Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 29, 2008

Sorrell and Son

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

One of the beneficial side-effects of the British class system has been its tendency to spawn a virtual library of interesting literature (and movies), from classics like “Sons and Lovers” to elevated soap operas like “Upstairs, Downstairs”. My first reaction to the arrival of “Sorrell and Son”, a 2-disk DVD now available from Koch-Lorber, was to heave it in the waste basket since it had all the trappings of “Upstairs, Downstairs”. In fact this 1984 British TV miniseries, based on the 1925 novel by Warwick Deeping, did air on PBS in 1987. The cover art on the DVD package showed men and women at leisure in vintage costumes, just the sort of thing that the Masterpiece Theater (sometimes referred to as Master Race Theater) dotes on.

However, after taking a minute to look at the plot summary on the back cover, I decided to give it a shot since it was described as the story of a decorated British officer “who returns home after the First World War to face unemployment, poverty and his wife’s desertion. Determined to educate his son as a gentleman, Sorrell is forced to accept exhausting and demeaning jobs in order to provide him with the best possibilities for a brighter future.”

After watching a few minutes, I got hooked. If there is one thing you can say about British mass market novels, it is that they are usually superbly plotted–a function no doubt of being heirs to the tradition of Dickens, who was after all a master of pulp fiction. Indeed, the story is a classic rags-to-riches story straight out of Dickens, but with the added interest of having characters who reflect the insecurities of the British middle class as it loses its moorings in the post-WWI period as the Empire begins its decline.

Much of the dialog comes straight out of Deeping’s novel that can be read online at http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200501.txt. The narrative beings with Stephen Sorrell and his son Christopher (“Kit”) en route to a job at an antique dealer in a rural village. The film visually captures his shabby fall from military glory, as described by Deeping:

For Sorrell still kept his trousers creased, nor had he reached that state of mind when a man can contemplate with unaffected naturalness the handling of his own luggage. There were still things he did and did not do. He was a gentleman. True, society had come near to pushing him off the shelf of his class-consciousness into the welter of the casual and the unemployed, but, though hanging by his hands, he had refused to drop.

Unfortunately for Sorrell, the antique dealer has died the day before he arrives in the village. He is only rescued from the poorhouse when Florence Palfrey, the owner of a shabby hotel called the Cubby Hole, offers him a job as a porter. She is from the working class and seems to derive perverse pleasure at reminding him of his subordinate status, as this exchange would indicate:

Sorrell came down the steps to dip his leather in the bucket.

“Very warm to-day.”

She did not reply, but watched him get to work, and his movements told her that he was nervous. She was satisfied in a part of herself. And then she began to talk to him with an air of casual intimacy, and in a way that she had never talked before. He was both Captain Sorrell, M.C., and her “boots” and porter.

“Rather different from the war, Stephen.”

He agreed. He felt strangely alert.

“How did you get your M.C.?” [A reference to the Military Cross, a medal.]

“I didn’t know–“

“Oh,–I know most things. Well? How?”

“Oh, in a trench raid.”

“Were you raiding the others?”

“No, madam, the others were raiding us.”

He was working hard at the mirror, with his back to her, and somehow he felt he had to keep a distance, though he could not analyze the feeling.

Eventually Sorrell lands a job at the Pelican Hotel, a more upscale operation owned by another WWI veteran, who saw Sorrell at his rounds during a stay at Palfrey’s hotel. He is motivated by pity for another veteran and by the understanding that he will be hiring a hard worker. Whatever the circumstances, Sorrell–a master of the stiff upper lip–can soldier on without complaint.

He is severely tested at the Pelican, when he learns that he is subordinate to George Buck, another war veteran who not only held a lower rank than him but comes from the working class. He has to put up with the same kind of resentments and mistreatment that he thought he had escaped when he left the Cubby Hole.

For to Buck, Sorrell was a type, the type of the over-educated, sly, argumentative, sullen, weedy, mutinous recruit. A clever, circuitous, insolent devil. Uncomfortably quick, too, a fellow who needed watching.

If Sorrell found Buck’s self-confident bluster offensive, his own quietness and his reticences were equally offensive to the other man.

Buck had his own justifications.

“Nasty,–weedy,–supercilious chap. Ex-officer. I’ll teach him a thing or two. Jealous of me. Of course. He’ll need watching. He’s not the sort of man I want under me, no, not by a long chalk. Some big, good-natured chap, quick with the luggage, and not too quick with anything else. Well,–I think I know a thing or two.”

“Sorrell and Son” is not really social commentary, but a family drama. Despite this, there is enough material about class relations in Great Britain to satisfy any radical-minded reader or movie fan. It is a very old-fashioned work about some very old fashioned themes: filial piety, love, and the onset of illness and death–all handled with great deftness by Warwick Deeping. After reading by Cormac McCarthy’s repugnant and poorly written “Blood Meridian”, a work regarded by some critics as on a par with “Moby Dick”, Deeping’s modest page-turner is as welcome as a drink of cool mountain spring water.

In 1934 literary critic Granville Hicks, who had joined the Communist Party that year, wrote an article titled “The Mystery of the Best Seller” for The English Journal. It took aim at works like “Anthony Adverse” that Hicks described as a “bad book, of course” and “pretentious, implausible, incompetently written.” Hicks groups the author Harvey Allen with such other well-known “Book of the Month” types such as Thornton Wilder, Pearl Buck and Fanny Hurst. Also included is Warwick Deeping, who Hicks describes as the “master of telling a lively and conventional story while pretending to probe deeply into some profound problem of human destiny”. I guess I can’t quibble with that.

“Sorrell and Son” is much more entertaining than the average television or movie fare nowadays and available from Netflix or your better video stores.

March 26, 2008


Filed under: economics,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 10:59 pm

Franklin D. Roosevelt

This week’s Nation Magazine has a special issue on “The New Deal [Re]Turns 75” in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of FDR’s welfare state. There’s a longish article by Richard Parker (an Oxford-trained economist who teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a biographer of John Kenneth Galbraith) titled “Why the New Deal Matters”. There’s also Toward a New New Deal (Forum) that includes contributions by liberals as well as radicals like Howard Zinn and Adolph Reed.

What’s missing is any acknowledgment that the New Deal failed to lift the U.S. out of the Great Depression. There’s also a rather shocking failure to come to terms with New Deal foreign policy with its Wilsonian arrogance, also now on display in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is no accident that George W. Bush invoked Harry Truman, FDR’s vice president, in a speech defending his “war on terror”. Finally, and most importantly, there’s little understanding of the economic changes since the 1960s that make a New Deal a utopian fantasy.

Richard Parker’s article begins with the startling observation that “when ’60s students began calling themselves the New Left, it may have distinguished them from the Old Left–but perhaps it also evoked the keystone of all postwar American politics, the New Deal.” I was so stunned by this amalgam that I could not resist dropping a note to the Harvard professor:

Dr. Parker, the Old Left was all about the New Deal. If you read the CPUSA press in 1965, there was nothing but the same kind of cloying nostalgia for the New Deal as in your article. Furthermore, New Left scholarship was very much involved with debunking the New Deal. I refer you to Gabriel Kolko’s work, not to speak of the general disdain for the Democrats that prevailed in SDS in this period.

Before I address some of the more general points made above, I think it would be useful to deal with some of the more glaring misunderstandings about the actual New Deal versus the idealized version found in the Nation.

Bill McKibben, a long-time environmental journalist, is nostalgic for the Civilian Conservation Corps that grew Red Pine forests in the Pacific Northwest. He also admires other New Deal public works projects that produced: “Hiking trails, city halls, bridges, park gazebos, public plazas, dams, and on and on.” In his eyes, “that’s the kind of work that needs doing now, as we face a crisis even greater than the Depression: the quick unraveling of the planet’s climate system in the face of our endless emissions of carbon dioxide.”

