Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 30, 2008

Crane collapses, corporate greed and the mob

Filed under: capitalist pig,economics,real estate — louisproyect @ 2:42 pm

This morning as I was walking up 3rd Avenue from my high-rise on 91st street to get the crosstown bus on 96th street headed to the west side of Manhattan, I noticed a number of police cars headed east of 3rd Avenue. After I got on the bus and was crossing through the park, a fire engine headed east in the opposite lane. This was an unusual occurrence, so much so that the woman sitting next to me on the bus asked me what was going on. Was there a big fire or something? I said I didn’t know and made no connection to the fire engine and the cop cars and the accident that loomed ahead.

About 9:40 each day, I go to the online edition of the NY Times to see how the stock market is doing. I don’t own any stocks but I am curious to see how the capitalist system is doing. This is what awaited me:

A crane toppled and collapsed onto a high-rise apartment building on East 91st Street on the Upper East Side on Friday morning, tearing off balconies and leaving a swath of damage, in the second Manhattan crane collapse in two months. One person, the operator of the crane’s cab, was killed and at least one other has been pulled from the wreckage, but that person’s condition was not immediately known, a law enforcement official said.

I called my apartment frantically to see if my wife was okay. She rarely walks over to First Avenue, 2 blocks east, unless she is with me en route to a restaurant in the evening but I was still worried. She answered the phone and told me that she was okay. That was a relief.

This has been the second such incident to occur in Manhattan in the last 3 months. In March, a crane collapsed on East 51st street killing four construction workers and injuring a dozen others. It was subsequently revealed that the site had not been inspected properly:

A city crane inspector faces felony criminal charges after he falsely claimed to have inspected a crane 11 days before it collapsed on the East Side, killing seven people and causing a wide swath of destruction, city officials said yesterday.

While the city’s top building official asserted it is “highly unlikely” a real inspection before the collapse would have prevented the tragedy, critics said the allegation was indicative of the Building Department’s lax approach to inspections.

Edward J. Marquette, 46, a crane inspector with the city Department of Buildings, was arrested Wednesday night after “things didn’t add up” with an inspection report he filed on the crane, said Department of Investigation Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn. Marquette had been sent to inspect the crane in response to a complaint that it had not been properly secured.

“According to our investigation, Marquette made false statements on his route sheet, indicating that he had inspected the crane,” Hearn said. “He has admitted to DOI that he did not inspect the crane on March 4th.”

It is related to the construction industry’s greed and a city government that favors the construction industry, even when liberal municipal politicians raise a stink when such accidents occur. Building inspectors are always taking bribes, going back to 1871 when the NY Times filed a report on ”Disgraceful Corruption in the Department of Buildings.” It described a meeting of 25 architects, ”uptown builders” and house owners who released an 11-point petition charging the department with ”tyranny” for habitually taking bribes. One $1,400 check was sent directly to James McGregory, the agency superintendent, to speed construction of a five-story structure.

I started writing this article about an hour ago. An update on the NY Times online edition provides new information:

According to city records, the company that is building the Azure is the Leon D. DeMatteis Construction Corporation of Elmont, on Long Island. A call to the sales office of 1765 First Associates L.L.C., a subsidiary of DeMatteis, was not immediately returned.

City records show that the building has been the subject of several complaints from residents who have called the city’s 311 hot line. On May 20, a caller complained about the crane, saying that its platform extended across the sidewalk and well into traffic. A Buildings Department inspector responded but determined there was no violation.

DeMatteis, it turns out, is my very own landlord. My building was in the Mitchell-Lama program that provided affordable housing to middle-class New Yorkers and tax abatements to the landlord. After the building satisfied its 20 year obligations to Mitchell-Lama, it was privatized. The tenants conducted an intense struggle with DeMatteis to maintain affordable rents that ultimately failed to achieve its goals. The wife and I feel like we are hanging on at the edge of precipice.

As this December 26, 1991 New York Times article indicates, the DeMatteis corporation is exactly the kind that would prosper in the city today.

New York Cancels Builder’s Contract, Citing Reports on Mob Ties


New York City has revoked a $1.2 million contract with a major construction company that officials say concealed and altered reports about possible ties to organized-crime figures.

The contract was awarded in July to the Leon D. DeMatteis Construction Company of Elmont, L.I., to supervise the building of a $67 million jail annex on Rikers Island. But in a decision made public this week, the city said the company had withheld “troubling” information about its business associations and had submitted an altered copy of a report concerning its possible ties to reputed organized-crime figures.

Michael C. Rogers, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Contracts, who revoked the contract, said in an interview that the city would also move to disqualify the DeMatteis company from seeking other municipal contracts.

A spokesman for the company, Martin J. Steadman, called the decision to cancel the contract “assassination by innuendo.” He said the company was considering bringing a lawsuit seeking to restore the contract and “to protect and preserve our reputation.”

Mr. Steadman said Mr. Rogers’s findings were based on allegations that had been previously investigated and rejected by Federal prosecutors in New York and the authorities in New Jersey.

In August the New York City Comptroller, Elizabeth Holtzman, urged Mayor David N. Dinkins to cancel the contract, which had been awarded by the Department of General Services to the DeMatteis company to oversee the design and construction of the 500-bed jail annex.

Ms. Holtzman said the company’s chief executive officer, Frederick DeMatteis, had been the principal owner of the Cedar Park Concrete Corporation. Cedar Park, she noted, had been identified in a Federal trial as a company used by Mafia leaders to rig concrete contracts in the early 1980’s.

Mr. DeMatteis has acknowledged being a business partner from 1984 to 1988 in the Metro Concrete Company in New York with the son-in-law of Paul Castellano, the former head of the Gambino crime family who was killed outside an East Side restaurant in December 1985.

In a report, Mr. Rogers said that Mr. DeMatteis has never been accused of criminal wrongdoing. But he said that when the company applied for the contract, it did not disclose in a background questionnaire that it had been the subject of law-enforcement investigations.

Mr. Rogers also said that in response to Ms. Holtzman’s objections, the DeMatteis company submitted an altered copy of a report that had been prepared by the office of the New Jersey Attorney General about Mr. DeMatteis’s business dealings with reputed organized-crime figures.

Officials of the company said that the report was mistakenly revised by a lawyer who had represented the company in New Jersey and that there was no attempt by the company to deceive the city.

“The cases in which information was not disclosed here are just too numerous to be explained away,” Mr. Rogers said in his report. “When the totality of circumstances is considered, the picture that is presented is that the DeMatteis Corporation is not a responsible vendor.”

In the late 1980’s the DeMatteis company built a $28 million jail and a $19 million Sanitation Department garage for the city. It has no other current contracts with the city.

The company, one of the largest residential and commercial builders and developers in the New York region, constructed the Museum Tower, a luxury apartment building above the Museum of Modern Art on West 53d Street, and the Confucius Plaza apartments on Chatham Square in lower Manhattan.

Evidently, DeMatteis was not qualified to build an annex to the Rikers Island jailhouse but qualified enough to erect a high-rise 2 blocks from my home, endangering the lives of workers and local residents. An annex should have been built just to house the DeMatteis family and they should have thrown away the key.


It turns out that the crane company involved with the East 91st street accident, owned by one James F. Lomma, has some track record.

The New York Times, September 18, 1999
Crane Secured for Storm Falls, Killing a Worker in Chelsea

A huge crane collapsed at a Chelsea construction site yesterday morning, killing one worker and injuring three others after the crane operator tried to hoist the boom without releasing special restraints intended to prevent an accident once Hurricane Floyd reached the city, officials said.

The 383-foot red steel crane, which had become a fixture in the bustling neighborhood, buckled under the restraints, tumbled backward and crashed at the corner of 24th Street and the Avenue of the Americas just after 7 A.M., crushing a carpenter who was having breakfast on the sidewalk before heading to work at the site.

The man, Kenneth Preiman, 43, suffered severe head injuries and was pronounced dead at the scene, where the crane knocked over a traffic light and a lamppost and left a hole a foot deep in the sidewalk…

A field supervisor for Laquila/Pinnacle said both the crane operator and the victim worked for the company, which is based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Laquila/Pinacle has been subcontracted to create the concrete superstructure for the 29-story, $75 million apartment building, which is scheduled to open in the spring. The crane belonged to New York Crane, a subsidiary of Lomma Construction.

The New York Times, March 17, 2008
Fall of Six-Ton Support Caused Crane to Topple

The spectacular collapse of a towering crane on the East Side began when a massive piece of steel designed to secure it to a new high-rise building came loose and pancaked on top of a second support nine stories below, shearing it free and creating a fatal imbalance that sent the 22-story crane toppling across a two-block swath of Turtle Bay, officials said on Sunday.

Officials were focusing their investigation in part on the way the steel piece — called a ”collar” — was being installed, including whether a series of hoists and nylon straps used to hold it temporarily in place were strong enough to sustain its weight, said Patricia J. Lancaster, the buildings commissioner. Building officials estimated the weight at 12,000 pounds.

