Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 29, 2008

The Last Bolshevik

Filed under: Film,socialism,ussr — louisproyect @ 3:51 pm

Regular readers of my movie reviews must know by now that I can’t stand hype, particularly when it involves the latest Hollywood blockbuster. But I would be remiss not to describe the two DVD package released under the title “The Last Bolshevik” as the event of the decade, at least for the small sector of the universe that still takes the idea of socialism seriously. Who knows? With Wall Street’s continuing collapse, that sector might begin to experience some bullish growth.

Chris Marker directed the documentary “The Last Bolshevik” in 1993 as an introduction to the life and career of Soviet film-maker Alexander Medvedkin who lived from 1900 to 1989, but more generally it is a meditation on the problems of artists under Stalinism and the collapse of the USSR. The package also includes Medvekin’s 64 minute silent movie “Happiness” that was made in 1934, as well as a number of shorter documentaries that he made on behalf of the Soviet government’s usually misguided efforts to drag the country into the modern age. Marker’s interest in Medvekin is clearly as a symbol of the contradictions of the Soviet Union. The Russian director was passionately dedicated to the ideals of 1917, so much so that he could not bear to openly oppose the government that was crushing those ideals under foot in the name of defending them.

Khmyr and Anna

Their horse (climbing uphill)

“Happiness” is a socialist morality tale that features a poor, scrawny mujik (peasant) named Khmyr (Pyotr Zinovyev) and his wife Anna (Yelena Yegorova). The movie begins with the couple staring through a knot-hole in the wall surrounding a rich peasant’s estate. They look on enviously as he enjoys a sumptuous repast. So fortunate is the rich peasant that food literally sails from the plate to his mouth without him having to lift a knife and fork. This special effect is just one among hundreds that lends the film the kind of surreal comic touches found in Buster Keaton’s masterpieces.

One of the major characters in “Happiness” is Khmyr and Anna’s horse, a nag that is almost as emaciated as Khymr himself and which is adorned with painted on polka dots. In order to satisfy his hunger, the horse scales the thatched roof of their hut and begins to eat the hay after the fashion of a Chagall painting.

Just as their luck seems to have run out, Khmyr and Anna enjoy a bumper crop that attracts all the scum of Czarist society, including tax collectors and Russian Orthodox priests demanding a hand-out. Once they have picked Khmyr clean, he is just as poor and hungry as he was before. In despair he decides to build himself a coffin and end his life. Once again, the officials and priests upbraid him. Doesn’t he know that he needs a permit to die? Also, they worry “If the mujik dies, who will feed Russia?”

Without going into any detail about the revolution that made it possible, the next scene takes place on a kolkhoz or collective farm, the fruit of Stalin’s war on the kulaks that Medvedkin’s film was really meant to defend. The farm is depicted as a site of struggle between socialist-minded peasants who look forward to working together and enjoying the collective fruits of their labor and a kind of fifth column led by the aforementioned rich peasant who wants to return to the old way of doing things. Khmyr is somewhere in the middle as a tug of war takes place over his soul.

Despite its obvious sympathy for Stalin’s goals, “Happiness” was never shown in Soviet theaters since its satire collided with the literal-minded and pedestrian sensibilities of Stalin’s bureaucrats. It is one of the great undiscovered masterpieces of Soviet cinema that we should be grateful for. In contrast to the more sober-minded works of Sergei Eisenstein, “Happiness” demonstrates that comedy is a universal language.

Alexander Medvedkin’s run-in’s with Soviet censors is discussed at some length in Chris Marker’s “The Last Bolshevik”. If Medvedkin remained obscure in his home country because he refused to adapt to the hidebound dictates of a “socialist” art establishment, Chris Marker suffers a similar fate because he has refused to make conventional films.

Marker was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, Île-de-France, a suburb of Paris in 1921. A life-long leftist, he fought in the French resistance during World War II. His movies have frequently been sympathetic treatments of socialist countries, including the 1961 “Cuba Si!”

Although Marker refuses to grant interviews and will not even agree to be photographed, he clearly allows his deeply personal films to speak for him. “The Last Bolshevik” is structured as a series of letters to Alexander Medvedkin, a life-long friend who once complained that Marker never wrote.

The movie consists of interviews with Medvedkin before his death, and with his contemporaries who were still alive in 1993, when the film was made (including the widow of novelist Isaac Babel who died in a gulag in 1940), and finally young Russian film-makers or scholars who have become devotees of his work. Babel had worked closely with Sergei Eisenstein on “Bezhin Meadow”, a movie that like “Happiness” had run afoul of Soviet censors and even shares its concerns about a treacherous kulak. A wiki article on the movie reveals that “It tells the story of a young farm boy whose father attempts to betray the government for political reasons by sabotaging the year’s harvest, the son’s efforts to stop his own father to protect the Soviet state, and culminates in the boy’s murder and a social uprising.” The Communist Party banned the “inartistic and politically bankrupt” movie, claiming that Eisenstein “confused the class struggle with the struggle between good and evil”.

As it was made in 1993, just around the time that the Soviet Union was completing its return to the capitalist fold, “The Last Bolshevik” addresses the mind-set of all such hold-outs for socialism, including Medvedkin who remained an unrepentant Marxist until his dying day-or, for that matter, Chris Marker himself. Not to speak of the reviewer of the films under consideration or the good people who tend to agree with him, at least when he does not deviate too far from their own ideas about socialism.

The “Last Bolshevik” package is available from Netflix, but I would urge you to make it a permanent part of your collection. You can buy discounted DVDs of “The Last Bolshevik” and other Chris Marker titles from “Cineaste,” which is offering them at 25% off list price, at www.cineaste.com.

October 28, 2008

Walter Rodney’s “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”

Filed under: Africa,imperialism/globalization,Introduction to Marxism class,racism — louisproyect @ 3:48 pm

(Posted originally to the Introduction to Marxism mailing list on Yahoo.)

I want to wrap up the discussion on dependency theory by referring to a jewel that I stumbled across on the Marxism Internet Archives a week or so ago. Written in 1973, Walter Rodney’s “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” is one of the few Marxist books that I read while in the Socialist Workers Party that did not have the imprimatur of Pathfinder Press. Rodney’s book had a huge impact on the left back then and even inspired a similar treatment in Manning Marable’s 1983 “How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America”.

Although Rodney’s book was not published by Monthly Review, it certainly was seen as a companion volume to such MR classics as Eduardo Galeano’s “The Open Veins of Latin America” and Pierre Jalee’s “Pillage of the Third World”, two other books that I found time to read even though they were not published by SWP authors. I only regret that I had not read more such books since the cumulative effect might have been to persuade me to turn in my resignation earlier.

Walter Rodney was born into a working class Guyanese family in 1942. He received his PhD in 1966 on the basis of a dissertation on the slave trade. Clearly he was following in the tradition of fellow Caribbean Marxist Eric Williams, the author of “Capitalism and Slavery,” a book also based on a PhD that was strongly influenced by CLR James.

