Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 29, 2019

The Irishman

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,Film,Kevin Coogan,trade unions — louisproyect @ 3:51 pm


Two days ago, I received a DVD for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” that lets me off the hook. I will be nominating it for best film of 2019, with it even edging out some of the foreign language films I prefer. (The overhyped Korean film “Parasite” does not make the grade.) The title refers to Frank Sheeran, an Irish-American Teamster official with mob connections who confessed to killing Jimmy Hoffa. Robert De Niro plays Sheeran and Al Pacino plays Hoffa. Rounding out the major roles is Joe Pesci, who retired from acting in 1999. Scorsese and De Niro persuaded him to play Russ Bufalino, the mob boss whose brother Bill was the lead attorney for the Teamster’s union. These characters and just about every other featured in the film were historical figures. As is generally the case with Scorsese’s flicks about real people such as Jake LaMotta, Howard Hughes, et al., you’ll find few major fictional characters.

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November 28, 2019

Notes on the International Socialism Project

Filed under: democratic centralism,ISO,Lenin — louisproyect @ 10:01 pm

Today I had a chance to review the International Socialism Project website that was launched primarily by former ISO members associated with the old guard: Paul D’Amato, Patrick Gallagher, Sharon Smith, Ahmed Shawki, Bridget Broderick, Lance Selfa, and Carole Ramsden. In addition to this group, there are two former members of Socialist Action—Adam Shils and Carrie Hewitt—that agree with their “socialism from below” perspective. While the ISO voted to liquidate itself this year, SA instead suffered a split, largely it appears over the “tankie” perspective associated with its Grand Poobah Jeff Mackler. At the time of the ISO liquidation, I had high hopes that a new network of revolutionary socialists might be born under the leadership of people like Todd Chretien. I had no idea at the time that Chretien was about to become a DSAer and not even a critical one. His breathless paean to Bernie Sanders on FB might have even been rejected by Jacobin for going overboard.

As it happens, the International Socialism Project website was close to what I expected to come out of the ISO wreckage. Despite Sharon Smith’s convoluted attempt to absolve the old guard’s handling of the rapes that Chretien’s faction took a proper stance on, it is her politics that I identify with. Given the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” seed-pod that seems to have replaced the Todd Chretien I once admired with a glassy-eyed Sandernista, I have to give critical support to this new attempt to reconstitute a revolutionary socialist movement. As is also the case with Left Voice, an attempt to build a Morenoite party in the USA, there are questions about whether they have a grasp of the organizational norms that are appropriate for the period. That being said, they have the Democratic Party question right.

Two articles reminded me of why I always valued the ISO despite the Sam Farber hogwash. Lance Selfa wrote a reply to Paul Le Blanc’s autopsy on the ISO titled “What happened to the International Socialist Organization?: A political assessment” that demonstrates the old guard’s commitment to socialist principles even if it still fails to come to terms with the “Leninist” baggage that helped to deepen the crisis in the ISO. The same mixture of wisdom and confusion exists in Paul D’Amato’s “Principles, strategy, culture, and revolutionary organization” that, like Selfa’s article, steps gingerly around the “revolutionary organization” question despite its title.

Turning first to Paul D’Amato’s article, it originated as an ISO convention document that explained the role of “socialists” in the Democratic Party. For many on the left, the idea of “radical” Democrats is a novelty. Having lived through the sixties, I saw many DP politicians with credentials as solid as A. O-C’s even if they didn’t bother to call themselves socialists. In NYC, Ted Weiss and Bella Abzug were outstanding. They could always be called upon to speak at an antiwar rally or to raise hell in Congress against Republican or Democrat war-maker alike.

A lot younger than me, D’Amato looks at a more recent example of this Democratic Party leftism:

While many seem to think the election of Tlaib and AOC represents something entirely new, this isn’t true. The path from participation in radical social movements to Democratic Party politics has been tread many times and in many eras of US history. Those who have done it don’t see this path as selling out, but as a logical step in a process of trying to make a difference.

Take one example, Luis Gutierrez, who served as a US representative for US 4th Congressional district for Illinois from 1993 to 2019. As his Wikepedia entry states:

Of Puerto Rican descent, he is a former supporter of Puerto Rican independence, and the Vieques movement. Gutiérrez is also an outspoken advocate of workers’ rights, LGBT rights, gender equality, and other liberal and progressive causes.

I have personally seen Luis Guttierez deliver speeches that are every bit as radical as Tlaib or Ocasio-Cortez. Some comrades seem to think that AOC’s attendance at rallies and sit-ins is something new. It is not. Progressive and liberal Democrats have been doing it for a long time. Jesse Jackson has been attending protests, and getting arrested at them, for decades. Luis Gutierrez was arrested several times in protests and civil disobediences—in protests on the island of Vieques, PR, in protests and marches for amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and in defense of the Dream Act and other immigrant rights issues. His most recent arrests were in August and September of 2017 at the White House and at Trump Tower in Chicago.

That of course didn’t prevent him from being a strong backer of Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel and Hilary Clinton in her 2016 election bid. Being the consummate political maneuverer, his last act being an end of the wire announcement of his retirement in order to ensure a quick succession without challenge to allow Jesus Chuy Garcia to take his place.

Referring to pod person Todd Chretien obviously, D’Amato also makes another important point:

As a long-standing member, Todd C. knows well that the reason the ISO has not supported Sanders is not based on our criticisms of his support for building a fighter jet in his home state, or because his radicalism doesn’t reach very far beyond support for a stronger welfare system, but because he is running as a Democrat and is helping to increase the electoral fortunes of that party. It is therefore indicative of a political shift that he can write in an October 18 FB post that, “I campaigned for Ralph Nader twice, and he was far more objectionable than AOC in all sorts of ways.” That may be true, but our position on Democrats is not conditioned by their political positions, but on the party they represent.

This is a crucial point. When Henry Wallace ran for President in 1948, there was plenty to take issue with, especially his adaptation to the CP on the USSR. Also, Ralph Nader had plenty of fucked up positions when he ran for President especially his Jeffersonian illusions in the value of small businesses. However, going up against the two-party system makes up for any programmatic flaws. It sets an example for independent political action that might spur workers into running their own candidates. Proof of both Wallace and Nader’s value was the absolutely vicious attacks on them by the DP that made Barack Obama’s opposition to Bernie Sanders’s candidacy look tame by comparison. The two-party system is a fundamental prop of the capitalist state in the USA and any attempt to make the DP look salvageable only serves to legitimize that state in the same way that the Cadet Party in Russia propped up absolutism.

In a section of his article subtitled “Implications for our organizational forms”, D’Amato correctly defines opposition to the DP as a sine qua non for the ISO and any other revolutionary organization. While I agree with that, I am afraid that he really hasn’t thought through the “Leninism” problem. He writes: “The point being made here is not that there haven’t been cases where members have stifled discussion or read too much into questions, even if inadvertently, by aggressively asserting a position—this has happened more often than all of us would like.”

