Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 31, 2009

The Lessons of Yugoslavia

Filed under: Yugoslavia — louisproyect @ 12:32 pm

(This appeared originally at http://monthlyreview.org/mrzine/proyect300309.html)

The Lessons of Yugoslavia
by Louis Proyect

David GibbsFirst Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia(Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, forthcoming, June 2009).

As a rule of thumb, there is an inverse relationship between the success of American foreign policy adventures and the amount of scholarly critiques they generate.  When they fail, as they did in Vietnam and Iraq, a mass market will be created for books like David Halberstam’s The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era or Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco.  But when they succeed, publishers will not rush to the door of a scholar who questions such victories, especially if the main criterion of questioning is the impact on the lives of those whose lands were attacked.

Perhaps the most obvious recent example of this is the wars in Yugoslavia, which have generated very little in the way of serious analysis except from Diana Johnstone or Edward Herman.   As a measure of their isolation, both have been attacked as “holocaust revisionists” for making essentially the same kinds of points that have been made with respect to Iraq.

First Do No HarmThus, it is of some importance that David Gibbs, a respected professor of history and political science at the University of Arizona, has weighed in on the Balkan wars through the publication of First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia.  Using his background in the two disciplines, Gibbs has written one of the few chronicles of the wars in Yugoslavia designed simply to tell the truth about what happened.  Since so many mainstream accounts are content to recycle propaganda, it is no small accomplishment to present the facts without fear or favor.  With a twenty-five page bibliography, First Do No Harm is a substantive contribution to the scholarly literature, one that will have to be engaged with whatever your perspective on the Balkan wars.

Just as importantly, Gibbs has provided one of the few book-length analyses of the political economy of the wars’ origins.  With the exception of Sean Gervasi’s “Why Is NATO in Yugoslavia?” a paper delivered to a conference in Prague in 1996, there have been very few attempts to understand the implosion of Yugoslavia except in terms of a “great man” theory of history, in which an Evil Slobodan Milosevic gets blamed for everything that went wrong.  In that paper, Gervasi raised the question:

Why are the Western powers pressing for the expansion of NATO?  Why is NATO being renewed and extended when the “Soviet threat” has disappeared?  There is clearly much more to it than we have so far been told.  The enforcement of a precarious peace in Bosnia is only the immediate reason for sending NATO forces into the Balkans.

Gervasi died only six months after this paper was delivered, so he never really had a chance to give a fully elaborated, book-length treatment on U.S. ambitions clashing with one of the few remaining socialist strongholds in Eastern Europe.  In describing American foreign policy as a “Great Game,” not that much different from imperial ventures in the past, Gervasi dared to go against the liberal consensus.

David Gibbs’s study answers the questions first raised in Gervasi’s article, while contributing a new explanation that might appear controversial to those who regard inter-imperialist rivalries as ancient history.  In general, even among Marxists, including me, there is a tendency to regard the First and Second World Wars as confirmations of Lenin’s writings on imperialism but to look at the post-Second World War period as fundamentally different.  While there were obviously clashing interests between the United States and Europe or Japan over this or that trade agreement or foreign policy dispute, the consensus view tended to overlap with either “globalization” theories that posited a disappearance of the nation-state or a view that most nation-states were content to operate as subhegemons in the U.S. orbit.

For Gibbs, the key to understanding the trajectory of the Balkan wars was rivalry over what was considered a ripe plum.  Germany had its own imperial interests and was actually the first capitalist power to begin the process of tearing apart a social system that had proven quite viable until economic contradictions began to make it vulnerable to outside powers in the 1970s.  In chapter four, titled, appropriately enough, “Germany Drops a Match,” Gibbs reveals the extent of German support for Croatian and Slovenian secessions:

German support for the secessionists is noted by several other sources.  French Air Force general Pierre M. Gallois asserts that Germany began supplying arms to Croatia, including antitank and antiaircraft rockets, in early 1991 — before the war began.  Off the record, US officials also acknowledged German intervention.  An investigative article in the New Yorker cites an anonymous US diplomat who alleged that German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher “was encouraging the Croats to leave the federation and declare independence.”  It is difficult to fully assess this allegation, given the anonymity of the source.  However, the New Yorker allegation is supported by the memoirs of US ambassador Warren Zimmermann, which note “Genscher’s tenacious decision to rush the independence of Slovenia and Croatia” (emphasis added).

Although the United States and Germany shared hostility toward Milosevic, who was perceived as a Titoist holdover standing in the way of converting the Yugoslav economy into one more favorable to Western economic ambitions, they by no means saw their own interests as coinciding.  Like dogs fighting over a bone, the United States sought to push its rivals aside and viewed NATO in particular as a means toward that end.  Sharing Gervasi’s emphasis on the role of NATO, Gibbs makes a strong case for seeing this military alliance as a bid to enhance the US hegemonic power at the expense of what became known as “Old Europe” in the early stages of the war in Iraq.

As a latecomer to the new areas for investment in the former Titoist republics, the United States understood the need for armed might, arguably the sine qua non for its continuing role as a hegemonic power in a period of economic decline.  As Thomas Friedman once put it, “the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist.  McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15.”  While it was clearly beyond the bounds of U.S. hegemony to impose its will directly on Yugoslavia as it has now attempted in Iraq, it saw NATO as a useful surrogate.  Indeed, the pretext for a full-scale NATO intervention was the slaughter of Muslim men at Srebrenica, an event that, horrible as it was, should not have provided an excuse for even greater bloodletting.  Under the rubric of “Operation Deliberate Force,” U.S. power was put on full display as Gibbs relates:

Deliberate Force was technically a multinational NATO campaign, but it was conceived and conducted largely by the United States.  Shortly before the strikes were launched, US officials met with their European counterparts and, in essence, demanded their support.  According to Chollet, who interviewed many key figures: “The Americans would go to explain what they were doing, not ask for permission.  The message would be ‘part invitation, part ultimatum.'”  Though European leaders resented this US diktat, they reluctantly went along with the plan.  After the Srebrenica massacre, the Europeans were under pressure to take action, and they did not wish to appear obstructionist.  NATO member states thus supported Operation Deliberate Force.

Gibbs fully intended First Do No Harm as a critique of both successful interventions such as the one that took place in Yugoslavia and the one that still lurches unsteadily in Iraq.  Despite the perception (albeit growing dimmer day by day) that Obama is anxious to pull out of Iraq, it should have been clear to everybody committed to world peace that his opposition to war was based on pragmatism rather than principle.  Even during the period when he was perceived as a courageous opponent of an unpopular war, Obama maintained that he was not opposed to all wars, only those that were “dumb” or “rash.”

Therefore, it is a cause for great worry that Obama has retained the services of a number of foreign policy operatives who do not believe that NATO’s wars in the Balkans were “dumb” or “rash,” especially journalist Samantha Powers who became persona non grata with the Obama team during the primaries when she blurted out that his plans for withdrawal were only a “best case scenario.”   She was subsequently reinstated, apparently because Obama shared her cynical attitude all along, despite his dovish reputation.

It is essential for those committed to world peace to become familiar with the sorry history of so-called humanitarian intervention in Yugoslavia, since the same characters who orchestrated American strategy in the period are now in the driver’s seat.  Not only do we face escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we are likely to hear the same kinds of “human rights” rhetoric that accompanied the Balkan wars.  This is not to speak of Darfur, a region that Powers has likened repeatedly to Yugoslavia as a candidate for a NATO-style rescue.

