Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 31, 2010

Sex and the City #2

Filed under: aging,feminism,Film,Islam,television — louisproyect @ 5:34 pm

The vitriol directed by critics against “Sex and the City #2” (SATC #2) is unprecedented. The last movie to bear the brunt of such an Orwellian “minute of hate” was Michael Cimino’s 1980 “Heaven’s Gate”, a movie that eventually led to the collapse of United Artists.

Now my tendency is to put a minus where mainstream critics put a plus. And occasionally, the reverse. If that makes me a sectarian film critic, so be it. My take on “Heaven’s Gate”, although I never wrote a review about it, is that it is a masterpiece on a par with the best work of Luigi Visconti, an acknowledged influence on this Marxist western about the Johnson County range wars.

Now I am not going to put SATC #2 on that plane, but this much I can say. I went to see a press screening with my wife before the reviews came out and therefore with an open mind. Admittedly the two of us were huge fans of the HBO show and therefore inclined to cut it some slack. But no amount of slack would allow me to refrain from trashing the movie if it deserved it. My reaction to the movie when it was in progress and even now is this. It is a perfectly pleasant way to spend a couple of hours, even if you are not a big fan of the show. It is basically fluff, much more so than the TV show, and includes some genuinely funny moments.

My favorite is when Samantha, the oldest of the four female lead characters who is on a date with a Danish architect in a hookah bar in Abu Dhabi, begins to suck on the mouthpiece of the water pipe as if it was a penis. When the aroused architect stands up, you can see the outlines of his erect penis through his trousers, thus infuriating observant Muslims at the next table. If this is not the thing that you would find funny, then don’t bother seeing the movie. I can say this, however. The movie is about as potent a weapon against Islam as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s “Road to Morocco”. Indeed, this is where SATC #2 was filmed.

Oddly enough, mainstream film critics have rallied around this question of Islamophobia in a way that is truly remarkable given the steady stream of poison that comes out of Hollywood about “the war on terror”, including “The Kingdom”,  “Body of Lies”, and “Hurt Locker”, the truly rotten recipient of the Oscar for best picture in 2009.

The other thing that struck me as hypocritical was the outrage over the lavish lifestyle of the heroines, starting with their staying in a $22,000 per night hotel. The NY Times’s A.O. Scott assumes the posture of James Agee in finding the movie insensitive to our current economic crisis: “But the ugly smell of unexamined privilege hangs over this film like the smoke from cheap incense.” Scott also appears to have read Karl Marx at some point in his life based on this observation: “The Emirate to which the four friends repair is an oasis of gilded luxury in a world that has grown a little ambivalent about unbridled commodity fetishism.”

Excuse me. Am I missing something? If there’s any media outlet that should not be talking about “unexamined privilege” and “unbridled commodity fetishism”, it is the NY Times that is almost singlehandedly responsible for backing the yuppification of the island of Manhattan. This is a newspaper with society pages gushing over $10 million weddings and whose restaurant reviews are strictly devoted to venues that will cost you $150 per meal.

Leaving aside the obvious political charges of Islamophobia and “unexamined privilege”, there is an element of the hatred directed against the movie that is a bit beneath the surface in most reviews. It does raise its nasty head above the surface briefly, however, in Scott’s review where he writes, ” the party girls of yesteryear are tomorrow’s Ladies Who Lunch.” For those who know something about the life-style of elderly Manhattan dowagers, the phrase “Ladies Who Lunch” is a clear reference to Scott’s disappointment that the movie treats women in their 40s and 50s as if they still had a libido. The wiki on the term states:

Ladies who lunch is a phrase to describe slim, well-off, old-money, well-dressed women who meet for lunch socially, normally during the working week. Typically, the women involved are married and non-working. Normally the lunch is in a restaurant, perhaps in a department store during shopping. Sometimes there is the pretext of raising money for charity.

Rex Reed, a gay film critic and a colleague in NYFCO, writes what A.O. Scott and other more respectable scribes will not, for fear of being accused—rightly—of ageism and sexism:

The women-too old now to pout, whine and babble about their wet dreams, affluent and successful for reasons that are never clear-are all vain, narcissistic, selfish, superficial and really rather stupid. The actors work hard to perform triage, but they’ve been playing these roles so long they’ve grown moss.

There are some out there that have figured this angle out, most notably a certain Balk who wrote:

My theory is that the radical aversion to the current installment of Sex and the City says something about the way we look at elderly women in modern American society. We would prefer that, if we must indeed be subject to their representation in popular culture, they be confined to small supporting roles in which they play spinster older sisters or embittered, loveless career women. The idea that we are not only supposed to pretend that the shriveled harridans we see on the screen might still engage in the act of sexual intercourse but that we are supposed to celebrate their enjoyment of such defies both credulity and good taste.

I quite agree. I also agree strongly with another colleague at NYFCO, the estimable Prairie Miller who summed up the hatred against SATC #2 this way in an email to me:

Here’s the opening statement I added to my review at Critical Women. And when I mention Hillary, it’s not because I admire her, which I don’t, but because of the way she was ridiculed as a woman during the campaigns:

The hostile, emotionally charged critic assault on SATC 2 is really a ‘veiled’ attack on the power of older women. And gives the strange impression that females are pariahs more here than in the Middle East, women – not men – who confront sheik sexism and burka blues in the movie. If only those ‘make war not love’ critics were as outspokenly outraged against the US military in that region, as they are against these women. And the fact that women are showing up in droves without men for SATC 2, says it all about the gender divide right here at home. Not since the nasty sexist campaign to drive Hillary Clinton out of the presidential race, has there been such an attack on anything expressing female political or sexual empowerment…

And, finally, here’s my February 26, 2004 review of the original HBO series that you can rent from Netflix:

* * *

Back in 1994 Candace Bushnell began writing a column in Arthur Carter’s weekly NY Observer called “Sex and the City”. Since Carter’s upscale salmon-colored publication was being given away for free on NYC’s Upper East Side at the time, I would pick it up to satisfy my unquenchable reading addiction. I was also curious to see where Carter was going with his NYC paper, which seemed to be modeled on his Litchfield County Times–an outlet for coverage on antique auctions, debutante balls, yacht races and other WASP foibles in Connecticut.

I was puzzled at the time why Arthur Carter would also be the publisher of the Nation Magazine, a journal that I had a strong identification with in the late 1980s and even sent donations to from time to time. Of course, it is much clearer to me in hindsight that Carter was part of a process to shift the magazine to the right, where it now sits as a kind of Kerberos of liberal orthodoxy.

I remember Bushnell’s column leaving me cold at the time. It was a hodge-podge of fictionalized references to the nightlife of Eurotrash, investment bankers, models and freelance writers that she had access to. Her columns left me cold because I had some familiarity with this world as well and what I saw left much to be desired. Escorted by an old friend from Hollywood and the Catskills, I had spent enough time in Nell’s (a trendy disco), the Hotel Chelsea (a Warhol hangout) and art galleries to know that these were not places to have an intelligent conversation, which for me is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Bushnell’s columns were transformed eventually into the highly acclaimed HBO series, which had its final episode last week. Co-Producer Sarah Jessica Parker played Carrie Bradshaw, who is loosely modeled on Bushnell. The three other lead characters were single females who like her were on a nonstop hunt for sexy men, great restaurants and drop-dead designer clothing. You never find any reference to the other NYC in this show. The stars never take subways, they are never confronted by homeless people and they never worry about AIDS. In other words, their NYC has about as much connection to the real thing as a Woody Allen movie, or its antecedent in another troubled time, the movies of Fred Astaire.

I would also have to confess that I became a big fan of this show over the past few months. I will explain why momentarily.

For people who had been watching the show for a long time, especially women who identified with the four co-stars, the final episode was a major event. People gathered together to watch it. The New York Times reported:

What better way to mark the end of “Sex and the City” than a ménage à 50?

