Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 31, 2012

Mad Russians and the American Left

Filed under: crypto-Stalinism,Russia — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Mad Russians and the American Left

Soon to be a contributor to CounterPunch and Dissident Voice.

Back in the 1930′s, there was a radio comedian named Bert Gordon, who was billed as the Mad Russian. His tagline was “How do you dooo!”, which you can hear in some Warner Brothers cartoons from that period. Gordon was enormously popular in his time, but, alas, he is largely forgotten today. Yet, the spirit of the Mad Russian lives on at some left-wing websites. At CounterPunch, Israel Shamir has become their resident authority on Russia, the Dreyfus Affair, and conspiracy theories.

Not to be outdone, CP’s rival, Dissident Voice, have their own mad Russian, Andre Fomine. His latest article is entitled Pussy Riot, the CIA, and Cultural Terrorism. In this article, we learn the shocking truth about Pussy Riot:

    No doubt it was not a single spontaneous act by a group of dissolute individuals but an episode of a much wider global campaign to shake and eventually ruin traditional societies and institutions. It is being carried out by the same powerful circles which inspired — e.g. offensive caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005.

Oh, my. From Pussy Riot to Danish cartoons. Who could possibly be behind this fiendish global conspiracy? Need you ask?

    It is an open secret that avant-gardism became popular in the West in 1950-1960s thanks to unprecedented support from the CIA and was used by the United States as a powerful ideological weapon.

The CIA. Why, of course! Aren’t they behind everything?

read full post at the Spanish Prisoner

The Bullet Vanishes

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:01 pm

Opening today at the AMC Empire and the AMC Loews Village in Manhattan, in addition to 11 other theaters in 7 other cities throughout the U.S. and Canada, “The Bullet Vanishes” is a detective story set in China during the 1930s. Most of the action takes place in a vast munitions factory owned by a very old-fashioned cigar-smoking villain named Ding who if he had a mustache would be in the habit of twirling it.

Charged with the theft of bullets, a young female factory worker is made an example of by Ding. Forcing her to play Russian roulette, he cries out that “the heavens found her guilty” after the first bullet smashes through her skull. When more dead bodies, also the victims of gunfire, begin showing up in the factory, three detectives are called in to find the culprit, their task complicated by their failure to find a bullet in the respective bodies—hence the title of the film.

The lead detective is Song Donglu (Lau Ching-wan), a middle-aged cross between Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Some reviewers have characterized the film as borrowing liberally from the recent Robert Downey Jr. films whereas they have much more in common with the Hercule Poirot films that starred Peter Ustinov. The Downey Jr. films are typical Cineplex fare geared to video game addicted teenagers while Ustinov’s were far wittier and nuanced. As is the case with Hollywood today, films are marketed to the lowest common denominator. As I have said on other occasions, I doubt that Andre Gunder Frank’s thesis of the rise of China to premier world’s economic power will bear out but this Chinese mass-market confection will give you the kind of pleasure Hollywood features once did.

Alternating between scenes of Song Donglu trying to piece together the science of the vanishing bullet are gunfights reminiscent of John Woo films. And like John Woo films, there is a key character that has an internal struggle over good evil. Indeed, in its more reflective passages, there is an exploration of the question of why “good people do bad things”. This is not a film for the ages but if you are looking for summer entertainment, look no further.

August 30, 2012

Richard Aoki: the Panthers should have participated in electoral politics

Filed under: Richard Aoki — louisproyect @ 4:40 pm

You asked about my thoughts on the party’s turn toward electoral politics and community service programs. That’s a hard one for me because the party’s reformist turn, in my opinion, led to its demise. I’m having difficulty gauging when that turn took place. To me, it could’ve been averted in ’68 when Cleaver ran for president on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. It was my opinion that he should have run as an independent on the Black Panther Party ticket, with Huey or Bobby as vice president. I understand that the Peace and Freedom Party was a much bigger organization and had more money. But for the Black liberation struggle to succeed, a politically independent party had to come out from the national Black American community. By ’68 the BPP was well known, so Eldridge should have run as a Black Panther with the BPP program. Don’t dilute it with the war thing, just the program. So I’m in favor of electoral politics when the organization can participate. If the government says you can run candidates, run your candidate. But there are times when they say your organization is outlawed, then don’t run it. But you don’t go underground until you absolutely have to go underground. Now here’s the second part. The foremost reason for running candidates is not to get elected per se but to get the political program out to the people. It doesn’t matter how many votes you get because you’re still working in the system. It’s doubly sticky if you’re in an alliance with a group that supports the system and you don’t. There’s a contradiction there. There’s no contradiction if you run the Panther on the Panther platform. They have a claim to be revolutionary

August 29, 2012

Side by Side

Filed under: Film,technology — louisproyect @ 8:36 pm

Opening on Friday at the Quad Cinema and Lincoln Center in New York (nationwide roll-out information is here), “Side by Side” is a brilliant exploration of the tensions between traditional film and emerging digital technologies. As someone who has recently spent around $2700 on a JVC prosumer camera and accessories in order to take part in the DIY revolution, the issues are of keen interest to me (see my Vimeo story of the search for a near-perfect video camera below). But even if you own nothing more than a cell phone equipped to take videos or a modest digital camera with the same capabilities you will be richly rewarded if you see this documentary since it touches on a universal experience—going to the movies.

The film was co-produced by Keanu Reeves who also conducts interviews with a virtual Hall of Fame of directors, including George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Danny Boyle, and David Lynch among others. If you—like me—have considered Reeves a lightweight, you will be surprised by his intelligence. He allows the various directors to weigh in on the future of an emulsion-based medium that has already suffered a virtual extinction as testified by Kodak’s outcome.

One of the greatest values of “Side by Side” is its ability to make seemingly obscure technical fine points relevant to the novice. While I am relatively up to speed on digital cameras and editing, the passages that dealt with traditional film were a revelation. For example, there are certain physical limitations in the standard can of film that is used in a traditional camera like a Panavision.

You see that round can on the top of the camera? You are physically limited to 10 minutes worth of shooting per can. After the clapboard is sounded and after the director’s assistant cries out, “Lights, camera, action”, you can only film ten minutes. Not only that, you can never be sure of what the film contains. An inadvertent intrusion of a boom mike means that the entire shot is wasted. After a day’s worth of shooting, the film cans are transported to a laboratory where “rushes” are made and viewed on the following morning in a screening room. This process should be familiar if you’ve seen any movies that have been made about movie-making, especially “Sunset Boulevard”.

Digital cameras change that completely. Monitors attached to the camera give you an instantaneous “WYSIWYG” version that makes slip-ups immediately correctible. Furthermore, there are no limits to the length of a scene being shot. With flash memory capable of recording up to four hours or so, the director has the ability to allow the actors to stretch out. If the film involves improvisation such as John Cassavetes’s classics, you can imagine the power this gives the director and the performers alike.

The earliest use of digital cameras in feature films surprisingly enough was made by the Dogme 95 group that violated its own precept that “The film format must be Academy 35 mm.” Lars Von Trier tells Reeves that digital cameras proved far more useful in conveying another precept, namely that “Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).” The wiki article on Von Trier clearly demonstrates his affinity with John Cassavetes who surely would have opted for digital:

Von Trier often shoots digitally and operates the camera himself, preferring to continuously shoot the actors in-character without stopping between takes. In Dogville he let actors stay in character for hours, in the style of method acting.

If digital cameras empower those with an experimental bent and a low budget, they also have been particularly seductive to big-budget, mainstream directors such as George Lucas and James Cameron. After his initial success with the first “Star Wars” film, Lucas converted to all-digital with the dismal results of “Attack of the Clones”. As one director, still committed to film, tells Reeves, “You can give a thousand people a pencil and paper, it is unlikely that anything memorable will come out of it.” Cameron, on the other hand, was far more successful with “Avatar”, a film that creates a totally artificial world that seems more real than the real one. As Marianne Moore once described poetry: imaginary gardens with real toads in them.

By the same token, the “old guard” using film is faced with the same problems. Even though film has conveyed a much richer visual experience (until very recently with the advent of new cameras from the RED and Arri corporations), you are still left with the challenge of making a compelling story. One of the fiercest bulldogs committed to emulsion is Chris Nolan, the director of the Batman trilogy. Frankly, it matters little to me what kind of camera he uses since the finished product—however it looks—will be a milling, incoherent, reactionary mess.