Rodney began teaching at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica in 1968, a natural base for the political organizing that would lead to his banning from the country by the Jamaican Labor Party. This led to widespread protests which were met by police violence. After being expelled from Jamaica, Walter taught in Tanzania until 1974 where he developed the ideas incorporated in “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”.

In 1974 Rodney returned to Guyana where he again combined teaching with political activism. While running for office in the Guyanese elections in 1980, he was killed by a remote control bomb.

Turning once again to the critique of dependency theory, Brenner et al level the charge that dependency theory does not address class relations within the regions under analysis and implicitly give aid to the local bourgeoisies. It is difficult to see how the first charge can be taken seriously since it was never the aim to provide such an analysis. In fact, the same charge could have been leveled against Lenin’s “Imperialism, the Final Stage of Capitalism” or Rosa Luxemburg’s “Accumulation of Capital,” at least the sections that deal with precapitalist societies. On giving aid to the local bourgeoisies, perhaps it would be useful to quote Walter Rodney, a fairly typical dependency theorist:

Securing the attributes of sovereignty is but one stage in the process of regaining African independence. By 1885, when Africa was politically and juridically partitioned, the peoples and polities had already lost a great deal of freedom. In its relations with the external world, Africa had lost a considerable amount of control over its own economy, ever since the 15th century. However, the loss of political sovereignty at the time of the Scramble was decisive. By the same reasoning, it is clear that the regaining of political sovereignty by the 1960s constitutes an inescapable first step in regaining maximum freedom to choose and to develop in all spheres.

Furthermore, the period of nationalist revolution gave rise to certain minority ideological trends, which represent the roots of future African development. Most African leaders of the intelligentsia and even of the labour movement were frankly capitalist, and shared fully the ideology of their bourgeois masters. Houphouet Boigny was at one time called a ‘Communist’ by the French colonisers! He defended himself vigorously against that false charge in 1948:

We have good relations with the (French) Communist Party, that is true. But it is obvious that that does not mean that we ourselves are communists. Can it be said that I, Houphouet-Boigny – a traditional chief, a doctor of medicine, a big property owner, a catholic – can it be said that I am a communist?

Houphouet-Boigny’s reasoning applied to so many more African leaders of the independence epoch. The exceptions were those who either completely rejected the world-view of capitalism or at least stuck honestly to those idealistic tenets of bourgeois ideology such as individual freedom-and, through experience, they could come to realise that the ideals remained myths in a society based on the exploitation of man by man. Clearly, all leaders of the non-conformist type had developed in direct contradiction to the aims of formal and informal colonial education; and their differences with the colonisers were too profound to have been resolved merely by ‘flag-independence’.

African independence was greeted with pomp, ceremony and a resurgence of traditional African music and dance. ‘A new day has dawned’, ‘we are on the threshold of a new era’, ‘we have now entered into the political kingdom’ – those were the phrases of the day, and they were repeated until they became clichés. But, all the to-ing and fro-ing from Cotonou to Paris and from London to Lusaka and all the lowering and raising of flags cannot be said to have been devoid of meaning. Withdrawal of the directly-controlled military and juridical apparatus of the colonisers was essential before any new alternatives could be posed with regard to poetical organisation, social structure, economic development, etc.

The above issues were raised most seriously by the minority of African leaders who had individually embarked on a non-capitalist path of development in their mode of thought; and the problems were considered within the context of inequalities and contradictions not just between Africa and Europe but also inside Africa, as a refection of four centuries of slavery and one century of colonialism. As far as the mass of peasants and workers were concerned, the removal of overt foreign rule actually cleared the way towards a more fundamental appreciation of exploitation and imperialism. Even in territories such as Cameroon, where the imperialists brutally crushed peasants and workers and installed their own tried and tested puppet, advance had been made in so far as the masses had already participated in trying to determine their own destiny. That is the element of conscious activity that signifies the ability to make history, by grappling with the heritage of objective material conditions and social relations.

One imagines that a number of the critics of dependency theory might have found themselves nodding in agreement with the final sentence of Robert Brenner’s 1977 article: “The necessary interdependence between the revolutionary movements at the ‘weakest link’ and in the metropolitan heartlands of capitalism was a central postulate in the strategic thinking of Lenin, Trotsky and the other leading revolutionaries in the last great period of international socialist revolution. With regard to this basic proposition, nothing has changed to this day.”

As the Marxist equivalent of apple pie, mom and the American flag, it is hard to disagree with Brenner’s call for a revolutionary movement that integrates the heartlands and the hinterlands. However, the Trotskyist movement which Brenner identified with to a large degree never developed the kinds of analysis that could be found in a Walter Rodney or an Andre Gunder Frank. Too often it was satisfied with repeating formulas about “permanent revolution”, which consisted mainly of the observation that unless a socialist revolution was made in a backward country, it would remain backward. This is what is called a tautology. Instead of issuing empty calls for the need for socialism, Walter Rodney and A.G. Frank were content to hammer away at the exploitative nature of colonialism and neocolonialism. That should be sufficient in this day and age.

In one of his numerous footnotes, Robert Brenner takes Rodney to task for not adequately tying together African slavery and the world capitalist system after the fashion alluded to above:

See Walter Rodney, ‘African Slavery and other Forms of Social Oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast in the Context of the Atlantic Slave Trade’, Journal of African History, VIII (1966), p. 434; A. G. Hopkins, An Economic History of West Africa, New York 1973, pp. 104, 106. Both of these authors naturally see the development and/or intensification of slavery as responsive to the world market, but they do not adequately explain the specific character of the processes of class formation and class conflict which made this response possible.

This was the same complaint I have heard about Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery”. If your argument is that capitalism developed exclusively in the British countryside, it is most inconvenient to be reminded about the role of slavery. I for one am not exactly sure what Brenner is looking for in his footnote. There certainly was a “class conflict” when Spanish, Portuguese and British slave traders came to Africa and dragged off slaves to the Western Hemisphere. The slave traders were representatives of an incipient bourgeoisie that relied heavily on forced labor in the early stages of the capitalist system and the Black Africans belonged primarily to feudal and hunting-and-gathering societies.

With respect to the role of slavery in the formation of the capitalist system, I will allow Rodney to make the case. This is from Chapter Three. Africa’s Contribution to European Capitalist Development – the Pre-Colonial Period. You will note that Rodney has no trouble connecting developments in the New World to the genesis of capitalism in Europe. In doing so, he was clearly echoing Marx’s observations in the chapter on the “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist” in volume one of Capital:

The connections between slavery and capitalism in the growth of England is adequately documented by Eric Williams in his well-known book Capitalism and Slavery. Williams gives a clear picture of the numerous benefits which England derived from trading and exploiting slaves, and he identified by name several of the personalities and capitalist firms who were the beneficiaries. Outstanding examples are provided in the persons of David and Alexander Barclay, who were engaging in slave trade in 1756 and who later used the loot to set up Barclays’ Bank. There was a similar progression in the case of Lloyds – from being a small London coffee house to being one of the world’s largest banking and insurance houses, after dipping into profits from slave trade and slavery. Then there was James Watt, expressing eternal gratitude to the West Indian slave owners who directly financed his famous steam engine, and took it from the drawing-board to the factory.

