Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 30, 2012

Did the Cuban Revolution enforce socialist realism?

Filed under: Samuel Farber Cubanology — louisproyect @ 12:44 am

One of the things that becomes depressingly obvious as you begin reading Samuel Farber’s “Cuba since the Revolution of 1959: a critical assessment” is its refusal to acknowledge anything positive about the system. It is a methodology that he learned on the sectarian left and that has been reinforced by the particular brand of Sovietology/Cubanology he developed over decades in the academy. It is the approach of the District Attorney who is making the case against the defendant, footnotes included. I learned the sectarian way to do it through 11 years of membership in the SWP, all geared to making the “enemy” of the party some kind of guilty perp.

The methodology, of course, rests on the cherry-picking of the facts. If you are trying to make your case against Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, why undermine your case by finding something good to say about them? What Farber does not understand of course is that by refusing to engage with the positive aspects of Cuban socialism (for lack of a better term), he comes across as a cheap propagandist. Something of course that he is.

Today I spent several hours going through the first chapter of his book titled “Toward ‘Monolithic Unity’—building Cuban State Power from Above” that tries to make the case that Fidel Castro always had plans to create what Farber calls a “totalitarian” state, whether or not the U.S. had tried to overthrow the Cuban Revolution.

I will be dealing with this chapter in some detail in a subsequent post but would simply like to address one point here and now. Farber writes that “Cuban literature came closest to the model of Soviet socialist realism”, a sure sign that in the realm of art the Cuban state was as opposed to free expression as it was in the political realm. If that is the case, how does one explain Cuba’s sharp departure from Soviet norms in painting? Was Cuba putting a gun to artists’ heads to make sure that they did not stray from the all-important goal of representing peasants beaming over a sugar harvest, tractors and all? In reality, Cuban art was not quite like that at all.

Screen shot 2012-12-29 at 7.36.36 PM

From chapter three of “Abstract Expressionism: The International Context”

A Legacy for the Latin American Left: Abstract Expressionism as Anti-Imperialist Art

Abstract artists were strong when the Revolution took place, and they were supporting the Revolution; therefore there was no negative identification with abstractionism….

It was decided that Cuban painting would have to be destroyed, in a manner of speaking…We decided to use North American abstraction as our form, because in Cuba there was no tradition…. We also discovered that abstract art was the only weapon with which we could frighten people….Then it seemed to us that our painting served as a means to raise consciousness.


On the third anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, in January 1963, the new revolutionary government sponsored an exhibition in Havana with the title Abstracto Expresionismo. As the title of this show indicates, the visual language of Abstract Expressionism was identified both with the insurgent forces that had toppled the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and with the art world movement that had radically expanded the discursive field for cosmopolitan modernisms in Cuba. Moreover, this exhibition also made clear that the so-called socialist realism of the Soviet Union would find little favor in revolutionary Cuba. Indeed, Che Guevara condemned the latter in 1965 as a specific nineteenth-century French art that would only constrain artistic practice in a revolutionary setting, where experimentalism was the order of the day. The first Cuban edition of Che Guevara’s most famous text on the culture of socialism explicitly contrasts examples of a newly validated Cuban modernism (in this case semi-figurative paintings by René Portocarrero and Wilfredo Lam, as well as the new art school at Cubanacán) with the stultifying visual forms of contemporary Soviet art, which are entitled “Sobre los bases del siglo pasado.” [On the basis of past century.] As for the design of the book’s cover, by an artist named Chago, it is clearly linked with the Russian Constructivism of the pre-Stalin era.

Painter and printmaker Raúl Martinez (1927-1995), easily one of the most significant artists to work in Cuba from the 1950s to his death there in the 1990s, observed that the language of Abstract Expressionism was particularly important not only for opening up Cuban painting to a new international dialogue in the arts, but also for its power of cultural negation during this period.

December 28, 2012

The forgotten legacies of Bolshevism on revolutionary organisation (part I)

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 3:11 pm

| December 28, 2012 | 0 Comments

In the context of debates on the contemporary left, Simon Hardy discusses the forgotten legacies of pre-1917 Russian Marxism. Against the traditional conception of a ‘vanguardist’ and monolithic party, he argues that the Bolsheviks should be situated within a tradition of building broad parties that allowed for a plurality of tendencies, and saw themselves as a tendency seeking to fuse a revolutionary democratic and communist politics with the militant leaders of the working class struggle. Contrary to the Stalinist caricature of the top-down party, this re-articulated version of ‘Leninism’ has lessons for the building of new, democratic revolutionary organisations today.