Well, “aggressively asserting a position” is not exactly the problem. Rather, it is the whole idea of defining state capitalism as the basis for Marxist rectitude. As much as I admired the ISO, I could never join an organization that made a position on the “Russian question” so central. Even when Paul Le Blanc claimed that this was no longer a defining part of the ISO program, it was still obvious that those who disagreed with Sam Farber’s critique of “the Stalinist Castro” would never feel at home in such a group. Furthermore, even on other questions peer pressure came into play just as it did in all such “Leninist” organizations. In Stalinist parties, administrative measures ensured a homogenous organization. In Trotskyist or post-Trotskyist groups like the ISO, it was always peer pressure that maintained ideological uniformity.

Following up on this line of reasoning, D’Amato wrote: “The ISO, for example, need not have a line on intersectionality, or a line on Political Marxism, or whether or not there is a tendency for the rate of profit to fall, and many other questions.” That’s pretty clear, given the lively debates on the Brenner thesis in the ISR, a magazine I sorely miss. But what about Cuba? In my view, there’s room for Sam Farber’s views and there is also room for someone coming from a Monthly Review tradition. The best thing is to unite around specific policy questions such as opposing the embargo but allow debates of more theoretical questions to take place in a party’s journal. The Cubans themselves are open to that, in fact. In the conference on Trotskyism that took place this year, there were papers given that were much closer to the ISO than to the Cuban Communist Party. It is interesting that there is more ideological diversity in Cuba than there is in these “socialism from below” groups so proud of their openness.

Turning now to Lance Selfa’s “What happened to the International Socialist Organization?: A political assessment”, it was written as a reply to Paul Le Blanc’s article of the same title. (My own commentary on Le Blanc’s article is here.)

It reveals that there was three groups in the ISO defined on their relationship to the Democratic Party. Selfa and the other people who have launched the International Socialism Project saw opposition to the DP as a bedrock basis of unity. On the opposite side was a tendency called the Socialist Tide that was gung-ho for Bernie Sanders. In the center was a grouping led by Todd Chretien that tried to mediate between the two poles. It was shortly after the ISO dissolved that Chretien revealed himself to be no different than the Socialist Tide.

In the last year of ISO’s existence, Selfa and his co-thinkers had become a minority on the ISO Steering Committee and Chretien a majority. It is clear that by pushing for liquidation, Chretien facilitated the mass entry into the DSA by just about everybody in the ISO who considered opposition to the DP an ideological straight-jacket. (It does strike me as odd that Selfa does not take note of Paul Le Blanc’s conversion into a Sandernista. Maybe Todd Chretien snuck into his bedroom when he was fast asleep and put a seed-pod at the foot of the bed.)

While I wholeheartedly support the creation of a revolutionary organization that makes class independence of the DP at its core, I do have some issues once again on the organizational question. Selfa alludes to opposition to the “Leninist” organizational methods that Paul Le Blanc has defended in numerous articles and at least one book:

The critique of the ISO’s “culture” was introduced in the pre-convention period as a rejection of the ISO’s so-called “unity of thought” in regard to questions like support for the Democratic Party. The SCMaj’s proposals for “retooling” the ISO, which were widely accepted, envisioned an organization that would grow rapidly because it would require less of individual members, including limiting branch meeting requirements to once a month, while specialized “working groups” would carry out most of the organization’s activities. This plan to adopt many of the DSA’s organizational practices promised rapid growth—as if only the ISO’s organizational “culture,” rather than the general political environment—explained DSA’s growth and revolutionaries’ difficulties during today’s “social democratic moment.” Soon, this developed into a critique of the ISO’s organizational norms that leading members—including members of the SCMaj—described as “undemocratic,” “toy Bolshevik” and reflective of marginalization in the “Trotskyist ghetto.” “Culture” became an all-things-to-all-people critique of the existing ISO that unified a Steering Committee majority bloc, and the other currents, when they were divided on other questions.

Granted that Todd Chretien’s faction was more interested in ideological retooling than anything else, it sounds to me that any new revolutionary group that Selfa et al would like to see built has to take up this question of organizational norms. This charge of “toy Bolshevik” and “Trotskyist ghetto” has to be taken seriously. Any attempt to preserve the organizational norms that Paul Le Blanc defended will lead to grief. The ISO’s politics are my politics but so are the Left Voice’s in many ways, as is the split from Socialist Action. However, all of these comrades are kidding themselves if they think mechanical applications of Bolshevism  have a future.

The truth is that despite its shitty opportunism, the DSA’s organizational norms are much more suited to the tempo of the class struggle today. There is absolutely no question in my mind that a new organization to the left of the DSA can attract tens of thousands of working class people but it has to be on a basis much more like Debs’s party or, for that matter, Lenin’s party that was not even “Leninist”. The SWP that I belonged to for 11 years and the ISO adopted norms that were introduced by Zinoviev at the 1924 “Bolshevization” Comintern conference. It is high time to retire them.

November 26, 2019

The Garden Left Behind

Filed under: Film,transgender — louisproyect @ 6:19 pm

For most people on the left who are supportive of transgender rights, including me, there’s still little understanding of the realities of transgender life. Having gay friends and comrades is ubiquitous but unless you count a transgender person as part of your social circle, your knowledge tends to be based on what you’ve read about the well-known such as Chelsea Manning. To get that understanding, there’s no better place to start than Flavio Alves’s “The Garden Left Behind” that will be available as VOD on December 13th (Amazon Prime, iTunes, etc).

It stars Carlie Guevara as Tina Carrera, a transgender, 20-something, undocumented Mexican immigrant living and working as a gypsy cab driver in Queens, a far cry from the superheroes, mafia gangsters, ingenues, and cops that you can see in the typical Hollywood movie. Even though Tina’s grandmother Eliana accepts her without qualifications, she still calls her Antonio, a function more of long-time family ties than prejudice.

Tina’s dream is to become qualified for the hormone treatments that will make bring her body into alignment with her mind. To be eligible, she has to be cleared by a licensed physician who can properly evaluate whether there’s a case for gender dysphoria, a condition that describes the distress a person feels due to a mismatch between their gender and biological identities. Dr. Cleary, Tina’s doctor, is played by Ed Asner who turned 90 this month and is as great as ever playing a professional who can be patronizing and caring at the same time. In one scene, the two discuss what it means to be happy. After posing the question to her, she puts the ball back in his court: she asks what makes him happy. His answer focuses on family and career. Why it is so difficult to understand that Tina’s dream is simply to live as a woman if that would make her happy? If this physician who has been treating such people for decades can be so uncomprehending, what can we expect from the rest of society?

Despite her being in limbo between two sexual identities, Tina has a boyfriend who presumably accepts her on her own terms. Ostensibly straight, Jason is a successful professional who finally takes her out to dinner after months of intimacy. When Tina texts him the good news that Dr. Cleary has given her the green light for hormone treatments, he cuts her out of his life. We can only assume that it was her androgynous qualities that turned him on.

This is not the only man who has ambivalent feelings toward Tina. When she shops at a neighborhood bodega, the cashier named Chris gazes longingly at her but must conceal his feelings in order to maintain his friendship with a group of local youths who jeer at Tina whenever they see her walking down the street. The boys play baseball together and hurl homophobic insults toward each other in typical locker-room fashion, even if they sense that Chris is different.

