Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 10, 2007

Blessed by Fire

Filed under: antiwar,Film,Latin America — louisproyect @ 7:13 pm

Although it won “Best Film” at the 2005 Havana Film Festival, I was a bit wary of “Blessed by Fire” (Illuminados por el Fuego). Billed as an antiwar film based on the novel/memoir of Edgardo Esteban, a veteran of the Malvinas war in 1982, I wondered if it would portray this ill-fated attempt of the Argentineans to wrest control of their territory as a reactionary adventure on the part of the military government designed to deflect attention from the nation’s economic woes. Although this was certainly part of the motivation, history would record that this has been a burning issue for Argentina going back more than 100 years, whatever the character of the government in power.

The character based on the author is named Edgardo Leguizamón (Gastón Pauls), an 18 year draftee–like Esteban himself–who was sent off to fight in the Malvinas. The film begins with him being summoned to the hospital by the wife of Alberto Vargas (Pablo Ribba) a fellow soldier who has just attempted suicide with a mixture of pills, cocaine and booze. In a series of flashbacks to 1982, we find out about the huge psychic toll the fighting took on the foot soldier. Esteban eventually made a career as a journalist, but Vargas went back to factory work after the war ended. Like most Argentine workers, this was like a continuation of battlefield stress. Instead of dodging British bullets, he dodged unemployment–often unsuccessfully.

The film concentrates on the harsh living conditions, the abuse from superiors and the bloody consequences of facing a much better equipped and trained enemy such men were forced to endure. Although it is about a war, there is not much fighting that goes on except for the final rout just before the Argentines surrender.

In the opening scene, we see the grunts ascending from foxholes and bunkers near a Malvinas beach. Shivering and miserable, they stand at attention while a Lieutenant harangues them about their inadequacies as soldiers and about their invincibility in the coming battle. His remarks fully convey the cognitive dissonance that characterized this misadventure from the beginning. Argentina was hardly equipped to build a national economy, let alone take on the second most powerful imperialist nation in the world. The country’s ruler General Leopoldo Galtieri made the fatal mistake in assuming that the US would back him against Great Britain.

It did not matter in the long run how many trade unionists were killed and tortured by Argentina’s death squads, the American imperialists would never break ranks with their British allies. In 1982, Reagan and Thatcher were in power and clearly saw their common class interests in facing down Soviet communism and any impudent 3rd world power that stood in their way. The Argentine generals made the mistake in thinking that they belonged to the winner’s club when Washington and London probably referred to them as “dagoes” behind closed doors.

“Blessed by Fire” is directed by Tristán Bauer, a 48 year old from Mar de Plata. He has made documentaries about Eva Peron, Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. Peron is obviously a symbol of Argentine nationalism, while the two writers are usually associated with a longing for a European identity. This year Bauer announced his attention to make a film about Che Guevara.

“Blessed by Fire” opens at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in New York and I encourage you to go see it. Although it is not without flaws (mostly having to do with the unwise decision to use a handheld camera, a kind of acid test for independent film-makers nowadays), it is essential viewing for anybody trying to understand the recent history of Argentina and the profound changes taking place on the continent.

Ultimately, Edgardo Esteban’s main complaint was not that a war was fought, but how it was fought. Now nearly 25 years after the Malvinas war, other veterans are making their voice heard.

The Observer (England), January 21, 2007

As the train pulls into the central station of Buenos Aires, Jose is still walking down the aisle hawking a clutch of goods. An olive-green jacket, a patch with an Argentinian flag on his right arm, and a silhouette of the Malvinas Islands signal he is one of the many veterans of the Falklands war supplementing their meagre pensions. What he sells is patriotism – small calendars and stickers bearing the slogan: ‘The Malvinas were, are and always will be Argentinian.’

But he tells a story of betrayal, of himself and 15,000 other veterans of the 1982 war with Britain. In a voice made automatic by repetition, he says: ‘A little help please, I am a veteran of the Malvinas, I have been repeatedly denied jobs simply for being a veteran, my pension is not always enough, I have been forgotten by my country for a long time.’ He has been saying it for 25 years. It is a story repeated by most veterans.

Things have improved, but very late. The most important change came in 1991, when some veterans finally began to receive pensions. The next milestone was the election in 2003 of Nestor Kirchner. He became President on the back of promises on human rights, and increased the pension so the veterans felt able to pull down the green tents they had pitched in front of the government building on the Plaza de Mayo, protesting at lack of compensation and healthcare on the same spot where thousands congregated in April 1982 to cheer the capture of the Malvinas.

But the difficulty of winning a pension is, veterans argue, evidence of neglect which goes back to the war itself. General Leopoldo Galtieri, ‘in his quest to stay in power, had no qualms in sending brave 18-year-old conscripts, with no military training whatever, into a war’, says Norberto Santos, one of those 18-year-olds and now a member of the Centre for Ex-Combatants Islas Malvinas (CECIM). The troops had to endure shortages of ammunition, food, and clothing and suffered from cold, abuse and humiliation by their superiors.

‘Some of us were treated better by the British while in custody in the troop ship Canberra than by the Argentinian forces,’ says Sergio Isaia, another veteran held prisoner. For Santos the war ended when a bomb blew off his left arm. A comrade, thinking he was dying, shot him to end his suffering. Instead, he prolonged it. The neglect continued despite Margaret Thatcher’s victory, the fall of Galtieri and the re-establishment of democracy. One example was the pensions, but the state paid little attention to veterans’ health or post-traumatic stress.

Maria Laura Tapparelli, the widow of Jorge Martire, agrees her husband’s response was to join Argentinian society in forgetting. After 60 days fighting on the Falklands, he returned to La Plata in Buenos Aires province. He found a wife, had three children and studied architecture. ‘He barely spoke about the Malvinas,’ she says. In October 1992, on the way to sit his last exam, he disappeared. He was found later wandering around the city’s main square. He had lost his memory as well as his way. He was hospitalised with symptoms of ‘atypical psychosis’ – what some veterans call the ‘Malvinas syndrome’. One day Jorge was found by the doctors hidden underneath his bed, sheltering from ‘an English bombing’. Early in 1993 he was released. He bought a gun, went to a bar in the city and blew his head off.

Martire – ‘martyr’ in Italian- was far from alone. Suicides are commonplace among veterans, the number – 460, according to CECIM – almost as high as 650 deaths in combat.

Jose says he was unable to find ordinary work because he was a veteran and Santos believes his experiences bear out such claims. He tried to find a job at the municipality of La Plata, his home town, but when he said he was a war veteran he was rejected. A few months later he told another interviewer he had lost his arm in a motorbike accident. He got the job.

Veterans believe that discrimination explains other unusual experiences. Santos married and had three children, but after a few years the couple divorced. His ex-wife told the judge that he was a Falklands veteran and Santos was denied the right even to see his children. ‘I still wander around the courthouse asking what my punishment is for having been on the Malvinas, asking how many years will pass before someone can tell me if I committed a crime,’ he says.

Stories like Santos‘s and the suicide of a friend, as well as his own experience of war, drove Edgardo Esteban to write an autobiography which was turned into an award-winning film, Blessed by Fire. Edgardo, too, was 18 when he was sent to fight. ‘The post-traumatic stress was there, but I managed to send it and my ghosts away and to exorcise myself’.

