Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 31, 2005

Seven Oaks/Ted Glick exchange on Middle East

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:38 am


I must admit that I was more than a little disturbed to see that you would use the opportunity presented by the media circus around Ahmadinejad’s cruel and dangerous rhetorical outburst against Israel (an sick outburst which has, nevertheless, received a thousand times more attention than the far more tangible existential threat presented to Iran by Israeli and American nuclear sabre rattling and military grand-standing this past year) to take a swipe against the Right of Return. You’re buying in, wholesale, to the attempts to conflate Palestinian rights with Iranian political rhetoric, operating in the long and ignoble tradition of making Palestinian rights contingent on the good behaviour of foreign regimes.

I understand that the American anti-war movement has experienced very deep and vicious divisions on this issue, and that this has probably informed your writing, and for that I’m sorry. But we, Seven Oaks, will not be publishing this or, now, any other piece that you write and so I’d ask you respectfully to please remove us from your mailing list.

The fundamental and inalienable rights of Palestinian refugees are theirs and theirs alone, and their fates will be decided by them. It is not for North American progressives to set the limits and purviews of their demands.

Charles Demers
Co-Editor SevenOaksMag.com


Future Hope column, October 30, 2005
Wiping Israel Off the Map
By Ted Glick

I believe that it is important for progressive organizers to have a long-term vision of what kind of society, what kind of world, they are working towards. Having such a vision doesn’t mean you will see it fully realized during your lifetime; it is possible that it may seem further away when one’s death comes. But without a vision, to paraphrase the popular saying, one might as well be dead.

Jesus of Nazareth had a vision, that people should love their neighbor as they love themselves, that we should be as concerned for the well-being of others as we are about our own life.

Karl Marx also had a vision of a society that he called communism, where the guiding principle is “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need,” a society freed from the strait jacket of economic scarcity because of the development of industry and technology and culturally advanced so as to administer itself justly, thus giving everyone the opportunity to develop themselves in ways not possible under capitalism, feudalism, slavery and their predecessors.

Some who live in the land of historic Palestine have violently competing visions. Some Israelis have a vision of a “greater Israel” which would effectively destroy the Palestinian vision of a just and secure future in a land of their own. In reaction, some Palestinians, and some non-Palestinians who support them, have a vision of effectively destroying the majority-Jewish state of Israel, replacing it with a predominantly Palestinian, secular state that would, in theory, treat its minority of Jewish citizens fairly. This is the practical position of those who believe that the top priority when it comes to the Israel/Palestine issue is that of the right to return. The full implementation of the right to return would mean the physical return to Israel of up to four million Palestinians displaced by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 or the descendents of those displaced.

And the newly-elected, fundamentalist president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has a vision of, in his words, “wip(ing) Israel off the map,” as he said at a rally in Tehran three days ago. Given his Islamic fundamentalist politics, however, his vision is certainly not that of a secular state to replace it.

For over three-quarters of a century, there has been a struggle, often violent, between Palestinian Arabs and Jews. This struggle began in the 1920’s and accelerated during the 1930’s and 1940’s as the rise of Nazism and the work of the World Zionist Organization nearly quadrupled the number of Jews in Palestine between 1931 and 1946 to approximately 600,000, about 1/3 of the total population at the time.

There is no question but that a great injustice was done when the United States, Western Europe, the Soviet Union and other countries, operating through the United Nations, partitioned Palestine into what was to have been a Jewish state and a Palestinian state.

