Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 31, 2018

The Little Stranger

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:25 pm


Opening at theaters nationwide today, “The Little Stranger” is a most unusual blend of class politics and Stephen King-type horror set in a shabby manor house in England called The Hundreds just after the end of WWII. Once home to wealthy aristocrats of the Ayres clan, the 18th century estate now finds itself in the mid-20th century occupied by descendants who are aristocrats in name only. For reasons never detailed in the film, they are barely scraping by economically and the dilapidated house shows it.

The matron of the house, only referred to as Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), lives there with her two grown children, Roderick (Will Poulter, who is referred to as Roddy except by those beneath him socially) and Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who tries to keep the sprawling house in decent shape—a hopeless task. Once served by a staff of over a dozen, the Ayres only have Betty to serve them now, a teenager from the nearby village that is so spooked by the British version of Count Dracula’s castle that she feigns illness just so that she can get away from The Hundreds for a week or so—and maybe even permanently. Betty, you see, is convinced that The Hundreds is haunted.

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August 29, 2018

Corey Robin on the “new socialists”

Filed under: DSA — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

You know those double-takes that Stan Laurel used to pull off when, for example, he saw Oliver Hardy walking through the front door with a black eye his wife had just given him? That’s the expression I wore after turning to the Sunday NY Times Review section and saw Corey Robin’s article “The New Socialists” splashed across the front page.

The ability of the Jacobin/DSA steamroller to garner such attention, starting with a January 20, 2013 Times article about Bhaskar Sunkara titled “A Young Publisher Takes Marx Into the Mainstream”, boggles the mind. Once upon a time, as fairy tales begin, the group I belonged to nearly got spotlighted in the Sunday Times Magazine section. The magazine had commissioned Walter and Miriam Schneir, who were best known for their book on the Rosenbergs trial, to write such a piece when the SWP was making huge gains on the left as a result of our work in the antiwar movement. When the Scheirs turned it in, the Times nixed it because it was too complimentary. It is one thing to publish puff pieces about Jacobin; it was another to publish one for a group on J. Edgar Hoover’s Cointelpro hit-list. Maybe when Jacobin’s offices get burglarized under mysterious circumstances, I’ll take them more seriously.

The Schneir’s article appeared in the September 25, 1976 Nation, just two years before the party embarked on the “turn toward the working class” that would lead to 90 percent of the membership either being expelled or resigning. Just rereading it for the first time in 20 years or so, it strikes me that this is the kind of article that needs to be written about the DSA. The Schneirs were not interested in promoting the SWP, only reporting on it as this excerpt would indicate. (The Seigle alluded to in the excerpt was Larry Seigle, an obnoxious full-timer who within a year after denouncing the FSLN as traitors dropped out of the SWP and returned to private life.)

Seigle and others who joined the Socialist Workers in the 1960s believed that the past contained lessons that they could absorb and apply. They regarded the actions of many SDSers, Yippies, pacifists, Black Panthers and other radicals as pragmatic and impulsive. They themselves followed well-trodden paths. To influence large numbers of people they used their time-tested tactic, the united front, whereby members join various mass organizations whose limited objectives they share. Those unfriendly to the tactic call it “infiltrating.” A variation is the creation of a single-issue organization by a coalition of otherwise politically diverse groups. During the anti-war movement, the united front coalition was a resounding success in helping to mobilize millions of demonstrators but it also engendered political hostilities on the Left that persist to this day.

The Schneirs were absolutely correct. (Contact me at lnp3@panix.com for a copy of the article.)

Robin’s article, titled “The New Socialists”, begins by trying to explain the surge of interest in Sanders, Jacobin, Chapo Frat House, A. O-C, DSA, et al by pointing to the betrayal of liberals. With candidates like Hillary Clinton, no wonder young people prefer those politicians who describe themselves as socialist. Robin writes:

Since the 1970s, American liberals have taken a right turn on the economy. They used to champion workers and unions, high taxes, redistribution, regulation and public services. Now they lionize billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, deregulate wherever possible, steer clear of unions except at election time and at least until recently, fight over how much to cut most people’s taxes.

I hate to sound petty and vindictive but wasn’t A. O-C aware of Ted Kennedy’s role in deregulation when she interned for him a decade ago? He was the prime mover in deregulating the railroads, airlines, and trucking during the Carter presidency. And when Bill Clinton was president, Ted Kennedy voted to repeal Glass-Steagall as well. Maybe this didn’t matter to her at the time if she was trying to get her foot in the door politically. It does look good on a resume, I have to admit.

With socialism becoming a mass movement, there are some curmudgeons who raise the awkward question of what the word means. As Robin puts it, “What explains this irruption? And what do we mean, in 2018, when we talk about ‘socialism’?” He answers the question thusly: “Socialism means different things to different people. For some, it conjures the Soviet Union and the gulag; for others, Scandinavia and guaranteed income. But neither is the true vision of socialism. What the socialist seeks is freedom.”

