Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 9, 2016

Isaac Newton and “junk science”

Filed under: science — louisproyect @ 2:18 pm

Today’s Washington Post has an article with the rather lurid title “Isaac Newton spent a lot of time on junk ‘science,’ and this manuscript proves it”. It turns out that he was “super into alchemy” as reporter Elahe Izadi puts it:

Sir Isaac Newton — the 17th-century scientist, mathematician and father of physics? Yeah, you know him.

But you may not know Newton was super into alchemy, a medieval “science” that preceded chemistry. Practitioners believed it was possible to transform one metal into another. The ultimate goal was figuring out how to transform lead into gold, and the elusive “Philosophers’ Stone” was a substance theorized to do just that.

A newly discovered manuscript, written in Newton’s hand, underscores his fascination with what’s now considered nothing more than mystical pseudoscience. The document, held in a private collection for decades and bought earlier this year by the Chemical Heritage Foundation, describes how to make an essential ingredient of the Philosophers’ Stone.

This document is one of many handwritten by the English physicist best known for establishing the law of universal gravitation.

“Newton was intensely interested in alchemy almost his whole life,” said James Voelkel, curator of rare books at the foundation’s Othmer Library of Chemical History. “These alchemical manuscripts consist of about a million words he wrote in his own hands.”

Alchemy, also called “chymistry” in England back in the 17th century, preoccupied Newton for decades. Following his death, many of his manuscripts were held by his family until they were auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1936. Dozens of private collectors bought his alchemical manuscripts, which had been labeled “not fit to be printed” when Newton died in 1727. Most of these papers have since been donated to Cambridge, except for a handful like the one acquired by the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

I got a chuckle out of this since it hewed to the standard narrative about alchemy being “junk science”. Just over 10 years ago I reviewed Cliff Conner’s “People’s History of Science” for Swans (http://www.swans.com/library/art12/lproy34.html) that puts alchemy into proper perspective. It is worth reposting here:

Cliff Conner’s A People’s History of Science
by Louis Proyect
Book Review

Conner, Cliff: A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives and ‘Low Mechanicks’, Nation Books, New York, 2006, ISBN 1-56025-748-2, 554 pages

(Swans – February 27, 2006)   Cliff Conner’s A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives and ‘Low Mechanicks’ does for science what Howard Zinn did for American history. It is an altogether winning attempt to tell the story of the ordinary working person or peasant’s contribution to our knowledge of the natural world. Just as scholars like Zinn remind us that a slave, Crispus Attucks, was the first casualty of the American Revolution, so does Conner show that humble people were on the front lines of the scientific revolution.

Over the course of this 500 page encyclopedic but lively effort, we learn about unsung heroes and heroines, like Antony Van Leeuwenhoek, a seventeenth century Dutch linen draper who began using magnifying lenses to examine fabrics but went on to pioneer the use of microscopy in the scientific laboratory. He was looked down upon by the scientific establishment as “neither a philosopher, a medical man, nor a gentleman… He had been to no university, knew no Latin, French, or English, and little relevant natural history or philosophy.”

In addition to telling their stories, Conner challenges conventional thinking about how science is done. At an early age, we are indoctrinated into thinking that science starts with pure ideas and then descends into the practical world. In reality, many of the greatest breakthroughs in our knowledge of the world were a result of the practical need to solve a pressing problem, some of which were related to mundane matters of trade and bookkeeping.

Perhaps no other example in Conner’s book dramatizes this as perfectly as the rise of numeric symbols, which came out of the “routine economic activities of farmers, artisans and traders.” Specifically, Sumerians devised symbols to keep track of grain. Rather than repeating the symbol for each grain multiple times, they devised a shortcut where the grain symbol would be drawn once, and prefixed with a numeric symbol. This technique was developed in lowly counting rooms rather than in the court hierarchy.

The next big breakthrough, positional numeration, also had common traders as midwives. This technique makes a digit’s value dependent on its relative position in a number. For example, “9” in the number 2,945 means nine hundred but it indicates “90” in 2,495. Imagine how difficult it would be to do simple calculations without such a system. Try adding the Roman numerals MMCMXLV to MMCDXCV without cheating (converting to positional numbers) and you will see how difficult it is. This is not to speak of the daunting task of multiplying them!

The introduction of the place-value system (together with the symbol of zero to hold “empty” columns) is particularly relevant to Conner’s mission in creating a people’s history of science. To begin with, it democratized arithmetic by making it accessible to all levels of society. Secondly, it did not originate with elite mathematicians but with anonymous clerks — perhaps ordinary accounting clerks — in India between the third and fifth centuries AD. Finally, this revolutionary innovation relied not on mathematics journals or other scholarly venues, but was transmitted by merchants pursuing their trade on routes between India and the rest of the world.

It should be noted that in addition to telling the story of how ordinary people contributed to science, Conner’s book is also a valuable contribution to correcting Eurocentric bias. Eurocentric historiography tends to identify civilization as a unique product of Western Europe that diffused around the world, particularly through the colonization of supposedly backward societies like India. Since science is considered one of the major achievements of Western Civilization, it is most helpful to discover that many of its vaunted contributions originated elsewhere. As such, Conner’s history belongs on the bookshelf next to James Blaut’s Colonizer’s Model of the World, Janet L. Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350, and a number of works by Jack Weatherford, the anthropologist who has written about the contributions of Native Americans and, more recently, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. In such works, our understanding of who makes history is radically challenged — for the better.

There is another dimension to the story of positional numeration that keeps getting repeated throughout Conner’s book, namely the resistance of elites to such breakthroughs despite their reputation for welcoming new knowledge and ways of understanding the natural world. There was a struggle to suppress the “Algorists” who advocated positional numbering — in Europe and in some places Arabic numbers were banned from official documents.

The reputation that elite scientists have for being impartial and above superstition is often belied by their conduct during times of great stress, especially as the old order is being challenged by the lower classes. In such times, they tend often to rally around the status quo, even if that means throwing standards of objectivity out the window. One of the more interesting examples is the great European witch-hunting craze of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Despite popular views of scientists resisting beliefs in the supernatural, a wholly new “science” of demonology grew up under the auspices of the same elites who were promoting the scientific revolution. King James VI of Scotland was a leading theorist of demonological science but he was also Francis Bacon’s royal patron. According to Conner, some of the most prominent spokesmen of the Royal Academy, an official scientific society, defended witch-hunting, among them the court scientist Robert Boyle.

What explains this anomaly? As it turns out, elite doctors were in a bitter rivalry with female folk healers at this time. As Francis Bacon put it, “In all times, witches and old women and impostors have had a competition with physicians.” There was a need to stamp out “evil witches” but good witches as well. These included midwives and any other women who were prevented by law from entering medical school in those days.

The aforementioned Robert Boyle, who is considered an exemplar of Baconian science, is a prime example of how “heroes” of the scientific revolution are celebrated at the expense of the commoners who made their work possible.

Robert Boyle was an aristocrat, who inherited a fortune from his landlord father Sir Richard Boyle. The father relied on his aristocratic position to defraud Irish landowners. Boyle was honest about how he gained scientific knowledge: “I freely confess that I learned more of the kinds, distinctions, properties, and consequently of the nature of stones, by conversing with two or three masons, and stone-cutters, than I did from Pliny, or Aristotle and his commentators.”

With his vast fortune, Boyle was able to set up workshops and staffed them with all sorts of craftsmen, from machinists and glassblowers to lens grinders and alchemists (yes, alchemists!). Although Boyle took credit for what happened in his laboratories, recent scholarship concludes that very little of the work was done by Boyle himself. One of the most important inventions was an air pump that was almost certainly constructed by his assistants, despite bearing his name (machine Boyleana).