Exchange with Neil Davidson

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:21 am
Dear Louis,
Sebastian Budgen alerted me to your comments on the first part of my article on bourgeois revolutions. I’m glad you agree with some of it at least, and I hope that you will send in a response to HM once the second part appears ­ to me this is one of the central issues in Marxist theory and one over which it is actually worth having a fairly wide-ranging debate. I am very conscious of the need to account for the non-occurrence of similar revolutions outwith Europe and its overseas extensions, and the way in which the conquest of the ‘third world’ contributed to capitalist development, but in the Deutscher lecture I was really only trying to defend the scientific value of the concept against the Brennerites ­ Wood in particular. I agree that ‘extra-economic’ compulsion was typical outside Europe ­ but them, it was also quite common in Europe as well! I’m afraid I don’t find Jim Blaut’s arguments very convincing, but I will deal with the whole issue in forthcoming work on uneven and combined development, and in a book which I plan to write on the bourgeois revolutions which expands on the HM articles. (If you haven’t already seen it, you might be interested in a recent book by Jack Goody called Capitalism and Modernity, which deals with some of these issues.)
Very briefly (and this is not particularly original), I think that the key to the origins of capitalism in Europe lie in the very backwardness of the West compared to ­ in particular – the more developed Ottoman and Chinese empires. For this we need to be aware of the ‘catch-up and overtake’ aspects of uneven development, but it also means that we have to take seriously what Marx writes in the 1859 ‘Preface’ (not a very fashionable text I admit!). I mean the bit about the state superstructure needing to be overthrown to allow new modes of production to develop freely beyond a certain point. In some cases, as in China, the state proved too strong, too resilient for this to happen – as indeed it also did in France for many centuries. (There is a strong case, which Samir Amin among others has made, for arguing that absolutism in the West was developing in a similar way to the tributary state in the East.) On this basis it seems to me possible to argue that capitalism was developing in China at an even earlier stage than in Western Europe (I think this is empirically demonstrable and that it is only Brenner’s incredibly narrow definition of capitalism that lets him deny this), but that its failure to break through was the result of a conscious strategy by the tributary ruling class to prevent potential rivals expanding to the point at which they might become a threat. As a result, social upheavals in China tended to be peasant revolts which changed ruling class personnel, but not the their socio-economic function.
This need to be developed, of course, but you get the general idea. I look forward to any contribution you decide write for HM.
Neil Davidson
Thanks for the feedback, Neil. I doubt, however, that I would submit anything to HM since I have sworn off submitting anything to print journals after a series of run-ins with James O’Connor, Immanuel Wallerstein, John Bellamy Foster who handle such business as if they were on my dissertation board or something. Anything I have to say on these matters is said on the Internet. Someone might coin a term one of these days along the lines of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” to describe the yawning chasm between the print and electronic world.
With respect to the issues, I do have Jack Goody’s book on my shelf and have read major sections of it, including the passage that tries to refute my old friend, the late Jim Blaut. I am generally underwhelmed by his arguments, although I appreciate his obvious effort to counteract what he calls “ethnocentrism”. For one thing, he spends several pages trying to show that Subsaharan Africa was truly backward in comparison to Europe, but I don’t recall Blaut ever trying to make such comparisons. He was far more interested in evaluating European society against India and China. Goody makes a big deal about the fact that Ghana did not have a written language (neither did the Incas), but for Jim the real question was always focused on food production and other basic necessities of life. He did recognize that Latin America was relatively backward to Europe, but that was a function more of the relatively recent arrival of the indigenous population to the continent rather than any inherent cultural deficiencies.
But the thing that really sticks out for me is Goody’s challenge about why Spain or Portugal did not become major capitalist powers even though they were the direct benefactors of Incan and Aztec gold and silver. This is something that Jim and I heard a thousand times on Internet mailing lists, so it is really nothing new. I don’t have the reference handy, but there’s an article I referred to once that pointed out how England was the ultimate beneficiary of this wealth as it functioned as the banker for all the new plunder. It was also the commercial middle-man for expanding Spanish colonization. Finally, we have to divest ourselves of what I call “Iberiantalism”, which is a tendency to look at Spain (and Portugal to a lesser extent) in the same terms that provoked Edward Said to take on the myths of “Orientalism”. Here’s what I found:
By all standard measurements of capitalist profit, the Spaniards enjoyed a roaring success. Profits from mining were invested in capitalist development throughout the New World. If we turn to D.A. Brading’s “Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico: 1763-1810” (Cambridge Press, 1971), the proof of rapid capitalist growth leaps off the page.
“In 1804 the corregidor of Querétaro counted 18 factories (obrajes) and 327 workshops (trapiches) in his town, the former group operating 280 looms and the latter up to 1,000. The larger firms wove woollen ponchos, blankets, serges, and sarapes while the smaller produced coarse cottons. In addition, there were another 35 workshops making hats and ten treating leather and suede goods. Estimates as to how many people were engaged in this industry varied. In 1803 the factory owners admitted that they kept over 2,000 men shut up within the walls of their prison-like establishments. In the same year the corregidor stated that some 9,000 persons of both sexes were occupied in the spinning, weaving and finishing of cloth. The industry’s consumption of wool averaged about a million pounds and the value of its product was later reckoned to reach over million pesos a year. These figures, moreover, excluded the 3,000 workers employed by the tobacco monopoly.”(6)
By what standard can these operations be called ‘feudal’ without making a mockery of the English language? Furthermore, an unprejudiced view of the mother country would reveal an entirely different reality than the one that Wood would foist on her reader.
The Spanish government of the 1780s was fully swept up by and committed to the new capitalist doctrines sweeping Europe. King Carlos III commissioned the Sociedad Económica de Madrid to come up with a program for agricultural reform and economist Gasper Melchor de Jovellanos took charge of the project. His main principle, based on the physiocratic school, was that laws should not attempt to protect agriculture but only to remove obstacles to its development. While drawing from the physiocrats, he also echoed Adam Smith. He not only read the “Wealth of Nations” in French, but translated it into Spanish. “How admirable when he analyses!”, he declared with respect to Smith. (7) There was resistance to Jovellanos’s program from the landed gentry, but no more or less so than in any other country in Europe at the time, including Great Britain. In any case, the notion of a ‘feudal’ Spain is utterly false. The Crown only sought to limit the power of the landowners, who had long ago dropped any connections to the sort of feudal paternalism described above. They were involved with commercial agriculture, not production of use values. Even Robert Brenner admits that capitalist agriculture was widespread in Catalonia more than two centuries earlier.

October 29, 2005

Neil Davidson, bourgeois revolutions and the transition to capitalism

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 4:24 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on October 29, 2005

This is a response to Neil Davidson’s “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?” that appears in the current issue of Historical Materialism. A Marxmail subscriber forwarded me the article. For this I am grateful. I am also cc’ing Sebastien Budgen, another Marxmail subscriber and HM editor, in the hope that he will allow me to put Davidson’s article on the Marxmail website so that others may read this very interesting contribution to the “transition debate.”

Davidson’s chief goal is to refute the analysis put forward by George Comninel in “Rethinking the French Revolution.” Comninel basically puts the “revisionist” findings of Francois Furet et al into a Marxist context. When Furet, a former member of the French CP, found little evidence of a “revolutionary bourgeoisie,” he provoked his former comrades into mounting a heated counter-attack.

My own affinities with Comninel’s analysis are on display in my writings on the American Civil War which were mainly intended to refute Charles Post’s attempt to see it as a vindication of the Brenner thesis. In his eyes, the overthrow of the slavocracy was necessitated by the same sort of ineluctable economic forces that led to agrarian capitalism in Great Britain in the late middle ages. Oddly enough, the question of a “bourgeois revolution” hardly figures at all in Brennerite literature. For them, the most important thing is superceding “extra-market” forces such as paying tribute to the lord or fulfilling corvée obligations, a system of unpaid labor on medieval estates, etc. As long as the economic aspects of feudalism have been liquidated, the question of a “bourgeois revolution” seems almost incidental.

Although Brenner himself has never really addressed Comninel’s analysis, his co-thinker Ellen Meiksins Wood considers it as a useful indicator of France’s supposed failure to overcome “extra-market” forces necessary for making the transition to capitalism. When a wing of the gentry revolted against the King in 1789, this might reflect the fact that bourgeois property relations had not matured sufficiently. To put it bluntly, Wood believes that capitalism could only be found in England in this period. I should add that Wood was Comninel’s professor, for what that’s worth.

In the course of taking up challenges to the notion of a bourgeois revolution, Davidson considers a couple that are the dialectical opposites of each other, namely the “world systems” perspective of Immanuel Wallerstein and the Brenner thesis itself. With respect to Wallerstein, Davidson puts it this way:

“…Wallerstein thinks that bourgeois revolutions are no longer necessary, but his position is also more extreme in that he thinks they have never been necessary. Wallerstein regards the feudal states of the sixteenth century, like the nominally socialist states of the twentieth, as inherently capitalist through their participation in the world economy. Bourgeois revolutions are, therefore, not irrelevant because they failed to completely overthrow the feudal landed classes, but because, long before these revolutions took place, the lords had already transformed themselves into capitalist landowners.”