The only man who seems able to connect with her in the way that all transgender people would welcome is Kevin, the owner of a neighborhood bar. Played against type by the 62-year old Michael Madsen, his character epitomizes the decency that many New Yorkers exhibit. When he mentions to her that he needs to hire a new bartender, she offers herself as a qualified applicant. Without blinking an eye, he tells her to get behind the bar and make a Manhattan, which she does effortlessly. The job will pay better than driving a gypsy cab and all bodes well for her future.

Her abuela (grandmother) Eliana, however, does not like living in Queens and would like to return to Mexico where life is easier and where she can tend to the garden she left behind. Since Tina has lived in the USA since the age of six and enjoys the fast-paced and open-minded atmosphere of NYC, she does not share the same longings.

We soon discover that despite Kevin and other good-hearted New Yorkers, there are many filled with hatred toward the “other”. When the target is both trans and a Mexican immigrant, the hatred is multiplied. A transgender Latina woman named Rosie has been beaten up by the cops and Tina is drawn into a movement to halt such attacks. To cast the movement activists and Tina’s best friends, director Flavio Alves took the extraordinary measure of hiring transgender people to play these parts. He also drew in transgender people into the making of the film. It is also worth noting that funding for the film came from an eBay campaign, the first of its kind.

In an interview with “Eye for Film”, Alves, a Brazilian who came to the USA for political asylum, described his motivation for making such a film:

Just like all my films, The Garden Left Behind is about marginalised and overlooked members of our society. When I was making this film I thought yeah, let’s try to tick as many boxes as possible, because it is hard to be a trans woman but it is much harder if you also happen to be undocumented, you know? Especially in the US, there are so many people who flee persecution, especially from Central or South America. They come to the US and they don’t have the papers. They live among us and it’s very sad, you know? At one point in my life I was undocumented, so I know what it’s like to be an outsider and that’s the reason why I made this film… I feel that it’s my obligation to bring to the forefront stories that reflect not only my experience but the experience of marginalised communities.

On December 13, look for “The Garden Left Behind” on VOD. It is my choice for one of the best films of 2019 and will likely be yours as well.

November 24, 2019

The Wild District

Filed under: Colombia,television — louisproyect @ 9:23 pm

Two seasons of “Wild District” (Distrito Salvaje) are now available on Netflix. This is an outstanding Colombian TV drama about a former FARC member who is coerced into becoming an undercover agent. It is both the lead character Jhon Jeiver’s (Juan Pablo Raba) story as well as pointed social commentary about the country’s failure to resolve long-standing problems of crime, corruption and the elite domination of the state.

“Wild District” depicts a government and police department that turns a blind eye to criminality. Season one, which premiered on Netflix last year, is set during the period that opened up after the Colombia government and the FARC came to an agreement that would allow the long-time revolutionary movement to become a legal, electoral-oriented party. By now, that agreement has largely become undone as the government resorts to the murderous policies that have been in force for the past fifty years at least.

Jhon Jeiver (Juan Pablo Raba) is a legendary FARC guerrilla who moves to Bogotá after the peace treaty is signed. Hoping to live a normal civilian life, a hope deepened by his disillusionment with the FARC, he is a fearsome fighter who has killed many soldiers and rightwing military members. As such, he is subject to arrest for war crimes but the military intelligence officer who recognized him from an old photo decides to force him to go undercover and penetrate the country’s gangs that are staffed with both ex-FARC and paramilitary fighters. His prowess qualifies him for membership in a leading gang that has deep ties with Bogotá’s bourgeoisie that makes the men around Trump look like boy scouts by comparison.

Jhon Jeiver seeks only to fulfill his obligations as an undercover cop and return to normal life as a father to his teenage son who is beginning to adopt the grubby values of the rich kids he goes to school with. His story is a combination of family and police drama that is told exceedingly well. As for its ability to tell the story of Colombia’s social and political fault lines, it leaves a lot to be desired but it is likely that it never would have been funded if it cut the FARC some slack.

The other major character is Daniela León (Cristina Umaña), the country’s Attorney General, who hopes to prosecute construction company magnates who have been getting overpaid for underperforming projects. They are willing to kill people who interfere with their criminal enterprise, including Jhon. He has his hands full trying to penetrate criminal gangs at the lower levels of society and at the same time trying to help the Attorney General extirpate the rot at the top. None of this comes easy since he has big problems raising a troubled teen-aged son as a single father. His guerrilla mother was killed by a FARC combatant who had her pegged as a spy. All in all, both the FARC and the big bourgeoisie come off as bad guys. Jhon is an existential hero who has no illusions about a better world. If you’ve seen Humphrey Bogart in “Key Largo”, you’ll be familiar with his character.

In season two, Daniel León has a much larger role. In every episode, the scene alternates between her efforts to become Colombia’s first female president and Jhon’s to track down missiles that have been smuggled into the country from Venezuela. In almost every aspect of story-telling, character development, and social commentary on Colombia’s intractable capitalist ills, season two is even better than the first. My enthusiasm was only dimmed by the extravagantly distorted portrayal of Venezuelan society.

Jhon is dispatched into Venezuela as an undercover agent seeking to buy missiles on the black market. He is arrested by Venezuelan cops who are depicted as sadistic monsters who would make the actual Colombia police force look genteel by comparison. In prison, he meets an idealistic politician who has been falsely arrested for subversion. He is so bent on making Venezuela a virtuous state once again, he refuses to take advantage of a release from prison offered by the government in order to keep the democratic movement alive. The words socialism and imperialism are not mentioned once.

Once he escapes from prison, Jhon returns to Colombia to track down the stolen missiles. In the course of his search, he runs into a hitman nicknamed Monsanto (a brilliant touch) who is attempting to destroy León’s campaign through murderous attacks on her ex-husband and a friendly reporter.

What is even more of a threat to her campaign is the persistent efforts of her campaign manager to turn it into a tool of oligarchic interests. In the climactic final episodes of season two, the missiles, her campaign, the oligarchy, Monsanto and Jhon all collide to highly dramatic effect.

Despite her efforts to redirect her campaign to its original idealistic goals, León discovers that it is much harder to take the reins of the state to eliminate capitalist abuse under conditions of capitalist rule. She faces the prospects of being the nominal head of a reformist government whose “deep state” ties to the ruling class make reform impossible. Was she being used to placate the masses with false hopes? As an oligarch puts it to her in the final episode, “Everything must change in order for it to remain the same.” Do those words ring a bell? They come from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard”. They were spoken by an aristocrat who throws his support for a revolutionary movement during the Risorgimento that failed to root out the feudal privileges that held Italy back from entering the 20th century. Despite the obvious willingness of the creative team to lie about Venezuela, they are capable of telling the truth about their own country.

