Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 9, 2014

Reflections on The New Republic shake-up

Filed under: journalism — louisproyect @ 4:10 pm

Martin Peretz in the early 70s, just before he bought The New Republic with his wive’s millions

Back in late 1987 I got a Bard College alumni newsletter informing me that Leon Botstein had added Martin Peretz to the board of trustees. Up until that point I had been a Botstein supporter but this announcement left me feeling betrayed. I wrote Leon a letter calling attention to the New Republic’s support for contra funding. As president of the board of Tecnica, a solidarity organization that recruited volunteers to work in Nicaragua, I pointed out that his editorials had led to the destruction of Nicaraguan schools.

Of course, Botstein made a shrewd decision in recruiting Peretz. His deep pockets would not only help keep the New Republic afloat; they would also help facilitate Botstein’s empire-building ambitions. As is the norm in American society, everything has a price tag—including liberal magazines and colleges. Peretz’s millions allowed him to turn the New Republic into a neoconservative outlet on foreign policy and a neoliberal one on domestic policy. They also gave Botstein the power he needed to help Bard College shake its reputation as “the little Red whorehouse on the Hudson”, as red-baiting gossip columnist Walter Winchell once put it—the very reason I am grateful for the education I received there in the early 60s.

For most of the twentieth century, The New Republic (TNR) and The Nation magazines were the lodestones of American liberalism. I have written about The Nation in the past but virtually nothing about TNR, mostly as a function of so few people having illusions that it spoke for American liberalism after Peretz’s takeover in 1974.

For all those upset with Chris Hughes buying the magazine and turning it into his personal toy, they obviously are not aware that this exactly what happened in 1974 when Peretz fired a bunch of people who were deemed obstacles to his rightwing turn.

When Peretz took over, the editor was Gilbert Harrison, whose politics were much more like those of The Nation. In 1968, Harrison ran editorials backing Eugene McCarthy for president rather than the warmongering Hubert H. Humphrey and even called for the creation of a new political party to be headed by McCarthy. In the early 1970s, there were people like Walter Pincus writing about Watergate and Stanley Karnow on foreign policy. That outlook resonated with an American public fed up with the status quo, so much so that the magazine’s circulation rose to about 100,000. It was a weekly at the time. Now that it is a biweekly, the circulation is only about a half.

That obviously reflects the public’s distaste for a magazine that promotes imperialist war abroad and austerity at home. In order for Peretz to force such an agenda on the magazine, heads had to roll—starting with the illustrious Gilbert Harrison who had refused to publish the articles that Peretz had submitted. He was the first to go. As the wretched Eric Alterman wrote, this caused the same kind of rebellion that Chris Hughes now faces:

Much of the staff, which then included Walter Pincus, Stanley Karnow, and Doris Grumbach, was either fired or chose to resign. The staffers were largely replaced by young men fresh out of Harvard, with plenty of talent but few journalistic credentials and little sense of the magazine’s place in the history of liberalism.

The New Republic’s new editor became notorious after announcing that he intended to “break stuff”. I doubt that he will do anything much different than what Peretz did after taking over. After all, as A.J. Liebling once said, freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.

Out of curiosity, I decided to browse through back issues of TNR, courtesy of my Columbia University paywall privileges, to see the route it has taken since being founded in 1914 by Herbert Croly, Walter Weyl and Walter Lippmann. Lippmann, a principled liberal at the time, projected the magazine as an alternative to the NY Times, which he would view three years hence as writing biased attacks on the USSR. Like Lippmann, Weyl and Croly were public intellectuals associated with the Progressive movement. In order to put their ideas into practice, they needed someone with deep pockets to help launch the new magazine. That came from Willard Straight, the husband of Dorothy Whitney who inherited a fortune from her father William, a scion of the Whitney clan whose wealth came from steel, banking and steamships. This was pretty much how the Nation got started as well, from generous contributions from Henry Villard, a railroad robber baron.

In the very first issue, published on November 7, 2014, there’s a lengthy editorial defining the orientation and goals of TNR. In a sign that not much has changed in the last century, it includes a pitch for the minimum wage:

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Skipping ahead a few years to 1920, we discover a critique of NY Times coverage of the civil war in Russia that was very likely written by Walter Lippmann, given his unhappiness with the newspaper’s bias. In terms of things not changing much over a hundred years, this is the same complaint aired today in places like CounterPunch or Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

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To its credit, TNR published a number of articles by Leon Trotsky in the 1930s. While the magazine was home to Stalin apologists like Walter Duranty and Malcolm Cowley, it was even-handed enough to publish Trotsky, who was persona non grata in New Deal circles.

I suppose that when one hand giveth, the other taketh away. On March 23, 1938 Heywood Broun wrote an attack on Trotsky that was about as slippery and mendacious as they come. Broun, by the way, was a member of the Algonquin Round Table in the 1930s and close friends with the Marx brothers. Maybe his article was a Roland Boer type joke. Who knows?

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Finally, moving ahead to the 1960s, we end on a high note. Among those writing for TNR was Andrew Kopkind, a reporter that Alexander Cockburn once described as “the greatest journalist of his time”. The author of dozens of articles, Kopkind was a sharp critic of American society and a brilliant writer.

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I shared that excerpt from Kopkind’s article on the first antiwar demonstration back in 1965 not so much because I agree with his analysis but because it reflects an outlook widespread on the left, namely that the SWP was not entirely open and transparent about its intervention in a movement that shook America to its foundations. I’d like to think that if someone more amenable to Kopkind’s approach were now in charge of TNR, it would be worth a subscription as Greg Grandin advised Nation magazine readers. Maybe so, I’ll just have to wait and see.


Who says old school New York leftism is dead?!

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 1:38 am

Over the weekend kudos sprang forth from the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Online, which includes writers from such delightfully varied publications as the New York Observer, BET.com, SpiritualityandPractice.com and, the Bagger’s favorite, theUnrepentantMarxist.com. Who says old school New York leftism is dead?!

full: http://carpetbagger.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/12/08/for-best-actor-and-actress-no-consensus-among-critics-groups/

December 8, 2014

A response to an Ellen Meiksins Wood article in Jacobin

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 1:12 pm

Ellen Meiksins Wood

In a New Left Review interview with Bhaskar Sunkara, the 25-year-old founder of Jacobin magazine, we learn that the contributors are drawn partially from a pool of “grad students, young adjunct professors or tenured professors”. That being the case, I wonder what they make of a 4700 word article by Ellen Meiksins Wood that appears on the Jacobin website titled “Capitalism’s Gravediggers”. Despite its focus on ostensibly economic matters, it is distinguished by a breathtaking lack of economic data. I wonder if any of those “young adjunct professors” would have the brass to submit an article to a JSTOR type journal so bereft of evidence unless of course it was targeted to those categorized as philosophy.

I should add this is not the first time I have noticed such an absence from Wood. She seems to be allergic to statistics, an odd disorder for one specializing in political economy.

