploded, I will defer responding to his implicit ideas about party-building until they are made explicit.

In some ways, Sheppard’s volume one is a straightforward history of the SWP in the period from 1960 to 1973. It reads very much as if the author had sat down with old copies of the Militant newspaper and party resolutions and reconstructed a narrative. Since Sheppard himself was the quintessential organization man, it should come as no surprise that he devotes very little space to his personal affairs. A triangle with two women in the party is discussed in a paragraph or two. Its main importance is explaining a change of assignment made under the pressure of competing loves. Managing his love life meant that he had to cut down his working day to 8 hours from the usual 12! Such diversions were unacceptable.

Two of the major struggles taken up by Sheppard are the black liberation and antiwar movements. Despite the fact that the SWP was a relatively minor player in the black struggle, Sheppard’s memoir has eye-opening accounts of how the party and key black leaders interacted with each other. Malcolm X was probably the best known of them but Robert F. Williams also had an important relationship to the party.

Sheppard’s material complements research done by Timothy Tyson in “Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power.” Put briefly, Williams was a WWII veteran who launched an NAACP chapter in Monroe County, North Carolina in 1957. When the local KKK began terrorizing Blacks, Williams organized self-defense squads. He also worked with the local Lumbee Indians who sent the Klan packing one night with war whoops and shots fired into the air.

After the cops falsely accused Williams of kidnapping a couple of Klansmen, the SWP worked with other groups to spirit him out of the country. Eventually, the charges against Williams were dropped. Sheppard writes:

“Some of those in the North, including SWP members and our Canadian co-thinkers, knew him from pro-Cuba and other activities formed a modern underground railroad that brought him to Canada and from there to Cuba, where he was given political asylum. We helped set up the Committee to Aid the Monroe Defendants, which got out the truth about what happened in Monroe, and we began organizing the legal and public defense of the accused. After several years the frame-up was defeated and Williams eventually returned home, becoming active in Black rights struggles in Detroit.

“Three of the Freedom Riders who had gone to Monroe and aided the defense effort in New York joined the YSA and SWP, among them Ken Shilman, who became a party leader. Shilman had watched television coverage of the assaults on the first three Freedom Rides, and decided then and there to be on the next ride to the South. [Shilman died of cancer in 1989.]

“Freedom Rides occurred even as far North as Maryland, a border state, where many segregationist policies existed. Fred Feldman, who joined the SWP later [and Marxmail much later] and became a leading member of our writing staffs, was arrested seven times on these Maryland Freedom Rides.”

Reading Sheppard’s account of the antiwar movement will remind veterans (and familiarize newcomers) of the depth and breadth of activity in this country. Chicano members of the SWP were intimately involved in helping to found the Chicano Moratorium, which reached deep into the heart of the community. In June 1970, the Los Angeles cops attacked a rally organized by the Chicano Moratorium and killed an LA Times reporter named Ruben Salazar, who was shot point-blank in the head by a gas grenade. Sheppard describes these tumultuous events:

Just after the police riot started, other sheriffs had arrested Corky Gonzales [Gonzalez died recently] as he was driving to the rally to speak. He and a group were in an open truck on their way from Denver. A group of Chicanos crowded into the back of an open truck was “suspicious,” the sheriff said. So they stopped the truck, and then arrested the group on “suspicion of armed bank robbery.” While these phony charges didn’t stick, the cops got what they wanted — to disrupt the rally by preventing speakers from getting to it.

According to the sheriff’s department, “Hundreds of provocative acts were committed by known dissidents who came to the location to incite and foment trouble.” This was his excuse for the murder of Salazar and the police riot. While not very convincing, the cover story showed that his men were looking for dissidents like Corky Gonzales.

I was alone in the SWP National Office that day, so it was I who got the telephone call from Lew Jones, who was in L.A. to help organize our response. He gave me a rundown on the days events, and we planned out how we would get coverage for The Militant, and what proposals he would make to the Los Angeles branch for participation in protests against the police riot and murders.

Sheppard frequently alludes to the difficulties encountered by the SWP in the antiwar movement, which are reduced to a matter of political differences over mass action versus an orientation to the Democratic Party, and other less critical questions. While it is correct that the CPUSA created huge problems for the movement by constantly trying to sidetrack it into electoral politics, the SWP was hampered by the sort of “democratic centralist” muscle that could also push things forward. It was a double-edged sword. For honest independents that were by no means partial to the Democratic Party, the SWP could often appear as a monolithic presence totally indifferent to their wishes.

The aforementioned Lew Jones, who resigned from the SWP in the 1980s after becoming disaffected by growing sectarianism, now feels that the party was often heavy-handed in the way that it took advantage of bloc voting. In an interview with author Tom Wells in the essential “The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam,” Jones offers a somewhat different assessment of the 1968 split in the Student Mobilization Committee from Sheppard. For Sheppard, it was as simple as this: “The radical pacifists joined with the DuBois [CPUSA youth group] and others in order to scuttle the SMC as an antiwar organization. In part, this was a reflection of the rising pressures of electoral politics in a presidential year.”

Lew Jones, who was one of our floor leaders at this conference, admitted to Wells that the SWP’s approach was “greatly insensitive”. He added, “You’re dealing with forces coming into political motion for the first time, and you want to broaden out the movement, you don’t want to scare them away. And the SWP’s heavy-handedness sometimes had that effect.”

While Sheppard’s account of the positive relationships between the SWP and figures such as Robert F. Williams and Malcolm X is inspiring, he does not really come to grips with a problem that dogged the SWP throughout the period covered in volume one of his memoirs. Despite the party’s correct understanding of the dynamics of Black liberation, African-Americans never really joined the party in significant numbers. Furthermore, when they were members, they often felt vulnerable to charges that they were in a “white party.”

When I was in NYC in the late 1960s, a group of Black and Latino working class youth who had recently joined the Young Socialist Alliance–our youth group–was raising the idea of starting a chapter in Harlem that would effectively be free of white members. They felt that it would be a lot easier to recruit new Black and Latino members that way. A couple of the more seasoned and “orthodox” Black members of the party came down heavily on them invoking Lenin’s polemics against the Jewish Bund’s demand that it be free to operate as a separate group in the Russian Social Democracy.

While I would prefer to deal with organizational questions at greater length when I have had a chance to review volume two of Sheppard’s memoir, it would be useful at this point to indicate that the party’s understanding of the need for a racially and nationally united party was too unbending, as was the case with its participation in the antiwar movement.

A member of the SWP during this period who had been tempted to stray from orthodoxy might have come across the early history of the Communist movement in the USA, when Blacks had much more autonomy.

Despite the separatist name, the African Blood Brotherhood was the instrument of Communist Party involvement in the black struggle in the early 1920s. The ABB [nothing in common with the more recent phenomenon!] editorialized in The Crusader: “Security for Poles and Serbs, Why not for Colored Nations?” They also called for a separate Black state in the United States and were strong supporters of the Irish Easter Uprising of 1916.

After joining the Communists, ABB leader Cyril Briggs began working closely with other Black members such as Otto Huiswoud and Claude McKay, who would later become known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance.

The 1920 ABB convention defined resistance to the KKK, support for a united front of black organizations, and promotion of higher wages and better working conditions for black workers as paramount. While calling for “racial self respect,” it also maintained that cooperation with “class-conscious white workers” was necessary. As the ABB drew closer to the Communist Party, nationalistic prejudices as such became less frequent. The Crusader, which was now the semiofficial organ of the ABB, declared that while the oppression of blacks was more severe, blacks and Jews shared a historic experience of persecution.

As opposed to Garvey’s nationalist movement, the Marxists of the ABB did not view “Africa for the Africans” as an invitation to capitalist development. Briggs wrote, “Socialism and Communism [were] in practical application in Africa for centuries before they were even advanced as theories in the European world.” Within a year or so, the ABB would have evolved into a full-fledged black Marxist organization. In “The Cry was Unity: Communists and African Americans 1917-1936,” Mark Solomon describes the process:

“Briggs and the New Negro radicals who gravitated into the Communist orbit were staking out new ideological grounds on the black political landscape. Shortly after the ‘Salvation’ article, Briggs joined the Communist Party and resolved some of the article’s ambiguities, softening (but not renouncing) the nationalist temperament. He and his ABB comrades now clearly advocated a historic shift in the objectives of the black freedom struggle from assimilation into the bourgeois order to a socialist transformation; in the class composition of black leadership from middle class to proletarian; and in the class character of African American alliances with whites, from bourgeois liberal to the working-class left.”

Within two or three years, the Comintern began to lay down a much more narrow understanding of Communist Party organizational principles that would make semi-independent formations such as the ABB impossible. By the mid 1920s, Black members of the party were constantly being reminded of Lenin’s abjurations to the Bund no matter how inapplicable that was to the American landscape. While the last thing I would recommend is setting down in granite how Blacks or other oppressed nationalities should organize themselves, it would seem to me that flexibility is needed if for no other reason that organizational principles should serve revolutionary goals and not some pristine notion of what Lenin did or did not do.

Despite his unstinting endorsement of the party-building wisdom of James P. Cannon and Farrell Dobbs, there are some dark clouds that occasionally crop up in Sheppard’s memoir. We learn that James P. Cannon was not above forming cliques when the spirit moved him. In a footnote to chapter 34 titled “Farrell Dobbs and the Political Committee,” we learn:

What I experienced in the early 1960s were attempts by Cannon to establish what amounted to a dual center in Los Angeles that challenged the authority of the Political Committee in New York.