November 23, 2019

The world is blind to the reality of class struggles in Iran

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 9:19 pm

November 22, 2019

Douma, Chlorine Gas and Occam’s Razor

Filed under: Counterpunch,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:47 pm

Jonathan Steele makes the case for Bashar al-Assad’s innocence


Regrettably, I must again answer a CounterPunch article that portrays the Douma chlorine gas attack as a false flag. It relies on the testimony of “Alex”, another OPCW whistleblower who agrees with Ian Henderson. (For his safety, the Courage Foundation felt it necessary to conceal his last name. Since nobody has assassinated a single Assad supporter in the West, let alone beat one up in the past eight years, this measure seems specious.) Unlike Henderson, Alex was a member of the official Fact-Finding team and therefore spoke with more authority. In a November 15th CounterPunch article titled “The OPCW and Douma: Chemical Weapons Watchdog Accused of Evidence-Tampering by Its Own Inspectors”. , Jonathan Steele promotes Alex after the fashion of Jonathan Cooke and Ian Henderson only five months ago.

Jonathan Steele was the former chief foreign correspondent for the Guardian. He had an opinion piece in The Guardian dated September 21, 2018 titled “If ending Syria’s war means accepting Assad and Russia have won, so be it.” It refers to Russian planes dropping leaflets urging Idlib rebels to surrender. One supposes that if they ignore the leaflets, the bombs that Russian jets are dropping on Idlib hospitals might do the trick. Indeed, it was the chlorine gas attack of April 7. 2018 that convinced Douma’s rebels and their supporters to pack their bags and relocate to Idlib, a Gaza like enclave for Syria’s outcasts.

I first became aware of Steele’s politics back in 2012 when he cited a Doha poll expressing support for Assad, once again in an opinion piece for the Guardian. The poll revealed that 55% of Syrians wanted Assad to stay, motivated by fear of civil war. If you took a few minutes to analyze the polling methodology, you’d learn that only ninety-eight Syrians living inside the country took part in the survey. To participate in the poll, they had to be on the Internet. In other words, if you were a farmer or a baker from the countryside with nothing more advanced than a flip phone, your opinion did not count.

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November 21, 2019

Dining on the Impossible Burger

Filed under: Ecology,food,Kevin Coogan,socialism — louisproyect @ 10:01 pm

Fake meat about to be enjoyed by real people

This week I picked up a couple of 12 ounce packages of Impossible Burger from Fairway in order to see what fake meat tastes like. I was motivated not just out of curiosity as a food lover but to gauge its potential role in resolving the ecological crisis caused by cattle ranching. There’s a certain irony in buying “Green” products from a grocery chain owned by Blackstone. According to The Intercept, its CEO Stephen Schwarzman is a driving force behind deforestation:

Two Brazilian firms owned by a top donor to President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are significantly responsible for the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest, carnage that has developed into raging fires that have captivated global attention.

The companies have wrested control of land, deforested it, and helped build a controversial highway to their new terminal in the one-time jungle, all to facilitate the cultivation and export of grain and soybeans. The shipping terminal at Miritituba, deep in the Amazon in the Brazilian state of Pará, allows growers to load soybeans on barges, which will then sail to a larger port before the cargo is shipped around the world.

The Amazon terminal is run by Hidrovias do Brasil, a company that is owned in large part by Blackstone, a major U.S. investment firm. Another Blackstone company, Pátria Investimentos, owns more than 50 percent of Hidrovias, while Blackstone itself directly owns an additional roughly 10 percent stake. Blackstone co-founder and CEO Stephen Schwarzman is a close ally of Trump and has donated millions of dollars to McConnell in recent years.

I left it up to my sister-in-law to use the Impossible Burger in a Turkish dish. Originally, she was going to make kofte (Turkish hamburger) but it turned out to be too fragile, falling apart in her hands when she was making paddies. Instead, she made something that amounted to a flat meatloaf that she never cooked before. To my surprise, it was delicious.

Up until about five years ago, I used to eat Amy’s Veggie Burgers 2 or 3 times a week for lunch. I cut it out for health reasons. How can a veggie burger be unhealthy, you must be asking. Well, it wasn’t the burger but the two slices of bread that surrounded it. Dealing with a prediabetic condition at the time, I resolved to cut down on the amount of carbohydrates I took in and this was a good place to start. As for Amy’s, I didn’t have any problems with the taste but nobody could possibly confuse it with meat.

In a 23-page article in The New Yorker on Pat Brown, the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods (he has plans to replicate chicken and fish down the road), we learn that the special ingredient that makes his laboratory beef taste like the real thing is something called heme. Tad Friend, the author of the article, explains why:

Brown assembled a team of scientists, who approached simulating a hamburger as if it were the Apollo program. They made their burger sustainable: the Impossible Burger requires eighty-seven per cent less water and ninety-six per cent less land than a cowburger, and its production generates eighty-nine per cent less G.H.G. emissions. They made it nutritionally equal to or superior to beef. And they made it look, smell, and taste very different from the customary veggie replacement. Impossible’s breakthrough involves a molecule called heme, which the company produces in tanks of genetically modified yeast. Heme helps an Impossible Burger remain pink in the middle as it cooks, and it replicates how heme in cow muscle catalyzes the conversion of simple nutrients into the molecules that give beef its yeasty, bloody, savory flavor.

Brown’s main competitor is a company called Beyond Meat that does not use heme, which is based on genetically modified yeast. Both Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group have attacked the use of heme due to their stance against GMO. Beyond Meat does not use heme but that does not prevent it from running a close second behind Impossible in a taste test:

If you pass by a Dunkin’ Donuts, you’ll notice that they are selling a hamburger using Beyond Meat, as does Carl’s Jr. and A&W. When an old friend noticed that it was being sold in Dunkin’ Donuts, he bought a fair amount of shares since he saw this as the wave of the future. My friend took advantage of Beyond’s I.P.O. in May, which was the most successful of the year. The stock skyrocketed up by more than five hundred per cent. All in all, this is a real magnet for venture capitalists who have noticed that sales of plant-based meat in restaurants nearly quadrupled last year.

This year Verso published a book by Aaron Bastani titled “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” that took an almost Panglossian view of the future based on the idea that technology will virtually make capitalism outmoded. Among his tech-fixes is fake meat. In a NYT op-ed timed to the release of his book, he sung its praises:

The first “cultured beef” burgers are likely to enter the market next year, at approximately $50 each. But that won’t last long. Within a decade they will probably be more affordable than even the cheapest barbecue staples of today — all for a product that uses fewer resources, produces negligible greenhouse gases and, remarkably, requires no animals to die.

Actually, the young optimist is being a bit pessimistic. I paid $18 for a pound and a half of Impossible Burger and it was enough to feed 5 people.

He does have a point about the ecological implications of real beef versus what we ate. Farming uses more water than any other human activity, with a third of that devoted to cattle. Tad Friend writes, “One-third of the world’s arable land is used to grow feed for livestock, which are responsible for 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Razing forests to graze cattle—an area larger than South America has been cleared in the past quarter century—turns a carbon sink into a carbon spigot.”

By comparison, the Impossible Burger needs eighty-seven per cent less water and ninety-six per cent less land than the real thing, mostly devoted to growing soybeans, a key ingredient. It also generates eighty-nine per cent less greenhouse gas emissions. Cows produce huge amounts of methane, which traps 25 times more heat than carbon. (It is not the product of farting but burping.)

