Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 31, 2008

The Male Animal

Filed under: Academia,Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 6:51 pm

De Havilland and Fonda in “The Male Animal”

Last weekend I took in the first five minutes of “The Male Animal” on the Turner Classic Movie channel. This was a 1942 movie based on a James Thurber play that I had never seen before. Five minutes was about all I needed since it seemed to be one of those standard comedies set on a college campus that usually has somebody like Mickey Rooney or Dick Powell running around in a raccoon coat trying to impress a cheerleader.

In the opening scene, Henry Fonda-playing a professor named Tommy Turner-exchanges repartee with his wife Ellen played by Olivia De Havilland and their maid Cleota played by Hattie McDaniel. It seems that they were having a dinner party later that evening for some bigwigs at the Michigan university where he works, including the dean and a powerful trustee but Cleota has mistakenly put the caviar in the oven to heat up. Since De Havilland played a Dixie bell in “Gone With the Wind” and McDaniel was playing essentially the same kind of eye-rolling part she played in the racist classic, that was enough for me.

About 90 minutes later, while surfing across the TV dial, I paused to watch a bit more of “The Male Animal” out of morbid curiosity. Fonda is in front of a packed lecture hall urging the need for free speech on campus. That piqued my curiosity. But when it turned out that the context was his risking his job to read a prison letter by Bartolomeo Vanzetti to his classroom, I decided to get my hands on the movie–so much so that when I discovered it was not available from Netflix, I bought a VHS copy on amazon.com. As you will see from the case I try to build for the movie, it is one of the most striking Hollywood movies ever made on the question of academic freedom and resonates deeply with today’s witch-hunting environment. It will have a strong appeal for left audiences today despite the stereotypical role played by Hattie McDaniel and despite its affinity for the collegiate comedies of the 30s and 40s, most of which deserve the obscurity they languish in.

A Thurber cartoon

Before taking a close look at “The Male Animal”, a word or two about the author of the Broadway play it is based on. James Thurber was a long time contributor to the New Yorker Magazine who specialized in wistful tales about middle-class underachievers as well as cartoons about the same types of characters. His most famous story is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, a story about a couch potato who daydreams about being a dashing detective or a trailblazing surgeon, etc. So popular was the story that it gave birth to Mittyesque as an adjective.

Professor Tommy Turner is Mittyesque himself. A mild-mannered untenured English professor, his highest hope is to get promoted to a full professorship. Into his rather placid existence, however, he is thrust into a real test of his courage-unlike the imaginary trials of Walter Mitty. It seems that three professors at his school have just been fired for being Reds. So provoked by this injustice, Michael Barnes, one of his best students and editor of the campus literary magazine, writes a stinging attack on the Board of Trustees that pushed for the firings. In his eyes, they are just a bunch of “fascists.” In the same article, he describes the school as a “training school for bond salesmen, farmers, real-estate dealers and ambulance chasers.” Some things apparently have not changed that much in American higher education.

James Thurber

Meanwhile, according to Michael, only one professor still has the guts to defy them in the name of academic freedom. It turns out that this is Tommy Turner, who has announced that he will read a Vanzetti letter to his class next week. When Barnes’s article appears a day after the firing of the three Reds, word spreads like wildfire that the professor is challenging the trustees and will likely be the next to be axed.

The title of the play is a reference to the rivalry between Turner and a Michigan alumnus named Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson) over the affections of Turner’s wife, who he used to date when she was a cheerleader. Ferguson was a football star who has come back to school to attend the big game against the school’s main rival and to seduce Mrs. Turner, who seems ready to return his affections. She has plainly gotten tired first of all of being married to somebody with a unsure future as a professor and even more so now that he is risking his livelihood to read an anarchist’s letter to his class.

In a scene that takes place on his patio, Professor Turner and Michael Barnes work themselves through a bottle of whiskey while the professor holds forth on how a man must behave like an animal in order to impress a female. (Michael Barnes, the intellectual leftist, also has a football hero for a rival for the affections of an undergraduate played by Joan Leslie. The symmetry between the two men and their football playing rivals is just one element of a highly polished exercise in playwriting whose antecedents go back to Racine and Moliere.) When Joe Ferguson shows up, the professor challenges him to a fight which is played for slapstick.

From what I can gather by a brief perusal of “The Male Animal” on Google/Books, the movie’s script is fairly close to the original Broadway play. Nearly all the action takes place in the Turner household, which would have been the case in the play just as the movie version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” took place in a professor’s house. The downside of this is its tendency toward “staginess” and “wordiness”. What works on Broadway might not necessarily work in a movie. That being said, the upside is some truly brilliant writing of the sort that is impossible to get in a movie nowadays. Thurber was a highly polished writer and Fonda and company all got started on Broadway themselves, so their delivery was up to the task.

You can read a couple of scenes from “The Male Animal” here.  Admittedly, it is a rather awkward way to sample the play, but it is free.

Here’s an exchange between Turner, his wife and Dean Damon, a typically spineless administrator who cowers before the trustees.

Ellen: But why were you going to read this letter, Tommy?

Tommy: Because it’s a fine piece of English composition, and I’m teaching a class on English composition. An obscure little class. I don’t want any publicity, Michael. I just want to be left alone.

Ellen: But nobody thinks of Vanzetti as a writer, Tommy.

Tommy: It happens that he developed into an extraordinary writer. I don’t think you could help but be interested in the letter yourself, Doctor Damon.

Damon: You would be surprised at my strength of will in these matters, Thomas. What I am most interested in is preserving some air of academic calm here at Midwestern [called Michigan in the movie].

One scene really helps to distinguish the movie from the play. That is a football rally the night before the game that consists of mobs of undergraduates whooping it up before a huge bonfire. Given the period in which both the play and movie occurred, as well as the dramatic conflict between an open-minded professor and repressive trustees, one cannot help but think of Nuremburg. Clearly director Elliot Nugent must have had Hitler’s torch-lit rallies in mind. It should be mentioned as well that Julius J. Epstein, who adapted Thurber’s play, was always a thorn in Jack Warner’s side. At one point, Warner gave Epstein’s name to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). When asked by HUAC if he had ever belonged to a “subversive organization,” he answered, “Yes. Warner Brothers.”

It turns out that the similarity between American football rallies and Nuremburg was not accidental.

An early fan and financial backer of Adolf Hitler was Ernst Hanfstaengl, an upper-crust German-American whose mother came from a well-known New England family, the Sedgewicks. Two of his ancestors were Civil War generals, one of whom helped carry Lincoln’s coffin. On the German side the Hanfstaengls were counselors to the dukes of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, whence derives the present British regal dynasty. Hanfstaengl finally had to flee Germany after 1934, when his criticisms of evolving Nazi policy prompted Hltler, Goering and Goebbels to try to kill him. In the 1950s he dictated his memoirs to a British historian, Brian Connell, and they are available here as “Hitler: The Missing Years” (Arcade). A great read, as in this vignette from the 1920s:

It was on another occasion, at the house of Heinrich Hoffman, his photographer friend, that I started playing some of the football marches I had picked up at Harvard. I explained to Hitler all the business about cheer leaders and marches, counter-marches and deliberate whipping up of hysterical enthusiasm. I told him about the thousands of spectators being made to roar “Harvard, Harvard, Harvard, rah, rah, rah!” in unison and of the hypnotic effect of this sort of thing. I played him some of the Sousa marches and then my own ‘Fuluruh,’ to show how it could be done by adapting German tunes, and gave them all that buoyant beat so characteristic of American brass-band music. I had Hitler fairly shouting with enthusiasm. “That is it, Hanfstaengl, that is what we need for the movement, marvelous,” and he pranced up and down the room like a drum majorette. After that he had the S.A. band practising the same thing. I even wrote a dozen marches or so myself over the course of the years, including the one that was played by the brown-shirt columns as they marched through the Brandenburger Tower on the day he took over power. Rah, rah, rah! became Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil! but that is the origin of it and I suppose I must take my share of the blame.

(Alexander Cockburn, Nation Magazine, July 10, 1995)

August 30, 2008

Peter Camejo classics

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 2:00 pm

“How to Make a Revolution in the United States” is the abridged text of a speech delivered by Peter Camejo at an educational conference of the SWP and the YSA in New York on May 3, 1969. It is taken from the May 30, 1969 issue of The Militant.

“Liberalism, Ultraleftism or Mass Action” is the abridged text of a talk given by Camejo at a meeting in New York on June 14, 1970. It is taken from the July 10, 1970 issue of The Militant.