At the risk of personalizing the debate, this answer strikes me as dodgy since it excludes me. I certainly don’t think of gulags in a word association test since Stalin put so many of the people I admire into them, at least those that weren’t executed. As for Scandinavia, this certainly describes Bernie Sanders who, when asked by Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation” how he defined socialism, answered that he was for “democratic socialism”, or what they’ve had in countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland for many years. Since Robin’s article identifies Bernie Sanders and A. O-C as the main spokespeople for this new socialist movement, you might wonder if he somehow missed Sanders’s reply to Schieffer. If Scandinavia is not “the true vision of socialism”, then Sanders is not much of a socialist.

Robin virtually identifies the “new socialists” as proletarian internationalists since they belong to families originating in colonies such as Puerto Rico (A. O-C) and Palestine (Rashida Tlaib). While it is encouraging to see people with such roots running for office, it seems like a bit of a stretch to link this to socialism. For example, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, who ran as an underdog but defeated rightwing Democrat Stephen Solarz in the same fashion that A. O-C defeated Joseph Crowley, is a Puerto Rican with bold anti-colonial politics. She was a leader in the Vieques movement that sought to stop the US military from using the inhabited island as a bombing range. In May 2000, she was arrested in a sit-in protest. Does that make her a socialist? Considering her ties to the banking and real estate industry, the answer would be no. Let’s hope that A. O-C does not turn out to be another Nydia Velázquez.

Despite the commitment that the DSA has to reforming the Democratic Party, Robin claims that “Arguably the biggest boundary today’s socialists are willing to cross is the two-party system. In their campaigns, the message is clear: It’s not enough to criticize Donald Trump or the Republicans; the Democrats are also complicit in the rot of American life.”

If being willing to attack rightwing Democrats is a sign of being a socialist, I wonder how one would describe Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. Certainly, they were as outspoken as Bernie Sanders even though they never called themselves “socialists”. This point is worth dwelling upon since Jacobin published an article by Adam Hilton titled “Searching for New Politics” that saw their candidacies as an opening for socialists back when I was young and spry.

Hilton sees the New Politics movement of the late 60s and early 70s as the place where the Bhaskar Sunkaras of my day belonged. It was just the latest in a series of experiments calculated to reform the Democratic Party, a strategy defended by Irving Howe, Michael Harrington and Jay Lovestone in Dissent Magazine. Odd to see millennial intellectuals like Adam Hilton dusting this strategy off and trying to make it sound spanking new.

As happens almost universally in the “democratic socialist” movement of today, Robin holds up FDR as a “transformative” figure who fought economic royalists in the same way that Lincoln went to war against the slavocracy. I guess that’s a sign of the ideological pendulum swinging in the opposite direction from the 60s radicalization when people like Howard Zinn debunked the notion that the New Deal was in any way “transformative”. Is Zinn unfashionable in Brooklyn socialist hipster circles? Too bad.


August 28, 2018

Radical professors and the hazards of social media

Filed under: Academia,repression — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

James Livingston

James Livingstone is now the fourth professor and FB friend who has been victimized by something they wrote on social media. It is too soon to tell what kind of punishment Rutgers will mete out but if the protests from FIRE and PEN have their intended effect, the school will just drop the charges.

Although I obviously support James’s free speech rights, I feel an obligation to say something about why these victimizations keep taking place. There is a definite pattern here that I will identify after reviewing the four cases.

(1) Steven Salaita:

This was the first and best-known case. After being hired by the University of Illinois in 2013, the school rescinded the offer after Israeli lobby activists brought some of his Tweets to the attention of the administration, especially this one that was smeared as a “blood libel”: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” It should have been obvious that this was Swiftian satire but the board preferred to placate wealthy Jewish donors rather than uphold academic freedom.

(2) George Ciccariello-Maher:

His case was almost as widely publicized as Salaita’s, to a large extent fueled by his appearances on Fox News. George was a big-time Twitter user, firing off “edgy” tweets that he probably understood would get under the alt-right’s skin. On Christmas Eve in 2016, he tweeted “All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide”, prompted by the racist backlash against State Farm Insurance for purportedly advancing “white genocide” through a commercial featuring an interracial couple. This trope of “white genocide” is ubiquitous to the alt-right, including the business about white farmers in South Africa being killed off. After the fuckwit Tucker Carlson claimed that this was taking place, Trump followed up with a tweet even though it had no factual basis. Unlike the University of Illinois, Drexel University defended his free speech rights but George resigned eventually because the death threats and other forms of harassment became intolerable. Like Salaita, he was guilty of nothing except using Swiftian satire that might have been acceptable among leftists but not to Fox News’s audience. Indeed, if George had used Swiftian satire on Zionists, he might have suffered the same fate as Salaita.

(3) Johnny Eric Williams:

He is a tenured African-American professor at Trinity College in Connecticut who posted a link to a Medium article in June 2017 just after a gunman opened fire on Republican Congressmen playing baseball in Washington. The article, titled “Let Them Fucking Die”, advocated:

If they are choking in a restaurant.