Now I understand that Bill McKibben is rather fixated on global warming, but is astonishing that he can offer up New Deal dams as evidence of the kind of spirit that can resolve the environmental crisis of today, for the fact is that those dams are monumental evidence of a failure to think in terms of environmental sustainability. These New Deal mega-dams have left behind a legacy of soil infertility and mammoth damage to marine life everywhere.

Maybe McKibben’s ideas on these dams were influenced by the old Woody Guthrie tune, written in homage to the Grand Coulee Dam:

Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of ‘thirty-three,
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me,

He said, “Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea,
But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”

Now in Washington and Oregon you can hear the factories hum,
Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum,

And there roars the flying fortress now to fight for Uncle Sam,
Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam.

The Grand Coulee might have been good for those “flying fortresses” but they have been hell for the fish that lived in the Columbia River. In a review of “A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia” by Blaine Harden (“The New Deal’s Stagnant Legacy”, June 2, 1996”), T.J. Watkins wrote:

WE ARE a nation whose history has been written in its rivers, but we have done poorly by them in return — certainly in the West. There is not a single major river system anywhere west of the Mississippi that has not been chopped up into reservoirs by dams for flood control, irrigation water, and electric power production. Most of this development was the child of the New Deal, which saw in the “underutilized” rivers of the West the image of an idealized America in which cheap water and electricity would combine to support a dreamy new world of self-sufficient family farms and prosperous middle-class democratic hamlets. What it gave us — in addition to the electricity that went a long way toward winning World War II — was river-basin developments that transformed much of the arid West into booming pockets of uncontrolled urban growth surrounded by single-crop, migrant-labor agribusiness empires the size of Balkan nations, the whole business nourished by federal subsidies and controlled by oligarchic knots of money and power.

As Blaine Harden makes abundantly clear in A River Lost, nowhere was the gap between dream and reality shown to be wider than on the Columbia River System, which drains most of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, as well as a chunk of western Montana. Harden, a Washington Post reporter, knows the river well, having grown up on it himself, but in revisiting it now he refuses to let the soft glow of family memory distort what he sees as he talks with bargemen and Indians, farmers and dam-workers, scientists and bureaucrats, each of whom has a different vision of what the river can and cannot do.

To Harden, the river represents “an American West that for most of the past two centuries has summed up progress, patriotism, and virtue in a single word: conquest.” Beginning with the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams as two of the New Deal’s most ambitious projects, the Columbia and its tributaries have been stoppered with no fewer than 113 dams over the past 60 years. On the Columbia itself, Harden notes with fine irony, the only stretch of the river that has remained generally free is the Hanford Reach, where the Hanford Engineering Works began manufacturing plutonium for the first atomic bombs during World War II. Non-military enterprise was forbidden along this part of the river, and as a result, he says, “It is a fine place to see an eagle hunt, deer graze, or fish spawn. But best not drink the groundwater for a quarter million years.”

The loss is not merely a matter of aesthetics, of once untrammeled wild rivers now converted into long, slackwater ponds on which float bargeloads of garbage and wheat, lentils and computer games, while engineers raise and lower water levels according to the dictates of irrigation farmers and a power grid that lights the Pacific Northwest from Seattle to Portland. That is dismal enough, but it is in the loss of salmon in which the truest measure of damage can be taken. When Lewis and Clark encountered the Columbia nearly two centuries ago, they found “the multitudes of this fish” to be “almost inconceivable,” salmon big as a man’s thigh, streams of salmon so thick as to be indistinguishable from the river itself, each of the silvery creatures fighting its way upriver to ancient gravel beds as far east as the Northern Rockies, there to spawn and then to die, exhausted.

One hopes that Bill McKibben might find the time to investigate these New Deal dams at some point for the water and food crisis is surely as grave as global warming. To look back nostalgically at these New Deal dams hardly seems warranted in light of the historical record.

Turning to Michael J. Copps, a Democratic member of the FCC and a former assistant secretary of commerce in the Clinton Administration, we get another highly inflated version of Roosevelt’s legacy, this time in mass media. Copps views FDR’s appointments to the FCC as a challenge to the “Roaring Twenties” emphasis on media commercialism and consolidation. Leaving aside the question of how Copps’s boss Bill Clinton aided exactly these same tendencies toward media commercialism and consolidation, there is still that troubling little issue of whether FDR’s support for media diversity included the American Trotskyists.

In 1941, the FBI arrested 19 leaders of the SWP under the provisions of the Smith Act for having the temerity to oppose Franklin Roosevelt’s war. When asked by the prosecutor what form opposition to war to Europe would take, party leader James P. Cannon answered “we would not become supporters of the war, even after the war was declared”. For this thought crime, Cannon and the others were sentenced up to 16 months in prison.

Despite having a job as an economist in the New Deal, the late Harry Magdoff was dubious about the notion that Roosevelt ended the depression. Harry wrote a letter to the author of an article that contained the following: “Today’s neo-liberal state is a different kind of capitalist class than the social-democratic, Keynesian interventionist state of the previous period.” The author had the same kind of nostalgia for the New Deal apparently that Nation Magazine did.

Harry explained:

[D]espite a promise of heavy government spending, and Keynes’s theoretical support, the New Dealers were stumped by the 1937-38 recession, which interrupted what looked like a strong recovery. There was then as there is now an underlying faith that capitalism is a self-generating mechanism. If it slowed down or got into trouble, all that was needed was a jolt to get back on track. In those days, when farm life supplied useful metaphors, the needed boost was referred to as priming the pump. The onset of a marked recession after years of pump-priming startled Washington. Questions began to be raised about the possibility of stagnation in a mature capitalism, the retarding effect of monopolistic corporations, and other possible drags on business. These concerns faded as war orders flowed in from Europe, and eventually they disappeared when the United States went to war. The notion of the “Keynesian Welfare State” has tended to disguise the fact that what really turned the tide was not social welfare, Keynesian or otherwise, but war.

Perhaps the sappiest comment about FDR’s foreign policy can be found in Richard Parker’s article:

There’s a third facet to Roosevelt that is vital for Democrats to celebrate today: he was the last Democratic President truly committed to multilateralism and to a nonmilitarized American presence in the world. It was FDR who pushed through–in the form of the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank–the architecture of internationalism that Woodrow Wilson had dreamed of but failed to achieve. And we know from his wartime politics and diplomacy that he was fully committed, on the one hand, to the decolonization of the world and, on the other, to finding means to engage Moscow after the war, a policy that might have headed off the cold war, or at least its worst excesses.

This is, I suppose, what might expect from a Harvard professor, who are widely regarded as some of the most intellectually backward in the U.S. Given the impact of the IMF and the World Bank on developing countries over the past 50 years or so, it is simply shocking to see them lauded in the pages of the Nation. A true internationalism would call for their abolition.

With respect to wartime politics and diplomacy having anything to do with “decolonization”, one can only refer Parker to a rafter of New Left historians who thoroughly debunked this notion. And for the last word on FDR’s pure as the driven snow motivations in launching the UN, I would refer you to Peter Gowan’s article “US : UN” that appeared in New Left Review 24, November-December 2003.

Roosevelt was well equipped to develop the grand strategy required by the United States, once it was clear that Stalingrad had settled the military outcome of the Second World War. Fascinated by international politics from his youth, he studied Mahan enthusiastically at school and accumulated a personal library of books on naval warfare while at Harvard. A fierce admirer of his cousin Theodore Roosevelt, whose niece Eleanor he married, FDR followed quite consciously in the footsteps of his outspokenly expansionist relative. His political career began with what, for an American of his generation, was a crucial school in military strategy: the Navy Department, where he became Assistant Secretary in 1912. There he was a Big Navy man, pushing for a fleet to rival Britain’s. In 1914, he looked forward to all-out war with Mexico to ‘clean up the political mess’ occasioned by the Mexican Revolution. In that same year he declared: ‘Our national defence must extend all over the western hemisphere, must go out a thousand miles into the sea, must embrace the Philippines and over the seas wherever our commerce may be.’ Contemptuous of his superior, Navy Secretary Daniels, a pacific Methodist from North Carolina, he chafed to thrust America into the First World War.

