Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 16, 2014

Rubén Blades in performance at Lincoln Center

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

Thanks to the kindness of an old friend and comrade, I was able to attend a concert that was one for the ages. Both in terms of the participants and the program, it was one that had special resonance for me.

It was the first time I ever saw Rubén Blades perform. For anybody involved in Central America solidarity in the 1980s, Blades was an iconic figure. Track one of Canciones Del Solar De Los Aburridos (Songs From The Tenements Of The Bored), the 1981 album featuring Willie Colon and Blades, was a song called “Tiburón” (Shark) that was a wake-up call to Latin Americans and solidarity activists alike. The shark was obviously American imperialism.

Like the abortive Sandinista revolution, Blades was part of my past through no fault of his own. He continued to make records over the past twenty years but I had not kept up with them except for “Caminando” (walking), the 1991 album that was a mixture of songs about personal experience and politics. “¡Prohibido olvidar!” left no doubt about his outrage over injustice in his own country and other dictatorships:

Prohibieron ir a la escuela e ir a la universidad.
Prohibieron las garantías y el fin constitucional.
Prohibieron todas las ciencias, excepto la militar.
Prohibiendo el derecho a queja, prohibieron el preguntar.
Hoy te sugiero, mi hermano, pa’ que no vuelva a pasar,
¡Prohibido olvidar!

Forbidden to go to school and go to college.
Forbidden the guarantees and constitutional rights.
Forbidden all sciences except the military.
Forbidden the right to complain, and to ask questions.
Today I suggest, my brother , so that does not happen again,
Forbidden to forget!

Listening to the still powerful voice of this 66-year old singer reminded me to look into the Blades recordings on Amazon.com, a reservoir of art and politics perfectly matched to each other.

Blades was backed by the house band of Jazz at Lincoln Center that is led by Wynton Marsalis. I was not only richly rewarded by hearing one of the most important salsa singers of recent decades but accompanying musicians who hearkened back to the golden age of Afro-Cuban jazz. Blades mentioned some of the more memorable practitioners, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Machito and Chano Pozo. In a very real sense, Afro-Cuban jazz united two disparate strands of the African diaspora both rooted in the mother country’s culture kept alive by slaves. In Cuba they bequeathed the distinctive clave (rhythm) that formed the basis for modern salsa and in the Deep South the blues and spirituals that found their way into New Orleans jazz.

Wynton Marsalis, a native son of New Orleans and a musician very much committed to the grand traditions, demonstrated a real affinity for the Afro-Cuban trumpet style, sounding very much like the legendary Chocolate Armenteros in his blistering solo on the opening number “Apoyete en Mi Alma”.

The concert was roughly divided into salsa tunes written by Blades for the most part and American standards that he learned at an early stage from the records that came along with the gargantuan record player his father won in a card game, including a Frank Sinatra album. Drawing laughter from the audience, Blades said that he did pitch-perfect renditions of such songs without having any idea what the lyrics meant. People who came by the house and heard the 11-year old breaking into something like “Begin the Beguine” thought he was out of his mind.

Weaving personal recollections such as these with thoughts about the need for continuing solidarity with movements for social justice in Latin America, Blades ended the concert on a fitting note—an encore called “Patria” that can be seen below (go to Youtube and search for “Rubén Blades” and Marsalis for other performancs):



  1. Blades is a treasure. Nonetheless, this whole episode, in which he threw in with the Venezuelan opposition, was a sorry business:


    Comment by Ismael — November 16, 2014 @ 11:54 pm

  2. wow!!

    Comment by Greg McDonald — November 17, 2014 @ 12:18 am

  3. Less anyone forget, the Sandinistas won power and have had it for a decade. With that power they’ve kept up the neo liberal program and banned abortion. Some socialists. That’s what happens when you have a “workers revolution” with no workers involved, no workers councils, no factory committees, etc.

    Comment by Salpuris Dexter — November 17, 2014 @ 3:46 am

  4. What a stupid shit you are. The FSLN that is running Nicaragua now is not the party that existed before 1990. It was 5 years of war bleeding the country dry that was largely responsible for the election of Violetta Chamorro and then her replacement by a chastened and neoliberal FSLN. You are obviously a Spartacist League sympathizer. Why don’t you go join them and stop wasting your time here. Nobody reads this blog except petty-bourgeois reformist Menshevik scum. You need to seek out people who are as Bolshevique as you. Get permission from your parents to stay out late and go to the next Spartacist League meeting at 314 West 14th Street next Friday at 9pm. James Robertson is speaking about the need for workers to call for a General Strike and Workers Militia. In fact you can join the militia. Bring your BB gun.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 17, 2014 @ 3:57 am

  5. A different party with the same leader? That’s weird. I mean Daniel Ortega led them then and he leads them now. Maybe he was always a power hungry petty bourgeois tyrant, which would explain why he led a gang of nationalist gangsters rather a group of workers, a union local, even a strike committee. It’s fine if you want to tail people like this, but as long as you continue to do it in Marx’s name people are going to call you out.

