Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 29, 2019

Left Strategy for the 2020 Elections and Beyond: a critique

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

Bill Fletcher Jr.

Carl Davidson

Long-time supporters of an “inside-outside” approach to the electoral shell-game that veers sharply to the inside, Bill Fletcher Jr. and Carl Davidson promote a “A Left Strategy for the 2020 Elections and Beyond” that has shown up on various websites including Truthout. While generally overlapping politically with the DSA/Jacobin wing of the left that has virtual hegemony today largely because of the fawning attention it receives from the capitalist press, the two are for the Democratic Party more on the basis of “lesser evilism” than their counterparts who believe rather incredibly that a Sandernista presidency would be the first step toward a socialist revolution in the USA.

They write:

The defeat of Donald Trump and the ejection of his right-wing and white supremacist populist bloc from the centers of political power is a tactical goal of some urgency not only for Democrats but also for leftists. The outcome of the upcoming election will have a direct effect on thwarting right-wing populism and the clear and present danger of incipient fascism and war.

Ever since I began voting in 1961, I have heard something like this from the Communist Party or the social democracy. Unless we elect LBJ, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern et al, the Republicans will take over and establish a fascist state. When Democrats are elected, however, they tend to create a backlash among voters suffering the ill-effects of neoliberalism that enables a Ronald Reagan or a Donald Trump victory. Then, the cycle begins all over again with each Republican victory ratcheting up the depravity.

Showing that they can invoke classical Marxism as effectively as Eric Blanc does with his ritual incantations of Kautsky’s pre-1910 writings, they base themselves on Gramsci’s distinction between “wars of position” and “wars of movement”. The first is understood as “mass campaigns” such as organizing the unorganized, or unionizing the South while the second means lining up votes for whoever the Democrats nominate.

Gramsci deals with these terms at length in the pages between 481 and 497 in Prison Notebooks that you can find here. Good luck in trying to apply this to the 2020 elections unless your imagination is as vivid as Fletcher and Davidson’s. For example, what in the world does this have to do with their article?

The war of position demands enormous sacrifices by infinite masses of people. So an unprecedented concentration of hegemony is necessary, and hence a more “interventionist” government, which will take the offensive more openly against the oppositionists and organise permanently the “impossibility” of internal disintegration—with controls of every kind, political, administrative, etc., reinforcement of the hegemonic “positions” of the dominant group, etc. All this indicates that we have entered a culminating phase in the political-historical situation, since in politics the “war of position”, once won, is decisive definitively. In politics, in other words, the war of manoeuvre subsists so long as it is a question of winning positions which are not decisive, so that all the resources of the State’s hegemony cannot be mobilised.

Suffice it to say that Gramsci’s articles have little to do with electoral opportunism even though Alexis Tsipras and his cohorts did their best to bend theories about “hegemony”, etc. to their will. While American capitalism is much more powerful than Greece’s, the likelihood of turning the state into a “democratic socialist” instrument is just about as precluded here. I suspect that Gramsci’s writings are being exploited as propaganda to transform the Democratic Party into something like Syriza, which is setting the political bar pretty low. Keep in mind that Davidson is a long-time leader of the Committees of Correspondence, a split from the CPUSA that sought to adapt Eurocommunism to the American landscape. You might even wonder if the Jacobin intellectuals are on the same wavelength. Two pinches of Gramsci and another two from Kautsky make for a tangy stew, just as long as you don’t put any of those bitter Leon Trotsky or V.I. Lenin spices into the pot.

Showing that they are not advocating robotic tasks like ringing doorbells for Sanders or whoever the Democrats nominate, they think big. Nothing less than targeting the heights of power in the longest, continuously-functioning bourgeois party on the planet:

Socialists shouldn’t work “within the Democratic party,” but with one of its clusters, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, especially its DSA/WFP/PDA left wing and its mass allies. The Progressive Caucus is by far the largest of the Democratic Caucuses, with numbers above 100 members (compared with the smaller New Democrats and Blue Dogs).

The goal would be to develop and expand the CPC, win over as many of the New Democrats as possible, and isolate the Blue Dogs if they can’t be budged. How could people on the left do so? By simply fighting for what people need, defined as those redistributionist and structural reforms that can unite a progressive majority of voters. Medicare for All is now a case in point, and the Green New Deal is becoming one. When connected with the base communities in the local congressional districts, the left could elect progressives until it becomes a solid majority among Democrats in the House.

I wonder what working with the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) really means. Right now, the only Senate member is Bernie Sanders. There are lots more in the House but very few of them are of the A O-C, Ilhan Omar variety. Most are run-of-the-mill Democrats like my representative Carolyn Maloney who referred to Comrade Omar as follows: “It is deeply disturbing to hear a colleague give credence to anti-Semitic tropes, especially from someone who means to stand for equality and acceptance for all peoples.” Then, there’s Pete DeFazio from Oregon who has called for massive increases in logging on public forests—not surprising given the power of the timber corporations in his home state. No matter how good a DeFazio is on questions of Medicare for all or LGBT rights, he can’t keep getting re-elected if he neglects to fill the pork barrel. In the same spirit, Bernie Sanders gave his blessing to keep the F-35s in Vermont. It was all about jobs, after all.

Even a diehard supporter of the Democratic Party like Norman Solomon could point out how unreliable an ally of the left the CPC was. In a CounterPunch article from 2013 titled “Progressive Caucus Folds”, he scolded the 75 percent of its members who refused to sign a letter that stated “we will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits — including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need.”

Speaking from the left side of their mouth, the authors hold out the possibility of a radical third party emerging in the future but only out of the bowels of the Democratic Party:

Some on the left have asked: Why doesn’t DSA just start a new party? The answer: because DSA and its close allies, objectively, are already helping to do so by growing the social-democratic bloc and giving it an organized and independent grassroots base in the working class and communities of the oppressed. But the work begins under the Democratic tent as a largely inside job. Once you get over 100,000 or even 200,000 new DSA members from the organizing and base-building of backing Sanders on the Democratic line, you’ve created at least one key component of the large bloc needed for a new First Party.

What happens to these wonderful plans if people like Joe Biden and Steny Hoyer move against those boring away from within the Democratic Party? Here’s what: “The Third Way types may try to throw us (and our close allies) out. Then the Dems will face the dilemma of transform or die, much as the imperiled Whig Party of 1860 was replaced by a new political formation — the only example of such a change in our history.” This is an analogy I’ve heard over the years from Carl Davidson that I gave up on debunking long ago. Lincoln’s Republican Party was product of profound class conflict between two wings of the capitalist class. By the time the USA was on the precipice of a Civil War, you had in effect a “dual power” situation with the North based in Washington, DC and the South based in the Confederate capital in Montgomery at first and then in Richmond. If you are trying to draw an analogy between the bourgeois revolution against slavery and the future socialist revolution, you must see it in class terms. The mounting assaults against working-class interests will inevitably lead to neighborhoods or entire cities forming their own self-sustaining institutions and defending them by force of arms. By then, parliamentary style elections will have outlived their usefulness. It will be the hour of the American socialist revolution. I understand that for most people used to the meaningless bourgeois election circus this will sound like science-fiction. Maybe so but history has a way of sharpening the contradictions that make all this very real.




April 27, 2019

Joseph Brant: the Mohawk who fought with the British against George Washington

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:00 pm

I was astounded to learn in Allen Young’s memoir that Sullivan County, which was the heart of the Borscht Belt where we both grew up, was named after General John Sullivan who was directed by George Washington to annihilate Mohawk villages for supporting the British. The Mohawk were led by Joseph Brant, whose birthname was Thayendanegea.

The Mohawk were part of the Iroquois confederation that included the Onondaga, the Seneca, the Tuscarora, the Oneida and Cayuga. The failure of the six nations to reach an agreement about supporting the British led to strife and the eventual collapse of a confederation that Benjamin Franklin lauded as a model that the colonists could emulate after becoming independent. Despite the use of the term “Ignorant Savages” that was meant more as a dig at his colleagues, it was clear that Franklin considered the Iroquois to have achieved a model state, even if on a small scale:

It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be supposed to want an equal Understanding of their Interests.