Full at http://links.org.au/node/606

August 29, 2008

Two musical documentaries of the African diaspora

Filed under: Africa,Film,music — louisproyect @ 9:30 pm

Today marks the opening of two noteworthy documentaries at the Pioneer Theater in New York about the African diaspora experience in music. “Youssou N’Dour: Return to Goree” chronicles the great Senegalese singer’s attempt to bond with African-American musicians in a kind of pilgrimage to the New World, while “Maria Bethania: Music is Perfume” is an exploration of the unique esthetic of one of Brazil’s most respected Tropicalismo artists. Both films originally premiered at New York’s African Diaspora Film Festival and we are fortunate to be able to see them now.

Located near Dakar, Senegal, the island of Gorée was one of West Africa’s major slavery depots. The film begins with N’Dour reflecting on the great injustice done to his homeland and his hopes for a new project involving various musicians whose ancestors might have departed from this terrible place. He will visit the New World to gather together a diverse group of musicians who share a common identification with Mother Africa.

After being joined in Senegal by his pianist Moncef Genoud, a blind Frenchman born in Tunisia, the two depart for the U.S.-the first stop Atlanta, Georgia. There they meet the Harmony Harmoneers, a local gospel group that he watches performing in church. Despite his affinity for their music, he stresses the need to avoid references to Jesus in their performances together. The songs that he is recruiting fellow African descendants to sing with him have to do with children getting a good education, not being saved by Jesus. Without making any obvious points about their religious differences, we see Youssou praying toward Mecca in his hotel room later.

Next stop is New Orleans, where N’Dour looks up drummer Idris Muhammad and bass player James Cammack. Muhammad, a devout Muslim like N’Dour, is like a number of American jazz musicians who were drawn to a religion in which racial discrimination does not tend to rear its ugly head. The enlarged group now wends its way to New York, where they pick up jazz vocalist Pyeng Threadgill, who is the daughter of avant-garde musician Henry Threadgill. A reception for Youssou N’Dour includes a special guest, Amiri Baraka, who reflects on the importance of African identity for him when he became politicized in the 1960s.

Ultimately the musicians arrive back in Dakar where they hear a local griot lecture on the injustices committed at Gorée. Idris Muhammad and Pyeng Threadgill are shown bonding with local musicians and ordinary citizens.

Throughout the film, we see Youssou N’Dour in performance in a setting somewhat different from the customary Afropop context. He has obviously developed a new affinity for jazz and meshes well with his ad hoc band gathered together for the occasion. The band is eventually joined by the Harmony Harmoneers in a performance that illustrates how music is the universal vocabulary of humanity.

“Maria Bethânia: Music is Perfume” consists of interviews with this “musician’s musician” and some of Brazil’s top artists, including her brother Caetano Veloso.

Maria Bethânia was born Vianna Telles Veloso in 1946 but drew the stage name of Maria Bethânia, the title of a traditional song, from a hat. Like other musicians in the Tropicalismo movement, she has a very strong identification with Africa and progressive politics.

The Velosos hail from Bahia, Brazil, which is the birthplace of the samba and where African religious singing and dancing is still practiced. The movie shows local residents from her hometown of Santo Amaro celebrating Mardi Gras. Despite the sometimes ethereal quality of her songs, there is always a strong connection to her African roots.

The movie includes interviews with Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil and Nana Caymmi, three of the country’s great musicians. Their attitude toward Maria Bethânia borders on reverence.

For a intimate look at two of the world’s great musical interpreters of the African heritage, pay a visit to the Pioneer Theater in New York.

August 27, 2008

Act of Violence

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

Last night I watched an extraordinary film noir on the Turner Classic Movie channel that was new even to me, a long-time aficionado of the genre. Directed by Fred Zinnemann in 1948, “Act of Violence,” available from Netflix, confirmed once again my suspicion that the developing Cold War spawned many of the finest noir films. Since noir films are typified by a bleakness of vision, what other period could have topped the late 1940s for having the effect of destroying hope in a better world-except perhaps for the last several decades.

“Act of Violence” stars Van Heflin and Robert Ryan as two WWII veterans who have found themselves embroiled in a deadly revenge scenario. Heflin plays Frank R. Enley, a pilot who informs on his fellow soldiers in their bid to escape from a Nazi prison camp in exchange for food. Only one man has survived-Joe Parkson, played by Ryan-and he shows up in the beginning of the movie to kill Enly, who has tried to bury the past. He is now a successful building contractor enjoying the fruits of the post-WWII boom, while Parkson is crippled and half-crazed.

It was unheard of for an American GI who ratted out his comrades to be portrayed in as complex a fashion as Enly. While not a hero by any stretch of the imagination, he comes across as somebody who was just desperate to survive. Meanwhile, Parkson is nearly as flawed. He is intent on killing Enly even after he gets a chance to meet his prey’s young wife (played by a very young Janet Leigh) and their infant son. The “act of violence” becomes a ritual vendetta stripped of any ideological associations with the “good war”.

In keeping with noir conventions, the film takes place nearly entirely at night in all the usual places: seedy saloons, desolate railroad tracks, and empty urban streets. The characters are also drawn from the noir world. After Enly takes refuge in the aforementioned seedy saloon, he runs into a prostitute who takes interest in his problems and escorts him to a shady lawyer who convinces him to pay $10,000 to a hit man to get rid of Parkson. The prostitute is played by Mary Astor, Humphrey Bogart’s foil in “The Maltese Falcon”, while the hit-man is played by Berry Kroeger who specialized in such roles. He was a bad guy in “Gun Crazy”, another noir from the period written by Dalton Trumbo.

One scene strongly suggests that the bloom had faded from the post-WWII rose takes place in a hotel banquet room. Enly has joined fellow building contractor for a night of celebration following a day-long building contractors’ convention. The room is filled with drunken businessmen, while a weaving conga line reenacts the famous painting of George Washington in a headband leading his troops. It has the power of a George Grosz painting from the Weimar Republic.

If you haven’t heard of “Act of Violence”, you surely would be familiar with some of Fred Zinnemann’s other films. He followed up this movie with another decidedly unromantic view of WWII veterans. The 1950 “The Men” starred Marlin Brando as a crippled and embittered ex-GI in a veteran’s hospital. The screenplay was by Carl Foreman, who would be blacklisted in a couple of years. It was filmed at the Birmingham Paraplegic Hospital in Van Nuys, California, and included real patients and caregivers.

Two years later Zinnemann directed “High Noon”, again with Carl Foreman writing the screenplay. Everybody involved with the making of the film understood that it was an allegory on the witch-hunt taking the side of the victims. It was the opposite number of “On the Waterfront”, which essentially made snitching into a virtue. In a very informative Chronicle of Higher Education article on the movie from 2002, we learn:

In this spirit, High Noon set its sights on the political controversy settling over the most famous Western town of all. “What High Noon was about at the time,” its screenwriter Foreman admitted years later, “was Hollywood and no other place but Hollywood.” Translation: the Miller Gang were stand-ins for the gang from HUAC, the craven townspeople of Hadleyville were the cooperative witnesses who cowered before the committee, and the marshal followed the lone path of honor in a town without pity. Not too far under the surface, readily detectable by any viewer with the wits to spot a metaphor, High Noon acted out the high drama of conscience against expediency, personal codes against community values.

Zinnemann also made commercial potboilers like “The Day of the Jackal” and “Behold a Pale Horse”, all of which are available from Netflix and well worth seeing. He was a real craftsman and could turn any script into something remarkable.

It is too bad that “Redes” (“Nets”, as in fisherman’s nets), one of his earliest films, that was made in Mexico in 1936 is not available from Netflix or anywhere else probably. The movie’s cameraman was Paul Strand, the famous 1930s WPA photographer. An interesting comment on IMDB puts the movie into context:

I would certainly agree with the previous comment that this film is worth watching due to the poignant camera work of Paul Strand and the score of Silvestre Revueltas that intensifies the emotional power evoked by Strand’s cinematography (that Strand seems not cut out to be a cinematographer is hardly surprising – he was actually a prominent US photographer commissioned by Narcisso Bassols, then Mexican Minister of Education to make this revolutionary film).