Meanwhile, work crews and rescuers swarmed over the site of the disaster, on 51st Street and 50th Street just east of Second Avenue. They began to remove portions of the broken crane’s white lattice tower, one leaning against a 19-story building on 51st Street and another, which had broken off and tumbled through the air, lying across a demolished four-story town house on 50th Street.

Four construction workers — a crane operator and three riggers who were helping to ”jump” the crane, or increase its height — were killed. Three people were missing. On Sunday, as hope dwindled, firefighters, including a unit that specializes in building collapses, continued to search for signs of life. ”We’re still calling it a search operation, though with each passing hour, things are getting more grim,” said Nicholas Scoppetta, the fire commissioner.

The crane was owned by New York Crane & Equipment Corporation, but it had apparently been leased to one of the contractors involved in the project.

NY Times, May 31, 2008
Investigators Look at Equipment, Not Crane’s Operators

Investigators are focusing on a bad weld as the possible cause of an accident on Friday in which the top of a crane snapped off, crashed into a building across the street and killed two construction workers, the city’s acting buildings commissioner said.

Investigators were also trying to determine whether a crucial part of the crane — the rotating plate that connects the cab and boom at the top to the tower — had been removed from a different construction job a year ago after developing a dangerous crack, another city official said.

Questions about the history and condition of the turntable may turn the focus of the investigation to its owner, New York Crane, which was also the company that owned the crane that collapsed on March 15 on East 51st Street.

That accident occurred under very different circumstances, when sections were being added to increase the crane’s height. Investigators believe that the crew making the crane taller may have made mistakes in the way they supported a huge steel collar high up on the crane. The collar fell, knocking out the cranes supports and causing it to collapse onto nearby buildings.

James F. Lomma, the owner of New York Crane and Equipment, did not return calls left at his office in New Jersey or on his cell phone.

May 28, 2008


Filed under: india — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

About a year ago I reviewed “Amu“, a very fine film by an Indian-American graduate of Columbia University. So when I received a press release on “Vanaja”, another film with such a pedigree, I was anxious to see it. I can now report that “Vanaja”, produced and directed by Rajnesh Domalpalli for his MFA, is a stunning achievement. As a study of caste oppression in India, it reflects the same kind of political commitment as “Amu”, which focused on the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. But both films are not just political statements. They are also superb stories with very fine performances by nonprofessionals. Although I am no expert on student films, it strikes me that “Vanaja” might be the most accomplished example of such work ever, as suggested by its award as best first film by the Berlin Film Festival last year.

Vanaja is the 14 year old daughter of a lower-caste fisherman who is forced by economic circumstances to go to work as the servant of a local landowner named Rama Devi, an elderly woman who is an expert in Kuchipudi dance. Since Vanaja has a passion for the Kuchipudi art-form, she implores the mistress to train her. The humiliation and pain are almost as great as that suffered by Uma Thurman in her training by an elderly martial arts master in “Kill Bill 2”.

Vanaja has trouble kowtowing to her mistress, however. Time after time, she refuses to accept her lower-caste status especially since she is confident in her obvious talent for Kuchipudi. Adults from her caste are much more deferential to Rama Devi, including her father who practically bows and scrapes in her presence. Such scenes will remind you painfully of “Gone with the Wind”.

Not long after Vanaja has established herself at Devi’s mansion, she finds herself in an awkward position vis-à-vis the landlady’s college-aged son Shekhar, who has just returned from the U.S. She resents his upper-caste hauteur but finds herself drawn to him sexually. Eventually, Shekhar rapes Vanaja who becomes pregnant. The admixture of mutual sexual attraction and repulsion between two people in the same intimate surroundings but alienated by class origins goes to the very heart of “traditional” social relationships involving bondage. Vanaja is basically Sally Hemings to Shekhar’s Thomas Jefferson.

Vanaja agrees to cede her baby son to Rama Devi, who will raise it as her own. The concluding scenes of the film involve the young woman’s desperate attempts to regain what is her own. In her most forlorn moments, she is redeemed by the feeling of power that Kuchipudi performances afford her.

Rajnesh Domalpalli had twin motivations in making this film. He wanted to look at the realities of caste oppression in his Telugu-speaking state of Andhra Pradesh in South India. (The film was shot in his home town He also wanted to preserve for posterity the ancient art of Kuchipudi that is now dying off. Indeed, two noted performers who are seen at the beginning of the film have since passed away. In an interview that appears with other very interesting material on the DVD, Domalpalli explains that in small villages Kuchipudi performances were avidly attended by the entire population. Now, with the advent of television, that is no longer the case. “Modernization” in India has been a mixed blessing, needless to say.

The actors in “Vanaja” are nonprofessionals who are nearly as humble in their origin as the characters they play. For example, Vanaja’s father Somayya is played by Ramachandriah Marikanti. The film’s official website describes him as follows:

Chandraiah, as he is called, was born on the 16th of April 1945, in the village of Kamalapuram in Andhra to Marikanti Veera Swamy & Tirupamma. He was the 3rd amongst 7 children. He got married at 25 to Yenkamma, with whom he had 4 children. At an early age, he took up farming instead of going to school, but over the years lost his possessions due to mounting debt. He then began rearing ducks and trading in eggs and local ox. Unable to make ends meet, he moved family to Hyderabad, the capital, in 2001 and worked as a municipal sweeper until 2004. Following that, he eventually found work as a security guard.

His favorite scene is the one in which he acts drunk, howling to Vanaja that his boat has been taken away. He confesses that he enjoyed getting slightly drunk on the sly to make his acting more natural.

Of course, the key member of the cast is the remarkable Mamatha Bhukya, who taught herself acting and Kuchipudi all in one year during the preproduction phase of filming. She comes from an Indian gypsy family; her father is a forest ranger and her mother a housewife. When she went to Berlin for the film festival, it was the first time she ever flew on a plane.

In some ways, the most interesting story is the director’s, whose background seems totally at odds with the arts. As the film website, states: “After completing his B. Tech in EE from the IIT Mumbai in 1984 and an MS from SUNY, SB in 1986 he worked as a Computer Engineer in California’s Silicon Valley before deciding to take up Film at Columbia University in New York and graduating with an MFA in 2006.”

This renaissance man would seem to bridge C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” just as adeptly as fellow Columbia University graduate Bedabrata Pain who was the executive producer of his wife’s “Amu”: “A NASA scientist by profession Dr. Bedabrata Pain is one of the inventors of the active pixel sensor technology that produced the world’s smallest camera in 1995, and led to the digital imaging revolution in the world. This was the invention that provided the seed funding for Amu. In 1997 he was inducted to the US Space Technology Hall of Fame.” (From “Amu” website.)

“Vanaja” has just been released on DVD and should be available from Netflix before long. In the meantime, it is available from Emerging Pictures, a new theatrical distribution company for independent, international and documentary films.

Vanaja trailer

May 26, 2008

Split in the Australian DSP

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 4:40 pm

I want to say a few words about a recent split in an Australian Marxist group called the Democratic Socialist Perspective that I feel a certain affinity with, including both of the severed parts.

Back in 1982 Jim Percy, the leader of the group which was named the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) at the time, spent a couple of evenings at my apartment in Manhattan as part of a tour of the USA. (Jim died of cancer in 1992. He was 44 years old.) Jim and the Australian SWP had begun to work closely with Peter Camejo, who had been more or less expelled from the American SWP a year or so earlier. Jim, a very likable guy with a huge beer belly, struck me as the direct opposite of the imperious leaders of the SWP. We spent hours talking about Peter’s new project that I was deeply involved with, namely the North Star Network that was an attempt to break with rigid “Marxist-Leninist” vanguard party organizing methods.

Peter sought to apply the lessons of the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions to the United States, which first of all meant dropping any pretensions that you had the inside track on the future revolution. For the leaders of the American SWP, who were busy genuflecting to the Cubans and Sandinistas at this time, this was anathema. They might be willing to create an altar for them in the Militant newspaper, but it was totally unacceptable to entertain the possibility that Jack Barnes was not the Lenin of his day.

As a long time member of the SWP, Camejo had taken an extended leave of absence in Venezuela in order to try to figure out why the party had gone off on a sectarian workerist tangent. When he returned to the USA, the party brass told him to get lost. I had gone through a similar experience with the SWP myself around the same time. When I resigned in Kansas City in 1978 after an 11 year membership, I was persuaded to keep that a secret from the membership. I, like Peter, had become an “unperson”. In Peter’s case, the stakes were much higher since he had been a member for twice as long as me and a central leader.

The American SWP had also acted in a high-handed manner with the Australians who had originally taken the name Socialist Workers Party in honor of the group that had served as their model. While it would be an exaggeration to call them a clone, they certainly had absorbed the “lessons” of the American Trotskyist movement, which had reached its pinnacle of success at the time that Jim Percy and his brother John attended a Young Socialists Alliance convention in 1969. (The YSA was the youth group of the SWP).