Across New York, people commemorated the end of the cable television show that romanticized New York City for six seasons by massing together and tuning in. Bars pushed “Sex and the City” parties. Friends gathered at one another’s apartments. Out-of-towners bereft of cable posted desperate messages on Internet bulletin boards.

One party that captured the spirit and meaning of the show could be found inside a loft on West 49th Street. Fifty women, some in their 20’s and some in their 50’s, some friends and some strangers, piled onto couches and sat on the floor to watch the last unfurling of a television show that seemed always to be about them.

They got slightly drunk on wine and pomegranate-red Cosmopolitans, laughed at the same moments and cried through the ending. Some hooted and others clucked when the main character, a sex columnist named Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker), decided to abandon her boyfriend in Paris and return to New York with a recurring love interest, known, until last night, only as Mr. Big (played by Chris Noth).

The show’s final punch line – that Mr. Big’s name is John – drew shrieks all around.

As people trickled into the cavernous white loft, they marveled how, over its six years, a show that began with jokes about oral sex and orgasms had become such a part of their lives.

“It’s a sad night for us,” said Jalande James, 29, who organized the party at the rented loft as part of Just Us Girls, a social network for women in New York. “We’ve lived with it for so long. When I moved here from Florida, I knew nobody. I’d watch ‘Sex and the City’ and think, ‘Oh my God, they have such wonderful lives.'”

In Preston Sturges’s “Sullivan’s Travels”, a screwball comedy made in 1941, the eponymous lead character is a Hollywood director who has become highly successful making comedies, but who is frustrated with the studio’s refusal to allow him to make serious films about the working class. In other words, Sullivan appears to be a fictionalized representation of Sturges himself. Sullivan decides to go on the road disguised as an unemployed worker in order to learn about the working class firsthand. In a string of comic mishaps, he learns that workers are somewhat different than the idealized notion he had of them. In the stunning climax of this classic film, they show one of Sullivan’s comedies to an audience of chain gang prisoners. They laugh until they cry. This becomes an epiphany to Sullivan, who realizes that the gift of laughter is precious and that it helps us get through life.

That is my reaction to “Sex and the City”. In a time of deepening social and economic crisis, war and environmental despoliation, you need to laugh in order to keep from crying, as the title to a great Harry Edison jazz record once put it.

“Sex and the City” is one of the few laugh out loud comedies you can enjoy anywhere. With the collapse of Woody Allen, there are very few adult entertainments out there. Comedy has become cruder and more misanthropic, with the films of the Farrelly brothers setting the standard. As escapist fare, it ranks with the stories of P.J. Wodehouse that depicted a world of dotty English aristocrats having about as much relationship to reality as the glittery world of “Sex and the City”.

Here’s a summary of a typical week’s episode. If you think that you might enjoy this sort of thing–not everybody’s cup of tea I would be the first to admit–you can find all of the episodes in your local DVD/Video shops.

The girls are invited to the unlikely wedding of Carrie’s supposedly gay friend, flamboyant lounge singer Bobby Fine to society lady Bitsy Von Muffling. Stunned by the news, Carrie thinks about what it takes to make a relationship work. She asks: When it comes to saying ‘I do,’ is a relationship a relationship without the zsa zsa zsu (aka: that special something that gives you butterflies in the stomach)?

Charlotte’s new ‘just sex’ partner, Harry, invites her to be his date for the big Hamptons wedding. Charlotte worries about his crass behavior, but accepts provided that hairy Harry wax his back. In another not so clear relationship, Miranda inexplicably finds herself having sex with Steve. Meanwhile, Samantha calls upon the services of her ex, Richard, in another way: she arranges to throw a party at his house in the Hamptons.

On the way out to the Hamptons, Carrie runs into Jack Berger, who tells her he broke up with his girlfriend. Carrie can’t help but feel that zsa zsa zsu. At Samantha’s fabulous pool party, Carrie and Berger have a heart to heart about relationships past, but it’s too much for Berger to handle and he departs suddenly and swiftly. Carrie wonders if she should just throw in the towel and settle for a so-so relationship. Samantha struggles to enjoy herself because of the appearance of three of Richard’s bikini-clad bimbo babes. She accuses the party-crashers of freeloading but realizes that she herself is still hurting over the end of her affair with Richard.

At Bobby and Bitsy’s wedding, the girls find themselves moved by the mutual love of the bride and groom. It appears Bobby and Bitsy do have the zsa zsa zsu. Obviously inspired, Charlotte tells Harry mid-dance that she may be falling in love with him. He says he shares her feelings but that he’s Jewish and he has to marry a Jew. Also on the dance floor, Berger tells Carrie that he’d like to go on a date with her before they break up. Carrie is reminded why she refuses to settle for anything less than butterflies.

Sex and the City website: http://www.hbo.com/city/

The Snake Charmer

Filed under: science,swans — louisproyect @ 3:47 pm

The Snake Charmer: a Life and Death in the Pursuit of Knowledge, by Jamie James, Hyperion Books, 2008, ISBN-13: 978-1-4013-0213-9, 260 pages.

(Swans – May 31, 2010)   Last January, while idly channel-surfing on my television set, I stumbled across a show titled Venom in Vegas that featured snake expert Donald Schultz spending 10 days in a glass box with 100 venomous and constrictor snakes. Schultz is from South Africa, where he competes with fellow snake handler and countryman Austin Stevens for publicity.

In 1986 Stevens pulled off a similar stunt in the name of generating awareness about gorillas, an endangered species. He set a Guinness World record by spending 107 days and nights in a cage with 36 of the most dangerous African snakes. On the 96th day, he was bitten by a cobra, but refused to leave the cage after being treated with anti-venom.

Of course the most notorious of these snake handlers was the Australian Steve Irwin who died in 2006 after being stung in the heart by an aptly named stingray. Unlike Schultz and Stevens, Austin handled all sorts of poisonous creatures, including the ocean-dwelling stingray.

After finding my curiosity jogged by Schultz’s stunt (an excerpt is here), I decided to read a book about the late Joe Slowinski that came out in 2008. Titled The Snake Charmer: a Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge and written by Jamie James, it tells the rather sad story of a legitimate scientist — rather than a showman — who was bitten by a many-banded krait in September 2001 during an expedition in Burma, just before the WTC attacks. The many-banded krait’s venom is rated 16 times more powerful than a cobra’s. Slowinski died right around the time the buildings collapsed.

Although I am by no means fixated on poisonous snakes, I do find myself drawn to exceptional human beings, particularly those with tragic flaws. That described Joe Slowinski to a T. A July 13, 2008 review of James’s book accentuated the dark side:

No matter how hard James tries to make Slowinski sound roguishly charming, how often he mentions his “disarming, gap-toothed smile,” how earnestly he swears in the epilogue that he sorely feels the loss of someone he never met, I could not help reading between the lines: intentionally or not, he makes his subject sound like a Class A jerk.

It isn’t Slowinski’s redneck genius persona — meeting academy donors in a baggy T-shirt, smuggling reptiles without permits, kicking down his own door to impress a date when he forgets his keys. That was just snake shtick. Nor is it his earlier “starving graduate student my work is everything” ethos, even when he shouts at his not-well-off father for offering to buy him a table so they don’t have to eat while sitting on the stairs. Nor is it the poses James puts him in: the boy Hercules, age 5, brandishing a rat snake “as thick as his own little arm,” or the carnival man dazzling Burmese villagers just before his death, the sun “glinting penny-bright” on his goatee as he “free-handled the dangerous serpent they called ngan taw kyar (‘royal tiger snake’) with cool bravado.”

