Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 30, 2009

Barack Hoover Obama

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 6:20 pm

Very early on in Obama’s administration, you heard many of his supporters on the left begin to call for pressure from the mass movement in order for him to promote progressive legislation. Analogies were made with FDR, who was elected on a fairly centrist platform. Without protests from the unemployed et al, the assumption is that FDR would have continued on his centrist course, just as Obama is doing today. For example, in article titled “Obama needs the left”, the social democratic historian Michael Kazin wrote: “For the president to have a chance at becoming another FDR, he needs a big push from the left—or the conservative assumptions that have kept the nation in thrall for the past three decades will continue to hold sway,” while Nation Magazine editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel answered that “I think history shows us that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was compelled to abandon caution because of the great traumas of his day — the Great Depression gave him little choice but to be bold. And it was the great popular social movement of his time, working outside his administration, the unions at that time, that put pressure on FDR to carry out bolder reforms” when asked about the parallels between Obama and FDR.

This assumes that Obama is as susceptible to mass pressure as FDR. What if Obama was not a latter-day FDR but a repackaged Herbert Hoover, however? Would Hoover have pushed through Social Security legislation if he had been President? Maybe if the pressure was sufficient to do so, but clearly Hoover was more hostile to the poor and to the working class than the aristocratic FDR whose combination of noblesse oblige and long-term strategic thinking on behalf of the class he served made him more amenable to change.

It seems that liberal opinion is beginning to turn against the FDR=Obama construct and toward a son of Herbert Hoover analysis. In the latest Nation Magazine, you can read an article by William Greider titled “In the Shadow of Hoover”, which includes the following:

While he was in China, Barack Obama made a bizarre declaration that the US government must reduce its budget deficits in order to avoid “a double-dip recession.” The remark was alarming because it suggests the president may not fully understand the country’s economic predicament. Deficit spending is a cure for our troubles, not the cause. If Obama follows through and actually reduces the red ink, the Great Recession could be born again with new fury.

In an interview with Fox News, the president said: “It is important to recognize if we keep on adding to the deficit, even in the midst of this recovery, that at some point people could lose confidence in the US economy in a double-dip recession.” Maybe he didn’t mean it. Or was merely nodding to Chinese leaders, our leading creditor, who had scolded him for profligate spending.

Still, his backward logic gave me a chill. If Obama acts on it, he will be walking in the footsteps of Herbert Hoover, not Franklin Roosevelt, and I fear his presidency could be doomed as a result. I know that sounds too strong and brutally unfair, given the president’s energetic vision for the country and his early efforts to stimulate economic recovery. But history is often unfair to leaders who do not get their priorities straight and fail to deliver what they promise.

Despite pointing out repeatedly how much Obama is like Hoover in this article, Greider still holds out hope that Obama can rise to the occasion:

This is an opening for Obama to announce a major “course correction.” If he states the gravity of the situation honestly, people will not be angered by his truth-telling. They already see things are worse than officials acknowledge. If Obama opts instead for half-way measures–too little too late–then he will fall squarely under Hoover’s shadow.

Unlike Greider, Kevin Baker holds out no illusions as should be obvious from the title of the article “Barack Hoover Obama: The best and the brightest blow it again” that appeared in the July 2009 Harpers Magazine.

Like Herbert Hoover, Obama grew up as an outsider and overcame formidable odds—hence his constant promotion of personal responsibility and education. He came of age in a time when hardworking young men and women like him went to Wall Street or to Silicon Valley, and—once properly “incentivized” by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton—seemed to save the national economy, creating what appeared to be great general prosperity while doing well themselves. There’s no need to do battle with these strivers and achievers, individuals as accomplished in their fields as Obama is in his. All that’s required is to get them back on their feet, get the money running again, and maybe give them a few new rules to live by, a new set of incentives to get them back on track.

Just as Herbert Hoover came to internalize the “business progressivism” of his era as a welcome alternative to the futile, counterproductive conflicts of an earlier time, so has Obama internalized what might be called Clinton’s “business liberalism” as an alternative to useless battles from another time—battles that liberals, in any case, tended to lose.

Stepping back a bit from the historical analogies with FDR, Hoover, or even Lincoln with his “team of rivals”, the more interesting question is how shortsighted the U.S. ruling class is today. Since the working class and its allies are in such a weakened state as compared to the early 1930s when the U.S. still retained an industrial base, the only players on the stage are billionaires who run both political parties.

Some are agonizing about the future of the system, most notably financier George Soros who has styled himself as something of a seer/protector for the capitalist system, especially when it comes to challenging its myopic tendencies for short-term gain. Long before the current crisis, Soros wrote about the “capitalist threat” in the February 1997 Atlantic Monthly:

In The Philosophy of History, Hegel discerned a disturbing historical pattern — the crack and fall of civilizations owing to a morbid intensification of their own first principles. Although I have made a fortune in the financial markets, I now fear that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open and democratic society. The main enemy of the open society, I believe, is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat.

While it would be a mistake to approach this question in schematic base/superstructure terms, I would suggest that the failure of the ruling class to pay heed to Soros, Paul Krugman, and most of the hosts of MSNBC news shows is a function of the sea change in American society which has left the industrial base as a pile of rubble. If you’ve seen that passage in Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: a love story” with his father showing the director the flattened remains of his old workplace in Flint, Michigan, you’ll understand why a new FDR cannot emerge.

FDR was the ultimate “Fordist” president who viewed the auto, steel and rubber plants as mutually reinforcing bedrock components of the capitalist system. In order to get the economy moving again, it was necessary to enact social legislation that put money into the pockets of workers so that they could become customers of automobiles and other manufactured goods. It was also necessary to give grudging support for industrial unions that could provide the muscle to extract a living wage from the boss, including Henry Ford himself whose social doctrines were so much in line with FDR’s New Deal.

About 12.7 million U.S. workers, or 8 percent of the labor force, still held manufacturing jobs at the beginning of 2009. Fifty years ago, 14.6 million people, or 28 percent of all U.S. workers, were employed in factories. Given the trajectory of the auto industry, those figures can only continue to decline.

When workers are not concentrated in huge factories, but are dispersed in the primarily non-union service sector, they cannot exercise the leverage necessary to put the ruling class on the defensive. When Citibank, for example, sheds thousands of jobs—courtesy of Barack Obama’s chief financial adviser Robert Ruben who led to the bank’s collapse—there is barely a whimper as workers seek personal solutions to their plight.

The left has a tendency to lag one step behind history when it is in the midst of a financial crisis or some other cataclysmic event. By analogizing with FDR’s New Deal, we fail to account for the material forces that make such an outcome so unlikely.

While it is very difficult to predict what forms struggle will take in the future, we will be in a poor position to lead them if we do not understand class relationships as they exist rather than as as ghosts of crises past.

November 28, 2009

Big Sid’s Vincati

Filed under: Jewish question,literature,motorcycles — louisproyect @ 8:24 pm

Not long after I blogged about poet Frederick Seidel’s motorcycle memoir from Harper’s Magazine, an even more interesting denizen of this subculture showed up as a commenter. Matthew Biberman, a U. of Louisville literature professor, informed unrepentant Marxist readers about a memoir titled “Vincati”  that describes the project he carried out with his ailing father Sid to create a hybrid motorcycle based on a Ducati frame and a Vincent engine.

