Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 30, 2007

Following Sean

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

Scheduled for home video release this week, “Following Sean” is an uncommonly sensitive documentary on the counter-culture of the 1960s and its lingering impact on a couple of families. Although radicals might have an understandable aversion to anything smacking of “hippy” culture, the film maintains a skeptical attitude toward its subject matter. Additionally, the families in question include Communist veterans whose participation helps to throw the “rebelliousness” of the flower children into sharp relief.

In 1969 director Ralph Arlyck was living in Haight-Ashbury in the same building as Johnny Farrell, his wife Susie and their three young children who had moved to San Francisco with the intention of “wearing flowers in their hair” as the song put it. Farrell was a bit older than the average hippy and had left behind a middle-class life in suburbia. He came from a wealthy, Republican-voting household and had decided to put that behind him.

His wife also had an unusual background, but coming from the opposite direction of Farrell’s. Her father was Archie Brown, a Communist leader of the longshoreman’s union who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and had memorable confrontations with HUAC. He died of a lung cancer in the early 1990s caused by exposure to asbestos on the docks. His wife Esther “Hon” Brown was also a Communist Party leader who built a house with the proceeds of a suit brought against Archie’s bosses. In the backyard, there’s a hot tub that is dedicated to Archie. A plaque reads, “Nothing is too good for the working class.” Hon Brown, who is just one of an amazingly attractive group of people in this film, is interviewed throughout.

Arlyck began to hang out with the Farrells, who like many people in this period and in this neighborhood in particular, maintained an open door policy to all comers. Their apartment was what was called a “crash pad” at the time. This was also around the time that the 29 year old Arlyck was launching a career as a documentary film-maker. His first work was a 20 minute short that featured Johnny Farrell’s 4 year old son Sean talking about how much he enjoyed smoking pot, hated the cops and liked to go barefoot (shoes were sweaty.) The film won first prize at a student film festival that year and won the acclaim of Francois Truffaut.

In 1999 Arlyck decided to visit San Francisco and to discover what happened to the Farrells and especially to Sean who was now 35 years old. Considering the rather extreme situation that the 4 year old had been born and raised into, you anticipate that the adult Sean Farrell would be a catatonic wreck if he were still alive. As it turns out, he was exceedingly normal with a job as an electrician and a blue-collar life-style. He enjoyed weekends at his stepbrother’s home north of San Francisco using pistols or bow-and-arrow on an outdoor range. When you first meet him, you wonder if the film will go slack since Sean seems so ordinary.

As Arlyck begins to interview Sean in greater and greater depth, you realize that he is not the typical “Joe Six-Pack”. After graduating college with honors and being accepted at law school, he decided to become an ordinary worker. In some ways, he is a throwback to the earlier generation of Archie Brown that ended up in blue collar work because nothing else was available. The more we learn about Sean, the more we understand that his choice was shaped by unease with mainstream American values. Although he has not “dropped out,” he was neither ready to take up the life-style that his father had abandoned in the 1960s. He is stuck somewhere in the middle and his sense of detachment and his ability to reflect philosophically on his social and existential status make him just as compelling an interviewee as he was in 1969.

From 1999 to 2006, Arlyck takes periodic trips out to San Francisco to interview Sean Farrell, whose uneasy evolution will remind you of Michael Apted’s series of documentaries “28 Up”, et al. tracking the hopes and frustrations of a group of British men and women from year to year. I find Arlyck’s work much more interesting, however, since it has much more psychological depth. Apted tends to prefer to allow his interviewees to ramble on, often to no perceptible end, while Arlyck is much more like a novelist, using the interviews as a way to explore character and to comment on society.

The film is just as much about Arlyck himself who reviews his own evolution as he left San Francisco and the 60s behind him. Like Susie Farrell, his parents are Communist veterans themselves although much more of the rank-and-file. They are interviewed throughout the film to great advantage, showing both a certain bemusement about their own youthful rebelliousness and those of their son’s.

The autobiographical aspects of this film will remind you very much of the work of Ross McElwee, another film documentary maker who keeps returning to his own life and those of his family members. In watching their work, we are reminded that there is nothing more interesting than the lives of ordinary people trying to make sense of the puzzle of American society.

Official website for “Following Sean”

March 29, 2007

The Host

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:59 pm

As a long-standing fan of horror movies, I was looking forward to the new Korean movie “The Host,” which supposedly was a mixture of “Jaws” and “Alien”. Although it is a much more modest film than these Hollywood blockbusters, it is just as entertaining. In some ways, it is like a number of the Korean films I have seen over the past five years or so. The main characters are members of a darkly comic, dysfunctional family of the sort found in “The Quiet Family,” which after buying a country lodge is disconcerted to discover that guests are invariably moved to commit suicide one after another. The plot consists of them trying to dispose of the bodies in the most creative fashion.

“The Host” also has the same kind of anti-Americanism seen in “Welcome to Dongmakgol,” a flick set during the Korean War that features South Korean soldiers making common cause with their brothers to the North against a rampaging US force.

“The Host,” in addition to the obvious homage to “Jaws” and “Alien,” really hearkens back to the original “Godzilla”:

The original ”Gojira” was never intended as a conventional monster-on-the-loose movie. Nor did it resemble the farcical rubber-suit wrestling matches or the domesticated movies (with Godzilla cast as a mammoth household pet) that the series degenerated into during the 1960’s and 70’s.

As the historian William Tsutsui reminded us in last year’s cult classic, ”Godzilla on My Mind,” the 1954 movie was a dark, poetic production that dealt openly with Japanese misgivings about the nuclear menace, environmental degradation and the traumatic experience associated with World War II.

The nuclear annihilations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh in mind when the famous Toho Company embarked on the ”Gojira” project in 1954. But Japanese fear of nuclear catastrophe was given fresh impetus in the spring of that year, when the United States detonated a huge hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in the central Pacific. Japanese fishermen aboard a trawler were exposed to nuclear fallout. Japanese consumers panicked and declined to eat fish after irradiated tuna was found to have slipped into the nation’s food supply.

In the film, the H-bomb blast awakens and irradiates a dinosaur that has somehow escaped extinction. The reptile strides ashore and begins his trademark devastation of the Tokyo landscape. The nuclear antecedents were not at all lost on Honda, a World War II veteran who passed through the bombed-out city of Hiroshima and witnessed the damage firsthand. Honda later said that he envisioned the fiery breath of Godzilla as a way of ”making radiation visible,” and of showing the world that nuclear power could never be tamed.

He also told an interviewer: ”Believe it or not, we naively hoped that the end of Godzilla was going to coincide with the end of nuclear testing.”

(NY Times, May 1, 2005)

The opening scene in “The Host” takes place in 1990. We see two men in white coats in a lab on an American base in Seoul, one an American and the other a Korean. The American orders the Korean to dump dozens of bottles of formaldehyde into the sink. When the Korean objects that such dumping is against the law and will likely impact the nearby Han River, the American tells him that he is in charge and to obey him or else.

Six years later we spot two fishermen in the Han River in Seoul. One discovers an odd little creature with a tail swimming nearby, a kind of overgrown tadpole, and attempts unsuccessfully to capture it in a coffee cup.

Later that year, we meet the members of the Park family, who own a sandwich stand/convenience store (more like a shack, actually) on the banks of the Han River. It consists of their elderly father, a widower named Hee-bong, and his three grown children. One of them, a bleached-blond slacker named Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), runs the stand with him but only after a fashion. He is practically narcoleptic. When we first meet him at the window of the stand, he is fast asleep totally oblivious to any approaching customers. When two eventually step up to the window, they steal the coins from beneath his nose. Gang-du, who is separated from his wife (understandably so), has a young daughter named Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko) who retains affection for her father even if he is too broke to buy her a top-of-the-line cell phone.

Gang-du, on the job

Gang-du has a brother named Nam-il (Park Hae-il), an unemployed white-collar worker who treasures his youthful days as a protestor against the Korean dictatorship just like aging ex-SDS’ers in the U.S. might feel a similar sense of nostalgia. They have a sister named Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na), an aspiring Olympian archer who is habitually close to being disqualified for taking too much time to release the arrow. Without revealing too much detail, we can say that Nam-il’s past experience with hurling Molotov cocktails and Nam-joo’s archery skills prove essential in defeating the beast that has begun to wreak havoc in the Han River, like the shark in “Jaws.”

When the creature finally appears, the crowd along the river reacts with “oohs” and “aahs” rather than shrieks, when they first spot the creature (a fanged sixty foot amalgam of fish and lizard as ugly and as homicidal as the creature in “Alien”) doing what appears to be gymnastic flips with its tail beneath the girders of a bridge spanning the river, like a monkey swinging from a tree.

When the creature finally descends from the bridge and begins to careen along the riverbanks gobbling up everyone he can get his claws on, the mood changes immediately to “Jaws” on the beach. One of the victims is Gang-du’s young daughter, who is not devoured on the spot but brought back to its lair in the sewers near the river as a kind of future midnight snack.

The rest of the film consists of the Park family trying to rescue Hyun-seo who managed to make one phone call to her dad until her crappy cell phone conked out.

Not only do they have to do combat with the fiendish river creature, they have to outwit a joint Korean-American military/epidemiological task force that insists that the creature is a product of some exotic virus rather than a mutation brought on by the spillage of formaldehyde into the Han River. They treat anybody exposed to the creature as a potential threat to the safety of the general population, including Gang-du who is taken into custody at a military hospital and forced to endure fiendish medical experiments to identify the non-existent virus.

The Americans decide to wipe out the creature using Agent Yellow, a highly toxic chemical that is certainly meant to evoke Agent Orange. Just to make sure that we know where the Americans are coming from, director Joon-ho Bong makes sure to include footage of GI’s on the rampage in Iraq.

The final 30 minutes of the film are a dizzying confrontation that brings together the Park family, the creature, the American-Korean task force, radical students bent on preventing Agent Yellow from being used and Gang-du’s daughter who is probably the most capable in the entire family.

This movie has all the joys of B-movies of the 1950s with off-kilter radical-minded comedy. It is playing now at a couple of theaters in New York City and in theaters around the country. It is excellent.


Thanks to Tony who brought to my attention in a comment on this review that the film is based on an actual incident:

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin), July 25, 2000 Tuesday FINAL EDITION

U.S. apologizes for river dumping

Seoul, South Korea — The U.S. military issued a public apology Monday for dumping formaldehyde into the Han River, a main source of drinking water for Seoul’s 12 million people.

“I officially express to you my deepest apology for the incident,” Lt. Gen. Daniel J. Petrosky, commander of the 8th U.S. Army, said in a statement.

Earlier this month, the military admitted releasing 20 gallons of formaldehyde into the Han River in February, but officials said they believed the formaldehyde caused no harm to public health, since it was treated in the sewage system and diluted with waste water.

