Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 12, 2007

Whigs and Democrats

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism,third parties — louisproyect @ 7:37 pm

Henry Clay: Whig leader known as the “Great Compromiser”; would have fit right in with today’s Democratic Party

In the course of reading T.J. Stiles’s excellent biography of Jesse James as background for a review of movies about the famous bandit, including the latest with Brad Pitt in the leading role, I came across a number of references to the Whig Party’s efforts to straddle the fence between anti-secessionism and support of slavery. Robert Miller, the editor of a Whig paper in Missouri in the 1850’s, wrote “Where there is no legal sanction of slavery the masses, the laboring portion of the people, are oppressed and run over.”

Stiles describes Miller as “a Whig, struggling like all Missouri Whigs to cling to his party even as it disintegrated.” Whig leader James S. Rollins wrote that his party was “ready to resist illegal Northern aggression and abolition on the one hand, and to suppress the Southern fanaticism and nullification on the other.” In other words, they stood for everything and for nothing.

Eventually, the Whig Party disappeared because it proved incapable of challenging the Democrats who did not have divided loyalties. Some Whigs ended up joining the Republican Party, which was up to the task of confronting the Slavocracy even if they were not totally committed to abolitionism at the outset. The most famous of them was Abraham Lincoln, a great admirer of party leader Henry Clay, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846.

Henry Clay was known as the “Great Compromiser”. When I first came across Stiles’s reference to the Whigs, I began taking a closer look at this party and came to the conclusion that they were the Democrats of their day. If the Whigs imploded because they were incapable of developing an adequate response to the crisis of their day–slavery–then one can surely anticipate the Democrats to begin to disintegrate in the 21st century for analogous reasons. War, racism, ecological destruction and a host of other ills are associated with the slavery of our time–namely wage slavery. By issuing empty denunciations of these ills, as Al Gore does in “An Inconvenient Truth,” and refusing to tackle the underlying cause of such ills, they prove incapable of sustaining the support of their base, as the low approval rating for Congress today would indicate.

The Republicans have their own contradictions, but by no means as extreme. This is a party whose social base and economic goals are much more in alignment. They oppose any limits on personal enrichment, even if it means abolishing every last vestige of the welfare state and turning back the clock to 1890. The Democrats claim to oppose this socio-economic agenda but rely on the very same corporations for funding that the Republicans do. In effect, they are opposed to the excesses of wage slavery but will never call for its abolition.

In 1820 a dispute arose over the extension of slavery into Missouri, which was not then yet a state. Henry Clay worked out a compromise in Congress that made Maine free and Missouri slave. This maintained the balance in the Senate, which had included 11 free and 11 slave states. Except for Missouri, it would ban slavery north of Arkansas. The Missouri Compromise sounds exactly like the kind of legislation that the Democrats would come up with nowadays, especially in light of Mukasey’s approval and the continued funding of the war in Iraq.

On May 1, 1957, Senator John F. Kennedy made a statement on the floor of the Senate on the occasion of the hanging of portraits of five former Senators there, including the one of Henry Clay seen above. With respect to Clay, Kennedy had the following to say:

Senator Henry Clay, of Kentucky, who served in the Senate 1806-7, 1810-11, 1831-42, 1849-52. Resourceful expert in the art of the possible, his fertile mind, persuasive voice, skillful politics and tireless energies were courageously devoted to the reconciliation of conflict between North and South, East and West, capitalism and agrarianism. A political leader who put the national good above party, a spokesman for the West whose love for the Union outweighed sectional pressures, he acquired more influence and more respect as responsible leader of the loyal but ardent opposition than many who occupied the White House. His adroit statesmanship and political finesse in times of national crisis demonstrated the values of intelligent compromise in a Federal democracy, without impairing either his convictions or his courage to stand by them.

As the words “courage to stand by them” would indicate, Clay was also honored by Kennedy in his “Profiles in Courage.” That a president who would eventually be seen as some kind of “friend of the Negro” could speak so favorably about a Whig leader might be puzzling at first. This does contradict, after all, John Kerry’s acceptance speech to the Democratic Party in 2004, where he referred to JFK’s election as a “beginning of a great journey – a time to march for civil rights, for voting rights…”

But a deeper investigation of Kennedy’s attitude toward Blacks might clear things up:

Not only were the Kennedys hostile to the Civil Rights Commission; they appointed 5 segregationist judges to the federal bench, including Harold Cox, who had referred to blacks as “niggers” and “chimpanzees.” Robert F. Kennedy preferred Cox to Thurgood Marshall whom he described as “basically second-rate.” Kennedy frequently turned to Mississippi Senator James Eastland for advice on appointments. According to long-time activist Virginia Durr, Eastland would “invite people over for the weekend and tell them to ‘pick out a nigger girl and a horse!’ That was his way of showing hospitality.”

Even in their selection of voter registration as the least confrontational tactic in the South, the Kennedys were loath to put the power of the federal government behind it. When the KKK targeted civil rights workers trying to register black voters, Robert F. Kennedy bent over backwards to appear conciliatory toward the racists. He said, “We abandoned the solution, really, of trying to give people protection.” This indifference was one of the main reasons the racists felt free to kill activists in the Deep South.

One such assassination took the life of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, who was gunned down in the driveway of his home. In keeping with his accomodationist policies, Robert F. Kennedy told the media that the federal government had no authority to protect Evers or anybody else. Such responsibilities rested with the state of Mississippi!

The mass movement against racial discrimination continued unabated, without the support of the Kennedy White House. In 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama unleashed attacks by Police Commissioner Bull Connor who used nightsticks, police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses and mass arrests. JFK complained about the protests that they made the USA “look bad for us in the world.” His brother opined that 90 percent of the protestors had no idea what they were demonstrating about.

Nation Magazine contributor Jon Wiener wrote a blog entry there on October 31 posing the question: Is Hillary the Next Grover Cleveland? It begins as follows:

We hope we’re about to elect FDR,” New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman told me earlier this week, “but we might be about to elect Grover Cleveland.” He said he was referring to the front-runner, Hillary Clinton.