Even if you have never owned or driven a motorcycle, I strongly recommend this memoir that I finished recently as a sensitive study of father-son relations. It is interesting that Biberman tells us early on in the memoir that he had hopes at one point of becoming a novelist. This beautiful memoir is additional confirmation, as if any was needed, that the most interesting literature today uses this medium, just as the best films are documentaries rather than fiction. It would seem that true life, as long as it is described mercilessly but with compassion, is far more compelling than the best novel.

I had a particular affinity for this memoir as a one-time motorcycle owner, even if it was an underpowered Jawa motorcycle—more of a scooter than a real bike. I was green with envy as Matthew described his father giving him the present of a Matchless Motorcycle when he was just a teenager. Of course, that might be expected given Sid Biberman’s long-time involvement with motorcycles, both as a rider and as a motorcycle shop owner and master mechanic. When I bought my Jawa in 1965, my father only worried whether I would get killed or maimed in a highway accident, thus sacrificing the small fortune he had invested in my education. This was despite the fact that he rode a motorcycle himself during his years in the army.

Jack Proyect

Sid Biberman can best be described as a “tough Jew“, a type of anomalous character described by Rich Cohen in “Tough Jews : Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams”. Despite having a father who was a butcher, closer in sociological terms to my fruit store owning dad, Sid Biberman became seduced by motorcycles at an early age and was drawn into a subculture we associate with tattooed “goyim”, or gentiles. Ironically, “Big Sid”, who could lift a motorcycle with his beefy arms when he was young, could pass for one of these characters but without the tattoos of course. As you probably know, a tattoo will keep you out of a Jewish cemetery.

One imagines that a very interesting panel discussion might be held with Rich Cohen and Matthew Biberman on Jewish identities, given Matthew’s other book titled Masculinity, Anti-semitism and Early Modern English Literature: From the Satanic to the Effeminate Jew, which one amazon.com review described as follows:

This is a remarkable book that tells a sad, tragic, and horrifying story. It tells that story powerfully, and deserves to be read, especially in the current post-9/11 cultural climate. Indeed, it is perhaps the most brilliant, original, challenging, and provocative book on the history of anti-Semitism to be published in many years. Biberman argues that a convergence of femininity and Judaism, anti-Semitism and anti-feminism emerged in the Renaissance and that the subsequent reification of this convergence in the nineteenth century developed into a kind of truth about Jewish Masculinity and the Jewish Male as effeminate.

Early on, Sid became an owner of a Vincent Rapide motorcycle. The Vincent motorcycles were made in Britain and at the top of the line were the Black Lightning and Black Shadow bikes. British folk-rocker Richard Thompson paid homage to the Vincents in a great song titled “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”;

Said Red Molly to James that’s a fine motorbike
A girl could feel special on any such like
Said James to Red Molly, well my hat’s off to you
It’s a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952
And I’ve seen you at the corners and cafes it seems
Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme
And he pulled her on behind
And down to Box Hill they did ride

Like just about every British motorcycle company, Vincent eventually went bankrupt. Today the few thousands of functioning Vincents are owned by passionate enthusiasts who rely on men like Sid Biberman, who know them from the inside out, to repair or improve them.

Vincent Black Lightning

Improvement hardly would describe a project to put a Vincent V-twin engine into a Ducati frame.  If you’ve read the Seidel memoir, you’ll know that the poet had the same kind of love for the sleek Italian machine that Sid Biberman had for the British bikes. As a still thriving manufacturer today, the Ducatis set the standard for beauty, handling and speed.  In 1998, the Guggenheim Museum in New York had a motorcycle show, with a Ducati 999 and other Ducatis drawing the most admiring gazes.

Putting a Vincent engine into a Ducati frame would prove daunting for any skilled mechanic, but when the Vincent engine was decades old, there would be additional complications. Once the two men went forward with their task, they had to contend with old engines that were in a state of disrepair.

In some ways, those engines were a metaphor for Sid Biberman himself who was stricken by a heart attack in the early pages of the memoir. In a state of depression in  a hospital bed, he wondered whether he would survive and—more ominously—whether life in such a weakened state would be worth living. He suffered from shoulder and knee ailments as well, making the mobility necessary to work on a motorcycle questionable. But when Matthew proposed doing a Vincati, Sid perked up and found a new lease on life.

In some ways, Sid’s courageous efforts to stay alive in order to bring this project to fruition will remind you of another inspiring tale of old age and motorcycles. I am referring to Bert Munro, an elderly man from New Zealand with heart and prostate troubles, among other ailments, who broke the land speed record with a highly modified Indian motorcycle, a classic V-twin like the Vincent. Munro’s feats are dramatized in the movie “The World’s Fastest Indian”, starring Anthony Hopkins as Munro, that I reviewed here.

The two eventually completed their project, which is described on http://www.bigsid.com/. I also recommend a video from Jay Leno’s website, where the talk show host, who owns a fleet of antique cars and motorcycles, discusses the Vincati with father and son.

In the conversation with Leno, the Biberman’s openly discuss the friction they experienced as father and son, which involves nearly universal issues (disapproval, remoteness, etc.). Unfortunately, my father died when he was in his fifties long before I had the opportunity to build emotional bridges with him of the kind that Matthew described in this touching memoir.

Finally, it must be acknowledged that the subtlety and insights found in “Vincati” are very likely attributable to a writer who has a background quite a bit different from the average motorcycle tuner and mechanic. Not only is Matthew Biberman a master of a legendary British motorcycle, he is also a master of British literature earning a PhD at Duke under the supervision of Frederick Jameson, a Marxist literary theorist of some renown. Indeed, Matthew Biberman’s bio at http://www.redroom.com/author/matthew-biberman/bio mentions that his favorite works of theory are: Jameson’s Political Unconscious, Lacan’s Ecrits, Stanley Fish’s essays, all Freud, Marx’s Grundrisse, Barthes, Foucault, Zizek, Zupancic.

That’s a hell of a reading list for a Vincent jockey!

November 27, 2009

Michael Berube’s war on the left

Filed under: antiwar,cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

Michael Berube

Skimming through Michael Berube’s newly published Eustonesque manifesto “The Left at War“, I stumbled across a reference to yours truly in chapter one. The good professor grouped me with 9/11 truthers and Bob Avakian, as people not worth his while to attack. The book, you see, was going after bigger game, like Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman and other enemies of humane, liberal values. It appears that I didn’t rate, because I was just an Internet phenomenon:

Likewise, if I wanted to engage with the divagations [a fancy word for ramblings] of the radical left online, I would include figures like Louis Proyect, a Columbia University computer programmer whose name is well known to far-left listservs and blogs, and who is capable of writing things like, “To the credit of the late Slobodan Milosevic and to Saddam Hussein, who now is on trial for his life in another kangaroo court, they never bowed down. In life and in death, these imperfect men will always remind us of the need to resist the injustice perpetrated by states acting out of perfect evil. “

The words were my conclusion to an article in Swans titled The Demonization And Death Of Slobodan Milosevic that I certainly stand by.  In keeping with this put-down and subsequent railings against Chomsky, Edward Herman and Diana Johnstone, you will not find any substance to Berube’s complaint, which usually takes the form of a sputtering “how dare they!” Since so much of the book is a diatribe against positions the left took on Yugoslavia, one would hope that the good professor might have taken the trouble to explain how critics of NATO’s war were wrong either on the facts or logic. But such matters do not interest him. He is much more at home in the ethereal realm of morality and global governance pirouetting with the angels.

