Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 29, 2020

The clash between Assad and Erdogan’s militaries

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 2:22 pm

(A guest post by Omar Sabbour that appeared originally on Facebook. Omar is an independent Egyptian writer and activist.)

So let’s assess what Turkey’s almost unchallenged destruction of the regime today (exposing how much of a paper tiger it really is when it can’t rely on Russian warplanes to bomb civilians out of an area before they take it) means:

it means that Russia has been bluffing for a long time, as many of us long suspected, and the fears of a ‘war with Russia’ (yet alone a war between US and Russia) were based on a fundamental overestimation of Russian military capabilities. It is the US which has created the image of a behemoth out of Russia in Syria by coordinating airstrikes with it for years while blocking anti aircraft weaponry from regional allies to the rebels on the ground.

So, it could be said that Turkey couldn’t do the sort of thing it seemingly has done with incredible ease today years ago because of simultaneous US and Russian opposition (both of which still exist – there is little doubt in my mind that US today is also unhappy with Turkey’s actions; the US has since 2017 sent signals that ‘al-Qaeda held’ Idlib should collapse). Now it is argued that Turkey could step in because of the vaccum left by the partial US withdrawal from the arena, in a way that it couldn’t before when both US and Russia were active. In other words, ironically it was the US presence, not the Russian one, that was the main factor that stopped Turkey doing this kind of thing before.

But what would have been the cost to Turkey if it went ahead anyway years ago to do the sort of thing it did today – both US and Russia be damned? Would the US have shot down Turkish warplanes? Doubt it. International isolation, even though Turkey would’ve simply been carrying out the theoretical anti-Assad position of the US (even if this was of course opposite to the actual US policy of opposing taking out the regime militarily)? What would have happened? US would go to support YPG? Happened anyway. Turkey isolated/disliked in Western capitals? Happened anyway.

Would the adopted Turkish trajectory, basically allying with Russia and making quid pro quo exchanges of rebel territories for Kurdish ones have been necessary if it acted early on against regime, calling US bluff, and insisted on forcing itself into the fight against ISIS, ensuring US/YPG didn’t get all the spoils?

There’s no question that there were the sort of things that were considered by Turkish policymakers. There were a variety of options available to them: from ignoring US objections and providing MANPADs to FSA before Russia’s intervention, to the more direct option of intervening itself, as took place today.

Instead, Turkey took the most cautious and conservative approach – underplaying its cards vis a vis Russia and wasting massive leverage, especially when opposition was spread across the country. And for what? What gains did it achieve by this policy?

I wrote a (unpublished) piece a few months ago saying that Turkey had to go it alone against *both* US and Russian objections in Syria. Some might have thought this was too far-fetched but today perhaps shows that it wasn’t.

Main mistakes:

– Abiding by US diktat on giving anti-aircraft defences to rebels since 2012 onwards (abandoned *eight* years later)

– Refusing to seriously support FSA against ISIS in 2013/14

– Leaving fight against ISIS mainly to US/YPG afterwards

– Underplaying leverage (post-2016) and making uneven deals with Russia of surrendering rebel territories to regime in exchange for being able to act against YPG. With today’s events, it’s questionable even if it was necessary for Turkey to clear Euphrates Shield (i.e. Aleppo for Al-Bab) and Olive Branch (East Idlib for Afrin) with Russia beforehand.

– In any case, exchanges were not even (though of course Turkey cared about Kurds first and foremost) and furthermore, Turkey continued to pacify northern rebel front outside of the framework of these exchanges, as part of ‘deescalation agreements’ which would be completely ignored by Russia. As well as the direct surrender of places like Aleppo and East Idlib, this meant the indirect aiding of fall of places like Eastern Ghouta, Dara’a, Homs countryside by freezing northern rebel front and allowing regime to focus fully on each area one at a time.

– Finally, taking waaaaay too long and allowing regime to completely trample on Sochi agreement on Idlib (ever since regime capture of Khan Sheikhun quite a long time ago) even though Turkey had by now run out of ‘exchanges’ to make with Russia. In short, Turkey kept sending Russia signals that it will acquiesce to regime to take more territories, even though this violated Sochi, but the regime/Russia just wouldn’t stop.

The recent events will be portrayed as Turkey being aggressive/expansionist in Syria vis a vis regime. In reality, Turkey has actually bent over backwards to please Russia, ignoring its violations of the agreed de-escalation zones in 2017, then its violation of Sochi specifically since 2018, even though the anti-Kurdish bargains to be made with Russia had been completed and Turkey was not gaining anything in return for letting Russia/regime violate their agreements and seize territory.

Even today, Turkey has avoided saying that it was Russia who bombed it (even though it almost certainly was and it isn’t the first time) and has even let Russian warships through the Bosporus. I also have doubts that the current level of Turkish escalation against regime will be a protracted thing, I think it’s meant to send a strong message to Russia (better late than never) with the aim of reaching a new/old political accommodation in Idlib, though I certainly hope I’m wrong. Some of the more excited folks are saying that Turkey can even escalate to take out the regime in Damascus. I doubt that though as there are simply no rebel forces on the ground who can advance in south Syria to take advantage. In other words, two years too late.

The more realistic question is which scenario Turkey will take:

  1. Declared scenario: Turkey will back serious FSA offensive that pushes back regime to Sochi lines and reverse all recent gains (still a serious endeavour). Of course, Russia unlikely to sit by idly and will try and destroy everything that rebels try to take, so there’s that consideration (unless Turkey intervenes with its own airforce, for example with NATO defensive cover)
  2. Pragmatic scenario: Turkey will back more limited offensive that takes back some territories but leaves regime with gains
  3. Maximalist/’punishment’ scenario: Turkey will push a very strong offensive that pushes back regime to beyond Sochi lines, probably encompassing parts of Greater Idlib (east of M5) and Northern Hama exchanged with Russia as part of Afrin offensive. Such an offensive (this could have different details, at its fullest extent it could encompass assaults on imagine if it took the cities of Hama and Aleppo) would probably cause a massive fear of regime collapse and may bring Russia to compromise on Assad. This I think is the only scenario which actually has a chance of resurrecting “political solution” but on record Turkey is not ambitious enough to attempt it. Of course however, Russian airforce may go even crazier than it already has if Turkey attempted this, again, absent Turkish airforce/NATO deterrence.
  4. Pessimistic scenario: Turkey deescalates after sending message and regime actually continues to take more territory (which it actually is currently doing in South Idlib)

In conclusion, Turkey alone, through acting unilaterally, can bring a change in equilibrium which can end the Syrian war. At most optimistic, an expanded (“punishment”) campaign for Eastern Idlib, Northern Hama (maybe even Hama city) and Aleppo would result in a regime panic and perhaps a transition. Hypothetically, a surprise offensive on something like Aleppo for instance, if successful, would be such a shock that it would probably force a Russian agreed transition. Realistically though, a reversal of recent gains back to Sochi lines would still be a very significant achievement; it would likely result in a freezing of the war – at least on the part of Assad/Russia until they hope that Erdogan loses power in Turkey, leaving them to try again, Which is why, naturally, a full out offensive to beyond Sochi lines would be the most efficient way of bringing war to close – question is if Turkey has a) the ability (can it deter Russian airforce, or if not, can its own military capacities nonetheless enable rebels to advance?) and b) the willingness to do it.

February 28, 2020

The Bureau

Filed under: Counterpunch,television — louisproyect @ 3:39 pm


A while back, I noticed a brief reference in the N.Y. Times to a French spy thriller titled “The Bureau” that sounded intriguing. The Times reviewer described it as “a workplace drama with an arthouse aesthetic, set at an unusually exciting office: the D.G.S.E. (France’s equivalent of the C.I.A.).” It added that you might want to pass on it if you’re looking for James Bond-style chase scenes or can’t stand being confused.

Now that I have begun Season Two of “The Bureau” on Amazon via a $7.99 per month Sundance Channel subscription, I can report that this is on the same level as the 1965 film version of “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.” Like John le Carré, the creative team behind “The Bureau” are far more interested in the psychological aspects of the spy trade that involve wholesale deception. Like the actors who portray the characters in “The Bureau,” spies must lie for a living. Or, to use a less judgmental term, pretend.