The bottom line is economics. Digital will eventually replace film because it is cheaper. It will allow a democratizing of the film-making business even at the risk of a lowering of standards. This was what occurred to me during the interview of the uber-hyped Lena Dunham, whose “Tiny Furniture” was shot with a Canon 7D still camera. She states that she never would have made the film if she had to bother with the expense and the logistics of traditional film, with all its overhead and steep learning curve. She says that she came to film as a writer and didn’t want to be encumbered with all the apprenticeship into a virtual priesthood that 35-millimeter requires. Unfortunately she needed much more apprenticeship in writing before she got involved with movie-making.

For those of you who have been even the least bit amused or informed by my own forays into film-making, the video below should serve as a guide to what to look for (or avoid) when dipping your big toe into buying a video camera for productions on the Internet. While “Side by Side” is geared to big-time theatrical productions using cameras that cost upward of $100,000, the rest of us have to make decisions based on a working stiff’s budget. Some of the most compelling videos on Youtube or Vimeo were made with a cell phone. But if you are interested in doing anything like a traditional documentary, as is my intention, you have to think hard about what will suffice, especially with respect to sound reproduction as I learned a bit too late. So without further ado:

August 28, 2012

Richard Aoki on his SWP experience

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 6:05 pm

(As told to Diane Fujino in “Samurai among Panthers”)

Then there were the SWP, a Trotskyist group. To the credit of the SWP, they did oppose the internment of Japanese Americans. There seemed to be two groupings, a generation gap, within the SWP. Virtually all of the older SWP members that I met had been involved in the massive labor movement of the thirties. They had tales to tell about their struggles during the thirties and their trials and tribulations during the forties and fifties under McCarthyism. The younger grouping was coming off the college campuses, many from UC Berkeley. They pushed the Young Socialist Alliance up front more because they were considered less subversive than the parent organization and could serve as a recruiting ground for the party. The YSA was very friendly and I gravitated very slowly to them. They were all White in the SWP/YSA; however, they struck me as being decent White folk who would give serious answers to my seri¬ous—and sometimes not too serious—questions. As I moved a little closer in their direction, they threw something on me that helped me make my deci¬sion. They told me to “go to the classics.” So I delved into radical intellectual history. They told me that even before the Communist Manifesto, read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I thought maybe the English version was a poor translation, so with my little bit of German language and my German-English dictionary, I read the work in its original language. It was still kind of ephemeral. Now I know why, but at that time I was kind of mystified. But I knew that Marx gave a lot of credit to Hegel for helping him set up dialectical materialism, or rather the dialectics part of it because Hegel was no materialist. Hegel actually believed in the mystical. How he can use spirit and mind as the basis for reality is beyond me. Marx was a materialist and that made sense to me.

Then I read the Manifesto. It was a short work, but it was chock-full of goodies and it made me understand war in a new light. I had read a dozen books about war but had never thought about why war was so prevalent in world history. But after reading the Manifesto it became obvious. If there is class struggle and war is the result, you will have continuing warfare. I started thinking about the economic and political basis of war. I thought about slave revolts in Rome. The peasant revolts appeared to be a move toward a redistribution of private property in feudal times. Then we look at wars under the imperialist system. The First World War was just a war of family dynasties in Europe. Having divided up Asia, Africa, and Latin America, they now wanted to redivide it up amongst themselves and that war led to the Second World War. Things dropping into place so fast it made my head spin. The war between 1 Dflland and Germany in World War I should not have been fought by the working classes of the two countries. One of the key questions in that period w.i\ should the workers go along with the imperialist wars? Rosa Luxemburg said, “Workers shouldn’t pick up guns against one another.” I say, “Let the capitalists kill each other over rights in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.”

I also read all the books by Trotsky as well as the works of American Trotskyists such as James P. Cannon. Around that time George Breitman of the SWP started pushing the speeches and writings of Malcolm X. That was an eye-opener to me. I naturally gravitated in that direction because of my association with the Black Muslims. At one point I had seriously contemplated joining the Nation of Islam. Now this may surprise you given my views on religion. But at that time, there were few organizations that I saw doing things to help the African American community. I got to hear Minister Malcolm X speak on several occasions when he visited the Bay Area. I was impressed! Number one, he spoke out against integration. Why is everybody so hot to integrate? Malcolm X said that the United States would sink like the Titanic. Another thing that impressed me was their positive stance on racial identity. Again, Malcolm X was an excellent vehicle for articulating pride in being Black. The Nation of Islam was transforming Negroes into African Americans. I grew up on the block with this one dude who was a musician. The life of a musician is hard and he was strung out on heroin. Then one day I ran into him wearing a suit and a little bow tie and selling Muhammad Speaks [the Nation of Islam’s newspaper]. I said, “Is that you, my brother?” Physically he looked so different. He had been transformed into a Black man. To verify this I looked deeply into his eyes and they were crystal clear. I was stunned that he went from being a living zombie to a human being. It was like a miracle—and I don’t believe in miracles—but to see him transformed like that was inspirational. I wondered, how did this happen? It was his conversion to the Nation of Islam.

Meanwhile I’m getting in debates with White radicals and bourgeois Blacks defending the Black Muslims, which is a weird type of situation to be in, but my position was, show me the beef. What other organization has done this good a job in taking the wretched of the earth and transforming them into decent human beings? True, the mythology and the religious overtones made me a bit nervous. As I was attending Muslim services at the temple on Seventh Street in West Oakland, the minister became very interested in recruiting me to the Nation of Islam. Because of my Oriental background, I think he felt I might have been a reincarnation of their founder, a mysterious Oriental misfit, Mr. Fard. I was interested in becoming a member of the Fruit of Islam, an elite group of young men entrusted with defending the faith.

Socialist Workers Party/Young Socialist Alliance

After doing all this reading, attending meetings, talking with people in coffee houses, that kind of stuff, I became convinced that the YSA/SWP had the correct political line for what I needed. I embraced Trotskyism at that time, or I wouldn’t have joined. I thought Trotskyism was a logical extension of the tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and other revolutionaries. I know there had been a split between Stalin and Trotsky. But I felt Trotsky had made important contributions to the Russian Revolution. Don’t forget, he was head of the Red Army during the Russian Revolution. Trotsky’s internationalism was part of the worldwide socialist movement, whereas Stalin’s “socialism in one country” idea led to what Trotsky called “the degenerate workers state.” Now China was interesting because the Trotskyites had labeled China a degenerate workers state. But I supported the Chinese more than the Soviet Union because I admired the way Mao Tse-tung pulled that revolution off despite lack of support in the Soviet Union. China was playing a much more significant revolutionary role in the Third World. In fact, I knew there was virtually no liberation front in the entire Third World that followed the Moscow line.

A little before I joined, I was approached to write my first political leaflet. This was around 1963. It was in defense of the Black Muslims in general and Ronald Stokes in particular. They had maybe one Black member in the entire YSA/SWP in the whole Bay Area at the time out of a membership of maybe fifty, sixty in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco. Someone had to write about the police killing of Ronald Stokes, and I volunteered because I knew Muslims in the area and it was a bad deal. On the flyer, it has “Berkeley Young Socialist Alliance” and “labor donated”—we got to do that. But I didn’t sign my name to it. I knew better than that. I hadn’t yet joined the YSA or SWP when I wrote the article, primarily because I was still in the army. I didn’t feel free to join anything until October ’64 when I got my honorable discharge.21 This way I couldn’t be accused of doing anything.

Merritt College

I had already been taking vocational classes at Merritt [then Oakland City College] since 1960, but enrolled only sporadically. Then in 1964, I became a full-time student, with the goal of transferring to Berkeley. I knew before I started that Merritt was considered a little Harvard of the East Bay among the community colleges. At that time, Merritt sent more transfer students to Berkeley than any other community college campus in the Bay Area. Now here’s another thing. When Laney Vocational School in downtown Oakland and Merritt Business College in North Oakland came together to create Merritt College and Laney College, they asked for volunteers from the Oakland Unified School District to teach there. They drew their faculty from the University of California. At one point, Merritt would only hire University of California graduates to teach English 1A. So the Merritt faculty were the cream of the crop.