Lewis Henry Morgan wrote a book in 1877 titled “Ancient Society” that also viewed the Iroquois confederation positively. His work had a major influence on Frederick Engels who cited it at length in “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”. Although he did not use the term, he was describing what is commonly known as “primitive communism” and taken as proof by Marxists that humanity can live in a classless society:

No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits – and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected, by the gens or the tribe, or by the gentes among themselves; only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened-and our capital punishment is nothing but blood revenge in a civilized form, with all the advantages and drawbacks of civilization. Although there were many more matters to be settled in common than today – the household is maintained by a number of families in common, and is communistic, the land belongs to the tribe, only the small gardens are allotted provisionally to the households – yet there is no need for even a trace of our complicated administrative apparatus with all its ramifications. The decisions are taken by those concerned, and in most cases everything has been already settled by the custom of centuries. There cannot be any poor or needy – the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free – the women included.

My interest in the indigenous peoples of New York State was kindled initially by learning that the Munsee Indians were dominant all through the Catskills. Since I have begun a film titled “Utopia in the Catskills”, I was committed to telling their story. After I learned that my home county was named after a military officer who ethnically cleansed the state of Mohawks, I decided to look more deeply into their story as well, even if technically speaking they were to the north of the Catskills.

Since my film is both a series of interviews and a collage of pre-existing films, including “Last of the Mohicans” that did feature a tribe native to the Catskills, I decided to track down any films about Joseph Brant. I was able to discover the two above and was not surprised to discover that both are deeply flawed but worth watching.

“Divided Loyalties” is by far more grounded in Joseph Brant’s real history and the internecine divisions within the Indians, the British and the colonists. Essentially, Brant threw in his lot with the British because the colonists were far more of an immediate threat to Mohawk interests. As occurred throughout the New World, settlers impinged on native lands, even when a treaty should have protected their claims. In 1768, the Iroquois and the British signed a treaty at Fort Stanwix that would protect the Six Nations territory. Sir William Johnson, an Irish official of the Crown assigned to Indian affairs, was instrumental in drafting the treaty that met the expectations of the Indians—at least based on the wording. Johnson was the common-law husband of Joseph Brant’s sister Molly and sympathetic to Iroquois interests, even to the point of learning the Mohawk language and customs. In both films, he is a major character and the relationship between Brant and Johnson drives the narrative forward.

The British exploitation of the Mohawks as a military asset is reminiscent of Lord Dunmore and the Ethiopian Regiment. Dunmore promised to free any slave who fought for the Crown. In a 2013 post, I cited Gary B. Nash, a “revisionist” whose take on the American war of independence is decidedly devoid of the patriotic junk we all learned in high school and that the Communist Party sadly dispensed when Earl Browder was the CPUSA’s chairman and infamous for declaring that Communism was 20th century Americanism:

Within several months, between eight hundred and one thousand slaves had flocked to Dunmore, and many hundreds more were captured while trying. Many of them, perhaps one-third, were women and children. Mustered into what Dunmore named the Ethiopian Regiment, some of the men were uniformed with sashes bearing the inscription LIBERTY TO SLAVES. The slaves of many of Virginia’s leading white revolutionary figures now became black revolutionary Virginians themselves. They soon formed the majority of Dunmore’s Loyalist troops. Commanding the Ethiopian Regiment was the British officer Thomas Byrd, the son of patriot William Byrd III, one of Virginia’s wealthiest land and slave owners.

It is clear from both films that the British were unreliable allies. They did little to protect the Six Nations from settler encroachment and likely would have allowed it to continue if they had defeated George Washington. That being said, the Mohawk had every reason to ally with the British who never were as open about killing indigenous people as the Founding Fathers.

Don’t ever forget what Thomas Jefferson, whose name adorned the CPUSA’s school for many years in New York, said: “This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.”

Meanwhile, George Washington’s orders to General Sullivan included this: “The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.”

And even Ben Franklin, who extolled the democratic character of the Iroquois confederacy, came up with this in his autobiography: “If it be the design of Providence to extirpate these Savages in order to make room for cultivators of the Earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the appointed means.”

April 26, 2019

The Biggest Little Farm; Lobster War

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,farming,Film,water — louisproyect @ 12:50 pm


Two new documentaries tackle the all-important question of our age, namely how humanity and nature can co-exist in a period of insurmountable capitalist contradiction, especially when humanity takes the form of small businesspeople hoping to exploit natural resources under duress.

Opening at The Landmark at 57 West on May 10th, “The Biggest Little Farm” is a stunningly dramatic portrait of a husband and wife trying to create an ecotopian Garden of Eden forty miles north of Los Angeles. (Nationwide screening info is here.)

Idealist to a fault but utterly inexperienced as farmers, they encounter one obstacle after another in the hope of doing well by doing good. Essentially, they discover that by creating a bounteous yield of edibles destined for the organic foods market, they also attract a plague of gophers, coyotes, starlings and snails that see their farm as a dinner plate. Trying to balance their ecotopian values with the appetites of the animal kingdom becomes an ordeal they never anticipated.

Utterly indifferent to ecological values, the lobster fishermen depicted in Bullfrog Film’s “Lobster War: The Fight Over the World’s Richest Fishing Grounds” are family and village-oriented. As long as they can haul in the valuable crustaceans and keep themselves and their respective towns in Maine and Canada prosperous, nothing much else matters. Not being able to see outside the box, they symbolize the short-term mindset of the ruling class. If lobsters become extinct because of unsustainable practices, the fishermen might turn to other profitable marine life. But when all animals become extinct except for rodents, pigeons and cockroaches, homo sapiens will be next in line.

Continue reading

April 24, 2019

Appreciating F. Scott Fitzgerald

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:05 pm

via Appreciating F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Blackfoot and the Barbarians

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 12:12 am

(Liberated from behind a JSTOR paywall.)

Bear Bull, a Blackfoot Indian

Organization & Environment; Mar 1999
The Blackfoot and the Barbarians
By Louis Proyect

Five books discussing the Blackfoot Indian people are reviewed.

  • Chrisjohn Roland and Sherri Lynn Young. The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residence School Experience in Canada. Penticon, British Columbia, Canada: Theytus, 1995, 327 pp.
  • Timothy Egan. Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West. New York: Knopf, 1998, 266 pp.
  • Margaret A. Kennedy. The Whiskey Trade of the Northwestern Plains. New York: Peter Lang, 1997, 181 pp.
  • R. Miller. Shingwauk’s Vision. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto, 1996, 582 pp.
  • Donald Worster. An Unsettled Country: Changing Landscapes of the American West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1994, 151 pp.

Reporter (to Mahatma Gandhi): “Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?”

Gandhi: “I think it would be a good idea.”

Beginning in the mid-1800s and coming to a climax in the post-Civil War period, rapacious gold prospectors, fur trading companies, and ranchers invaded Blackfoot territory. They came in the same fashion that profit-oriented barbarians have come to the Amazon rainforest in recent decades, with plunder in their hearts and a willingness to exterminate anybody who got in the way.

It should come as no surprise that the U.S. Army defended the invaders on the basis of protecting private property and “civilization.” In the summer of 1865, the Pikuni (Southern Blackfoot) signed a treaty in Fort Benton, Montana, that pushed their southern boundary north to the Teton River. They received annuities of $50,000 a year for a period of 20 years. If the United States did not have the benefit of a superior armed force, the Blackfoot never would have signed such a treaty because it amounted to theft. As Woodie Guthrie once said, some men will steal your valuables with a gun while some will do it with a fountain pen. The United States used both gun and fountain pen.

Clashes with gold prospectors continued because they refused to respect Blackfoot rights within the newly redefined territory. When some prospectors under the leadership of the racist thug John Morgan killed four Pikuni men just for sport, Chief Bull’s Head organized a large revenge party and the prospectors got their comeuppance.

In 1868, when a Pikuni elder and a small boy were in Fort Benton on an errand, White racists shot them down in the street. Alfred Sully, who had responsibility for upholding the law in the tense area, said that because of tensions between the two groups he could not convict the killers in any court. This gave other White settlers a license to continue killing. When the Pikuni resorted to self-defense, the authorities decided that some kind of state of emergency existed and called in outside help.