Grover Cleveland, for those who don’t know their 19th century presidents, was the only Democrat who made it to the White House between 1860 and 1912, the decades when Republican big money ruled the country. Cleveland, elected in 1885 and again in 1893, mobilized the army to crush the 1894 Pullman strike of railroad workers, and joined Wall Street in supporting the gold standard. “He was what they called a ‘Bourbon Democrat,’ as in the French royal family,” Krugman explained. “He wasn’t that different from the Republicans at the time.”

Perhaps that is true, but Wiener and Krugman–as one might expect–pose the question in terms of the individual rather than institutions. Clinton is seen as a “Bourbon Democrat”, where the goal ostensibly would be to return the party to its progressive roots. What would this mean? A return to JFK, with his indifference to Klan killings in the South?

I would suggest that the problem is institutional rather than individual. The big bourgeoisie, to use a bit of Marxist jargon, has been bent on rolling back all the gains of the New Deal era and returning to conditions that existed in the late 19th century. It has embarked on this road not because it hates poor people (although it does) but because the boom years of the post-WWII period are long gone. In a showdown with rival capitalist powers, it is imperative to reduce labor costs and government spending on “wasteful” items like education, health, housing and the environment. Once it made this turn, the underlying economic raison d’etre for the Democrats disappeared. If it could not deliver the goods, there was no reason to support it unless one rationalizes to oneself that it is not as bad as the Republicans.

Looking back in retrospect, one might say that the same thing was true of the Whigs. They were not as bad as the Democrats. As the social crisis of the 19th century deepened, a new party was formed that could inspire working people, farmers and manufacturers who saw slavery as inimical to their own class interests. Surely, a new crisis of the 21st century will propel new class forces into motion that will organize a new revolutionary party capable of eradicating the slavery of our epoch–one resting on wage exploitation.

November 10, 2007

Michael Clayton

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

While not quite deserving of the extravagant praise doled out by critics, “Michael Clayton” is one of the better films I have seen this year. Obviously influenced by thrillers such as “The Pelican Brief” or “The Constant Gardener” that dramatize struggles between crusaders and corrupt multinationals, “Michael Clayton” is far more interesting as a psychological study than as an intricately plotted cat and mouse game.

Since it is clear from the start that the corporation–in this case a Monsanto type agribusiness called uNorth that is foisting carcinogenic fertilizer on unsuspecting small farmers–is guilty as charged, the suspense factor is almost entirely missing. What drives the plot forward is the interaction between the film’s eponymous lead character played most effectively by George Clooney–an attorney assigned to “mopping up” operations often of an unethical nature–and all the other leading characters.

Like Humphrey Bogart in one of his classic jaded hero movies, Michael Clayton starts off as indifferent to the larger moral problems of American society and bent mostly on solving some urgent personal problems involving major debts to a loan shark. After seeing corporate malfeasance in action, including the murder of an old friend and colleague, he decides to take on the forces of evil–all in all, a very old-fashioned morality tale.

During a litigation session, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), the lawyer defending uNorth, begins to speak irrationally and disrobe. After pursuing the plaintiffs in nothing but his socks in the parking lot outside the courthouse, he is arrested and jailed in the Corn Belt town where the litigation has been proceeding for a number of years. Their law firm dispatches Michael Clayton on a corporate jet to salvage the situation. It seems that Edens, suffering from bipolar disorder, has gone off his meds. But he is not too irrational to muddle the main point he wants to make to Clayton and to anybody else who will listen. During the litigation process, he has come across a letter from a uNorth research scientist warning the company that the fertilizer was toxic, which it chose to ignore in pursuit of profits. Clearly, this is a film that has its fingers on the pulse of the American economy today.

Like one of the “rogue” lawyers in the military in Guantanamo who have decided to risk jail rather than collaborate with police state abuses, Edens decides to defect to the side of the plaintiffs and make their case using the damning evidence that he has just turned up. When uNorth finds out, they pay security contractors, who seem modeled on Blackwater, to kill him and make it look like a suicide. After Clayton’s suspicions are aroused, he breaks into Edens’s Soho loft and stumbles across the scientist’s warnings and evidence that the suicide was actually a murder. This leads the killers to target Clayton as well. After narrowly escaping a car bombing, he turns the tables on the corporation and the movie ends on a happy note.

Although I am not really a great judge of acting, I will go out on a limb and say that Clooney is the finest male actor working today. In scene after scene, he communicates the essence of his character through voice and gesture. Michael Clayton is a very recognizable type in the legal profession and Clooney has obviously figured out who is character is and how to bring him to life. As the son of a cop and a graduate of Fordham law school, Clayton is very much the blue-collar success story. But success has eluded him. A gambling addiction and foolish investments in a restaurant with his junkie brother have left him hovering on the edge of disaster like many Americans today. When given the choice to keep his mouth shut in exchange for a cash payout that will solve all his money problems, he does what any decent American would do–namely, confront the evil in his midst.

Leaving aside the absence of suspense, in itself not a big problem given the overall goals of the writer and director, there are a couple of missteps that are worth mentioning. The chief villain in the film is uNorth’s chief corporate counsel, a woman named Karen Crowder who comes across as the embodiment of yuppie greed and ambition, and who is the liaison with the murderous security force. If it is not enough to hear her making unctuous defenses of her employer, all the while being aware of their guilt, she is also photographed in the most unflattering manner. In scene after scene, the camera focuses on her middle-aged flab as if to say that this is almost as much of a sin as hiring killers.

That Karen Crowder is played by the great Tilda Swinton is a credit to her skills. So persuasive was she as the creepy corporate counsel that I had no idea it was Swinton. Swinton is the supremely intelligent British actress whose most vivid performance was in Sally Potter’s masterpiece “Orlando.” Perhaps Tony Gilroy, the director and screenwriter for “Michael Clayton, was trying to avoid clichés by making the bad guy a bad woman, but there was something a bit too sexist about it all.

