Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 31, 2008

Irrational Exuberance

Filed under: economics,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 2:26 pm

Wall Street Journal, April 14, 1972
Turnabout Nation
Brazil’s Economy Goes from Mess to Miracle, Grows Over 11% in Year

By Everett G. Martin

Rio de Janeiro-“In 10 years, Brazil will be one of the five great powers of the world.”

The Brazilian banker’s prediction may sound pretty exuberant. But businessmen all over this massive country exude such confidence these days-and not without reason. Brazil, once a monumental economic mess, now is staging an economic miracle. Indeed, some economists think the country may have a thing or two to teach the United States, especially about stimulating growth while sort of controlling inflation.

In the past four years, Brazil has sustained a steady real growth, excluding inflationary distortions, that averaged a staggering 9.8% a year. Last year, the rate reached 11.3%-one of the highest in the world. (In contrast, the U.S. growth rate last year was 2.6%. Due to a slowdown, even the normally high-flying Japanese economy grew only about 4.5% last year; it is expected to expand about 8.5% this year.) Partly through vigorous use of tax incentives and other measures, this nation of 95 million may achieve growth rates averaging 8% or 9% for years to come, both Brazilian and foreign economists predict.

Today, bustling Brazilian factories export watches to Switzerland, precision instruments to West Germany, shoes to Italy and computer parts to the U.S. The nation’s auto plants now use all Brazilian-made parts and produce 500,000 cars a year-double the level of five years ago. Ford Motor Co. is building a Brazilian plant that is expected to export 200,000 engines a year for the company’s American-made Pinto model. Soon, then, Americans will be driving cars with Brazilian engines.


Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), November 21, 1988
Brazil Declines into Grim Despair

ON the rare occasions that Brazil’s President, Mr Jose Sarney, appears in public these days, it is usually at a military function, and he is normally flanked by the Ministers of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Mr Sarney was a longtime ally of the military when, in 1985, he became the country’s first civilian ruler in 21 years. But now he has more immediate reasons to keep close company with his generals. His popularity has collapsed, his Government appears increasingly unable to deal with the multiple crises strangling Brazil and growing discontent among workers and the urban poor is threatening the country’s internal stability and rocking the confidence of its external creditors. Two weeks ago, soldiers killed several workers while evicting 12,000 strikers from a State-owned steel mill. In last week’s local elections, leftist candidates swept to power in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Despite the once-confident boast of the country having achieved an economic miracle, Brazil today is an exaggerated version of Latin America’s economic malaise. The country is saddled with an international debt in excess of $US100 billion ($A116 billion). A quarter of its workforce is unemployed, inflation could reach 1,000 per cent for this year and purchasing power has declined by 40 per cent over the past two years. Three years into the “New Republic” under President Sarney, Brazil’s Government appears tired to the point of inertia. Unable to juggle the demands of its constituents and its creditors, the Government has ceded responsibilities to other powerful interest groups. It added its signature to a recent tripartite social pact on prices-and-wages control. But the package was initiated by the private sector and engineered by business and union leaders.

The Government’s inability to deal with the country’s economic collapse, together with widespread allegations of corruption by officials, has led to a disenchantment with President Sarney and doubts about the prospects for Brazil’s fragile democracy. A new Constitution was presented in October and elections for the presidency are due to be held next year. But pessimism has fuelled rumours of a coup and an ominous, if not yet overpowering, resignation about a return to the rule of the generals.


NY Times, July 31, 2008
Strong Economy Propels Brazil to World Stage
By Alexei Barrionuevo

Fortaleza – Desperate to escape her hand-to-mouth existence in one of Brazil’s poorest regions, Maria Benedita Sousa used a small loan five years ago to buy two sewing machines and start her own business making women’s underwear.

Today Ms. Sousa, a mother of three who started out working in a jeans factory making minimum wage, employs 25 people in a modest two-room factory that produces 55,000 pairs of cotton underwear a month. She bought and renovated a house for her family and is now thinking of buying a second car. Her daughter, who is studying to be a pharmacist, could be the first family member to finish college.

“You can’t imagine the happiness I am feeling,” Ms. Sousa, 43, said from the floor of her business, Big Mateus, named after a son. “I am someone who came from the countryside to the city. I battled and battled, and today my children are studying, with one in college and two others in school. It’s a gift from God.”

Today her country is lifting itself up in much the same way. Brazil, South America’s largest economy, is finally poised to realize its long-anticipated potential as a global player, economists say, as the country rides its biggest economic expansion in three decades.

Full: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/31/world/americas/31brazil.html

July 30, 2008

Worst European massacre since the end of WWII?

Filed under: Yugoslavia — louisproyect @ 7:31 pm

Marshall Tito: far bloodier than Radovan Karadzic

In news coverage of the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, there are constant references to the 8,000 dead at Srebrenica as the greatest massacre in Europe since WWII. For example, an article that appeared in the July 22nd Independent starts off:

The massacre of around 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica in July 1995 stands out as the worst carnage of the Bosnian war and the largest mass murder in Europe since the Second World War.

As an amateur historian, my curiosity was piqued. Was this really true? As it turns out, this very region was the scene of a far bloodier massacre that occurred in the town of Bleiburg in May 1945, just after the formal end of WWII. Bleiburg was on the border between Austria and Slovenia and a hub for Croatian Nazi collaborators, mostly Ustashe members. There were 30,000 POW’s who would be joined by another 60,000 Croats fleeing Tito’s advancing Partisans. Many of these were civilians who had absolutely no record of working with the Nazis.

When the Partisans reached Bleiburg, they wreaked bloody vengeance on the refugees, even though Tito himself was a Croat. As indicated from the wiki entry on Bleiberg, there are varying estimates of the casualty figures by respected historians but even the lowest estimate far exceeds whatever happened at Srebrenica.

For example, Croatian historian Vladimir Žerjavić estimates the numbers killed during the Bleiburg massacre at between 45,000 and 55,000 while British journalist Misha Glenny came up with the figure of 50,000 soldiers and 30,000 civilians executed.

Clearly the bloodbath was meant as retribution for Ustashe crimes at the Jasenovac death camps during WWII. A wiki entry on the Ustashe states that around 32,000 Jews, 40,000 Romas and between at least 300,000 and 700,000 Serbs died there.

Tito’s Partisans were not the only Communist-led soldiers who carried out war crimes. Anthony Beevor, whose book on the Stalingrad siege I found most useful in a survey of films about the pivotal WWII event, also wrote “Berlin: The Downfall 1945” that alleges that Red Army soldiers raped two million German women.

One imagines that if the left adopted the approach of Human Rights Watch, it would look at Bleiburg as just another Srebrenica type mass murder, with the perpetrators deserving to be put on trial at a place like Nuremburg or The Hague.

Yet Marxists have always used a different criterion. It is less focused on “evil” in the abstract, preferring to look at violence through the prism of history. While wars of liberation are often led by men and women who would disdain the kind of “collateral damage” associated with Bleiburg, there are notable exceptions.

For example, the FLN in Algeria often resorted to extreme violence against noncombatants, so much so that a liberal intellectual like Albert Camus decided to condemn them in numerous articles that have been the inspiration for Eustonian type declarations against the dastardly Serbs.

But unlike Algeria, Bosnia involved no such clear class distinctions. (Kosovo does involve these kinds of distinctions but that is a matter best taken up separately.) Perhaps the best analogy is with the communal riots associated with the creation of the modern states of India and Pakistan that resulted in over 10,000 deaths and 28,000 injuries by some accounts. Since both conflicts had nothing to do with social or economic emancipation, there was little point in trying to put a Marxist spin on a human tragedy except to point to the role of imperialism as Tony Cliff did at the time:

The power mainly responsible for communal clashes is British imperialism. It is she, who is responsible for the preservation of feudalism, which is the social background for the influence of religion on the masses. It is she who is responsible for the introduction about a century ago and preservation of the zamindar system, whereby permanent large landowners were put to lord over big estates in place of the former system of tax farmers. The British rulers put Hindus to rule over Moslem peasants and vice versa, thus sowing the seeds of communal discord. It is British imperialism, which is responsible for the competition of the clerks and members of the free professions, which receives a, communal colouring. And it is she who is responsible for the communal electoral system, for the sub-Federation organisation, etc.

And so, to the platitude of the Labour Government that they want to give independence, but the Indians are not capable of ruling themselves, and will cut one another’s throats in communal clashes, we must answer that the occupation army has not yet left India, that the pillars of imperialist rule – the Princes, zamindars etc. – are still in the saddle; and without their eradication the independence of India can only be a fiction.

The task of leading India’s independence of course cannot be carried out by the feudalist Moslem League or by the capitalist Indian Congress.

This should have been the approach of the socialist movement during the Bosnian civil war. Instead some elements became disoriented by the mammoth pressure orchestrated by the bourgeois press and well-funded NGO’s and began to look for “evil” men to demonize.

There seems little point in my opinion in debating over how many Muslims were killed at Srebrenica. Even accepting the 8,000 dead as an established fact, one has to ask whether justice is being served by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. On July 3rd, it decided to free the ex-commander of Bosnian Muslim forces in Srebrenica, who was originally convicted of failing to prevent men under his command killing and mistreating six Bosnian Serb prisoners. Such is the state of affairs in The Hague that this was the only charge preferred against him despite such reports in the mainstream media at the time:

Oric is a fearsome man, and proud of it.

I met him in January, 1994, in his own home in Serb-surrounded Srebrenica.

On a cold and snowy night, I sat in his living room watching a shocking video version of what might have been called Nasir Oric’s Greatest Hits.

There were burning houses, dead bodies, severed heads, and people fleeing.

Oric grinned throughout, admiring his handiwork.

“We ambushed them,” he said when a number of dead Serbs appeared on the screen.

The next sequence of dead bodies had been done in by explosives: “We launched those guys to the moon,” he boasted.

When footage of a bullet-marked ghost town appeared without any visible bodies, Oric hastened to announce: “We killed 114 Serbs there.”

Later there were celebrations, with singers with wobbly voices chanting his praises.

(Bill Schiller, “Fearsome Muslim warlord eludes Bosnian Serb forces”, The Toronto Star, July 16, 1995)

July 29, 2008

José Carlos Mariátegui

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,indigenous,Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 3:46 pm

(This was posted to the Introduction to Marxism mailing list today.)

While I have tried to base our readings on material available on the Internet, I am making an exception for a couple of chapters of José Carlos Mariátegui’s “Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality” that I have scanned in from a Columbia library book that is generally only available in such research libraries unfortunately. Also unfortunately, the Marxism Internet Archives does not contain any of his writings on Peruvian society, nor are there articles anywhere else on the Internet that do so. This is a real shame since Mariátegui is important for a number of reasons.

To begin with, he is the quintessential 3rd world anti-imperialist Marxist. In distinction to Lenin’s “Imperialism-the latest stage of Imperialism”, his writings are focused on the problems of a “peripheral” society, namely Peru. It is understandable that Lenin would focus on the growth of finance capital in advanced countries like England, France, Germany and the U.S. but Mariátegui was really one of the first Marxists to examine imperialism’s impact on a less-developed country in any kind of depth.