In distinction to Wallerstein, Brenner sees ‘social-property relations’ as the key determinant, rather than participation in a world economy on the basis of trade or commerce. Despite the fact that the two scholars are often seen as opposite sides of the coin, Davidson sees some affinities:

“So distinctive are these relations that, rather than encompassing the entire world by the sixteenth century, as capitalism does for Wallerstein, they were still restricted to a handful of territories even a hundred years later. Where Wallerstein is broad, Brenner is narrow. But there are also similarities. Like Wallerstein, Brenner treats bourgeois revolution as irrelevant and does so for essentially the same reasons, namely that capitalist development ­ albeit confined to a very limited number of countries –occurred prior to and independently of the events which are usually described in this way.”

After recapitulating the Brenner thesis, for which Davidson states his preference vis-à-vis Wallerstein, he raises an interesting objection that I have not heard before:

“In effect, members of the Brenner school do not seem to recognise that there is an abstract model in Capital. Brenner himself apart, they think that England was the only site of endogenous capitalist development and therefore assume that Marx takes English development as a model for the origin of capitalism because, in effect, it was the only example he had. Now, I do not dispute that England was the country where capitalism developed to the greatest extent. It was for this reason that Marx made it the basis of his analysis, in the same way that he always took the most developed form of any phenomena as the basis of his analysis. But, in his mature work, Marx repeatedly states that capitalist development took place beyond England in space and before England in time.”

When Davidson presented sections in the Grundrisse to members of the Brenner school, including Wood, that stated that “capitalist development took place beyond England in space and before England in time,” they would “pretend that they mean something else.” For his part, George Comninel issued “disapprovingly admonitions about Marx’s failure to understand his own theory.” Davidson expresses some bemusement over the gaps in the Brenner thesis:

“I understand how the Brenner school accounts for the establishment of capitalism in the English countryside. I also understand how the Brenner school accounts for the spread of capitalism beyond Britain. I do not understand how capitalist social-property relations spread from the English countryside to the rest of England. Nor, for that matter, how the same process took place in Holland or Catalonia, the other areas where Brenner himself thinks that capitalism existed.”

For Davidson, the answer is recognizing that for Marx, the transition to capitalism was as much an urban phenomenon as it was agrarian: “Urban labour itself had created means of production for which the guilds became just as confining as were the old relations of landownership to an improved agriculture, which was in part itself a consequence of the larger market for agricultural products in the cities etc.” (Grundrisse, p. 508)

Another interesting insight from Davidson is that Brenner’s conception of capitalism is shared by an odd bedfellow:

“For the members of the Brenner school, capitalism is defined by the existence of what they call market compulsion ­ the removal of the means of production and subsistence from the direct producers, so that they are forced to rely on the market to survive. There is, of course, a venerable tradition of thought which defines capitalism solely in market terms, but it is not Marxism, it is the Austrian economic school whose leading representatives were Ludwig von Mises and Frederick von Hayek.”

This is something I have noticed myself, but not exactly on this basis. If capitalism is defined as resting on market compulsion, then vast areas of obvious capitalist exploitation are invalidated according to this narrow approach. For example, apartheid South Africa would be ruled out with its pass system, etc. So would Nazi Germany which involved slave labor on a grand scale. Of course, the libertarian would agree that such societies are not capitalist. Von Mises and von Hayek both regarded Nazi Germany and Communist Russia as noncapitalist since both societies involved statist control of the economy, etc. Needless to say, this is a superficial analysis but one that was pervasive in the academy.

Davidson also has some pointed observations on Wood’s explicit statement of a theme that is implicit throughout Brenner’s writings, namely that capitalism in England emerged in the countryside prior to the historical formation of capital-wage labor social relations. If a system of tenant farming could in and of itself be the key launching pad for capitalist property relations, how then was surplus value produced? He writes:

“If capitalism is based on a particular form of exploitation, on the extraction of surplus-value from the direct producers through wage-labour, then I fail to see how capitalism can exist in the absence of wage-labourers. Where does surplus-value come from in a model which contains only capitalist landlords and capitalist farmers? Surplus-value may be realised through market transactions, but it can scarcely be produced by them.”

Once one establishes that the transition to capitalism in England was a function of inexorable economic processes in the countryside quite early on (the 1400s at least), then the bourgeois revolution becomes trivial, if not irrelevant. Brenner wrote:

“First, there really is no transition to accomplish: since the model starts with bourgeois society in the towns, foresees its evolution as taking place via bourgeois mechanisms, and has feudalism transform itself in consequence of its exposure to trade, the problem of how one type of society is transformed into another is simply assumed away and never posed. Second, since bourgeois society self-develops and dissolves feudalism, the bourgeois revolution can hardly play a necessary role.”

According to Davidson, Brenner’s magnum opus “Merchants and Revolution” is basically an attempt to demonstrate that feudal relations had been wiped out by 1640 so the notion of a Great Revolution is besides the point.

Davidson’s article concludes with a discussion of English history in the 17th century intended to show that Brenner’s dismissal of the need to effect a social revolution is based on minimizing class conflict between the forces led by Cromwell and the gentry.

Although I find Davidson’s arguments extremely convincing, they share with fellow SWP member Chris Harman a certain element of Eurocentrism. The parameters of the discussion take place within Europe and do not attempt to address the challenge put forward by Jim Blaut. While I understand Davidson’s need to reclaim the legacy of the bourgeois revolution as a key element in transcending the Ancien Regime in anticipation of the proletarian revolution of the future, this does not quite fully address the class dynamics that were at play in the early stages of modern capitalist society.

In order to grasp the full dimensions of the struggle, it is necessary to take account of other *non-European* actors who had an independent political and social identity. CLR James’s “Black Jacobins” is essential reading for understanding the full complexity of 1789. Taking Davidson’s challenge to Comninel on its own terms, we are still unable to explain why bourgeois forces in the French Revolution would have been hostile to the abolition of slavery, an obvious precapitalist social institution.