Rather, it’s his ruthlessness. His toying with snakes while drunk, terrifying friends. His treatment of his only long-term girlfriend, whom he dumps over the phone. His theft of the prize specimens of a Brazilian herpetologist; caught with her snakes dead in his freezer, he blames the language barrier, claiming he thought she’d granted permission. And the coup de grace is his final, fatal blunder. Relying on bribes and half-truths, he smuggles an expedition of 16 scientists and 130 porters into one of the most remote and malarial corners of the world without official permission or a doctor — just a first-aid kit so meager it wouldn’t have served a Boy Scout camp-out.

While all of reviewer Donald G. McNeil Jr.’s points are true, he leaves out the more admirable sides of Joe Slowinski, not the least of which is a dedication to the pursuit of knowledge. In an era of creationist obfuscation and backwardness, it is necessary to pay tribute to Slowinski as someone totally dedicated to evolutionary science.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy61.html

May 29, 2010

Packing a gun

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 12:42 am

Music video performed by Dr Freaks Padded Cell, the band led by Steve Evets, the star of Ken Loach’s “Looking for Eric”. With a guest performance by Mark E. Smith, the leader of The Fall, a band that Evets used to be a member of, along with perhaps 10,000 other Brits.

May 28, 2010

Three recent movies

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:07 pm

Although by no means masterpieces, I can recommend three movies, two of which are still showing in New York, in the following order of preference.

Ken Loach’s “Looking for Eric”, playing at the IFC Center, is a wistful character study of a middle-aged postal clerk named Eric Bishop whose only pleasure is following the local soccer team, Manchester United. He also has a special place in his heart for Eric Cantona, United’s former superstar. Everything else in his life is falling apart, however.

He has two teenage sons who can be charitably described as louts. Ryan is the older one and appears to be an aspiring hoodlum. When Eric returns from work one day, he discovers a cement mixer on the front lawn that Ryan has “nicked”. When he confronts him, Ryan tells him to piss off. He doesn’t even call him dad, but refers to him as Eric. The younger is named Jess, his Black stepson from his second marriage. While Jess is as nearly as much of a screw-up as Ryan, he at least has some affection for Eric.

Eric is lonely and miserable. The only bright spot in his life besides rooting for the local team is babysitting for his granddaughter whose mom lives with his ex-wife Lily. When he first met Lily, he was a whiz at local dance contests, especially when they played rockabilly. Not long after he and Lily won first prize, they got married. But within a year or so, he abandoned Lily mostly out of an unwillingness to assume responsibility. Now, with the connections made to their grown daughter, he is moving inexorably to reconciling with Lily and picking up where he left off. Unfortunately, he is so psychically damaged that he would appear to lack the basic social skills to reach out to her.

Into this woeful state of affairs, a Knight in Shining Armor appears. Out of the blue, Eric Cantona (played by the former superstar himself, who produced the film as well as acted in other films) shows up in his bedroom and begins to give him advice about dealing with life and love. We understand before too long that this just a figment of his imagination rather than a real person. The best way to think of the relationship between the two Erics is not in terms of the schizophrenia found in “A Beautiful Mind” where Russell Crowe chatted with a fellow student seen only by him (in reality, schizophrenia does not entail visual hallucinations, only auditory ones.) The analogy instead is with Woody Allen in “Play it Again, Sam”, where his nebbish character converses with his idol Humphrey Bogart about how to navigate his way through difficult personal problems.

Steve Evets, who once played in The Fall, the great rock band led by Mark E. Smith, was a perfect casting choice for Eric Bishop as this wiki article would indicate:

Born in Salford, Evets joined the Merchant Navy after leaving school, but was kicked out after three years, after jumping ship twice in Japan and spending his eighteenth birthday in a Bombay brothel.[1] He then briefly worked delivering pipes before starting his acting career, initially by forming a street theatre company with two friends.[1] As there was already a Steve Murphy on the books of Equity, he decided on the stage name Steve Evets: “The first thing that popped into my head was ‘Steve’ backwards, so I put that on the form.”[1] In 1987 Evets was stabbed through the liver, lung and diaphragm, glassed in the face and had his throat cut in a pub fight, he spent time on a life support machine and as a result had six major operations including the removal of parts of his ribs that had become infected from the unclean blade. He has 3 children to two different women and has an ex wife that he has no children to.

In other words, the actor playing Eric Bishop has almost the same relationship to his character as Eric Contana has to his. A stroke of genius on Ken Loach’s part to cast Steve Evets, it would seem.

Eventually Eric the mail clerk learns that Ryan has become tied to a local gangster who pays and pressures him to conceal a pistol under the floorboards of his bedroom. The sentence for concealing such a weapon is five years. When Eric discovers the gun, he waves it at Ryan, demanding an explanation. After Ryan says that the gangster won’t take no for an answer, Eric goes to his lair to extricate his son from a perilous situation, all the more so since the gun has already been used in a shooting at a local disco.

The film’s final scenes involve Eric confronting the gangsters after taking some advice from Eric Cantona about using teamwork, just like Manchester United. They do not mesh that well with the earlier scenes that are much more about emotional growth rather than combat. That being said, the most endearing scenes involve neither the imaginary conversations nor the combat with the hoodlums. Instead, they depict Eric and his postal worker pals hanging out in pubs or their homes making small talk of the sort that the leftist Ken Loach is particularly good at directing. This is the British working class at its most engaging and what endures as this feel-good movie’s most memorable moments.

* * *

No longer playing, Marco Bellochio’s “Vincere” is a biopic about Mussolini’s affair with Ida Dalser who was locked up in a mental hospital after making herself inconvenient to the dictator with demands that he marry her and look after their son Albino. With her total and consuming devotion to Mussolini, as well as her son’s who also ends up in a mental hospital, you almost feel that the fascists had grounds for confining her. Of course, the entire country was somewhat detached from reality under fascist rule so there is some basis for looking at the “sick” and the “healthy” in the same terms as Philippe de Broca’s “King of Hearts”.

During the time that Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and Mussolini (Filippo Timi, who also plays their son Albino) are intimate, you get a stunning portrait of Il Duce’s sleazy character. Starting out as a socialist, he capitulates to war fever at the outset of the war and makes fiery speeches about the nation having to redeem itself in battle before advancing toward socialism. Unlike the French and German socialist parliamentarians, Mussolini’s nationalism morphs into something far more toxic.

Dalser worships Mussolini and sells her business in order to help him get a fascist newspaper off the ground. She appears less motivated by ideology than hero worship, however. When her idol breaks with her, her tenuous hold on reality begins to fade. As a symbol of the Italian nation, she is a useful reminder of how sexism facilitates authoritarian government in a country that never fully completed a bourgeois revolution. It is the same kind of subordination to male authority and charisma that you can see in the excellent documentary Videocracy.

Unfortunately, as her psychological descent deepens, she becomes less interesting as a character. There is always a risk that when you build a movie around a mentally ill central character, your audience will lose the ability to identify with him or her. Bellochio’s treatment of Mussolini is far more interesting and one almost regrets that his focus was not on the vile dictator who remains a compelling figure and a reminder of the awful effect that hero worship has on politics as well as human relationships.

Andrea: Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.

Galileo: No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.

–Bertolt Brecht, Life of Galileo (1938)

* * *

Also showing at the IFC Center is “The Human Centipede”, a horror movie directed by Tom Six, a Dutchman. The centipede in question is an experiment conducted by a mad German surgeon on two American female tourists and a Japanese man. Obsessed with the insect, he attaches the three people together, sewing the mouth to the anus until something resembling a human centipede is achieved.

The movie premiered at the Soho Film Festival this year so you can figure out that this is not exactly the sort of product made in Hollywood that would show up at your local Cineplex. Its closest relatives are the campy movies about Frankenstein and Dracula made by Andy Warhol in the 1970s. The mad scientist (Dieter Laser) is the most interesting character in Six’s movie, a kind of Dr. Frankenstein mixed with an evil Nazi-era concentration camp doctor. The performance is over-the-top, which is the only thing that makes sense in such a movie.