Unlike many students who were taking hobby lobby classes, I was older and serious. My first semester, taking into consideration UC transfer, GE and the major requirements, I took English 1A, Political Science 1, German 1, and Chemistry 1. Chemistry was an interesting class to me when I took it in high school. It did help to advance my occupational career because it qualified me to take the paint technology program offered by Merritt College. Political Science 1 and English 1A fulfilled GE requirements and were transferable. I took German because four semesters of German was required for the chemistry major at Berkeley.

After I joined SWP, one of my “assignments” was to set up a student club at Merritt. YSA/SWP had nothing at Merritt College; I mean they could barely get a foothold at UC Berkeley. So three others YSAers were sent with me to set up the Socialist Discussion Club with the goal of, first, setting up an organizational body to attract those interested in radical ideas and, second, sponsoring public forums where I could invite speakers to talk about issues related to socialism and, hopefully, revolutionary socialism. I had in mind bringing in SWP speakers because that was the organization I was a member of and they had a wealth of talent. We decided to form an independent group rather than a chapter of the Young Socialist Alliance. Don’t forget the old guard leadership of the SWP had just come out of the McCarthy period and were a bit nervous about being too up front. UC Berkeley could start a YSA, but we’re talking about community college, which tends to be more conservative. So we thought a Socialist Discussion Club would be more palatable to the administration, to the community, and to the students, especially with the notion of discussing ideas. But we also wanted to be clear about our politics from the start. We wanted to distinguish ourselves from the regular student government as well as the mainstream political groupings like the Young Democrats and Young Republicans.

I approached my professor of East Asian history, Dr. Yale Maxon, to be the faculty sponsor of our group. He was about the most political person I could think of on campus. He had attended Stanford University, got his doctorate at UC Berkeley, and was a specialist in East Asian history. He was a Caucasian who spoke Japanese and Chinese fluently. He was a naval officer during World War II and became the official interpreter between the war tribunal and Tojo [Japan’s prime minister]. Here he is, a graduate of Stanford, a Naval Intelligence officer, and politically liberal—I was impressed. He was there when I needed the man, busting all his East Asian history and culture on me! I thought I died and gone to hog heaven.

I took Asian History 19A and 19B from Dr. Maxon because I wanted to learn more about the history of the peoples of Japan, China, and India—the three areas he concentrated on. It was a two-semester sequence and by the end of the second semester, he took a liking to me and I enjoyed his teaching. He was a heavy dude. He was asked to find people who knew about social problems because the Ford Foundation was funding projects. He came to me and laid it out. I wanted to address the problems of gifted students from the lower social-economic structures. So I went out and interviewed people. My thing was that given enough support, the gifted students from the lower social-economic structure could survive in the system. About that time, I began to realize that in the gang I used to belong to, there were a lot of bright kids in there with me–my equal and better—but because of circumstances, their potential was not being fully realized. This is probably the only document that I’ve ever written that had a liberal reformist philosophy behind it—we’ve got this problem, we can solve it by throwing in resources. Had I known then what I know now, I would have had a much different bent on this. But when I reread this, it struck me that, from earlier than I remembered, I was concerned about the people and was willing to come up with solutions.

So Dr. Maxon kindly accepted the offer to become the faculty sponsor of the Socialist Discussion Club, which blew up in his face in a way. See, we put an announcement in the student newspaper about our meetings. We printed our flyers on a mimeograph machine and stood in front of the school and said, next week there’s going to be an organizational meeting for progressive-minded students interested in a discussion of socialism of all varieties. To make sure that the radical variety got discussed, we chaired the meeting. A school reporter came to that first meeting and reported that the chair of a new club calls himself a “revolutionary socialist.” In that same newspaper article, Dr. Maxon said he believes in “democratic socialism,” which he defined as working through information rather than violence. I was glad those differences got out because to me, “evolutionary socialists” do a lot of talking, but “revolutionary socialists” get things done. The YSA and SWP were impressed—front-page news! But I also felt a little guilty that maybe I had set Dr. Maxon up in his career. What if they ask him to leave Merritt, where the hell else can he go? I had no bone to pick about the way he distanced himself from revolutionary politics. He didn’t need his protégé getting off on the front page of the Merritt College newspaper. He was a liberal and this showed his political limitations. But he didn’t drop being our sponsor. I was also sweating my own stuff. This was February 1964 and I didn’t get my honorable discharge until October. I didn’t know there was a reporter at our meeting. Still, my primary objective was to keep the club going and it was still around when I left Merritt two years later.

There was a hard core of four of us who started the Socialist Discussion Club. Two of us were from YSA/SWP, including a White woman from YSA who was also a student at Merritt. The other two were White men. Before that first organizational meeting, we met and they said, “I think Richard would make a good chair.” “Yeah, I’ll do it.” I had to. It was my home turf in a sense; I was from Oakland. I was there as a serious student; the others were just signing up, taking a class here and there. I already knew most of the people attending the meeting. I don’t think we ever had more than a dozen members and most of them were White. Most of them were male. I don’t think we had a single African-American as a regular member because the African Americans went into the Soul Students Advisory Council. I was one of the few non-African Americans allowed to attend the meetings of the Soul Students Advisory Council. I said, “You guys can go to our meetings anytime.” Then Bobby [Seale] reciprocated: “Brother, why don’t you come to our meeting.” So our two groups starting linking, not formally but in a collegial way, thanks mainly to Bobby’s leadership of the Soul Students Advisory Council and my leadership of the Socialist Dicussion Club.

Meanwhile, I’m devouring Black literature, mostly protest literature, because of the strong Black nationalist influence at Merritt. I’m saying, “Wow, this is heavy. This is where it’s at.” I gravitated toward the politically loaded Black writers. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time. Richard Wright—I had read Uncle Tom’s Children when I was a child, but I didn’t read his major work, Native Son, until I got to Merritt. As I was exploring ideas about nationalism, I’d ask Bobby and Huey, “What do you think about this?” We’d trade off. I was reading Malcolm X because of the YSA/SWP. Their reaction was, “A White group pushing Malcolm?!” I said, “This dude named George Breitman was a personal friend of Malcolm and a member of SWP and put together some of Malcolm’s speeches.” SWP had a bookstore at that time in Berkeley, so I had access to all that radical literature and carried some of it over to Merritt College. Howard Zinn’s book SNCC: The New Abolitionists, made me feel good about the ascension of H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael into leadership positions in SNCC. Bobby and I just chortled over Melville J. Herskovits’s Myth of the Negro Past. This is a classic because it dispelled the notion that Black people had no culturally transmitted characteristics from Africa, and Herskovits actually did a scientific study to prove that the mannerisms, the music, call-and-response originated in Africa. I read Herbert Aptheker’s works on slavery and the issue of resistance, that there were slave revolts during that period of time.

The Vietnam Day Committee, International Protests, and Robert Williams

Through my work in the SWP/YSA, I got more involved with the antiwar struggle as the war in Vietnam started picking up. I remember there was an antiwar rally in San Francisco with about two thousand protesters. This was around 1963. That may seem early, but the Bay Area was ahead of the nation when it came to protesting the war in Vietnam. That’s when the Vietnam Day Committee popped into the picture. I remember joining the VDC in the middle of ’64. At that time, I had a couple more months in the Standby Reserves until my honorable discharge in October 1964. Plus, they weren’t going to call up the standby Reserves to active duty until the Ready Reserves were called up. So for all intents and purposes, I was on my way out. The reason why I remember ’64 is that Lyndon B. Johnson was running for president of the United States and the Gulf of Tonkin had just happened. I was stunned to hear about the Tonkin incident. It served Johnson well. He issues the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and Congress pushes through for war. But I knew somebody that had a shortwave radio. So we were listening to broadcasts from all over the world. What was Moscow saying about this? The version was different as night and day. So I’m thinking this is kind of shaky. Plus, by this time I had come to the decision that if we’re sending troops seven thousand miles away to fight for freedom, justice, and equality, we should be sending troops to Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi to enforce civil rights.