A similar picture would emerge from any detailed study of French capitalism and slavery, given the fact that during the 18th century the West Indies accounted for 20% of France’s external trade-much more than the whole of Africa in the present century. Of course, benefits were not always directly proportionate to the amount of involvement of a given European state in the Atlantic trade. The enormous profits of Portuguese overseas enterprise passed rapidly out of the Portuguese economy into the hands of the more developed Western European capitalist nations who supplied Portugal with capital, ships and trade goods. Germany was included in this category, along with England, Holland and France.

Commerce deriving from Africa helped a great deal to strengthen trans-national links within the Western European economy, bearing in mind that American produce was the consequence of African labour. Brazilian dyewoods, for example, were re-exported from Portugal into the Mediterranean, the North Sea and the Baltic, and passed into the continental cloth industry of the 17th century. Sugar from the Caribbean was re-exported from England and France to other parts of Europe to such an extent that Hamburg in Germany was the biggest sugar-refining centre in Europe in the first half of the 18th century. Germany supplied manufactures to Scandinavia, Holland, England, France and Portugal for resale in Africa. England, France and Holland found it necessary to exchange various classes of goods the better to deal with Africans for gold, slaves and ivory. The financiers and merchants of Genoa were the powers behind the markets of Lisbon and Seville; while Dutch bankers played a similar role with respect to Scandinavia and England.

Western Europe was that part of Europe in which by the 15th century the trend was most visible that feudalism was giving way to capitalism. The peasants were being driven off the land in England, and agriculture was becoming a capitalist operation. It was also becoming technologically more advanced – producing food and fibres to support a larger population and to provide a more effective basis for the woollen and linen industries in particular. The technological base of industry as well as its social and economic organisation, was being transformed. African trade speeded up several aspects, including the integration of Western Europe, as noted above. That is why the African connection contributed not merely to economic growth (which relates to quantitative dimensions) but also to real development in the sense of increased capacity for further growth and independence.

I would conclude by saying that you owe it to yourself to read Walter Rodney’s “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa“. This is a classic of anti-imperialist literature that will continue to educate people about the damage done to African society which will only be undone when the people of Africa take hold of their destiny following in the steps of Patrice Lumumba and Thomas Sankara.

October 23, 2008

Petty-bourgeois Menshevik handicapping

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

In June 2000, a former member of the Workers League, Jeff Goldstein, died in Las Vegas at the age of 58. He had participated in the founding of the Workers League in 1966. He used the pen name, Jeff Sebastian, and wrote numerous articles on economic matters for the Bulletin. He also made a significant contribution to the organization of the party’s work on the West Coast in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like Steiner, Goldstein left the Workers League during the Wohlforth crisis in 1973 and returned after the latter’s resignation. In the autumn of 1974 Sebastian assumed the post of Bulletin editor. However, in March 1977 he left the movement. Sometime later, he moved to Las Vegas where he combined his skill in mathematics with his lifelong, and generally unhealthy, fascination with gambling to become a professional handicapper. He published a racing journal that acquired a small but devoted following. After Steiner left the Workers League, he and Jeff Goldstein reestablished their friendship.

Goldstein-Sebastian retained generally friendly though extremely limited relations with the SEP. We were, of course, saddened to learn of the death of our former comrade. Steiner went to Las Vegas to speak at the funeral of his close friend. Not long after, he sent me a copy of the obituary that he had written to memorialize the life of Sebastian.

Of course, a eulogy delivered at a graveside has standards of its own, which allow a more forgiving approach to the rules of objectivity. And yet, as I read Steiner’s remarks, it seemed to me that he had pressed well beyond the appropriate limits. He sought to portray Goldstein’s work as a handicapper as a masterful application of materialist dialectics, based on the achievements of Hegel and Marx:

Jeff’s approach to handicapping was supremely philosophical, though I would guess that many of his readers were not aware of this. Jeff was a serious student of philosophy, though I doubt that he would have described himself in these terms. For Jeff was above all practical. For him the truth was always concrete. Theory is alive in its practical application. Thus Jeff found issues of jockeys, trainers and tracks not only fun, aesthetically pleasing, intellectually challenging, but also providing insights into profound philosophical truths, and I know it is these insights that he took most delight in.

full: http://wsws.org/articles/2008/oct2008/fran-o23.shtml

October 22, 2008

Latin America and the dependency theory debate

Filed under: Introduction to Marxism class,Latin America — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

After Robert Brenner wrote his attack on dependency theory in the 1977 NLR, the impact was immediate. Marxists in the academy found the appeal to return to a class-based Marxism very seductive, especially among Latin American specialists. The Marxist-oriented journal called Latin American Perspectives became consumed with debates between supporters of Robert Brenner and Andre Gunder Frank almost immediately and the summer and fall issues of 1981 were combined to discuss the Dependency and Marxism debate.

Unfortunately, the archives of Latin American Perspectives are only available to those with a subscription to JSTOR, but I have selected two fairly representative items from the two sides for your review.

John Weeks, a supporter of the Brenner approach even though he does not mention Brenner by name (others do), contributed an article titled “The Differences Between Materialist Theory and Dependency Theory and Why They Matter”. Before presenting his article and my interspersed comments, I want to offer some personal reflections even though their relationship to the matter at hand might seem tangential.

In 1990 I organized a debate on behalf of the NY Nicaragua Network just prior to the Nicaraguan elections that would result in the FSLN being voted out of office. It was not hard to figure out that Paul Berman was the ideal candidate to speak against the FSLN. This Village Voice self-described anarchist (he now calls himself a liberal) had been writing attacks on the FSLN for a number of years, all in the spirit of casting the Sandinistas as enemies of true working-class socialism. Berman evolved into a cold war type liberal subsequently and gained some notoriety as a “leftist” supporter of George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our good friend Richard Seymour has a chapter on Berman in his forthcoming book from Verso that I am awaiting with bated breath.

For the pro-FSLN perspective, I gave Michael Moore a call and he was more than happy to debate Berman. Just a year or so earlier Moore had been fired from Mother Jones for refusing to print one of Berman’s hatchet jobs on the FSLN and was looking forward to a chance to nail him. Although I cannot remember exactly why we decided not to go with Moore, we instead extended an invitation to John Weeks on the advice of NACLA, the journal on Latin America that had not yet degenerated into the kind of mixture of civil society bullshit and State Department liberalism that fills its pages today.

Berman spoke first and was obviously well-prepared, even if his ideas were bogus.