If you were going to choose a model, the American SWP did not seem to be a bad choice at the time. Unbelievable as it might seem now, in light of its degeneration into a bizarre sect-cult around party leader Jack Barnes, the group was seen in an attractive light back then. So much so that when the NY Times Magazine assigned Walter and Miriam Schneir, authors of a highly regarded study of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial, the Times finally decided to turn it down because it was too flattering.

In a 2-part history of the DSP (part one, part two), John Percy, a leader of the minority faction that has just been expelled, explained how the SWP and the Australians parted company. Ironically, both groups had begun to evolve away from ortho-Trotskyism in the late 1970s and had generously elevated the Cuban Communist Party to their own level. The DSP made the mistake, however, of maintaining ties to Peter Camejo. No matter how close they were ideologically to the Americans, fraternizing with an “enemy of the party” like Camejo was unacceptable. Percy put it this way:

The US SWP was always a little bit suspicious of us. There were never equal relations between us. We at first put it down to the fact that we were a very new party, just learning a lot of things. But even as we became a larger party, and played an increasing role in the Fourth International, they still treated us with less than 100 per cent candor. They suspected our origins probably, coming completely out of the youth radicalisation, and were a bit hesitant about our initiatives and our independence. They were right. We weren’t just followers. One thing we’d already learned by that time (strongly pushed, ironically, by the early leaders of the SWP like James P. Cannon) was that you can’t make a revolution if you don’t develop an independent national leadership team.

My advice to the DSP–put in my inimical provocative fashion–has been to burn all their James P. Cannon books. While Cannon was a principled and talented socialist leader, his writings on how to build a revolutionary party are guaranteed to create the kind of internal regime that leads to splits and expulsions over and over again, no matter the best intentions of the people in charge. Back in June 2003, I wrote a reply to John Percy’s article “Looking backward, looking forward: Pointers to building a revolutionary party” that had taken exception to people on Marxmail, such as myself and Joaquin Bustelo, who supposedly spend “a good part of their political activity attacking their own past by attacking those still actively building a party.” In reality, we were far more interested in attacking the party-building model than the people in the trenches doing the hard work. We were trying mostly unsuccessfully to persuade the Australians to move away from Cannon’s ideas that had inspired his chief lieutenant Morris Stein to utter these words to the 1944 SWP convention:

We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery. We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.

To put it bluntly, any group that operates on the party-building principles that spawned such self-aggrandizing nonsense will by necessity suffer splits and expulsions, not to speak of the artificial barriers to growth. Radicalizing workers and students are naturally suspicious of any group that sees itself in these terms. Frankly, the idea of being “monopolists” owes more to business world than revolutionary politics. Try to imagine Che Guevara or Fidel Castro speaking in these terms in 1957. Impossible.

Back in 2002 we had a discussion on the Marxism list about the DSP and expulsions in which a number of their members dismissed as a remote possibility. One who has just been expelled himself insisted that “getting expelled from the DSP is hard.” Peter Boyle, the current leader of the DSP, took exception to the idea that the DSP was “some sort of expulsion-happy sect.” While it is true that the group had very little resemblance to the American SWP that certainly could be described as an “expulsion-happy sect”, there were some concerns about what might happen in the future given Peter’s declaration in the very same post that Leninism includes “A revolutionary factionalism/interventionism in the broader movements (revolutionary party-ism).” It sounded to me at the time that Peter was channeling Morris Stein. What kind of group would conceive of itself in terms of “revolutionary factionalism”, a label that an enemy of a party would more likely attach to it?

While it is hard to imagine John Percy uttering such infelicitous words, I am afraid that his party-building concepts remain identical to Peter Boyle’s. Both the DSP and the expelled Leninst Party Faction (LPF) that Percy leads remain wedded to the unfortunate “vanguard” conceptions of Jim Cannon. You can spot it immediately in their explanations of why they parted ways.

The LPF believes that “This process of destroying the DSP’s democratic centralist practices was an outgrowth of the majority’s most fundamental break with Leninist norms regarding differences.” The DSP leaders meanwhile regard the minority of flaunting democratic centralist principles itself:

A revolutionary socialist organisation like the DSP cannot exist without internal democracy: it requires the maximum possible discussion and democratically exchanged ideas at all levels if the party is to be able to chart a correct course through the shifts of the class struggle. Likewise, centralism is implicit in the very existence of a revolutionary socialist party: we are a voluntary union of revolutionaries precisely because we understand that united action is more effective than the uncoordinated efforts of individuals.

All this verbiage about Leninism and democratic centralism practically screams out for a reevaluation of such “principles” that seem guaranteed to do everything except produce a mass revolutionary party such as the kind that took power in 1917.

I want to conclude with some observations on the differences between the two groups, which centered on the Socialist Alliance in Australia. Ordinarily I try not to stick my nose in the business of groups in other countries in a bid to avoid the “Coyoacan syndrome” but will make an exception in this case since the Socialist Alliance question is critical for revolutionaries everywhere trying to figure out how to unite the left.

Over 5 years ago the DSP embarked on a project to unite the Australian left in a Socialist Alliance (SA) that was inspired by a similar experiment in Great Britain. This was basically an attempt to unite socialist organizations and individuals in a new framework for common action. They never went anywhere because the strongest parties in such formations tended to see them as opportunities for their own particular growth at the expense of their opponents. In Great Britain, the Socialist Alliance collapsed because of the British SWP’s heavy-handed “revolutionary intervention”, to use Peter Boyle’s formulation. In Australia it sputters along with the DSP at the helm. The built-in contradictions that are bound to hamper such formations eventually led John Percy and his co-thinkers in the DSP to mount a struggle against what they considered “liquidationism” in the Socialist Alliance. After the struggle reached a fever pitch, the DSP majority expelled the minority. I am quite sure that if Percy was in the majority, Boyle and company would have gotten the boot. That’s life in the world of James P. Cannonism.

My take on the Socialist Alliance will be in my customarily provocative fashion. If anything the DSP was not liquidationist enough. The best thing would have been to dissolve the DSP completely and work in this new framework on a totally new basis, one that dumped the “democratic centralist” mumbo jumbo that puts an artificial ceiling on the growth of any revolutionary organization. Even though the act of self-liquidation might seem suicidal to those trained in Cannonist conceptions, it is instead a necessary first step in building something genuinely massive.

Despite my obvious disregard for Cannon’s organizational recipes, I still find this American original worth quoting from time to time. When Cannon was in prison during WWII for violating the Smith Act, he found himself in conversations with some big time bank robbers who questioned his willingness to go to prison for his ideals. If you are going to go to prison, they said, you might as well go for robbing a bank when at least you can score some loot if you don’t get caught. Cannon’s reply to the robbers was that he was not interested in small scores like individual banks. He wanted, as he put it, the whole thing.

For revolutionaries who are interested in the whole thing, the necessary first step is to forget about those small scores. Making a revolution in a country like the USA or Australia involves thinking big and especially getting rid of the idea that revolutionary politics seeks to to establish a “monopoly” to use Morris Stein’s words. Ironically, it is this very ambition that is bound to keep you in the realm of petty shop-keeping.

May 23, 2008

On the Rumba River

Filed under: Africa,Film,music — louisproyect @ 2:54 pm

Wendo Kolosoy

Opening at the Village East Cinema in New York City on June 6th, Jacques Sarasin’s superlative documentary “On the Rumba River” can be described as the Congolese counterpart of “Buena Vista Social Club”.

It is a tribute to “Papa” Wendo Kolosoy, who was the first superstar of Congolese music. Born in 1925, he started off in life as a riverboat engine mechanic and a sometime professional boxer. His first album was made in 1948 but like many citizens living under Mobotu’s dictatorship fell on hard times. He would up as a street beggar eventually but was rediscovered in 1997 and has since made a comeback, just like the Cuban musicians in “Buena Vista Social Club”.

A word or two about Congolese music would be in order. The “Rumba River” is actually a reference to the Congo River, where Papa Wendo plied his trade as a young man but Rumba is, as the name applies, the same dance music made popular by Afro-Cuban musicians such as Celia Cruz and Beny Moré.

In an Afropop interview, Wendo explains how he got involved with the music:

In the beginning, my mother didn’t really have rumba music. She had more of the originality of traditional music. She came and she sang on that level. But a few years later, the rumba was there, and as she had the gift of music from God, coming from the traditional side we arrived at the rumba we know today. So I inherited this, the Cuban context, the American one–rumba, biguine, waltz, and tango–and in this way, I Wendo, arrived with a diverse style in between the rumba that you find today and the dance musics around the world.

In 1948, everyone went for rumba, biguine, waltz, chacha. That music comes from the Cuban side. We didn’t know that Cuban musicians played the rumba. Even them, they didn’t know that the rumba was being played by musicians in Leopoldville and Brazzaville, or why the rumba, tango and so on came from us, from our music.

In the 1940s, merchant seamen from Cuba brought their records with them to the Congo and other African nations where the music was adopted enthusiastically by local musicians and given their own particular African twist. Some of the early groups were so mesmerized by the sound that they even sang the Spanish-language lyrics phonetically.