If they are bleeding out in an emergency room.

If the ground is crumbling beneath them.

If they are in a park and they turn their weapons on each other:

Do nothing.

After rightwing outlets targeted Williams as well as the university, the school was closed down for a day in the hope that the furor would die down. Eventually, the administration stuck by Williams even though he was forced to take a leave of absence.

Essentially, Williams was accused of sponsoring “white genocide” just like George C-M even though all he did was link to an article that used inflammatory rhetoric to make a point. Understanding that this was a punitive leave, the AAUP issued a statement taking issue with the school’s president Joanne Berger-Sweeney, an African-American like Williams. From a Chronicle of Higher Education article:

Henry Reichman, chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said Monday that putting Williams on punitive leave amounted to a “clear violation of the professor’s academic freedom.” The association considers involuntary leaves of absence as severe sanctions that should only be imposed absent a faculty review when the professor in question poses an immediate safety threat.

Calling Berger-Sweeney’s announcement “one of the most mealymouthed statements I’ve ever read,” Reichman in an email said he wondered, “What on earth does ‘we must be able to engage in conversations about these difficult and complex issues’ mean? Conversations about race, like the one in which [Williams] was participating on social media (and not in his capacity as a Trinity faculty member)? Or the conversations about academic freedom and freedom of speech to which Berger-Sweeney refers? These freedoms are not simply topics to ‘discuss’ and ‘converse’ about; they are first and foremost principles to defend.”

Sadly, he added, “there is nothing in this statement suggesting that Trinity will come to their defense.”

(4) James Livingston:

James is a tenured professor of history at Rutgers whose FB posts tend to be more personal than those of the three above. And often there is a mixture of the personal and the political as with this May post:

In exactly the same fashion as the others, his rather angst-ridden, semi-literary, and rather politically useless rant was denounced by Fox News and company as racial hatred against whites. (In Salaita’s case, it was white Jews who enjoy state power in Israel.)

For each and every one of these interventions in social media, there is no question that perhaps 80 percent of the motivation was to ventilate rather than educate. There is a “shock jock” element that reminds me of what I used to hear all the time before Howard Stern moved to Sirius. “Did you hear what Howard said yesterday morning?”

Let’s face it. Social media is the realm of one liners. And for Twitter, it was 140 characters until recently. Is anybody surprised that both Salaita and George C-M ended up trying to explain what they really meant after the tweet appeared? If the meaning is not crystal clear at the first iteration, it probably didn’t really serve the purpose of consciousness-raising.

Can’t people make the connection between the victimization of these four important professors and the overall crisis of social media, where standards such as fact-checking go by the wayside? In the few times I got involved in Twitter debates, I was astonished by the amount of pure, unadulterated lying that goes on. Since the issue was Syria, I have no doubts that I was dealing with people paid to write lies.

In a very perceptive article that appeared in the April 20, 2015 Huffington Post, a human resources professional named Carla Poertner wrote:

I do recall a time before Facebook and mass immersion into short bites of information associated with chaotic and inattentive thinking that is rewiring the very synapses of our brains, that we actually read books, for learning and for fun.

In university we debated arguments based on research from stacks of these relics. Books with pages to turn, corners to fold, words to underline and paragraphs that we would flip back and forwards to in an attempt to find that one thought we wanted to quote for a paper.

It didn’t seem unusual, then, to focus our attention on an issue long enough to see past the headline. The whole point was to try to understand the complexity of what was in front of us.

Contrast this with our newsfeed, full of short bites and quips. Post anything too long and we lose our audience’s shortened attention spans.

Ironically, all of these people—Salaita, George Ciccariello-Maher, Johnny Eric Williams and James Livingston—have written wheelbarrows full of books as well as dumpster-sized collections of articles in JSTOR type refereed journals. After all, that’s what they do for a living. But when it comes to social media, there is a tendency to forgo scholarly standards and to write stuff off the top of your head, which is no problem in and of itself. It only becomes a problem when it becomes fodder for FOX News.

So, comrade professors, think before you tweet or post to FB. We don’t want to see you victimized because you have a responsibility to the broader movement. In an age when tenure is more difficult than ever, especially for radicals, preserving the cadre is essential—as we used to put it in the Trotskyist movement.


August 27, 2018

Winning the war against robocalls

Filed under: crime — louisproyect @ 4:25 pm

I can’t think of any 19th century American novel that anticipates our current state of affairs better than Herman Melville’s “The Confidence Man”, which I wrote about long ago:

If you really want to understand the heart of darkness that defines American society, it is necessary to read Herman Melville. While Melville has the reputation of being a combination yarn-spinner and serious novelist, he is above all a profound social critic who sympathized with the downtrodden in American society. In his final novel, “The Confidence Man,” there are several chapters that deal with the “Metaphysic of Indian-Hating” that, as far as I know, are the first in American literature that attack the prevailing exterminationist policy.