Mariátegui is also important because he is a major influence on Latin American Marxism in general and on the Bolivian revolutionary movement specifically today. In an article titled “The `Indian Problem’ in Peru: From Mariategui to Today ” by Hugo Blanco that appears on the Socialist Voice website, we learn:

Unlike in Europe, the development of agriculture and cattle grazing in America did not lead to the emergence of slavery; instead primitive collectivism gave way to other forms of collectivism as privileged layers and privileged people arose. Some forms of slavery may have existed for domestic work, but agricultural production was not based on slavery as it was in Greece or Rome. Rather it was based on collective organization, called by different names in the various cultures (ayllu en Quechua, calpulli en Nahuatl).

In Mariátegui’s view, the ayllu-or indigenous peasant commune-could provide the basis for socialist development. In other words, it was not necessary for Peru to pass through a capitalist stage in order to build socialism. This analysis was sharply opposed to the “stagist” conceptions of the Second International that Lenin challenged in 1917. While this appeared extremely “anti-Marxist”, especially to Kautsky, Lenin’s approach had much in common with Karl Marx’s, who late in life supported the idea of a revolution in Russia based on what amounted to Slavic ayllus. In an 1881 letter to Vera Zasulich , Marx wrote:

Theoretically speaking, then, the Russian “rural commune” can preserve itself by developing its basis, the common ownership of land, and by eliminating the principle of private property which it also implies; it can become a direct point of departure for the economic system towards which modern society tends; it can turn over a new leaf without beginning by committing suicide; it can gain possession of the fruits with which capitalist production has enriched mankind, without passing through the capitalist regime, a regime which, considered solely from the point of view of its possible duration hardly counts in the life of society. But we must descend from pure theory to the Russian reality.

Tomorrow, I am going to post chapter one of José Carlos Mariátegui’s “Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality” that is titled “Outline of the Economic Evolution” but in the meantime here is an introduction to Mariátegui that I wrote about 12 years ago. (I would generally describe myself as a Mariáteguist.)


Mariátegui is the Western Hemisphere’s most influential Marxist thinker. He compares favorably to Gramsci because of his ability to understand and write about class relations in a fresh and creative manner. In addition to founding the Communist Party of Peru, he was also a major intellectual and political influence on the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions. (The leaders of Peru’s “Shining Path” Communist Party also claim him, along with Mao, as a major intellectual and political inspiration. I will have more to say about the Shining Path in my next post.)

Mariátegui’s “Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality” (U. of Texas, 1971) is a masterpiece of Marxist thought that analyzes the class structure of Peru as well as its religion and literature. His major concern in these essays is with the oppression of the Quechuan-speaking Indian, the descendants of the Incas.

He argued that Peru was simultaneously communal, feudal and capitalist. The Peruvian government might have represented itself as a modern democratic republic to the outside world in the 1920s, but Mariátegui saw beneath the surface. What he saw was feudal property relations in the countryside and Indian villages that clung to ayllu collectivism. He proposed that the vast feudal estates be broken up and that the land be turned over to the Indians to reinvigorate the ayllus. The ayllus would form the basis of a new revolutionary society. Without showing any evidence of direct influence, Mariategui’s program for revolution in Peru bore a striking resemblance to the proposals that Marx made to his followers in Russia in 1880. He urged them to support the Populist struggle to turn the peasant communes into building blocks for a socialist society.

There is a tendency in dogmatic Marxism to see all societies as evolving through successive stages, like a larva becoming a caterpillar first before turning into a butterfly. In reality, all class societies retain modes of production from the past as well as anticipating those of the future. Barbara Brady’s “‘Resistance to capitalism’ in the Peruvian Andes” characterizes the economic and social mix of modern Peru in the following terms:

If we were to take an economic cross-section of an imaginary but typical province in the Peruvian Andes we would find examples of virtually every ‘mode of production’ in the book: modern industrial capitalism in the form of the multi-national mining corporation, large-scale farming for the world market perhaps organized by the same mining capital, traditional haciendas presided over by unruly and paternalistic gamonales, state capitalism with some form of workers’ participation where the Agrarian Reform had taken over one of the two latter forms, petty commodity production around the urban and mining centres, share-cropping and the various forms of pre-capitalist rent, right down to the survival of some communal forms of labour in the Communities [ayllus]. If we start to do the same thing from the point of view of labour in the area, we shall find that not only is it involved in all these forms, but of necessity we must move outside the area in both possible geographical directions: down to the agricultural plantations of the jungle area on the east side of the Andes, and down to the coast on the west, where we will find labour employed both by large- and small-scale capital, and in a welter of petty service and commodity occupations on the margins of the capitalist sector.

(“Ecology and Exchange in the Andes,” edited by David Lehmann, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982)

Why do precapitalist modes of production persist in Peru? Marx and Engels argued that capitalism seeks to uproot all previous forms of social and economic relationships. If it had to obey the laws of commodity production, why would the Peruvian bourgeoisie tolerate a feudal landed gentry in its midst?

Mariátegui’s caustic dismissal of the Peruvian bourgeoisie leaves no doubt. This was an underdeveloped class that lacked the social and economic power to transform Peru into a modern democratic republic in the classic mold of the USA or France. The Peruvian bourgeoisie was not a revolutionary class, especially when it came to the demand for radical land reform.

He blames this on the foreign domination of guano fertilizer and nitrates industries in the 18th century. Business and finance in the seaport cities like Lima remained in foreign hands, while development of the guano fertilizer and nitrates industries relied on the cooperation of the landowning class. The landed gentry cut deals with the British and the Americans, who had the capital and technical expertise to extract the resources. A powerful local manufacturing bourgeoisie never emerged. The power and wealth of the gentry created a class of professionals who could flatter it and cater to its needs: lawyers, writers, priests. Meanwhile, the traditional social base of the bourgeois revolution–shopkeepers and peasants–was narrow as a reed. He writes:

Guano and nitrates, first and foremost, generated a lively trade with the Western world during a period when Peru. in its unfavorable geographical location, had little hope of attracting the colonizing and civilizing currents that were sweeping through other Latin American countries. This trade placed its economy under the control of British capital. Later, as a result of debts guaranteed by both products, Peru was forced to hand over to England the administration of its railroads, that is, the very key to the exploitation of its resources.

The profits earned from the export of guano and nitrates created in Peru, where property always had preserved its aristocratic and feudal character, the first solid elements of commercial and banking capital. Those who profited directly and indirectly from the wealth on the coast began to constitute a capitalist class. The bourgeoisie that developed in Peru was related in its origin and structure to the aristocracy, which, though composed chiefly of the descendants of colonial land-holders, had been obliged by its role to adopt the basic principles of liberal economics and politics.

Eventually German scientists developed chemical fertilizer alternatives to guano, while Chile seized the nitrate fields in a brief war with Peru. The landed gentry found alternative ways to accumulate capital, mostly through raising cotton and sugar for the export markets. It continued to function as a ruling class in a nominally capitalist country, but remained hostile to the democratic values and enterpreneurialism of textbook examples of bourgeois democracies. Their vast estates remained undercapitalized and indentured labor was common. Most importantly, the law on the estate was what the gamonale, or aristocrat, said it should be in the last analysis. The scenario described in Argueda’s “Pongo’s Dream” was accurate. The lord could tell his retainers to bark like a dog if it pleased him.

Mariátegui describes the bondage of the Indian in the feudal-like estates:

In the agriculture of the sierra exactly those features of feudal property and work are found. The free labor system has not developed there. The plantation owner does not care about the productivity of his land, only about the income he receives from it. He reduces the factors of production to just two: land and the Indian. Ownership of land permits him to exploit limitlessly labor of the Indian. The usury practiced on this labor– translated into the Indian’s misery–is added to the rent charged for the land, calculated at the usual rate. The hacendado reserves the best land for himself and distributes the least fertile among his Indian laborers, who are obliged to work the former without pay and to live off the produce of the latter. The Indian pays his rent in work or crops, very rarely in money (since the Indian’s labor is worth more to the landlord), and most often in mixed forms.

The difference between the gamonale of Mariátegui’s era and the Spanish viceroys of the 16th century is that the modern aristocrat produces for the export market rather than for trade in the rural economy. In the 16th century, there might have been some paternalistic kindness offered to the Indian through a sense of “noblesse oblige,” but the modern capitalist system provides no such concessions. When the liberal revolution of the 19th century abolished the formal structures of feudalism, it destroyed the slender fabric of mutual support that existed on the plantation. Cash, not loyalty, now dominated the relationship between lord and servant.

Mariátegui did not believe that capitalism, either of the latifundista variety or the modern industrial version, could provide a better life for the Indian majority of Peru. Rather than patiently waiting for an industrial proletariat to emerge, he urged the socialist movement to work with the human material at its disposal. Peru, like China and Vietnam, had a disenfranchised and economically exploited peasantry. Moreover, Peru’s peasantry had traditions of communally owned property that could provide the basis for a new socialist society. While it was reasonable to look to the trade unions and factories of modern Germany and England for a base of support, socialists in Peru had to look to the countryside.

Marx had come to similar conclusions in the 1870s after studying Russian society. He thought that the peasantry could spearhead a revolution on its own. After achieving victory, it would look to the Western European proletariat to make successful revolutions in advanced countries. The West would then supply capital and technical aid to an infant Russian socialist state. The notion that Russia would have to endure decades and decades of capitalist growth in order to complete this necessary preliminary to socialism was a distortion of his theory. Furthermore, the introduction of capitalist property relations into the countryside would only undercut the possibilities for revolution, since it would turn the collectively minded peasant into a grubbing, individualistic rural entrepreneur. The village commune needed protection from capitalism, if socialism was to triumph.

I could find no reference in Mariátegui to Marx’s late correspondence with Zasulich or Danielson, but it is obvious that the similarities between Russia in the 1880s and his own Peru impressed him. He says, “Feudalism similarly let rural communes continue in Russia, a country that offers an interesting parallel because in its historical process it is much closer to these agricultural and semi-feudal countries [like Peru] than are the capitalist countries of the West.”

Capitalism besieged the Peruvian ayllu from all sides, just as it did the Russian peasant commune. Liberal apologists for the ruling class thought that they were relics of an outmoded past. They thought that Indian “backwardness” could be overcome through a combination of private property and education. Mariátegui was not alone in seeing value in the ayllu. Luis Varcárcel, the most influential “indigenist” of the 1920s, wrote extensively about Incan culture and the persistence of the ayllu. He was an important influence on Mariátegui, even if he regarded his statements as “too colored by his ideal of an Indian renaissance.”

Mariátegui thought that the Indian remained unassimilated by Peruvian capitalism:

The Indian, in spite of one hundred years of republican legislation, has not become an individualist. And this is not because he resists progress, as is claimed by his detractors. Rather, it is because individualism under a feudal system does not find the necessary conditions to gain strength and develop. On the other hand, communism has continued to be the Indian’s only defense. Individualism cannot flourish or even exist effectively outside a system of free competition. And the Indian has never felt less free than when he has felt alone.