When Weeks began to speak (I was chairing the meeting), I was astonished to see that he did not have anything written down and just “winged it” for 15 minutes. The gist of his presentation was that the FSLN was no different than the PRI in Mexico and there was never any reason for imperialism to be so determined to overthrow it. He characterized it as bureaucratic and mildly social democratic, etc. In other words, in accepting our invitation to defend the FSLN, this knucklehead did not have the common decency to state that he was some kind of ultraleft opponent of the FSLN. Following the meeting, a group of us headed over to a nearby bar where a savvy veteran of the Central America solidarity movement whispered to me that Weeks was some kind of Maoist.

The reason Weeks was so dismissive of the Sandinista revolution was that it was not “class” oriented enough for him. There were far too few industrial workers in the vanguard and far too many small ranchers and members of the “informal economy” to satisfy the litmus test of those who had mastered their Grundrisse.

The main difference between the dependency theorists and those influenced by Brenner was over the question-in my opinion-whether national oppression was a viable category in Marxist terms. I have written about this at some length here and invite you to have a look at some point.

Continue reading

October 21, 2008

Is Obama a socialist?

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 3:33 pm

As many of you know, the Republican Party and particularly its operatives on talk radio and cable TV news have all been hammering away at the idea that Barack Obama is a “socialist”. For most the proof is found in an off-the-cuff remark made by the Democratic Party hopeful with a rightwing activist known as “Joe the Plumber”. You can watch the exchange on Youtube here.

The plumber asked Obama: “Your new tax plan’s going to tax me more, isn’t it?”

Obama replied, “It’s not that I want to punish your success. I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they’ve got a chance at success, too. I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

In the Fox TV interview with Joe the Plumber seen as part of the Youtube clip above, he characterizes Obama’s approach as “socialist”, an opening salvo in a propaganda offensive that hopes to stigmatize him as un-American. Not un-American in the old-fashioned sense of somebody being called a Commie. Since the USSR no longer exists, it is pretty hard to pull this off. The last attempt at this was when the Republicans tried to make a big deal out of Bill Clinton going to the Soviet Union when he was a graduate student.

On the McLaughlin Group, a Sunday morning CBS TV talk show, Pat Buchanan made the case for Obama as socialist this way:

But on the socialism issue, he really called Obama out. What Obama has in mind, and he said so, is basically taking money from successful people who earn it and giving it to people who don’t earn it. That is classic democratic socialism — you know, equality of wealth and all the rest of it. He’s not talking about simply aiding the poor. I think he has opened the door here to an attack on Obama as a socialist basically of the Saul Alinsky school, the community organizers and all the rest. You’re going to see that theme developed all during the rest of the campaign.

But the charge has been around since July. Back then the Kansas City Star’s David Helling had this exchange with John McCain:

Helling: You talked about a little bit about Senator Obama today. You said he was the most extreme member of the Senate.

McCain: Yea, that’s his voting record.

Helling: Extreme? You really think he’s an extremist? I mean he’s clearly liberal..

McCain: Well, that’s his voting record. All I said was his voting record. And it’s more to the left that the announced socialist in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont

Helling: You really think he’s a socialist, Barack Obama?

McCain: Oh, I don’t know. All I know is his voting record.

Congressman Sanders appeared on Bill Maher’s Firing Line last Friday night and put in a good word for “democratic socialism”. You can watch him making the case for the Scandinavian model here.

Speaking for myself, and risking the wrath of my many ultraleft friends, I for one would be very happy to see Obama carry out the program his rightwing opponents are frothing at the mouth at.

However, the redistributionist model that has them so upset, and that is reflected in the Scandinavian model during its heyday and in FDR’s New Deal, is only one part of the equation. In order to redistribute wealth, you need to have a vigorous economy. But there is little likelihood that Obama will promote an ambitious domestic spending program as long as the financial crisis continues to take its toll. The cost of bailing out huge corporations like AIG, General Motors et al will force a deficit hawk and free market devotee like Obama to defer social spending until “things get better”.

In a major speech on the economy made last week, Obama put the working class forced to use credit cards and the big bourgeoisie that happily sold them these usurious instruments on the same level:

It also means promoting a new ethic of responsibility. Part of the reason this crisis occurred is that everyone was living beyond their means – from Wall Street to Washington to even some on Main Street. CEOs got greedy. Politicians spent money they didn’t have. Lenders tricked people into buying home they couldn’t afford and some folks knew they couldn’t afford them and bought them anyway.

This was not the first time that Obama blurred class distinctions. In the speech to the 2004 Democratic Party convention that burnished his reputation as an up-and-coming politician, he compared waste at the Pentagon to welfare “abuse”:

Now, don’t get me wrong. The people I meet — in small towns and big cities, in diners and office parks — they don’t expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead, and they want to. Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don’t want their tax money wasted, by a welfare agency or by the Pentagon.

This kind of rhetoric was of course calculated to mollify the Joe the Plumbers who constitute a broad base in the Democratic Party electorate. Obama has made every effort to represent himself as an enemy of bad behavior in the Black community, whether it is welfare cheats or absentee fathers.

But the crucial point is that one cannot expect Obama to carry out any kind of redistributionist program unless there is a tidal wave of protests mounted by ordinary Americans who refuse to be evicted from their homes or fired from their jobs. Roosevelt came into the Presidency with more or less the same kind of promises of fiscal restraint as Obama but militant strikes and protests by the unemployed woke him up to the fact that welfare state capitalism (i.e. “democratic socialism”) was preferable to communism.

Furthermore, we should never forget that democratic socialism came to Sweden not because politicians one day decided that this would be best for society as a whole, but because the working class demonstrated a willingness to get rid of class rule, including by those kind-hearted elements of the bourgeoisie with a noblesse oblige attitude.

Although it is sadly not available in home video, Bo Widerberg’s 1969 movie “Adalen 31” dramatizes how events that took place 77 years ago led inexorably to the rise of Swedish social democracy. In a general strike led by workers from a paper mill, government troops opened fire on a peaceful march causing the death of five people. The political turmoil unleashed by the repression eventually led to the election of a Social Democratic government.

But that government proved that despite its redistributionist principles that it could not avoid the contradictions posed by the same kind of economic crisis now unfolding across the world.

Currency crisis forces Swedish left, right to unite

STOCKHOLM – Sweden, its economy in tatters, sagging under a 500 percent interest rate and battling with money-market speculators, closed political ranks yesterday behind a stiff austerity program.

Politicians met in a marathon round of talks in the midst of the nation’s worst economic crisis since the Depression of the 1920s.

With three days before the markets open again, an unholy alliance of Conservatives and Social Democrats opened detailed negotiations on a shock package to slash $8 billion in government spending.

The record interest rates made the cost of money so high that banks warned the public not to borrow. Demand for such big-ticket items as cars plummeted.

With the projected budget deficit for this year at nearly $20 billion, politicians seemed prepared to introduce the spending cuts needed to save the country from bankruptcy.