I’ll also add that as a film this is an important socio-political moment as it marks the emergence of a Revolutionary national cinema very much in the collectivist spirit of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. The editing mimicks the Russian director’s use of separate cell blocks (shots) to translate the Marxist social dialectic of thesis + antithesis = synthesis into a filmic language labelled Soviet Montage. The film’s clearest example of this is the juxtaposition of ‘photographic’ images when the politician shoots Miro. Eisenstein’s influence permeates Redes (for example, real people acted in the film, replacing hired actors (except Miro), coping Eisenstein’s use of typage), as it did Mexican film in general during this Revolutionary era, due largely to his philosophy and the fact he actually went to Mexico and shot a film, ‘Que Viva Mexico!’ in 1932. For those interested in things Eisenstein, I would recommend Potemkin, Strike, and Oktober, the latter contains a barrel-of-gun scene which surely inspired the aforementioned murder of Miro.

I just want to conclude with a word about Robert Ryan, who specialized in playing half-crazed characters like Frank R. Enly or sadists like Captain Taggart in “Billy Budd”. In private life, Ryan was a stalwart liberal like Humphrey Bogart, Bert Lancaster, Paul Newman and other Hollywood A-list celebrities. During the 1930s, Ryan worked for the WPA just like Paul Strand. The Wiki on Ryan reveals the following:

Ryan was a liberal Democrat who tirelessly supported civil rights issues. Despite his military service, he also came to share the pacifist views of his wife Jessica, who was a Quaker.

In the late 1940s, as the House Committee on Unamerican Activities (HUAC) intensified its anti-communist attacks on Hollywood, he joined the short-lived Committee for the First Amendment. Throughout the 1950s, he donated money and services to civic and religious organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, American Friends Service Committee, and United World Federalists. In September 1959, he and Steve Allen became founding co-chairs of The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy’s Hollywood chapter.

By the mid-1960s, Ryan’s political activities included efforts to fight racial discrimination. He served in the cultural division of the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and, with Bill Cosby, Robert Culp, Sidney Poitier, and other actors, helped organize the short-lived Artists Help All Blacks.

Ryan’s film work often ran counter to the political causes he embraced. He was a pacifist who starred in war movies, westerns, and violent thrillers. He was an opponent of McCarthyism who nevertheless served the anticommunist cause by playing a nefarious Communist agent in I Married a Communist. Even in films like Crossfire and Odds Against Tomorrow, which ultimately promoted racial tolerance, he played bigoted bad guys. Ryan was often vocal about this dichotomy. At a screening of Odds Against Tomorrow, he appeared before black and foreign press representatives to discuss “the problems of an actor like me playing the kind of character that in real life he finds totally despicable.”

Watch Trailer

August 23, 2008

The Bank Job

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 4:09 pm

Last night I and my lovely wife rented what we expected to be some mindless entertainment from the local Blockbusters. With a title like “The Bank Job” and starring British actor Jason Statham, veteran of action-oriented B movies like “The Transporter”, we fully expected car chases, eye-gouging and all the other guilty pleasures associated with this genre.

As it turned out, “The Bank Job” was a far more understated movie that touched on some interesting social and political questions. Based on a true event–the 1971 Baker Street robbery in central London–it explores the venality of British law enforcement and corruption at the highest levels of British society.

The movie begins with unidentified people involved in some kind of orgy at an unnamed Caribbean resort (this was the swinging 60s after all). As one couple is going at it hot and heavy in a bedroom, somebody is taking photos through the window. It turns out that the woman is Princess Margaret and the photos become the possession of Michael X, a leading Black Power advocate in Great Britain who styles himself–as the name implies–after Malcolm X.

Next we see Martine Love (Saffron Burrows), a fashion model returning from a vacation being stopped by cops in Heathrow Airport. Caught with an ample supply of heroin, she is pressured by her boyfriend Tim Everett (Richard Lintern), an MI5 spook, to recruit her old boyfriend, a small-time criminal named Terry Leather (Jason Statham), to organize a bank robbery to retrieve the photos from a safety deposit box. Yes, I know, the negatives could have been kept somewhere else but this is a movie after all.

Statham goes about recruiting a crew to tunnel into the bank vault from the basement of a nearby clothing store. The robbery itself is not played for high drama, but is only a device to move the plot forward. Once they open the safety deposit boxes, they discover a virtual treasure trove of documents that are just as compromising for the British authorities as Michael X’s photos. There are photos that the madam of a brothel has taken of members of the upper crust in S&M sessions at her establishment. A porn merchant has a ledger book with entries reflecting payoffs to the London cops.

Most of the drama takes place after the robbery and depicts a cat-and-mouse game between Statham and his crew on one side and the MI5, London cops and the porn king’s goons on the other.

Of the greatest interest to me was the Michael X character who I remember from coverage in Intercontinental Press in the late 1960s, when I was in the SWP. IP was edited by Joe Hansen, one of Trotsky’s bodyguards in Coyoacan, and served as a kind of press digest from leftist sources around the world, not always Trotskyist–thank god. I could be mistaken, but I remember Michael X, who was charged with two murders in his home country of Trinidad, being defended by the Trotskyists as a police frame-up victim like Mumia. One of the two murder victims was Gale Benson, a daughter of a prominent Tory who became the lover of Michael X’s brother. There were suspicions at the time, supported by the movie, that she was an MI5 spy sent in to infiltrate Michael X’s group.

The movie’s version of Michael X is in accord with that of fellow Trinidadian V.S. Naipul, a hardened reactionary but accomplished writer. In “The Bank Job”, he is a total conman who was the accomplice of the aforementioned porn king, a slumlord, a drug dealer and a murderer. For Naipul, Michael X is a symbol of the decadence of 3rd world liberation struggles. As a kind of parallel, David Horowitz launched a career as a rightwing ideologue after becoming disillusioned with the Black Panthers who he described in the following terms in an interview with a rightwing talk radio host:

I encouraged a woman named Betty Van Tanner, who was 42 years old at the time and the mother of three children and who was my bookkeeper at Ramparts to do the bookkeeping for this school. And in December, 1974 Betty disappeared. Six weeks later the police fished her body out of San Francisco Bay. Her head had been bashed in by a blunt instrument and I knew at that moment that the Black Panthers had murdered her. And that was really the end of my career in the “left.” I was devastated. I felt responsible for encouraging her to take the position. I saw that the police were paralyzed and couldn’t conduct a serious investigation. They knew the Panthers had killed her but it’s very difficult when you have a gang for the police to identify the killers.

In another parallel with the American left, Michael X was lionized by certain left-leaning personalities. For conservative novelist Tom Wolfe, Leonard Bernstein had to be punished for hosting a fundraiser for the Black Panthers. In “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers“, Wolfe wrote:

. . . and now, in the season of Radical Chic, the Black Panthers. That huge Panther there, the one Felicia is smiling her tango smile at, is Robert Bay, who just forty-one hours ago was arrested in an altercation with the police, supposedly over a .38-caliber revolver that someone had, in a parked car in Queens at Northern Boulevard and 10th Street or some such unbelievable place and taken to jail on a most un-usual charge called “criminal facilitation.” And now he is out on bail and walking into Leonard and Felicia Bernstein’s thirteen-room penthouse duplex on Park Avenue. Harassment & Hassles, Guns & Pigs, Jail & Bail-they’re real, these Black Panthers. The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone.

Naipul described Michael X’s relationship to John Lennon and Yoko Ono in exactly the same terms. In a hundred page article that appeared in the London Times in 1973, Naipul describes Michael X as a master manipulator who deceived Lennon and Ono, two people he held in disdain.

Naipul was obsessed with Michael X, viewing him as a kind of Satanic figure incorporating everything that was wrong about radical, 3r world politics. He wrote a novel “Guerrillas” that is based on the killings in Trinidad. He also wrote a long article in 1979 titled “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad: Peace and Power” that covered the same terrain as the 1973 article and the novel. You can read the 1979 article at http://social.chass.ncsu.edu/wyrick/debclass/npmix1.htm and see Naipul at his dyspeptic best (or worst):

Revolution, change, system: London words, London abstractions, capable of supporting any meaning Malik – already reassembling his gang, his “commune” – chose to give them. There were people in London who were expecting Malik, their very own and complete Negro, to establish a new government in Trinidad. There had been a meeting; someone had made a record. The new government was going to underwrite the first International University of the Alternative, “the seat of the counter-culture of the Alternative.” Words, and more words: “I cannot go into details,” Malik had said. “But I can say this. The new university will be an experimental laboratory of a new and sane life-style.” But – the eternal warning of the X, the eternal thrill and flattery – the white people who came to Malik’s Trinidad (an airbus service was promised to all international capitals) had to remember that there was “a just hatred of the white man” in the heart of every black; and they had somehow to get over the fact that they “belonged to the race of the oppressors.”