“The Confidence Man” is set on a riverboat called the “Fidèle,” that is sailing down the Mississippi. As the title implies, the boat is loaded with con men who are either selling stock in failing companies, selling herbal “medicine” that can cure everything from cancer to the common cold, raising money for a fraudulent Seminole Widows and Orphans Society or simply convincing people to give them money outright as a sign that they have “confidence” in their fellow man. The word “confidence” appears in every chapter, as some sort of leitmotif to remind the reader what Melville is preoccupied with: the meanness and exploitation of his contemporary America. Because for all of the references to the need for people to have confidence in one another, the only type of confidence on the riverboat is that associated with scams.

Five years ago, I returned to Melville’s novel in a post that covered predatory journals and other scams, including those robocalls that were driving me nuts: “Recently I installed a device called a Digitone Call Blocker that can be used as the name indicates to block calls from scammers trying to sell me a senior alert system, or credit card relief—just two of the more frequent bids to separate you from your money. The Digitone cost me $90 but it is well worth it not to have the phone ringing three times a day from such assholes.”

After four years, the Digitone stopped working. To be more exact, the LED gave out. I spoke to the guy who invented the device and he told me that he was only able to use the LED’s that were commonly available and they all had a limited shelf life.

The next step was to replace my perfectly working Sony phone with a Panasonic that included a blocking function, another $100 or so to keep me from going nuts. Eventually I discovered that the robocalls were always coming from new phony numbers so that blocking them was not very effective.

In 2012, relief finally became available through the auspices of NoMoRobo, an application that blocks robocalls through a central registry. All you need to do is add the phone number for NoMoRobo as a “simultaneous call” on your provider’s website (we use Verizon) and it will intercept the call and throw it away.

Every so often, a call will sneak through but not at the maddening rate without NoMoRobo. At least, that is how it began after I signed up. Over the past year or so, we started getting bombarded with calls originating from 212-427-xxxx. Since that is how our number starts, there must be some sort of glitch that prevents phony 212-427 numbers from being added to the NoMoRobo database. When you are getting five phone calls a day soliciting crooked deals on medical alerts, credit card debt relief, and home improvement—nearly all from India—you become open to any solution other than getting rid of your phone. Since I rarely use my phone to begin with, that almost seemed feasible.

A new service called YouMail seems to be more robust than NoMoRobo but at a cost of $5 to $10 per month based on whether you are using it for a business or not. The only drawback, it seems, is that it only works for cell phones, and smart phones at that.

The real question is how we are subjected to such open criminality. In 2017, a record 30.5 billion robocalls were made, a nuisance not only to someone like me but to businesses trying to field legitimate calls. It appears that the FTC and the FCC are not that committed to destroying the robocall industry once and for all since many big corporations and nonprofits use it “legitimately”. On top of that, how can such agencies control what is happening in India, where lawlessness is even more widespread than here?

In trying to find a way to block 212-427-xxxx calls, I finally discovered that Digitone, the blocker I used once before, allows you to block on a wildcard basis, either by area code or area code + exchange number. I ponied up $80, ordered it from Amazon, and will use it until the LED stops working. It will be worth every penny to me since I no longer get robocalls—PERIOD.


August 26, 2018

Washington, DC tourist notes

Filed under: Travel — louisproyect @ 9:42 pm

My wife and I were in Washington on Thursday and Friday taking in the sights. Although I have been there at least a half-dozen times for protests, this was the first time I came as a tourist. My strong recommendation to my readers: find time to visit the town since it is a historical gold mine.

If, like me, you’ve been to the mall bordered on one side by the Capitol building and on the other by the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, you’ll recognize it as a place where protests are held. The most famous was when MLK Jr. gave his “I have a dream speech” in 1963 that I did not attend mainly because I was apolitical.

It took the Vietnam War to politicize me and to get me on a bus in October 21, 1967 for a protest that the mall that led to a smaller group trying to levitate the Pentagon later that day. I didn’t go because I was too busy selling the Militant newspaper that now describes Donald Trump as improving the lives of American workers and keeping us out of war.

I had no idea at the time (and how could I?) that on either side of the mall were some of the country’s greatest museums. On Friday morning, I headed to the Museum of African-American history close to the Washington Monument and was told that unless you had purchased a pass online the day before, you had to wait to 1pm for general admission. (Keep that in mind if you head down to DC.)

Still up for some museum visits, I walked to the other end of the mall to check out the Museum of the American Indian, a place that I was eager to see. Architecturally, the museum looks a lot like the Guggenheim once you are inside and on the ground floor but the different levels are connected by stairs rather than a continuous ramp:

The exhibits are to be found on the fourth and third floor. The fourth floor appeared to be a permanent exhibition of various tribes (until a better word comes along to describe societies based on blood ties, this will have to do) with a combination of artwork, clothing, tools, etc. interspersed with videos featuring elders, and written commentary on their history.