Chapter Twelve of James’s history is titled “The Bourgeoisie Prepares to Restore Slavery.” It begins:

“Toussaint was perfectly right in his suspicions. What is the regime under which the colonies have most prospered, asked Bonaparte, and on being told the ancien regime he decided to restore it, slavery and Mulatto discrimination. Bonaparte hated black people. The revolution had appointed that brave and brilliant Mulatto, General Dumas,1 Commander-in-Chief of one of its armies, but Bonaparte detested him for his colour, and persecuted him. Yet Bonaparte was no colonist, and his anti-Negro bias was far from influencing his major policies. He wanted profits for his supporters, and the clamorous colonists found in him a ready ear. The bourgeoisie of the maritime towns wanted the fabulous profits of the old days. The passionate desire to free all humanity which had called for Negro freedom in the great days of the revolution now huddled in the slums of Paris and Marseilles, exhausted by its great efforts and terrorised by Bonaparte’s bayonets and Fouche’s police. But the abolition of slavery was one of the proudest memories of the revolution; and, much more important, the San Domingo blacks had an army and leaders trained to fight in the European manner. These were no savage tribesmen with spears, against whom European soldiers armed with rifles could win undying glory.”

Ultimately, the concept of a “bourgeois revolution” has very little relevance outside of Europe if it means the promotion of free wage labor as a universal standard. The development of capitalism outside of Europe in fact was facilitated through the imposition of one form or another of “extra-economic” coercion, ranging from slavery to debt peonage.

Despite Comninel’s affinity for the Brenner thesis, there is one aspect of his “revisionism” that carries a lot of weight for me and for others with a focus on the Black Jacobins of history. By demonstrating the affinity that the gentry had with the rising bourgeoisie, Comninel’s reading has the merit of being able to explain why Bonaparte sought the reinstitution of slavery, despite all the freedom-loving rhetoric of 1789. Whatever was revolutionary about the French Revolution could be traced to the intervention of the ‘sans culottes’ who were hostile to the possessing classes, either bourgeois or aristocratic.

The simple fact is that Marx never wrote that much about 1789. His focus was always on the class struggles in France that he was able to observe in his own lifetime. In this arena, the bourgeoisie was hardly revolutionary. His ultimate statement on this class that was always anxious to betray its own stated historic goals was “The Eighteenth Brumaire,” a work focused on the nephew of the Emperor who had sought to re-impose slavery on the Haitians.

About this bourgeoisie, Karl Marx wrote:

“The French bourgeoisie had long ago found the solution to Napoleon’s dilemma: ‘In fifty years Europe will be republican or Cossack.’ It solved it in the ‘Cossack republic.’ No Circe using black magic has distorted that work of art, the bourgeois republic, into a monstrous shape. That republic has lost nothing but the semblance of respectability. Present-day France was already contained in the parliamentary republic. It required only a bayonet thrust for the bubble to burst and the monster to leap forth before our eyes.”

I would suggest that the term ‘Cossack Republic’ goes a long way in explaining the contradictory aspects of the capitalist system than monocausal explanations rooted in “bourgeois revolutions” or Brennerite “social property relations.” As a world system based on commodity production, capitalist social relations will adopt a variety of forms based on the exigencies of local conditions. Where labor is plentiful, the system will allow workers to compete in the marketplace against each other to drive down wages. Where it is not plentiful and where propertyless people have the opportunity to sustain themselves through hunting, fishing, gardening, etc., capitalism will round them up and make them the private property of the state or its dominant classes. In the historical evolution of the capitalist system, Europe was a site for the former type of exploitation; Latin America, Africa and Asia the latter. But as Wallerstein pointed out–whatever his mistakes on other important questions–this was a world system.

Update on NACLA attack on Cuba

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:14 am
(The first item appeared on Walter Lippmann’s Cubanews mailing list on Yahoo. The second was a private communication from a Mexican socialist in response to it.)
The way I read this is that in Mexico and beyond, the Zapatista support networks include a lot of fashionable “libertarians” who think they are onto something new, but are not. She states that Cuba “has no patience…with the Zapatistas”, and I suspect that this is based on the fact that when the Zapatista revolt first occurred in 1994, there were Zapatista admirers in and out of Mexico who hoped and expected that Cuba would support them and break off relations with the Mexican government. Unfortunately, that was unrealistic.