It is also important to consider the role of real meat in your personal health as opposed to the health of the planet. It is associated with heart disease and cancer. According to Friend, a recent Finnish study found that, across a twenty-two-year span, devoted meat-eaters were twenty-three per cent more likely to die. Even more frightening, “Because antibiotics are routinely mixed into pig and cattle and poultry feed to protect and fatten the animals, animal ag promotes antibiotic resistance, which is projected to cause ten million deaths a year by 2050.” That’s not to speak of avian and swine flus that pass easily to humans via the aerosolized feces ubiquitous to slaughterhouses. University of Minnesota researchers found fecal matter in sixty-nine per cent of pork and ninety-two per cent of poultry, while Consumer Reports found it in a hundred per cent of ground beef. Nice.

Of course, it is hard to make the case that Impossible Burgers made from soybeans are particularly good for you. If Beyond Meat comes in a close second, it does come in first in healthiness since it is made of peas, mung beans, and brown rice. You’re probably better off eating broccoli and lentils for dinner but you might grow weary of that kind of diet after a while. Been there, done that.

Tad Friend mentions another technology that is animal based but not agricultural in nature. Thirty-three companies are working on a substitute for beef by using animal cells to grow meat in vats. He writes:

The cell-based approach may eventually provide meat using a tiny fraction of the land and water that livestock use. And, if companies can figure out how to grow cells on a scaffolding of mushroom or celery, or arrange them using a 3-D printer (and also surmount issues with vascularization and oxygen diffusion), they’ll have solved the defining challenge for meat replacements: building a sturdy approximation of muscle, fat, and connective tissue to produce full cuts of meat and fish. Mike Selden, of Finless Foods, told me, “Where Impossible stops is where Finless starts. They’re limited to ground products, and we’ll be able to make sashimi and fillets.”

All of this is very intriguing but I am left with the same old question that also applies to the Green New Deal. What good do these “alternative” energy or food sources do when the capitalist system is militating against their adoption. Pat Brown told the New Yorker that he hopes to see cattle-ranching become obsolete by 2050. That would be nice but with everything else falling apart by then, we’d still be facing ruin. It is not just cattle that is impinging on rainforests. It is farming as well, including the production of soybeans that are essential to Impossible Burger.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx called for the reintegration of the city and the countryside so as to overcome the “metabolic rift”. Something like that will ultimately be necessary for a sustainable agriculture. To make that happen will require an all-out assault on the capitalist system. Who knows? By the time we reach 2050, the conditions for worldwide socialist revolution will ripen to the point of making such dreams possible.

November 18, 2019

Mayakovsky and Stalin

Filed under: Russia,theater — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1910

Playwright Murray Mednick as “Old Nana” in Coyote V: Listening to Old Nana at Padua Playwrights Workshop (circa 1980) (Photo by Margaret Von Biesen)

Although I stopped going to the theater in New York about 20 years ago, I made a point of seeing Murray Mednick’s “Mayakovsky and Stalin” several weeks ago at the Cherry Lane Theater just days before its closing. I was obviously interested in the subject matter but even more so to see something by Murray who grew up in Woodridge, my home town. For reasons I don’t fully understand, some people who graduated from my high school just four or five years ahead of me went on to distinguished writing careers.

Starting out as the ghost writer for V. C. Andrews following her death in 1986, Andrew Neiderman now writes novels in his own name and is now the 73rd best selling American novelist of all time. After graduating Fallsburg Central High School, my friend and fellow 60s radical Michael Elias went out to Hollywood and became a screenwriter for some of the greatest comedies of the 1970s, including “The Frisco Kid” and “The Jerk”. As for Murray, he founded Padua Playwrights Productions, a Los Angeles-based theater company, in 1978. Among the participants in Padua’s yearly festivals were Maria Irene Fornes, Sam Shepard, and John Steppling. The name Steppling might be familiar to CounterPunch readers, where his articles appear from time to time. He was also a contributor to Swans Magazine, where dozens of my articles can also be found.

After reviewing Murray’s play, I’ll offer my own thoughts on the Stalin/Mayakovsky connections.

Absent the conventional backdrops of a play such as furniture meant to lend a naturalist touch, “Mayakovsky and Stalin” comes across at first as a staged reading. Indicating that it is a play are the period costumes the cast wears, especially the Stalin’s white military tunic.

Essentially, there are two separate dramas that unfold in the course of this two-act play, with two separate ensembles having no interaction with each other. The entire cast first appears sitting on backless chairs at the rear of the stage. When it is their time to speak, characters from one ensemble come to the front of the stage, while the lights dim on the seated members of the other ensemble who wait their turn.

One ensemble features Stalin, his second wife Nadya, and Kirov, a close friend of Stalin who ran the CP offices in Leningrad. Kirov was killed by a gunman in the Smolny Institute in 1934, an event used as a pretext to begin the repression that culminated in the Moscow Trials. Victor Serge wrote a great novel titled “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” that was based on these events. As a character in Murray’s play, Kirov mostly functions as a Soviet toady, seeing the country’s future as infinitely bounteous, just as long as Stalin as was in the driver’s seat. Nadya is Kirov’s polar opposite. Growing increasingly disillusioned with the USSR, as reflected in her stormy confrontations with both her husband and his Panglossian comrade, she finally kills herself with a Mauser pistol in 1932.

Suicide with a Mauser pistol is what connects Stalin to the great Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Like Nadya Stalin, he killed himself with such a weapon in 1930. Although his suicide note did not reflect any disenchantment with Stalin’s rule, by this time he had become weary of criticisms from Stalinist officials who no longer saw any value in the kind of experimental poems Mayakovsky wrote. They were preparing the way for a “proletarian art” that lacked the poet’s complexity and wit. 150,000 people attended his funeral, the largest in Soviet history next to Lenin and Stalin’s.

As part of the Mayakovsky ensemble, the cast includes Osip and Lilya Brik, a husband-and-wife completely devoted to the poet. It also includes Lilya Brik’s older sister Elsa, who like her sister, was madly in love with him. As for Osip Brik, a wealthy Jew who providing funding for Russian futurist poets, he accepted his wife’s affair with Mayakovsky. He and the two sisters, however, were always arguing about how to evaluate his career, especially in a period when it was being devalued by the state.

Murray’s emphasis is not on Soviet society but on the thorny relations between Stalin and Nadya on one side and the complex relationship between the Briks, Elsa and the poet on the other. The Briks and Elsa lived together in a menage a trois until Mayakovsky’s untimely death at his own hand, when he was only 36. Without taking anything away from Murray’s play, their personal relationship figured more in its writing than Mayakovsky’s fall from favor in an increasingly bureaucratized USSR. Indeed, in the program handed out at the Cherry Lane Theater, there’s a note on the play by Guy Zimmerman, the artistic director of Padua, that describes Mayakovsky as a vainglorious figure who deserved the ridicule the Brik sisters direct at him throughout. There is little indication of his earlier charismatic engagement with the masses, a concession that Murray would very likely be unwilling to make to the Soviet experiment.