Tom Six seems to have exactly the right attitude for such a movie, given his interview with Twitch, an online film zine:

Twitch: Yet the film does have an awful lot of horror cliches in it ie: the mad doctor, the secret lab, the monstrous experiment even the girls…

Tom Six: LOL Yes, I wish more people would point that out.. What I did was use all the horror clichés–two naive ladies, forest, flat tire, no phone, fall into trap–which are all very commercial to set the audience at ease and then I get them. The basic situation for the film is so repulsive and disgusting that I knew I had to ease the audience into it. I used to tell a joke that politicians should be stitched ass to mouth so they would have to swallow their own bullshit all day.


May 27, 2010

Elena Kagan’s senior thesis on the Socialist Party

Filed under: sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:07 pm

Ironically, the best thing that Elena Kagan ever wrote was her senior thesis at Princeton University, To the Final Conflict: Socialism in New York City, 1900-1933. Everything went downhill after that apparently.

This 134 page work is not only written from a leftist perspective, it also is extremely well-researched and well-written. I actually find it rather disconcerting to think that such a promising mind has been wasted at the altar of careerism.

Kagan’s thesis covers a lot of the same territory I have covered in articles on the problems of “democratic centralism”. Like the 21 year old Kagan, I concluded that the CP split-offs from the Socialist Party were not necessary, even if they were understandable. Most of my information on this period comes from Theodore Draper’s very useful “The roots of American communism” and “American communism and Soviet Russia, the formative period.” Despite his social democratic politics, Draper’s research is impeccable, all the more so since it relied on input from James P. Cannon, a veteran of the internecine battles of the left in the early 1920s. Indeed, Marxist historian Bryan Palmer characterizes Draper’s research this way:

Yet, ironically, Theodore Draper’s founding traditionalist texts of the late 1950s and early 1960s, on which so much liberal anti-communist scholarship as well as New Left writing builds, remain unsurpassed as sources on the origins of United States communism and are among the most accomplished studies of the revolutionary left in the 1920s, regardless of national setting.

Unfortunately, the Scribd version of Kagan’s thesis omits the bibliography and footnotes but my strong impression is that she bases her analysis on his work, but brings new research to bear from primary sources on the evolution of the Socialist Party in New York, which had an overwhelmingly Jewish membership.

If you want a popular culture version of this fascinating period, I can’t recommend Warren Beatty’s “Reds” highly enough. The movie is laced with testimony from people of Cannon’s generation, including Arne Swabeck, a founding member of American Trotskyism along with Cannon who was 90 years old at the time the movie was being made. In the 1960s, Swabeck turned into a Maoist and found himself on a collision path with the Socialist Workers Party leadership. At my first meeting of the New York branch in 1967, I voted along with everybody else to expel Swabeck. My mistake was not turning in my resignation at that very meeting since I had grave misgivings over the long procession of people getting up to denounce him as some kind of traitor. It looked like something out of a 1950s Red Scare movie. It took another 3 years for me to learn how to read people out of the movement in the same fashion. Sigh.

The introduction and conclusion to Kagan’s thesis turned up on liberal economist Brad DeLong’s blog. For those lacking the patience to wade through the full dissertation, I recommend visiting his blog where you can read this excerpt:

Ever since Werner Sombart first posed the question in 1905, countless historians have tried to explain why there is no socialism in America. For the most part, this work has focused on external factors–on features of American society rather than of American socialist movements. Socialists and non-socialists alike have discussed the importance of the frontier… the fluidity of class lines… the American labor force’s peculiarly heterogeneous character, which made concerted class action more difficult than it might otherwise have been. In short, most historians have looked everywhere but to the American socialist movement itself for explanations of U.S. socialism’s failure. Such external explanations are not unimportant but neither do they tell the full story. They ignore or overlook one supremely important fact: Socialism has indeed existed in the United States…. The Socialist Party increased its membership from a scanty 10,000 in 1902 to a respectable 109,000 in the early months of 1919… a party press that included over three hundred publications with an aggregate circulation of approximately two million….

The success of the socialists in establishing a viable–if minor–political party in the early twentieth century suggests that historians must examine not only external but also internal factors if they hope to explain the absence of socialism from contemporary American politics. The effects of the frontier, of class mobility, of an ethnically divided working class may explicate why the Socialist Party did not gain an immediate mass following; they cannot explain why the growing and confident American socialist movement collapsed….

We are, then, left with three ultimately inadequate explanations of the sudden demise of a growing socialist movement. The otherworldliness of the socialists, the expulsion of Haywood in 1912, the Russian Revolution of 1917–none will satisfactorily explain the death of social- ism in America. What, then, was responsible? In attempting to answer this question, this thesis will focus almost exclusively on the history of the New York City local of the Socialist Party….

For DeLong, the lesson drawn from her thesis (I really don’t know if he actually read it) is this:

I think that her takeaway from her thesis was Clintonian (and Obamaian): radicals in America need to shut up, take their place at an oar, and row like hell for minor reformist victories.

That might have been true eventually but the thesis itself supports no such analysis. I think DeLong was engaged here in what the Freudians call projection.

The questions that Kagan poses are the very same that have preoccupied me for the better part of the last 3 decades. She clearly rejects Sombart’s version of “American exceptionalism”, a theory that is drummed into the heads of high school and college students as part of our indoctrination. Back in junior high school, we learned that the USA was different than Europe where they had social classes. We also had a huge geographical spread with access to free land that enabled European immigrants to prosper as farmers. Of course, this sort of happy talk was consistent with rising income in the 1950s and thus more difficult to refute than today when the country is lashed by economic insecurity and ceaseless wars.

In 1981, when Kagan wrote her thesis, the country was still suffering the collective hangover of the Vietnam War and a Black liberation movement that challenged the precepts of “American exceptionalism”. If anything was exceptional, it was the racist treatment meted out to people of color. It was also a time when a powerful feminist movement still existed, something that would have had an impact on Kagan’s thinking.

The Village Voice wrote:

Obama nominee Elena Kagan, 50, has impeccable ULS credentials and genes: Mom Gloria taught public school’s best and brightest at Hunter College Elementary School; dad Robert was a lawyer who represented tenants. Robert Kagan was chairman of Community Board #7 in the 1970s and was a fierce battler against the superhighway that City Hall wanted to pave along the Hudson River and through Riverside Park, which came to be known as Westway. Kagan Sr. was one of a couple dozen early anti-Westway protestors, and he showed up at a City Hall briefing in November, 1974, to denounce the plan. “A six-lane proposal is just not an acceptable proposal,” he told the Times. “I am convinced this plan induces new traffic in Manhattan.”

Then there’s Kagan’s brother, Marc, who was a transit worker and union reformer in Transport Workers Local 100. Marc Kagan was one of former Local 100 leader Roger Toussaint’s top aides until the two had a falling out in 2003. That’s par for the course for the Upper Left Side, where if you can’t launch two feuds before lunch, the day’s a waste.

Since Marc Kagan does not exactly strike me as the kind of person who would end up working for the subway system (he is now a public school teacher), I wonder if he made that choice like so many others (including many Trotskyists from that period) as a way to do political work in the same fashion as the subjects of Kagan’s thesis, the socialist activists of the ILGWU.