Since the 1920s, the ayllus continued to be undermined by capitalist pressures. Some scholars believe that the process is complete. Rodrigo Sánchez argues in “The Andean economic system and capitalism” (in the Lehmann collection) that there has been large scale proletarianization, reinforcement of the nuclear family as a unit of agricultural production and class differentiation between rich and poor peasants. In the same collection, Barbara Brady’s “‘Resistance to capitalism’ in the Peruvian Andes” makes the case that communal solidarity persists even when wage labor is the norm.

Even if we confine our view to the Andean area itself, we find that capitalism is present in the area in many forms. We find wage labour, we find small accumulated funds, we find the products of capitalist mass- production, we find money almost everywhere we go. In what sense are we to say then that the area is ‘outside’ or ‘resisting’ capitalism? To show what I mean with an example: if we take Carhuapata, a largely subsistence Community [ayllu], where a number of the men work in the nearby mines for two or three years of their life, then it would be strange to talk about the Community ‘resisting’ capitalism. The men may be keen, rather than reluctant, to go and work in the mines. The capitalist firms involved may have no interest in taking over production in the Communities. At the same time, subsistence production itself is changed by temporary emigration: not only will changes in the division of labour within the household be necessary, but the possibilities of using the wage for buying in the products of advanced capitalism (fertilizers, improved seed, tools both for agricultural and other uses) mean that the amount of land needed for subsistence may actually be decreased, allowing population increase in the subsistence area. But if the subsistence production differs from some ‘pure’ model, because of its articulation with capitalism, then so does the capitalist presence; it is not like ‘advanced’ capitalism, since the wage form is not related to ‘necessary labour’, nor is it the only way in which the worker and his family can obtain the ‘necessaries’ of life. The worker’s family stays in the Community and often provides him with food while he works in the mine. The wage then becomes ‘surplus’ from the Community’s point of view –a means of access to ‘luxury’ goods traded in the company store; and from the company’s point of view it can be seen in a way similar to that of married women’s wages in ‘advanced’ capitalism– ‘pin-money’, or ‘money for holidays.

The long-term viability of the ayllu is not something that can be used in itself to validate Mariátegui’s interpretation of Peruvian reality. He was a Marxist revolutionary, not an anthropologist. Unfortunately he died of tuberculosis in 1930, so we were deprived of his talents. He was only 35, a tragic loss. It would have been wonderful to benefit from his continuing analysis of Peruvian social reality, as well as his analysis of the rise of fascism and the decline of the USSR.

Mariátegui is an antidote to all forms of dogmatism. His only “theory” is Marxism and his only subject matter is the class struggle of his own country. His Marxism has been described as a “National Marxism” and there is some truth to this. In a certain sense, all Marxism must be rooted in the particularities of a time and place, or else it is useless. If one wants to understand the class struggle in one’s own country, Mariátegui’s “Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality” is a good place to start. If you can understand and appreciate his methodology, then you are in a good position to undertake a similar study of your own society.

One of the more controversial aspects of Mariátegui’s thought is his description of Inca society as socialistic. More recent scholarship, such as Thomas Patterson’s, makes a convincing case that the Incan empire was a classic “tributary” society. In the Byzantine world of Maoist polemics, detractors of the Peruvian “Shining Path” try to make Mariátegui appear like a fool. How could a movement regard an “Inca worshipper” as a major Marxist thinker? Clearly the Incas were repressive.

Mariátegui, to the contrary, understood the true nature of the Incas. He wrote in a lengthy footnote to the third essay in his collection that calls for understanding the Inca state in context:

It is not possible to speak abstractly of tyranny. Tyranny is a concrete fact. It is real to the extent that it represses the will of the people and oppresses and stifles their life force. Often in ancient times an absolutist and theocratic regime has embodied and represented that will and force. This appears to have been the case in the Inca empire. I do not believe in the supernatural powers of the Incas. But their political ability is as self- evident as is their construction of an empire with human materials and moral elements amassed over the centuries. The Incas unified and created the empire, but they did not create its nucleus. The legal state organized by the Incas undoubtedly reproduced the natural pre-existing state. The Inca did not disrupt anything. Their work should be praised, not scorned and disparaged, as the expression of thousands of years and myriad elements.

The nucleus of the Inca state was the ayllu. This was the egalitarian and collectivist core that Mariátegui supported, in distinction to the sometimes arbitrary and cruel practices of the Inca ruling-class. His embrace of this culture was not romantic or reactionary. It was an attempt to ground the Peruvian revolutionary movement in the traditions of resistance against Spanish colonial rule. It was a celebration of Tupuc Amaru’s revolt. It was also a rejection of the institutions that capitalist Spain imposed on the indigenous peoples.

We must understand Mariátegui’s Indian nationalism in the context of the awakening that was taking place throughout Latin and Central America, as intellectuals and revolutionaries sought to create an authentic national culture. It inspired the Mexican novelists and mural painters to look to Aztec culture, another ancient civilization like the Inca’s. Mariategui’s embrace of the Inca past helps to fortify the revolutionary movement of the present era, as he states in “Nationalism and Vanguardism”:

In opposition to this spirit, the vanguard proposes the reconstruction of Peru on an Indian foundation. The new generation is recovering our past, our true history. Our antiquarians content themselves with the fragile, courtly memories of the viceroyalty. Vanguardism, on the other hand, seeks truly Peruvian and more remotely ancient materials for its work.

And its indigenismo is neither literary speculation nor a romantic pastime. Nor is it an indigenismo that, like many others, reduces itself to an innocuous apologia for the Incan empire and its splendors. In place of a Platonic love for the Incan past, the revolutionary indigenistas show an active and concrete solidarity with today’s Indian.

This indigenismo does not indulge in fantasies of utopian restorations. 1t perceives the past as a foundation, not a program. Its conception of history events is realistic and modern. It neither ignores nor slights any of the historical facts that have modified the world’s reality, as well as Peru’s, in these four centuries.

July 28, 2008

Lubavitcher thuggery

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

Initial news coverage of the Postville kosher meatpacking plant raid focused on the barbaric treatment of the mostly Guatemalan workforce. Immigration authorities charged them with falsifying social security papers which carries a stiff prison term. The undocumented workers did not understand that they were being charged with this felony and thought that they were pleading guilty only to being in the U.S. “illegally”. It was largely due to the efforts of Erik Camayd-Freixas, a court-appointed translator, that this injustice was exposed:

NY Times, July 13, 2008
The Shame of Postville, Iowa

Anyone who has doubts that this country is abusing and terrorizing undocumented immigrant workers should read an essay by Erik Camayd-Freixas, a professor and Spanish-language court interpreter who witnessed the aftermath of a huge immigration workplace raid at a meatpacking plant in Iowa.

The essay chillingly describes what Dr. Camayd-Freixas saw and heard as he translated for some of the nearly 400 undocumented workers who were seized by federal agents at the Agriprocessors kosher plant in Postville in May.

Under the old way of doing things, the workers, nearly all Guatemalans, would have been simply and swiftly deported. But in a twist of Dickensian cruelty, more than 260 were charged as serious criminals for using false Social Security numbers or residency papers, and most were sentenced to five months in prison.

What is worse, Dr. Camayd-Freixas wrote, is that the system was clearly rigged for the wholesale imposition of mass guilt. He said the court-appointed lawyers had little time in the raids’ hectic aftermath to meet with the workers, many of whom ended up waiving their rights and seemed not to understand the complicated charges against them.

Within the last week, however, attention has shifted to still another injustice. If the Guatemalans were now facing jail, that seemed to be just a small step downwards from what they had to endure in their prison-like workplace, in effect going from the frying pan into the fire. Yesterday’s Times reports on the horrible treatment meted out by the pious men running this torture chamber:

While federal prosecutors are primarily focusing on immigration charges, they may also be looking into labor violations. Search warrant documents filed in court before the raid, which was May 12, cited a report by an anonymous immigrant who was sent to work in the plant by immigration authorities as an undercover informant. The immigrant saw “a rabbi who was calling employees derogatory names and throwing meat at employees.” Jewish managers oversee the slaughtering and processing of meat at Agriprocessors to ensure kosher standards.

In another episode, the informant said a floor supervisor had blindfolded an immigrant with duct tape. “The floor supervisor then took one of the meat hooks and hit the Guatemalan with it,” the informant said, adding that the blow did not cause “serious injuries.”

Elmer L. said that he regularly worked 17 hours a day at the plant and was paid $7.25 an hour. He said he was not paid overtime consistently.

“My work was very hard, because they didn’t give me my breaks, and I wasn’t getting very much sleep,” he said. “They told us they were going to call immigration if we complained.”

Elmer L. said that he was clearing cow innards from the slaughter floor last Aug. 26 when a supervisor he described as a rabbi began yelling at him, then kicked him from behind. The blow caused a freshly-sharpened knife to fly up and cut his elbow.

He was sent to a hospital where doctors closed the laceration with eight stitches. But he said that when he returned, his elbow still stinging, to ask for some time off, his supervisor ordered him back to work.

The next day, as he was lifting a cow’s tongue, the stitches ruptured, Elmer L. said, and the wound bled again. He said he was given a bandage at the plant and sent back to work. The incident is confirmed in a worker’s injury report filed on Aug. 31, 2007, by Agriprocessors with the Iowa labor department.

The Postville meatpacking plant has been owned and operated since 1987 by Aaron Rubashkin and his family, members of the Lubavitcher sect. The small Iowa town that is home to the plant has had an influx of Hasidic families who work at the plant in managerial capacities. In Stephen G. Bloom’s 1987 “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America”, a book I read a while back, you can find some fascinating background on the Lubavitcher Hasidim who allowed Bloom, a non-observant Jew like myself, to tell their story alongside that of their Christian neighbors and the mostly undocumented immigrants from the former Soviet Union who worked in the plant back then.

I strongly recommend Bloom’s book for anybody who is curious about one of Judaism’s most recognizable ultra-orthodox sects. Unlike their rivals in the Satmar sect, the Lubavitchers are rabid Zionists. I only know a bit about the Satmars from having one as a neighbor when I was working on my mother’s house upstate getting it ready for sale. The Satmars have plenty of skeletons in their closets as well, but at least don’t shill for Israel.

You can preview Bloom’s book at google/books.

Bloom was clearly put off by the chauvinism of the sect as I was by Judaism in general growing up. After Bloom begins to interview local Christians about their reaction to Lubavitcher plans to rezone the town so that they would not have to pay taxes, he is confronted by one of them:

“What are YOU doing here?” He paused. “What are you doing THERE?” Lazar shouted, pointing to Rosalyn Krambeer’s house.

“I came back to talk to more people.”

“Why would you talk to anybody else? You already talked to me.”

“Because somebody else might have something else to say.”

“I doubt it. I told you all you needed to know. Why waste your time?”

“I need other viewpoints.”

“From the goyim?” [Goyim is the Yiddish word for gentile.]

“From people who have a different viewpoint.”