Finally, it has to be said that the almost inevitable decision to make the corporation resort to murder undermines the credibility of the film. Since any such film today has to operate according to the conventions of drama, an old-fashioned villain is necessary. And what can be more villainous than murder? However, after Michael Clayton’s car was blown up, I began fidgeting in my seat and whispering to myself under my breath. What kind of corporation would take such enormous risks to stave off financial collapse? If you are convicted of murder, you go to prison for life or in the case of corporate big-shots, ten years at least. If you go bankrupt, however, federal laws favoring the corporation will protect you from the kind of ruin that awaits ordinary citizens, as the aftermath of Enron would indicate.

More to the point, the justice system of today would never make the uNorth’s of the world worry about a thing based on the Merck/Vioxx settlement announced in the NY Times today, which involved exactly the same issues as “Michael Clayton”:

At a fraction of the price that analysts initially estimated it would pay, Merck, one of the largest American drug makers, hopes to put one of the most troubling episodes in its history behind it.

The settlement amount it announced yesterday, $4.85 billion, represents only about nine months of profit for Merck, whose stock rose 2.3 percent on news of the agreement, even as the broader stock market was sharply lower. Two years ago, some analysts estimated that Merck would have to pay as much as $25 billion to settle Vioxx claims.

It appears that the same kind of pro-market forces that have undermined the welfare state and widened the gap between rich and poor in the US have also made legal action against corporate crime less effective:

More broadly, the case shows that after years of aggressively lobbying against trial lawyers, corporate America has regained substantial leverage against plaintiffs and their lawyers — whose lawsuits bankrupted Dow Corning and the asbestos industry in the 1990s. In many states, changes governing lawsuits have made claims tougher to bring and win, while much public opinion has turned against plaintiffs.

Of course, the NY Times neglects to point out that none of the big time operators in Dow Corning or the asbestos industry ended up begging for change on the streets of American cities. After “reorganizing,” Down Corning is back in business today and operating in exactly those places in the world where it will not have to worry about lawsuits:

As part of its geographic expansion, Dow Corning is putting “a top priority” on investing in Russia, India, and China, Burns says. The company recently opened an application center in Moscow to provide local technical and market expertise for customers throughout Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. It is also building a silicones finishing unit at Pune, India, scheduled to start up in 2006. The plant will manufacture silicone-based polymers, lubricants, sealants, and emulsions. The site will also include an applications engineering technical services lab.

–Chemical Week, March 29, 2006

Meanwhile, the poor souls who took Vioxx will have very little to show for their efforts according to the NY Times:

Of course, what is good news for Merck may be less so for the patients who suffered heart attacks or strokes after taking Vioxx. Depending on how many claims are filed to the settlement fund, those people will receive payments averaging about $120,000 each before legal fees and expenses, which could swallow about 40 percent of their payments.

Imagine that. You lose a loved one because they take some medicine that is supposed to prolong their life and then you are “compensated” to the tune of $80,000 after legal fees and expenses. This is the real killing taking place in America today and there is no Hollywood film that can ever really expose it. To really understand it and to take action on it, you need to sit down and read a socialist analysis. As the contradictions of the American economy deepen, there might come a day when ordinary working people are driven to seek out such an analysis. As Marx once said, “The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” Surely, the 21st century will vindicate Marx’s prediction or the world will be destroyed if our movement is not up to the task that faces it.

November 8, 2007

Knocked Up and Idiocracy

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:25 pm

At the risk of being hunted down by fans of “Knocked Up” like Frankenstein fleeing angry villagers armed with pitchforks, I have to state that this is the worst “comedy” I have seen since “Little Miss Sunshine,” another over-hyped piece of garbage. As was the case with “Little Miss Sunshine,” I could not bear watching more than 15 or 20 minutes. If there is ever an armed uprising in the US against the capitalist system and I am drafted into leading a guerrilla detachment, my only fear of being captured is not being waterboarded but being forced to watch these two movies over and over again.

Seth Rogen: seriously unfunny

Some of the main characters in “Knocked Up” are a group of male “slacker” roommates, who spend all their time watching stupid television shows and smoking pot. Now it is possible to make a good comedy about such people, as Richard Linklater’s 1991 gem “Slacker” would indicate. But director Judd Apatow, also responsible for the execrable “Forty Year Old Virgin” with the terminally ungifted Steve Carrell in the title role, has about as much flair for making his characters interesting as early 1960s Hollywood had with “beatniks.” Apatow’s characters are entirely one-dimensional. They are defined by their bad habits, their utter lack of self-awareness and their puerility. That this film has become a big hit with America’s young, the demographic group that Hollywood dotes on, is a sad commentary on the tastes and intelligence of a nation in decline.

While most critics acknowledged that it was implausible that Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl), a stunningly beautiful and upwardly mobile television personality, would have sex with a slob like Ben Stone (played by Seth Rogen), let alone decide to have his baby, they all found the movie “hilarious”. Typical was the NY Times review:

In this case the buoyant hilarity never feels weighed down by moral earnestness, even though the film’s ethical sincerity is rarely in doubt. The writing is quick and sharp, and the jokes skitter past, vanishing almost before you can catch them. Rather than toggle back and forth, sitcom-style, between laughter and tears, Mr. Apatow lingers in his scenes long enough to show that what is funny can also be sad and vice versa.

“Knocked Up” made me smile and wince; it made me laugh and almost cry. Above all it made me happy.

Keep in mind of course that this newspaper of record also put people like Judith Miller and A.M. Rosenthal on its payroll.

Despite its MTV ‘tude, “Knocked Up” boils down to a defense of “family values.” In 2005, “Just Like Heaven,” another romantic comedy, was a veiled defense of keeping Terri Schiavo on the feeding tube with its attractive female lead in a coma. Now we have “right to life” at the opposite end of the life-cycle. As difficult as it is to imagine an ambitious and reasonably intelligent woman like Allison Scott going to bed with a slob like Ben Stone, it is even far more difficult to imagine her having his baby.