Having decided that the Indians rather than the rapacious invaders were at fault, the army ordered Colonel E. M. Baker to put down a rebellion led by Mountain Chief. “Strike them hard” were his instructions. He pulled together four companies of cavalry, augmented by 55 mounted infantrymen and a company of infantry, and marched on the Indians. On daybreak of January 23, 1870, the U.S. army under Baker’s command attacked a village on the Marias river. They killed 173 Indians, seized 300 horses, and took 140 women and children into custody. There was only one problem. This was not Mountain Chief’s village but one that was friendly to the United States. Many of the villagers were sickly victims of a recent smallpox epidemic. To add to their misery, the troops burned the lodges and camp equipment.

The eternally sanctimonious New York Times editorialized on February 24, 1870, “The question is whether a wholesale slaughter of women and children was needed for the vindication of our aims.” The editorial is cited in John C. Ewers’s (1958) flawed but essential history The Blackfeet: Raiders of the Northwestern Plains (p. 251). One wonders if The New York Times keeps a file of such sentiments recyclable for suitable occasions, such as the recent bombing of a medicine factory in Sudan.

The consequences of this mass murder were as would be expected. It panicked the Pikuni into signing another compromised treaty. The whole purpose of military repression was not to restore “law and order” but to push Pikuni into the marginal portions of the state of Montana. All of these treaties from the 1860s and 1870s lack legitimacy and should be reviewed, just as the annexation of Hawaii is being reviewed by the United Nations today.

Its flaw is visible in its very title, which depicts the Blackfoot as “raiders.” Ewers draws a picture of “Blackfeet” (the Blackfoot people prefer not to use this term because it refers to feet rather than people) as warriors who enjoyed stealing horses from Indians and White settlers alike. In the very chapter where he decries the massacre at Marias river, he refers to the problems involved in “the pacification and civilization of western Indian tribes” (p. 236). This is said without irony.


More recent scholarship steps back from the warlike image fostered by Ewers on the Blackfoot and other Indian tribes. Margaret A. Kennedy (1997), in The Whiskey Trade of the Northwestern Plains roots the conflicts in the fur and whiskey trade.

The whiskey trade was far more than the exchange of buffalo robes and other furs for whiskey and trade goods. This exchange was conducted within a diverse and often hostile social and ethnic context. The interactions between native and nonnative were heightened by the existence of intense rivalries within each of these groups, band against band, Americans against British, trader against trader. The origin of some of the intense intergroup hostilities that characterized the whiskey trade can be traced back throughout the fur trade, but much of it was deeply accentuated in this late period by the pressures wrought through fear of loss of the buffalo, tribal territorial infringement, American and British competition and of course, the deleterious effect of liquor. (p. 13)

To put it more bluntly, the British and American fur traders lured the Indians into the cash trade by offering them whiskey, the one thing that was not available on the open range. They used whiskey in the same way that the British used opium in China. It was a way of breaking down the doors of a local economy that had little use for the lure of imported goods. One of the most notable things about opium and alcohol is that they are addictive. This is exactly what the East Indian Company or the Hudson Bay Company could use to best effect: a substance that hooked the unfortunate native into becoming unwilling accomplices to his own destruction. As the fur trade began to decrease the number of available buffalo, the various tribes fought with each other for control over the scarce resource. They stole horses from one another because the horse was necessary for the wholesale collection of hides. Pressures from fur and whiskey traders go much further in explaining the Indian wars than any lack of “civilized” values. Who needed civilizing were the entrepreneurs who used such poisons to make the Indian dependent.

While in one sense we have become inured to the idea of alcohol being a symptom of American Indian despair, it is important to understand how this substance entered their society. Today, there are all sorts of investigative journalists reporting on how the contras introduced crack cocaine into the United States in order to fund the war in Nicaragua. An investigation of the introduction of whiskey into the northwestern Plains states would also be a good idea. This is clearly the purpose of Margaret A. Kennedy’s (1997) scholarly treatment.

She points out that prior to the 1830s, buffalo robes had been a minor commodity in the fur trade. Beavers were the preferred good. When the avaricious trading companies caused the near-extinction of the beaver, the buffalo became a substitute. So whiskey lured the Indians to the trading post, where they surrendered the highly desired bison robes for alcohol, the most toxic drug. Kennedy (1997) explains,

The business was fairly simple. Fort Benton merchants were willing to commission individuals and supply them with an outfit. In return, the trader and clerks would remove to Indian Country and exchange goods as cheaply as possible for buffalo robes, wolf, antelope, elk and other animal pelts. The quiet inclusion of alcohol in the trader’s outfit, seldom accurately recorded on the manifests, was the magnet guaranteed to draw native clientele. In 1867, the selling price of buffalo robes was $8.00, the highest amount it had yet reached. The trader′s cost was only $8.00, the highest amount it had yet reached. The trader′s cost was only 3.00, thereby guaranteeing a healthy profit even after commissions, inventory, and transportation costs were considered, (p. 22)

Just as British capitalism used rum, sugar, and slaves to drive its commercial expansion into the Caribbean and the American south, so did the fur trading companies use a combination of whiskey, furs, and alcohol-addicted Indian hunters to increase their wealth. Wealthy and jaded Europeans’ taste had shifted from fur to buffalo, just as people today decide to use one cologne rather than another. Image back then was as important as it is today. It was of course no consequence that the very source of Blackfoot and other Indians’ survival was being destroyed in the process. The buffalo was no longer a source of clothing, shelter, and food. It was instead a luxury item to generate profits for the seller and alcohol addiction for the unfortunate hunters.

Unfortunately, not only could the Indian become addicted to alcohol, he or she could also suffer the consequences of “bad” drugs, just as occurs on the streets of New York City today when the occasional bag of heroin contains poisonous adulterants. Margaret Kennedy (1997) describes the horrors that took place frequently,

The movement of American traders into the last stronghold of Blackfoot territory could only have been accomplished through the extensive availability of alcohol. The Blackfoot north of the border had fervently and successfully protected their hunting territory from intruders-native and non-native alike-until 1869. Now the destructive results of the whiskey trade began to make themselves evident, as the people traded anything they owned for alcohol, which left them destitute and defenceless against winter temperatures. This was not quality alcohol. The so-called whiskey given out by traders for buffalo robes and other furs was a lethal concoction of alcohol mixed with anything that would give it colour and substance-bluestone, burnt sugar, castile soap, Jamaica Ginger, Perry Davis Painkiller, tea, ink, and sometimes, horrifically, strychnine. George McDougall, the Methodist missionary who was so outspoken against the whiskey trade, reported the same traumatic death for the native drinker as was experienced by the wolf consuming strychnine: foaming at the mouth, followed by convulsions and the body turning black after death. If people managed to survive the concoction, their faces were later horribly disfigured by blotches. Untold numbers of native people, well into the hundreds, died from the drink itself, exposure to winter conditions during intoxication, or violently at the hands of traders or each other. (p. 31)


While the Southern Blackfoot were suffering the combined effects of military repression and alcohol addiction, a more subtle form of genocide was being carried out against their Canadian brothers and sisters of the Bloods and the Northern Blackfoot tribes. They became the victims of a vast conspiracy by the Canadian government and the church to rob them of their cultural identity through residential schooling. Residential schooling, as J. R. Miller (1996) points out in Shingwauk’s Vision, was a tool used to rob the Indian of his birthright. The blackboard and the rod joined the fountain pen and gun as instruments of genocide.

