Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 29, 2016

Merci, Patron

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:18 pm

I strongly urge New Yorkers to see “Merci, Patron”, a laugh-out-loud radical French documentary that has the power of a Molotov cocktail.

Described by the FIAF (French Institute Alliance Française) publicist as a Michael Moore-inspired documentary that “takes on the fashion industry, globalization, and the richest man in France in an entertaining, personal look at one of today’s biggest issues”, it will be screened one night only on Thursday, December first at 7:30pm in FIAF’s Florence Gould Hall, 55 East 59th Street (between Madison & Park).

Yes, it is inspired by Michael Moore but only so far. There is an obvious similarity to “Roger and Me” since the film starts off with Fakir journalist François Ruffin trying to meet Bernard Arnault, the CEO of LVMH—the luxury goods conglomerate that originally started as a merger of Louis Vuitton and Moet Hennessy but grew to include many other products marketed to the wealthy. Like Roger Smith, Arnault gives Ruffin the cold shoulder.

One of the companies LVMH absorbed was Kenzo, which like nearly all the takeovers engineered by Arnault resulted in French workers being fired and production moved to low-wage Poland. Ruffin hones in on a group of workers in northern France who were made redundant in the Kenzo takeover. Like the auto workers in Flint, they are facing a grim future—particularly Serge Klur and his wife Jocelyn, a late middle aged couple. They have been reduced to penury and are in danger of losing the house they have lived in for thirty years.

The film revolves around Ruffin working with the Klurs to extort money from Arnault to put it bluntly. Unless he pays them the money they need to pay for their house and to help Serge get a permanent job, they will send letters to newspapers and left politicians bringing attention to their plight, making him look like a greedy bastard. Not only that, they will crash one of his glitzy fashion shows with workers from Goodyear, who were notorious for battling the cops in an effort to save 1,200 jobs in 2013.

Any resemblance between Ruffin and Moore is purely coincidental. It has not only never occurred to Moore to use a film as a tool for workers struggles; he continues to think in utopian terms about how the USA can become more like the “enlightened” French. In his 2015 “Where to Invade Next”, Moore interviews French children who are eating a healthy free lunch and asks the question why can’t the USA do the same. Needless to say, Moore has never paid attention to people like the Klurs nor taken his camera crew to the Calais Jungle where refugees were trying desperately to reach England.

Moore had high hopes for Barack Obama, who he obviously believed would become the European social democrat Fox News warned future Trump voters about. Ruffin has no such illusions. In one telling scene, he shows France’s Obama—the arch-neoliberal François Hollande—surrounded by LVMH executives in some publicity event flattering those who have imposed austerity on the French working class. He states that there is not much the Klurs can expect from the likes of Hollande.

Ruffin has little in common with the pro-Democratic Party comedians like Moore or the sorry lot that are seen each night on Comedy Central or HBO. He is an editor at Fakir magazine, one that I had not heard about previously. The money to make the film came from Fakir subscribers. Maybe Jacobin could think in terms of using its expanding empire to fund similar efforts.

Some commentators credit “Merci, Patron” as inspiring the Nuit debout movement, a protest against legislation designed to make the French labor market more “flexible”. Arnault, who is the richest man in France and the 12th richest person in the world, clearly understood what he was up against when he stated the following about the film: “LVMH is the illustration, the incarnation of the worst, according to these extreme leftist observers, of what the market economy produces.” If there’s hope for the French, let’s hope for ourselves as well.

November 28, 2016

Off the Rails; Asperger’s Are Us

Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

Just by coincidence, two documentaries about people with Asperger Syndrome premiered this November. Showing through December 1 at the Metrograph in New York, “Off the Rails” is a portrait of Darius McCollum, an African-American famous (or infamous to the authorities) for commandeering NY’s subway trains and buses, often under the assumed identity of an MTA employee. There is also “Asperger’s Are Us” that can be seen on ITunes and Amazon. It follows four young men with Asperger’s who perform together as a comedy group and who were initially drawn together because telling jokes was one of the ways they could break out of their isolation. In an odd way, McCollum’s obsession with trains was his way of connecting with people, especially when one of his joy rides would make the front-page news. Perhaps joy ride is not the right term since McCollum’s sole interest was in following MTA regulations to the letter, often more conscientiously than any employee.

It was nearly 35 years ago when New Yorkers learned of McCollum’s maiden voyage in the NY Times:

Published: January 31, 1981

A 15-year-old Queens boy took over the controls of a subway train Thursday night and operated it as its passengers rode unaware for six stops from 34th Street to the World Trade Center, transit authorities reported.

Both the boy and the motorman were arrested. The motorman, Carl Scholack, 46, said he had permitted the boy to take the throttle because he had become ”violently ill,” according to officials. He was suspended from duty pending an investigation.

The train set out from 179th Street in Jamaica on the IND’s E line at 11:25 P.M. with Mr. Scholack in charge, the police said. They said Mr. Scholack, who has been with the Transit Authority for 13 years, told them he had let the youth take over alone at 34th Street, having tested his ability over a two-stop stretch in Queens.

The idea, investigators said, was for the boy to guide the train, which was carrying about a dozen passengers, to the Chambers Street/World Trade Center terminal. He was then to start the return run to Jamaica with Mr. Scholack waiting at 34th Street to resume control.

Officials declined to identify the youth, but other sources named him as Darius McCollum of South Jamaica, a student at a technical school. Officials said his parents had previously asked to have him declared a juvenile in need of supervision. He reportedly picked up a knowledge of subway equipment and signals while ”hanging out” at the Jamaica yards.

If this was his only arrest, he might have been a footnote but as soon as he got out of jail, he surrendered to his obsession many times to the point where he would end up spending half his life behind bars.

Except for appearances by sympathetic lawyers, psychiatrists and social workers who have been involved professionally keeping him out of jail, McCollum is on camera explaining how became so inexplicably devoted to assuming the identity of a subway or bus operator. You’d think that if you were facing five years in Sing Sing, it would be for robbing a bank and not doing the kind of work that made Ralph Kramden miserable for free.

McCollum is a genial sort who does not seem that troubled by all the years he has spent in penitentiaries. Like a drug offender who has just been released from prison, he always returns to the habit that cost him his freedom. Is it possible that he only feels free when he is operating a subway train or bus?

Like drug addicts, there was never any reason to lock McCollum up since he was suffering from a mental illness that compelled him to return to the scenes of his crimes. In the United States today, the prisons are filled with drug addicts and the mentally ill—a symptom of a society in terminal decay. After one of his releases, McCollum landed an internship working for the MTA museum in New York and was doing an exceptional job—no surprise given his encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s transportation system. As soon as the MTA found out, they told the museum to fire him. Once he lost that connection, it was inevitable that he would begin taking over trains and buses again. So, who is mentally ill? McCollum or the men in suits who were ready to crucify him? That is the question posed by this compelling documentary.

Unlike Darius McCollum, the four men in “Asperger’s Are Us” live fairly conventional lives as the children of white middle-class New England suburbanites. They met more than a decade ago at a camp for children with Asperger’s and discovered that they all liked to make jokes.

Like McCollum, there is not much in the way they speak or behave that would give you the impression that they were on the autism spectrum except for those moments when they get stressed out. When they are rehearsing at one of their homes, the youth who lives there begins to pace nervously because his parents are there. Like most people with Asperger’s, he is not comfortable with intimacy. In another scene, we see his father touching him affectionately in the kitchen—something that it took a long time for him to accept.

The film follows the four around as they rehearse for their yearly theatrical appearance that shows the influence of Monty Python. They readily admit that they are indifferent to the audience response since their real goal is to bond with each other doing what they enjoy. As they laugh at each other’s antics, you would mistake them for any four undergrads, which in fact is what they are or will become. One of them has been accepted into a year-long program at Oxford and we learn in the closing credits that he won an award for his academic performance. He is now working on a PhD on the Nordic model for combatting sex trafficking.

Ironically, one of them has the same obsession with trains as McCollum but was able to put it to productive use. His hobby, which involved gaining a detailed knowledge of the national train network, led to him work on a master’s degree in transportation planning.

Both films will help you understand Asperger’s better even if both lack the talking head expertise of psychiatrists. A quick look on the Internet revealed that there are some well-known people with the illness (if you want to call it that) including Dan Ackroyd.