In the Bay Area, the VDC spontaneously emerged out of the energy of students at Berkeley and other progressive-minded people in the community. It developed and grew so fast that all the Old Left groups sent their cadres into the VDC, not the other way around. Usually, when a group started in those days, they were front groups. But the VDC was the opposite. The VDC just sprung up! I recall being in the YSA/SWP and trying to decide, should we go in. Of course, it was obvious that the antiwar movement was the only game in town outside of the Civil Rights Movement, which was just toddling along. So the Old Left had an opportunity to work a mass movement that they hadn’t had in thirty years. Their membership exploded because all of a sudden, young people were thirsting for direction. The VDC was a broad-based organization. In fact, every major Old Left organization, with all their different political tendencies, was in the VDC. It was incredible in a way that all these different groups could get along in the VDC. We even printed the perspectives of the various Left organizations in a pamphlet, Did You Vote for War?

So I’m in the VDC looking for a way to make myself a valuable contributor. But I didn’t want to be too public because I’m still in the army. One faction of the VDC was talking about stopping the troop trains. I said, “Whoa! If that’s what you want to do, okay. But that’s a little shaky there for me.” I mean, they could have gotten killed. Then I accidentally bumped into an international group that was part of the VDC. What happened was that my fiancée at the time was in the YSA and VDC. Her best friend was Native American, Cherokee, and also active in the VDC. They had met working together in the same department at UC Berkeley. So through her job, her friend was mentoring all the new graduate students and helped get foreign students into the VDC. They were invaluable sources of information because they had direct connections to Third World countries. I was most interested in Third World peoples and politics, so we set up the International Secretariat of the VDC, which was a clearing house for overseas correspondents. I was stunned to discover the pockets of resistance all over the world and the kinds of anti-American, anti-Vietnam War sentiments emanating from those countries.

The VDC wanted to expand further overseas. The international students started corresponding, mostly by letters. For example, a group in Japan would send a letter about their antiwar activities to the VDC Berkeley. We’d type their response and encourage them to participate in the International Days of Protest. The International Committee put together a booklet to circulate information on the general antiwar movements and the International Days of Protest activities going on around the world. Most of the articles were garnered and written by Third World graduate students, non-U.S. citizens, so It was best not to publicize their names. Suzanne Pollard and I were the only ones who used our real names in that publication. Suzanne was the director of the publication and a grad student at Berkeley. I had guts enough to put my name on it because everyone already knew I was an activist. We had gotten so much correspondence that we divided the report in sections—Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The section on Asia was quite extensive. I had corresponded with people in Japan the most, so this was the lengthiest section. We had excerpts of statements against the war from university professors, students, socialist organizations, and labor unions in Japan.

The antiwar movement really started to heat up after the VDC formed. I remember going to Washington, D.C., for a large rally against the Vietnam War, I went on behalf of the International Secretariat of the VDC because it was too dangerous for most foreign students to attend. That’s when Fanon was starting to get to me. Yeah, I’d do it for the cause! SWP also sent a large delegation, I think one whole floor in a hotel had SWP and YSA members representing every chapter across the nation. So I was wearing two hats when I went to Washington in support of the people. I was representing the International Secretariat of the VDC and I was voting in the SWP/YSA bloc.

Now here’s the corker. The VDC was considered so dangerous that the head quarters in Berkeley was dynamited. The scariest part is that the night it was dynamited, I was in there earlier that evening, working the mimeograph machine in the back room. And it was that back room that got blown to bits. II you look at the newspapers at the time, there were photographs showing it and I said, “Boy, oh boy, they’re taking us seriously.” It wasn’t like I thought the Feds did it. I mean, it was pretty much common knowledge that local right-wing nuts had decided to make their move because they saw us as a Communist-front organization.

i forgot to mention that I contacted Robert F. Williams, who was living in exile in Cuba, to try to enlist his support for the International Days of Protest. The SWP was the backbone of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. So it was through the SWP that I got connected with Rob and got acquainted with the Cuban Revolution. I wrote him a short note in September 1965 and sent the letter through Vernel Olson of the FPCC in Ontario, Canada. I told Rob Williams that because of “your stature as a leader and spokesman for the vanguard elements of the Black people of America, along with your close affiliation with the leaders of forces of national liberation struggles,” I was contacting him on behalf of the International Committee of the VDC. We wanted his help in getting the word out that a “segment of the American people is actively opposing the war in Vietnam. We would like to spread this information to the entire world since the basic questions involved, opposition to American Imperialism, self determination of colonial people, racism, genocide, etc., are of an international nature.” The next thing I know I got a reply from Rob himself in Cuba. I almost had a heart attack. It boggles my mind that he even wrote back to me. By that time, I’d read Rob Williams’s book, Negroes with Guns and also Truman Nelson’s book, People with Strength. Nelson was a radical journalist and his book, also on Rob Williams and the incident in Monroe, was much more political. Today, not too many people are aware of who Robert Williams is and what he did. But he was one of our heroes. In the 1950s, he was an NAACP chapter president from Monroe, North Carolina, somebody you wouldn’t think would he too radical. He did something different—he armed his branch of the NAACP against Klan activities. He had troubles with the national headquarters of the NAACP because this was not their line. In the process of struggle, he was framed on a kidnapping charge and had to leave the country. He next appeared in Havana, as a guest of Fidel Castro. After reading those two books and newscasts and newspaper accounts, I began to develop a healthy respect for Rob Williams.

I thus began my correspondence with Robert F. Williams. About six months later, all of a sudden his letters started coming from China; he had left Cuba to live in China. I agreed to become a distributor for his political newsletter, the Crusader. As I was getting more active, I began asking around to see if there were any more Asian American radicals. I found out that a Japanese American woman in Harlem was also corresponding with Rob and distributing the Crusader. That’s how I first heard of Yuri Kochiyama. I didn’t discover until later that Yuri was there when Malcolm X was assassinated. At that time, there wene only a handful of radical Asian Americans that I knew of. There was Grace Lee Boggs in Detroit, Shoshana Arai was in Chicago working with SNCC, and Yuri Kochiyama in the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Harlem. I knew about the Japanese American members in the Communist Party (CP), but I didn’t want to have anything to do with them. Getting back to Yuri and myself, I’ve always maintained that if I had been in New York, I probably would have joined the Republic of New Africa and if Yuri had been in California, she would probably join the Black Panthers.

I was surprised by Rob Williams’s move to China, but I politically understood that the Sino-Soviet split was behind it. I was turned off by how rhetorical the debate was until I began to understand the reality of the politics. The Soviet Union was supporting Cuba, buying its sugar at a good price, so Cuba had to side with the USSR. But in general, the revolutionary struggles of the Third World in the late fifties and early sixties did not embrace the Moscow variety of communism. I sided with China because they seemed to be more Third World oriented and the stronger supporter of the African American liberation way back when the Civil Rights Movement was chugging along. If you look at history, there’s that photograph of Mao-tse Tung welcoming Robert F. Williams and it wasn’t too many years later that Huey P. Newton and other Panthers were warmly greeted by Mao. As a Japanese American, I sure didn’t appreciate that the CP didn’t step forward to defend my people when we went to the camps, and the CP created a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany! Give me a break.

Even after Rob Williams left Cuba, I remained a strong supporter of the Cuban Revolution. So it may surprise you that in the early 1960s, I was reticent to support the Cuban Revolution. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was still in the military and packing a M1 Garand, ready to defend our country against this invasion ninety miles from home and coming our way. I was only beginning to understand about Third World politics. Still, even I understood that the Cuban Revolution was creating fundamental change; it wiped out the organized gambling and criminal interests in Cuba, stopped prostitution, and improved race relations. I admired Fidel for his Moncada fortress attempt, even though it was a fiasco. That attack on the Moncada fortress was like John Brown’s attempt to take Harpers Ferry, where a group of people armed themselves hoping to seize military control, especially the arsenal, to arm the people so that they could struggle against slavery militarily. In the Moncada attack, Fidel was imprisoned and most of the Cuban group was killed. John Brown too was killed. But John Brown’s actions sparked the American Civil War and Fidel’s, the Cuban Revolution. When I found out about Fidel’s speech “History Will Absolve Me,” delivered at his trial for the Moncada incident, I was impressed. Fidel outlined why he did what he did, that this was not an adventuristic, anarchistic, terroristic move, but it was something that had to be done. I liked the way he integrated the United States Constitution as justification for his self-defense actions. That floored me, to see somebody able to take United States political philosophy and turn it 180 degrees, when he said, “You know, when you’re oppressed, you got a right to throw the shackles off and rebel.” To this day I have a copy of Fidel’s speech before the court. Pardon me for getting excited about that, but the Cuban Revolution kind of slipped up on me.