Fidel’s only comment (that I recall) on the Zapatistas at the time, given obliquely, was that given the world situation after the fall of the USSR, there was not much future for new armed struggles. But since the Revolution, Cuba has been cautious in its relations with Mexico, for reasons of simple survival. Mexican Marxists (former Mexican Communist Party, Popular Socialist Party and successor groups) understood Cuba’s practical needs on this basis and did not complain about it. Since the election of Fox in 2000, Cuba has been more openly critical of Mexico. Meanwhile, the task the Zapatistas have before them is very different from that of the Cuban state. It is very easy for outsiders to criticize Cuba’s effort to build or maintain friendly relations with Mexico, China or whomever, but for Cuba not to do so might be terminally self-destructive.
Efforts to play off Cuba against movements like the Zapatistas, or for people in the Zapatista support networks to play themselves off against people in international Cuba solidarity, may well continue. Nevertheless, there are elements in the world Marxist / Marxist-Leninist movements that are very supportive of the Zapatistas — the novelist Jose Saramago, who is active in the Portuguese CP, the late Gladys Marin, until her untimely death Secretary-General of the Chilean CP, and now the new Party of Mexican Communists which aspires to fill the political space of the old Mexican Communist Party (PCM) and the last Secretary General of the PCM, Arnaldo Martinez Verdugo, all have expressed themselves in support of the Zapatista movement/struggle especially in its present announced phase of re-injecting itself into the class and popular struggle in Mexico at the national level. In Mexico, the Popular Socialist Party was at first highly critical of the Zapatistas but now, as well as the Party of Mexican Communists, has shifted ground and is much more supportive of them.
Emile Schepers
Dear Emile,
To clarify some points in your response to Diana Spencer’s piece on Cuba:
1. The Zapatistas and the World Social Forum are not the same thing. In fact, the Zapatistas have never participated in the WSF. Recently some leading Mexican intellectuals have publicly called on them to do so, which would, in my opinion, be a very positive development.
2. Cuba has always participated with large delegations in the WSF. The WSF have always shown solidarity with Cuba. The Cuban press has not only highlighted the WSF, but have given them such prominent and positive coverage; in fact, one would think Granma was an official organ of the WSF. Cuba clearly sees the antiglobalization movements as a major strategic ally in the struggle for a better world. Spencer is utterly wrong on a factual level in this regard.
3. Cubans participated in some of the Zapatista international gatherings in Chiapas, notably the Intergalactic. The Cuban publishing house Editorial Caminos published a 373 page inexpensive edition of texts of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) entitled “Ansias del Alba: textos zapatistas” in 2001 (that is, a year BEFORE the incident with Vicente Fox that led to a deterioration of relations between the two countries). Spencer is wrong here as well.
4. For the past two years, the Zapatista National Liberation Front, the political wing of the EZLN in civil society, has endorsed the July 26 Cuba solidarity march in Mexico City. (Incidentally, the Mexican WSF group has actively participated in solidarity efforts, including with speakers at rallies organized by the Mexican movement in Solidarity with Cuba). FZLN leaders regular participate in solidarity activities as well.
5. Recently the EZLN through its leading spokesman Comandante Marcos has been more vocal is its support for and solidarity with Cuba. In the past, Marcos’ statements in support of Cuba have been aired on Cuban TV-
6. I cannot speak for other countries, but here in Mexico, support for Cuba is strong in civil society in general and the forces that participate in the anti-globalization movement in particular, including among human rights NGOs. Three hundred organizations, most of them civil society organizations, unions, neighborhood organizations (the urban popular movement) and NGOs- endorsed this year’s July 26th march, for example. Cuba is most definitely a reference point for such forces.
7. Cuba correctly maintains proper diplomatic relations with Mexico and as such does not interfere in our internal affairs. Unfortunately, such an approach is not reciprocal.
Hope these points can shed some light on the debate.
Fraternally, Pedro

October 28, 2005

More on John Hammond

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:08 pm
Not long after I posted some criticisms of John Hammond here, including his shabby treatment of Billie Holiday, a reader suggested that I should look into Frank Kofsky’s “Black Music–White Business”:
Louis — For a really scathing critique of Hammond’s relationship with Billie and his paternalism in general you might want to check out Frank Kofsky’s Black Music, White Business. The book is not the most brilliant example of Marxist jazz criticism, but if half of what he has to say about Hammond is true, Hammond’s legacy as a progressive integrationist should be re-examined. Kofsky wrote a couple of books on jazz that were published by Pathfinder in the 60s and 70s and may or may not have had a particular ax to grind with a CP fellow traveler.
Well, I finally ordered Kofsky’s book from Pathfinder, the publishing arm of the American SWP (unfortunately it was out of the Columbia University at the time–god I hate to send money in to them.) Some SWP veterans might be familiar with Kofsky’s “John Coltrane and The Jazz Revolution of The 1960s”, a book that tried to represent Coltrane as being more like Archie Shepp than he really was, in my opinion.
In any case, I went to the section in Kofsky’s “Black Music, White Business” that dealt with John Hammond. It turns out that he singled out the same offensive item about Holiday from Hammond’s memoir that I did. This certainly takes some of the gloss off of this guy’s over-inflated reputation.
There is no better way of illustrating this history of continuous victimization of the artist than by a consideration of the late John Hammond’s strenuous feats in the field of black music on behalf of himself and his long-time employer, Columbia Records. In most jazz circles, Hammond’s name is uttered in tones of utmost reverence — not surprising, when one notes how assiduously its possessor labored to assure himself of canonization as St. John the Second while still alive. Some excerpts from his correspondence with me will convey the tirelessness with which he sought to innate his reputation as, among other things, the protector of black people in general and black artists in particular: “I have been through a lot in trying to make for breakthroughs for Negro musicians.” “I feel so strongly about gradualism that after thirty years [!] on the Board and as Vice President of the NAACP, I resigned last Fall because of the fact that I feel Roy Wilkinsf’s] tie-up with the [Lyndon B. Johnson] administration is not the way to achieve progress and justice for minorities.” And so on, ad infinitum.
The overwhelming majority of those authors who write about jazz have shown little inclination to dispute the grandeur of Hammond’s achievements — as recounted, of course, by the master himself. And small wonder. As a descendant of the Vanderbilt family on the one hand and as an upper-echelon executive with Columbia Records for decades prior to his retirement on the other, Hammond was a man in whose person great wealth and power were combined. Few were so foolhardy as to risk incurring his displeasure; those who did quickly learned that one does not flout the wishes of The Great Man with impunity.
Take, as a representative instance, the case of Billie Holiday.. Relations between blacks and whites during the 1930s, by and large, were still marked by deference on the part of the former toward the latter, especially when the white person in question was as unmistakably affluent and influential as Hammond. Regardless of what they may have thought about him in private, therefore, almost all black (and many white) musicians of that period were reluctant to defy his wishes openly. Billie Holiday, however, was an exception. Ass-kissing, if I may put it bluntly, was never her strong suit — and it made little difference whether the ass in question belonged to John Hammond or John Doe.
Given Hammond’s expectations of deference as his due, a falling-out between the two was near-inevitable. The inevitable in fact occurred in 1938. Without providing all the pertinent details, Hammond recounts in his autobiography how he turned on Billie Holiday when she committed the sin of displeasing him. Holiday, it seems, had hired as her manager a woman from a distinguished family I knew well. I was concerned that she and her family might be hurt by unsavory gossip, or even blackmailed by the gangsters and dope pushers Billie knew.
“It was one of the few times in my life when I felt compelled to interfere in a personal relationship which was none of my business. I told the manager’s family what I knew and what I feared. Soon afterward the manager and Billie broke up, and Billie never worked at Cafe Society again. I think she never forgave me for what she suspected was my part in the breakup. . . .”
When the emperor can marshal power of that magnitude and does not scruple to use it to jeopardize a performer’s livelihood, few indeed will be eager to proclaim the true nature of his new clothes. And fewer still among black artists, whose fortunes in the best of cases are already sufficiently precarious. That fact goes a great distance toward explaining why there has been so little public discussion by musicians of the less savory aspects of the career of St. John the Second.
Nevertheless, here and there some of the dirty linen has found its way into daylight. None of it is more edifying, if we wish to understand the political economy of white domination of black music, than the tangled relationship of John Hammond and Columbia Records to Bessie Smith.
The first and most important point to emphasize is that, as author Chris Albertson reveals in his biography of Bessie Smith, Hammond signed the singer to a series of contracts with Columbia Records that gave her a small fixed fee for each performance she recorded and no royalties. Such contracts were apparently standard practice with the executive, for Billie Holiday unequivocally stated in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues: “Later on John Hammond paired me up with Teddy Wilson and his band for another record session. This time I got thirty bucks for making half a dozen sides.” What is more, when she protested about this arrangement, it was, according to her, a Columbia executive named Bernie Hanighen — and not John Hammond — “who really went to bat for me” and “almost lost his job at Columbia fighting for me.” Subsequently, Holiday reiterated that although she “made over two hundred sides between 1933 and 1944” for John Hammond at Columbia, she didn’t “get a cent of royalties on any of them.” “The only royalties I get,” she explained, “are on my records made after I signed with Decca.”
In itself, the fact that Hammond, was, to put it mildly, a willing accomplice in signing both Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday to no-royalty agreements is bad enough. What makes it one hundred times worse is that “company policy” at Columbia Records now designates Hammond “the sole recipient of royalties from sales of Bessie Smith’s recent [early 1970s] reissue albums.” So, incredible as it may seem, during his later years this descendant of the Vanderbilt line was further enriched by a black woman who came into this world in near-penniless circumstances and who lay, as we shall see, in an unmarked grave for more than thirty years. There, in a nutshell, one has the political economy of jazz stripped to its essence.