Rumba evolved into Soukous, a souped-up version of the original style that relies heavily on electric guitars and synthesizers, but Wendo’s reunion band plays in the traditional acoustic style. The film follows the musicians around the Kinshasa slums and allows them to tell their stories, often to very moving effect-particularly the guitarist Mukubuele Nzoku (Bikunda) who fled Portuguese repression in Angola in the 1950s.

Bikunda’s crime was to sing in his native tongue Lingala, a Bantu language native to the Congo and parts of Angola, in a local bar. The Portuguese had banned the use of the native language in musical performances and were ready to bomb the bar that Bikunda was performing at. He fled to Congo just one step ahead of the colonial cops.

I should add that there is one significant difference between “Buena Vista Social Club” and “On the Rumba River” that becomes obvious from the minute you see the squalid slums of Kinshasa. Unlike Cuba, the Congo never had a revolution even though Patrice Lumumba was determined to sweep away class inequality before he was assassinated by the imperialists. Even though you are lifted up by the musicians’ reunion, you cannot help but feel that their fortunes are constrained by the economic misery of the country, not to speak of the civil war that has resulted in the deaths of 5 millions of its citizens.

You can watch Wendo and his musicians performing in this French language web documentary here. The music begins at 4:43.

A trailer for the movie is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ql-DpowmyqM

May 21, 2008

Giovanni Arrighi’s Vico-Marxism

Filed under: China,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

Giovanni Arrighi

On March 5th, Red Emma, a radical bookstore in Baltimore, hosted a symposium on Giovanni Arrighi’s new book “Adam Smith in Beijing”. The panel consisted of Arrighi, David Harvey and Joel Andreas, a Sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University and specialist on class relations in China from 1949 to the present.

You can watch the event here.

When I first saw the title of Arrighi’s book, I jumped to the conclusion that it was some kind of hard-hitting exposé of the capitalist transformation of China. After all, what better symbol of neoliberalism is there than Adam Smith?

I was shocked to discover that Arrighi views Adam Smith as a prophet of markets, but not of capitalism. Not only that, what’s been happening in China for the past 20 years ago is the development of markets rather than capitalism. Boy, you learn something new every day.

Except for this part of Arrighi’s talk, the rest of it was not so controversial albeit long-winded and hard-to-follow. I had to listen to it twice in order to really figure out what he was trying to say. Like some other big-time Marxists (I am using the term liberally) who lecture extemporaneously and who are assured of their prominent place in history, Arrighi seems to disdain the usual need for clarity and economy of expression. The only other big-shot who I have heard in person that is more opaque and boring is Etienne Balibar.

Arrighi addressed the Sinophobia that has cropped up from time to time in the bourgeois press and on talk radio that tends to speak of the “China threat” as if we were still in the 1950s. It is of course hard to sustain this paranoia in the face of the evidence that just about everything for sale in Walmart and Home Depot is made in China. Who would want to nuke the country that makes your underwear?

Although Arrighi dismisses the rightwing hysteria over China, he does view the country’s rapid economic growth as a challenge to Western imperialism. He describes China’s embrace of markets as a “tactic”. In order to expand its influence in the world (totally benign in Arrighi’s view), it builds up its economic strength and gives short shrift to the military, Western Europe and the U.S.’s traditional means to build up hegemony.

Effacing the differences between Mao’s China and the China of today, Arrighi explains its growing power as a function of its “revolutionary” tradition. When Mao made his revolution, he prioritized education and health care. The “iron rice bowl” and other such institutions made the Chinese workforce extremely productive. It is this productivity rather than its willingness (and need) to work for coolie wages that explains China’s rise.

Additionally, the market reforms in China hearken back to an earlier period in the country’s history when an extensive network of non-capitalist markets made it the richest country in the world. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 A.D), the emperors pursued a policy of developing a self-sufficient peasantry that had a vested interest in fighting against invaders. In contrast to Europe, which was producing a proletariat through expulsion from the land, China enjoyed what Arrighi called “accumulation by possession”, a play on David Harvey’s neo-Luxemburgian notion of “accumulation by dispossession”.

In effect, the Chinese Communist Party is today emulating the successes of the Qing Dynasty by empowering a non-capitalist market system throughout the country. Although Arrighi does not use the term “market socialism”, it is clear that his views overlap with Eric Olin Wright, another Marxist totally committed to China’s economic development path today. (I took up Wright’s ideas here.)

As it turns out, Arrighi’s definition of capitalism stems from Fernand Braudel, the French historian associated with the Annales school, named after the scholarly journal he published. Here is how Arrighi explained Braudel’s approach in a 2007 Positions article (unfortunately only available to those with access to Project Muse) titled “States, Markets, and Capitalism, East and West”:

There are many conceptions of capitalism, but for our purposes Fernand Braudel’s is the most useful. In Braudel’s conception, capitalism is “the top layer” of the world of trade. It consists of those individuals, networks, and organizations that systematically appropriate the largest profits, regardless of the particular nature of the activities (financial, commercial, industrial, or agricultural) in which they are involved. Braudel distinguishes this layer from the lower layer of “market economy,” which consists of participants in buying and selling activities whose rewards are more or less proportionate to the costs and risks involved in these activities.

For Arrighi, China has never been subject to the top layer of capitalism. It is instead characterized by the lower level of happy, goods-exchanging farmers and small entrepreneurs who, at least to me, summon up the image of hobbits in Tolkien’s fantasy novels.

As an example of these fat and happy merchants, Arrighi refers to the township/village enterprises of the 1980s that supposedly transformed the Chinese economic landscape by providing an ample supply of rural labor and allowing native entrepreneurial instincts to rise to the surface. Once this bee hive of economic activity got started, Western corporations jumped in.

Rather than answer Arrighi’s obviously ridiculous ideas, I would urge you to listen to David Harvey and Joel Andreas, who both recapitulate Marx’s definition of capitalism and explain how it functions as the dominant mode of production in China. Harvey is quite telling in an account of a visit to one of these village enterprises which transformed itself from a collective farm into what amounts to a sales office for condominiums recently.

All of those who were part of the collective became property owners immediately (after the “reform” allowed them to) and were transformed into millionaires, as explained by their chief, a man sitting under a big hammer-and-sickle banner. This man also explained to Harvey that their enterprise made heavy use of migrant labor. When Harvey asked through a translator if the migrant workers shared in the profits, the chief said of course not since they they did not “contribute anything”.

Harvey then asked the translator to ask him how that squares with the Communist iconography he was sitting underneath. The translator told Harvey that this question would mean the end of the interview.

None of this is of interest to Arrighi, who like nearly all “World Systems” theorists, disdains the class struggle in favor of the larger contests between hegemons and hegemons-to-be, which are either states or collections of states. Geopolitics trumps class in this quarter of the academic left and as such dovetails neatly with the discipline called “International Relations” in political science departments all across the world.

Arrighi’s book can be seen as the second installment of Andre Gunder Frank’s “Re-Orient”, which argued that China, after a long period of second-class citizenship in a world dominated by Western imperialism, was about to be restored to its glorious past. Frank and Arrighi most certainly would like to see the U.S. and Europe reduced to the status it once had, when Great Britain was considered the backwaters of world trade. I for one have a hard time sharing their enthusiasm. A world that consists of the cyclical rise and decline of Great Powers has more to do with Vico than Marx.

Giambattista Vico (1668 – 1744) was an Italian philosopher and historian who argued in the Scienza Nuova that civilization develops in a recurring cycle (ricorso) of three ages: the divine, the heroic, and the human. (From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giambattista_Vico) It is basically a cyclical view of history that accepts domination of states over states as a given. Heroic states dominate human states and that’s just the way it is. Europe had its turn for 500 years and now it is East Asia’s. Which reminds me, unrepentant Marxist that I am, of the words in Peggy Lee’s classic:

Peggy Lee

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up
in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement.
I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames.
And when it was all over I said to myself, “Is that all there is to a fire”

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

And when I was 12 years old, my father took me to a circus, the greatest show on earth.
There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears.
And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads.
And so I sat there watching the marvelous spectacle.
I had the feeling that something was missing.
I don’t know what, but when it was over,
I said to myself, “is that all there is to a circus?

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

Full: http://www.lyricsdownload.com/peggy-lee-is-that-all-there-is-lyrics.html

May 18, 2008

The Edge of Heaven

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:25 pm

Ayten and Lotte

Opening at the Film Forum Theater in New York on May 21, Fatih Akin’s “The Edge of Heaven” is unfortunately cut from the same cloth as Paul Haggis’s “Crash” and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Babel”. These sorts of films, with their combination of far-fetched coincidence and liberal pieties, seem to be irresistible to film festival award panels. “The Edge of Heaven” won four German Oscars, including one for Best Film. I imagine that New York film critics will fall all over themselves praising it, but that’s nothing new. “Crash” and “Babel”, another two pretentious Message movies, were also hoisted on their shoulders. My intention, as always, is to dig beneath the hype.