This article, which has appeared in various permutations over the years, tends to make assertions such as this:

A substantial class of English agricultural producers, mainly tenant farmers, had emerged on the ruins of the peasantry, which had seen its land expropriated. Separated from their means of subsistence, these agrarian capitalists were dependent on the market, and whatever their own consumption needs, were therefore required to meet those imperatives.

You would think that Wood might have taken the trouble to substantiate the claim that market relations were unique to the period in question since it is not only the basis for British exceptionalism but the “big bang” that got the capitalist system going. Without tenant farming based on short-term leases—literally—there would be no industrial revolution, no imperialism, and no commercials for auto insurance 5 times an hour on prime-time television.

By contrast, I just read a 65-page article by Eric Mielants titled “Perspectives on the Origins of Merchant Capitalism in Europe” that appeared in the Fall 2000 Review, a journal put out by the Fernand Braudel Center. Mielants, a critic of the Brenner thesis, writes:

After investigating data available in the Domesday book, the economic historian Snooks estimates that 40% of the economy in eleventh-century England was involved in market activities (the market being the sector where “all the major economic decisions in England were made”) and 60% in subsistence.

Mielants adds in a footnote: “Snooks estimates that 32.3 % of the English market sector in 1086 was rural and 7.8% was urban, hereby arriving at a total of 40.1% (1995: 40).” And that’s a good three centuries before Brenner’s big bang occurred. You would have had to assume that market relations only deepened over three centuries but prior to the introduction of tenant farming.

I should add that the References section (see below) of Mielants’s article is 19 pages long. Given what I have seen in the article, I am positive that he has immersed himself in this material over his relatively brief career. That is what I call scholarship as opposed to the sort of vaporous theorizing that Ellen Meiksins Woods is so good at.

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In the 33 articles I have written about the Brenner thesis (aka Political Marxism) over the years, I have tried to be scrupulous about providing evidence even though my articles were written for popular consumption on the Internet. For example, in an article titled “British Farming and Market Imperatives”, I wrote:

Colin Duncan’s “The Centrality of Agriculture” contains an excellent discussion of these issues in chapter 2, titled “Agriculture Privileged and Benign: English Capitalism in its Light-Industrial Prime”. Duncan agrees with Brenner that there was a profound change in property relations in the British countryside, but challenges the idea that this had much to do with “the maximization of exchange value by means of cost-cutting and improving productivity, by specialization, accumulation, and innovation,” to use Ellen Meiksins Wood’s words. Paradoxically, the “improvements” found in British farming in the pre-Industrial Revolution period involve greater costs and thorough defiance of market mechanisms.

To start with, British tenant farming in the “classical” period is marked by very long leases, up to 21 years. Long leases encouraged experiments with “improvement”, such as crop rotation, etc. The tenant farmer was expected to provide most of the capital for such ventures and could only be assured of staying profitable through a long-term lease. Capitalist logic, of course, would favor short-term leases since they tend to be more responsive to market fluctuations.

Such long-term leases were necessary for the tenant farmer to implement crop rotation cycles which often spanned 20 years. During a long cycle, it was not unusual for 2/3rds of the land to be allocated to grass, which had no commercial value but could be used to re-enrich the soil. Farm animals ate the grass and then supplied the manure that could be used to fertilize the crops. Colin Duncan writes:

Interestingly, and rather embarrassingly for Brenner, many of these new farming practices were very costly and did not allow labour to be shed, as [Keith] Tribe has recently re-emphasized [in ‘Genealogies of Capitalism.’] Rather, they often required additional labour inputs, and in large quantities. Clearly such improvements do not fit the pattern of industrial labour-saving technology so characteristic of our current economics and anachronistically posited by Brenner as a hallmark of early modern farming in England.

It might be useful to see how Karl Marx wrote about these issues in volume one of Capital. In chapter 29, titled “The Genesis of the Capitalist Farmer”, he supports his arguments with three rather meaty footnotes and that was not even to cover his ass if he intended to submit it for peer review.

Marx’s main interest in fact is the impact it had on the creation of dispossessed farmers now available for wage labor. In the preceding chapter (“Bloody Legislation Against the Expropriated, from the End of the 15th Century. Forcing Down of Wages by Acts of Parliament”), he hones in on this:

A tariff of wages was fixed by law for town and country, for piece work and day work. The agricultural labourers were to hire themselves out by the year, the town ones “in open market.” It was forbidden, under pain of imprisonment, to pay higher wages than those fixed by the statute, but the taking of higher wages was more severely punished than the giving them. [So also in Sections 18 and 19 of the Statute of Apprentices of Elizabeth, ten days’ imprisonment is decreed for him that pays the higher wages, but twenty-one days for him that receives them.]

Compare this description of the conditions facing the dispossessed with Woods’s assertion about the primacy of market relations: “Capitalism is a system in which all major economic actors are dependent on the market for their basic requirements of life.” That is true to some extent. The lash of the market coerces modern workers to accept minimum wages and to work in unsafe conditions. If you are a high school dropout, that’s what the market dictates. But in the early stages of capitalism, it was not the market that ruled. It was “extra-economic” forces that set wages. Leaving aside the debate with the “Political Marxists” over the exact nature of chattel slavery, we should never forget that the 16th century worker was literally forced by the gun to accept a below-market wage.

In chapter 30, titled “Reaction of the Agricultural Revolution on Industry. Creation of the Home-Market for Industrial Capital”, Marx acknowledges that the emergence of large-scale farming brought about improvements: “the soil brought forth as much or more produce, after as before, because the revolution in the conditions of landed property was accompanied by improved methods of culture, greater co-operation, concentration of the means of production.”

However, the real breakthrough was the creation of a class of wage workers who could now be made available for industry: “The peasant, expropriated and cast adrift, must buy their value in the form of wages, from his new master, the industrial capitalist. That which holds good of the means of subsistence holds with the raw materials of industry dependent upon home agriculture. They were transformed into an element of constant capital.“

If according to Marx the creation of a proletariat was a critical element—a sine qua non in some ways—for the origins of capitalism, it is almost besides the point for Wood and Brenner. In a Monthly Review article titled “The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism”, she writes that the term “agrarian capitalism” has no role for the nascent industrial proletariat that Marx dwells upon. She says, “This requires some explanation.” I would say so.

She concurs with Marx that: “Without that dispossessed non-agrarian work force, there would have been no mass consumer market for the cheap everyday goods—such as food and textiles—that drove the process of industrialization in England.”

But what separates Marx from Wood and Brenner was his laser-like focus on the evolution of the modern industrial system out of the handicrafts and manufacturing that preceded it historically. Chapter 15 of Capital is titled “Machinery and Modern Industry”. It puts this process under a microscope. While Britain always had a textile sector, it was only through the simultaneous development of labor-saving devices, including the windmills and watermills that could drive machinery, that the industrial revolution became possible. Wageworkers driven from their land became part of the early manufacturing system that eventually turned into the modern factory system.

To make such a transformation complete, capital was needed. A primitive accumulation that swept the self-sustaining farmer off his land was accompanied by another form of primitive accumulation that yielded the financial wherewithal to create the factories where they toiled. As the ultimate rebuttal to Political Marxism, Marx made it clear where the capital came from in chapter 31, titled appropriately enough “The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”. None of it was based on market relations. It was based on the gun and the ball-and-chain, the ultimate forms of “extra-economic” coercion that made all the rest possible. This was the real big bang, not lease farming in the 15th century British countryside:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

The different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.