October 27, 2005

Victor Davis Hanson: chickenhawk

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:38 am
In today’s NY Times, there is an op-ed piece by this California professor and outspoken reactionary who makes the case that American casualties in Iraq are quite low by historical standards:
“AS the aggregate number of American military fatalities in Iraq has crept up over the past 13 months – from 1,000 to 1,500 dead, and now to 2,000 – public support for the war has commensurately declined. With the nightly ghoulish news of improvised explosives and suicide bombers, Americans perhaps do not appreciate that the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the effort to establish a democratic government in Iraq have been accomplished at relatively moderate cost – two-thirds of the civilian fatalities incurred four years ago on the first day of the war against terrorism.”
When you go to his website and look at his biography, you find out all sorts of information about him except his military record.
You have to go to a wiki on this chickenhawk professor to learn the following:
“Critics have pointed out that Hanson’s opinions on war and his attitudes toward combat–though founded on thorough scholarship–have no grounding in personal experience. He has never seen military service.”


More on Hanson at Counterpunch.

October 26, 2005

NACLA attack on Cuba

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:15 am

Posted to www.marxmail.org on October 26, 2005

I think that most people have become accustomed to the idea that NACLA (North American Committee on Latin America) has shed its early radical politics, but every so often there’s an article in their “Report on the Americas” that really makes your hair stand on end.

In the current issue, you can read “Cuba: New Partners And Old Limits” that was written by Daniela Spenser from the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social in Mexico City. She is unabashedly described as being the organizer of the November 2002 Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project Conference. Upon the board of this august body you can find Allen Weinstein (Archivist of the United States), Condoleeza Rice, a slew of executives from outfits like Bristol Myers-Squibb and last but not least the novelist Robin Cook whose “Abduction” describes a group of scientists exploring the ocean floor who are abducted by a million-year old society that lives in the earth’s core. Just the sort of credentials needed to land you on the board of an anti-Communist think-tank.

The Woodrow Wilson Website describes Ms. Spenser’s conference as focused on the following:

During the height of the Cold War, Latin American revolutionary activists traveled to Havana and returned to their countries of origin in Latin America through the Czech capital Prague after having undergone military and political training in Cuba. Newly obtained Czech archival documents now provide details on “Operation Manuel.” The operation began in 1962; from the available documents it is not clear when it ended.

I imagine that Allen Weinstein had a hand in assisting Spenser put this conference together since he has an extensive background in ferreting out Soviet conspiracies. After Weinstein was nominated for the post of national archivist, Jon Wiener wrote an article in the Nation that began as follows:

“The White House nomination of Allen Weinstein, a historian of Soviet espionage, as archivist of the United States has caused a storm of protest in the normally quiet world of archivists and historians. Nineteen organizations, including the Society of American Archivists and the Organization of American Historians, have issued a joint statement expressing concern and calling on the Senate, which must confirm the nomination, to hold hearings to find out why the current archivist is being replaced and whether Weinstein is qualified.”

Full: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20040517/wiener

Although Spenser’s NACLA article is available only to subscribers, you can read the whole thing on red-baiter Leo Casey’s mailing list at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DemocraticLeft/message/19110

Her article begins: “Cuba’s revolution, having survived continuous U.S. aggression and the loss of Soviet support, now confronts an unlikely challenger from the left–global civil society.” For long-time readers of NACLA, the words “civil society” should ring a bell. This describes a constellation of NGO’s, social movements, squatters, etc. that is seen as an alternative to seizing state power and directing a nation’s resources for the well-being of workers and peasants. “Civil society,” you see, is preferable to “statist” solutions because it cannot lead to dictatorship. Of course, it cannot lead to material improvements either but that doesn’t seem to matter much to the liberal savants at NACLA. Spenser assures her readers:

“Not only in its internal politics, but also looking outward, Cuba is unreceptive toward alternative social movements. Its participation in the popular social resistance against neoliberalism and globalization, then, cannot be other than limited, since that resistance demands participatory democracy and a strong civil society with transnational rights.”

This certainly must come as a surprise to the Cubans who organized a conference on January 31, 2001 under the banner “Popular international movement against neoliberal globalization.” A reporter from Granma summed it up as follows:

“Protests in Seattle, Prague and Davos left a clear message scrawled on the walls of the universe: a popular movement transcending national borders is emerging. These are the words of warning that opened the 3rd International Economists Encounter in Havana on globalization and development problems, attended by Fidel Castro. At the close of this edition the conference sessions are continuing with the participation of experts from 45 countries and 11 international organizations.”

