Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 30, 2007

Eleven Thoughts On the Jewish/National Question

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:54 pm

(Guest post by Jeffrey Marlin)

1. Jim

Ex-president Carter has written non-fiction
Alleging Israeli abominations
Requiting the Bible’s
Acute observation
that: “Sorrow
shall take …


His writing has set ganzer machers in motion:
Ads in the newspapers;
Tirades on cable,
In the

They’re hotly emphatic
Denouncing the heresy:
Jimmy is bigoted, Anti-
Semitic yea shamefully
Shameless, outrageous,
Bad news for the Jews.

Nobody’s perfect and neither is President Jim.
Nevertheless, I’m hunting for thumb-
Tacks to hang from my lintel
Whatever pejoratives over-
Wrought Pharisees
Trouble to
Hang on

2. Buzz

How long exactly?

Fifty eight years
Since I ask my parents
The meaning of “refugee”
In the midst of
Intense discussion.

They tell me such people
Abandon their houses; while
Many are innocent, others
Are not;

The ones we’re discussing
Want only to strangle our
Newly-won state with the bloat
Of their numbers and bury our dreams
In gratuitous fury the moment we
Let them return with their keys
In their hands.

The wriggling fly in this
Jordan of ointment
Has buzzed through my
Childhood and adolescence,

The getting and losing
Of knowledge and strength,
And it sings to me still
In the fury of disappointment.

3. Dennis

Pasty, bespectacled,
(Vaguely effeminate?)
Acne assaulting his
Sophomore year, Dennis is raging,
Campaigning for Taft and for
Caning the Reds
Out of Europe.

Because he is crazy, unlovely, ungainly,
The students avoid him. Sometimes I listen; he
Strikes me as well prepared.

I’m standing outside of the gym door in sweats;
He’s onto the Forty-Eight War for a change.
I fidget; amused seventh graders make faces;
They know I’ll be signing in late yet again.

The Jews, he assures me, have broken
Agreements, leveled the villages,
Ratcheted terror to rape and
Infanticide; now he’s exploding
With dates and specifics
Of truce demarcations; his fingers
Are moving, his necktie off-kilter, and who
Can defend the assassination
Of good Count Bernadotte?

Much of it sticks and I carry it
Home for discussion. I learn that the
Strange allegations are phony and
Count Bernadotte got
Just what he asked for and
We are Stevenson people.

Some years later Dennis descends to
Distributing scurrilous pamphlets,
Skirmishing with his neighbors,
And is, I believe, committed.

Eventually, I go to the sources
And find that the nut case has
Nailed his assertions. Here is
The lesson I take from this
Tragic design:
You’d better
Be watching
Behind you;

The truth is
Where you

4. Word

I goaded the analyst
Sitting behind me through
Many exuberant hours.

Perhaps he considered
It useful to treatment. I
Felt it enlivened the mix.

Back in the seventies
Better psychiatrists
Prided themselves on
Remaining in role;

Poolside in August they
Pelted each other with
Tales of restraint in the face
Of temptation. I

Went at his ethics, his
Medical background,
Failings as father,
Addiction to Kents.

Nothing outflanked his
Command of himself
But the Z-word

Delivered with
Resonant hiss
And derision.

I’m clear on the moment
I drilled to the core.
I hear him hunch forward
And mumble surrender;

To do with a good one
Across the jaw.


I know you well enough;
You look down your nose
At the notion of God

You’re utterly strange to the
Language and customs
And find their

Absent linguistic, religious
Or otherwise commonly
Rooted involvement
Or interest,

Why do you stand by this over-
Seas banner cum triangles
Tangled to emulate

Phil, do you treasure
Your own invitation to
Stop by tomorrow
And dine on

Or think that they’re
Pulling the terrible
Trigger for

Or is it no more than the
Magical sound of the

6. Neighbor

Conflict born of early mistreatment
Is existential and unrelenting,
Imposing an urge to domination,
Conditional to survival.

Imagine the state as a child of abuse
Behaving as one might expect it to do;
Despoiling the bothersome
Undersized brother
Improbably cast as
— complaining in mortified indignation
Of any rebuke or retaliation;

Reclaiming itself from
The thrall of its pain
Through obsessive

The application of models like this
May serve to enlighten, or not,
Bring clarification or muddy the waters,
Burnish or tarnish the history,

But they give me no help in defining what’s driving
My neighbor’s repeatedly emphasized taste
For the blood of the young and the
Weakest among them,
Secure as he is at the
Center of safety, and
With sorrow.

7. War

During the Lebanese war I got feisty
With e-mails. Something I said
Threw a hurt into George.
He called three months later, reported his
Wounding and asked: Am I ready to
Join him in putting things right?

Assured that the damage was caused by
My language I told him sincerely
That I had been negligent, gladly apologized,
Hopefully nipping it. We will be
Lunching next Thursday in Long Beach,
Enjoying the boardwalk,
Finessing the subject, though
Possibly tackling this one:

Where is the point at which
Friendship refuses to
Tolerate moral divergence?
When, like the impact
Of physical stress
On weight-bearing members,
Do grave intuitions
Demolish the struts
Of affection?

How does he gather the
Fiber to bind up my
Personal view that his
Hope for redemption
Embodies a frank paranoia
Productive of nothing
But cycles of war
And self-pity?

How to defeat the
Hormonal instruction to
Unleash our anger, which
Offers no semblance
Of impact on anything real?


I am:

Harbor; singular
Portal, long-promised
Refuge from peril and
Bondage to

Beleaguered, attractive to
Predators, harried by
Clamor and fang in
The dark of the

Vexingly bi-
Sected thought;

Oddly constructed
Chimera. A dream.

Paradox given the
Run of the joint.

As if needed,
That Freud had
It right:

Is the tool
Of the kishkas.

9. Self

I sold myself to rescue myself;
Arranged with the Nazi and lapped
At his mercy; snarled at my-
Self as I left myself. Ashamed

Of the Yiddish, I plowed it under;
Repudiated emaciation;
Infatuated myself with iron;
Emerged in the South

A Prussian child beloved of the vigorous
Worms of the promising soil,
A country stew of the brawny virtues,
Yearning eastward for room to live;
Reversing the meaning of master;

Defeated my leaning to self-abasement,
Done as my nature should have intended
Never accounting for what I must, or the
Hate I inspire in being myself. Lose no sleep

To the blood I’ve spilled
On the pallid self I killed.

10. Right

Life is sacred
Within the tribe;
I have a right
To defend myself
And mine.

I want the city
You live in.
Raise a hand,
Leave an arm behind.
Never imagine that I will neglect my
Right to defend myself.

Whoever dug that hole
In the ground,
The water comes to me.
Test the boundary I have set
And ready yourself to understand
My right to defend myself

And all that comes to me.

Do not afflict me
With threatening language.
Do not oppress me
With murderous thoughts;
I will arise and exercise
The timeless right to defend myself
Against the noise of insects.

I walked the road
To Gehenna and back and
Here’s what I learned
In the darkness:
How to run blitzkrieg,
Study genetics;
Trumpet my right to defend myself.

Against the judgment of mankind,
Seethed in its detestation,
Always, above limitation,
I will defend my right
To defend my right.

11. Skin

Will you wear the uncomfortable skin
Of the blue-eyed adolescent

Behind the checkpoint gate and gun
And the dangerous indifference;

Your habit of cruelty answering only
A teenager’s itch for distraction?

Or that of a sweltering older woman
Packed into line, your ankles aflame:

Deeply afraid of mercurial
Change in the youngster’s

Thoughts, or trembling smirk,
Or foreign disposition?

It seems to me that
Come to the finish,
You will be
One or the

November 29, 2007

Ultraleft counter-revolutionaries in Venezuela

Filed under: state capitalism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 4:49 pm

On November 24th the Wall Street Journal ran an article that was highly flattering to Stalin–Ivan Stalin González, that is. Stalin (he prefers being called by this name) is the leader of the privileged university students who are on the front-lines opposing the proposed constitutional reforms that would make the government more directly accountable to the people beginning with an end to term limits.

Stalin’s background would be familiar to those who run into his counterparts in the radical movement in their own countries:

Mr. Chávez’s description also hardly fits Mr. González. The 27-year-old, sixth-year law student grew up in a poor household that dreamed of a Communist Venezuela. His father, a print-machine operator, was a high-ranking member of the Bandera Roja, or Red Flag, a hard-line Marxist-Leninist party that maintained a guerrilla force until as recently as the mid-1990s. Its members revered Josef Stalin as well as Albania’s xenophobic Enver Hoxha. As a boy, Mr. González remembers packing off to marches with his sisters, Dolores Engels and Ilyich, named in honor of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

As a young man, Mr. González burnished his leftist credentials, joining Marxist youth groups and following his father into the Bandera Roja. He traveled to Socialist youth conferences in Latin America.

(The WSJ article can only be read in its entirety by googling “Ivan Stalin Gonzalez” from google/news.)

Hugo Chávez described Bandera Roja thusly:

Groups like them appear to have given themselves the holy mission of proclaiming themselves to be the only revolutionaries on the planet, or at any rate in this territory. And those who don’t follow their dogmas are not considered genuine revolutionaries.

Unlike the miserable ultraleft sectarians in Bandera Roja, the Marxists who have helped to elect Hugo Chávez do not see themselves on any such “holy mission.” Indeed, it is the absence of such self-aggrandizement that has so disoriented much of the left outside of Venezuela, at least those sectors of the left that still clutch to “vanguardist” illusions. While most of them are not nearly as bad as Bandera Roja, they still see Hugo Chávez as an impediment to the True Revolution that is gathering momentum at the grass roots level. In this scenario, the only thing that can save Venezuela is some kind of latter-day version of the Soviets in 1917 and a working-class revolutionary party to lead them toward a seizure of power. While Chávez’s government is a decent social democratic alternative to the neoliberal solution that the US would prefer, it falls short of their ideals–the operative word being ideal.