The presence of an alchemist in Boyle’s laboratory might raise eyebrows for a modern reader who is accustomed to thinking of this in terms of astrology, witchcraft and the other “black arts.” It is to Conner’s credit that he not only puts alchemy into its proper context, but has some positive words to say. Although alchemy is understood today mostly as a means of turning base metals into gold, it originally meant working with metals in general. The roots of both chemistry and alchemy in early metal crafts are evident from historians of science. Arab alchemists discovered sal ammoniac and prepared caustic alkalis. (The word alkali is a variant of al-qili, the Arabic term for sodium carbonate.)

In the spirit of giving credit to those who came before us, Conner makes sure to acknowledge the influence of a number of radical scientists and historians of science who blazed the trail for his study. Some of these men and women were either in or around the Communist Party in the 1930s, when “science for the people” was the watchword of the movement.

One of the most remarkable of these figures was a Soviet physicist named Boris Hessen, who was responsible for challenging the “Great Men of Science” approach in the same manner that Marxist historians of his time would highlight the efforts of working people and peasants in changing society throughout history. One of the major figures that Hessen reevaluated was Isaac Newton, the author of Principia, or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, a work that would seem to embody the idea-descending-from-above paradigm.

Hessen argued that the preconditions of Newton’s theory were not “in the empyrean of abstract thought” (Conner quoting Hessen), but in his social environment, which was shaped by “the disintegration of the feudal economy, the development of merchant capital, of international maritime and of heavy (mining) industry.” Newton was challenged to come up with practical solutions to the pressing commercial problems of the day, including the need to measure longitude at sea. Indeed, the third section of Principia is devoted to the problems of the planet’s movements, gravity and other forces that could help to solve the problem of maritime navigation. As it turned out, it was not Newton’s theory that came to the rescue, but a timepiece produced by an ordinary watchmaker.

It is important to stress that Conner does not discount the obvious importance of a Newton or an Einstein, but simply wants to restore some balance in understanding how knowledge of the natural world has developed. It is a product both of the intellect and of experimentation by practical people. It is also obvious that modern science has become much more shaped by mathematics and abstract theory than was the case in earlier times.

Science has become much more a specialist’s discipline as capitalism has consolidated its rule. When the search for profit becomes the driving force of society, it is only natural that the academy is shaped to satisfy that requirement. Advanced degrees and professional societies become the norm, as does the tendency to give ethics the short shrift. Scientists become all too happy to produce scientific studies showing that tobacco will not cause cancer or that atomic energy is the safest source of electricity.

Conner covers these questions in depth in the final chapter, titled The Scientific-Industrial Complex. In July of 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote that science will usher in a kind of New Millennium in which jobs will be plentiful, a higher standard of living universal and disease conquered. But a month later Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be leveled to the ground. The Cold War would soon be initiated and a Defense Industry would become joined by an umbilical cord to research institutes like MIT, Stanford, and Cornell.

As a long-time socialist, Conner remains undaunted. If capitalism is threatening the world with global warming, toxic pollution of the air, ground and water, and weapons of mass destruction — all facilitated by scientific “advances” — then it will generate oppositional forces as it always has. In Marx’s words, capitalism creates its own gravediggers.

The movement has many constituents. At least one of them is rooted in science itself, namely environmentalism. Using the tools of science (biology, soil chemistry, etc.), people such as Rachel Carsons and Barry Commoner have explained how the forces of production are threatening the survival of humanity and the natural world alike.

Just as was the case during the rise of science in the 16th and 17th centuries, “outsiders” were treated with hostility by the elites, most especially women. In some ways, the antagonism toward Rachel Carsons evokes the witch-hunting of an earlier epoch:

Because “in postwar America, science was god, and science was male,” it was inevitable that the author’s gender would be a conspicuous element of the campaign against Silent Spring. The chemical industry’s flacks portrayed Carson as a hysterical woman whose alarming view of the future could be ignored or, if necessary, suppressed. She was a “bird and bunny lover,” a woman who kept cats and was therefore clearly suspect. She was a romantic “spinster” who was simply overwrought about genetics. In short, Carson was a woman out of control. She had overstepped the bounds of her gender and her science.

Scientists on the payroll of the polluting corporations believed they could dismiss her arguments on the grounds that she was “an outsider who had never been part of the scientific establishment. … Her career path was nontraditional; she had no academic affiliation, no institutional voice.” Most damning in their eyes was that “she deliberately wrote for the public rather than for a narrow scientific audience.” But in spite of the scientific elite’s attempts to marginalize her, this “people’s author” ignited a momentous social movement in defiance of Big Science. “We live in a scientific age,” she declared, “yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself.”

Carson put forward “her own, alternative scientific method: people’s observations and interpretations were as important as those of scientists, and community ethics served as the standard for making decisions about environmental risks.” As for her influence on the practice of science itself, by redirecting interest toward ecology and away from traditional mechanistic and reductionist approaches, Silent Spring had a major impact on the way biological knowledge would henceforth be pursued.

The People’s History of Science is a singular achievement. Not only does it inform the reader about the role of the common man and woman in scientific innovation over the ages, it is also an important guide to further research in the area. With a 25-page bibliography, it invites us to become fellow researchers in an area of vital interest to the left. With the daily challenges to a proper scientific understanding of the world — ranging from nonsense about Intelligent Design to global warming denial — it is incumbent upon us to develop and strengthen our knowledge of the world in the spirit of the words in Bukharin’s introduction to Philosophical Arabesques (reviewed on swans.com recently):

Today’s working-class hero is totally unlike the young ignoramus in Fonvizin, who asked, “Why do I need to know geography, when carriage drivers exist?” [A reference to an 18th century play.] It is the workers’ enemies who are playing the role of ignoramus. It is they who are increasingly turning their backs on the intellect, which refuses to serve their ends. It is they who snatch up stone axes, the swastika, the horoscope. It is they who are starting to read haltingly from the book of history, sounding it out syllable by syllable. It is they who pray to stone goddesses and idols. It is they who have turned their backs on the future, and like Heine’s dog, to which they have fitted a historical muzzle, they now bark with their backsides, while history in turn shows them only its a posteriori. Fine battles are now breaking out amid the grandiose festivities, and conflict envelops all areas.


April 8, 2016

Havana Motor Club

Filed under: cuba,sports — louisproyect @ 9:18 pm

“Havana Motor Club” is a vastly entertaining documentary about the underground drag racing scene in Cuba that is also about as informative a take on the social and economic reforms being pushed by Raul Castro as you can find anywhere. It opened at the Village East theater in NY today and is by far the best documentary I have seen thus far in 2016. (Also available on Amazon and ITunes.)

In 1959 the triumphant Cuban revolution declared that since automobile racing was decadent, it must be abolished along with prostitution, gambling and other vices associated with the Batista dictatorship. Even before the dictator was toppled, the rebels struck a blow against car racing by kidnapping and holding for ransom Juan Fangio, the Argentinian who was the greatest racer in the world and regarded by some as the greatest ever. When I was at Bard College, I was part of a circle that was heavily into racing and as such worshipped Juan Fangio. I remember the night in 1961 when we showed Juan Fangio racing films in the school gym where we burned Castrol motor oil, a British brand that was favored by professional racers. The distinctly pungent scent of the burning Castrol gave the film showing authenticity.

Fangio was in Cuba to compete in the 1958 Cuban Gran Prix. Because of the kidnapping, another driver substituted for him at the last minute. During the race a Cuban competitor skidded off the track and plowed into a crowd, killing 10 and injuring 40—an event that is seen in “Havana Motor Club”. So Fidel Castro had two reasons to ban auto racing. It was a plaything of the rich as well as dangerous. As for Fangio, he issued a statement after being released: “It was one more adventure. If what the rebels did was in a good cause, then I, as an Argentine, accept it.”

The film begins with a look at the racing scene in Cuba when director Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt arrived with his crew. There were no Ferraris, but merely the antique cars that dot Havana’s streets today but with an important difference. The engines were souped up in order to compete in illegal drag races on the Cuban back roads. In a drag race, two cars compete against each other with the goal of reaching the finish line first. In the USA drag racing is a highly popular sport in which speeds of over 300 mph can be reached under 5 seconds routinely down a quarter-mile track. In Cuba, it is doubtful that the fastest cars can reach speeds of more than 140 mph. Despite that, watching Cubans race a ‘55 Chevy or a ‘62 Ford can provide ten times more excitement than an American drag race, especially when you understand the challenges that faced them.