December 7, 2014

Richard Greener talks about James Brown

Filed under: african-american,music — louisproyect @ 5:00 pm

My old friend Richard Greener was a business associate of James Brown for many years. In this interview we compare notes on the great rhythm and blues musician prompted by my review of Alex Gibney’s documentary “Mr. Dynamite” and the feature film “Get on Up” in CounterPunch.

Pablo Iglesias on the working class

Filed under: Podemos — louisproyect @ 11:17 am

The leader of Podemos says in 7 minutes and 20 seconds what I have been trying to say for the past 30 years. That his party has been polling ahead of the bourgeois parties in Spain gives me hope for the future.


December 6, 2014

Rapunzel and the Imp

Filed under: Jeffrey Marlin — louisproyect @ 3:15 pm


(This is the last in a series of guest posts from Jeffrey Marlin whose e-books, including this one, are available from Amazon.com. )

Rapunzel’s tale of woe and redemption begins many decades before her birth, with the story of her adoptive mother, that overly protective soul who locked her away in a lonely tower along with her fabled long hair. Although born to the lowest of families in an undistinguished place, Rapunzel’s unnatural mother displayed from early infancy a saintly inclination. Her kindness lit the darkness and elevated the town. But as often happens, her shimmering Goodness offended the unseen creatures who live to degrade us all. Unfortunately, such situations rarely turn out well, as the following formative episode demonstrates clearly:

Pity the miscreant entities! They could not escape her radiance no matter how they tried. They prayed to their devilish icons for reassignment. But this was not to be ‘til the end of time. Or so the demons were told. Here they were ordered to stay and make do, creating their mischief as best they could.

As we are children of Heaven, they are no more than slaves.

Yet even slaves may finally run out of patience.

So it was that one rainy night the unseen community gathered in the depths of a forest favored by the lowest of mortal creatures. Here they wailed a petition to the rulers of their kind, the ones who watch the world from its churning core. The sound of their grievance frightened spiders and foxes the size of lions. It chilled the earth and froze the eggs of owls in their nests. It made its way to the heart of town and caused a thousand nightmares.

And it must have impressed The Devil himself because here came an Ancient Deputy to offer them advice. These little creatures had been so long at work among human beings, pulling their tricks on the innocent, tugging beards and tickling wives, planting false recollections to sow confusion, they hardly remembered their origin under the surface, where all were born from a womb of boiling stone. They didn’t remember the faces of their rulers.

The great one’s appearance gave them a shock. Grossly disjointed features swam in a mass of fire. Was that lump of mysterious substance a kind of nose? That cavity a mouth? Were those oily pits of blackness supposed to be eyes? Those raggedy flaps two ears? Everything changed so fast they could not tell. The visitor swam in the air supported by leathery wings embellished by fur and blisters. Pustules covered his body. That was how the natural world portrayed him, assigning features devised of molecular structures. This was not his wish. But even the eldest and strongest of them cannot deny the rule of natural law, leastways not when they venture above the ground. And nature insists on painting them as She sees them.

The lesser demons haunting the town had long accepted their pointed heads, feet reminiscent of ducks and dragons, two or three navels, teeth like beavers, crocodile jaws, monstrous chins, protruding eyes and bellies. Some had beards on their noses and elbows and shoulders. Warts were widely distributed as were beaks. They could not cast reflections so they never saw themselves, relying on their fellows for description.

The ancient one would never achieve a durable earthly shape. He did not intend to stay for cakes and coffee. He wasn’t there to show himself off. Once his petitioners doused their fear, none of them cared a sniff what the Deputy looked like.

Without so much as an invitation, they vocalized their complaints.

The first to speak was a female imp who specialized in vanity. Her scraggly hair held the hues of a tropical parrot. Her narrow lips were red and blue. Her eyes were green and orange. She spoke with the nagging voice of a rusty gate.

“Great Father,” she called him, not knowing any better. “From the moment the child acquired wits I laid myself against her very eardrum. I rhapsodized on her beauty. ‘Come,’ I said, ‘Open your eyes and take a bite of pride. Behold the moon in the mirror. Demand extravagant favors. Spite any who refuse you.’”

This parody of the female gender continued: “What good did it do me? I ask you! Where I’m concerned she’s deaf as a stillborn lamb, and we have plenty of those. Father, I did not always sound this way. It happened from screaming incessantly in her ear.”

“In other words you failed,” said the fiery presence.

“I’m not the only one.”

The burning face said nothing more. It’s writhing features continued to twist. The Deputy twitched his crumbling wings, never moving a jot from his place in the air.

The demon that wore the face of lust spoke next from a higher branch of the selfsame tree. Suave and self-assured, it pretty much ruled the roost. Why not? Of all the disgraces encumbering human beings, which dread weakness spawns as much trouble as that which we share with goats of the field and monkeys that live in trees? When the tightened lip will not gossip, the fist refuses to clench, the urge to mayhem falls asleep, it’s lust that keeps the Devil’s agenda moving. It’s lust when all else fails.

And here was the certain master, a robust imp with swelling organs native to both persuasions, a mouth of teeth constructed of sugar, a voice like a humming cello. Not that some others didn’t attempt to manipulate sexual urges. But few of them had the knack.

Many were prone to embroidering, injecting flowery phrases no one wants to hear. Others rushed the progress, causing irritation. A few infected their victims with lack of nerve, reflecting their own confusion. Leading to what conclusion? Participants walked away from the assignation. Another sin was avoided, a lesson learned. Next time, behind the church or in the cornfield, there would be hesitation. Such failures delay humanity’s promised extinction. Demons who cook up defeats like this face the stinging disapproval of their kind.

It happens more often than you might think.

But not to our present speaker. This little expert boasted, “I hook one fish for every three lines cast. And you can be sure when I catch one, the fish stays good and caught. I love to watch them wriggle. I thrive on their dissipation.”

No exaggeration. This one imp accounted for half the misery experienced within the borders of the town for the past three hundred years, since it first got the hang of doing things just so. Proud? Perhaps. But we cannot deny the monster knew its business.

Self-pity rules the devil’s unseen creatures. The Imp of Lust put its own on full display. “Great Father,” it moaned, “I glut her brain with images of the most fantastic design. Night after night I flood her mind with adventures. The pleasures with which I assail her brain give normal girls a fever. This dreamer mistakes it for comedy, the height of all ridiculousness. She giggles in her sleep. This is a first for me.

“I also inspire the best looking boys to stare at her suggestively, with fire in their eyes. Sooner or later this kind of thing always works. But Flora confounds my efforts, taking those smoky glances for simple affection and leaving my helpless pawns to suffer the shame of swollen parts and inner abnegation. Holy men with long gray beards jump to the snap of my fingers. Most of them cannot wait. They prey on young and old. But this one drains my strength and scars my reputation. Maybe she is a juvenile witch gone bad.”