This article is divided into two parts. Part II to be published soon.

The history of the revolutionary left in the 20th century has not been a happy one: if the goals are conceived in terms of achieving a socialist transformation of our global society along democratic and emancipatory lines based upon the working class subject, then we have experienced a ‘double failure’. Socialist regimes either collapsed into authoritarianism and nationalism, or were born as such, and capitalism achieved a degree of political hegemony at the end of the last century, that even its most devout supporters had never dared imagine was possible.

The strength or weakness of the revolutionary forces tends to be linked to the confidence and militancy of the working class and popular radical forces more generally, but the left cannot just keep blaming “objective” factors on their failures. We have to look at our own practices and methods as well.

In many countries today, the revolutionary left is suffering an unprecedented degree of marginalisation, despite the rise of mass anti-austerity and anticapitalist movements such as Occupy. The blame for this decline is usually laid at the door of the working class (“too backward”) or other left groups (“they keep recruiting people who should be with us!”).

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December 25, 2012

Was the 2012 election really a referendum? A response to Bill Fletcher Jr. and Carl Davidson

Filed under: Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

Bill Fletcher Jr.

Carl Davidson

I am sure that most of you are aware that General Petraeus, Obama’s CIA Director, got caught with his pants down when it was revealed in November that he was having an affair with Paula Broadwell, his fawning biographer.

But for my money the real scandal was his incestuous relationship with Fred and Kimberly Kagan, a couple of neoconservative warhawks, who served as his unpaid advisers when he was running the counterinsurgency program in Afghanistan before assuming the CIA post.

The Washington Post’s ace reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran delivered the goods in a December 19 article:

Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, a husband-and-wife team of hawkish military analysts, put their jobs at influential Washington think tanks on hold for almost a year to work for Gen. David H. Petraeus when he was the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Provided desks, e-mail accounts and top-level security clearances in Kabul, they pored through classified intelligence reports, participated in senior-level strategy sessions and probed the assessments of field officers in order to advise Petraeus about how to fight the war differently.

The Defense Department permits independent analysts to observe combat operations, but the practice became far more common when Petraeus became the top commander in Iraq. He has said that conversations with outside specialists helped to shape his strategic thinking.

The take-home benefit was equally significant: When the opinion makers returned home, they inevitably wrote op-eds, gave speeches and testified before Congress, generally imparting a favorable message about progress under Petraeus, all of which helped him sell the war effort and expand his popularity.

Other commanders soon caught on. By the time the Kagans arrived in Kabul in June 2010, it was commonplace for think-tankers and big-name columnists to make seven-to-10-day visits once or twice a year. Two analysts from the Council on Foreign Relations, Max Boot and Stephen Biddle, were in Afghanistan at the same time at the invitation of Petraeus.

If you are at all familiar with the foreign policy bogeymen feared most by Democratic Party liberals, the name Max Boot should leap off the page. With a name like Boot, how could it be otherwise? He was one of the loudest boosters of Bush’s occupation of Iraq and openly defends America’s right to rule the old through old-fashioned imperialist gunboat policies.

In 2010 General Petraeus received the Irving Kristol Prize from the American Enterprise Institute, the neocon think-tank that provided a roost for the Kagans. In his acceptance speech, he tipped his hat to them:

One recent AEI effort, of course, stands out in particular. In the fall of 2006, AEI scholars helped develop the concept for what came to be known as “the surge.” Fred and Kim Kagan and their team, which included retired General Jack Keane, prepared a report that made the case for additional troops in Iraq. As all here know, it became one of those rare think tank products that had a truly strategic impact.

Petraeus also made sure to pay homage to the ultrarightist in whose name the award is given:

But while Irving Kristol may be gone, his influence will be felt for generations to come. He was, of course, one of our Nation’s foremost thinkers on a host of topics, from economics and religion to social welfare and foreign policy. He was a man of staggering intellect who possessed a view of human nature and American politics that has, in many respects, stood the test of time.

Kristol, of course, was one of the prime architects of the Reagan revolution that all our good liberals keep urging us to root out, primarily through the mechanism of pulling the lever for Barack Obama, the same guy who has uttered these memorable words:

I don’t want to present myself as some sort of singular figure. I think part of what’s different are the times…I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.

Yeah, who wants those “excesses” of the 1960s? All that stuff about peace, love and understanding. Least of all someone like Barack Obama who hires a guy like David Petraeus for the same reason that George W. Bush did, namely to keep the restless natives at bay.

