Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 31, 2020

ReelAbilities Film Festival 2020

Filed under: disabled,Film — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

On Friday March 13, 2020, CounterPunch published my review of the Socially Relevant Film Festival 2020. Before the day was up, I learned that the festival was being postponed because the COVID-19 pandemic had forced the closure of the festival theater venues.

From that day onward, my film reviews have dried up to a trickle. Five very promising films were cancelled, including one on Thomas Piketty’s new book and another on the radium girls who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials. As might be obvious from my interest in such films, I see covering them as a political obligation.

On the same day I learned that the Socially Relevant Film Festival was postponed, I received an invitation to cover the ReelAbilities Film Festival that takes place between March 31 and April 6. The festival will still be taking place but “virtually” as the N.Y. Times noted in a March 25th article:

ReelAbilities Film Festival: New York

This annual festival shows movies that raise awareness of the perspectives of the disabled, like “Code of the Freaks,” a documentary  examining representation in Hollywood movies, and “25 Prospect Street,” about a Ridgefield, Conn., theater that  hires  people with disabilities. The festival will  take place on its original dates, March 31 to April 6, but it has moved online at reelabilities.org. Screenings  can be watched at their scheduled times or for 24 hours afterward, and Q. and A.s will be available as well.

Yesterday, I watched three of the films online and found all to be first-rate. Tickets to the films appear to be entirely voluntary and generally in the interest of raising consciousness about disability rights that are under threat right now. ProPublica just reported that “Advocates for people with intellectual disabilities are concerned that those with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism and other such conditions will be denied access to lifesaving medical treatment as the COVID-19 outbreak spreads across the country.”

Code of the Freaks

This is the opening night feature and a great one at that. Like “The Celluloid Closet” that documented the homophobia in Hollywood films, this documentary does the same thing for the objectification of disabled people going back to the silent film era. It was written by Susan Nussbaum who is also interviewed throughout the film. After an automobile accident made her wheelchair-bound, Nussbaum became a disability rights activist. In helping to make this film, she will help anybody who sees it to take a fresh look at any film with a major character who is either blind, deaf, wheelchair-bound, intellectually challenged or deformed. “Code of the Freaks” is a survey of some of the best-known films in this genre, including the Helen Keller biopic “The Miracle Worker”, with mordant and penetrating commentary by disabled people.

Among the most interesting observations made by the interviewees had to do with the differences between how blind people were represented. For blind women who have to deal with a home invasion by a rapist or killer, there’s an obligatory scene of the heroine taking a bath while being stalked by the intruder. Needless to say, the female is played by a beauty queen like Audrey Hepburn but never a real blind woman. Generally, except for Marlee Beth Matlin, the actresses are fully abled. By representing these women as both vulnerable and sexually attractive, it is a way to tantalize the audience through a combination of horror and desire.

On the other hand, blind men are often portrayed as assertive and risk-taking. No better example of that is Al Pacino behind the wheel in “Scent of a Woman” refusing to slow down by his front-seat companion. This is not to speak of all the action films featuring a blind man who has mastered some martial art or swordsmanship. In either case, male or female, there is little interest in making a naturalistic film that depicts disabled people dealing with the same sorts of issues that abled people face.

As a genre, films about the disabled often show women serving disabled men sexually as a kind of charity. In “The Sessions”, Helen Hunt plays a professional sex surrogate helping a man in an iron lung lose his virginity. One of the film’s highly capable commentators wonders why can’t a film be made about a disabled couple getting it on?

One of the more unsettling moments of the film comes with its analysis of “Gattaca”, a film that concludes with its disabled main character committing suicide in order to become “one with the universe”. You get the same sort of send-off in “The Elephant Man”, when after the main character kills himself, you get an “inspiring” panorama shot of distant stars in the heavens as if his soul has joined them.

You get a feel for the snarling intensity of this film from an article Susan Nussbaum wrote for the Huffington Post:

When I became a wheelchair-user in the late ‘70s, all I knew about being disabled I learned from reading books and watching movies, and that scared the shit out of me. Tiny Tim was long-suffering and angelic and was cured at the end. Quasimodo was a monster who loved in vain and was killed at the end, but it was for the best. Lenny was a child who killed anything soft, and George had to shoot him.[A reference to “Of Mice and Men.] It was a mercy killing. Ahab was a bitter amputee and didn’t care how many died in his mad pursuit to avenge himself on a whale. Laura Wingeld [in Tennessee Williams’s “Glass Menagerie”] had a limp so no man would ever love her.