On Leaving the SWP

I’m a busy little bee. I’m in the Black Panther Party and still a member of the Socialist Workers Party and the Young Socialist Alliance, though my activities with them were minimal. My relationship with the YSA/SWP had gotten strained ever since I delivered that report on the Black Nationalist conference. Right after that, the BPP began and I’m working to build the party. Around February 1967 I met with the executive committee of the YSA/SWP to deliver one more report on what the Left called “the Negro Question.” They were stunned by what I was doing as a member of the BPP. They went into executive session, came back, and said that I would be asked to be placed out of my assignment as the resident expert on the Negro Question. They wanted me to work on something else. I innocently asked why and forced them to admit that they were apprehensive about my work with the BPP because it could lead to some heavy-duty stuff and then if my SWP membership is revealed, it might not reflect well on the SWP. I said something about, “I thought the SWP was in the forefront of the struggle, the most advanced among the White groups out there. The SWP has a golden opportunity to rank up with the cutting edge of the national liberation movement here. It’s reaching the point to either fish or cut bait.” Around this time, I was told that the senior leadership thought that I was a member of the Johnson-Forest Tendency. This was the tendency comprised of C. L. R. James, Grace Lee Boggs, and Raya Dunayevskaya. I’d never met them and I didn’t read their position paper until years later. By the time I discovered them, things were moving too damn fast and I didn’t have time to link up with them.

The SWP leadership replied to the effect that “well, you can’t be a member of both groups. You’ve got to choose.” I was pissed. I went to Huey, “I got a little curve ball thrown at me.” I told them what it boiled down to and asked how he felt about my membership and what I was doing. Huey said in a sense, “You’re a Black Panther. I don’t care what other organizations you’re involved in.” The BPP did have a prohibition about members belonging to other Black liberation groups, which was probably the result of the struggle with the Republic of New Africa and Karenga’s US Organization. But my being in the SWP was no problem to Huey. Basically, he said, “It’s up to you, Richard.” I thought, “Oh shit, I got to make a decision again.” So I wrote my letter of resignation and hand-delivered it to the SWP leadership.

When I cut through all the pluses or minuses, it was generally a plus for me to be in the SWP. I had invested my time with the main Trotskyite political tendency in this country for a number of years. There were a lot of decent people in that organization. I have respect for the senior leadership that struggled for proletarian gains during the thirties and forties, and who went through the political repression of that particular group. I developed some personal friendships there that go on to this day. But in the sixties, there was a difference between the older and younger generation. When I say my report on the Black nationalist conference was not well received, let me put it this way. As I gauged the audience—there were about a hundred members there, almost all White—I noticed that the older leadership didn’t seem to appreciate some of the things I had said. This was possibly due to the fact that they had been excluded from attending the conference, or partially from the fact that maybe they didn’t understand the full significance of Black nationalism, or maybe they did. The younger members, who were mostly students from Berkeley, my generation, I seemed to be more enthusiastic. Those that wanted to come with me but couldn’t because of their race became quiet supporters of the Panthers. To this day, I don’t regret the decision to leave, and I was able to step to a higher level as a result of that break.

August 27, 2012

Capitalism and the ‘undeniable’ rise in living standards

Filed under: economics,socialism — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

Two days ago I received an email from Ed Leahy, a Marxmail subscriber:

I am a nascent Marxist and am now almost continually struggling against the general Capitalist ideological current that seems to have been internalized by pretty much everybody I know. I have found that the main argument they make for Capitalism is the ‘undeniable’ rise in living standards that has been engendered under a capitalist economy. I have been finding this a hard point to interrogate, as my own narrative is the same as theirs, i.e. the capitalist West has the highest standard of living, newly capitalist China is now lifting itself out of poverty etc. As a Marxist, how would you respond such a defense of Capitalism?

I first heard this argument back in a 8th grade social studies class in 1957 or so. We were being introduced to the theory of communism that went something like this. Back in the 1850s, kids, there was lots of poverty. Children your age worked in factories. Entire families lived in a one-room apartment without indoor plumbing. TB and other diseases were common in poor neighborhoods. When Karl Marx saw all this, he decided that capitalism was an evil system. He was not able to anticipate the ability of the system to create the kind of economic growth that your parents would be able to enjoy. (This was the time of split-level houses, Cadillac tail fins, winter vacations in Miami Beach, mom staying at home making chocolate cookies, and all the rest.)

After we got the lecture on how great the capitalist system was, the next topic was how rotten communism was. We were asked to read George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. That’s what happens, kids, when you try to set up a classless society. The pigs will make your life miserable while they benefit from your labor. We got a big chuckle out of the line “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” By my junior year in high school, I had begun to identify with the cultural avant-garde probably because I was too short to play basketball. When I heard that you could go to prison in Russia for painting like Jackson Pollack–that cinched it. Communism was definitely not for me.

One of the more interesting observations made on capitalism’s ability to survive and even create rapid economic growth can be found in Michael Lebowitz’s newly published “The Contradictions of Real Socialism”, the latest in a series of books he has written about 21st century socialism. Instead of the vulgar Marxist version of the system tottering on its last legs, Lebowitz makes the case that the system works in its own vicious fashion:

For many critics of capitalism, though, the system is on the verge of collapse. It is fragile—requiring for some only a cacophony of loud “No’s” or a resounding chorus of “silent farts” for it to crumble. For others, since capitalism is about to enter its final economic crisis (or, indeed, has been in it for decades), it is time to document the dying days of this doomed system. But for Marx, it was not so simple—capitalism was not fragile. Despite his hatred of a system that exploited and destroyed both human beings and nature, he understood that capitalism is strong and that it tends to create the conditions for its reproduction as a system.

If you want to read one of the more sophisticated defenses of the proposition that the capitalist system can “deliver the goods”, I recommend Berkeley economist Brad DeLong’s Understanding Marx, a lecture that commends Marx for certain insights but basically dismisses him on the same grounds as my 8th grade social studies teacher:

It looks as though Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto–and made their permanent intellectual commitments–in 1848, at the nadir of living standards as far as British Lancashire textile workers were considered. Their assertion that wages declined as capitalism progressed looks good up until 1848 if you take Manchester as your guide. Thereafter it proved wrong. By 1880 manual workers were earning 40% more than in 1850.Parliament began to regulate conditions of employment in the 1840s. Parliament began to regulate public health in the 1850s. Parliament doubled the urban electorate in 1867, just as volume 1 of Capital was published. Parliament gave unions official sanction to bargain collectively in the 1870s.

Marx appears to have responded to this not by rethinking his opposition to markets as social allocation mechanisms or by reworking his analyses of the dynamics of economic growth, capital accumulation, and the real wage level, but by blaming British workers for not acting according to his model in response to predictions by Marx of continued impoverishment and ever-larger business cycles that had not come to pass. Boyer quotes Marx writing in 1878 about how British workers “had got to the point when [the British working class] was nothing more than the tail of the Great Liberal Party, i.e., of the oppressors, the capitalists.” And Boyer quotes Engels writing in 1894 of how “one is indeed driven to despair by these English workers… bourgeois ideas… viewpoints… narrow-mindedness…”

In 1916 Lenin wrote an article titled “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” that contained this quote from Engels and others from Marx as well to explain why reformist leaders voted for war credits. Closely associated with this viewpoint is the notion that workers in countries like the U.S. and Britain constituted a “labor aristocracy” that was incapable of challenging the system because of the privileges it enjoyed. In the 1960s and 70s Maoist activists expanded on this theory in support of the notion that just as the country surrounded and eventually took control of the city in the Chinese Revolution, so would peasant nations surround industrialized nations in the final showdown with capitalism. Taken to its extreme, you get the SDS Weathermen dismissing workers as endowed with “white skin privilege” and constituting an obstacle to revolution.