If Petraeus has a soft spot in his heart for Fred and Kimberly Kagan, it is only natural that the president would connect with Robert Kagan, Fred’s brother. As I reported last February, Obama was carrying around Robert Kagan’s new book “The World America Made” like a security blanket. Unlike the frothing at the mouth Tea Party types, Fred Kagan, Robert Kagan, and like-minded rightists are more than willing to work with a Democratic Party president who madman Dinesh D’Souza accused of plotting to transform America into a socialist republic by 2016. Robert Kagan reminded Foreign Policy readers back in March 2010 that shrewder neocons saw a consistency with the Bush administration:

Unnoticed amid the sniping in Washington over health care and the wailing about “broken government,” a broad and durable bipartisan consensus has begun falling into place in one unlikely area: foreign policy. Consider the fact that on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran — the most difficult, expensive, and potentially dangerous foreign challenges facing the United States — precious little now separates Barack Obama from most Republican leaders in and out of Congress.

That “broad and durable bipartisan consensus” amounts to bombing the shit out of anybody who is unlucky enough to get included in the President’s latest hit list.

Obama’s clear ambition is to cement a relationship with “reasonable” people like the Kagans. It must be deeply frustrating to him that despite the amicable bipartisan relationship between Alan Simpson, a Republican, and the Democrat Erskine Bowles there has been so little progress on the domestic front. Can’t the Republicans understand that it is worth some rich bastard getting by on $35 million per year rather than $40 million in exchange for the people at the bottom getting an equivalent cut in Social Security and Medicare?

Last January Obama said the following in his State of the Union Address:

To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations. We must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.

The latest news, of course, is that SS payments will be slashed if Obama can get enough Republicans to vote for a package that uses a “chained” Consumer Price Index to calculate benefits. One of the first to sniff out the con game that would be put forward by the White House was Dean Baker who explained to Counterpunch readers what was at stake last July:

The justification for the change in the benefit formula is that the CCPI takes account of the substitutions that consumers make in response to changing prices. The classic story is that if the price of beef rises and the price of chicken doesn’t, people will buy more chicken and less beef. The CCPI takes this switching from beef to chicken into account in calculating inflation. The current CPI does not.

While there is an argument for taking account of this sort of substitution in the index, there are two important issues that arise when evaluating the cost of living of seniors. First, their consumption patterns differ substantially from the rest of the population. They consume more health care and fewer computers.

Some economists project expenditures to be reduced by $250 billion over a ten-year period if a chained CPI is adopted. In his latest budget Obama proposed spending about $5.8 trillion for the military over the next decade. That would account for roughly 11% of total federal spending in 2022. That’s just the ticket for a realigned Democratic Party that combines DLC types like Obama and the “reasonable” Republicans who would vote for guns rather than butter as long as they understood that the larger interests of the one percent were being served.

If you want to see where the country is going, all you need to do is look at Europe. France’s Socialist president is considering an all out attack on the social safety net according to a plan worked out by a member of the big bourgeoisie:

New York Times December 19, 2012
Challenging France to Do Business Differently

PARIS — Louis Gallois, one of France’s most influential industrialists, knew he was about to make waves for the country’s Socialist president.

It was late October, and President François Hollande, faced with an alarming deterioration in the economy, had turned to Mr. Gallois for advice on how to put corporate France on a more competitive footing with the rest of Europe.

Mr. Gallois didn’t sugar-coat the message. His report called for a “competitiveness shock” that would require politicians to curb the “cult of regulation” he said was choking business in France.

The report said that unless France relaxed its notoriously rigid labor market, the country would continue on an industrial decline that had destroyed more than 750,000 jobs in a decade and helped shrink France’s share of exports to the European Union to 9.3 percent, from 12.7 percent, during that period. The report also called for cuts to a broad range of business taxes used to pay for big government and France’s expensive social safety net.

When people like Bill O’Reilly and Dinesh D’Souza warn about Obama taking the U.S. down the road to European style socialism, they obviously are on to something.

So how is it that people keep expressing a preference for not touching “entitlements” and we end up with a chained CPI despite Obama’s promises that benefits will not be cut? I guess I wised up after my one and only vote for a Democrat back in 1964 when I was assured that if Goldwater were elected we’d end up in a ground war in Vietnam. From that point on, I was open to the idea that Debs was right when he said that it was better to vote for what you want and not get it then to vote for what you don’t want and get it.