‘The “blessed by fire” are the madmen, the disturbed, the insane, all those veterans that have been forgotten during this past years,’ he says.

In Argentina the film publicised the realities of the veterans’ lives. ‘The movie gave a voice to the voiceless and the silenced,’ he says. ‘After the war, the military asked us not to say a thing. But why not talk about the Malvinas? ‘

When it was shown in London and Manchester, Esteban remembers some British Falklands veterans crying and giving welcoming applause. ‘There was a very nice dialogue with the British then,’ he says. Some of the British veterans he has seen reflected the same realities from a different side. ‘The British now have to avoid any celebration about the war; even with a victory, wars are not to be cheered.’

But the film upset some in the Argentinian armed forces. ‘The armed forces wanted Rambo-style images, but there are no Rambos in a war, just human beings made of flesh and bones.’

Others look for therapy among people. Juan Cantini, a member of the Union of Veterans of the Islas Malvinas, says: ‘Some of my comrades-in-arms have been wandering around trains for ages, as they started to do before they received their pensions, for an economic need. Some today are still walking up and down the trains and buses as a form of therapy, just to clear their minds for a while and to be surrounded by other people – who, unfortunately, still ignore them.’

But for some it may be more important than even therapy. At Retiro station, Jose waits for the next train back to the suburbs. He sold just a few calendars and stickers on the way out and will probably sell a few more on the way back.

‘The trauma is still with me. I have to keep going, I do not want to succumb to other temptations, like suicide.’

March 8, 2007

Iraq for Sale

Filed under: antiwar,Film,Iraq — louisproyect @ 5:24 pm


I was somewhat remiss in not reviewing “Iraq for Sale” immediately after receiving it. Unfortunately it arrived around the same time I received a slew of screeners sent out by the studios in anticipation of the NYFCO awards in December. “Iraq for Sale” should have gone to the top of the heap.

Directed by Robert Greenwald, who has an acclaimed documentary on Walmart to his credit as well, “Iraq for Sale” is a hard-hitting exposé of how companies such as Halliburton-KBR, Blackwater, CACI and Titan used a form of “insider trading” to reap super-profits since the war began. In every instance, the boards of directors of such big contractors are filled with former military men who use their connections to cement sweetheart contracts at the expense of the tax-payer.

If wasting the tax-payer’s money was the only problem, then “Iraq for Sale” might not have the impact that it does. Additionally, it shows how the same hunger for profits resulted in cutting corners in Iraq itself, as GI’s, the supposed beneficiaries of companies like Halliburton-KBR, end up getting the shitty end of the stick. But as might be expected, the worst abuse is reserved for the Iraqi people themselves.

Many people have learned about Halliburton-KBR’s misdeeds as a result of intense scrutiny on its ex-CEO Dick Cheney, as they have learned about Blackwater’s activities in press coverage on the private contracting of security guards (there are 20,000 in Iraq, making it the second largest military detachment after the US military). We should be grateful to Robert Greenwald for new revelations on Halliburton-KBR and Blackwater, as well as first-time investigations of CACI and Titan, two extremely filthy outfits that are hiding under the rocks.

From the film’s excellent website, we learn that CACI (the original name was California Analysis Center, Inc) and Titan provided the interrogators at Abu Ghraib. No matter how bestial the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers, they were at least subject to military codes. To this day, not a single CACI or Titan employee has been charged with crimes at Abu Ghraib, even though it is clear that they tortured and raped prisoners.

“Iraq for Sale” makes excellent use of whistle-blowers, including a number of people who went to Iraq originally with gung-ho beliefs in the war. Among them is Ben Carter, a water purification expert hired by Halliburton-KBR who went to Iraq to support the troops and reconstruction efforts. Yet soon after he arrived in Iraq he found KBR/Halliburton cutting essential corners. Carter eventually found the water being supplied to troops was severely contaminated. His testimony to the Senate is found on the film’s website.

This is one of the film’s greatest strengths. By including the voices of disillusioned former employees of the four contractors, it demonstrates the inexorable process of opposition to the war that is coming to a climax now. All across the country, “red state” bastions have finally turned against the war. The men and woman heard in “Iraq for Sale” were their vanguard.

Two of the more impressive are former Halliburton-KBR truck-drivers Bud Conyers and James Logsdon who were disgusted by how their employer wasted tax-payers’ money while giving the soldiers short-shrift. They look and sound for all the world like stereotypical “good ole boys.”

Bud Conyers and James Logsdon

Finally, there are interviews with returned veterans, who have become vocal opponents of the war in Iraq largely on the basis of watching scummy corporations like Halliburton-KBR in action. This film and Patricia Foulkrod’s “The Ground Truth” are extremely useful resources for spreading the word about the turn within the military against a brutal and inhumane war.

“Iraq for Sale” can be purchased for only $12.98 from amazon.com and can be rented from netflix.com. Highly recommended.

Official film website

March 7, 2007

A reply to Wright

Filed under: Academia,economics,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:14 pm

First of all, I want to thank Erik Olin Wright for taking the trouble to write such a thorough and considered response to my critique. In keeping with remarks I already made, it demonstrates his true respect for the democratic culture of the Internet, which will certainly be as key to our future revolutions as the Gutenberg press was for the peasant revolts of an earlier epoch.

In point one of Wright’s response, he states, “Once you acknowledge that capitalism may be an indefinitely robust, dynamic form of economic organization, then one has to directly engage the issue of how to convince people that an alternative is possible, viable, and desirable.”

After reading this, it reminded me of a real gap in AM literature. One can not think of a single work that actually describes the history of an actual living revolution. It is mainly theorizing about revolution, as in G.A. Cohen’s “Karl Marx’s Theory of History.” I imagine that it is not just a coincidence that Wright has many of the same preoccupations as Cohen, who is fixated on the statement in the Communist Manifesto that the “fall [of the bourgeoisie] and the victory of the proletariat are inevitable.” “If the advent of socialism is inevitable,” Cohen asks, “then why should Marx and Engels, and those who they hoped to activate, strive to achieve socialism?”

If you study the history of living revolutions since the days of the Paris Commune, you will discover that people go to the barricades not because they have developed ideas about a new economic system that is superior to the one that they are living under, like Linux compared to Microsoft Windows. Rather, they are driven to such extremes because the system that they are living under becomes intolerable.

Ever since the 1930s, this has meant that revolution is an event that takes place mainly in the global South. People took up arms in Nicaragua against Somoza not because Carlos Fonseca had succeeded in persuading them that a socialist Nicaragua was preferable, but because the current system was condemning infants to death by diarrhea and students protesting against these conditions were being thrown out of helicopters.

If you examine the historic program of the FSLN (alas, long forgotten in the wake of the US victory), you will find very little in the way of a roadmap or compass. It includes basic demands very much in line with those put forward by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto:

The revolutionary government will apply the following measures of an economic character:

–It will expropriate the landed estates, factories, companies, buildings, means of transportation, and other wealth usurped by the Somoza family and accumulated through the misappropriation and plunder of the nation’s wealth.

–It will expropriate the landed estates, factories, companies, means of transportation, and other wealth usurped by the politicians and military officers, and all other accomplices, who have taken advantage of the present regime’s administrative corruption.

–It will nationalize the wealth of all the foreign companies that exploit the mineral, forest, maritime, and other kinds of resources.