But it remains to be seen whether the people will accept slashed spending on their large unemployment, illness and child-welfare benefits.

“All areas of public spending will be affected. It will hurt, but it is absolutely necessary,” Conservative Prime Minister Carl Bildt said as he hurried to another meeting with the opposition on how to solve the country’s fiscal crisis.

“We are in such dire straits now that Sweden must be put before any party political considerations,” said Social Democrat Chairman Ingvar Carlsson, a former prime minister and Mr. Bildt’s political archrival.

–The Washington Times, September 19, 1992

Ultimately, redistributionism cannot succeed unless it is linked to a change in the mode of production. Instead of producing for profit, the economy must satisfy human need first and foremost. This would mean nationalizing the means of production as a kind of fundamental first step in laying the groundwork for communism, a word that along with socialism is gaining more and more currency as the capitalist system unravels at the seams.

The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.

Karl Marx, “Communist Manifesto

October 19, 2008

Palestine and Israel in film

Filed under: Film,Jewish question,Palestine — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

Thanks to Cinema Libre Studio, a California film distribution company specializing in politically enlightened fiction and documentary films, “Palestine Blues” is now available in home video.

Since its director Nida Sinnokrot is Palestinian-American, he has a special rapport with the West Bank villagers who were overrun by Israeli bulldozers and tanks in 2003 when the erection of a massive “security” wall was used as an excuse to seize their land and water resources. The film begins with a trip to the Gaza village where American activist Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while she was protesting a similar land seizure.

Most of the film takes place, however, in West Bank villages like Jayyous where olive and citrus trees have been tended for hundreds of years on land owned by the same families. The sight of a bulldozer smashing into these trees is almost as infuriating as the idea of Rachel Corrie being run over.


The film gets its name from blues songs by Blind Willie Johnson and Muddy Waters that are part of its soundtrack and obviously related to the mournful subject matter. While I would not want to read too much into the narrative, the generally nonviolent character of the Palestinian protests seen in the film probably reflects a different approach than the one adopted by Hamas. Although Hamas’s tactics are far more militant than those found on the dusty roads around the village of Jayyous, it would be difficult to judge which are more effective. At this stage in history, the outlook appears very guarded for this long-standing liberation struggle. Even when Sinnokrot informs the viewer that the International Court of Justice has declared the apartheid wall being constructed in the West Bank as illegal, it has not stopped Israel from plowing ahead.

Though a Jew (nonobservant except for 30 minutes spent at a local synagogue on Yom Kippur in remembrance of my very observant mother), I felt enormous rage at the Israeli soldiers in the movie whose inhumanity is obviously very much a function of a Zionist ideology premised on “never again”. That the Judeocide is providing an excuse plowing down the olive trees of innocent farmers virtually screams out for a new Isaiah to condemn the sins of the Jewish tribe today.

As someone who is being solicited on practically a daily basis to watch and review DVD screeners from small distribution companies like Cinema Libre Studio, I generally give my approval without reading the fine print. So when Echelon Studios invited me to review “Dear Mr. Waldman”, I said go ahead.

When I opened the UPS package, however, I was taken aback to discover that this is an Israeli film that takes place in 1962 and is focused on the efforts of an Auschwitz survivor to get over his trauma. I have only seen one Israeli film in the past and that was “Kadosh”, a searing indictment of sexism in an Orthodox sect. Despite the movie’s progressive message, I could not help but feel that the men and women who made it were more concerned about the abuses of Orthodox Judaism against their brand of secular Zionism than anything so obtrusive as olive trees being plowed under.

Despite being prepared to hate “Dear Mr. Waldman”, I must report that it is an excellent film (and also available from Netflix). It is basically a coming-of-age story focused on a ten year old boy named Hilik Waldman (Ido Port) and his mother and father, who were survivors of Auschwitz. His father Moishe (Rami Heuberger) is a humble bookbinder who is obsessed with his son Yankel (Yiddish for Jack) who died at Auschwitz along with the wife he prefers to his current wife Rivka (Jenya Dodina).

Moishe has convinced himself that JFK’s adviser Jack Waldman is none other than his long-lost son and his family humors him only until his obsession takes a turn for the worse. It turns out that Hilik is responsible for this turn since he sends his father a letter supposedly written by Jack Waldman that practically identifies Moishe as his father. The plot moves along inexorably as Moishe puts both emotional and physical distance with his current family as it competes with a family that only exists in his imagination.

As is often the case, I like to compare my reaction to a movie with that of other critics, leaving aside of course the idiots like Peter Travers at the Rolling Stone who are virtually indistinguishable from publicists working for the studios. Over at Rotten Tomatoes, where my reviews are gathered, I noticed that Prairie Miller also reviewed “Dear Mr. Waldman”. Since Prairie has a show on WBAI and is even more anti-capitalist than me, I was curious to get her reaction, which started as follows:

A bittersweet family saga that plays out as a kind of Cinema Paradiso in old Tel Aviv, Dear Mr. Waldman (Michtavim Le America) delves with rich tenderness and raw emotion into the myriad, sometimes peculiar ways that human beings adapt to traumatic loss and tentatively embrace healing. And for withdrawn ten year old daydreamer Hilik Waldman (Ido Port) in 1960s urban Tel Aviv, sneaking off to the movies in the afternoons affords a choice of larger-than-life heroes as alternative identities, with which to establish control over an insecure home life, reinvent fate and pursue happy endings.

I couldn’t put it better.

October 16, 2008

The Rape of Europa

Filed under: art,Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Now available from Netflix, “The Rape of Europa” is an outstanding documentary on the theft or outright destruction of some of Europe’s greatest art during World War Two. Based on the 1995 book of the same name by Lynn H. Nicholas, who is one of the film’s many interesting interviewees, it focuses most of its understandable outrage against the Nazis but the allies are by no means angels in the 20th century’s greatest calamities. Notwithstanding the film’s penetrating and scholarly examination of the topic, you are left with the feeling that taking the spoils of war is deeply embedded in “civilized” behavior, a perspective that the film flirts with but never adopts.

The movie begins with the struggle of Jewish survivors to reclaim art that had been stolen by the Nazis, or in the case of Gustav Klimt’s most famous painting taken “legally” by the Austrian fascist government. Despite its illegal seizure by the fascists, the gold-leaf portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was only turned over to the Bloch-Bauer family after an intense legal and political campaign was mounted.

Klimt was a typical “decadent” artist despised by the Nazis but they were not above hoarding their masterpieces in cellars as booty. Two top leaders of the Nazi party, Adolph Hitler and Herman Goering, amassed enormous collections of stolen art in their respective castles, including works by decadent artists, but their preference was for Aryan art or pre-modern masterpieces. This was a particular obsession for Hitler who started out as an aspiring artist but whose career came to a crashing end when an Austrian art school decided he was too mediocre to accept. One of the interviewees speculates that WWII and the Judeocide could have been prevented if Hitler was a somewhat better artist but it is more likely that the capitalist economic collapse would have precipitated some other madman’s rise to power.