One aspect of this was holding frequent meetings of the NC members residing in L. A. to discuss and adopt positions on national political questions and then using this leverage in the party as a whole. Later, these meetings included NC members from the San Francisco Bay Area as well.

What was involved was not comrades with opposing political views to the majority of the party getting together in a tendency or a faction, based on a common political position. Such political formations can be helpful in clarifying political debates.

But the meetings in L.A. had no political basis. Sometimes their proposals were helpful’ sometimes not, but that was not the point. These meetings undercut the authority of the center in New York and cast doubts on its capabilities.

Farrell told me, probably in 1963, that Cannon “wouldn’t get his dead hand off the steering wheel.” After Peter Camejo moved to Berkeley, he was invited as a member of the NC to one of these meetings in Los Angeles.

Peter told the meeting why he didn’t think it was right to have these meetings of a geographical subset of the National Committee. He said he was leaving the meeting, and wouldn’t attend future ones. This put a stop to the practice.

Since Cannon has the reputation of being some kind of saint in circles still devoted to the memory of the SWP or efforts to recreate such a model, this is truly eye-opening stuff. While it is not as bad as discovering that the kindly Catholic priest in your local church was abusing altar boys, it comes close in Trotskyist terms.

Sheppard even faults Farrell Dobbs on the way he handled attempts to get the SWP to keep the Gay Liberation movement at arm’s length. Even though Dobbs is described in the dedication as “Selfless, incorruptible, fair-minded and warm human being and friend,” he comes across as practically Machiavellian when it comes to gays and the party.

Basically Sheppard accuses Dobbs of catering to the prejudices of his own brother Roland (who was on Marxmail briefly until our “petty bourgeois” politics drove him off) and Nat Weinstein (who is on Marxmail right now.) Sheppard had prepared a line resolution for the 1973 convention on the Gay movement that allowed local branches to “relate to concrete local activities and organizations” but stopped short of projecting an “organized national party participation.” The resolution would also take no position on the “relative merits of homosexuality or heterosexuality,” which one supposes was an advance over the naked prejudices embodied in the party’s past, when open homosexuals were excluded from membership on the basis that they might be subject to blackmail. Sheppard did note that it is logically absurd to assume that open homosexuals would be afraid of blackmail.

Dobbs advised Sheppard to drop the reference to local branches acting on their own initiative. He didn’t want anything in the resolution that would raise the hackles of a “substantial layer of the party” that agreed with his brother and Nat Weinstein. He was afraid of a split over the Gay movement, even though the opposition in the party–in Dobbs’s words–was based “purely and simply on prejudice.”

With all due respect to the late Farrell Dobbs and to Barry Sheppard, who regrets the decision because it cost some members, this cuts to the heart of what Lenin was all about. In “What is to be Done,” Lenin argues against simple economism and for the Russian Social Democracy becoming the tribune of the people. Lenin wrote:

“Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected – unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a Social-Democratic point of view and no other. The consciousness of the working masses cannot be genuine class-consciousness, unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical, and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata, and groups of the population.”

Although I had never considered this possibility before, it strikes me after reading Sheppard’s discussion of the Gay Liberation resolution that this might have been the first symptom of the party’s headlong decline into workerist sectarianism.

I want to conclude this article with a personal note on my own experience versus Barry Sheppard’s, which are as different as night and day despite my political agreement with him during my own time in the SWP from 1967 to 1978. I was basically a rank-and-filer who never held a fulltime assignment in the party. From the time I joined the party to my final days, I was a computer programmer and often came to branch meetings in a business suit. Until the “turn toward industry,” there was no special stigma attached to this, but afterwards I was made to feel unclean. My only redemption was getting a factory job and wearing windbreakers with a trade union logo.

In addition, I came from a different background than most party members. I identified with the beat generation and had absolutely no interest in radical politics as an undergraduate. My eyes opened only after taking a job for the welfare department in Harlem and facing the draft in 1967. That led me to join the party.

From the very beginning, I felt alienated from the leadership. They were nothing like the people I knew from Bard College or even my fellow workers at Metropolitan Life. They were utterly unconnected to the powerful cultural changes that were transforming American society and appeared and thought in very conventional terms, except for their revolutionary politics. It was agreement on this that persuaded me not to drop out a few months after joining. At my very first branch meeting, one of the young party leaders grabbed a flap of my new wide-wale gold corduroy bell-bottom trousers and commented: “Petty-bourgeois pants.”

From 1967 until I dropped out, I always maintained a distance from the party. I never felt like I truly belonged. As long as there was forward growth in the party and a willingness on the part of the party brass to accept me on my own terms, I would remain a member and do what I could to build the organization. After 1977, growth slowed down to a trickle and membership review committees were constituted to monitor how well individual members were carrying out the turn. I was instructed by the chairman of my local committee to leave NYC and get out of computer programming. I was willing to comply, but warned if things did not work out, I’d come back to NYC unaffiliated. That didn’t seem to bother anybody in the party leadership. Of course, my most important political work would lie in the future when the FSLN and the ANC were more than happy to utilize my programming skills and my ability to recruit volunteers on their behalf.

In 1975, just before this separation of the wheat from the chaff period began, I was invited by Barry Sheppard to come to NYC and work on a project to automate the Militant newspaper and Pathfinder Press.

In the evenings, I would take the subway up from Salomon Brothers to party headquarters where I would sit in on design sessions with 2 other programmers assigned to the project.

About 3 months into the project, Sheppard had returned from a trip to Brussels where he was representing the SWP at Fourth International executive committee meetings. As I spotted him striding into the 3rd floor offices with a big Cuban cigar in his mouth, I began to walk toward him to shake hands and fill him in on the progress we had been making.

After walking perhaps 10 feet in his direction, his secretary spotted me and literally jumped out of his chair to block my path. He told me that nobody spoke to Barry without an appointment. I was so shocked by his behavior and the power relationships it encapsulated that I began thinking right then about the need to separate myself from this crazy organization that was more hierarchical and more alienating than anything I had ever run into on Wall Street.

April 23, 2005

Andre Gunder Frank

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:20 am

Dear friends and colleagues of Gunder’s,

We are writing to let you know that Gunder died early this morning. He fought cancer with great courage, and was still working until two weeks ago, though in recent weeks he worked fewer and fewer hours every day because of pain and exhaustion. He worked with more strength and determination than we have the words to tell – until his body gave up. In the last couple of days, all he could do was to hold our hands.

In the last three days, we have received more than a thousand e-mail messages of condolence, remembrance, and friendship from friends and colleagues of Gunder’s all over the world. Paul has tried to answer each message individually. Please forgive us if we don’t reply to each message we receive in response to this.

We, Gunder’s family, will have a small gathering to express our love for Gunder before he is cremated on Tuesday afternoon, April 26 in the Luxembourg crematory. Friends and colleagues who wish or are able to attend are welcome to come. We know from hundreds of messages that most friends who would like to be here will not be able to travel on such short notice.

Alison’s e-mail address is:
Miguel’s e-mail: mfrank@europarl.eu.int
Miguel’s phone number is +352 091 656 236
Paul’s e-mail: paulfrank@post.harvard.edu

Paul and Miguel Frank
Paul Frank Chinese-English translator

Although the only contact I ever had with Andre Gunder Frank was participating on the same mailing listss, he certainly made a strong impact on me. Whether you agreed or disagreed with A.G. Frank, he was not easily forgotten or ignored. I own five of his books and have referred to them frequently over the years, especially the MR classics that deal with dependency theory. Frank was vulnerable to charges from his detractors that he was insufficiently grounded in Marxist theory. However, he compensated by exposing class and national injustice. In many ways, his theories about the development of underdevelopment, etc. are merely secondary. Primarily, I considered him to be the academic voice of the Cuban revolution. If Fidel Castro said that the revolution must be socialist or it will be a caricature of a revolution, then Andre Gunder Frank was the scholar who embodied that message in nearly everything he wrote. To the very end, Frank wrote penetrating critiques of US foreign policy that never yielded an inch to “humanitarian intervention” sensibilities. He never mellowed in his old age and because of illness. He will be remembered.

From A.G. Frank’s autobiography at: http://rrojasdatabank.info/agfrank/personal.html#short

But to those that are still with me, I don’t want to leave a wrong impression that I have only or even primarily pursued an academic or worse an intellectual career, since the only career I have made is not to have one. On the contrary from along my path through what now seems like a global labyrinth, I can also record countless other more practical both more important and more mundane occupations that re not necessarily unrelated to each other or to my mis-named ‘professional’ ones. These were also frequently interrupted, or as again now, complemented by quite a lot of unemployment. My jobs began with the usual newspaper route, delivering the OUTLOOK and also working as a gardener in Santa Monica, California. There also, I held down a somewhat less usual job for a 13 year old, working in a liquor store, first in the stockroom and then at the counter selling liquor and mostly beer to the thousands of bathers at the Pacific Ocean beach just across the then US 101, now California 1. At that same beach, I was also ‘self-empoyed’ as a beach-comber to retrieve the same and other bottles again in order turn them in to my same employer so as to collect the deposits of 2 cents each for 12 oz. and 5 cents each for 32 oz. beer bottles. The job brought me my social security card, and the income went to repeatedly buying eyeglasses to replace the just lost or broken ones, to send money to my working mother in Idaho and Michigan, and then in August 1943 to buy myself a train ticket to take the Union Pacific to go live with her there – as it turned out for six months, until she moved to New York.