Unlike the typical spy movie that features men and women with extraordinary powers, those in “The Bureau” are all too human. You never see them in a spectacular knife fight like Matt Damon in his very first Jason Bourne role. Instead, they are mostly sitting at desks staring at computer monitors as I did in my 44-year programming career. Instead of debugging Cobol programs, however, they are typically monitoring the movements of their targets through G.P.S.

Continue reading

February 26, 2020

Thoughts triggered by ex-ISOers seeing the light

Filed under: electoral strategy,Lenin,reformism,Russia,two-party system — louisproyect @ 10:40 pm

On January 31st, ex-ISOer Alan Maass posted a nearly 9,500 word article on Medium that offered “a retrospective assessment of the politics of the former ISO on elections and some thoughts on socialist organization.” It boiled down to a self-criticism for his past belief that revolutionary socialists must oppose the Democratic Party on principle. Only a year and a half ago, Maass wrote an article for the ISO newspaper arguing the exact opposite. I guess a lot can change in 18 months. Must be something wrong with me, I suppose. After voting for LBJ in 1964, who promised that he would not “send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves,” that was it for me. Fifty-six years ago and I am still pissed.

Like Alan Maass, fellow born-again democratic socialist Paul Heideman also argued against supporting the DP four years ago, when he wrote an article for Jacobin titled “It’s Their Party.” It told the story of how SDS supported LBJ in 1964 as part of a realignment strategy to purge the DP of its segregationist Congressmen. He credits Max Shachtman with the realignment strategy that he described as representing “one of the high points of the struggle for social democracy in the United States.” That sounds like a pretty low bar but what do I know? This long article finally gets around to the essential point:

Any political action comes with opportunity costs, and the costs of a strategic focus on electing Democrats have been grave — from the labor movement’s inability to defend itself against attacks from “their” party to antiwar movements that disappear when a Democrat comes to office.

Unlike Maass, Heideman never came out with a mea culpa. Instead, without any fanfare, he resurfaced in 2019 as a full-blooded Sandernista, indistinguishable from any other Jacobin author. He even goes further. He advises Sanders against defining himself as a “good socialist” as opposed to a bad socialist like Maduro or Castro. It is best to avoid those divisive questions about what capitalism or socialism from some pedantic standpoint as if it really mattered. Instead, just equate socialism with all the great things that have sprung up under Democratic Party rule:

He should point to the long line of policies that have been denounced as socialist and are now bedrock institutions of American life. Social Security? They called it socialist. Unions? A socialist project. Medicare? A socialist takeover of health care.

Yeah, sure. Who would want to get into such boring and irrelevant matters such as the right of American companies to have more money than entire countries. Walmart, for example, had revenue of $486 billion in 2017, out-earning the sixth-largest economy in the euro zone – Belgium, with a GDP of $468 billion. If it were a country, Walmart would be ranked 24th in the world by GDP. Has Bernie Sanders ever questioned the right of the Walton family to own 11,503 stores and clubs in 27 countries? Not unless he wanted to be called a communist or something.

Ex-ISOer Danny Katch is another fellow traveler on the Road to Damascus. Understanding that brevity is the soul of wit, Katch takes only 1,225 words to let Indypendent readers know that even though the Democratic Party is undemocratic, the path to making it democratic runs through the trail blazed by Bernie Sanders and “the squad”.

If Sanders becomes president, he would have to try to democratize the Democrats as part of the fight to enact his agenda without disastrous compromises. If these efforts fail to redeem an irredeemable party, they could at least start a national conversation about the long-overdue creation of a legitimate U.S. socialist party.

Even more emphatic than Maass and Heideman, Katch wrote an article in 2016 titled “Why I Won’t Be Voting For Bernie” that gave me hope that the ISO would become the badly needed pole of attraction needed for a mass socialist movement. As should be obvious by now, the comrades wilted under the pressure generated by the DSA. It makes me wonder how committed the comrades ever were to the task of strengthening the class independence of the left.

Katch’s article makes points identical to those I have been making in recent weeks on Facebook where it seems like 75 percent of my “friends” are gung-ho over Bernie Sanders:

I have enthusiastically felt the Bern this past week, without ever questioning my decision to not vote for him (or Clinton) in the Democratic primary tomorrow.

Not because Sanders’s isn’t “radical enough” for me–although I do consider his version of socialism to be more like old-fashioned liberalism, especially his unquestioning support for the right of the U.S. to bomb and invade other countries.

But if a candidate with Sanders’ platform were running as an independent, I would strongly consider supporting the campaign and working within it to try to push it further to the left. Bernie is running as a Democrat, however, and like other members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), I don’t vote for the Democratic Party (or the Republicans) as a matter of principle.

What exactly did Katch mean by “principle”? What do Marxists regard as principles? Every so often, these questions come to the fore. In 2017, the DSA had a bit of a scandal on its hands when it was discovered that Danny Fetonte, a newly elected member of their National Political Committee, was a longtime organizer for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT)—the largest organization representing Texas cops. He stepped down subsequently.

Crossing a picket line is also a matter of principle. Under no circumstances should socialists cross a picket line. This question divided the left in 1968 when both the Trotskyist SWP and the Maoist PLP took the side of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville administrators in New York who were trying to purge racist teachers from their schools. When Albert Shanker organized a strike to keep them in place, it was necessary to side with those fighting for community control.

Socialists have also opposed on principle settling disputes in the capitalist courts. Even when one group libels another, it is very rare for the aggrieved party to file a suit. Closely related to this is the principle that you should not use violence within the movement. Back in the 60s, this was a major problem since the Maoist groups and Larouche arrogated to themselves the right to use violence since their adversaries were supposedly outside the movement.

When it comes to voting for bourgeois parties, it becomes a bit more complicated. To start with, those on the left looking for an escape clause from the burdensome task of swimming against the stream. After all, it takes a lot of backbone, if not stubbornness, to resist the seductive popularity of an FDR or a Bernie Sanders. There’s always the precedent of the IWA, the first socialist international, sending congratulations to Abraham Lincoln for his electoral victory. If opposing capitalist parties is a principle, how could Marx and Engels endorse Lincoln? Keep in mind that they were on record of calling for workers to run their own candidates in 1850 in an address to an early communist group:

Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled.

As I have said, Marx and Engels were on solid grounds congratulating Lincoln but were far from grasping the complex relationship of class and racial forces during the Civil War. They saw Lincoln as completing what amounted to a bourgeois revolution that would put the workers of the north in a better position to build a socialist movement. When the abolitionists lined up with Victoria Woodhull, Marx and Engels threw their considerable weight behind her rival Friedrich Sorge who saw the Irish immigrant worker as more crucial to the revolutionary movement than the emancipated blacks. Suffice it to say that Marx and Engels were not close enough to the situation to anticipate how convenient it was for Republicans to abandon black people by 1877. In any case, by the time Reconstruction ended, it should have been obvious that the two-party system was well on its way to maintaining its stranglehold on American politics.

That is why Engels saw any challenge to the two-party system as critical, even when it came to the election campaign of Henry George who clearly had no clue about the abc’s of socialism. In a letter to the clueless Friedrich Sorge in 1886, Engels made the case for backing a “confused and highly deficient” party set up under the banner of Henry George:

The rottenest side of the K. of L. [Knights of Labor] was their political neutrality, which resulted in sheer trickery on the part of the Powderlys, etc. [Terrence Powderly was the head of the Knights of Labor]; but this has had its edge taken off by the behaviour of the masses at the November elections, especially in New York. The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organisation of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party. And this step has been taken, far more rapidly than we had a right to hope, and that is the main thing. That the first programme of this party is still confused and highly deficient, that it has set up the banner of Henry George, these are inevitable evils but also only transitory ones. The masses must have time and opportunity to develop and they can only have the opportunity when they have their own movement–no matter in what form so long as it is only their own movement–in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn wisdom by hurting themselves.