Not only was the sport illegal, it was difficult to get parts such as a supercharger that is essential for racing. One of the drivers featured in the film has a friend in Miami who comes to Cuba frequently to help his Porsche compete. It is not explained how a Cuban could have gotten his hands on a Porsche but we can assume that his friend had something to do with it. The film focuses on the competition between the Porsche that is equipped with an oversized Chevy engine and a highly modified 1955 Chevy that belongs to a garage-owner nicknamed “El Tito” and is driven by his son.

The ingenuity some drivers show in procuring parts is awe-inspiring. When a boat that was being used to smuggle people into Florida breaks apart near the beach in Havana, a scuba diver goes beneath to salvage the engine that is then used to soup up a ’51 Ford, one called the “Black Widow”. It is not hard to imagine that once the barriers to such items are lifted, the Cuban economy has the possibility of soaring to new heights. Maybe those possibilities have finally persuaded Jose Madera, the owner of the Black Widow, to finally remain in Cuba after 5 unsuccessful attempts to reach Florida by raft.

One racer, who competes with a ’56 Ford, is a perfect symbol of the Cuban revolution today. He resents the government’s refusal to lift the ban on drag racing but appreciates the benefits that socialism has brought, including the free medical care that allowed him to receive treatment for cancer that not only left him alive but capable of doing what he loved most—racing.

In the course of the film, the government lifts the ban on drag racing as part of the reforms being spearheaded by Raul Castro. Just before a big race is scheduled, it is suspended because the barricades necessary for crowd control (they remember the 1958 disaster) are being used for the Pope’s visit. When racers become discouraged, one remains hopeful. He says that the government will see its way to seeing the benefits of a sporting event that can go against the grain of capitalism that he admits is calling the shots everywhere in the world today. Cuba will take an institution that serves capitalism and show how it can be transformed into benefiting the people.

The film concludes with an official race sanctioned by the government that pits the Porsche against El Tito’s Chevy. I won’t tell you which car wins.

Despite his name, director Bent-Jurgen Perlmutt is a Brooklynite who became interested in Cuba as a college student. He enrolled in a study program there in the spring of 2000 just before the Elian Gonzalez custody battle took place. His take on that confrontation will give you a good understanding of how he was able to see Cuba in such a balanced fashion:

This incident piqued my interest even more in this “axis-of-evil” nation and its contentious relationship with the United States. In order to learn more about Cuba/U.S. relations from a Cuban perspective, I started taking research trips to Cuba on my own. This led me to develop several different film projects over the years, all focusing on how Americans live and survive in a country that (since recently) has been officially off-limits to most of them. HAVANA MOTOR CLUB is the culmination of all my work in Cuba over the years, and I intend it to shed light on the conflicting sides of the changes happening in Cuba today.

With Havana in a kind of timewarp, its streets looking like the year 1958 preserved in amber, there are obvious reasons why many people would enjoy returning to a less complicated time. We learn that as part of the reforms, the Cuban drag racers are now permitted to take tourists around town for a fee. If that’s the kind of capitalism that is overtaking Cuba today, I for one would be amenable to it especially since I was just another 13-year-old in 1958 with a passion for the same kinds of cars.

On a Friday night in the late 1950s after the movie let out in South Fallsburgh in upstate NY, we stood on the sidewalk in front of the Rialto Theater and took in the same kind of illegal drag racing you see in “Havana Motor Club”. The cars would not exactly compete with each other since it was a two-lane road heading out of town but they would line up in front of the traffic light and rev their engines until the light turned green. Watching a ’57 Chevy or Ford tearing up the street was a way to get the testosterone flowing.

My car racing circle at Bard included a student named Paul Gommi who was the typical Bardian of that time, which is to say an atypical American youth. Paul used to compete in a drag races in a class that was designated for modified sports cars like MG’s or Triumphs, popular at the time for people on a budget. Reading the fine print in the regulations, Paul discovered that it would be possible for him to compete with a 1932 Ford Phaeton that he had equipped with a bored and stroked English Ford engine. Over the years he has developed versions of this combination that have earned him accolades. This is a recent example as featured in a Hot Rod Network magazine article:

His latest creation is this original American ’32 Ford DeLuxe V-8 Phaeton (only 974 produced). He set about improving its performance exactly like he would have in 1955, using all pre-’55 parts, materials, machinery, tools, and even methods.

According to Paul, “A hot rod is all about the engine. Modifying the engine is the greatest improvement you can make in performance.” He chose a ’37 Ford 221ci 21-stud Flathead engine. For performance, he took a ’49 S.Co.T. supercharger and adapted the 21 studder by designing and making all the pulleys, drive, and modifying the manifold with the help of his friend Tom Taros.

Paul was an art major whose 12 feet tall paintings of drag racers lined the walls of the dining commons in 1965, done to fulfill the Senior Project required of all Bardians for graduation. Paul told us that he was done with art at that point. It was ready to move on to full-time racing and car-building as a profession.

In 1989 Paul’s drag racing career came to an end as his car spun off the track and resulted in a serious accident that nearly cost his life.

All I can say is that when the film shows officials warning the crowds at Cuba’s first drag racing race to keep a safe distance from the track, they had ample reasons to stick to their guns. Unless the people stood back, the race would be suspended. They surely understood the dangers of a car hurdling toward a crowd at over 100 miles per hour can pose. The top man representing the Cuban government in this emerging new sport is 72 years old and had vivid memories of the 1958 bloodbath. Whatever flaws the Cuban government has, neglect of the safety and health of its citizens is not one of them.

April 7, 2016

Salvage Magazine on the nascent potential embryonic incipient threat of Trumpist fascism

Filed under: Fascism,Trump — louisproyect @ 4:23 pm

Salvage Magazine is one of a number of Marxist journals that have sprouted up in recent years joining Jacobin, N+1, and Endnotes. I am sympathetic to all of these publications even though I reserve the right to criticize them as the need arises. This is one of those occasions prompted by Salvage’s editorial on the Donald Trump campaign, which unfortunately exaggerates its fascist potential. I have been struck by the tendency of British Marxists, such as Salvage’s editors and some FB friends, to line up on this question with American liberals at places like Salon.com that has been pushing the Trump as fascist line as if it were Germany in 1931.

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 9.27.36 AM

The editorial is titled “Lèse-Evilism: On the US Election Season”, a pun on lesser evilism that is a bit lost on me since I don’t read French. I took a stab with Google translation and it seems to mean “injured evilism” for what that’s worth. Leaving aside the politics, there is a certain archness in Salvage’s prose that puts me off a bit. For example, this is badly overwritten, reminding me a bit of a Social Text article:

Of course it’s sensible to start from an assumption of the rationality, Machiavellian rigour and strength of our enemies, and their power to push forward their (sometimes conflictual) agenda(s). But Trump is not part of grand Republican strategy. Nor is he precisely a pathology of it. He is an unintended consequence, no ex-nihilo Event but the culmination of a trend. He is an excr/essence thereof – essence and excressence in superposition.

I would have written: “Trump’s candidacy is a challenge to the Republican Party establishment” and left it at that. But that’s a mere peccadillo compared to the article’s main problem, which is to talk about Donald Trump and fascism with little regard to American realities.

Salvage puts its cards on the table: “Our position is that rather than Trump being just another bombastic right-winger or some strange anomaly of this moment, Trumpism is (potentially) nascent fascism. And that both theorising and organising should proceed on that basis.”