So then around my 15th birthday, I decided to remain alone in Ann Arbor to complete the rest of my sophomore and then my junior and senior years of high school. I worked first in a grocery store, then as a waiter, later and after school as janitor in my own school till they fired me and I got a job still in the same building in the Public Library, at then again at other janitorial jobs cleaning junior highs on Saturdays, and later after school washing dishes at the Michigan Union and serving as a model for an art class. My ‘free’ time was devoted to athletics, mostly competitive long distance running, for three years in high school years, continued for four years in college, and one even in graduate school. It was as a high school runner that my team-mates babtized me with the [nick]name Gunder, which was derived from the Swedish then holder of world records in five events, who like me was always separated from the rest of the field, the difference being that he was a half track ahead and I a half track behind the others. [Being half way out of the field seems to have become some sort of a habit of mine, though since then I seem to have been mostly half a lap ahead of the rest – which entails even more discomfort than being behind!]. The name Andre came later when I myself dropped the last letter from my Andrew in English and Andres in Spanish after a librarian asked me if they these are the same author or not, whose first name was Andreas in German.

Anyway, after high school, I sold magazines door-to-door in Ohio with the come on door opener, as the standard saying went, ‘to earn money for college’. In 1946, I actually did that – at Swarthmore in Pennsylvania from which I graduated with honors in 1950. Thereby [excepting the 5 years in the Swiss boarding school], I had now equalled my previous record of 4 years in any one place during the first four years of my life from 1929 to 1933 in Berlin. In my college years and after, I again sold newspaper and worked as a waiter and/or busboy, and after that as well in Atlantic City and San Francisco, near Holland Michigan and near Albuquerque New Mexico, and so on. Along the way here and there, I also picked potatoes, apples and cherries.

During summer vacations in college and for many years after that, I held down all sorts of jobs until I was fired from most of them – always for the same reason: insubordination. These jobs included building pre-fab houses in the Washington DC suburbs, digging ditches and laying the concrete sidewalk from the north-west corner of the campus of the University of Michigan campus to its library, and therefore many years later I could tell my son that I had once made a ‘concrete’ contribution to his welfare there as a graduate student. In Washington state, I worked in a saw mill and then as a logger, as well as again digging ditches and ‘gandy-dancing’, that is laying railroad track. In Michigan, I built automobiles at Willow Run [which had been built during World War II to manufacture B 17bombers], and in New Orleans I tended 32 spools in a row of twine to spin them for the International Harvester Corporation. There, I also worked as a private eye, as well as of course in the French Quarter tourist industry as a waiter on Bourbon Street, a picture painter in Jackson Square, and in the Mardi Gras parade walking around dressed as a huge paper-mache Old Gran Dad whisky bottle, on which people knocked asking for samples that I was unable to supply. Alas, I had no ”aptitude” for any of these: I had taken an employment aptitude test at the Louisiana State Employment Commission, which showed that , as they duly informed me, I had aptitude for NOthing, and especially NO INTELLECTUIAL aptitude. Therefore, they said, I should try my hand at automobile mechanic, as which they however could find no job for me. In San Francisco, I carted refrigerators and similar household equipment up three flights of stairs for a moving company, and for free concert attendance I ushered people up and down the aisles of the San Francisco Opera House. At Union Square, I wrapped Christmas presents in the basement of the fancy I. Magnin department store until I was fired for refusing to warp something too ugly for words and in my opinion for wrapping. In Chicago, I loaded freight cars at night, and in the daytime I was supposed to placate the irate customers of a furniture store whose sales personnel made their sales by promising delivery dates that were impossible to meet. Since I sided more with their innocent customer victims, the sales people had me fired.

This self-training in ‘public relations’ may have offered me good experience when later in Mexico, I trapsed around rural villages trouble shooting an American company’s snafus in ‘community development’. In Mexico also, I initiated and then taught the first ever course on Latin American development at the national university UNAM. My Chicago PhD in Economics, yes with Milton Friedman, finally did me some good in Brazil where it proved to be my union card for an appointment to teach anthropology in the still under construction Brasilia where the since then my friend and now late Darcy Ribeiro at the time thought he needed more PhDs on the staff to establish the ‘academic legitimacy’ of the also still under construction UNB National University of Brazil of which he was founder rector, before he became the head of staff for the President Jango Goulart, until both went into exile after the military coup of March 30, 1964.

April 22, 2005

Supporting the Resistance?

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:58 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on April 22, 2005

Back in 1967 I was being courted by both the Trotskyist SWP and the Maoist Progressive Labor Party (PLP), groups I had been introduced to by New School for Social Research graduate school classmates. The SWP was heavily involved with the mass demonstrations against the war, while PLP was deeply imbedded in Students for Democratic Society (SDS).

My Maoist classmate kept harping on the need for the anti-war movement to become “anti-imperialist”. Since I was newly radicalizing (but not yet familiar with the Marxist methodology), this argument had much appeal. What good was it to oppose the specific war in Vietnam when the system would generate other wars down the road? Furthermore, since SDS had just begun to identify itself with the NLF and other guerrilla groups worldwide, the temptation to embrace slogans that specifically supported the insurgency were strong. In contrast, the SWP appeared tame if not “moderate” by limiting itself to slogans like immediate withdrawal.

One Friday night at SWP headquarters, where a public forum was about to begin, I repeated the PLP objections to my Trotskyist classmate. He then walked me over to a party member named Dan Styron who patiently explained to me what was wrong with those arguments. He said that the antiwar movement was objectively anti-imperialist. By maximizing the number of people in the streets, we begin to draw in elements of the population who have the social power to stop the war–like GI’s and workers. If the antiwar movement can help to force the US to withdraw from Vietnam, it will encourage revolutionary struggles everywhere. In effect, Dan was expressing the spirit of Karl Marx’s observation that “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.” Shortly afterwards I joined the Trotskyist movement and kept Dan’s words at the back of my mind all these years. (Dan committed suicide in the late 1970s.)

They come to mind once again after reading Alan Maas’s article titled “What Kind of Movement Do We Need? Attempts to Limit Debate Only Weaken Antiwar Organizing” in the ISO newspaper (http://www.socialistworker.org/2005-1/540/540_03_Movement.shtml) and which also appears on www.dissidentvoice.org. Although Alan makes useful points about the need to stand up to attempts to reduce the Iraqi resistance to Baathist thuggery or Islamic fundamentalism, he does not really seem aware of the bigger problems facing the antiwar movement. Fundamentally, the debate about how to characterize the resistance is a diversion from a much more urgent task–namely, how to achieve maximum unity around the demand for immediate withdrawal. Even Alan acknowledges:

“Most antiwar organizations today do agree on an all-important demand, at least on paper — immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. This is a solid basis for united action — one that can be embraced by both activists who have taken the lead in challenging the occupation and people only getting started in activism.”

It should also be noted that at the debate between fellow ISO member Anthony Arnove and Tariq Ali on one side and Joanne Landy and Stephen Shalom on the other at the Left Forum conference, all of the debaters supported immediate withdrawal. Instead, the debate was about how to characterize the armed resistance, with the nominally “left” position amounting to open support for it. This, in my opinion, is not really critical for defending those who are fighting for the freedom of their country. What is much more important is building a powerful movement that can appeal to GI’s and working people and draw them into action in ever-increasing numbers. In other words, we have the same task we had in the 1960s.

Although I have a lot of respect for the ISO and am happy that they are a growing force on the American left, there is still an element of PLP/SDS type ultraleftism that gets in the way of their becoming even more influential. It is also of some concern that a group that has the numbers that can effect the future direction of the antiwar movement lacks the political clarity to make a difference. In an article by Geoff Bailey that appeared in the September–October 2003 International Socialist Review titled “The making of a new left: The rise and fall of SDS,” we read:

“The strength of the Stalinist currents in SDS was increased by the weakness of the Trotskyist tradition. The largest Trotskyist organization in the U.S., the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), played a central role in the various national coordinating committees that organized the semi-annual mass antiwar demonstrations in Washington as well as in the youth wing, the Student Mobilization Committee (SMC). But the SWP always looked at the antiwar movement as a single-issue movement and reacted with outright hostility to any attempt to inject more radical, anti-imperialist politics into it. It dismissed SDS as a petty-bourgeois, semi-anarchist group, and while it had a large presence in the SMC, it made no attempt to influence the debates inside SDS. Instead of playing the role of the revolutionary left-wing of the antiwar movement, the SWP gave a left cover to the pacifists and liberals who dominated the coordinating committees.”

full: http://www.isreview.org/issues/31/sds.shtml

I am afraid that this paragraph is a guide to the poorly thought-out role that the ISO has assigned for itself in the antiwar movement today. I would argue that instead of aspiring to the “the revolutionary left-wing of the antiwar movement,” the ISO should be focusing on what steps are necessary to unite everybody who is for immediate withdrawal in effective mass actions. Instead of “left brain” exercises calculated to show how Naomi Klein gets failing grades in an anti-imperialist final exam, the comrades should be assessing the US left and broader formations such as the church, the trade unions, etc. to figure out how to move the struggle forward. Unity, not anti-imperialist litmus tests are what is needed. This takes an entirely different set of skills than are required to “expose” Joanne Landy. In fact, she exposes herself every time she opens her mouth.