The little fiend subsided with another suggestive moan.

So it continued throughout the night, each of the unclean chorus adding a tale of woe and humiliation. A heavenly angel might well have wept at the sight their desolation. At last the ancient visitor thrust a burning finger downward, indicating the base of the blackened tree these spirits infested. He singled out the only member who had not spoken yet. This was a tiny specimen, all fidgets and twitches and gestures of nervousness, little more than a mass of wrinkles with seven spindly fingers on each of his shrunken hands. He shook with terror feeling the gaze upon him.

“Who is this?” came the great one’s voice.

“I am the Imp of Obsession,” was the barely whispered reply.

“How do you earn your living?”

“I busy myself with the holy men who waste their lives on scripture. I drive them to look for meaning where there is none. I also torment cows and goats by goading their masters to milk them when they are dry, often leading to ulceration, sometimes even infection. Thus, I do my humble best to bring about the end of the human epoch through damnation. I strive thereby for our own emancipation.”

“But have you tried your hand with little Flora?”

The Imp of Obsession steadied his head, fought to quell his stammer, spoke with the sound of a woodpecker striking wood: “Who am I to attempt to accomplish what lust and rage and vanity could not do? Who am I to apply my skills where pride and naked avarice bit the dust? The child is immune to envy, impervious to deceit. My wretched gifts do not compare. I lack the unholy presumption. In short, Great Father, my honest answer is no.”

Who can imagine the sound of Satanic laughter? Which of us wants to try? The reader must make that decision. But understand that whatever its sound, Satanic laughter bent the trees and the beasts that remained the forest departed in haste.


Syria: Top 12 Essential Articles

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 2:01 pm

Syria: Top 12 Essential Articles


The Top 12 list is the result of a poll, which was presented in several media collectives working on Syria.
The “Further Reading” list below contains the articles that didn’t make the top 12. We encourage you to read all of them to gain a better understanding of the situation in Syria.

1. Syrian rebels overwhelmingly condemn US bombing as an attack on revolution

By Michael Karadjis

In extraordinary developments, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan have launched a joint air war, on Syrian territory, with the full support of the Syrian tyranny of Bashar al-Assad, on the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS).

What hope is there then in Syria, where the Assad regime has been far more murderous than Maliki, has wiped entire Sunni towns and cities off the map and sent millions into exile? While the US now acts as Assad’s airforce to help smash the revolution, a stabilisation of the situation will eventually require the long-term US aim of doing some deal that encourages Assad and a narrow circle around him to “step down” in order to save the Baathist regime and its military-security apparatus, and to “widen” it by allowing in some select conservative opponents into the regime. The so-called ‘Yemeni solution.’ The difficulty being that the Assad ruling family and mega-capitalist clique is so much more completely associated with the state than a mere Saleh or Mubarak ever was.

Is an attempt to crush the revolution for the regime a prelude to a plan with regime insiders and international factors to gently push Assad aside when it’s over to gain a modicum of Sunni support to replace ISIS on the ground? Like everything else, this remains to be seen, but is one of the possibilities – as is the possibility that the crushing of the revolution simply means the current regime becomes the “factor of stability” in the region.

2. an introduction to syria – its history and its present revolutionary struggles 

By yasmeen mobayed
the syrian revolution began in march 2011, after 9-15 year old kids were inspired by the uprisings in the MENA. the first protests began in dara’a, syria – several children graffitied anti-government slogans on their school wall and were taken by assad’s forces, interrogated, and tortured (they were severely beaten and their nails were removed). on march 15th, the children’s families and the community responded by protesting for the children to be returned; however, not all the children were released. this sparked the beginning of the revolution.

on friday march 18th, cities throughout syria collectively united in solidarity with dara’a, but security forces immediately responded by firing bullets on the peaceful demonstrations, killing 6 people on the very first day. after march 18th, syrians went out to protest every day (the ba’ath flag was used by demonstrators for nearly a year and a half before the independence flag that we see today was fully adopted). it’s important to note that at first the revolution’s demand was for mere reforms, but after experiencing the regime’s hostile and vicious response, the people demanded the downfall of the regime in its entirety.

3.  ‘Take Your Portion’: A Victim Speaks Out About Rape in Syria 


Alma Abdulrahman’s story fits her name — alma can mean a number of things in Arabic. It can mean “dark” or “black” but it can also refer to a lush kind of tree that is a metaphor for beauty. And the horrors she describes have positioned her to become the face of powerful women survivors in Syria. She says she has fought and killed; she also says she has done it for her country. She says she has endured torture and violation but that she is “capable of standing up against oppression.” Speaking out has been a decision she has made after many months of being told to stay quiet.

“We have to share this with the entire world to show that women are fighters,” she says. “The Arab woman is very strong. All she needs is just a little freedom.”

4. The Anti-Imperialism of Fools 

By Mahmoud E.
Comrades and friends, let’s put an end to this Anti-Imperialism of fools and be principled to our ideals and not fall into supporting those who blindly back the fascist,social chauvinist and bourgeois nationalist Assad regime that is oppressing the Syrian masses we have to unite and support the syrian people’s struggle and progressive forces of Syria against the Assad regime and Imperialism whether it is US/Western Imperialism, Russian imperialism or Iranian and Arab gulf countries interventions in Syria.

5. A Friend of my Father: Iran’s Manipulation of Bashar al-Assad​  

The March 2011 uprising presented an irresistible opportunity for Iran to assert permanent dominance throughout greater Syria. Iran acted quickly, sending Secretary Jalili to Damascus just days after protesters took to the streets in Daraa. Jalili pitched the Iron Curtain plan to Bashar’s inner circle, assuring them that he knew the formula to neutralize protesters effectively. Iranian officials encouraged Assad to avoid concessions that could limit their influence over Assad’s inner circle. As the tensions evolved into armed conflict, Iran immediately sent advisors, snipers, and special forces to support Bashar. To compensate for defections from his officers, Bashar padded his loyalist camp with fighters and strategic planners from Iran and Hezbollah. Hafez spent decades protecting himself from such an incursion, but by late 2011, his son was desperate for a friend.

6. How Syria’s Assad Helped Forge ISIS 

By Simon Speakman Cordall
Mohammed Al-Saud is under no illusions. “In 2011, the majority of the current ISIS leadership was released from jail by Bashar Al Assad,” he said. “No one in the regime has ever admitted this, or explained why.” Al-Saud, a Syrian dissident with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, left Syria under threat of arrest in 2011.

Alghorani is convinced that members of ISIS were released strategically by Assad. “From the first days of the revolution (in March 2011), Assad denounced the organisation as being the work of radical Salafists, so he released the Salafists he had created in his prisons to justify the claim … If you do not have an enemy, you create an enemy.”

Fellow Syrians agree. “The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work, in their creation of armed brigades,” a former member of the Syrian Security Services told the Abu Dhabi newspaper, the National, on condition of anonymity in January this year.

“The regime knew what these people were. It knew what they wanted and the extent of their networks. Then it released them. These are the same people who are now in Iraq,” Al-Saud added.