Adopting Lenin’s 1916 article in a mechanical fashion could lead to a failure to understand the way in which a high standard of living in one period would be considered meager in another. If you took someone living in London in 2012 earning the average working class wage, put him or her in a time machine, and set the dial to 1916, they would feel impoverished. The same thing would apply for someone in 1916 being sent back to 1856. Poverty is constantly being redefined on the basis of society’s expectations. That is why revolutions are often bred not by absolute poverty but by the erosion of living standards. Syria’s economy was expanding fairly rapidly under Baathist rule but a combination of factors, including an increase in the cost of food staples, led to massive discontent. Ordinarily a government with mass support can survive such a crisis, as Cuba did after the end of Soviet support in the early 90s, but an iron-fisted dictatorship that has close ties to “crony capitalists” will not.

After WWII, the U.S. economy began to expand rapidly. For the leadership of the Trotskyist movement, the only possibility was a repeat of the 1930s—certainly by the early 1950s. They were the sort of people that Lebowitz referred to as believing that the system is always on the verge of collapse. One leader was not convinced of this. Felix Morrow, the author of an excellent book on the civil war in Spain, warned against a vulgar Marxism that could not see capitalism’s resiliency. I wrote about Morrow’s analysis about 12 years ago relying on an article by Peter Jenkins titled Where Trotskyism Got Lost: World War Two and the Prospect for Revolution in Europe. Fortunately that article is now online in the Trotskyist archives of MIA. Instead of doom and gloom, Morrow predicted improvements (quoting from Jenkins):

The short term perspective is that American imperialism will provide food and economic aid to Europe and will thus for a time appear before the European masses in a very different guise than German imperialism. This difference between the two great imperialisms aspiring to subjugate Europe is based on the difference in the economic resources of the two. The Nazis had nothing to offer to Europe; they had to subjugate Europe purely by means of military force, and after conquering each country, they had to plunder it of its food and other materials. The United States, on the other hand, will in the first instance enter the occupied countries of Europe ostensibly not as their conqueror but in the course of driving out the Nazis. Unlike Nazi occupation, American occupation will be followed by improvement in food supplies and in the economic situation generally. Where the Nazis removed factory machinery and transportation equipment the Americans will bring them in. These economic contrasts, which of course flow entirely from the contrast between the limited resources of German capitalism and the far more ample resources still possessed by American capitalism, cannot fail for a time to have political consequences.

Here was how I summed up the debate:

Morrow stood his ground against all attacks. He appeared as a heretic. One of the charges against him made by [Fourth International leader] Pierre Frank contained an interesting thought. If Morrow was right, what implications would this have for the world Trotskyist movement? Frank seemed to be thinking out loud when he said:

The false perspective of Morrow has a farther implication if it is really drawn to its logical end. If American imperialism has such inexhaustible powers that it can, as he thinks, improve the standard of living in Europe, then of course there exists a certain basis, on however low a foundation, for the establishment of bourgeois-democracy in the immediate period ahead. From that we must assume the softening of class conflicts for a period that the class struggle will be very largely refracted through the parliamentary struggle, that for a time the parliamentary arena will dominate the stage. If that were true, we would have to revise our conception of American imperialism. And of course the Trotskyist movement would have to attune its work to these new conditions — conditions for a while of slow painful growth, propaganda, election campaigns, etc., etc.

Frank’s fears were of course grounded in reality. This would be the fate of the Trotskyist movement and the rest of the left. The 1950s were not even a period of slow, painful growth, however. They were a period of decline. The FI only woke up to new realities when it shifted toward the student movement in the early 1960s. After a period of sustained growth, it returned to its “catastrophist” roots and proclaimed in 1975 that the workers were ready to launch an attack on capitalist power in the United States and the other industrialized countries. SWP leader Jack Barnes not only led this return to Comintern ultraleftism, he did the early communists one better and predicted war, fascism and proletarian revolution nearly every year or so for the last 20.

Although there were attempts by Trotskyist leaders to come to grips with the new realities, they were always boxed in by the need to convince the membership that revolution was coming in the not too distant future. When I joined in 1967, I was told that capitalism would generate an economic crisis but nobody could have anticipated back then that it would take just over 40 years for it to transpire. The capitalist crisis that is shaking the U.S. involves a lowering of the standard of living not unlike the one that has produced revolutions in the Middle East. So far, the only people to respond in a significant fashion have been the largely student and “informal economy” members who occupied Zuccotti Park and other public spaces. A massive attack on the working class standard of living has been taking place over the past 4 years at least, with public service unions on the front lines in Wisconsin.

It is difficult to predict the eventual outcome but the one thing we can be sure about is the incapacity of the system to produce the next wave of economic growth such as the one that occurred just around the time I was born. If you take into account that the economic upsurge was largely a function of the destruction of excess capital through bombs, bullets, grenades, and artillery shells, then the corollary is continued stagnation. Capitalism cannot survive another world war since it will be fought with atomic weapons, hence eliminating the possibility of the system being able to reproduce itself. We are left with Rosa Luxemburg’s famous counterposition: socialism or barbarism.

The World War confronts society with the choice: either continuation of capitalism, new wars, and imminent decline into chaos and anarchy, or abolition of capitalist exploitation.

With the conclusion of world war, the class rule of the bourgeoisie has forfeited its right to existence. It is no longer capable of leading society out of the terrible economic collapse which the imperialist orgy has left in its wake.

Means of production have been destroyed on a monstrous scale. Millions of able workers, the finest and strongest sons of the working class, slaughtered. Awaiting the survivors’ return stands the leering misery of unemployment. Famine and disease threaten to sap the strength of the people at its root. The financial bankruptcy of the state, due to the monstrous burdens of the war debt, is inevitable.

Out of all this bloody confusion, this yawning abyss, there is no help, no escape, no rescue other than socialism. Only the revolution of the world proletariat can bring order into this chaos, can bring work and bread for all, can end the reciprocal slaughter of the peoples, can restore peace, freedom, true culture to this martyred humanity. Down with the wage system! That is the slogan of the hour! Instead of wage labor and class rule there must be collective labor. The means of production must cease to be the monopoly of a single class; they must become the common property of all. No more exploiters and exploited! Planned production and distribution of the product in the common interest. Abolition not only of the contemporary mode of production, mere exploitation and robbery, but equally of contemporary commerce, mere fraud.

In place of the employers and their wage slaves, free working comrades! Labor as nobody’s torture, because everybody’s duty! A human and honorable life for all who do their social duty. Hunger no longer the curse of labor, but the scourge of idleness!

Only in such a society are national hatred and servitude uprooted. Only when such a society has become reality will the earth no more be stained by murder. Only then can it be said: This war was the last.

In this hour, socialism is the only salvation for humanity. The words of the Communist Manifesto flare like a fiery menetekel above the crumbling bastions of capitalist society:

Socialism or barbarism!

What Does the Spartacus League Want? (December 1918)

August 25, 2012

Syria: Neither Riyadh nor Tehran but Popular Revolution

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:21 pm

New Left Project

Syria: Neither Riyadh nor Tehran but Popular Revolution

by Jamie Allinson

Just as the Assad regime in Syria approaches what appears to be its terminal decomposition, prominent figures on the Anglophone left are hurrying to defend it—or at least to oppose its opponents. The anti-anti-dictatorship crowd includes not only sub-Ickean conspiracists such as Michael Chossudovsky but also people one would have expected to know better, such as  Tariq AliGeorge Galloway  and John Rees. Some of the arguments are expressed in more inflammatory style than others—such as Galloway’s claim that the Syrian uprising is a ‘massive international conspiracy’—but they follow a similar line. This is that: the Syrian revolution, whether it has popular roots or not, has now become a purely military endeavour of Sunni supremacists acting as the catspaws of a Saudi-Qatari-U.S. (perhaps also Franco-Zionist) effort to topple Assad, the last redoubt of the anti-imperialist forces in the region. This externally funded rebellion represents an extension of the U.S. imperial project launched after the 9/11 attacks, embracing the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Stories of Syrian government atrocities in the Western media are the counterparts of the lies circulated in 2002-3 about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, and therefore must be discredited. The only solution to be hoped for is a negotiated peace (a prospect also raised by parts of the Syrian opposition) leaving some remnant of the Ba’ath regime in place, thereby denying the U.S. and its co-conspirators the prize of a pliant regime on Israel’s front-line and a significant weakening of the Iranian position. These arguments are not made solely by Anglophone commentators: outside of Egypt’s revolutionary currents , they are extremely common on the Arab left. One need only glance at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar to find the Arab revolutions damned tout court as examples of “Political Sunnism”.