Apparently I am not the only person on earth who had not been suckered into raving over “Knocked Up.” In a Guardian article  by the shrewd American critic and humorist Joe Queenan dated September 4, 2007, no prisoners are taken:

Rogen’s fantasy ceases to be stereotypically joyous when Heigl discovers that she is pregnant. Amazingly, neither party ever seriously considers the highly attractive option of abortion, which may be a sign that the anti-abortion movement is gathering strength in Hollywood, or may simply result from a realisation that abortion makes a poor subject for a comedy (puking and watching women on the toilet is fine, though). Or it may simply be a sign that feminism is dead. The film now moves in an excruciatingly predictable direction, as Rogen gradually realises that he will have to shape up and do the right thing and be a do-right-man for his do-right, if somewhat dim, woman. Along the way, there are a lot of jokes about bodily functions, a lot of dialogue that is explicitly contemptuous of women, and a lot of profanity. This is a film for teenage boys who dream of growing up to be teenage men…

Where is all this leading? It’s leading to a future so dark that women will look back on the decade that brought them The Runaway Bride, Notting Hill, My Best Friend’s Wedding and My Big Fat Greek Wedding as a golden age. Infatuated by Apatow’s success, Hollywood has turned over the keys to the industry to the 40-year-old producer/director/screenwriter, whose upcoming projects include a film about high-school losers (Superbad), a film about a stoner who witnesses a murder (The Pineapple Express), a film about a sad little man who just broke up with his girlfriend (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and a film about a Mossad agent who fakes his own death so that he can become a hair stylist. Thus, the situation today is very much like back in the days when John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase and the rest of the Saturday Night Live alumni turned out third-rate movies faster than anyone could possibly see them, and dominated screen comedy until Robin Williams came along to make things worse.

Anyone out there who finds Apatow’s films amateurish, derivative, juvenile and offensive to women is simply out of luck. Like the satanic alumni of Saturday Night Live, Apatow and his posse never stop working, everything they pitch gets enthusiastically greenlighted, and until one of these films bombs, the public is going to be seeing an awful lot of his work. When Apatow made The 40 Year Old Virgin, there was much rejoicing in the land, because people were thrilled that someone was once again making “sophisticated” romantic comedies instead of the usual moronic Adam Sandler fare. Well, Sandler is the star of Apatow’s upcoming Don’t Mess With The Zohan. The dark ages are back. Not that they ever left.

Speaking of the dark ages, I can recommend Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy” with some qualifications. Inspired by Woody Allen’s “Sleeper,” it stars Luke Wilson (a much more tolerable actor than his more famous brother Owen) as Private Joe Bauers, who is a guinea pig for a top-secret hibernation program. While the experiment is only supposed to keep him asleep for a year, unforeseen circumstances keep him in a state of hibernation for 500 years.

Mike Judge’s world of 2506 is a lot like today’s world, except even worse. Fed by a diet of stupid television shows and movies like “Knocked Up,” they have forgotten how to read a book and can barely speak. Their language is a mixture of grunts, slacker style “ya knows” and locker room profanity–both from men and women. Anybody who is the least bit articulate, including Joe Bauers, is seen as a “faggot”.

Just as is the case in “Sleeper”, Bauers is a threat to the status quo and pursued relentlessly by the cops who are nearly as stupid as they are brutal. When they open fire on Bauers’s getaway car, one cop shoots in the air for no good reason and brings down an airliner. Clearly, Mike Judge had been following the news about law in order in Baghdad, Los Angeles and New York City when he wrote this scene.

Unfortunately, Mike Judge is no Woody Allen (nor is Woody Allen himself any longer) and the film mainly consists of a single joke repeated over and over. It might also be said that Mike Judge wants to have his cake and eat it too. For somebody so obviously appalled by “idiocracy,” Judge had no problems creating “Beevis and Butthead,” an MTV show that basically wallows in stupidity. It is especially problematic in light of how “Idiocracy” represents a 2506 version of MTV’s wildly popular “Jackass” as the typical TV show of the future. Between “Jackass” and “Beevis and Butthead,” the differences are minimal at best.

Mike Judge: a bit too much for 20th Century Fox

Despite his reputation as a money-maker almost equal to Judd Apatow, Mike Judge found himself shafted by Twentieth Century Fox when the film premiered in 2005. There was almost no money allocated for advertising and the movie tanked. Some believe that the anti-corporate message of “Idiocracy” was just a bit too explicit for a studio run by Rupert Murdoch, as reported in the September 8, 2006 Guardian:

There is venomous anti-corporate satire throughout the movie, remarkable mainly because Judge names real corporations. I was astounded – and invigorated – by the sheer vitriol Judge directs at these companies, who surely now regret permitting the use of their licensed trademarks. Like fast-food giant Carl’s Jr, which in 2006 sells 6,000-calorie burgers the size of dictionaries under the slogan, “Don’t Bother Me, I’m Eating”. In Idiocracy, this has devolved into “Fuck You! I’m Eating!” And every commercial transaction has been sexualised: at Starbucks you can get coffee plus a handjob (or a “full body” latte).

Idiocracy isn’t a masterpiece – Fox seems to have stiffed Judge on money at every stage – but it’s endlessly funny, and my friends and I will be repeating certain lines for months (especially while eating), a sure sign of a cult hit. And word got out fast: I saw it last Saturday in a half-empty house. Two days later, same place, same show – packed-out. There’s an audience for this movie, but its natural demographic barely knows it’s out there.

Behind the movie’s satire lie long-term social changes like the stupidisation of the American electorate over 30 years through deliberate underfunding of public education, the corporate takeover of every area of public and private life, and the tendency of the media – particularly Fox News – to substitute anti-intellectual rage and partisan division for reasoned public debate.

Some will argue that Fox has also given us some of the best television of the last 15 years – true – and that if quality sells as well as garbage, then the bottom line is served either way.

So why was Idiocracy dumped? Perhaps because it taps a growing anti-corporate mood in the nation; perhaps because it expertly satirises the jingoistic self-absorption that now passes for public culture. Or perhaps because more people are sick of the modern America that Fox energetically helped to build than the Fox corporation itself is ready to admit.