Our Time Machine

With a 100 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and deservedly so, this 2019 documentary is about the efforts of Chinese artist Maleonn to connect with his father, an elderly former director of the Shanghai opera company suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Maleonn works in various media, but his most ambitious medium is making extremely life-like puppets. He decides to create a puppet show depicting the relationship between a father and a son that mirrors his own relationship. In the play, the father is a pilot rather than an opera director. To help his ailing father, the puppet son constructs a time machine that allows the man to go back into the past to regain lost memories. The puppets made for father and son are phenomenal but the most breathtaking realizations are the time-machine and airplane that are a combination of Rube Goldberg and Jean Tinguely.

Toward the end of the film, Maleonn is barely recognized by his father. Each time he shows his newborn granddaughter to the old man, he is asked who she is. When he replies that this is his granddaughter, his father beams in pleasure. Maleonn quips that this is maybe one saving grace of Alzheimer’s that the victim continues to enjoy each moment as if for the first time.

Kinetics – Where Parkinson’s Meets Parkour

Written and directed by Sue Wylie, this narrative film casts her in the leading role as a drama professor learning that she has early onset of Parkinson’s. Wylie’s script is based on her own experience dealing with the trauma of dealing with a loss of balance and motion.

In this two-character film, she meets a student who has his own issues with mind and body. Lukas almost falls on top of her as he has jumped from a wall alongside the sidewalk she is navigating with some difficulty. Lukas suffers from ADHD and used parkour as a way of feeling more control over his life and emotions. Wikipedia describes parkour as a “training discipline using movement that developed from military obstacle course training”. Its practitioners seek to get from one point to another in a complex environment, without specialized gear.

As someone who lost a best friend to Parkinson’s in 2018, Sue Wylie’s travails were familiar to me. Her ability to extract some hope out of her experience is in line with the other two films discussed above. All three are first-rate films and worthy of your support at a time when filmmaking, like most other group experiences, is under siege.

Worker’s voices from the Amazon walkout

Filed under: coronavirus,workers — louisproyect @ 12:39 pm

March 29, 2020

More from JL Cauvin / JL Trump

Filed under: humor,Trump — louisproyect @ 12:06 am

(I love this guy.)


March 27, 2020

Life and Death in the Epicenter

Filed under: coronavirus,Counterpunch,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 3:08 pm


When it comes to warding off COVID-19, I’ve been ahead of the curve. Last October, after a bout with acute bronchitis that lasted most of the month, I resolved never to go through such an ordeal again. I started using hand sanitizer and avoided touching my face. Like my glaucoma, it is a geriatric illness. When I checked the New York Times archives for tips on dealing with bronchitis, I was shocked to discover how many well-known and powerful geezers came down with it: Konrad Adenauer, Boris Yeltsin, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Paul Robeson. None died from bronchitis, but around half were hospitalized, a routine treatment for powerful heads of state (except for Robeson.)

While bronchitis is not life-threatening, COVID-19 certainly is. As a septuagenarian, I am vulnerable. On top of that, the illness indicated that my immune system was compromised, just as you’d expect. Getting through this pandemic is a matter of life and death for me, especially since I live in New York City, the epicenter.

Continue reading

Exponential Threat

Filed under: coronavirus,Trump — louisproyect @ 12:17 am

March 26, 2020

A Strictly Personal Looking Past The Pandemic

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:09 am

via A Strictly Personal Looking Past The Pandemic

March 25, 2020

Use of proxy servers is strictly banned

Filed under: Trolls/stalkers — louisproyect @ 9:52 pm

I understand that some of you like to post from proxy servers in coffee shops, etc., but unless you use an IP address assigned to the router from Verizon or Spectrum, etc., you are wasting your time. Also, don’t bother using a server in Cambodia.

I realize that VPN’s are key to posting in places like Iran and China, but nobody who has ever used one here was trying to avoid repression. Instead, they serve as some kind of shield that allows the user to avoid detection, I guess. As if I give a shit. To tell you the truth, it is not that I mind the personal attacks that usually comes from these sources. It is instead the refusal to be on the level. With so much anonymity polluting Twitter, the last thing I need is bogus names and IP addresses here.

So don’t waste your time or mine.