To his great credit, James Petras–a former ultraleft critic of Hugo Chavez–has a much better understanding of the true political stakes in Venezuela now and has repudiated the ultraleft in a Counterpunch article:

The CIA-Embassy reports internal division and recriminations among the opponents of the amendments including several defections from their ‘umbrella group’. The key and most dangerous threats to democracy raised by the Embassy memo point to their success in mobilizing the private university students (backed by top administrators) to attack key government buildings including the Presidential Palace, Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council. The Embassy is especially full of praise for the ex-Maoist ‘Red Flag’ group for its violent street fighting activity. Ironically, small Trotskyist sects and their trade unionists join the ex-Maoists in opposing the constitutional amendments. The Embassy, while discarding their ‘Marxist rhetoric’, perceives their opposition as fitting in with their overall strategy.

Unfortunately, the International Socialist Organization, a sizable state-capitalist group in the US, still retains the kind of ultraleft conceptions that Petras once held.

In the latest issue of their newspaper, there’s an article on the showdown in Venezuela which basically describes three camps in Venezuela: the rightwing that is getting its marching orders from the US, a center consisting of Hugo Chávez, many of his well-meaning radical supporters plus a status-quo minded elite getting rich off the oil exports, and a genuine working-class left that shares their ideals of “revolution from below.”

One of the most cited figures from this unblemished leftwing group in the pages of Socialist Worker is a self-described Trotskyist trade union leader named Orlando Chirino:

For Orlando Chirino, a national coordinator of the National Union of Workers (UNT) labor federation, Chávez’s reforms herald the “Stalinization” of the state and state control of the labor movement “along the lines of the Cuban CTC labor federation,” he said in an interview.

Chirino, a key leader of the C-CURA class-struggle current of the factionalized UNT, is among the most prominent figures on the left to oppose the reforms. He made waves on the left when he granted an interview with a leading opposition newspaper and appeared on the platform with leaders of the CTV, the corrupt old trade union federation implicated in the 2002 coup.

Today Chirino, along with an oil workers union official, José Bodas, is a founder of a new group calling for an independent workers party.

Well, what can one say? Despite his Trotskyist bona fides, Chirino opposes the reforms alongside comrade Stalin Gonzalez. He also is cozy with the rotten newspapers and trade union that tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the democratically elected government of Venezuela. Politics makes strange bedfellows, doesn’t it?

If you read the Socialist Workers newspaper, as I do, you will be familiar by now with their split personality. They are a source of excellent analysis and information on the class struggle in the US but when it comes to Cuba and Venezuela they are–how should I put it–full of shit. For them, Cuba occupies the same place as Dante’s Inferno while Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela is a purgatory that will be rescued by the likes of Orlando Chirino. But maybe not Chirino himself since the ISO still has a shred of good sense to support the constitutional reforms even if it is only grudgingly.

In the past Orlando Chirino has been a kind of North Star for them, a source of goodness and received wisdom. In August of 2005, they had a breathless article titled “Venezuela’s left comes together” that would leave the reader with the unmistakable impression that the cavalry was coming to the rescue in Venezuela. It reported on a July 9 meeting that included Orlando Chirino’s Opción de Izquierda Revolucionaria and a student collective from the Central University of Venezuela, a bastion of counter-revolutionary resistance to Hugo Chávez today and where Stalin Gonzalez is enrolled. One can only wonder if Comrade Stalin was at this meeting hyped by the Socialist Worker newspaper as a sign of hope for Venezuela. I bet that he was.

I imagine that the odyssey of Chirino and these students to the right probably did not pique the interest of the brain trust that runs the ISO too deeply.

They must have been totally smitten with a figure like Orlando Chirino who told them:

Therefore, I think that [Chávez’s] project has a short lifespan. I’m not talking in terms of years, but rather as a historic project of a way out of the crisis and misery that capitalism offers. That model doesn’t provide a way out, and today, there isn’t the space nor is there a sector of the capitalist class that wants a decisive confrontation with imperialism.

So in less than three years, Chirino discovered that the way to decisively confront imperialism was to make common cause with its chief supporters in Venezuela. As Larry David would say on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”: “Interesting, very interesting.”

Now, if I were the editor of “Socialist Worker,” I might want to try to reconcile two apparently contradictory positions. Is Chirino still a representative of the left? If so, maybe it is because he stills says that he is for a working-class revolution. But then again, so does Stalin Gonzalez. According to the WSJ:

For all his disappointment with Mr. Chávez’s brand of leftism, Mr. González still holds a candle for his revolutionary heroes. He has a signed copy of a seven-hour speech Fidel Castro delivered at the university several years ago. “I never got bored,” he says.

Apparently, being a member of the Fidel Castro fan club does not ensure that one will not lose one’s way politically.

Although it took me a while to get over my own initial skepticism toward Hugo Chávez, I never for a minute thought that ultraleftists like Orlando Chirino were some kind of revolutionary alternative. I had seen them in operation in Nicaragua in the 1980s and figured out that small groups posturing as Bolsheviks trying to wrest power from the Menshevik FSLN were more than a nuisance–they were doing the CIA’s work.

In George Black’s very fine chronicle on the Nicaraguan revolution titled “Triumph of the People”, there is a chapter on the counter-revolution that is mainly focused on the contras and their “peaceful” supporters. Within the chapter, there are also a few pages devoted to groups led by the Stalin Gonzalez’s of those times.

The most notorious of them was the Simon Bolivar Brigade, a guerrilla group composed of Latin Americans who fought alongside the FSLN. They regarded the FSLN in the same exact way that Orlando Chirino and Stalin Gonzalez regard Chavez today–as an obstacle to the full flowering of the revolution. The Brigade was led by the Socialist Workers Party in Colombia, a section of the Morenoite Fourth International that can best be described as virulently ultraleft. Considering the bad reputation of this group and a similarly named group in the US that used to be in an alliance with the Morenoites, my recommendation to aspiring Leninists worldwide is to not use this name. Of course, if you have already adopted it–like the group led by Alex Callinicos–you have my permission to continue using it.

Part of the problem dealing with the Brigade, which had embarked on a series of premature strikes and land occupations, was that it insisted on remaining armed and existing outside of the framework of the Sandinista military command.

When the FSLN sat down for a meeting with the Brigade on August 14, 1979, it found itself confronted with a demonstration of 1,000 workers who had been brought there by the Brigade in the belief that the meeting was about wages and trade union questions. After deciding that the Brigade was not serious about becoming part of the broader revolutionary process, the FSLN expelled sixty non-Nicaraguan members to Panama.

The Frente Obrero (FO) was not Trotskyist, but it posed the same kind of threat to the revolution as the Simon Bolivar Brigade. Originally a faction of the FSLN, the FO was expelled in 1972 after being implicated in a plot to assassinate the entire FSLN leadership. Fortunately, the plot failed because the FO could not recruit enough members to carry out the task. As George Black describes the FO, the kinship with Stalin Gonzalez’s Bandera Roja should be obvious:

From the early 1970s there were suspicions that the FO had close ties to Somoza’s Office of National Security (OSN). Although its ideology was not consistent, the FO’s basic orientation was towards Peking, and it held this line until the Chinese invasion of Vietnam, when it switched its allegiance to Enver Hoxha’s Albania. Towards the end of the decade, it managed to build a limited base in the working class, and had its own student movement, the Comites de Lucha Estudiantil Universitaria (University Students Fighting Committees: CLEUS).

In the early stages of the revolution, the FO proposed a government that would include bourgeois parties and themselves. Just like Stalin Gonzalez, they were adept at cloaking opportunist behavior in fire-breathing revolutionary rhetoric.

After the FSLN took power and began to concentrate on the immediate tasks of reviving an economy that had been devastated by earthquake and civil war, the FO’s newspaper demanded the ‘active sabotage of the economic plan in order to bring power back into the hands of the people’. To show that they meant business, the FO, which had far more members and influence than the Morenoites, launched a series of paralyzing strikes in the sugar refineries. In Chinandega the results were devastating. Stacked sugar cane rotted, causing the loss of a half-million cordobas per day–all in the name of socialist revolution.

Eventually the sugar refinery workers called off the strike in exchange for immediate social wage improvements, as well as government action on local health and housing problems.

The FO was determined to push on, however. When cane cutters returned to the fields, they were met by FO supporters who slashed their truck tires and threatened them with guns and machetes, just as Stalin Gonzalez’s goons did recently at the Social Work building in the Central Venezuelan University.

One cartoon in Barricada, the FSLN newspaper, depicted an FO activist floating on a cloud above a group of workers, with his head buried in a book. The caption read “Having seized political power, proceed to…” George Black said that the cartoon “summed the FO up nicely.” Too bad that it sums up some of our comrades today who decided to promote a wing of the radical movement in Venezuela that was on a collision course with the revolution.

November 27, 2007

Into the Wild

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:19 pm

Chris McCandless next to the abandoned bus that he called home in the Alaskan wilderness

As I work my way through the studio screeners sent out to New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) members in anticipation of our awards meeting on December 9th, I feel like Diogenes with his lamp. I finally stumbled across a couple of good ones. The first is Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” that I will be reviewing today. I will follow up with a review of Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom’s “The Hoax”, based on the Clifford Irving saga of the 1970s. Both of these films are by no means perfect, but they are intelligent, serious and worthy attempts to transcend the standard Hollywood crap. Perhaps it is more than a coincidence that both are focused on driven personalities, who are responsible for their respective falls–in other words, characters ready made for classic Aristotelian drama.

“Into the Wild” tells the story of Chris McCandless, who died of starvation in the Alaskan wilderness in August 1992 at the age of 24. Alaska was the last stop in a voyage that the idealistic but naïve Emory University graduate had taken in pursuit of a goal shaped by the writings of Jack London, Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau and others who have rejected materialism and conformity.

It is doubtful that even Thoreau would have gone to the extremes taken by McCandless. The first thing he did after graduating was to donate his graduate school tuition fund of $24,000 to Oxfam. After setting fire to all the cash he had on hand, he began hitch-hiking here and there in the style of the Beat Generation. He might have read Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which described the best minds of his generation “cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall.”

Like Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, he was attracted to life on the margins. The film shows him driving a combine in the wheat fields of South Dakota or flipping burgers in a McDonalds in Oregon. Despite an A average, he had zero interest in joining the rat-race also described by Alan Ginsberg in “Howl”:

who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue
amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion
& the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister
intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality

Unlike Ginsberg and Kerouac, however, McCandless had no interest in becoming part of a subculture among like-minded souls. Where the Beats were in search of an alternative to the corporate world of the post-WWII period, McCandless was consumed with the need for solitude. Rather than looking for love or friendship, he sought to commune with nature in the style of “Walden Pond”. To a large extent, this flight from human contact was shaped by a very unhappy family life. His father was a wealthy NASA engineer who was cold and judgmental. Of course, not everybody who comes from an unhappy family feels the need to live as a hermit in the Alaskan wilds. As Sean Penn’s film implicitly demonstrates, Chris McCandless’s odyssey was ultimately a kind of suicide–the ultimate escape from society.