Considered a milder autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it differs from others by allowing relatively normal language and intelligence. It is estimated that 31 million people suffer from Asperger’s globally and there is no “cure” as such. Wikipedia states: “Some researchers and people on the autism spectrum have advocated a shift in attitudes toward the view that autism spectrum disorder is a difference, rather than a disease that must be treated or cured.”

As is the case with cancer, some experts believe that environmental factors have led to an increase in the number of all autism cases, including Asperger’s. Given the drift of late capitalism, you can be assured that the environmental factor will multiply exponentially as corporations seek profits over well-being. That’s the real madness when you stop and thing about it.

November 27, 2016

Was there an alternative to Fidel Castro’s “Stalinism”?

Filed under: cuba — louisproyect @ 9:42 pm

Today I was shocked by the torrent of denunciations aimed at the Stalinist “dictator” Fidel Castro. No, I am not talking about CBS or CNN, where it might be expected. Rather it emanated from FB friends, most of whom supported Tony Cliff’s theory of State Capitalism but with some anarchists as well. I was also shocked by the vehemence that exceeded anything that Sam Farber or Mike Gonzalez wrote for the occasion even though they were as bad as I might have expected.

Although I had originally considered writing a longer piece on Castro’s passing, I decided instead to focus in on the question of Fidel Castro’s “Stalinism”. For people such as Farber and Gonzalez, the solution to Cuba’s difficulties would have been a “revolution from below”. Farber puts it this way:

It’s certainly not a socialist society because the working class and the rest of the population do not have democratic control over decision-making. It’s one variety of what and I and others call “bureaucratic collectivism.” Bureaucratic collectivist societies, where a ruling class controls property politically through its control of an undemocratic state rather than individually or privately, differ from each other, but share a basic character — just as capitalist countries vary among themselves: Sweden is not Japan is not the United States.

It might be pointed out that Farber is an old-line Shachtmanite rather than a State Capitalist like the ISO that he frequently writes for. The distinction between bureaucratic collectivism and State Capitalism is hardly worth going into here since we should all understand that from their respective standpoints, Cuba’s government is rotten to the core and needs to be overthrown by an aroused proletariat.

Apparently, these comrades had a different idea of the kind of change that Cuba needed in 1959. Instead of a guerrilla army working in tandem with middle-class elements in Havana, it needed a party like Lenin’s that would have taken power on the basis of worker’s committees even if none had germinated in the struggle against Batista.

Let’s imagine that such a possibility had existed and come to fruition on the basis of a leadership rooted in the working class that had aligned itself with Tony Cliff’s international movement or some reasonable facsimile. Like the sainted Bolsheviks, it would have collectivized the means of production and developed the economy with democratically decided plans hammered out by the workers themselves. It would have been the Paris Commune raised to the tenth power.

Even more in keeping with Cliff or Max Shachtman’s theories, there was complete workers democracy with a free press, the right to assemble and form parties that would contest for power in elections. But above all, the government had to conduct an assault on the American domination of the economy as JFK himself admitted:

At the beginning of 1959 United States companies owned about 40 percent of the Cuban sugar lands—almost all the cattle ranches—90 percent of the mines and mineral concessions—80 percent of the utilities—practically all the oil industry—and supplied two-thirds of Cuba’s imports.

So, let’s not mince words on this. If someone as fearless as Sam Farber or Mike Gonzalez had been the Lenin of Cuba (I should mention that Farber believes that Lenin’s anti-democratic tendencies gave rise to Stalin), the first task would have been to seize American properties. Would Washington have been less determined to crush the government if it had been committed to democracy and “socialism from below”? I feel stupid even asking such a question.

You would also have to assume that the revolutionary socialist leadership of Cuba that passed Sam Farber or Mike Gonzalez’s litmus test would have been principled enough to denounce the USSR’s treatment of dissidents, its domination of the Ukrainians and other subject peoples, and its general betrayal of the original goals of the Russian Revolution.

So simultaneously you have Cuba nationalizing American corporations that had a stranglehold on the economy and issuing proclamations calling for the overthrow of the Soviet bureaucracy. Not only would you have Esso and ITT on your case; you’d have Khrushchev so pissed off that smoke would be coming out of his ears.

But none of this would matter because Cuba would prevail on the basis of its socialist principles. All of its enemies would melt away in its path. Workers would produce sugar and tobacco for the world market even if the USA imposed a blockade just as it did for the “Stalinist” Fidel Castro. Embargo? No problem. Just remind the capitalist marketplace that Cuba has a free press. That would assuage them, I’ll bet. The NY Times wouldn’t mind Esso being seized by communists as long as there was freedom of the press. Right.

Leaving such fantasies aside, imperialism would be just as committed to the destruction of a democratic socialist Cuba as it was to a Stalinist Cuba. How do I know? Because the USA was part of the 21-nation invasion of the USSR in 1919 that cost a million deaths and production to be reduced to 20 percent of its pre-Civil War level. In fact, Cuba suffered virtually the same economic losses even though the Bay of Pigs victory reduced the possibility of a major loss of life.

In a review of Salim Lamrani’s “The Economic War Against Cuba” on CounterPunch, Daniel Kovalik writes:

Lamrani concludes that the results of this relentless 50-year blockade have cost Cuba more than $751 billion, and has “affected all sectors of Cuban society and all categories of the population, especially the most vulnerable: children, the elderly, and women.   Over 70 percent of all Cubans have lived in a climate of permanent economic hostility.”

The USA understood that economic suffering would perhaps turn the people against the government just as Ronald Reagan hoped that the contra war would make the Nicaraguans “cry uncle”. Lamrani quotes Lester D. Mallory, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, who wrote on August 6, 1960:

The majority of the Cuban people support Castro.  There is no effective political opposition.  . . .  The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection and hardship.   . . .   every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba . . . a line of action which . . . makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.

But it wasn’t enough for Cuba to have to put up with this. Farber and Gonzalez insist that the government had to publicly differentiate itself from the Kremlin, taking every opportunity to denounce it for its bureaucratic crimes. So not only would Cuba have to suffer 751 billion dollars in economic losses for its democratic revolutionary socialist measures against Esso, ITT et al, it would not be able to rely on the Soviet bloc for assistance. Indeed, we could be guaranteed that Khrushchev would have been just as anxious as JFK to get rid of the troublemakers who we must assume would be providing material aid and advice to like-minded revolutionary movements in Latin America just as Lenin and Trotsky did in the 1920s.

As it happens, the Castro brothers and Che Guevara were never likely to confront the USSR because they, like most of the Latin American left in the 1950s, regarded the Soviets as defenders of socialism. Keep in mind that the USSR enjoyed enormous prestige in the 1950s for having been primarily responsible for defeating the Nazis and for its ability to recover so quickly from its wartime devastation without any outside help. Young men and women would naturally be inclined to look to the USSR for help rather to alienate its top leaders, especially someone like Nikita Khrushchev who had made a speech just three years before Castro took power that stated:

Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation and patient cooperation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed these concepts or tried to prove his [own] viewpoint and the correctness of his [own] position was doomed to removal from the leadership collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation. This was especially true during the period following the 17th Party Congress, when many prominent Party leaders and rank-and-file Party workers, honest and dedicated to the cause of Communism, fell victim to Stalin’s despotism.

But the Cuban press under an anti-Stalinist editorial board like the ISO’s or New Politics would have not been satisfied with these words. It would have written scathing attacks on Khrushchev for crushing dissent in the USSR and serving the interests of a privileged bureaucracy no matter what he said.

I think by now you get the point. People like Farber and Gonzalez don’t really care about such matters since their role politically is to differentiate themselves from all the evil Stalinists of the 20th and 21st century who have betrayed the principles of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Thank god we have professors like them to stand up for True Socialism. Imagine the fat FBI file that Farber accumulated writing such courageous articles. It is a miracle that Brooklyn College did not try to fire him.

Does it matter that a government that took their advice seriously would be snuffed within a year of its taking power? Obviously not. They don’t really care about the difficulties of wielding power in a world controlled by immensely powerful capitalist states, including one that was only 90 miles from Cuba.

That they and their supporters would take the opportunity of Fidel Castro’s death to raise their litany of complaints about Stalinism while his body was still warm really fills me with disgust. I should probably expect this by now after seeing all the junk written about Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution in their press for the past 25 years or so but I still can’t get over it.