Donald Trump vs. God on Easter

Filed under: humor,Trump — louisproyect @ 6:05 pm

More videos from J-L Cauvin are here

March 23, 2020

Who Will Write Our History

Filed under: Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

Over the past couple of months, I have been going through some of the backlogged DVD’s I received from film studios meant to help influence my nominations for the yearly NYFCO awards in early December. Most have been ejected from my DVD player after 10 or 15 minutes, including the highly touted “The Farewell” (98 percent Fresh on RT.)

Close to the bottom of the pile was “Who Will Write Our History”, a documentary about the Warsaw Ghetto. I generally have an aversion for any film about the holocaust since they implicitly play into what Norman Finkelstein has described as an industry. Since this one was executive produced by Steven Spielberg’s sister Nancy, my expectations were even lower since I associate the Spielberg brand name with “save the Jews” products such as “Schindler’s List” and “Munich”.

It turns out that I was wrong. “Who Will Write Our History” is a masterful study of a group of Jewish historians, artists, poets, activists, and journalists who belonged to Oyneg Shabes (joy of the sabbath), an underground group led by left-wing Zionists sympathetic to the USSR and the Communist Party. Unlike the desperate and poorly-armed Jewish combatants who died in the legendary uprising, Oyneg Shabes was at attempt to document the lives of Jews under occupation. Watching it yesterday had additional significance as an analog of New York City today. Instead of death at Treblinka, we oldsters might succumb to COVID-19.

In addition to gathering together articles from the Jewish press, photos, art works, and other memorabilia, Oyneg Shabes  provided mutual aid to those desperately in need, especially through soup kitchens. In my CounterPunch article last Friday about post-Sanders politics, I mentioned how my grandfather Louis Proyect led the Workman’s Circle in Woodridge, N.Y. Among other things, this mutual aid group helped to bail out Jewish immigrants who were badly in need of food and housing when they got off the boat. Just as Occupy Wall Street came to help people in need after Hurricane Sandy, groups are coming together now to provide assistance to those trying to survive the COVID-19 ordeal. Socialist politics has often functioned as a promissory note about the future, better world. Oyneg Shabes and similar efforts today focus on the desperate present. Isn’t it possible that this is the best way to draw the oppressed into a fighting movement?

“Who Will Write Our History” is based on the 2007 book “Who will Write our History: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes Archive”, written by Trinity College historian Samuel Kassow. Kassow’s book details the group’s work under the leadership of Emanuel Ringelblum, a leader of Poale Zion. Poale Zion (Workers of Zion) emerged out the Bundist movement that was the target of both Lenin and Trotsky’s polemics. At a certain point, Bundists became more and more convinced that it was necessary to create a Jewish state for their salvation. The rightwing eventually crystallized as MapaiKassow chapter on comradesKassow chapter on comrades, the same party that David Ben-Gurion led. The leftwing veered toward labor Zionism of the sort that both Ringleblum and Martin Monath identified with. (Monath, of course, is the subject of Nathaniel Flakin’s highly-regarded “Martin Monath: A Jewish Resistance Fighter Amongst Nazi Soldiers.”)

Kassow provides expert analysis along with other historians in the documentary that was directed by Roberta Grossman, who is also a prominent interviewee. Although Grossman’s primary interest is in Jewish life, she also made a film taking up the cause of American Indians (“500 Nations”) and another about blues singer Sippie Wallace (“Sippie”).

Grossman adopted a novel approach in “Who Will Write Our History”. She used a cast of actors and actresses to play the men and women of Oyneg Shabes. Speaking Yiddish, they have tense meetings about how to preserve the archives as well as Jewish lives. Next to Ringleburg, the most important character is Rachel Auerbach, whose work as an editor did not preclude her from serving in a soup kitchen in the Warsaw Ghetto. During her time there, she wrote “Two Years in the Ghetto”. Here is a brief excerpt:

Our heads were full of ash and soot from the fires that engulfed the city only a little while before. The heels of our shoes were split from trudging through the stone and bricks of buildings destroyed by bombs and our nostrils filled with smoke and the smell of corpses. The noise of planes and exploding bombs still echoed in our ears.

It looked as if an earthquake had hit the city. The government was dead but the body wasn’t yet buried, and we were the mourners for the burial. These were the last days of September 1939. After the capitulation of Warsaw and just before the German army officially marched in.

Near the end of September, on the first or second of a “Series of Black Days” of the first German placards on the walls, the poet Rajzel Zychlinsky came to me with the news that Emanuel Ringelblum was looking for me. He’d asked her to let me know I was wanted at the “Joint” office.