Apparently for two well-known “Marxist” supporters of Obama, the question of what you want is not that important. On August 9th, they argued that the elections were going to be a referendum:

To assume that the November elections are a moment to display our antipathy toward empire, moreover, misses entirely what is unfolding.  This is not a referendum on the “America of Empire”:  it is a referendum pitting the “America of Popular Democracy”—the progressive majority representing the changing demographics of the US and the increasing demands for broad equality and economic relief, especially the unemployed and the elderly—against the forces of unfettered neoliberalism and far right irrationalism.

In a sense this is right. The 1964 election was a referendum of sorts on the war in Vietnam. People voted for LBJ and got escalation. In the 2012 election people voted against “unfettered neoliberalism and far right irrationalism” and got a CIA Director who is honored with the Irving Kristol Prize from the American Enterprise Institute, and a chained CPI.

The problem with the “referendum” strategy is that it fails to recognize its non-binding character. Does anybody seriously think that because Obama said he was opposed to cuts in Social Security that he would be bound to keep his promise? Those speeches are not worth the paper they are written on.

On August 30, 1999, the people of East Timor had a referendum on whether to become a Special Autonomous Region within Indonesia, or for independence. Around 79% of voters opted for independence. In that very same year President Chavez of Venezuela put forward a referendum allowing for a new constitution as well as providing for recall referendums of elected officials as long as a minimum percentage of voters signed a petition. In the Venezuelan recall referendum of 2004 voters determined whether or not Chávez should be recalled from office. The result of the referendum was to not recall Chávez.

Those are real referendums. What Fletcher and Davidson are talking about has more to do with opinion polls. Like going to a polling station, going behind a curtain, and pulling a lever for whether you believe in capitalism or not. Let’s put it this way. Capitalism will not be eliminated through such atomized and nonbinding behavior. In fact, one of the main purposes of such exercises is to help stabilize the system by giving people the illusion that their vote makes a difference.

All in all, pulling the lever on election day in the U.S. for Obama in the hopes that he will not adopt “neoliberal excesses” is as vain as pushing the close button in many elevators. The elevator doors are actually timed to close according to a preset interval, such as 15 seconds. We are invited to press the close button anyhow since this gives the anxious passenger the feeling that things are moving forward.

December 21, 2012

Why not nuke Canada?

Filed under: antiwar,Britain — louisproyect @ 10:24 pm

  • Emerging world power feared British reaction to its ambitions
  • Plan Red was code for massive war with British Empire
  • Top-secret document once regarded as ‘most sensitive on Earth’
  • $57m allocated for building secret airfields on Canadian border – to launch attack on British land forces based there

Details of an amazing American military plan for an attack to wipe out a major part of the British Army  are today revealed for the first time.

In 1930, a mere nine years before the outbreak of World War Two, America drew up proposals specifically aimed at eliminating all British land forces in Canada and the North Atlantic, thus destroying Britain’s trading ability and bringing the country to its knees.

Previously unparalleled troop movements were launched as an overture to an invasion of Canada, which was to include massive bombing raids on key industrial targets and the use of chemical weapons, the latter signed off at the highest level by none other than the legendary General Douglas MacArthur.

The plans, revealed in a Channel 5 documentary, were one of a number of military contingency plans drawn up against a number of potential enemies, including the Caribbean islands and China. There was even one to combat an internal uprising within the United States.

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Cult leaders reward themselves handsomely

Filed under: cults,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

From the Socialist Workers Party 2011 tax records (found on guidestar.org under the Anchor Foundation).

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December 20, 2012

Argentina, vulture funds, and Thomas Griesa

Filed under: Argentina,economics,financial crisis,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 9:00 pm

Thomas Griesa

My first exposure to “vulture funds” was at the 2010 Left Forum in NY, where I walked into a BBC documentary by Greg Palast that was in progress. Although I didn’t care for Palast’s Michael Moore-like shtick as he accosted and badgered the financiers who buy up the debt of poor countries at reduced prices and then sue them to get inflated repayments, I was glad to see attention paid to what Woody Guthrie once referred to as bankers robbing people with a fountain pen.

Although I didn’t make the connection at the time, this comment on my blog from an Argentinian who was subscribed to the Marxism list that preceded Marxmail was dealing with the same kind of larceny:

Hi, dear Louis. I’m Julio Fernández Baraibar, your friend from Buenos Aires. I lost the contact with you, but I remember you very heartly.

We are struggling just now against the decision of Judge Griesa and I remembered that you, once, told something about him in relation with somo trotskist militants. Do you remember the case?

I wait for your response.


