Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 30, 2020

Eating Up Easter

Filed under: Ecology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:20 pm

Available today on Music Box Virtual Cinema, “Eating Up Easter” documents the difficult balancing act that the Rapanui people have to carry out on Easter Island. They live 2,500 miles from Chile and walk a tightrope with their culture on one side and global capitalism on the other. Capitalism makes the tourist industry possible, allowing them to enjoy a higher standard of living than other Chileans (Chile annexed the island in 1877), but that also poses real threats to their culture, both through the trash that tourists leave on the island and the rampant consumerism new-found wealth brings. For those who have been following Cuba’s opening up to the tourist industry ever since the “special period”, the mixed blessings will be obvious.

Directed by the Rapanui husband-and-wife team of Sergio and Elena Rapu, the film features native peoples who are highly representative of the island’s trajectory. His father Sergio senior was a college-educated archaeologist and Rapanui’s first native governor. He decided to push strongly for integration with Chile and making the island “successful” economically. Part of that meant his abandoning archaeology and becoming a real estate developer. We see him supervising the construction of the first shopping mall on the island

We also meet Enrique Icke and Mahani Teave, a young husband and wife who see music as a way of preserving their culture. Enrique is also a trained engineer and anxious to solve the island’s environmental challenges, part of which entails building a music school with recycled material like beer bottles and automobile tires.

Finally, the most compelling character is a septuagenarian native woman called Mama Piru who is fiercely committed to Green values. Like Honduras’s Berta Cáceres, she won’t take no for an answer when it comes to ecological sustainability. Unlike the martyred Cáceres, the threat she faces is not assassination but being overwhelmed by capital’s power to transform “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions.” That was how Marx put it in “The Communist Manifesto”. Unfortunately, some Marxists today view that as progressive per se when in fact a return to “ancient and venerable” practices carried out by precapitalist societies must be considered especially when it comes to respect for Mother Nature.

In 1993, the Rapanui people became integrated into capitalist property relations in the most unexpected manner. Kevin Costner came to Easter Island with a massive production crew to make “Rapa-Nui”, a film that required practically every islander to be used as an extra. At $40 a day, they hit the jackpot.

The film depicts the islanders as victims of their own anti-environmentalist practices, with deforestation resulting from the building of the huge statues called moai. The only criticism I have of the film is the directors’ failure to counter this oft-cited explanation of how Easter Island became a case study in not respecting Mother Nature.

In Jared Diamond’s Collapse, you get the same version of the island’s decline as in Costner’s idiotic film but without the soundtrack and cinematic panache.

One of the more impressive record-correcting exercises of the mainstream account of Easter Island is Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo’s Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, and the Myth of “Ecocide”. In Collapse, Diamond judged Easter Island as one of the more egregious examples of “ecocide” in human history, a product of the folly of the island’s rulers whose decision to construct huge statues led to deforestation and collapse. By chopping down huge palm trees that were used to transport the stones used in statue construction, the islanders were effectively sealing their doom. Not only did the settlers chop down trees, they hunted the native fauna to extinction. The net result was a loss of habitat that led to a steep population decline.

Diamond was not the first observer to call attention to deforestation on Easter Island. In 1786, a French explorer named La Pérouse also attributed the loss of habitat to the “imprudence of their ancestors for their present unfortunate situation.”

Referring to research about Easter Island by scientists equipped with the latest technologies, the authors maintain that the deforestation had nothing to do with transporting statues. Instead, it was an accident of nature related to the arrival of rats in the canoes of the earliest settlers. Given the lack of native predators, the rats had a field day and consumed the palm nuts until the trees were no longer reproducing themselves at a sustainable rate. The settlers also chopped down trees to make a space for agriculture, but the idea that giant statues had anything to do with the island’s collapse is a fiction in keeping with Costner’s film.

Unfortunately, Diamond is much more interested in ecocide than genocide. If people interested him half as much as palm trees, he might have said a word or two about the precipitous decline in population that occurred after the island was discovered by Europeans in 1722. Indeed, despite deforestation there is evidence that the island’s population grew between 1250 and 1650, the period when deforestation was taking place — leaving aside the question of its cause. As was the case when Europeans arrived in the New World, a native population was unable to resist diseases such as smallpox and died in massive numbers. Of course, Diamond would approach such a disaster with his customary Olympian detachment and write it off as an accident of history.

“Eating Up Easter” is a beautiful and thought-provoking film. The islanders are wrestling with the same contradictions as the rest of the planet. At one point, Enrique Icke has a conversation with an environmental consultant who scoffs at the idea that the Green renewal projects on Rapanui are of much use to countries with five million people. (Rapanui has 7,750 citizens.) Enrique defends the tiny islands role as an example of what can be done once the entire society is behind a Green transformation. Seen as a laboratory for the projects this planet much undertake for its survival, the example set by the people of “Eating Up Easter” is a good place to start.