I once posed the question to Berube on his blog as to what scholarly literature he had read on Yugoslavia. It drew a blank. His main interest is not in history, economics, or anything remotely related to a class analysis. He is a cultural studies professor by trade and heavily invested in theory, not the mundane world of facts and data. So much so that the book is largely devoted to praising Stuart Hall as the answer to all the wicked leftists who disagree with him on Yugoslavia. Yes, I know the connection is tenuous at best but I will do my best to explain how the good professor thinks, an onerous task I must admit.

I am not sure when I first stumbled across Berube’s writings, but my first response to him was in an article titled “Noam Chomsky and his Critics“, written on August 15, 2002. It was at a time when Chomsky was a lightning rod for the Eric Altermans and Christopher Hitchens of the world. They were outraged that he was not ready to jump on George W. Bush’s bandwagon, having the temerity to characterize American foreign policy as criminally brutal. In those days, people like Todd Gitlin were writing articles about the need to fly the American flag so you can imagine how angry he made the cruise missile left.

This is how I summed up Berube in that article:

For some on the postmodernist left, Chomsky has also become objectionable. Michael Berube, a commentator on the arts and society, feels that “the Chomskian left has consigned itself to the dustbin of history.” In accounting for the split between the “Chomskian left” and “the Hitchens left,” Berube surmises that “the simple fact that bombs were dropping” might have something to do with it. He writes:

For U.S. leftists schooled in the lessons of Cambodia, Libya, and the School of the Americas, all U.S. bombing actions are suspect: they are announced by cadaverous white guys with bad hair, they are covered by seven cable channels competing with one another for the catchiest “New War” slogan and Emmy awards for creative flag display, and they invariably kill civilians, the poor, the wretched, the disabled. Surely, there is much to hate about any bombing campaign.

Dispensing with the relativism and playful irony that characterizes the postmodernist left, Berube reminds his readers that war is a serious business:

Yet who would deny that a nation, once attacked, has the right to respond with military force, and who seriously believes that anyone could undertake any “nation-building” enterprise in Afghanistan without driving the Taliban from power first?

While most of Berube’s book is a sustained if rather flaccid attack on what he calls the “Manichean left”, he does try to distinguish himself from Hitchens, George Packer, Kenan Makiya, Paul Berman and other supporters of the war in Iraq. Berube is aggravated that they couldn’t figure out the difference between Serbia and Afghanistan on one hand and Iraq on the other. It was okay, if not essential, to bomb the former countries into submission while only using economic sanctions and flyovers against the latter.

You can read chapter 3 of Berube’s book, titled “Iraq: the Hard Road to Debacle”, in its entirety on Scribd.com.  It is replete with Berube’s trademark casuistry. He supported the war in Afghanistan but only if it was restricted to an assault on the al-Qaeda’s base in Tora Bora but not if would become what it actually became, an 8-year humanitarian disaster for the Afghan people. By analogy, he describes WWII as a good war, even if it involved bad decisions such as the bombing of Dresden. He wants to distinguish himself from the Pentagon generals even if they are the only conceivable agency to rid the world of evils such as al-Qaeda and Slobodan Milosevic. Perhaps the world would be better off if the military was run by cultural studies professors like Berube, but then again his role is not to actually kill people but to dream up sophisticated rationales for such acts.

In the section of chapter 3 titled “The Balkanized Left”, Berube cites Ian Williams in favor of NATO intervention without showing the slightest evidence that he has considered arguments and facts to the contrary. For example, Williams asserts that the U.S. was “dragged unwillingly” into the war by Europeans.

David Gibbs, the author of “First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia” sees things differently:

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.

Now this is the only way to develop an analysis of Yugoslavia, namely through a painstaking examination of scholarly material. Gibbs, a political science professor at the U. of Arizona, has a bibliography that includes hundreds of articles and dozens of books. This is how serious policy analysts do their work. Berube, a flyweight when it comes to Balkans scholarship, is content to cite Williams, a journalist whose last book was on rum.

After favoring his reader with heavy doses of Ian Williams, Berube follows up with additional swatches lifted from a hostile review of Chomsky’s “The New Military Humanism” by Adrian Hastings, a Catholic theologian and long-time advocate of war on the dastardly Serbs.

One imagines that if Berube was charged with the assignment to write his own critique of Chomsky, Herman or Diana Johnstone without relying on such massive quote-mongering, his poor head might explode.

After he has exhausted all the quotes on Yugoslavia he can muster, Berube turns his attention to Iraq, a war that he opposed but with far less fervor than his opposition to the movement that emerged against it. He spends 12 pages in chapter 3 fulminating against the Workers World Party and the ANSWER coalition in a section titled “Dirty Fucking Hippies”. His prose takes on an almost hallucinatory quality as he pulls out all the stops: “ultraleftist thugs”, “neo-Stalinist sectarian group”, “support of Kim Jong-Il” and all the rest of the epithets that you might have read in the Washington Post or other newspapers catering to the anti-Communist prejudices of its inside-the-beltway readers.

Berube is spitting mad that the ANSWER coalition made so much headway, at least in the early days, when everybody knows that his own ideas and that of other liberal professors like Michael Walzer and Todd Gitlin are just so much smarter. You’ll never find someone like Michael Berube finding a kind word to say about North Korea, to be sure.

But you will never find someone like Michael Berube actually doing the dirty work that is required to get tens or hundreds of thousands of people to demonstrate in Washington. In a way, he reminds me of a virgin writing a sex advice column. He has all sorts of ideas what a good position might be, but has never gotten around to actually trying it out.

He would not have time in his busy schedule to roll up his sleeves and organize like-minded people to build a coalition conforming to his own ideals. If you read his blog, you will learn that when he is not writing articles on cultural theory or redbaiting the left, he is playing hockey or the drums. In other words, he is not actually sufficiently motivated to put his crappy politics into action, the way that a serious political person might. Fundamentally, we are dealing with a dilettante who enjoys shitting on people whose views he disagrees with. Like Walter Mitty, he must have fantasies about leading people into a more just world but like most liberal intellectuals he does not bother since the Democratic Party does all the work that is necessary to rout the Taliban and al-Qaeda. After all, the Obama administration that Berube genuflects to has all the guns and money it needs to kill Afghans. Why would they require any kind of volunteer activism from a college professor who has better things to do with his spare time?

November 26, 2009

2009 Movies wrap-up, part one

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:04 pm

This is the time of year that I am deluged with DVD screeners from the public relations departments of major Hollywood studios that are being pushed for awards from both the big muck-a-mucks at the Oscars and from more down-to-earth groups like my own New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO). Warnings appear at the beginning of each screener about the dire consequences of copyright violation, including a stiff prison sentence. After watching something like “Where the Wild Things Are”, my reaction is to file a report with the Hollywood police department urging the arrest of Spike Jonze for impersonating a film director.

Here is my take on the first batch of films—mostly slop–that made its way into my mailbox:

1. Big Fan

This was written and directed by Robert Siegel, who wrote the screenplay for “The Wrestler”, a stinker of a movie that I could not bear to watch for more than 15 minutes after I received it about this time last year as an awards screener.

The main character is a 36 year old Italian-American parking garage attendant who lives with his mother in Staten Island and who is in a state of arrested development. He is an obsessed fan of the NY Giants football team and lives for the moment when he calls into the local sports talk radio station as “Paul from Staten Island” to praise the Giants and badmouth the rival Philadelphia Eagles.