Read in full

August 24, 2012

The Richard Aoki imbroglio

Filed under: african-american,repression — louisproyect @ 11:12 pm

Richard Aoki

Seth Rosenfeld

On August 20th an article by Seth Rosenfeld in the San Francisco Chronicle touched off a combination of soul-searching and finger-pointing on the left, particularly those segments that view Richard Aoki, a well-known activist who killed himself in 2009, as an icon. Rosenfeld claims that Aoki was an FBI informant who supplied the guns borne by the Black Panther Party in a famous photograph of the group on the steps of the state capitol building. Rosenfeld is on a publicity blitz for his new book “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power” that includes a chapter on Aoki’s alleged ties to the FBI.

For those who have a considerable stake in Aoki’s reputation, such as his biographer Diane Fujino, it became imperative to discredit Rosenfeld’s findings. It was also important for those who believe that the Panthers’ legacy is mostly positive to weigh in on Fujino and other Aoki supporters’ side. Rosenfeld became seen as a kind of gatekeeper for the 1960s who wanted to quarantine the Panthers in much the same manner as Chris Hedges was seen by black bloc supporters not only as an enemy of “diversity of tactics” but of the most effective group in the Occupy movement.

On August 23rd Rosenfeld and Fujino were the featured guests on Democracy Now where they aired out their differences. Rosenfeld stated that he has no way of knowing whether the FBI was involved in providing the guns or even if they knew Aoki was giving them to the Black Panthers. Fujino mainly urged the audience to not leap to any conclusions about Aoki based on the files obtained through FOIA since there was not enough to go on, including the incorrect reference to him having the middle name Matsui.

Fujino also raised the possibility that Aoki was the posthumous victim of “snitch jacketing”. If that was the case, one has to ask why retired FBI agent Wesley Swearingen, who reviewed the FBI files with Rosenfeld, would want to lend himself to this cause in light of what Rosenfeld reported:

One of the documents that was released was a 1967 FBI report on the Black Panthers. And this report identified Richard Aoki as an informant. It assigned him the code number, T-2, for that report. But I still wanted to find out more about it, so I spoke with a former FBI agent named Wesley Swearingen. Mr. Swearingen had been in the FBI for over 25 years. He had retired honorably. He had later become a critic of the FBI’s political surveillance, and particularly he had helped vacate the murder conviction of a Black Panther named Geronimo Pratt.

I should mention that the FBI directed Aoki to join the CP and the SWP before he ever got involved with the Panthers. Years later when the SWP sued the FBI, Swearingen proved to be more principled than the average snoop. As a witness, he revealed that the FBI was lying when it claimed that it was committed to protecting the identity of its informants. Why he would turn around years after he had retired to tarnish the reputation of Richard Aoki is something of a mystery, unless you believe that a plot is afoot to deradicalize the Occupy movement or something like that. And to establish his credibility even further, Swearingen took the trouble to write a book titled “FBI Secrets” for South End Press, with a laudatory introduction by Ward Churchill. Whew!

Scott Kurashige, the Director of Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies at University of Michigan, weighed in on Aoki’s behalf the day after Rosenfeld’s article had appeared in the S.F. Chronicle. Using Facebook, Kurashige claims that Aoki was exploited by Rosenfeld to serve a liberal political agenda by focusing on Aoki’s involvement with the TWLF (Third World Liberation Front) at Berkeley that was supposedly “violent” and turned off many white students. In contrast to the TWLF, Rosenfeld endorses the “good, wholesome” Free Speech Movement. This amounts to a “white liberal narrative of the 1960s that at least in part wants to blame violent activists of color (even if in this case they are steered by the FBI) for the demise of liberalism and the rise of neoconservativism.” Well, gee whiz, who wants to be part of a “white liberal narrative” so I guess it makes sense to defend Aoki against various and sundry charges.

According to Kurashige, Rosenfeld strongly suggests that Aoki working on behalf of the FBI sparked the TWLF’s “violent” turn. Diane Fujino’s version of Richard Aoki makes it even more unlikely that he would have acted to derail the student movement at Berkeley. He simply didn’t fit the profile of a “disruptive” element:

And in another way, Richard Aoki does not fit the profile because many times, especially if they’re agent provocateurs or even infiltrators, they’re either low-key or they are people who try to get people to constantly engage in provocative and disruptive and risky behaviors. And Richard was a scholar. He’s known for giving—the things that he’s best known for—well, until this week—was giving the first guns to the Black Panther Party to support their police patrols to stop police brutality in the black neighborhoods. And Richard was a scholar also. He was advanced theoretically and could spar theoretically with anyone around him. And that is not a typical profile of an infiltrator.

Hearing all these different versions of what Richard Aoki did or did not do motivated me to plunk down $43.55 for Seth Rosenfeld’s book and read the chapter on Aoki. Was he more like a Symbionese Liberation Front member or more like someone addressing a plenary session at a Modern Language Association conference? Maybe a bit of both?

Most of it was what I expected and what has been already reported but I stopped dead in my tracks when I read this:

On March 14, the TWLF central committee debated whether to end the strike. Richard Aoki argued for escalating the violence. “I was willing to risk everything for keeping the struggle going,” he told the author. “We’d have taken on the National Guard. Then it would have gotten real violent. I figured we would have gotten more if we continued it just a bit, even though I he threat of massive escalation, because of bringing in of the National Guard, would’ve really resulted in some stuff. But we had plans. I had plans.”

The plan was to steal guns from National Guard armories. “We’d have had their weapons,” he said. At that time, Aoki recalled, there were “National Guard armories all over this area, stocked with that stuff, and we knew where they were. My faction was willing to take the strike to a higher level.” At a meeting in Stiles Hall, however, weary strikers voted overwhelmingly to end the strike.

Frankly it did not matter to me at this point whether Aoki was urging the theft of guns from the armories to use against the National Guard in a firefight upon the instructions of his ostensible FBI handler or whether he was urging this course as a “sincere” genuine ultraleft numbskull. It is practically beside the point. The 1960s movement was largely destroyed because of such adventures, from Weatherman bombs to the kind of militarism that Aoki espoused. The left has to be grounded in reality, not fantasies drawn from “Battle of Algiers” or an NLF poster.

I should add that it was not just febrile notions of guerrilla warfare that destroyed the left. Spared for a time from ultraleft self-immolation, the SWP also crashed and burned largely as a result of a self-deception of another sort. Instead of styling itself as urban guerrillas, the SWP bought into another fantasy, namely that the late 1970s—the time of cocaine, disco, capitalist expansion and general retreat from the 60s radicalization—marked the onset of a working-class radicalization that would culminate in a bid for power led by the party’s brilliant leader. The collapse of the SWP assumed a different dynamic than that of the SDS or the Panthers but fell into the same general category: political psychosis.

I have no idea whether Aoki was an FBI agent or not, although if I was a betting man I would put money on it. And if he was, I would not be surprised if he maintained connections with the bureau all the while he was convincing his comrades that he was on the level. The mind of such people, who get paid to infiltrate left groups, can be exceedingly complex. Ed Heisler was a national committee member of the SWP for a number of years, largely on the strength of his work in the railroad workers union. He was someone who had fully absorbed Marxist theory even if he never believed a word of it. His speeches at Oberlin conventions were always a hit with the membership. And all the while he was on the FBI payroll.

This is something that the great and late Walt Contreras Sheasby posted to Marxmail in June 2004:

Hello Friends-

Paranoia is one of the biggest problems facing the left. But occasionally we discover suspicious interventions, such as a former FBI informant who may have continuing links to the government. We need to set this former informant aside from our Green Party discussions without implying that this person is currently acting as a government informant.

Apparently there is no doubt that the 61-year-old Ed Heisler who is on many Green lists is the same Ed Heisler who was an FBI informant in the late 1960s and 1970s. I was reluctant to reach such a conclusion without fairly conclusive evidence.

Heisler himself provides sufficient circumstantial evidence in his Yahoo profile for the camejoforpresident list, which is appended below. Immediately above that I have pasted a copy of a blurb on Heisler’s book in 1976 on the dissidents in a Teamster affiliate that I discovered.