Once the war begins, the Nazis make a point of seizing art in the conquered territories including Poland and France. Just before the siege of Leningrad begins, Russian museum workers in that city make a heroic effort to relocate the work away from the fighting.

When art was not stolen, it often went up in flames as bombs and artillery shells had their sickening effect. Throughout Europe, some of the most beautiful and irreplaceable architecture found itself inconveniently in the path of advancing armies and became “collateral damage”. One of the most egregious examples of such destruction came at the hands of the allies in the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, an episode that looms large as example of allied malfeasance in the Ken Burns PBS series on WWII.

On the top of Monte Cassino was a monastery that had been created in 524 by St. Benedict and that was filled with priceless religious art. Just beneath the monastery were heavily dug-in Nazi troops who were blocking an allied advance. Despite pleas to spare the monastery, allied bombs virtually destroyed the building and everything within it. It was subsequently learned that the Nazis were not even inside the monastery and that the destruction was totally unnecessary.

Unlike the dastardly Nazis, the allies are depicted as being far more civilized than the Nazis, despite such collateral damage. The documentary dwells at length on the work of a branch of the American military that was tasked with the mission of accounting for and returning stolen art. The film’s website points out:

In early 1943 a group, known as the American Council of Learned Societies, appointed a committee to address protection of Europe’s art by identifying civilian experts who could liaise with the military. They also prepared pamphlets that detailed known German looting. Theirs and several other similar groups’ entreaties to government officials coalesced at about the same time. On June 23, 1943, FDR approved the formation of the “American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas” widely known as “The Roberts Commission,” after its chairman, Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts. Thus was born the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (“MFAA”) section under the auspices of the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied Armies.

The “Venus Fixers” as they were sometimes called by fellow troops-“Monuments Men” by most others-were mostly young museum directors and curators, art professors and architects who volunteered for service. After the war, many would become leaders of the most prominent museums in the United States. Virtually every major American museum had one or more employee who served as an MFAA officer during World War II. Still, their numbers were ridiculously few when compared to the overwhelming task they confronted. In as much as the MFAA program was an untested concept, the Monuments Men had minimal resources to accomplish their job and little direction other than to inspect, repair, and report on monuments needing protection, and to prevent improper billeting by Allied troops in historic or culturally important buildings. This last task was a constant challenge. There was no handbook to follow. Those with skill or knowledge were given authority to act.

While the film understandably is focused on the depravity of the Nazis and the somewhat mixed record of the allies in relationship to European art, a broader survey of the issues posed by the film might lead one to the conclusion that the “civilized” Anglo-American imperialists might actually be responsible for more destruction and theft in the grander historical scheme of things.

To start with, what exactly is the difference between Hitler and Goering filling their mountaintop chalets with stolen art and the same behavior carried out on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the British Museum?

Just as the Austrians received “approval” from the Nazis to put the Klimt masterpiece on display, so did Lord Elgin get permission from the Ottoman court to remove the Parthenon marbles from Greece and put them on display in London. Sculptures were stripped from the face of the Parthenon in utter disregard for their historical and esthetic context and put on display for the benefit of the British Empire, over the protests of many truly civilized people including Lord Byron. Unlike the case of the Klimt painting which was returned to the rightful owner, the so-called Elgin Marbles remain in London, thus prompting Merlina Mercouri to say:

And the Parthenon Marbles they are. There are no such things as the Elgin Marbles.

There is a Michael Angelo David.

There is a Da Vinci Venus.

There is a Praxitelles Hermes.

There is a Turner ‘Fishermen at Sea’.

There are no Elgin Marbles!

You know, it is said that we Greeks are a fervent and warm blooded breed. Well, let me tell you something – it is true. And I am not known for being an exception. Knowing what these sculptures mean to the Greek people, it is not easy to address their having been taken from Greece dispassionately, but I shall try. I promise.

I have been advised by one of your eminent professors that I must tell the history of how the Marbles were taken from Athens and brought to British shores. I protested that this was too well known but was told that even if there were a single person in this audience who might be vague about the facts, the story must be told. So, as briefly as I can, here goes.

We are at the end of the 19th Century. Napoleon is pondering the risk of invading England. He decides that it is not a very good idea. Instead he invades Egypt, wresting it from Turkish authority. The Turks don’t appreciate this at all. They break off diplomatic relations with France. They also declare war. Britain decides that this is a dandy time to appoint an Ambassador to Turkey.

Enter Lord Elgin. It is he who gets the job. He has just married pretty Mary Nisbett and is finishing his fine country house. Its architect tells him of the wonders of Greek architecture and sculptures, and suggests it would be a marvellous idea to make plaster casts of the actual objects in Athens. ‘Marvellous, indeed,’ says Elgin. He sets about organising a group of people who could make architectural drawings, headed by a worthy painter, who turns out to be Giovanni Lusieri, an Italian painter.

I can’t resist stealing a moment for an anecdote. Elgin had previously approached Turner. Yes, the Turner. The young painter was interested. Lord Elgin sets down the conditions: every drawing and sketch that Turner made was to become his Lordship’s possession. In his spare time he would give Lady Elgin drawing lessons. ‘Okay,’ says Turner ‘but then I would want £400 a year.’ No, no says Elgin, too much, much too much. So, no Turner. End of anecdote.

Write your own caption!

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:57 pm

The Independent reported, “Senator John McCain reacts to almost heading the wrong way off the stage at the conclusion of the final presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York” but you can write your own caption. I rather like “McCain reacts to exposure to the rays of a full moon”.

October 15, 2008

In response to Alex Callinicos

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:11 pm

Alex Callinicos

For those interested in the British SWP’s latest thinking on “Where the radical left is going“, I would refer you to Alex Callinicos’s article in the latest “International Socialism”. This 8600 word treatise can best be described as a restatement of this tendency’s peculiar understanding of the “united front” as applied to electoral politics that I have taken up before. Leaving aside Callinicos’s by now familiar defense of his party’s approach to such matters, there is some interesting reportage on the problems of the European radical left-most particularly the sad story of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) in Italy:

In the past couple of years the fortunes of the radical left have diverged sharply. The most important case on the negative side was provided by the PRC itself. The party of Genoa and Florence moved from 2004 onwards sharply to the right, denouncing the resistance to the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq as fascist and joining the centre-left coalition government of Romano Prodi that held office briefly in 2006-8. PRC deputies and senators voted for Prodi’s neoliberal economic programme, and for the participation of Italian troops in the occupation of Afghanistan and in the United Nations “peacekeeping” mission to Lebanon. In April 2007 the PRC leadership expelled a far-left senator, Franco Turigliatto, for voting against government foreign policy. Despite the PRC’s participation in a new “Rainbow” formation with other elements on the left of the governing coalition, it was punished in the general elections of April 2008 for its association with a disastrous government. Amid a crushing victory for the right under Silvio Berlusconi, the Rainbow won only 3.1 percent of the vote, compared to 5.8 percent for the PRC alone two years earlier, and lost all its parliamentary seats. Bertinotti, unceremoniously deprived of the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies to which he had been elevated under Prodi, announced his retirement from politics.