As somebody who listens to a lot of sports talk radio in NY (but never calls in!), I had hopes that this movie might be special, despite Siegel’s connection to “The Wrestler”. Sports talk radio, I should add, has one other leftist fan as Brian Siano reports:

Chronicles of Dissent reveals Chomsky as a considerate, engaging lecturer who can nimbly untangle skeins of propaganda with simple common sense. Barsamian also provides a clearer sense of the man’s egalitarianism. Chomsky has deep respect for the capabilities of “ordinary people”-a group we’re encouraged to see as a mindless herd. Discussing his habit of listening to sports talk radio, Chomsky says:

What’s very striking is that the people who call in not only seem to know an awful lot, and judging by the reaction of the experts on the radio, they seem to talk like equals, but also they are perfectly free to give advice …. The people who are running the talk show [and] the experts that they have interact with the callers at a reasonable intellectual level.

Siegel’s problem is that he is not content to tell a simple story of his main character, which could have gotten a treatment akin to Paddy Chayevsky’s Marty. Instead, he decided to turn the movie into something like Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” with Paul from Staten Island becoming a dark comic version of Travis Bickle. This involves unlikely plot elements meant to serve the portrait of a man out of control.

Sometimes less is better, but of course Hollywood—including its independent variants such as this—cannot understand this.

2. The Messenger

Like “The Hurt Locker”, this is one of those movies about the Iraq war that is set up as a psychological inkblot test. Liberals might find it confirmation that war is hell while conservatives might welcome it as a “support our troops” statement. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind the fence-straddling stratagem if they were well written and well directed.

Going from “The Hurt Locker”, which I received as an awards screener last year, to “The Messenger” is just another indication that Hollywood continues its decline. This movie about a couple of soldiers on assignment to tell the next of kin that their son or daughter had died in Iraq is cut from the Clint Eastwood/Paul Haggis School of Advanced Histrionics.

Every scene is calculated to evoke pathos of the sort associated with silent movies, with clichés hardly more acceptable than a damsel in distress tied to the railroad tracks. Most of the movie consists of lead actors Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster standing in living rooms or front yards while the next of kin either curses them out or cries inconsolably. When they are not on duty, they sit around getting drunk and trading war stories.

The movie was written and directed by Oren Moverman, an Israeli émigré who co-wrote the silly postmodernist Bob Dylan biopic “I’m not there”.  Here’s his take on what he was up to:

Casualties of war have no politics, left or right – and that’s how Moverman felt about the soldiers delivering the messages of death.

“This film doesn’t have politics or an agenda, in terms of being pro-war or anti-war,” says Moverman, who served in the Israeli military before emigrating to the U.S. to break into the movie business. “People who look at it as a political statement don’t understand. These days, being in the army is a professional job. For a lot of people, there’s no other choice. A lot join patriotically because they’re moved by certain events. In this country, the world ‘political’ gets so confusing. The military is a little more sophisticated than that.”

I suppose in one sense it is a professional job, just like it was for the characters in “Goodfellas”. At least in Scorsese’s masterpiece, we understood that we are dealing with cold-blooded killers.

3. Passing Strange

This is a very competent filming of an off-Broadway musical by Spike Lee. It stars “Stew”, an African-American rock musician who despite growing up in a Black ghetto in Los Angeles decided that he wanted to be a rock musician—a kind of latter-day Jimi Hendrix. His narration includes pointed observations about Black identity, politics, and sex. Highly recommended. Here’s a snippet from “The Black One”, one of the songs performed in “Passing Strange”:

Stew: Who lends the club that speakeasy air?
The Black One! The Black One!
Who dances like a God and has “vunderbarr” hair?
The Schvartza!
Now he’s the life of every soiree – he’ll give the bum’s rush ennui –
turn up these light cause I barely can see…The Black One!

Is he the post modern lawn jockey sculpture?

4. Summer Hours

This is a highly refined (what else would you expect?) French movie about what happens with a country estate filled with priceless paintings, furniture and knick-knacks after its sole resident, a 75-year-old widower, dies. Her 3 children have some disagreements, but none too bitter, about their disposal. Most of the movie consists of appraisers assigning prices to the valuables or the children sharing fond memories or regrets about time spent there. It has all the emotional power of an Antiques Roadshow episode.

5. (500) Days of Summer

This is something of an “anti-date” movie with a male and female lead involved in an unpleasant affair in which the free-spirited woman refuses to make a commitment. In other words, the direct opposite of most Hollywood movies in which the male has that role.

Nothing much happens in the movie except the two lead characters discussing what they mean to each other like in vintage Woody Allen movies, but without the sharp comic dialog. My guess is that the movie would appeal to young, educated, affluent, white men and women since the characters so clearly belong to their world. In some ways, the movie has all the narrow focus of mumblecore movies, with their tendency to cater to the narcissism of white youth, but with much more elegant and expensive production values.

The movie’s highly touted “hipness” is based on references sprinkled throughout the film to Henry Miller, Ingmar Bergman movies, and other items that would bring a knowing smile to the face of a Columbia University undergraduate.

6. Where the Wild Things Are

An overstuffed piece of junk based on the Maurice Sendak children’s book about an unruly child who is magically transported to a realm of huge ogres who make him king. His time in the realm lasts exactly 3 pages and consists mainly of the boy dancing around with the beasts sans words.

From this slender premise, writer-director Spike Jonze has built a baroque edifice with all sorts of psychologizing about why the creatures quarrel with each other and the boy. They are depicted as neurotic teenagers and deliver speeches more appropriate for 1950s existential theater.

One wonders what would have drawn Jonze to this project since the last movie “Synedoche” he was involved with as producer was a grim meditation on the inexorable process of aging and death set in an apocalyptic tableau. It is rather like seeing “Peter Pan” rewritten by William S. Burroughs Jr.

7. The Blind Side

This is the sorriest mess in the batch. It is based on real events—the adoption of a virtually homeless Black teenager by wealthy whites in Tennessee who help him become a good student and standout football player who eventually lands a lucrative NFL contract. It has the same kind of sensationalist pandering to prurient white tastes as “Precious” but arguably with a much more upbeat conclusion.

It is marred by melodramatic touches that I doubt ever took place in real life, such as the young man being tutored in basic football techniques by the couple’s very young white son. It is as embarrassing as a Tarzan movie.

Now Hollywood had some very interesting material to deal with in terms of race, class and athletics if it had stuck more or less to the material contained in Michael Lewis’s “Blind Side”, a book about professional football that is partially about Oher’s life. If it had not incorporated lurid fictional elements and had simply conveyed what was in the book, it might have made for a gripping movie. Lewis, a very gifted journalist who started writing initially about Wall Street, covers sports mostly nowadays but in the same kind of depth he used in writing about Salomon Brothers.

You can get a feel for his understanding of the characters from this excerpt from his book at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/24/magazine/24football.html. Generally speaking, critics have ripped the movie for all the right reasons. I especially appreciated NYFCO colleague Prairie Miller’s review.