June 27, 2020

Chris Maisano’s class-reductionism apologetics

Filed under: class-reductionism,DSA,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 7:19 pm

Chris Maisano

On June 23rd, Ross Douthat, one of the NY Times’s rightwing opinion writers, came out with a piece titled “The Second Defeat of Bernie Sanders” that saw him as being out-of-step with the BLM protests over George Floyd’s murder. Perhaps as a result of reading Adolph Reed Jr. or Cedric Johnson’s class-reductionist articles, Douthat smeared BLM as a corporate tool:

The fact that corporations are “outdistancing” even politicians, as Crenshaw puts it, in paying fealty to anti-racism is perhaps the tell. It’s not that corporate America is suddenly deeply committed to racial equality; even for woke capital, the capitalism comes first. Rather, it’s that anti-racism as a cultural curriculum, a rhetoric of re-education, is relatively easy to fold into the mechanisms of managerialism, under the tutelage of the human resources department. The idea that you need to retrain your employees so that they can work together without microaggressing isn’t Marxism, cultural or otherwise; it’s just a novel form of Fordism, with white-fragility gurus in place of efficiency experts.

This was not the first NY Times article that described Sanders as being superseded by these protests. On June 19th, an article titled “Bernie Sanders Predicted Revolution, Just Not This One” took on the question of class-reductionism frontally:

When Mr. Sanders spoke about racial equality, it was often in the context of economic equality, championing proposals and prescriptions that he believed would improve the lives of all working Americans. He said that policies like single-payer health care would address higher maternal and infant mortality rates in black communities. And he wanted to legalize marijuana and end cash bail, policies he said were aimed in particular at helping black Americans and other people of color.

This is essentially the analysis put forward not only by Sanders but by Reed. Instead of raising race-based demands like defunding the police (which Sanders opposes) or—god forbid—reparations, Sanders, Reed, Sunkara, the Bread and Roses caucus in DSA, and the “democratic socialist” movement in general stresses economic demands to create black-white unity. In fact, this has been the foundation-stone of socialist groups since the time of Debs. Except for a brief period when the CPUSA raised the idea of a Black Belt, the party also envisioned a movement based on economic demands. In the 1930s, this meant getting workers of all races into a CIO union even when FDR was stabbing black people in the back. So irked by charges that FDR was a racist, Reed defended his record in a New Republic article titled “The New Deal Wasn’t Intrinsically Racist”.  Oh, did I mention that the word “lynching” doesn’t appear in the article?

The NAACP had persuaded Democratic Senators Robert Wagner and Edward Costigan to sponsor an anti-lynching bill but it needed FDR’s support. When he met with the two Senators, he said, “Somebody’s been priming you. Was it my wife?” FDR was annoyed by these men interfering with his New Deal reforms. He reminded them that if he backed an anti-lynching bill, the Dixiecrats “will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take the risk.” It also must be said that FDR was every bit of a racist as Teddy Roosevelt, whose statue is finally being removed from the front of the Museum of Natural History. In the chapter on FDR in  Kenneth O’Reilly’s “Nixon’s Piano”, we get the goods on the “friend of the Negro”:

Roosevelt had few contacts with African Americans beyond the odd jobs done for an elderly widow while a student at Groton. The servants at the Hyde Park estate where he grew up were all English and Irish. When serving in the New York State Senate he scribbled a note in the margin of a speech to remind himself about a “story of a nigger.” Telling jokes about how some “darky” contracted venereal disease was a habit never outgrown. He used the word “nigger” casually in private conversation and correspondence, writing Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt of his trip to Jamaica and how “a drink of coconut water, procured by a naked nigger boy from the top of the tallest tree, did much to make us forget the dust.”

Despite it being obvious that Jacobin was fully behind Sanders’s class-based “socialism” that most black leaders regarded as woefully blinkered, Chris Maisano insisted that Jacobin/DSA was for combining  class and race demands. Like most left groups, the DSA is not into self-criticism. With 70,000 members, they are feeling their oats.

Maisano is astute enough to acknowledge the similarities between what Douthat wrote and what Reed and Cedric Johnson have written in dozens of articles. He even considered the possibility that Douthat was wooing the DSA in the same way that Tucker Carlson has wooed Max Blumenthal (or maybe the other way around in this case.)

Ideologically attuned conservatives like Douthat are surely aware of the seemingly endless conflict between, for lack of better terms, “class-oriented” and “intersectional” conceptions of radical politics. They want to drive a wedge into the new US left and perhaps even win over a segment of the class-oriented left by mimicking some of its vocabulary and concerns.