You’ll note that Engels speaks of “The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organisation of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party.” This, in other words, is a restatement of what he and Marx advised in 1850. It might even be said that the endorsement of Lincoln was something of an outlier, but hardly equivalent to backing any other Republican following his death.

I’d make the case that it took the German and Russian socialist movements to fully come to terms with a principled basis for electoral politics. In Germany, the socialists were divided between Marxists and Lassalleans. The Marxists advocated a revolutionary struggle against the capitalist state, while Lassalle’s followers (he died in a duel in 1864) sought concessions from the state, especially when it was led by an enlightened politician like Otto Von Bismarck. While most leftists today, including Bernie Sanders, regard the New Deal as virtually synonymous with socialism, it might be argued that Bismarck was as progressive as FDR, if not more so. In volume four of Hal Draper’s “Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution”, you can see how willing Bismarck was to support progressive measures as a way of undermining the revolutionary left:

In 1883 a Sickness Insurance Act was passed, with the workers contributing only a third of the cost. In 1884 an Accident Insurance Law followed, with costs borne by employers alone. In 1889 an Old Age and Disability measure was adopted. In 1903 came a code of factory legislation, with a system of labor exchanges to promote employment. Many of these measures were the first of their kind in the world; by the time of the world war Germany had become the model land of advanced social legislation, under the pressure of the absolutist state, not the bourgeoisie.

Perhaps if Bismarck had not been so determined to crush the Socialist Party, Lassalle’s ideas would have gotten a bigger foothold. Leaving aside Kautsky’s problematic understanding of how a revolution might be possible, you at least have to give him credit for seeing the need for class independence. In chapter five of “The Erfurt Program”, his call for independent political action on a principled class basis can hardly be mistaken for the “dirty break” policies advanced in his name:

The interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie are of so contrary a nature that in the long run they cannot be harmonized. Sooner or later in every capitalist country the participation of the working-class in politics must lead to the formation of an independent party, a labor party.

At what moment in its history the proletariat of any particular country will reach the point at which it is ready to take this step, depends chiefly upon its economic development. In some degree, also, it depends upon two other conditions, the insight of the working-class into the political and economic situation and the attitude of the bourgeois parties toward one another.

When you keep in mind that Lenin’s chief goal was to build a party in Czarist Russia that lived up to the example of the German social democracy, you can easily understand why he would be so adamantly opposed to forming blocs with the Cadets as advocated by the Mensheviks. Certainly, the Erfurt Program was uppermost in Lenin’s mind when he proposed a program for the Russian movement in 1899 that openly stated, “We are not in the least afraid to say that we want to imitate the Erfurt Programme: there is nothing bad in imitating what is good, and precisely to day, when we so often hear opportunist and equivocal criticism of that programme, we consider it our duty to speak openly in its favour.”

If you want to understand the differences between those on the left today who see the question of support for a bourgeois party on a principled rather than a tactical basis, the best place to start is with Lenin’s polemics against the Mensheviks. With all proportions guarded, the Cadets were the Democratic Party of Czarist Russia consisting of a liberal, modernizing section of the bourgeoisie that hoped to see an end to the monarchy but without the resolve needed to lead a bourgeois revolution. Lenin hoped to push the Cadets aside and lead such a revolution (it turned out to require a working-class leadership) but had to deal with the Mensheviks who saw the Cadets as allies.

The Mensheviks considered Lenin to be impractical and obstinate. Like Jacobin today that views a Nordic model as the only feasible socialism for a country in which revolution is no longer possible, the Mensheviks set their sights low. It would take an extended period of enlightened bourgeois rule to allow the working-class movement to gather the strength it needed to gain power.

While undoubtedly the ex-ISOers would never accept the idea that they are the counterparts of the Russian Mensheviks, their rallying around the Sandernista banner leads this observer to believe that they find it much easier to swim with the current. In a 1906 polemic against the Mensheviks, Lenin refers to the possibility that they are wilting under the pressure of a much larger, wealthier and legally unfettered capitalist party: “But what about the bourgeois opportunists? They own a press ten times larger than that of the Social-Democrats and the Socialist-Revolutionaries put together.” I imagine if Lenin were alive today, he would coolly appraise the democratic socialist wing of the Democratic Party, with the massive coverage it gets in the bourgeois press, and still insist that we stick to our principles.

Just as 1914 threw socialism into a crisis across Europe, you can expect a convergence of late capitalist decrepitude and political routinism on the left to create a fertile ground for the kind of revolutionary socialism that is no longer fashionable. My recommendation is to stick to your principles, comrades, since they are the only way you will be able to be effective in a period when the walls start caving in around us.

February 24, 2020

How should Marxists react to Bernie Sanders becoming the front-runner?

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,third parties — louisproyect @ 8:28 pm

As one might have expected, Jacobin/DSA has been jubilant over Bernie Sanders’s primary victory in Nevada. Throwing caution to the wind, Dustin Guastella and Connor Kilpatrick proclaim “After the Nevada Blowout, It’s Bernie’s Party Now”. They see this as something culminating in “a new party, thoroughly working-class and committed to egalitarian politics, quickly blooming up into the husk of the old one.” It’s not exactly clear what definition they are using of a “husk”. Merriam-Webster says is it can be either the shell of a fruit or nut or the empty shell itself. For example, a bullet is usually referred to as a shell but it too can be thought of as a husk. When you fire a gun, it operates on a husk filled with gun powder and in the case of a shotgun, a husk filled also with pellets such as the kind that killed Malcolm X. When you pick up the empty husk discharged by a shotgun, it is completely harmless.

So what kind of husk is Bernie Sanders filling?

Perhaps the best way to approach this question is to accept the “dirty break” theory on its own terms. There’s nothing to prevent leftists, even socialists, from running as Democrats. As Eric Blanc points out in the article that made this term so controversial (at least to people like me), the Working People’s Nonpartisan League (WPNPL) made a habit out of running in Republican and Democratic Party primaries in the 1920s. Since the two capitalist parties don’t require anybody to actually join in the way you join the Labour Party in England or (god forbid) the Socialist Workers Party in the USA, it is virtually laissez-faire. I am not even sure if you need to register as a Democrat in order to run as one.

Bernie Sanders registered as a Democrat to run for president but plans to re-register as an Independent in 2024 to run for the Senate if he is not elected this year. This, of course, begs the question of what it means to be an “Independent”. This is not a party as such but an indication that you are not a Democrat or a Republican. I was a registered Independent for the past fifty-two years but re-registered as a Green in order to participate fully in the Green Party. I should add that many Green Party leaders are opposed to it becoming a membership party since they share the electoralist illusions of most Americans.

Getting back to the question posed above, it is pretty obvious that the Democratic Party is not an empty shell. Even if most people continue to vote for Bernie Sanders up until the convention, they have no other relationship to him except as an endorser. There’s a vast difference between a Las Vegas waitress voting for Bernie Sanders and the vast institutional plaque that fills the DP like pellets in a shotgun shell. This includes the following:

The clubs in many cities that serve as a kind of membership organization. They often have a liberal character like those in NYC’s Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side and might even be okay with Bernie. But they generally have little enthusiasm for socialism even if Sanders’s democratic socialism and their left-liberalism overlap.

The trade union bureaucracy. Even if the rank-and-file were likely to ignore the Culinary Workers Union brass’s endorsement of Joe Biden (they ended up taking no position), the bureaucrats would have an easier time backing conventional Democrats in local races. With their ample funding and their communications capability, they can easily overpower a Sandernista candidate.

The think-tanks and foundations. Ranging from those funded by George Soros to those even more nefarious like the Center for American Progress (CAP), New America, the Brookings Institution, Demos, and the Roosevelt Institute, they have an ability to shape public opinion through their PR campaigns that are filtered through the bourgeois media.

The bourgeois media. All you need to do is turn on MSNBC or open up the Washington Post and you’ll realize that the liberal wing of the ruling class might prefer Trump’s re-election than a President Sanders. The shrewder elements within this class might realize that he is a paper tiger but they would prefer to keep him out of the executive branch of the government. Inside the Senate, Sanders is easily bypassed.