To start off, I am not sure if there’s much difference between “potentially” and “nascent” except as a belt-and-suspenders hedging device. “So what are you banging on about with this Trump fascism stuff?” “Well, we said it was only potentially nascent…”

The Salvage editors take exception to what ISO member Jennifer Roesch told Jacobin readers in December 2015: “For these establishment figures, charges of fascism are a cynical ploy to distance their own rhetoric and policies from Trump’s open displays of racism and bigotry. … [I]f our side succumbs to panic about Trump, we miss the greater dangers we face.” Dylan Riley, a UC Berkeley sociologist and author of “The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe: Italy, Spain, and Romania 1870-1945” agreed with Roesch: “[W]e should reject absolutely the hysterical lesser-evilism implicit in calling him ‘fascist’ … because it plays into the logic of supporting whomever emerges from the Democratic Party primary”.

So what is Salvage’s response to Roesch and Riley? It is: “But this is a logical fallacy: right-liberalism calls Trump a fascist; we are against right-liberalism; ergo Trump is not a fascist.” Actually, the debate should not pivot around “hysterical lesser-evilism” but the historical antecedents for fascism and whether we are in a period that has anything to do with the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Salazar. There is an attempt to engage with that question that is honest enough to admit that it is breaking with Marxist attempts to understand the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 30s:

Too many on the Left are driven by their opposition to this blackmail [of lesser-evilism] to rely on the comforts of outdated theoretical givens on this question, usually as post-facto justification. Especially in the chaotic political context of today, the procrustean bed of ‘classical Marxist’ categories by reference to which the existence or otherwise of some ideal-type ‘classical Fascism’ can be ascertained is decreasingly useful, if indeed it ever was.

Outdated theoretical givens? Procrustean beds of “classical Marxist” categories based on ideal types? Gosh, who wouldn’t want to avoid such tendencies especially given how nasty a procrustean bed was. Know what that was, folks? Procrustes was a figure from Greek mythology who used to cut off the feet of people who were too tall for the beds he kept for his unfortunate guests.

To answer those who insist on Trump being measured against a “Trotskyist check-list”, Salvage says that the standard of comparison for the 20s and 30s should be the KKK rather than the Nazi party. Now this would be an interesting discussion if the Salvage editors were willing to host it. It gets rather complicated in fact. In the 1930s FDR, the Bernie Sanders of his day, was in a bloc with the politicians in the South whose social base was identical to that of the KKK. Was FDR therefore worse than Donald Trump? A social fascist, so to speak? Inquiring minds would love to know.

What it all boils down to is this:

Though there is no official Trumpian black-shirt movement, it seems too sanguine and formalist not to consider the role of Trump-encouraged violence against the left at rallies, and the armed militias which are explicitly supporting him, such as ‘the Oath Keepers’, as potentially nascent forms of such organised violence. In this context, we should not be at all surprised by the announcement in mid-March 2016 of the formation of ‘The Lion’s Guard’ – the name itself redolent of inter-war kitsch – a militia ‘to provide security protection to innocent people who are subject to harassment and assault by Far-left agitators’ at Trump’s rallies. At the time of writing, the group is debating ‘uniform suggestions’.

This sort of febrile fear-mongering is hardly worth commenting on. Once again resorting to the hedging strategy of calling the Oath Keepers a “nascent” fascist group, there is no attempt to put this rightwing group into context. Unlike Golden Dawn or any other European fascist movement, they have yet to violently attack a single African-American. In fact, Morris Dees, the head of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an alarmist outfit of long standing, told Salon that he does not even consider them to be racist.

In terms of the Lion’s Guard, that was disbanded days after it was announced. In fact, it never amounted to anything except a Twitter account. On Twitter, I could have formed an account called The Communist Workers Militia but that does not mean it has any substance. It sounds scary but on the Internet nobody can tell if you are a dog, after all.

Salvage believes that unlike what happened in Europe in the 1920s and 30s, Trumpism could triumph without ruling class support and then rule with their “accommodation”. People like Lindsey Graham might badmouth Trump on CNN or Fox News but once Trump is settled into the White House, he will go along to get along.

I wonder if the Salvage comrades have ever taken five minutes to think of what it would mean to have something roughly equivalent to Nazi Germany with Donald Trump as the American Führer.

These are the sorts of changes we can expect to see:

  • The constitution would be suspended and the USA would be ruled by a single party called The Iron Fist or something along those lines. Centrist Republicans and virtually the entire Democratic Party would be arrested and put into concentration camps along with every “civil society” figure that defended democratic rights. George Soros would be picked up in the middle of the night and hauled off to Rikers Island where he would be put into a cell and beaten mercilessly until he made a confession on TV that Donald Trump was essential to preserve the vital bodily essence of the country as General Jack D. Ripper said in “Doctor Strangelove”.
  • A new government agency would have to be created in order to “purify” the educational system and the information available to the population. All the leftists would be removed from Columbia University, NYU et al and send to prison or killed including Eric Foner and Gayatri Spivak. The media would have to be revamped totally. The NY Times, the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, et al would be taken over by Trump loyalists who would now write articles that extol the maximum leader’s every policy decision. Amazon.com would be put under the control of a government official who would go through the database and delete every “dangerous” book starting with Noam Chomsky and drilling down to those that are even a bit questionable like The Hunger Games novels or Allen Ginsberg’s poetry books.
  • The military would be brought into line with new fascist realities. Those Generals who have made statements about refusing to carry out illegal orders under a Trump presidency would be rounded up and either imprisoned or killed. They would be replaced by those who were obedient to the maximum leader and willing to carry out his instructions that NATO be liquidated. (Of course, there are any number of CounterPunch authors who might cheer over this.)
  • The cops and army would invade Latino neighborhoods and round up people without proper papers and send them back to where they came from. Ooops. I forgot. That is current policy under Obama.

April 6, 2016

Sanders, Sweden and Socialism

Filed under: electoral strategy,Sweden — louisproyect @ 4:46 pm

A man with a plan for implementing socialism piecemeal

While far apart in age and ideology, Bhaskar Sunkara and John Bellamy Foster share the distinction of being the helmsmen of two flagships of American Marxism: Jacobin and Monthly Review. They also have in common authorship of recent op-ed pieces in the Washington Post in praise of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Oddly enough, despite the perception some might have of MR occupying a space to the left of Jacobin, a publication loosely affiliated to the DSA, Foster’s piece is more flattering to Sanders. Titled “Is democratic socialism the American Dream?”, it embraces the Scandinavian model of socialism that forms the core of Sanders’s political program:

In advocating democratic socialism, Sanders has promoted a pragmatic politics of the left. His proposals include a sharp increase in taxes on the billionaire class, free college tuition and single-payer health insurance, guaranteeing health insurance to the entire population regardless of jobs and income. He advocates job programs in the tradition of the New Deal. All of these proposals represent things that have been accomplished in other countries, particularly the Scandinavian social democracies, where the populations are better off according to every social indicator. By portraying them as possible here, Sanders has brought the idea of socialism — even a moderate kind — from the margins into the center of U.S. political culture.

In Sunkara’s article, “The ‘Sanders Democrat’ is paving the way for the radical left”, the good name of the Scandinavian model is invoked again:

Many of the young people now trumpeting socialism aren’t clear about what they mean by the word. It’s safe to guess that they’re referring broadly to the tattered social protections that do exist in the United States or to the more robust Scandinavian welfare states that Sanders often speaks of. Worker ownership of the means of production is not on the agenda for Sanders socialists just yet, nor are other questions about democratic control and social rights, ones key to the traditional socialist worldview.

Leaving aside the question of the value of pro-socialist think pieces in Jeff Bezos’s newspaper that is largely disdained by the very workers whose interests they defend, there is a failure to critically examine the Scandinavian model that even contributors to the two journals view with skepticism or outright hostility. If we can reasonably identify Sweden as the most representative example of the model, there is an obvious disconnect between the op-ed pieces and what can be found in Jacobin and MR.