Like Sergei Eisenstein and Kazimir Malevich, Mayakovsky saw art as a revolutionary weapon. After 1917 and until the late 20s, the USSR allowed artists free rein, even during the NEP when police state measures first began to crop up. Despite the affinity between Bolshevik leaders and the artistic avant-garde, there were occasional clashes. In December 1918 Mayakovsky and Osip Brik met with Vyborg CP officials to set up a Futurist group affiliated to the party called Komfut. It was founded in January 1919, but dissolved by Anatoly Lunacharsky soon afterward.

Commemorating Mayakovsky a year later, Lunacharsky extolled his devotion to the revolution but frowned on a certain softness and sentimentality in his poems that demonstrated a failure to become fully proletarian in his outlook. He had a double psyche, one was cast iron and proletarian; the other was a flower and petty-bourgeois. Lunacharsky wrote:

This divided personality means that Mayakovsky is amazingly characteristic of our transitional times. It would have really been a miracle if he had not advanced battling on the way, if he had been able to kill this inner soft petty bourgeois, this sentimental lyric without any difficulty at all and immediately become a poet-tribune. Perhaps a true proletarian poet, coming from the ranks of the proletariat, a true social revolutionary of the Leninist type, a Lenin in poetry, will follow this road. But Mayakovsky was not such a poet. That is why the battles he fought, the obstacles he overcame, the struggle he waged to overcome himself were so significant.

Lunacharsky was a supporter of Leon Trotsky, who also weighed in on the poet’s suicide in a 1930 article:

It is not true that Mayakovsky was first of all a revolutionary and after that a poet, although he sincerely wished it were so. In fact Mayakovsky was first of all a poet, an artist, who rejected the old world without breaking with it. Only after the revolution did he seek to find support for himself in the revolution, and to a significant degree he succeeded in doing so; but he did not merge with it totally for he did not come to it during his years of inner formation, in his youth.

To view the question in its broadest dimensions, Mayakovsky was not only the “singer,” but also the victim, of the epoch of transformation, which while creating elements of the new culture with unparalleled force, still did so much more slowly and contradictorily than necessary for the harmonious development of an individual poet or a generation of poets devoted to the revolution. The absence of inner harmony flowed from this very source and expressed itself in the poet’s style, in the lack of sufficient verbal discipline and measured imagery. There is a hot lava of pathos side by side with an inappropriate palsy-walsy attitude toward the epoch and the class, or an outright tasteless joking which the poet seems to erect as a barrier against being hurt by the external world.

Reading Trotsky’s words “There is a hot lava of pathos side by side with an inappropriate palsy-walsy attitude toward the epoch and the class” only makes me feel much more sympathetic to the poet Mayakovsky. If this was the attitude of someone who would be murdered by Stalin just a decade later, imagine how lost and how depressed Mayakovsky must have become by the bureaucratic hardening of the Soviet state that was even influencing its most committed revolutionary leaders.

As for the suicide of Stalin’s wife, it is shrouded in mystery. She left no note and there’s very little historical accounts of her marriage to the dictator. It is worth considering what Isaac Deutscher wrote in his biography of Stalin that was considered practically Stalinist by James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism. In Deutscher’s view, Nadya killed herself in November 1932 after she spoke her mind about Communist Party purges and the famine and was met by a flood of vulgar abuse from Stalin.

If Deutscher was basing his analysis on reports from those close to her in 1932, there was even more of a connection between Mayakovsky and Stalin than Murray Mednick attempted to make in a play that deserves to be made available online or—better yet—staged again in New York or any other city that has an adventurous theater company willing to challenge an audience’s understanding of the 20th century’s tragic devolution.


November 16, 2019


Filed under: Argentina,Film — louisproyect @ 9:58 pm

Now available on Amazon Prime for a $4.99 rental, “Rojo” is an Argentine film set in a provincial small town in 1975, a year before the coup that toppled Isabel Perón. Despite the obvious hatred director/screenwriter Benjamín Naishtat has for this coup and all other manifestations of rightwing terror, it is not agitprop by any imagination. Instead it is a thriller with absurdist elements reminiscent of Buñuel but more in terms of laughing to keep from crying.

The film opens with a lawyer named Claudio (Darío Grandinetti) sitting by himself in a crowded restaurant studying a menu. He is then accosted by a younger man who basically asks him to give up the table to him if he couldn’t make up his mind about what to order. They go back and forth, with the younger man growing increasingly hostile. Finally, Claudio gives up his seat but does not leave the restaurant. Instead he leans against a wall about fifteen feet from the interloper and proceeds to lacerate him verbally, accusing him of not being raised properly by his parents, etc.

The man leaps from his table after hearing Claudio’s lawyerly prosecution and begins assailing everybody seated at their tables, yelling at the top of his lungs, “You are all Nazis” until he is thrown out. Claudio now returns to the table and is soon joined by his wife, who is habitually late.

After dinner, they return to the parking lot and begin driving off until they are blocked on the driveway by the man who was thrown out. After he hurls a rock through his window, Claudio goes off into the darkness to punish his assailant. Catching up with him, his plans are spoiled after the young man pulls a pistol out of his pocket and trains it on him. Within a minute or two, the man, who is obviously unhinged, instead shoots himself in the head. Still breathing (or wheezing to be exact), he remains alive if mortally wounded. Claudio makes a decision that will haunt him until the film’s stunning climax. Instead of taking him to a hospital emergency ward, he drives off into the desert and drags his still breathing body into the bushes. This act, while not exactly homicide, epitomizes the moral unaccountability of middle-class Argentineans. It foreshadows their willingness to put up with the growing militarization of the country and eventually the coup that turned their country into a living hell a year later.

I strongly recommend renting “Rojo”, which is one of the best narrative films I have seen in 2019, as well as the interview director Benjamin Naishtat gave to Filmmaker magazine.

Filmmaker: Tell me about some of the stories contained in Rojo. Claudio and one of his colleagues get involved with a house that was burnt down, mysteriously — it begins to dawn on the viewer that leftists may have lived there before the “accident.”

Naishtat: Researching Rojo was easy because many of the stories are from my family. My grandparents and my father were visiting the city of Córdoba in 1975; they were leftist militants, and my grandmother was a prominent union lawyer. She was disappeared into a secret prison, and her house, my family house, was torched. My father escaped before a commando unit came to his house, and he had to flee. He lived 10 years in exile, which is how he met my mother, in Paris—another exile. Some of the pictures in the house are from my family.

November 15, 2019

Noel Ignatiev’s Long Fight Against Whiteness

Filed under: Noel Ignatiev — louisproyect @ 11:48 pm

(Liberated from behind New Yorker’s paywall)

The New Yorker, Nov. 15, 2019

Noel Ignatiev’s Long Fight Against Whiteness

By Jay Caspian Kang

In 1995, Noel Ignatiev, a recent graduate of the doctoral program in history at Harvard, published his dissertation with Routledge, an academic press. Many such books appear then disappear, subsumed into the endless paper shuffling of the academic credentialing process. But Ignatiev was not a typical graduate student, and his book, “How the Irish Became White,” was not meant to stay within the academy. A fifty-four-year-old Marxist radical, Ignatiev had come to the academy after two decades of work in steel mills and factories. The provocative argument at the center of his book—that whiteness was not a biological fact, but rather a social construction with boundaries that shifted over time—had emerged, in large part, out of his observations of how workers from every conceivable background had interacted on the factory floor. Ignatiev wasn’t merely describing these dynamics; he wanted to change them. If whiteness could be created, it could also be destroyed.