7. SYRIA: A reading into the new wave of European far-right and the reasons behind its support for the Syrian regime 

Originally published in Arabic on Al-Manshour 
By Hisham Al Ashqar

Translated by Laila Attar and Ubiydah Mobarak from Arabic for Tahrir-ICN

News of the visits of fascist and far-right groups to Syria, to show solidarity with the regime, have recently started to emerge, especially with the beginning of the revolutionary process in the Arab region. It seems that the Syrian issue ranks highly on the agenda of the European far-right. So, is it axiomatic to say that the majority of the European far-right supports Assad’s regime and stands against the revolution in Syria?

8.  Syrian Fascism and the Western Left  

by Nicole Gevirtz

The Ba’athist kind of, dare I say, tribal imperialism, can only rule through brutal terror and oppression. This is exacerbated when a minority rules. Sectarian animosity has been relentlessly exacerbated by the regime’s narratives and actions, not by the popular rebellion for democracy. Sectarian blackmail remains one of the last tools in Bashar’s arsenal that can still mobilize large segments of the Syrian population to support him. Every undermining of the government, no matter how slight, is seen as a challenge to the neo-Ba’athist tribal hegemony. Such a security state apparatus, by its very nature, is destined to be immersed in a bloodbath of its own making. The horrors in Syria today are absolutely comparable to the Nazi death camps, yet the American anti-Zionist Left is denying their pain while quoting Hannah Arendt. Even American pro-Palestinian organizations are describing the Syrian people as Wahabi-NATO-Zionists. Lebanese pseudo-secular hipsters and Hezbollah fanboys don´t know, or seem to care, that Iran cooperated with George W. Bush in Iraq but they use the disastrous Iraq war as an example for not intervening in Syria. They don´t even know basic facts about Syria, and as a result, Western Leftists have become pro-fascists; they are making speeches in praise of Assad in Syria itself – at the scene of the genocide. Others, often the same ones who refused to recognize George Bush’s election results, were praising Assad’s alleged victory in the farcical election there over the forces of imperialism and Islamism.

This is not unlike going to Germany to praise Hitler’s plan to “settle the Jews in the east” as a victory over the Jewish plot. At least the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide did not attempt to have a presidential election in the middle of the bloodshed. The Western Left has become an obstruction in the way of truth, life and freedom… at least for Syrians; the victims of this generation’s greatest humanitarian crisis. Real revolutionaries, and anyone with some common human decency, should treat these fascists the same way they treat any other fascists; with absolute contempt.

9. Tortured and killed: Hamza al-Khateeb, age 13

By Hugh Macleod and Annasofie Flamand

The child had spent nearly a month in the custody of Syrian security, and when they finally returned his corpse it bore the scars of brutal torture: Lacerations, bruises and burns to his feet, elbows, face and knees, consistent with the use of electric shock devices and of being whipped with cable, both techniques of torture documented by Human Rights Watch as being used in Syrian prisons during the bloody three-month crackdown on protestors.

Hamza’s eyes were swollen and black and there were identical bullet wounds where he had apparently been shot through both arms, the bullets tearing a hole in his sides and lodging in his belly.

On Hamza’s chest was a deep, dark burn mark. His neck was broken and his penis cut off.

“Where are the human rights committees? Where is the International Criminal Court?” asks the voice of the man inspecting Hamza’s body on a video uploaded to YouTube.

“A month had passed by with his family not knowing where he was, or if or when he would be released. He was released to his family as a corpse. Upon examining his body, the signs of torture are very clear.”
10. Bashar Al Assad: An Intimate Profile of a Mass Murderer 

By Annia Ciezadlo
To Bashar and his wife, it wasn’t the Syrian regime that required real reform. It was the Syrian people. Asma’s official biography, passed to me by an old friend of Bashar’s, distills their governing ideology. It reads like a tract from Rand Paul: Syrians need to stop depending on the state and assume “personal responsibility for achieving the common good,” the document proclaims, adding, “the sustainable answer to social need is not aid but opportunity” and “creating circumstances where people can help themselves.” That the Assad family and its loyalists have been helping themselves to Syria’s national wealth for decades does not enter into this narrative.

11. Exploding the myth of Syria being ‘anti-imperialist’ 

By Workers International
While the Assad regime may have ‘nationalised’ the oil and gas sectors of the economy, these are partnerships with imperialist companies and not under workers control. For example the Loon Lattakia oil company is a partnership with Mena which is a Canadian oil companyGulfsands Petroleum operates extensively in Syria- Gulfsands is in part controlled by the infamous Blackrock Investments, Schroder Investments, Goldman Sachs and Cheriot Norges bank. The bank of America, Barclays, AIG and Merrill Lynch, as shareholders in Blackrock are thus also participants in the imperialist operations in Syria. Earlier this year, imperialist magazine, World Finance, awarded Rami Makhlouf an award as visionary business leader. Makhlouf is part of the Assad family that through Cham Investment Group, Mada Transport (a motor assembly operation) and Real Estate Bank, control over 60% of the Syrian economy on behalf of imperialism.  Makhlouf and other Syrian capitalists have opened their warehouses as prisons as the official prisons are overflowing with the regime’s captives. Yet the Syrian CP insists that the regime is ‘anti-imperialist’!

The Communist Action Party in Syria confirms that when the Assad coup took place the local capitalist class was not expropriated and continued to operate. Thus when the oil and gas sector were nationalised, it was a state capitalist regime that made this raw material available for imperialist exploitation- the state using part of the revenue to create perks such as free education and health care to create capitalist stability. [Free education and free health care are not in themselves indicators of a ‘socialist’ regime. Saudi Arabia and some other capitalist countries also have free education and health care but are brutal anti-worker regimes. Even if education may be offered free, under capitalism it is still a tool to brainwash the working class and produce tame and obedient wage slaves for capitalist needs.]

12. Every Friday: New Slogans of the People’s Revolution 

By Not George Sabra
The democratic people’s revolution in Syria has accomplished something of world-historic importance: it has united both the imperialists and the anti-imperialists against it. Eastern imperialism led by Russia arms Bashar al-Assad to the teeth, Western imperialism led by the U.S. continues its heavy arms blockadeon Assad’s opposition, and so-called anti-imperialists led by As’ad Abu Khalil,George GallowayRand PaulCynthia McKinney, Stop the War Coalition, andANSWER Coalition relentlessly slander the uprising every step of the way in every conceivable way.

One fact that exposes the falseness of the imperialist-anti-imperialist alliance narrative is how the revolution’s supporters choose the names of their weekly mass protests. These protests have taken place in cities and villages across Syria after Friday prayers on every Friday without exception since the revolution began on March 15, 2011; they are the pulse of the struggle, the voice of the formerly voiceless, a chronicle of each twist and turn their struggle for freedom has taken.
Anywhere between 14,000 and 30,000 people vote democratically for their preferred slogans.
Blog Rolls and Compilations

– Everything from Michael Karadjis 

– Everything from Clay Claiborne on Syria 

– Everything from WE WRITE WHAT WE LIKE 


– Useful Articles on the Syrian Revolution from MENA

History and Analysis

–  The roots and grassroots of the Syrian revolution 


–  SYRIA: The life and work of anarchist Omar Aziz, and his impact on self-organization in the Syrian revolution  

– The Vocabulary of Sectarianism 

– The Multiple Layers of the Syrian Crisis 

The Opposition


–  List of armed groups in the Syrian Civil War 

–  SYRIA: The struggle continues: Syria’s grass-roots civil opposition

Geo Politics 

– The US, Iran, Russia-Syria and the geopolitical shift: Anything for the region’s oppressed? 