Chapter five and six of Kagan’s thesis provide an eye-opening account of the implosion of the New York left, reminiscent of what took place about 50 years later when SDS, the Maoists and the Trotskyists all went a similar route. Under the impact of the Russian Revolution, the NY left immediately after WWI began a process of fragmentation that was repeated all too often. While there was a need for a Socialist Party that purged itself from characters like Morris Hillquit, a class-collaborationist par excellence, the revolutionary-minded members of the party decided to clone the Russian Bolshevik party whether or not that made sense for American conditions. Lenin, the leading Bolshevik, sensed something was wrong early on when he had a chance to look at a proposal made in Russia for how to organize a Communist Party in 1921. He stated:

At the third congress in 1921 we adopted a resolution on the structure of communist parties and the methods and content of their activities. It is an excellent resolution, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is taken from Russian conditions. That is its good side, but it is also its bad side, bad because scarcely a single foreigner–I am convinced of this, and I have just re-read it-can read it. Firstly, it is too long, fifty paragraphs or more. Foreigners cannot usually read items of that length. Secondly, if they do read it, they cannot understand it, precisely because it is too Russian…it is permeated and imbued with a Russian spirit. Thirdly, if there is by chance a foreigner who can understand it, he cannot apply it…My impression is that we have committed a gross error in passing that resolution, blocking our own road to further progress. As I said, the resolution is excellent, and I subscribe to every one of the fifty paragraphs. But I must say that we have not yet discovered the form in which to present our Russian experience to foreigners, and for that reason the resolution has remained a dead letter. If we do not discover it, we shall not go forward.

I think if he knew how mistaken the conceptions that could produce such a resolution actually were, I am sure that he would have been far less gracious.

The left in NY was polarized between the official SP leadership, consisting of sell-outs like Hillquit, and those who would join the new Communist movement. Foremost among them were the Wasp John Reed (played by Warren Beatty in “Reds”), the Italian-American Louis Fraina (played by Paul Sorvino) and Max Eastman, a Jew (played by Edward Herrmann). Kagan quotes Eastman:

There is no use pretending that this split in the Socialist Party is new…It has always been exactly the same—on the one hand revolutionary Marxists, on the other reformers and diluters of Marxian theory.

By 1941, Eastman had become fairly diluted himself and by the 1960s was identified with the conservative movement whose goals he promoted in the pages of National Review.

Reed and Fraina drafted a leftwing manifesto in 1919 that was circulated in the Socialist Party branches around New York, much to the chagrin of Hillquit and the reformists who eventually suspended those branches that supported the manifesto.

While the left wing could have emerged out of this fight with the political authority to build a real alternative to the reformists, it soon began to squander this opportunity with sterile and misguided attempts to win the official franchise from the Kremlin. One group, the Communist Party, consisted mainly of immigrants while the Communist Labor Party was largely American-born. But both groups basically supported the new orientation of the Reed-Fraina manifesto. For a modern-day version of this kind of split, you can look at the Workers World Party/Party of Socialism and Liberation formations. Both groups, the product of a split in the WWP, have virtually the same program but decided that they could not exist in the same organization. To this day they have not provided the left with an explanation of their differences. This, of course, is not the way that the Bolsheviks functioned whatever else their other faults.

While the two groups battled each other, both had to fend with the Palmer Raids and other forms of Red Scare repression. Under such hammer blows, the Communists found solace in support from the Soviet Union which increasingly began to play the kind of role in their political life that the Vatican played in the Catholic Church. Kagan writes:

Alexander Bittelman, a New York communist, admitted in 1921 that, while they were underground, the CP and the CLP did not “exist as a factor in the class struggle”. Furthermore, as they grew increasingly removed from American life, the communists became ever more attached to their Bolshevik brethren. The Soviets themselves bear partial responsibility for this. As the years passed, the Bolshevik leaders grew increasingly dictatorial toward the other members of the Third International; indeed, Gregory Zinoviev (played by Jerzy Kosinski in “Reds”), the head of the Comintern, stated flatly that the Soviets believed it “obligatory to interfere” in the internal affairs of the world’s communist parties.40

I only wish that I had access to footnote number 40 since that would provide some useful grist for my ongoing mill.

May 23, 2010

Going toe-to-toe with Leon Botstein

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 8:48 pm

I just returned from a day and a half at Bard College for commencement weekend and the 45th anniversary of my graduating class. Unlike the handful of other reunion celebrants, my interest was not so much in basking in nostalgia but instead reflecting on and chronicling changes at the school under President Leon Botstein’s stewardship, arguably the most famous college administrator in the USA. I came up to Bard armed with a Panasonic camcorder and will post a Youtube movie later on.

The campus was abuzz with rumors that President Obama would be making a surprise visit to Bard during commencement. The absence of helicopters and Secret Service men in shades an hour or so before the event started put an end to the rumors but it was not clear whether this was ever in the works at all. Botstein made light of the rumor during his remarks but left it open that it might have happened.

In some ways, Bard would have been a perfect complement to Obama’s other appearance that day: West Point. One academy symbolized American military power in defense of imperialism and the other symbolized peace, love and understanding. Maybe.

Things have been changing. Not long after I graduated, West Point was considered the enemy. Nowadays, in sync with Obama’s triangulation strategies, Bard has figured out ways to collaborate with the training ground for killers. The two schools have an exchange program described thusly on Bard’s website:

In the program’s first year, Bard and West Point students took joint seminars each semester on international relations theory taught by Jonathan Cristol, Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Studies at Bard College, and Scott Silverstone, Associate Professor of International Relations at the United States Military Academy. The classes met jointly several times during term, with Bard students visiting West Point and cadets traveling to Annandale-on-Hudson. In the fall, Silverstone gave a well-attended public lecture at Bard entitled ‘Preventive War, American Democracy, and the Challenge of a Shifting Threat Environment.’ In May, six Bard seniors attended West Point’s Project’s Day, and presented the findings of their senior theses to West Point faculty and cadets.

I suppose most Bard students and alumni would find this to be a good thing, but not the Unrepentant Marxist. Sad, inflexible me.

For nearly the past 25 years I have been communicating my discontent with such developments to Botstein, the first time in 1987 when I discovered that Martin Peretz had become a member of the board of trustees not long after Ben Linder had been murdered by contras in Nicaragua. Ben was an engineer trying to construct a small-scale hydroelectric dam as a sponsored project of Tecnica, the volunteer group that I belonged to. After his death, our volunteers helped to finish the project. During the war on Nicaragua, Martin Peretz had been one of the most vocal defenders of the contras on the “left” alongside Village Voice columnist Paul Berman.

I wrote Botstein a letter dripping with sarcasm over his choice of Peretz as well as Bard graduate Asher Edelman, a leveraged buyout operator who served as the model for Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”. To my surprise, Botstein wrote back a lengthy letter defending his choices and scolding me for imposing a litmus test. One supposes that if Martin Peretz, to use a flight of imagination (but not that much so considering former New Republic editor Peter Beinart’s NY Review article), had been stumping for the PLO, that would have become a litmus test.

Once I began blogging, Botstein had to contend with my impudent views being shared by the rest of the world. Our beefs were no longer private.

Apparently, my articles have drawn blood. So I learned around 6:00 last evening when I was hanging out on the steps of Ward Manor, a mansion that had been acquired by the school in 1964 and turned into a dormitory. I had a room there in the fall term of 1965 down the hall from Chevy Chase and remember my days there fondly.

All of a sudden I noticed Botstein headed right at me surrounded by an entourage made up of his handlers, people from the admissions and alumni offices. He approached me and started to speak in a fairly loud voice, commanding the attention of the large group of alumni there. To the best of my memory, this is what we had to say to each other:

Botstein: So here’s the famous Louis Proyect, the man who has been attacking me for many years now accusing me of the worst kinds of offenses in the most vicious way, who has devoted himself to damaging my reputation near and wide to the point that even my own children read his blog…

Me (interrupting him): Leon, have you been drinking?

Botstein: No, I am quite sober.

Me: Well, I don’t see why you are so upset. After all, didn’t you say in your commencement speech that Bard graduates should attack the status quo? That’s all I’ve been doing over the years. You have your job raising money and I have mine as a critic.