Nasser’s Egypt: a Marxist analysis

Filed under: socialism,state capitalism — louisproyect @ 3:14 pm

Although, as explained in a reply to the state capitalist Jonah in the Samuel Farber/Cuba comments section, I do not have time to take up the differences between Nasser’s Egypt and genuinely postcapitalist societies, I just remembered that Harry Braverman had a good analysis of Nasserism in the 1959 American Socialist. Most of you know Harry Braverman as the author of the Marxist masterpiece “Labor and Monopoly Capital”. He was also co-editor of a magazine called The American Socialist with Bert Cochran. It was the voice of the Socialist Union, a group that came out of the Socialist Workers Party in an effort to break with sectarianism and dogmatism. As many of you know, I identify strongly with the American Socialist and scanned in the article that appears below with many others from the American Socialist that can be read here.

American Socialist, January 1959

[Louis Proyect: This 1959 article reflects the same kind of dialectically nuanced analysis found in the American Socialist articles on Peron from the preceding year. Nasser, like Peron, was accused by liberals and some Marxists of being—as the article puts it—a ‘fascist-Hitlerite dictator.’ This was the ideological punishment meted out to a nationalist trying to eliminate over one hundred years of colonial exploitation. While obviously no Marxist, Nasser is depicted as an anti-imperialist fighter who deserved support from the broad Marxist movement against Anglo-American imperialism.]

When the smoke of the Egyptian revolution cleared away, it was easy to see who were the losers: the monarchy and the landed pashas. But who were the winners? What is the military regime doing inside the country, now that Egypt rules itself?

The Nasser Revolution

Harry Braverman

HOW Egypt, one of the world’s poorest and weakest countries, became a country of importance in half a decade is pretty well known. The army regime that deposed King Farouk had, at first, no other aim than to come to terms with the West in order to get arms—chiefly to threaten or use against Israel—and to get economic aid for industrializing the country. The protracted negotiations with Washington, however, always seemed to add up to one thing: Nothing but mouth-watering promises would be forthcoming until Egypt agreed to join the Western military bloc and to permit American bases and military missions on its soil. But the young officers in charge of the country were not disposed to imperil the independence they had just begun to establish. They thus started the triangular game of playing off the major cold-war antagonists against each other. In 1955, Nasser participated in the Bandung Conference, and later the same year announced the purchase of arms from the Soviet bloc. He negotiated with both sides for aid in building a high dam at Aswan, and while Washington reneged on its commitment, the Moscow string to Nasser’s bow is now bringing results. In the meanwhile, the new regime answered Western withdrawal from its earlier commitment on the Aswan Dam by taking over the Suez Canal, and saved itself from imperialist wrath with the help of the Russian counter-balance. More recently, Egypt has joined with Syria and Yemen to form the United Arab Republic, has won a battle in Iraq, and in general, by a policy of impudent independence and bold maneuvers, has raised its own strength on the Middle Eastern chessboard far above its former rating as despised and ignominious pawn.

All of this has been told in the headlines of the last five years. But far less information has been forthcoming about the state of affairs in Egypt itself. Hard as it is for Western readers to piece together an accurate picture from the scraps and fragments of the daily and periodical press, it becomes well-nigh impossible in the present state of our informational services. As in so many other fields, the cold war has driven truth into hiding: Nasser is a ‘fascist-Hitlerite dictator’ in pursuit of ‘foreign adventures’ to distract his people from their poverty; he is the chief  ‘aggressor’ in the Middle East. Or, on the other hand, he is a ‘peace-loving Nehruite’ and a ‘colonial revolutionary.’ These Hollywoodized stereotypes of ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ add very little to our knowledge of the complex forces at play in Egypt. We are thus fortunate in having a fine new book, Egypt in Transition, (Jean and Simonne Lacouture, Criterion Books, New York, 1958, $7.50) which gives an uncommonly complete and sensitive picture of the developments since the coup against the old regime in July 1952. The authors, a French couple, have supplemented their years of residence and observation in Egypt with exhaustive research, and have assembled the whole with careful objectivity, not to say skepticism. Although it carries the story up to as late as February 1958, it has already been published and’ acclaimed in France, and made available in this joint British-American edition. Anyone who can’t get the details, problems, and policies of the new regime straight has only himself to blame, now that this book is on the market.

POST-World War II Egypt was in the all-too-common position of a nation whose social classes find it impossible to muster the strength to get out of their impasse. Of the peasantry, which embraces the vast majority of the population, there is hardly any need to speak; it was, and still remains, almost entirely sunk in the immemorial poverty, disease, and debility of the Nile Valley, mustering barely enough energy to keep alive, and all hut dead to the national problems of Cairo and Alexandria. Even the hope of a solution to the land problem had been virtually extinguished by the peculiar Egyptian situation, in which the entire agricultural economy is concentrated in a thin strip of alluvial mud bordering the Nile, resulting in a rural overcrowding as bad as that to be found anywhere in the world. It was not the peasantry which took the lead for change; the ferment came chiefly among the city classes.

Both World Wars put huge Western armies on Egyptian soil, and at the same time sharply reduced the import of foreign goods. As would be expected, the result was a considerable growth in Egyptian industry to meet the new market and the curtailed supplies. Where, before the first World War, Egypt seemed nothing but an immense cotton plantation for the benefit of the textile trade and a fascinating playground for archaeologists, it now began to take on a Western appearance. Egyptian industry and commerce, even on a small scale, meant inevitably the undermining of the feudal orders and the encroachment of a new social arrangement, with a middle and upper class of trade and manufacture, and a city working class. Along with this came the usual accompaniment: nationalism, radicalism, strivings of independence and social reform. Revolts in the inter-war period won a measure of independence, including even the evacuation of British troops from Egyptian territory outside the Canal Zone, but Britain retained the final say in all major matters of foreign and domestic policy, both by formal agreement and informal pressures.

After the second World War, an increasing popular pressure, from the working class which had increased in size by 35-40 percent during the war, from the nationalistic capitalists, from the students, and from the vast miscellaneous throngs of the major cities—so hard to describe in social terms but so important to the popular politics of the Middle East—made the status quo ever harder to maintain. Demonstrations shook the regime, but even when relative calm prevailed, the internal rot, weakness, and loss of confidence of all the major forces in the ruling structure pointed to doom. The Wafd, an all-national party which ran the parliamentary system, managing to combine pashas and nationalist capitalists m one coalition, had lost much of its popular aura by its capitulation to the British during the war. The king, Farouk, had transformed his entourage into a Florentine hotbed of nepotism, sybaritism, and pimping. The British, the third element in the power structure, were on the defensive throughout their colonial empire, the object of universal detestation in Egypt, and badly weakened by the war.

THE outburst of the Cairo masses on January 26, 1952, which the entire center of the city was burned to the ground, including most of the foreign and fashionable structures, brought matters to a head. In October of the preceding year, Mustafa Nahas, head of the Wafd ministry, had submitted a project for abrogating the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, in order to satisfy the universal popular demand to be free of any form of occupation. Soon thereafter, Egyptian partisans began guerilla attacks on the British forces in the Canal Zone, attacks which culminated on January 19, 1952, in an almost frontal daylight assault on the garrison at Tel El Kebir, the largest British munitions depot in the Middle East. As the Egyptian auxiliary police were standing idly by or even siding with the insurgents, the British commander sought revenge by an attack on the police barracks, massacring about fifty in the process. It was this which brought on the rising excitement, the union boycotts, the student demonstrations, and finally the burning of Cairo. While the Lacoutures bring much evidence to bear of provocation by the monarchy, the fascist ‘Green Shirts,’ and the Moslem Brotherhood, there is little doubt that, whatever the forces at work behind the scenes, the explosion in Cairo on January 26 was the first day of a popular revolution. On July 26, Farouk was forced to abdicate.

With the burning of Cairo, the old regime went up in smoke, but it took six months for a new force to come forward. For the truth was that no social class had the strength, the leadership, or the organization to take over on its own. The capitalists were too few, too timid, too much tied up with the discredited Wafd and with the old regime itself, to constitute themselves as an independent political force. The peasantry—despite its four uprisings on several of the largest estates during 1951, put down with much bloodshed —-was completely without organization or political consciousness beyond the most rudimentary. Among the workers, while strikes flared throughout the preceding period and radicalism had been growing since the middle of the war, there were only weak unions and a Communist movement split into no fewer than ten competing grouplets, none of which had been able to find a clear star of policy to steer by in the fast-moving and complicated events. Besides, the working class itself is still an amorphous grouping, embracing a small number employed in the few huge vertical trusts and a large number of employees in tiny scattered shops. So recent is the class that it consists in considerable part of peasants whose families still live on the land, and who have hardly been assimilated to city life. For all these reasons, the infant working class could hardly have been expected to make the decisive challenge to the old government.

ALL of this goes to explain why Egypt is today ruled by a ‘party’ of some hundreds of army officers. The Bonapartist regime has been forced, by the absence of any decisive solution to the tensions, to straddle the contending social forces and provide an interim barracks order to a land that could no longer live in its old pit but hadn’t the strength to climb out of it.

The officers’ movement which was to furnish the new structure of government can be traced back two decades. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 which gave Egypt a limited political independence at the price of an indefinite]y prolonged British occupation, left many of the younger generation deeply dissatisfied; a dissatisfaction which was increased by repeated demonstrations of the weakness of the monarchy and the Wafd in the contests with the British. A Wafd government decree of 1936 had unwittingly sown a seed for the future by opening the Military Academy at Abbassieh to young men regardless of class or wealth. The young officers of the newly formed army were thus recruited in large measure from among the sons of the peasantry and of lower grade civil servants, a great many of whom chose the military profession as a way of seeking revenge against the British occupiers. The army thus had a peculiarly nineteenth-century, Garibaldiesqu appearance, staffed as it was by patriotic Julien Sorel who had chosen the wearing of the ‘red’ as their path from poverty to a career, by nationalist officers who devoured books by Laski, Marx, Engels, Nehru, Bevan— Hitler !—and who met on hilltops to swear oaths of revenge against the British and to make plans for recruiting other officers to the groups that started to form as soon as the first graduating class was posted to its assignments in 1938. The most prominent among these rebellious young lieutenants of the class of ‘38 was Gamal Abdel Nasser. By the late forties his connections extended throughout the army, and by 1950 he had founded a paper for the movement, The Voice of the Free Officers.

When the guerrilla-campaign for the Canal began in 1951, the officers’ movement became a seething hive of excitement, forming commandos, helping the partisans, and supplying arms. Up to this time the officers considered themselves little different from the Wafd nationalists, but after the burning of Cairo, and as it became obvious that the Wafd was neither willing nor able to take action, the officers’ ‘party,’ for that is what it in effect was, made plans for its long-prepared coup, which went off successfully at the end of July 1952. General Mohamed Neguib was selected as flag-bearer of the new regime, and for the first two years served as chief of state, after which he was ousted in an internal disagreement. But from the beginning the strongest man in the regime was the lieutenant-colonel who had founded the Free Officers’ Movement years before, Nasser.

THE losers are easy to name: the monarchy and the feudal pashas. But who had won? The khaki-colored regime, despite its early protestations of democracy and parliamentarianism, soon showed that it intended to impose its will on all sections of the population, and by balancing itself above the classes, carry out a national program that would presumably benefit all. Blows were dealt against Left and Right, against workers and landowners. Within a month, a strike at a big spinning mill owned by the major Egyptian trust, the Misr Company, broke out. When the police opened fire on the strikers, the enraged workers burned two of the factory buildings, shouting: ‘Long live the army’s revolution, the people’s revolution.’ But the ‘people’s revolution’ sent troops who killed eight workers and wounded 20, arrested 200 workers, and sentenced two of their leaders to death. These were the first victims of the revolution.