At the end of that war Roosevelt backed Wilson on the League of Nations, but also—positioning himself to shape the Democratic Party’s thinking on foreign policy—wanted to beef up American military power. Once installed in the Presidency, he sent Sumner Welles to crush the revolution of 1933 and install Batista’s dictatorship in Cuba, pampered clients like Somoza in Nicaragua and—mindful of the need for Catholic votes at home—took care to assist Franco by embargoing arms to the Spanish Republic during the Civil War. Fascism had few terrors for him. Relations with Mussolini were excellent; Vichy a normal diplomatic partner. Nazi Germany, on the other hand, FDR—although unwilling to offer any shelter to Jewish refugees—viewed as the resurgence of an unmitigated expansionist menace; much as did Churchill, also of First World War naval background. Thus once fighting broke out in Europe, and even before the US had entered the war, the Roosevelt Administration was already looking ahead to a new, American-led world beyond it.

Any grand design for us global dominance had to address one fundamental problem: how to restructure American domestic politics for such an external role. Wilson had been defeated by this challenge, but the configuration of domestic political forces had shifted by the end of the 1930s. In the first place, the dominant sectors of the American business class were now overwhelmingly wedded to the idea of us global leadership. The rise of Wilkie amongst Republicans and Dewey’s candidacy against Roosevelt (advised by John Foster Dulles) during the war demonstrated the new consensus. So too did the important group of Republicans within the Roosevelt Administration itself, among them Stimson, Lovett and McCloy. What this bipartisan coalition of big capital wanted from Roosevelt was an assurance that international expansion would be in safe hands from the point of view of American business. In these quarters the brand of internationalism represented by Vice-President Henry Wallace was judged to be unreliably liberal, so Roosevelt dumped him and picked Harry Truman for his running-mate instead, as a man unlikely to offend conservatives.

Finally, we should turn to the all important question of whether it is feasible to call for a new New Deal, even assuming that such a goal is desirable. The dynamics of the world capitalist system for the past 40 years or so establishes that such a goal is utopian. Put simply, there are no Roosevelt type proposals coming from major Democratic Party candidates for the simple reason that the capitalist system since the 1970s at least demands Herbert Hoover type policies. In other words, the neoliberalism of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush alike flows from global competition that forces both capitalist parties to attack all the institutions of the welfare state, including the crown jewels–the Social Security system.

The need to attack such institutions is not driven by ideology or by the failure of the leading Democrats to follow the wise counsel of the Nation. It is rather driven by increased competition from capitalist powers everywhere, whether they are traditional rivals in Europe or from China. The U.S. ruling class can’t afford to allow powerful trade unions or enlightened social legislation, including a single-payer health plan. It needs an atomized working class that can settle for lower wages and it needs to dismantle Social Security because it is an onerous burden on the national treasury, especially when funds are required for the U.S. military which is the sole guarantee of American hegemony in facing of increased competition.

As Harry Shutt points out in “The Trouble with Capitalism,” a conspicuous feature of industrialized economies from the early 1980s has been:

the tendency of established companies, in the service sector as well as manufacturing, to regard the application of cost-cutting new technology to their existing operations (without necessarily expanding capacity) as one of the most profitable ways reinvest their accumulating profits. This has effectively turned on its head one of the most sacred assumptions of post-war political economy, namely that increased investment has a positive impact on employment (a still cherished shibboleth of the British Labour Party and trade unions). At the same time the resulting process of corporate ‘downsizing’ reinforced a gathering tendency on the part of governments quietly to abandon their commitment to full employment as an overriding goal of public policy.

The upshot of these tendencies has been a further increase in joblessness since the early 1980s, giving rise (particularly in Europe) to the phenomenon of ‘jobless growth’. This has meant that, taking the 1974-1994 period as a whole, there has been negligible growth in the numbers of employed people in the countries of the European Union at a time when the level of economic activity (GDP) has expanded significantly, albeit at a much slower rate than in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed in the most extreme case, that of Spain, employment actually fell by over 8 per cent over the period as a whole, at a time when the economy virtually doubled in size.

It is doubtful that these tendencies will be reversed through the normal capital accumulation process. The bitter truth is that it will take war, at ever escalating levels, to stave off the inevitable just as it did during the Great Depression. In order to confront attacks on the working class and put an end to imperialist, it will take the same kind of radicalism that landed the American Trotskyists in prison in 1943. This time around, however, we should surely try to avoid the sectarian mistakes that these good comrades made. The stakes are too high.

March 21, 2008

An introduction to Henryk Grossman

Filed under: Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 1:32 am

One of the motivations in scheduling a discussion of “crisis theory” in this online introduction to Marxism class is that it gave me an excuse to read Rick Kuhn’s new biography “Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism” that received the Isaac Deutscher Prize in 2007. I have heard Grossman’s name bandied about on various leftwing mailing lists for the past 10 years and was curious to see what the buzz was about. Kuhn’s book has been a rewarding experience both in terms of its scholarly treatment of a somewhat neglected figure and as an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle of capitalist crisis.

This puzzle is of course all the more compelling given the events of the past few months. A Lexis-Nexis search on “1929” for articles within the last 3 months yields 992 hits! Here’s something from one right off the top:

How will new Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s handling of the current crisis compare to Greenspan’s record? The big worry is that the collapse in share prices has been accompanied by a banking crisis. With hundreds of billions of sub-prime mortgage losses yet to surface, most banks have given up lending to one another. This has inevitably invited comparisons with what happened between 1929 and 1933.

As against that, Bernanke has cut US interest rates four times since last September. They now stand at just 3.5 per cent as against 5.25 per cent when the crisis first began. And the Fed isn’t done cutting yet, with a further rate cut, possibly to three per cent, likely before the end of the month. While there is a chance that things could go terribly, horribly wrong, the likelihood is that cheaper money will limit the effects of any economic downturn.

–Irish Independent, January 26, 2008

Rick Kuhn has been devoted to re-establishing Grossman’s reputation since 1993. His preface gives reasons why. Part of it was personal. Like Grossman, Kuhn’s Jewish parents had to flee Nazi-controlled territory in 1938 and 1939. (Grossman made it out of Europe safely, but his wife, son and many other relatives were killed by the Nazis.)

But the main reason was what Grossman had to contribute on Marxist economics, which was of great importance to Kuhn’s peers, including Anwar Shaikh, whose “excellent survey of Marxist crisis theory provided a sympathetic account of Grossman’s position.” This survey of course was the text around which I focused my first post on this topic.

One of Kuhn’s first forays into the area of Grossman studies appeared in the Summer 1995 edition of Science and Society. It was titled “Capitalism’s collapse: Henryk Grossman’s Marxism”. The second paragraph is about as key to the discussion that we have been having on this topic as anything I have read anywhere:

Capitalism does many horrible things to people. It generates radical differences in income and wealth, with starvation on one side and immense luxury on the other. It alienates us from each other, and from our natural capacities — for work and even for sexual pleasure. The system reproduces itself by dividing humanity along arbitrary lines of nation, gender, race, religion and sexual orientation. Its wars periodically massacre huge numbers of people. All of these provide bases for socialist critiques of the capitalist mode of production. But if capitalism can go on forever, increasing the production of wealth all the time, then in principal economic problems, at least, could either be overcome through working-class action to reallocate wealth or ameliorated into unpleasant but bearable irritants. In these circumstances, Grossmann argues, the working class could just as easily reconcile itself with capitalism as voluntaristically attempt to realize socialism.