Now that I am in the final pages of Barry Sheppard’s memoir (available from Haymarket Books, the ISO publishing arm–I hope they read it), I am more convinced than ever of the need to build an objectively anti-imperialist movement. This means figuring out how to tap the raw energy of high school and college students who despise this war and who are fearful of an impending draft. But it also means figuring out how to speak to the trade unions that are in the orbit of UFJP, most of whom are solidly against the war but are susceptible to pressures during election years. Now that the elections are behind us, it is extremely urgent for the most far-sighted elements of the mass movement to put forward action proposals that address the powerful and deep opposition to the war in this country and internationally. That is the true revolutionary task of our age.

April 16, 2005

Left Forum 2005

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 8:16 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on April 16, 2005

This is a report on Left Forum 2005 (http://www.2005leftforum.org/), an academic conference that is a pole of attraction for the people who contribute to journals like New Left Review, Monthly Review, Science and Society, Socialist Register, New Politics, etc.

Essentially it is a continuation of the Socialist Scholars Conference which suffered a split last year after Eric Canepa, the long-time conference coordinator, was fired by the steering committee. A near majority resigned in protest and launched the Left Forum. The program is identical to that of the Socialist Scholars Conference. There is a mixture of panels on the “new imperialism”, the state of the labor movement, Marxism and philosophy or psychology, ecology, etc. The plenary sessions are dominated by celebrities such as Barbara Ehrenreich or Cornel West. I make it a habit to stay away from them.

Although there has not been an airing out of the politics that led to the split, it arose out of differences over Yugoslavia and other “humanitarian interventions.” Canepa had been accused of being too soft on Milosevic sympathizers and other “hard leftists” by Bogdan Denitch and other steering committee members whose Dissent Magazine type politics favored an even more explicit orientation to the Democratic Party and liberal imperialism. I had heard that they favored a kind of synthesis between their kind of socialism, such as it is, and the forces around the Dean campaign, moveon.org, etc.

It is a little hard for me to take seriously the idea the Left Forum people are pro-Milosevic or Saddam Hussein because one of their prime movers is Stanley Aronowitz, a long time leader of DSA, America’s leading social democratic organization. My guess is that they correctly assessed the attack on Canepa as an attack on the independent and radical character of the Socialist Scholars Conference, despite its flaws. In other words, the fact that the Left Forum happened and the fact that it was well-attended (as far as I can tell) is important for the left. In their magnanimity, the Left Forum organizers even allowed Bogdan to speak at the closing plenary, curse his eyes.

As has been my tradition for the past several years, I attend only one day of the conference since it is not worth an entire weekend to me. Basically, a lot of the panels involve people saying the same thing that they have been saying in one form or another for years. If you’ve heard Leo Panitch making the case that US imperialism is not declining, there is no need to hear it for the fourth or fifth time no matter how many accolades he has received. Two or three times should suffice.

The other thing that bugs me is the utter inability of proles like me to make comments during the discussion period for more than a minute or two. After hearing 3 speakers go on for an hour or so, you lose the motivation to make a 2 minute response. No matter how you slice it, these conferences replicate the culture of the academy with its refereed journals, its dissertation boards and its mad scramble for tenure and status.

That being said, the three panels I attended today were fairly interesting.

They started off with a 10am debate on Iraq between Anthony Arnove and Tariq Ali on one side and Joanne Landy and Stephen Shalom on the other. Although all four panelists were in favor of immediate withdrawal from Iraq, the nub of the debate was how to regard “the resistance”. Arnove and Ali supported it, while Landy and Shalom staked out a “third camp” position in tune with New Politics magazine, where they both serve as editors. Arnove, a member of the ISO, referred to the racism and Islamophobia that was infecting sections of the antiwar movement. He is of course correct. Ali made the essential point that it would have been a disaster if the occupation had not encountered an armed revolt. It would have allowed Bush to gloat over his “great victory” for democracy.

Shalom and Landy clearly despise the people who are shooting at American troops. For Shalom, the mass demonstrations of the kind that took place in Baghdad last week are the only legitimate form of resistance. Landy circulates petitions blaming the resistance for the murder of the Iraqi trade unionist. Since nobody has a clue who killed him, it is disingenuous in the extreme to demand that the antiwar movement take a stand against such killings as if the culprits were ex-Baathists. Nobody can be sure at this point who killed him.

In a way, the debate reflected the somewhat “soft” character of the Left Forum, despite claims to the contrary by Bogdan Denitch and company. Tariq Ali, the “street fighting man”, spent a lot of energy last year urging a vote for John Kerry, who attacked George W. Bush from the right on the war in Iraq. Although I have nothing but praise for the ISO on its involvement in the Nader campaign and for its willingness to stick up for the freedom fighters in Iraq (so there, Bogdan Denitch!!), the exchange between him and his detractors seemed confusing at times. Landy, who achieved some notoriety for her anti-Soviet agitation in the 1970s and 80s, bragged about her refusal to take sides in the Cold War. In response, Arnove made the obligatory denunciation of “Soviet imperialism”. Landy also rubbed his nose in the fact that he signed one of her stupid fucking petitions during the first Gulf War about how “we the undersigned are opposed to both George Bush and Saddam Hussein.” I hope the comrades in the ISO have learned from the experience. In fact, I expect they have since none of them have signed Landy’s petition supporting the counter-revolution in Cuba.

For a real debate to take place, it would have been necessary to include somebody like Jim Petras. Petras even goes farther than me in taking up the cause of the USA’s latest bogeyman. I imagine that Joanne Landy would never speak from the same platform as him after he denounced her Cuba petition and her past membership in the Council on Foreign Relations.

In his closing remarks, Tariq Ali really made a fool out of Stephen Shalom who kept baiting the hard left about whether it should have backed Pol Pot because the USA was attacking Cambodia. Ali dryly observed that the only reason that the Khmer Rouge had a seat in the UN for 12 years is that the USA and Great Britain resisted all attempts to unseat it.

The next panel at 12pm was an examination of “fascism”. One presenter, an editor of Cultural Logic who came up to me to say hello (I am on the editorial board–please keep that a secret), had some wittily dismissive things to say about Philip Roth’s new novel, which imagines President Charles Lindbergh instituting fascism in the USA. Michel Warshawsky explained why Israel was not fascist. But the most interesting if muddled presentation came from a North Carolina A&M professor who tried to resuscitate the “3rd period” ideology of the early 1930s, citing R. Palme Dutt, and contemporary American authors (including Thomas Frank) who dwell on the ultraright. He believed that loss of hegemony might provoke a fascist takeover in the USA rather than a need to repress an unruly working class.

I took the opportunity during the discussion period to present my own views on fascism in about two minutes or so. Fortunately I am a very fast speaker.

I started off by noting that fascism is about repression, while the rightwing in the USA, particularly the Christian right, is about self-repression. Thomas Frank’s book is basically about working class people who repress themselves. They deny themselves alcohol, pornography and other nice things while happily kissing the hand of the boss or politician who cuts their wages, benefits and social safety net. If these people ever stop repressing themselves and begin to bite the hand that slaps them, then there might come a time when the boss is required to organize fascist bands. That time is nowhere near. We are passing through a period of intense quiescence, not class struggle. That could change, of course, but we should not be chicken littles. That’s not the role of Marxism.

I also noted that after Great Britain lost its empire and world hegemonic status, it did not see fit to organize fascist bands. It just muddled along as junior partner to US imperialism. Since the USA models itself on the British Empire rather than the Third Reich, perhaps we can see our own future in Great Britain’s slow steady decline. Of course, if you are a member of the British ruling class, things are not really that bad one way or the other.

Speaking of slow, steady decline, the last panel I attended was on Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”. I heard presentations by Neil Smith, a CUNY professor with a fine Scottish burr and John Bellamy Foster who described Diamond’s book as “terrible”.

After the discussion ended, I was approached by a Greek Marxist who is on the editorial board of one of the country’s leading journals. He told me that he is a regular reader of the Marxmail archives and finds the discussion here very interesting. So keep up the good work, Comrade Organic Intellectuals!!

April 14, 2005

Academic Freedom

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:09 am

posted to www.marxmail.org on April 14, 2005

Last night I attended a meeting organized by the ISO at NYC’s Cooper Union that was advertised as “Is there an academic black-list?”. Monique Dols, a Columbia student and ISO member, was the first speaker. She has been involved with organizing on campus to protect the academic freedom of professors in the Middle East and Asian Language and Culture (MEALAC) department. She wrote about the struggle in Counterpunch a couple of days ago: http://www.counterpunch.org/dols04112005.html

She was followed by Joseph Massad, a non-tenured professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History, who has borne the brunt of Zionist attacks on this department. It would be very useful if his talk could be made available on the Internet since it really gets to the heart of the matter. Massad explained that the Israeli government and its lackeys in the USA are trying to eliminate scholarship in the academy around Israel and Palestine, but cloak their attack in terms of rooting out anti-Semitism. He made the case that much of what he teaches in his course is not that controversial in scholarly circles, including Israel itself. These views are not acceptable to the Zionist establishment, however.