In a February 2015 interview with Jacobin, Petter Nilsson of Sweden’s Left Party probably spoke for most of his nation’s Marxists when he said:

There’s this joke on the Swedish left that everyone would want the Swedish model, and the Swedes would want it perhaps more than anyone. What’s considered to be the Swedish model peaked in maybe the late ’70s, early ’80s and has since gone through quite the same developments as the rest of Europe with the neoliberal wave.

Meanwhile, Monthly Review dropped all illusions in the Swedish model over twenty years ago, well before John Bellamy Foster became editor. In March 1993 Kenneth Hermele and David Vail wrote “The End of the Middle Road: What Happened to the Swedish Model?”, an article that denounced the Swedish Social Democratic Party (SAP, Swedish for the Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti or “Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Sweden”) for pursuing a program based on “more social differentiation, higher concentration of economic power in the hands of Swedish transnational firms and their owners, and giving up the attempt to carry out a development model different from those of other developed capitalist countries.” So deep was the disgust with Swedish social democracy in the MR milieu that another article appeared subsequently in the July-August 1994 issue that attacked Hermele and Vail for being too soft on the SAP. In “Sweden: the model that never was”, Peter Cohen makes the case that it never had anything to do with socialism:

The history of the SAP since the First World War is one of class collaboration, not of “a kind of social contract” or negotiated class relationships,” whatever that may mean. Like all other European Social Democratic parties, the SAP not only accepts capitalism but defends it against any attempt at change. The party has always argued that what is good for Swedish corporations is good for the Swedish working class.

When Bob Schieffer of CBS’s “Face the Nation” interviewed Bernie Sanders on May 10, 2015, one of the first questions posed was what it meant to be a socialist nowadays. Did it mean being for nationalizing the railroads and “things like that”, clearly trying to get the candidate to defend Soviet-style socialism rather than the welfare state. Sanders replied that he was for “democratic socialism”, or what they’ve had in countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland for many years. Upon hearing this, I resolved to begin writing about Sweden and socialism to develop a class analysis of Sanders’s program. The other countries he listed would have to be overlooked because of time constraints and also because Sweden is an exemplar of the Scandinavian model. I was also familiar with the failures of Swedish social democracy having written fairly extensively about the country’s Marxist authors who got across their ideas about its dark side in detective novels such as the Wallander series and the Dragon Tattoo.

A series of eight articles about the Swedish model have appeared on my blog and this will be the conclusion. I am posting it on the North Star website since the issues posed by the Sanders campaign overlap with questions facing the left in the USA and Western Europe as many Marxists like Sunkara and Foster appear to be giving social democracy a new lease on life. Oddly enough, for all of the self-flagellation (deservedly so) by the Leninist left, there is a remarkable willingness today to treat social democracy as a brand new shiny toy and not the movement that had the blood of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht on its hands.

In many respects, the new found interest in social democracy is the result of a vacuum created by the collapse of a revolutionary left that had adopted sectarian and dogmatic methods based on a misunderstanding of what the Bolsheviks represented. In the USA today, there are only two groups of any significance that carry the “Leninist” banner and one of them—Kshama Sawant’s Socialist Alternative—is embedded in the Sanders campaign just as the CPUSA is embedded in Hillary Clinton’s. To its credit, the ISO continues to reject supporting Democratic Party candidates even though it recognizes the significance of having a candidate for President calling himself a socialist, even if mistakenly so.

If there’s anything to be gained from the massive amount of analysis devoted to the Sanders campaign, it is in deepening our understanding of social democracy and electoral politics. From its very beginnings, the socialist movement has considered the possibility that capitalism could be abolished through the ballot but in opting for electoral politics, there were always dangers that it might slowly and inexorably become wedded to capitalist reform.

This was the subject of an Adam Przeworski article titled “Social Democracy as a Historical Phenomenon” that appeared in the July-August 1980 New Left Review. If our notions of workers taking power is informed by what Marx wrote about the barricades of the Paris Commune, we should never forget that Engels was entirely open to the possibility of an electoral road to socialism. In 1881, he wrote about the excellent prospects for a socialist party in England: “Let, then, that working class prepare itself for the task in store for it, — the ruling of this great empire; let them understand the responsibilities which inevitably will fall to their share. And the best way to do this is to use the power already in their hands, the actual majority they possess in every large town in the kingdom, to send to Parliament men of their own order.”

As a result of the long expansion of the capitalist economy in Europe through the late 1800s, the result to a large extent of colonialism, the major socialist and working-class parties in Germany, Sweden, France, Italy and England turned Engels’s off-the-cuff observation into a principle. With the massive support of the German working class, Kautsky’s party was a symbol of what was possible under conditions of legality. In Czarist Russia where socialists were forced to operate underground, Lenin considered Kautsky’s party a model even if Rosa Luxemburg saw the dry rot in its foundations.

Slowly and molecularly, such parties began to adapt to electoralist methods that put the rather atomized election day choices of voters above the kind of mass actions that could lead to a socialist victory. Przeworski described the conundrum that workers faced. Despite the fact that they received millions of votes, their chances of winning an election was diminished by being outnumbered by members of other classes whose commitment to socialism was weakened by their social status as farmers, professionals or small proprietors. In order to become the ruling party, social democrats had to think in terms of making alliances with non-proletarian parties. In doing so, the leaders of the Swedish social democracy went further than other parties and long before it took power in the 1930s, it had become accustomed to forming blocs with middle-class parties that wrested concessions from the SAP that were not in the interest of its working class base.

Even as the SAP evolved into a multi-class, reform-oriented electoral machine, it never abandoned its socialist principles—at least on paper. After WWII, it offered lip-service to the idea that Sweden could become socialist no matter that its economic policies were barely distinguishable from FDR’s New Deal.

In 1971, perhaps as a result of the most profound radicalization since the 1930s, the SAP’s top economists Gösta Rehn and Rudolf Meidner proposed a plan that would supposedly lead to capitalism being abolished through elections. The so-called Meidner Plan stipulated that 20 percent of profits of all large companies like Volvo would pay for workers’ shares that over a certain number of years would result in them being owned by employees after the fashion of Mondragon. Of course, whether worker ownership has something to do with the original vision of Marx and Engels is open to question. Despite being owned by its workforce, Mondragon competes in the marketplace like all other corporations and is not above layoffs and other forms of labor discipline.

That being said, the idea of a Meidner type plan succeeding in the USA would be unprecedented in American history. Whatever the drawbacks of a Mondragon might be, who would not welcome the thought of the Koch brothers being forced to relinquish control of their vast empire to ordinary workers?

On November 10, 2015, Bhaskar Sunkara was interviewed by Vox Magazine editor Dylan Matthews, a Harvard graduate dubbed by Huffington Post as one of five “rising stars” under the age of 25. Despite his association with a magazine that is staffed mostly by other Washington Post reporters who jumped ship with Vox founder Ezra Klein, Matthews has a soft spot for Jacobin, calling it “perhaps the most relevant and important publication of the American political left today.”

The interview sought Sunkara’s opinion on a speech that Sanders had given a few days earlier. In keeping with his general approach to the Sanders campaign, Sunkara gave critical support to the speech even if he made clear it was not really the kind of socialism he favored.

Addressing the problem alluded to in the Przeworski article, Matthews wondered how despite having 70 percent of their workforce in unions, there was still very few signs of inroads being made on capitalist ownership in places like Sweden. He asked Sunkara, “What’s the path to worker ownership and control in a democratic society?”

His reply:

Provisionally, I would look at the Meidner Plan — the wage-earner scheme pushed by a massive mobilization on the part of the trade union federation in Sweden, which would have gradually socialized most firms in Sweden — as one model.

Matthews returned to the Jacobin beat only this month. In a fairly gushing article titled “Inside Jacobin: how a socialist magazine is winning the left’s war of ideas”, the Meidner Plan came up  again:

What we really need, Sunkara insists, is democratic worker control of the means of production. He cites approvingly the Meidner plan, a Swedish initiative in the 1970s that would have seen “wage earner funds” controlled by unions slowly assume ownership over every company with more than 50 employees, by forcing corporations to issue stock and give it to the funds. It was still “far too tepid,” Sunkara told me, but it was a start.