For anybody who has been discussing revolutionary politics on or off the Internet for the past 10 years, Kuhn’s posing of the question will have a strong resonance. The notion that “capitalism can go on forever” is obviously one that creeps into one’s consciousness no matter how much you hate the system. No matter how many times the system goes into some kind of meltdown, it always seems to find a way to land on its feet. Right after the 1987 market crash, many Marxists thought it was 1929 all over but within a year or two the market was off on another bull run.

Just a few words on the biographical details of Henryk Grossman. Although he is very much a figure associated with the academic left (for example, Anwar Shaikh is a disciple), his early background was that of a proletarian revolutionary. He was involved with a Jewish socialist organization in Poland that was pretty far to the left and after the Russian revolution he became a partisan of the Communist cause.

In 1923 he took a post with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, the so-called Frankfurt School. While the school has a reputation of being associated with cultural studies, it was at this institute that Grossman wrote “Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System”. Eventually, as the Frankfurt leadership drifted to the right, the contradictions with Grossman’s pro-Soviet and revolutionary politics became insurmountable and he was relieved of his post.

After WWII, Grossman moved to East Germany and taught Marxist economics until his death in 1950 at the age of 69. The East Germans never quite comfortable with his political independence, nor with his economics, and did nothing to celebrate his legacy, including the publishing of his works.

It was up to the New Left to revive interest in Grossman in the 1960s. In 1979 Jairus Banaji translated an abridged version of “Law of Accumulation” for an Indian Trotskyist organisation, the Platform Tendency. This text, as well as some of his others, is available on the Marxist Internet Archives and we’ll be consulting them in days to come. Unfortunately, Banaji’s edition does not contain a section that deals with slavery, something that is of great interest to me. Hopefully, it will be translated one of these days.

There’s a very succinct and useful presentation of Grossman’s main ideas by Kuhn in chapter five:

Capitalists try to reduce the value of the commodities they produce so that they can undercut their rivals. Increasing the productivity of their workers by introducing new and more expensive machinery and technology is generally an effective way of doing this. As total output grows, constant capital will tend to expand more rapidly than variable capital. So there will be a rise in the relative weight of constant capital in capitalists’ total outlays, known as the organic composition of capital. It is the variable capital alone, however, that produces new value. As profits are measured against total outlays, a decline in the weight of value-creating variable capital will mean a fall in the rate of profit, if the rate of surplus value (the ratio of new value to the value of the labor power that created it) is held constant. To the extent that capitalism increases the productivity of human labor and accelerates the production of use values, it is therefore also characterized by a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. For Grossman, this tendency was the key to capitalist breakdown.

If you stop and think about it, this formulation is exactly the opposite of Tugan-Baranowsky who argued that the capitalist system could continue even if production was done totally by machines: “Even if all workers were replaced by machinery except for one worker, this single worker would be able to put into motion the vast mass of machinery, and with its help create new machines–and means of consumption…The working class could disappear; this would not disturb in the least the self-expansion of capitalism.”

For Grossman–and for Karl Marx–it was the working class in its capacity as “value-creating variable capital” that allowed the capitalist system to continue. If workers refused to allow themselves to be exploited through the production of surplus value, the system would grind to a halt. Grossman’s insight was to see that the growing replacement of living labor by dead labor (or machines) would eventually subvert the entire purpose of capitalist production, which is making profits. As they say, however, the devil is in the details and we will have to take a look at how the system can continue to enjoy a rising profit rate despite the steady replacement of living labor by dead labor.

One of the first people in the English-speaking world to engage with Grossman’s ideas was Paul Sweezy who was sharply critical of him in the 1942 “The Theory of Capitalist Development”. This is understandable since Grossman was very critical of Rosa Luxemburg’s underconsumptionism in “Law of Accumulation”. Although Sweezy differed from Rosa Luxemburg on the details, he was an underconsumptionist himself. That being said, all of these economists were resolute revolutionaries whose contrasting ideas on how capitalism might break down periodically did not prevent them from agreeing on the political task: socialist revolution.

Grossmann would object that an increasing organic composition of capital [ie., replacement of living labor by machinery] is an essential feature of capitalism which cannot be assumed away. Quite so, but what causes the rising tendency of the organic composition of capital? The answer is that the price of labor power tends to rise under the stimulus of accumulation–“the organized efforts of workers may at certain times play quite as important a part as actual shortages in this respect”– and that this induces a continuous substitution of machines for labor power. In other words, the rate of accumulation is the independent variable; the division of accumulation between constant and variable capital is by no means fixed but depends in good part on the relation between the rate of accumulation and the rate of growth of the labor force; in general this relation is such as to produce a relatively greater rate of increase of constant than variable capital. Of all this, which is basic to the Marxian analysis of capitalism, we find not a word in Grossmann. When it is taken into account, the idea that the increasing organic composition of capital, like a Frankenstein monster, must eventually force capitalists to throw all of their surplus value into accumulation is seen to involve a complete inversion of the causal links within the accumulation process.

I want to conclude with a recommendation of two very useful items on the Internet. The first is an interview with Rick Kuhn by Radical Notes from last April. It is a very good introduction to the book and worth reading even if you have no intention of reading the book itself. When asked about Grossman’s rediscovery of the Marxist critique of political economy, Kuhn replied:

Grossman argued that the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, discussed by Marx in volume three of Capital, constitutes a propensity for the system to break down. The tendency occurs because investment in improved labour-saving technology increases the ratio of capitalists’ outlays on machinery, equipment, buildings etc. compared with what they spend on purchasing labour power. It is only labour power, however, that creates new value, the basis of profits. Following and extending Marx, Grossman identified a variety of countervailing factors that can help maintain or improve profit rates. In fact he went into some detail about all the processes critics allege that he neglected. The offsetting mechanisms mean that the tendency to break down takes, in the longer term, the shape of successive crises rather than a single downward path to collapse.

Capitalist crises can also, Grossman pointed out, be understood in terms the impossibility of the outputs of different industries being consistently in the right proportions to maintain smooth growth. Both explanations of economic crises ultimately derive from the contradiction at the heart of capitalist production which is simultaneously the creation of use values, for the satisfaction of human needs, and of values, in the pursuit of profit.

I would also strongly recommend Jim Heartfield’s review of Kuhn’s book that appeared on Spiked-online, buried among a slew of articles on why DDT is good for you, etc. As you might know, Jim is one of the few members of this group that still tries to maintain his Marxist credentials and the review is very good evidence of this. I imagine that he still retains some strong affection for Grossman’s book since it and the work of others influenced by Grossman such as Paul Mattick and David Yaffe were prominent in the thinking of the Revolutionary Communist Party (the British group, not Avakian’s cult.) The RCP published a magazine called Living Marxism that eventually became LM. As I understand it, Mattick also put out a magazine called Living Marxism in the 1940s and the RCP magazine must have been titled in homage to Mattick’s.

Here is an excerpt from Jim’s review:

Grossman’s book The Law of Accumulation in particular was dedicated to showing that the industrial crises that preoccupied economists in the 1920s were not a disruption of the market system, but the necessary result of the process of capital accumulation (that is, the reinvestment of profits in new plant and technologies). As a greater share of investment went into machinery and plant, rather than the living labour that produced surplus value (the source of capitalist profits), the rate of profit to the total capital invested declined. In Marx’s formula, the rate of profit was represented as p’ = s/c+v, where s, surplus value, was divided by both the money invested in machinery, constant capital, c, and that invested in wages, variable capital, v. As c got larger relative to v, the ratio of profit would shrink in relationship to the total capital invested (c+v), even as the mass of surplus value (s) grew.

In this way, Grossman explained, what ought to be positive for mankind, the development of new means of production, created problems for capitalists. Even though they had little choice but to reinvest their profits, accumulating capital would give rise to diminishing returns on those investments. Distinguishing between the positive growth in technology and the negative ‘overaccumulation of capital’ was the theoretical precondition to distinguishing between them in fact – that is, to organise new industry under socialist planning rather than capitalist competition.