Fatih Akin is a 33 year old Turk who was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany. Since his last film “Crossing the Bridge” was an excellent introduction to the Turkish music scene, it can at least be said that “The Edge of Heaven” is distinguished by the inclusion of some terrific background music attributable to the director’s obvious expertise. The acting and cinematography are also first-rate, including some wonderful scenes of Istanbul streets and the starkly beautiful Black Sea region of Northern Turkey. It is too bad that the screenplay is utter nonsense.

The film begins with the elderly Ali Aksu prowling the red-light district of Bremen, where he discovers the forty-something Yeter, a fellow Turk who has spent decades in Germany just like him. Yeter is the Turkish word for “enough”, a name supposedly given to the last child born to overly large families, according to the wiki entry on the film. After several trips to Yeter, Ali invites her to come live with him. He will make sure that she gets the same money she got in the brothel.

All this takes place in the first ten minutes or so of the film and it is the best part by far. Ali is played by Tunçel Kurtiz and Nursel Köse plays Yeter. These are two veteran Turkish actors and they really are quite believable as the characters they play. I was looking forward to their continuing interaction, but was dismayed to see Ali accidentally kill Yeter during a drunken rage. He is hustled off to jail and she simply disappears as a character.

The movie then shifts abruptly to two other stories that rest on utterly implausible coincidences involving their relatives. Ali has a son named Nejat (Baki Davrak), who teaches German literature in Hamburg. When we first see him, he is lecturing on Goethe’s aversion to revolution. As he is speaking, we see a young woman asleep at her desk in the back row. She turns out to be Yeter’s long-lost daughter Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay) who Nejat learned about just before Yeter’s death.

It seems that Yeter became a prostitute just to pay for her daughter’s higher education and Nejat is inspired to devote himself to tracking down Ayten and funding her graduate studies. So consumed is he by the need to find Ayten that he moves to Istanbul and buys a German-language bookstore just to keep him going. If you have trouble believing that a tenured professor would throw away his job in order to devote himself to finding a woman that he never met, welcome to the club.

Apparently, Akin wanted to communicate a Message to the audience through the relationship between these characters. In the press notes, he states that “Literacy, education, plays a profound role” in his movie and that “the key element” in the film is reading. Very high-minded stuff. It is too bad that it is not reflected through dramatic action. You’re better off reading John Dewey.

As if to confirm Goethe’s anti-revolutionary musings, Ayten turns out to be a rather unlikable urban guerrilla who has just fled Istanbul after she and her comrades were caught beating up an undercover cop and firing guns at a May Day demonstration, hot damn. After spending some time in safe houses in Istanbul, she gets a fake passport from her comrades and flees to Hamburg where she ends up in the very classroom of the son of the man who has just killed her long-lost mother. I personally would be embarrassed to write such a ridiculous twist of fate into a screenplay, but then again I have no ambition to be lionized by film festival award panels.

On the very day that Ayten ends up in Nejat’s classroom, she also runs into Lotte Staub (Patrycia Ziolkowska), a graduate student who has just returned from India. Ayten is panhandling on the campus and Lotte turns out to be more than generous. She invites her back to her house and the two women become lovers almost immediately. Lotte’s mother Susanne (played by long-time Fassbinder lead actress Hanna Schygulla) is put off by Ayten, understandably so since the young woman is a walking bundle of off-putting leftist jargon. I have not seen such a cardboard cutout of a radical in a movie since “Forrest Gump”.

One night Ayten and Lotte get stopped by police in a routine check. When Ayten flees from the scene, she is apprehended by the cops and sent back to Istanbul. Lotte leaves Germany to fight for Ayten’s release. And guess where she ends up there? Bingo. You got it, right in Nejat’s bookstore, where the two strike up a friendship. He invites her to rent a room in his apartment while she struggles to free her lover, whose identity is unknown to Nejat.

In a trip to prison Lotte discovers that Ayten is much more interested in having her retrieve a pistol that she hid on a nearby roof fleeing from the cops during the May Day protest than in getting released from prison. As a dedicated revolutionary, the Cause is more important to her than anything else. It is too bad that Akin lacks the knowledge of radical politics that would make Ayten’s behavior plausible. The mission to retrieve the pistol serves more as a device to move the plot forward than anything else.

Throwing caution to the wind, Lotte picks up the gun and as she is walking down a slummy street in Istanbul, she is mugged by a band of street kids who she then pursues. When she catches up with them in a back lot, one of the shoots her dead with the stolen pistol and she dies on the spot. This creates an international incident just like the one that occurred in “Babel”.

Reading comments from Fatih Akin in the press notes, one is struck by his naiveté. Here’s what he has to say about the “Art of Loving”:

Erich Fromm’s “The Art of Loving” influenced me a lot. I’m fascinated by human relationships. Not just boy meets girl or in a sexual sense, but also between parents and children. All human relationships. I believe that all the wars in the world are the result of not using love in the way that humanity should. I think evil is the product of laziness. It’s easier to hate someone than to love them.

And here am I with my silly notion that the capitalist makes war in order to acquire markets and raw materials. What must I have been thinking? By now, I am getting used to these high-falutin’ and didactic intentions in films such as “Crash” and “Babel”.

Speaking of the racial reconciliation in “Crash”, Paul Haggis opined: “It snows in Los Angeles every 30 years. If it can snow in Los Angeles, anything can happen. And that’s what this movie is about, that we contain these possibilities within us, for good or for ill. I think it’s a very hopeful movie, for that reason.”

Meanwhile, “Babel’s” Alejandro González Iñárritu offers up his own plea for love and peace in this fashion: “Traveling with my family, observing all these different cultures, made me realize how good most of the people in the world actually are. And that’s what gives me hope. It’s just one percent of the population who are enough to ruin the whole party. And yes, that one percent definitely exists — but so do all the others.”

Reading this mush from liberal directors is enough to make me want to club a baby seal to death.

May 17, 2008

The Bernstein-Bax debate

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 4:42 pm

(This post is part of an ongoing Introduction to Marxism online class.)

Eduard Bernstein: supported imperialist civilization against “savagery”

E. Belfort Bax: against imperialism–period

This post is a little late since I had to attend to some personal business this week. My hopes are that the flow of posts will increase in tempo now that we have moved past the rather thorny topic of crisis theory.

Just about two years ago I wrote an article titled “Did Karl Marx endorse imperialism?“, a question that I want to revisit in the context of a very interesting exchange between Eduard Bernstein and E. Belfort Bax, a British socialist who was one of our first great anti-imperialists.

To start with, it is necessary to acknowledge that the question of Marx endorsing imperialism achieves a certain legitimacy because of formulations in Marx’s writings themselves. Even if Marx and Engels condemned British colonialism in Ireland, there were other occasions when they seemed open to the idea of imperialism as a necessary evil in ridding a country of feudal vestiges. Probably the most explicit instance of this line of reasoning is Marx’s early Tribune articles on India, where he says things like this in 1853:

England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.

Now it is important to understand that Marx revised his thinking late in life on the role of Great Britain. In 1881, he wrote a letter to a Russian supporter describing the colonization of India as “a bleeding process with a vengeance.” However, what you will not find in Marx is any kind of systematic exploration of the question of imperialism. This is understandable since the main body of his work revolved around defining the capital accumulation process in Western Europe, and Great Britain in particular. That being said, it is important to note his characterization of the role of colonial plunder in making this initial accumulation process possible:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

Unfortunately, Marx did not connect the dots and demonstrate exactly how the discovery of gold and silver, etc. led to the “era of capitalist production”. If he had, perhaps it would have been impossible for Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood to dismiss their importance. This is a question we shall return to in a few weeks.

Turning now to the Bernstein-Bax debate, that I strongly urge you to read in its entirety, you will see that the differences revolve essentially about whether capitalism is some kind of “civilizing” mechanism even if it entails crimes against humanity.

Unfortunately, the 1896 Bernstein Neue Zeit article that touched off the debate is not online anywhere, but Bax’s initial response (Our German Fabian Convert; or, Socialism According to Bernstein) is very useful in framing the differences:

Referring apparently to a proposal made by myself as to supporting barbaric and savage communities against the inroads of aggressive capitalism, Bernstein is content to brush this aside as an “outcome of Romanticism.” He thereby forgets the obvious retort that his own position is the “outcome of Philistinism.” Why should the champion of the shunting-yard, the factory chimney, and the höhere kultur [higher culture] which the off-scouring of the British populations are now introducing into Matabeleland, arrogate to himself the exclusive possession of common sense? Granted that I have a too foolishly fond sympathy for outworn forms of social life, Bernstein’s affection for modern civilisation and its Errungenschaften [acquisitions] is also not established beyond the possibility of dispute as the correct Socialist emotion.