– Why Now? US Airstrikes on Syria 

– Yet again on those hoary old allegations that the US has armed the FSA since 2012  

– We Stand Behind the Syrian People’s Revolution – No to Foreign Intervention 

– Naame Shaam Report: IRAN IN SYRIA – From an Ally of the Regime to an Occupying Force




– Assad emails: father-in-law gave advice from UK during crackdown 

– Inside Assad’s Playbook: Time and Terror 

– Bashar Assad and the Death of History  

 On ISIS. How did the sectarian nightmare come true in Syria and Iraq? 

– Assad Has Never Fought ISIS Before 

– SYRIA: ‘Revolution within the revolution’ :The battle against ISIS

– EXCLUSIVE: Shaikh Hassan Abboud’s final interview 


– On the Issue of Palestinian Support for the Assad Regime 

 Syria and the Palestinians: ‘Almost no other Arab state has as much Palestinian blood on its hands’ 

 How Not to Be in Solidarity with Palestinians Refugees in Yarmouk  

– A guide for the Palestinian or “pro-Palestinian” shabiha sympathizer in your life 



– A red-brown alliance for Syria 

– SYRIA: Who are Assad’s fascist supporters?  


Neo-liberal Politics of the Syrian Regime

–  Revolts in Syria: Tracking the Convergence Between Authoritarianism and Neoliberalism

–  Revolts in Syria: Regime Neoliberalism, Fundamental Changes, Decolonial Arab Revolution, and Syria’s Revolt

Chemical Attacks

– Syria’s Ghouta Gas Massacre of August 21, 2013: The US let it happen and the Left tried to cover it up. 

 Syria: #BreathingDeath Commemorating Actions of Those Killed in Ghouta 

 #BreathingDeath Chemical Timeline English Version 

– Ghouta, the Planned Attack (Only a part of the documentary)

– Promo 2 | first anniversary of the chemical massacre in Syria

– Syria: List of names from the Chemical Attack in East Ghouta- NYC 08/22/14 

 Interview with Hamid Imam: “Ask me what is happening in Syria!”-NYC 08/22/14

Qusai Zakarya: I was gassed by Bashar Al-Assad

– Speak4Syria: Qusai Zakarya

-50 Documented Violations Of The UN Security Council Resolution 2118 Through Using Poison Gases In 50 Attacks-What Is Behind The Red Line?
South-American Connections

– The Cuban Regime’s International Impact on Human Rights: Syria 

– Assad and Kirchner pledge mutual support 

– Syrian TV – Message from President al-Assad to President of Cuba on the latest developments in Syria, conveyed by al-Mikdad 

– How Cuba and Venezuela Scabbed on the Syrian Revolution

– Syria-Report From Aleppo 9/30/2014: Assad Continues Targeting Civilians; Special ANA Press Exclusive Report on Kobani  

– On the Syrian Revolution and the Kurdish Issue – an interview with Syrian-Kurdish activist and journalist Shiar Nayo 

The Position of the Western ‘Left’

– Alternative Left Perspectives on Syria  

– The role of US Imperialism in Syria and the Left’s Dilemma

– Selective Internationalism: An Activist Disorder


December 5, 2014

Melodramas for Middlebrows

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 5:51 pm
“The Theory of Everything”, “The Imitation Game”, and “Get on Up”

Melodramas for Middlebrows


If we lived in a socialist country and I had the good fortune to be named Minister of Culture with North Korean type powers to dictate what gets made, the first thing I would do is consign the biopic genre to the ashbin of history. That is my reaction to “The Theory of Everything”, “The Imitation Game”, and “Get on Up”, three DVD’s that were part of the 99 films I received from publicists in advance of the 2014 New York Film Critics Online awards meeting on Sunday. The first two are worshipful treatments of Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing and the third is just the opposite, a look down one’s nose at James Brown.

Such films are made to order for the middlebrow tastes of most critics who regard them as “serious” works, as if they could ever match up to the written biography they are often based on. For the most part, they are the equivalent of the comic book versions of the classics I used to read in sixth grade until I was able to finally work my way through “Ivanhoe” or “Last of the Mohicans”.

It is not too hard to figure out the basic flaw of the biopic. Unless you have never heard of James Brown, you have a pretty good idea of how the movie starts, begins and ends. Of course, Alan Turing is a much more obscure figure but you can bet that the audience for “The Imitation Game” will not be made up of 15-year-olds who chose it over the latest Hobbit movie after finally making up their minds: “Hmmm. What’s more fun? Colossal battles between elves and fire-breathing dragons or eccentric homosexuals trying to crack Nazi cryptography?”

read full article

December 4, 2014

When slaves were paid wages

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 10:01 am

(This is an excerpt from Greg Grandin’s beautifully written and mind-blowing “The Empire of Necessity”, a book that digs into the history that Herman Melville fictionalized in “Benito Cereno”. I had a suspicion from what I had read that the book would address the slavery-as-capitalism debate that is part of the broader debate around the Brenner thesis. The excerpt focuses on the role of slavery in Latin America, where it became instrumental in the development of capitalism on the continent but even more interestingly a particular form of the “peculiar institution” where slaves were paid wages.)

Slavery was the motor of Spanish America’s market revolution, though not exactly in the same way it was in plantation zones of the Caribbean, coastal Brazil, or, later, the U.S. South. As in those areas, Africans and African-descendant peoples might be used to produce commercial exports for Europe, mining gold, for instance, diving for pearls in the Caribbean and the Pacific, drying hides, or cutting cane.” But a large number, per-haps even most, of Africans arriving under the new “free trade in blacks” system were put to work creating goods traded among the colonies.

Enslaved Africans and African Americans slaughtered cattle and sheared wool on the pampas of Argentina, spun cotton and wove clothing in textile workshops in Mexico City, and planted coffee in the mountains outside of Bogota. They fermented grapes for wine at the foot of the Andes and boiled Peruvian sugar to make candy. In Guayaquil, Ecuador, enslaved shipwrights built cargo vessels that were used to carry Chilean wheat to Lima markets. Throughout the thriving cities of mainland Spanish America, slaves worked, often for wages, as laborers, bakers, brickmakers, liverymen, cobblers, carpenters, tanners, smiths, rag pickers, cooks, and servants. Others, like Montevideo’s doleful itinerants, took to the streets, peddling goods they either made themselves or sold on commission.