In 2001 Argentina’s economy had totally collapsed, foreshadowing in many ways what has befallen most of southern Europe. It defaulted on $95 billon worth of bonds. When Nestor Kirchner took office in 2003 he proposed that Argentina offer new bonds paying 30 cents for each dollar owed in default, an offer accepted by 93 percent of the original bondholders.

A couple of bondholders held out, however. One was NML and the other was Aurelius Capital Management Inc., both who insisted on getting 100 percent of the face value of the bonds. On October 26th Judge Thomas Griesa ruled in their favor, forcing Argentina to pay $1.4 billion. NML was particularly aggressive in pressing their demands, winning a court order to detain an Argentine naval vessel in a Ghana port as a kind of hostage. (On December 17 the U.N. ruled that the ship had to be released.)

The June 10, 2011 Irish Times described the strategy of Aurelius:

MANHATTAN-BASED lawyer Mark Brodsky named his hedge fund after the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic philosopher.

He set up the fund in 2005 but Brodsky fine-tuned his skills as a distressed debt investor over nine years at Elliot Associates, a hedge fund known for taking on sovereign states that defaulted on debt, particularly Peru and Argentina.

The strategy he learnt at Elliot was straightforward buy debt on the cheap and then run a legal campaign to recover a higher value. This is the art of the vulture fund which sees value in high-risk investments in the debts of financially stricken firms and countries.

A recent win for Aurelius was its purchase of just $5 million out of $25 billion in debt at Dubai World, the state-owned investment fund, for 50 cents in the dollar.

NML is a subsidiary of Elliot Associates, the forenamed vulture fund. Paul Singer is the CEO and a major player in rightwing politics, having contributed millions of dollars to the Romney campaign, serving as the chairman of the Manhattan Institute, and funding the American Spectator, a key rightwing magazine. During the Occupy movement’s heyday, a Spectator reporter named Patrick Howley basically functioned as an agent provocateur by his own admission:

This weekend, journalist Patrick Howley of the American Spectator admitted infiltrating the Occupy DC protest and leading a charge into the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum which resulted in his and several other protestors’ being hit with pepper spray. His explanation? The protesters had been ruining his story of how crazy they were by failing to think of this course of action on their own.

In his original story on the subject (now removed from the Spectator site) Howley noted: “As far as anyone knew I was part of this cause — a cause that I had infiltrated the day before in order to mock and undermine in the pages of The American Spectator — and I wasn’t giving up before I had my story.”

Argentina’s minister of the economy Hernán Lorenzino reacted angrily to Griesa’s decision, calling it “a kind of legal colonialism” and that all “we need now is for Griesa to send us the Fifth Fleet.”

On November 29 the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a stay on Griesa’s order. Ironically one of the factors favoring Argentina is the determination of some other scumbag hedge funds to keep NML and Aurelius from getting their way.

Chief among them is Gramercy Funds Management that holds the discounted Argentine bonds as a tax shelter for its clients. It fears that a full-blown nationalist response by Argentina to default once again will harm its own profit-seeking interests. In many ways the rivalry between Gramercy and NML/Aurelius is like a war between rival mafia gangs over who will control a legitimate business.

There’s another mafia gang that has taken Gramercy’s side in all this, namely the U.S. government that worries about the turbulence that would ensue if Argentina defaulted. Reuters reported on December 13:

U.S. government lawyers reiterated their position that the court’s interpretation of the “equal treatment” clause in Argentina’s defaulted bonds “may adversely affect future voluntary sovereign debt restructurings, the stability of international financial markets, and the repayment of loans extended by international financial institutions.”

The U.S. government argued this point in April with an amicus brief when Argentina first appealed the original court orders made by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Griesa in Manhattan.

Let me conclude with a word or two about Thomas Griesa who is now 82 years old. A life-long Republican, Griesa was appointed to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York by Richard Nixon in 1972.

In that capacity Griesa served as the judge in the landmark suit that the Socialist Workers Party filed against the FBI in 1973 for its decades-long disruption of party activities, including the burglaries and poison pen letters that victimized many members including me.

In between jobs at the time, I was able to attend many sessions of the trial and observed Griesa as entirely fair-minded despite his Republican roots. In one of the more memorable exchanges, he allowed Stephen Cohen to make the case that the Russian Revolution was a massively supported movement despite constant objections by the FBI lawyers. He decided in favor of the SWP claims but disappointed us by awarding us only $264,000, a relative pittance compared to the $28 million we had demanded.

The irony of course is that in the final analysis we ourselves destroyed the party far more efficiently than the FBI bumbling ever could. Let’s hope that Argentina proves far more resilient since—after all—the Latin American revolution that “Kirchnerism” is a constituent part of has a lot more importance than we ever had.