It may be true that the future does not belong to the past, but neither does it belong to the present. Bernstein prefers the squalor of modern civilisation to the rudeness of primitive barbarism. I prefer the rudeness of primitive barbarism to the squalor of modern civilisation. This is, of course, a matter of taste. But why the “outcome of Philistinism” should be so unquestionably assumed to be superior to the outcome of the other thing I really can’t quite see. Besides I deny altogether that my view of the undesirability of the forcing of capitalism on barbaric and savage peoples is especially the product of Romanticism. At all events, that extremely romantic, unmodern and unpractical person the late Friedrich Engels held substantially the same view.

The reasons for myself and other Socialists who agree with the in wishing to limit, as far as possible, the area of capitalistic exploitation, in other words, of modern civilisation (the höhere kultur of Bernstein’s admiration) are the following: – 1. Unlike Bernstein we regard modern civilisation as, per se, a curse and an evil. (This, I suppose, is what Bernstein calls Romanticism.) 2. To the obvious retort that modern capitalism is, at all events, a necessary stage to Socialism, that without present civilisation future Socialism would be impossible, we reply (while, of course, granting the main proposition) that to the revolution or evolution from Capitalism to Socialism it is not by any means essential that all barbarian and savage peoples and out-of-the-way corners of the earth should come under the dominion of capitalism, with the human misery involved in it. The existing European races and their offshoots without spreading themselves beyond their present seats, are quite adequate to effect the Social Revolution, meanwhile leaving savage and barbaric communities to work out their own social salvation in their own way. The absorption of such communities into the Socialistic world-order would then only be a question of time. 3. But more than this, we see that the present system of production and distribution is breaking down throughout the civilised world by its own weight, and that its only chance lies in annexing industrially and commercially, and wherever possible, politically, the outlying territories of the earth’s surface.

Some of the references are dated, but I don’t think it is difficult to make sense of Bax’s argument, which boils down to: “we reply (while, of course, granting the main proposition) that to the revolution or evolution from Capitalism to Socialism it is not by any means essential that all barbarian and savage peoples and out-of-the-way corners of the earth should come under the dominion of capitalism.” One reference definitely worth taking note of is this: the off-scouring of the British populations are now introducing into Matabeleland. Matabeleland was part of what is now modern day Zimbabwe. In the 1890s, Cecil Rhodes seized this and adjacent territories on behalf of the British South Africa Company (BSAC) that was modeled on the original Great Thief, the East India Company. Rhodes, of course, was singled out by Lenin as the prototypical imperialist in “Imperialism, the Final Stage of Capitalism “:

And Cecil Rhodes, we are informed by his intimate friend, the journalist Stead, expressed his imperialist views to him in 1895 in the following terms: “I was in the East End of London (a working-class quarter) yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for `bread! bread!’ and on my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism…. My cherished idea is a solution for the social problem, i.e., in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.”

In other words, a full twenty years before Lenin singled out this nefarious character, Bax had him in his sights, even if he did not mention him by name.

Shortly after Bax wrote his critique of Bernstein, the “revisionist” shot back with an article titled Amongst the Philistines – A Rejoinder to Belfort Bax. Fortunately, his reply, which is included in the Bax archives at MIA, includes an excerpt from the Neue Zeit article that Bax was attacking:

Prima facie there is for Socialists inducement to sympathise with every struggle for emancipation, and generally it will be right to investigate the case at the outset from this point of view, so natural for a democratic party. Let us first satisfy sentiment, and then ask whether sense and just interest come to the same conclusion, or where they modify it.

Not every rising of conquered races against their conquerors is, however, in the same manner a struggle for emancipation. Africa harbours tribes who adjudge to themselves the right of trading in slaves, and who can only be prevented from this sort of thing by the civilised nations of Europe. Their risings against the latter do not interest us – nay, will have us, in given cases, as opponents. The same applies to those barbaric and semi-barbaric races who make it a regular profession to invade neighboring agricultural communities, to rob cattle, etc. Races who are hostile to, or incapable of, civilisation, cannot claim our sympathy when they stand against civilisation. We do not acknowledge any right of robbery, nor any right of hunters over or against cultivators. To put it briefly, strongly as we criticise present civilisation, we acknowledge its relative acquisitions, and make them a criterion of our sympathy. We will condemn and oppose certain methods of the subjugation of savage races, but not that savage races are at all subjugated and compelled to conform with the rules of higher civilisation.

A struggle for emancipation must contain in itself an element of civilisation if it shall have a claim can our deep sympathy, and eventually active support, be it that races or nationalities who have developed a civilisation of their own stand up against foreign domination that hinders their further development, or that an advancing class rebels against its suppression by retrograde classes. We acknowledge the right of nationality to every people that has shown itself capable of developing or maintaining such national civilisations.

Bernstein would seem to be implicitly invoking Marx’s 1853 article on India when he refers to Africa harboring “tribes who adjudge to themselves the right of trading in slaves, and who can only be prevented from this sort of thing by the civilised nations of Europe.” After all, didn’t Marx say in that very same article?

We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.

To buttress his Marxist credentials against the “romantic” Bax, Bernstein cites Capital:

As to Karl Marx I advise Bax to read in the Kapital the foot-note to paragraph 3, chapter viii., where Marx in the most severe way censures Carlyle for having, in the same fashion as Bax does today, taken sides “for slavery against capitalist civilisation.” Philistine Marx there calls the anti-slavery war “the only magnificent contemporary event.”

(Interestingly enough, I could not find any such foot-note in MIA, but leaving that aside, the real question is whether the social revolution being led by Abraham Lincoln, obviously the event referred to by Marx as “the only magnificent contemporary event”, has anything to do with Great Britain’s foray into Africa. To start with, slavery in Africa was not chattel slavery. Since there was no commodity production, there was no tendency toward super-exploitation. In pre-capitalist societies, slaves could enjoy substantial power. For example, in the Ottoman Empire, slaves were often top military commanders.)

I have to say that my mind functions much like Bax’s to my pleasant surprise. Immediately after writing the above paragraph, I turned to his final response to Bernstein, which was contained in a letter to an unnamed comrade, and found the following:

Similarly, the reference to Marx leaves my withers unwrung [Bax certainly had a way with the winged phrase.]. Marx had in view not the natural primitive slavery of Central Africa, but a slavery that had survived its function and obtained in the very heart of a capitalist state of society – a society which was ready for free labour, but, from short-sightedness or indolence, preferred slave-labour. All the same, I would not like to swear that the condition of the Southern State negro is better today than under the old slaveholding system.

I should mention that I first stumbled across Bax in the course of doing some research for a critique of Hardt-Negri’s “Empire”, a book that I regard as in the Bernstein tradition. They basically view globalization as a kind of necessary evil that will help move the struggle toward a classless society forward. In other words, they try to make an amalgam of Thomas Friedman and communism not much different than Bernstein’s earlier attempts to justify colonial penetration of “savage” societies. This is an excerpt from my article on “Empire”:

Within a few years, the Second International would become embroiled in a controversy that pitted Eduard Bernstein against the revolutionary wing of the movement, including British Marxist Belford Bax and Rosa Luxemburg. Using arguments similar to Hardt and Negri’s, Bernstein said that colonialism was basically a good thing since it would hasten the process of drawing savages into capitalist civilization, a necessary first step to building communism. Unfortunately, the Bernstein article referred to below is not available online.

In a January 5, 1898 article titled “The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social Revolution,” Bernstein makes the case for colonial rule over Morocco. Drawing from English socialist Cunningham Graham’s travel writings, Bernstein states there is absolutely nothing admirable about Morocco. In such countries where feudalism is mixed with slavery, a firm hand is necessary to drag the brutes into the civilized world:

There is a great deal of sound evidence to support the view that, in the present state of public opinion in Europe, the subjection of natives to the authority of European administration does not always entail a worsening of their condition, but often means the opposite. However much violence, fraud, and other unworthy actions accompanied the spread of European rule in earlier centuries, as they often still do today, the other side of the picture is that, under direct European rule, savages are without exception better off than they were before…

Am I, because I acknowledge all this, an ‘adulator’ of the present? If so, let me refer Bax to The Communist Manifesto, which opens with an ‘adulation’ of the bourgeoisie which no hired hack of the latter could have written more impressively. However, in the fifty years since the Manifesto was written the world has advanced rather than regressed; and the revolutions which have been accomplished in public life since then, especially the rise of modern democracy, have not been without influence on the doctrine of social obligation.” (Marxism and Social Democracy, p. 153-154)

It is of course no accident that arguments found in Bernstein are now making a re-appearance in “Empire” a little bit over a century later. We have been going through a fifty-year economic expansion in the imperialist world that tends to cast a shadow over the project of proletarian revolution. From a class perspective, it is not too difficult to understand why the new challenge to Marxism–in the name of Marxism–emerges out of the academy just as it arose out of the top rungs of the party bureaucracy in the 1880s. From a relatively privileged social position in the bowels of the most privileged nations on earth, it is easy to succumb to defeatist moods.

In a couple of days, I will be posting something from Rosa Luxemburg and David Harvey about the role of “accumulation by dispossession”, a term for imperialism.