November 26, 2016

New York African Diaspora International Film Festival 2016

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 8:31 pm

Last night the African Diaspora International Film Festival (NYADIFF) opened in New York City. Based on the three films I had an opportunity to see in advance, I strongly urge you to visit their website and look for schedule information for those and other films that are intended to present such “films to diverse audiences, redesign the Black cinema experience, and strengthen the role of African and African descent directors in contemporary world cinema” as the organizers put it.

If you were like most on the left, including me, the idea of a biopic about Toussaint Louverture would be inextricably linked to a project associated with Danny Glover after he received $18 million from Hugo Chavez in 2006 to begin such a project. From the looks of http://www.louverturefilms.com/, it appears that the film will never be made since in Glover’s words the company started with Chavez’s money is now dedicated to a somewhat different agenda:

Louverture Films produces independent films of historical relevance, social purpose, commercial value and artistic integrity. Taking its name and inspiration from the leader of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture – famous for always creating an “opening” in the face of enormous obstacles – Louverture Films partners with progressive filmmakers and producers around the world and particularly from the global South, and pro-actively supports the employment and training of cast and crew from communities of color in the United States.

As it happens, you can still see a biopic about the man whose feats CLR James celebrated in “The Black Jacobins” as part of the NYADIFF. Made for French TV in a two-part series in 2012 and directed by Phillipe Niang, a Frenchman of Senegalese heritage, this is a tightly paced historical drama with excellent performances that should be on the “must see” list of anybody trying to understand the difficulties of the colonial revolution. In many ways, the struggle led by Toussaint Louverture prefigured the chaos in Syria today with its intractable divisions and meddling by outside powers.

Niang could have easily made a film that was 1800 minutes long rather than 180 and it still would have only scratched the surface of the Haitian revolution—or more properly speaking the one that occurred on the western half of the island called Hispaniola that was divided between Spanish and French rule. Known as Saint-Domingue, it was the Pearl of the Antilles to the French and just as key to the mother country’s prosperity as Jamaica was to the British.

When the rebellion began in 1791, Louverture made tactical alliances first with the Spanish and then with the French but only in the interests of the underlying principle of abolishing slavery. Jimmy Jean-Louis, a Haitian actor who turns in a tour de force performance of Louverture, is adept at portraying the complex relationship between his character and all the elites he is forced to compromise with in order to achieve his ultimate goal. Not only does he have to deal with outside powers, he has to balance clashing interests in Saint-Domingue, including those of the slaves, the Mulattos (the term used by the characters in the film as was the case historically) and the white plantation owners—some of whom were British.

Since this is a biopic, Niang used a narrative device that ties together all of the important stages of Louverture’s struggle against slavery. Jailed in France, he is visited by Pasquier, a cop sent by Bonaparte to find out where he has supposedly buried a vast treasure accumulated during his brief rule. This entails recording the details of Louverture’s life in the hopes of finally finding out the secret hiding place of the treasure, which eventually leads to a Citizen Kane Rosebud type ending.

Sitting in his cold cell, the ailing ex-General tells his life story that function as a series of flashbacks in the film. Most of it is true, even though it hardly conforms to the image that most of us have of Toussaint Louverture. I found myself consulting “The Black Jacobins” throughout the film just to make sure that Niang wasn’t making things up.

For example, in part one we see Louverture serving as a junior officer to Georges Biassou, an early leader of the revolt who is depicted in the film as a capricious drunk. Even if Niang’s portrait was overdrawn, James described him this way: “Biassou was a fire-eater, always drunk, always ready for the fiercest and most dangerous exploits.”

If there’s any value to Niang’s film, it is that it will spur audience members to study Haitian history, starting with CLR James’s classic. I plan to read it as soon as I can since its account of events in Louverture’s reign jibes with the film, as far as I can tell from a brief foray into “The Black Jacobins”. If you had the idea that James’s classic was some kind of hagiography, you will learn that for him Louverture was a combination of Trotsky and Stalin.

In part two of the film, we see Louverture—now a governor who has declared himself President for Life—inviting plantation owners back to Haiti and imposing forced labor on the former slaves after the fashion of the American south following the end of Reconstruction. As was the case in the cotton belt, former slaves in Haiti preferred to work on their own small plots rather than pick sugar cane. The film depicts Louverture directing his soldiers to impose labor discipline on a white-owned plantation. James writes:

His regulations were harsh. The labourers were sent to work 24 hours after he assumed control of any district, and he authorised the military commandants of the parishes to take measures necessary for keeping them on the plantations. The Republic, he wrote, has no use for dull or incapable men. It was forced labour and restraint of movement. But the need brooked no barriers.

His nephew Moïse, whose mother was killed by white rapists, was much more like the Louverture of our imagination. Played effectively by Giovanni Grangerac, he is constantly pressuring his uncle from the left—a Jacobin to his uncle’s Girondist in effect. Fed up by the refusal of Louverture to go “all the way”, he leads a Nat Turner type revolt that eventually is crushed by Louverture’s troops and lands him in front of a firing squad. James writes about Moïse’s resistance:

And in these last crucial months, Toussaint, fully aware of Bonaparte’s preparations, was busy sawing off the branch on which he sat. In the North, around Plaisance, Limb, Dondon, the vanguard of the revolution was not satisfied with the new regime. Toussaint’s discipline was hard, but it was infinitely better than the old slavery. What these old revolutionary blacks objected to was working for their white masters. Moïse was the Commandant of the North Province, and Moïse sympathised with the blacks. Work, yes, but not for whites. “Whatever my old uncle may do, I cannot bring myself to be the executioner of my colour. It is always in the interests of the metropolis that he scolds me; but these interests are those of the whites, and I shall only love them when they have given me back the eye that they made me lose in battle.”

Although I can recommend seeing this film without reservations, I would be remiss if I did not mention the highly critical review by historian Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall. Titled “Happy as a Slave: The Toussaint Louverture miniseries”, her article regards it as “well-intentioned” but bordering on Margaret Mitchell territory:

While Niang likely did not realize he was doing so, the film papers over the brutality of slavery. Violence against slaves is almost non-existent. Even in isolated instances (such as an invented scene where Toussaint’s chained father drowns; another where his invented sister reports being raped; and another in which mob of angry colons chases Toussaint), the film is quick to contrast bad whites with kindly slave-owners. Whippings are completely absent; work on the plantation looks peaceful and bucolic.

Yes, all this is true but one-sided. Niang probably didn’t see the need to portray slavery as brutal since this would have been assumed at the outset. Instead the focus is on Louverture’s heroic struggle to abolish slavery and to win independence for his nation against what turned out to be insurmountable odds. I say this on the day that Fidel Castro died, a man that CLR James would have likely regarded as the Toussaint Louverture of the 20th century.

On the surface, “Seasons of a Life” sounds like a Lifetime movie. A lawyer and his wife are dealing with her inability to become pregnant and adopt a baby boy. To help the couple raise him, they hire a sixteen-year-old nanny—a poor orphan–who the boy adores.

So does the husband but on a different basis. When the wife takes a business trip, he forces himself sexually on the nanny and continues to do so whenever the wife is away. This leads to her becoming pregnant and a refusal to have an abortion that the lawyer insists on her having. After the baby boy is born, he applies pressure once again on the vulnerable young woman to put the baby up for adoption that he will have first dibs on through prior agreement with the adoption agency’s chief.

The nanny in Horatio Alger fashion gets great grades in high school and wins a scholarship to college and then into law school. Once she is established, she shows up at the man’s home and announces that she plans to sue him for custody of her child.

This is not exactly a film I would have sought out but since it was made in Malawi by a Malawian director, I decided to watch it and am damned glad I did. This is a film that will tell you far more about the ascending middle class in Africa than any Thomas Friedman column plus it is a well-written and well-acted old fashioned tale of the sort that might have starred Bette Davis. Strongly recommended.

Finally there is “Youssou N’Dour: Return to Gorée” that chronicles the great Senegalese singer’s attempt to bond with African-American musicians in a kind of pilgrimage to the New World.

Located near Dakar, Senegal, the island of Gorée was one of West Africa’s major slavery depots. The film begins with N’Dour reflecting on the great injustice done to his homeland and his hopes for a new project involving various musicians whose ancestors might have departed from this terrible place. He will visit the New World to gather together a diverse group of musicians who share a common identification with Mother Africa.

After being joined in Senegal by his pianist Moncef Genoud, a blind Frenchman born in Tunisia, the two depart for the U.S.-the first stop Atlanta, Georgia. There they meet the Harmony Harmoneers, a local gospel group that he watches performing in church. Despite his affinity for their music, he stresses the need to avoid references to Jesus in their performances together. The songs that he is recruiting fellow African descendants to sing with him have to do with children getting a good education, not being saved by Jesus. Without making any obvious points about their religious differences, we see Youssou praying toward Mecca in his hotel room later.