Gibbs indicates what the movement must be prepared for in his conclusion:

[T]he Iraq war has gone badly indeed, and the humanitarian effects of this particular intervention must be regarded as negative.  In this context, some recall the earlier interventions in Yugoslavia with nostalgia.  To state the matter simply, Yugoslavia is remembered as the “good war” — which achieved genuinely humanitarian outcomes — and it thus offers a welcome contrast with the Iraq fiasco.  The Balkan nostalgia also results from electoral politics: Democratic politicians are drawing attention to the “successful” US bombing campaigns in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina as examples of how intervention should be undertaken.  By emphasizing the positive aspects of these campaigns, Democrats are trying to show that they too are capable of using military force (with the implied additional claim that they can do so more effectively, more competently, and more humanely than their Republican opponents).  But the benign image of the Balkan interventions extends well beyond Democratic circles, and it is bipartisan to a significant degree.  The main purpose of this book has been to debunk this benign image, and to argue that it relies on a series of myths.

March 29, 2009

A Song for Paul Krugman

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 7:21 pm

Forbidden Lie$

Filed under: Film,middle east — louisproyect @ 7:03 pm

In 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq, Simon and Shuster published a book titled “Forbidden Love: a harrowing true story of love and revenge in Jordan” by Norma Khouri that told the story of an “honor killing”. Norma, a Christian, had a friend named Dalia who was Muslim. Together they opened a unisex hair salon where Dalia met a Muslim soldier who she fell in love with. Like Romeo and Juliet, they met surreptitiously until Dalia’s brother found out and reported it to their father, who plunged a knife into her heart in order to preserve the honor of Islam. In a period in which Islam was routinely being portrayed as inimical to the interests of women, “Forbidden Love” would be interpreted by most readers that George W. Bush’s crusade was justified.

There was only one problem. The book was a hoax. Dalia did not exist and the author was a career criminal who was wanted by the FBI for defrauding an old woman with Alzheimer’s out of her life savings and other scams. As was the case with other hoaxes, such as Clifford Irving’s book on Howard Hughes, the publishers failed to do their due diligence. In 2003, there was a hot market for Islamophobic books and Khouri’s fit the bill, even if it was false.

Arriving at theaters this month, “Forbidden Lie$” tells the story of Norma Khouri’s hoax with the kind of complexity found in novels. As the main character in this powerful documentary, Khouri differentiates herself from other con artists like Clifford Irving by refusing to admit that her story was a lie. As the film strips one layer after another from her not so carefully constructed edifice, she refuses until the bitter end to own up to her falsehoods. It eventually becomes obvious that unlike a prankster such as Clifford Irving, Norma Khouri was psychologically driven to lie and cheat.

The documentary is constructed as a kind of point-counterpoint between Khouri and her investigators, particularly Malcolm Knox the Australian journalist who broke the story about the hoax. Khouri had claimed political asylum in Australia and had become one of the country’s best known celebrities. In an article titled “The Lies Stripped Bare” that appeared in the July 24, 2004 Sydney Morning Herald, Knox wrote:

Some of Forbidden Love’s detailing of Amman is fanciful and some of it plainly wrong, with suburbs in the wrong place, nonexistent hotels and confused geography (on page 2, Jordan is erroneously described as “bordered by” Kuwait).

These mistakes are understandable given that Khouri has never lived in Jordan since she was a young child and had, in fact, led a comparatively normal life as a married mother of two in those south Chicago suburbs before moving to Australia.

The unravelling of Khouri’s story began in Jordan, where the peak lobby group for women’s rights received an anonymous email from her three years ago. Addressed to the Jordanian National Commission for Women, Khouri’s email asked for a bank account into which she could deposit money that might arise from her coming book.

At this point Khouri knew she might have a goldmine on her hands. She had sent her manuscript to a New York agent, Christy Fletcher, who placed it with 16 publishers around the world. The book, about the murder of Khouri’s childhood friend Dalia, was going to draw global attention to the barbarity of honour killing. It was also going to put considerable wealth at Khouri’s disposal.

The director of the women’s commission in Amman, Amal al-Sabbagh, ignored the request: “I don’t respond to anonymous emails and I didn’t know anything about this book, so how could I give it our endorsement?”

After the book’s massively successful publication – it has sold an estimated 250,000 copies around the world – Khouri continued to seek cover by soliciting donations for the commission, which remained unconvinced.

“When I got the book I thought she doesn’t know anything about Jordan,” says al-Sabbagh. “It sounded fake. If this killing had really happened, we would know about it. Jordan is a small place and this is our job – people eventually hear about these things. And we knew nothing about this.”

Other matters in the book aroused al-Sabbagh’s suspicion. Khouri’s descriptions of Jordanian law were exaggerated and often incorrect. Opinions and myths were presented as factual statements.

“I began to think that this wasn’t a Jordanian,” al-Sabbagh says.

Touring the world publicising her book, Khouri was also raising eyebrows with her perfect, American-accented English after she had presented herself, in her book, as a feisty but oppressed ingenue. She said she had been sent to an American school in Jordan where she learnt English. No records of such attendance have been found.

In the summer of last year al-Sabbagh and a colleague, Rana Husseini, set to work researching Khouri’s claims. They found 73 errors and exaggerations in the book. Most damning, the unisex salon, which forms the focus for the book’s action, set in the early and mid-1990s, could not exist by law and was not remembered by any Amman hairdressers or their union.

While watching this movie, one cannot help but think of Bernard Madoff who pulled off a hoax even more elaborate than Norma Khouri’s. It inevitably makes one wonder what there is about capitalist society that leads so many people to become con artists. Like Madoff, Khouri calculated that there was money to be made from telling people what they wanted to hear. In his case, a yearly return of 10 percent was guaranteed. In her case, the anxious middle-class Westerner was reassured that the loss of life and treasure was worth it when it came to liberating oppressed women.

In August 10 2004, Ali Abunimah summed up the lessons of the Norma Khouri affair in the Lebanese Daily Star:

In the post-Sept. 11 era, Khouri’s book met a certain demand in the US and other Western societies, where the shortcomings and “backwardness” of Arab and Muslim societies have become a focus of intense interest to which precious little genuine expertise is brought to bear. Indeed the desire to “rescue” Muslim women has become a prominent theme in liberal justifications for US intervention in the region. This was most common at the beginning of the Afghanistan war.

There is also a Western tendency to assume that violence is a pathology when it occurs among Arabs and Muslims, and to apply spurious religious or cultural explanations to explain it. Murder rates in general, and specifically for the murder of women by male family members and intimates, are far higher in the United States than in Jordan, though few analyses attribute this to American culture generally, or to Americans’ devout Christianity.

Husseini points to the well-worn stereotypes that infect Western media discourse about the issues to which she has devoted her career. She notes the exotic artwork on the cover of Khouri’s book, which shows a women clad in black head-covering with only her long-lashed eyes peering out – dress that certainly exists, but is not typical in Jordan, where women outnumber and outperform men in secondary and higher education, and are increasingly present in all sectors of the economy.