May 16, 2008

Reflections on my mother’s death

Filed under: aging — louisproyect @ 2:59 pm

Me and mom, from the mid-1980s

When the phone rang just after midnight on Monday evening, I knew what to expect. It was a doctor at the Catskill Regional Hospital in upstate New York informing me that my mother had just died in her room in the geriatrics ward. She was two months short of her 88th birthday and probably died of heart failure, although the doctor could not be sure.

I went upstate on Tuesday morning and returned Thursday evening, a few hours after the funeral. For those few days, I was immersed in grief and cried repeatedly. As a generally self-contained personality, I was surprised by how hard my mother’s death hit me. Over the years, I have spent summer days on the beach facing the Atlantic Ocean near an old friend’s house in Rockaway. There is a strong undertow there and inexperienced swimmers drown every so often. I am not much of a swimmer and never venture much more than 50 feet into the turbulent waters but occasionally a powerful wave will wash over me and knock me off my feet into the ocean, where I struggle momentarily to reach the surface. That was what my grief felt like this week.

They say that the personal is political and that can’t be more true for people in my age bracket who were radicalized by the war in Vietnam. Now in our sixties, we find ourselves grappling with the problem of caring for aging parents. I wrote about this for MRZine a while back. Here are the first two paragraphs:

In May of 2004, my mother finally went into a nursing home after three years of mounting health problems. Many baby boomers besides me have also found themselves coping with the difficulties of looking after aging parents who can barely care for themselves, just as they near retirement age. It is analogous to the burden one assumes in raising a child, but without compensating joys. This generational drama involves intense personal and social pressures. Inevitably, questions of one’s own mortality, too, are posed for the middle-aged son or daughter of a parent struggling to remain independent. When you reach sixty, as I have, you begin to realize that you too are susceptible to failing health. You are also confronted with major economic challenges, since the costs of care for the elderly are enormous in a capitalist society racing to eradicate the last vestiges of the welfare state.

In years past, elderly parents were taken into their children’s home. With the breakdown of rural life, this is no longer the case. Capitalist society is very good at turning people into individual economic actors but even better at destroying traditional bonds of solidarity and support.

On Tuesday I went up to my mother’s room and sorted through her papers trying–unsuccessfully–to find an obituary that she had written just for the occasion. I ended up writing one myself:

Sullivan County Democrat, May 16, 2008

Ann Proyect
Journalist, 87

Ann Proyect passed away on May 12, 2008 at the Skilled Nursing Unit facility at Catskill Regional Medical Center, where she always felt at home during her final years. She repeatedly paid tribute to the compassion and the expert care she received from the staff. She was 87.

Ann, who was born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., moved to Woodridge shortly after the end of WWII with her husband Jacob who predeceased her. She was very involved with civic life in Woodridge, serving as an officer of Hadassah during the 1950s as part of a lifelong commitment to the Jewish state.

Ann was also very committed to Jewish values, especially as reflected in the reform Judaism of Temple Sholom in Monticello where she was an enthusiastic member of the congregation for over 20 years. She worked closely with fellow congregant and close companion Victor Gordon in organizing yearly yard sales to benefit the temple.

She was also a journalist who wrote a regular column about Woodridge for local newspapers, including the Sullivan County Democrat at one time.

Ann was well-known for warmth and generosity as well as her sometimes stubborn adherence to the values that sustained her over a lifetime.

She was predeceased by a son, Allen. Her son, Louis Proyect is a resident of Manhattan and a longtime employee of Columbia University.

Although I loved my mother dearly, her Zionism did drive me crazy. No matter how many times I asked her not to bring up Israel, she kept returning to the subject. Just a few days before she died, she mailed me a large envelope full of clippings from the local newspapers. Sandwiched in between such items as the status of Bald Eagles on the Delaware River was an article making the case for Israel. I told my wife that my mom was up to her old tricks.

It was clear that I had inherited her zealotry gene. Where she had devoted herself to an idealized Israel of kibbutzim and trees growing in the desert, I was just as stubborn in my own devotion to a socialist ideal. And, like my mother, I could be gracious to people who agreed with my vision and just as prickly when they did not. As the rabbi told the congregation during the funeral service, my mother was never shy about telling people what she thought. Neither am I.

From the minute I received the phone call Monday night to arriving at the cemetery, I was beside myself with grief. But not long after the coffin was lowered into the earth and the last shovel full of dirt placed on top of it, my spirits began to lift. A sense of closure lifted me from the ocean’s water.

It dawned on me later that the funeral service was the first of any kind of Jewish liturgy that I had participated in since 1970 when my father died. Obviously, I was obligated to go to a synagogue in such circumstances. This time around I paid closer attention to the sermon since I had a lot more emotional investment in my mother’s life than in my father’s, a cold and remote figure. The rabbi kept stressing how my mother would be with God now, an idea that obviously holds little water with me.

But I realized that whether or not she was six feet under or up in heaven, the experience of praying in her memory meant a lot to her fellow believers and even to me, the life-long atheist. As part of a ritual that the Monticello, NY Reform Synagogue she belonged to, attendees surrounding the burial plot were invited to take turns shoveling in some earth which the rabbi likened to a parent tucking their child into bed.

As Marx once said, “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

In a life sometimes filled with tragedy, my mother turned to religion to help her with “real suffering”. In a life filled with political engagement, I found myself consoled by a religious ceremony that had little to do with my own analytical and materialist core beliefs. As such it was therapeutic.

I can’t say that this experience has turned me into a believer, but in years to come I will certainly be tempted to recite the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish on May 12th each year, the day of her passing: “Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.”

May 12, 2008


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:00 pm

“Yella”, a German film opening at the Cinema Village Theater in New York on May 16th, is marred by a completely unsatisfying conclusion but up until that point it is first-rate. At the end of this review, I will discuss that conclusion but preface it by a subheading of Spoiler just to make sure that you are warned in advance.

Director Christian Petzold, whose work I am not familiar with, describes his film in the press notes as follows:

I often work with characters who have been presumptuous, who have wanted a little too much and who are now on the outside, shut out, no longer belonging. Their plans and intrigues, and their work towards getting back in again, into life, into society, into love … The East [of Germany] is a region that can no longer feed its inhabitants in dignity. People are forced to leave there, but walking away is the hard part. The world they leave behind, the towns and villages which have been emptied, ghost towns. Someone who has come from a ghost town like this and who wants to enter into life, but carries around the ghostly with them, that is what Yella is all about.

Yella (Nina Hoss, a long-time collaborator with Petzold) is the name of a thirty-something woman who is living in a small town in former East Germany. She has just broken up with her husband Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann) and has taken a job as an accountant in Hamburg. Although she fears him, she decides to accept a ride with him to the local train station. As soon as she sits down in the front seat of the car, he begins to assail her verbally. It is obvious that he is disturbed. When she insists that he stop the car and release her, he ignores her request and continues with his verbal assault which is escalating to even higher levels.

When they are crossing a bridge over the Elbe River, Ben swerves the car into the railings and they crash into the river below. A moment or two later, they both emerge from the river soaking wet but seemingly unscathed. Yella collects her luggage, which is floating on the river bank, and continues on her way leaving an exhausted Ben at the river bank. She makes her way to the train station and arrives at Hamburg later that day.

After her first job falls through, Yella hooks up with an utterly soulless and ambitious private investor named Philipp (Devid Striesow) who she accompanies to meetings with corporate executives. Since Philipp is trying to figure out how to get them to accept lower bids for their assets than they seek, Yella is the perfect accomplice. Her ability to read balance sheets allows her to put the executives on the spot. When one of them claims that their network systems is worth 80 thousand Euros, she reminds them that they bought it at an auction of a bankrupt company and that it is only worth 2 thousand.

Philipp’s admiration for Yella’s cunning and hers for his ruthlessness soon kindles a romantic relationship. They drive around Germany going from one meeting to another in super-modern but sterile looking office buildings and spend nights at equally super-modern and sterile looking motels. Their conversation revolves entirely around their next confrontation with hostile businessmen who they are trying to con.

When the conversation is not about money, it is about Ben who has recovered from his plunge in the Elbe and has begun to stalk Yella in Hamburg. At one point he shows up in her hotel room and beats her. Your sympathy is with Yella, even though she is involved with shady financial dealings. Mostly, you understand that she is trapped in a world that she did not create. As such, she is a perfect symbol of the fate of all East Germans, no matter their social class.


Up until the last minute or two of the film, you find yourself riveted by Petzold’s acrid social commentary as well as some inexplicably eerie touches. For example, when Ben pursues Yella down a hotel hallway, she ends up at Philipp’s door, which she pounds on for help. As soon as Philipp opens the door, Yella discovers that Ben has mysteriously disappeared.

Despite these inexplicably eerie plot twists, “Yella” is content to focus on the anomie of European corporate life, demonstrating an obvious affinity with the work of French director Laurent Cantet, whose “Human Resources” and “Time Out” deals with similar issues, particularly “Time Out”, which also featured a corrupt businessman living on the edge.