The most interesting section was devoted to the Yuroks whose reservation in California consists of 84 square miles, inhabited by 5,000 enrolled members. The Yuroks were heavy into water-based fishing and hunting, either fresh water like salmon and eels, or seals in the coastal waters. For centuries, they celebrated yearly rituals on the Klamath River where most of their food originated but when it was re-engineered by whites, the canoes could not navigate the waters. As is typical in these “modernization” projects, the ecological costs were substantial. Starting in the 18th century, logging, farming, dam construction all led to degradation of the Klamath River ecosystem. At some point, a return to the past will benefit both native peoples and society as a whole.

The third floor has an outstanding exhibition on the Inkas (the curator’s preferred spelling) that was a real eye-opener to me. With extensive written commentary on both this empire’s achievements and depredations, as well as displays of Inkan art and architecture, there is enough to keep you engaged for hours even though I could only devote a half-hour. It turns out that the Inkas built a 24,000 mile road that connected all the regions that were part of their empire.

That empire was their glory as well as their undoing. When Pizarro’s gangsters came, they destroyed much of the road and left the capital city Cusco in ruins. I learned about Pedro de Cieza de Leon, a conquistador who wrote a memoir about his experiences in Peru, from a quote on the wall. You can read the entire book here but will leave you with this astonishing confession:

The said Yncas governed in such a way that in all the land neither a thief, nor a vicious man, nor a bad dishonest woman was known. The men all had honest and profitable employment. The woods, and mines, and all kinds of property were so divided that each man knew what belonged to him, and there were no law suits. The Yncas were feared, obeyed, and respected by their subjects, as a race very capable of governing ; but we took away their land, and placed it under the crown of Spain, and made them subjects. Your Majesty must understand that my reason for making this statement is to relieve my conscience, for we have destroyed this people by our bad examples. Crimes were once so little known among them, that an Indian with one hundred thousand pieces of gold and silver in his house, left it open, only placing a little stick across the door, as the sign that the master was out, and nobody went in. But when they saw that we placed locks and keys on our doors, they understood that it was from fear of thieves, and when they saw that we had thieves amongst us they despised us. All this I tell your Majesty, to discharge my conscience of a weight, that I may no longer be a party to these things. And I pray God to pardon me, for I am the last to die of all the discoverers and conquerors, as it is notorious that there are none left but me, in this land or out of it, and therefore I now do what 1 can to relieve my conscience.

When I got back to the Museum of African-American History, there were about 300 people lined up to buy a ticket. So, maybe next time… In any case, if you want to see this museum, you’d better buy a pass the day before.

Undeterred and with another half-hour to spare before I hooked up with my wife, I hit the first museum next to the Museum of African-American History, which appropriately enough was the Museum of American History. Expecting the usual patriotic gore, even more so by entering the gallery devoted to the American military, I was pleasantly surprised by the strong political edge on how an empire was built that put the Inkas to shame.

There was a strong condemnation of the Mexican War that included Ulysses S. Grant’s observations in his Memoir as a veteran of the land grab of Texas and much else:

Generally the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation was consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory. Texas was originally a state belonging to the republic of Mexico. It extended from the Sabine River on the east to the Rio Grande on the west, and from the Gulf of Mexico on the south and east to the territory of the United States and New Mexico—another Mexican state at that time—on the north and west. An empire in territory, it had but a very sparse population, until settled by Americans who had received authority from Mexico to colonize. These colonists paid very little attention to the supreme government, and introduced slavery into the state almost from the start, though the constitution of Mexico did not, nor does it now, sanction that institution. Soon they set up an independent government of their own, and war existed, between Texas and Mexico, in name from that time until 1836, when active hostilities very nearly ceased upon the capture of Santa Anna, the Mexican President. Before long, however, the same people—who with permission of Mexico had colonized Texas, and afterwards set up slavery there, and then seceded as soon as they felt strong enough to do so—offered themselves and the State to the United States, and in 1845 their offer was accepted. The occupation, separation and annexation were, from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union.

Since my wife and I both love looking at old townhouses, including the ones on the side streets near our high-rise on 91st and Third, we made a point of going out to Georgetown that actually predates the construction of Washington the city. This is a fabulous walkabout place, where each side street reveals amazing old homes in perfect condition as my wife’s iPhone reveals:

The only other thing worth mentioning is the class divide in Washington that might be even more extreme than in New York City. Like NYC, Washington is bustling with new construction projects. You can’t walk five blocks without seeing a high-rise or office building under construction.

At the same time you see beggars everywhere, all African-American, as opposed to the whites who dominate NYC’s sidewalks bearing signs about their plight (often accompanied by a pet dog or cat to gain sympathy.) I imagine that many of these white kids in NYC are genuinely homeless but their chances of getting paid are much better than Washington’s poor who are not even visible on the Metro.

We walked up to the rear end of the White House to check out if any protests were going on. There were but only mounted by cranks. Who knows. If the left can get it together to organize a national protest against Trump on the mall, I might return.