–It will establish workers’ control over the administrative management of the factories and other wealth that are expropriated and nationalized, etc.

You don’t need an advanced degree in social science to formulate demands such as these. You simply need to respond to the deeply felt needs of the population for justice.

In point three of his rebuttal, Wright defends the use of ‘ideal types’:

The ‘ideal type’ on the other hand, abstracts from all of the forms of variation and tries to identify those mechanisms in capitalism which are most systematically generative of its common properties across these variations. These are the mechanisms which make all capitalisms varieties of capitalism. If we are to talk about modes of production or systems of production ­ capitalism, feudalism, socialism, etc. ­ then we cannot dispense with such abstractions, whether or not they are called ‘ideal types.’

I think that there is a significant difference between an abstraction and an ‘ideal type’, especially when it comes to the question of socialism. As opposed to feudalism and capitalism, which have been around for over 1000 years and 500 years respectively, there is little evidence of an ‘ideal type’ such as socialism to compare them to. When Marx wrote “Capital,” he developed an abstraction out of a mountain of historical detail. You can see the same kind of analysis at work in Robert Brenner’s writings on the immediate precapitalist period. However, your discussion of socialism is not grounded in any kind of historical reality. Before I would embark on a project to replace Marxist concepts about socialism with your own ideas, I would at least make an attempt to grapple with that history.

For example, you write, “Whether because of inherent tendencies of revolutionary party organizations to concentrate power at the top or because of the terrible constraints of the historical circumstances of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, whatever potential for the Communist Party to be subordinated to an autonomous civil society was destroyed in the course of the early years of the revolution.” After you raise the question, you answer it in a backhanded way by stating that the USSR became “the archetype of authoritarian statism under the ideological banner of socialism.”

I would argue that studying this history–warts and all–has much more value than coming up with “ideal types” for socialism. We know that socialist revolution will inevitably take place under conditions of “terrible constraints,” either in a desperately poor country like Nicaragua or in an advanced industrialized society in the future. By studying how our ancestors grappled with real-life challenges, we can come up with our approaches. Of course, studying such histories can only have partial value in light of the fact that every revolution in history has its own distinctive features.

In point four, Wright defends his use of the Israeli Kibbutz as “a democratic egalitarian economic organization.” I would only respond that to use this example risks alienating Arab intellectuals for reasons I have already tried to explain, but that is certainly his business as author.

In his final point, Wright defends the use of ‘models’, stating:

Even if it is the case that alternatives to capitalism will only arise when ‘conditions of daily life have become so onerous that they revolt against the system in its totality,’ it is still crucial what kinds of models, designs, experiments, innovations are part of the menu of political debate. I suppose if you believe strongly that ‘where there is a will there is a way’ and ‘necessity is the parent of invention’ then there might be no need for a prior exploration of democratic-egalitarian institutional designs, but the historical record of the failure to build democratic egalitarian alternatives in the aftermath of system-challenges is not very encouraging. Furthermore, if you skeptical that a transformation of capitalism in developed capitalist countries will take the form of a “revolt against the system in its totality” leading to a massive ruptural break, then it becomes even more important to understand such cases and to worry about how the spaces for them can be enlarged.

To answer this, I will conclude with a brief excerpt from an article I wrote on neo-Utopian thinking about 10 years ago that answers John Roemer, another Analytical Marxist who makes many of the same mistakes as Wright:

What Marx and Engels saw as the three main features of utopian thought:

1) Ahistoricism: The utopian socialists did not see the class struggle as the locomotive of history. While they saw socialism as being preferable to capitalism, they neither understood the historical contradictions that would undermine it in the long run, nor the historical agency that was capable of resolving these contradictions: the working-class.

2) Moralism: What counts for the utopian socialists is the moral example of their program. If there is no historical agency such as the working-class to fulfill the role of abolishing class society, then it is up to the moral power of the utopian scheme to persuade humanity for the need for change.

3) Rationalism: The utopian scheme must not only be morally uplifting, it must also make sense. The best utopian socialist projects would be those that stood up to relentless logical analysis.

As Engels said in “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”, “To all these socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered.”

All of these themes are present to one degree or another in the projects of market socialists like John Roemer or their new left rivals Albert and Hahnel.

At first blush, John Roemer seems an unlikely utopian since he couches his schema in hard-headed microeconomics. In “Market Socialism, a Blueprint: How Such an Economy Might Work”, he says that “it is possible to use markets to allocate resources in an economy where firms are not privately owned by investors who trade stock in them with the purpose of maximizing their gain, and that the government can intervene in such an economy to influence the level and composition of investment should the people wish to do so.”

This doesn’t sound particularly ‘visionary’, does it? What is particularly utopian about the schemas of Schweickart, Roemer et al is not that they have the redemptive and egalitarian power of Saint-Simon or Robert Owens, but that it is based on an ahistorical notion of how socialism comes into existence.

Specifically, there is no historical agency. Roemer shares with the 19th century utopians a tendency to present a vision that is detached from history. Since history play very little role in Roemer’s thought overall, it is understandable why he would devote himself to utopian schemas. Furthermore, since AM is based on removing one of the key aspects of the Marxist understanding of capitalism –the labor theory of value– it is difficult to see how any historical agency can carry this social transformation out. Once the class-struggle is removed, the socialist project becomes an exercise in game-playing by rational actors. Since rationalism is a cornerstone of utopian thought, market socialism would have an appeal because it is eminently rational.

Answering the question of whether his schema will work, Roemer offers the following assurance:

“Is it possible for a market system to equilibrate an economy in which profits are distributed as I have described and in which the government intervenes in the investment behavior of the economy by manipulating interests if the managers of firms maximize profits, facing market prices, wages and interest rates? My colleagues Joaquim Silvestre, Ignacio Ortuno, and I have studied this question, and the answer is yes.”

My, isn’t this reassuring. There is only one problem. The difficulties we face in building socialism are not on the theoretical front, but in the application of theory. The reason for this of course is that such applications always take place in the circumstances of war, economic blockade, internal counter-revolution, etc., where even the best laid plans off mice and men often go astray.

Erik Olin Wright replies

Filed under: Academia,economics,socialism — louisproyect @ 4:43 pm

(This appeared in the comments section underneath my original post. Since there were a number of glitches that make it somewhat difficult to read, I am posting Wright’s comments here in an easier to read format. I will reply to this shortly.)

There is, needless to say, much with which I disagree in the evaluation of my work by Louis Proyect. I will here only address of few of the more important points:

1. Concerning my exposition of Marx’s theory of the destiny of capitalism, especially “the self-destruction thesis”:

I do not disagree with the basic point that most Marxist economists in the last half century or so have dispensed with the crisis-intensification thesis or the claim that the laws of motion of capitalism have a tendency to destroy capitalism’s conditions of existence. My characterization of this theoretical argument was directed at classical Marxism in general and Marx in particular, not to ‘Marxism’. My assessment in these terms is entirely in keeping with the quote of Braverman, which also criticizes Marx’s formulations. I presented this account because Marx’s theory of the destiny of capitalism offers such an elegant solution to the problem of showing that an alternative to capitalism is possible. The indeterminist view of the trajectory of capitalism in which there are no tendencies which increase capitalism’s vulnerability puts much greater burden on the argument that a viable alternative to capitalism is possible. Once you acknowledge that capitalism may be an indefinitely robust, dynamic form of economic organization, then one has to directly engage the issue of how to convince people that an alternative is possible, viable, and desirable.