In the 1993 Socialist Register, none other than Rudolf Meidner took stock of his famous plan and the entire edifice of Swedish social democracy erected over a century in an article titled “Why did the Swedish Model fail?” While obviously loath to engage in the sort of blistering attack on his party such as the kind found in Monthly Review, it took a lot of courage and honesty to look at things without illusions. The article is must reading for those who pin their hopes on a transformation of the Democratic Party based on a Sanders “turn” made possible by changing demographics that favor the young and the disenfranchised.

April 4, 2016

Sharecropper Nation

Filed under: farming,transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

White Landowners Weighing Sharecroppers’ Cotton

In a fascinating two part interview that Chris Hedges conducted with Michael Hudson on CounterPunch, they agreed that the USA was succumbing to “neo-feudalism” because the rentiers had taken over. Hudson pointed out that real estate magnates and banks are basically parasites sucking wealth out of the “real economy” as they worked nonstop to figure out new ways to turn the population into debt peons.

HEDGES: But could it go down and down, and what we end up with is a form of neofeudalism, a rapaciously wealthy, oligarchic elite with a kind of horrifying police state to keep us all in order?

HUDSON: This is exactly what happened in the Roman Empire.

HEDGES: Yes, it did.

HUDSON: You had the great Roman historians, Livy and Plutarch – all blamed the decline of the Roman empire on the creditor class being predatory, and the latifundia. The creditors took all money, and would just buy more and more land, displacing the other people. The result in Rome was a Dark Age, and that can last a very long time. The Dark Age is what happens when the rentiers take over.

If you look back in the 1930s, Leon Trotsky said that fascism was the inability of the socialist parties to come forth with an alternative. If the socialist parties and media don’t come forth with an alternative to this neofeudalism, you’re going to have a rollback to feudalism.

HEDGES: And in essence, we become a kind of nation of sharecroppers.

HUDSON: That’s exactly right, having to shop at the company store.

Since I always considered Hudson a post-Keynesian, I might have been a bit surprised to see the reference to Leon Trotsky but now wonder if there’s a debt to the Russian revolutionary that is more than skin-deep. In the first part of the interview, Hedges introduced Hudson as the “godson of Leon Trotsky”. I was intrigued to see this reference and a bit of poking around revealed a family connection even though one not necessarily on the basis of a faith-based relationship. It turns out that Hudson is the son of Carlos Hudson, one of the SWP leaders imprisoned in 1940 for violation of the Smith Act—in other words being opposed to WWII.

I had never heard of Carlos Hudson before this but upon doing a search on the Marxism Internet Archives, I discovered that he had written for the Trotskyist press both in his own name and as Jack Ranger, an evocative pen name to say the least. As Carlos Hudson, he had been the editor of the Northwest Organizer, the newspaper that hoped to spread the influence of the Trotskyist-led Minneapolis teamster’s local. And as Jack Ranger, he wrote a series of articles in 1948 under the title Tapping the Wall St. Wire. They have the same kind of apocalyptic tone as the Hedges/Hudson interview: “To assume that the capitalists or their political agents can control capitalism is to give them much too much credit. They cannot. It is an anarchical system, and cannot be harnessed to plans. That is why it must be succeeded by socialism which CAN PLAN FOR HUMANITY.”

As it happens, I have been preoccupied lately with the question of sharecropping and debt peonage, the lynchpins of the post-Civil War southern economy. Does the term feudalism accurately describe the class relations between the white owner of land and the former slaves who continued to be deeply oppressed in what Sven Beckert calls the Empire of Cotton?

I for one would question the usefulness of such a term in light of what Karl Marx said about the slave owners in Theories of Surplus Value:

In the second type of colonies—plantations—where commercial speculations figure from the start and production is intended for the world market, the capitalist mode of production exists, although only in a formal sense, since the slavery of Negroes precludes free wage-labour, which is the basis of capitalist production. But the business in which slaves are used is conducted by capitalists.

For some the litmus test for agrarian capitalism is free wage-labor, especially those who belong to the Political Marxism school. While reluctant to use the term feudal to describe sharecropping, Charles Post certainly views it as outside of capitalism. In the conclusion to “The American Road to Capitalism”, he writes:

Congressional Reconstruction, however, had a major unintended consequence. Rather than realising the utopian vision of a capitalist plantation-agriculture based on juridically free labour, Republican dominance in the South led to the break-up of the plantations and the emergence of a new, non-capitalist form of social labour, share-cropping tenancy.

For Post, agrarian capitalism is synonymous with the large British estates run by tenant farmers in the 16th century and onwards that employed wage labor. If this is your litmus test, naturally you would regard sharecropping as “non-capitalist”. Going further in a Jacobin interview, Post claims that if the slaves had been granted the forty acres and a mule that had been promised to them, this “would have consolidated a non-capitalist African-American peasantry subsisting outside of market relations.” It is a bit puzzling to consider small farmers “subsisting outside of market relations” in the post-Civil War period. This was not exactly the USA of the early 1800s when plucky yeoman farmers could grow their own food self-sufficiently in the frontier territories like the family Alan Ladd happened upon in “Shane” or in the TV show “Little House on the Prairie”.

If you rely on Marx as the ultimate authority on such questions, there’s not much to go by in his writings. In volume 3 of Capital, he defines the sharecropper as “his own capitalist”:

On the one hand, the sharecropper, whether he employs his own or another’s labour, is to lay claim to a portion of the product not in his capacity as labourer, but as possessor of part of the instruments of labour, as his own capitalist.

Indeed, in my education in the party that both Post and I belonged to, the small farmer was always considered a classic petty-bourgeoisie. Like the shopkeeper or the lawyer, they tended to work for themselves with occasionally a small staff of wage earners to help keep them going. In fact, forty-four percent of all farms in the USA are run by two people or less. Many of them are virtual debt peons to the agribusinesses they rely on for supplies and credit, much as the sharecropper relied on the plantation owner for his tools and other necessities.

It is too bad that Post has never spent much time writing about what happened after Reconstruction. Citing the research of Susan Mann, he states “In the first four decades of the twentieth century, the planters’ ability to organise the labour-process under their command and fire workers at will [ie., as wage workers] allowed them to progressively mechanise southern agriculture”. I personally would not try to compress a vast chunk of history into a single sentence but what would I know? I have never been invited to speak at a HM Workshop.

I have my doubts over this especially since the machine that effectively put cotton harvesting on an industrial footing did not come into existence until 1943 when International Harvester introduced a mechanical picker that could separate the fiber from the plant. Even if wage labor on large-scale British-style farms had been introduced in 1870 at the point of a Union Army bayonet, it would have not made much of a difference. It was not the form of labor exploitation that dictated manual labor but the technical barriers to picking cotton.

Even now, there are no machines that can replace the manual labor necessary to pick cocoa beans, a source of $98.3 billion in sales last year. Much of it is harvested by child labor, often enslaved, in places like Ghana. A machete must be used to pry open the pods to expose the beans that are then extracted by hand. The same thing is true of coffee beans that are picked by hand in places like Nicaragua, Colombia and El Salvador on the sides of hills where they flourish. It is only on flat land and where the fields are immense, such as in Brazil, that machines can be used.

For a useful survey on the fitful attempts to replace living labor by dead labor (ie. machines), I recommend a look at Rachel Snyder’s “Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World”:

Cotton is a devilishly difficult crop to mechanize. It grows differently according to climate and variety; some plants grow less than a meter, while others can sprout up to become trees. Some plants are thin and scrubby while others bush out wildly. Bolls vary in size and ripen at different times, while the pre-bloom pods are very fragile. As early as 1820, one mad Louisiana farmer imported a large brood of Brazilian monkeys with the misguided but charming aspiration of training them to pick cotton.