August 24, 2018

Syria Endgame: Crushing Daraa, the Russia-Israel deal & the Geopolitics of Counterrevolution

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:34 pm

via Syria Endgame: Crushing Daraa, the Russia-Israel deal & the Geopolitics of Counterrevolution

Gerald Horne’s The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean

Filed under: Counterpunch,slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 12:30 pm

I had high hopes for Gerald Horne’s The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean for a couple of reasons. It might help me develop a deeper understanding of the genocidal tendencies of Dutch and British colonialism I reviewed in a CounterPunch article about the ethnic cleansing of Munsee Indians from New York State in the 17thcentury. While Horne’s history is focused on slavery, there are frequent allusions to what he calls the “indigenes” or native peoples. Just as importantly, I expected it to be in line with his provocatively titled “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America” that was a timely debunking of our Founding Father myths. Turning the clock back a century, this time around Horne zeros in on the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that was glorious only to the slave-trading merchants of England and their colonial cohorts. For the indigenes or slaves who were victimized throughout the 17thcentury, there was no glory in being shot down by a musket.

My hopes were not only met, they were exceeded. Horne has written both a scholarly treatment enriched by primary sources excavated from archives three hundred years old but also a fierce polemic that hearkens back to those of CLR James and WEB Dubois. The end notes of “The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism” support some astonishing insights into the social reality of the emerging “revolutionary” North America. For example, in the penultimate chapter titled “The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688” (scare quotes were never more appropriate), Horne refers to a French Protestant exile remarking in 1687 that “there is not a house in Boston however small be its means that has not one or two” enslaved Africans, and even some that have five or six. The endnote reveals that this report originated in Box 19 of the Daniel Parrish Slavery Transcripts in the New York Historical Society. There are hundreds of such notations in Horne’s book, which attest to his perseverance in making the cruelty of the 17thcentury palpable. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, scholarship is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Buckets of sweat were probably accumulated in countless libraries and museums in the years it took to put together this groundbreaking text.

Continue reading

August 20, 2018

Gerald Horne’s Seventeenth Century

Filed under: colonialism,slavery — louisproyect @ 4:11 pm

Midway through Gerald Horne’s “Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism”, I feel like I have struck gold. This history of the colonial projects of the 17th century gives me a better handle on questions that have preoccupied me over the years as the excerpt below indicates:

  1. The importance of the Caribbean islands in the period that might be described as mercantile capitalism. The only other historian who I have read who has zeroed in on this time and place was Sidney Mintz, whose study of sugar plantations made the case that these were the first modern factories even though based on forced labor.
  2. The tendency for these colonial powers to support emancipation for tactical reasons. Long before Lord Dunmore proclaimed the freedom of slaves in Virginia to help build an army opposed to George Washington, the same measures were being taken in the Caribbean islands a century earlier by the Dutch to be used against the British. As might be obvious from Horne’s last book that made the case that Washington et al were counter-revolutionaries, he rejects the bourgeois-democratic pretensions about 1776 that some on the left uphold, including it would seem the CPUSA that he reportedly belonged to or was at least a sympathizer of.
  3. The need to ethnically cleanse NY and New Jersey of the Delaware Indians, including the Munsees, in the 17th century. This was a necessary step to privatize land in the interests of petty commodity production leading up to capitalist property relations in the next century as I discussed in my article on the Munsees that appeared in CounterPunch.

Slave-based settler colonialism was an inherently unstable process, as the bonded labor force had little incentive to ally with their masters when foreigners invaded, providing the latter with incentive to overthrow the status quo. The Dutch were convinced that the Africans would act as a fifth column on their behalf: the Dutch may have heard that an African in Chile named himself “King of Guinea” and demanded vengeance against the settlers, which could have succeeded with Dutch aid. Thus, when Dutch forces invaded neighboring Peru in the 1620s, they brought along a chest full of manumission letters to hand out to the enslaved, along with weapons. Another contingent descended upon Pisco, where they sought to foment a slave revolt. As early as 1627, there was a fear in Virginia that there would be a replay of this stratagem by the Dutch. In the early stage of Dutch colonization in the Americas, race relations were lot always informed by racial hierarchy, providing an advantage over competitors not likeminded. Anti-Cromwell loyalists in Barbados were confident that the Dutch would back them, just as those who joined Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676—yet another landmark in the road to white supremacy and capitalism in North America—thought likewise: the French settlers who revolted in Martinique thought the same way in 1665. This meant that squashing colonial competitors was seen as important by London in seeking to prevent slave revolts. Since Caribbean islands were then seen as the embodiment of grand wealth, this argued further for building a grand navy, useful in squashing European rivals and revolts of the enslaved alike.