Next stop is New Orleans, where N’Dour looks up drummer Idris Muhammad and bass player James Cammack. Muhammad, a devout Muslim like N’Dour, is like a number of American jazz musicians who were drawn to a religion in which racial discrimination does not tend to rear its ugly head. The enlarged group now wends its way to New York, where they pick up jazz vocalist Pyeng Threadgill, who is the daughter of avant-garde musician Henry Threadgill. A reception for Youssou N’Dour includes a special guest, Amiri Baraka, who reflects on the importance of African identity for him when he became politicized in the 1960s.

Ultimately the musicians arrive back in Dakar where they hear a local griot lecture on the injustices committed at Gorée. Idris Muhammad and Pyeng Threadgill are shown bonding with local musicians and ordinary citizens.

Throughout the film, we see Youssou N’Dour in performance in a setting somewhat different from the customary Afropop context. He has obviously developed a new affinity for jazz and meshes well with his ad hoc band gathered together for the occasion. The band is eventually joined by the Harmony Harmoneers in a performance that illustrates how music is the universal vocabulary of humanity.

November 25, 2016

Don’t Think Twice

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

“Don’t Think Twice:” Art is Socialism, Life is Capitalism

When I posted my movie consumer’s guide for 2012, among the recommended films was “Sleepwalk With Me”, a quirky “indie” film based on the real life career of Mike Birbiglia, a self-deprecating, mildly amusing standup comedian who is a sleepwalker. Among the things we learn about him in this modest work is that unless he spends the night in a sleeping bag atop a bed, there is a chance that he might walk out a second story window as he once did.

After getting an invitation from a publicist to see his latest film “Don’t Think Twice”, I was eager to see it based on his earlier work. On one level, it is the same kind of breezy entertainment as “Sleepwalk With Me” but on a higher level it is a dark and deeply perceptive meditation on the phenomenon that William James described in a letter to H.G. Wells in 1906: “The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That — with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success — is our national disease.”

Birbiglia stars as Miles, the founder and director of an improvisational comedy group called The Commune that performs in a theater named Improv for America. While there is nothing overtly political about the group’s performances, their improvisational techniques suggest a certain kind of value system familiar to those of us who lived through the 60s:

1/ Say Yes: Always accept your partner’s cue on stage to move the improvisation forward.

2/ It’s All About the Group: The individual is subordinate to the collective performance. Stardom is frowned upon.

3/ Don’t Think: This is about getting out of your head and acting on your impulses. It is also a reference to the film’s title, one of Bob Dylan’s most famous songs that we hear in the closing credits of the film.

Read full article

November 24, 2016

Rand Wilson’s road to Damascus-like conversion to the Democratic Party

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism,trade unions — louisproyect @ 6:01 pm

Rand Wilson

If I was a conspiracy theorist like many on the left, I’d suspect that the glowing tributes to the fresh-faced Marxism of Bhaskar Sunkara’s Jacobin Magazine in the bourgeois press are a calculated bid to keep radicals tied to the Democratic Party. Unlike the musty, grandfatherly Dissent Magazine that was tainted by the likes of Michael Walzer, Jacobin was graced by the brash hipster image of Sunkara who was clever enough not to hide the fact that the seed money for the magazine came from “hustling away, doing whatever: from selling marijuana to small-scale bootlegging”. Certainly, if you were in your early 20s and on the left, that was something you could identify with as opposed to the magazine that Woody Allen once described as being merged with Commentary in order to form a new one called Dysentary. Plus, it also helped to have flashy graphics. If you are going to sell people on the Democratic Party, it helps to have magazine covers that look like they were drawn by some Futurist living in Moscow in the early 20s.

If there was a conspiracy to keep the left tied to the Democratic Party, you might wonder if Bernie Sanders was part of it. What a perfect complement to the Jacobin, a musty, grandfatherly politician who was not part of the Dissent old guard. Or wasn’t he? Like Obama in 2008, Sanders was a Rorschach test that allowed you to see him in multiple ways. For Jacobin readers, he was the key to moving toward a socialist future in the USA. Of course, neither Sanders nor Sunkara really meant socialism in the way that Marx meant it. They really meant welfare-state capitalism after the fashion of FDR’s New Deal, an altogether utopian project given the American capitalist class’s ineluctable drive toward finding cheap labor overseas. The answer to Rust Belt desperation was not in electing a president who made empty promises to bring jobs back to the USA. It was in abolishing the capitalist system globally and creating one based on human need rather than private profit. You can bet that it burns my ass to see Sanders running around professing his love for Eugene V. Debs out of one corner of his mouth and urging a vote for Hillary Clinton out of the other.

Today on the Jacobin website today, you can read Labor Notes editor Dan DiMaggio’s interview with SEIU staff member Rand Wilson who was a convert to the Sanders political revolution. It is about as probing an interview as the kind that Charlie Rose conducts with Bill Gates or Nancy Pelosi.

DiMaggio has had a rather predictable trajectory trying to find himself after leaving Socialist Alternative in 2010. His first foray was into academia, entering NYU’s sociology department where Political Marxism is the reigning ideology. After I raised a ruckus over being heckled by NYU’s Vivek Chibber at a Historical Materialism conference, DiMaggio told me off on the Marxism list. How dare I tell such a highly regarded professor that he would regret it if he ever heckled me again? I guess anybody who has different expectations from a loudmouth like me hasn’t figured me out yet. Eventually DiMaggio sent me a note trying to smooth things over. As is always the case with me, I responded positively. Despite being an asshole, I really don’t hold grudges.

A few months ago, my wife asked me about DiMaggio having a kid, something she noticed on FB. I told her that was news to me and wondered how I hadn’t noticed that. The answer was that he had defriended me at one point, almost certainly because I was opposed to Sanders and the Democratic Party. In other words, I had run into the same crap I had run into when I “threatened” Chibber. If you are building a career out of the NYU sociology department or the “progressive” wing of the AFL-CIO, it is best not to be associated with riffraff like me. Running into situations like this, I am always reminded of Groucho Marx’s telegram to the Friar’s Club: “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member”.

The interview is designed to get leftists to join the Democratic Party, just like Rand Wilson tells DiMaggio: “I joined the Democratic Party the day after Bernie announced, because I knew I wanted to go to the convention. You’ve got to be a member of the party to participate in its activities. So I joined, at sixty-two years old, for the first time.”

It must be said that Wilson was not exactly opposed to the Democratic Party in principle as are troglodyte Marxists like us. In 2006, he ran for State Auditor as the candidate of the Massachusetts Working Families Party. You are probably aware that the NY WFP endorsed Andrew Cuomo for Governor in 2014, a candidate who is as hostile to the working class as Hillary Clinton and one who probably has the inside track to be the DP candidate for President in 2020. If Trump decides not to run in 2020 and the Republican Candidate ends up being the alt-right’s Richard Spencer, you can bet that The Nation will beat the drums for Cuomo and lash out at any Green Party candidate who dares taking votes away from Cuomo.

Wilson contrasts being part of the “political revolution” with the time he spent in the Labor Party in the 90s. Like Seth Ackerman, Wilson saw it as a valiant but doomed venture mainly because it threatened to siphon votes away from progressive Democrats. When the Republicans were running a reactionary monster like (fill in the blanks), of course you had to rally around Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, Clinton… I always got a laugh out of how Ted Rall saw this logic:

Wilson puts it this way:

In the day-to-day life of the union, you’re expected to deliver for your members, and to do that, you’re going to have work with incumbent politicians, with Democratic Party politicians. Naturally they will expect you in turn to support them. So what are you supposed to do? Go off and support some third-party candidate who’s going to wreck their chances of winning? Supporting a minor party candidate because they’re perfect and inadvertently electing your worst enemy will certainly piss off your friends.

Sounding exactly like the Sanders campaign sheepherding tendencies diagnosed by Bruce Dixon, Wilson describes how he corralled a stray sheep who maybe had figured out that he was destined for the slaughterhouse:

But I know many people are disgusted with the party. I have a friend who’s worked at GE for many years, up in Lynn, Massachusetts, and before that, at a GE plant in Fitchburg. He’s a lifelong union guy, a working-class, gun-toting factory worker. He lives in a little town in Massachusetts called Westminster, and he’s the chair of the Democratic Party there. He was a big Bernie guy.