It wasn’t just their labor that spurred the commercialization of society. The driving of more and more slaves inland, across the continent, the opening up of new slave roads and the expansion of old ones, tied hinterland markets together and created local circuits of finance and trade. Enslaved peoples were at one and the same time investments (purchased and then rented out as laborers), credit (used to secure loans), property, commodities, and capital, making them an odd mix of abstract and concrete value. Collateral for loans and items for speculation, slaves were also objects of nostalgia, mementos of a fixed but fading aristocratic world even as they served as the coin of a new commercialized one. Slaves literally made money: working in Lima’s mint, they trampled quicksilver into ore with their bare feet, pressing toxic mercury into their bloodstream in order to amalgamate the silver used for coins. And they were money, at least in a way. It wasn’t so much that the value of indi-vidual slaves was standardized in relation to currency. Slaves were the standard: when appraisers calculated the value of any given hacienda, slaves usually accounted for over half its worth, much more valuable than inanimate capital goods like tools and millworks.

The world was changing fast, old lines of rank and status were blurring, and slaves, along with livestock and land, often appeared to be the last substantial things. Slaves didn’t just create wealth: as items of conspicuous consumption for a rising merchant class, they displayed wealth. And since some slaves in Spanish America, especially those in cities like Montevideo and Buenos Aires, were paid wages, they were also consumers, spending their money on items that arrived in ships with other slaves or maybe even, in a few instances, with themselves.12

Endnote 12. My understanding of the importance of slavery to South America’s market revolution is indebted to Adelman’s Sovereignty and Revolution. The deregulation the slave trade was a central component in Spain’s efforts to adapt the colonial system to the “pressures of ramped-up inter-imperial competition.” But, according to Adelman, unlike the large-scale, export-focused plantations found in the U.S. South and the Caribbean, slavery in South America linked together “ever more diverse and decentralized commercial hubs” throughout the whole of the continent. “It could be argued,” Adelman writes, “drawing on Ira Berlin, that South America’s expanding hinterlands were slave societies (not simply societies with slaves) where slaves were central to productive processes. Plantations existed, but they were embedded in more diversified social systems,” with smaller establishments and hybrid forms of wage and coerced labor. “Slavery helped support rapidly commercialized, relatively diffused and adaptive production in the South American hinterlands integrated by the flow of merchant capital. And as it did so, it helped colonies become increasingly autonomous economically and socially, from metropolitan Spanish and Portuguese command.” In other words, what became American freedom—independence from Spain—was made possible by American slavery (p. 59). Such an approach opens up new ways to compare U.S. and Spanish American slavery and allows for consideration of the economic importance of slavery without reproducing old debates about whether slavery was capitalist or compatible with capitalism. In the United States, historians have recently returned to an older scholarly tradition emphasizing the importance of slavery to the making of modern capitalism examining slavery not just as a system of labor or a generator of profit but as a driver of finance capital and real estate speculation, as well as looking at how plantations served as organizational models for “innovative business practices that would come to typify modern management,” as Harvard’s Sven Beckert and Brown’s Seth Rockman write, in “How Slavery Led to Modern Capitalism,” in Bloomberg, January 24, 2012 (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-01-24/how-slavery-led-to-modern-capitalism-echoes.html). See also Beckert and Rockman’s forthcoming edited collection “Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development,” to be published by University of Pennsylvania Press, as well as earlier work, including Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944, and Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, New York: Viking, 1985; Sidney Mintz, “Slavery and Emergent Capitalism,” in Slavery in the New World, ed. Laura Foner and Eugene D. Genovese, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969. See also Walter Johnson’s recent River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.

December 3, 2014

Highway 80 revisited

Filed under: beatniks — louisproyect @ 1:40 pm

About a month ago I heard John Waters being interviewed on NPR about his new book “Carsick” that is a chronicle of hitchhiking from Baltimore to San Francisco. Since he is nearly as old as me and is a wealthy and successful filmmaker accustomed to a cushy lifestyle, I was impressed with his feat. There are three things I did when I was in my late teens and early 20s that I would not do today, one of them is take LSD, the second was to drive a motorcycle, and the last is hitchhiking from Dallas to Baltimore in the summer of 1965.

As it turns out, I was giving Waters perhaps a little bit more credit than he was due. The first two-thirds of the book is fiction apparently. He does claim to have hitched across America but I wonder why he didn’t just write about what happened. Did he have someone following behind him to make sure that everything went okay, like those survival experts on cable TV who can always rely on a camera crew to rescue them from a grizzly bear? Who knows?

In any case, the main point of the book was to remind readers that hitchhiking was once a very safe and a very romantic way to go distances far and near, as well as a way to meet some fascinating characters. In an interview with the NY Times’s David Itzkoff (the author of an article on the troubled estate of Harvey Pekar that was written just after his death that led to my oft-stated litanies), Waters made the case for a dying pastime:

But more crucially, he said this journey has taught him that it can sometimes be thrilling to not know where life is taking you.

“My life is so over-scheduled, what will happen if I give up control?” Mr. Waters said by phone from San Francisco, where he was safe, sound and still surging with adrenaline.

In doing so, he said he encountered a true cross-section of America: “Pot smokers, cops, I got everybody. And everybody was lovely.”

Having started hitchhiking at an early age, Mr. Waters said he had had only positive experiences in the past. “I never had a scary person, really,” he said. “When you’re young, people come on to you a lot more.”

When I was fourteen years old or so, I used to hitchhike back home from the movie theater in the next town, as did many kids my age. Our parents had no need to worry since nearly all the people driving past the Rialto theater in South Fallsburgh were locals and totally trustworthy. Back in 1959 nobody locked their doors in the small towns of Sullivan County, the heart of the Borscht Belt. People even left their car keys in the ignition. It was like a Jewish version of “The Andy Griffith Show”.

My next experience with hitchhiking was when I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1970 and before I bought a car to get around. College students hitched everywhere and so did people in their early twenties like me. You stood out on Massachusetts Avenue that wended its way from Cambridge across the Charles River into Boston with your thumb stuck out and wait for the next VW Beetle with a peace sign on the rear fender to pick you up. Everything was groovy.

In my senior year at Bard College in 1965, the beat generation was still happening for us. This was before anybody had heard the word “hippie”. We only knew about hipsters, the characters in Jack Kerouac’s novels who were into Zen Buddhism, jazz, marijuana and hitchhiking.

I was 20 years old when I graduated and totally unsure about what I wanted to do with my life. I had just broken up with my girlfriend at Bard College and only knew that I needed a fresh start in a new location, preferably one where I could live out my fantasy as a latter-day beat poet.