Throughout the 1640s the indigenous of the mainland, especially the Lenape and Minquas-Susquehannock of what is now called the Delaware Valley, had played the Dutch off against the Swedes, until the latter were driven out. The Dutch were not unique in this regard, and settlers perpetually had to account for the prospect of confronting shrewd Africans and indigenes backed by European rivals. U.S. Founding Father George Mason reminded his fellow rebels that Cromwell sent instructions to arm the enslaved in order to smash royalist rebellion in the seventeenth century—and this could happen again in the wake of 1776.

CLR James interview

Filed under: african-american,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 1:43 pm

August 19, 2018

David McReynolds in the context of American radicalism

Filed under: Gay,Kevin Coogan,obituary,revolutionary organizing,socialism — louisproyect @ 9:16 pm

David McReynolds and long-time companion Shaman

The first time I ever heard the name David McReynolds was shortly after joining the SWP in 1967. At the time, the antiwar movement was a tripod made up of the Trotskyists, the CP and the pacifists. As the executive director of the War Resisters League (WRL) and a colleague of A.J. Muste who was to the peace movement in the USA as Bertrand Russell was to the British peace movement, David was a key figure.

David arrived in New York in the early 50s and eventually took an editorial job in 1957 with Liberation, a radical pacifist magazine closely tied to the WRL whose founders included three leaders of the pacifist leg of the peace movement tripod: Sidney Lens, David Dellinger and Muste himself. Both Lens and Muste were Trotskyists in the 30s before evolving in a pacifist direction. Lens was a member of Hugo Oehler’s ultraleft Revolutionary Workers League and Muste was the chairman of the American Workers Party that fused with Cannon’s Communist League of America in 1934 to form the Workers Party.

Although I was too much of a rank-and-filer to sit in on strategy meetings with these people, I always had the impression that the SWP got along better with Lens and Muste than they did with people who were ideologically pacifist from the get-go like David Dellinger and Norma Becker. They tended to bloc with Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman at the time because they all were into “propaganda of the deed”, which didn’t mean setting off bombs but getting arrested in a civil disobedience protest. Despite not seeing these people interact with each other directly, I suspect that David helped to keep the various factions together since he was such a warm and empathetic figure.

But there was no doubt about his commitment to the sort of actions pacifist groups were carrying out for most of the 20th century. David participated in some of the more important civil disobedience actions in New York under the impact of the Cold War. In the 1950s, there were civil defense drills meant to minimize the effects of an H-Bomb being dropped on the city. Instructions were utterly lunatic as David pointed out in an oral history interview with the NY Public Library. People on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building were supposed to go to the 40th floor while those on the 40th floor and below were supposed to go into the basement. Here’s a newsreel from the time showing a drill. So you can imagine how a 9-year old like me would be scared out of his wits.

Those who refused to take cover during these drills were subject to a misdemeanor arrest. David, A.J. Muste, and Catholic Worker leader Dorothy Day took part in protests at City Hall. Muste and Day served 6-month sentences and David somehow slipped through the fingers of the cops.

During the 50s, such protests managed to take place because it was difficult to smear pacifists using Red Scare tactics. The anti-nuclear movement was one of the few areas in which open socialists could operate since it involved issues that did not touch directly on the Red Scare. Like climate change, the fear of extinction was palpable especially since the slogan “Better dead than red” was gaining popularity in the 1950s.

David adopted civil disobedience tactics once again in November, 1965 when he burned his draft card at a protest in Union Square. I remember how the SWP wrestled with these tactics as they grew more popular. Clearly, they were helping to deepen antiwar resistance but they didn’t follow our Bolshevik norms. To show how warped we were, a few months before I joined the party I attended the SWP convention held in a NY hotel as an observer. A debate had ensued over whether our newspaper should take exception to the growing popularity of speaking out against the war as being “immoral, illegal and unjust” since it fostered pacifist illusions. Harry Ring, a leader of the party’s antiwar fraction, got up to oppose such a sectarian position. The fact that it was even considered showed how isolated we were from normal thinking.

In the oral history interview, David includes a fascinating anecdote that speaks volumes about his political approach. It seems that as a gay man who never hid his sexuality but never made a point of it, he never felt quite satisfied with such a defensive position. At one point he went to a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg in the East Village in which during the Q&A a woman asked him why he wrote so much about homosexuality in his poems. He replied that he did so because he was a queer. That impressed David so much that he went up to Allen later and introduced himself, the beginning of a deep friendship. At a certain point, David became responsible for persuading Ginsberg to become a public figure opposed to the war. Ginsberg was wary at first since he saw himself as a poet and not a politician. David won him to our cause by making the point that writers had a responsibility to oppose the war. Thereafter, Ginsberg became omnipresent at protests.

In 1972, the Socialist Party of America (SPA), whose lineage went back to Debs, suffered a split. Some of its rightwing leaders, who would soon become aligned with or even members of the Reagan administration, renamed the group Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA). Sensing where they were headed, Michael Harrington led a faction into the newly formed Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) that would merge with the New America Movement to form the DSA. Wary of Harrington’s orientation to the Democratic Party, a small faction went ahead and formed the Socialist Party USA (SPUSA) that David belonged to until recently. He was the party’s presidential candidate in 1980 and 2000. Unlike the DSA, you don’t find much Marxist analysis being spouted by its members such as the kind you will find in Jacobin. Also, unlike the DSA, the SPUSA hearkens back to Debs’s opposition to the two-party system. Like Debs and Norman Thomas, David had no use for the donkey or the elephant. He preferred cats and radicalism.