The universities and the clergy. Through the liberal bureaucracy that runs elite institutions like Columbia University and the Episcopalian church, you will always find lip-service paid to ending inequality, blah-blah. However, there’s little patience with someone who might cut into the profits of the big corporations that keep their endowments filled to the brim. For example, George Soros, who has pumped millions into my alma mater Bard College, made a $343,000 contribution into the Hillary Victory Fund in 2016 but has announced that he is sitting out the 2020 race. Maybe just one too many Bernie Sanders references to the billionaire class has the old boy miffed.

This pretty much sums up the Democratic Party’s pellets inside the shotgun shell but it doesn’t exhaust the ruling class institutions in the USA that frequently, if not almost universally, determine how the country is ruled. When Bloomberg ran as a Republican to become Mayor of NYC, he was following the same policies he pursues today as a Democrat. He has a different idea of how to promote the interests of the class he belongs to as opposed to the bull in the china shop who is favored to win in 2020.

Turning once again to the Las Vegas waitress above, as an individual her only power is to pull a lever for Sanders and then go home. But what if all those people who voted for Sanders belonged to a political party that reflected their class interests? Right now the people who toil away in service jobs like hers or work for Walmart, hospitals, Amazon warehouses, public schools, and the post office have tremendous untapped social power. If instead of exercising it only on election day, what if they belonged to clubs that could defend their own class interests 365 days a year through picket lines, boycotts and mass meetings? Lenin alluded to something like this in his “What is to be Done?”:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

I get email from Bernie Sanders every so often. Naturally it is soliciting a donation, which I naturally ignore. What if instead the Sanders apparatus used their database to invite people living in my neighborhood to attend a meeting to discuss how to protect undocumented workers on the Upper East Side from ICE?

Better yet, what if Sanders gets screwed by the DP bosses in a brokered convention and Joe Biden or some other piece of shit gets nominated? Wouldn’t it be about time for him to run as an independent and begin to use his money to create a staff in every major city in the USA that is committed to his democratic socialist principles? I would jump in with both feet even if I, like other leftists, have problems with his willingness to base F-35s in Vermont. As it happens, I also had big problems with Ralph Nader in 2000 but was glad to vote for him as a Green Party candidate since I believe that CLEAN BREAK with the Democratic Party is the key task facing the left.

Instead, it is likely that Sanders will endorse another Democrat if he is cheated out of the nomination. To some extent, this is just a function of an old man not having the psychological and physical reserves to face up to the brutal opposition from the liberal wing of the ruling class that Nader faced in 2004. Probably, the one thing that is not factored into the Jacobin/DSA thinking is the degree to which Sanders is an outlier. Shaped by the same political sea change that turned me into a revolutionary socialist, he decided instead to become an evolutionary socialist in the Eduard Bernstein mold.

I would even be happy to back a party based on Bernstein’s evolutionary socialism in 2020 as long as it had the same kind of class independence that the German social democracy had. Within that party, I would fight for a revolutionary perspective like Luxemburg and even Kautsky did. But within the Democratic Party, I would say “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”, the words Dante written on the walls of Hell before entering it.

Sixty Minutes features Bellingcat’s work on downing of Dutch jet over Ukraine

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 1:29 pm

February 22, 2020

Victoria Woodhull and Cornelius Vanderbilt

Filed under: Woodhull — louisproyect @ 8:36 pm

Below you will find an excerpt from Barbara Goldsmith’s 1998 “Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull”. It deals with the unlikely hook-up between Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin with Cornelius Vanderbilt, the richest man in America. Woodhull and her sister put out a magazine called Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly that called for socialist revolution, free love and spiritualist values. As I pointed out in a CounterPunch article, Marxists in the USA were divided between the “Yankee” faction led by her and the “orthodox” faction led by Frederick Sorge and supported by Marx. Sorge and Marx led a drive to expel Woodhull and her comrades that culminated in them capturing themselves. Despite Woodhull’s idiosyncrasies, she was connected to the living pulse of America’s most exploited—the women, the African-Americans and the most militant workers.

In addition to being the first woman to run for president (her running-mate was Frederick Douglass), she and her sister were the first women to own a Wall St. stock brokerage. The excerpt shows how they got their hands on the money to fund the business and to pay for their revolutionary-minded magazine.

It will be immediately obvious that Goldsmith has not written a scholarly book. Since her previous biography was about Gloria Vanderbilt (the great-granddaughter of the patriarch discussed below), you can probably guess that she was writing for the mass market rather than Marxist ne’er-do-wells like me.

Apparently the book was optioned to become a Hollywood movie but nothing came of that until 2017, when Amazon announced plans to make such a film but not based on Goldsmith’s book as far as I can tell. Someone named Ben Kopit is working on the script and I wouldn’t expect much. Maybe the best bet would be for Paul Buhle to do a comic book since he is a Woodhull scholar among his many other assets.

As a mass-market biographer rather than a historian, Goldsmith paints a lurid picture but perhaps one not that remote from the reality. To balance this book, I also received a copy of Mark Lause’s “Long Road to Harpers Ferry: The Rise of the First American Left” that deals with the Yankee left. Mark has also written a book on “Free Spirits: Spiritualism, Republicanism, and Radicalism in the Civil War Era” that I am anxious to read.

IN THE world of the demimondaine the most open of secrets was Commodore Vanderbilt’s insatiable sexual appetite. In the world of the Spiritualists the most open of secrets was the Commodore’s support of any medium, fortune-teller, or healer who could aid him in his insatiable search for riches and immortality. He paid Mrs. Tufts, a medium from Staten Island, enough money to retire to Vermont when she rid him of two spirits: a boy of seven who had been crushed under the hooves of Vanderbilt’s four white-footed trotters as they sped around the reservoir in Central Park, and a railroad worker who had been mangled under the wheels of the Commodore’s Flying Devil and appeared before him in a bloody, shredded, and oil-stained condition.

Vanderbilt instructed his barber to collect his hair and burn it, for fear that someone who secured a lock would have power over him. He believed that through portraits one could communicate with those who had “passed over,” and kept a miniature of his late mother in his breast pocket above his heart. He despised doctors and followed the advice of Spiritualist healers, one of whom had instructed that saltcellars be placed under each leg of his bed to ward off evil spirits.

It was common knowledge that Commodore Vanderbilt saw all callers at his town house at 10 Washington Place, no matter who they were. He usually dispatched them promptly and rudely, but said he never knew where a good idea might come from. Within a month of his arrival, the ever alert Buck Claflin arranged a meeting between his Spiritualist daughters and the Commodore. When the crusty Vanderbilt peered over the balcony of his Greek revival mansion and saw the two women standing below, he could not have failed to be impressed: There stood Victoria with her delicate cameo features and Tennessee with her overblown figure. Vanderbilt had an eye for women, so much so that the housemaids frequently quit to escape his prurient advances.

The Commodore, for all his bluster, was old and lonely. Despite his fortune he was not welcome in society. He swore like a stevedore and spat tobacco juice onto his hostesses’ Persian carpets. He was nearly illiterate. His home life was bleak; he and his wife, Sophia, had barely spoken for a decade. Sophia had borne the Commodore twelve children, and when they were young and poor she worked at Bellona Hall, their Staten Island boardinghouse, with one child at her breast and several others trailing behind.

Two decades earlier, when Sophia mustered the courage to object to his pursuit of the children’s governess and refused to go along with his plan to move to a New York City town house, the Commodore established complete domination over her by having her committed to Dr. McDonald’s insane asylum in Flushing. His eldest son, the obese William Henry, arranged for his mother’s internment, and when the governess fled after being driven frantic by the Commodore’s sexual advances, William Henry found another young girl “to content” his father, saying, “The old man is bound to have his way and it is useless to oppose him.”