Penn’s screenplay is an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s book of the same title, with a powerful film score that includes songs written and performed by Eddie Vedder. It is not hard to understand why Penn and Vedder would be attracted to this material. Both are long-time critics of American society and saw Chris McCandless as a kind of symbol. Perhaps the futility of his odyssey resonated with their own feelings of the impossibility of turning back the kind of greed and violence that characterize American society.

However, when moviesonline.ca asked Vedder how he would react if his own 20 year old daughter decided to go on the road like McCandless, he answered: “Well, the initial reaction is to send a security guard along, keeping him 50 yards away to keep an eye on her at all times.”

Once the ill-prepared Chris McCandless arrives in Canada in April 1992, we understand that his days are numbered. Watching him mostly unsuccessfully trying to keep himself warm and feed himself, I was reminded of another film about Timothy Treadwell, another idealistic but hapless soul who succumbed to the elements in the Alaskan wilderness. Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” documents the life and death of another soul who sought spiritual purity in an environment that was drawn more from Hobbes than Thoreau. After living among and video recording the bears of Katmai National Park in Alaska for approximately 13 seasons, Treadwell and his girl-friend were finally attacked and eaten by a hungry bear.

Park rangers considered Treadwell to be a nuisance as well as a hazard to himself and other people. The only surprise was not that he was eaten, but how long it took. Comparing “Grizzly Man” to “Into the Wild” reveals Treadwell to be far better prepared. He was always well-stocked with food and other supplies. Apparently, McCandless’s knapsack contained mostly rice and books when he made his fatal walk into the woods.

In an article that appeared in the Independent newspaper on April 11, 1993, long before “Into the Wild” was published, Krakauer reported:

Alex seemed excessively ill-equipped for the rugged conditions of the interior bush, which in April still lay buried under the winter snowpack. He admitted that the only food in his pack was a 10lb bag of rice. He had no compass; the only navigational aid in his possession was a tattered road map he had scrounged at a petrol station, and when they arrived where Alex asked to be dropped off, he left the map in Gallien’s truck, along with his watch, his comb, and all his money, which amounted to 85 cents. ”I don’t want to know what time it is,” Alex declared. ”I don’t want to know what day it is, or where I am. None of that matters.’

As someone who has spent the better part of 40 years opposing the violence and greed of American society, I had deeply ambivalent feelings toward Chris McCandless. I admired his dedication to his principles but despaired of his failure to understand the society he lived in and, more importantly, his own limitations.

Many years ago, I became aware of a trial involving a young man who had committed murder during a psychotic break. Like Chris McCandless, he had hitch-hiked around the country in search of spiritual purity, a goal that he sought to achieve through meditation and the copious use of psychedelic drugs. During his trial, the prosecutor tried to establish his guilt on the basis of drug use. He explained to the jury that if you lose touch with reality through hallucinogens, this does not excuse you from criminal culpability. It is similar to killing a pedestrian while driving drunk.

The defense attorney tried to establish his innocence on the basis of a long-standing schizophrenic condition. Long before mental patients began to be thrown into prison, the trial took place at a time when “diminished capacity” would be a basis for a not guilty plea. The defendant could look forward to a long stay, perhaps permanently, in a mental institution.

The defense attorney brought in a forensic psychiatrist who explained to the jury that spiritual quests are typical of those suffering from schizophrenia. The desire to get close to God or to the Universe, the desire to relinquish worldly goods, the desire to wander, etc. were all symptoms of mental illness. At the time, I noted to myself that if this was true, it spoke volumes about the intractable ills of American society since millions of young people were also exhibiting the very same symptoms as the psychotic killer. While R.D. Laing is not fashionable any longer (for all the right reasons), he still made some sense when he described insanity as “a perfectly rational adjustment to the insane world.”


November 26, 2007

My Brother’s Madness

Filed under: literature,Paul Pines — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

In the course of looking up long-lost friends on Google a few years ago, I discovered that one of my closest from Bard College had developed schizophrenia. An article that originally appeared in the upstate New York Glens Falls Post-Star took my breath away:

Claude Pines spent his days in the mental hospital smoking cigarettes and staring at a clock, thinking about how life would be different when he got out.

How had he fallen this far?

He was a smart guy. He went to Columbia University. He had been a medical student at Einstein College of Medicine and even did a term in psychiatry. Now, he was one of them.

He had fallen into a different class of people. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression. The symptoms of his disorder could be treated with medication and therapy. The stigma of having such an illness, however, would not be as easy to get away from.

As much as I would have liked to contact Claude and be a friend to him once again, I simply lacked the will to follow through. Since my own brother had killed himself after a brief struggle with schizophrenia, the disease remained a source of some personal anguish. About a year ago, I discovered that Claude had died of leukemia at the age of 63. Compounding the original shock of learning about his battle with mental illness, the news of his passing left me at a loss for words. After a day or so I wrote a tribute to him on my blog.

Soon afterwards his brother Paul left a comment there:

Touching piece, Louis. Your observations are deceptively political in the fundamental meaning of that word as Aristotle meant it when he called man a “political animal.” By which I understand an animal connected to others of his kind by common interests and experiences that sometimes rises to the level of sympathy, the ability to feel with another. Your reflections on what mental illness can do, and does to many who a moment ago felt they had a unique destiny is in this sense profoundly political. In Claude’s case, his suffering was punctuated by laughter, and the wisdom that blossomed from his struggle with a mind that he found he could not trust. He learned, instead, to trust his heart.

Claude’s illness was a deep mystery to me. In the three or so years we were friends, I could not think of anybody saner, especially at a place like Bard College where emotional torment was the norm. Claude always seemed to know what he was about and never suffered the kinds of depression that afflicted the average student, at least on an outward basis. Apparently, the disease was always there but I could not recognize it.

When Paul wrote that note on my blog, he was in the final stages of a memoir about his brother and himself. Titled “My Brother’s Madness,” it recounts his dysfunctional family background and his struggle to provide emotional and material support to his younger brother. Despite the enormous frustrations he had to put up with in looking after Claude, Paul does everything possible to be a loving and dedicated brother. If this story was simply told as a straightforward narrative, it would be compelling enough on its own terms.

But as a highly respected novelist and poet, Paul elevates the memoir into the ranks of fine literature. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, it is marked by the author’s courageous effort to be honest with himself and the reader. Most of all, it is carried along by his unique voice, a mixture of Jewish hipster and spiritual voyager.

Growing up a few blocks from Ebbets Field, Paul Pines was a true child of the 1950s, which was much more about looking tough than sensitive. This was especially true when you had to fend off rival gangs of Irish or Italian youths. As a perpetual truant and an unsuccessful car thief, Paul fit right into the neighborhood as this encounter with his high school principal would indicate:

We sit in straight back chairs. Bullethead [a nickname for the principal] tells us that he has been a cop and a trolley-car conductor and understands boys in motorcycle boots with ducks-ass hair welded in place by Dixie Peach. There are quite a few of us walking up Flatbush to Church Avenue every morning to the walled fortress spanning several blocks. Erasmus boils over with students in two overlapping sessions, out of which a small stream of elite students are siphoned off from the raging river of Irish Lords, Pig Town Tigers, Gremlins, and Chaplains into the top tier. I fall into the lower one, a Blackboard Jungle minus Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. Three days a week I take in the triple-feature cowboy movies at the Majestic Theater on Fulton Street instead of going to school.

Paul thought of himself as a budding gangster, fed by fantasies inspired by the pulp fiction of Mickey Spillane and Harold Robbins. After his father sent him off to Cherry Lawn, a progressive private school in Connecticut, he still saw himself as a rebel without a cause, but one with roots in Lord Byron as well as the mean streets of Brooklyn. After reading Freud, he discovers that being able to use his mind fills him with elation. “I am a wet chick burst from its shell.”

After graduating from Cherry Lawn, he attended Boston University but spent more time hanging out at Harvard University, where the top minds of the 1950s where holding forth, including Eric Fromm. He began writing poetry and befriended a budding novelist named Russell Banks, who would go on to write “Continental Drift,” a powerful tale about the fateful encounter between an out-of-work boiler repairman from New England and a Haitian boat person.

As was the case for many young people in the late 1950s, the beat generation was a deep influence on Paul. After “devouring” Kerouac’s “On the Road” and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island of the Mind,” Paul dropped out of Boston University and headed off to San Francisco. Unfortunately, most of the famous poets he wanted to look up were no longer on the scene. He does drop off a collection of poems with Ferlinghetti at the famous City Lights bookstore, only to get the following feedback: “Keep writing. You have not found your voice.” One might hope that Paul would send off a copy of “My Brother’s Madness” to Ferlinghetti (still alive at 88), since he has clearly found his voice and then some.

Eventually Paul wound up at Bard College, which in 1961 was suspended between two bohemias in time. The beat generation was pretty much over, even though its writers were still making headlines. Most had been college students during WWII and the more successful had settled into writing careers. We also predated the 1960s counterculture, which would be fed by the Vietnam War radicalization and psychedelic drugs.

Paul’s brother Claude showed up at Bard the following year, a refugee from Antioch College, a place that he found pretentious. Claude was two years younger than Paul and much less prone to wanderlust. Not long after meeting him, we became the best of friends. Even though Claude was only 2 years my senior, he seemed much more mature and self-assured. I had skipped my senior year of high school and came to Bard in a state of adolescent turmoil. With his tweed jacket and pressed chinos, Claude came across as a psychiatrist in the making and always had patience for my Sturm und Drang. Indeed, he planned to go to medical school and become a shrink, inspired by a desire to help people as well as by ambitions to enjoy the good life. His father, who had died two years earlier, was a successful surgeon and Claude hoped to follow in his footsteps. After spending two years at Bard, Claude transferred to Columbia general studies since it had a better track record for placing graduates in medical school.