Botstein: Well, you are not being fair in the way you write about me…

Me: Leon, you have to understand. Man, I used to love you (two glasses of wine had made me a bit mushy) but when I learned that Martin Peretz had been named to the board, I got really angry. My compañero Ben Linder had been murdered by the contras that Peretz backed.

Botstein: Things are a lot more complex than you see. Martin Peretz was an old friend of mine from Harvard and he was playing an important role in helping to formulate programs at Bard.

Me: (At this point, I was trying to change the subject a bit and opened up the comic book memoir I worked on with Harvey Pekar and turned to the chapter on Bard.) Leon, take a look at this. There’s Chevy Chase. And look over there, that’s me discussing the Communist Manifesto with Heinrich Blucher in the coffee shop. (Blucher was a teacher at Bard who was married to Hannah Arendt.)

Botstein: (Apparently still fixated on defending his reputation) I have to point out that Hannah Arendt and I have this much in common. Critics attacked her for supporting Martin Heidegger but she had her reasons for doing so that were not well understood.

I was not interested in prolonging the conversation, but I almost wanted to ask him what were the main points of convergence between Martin Peretz and the infamous Nazi philosopher. I could think of a dozen right off the bat.

During the entire time this conversation was going on (and I have left out perhaps half of it because the lapse of time and the two glasses of wine make them a bit of a blur), one of Botstein’s handlers kept glaring at me and announcing that I was holding up the schedule by belaboring the president. I didn’t say anything to her, but chuckled at the idea that I was at fault. Botstein had accosted me after all.

While all of this was going on, my camera was at a nearby table. I doubt that I could have recorded the conversation since he would have understood how ridiculous he looked to a normal person. Here he was, America’s most famous college president, guest on countless television shows, author of numerous op-ed pieces in prestigious newspapers, adored by students and alumni alike, and he is still bothered by what a marginal figure like me has to say.

The explanation, of course, is rather simple. In his heart of hearts, as he lies in bed in night, he can’t get the thought out his head that I am right.

May 21, 2010

No One Knows about Persian Cats; Women without Men

Filed under: Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

There are two films playing in New York City that are directed by Iranians. Playing at the IFC Center (I downloaded it on Time-Warner, where IFC films are generally available), No One Knows About Persian Cats is first rate. Directed by Iranian-Kurd Bahman Ghobadi, this is the story of rock musicians in Tehran trying to avoid the authorities. It is perhaps the best explanation of why so many young people rose up against the Islamic thought police last year.

I had high expectations for Shirin Neshat’s Women without Men since she is a long-time expatriate leftist opponent of the Islamic Republic, especially since the movie is set in 1953 during the coup against Mossadegh. Unfortunately the movie is hampered by a screenplay based on a magical realist novel by Shahrnush Parsipur.

If Persian Cats consisted of nothing but the musical performances that are interspersed throughout the film, it would be worth the price of admission. They serve as a kind of introduction to the varieties of the country’s music, much as Fatih Akin’s Crossing the Bridge did for Turkey. Unlike Turkey, however, the young musicians are hounded underground by the authorities as if they posed as much danger to the system as political subversives. In a way, there is a basis for their fears considering rock-and-roll’s long-time anti-authoritarian impulses.

The movie stars a young musician named Ashkan and his girl-friend Negar, who are played by Ashkan Kooshanejad and Negar Shaghaghi—musicians and lovers in real life. Ashkan’s goal is to tour London but unless he secures a fake passport and visa, he is out of luck. The plot of this movie revolves around this quest and their efforts to line up sidemen who turn out to be real-life underground musicians in Tehran.

Ashkan and Negar rely on the help of Nader (Hamed Behdad), a fast-talking hustler (but not dishonest one) who introduces them to a fake passport maker and various musicians. Nader is a comic character who functions like a spark plug in the film. His manic energy and braggadocio reminded me of Mickey Rooney in one of his “let’s do a musical in the barn” movies. In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Nader tries to talk himself out of 75 lashes and a stiff fine in a cop’s office. His apartment has been raided and alcohol and foreign DVD’s turned up, a grave offense to the authorities. He says that the alcohol was only meant for an Armenian friend (a Christian ethnic group) and the DVD’s were for his personal use. All 10,000 of them, asks the cop?

Perhaps some of you saw an excerpt from the movie when it went viral. It is a performance by rapper Soroush Lashkary who uses the stage name Hichkas. It is great:

Playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, Women without Men was shot in Morocco. The director Shirin Neshat has a background as a visual artist and this, her first film, had me captivated by its images even if the story left me confused and frustrated most of the time. It is obvious that Neshat has much more interest in imagery than story-telling since the film lacks exposition and meaningful dialog. To what extent this is the fault of the original material it is impossible for me to say.

One particular element of Neshat’s movie left me totally annoyed. In the beginning of the film, Munis—one of the five featured women victimized by male chauvinism—has jumped off a roof because her religious fundamentalist older brother has made her life impossible. Without explanation, Munis then shows up again in the middle of the movie as an anti-Shah activist whose devotion to the cause might have something more to do with her attraction to a young and handsome Communist Party member. The NY Times described this as a “magical realist trope”. Well, okay. Why not have her transformed into an 18 foot serpent that devours the Shah’s thugs while we are at it.

Despite the backdrop of the coup, the movie contains very little political dialog even among the Communists, who devote themselves to passing out leaflets on doorsteps in the dead of night. Neshat’s main interest, and ostensibly that of the novel, is to dramatize the suffering of women in a traditional society. Such a movie, of course, needs to be made especially in light of this one’s shortcomings.

May 20, 2010

Second grader challenges White House on immigration

Filed under: immigration — louisproyect @ 7:15 pm

A guest review of “Outsider’s Reverie”

Filed under: science,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 4:15 pm

Cliff Conner
Outsider’s Reverie: A Memoir by Leslie Evans (Los Angeles: Boryana Books, 2009).

Les Evans was my mentor. No teacher, no professor, no counselor, no guru was more influential in developing my worldview, my ability to think, whatever literary talent I have, and even my physical fitness. Reaching that conclusion forces me to acknowledge that I was a rather late bloomer, because according to Leslie Evans’ memoir, the period during which we worked together closely was October 1972, when my thirtieth birthday was already in the rearview mirror, through February 1975.

It is evident that I owe an immense debt to Les Evans. I see the Les Evans I knew and admired looking out at me from the cover of this memoir written by Leslie Evans, and I am forced to conclude that they are one and the same person. But as I read the text, I often found it difficult to reconcile the alter egos. I see some significant continuity between Les and Leslie: both were/are highly talented writers, with a gift for storytelling and finding the interesting anecdote or literary allusion necessary to illustrate any point. Leslie’s intense interest in ideas, the ability to clarify those ideas, the subtle humor, the attention to detail—all are familiar characteristics of Les’s prose.

But the ideological content of Leslie Evans’ reminiscences is as foreign to me as the Pandorian landscape in Avatar. The person who most strengthened the foundations of my own rationalist view of the world now apparently embraces the most outlandish forms of irrationalism! A relatively minor corollary of the transition is a shift from strongly defending Marxist philosophical and political views to renouncing them.  This is somewhat unsettling for me. External challenges to one’s own worldview are not nearly as distressing as the revelation that the integrity of its foundations may have been somehow compromised. If I am to maintain my own bearings, the Les–Leslie conjunction demands examination and analysis.

Is the difference between Les and Leslie simply a function of the passage of time? Is it a familiar tale of a radical mellowing into moderation—a leftwinger “moving to the right” as he ages? Apparently not, because on the evidence of Leslie’s testimony, the irrationalist element of his outlook was present from his earliest years as a family legacy. His parents were hardcore occultists who participated in—and involved young Leslie in—séances and other forms of communication with the spirit world. As I was reading Leslie’s straightforward account of his parents’ idiosyncratic beliefs, I assumed he was reporting them with a degree of tongue-in-cheek skepticism, but after learning from later chapters of his present outlook, I suspect I may have been lending my own interpretation to his words.