Writing about the “Basic Concepts and Objectives” of Canada’s Indian policy in 1945, an official of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs put his finger squarely on the motivation behind residential schools. Noting Ottawa’s desire to promote self-sufficiency among the indigenous population, and rightly zeroing in on Canada’s systematic attack on traditional Indian religion and cultural practices, the observer concluded that the dominion’s purpose was assimilation. As important as the push for self-support and Christianization among the Indians was in its own right, it was “also means to another end: full citizenship and absorption into the body politic.” Clearly, Canada chose to eliminate Indians by assimilating them, unlike the Americans, who had long sought to exterminate them physically. “In other words, the extinction of the Indians as Indians is the ultimate end” of Canadian Indian policy, noted the American official. The peaceful elimination of Indians’ sense of identity as Aboriginal people and their integration into the general citizenry would eventually end any need for Indian agents, farm instructors, financial assistance, residential schools, and other programs. By the cultural assimilation it would bring about, education residential schools would prove “the means of wiping out the whole Indian establishment.” (pp. 184-185)

As bad as this sounds, it does not do justice to the actual physical aspect of extermination that took place in the residential schools. Because most of the physical abuses took place in the classroom or in children’s dormitories, it was not visible to the outside world. For more than 100 years, Indian children were prevented from speaking their own language, sexually abused, and made ill from substandard housing and lack of adequate food. They were forced to do slave labor, such as cleaning the buildings and grounds, picking crops, and washing dishes. J. R. Miller (1996) details the sort of hell that Indian children faced.

A Sister of Charity at Shubenacadie school ordered a boy who had accidentally spilled the salt from the shaker while seasoning his porridge to eat the ruined food. He declined, she struck him, and told him to eat it. When he downed a spoonful and then vomited into his bowl, the sister hit him on the head and said, I told you to eat it!” A second attempt produced the same result. On his third try, the student fainted. The sister then “picked him up by the neck and threw him out to the centre aisle” in the dining hall. On one occasion at St. Michael’s school at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, the boys’ supervisor ordered two boys who had broken rules to kneel in front of him and then he began “kicking the boys as they knelt in penance before him.” A Mohawk man remembered with bitterness a senseless incident that occurred at the Jesuit school at Spanish in the 1930s. The fifteen year old was taking some time to clean up after coming in from working in the shoe shop before proceeding to the study hall. The supervisor came to where he was washing and “without a word, he let me have the back of his hand, squarely in the front of my face.” Fifty-five years after the event the former student concluded that the supervisor had struck him because he knew he could get away with demonstrating his authority in this manner. (pp. 325-326)

While J. R. Miller’s (1996) book is strong on such details, it is weak on the general political conclusions that flow from these details. For this, we have to be grateful for The Circle Game, coauthored by Roland Chrisjohn and Sherri Lynn Young (1995). The thrust of The Circle Game is to situate the residential schools in the general context of genocide. There are mounting scholarly and activist campaigns to establish Canada’s guilt in the cultural genocide of the native peoples. It is a genocide that is just as real as the one unleashed by the Turks against the Armenians. Although the body count might be less, the overall effects are just as damaging. They effectively erase a people from the face of the earth. When you destroy a people’s language and spiritual and cultural identity, the consequential forced assimilation is tantamount to genocide. Chrisjohn and Young state,

We are unwilling to treat “cultural genocide” as a species of action divorced (or divorceable) from its universally recognised relatives. The machinations and intrigues that have surrounded the debate about the concept of cultural genocide have all the savoir faire of a schoolyard bully; powerful groups, in obvious double-faced violation of their own publicly stated human rights poses, have used their power to compel the rest of the world into going along with them. Consequently, we maintain, and will henceforth assume, that assimilation is genocide. Even the phrase “cultural genocide” is an unnecessary ellipsis: cultural genocide is genocide. Finally, in any intellectually honest appraisal, Indian Residential Schools were genocide. If there are any serious arguments against this position, we are ready to hear them. (p. 44)

A tribunal under the auspices of the International Human Rights Association of American Minorities (IHRAAM), a United Nations-affiliated nongovernmental organization, occurred in June 1998 to hear testimony from Canadian Indians who had been victims of residential schooling. Although the tribunal did not have the ability to impose penalties on the Canadian government or the church, it could have been an effective moral force at the United Nations, where Canada often criticizes other countries over human rights. Although the first tribunal suffered from poor organization and questionable selection of judges, it was an important first step.

One of the people who was to testify was Harriet Nahanee (Pacheedaht), who was abused at the Alberni school. She pushed for the hearings and said that the government was giving money for healing to everyone but the victims. “They are giving money to the band offices, to the treaty commissions, but not one cent has gone to the men who were sexually abused,” she told the Toronto Globe and Mail (June 9, 1998). She told the reporter that she remembered seeing a girl killed at the school more than 50 years ago and that the death was covered up. She intended to raise the allegation at the hearings.

The Canadian government is attempting to conclude a $326 million settlement with the Indian nations. Much of this money would be earmarked for psychotherapy, which would be a slap in the face to the victims. Not only is the sum paltry, the notion that the “talking cure” is appropriate for restoring the dignity of the Indian is absurd. The people who need sessions with the psychiatrists are the top officials of the Church and government who saw fit to brutalize Indian children. What would be appropriate is restoration of all the land claims that peoples such as the Blackfoot, Cree, and Ojibway are pressing. This would do more for mental health than any 50minute psychotherapy session.


In Donald Worster’s (1994) An Unsettled Country, Black Elk, a Lakota, is quoted as saying in 1930 that “Once we were happy in our own country and we were seldom hungry, for then the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds lived together like relatives, and there was plenty for them and for us” (p. 55). He added that when the Wasichu, the White men, came, they “made little islands for us and other little islands for the four-leggeds, and always these islands are becoming smaller, for around them surges the gnawing flood of the Wasichu; and it is dirty with lies and greed” (p. 55). What is critical to understand is that by creating such islands, the organic unity between man and nature breaks down. This is key to understanding the ecological crisis of the 20th century. In restoring human rights and economic justice to the American Indian, we will also begin the process of restoring ecological health to our nation. Without one, you cannot have the other.

Black Elks’s remarks begin the chapter in Worster’s book titled “Other People, Other Lives:’ that details the transformation of Plains wildlife, with particular emphasis on the wanton slaughter of the bison.

In accounting for the terrible loss of the bison, Worster raises the possibility that the same sort of undercounting that goes into the loss of American Indian lives has affected the fauna as well. The goal of the undercounters is to minimize the depths of the slaughter. Ernest Seton, a pioneering naturalist, estimates the number of bison at 75 million when the barbarian fur trading companies and ranchers arrived. By 1895, there were only 800 animals left, all within the Yellowstone National Park. Nature writer Barry Lopez has tried to estimate the total number of local fauna that were destroyed through the uncivilized recklessness of the invaders: “If you count the buffalo for hides and the antelope for backstraps and the passenger pigeons for target practice and the Indian ponies [killed] by whites to keep the Indian poor, it is conceivable that 500 million creatures died” (Worster, 1994, pp. 69-70). Worster calls this a virtual holocaust.

As the bison were wiped out from Blackfoot territory, a new ungulate took its place: the cow. Most champions of progress assumed that the slaughter of the bison and the banishment of the Indian into reservations was a regrettable evil. If these cruel acts did not take place, then it would have never been possible to create the modern beef industry. This notion requires demythologizing.

One of the latest books to take a look at this myth, as well as a number of others, is Timothy Egan’s (1998) Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West. Egan is a third-generation Westerner and the Pacific Northwest correspondent for The New York Times. It bodes well for the “gray lady” that such a critical-minded reporter can find his way on the payroll of such an establishment paper. Comparing the bison to cow, Egan writes,

With the bison gone, the government had to come up with some way to the people who had once relied on free buffalo herds. Thus were born first major government subsidies of cattle. Significant numbers of people began to kill one another over cows as well. Indians were starving to death on the barren, bisonless reservations they had been moved to, in Oklahoma and eastern Arizona. Wards of the state, they were promised rations of beef by federal Indian agents. By 1880, the government was purchasing fifty thousand animals a year to feed the tribes. Providing those rations, through huge contracts, was a source of graft and ultimately folklore–of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, for example.

At first, the dominant cattle were hybrids from Texas. These longhorns were scrawny and ornery. And they had two other major problems: they carried a tick, which infected Herefords, the popular cattle brought to the West from Britain, and their meat was tough and gristly. As one cowboy put it, a Longhorn was “eight pounds of hamburger and 800 pounds of bone horn.” Longhorns were quarantined, banned from most rail-shipment towns. The smaller, more docile, white-faced dogies became the dominant animal of the latter half of the cowboy era. The contrast between Herefords and bison was the difference between a redwood and a potted plant. Conditioned to a wet climate, cows bunch up along rivers and streams and will kill their water source with poop and poison unless moved. Bison spend most of time on and higher ground, going to a water source only for short periods. In the winter, bison use their shaggy heads to plow through snow for forage; cattle whimper and bawl for human help. Bison can survive droughts; cattle need the equivalent of forty-plus inches of rain a year.