Viewpoint? What does that mean? Viewpoint? Sounds like a goyishe word. I don’t know about this viewpoint business. You already heard the truth. Why do you want to confuse yourself? You don’t trust me, a fellow Jew?”

“I do my job, you do yours.”

“But what is this job of yours, Shlomo? You start snooping around, asking everyone questions, you’re liable to confuse things. You understand what I mean? Your job, as you call it, is plain and simple: to be a Jew.”

“If I need help with that, I’ll come to you.”

The Lubavitcher have had a long history of clashing with non-Jewish neighbors, not just in Postville. The most infamous incident involved a motorcade returning to Crown Heights from a visit to the burial site of the chief rabbi’s wife. A 7 year old Guyanan boy named Gavin Cato was killed by a car that failed to stop at an intersection. That enraged a community already aggravated by what was seen as preferential treatment toward the Hasidim who always seemed to have the inside track on apartments. Bloc voting by the Hasidim went a long way in ensuring that politicians paid heed, especially when since their rivals were Blacks discriminated against routinely.

Three days of rioting and the killing of a Hasidic divinity student named Yankel Rosenbaum led to widespread racist condemnation of Mayor David Dinkins, an African-American who was accused of favoring the rioters. The racist backlash certainly helped to elect Rudolph Giuliani in the next election. Giuliani ran a “law and order” campaign that persuaded not only reactionaries to vote for him, but many Manhattan yuppies who were tired of street crime. An objective reading of New York history in this period would reveal that street crime had already begun a steep decline under Dinkins, but racist attitudes and the truth are usually at odds with each other.

I want to conclude with a piece I wrote at least 10 years ago long before I (or anybody else) was blogging:

Jewish Backwardness

From ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ the audience gets no sense of the downside of the Jewish Reformation as it left its impress on Jewish life in the Pale in the nineteenth century.

The Jews had their Torah to comfort them, although women were rarely taught Hebrew so as to be able to read it. They had their Talmud to guide them, although only a small minority of males and no women had the privilege of Talmudic study. they had rabbis and zaddikim to turn to for inspiration and personal counseling, but frequently these leaders were indifferent to the miserable conditions of the ordinary Jewish men and women, and were more concerned with their own power and affluence than with the physical and moral needs of their followers. What you do not learn from Sholem Aleichem is the superstition and the ignorance and the general ambiance of cruelty and deprivation, of fatalism and magic, and of comatose squalor that characterized the culture of the shtetl.

–Norman Cantor, “The Sacred Chain: the History of the Jews”

In “Jewish History, Jewish Religion”, the late Israel Shahak, who was interned in Belsen as a youth, draws a distinction between the Nazi genocide and earlier persecution of the Jews such as occurred in Eastern Europe before the twentieth century.

He characterizes the Nazi policies as inspired, organized and carried out from above by state officials. But in the earlier periods, persecution of the Jews came from below, from popular movements. Jews were allied with the ruling elite in these earlier periods–with emperors, popes, kings, aristocrats and the upper clergy. Furthermore, the elites defended the Jews during these antisemitic outbursts, not out of considerations of humanity, but because the Jews were useful and profitable to them. The defense of the Jews was tied up with defense of “law and order”, hatred of the lower classes and fear that anti-Jewish riots might develop into general popular rebellion. This was true even of Tsarist Russia. During the time of Tsarism’s greatest strength, under Nicholas I or in the latter part of the reign of Alexander III, pogroms were not tolerated by the regime, even though legal discrimination was intensified.

Shahak’s comments on the 17th century Chmielnicki revolt in Ukraine illustrates these points:

Perhaps the most outstanding example is the great massacre of Jews during the Chmielnicki revolt in the Ukraine (1648), which started out as a mutiny of Cossack officers but soon turned into a widespread popular movement of the oppressed serfs: ‘The underpriviliged, the subjects, the Ukrainians, the Orthodox [persecuted by the Polish Catholic church] were rising against their Catholic Polish masters, particularly against their masters’ bailiffs, clergy and Jews.’ ( John Stoye, Europe Unfolding 1648-88 ) This typical peasant uprising against extreme oppression, an uprising accompanied not only by massacres committed by the rebels but also by even more horrible atrocities and ‘counter-terror’ of the Polish magnates’ private armies, has remained emblazoned in the consciousness of east-European Jews to this very day–not, however, as a peasant uprising, a revolt of the oppressed, of the real wretched of the earth, nor even as vengeance visited upon all the servants of the Polish nobility, but as an act of gratuitous antisemitism directed against Jews as such. In fact, the voting of the Ukrainian delegation at the UN and, more generally, Soviet policies on the Middle East, are often ‘explained’ in the Israeli press as ‘a heritage of Chmielnicki’ or his ‘descendants’.

Internal conditions within the Jewish community moved in a similar course. In the period 1500-1795, one of the most superstition-ridden in the history of Judaism, Polish Jewry was the most superstitious and fanatic of all Jewish communities. The considerable power of the Jewish autonomy was used increasingly to stifle all original or innovative thought, to promote the most shameless exploitation of the Jewish poor by the Jewish rich in alliance with the rabbis, and to justify the Jews’ role in the oppression of the peasants in the service of the nobles. Here, too, there was no way out except liberation from the outside. Pre-1795 Poland, where the social role of the Jews was more important than any in other classical Diaspora, illustrates better than any other country the bankruptcy of classical Judaism.

Shahak goes on to examine the Halakhah, the legal system of classical Judaism, practised by virtually all Jews from the 9th century to the end of the 18th century, is based primarily on the Babylonian Talmud. Here is one of the strictures of the Halakhah: a Gentile murderer who happens to be under Jewish jurisdiction must be executed whether the victim was Jewish or not. However, if the victim was Gentile and the murderer converts to Judaism, he is not punished.

The Halakhah influenced the following passage in a booklet published by the Central Region Command of the Israeli Army, which includes the West Bank.

When our forces come across civilians during a war or in hot pursuit or in a raid, so long as there is no certainty that those civilians are incapable of harming our forces, then according to the Halakhah they may and even should be killed … Under no circumstances should an Arab be trusted, even if he makes an impression of being civilized … In war, when our forces storm the enemy, they are allowed and even enjoined by the Halakhah to kill even good civilians, that is, civilians who are ostensibly good.

In a letter to Rabbi Shim’on Weiser, an Israeli soldier asked, “In one of the discussions in our group, there was a debate about the ‘purity of weapons’ and we discussed whether it was permissible to kill unarmed men — or women and children?” The Rabbi replied:

The non-Jewish nations have a custom according to which war has its own rules, like those of a game, like the rules of football or basketball. But according to the sayings of our sages, of blessed memory, … war for us is not a game but a vital necessity, and only by this standard must we decide how to wage it. On the one hand … we seem to learn that if a Jew murders a Gentile, he is regarded as a murderer and, except for the fact that no court has the right to punish him, the gravity of the deed is like that of any other murder. But we find in the very same authorities in another place … that Rabbi Shim’on used to say: ‘The best of Gentiles — kill him; the best of snakes — dash out its brains.’

The Halakhah declares that sexual intercourse between a married Jewish woman and any man other than her husband is a capital offense for both parties, and one of the most heinous sins. The Halakhah views all Gentiles as promiscuous and declares that the verse “whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue [semen] is like the issue of horses” accurately describes them.

The Halakhah, which of course predates the formation of the state of Israel, had laws which fit neatly into the exclusionary policies of the Jewish state. It states:

When the Jews are more powerful than the Gentiles we are forbidden to let an idolator among us; even a temporary resident or itinerant trader shall not be allowed to pass through our land unless he accepts the seven Noahide precepts, for it is written: they shall not dwell in thy land, that is, even temporarily.

Jewish ideology is not emancipatory. It is shot through with strictures such as the ones above. When Jews were poor and powerless living in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the Halakhah had little impact on the conduct of their daily lives of Gentiles. In Israel today, the Jewish state has a modern army and air force and is backed to the hilt by US imperialism and can put the poisonous strictures of the Halakhah into practice.

The ideology of the Halakhah influences Israeli policy in a myriad of ways. The recent assassination of the head of state by a right-wing zealot who received permission from an orthodox Rabbi based on the Halakhah is just but one indication.

The inhumanity of this one assassination is simply a case of the “chickens coming home to roost”, as Malcolm X observed. On this evening’s news, it was reported that a Palestinian activist was blown up by a bomb placed in his cellular phone, undoubtedly placed there by Israeli agents.

This is the reality of Jewish religion and Jewish politics, not “liberation Seders” on the upper west side of Manhattan. American Jewry, no matter what percentage of it votes for liberal Democratic candidates, has been complicit with Israeli state terrorism for the last 45 years. Palestinians are the true counterparts today of captive Jewry in the time of Exodus. Nobody reads the Haggadah for the emancipation of the Palestinians, however. It is much easier to toast the freedom of members of your own race in legendary times.

July 27, 2008


Filed under: Africa,Latin America,science — louisproyect @ 4:06 pm

I was president of the Tecnica board in the late 1980s through 1992 when it went belly-up. Relying heavily on donations from liberal and radical foundations, it was victimized by the FSLN getting voted out of office in 1990. Nicaragua was no longer sexy. We had already launched a technical aid program for the ANC and the frontline states but it was not well-established enough to survive the downturn in funding.

In 1984 I went down to Nicaragua to observe the elections with a delegation from the Guardian newspaper, a weekly radical publication that went out of business in 1992. Nothing in my experience in the SWP prepared us for what a living revolution would be like. The same kind of peasants who were fighting for land in El Salvador were now enjoying a much better life on cooperatives in liberated Nicaragua. Health care was now universally available and literacy programs were making people real participants in the political life of the country.

When one of the members of my delegation found out that I was a computer programmer, he slipped me a leaflet that some people in the Bay Area had put together. They were looking for computer programmers and other skilled professionals to work in Nicaragua. After the Sandinistas had taken over, a lot of the better paid workers had fled to Miami just as had happened in Cuba after 1959. As soon as I got back from Nicaragua, I called the number on the leaflet and spoke to Michael Urmann, an economist who had launched the project called Tecnica. I agreed to go back to Nicaragua for two weeks with a delegation of about 15 other technical specialists and give some classes on structured programming techniques. I brushed up on my high school Spanish and returned with my course notes.

I ended up teaching at the Central Bank in Nicaragua, their version of the Federal Reserve. About one out of four students seemed like committed Sandinistas but the rest were like young people anywhere. They simply wanted a better life. Like young computer programmers everywhere, the job was a means to an end.

I was all set to take on a new job at the Ministry of Construction supporting the largest mainframe in the country, which was about 1/10th the size of the computers I was used to working on at home. The people at this agency were more political than at the Central Bank and I was knocked out to hear revolutionary folk songs being sung over lunch. Things were never like that at my jobs at Houston and Boston banks.

On my last night in Nicaragua, Michael Urmann persuaded me to go back to New York and start a chapter of Tecnica there. At that point they were primarily based in the Bay Area and he was trying to build a national organization. He had hopes that we could eventually become a kind of radical version of the Peace Corps. He needed a political veteran like me to get kick-start things on the East Coast. Largely in recognition of my organizing skills, I was named President of Tecnica after it became incorporated as a nonprofit.