The final speaker was Tariq Ali who offered biting commentary on the hypocrisy of these attacks. The Zionists are for “balance” in departments like MEALAC, but where else are there such calls for balance? You would think that from the howls of protest that the media is filled with pro-Palestinian reportage and editorials. The demand for “balance” has even effected his speaking engagements. He is told from time to time from an organizer that they are under pressure to find a speaker with an opposing viewpoint. Ali tells them fine, get Kenan Makiya, Fouad Ajami or Thomas Friedman–but these people have all declined to debate him. Ali made the point that there is nothing wrong with debate. The left favors a confrontation of ideas, but the real drive at Columbia and elsewhere is simply to silence Massad and others like him.

Also invited to speak but unable to make an appearance because of illness was Harvard professor Sara Roy. I had no idea that the same crap going on at Columbia is going on at Harvard. Roy has an article in the London Review of Books at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n07/roy_01_.html. She begins as follows:

“Recently, at Harvard University where I am based, a Jewish student, using an assumed (gentile) name, began posting anti-semitic statements on the weblog of the Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice, an anti-war, pro-Palestinian group on campus. The student, it turned out, is the secretary of Harvard Students for Israel – which dissociated itself from the incident – and had previously accused the HIPJ of being too tolerant of anti-semitism. He now went undercover as part of a self-appointed effort to monitor anti-semitism on campus. In one posting, for example, he referred to Israel as the ‘AshkeNAZI state’. Incidents of this kind, which are becoming commonplace on American campuses, reflect a wider determination to monitor, report, defame and punish those individuals and institutions within academia whose views the right finds objectionable. The campaign is directed at area studies generally but the most virulent attacks are reserved for those of us in Middle Eastern studies whose ideas are considered anti-Israel, anti-semitic or anti-American.”

It should not come as any great surprise that the Harvard and Columbia administration are caving in to pressure. In the fall of 2002, Larry Summers and Lee Bollinger signed a full-page ad that ran in the NY Times calling attention to an alleged rise in anti-Semitic incidents on campus. This ad was really inspired by a growing movement for divestment from Israel. Another signatory was Leon Botstein, president of Bard College. My letter to Botstein can be read at: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/jewish/Botstein.htm.

Essentially, people such as Summers and Bollinger are in a quandary. They understand that free intellectual inquiry and Zionism are pretty much incompatible. If you allow departments concerned with Middle East affairs to set their own agenda and hire without outside pressure, they will inevitably hire people like Joseph Massad who has impeccable scholarly credentials. He has 2 books scheduled for publication this year, one from Harvard and the other from Routledge press. Ali noted that the schools would be hard-pressed to find a Zionist professor to replace him unless they scraped the bottom of the barrel and found a Daniel Pipes.

Harvard and Columbia want the cachet of having people like the late Edward Said on the faculty. About 5 years ago, George Rupp–the previous president of Columbia–came to speak to our department. He talked about the competition between NYU and Columbia over which institution will achieve the most prestige. Key to the competition was lining up top names in the faculty, such as Marxist scholar Jon Elster who had just joined the university. I was amused to see Rupp specifically refer to Elster as a Marxist and felt vindicated in front of my fellow programmers.

On April 11th, a letter appeared in the NY Times answering an April 7th editorial calling attention to “Intimidation at Columbia.” It read as follows:

The essence of a university lies in not sanctioning professors or students for the content of their ideas – even when some find them offensive. Universities permit radical ideas because they demand rigorous proof before accepting ideas as facts.

Columbia does not operate in the way you describe. Individual departments do not have the “power to appoint and promote faculty,” and therefore cannot have that power “wrested away” from them. The tenure review process is carefully designed to exclude a candidate’s department from wielding any power over the final tenure decisions.

A close reading of the faculty committee’s report would suggest that assertions against Joseph Massad, a professor in the Middle Eastern studies department, have not been proved and that sharp disagreement exists among students about whether the incidents in question even took place.

Akeel Bilgrami Jonathan R. Cole Jon Elster New York, April 7, 2005 The writers are, respectively, a professor of philosophy; a professor of the university and a former provost; and a professor of social sciences at Columbia University.

Clearly, what is called for (and which was insisted on at the meeting) is a bold and energetic movement to protect academic freedom. Without grass-roots pressure, people like Jon Elster and Jonathan R. Cole might be reluctant to step forward. Ali was somewhat perplexed by the failure of tenured professors to come to Massad’s defense. If they were tenured, why should they be afraid to speak out? In fact, we can only salute Massad himself who has been more visible and outspoken than anybody, despite being untenured.

A very important meeting, all in all.

April 13, 2005


Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 4:33 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on April 13, 2005

Over the last couple of months, I have become a big fan of “Househunters”, a half-hour show that appears nightly on the House and Garden cable TV network and that is as ritualized as Kabuki. It starts usually with the introduction of a couple and their children who have outgrown their current house or apartment. If they are renters, they make clear that their dream is to own something. They see a house as an investment. Renters watching this show cannot help but feel that they are losers.

They proceed to go out with a realtor and evaluate 3 houses like Goldilocks. One house might be too expensive, the other too small, etc. Typically, the 3rd house is the one they make an offer on–it is usually the most expensive. After the final commercial, they get a call back from the broker who breaks the good news to them that their bid has been accepted. The final minute or two consists of a tour of their new house, with their moved-in furniture and a fresh paint job usually. The family cannot be happier.

While the househunters are usually heterosexual, there is a lot of a metrosexuality on display even from blue-collar husbands who feel comfortable describing a house under evaluation as having “charm” or “character.” I can’t imagine my own deceased father speaking that way. When he bought our house back in 1958, it was strictly to relieve the constant pressure from my mother and not because he had dreams of backyard barbecues. He was a truckdriver before WWII and would have been content to continue living in the apartment above a nightclub in our rural upstate NY village. My mother thought that it was not a healthy place to raise children, since I spent far too much time in the kosher slaughterhouse behind our apartment building staring in wonder at ritual chicken-slashing. I also enjoyed hanging out in front of the nightclub in the evenings with the “greeter”, a former professional boxer and heroin addict named Barney Ross. Ross, who was a Jew like the nightclub owners, my family and just about everybody else in our village, had acquired his drug habit at a veteran’s hospital where he had been given morphine for wounds suffered at Guadalcanal.

Next week or so I finally will close on the sale of my parent’s house. My mother went into a nursing home last May and I have spent nearly $20,000 and close to a month getting it into shape. The proceeds of the sale will allow me to stay in my apartment in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where the rent has now gone up to $2100 per month. At first I had hopes to purchase a co-op or condominium with the proceeds of the sale of my house but have discovered that the real estate bubble in Manhattan makes that impossible. The median price of an apartment in NYC right now is one million dollars. It is as if somebody had just given me $20 and invited me to go into Bloomingdales and buy all the clothing I wanted. My current plans are to purchase an annuity that will pay out about $750 per month for the next 20 years. After that, the money is gone and I will have to make new plans. Of course, by that time I will be 80 years old and just happy to be alive.

Back in 1981, I had dinner with Peter Camejo and Jeff, an old friend from Bard College who has been a Nation Magazine subscriber since the 1950s and who has strong social democratic politics. The subject of the feasibility of socialist revolution came up and Jeff as might be expected argued that it was not possible because workers were imbued with petty-bourgeois values. To my surprise, Camejo–who had been thinking outside the box for a very long time–responded that there was much truth in that, especially since home ownership is so pervasive in the USA.

On March 26, the NY Times reported:

“Real estate-crazed Americans have started behaving in ways that eerily recall the stock market obsession of the late 1990s.

“In Naples, Florida, some houses have been bought twice in a single day, an early-21st-century version of day trading. Buying stocks on margin has been transformed into buying homes with no money down. The over-the-top parties of Internet start-ups have been replaced by flashy gatherings where developers pitch condos to eager buyers.

“Five years ago, the cable channel CNBC sometimes seemed like a backdrop to daily American life. Its cheery analysis of the stock market played in offices, in barbershops, even in some bars.

“Today home-improvement shows are the addictive fare that the exuberant stock shows once were.”

It turns out that the same psychology that drove the stock market boom of the late 1990s is now at work in the real estate market today. One speculator mentioned by the Times “owns two condominium units around Fort Lauderdale and one in Miami Beach, all bought during the last year, in addition to the one where he lives. He plans to sell one of the Fort Lauderdale condos in June for a price he believes will be double his investment.”

David Lereah, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors, argues in his new book, “Are You Missing the Real Estate Boom?” that real estate investors will “experience substantial and satisfying wealth gains” into the next decade.

The Times wonders if this book will end up like “Dow 36,000,” a best seller in late 1999. The authors were convinced that stock prices “could double, triple or even quadruple tomorrow and still not be too high.”

If the same thing happens to real estate that happened to stock market investors, the consequences might be profound. Even now, some of the problematic underpinnings of the real estate boom are becoming undone, especially variable mortgage rates. With variable mortgages (something I utilized to finance improvements to my house), the interest rate you pay to the bank can go up if interest rates in general go up. Last month I noticed that my payment jumped from $60 to $65.

Fortunately, I will liquidate this debt (it is mandatory as part of the closing) next week, but other home-owners who will watch a steady rise in interest rates might be forced out their homes at some point. With gasoline prices still rising, the economic pinch on American workers might reach the point where they begin to think more like workers than small proprietors. Right now Bush’s popularity rating is lower than any second term President in American history. The next few years will possibly involve some serious shocks to the system. Let’s hope that the left is up to the task of breaking the American people of their illusions.