If not for the intercession of Vanderbilt’s mother, Sophia would have remained in the insane asylum while the Commodore played his beloved whist, raced his magnificent trotters, conducted business, and pursued women. Phebe Hand Van der Bilt summoned her son to Staten Island and told him he’d better fetch his wife back if he knew what was good lot him. (Sophia was not only his wife but his first cousin, the daughter of his father’s sister, Eleanor.) “I would never cross that woman,” he said of his mother. From that time on, Sophia had been compliant, uncomplaining and aloof.

The summer after the Commodore met Victoria and Tennessee, following his usual routine, he repaired to Saratoga for the racing season and to take the spa water. Sophia, having little place in her husband’s life, remained behind and moved into the home of her daughter and son-in-law, Mary Louise and Horace Clark. On August 17, 1868, Commodore Vanderbilt was sitting on the porch of the United States Hotel, drinking beer and smoking a black cigar when word came that Sophia had died of an apoplectic attack. Six hours later, he arrived in New York in his private railroad car, Duchess. Two days after that, Sophia was interred in the Vanderbilt Mausoleum at the Moravian Cemetery on Staten Island. Horace Greeley, who had been one of the pallbearers, wrote in the Tribune that Mrs. Vanderbilt had “lived nearly seventy-four years without incurring a reproach or provoking an enmity.”

Soon Victoria and Tennessee became daily fixtures in the Commodore’s household, for they answered his considerable needs: Although he was still slim and spry enough to race his horses and spend hours at his one-desk, one-secretary office on Fourth Street near Broadway, he was slowing down. His hearing was failing, and he suffered from heart trouble, a hernia, kidney stones, constipation, and an enlarged prostate. At meals he had been known to consume pâté de foie gras, woodcock, Spanish mackerel, and saddle of venison, accompanied by Burgundy or Veuve Clicquot or beer. Tennessee took over: She babied, cajoled, and disciplined Vanderbilt, removing the rich foods from his diet and insisting that he walk as well as drive his horses. She tried to get him to stop smoking, but he said, “When I have to give up smoking, you may give me up.” Tennessee’s treatments consisted of clystering (a high enema), manipulating the prostate, and magnetic healing. With her left hand acting as a negative magnet, the right as a positive, she claimed to reverse the polarity of his body and to expel negative energy.

Almost everyone was terrified of the Commodore, but not Tennessee. Their relationship was light and affectionate. She called him “old boy” and “the old goat.” He called her “my little sparrow.” Four servants were later to recall that they often found her occupying the Commodore’s bed in the morning. “Ample”—that was Vanderbilt’s word for Tennessee—ample breasts, ample hips, inviting. She was what she was and didn’t care what anyone thought. Her jealous sister Utica said that when Tennessee asked the Commodore how many women he’d had, he replied, “A thousand,” to which Tennessee laughingly responded, “Then I am only half as bad as you are, for I have had but five hundred.” Within a few months of Sophia’s death, in the fall of 1868, the “old goat” asked Tennessee to become the next Mrs. Vanderbilt.

If Tennessee ministered to the Commodore’s body, Victoria ministered to his soul and eventually to his purse as well. Sitting in the darkened parlor under Phebe Hand Van der Bilt’s portrait, Victoria transmitted messages to him from his mother, who had died fifteen years earlier. When Victoria was in the room, the Commodore said he could even smell his mother’s presence—a combination of strong soap and lavender. His mother was the only woman he had truly loved. He liked his eight daughters well enough but told people, “After all, they’re not Vanderbilts.” His two living sons, William Henry and Cornelius Jeremiah, he called a “blatherskite” and a “sucker,” respectively. William Henry was hardworking and dull and, what was more irritating to the Commodore, prudent and obedient: He’d bring round his sons, Willie K. and Cornelius, for hymn singing and money-grubbing, but the Commodore said there was no life in any of them. The Commodore refused to see Cornelius Jeremiah, an epileptic, because he was unable to admit that he could produce a less-than-perfect human being. He also felt that Cornelius Jeremiah was God’s reprimand to him for having married his first cousin. This poor son nevertheless loved his father deeply and would stand for hours on the back porch hoping to catch a glimpse of the Commodore. Horace Greeley occasionally lent Cornelius Jeremiah money. The Commodore told Greeley that he would never pay him back for the loans to his son. “Who the devil asked you?” Greeley shot back.

The Commodore had once despised his father as well, but he softened his attitude in his old age. Convinced that Victoria Woodhull truly was able to go in a trance and relay messages from his beloved mother, Vanderbilt offered her $100,000 if she would go into a trance and conjure up his father, then describe the man well enough for an artist to paint a portrait. Prudently, she declined but soon Victoria was to make a great deal more money than that by conjuring up some numbers for the Commodore.

In February 1868, Commodore Vanderbilt engaged in a battle with Jim Fisk and Fisk’s partner, Jay Gould, for control of the Erie Railroad. Fisk and Gould had won because at a secret meeting in a suite at the American Club Hotel at Broadway and Seventeenth Street, the Erie directors decided to print more than one hundred fifty thousand new shares of Erie stock. The suite was the residence of a friend a friend of Victoria Woodhull’s from their acting days in San Francisco. As Fisk remarked, “If this printing press don’t break down, I’ll be damned if I don’t give the old hog all he wants of Erie.” Finally, on March 10, having bought the one hundred fifty thousand shares without gaining control of the Erie, the Commodore caught on. The humiliation was as painful as the swindle. With Victoria Woodhull’s help, it would not happen again.

The world of high finance and the low life of prostitutes seemed separate, but in fact they converged in the elegant brothels Victoria visited. At these establishments, women entertained the richest and most powerful men of the day in their beds, and yet they were considered insensate and invisible. Some madams, including Annie Wood, undoubtedly made the most of the opportunity this provided. As Wall Street traders, city officials, businessmen, and politicians gathered in her parlor, Annie listened carefully to what they said. She also trained her “girls” to encourage the men to boast about their financial maneuverings, instructing these women both in the art of exacting information and in seeming ignorant of what they had heard.

Victoria was an intimate of Annie Wood and knew many of the prostitutes who worked in her house. It was there that Vicky became reacquainted with her friend from San Francisco, Josie Mansfield. Josie and husband, Frank Lawlor, had come to the city in 1864 in the hope of finding employment in the theater. They were unsuccessful and soon Lawlor admitted that Josie had married him only to escape the sexual abuse inflicted upon her by her stepfather, found that his wife was “going astray” and divorced her. According to Annie Wood, Josie became so impoverished that she had but one dress and could not pay her rent. It was then that she began to frequent Annie Wood’s house on Thirty-fourth Street, where she set her sights on the overblown Jim Fisk, a regular patron.

Josie knew of Fisk’s wild behavior, his quiet wife in Boston, and his free spending: He would give $100 bills to any pretty prostitute who caught his eye. In November 1867, Fisk arrived at the bordello for an evening’s entertainment and was immediately taken with the buxom Miss Mansfield. Although Josie professed to find Fisk intelligent and manly, she refused his money and rebuffed his advances. For three months Josie skillfully withheld her favors, thereby inflating her worth. Then she allowed Fisk to pay the overdue rent on her tiny room on Lexington Avenue, after which he installed her in the American Club Hotel suite. Fisk underwent a remarkable change: He trimmed his unkempt red mustache and waxed the ends to handlebar perfection, he wore French cologne and kept his boots shined. This besotted lover bought Josie a roomful of dresses and gave her $50,000 in cash and about five times that in Tiffany emeralds.

Josie became a lady of fashion. Daily the hairdresser called, teasing her hair into a variety of puffs, curls, and frizzes. Once every two weeks the enamelist painted her face, shoulders, neck, and arms with a compound of bismuth and arsenic that gave her skin a much-desired deathlike pallor. To be a woman of fashion was a full-time occupation carried to an absurd degree. George Ellington described the requirements:

The elite do not wear the same dress twice . . . she has two new dresses of some sort for every day in the year, or seven hundred and twenty. . . . She must have one or two velvet dresses which cannot cost less than five hundred dollars each; she must possess thousands of dollars’ worth of laces, in the shape of flounces, to loop up over the skirts of dresses as occasion shall require. Walking-dresses cost from fifty to three hundred dollars; ball-dresses are frequently imported from Paris at a cost of from five hundred to a thousand dollars. . . . Nice white llama jackets can be had for sixty dollars; robes princesse, or overskirts of lace, are worth from sixty to two hundred dollars. Then there are . . . dresses for all possible occasions. A lady going to the Springs takes from twenty to sixty dresses and fills an enormous number of Saratoga trunks.