November 6, 2007

Remarkably Korean: from Diasporas to the Heart of Buddhism

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:10 pm

On my desk there are two piles of DVD’s that I am working my way through. One pile consists of commercial Hollywood crap that I received in anticipation of the NYFCO awards meeting next month. I am duty-bound to watch as many of them as I can since my colleagues will undoubtedly be making award nominations largely on the basis of such films. The other pile consists of independent movies, either fictional or documentary–many from outside the US. It is the latter pile that I am drawn to instinctively.

Yesterday I watched the first fifteen minutes of “Knocked Up,” a highly acclaimed Hollywood comedy, and wondered what all the hype was about. It is a typical delayed adolescence story that has starred actors like Owen Wilson or Aston Kutcher in the past. The movie begins with the male lead getting drunk with the female lead and going home with her, where they have unprotected sex–thus leading to the unplanned pregnancy alluded to in the title. Based on the first fifteen minutes, I would say that this movie is about as funny as pulmonary thrombosis.

“Knocked Up” sent me staggering to the other pile of DVD’s for relief. I picked three off the top that were shown at the Anthology Film Archives as part of a series called “Remarkably Korean: from Diasporas to the Heart of Buddhism.” It was like a cool glass of water to get the bad taste of “Knocked Up” out of my mouth.

Dai Sil Kim-Gibson

Two of the films were documentaries by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, whose work has appeared on PBS and elsewhere.

“A Forgotten People: the Sakhalin Koreans” takes up the cause of the survivors of an over 40,000 man workforce that was dragooned from Korea during WWII. When the film was made in 1995, most of them appeared to be in their 70s and had bitter memories of their treatment by the Japanese. In the beginning, they were lured into working in coal mines, etc. with the promise of high wages. Once they arrived on an island that had historically been fought over by Japan and Russia, they discovered that the wages were meager and the conditions of work draconian. Loss of limb and life were commonplace. As the need for war material grew, Japan dispensed with the niceties of labor contracts and began rounding up Koreans as slave laborers.

Once the war ended, the Korean workers found themselves stranded on the island. The victorious allies saw no need to repatriate the men, who lacked the means to return on their own accord. Now living under Soviet rule and growing pessimistic about the possibility of ever returning to their homeland, they began marrying Russian women and took up Soviet citizenship. Now in the final years of their lives, they only have one wish and that is to be buried on native soil. Considering the crimes of the Japanese as well as the nation’s wealth, it is unconscionable that reparations have not been made. Apparently, since the fall of Communism, relations between South Korea and Russia have improved, thus leading to the return of some of the Koreans. As might be expected in an age of diminished expectations, that right is somewhat limited:

BBC, March 3, 2007 Saturday

Ethnic Koreans in Russia take stand on South Korea’s repatriation law

In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk today, a general assembly of Koreans discussed two draft laws drawn up in South Korea on repatriation of Sakhalin Koreans to their historical motherland. The assembly was attended by over 250 representatives of eight Korean public organizations.

The assembly described one of the draft laws, which allows only people born before 15 August 1945 to return to the Korean Peninsula, as “humiliating”. The second draft law allows all Koreans living on Sakhalin to resettle in South Korea, and this draft law was unanimously supported by the assembly.

The head of the Repatriation organization, Viktor Kim Su Yen, said that if South Korea passed the law on the repatriation of only old people, families would be split.

Viktor Kim Su Yen believes that the Sakhalin Koreans have an inalienable right to repatriation. However, they must decide where their motherland is. Of 30,000 Koreans living on Sakhalin, about 4,500 people are willing to resettle to South Korea.

Kim-Gibson’s other documentary is titled “Motherland (Cuba Korea USA).” Like her film on the Sakhalin Koreans, this is an exploration of other aspects of the Korean Diaspora. Using herself as a subject (her family walked south across the demilitarized zone in 1959 and came to the US), she goes to Cuba to interview a group of Koreans whose ancestors had come there in search of work at the turn of the 20th century.

One of them is Martha Lim Kim, who was born in 1937 just like the filmmaker. Kim is a strong supporter of the Cuban revolution who credits socialism with giving her the means to rise out of poverty and become a schoolteacher. Like the other Korean-Cuban in the film who support the revolution, they acknowledge the shortcomings largely forced on them by the blockade.

Kim-Gibson next goes to Miami, where she meets with Martha’s sister, a fairly typical émigré who loves the good life in the US and wonders why her sister chooses to put up with the hardships of Cuban society. The interviews are deeply revealing in the way that they draw a contrast between social and individualistic values. In the final moments of the film, it is clear that Kim-Gibson identifies with the Cuban experiment and hopes that Diaspora communities everywhere in the world can promote solidarity wherever they live. By making such films, Kim-Gibson helps to deliver on this promise.

“Hwaomkyung (Passage to Buddha)” was made in 1993. Directed by Jang Sun-Woo, it is a serious attempt to promote the Buddhist vision of the universe through dramatizing the odyssey of a young boy named Son-je in search of his mother. In the opening scene, we see Son-je at the crematorium where his father’s corpse has been turned into ashes. Stricken with grief, he goes on the road to find his mother who abandoned him when he was a baby. The only way that he will be known to her is by holding aloft a yellow blanket with his name stitched on it in public places in the hopes that she will spot him. As should be obvious, this is a film that dispenses with conventional narrative.

“Passage to Buddha” blends moments of transcendent beauty with awful cruelty, no doubt a function of the religious convictions that inform the film. In one scene Son-je hears a heartbreakingly beautiful song coming from beneath a highway bridge. When he goes beneath the bridge, he discovers that the singer appears to be a homeless woman living amidst the garbage thrown over the railings. He soon discovers that the woman is not a woman at all, but a man who has been castrated and blinded by his lover who he still adores.