April 12, 2005

Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, part 3

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:21 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on April 12, 2005

Part three of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” is titled “Modern Societies” and might just as well be titled “Less babies, more trees.” Over the years I have become accustomed to being described as a “neo-Malthusian” in debates over the Internet. This term was also applied to my late and great co-thinker Mark Jones since both of us were rather insistent that many valuable resources are finite and should not be wasted.

But when you run into the real thing as in Jared Diamond’s discussion of Rwanda and other third world countries in Part Three of “Collapse,” it really makes your hair stand on end. It really drives home how much of the mainstream environmentalist movement embodies certain racist assumptions about people and resources. If only “they” would stop having so many children, they would not be so poor.

Part three is devoted to an examination of Rwanda, a side-by-side comparison of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, China and Australia. Most of my comments will be directed to the Caribbean nations since they encapsulate Diamond’s inability to think in class terms.

Chapter ten in Part Three is titled “Malthus in Africa: Rwanda’s Genocide.” It is about as unapologetic a defense of population control theory to be found anywhere. Diamond writes:

“East Africa’s people also overwhelmed us, with their friendliness, warmth to our children, colorful clothes­and their sheer numbers. To read m the abstract about ‘the population explosion’ is one thing; it is quite another thing to encounter, day after day, lines of African children along the roadside, many of them about the same size and age as my sons, calling out to passing tourist vehicles for a pencil that they could use in school. The impact of those numbers of people on the landscape is visible even along stretches of road where the people are off doing something else. In pastures the grass is sparse and grazed closely by herds of cattle, sheep, and goats. One sees fresh erosion gullies, in whose bottoms run streams brown with mud washed down from the denuded pastures.”

Turning his attention to Malthus, Diamond refers to the argument that “human population growth would tend to outrun the growth of food production.” While recognizing that some countries–including China–have drastically reduced their population growth, others like Rwanda insist on having too many babies. He writes, “…modern Rwanda illustrates a case where Malthus’s worst-case scenario does seem to have been right.”

While accepting the role of Belgian colonialism in creating artificial divisions between Hutu and Tutsi, and the role of the IMF and other lending institutions in creating a desperate economic climate, the main problem appears to be overpopulation. He calls attention to the fact that “Rwanda’s average population density is triple even that of Africa’s third most densely populated country (Nigeria), and 10 times that of neighboring Tanzania.”

Diamond openly acknowledges that Rwanda’s population density (760 per square mile) is less than Holland’s (950) and not that much greater than the UK (610). So why don’t the Dutch and the Brits hack each other up with machetes? The answer is that the European nations have a “highly efficient mechanized agriculture, such that only a few percent of the population working as farmers can produce food for everyone else. Rwandan agriculture is much less efficient and unmechanized; farmers depend on handheld hoes, picks, and machetes; and most people have to remain farmers, producing little or no surplus that could support others.”

So perhaps the only conclusion that one can draw from all this is that the Hutus and the Tutsis were at fault for not sending their navy over to Europe in the 19th century and colonizing Belgium. If they had imposed a system of super-exploitation on the unlucky Belgians, then they could have accumulated the capital necessary to develop industrial farming techniques. Such are the vicissitudes of history that this did not take place. Of course, “Guns, Germs and Steel” was written in order to explain why this did not happen and why history has a cold Hegelian logic.

If one looks at population density in third world countries that share technological backwardness, low capital accumulation rates and a low productivity, one finds exception to the pattern of brutal civil wars or genocide. For example, Rwanda’s population density is nearly 3 times as great as Uganda’s, but having all that lebensraum did not spare the country 300,000 deaths under Idi Amin. Obviously something else was and is still going on. Rwanda’s suffering is simply a more egregious case of the internecine warfare that has plagued the continent over the past 50 years or so. It is incubated by economic hardship, ethnic rivalries exacerbated by the artificial states bequeathed by colonialism and cold war meddling.

Furthermore, having a high population density in the third world is by no means a death sentence. Kerala’s population density is two and one half times as great as Rwanda’s but Keralans enjoy peace and relatively productive lives nonetheless. In an article titled “The Population Puzzle” that appeared in the Spring 1989 “In Context” magazine, Francis Frances Moore Lappé and Rachel Schurrnan write:

“Kerala is three times more densely populated than the average for all of India, yet commonly used indicators of hunger and poverty – infant mortality, life expectancy, and death rate – are all considerably better in Kerala than in most low-income countries as well as in India as a whole. Its infant mortality is less than one-third the national average.

“Other indicators also reveal the relatively better position of the poor in Kerala. Eleven thousand government-run ‘Fair Price’ shops keep the cost of rice and other essentials like kerosene within their reach – a subsidy that accounts for as much as one-half of the total income of Kerala’s poorer families. Land reform, social security payments, pension and unemployment benefits transfer resources to the poorest groups. Expenditures on public health in Kerala, critical to any effort to reduce fertility, have historically been high. Health facilities are spread evenly throughout the state, not concentrated in the capital as in most third world countries.

“Why is Kerala so different? From the 1950s onward, political organization among the poor led to their greater self-confidence. The poor came to see health care, access to land, decent wages, and old-age pensions as their right, not a gift bestowed upon them. And centrally important to our thesis, women’s status and power in Kerala are greatly enhanced compared to other Indian states. The female literacy rate in Kerala is two-and-a-half times the all-India average.”

Of course, Kerala has also benefited from Communist-led governments for the better part of 50 years. In light of this, one might turn to Karl Marx rather than Thomas Malthus as a solution to the problems of countries like Rwanda. Needless to say, this is not in Jared Diamond’s political vocabulary.

In the next chapter Diamond offers a side-by-side comparison of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two countries that occupy the same Caribbean island that was “discovered” by Columbus in 1492. They are meant to serve as cautionary tales as to what happens when you don’t follow strict rules about population control and resource husbandry, most especially timber.

In comparison to poor benighted Haiti, the Dominican Republic is a virtual paradise. Diamond writes:

“The Dominican Republic is also a developing country sharing Haiti’s problems, but it is more developed and the problems are less acute, per capita income is five times higher, and the population density and population growth rates are lower. For the past 38 years the Dominican Republic has been at least nominally a democracy without any military coup, and with some presidential elections from 1978 onwards resulting in the defeat of the incumbent and the inauguration of a challenger, along with others marred by fraud and intimidation. Within the booming economy, industries earning foreign exchange include an iron and nickel mine, until recently a gold mine, and formerly a bauxite mine; industrial free trade zones that employ 200,000 workers and export overseas; agricultural exports that include coffee, cacao, tobacco, cigars, fresh flowers, and avocados (the Dominican Republic is the world’s third largest exporter of avocados); telecommunications; and a large tourist industry. Several dozen dams generate hydroelectric power. As American sports fans know, the Dominican Republic also produces and exports great baseball players.”

So why did these two countries, almost like twins separated at birth, turn out so differently?

Haiti’s revolution seems to be to blame.

“Not surprisingly, French Hispaniola’s former slaves, who renamed their country Haiti (the original Taino Indian name for the island), killed many of Haiti’s whites, destroyed the plantations and their infrastructure in order to make it impossible to rebuild the plantation slave system, and divided the plantations into small family farms. While that was what the former slaves wanted for themselves as individuals, it proved in the long run disastrous for Haiti’s agricultural productivity, exports, and economy when the farmers received little help from subsequent Haitian governments in their efforts to develop cash crops. Haiti also lost human resources with the killing of much of its white population and the emigration of the remainder.”

While the rest of the 19th century world was sensibly embarking on an early version of globalization, the Haitian elites were unaccountably maintaining a kind of aloofness from foreign trade that almost seems like a bargain basement version of the Japanese Shogunate. “Haiti’s experience and fear of slavery led to the adoption of a constitution forbidding foreigners to own land or to control means of production through investments.”

Diamond’s account of Haiti is lifted entirely from the work of development economist Mats Lundahl, who has a long record of defending free markets and liberalized trade. In some ways he can be described as a Swedish version of Jagdish Baghwati. In the 1980s he took the position that economic sanctions against South Africa would harm Blacks. He has also described the period of 1870 to 1914 as a kind of Golden Age for the world economy. In other words, he might be grouped with Niall Ferguson and other intellectuals nostalgic for the good old days of Imperialism.

Leftists like Alex Dupuy and Paul Farmer, who have a completely different take on the relationship between 19th century Haitian elites and global capital, are apparently of no interest to Diamond. In “The Use of Haiti,” Farmer writes:

“The new pariah republic, desperately seeking trading partners, became the source of advantageous trade deals, particularly for the British. Shortly after the October 1806 assassination of Dessalines, his successor published, in London, a decree entitled Adresse du Gouvemement d’Haiti au Commerce des Nations Neutres. Henry Christophe, an anglophile autocrat who ruled the northern part of the then-divided country, demanded that his subjects turn all of their efforts to producing goods for export. Less than a decade after Christophe’s proclamation, most of the foreign houses of commerce in Haiti were British, and Haiti was soon one of England’s three most significant trading partners in Latin America.”

The British had simply joined in the plundering that had already been started by France, who had extracted punitive reparations for plantations seized during the revolution. When Aristide had the temerity to demand that France pay Haiti back for such extortion, he found himself under a gun held by US and French together. Although the two countries had been represented as bitter rivals over control of Iraq, they managed to mend fences when it came to Haiti.