Maisano clears the air by making the record that when Douthat counterposes demands for “Medicare for All and taxing plutocrats” to demands for “racial justice and defunding the police,” the protesters themselves are, by and large, not doing so. This might be true but you better bet your ass that Adolph Reed Jr. and Cedric Johnson are not into demands for “racial justice and defunding the police,” Is there anything clearer than their opposition to anti-racism? All you have to do is Google Reed and anti-racism and you come up with something like this:

Notwithstanding its performative evocations of the 1960s Black Power populist “militancy,” this antiracist politics is neither leftist in itself nor particularly compatible with a left politics as conventionally understood. At this political juncture, it is, like bourgeois feminism and other groupist tendencies, an oppositional epicycle within hegemonic neoliberalism, one might say a component of neoliberalism’s critical self-consciousness; it is thus in fact fundamentally anti-leftist. [emphasis added.]

Got it? All those mass actions, including one organized by five Louisville teens that produced a rally of 10,000 people, are “anti-leftist”. What a job that Jacobin has on its hands in trying to resolve the contradictions between what Reed writes and Maisano’s hollow attempt to put some distance between him and them. For Christ’s sake, his boss Bashkar Sunkara does an hour and twenty minute interview with Reed on June 10th and the George Floyd protests are not even mentioned.

To give the appearance that he is trying to deal with Reed and Johnson’s class-reductionism, he offers this:

The threat of corporate “blackwashing,” as Cedric Johnson has called it, is very real. But this is not sufficient grounds on which to reject the protest movement as hopelessly liberal or incompatible with working-class politics.

I spent a few minutes trying to decipher these two sentences and wondered why Maisano wasn’t more straightforward and capable of writing this instead:

The threat of corporate “blackwashing,” as Cedric Johnson has called it, is very real. But this is not sufficient grounds on which he or Adolph Reed Jr. reject the protest movement as hopelessly liberal or incompatible with working-class politics.

The last time anybody wrote something critical of Reed on Jacobin was back in 2016 and that was when the authors Jonah Birch and Paul Heideman were still in the ISO and capable of independent thinking. Now, after having drunk the Sanders Kool-Aid, they’ve seen the light.

Toward the end of his apologetics, Maisano urges patience with these young activists who haven’t been exposed to the brilliance of NYU sociologist Vivek Chibber or neo-Kautskyite legend Eric Blanc:

More important, so long as American police are able to kill and abuse people with impunity, and so long as there are clear racial disparities in police violence — even after accounting for class — it is unrealistic to expect activists with no connection to a severely diminished labor movement to spontaneously link race and class the way socialists might want them to do.

Yeah, okay. Maybe if Jacobin/DSA cadre had been spending more time getting behind organized anti-racist activism, they’d have been in a better position to “educate” these raw youth. I only hope that they don’t recommend Adolph Reed Jr. to the young’uns. To paraphrase what Jeeves said to Bertie Wooster, they might say, “You would not enjoy Adolph Reed Jr. He is fundamentally unsound.

June 26, 2020

The Last Tree, Madagasikara

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:30 pm


Two new films debut as Virtual Cinema today. Both address the hopes and the suffering of Africans, both in diaspora and on the continent.

“The Last Tree” is a coming-of-age story about Femi, a Nigerian boy growing up in a British housing estate. Despite the word “estate”, these buildings have much in common with housing projects in the USA and Paris’s banlieues. Grenfell Tower, where 72 people died in a fire as a result of negligence, was part of a housing estate. Coming-of-age films are not my favorite genre. “The Last Tree” soars above any I have seen since the sixties and is sure to be one of my picks for best films of 2020.

“Madagasikara,” the Malagasy name for Madagascar, documents the struggle for survival in an island nation just 250 miles off the east coast of Africa. This is a country of 26 million people with a per capita GDP of $471 per year, about half of Haiti’s. Although most people are aware of how Haiti became so poor, very little is known about Madagascar’s steep decline. Real income is only a third of what it was fifty years ago and imperialism is to blame.

Continue reading

June 23, 2020

The Ghost of Peter Sellers

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

Peter Medak is an 82-year old director who went through the harrowing experience of working with Peter Sellers in a comedy titled “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” in 1974. Like Ishmael quoting Job in the final page of “Moby Dick”, his latest film about this fiasco could have ended with the same words rolling across the screen before the closing credits: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

Titled “The Ghost of Peter Sellers”, Medak’s documentary reunites all the survivors who went through this experience with him. They exchange atrocity tales about working with Sellers on a movie that never should have been made in the first place. Octogenarians like Medak, they bring a wealth of experience about filmmaking over long careers. If “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was a colossal flop, you can credit it with one of its redeeming features. It inspired a documentary that will be of keen interest to anybody who loves film. It will make you appreciate the efforts that go into a film production that is difficult enough in the first place. When your star is a complete madman like Peter Sellers, it turns into a ticking time-bomb.