After the destruction of its building on Jasna 11, the “Joint” had moved to Wielka Street. We had heard that Ringelblum carried on with his work during the entire siege, in the most intense days of bombardment, even on that frightening Monday, September 25th, when the bombardment lasted without letup from eight in the morning till six at night. The day that marked the beginning of the fall of Warsaw.

Much of the footage in the film is quite grim. You see dead people lying in the street being carted off by Jewish laborers. You also see Nazi propaganda films attempting to depict Jews as unclean and untrustworthy. They are sickening. Despite the very dark nature of the film’s content, it is a stunning portrait of people rising to the occasion.

Some Jews operated in just the opposite way. Refusing to prettify life in the Warsaw Ghetto, Grossman makes sure to include scenes of Jewish cops operated in the name of the Judenrat herding their brethren into trains destined for Treblinka. The poet Itzhak Katznelson, who was part of the Oyneg Shabes leadership, viewed them as “the scum of the earth,” “filthy souls,” and “the so-called ‘Jewish’ policeman, who has nothing of the Jew and nothing of the human-being.” As for Ringelblum, he referred to the “cruelty of the Jewish Police, which at times was greater than that of the Germans, the Ukrainians and the Latvians.”

I will conclude with an excerpt from chapter five of Kassow’s book titled “A Band of Comrades” (the entire chapter can be read here) that describes the partnership between Hashomer Hatzair (a leftist Zionist group that both Monath and SWP leader Peter Buch belonged to) and the LPZ, Ringleblum’s organization:

Hashomer and the LPZ started to bury the hatchet with the coming of the war in 1939. Both groups realized that, apart from the Communists, they were the most pro-Soviet organizations in the ghetto. Neither group idealized the Soviet Union, but when the war began both agreed that, whatever its faults, the Soviet Union was the Jews’ best hope. True, Britain was fighting Hitler but that did not make London an ally of the Jews. After all, in 1939 Britain had betrayed Zionism with the White Paper. Zionism’s best chance depended on the collapse of British rule in the Middle East; only world revolution and the Soviet Union could make that happen.

So while Dror and the Bund supported Britain as she fought alone against Hitler, the LPZ and Hashomer wrote in their underground press about an “imperialist war” between Germany and Britain. Difficult as it may be to believe that these Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto saw no difference between Hitler and Churchill, the fact remains that under the conditions they faced they desperately needed ideological certainties and dogmas that afforded hope and a shred of optimism. Ringelblum did not discuss these views much in his diary, but his party preached these notions in its underground press, which was co-edited by Hersh Wasser.

Once Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, all Jews naturally hoped for a Red Army victory. Hashomer and the LPZ could now dispense with the unnatural cant about the imperialist war and cheer on a USSR that was allied with Britain and the United States. In March 1942 the LPZ, Hashomer, Dror, and the Right Poalei Tsiyon joined the Communists in the formation of an “Anti-Fascist Bloc.” As Raya Cohen has pointed out, the new situation forced Hashomer to become less focused on Palestine and more concerned with the “here”: the ghetto, the war, and the situation in Europe. Although the movement’s hostility to Yiddish never disappeared, it began to issue a Yiddish publication (Oyfbroyz), a sign that for all its elitism and isolation it was at last reaching out to those outside its narrow circle. Thus the ideological gap between Hashomer and the LPZ continued to narrow.

Finally, I must mention a very good review of Kassow’s book on the World Socialist Web Site. Although I am very critical of the sect, I highly recommend Clara Weiss’s 2015 article:

After the seizure of power by the working class in October 1917, the Bolshevik government for the first time granted full civil rights to a substantial part of Eastern European Jewry. In response to these developments, the Poalei Tsiyon split into a left and a right wing in 1920. (Borochov himself had turned against the revolution before his early death in December 1917.) The right wing opposed the Revolution and was oriented toward gathering support from British imperialism for the foundation of a Jewish nation-state in Palestine. In Palestine, the Right Poalei Tsiyon became the basis for David Ben-Gurion’s Ahdut HaAvoda (Labor Unity), the predecessor of the Israeli Labor Party, which played a major role in the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948.

By contrast, the Left Poalei Tsiyon (LPZ), whose own members in Russia supported the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, defended the Soviet Union and advocated world revolution. The LPZ’s claim to admission to the Third International (Comintern) was rejected by Lenin, however, as the party refused to break with the ideology of Ber Borochov. The Left Poalei Tsiyon continued to support the foundation of a Jewish nation state in Palestine, albeit on a “socialist basis.” Central to the organization’s political and cultural work was its emphasis on the significance of Yiddish culture, based on the language of the impoverished Jewish masses of Eastern Europe.