Callinicos has a rather schematic understanding of political parties that borders on a kind of political tripartite version of Dante’s masterpiece. Corresponding to Inferno are the bourgeois parties, including New Labour. This lowest circle of hell is reserved for the likes of the Republican Party in the U.S., while on the higher circles might be a social democratic party that was on some kind of temporary leftist binge, like British Labour right after WWII.

Moving ahead to purgatory, you have these in-between formations like Refundazione, the Scottish Labour Party, Respect in Great Britain (until the SWP jumped ship), the Socialist Alliance in Australia, et al. These purgatories have devils who have escaped from hell like George Galloway and angels like Lindsay German. The approach of the SWP is to develop a united front between the devils (or reformists, to use Marxist jargon) and the angels (revolutionary socialists). Those who are neither angels nor devils are invited-one supposes-to observe the struggle from the peanut galleries.

But for those who have been saved by our Lord God Karl Marx, there is the heaven of Revolutionary Socialism, which includes both the British SWP and other groups that they generously put on their own level, such as the French Trotskyist LCR who have embarked on a project to build a new purgatory type party. To make sure that the party does not slide back into hell, the French Trotskyists have insisted that the party be against capitalism and not just neoliberalism. Apparently making this distinction is essential to saving your soul.

In order to underscore how much his tripartite definition is consistent with classical (or least old school) Marxism, Callinicos takes us down memory lane into the 1920’s:

When it first became involved in the process of left regroupment at the beginning of the present decade, the SWP came up with its own conception of the nature of the new radical left formations. This was articulated by John Rees when he argued, “The Socialist Alliance [the precursor to Respect] is thus best seen as a united front of a particular kind applied to the electoral field. It seeks to unite left reformist activists and revolutionaries in a common campaign around a minimum programme”. Though an innovation, this extension of the united front tactic isn’t completely unprecedented. In May 1922 the Communist International declared that “the problem of the United Political Front of Labor in the United States is the problem of the Labor Party”, a policy that led its American section, the Workers Party (WP), to participate in 1923-4 in the Federated Farmer-Labor Party founded by John Fitzpatrick, leader of the Chicago Federation of Labor.

When I saw this, my eyes popped out of my head. Anybody who tries to use the utterly misguided efforts of American Communism in its infancy as a guide to political action today should have his head examined. I studied this period in an effort to come to grips with the collapse of American Trotskyism in the 1980s. It became clear to me that James P. Cannon’s miseducation by leaders of the Comintern explains the American SWP’s degeneration much more than cliques at Carleton College or any other psychological/demonological explanations.

Here’s what I wrote about this dreary episode as part of a longer article on third parties in the United States. (Since I strongly believe that such parties are what is necessary right now, you can of course accuse me of being an agent of purgatory.)

In the economic collapse that followed WWI, militant trade unionists began to form labor party chapters in industrial cities. A machinists strike in Bridgeport led to formation of the labor party in 5 Connecticut towns in 1918. John Fitzpatrick and Edward Nockels of the Chicago Federation of Labor called for a national labor party in that year. Such grass-roots radicalism would normally be embraced by Marxists, but unfortunately a deeply sectarian tendency was at work in the early Communist movement.

Although the Farmer-Labor Party movement was loosely socialist in orientation, it retained a populist character as well. This could be expected in the context of a worsening situation in the farmland since the turn of the century. The party received a major boost from the railway unions in 1922, after a half-million workers went on strike against wage cuts. They took the lead in calling for a Conference for Progressive Political Action (CPPA) in February, 1922, shortly before the walkout. The SP, the Farmer-Labor Party and the largest farmers organizations in the country came to the conference and declared their intention to elect candidates based on the principles of “genuine democracy”. In the case of the Farmer-Labor delegates, this meant nationalization of basic industry and worker participation in their management.

The CP was not invited, but even if they had been invited, it is doubtful that they would have accepted. In 1919 the CP described the labor party movement as a “minor phase of proletarian unrest” which the trade unions had fomented in order to “conserve what they had secured as a privileged caste.” It concluded bombastically, “There can be no compromise either with Laborism or reactionary Socialism.”

In 1921 Lenin and the Comintern had come to the conclusion that the chances for success in an immediate bid for power had begun to subside, as the European capitalist states had begun to regain some social and economic stability. In such a changed situation, a united front between Communists and Socialists would be advisable. This opened up the possibility for American Communists to work with the new Labor Party movement, especially since Farmer-Labor leader Parley Christensen had visited Moscow and given Lenin a glowing report on party prospects.

Unfortunately, the gap between a united front in theory and the united front in practice was colossal. The Communists saw themselves as the true vanguard, so any alliance with reformists would have to based on the tacit understanding that the ultimate goal was political defeat of their socialist allies. Such Machiavellian understandings were obviously inimical to the building of a genuine leadership that could be embraced by the entire working class. The reason for this is obvious. The differentiations in the working class, based on income and skill, will tend to be reflected in their political institutions. They can not be abolished by imprimatur. The notion of a pure Bolshevik party made up only of the most oppressed and exploited workers unified around a ideologically coherent program is the stuff of sectarian daydreams and bears little resemblance in fact to the Russian reality.

When the  American Communists finally made a turn toward the Farmer-Labor Party, it retained ideological baggage and sectarian habits from the preceding three years. These harmful tendencies were aggravated by the intervention of John Pepper (nee Joseph Pogany), whose ultraleftist authority was analogous to that enjoyed by Bela Kun in the German Communist movement in the same period. Unlike Kun, Pepper did not have the imprimatur of the Comintern even though he implied that he had. He relied on his ability to spout Marxist jargon to impress the raw American leaders. Foster describes the impression Pepper made on him: “It is true that I was somewhat inexperienced in communist tactics, but Pepper…allowed everyone to assume that he was representing the Comintern in America…those of us who [did] not enjoy an international reputation were disposed to accept as correct communist tactics everything to which Pepper said YES and AMEN.”

The Chicago Communists, including Arne Swabeck, were on the front lines of the orientation to the newly emerging Farmer-Labor movement, since the Chicago labor movement was providing many of the troops and much of the leadership. Arne Swabeck might be known to some of you as one of the “talking heads” who functioned as a Greek Chorus in Warren Beatty’s “Reds”. At my very first Socialist Workers branch meeting in 1967, I voted with the rest of the branch to expel Arne who had become converted to Maoism in his late 80s after a life-long career in the Trotskyist movement.