Moving beeves, as cattle were called, over open ground was said to be one of the easiest routes to riches in the 1870s and 1880s. The grass cost nothing, or so the owners and the government agents initially thought. Cattle chewed up all that feed on the public domain over which buffalo used to roam and then were herded to rail depots for transport and slaughter. Establishing a tradition that, today, allows foreign-owned companies to extract billions of dollars in minerals from American public land without a dime in royalties, the United States opened the former bison lands to anyone with a head of beef. The point was to bring people west, for any reason, and to use the land, also for any reason. The Marquis of Tweeddale had 1.7 million acres. Large British investment houses bought enormous herds, and by the early 1880s more than 100 million pounds of frozen beef was being sent annually to England. The XIT Ranch in Montana, owned by a British conglomerate, counted fifteen thousand square miles of rangeland as its cattle domain-an area bigger than any of a half dozen states in the former British colonies. Inside wood-paneled clubs in Cheyenne and Denver, the owners read the Sunday Times from London, sipped gin-and-tonics and purchased local sheriffs. In Wyoming, the stockmen-owned legislature passed a law making it a felony to possess a cow that was not branded by the owners association. Basically, that meant any cow not owned by the monopoly was illegal. Rebellion by small homesteaders against this law prompted the Johnson County War, the biggest violent clash over red meat in the West. An army of hired guns owned by Wyoming stockmen started hanging, burning, and shooting people on a death list drawn up by the stockmen. A story of calculated violence and feudal power at a time when the homesteader was supposed to be king, the Johnson County War inspired one of the worst movies ever done on the West, Michael Cimino’s bloated and interminable Heaven’s Gate. (pp. 139-140)

The “progress” of cattle-ranching in Montana and other Indian territories has actually represented retrogression because water sources are either exhausted to feed the animals or polluted from their waste. Native grasses that helped to preserve the fertility of the soil have been replaced by grains that serve only one purpose: cattle feed. Meanwhile, the collapse of the cattle industry has driven many ranchers to desperation, prompting then to hook up with the fascist-like militias. Wyoming and Montana have strong militia movements, and unless a strong progressive movement takes shape in the United States, the militias can easily form the basis for a violent and racist mass movement.

I want to conclude this review essay with an examination of an obscure moment in American history that involves the Blackfoot and the environmentalist movement. It is, as far as I know, one of the first instances of eco-imperialism on record and evokes more recent clashes between outfits like Sea-Shepherd and the Makah or Greenpeace and the Innuit. The facts on this appear in Mark David Spence’s (1996) “Crown of the Continent, Backbone of the World: The American Wilderness Ideal and Blackfeet Exclusion from Glacier National Park,” an article in the July 1996 issue of Environmental History.

The eastern half of Glacier National Park was once part of the Blackfoot reservation and the tribe insists that an 1895 treaty allowed them certain ownership privileges. These lands are of utmost importance to the Blackfoot because they contain certain plants, animals, and religious sites that are of key importance to the cultural identity. The federal government considered the land to be one of its “crown jewels” and thought that the Blackfoot would tarnish it through their intrusions. This separation between man and nature of course goes against Indian wisdom. The park founders’ idea of “wilderness” owed more to European romanticism than it did to the reality of American history. The indigenous peoples and the forests, rivers, and grasslands lived in coexistence and codetermined each other’s existence thousands of years before Columbus-the first invader-arrived.

The mountains within Glacier National Park contained powerful spirits such as Wind Maker, Cold Maker, thunder, and Snow Shrinker. One of the most important figures in Blackfoot religion, a trickster named Napi or Old Man, disappeared into these mountains when he left the Blackfoot. The park is also the source of the Beaver Pipe bundle, one of the most venerated and powerful spiritual possessions of the tribe. Chief Mountain, standing at the border of the reservation and the national park, is by far the most distinct and spiritually charged land feature within the Blackfoot universe.

While pre-reservation life was centered on the plains and bison hunting, the resources of the mountains and foothills contained within the park were also important to their livelihood. Women and youngsters dug for roots and other foodstuffs in the parklands at the beginning of the spring hunting cycle. At the conclusion of the bison hunting season, which was marked by the Sun Dance ceremony, the various bands would retreat to the mountains and hunt for elk, deer, big horn sheep, and mountain goats. They would also cut lodge poles from the forests and gather berries through the autumn months. All of these activities were as important to them spiritually as economically. By denying them this, the park administrators were cutting them off from something as sacred as the whale is to the Makah.

What gives the banning of the Blackfoot from Glacier National Park a special poignancy and sadness was that it was motivated by beliefs identical to those held by George Bird Grinnell, a park administrator and well-known friend of the Blackfoot. He won the trust of Blackfoot storytellers and this allowed him to put into print the Blackfoot Lodge Tales (Grinnell, 1962). Although Grinnell said in the preface to the collection that “the most shameful chapter of American history is that in which is recorded the account of our dealings with the Indians” (p. xi), he saw no particular reason to preserve Glacier National Park as Blackfoot territory. Of course, without any self-consciousness, he also states in this preface that “the Indian is a man, not very different from his white brother, except that he is undeveloped.” Also, “the Indian has the mind and feelings of a child with the stature of a man” (p. xiv). When you stop and consider that Grinnell was a leading supporter of American Indian rights, it is truly frightening to consider the depths of racism that must have existed during the late 1800s when he was collecting his tales from the Blackfoot while accepting their banishment from the park.

Spence (1996) has an astute interpretation of Grinnell’s contradictory attitudes. He says that for Grinnell, the parks represented a living resource for American civilization. It would be a place for tourists to come and take photographs of the natural splendors. As for the Blackfoot, they were an important part of America’s past. They would live on through the Blackfoot Lodge Tales and dioramas at places like the Museum of Natural History.

Spence (1996) concludes his article with a description of how the clash between park administrators and the Blackfoot never really went away.

By 1935, relations between the Blackfeet and the National Park Service had reached an impasse that remains in place to this day. On one side, the park service, tourists, preservationists largely made Glacier into the uninhabited wilderness that continues to inform potent ideas about nature and national identity. Blackfeet use of park undermined this idealized notion of wilderness and the tribe’s resistance to Glacier’s eastward expansion limited its physical expression. Tension between Indians and the park service subsided over the next few decades, but the issue of Blackfeet in the eastern half of Glacier never disappeared.

By the 1960s, few Blackfeet actually hunted near the park, and fewer still went to the mountains to gather traditional plant foods and medicines. But the continuing importance of the Backbone of the World never depended on how many people went to the mountains. Although the Glacier region provided the tribe with a large portion of its physical sustenance in the 1890s, the issue of Blackfeet rights in the area always reflected concerns about cultural persistence and tribal sovereignty. In conjunction with the “Red Power” movement of the 1970s, these concerns arose again as Blackfeet leaders pushed for recognition of tribal rights in the park. Their efforts met strong opposition from both park officials and environmentalists, who resisted the Blackfeet “threat” as fervently as they did plans to mine coal and explore for oil in the park. The state of near-war that once characterized relations between the Blackfeet and park officials resurfaced in the early 1980s; the two sides only narrowly armed conflict on several occasions. Ultimately, continued Indian protests, ongoing risk of violence, and Blackfeet proposals for joint management of the eastern half of Glacier forced the National Park Service to revisit issues its leaders had buried in the 1930s. (p. 41)

A program for sweeping social and economic change in the United States has to put indigenous rights in the forefront. If the Indian is the canary in the mine, whose survival represents survival for everybody, then no other group deserves greater solidarity. Part of the enormous job in allying all the diverse sectors of the American population against an increasingly reactionary and violent government is explaining that the Indian comes first. This means that Sea-Shepherd and Greenpeace activists must understand that preservation of the wilderness makes no sense if the Indian is excluded.