Then within a few months, a rich and powerful landowner who refused to bow to the new regime, firing on and setting his dogs upon the surveyors who had come to measure how much land he would have to hand out to his fellahs under the agrarian reform, was dragged to Cairo in chains, where he too was sentenced to die, a sentence which was in his case softened to life imprisonment. The officers could point to a blow against the Right to balance the blow against the Left. And so it continued. The military police arrested 43 worthies of the old regime, and at the same time suppressed all parties, including those of the Left, and created a ‘National Liberation Rally’ to supplant them. The aristocratic former Regent, Colonel Rashid Mehanna, was placed on trial as a counterrevolutionary with two dozen of his subalterns. At the same time, the long series of Communist trials, which processed radicals in groups of fifty, was begun, and the unions, deprived of the right to strike, were placed under government supervision. A careful boxscore might show that the large capitalists were hardly getting their share of lumps from the new regime and that the workers and the Left were getting more than their share. Yet even the big capitalists had been reduced in power, could no longer bribe and manipulate with the same ease, and waited impatiently for the army ‘wolves’ to slink back to their barracks. But the army kept a tight rein, and the country settled down to life under a council of a dozen officers, which rested upon a larger base, the Society of Free Officers of about 250 members, which rested in turn upon the 2,000 officers of the Egyptian Army.

NO matter how absolute their power, the officers could not conjure away the set of problems which had created their crisis regime in the first place. Like many dictators, they are themselves dictated to by circumstances and pressures, from the semi-colonial position of the country, from the growth of population, from the poverty of the exploited. Forced to take measures, they have earned a measure of right to the title of revolutionaries. The Lacoutures comment that ‘perhaps the military government’s most fundamental claim to be revolutionary is that at last, through them, Egypt was governed by Egyptians. In order to grasp the revolutionary importance of the changeover we have to remember that the old regime was led by a dynasty originating in Albania, with Turkish customs, French caprices, English interests, a Levantine notion of public morality, and an Italian background.’

‘A few months later men of an entirely different stamp were to be seen in the Abdin Palace. Broad-shouldered, heavy of gait, deeply bronzed, they trod gingerly across the carpets and knocked on the door before entering their own offices. At night they returned to their modest houses or their barracks at Helmieh or Manshiyat el Bakri. Thicknecked, in their khaki shirts, they spoke in ringing tones, and brought bean sandwiches with them which they ate in between their reading of the files, and which they kept hidden in the drawers of their Empire desks. They were Egyptians who for the first time since the Assyrian invasion, that is to say for twenty-seven centuries, were the real masters of the lower Nile Valley.’

Of the regime’s internal measures, the Agrarian Reform of 1952 is undoubtedly the most revolutionary. It limits the possession of land to 300 feddans (315 acres). In a land where only some three percent of the country is arable, this is quite large. Nevertheless, it made available 660,000 feddans of land for state purchase and distribution, apart from 180,000 feddans belonging to Farouk and 200 members of the royal family, which were confiscated outright. The transfer of estates involves about 13 percent of the arable land, and the beneficiaries constitute under ten percent of Egypt’s 18 million fellahs. A couple of hundred agricultural cooperative societies, compulsory by law in the re-distributed areas, organize production and marketing and try to combine the advantages of large-scale operations with small-scale ownership. Limited though the reform may be, it unquestionably has given new life and increased income to a portion of Egypt’s most exploited population. And, more important to the great mass of tenants, a compulsory decrease in land rents, which has cut the average rent approximately by half, has aided a far larger number of fellahs, about a third of the peasantry. Within a few years, according to the government’s statistics, the income of small farmers had been increased by £30 million a year ($84 million), enabling them to consume for the first time some of the poultry, eggs, and milk they produce.

But the most important result of the shakeup on the land is not economic but political. The age-old feudal rule of the landed pashas has been broken. The regional landowner-dominated principalities have given way to a central authority which, while jealously dictatorial, has no vested interest in the perpetuation of village poverty and miseries.

DESPITE this, little has been accomplished in meeting the basic economic problems of the country. The workers, agricultural and city, are probably worse off than in the past, in terms of standards of wages. Industrialization proceeds at a snail’s pace. No solution has been found to the desperate and growing over-population of the country in relation to its present productive resources.

The basic trouble is that which afflicts all colonial countries: for decades, as a result of imperialist domination and shaping of the economy, it has been a one-resource land, producing its major crop for export, in raw form, to the cotton mills of the capitalist nations. Cotton accounts for more than a third of the national revenue, and with rice, forms the speculative basis of the economy. Much of the effort of the peasantry is drained off in the form of wealth for the larger landowners and profits for the textile mills abroad. As in the other colonial countries, the nation is abjectly dependent upon the world market in its particular crop. In the years immediately following the officers’ revolution, this was emphatically brought home by a sharp drop in the world price of cotton, resulting in a severe depression on the countryside, and a fail of wages and incomes. The government fought hack by increasing the rice acreage at the expense of cotton, and by opening new markets in the Soviet bloc, but none of this has changed the fact that the country is chiefly dependent on the fortunes of one or two major crops.

Nasser and his economic planners had hoped that much agricultural capital, freed by the compulsory sale of large estates, would be siphoned into industrial investment. The hope proved vain. Landowners preferred to invest abroad, or in the quick-turnover luxury trades; they had no faith in industry. Meanwhile, the compulsory reductions in upper incomes reduced the market for manufactured goods without creating a sufficient demand to compensate among the lower income groups: the fellahs, as we have seen, are ‘splurging’ on food to supplement their bean diets, the workers are not gaining in income, arid the middle class is growing far too slowly.

IN the final analysis, Egypt cannot industrialize without massive foreign help unless it can increase the amount of arable land. The whole nation is crowded into the pathetically thin ribbon of Nile-watered and -irrigated land. The food supply for the growing population and export surpluses for financing industrialization cannot be ensured from this tiny area by itself. Only a program of desert reclamation will reinvigorate the agricultural economy and give the cities a surplus to invest in industry, and even then, it is doubtful that the automatic pull of the market would do the job; some form of government planning would be required to ensure that the added wealth is kept in the country and applied to constructive tasks.

The Aswan Dam project is seen by the regime as the basic answer. Forty-five percent of the Nile water is wasted. There are fat years and lean, drought and flood. The proposed High Dam announced by Nasser in 1954 would create a catch basin of 23,000 square miles, providing enough water to increase the arable lands by 30 percent. The entire agricultural setup would moreover be steadied, taken out of the Nile’s erratic mercies. By reducing the underground waters, drainage costs would be lowered by an estimated 24 percent. But the production of huge quantities of cheap electric power would he the most important consequence of the dam, making it possible to transform the face of Egypt. Egypt at present consumes only about a third of a million kilowatt hours, one of the lowest per capita supplies in the world. The Aswan Dam, fully electrified, would produce ten thousand million kilowatts an hour at a negligible cost. This in itself would provide the basis for an industrial revolution of great pro. portions. This project can raise the standard of living and end the disparity between the country’s resources and its growing population. Egypt has few natural resources apart from the Nile, but, when harnessed, the Nile can change the face of a large part of North Africa. The total building costs for the dam would reach some £400 million ($1,120 million) a sum which the nation, even with its revenues from the nationalized Suez Canal, cannot possibly raise without foreign aid. It is easy to see why for Egypt’s new foreign policy has taken precedence above all other of government.

Important as the Aswan project is, it is hard to see solution of the Egyptian problem by purely technical means. The hallmark of the present military regime is while sincerely seeking the industrialization and modernization of Egypt, it hopes to achieve that goal without breaking up the old social structure. Apart from the monarchy and the pashas, the power-structure remains intact. The dictatorship has little more authority over the direction of the economy than Nehru’s democracy, and for if the same reason: The economy is, by and large, still in if the hands of the same possessing classes. When the experience of China is set against that of all those colonial countries which have tried to make progress without a basic social revolution, it is easy to see that technical expedients are not enough; barriers which look insuperable to a regime that has its hands tied by old social relations may be leaped or circumvented by a regime that is free to make a fresh economic start.

GENERAL Neguib, when he was in office, told an Egyptian diplomat: ‘My dear ambassador, just explain to your friends that if we had not seized power, others would have overthrown the monarchy and by other means.’ The Lacoutures write:

‘In the collusion which was constantly offered by the British and Americans and which Nasser accepted) there was certainly an element of ideological understanding, a common determination to block the passage to a violent social revolution by offsetting it with technical reform (the idea being less to bar the road to an imaginary Soviet invasion, than to nip in the bud some Mao of the Nile Valley).’

These are insights into the motives of the military revolutionists, but as the Lacoutures point out, they by no means define the entire process. In its foreign relations, a regime which started out to make the most of its ties with imperialism soon found that it was offered little independence in return for its collaboration, and broke violently to carry out some of the most striking anti-imperialist coups of recent years. The limited technical reforms of its internal policy have grown in implication, not because the changes have been so great, but because the awakening of the people has been furthered, and because they sit in judgment on the regime’s actions, and make demands and exert pressures.

Nasser’s regime is certainly a dictatorship masquerading as a revolution, but it is also a dictatorship fulfilling some of the obligations of a revolution, and initiating the trends and processes which will make for more revolution in Egypt. So long as the military can effectively substitute itself for the social struggle, keep the pot boiling, and give at least the impression of forward motion, it can hold sway. If it falters, the dispossessed nobles and landowners are on hand to take over again, with imperialist help, unless the Egyptian working class and peasantry have in the meantime so matured as to be able to make the Nile Valley the scene of Africa’s first experiment in socialism.

March 28, 2007

Samuel Farber, the state capitalists and Cuba

Filed under: cuba,socialism,state capitalism — louisproyect @ 5:47 pm

(This is part of a continuing series on “Does Socialism Have a Future”. My next and concluding post will review Michael Lebowitz’s “Build it Now”)


Revolutionary from above?

For state capitalists or Shachtmanites, the notion of “socialism from below” serves as a kind of litmus test for revolutions. For example, David McNally, a Canadian state capitalist professor, wrote a pamphlet titled “Socialism from Below” in 1984 that condemns Trotskyist support for Cuba:

From this point onwards, the movement Trotsky had created fell victim to the ideology of socialism from above. No longer, for them, was socialism dependent upon the self-emancipation of the working class. Now any collection of guerrillas, technocrats or petty dictators who undertook to turn backward countries into modern empires by nationalising the means of wealth appeared as progressive movements. In China, Cuba, Algeria and dozens of other countries, such movements came to power. In no case were these regimes based on structures of workers’ power and workers’ democracy. Yet, more often than not, the Trotskyist movement greeted these brutally undemocratic state capitalist tyrannies as workers’ states.

In trying to understand the origins of this distinction between “above” and “below”, it is helpful to keep in mind that Lenin viewed the bourgeois revolution as having such opposed outcomes as well. In his 1899 “Development of Capitalism in Russia,” he said that the bourgeois revolution can proceed from above, such as the case of the Junkers in Germany, or from below, like the American Civil War against slavery. (Although it is not necessary to go into this here, it is certainly possible to interpret the post-Civil War period as having the same characteristics as Junkers Germany, namely a continuation of the plantation system under less feudal-like conditions.)