John Fitzpatrick, Edward Nockels and Jay G. Brown, three Chicago Farmer-Labor leaders, had decided to call a convention for July 1923. Three Communists–Swabeck, Earl Browder and Charles Krumbein–formed a committee to work with the Fitzpatrick group.

Fitzpatrick was typical of the previous generation of labor leaders of the old school. A blacksmith by trade, Irish in origin, he had opposed American involvement in WWI, had spoken out in favor of the Bolshevik revolution and defied steel company and AFL bureaucrats in militant strike actions. But he was not good enough for the Communists, who regarded him with suspicion. How could it be otherwise when John Pepper was writing articles for the party paper stuffed with nonsense like this: “In face of danger, we must not forget that a Communist Party is always an army corps surrounded by dangers on all sides–a Communist should not abandon his party, even if he thinks the Party is in the wrong. Every militant Communist should write on his shield: ‘My Party, right or wrong, my Party!'”

The Chicago Farmer-Labor party leaders were willing to work with the Communists, who had some influence in the labor movement as well as enjoying the backing of the world’s first workers state. All that they asked was for a little discretion since red-baiting was widespread in this period of the Palmer Raids. Farmer-Labor leader Anton Johanssen advised Browder, “If you keep your heads, go slow, don’t rock the boat, then the Chicago Federation will stand fast. But if you begin to throw your weight around too much, the game will be up.”

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Fitzpatrick was stuck in the middle between some fearful Farmer-Labor Party leaders, who reflected anticommunist prejudices, and the NY Communist leaders under Pepper’s influence who regarded him as the enemy. Tensions between the camps was exacerbated by the Communists who entertained the possibility of taking over the new formation and turning it into a proper revolutionary instrument under their farsighted leadership. [Insert typographical symbol for sarcasm here.]

The tensions came to a head over the timing for a national conference, with Fitzpatrick opting for a later date and the Communists favoring a date as early as possible. The differences over scheduling reflected deeper concerns about the relationship of political forces. The Communists felt that an earlier date would enhance their ability to control events, while Fitzpatrick hoped that a delay would enable him to rally other leftwing forces outside the CP’s milieu.

From his offices in NYC Pepper pushed for an earlier date and was successful. It was able to garner more votes than Fitzgerald on leadership bodies. Once the decision was made at the Political Committee level, the Chicago leaders closed ranks in a display of “democratic centralism” even though they felt that it was a mistake. When the national Farmer-Labor Party gathering was held on July 3, 1923, nearly 80 years ago this week, the CP ran roughshod over the opposition. Using their superior organizational skills and discipline, all major votes went the CP way. During the antiwar movement, the Trotskyists used to function the same way. We called ourselves without the slightest hint of self-awareness the “big Red machine.” No wonder independents hated us.

On the third day of the conference, John Fitzpatrick could not contain his dismay:

“I know Brother [William Z.] Foster and the others who are identified and connected with him, and if they think they can attract the attention of the rank and file of the working men and women of America to their organization, I say to them and to this organization, that is a helpless course, and they cannot do it.

“Then what have they done? They have killed the Farmer-Labor Party, and they have killed the possibility of uniting the forces of independent labor action in America; and they have broken the spirit of this whole thing so that we will not be able to rally the forces for the next twenty years!”

The CP had succeeded in capturing itself. After the conference ended, all of the independents left the Farmer-Labor Party and it functioned as a typical front group of the kind that vanguard formations–whether Stalinist, Maoist or Trotskyist–have succeeded in building over the years. A true mass movement will have contradictions and tensions based on class differentiation that will never remain bottled up in such front groups. The purpose of a genuine vanguard party, needless to say, is to help act as a midwife to such formations because they are the only vehicle that can express the complexity and hopes of a modern industrial nation numbering nearly 300 million.

October 13, 2008

Acts of Imagination

Filed under: Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

“Acts of the Imagination” is a searing portrait of immigrant society in Vancouver, Canada. The main characters are Katya (Stephanie Hayes) and Jaroslaw (Billy Marchenski), a young Ukrainian brother and sister who exist at the margins of the east side of Vancouver. The other two main characters are Seuchong (Maki Nagisa), a Korean single mother who is Jaroslaw’s lover, and Aashir (Julian Samuel), a middle-aged Pakistani who becomes Katya’s lover. The film moves along as a series of set pieces involving this quartet. Originally written by screenwriter Michael Springate as a play, the movie retains the heavy emphasis on dialog but is not the least bit “stagy”. Even though it was obviously made on a shoestring, the director Carolyn Combs has not allowed this limitation to sacrifice anything visual. Using a hand-held digital camera, she has a impressive flair for turning Vancouver’s industrial semi-slums, gritty railroad bridges, and polluted river into strikingly poetic images.

Although the film is mostly about human relationships, the broader context is the troubled politics of the 20th century and the legacy of socialism in particular. Katya is haunted by the slaughter of Ukrainian peasants in the early 30s as well as the murder of her parents who were Ukrainian nationalists, so much so that her fragile psyche appears to be cracking at the seams as she speaks frequently with her dead mother-hence the act of the imagination that give the movie its title.

One day as she is relaxing on the banks of a Vancouver river, she meets Aashir who works as a janitor. When she learns that he is a socialist, she puts him on the defensive as might be expected given her hatred for the USSR. He fends off her attacks and adopts a patient, almost paternalistic, stance toward her. In keeping with her generally unstable demeanor, she seduces Aashir who soon learns that the younger woman’s sexual appetite is a double-edged sword. It appears to be her way of bending him to her will.

Initially, I felt put off by Katya who gives the audience all sorts of reasons to dislike her. However, once I began to become more familiar with her as a character, I found myself warming up. She is an apt symbol of the diminished expectations of Eastern Europeans and former Soviet republics today. Despite her nationalist aspirations, the Ukraine was not able to provide her and her brother with the means of survival. They came to Canada, traditionally a pole of attraction for Ukrainian immigrants as the U.S. is for Mexicans and Germany is for Turks.

Katya’s brother Jaroslaw tries to be as patient as he can with his troubled sister and has hopes for a better life with Seuchong, who he hopes to marry some day. But when he learns that she has taken Aashir as a lover, he loses control and behaves even more irrationally than his sister. You are left wondering whether there was an incestuous element in Katya and Jaroslaw’s relationship, but as is generally the case with this highly subtle script you are invited to consider multiple interpretations.

In an interview with efilmcritic.com, screenwriter Michael Springate explains the origins of “Acts of Imagination”:

Historically, the roots stem from my living among the Ukrainian Diaspora in Montreal, and my visit to Ukraine in 1992, after its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, but also during the financial meltdown of that period. It was a time of paradox and contradiction, in a society where no-one was quite sure which part of the official history of their time was accurate or not.

I would suggest that it exactly such paradoxes and contradictions that lie at the heart of “Acts of Imagination” and give it its deep emotional power. The movie is available from Moktak Releasing and highly recommended for those who prefer intelligent and thought-provoking movies.

Official website

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