“Forbidden Lies” opens at New York’s Cinema Village starting April 3, the Sunset Laemmle in Los Angeles on April 10, and at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center beginning April 24. Highly recommended.

March 28, 2009

NY Times music critic rips Leon Botstein

Filed under: bard college,music — louisproyect @ 6:46 pm

This is an article posted on a NY Times blog by music critic Allan Kozinn who blasts Botstein for his views on whites playing jazz and the role of classical music in a period of financial crisis. As much as I enjoyed Kozinn’s words, some of the comments went even further in reassuring me that I am not the only person in the world who thinks that Bostein is a horse’s ass.

Conductor Gives Wrong Cues

By Allan Kozinn

One of the nicer touches of Leon Botstein’s American Symphony Orchestra concerts at Avery Fisher Hall is that in addition to the Lincoln Center program book, listeners are given a large-format booklet of notes, essays and vocal texts. Among the essays, invariably, is a rumination by Mr. Botstein, who in addition to conducting this orchestra and the Jerusalem Symphony, is president of Bard College and is comfortable writing academic prose.

Usually, Mr. Botstein’s notes take umbrage at the music world’s neglect of whatever repertory he is conducting that day, and when he is at his most convincing – both in his notes and in his performances – his listeners can take that umbrage to heart and undertake further exploration on their own, usually through recordings.

This is a gambit Mr. Botstein has been using since he took over the orchestra in 1992, and it’s harmless enough, even if listeners soon come to discover that the music he has introduced them to is not quite as neglected as he makes it seem. But it’s less harmless when the rarities Mr. Botstein has selected are rare for a reason – mainly, that they are far removed from the composer’s top drawer – or when his performances are so workaday that even interesting music sounds dull. In those cases, neither the composers nor the listeners are well served.

But back to the program notes. On Sunday, Mr. Botstein led a program devoted mostly to music of William Grant Still, who is usually said to have been the first black American composer to have his works performed by major American orchestras and opera companies, back in the 1930s and 40s, when classical music was still largely segregated. A discussion of this segregation and the “arenas,” as Mr. Botstein put it, in which black and white musicians flourished, led him to a bizarre assertion.

“Whites who reveled in jazz,” he wrote, “were, despite themselves, engaging in a form of condescension.”

What an outrageous and ludicrously out-of-touch thing to say. Might it not have been that white listeners who loved jazz were attracted by its virtuosity, originality and improvisatory flair? Might they have found in jazz a vital music that spoke to them, while in the classical music of the time they were put off by what they regarded as abstruse modernism, on one hand, or throwbacks to the 19th century, on the other?

Were white musicians who played jazz, like Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, condescending as well? And did the condescension keep rolling down the generations, so that white fans of early rock who idolized Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Smokey Robinson were actually engaging in condescension too?

Until I read his program essay, I had thought that Mr. Botstein would have trouble topping, for silliness, the comments he made during an interview on WNYC (93.9 FM) last week. Discussing ways to find new classical music audiences, he proposed that in the current economic climate, when people have extra time on their hands (because, he said, they can’t go shopping), they might devote some time to studying classical music and other subjects “of no utility.”

Now there’s an inviting way to describe classical music: it’s useless.

I feel sure that jazz’s proponents can describe the music they love in more appealing terms, and without being accused, in most quarters, of condescension.


Hurrah for Mr. Kozinn. Botstein’s words were dopey and pretentious. Also he is about the only conductor around who makes Marin Alsop and Frans Welser-Most seem musical geniuses by comparison.

– Jeff Wagner

We all know our Leon’s foot and mouth are in a warm and fruitful long-term relationship. Rumor has it they married years ago, back when Blithewood was still Blithewood.

Don’t try to break them up. It could only end in tears.

– nm

Bravo, Mr. Kozinn!

Despite the many positive contributions that he has made, Leon Botstein is one of the greatest fakers (If this weren’t a “GP rated website, I’d use stronger language!) of all time.

Botstein is a 4th rate conductor, with the charisma of a trash can. He knows distinctly less about music and culture than he thinks he does.

In sum, Leon Botstein, to use a favorite epithet of a friend of mine, thinks he walks on water, and he is correct, because fecal matter is often buoyant.

Thank you, Mr. Kozinn, for exposing and challenging this self-aggrandizing, egocentric phony!

– Oscar the Grouch

More discouraging in all this is the fact that William Grant Still is being proposed as being unjustly neglected, presumably because he is (was) African American. Instead, one can quite reasonably simply listen to the music for the pleasant competence most of his works demonstrate. He’s little different, in quality, from a host of other composers of his era… color of their skin not considered…. and singling him out, merely because of his race is in itself a form of condescension.

Still and his music do not benefit from having Botstein “do him a favor”. The only favor done here is one of Botstein to Botstein. William Grant Still is little better and certainly no worse than 50 other journeyman composers of the time.

– Andrew Rudin

Will somebody explain the career trajectory of Leon Botstein? It is as mysterious to me as the career trajectories of, say, Marin Alsop and Rob Kapilow, two other boomerangs who just keep coming back, no matter how much we try to ditch them?

– Tim


As a musician who has worked with the “Maestro” I agree whole-heartedly with Oscar the Grouch.

Botstein belongs in Academia and not on the podium.

– musician

My comment is awaiting approval:

I don’t know if Bostein belongs in academia either. He runs Bard College in the same manner as the strictest conductor runs an orchestra. As a Bard College graduate of the class of ’65, I have followed his presidency with some interest. People who step across a line, like Joel Kovel who made the mistake of criticizing Zionism, get fired. Botstein became an authoritarian figure at Bard because he had a talent for lining up major donors like George Soros. I would say that Botstein has as much business pontificating on a variety of issues that he knows little about-including jazz-as Soros does. In this world, money allows you to use the bully pulpit. That is one of the reasons there is so much hatred building up against the rich in this country, not to speak of foreclosures, bonuses and all the rest.

– Louis Proyect

March 27, 2009

Working at Goldman-Sac

Filed under: financial crisis,workers — louisproyect @ 6:38 pm

If you’ve been following the news about Wall Street, you’ll know that American taxpayers have funneled 13 billion dollars into Goldman-Sachs via AIG. Along with some other major financial institutions, Goldman received 100 percent of the value of the insurance they took out on their risky securitized real estate bets. Meanwhile Goldman states that they intend to pay back the 10 billion dollars they received in TARP funds since they don’t want anything to interfere with the obscene salaries and bonuses they hand out to their top executives.

Next to AIG, Goldman has borne the brunt of populist fury. This week Tim Geithner was pressed by Maxine Waters on whether former employees of Goldman-Sachs now ensconced in the Obama administration help explain an apparent tilt toward the Wall Street giant.

Thomas Edsall, the political editor at Huffington Post, dealt with the same issues in an article titled “AIG Bonus Bombshell Raises New Questions about Goldman Sachs“. He writes:

The roots of the linkage between Goldman Sachs and AIG go back to the closing months of the Bush administration, as the financial meltdown reached crisis proportions and key decisions were made that are now reaping the whirlwind. Remember who played a key role in deciding to bail out AIG? Henry Paulson, the Goldman CEO-turned George W. Bush Treasury Secretary. Paulson, according to a September 27, 2008 New York Times piece by Gretchen Morgenson, led a team of regulators and bankers in early September to determine what to do with the most severely wounded financial institutions.