In trips out to the West Coast, I got to know Michael Urmann well. Like me, he was a veteran of the sectarian left and around the same age as me. As a member of the Maoist Progressive Labor party, he went to work in a warehouse in the 1960s long before the SWP made its “turn”. After a few months of backbreaking work with little to show for it politically, he dropped out of the PLP and went back to grad school. We had lots of laughs when we exchanged stories about factory work. We also laughed at the absurdity of turf wars between the Maoists and the Trotskyists in the 1960s. Like Peter Camejo, we had moved on to a more sensible place.

The project flourished through most of the late 1980s. Every month we sent down about twenty volunteers to work with Nicaraguan agencies, including the engineer who had responsibility for repairing electrical pylons blown up by the contras.

We also worked with a young American engineer named Ben Linder who found his way down to Nicaragua on his own. We raised money and provided some technical assistance for a small-scale hydroelectric project he had initiated in contra-infested northern Nicaragua.

On April 28, 1987 Ben was killed by contras while working on the small-scale hydroelectric dam that was his pet project. It sent shock waves through the movement and drove home the risks of working in Nicaragua. As a sign that we would not be intimidated, volunteer applications doubled in the months following Ben’s murder.

We received another shock the very same month. FBI agents went to the personnel offices at the workplace of twelve returned Tecnica volunteers and called them in for interviews in front of their boss. They were told that Tecnica was at the center of an espionage ring that was running high technology out of Nicaragua to Cuba and the Soviet Union. Anybody who had ever been to Nicaragua would realize how ridiculous this charge was. There was only one elevator in the entire country.

A number of important newspapers and politicians condemned the investigation and forced the FBI to end its harassment. This opening paragraph from a May 19 1987 Washington Post editorial was typical:

IT IS NOT ILLEGAL to travel to Nicaragua. Any American has a right to go there and to teach, repair tractors, help with the harvest or work in a clinic. Many do go, some as a concrete expression of political opposition to the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America, others for purely humanitarian reasons. This can be extremely dangerous. One American volunteer, Benjamin Linder, who went under the auspices of a group called Tecnica, was killed there last month. And it can be unpopular, since the Sandinista government understandably does not have many friends in this country. But it is not illegal.

In December of 1987 I traveled to southern Africa with a small Tecnica delegation, including Michael Urmann. We were to meet with the African National Congress and leaders of some of the “frontline” states, including Mozambique, in order to see if an expansion of our volunteer program into Africa was feasible.

Since the ANC was still in exile in this point (apartheid was on the ropes but not ended), we ended up in Lusaka, Zambia where most of the top officials lived, including Thabo Mbeki, the future president of South Africa.

We were invited to his house for a meeting to figure out whether there was a basis for future work. Mbeki lived in a two story house in a rather upscale neighborhood that was unlike the rest of the city. I noticed a Mercedes-Benz in the driveway.

His life-style was different from the average Zambian’s. On the way over to his house in a cab, Urmann asked the driver why so many office buildings were uncompleted. Since housing was one of his academic interests, such matters were always uppermost in his mind. The cabbie glared at him and said, “The buildings are not finished because you people took all the money with you.”

After our discussion with Mbeki ended, his wife Zanele asked me to take a look at her laptop computer. She was having trouble saving the file she was working on, which was Oliver Tambo’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the ANC.

Me: Mrs. Mbeki, you need to put in a formatted floppy diskette into the B drive in order to save Tambo’s speech.

Zanele: What is the B drive?

Me: It is right here (I pointed to the slot.) Let me take care of it for you. (I formatted the diskette and got everything in order.) You are all set now.

Zanele: Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. I was so desperate.

I felt like my existence had finally been vindicated. Other people would be chosen to make monumental speeches. My purpose was to make sure that the speech would not disappear in some technical black hole.

On June 10, 1987, a couple of months after Ben Linder’s murder and the FBI sweep, NY Newsday did a big story on Nicaragua activists and included a mini-profile on me. The author, a likeable fellow named Jonathan Mandell who was clearly sympathetic, wrote about me:

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?

Goldman did eventually get rid of me but it had nothing to do with politics, but the need to cut costs after the stock market crash in 1987–although I suppose that this is political as well. After 3 years of consulting I ended up at Columbia University where I lived happily ever after.

July 26, 2008

Why I didn’t attend the Trotsky Legacy Conference

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 9:20 pm

If the Trotsky Legacy conference had been somewhere in Manhattan, I might have made the effort to take in a couple of the sessions today. I am always up for talks on “Lessons of the SWP Experience: 1960 – 1980” and “What Happened to the SWP?” even though I knew in advance that my views on the subject differ radically from the speakers. But the conference was up at Fordham University in the Bronx. To get there, I’d have to take the number 4 train to Yankee Stadium and change to the D train with the Fordham stop next to the last on the line. Once I got off the train, I’d have to take a bus to the school. Too much effort for too little reward, I’m afraid.

The last time I went to a high school reunion like this was back in October, 2000 at NYU. That one was organized by Paul Le Blanc, one of the speakers on the “What Happened to the SWP” panel today, and was much broader in perspective–to the point of inviting me to speak about the Cochranites who split with the SWP in the 1950s in order to build a nonsectarian left movement. That was definitely not Paul’s goal in 2000, but I feel that he is edging more in that direction today. I would have been curious to see what he had to say and hope that his talk becomes available on the Internet.

This weekend’s conference had a totally different agenda than mine, so much so that I was excluded from the mailing list that was set up to organize the conference. I have the impression that the conference organizers are not that much into the Internet anyhow, based on the lack of a website dedicated to the conference. Since they see their “glory days” as being from 1960-1980, I am surprised that they used the Internet at all. Maybe to be consistent, they should have used a mimeograph machine.

Most of the speakers are identified with the tradition that something like the SWP is still necessary. They look at their time in the party as the best time in their lives, like 60 year olds who today might feel nostalgic about their senior year in high school when they were football players or cheerleaders. As for myself, I hated high school and didn’t care that much for the SWP even when I was hard at work building it. I considered it more or less as a bad marriage, something endured for the sake of the revolution rather than the children.

For what it’s worth, here’s the talk I gave at the October 2000 conference:

According to Al Hansen, who wrote the preface to “Speeches to the Party”, a mostly obscure collection of James P. Cannon’s anti-Cochranite rants from the late 1940s and early 1950s:

“. . . Sol and Genora [Dollinger] expressed the following views. The party should not be trying to build branches, running election campaigns, or even trying to recruit members in this period. The country was facing the triumph of fascism and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it because of the conservatism of the workers and our party’s weakness. When fascism triumphed here, all known Trotskyists would be wiped out as had happened in Nazi Germany. Therefore the best thing that we could do as revolutionists was to spend as much time as we had writing down and printing our ideas, our program, and then hide this printed matter in attics, basements, etc., for future generations to discover.”

So that’s the official version of the Cochranites: liquidationists panicked by McCarthyism. And then you mix this with Cannon’s crude sociological explanation of them as a privileged strata of the working class. These were UAW Joe Six-Packs tired of the class struggle and anxious to live the good life paid for by high union wages. When a raw recruit like me first heard about the Cochranites in a 1969 Frank Lovell lecture, I felt thankful that the good guys had won, just like they always did in the SWP. In revolutionary parties, as in politics in general, history is written by the victors.

In early 1970 I took an assignment to go up to Boston to fight against the Proletarian Orientation Tendency (POT). This workerist grouping around old timer Larry Trainor, included not only my friend Alan Wald then in Berkeley, but a number of party members my age. They numbered perhaps 5 to 10 percent of the SWP and YSA. The POT worried that the rapid influx of middle-class students would create alien class pressures on the proletarian party. The next thing you know we’d oppose the USSR’s invasion of Finland or something. I was never sure how I fit into all this because my father had been a truck-driver before he opened up a fruit store. As a computer programmer, I supposedly belonged to Ernest Mandel’s new working class. In any case, I never lost any sleep over this question.

The POT in Boston couldn’t wait for the rest of the party to wake up to the danger. They had begun to take jobs in hospitals and factories in order to transform themselves into workers. With its attention fixed on the factories, the Boston branch lagged behind the rest of the country in building the mass antiwar movement. Branch organizer Peter Camejo’s job was to destroy the Trainorites politically and reorient the branch toward the student movement. I was his one of his right-hand men in the faction fight.

As justification for this crackdown, the Cochranite heresy proved useful. In my remarks to the branch during the 1971 pre-convention discussion, I said that it was useless to take jobs in factories. After all, it had made no difference for the Cochranites. Even auto workers were not above selling out the revolution.

Although the party apparatus was successful in destroying the POT, it turned around and adopted virtually its entire agenda only 7 years later. The “turn” toward industry was just another misguided attempt at colonization, not much more sophisticated than the one mounted by the Boston SDS Worker-Student Alliance in 1970 that had served as a model for the Boston branch.

Despite the turn, Peter Camejo remained a 1960s holdout. After spending time in Nicaragua witnessing a living revolution, he became convinced that the SWP was on a sectarian dead-end. He not only defended the 1960s orientation, he believed it necessary to work more closely with non-Trotskyist groups like the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. Basically, he was trying to work out a Cuban or Central American type orientation for the United States.

Questioning the “turn” got him thrown out of the party in 1980. That year I began wondering why the SWP was doing so little to organize protests against US intervention in Central America. Although I had been out of the party for two years, I read the Militant from cover to cover each week. If there was any deep concern with US imperialism’s designs in the region, I couldn’t see it. A chance encounter with Ray Markey, who was still in the party and who always seemed level-headed to me, prompted me to ask what was wrong the SWP. Had they turned into a workerist sect? He gave me a copy of Peter Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism” which said yes to that question. As I began reading it, I found myself in agreement with every word.

About 7 years ago J. Plant, who works with the excellent British journal “Revolutionary History,” raised a question on an Internet mailing list that led me to begin writing about party building questions. He asked people for their assessment of Trotskyism. I replied that Trotsky’s basic ideas on permanent revolution, fascism, the popular front, etc. remained sound. But we had to come to terms with the problem that his movement had a tendency to generate sectarian formations. I said that this was caused by a misreading of Lenin and the Bolsheviks and announced that I would write about these problems in some depth. So I wrote about the CP, the Trotskyists. and newer formations like the Cuban July 26th movement and the FSLN in Nicaragua. All of it is archived on the Marxism list website, along with links to material on the Cochranites.

I found myself questioning not only official versions of what it meant to build Marxist-Leninist parties, but the particular Cannonite version handed down in the SWP. Part of this re-investigation meant taking a new look at all of our various renegades. Since I was in a forgiving mood, I began handing out absolutions to everybody. Oehlerites, Shachtmanites, Cochranites–it didn’t matter. I no longer had any use for reading people out of the movement. Look where it had led.