The best way to restore the United States to ecological, economic, and spiritual health is to reconsider ways in which the precapitalist past can be approximated in a modern setting. Just as it makes sense for the Makah to use whatever weapons they deem necessary in pursuit of the whale, it might make sense for the entire northwestern plains states to be returned to the bison under the stewardship of the Blackfoot Indian. They have a much better track record on taking care of resources than do the agribusiness corporations who despoil the land for profit. Timothy Egan thinks that this makes sense, as does Ernest Callenbach, the author of Bring Back the Buffalo: A Sustainable Future for America’s Great Plains. Callenbach (1996) writes,

The basic Indian goal … is the reestablishment on the reservations of the natural ecological balance or reciprocity among humans, plants, and animals that existed before Euro-American occupation. On the Plains, a restored population of bison would be a sign that things had been put back together again on a sustainable basis. (pp. 77-78)




Callenbach, E. (1996). Bring back the buffalo: A sustainable future for America’s great plains. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Ewers, J. (1958). The Blackfeet: Raiders of the northwestern plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Grinnell, 0. (1962). Blackfoot lodge tales. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Spence, M. D. (1996, July). Crown of the continent, backbone of the world: The American wilderness ideal and Blackfeet exclusion from Glacier National Park. Environmental History, 1(3), 29-49.



Columbia University


LOUIS PROYECT is a scholar-activist, employed by Columbia University, whose articles have appeared in Canadian Dimensions, Sozialismus, Review of Radical Political Economy, and New Politics. During the 1980s, he was the president of Tecnica, a volunteer program that placed skilled professionals and tradespeople in government agencies in Sandinista Nicaragua. The article is part of a work in progress that will attempt to synthesize Marxism and indigenism.


April 22, 2019

Anti-Imperialism in the Age of Great Power Rivalry

Filed under: imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 10:23 pm

In early February Michael Pröbsting, a leader of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency, invited me to read and review his “Anti-Imperialism in the Age of Great Power Rivalry: The Factors behind the Accelerating Rivalry between the U.S., China, Russia, EU and Japan. A Critique of the Left’s Analysis and an Outline of the Marxist Perspective”, which I have finally gotten around to. The subject of the book is of keen interest to me since I have written a couple of articles that concur with Pröbsting. To be honest, I don’t make the question of whether Russia (or China, for that matter) a Trotsky vs. Shachtman/Burnham litmus test like he does but the research he uses to support his conclusions is impressive and worth considering as a serious attempt to apply Lenin’s theories to the contemporary period that stand on their own.

“Anti-Imperialism in the Age of Great Power Rivalry” contains 27 tables and 31 figures that detail capital flows, etc., all of which are relevant to the questions at hand. In order to apply Lenin’s theories to today’s world, it is necessary to continue in the same vein as “Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism” that is replete with the same kind of data. I found this one particularly compelling:

Except for some hold-outs by otherwise sensible people like Michael Roberts, most Marxists concur that China is not only capitalist but a direct challenge to American hegemony as indicated by the chart above. Keeping in mind that Lenin defined imperialism as a system characterized by the export of excess capital, Pröbsting was careful to document China’s growing presence globally. Some on the left hail the new Silk Road project as a progressive alternative to Western multinationals but the growing resentment in both Latin America and Africa casts a shadow over such optimism.

Referring to the table above, he notes: “When we look at the accumulated stock of FDI’s outflows (by 2017) it is interesting to see the rapid catch-up process particularly of China. Despite the fact that China only became an imperialist power about a decade ago, its FDI Outward stock already equals the figures of all other Great Powers (except the U.S.)”

While some might be persuaded that China is becoming an imperialist power, there remain skeptics over whether Russia is as well, especially by those on the left like Roger Annis who have a strong ideological commitment to the Kremlin. For example, Annis wrote:

But while its per capita GDP may be well above that of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, it’s not in the same league, by a long shot, of the imperialist countries. It is roughly one fourth, or less, that of North American and West European countries. It is higher than Brazil’s, but a lot lower than Portugal’s and just over half of South Korea’s.

What about Russia’s capital exports, another key indicator of whether a country sits in the ranks of imperialist countries? In 2012, the stock of direct foreign investment in Russia was $498 billion while the stock of investment abroad was $387 billion. Compare this to Canada, with about one quarter the population of Russia: $992 billion (domestic), $992 billion (abroad). Or Britain, with less than half of Russia’s population: $1.3 trillion and $1.8 trillion, respectively (all figures are 2012, from the CIA Factbook).

Pröbsting acknowledges that Russia is weaker than China or the traditional imperialist powers but stresses its military and political weight. Furthermore, if Russia is far behind England or Germany in terms of financial capital—the traditional criterion for judging whether a country is imperialist or not—it is still in second place behind the USA when it comes to the global share of weapons exports (33 versus 23 percent).

While I have not paid the closest of attention to the debates on the left about “sub-imperialism”, I did read Pröbsting’s discussion with some interest since I am close to Patrick Bond as a friend and a comrade. Patrick is probably the highest-profile advocate of the usefulness of this analytical category. Ever the resourceful scholar, Pröbsting argues that the first instance of its being advanced within Marxism was not by Patrick but by Takahashi Kamekichi in the 1920s who theorized Japan as an example of “petty imperialism”. Since Japan lagged behind the European and American nations in terms of financial capital and capital export, he concluded it “had not yet attained the stage of imperialism”. As such, Japanese socialists should not see the main enemy as being the domestic bourgeoisie, but rather the Western powers. Doesn’t this have a ring? This is essentially the argument of the pro-BRICS left, those who defend Russian imperialism in Syria because it helps the “axis of resistance” to NATO, Western banks, and the whole nine yards. However, Patrick is at the same time one of the sharpest critics of the BRICS as well as a “sub-imperialism” theorist.

These are important questions and Pröbsting has done a good job in trying to provide Marxist solutions. My only friendly criticism is to drop the terms “pseudo-Marxist” or “pseudo-Trotskyist”. Such terms are redolent of the Socialist Equality Party and should be retired from our vocabulary.

April 20, 2019

Chatting up the LaRouchites

Filed under: Kevin Coogan,LaRouche — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

On my way back home yesterday, I spotted a LaRouchite table at the same place near my high-rise on the Upper East Side that they usually occupy. I hadn’t seen them in over a year and stopped by to ask them if I could take their picture. Go ahead, they said. I had more ambitious plans, however. I wanted to do a video based on an encounter with them, something that had never occurred to me before even though I used to like to stop and give them a hard time for a minute or two before heading up to my apartment.

This time I wanted to put them at ease so I could allow them to deliver their usual spiel, something many of my readers have never seen given their relative obscurity as opposed to thirty years or so when Lyndon LaRouche was on TV all the time. I told them that I was in Columbia SDS in the sixties and used to go to his lectures—a total lie. I also told them that I read “Dialectical Economics: An Introduction to Marxist Political Economy”, which was only a white lie since in my ongoing series about LaRouche, I found it useful to browse through it to get to the bottom of the theories that morphed into his later fascist ideology.

Finally, I was struck by how much the interviewee’s emphasis on high culture and restoring humanity’s faith in itself, combined with their technocratic obsessions, dovetails so neatly with Spiked Online. LaRouche and his cohorts emerged out of a certain distorted version of Marxism as I pointed out in the first installment (https://louisproyect.org/2017/07/31/this-is-what-american-fascism-looks-like-the-lyndon-larouche-story-part-one/) in my series on LaRouche. Will Barnes wrote an analysis of “Dialectical Economics: An Introduction to Marxist Political Economy” that I highly recommend (https://libcom.org/library/capitalism-productivism-lyn-marcus-dialectical-economics), especially since it took the book seriously on its own terms. Although I would never mistake LaRouche’s politics with those of some of the young people writing on ecology for Jacobin, I only hope that they would read Barnes’s article just to make sure they don’t go too far with their nonsense.