According to Jon Wiener in his biography of John Lennon titled “Come Together”, Michael X did not quite have the same cachet with the Marxist left. That is why I am not so sure that my memory of IP’s account is completely reliable. A couple of important Trotskyist figures of the time, Robin Blackburn and Tariq Ali, were not that impressed with Michael X, according to Wiener.

Blackburn told Wiener that he “didn’t have that much confidence in Michael…who presented himself as the English equivalent of Malcolm X.” All in all, he “was a rather shallow and derivative figure.” Tariq Ali was even more forthright: “I knew him. I never clashed with him, and he never clashed with me. He read Malcolm X’s autobiography and started acting it out. The Blackhouse [Michael’s cultural center funded by John Lennon] was a fraud. It was just making money for himself.”

Stuart Hall, another New Left Review editor, but not a Trotskyist, had a somewhat different take on Michael X. Despite being an enforcer for a slumlord, Michael X was genuinely trying to set up a tenants association in the 1960s. He also had memories of Michael X coming up to the NLR articles and having intense discussions about political and social change long before the Black power movement developed in Great Britain, so the accusation that he was trying to hitch a ride on the movement was inaccurate.

After Michael X returned to Trinidad, he set up an agricultural commune that was supposed to be a model for economic development that clashed with Prime Minister Eric Williams’s plans to make the country reliant on oil revenues. Despite his shady past, Wiener characterized Michael X as a forceful defender of black rights in Trinidad.

In another historical irony, Williams did not have the typical past of a pro-capitalist Prime Minister. As the young author of the classic “Capitalism and Slavery”, which started out as a PhD dissertation, Williams had been strongly influenced by CLR James, the Trotskyist theorist who tutored Williams at Oxford. It seems that James read both drafts of Williams’s dissertation and had a significant role in formulating the book’s primary thesis, namely that sugar plantations, rum and slavery trade helped to catapult Great Britain into world domination at the expense of the African peoples in the Diaspora.

I doubt that we’ll ever know the true story of Michael X, especially from either V.S. Naipul or “The Bank Job”. At least with the movie, you will not feel like the victim of a rightwing ideological assault.

August 21, 2008

Ethiopian music

Filed under: Africa,music — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

Mahmoud Ahmed

About 20 years ago, when I first started putting together a collection of African music, I bought a number of Ethiopique records, an anthology now available in CD. Last night I went to an outdoor concert at Lincoln Center that included Mahmoud Ahmed, one of my favorite artists. Organized by the “alternative” music FM station WFMU, the concert paired Ethiopian superstars such as Ahmed with Western bands such as the Either Orchestra. Thankfully, since Either Orchestra’s approach is to emulate the sound of Ethiopian bands of the 1960s and 70s, the so called Golden Era, there was no clash between singer and instrumentalists.

To get a handle on Ethiopian music, a good place to start is the WFMU blog entry on last night’s concert, which includes some mp3’s.

I was planning on writing about Ethiopian music anyhow, but was additionally motivated to do so after seeing that Lenin’s Tomb’s latest post involved Ethiopia:

The very logic of centralisation and homogenisation – under which Emperor Haile Selassie would later repress regional demands for autonomy and quash the Ethiopian-Eritrean federation, and which validated the destructive centralism of the Derg – would have important consequences for the emergence of Ethiopian nationalism partly as a result of the victory at Adwa. On the one hand, it created a predatory state in which the martial class was at liberty to appropriate from the peasants even during peacetime. It also threatened to undermine the basis for national unity precisely through its repression of regional identities. On the other hand, though a relatively powerful army had been built, the Battle of Adwa was notable for being a popular war.

Before getting into Ethiopian politics, I should say a word or two about Ethiopian music. Unlike just about all other Sub-Saharan pop music, except for South Africa, there is no Afro-Latin influence. Guitars and drums play a secondary role, as opposed to Congolese soukous or Senegalese mbalax. About the closest cousin on the continent is Fela’s big band. But unlike Fela, whose songs evoked James Brown, his Ethiopian counterparts sing in a modal style unique to the country that sounds vaguely East Asian. Called qenet, it varies slightly from the Western tempered tuning system.

The Ethiopique anthology would certainly not have come into existence without the intervention of Francis Falceto, a French music producer who heard some Ethiopian cassettes in the mid-80s and devoted himself to making the music available to fans of world music everywhere. In a very good interview with Afropop, Falceto relates the music of Ethiopia to the famous victory over Italian colonists at Adwa:

Afropop: Fascinating. During this period, from the Battle of Adwa in 1896 up until the time when Haile Selassie reconfirms his control in the 1940s, what has been happening culturally in Ethiopia?

F.F.: It’s deeply related to the victory of Adwa in 1896. As I told you, many countries sent ambassadors to Ethiopia. And it happened that the tsar of Russia sent an ambassador to meet Menelik II. And as a gift, he sent 40 brass instruments and a music teacher. Menelik decided to use them as his royal music. In this sense, the same thing happened in Ethiopia, a non-colonized country, as was happening in the rest of colonized Africa. The European colonialist introduced army bands because they were present. It was through the army bands that modern music started. First of all, they play marching music in the European style, but then the local musicians try to adapt their own music and musical culture with these Western instruments. And that’s the way, all over Africa, modern music, meaning local music played with Western instruments, started. Everywhere, you can see the same thing. Even in many other countries, in Asia, in South America. All this modern music is linked to military music. You find this in Jamaica. The Adwa victory was also a kind of starting point for the development of modern music in Ethiopia. The repertoire of the musicians at the time was limited to the marching music, national anthems of various embassies: France, Russia, America, England, etc. The teacher was probably a Polish guy; his name was Milewski. And this guy tried to teach the Ethiopians to perform marching music.

It was quite difficult, because, in Ethiopia, to be an artist, to be a musicians, is something like to belong to a cast. The traditional musicians, known by the name azmaris are considered as a caste, as they are a bit outside of the society. An average Ethiopian will never play music, you see. Still this type of caste exists nowadays. The way that they look at a musician is a bit despising. They have a very ambivalent position in regard to them. So, they like them for the jokes they can tell, the freedom of speech they have, the way they use double meaning in their songs. But they wouldn’t like their children to get married to such a musician. To set up this marching band, it was a bit difficult to find the right people to blow those instruments. They used to invite people from the Southern provinces, considered almost as slaves; very dark, black people, whereas the average Amharan or Tigrean, who were the dominant population, were quite light-skinned.

There was this kind of racism within the country itself. We have to wait about 20 years to see the development of modern music. In 1924, Ras Tafarai, before he became Emperor Haile Selassie, went on a diplomatic tour on Europe. His first stop was Jerusalem, because for Ethiopians, Jerusalem is a bit like Mecca for the Muslims. Every respectful Ethiopian should be a pilgrim to Jerusalem one day. So before he went to France, England, Sweden, Italy, and Greece, he went to Jerusalem just to go to the tomb of Christ. And he was welcome there by a marching band of young Armenian orphans. This was a few years after the genocide of the Armenian people in Turkey. They were spread all over the region and some landed in Jerusalem.

Ras Tafari was amazed by these musicians and immediately made a deal with the Armenian patriarch in order to send them to Ethiopia to become the new royal music. And when he came back from his tour all over Europe, he took them from Port Saïd to Addis Ababa. These forty, again forty, young Armenian orphans became another royal music. Still nowadays, they are known as “Arba Lidjoch” in Amharic, the Ethiopian language, “the forty kids.” The Forty Kids had a music teacher, Kevork Nalbandian. After Kevork, other Nalbandians will come to come to teach Ethiopian musicians, and in the 50s, 60s, early 70s, the nephew of Kevork, Nerses Nalbandian, will become a core person to develop modern music.

Not long after Marxmail got started, there were a group of Ethiopian students who were subscribers. In all honesty, I thought that their politics had more in common with the “anti-globalization” protest movement of the time, but was very happy to have them aboard despite some occasional friction.

To satisfy my own curiosity about Ethiopian history, I spent about a month reading up on the subject from the well-stocked Columbia library. Here’s a brief excerpt from what I wrote:

Ethiopia has the distinction of being the only great African nation that was organized around Christianity, although of a highly distinct character. It must be understood that the world’s great religions have emerged out of commercial and financial exigencies. Just as Protestantism was catapulted into existence through the power of peasant rebellions in Great Britain and Germany, at an earlier time divisions between Islam and Christianity had more to do with trade routes and commercial opportunity rather than soul-searching.