At the time I had neither the motivation nor the resources to actually study what the Cochranites stood for in any great detail, especially since there was a paucity of documentation available to the general public. All that changed after Sol Dollinger showed up on a Marxism list I had launched in May of 1998. Over the past year or so, we have had discussions on the list about the legacy of the Trotskyist movement that have benefited from the insights of a living and breathing–and sometimes blunt–Cochranite. One of the first things we learned from Sol was that the charge of “privileged” Cochranite factory workers was absurd. He wrote:

“Three decades later, I am amused by the explanations made by Frank Lovell that you heard as a new member of the SWP. He contended that the members of the auto faction had become embourgeoisified by high wages in the industry. My position as a Chevrolet worker is not much different than other auto worker members of the party. We rented in Flint and when I quit after seven years my wages were under five thousand dollars a year. When Genora’s father died of a heart attack in front of the Buick gate where he worked as a janitor, he left his four children $700 each. Genora rushed out to make a down payment on a house with a $3800 dollar mortgage with monthly payments of $35.”

Keeping in mind that my criticisms of Trotskyism flow from a Cuban or Sandinista type perspective like Camejo’s, I found that Sol’s basic approach coincided with my own. That led me to look into the whole question of the Cochran legacy. Contrary to Al Hansen, this group did not liquidate itself in 1954. It made an audacious attempt to start a new Marxist left. Their organization was called the Socialist Union. Their journal the American Socialist began that year as well, only to cease publication at the end of 1959. Edited by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, it is not only one of the best Marxist journals ever published, it is also a guide to understanding the kind of revolutionary movement that we need today.

Over the past year or so, I have been scanning in articles from American Socialist, courtesy of Cynthia Cochran who lives here in NYC and making them available in electronic archives. Eventually I hope to have this published as an American Socialist Reader.

To start with, it does not make sense to speak of Cochran or Braverman in the same terms as CLR James or any other figure around whom disciples gathered. That being said, there is still a “Cochranite” approach to politics that revolved around overlapping concerns. Let’s take a look at them.

To begin with, the American Socialist rejected the “vanguard” model that James P. Cannon had promoted. Although the magazine never mentioned Cannon or the SWP after the first issue, there was no mistake that they were for a complete break with the sectarian model.

Unlike the Trotskyists, they believed that a genuine regroupment was necessary on the American left. I want to emphasize the word genuine because the SWP went through a regroupment period themselves in the late 1950s that can only be characterized as a fishing expedition to gain new members, particularly disaffected ex-CP’ers. Activists in the Socialist Union saw their work with other groups as a means to an end. They sought to build a broad-based socialist movement and not just another sect.

In October 1956 the Socialist Union organized a regroupment meeting in Chicago that drew 800 people. Besides Bert Cochran, the speakers included A.J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Sidney Lens, a writer and trade union official. Cochran told the audience:

“Practically since its inception, the American Socialist has declared that a regroupment was necessary on the American scene, that the old movements had knocked each other out, and what remained of them had either succumbed to the slough of sectarianism, or had outlived their usefulness as vehicles of American radicalism. At first we were a lone voice, but today this idea is accepted by many. Nevertheless, as a result of many private conferences and conversations that we have been engaged in over these past months, we are convinced that the regroupment and the setting up of something new will necessarily involve a more or less protracted process of discussion, debate, and re-examination of many of the Left’s premises and solutions, before the ground is sufficiently prepared for the next organizational ventures.”

Not only was the American Socialist immersed in the regroupment process, it also explained the importance of similar efforts underway in Europe that they characterized as the unfolding of a “new left”. This term, by the way, is used frequently in the pages of American Socialist to describe not the sorry mess we ended up with in the 1960s but something more in the way of a new Marxist left. It is unfortunate that objective circumstances militated against the Socialist Union’s best efforts to make such a new movement possible.

For example, in 1958 the American Socialist covered developments in Great Britain around the journals New Reasoner, which included E.P. Thompson as an editor, and Universities and Left Review. They eventually merged and became New Left Review. Here is Cochran sizing up the New Reasoner:

“The weakness of the New Reasoner appears to be that most of its writers are still unduly pre-occupied with the world from which they have so recently broken, as evidenced in the subject matter which claims their attention, the problems that continue to dominate their thoughts, and the people to whom they are primarily addressing their writings. Moreover, trying to continue to rest on the Communist tradition by restoring it to its original pre-Stalinist pristine purity strikes me as a quixotic venture. Communism is bound by historical associations of a quarter of a century that neither god nor man can eradicate. To try to restore Communism to the meaning that it possessed in 1917 or 1848 is like trying to take Christianity away from the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist churches of today and restore it to the simple virtues of the Biblical Apostles. It is a subject matter for literary exercises. It has no use as a workable tradition for the Left in Britain, much less, in the United States.”

The American Socialist also sought to ground itself in earlier radical traditions in the United States, before Bolshevik cloning became mandatory. This meant taking a fresh look at the Debs legacy. Not only did the editorial board of American Socialist include octogenarian George H. Shoaf, who had worked closely with Debs, it also published a special issue on the Socialist Party in which Cochran drew a contrast between Debs’ party and what had followed it:

“PECULIARLY enough, the Communist movement that followed Debs, and became the mainstream of American radicalism in the thirties and forties, lost this trait all over again, and became too much of a Russian movement; not in the sense that most of its members were of Russian extraction (they were not), but because their thought was so largely concentrated on Russia. Their leaders uncritically tried to copy Russian patterns of behavior, and misconstrued socialist internationalism to mean loss of independence for one’s own party. A reawakened socialist movement will undoubtedly have to re-create much of the earlier Debs model in this respect.”

The break with the SWP not only involved questions of the appropriateness of the ‘vanguard’ party-building model, it also challenged the sort of ‘catastrophism’ that marked the party’s post-WWII outlook. While Cannon predicted a new depression and working class radicalization, the Cochranites urged a more cautious and objective view of the American economy and society. As is obvious today, the Cochranite assessment was far more accurate.

Cochran’s co-editor Harry Braverman focused on the American economy’s strengths and weaknesses. In article after article, he examined the nature of the post-WWII prosperity. While first showing residual influences of the kind of ‘catastrophism’ found in the post-WWII SWP, he eventually found himself coming to terms with what would turn out to be the longest and deepest capitalist expansion in history. In a May 1958 article, written as a reply to British ex-Marxist John Strachey who believed capitalism had resolved its basic contradictions, Braverman openly and courageously dealt with the question of ‘immiseration’ which had been central to the concerns of 1930s radical movement:

“All the above difficulties in Marxism obviously stem from the fact that the capitalist system has persisted, and restabilized itself repeatedly, over a much longer period than had been expected. The great expansion in labor productivity which has created such new and different conditions was not unexpected in the Marxian economic structure, a structure which, as no other before or since, focused on the technological revolutions which capitalism is forced to work continuously as a condition of its existence. What was unexpected was capitalism’s length of life and its ability to expand. Marx and the movement he shaped operated on the basis of imminent crisis. If he never gave thought to the kind of living standard inherent in a capitalism that would continue to revolutionize science and industry for another hundred years, that was because he thought he was dealing with a system that was rapidly approaching its Armageddon..”

The capitalist expansion of the 1950s was not the only thing that was unexpected. It also saw the beginning of the automation revolution. In an effort to understand what was different from the 1930s, you could not ignore something this major. In October 1954, Cochran wrote:

“Everyone has heard of ‘automation’ by now and knows it is a new giant stride in the elimination of human labor in production by the use of automatic machinery, electronic computers and feedback controls. Few factories are as yet built on complete ‘automation’ lines, which in its strict scientific definition describes electronic or magnetic-tape control of complete sequence operations. Partial use of the new technology, however, is already becoming common. In continuous-flow-process industries, such as petrochemicals, many plants are on the verge of complete automation. Fortune magazine analysts believe even more startling changes may come in the white collar field with the introduction of high speed ‘memory’ and computing machines such as ‘Univac’ or IBM’s No. 702.”

So if Univac rather than Armageddon was on the agenda, what would be the best hope for social change? As we know, the civil rights movement was starting up. The American Socialist provided some of the best coverage of this new movement, including dispatches from Carl Braden and Albert Maund, the author of “The Big Boxcar” who is in his mid-80s now and living in New Orleans. The great civil rights attorney Conrad Lynn served on the editorial board. WEB DuBois was also an occasional contributor.

It also examined some of the social contradictions that would eventually give birth to the environmental movement. Reuben Borough, who had been the editor of Upton Sinclair’s EPIC (End Poverty in California) campaign in 1934, served on the editorial board of American Socialist as well. In September, 1957, long before the publication of Rachel Carsons “Silent Spring,” Borough began writing about the environment from a Marxist perspective.

“The problem of the conversion of power from these various non-depletable sources has never been under sustained and organized inquiry in the United States. This is a job beyond the immediate capacities of the isolated laboratories of the private enterprisers—they cannot solve the problem in time. Public enterprise can and must solve it. The loyal citizen of the Earth Planet must marshal the political forces necessary to that end. The long and ruthless raid of Greed upon the basic wealth of Nature must be stopped. Loving care must take the place of the befoulment and destruction of man’s environment. This is the inescapable task and responsibility of the religion of conservation.”

Let me conclude. There was no such thing as “Cochranism.” It neither added nor subtracted anything to Marxist thought. Instead the Cochranites represent one of the most advanced and sustained efforts to apply a classical Marxist analysis to American society in the mid 20th century. The fact that they failed to build a new Marxist left is not an indictment of their methodology nor their analyses. They were just ahead of their time. If a new Marxist left in the United States is to succeed today, it will be along the lines set down by Socialist Union. You can bet on that.

Solidarity represents an effort to move in the direction set down by the Cochranites. I would invite these comrades to study the archives of the American Socialist to see how an earlier generation confronted the task of building a non-sectarian socialist movement based on Marxist principles.

As Bert Cochran said to a gathering of the Socialist Union at its inception in May 1954:

“We approach all these strata, however, in the spirit of Marx’s Communist Manifesto which proclaimed that the revolutionists had no interests separate and apart from the working class, that we are not a special sect, cult, or church, which seeks to draw people out of the broad currents into its backwater, but rather as American Marxists, we seek to join with others in advancing the existing struggles to a higher stage and on a broader front. We are convinced that out of these struggles and experiences, even before big mass forces take to the field, Left currents will arise with which we shall be able to cooperate and fuse; that the American Marxist tendency, as a stronger formation than at present, will thus be able to discharge its role as a left wing in the big movement-as part and parcel of the struggle to create the mass revolutionary party in the United States. That is our perspective.”

July 25, 2008


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:50 pm

Now showing at the ImaginAsian Theater in New York and scheduled for release at Los Angeles’s ImaginAsian on July 31, “Canary” is a powerful study of two deeply troubled 12 year olds who bond together in an odyssey across Japan. Koichi (Hoshi Ishida) is the son of a woman who had joined the “Nirvana” cult (a fictionalized version of Aum Shinrikyo, the perpetrators of the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway).

Koichi and his younger sister were forced to become acolytes as well. After the Nirvana cult is accused of mass murder, the leaders go into hiding, including Koichi’s mother, and their children are remanded to a group home. Koichi’s maternal grandfather takes custody of his sister, but Koichi is spurned as an incorrigible cultist just like his mother.