The great clarity of Grossman’s work was that it methodically excluded all the bad excuses that people made for the system – that the economic disruption was just a problem of disproportionality between different parts of the economy, or that workers’ consumer spending was insufficient to buy overproduced goods. The barrier to capitalist accumulation, as Marx explained, was capital itself.

You can read the whole thing here .

March 19, 2008

Heart of Ardor

Filed under: art,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 10:47 pm

“Heart of Ardor” is a book of paintings by Daniel Marlin, an old friend who lives in Berkeley. Grouped by theme, they are prefaced by comments by Daniel, who is also an accomplished poet and Yiddishist. For example, the section on Rockaway paintings is introduced as follows by Daniel, who grew up in this narrow peninsula jutting off of the borough of Queens:

As a sixteen-year-old New York City Parks Department beach cleaner, I used to ride past the boardwalk early summer mornings on the back of a garbage truck. The elderly people who gathered on the boardwalk near seasonal hotels and rooming houses were of my grandparents’ generation and did not attract my attention. In the late 70s and early 80s two new interests—drawing strangers in public places and the Yiddish language and its diminishing world of speakers began to connect me to those boardwalk bench sitters, conversationalists, and snoozers.

His fascination with the Yiddish milieu inspired the work above, titled “Warsaw and the Boardwalk“. Many of Daniel’s paintings are close observations of a New York that is rapidly disappearing under the impact of big money and the homogenization that goes with it, especially in Manhattan. Daniel’s deep interest in the immigrant world that made New York the memorable place it once was will be shared by anybody who loves to wander about gazing at the sights of New York’s less glamorous but all the more enchanting neighborhoods that have not “benefited” from gentrification. In this respect, Daniel is a kindred spirit of Ben Katchor, another artist who has sought to keep memories of the Jewish immigrant past alive. The following is an illustration from Katchor’s “The Rosenbach Company”, a musical about Jewish book dealers in the 19th century Philadelphia!

Although Daniel has been an activist for about as long as I have been, he states, “I rarely make consciously political art.” He made an exception for a “mail-art” exhibit in Japan that is a product of invitations sent out on the Internet and other locales. In 2005 he co-organized a “mail-art” event inviting submissions on the theme of Article Nine, the pacifist clause of the Japanese Constitution which is now under serious threat of being undermined. Here was his one of his contributions to the exhibit that can be viewed in its entirety here.

Despite Daniel’s reluctance to do “agit-prop”, there is no question about his class loyalties, which is to the working people. For many years, Daniel has been painting sewing machines and the people who work for living at them. Although most people associate them with the sweatshops of today that largely employ Latinos and Asian women, there was a time when they were used by immigrant Jews such as the women who died tragically in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster of 1911. Daniel introduces this section of his book thusly:

The sewing machine, first mass-produced in the late nineteenth century, found its way into private homes and soon became part of modern labor history. My grandparents’ generation of Eastern European immigrants organized the sweatshops they worked in.

Today dangerous and exploitative sewing factories abound in the globalized economy, from El Salvador to China. The sewing machine, though, can also be a means of self-sufficiency. I have seen tailors at work at machines in their doorways in mountain towns in Colombia, and in the vast marketplace of its coastal city Barranquilla.

I have never operated a sewing machine, but am fascinated by their practical elegance and power. I cannot explain why I paint angels sewing in the night sky.

Here is a work in that series, “Seamstress Angel”.

“Heart of Ardor” can be ordered through Paypal for $50, including postage and handling.

March 17, 2008

Forcing culture down peoples’ throats

Filed under: art — louisproyect @ 10:43 pm

Last Friday my Turkish professor showed us a Youtube video that is the rage now among Turkish students at Columbia. It deals with the “cultural revolution” of the young Turkish Republic that sought to erase all Ottoman and Islamic influences and replace them with a version of the French republic cooked up by Mustafa Kemal. It is no accident that both Turkey and France have been going through battles lately over the right of Muslim female students to wear headscarves to public school classes. This kind of overzealous secularism was at the core of constitutional thinking in both countries. Of course, in Turkey it was much more of a Western import.

In the image from the video below, you can see Turkish soldiers on orders to arrest anybody who was playing native Turkish music as was being done when the video begins. They then order the cowed villagers to “be happy” (mutlu ol). Just before the soldiers arrive, there are some Turkish words that provide a set-up. Loosely translated (which is all I am capable of at this point), they mean: “The Turkish government declared that Turkish music was to be banned from the radio. The goal was the widespread dissemination of Western music. It wanted to replace the Turkish musical style with French as part of forcing ‘Western culture’ on society.” The soldiers proceed to read off a list of acceptable Western composers, whose names they all butcher.

Although I think everybody understands the joke, let me spell it out. When the soldiers order them to play some Mozart and Beethoven, the saz player responds with an excerpt from Mozart’s Symphony Number 40, accentuating its affinities with native Turkish music. Mozart was very enthusiastic about Turkish music and wrote a famous “Rondo alla Turca” in his piano sonata number 11 as well as the finale to the “Turkish” violin concerto number five that incorporated the same types of harmonies. He follows up with the “Ode to Joy”, whose melody Beethoven lifted from Janissary marching bands.

The very day I saw this video, I read a wonderful story from Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” titled “Kim Wilde”. It revolved around the efforts of Marjane’s parents to smuggle in an Iron Maiden poster from Turkey into Iran in the early 1980s, when the Iranian “cultural revolution” was in its most virulent stage. Everything Western was banned, including rock music. As urbane and educated Iranians, the Satrapis resented this kind of forced acculturation just as much as the Anatolian villagers in the Youtube video.

Understandably, the Islamic Republic was seeking to overthrow the kind of vicious Western “modernization” norms of the Shah who made the 1934 Turkish assault on Turkish music look tame by comparison. But in making it a crime to bring Iron Maiden posters into the country, clearly it was just as mad in its own way as the Westernizers. The bottom line is that cultural change must not be enforced. That is the main lesson that is found in the Youtube video and in “Persepolis” and clearly one that socialists should embrace.

March 16, 2008

Left Forum 2008

Filed under: pakistan,revolutionary organizing,socialism,Turkey — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Time constraints prevented me from attending today’s sessions of the Left Forum in New York, but I do want report back on what I saw yesterday. As a point of introduction, the Left Forum used to be called the Socialist Scholars Conference but was renamed as a consequence of a power struggle within the organizing committee. Rightwing social democrats sought to purge the conference of its more radical members including the conference organizer Eric Canepa who they viewed as insufficiently Serbophobic. You can read more about this here.

On Saturday morning I went to a panel on “Understanding Turkey Today: Class Dynamics, State Restructuring and Political Alternatives”. A paper was read by its three co-authors who were college professors from Turkey (Fuat Ercan, Marmara University; Selime Guzelsari, Abant Izzet Baysal University; Sebnem Oguz, Trent University in Canada) and judging by their youthful appearance, part of a new generation of Turkish Marxism.

My first exposure to Turkish Marxism at the Socialist Scholars Conference was perhaps 10 years ago when I heard Halil Berktay speak about the implosion of the sectarian left in Turkey that had left him utterly demoralized. Berktay was two years younger than me and part of the 60s generation of radicals that included Ahmet Tonak who used to be subbed to the Marxism list and PEN-L until returning to Turkey. You can read my comments on Berktay’s rather dispirited presentation here.

It is entirely possible that the crisis of the Turkish revolutionary movement of the 1960s is partially responsible for Turkey’s political situation today. A stronger movement might have created an alternative to both the Kemalists and the AKP but as things stand today the Turkish left is divided between nationalist and liberal components, who respectively support these two bourgeois parties.