Overall, the LPZ stood significantly to the left of the better known and larger Bund, which opposed the seizure of power by the working class in 1917 and continued to work within the Second International. Many members of the LPZ and its youth organization, Yugnt (Youth), defected to the Communist Party of Poland in the late 1920s and early 30s, and both organizations often worked together closely.

Given the extraordinary impoverishment of substantial sections of Jewish workers and intellectuals and the growing anti-Semitism under the regime of Józef Piłsudski in Poland, both left-wing organizations enjoyed significant support. The Bund and the LPZ oversaw impressive networks of newspapers, ran their own schools and were active in numerous self-help organizations and trade unions. As Kassow points out:

For a young person who lived in a cellar in Lodz’s impoverished Balut or Warsaw’s Smocza Street, groups like the Bund and the LPZ were far more than mere political parties. They represented a road to self-respect and human dignity, a way to strive for ‘something better.’ (p. 35)

(“Who Will Write Our History” is available for $2.99 on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Hulu and other VOD sites.)

March 21, 2020

The Life of a Worker

Filed under: pakistan,workers — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

In 2017, I reviewed a documentary titled “Machines” made by Rahul Jain that took you inside an Indian textile mill, showing workers making the fabrics that end up in markets everywhere. Not only does the work leave the men barely capable of enjoying anything after work except smoking a cigarette and listening to a radio; the starvation wages would not allow anything much more than that. The film makes the term wage slavery hit home. In my review, I stated:

Dark and satanic are words that immediately come to mind when “Machines” begins. For the first 15 minutes of the film, you see nothing but men operating machinery. The plant looks fairly ancient with poor lighting and no air conditioning. Except for the modern machines, they are housed in a building not that different from late 18th century England at the dawn of the industrial revolution that Engels described in “The Conditions of the Working Class in England”: “The atmosphere of the factories is, as a rule, at once damp and warm, usually warmer than is necessary, and, when the ventilation is not very good, impure, heavy, deficient in oxygen, filled with dust and the smell of the machine oil, which almost everywhere smears the floor, sinks into it, and becomes rancid.”

You can now see “Machines” on YouTube for $2.99. It will help you understand why India remains a hotbed of revolutionary zeal, even as Modi tries to tamp it down through Islamophobic nationalism.

Incredibly, the workers in “Machines” have it a lot better than the textile workers in Multan, Pakistan. Two days ago, I received an invitation to spread the word about a documentary made by the comrades in the Internationalist Marxist Tendency (IMT), where they have developed a working-class base. While I am averse to vulgar Marxism, I have always believed that it is poverty and super-exploitation that will make workers revolutionary-minded.

Titled “The Life of a Worker”, the 19-minute film consists of an interview with a power loom operator in Multan who describes his humble beginnings, his marriage and family living in poverty, the lethal conditions inside his factory where the textile fibers make asthma an epidemic, and his hopes for a different way of life.

The film is in Urdu but you can select English subtitles as an option. Have a little patience since the actual documentary begins about 2 and ½ minutes into “The Life of a Worker”. While you might not be surprised by the brutal conditions faced by a textile worker in Pakistan today, it is entirely possible that the good days of living in the advanced capitalist countries might be ending soon. An article in today’s NY Times titled “Coronavirus and Poverty: A Mother Skips Meals So Her Children Can Eat” dramatizes the depths to which American workers are falling:

Ms. Mossbarger hardly mentioned it, but she was starving. “I honestly wasn’t going to eat, but Jordan was like, ‘You got to eat something,’” she said.

The next morning, she again skipped breakfast and was sipping a Monster Energy drink. She was tired and her head hurt.

“I feel it,” she said.

“The Life of a Worker” ends with the strains of “The International”. We used to sing it at conventions of the Socialist Workers Party years ago, but it was mainly an exercise in nostalgia. Today, it is the capitalist system that is rapidly turning into a relic of the past, the sooner the better.

We toilers from all fields united
Join hand in hand with all who work;
The earth belongs to us, the workers,
No room here for the shirk.
How many on our flesh have fattened!
But if the norsome birds of prey
Shall vanish from the sky some morning
The blessed sunlight then will stay.

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