Many of the early harvesting prototypes were drawn by mule or horse, though generally speaking they used pneumatic extractors, electrical devices, chemical processes, threshers, or other available technologies of the day. One 1957 industry book illustrates hundreds of failed machines that resemble upright vacuum cleaners, train engines, or basket/conveyor contraptions atop a set of wheels. Some even looked like early cartoon drawings of multi-legged aliens or, if you’re a child of the 1960s and 1970s, oversized hookahs. The first attempts all had some sort of suction device and ran either on gasoline or electricity. One determined man named L. C. Stuckenborg spent more than two decades attempting to make a viable machine for the open market with a set of electrically operated brushes attached to individual sucking tubes. He was said to have been inspired by a cow’s bristly tongue, after he allegedly watched a cow work seeds from unplucked cotton bolls one afternoon. His life’s passion, as it turned out, never worked well enough to produce and sell.

I should only add that I have to wonder whether Post was citing Susan Mann accurately since I have read reviews of her book that refer to her belief that attempts to apply industrial techniques to agriculture face a number of challenges:

With many industrial goods, labour time and production time are nearly identical; with agricultural goods, one encounters a gap during which crops or livestock are maturing, immobilizing capital for a longer period. Moreover, the rhythm of the seasons imposes only one or two production cycles per year in agriculture, discouraging industrial investment in time-saving technology designed to shorten (and increase the number of) annual production cycles. Furthermore, agricultural machinery is different from industrial machinery: it cannot be used constantly (thus increasing its relative cost), and it is more directly tied to nature. These obstacles to capitalist agricultural production are exacerbated by special features of agricultural distribution and marketing – the unpredictability of yields, the spoilage of produce, etc.

–William Roseberry, Social History, Vol. 18, No. 2 (May, 1993),

Finally, even when mechanical cotton-pickers hit the marketplace, they were not purchased by the agrarian capitalists immediately. As hard as this is to believe, they did a cost-benefit analysis and figured out that as long as living labor was cheaper than dead labor, they’d stick with the status quo—namely sharecropping, debt peonage, the KKK, and all the rest.

In the Spring 1948 edition of Science and Society, there’s an article titled “Machines in Cotton” by James S. Allen that is essential reading on this matter. Many of you are too young to remember Allen but in the 1960s he was one of the CP’s leading editors. At International Publishers he did very good work bringing out WEB Dubois and other Marxist thinkers whose volumes were always for sale on Pathfinder Bookstore shelves.

Long before he got involved with the CP’s publishing arm, he launched “The Southern Worker” in 1930, the first Communist newspaper produced below the Mason-Dixon line. He was an advocate of the Black Belt, a misguided attempt to agitate for a Black separatist state in the South, largely a product of “Third Period” Stalinism.

In any case, there’s no denying that he was an expert on the South as the substantive S&S article would indicate. His main point is that unless there was a significant savings through the introduction of machinery, the preferred option would be manual labor. Referring to a Mississippi State College study conducted in 1944, Lewis pointed out that the cost of machine-harvested cotton was $33.04 per bale, as compared to $37.76 per bale for hand-picked crops on the same plantation. This was not enough to justify spending money on an expensive machine. Furthermore, the study was conducted during a period of labor shortage when many Southern Blacks had joined the army to replace the brutal racism of the South with one somewhat easier to take. If labor had remained in ample supply, there would have been even fewer machines purchased. This is something on Allen’s mind in 1948 because like Carlos Hudson he frets over the possibility of a new economic depression that would force Blacks into the reserve army of the unemployed and hence sustain the slave-like conditions of sharecropping. However, history took a sharp turn that was predicted neither by the CP or the Trotskyists. What lie in store was a mammoth expansion of the capitalist economy that would last for 25 years until the rise of neoliberalism, globalization and all the other aspects of its latest stage that Hedges and Hudson so eloquently decry.

Returning to Hedges and Hudson, I can understand their anger over what appears to be a return to the past. Yet the notion that feudalism is on the agenda seems ahistorical. The growth of a rentier economy is not an indication that we are about to enter anything resembling the late middle ages.

To reprise Hudson: “If you look back in the 1930s, Leon Trotsky said that fascism was the inability of the socialist parties to come forth with an alternative. If the socialist parties and media don’t come forth with an alternative to this neofeudalism, you’re going to have a rollback to feudalism.”

In all likelihood, American capitalism will continue on its way until the working class develops the consciousness it had in earlier periods of our history and organized the kind of political instruments it needed to mount a serious challenge to the status quo. With all due respect to Hudson, whose analysis can often be quite trenchant, there are no “socialist parties” to speak of. We are in a very early period of political reconfiguration that both the Sanders and Trump campaign reflect (with the latter being more distorted than a funhouse mirror).

In the 1930s, men like Carlos Hudson and James S. Allen (born into an immigrant Jewish family as Sol Auerbach) could reach thousands and tens of thousands respectively. Over the next two decades there will be new Carlos Hudson’s and James S. Allens’s to step into the breach and take up the task that has confronted humanity for the past 165 years or so: to replace an irrational system based on private profit with one dedicated to production for the common good.


April 2, 2016

Nanook of the North, revisited

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

Introducing a screening of Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 masterpiece “Nanook of the North” at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York on March 3rd, 2013 Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq–there to provide musical accompaniment– warned the audience that her people were not cheerful despite the words that appear near the beginning:

The sterility of the soil and the rigor of the climate no other race could survive; yet here, utterly dependent upon animal life, which is their sole source of food, live the most cheerful people in all the world–the fearless, lovable, happy-go-lucky Eskimo.

When Flaherty began filming, the word documentary did not exist. If required to depict the Inuit in cinéma vérité fashion, the director would never have bothered since his professed goal was to show the Inuit as they lived before they became corrupted by outside civilization. This meant, for example, directing Nanook to hunt seals with a handcrafted harpoon rather than a rifle that was customary at the time.

In a 1990 documentary titled “Nanook Revisited” that does aspire to historical accuracy and that is unfortunately only available from research libraries today, the production team went to Inukjuak, the village in northern Quebec where Flaherty shot his film, to interview relatives of Nanook’s contemporaries as well as knowledgeable villagers. The manager of the local television station Moses Nowkawalk was both amused and annoyed by inaccuracies. For example, Flaherty had Nanook looking mystified by a phonograph player and taking a bite out of a record but Nowkawalk points out that the villagers had been listening to records for years. A cruder version of this scene took place in the 1980 narrative film “The Gods Must Be Crazy” with Kalahari Bushmen worshiping a Coke bottle tossed out of a airplane.

Much of “Nanook of the North” involves reenactment. For example, one of the most memorable scenes depicts Nanook building an igloo in the way it was done from time immemorial. After the job is completed, the family streams in and waits for night to descend. They tuck themselves into bed (a platform of snow covered by fur) looking as blissed out as models in a Sleepy’s mattress commercial. Since it would have been impossible to film inside the dark interior of an igloo, Flaherty instructed Nanook to create only half of one, leaving the interior exposed to light as well as bitter cold. Despite the “cheerful” look of its inhabitants, they are suffering—all for the cause of cinema.

The greatest fiction of all were the characters themselves, who understood that they were actors in a drama built on the premise that they were living the lives of their ancestors. Nanook, which means hunter in the Inuit language, was actually named Allakariallak. His two wives in the film were not really his. Instead, during the course of filming they became Flaherty’s mistresses, one giving birth to his son Josephie with whom Flaherty never made contact.

Paddy Aqiatusuk, who became a soapstone sculptor of international renown, eventually adopted Josephie Flaherty. In 1953 the Canadian government forced Paddy’s family and two other families to relocate to Ellesmere Island at the far northern reaches of Hudson Bay. Although only 87 Inuit were exiled, the cruelty and the racism matched that of the forced march of the Cherokees to Oklahoma known as the “trail of tears”.