It is not particularly remarkable that a lad raised in that belief system would engage in astral travel and fear ghosts in adulthood, but what astonishes me is that not the tiniest hint of any of this was even remotely evident to me during the two-and-a-half years when I spent eight to ten hours a day in a small office and in almost constant conversation with him. I don’t think I was so comatose that I could have missed it. The Les I knew was a Marxist theoretician and proponent of philosophical materialism of the first order. Forgive me a brief descent into pop Freudianism, but I can only suppose that during that period of his life Les sublimated his interest in the occult into intense political activity, and when the political movement he chose proved disappointing, his otherworldly side—Leslie—resurfaced.

Although subordinate to larger ideological issues, it was Leslie’s about-face from Marxism to anti-Marxism that first manifested itself and was of greatest concern to me. Many of you who are reading this review will know the organizational background that Les and I shared (because you, too, shared it), but for those who don’t, I will back up here and explain how I came to be working with him in the first place. In 1966 I became outraged by the monumental, world-historical crime against humanity known in American textbooks as the Vietnam War. I channeled all of my youthful energy and passion into opposing that horrendous imperialistic murder spree and soon found myself in a small protest group called Atlantans for Peace. There I met a socialist activist named Nelson Blackstock who recruited me to an organization named the Young Socialist Alliance. (We really were young once!)

The YSA’s Marxist ideology appealed to me as a comprehensive worldview.  It offered (to use a medical analogy) diagnosis, prognosis, and therapy for the ills of the human race. Diagnosis: capitalism; prognosis: deepening crises ending in utter destruction; therapy: socialism. Whatever the shortcomings of Marxism and its large variety of practitioners, I continue to this day to find it a more satisfying weltanschauung than any of its rivals. The attraction is more than intellectual; it is visceral. The fundamental values of Marxism as I understand them reflect those I feel most deeply: human solidarity with the slumdogs of the Earth, abhorrence of injustice, and loathing of hypocrisy. I think that when people abandon Marxism, their commitment to those values wanes first and then they adjust their belief system to justify their new value system.

From Atlanta and the YSA I graduated to New York City and the Socialist Workers Party, and in October 1972 I was asked to join the staff of the SWP’s theoretical magazine, the International Socialist Review, or ISR.  Les was the editor of the ISR and I was one of two associate editors.

When I arrived at the ISR office, my writing skills were raw and amateurish. I became a professional writer under Les’s tutelage. Whatever ability to formulate a coherent narrative or argument I had gained from formal education was a blunt instrument that my experience on the ISR staff honed into usefulness. I now learn, from Outsider’s Reverie, that my instructor was often himself just a step or two ahead of his pupil. In recounting his own tutelage under Joseph Hansen, Leslie cites numerous “lessons” that were identical to those he imparted to me. Knowing that does not lessen my gratitude to Les.

Another of Les’s remarkable talents was not so easily transmitted. He could stand up in front of an audience on a moment’s notice and deliver a perfectly coherent hour-long lecture on any number of topics, from the history of the Chinese Revolution to the theory of the declining rate of profit. There was nothing superficial about these instantaneous discourses. If recorded and transcribed, they would constitute well-organized essays requiring very little editing to be worthy of publication. Apparently that ability to speak extemporaneously requires qualities of mind that cannot be taught, because I don’t think I could develop it with a lifetime of trying.

I mentioned in the first paragraph that Les’s positive influence on me extended even to my physical state, and I suppose I should explain that.  When I joined the ISR staff I was 31 years old, weighed 235 pounds, and had struggled against obesity my whole life. In Outsider’s Reverie Leslie charitably describes me at first acquaintance as “a big affable man.” Long story short, Les introduced me to the Atkins low-carbohydrate diet, explained its entire theoretical basis to me with great gusto, and convinced me to give it a go. I did and it worked. Six months later I weighed 165 pounds, and have maintained more than half of that weight loss ever since.

The middle chapters of Outsider’s Reverie, which cover the period of Les’s years in the SWP, are the core of the autobiography; they portray the subject in his prime. They were the most interesting to me because they describe his interactions with many other members of the organization, some of whom I knew well and some not so well. As a member of the leadership bodies of the Party, Les had interactions with central leaders—Jack Barnes, Barry Sheppard, Tom Kerry, Farrell Dobbs, Joseph Hansen, George Breitman, and the patriarch, James P. Cannon—most of whom were only remote presences to me. In spite of his later alienation from Marxism, Leslie’s insights into the characters of the people he describes are incisive and valuable in understanding the further development of the SWP.

But how trustworthy is Leslie’s retrospective account of Les’s activities and beliefs? As an eyewitness to much of what he describes in these chapters, I can vouch for their fundamental honesty. In contrast to most “renegades’ narratives,” Leslie’s explication of the Marxist views Les and I once shared strikes me as remarkably accurate. There is no attempt, as far as I could see, to rewrite history and deny committing what he now considers to be the errors of his youth. In fact, there is a page at the beginning of the volume, just after the title page, that lists a number of the books Les wrote and edited in his Marxist days—books of which Leslie is apparently proud although no longer in agreement with their contents. There are frequent intrusions of Leslie’s current critique of Les’s Marxist views, but the dividing line between past and present is kept sharp enough that readers should not be confused.

A phrase I used above—“ the further development of the SWP”—was euphemistic. From the perspective of both Les and myself the Party crashed and burned in the 1980s. Again, Leslie’s account of its decline and fall is, in my opinion, essentially accurate. What he writes about our separation from the SWP (we were both ejected after Kafkaesque “trials”) and what happened afterward is a valuable contribution to the growing body of literature on the Party’s transformation into a grotesque caricature of its former self.

Outsider’s Reverie thus joins Barry Sheppard’s The Party and Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s When Skateboards Will Be Free on the bookshelf of recent SWP memoirs. Comparing these three is difficult because they are for the most part incommensurable. Barry’s book is, as its subtitle states, a political memoir, while Leslie’s and Saïd’s are intensely personal. The latter two are similar both in their high literary value and their antipathy to Marxism but differ in that Leslie (as Les) was actually a central participant in the events he describes, while Saïd was a child (a true “outsider”) observing his parents’ activities in the SWP. Nonetheless, they both offer useful insights into the SWP’s demise. Sheppard’s The Party focuses on the upside rather than the downside of the SWP’s history, but he is working on a second volume that will cover the Party’s self-destruction and his own role in it. Sheppard’s approach is as straight-ahead as it could be. The other two books come at the subject from oblique angles and add an emotional dimension to understanding it. A forthcoming memoir by the late Peter Camejo, which should be in print very soon, will no doubt be another valuable addition to this body of literature.

Joseph Hansen died in January 1979. In retrospect it seems that his departure left a leadership vacuum in the SWP allowing a younger leader, Jack Barnes, to assert full control over the Party and initiate a drastic transformation in its political program and organizational procedures. Les was among the first to recognize these changes as a process of terminal degeneration. Sometime during 1982 he shared his fears with me, but I had already reached similar conclusions. We both joined the opposition current led by George Breitman, Frank Lovell, Lynn Henderson, Jeff Mackler and Nat Weinstein, and within two years the entire opposition had been expelled. Les and I then both joined Socialist Action, which was formed to uphold the historic Trotskyist program of the SWP, but Les did not remain a member long.

I think the last time I saw Les was probably about 1984, and the last time I heard from him as Les rather than Leslie was 1988, when he sent me a copy of an article he had written. By then I already knew that he had begun to question some of the political views we had formerly shared, most notably with regard to the Chinese Revolution. The article, “The Limits of Socialist Planning,” although not an explicitly anti-Marxist critique, seemed to me at the time to represent a decisive step in that direction. And indeed, in Outsider’s Reverie, Leslie confirms that it was “sometime in 1988” when “I was no longer a Marxist.”