Following on the heels of Precious, and the rescue mission by indignant welfare and educational authorities of that young eating disorder sex abuse victim whose multiple lifelong predicaments apparently went unnoticed until filmmaker Lee Daniels’ camera started rolling, is The Blind Side. Though subbing this time around for Mariah Carey’s vigilante welfare worker, is Sandra Bullock as a frantic southern belle socialite bent on saving a troubled obese teen from his own community of nothing but assorted crooks and crackheads…

When Leigh Anne packs Mike off to freshman year at his primarily white college, she warns him in the presence of her grade school son and when noticing that he’s ogling the coeds, that if he gets any girl pregnant there, ‘I’m going to cut off your penis.’ Considering the horrific history of black male castration for trumped up sexual and other offenses over there on Deep South turf, it’s more than a little like say, telling a Jewish foster kid in your care, that if you’re a bad boy, I’m throwing you into the oven. Blind Side, indeed.

* * * *

In my next installment, I will review “Star Trek”, “The Young Victoria”, “Bright Star”, “The Men Who Stare at Goats”, “The White Ribbon” and “An Education”. Hopefully, I will be able to make it through that batch without hurling myself through my 13th floor window.

2009 New York African Diaspora Film Festival

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 5:29 pm

This is a brief announcement from the organizers of the New York African Diaspora Film Festival (NYADFF) that will be followed by my own recommendations on attending.

From the 27th of November to December 15th, the 17th edition of the New York African Diaspora Film Festival will be showcasing 101 films from 46 countries in 6 NYC venues.  Special events, Q&A with filmmakers and panel discussions are also programmed.  Amazing Quality and Diversity. Visit www.nyadff.org for schedules, venues, tickets and more information.

Among the festivals I have attended in New York over the past decade or so, this is without a doubt the most important from the social and political perspective, not to speak of the consistently excellent quality of the movies. Using just a tiny fraction of the funding that goes into the typical Hollywood blockbuster, NYADFF films deliver much more bang for the dollar.

Two of the more notable films I have seen from this venue are “Otomo“,  a searing tale about a Cameroonian immigrant’s conflict with the cops in Germany, and “A Night in Morocco: Where are you going Moshe?”, a movie that challenges the official story that Sephardic Jews were happy to emigrate to Israel. Not only were these films of tremendous relevance to the troubled world we are living in, but were terrific film-making.

Go to http://www.nyadff.org/ to see the schedule of all the outstanding movies lined up for 2009.

November 21, 2009

Putting the “Russian questions” on the back burner

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 6:31 pm

I have mixed feelings about commenting on the most recent spasm of Stalinophilia on the British-based Socialist Unity blog from Andy Newman since there is so little interest on the left along these lines. But since some young people who read this blog might have trouble understanding why there is nostalgia in some circles on the left for the individual who did more than any other to discredit socialism, I suppose it is worth discussing—like a psychiatrist might discuss some unusual symptom, such as a belief that sticking your arms with hatpins will ward off evil demons, etc.

In some sense there is a precedent for this. After all, the Fabians had a mad crush on Stalin even though their own politics were akin to Newman’s Labour Party gradualism. The Webbs were foremost among this current in the 1930s. But unlike the official CP, they took another angle. As CLR James pointed out in an appendix to “World Revolution 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International“, “The Webbs end with an argument that the Stalinists do not use, for obvious reasons. They say that the world revolution was a proved failure, and therefore it was the only thing left to do, this building of Stalin’s Socialism.”

I would call your attention to an article on Socialist Unity titled “The Heritage of Trotskyism – May the Fourth be with You” that relies heavily on Sovietologist J. Arch Getty for its analysis. A word or two about Getty might be useful. He is one of a group of “revisionist” scholars who have emerged over the past several decades who attempt to make Stalin more acceptable. His goal is to debunk many of the claims of people like Robert Conquest who have a vested ideological interest in maximizing the number of victims of the 1930s terror campaign. Getty, whose politics appear to be conventionally liberal, is to be commended for searching for the truth but as a political guide, he is utterly useless.

For in order to understand the rise of Stalin, you have to be a Marxist. Neither Getty nor Conquest is equipped to understand Stalin as an expression of a social layer that would benefit from a police state. Ironically, despite his eagerness to debunk Conquest’s inflated numbers, Getty agrees with him that the Stalinist regime was an organic outgrowth of Bolshevism itself, a belief that Newman shares:

The ideological homogeneity and discipline that had informed the sub-culture of the Bolsheviks in opposition became an elite belief system and expectation of behaviour that bound together the party in power. What is more, party members were the only part of society immune to GPU (state security police) supervision until 1927, providing a demarcation in society between a political strata empowered to discuss alternative politics, and the broader population where any manifestations of opposition were anathematised as expressions of “white counter-revolution”.

This paragraph encapsulates perfectly the mindset of Cold War Sovietology. It has, I should add, supporters on the left besides Newman. Sam Farber, a frequent contributor to the theoretical magazine of the ISO, the British SWP’s erstwhile comrades, wrote a book titled “Before Stalinism: Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy” that also tried to connect non-existent dotted lines between Lenin and Stalin. John Rees answered him in a book titled “In Defense of October” that I heartily recommend. Of course, the state capitalist comrades somehow have never bothered to explain how Farber’s methodology can fail him so badly when it comes to the USSR but succeeds with flying colors when it comes to Cuba. That is their contradiction, not mine. Fortunately.

Speaking of contradictions, one must ask what the Tucker brothers, Newman’s Stalin-adulating co-thinkers, make of all this Bolshevik-bashing. Newman worships at the altar of Stalin because he is enamored of the accomplished fact, a trait long associated with British Labour Party ideologues. But for people who come out of the CP, like the Tuckers, this worship is only allowable as long as it is accompanied by what amounts to a confession of faith in the holy lineage going back to Marx. Like the book of Numbers in the Old Testament, it rests on who begat who. In my opinion, this kind of lineage-mongering is something to be avoided at all costs since it has led to splits in our movement of the kind that properly belong to religious sects.

One wonders if Newman has read any of the more recent scholarship on Bolshevik history that belie the notion of ideological hegemony. This is a party that used to carry out its debates in public in the pages of Iskra. Bukharin in particular used to challenge Lenin in the pages of a newspaper he published in Switzerland during WWI. But if you need proof of the freewheeling character of Lenin’s party, one of the best places to go is John Reed’s “10 Days that Shook the World”.

Reed reports that Bolsheviks often voted against each other in the mass movement. In “10 Days that Shook the World”, there is a reference to divided votes among party members over key questions such as whether to expropriate the bourgeois press. At a November 17th 1917 mass meeting, Lenin called for the confiscation of the capitalist newspapers. Reed quotes him: “If the first revolution had the right to suppress the Monarchist papers, then we have the right to suppress the bourgeois press.” He continues: “Then the vote. The resolution of Larin and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries was defeated by 31 to 22; the Lenin motion was carried by 34 to 24. Among the minority were the Bolsheviki Riazanov and Lozovsky, who declared that it was impossible for them to vote against any restriction on the freedom of the press.” For a party that was supposedly based on “ideological discipline”, Lenin could not even get people like Riazanov and Lozovsky to “submit to discipline” on such an all-important question.

This is not to speak of how Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev broke discipline and openly challenged the plans to seize power from the Mensheviks in October 1917. For a party that supposedly would evolve inexorably like a caterpillar in butterfly from Lenin into Stalin, it is sort of tough to account for the fact that these Central Committee members were not expelled, not to speak of getting a bullet between the eyes as would have been the case a scant decade later.

Some of Newman’s statements are simply laughable and worth responding to only briefly, like this:

This is not the place to discuss the consequences of Stalin’s policies, but the USSR did achieve considerable economic growth and modest improvements in living standards over the course of the 1930s; and even the scale of repression was not experienced by many ordinary people as being any worse than the period following 1917.