The USA would not let itself be outdone by France and Great Britain. Farmer notes, “During the first two years of Haiti’s unrecognized sovereignty, however, the United States quickly consolidated its position as her chief trading partner. Within a decade of Haitian independence, many North American merchants had built up a Haitian trade. By 1821, almost 45 percent of imports to Haiti came from the United States; 30 percent were of British origin, and 21 percent were French.”

In other words, Haiti could be little regarded as autarchic in the 19th century. It suffered from that century’s version of globalization and has never stopped suffering. Perhaps if the nations that had pillaged Haiti for the past 200 years or so simply made amends for their past crimes, then Haiti would not be the basket case that it is today.

For Diamond, the Dominican Republic is also to be recommended for its conservation of natural resources, especially its forests. Although Joaquin Balaguer is widely regarded as a brutal dictator and US puppet, Diamond admires his willingness to stand up for the Dominican Republic’s trees. Diamond writes:

“Balaguer recognized the country’s urgent need for maintaining forested watersheds in order to meet the Republic’s energy requirements through hydroelectric power, and to ensure a supply of water sufficient for industrial and domestic needs. Soon after becoming president, he took drastic action by banning all commercial logging in the country, and by closing all of the country’s sawmills. That action provoked strong resistance by rich powerful families, who responded by pulling back their logging operations out of public view into more remote areas of forests, and by operating their sawmills at night. Balaguer reacted with the even more drastic step of taking responsibility for enforcing forest protection away from the Department of Agriculture, turning it over to the armed forces, and declaring illegal logging to be a crime against state security.”

If Balaguer had only show half the interest in people that he had in trees, perhaps Diamond’s enthusiasm would be a bit more tempered. During Balaguer’s presidency (dictatorship actually), half the country lived in poverty. When leftists organized labor unions or social movements to improve the conditions of working people, they were met with death squads.

Diamond does not mention how Balaguer became the president of the Dominican Republic. It must be understood that he was put in power by the United States which feared “another Cuba” in the Western Hemisphere, even though Juan Bosch was hardly a Fidel Castro.

If Diamond had been as concerned with people as he was with natural resources, perhaps he would have found Cuba worth considering in Part Three of “Collapse”. As it turns out, Cubans live 12 years longer, on average, than Dominicans. Infant mortality is four times higher in Santo Domingo than in Cuba. Literacy is 98 percent in Cuba (higher than the U.S.!) but below 77 percent in the Dominican Republic. Cuba has twice as many doctors per capita as the Dominican Republic, and 8.5 times as many nurses.

Furthermore, Cuba has a lot more going for itself than social welfare. When it comes to environmentalism, Cuba is a virtual showcase. In 2001, Project Censored included “Cuba Leads the World in Organic Farming” as one of its top stories. It reported that Cuba had been successful with its “transformation from conventional, high input, mono-crop intensive agriculture” to a Greener farming system. In June 2000, a group of Iowa farmers, professors, and students traveled to Cuba. They discovered that Cuba was moving toward organic farming, using compost and worms to fertilize soil, and away from chemicals. Richard Wrage, of Boone County Iowa Extension Office, said, “in many ways they’re ahead of us.” Lorna Michael Butler, Chair of Iowa State University’s sustainable agriculture department said, “more students should study Cuba’s growing system.” (AP 6/5/00)

One imagines that Jared Diamond would blanch at the suggestion that Fidel Castro has more to say about the topics of interest to him than Joaquin Balaguer, it would be hard to imagine a public official more attuned to the problems addressed (but not truly understood) in “Collapse” than the Cuban Communist leader who is on record as stating:

“Only 30 years ago humanity was not in the least aware of this great tragedy. At that time people believed that the only danger of extinction lay in the colossal number of nuclear weapons waiting to be fired at a moment’s notice. Although threats of that nature have by no means disappeared, an additional terrifying, Dantesque danger is lying in wait for us. I do not hesitate to use this strong, seemingly melodramatic language. The real drama lies in the ignorance of those risks we have lived with for so long.

“Twenty-five years after the end of the Second World War nobody capable of thought and able to read and write had ever heard a single word about humanity’s blind, inexorable and accelerated march towards the destruction of the natural bases of its own life. Not one of the thousands of generations that preceded this one knew about such a dire threat nor did such an enormous responsibility fall upon any of them.

“These are facts: the fruit of humankind’s little-known history, a result of the evolution of human society over five or six thousand years when that society did not have, nor could have, any clear idea of where it came from nor where it was going. This amazing and distressing fact is now the deeply held conviction of an educated and concerned, growing and forceful minority of humanity.

“Today we know what is happening. Everyone here has access to the horrifying data and the irrefutable arguments serenely presented and analyzed in the conferences that preceded this one.

“From my point of view there is no more urgent task than that of building a universal awareness, of taking the problem to the billions of men and women of all ages, including children, who inhabit this planet. The objective conditions and the sufferings of the overwhelming majority of them create the subjective conditions for this awareness-raising task.

“Everything is connected. Illiteracy, unemployment, poverty, hunger, disease; lack of drinking water, of housing, of electricity; desertification, climatic variations, deforestation, floods, droughts, soil erosion, biodegradation, pests and other well known tragedies are inseparable.”

Full: http://www.granma.cu/documento/ingles03/020.html

Louis Proyect
Marxism list: http://www.marxmail.org

April 11, 2005

The Wobblies

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,swans — louisproyect @ 10:08 am

Wobblies! A Graphic History of the IWW by Louis Proyect
Book Review

Wobblies: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World, Edited by Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman, Verso, ISBN 1-84467-525-4, 305 pages, $25.00.

(Swans – April 11, 2005) Wobblies: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World is edited by Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman. Buhle is a long-time chronicler of the American radical movement and popular culture. Schulman is an artist on the editorial board of World War 3 Illustrated, which began “seventeen years ago as an anti-war comic book, inspired by the experience of growing up under the shadow of nuclear weapons and by the shock of a second rate actor’s finger on the button.”

Wobblies is timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the IWW and a traveling exhibition of IWW memorabilia that Buhle helped curate (http://www.wobblyshow.org/). For today’s radicals, the IWW has a powerful mystique since many of the leading figures were martyrs to the cause, including the hobo and folksinger Joe Hill. Hill’s songs have enormous staying power as demonstrated by Billy Bragg’s cover of “There is Power in a Union”:

There is power in a factory, power in the land
Power in the hand of the worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand
There is power in a Union

Wobblies tells the story of Joe Hill and many other legendary figures such as Emma Goldman and Big Bill Haywood through the comic book medium. Buhle’s love for and commitment to this medium is about as long-standing as his ties to the radical movement. In a May 16, 2003 Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “The New Scholarship of Comics,” Buhle writes:

“Mad comics (1952-55) were the most special. The editor and frequent scriptwriter of that early Mad, Harvey Kurtzman, was a hero of my childhood; when I interviewed him, decades later, as to why he had fallen to the depths of scripting a Playboy strip called Little Annie Fanny, he could only say that he had been unable to live up to his own promise. Actually, the moment had passed: Due to the pressure of the Comics Code, EC Comics, Mad’s publisher, turned it into a successful black-and-white magazine that Kurtzman quit after failing to gain a controlling interest. But what a run he’d had!

“The influence of Mad comics on later comics artists has been testified to by Robert R. Crumb (of Zap Comix and more), Bill Griffith (of Zippy the Pinhead), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker artist Art Spiegelman, among others. Mad ridiculed, but also interpreted and demystified, the invasion of the childish mind by movies, television, tabloid newspapers — and also comics, both strips and books. I was a little young to enjoy all the original Mads, but several 35-cent Ballantine paperbacks put the best of the early material on the drugstore shelf, albeit with panels squeezed down to size, lines blurred, and in black-and-white rather than the color originals. No matter. Those were my alternative to schoolbooks and classic novels, because they put the details of popular life under the microscope.”

The comic book medium lends itself to the story of the IWW since it is essentially one of the underdog battling powerful evil forces. Whether it is Spiderman or Big Bill Haywood taking on fiendish captains of industry, the artist has a lot to work with.

The artists who worked on Wobblies are a who’s who of the contemporary underground comic book scene. Josh MacPhee, who provided the artwork for the Big Bill Haywood story, is a well-known graffiti artist based in Chicago. In an interview with drawingresistance.org, MacPhee stated:

“There are very few laws I feel shouldn’t be broken. For artists in particular, I think we need to attack all laws that continue to enclose our ‘commons’ and privatize everything and anything, be it space, economy, intellectual property, plants or human DNA. It is becoming increasingly difficult to do any sort of art in what we used to call public space.”

In other words, MacPhee has the same attitude toward private property that the Wobblies did. If they chained themselves to a lamppost while making incendiary speeches in pursuit of free speech rights, artists like MacPhee mount the same challenge with a spray can.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy24.html

April 6, 2005

Saul Bellow

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:17 am

posted to www.marxmail.org on April 6, 2005

Saul Bellow died yesterday at the age of 89. He was one of the few remaining literary modernists. His last published novel was the 2000 Ravelstein, a thinly disguised portrait of his life-long friend, U. of Chicago colleague and fellow neoconservative Alan Bloom. Both Bellow and Bloom hated the 1960s in general and Black militancy in particular. Bloom wrote “Closing of the American Mind” which likened 60s radicals to Nazi brownshirts. In this assault on social movements, Bloom remained curiously silent on gay liberation. That was likely because Bloom was gay himself. He died of AIDS in 1992.