December 19, 2012

A Pigeon Fable for Christmas: did the 99% idea come from Pigeon Paley?

Filed under: economics,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 3:42 pm

By Calum Turner

I recently came across an American book from 1853 and was surprised to read a passage that resonated with today. ‘Theory of Politics’ is by Richard Hildreth, and has the inviting sub-title, ‘An Inquiry into the Foundations of Governments and the Causes and Progress of Political Revolutions’. Under the heading ‘Wealth as an Element of Power. Moneyed Form of Social Slavery’, Hildreth addressed what he called “the existing social state of Europe” by quoting William Paley’s fable:

“If you should see a flock of pigeons in a field of corn: and if (instead of each picking where and what it liked, taking just as much as it wanted, and no more) you should see ninety-nine of them gathering all they got into a heap; reserving nothing for themselves but the chaff and the refuse; keeping this heap for one, and that the weakest, perhaps worst, pigeon of the flock; sitting round, and looking on, all the winter, whilst this one was devouring, throwing about, and wasting it; and if a pigeon more hardy and hungry than the rest, touched a grain of the hoard, all the others instantly flying upon it, and tearing it to pieces; – if you should see this, you would see nothing more than what is every day practised and established among men. Among men, you see the ninety-and-nine toiling and scraping together a heap of superfluities for one (and this one too, oftentimes the feeblest and worst of the whole set – a child, a woman, a madman, or a fool;) getting nothing for themselves all the while, but a little of the coarsest of the provision, which their own industry produces; looking quietly on, while they see the fruits of all their labour spent or spoiled: and if one of the number take or touch a particle of the hoard, the others joining against him, and hanging him for the theft.”

(Taken from the 1824 New York edition, with the punctuation of the time, ‘The Principles of Political and Moral Philosophy’ [1785]; it’s at www.books.google.com/books?id=MRMRAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=paley+political+moral+philosophy&hl=de, being Book III, Part I, the whole of Chapter I, Of Property, pages 78-9.)

Paley’s friend, John Law, tried in vain to get him to excise this from the draft, fearing it would harm Paley’s chance of becoming a bishop. It got him the moniker Pigeon Paley, and the monarch, George III (yes, he of the Alan Bennett play and film), is reputed to have said, “Pigeon Paley? Not sound, not sound”. And no, he never became a bishop. (Info from wiki.)

Richard Hildreth (1807-65) was a lawyer, then joint founder and editor of the Boston Atlas, and author of the 6-volume ‘The History of the United States of America’, the anti-slavery novel ‘Archy Moore’ (later expanded as ‘The White Slave’), plus studies of slavery, Japan, and ethics. He also wrote for the New York Tribune 1857-60, sharing its pages for a while with Marx and Engels (contributors 1852-61).


Prairie Miller review of “Zero Dark Thirty”

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 2:59 pm

(Prairie is a colleague of mine on New York Film Critics Online).


If there is any entity out there more intent than the US government on choreographing  – either in advance or retroactively – the outcome of world events, it’s Hollywood. One need only witness the procession of post-Vietnam Hollywood movies staging a do-over, and winning that lost war.

Ditto director Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, a Mark Boal scripted revenge thriller cloaked as docudrama, or perhaps even the other way around. And postulating that the target assassination of a single man, Osama Bin Laden, brings effective closure to whatever is bugging the Middle East about this country. In effect, a novel sort of mandatory Hollywood ending that, if impeded, will crush anything in its way.

Zero Dark Thirty revisits presumed events leading up to the CIA orchestrated murder of Bin Laden in May 2011 in Pakistan. And still to this day ensconced in multiple layers of secrecy that sparked Congressional controversy against the filmmaker herself. Who is suspected of receiving collaborative classified CIA information from the Democratic administration, about the assault operation.

And yet another entry into the ‘one side to every story’ school of moviemaking and Simple Simon Says movie criticism, Zero Dark Thirty dramatizes events told solely from the self-congratulatory CIA point of view. A questionable approach that would never pass muster as journalism – but termed by Bigelow as journalistic filmmaking, apparently gets an emphatic pass. And a spy thriller category that currently includes Argo and Skyfall. But the big difference with the latter film, is that it never pretends to be other than fiction.

Jessica Chastain stars as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, a workaholic CIA agent whom we’ve been informed preemptively in the press as being based on a real woman. Maya has her own ideas about where Bin Laden is hiding, theories which are initially dismissed by her predominantly male colleagues. And not without somewhat of a denigrating attitude toward female hunches.