One of the participants in those meetings was Lloyd C. Blankfein, Paulson’s successor at Goldman Sachs.

Out of those meetings came the controversial and heavily criticized decision to allow Lehman Brothers, a Goldman competitor, to go belly up, and to bail out AIG. Starting with $85 billion from the Fed, taxpayers have pumped a total of $170 billion into the giant insurance company. The bailout was crucial to Goldman in that it permitted AIG to pay off its $12.6 billion debt to the firm, $8.1 billion of which was to cover AIG-backed credit derivatives.

Although I am happy to see Thomas Edsall and Maxine Waters scandalize Goldman-Sachs in this fashion, I must differentiate myself from their conspiracy-mongering. I doubt that Robert Rubin, Neel Kashkari or Mark Patterson have Goldman’s private interest in mind when they advise Obama to approve some plan that benefits their former employer. I take them at their word that they only have the country’s interest in mind for they most assuredly believe that-to paraphrase an old bromide-what’s good for Goldman-Sachs is good for America.

As many of you know from previous postings here, I was an employee of Goldman-Sachs from 1986 to 1988. It was my last full-time position before I began working at Columbia University in August, 1991. Although I tried to keep my distance from the corporate culture there, I did succumb to some extent. It was a time of deep illusions in the superiority and invincibility of the capitalist system and Goldman encouraged such illusions in much the same way that the Vatican fosters illusions in Jesus Christ’s divinity.

I had quit my job as a database administrator at Memorial-Sloan Kettering, a prestigious cancer hospital, earlier that year in order to work in Nicaragua, but was persuaded to remain in New York in order to help develop Tecnica, the volunteer program that was absorbing all my energies back then.

I began work at Goldman as a consultant. They had hired a huge number of new employees and consultants like me in order to migrate from their Burroughs mainframe applications to new systems on IBM that utilized a database management system called IDMS that I had expertise in. My job was to provide technical specifications for the Account subsystem, which along with the Security and Trading subsystems would provide the infrastructure for a number of other systems.

After working there for a few months, the project manager I reported to called me into his office and offered me a full-time position, which I gratefully accepted. With a yearly bonus of about 18 percent and a retirement plan that Goldman made contributions to the tune of 15 percent or so of my salary, there was no arguing with the material incentives. Since it would turn out to be a shitty place to work, these material incentives amounted to what many employees called “the golden handcuffs”, a term I first heard at Salomon Brothers in 1975, my last job with another self-regarding Jewish-owned investment bank.

John L. Weinberg

In 1986 Goldman was run by John L. Weinberg, who was an elder statesmen of the investment banking community just like Billy Salomon-my boss at Salomon Brothers. This was at a time when such firms were much more paternalistically benevolent than they are today. When you went to work for Goldman-Sachs, you were guaranteed a job for life unless you got into the habit of drinking whiskey from a bottle in your desk. Weinberg, who died in 1986, was clearly an “old school” type banker who probably would have been leery of hedge funds and derivatives. The NY Times obit noted:

A former marine who saw combat during World War II, Mr. Weinberg had a blunt, unpretentious manner. His style, like his disposition, was unadorned. He kept his hair closely cropped and wore off-the-rack suits and socks that hung a bit too low. He was also known for his earthy maxims, many of them aimed to deflate the ballooning egos of his bankers.

A relationship banker of the old style, Mr. Weinberg’s chief talent was his ability to gain entree to the boardrooms of America’s most blue-chip companies, from Ford Motor, to General Electric to DuPont, a trait that he inherited from his father, Sidney J. Weinberg, who led Goldman Sachs from 1930 to 1969 and in many ways defined the art of relationship banking on Wall Street. Mr. Weinberg’s son, John S. Weinberg, who is 49 and is currently co-head of investment banking, has carried on the family tradition.

Sidney Weinberg

Sidney Weinberg, along with fellow Jewish financier Bernard Baruch, advised FDR how to save the capitalist system. Not long after the 1987 stock market crash, Studs Terkel reflected on how overwhelmed Weinberg was by the earlier crash:

AS we hear the wise men of Wall Street – confused, befuddled, lost – the image of Sidney Weinberg is evoked, a senior partner of Goldman, Sachs during the 30’s and 40’s. He was an adviser to presidents, including Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson. Remembering the crash of ’29, he said, ”We were confused, befuddled and lost. We waited for an announcement.”

I hadn’t the heart to ask him, ”From whom? If you guys don’t know, who does?”

I suppose what most astonishes me, as we read of the wise men and their pronouncements in the year 1987, is the absence of any reference to ghost towns, i.e. Youngstown, Ohio; to fourth-generation farmers being foreclosed; to a record-busting number of homeless; to freight trains more crowded today than even in the time of Woody Guthrie. It is as though Wall Street were on some other planet.

The parallels of today and ’29 are astonishing. Yet it appears that we, and certainly our wise men of finance, have learned absolutely zero. If anything, we may be slightly worse off now than then. Our President blithely announced all was well. He was Alfred E. Neuman in the flesh – ”What, me worry?” At least Herbert Hoover’s brow was furrowed.

If Studs were alive today, I wonder what he’d have to say about yet another crash-one that more closely paralleled 1929 than the 1987 events. As a sign of the times, the Goldman ex-employees now calling the shots would claim both omniscience and omnipotence unlike Sidney Weinberg’s admission that he did not know what the hell is going on. Of course, there is some doubt that today’s crop of advisers know anything more than Weinberg did, contrary to their bravado.

Not long after becoming an employee and transferred into the elite database administration group, I found myself adapting chameleon-like to my environment. Not that I walked around telling people how great Adam Smith was. It was more a function of trying to appear more “Goldman” than necessary. While most computer programmers were happy to come to work in a Members Only windbreaker, I had to go out and spend my nearly hard-earned money on Paul Stuart clothing, the standard issue for Wall Street yuppies. I even went out and bought a Mount Blanc pen but stopped short of getting a Rolex watch, which would have completed the idiotic uniform. After taking a job with Columbia University, the first thing I did was bring the suits, ties, and shoes to a Goodwill thrift shop in the neighborhood. I held on to the pen, but never use it since the stupid refills cost twice as much as a brand-new Papermate.

I even went as far as putting gel in my hair. God knows who I was trying to look like. Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”. I got a chuckle, by the way, the other week from “The Conchords”, the dry-as-a-bone musical comedy series on HBO about two New Zealand folk-rock musicians trying to make it in New York. Their manager tells them to start using gel in order to make themselves look cooler. They become addicted to it after a while and fight over the last drops in a jar like two junkies fighting over some crack. Nowadays I wear my hair in a buzz cut, something I should have done decades ago. With all the stuff needing my attention, why should I spend time with a fucking hair dryer in the morning?

I never quite fit in at Goldman. Leaving aside my radical politics, I refused to work 60 hours a week like everybody else. By the time I got there, I had already logged 18 years in the computer programming business and had worked more overtime than the average Goldman programmer had worked in total. When I walked out the door at 5pm, people used to glare at me. After going though that kind of peer pressure in the SWP for not going into industry, I was just not ready to follow any herd anywhere.