The presentation seemed heavily influenced by Althusserian theory and focused on the struggle over control of the state between two sectors of the capitalist class. It began by making the point that political change in Turkey is not primarily driven by international factors such as the IMF but by internal class dynamics.

Specifically, the first generation of capitalists in Turkey, which arose in the 50s and 60s, were Kemalist and Istanbul-based. They used their connections to the state to accumulate capital in the form of holding companies. The new generation arose in Anatolia, the eastern and more backward section of the country, and sought international support for their mid-sized enterprises, which often relied on family employees. The new generation sought to differentiate itself from the older generation by stressing Islamic identity.

In reply to an idiotic intervention during the discussion period from the Spartacist League about the need to forge a Trotskyist party, Fuat Ercan pointed out that it is difficult to pose the task of a proletarian revolution in Turkey when the question of who the proletariat is has not been answered adequately. Throughout the country, the work force is in a constant state of flux and the informal sector is pervasive.

Although I had some problems with the Althusserian jargon, I was impressed with the seriousness of the presentation and their obvious grasp of the difficulties facing the Turkish left. It is impossible to build a revolutionary movement without looking hard realities in the face.

I have made available an April 2007 Science and Society article by Ercan and Oguz on “Rethinking Anti-Neoliberal Strategies through the Perspective of Value Theory: Insights from the Turkish Case” here.

* * * *

At 3pm I attended a panel on “Lenin’s Return” that I was very much looking forward to since it included a presentation by Lars Lih, the author of “Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? in Context”, a scholarly work that essentially makes the point I have been making for years, namely that Lenin was not inventing a new type of “Leninist” party but simply trying to build a social democratic party in the mode of Kautsky’s party in Germany.

In addition to Lars, there was a presentation by Paul Le Blanc, the author of “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party”, a work that I value highly even though I disagreed with Paul’s notion that such a party can be built along the lines of James P. Cannon. As will be obvious in a moment or two, it is possible that Paul no longer believes that himself nowadays. Although I am not quite sure whether her presentation was exactly germane to the discussion, Helen Scott of the University of Vermont spoke on Rosa Luxemburg and stressed Luxemburg’s affinities with Lenin, despite the efforts of left anti-Communists to turn her into a kind of Kautsky figure. Finally, parts of a paper written by August Nimtz were read by Paul. August’s mother had died two days earlier, thus preventing his attendance.

Most of Paul’s talk can be described as a general defense of Lenin’s importance and avoided the sorts of controversy that might have been expected at an event such as this. Rather than getting into his ideas about how to rebuild a revolutionary party in the U.S., a topic that was very much on the front burner 10 years ago for him, Paul focused more on what all revolutionaries accept, namely Lenin’s commitment to socialist revolution and his hatred of injustice of all sorts. As a sign of Lenin’s reemergence as a figure to be contended with, Paul referred to “Lenin Reloaded”, a collection of talks from a Historical Materialism conference in London a few years ago that included a number of academic superstars like Slavoj Zizek and Fredric Jameson.

August Nimtz’s paper took aim both at Zizek’s talk and at Lars Lih’s book. Nimtz rejects Zizek’s claim that Lenin represented some kind of “departure” in Marxism. He also rejects Lih’s notion that Lenin was a kind of Russian version of Kautsky. For Nimtz, the key to understanding Lenin is his close ties to Marx and Engels and not in any “departure”, nor in any affinity with German social democracy. Although it is hard to argue with the idea that Lenin was very much in the tradition of Marx and Engels, I was somewhat perplexed with Nimtz’s apparent avoidance of the main issue stressed by Lars Lih, namely the heavy stamp of the German social democracy in “What is to be Done”. Here’s just one of my favorite quotes, which has to do with the question of defining the “vanguard”:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

When you stop and think about this, it seems that there still is a lot to be gained from studying the German socialist movement. Clearly, the party’s parliamentarians and trade union officials had adapted to the German capitalist class, but there’s something to be said for “championing every protest against tyranny”.

Perhaps Nimtz, a former member of the SWP like Paul Le Blanc, still has illusions that “democratic centralism” in the style of James P. Cannon has a future. Since he was not able to attend and since his paper is probably not available on the Internet, I have no way of knowing.

Lars Lih reacted to Nimtz’s challenge with remarkable aplomb and an elfin sense of humor. He gave a presentation that sought to demonstrate that Lenin remained committed to Kautsky’s Marxism even after he broke with him over WWI. Time after time, Lenin referred to the correct ideas of Kautsky in works such as “The Agrarian Question” and expressed disappointment that the German Marxist leader no longer held to his earlier views. In hearing this I was reminded of how George Galloway quoted some of Christopher Hitchens’s earlier antiwar views to him during that infamous debate in N.Y. a few years ago. (I suppose comparing Hitchens to Kautsky is a bit like farce following tragedy but then again Galloway is no Lenin.) I will not try to communicate any more of Lih’s presentation since I will be getting the full paper from him shortly and making it available to you.

One of the more encouraging things about this panel was the presence of a large number of young people in the audience (some of whom who seemed to be members of the ISO). During the discussion period, they were distinguished by the seriousness of their comments and their ability to transcend the narrow sectarianism of the Spartacist League contingent that gave its customary gaseous remarks. One young woman made an excellent point that living up to the spirit of Lenin today means participating in the mass movement rather than constructing “purist” propaganda sects. A young Latino said that although the abuses carried out in the name of “Leninism” should be avoided; there is no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater. My general perception is that these young people (and the ISO’ers in particular) are wrestling with the problems of sectarianism in the name of building a party like Lenin’s and are seeking to transform it, even if they are hobbled by some “vanguardist” conceptions built into their party’s constitution.

At 5pm I attended an interview on Pakistan given by Tariq Ali to David Barsamian who has been doing this sort of thing for years and is quite good at it, including a 2005 session with Tariq that is available from amazon.com.

Tariq made a number of fascinating points, including some that debunked the notion of an Islamic fundamentalist tidal wave sweeping Pakistan. He noted that no more than 10 percent of the population has voted for Islamic fundamentalist candidates in free elections. He also noted that the spread of madrassas in Pakistan is to be understood more in terms of the lack of public education than any enthusiasm for political Islam. One other bit of evidence of an absence of zealotry is the collaboration of Christian and Muslim farmers who are in a struggle to retain control over public lands that the army is trying to privatize. If which god you prayed to was all that important, these farmers would have never found a way to struggle against their common enemy.

Tariq also had some rather scathing comments on Benazir Bhutto, who he had a number of conversations with when she was in power. When he urged that she adopt some reforms that were rather limited in nature, she pleaded poverty. He then replied that she could do something that did not cost a penny but that could establish her as a groundbreaking reformer. She simply could push through legislation that repealed the emergency laws enacted under military rule. Since her party held a parliamentary majority, such repeal was feasible. She failed to take his advice. Tariq also proposed that if there was one thing that could make her mark in history, it was to establish a girl’s school in every village in Pakistan. Again, she ignored her advice.

Tariq Ali is very eloquent and very informed on his native country. One hopes that a book comes out of it since Pakistan is obviously being drawn into the “war on terror”. He feels that Pakistan has become a crucial element of this imperialist adventure since it is critical to eliminating the challenge to the Afghan government. In his opinion, Afghanistan has become a disaster for the occupiers, even more so than Iraq. But in a period of rising challenges to U.S. hegemony, the resource-poor land has taken on more and more value as a geopolitical asset, including its proximity to China. One top U.S. military official has said something to the effect that we are in Afghanistan because of the threat China poses. Ironically, this does not sound all that different from what I heard in 1965 when the U.S. was first getting involved in Vietnam in a major way.