In a very important article on the bourgeois revolution that appeared in Vol 13., Issue 4 of “Historical Materialism” in 2005, British SWP’er Neil Davidson made a very convincing case for the need to detach the category ‘democratic’ from “bourgeois democratic revolutions.” Agreeing with Lenin, he sees the bourgeois revolution as being accomplished either from above or below. Ultimately, we are talking about qualitative changes in the mode of production and nothing else.

In the concluding pages of his article, Davidson takes exception to Isaac Deutscher who saw Stalin as a kind of socialist Junkers imposing socialism from above on Eastern Europe after WWII. Unlike the bourgeois revolution, the socialist revolution can only come from below. As he puts it in reckless disregard of dialectics, “the exploited class under capitalism will achieve the socialist revolution, or it will not be achieved at all.” I guess this illustrates Aristotle’s rule of the excluded middle, although it has been years since I was a philosophy student. Furthermore, state ownership of the economy is not sufficient to determine if a workers state exists. This can only be defined by whether “the working class is in political control of the state.” He adds that “democracy is not merely a desirable feature, but a necessity for socialism.”

Implicit in this analysis is the idea that all political tendencies outside the state capitalist movement are not up to the task of building socialism since they lack the theoretical insights of Tony Cliff and his followers that are a precondition for workers democracy. (It must be added, however, that these insights did not prevent the British SWP from unceremoniously booting the American ISO out of their movement.) Set up as a separate and distinct ideological tendency within Marxism, it sees its goal as creating an alternative to Stalinist state capitalism.

At the time of its founding, the state capitalist movement had a fairly easy job on its hands. With the USSR clearly controlled by a privileged and antidemocratic social layer, Tony Cliff and his followers sought to create untainted socialist leaderships everywhere in the world that could challenge the state capitalists for power. This was a black-and-white, almost Manichean, struggle that was mandated by the clear evidence of Soviet brutality in East Germany, Hungary and elsewhere.

In 1959, things got a bit more complicated.

A guerrilla group overthrew the Batista dictatorship with no help from the Cuban Communists and began to build a kind of socialism that had little in common with the USSR. That, at least, is how most independent-minded radicals saw it. However, if your goal is to maintain a kind of brand loyalty to a particular ideology, it is incumbent upon you to highlight everything that stinks about your competitor. If you are in the car rental business, you have to point out that the competition does not have locations near major airports. If you are in the laxative business, you have to point out that other brands take longer to kick in and you know how bad that can be. If you are in the revolutionary socialism business, it is necessary to point out that your rivals are not really proletarian and are hostile to democracy.

For many years now, Brooklyn College professor Samuel Farber has been providing talking points to the state capitalists for use against the competition. As an ostensible expert (he was born there), he has the kind of authority that others lack.

For example, ISO’er Paul D’Amato finds Farber’s musings on the class nature of the July 26th movement essential to his January–February 2007 International Socialist Review article titled “Cuba: Image and Reality.”

What was the class nature of the revolution? The July 26th Movement’s core around Castro consisted of men from different social classes, mostly from the cities, but even those from the working class had not been active in unions or other working-class organizations before joining Castro. Likewise, peasant guerrilla recruits, “typically had little or no history of previous organized peasant struggles,” notes Sam Farber. “This was very important in allowing Fidel Castro to mould these men into faithful followers of his caudillo leadership. In any case, an inner circle of ‘classless’ men unattached to the organizational life of any of the existing Cuban social classes became Fidel Castro’s political core.”

The footnote attached to this paragraph refers to Farber’s recently published “The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered,” an altogether worthless book that does more damage to the ISO’s reputation than to the Cuban revolutionary movement. I want to take up some of Farber’s major points and then conclude with some thoughts on the question of “socialism from below” and the Cuban revolution.

Chapter two of Farber’s hatchet job is titled “Fidel Castro and the Cuban Populist Tradition.” It is the kind of claptrap one would hear at an American Political Science Association (APSA) convention. After establishing the existence of a populist tradition in Cuba that José Martí supposedly belonged to, Farber then goes through a laborious exercise to prove that Fidel Castro was a populist as well. Apparently, what people think is more important than what they do. Citing a couple of “Marti scholars”, Pedro Gonzalez and Iván E. Schulman, Farber notes that “strong elements of stoicism and romanticism also featured prominently in Martí’s thinking and subsequently became fixtures in the Cuban populist tradition…” Well, so much for historical materialism.

To put it mildly, the term “populist” is next to useless in describing either José Martí or Fidel Castro. In drawing a distinction between the cross-class character of the Cuban liberation movement and the proletarian-oriented Communists, Farber shows that he has little understanding of Leninist politics. This, of course, should not come as any great surprise since he wrote a book that blamed Lenin for Stalin’s rise. Others of us, including the state capitalist comrades, would presumably have more use for Lenin–especially on the national question.

Karl A. Radek: like Farber, had no use for middle-class movements

On May 9, 1916, Lenin noted that Karl Radek had described the Irish rebellion as being a “putsch.” Since, according to Radek, “the Irish question was an agrarian one”, the peasants had been pacified by reforms, and the nationalist movement remained only a “purely urban, petty-bourgeois movement, which, notwithstanding the sensation it caused, had not much social backing…”, there was no need to back something that obviously was just as “romantic” as Marti’s populism. Lenin had no use for this kind of workerist sectarianism. He answered Radek as follows:

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie without all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.–to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.

Oddly enough, despite his professions for the need for “socialism from below,” Farber has a weak spot for the Popular Socialist Party in Cuba (the dirty no-good Stalinists) whose working class orientation was in stark contrast to the wishy-washy populists and their amorphous “Cuban people.” A large part of Farber’s infatuation has to do with the high “theoretical level” of the Cuban Communists compared to their populist rivals in the Orthodoxo Party (Castro belonged to its youth wing) and elsewhere, as if being able to explain the Grundrisse could make up for horse-trading with Batista.

In comparison, the guerrillas were a bunch of romantics who went to the hills “for an ideal”, but as the fighter who uttered these words went on to say, he had no idea what the word “ideal” meant. Farber writes that “he had heard the expression and figured it was a good thing.” These are people who would appear to enjoy shooting just for the fun of it, like members of the National Rifle Association in the United States.

Even worse, the July 26th fighters were motivated more by a sense of honor rather than social justice, a quality that linked them to the Sicilian Mafia. Citing a rafter of Cuban “scholars,” Farber asserts that honor has been the “cornerstone of social consciousness” in Cuba for the entire 20th century, a trait they share not only with the Mafia but with southern slave owners and medieval lords as well. So unlike the proletarian and theoretically grounded Cuban Communists, the July 26th movement fought for ideals that it did not understand and had a taste for settling feuds like the American gangsters that Batista welcomed.

So far we have established that Fidel Castro’s movement was populist, gun crazy and consumed with notions of “honor” like the Mafia. If that wasn’t bad enough, we soon discover that it was racist as well. Unlike the Cuban Communists, who went out of their way to recruit Blacks, the populist movement “failed to recognize the special oppression of black Cubans.”

Although Richard Gott is not the hostile propagandist that Samuel Farber is, he does concur that the July 26th movement gave short shrift to Afro-Cubans. In his recently published “Cuba: a New History,” Gott writes:

The Revolution was to create avenues of economic progress for the great mass of the black population, but without a programme of US-style positive discrimination their social and political advance remained slow. By 1979 there were still only 5 black ministers out of 34, 4 (out of 14) black members of the politburo of the Cuban Communist Party, and 16 (out of 146) members of the Party’s central committee. No black generals served in Angola, although most of the troops were black.

Despite this, Gott does give credit to the Cuban government for ending Jim Crow shortly after taking power and for funneling urgently needed resources to the countryside, which had a high representation of Afro-Cubans. Part of the problem, of course, is figuring out what it means to be a Black in Cuba. Some scholars believe that 70 percent of the Cuban population is descended partially from African slaves. In the 1980s, I worked with a programmer named Gabriel whose father was a sergeant in Batista’s army. He had a coffee complexion and told me that his pipe-smoking grandmother who worshipped the Santeria gods was black as coal. Was Gabriel white? Certainly not in the eyes of the average New Yorker.

Chapter four of Farber’s book is titled “The Driving Force of the Cuban Revolution: From Above or From Below?” It begins with a categorical denial that “mass pressures from below played a critical role in determining the course followed by the revolutionary leadership.”

It is essential for Farber to make such an argument since the overall schema is one of a government carrying out structural reforms, often counterproductive ones, over the heads of a population that stood by with its arms folded and that eventually was ordered about like servants. In this scenario, the guerrillas shot their way into power against an army that was decaying from within, like a termite-ridden house, and then took the reins of government to carry out social experiments inspired by the state capitalist USSR.

Louis A. Pérez Jr. on Cuba in 1959:
“Pressure for immediate, deep, sweeping change was building from below

In his acknowledgements, Farber thanks Louis A. Pérez Jr. for his penetrating and useful criticisms but holds himself “solely responsible” for the views expressed in the book. One wonders if this might have something to do with the 180 degree difference between him and Perez over the question of mass pressure from below. In Perez’s “Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution,” we get quite a different view of the mood and activities of the Cuban people at the time of the revolution:

The rhetoric of revolution awakened the imagination of hundreds of thousands of Cubans, creating a vast constituency for radical change. It raised expectations of revolution, and not since 1933 had Cuban hopes for change reached such levels. Pressure for immediate, deep, sweeping change was building from below and the invocation of revolution encouraged it to rise to the top. Organized labor mobilized to press demands on a wide variety of issues. The Confederation de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC) demanded outright a flat 20 percent wage increase for all workers. Strikes increased in number and frequency. Six thousand workers of the Cuban Electric Company staged a slow-down strike to dramatize their demands for a wage increase. Unemployed electrical workers demonstrated at the presidential palace. Unemployed railway workers proclaimed a hunger strike, as did former employees of a Havana paper mill. Construction workers called a wildcat strike at the Moa Bay Mining Company. Restaurant workers threatened to strike. Cane cutters marched. Labor protests disrupted sugar production in twenty-one mills.

A March 9th 1959 Washington Post article was typical. Headlined “Workers Seize Radio in Cuba Labor Dispute,” it reported that it was the second such seizure in two days. Workers had already taken over the privately-owned equipment and studios of television Channel 12 in a similar labor dispute. The final paragraph states: “A Government labor representative said the workers at Cuban Wireless rejected a company offer to turn the management of the enterprise over to them.

Does this sound like a scenario in which the workers stood by passively while a bunch of middle class guerrillas went about the business of converting Cuba into a state capitalist dungeon? Unless you are totally committed to the state capitalist faith, it would seem that the events on the ground had more in common with France in May-June 1968 than with Stalinist Poland or East Germany.