2. The criticism that “there is absolutely no engagement in Wright with the social realities of present-day America, from the problems of immigrant labor to the decline of the trade union movement. It makes no sense of speaking about compasses to lead you in the direction of socialism while ignoring the pitfalls in your immediate path.”:

The argument and analysis in the book is not meant to be a political proposal geared to the United States today. Nor is it meant to provide clear coordinates for formulating specific strategies of transformation anchored in specific historical-political contexts. Rather the idea is to provide some principles for thinking about strategy and context. The central thrust of those principles is that the guts of a socialist alternative to capitalism is radical egalitarian democracy ­ which I refer to as a socialism of social empowerment. What the book proposes is a variety of different ways in which we can move in that direction in any society/economy/context dominated by capitalism. Now, perhaps this is a useless enterprise and somehow a distraction from more important problems. Perhaps there is no need to provide general clarification of the logic and foundations of our understandings of alternatives to capitalism. But I do think this is important, and I think it is important to elaborate these issues in a way that is not narrowly anchored in a particular time and place. My experience in discussing these issues around the world with people in very different contexts is that everywhere it stimulates good debate and discussion, and that suggests that it is worthwhile.

3. The critique of the use of ideal types:

The purpose of formulating clear concepts with specified meanings is so that when we debate issues and grapple with the difficult problems of figuring out how the world works and how it might be transformed we know that we are talking about the same things. Perhaps the expression ‘ideal type’ is suspect because of its association with certain strategies of theory building, but I do not see how it implies ‘accepting the formal logic straightjacket of bourgeois social science.’ Marx elaborates ideal type ­ formal abstractions ­ all the time when he tries to identify the salient mechanisms within capitalism. The term ‘ideal’ in ‘ideal’ type just means ‘abstractly and systematically conceptualized’. It is a contrast to other kinds of concepts, for example the notions of an ‘average type’ or a ‘modal type’, which are more descriptive concepts. Take the problem of capitalism. The ‘modal type’ of capitalism would be defined by the most typical form of capitalism we observe in the world. The ‘ideal type’ on the other hand, abstracts from all of the forms of variation and tries to identify those mechanisms in capitalism which are most systematically generative of its common properties across these variations. These are the mechanisms which make all capitalisms varieties of capitalism. If we are to talk about modes of production or systems of production ­ capitalism, feudalism, socialism, etc. ­ then we cannot dispense with such abstractions, whether or not they are called ‘ideal types.’

4. My use of the example of the kibbutz:

The example of the Israeli Kibbutzim is used to illustrate the viability of quite radical forms of democratic egalitarian economic organization. While the fact that the land for the kibbutzim was appropriated from local inhabitants is certainly relevant to the historical process by which this institution was created, in and of itself it is not relevant to the evaluation of its institutional form and progressive implications (unless for some reason you believe that the democratic egalitarian features of an agrarian cooperative can only have occur on stolen land, which does not seem plausible.) Also, the fact that by the 1980s the democratic egalitarian properties of many kibbutzim had already begun to seriously deteriorate does not necessarily undermine the usefulness of the empirical case for understanding democratic egalitarian forms of economic organization. All experiments of democratic egalitarian economic organization that occur in the capitalist world experience great pressures and have difficulty in reproducing their most radical elements.

5. My analysis of “statism” and the fate of statist economies:

Contrary to the characterization of my argument, I believe that any viable socialist project of transformation will have strong statist elements. The proposal for a socialism of social empowerment is not an anarchist, anti-statist proposal. At its core is the idea of hybrid forms. The problem I address is the extent to which statist forms of economic organization are or are not effectively subordinated to social power rooted in civil society (or, equivalently, whether they are subjected to meaningful democratic accountability). I do not believe that this was the case in general in the statist, centralized-administrative economies. Thus does not mean that such economic structures had no socialist aspects ­ they did. Nor does it mean that they contained no potential of evolving in a more socialist direction through a process of social empowerment through civil society. I am pretty skeptical that this is really on the agenda in Cuba, but I could be wrong about this and the framework I propose certainly does not preclude this in any way. Indeed, the framework is precisely designed to allow for such a pathway towards social empowerment.

6. On the Porto Alegre participatory budget and its relationship to the problems of Brazil:

I completely agree that the problems of Brazil cannot be resolved at the local level ­ they are bound up with both the national structure of power and domination in the country and the location of Brazil in the world capitalism system. I would not suggest that the PB itself is a plausible basis for a transformation of capitalism. But I also disagree that it is just a nicer way of allocating resources: it is an experiment in a new form of participatory governance, and for all of its problems is an advance in our understanding of how democracy can be deepened. It is in these ways dramatically different from past versions of “sewer socialism” because it involves a transformation of the form of the state. To be sure this is limited ­ it is at the local level and it only concerns one aspect of local governance (although one should add that other forms of participatory governance have been developing alongside the participatory budget). But it is real, it is happening, and we can learn from it.

7. The critique of my use of Bruce Ackerman’s proposal for electoral financing:

The fact that Ackerman supported the war in Afghanistan does not demonstrate that his proposal for public financing of democratic competition is undesirable, unworkable, stupid, or anything else. Now, perhaps one could argue that in a socialist society elections between competing parties would disappear, or even that elections are no longer needed. This has sometimes been suggested by revolutionary socialists. But more plausibly, if we are serious about socialism as a profoundly egalitarian democratic society, then there will be a problem of how elections would be organized, how parties would get resources, and all of the other issues connected with this dimension of democracy, since even if direct democracy becomes more important, there will still be need for representative processes and institutions as well. The Ackerman proposal is an interesting one in this regard and should be evaluated, not dismissed through ad hominem arguments. The character of the attack on my use of Ackerman reflects a lack of serious intellectual commitment to these problems.

8. The accusations that my cases are mainly “gimmicks”:

It is easy to dismiss without discussion various institutional designs, such as randomly selected empowered Citizens Assemblies as simply ‘gimmicks’. I take a different stance: these are real-world experiments and innovations which we need to study and understand in order to increase our repertoire of possibilities. To derisively reject such analysis and say we have no need to understand these cases is to impoverish the imagination of people engaged in struggle for social justice and social change. Even if it is the case that alternatives to capitalism will only arise when ‘conditions of daily life have become so onerous that they revolt against the system in its totality,’ it is still crucial what kinds of models, designs, experiments, innovations are part of the menu of political debate. I suppose if you believe strongly that ‘where there is a will there is a way’ and ‘necessity is the parent of invention’ then there might be no need for a prior exploration of democratic-egalitarian institutional designs, but the historical record of the failure to build democratic egalitarian alternatives in the aftermath of system-challenges is not very encouraging. Furthermore, if you skeptical that a transformation of capitalism in developed capitalist countries will take the form of a “revolt against the system in its totality” leading to a massive ruptural break, then it becomes even more important to understand such cases and to worry about how the spaces for them can be enlarged.