March 14, 2008

War Made Easy

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

Now playing at the Quad Theater in New York, “War Made Easy” is the definitive study of how the mainstream media in the United States permitted itself to be used as a propaganda outlet of the Bush administration in the run-up to the war with Iraq. It places “embedded” journalism in the larger context of pro-war media going back to the early stages of the Cold War, and is particularly adept in making comparisons with the war in Vietnam. Just as the Gulf of Tonkin incident—an attack on American destroyers by Vietnamese patrol boats that never really happened—was used as a pretext for getting into Vietnam, so were false reports on weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein ties to al Qaeda used for this most recent imperialist debacle.

Norman Solomon

Serving as expert witness in this documentary written and directed by Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp is Norman Solomon, an expert on corporate media abuse and author of the 2006 book “War Made Easy” that the movie is based on. (Narration is provided Sean Penn.) Solomon is a longtime associate of the media watch group FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting), a group that was founded in 1986 largely to challenge the mainstream media’s incestuous relationship to the Reagan administration. At the time, I was very involved with Nicaragua solidarity and found FAIR’s exposure of newspaper, radio and television bias on behalf of the contra war most useful. Unfortunately, due to the utter corruption of the mainstream media in the U.S., there will always be a need for a watchdog group like FAIR. My own organization went out of business shortly after the Sandinistas were voted out of office in 1990, but FAIR soldiers on responding to the blizzard of lies from our “free press”.

George W. Bush

Using the same kind of polished video editing techniques found in Jon Stewart’s Comedy Central News Show, “War Made Easy” allows CNN, Fox-TV, CBS, NBC, ABC et al to hoist themselves on their own petard. Using one key “talking point” after another that demonstrates media complicity with the war, the movie presents a medley of talking heads marching in lock-step with the administration. I was particularly struck by how television news programs all got caught up in military technology. One idiotic reporter after another is seen selling the merits of smart bombs, B-2 bombers, attack helicopters, etc, as if they were in an infomercial. Closely related to the fixation with hardware was the blatant reliance on retired generals and admirals even before the war began. All of them treated the war as an accomplished fact and no reporter bothered to ask whether the war was necessary.

There was one exception to the rule, however. Phil Donohue made a point of challenging the administration’s lies on MSNBC. For that effort, he was removed from the air by the brass who stated in a memo that the show was becoming a “home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

“War Made Easy” shows how many of these knuckle-headed pro-war newsmen (and women) did a mea culpa after a couple of years when it became clear to the world that the justifications for the war were false. Additionally, it became harder and harder to wave the flag when it became obvious that it was a lost cause. In other words, the failure to win a victory on the battlefield led to a loss in fighting spirit among the media, especially its more liberal elements. Wolf Blitzer of CNN is shown confessing to another reporter that his network was all too gullible when it came to the administration’s case for war. “We should have been more skeptical,” he says.

Despite the reversal of many reporters (excluding the mouth-breathing hawks at Fox-TV) on Iraq, there are signs that the media is coming home to daddy once again as reports of General Petraeus’s “surge” achieve a kind of consensus among the political elite. When the Democrats begin to backpedal on the war, it automatically follows that CNN, MSNBC, the Washington Post, and the N.Y. Times will follow suit.

That is one of the reasons that the arrival of “War Made Easy” is so timely. The film reminds us of the monstrous lies and indifference to human suffering that the mainstream media is responsible for. It would spur us into renewed opposition, even if the Democratic Party candidates prefer to ignore Iraq.

If “War Made Easy” is not playing in your city, the DVD can be purchased for only $19.95 from the movie’s website.


March 10, 2008

Hitting the Empire where it hurts

Filed under: antiwar — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

March 6, 2008

Bernstein, Luxemburg and Desai

Filed under: Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 5:28 pm

(This post was a contribution to the Introduction to Marxism mailing list, an online class.)

Over the next few days I will be posting material by and about Marxists in the “under-consumptionist” tradition. While reviewing this material for the past week or so, I was surprised to see how much the debates of the early 1900s paralleled debates within Marxism over the past 50 years or so. Given the similarities between the turn of the 20th and the turn of the 21st century, perhaps it should have not been a surprise at all.

In the late 1800s, there was little evidence that capitalism was a system that had reached its limits, especially in those countries that Karl Marx and Frederic Engels had regarded as most susceptible to socialist revolution. Despite having a powerful working class, Germany, France, the U.S. and Great Britain had seemed to discover a way to manage crisis and to offer workers improved wages and working conditions within the system. If socialism could be achieved piecemeal within the capitalist system, what need was there for risky revolutionary bids that might result in the destruction of the trade union movement and socialist parties.

These illusions were fostered by the long expansion of the capitalist system under imperialism. From the 1880s until the outbreak of WWI, there was little evidence of the system facing the kind of terminal conditions described in The Communist Manifesto of 1848:

The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.

Just as the 1960s produced a New Left that questioned the viability of socialist revolution in the face of a seemingly crisis-free capitalist system, there were socialist thinkers in the earlier period that drew similar conclusions. Eduard Bernstein was the most important of them.

He lays out his perspectives in “Evolutionary Socialism“, including a sharp rebuke  to Rosa Luxemburg’s “under-consumptionist” economics:

But Marx himself has also occasionally pronounced very sharply against the derivation of crises from under-consumption. “It is pure tautology,” he writes in the second volume of Capital, “to say that crises rise from a want of consumers able to pay.” If one wished to give this tautology an appearance of greater reality by saying that the working classes receive too small a portion of what they produce, and that the grievance would therefore be redressed if they had a larger share, it can only be observed that “the crises are each time preceded by a period in which the workers’ wages rise and the working classes actually receive a relatively greater share than usual of the yearly produce destined for consumption.” It thus would appear that capitalist production “includes conditions independent of good or evil intentions – conditions which only permit of temporarily relative prosperity for the working classes and then always as a stormy bird of a crisis.”

As was the case with the Russian legal Marxists, Bernstein draws upon the chapters in Volume Two of Capital that deal with “reproduction”, one of which John Imani described on Marxmail as “long and exceedingly difficult and boring”. There really is no point in trying to wend our way through Karl Marx’s formulas. The main point is that he was trying to describe what amounted to a business cycle in modern terms.

Bernstein writes:

In another passage of this second volume [of Capital], which had been written by 1870, the periodic character of crises -which is approximately a ten-year cycle of production-is brought into conjunction with the length of the turnover of fixed (laid out in machinery, etc.) capital. The development of capitalistic production has a tendency on the one hand to extend the bulk of value and the length of life of fixed capital, and on the other to diminish this life by a constant revolution of the means of production. Hence the “moral wearing out” of this portion of fixed capital before it is “physically spent.” Through this cycle of connected turnovers comprehending a series of years in which capital is confined through its fixed portion, arises a material cause for periodic crises in which the business passes through periods following one another of exhaustion, medium activity, precipitancy, crisis.

In this instance, the word crisis has an entirely different meaning than it does in Rosa Luxemburg. When Bernstein says that “business passes through periods following one another of exhaustion, medium activity, precipitancy, crisis,” he is simply describing what amounts to a business cycle in terms that you see in the NY Times business section. The U.S. is always going though some crisis or another (savings banks, LTCM, dot.com, subprime mortgage, etc.) but is always resolving it in anticipation of the next uptick in the business cycle.

In the chapter on “Simple and Expanded Reproduction” in The New Palgrave Marxian Economics, Meghnad Desai writes:

The result given in Capital 2, Chapter 21 aroused a long debate among Marxists. How could one reconcile this picture of an economy in perpetual balanced growth with Marx’s prediction elsewhere in his work of a capitalist economy riddled with crises and liable to breakdown as a result of increasing contradictions including a falling rate of profit despite growth and accumulation? Was Marx portraying the improbability of this outcome in absence of a planning mechanism that could order capitalists to invest a given proportion? Was this another example of a glaring inconsistency between different parts of Capital, as had been argued in the case of the value-price relationship by Bohm-Bawerk?