Even Fidel Castro risked being bypassed by events. The October 25, 1959 NY Times reported that the Cuban president was under tremendous pressure from the counter-revolutionary right and from the workers and peasants on the left. The article concluded:

Dr. Castro’s austerity program [dictated by the economic chaos of the just concluded revolutionary war] has no enthusiastic support from the masses of people. At the same time, the workers expect the Government to see that they get the pay raises and other advantages despite the depressed conditions of business and industry, while the landless peasantry expects to be living well.

Like few other leaders that had taken power in Latin America, Central America or the Caribbean for the better part of 50 years, Fidel Castro decided to push the dynamics of the revolution against capitalism and imperialism. If one categorizes him as a populist, there is some difficulty in explaining his trajectory. Against all odds, Samuel Farber gives it a try. Basically, Farber interprets all of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary initiatives as clever ruses to maintain power. In other words, he acceded to popular demands for land reform, workers control of industry, reduction of rents, wage hikes, etc., just to stay in power. In two paragraphs that are a departure from the heavy fog of bourgeois social science that hovers over Farber’s text, we learn that Castro broke with his ostensibly populist past in the early years of the revolution:

The announcement early in the Castro regime that serious cases of misappropriation of funds by public officials might be punished with the death penalty might have sounded harsh to foreign observers, but it was music to the ears of most Cubans, who had despaired of and become cynical about the possibility of public officials ever being honest. Cubans of all classes, particularly the working class and the poor, were pleased by the brand-new revolutionary police force’s lack of abusive behavior. Many of these new police officers were politically aware revolutionaries and had had no time to develop the deformation of character common to members of all professional repressive institutions. Other early measures—for example, the opening of all beaches to the public early in 1959—met with widespread approval among workers and the poor, especially the black population, which had been the principal victim of the private appropriation of public facilities such as beaches and, in some provincial towns, parks. So, without explicitly appealing to specific class-warfare themes early in his regime, Castro obtained and consolidated an overwhelming amount of popular support.

Months later, however, Castro started to take measures that had sharper teeth and shattered the multiclass coalition of the 1956-58 period. Thus, for example, the drastic reduction of rents by as much as 50 percent in March 1959 shook up Cuban society. While this action alienated some sections of the upper and upper-middle classes, it cemented popular support and definitively established that the revolution was dedicated to the material improvement of the working class and the poor. The May 1959 agrarian reform law eliminated whatever doubt might have remained on this score. By this time, the revolutionary regime was clearly enjoying huge popular support materially based on the substantial redistribution of income that took place during its first year in power.

Farber adds that this kind of behavior “expressed a combative and aggressive attitude toward imperialist capitalism rather than a defensive and measured response to U.S. acts against Cuba.” Quite so, and also quite distinct from the behavior of any Communist Party since the early 1920s. The normal reaction for a radical would be to solidarize with such rebels rather than to condemn them as acting “from above.” That, I am afraid, would take a willingness to admit one’s errors that is simply beyond the capability of a self-declared vanguard.

To return to the question of “below” or “above”, let us accept the verdict that the Cuban government acted from above. If this is so, then perhaps it is time to reevaluate the usefulness of Davidson’s distinction. If the Cuban government, acting from above, could carry out the following according to Farber:

1. Eliminate corruption.

2. Eliminate police brutality.

3. Democratize the beaches and other public spaces.

4. Seize the land of the wealthy and turn it over to the landless

5. Stand up to U.S. imperialism.

Then, perhaps we should view it just as much of an advance over bourgeois property relations as bourgeois property relations were over serfdom. It is one thing to maintain one’s political distance from the Kremlin after Stalin’s rise; it is another to assert that there was no qualitative difference between Cuba and Haiti after 1960.

Unfortunately, the comrades have painted themselves into a corner. They have built an ideological edifice that is much more like a house of cards. Pull out one card and the whole thing comes tumbling down.

March 27, 2007

Michael Bérubé: amateur red-baiter

Filed under: Academia,antiwar,cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 3:45 pm

Amateur anti-Communist

As a long-time observer of the “cruise missile left,” I was happy to see Alexander Cockburn nail them in a recent Counterpunch:

The war party virtually monopolized television. AM radio poured out a filthy torrent of war bluster. The laptop bombardiers such as Salman Rushdie were in full war paint. Among the progressives the liberal interventionists thumped their tin drums, often by writing pompous pieces attacking the antiwar “hard left”. Mini-pundits Todd Gitlin and Michael Bérubé played this game eagerly. Bérubé lavished abuse on Noam Chomsky and other clear opponents of the war, mumbling about the therapeutic potential of great power interventionism, piously invoking the tradition of “left internationalism”. Others, like Ian Williams, played supportive roles in instilling the idea that the upcoming war was negotiable, instead of an irreversible intent of the Bush administration, no matter what Saddam Hussein did.

Bérubé, a publicity-hungry Penn State professor who is Alan Colmes to red-baiter David Horowitz’s Sean Hannity, defended himself on Crooked Timber, a group blog that he joined recently and that was made to order for him. This is a gang of underachieving liberal academics with socialist pretensions who spent most of the 90s demanding that the dastardly Serbs be brought to heel and then without skipping a beat cheered on the B-52’s as they rained bombs down on the Taliban. When George W. Bush took the next logical step and invaded Iraq, they responded that this was not what they had in mind. However, a jury would likely have found them guilty of being accessories after the fact. US imperialism certainly saw all these invasions as consistent with each other, even if liberals like Bérubé could not. This would require an understanding of class politics that is sadly missing in the postmodernist swamp he inhabits.

Whenever I think of Bérubé’s attack on antiwar organizers in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, I am reminded of Lillian Hellman’s contemptuous view of the “anti-antifascist left” during the 1930s. These were people who didn’t make a career of bashing Hitler, only bashing the people who had the guts to stand up to Hitler. It is like writing op-ed pieces in the NY Times in 1936 taking the Spanish Republic to task for not disassociating itself from the Kremlin sufficiently. It was bollocks then and bollocks now, as the British say.

It might be useful to review what Bérubé was actually saying 5 years ago, the period described by Cockburn as one of a “filthy torrent of war bluster”. The invasion of Afghanistan had created a powerful momentum to rally around the flag. Todd Gitlin, the Columbia journalism professor linked correctly to Bérubé by Cockburn, had written an atrocious book titled “Intellectuals and the Flag” that lectured the “hard left” for not genuflecting before the stars and stripes.

Bérubé felt inspired by the patriotic fever to write an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education on November 29, 2002 that was a classic red-baiting attack on unpatriotic elements in the antiwar movement. Written just 3 months before the invasion of Iraq, it was an all-out assault on the ANSWER coalition, which for all its faults did at least understand that imperialism had to be opposed in the streets.

Bérubé’s article is titled “Toward an Ideal Antiwar Movement: Mature, Legitimate, and Popular”. All in all, it has the familiar tone of Irving Howe lecturing 1960s radicals about the need to behave. Clearly it was written for the benefit of Bérubé’s peers in academia since anybody in the position to actually organize an ‘ideal’ antiwar movement would not be wasting their time reading a trade magazine for the professorate. He was far more interested in cultivating his own image as an anti-Communist liberal than actually building some kind of alternative to ANSWER. It is doubtful that Bérubé actually organized any kind of protest in his entire life so he wouldn’t know where to start.

In a rare moment of self-awareness, he actually admits to his rather inconsequential nature:

Perhaps I am just an armchair activist, sitting at home in my study, jawing over the fine points of texts, when I should be organizing teach-ins and rallies.

He begins with an anecdote that clearly establishes his national-security mindset. As a 21 year old, he was drawn to an anti-nuclear protest in Central Park in June 1982 but was at odds with most of the participants “in believing that nuclear weapons launched from submarines were a good deterrent.” He decided to grace the demonstration with his presence despite the widespread presence of signs stating that “One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Entire Day.” In perhaps a concession to youthful impetuousness, he decided not to “think too much about who was organizing the rally.” Bérubé had read in The New York Times that Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger had described the protest as “led by Soviet agents and sympathizers.” That did not worry Bérubé since his crowd “did not, in fact, contain a single Soviet agent or sympathizer.” In reading this nonsense, I am reminded of Joel Kovel’s diagnosis of anti-Communism as a psychiatric disorder.

Moving forward in time, Bérubé is far more tuned in to who is a Red or not:

Twenty years later, the left has begun organizing mass demonstrations against a war in Iraq. But who’s doing the organizing? For the October 6 rally in New York, a group called Not in Our Name, behind which one can find Refuse and Resist!, which in turn has ties to the Revolutionary Communist Party. For the October 26 rally in Washington, a group called Act Now to Stop War & End Racism (ANSWER), run out of Ramsey Clark’s International Action Center, itself a front for the Workers World Party. The groups involved in the demonstrations thus carry some heavy far-left baggage.

Bérubé’s “mature, legitimate and popular” antiwar movement would be stripped of the “heavy far-left baggage” and have Todd Gitlin’s American flag draped across it. This movement would, in his words, pay Iraqi dissidents-in-exile the respect of taking seriously their longstanding desire for “regime change.” In other words, Ahmed Chalabi would be speaking from the podium rather than Ramsey Clark. This movement would also take seriously “the possibility that Saddam Hussein will not really cooperate with United Nations inspections and will seek to develop and deploy weapons of mass destruction.” So instead of demonstrating at the Pentagon, the antiwarriors assembled in the literature professor’s mind would be marching on the Iraqi Consulate demanding that Saddam Hussein liquidate a WMD program that most independent arms monitors described as having been liquidated years earlier.

Finally, Bérubé’s antiwar movement would have insisted that the best alternative to war was the “smart sanctions” that Colin Powell had championed in the early months of the Bush administration. It might be useful to review the motivation behind “smart sanctions” when they were proposed in 2001–before 9/11. As a result of the bad publicity that Clinton era sanctions had generated in the Arab world (remember Madeline Albright’s defense of the sanctions even though they had cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children), there was a powerful momentum to end them. In the face of such pressure, Powell was devising a new strategy that could continue the economic stranglehold on a long-suffering population. Phyllis Bennis explained what the Bush administration had in mind:

Even before September 11th public awareness regarding the impact of sanctions had continued to rise in the U.S., even more so in Europe and with growing outrage across the Middle East. In response, Colin Powell made the replacement of the existing sanctions with a new “smart sanctions” arrangement a cornerstone of his State Department’s approach to Iraq policy. Throughout the first months of the Bush administration in 2001, a new U.S.-proposed sanctions arrangement was under discussion in the Security Council. Officially the proposal was designed to loosen some restrictions on importing food and other goods, while tightening the semi-clandestine oil shipments out and consumer goods in over Iraq‘s long and porous borders. In fact, it was a spin-driven proposal, intended primarily as a public relations ploy to undercut growing regional concern about the dire conditions facing Iraqi civilians under sanctions. As originally endorsed by Powell, the new arrangement would have only tinkered with the sanctions’ impact, not reversed them.

In other words, Bérubé would have expected the antiwar movement to embrace a policy that served “primarily as a public relations ploy to undercut growing regional concern about the dire conditions facing Iraqi civilians under sanctions.”

It should be obvious at this point that Bérubé was never serious about building an alternative to ANSWER. He was only interested in red-baiting it out of existence. If you strip away his leftist pretensions, you are left with the same kind of fetid, flag-waving garbage that used to grace the editorial pages of American newspapers during the mass demonstrations of the 1960s and 70s.