It was my boss Vivian Schneck who glared at me the hardest. She was an orthodox Jew who probably resented my anti-Zionist politics even though the subject never came up. She had little use for my lackadaisical behavior, even though my expertise in IDMS was second to none in the department. Eventually my apathy about my job was what did me in. One Saturday I went in to perform some maintenance on the commodities database but omitted a step that had serious consequences on Monday morning. The commodities database was offline due to my neglect, and even worse the foreign exchange database was made unavailable as well. Don’t ask me to explain. It is too complicated.

When I came in, the higher ups in the department were scrambling around trying to bring the two databases up. Foreign exchange was more urgent apparently. I got the strong sense that millions were lost because of my screw-up. But then again, the people of Thailand or Argentina might have come out on top so I don’t feel so bad now.

Vivian Schneck was cut out for Goldman it seems. Recently she became Chief Information Officer, where I am sure she is deliriously happy continuing to work 60 hour weeks and raking in the dough, including a chunk of change that I threw into the pot as a taxpayer.

As for me, I’ll stick with what Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, once said-just don’t tell my boss at Columbia that I said it!

A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds its sway. This delusion drags in its train the individual and social woes which for two centuries have tortured sad humanity. This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual and his progeny. Instead of opposing this mental aberration, the priests, the economists and the moralists have cast a sacred halo over work. Blind and finite men, they have wished to be wiser than their God; weak and contemptible men, they have presumed to rehabilitate what their God had cursed. I, who do not profess to be a Christian, an economist or a moralist, I appeal from their judgement to that of their God; from the preachings of their religious, economics or free thought ethics, to the frightful consequences of work in capitalist society.

March 26, 2009

Guest of Cindy Sherman

Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 6:34 pm

The documentary “Guest of Cindy Sherman” is the definitive study of a contemporary art world that Eric Bogosian, one of the film’s astute interviewees, calls “completely bullshit”. Directed by and featuring Paul H-O (the initials stand for the surnames of his Japanese mother and American father: Hasegawa-Overacker), a long-time denizen of the art world who was host of the public access cable TV show GalleryBeat in the 1980s, it examines the celebrity, ambition, power, and money that taints the art world. It even affected his long-time relationship with Cindy Sherman, who personifies those aspects of a world largely indistinguishable from Wall Street-its principal benefactor.

As a young man Paul H-O started out as a painter, but soon found his calling in the quirky, irreverent cable show that he described as “Beavis and Butthead go to the artworld”. Before there was an Internet, the only way that a true underground perspective could be put forward was on public access TV stations, which he describes as the youtube of its day.

Those who held serious power in economics, politics or culture in the early 80s tended to view people like Paul H-O as upstarts, in much the same manner as bloggers are viewed today. In one scene, drawn like many from his Gallerybeat TV show, Paul is confronted by a beefy Julian Schnabel, who resenting how his work was depicted on an earlier Gallerybeat episode calls him a masturbator. For those who have seen Schnabel’s paintings, and-worse-his movies, this scene is worth the price of admission.

An excerpt from a GalleryBeat show

Despite his outsider image, or perhaps because of it, Paul H-O was able to wrangle an interview with Cindy Sherman, the prototypical postmodernist artist who had already become famous for her photographic self-portraits, which transformed her into housewives, prostitutes, virginal schoolgirls, etc. Her purpose was to render artistically the key insight of postmodernism that identity was always shifting. Of course it also helped that postmodernism was widely accepted in the very business world that was throwing buckets of cash at the latest fad. I vividly recall the Barbara Kruger teletype piece in the Goldman-Sachs cafeteria in 1986 cycling one “subversive” message after another to the effect of how rotten big business was. It had no effect on Robert Rubin apparently except perhaps to help him persuade visitors to the cafeteria how “hip” the firm was.

Eric Bogosian on eating dinner with Cindy Sherman

After several interviews, Sherman and Paul H-O began to develop an attraction to each other and finally became lovers. Their relationship was always unequal however. She was the wealthy and famous artist and he was her lover. Whenever he found himself in group photos with her and other celebrities, the photo was always cropped of his image before it ended up in Vanity Fair or ArtForum. The ultimate indignity, however, was when they went to one of a number of banquets that honored her. She was seated at the a-list table along with the usual power hitters, while Paul was seated a few tables away. The place card did not even include his name, only “Guest of Cindy Sherman”-the title of this terrific movie.

In this movie, Paul H-O turns his life into art in the same way that another downtown luminary once did. In fact, I have not had more pleasure from this kind of movie since watching Spalding Gray’s “Swimming to Cambodia” some years ago. “Guest of Cindy Sherman” opens tomorrow at New York’s Cinema Village and in Santa Fe, another art center. For more information on “Guest of Cindy Sherman”, go to the official website.

March 24, 2009

Late Bloomer; Spinning into Butter

Filed under: disabled,Film,racism — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Although they are far apart stylistically, both “Late Bloomer” and “Spinning into Butter” deal with social pariahs. The first movie, now available from Netflix, is a low-budget Japanese shocker about a severely disabled man, played by just such a person, who becomes a serial killer. When the publicist wrote me about the DVD screener becoming available, I said “Great, send it along. It has to be better than the latest idiotic Batman movie”. The other movie is far more conventional and deals with racial incidents at Belmont, a snooty private college in Vermont. It opens at the Landmark Sunshine Theater in New York on March 27th, as well as Washington and Los Angeles. While there are major flaws in “Spinning into Butter”, I can recommend it as a serious attempt to deal with liberal racism at a school with an administration almost as boneheaded as my employers at Columbia University.

“Late Bloomer” sounds at first like it might be an updated version of Todd Browning’s “Freaks”, with its main character taking vengeance at those who have victimized him. Although there is some mayhem toward the end of the movie, with the main character Sumida (Masakiyo Sumida) tooling around in his motorized wheelchair looking for people to stab, it is-at least for me-much more interesting in those quiet moments when Sumida hangs out with friends, especially another disabled man who serves as his guru. Sumida’s dialog is limited by his reliance on a portable speech synthesizer, but every word produced by the device is riveting.

Sumida starts out as an object tended to by his well-meaning care-givers, including a young woman he begins to fall in love with. When he discovers that she is only interested in a heavy-metal rock musician who also serves as a care-giver, he types out on his synthesizer: “I am going to kill you”.

The great thing about “Late Bloomer” is that it defies classification. By making such a powerless figure a serial killer, director Go Shibata subverts our expectations. When the police come to arrest Sumida, I expected the standard dénouement in which the killer’s motivations are fully explained. By omitting such a pat conclusion, Shibata allows his character to live in our mind long after the film has ended-testimony to its power.

“Spinning into Butter” begins with an awful Warner Brothers cartoon based on the Little Black Sambo tale, which is a metaphor for Belmont’s faculty passing the blame from one person to the other. In the eyes of screenplay writer Rebecca Gilman, they create a blur like the tigers turning into butter.

The main character is Dean of Students Sarah Daniels, played capably by Sarah Jessica Parker, mostly known for her comic roles in movies like “Sex and the City”. She has come to Belmont to escape her last job in a mostly Black and rundown college in Chicago, where she had grown to hate not just the students, who she found rude and unmotivated, but Black people in general.