Although it is difficult to read the mind of somebody as politically deranged as Andy Newman (and also not worth the time to ask him what he meant), one must assume he is referring to the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion, the reintroduction of the death penalty, etc. Okay, the USSR was being invaded by 21 capitalist nations around the time such measures were taken. In contrast, the terror campaigns of the 1930s were designed mostly to intimidate Soviet citizens who had begun to resent living under a dictatorship run by a privileged bureaucracy. It is like comparing Lincoln’s press censorship and the Ku Klux Klan. Both were acts of repression in the Civil War and Reconstruction period but that’s about it

But the most important question is why Newman is so intent on opening old wounds? When I first encountered this group blog, I saw it as the expression of the RESPECT party in Britain that was one of a number of hopeful signs of regroupment on the left on a nonsectarian basis. Like the various Socialist Alliances and the Scottish Socialist Party, it didn’t bother to deal with establishing its pedigree on the basis of whether George Galloway was begat by Stalin or Trotsky. It focused on the problems of the class struggle in Britain and put the troublesome “Russian questions” to the side.

This was a decision made long ago by Solidarity in the United States, a small but influential left formation that was comprised at the outset by veterans of the Trotskyist and state capitalist movements who decided to focus on the struggles that united them rather than applying litmus tests about the class nature of the Soviet Union, etc. Their founding document states:

For its part, Solidarity believes that agreement around a broad set of principles, and not agreement around historical questions, is the root base for organized renewal of the socialist movement. We believe that the left has yet to perfect the art of “agreeing to disagree” – while still finding ways to act together in a coherent fashion — once basic agreement of this type has been achieved. (Solidarity is not an exception to this statement.) The notion of “homogeneity” in an organization as the 20th century left perceived it did not serve well at all; it ended in sectarianism and irrelevance.

The most recent expression of this desire to establish unity on a broad set of principles can be found in France with the formation of the New Anticapitalist Party, which despite being launched by Trotskyists made the decision to not take positions on historical and ideological questions of the sort now being defined on Socialist Unity, but initially appeared to avoid.

In a reply to Alex Callinicos, who retains what amounts to bogus ideas about Leninist “orthodoxy”, NPA leader François Sabado defends an approach that sounds almost identical to Solidarity’s:

Depending on the history, the degree of strategic clarification, on principles and organizational tactics, without forgetting the various interpretations of this or that revolutionary current, there are several models. It is true that the NPA is not the replica of the revolutionary organizations of the period after May ‘68. Anti-capitalist parties like the NPA do not start from general historical or ideological definitions. Their starting point is “a common understanding of events and tasks” on the questions that are key for intervening in the class struggle. Not a sum of tactical questions, but the key political questions, like the question of a programme for political intervention around an orientation of class unity and independence.

One might hope that Andy Newman might retreat from his Stalinophilic obsessions and help make Socialist Unity much more what it appeared to be at its launching, a site that encourages broad unity around a class struggle approach. With the deepening social and economic crisis, one that threatens to include a “lost decade” Japan-style for his native country, there will certainly be a rise in the class struggle. People will be looking for good ideas about how to make the left stronger. Turning the Stalin-Trotsky debate into a litmus test will not be one of them.

November 20, 2009


Filed under: Jewish question,middle east — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Opening today at Cinema Village in New York, “Defamation” is one of the most powerful anti-Zionist films ever seen in movie theaters in the United States, all the more remarkable for the fact that the director Yoav Shamir is an Israeli citizen and from a long-standing Zionist family that arrived in Palestine long before the creation of the state of Israel. The title is very possibly a reference to the Anti-Defamation League in the United States, whose chief executive Abe Foxman plays a prominent role in the film.

Like Diogenes with his lamp, Shamir—who assumes a comic persona a bit like Michael Moore or Ross McElwee while remaining off-camera—ventures forth from Israel with his crew in order to answer the question whether anti-Semitism exists. From the front page coverage of major Israeli dailies, as he shows us, you would get the impression that a Kristallnacht is about to break out at any moment. When he asks his 91 year old grandmother in her Israel home at the outset of the movie whether people hate the Jews, she replies to the effect that if so, they should move to Israel. Those who “have money” and who “don’t want to work” might turn that invitation down, she adds. When her grandson tells her that she sounds anti-Semitic, she shrugs her shoulders.

Foxman and his deputies, who we first meet at ADL headquarters, are conflicted over how to relate to the Israeli film-maker. On one hand, he has impeccable Zionist credentials; on the other, he keeps reminding them about the need to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, a question that is addressed over and over again in this remarkable film.

Joining a tour group of Israeli teenagers visiting death camps in Poland, he shows us how necessary the Holocaust memory is to the expansionist and racist policies of the Zionist state. One girl tells him that after seeing the concentration camp, she “wants to kill them all”. When he reminds her that there are no Nazis today, she shifts gears and states that the death of six million Jews eclipses and implicitly legitimizes anything happening to Palestinians today.

The high points of the film involve Norman Finkelstein commenting on the Holocaust Industry and his blacklisting from the academy. Finkelstein, a singularly compelling speaker, has about the same amount of antipathy toward Foxman that he has toward Alan Dershowitz. When the director challenges him about the possibility of making hyperbolic that might alienate those who would agree with him on the substance of his criticisms, Finkelstein appears dismissive. Since the director had initially likened Finkelstein to an Old Testament prophet, it is surprising to see him dispensing advice about “reining it in”. In the most compelling scene in the entire movie, Finkelstein raises his hand in a “Heil Hitler” salute when Shamir mentions his name.

That salute prompts the director to remind Finkelstein once again about the need to avoid unnecessary rhetorical flourishes. At that point, Finkelstein explodes and delivers a speech that is worth the entire admission price. He reminds the director that being compared to Hitler is a standard operation in Israel. Different Zionist leaders were always comparing each other to Hitler. Ben Gurion called Jabotinsky a Hitler (obviously not a far-fetched comparison) while Ariel Sharon’s Labor Party opponents said the same thing—and vice versa.

Shamir visits Brooklyn in order to track down anti-Semitic incidents in Crown Heights. Dov Hikind, a local ultra-Zionist politician and former member of the fascist Jewish Defense League, tells him that one incident stood out. When orthodox Jews were at an outdoor rally, a cop assigned to protect them was overheard complaining on his cell phone about having to look after “the Jews”. Shamir next interviews Rabbi Shea Hecht, a leader of the ultra-orthodox Lubavitcher Hasidim, to see if he had thoughts about anti-Semitism in the neighborhood. The rabbi replies that none exists. It is only raised as an issue by those who have a vested interest in it professionally, like Abraham Foxman who he mentions specifically.

Shamir also directed Checkpoint, a powerful documentary that can be seen in its entirety on Youtube:

Yoav Shamir’s director’s statement from the film’s press notes can be read on MRZine. Don’t miss this outstanding movie.