In another documentary committed to the accurate portrayal of Inuit life titled “Martha of the North” (available on streaming from the National Film Board of Canada for $2.95), we learn about the suffering of those Inuit families. The Martha of the title is Josephie’s daughter and the main subject of the film. She is visiting Ellesmere Island for the first time since her childhood exile. After Martha Flaherty reached adulthood, she became one of the Inuit nation’s leading activists for human rights. One can understand the passion of her commitment given the terrible injustices she faced as a child.

The Canadian government, and more particularly the Royal Mounties who supervised the relocation, had a reductionist view of Inuit life. Since the natives were accustomed to frigid conditions and to hunting, why would they object to being moved further north?

For a companion guide to “Martha of the North”, it is difficult to imagine anything more sensitively written and well-researched than Melanie McGrath’s 2006 “The Long Exile”. Here she describes the initial reaction of Paddy and other Inuit to their new surroundings:

And so the days passed and after the second or third week of patchy hunting and endless trips into the mountains for ice and heather, Paddy Aqiatusuk, as camp leader, came to the conclusion that the Lindstrom Peninsula was unsurvivable. He had serious misgivings about the camp’s ability even to survive the winter unless they were moved. The shale beach was too narrow and steep and the sheer cliffs behind made it impossible to watch for caribou or polar bears. There was no proper water source and insufficient heather or plant material for fuel.

Growing more and more miserable with conditions on Ellesmere Island, Paddy convinced his stepson Josephie to join him in the far north. While Josephie was happy to be reunited with Paddy, he was appalled by conditions that forced him and his family to take desperate measures. With food in short supply, the Inuit families began to take long treks on a daily basis to find quarry. On one such trip, the two young sons of Thomasie Amagoalik fell through thin ice and drowned. Meanwhile Josephie brought his young daughter Martha with him on polar bear hunts, as she recounts in the documentary. It was a miracle that she managed to survive such ordeals. When game was not available, the Inuit had no other choice but to dig through the garbage dump of the Royal Mounties looking for scraps just like homeless people. In a very real sense, they were homeless.

If the “trail of tears” was a nation-building exercise on the part of the young and imperial-minded American neighbor to its south, Canada had similar ambitions. In 1953 the Arctic was a contested region with various great powers seeking to control as much territory as possible in the hope that precious resources were in the offing. In the forced settlement of Inuit families to the far north, the Canadian government hoped to establish a legal territorial claim through facts on the ground. This race is ongoing. In September 2012, a Russian submarine lowered a “holy memory capsule” blessed by an Archbishop into the water near the North Pole in a similar bid.

The “scramble for the Arctic” was a typical colonizing project. In “Nanook and His Contemporaries: Imagining Eskimos in American Culture, 1897-1922” (Critical Inquiry, Autumn 2000), Shari Huhndorf cites an article by Admiral Peary published in the December 1903 National Geographic:

As a matter of prestige [gaining the Pole] is worth while….

As a matter of patriotism based upon the obligations of our manifest destiny, it is worth while. The North American world segment is our home, our birthright, our destiny. The boundaries of that segment are the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Isthmus and the Pole…. Believe me, the winning of the North Pole will be one of the great milestones of history, like the discovery of the New World by Columbus and the conquest of the Old by Alexander…

Let us attain it, then. It is our privilege and our duty. Let us capture the prize and win the race which the nations of the civilized world have been struggling for for nearly four centuries, the prize which is the last great geographical prize the earth has to offer… What a splendid feat for this great and wealthy country if, having girdled the earth, we might reach the north and south and plant “Old Glory” on each Pole. How the imagination stirs at the thought!

Robert J. Flaherty, an Irishman, came to Canada in the same spirit. Before he became a filmmaker, he worked for a mining company surveying the land for marketable resources. In the course of his travels, he became infatuated with the Inuit and then decided to make a film about them. Combining art and commerce, he received funding from the Revillon Frères fur company in the same way that a documentary about the Olympics might get financial backing from Nike today.

At the turn of the twentieth century, there was fascination with the Inuit who were considered unspoiled by an industrial society that was becoming less free even as it was capable of producing consumer goods by the truckload. The Inuit were seen as “noble savages” who were not only capable of living off the grid but being “cheerful” all the while. But in reality they were integrated into capitalist property relations just as most native peoples of Canada were. Companies like Revillon Frères relied heavily on the Inuit or the Blackfoot Indians to hunt and trap beaver and fox for the European luxury market. During the Great Depression, the price of fox pelts declined drastically, throwing the Inuit into economic ruin.

For people like Robert Flaherty, there was a tendency to view the Inuit as they used to be rather than as they were. While he was much more respectful toward them than Admiral Peary who regarded them as childish and backward (even as he relied on them to survive in the far north), he could not accept them on their own terms.

If Flaherty was a product of his age, the same can be said of the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, from whom a more enlightened attitude might be expected. Despite his professed objection to racism, Boas paid Admiral Peary to bring some “specimens” back to New York where they could be studied at the Museum of Natural History. Like Napoleon Chagnon’s Yanomami, the Inuit were supposedly a people who were a throwback to the stone ages even though they were accustomed to trading furs in exchange for steel knives and rifles. When the Inuit began dying from diseases for which they had no resistance, a survivor demanded that his father’s bones be returned to their homeland. Boas could not be bothered, telling a reporter “the museum had as good a right to it as any other institution authorized to claim bodies.”

Is it any wonder why Tanya Tagaq did not feel cheerful?

As part of a worldwide resistance to white domination, native peoples have been fighting for their rights everywhere in the world, including the Inuit. Among their greatest grievances was the exile to Ellesmere Island. In 1987 the Inuit filed a claim against the Canadian government seeking $10 million in damages and an apology. After stonewalling for over a decade, the government acceded to all the Inuit demands. On August 18, 2010 the Minister of Indian Affairs wrote:

We would like to express our deepest sorrow for the extreme hardship and suffering caused by the relocation.  The families were separated from their home communities and extended families by more than a thousand kilometres.  They were not provided with adequate shelter and supplies.  They were not properly informed of how far away and how different from Inukjuak their new homes would be, and they were not aware that they would be separated into two communities once they arrived in the High Arctic.  Moreover, the Government failed to act on its promise to return anyone that did not wish to stay in the High Arctic to their old homes.

Of even greater significance was the creation of the province of Nunavut on April 1, 1999. This new Canadian province that included Ellesmere Island was to be the homeland of the Inuit people with their language enjoying the same status as English. Not long after Nunavut came into existence, a staff member of Nunavut Arctic College showed up on the Marxism mailing list I moderate. As someone sympathetic to indigenous struggles, I welcomed him eagerly. He identified the issues that confronted the Inuit historically in a post to the list:

The Hudson Bay Company from the UK was concerned with furs and instant wealth.  The original banalities of the original investors (aristocracy) couldn’t see the usefulness of Canada as a land, what they wanted was trading posts to supply the wealth from the north. The different clergy came along too, hanging on the coat-tails of mighty in order to establish their own bridgehead. There have been many stories told of sexual abuse of aboriginal kids who were forced away to residential schools by the clergy. They were forbidden to use their own languages and mistreated in different ways.

As a symbol of Inuit self-determination, Nunavut is just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) of a nation seeking to define its own culture and economic destiny. Although it was not intended to be a corrective to “Nanook of the North”, the 2001 narrative film “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” (available from Amazon for a used DVD at around $6) was the first ever to be made by the Inuit. It is based on a tale handed down through generations via oral traditions. The screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq, who died in 1998 before the film was completed, gave an interview to Nancy Wachowich, a Scottish professor. In response to her question about whether the film will be different from others made about the Inuit, he replied:

There are a number of differences between what we are doing and other movies that have been produced regarding our Inuit culture. This movie will be based on an Inuit legend, and also it is all going to be in Inuktitut. And also, all of the actors will have to be Inuk. No Japanese or whoever else who pretend to be Inuit. You know. It will be done the Inuit way. We want things presented in the movie the way they would have happened in real life. That is what we are going to do.

It will be done the Inuit way. That would be the best way to bring the Nanook saga to a just conclusion.

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