With that in mind, I agreed to accompany Rick Smith, another Bard graduate, out to California in a car that we were to drive for free as part of one of those brokered deals where you transport a car on behalf of its owner. We took Route 66 out west. Rick, like me, was also living out a fantasy—in his case being a blues harmonica player and a poet as well. I just googled Rick Smith to see what he has been up to over the past 50 years and apparently his fantasy came true based on the “About the author” section from his book of poetry “Hard Landing” available from Amazon.com:

Rick Smith was raised in Manhattan, Paris, Toledo, Ohio and Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Rick Smith began writing under the guidance of Michael Casey at Solebury School in Pennsylvania. Close family friendships and Carl Sandburg and Lenore Marshall also made a lasting impact on Rick’s life choices. He went on to study with Anthony Hecht at Bard College, George Starbuck and Frank Polite at the University of Iowa and Sam Eisenstein at Los Angeles City College. He learned blues harmonica in the “basket houses” of Greenwich Village and in the roadhouses of Duchess County. Smith founded the City Lights on the Sunset Strip in 1965 and has played and recorded with the likes of Van Dyke Parks, Big Joe Williams, Bernie Perl, Clabe Hangan and Steve Mann. During the 70’s, he joined Dan Ilves to co-edit the literary journal, Stonecloud. In 1981, he and John Lyon wrote and recorded “Hand To Mouth” a well reviewed LP of originals. He went on to write and record with Mindless, Go Figure, The Hangan Brothers and The Mescal Sheiks. Smith continues to work with the Mescal Sheiks as well as with Music Formula….

After Rick and I got to Los Angeles and dropped off the car, we said goodbye. He was staying there to live with his girlfriend and I was headed up to San Francisco to find a place to stay and look for a job.

A week into my stay at a rented room in the Russian Hill neighborhood, the San Francisco Chronicle had a story splashed across the front page about a major increase in the number of men drafted to go fight in Vietnam. Uh-oh. That was the end of my poetry-writing, tail-end of the beat generation fantasies. I had to find a way to stay out of the military. My life depended on it.

With not even the slightest thought about how my ex-girlfriend would regard a proposal, I took a Greyhound bus to Dallas and dropped in unannounced. Her reaction was a mixture of happiness to see me and an exasperated “what the fuck are you doing here?” When I broached the subject of marriage, the second choice on the menu kicked in with a vengeance.

Seeing that I had no future with her, I asked her to drive me to the outskirts of Dallas where I could start hitching on Highway 80, a road that ran through the south. Although I was pretty apolitical at the time, I was looking forward to traveling on the same road that became famous (or infamous) for the Selma to Montgomery Freedom Marches that took place just three months earlier in March 1965.

I had no idea that hitching on a road that was also known as the Dixie Overland Highway would entail any risks. In my immature and deeply romantic mind, this was like sticking out my thumb on Mass. Avenue.

Unfortunately, I don’t remember all the people who picked me up or what I saw on Highway 80 but to this day, nearly 50 years later, I can remember in broad brushstrokes what I am about to tell you now.

In Arkansas I was picked up by a Black truck driver who was hauling logs, a primary commodity in the state. Since the Selma-Montgomery freedom marches were galvanizing Black consciousness across the Deep South, he had no trouble expressing himself as we drove across the state. He was also happy to talk to a New Yorker since he probably assumed that anybody from New York would be sympathetic to the civil rights struggle.

For the better part of six hours, he told me about his refusal to put up with racism. The South was changing and he was not going to put up with Jim Crow. Listening to him was like being in the company of the hero of “Nothing But a Man” that had come out a year earlier and that was a breakthrough film about a Black railroad worker who refuses to kowtow to white bosses.

Despite being fairly apolitical, I had a deep admiration for any Black who was defying racist injustice so much so that I went to hear Malcolm X speak at a Militant Labor Forum during winter break at Bard College. It was the event where he praised the Militant newspaper. Little did I suspect at the time that I would be hawking the paper only two years later.

In Mississippi his polar opposite, a white racist GI on leave, picked me up. He told me that he was headed toward Fort Myers, Florida. After I asked him about how big the base was, he explained that Fort Myers was the name of his hometown, not a military base. That was not my first gaffe. When we stopped at a roadside café, I ordered chicken fried steak. When the waitress brought something that looked like a breaded veal cutlet rather than a steak, I told the GI that she must have brought me the wrong order, even though it tasted good enough. He told me that this was indeed a chicken fried steak, which would have been more accurately called a breaded steak. Years later when I moved to Houston to work with the SWP branch, I had chicken fried steak once or twice a week. I guess that’s where the bad LDL comes from.

The GI was not very talkative but every chance he got, he railed about “the niggers”. I was not going to challenge him on this given my reliance on his transportation as well as a fear that it might lead to a confrontation that could have dire consequences. As was the case with many of the whites I worked with at Texas Commerce Bank a few years later, the guy was very decent on a personal level. I wonder to this day what could make them hate Blacks so much.

Highway 80 was a two-lane road that occasionally overlapped Interstate 20, a four-lane expressway that was under construction at the time. For much of its length, it was indistinguishable from any country road. I remember being let out on 80 just a mile or two before the next town, somewhere in Alabama. I walked toward it in the hope of finding a place to have lunch and to wash my hands and face.

As I walked along a turn in the road, I heard a strange sound from just around the bend—a kind of “flap-flap”. As the sound grew louder, it sounded even stranger since there were no other sounds except for the cars passing by and the crickets in the roadside grass. And then finally I saw the source: an intellectually disabled (what used to be called mentally retarded) man sitting on the sidewalk slapping his hands on the concrete with a huge grin on his face.

This was at a time when empathy for such a sad and solitary figure was far outweighed by my overactive literary imagination. The first thing that came to mind was William Faulkner’s “Sound and the Fury”, in which the opening pages are meant to reflect the thinking of an intellectually disabled 33-year-old man. Everything was converging on me as I walked past the man: Vietnam, my estrangement from my ex-girl friend, a realization that my bohemian days would soon be behind me, and a forlorn but exhilarated sense of being “on the road”.

Later that day I got picked up by a portly man in a white suit and a rosy complexion that I guessed was the result of drinking too much who was more than happy to drop me off at one of Montgomery’s best but eminently affordable hotels as he advised me. In keeping with his appearance and his general boosterly attitude about Alabama, it turned out that he was a minor official in the municipal government. He was not interested in talking about race, even though I was a Yankee. His main topic of conversation was “opportunities” in Montgomery.

The hotel itself was like something out of a Tennessee Williams play. A king-sized bed sat underneath a ceiling fan, while a neon sign blinked on and off outside my window. I was too tired to allow the sign to interfere with my sleep.

In North Carolina a guy picked me up in the middle of the night in his forties who seemed genial enough. I can’t remember what he looked like but in my mind’s eye, I see someone that might have had a pencil-line mustache, wore a seersucker suit, and had a Panama hat on his head.

Within an hour of being picked up, the guy turned the conversation to sex. He asked me about the “girls in New York” in an obvious effort to either figure out my sexual orientation or to see if I could be hustled. I played it cool and everything turned out okay as he left me off in Virginia.

In northern Virginia, a guy in a hot-rod picked me up. He was driving it to a race that he was entering. The car had no top and the engine was exposed. Even if he was in the mood to chat, neither of us could hear each other over the roar of the engine. As much as this sounds like bullshit, it really happened. I don’t know about John Waters but I much prefer fact to fiction. That is why my attempts to write a novel after leaving the SWP came to naught. The car looked something like this:

Screen shot 2014-12-03 at 8.29.50 AM

When I got to Baltimore, I decided that I had my fill of being “on the road” and took a Greyhound bus to New York and began trying to find a graduate school that would accept me for the fall 1965 term. That was the New School and my introduction to Trotskyist politics.

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