When I was in the Socialist Workers Party at the time and busy raising money or passing out leaflets for the antiwar movement, I would periodically be reminded of the kind of witch-hunting mentality that had never been completely expunged with the repudiation of Joe McCarthy.

If you really want to discover where Bérubé got his ideas, the best place to look are the columns of Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, who red-baited the antiwar movement every chance they got. A November 12, 1969 column could have practically been written by our postmodernist professor. It begins:

The tens of thousands of well-meaning war protestors set to converge on Washington Saturday will be joining a demonstration planned since summer by advocates of violent revolution in the U.S. who openly support Communist forces in Vietnam.

Evans and Novak continue in a vein that reads exactly like an FBI dossier:

The link between Hanoi and elements of the New Mobe was again demonstrated Oct. 14 when Premier Pham Van Dong of North Vietnam sent greetings to American antiwar demonstrators. [Fred] Halstead, the Trotskyite leader, drafted a reply to Hanoi approved by a majority of the New Mobe’s steering committee.

Red-baiting such as this has been fully assimilated by people such as Bérubé, Marc Cooper and David Corn who all wrote “exposés” of the Iraq antiwar movement in the Boston Globe, the Washington Post and other corporate media. Unlike our latter-day “antiwar” liberals, Evans and Novak had the honesty to admit that they were professional anti-Communists, a calling that these rank amateurs can only aspire to.

March 25, 2007

Frank L. Kluckhohn follow-up

Filed under: Fascism,journalism — louisproyect @ 4:28 pm

Yesterday, after I reported on the pro-Franco reporting of NY Timesman Frank L. Kluckhohn during the Spanish Civil War, I was somewhat surprised to discover a comment in his defense from one of his relatives, a man named R.H. Kluckhohn who describes himself as a retiree keen on model railroads and active in his local Episcopalian church:

Ya gotta love those ad hominem diatribes and partial quotes. Fact: Franco won and kicked Frank Kluckhohn out of Spain. So much for polemics.

If Frank Kluckhohn was kicked out of Spain for anything he wrote about Franco, that seemed to have eluded the attention of his editors who simply noted that he had been reassigned to Mexico in 1936. (It should be added, however, that he was expelled from Mexico for reporting “the woes of foreign businessmen with such zeal that Mexican authorities lost patience,” according to Time Magazine.

If anything, his tender concerns for foreign businessmen in a radicalized Mexico seems completely in line with his hostility to the Spanish Republic.

When he was in Mexico, Kluckhohn filed a number of articles on Leon Trotsky. At this time, he was pals with a character named Frank Jellinek who, according to Trotsky’s bodyguard Joseph Hansen, was a GPU agent using the cover of a reporting job for PM Magazine in New York. At a press conference on the findings of the John Dewey Commission of Inquiry on the Moscow Trials, Jellinek showed up with Kluckhohn but had to be removed for making a disturbance.

After leaving the NY Times, Kluckhohn became an adviser to the Secretary of Defense in the Truman administration in 1948. From that point on, he kept shifting rightward steadily until his death in an auto accident in 1970. In the 1960s, he directed an outfit called “Committee to End Aid to the Soviet Enemy” and then moved on to the Press Ethics Committee, which the NY Times obituary described as “designed to ferret out slanted reporting and editing of the news”–in other words a forerunner to Reed Irvine’s Accuracy in Media, David Horowitz’s Frontpage, et al.

Here’s a good article on what Kluckhohn was up to around this time:

The Washington Post, Apr 25, 1969
Washington Merry-Go-Round
Neo-Nazis Plan Press Ethics Unit
By Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson

One of the most significant operations of the secret neo-Nazi movement In the United States is a plan to establish a press ethics committee to rate newspapermen and broadcasters and to censure those who embarrass “the movement.”

Director of this committee is Frank Kluckhohn, who has been close to Willis Carto, chief mainspring of the neo Nazi underground and organizer of the Liberty Lobby. Carto helped raise $90,000 which was distributed to conservative Congressional candidates last year.

Chief danger of this underground is its influence with a long list of Congressmen to whom it contributed heavily.

One of those enlisted was the sonorous, oratorical, naive Sen. Everett McKinley Dirk sen of Illinois, Republican Leader in the Senate, who has played directly into the hands of the underground.

Dirksen did exactly what Kluckhohn and the Liberty Lobby have been hoping to do by attacking the New York Times and its reporter, Neil Sheehan, for digging into the manner in which Otto Otepka raised the money to pay his attorney, Roger Robb, plus other defense expenses in his battle against the State Department The Department, under Dean Rusk, had dropped Otepka for leaking classified information on Walt Rostow and others to Sen. Tom Dodd (D-Conn.). Rostow was the National Security Adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

President Nixon has now promoted Otepka from his former $14,000 job in the State Department to a $36,000 job on the Subversive Activities Control Board. By so doing, Mr. Nixon rebuffed his own Secretary of State, William P. Rogers, who refused to reinstate Otepka. Robb, Otepka’s attorney, has been promoted by Mr. Nixon to the U.S. Court of Appeals, one of the most important judicial appointments in the nation.

Persecuting N.Y. Times

When the New York Times dug into the John Birch Society and other right-wing sources from which Otepka had raised his legal defense fund, Sen. Dirksen took the unusual step of denouncing the Times, and threatened to denounce on the floor of the Senate the reporter who wrote the story. It was the New York Times, incidentally, which fired Kluckhohn. And it was Dirksen who urged President Johnson to save the Subversive Activities Control Board, to which Otepka has now been appointed.

What the New York Times did was a straight piece of reporting, which every newspaper has a right and obligation to do in order to keep the public informed. Reporter Sheehan showed how Otepka had been palsy-walsy with the John Birch Society and had raised at least $22,000 from its members or its fronts.

Sheehan queried Otepka about these activities. He declined to discuss them.

Though the Times did a thorough Job of probing Otepka’s ties with the John Birch Society, it did not go into the equally significant manner in which the Liberty Lobby and the neo-Nazi movement has backed Otepka.

Stifling News Criticism

If Sen. Dirksen’s angry blast at the New York Times stands as a precedent, it means that newspapers cannot report on the activities of a presidential appointee facing Senate confirmation without risk of being attacked in the Senate. This is exactly what Willis Carto and Frank Kluckhohn, with their press ethics committee, are trying to accomplish. They want to hamstring critical comment by newspapers.

For instance, the Abilene Reporter-News in Texas recently exposed the John Birch Society connections of certain candidates running for mayor and city council of Abilene. The background of these candidates was relatively unknown to the electorate prior to the Abilene Reporter-News expose. As a result of the newspaper’s enterprise, the Birchite slate was badly defeated.

Frank Kluckhohn, the man who would head the proposed press ethics committee, had a spectacular career as a New York Times correspondent, being jailed by the British in Africa, arrested and deported by President Peron of Argentina. U.S. Ambassador George Messersmith in Buenos Aires sent a 20-page report to the State Department after the Argentine incident, calling Kluckhohn irresponsible and unbalanced.

Dropped by the New York Times, Kluckhohn got a job under John Foster Dulles in the State Department, later switched to the Republican National Committee, where he worked for four years.

While working for the Republican National Committee Kluckhohn ghosted two of the most scurrilous of the anti-Johnson books—”The Inside on LBJ” and “Lyndon’s Legacy.” Though the Republican National Committee steadfastly denied it had any connection with these smear-books, the committee’s vouchers for July 1964 showed a $1000 payment to Frank Kluckhohn. Kluckhohn collected another $1000 from the right-wing “Americans for Constitutional Action.”

This is the man whom the neo-Nazi underground proposes to put in charge of a press ethics committee to pass judgment on what should or should not be published.


March 24, 2007

Edward Rothstein and the Spanish Civil War

Filed under: Fascism,journalism — louisproyect @ 5:01 pm

Today’s NY Times has a rather mischievous review of a photography show on the Spanish Civil War by Edward Rothstein, a cultural critic whose neo-conservatism is usually a bit less obvious. Using the ostensible pro-Communist bias of the curators as an excuse, he comes up with some breathtakingly ignorant observations on Franco’s fascism and the struggle against it.

Edward Rothstein: doesn’t think that Franco was all that bad

Since Rothstein is a far more deft journalist than those who share his politics (Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, et al), he has a way of appearing almost Olympian as he strives for the effect of wise neutrality:

The Soviet vision of the war, of course, has the appeal of both simplicity and (partial) accuracy: Franco was indeed a ruthless tyrant whose victory led to wide-scale purges, cruel imprisonments and extensive constraints. The Western democracies were indeed slow to recognize Hitler’s threat. And without Soviet assistance, the Republic would have foundered sooner. What might have happened had the Republic been defended with a real international force?

Contrary to Mr. Rothstein, the “Western democracies” were not at all slow to recognize Hitler’s threat as long as this was understood as a threat to Bolshevism. Early on, Great Britain saw Nazism as defending the broader interests of European capitalism, even if it did have a somewhat roughneck character. In 1937, the Committee of Imperial Defense (CID) in Great Britain looked benignly on German expansion to the East. Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Minister, gave the Fuhrer fulsome praise for making his country a “bulwark against Bolshevism” that year. A year later Neville Chamberlain described England and Germany as “the two pillars of European peace and buttresses against communism.”

All in all, Mr. Rothstein seems to subscribe to the myth of appeasement, a myth all too convenient for those who would view the “Western democracies” as somehow having been hoodwinked by Hitler. Suffice it to say that they knew what they were getting into when they made a pact with this devil. The only thing that finally led to their falling out was differences over who would control Poland.

The tendency for the West to give a wink and a nod to German fascism obviously had some bearing on the Spanish Civil War as well. British military historian Captain B. H. Liddell Hart wrote that “Whitehall circles were very largely pro-Franco,” with the admiralty being particularly soft on the Phalangist gorilla. (Recounted in the well-researched “In Our Time: the Chamberlain-Hitler Collusion” by Clement Leibovitz and Alvin Finkel.) So much hatred was directed against the Reds in these circles that it hardly mattered that the Spanish Republic never intended to launch an assault on private property. The social program of the Popular Front was several degrees to the right of the New Deal in fact.

Any attack on the Spanish “idle rich” would be interpreted as an attack on civilization itself. When Italian and German intervention in Spain was discussed early in the war, the British Cabinet concluded that the Foreign Office “should in the light of the discussion adopt a policy of improving relations with Italy.” Everybody knew what this would mean, including Anthony Eden who admitted in a memorandum in December 1936: What was anticipated in August was that General Franco would make himself master of Spain largely as a consequence of help received from Italy.”

It is not surprising to discover that Mr. Rothstein, a self-avowed admirer of Winston Churchill, would share the Tory version of Spanish reality. He writes:

When a republic was established in 1931, it proved as vulnerable to revolutionary extremism as conservative reaction: land reform could mean land seizure; church reform could mean violence. Anarchism, riots and rebellion were familiar companions of the Republic’s bumbling modernity.