But Maya’s persistence eventually nudges them into taking her seriously, and even though there is not absolute certainty about Bin Laden’s actual presence in the targeted compound. So the assault is orchestrated anyway, during which a number of the residents are summarily executed and children terrorized.

And the fact that the mission trespassing in another country could have been in error with lots of victims anyway, is never addressed. Nor is the fact that most such successful ventures are accomplished not through any brilliant powers of deduction but rather bribery, every suggested – and there was quite a multi-million dollar tidy sum in this case.

In any case, the supposed necessity of shrouding this drama in utter secrecy lets Bigelow nicely off the hook. No need to probe what’s left in question, such as exactly how the shadowy figure of Bin Laden himself expired. And what gripes terrorists harbor against the United States in the first place. Or who is Maya, really. Which lends to her vague character the generic implication, of just another feminist trying to assert herself in a man’s world.

Even her CIA torturer buddy played by Jason Clarke, gets a better back story. He may relish brutalizing and sexually humiliating prisoners, but the guy loves the lab monkeys he shares his ice cream cones with. And is distraught with grief after they’re euthanized.

Which brings this CIA simulated snuff movie back full circle to that Hollywood happy ending in question. So has more psychological than tactical revenge concerning a single man concluded the war on terror, or for that matter US war in the Middle East in general? Maya’s unhappiness at the end is clearly a calculated bid for the filmmakers to have it both ways.


December 17, 2012

Bard College and the real world

Filed under: art,bard college,literature — louisproyect @ 6:18 pm

I have been reminded over the past few months why Bard College was such a special place for me. While I tend to avoid alumni cocktail parties, it has been a kind of virtual reunion as I connect to old friends and classmates through their art. When we were all in our late teens and early twenties, we had dreams of being poets and artists—including me. I took a detour in 1967 that led to little more than a 250 page FBI file but for the others—Richard Allen, Josephine Sacabo, Dalt Wonk, and Paul Pines—who stayed true to their artistic vision, the fruits have been sweeter. I suppose the one thing we all had in common was a willingness to stay true to our youthful dreams even as we confront the American Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks—as Allen Ginsberg put it in “Howl”.

Richard Allen

The first paragraph of Richard Allen’s introduction to “Street Shots/Hooky: New York City Photographs 1970s” certainly puts us in a Moloch frame of mind:

I woke up, New Year’s Day 1970, in a straitjacket. I had no memory, of anything, at least not at first. I was in an asylum on Long Island after taking an overdose of some pills a shrink gave me. Slowly awareness arose. First, I realized had to protect myself. Await… I asked to have the jacket removed and they did. Bit by bit memories came back. I could recall details of my childhood. I remembered I’d married my girlfriend Cathy, months ago, when she turned eighteen. Cathy and I had Peter, a son, now 6 months. In a few days I felt normal. Still, I had no job. But this is not my concern. No, it’s to finish editing a short comedy, completing a film I shot while on TV men landed on the moon. The film hung in hundreds of carefully cut strips an inch to many feet long, like drying fish, unique species, needing me. I had read a book on film editing and had just started when this came along.

I suppose that despite all his flaws, R.D. Laing was on to something when he described insanity as “a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” The war in Vietnam, ghetto rebellions, psychedelics, the breakdown of the nuclear family, all worked together to make the case that we were living in an insane world, particularly those among us who were more open to such a perception—in other words, Bard College students.

If the world was going nuts, then Manhattan was the epicenter. Ironically it was also the epicenter of sanity since many of its denizens were striving to lead a life devoted to the arts and to peace. Richard Allen’s book brings back that 70s world to life. Despite all the horrors of the time, New York was a place of astonishing visual poetry. Using mostly black-and-white film and a Leica camera, Richard captured a moment in time. With the city now being taken over by hedge fund employees living in condominiums with Duane Reade pharmacies and nail parlors on the ground floor, you can get a good idea of what things were like 40 years or so from Richard’s collection. Nearly all of the photos are of people, and what’s more interesting than the characters of Manhattan? This is especially true when the photos are accompanied by the subjects’ words. After taking their photo, Richard invited them to identify themselves and offer up their impromptu thoughts. Ivan Bankoff tells Richard that he was once “the world’s greatest ballet dancer.” John Richardson, an African-American huddled against the wind, says, “If this is for posterity, tell them I’ve read Thoreau. And I know that love is the greatest thing.”