April 19, 2019

Instant Dreams; Be Natural

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:27 pm

Just by coincidence, two new documentaries do justice to two important but neglected figures in photography and motion pictures. “Instant Dreams”, which opens today at the Village East in New York and next Friday at the Laemmle in L.A., is tribute to the Polaroid camera that has been superseded by digital cameras, even if the question of whether newer technology is really superior to an older one artistically. In many ways, despite the convenience of CD’s, vinyl sounds better since analog is closer to the way we actually perceive reality. “Be Natural: the Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché”, which opens at the Laemmle today and at the IFC in New York next Friday, is a loving and inspired tribute to the first female director in history. Executive produced by Robert Redford and Jodie Foster (who also narrates), it establishes her as a major influence on film art with geniuses like Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock counting her as an important influence. If you appreciate photographic art and film aesthetics, these two documentaries are well worth your time.

“Instant Dreams” begins with Edward Land, the father of Polaroid technology, walking through a vast warehouse ruminating on the breakthrough his camera represents. Pulling a wallet sized Polaroid camera out of his raincoat, he asserts that this camera will allow you to capture every eventful moment in your daily life. Although it seems rather quaint to hear this now, it must be stressed that a billion Polaroid cameras were sold in their heyday, including to me who appreciated their ability to take photos that could be put immediately into the hands of Nicaraguans.

The film focuses on three people for whom the camera is indispensable, even if the instant film it relies on are growing scarcer and scarcer.

Working at Polaroid from 1977 until the company folded, MIT-educated organic chemist Stephen Herchen worked closely with Edward Land as chief technology officer. When the film begins, he is bidding goodbye to his wife as he sets off to Germany to reverse engineer Polaroid film to make it available again to people who own Polaroid cameras. He is very much the counterpart of people who have launched new boutique vinyl LP companies to satisfy the needs of people like me who own turntables.

Stefanie Schneider is one of the photographers who continues to work with a Polaroid. Indifferent to “leading edge” technology, she actually prefers to use expired Polaroid film since the distortions they impart become part of the art. She refers to a Japanese word for imperfection that has a loaded meaning. It is only by seeing the imperfect that we can develop a true appreciation for perfection. In 2014, she constructed an art piece titled “29 Palm, CA” that explored the dreams and fantasies of people living in a trailer community in the California desert. We see her using her camera taking shots of the desert landscapes around her as well as several ethereally beautiful women who act out their fantasies before her camera.

Finally, there is Christopher Bonanos, the author of “Instant: The Story of Polaroid” who is best equipped as an editor of culture and technology stories at New York Magazine. He has many insights about what made the Polaroid so special, including its ability to create a bond between strangers. When you take a photo of one, there is always that minute or so until the picture emerges when a conversation can crop up.

“Instant Dreams” is the first film made by Willem Baptist, a Dutch director who explained why he made the film in the press notes:

What is it that makes Polaroid photo’s so special? First there is the remarkable process. Then there is the image with its unpredictable colors, unusual frame, the atmosphere of the image. A captured reality that seems more special than real life, and immediately becomes a treasured memory. That there’s only one copy of it enhances the feeling of authenticity. A Polaroid photo is infused with an air of artistry and mystery.

As a filmmaker, I am always searching for that intangible magical feeling. I struggled for a long time with the digital images I had to work with and tried various ways to alter them into something else so they wouldn’t be that digital. Maybe it’s because I have the experience of shooting short films on S16mm celluloid. Gradually I realized that these feelings weren’t some sort of nostalgia or that it was just a filmmaker’s thing. Millions of people give their iPhone photos a filtered look with apps such as Instagram, as if reality just doesn’t speak enough to our imagination.

Born in 1873, Alice Guy-Blaché trained to be a secretary, a job that was deemed suitable for middle-class women at that time. After being hired at Gaumont Studios in Paris by Léon Gaumont, one of the partners of an early film studio that competed with the Lumière brothers, she figured out the film business quickly enough to make a convincing case that she could make them herself. In no time at all, she began making films that were utterly unlike typical fare of those days. To start with, her watchword was “Be Natural”, an instruction that went against the grain of histrionics typical of most silent films. Also, she was an open feminist who had the audacity to make a film titled “The Consequences of Feminism” in 1906 that depicted a world in which women were sexually aggressive and men stayed at home doing housework.

A decade later she made “Shall The Parents Decide” that tackled sexual inequality and reproductive rights. Co-written by Guy-Blaché and activist Rose Pastor Stokes, it was supposed to be screened at the opening of a Margaret Sanger clinic but was preempted by Sanger’s arrest.

The film has generous excerpts from her films that have a particular comic flair that will remind you of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Alice Guy-Blaché was a great genius and director Pamela B. Green deserves applause for rescuing her from obscurity.

A Socialist Defector

Filed under: Counterpunch,Germany — louisproyect @ 2:21 pm


There are men who struggle for a day and they are good.
There are men who struggle for a year and they are better.
There are men who struggle many years, and they are better still.
But there are those who struggle all their lives:
These are the indispensable ones.

– Bertolt Brecht, “In Praise of the Fighters” (song)

Arriving on a book tour for his newly published “A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee” on April 23rd, Victor Grossman is a testament to Bertolt Brecht’s oft-quoted lyrics. At the age of 91, he has never ceded an inch to capitalism and imperialism. Indeed, the sense of outrage over the way in which East Germany was “liberated” pervades throughout this most necessary personal history is a reminder that “youthful rebellion” can be overrated. For that matter, his 68 articles for CounterPunch over the years are a testament to his undying revolutionary spirit as well as to CounterPunch’s age as well as political diversity. Unlike other periodicals on the left oozing youthful rebelliousness, the editors have a keen sense of the importance of contributions from our leftwing tribal elders from Ralph Nader to those who have passed on, like Uri Avnery. With a profound radicalization on the horizon in the USA, there is no substitute for relying on the insights of people who have gained hard-earned experience from earlier historical periods. As someone who was organizing anti-racist protests at Harvard University in 1947 as a Communist Party member, Grossman’s experience is essential for young people involved with Black Lives Matter today. The struggle against capitalism, racism, and imperialism is an epochal one and connecting the strands between fighters from different generations cannot be overestimated.

Continue reading

April 15, 2019

HM/Jacobin Conference 2019: Socialism in our Time

Filed under: Historical Materialism,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

The Socialism in Our Time conference that met this weekend was co-sponsored by Jacobin and Historical Materialism. This is a not an attempt at presenting an impartial report but simply my own reaction to the presentations.

  1. What Happened to the Pink Tide (Saturday 10:30am-12pm)

The speakers were Rene Rojas and Kenneth Roberts, with Roberts serving as a “discussant” (an academic conference convention) on Rojas’s article that appeared in the Summer 2018 Catalyst titled “The Latin American Left’s Shifting Tides”, which is not behind a paywall. It is a very long and very good article that I recommend thoroughly. Rojas’s analysis was not surprising:

When world commodity prices plummeted, the result was an unavoidable tightening of services and goods for their urban poor backers. Leftists in power could only think of tapping and squeezing as much as possible from their countries’ existing production and commercial circuits rather than developing new, alternative, and more reliable means to provide for their constituents. A recent Chavista voter could not have put it better, declaring that the government “just needs to find a way to make an economic revolution, so we can eat once again!” In short, poor urban voters abandoned the Pink Tide for its inability to break through the limits set by the neoliberal economy. Whereas elites beat back the classical left for going too far, the Pink Tide governments are falling to the very sectors that voted them into office, who are punishing left regimes for not going far enough.

He draws a contrast between the Pink Tide and what he calls the “classical left”, which meant, for example, the trade union movements in Brazil and Argentina of the 40s and 50s that exploited their social weight to gain concessions from a modernizing bourgeoisie:

Ironically, the rise of Latin America’s classical left was fueled by elite modernization projects. For the first time since the Mexican Revolution, the region’s popular sectors effectively threatened ruling-class power. Its foundation was the organized industrial working classes that emerged with the post-Depression industrial development in the region’s most economically advanced countries, along with the rebellious “peasantry” that was thrust into militancy with capitalist transformation of agriculture. Aided and often coordinated by an ancillary layer of students and low-level professional revolutionists, these effective left movements were built on radicalizing segments in unions and insurgent proletarianized rural communities and associations.