    Comment by Salpuris Dexter — November 17, 2014 @ 11:05 am

  6. Hey Spart…. I mean, Sal. Different party with same leader is hardly unusual. Mandela and the ANC comes to mind. Even the Comintern under Stalin.

    That was a pretty uneducated cheap shot at the Sandinistas who DID have Workers’ Councils and who fought bloody armed urban street battles with Somoza’s death squads until their end.

    Even their largest trade union hung huge banners of Marx & Lenin in their assembly hall FWIW.

    Maybe if they had 12 time zones and an army big enough to occupy Europe they could have lasted more than a decade?

    Guys like you are but nails in the coffin of Leninism.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 17, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

  7. Leninism has been dead and good riddance. It was nothing but a plague on the workers movement. Lenin’s conspiratory party dictatorship seizing power in its own name, rendering the soviets superfluous and outlawing of other workers parties and even strikes (!) directly led to every horror from Stalin on down to Ortega’s militant band of reformist nationalist gangsters. None of it had anything to do with the self emancipation of the working class that Marx dedicated his life to.

    Comment by Salpuris Dexter — November 17, 2014 @ 4:29 pm

  8. So weird to see unreconstructed ultraleft communism at this stage of the game. Workers in the USA have not organized anything like a general strike in the past 70 years and Salpuris writes as if we were in Spain circa 1936. What a fucking joke.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 17, 2014 @ 4:37 pm

  9. Yes there’s been a major ebb in class struggle which is why many abandoned the working class (the other reason being that the “new left” was mostly petty bourgeois university students who based their politics on personality and positions on individual policy questions rather than class). Of course the class struggle didn’t disappear, capitalism still falls into the kinds of crises Marx predicted, workers still go on strike, even big ones.

    Wisconsin saw major labor action, portview during occupy was major with the strike linking up with occupy, before that immigrant general strikes in 2006 and 2007, republic windows, etc etc

    Outside of the US there were 10000 wildcats in China alone in 2013, almost as many in Vietnam, a massive miners struggle in South Africa, huge mass strike waves in Cambodia and Bangladesh, etc etc

    I happen to think Marx’s analysis of capitalism was correct, that capitalism can only result from the working class breaking it’s chains of wage slavery and abolishing the law of value, and that the liberation of the working class can only be done by the workers. And the majority of the world is still working class since capitalism lives on surplus value (even though you’d never know it by looking at the student and academic based left).

    The damage done by the current crisis and austerity, by the legacies of Leninism, Stalinism, and nationalist gangster bands like Ortega, the strike breakers like Sankara, the coup mongers like Mengistu, the parliamentarists like Iran-lover Chavez, the peasant reactionaries like Mao, Shining Path and Pol Pot, the treachery of the class collaborationist union tops, etc etc has all wracked major damage and the workers need to recover from this and learn to fight outside of all of these things that seek to corral them back into capitalism one way or another, to fight for their own liberation. I’m confident they will do this. If they don’t I’m confident we’ll slide into barbarism.

    One wonders what “the unrepentant Marxist” takes from Marx.

    Comment by Salpuris Dexter — November 18, 2014 @ 3:20 am

  10. *that the abolition of capitalism

    Comment by Salpuris Dexter — November 18, 2014 @ 3:22 am

  11. (@9) “The damage done by the current crisis and austerity, by… the strike breakers like Sankara, the coup mongers like Mengistu, the parliamentarists like Iran-lover Chavez, the peasant reactionaries like Mao, Shining Path and Pol Pot,.. etc etc has all wracked major damage and the workers need to recover from this and learn to fight outside of all of these things.”

    Yeah. Each morning I fill my thermos with coffee before heading out, my ears ringing and I am filled with rage for what the likes of Sankara has done- not just to me- but to all of us. I have learned, perhaps the hard way, to skip the tap rooms, preferring to forget by losing myself in Marcel Proust’s epic novel: vowing to read twice in english before tackling in the original french. The workers need to recover from the anglo-sphere and the damage caused by the loss of the Armada and “learn”: learn.

    Comment by Scott Edwards — November 20, 2014 @ 5:49 pm

  12. Too bad your blog attracts such weird shit. Ruben Blades is a guy whose heart was in the right place, and is and was a great musician and composer. I’m glad you had a good time. Blades as a politician…he ran for President of Panama with the backing of some nasty scum. but as a singer, composer and musician, and as an iconic cultural figure, Viva Ruben!

    Comment by Anthony Boynton — December 1, 2014 @ 3:30 am

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