I didn’t have to wait for the publication of Outsider’s Reverie to know that Leslie’s ideological outlook had undergone significant revision. Some e-mail correspondence with him a few years ago revealed that he had developed a great deal of sympathy for the Israeli position in the Middle East. I was curious about how such a conversion to Zionism could have come about but could only speculate. I had earlier reached a tentative conclusion that Leslie had adopted “neocon” politics, but I see now that his transformation was far more complex than that.

The key to understanding Leslie’s complicated ideological trajectory appears to me to be found in the title of his memoir. Why did he consider himself an “outsider”? As one of the SWP’s leading journalists and theoreticians, and a member of the Party’s National Committee, he had always seemed to me to be much more of a movement insider than I was. But it seems that he perceived himself, from early childhood on, as in some sense external to the human race as a whole, or at least outside the mainstream of human events. (I am reminded of Temple Grandin’s description of herself as an “anthropologist from Mars” who studies the human race as an external observer, but hers is a case study in Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.)

As a child whose parents immersed him in the fringe world of spiritualist true believers, it is not surprising that he would have felt alienated from “normal” society and separated from the mundane concerns of ordinary human beings. As a result he seems in his youth to have always been drawn to esoteric pursuits. When in young adulthood he encountered the small Trotskyist movement, it was its apparently exotic nature and pariah status that attracted him.

This was a revelation to me, because it is so completely opposite to my own attitude when I first discovered the socialist movement in Atlanta, Georgia. Its smallness (five members, counting myself), its peculiarity in the eyes of nonmembers, its distinct Marxist lingo, its foreign-sounding tradition of calling each other “comrade,” and all the other things that set us apart from the rest of humanity were not selling points that recruited me; they were barriers I had to overcome before I would join. I had no interest in being part of a small group of virtuosi possessed of arcane knowledge. The movement’s only value to me was in its potential to grow to mass proportions. I took the last line of the Internationale seriously: “The international party will be the human race.” As I saw it, the YSA and SWP were the most effective organizers of struggles—against war, against racism, against bigotry and oppression of all kinds—that I thought should and could win majority support.

How did that work out? It was a partial success, because we did indeed play a significant role in building a mass movement against the Vietnam War. The SWP itself, however, did not turn out well, but I still consider the attempt to build it to have been a worthy effort. The point is that I was motivated not by esotericism but by its opposite—not by the SWP’s remoteness from the rest of the human race but by its potential connections to it.

In his memoir Leslie restates his pro-Israel conclusions at some length.  As an indication of the extent to which I did not know him, he now says he considers himself to have been Jewish all along, but there was no hint of any such identity in the years we worked together. I don’t recall whether he ever explicitly told me so, but I remember thinking that he was of Scandinavian ethnicity.

A conversation with Jack Barnes after the June War of 1967, Leslie writes, led him to conclude that although the Party’s official stance had always been against Zionism rather than Jews, the “unchallenged leader” of the SWP held views that “seemed nothing less than anti-Semitism.” Going along with the party line against Israel, he says, “is the one political position I took in those years that I was ashamed of afterward.” I cannot know what Jack Barnes’ private attitude toward Jews may have been then, but I strongly reject any suggestion that the Party’s anti-Zionism was in any sense anti-Semitic. Our pro-Palestinian political stance was founded first of all on solidarity with the Palestinian people as the victims of Israeli repression, but we also made clear our genuine concerns for the Jewish people, who have been misled by Zionism into a death trap in the Middle East. That danger continues to intensify.

Aside from that general statement of position, I won’t attempt a rebuttal of Leslie’s defense of Israel. Much could be also said in response to his new stance against the Cuban Revolution, but it has all been said elsewhere, so I will not repeat it here. As for his explicit embrace of the paranormal and the supernatural, that is not something that lends itself to argumentation anyway. As Jonathan Swift wisely observed, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” I will simply remind Leslie of something Les told me long ago that seems applicable to the present situation: Trotsky once observed of James Burnham that his renunciation of the materialist philosophy of Marxism could ultimately be attributed to “a spark of hope for an after-life.”

Leslie’s lengthy defense of the plausibility of paranormal and supernatural phenomena urges readers to keep an “open mind” on issues such as the existence of ghosts and astral travel. That admonition may seem unexceptionable, but there are limits beyond which giving the benefit of a doubt becomes untenable. As the song  says, “If you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out.”

I will also forego the great temptation to respond in detail to Leslie’s resurrection of all the old quantum theory chestnuts for yet another assault on philosophical materialism. This is what I call “physics mysticism” and it has become something of a bête noire for me. Contrary to the claims of various mystical authors, modern physics, properly understood, does not offer any support at all for paranormal or occult phenomena.

Leslie’s primary argument boils down to an appeal to the authority of physicists. He writes that his investigations revealed that “the common-sense and philosophical-materialist views of reality are quite far from the thinking among cosmologists and physicists” today. Among the ideas that “raise questions about the underlying nature of reality that challenge both ordinary common sense and the viewpoint known as philosophical materialism” is the Many Worlds hypothesis, which, he says, has “become mainstream, with some 30 percent of physicists at a 1999 conference declaring their agreement.” Another such idea is “the quantum mystery of entanglement,” which is bolstered by the authority of “Nobel laureate physicist Brian Josephson at Cambridge,” who suggests that it “may offer a physical basis for reports of telepathy or clairvoyance.”

I never thought debunking the claims of psychics, spiritualists, and assorted purveyors of supernaturalism would be a good use of my own time, but I used to enjoy reading a little magazine named The Skeptical Inquirer, which was devoted to doing exactly that. Some of the magazine’s stalwart contributors were professional illusionists—stage magicians. These were latter-day followers of Harry Houdini, who tirelessly exposed fraudulent claims of other illusionists who pretended to possess supernatural powers. Their exposés of “scientific” ESP studies, flying saucer reports, and phony magicians often involved demonstrating how skillful illusionists like themselves could fool anyone who was predisposed to falling for their illusions.

Charlatans like Uri Geller would frequently trumpet the endorsement of scientists who he had persuaded that he really could bend spoons with his mental powers alone. The illusionists of The Skeptical Inquirer would then pay the same scientists a visit, also fool them with similar parlor tricks, and then show them how they had been duped. After many years of this, they concluded that the easiest people in the world to hoodwink are physicists—because they think they are too smart to be fooled. I am therefore underwhelmed by Leslie’s appeal to the fact that some gullible physicists give credence to reports of clairvoyance and other paranormal phenomena.

I have focused mainly on the chapters of Outsider’s Reverie that concern the author’s life at the time I knew him, but for both of us there was life after the SWP, and Leslie’s memoir continues to be interesting as it proceeds into the 1990s and beyond. Perhaps as another manifestation of his “outsiderness,” he and his wife Jennifer moved into the notorious part of Los Angeles that now serves as the bleak setting for the television drama Southland. As white folks in a mostly nonwhite and immigrant neighborhood, they stood out, and despite the constant gang activity and drug-related violence that surrounded them, they stayed. The matter-of-factness with which Leslie describes witnessing murders from his window is remarkable.

He and Jennifer didn’t see themselves as social missionaries or anything of that sort; they simply wanted to live and let live. They united with other homeowners in their immediate vicinity to form a neighborhood improvement association, and through struggle they survived. They now have “neighbors we have known for two decades, who make this place a small town within the great impersonal city.” The transformation from Les to Leslie has reconciled him with “the actual society we live in,” so that he no longer sees “the United States, its government, its press, and its major institutions” as evil. Leslie has come in from the cold; he is no longer an outsider.

(Cliff Conner is the author of the magisterial People’s History of Science.)

May 19, 2010

Trotsky predicting the rise of the USA

Filed under: financial crisis,Trotskyism,war — louisproyect @ 1:16 pm
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