But after the primary, he was so disgusted with what happened to Bernie that I had to talk him off the cliff of quitting the Democratic Party. I said, “Don’t quit now! I’m just getting into it.” A few moths later, he says, “Okay, now I want to be part of taking over the Democratic Party. How are we going to do that?” I said, “Join Our Revolution.”

I assume that the “moths” referred to in the paragraph above is not a typo since being a radical in the Democratic Party is akin to eating insects.

The rest of the interview is as nauseating as what you have read so far and there is no point in commenting further on it.

There are some things that should be pointed out however. To start with, the SEIU, Wilson’s union, was led by Andrew Stern from 1995 to 2010. Stern was the figure most associated with “progressive” trade unionism over the past twenty years, just the kind that Jacobin orients to. He is now a senior fellow at Columbia University where he will be promoting progressive causes of the sort that he trashed when the SEIU organized a hostile takeover of a genuinely progressive union, the California Nurses Association/NNOC. For a good takedown of Stern and the officials who like Wilson are part of his machine, I recommend Steve Early’s Counterpunch article where he writes:

Opportunities for … career-advancing appointments abound in SEIU, to a degree unique in the labor movement. That’s because, under Stern, nearly 80 local unions have been put under headquarters trusteeships and/or re-organized with new leaders named by him, rather than elected by the members. (Due to its consolidation into huge, regional bodies, SEIU now has only 300 “locals” left.)

No wonder Wilson has become a registered Democrat. His training in the SEIU was ideally suited to the top-down, corporate-minded, business as usual, class-collaborationist dealings of the Democratic Party—the oldest continuously functioning capitalist party in the entire world.


November 22, 2016

Mifune: The Last Samurai; Magnus

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

Two documentaries under consideration here are devoted to the careers of exceptionally talented men. “Mifune: The Last Samurai” that opens at the IFC Center in New York on Friday is as much a documentary on director Akira Kurosawa since most of Mifune’s career entailed starring in Kurosawa’s films such as “Seven Samurai”, “Rashomon”, et al. “Magnus”, that opened last week at the Village East theater and that unfortunately I did not have a chance to review until now, will be playing for another week. It traces the career of Magnus Carlsen, the number one chess player in the world today and perhaps the greatest ever. With both Mifune and Carlsen, there’s not much to say about them as human beings outside of their mastery of their respective crafts. But if you like me are passionate about film and chess, they offer great pleasure.

Both Mifune and Kurosawa were swept into the net of Japanese militarism during WWII, an inevitable fate for nearly all Japanese men. The son of a photographer, Mifune served in an aerial photography unit of the air force where he took photos of Kamikaze pilots. For his part, Kurosawa made propaganda films during the war. When the war ended, Mifune was desperate to find work in a ravaged country. His parents had been killed during the war but he had no idea how, when or where. Trying to exploit the photography skills he had acquired during the war, he applied for a job as a cameraman at Toho studios but because his application had been misfiled, he was funneled into a room where actors were auditioning for a “new faces” competition. Among the judges was Akira Kurosawa who was taken aback by Mifune who performed with abandon without having any training as an actor. He described him as “a young man reeling around the room in a violent frenzy … it was as frightening as watching a wounded beast trying to break loose. I was transfixed.” Mifune lost the competition but Kurosawa found himself a new leading man.

Kurosawa was born in 1910 and his father came from a long line of samurai. Although Japan had long dispensed with feudalism, his father was steeped in samurai culture and liked to walk around the house wearing traditional garb with his hair in the distinctive topknot. He ran a gymnasium and built the first indoor swimming pool in Japan. He also worked to popularize baseball in Japan. The young Akira Kurosawa was not particularly athletic and found himself more attracted to the graphic arts.

Before the Japanese state had converted itself into an authoritarian war machine, Kurosawa traveled in CP circles as a youth. Some of his early student works were “socialist realism” exercises. After WWII began, he went to work in the Japanese film industry turning out propaganda films that glorified test pilots and female factory workers. One assumes that his early training in socialist realism acquitted him well, just as it did American CP’ers in the film industry.

Kurosawa was extremely rueful about his role in all this. Perhaps shame motivated his desire to create a new kind of film for postwar Japan, one that would criticize a society that had become adrift. Although it no longer celebrated martial values, it still lacked a higher purpose. His youthful leftist beliefs combined with his family’s aristocratic sense of ‘noblesse oblige’ led to the creation of distinctly Kurosawan type of film, one in which a lone individual struggled to define a personal ethos against a callous and self-centered society.

Toshiro Mifune was perfectly suited to playing such roles. Director Steven Okazaki has masterfully assembled some of the greatest moments of Mifune performances in Kurosawa films and provided commentary on them from film scholars and directors Stephen Spielberg and Martin Scorsese who revered the Mifune-Kurosawa tandem as I did when I first saw “Yojimbo” as a Bard College freshman in 1961.

You also hear from actors who performed alongside Mifune and members of the production staff who have fond memories of the actor who was charismatic both on and off the set. There’s not much to say about him as human being except that he liked to drink and drive fast cars, sometimes at the same time. Like Magnus Carlsen, he was something of a cipher when he was not performing.

Like Kurosawa, Mifune’s career took a nose dive after the Japanese film industry became transformed in the 1970s. Influenced by Hong Kong cinema, the typical character was a yakuza or a cop. Like the Hollywood western, the samurai film had gone out of fashion even if arguably the modern western film was influenced heavily by Kurosawa films, especially “The Magnificent Seven” that was a remake of “Seven Samurai”. The Spaghetti Western also paid tribute to Kurosawa and Mifune in Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars”, a remake of “Yojimbo”.

After Kurosawa and Mifune parted ways, Mifune became a studio executive churning out forgettable samurai movies for the movie theater and television. He also made occasional appearances in American movies such as “1941”, Stephen Spielberg’s neglected comic masterpiece about the mounting hysteria over a feared Japanese invasion.

Like just about every narrative film or documentary I have ever seen about chess, there is zero explanation of the games that take place in “Magnus”. I doubt that anybody who has never played chess would want to see “Magnus” but for a patzer like me, there was some disappointment in seeing the film conforming to norms. There is not much drama in the furrowed brow of a Magnus Carlsen or a Viswanathan “Vishy” Anand, who Carlsen unseated in the 2013 world championship match but perhaps it would be too much to expect for commentary on the games since they are conducted at such a high level.

All that being said, I found the film engrossing since in his own way Carlsen is as compelling a personality as the certifiably insane Bobby Fischer. Born into a middle-class Norwegian family, he is described as introspective and lost in thought as a young boy. When his father bought him a children’s atlas, he sank deeply into the book’s statistics such as population and land mass. In some ways, he might appear as someone with Asperger’s but in nearly all respects he led a normal life except becoming totally consumed by the game of chess.

Tall, well-build and handsome in a sort of gnomish way, Carlsen is a diffident personality with not that much to say outside of chess. This makes him a lot less compelling than Fischer who was aggressively outspoken and paranoiac.

What makes “Magnus” interesting is the contrast it draws between the intuitive style of Carlsen and the highly technical, computer-based game of Vishy Anand. At one point, Carlsen says that he relies on his intuition even to the point of sacrificing a pawn. In all my years of playing chess on my Macbook, I have never won a game after going down a pawn. Indeed, in the two or three thousand games I have played, I have only won about a dozen times.

Anand was the first grandmaster to fully exploit computer chess. The film points out that he used ChessBase to simulate games that helped him to fine tune his tactics, often spending an entire day sitting in front of a computer to work out problems.

Before the match with Carlsen began, he had a team of ten expert players in his entourage simulating games with Carlsen so as to be better prepared for him. That Carlsen managed to win is a vindication of genius over technique even though Anand was a great champion in his time.

Although I enjoyed “Magnus” thoroughly, I am still holding out for a film about chess that can give me as much pleasure as watching this. In the final analysis, the drama in chess is not about the men or women at the board but the board itself.


November 21, 2016

Reading the fine print in Seth Ackerman’s blueprint for a new party

Filed under: socialism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

Seth Ackerman

Issue #23 of Jacobin, which I received today, is devoted to an examination of “The Party We Need”. Since I have been advocating a new left party for the past 35 years both on and off the Internet, I was curious to see what the DSA supporters on the editorial board had to say on this topic. I probably will be evaluating other articles in the issue but want to start off with Seth Ackerman’s “A Blueprint for a New Party” that was available at least a month before it came out. It made sense that Ackerman’s article would be highlighted since it encapsulates perfectly the fence-straddling politics of DSA today, especially the youth wing that has made Jacobin its semi-official organ.