Fisk complained that in one year he spent $30,000 to equip Josie ($5,000 more, he noted, than the president’s salary). Her casket of jewels contained her fabulous emeralds, a set (necklace, earrings, tiara) of diamonds, a set of pearls, a set of corals, a medallion set, and twenty-five finger rings. Within the year Fisk had given Josie a house in her own name at 359 West Twenty-third Street, only half a block west of Fisk’s Opera House. He also supplied her with several maids, a cook, butler, and coachman. Yet Josie’s demands on Fisk escalated: He said that she was more temperamental than an opera diva. Once when she asked Fisk for an extra $30,000, he sent Boss Tweed himself to mediate. Tweed asked her what it was she really wanted. “I want more,” she replied. One of Fisk’s business associates was a startlingly handsome playboy with jet-black hair and classic features named Edward (Ned) Stiles Stokes. Stokes was married to the daughter of a furniture tycoon, and both his father and father-in-law paid his debts and supplied him with cash to disport himself at well-known restaurants and Broadway gambling houses, Fisk, taking a liking to Stokes, lent him some money for an oil venture, named one of his 125 canaries after him, and introduced him to Josie.

Several times a day, Fisk sent a messenger to Josie’s house with notes out-lining his plans. Woodhull was to observe of Mansfield that “she obtained not only Fisk’s money but she also participated in his business secrets. He concealed nothing . . . of his business plans and aspirations from her.” Although both women denied any business association, there is little doubt that, for a price, Josie Mansfield shared these plans with Victoria Woodhull. And on the client register of Woodhull, Claflin & Co. (a Wall Street investment firm formed in the winter of 1869) there was listed an H. J. Mansfield. Josie Mansfield’s given name was Helen Josephine.

By the end of 1868, Vanderbilt was giving Victoria and Tennessee a percentage of the profits from his business transactions. In a trance state, Victoria offered him uncannily accurate financial advice, and the Commodore was shrewd enough not to question whether her sources were from this world or another. In December, Vanderbilt made the boldest move of his career. He declared an 80 percent stock dividend on the Central Pacific Railroad (issuing four extra shares for every five now owned). On Christmas Day, Victoria visited the Commodore and offered advice from the spirits. That evening, he told a young widow to place all her savings in Central stock. “It’s bound to go up. . . . Mrs. Woodhull said so in a trance,” he declared. On the Monday after Christmas, the Central stock opened at $134. By the time the exchange closed, it had bounded up to $165. It was rumored that the Commodore had allocated the profits on three thousand shares, or $93,000, to Victoria and Tennessee. When the Commodore was asked how he made such astute financial decisions, he laughed and replied, “Do as I do. Consult the spirits.”


February 21, 2020

Encountering Malcolm X

Filed under: Black nationalism,Counterpunch,Kevin Coogan,socialism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm


Watching the six-part documentary “Who Killed Malcolm X?” on Netflix stirred up powerful memories of how important he was to my political evolution. While the documentary is focused on exploring the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) role in his murder, it also sheds light on Malcolm’s post-NOI political odyssey. By creating a rival movement to the pseudo-Islamist sect, he risked a fatal encounter with four assassins on this date fifty-five years ago at the Audubon Ballroom in New York.

Just six weeks before his death, I heard Malcolm X speak at the Palm Gardens in New York. I went with my girlfriend Dian, who was on midterm break from Bard College, just like me. I remember taking a seat about ten rows from the podium and being perplexed by the five or so leaflets on the chair that advertised rallies or meetings geared to radicals. Although I was much more of an existentialist liberal a la Camus in 1965, I was eager to hear Malcolm speak. Little did I know at the time that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a sect I would join two years later, organized the meeting. The Trotskyists placed leaflets on the chairs to draw people closer to the party, an approach that the Internet would supersede just as Facebook would supersede the mimeograph machine.

Continue reading

February 18, 2020

A History of Humanity’s Future

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

A History of Humanity’s Future

Our variety of the human species, homo sapiens sapiens, emerged from out of bands of more primitive yet contemporaneous older variants of humanity well over 200,000 years ago and rapidly expanded in both their numbers and the range of their occupancy on our planet. The competitive pressure by this efflorescence of homo sapiens sapiens against the older variants of humanity reduced the numbers of the latter to the point of extinction over the course of 1600 centuries, leaving just our variety of the human species to range over the Earth for 40,000 years up to the beginning of the 21st century. The story of our species from then up to the present moment is the subject of this work.

via A History of Humanity’s Future

February 17, 2020

John Clegg, Bhaskar Sunkara, and the deeper implications of Project 1619

Filed under: Jacobin,Project 1619,racism,reparations,slavery — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

Most of the vitriol directed against Project 1619 centers on Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, especially her observation: “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does the belief, so well articulated by Lincoln, that black people are the obstacle to national unity.” The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) and its allies hope to put Lincoln back on his pedestal and refute the notion that black Americans have tended to fight against racism on their own. All of this is subsumed under the opposition’s main idea that they are fighting “identity politics” that undermines class unity.

There is another beef that the class fundamentalists have against Project 1619 that has generated less commentary. They don’t care for Matthew Desmond’s support for the New History of Capitalism, as it has been dubbed. Or NHC, for short. Titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation,” the article cites two of the key NHC’ers:

“American slavery is necessarily imprinted on the DNA of American capitalism,” write the historians Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman. The task now, they argue, is “cataloging the dominant and recessive traits” that have been passed down to us, tracing the unsettling and often unrecognized lines of descent by which America’s national sin is now being visited upon the third and fourth generations.

For some academics, including Marxists, the idea that slavery is part of the DNA of American capitalism is a metaphor as objectionable as Hannah-Jones’s usage. They discount the importance of slavery as key to the growth of American capitalism and even go so far as to argue that it was a ball and chain on economic progress.

Writing for Jacobin in the sole article dealing with Project 1619, John Clegg, who disagrees with Charles Post’s analysis of slavery as “pre-capitalist”, describes the southern plantation as capitalist but concurs with Post’s description of it as retrograde. Unlike Sean Wilentz and company, Clegg is not that interested in a discussion of whether racism is in America’s DNA. Instead, his goal is to refute the NHC’ers Desmond cites:

Desmond begins his article by drawing on the Harvard historian Sven Beckert who argues that “it was on the back of cotton, and thus on the backs of slaves, that the U.S. economy ascended in the world.” Yet Desmond neglects to mention that this claim has been widely rejecte by specialists in the economic history of slavery.

If you click the link to “rejected” in the citation above, you will be directed to an article by economists Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode titled “Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism” that is the source of one of Clegg’s key rejoinders:

It’s true that cotton was among the world’s most widely traded commodities, and that it was America’s principal antebellum export. But it’s also true that exports constituted a small share of American GDP (typically less than 10 percent) and that the total value of cotton was therefore small by comparison with the overall American economy (less than 5 percent, lower than the value of corn).

I understand that Clegg is an accomplished academic with a post in the U. of Chicago history department but I have to wonder if he bothered to do anything except take Olmstead and Rhode’s claim at face value. They wrote, “More than this, cotton was not even the nation’s most important agricultural commodity in terms of value—that distinction always went to corn.” They don’t back that up with statistics and Clegg follows suit.

Clegg also takes their findings on exports as a percentage of American GDP at face value, but did he bother to put that under the same kind of critical scrutiny as he puts the NHC’ers? As a Columbia University retiree, I have access to the online Cambridge Historical Statistics that will likely never be checked by the Jacobin readers who walk away from Clegg’s article assuming that slavery was less important than corn in the take-off of American capitalism.