After I graduated Bard and moved to New York in 1965, my contacts with Claude fell off. I was preoccupied with staying out of the army and he was up to his eyeballs in school work. I later discovered from another Bard graduate that he had gone off to medical school in Belgium and had even learned French in order to keep up with classes. Soon afterwards, I got involved with Trotskyist politics and lost touch with everybody I knew at Bard, including Claude.

In late August 1987, Paul persuaded Claude to check himself into the psychiatric ward of New York Hospital in White Plains after a year of mounting crisis that had reached the breaking point. Claude could not hold down a steady lab technician job (the medical profession had proved too stressful) and was sure that people were watching him and saying disparaging things about him behind his back, the classic symptoms of paranoia. In a few brief sentences, Paul provides more insight into mental hospitals than a hundred pages of Foucault:

Dr. P apologizes for not being able to spend more time with me this afternoon, but will be sure to see me when I come again. Claude, he reflects, is a particularly interesting case, judging by what little information he has: “Not an acute psychosis but one resulting from prolonged morbidity, developing for a long time into a florid delusional system. He states this with the satisfaction of an angler who has just boated a prize marlin. We will discuss my brother’s situation next time, after he has observed Claude more closely. Dr. P. pumps my hand, then disappears.

I pace the dilapidated corridor, stopping to copy numbers from two public pay phones in the hall. Posted between them is a “Patient’s Bill of Rights,” and the number of a lawyer specializing in patient advocacy. Besides it, on the wall, are names and numbers scribbled by a dozen anonymous hands like the enigmatic graffiti of a lost civilization.

Eventually Claude wound up in Glens Fall, New York in the Adirondacks where Paul had become an adjunct professor at the local community college and married a local woman, an accomplished opera singer. They were raising a baby girl who was the apple of their eye. For most men in their fifties, this would represent a satisfying climax of a life filled with ups and downs.

But this idyllic scene was disrupted by Claude’s appearance. Claude lurched from one mental or physical crisis to another. Like many schizophrenics, he dosed himself with cigarettes and alcohol which at least had the merit of not inducing the shakes, as his prescribed anti-psychotic medications did. Despite his disability, Claude was in many ways as clear in his perceptions as he was when I knew him at Bard. After he takes a job checking groceries, he complains to Paul about the humiliation but is not sure what he can do: “I feel like a medieval philosopher defining God in the negative. I say, ‘I don’t know. I don’t want to bag groceries, mop floors, or be a janitor.’ I don’t know what I want to do. I don’t know what I can do.”

Eventually Claude discovers that he can speak effectively to mental health professionals at conferences around the country. With his unique combination of medical school training and mental illness, he becomes an advocate for more sensitive treatment, especially on using psychotropic drugs. Despite their often terrible side-effects, they at least would deliver him and fellow sufferers from the perpetual fear that torments them. At the end of one lecture, Claude recalls a David Frost interview with futurist Isaac Asimov: “Frost asked what he thought would be the greatest breakthrough of the coming century. Asimov answered: understanding of the human brain. Strides over the next fifty years will make the answers of today seem primitive.” Paul writes that “the intensity and duration of the applause” for his brother blows him away

As grim as all this sounds, I can report that “My Brother’s Illness” is also a triumph of the human spirit. Even if Claude Pines had been a total stranger, I would have found this memoir gripping for in the final analysis his brother has turned their lives into literature as this finely honed excerpt would demonstrate. It is an account of a dinner with their mother, who–like Claude–was a source of pain and pleasure throughout their life:

Claude’s letter reminds me of a dinner I had with Charlotte at the Copley Plaza during my freshman year at Boston University. It was the only time she visited me there and it came at a point when I felt miserable in my situation. I spoke openly about my impatience with the academic drudgery and social isolation, and my plans to move to San Francisco to live among the Beats. When I finished, she gazed across the linen tablecloth and told me that she loved me. At first I thought this a touching affirmation. She went on from there to confess that it had taken every ounce of her will power not to actually seduce me.

My heart stuck in my throat. Confused by my own responses to my early images of her posing like Venus fresh from the bath, I felt a wave of guilt and desire. We finished the meal in silence. In front of the elevator, she held the back of my head tenderly. I kissed her cheek and left.

Claude’s letter brings the evening back. I replay the conversation at the Copley, then decide against writing Claude about it. It will only muddy the water. But as I consider Charlotte’s revelation, her words that evening are more redolent of the confessional than seduction; I hear in them the unaddressed longing I had glimpsed as a child under the piano when she played her violin. What could I say to make it clear to my brother what he has never seen for himself? The woman he had encountered at the hotel in Geneva and I at the Copley in Boston had surfaced briefly from a hidden depth. It had been Thai’s speaking.

Interview with Paul Pines on NPR’s Leonard Lopate show.

Order book here

Paul Pines website

November 23, 2007

Yiddish Theater: a love story

Filed under: Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 5:54 pm

Albert Einstein with stars of the Yiddish theater

Playing at the Pioneer Theater in New York until the 28th, “Yiddish Theater: A Love Story” documents the efforts of Zypora Spaisman to keep Yiddish theater alive. As impresario and performer, the 85 year old holocaust survivor was determined to inspire a new generation to appreciate what was once a vibrant part of New York’s cultural landscape. Directed by Israeli Dan Katzir, the film is much more of a tribute to her dedication and perseverance than a study of a genre. That being said, there is enough historical context to at least help us understand why Spaisman’s struggle was an uphill one. Put succinctly, Yiddish theater died because Yiddish died.

Zypora Spaisman preparing to go on stage for “Grine Felder” performance

In addition to Spaisman, there are interviews with David Romeo, past general manager of the Yiddish Folksbiene Theater. Throughout the film, we see him knocking on doors of wealthy Jews trying to get donations to keep the theater going–mostly unsuccessfully. It becomes clear midway through the film that no matter how rich a cultural legacy Yiddish theater is, contemporary Jews have become so assimilated that they see no value in keeping it alive. Jewish identity for them mostly means the Hebrew language and the modern state of Israel. Yiddish symbolizes weakness, victimhood and the ghetto while Hebrew represents virility, success and power. Zionism was so anxious to destroy the cultural legacy of Yiddish that an organized campaign to stamp out the language was mounted not long after the state of Israel was created. In so doing, the Zionists demonstrated a kinship with Joseph Stalin who also tried to suppress the Yiddish language as well as the Russian-Yiddish theater.

Filmed seven years ago, the documentary is focused on performances of Peretz Hirshbein’s “Grine Felder” (Green Fields), a staple of Yiddish theater. As it turns out, this I was inspired to write about this play some years back:

Back in 1959, when I was a unhappy 14 year old in the Catskill Mountains with an unfashionable taste for poetry in a time of rampant materialism and conformity, the school librarian Gussie Kasofsky took an interest in me. Sensing that I needed reinforcement from the world of literature, she fed me books that made me feel less alone, including James Joyce’s “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” and Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider”.

I knew little about Gussie except that she ran a bungalow colony called “Grine Felder” (Green Fields) that was named after a Yiddish play popular in the 1920s. Last night I saw a wistful movie based on the play on Channel 13, the public station in NYC. It tells the tale of a Talmudic scholar from the city gets a job as a tutor with a rural peasant family where he finds romance.

A scene from the 1937 Yiddish film “Grine Felder” directed by Edward G. Ulmer

This morning I did a web search on “Grine Felder” and made the most extraordinary discovery, something that ties together my own political beliefs with early Yiddish theater and the political and culture milieu of Sullivan County, where I grew up and home of the “Borscht Belt.” This resort area in the southern Catskill Mountains was not only a hothouse for the development of major talents like Danny Kaye and Sid Caesar, it also nourished left-wing culture at a time when Jews were an oppressed people in the United States.

About 10 years ago Phil Brown, a professor at Brown University and Sullivan County “landsman” began the first of a series of summer conferences on the Catskills. They have included notable talks by people such as CP veteran Phil Foner, who directed a band with his other brothers when the witch-hunt made it impossible for them to work at their regular jobs in the trade unions and the universities.

One of the other talks was on Gussie Kasofsky’s bungalow resort given by Martin Boris, author of three novels, including “Woodridge 1946.” Woodridge is my home town and I read this novel with keen interest about 20 years ago. Boris is also an expert on the Yiddish theater and is currently working on a biography of Maurice Schwartz, a major figure from that bygone world.

Boris points out that the bungalow colony was a favorite of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the great Yiddish novelist and short story writer. Singer had been introduced to the resort by his friend Zygmunt Salkin, a budding theater director. Salkin sought to involve Singer in a production at the bungalow colony of I.L. Peretz’s “At Night in the Old Marketplace,” a Yiddish theater classic. This was in the late 1930s, at a time when Yiddish theater had gone into a steep decline.

In 1937, the great author-critic Alexander Mukdoiny wrote, “The Yiddish Theatre is finished. It is no longer even bad theatre. It has no actor, no repertoire, no directors and no designers. Professionalism, talent and ambition are practically dead.”

According to Boris:

Zygmunt Salkin’s attempt at a solution that summer of 1938 was to gather a group of stage-struck youngsters and present them with his own English translation of the I.L. Peretz play, to be produced under Singer’s guidance. The practical part of his agenda was the free use by the troupe of a gathering hall in the bungalow colony known as Grine Felder (Green Fields). But this was no ordinary Catskill resort for the families of middle-class Jewish shopkeepers and businessmen who would come for a respite from Manhattan’s swelter. When Salkin and Singer arrived, Grine Felder had been for two years summer home to the most concentrated assemblage of Yiddishist elite anywhere on Earth. While other groups-artists, leftists, Bohemians-organized their own colonies, none equaled the caliber of talent at Grine Felder.

Boris characterizes the colony’s origins as “almost mythic”. In the autumn of 1936, a delegation from the nearby Mirth bungalow colony, a favorite of working class Communists from New York, had approached Raphael Kasofsky and Meyer Arkin, owners of the popular Avon Lodge a mile outside of Woodridge.

Representing 32 families dissatisfied with their present summer accommodations, the delegates asked the two owners to build them a modern enclave of approximately 40 units on 35 acres of unused Avon Lodge property. The group would then assume all aspects of managing the colony, from maintaining the grounds to collecting the rents and paying the owners’ fees.