To start with, I was wary about Ackerman’s title since the word blueprint is antithetical to Karl Marx’s approach. Keep in mind that he once wrote in defense of the “critical analysis of actual facts instead of writing recipes for the cook-shops of the future”. Of course, when Marx wrote this he was referring to the sort of grand designs for classless societies found typically in Albert-Hahnel’s Parecon and not how to build parties. That being said, Ackerman has displayed a susceptibility to recipe-writing in the past as we can see from his Jacobin article “The Red and the Black”:

Why, then, are radicals so hesitant to talk about what a different system might look like? One of the oldest and most influential objections to such talk comes from Marx, with his oft-quoted scorn toward utopian “recipes” for the “cookshops of the future.”

Ackerman felt that Marx violated his own rules in “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, where he supposedly wrote “his own little cookshop recipe” that “involved labor tokens, storehouses of goods, and an accounting system to determine how much workers would get paid.”

One imagines that Ackerman was referring to Marx’s reference to a worker receiving a certificate based on the amount of labor he or she has contributed and that could be used in turn to purchase goods equal to the amount of labor embodied in the certificate. That is not only the sole reference to such a mechanism in “Critique of the Gotha Programme” but in Karl Marx’s entire body of work.

Indeed, the opening sentence in the relevant paragraph should give you a better idea of Marx’s approach: “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” If you want to get a handle on Marx’s concept of a socialist society, the place to go is the 1871 “Civil War in France” that puts forward the Paris Commune as its concrete realization. The book is focused entirely on the steps workers had taken to reshape society according to their own class interests with nary a word about certificates.

After recruiting Karl Marx as a fellow blueprint writer, Ackerman shows his true colors by recommending Albert and Hahnel’s Participatory Economics:

Parecon, as it’s called, is an interesting exercise for our purposes, because it rigorously works out exactly what would be needed to run such an “anarchist” economy. And the answer is roughly as follows: At the beginning of each year, everyone must write out a list of every item he or she plans to consume over the course of the year, along with the quantity of each item. In writing these lists, everyone consults a tentative list of prices for every product in the economy (keep in mind there are more than two million products in Amazon.com’s “kitchen and dining” category alone), and the total value of a person’s requests may not exceed his or her personal “budget,” which is determined by how much he or she promises to work that year.

Preposterous, isn’t it? And any connection between this and the 104 words in “Critique of the Gotha Programme” about labor certificates is purely coincidental.

Ackerman’s article on a blueprint for a new party starts out promisingly enough:

This political moment offers a chance to fill in some of these blanks — to advance new electoral strategies for an independent left-wing party rooted in the working class.

Yeah! Gosh-darn-it. Let’s get on board with this.

But there are obstacles in the way of implementing such a proposal as should be obvious by Ackerman’s discussion of the stillborn Labor Party of 20 years ago, an effort I was quite familiar with. It was initiated by Tony Mazzochi, a leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union (OCAW). After an initial flurry of interest, it withered on the vine because the left bureaucracy that was willing to endorse it was not ready to “go all the way”. Ackerman describes why. “Running candidates against Democrats risked electing anti-labor Republicans. For unions whose members had a lot to lose, that risk was considered too high.” In other words, the same kind of union officials who urged a vote for Hillary Clinton this year would have been reluctant to run candidates who might siphon votes away from Al Gore in 2000 just as the NY Times reported that year:

This outpouring of enthusiasm for Mr. Nader worries many Democrats, who fear that so many steelworkers, auto workers, teamsters and other union members will vote for him this fall that Mr. Gore could lose in Ohio and other Midwestern swing states. For the Democrats, an added concern is that two of the most powerful unions in the Midwest, the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, have flirted with Mr. Nader and have not endorsed Mr. Gore, even though the A.F.L.-C.I.O. is backing the vice president.

Was there a way for the Labor Party to advance its agenda without generating the opprobrium heaped upon the Nader campaign? Ackerman believes there was, namely to avoid creating a separate ballot line. Having a separate ballot line is practically a fetish in Ackerman’s eyes, the sort of exercise that reminds me quite a bit of my time in the Socialist Workers Party:

These parties are frequently forced to devote the bulk of their resources not to educating voters, or knocking on doors on election day, but to waging petition drives and ballot-access lawsuits. The constant legal harassment, in turn, ends up exerting a subtle but powerful effect on the kinds of people attracted to independent politics. Through a process of natural selection, such obstacles tend to repel serious and experienced local politicians and organizers, while disproportionately attracting activists with a certain mentality: disdainful of practical politics or concrete results; less interested in organizing, or even winning elections, than in bearing witness to the injustice of the two-party system through the symbolic ritual of inscribing a third-party’s name on the ballot.

Yes, this certainly evokes the days I spent collecting signatures for the party in the 60s and 70s standing in front of supermarkets in Vermont in 1972 with a clipboard in my hand, freezing my nuts off. I suppose that I must confess to being “less interested in winning elections” and “disdainful of practical politics” at the time although I didn’t find anything “symbolic” about getting Linda Jenness and Andrew Pulley on the ballot. The war in Vietnam was still raging and for someone like myself George McGovern did not begin to address the underlying cause of the war, namely the capitalist system. At the time the SWP had about 2000 members and was still growing rapidly. Our election campaigns were one of the primary ways that young people could be attracted to the socialist movement. We were right about the need for running such openly socialist campaigns even if none of us had an inkling of what a bizarre sect-cult the SWP would turn out to be.

Ackerman adds, “The official parties are happy to have such people as their opposition, and even happy to grant them this safe channel for their discontent.” Gosh, someone might have mentioned that to the FBI. That would have save them the trouble of trying to get me fired from my job as a programmer in 1968 when they sent Metropolitan Life a postcard fingering me as a red.

For Ackerman, a different strategy is needed, one that is more “creative”. Does that mean working in the Democratic Party? He answers his own question: “No. Or at least, not in the way that phrase is usually meant.”

After casting doubt on some of the traditional left-liberal and social democratic strategies for working in the DP such as supporting candidates like McGovern or serving as a tail to the DP’s kite after the fashion of the Working Families Party, Ackerman enunciates a spanking new approach.

The widespread support for Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, particularly among young people, has opened the door for new ideas about how to form a democratic political organization rooted in the working class.

The following is a proposal for such a model: a national political organization that would have chapters at the state and local levels, a binding program, a leadership accountable to its members, and electoral candidates nominated at all levels throughout the country.

Hmm. Intriguing. But be sure to read the fine print in a paragraph to follow:

But it would avoid the ballot-line trap. Decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds, depending on the election laws and partisan coloration of the state or district in question. In any given race, the organization could choose to run in major- or minor-party primaries, as nonpartisan independents, or even, theoretically, on the organization’s own ballot line. [emphasis added]

It could choose to run in major- or minor party primaries?

Oh, I get it. It could run in the DP primaries just like Bernie Sanders did, who asked us to vote for Hillary Clinton and now describes the execrable Charles Schumer as being better prepared and more capable than anybody else of leading the Senate Democrats–god help us.  (I have no idea what Ackerman meant by “minor party primaries”. Does the Working Families Party hold primaries? The SWP certainly doesn’t.)

The rest of Ackerman’s article takes up minutiae such as establishing a PAC, etc. But they are incidental to the overriding question of whether DSA’ers like Ackerman and the rest of the hustlers at Jacobin have any intention of breaking with the Democratic Party.

The title of the article is a complete fraud. When you penetrate through Ackerman’s prose, you will understand that it is not a “new party” he talking about at all. Instead it is a caucus of the Democratic Party that will not be encumbered by the need to go out and collect signatures to gain ballot status like Jill Stein did.

And if you think a bit more deeply about what this is about, it is really less about the onerous task of getting on the ballot that Ackerman exaggerates but remaining acceptable to the prevailing mood of the middle-class intelligentsia that Jacobin orients to at Vox, The Nation, Dissent, etc. Do you think that you will see fawning articles about the young intellectuals involved with magazines like n+1 or Jacobin if they got involved with a project that took a clear class line? Forget about it.