Furthermore, the religious component of the modern day Ethiopian state shares with Israel mythological foundations in the Old Testament, as distinct to the New Testament foundations of both Protestant and Catholic states. The modern day Ethiopian state began to emerge in the 15th century under the rubric of the Solomonic dynasties. Its foundational myths have much more charm for me than the territorial aggrandizing myths of the Zionist state, since they are based on Eros rather than war.

In the Old Testament, the Queen of Sheba visits King Solomon in order to soak up some of his wisdom:

“When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the LORD, she came to test him with hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan–with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones–she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her.” (I Kings)

In the Ethiopian version, Solomon seduces her and she becomes impregnated with Menelik I, the legendary founder of the Ethiopian state. Since the Ethiopians become so enamored with Jewish wisdom in the presence of Solomon, they decide to steal the Ark of the Covenant to bring it back with them. Jehovah tells the Ethiopians that the larceny was okay with him. So it’s okay with me as well. In the PBS documentary on Africa, the boorish Skip Gates keeps pressing modern day Ethiopians to show him their holy relics like a tv talk show host asking guests to show the audience their tattoos.

The most interesting thing about all these legends is that they reflect the importance of Ethiopia in North African trade going back through the millennia. If the Queen of Sheba actually traveled to Solomon’s Kingdom, it was probably to barter goods rather than sop up wisdom. From the biblical era to the time of the emergence of the Solomonic dynasties in the 15th century, Europe enjoyed no particular advantage over the rest of the world and was merely one of a series of regional commercial centers that interacted with other commercial centers through well-established trade routes. It was only 1492 and the subsequent looting of the New World that allowed Europe to leapfrog over every other regional center and consequently destroy their economic viability as well.

During the heyday of the Solomonic dynasties, Ethiopia’s economy was connected to the regional network organized around the Red Sea and the Nile valley. Within Ethiopia, slaves and gold were exchanged for coffee. The market for Ethiopian beans grew considerably in the final quarter of the 17th century, as Yemen, a major trading partner, sought increasing amounts to satisfy the habit in Europe. Ethiopia, like 20th century Colombia, thus enjoyed a modicum of commercial success as it helped a gloomy Protestant population with jolts to its central nervous system.

The Ethiopian empire emerged in a fashion quite similar to comparable empires throughout the world which were also based on feudalism. In every instance, one band develops superior war-making skills and conquers less-endowed bands. In the New World, the Aztecs and Incas were the best known empires while the Mughals and various Chinese dynasties developed in the same fashion. Economically, these feudal kingdoms or empires were based on what John Haldon calls the tributary mode of production, more about which presently.

In the case of Ethiopia, the Amharic-speaking and Christian peoples of the northern highlands became the dominant band or nationality. Like the Aztecs and Incas, they were constantly battling to bring unruly subject peoples under control–alas, a pattern that did not disappear after the country was “liberated” by the Derg.

One of the better-known imperial subjects, besides the Eritreans, were the Oromo based in the south, a Cushitic-speaking pastoralist people. Their pastoral economy led to a loosely structured, egalitarian society led by officials who were elected by village councils. When competition increased for grazing land in the south, the Oromos retreated to the eastern plateaus of Ethiopia where they were constantly beset by the emperor’s troops. During the 17th century, they managed to consolidate territory under their control and held the central government at bay. According to Ethiopian monk and historian Bahrey, their success was related to the elan of the socially homogenous Oromo warriors, who took advantage of weaknesses in the feudal hierarchies of their enemy, which lacked the internal resolve to mobilize its resources completely. One must wonder if Ethiopia’s difficulties today in Eritrea and with other “lesser nationalities” is to some degree related to earlier cultural and social patterns. Isn’t it possible that the revolutions that cleansed Ethiopia of both Haile Selassie and the Derg retain certain of the feudal structures of the past, including chauvinism toward lower-rank peoples?

August 20, 2008

Pavel V. Maksakovsky: The Marxist Theory of the Cycle

Filed under: economics,Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 6:46 pm

The other day I posted an excerpt from an article that appeared on the Adbusters website titled “Thought Control in Economics” that dealt with how university economics department would not tolerate anything beyond the bounds of neoclassical theory, especially Marxism:

These accounts are symptoms of a pervasive system of thought control in economics. But no one knows more about how unwelcome ideas are kept from being expressed in economics departments and tainting the minds of curious students than Fred Lee, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He has documented over a hundred cases where economists who wouldn’t drink the neoclassical Kool-Aid got pushed aside ? a problem that began over a century ago when the working classes started to teach themselves Marxist theory.

“The leading economists of the day feared that if workers understood Marxist theory, the working class would realize how badly they were being exploited,” he says. “Fearing this might lead to revolutionary fervor, economists sought to recast economic theory to neutralize the Marxist critique. They limited their neoclassical theory to looking at innocuous issues such as how prices change. They also sought to prove that everyone gets paid exactly in accordance with their net contribution to society, implying that workers aren’t exploited and that is no basis for workers to claim a fairer share of the pie.”

Listening to Lee was making me realize that there is a time-honored tradition in economics of avoiding questions about who gets the wealth, who benefits and who loses with different economic policies. But there have been times when it was possible to explore other schools of thought.


This led to the following comment on the Marxism list:

I don’t understand this. Capital needs to have good predictions and models, for doing well. If non-mainstream economists came up with better models (that made better predictions), why won’t capital fund these researchers, given that it is in capital’s interest to have better, more accurate predictions?

Also, notice that non-equilibrium, complex-systems approaches in economics, which were very non-mainstream 30 years ago, are now quite mainstream. So it’s not like tradition always prevails in the field…

Which prompted the following response:

Isn’t that a central contradiction of mainstream economics? On the one hand, it has a strongly ideological character. It’s designed to attempt to place capital and capitalism in the best possible light, as efficient and just. On the other hand, mainstream economics is supposed to be a science, and as such it is supposed to serve as a guide to both businessmen and policymakers. What happens there is, as there often is apparently, a clash between these two aspects of mainstream economics?

This exchange was in the back of my mind when I came across this passage from Richard B. Day’s “Pavel V. Maksakovsky: The Marxist Theory of the Cycle” in Historical Materialism, 2002, number 3. I discovered recently that Columbia University now includes HM in its electronic archives, with the exception of the latest 12 months. I consider this to be a very important journal even if they are in the bad habit of making almost nothing available online to the unwashed masses. Day writes:

Georg Lukács once remarked that bourgeois thought could not even contemplate the dialectical movement of history, for to do so would be to acknowledge a future beyond capitalism. According to Lukács, bourgeois economists reason in terms of general equilibrium because the `ultimate barrier to the economic thought of the bourgeoisie is the crisis’. Looking at recent developments in economic theory, Maksakovsky acknowledged that this conceptual inability to deal with crisis had given way to a new concentration on the theory of the conjuncture. He understood this term to encompass both broad movements of the capitalist system over time and also the intersection of economic forces that define conditions at any given moment. Gustav Cassel proposed that the theory of the conjuncture should regard all fluctuations of capitalism as `normal’ and look for ways to contain them within the existing social order. If capitalism were conceived in dynamic terms, crises would be ideologically and semantically neutralised; if adequate market prognoses could be made, they might also be neutralised in fact. Maksakovsky saw the political rationale of the new theories in an attempt to establish `organised capitalism’. He summarised the ambitions of Western conjuncture theorists this way:

. . . Every capitalist will have the ability to anticipate in advance the consequences of his economic activities and consciously avoid both errors of judgement and excessive enthusiasm. The powerful [institutional] levers of the capitalist system – the state, trusts and so forth – are to become equally powerful levers for implementing a deliberate conjunctural policy in the interests of the national economy. The aggregate effect of these co-ordinating efforts is to lead to `moderation’ of the conjuncture, to curtail its amplitude and overcome its specific phenomenon – the crisis – which is regarded as a blight on an otherwise `wholesome’ system.

To Maksakovsky, the newly fashionable talk of conjuncture theory showed that bourgeois economists were moving beyond abstract mathematical ideals of equilibrium and theoretical models of comparative statistics. In that respect, they appeared to be catching up with Marxism. However, there remained fundamental methodological differences. Bourgeois writers began with empirical data and then attempted inductively to formulate a theory. Cassel wrote that he intended to `proceed from the concrete to the abstract’, looking first at data on industrial production and then turning to other data concerning prices, incomes and capital markets, hoping to end their interconnections. Maksakovsky replied that `The theory of the conjuncture must be constructed mainly deductively.’ This did not mean ignoring empirical indicators; it did mean that their significance could only be grasped in terms of fundamental laws.