November 19, 2009

Claude Levi-Strauss

Filed under: anthropology — louisproyect @ 6:48 pm

Claude Levi-Strauss

Claude Levi-Strauss’s death on October 30 at the age of 100 led me to look a little bit into his thought. I was interested to see if his ideas had any bearing on my research into the Napoleon Chagnon controversy. Levi-Strauss’s initial foray into ethnology took place in the Brazilian rainforest among Indian tribes not that much different from the Yanomami. Indeed, Jacques Lizot, the gay anthropologist who became Chagnon’s adversary after their initial collaborations, was a student of Levi-Strauss. I also wanted to get a handle on his basic approach since Althusser’s Marxism is supposedly based on Levi-Strauss’s structuralism. What was that all about? Granted, it no longer has the urgency it once had. In my early days on the left and Marxist oriented mailing lists, structuralism still had some traction, owing to a large extent to the hegemony it enjoyed at the U. of Massachusetts under Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick. That seems like a lifetime ago now.

On the asset side of the balance sheet, it must be acknowledged that Levi-Strauss was—like Franz Boas—a major voice against social Darwinism. Along with Franz Boas, he rejected the idea that primitive peoples were doomed to become extinct in the “survival of the fittest” competition. Indeed, the connection between the two men was more than ideological. On December 22, 1942, Franz Boas and Claude Lévi-Strauss were having lunch at the Faculty Club of Columbia University, a place that I have dined at frequently, when Boas suffered a heart attack, falling into Levi-Strauss’s arms. At the age of 34, Levi-Strauss was destined to assume the mantle of the dying 92 year old. In 1995, at the age of 87, Levi-Strauss wrote an article titled Saudades Do Brasil that took note of the cultural and physical genocidal tendencies brought on by “development”:

The Bororo, whose good health and robustness I had admired in 1935, are today being consumed by alcoholism and disease and are progressively losing their language. It is in missionary schools (which, by a curious reversal, have become the conservators of a culture they had in the first place worked at suppressing, and not without success) that Bororo youths are being taught about their myths and their ceremonies. But, for fear that they might damage the feather diadems, masterpieces of traditional art, the missionaries are keeping these objects locked up, entrusting the Indians with them only on strictly necessary occasions. They would be increasingly difficult to replace since the macaws, parrots, and other brightly colored birds are also disappearing…

I could not help but be reminded of Rosa Luxemburg’s 1917 letter to Sophie Liebknecht:

Yesterday I was reading about the reasons for the disappearance of song birds in Germany. The spread of scientific forestry, horticulture, and agriculture, have cut them off from their nesting places and their food supply. More and more, with modern methods, we are doing away with hollow trees, waste lands, brushwood, fallen leaves. I felt sore at heart. I was not thinking so much about the loss of pleasure for human beings, but I was so much distressed at the idea of the stealthy and inexorable destruction of these defenceless little creatures, that the tears came into my eyes. I was reminded of a book I read in Zurich, in which Professor Sieber describes the dying-out of the Redskins in North America. Just like the birds, they have been gradually driven from their hunting grounds by civilised men.

Despite his open affiliation with Marxism, Levi-Strauss was going against the grain of much of what had been written in its name when it came to primitive peoples. Unfortunately, social Darwinism had seeped into the thinking of some of the most important foundational figures, including Karl Kautsky and Georgi Plekhanov. Through most of the 20th century, this kind of thinking has tended to drive a wedge between socialists and indigenous peoples who still existed in communal societies. The Sandinista missteps with the Miskito Indians are just one example.

Levi-Strauss’s earliest academic training, like Marx’s (and mine!) was in philosophy. Reacting to the social and economic crisis of the 1930s, he became alienated from mainstream French philosophy that was shaped largely by Henri Bergson’s ideas. Bergson was strongly influenced by Charles Darwin and evolved a philosophy that stressed a kind of teleological and ameliorist vision of history, something that was obviously at odds with the economic misery and fascist movements that the young Levi-Strauss saw all around him.

In chapter six of “Tristes Tropiques”, widely considered Levi-Strauss’s masterpiece, he discusses “How I became an Anthropologist”. He describes his growing disenchantment with facile notions of “progress” taught in philosophy classes:

We watched self-consciousness in its progress through the ages elaborating constructions ever lighter and more audacious, resolving problems of balance and implication, inventing refinements of logic; and the more absolute the technical perfection, the more complete the internal coherence, the greater was the system in question. It was as if the student of art-history had been taught that Gothic was necessarily better than Romanesque, and flamboyant Gothic better than primitive Gothic, without stopping to wonder what was beautiful and what was not.

From Freud, Levi-Strauss learned that static antinomies such as rational and irrational were “no more than meaningless games”. And, in his typically eclectic fashion, he next found himself inspired by geology, a science that displays nature demonstrating “the living diversity” that “juxtaposes one age and the other and perpetuates them.” But it was Marxism that helped to finish the intellectual journey that began when he decided to travel to Brazil to study native peoples.

When I was about seventeen I was initiated into Marxism by a young Belgian socialist whom I had met on holiday. (He is today one of his country s Ambassadors abroad.) Reading Marx was for me all the more enthralling in that I was making my first contact, by way of that great thinker, with the philosophical current that runs from Kant to Hegel. A whole world was opened to me. My excitement has never cooled: and rarely do I tackle a problem in sociology or ethnology without having first set my mind in motion by reperusal of a page or two from the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte or the Critique of Political Economy. Whether Marx accurately foretold this or that historical development is not the point. Marx followed Rousseau in saying and saying once and for all, as far as I can see that social science is no more based upon events than physics is based upon sense-perceptions. Our object is to construct a model, examine its properties and the way in which it reacts to laboratory tests, and then apply our observations to the interpretation of empirical happenings: these may turn out very differently from what we had expected.

At a different level of reality, Marxism seemed to me to proceed in the same way as geology and psycho-analysis (in the sense in which its founder understood it). All three showed that understanding consists in the reduction of one type of reality to another; that true reality is never the most obvious of realities, and that its nature is already apparent in the care which it takes to evade our detection. In all these cases the problem is the same: the relation, that is to say, between reason and sense-perception; and the goal we are looking for is also the same: a sort of super-rationalism in which sense-perceptions will be integrated into reasoning and yet lose none of their properties.

Despite his best of intentions, we must conclude that Levi-Strauss simply did not understand Marxism if he can describe it thusly: “Marx followed Rousseau in saying and saying once and for all, as far as I can see that social science is no more based upon events than physics is based upon sense-perceptions. Our object is to construct a model, examine its properties and the way in which it reacts to laboratory tests, and then apply our observations to the interpretation of empirical happenings: these may turn out very differently from what we had expected.”

Indeed, there is so much confusion packed into these two sentences that I despair of reading Levi-Strauss’s mind in order to figure out what he was trying to say. This much we know. He obviously saw Marx as some kind of precursor to structuralism since the idea that social science must not be based on “events” is surely another way of saying that history has little interest to the French philosophy current that operated in the name of Marxism for several decades and that led to all sorts of ideological confusion.

In closing the door on Bergson’s evolutionism, Levi-Strauss bent the stick too far in the opposite direction and ultimately decided that history was bunk, to use Henry Ford’s pithy formulation. The structuralist school became largely defined by its hostility to historical interpretations. In the case of Althusser, this meant breaking with the early Marx, who was befuddled apparently by both “humanism” and a Hegelian framework, and adopting a more “scientific” approach that conceived of Marxism in terms of Levi-Strauss’s “laboratory tests”.