Out of the blue, as Yella and Philipp are en route to their next showdown with corporate executives, the scene shifts abruptly to the bridge of the opening scene. Ben and Yella’s car is being lifted from the waters by a tow-truck under the watchful eyes of cops, their lifeless bodies soon to follow. In other words, we have been watching a ghost story all along. None of the meetings occurred, nor did the confrontations with Ben and the soulless romance with Philippe.

I hate it when screenwriters use this kind of cop-out. Variations include waking up from a dream, with the main character rubbing his eyes. “Yella” might have been more satisfying if there had been some resolution between the major characters, even if it had occurred as some kind of ghost story. But the film ends anti-climactically in keeping with an unfortunate post-modernist sensibility still strong in the film industry apparently.

May 10, 2008


Filed under: capitalist pig — louisproyect @ 9:23 pm

Goldman-Sachs headquarters

In 1988, after about two and a half years on the job at Goldman-Sachs, I received a zero percent salary increase. I heard through the grapevine that if you didn’t get a raise, it would be a good idea to dust off your resume.

Goldman had recently hired a new Information Technology director named Rick Adam and his personnel manager gave a talk to our department outlining a new policy. She reported that Rick wanted to cut costs by replacing experienced, senior developers just like me with recent college graduates who they would train. I regret that I didn’t have a tape recorder going when she spoke to us, since I could have sued the bastards for age discrimination.

Adam was a class A prick who had the reputation for being some kind of genius. I guess the partners at Goldman were impressed with the fact was a triathlete, had graduated from West Point and worked on computer support for Apollo Space Missions. Considering the fiascos at NASA in recent years, I can’t say that I am totally surprised that Adam had to leave Goldman not long after I did.

Adam had hired a deputy director named Jim Burns, who had previously worked for the software consulting arm of Arthur Anderson Consulting (now called Accenture to separate itself from the stench of the defunct accounting division implicated in the Enron scandal.) Shortly after Burns arrived, Goldman was flooded with these snot-nosed kids from Arthur Anderson wearing suspenders and “power ties”. They looked like what central casting had turned up for Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”. None of them really knew what the hell they were doing, but Arthur Anderson charged Goldman $1000 per day for their services. I always suspected that Burns was getting kickbacks from Arthur Anderson, but could never prove it.

After getting my zero percent increase, I resigned from Goldman and consulted for a couple of years until I crash-landed at Columbia University, where I have been for about 18 years. In my first year at Columbia, I was picking up a coffee and muffin in the Business School cafeteria when I was stunned to see Jimmy Primavera sitting at a table in blue jeans, work boots and a flannel shirt. Jimmy had been the manager of trading systems at Goldman, where he had worked for 20 years or so. Like a lot of Goldman veterans, Jimmy had no college degree and joined the firm right out of the army. Not long after Rick Adam arrived, word went out that they were trying to get rid of managers with last names ending in a vowel. During a job interview at Bear-Stearns, I had run into another manager who had gotten the boot from Goldman and who was there interviewing as well. He was a Greek-American who felt like he had been stabbed in the back. Guys like him and Jimmy used to work 60 hours a week and were gung-ho believers in the firm.

When I asked Jimmy what he was doing at Columbia, he said that he was washing windows and without missing a beat added that he was not kidding. He told me about the bloodbath that had left him and the Greek-American jobless.

One morning they came in and tried to log into PROFS, an IBM mainframe email system that predated the Internet. If the word PROFS rings a bell, that’s because it is what Oliver North used for communications during the Iran-Contra conspiracy. The Senate Investigating Committee subpoenaed the PROFS tapes and got the goods on Reagan’s boys.

Jimmy and about a dozen other managers and senior employees found that their login wasn’t working. What could be wrong? They soon found out. One by one, they were called into personnel to discover that their services were no longer needed and were then escorted back to their desk by security guards. After they put their belongings into cartons, they were escorted out of the building and put into a long string of town cars and driven home.

Robert Rubin ran Goldman at the time. He was responsible for hiring Rick Adam and for giving the green light to fire a bunch of loyal employees because they did not fit the waspy Ivy League image that the firm was trying to project. When Rubin went to work for Bill Clinton, it spoke volumes about the kind of liberalism that was being run out of the White House. What Clinton would do to the American people, Rubin had already done to people like Jimmy Primavera.

The story of the mass firings at Goldman, I should add, ended up in an early issue of Counterpunch. Jeff St. Clair, Cockburn’s partner at the time, read my account on PEN-L and asked me if he could write it up for Counterpunch. Sure, I said. Anything to tarnish their reputation was fine by me.

Every so often I like to check out what ever happened to Rick Adam. Shortly after he left Goldman, he started an aircraft company based in Colorado. He must have gotten a hell of a golden parachute to get something like that going. He had the bright idea to build corporate jets using carbon composite material. Given carbon composite’s light weight, the planes were supposed to use less fuel. Sounds like a good idea in light of the price of fuel today, right?

Well, apparently there was a gap between the good idea and the execution:

A single bulk buyer is being touted by trustees as the preferred choice to acquire the assets of bankrupt aircraft developer Adam Aircraft, which are being put up for sale on 4 April.

The lowest auction bid for the Denver, Colorado-based start-up which entered Chaper 7 bankruptcy last month, is $10 million. Each interested party must place $250,000 into an escrow account managed by trustee Jeffrey Weinman before bidding starts on 3 April.

General Capital Partners is soliciting interest, and Weinman’s hired attorney John Smiley says the trustees favour “an enterprise sale of this entire business. If that doesn’t produce satisfactory results, then the trustees will sell the assets on a piece or lot-sale basis,” he says. Assets do not include buildings or property, as all three manufacturing sites were leased. The sale is of aircraft, aircraft parts, intellectual property licences and patents, customer and vendor contracts, aircraft certifications, manufacturing equipment and backlog orders.

–Flight International, March 25, 2008

And I took even greater pleasure in reading this soon afterwards:

Bankrupt Adam Aircraft Industries Inc. is revving up its jet engines once again now that a Russian private equity firm has been cleared to restart its business.

The defunct maker of ultralight business jets won approval Wednesday, April 9, from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Colorado in Denver to sell its assets to AAI Acquisition Inc.

AAI is identified in court papers as being affiliated with Moscow-based private equity firm Industrial Investors and was formed solely for the acquisition of Adam Aircraft. AAI was the only qualified bidder to step forward by Adam Aircraft’s bidding deadline, winning the assets with a $10 million offer.

–Daily Deal, April 11, 2008 Friday

The new owners did not retain Rick Adam’s dubious services. He got his walking papers right after the Rooskies took over and he has now started a new software company with Jim Burns, his old number two at Goldman, at his side once again. The company, called Recondo, is involved with setting up database systems to guard against indigent people getting hospital care using invalid Medicaid identification, just the ticket for a creep like Rick Adam.

I look back at the time I spent at Goldman and am amazed how corrupted I was by that experience. I spent a ton of money on fancy Paul Stuart suits and shoes that I gave to a thrift shop not long after starting at Columbia. The only “yuppie” artifact of my time spent there is a Mount Blanc ballpoint pen that I never use since the refills are so expensive.

The only thing that mattered to me at the time was the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. By day I worked at Goldman and by night I helped to organize Tecnica, a technical aid project, out of my living room. At one point, Newsday did a big article on Nicaragua solidarity in New York and the reporter came to visit me at Goldman. This is what he wrote:

Lou Proyect works in a Wall Street investment bank, one of 25 “database administrators” who sit in a numbing row of fluorescent-blanched cubicles and stares at computers until the end of the day. It is the latest variation on the kind of job he has held for 19 years. Tacked to the wall of his cubicle is the latest article cut out from PC Week, a personal computer trade magazine: “IBM’s PS/2s aren’t all that revolutionary.” Neither, he says, is Lou Proyect.

I can’t even remember what point I was trying to make at the time. Was I trying to say that I was not some stupid sectarian blathering about revolution? Or was I just trying to make sure that Goldman did not decide to fire me after the article appeared?

At any rate, they did get rid of me not long afterwards but not because of my politics. Looking back at my miserable but well-paid experience there, I have to say that it is the biggest favor that they could have done for me.



Apr 14, 2008

Pueblo Pursues $2M After Adam Aircraft Bankruptcy

PUEBLO, Colo. (AP) ― Pueblo officials say they will continue to pursue $2 million they say the city is owed after small-plane maker Adam Aircraft filed for bankruptcy.

Adam Aircraft shut down its operations at Pueblo, Englewood and Ogden, Utah, this year. AAI Acquisition Inc. won approval from a bankruptcy judge to buy the company last week.

AAI says the company will reopen at Centennial but has no immediate plans to restart operations in Pueblo or Ogden.

Pueblo City Attorney Tom Jagger says the city gave Adam Aircraft $1.4 million in exchange for a pledge to create 440 jobs in the city. Pueblo also bought and remodeled a building for the company.

Jagger says the city will try to recoup the money in court.

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