Daniels was hired by Belmont on the strength of her experience working with minority students, who serve mostly as window dressing there. One Black student tells the administrators that the only reason they recruited Black and Latino students was to be able to put them in photos in the college brochure. Despite her efforts to find herself in a preppy, mostly white environment, Daniels does not quite fit in at Belmont. She is patronized by the higher-up’s who perhaps harbor as much of a dislike for Jews as they do for Blacks and Latinos. Although the film does not identify her specifically as a Jew, the name Daniels has a Jewish ring and Parker herself, despite her last name, is Jewish. If I had written the script for “Spinning into Butter”, I would have brought this out but of course I only review movies, not write them.

The movie owes much to Spike Lee since it is an examination of racial tensions, but it is not from a Black perspective. The screenwriter, who adapted her own stage play, is white and made the correct decision not to attempt to speak for Black people.

The plot revolves around some hate crimes that have begun to take place on campus against an African-American student named Winston Garvey (James Reborn). The cops and the media begin to pour into the campus, much to the chagrin of the administration. They’d rather settle things through campus-wide forums on racism that inevitably involve the idiotic President and Dean of Faculty making patronizing and self-congratulatory speeches to the students. Things finally reach the boiling point and the minority students appear ready to blow the place up.

My main complaint with “Spinning into Butter” is its rather pat surprise ending, which I will of course not reveal. Up until that point, you are swept along in some fine dramatic confrontations among people who can’t seem to get beyond their racism, no matter their best intentions. In a way, the “instructive” ending goes against Gilman’s professed intention which was to start a dialog rather than provide solutions.

March 23, 2009

A Guide To G. B. Shaw On Home Video

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:54 pm

Pygmalion, the finest film version of a Shaw play, can be seen on youtube

(Swans – March 23, 2009)   As Charles Marowitz observes in this special edition of Swans on GB Shaw, his plays are rarely performed nowadays. As a film critic, I was interested to see what was available on home video especially since reading Richard Seymour’s The Liberal Defence of Murder for a Swans review left me with an unresolved attitude toward Shaw. Despite the playwright’s socialist politics, Seymour makes the case that he was closer to Christopher Hitchens than he was to Swans, pointing to a passage in Shaw’s Fabianism and the Empire that calls for better management of the Empire rather than ending it:

“Our concern in this Manifesto is not specially for the wage-earning class, which is taking its own course and reaping only what it has sown, but for the effective social organization of the whole Empire, and its rescue from the strife of classes and private interests.”

Shaw’s plays represented a dual challenge to me. Were they the masterpieces that my high school teachers insisted they were (Shaw was not taught in my college at all)? Were they weak politically despite Shaw’s socialist reputation? As it turns out, these questions could not be answered with a simple yes or no. It is far easier to answer another question, which is whether his works still have the capacity to entertain and inspire. On this, I can offer an emphatic yes. On the politics, one can say that Shaw was limited by his Fabian preconceptions but since his plays dealt with class contradictions inside Great Britain rather than relations with the colonial world, they are not only unobjectionable but positively inspiring. Nobody hated the class system more than Shaw, at least those making their living as writers — that is, until the Great Depression turned a whole new generation of writers against the decaying social system.

Before launching into a discussion of the six videos I managed to take in, let me make a few observations about Shaw as artist. The first thing that struck me was how so many different genres appear to be influenced by Shaw, from the screwball comedies of the 1930s to PBS Masterpiece Theater’s “Upstairs, Downstairs.” As a shrewd observer of the social conventions of the rich and the poor, he found their conflict an endless source of artistic inspiration even as he was on record for calling for their abolition. Perhaps there is no British playwright who has a better knack for mining both the foibles and the strengths of the servant class than Shaw — except of course for Shakespeare.

The other thing worth noting is Shaw’s linguistic gifts. Listening to his dialog is a reminder of how much Anglo-American culture has declined since the 19th century. Just as there will never be another Beethoven, there will never be another Shaw. His ability to find the perfect turn of phrase for the occasion was obviously the outcome of his exposure to great British literature. Anybody who has read Jane Austen will be struck by Shaw’s flair for the ironic observation. Furthermore, when you see some of the more inspired screwball comedies of the 1930s, you will recognize immediately that a Preston Sturges not only read his GB Shaw both in high school and in college, but absorbed the literary and dramatic style completely. Nowadays, in the decline of Western civilization across the board, a Hollywood screenwriter is more likely to have learned his craft by watching television situation comedies.

Except for Devil’s Disciple, all of the videos under review are available as DVDs from Netflix and among them all but Pygmalion originated as BBC teleplays. Devil’s Disciple is available on VHS at video stores still stocking them, as well as public libraries. As a rule of thumb, the BBC productions are hampered by their “stagy” character but distinguished by the quality of the acting, including performances by John Gielgud and Maggie Smith.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/lproy53.html

March 22, 2009

What kind of party do we need?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 4:20 pm

I received a query prompted by my annotated Lenin bibliography:

I read with interest your views on the type of new party needed.

I have a few questions I hope you can answer.

What role if any do you see for party press? Traditional newspaper? If the party doesn’t take positions on historical questions what does it fill its press with? What does it do when confronted with the issues of Stalin, Mao, etc.? How would the party raise funds? What would be the practical, day-to-day work of its members?

Do you consider this model valid solely in the United States?

Do you see a need for a new international? If so, what kind of body do you see and how would it come about?

Your attention is appreciated.

1. On the party press:

There will always be a need for printed material, but it is becoming clearer day by day that the epoch of the printed newspaper is coming to an end. The Internet is not only more economical; it also provides a lot more flexibility than the traditional newspaper. For example, it eliminates the need to have writers occupying the same physical office space. With the ever-increasing sophistication of tools like Skype, it will make online editorial meetings more feasible.

I do think there is a need for party newspapers to take up historical questions, such as Stalin versus Trotsky, but they are best reserved for the back pages. I think that Solidarity, for all its other faults, figured this out pretty well in their founding statement:

There is another, more subtle error which has exacerbated the tendency toward splintering of the revolutionary left.  We believe that it is a mistake today to organize revolutionary groups around precise theories of the Russian revolution.  We want to be clear about what this means.

Precision, clarity and rigor are the highest of virtues in developing theory and historical analysis; however, lines of political demarcation do not flow in a mechanical and linear way from differences of theoretical interpretation.  Such an approach leads to unnecessary hothoused debates on issues where long-term discussion would be more in order.  It also contributes to the dynamics of factionalism and splits, which in any case have been too high owing to our history of misassessing the political realities of our own society.

In seeking to overcome this negative legacy, our new organization brings together currents and individuals with a variety of views on theoretical and historical questions, from the interpretation of the Russian Revolution and its leadership to the struggle in Central America today.  We will carry on discussion and mutual education, making no public pretense of monolithism and seeking to learn from each other’s views.

2. How would the party raise funds

Leaving aside the technical questions of using something like Paypal, I think the most important element will be reconfiguring membership financial obligations in line with relaxed norms. My experience in the SWP, and I suppose it is true for other “democratic centralist” formations although probably to a lesser degree, is that a tightly disciplined membership shelling out up to 60 dollars a week is the wrong way to go. It begins to take on the dimensions of a religious sect tithing its members. It would be far better to make it easier for ordinary people with families and debt to join if party dues were in line with the average membership organization. You would make up for a smaller per capita donation with increased membership. Instead of having 400 people paying 40 dollars a week, as like the case with the SWP today, you would have 4000 people paying 10 dollars a week. When you do the math, you realize that there would be more money coming in after all.