This debate about the Democratic Party has been going on for a half-century at least. In 1964, SDS adopted the slogan “Part of the Way with LBJ”. It took five years of brutal war to create a mood of resistance on campus and in the professional classes that produced the Peace and Freedom Party, a promising initiative that was hobbled by sectarian “intervention”.

This year there was significant support for Jill Stein’s candidacy that was undermined by an understandable fear of a Trump presidency. Unlike others who identify with the Greens, I was not disappointed by her modest vote total, which it must be noted was triple that of her last campaign. My problem is with the inability of the Greens to cohere as a membership organization that can begin to function as a nerve center for the left nationally even if it never wins another election.

A vacuum of leadership exists today that is crying out to be filled. There are basically three strategies that are being put forward. Groups such as the ISO and Socialist Alternative see work in the Green Party as a means to an end, namely the growth of their own group that is the nucleus of the future vanguard party that will topple the capitalist system. Even if they give lip-service to the idea of a broad left party (the ISO much less so), they continue to believe that it is only they who have the winning program that can rally the working class under the banner of socialism.

The DSA is both more modest and more circumlocuitous. Despite being on record in favor of the socialist transformation of the United States, their real orientation is to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that they see as the only political force capable of delivering Scandinavian type reforms even though the capitalist system in 2016 and for the foreseeable future is incompatible with such goals.

Finally, there is the liberal establishment itself that the DSA’s umbilical cord is attached to. It is the source of both intellectual and real capital. It exerts pressure on people such as Seth Ackerman that he is probably not even aware of. Like many of the contributors to Jacobin who are PhD students, there is a tendency to tailor their Marxism to the prevailing sensibility of the academy—one that encourages careerism and servility. The dissertation process is ultimately geared to reining in radicals and housebreaking them. When the rewards are a tenured professorship with the prestige, emoluments and job security that go along with it, the temptations to play it safe are irresistible.

Finally, the real challenge for people such as Seth Ackerman and the other Jacobin writers is to begin testing their ideas in practice. A magazine so invested in theory and “reading clubs” has little chance to test its ideas in practice. Granted, the low ebb of the class struggle today hardly gives people such as Ackerman the opportunity to assume leadership in the mass movement even though the responsibilities of completing a PhD likely would stand in the way to begin with.

In the 60s and 70s, there ample opportunities to learn about organizing people with so many different forms of rebellion both on and off the campus. I suspect that the Trump presidency will be providing brand new opportunities over the next four years as it begins to encroach on gains that were won over the past half-century. Let’s hope that people such as Seth Ackerman will avail themselves of the opportunity to build the movement, something that will be a lot more rewarding as I discovered in 1967 after dropping out of the New School and devoting every free moment to building the Vietnam antiwar and socialist movements.

November 19, 2016

Denial: David Irving versus Deborah Lipstadt

Filed under: anti-Semitism,Film — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

As I stated in my review of “Barry” on Counterpunch, this is the time I begin to receive those middle-brow films that Hollywood studios submit for consideration to members of New York Film Critics Online for our annual awards meeting in early December. Like “Barry”, “Denial” is just one of those films—a holocaust movie that is inevitably greeted as an object of reverence. It deals with the Deborah Lipstadt-David Irving trial that took place in England twenty years ago and that was now a blur in my mind even if I certainly understood that the film would depict holocaust denier David Irving as a villain. I also understood that he would get his comeuppance in the film just as happened in the actual trial.

My aversion to holocaust movies was like that of British playwright David Hare who once wrote:

I have no taste for Holocaust movies. It seems both offensive and clumsy to add an extra layer of fiction to suffering which demands no gratuitous intervention. It jars. Faced with the immensity of what happened, sober reportage and direct testimony have nearly always been the most powerful approach.

As it happens, David Hare wrote the screenplay for “Denial”. As I will explain, his decision flowed from some very unusual aspects of the trial but before that I should give you some background. Since you are probably aware that Europe has some very stringent laws against holocaust denial, including a three-year prison term that Irving once received in Austria in 1992 (he was released after serving one year), you might assume that it was Irving who was on trial. However,  in this instance Lipstadt was the defendant. Irving was suing her and Penguin publishers for libel. Lipstadt’s 1993 “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory” was a scorching rebuttal of Irving and other deniers, including Robert Faurisson who Noam Chomsky defended on a free speech basis.

After Faurisson was relieved of his duties at the University of Lyon, Chomsky signed a petition on his behalf. He argued that if MIT scientists could conduct research even if it was used to “massacre and destroy”, why would the right of a professor to earn a living be denied even if he was guilty of nothing except of defending such practices in his spare time. Going beyond the free speech criterion, Chomsky’s added: “I have nothing to say here about the work of Robert Faurisson or his critics, of which I know very little, or about the topics they address, concerning which I have no special knowledge” raised hackles, as did his characterization of Faurisson as “a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort”.

This led French Marxist antiquities scholar Pierre Vidal-Naquet to write a pointed reply to Chomsky. Even on free speech grounds, he found the petition dubious. It stated that Faurisson had been prevented from conducting research in public libraries and archives, an allegation that Vidal-Naquet found baseless. Furthermore, Faurisson’s books on the holocaust have been published without interference and he has given interviews on two occasions to Le Monde. Addressing Chomsky in sorrow just as much as anger, Vidal-Naquet writes in “Assassins of Memory”:

The simple truth, Noam Chomsky, is that you were unable to abide by the ethical maxim that you had imposed. You had the right to say: my worst enemy has the right to be free, on condition that he not ask for my death or that of my brothers. You did not have the right to say: my worst enemy is a comrade, or a “relatively apolitical sort of liberal.” You did not have the right to take a falsifier of history and to recast him in the colors of truth.

Even though Lipstadt was on trial, she was never called as a witness. Since she was probably the world’s leading expert on holocaust denial, why not call on her expertise? In “Denial”, a book timed to the release of the film that reprises her 2006 “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” with new material, Hare explains her absence from the witness stand and what challenge that posed to his screenplay. Her lawyers had decided that if she was a witness, Irving would have the license to force her to dredge up rebuttals to every detail of his own toxic take on concentration camp history. Despite her absence from the witness stand, her chief counsel Richard Rampson (played ably by Tom Wilkinson) shredded Irving’s credibility with an obvious mastery of the facts.

For Hare, the facts of the case made it difficult for Rachel Weisz, who was playing Lipstadt, to make a bravura performance in the final scene as we have become accustomed to in courtroom dramas such as Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia” or Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Her character—to be honest—was written and directed as if she were an annoying and intrusive presence getting in the way of the defense attorney’s winning strategy. It was also a directorial mistake to have her speak in a grating Queens accent that New Yorkers will be all too familiar with, even if that is the way the real Deborah Lipstadt speaks.

In addition to Rampson, Lipstadt relied on the pro bono services of Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who had written “T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form”, a book based on his PhD dissertation. Julius’s degree was in literary theory even though it was pursued more as an avocation than anything else. Played by Andrew Scott as a somewhat imperious figure, he not only opposed Lipstadt taking the stand but having holocaust survivors testify as well. He thought they would be traumatized by Irving’s aggressive and hectoring style.

Irving himself is played against type by Timothy Spall, a British character actor generally assigned likable roles such as the wizard Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films. It reminded me of Patrick Stewart playing the neo-Nazi gang leader in Jeremy Saulnier’s “The Green Room”. As is generally the case with Spall, his performance was outstanding. He captured Irving’s reptilian character as if he came out of a crocodile’s egg.

I recommend “Denial” without qualifications both for its intrinsic interest as a sober and informed account of a deep-seated malaise that will find fertile ground now that ultraright tendencies are given full rein. It is also a first-rate film benefitting from David Hare’s artistic and political assets. Along with Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill, Hare is a voice of the British left theater. In 1983 I saw a performance of his “Plenty” on Broadway about the disillusionment of a woman who had worked for the French Resistance in WWII and who had never adjusted to bourgeois society once returning to civilian life. It is the greatest play I ever had the pleasure of seeing on Broadway.

A Guardian review of his lecture collection titled “Obedience, Struggle and Revolt” notes:

The title of the volume comes from a Balzac quotation, listing the three paths in life available to the young. Obedience, he said, is dull, revolt is impossible and struggle is hazardous. Of those outcomes, it is clear that Hare fears dullness the most. He grew up in the 1950s, an era ‘stupefyingly uninteresting and conformist’. Hare’s commitment to forging social change, while fed by left-wing doctrine along the way, was clearly born of revulsion at the torpor of postwar Britain. Nothing is more dangerous in his eyes than the ease with which our society slips back to a default position of supine deference to the establishment.