The movie begins with Koichi escaping barefoot from the group home which is near Kyoto and heading down a road to make it to Tokyo, some 320 miles away in order to reunite with his sister and take vengeance on his grandfather. He stops at a nearby school and finds a pair of sneakers and a screwdriver that he begins sharpening into a dagger for use on his grandfather and any stranger who gets in the way of this feral youth.

Not long after he is back on the road, he is fated to meet Yuki (Mitsuki Tanimura) who will serve as his Sancho Panza. She is a child prostitute who we first meet in the front seat of a car driven by her latest john, a mean-looking man who orders her to put on the handcuffs he keeps in the glove compartment-trying to reassure her rather unsuccessfully that he is a cop. Just as she is about to finish putting on the handcuffs, the car nearly runs into Koichi who is walking in the center of the road. The john loses control of the car which careens off the road and tumbles into a field.

Yuki flees from the car and greets Koichi as her liberator, even if unintentionally so. He shows little interest in her adulation and for that matter remains unsmiling and taciturn throughout their initial encounter. Clearly, cult life has placed a hard shell around the youth. Yuki is his polar opposite, remaining warm and cheerful even though life has dealt her some major blows as well. Her mother is dead and her father beats her. Deciding that there is nothing at home worth staying for, she announces to Koichi that she will join him on the trek to Tokyo. His reaction is to shrug his shoulders and to continue down the road with her in tow.

Despite his lone wolf personality, Koichi learns that he has to depend on Yuki especially when it comes to the matter of supporting their trip materially. Without any money, you can’t get very far in Japan or any other wealthy capitalist nation. She brings Koichi with her to a visit to one of her oldest johns, a man who is happy to pay her 2000 yen (about 20 dollars) just to look at her breasts.

Towards the middle of the film, there are flashbacks to Koichi’s days in the Nirvana temple, which are filled with sadistic punishment when a rule is broken. For example, after Koichi refuses to take part in a ritual meal that supposedly connects them to the cult leader in communion wafer style, he is hanged by his feet in an isolation chamber and forced to chant a mantra 10,000 times. His mother comes to visit him and urges him not to rebel. Finally, his spirit is broken and he too becomes a True Believer.

Despite the grim subject matter, “Canary” is filled with joyous moments as the two children make their way toward Tokyo. Director/screenwriter Akihiko Shiota has crafted deeply nuanced characters in the two 12 year olds that is unlike anything I have seen in recent movies, with the exception of some of Gus Van Sant’s and much earlier French New Wave films such as “The 400 Blows”.

In a writer’s workshop I took at NYU in the early 1980s, the teacher said that there are basically about 10 plots in all of world literature, including theater and movies. One of them is the “road” story, which includes “Thelma and Louise”, “Rain Man”, “Huckleberry Finn”, “On the Road”, and the granddaddy of them all: Homer’s Odysseus. It gives the author the opportunity to structure the plot around a series of chance encounters that help to define the characters and move the plot along. As such, “Canary” succeeds with flying colors.

On another level, it is a fascinating look at Aum Shinrikyo, a group that expressed the same kind of maniacal intensity as the United Red Army activists featured in Koji Wakamatsu’s semi-documentary. Whether it is cult-style religion or Maoism, the Japanese do seem to have a way to push the envelope in a self-destructive manner.

Since “Canary” was not intended to deal with Aum Shinrikyo in documentary fashion, it is left to the audience, especially foreign ones, to make the effort to find out more about this bizarre cult. As always, wiki articles on the founder and the cult itself are good places to start.

Founded in 1987 by Shoko Asahara, a 32 year old religious pilgrim, the cult was an eclectic mix of various doctrines:

Asahara’s teachings stress the importance of ascetic practice, similar to those of a Kagyudpa – a Tibetan Buddhist school. Modern technology, such as computers and CD players, can be used to complement the ancient meditations. To justify the achievement of a certain stage of religious practice, practitioners must demonstrate signs such as cessation of oxygen consumption, reduction of heart activity and changes in the electromagnetic activity of the brain. The intensive practice (retreat) rooms are equipped with corresponding sensors.

Maybe the lack of oxygen inspired Asahara to launch the attack on Tokyo subway riders:

On March 20, 1995, members of Aum attacked the Tokyo Subway System with the nerve gas sarin. Twelve commuters died, and thousands more suffered from after-effects. After finding sufficient evidence, authorities accused Aum Shinrikyo of complicity in the attack, as well as in a number of smaller-scale incidents. Tens of disciples were arrested, Aum’s facilities were raided, and the court issued an order for Shoko Asahara’s arrest. Asahara was discovered in a very small, completely isolated room of the building belonging to Aum, meditating. As a bizarre sidenote, Asahara had strongly spoken against oily meats and junk foods, deeming them a tool of a Judeo-Freemason conspiracy. Deep-fried prawns, however, were found in his refrigerator after the capture.

No matter how bizarre such a cult appears, it is to director Shiota’s credit that one of his major characters retains his humanity even after it is clear that the cult has practically turned him into a robot. Eventually, Koichi runs into a group of ex-cultists who help him redeem his humanity and prepare him for the final confrontation with his grandfather, a truly gripping scene.

Schedule information for Canary

July 23, 2008

Savage Mules

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 3:20 pm

If you stop in at your nearby Barnes and Noble, you will usually find current affairs and political books prominently displayed on a table close to the front door. Inevitably, there will be a slew of books with titles like “How George W. Bush turned the U.S.A. into the Rottenest Country in the World” or “Why the Republican Party is Making You Sick”, etc. written by people from Air America, the Nation Magazine or Salon.com. Since the Republican Party has become so tainted by nearly 8 years of malfeasance in the White House, conservative books have suffered a bit of an understandable decline.

What you will not find is anything quite like Dennis Perrin’s “Savage Mules”, a slashing attack on the Democratic Party so badly needed in a time when so many false hopes are now invested in the party of “peace” and “progress”. “Savage Mules” is a pithy, sharp and funny survey of Democratic presidencies (and failed bids) going back to Woodrow Wilson that takes no prisoners. While it was written prior to the rise of Obamamania, it would certainly provide a useful corrective to a “change” campaign that seems to be recycling the centrism of the past 30 years at least.

Perrin is writing in the tradition of Howard Zinn and other radical critics of American corporate power but has his own voice that is really unique. It shares the outrage of a Jon Stewart or a Bill Maher (for whom he used to write jokes) but dares to go where they dare not.

While many liberals admit that a Jimmy Carter or a Bill Clinton does not exactly represent traditional Democratic Party values, Perrin does not hesitate to go after FDR who was recently eulogized in a special issue of the Nation Magazine where the New Deal was described as “perhaps the greatest democratic experiment of the twentieth century.”

Somehow, Japanese-Americans were not part of this great experiment as Perrin points out:

It wasn’t enough to depict the overseas Japanese as crazed insects and snakes trying to devour the world; Roosevelt decided to wage war on the domestic Japanese population as well, a large number of whom were American citizens. To this day, there are people who remained shocked and dismayed over the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans (though many contemporary right-wingers see nothing wrong with it, and wish that Arab-Americans could meet the same fate). But really, is that surprising, considering the tenor of that time? And does it seriously stun anybody that a “liberal” like FDR oversaw such a policy? As we have seen, and will further discover, American liberals can be, and often have been, as authoritarian and as brutal as those they deem politically dangerous. Rounding up civilians and throwing them into camps is nothing to the liberal imagination. It may be one of liberalism’s more benevolent traits.

“Savage Mules” is a reminder of why books remain so necessary in a time when the Internet is widely perceived as making them obsolete. While it might be possible to track down the information contained within the pages of Perrin’s book over a week or so, that is a job that most people would prefer to avoid, especially if they still harbor illusions in a Barack Obama.

But by packaging together devastating portraits of Democratic presidents and would-be presidents in a single book that can be passed on to fence-sitting friends and co-workers, Perrin has performed a very useful service for the left. Every college student who is disgusted with the Democrats and who identifies with the McKinney or Nader campaign will want to have this book in their arsenal. The next time a dorm-mate strolls into their room with an Obama button pinned to their lapel spoiling for an argument with them about why their candidate is ruining the chances for a New America of peace, freedom and social equality by helping to elect John McCain, all they need to do is hand them Perrin’s book with the simple injunction: “Read this”.

Order “Savage Mules” from Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.

July 21, 2008

Butterflies and Wheels

Filed under: science — louisproyect @ 3:13 pm

Last Thursday a link titled “The case against Christopher Hitchens” on Bookforum pointed me to an article on the website Butterflies and Wheels. April Fools must have fallen on July 17th this year since the article really was making the case for Hitchens:

A one-time Marxist, Hitchens’s politics could be defined not so much as ideological but a broad opposition to establishment power and discourse, and solidarity with victims of cruelty.

Something suggests that the author of the article, a 27 year old aspiring novelist, might have been attempting fiction when he wrote that Hitchens was opposed to “establishment power”, but apparently not. The defense of Hitchens jibes with the editorial slant at Butterflies and Wheels (referred to subsequently as B&W), a fountainhead of Islamophobia that you can also find on Harry’s Place and Norm Geras’s blog. There is the usual defense of the Danish Mohammad cartoons, etc. There are attacks on other religions as well all in the name of the kind of scientific rationalism epitomized by Richard Dawkins’s recent atheist tome.

In addition to religion, the website mounts attacks on multiculturalism and other forms of “fashionable nonsense.” Kenan Malik, a Spiked Online regular, seems to be a designated hitter when it comes to such matters. In an article titled “Identity is That Which is Given” that currently appears on B&W, Malik argues:

You do not even have to be human to possess a culture. Primatologists tell us that different groups of chimpanzees each has its own culture. No doubt some chimp will soon complain that their traditions are disappearing under the steamroller of human cultural imperialism.

This clever phrase is just the sort of thing you can find on New Criterion, a magazine edited by the neoconservative Hilton Cramer or any other rightwing standard bearer in the “culture wars”. Under the guise of enlightenment values and the brotherhood of man, what you find basically is seething hostility toward any national minority trying to defend itself against forced assimilation. B&W, of course, defends the French government’s banning of the hijab.

Alan Sokal

Curious to see what drove these people ideologically, I went to “About B&W” and discovered that my old friend Alan Sokal was their primary inspiration:

Butterflies and Wheels has been established in order to oppose a number of related phenomena. These include:

1. Pseudoscience that is ideologically and politically motivated.

2. Epistemic relativism in the humanities (for example, the idea that statements are only true or false relative to particular cultures, discourses or language-games).

3. Those disciplines or schools of thought whose truth claims are prompted by the political, ideological and moral commitments of their adherents, and the general tendency to judge the veracity of claims about the world in terms of such commitments.

There are two motivations for setting up the web site. The first is the common one having to do with the thought that truth is important, and that to tell the truth about the world it is necessary to put aside whatever preconceptions (ideological, political, moral, etc.) one brings to the endeavour.