Later that year, Cuban President Fidel Castro made a speech that praised the large protests at meetings of world leaders in recent years. He joked that the heads of rich nations may soon have to meet on the International Space Station to avoid them.

Moreover, Spenser really seems miffed that Castro did not emulate the Soviets who had embarked on perestroika. The old dinosaur “reacted to the events in Eastern Europe by calling for renewed inflexibility against the ills of imperialism, the privatization of property and the dismantling of the Revolution. So that news of what was happening on the other side of the world did not become contagious, Soviet newspapers ceased to circulate in Cuba.” What a terrible blow to freedom of the press.

The final section of Spenser’s article makes an aggressive case for the EZLN who in the eyes of “civil society” partisans like her embodies an alternative to discredited “statist” solutions, especially socialism. She writes, “The Cuban government has no patience, for example, with movements like the Zapatistas.” I myself can’t recall even a hint of this. Generally speaking, Castro has never been critical of any movement that opposes capitalism. Ironically, it is partisans of the Zapatistas like John Holloway who have been guilty of sectarian attacks on Cuba rather than the other way around.

Spenser believes that “The Cuban government’s insistence on old-style socialism has little attraction outside of Cuba because it constrains rather than liberates social forces. Because the Cuban regime continues to act as a social engineer in a world of recognized human diversity, it cannot join the Zapatistas and other popular movements in speaking to the totality of the population that opposes imperial designs.”

Well, with all due respect to Daniela Spenser and her patrons at NACLA, there are certain advantages to the Cuban development model that should be an inspiration to struggling people everywhere, including in Chiapas. What she calls social engineering might be described in more neutral terms like changing society.

Considering the reality of Chiapas today, it seems that NACLA would be better advised to think twice about writing screeds against Cuba, especially in light of the report in the February 3, 2003 Newsday titled “Infant Deaths Plague Mexico” that states that a single hospital in Chiapas serves nearly 500,000 people. Burdened by inadequate staffing and supplies, babies die at twice the national rate.

Exploiting improvements in their own medical infrastructure that are no doubt the product of dastardly “social engineering”, Cuba demonstrated solidarity with Chiapas that no doubt eluded our friends at NACLA:


Mon Jan 20, 5:30 PM ET

MEXICO CITY (AP) – Cuban health workers are in southern Chiapas state to help officials cope with a sudden spate of infant deaths at a rural hospital, the governor said Monday.

Cuban Deputy Health Minister Gonzalo Estevez is among four Cuban doctors visiting the state to advise officials on possible improvement in the health care system, state officials said. In an interview with the Televisa network, Gov. Pablo Salazar said the doctors were discussing the possibility of bringing “epidemiological brigades” to Chiapas.

He did not specify what sort of health workers, or how many, would come. State health officials said no deal had been reached.

The death of 25 infants at a hospital in Comitan during December and several more since then drew national attention to long-existing public health concerns in Chiapas, one of Mexico’s poorest states.

Alarmed by the medical crisis, local officials invited experts from the federal government and Pan American Health Organization to investigate the deaths. State prosecutors also are investigating the deaths.

According to the health experts’ report, many of the mothers whose babies died in Comitan had not received any prenatal care before arriving at the hospital to give birth. Others had arrived only after their children developed problems.

“We need to attend to the mothers … to make the pregnancy safe and the birth successful. That implies an impressive multiplication of human resources,” the governor added.

A recent state government news release said Salazar’s administration took office in late 2000 amid “a true health emergency.”

“For 50 years there were bad educational policies, bad health policies, and for many years not a peso was invested in infrastructure,” Salazar said.

He said the state needs at least 500 more health centers and 2,500 additional medical workers.

Cuba’s socialist government has made heavy investment in health a point of pride, and has sent thousands of doctors and nurses on missions to impoverished or disaster-stricken areas in Africa and the Americas.

Cuba’s health system, while short on medicines, specializes in preventative and neonatal care.

Salazar said the medical assistance is part of a broader agreement under which Cuba has already sent agronomists and other experts to his state.

Cuba has made a point of offering aid to nations with both friendly and hostile governments. Relations between Mexico and Cuba have been tense over the past year.

October 24, 2005

Do Workers Understand Their Class Interests?

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:00 pm

(Swans – October 24, 2005) In the aftermath of George W. Bush’s 2004 electoral victory, Thomas Frank became the pundit of the moment. In a New York Times article dated only 3 days after the election, Frank put forward the notion that blue-collar voters chose Bush over Kerry because culture (abortion, gay marriage, etc.) trumped economic issues:

The first thing Democrats must try to grasp as they cast their eyes over the smoking ruins of the election is the continuing power of the culture wars. Thirty-six years ago, President Richard Nixon championed a noble “silent majority” while his vice president, Spiro Agnew, accused liberals of twisting the news. In nearly every election since, liberalism has been vilified as a flag-burning, treason-coddling, upper-class affectation. This year voters claimed to rank “values” as a more important issue than the economy and even the war in Iraq…

Like many such movements, this long-running conservative revolt is rife with contradictions. It is an uprising of the common people whose long-term economic effect has been to shower riches upon the already wealthy and degrade the lives of the very people who are rising up. It is a reaction against mass culture that refuses to call into question the basic institutions of corporate America that make mass culture what it is. It is a revolution that plans to overthrow the aristocrats by cutting their taxes.

In some ways, Frank’s analysis simply builds upon observations first made around the phenomenon of “Reagan Democrats.” Supposedly the Gipper’s macho style endeared him to lower income voters who traditionally voted Democrat. Despite their ostensibly pro-working-class economic policies, the Democrats lost because they were “wimpy.” In Reagan’s time, the emphasis was on appearing more “muscular” vis-a-vis the Soviets, while today it is on “family values” and “the war on terror,” but in either case liberal pundits felt that workers were suckered into voting against their own class interests. Of course, as Frank points out, it doesn’t help when Democrats — especially after the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council — appear more like Republicans on questions such as NAFTA, etc.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy30.html

Letter to Byron Calame, the New York Times ombudsman

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:47 am
UPDATE: An extremely abridged version of this letter along with others appears on Byron Calame’s page on the NY Times website.