March 6, 2007

Erik Olin Wright’s “Envisioning Real Utopias”

Filed under: Academia,economics,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

Erik Olin Wright

I had kicked around the idea of responding to sociologist Erik Olin Wright’s manuscript-in-progress “Envisioning Real Utopias” a few months ago, but decided against it mainly out of respect for Wright’s overall scholarship. Although I have big problems with Analytical Marxism (his methodology) and utopian thinking of any sort, he did have an excellent track record when it came to the nitty-gritty empirical research around class questions, starting with the 1973 “The Politics of Punishment: A Critical Analysis of Prisons in America.” If more leftist professors did this kind of yeoman scholarship, we’d all be better off.

When references to Wright’s work-in-progress turned up on recently on Crooked Timber and Political Theory Daily Review, I reconsidered since these two websites are excellent barometers of academic trends. As an outsider to this world, I find it endlessly fascinating–especially when it takes up questions of how to eliminate the capitalist system. So without further ado, here are some scattergun observations on the manuscript.

To start with, we should thank Wright for using the Internet to get feedback in this fashion. Over the years, I have found people such as Robert Brenner to be extremely uncomfortable with email debates. The preferred mode of operation for established Marxist scholars is to go into the woodshed for a couple of years or so and then unleash their finished product on the outside world. I am not sure what motivated Wright to take a different approach, but I hope it inspires others to follow his example.

Part one of “Envisioning Real Utopias” deals with the question of “What’s so bad about Capitalism?” Since I obviously would have no problem with any sort of answer to this question, I will move on immediately to the next part, which has to do with alternatives to the capitalist system. Since Wright finds Marx’s approach to this question “unsatisfactory in certain key respects,” I felt compelled as a troglodyte-Marxist of long standing to defend orthodoxy–even on heterodox terms.

In chapter 3 (“Thinking About Alternatives to Capitalism”), Wright announces at the outset that Marx proposed a highly problematic theory of the “long-term impossibility of capitalism,” which can be divided into 5 sub-theses:

1. Long-term nonsustainability.

2. Intensification of anticapitalist class struggle thesis.

3. Revolutionary transformation

4. Transition to socialism

5. Communism Destination

Now these constitute a kind of catechism for Marxist activists. When I went through a new member’s class in the Socialist Workers Party in 1967, this is more or less how it was explained to me. Of course, if your Marxism does not advance beyond this level, it is unlikely that it will make much of an impact politically.

While there are certainly grounds for thinking in more subtle ways about alternatives to capitalism, I am not sure that Wright’s answers are what we are looking for. To start with, Wright casts doubt on the “self-destruction” thesis in terms that are highly familiar to anybody who has taken Economics 101:

The thesis that the crisis tendencies of capitalism will have a systematic tendency to intensify over time is critical to the whole argument, for this is the basis for the idea that the contradictions of capitalism ultimately destroy its own conditions of existence. If the most we can say is that capitalism will have a tendency for periodic economic crises of greater or lesser severity, but there is no overall tendency of intensification of disruptions to capital accumulation, then we no longer have grounds for the idea that capitalism become progressively more fragile over time.

Basically, this is a straw-man construction. All of the major Marxist economic works since WWII have dispensed with the idea that there are mounting contradictions leading to permanent crisis. Except for the journals of tiny sects, you simply don’t find such arguments about “self-destruction” over the past 50 years. Back in May 1958, Harry Braverman was writing about “Marx in the Modern World” in the pages of the American Socialist in terms utterly at odds with Wright’s reductionist version:

Marx and the movement he shaped operated on the basis of imminent crisis. If he never gave thought to the kind of living standard inherent in a capitalism that would continue to revolutionize science and industry for another hundred years, that was because he thought he was dealing with a system that was rapidly approaching its Armageddon. He thought the social wars that would usher in socialism would take place under the social conditions he saw around him. In that sense, the economic obsolescence we can easily find in him today is of a piece with his errors of political foreshortening.

I could also refer Erik Olin Wright to the writings of Ernest Mandel, David Harvey or a host of other Marxist theoreticians who have little to do with notions of inevitable “self-destruction”. Since this would complicate his task of coming up with new theories to replace Marx’s, I doubt if he would have much interest in them.

Once he has dispensed with classical Marxist theory, Wright puts forward his new (“Wrightist”?) theory in chapter 4, titled “The Socialist Compass”. He starts off with the notion of a road map, but realizes that a compass is less rigid:

Instead of the metaphor of a road map guiding us to a known destination, the best we can probably do is to think of the project of emancipatory social change more like a voyage of exploration. We leave the well-known world with a compass that tells us the direction we are moving and an odometer which tells us how far from our point of departure we have traveled, but without a road map which lays out the entire route from the point of departure to the final destination. This has perils, of course: we may encounter chasms which we cannot cross, unforeseen obstacles which force us to move in a direction we had not planned. We may have to backtrack and try a new route.

Unfortunately, neither a road map nor a compass is the sort of metaphor that will be of much use to a socialist movement. Road maps and compasses are only useful when it comes to static realities, like a street, a lake, a rest stop, an ocean or a continent. Revolutionary politics defy any attempts to apply fixed categories since the ground is always shifting beneath your feet. Yesterday’s South might be tomorrow’s North. Indeed, there is absolutely no engagement in Wright with the social realities of present-day America, from the problems of immigrant labor to the decline of the trade union movement. It makes no sense of speaking about compasses to lead you in the direction of socialism while ignoring the pitfalls in your immediate path.

Ultimately, the obsession with coming up with “feasible” socialisms is a bit like the “maximalist” socialisms put forward on May Day by the old SP. In between the elections of SP candidates on “sewer socialism” platforms and the grand finale of a socialist world, they had very little to say. One imagines that is why Wright poses the question in terms of “utopian” solutions, since they are disconnected from politics as such.

The chapter does not start off promisingly since Wright defines the need for “ideal-types”:

To explain what this means I will first need to clarify a number of key concepts: power; ownership; and the state, the economy, and civil society as three broad domains of social interaction and power. Second, I will develop an ideal-type conceptual map of capitalism, statism, and socialism as types of economic structures based on different the configurations of ownership and power linked to these three domains. And third, I will explain how this ideal-type typology of economic structures helps inform a conceptual map of empirical variability of the macro-structures of economic systems.

I would suggest that ideal-types are the last thing we need. To speak in these terms means that you are accepting the formal logic straitjacket of bourgeois social science.

While I have stated previously that I probably have no disagreements with Wright about the meaning of capitalism, I do have to part company with him on his use of the terms statism and socialism.

He defines statism as “an economic structure within which the means of production are owned by the state and the allocation and use of resources for different social purposes is thus accomplished through the exercise of state power.” Socialism, by contrast, is “an economic structure within which the means of production are socially owned and the allocation and use of resources for different social purposes is accomplished through the exercise of what can be termed ‘social power.'”

And what are some examples of an economic structure in which the means of production are “socially owned”? Wright states:

In Israel the traditional kibbutzim would constitute an example of social ownership: all of the means of production in the kibbutz were owned in common by all members of the community and they collectively controlled the use of the surplus generated by the use of those means of production. Worker cooperatives also can constitute examples of social ownership, depending upon the specific ways in which the property rights of the coop are organized.