Finally I want to say a few words about the Black Panther Party. Again I have no idea whether the FBI was behind Aoki providing guns to them but it really doesn’t matter. The initial splash that was made when they appeared armed in public was very good for the Black liberation struggle in the same fashion that Robert F. Williams’s NAACP-based (!) Black Armed Guard was a step forward in 1959. The idea of self-defense against racist terror was something that most people could understand to one degree or another even when the media tries to depict people like Williams or Malcolm X as promoting violence. When the Panthers marched on the California state house in 1967 carrying weapons in protest against a law that would prevent carrying them in public, they electrified the Black community and gave many young radicals, including me, the hope that revolution was on the agenda.

But by 1971 the Black Panthers were on the ropes, victims of FBI provocations and armed assaults as well as their own detachment from reality. The August 1971 issue of their newspaper should be seen by anybody who is inclined toward rosy-tinged nostalgia for a group that made terrible mistakes despite the best of intentions (of course, the same thing was true of Che Guevara in Bolivia.) There’s an article hailing “revolutionary suicide” as well as a cartoon of a Black Panther astride a dead cop with the words “The Lumpen Will Rise to Deal With the Oppressor”.

In many ways the orientation to the “lumpen” was what destroyed the Panthers. Instead of trying to figure out a way to build an organization of Black workers, including bus drivers, Con Ed utility people and sanitation workers, they oriented to petty thieves and drug dealers. In 1971 if you boarded a city bus, chances were good that the driver had an Afro out to here and a pick comb with the red-black-and-green nationalist colors. Were they for revolution? Damned right, even if most voted Democrat.

What was needed of course was a Black political party that could have drawn in such workers and given it the social weight to withstand police attacks, even if they were bound to come. In a very real sense, the political psychoses of most of the 60s left were a function of relative working-class quiescence. Blacks were ready to move but not on the terms of “revolutionary suicide”.

Now that we are 12 years into the 21st century and 4 years into a seemingly intractable financial crisis that has left perhaps up to 12 percent of the population without a job and millions with foreclosed homes, the conditions are ripening for a new left that is based on reality and not fantasy. Let’s not blow our opportunities since too much is riding on the outcome.

August 23, 2012

Neighboring Sounds

Filed under: Brazil,Film — louisproyect @ 10:51 pm

“Neighboring Sounds”, a Brazilian film opening tomorrow at Lincoln Center and the IFC , now joins “Elena” on my short-list for best narrative films of 2012. As gimlet-eyed views of class divisions in Brazil and Russia respectively, they put characters into their social context—a convention of realist art that has gone by the wayside in independent film in the USA, mostly content to repeat stale mumble-core formulas. Realism might be defunct in America but in the rest of the world it is doing quite nicely, a function no doubt of the artist’s sense that not all is right and a duty to tell the truth about it.

“Elena” was a Balzacian tale about a minor oligarch’s conflict with his working-class wife who has demanded that he pay for her grandson’s college education. When he refuses, the consequences are fatal. Most of the film takes place in a sterile ultra-modern house that is second cousin to the absurd abode in Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle”. It would appear that the architect who designed the oligarch’s house in “Elena” must have inspired the designs in the chillingly chic high rises of the Stubal district of Recife that loom large in “Neighboring Sounds”. The first thing you notice is the iron bars of every single window and every single door in each luxury building, leaving you with the nagging suspicion that such protection against the “criminal element” outside amounts to a kind of jail for those living behind them.

As is the case in “Elena”, the visible injuries of class are impossible to ignore. In Brazil, they are compounded by race. The people who own the condos in Stubal are lily-white while the housemaids, valets, security guards, doormen, and janitors come in various shades of brown or Black. The whites rely on those beneath them for their well-being and security but never really trust them. When a condo resident rudely tells a valet whose income is based totally on tips that she doesn’t need him to open her car door, he takes a key when she isn’t looking and scratches the trunk with a smile on his face.

Security is on everybody’s mind. At the beginning of the film, one of the condo’s chief investors, the grandson of the sugar baron who built most of the high-rises, is told by his new girlfriend that someone has stolen the tape deck from her car parked on the street. He goes down to the street and interrogates some of the members of the “informal economy” who rely on his largesse and that of other wealthy residents. Like the woman whose car has been defaced, he just assumes that he is in a position to talk to his inferiors as if he had police powers.

With so much crime on the streets below, the condo residents are persuaded to hire a team of security guards who function as a kind of middle strata between the rich and the poor. They are reliant on the rich for their income and suspicious of the poor who they are supposed to monitor. When they discover a shoeless young boy in a tree in the middle of the night, presumably on a burglary, they force him down, pin him against the wall and allow their chief to punch him in the face. He nonchalantly tells his men that it will teach him not to come back.

If life at the bottom is a brutal struggle to survive, there is not much pleasure being on top either. One of the major characters is a bored housewife who is haunted by a watchdog in the courtyard below that barks incessantly. One night she is so fed up that she buries a sleeping pill in a piece of red meat and throws it into the courtyard below, but only after taking a couple of the same pills herself.

Her running battle with the dog becomes one of the sardonic comic leitmotifs of “Neighboring Sounds”, amounting to a kind of art film version of the Roadrunner cartoons. She sends away for an electronic device that emits a high-pitched noise that is not only painful to the dog but just about anybody within earshot. After her children run to their rooms holding their ears in pain, she sits by the window with a wicked smile not unlike the man who attacked the trunk with a key. Clearly this is a society that is not just fraying at the edges; it is in an advanced stage of decomposition.

Director Kleber Medoça Filho employs a minimalist esthetic throughout that is a bit reminiscent of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki but much more designed to draw the audience in rather than keeping it at arm’s length. By the same token, the Brazilian is much more intent on keeping the characters something of a mystery and leaving you with a feeling that they might act in unpredictable ways. At the very end of the film, we are left with the security guards and the sugar baron standing off against one another like a scene in “High Noon” when the film abruptly ends. You are left to your own devices to figure out how things will turn out.

This is Kleber Filho’s first film but he is no stranger to the film business, having been a critic for the past 14 years and finally deciding that he could do a better job making films than writing about them. He was right.

I urge you to read an interview with the director that appeared in Hammer to Nail film magazine during the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival, most of which deals with his aesthetic choices. But this exchange about social class is worth reproducing in its entirety, if for no other reason than to motivate my regular readers to seek out this edgy and informed social satire:

H2N: In terms of the story and the characters—you’re following this family that is sort of in decline; were you thinking of it… maybe I’m trying to over-explain it, but I was seeing it as the middle class as a whole in decline, as represented by this one family.

KMF: A little bit, but not really. A little bit, because historically that region was always known—or for three centuries was known—for sugar cane plantations. Which means that one of our problems—which maybe we’ve reached the end of that problem and now we’re beginning a new era, with the whole thing with Brazil and the economic boom, and Brazil is growing very fast—so for 300 years we had monoculture. The only thing that came out of Pernambuco, the state, was sugar cane, which means that the money was in the hands of maybe no more than 50 families, which were very rich of course, and over the last 40 years, 50 years maybe, sugar cane production became decadent. And ten years ago it reached a low point, the lowest point probably. So these families of course became decadent. And most of these families still act like they’re royalty, but they’re not. They’ve lost most of their money, property. So in a way, yeah—I think Francisco is a typically decadent child of sugar cane. But I don’t think the Brazilian middle class as a whole is decadent, in fact they are growing and becoming wealthier, and there’s a whole interesting social revolution going on now because the middle class is getting bigger because the lower classes are now becoming middle class, and maybe the upper classes are becoming rich, so it’s like a ladder and people are going up and pushing the people who were in the middle towards the top. So that’s why I said yes and no—yes historically but no in terms of the Brazilian middle class as a whole is not decadent. Maybe it is in terms of values, but I was thinking in terms of the sugar cane families. And you can see that when they go to the plantation. Beautiful place, but it’s falling to pieces. And the old cinema, and the actual processing plants, the mill.

The film will be appearing nationally after the NY debut. Scheduling information is here: http://www.cinemaguild.com/neighboringsounds/playdates.htm

Lenin on Pussy Riot

Filed under: Lenin,repression,Russia — louisproyect @ 4:30 pm

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

(From “What is to be Done”)

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