By the next spring, the spanking new colony was ready for occupancy. Its name would be Grine Felder, after the enormously successful play and movie by Perez Hirshbein, who was among the colony’s founding fathers. At the eleventh hour, however, Hirshbein decided to remain at Mirth, out of loyalty to its owner.

What Boris does not mention is that Meyer Arkin was sympathetic to the Communist Party. I took piano lessons from Henrietta Neukrug, who was part of his “mizpuchah” (extended family). She was an outspoken Communist who kept copies of Soviet magazines openly displayed in her living room in the 1950s, which took a lot of guts. Arkin’s Avon Lodge was where Sid Caesar first performed in public. As a member of the hotel’s kitchen staff in the 1940s, Sid and others put on socially aware plays and skits in the hotel theater, including works by Clifford Odets.

Among the regulars at Grine Felder were playwright David Pinski and Mendl Elkin, one of the founders of the Bronx’s Unzer Theatre, and Nahum Stutchkoff, author and playwright, whose radio series Tzores bei Leiten (“Trouble Increases”) ran for 20 years on WEVD in New York City, “the station that speaks your language” and whose call letters honored Eugene V. Debs.

Refreshments would be served after musical performances at Grine Felder, and the conversation would turn to the fate of European Jewry; and general issues facing the left such as the German-Soviet Pact of 1939, which badly splintered the left. Some of the bungalow colony’s guests were undoubtedly Communists while others were social democrats, including Samuel Charney, who wrote under the name “S. Niger”. He was an editor, journalist and historian, who founded the Zionist Socialist Party and was president of the Shalom Aleichem Folk Institute, Charney was considered the dean of Yiddish literary criticism.

Meanwhile, Isaac Bashevis Singer prevailed over all of the proceedings. In his memoir “Lost in America,” he recalls that each bungalow was named for a Yiddish writer or Socialist leader: Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman.

Grine Felder continued for almost 50 more years. In 1973 a neighboring ski lodge bought the colony and ran it for five years; eventually it fell into bankruptcy. Finally, the town of Fallsburg took the colony in lieu of unpaid taxes.

Someday the complete story of the intersecting worlds of Yiddish theater, Sullivan County resorts and leftwing politics will be told. It will include the details of the life of Paul Muni, born Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund, who performed in the Yiddish theater as Muni Weisenfreund before moving out to Hollywood and becoming a major film star. Until McCarthyism destroyed his career, Muni was one of the acting world’s outstanding leftwing voices.

It will show how Romanian Jewish performer Aaron Lebedeff’s stage antics influenced Danny Kaye, who got his start in the Catskill Mountains resort hotels. In October 1947, when HUAC had called its first ‘unfriendly’ witness, the communist screenwriter John Howard Lawson, and actors including Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Danny Kaye, traveled to Washington to lobby the committee.

John Rankin, a Mississippian member of the committee, complained:

They sent this petition to Congress and I want to read you some of the names. One of the names is June Havoc. We found that her real name is June Hovick. Another is Danny Kaye, and we found that his real name was David Daniel Kominsky…There is one who calls himself Edward Robinson. His real name is Emmanuel Goldenberg. There is another one here who calls himself Melvyn Douglas, whose real name is Melvyn Hasselberg. There are others too numerous to mention. They are attacking the Committee for doing its duty to protect this country and save the American people from the horrible fate the Communists have meted out to the unfortunate Christian people of Europe.

In fact, many of these Jews were connected to the world of the Yiddish theater, especially Edward G. Robinson who, like Paul Muni, was often featured in gangster movies. Melvyn Douglas was married to Helen Gehegan Douglas, who was red-baited by Richard Nixon in his first successful electoral bid during the 1950s.

When this story is written, it will clearly benefit from the research now archived at Phil Brown’s Catskill Institute archives.



November 22, 2007

Lenin’s Tomb on the crisis in RESPECT

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,socialism — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

An article by Richard Seymour (aka, the blogger Lenin’s Tomb) has just shown up on MRZine, an online publication that is associated with Monthly Review. The article defends Seymour’s organization, the British SWP, against its rivals over who is to blame for the split in RESPECT, a promising leftwing alternative to Labour. Edited by Yoshie Furuhashi, MRZine is widely perceived as a vehicle for some of her ideas about the need to synthesize socialism and Islamic radicalism. Since one of the SWP’s main complaints about its rivals is “communalism,” in other words pandering to “notables” in the Islamic/immigrant communities in order to get votes Tammany Hall-style, an exception to the general editorial dynamic must have been made in this instance. If there is one thing that can be said about Islamist politics in the Arab world, it is that it is based on this kind of old-fashioned politicking.

Seymour informs his readers that the struggle commenced with a letter written by George Galloway:

The letter, a scattergun attack on various organisational problems in Respect, with the implicit target being leading SWP member and Respect National Secretary John Rees, was taken by the SWP as a manifestation of a developing left-right division in the organisation and an attack on the largest far left party in the coalition.

As one who has read the letter, I could find no such “left-right” division–even implicitly. You can read it at http://www.socialistunity.com/?p=726. Mostly it seems consumed with organizational problems, including fund-raising:

This is all but non-existent. We have stumbled from one financial crisis to another. And with the prospect of an early general election we are simply unable to challenge the major parties in our key constituencies. None of the Respect staff appears to have been tasked with either membership or fundraising responsibilities. Or if they have it isn’t working. There is a deep-seated culture of amateurism and irresponsibility on the question of money. Activities are not properly budgeted and even where budgets are set they are not adhered to. Take, for example, the Fighting Unions Conference which was full to the rafters but still managed to lose £5000. The intervention at Pride, where we gave away merchandise rather than sold it, lost £2000.

Perhaps the “left-right” division is based on Galloway’s annoyance with giving away merchandise, a bourgeois deviation to say the least. Any true socialist will understand that selling merchandise rather than giving it way is the road to perdition.

Seymour next informs his readers about the kind of Tammany Hall behavior that forced the SWP to uphold the banner of the proletariat:

On various occasions, notable members attempted to purchase memberships at concessionary rates for a number of people at the door, with the presumed intention of affecting votes on crucial matters. One such vote would be on the delegates for the national conference that has recently taken place — a technique refined by the mainstream parties and known as “pocket members”. In another, a handwritten list of delegates, including non-members of the branch (one nominated entirely because they worked George Galloway’s office) was presented out of the blue, 90 minutes into the meeting.

This is what those in the legal profession call hearsay evidence and is hardly worth commenting on. I should add that when I was in the American SWP a lifetime ago (no relationship to the British SWP other than their belief that they are the vanguard of the coming socialist revolution), we used to call this an “atrocity story”. Used by somebody properly trained in the fine arts of demagogy, it can be a powerful tool.

At a subsequent committee meeting, George Galloway MP arrived and denounced the SWP. He argued that they were “Leninists”, “Russian dolls” who had no business being in the leadership of Respect. The implication was that the party was an outside element, its membership composed of Manchurian Candidate-style foils, trying to control the Respect coalition, a claim that has since been made explicit, despite its patent absurdity.

Well, I don’t know about “Russian dolls”, but surely somebody who calls himself Lenin’s Tomb might not want to make a big stink about being called a Leninist. I guess the problem being called attention to here is red-baiting. My advice to Richard Seymour, and anybody else who belongs to a group like the SWP, is this. If you want to avoid these kinds of complaints, you have to dump the “democratic centralism” nonsense. My experience in the American SWP from 1967 to 1978 gives me a kind of perspective into these sorts of conflicts that might be helpful.

My group was always being charged in the same fashion. And, like Richard, we always attributed this to red-baiting. What we didn’t understand at the time was the natural animosity that arose when people in the mass movement figured out that we had our votes lined up in advance and it made no difference what arguments were raised in favor of alternative proposals. As “Leninists”, we understood that the revolutionary party worked out its line within its ranks (the central committee) and then fought for it in the mass movement. It simply made no fucking difference if we were proposing something daft. If a party member decided that it was daft and spoke out against it or acted against it in public, they would get the boot.

This, in fact, is what has happened to a number of long-time SWP members working in RESPECT, including Nick Wrack. When Wrack decided that Galloway’s proposals made sense and voted to support them, he was expelled.

This kind of trigger-finger on the expulsion button has nothing to do with the Bolshevik Party’s functioning. From its birth to the victory of the October 1917 revolution, there is only a single member who was expelled–namely Bogdanov. When members of the Bolshevik Party, including central committee members, broke discipline and spoke out against the seizure of power in October 1917, they were not expelled. It is only with the fetishization of Bolshevik “norms” in the 1920s that this kind of strict discipline became commonplace. It was understood as “Leninism” both by the CP’s and by the Trotskyist parties, including subvariants of Trotskyism such as the British SWP.

Recent scholarship, most especially as found in Lars T. Lih’s “Lenin Rediscovered”, puts democratic centralism into some kind of context. If the British SWP or any other group swearing allegiance to Leninist principles went back and took a closer look at how the Bolsheviks operated with an unbiased eye, they would understand that they have very little in common. And as long as they adhere to bogus notions of “democratic centralism,” which essentially means accepting the discipline of the party rather than the mass movement, then they will continue to be regarded as manipulative, controlling, etc.

Richard continues:

To put it moderately, the SWP has always comprised a minority in both the membership of Respect and in its leadership positions and could therefore not possibly ‘control’ Respect.

This is really beside the point. The American SWP was also a minority in the coalitions and activist organizations of the mass movement. We were not interested in “capturing” ourselves. But a well-organized minority (we called ourselves the big red machine) could always push through its agenda through dint of effort. And when we couldn’t, we could always walk away as the British SWP did with respect to RESPECT.

It is of some interest what Richard has to say about members of the International Socialists Group, who have sided with Galloway:

The retort has been that many socialists in the organisation, such as the ISG, support George Galloway’s position, and therefore it could not be an attack on the socialist left. If you take this argument seriously, then it follows that there was no left-right split over the war on Iraq, since a number of people who place themselves on the Left supported it.

To start with, this is a perfectly silly argument. Just because Norm Geras and Christopher Hitchens “place themselves on the left”, there is no reason to accept that they are leftists. As is generally the case on the left, imperialist war is an acid test. If you back imperialist war, you suffer the consequences of being excluded from the left no matter how many times the Euston Manifesto describes itself as upholding the True Leftist banner.