It is rather remarkable to see the Israeli kibbutzim described in these terms at this stage of the game. Of course, you can only do so in the context of “ideal-types.” Once you step down from the Platonic clouds and deal with the reality of the kibbutz, you will understand that they always relied on the exploitation of Arab labor. In 1983, one out of five kibbutz workers was an Arab who could not even organize a trade union for higher wages. This is not to speak of the fact that the land was stolen from the original inhabitants. If such “social ownership” is supposed to be an advance over the nasty “statist” ownership of actually existing socialist states, then one wonders what kind of utopian dimension Wright hopes to introduce into our movement. For the Palestinians, the kibbutz have been rather lacking in the utopian department.

In considering the inadequacies of “statist” approaches (i.e., Marxist theories about the proletarian dictatorship), Wright resorts to the favorite villain of central casting, the old Soviet Union:

Whether because of inherent tendencies of revolutionary party organizations to concentrate power at the top or because of the terrible constraints of the historical circumstances of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, whatever potential for the Communist Party to be subordinated to an autonomous civil society was destroyed in the course of the early years of the revolution. By the time the new Soviet State had consolidated power and launched its concerted efforts at transforming the economy, the party had become a mechanism of state domination, a vehicle for penetrating civil society and controlling economic organizations.

As is so often the case with these sorts of exercises on “what went wrong,” Cuba does not enter the discussion. With its obvious departures from Stalinist practices, Cuba does not easily serve as a cautionary tale against the evils of “statism.” This is particularly unfortunate since the recent period has been marked by invitations from the very highest levels of the party to discuss the role of “autonomous civil society” in the building of socialism. It would behoove Erik Olin Wright to study this plucky little island’s attempt to create an alternative to capitalism.

I will conclude with a look at chapters 5 and 6, in which Wright explores “a range of real utopian proposals.” I am glad that he is proposing real utopian proposals as opposed to imaginary utopian proposals of the kind that tend to get my dander up. Frankly, the more one looks into these proposals, the more has to ask what is particularly “utopian” about them.

For example, Wright is impressed with the “participatory budget” that Lula’s party pushed for in the city of Porto Alegre:

In most cities that are governed by democratic institutions, the Mayor’s office prepares a city budget each year, which is then submitted to a city council for approval and amendment. But where does the mayor get the numbers? Usually this is done through a technical budgetary office filled with economists, city planners, political cronies and other associates of the Mayor. In Porto Alegre, in contrast, the budget is generated by a complex process centering on direct citizen participation in popular councils.

Given Wright’s distaste for “statist” economics, it is not surprising that he would gravitate toward municipal decision-making over how the local pie should be divided. If the voters of Porto Alegre decide to allocate 50 percent of the budget for better sanitation rather than cops, who could oppose that? Unfortunately, the major problems facing Brazil can only be resolved at the national level, including land distribution and an end to neoliberal economics. A “participatory budget” hardly amounts to some kind of “utopian” assault on the status quo. At best, it is a modern version of the kind of “sewer socialism” referred to above. Nobody would gainsay the right of the Brazilian people to find a more beneficial way to spend their tax dollars, but you don’t need to come up with a new tailor-made substitute for Marxism when Fabian Socialism is available right off the rack. When you strip away the social science jargon that Wright wraps his arguments in, that is what you are left with after all: Fabianism.

Wright, like other Analytical Marxists, is easily infatuated with what can best be described as individualistic solutions. John Roemer, for example, came up with the idea of coupon socialism, in which all citizens above 21 are supposed to receive coupons which they must invest in firms, but they are not free to sell or give the coupons to each other. This is supposed to reduce the concentration of wealth and open the door to socialism in some fashion. It is of course a silly idea from top to bottom.

Wright endorses a similar idea concocted by another left-leaning academic, but the instrument is a credit card rather than a coupon:

Bruce Ackerman has proposed a novel institutional device which potentially would have the consequence of both marginalizing the role of wealth in electoral politics and create a much more deeply egalitarian form of financing politics in general, not just conventional electoral campaigns. The basic idea is simple: At the beginning of every year every citizen would be given a special kind of debit card which Ackerman dubs a Patriot Card, but which I would prefer to call a Democracy Card.

I can’t say that I am one of Bruce Ackerman’s fans. After he and Todd Gitlin drafted an idiotic document titled “We Answer to the Name of Liberals” that “supported the use of American force, together with our allies, in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan,” I cast him into the lower depths of liberal hell along with the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Albert Shanker. My response to the Gitlin-Ackerman article is here.

The rest of Wright’s chapter goes on in this vein with “Citizen’s Assemblies” selected at random and other gimmicks. Ultimately, this sort of thing is simply another sterile exercise in utopian thought, not much different from Albert-Hahnel’s “Parecon” or the Socialist Labor Party’s century-old prescriptions about how socialist industrial unions have to become the basis for a new world.

Alternatives to capitalism will not arise because a critical mass of the population has become smitten with such utopian schemas, but because the conditions of daily life have become so onerous that they revolt against the system in its totality. As that day grows near, it will become urgent to develop a revolutionary movement of the classical type no matter whether that is fashionable in the academy or not.


March 5, 2007

The Wind that Shakes the Barley

Filed under: Film,Ireland — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

You know that you have entered a kind of parallel universe when you read the first paragraph of the press notes for Ken Loach’s “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”:

The English ruling class first invaded Ireland in the twelfth century, when feudal barons staked out their territory. Over the centuries English landlords grew rich at the expense of the Irish people.

The irony, of course, is that Ken Loach’s world is real and the world that a typical Hollywood film depicts is unreal.

The specific slice of reality dealt with in Loach’s latest and perhaps greatest film is the Irish war for national independence, and the subsequent civil war between the Irish Free State regular army and IRA irregulars opposed to the sell-out treaty that ended the first war. As in the past, Loach has demonstrated a willingness to scrutinize revolutionary struggles sans romantic illusions. In his 1995 “Land and Freedom,” which dramatized the clash within the Spanish left about how to resist fascism, he staked out a uncompromising socialist position which argued in favor of organizing around class demands.

This is exactly the same outlook that shapes “The Wind that Shakes the Barley.” This is not only of historic interest. Anybody who has been following the recent drift of the Sinn Fein will understand the relevance. Unless the struggle for national independence confronts the domestic as well as the foreign ruling classes, it is doomed to fail.

Damien and Teddy O’Sullivan, IRA combatants and brothers, symbolize the two opposing currents within the Irish revolutionary movement. Damien (Cillian Murphy) is a medical student who only decides to take up arms after watching British “Black and Tans” beating up the crew of an Irish passenger train that has refused to transport them, on instructions from their trade union. His brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) is less educated but more of a natural leader, who joined the movement earlier than Damien.

Although Teddy was initially the more headstrong and militant of the two brothers, he becomes more and more compromised after the Irish Free State is established. As a Free State military officer, he is responsible for reining in–using deadly force if necessary–the recalcitrant IRA’ers who view the treaty as a violation of Republican principles. They are especially opposed to the rump Unionist state in the North and to Ireland’s fealty to the crown.


Ken Loach

In key scenes, we see these differences being debated out within the movement, always with scrupulous attention to historical accuracy. After the revolutionaries have taken power in a given town or neighborhood, they begin to institute new institutions of law and order, just has always been the case in conditions of what Marxists call “dual power.” A dispute between a usurious landlord and a poor, elderly woman who owes him back rent is being reviewed by the female judges of a Dail court, who are also members of the Cumann na mBan, the IRA woman’s auxiliary. After hearing both sides, they rule in favor of the woman and order the landlord to pay money to her!