Son-je on a leg of his journey

Facing his own loss and those of the people he encounters on his odyssey, Son-je begins to search for the meaning of such suffering much as the original Buddha did. The answers to his question come in the form of observations made by people he meets on his travel, whose words actually come from Buddhist scripture. In keeping with the more austere version found in Zen Buddhism, their words often seem to contradict themselves in the manner of “koans”–aphorisms that defy rational understanding like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

Although I have very little use for religion of any sort, I found myself captivated by Jang Sun-Woo’s film. It brought me back to that brief period in my life before I had become radicalized and when Eastern Religion was a source of great inspiration. Back in 1961, Alan Watts held the same place in my life that Leon Trotsky and Che Guevara would have only 6 years later.

One project that I might get to after my retirement is a study of the world’s great religions from a Marxist standpoint. While I have a pretty good handle on the social origins of Christianity after having read Kautsky, I wonder if there have been similar investigations of the rise of Buddhism, a faith that at least has the merit of dispensing with the traditional patriarchal norms of the sky-god religions.

An article by Jean C. Darian titled “Social and Economic Factors in the Rise of Buddhism” that appeared in the Autumn, 1977 issue of Sociological Analysis suggests that a materialist analysis of the rise of Buddhism as a reaction against Hinduism might make some sense:

Economic institutions function within a social setting; and the values stressed in the traditional Hindu texts ill-suited an expanding national economy and the mercantile nature of cities. For one thing, there was no place for the time-honored concept of ritual pollution among traders who came into daily contact with people of different castes and with those beyond the frontier. For another, the entrepreneur could only be frustrated by the numerous injunctions against the utilization of certain resources and the restrictions on collaboration in production. Moreover, the workings of a market-type economy undercut the ascribed statuses that form the basis of the caste system. Essentially, the Hindu tradition is oriented towards a rural, self-sufficient, relatively static agricultural society, while the values of the urban merchant and artisan are, like their medieval European counterparts, “no longer determined by their relations with the land.”

We have seen that Buddhism was more conducive than Hinduism to the economic affairs of the rising merchant class. For one thing, it does not carry the idea of ritual pollution that condemns certain mercantile activities as impure. Though certain professions such as caravan trade were proscribed for the lay Buddhist, works such as the Jatakas indicate these prohibitions were not strictly followed. For another, it does not hamper the successful organization of labor along guild lines. Moreover, the egalitarian nature of Buddhism-far more than the compartmentalized caste system-paralleled the market-type relations necessary for expanded commercial enterprise.

While obviously giving short shrift to the use value of Buddhism, this analysis seems to have the exchange value nailed down pretty well.

November 4, 2007

The SWP, Respect and the united front

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 4:43 pm

Yesterday the SWP issued a statement on the crisis in Respect that defended its reputation as having “a long record of working over a wide range of issues with people and organisations with different views to our own.” This reputation, such as it is, is based on following “the method of the united front as developed by Lenin and Trotsky in the early 1920s and further elaborated by Trotsky faced with the rise of Nazism in the early 1930s.” For those unfamiliar with Leninist arcana, the united front was a tactic meant to ally revolutionaries and reformists against a common enemy, most especially the fascists. The SWP makes it quite clear that they are the revolutionaries, although it is not quite so clear who the “reformists” are. They state:

(a) The possibility of fighting back against particular attacks and horrors depends on the widest possible unity. The minority who are revolutionaries cannot by their own efforts build a big enough movement ourselves. We have to reach out to draw into struggle over these questions political forces that agree with us on particular immediate issues even if they disagree over the long term global solution to them.

(b) By struggling over these things alongside people who believe in reform, the revolutionary minority can show in practice that its approach is the correct one and so win people to its ideas. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote more than a century ago, the revolutionary understanding of the need to confront the present system is the best way to win even meagre reforms within it.

There is so much confusion here that one hardly knows where to begin. Let’s establish first of all that the united front was never intended to be applied to electoral politics. The united front could be summarized under the slogan “March separately–strike jointly”. In his December 1931 article “For a Workers’ United Front Against Fascism,” Leon Trotsky wrote:

No common platform with the Social Democracy, or with the leaders of the German trade unions, no common publications, banners, placards! March separately, but strike together! Agree only how to strike, whom to strike, and when to strike! Such an agreement can be concluded even with the devil himself, with his grandmother, and even with Noske and Grezesinsky. On one condition, not to bind one’s hands.

If this is the guiding principle of the SWP’s intervention in Respect, one can only wonder why the crisis took so long as it did to come to a head. Lenin and Trotsky despised the reformists, especially the German social democracy that had been responsible for the murder of Rosa Luxemburg.

When it came to electoral politics, Lenin and Trotsky did urge voting for Labour Party or Social Democratic candidates but they never suggested that revolutionaries and reformists run joint campaigns of the sort that Respect amounted to. Calling for such a vote was conceived in the same spirit as united front actions–a way to undermine one’s opponents. Arguing with the British ultralefts, Lenin made the case for calling a vote for Labour in Great Britain:

At present, British Communists very often find it hard even to approach the masses, and even to get a hearing from them. If I come out as a Communist and call upon them to vote for Henderson and against Lloyd George, they will certainly give me a hearing. And I shall be able to explain in a popular manner, not only why the Soviets are better than a parliament and why the dictatorship of the proletariat is better than the dictatorship of Churchill (disguised with the signboard of bourgeois “democracy”), but also that, with my vote, I want to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man—that the impending establishment of a government of the Hendersons will prove that I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will hasten the political death of the Hendersons and the Snowdens just as was the case with their kindred spirits in Russia and Germany.

Was this what the SWP had in mind when it worked to elect George Galloway? Anybody who reads their statement about the split in Respect can only conclude that this is exactly what they think. Galloway, a scrappy old Labour Party politician, probably sniffed this attitude out early on. If I was a politician who had stuck his neck out confronting the warmakers in Parliament, as he did, I would be downright insulted with the implication that I was a “reformist.” One supposes that on a highly abstract level that the term is justified since Galloway was not really about raising “revolutionary” demands to abolish capitalism in Great Britain. But so what? The cutting edge issue today is not the abolition of private property but resisting Anglo-American imperialism’s assault on Arab and Muslim peoples in pursuit of oil. Let’s leave the debate over socialism to a future period when it is more immediate.