3. Day-to-day work

The tendency today for “democratic centralist” organizations is to have a national convention that outlines tasks for “the coming period” as we used to put it. I no longer think that this is a valid approach. A revolutionary party must emerge out of the mass movement, which means accepting activists on their own terms rather than looking at party members as chess pieces to be moved around on a board. For example, if a new party was formed in the next year or so under the impact of a radicalization induced by financial crisis, it should open its doors to people who have been involved in anti-foreclosure movements, trade union activists fighting to implement EFCA (if it can get passed despite the lukewarm support of the DP), immigrant rights activists, etc. In other words, whatever people are currently doing they should continue to do. This is the only way that the party can accurately reflect the existing mass movement and not try to substitute it with its own ready-made solutions. The main need for a revolutionary party is to coordinate all those struggling against capitalism on a class struggle basis. Fundamentally, this was the orientation laid out by Lenin in “What is to be done” and remains valid today.

4. Is this a US-only model

I don’t think so. In fact, as I have pointed out, my ideas were borrowed from Peter Camejo who arrived at them through a study of the Cuban revolutionary movement, as well as the FSLN and FMLN during the 1980s. I would urge you to look at Roger Burbach and Orlando Nunez’s “Fire in the Americas: Forging a Revolutionary Age”, a book that is now out of print but fairly easy to get your hands on. (Amazon.com has a couple of used copies.) Burbach, who like Peter had lived in Nicaragua, tried to imagine what a Sandinista-type party would look like in the U.S. I understand that the FSLN of today is not the party it was in the 1980s, but a study of Burbach’s book as well as the FSLN of that period is worthwhile.

5. On a new international

I think a new international will be very useful, but I don’t think that the pyramid structure of the Third or Fourth Internationals will be very useful. Although the Marxism mailing list I moderate is certainly not the embryo of a new international, I and just about every other subscriber greatly value having exchanges between comrades from every corner of the world.

Finally, although I am not really in the business of prescribing in any kind of detail what a revolutionary organization should look like, I did take a stab at a kind of “what if” exercise in which the SWP shifted toward the kind of paradigm I favor. It is written as a speech that party leader Jack Barnes would have given to an SWP convention in 1974:

The Speech that Jack Barnes Should Have Given in 1974

Comrades, 1974 is a year which in some ways marks the end of an era. The recent victory of the Vietnamese people against imperialism and of women seeking the right to safe and legal abortion are culminations of a decade of struggle. That struggle has proved decisive in increasing both the size and influence of the Trotskyist movement as our cadre threw their energy into building the antiwar and feminist movements. Now that we are close to 2,000 in number and have branches in every major city in the US, it is necessary to take stock of our role within the left and our prospects for the future.

In this report I want to lay out some radical new departures for the party that take into account both our growing influence and the changing political framework. Since they represent such a change from the way we have seen ourselves historically, I am not asking that we take a vote at this convention but urge all branches to convene special discussions throughout the year until the next convention when a vote will be taken. I am also proposing in line with the spirit of this new orientation that non-party individuals and organizations be invited to participate in them.


While our political work of the 1960s was a necessary “detour” from the historical main highway of the socialist movement, it is high time that we began to reorient ourselves. There are increasing signs that the labor movement is beginning to reject the class collaborationist practices of the Meany years. For example, just 4 short years ago in 1970, various Teamsters locals rejected a contract settlement agreed to by their president Frank Fitzsimmons and the trucking industry. They expected a $3.00 per hour raise but the contract settled for only $1.10. The rank and file went out on a wildcat strike that Fitzsimmons and the mainstream press denounced. Fitzsimmons probably had the student revolt on his mind, since he claimed that “Communists” were behind the teamster wild-cat strike. Nobody took this sort of red-baiting to heart anymore. The burly truck-drivers involved in the strike were the unlikeliest “Communists” one could imagine. The trucking industry prevailed upon President Richard Nixon to intercede in the strike at the beginning of May, but the student rebellion against the invasion of Cambodia intervened. The antiwar movement and the war itself had stretched the US military thin. National guardsmen who had been protecting scab truck- drivers occupied the Kent State campuses where they shot five students protesting the war. In clear defiance of the stereotype of American workers, wildcat strikers in Los Angeles regarded student antiwar protesters as allies and invited them to join teamster picket lines. The wildcat strikes eventually wound down, but angry rank and file teamsters started the first national reform organization called Teamsters United Rank and File (TURF).

It is very important for every branch to investigate opportunities such as these and to invite comrades to look into the possibility of taking jobs in those industries where such political opportunities exist. What will not happen, however, is a general turn toward industry that many small Marxist groups made in the 1960s in an effort to purify themselves. Our work in the trade unions is not an attempt to “cleanse” the party but rather to participate in the class struggle which takes many different forms. We are quite sure that when comrades who have begun to do this kind of exciting work and report back to the branches that we will see others anxious to join in.


We simply have to stop observing this movement from the sidelines. There is a tendency on the left to judge it by the traditional middle-class organizations such as the Audubon Club. There are already signs of a radicalization among many of the younger activists who believe that capitalism is at the root of air and water pollution, etc. Since the father of the modern environmental movement is an outspoken Marxist, there is no reason why we should feel like outsiders. Our cadre have to join the various groups that are springing up everywhere and pitch in to build them, just as we built the antiwar and feminist groups. If activists have problems with the record of socialism on the environment based on the mixed record of the USSR, we have to explain that there were alternatives. We should point to initiatives in the early Soviet Union when Lenin endorsed vast nature preserves on a scale never seen in industrialized societies before. In general we have to be the best builders of a new ecosocialist movement and not succumb to the sort of sectarian sneering that characterizes other left groups who regard green activists as the enemy.


This will strike many comrades as controversial, but I want to propose that we probably were mistaken when stood apart from all the various pro-NLF committees that were doing material aid and educational work. We characterized them as ultraleft, whereas in reality those activists who decided to actually identify with the Vietnamese liberation movement were exactly the kind that we want to hook up with. In the United States today there are thousands of activists organized in committees around the country who are campaigning on a similar basis for freedom for the Portuguese colonies in Africa, against neo-colonialism in Latin America, etc. Nearly all of them are Marxist. Their goals and ours are identical. While we have had a tendency to look down our noses at them because many of the insurgencies they were supporting were not Trotskyist, we have to get over that. For us to continue to regard the revolutionary movement in a Manichean fashion where the Trotskyists are the good forces and everybody else is evil is an obstacle not only to our own growth, but the success of the revolutionary movement overall. This leads me to the next point.


One of the things I hope never to hear again in our ranks is the reference to other socialists as our “opponents”. Let’s reflect on what that kind of terminology means. It says two things, both of which are equally harmful. On one hand, it means that they are our enemies on a permanent basis. When you categorize another left group in this fashion, it eliminates the possibility that they can change. This obviously is not Marxist, since no political group–including ourselves–is immune from objective conditions. Groups can shift to the left or to the right, depending on the relationship of class forces. The SWP emerged out of a merger with other left-moving forces during the 1930s and we should be open to that possibility today.