This infuriates Teddy, who reminds his brother Damien–a supporter of the judge’s decision–that the landlord has been a major financial backer of the IRA. A major arms shipment is coming in soon from Glasgow; and without his money, they will not have the guns to fight the British. Damien replies that the movement is not just about replacing British landlords with Irish ones. As a disciple of the martyred James Connolly, Damien agrees with him that “If you remove the English army to-morrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.”

After the British announce their intentions to allow the creation of a “free state,” Damien, his brother, and other veterans of the struggle debate how to respond. Teddy, always the pragmatist, argues in favor of accepting the British terms since this will provide an opening for further gains.

These debates are reminiscent of those that take place in Peter Watkin’s “Le Commune,” another film that has a fierce dedication to socialist principles and a belief that ordinary working people are the agents of historical change. Loach apparently has the same kind of ability that Watkins does to motivate his actors to think hard about the political beliefs of their characters.

Cillian Murphy, who plays Damien, is a well-traveled Irish actor who fought off the zombies in “28 Days” and tried to carve up the female protagonist of “Red Eye”. Reflecting on his character in the press notes for “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” indicates the engagement that the cast had with the ideas that Loach was grappling with:

Damien would have read Connolly, and be aware of that way of thinking, but Dan really solidifies these ideas into what sort of a republic must be put in place. Through Dan, and also knowing Peggy and all the hardship that she has lived through, Damien can see that this is the closest Ireland’s ever come to changing for good. Being a doctor, he sees the families of the under-privileged, and how that level of poverty has been a constant all the way through Irish history. He sees how, even though Ireland seems to be approaching the Free State, there’s still the constant of starving families. That’s the thing that he feels we should be changing. Of course, Teddy has never had this kind of experience, and Damien feels this limits his judgment.

After Teddy’s supporters become the majority, a civil war will leave Ireland in the sorry state that it is still in today. Loach’s unstinting portrayal of British manipulation and malfeasance, and a willingness of the formerly colonized political leadership to accept the colonizer’s terms, is unparalleled in motion picture history, with one obvious exception. “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” now joins Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn” as the quintessential study of the power of the imperialist to derail freedom struggles. Loach is crystal-clear in the press notes about how the powerful maintain their grip on the less powerful:

I think what happened in Ireland in 1920 -1922 is one of those stories that is of permanent interest. Like the Spanish Civil War, it was a pivotal moment. It reveals how a long struggle for independence was thwarted at its moment of success by a colonial power who, in divesting itself of its empire, still managed to keep its strategic interests in tact. That was the cunning of people like Churchill, Lloyd George, Birkenhead et al. When they were forced into a corner, when it wasn’t really in their best interests to keep denying independence, they sought to divide the country and give their support to those in the independence movement who were prepared to allow economic power to stay in the same hands, who, in the time honored phrase, ‘they could do business with’. There is a pattern you see again and again – this kind of manipulation by the ruling power, how different interests will unite in the face of a common oppressor and then ultimately how those contradictions inevitably have to work their way out. I’m sure you can see it in places like Iraq now, where the opposition to the US and Britain brings together a lot of people who will find that they have different interests when the US and the British are finally forced out.

Considering all the roadblocks that are put in front of serious, political film-making today, it is a testament to Ken Loach’s creativity and professionalism that he breaks through them time and time again. Along with Gillo Pontecorvo and Ousmane Sembene, Loach demonstrates that there is no conflict between political engagement and art. Since the problems of how to achieve genuine national independence are among the most pressing of our time (from Iraq to East Timor), the films of Pontecorvo, Sembene and Loach amount to weapons in our arsenal–important in their own way as the writings of Frantz Fanon or Edward Said.

“The Wind that Shakes the Barley” opens in New York City and Los Angeles on March 16th and elsewhere around the country later on. It is a film for the ages and should not be missed.

March 3, 2007

The Cats of Mirikitani

Filed under: art,Film,repression — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

I doubt that I will see a film this year that is more emotionally involving, politically relevant and artistically realized than “The Cats of Mirikitani,” now playing at the Cinema Village in New York City. This is a 74 minute documentary about Jimmy Mirikitani, a homeless 80 year old Japanese-American who eked out a living selling his art on the streets of downtown New York, and whom director Linda Hattendorf invited into her apartment  shortly after September 11th 2001. She refused to allow him to be exposed to the toxic substances in the air that have already cost the lives of many rescue workers and sickened others.

The film takes its title from the favorite subject matter of the artist, who appeared to care little about anything else in the world except his work. Like many of New York’s homeless, he initially appears rather withdrawn and confused. It is only after Hattendorf takes the time to draw him out that she discovers his story.

Linda Hattendorf

Jimmy Mirikitani was born in Sacramento, California in 1920 but spent time with his family in Hiroshima as well. On the eve of WWII, he decided that he was an artist and not a soldier, and came to the United States to work in freedom. Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he was thrown into the Tule Lake concentration camp in California, where he was confined for 3 ½ years. All of his relatives in Japan died in the bombing of Hiroshima.

One of Jimmy’s cats

After Jimmy takes up residence in the film-maker’s living room, he begins to relate his background to her and the viewing audience as well. His story is one of profound dislocation and demonstrates the precedence for the assault on civil liberties that took place after September 11th. As he sits on the sofa watching TV coverage of attacks on Arab-Americans and the bombing of civilian homes in Afghanistan, he shakes his head in dismay at the obvious connections with his own experience.

But this is not just a film about politics. It is about human relationships. Although Jimmy has lost just about every blood relative or friend he ever had in Hiroshima or at Tule Lake, Hattendorf–who begins to become both a surrogate daughter and a mother to him–discovers that there are some other Mirikitanis.

One of them is Janice Mirikitani, the poet laureate of San Francisco, whose poetry often refers to the internment camps, a subject of Jimmy’s paintings as well. During WWII, she and her family were imprisoned in Arkansas. In the 1960s, she emerged as a leader of the Third World cultural revolt in San Francisco. The other is his older sister Kazuko, living in Seattle in 2001, who he had not spoken to since they were released from Tule Lake. We listen to their phone conversation in the film. When it is over, he remarks that her voice has not changed much in 45 years. If his reaction to her seems muted, it is understandable. Given the terrible suffering and disappointment he has had to endure, he is wary of allowing himself to expect much out of life even as it is approaching its end.

Tule Lake internment camp

But that is what director Linda Hattendorf is determined to accomplish. Feeling a deep sense of loyalty to a fellow artist and a victim of racism, she does everything in her power to make sure that Jimmy is paid back for his suffering and is reconnected with loved ones. She is also obviously very committed to educating the general public about the work of a major artist, a project that the film itself is part of. Throughout, we see Jimmy Mirikitani at work. In some ways, watching the film is like going to a gallery that is displaying the work of an important but unrecognized talent.

Although my reviews generally focus on the ideas and social relevance of films, a word must be said about the artistic merits of this documentary. It unfolds like a piece of music, with certain leitmotifs appearing over and over–such as Jimmy’s remembrances of Tule Lake, the bonding between the artist and the film-maker and the parallels between Pearl Harbor and September 11th. Joel Goodman’s excellent film score is always highlighting the emotional content of the drama, but is never intrusive.