When Levi-Strauss was at the pinnacle of his prestige, Susan Sontag wrote a article in the NY Review of Books titled “A Hero of Our Time” that would be included in “Against Interpretation”, a collection that made her own reputation. It was a review of his “Structural Anthropology”, snippets of which can be read on MIA. She writes:

Lévi-Strauss sees man with a Lucretian pessimism, and a Lucretian feeling for knowledge as both consolation and necessary disenchantment. But for him the demon is history—not the body or the appetites. The past, with its mysteriously harmonious structures, is broken and crumbling before our eyes. Hence, the tropics are tristes. There were nearly twenty thousand of the naked, indigent, nomadic, handsome Nambikwaras in 1915, when they were first visited by white missionaries; when Lévi-Strauss arrived in 1938 there were no more than two thousand of them; today they are miserable, ugly, syphilitic, and almost extinct. Hopefully, anthropology brings a reduction of historical anxiety. It is interesting that many of Lévi-Strauss’s students are reported to be former Marxists, come as it were to lay their piety at the altar of the past since it cannot be offered to the future. Anthropology is necrology. “Let’s go and study the primitives,” say Lévi-Strauss and his pupils, “before they disappear.”

It is strange to think of these ex-Marxists—philosophical optimists if ever such have existed—submitting to the melancholy spectacle of the crumbling pre-historic past. They have moved not only from optimism to pessimism, but from certainty to systematic doubt. For, according to Lévi-Strauss, research in the field, “where every ethnological career begins, is the mother and nursemaid of doubt, the philosophical attitude par excellence.” In Lévi-Strauss’s program for the practicing anthropologist in Structural Anthropology, the Cartesian method of doubt is installed as a permanent agnosticism. “This ‘anthropological doubt’ consists not merely in knowing that one knows nothing but in resolutely exposing what one knows, even one’s own ignorance, to the insults and denials inflicted on one’s dearest ideas and habits by those ideas and habits which may contradict them to the highest degree.”

Whether or not Sontag was being totally accurate, it is distressing to think that this self-avowed if confused Marxist cum geologist/Freudian was attracting such “former Marxists” who dwell in “systematic doubt”. If Marxism has been accused in the past for having a messianic certainty about its goals, I for one would continue to remain a Marxist than to remain paralyzed like Hamlet in “anthropological doubt”.

November 17, 2009

Why you should contribute to Swans

Filed under: swans — louisproyect @ 7:18 pm

Contribute to Swans here: http://www.swans.com/about/donate.html

Although I am not 100 percent sure about the numbers, I believe that I have written 47 articles for Swans since 2003. But I am completely sure that the best things I have ever written have been for Swans, including articles on:

Given my generally cranky disposition and my wariness of the publishing business, either print or online, it is a sign of the generosity and good will of its editors that they have put up with me and vice versa, except for a spat that lasted a year or so. Nobody’s perfect, as Joe E. Brown told Jack Lemmon at the end of “Some Like it Hot”.

At first blush, Swans might be categorized with MRZine, Counterpunch and Znet (the latter two have had fund drives recently.) But, unlike them, it is not an “aggregator”, or compendium of articles that tend to be crossposted in multiple locations. Editor Gilles d’Aymery expects an article written for Swans to appear there exclusively. I think this is a good idea since it helps to create a relationship between author and editor that will never exist at the other websites. I should add that I have had very mixed experiences with MRZine, Counterpunch and ZNet but do think that they certainly have their place.

In addition to social and political analysis, Swans is one of the finest repositories of cultural analysis on the left wing of the Internet. I like to think that my own articles have been a modest contribution to that effort, but I have to tip my hat to people like Charles Marowitz who has written two dozen books on the theater and the arts. His latest article “Private World, Public Words” is an examination of the relationship between art and politics that I concur with heartily, as should be obvious from the conclusion to my piece on “The Mythology of Imperialism”.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t call your attention to the political writing of Michael Barker, whose work I first came across a couple of years ago before he began writing for Swans. Michael developed a reputation at that time for being a dragon-slayer of the foundation-based “left”, Gene Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution in particular. His most recent article is an appreciation of Howard Zinn’s writings, particularly as it shows “how modern-day elites maintain their domination in spite of a massive array of organizations that ostensibly exist to represent the public’s interests.”

Finally, I would like to quote the conclusion of an article written by Swans co-editor Jan Baughman three years ago on the tenth anniversary of the publication:

Which brings me back to the reality of Swans. Swans is not an activist site in the sense of adopting a single issue: rallying the masses to Bring the Troops Home Now, or Stop Global Warming, or Impeach Bush. We endeavor to put these issues in a broader perspective. Milo Clark, one of the original and steadfast Swans, helped define our perspective: the importance of understanding patterns that connect; the knowledge that the only way not to play a game is not to play; and the recognition that attempting to solve problems using the tools, techniques, and thoughts which create them is silly. Without embracing these principles and acting upon them, we cannot hope for change.

This, then, is how I view Swans: as a relentless voice that is not heard in the corporate media; a weaver of tales, a connector of patterns, presenting the big picture, analyzing the story behind the stories, while celebrating poetry, and books, and culture — the very things that make us human and give us an appreciation of life in both its light and dark times. We cannot but carry on steadfast, keeping the words and ideas flowing every two weeks; with deadlines, setbacks, inspiration, hope for the future, and the deep appreciation of connections made by this so-called Information Superhighway that allows people to choose the road less traveled, where we would otherwise never meet. That, as Robert Frost said, can make all the difference.

So here’s to the next ten years of Swans. Accompany us on the journey.

So let’s help keep Swans afloat, just like the graceful bird it is named after. Go to http://www.swans.com/about/donate.html to make a contribution. Over the years I have been contacted by comrades about chipping in to keep Marxmail going. Although I have never turned a donation down, we are lucky to have the facilities of the U. of Utah at our disposal for the time being. So all I would ask at this point is for those of you who have felt the urge to send $20, 50 or 100 to Marxmail, please send it to Swans instead. The connection and other infrastructure costs to keep an online publication afloat are considerable and every dollar will be appreciated by the Swans flock, you can be sure.

November 16, 2009

The Mythology of Imperialism

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:24 pm

Jonah Raskin

Jonah Raskin’s The Mythology of Imperialism: A Revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

Raskin, Jonah: The Mythology of Imperialism: a Revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, Monthly Review Press, 2009, ISBN 978-1-58367-186-3, 320 pages.

(Swans – November 16, 2009)   When you hear the name Joseph Conrad conjoined with the word imperialism, there is a good chance that you will think of Edward Said, the Columbia University professor and Palestinian activist who died of leukemia in 2003. To be more exact, you will be reminded of an analysis that went against conventional wisdom. Despite the nominally anti-imperialist viewpoint of The Heart of Darkness, Said argued in Culture and Imperialism (1993) that:

It is no paradox, therefore, that Conrad was both anti-imperialist and imperialist, progressive when it came to rendering fearlessly and pessimistically the self-confirming, self-deluding corruption of overseas domination, deeply reactionary when it came to conceding that Africa or South American could ever had had an independent history of culture, which the imperialists violently disturbed but by which they were ultimately defeated. Yet lest we think patronizingly of Conrad as the creature of his own time, we had better note that recent attitudes in Washington and among most Western policymakers and intellectuals show little advance over his views.

As it turns out, Jonah Raskin beat him to the punch by 20 years. In 1971, a book titled The Mythology of Imperialism: a Revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age appeared. Adapted from author Jonah Raskin’s PhD dissertation, it surely deserves Edward Said’s accolade on the back cover: “The Mythology of Imperialism I have read, used, and considered to be one of the genuinely important books on modern literature.”

full review: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/lproy57.html

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