I am not quite sure when I hooked up with David but around twenty years ago I began making it my business to learn more about what you might call native radical traditions. Since so much of the Trotskyist experience involved applying the Bolshevik legacy mechanically to our country, I decided that David’s experience would help me fill in the blanks.

For about a year, we would get together for lunch down in the East Village where we would chew the fat. One time I got a big kick out of how he was warmly greeted by Quentin Crisp when we walked into a restaurant, where Crisp was sitting at a table by himself. It reminded me of how bohemianism, including sexual openness, and socialist politics go together.

When I joined the SWP in 1967, being outed as a gay could get you expelled. Party leaders defended the policy since supposedly the FBI could get a party member to “turn” by threatening to out him or her to the party. Marxist scholar Christopher Phelps, who was working on an article about gays in the SWP titled “The Closet in the Party”, had gotten in touch with David to sound him out. This led to David writing an article for New Politics titled “Queer Reflections” that I urge everybody to read since it epitomized his sensibility and political instincts.

I EXPERIENCED LITTLE BIAS WITHIN the Socialist Party. The late, and nearly great, Samuel H. Friedman (a Jew who kept kosher and whose wife was an Irish Catholic) said to me “I’ve heard some nasty things about you, Comrade McReynolds, but I don’t believe them.” Dwight MacDonald once said “You aren’t one of those, are you?” But it was never used against me except by some of those around Max Shachtman (I always thought it ironic that Max ended up with Tom Kahn, whose homosexuality was an open secret, as one of the few who remained on his side to the end). Within the War Resisters League (WRL), where I worked on staff for 39 years, it was never an issue, not because there was some secret gay cabal in the WRL, but because the radical tradition of the secular pacifists was much more profoundly radical than that of most Marxists. Bayard Rustin wasn’t hired by WRL because he was gay (or black) but because he was incredibly talented. (Let it be noted, as part of the historical record, and as a reminder that even great leaders have feet of clay, that A.J. Muste, so clearly a mentor for me, resigned from the executive committee of WRL in protest against the hiring of Bayard, because he felt Rustin’s record of making indiscreet homosexual passes would threaten the organization. And Bayard himself, in 1969, when the WRL magazine WIN had a “gay liberation” issue, with pieces from Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg and myself, phoned Ralph DiGia to say, “you guys are going to have to fire David — he will destroy the organization.” I never held this against Bayard, understanding only too well what his own experience had taught him.)

What makes David McReynolds so special was his ability to reflect the deeper traditions of the American left that go back to the early Communist movement, what Timothy Messer-Kruse called the “Yankee International”. Victoria Woodhull, who worked closely with Frederick Douglass, launched a Marxist current in the USA that competed with the one sanctioned by Karl Marx and that was led by Friedrich Sorge, a German immigrant. Sorge was not only exceedingly dogmatic, he was also hostile to Black-led protests since they might divide the working class.

Woodhull’s group made no such concessions, as their political traditions were rooted in the abolitionist movement. Indeed, when they called for a mass demonstration in New York City to commemorate the martyrs of the Paris Commune, the first rank in the parade went to a company of black soldiers known as the Skidmore Guard. The demonstration passed by a quarter million spectators and the sight of armed black men in the vanguard was electrifying. Sorge’s group complained that the demonstration was a distraction from working-class struggles, whose participants would lose a day’s pay by participating. He called for a boycott.

It is too bad that Marx regarded Woodhull as a spiritualist crank. Who knows? If she had received his benediction, we might be living under communism today. The tension between the Marxist high priesthood symbolized by Karl Marx in the 1870s or V.I. Lenin in the 1920s on one hand and the indigenous radical roots of living movements that sprout up according to their own rhythm and affinities has plagued us for nearly 150 years.

When people like Victoria Woodhull, Eugene V. Debs or David McReynolds come along, they deserve pride of place in building the revolutionary movement that is so desperately needed. The last time I saw David was in 2005 or so when I went to a brunch at Cynthia Cochran’s apartment on West 94th Street. She knew David for many years and admired him for the same reason she went with the “Cochranites” in 1954. In my discussions with David over lunch, we always came back to the need for a revolutionary movement that broke with the dogmatic obsession over the “Russian questions”. Like Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, David knew how to put things into perspective. Sooner or later, the left will cohere around a program that emerges out of our living experience as Americans. David had a talent for sensing the mood of ordinary Americans.

Finally, for a really sweet and revealing interview with David that includes his story of how he decided to accept his homosexuality after meeting Alvin Ailey as a young man. It also includes some great photos of the young David McReynolds who was a handsome devil.

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