It is of some interest that the ISG has a position that is much closer to Lars Lih and others (including myself) on the “Leninism” question. Murray Smith, who was one of the best known members of the ISG (he apparently is working with the LCR in France right now) has been involved in an ongoing debate on “democratic centralism” in the pages of Links, the theoretical magazine of the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia, a group that shares the British SWP’s misconceptions. Although the proximate cause of Smith’s article in issue 26 is to stake out a reasonable middle ground between the DSP and yours truly, who he describes as “mistaken”, I find much of what Smith writes to be highly commendable, including this:

The entire history of the RSDLP, and of the Bolshevik faction and then party, was marked by often sharp debates. Practically all of them were public. Why was that? In the first place, public debate is not necessarily contradictory with democratic centralism. Properly understood, democratic centralism is a means to achieve unity in action around decisions taken after democratic debate. What it is not is an attempt to impose ideological uniformity.

Although it would surely defy the most deeply held convictions of the British SWP, they would be acting more “Leninist” if they would have allowed a Nick Wrack to argue against John Rees openly. Furthermore, if a genuinely mass revolutionary party ever evolves in Britain, it will be marked by this kind of open debate. This is not to say that deeply mistaken and self-limiting propaganda groups like the SWP cannot play a useful role, for without them many thousands of young workers and students would be robbed of the opportunity of hearing a socialist analysis.

The rest of Richard’s article consists of “he said this,” “she did that” type atrocity tales that are hardly worth commenting on. I generally find Lenin’s Tomb a most bracing and perceptive source of Marxist analysis, but on the RESPECT affair, it is entirely wrong-headed and as a more serious offense quite boring.

November 19, 2007

No Country for Old Men

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:41 pm

UPDATE: My latest thoughts on the movie, including a response to comments made here.

“No Country for Old Men,” the Coen brother’s latest film, has received 89 favorable reviews out of 90 on rottentomatoes.com where my review will now join the other distaff take.

Joel and Ethan Coen: masters of anti-climax

Many critics describe it as a return to the halcyon days of “Fargo” and they are partially correct. Like “Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men” exploits local color–in this case the laconic twang of West Texas. Unlike “Fargo”–unfortunately–the movie is structurally flawed with an ending that makes the final episode of “The Sopranos” look like a textbook example of dramatic conclusion.

Defying the normal audience’s appetite for a meaningful resolution, “No Country for Old Men” ends with a whimper rather than a bang. To a certain extent, this is necessitated by the plot of the Cormac McCarthy novel, about whose work I will have more to say. I am going to reveal the conclusion of the movie momentarily so those that plan to spend ten dollars or more to be ultimately disappointed should read no further.

Cormac McCarthy: poet laureate of redneck dystopia

There are three major characters in “No Country.” In the opening scene we are introduced to Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin in an impressive performance), a Vietnam veteran who is hunting antelope in the arid backcountry where much of the action takes place. He happens upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone bust, with dead or dying Mexicans lying on the ground next to their all-terrain pickup trucks equipped with high-power spotlights. After Moss notices a briefcase containing two million dollars, he absconds with it in a gesture highly reminiscent of the characters in the 1998 “A Simple Plan,” a much more successful essay on the moral and physical hazards of appropriating ill-gotten gains.

Anton Chigurh, a capable but uninteresting killer

Hired to track down the cash is one Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a hit-man who lugs around a pneumatic stun-gun with a captive bolt that is ordinarily used for killing cattle. Chiguhr uses his to knock out the locks on doors behind which reside his intended victims or to knock out their brains slaughterhouse-style. Of indeterminate nationality, Chigurh is occasionally inspired to play with his intended victims, allowing them to toss a coin to decide their fate. His character is a mixture of a less interesting version of the Samuel Jackson hit-man in “Pulp Fiction” and the very first Terminator–the unrelenting evil one. Entirely missing is the kind of bent humor found in the kidnappers in “Fargo,” who despite being creeps were a source of amusement.

The third major character is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommie Lee Jones. Naming the character Ed Tom is a demonstration of Cormac McCarthy’s resolve to make his characters authentically “good old boy.” He is the counterpart of the female cop lead character in “Fargo.” Unlike her, Sheriff Bell never really gets involved in apprehending Chigurh or any other bad guys. His main purpose is to serve as an outlet for McCarthy’s cracker-barrel philosophy–a mixture of Reagan-era conservatism and nihilism. At one point, Bell tells a colleague that everything started going downhill when young people began to dye their hair green and put spikes through their noses.

The movie actually moves along quite nicely until the final fifteen minutes or so. It consists almost entirely of Chigurh trying to track down and kill Llewelyn Moss in a manner that evokes all of the Terminator flicks. This pursuer is made out of flesh-and-blood, however. After Moss blasts him with a shotgun, Chigurh retreats to a seedy motel (“No Country” is replete with some of the scuzziest motels and hotels ever seen in a film) and performs surgery to remove the shotgun pellets from his knee. With the Terminator flicks floating in the back of my mind, I almost expected to see metal rods instead of bones beneath his flesh.

Up to this point, you are expecting a grand finale with the three major characters shooting it out. You hope for Llewelyn Moss to come out on top, since his character is especially engaging and resourceful. For example, he is adept at hiding the loot in the ventilation system of one run-down motel. I kept expecting something like the conclusion to the wonderful 1972 Sam Peckinpah movie “The Getaway” based on a Jim Thompson novel. Like “No Country,” “The Getaway” involves likable people (Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw) trying to elude hit-men hired to retrieve ill-gotten gains. It also includes some truly low-class motels and hotels.

However, McCarthy–in keeping with his nihilistic view of the universe–has Moss killed off before such a climax can even take place. Perhaps in an attempt to one-up McCarthy on anti-climaticism, the Coen brothers have him killed off-screen. Once he is gone, you really lose interest in the film entirely. Or at least I did, based on my take on the film compared to other critics on rottentomatoes.com. I can say that my wife had the same exact reaction. When we spotted Moss’s dead body, we turned to each other with a look of consternation as if to say, “What the fuck was that about?” When we returned home after the movie, I told her that our common reaction to the film reflected the strength of our marriage. If she had told me that this was the greatest movie she had seen all year, I probably would have filed for divorce.

In pouring through the mainstream media trying to find a review that jibed with my own, I could only turn up one. Writing in the Washington Post on November 9th, Stephen Hunter opined:

Derived from the hyper-violent Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, it’s a high-end “literary” thriller that traffics as much in ideas as in thrills, sometimes to its own detriment. It follows as a Vietnam vet (the time is the ’80s) antelope hunting comes across a Texas drug deal gone bad. Bodies, guns, blood, flies and folly are everywhere on the arid plains. He finds a huge chunk of money and makes off with it; alas, having promised a dying man a drink of water, he heads back, scotching his successful getaway. He is observed by other drug smugglers, and the chase begins.

You can’t say it cuts to the chase. There was never anything to cut from to the chase. It’s all chase, which means that it offers almost zero in character development. Each figure is given, a la standard thriller operating procedure, a single moral or psychological attribute and then acts in accordance to that principle and nothing else, without doubts, contradictions or ambivalence. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin; see story on Page 33), the laconic vet who finds the stash, is pure Stubbornness. His main pursuer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in Robert Wagner’s haircut from “Prince Valiant”), is Death, without a pale horse. Subsidiary chaser Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is Pride, or possibly Folly. Tommy Lee Jones appears in the role of Melancholy Wisdom; he’s a lawman also trying to find Llewelyn but not very hard. He’d much rather address the camera and soliloquize on the sorry state of affairs of mankind, though if he says anything memorable, I missed it.

Despite his reputation as being some kind of latter-day Faulker, I have a sneaking suspicion that McCarthy is an elevated version of Jim Thompson, or some other pulp fiction writer. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem capable of writing a satisfying conclusion to a novel as the best mass market writers know how to do. One suspects that this is simply a function of a worldview that amounts to a redneck dystopia.

If I had more time on my hands, I might take a look at McCarthy’s novels to try to extract out the rotten core and examine it under a strong light, especially the 1985 “Blood Meridian” that is described on the official website of the Cormac McCarthy Society as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.” The write-up continues:

In one celebrated scene, a column of mercenaries the kid has joined encounters a Comanche war party herding stolen horses and cattle across the desert. The kid barely escapes as the Indians, still vividly dressed like eldritch clowns in the garments they have stripped from their last white victims, annihilate his companions.

Just what the world was waiting for, a Faulkneresque novel that depicts American Indians as wanton killers.


Nation Magazine, September 12, 2005
It’s a Man’s, Man’s World
by William Deresiewicz

You’d be forgiven for thinking of Cormac McCarthy’s slim, disillusioned new novel, with its suggestively self-referential title, as the 72-year-old writer’s farewell to fiction. You’d also be forgiven for hoping it was. It’s not that No Country for Old Men–taut, savage, headlong–isn’t first-rate by ordinary standards, but by the standards of McCarthy’s previous work, which has established him as one of America’s greatest living writers, it is superficial and perfunctory. The moral intensity remains; the imaginative complexity is gone. No Country for Old Men, whose streamlined, cinematic plot is compressed into some 300 short pages, is McCarthy’s first novel in the seven years since he closed the Border Trilogy with Cities of the Plain. Though he is said to have three or four other works in various states of composition, he seems to have run out of patience with the majestic, processional prose and slow sifting of existential questions that gave his earlier work its weight. McCarthy has long attracted comparison with Faulkner, Hemingway and Melville, but in the shape his career has assumed of late he reminds me most of Evelyn Waugh, another unrelenting Catholic moralist who, as he aged, declined first into sentimentality, then into certainty…

As the novel nears its end, however, Bell’s very doubts about the value of his life’s work become the excuse for an affirmation of timeworn verities: the endurance of truth, the existence of God, the nihilism of unbelief, the goodness of the old ways. The sheriff is clearly McCarthy’s mouthpiece here, and so we find the erstwhile apostle of ignorance giving us chapter and verse about what to believe and how. Waugh finally came to this kind of tub-thumping certainty, too. And the trilogy’s historical problem also resurfaces. What Bell is confronting, we’re told again and again, is a new kind of evil. Apparently the Old West, like the rest of human history, was just one big family. Like Waugh, again, McCarthy has forgotten that his critique of modernity is only a subset of his critique of humanity. And the problem with the present, apparently, isn’t just drugs, it’s also abortion, kids with green hair and the loss of good manners. McCarthy the conservative has conscripted McCarthy the artist for service in the culture wars, and the result turns out about as happily as such arrangements usually do.