By contrast, the Central American revolutions of the 1970s and 80s relied on peasant movements and the informal sector:

The main impact of these rural-based insurgencies was to deliver real democratic reform and permanently dismantle the repressive labor system on which their agrarian oligarchies relied. The Sandinistas led a generalized insurrection that toppled the Somozas in 1979. In neighboring El Salvador, the FMLN twice attempted to replicate the former’s strategy. They came close, first in 1981, then again with the final 1989 offensive, occupying vast sections of the capital, each time fighting the oligarchic military regime to a standstill. The Guatemalan guerrillas built a less potent military apparatus that was essentially contained by the early 1980s, yet, punching above their weight and withstanding the regime’s genocidal response, they also forced a stalemate. The Salvadoran insurgency best illustrates the Left’s achievements: the mass armed insurgency of proletarianized rural communities was so costly to the traditional agrarian oligarchy that it reshaped their fundamental interests. By making the extra-economic forms of labor exploitation unviable, it forced ruling classes to shift to other commercial and manufacturing sectors.

Jeffrey Webber wrote a critique of Rojas in NACLA that is worth reading.

During the discussion, I pointed out that Rojas’s article failed to mention the constraints on Central and Latin American leftist governments, either of the “classical left” or Pink Tide varieties. In my experience carrying out solidarity work for the FSLN, it became obvious that the relationship of forces were making it impossible to move forward. Once the USSR went capitalist, the ability of anti-capitalist states to survive was severely limited. I didn’t have time to make an additional point that has some bearing on this but will mention it now. It was impossible, even under the best of circumstances, for Nicaragua or Venezuela to build socialism for the same reason it was impossible in the USSR. Socialism is a world system, just like capitalism. If there was to be a movement toward socialism in Latin and Central America, it would have to be continent-wide, just as it was in the 19th century against Spanish colonialism. Unfortunately, despite the lip-service given to Simon Bolivar by Hugo Chavez, there was never much attempt to apply the lessons of his struggle. In the 1960s, the Cubans formed OLAS as a way to unite revolutionary forces in Latin America but on a mistaken guerrilla warfare basis. When that failed, Cuba more or less gave up on such projects. With the exhaustion of the Pink Tide, it will be up to Marxist currents to carry the struggle forward. One hopes that they can abandon sectarianism and achieve the kind of mass support that Hugo Chavez or other Pink Tide leaders enjoyed.

  1. Brexit: WTF? (Saturday, 1pm-2:30pm)

This was a talk by Richard Seymour that was up to his usual high standards. Fortunately, he posted it to his Patreon account that I urge you to look at, as well as signing up for a monthly donation to his work.


  1. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in the Middle East (Saturday 3pm-4:30pm)

Yasser Munif spoke about the regime’s success in overtaking Aleppo that relied on a combination of aerial bombardment and being able to exploit ethnic and religious divisions.

After Munif, Anand Gopal spoke about class divisions that have largely gone unreported, even by people who are considered experts on Syria. Ultimately, it was class divisions rather than ethnic or religious divisions that undermined the possibility of a democratic revolution. He recounted his experiences in Manjib, a city of about 100,000 that was one of the first to expel the Assadist government officials early and to come under the control of a Revolutionary Council that encouraged the full flowering of democratic rights. However, the Council was dominated by the local bourgeoisie that despite suffering under Assad was determined to maintain private property rights at all costs. This meant that when local working-class residents demanded price controls on bread and their supply being maintained collectively rather than privately, the Council resisted. This led to young activists based in the local college organizing protests against the Council that had no effect until Islamists moved into Manjib and used force against it in the name of serving the people according to Islamic principles. Once the Islamists gained control of the city, they absorbed it into ISIS’s bogus caliphate and operated as a dictatorship, with no regard for the hunger that persisted under their rule. In his last visit to Manjib, Gopal learned that young activists, including some who joined ISIS, are thinking through the lessons of what happened and are now opened to socialist politics.

The final speaker was Frieda Afary, an Iranian-American member of the Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists, who spoke about the emerging grass-roots resistance of trade unionists and women to the Islamic Republic. Her articles can be found on their website.

  1. Is there a Democratic Road to Socialism? A Debate. (Sunday 10:30am-12pm)

This was between Eric Blanc and Charles Post and largely forgettable. Blanc defended his neo-Kautskyite perspective, with several references to the importance of the “electoral arena”. If this was only about backing candidates as well as mass action, there wouldn’t have been much need for a debate. Perhaps sensing the leftist sensibility of the audience, Blanc did not mentioned the Democratic Party once but did, of course, talk about the need to back Sanders. Post, who is a congenital windbag, spent his time talking about working class power, the inevitably of a revolutionary struggle for power and other abstractions. If you were expecting the kind of debate that Peter Camejo had with Michael Harrington, you would have been disappointed. Since Charles Post is a humorless pedant, the debate was pretty much of a dud. It would have been far more interesting if Tim Horras had debated Blanc but he is not part of the charmed HM/Jacobin circle. However, I do urge you to read his article taking up all these questions here.

  1. How America Became Capitalist: Imperial Expansion and the Conquest of the West (Sunday, 1:00pm-2:30pm)

This was a presentation by James Parisot on his new book as titled above. I picked the book up on Saturday during lunch and can’t recommend it highly enough. Based on his PhD, it argues that slavery, capitalism and imperialism were intertwined. Rather than recapitulate his presentation, it would be best if I provided a brief excerpt from this intelligent and well-written Pluto book:

When Thomas R. Gray wrote Nat Turner’s “confessions” after interviewing him, he included in the introduction of his book, “Nat Turner, the leader of this ferocious band, whose name has resounded throughout Our widely extended empire, was captured.” For Gray, Turner’s rebellion was a challenge to empire. And in the south, empire could be seen as stretching from the household to the polity. As the Marquis de Chastellux put it, more critically, “I mean to speak of slavery; not that it is any mark of distinction, or peculiar privilege to possess negroes, but because the Empire men exercise over them cherishes vanity and sloth.” Thus, for some, the “empire” of slavery was not something to celebrate, but to criticize. Compared to the more prosperous and economical north, southern slavery tarnished human potential, encouraging arrogant behavior and idleness through the exercise of personal slave empires.

Slavery was, of course, not only racialized, but gendered. American slavery was unique in that it developed into a self-reproducing system, so that, even with the formal abolition of the slave trade, slavery could continue to expand south and west. Often slave women worked in the fields, the same as men, although in some cases their gender was preferred for household tasks. And, as recorded in the story of Harriet Jacobs, female slaves were also regularly raped. The result of this, along with the fact that free blacks and whites did occasionally copulate on consensual terms, led to years of debate over who, exactly, was “black.” Milton Clarke’s narrative, for example, reveals he was called a “white nigger.” And one record of racial categories in New Orleans shows a complexity of racial categories:

Sacatra: griffe and negress.
Griffe: negro and mulatto.
Marabon: mulatto and griffe.
Mulatto: white and negro.
Quarteron: white and mulatto.
Metif: white and quarteron.
Meamelouc: white and motif.
Quarteron: white and meamelouc.
Sang-mele: white and quarteron.

Charles Post and John Clegg were discussants in this panel discussion. Clegg, who agrees with Parisot that slave plantations were capitalist, offered useful points of agreements as well as criticisms, especially on what he thought were imprecise formulations on empire. Parisot, who has a refreshingly modest manner for an academic, thought that Clegg had a point.

As for Post, who was invited to be a discussant by Parisot, repeated his well-trodden arguments about why you can’t have capitalism without wage labor. Yawn.

  1. Leninism, Social Democracy, and the State (Sunday, 3:00pm-4:30pm)

This was an odd panel discussion with two of the speakers from the Socialist Project in Canada who declared Leninism extinct. In doing so, they were not repeating the arguments I have made but much more in line with Eric Blanc’s neo-Kautskyism. The other speaker was Nathaniel Flakin, an editorial board member of Left Voice who took up the cudgels against Kautskyism. If you go to the Left Voice website and do a search on Kautsky, you’ll find a number of interesting articles by Flakin as well as Doug Greene, who has begun to write for it as a guest columnist. Doug Greene, of course, is always worth reading.

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