Using archival film from prewar Japan, Tule Lake during WWII and family photos of the Mirikitanis, we can place the artist into a broader social context and more deeply understand the great crime committed in the name of “national security”.

Film website

March 1, 2007

Maurice Isserman versus the new SDS

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

Maurice Isserman

Maurice Isserman is an important historian of the American left. His 1982 “Which Side Were You On?: The American Communist Party During the Second World War ” also distinguishes him as a “revisionist” historian of the CPUSA, a tendency that recognizes the grass roots success of the party. So his recent article in Chronicle of Higher Education on the rebirth of SDS (a project that my friend Paul Buhle is very involved with) deserves some attention. Basically, the article takes the position that it is foolish to try to recreate any kind of project that existed in the past since history is always moving forward:

And, speaking of elders, it seems appropriate to close with the radical granddaddy of them all, Karl Marx, who suggested in 1852 in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that his contemporaries on the European left needed to abandon their obsession with rhetoric and strategies associated with the French Revolution of 1789: “The social revolution of the 19th century cannot derive its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has shed superstitious belief in the past. The revolution of the 19th century must let the dead bury the dead in order to arrive at its own content.”

Oddly enough, Isserman seems to have ignored his own advice when it came to the launching of DSA in 1983, a group that he joined with some enthusiasm. In an article on the history of the American left, he referred to DSOC and the New American Movement (NAM), which fused to produce the DSA, as seeking to “recreate the broad and tolerant spirit of the Debsian Socialist Party, while absorbing also the new lessons, causes, and constituencies over which the left had stumbled in the intervening decades.” Doesn’t this sound a whole lot like deriving poetry from the past? I think that Isserman’s problem revolves around which poetry to recite.

Isserman would have been better served if he had focused on his obvious political misgivings about the attempt to create a New Left of any sort. With his commitment to the DSA and perhaps a tendency to idealize the CPUSA/New Deal coalition, is it possible that anything too far to the left of the Democratic Party upsets him? If he had focused on these sorts of questions rather than striking a questionable pose of neutral advice-proffering scholar, he would have contributed more to the necessary debate about how the left in general should move forward.

Perhaps the first warning sign that something is amiss is the invocation of Todd Gitlin as some kind of authority on SDS. This is like bringing in Judith Miller as an outside consultant on the war in Iraq.

I asked Todd Gitlin — a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, who was SDS president in 1963-64 and who chronicled the group’s rise and fall in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage — what he thought of the idea of recreating SDS. He, too, was struck by the ironies involved. “I don’t imagine Al Haber, Tom Hayden, & Co. would have gotten very far had they proclaimed in 1962 that they were re-founding a student organization taking its name and manifesto from a powerhouse student group of the 1920s,” he told me in an e-mail message.

This is disingenuous in the extreme. The simple truth is that Gitlin hated the New Left for refusing to vote for Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and has never gotten over it. Far from worrying about whether an attempt to launch a new SDS will result in failure, he is certainly much more concerned about possible success. Since Gitlin froths at the mouth at anything to the left of conventional Democratic Party liberalism (as evidenced by his billious commentary in the new documentary on Ralph Nader), he is the last person to check with when it comes to a project of this sort.

Isserman makes much of the new SDS’s refusal to go through some kind of ritual denunciation of the Weatherman, a point he shares with the permanently irascible Jesse Lemisch. In an article on the Weathermen that appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of “New Politics”, Lemisch wagged his finger at ex-Weatherman Bernadine Dohrn’s refusal to confess her sins at the first Northeast regional meeting of the new SDS:

One of the keynote speakers was Bob Ross, an old SDSer and a founding member, now Professor of Sociology at Clark University and an activist in the anti-sweatshop movement. He made points critical of Weather, violence, and bombing. Dohrn, speaking next, addressed none of this.

I am not sure what the point is here. There is about as much likelihood of the new SDS going underground in order to set off bombs as Venezuela invading the USA and installing a Bolivarian government in Washington. It would seem that Lemisch is far more interested in the kind of Maoist self-criticism that the New Left practiced as it began to spin out of control in 1968. Who needs that? Certainly not the new SDS.

What concerns Isserman is the behavior of some East Coast SDSers at last month’s antiwar march in Washington: “Black-shirted and masked, they left the ranks of the peaceful majority gathered on the Mall below to charge up Capitol Hill and skirmish with police.” Although I have criticized this kind of activity in the past, it doesn’t seem that we are dealing with the kind of knuckleheaded adventurism that characterized SDS in the late 60’s, at least on the basis of this report from the SDS website:

To conclude with a point I made above, Isserman has a different idea about what kind of left we need today. Along with other “revisionist” historians of the CP like Ellen Schrecker, there is an obvious predilection toward the glory days of the party when the Democratic Party was implementing a progressive agenda, at least in their eyes. Isserman is practically misty-eyed when it comes to the period:

And during the “Popular Front” era of the later 1930s, when Communists sought to build a broad-based American movement not so explicitly tied to the Soviet model, the Communists developed a considerable political base and measure of influence within the Democratic Party in such states as Washington, Minnesota, and California, and in the American Labor Party in New York. The Thirties did not usher in “the Revolution,” contrary to the expectations of many at the start of the decade. Nevertheless, much had changed for the better in American politics in the space of a few years. While Franklin Roosevelt’s administration was never the hotbed of radicalism it was portrayed as in right-wing propaganda, it is certainly true that radicals helped play midwife at the birth of the liberal-labor “New Deal coalition” that would shape the contours of Democratic Party politics over the next three decades.

In 2003, Isserman co-authored “America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s” with Michael Kazin, an obnoxious member of the editorial board of Dissent Magazine who wrote a stinging attack on Howard Zinn in that publication for violations of Dissent Magazine’s Eustonian guidelines. Eric Alterman sized up Kazin and Isserman’s politics fairly well in the Nation Magazine:

The fortunes of left movements in the United States, as historians Michael Kazin and Maurice Isserman pointed out in these pages six years ago, have always been closely linked with those of liberals in general, and liberal Presidents in particular–from the Progressive Era to the Popular Front radicalism of the thirties through the civil rights and antiwar and feminist activism of the sixties and early seventies. “In each of these periods,” they wrote, “the left found legitimacy as part of a continuum of reform-to-radical sentiment, contributing to the widespread belief of the day that social change was both possible and positive.”

But it is up to the aforementioned Bernadine Dohrn to really hone in on their failings, which boil down to a kind of knee-jerk reaction against anything too “extreme”. In her generous (probably too generous) review of “America Divided” in the December 2001 Monthly Review, she writes:

We cut our teeth on liberals. It was the Kennedys and LBJ who revealed the essential unanimity of power, despite some relevant and real differences. This critical edge is obscured by Isserman and Kazin who—while they point out that Kennedy was a liberal in style rather than substance—seem to write without irony, “Americans had long cherished the belief that they had a special role to play in determining the future of Asia,” or, “The early days of American involvement in Vietnam were almost like an adventure story.” Graham Greene, writing in 1955, saw the U.S. role and rationale more clearly.

Bernadine Dohrn really had nothing to apologize for at the regional SDS conference. It is Isserman who needs to apologize for writing this kind of nonsense. I forgive him in advance.

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