The second has to do with the tendency of the political Left (which both editors of this site consider themselves to be part of) to subjugate the rational assessment of truth-claims to the demands of a variety of pre-existing political and moral frameworks. We believe this tendency to be a mistake on practical as well as epistemological and ethical grounds. Alan Sokal expressed this concern well, when talking about his motivation for the Sokal Hoax: ‘My goal isn’t to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we’ll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself. Like innumerable others from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, I call for the Left to reclaim its Enlightenment roots.’

This confirms for me once again how troubled the Sokal hoax was, even though at the time I greeted it with great enthusiasm. Initially, my impulse was to hoist Alan on my shoulders since I thought it was about time that somebody stuck it to the dirty postmodernists who were writing all those attacks on Marxism as an oppressive “grand narrative” using language of the kind that was eligible for Denis Dutton’s yearly “Bad Writing” award.

It took about five years to figure out that things were not so simple. To start with, Social Text, the journal that was suckered into publishing Alan’s hoax in a special “Science Wars” issue, had been prompted to put out a special issue as a reaction to a conference at NYU that had been organized by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, two of Alan Sokal’s colleagues. Levitt, a mathematician who taught at NYU alongside Sokal, was acknowledged by Sokal as a primary inspiration for his hoax.

I did not know at the time that the Gross-Levitt conference was made possible by funding from the Olin Foundation, a long-time backer of ultra-right causes. If I had, I never would have been so enthusiastic about Alan’s hoax. While he was politically to the left of Gross and Levitt, and had even taught in Nicaragua as a Tecnica volunteer, there was sufficient reason for me to be a bit more wary of the hoax given the initial inspiration.

What would be the Olin Foundation’s motivation in funding a conference on the Science Wars? Did it think that “intellectual relativism” was eating away at the fiber of the American academy? I don’t quite know how to put this, but the idea of the Olin Foundation coming to the aid of “enlightenment values” strikes me as almost as ridiculous as Christopher Hitchens opposing “establishment power”. Their main interest should be obvious. Olin doesn’t want leftwing scientists mucking about on issues such as global warming, carcinogens in the food we eat, water and air pollution, etc.

Just to take one example, the Olin Foundation donated more than $25,000 to an outfit called the American Council on Science and Health.  Other donors included the General Electric Foundation, the Monsanto Fund and other such bodies dedicated to fighting bad writing and fashionable nonsense.

If you go to their website, you will find an article on the home page titled “Claims of Industry Tampering with Science Are Overblown”. Well, I should have known. The executive director of ACSH, who claims that “A new scientific McCarthyism is alive and well in America today”, was introducing an ACSH study titled “Scrutinizing Industry-Funded Science: The Crusade Against Conflicts of Interest”, written by one Ronald Bailey. Bailey argues:

Why should having once consulted with Pfizer or DuPont disqualify a scientist from serving on a government advisory board or writing a review article in a scientific journal, while being a lifelong member of Greenpeace does not? And if owning $10,000 in Dow stock represents a potential conflict of interest, surely $10,000 in funding from the Union of Concerned Scientists does too.

This argument raises speciousness to stratospheric levels. The mission of the Union of Concerned Scientists is to search for science-based solutions to problems facing society as a whole. Nobody has ever accused the Union of bias, except perhaps against corporations that have a well-documented history of screwing the public in pursuit of profits.

Ultimately, outfits like B&W and Spiked Online, which focus on restoring “enlightenment values”, are really more about defending the status quo than debunking “fashionable nonsense”. It is easy for some naive leftists to get confused about their goals since who could possibly be opposed to clear thinking and scientific rationalism–that is, unless you have a class analysis of bourgeois society. When I once suggested to Alan that he read Richard Levins or Richard Lewontin, he appeared loath to waste his time reading other scientists who were far more skeptical of the “free marketplace” of ideas than he was. When Pfizer, Monsanto, General Electric and the Olin Foundation are doling out millions of dollars to refute their leftwing enemies, the idea of a level playing field seems utopian at best.

The last time I saw Alan Sokal was at conference at the New School co-sponsored by the libertarians at Spiked Online and Reason Magazine. His colleague Norman Levitt was one of the main organizers. The purpose of the conference was to refute the environmentalism associated with Greenpeace, the Union of Concerned Scientists and other groups that have not been corrupted by corporate payoffs. This was the trajectory of the Sokal hoax, a virtual repeat of the Gross-Levitt conference funded by the Olin Foundation. I have no idea who funded this one, but imagine that there are always buckets of cash available for any attack on outfits such as Greenpeace or the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The B&W website is not particularly concerned with such issues, preferring to bash religion rather than environmentalism. There is one exception, however. They do seem to get worked into a lather when it comes to the animal rights movement, which they obviously consider an impudent assault on the absolute rights of Scientific Research. They have taken up the cause of Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), a company that has been the target of the Animal Liberation Front.

I first came across Huntington in the course of a movie review of “Your Mommy Kills Animals“, a documentary that is sympathetic to the Animal Liberation Front. Things sort of come full circle now that I look at what I wrote at the time:

There’s quite a rogue’s gallery in opposition to animal rights. We see Christopher Hitchens holding forth on how the activists become self-righteous absolutists in their desire to crush their enemies. Hearing these words coming out of his mouth was sufficient to get me to bag up all my leather shoes and bring them down to the thrift shop and to swear off chicken and fish (I have already given up red meat because of my blood pressure.) We also see Ron Arnold, the author of “Eco-Terrorism”, making the case against animal rights. Although I am very familiar with Arnold from past debates with his British allies, the ex-Marxists organized around the website Spiked Online, I have never heard him before. Arnold is an odd character. He couches his anti-environmentalist and anti-animal rights arguments in populist rhetoric, but has been exposed as a tool of big timber and mining interests.

I would not be surprised to discover that B&W gets some funding from Huntington and other such animal torturers. One of these days, the victims of the corporations and the governments that act in their name will get sick and tired of the pollutants that kill them, the rotten health care system that fails to treat them, the foreclosures, the job losses, and the daily indignities of wage labor and rise up against the system that perpetuates them. A working class in power will then have access to the dossiers that contain all this information about who paid the piper. God protect the souls of those who fed at the trough of the big corporations and the intelligence agencies since an aroused people will have properly earned the right to extract justice.

July 20, 2008

No Regret

Filed under: Film,Gay — louisproyect @ 1:04 am

“No Regret” invites comparisons with “Brokeback Mountain” but this Korean film scheduled for release in the U.S. on July 25th is by far the better film. It is a love story about two gay men from different class backgrounds fighting with each other and with social prejudices to make a life for each other.

While Ang Lee’s movie was generally hailed in the mainstream press for its sympathetic treatment of the two main characters, many gays probably concurred with Doug Ireland who wrote:

There are many reasons to dislike Brokeback Mountain — the complete lack of chemistry between the male leads, the painful, groan-inducing dialogue, the energyless pacing — but all of this seems nitpicky in comparison to an outdated, out-of-touch theme. Marketed as the first (although it isn’t, really) mainstream cross-over homosexual love story, it seems strange that liberal urbanites would open their arms to the story of two closeted dudes who can’t deal with their sexuality, are made miserable by the secret, and die unhappy and alone.

In contrast to the author of the short story upon which “Brokeback Mountain” is based as well as the movie’s director, writer-director Leesong Hee-il is gay. That means that he likely felt no obligation to satisfy audience expectations about the tragic fate supposedly awaiting gay men. He also obviously had a surer touch with his male characters’ physical interaction, even though the two lead actors were straight.

In a way, “No Regret” is an old-fashioned story of love conquering all including class differences. Sumin, an 18 year old who has just arrived from an orphanage in the countryside, takes a factory job. Jaemin, the factory owner’s gay son, conspires to meet Sumin by hiring him as a driver, a moonlighting job he has taken to make ends meet. When Jaemin then tries to lure Sumin into his apartment, Sumin turns his back on the handsome and wealthy young man and refuses to even give him his name. As an exploited factory worker, he feels resentment toward the boss and any of his kin.

A day or so later Sumin, who is a contingent worker without union protection, learns that he is about to be fired. But at the list minute, he discovers that another worker has been fired instead. A fellow factory-worker informs him that Jaemin has interceded on his behalf. Showing that he is not interested in the rich man’s paternalism, he strides into his office, takes off his production line smock and throws it in Jaemin’s face. Here, he says, you can wear it yourself–and then walks out of the factory.

With no skills and no job prospects, Sumin decides to take a job as a male prostitute in a gay bar called XLarge. For young people coming in from the countryside, the sex industry is one of few avenues to a well-paying job.

Eventually Jaemin discovers that Sumin is for sale and comes to the bar to pay for what he can’t get through normal means. Sumin is disgusted once again to learn that he is a commodity. Being purchased to perform labor on the assembly line or in bed is something this poor but self-respecting young gay man will not accept.

Jaemin will not take no for an answer and pursues Sumin relentlessly. Somehow he senses during their first love-for-sale transaction that there is some chemistry. Eventually Sumin learns that “a shy man”, as Jaemin describes himself, has fallen in love with a “poor man”.

Once Jaemin’s love is requited, the two appear to be destined for a long-term, stable homosexual relationship but soon runs headlong into his parent’s objections. They understand that their son is gay and always winked at his indiscretions, but in order to maintain class status, Jaemin is expected to marry a wealthy woman that they have picked out for him.

Made for $100,000, “No Regret” is evidence once again of Korean cinematic excellence. Over the past 10 years or so, some of the most memorable movies I have seen came out of Korea. This is obviously related to the emotional intensity, acerbic wit and psychological depth of the screenplays. Unlike Hollywood, where the art of screenwriting is almost as moribund as General Motors products, Korean and other “peripheral” countries lead the way.

The dialog of the two main characters and the supporting cast of male prostitutes who work side-by-side with Sumin at XLarge crackles with energy. Director Leesong Hee-il clearly identifies with society’s outcasts, whether they are breaking sexual taboos or are struggling to keep their head above water economically.

The press notes explain that “No Regret” has its roots in another genre:

Although its subject matter is certainly unconventional for a Korean film, the story is plotted in a style similar to what has become known as “hostess movies” – which deal with ambitious young women who come to the big city of Seoul, only to end up working as prostitutes. In “No Regret,” Sumin, an orphan with nothing to his name, comes to Seoul as full of hope as the heroines did in those movies from the ‘70s, but ends up earning his livelihood through prostitution. Jaemin, who comes from a conservative and wealthy background, is burdened with the responsibility of maintaining the honor of his family name. The movie unfolds as a melodrama in the vein of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, both of whom were masters of the form. Ultimately, “No Regret” is a classic romance interwoven with the realistic depiction of class conflict and contemporary Korean gay life.

While press notes tend to inflate the value of the product that they are packaged with, this comparison with Sirk and Fassbinder, two of the 20th century’s great directors, is right on the money.

“No Regret” opens on July 25th at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 – 8000 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood and at Cinema Village – 22 E. 12th St., New York. Later dates are at the Palm Desert in Los Angeles on August 1, Portland August 22 and San Francisco August 29. I give this film my highest recommendation. It is by far the best film I have seen in 2008.

Film trailer

Film website

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