“How the Irish Became White” quickly broke out of the academic-publishing bubble. Writing in the Washington Post, the historian Nell Irvin Painter called it “the most interesting history book of 1995.” Mumia Abu-Jamal, the activist and death-row inmate, provided an enthusiastic back-cover blurb. Today, many of the ideas Ignatiev proposed or refined—about the nature of whiteness, and about the racial dynamics that unfold among immigrant workers—are taken for granted in classrooms; they influence films, literature, and art. But Ignatiev found it hard to accept the academic rewards that came with his book’s success. Committed to radicalism, he spent much of his time in academia doing what he had done on the factory floor: publishing leaflets and zines about the possibilities of revolutionary change.

He was still at it on October 27th, when Hard Crackers, a journal that Ignatiev edited with a collection of friends and old collaborators, threw a launch party for its latest issue, at Freddy’s Bar, in Brooklyn. Wearing a white Panama hat and a loose-fitting suit, Ignatiev spoke briefly: Hard Crackers, he said, had been founded with the conviction that American society was a “time bomb,” and that its salvation could only come through the stories and actions of ordinary people. In that spirit, the journal published short, memoir-driven portraits of working Americans, in the style of Joseph Mitchell’s “Up in the Old Hotel.” This portraiture served a political purpose. Ignatiev and his fellow editors hoped to provoke small but potentially explosive moments of revelation in their readers—to create instants of autonomy which, they thought, might allow those readers to forge coalitions with other seekers of “a new society.” This philosophy, inspired by the work of the Trinidadian writer C. L. R. James, had run through all of Ignatiev’s work as a radical youth, a radical factory worker, and then, finally, a radical scholar.

Ignatiev’s speech was energetic, funny, and shot through with brio and irony. But it included a note of reflection. Ignatiev said that he had spent most of his life around people who vehemently disagreed with everything he said; he was confident that he had always been right, but also pretty sure that being right had amounted to nothing. He seemed to be posing a difficult question for those who believe, as Ignatiev did, in spontaneous revolutionary change: How do you measure success if the revolution hasn’t yet come? A few days later, Ignatiev flew out to Arizona to see his daughter and grandchildren. On November 9th, he died, at the age of seventy-eight.

The question of what Ignatiev accomplished is especially hard to answer because his radicalism took so many different forms. He was born in 1940, in Philadelphia, into a family of working-class Russian Jews. By seventeen, he had joined the Communist Party; after dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania, he moved to Chicago to work in the steel mills. He would be a factory laborer for over two decades, always with an eye toward provoking his fellow workers into looking at their struggle in new ways. In 1967, he composed a letter to the Progressive Labor Party that outlined his views. “The greatest ideological barrier to the achievement of proletarian class consciousness, solidarity and political action is now, and has been historically, white chauvinism,” Ignatiev wrote. “White chauvinism is the ideological bulwark of the practice of white supremacy, the general oppression of blacks by whites.” He argued that it would be impossible to build true solidarity among the working class without addressing the question of race, because white workers could always be placated by whatever privileges, however meaningless, management dangled in front of them. The only way to change this was for white working-class people to reject whiteness altogether. “In the struggle for socialism,” Ignatiev wrote, white workers “have more to lose than their chains; they have also to ‘lose’ their white-skin privileges, the perquisites that separate them from the rest of the working class, that act as the material base for the split in the ranks of labor.”

Many scholars have cited Ignatiev’s letter as one of the first articulations of the modern idea of “white privilege.” But Ignatiev’s version differs from the one we often use today. In his conception, white privilege wasn’t an accounting tool used to compile inequalities; it was a shunt hammered into the minds of the white working class to make them side with their masters instead of rising up with their black comrades. White privilege was a deceptive tactic wielded by bosses—a way of tricking exploited workers into believing that they were “white.”

In the late sixties, when Ignatiev was still working in steel mills and factories, he and a number of collaborators started the Sojourner Truth Organization, which aimed to approach labor organizing through the lens of race. S.T.O. members entered factories with two main goals: collaborating with black and Latino worker organizations, and putting Ignatiev’s theory of white-skin privileges into action. The white workers, Ignatiev believed, were capable of repudiating their whiteness; they needed only to be provoked into consciousness. The S.T.O. hoped to accomplish this through the dissemination of workplace publications, such as the Calumet Insurgent Worker, and constant conversation. In an essay titled “Black Worker, White Worker,” from 1972, Ignatiev examined what he called the “civil war” in the minds of his white colleagues in plants and steel mills. It begins with an anecdote:

In one department of a giant steel mill in northwest Indiana a foreman assigned a white worker to the job of operating a crane. The Black workers in the department felt that on the basis of seniority and job experience, one of them should have been given the job, which represented a promotion from the labor gang. They spent a few hours in the morning talking among themselves and agreed that they had a legitimate beef. Then they went and talked to the white workers in the department and got their support. After lunch the other crane operators mounted their cranes and proceeded to block in the crane of the newly promoted worker—one crane on each side of his—and run at the slowest possible speed, thus stopping work in the department. By the end of the day the foreman had gotten the message. He took the white worker off the crane and replaced him with a Black worker, and the cranes began to move again.

A few weeks after the slowdown, several of the white workers who had joined the black operators in protest took part in meetings in Glen Park, a virtually all-white section of Gary, with the aim of seceding from the city, in order to escape from the administration of the black mayor, Richard Hatcher. While the secessionists demanded, in their words, “the power to make the decisions which affect their lives,” it was clear that the effort was racially inspired.

To Ignatiev, these contradictions revealed a white mind perpetually battling with itself. On one side were the learned behaviors, expectations, and falsehoods associated with being “white”; on the other was the recognition, however suppressed and forbidden, that black and white workers’ concerns were aligned. The learned behaviors triumphed, Ignatiev thought, because of “the ideology and institution of white supremacy, which provides the illusion of common interests between the exploited white masses and the white ruling class.” In the workplace, Ignatiev had seen white people who seemed to be enforcing their whiteness only out of habit, or because they feared social rebuke, or suffered under the illusion that they might one day ascend to the ownership class. Their “civil war,” he thought, was winnable: one just had to show the white workers that their true enemies were the bosses.