Indeed, in ways that aren’t true of his previous works, no matter how bloody, No Country for Old Men seems designed as a calculated assault on the reader. In the two interviews McCarthy has given, he has defended the violence of his works by speaking of death as the ultimate reality, the avoidance of death as a failing in both people and novels. But in his previous works, death is only part of the point, an aspect of the violent worlds he portrays. Here, it often seems the only point, the story a single-minded effort to pile up the body count. It is Chigurh’s practice, before he kills someone, to force them to look him, to look death, in the face, and that’s just what McCarthy does to us, rubbing our tender little modern liberal noses in death’s horror by making us watch it in slow motion: “Chigurh shot him in the face. Everything that Wells had ever known or thought or loved drained slowly down the wall behind him.” But this, and passages like it, are a sign of weakness, not strength: McCarthy needs to be this explicit and this manipulative because he has failed to make us care about his characters. There’s also something sophomoric and ultimately sad in the morbid fascination he displays at moments like this. Given his age, maybe he isn’t rubbing our noses in death so much as ramming his own head against it. Fiction may or may not be any country for old men, but the present never is.

Full review at: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050912/deresiewicz


Shouts & Murmurs

No, But We Saw the Movie

by Nora Ephron November 26, 2007

When they got home that night, she went to get the book. She’d ordered it earlier in the week and meant to read it before they went to the movie, but it was a hard week and things got away from her. This was happening more and more.

Maybe if we look in the book we’ll be able to figure it out, she said.

Maybe we’ll find out what happened at the motel, he said. Why did it skip forward like that?

He said it’s the same in the book.

Who said?

I told you who. The guy I was standing with while I was waiting for you to come out of the men’s room. He read the book and he said it’s the same deal exactly. The sheriff pulls up and everybody’s dead. You never see the scene where they all get shot. Maybe it’s because Javier didnt kill them.

Who’s Javier?

Javier Bardem. The serial killer.

I thought it was Benicio Del Toro.

Well it wasnt. The guy outside the men’s room said there’s a scene in the book that’s not in the movie. He said Javier goes to see a total stranger in some office, who’s never been mentioned earlier. He gives him the satchel of money and he says, Here’s your money back, now maybe you’ll hire me to do things like this in the future.

Why did they leave that out?

How do I know? Write a letter to the Coen brothers.

She opened the book and started reading from the end.

He does this weird thing with contractions, she said. He uses apostrophes for words like that’s and it’s but he doesnt use them for dont and wasnt and wont. He doesnt use quotation marks, either.


Cormac McCarthy.

full article


No Country for Old Men

Mr. Cranky’s rating:
2 Bombs

Critics can wax poetic about the maturity of the Coen brothers and the brilliance of their cinematographer Roger Deakins and the wonderful prose of novelist Cormac McCarthy, but I find it highly ironic that with all that genius brought together, I still didn’t get what the hell happened at the end of this film and I don’t think anyone else will either.

It’s one of those films that ends with a speech and I was only half paying attention because, quite frankly, when an actor starts blabbering on in that obvious metaphorical or symbolic tone, my eyes just glaze over and my auditory system kind of shuts down. After all, film is a visual medium. I’m waiting to see something. Two hours have gone by and some dipshit Sheriff with an accent I can barely understand starts going on and on, it’s not like I’m going to be locked in. It’s so hard to take people from Texas seriously in the first place. Then, all of a sudden, the screen goes black, I don’t remember what was being said, and I’m like “what the fuck?”

That was my exact reaction at the end of this film: “what the fuck?” The speech is given by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) and it has something to do with a couple of dreams he had, one having to do with his father, I think. So, if you’re still awake toward the end of the film and the Sheriff starts jabbering about his dreams, you might want to pay attention. Basically, unless you catch what’s being said here and understand it, you’ve just wasted a couple of hours.

I suppose telling you the Sheriff is talking at the end gives away the fact that he’s still alive as the film is about a drug deal gone wrong, the average joe who finds the money, and the killer hired to track him down. Until the end, I kind of thought the Sheriff was just a tangential character. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) seemed like the protagonist. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the stone-cold killer, is the antagonist. Actually, the Sheriff is probably a tangential character. In a way, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who has a direct role in the story, is more of an outside observer. He’s the narrator of the story.

If I figured anything out about the movie at all, it’s that it’s about the difference between the capabilities of pure evil and the capabilities of men who aren’t pure evil but who think of themselves as tough and capable. So, you have this guy, Llewelyn Moss, who thinks he can handle himself, but really, he has no idea what evil truly exists in the world and what lengths it will go to. You know how in most movies a hero will muster up some amount of courage and deal with an evil character? That doesn’t happen in this film. As far as the Coens are concerned, there are a certain number of levels of human deviousness that rank something like: capable, determined, under-handed, dirty rat, white-collar evil genius, blue-collar evil genius, and pure evil. Even a blue-collar evil genius cannot contend with pure evil. Anton Chigurh is pure evil. Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is a blue-collar evil genius. A blue-collar evil genius is somebody who pretends to be evil and is considered evil by most other people for that reason alone, but he still probably has a family and a mother that he loves. When push comes to shove, pure evil kicks his ass every time.

Thus, this movie is nothing more than what happens when a guy gets in over his head. And if you ask me, Llewlyn Moss was hardly the only one in over his head.


From Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review in the Chicago Reader:

But just because the Coens are hip enough to know the contemporary audience they’re addressing doesn’t mean they have anything to say we don’t already know, about Abu Ghraib or anything else. What I suspect they’re really offering us is a convenient cop-out: we can allow dog collars to be used even while we hypocritically shake our heads at the sadness of it all.


November 18, 2007

Mike Gonzalez on Hugo Chávez

Filed under: state capitalism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:41 pm

Since Venezuela in 2007 does not seem following the same path as Russia in 1917, it is understandable that some socialists might feel a certain kind of frustration. They accept that a revolutionary process is taking place, but only at the grass roots level. Operating on a kind of parallel track to Hugo Chávez, the poor and the working classes are used as a kind of wedge by the president to drive forward his programs, laudable as they are. However laudable, they are at best a substitute for the real thing: revolution.

The International Socialist Tendency (IST), led by the British SWP, subscribes to this guarded support of Chávez as do many other socialist groups still in touch with reality. For an example of a group unmoored from reality, we can turn to the Morenoite Trotskyist Fraction/Fourth International which describes the new constitution in these terms:

It is important to emphasize that the constitutional reform has as one of its priorities, increasing the concentration of power in the figure of Chávez. If Venezuela has a system of government centered on the President, with the present reform it will reach a greater degree of Bonapartism.

For the latest thinking in the IST, it is worth watching a talk by Mike Gonzalez that can be seen on Lenin’s Tomb. It is an extraordinary exercise in tightrope walking. While Gonzalez takes great care not to use Morenoite formulations, one cannot help but conclude from his remarks that Hugo Chávez represents a kind of plaque in the arteries of the revolutionary process.

I found the second youtube clip, which covers the Q&A part of the meeting, most instructive in this regard. It laid out a series of “problems” that must be overcome in order for socialism to be achieved in Venezuela.

Gonzalez starts out by characterizing Venezuela as an advanced social democracy/welfare state that rests on oil revenues. Since this is obviously an advance over what the Venezuelan people had before, he proposes that it is worth defending.

Insofar as the welfare state rests on a foundation of oil exports, the prognosis is guarded at best. If the price of oil drops, Venezuela will be forced to make inroads on capitalist property relations in order to fund the social programs that Chávez launched. Implicitly, it will be up to forces to his left to make this assault. For the long-term economic development of Venezuela, it will be necessary to balance internal development against oil exports. While Tina Rosenberg’s politics are conventionally liberal, her critique of petrocracy in Venezuela amounts to the same thing as Gonzalez’s. In a November 4th NY Times Magazine article, Rosenberg warns:

Even if the price of oil stays high, it may not be able to sustain Venezuela if oil production continues to drop, subsidized domestic consumption keeps rising and government spending continues unmeasured and unchecked. While other oil producers, like Russia and Nigeria, are piling up surpluses, Venezuela is spending everything it gets. Venezuela once had a $6 billion oil fund to be saved for lean years; Chávez has spent all but $700 million of it. The vast majority of Chávez’s new missions and worker cooperatives are dependent on state handouts — unsustainable when government revenue falls. A devaluation of the currency would wipe out the income gains of the poor.

Not only is petrocracy a risky operation at best, it also has the effect of sustaining a national bourgeoisie that spends buckets of money on luxury goods imported from abroad and that benefits from the corruption typical of such countries, including Nigeria as the most egregious case. After listening carefully to Gonzalez’s remarks, one is left with the impression that Chávez is incapable of rooting out these abuses as long as he is content to remain within a social democratic/welfare state framework. For a solution to the country’s underlying problems, which the new welfare state can never resolve due to structural limitations, there must be a revolution from below. In order for that revolution to succeed, a vanguard must emerge in Venezuela that rests on the proletariat.

Gonzalez identifies the standing army as another problem to be surmounted. Singling out Marta Harnecker as somebody fostering illusions in the “special character” of the Venezuela army, he invites any officer who is genuinely for social change to resign from the military as Chávez did. Apparently, Gonzalez is not mollified by the evidence that Chávez has been purging the military systematically of rightist forces for the past few years. As a good student of Lenin, Gonzalez understands that the capitalist state rests on bodies of armed men and is terribly anxious to convey that message to the Venezuelan people who ultimately face a Pinochet-type threat until the military is replaced by the people in arms.

To summarize, Mike Gonzalez proposes that the solution to capitalism in Venezuela is socialism. It is hard to quibble with that.

Yesterday’s NY Times had an intriguing take on Hugo Chávez’s new constitution that has so provoked the reactionary classes:

“We are witnessing a seizure and redirection of power through legitimate means,” said Alberto Barrera Tyszka, co-author of a best-selling biography of Mr. Chávez. “This is not a dictatorship but something more complex: the tyranny of popularity.”