Here are some of my favorites:




“Street Shots/Hooky: New York City Photographs 1970s” can be purchased from the Book Culture stores near Columbia University and from BookCourt in Brooklyn. (Plans are afoot to make the book purchasable from amazon.com. I will announce that when it happens.) For those who lived through the 70s and those with a curiosity about a period that still lingers on in many ways, this is a perfect Christmas gift or a gift for all seasons, for that matter.

Josephine Sacabo

Dalt Wonk

On October 26th I attended an opening for Nocturnes, the first book to be published by Josephine Sacabo and Dalt Wonk’s new venture Luna Press. If you go to the Luna Press website, you can see an intriguing video of a hand thumbing its way through the book.

Here is a photograph titled “Moon” taken by Sacabo:

Dalt wrote poems to accompany the photos. Here is the one he wrote to accompany “Moon”:

Would it be a stretch to say that the city of New Orleans, where they have lived for decades, is a primary influence on their esthetic? Although I have never been to the city myself, it seems that if any city in the U.S. could have inspired a hauntingly beautiful combination of word and image as “Nocturnes”, it is New Orleans.

Back in 1965, Bob Dylan was spending a fair amount of time at Bard. I am not sure if Dalt and Josephine ever ran into him there, but I am sure that they would feel some kinship with his take on their city found in volume one of his memoirs:

Right now, I strolled into the dusk. The air was murky and intoxicating. At the corner of the block, a giant, gaunt cat crouched on a concrete ledge. I got up close to it and stopped and the cat didn’t move. I wished I had a jug of milk. My eyes and ears were open, my consciousness fully alive. The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds-the cemeteries-and they’re a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here. Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sleep. Greek, Roman, sepulchres-palatial mausoleums made to order, phantomesque, signs and symbols of hidden decay-ghosts of women and men who have sinned and who’ve died and are now living in tombs. The past doesn’t pass away so quickly here. You could be dead for a long time. The ghosts race towards the light, you can almost hear the heavy breathing- spirits, all determined to get somewhere. New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don’t have the magic anymore, still has got it.

Nocturnes can be ordered from the Luna Press website.

Paul Pines

I found out about the opening for Nocturnes from Paul Pines, the poet who has kept in touch with Sacabo and Wonk over the years. A month or so before the opening, I attended a reading for Paul’s latest book titled “Divine Madness”, words that evoke both the opening paragraph of Richard Allen’s photography book as well as Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”, a poem that served as the anthem for our generation in many ways.

The epigraph to Book Three of Paul’s collection comes from Carl Jung’s “The Red Book”: “…there is a divine madness which is nothing other than the overpowering of the spirit of the time through the spirit of the depths.”

This is an appropriate quote for a book of poems that owes much to mythology, both from the Mayan Indians to the ancient Greeks and Babylonians. Paul spent a fair amount of time in Guatemala, the experience of which helped him to craft his second novel “Redemption” that deals with the genocide against the Mayan peasantry.

Every one of the poems in “Divine Madness” is a jewel but I treasure this one especially:

December sun seeps into the woods orange yolk over bare limbs drips into a grove where woodpeckers tap tiny solos

a net cast

in the wake of the day

Chinese monarch King Wen

tells us the wanderer can progress in little things

when the source of light is farthest from the earth

and bends the prism

like a bow

and he finds himself surrounded by woodpeckers tapping out their eternal question

how to hold

interwoven rhythms

in a net of changing light

“Divine Madness” can be ordered from Marsh Hawk Press.

Some closing thoughts. All of us are now in our sixties and above but it seems like only yesterday when we would be drinking “down the road” at a college pub called “Adolph’s” (named after the owner, born obviously before Hitler made the name taboo). The subject came up all the time about how Bard was totally unlike “the real world”, which for us could have been reduced to the one depicted in AMC’s “Mad Men”.

There’s always a tension between our ideals and the “real world” that in some ways is analogous to Plato’s story of the cave. It is a struggle to hew to our youthful ideals in a world that is fundamentally aligned with the insides of a cave, as testified by news reports that come our way on  a daily basis, the latest of which is the kindergarten massacre in Connecticut.

Of all my  Bertolt Brecht quotes, this is my favorite:

There are men who struggle for a day, and they are good. There are others who struggle for a year, and they are better. There are some who struggle many years, and they are better still. But there are those who struggle all their lives, and these are the indispensable ones.

Whether you struggle with a camera or a poet’s pen, or most quixotically with a propagandist’s, it is a Sisyphean task. Here’s my salute to those who never give up. Keep on keeping on.

December 15, 2012

Stanley Kubrick on the Connecticut massacre

Filed under: disasters — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

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