Bellow shared Bloom’s contempt for cultural diversity. They were defiantly opposed to “watering down” the curriculum with works foreign to the Great Books/Western Civilization chapel. Bellow once wrote, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?”

Ironically, Christopher Hitchens, who is now running tours of Merrie Olde England in the spirit of Bloom/Bellow with David Horowitz and Paul Johnson, had these people nailed once upon a time. In an April 27, 2000 LRB review of Ravelstein, Christopher Hitchens wrote:

“Chaos, most especially the chaos identified with pissed-off African Americans, was the whole motif of The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom had taught at Cornell during the campus upheaval of 1968, and never recovered from the moment when black students produced guns to amplify their demands. (He also never reconciled himself to the ghastly fondness of the young for rock music. ‘Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock,’ he wrote in a passage of extreme dyspepsia comparing everybody to the Brownshirts, ‘the principle is the same.’) However, there was hope. A small group of classics students copied out and xeroxed a passage against ochlocracy from Plato’s Republic and passed it out as a leaflet. Bloom sounds just like Bellow when he recalls this moment: ‘They had learned from this old book what was going on and had gained real distance on it.'”

Full: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v22/n09/print/hitc01_.html

Despite his resentment at being viewed in this fashion, Saul Bellow was habitually grouped with fellow Jewish-American novelists Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud. All three had a talent for picaresque tale-telling and vivid characters, often gripped by one neurosis or another. Bellow subjected himself to psychoanalysis on three different occasions and even sat in an orgone box for a time.

I regard “Herzog” as his crowning achievement. This is a novel about a character like Bellow. After being cuckolded, Moses Herzog goes to live in a cabin in the woods where he writes long, philosophical letters to God and famous personages living and dead but that are never sent. As a long-time writer of such letters on the Internet, I feel a certain kinship with Herzog, although my efforts probably have more to do with Lazlo Toth.

Like any other reactionary author, Bellow’s work has to be judged solely on literary merit. As such, “Herzog” would be sufficient grounds for awarding Bellow the Nobel Prize. In 1980, a year after I dropped out of the Trotskyist movement, I read this novel and a number of other classics in order to familiarize myself with novel-writing techniques. I had plans–you see–of writing the Great American Novel. After reading “Herzog,” I decided to get back into politics because there just didn’t seem to be any point in trying to accomplish something in a field that was so totally dominated by superior talents. There is one scene in particular in “Herzog” that made me feel like I was woefully inadequate. In a visit to one of his new girl-friends, Herzog spends a moment or two in her bathroom performing his ablutions. Bellow takes this opportunity to describe the woman’s character through the objects in the bathroom and how they are organized. It is a bravura performance. After reading this passage, I confessed to myself that I could never write like this in a million years.

After reading “Herzog,” I became a fan of Bellow despite his politics. My loyalty was put to the test when I read “Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” a work about a holocaust survivor on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that exhibits in full bloom (pun intended) his growing animosity toward Blacks and resentment toward young radicals. Although Sammler is treated with a certain amount of disdain by Bellow, he becomes a vehicle for a lot of the racism and reactionary politics brewing inside the author. This is a favored device of novelists shifting to the right: using fictional characters as a sounding board for their new ideas. By introducing an openly reactionary character, the novelist is free to state that this is “not really me, just a character”. This is a ploy used by Ian McEwan, whose latest novel “Saturday” features the stream of consciousness of a neurosurgeon alienated by protestors against the war in Iraq.

One of the most repellent (and unbelievable) scenes in “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” involves Sammler and an immaculately dressed African-American pickpocket who exposes himself while robbing the old man. It not only stretches credulity. It breaks it into a thousand pieces.

In a fascinating April 10, 1993 Guardian article titled “Marx At My Table,” Saul Bellow describes his political evolution. After arriving in Chicago from Canada, Bellow describes his rapid politicization in the 1930s:

The country took us over. We felt that to be here was a great piece of luck. The children of immigrants in my Chicago high school, however, believed that they were also somehow Russian, and while they studied their Macbeth and Milton’s L’Allegro, they read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as well and went on inevitably to Lenin’s State And Revolution, and the pamphlets of Trotsky. The Tuley high school debating club discussed the Communist Manifesto and on the main stem of the neighbourhood, Division Street, the immigrant intelligensia lectured from soapboxes, while at “the forum”, a church hall on California Avenue, debates between socialists, communists and anarchists attracted a fair number of people.

This was the beginning of my radical education. For on the recommendation of friends I took up Marx and Engels, and remember, in my father’s bleak office near the freight yards, blasting away at Value Price and Profit while the police raided a brothel across the street – for non-payment of protection, probably – throwing beds, bedding and chairs through the shattered windows. The Young Communist League tried to recruit me in the late 1930s. Too late – I had already read Trotsky’s pamphlet on the German question and was convinced that Stalin’s errors had brought Hitler to power.

IN COLLEGE in 1933 I was a Trotskyist. Trotsky instilled into his young followers the orthodoxy peculiar to the defeated and ousted. We belonged to the Movement, we were faithful to Leninism, and could expound the historical lessons and describe Stalin’s crimes. My closest friends and I were not, however, activists; we were writers. Owing to the Depression we had no career expectations. We got through the week on five or six bucks and if our rented rooms were small, the libraries were lofty, were beautiful. Through “revolutionary politics” we met the demand of the times for action. But what really mattered was the vital personal nourishment we took from Dostoevsky or Herman Melville, from Dreiser and John Dos Passos and Faulkner. By filling out a slip of paper at the Crerar on Randolph Street you could get all the bound volumes of The Dial and fill long afternoons with T. S. Eliot, Rilke and e. e. cummings.

Toward the end of the 1930s the Partisan Review was our own Dial, with politics besides. There we had access to our significant European contemporaries – Silone, Orwell, Koestler, Malraux, Andre Gide and Auden. Partisan’s leading American contributors were Marxists – critics and philosophers like Dwight Macdonald, James Burnham, Sidney Hook, Clement Greenberg, Meyer Schapiro and Harold Rosenberg. The Partisan Review intellectuals had sided with Trotsky quite naturally, during the Moscow trials. Hook had persuaded his teacher John Dewey to head a commission of inquiry in Mexico. We followed the proceedings bitterly, passionately, for we were, of course, the Outs; the Stalinists were the Ins. We alone in the US knew what a bad lot they were. FDR and his New Dealers didn’t have a clue, they understood neither Russia nor communism.

Although I now drifted away from Marxist politics, I still admired Lenin and Trotsky. After all, I had first heard of them in the high-chair while eating my mashed potatoes. How could I forget that Trotsky had created the Red Army, that he had read French novels at the Front while defeating Denikin? That great crowds had been swayed by his coruscating speeches? The glamour of the Revolution still cast its spell. Besides, the most respected literary and intellectual figures had themselves yielded. Returning from a visit to Russia, Edmund Wilson had spoken about “the moral light at the top of the world,” and it was Wilson who had introduced us to Joyce and Proust. His history of revolutionary thought, To The Finland Station, was published in 1940. By that time Poland had been invaded and France had fallen.

Nineteen-forty was also the year of Trotsky’s assassination.

I was in Mexico at the time, and an acquaintance of the Old Man, a European lady whom I had met in Taxco, arranged a meeting. Trotsky agreed to receive my friend Herbert Passin and me in Coyoacan. It was on the morning of our appointment that he was struck down, and when we reached Mexico City we were met by the headlines. When we went to his villa we must have been taken for foreign journalists, and we were directed to the hospital. The emergency room was in disorder. We had only to ask for Trotsky. A door into a small room was opened for us and there we saw him. He had just died. A cone of bloody bandages was on his head. His cheeks, his nose, his beard, his throat were streaked with blood and with dried trickles of iodine.

He is reported to have said once that Stalin could kill him whenever he liked, and now we understood what a far-reaching power could do with us; how little it took to kill us, how slight a hold we, with our historical philosophies, our ideas, programmes, purposes, wills, had on the matter we were made of.

It is perfectly true, as Charles Fairbanks has suggested, that totalitarianism in our century has shaped the very definition of what an intellectual is. The “vanguard fighters” who acted under Lenin’s direction in October were intellectuals, and perhaps the glamour of this event had its greatest affect on intellectuals in the west. Among political activists this was sufficiently evident, but the Bolshevik model was immensely influential everywhere.

Trotsky and T. E. Lawrence were perhaps the most outstanding of the intellectual activists to emerge from the first world war – the former as Lenin’s principal executive, Lawrence as the delicate scholar and recluse, a Shakespearian Fortinbras materialising in the Arabian desert. Malraux was inspired by both men, obviously, an aesthete and theorist eager in his first phase for revolutionary action, and manifesting a curious relish for violence in a great cause. It was he who set an example for French writers of the 1940s. Sartre was certainly one of his descendants and many in France and elsewhere modelled themselves upon him, up to the time when he abjured revolution. There was a trace of this also in Arthur Koestler, who so often exposed himself to personal danger, but it was in France between the 1930s until the time of Regis Debray that leftist intellectuals presented themselves in the west as soldiers of the revolution.

The article concludes with Bellow’s confession that “politics as a vocation I take seriously. But it’s not my vocation. And on the whole writers are not much good at it.” I think that we can all agree on this.

Blog at WordPress.com.