Notwithstanding Marine Le Pen’s banishing her father from the National Front for holocaust denial and other anti-Semitic affronts that undermine her ambitions to rule France, such views are still promoted by Jobbik in Hungary. The UKIP in Great Britain has formed a bloc with Polish holocaust deniers to secure seats in the European Parliament.

Despite Putin’s reaching out to groups like Jobbik and UKIP, he has criminalized holocaust denial in Russia. His close ally Boris Spiegel introduced the bill that became law in 2013. One might consider Spiegel’s understanding of genocide as flawed based on his accusing Georgia of this crime during the 2008 South Ossetia War, another one of those flare-ups in which the Kremlin reasserts its imperial privileges.

As for Trump, who is America’s version of UKIP’s Nigel Farage, he never tweeted anything in this vein as far as I know but his foreign policy adviser Joseph Schmitz has a thing about Jews. McClatchy reported that he bragged about forcing Jews to leave the Pentagon when he was Inspector General between 2002 and 2005. He also claimed that concentration camp ovens were too small to kill 6 million Jews, per John Crane, a Pentagon official who worked with Schmitz. (The ovens were used for getting rid of corpses, not as a way of creating them.)

Probably the worst offender was Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who convened a conference on the holocaust in 2006 with invited “experts” such as David Duke and Robert Faurisson. Long before Iran intervened on behalf of Bashar al-Assad, this act was sufficient to force me to break ranks with the Islamic Republic that was being lauded as “more socialist” than Venezuela by MRZine’s Yoshie Furuhashi.

Speaking of socialism and holocaust denial, I ran into an appalling defense of David Irving on the alt.politics.socialism.trotsky (APST) newsgroup in 1998 when it was well on the way to having nothing to do with Trotskyism. A character named Neil Gardner, who claimed to support Trotsky’s Marxism, was using APST to defend Irving, Leuchter, Faurisson et al:

All dangerous authoritarian tendencies are imposed from the top down. We live in a chaotic world in which it is all too easy to misjudge events and media accounts. Degenerate tendencies within society are merely manipulated by those in power to further their ends. Neo-Nazism is a dead duck because the US and German ruling classes have for the last 50 years collaborated. Maybe we should be criticising the Germans for being too apologetic of US foreign policy. Racism and interethnic tensions remain a real threat, although we would be foolish to ignore the transformation of Western European and North American societies since the 1950’s. We are all human beings. Today the racism exhibited by our ruling class is no longer based on the colour of one’s skin (though most Blacks and Asians in the world are still significantly poorer than most Whites) but on cultural superiority. All is forgiven if one accepts American ways and believes the mainstream US media.

As the ruling class approaches a crisis of values, advocating free market economics and relentless growth and prosperity for all with obvious contradictions, fringe rightwing sects of the disillusioned millionaires begin to fill gaps but will never be embraced by international capitalism until it breaks down into warring gangs. The likes of the ADL and B-naith have everything in common with rightwing white supremacists. Their methods are the same.

In this entangled web, we should cherish free speech and open debate on all subjects. Religious fervour should be used to uphold poltically motivated propaganda. Not for the first time, the ruling classes cloak their devious actions with pseudo-progressive actions. Bombs on Afghanistan are justified by the repression of women by the Taleban. Bombs on Sudan are justified by the repression of Christian Sudanese.

Whether Fred Leuchter is a qualified bio-chemist or not, is not the issue. His thesis has not been conclusively refuted and no irrefutable evidence of the alleged gas chambers have been provided.

Before rendering my own opinion on holocaust denial, it is worth clarifying Lipstadt’s views on holocaust denial. To start with, she is opposed to all bans on its advocacy and argues that it is necessary to combat the ideas rather than making them illegal. And even more importantly, she has lashed out at Israel for using the holocaust as a justification for its persecution of the Palestinians.

Speaking to a synagogue in London in 2014, Lipstadt told the audience uncomfortable truths as reported in the Camden New Journal:

IF there is one thing the eminent world Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt isn’t – she isn’t a dry-as-dust academic.

She is not afraid of causing waves as she showed in the last few minutes of a question-and-answer session at the packed Hampstead Synagogue in West Hampstead, on Thursday when she criticised Israel over its conduct of its war on Gaza.

The professor told the more than 300 guests – among them many leading members of the Jewish community, including survivors of the Holocaust – that the Israel  government had “cheapened” the memory of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews by using it to justify the war on the Palestinians. She also seemed to liken the war as an act of “genocide” against the Palestinians.

Although I believe it is important to challenge holocaust deniers as I did on APST, there is little reason to believe that people such as David Irving constitute an existential threat to Jews. Unlike the 1930s, it is the Arab and the Muslim who will be scapegoated by the ultraright as the forces of reaction grow stronger.

Last Tuesday Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a key member of Trump’s transition team who helped write racist immigration laws in Arizona and elsewhere, stated that they had discussed creating a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries.

Meanwhile Carl Higbie, a former spokesman for a major super PAC backing Donald Trump said on the following day that the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was a “precedent” for the president-elect’s plans to create a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries.

This led Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), to denounce the Trump proposal: “I pledge to you that because I am committed to the fight against anti-Semitism that if one day Muslim-Americans are forced to register their identities, that is the day this proud Jew will register as Muslim. Making powerful enemies is the price one must pay, at times, for speaking truth to power.”

This led Morton A. Klein, the leader of the Zionist Organization of America, to defend Trump as a friend of Israel and to take exception to Greenblatt’s attack on Steve Bannon as an anti-Semite and implicitly his opposition to the idea of registering Muslim immigrants:

It is painful to see Anti-Defamation League (ADL) president Jonathan Greenblatt engaging in character assassination against President-elect Trump’s appointee Stephen Bannon and Mr. Bannon’s company, Breitbart media.  ADL/Greenblatt essentially accused Mr. Bannon and his media company of “anti-Semitism” and Israel hatred, when Jonathan Greenblatt/ADL tweeted that Bannon “presided over the premier website of the ‘alt right’ – a loose-knit group of white nationalists and anti-Semites.”

As someone who has been critical of the ADL, particularly when Abraham Foxman was running the group, I am willing to let bygones be bygones if Greenblatt continues his attack on the alt-right administration that while not likely to repeat the Third Reich despite its worst intentions still promises to be the most reactionary gang running the government in American history.

In the next four years, the assaults on democratic rights and the rights of minorities to live without fear from an out-of-control government will bring together many individuals and groups that have never had anything in common before. It will be incumbent on the left to think creatively about the kind of united front that eventually forced the USA to pull out of Vietnam—of course in common with the resistance itself. The Trump gang is utterly counter-revolutionary and it is up to us to forge a united revolutionary front that can stop it in its tracks.

November 18, 2016

Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:20 pm

The Radical Internationalism of Stefan Zweig


Poorly served by Wes Anderson in the “The Grand Budapest Hotel” as a comic-opera figure in line with the director’s overripe pastel-colored sense of whimsy, Stefan Zweig now reappears in a thoughtful and dramatically compelling new film titled “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” that is Austria’s Official Academy Awards Entry for Best Foreign Language film. It will certainly garner my vote for the New York Film Critics Online awards meeting in early December.

Directed by Maria Schrader who co-wrote the script with Jan Schomburg, it is structured as a five-act drama with each act centered on a pivotal moment in Zweig’s life in exile, all but one taking place in Latin America where he still enjoyed a lofty reputation. For Zweig, the 30s were an ordeal both for being forced into exile from his beloved Vienna and for having to deal with a painful reality that literary fashion had passed him by.

Despite a certain Zweig revival that counts me and CounterPunch editor Jeff St. Clair as standard bearers, the critical establishment today would likely agree with earlier critics who found Zweig far inferior to Thomas Mann, the only German-language author to exceed him in sales. For example, Michael Hoffman treated him contemptuously in the pages of the London Review of Books:

Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing. He is the one whose books made films – 18 of them, and that’s the books, not the films (which come in at a stupefying 38). It makes sense: these are hypothetical and bloodless and stiltedly extreme monuments and monodramas for ‘teenagers of all ages’, as someone said, books composed for the bourgeoisie to give itself culture or a fright, which needed Hollywood or UFA to make them real, to give them expressions, faces, bodies, rooms and dialogue; and to drain some of the schematic grand guignol out of them.

As is so often the case, when a novelist writes for the public rather than the critical establishment, there will be such disapproval.

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