Despite the complexity of the writing, the point being made here is fairly straightforward. Bourgeois economists simply cannot grasp the crisis-ridden nature of the system they are apologists for. It is not within their vocabulary, as Fred Lee alluded to above.

Furthermore, Maksakovsky was also operating squarely within the Marxist “crisis” theory of the early 20th century that emerged as a reaction to “Legal Marxism” in Czarist Russia and related Western European tendencies in Marxism to see the capitalist system as having “self-correcting” mechanisms. These mechanisms are closely related to the “conjuncture theory” referred to above. For Rosa Luxemburg and Henryk Grossman, two opponents of these currents (each with their own approach-under consumption, and over-accumulation respectively), the failure to see the crisis tendencies in capitalism served a reformist political agenda.

As I have pointed out in presentations made to the Yahoo Marxism reading group, there was a tendency among the Marxist economists being critiqued by Luxemburg and Grossman to treat the “reproduction cycle” of V. 2 of Capital, in which Marx described what amounts to a business cycle, as some kind of proof that there was nothing within the capitalist system to cause it to break down. Marx’s goal in V. 2 of Capital, however, was quite limited. He simply was trying to abstract out certain aspects of the capital accumulation cycle in order to explain how the system attempted to resolve within its own means the problems thrown up by its normal functioning. He bracketed out questions such as war and proletarian revolution, which have a tendency to render the “reproduction cycle” moot.

A word or two about Pavel V. Maksakovsky is in order. Richard B. Day fills in some biographical detail that establish how remarkably gifted so many Russian Bolshevik intellectuals were. Some were liquidated by Stalin; others like Maksakovsky succumbed to illness. He died on November 2, 1928 at the age of 28 probably as a result of the effects of early bouts with dysentery suffered as a Red Army fighter during the Civil War. To quote Day:

Besides being an impressive scholar, Maksakovsky was also the prototype of a Marxist revolutionary. What we know of his biography reads in parts like a Sergei Eisenstein film, or the heroic Soviet fiction of the 1920s. He was born in 1900 in the factory town of Ilevo, located in the guberniya of Nizhegorod in the Volga River basin. His father and three brothers were metalworkers, but, from 1912-16, the family returned to the land after the factory where they had been employed closed down. In 1916, they moved to Yekaterinoslav, in south-central Ukraine. Here, his brothers became involved in strike activity, which might have contributed to his political education. When the Ukrainian Rada declared independence in June 1917, Maksakovsky was recruited into Bolshevik-inspired underground work and joined the party in 1918. Forced into hiding by an arrest warrant, he resumed party work and served as a volunteer with the Red Army when it reached Yekatorinoslav early in 1919. He briefly attended a party school in the Ukraine, but then returned to the Red Army. He fought at Yekatorinoslav and later worked in the underground in the Poltava region. In October 1919, he was taken prisoner by Denikin’s forces and sentenced to execution as a `Bolshevist commissar and spy’. After convincing the soldiers who were escorting him to defect to the Bolsheviks, he eluded the death sentence and survived to fight against the anarchist forces of Nestor Makhno, serving briey as chairman of a military-revolutionary committee. Following a bout of typhus, in 1920 he was sent to Sverdlovsk, in Ukraine, where he worked as instructor in a party school until 1924. He subsequently taught at the Plekhanov Institute of the National Economy, and, in 1925, he was invited to join the Institute of Red Professors. Illness prevented him from delivering a projected course on Marxism at the Communist Academy, but, in the autumn of 1927, he participated in a seminar at the Institute of Red Professors dealing with Marxist economic theory. The notes from that seminar became “The Capitalist Cycle: An Essay on the Marxist Theory of the Cycle.”

Unfortunately, neither Day’s article nor “The Capitalist Cycle: An Essay on the Marxist Theory of the Cycle,” which appears in the same issue of HM, are accessible unless you have a university account like me, and probably only if the account is at a blue chip research university like Columbia.

Referring to the business model abstractions of V. 2 of Capital, Maksakovsky writes:

General resolution of the problem, however, is not the same as a comprehensive analysis of the real course of capitalist reproduction. It is not possible to depict capitalism’s pattern of development within the limitations of a smoothly rising curve. When the problem of reproduction is posed that abstractly, the cyclical pattern of capitalist reproduction cannot be revealed. For that purpose, one needs to advance to the next and final stage of a more concrete analysis, while remaining within the context of the abstract method. Thus, a transition must occur from general resolution of the problem of social reproduction to the real pattern of this process. Above all, this transition must include: 1) extensive action of the law of value and the resulting prices; 2) growth of the organic composition of capital, which is connected with the fully developed activity of capitalist competition; 3) the role of credit. The `cause’ of cyclical movement must be found precisely in the fully developed activity of the mechanism of real reproduction, which is revealed by including the foregoing factors that Marx left out of his general theory of reproduction. As Marx says elsewhere, the cyclical movement can be understood `only in the real movement of capitalist production, competition, and credit’.

For Maksakovsky, as well as Luxemburg and Grossman, the real course of capitalist reproduction is not self-regulating. Indeed, he repeatedly refers to it in terms of anarchy:

Here Marx brilliantly characterised the essence of a crisis. He revealed its dialectical nature. The process of production and circulation represents the unity of the turnover of capital. Nevertheless, this unity is not monolithic – it is an anarchic sum of the autonomous parts of the social whole. The crisis expresses mutual alienation of these moments, the familiar struggle of individual and separate capitals against the social conditions of their turnover. However, if the crisis were merely a condensed expression of this struggle and nothing more, continued existence of a social whole would be impossible. The already existing `autonomous’ and `anti-social’ tendencies of individual capitals would be reinforced; and because every phase of each capital’s turnover depends directly upon the passage of other capitals through their own successive phases, if these tendencies prevailed even briefly they would cause the social system’s deformation and disintegration into its most basic elements, which cannot exist unless they are closely interconnected.

It is really quite a shame that so important a text such as “The General Theory of the Cycle” will remain inaccessible to the general socialist audience due to the rather narrow breadth of the editors of HM. In past discussions with one of their editors, a rather ghostly presence on Marxmail and other mailing lists, I was told that it is strictly economics. Without the hefty price tag for a print subscription, they would not be allowed to keep the journal afloat.

Meanwhile, there’s this chilling reminder at the tail end of every HM article I download from the Columbia electronic archives:

Copyright of Historical Materialism is the property of Brill Academic Publishers and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder’s express written permission.

Somehow, this seems a bit insane to me. Citing a paragraph or two from a couple of articles in HM violates copyright laws? One might expect Brill and the HM editors to be happy that they are getting some exposure on a mailing list with over 1100 subscribers and a blog that averages about 1000 hits a day.

But then again, I have never been interested in making money.

August 19, 2008

Obama, McCain and the VFW

Filed under: Obama,parliamentary cretinism,racism — louisproyect @ 7:25 pm

John McCain’s speech to the VFW convention and Barack Obama’s response encapsulate the differences between the two parties. The Republicans go for the jugular and the Democrats are only too happy to unbutton their shirt collar. This has been a feature of American presidential politics going back to the 1970s and will probably continue into the future until the Democratic Party finally goes the way of the Whigs into the scrapheap of American electoral politics.

The most quoted section of McCain’s speech has raised all sorts of alarms in the liberal establishment:

With less than three months to go before the election, a lot of people are still trying to square Senator Obama’s varying positions on the surge in Iraq. First, he opposed the surge and confidently predicted that it would fail. Then he tried to prevent funding for the troops who carried out the surge. Not content to merely predict failure in Iraq, my opponent tried to legislate failure. This was back when supporting America’s efforts in Iraq entailed serious political risk. It was a clarifying moment. It was a moment when political self-interest and the national interest parted ways. For my part, with so much in the balance, it was an easy call. As I said at the time, I would rather lose an election than lose a war.

Thanks to the courage and sacrifice of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines and to brave Iraqi fighters the surge has succeeded. And yet Senator Obama still cannot quite bring himself to admit his own failure in judgment. Nor has he been willing to heed the guidance of General Petraeus, or to listen to our troops on the ground when they say — as they have said to me on my trips to Iraq: “Let us win, just let us win.” Instead, Senator Obama commits the greater error of insisting that even in hindsight, he would oppose the surge. Even in retrospect, he would choose the path of retreat and failure for America over the path of success and victory. In short, both candidates in this election pledge to end this war and bring our troops home. The great difference is that I intend to win it first.