There’s a bit of a problem, however. The GDP that Olmstead and Rhode refer to was a product of their own research and not some independent data-gathering body. Since Olmstead is one of the six editors who put together the five-volume Cambridge series, it is entirely possible that his own biases might have crept into how the data is presented. It doesn’t help that one of the other editors is Gavin Wright, whose own attack on the NHC’ers is linked to in the word “widely” in Clegg’s citation above. Wright lets the impudent historians know that they are in for a good biffing: “Having thus allowed the editors to dig their own rhetorical graves, let me urge economic history readers not to overreact to the bluster and bombast.”

I should add that there was no government agency collecting data for GDP during slavery. If you do a search on “GDP” in the online Cambridge Historical Statistics, you will find the following disclaimer:

The official estimates of national income and product provided by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) begin in 1929. The broad interest in long-term trends has generated a number of attempts to estimate national product for the earlier period… It is important to note that all pre-1929 estimates are based on fragmentary data that were not originally collected for the purpose of making national product estimates. This means that the series are less precise than the official estimates.

In fact, prior to the publication of the Cambridge Historical Statistics, the only available data was from the census bureau but only beginning in 1869. In the essay on GDP in the Cambridge Historical Statistics, you will learn that economists have no uniform opinion on such matters. It even warns that Robert Gallman’s statistics on GDP dating back to 1839 “are not appropriate for studies of economic fluctuations or dynamics.” But never mind, let John Clegg cherry-pick the statistical findings in an article by Olmstead and Rhode that is congenial to his thesis that slavery retarded American capitalism. Others will dig deeper than the U. of Chicago sociologist.

All in all, reading Olmstead/Rhode and Wright reminds me of Sean Wilentz’s gate-keeping that keeps historians like Nicholas Guyatt beyond the pale. Wilentz huffs and puffs about how the impudent Hannah-Jones does not pay proper respects to Lincoln while the economists are beside themselves over the nerve of Sven Beckert and company exaggerating the importance of cotton and slavery. How dare they.

For some, there’s good reasons to cheer on Olmstead and Rhode since their debunking of the NHC’ers has the added value of rendering the need for reparations obsolete. If slavery did not turbocharge capitalism, why should black people be entitled to reparations? Maybe they should be paying back American corporations to compensate for lost profits under slavery.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Nikole Hannah-Jones said:

If you read the whole project, I don’t think you can come away from it without understanding the project is an argument for reparations. You can’t read it and not understand that something is owed. But there’s not a piece that looks at that in the project, so I’m going to be working on a piece that is actually asking the question of: If we understand that the legacy is alive right now and that so much of the conditions of black Americans can be traced to that legacy, then what do we actually owe? What is the restitution that is owed?

The WSWS, a bastion of opposition to Project 1619, will have none of this. “But the race-based interpretation advanced by the 1619 Project, reflecting the social aspirations of the more affluent sections of the African-American middle class, serves to bolster demands for reparation payments. This is not incidental to the Project’s aims. Hannah-Jones has already announced that her forthcoming project will be a demand for racially based reparations.”

Opposition to reparations also comes from the rightwing cesspool, just as was the case with Project 1619. When both the National Review and WSWS line up against Project 1619, you have to ask what the hell is going on. Same thing with the NHC and reparations. On August 26, 2019, an article appeared in National Review that gloated over Olmstead and Rhode’s “stinging rebuke” of NHC historian Edward Baptist. Since Baptist’s work was cited by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s in a call for reparations, naturally the government will have to say, no thank you.

Bhaskar Sunkara also came out against reparations in The Guardian but without the WSWS’s vitriolic class-fundamentalism or the National Review’s obvious white supremacist baggage. Instead, he finds the idea of reparations beyond the capability of government agencies to administer and unfair to non-black citizens who will be getting short shrift (the reference to Coates below is Ta-Nahisi Coate’s 2014 article in the Atlantic calling for reparations):

But what kind of bureaucratic process would be necessary to identify who gets to receive the reparations Coates supports? It can’t simply be race, because recent immigrants from Africa wouldn’t qualify, nor would the descendants of slaves held in former French or British colonies. Would we need a new bureau to establish ancestry? Is that overhead and the work it will involve for black Americans to prove that they qualify worth it compared to creating a universal program that will most help the marginalized anyway?

Or consider this dilemma: money for reparations will come from government expenditure, of which around half is funded by income tax. Could we be in a situation where we’re asking, say, a black Jamaican descendent of slaves, or a poor Latino immigrant, to help fund a program that they can’t benefit from? Reparations wouldn’t be quite such a zero-sum game, but it would hard to shake the perception. Is this really the basis that we can build a majoritarian coalition?

A blogger named Paul Sowers, about whom I know nothing, took exception to Sunkara in an article titled “Fuel for the Journey: Bhaskar Sunkara, Black Exclusion, and Reparations.” He begins by pointing out that the New York State county that Sunkara grew up in was sued by the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, a private civil rights group. It made the case that local government in Westchester County was violating the terms of an agreement to receive federal funds contingent upon their being allocated to undo obvious, longstanding patterns of segregation.

He caustically added: “Sunkara was born and raised in the village of Pleasantville, N.Y., which—when the lawsuit was initially filed in 2006—had an African-American population of 0.0%. It is referenced explicitly in Beveridge’s sworn declaration. And like many jurisdictions in Westchester County, it appears to have remained particularly keen on preserving the broader region’s rich history of enforced separation of black people.”

He then lets the hammer drop:

Which is what makes Sunkara’s most recent commentary on the issue of reparations in The Guardian so totally objectionable; because his life in America simply does not exist in any recognizable way without the fact of that manufactured black failure. Jacobin arguably does not exist without that black failure (Sunkara’s parents’ names both appear on Jacobin Press LLC’s business license filings, with his dad listed as the company principal, and the company address being listed at an apartment that the family owns in the Bronx). And so the question is, then, what does it mean for an individual whose life and professional career, which in so direct and unambiguous a way has been made wholly possible by the specific oppression suffered by black people, to then use his position in the media to promote the message that specific policy designed to redistribute such opportunities back to those very people “can’t adequately address racial inequality”?

In my view, the assault on both the NHC and on reparations demonstrates that racism remains part of the DNA of the U.S.A. as Nikole Hannah-Jones points out. In keeping with his undying loyalty to Bernie Sanders, Sunkara used his opposition to reparations as a cudgel against Elizabeth Warren.

Although I have all sorts of problems with Ta-Nehisi Coates, he makes some very good points in his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations”. Like is the case with Nikole Hannah-Jones’s reflections on her father’s experiences in her Project 1619 essay, Coates examines the costs racism extracted from a black man named Clyde Ross, who was born into a family fortunate enough to own 40-acres as promised by the Radical Republicans.

Unfortunately, his father was swindled out of his land by racists:

When Clyde Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes. The elder Ross could not read. He did not have a lawyer. He did not know any-one at the local courthouse. He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land. They seized the buggy. They took the cows, hogs, and mules. And so for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping.

Coates offers an impassioned case for reparations in contrast to Sunkara’s pettifoggery. It makes a good companion-piece to the articles that appeared in the Project 1619 special issue of the Sunday Times Magazine. If you have trouble getting past Atlantic’s paywall, contact me at lnp3@panix.com and I will send you a copy.

February 15, 2020

Four narrative films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:44 pm

After wasting my time watching a bunch of crappy Hollywood movies to fulfill my obligation as a NYFCO member to judge front-runners like “Joker” or “1917” for our awards meeting in early December, I am finally returning to my kind of films. These are generally featured in art houses like the Film Forum in New York and the Laemmle in Los Angeles. The four under review here are worth seeing if you spot them playing in your home town. There’s a good shot that they will eventually end up on Amazon, the only real contribution Jeff Bezos has made to humanity.