The SWP statement reveals an inability to see how such “united front” calculations would undermine efforts to turn Respect into a viable mass party that had the allegiance of the rank-and-file. If the “Leninists” operated in the party as a “revolutionary” wing seeking to promote its own agenda against the reformists in their midst, they would inevitably be perceived as fair weather friends.

The movement toward broad, leftwing parties grows apace throughout the world. Young workers and students invest time and energy in formations like the Socialist Alliances, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Greens in the US and Respect not because they see them as some kind of united front, but because they see no future in bourgeois politics nor in the sectarian formations that these mass-oriented parties attract willy-nilly.

This is not the first time that socialists have questioned the appropriateness of seeing these new types of electoral formations in terms of the united front of the 1920s and 30s. In an article titled “The broad party, the revolutionary party and the united front: a reply to John Rees” that appeared in the October 2004 International Socialism, the SWP’s theoretical journal, Murray Smith wrote:

At the SWP’s congress last October it was clear that their concept of party building involves using ‘united fronts’ as a pool for recruitment, with the Marxist forums serving as the conduit towards the party. Running through the positions of John Rees and Alex Callinicos is the idea that there is a norm for a revolutionary party, represented by existing far left organisations and in particular the SWP, and that all other parties are to be judged by how far they correspond to this norm. The existing far left organisations, even the most open of them, remain narrow and tied to their own particular shibboleths. They are a product of a past phase or phases of the class struggle and the workers’ movement.

The task for them now is to invest their intellectual, political and human resources in the building of broader parties and to work in a comradely way to bring the essential conquests of Marxism, the lessons of history, into these new parties. The traditions of mass socialist and communist parties have not been wiped out by the experience of the last 20 years.

The experience of the 20th century has enriched the Marxist programme. It is at present necessary for Marxist currents to organise as such in new parties. When it is no longer the case it will be because Marxist ideas have become largely dominant in the party and such separate organisation is no longer necessary.

Today the main thing stopping the Socialist Alliance (SA) from moving towards becoming a party is a lack of political will, above all on the part of the SWP. I think the SWP is making a huge mistake by relegating the SA to being one united front among others. If the SA were to become a mass campaigning organisation and if the SWP were to throw its resources into building it, then it could very quickly make the transition to a party.

While seeking to understand the new developments in the class struggle, the SWP remains stuck in an outmoded vision of the workers’ movement. Consequently, instead of posing the question of the building of the party in terms of the possibilities at the beginning of the 21st century its approach is in many ways ‘back to the 1970s’, a more open, campaigning approach to building the SWP, but nothing qualitatively new.

Alex Callinicos concluded his article in the IST bulletin with the following remarks:

Since Seattle the revolutionary left has been embarking—along with many others, fortunately—on a new voyage. There is no map to guide us—no set of rules or obvious historical reference point to dictate what we should do. The potential rewards are enormous. History will not forgive us if we miss this chance.

Leaving aside the secondary question of whether the voyage started at Seattle or earlier, those are sentiments to which we can heartily subscribe. It is precisely because the SWP is in our opinion in danger of ‘missing this chance’ that this discussion is so important and needs to be pursued.

Although Smith’s article was focused on problems that the SWP had in understanding the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Alliance, it can obviously be applied to the Respect fiasco as well. After repeated disasters working with those outside the purified “revolutionary” world that the SWP inhabits, one might expect these comrades to wake up to new realities. This is not 1921 and they are not the Bolsheviks, however hard that is for John Rees, Alex Callinicos and company to swallow.

November 1, 2007

The crisis in Respect

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

The fight that has broken out in Respect should concern anybody who is interested in building broad left-wing political parties. If this party had continued to prosper, it would have served as an inspiration to radicals and socialists everywhere–especially in the US where efforts to build an alternative to the Democratic Party, our version of New Labour, have proved exceedingly difficult. While it is possible that Respect might work through its problems, it is necessary to figure out what went wrong in order to prevent them occurring in the future.

Since the charges and counter-charges defy substantiation, especially from afar, this article will avoid trying to establish who did what to whom. That being said, from the evidence I have seen so far, the crisis seems to be of the sort that grips just about every broad left-wing electoral initiative that “Marxist-Leninist” groups take part in. One of my goals in analyzing the Respect crisis is to try to understand why this is such a chronic disease of the left.

If you read Chris Bambery in the latest Socialist Worker newspaper, you would get the impression that this is all about attempts to purge the left, especially given the title of his article “Stop the attacks on the left vision for Respect“. Bambery writes:

All those who share the original vision of Respect as an inclusive coalition with a strong socialist component should reject the attempted coup in Respect and the attempt to declare the SWP expelled through email and press statements.

If this was about some sort of move against the left, you find scant documentation in Bambery’s article except for this:

Underlying the current arguments is a growing acceptance by some that it’s only Muslim votes that can ensure electoral success.

That has led to a dropping of the original conception of Respect as a wider working class organisation.

Given the importance that this fight has for the radical movement, it is unfortunate that the alleged underlying political differences are summarized in such a cursory fashion. If “Leninist” politics is about anything, it is about making political differences clear so that working people can make intelligent choices. On this score alone, Bambery and his comrades fail miserably.

Others on the left who have served as a kind of Greek chorus depict the SWP as waging a misbegotten struggle against “communalism,” a term that would refer to, for example, catering to the Muslim community. You can find myriad references to the SWP charging its adversaries with “pandering to communalism” but I can find no article written by the SWP with this exact phrase. Moreover, if anything, the SWP has been widely regarded as doing just the opposite. For example, in an article on Marxism and religion, Gilbert Achcar chided the SWP for working with the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) when Respect was being launched:

All we need to do is look at the arguments used by the fundamentalists in calling for a vote for Respect (and for others, such as the Mayor of London, the left Labourite Ken Livingstone, much more opportunist than the Trotskyists in his relations with the Islamic association). Let us read the fatwa of Sheikh Haitham Al-Haddad, dated 5 June 2004 and published on the MAB website.