You’ll note that McCain gives no quarter. He says that Obama “tried to prevent funding”-in other words he wanted to send men and women into battle with nothing but butter knives and peashooters. This kind of traitor seeks to “legislate failure” and “lose a war”. He would choose the path of retreat and failure for America.” If you want a precedent for this kind of inflammatory rhetoric, see the following:

The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores . . . but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this Nation. It has not been the less fortunate, or members of minority groups who have been traitorous to this Nation, but rather those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest Nation on earth has had to offer . . . the finest homes, the finest college education and the finest jobs in government we can give.

Speech of Joseph McCarthy, Wheeling, West Virginia, February 9, 1950

When you turn to Obama’s rebuttal, the first thing you notice is the air of deference to McCain even though the man’s spittle is dripping from his face: “Yesterday, Senator McCain came before you. He is a man who has served this nation honorably…” He also makes sure to blow a kiss to a couple of other war-makers: “Let me once again praise General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker – they are outstanding Americans.” Instead of demanding that McCain apologize for calling him a traitor, Obama says: “That is John McCain’s prerogative. He can run that kind of campaign, and – frankly – that’s how political campaigns have been run in recent years.”

To establish his national security bona fides, Obama reminds us that he is more hawkish than McCain on Afghanistan:

For years, I have called for more resources and more troops to finish the fight in Afghanistan. With his overwhelming focus on Iraq, Senator McCain argued that we could just “muddle through” in Afghanistan, and only came around to supporting my call for more troops last month. Now, we need a policy of “more for more” – more from America and our NATO allies, and more from the Afghan government.

He is also no slouch when it comes to Pakistan:

We must also recognize that we cannot succeed in Afghanistan or secure America as long as there is a terrorist safe-haven in northwest Pakistan. A year ago, I said that we must take action against bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights and Pakistan cannot or will not act. Senator McCain criticized me and claimed that I was for “bombing our ally.” So for all of his talk about following Osama bin Laden to the Gates of Hell, Senator McCain refused to join my call to take out bin Laden across the Afghan border. Instead, he spent years backing a dictator in Pakistan who failed to serve the interests of his own people.

The last time I heard this kind of attempt of a Democrat to “out-hawk” a Republican was back when every Democrat nominee’s favorite president was running for office, as presidential historian Michael Beschloss wrote in the N.Y Times:

No candidate risked more by shilling for votes than John F. Kennedy, who in 1960 sowed the seeds of two of the gravest crises of his Presidency. Casting about for an issue that would break his dead heat against Richard Nixon, he demanded that the United States use ”fighters for freedom” to overthrow Fidel Castro. (He jocularly told an aide that there was no harm in castigating the Republicans for Cuba: ”They never told us how they would have saved China.”)

When Kennedy won one of the closest races in history, he was helped by those who expected him to be tougher than Nixon on Castro. This added to the pressure on the newly elected President to approve the C.I.A.’s plans to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, yielding the greatest failure and embarrassment of Kennedy’s career.

And just to make sure that everybody understands that he is no traitor, Obama concludes his toothless rebuttal by draping himself in the stars and stripes. It really gets nauseating at this point:

Let me be clear: I will let no one question my love of this country. I love America, so do you, and so does John McCain. When I look out at this audience, I see people of different political views. You are Democrats and Republicans and Independents. But you all served together, and fought together, and bled together under the same proud flag. You did not serve a Red America or a Blue America – you served the United States of America…

I still remember the day that we laid my grandfather to rest. In a cemetery lined with the graves of Americans who have sacrificed for our country, we heard the solemn notes of Taps and the crack of guns fired in salute; we watched as a folded flag was handed to my grandmother and my grandfather was laid to rest. It was a nation’s final act of service and gratitude to Stanley Dunham – an America that stood by my grandfather when he took off the uniform, and never left his side.

This is what we owe our troops and our veterans. Because in every note of Taps and in every folded flag, we hear and see an unwavering belief in the idea of America. The idea that no matter where you come from, or what you look like, or who your parents are, this is a place where anything is possible; where anyone can make it; where we look out for each other, and take care of each other; where we rise and fall as one nation – as one people. It’s an idea that’s worth fighting for – an idea for which so many Americans have given that last full measure of devotion. Now it falls to us to advance that idea just as so many generations have before.

The real question is why the Democrats refuse to go for the jugular in the same way that the Republicans do. Why do they fight with one hand tied behind their back or look like one of the patsy opponents of the Harlem Globetrotters, like the New Jersey Generals, etc.?

At the risk of sounding like an unrepentant Marxist, I think that the answer has a class dimension. McCain appeals to an electorate that has unified class interests. From the oil company barons to the small town, white and Christian Babbitt shopkeepers and insurance company executives, they know what they want and how to get it. The goal is to reduce taxes and government expenditures and any means must be adopted to secure it-including racism and traitor-baiting.

The Democrats are forced to satisfy competing class sectors. Obama must keep Wall Street happy as well as the working person who still votes Democrat because there is no alternative yet capable of winning office.

The day will come when the workers find that their class interests cannot be advanced by backing the Democrats and the consequences of that realization will condemn the Democrats to the same fate as the Whigs. With the battle between capitalist and wage slave shaping up to be the same kind of conflict that revolutionized American society in the 1860s, we need as many wage abolitionists today as we had slavery abolitionists back then. That is the highest calling in 2008, to rise to the occasion of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.

August 18, 2008

Animal Farm

Filed under: cruise missile left,Film,ussr — louisproyect @ 2:05 pm

The 1954 CIA-financed Halas and Batchelor animated production of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is now available on YouTube in eight parts, beginning here. I can’t remember if I saw this movie in the 1950s, but I surely remember reading this and “1984” in high school. I am also fairly sure that our social studies teachers were instructed to assign these cold war staples. For impressionable teenagers living under the threat of nuclear attack from the dirty Rooskies, Orwell’s books were designed to reinforce the belief that it was better to be dead than red.

We never were told that “1984” was written as an attack on all forms of monolithic societies, including the Cold War anticommunist west. It was strictly a warning about the dangers of Communism. “Big brother was watching you” was only about the GPU, not the FBI. To become an “unperson” was something that happened to Soviet dissidents, not the Hollywood 10, etc. When we got to the final chapter when Winston Smith is threatened with having hungry rats dine on his eyeballs, it was all we needed to wrap ourselves in the American flag. Who would want to say a good word about socialism when it led to rodent hell?

Animal Farm” was just as scary and even more directly focused on the evils of trying to run a society based on human (or barnyard animal) needs rather than private profit. This was an Aesopian fable about the USSR, with animals standing in for leaders of the Russian revolution. Snowball the pig was Leon Trotsky and Napoleon, another pig, was Joseph Stalin. Like “big brother is watching you”, Animal Farm’s “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” had the power of a mantra.

The one thing that never came up in classroom discussions of “Animal Farm” was the actual history of the Soviet Union. Unlike the Soviet Union, the animal-run farm of Orwell’s novel was never invaded by 21 countries, even if populated by penguins or ferrets. The real lesson was that human nature (or animal nature) was rotten. Once the farmers were gone from the scene, the pigs would turn out to be just as rotten. So the moral of the story was “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”

In 2002, the tables were turned on George Orwell as the N.Y. Times reported:

What if Snowball had his chance? An American novelist has written a parody of ‘”Animal Farm,”‘ George Orwell’s 1945 allegory about the evils of communism, in which the exiled pig, Snowball, returns to the farm and sets up a capitalist state, leading to misery for all the animals. The book, “‘Snowball’s Chance”‘ by John Reed, is being published this month by Roof Books, a small independent press in New York. And the estate of George Orwell is not happy about it.

William Hamilton, the British literary executor of the Orwell estate, objected to the parody in an e-mail message to the James T. Sherry, the publisher of Roof Books, saying, ”The contemporary setting can only trivialize the tragedy of Orwell’s mid-20th-century vision of totalitarianism.”

“‘The clear references to 9/11 in the apocalyptic ending can only bring Orwell’s name into disrepute in the U.S.,”‘ Mr. Hamilton wrote. Reached by phone, he said he had nothing more to add to the message.