Students of mainstream journalism will immediately recognize the well-crafted deceits embedded in this paragraph, a talent for which no doubt assures Rothstein a permanent position at at the NY Times. “Land reform could mean land seizure”? Well, of course. How can it be otherwise? Let us recall that over 80 percent of the land in postwar Japan was seized from the monarchist gentry and turned over to the peasants, all under the watchful eyes of the US occupation forces. It was okay to seize and redistribute land in Japan at the point of a bayonet, so why not in Spain? Tragically, the land reform was far more ambitious in Japan than it ever was in Spain.

Rothstein refers ominously to church reform and violence, as if priests were the victims of anarchist violence. If they were, it should be understood that they were far more bloodthirsty than their leftist foes. Unfortunately, our intrepid friend of democracy at the NY Times ignores the issue of causality, an inconvenient matter for those disposed to Olympian neutrality. Fortunately for those anxious to know the truth, Vincent Navarro, longtime commentator on Spanish politics, can fill in the gaps:

In every village, town, and city, it was the Spanish Church hierarchy (which had called for a military coup during the Republican government) and the priests who prepared the lists of people to be executed. A primary target of the repression was teachers, considered major enemies by the Church. Its active opposition to the popular reforms by the Spanish republican governments, and its calling on the Army to rebel against the popularly elected government, explains the fury felt by large sectors of the working class, led by anarcho-syndicalists, toward the Church.

For Rothstein, there is even some question whether Spain had anything to do with “international fascism”:

Was Franco’s Spain really an arm of what was called “international fascism”? Spain was neutral during World War II, and the Führer wasn’t interested in Franco’s late offer of support. Moreover, Franco’s tyrannical vision never came up to the standards set by Hitler’s mad plans or Stalin’s demonic enterprise, which is one reason Spain could easily slip into democracy after Franco’s death.

I don’t know about whether Franco could match up to Hitler, but he certainly left Mussolini in the dust. Quoting Navarro once again, “According to Edward Malefakis, professor of European history at Columbia University, for every assassination committed by Mussolini, Franco committed 10,000.”

And don’t you love the business about Spain “slipping” into democracy after Franco’s death, like a fat person exchanging a tight girdle for a nice, comfortable pair of sweats? This, of course, is an interpretation that leftist turncoat Ronald Radosh cooked up in his 2001 “Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War”, a book whose ideas clearly influence Rothstein’s. For people like Radosh and Rothstein, Franco amounts to a lesser evil to Hitler and Stalin. In a way, they are rehashing Jeane Kirkpatrick’s nonsense about the difference between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘totalitarian’ states, a difference that surely would be lost on the 200,000 victims of Phalangist terror.

8/9/1936 NY Times sets a precedent for Rothstein

It should be understood that there is some precedence in showing deference to Generalissimo Franciso Franco at the NY Times. Back on August 9th, 1936, Frank L. Kluckhohn reported from Seville that Franco “promises a liberal regime, favoring no class”, as the article heading put it. Kluckhohn goes on to explain:

Short, black-haired, somewhat round-faced and forceful, General Franco showed no signs of fatigue as be outlined with an occasional easy smile the aims of the Rebel movement, hitherto somewhat obscure. He was working in a tiny room in a palatial Seville home, dressed in a. plain tan army uniform with a soft shirt. His aides, wearing every costume from swank uniforms and red staff caps to blue denim, were busy in the magnificent rooms outside.

The Rebel chief insists that every organized force of government has deserted the Madrid leaders and that they should surrender to avoid further bloody civil war. Ho is willing to promise them safe passage out of Spain and insists the Rebel aims are “to restore peace justice and democracy with favor to no one class.”

“We propose.” he declared, “to see that long-needed social reforms are pushed forward in Spain. As far as the church is concerned, we intend to allow complete freedom of worship, but under no conditions will we permit the church to play a part in politics.

“The trouble with the present Constitution, drafted after King Alfonso left, is that it is more of a dream of what might be than a practical instrument of government. The proof is it has been suspended much of the time since it was drafted, with 30,000 political prisoners jailed and a class war that was a result of its one-sidedness.

“We started the revolt only after it had become self-evident that the government was playing into the hands of the Communists and extreme Socialists and that there was no justice for others. We wanted to halt the daily murder toll and the social disintegration o£ Spain.”

Back in the late 1980s, I first came into contact with the writings of the late John Hess, an outstanding reporter for the NY Times who had nothing in common with Rothstein, needless to say. Prompted by some typically sniveling attack on the veterans of the Spanish Civil War by the Village Voice’s Paul Berman (a Rothstein think-alike), Hess wrote the Voice to complain about Berman pissing on their grave. If Hess were alive today, I am sure that he would have had something to say about Rothstein now defecating on that same place.

March 21, 2007

Selling Out

Filed under: commercialism,music — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

(Apologies for not having posted material in about a week. Was tied up studying for a Turkish midterm.)

Long before Thomas Frank became famous for his “What’s the Matter with Kansas” book, he was the editor of something called “The Baffler”. This is a very witty and elegantly written left-of-center journal that has covered many different aspects of American society but mostly on how mainstream politicians and advertising exploited “hip”, “radical” or “countercultural” themes. One of the first companies to do so was The Gap, which hired William S. Burroughs for one of their commercials. Since his “Naked Lunch” was filled with scabrous descriptions of gay sex and getting high on heroin, it proved that an American corporation would do anything to establish “street cred” with its younger customers.

Thomas Frank: analyzed “hip” capitalism

“The Baffler” went out of business for a year or two about a decade ago when a fire destroyed its editorial offices. It then resumed publishing. Articles from the early days of the magazine are collected in “Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from the Baffler”; used copies are available for less than $3 on amazon.com. Frank then followed up with his “The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism”. I guess that more or less exhausted the topic for Frank since he has not returned to it.

That being the case, I made a note to myself to say something about the latest manifestations of “Hip Consumerism”.

The first are the Dennis Hopper commercials for Ameriprise.

This is a pitch to people who wore long hair in the 1960s to set up an investment plan so that they can do all sorts of wild and crazy things after they retire. Of course, sitting at a desk writing memos all day and going home at night to a suburban split-level might not be so wild and crazy, but at least you can fantasize about what you might be able to do after you retire. Watching your investment dollars grow is of course a sure-fire way to spur one’s imagination. Back in the 60s, of course, people didn’t plan for the future. They lived for the day.

As the motorcycle riding outlaw in “Easy Rider,” Hopper personified that desire to live for the moment. But in real life, he was not all that different from the aging baby boomers. He gave up drugs and alcohol over 20 years ago and nowadays his biggest passions are golf and the Republican Party. As a matter of fact, one of his latest dramatic roles is far more reflective of his character than “Easy Rider” or the Ameritrade commercial that tries to exploit his rebel image:

Ottawa Citizen, September 16, 2005 Friday Final Edition

Closet-Republican Hopper jumped at E-Ring script

By Gail Shister

“People would be surprised to know that,” says Hopper, maverick star and director of the ’69 hippie-stoners-on-bikes classic, Easy Rider.

“I’ve been a Republican since Reagan. I voted for Bush and his father. I don’t tell a lot of people, because I live in a city where somebody who voted for Bush is really an outcast.”

One of Hollywood’s legendary “enfants terribles,” Hopper, 69, is so straight now it’s almost scary.

He’s been sober for 22 years. He plays golf. He wears suits and ties. And now he’s starring in his first prime-time series — Jerry Bruckheimer’s new Pentagon drama, E-Ring, premiering Wednesday (NBC, Global, 9 p.m.).

Hopper plays army Col. McNulty, a Vietnam vet and real estate tycoon who’s lured out of retirement to return to the Pentagon. It’s no surprise McNulty is a colourful character. “He’ll be doing a football pool in one hand and selling a condo in the other, while running a top-secret op at the same time,” Hopper says.

I can’t say that I am that upset about Hopper “selling out” since I never thought that much of him to begin with. Along with Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro, he seems intent on recycling a bunch of tics that he was identified with early on in his career. I guess that’s what sells movie tickets.

Dennis Hopper: golf-playing Republican

Of far more concern to me is hearing “Blindness”, a song by The Fall, used in a commercial for a Mitsubishi SUV as seen on Youtube. (You can see a full live performance of “Blindness” there.) The Fall’s lead singer is Mark E. Smith, who unlike Hopper, has never stopped taking drugs or alcohol as should be obvious from the Youtube performance. Nor has he ever bought into the values of bourgeois society.

Mark E. Smith: Mitsubishi salesman

I own perhaps a dozen albums by The Fall and rank them as one of the finest rock bands of all time. They emerged out of the English punk scene but had a somewhat different sensibility. Where other bands tried to outdo each other in appearing outrageous on stage, Smith and his band members were far more interested in the performance itself–almost like classical musicians.

The Fall were never political as groups like The Clash. Mark E. Smith’s lyrics were far more elliptical and had much more in common with surrealism than agitprop (admittedly the two overlapped once upon a time.) Mostly they had a way of stretching one’s mind, like the best Dylan songs. Here’s one of my favorites. It seems awfully relevant to the Ameriprise and Mitsubishi commercials:

Everything you see you want.
Go to clubs.
Middle class revolt.

Put it down….

He wants Homestyle
Sublimates the envy to C2s
Bump into each other and jolt
D2s, D1s, bump into each other and jolt
Middle class revolt

Middle class revolt
Everything you see
Middle class revolt
Go to clubs
Crashing into C2s
Middle class revolt

A man
Extremely lazy
Exhumes the cooked pigeon
His words indignant
Because it was cooked wrong
Middle class revolt


March 15, 2007

Jews and American Popular Culture

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

Last night I attended a talk by Paul Buhle at the Institute of Jewish History in New York occasioned by the publication of the 3-volume “Jews and American Popular Culture” he edited. He was joined by a number of contributors to the collection. Paul is very good at bringing together people in such a fashion. As a kind of radical impresario, he recruited dozens of contributors to the Encyclopedia of the American Left as well.

Paul Buhle

Paul’s connection to the radical movement is probably better-known than it is to American Jewish culture, but the two concerns are obviously related as Paul’s contribution to V. 3 would indicate. Titled “Popular Front Culture,” it shows that even when major figures were not Jewish–like Dalton Trumbo or Paul Robeson–they relied on a circle of organizers, publicists and fans that were.

Paul first became interested in Jewish culture when doing research on his PhD dissertation, which was eventually published as “Marxism in the United States: Remapping the History of the American Left”. As so many of the early socialist magazines were published in Yiddish, he found it necessary to learn the language despite the fact that he is not Jewish himself.

Many of the contributors are in the burgeoning Jewish Studies field, the left wing of which is clearly influenced by “history from below” conceptions found in E.P. Thompson or the popular culture studies of CLR James, among whose disciples Paul can be included. You can see an early contribution to this literature in Irving Howe’s “World of Our Fathers”, which explored life on the Lower East Side. Although I can’t stand Howe’s politics, I can recommend that book. That being said, “Jews and American Popular Culture” is far more oriented to the nitty-gritty than Howe. In Douglas Century’s article on Jewish boxing, he notes that there is only a single sentence in Howe’s book referring to the legendary fighters of the 1920s. Immigrant Jewish life is also explored in Saul Bellow’s novels. Bellow, like Howe, was a Trotskyist in the 1930s. Unlike Howe, Bellow evolved toward neo-conservatism in his old age.