The venerable sheikh explains that it is obligatory for those Muslims living under the shadow of man-made law to take all the necessary steps and means to make the law of Allah, the Creator and the Sustainer, supreme and manifest in all aspects of life. If they are unable to do so, then it becomes obligatory for them to strive to minimise the evil and maximise the good…

This fatwa needs no comment. The deep incompatibility between the intentions of the Sheikh consulted by the MAB and the task that Marxists set for themselves or should set for themselves, in their activity in relation to the Muslim populations, is blatant. Marxists should not seek to harvest votes at any price, as opportunist politicians who stop at nothing to get elected do. Support like that of Sheikh Al-Haddad is a poisoned gift. It should be harshly criticised: the battle for ideological influence within populations originating from immigration is much more fundamental than an electoral result, however exhilarating.

So if the SWP has decided that Galloway and company were “pandering to communalists,” then clearly they have reversed directions so sharply that one can only wonder how comrades like Lindsey German did not suffer whiplash as a result. Finally, the charge of “pandering to communalism” was first raised by Islamophobes like Nick Cohen, who Alex Callinicos answered in an article titled “Respect isn’t a communalist organisation,” where he writes:

Ah but, Cohen and his ilk might object, look at the fact that the only Respect councillors to be elected or re-elected were Asians. This proves that Respect is a communalist party.

This outcome isn’t particularly surprising. “All politics is local,” said the US politician Tip O’Neill.

In the very closely fought contests between Labour and Respect in Tower Hamlets and Newham, the advantage that derived from being Asian proved often to be sufficient to make the difference between victory and defeat.

If it is difficult to evaluate the “communalism” issue, it is even tougher to weigh the charge that the left is being purged by rightist forces. Although I have sometimes questioned George Galloway’s judgment, especially after his appearance on the reality TV show Big Brother, where he lived in a house for three weeks with the likes of Dennis Rodman, he hardly comes across as rightward-moving. Indeed, the August 31st report he gave that touched off the crisis does not even begin to suggest that he feels threatened by socialists. Mostly, he offers various administrative changes including the appointment of a National Organiser, who would work alongside the National Secretary, a post held by John Rees:

Relations between leading figures in Respect are at an all-time low and this must be addressed. I have proposals to make which are not aimed at a change of political line, still less an attack on any organisation or section within Respect. They are aimed at placing us on an election war-footing, closing the chasm which has been caused to develop between leading members, together with an emergency fundraising and membership drive to facilitate our forthcoming electoral challenges. Business as usual will not do and everyone in their heart knows this.

An SWP internal document responded to Galloway’s report with a mixture of trepidation and steely reserve to defend their party against what they saw as a looming purge. As is the case with Bambery’s article, the document analyzes the differences in terms of Galloway pandering to the Muslims while they seek a broader, radical alignment:

Respect was thrown out of balance from the start by the failure of other leading figures on the Labour left to take the kind of principled stand that George did and break with New Labour. This made Respect disproportionately dependent on the excellent support it won from Muslims, as became particularly clear in last year’s London elections. It is the effort of the SWP, in response to this weakness, to widen and diversify Respect’s working-class support that George and his allies have been attacking.

One can only repeat the observation made earlier. If this is a case of Galloway resisting moves to broaden Respect’s appeal, there is a failure once again on the SWP’s part to fully document this charge–even in a document distributed to its members. This struggle cries out for political clarity on the part of the orthodox Leninists, but none seems forthcoming.

Adding to the sense that the SWP is failing to rise to the political challenge is the expulsion of Nick Wrack, an SWP member who broke discipline and sided with the Galloway forces. Considering the fact that the Bolshevik Party failed to expel central committee members who broke discipline over taking power in 1917, Wrack’s offense seems trivial by comparison. In an article titled “Out Towards the Open Sea” submitted to the SWP preconvention discussion, Wrack suggests a different approach to work in groups like Respect:

Further, we must not give the impression that we always want to be in control. The left and other new forces who we want to involve in Respect or whatever develops out of it will not get involved if they see the organisation dominated by the SWP. We must ensure that the structures and methods adopted are always rigorously scrutinised to see if they create an impediment to others getting involved.

This issue of domination keeps coming up in electoral formations like Respect and any broad social movement that invites intervention from “Leninists.” Fundamentally, it is related to the sense of non-party members that they are somehow subordinate to the larger calculations of their Marxist partners. For the 11 years I was in the Trotskyist movement in the US, I heard this charge repeatedly. Sometimes it is a function of old-fashioned red-baiting such as the kind that Democratic Party supporters in the National Organization for Women mounted. But more frequently, it was driven by a correct perception that the Leninists had their agenda worked out beforehand and would never be convinced to change it by non-party activists. In other words, the Leninist party was the true source of correct analysis, strategy and tactics and the mass movement was like clay that must be molded in accordance with its larger goals. This is a formula for disaster, no matter the best intention of the Leninists.

While the British SWP is not known for the kind of batty faux Bolshevism of groups like Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labor League or Jack Barnes’s American SWP, you can find occasional outbursts of Zinovievist excess. In 2001, they booted the ISO out of their international movement because it supposedly did not understand the importance of Seattle–whatever that means. In a report titled “The Anti-Capitalist Movement And The Revolutionary Left,” Alex Callinicos tries to explain why the ISO had to be expelled:

The truth is that the ISO leadership did not regard Seattle as an important priority. They expected it to be dominated by protectionist trade-union leaders and preferred to concentrate their efforts what proved to be a much smaller demonstration where they felt they could have more impact…These arguments are evidence of a deep-rooted sectarian mentality that judges demonstrations by the politics of their leaders and mechanically reduces changes in consciousness to shifts in the economic class struggle…A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how fulfils in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions that have lead up to it, and thrashing out the means for its rectification — that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties and how it should educate and train its class and then the masses.

If the largest left group in the US has politics that are virtually the same as the group that is expelling it for “sectarianism,” one can understand how a simmering discontent finally came to a full boil when Pakistani grocers and Egyptian cabdrivers, never having read a word of Marx, came into contact with people who were capable of such bureaucratic aggression.

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