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

Dear Mr. Calame,

By dwelling on the failings of individuals (Judith Miller, Bill Keller et al), you fail as well in your role of ombudsman at the NY Times. In essence, the Judith Miller scandal must be understood as an institutional failing at the Times, which is rooted in its incestuous relationship to the government. I am sure that you people are at least aware that the problem exists in the public mind since Times editor Philip Taubman himself raised the question “Are we lapdogs to the Bush administration or are we watchdogs?” at a panel discussion last May.

This relationship was openly admitted by Max Frankel in his recent book on the Cuban missile crisis. According to Frankel, who was listening to Kennedy and James Reston over an extension phone at the time, Kennedy said, “If you reveal my plan, or print that we discovered their missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev could beat us to the draw.” At first, Reston demurred: “You’re asking us to suppress the news?” but soon came around to understanding Kennedy’s “reasonable request” and suppressed the news. It is crystal clear why Judith Miller accepted a security clearance from the Pentagon. She was only following in Scotty Reston’s footsteps.

On August 4, 1964, when US planes bombed North Vietnam as a military reprisal for attacks on US naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin that never took place, the Times editorial page supported the bombing. Even if the attack had taken place, such reprisals violated international law. In a pattern that has become depressingly familiar, the paper only began to file critical reports on the war after it became obvious that it was not winnable–just as the case seems to be in Iraq today. This is not what one expects from a newspaper that one of its founders described as fulfilling a need “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interest involved.”

In the next episode of imperialist bullying a decade later, the NY Times also demonstrated its willingness to sacrifice truth at the altar of national security. After Times reporter Raymond Bonner visited a small village in El Salvador, he reported evidence of a massacre by government troops. Reed Irvine, the hard-line conservative activist, said he told the Times publisher that “Bonner was worth a division to the Communists.” Two months later Bonner was reassigned to the home office. Ten years later a U.N. commission confirmed that Bonner was right.

The removal of Bonner occurred at a time when the Times was embarrassing itself on a regular basis with reporting from the Judith Millers of their day. The Times employed Shirley Christian at the time, an open defender of Reagan’s illegal war against Nicaragua. When it was becoming more and more obvious that the contras were torturing and murdering peasant supporters of the government, Christian assured the Times readers that they were about to embark on a campaign to clean up their act. Claire Sterling, who started off working at the Readers Digest of all places, used her post at the NY Times in 1984 to 1985 to spread all sorts of wild theories about Bulgarian complicity in the assassination attempt on the Pope.

I can go on and on. Books have been written on the NY Times’ failings on questions such as these, including Mark Hertsgaard’s “On Bended Knees” and the recent effort by Howard Friel and Richard Falk titled “The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy.” When asked by an interviewer from the Columbia School of Journalism whether anybody from the paper had gotten in touch with him, Falk responded, “Not a word. And I think that’s characteristic of the Times’ arrogance, in my view, their feeling that they don’t want to even engage in a discussion of this kind of criticism.” This, in a nutshell, indicates that the NY Times will continue to have problems of the sort associated with Judith Miller.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect

October 18, 2005


Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:08 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on October 18, 2005

Gus Van Sant got the title and the idea for his idiotic film about the 1999 Columbine High School massacre from Alan Clarke’s “Elephant,” a 1989 half-hour TV movie that follows Catholic and Protestant gunmen around Belfast. There is no explanation for the shootings that take place in the film. The word “elephant” comes from Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty who described the ‘Troubles’ as “having an elephant in your living room, getting in the way of everything – but after a while you learn to live with it.” In other words, the Irish struggle was basically mindless killing without a political explanation.

My first encounter with one of Van Sant’s films was the 1989 “Drugstore Cowboy,” that told a fairly interesting story about a young junky. It was notable mostly for a cameo appearance by William S. Burroughs who played a priest! Three years later he made the horribly mannered “My Own Private Idaho” that I walked out on after perhaps fifteen minutes. But he is best known for the saccharine “Good Will Hunting” that was co-written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who also co-starred.

Out of curiosity, I watched “Elephant” on HBO last night, which also produced the 2003 film. It can best be described as a Frederick Wiseman documentary with a mass murder tacked on at the climax. There is no attempt to get inside the heads of the two teen-aged killers. In the moments leading up to the shooting, we watch them assembling their weaponry as they stare at a History Channel type documentary on the rise of Hitler. Just before they leave for school, they kiss each other while showering. Is Van Sant, who is gay himself, trying to explain the shootings as a reaction to homophobia? Or does he view the two killers as latter-day versions of Leopold and Loeb, the two gay youths who kidnapped and murdered Bobby Franks just out of a Nietzschean ambition to transcend good and evil? Oh, I forgot. The whole purpose of the film was to avoid explanations. That would be too uncool.

“Elephant” won the top prize at Cannes two years ago, only a year after Moore won a prize for “Bowling for Columbine,” a typical documentary from the liberal director that blamed the military-industrial culture around Columbine for the tragedy. (I discuss it here.)

Van Sant told the Independent on January 18, 2004 that he refused to explain the events because that would be “boring”: “This is something the boys have decided to do before the film has started, so what you’re watching are the machinations of the event itself. The idea is to get the audience to think about what they believe are the causes, not for the film-maker to tell you. If I did that I’d just be making a holiday movie. It would be boring.”

But in a November 8, 2003 Washington Post article, he suggests that the youths might be understood in terms of Pol Pot: “Something went terribly wrong here. And the audience will find itself not identifying the kids as evil, but the event. It’s an emergence of something that might be as shocking as a larger evil . . . like the Khmer Rouge killing the Cambodian population.”

Actually, the massacre was easily understood as an extreme reaction to bullying that was facilitated by easy access to automatic weapons. Back in June of 1998, Stephen Jay Gould spoke on “Science and Human Destructiveness” at the Brecht Forum in New York City. I reported:

“Gould said that the problem we face today is that science has produced potentially death-producing technologies which are far more ‘productive’ than those of the past. When mankind only had spears and bows and arrows at its disposal, genocide was less feasible. Today, nuclear weapons make it highly feasible.”

On a much smaller scale, that seems to be what went on at Columbine High School.

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