The tyranny of popularity is reminiscent of another formulation:

In 1847, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx’s answer to this question was as yet a purely abstract one; to be exact, it was an answer that indicated he tasks, but not the ways of accomplishing them. The answer given in the Communist Manifesto was that this machine was to be replaced by “the proletariat organized as the ruling class”, by the “winning of the battle of democracy”.

Marx did not indulge in utopias; he expected the experience of the mass movement to provide the reply to the question as to the specific forms this organisation of the proletariat as the ruling class would assume and as to the exact manner in which this organisation would be combined with the most complete, most consistent “winning of the battle of democracy.”

–Lenin, “State and Revolution”

You will note that for Lenin a “proletarian dictatorship,” the most advanced form of a “tyranny of popularity,” is something whose exact form would be a function of “the experience of the mass movement” and not some preordained formula.

The Times points out how this is taking shape in Venezuela:

One of the 69 amendments allows Mr. Chávez to create new administrative regions, governed by vice presidents chosen by him. Critics say the reforms would also shift funds from states and cities, where a handful of elected officials still oppose him, to communal councils, new local governing entities that are predominantly pro-Chávez.

Now, it would be a mistake to assume that the adoption of a new constitution would automatically transform Venezuela into a “proletarian dictatorship” but clearly this a country that is moving inexorably against the logic of private property. Despite Gonzalez’s dismissal of what Rosenberg calls petrocracy, it should never be forgotten that the struggle to purge the oil industry of bourgeois elements and to reallocate revenues for the benefit of social programs (including heating oil for poor people in the US) was accomplished through a revolutionary mobilization.

Ultimately, the tensions in Venezuelan society between can only be resolved by completing the revolutionary process. As is inevitably the case in such situations, that must be a function of the relationship of forces. By having a Hugo Chávez in power rather than a Salvador Allende, the relationship of forces are obviously much better. Time after time, Chávez has demonstrated a willingness to face down the enemies of progress within his borders and to the North.

Speaking only for myself, I have continuously been surprised by Hugo Chávez’s readiness to challenge the forces of reaction. Whether or not Venezuela will ultimately complete a socialist revolution is something that is impossible to predict. My reading of history is somewhat different than Mike Gonzalez’s. I don’t believe that revolutions are like works of art or scientific experiments that you plan out in advance. Instead they are projects that emerge out of a series of confrontations with the old order that involve a large degree of improvisation. They also have an element of conservatism in that they pose revolutionary tasks in terms of defending a hard-fought gain–like using oil revenues to fund social programs. Or put in another way:

People do not make revolutions eagerly any more than they do war. There is this difference, however, that in war compulsion plays the decisive role, in revolution there is no compulsion except that of circumstances. A revolution takes place only when there is no other way out. And the insurrection, which rises above a revolution like a peak in the mountain chain of its events, can be no more evoked at will than the revolution as a whole. The masses advance and retreat several times before they make up their minds to the final assault.

Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution

November 17, 2007

Josephine Baker

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 4:52 pm

Notwithstanding the seemingly inexorable tendency for New York to become a theme park for hedge fund managers based on health clubs and million dollar condos, there are still some things that make living here worthwhile. One of them is the accessibility to high quality films that never make it to the hinterlands, especially those shown at specialty film festivals like the African Diaspora Film Festival that is running between November 23rd and December 6th this year.

I had the opportunity to see a documentary on Josephine Baker that will be shown on Friday, November 30th. Directed by Annette Von Wangenheim, it is a fascinating look at a personality I had only knew by reputation before. Aptly titled “Josephine Baker: Black Diva in a White Man’s World,” it is a study of the very first Black female to become a major figure in the entertainment world. What I didn’t realize, however, is that Baker had much in common with figures such as Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte, who used their fame and prestige to promote a progressive agenda.

Born in 1906, Baker was a highly successful chorus line performer by the early 1920s. In 1925, she made a debut appearance in the Théatre des Champs-Élysées and eventually became a regular at the Folies Bergères. Vintage films from the period show Baker dancing in erotic costumes with racist overtones, such as a string of bananas that one interviewee regarded as a phallic symbol as well. That was basically the mold that Baker was cast into in this period, one combining powerful racial and sexual motifs, such as this performance of “Haiti” captured on youtube would indicate. As repellent as the African savage imagery of her dances now appears, it must be remembered that this was an almost inevitable aspect of a Black popular culture forced to adapt to white tastes. Duke Ellington also performed “jungle” music and Louis Armstrong sang about “darkies” in Mississippi.

Josephine Baker became a French citizen in 1937 and a universally beloved figure, including some of the leading “high culture” figures as her fans, like Jean Cocteau and Ernest Hemingway. Her prestige was so overwhelming that the Nazis were reluctant to move against her despite her belonging to an “inferior” racial group. Using her ability to travel freely abroad and her knowledge of multiple languages, Baker became a member of the anti-Nazi resistance. She smuggled intelligence to the resistance in Portugal coded within her sheet music. After the war, she received the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur from General Charles de Gaulle.

An outspoken defender of world peace and racial justice, Baker transformed her beliefs into deeds by adopting 12 children from different ethnic backgrounds and countries after WWII. One, who speaks reverently about her in the film, was living in an Algerian refugee camp during the war of independence.

Josephine Baker became a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement and spoke at the 1963 March on Washington. She also continued performing until the night she died in 1975. An interview from that year sums up her career and contribution to humanity: “I have never really been a great artist. I have been a human being that has loved art, which is not the same thing. But I have loved and believed in art and the idea of universal brotherhood so much, that I have put everything I have into them, and I have been blessed.”

November 15, 2007

‘Tis Autumn: the search for Jackie Paris

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 4:09 pm

Charlie Parker and Jackie Paris

Jackie Paris, an Italian-American born in 1924 who grew up in Nutley, New Jersey, was one of the most highly regarded jazz vocalists in the bebop revolution following WWII. He went on the road with Charlie Parker’s band for six months and was the lead vocalist on a session led by Charles Mingus for his Debut label. Named by Downbeat’s Critics Poll as best new singer of the year in 1953, he seemed destined for stardom and commercial success. But he made his last record in 1960 and seemed to disappear from the face of the earth not much later. By the late 1970s, many jazz aficionados assumed he was dead.

Raymond De Felitta, the director of “Tis Autumn: the search for Jackie Paris” was one of them. While driving in his car one day about five years ago, he heard Jackie Paris on a jazz station and was transfixed just as many jazz fans were in the 1950s and just as you will be when you hear him performing “Time After Time.” Not long after he began tracking down information about and recordings made by the legendary artist, he discovered that he was still alive in March 2004. The New Yorker magazine jazz club listings mentioned that the 79 year old Paris was performing at the Jazz Standard, a major venue. After seeing him perform, De Felitta decided to make a documentary on the singer before it was too late. Although there was something of a Jackie Paris renaissance taking place, the singer was suffering from bone cancer and would die that year, three years before the theatrical release of De Felitta’s film.

On one level, “Tis Autumn” is a detective story with De Felitta as sleuth trying to uncover a major crime, namely why such a great artist never enjoyed the commercial success that he so richly deserved. On another level, it is a deeply touching story of friendship as the young film-maker and jazz pianist himself becomes devoted to an admittedly problematic personality, as the film will reveal. Their relationship reminded me of the one between the fictional saxophone player Dale Turner, played by Dexter Gordon, and his young fan in the 1986 “‘Round Midnight.” Just by coincidence, Jackie Paris was the first artist to do a vocal rendition of the Theolonious Monk anthem in 1949.

Finally, on one more level “Tis Autumn” is the definitive statement on the clash between art and commerce in the jazz world. Ultimately, the film reveals that the crime that accounts for Jackie Paris’s commercial demise is none other than the marketplace itself, which turns everything into a commodity. When things are measured on the basis of their price, it is more often than not detached from its underlying value as the success of “Light Jazz” would indicate.

Although there is clear evidence that Jackie Paris was not the easiest person to get along with, as interviews with his former wives would indicate, he was not much more temperamental than other jazz musicians. Nor is there any evidence that drugs or alcohol destroyed a promising career. Paris did not even smoke cigarettes.

Eventually we learn from a number of the jazz historians and artists interviewed by De Felitta that Paris was just not big enough a star to survive the massive shift in the marketplace in the 1960s. Unlike a Mel Torme or a Tony Bennett, who he was certainly equal to and probably would surpass in the estimation of critics, he was just on the cusp of commercial success when jazz was rapidly being undermined as a “popular music”. A Tony Bennett made the transition to mainstream acceptance in the 1960s on the basis of earlier successes such as “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, but lacking such hits Jackie Paris could not make the transition.

I found myself in a somewhat similar situation to De Felitta in 1967 when as a welfare worker in Harlem I was assigned the case of Jonathan Jones Jr., son of Count Basie’s drummer Jo Jones and a drummer himself. Jo Jones Jr. had just come out of drug rehab and I did everything I could to help him get his feet on the ground, even getting his drums out of hock. When my higher-ups told me that they could not pay for this, I “cheated” the taxpayers by filing a false claim on his behalf for new bedsprings and pots and pans so he could pay for his drums.

Jo Jones Jr. was always on the cusp of making it big. Just after Clifford Brown told him that he wanted him to join his band, he died in an auto accident. After he got his drums back, he began gigging again and I made every effort to watch him perform and give him encouragement. On date was particularly memorable. He told me that his trio got a job at mafia bar in Newark and it would be worth a trip out, especially since he had lined up Duke Jordan to play piano (Les Spann played guitar). It was very likely that Jackie Paris played with Jordan himself, since he was Charlie Parker’s pianist on many gigs. He also wrote the jazz standard “Jordu” that Clifford Brown and countless others have recorded. In 1967, Duke Jordan was not making a living as a jazz pianist. He was driving a school bus in Brooklyn, victim of the same blind market forces as Jackie Paris.

Raymond De Felitta is to be commended for making such a heartfelt and intelligent documentary. Like the artist he is commemorating, his film is a tribute to the kind of integrity that has almost disappeared from popular culture. In many ways, the golden age of jazz that produced artists like Jackie Paris has come to an end. De Felitta’s film is an attempt to preserve one jewel from this era and succeeds by any measure. This film is a must for anybody who appreciates jazz, as well as anybody else who wants to understand the power of art in general to make life worth living against all odds.

‘Tis Autumn will open this Friday, December 7th, at Cinema Village in NY.

 Official Film Website



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