Corpus Christi (opens February 19th at the Film Forum)

In 1936, Ignazio Silone wrote the anti-fascist novel “Bread and Wine” that told the story of a young revolutionary who assumes the identity of a priest in order to throw the cops off his trail. He lives in a poverty-stricken village made up by the kind of backward peasant that Marx had in mind when he called religion the opium of the people. It was not exactly a call for abolishing religion since he also writes, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”

Once he assumes this identity, the revolutionary is besieged by peasants who need someone to minister to their spiritual and economic needs. This forces him to improvise, often calling upon the good sense and humanitarian instincts that made him a revolutionary.

In “Corpus Christi”, a Polish film directed by the 38-year old Jan Komasa, we have a similar plot but the main character Daniel is not a revolutionary. Instead, he is a young man who has just been released from prison to serve the rest of his term for second-degree murder through a work-release program. He is sent to a rural town to labor for a pittance in a saw-mill. The town is not nearly so poor economically as the one in “Bread and Wine” but just as spiritually bereft, if not more so.

When he was in prison, Daniel became an assistant to the chaplain. Over time he became more and more spiritually-minded and especially looked forward to singing hymns at prison masses. On the day he was to be released, he asked the priest if there was any possibility of being recommended for the Catholic seminary. He was told that his prison term made that impossible. So much for Jesus’s teachings about forgiveness.

Perhaps as a sign of his yearning for the life of a priest, Daniel purloins a priest’s vestment and takes it with him to the town where he is to become just another parolee carrying out what amounts to indentured servitude. Once there, he stops in at the local church to meditate. When he learns later that day that the local priest is about to go on a leave of absence, he puts on the clerical clothes he brought with him and convinces the priest that he is legitimate and willing to sub for him. Was he succumbing to baser motives such as higher pay and an easier way of making a living? Or did the time spent in religious services in prison transform him?

The screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz, who is only 27 years old, told 28 Times Cinema: “What fascinated me from the beginning was the ambivalence of the premise. We have somebody who maybe just does it for money. Perhaps, it’s also for some emotional profit. He wants to feel he’s someone better than he really is. Maybe it’s a whole different reason. This multi-dimensionality was what kept me going working on the story.”

They say that clothing makes the man. In his case, Daniel turns out to be much more of a holy man than the one he has replaced. In a town that is tormented by a terrible automobile accident (or deliberate homicide), he brings solace to the families that lost a son or daughter. At the same time, he comforts a woman whose husband was judged guilty for plowing his car into the one that was carrying the young people still being mourned, a year after the tragedy. The town has ostracized her in a manner reminiscent of Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”.

As someone with not a spiritual bone in my body, I found “Corpus Christi” deeply moving. It lacks the political edge of the kind of films I tend to write about but the story-telling is first-rate. It moved me in the same way that Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” did. As Daniel, Bartosz Bielenia is unforgettable.

The Whistlers (opens February 28th at the Film Forum)

This is a Romanian film directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, whose work I am not familiar with. “The Whistlers” is a crime story with a very fresh take on the genre involving crooked cops and the drug trade. The main character is a middle-aged cop named Cristi who teamed up with a Romanian drug dealer to rip off some Spanish dealers.

The plot is far too complicated to go into any kind of detail so suffice it to say that Cristi ends up on the Canary Islands to meet with the Spanish gangsters who will coerce him into leading them to the stash he and his partner have buried back in Romania. To make sure they are not found out by honest cops (a scarcity in Romania, as the film will point out) on their trail, they communicate through a whistled language that is unique to the people of the Gomera island in the Canaries. It has between 2 and 4 vowels and between 4 and 10 consonants.

“The Whistlers” was likely made for an international audience and lacks the darkly introspective character of Romanian films of 10 to 15 years ago that explored the corruption of both Communist and post-Communist rule. In its favor, it is a throwback to Alfred Hitchcock’s confections like “To Catch a Thief” or “Marnie”. Intricately plotted and swiftly paced, it is far more entertaining than the lead-footed movies I endured in the weeks before the NYFCO awards meeting in early December.

Sorry We Missed You (opens at the Film Forum on March 4th and at Nuart in Los Angeles on March 6th)

This is Ken Loach’s 55th credit as a director since 1964. Now 83 years old, he still is capable of making the kind of gut-wrenching, pro-working class film that has distinguished his career.

In the opening scene, we meet Ricky Turner, a man in his mid-forties, who is being interviewed for a job delivering packages in an unnamed British town. Formally speaking, he will not become an employee but a “franchisee”. Like Uber or Lyft, he is supposedly self-employed but no more so than the people who used to spin cloth at home in the earliest stages of capitalism. That’s a sign of the combined and uneven nature of capitalism today that the most up-to-date technology is used to exploit a worker like Ricky Turner in the same way his fellow Brits were 600 years ago.

To qualify for the position, Ricky needs a van. He can rent one from the subcontractor but at a hefty price. Like most men or women desperate enough to work in such a position, he takes a risk and puts a down payment on a van for a thousand pounds. To raise the cash, his wife Abbie sells their car, something that makes her job much more difficult. She is a home nurse who goes from house to house looking after the elderly, most of whom are suffering from dementia or some other severe geriatric illness. The job is low-paying and emotionally draining. Without a car, Abbie is forced to take the bus. When they get home late at night, they can barely communicate with their children, a teen boy named Sebastian and a grade school girl named Liza Jane.

Their absence only accelerates the self-destructive tendencies of Sebastian whose only pleasure in life is going out with his mates spray-painting graffiti, one step ahead of the cops. When he is arrested for shoplifting spray paint, Ricky has to give up a day’s pay to sort things out at the police station.

In the final moments of the film, everything is falling apart around the famuly. This, of course, is not just a story about a family. It is the story of the English working class today, as heart-felt and as compelling as Engels’s “Conditions of the Working-Class in England”. In many ways, Ricky is a casualty of the collapse of this class since the drying up of construction jobs, his mainstay over the years, has plummeted him into the depths of contingent labor.

For background on how such workers fare, I recommend an April 14, 2019 Guardian article:

The Observer has been contacted by three drivers who have delivered parcels for Amazon. They report shifts of 12 hours or more on zero hours contracts, unpaid overtime and penalties for failing to meet onerous targets. Because they are classed as self-employed, they are obliged to pay for their vehicles and expenses and do not receive sickness or holiday pay. They claim long, unpredictable hours and transport costs mean that pay can amount to less than the minimum wage.

Better yet, I recommend going to Film Forum to see this extraordinary film by our greatest living radical filmmaker.

Burnt Orange Heresy (Opens March 6th at the Landmark in New York)

This stars Claes Bang, the brilliant Danish actor, as a chain-smoking, pill-popping art critic named James Figueras who makes a living giving lectures to tourists in Italy. Author of “The Power of the Critic”, he lives beyond his means and has even been caught misusing funds meant for business expenses for his lavish life-style. This bit of thievery came this close to landing him in prison.

At his last lecture, he meets a stunning blonde and they begin a passionate affair. A week or so into the affair, he is contacted by one of the world’s most successful art dealers, a man named Joseph Cassidy, who is played by Mick Jagger to serpentine perfection.

Cassidy lives in a palatial home overlooking Lake Como. On his grounds, living in a modest cabin, is one of the twentieth century’s most famous artists, an elderly man named Jerome Debney, who is played by Donald Sutherland. Debney shocked the art world by setting fire to his studio out of weariness with the art world and its critics. Since all his paintings were destroyed, Cassidy has hopes that Figueras can persuade Debney to do one last painting so as to cash in on its rarity—and hence its value.

I imagine that Bang was cast in this role since he was so great playing the shady director of a museum a lot like the Whitney in New York. It traffics in the questionable avant-garde, even more so than the Whitney. I reviewed the film in 2017 and invite you to see it now as VOD. It is fantastic.

“The Burnt Orange Heresy” is based on a novel by Charles Willeford, who died in 1988. I was not familiar with Willeford. Before he became a writer, he knocked around as a professional boxer, actor, horse trainer, and radio announcer. He was a noir novelist like James M. Cain who one critic described as the “genre’s equivalent of Philip K. Dick’s best science fiction novels.” That’s a pretty good recommendation.

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