Paul referred to the fact that the Introduction to Volumn 3 was nominally co-written by him and Harvey Pekar, the comic strip author celebrated in the film “American Splendor”. Paul added that while the words were all his, Harvey lived had them on the streets of Cleveland.

In a very real sense, I lived in that world myself. Growing up in the Catskill Mountains in the 1950s, I came into contact directly or indirectly with the personalities written about in “Jews and American Popular Culture.” Some of you might remember my article on Barney Ross and the “Tough Jew” that drew heavily on Douglas Century’s biography of the fighter. When I was about 10 years old, I lived in an apartment above the Kentucky Club, a nightspot that featured the veterans of the Yiddish theater from Molly Picon to Menashe Skulnick during the summer season. Barney Ross was a “greeter” hired by the Kentucky Club and I used to enjoy talking with him on the street corner.

Albert Fried spoke about his contribution to the collection, “The Story of the American Gangster”. Fried, a retired Columbia University professor, obviously has some affinities with Paul based on his authorship of “Socialism in America: From the Shakers to the Third International” and “Socialist Thought: A Documentary History”. He spoke mostly about a bygone era, when characters like Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel were among the most powerful figures in the U.S. crime world. There was an infamous gang called Murder Incorporated that, as their name implies, were contract killers. They used to dump their victims in Loch Sheldrake, which was about a 15 minute drive from my home upstate.

Abe Reles, aka “Kid Twist”, leader of Murder Incorporated

Fried said that the Jewish gangster more or less disappeared in the 1950s. I guess I was fortunate enough to come into contact with them around that time, at least their lower ranks. In my home town, there was a family that epitomized the various forms of illegality American Jews adopted in this period. The father was always involved in one shady operation or another, including a gambling casino in Haiti. His wife was an outspoken Red as was one of her sons. Meanwhile, another son robbed a bank to cover gambling debts. He finally was found dead on the stoop of a New York City building, a victim of a mob hit.

During the reception prior to the meeting, a slide show featured famous Jewish personalities, from Jerry Seinfeld to Sandy Koufax. One of them might not have been well-known to the audience but he certainly was to me. Around the same time I was spending my evenings hanging out with Barney Ross, I used to go see strong man Joseph Greenstein bend iron bars across his nose at his bungalow colony in my home town. Better known as the Mighty Atom, he was now in his 70s but still going strong. During his prime, he used to be able to prevent an airplane from taking off by holding it back with a cable. After performing his feats, he used to extol Jewish piety and the need to eat healthy (he wore his hair long like Samson.)

The Mighty Atom

The Mighty Atom shopped exclusively at my father’s fruit and vegetable store as did Sid Caesar, who began his career performing at the Avon Lodge, not far from my home. Sid used to enjoy shooting pistols on a firing range at the hotel and would come into town with his holster on. He was a fearsome sight.

One of the hotel’s owners was related to the only piano teacher in town. After my parents decided to send me to take lessons, one of my friends warned me that she was a “commie”. Sure enough, when I went for my first lesson, I noticed copies of Soviet Life all around. After my second or third lesson, I asked her if she was a Communist. She was understandably very offended and refused to see me any more. Years later, when she learned that I had become a revolutionary (even of the Trotskyite variety), she forgave me for everything and left me her literature collection, which consisted of pamphlets like “The Soviets Want Peace”, etc. I was more interested in the gesture than in the literature itself.

Besides Century and Fried, all of the other contributors were interesting as well. I especially appreciated Beth Aviva Preminger on “The Jew and the Nose: Plastic Surgery and Popular Culture.” This examines the question of whether such noses actually exist and how they became symbols of Jewish evil in Nazi propaganda. In the 1950s, it was common for Jewish women in my high school to get nose jobs. In the 1960s and 70s, as a reflection of emerging feminist attitudes, this practice was ended for the most part. Frankly, I am not sure what is happening today based on the spate of TV shows about plastic surgery.

Douglas Century

But for me the crowning moment was listening to Douglas Century. As I told him after the meeting, his biography of Barney Ross is not just a sports book. It is literature. Douglas spoke about Benny Leonard, as well as Barney Ross. Benny Leonard was born Benjamin Liener on the Lower East Side and compiled a record of 180 wins and 21 losses as a lightweight. In 1958 boxing writer Max Fleisher (a Jew himself) rated Leonard as the second greatest lightweight of all time. Leonard, like Ross, changed his name as many Jewish boxers did even though everybody still knew that they were Jews. As is the case today, many fights were promoted as ethnic conflicts between Jews, Italians and Irish. At one point, Leonard was in the ring with Eddie O’Finnegan, an Irish fighter whose fans were yelling “Kill the Kike”, etc. throughout the bout. Understandably, this incensed Leonard who was the superior fighter. As he was pummeling O’Finnegan on the ropes, the Irishman began speaking softly to him in Yiddish, “Ich bin ein Yid” and asked him to go easy. It turns out that O’Finnegan had changed his name as well.

Benny Leonard

Although “Jews and Popular Culture” is prohibitively expensive, it will probably come out in paperback eventually. Look for it then. You can also get Paul’s own “From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture“, a truly wonderful book

March 11, 2007


Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 6:58 pm

Last night I watched “Borat”, now available from Netflix and all the other usual outlets.

Since there has been an ocean of words about the movie, I am not sure that I have that much to add but will try.

To start with, my wife and I are huge fans of Sasha Baron Cohen, the British comedian who plays Borat, Ali G and Bruno on a half-hour HBO show that is only available in reruns nowadays. Cohen seems to have abandoned television for movies. His next project will be based on his Bruno character, a gay Austrian television reporter who covers the fashion beat. Like his other avatars, this character has a knack for getting people to put their feet in their mouth. In a typical segment, he’ll get a fashion designer to render his opinion on what religion is “in” that year or not.

Ali G, of course, is the character who has adopted Black hip-hop mannerisms, while being obviously white. It has generated the most memorable comic episodes by far, although it is doubtful that Cohen will ever get any future mileage out of the character, since he is so well-known. In fact, he had to transport Ali G to the USA since he was so well-known in Great Britain. Here he is interviewing Noam Chomsky. Very funny and completely harmless.

The Borat character is the most controversial since he is given to blatant anti-Semitic, sexist and homophobic outbursts. Since it is abundantly clear that the character is being used in the same way that Norman Lear used Archie Bunker, one wonders why one would feel compelled to attack Cohen for spreading hatred.

In an interesting article that appears in This Magazine, Pike Wright compares Sasha Cohen favorably to Sarah Silverman, another Jewish comedian who has achieved some notoriety for “political incorrectness”:

During an appearance on NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 2002, Silverman recounted how a friend had advised her to avoid jury duty by writing a racial slur on the selection form—“something really inappropriate, like ‘I hate Chinks.’” Instead, sugary-sweet Silverman explained how she wrote “I love Chinks” because she didn’t want to be considered a racist. An Asian-American media watchdog group protested the use of the slur until the network apologized. Silverman did not.

So does she really think it is OK to say Chink? Silverman never breaks character by smiling at her own outrageousness (as in, “Oh my, did I just say that aloud?”), so we’re left wondering who the real Silverman is. Unlike Cohen, her act intentionally cultivates this ambivalence. If we knew, we could decide if her act is full of racist jokes or full of jokes about racism. Couldn’t we?

I must confess to having spent no more than five minutes watching Silverman on her new Comedy Network show. I just didn’t find her funny at all. I have a feeling that her comedy is more about belittling racial minorities than attacking racism, from what I have seen. Her shtick seems influenced by SNL, where she worked until being fired. SNL spends an inordinate amount of time satirizing society’s underdogs nowadays, a clear departure from the show’s foundations.

My main complaint with “Borat” is that it sacrificed the TV show’s original premise for a rather opportunist bid for mainstream appeal. In adopting the “road movie” genre of National Lampoon’s “Vacation” or the ineffably stupid “Little Miss Sunshine”, it gave short shrift to the kind of comic interaction found in the HBO series. This is despite the fact that the HBO series would only include 8 minutes of Borat per episode. Those 8 minutes, however, gave Cohen much more time to develop his comic interaction with his patsies than in any particular scene in the film. Additionally, there is far too much material in the film that is staged, or that appears staged. And much of it is crude humor that comes across as a slightly more elevated version of MTV’s “Jackass”.

In keeping with the dumbed-down Hollywood approach, there is far more bathroom humor in the movie than found on the TV show. For example, in one scene Borat–a guest at a fancy dinner party–excuses himself to go to the bathroom. When he returns, he presents his host with a plastic bag filled with his excrement. In the original skit that appeared on the HBO show, which obviously was the source of this scene in the movie, the entire 8 minutes is taken up with Borat getting his hosts to hoist themselves on their own petard by asking them questions about the Old South.

My guess is that director Larry Charles had a big influence on the content of the film. Charles was executive director of the Seinfeld show with Larry David and Seinfeld himself. He has a keen sense of mainstream tastes and was probably hired to direct the movie in a calculated bid to make Sasha Cohen a household name. Ironically, this kind of success will ultimately doom his career for the reasons cited above, but I imagine that Cohen will have so much money socked away that it won’t make any difference.

In his comments, Brian makes a point that I neglected to cover in my original posting: “It is Borat’s slight against Eastern Europeans that I find troubling.” This is an important point and something that I have thought about myself. To start with, I think that there is definitely a bias against Eastern Europeans in Great Britain that probably helped to enable the war in the Balkans. As Diana Johnstone observed, the Bosnian Muslims were considered “more like us” from the standpoint of Western European and British liberal sensibilities. With their blue eyes and their urban life-style, they seemed warm and fuzzy in comparison to the peasant Serbs, who came across as darker, more savage and more Eastern.

I am also sensitive to the use of a “Stan” as the butt of Cohen’s humor. All of these former Soviet Republics, especially Azerbaijan, have a heavy percentage of ethnic Turks. So in a sense, the stereotyping is not just Eastern European, it is Turkoman. Since I am married to a Turkish woman and have a strong affinity for Turkish culture, this does bother me a bit. Also, keep in mind that Mahir Çağrı, a Turk from Izmir, sued Cohen for essentially ripping off his website which is filled with malapropisms and crude overtures to European babes. Since I have definite plans to either move to Izmir at some point, or maintain a vacation apartment there, I didn’t appreciate this connection either, even if it was based on unfounded allegations.

After mulling it over, I came to the conclusion that Cohen’s “Kazakhstan” is so broadly comical that it is impossible to take seriously as a genuine assault on Eastern European or Turkoman ethnicity or culture. It is about as malevolent as Chico Marx’s representation of things Italian. Like a lot of Cohen’s humor, it has a kind of ironic self-referential character that defies easy pigeon-holing. Is he mocking East Europeans? Or is he mocking the stereotypes of East Europeans found in the West? I would accept that he is doing both things, but it is not the sort of thing that is likely to be used for reactionary purposes, like banning immigration, etc.

If you want examples of nasty British satire, I would refer you to the novels of Evelyn Waugh or V.S. Naipul. In their fiction, the natives inevitably come across as uncivilized and irrational. Furthermore, their works are taken much more seriously than “Borat” ever will be.


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