In the long debate that followed the publication of Capital Vol. 2, many attempts were made to alter the numerical magnitudes of Marx’s example to generate business cycles. The notion that disproportionality in the investment in and/or growth of the two sectors could cause cycles was developed by Tugan-Baranovsky. The centrality of Dept I investment decisions, although arbitrarily imposed by Marx, led to the development of theories of business cycle emphasizing the capital-goods industries as the source of these fluctuations (Aftalion, Spiethoff). But the most searching critical analysis of Marx’s scheme came from Rosa Luxemburg. The Accumulation of Capital offers both a survey of the pre-1914 debate in this area and an attempt to probe the reasons for the puzzle of a balanced growth equilibrium in a Marxian model.

That Marx is open to multiple and contrary interpretations should come as no surprise to anybody. When confronted by a misinterpretation of his thought, Marx was prompted to say something to the effect of “If that is Marxism, I am no Marxist.”

Part of Bernstein’s polemic against Rosa Luxemburg in “Evolutionary Socialism” involved a defense of the growth of cartels. Unlike Lenin and Luxemburg, Bernstein viewed such monopoly combinations as having the effect of controlling the excesses of the free market and creating conditions more favorable for the socialist system, which would also favor combinations of competing firms into state-owned enterprises. Bernstein wrote:

But so far as it is a means of a hothouse forcing of over-production, the associations of manufacturers meet this inflation of production in separate countries, and even internationally here and there, ever more frequently, by trying to regulate production as a Kartel, a syndicate, or a trust. Without embarking in prophecies as to its final power of life and work, I have recognised its capacity to influence the relation of productive activity to the condition of the market so far as to diminish the danger of crises.

Within fifteen years, these very syndicates would plunge Europe into the bloodiest war in human history. Bernstein’s confidence in the ability of cartels to “diminish the danger of crises” seems misplaced, to say the least.

A glance at Meghnad Desai’s subsequent career will reveal his affinity with Bernstein and Tugan-Baranovsky. As the author of the 2002 Verso book “Marx’s Revenge”, Desai took the rather novel position that Karl Marx would have favored “globalization”. On the Verso website, you can find this description of Desai’s book: “Desai argues that globalization, in bringing the possibility of open competition on world markets to producers in the Third World, has proved that capitalism is still capable of moving forwards.” Bernstein could not put it better.

And a May 19, 2002 Observer review of “Marx’s Revenge” finds Desai in accordance with the view presented in the Palgrave article, namely that Karl Marx was a prophet of “business cycle” economics:

Marx developed some pioneering economics. He was the first economist to incorporate an explanation of boom and bust within his theory. He constructed a simple model to show how profit came from the exploitation of the ‘surplus value’ of labour. This led to the ups and downs of profitability. But in volume II of Das Kapital Marx calculates a numerical scheme of a capitalist economy which does not run into crisis and enjoys perpetual growth.

When you read that according to Desai Marx calculated a “numerical scheme of a capitalist economy which does not run into crisis and enjoys perpetual growth,” you really wonder what prompted Verso to publish such a silly book. This is not Marx the socialist revolutionary, but Marx the spiritual grandfather of Paul Krugman.

In my next post, I will deal with Rosa Luxemburg’s attitude toward colonialism, which she saw as a kind of pressure valve to deal with the contradictions of over-production. Needless to say, it has nothing to do with Desai’s assurance that “open competition on world markets to producers in the Third World” proves that capitalism is moving forward.

March 2, 2008

Support our Troops–Bring them home now!

Filed under: antiwar — louisproyect @ 5:32 pm

Although I am reluctant to devote any attention to the bizarre groupuscle on the U.S. left called the Socialist Workers Party, some recent research I have been doing on the Vietnam antiwar movement was in the back of my mind when I noticed this item from their newspaper, the Militant.

Support our troops’ slogan is concession to Washington’s prowar propaganda


The city council in Berkeley, California, rescinded a decision to send a letter to the Marine Corps Recruiting Station telling the recruiters they were “unwelcome intruders.”

The council adopted a resolution February 13 to “publicly differentiate between the city’s documented opposition to the unjust and illegal war in Iraq and our respect and support for those serving in the armed forces.” The resolution said, “We deeply respect and support the men and women in our armed forces.”

Advancing such a position is a disorienting concession to the U.S. government’s patriotic prowar propaganda. It strengthens Washington’s ability to wage war.

As far as I can tell, this sectarian position was first put forward in 1990 on the occasion of the first war with Iraq. Although the archives for the Militant do not go back as far as that year, there is a reference to the 1990 position in a 1998 article titled “Lessons For Today From The Working-Class Campaign Against 1990-91 Gulf War“:

In addition to the disorientation that can come from the propaganda of the bourgeois war makers, “individuals and currents from the petty bourgeoisie – sometimes because of the depth of their shock at the horrors of war, and their fear of the consequences -lose their moorings and get drawn into the undertow of one or another section of the war makers and their political parties,” the article by Barnes in the ISR explained. Resisting the patriotic pressures transmitted by these middle-class layers is of the utmost importance for class-conscious workers. One of the forms this pressure took before and during the Gulf War was the slogan, “Support our troops – bring them home,” put forward by many radicals and pacifists.

While many SWP veterans, including me, are generally aware that the slogan “Support our troops, bring them home now” was used during the Vietnam era, I think most of us assume that we favored something more sharp-edged like “Out Now”. As it turns out, we had no problems with the “support” slogan in the antiwar movement as this excerpt from Fred Halstead’s “Out Now!” illustrates. Back then, the real divide was over “now”, not “social patriotism”, as the Militant in its current ultraleft version would lead you to believe. Fred is referring to a workshop in an organizing conference for the October 21, 1967 March on the Pentagon:

The workshop on mass action adopted the march on Washington idea overwhelmingly, recommending the date of October 21 and the theme: “Support Our Boys in Vietnam—Bring Them Home!” (The original proposal was for “Bring Them Home Now!” But there were still some forces who objected to the inclusion of “now” in a central slogan. The SMC, however, used the “now” in its publicity and it produced the bulk of the posters, buttons, etc., advertising the event. By the time of the demonstration, the Mobilization Committee itself was including “now” with no objections.)

Here’s a photo by the late Brian Shannon that appears in Fred’s book:

In a recent discussion about the SWP on the yahoo mailing list I set up for a postmortem examination of this once important group on the left, Adam L. took note of the fact that the SWP’s only interest in today’s antiwar protests is as a place to sell books. Ironically, they don’t sell Fred Halstead’s:

As someone involved in the anti-war movement up to my eyeballs, I got a lot of value from re-reading Out Now, and it’s something I recommended to other activists, including people in our (now-defunct) Solidarity branch.

The SWP’s only involvement–quelle surprise–was to set up a literature table at these protests. The funny, yet sad, part? They didn’t even have Halstead’s book on the table.

I made a point in that discussion that applies here as well. When a left group revises an important part of their program, they owe the rest of the left and the working class an explanation of why they changed their line and why they had come to a wrong position to start with. This is not done in the spirit of Maoist self-criticism, but simply to educate the movement. I wrote:

That’s one of the really puzzling things about the SWP nowadays. It feels under no particular compulsion to answer anything, the cushy living standards of its proletarian leaders or line reversals. We used to laugh at the CPUSA in the 1960s as a party that was notorious for changing positions without explaining why. When Stalin signed a pact with Hitler, their line became pacifist. When Hitler invaded Russia, the line changed overnight to backing all-out war. People like us who have read the Militant in recent years were stunned by the idiotic line on Iraq when it first appeared, but just as stunned when that line was no longer defended. For all the loose talk about Bolshevism here, Lenin never would have allowed something like that to happen, nor Fidel Castro. Revolutionary parties are obligated to explain major policy shifts. What the SWP does, of course, is its own business but nobody should mistake it with the Bolsheviks or the Cuban CP.

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