“Snowball’s Chance”‘ is being published at a time when Orwell’s reputation has been under attack because of revelations that in the late 1940’s he gave the British Foreign Office a list of people he suspected of being ”crypto-Communists and fellow travelers,” labeling some of them as Jews and homosexuals as well. One of those condemning Orwell has been the writer Alexander Cockburn, whose father, Claud, a British journalist and member of the Communist Party, was a bitter foe of Orwell’s.

“How quickly one learns to loathe the affectations of plain bluntishness,”‘ Mr. Cockburn writes in an introduction to Mr. Reed’s novella. ‘”The man of conscience turns out to be a whiner, and of course a snitch.”

Finally, I would recommend Alex Miller’s essay on Orwell’s 2 anti-Communist classics on Links, the online journal of the DSP in Australia, where he nails “Animal Farm” to the wall:

The flipside of Orwell’s elitist and patronising attitude towards working people is his highly distorted picture of the nature of British capitalism. In the first preface to Animal Farm, he writes of “the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation” and states that “tolerance and decency are deeply rooted in England [sic]”. That would be the “intellectual liberty” afforded – not so long before Orwell’s time – to the Tolpuddle Martyrs and other ordinary workers, imprisoned, banished or simply murdered by the British state for daring to organise trade unions, or the “tolerance and decency” that callously sent millions of young people to the slaughterhouse of World War I – not to mention the horrors of imperial rule within the British Isles and overseas.

The intellectual liberty, tolerance and decency of British imperialism are the real Orwellian fantasy: insofar as those qualities have roots in Britain, they are the product of generations of struggle by the working people that Orwell snobbishly portrays as bovine dunces. It’s not hard to see why Orwell is the darling of the ruling-class newspapers mentioned above. He may genuinely have attempted to provide a critique of Stalin’s USSR “from the left”, but all that he actually produced – in Animal Farm at least – was a banal piece of ruling-class propaganda.

Animal Farm thus fails utterly as a critique of Stalinism “from the left”.


London Review of Books 5 July 2007
The story behind Animal Farm [Halas and Batchelor, 1954]
by J. Hoberman

In the annals of American intelligence, the mid-1950s were the golden years: the CIA overthrew elected governments in Iran and Guatemala, conducted experiments with ESP and LSD (using its own operatives as unwitting guinea pigs), ran literary journals and produced the first general-release, feature-length animation ever made in the UK.

It was Howard Hunt who broke the story that the CIA funded Animal Farm, John Halas and Joy Batchelor’s 1954 version of George Orwell’s political allegory of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, played out in a British farmyard. Cashing in on his Watergate notoriety, the rogue spook and sometime spy novelist took credit in Undercover: Memoirs of an American Secret Agent (1974) for initiating the project, shortly after Orwell’s death in 1950. The self-aggrandising Hunt may have exaggerated his own importance in the operation – possibly inventing the juicy detail that Orwell’s widow, Sonia, was wooed with the promise of meeting her favourite star, Clark Gable – but, as detailed by Daniel Leab in Orwell Subverted: The CIA and the Filming of ‘Animal Farm’ (Pennsylvania, $55), the operation was real.

Read in full


It’s been brought to my attention that “Animal Farm” does include an invasion by farmers who sought to destroy the animal-run farm. I checked chapter 4 and there is indeed a reference to this (the novel is not online but you can read summaries at http://www.online-literature.com/orwell/animalfarm):

One day in October, Jones, all his men, and half a dozen others from the neighbouring farms, attack Animal Farm. They walk up the laneway through the main gate. They are all armed with sticks except for Jones, who carries a gun. The animals, however, are well prepared. After an initial skirmish where the pigeons and geese attack the humans, Snowball attacks them, supported by Benjamin, Muriel and all the sheep. The men repulse this attack with their sticks, and Snowball sounds the retreat. They fall back to the farmyard, pursued by the men, who think that they have triumphed. However, they have walked into a trap.

Interesting that this might be as an attempt to map to historical events, Orwell makes no effort to connect the downfall of the animal experiment as a function of the invasion. Indeed, there seems to be no serious damage to the farm’s infrastructure or the lives of its animal-citizens, at least on the basis of the summary.

Furthermore, you can find evidence of the animal farm’s collapse before the invasion ever took place in chapter 3. Again, quoting from the summary:

Sunday is a rest day, when the animals assemble at a great Meeting. This is where the work for the coming week is to be planned, and various motions discussed. All of the resolutions are put forward by the pigs. The other animals are aware of this, but as they cannot think of any resolutions themselves, they allow the pigs to lead. As the weeks go by, it becomes clear that Napoleon and Snowball rarely agree about anything…

It is soon learned that the pigs took the milk that disappeared on the first day, and are now mixing it into their mash. The pigs now issue a decree stating that all windfall apples are to be gathered up and given over for the exclusive use of the pigs. Some of the animals are puzzled by this, and wonder why the apples are not to be shared out equally. Squealer goes before them to explain. He tells them that the pigs, as the leaders, must keep their brainpower up, and that science has proven that milk and apples are essential for this.

With Communist pigs acting in such selfish fashion, no wonder Orwell felt compelled to give the British Foreign Office a list of people he suspected of being ”crypto-Communists and fellow travelers.” Orwell went to great lengths to avoid being a pig apparently, even if it involved turning himself into a rat.

August 17, 2008

The Real McCain

Filed under: Film,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

Robert Greenwald wants us to vote against McCain

As a member of New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO), I get lots of screeners sent to me even when I don’t request them, including Robert Greenwald’s 60 minute documentary “The Real McCain”. This can be ordered from the ironically named Disinformation Company Ltd. Disinformation also includes 9/11 “truth” movies in its inventory that I have received but not reviewed. That’s because I said everything I wanted to say on the topic after watching “Loose Change“.

Since Greenwald is responsible for “Iraq for Sale“, one of the better documentaries that Disinformation puts out, I was curious to see what he had to say about McCain. The documentary can best be described as a kind of infomercial for Greenwald’s “viral videos” attacking the Republican candidate. The DVD contains 10 of Greenwald’s videos that he hopes will attract as many viewers as “Leave Brittainy Alone” and other such classics. In between each video, you can see Greenwald or other McCain haters explaining how important his work is. I suppose they should know.

Made explicitly for venues like Huffington Post and Youtube, the videos attempt to show McCain as a bumbling, lying, reactionary slug. This is like breaking down an open door. The technique often involves showing McCain in John Kerry type “flip-flops” like opposing offshore drilling and then supporting it. Obviously this particular exposé was rendered toothless after the Democrats’ latest reversal.

I should mention that Greenwald is not related to Glen Greenwald, the salon.com columnist and constitutional lawyer who has written some rather trenchant attacks on the Bush administration, especially around issues such as Guantanamo. Robert Greenwald got started as a producer and director of what the N.Y. Times called “commercially respectable B-list movies”.

Since 2004 Greenwald has worked almost exclusively on political documentaries such as “The Real McCain”. His film company is called Brave New Films and the website contains a number of “viral videos” of the type that show up in “The Real McCain”, including “How to Stop the Smears Against Obama“. Not that I want to discourage the good folks at Brave New Films, but one really has to wonder about the effectiveness of a video that in answering Sean Hannity’s accusation that Obama never says that America is great quotes Obama saying: “But America is a great nation…” as a lead-in to talking about its productive work force, etc.

For all of Greenwald’s rhetoric about new media in the documentary, his videos are essentially the same thing as “negative ads” that cost millions of dollars to air on television. The novelty with Youtube, etc. is that it is essentially free to show a 10 minute attack on McCain. What is missing in either case is a careful consideration of the issues, which given Obama’s relentless drive to the “center” is almost an exercise in futility.

The issue of our day is wage slavery just as chattel slavery was in the 1840s and 50s. Of course, it is a lot harder to focus on wage slavery since most Americans, including those in thrall, accept it as normal. Unlike feudalism or chattel slavery, workers tend to see themselves as economic actors on the same level as the boss. A slave does not have the freedom to pick up and move to another plantation to work, but a worker has such freedom. In Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me”, there is a memorable moment when an unemployed auto worker informs Moore that he is leaving Flint to go to Houston where there are supposedly lots of jobs. It never occurred to that worker that General Motors had no right to throw him to the wolves.

Back in 1858, they did not have television nor did they have Youtube. All they had was newspapers. That’s the downside. On the upside they had politicians like Abe Lincoln who did not mince words in his debates with Douglas over slavery:

That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles-right and wrong-throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.

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