The other thing that this reflects is that somehow the SWP is like a small business that competes for market share with other small businesses, except that we are selling revolution rather than air conditioners or aluminum siding. We have to get that idea out of our heads. We are all struggling for the same goal, which is to change American society. We only disagree on the best way to achieve that.

Unfortunately we have tended to exaggerate our differences with other small groups in such a way as to suggest we had a different product. This goes back for many years as indicated in this quote from a James P. Cannon speech to the SWP convention nearly 25 years ago. “We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.”

Comrades, we have to conduct an open and sharp struggle against this kind of attitude. The differences between the SWP and many other left groups is not that great and we have to figure out ways to work with them on a much more cooperative basis. For example, La Raza Unida Party in Texas shares many of our assumptions about the 2-party system and they are open to socialist ideas, largely through the influence of the left-wing of the party which has been increasingly friendly to the Cuban Revolution. We should think about the possibilities of co-sponsoring meetings with them around the question of Chicano Liberation and socialism. The same thing would be true of the Puerto Rican Independence movement in the United States, which shares with us a positive attitude toward the Cuban revolution. In terms of the Marxist movement per se, we have to find ways to work more closely with the activists around the Guardian newspaper. While many of them continue to have Maoist prejudices, there are others who have been friendly to our work in the antiwar movement. The idea is to open discussion and a sure way to cut discussion off is to regard them as “opponents”. Our only true opponents are in Washington, DC.

This new sense of openness to other groups on the left has organizational consequences that I will now outline.


Much of our understanding of “democratic centralism” has been shaped by James P. Cannon’s writings. Although the notion of 500 to 1500 people united ideologically around a homogenous program has a lot to recommend itself, it can only go so far in building a revolutionary party. This was Cannon’s contribution. He showed how a small band of cadre dedicated to Trotsky’s critique of Stalin could emerge as a serious force on the American left.

Although this will sound like heresy to most of you, I want to propose that Cannon’s writings are a roadblock to further growth, especially in a period when Stalinism is not a hegemonic force. In reality, Lenin’s goal was to unite Russian Marxism, which existed in scattered circles. Our goal should be identical. Despite our commitment to Trotsky’s theories, we are not interested in constructing a mass Trotskyist movement. That would be self-defeating. Many people who are committed to Marxism are not necessarily committed to Trotsky’s analysis of the Spanish Civil War, WWII, etc. We should take the same attitude that Lenin took toward the Russian left at the turn of the century. We should serve as a catalyst for uniting Marxists on a national basis.

Are we afraid to function in a common organization with Castroists, partisans of the Chinese Revolution, independent Marxists of one sort or another? Not at all. We should not put a barrier in the way of unity with the tens of thousands of Marxists in the United States, many who hold leading positions in the trade union and other mass movements. The only unity that interests us is the broad unity of the working people and their allies around class struggle principles. Our disagreements over historical and international questions can be worked out in a leisurely fashion in the party press. In fact we would encourage public debates over how to interpret such questions in our press, since they can make us even more attractive to people investigating which group to join. It is natural that you would want to join a group with a lively internal life.

This question of ‘democratic centralism’ has to be thoroughly reviewed. Although the Militant will be running a series of articles on “Lenin in Context” this year, which explores the ways in which this term was understood by the Bolsheviks and then transformed by his epigones, we can state with some assuredness right now that it was intended to govern the actions of party members and not their thoughts. The Bolshevik Party, once it voted on a strike, demonstration, etc., expected party members to function under the discipline of the party to build such actions. It never intended to discipline party members to defend the same political analysis in public. We know, for example, that there are different interpretations of Vietnamese Communism in our party. We should not expect party members to keep their views secret if they are in the minority. This is not only unnatural–it leads to cult thinking.


As many of these proposals seem radically different from the principles we’ve operated on in the past, I want to make sure that all disagreements–especially from older cadre who worked side by side with James P. Cannon–are given proper consideration. The last thing we want is to railroad the party into accepting this new orientation. Since a revolution can only be made by the conscious intervention of the exploited and oppressed masses into the historical process, its party must encourage the greatest expression of conscious political decision-making. There are no shortcuts to a revolution. And there are no shortcuts to building a revolutionary party.

March 21, 2009

Brute Force

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:19 pm

This morning I happened across “Brute Force” on the Turner Classic Movie channel. This is a 1947 Jules Dassin film noir about a prison break from Alcatraz that fortunately is available from Netflix.

As was the case with a number of such films, the movie had heavy CP/leftist participation and reflected a mood of disillusionment over the failure of WWII to bring genuine peace. The Cold War was just beginning and reds in the movie industry were apprehensive about the future. As also was the case with a number of other noirs, the main characters are WWII veterans who find themselves behind bars in a reflection of American society’s failure to absorb them after the imperialist bloodletting.

The movie is not first-rate Dassin, the director of masterpieces like “Rififi” and “Never on Sunday”, but it is entertaining enough. Oliver Stone says that the prison break scene from “Natural Born Killers” was influenced by “Brute Force”. That prison break itself was influenced by an actual escape attempted the year before. Unlike other prison break movies, the prisoners are not idealized at all. Joe Collins, the ringleader played by Burt Lancaster, organizes a rubout of a snitch that is quite brutal for the period. The man is thrown into a stamping machine in the prison workshop.

Dassin was of course a Communist who fled Hollywood in the 1950s and began an illustrious career in Europe. The screenplay was written by Richard Brooks, who was born Ruben Sax to Russian Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia. The wiki on Brooks reports:

His second published novel was Splinters in 1941, but his 1945 novel, The Brick Foxhole, proved a larger success – it is the story of a group of Marines who pick up and then murder a homosexual man, and the novel is a stinging indictment of intolerance. The book was made into a movie in 1947 as Crossfire, though the intolerance was switched from homophobia to anti-Semitism to please studio executives and 1940s audiences (Brooks received credit for the book on which the movie is based, but was contractually barred from actually working on the screenplay).

In the 1940s he wrote the screenplays for the critically acclaimed Key Largo and Brute Force, both suspenseful examples of film noir. He also co-wrote Storm Warning, an anti-Klan melodrama with film-noir overtones, in conjunction with Daniel Fuchs. In 1950 he directed his film Crisis, which gave a much darker role to the actor Cary Grant than he had previously attempted. He won his only Oscar in 1960 for his screenplay for Elmer Gantry, although he was nominated for the films Blackboard Jungle (1955), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), The Professionals (1966), and In Cold Blood (1967).

Cast in the role of the prison warden is Roman Bohnen who co-founded the left-oriented  Actors Laboratory Theater. He was blacklisted before his death in 1949 and his name came up in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Jeff Corey, who played the prisoner Stack, was summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951. He refused to name names and ridiculed his interrogators by offering critiques of the testimony of the previous witnesses, which led to his being blacklisted for twelve years.

During his blacklisting, Corey drew upon his experience in various actors’ workshops (including Bohnen’s Actors Laboratory Theater, which he helped to establish) and began to teach acting. His students included: Robert Blake, Richard Chamberlain, James Dean, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Michael Forest, James Hong, Penny Marshall, Rita Moreno, Jack Nicholson, Leonard Nimoy, Anthony Perkins, Rob Reiner, Barbra Streisand and Robin Williams.

The movie is somewhat dated and fairly riddled with clichés, but it a fascinating insight into what the Hollywood left was about in 1947, just a few years before it was shut down completely.

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