Around that time, according to Ignatiev’s longtime friend and collaborator Kingsley Clarke, the steel industry had placed racist restrictions on black and Latino laborers, who were given dangerous jobs in blast furnaces and ovens and blocked from moving into safer and higher-paying positions within plants. The federal government eventually intervened, through an early iteration of the Affirmative Action program, and Ignatiev and the S.T.O. created smaller organizations that aimed to force the larger trade union to comply with the new law. Ignatiev found that many black workers were receptive to those efforts; he felt that he never quite broke through with whites. “The only white people who seemed to sympathize were the evangelical Christian types,” Clarke told me. “But when it came to asking them to open up the jobs for the black workers, none of them wanted to do that.” Ignatiev was discouraged; at the same time, Clarke never saw him waver in his beliefs. “Noel kept saying, look, if we can just change five people’s minds, we can change the world!”

In the eighties, the economy began to shift. Automation took root, and plants began laying off workers. Contemplating the large, industrial workforces of prior decades, Ignatiev had been able to imagine workers forming councils, seizing the means of production, and deposing their bosses. But, as factories emptied out, he no longer knew where to look. In his forties, he, too, was laid off. He decided to go back to school. A friend from S.T.O., who had gotten into Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, persuaded the administration to admit Ignatiev, despite the fact that he lacked a bachelor’s degree. Ignatiev enrolled, then transferred to the history department, where he worked toward his doctorate.

Ignatiev was now a student at the most prestigious university in the world. But he still believed in creating literary projects unencumbered by the traditional press and its credentialled demands. In 1993, he and his friend John Garvey, a former New York City cab driver whom he’d met on the radical labor circuit, started Race Traitor, a journal with the motto “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” John Brown, the white man who led a small militia of black men as they raided an arsenal, at Harpers Ferry, in hopes of sparking an armed slave rebellion, became their lodestar—an example of what it might look like to reject one’s whiteness. Ignatiev and Garvey, who is also an editor at Hard Crackers, called for an “abolition of the white race.” This prompted the expected outrage from right-wingers, who heard a call for extinction, but also upset liberals, who saw them as impractical troublemakers.

In 1995, Ignatiev finished the dissertation that would become “How the Irish Became White.” Not long ago, someone asked him why he had written the book. “The country is divided into masters and slaves,” Ignatiev wrote:

A big political problem is that many of the slaves think they are masters, or at least side with the masters at crucial moments—because they think they are white. I wanted to understand why the Irish, coming from conditions about as bad as could be imagined and thrown into low positions when they arrived, came to side with the oppressor rather than with the oppressed. Imagine how history might have been different had the Irish, the unskilled labor force of the north, and the slaves, the unskilled labor force of the South, been unified. I hoped that understanding why that didn’t happen in the past might open up new possibilities next time.

The book was a hit, by academic standards. Ignatiev now had a powerful platform. But he was also a decade removed from the steel mills, and he was unsure how much a book could really do. Privately, he questioned the value of his new life in the highest reaches of the academy. His on-campus provocations—which included a 1992 incident in which he called for the removal of a Kosher toaster oven in a student dormitory—only caused bewilderment amongst students and administrators.

By 1998, it was time for him to move on. He accepted a post at Bowdoin College, a small school in Maine that mostly catered to white New England prep schoolers. The first class he taught there was a freshman seminar on the making of race; his most adoring student that semester was me, a naïve, vain eighteen-year-old Korean immigrant from North Carolina who desperately wanted to live outside the confines dictated by his race and his own privilege. Ignatiev, with his stories of working in the steel mills, his scorn for credentialled people, and his unwavering belief that a society free from white supremacy was possible, provided a model of a life worth living. I attended all of his office hours, learned to idolize John Brown, and read everything he put in front of me. In my dorm room and in the cafeteria, I talked excitedly to my confused friends about revolutionary politics and abolishing whiteness. At the end of that year, I dropped out and enrolled in Americorps, in hopes of becoming a radical.

I learned, ultimately, that I didn’t have the strength of his convictions. I could never see a new society in my co-workers or, perhaps more importantly, in myself. Even so, I kept looking for traces of what Ignatiev was talking about. There are moments—observing a seemingly small gesture of kindness between two protesters in St. Paul, or noticing the elegant design of the food halls at Standing Rock—when some great possibility seems to reveal itself. When that happens, I think immediately of Ignatiev and his belief in the revolutionary potential of ordinary Americans.

A couple of months before he died, I drove up to see Ignatiev at his home in Connecticut. His illness prevented him from swallowing, but he wanted to cook dinner for me in his back yard, where he had fitted a large wok over a rusty propane ring. “Even though I can’t eat anymore, I still find it relaxing to cook,” he told me. As we chopped up the vegetables in a light rain, we talked about all the things we had discussed in his office—John Brown, labor movements, the need to break away from credentialled society. Just as he would a few weeks later, at Freddy’s Bar, he expressed doubt about whether his work had amounted to anything.

I am not so vain as to believe that Noel’s influence on my life provides proof that his work, in fact, made a difference. If his ideas about whiteness and of “white privilege” became fashionable within the academy, they later took on forms he could barely recognize, and oftentimes, despised. He was bewildered by the rise of a style of identity politics that reified the fictions of race and, through its fixation on diversity in élite spaces, abandoned the working class. And as a lifelong radical he took little solace in the rise of a young, insurgent left drawn to the reformist revolution of Democratic Socialism. These movements, I imagine, must have felt like defeats to Ignatiev. We are very far from the abolition of the white race, and there are very few people who believe that changing the minds of five, much less five hundred thousand people, could potentially revolutionize the world.

And yet, from another perspective, there is no political or literary trend—or President—capable of derailing Ignatiev’s true lifelong project. In his writing, and in Race Traitor and Hard Crackers, Ignatiev demonstrated the transformative power of working-class stories. His radicalism was always tethered to specific people, who, in their own ways, inspired sympathy and a desire for connection. That specificity will always be relevant; it may be especially so at a moment of cynical alienation, when identities have become recitations rather than communities. There is enduring power in the narratives he collected and shared—the stories of people he met as a child, in Philadelphia, or in the plants and mills of Chicago, or in his classrooms. My favorite of these stories is included in the introduction to “How the Irish Became White”:

On one occasion, many years ago, I was sitting on my front step when my neighbor came out of the house next door carrying her small child, whom she placed in her automobile. She turned away from him for a moment, and as she started to close the car door, I saw that the child had put his hand where it would be crushed when the door was closed. I shouted to the woman to stop. She halted in mid-motion, and when she realized what she had almost done, an amazing thing happened: she began laughing, then broke into tears and began hitting the child. It was the most intense and dramatic display of conflicting emotions I have ever beheld. My attitude toward the subjects of this study accommodates stresses similar to those I witnessed in that mother.

Sometimes, while walking around gentrifying Brooklyn, I will see young, white progressives talking to the people whom they are displacing. There’s an officiousness—an almost disingenuous toadying—to these interactions that I, with my modern, fashionable prejudices, find a bit funny and gross. Do they believe that the contradictions between their stated politics and their actual lives can be cleansed through ritualistic bonhomie? Or are they just saying an extended goodbye to their temporary neighbors? Ignatiev might have looked at those same conversations and seen people who desperately wanted to be saved from their whiteness. He might have walked by, with a generosity of spirit that I do not possess, and dropped a few leaflets at their feet, filled with enthusiastic, optimistic provocations, and unreasonable demands.

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