In 1974, Medak was a relative newcomer to directing films, with four credits to his name, including “The Ruling Class” that is described on the Turner Classic Movies website as a commercial failure that became a cult classic. The words commercial failure do not begin to do justice to “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” that never made it into theaters. Columbia shit-canned it after seeing the director’s cut. It was stillborn but should have been aborted after the first week of filming.

The screenplay was written by Spike Milligan, who was Peter Sellers’s partner in a long-running BBC radio show called “The Goon Show” that I used to listen to on WBAI centuries ago when it was still a great radio station. The show incorporated ludicrous plots with surreal humor and bizarre sound effects. It was the inspiration for future comedy shows like Monty Python and Firesign Theater.

The documentary includes many excerpts from “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” that strike me as an early attempt at making something like “Pirates of the Caribbean” but with far less success. As the pirate captain, Sellers in a fright wig comes across as if he were performing in one of the more stupid SNL sketches. With Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers having much more leverage on the production than Medak, the whole thing struck me as a vanity project gone very, very wrong. Like the Pequod in “Moby Dick”, the ship featured in “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was doomed from the start.

The portrait of Peter Sellers as an actor and a human being is what makes this film so compelling. As the greatest comic actor of our generation who had the fame and power of Charlie Chaplin in an earlier era, he comes across as a total asshole. When Medak and Sellers first get together in a Mediterranean villa to discuss how they would approach the film, Sellers spots a Who’s Who book on a nearby shelf. He then picks it up and finds entries for the film’s producers who he then orders to be fired. Given his superstar power, he got his way just as he got his way through the entire production, making one bad decision after another.

If his domineering style wasn’t bad enough in itself, it was made worse by his indifference to the film’s outcome. He routinely came late to meetings, antagonized the crew and generally acted more as a saboteur than a team player. In one stunning episode, he feigned a heart attack during a scene so that he could return to England ostensibly for treatment. Medak was shocked to see Sellers on the front page of a British tabloid coming out of a restaurant with Princess Margaret.

Hobbled by a sloppily conceived script, the film encountered insurmountable technical problems based on the misguided attempt to film at sea in an ancient boat that had been retrofitted to look like a 17th century pirate ship. Out on the sea filming the entire day, the crew and the cast were beset by seasickness. Made long before digital cameras were available, the boat had to tow a smaller boat equipped with a generator to power the cameras.

Medak is the star of his own film, using it as a kind of psychotherapy to purge what amounts to a major trauma. With the wisdom of his advanced age and that of the other men and women who worked on the film, he offers an object lesson in the art of filmmaking. While it is easy to understand why you might watch Kurosawa or Godard in film school, this documentary should be must-viewing in film schools across the world. Medak and the production team made this film in order to get paid. Unlike writing a novel or a poem, filmmaking is part business and part art. It was obvious that all the participants were anxious to make this film because Sellers was so bankable. It turned out that he was as bankable as Lehman Brothers in 2008, at least when it came to a misbegotten project like “Ghost in the Noonday Sun”.

The film opened today on Amazon Prime. It will likely be one of my nominations for best documentary of 2020.

June 22, 2020

Toward a new Marxist left

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 7:27 pm

They organized a 10,000 strong BLM protest in Nashville. Will they be leaders of a new revolutionary movement?

The handwriting is on the wall. The Sandernista/Jacobin/DSA project is now exhausted. While the USA is poised on the edge of cataclysmic economic decline against the backdrop of the most dangerous plague in a hundred years and powerful protests against killer-cops, the Sandernista left is mired in electoral routinism.

One wonders if there is even the slightest degree of soul-searching in these circles as everybody else seems to grasp that we are in a new period. On June 9th, the NY Times had an article titled “Bernie Sanders Predicted Revolution, Just Not This One” that showed how irrelevant he and his cheerleaders have become:

Yet amid a national movement for racial justice that took hold after high-profile killings of black men and women, there is also an acknowledgment among some progressives that their discussion of racism, including from their standard-bearer, did not seem to meet or anticipate the forcefulness of these protests.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, the legal scholar who pioneered the concept of intersectionality to describe how various forms of discrimination can overlap, said that Mr. Sanders struggled with the reality that talking forcefully about racial injustice has traditionally alienated white voters — especially the working-class white voters he was aiming to win over. But that is where thinking of class as a “colorblind experience” limits white progressives. “Class cannot help you see the specific contours of race disparity,” she said.

With Bhaskar Sunkara giving a fawning interview to Adolph Reed Jr., it is doubtful that the Sandernista left can make a turn toward new realities. “Intersectionality”, an academic term that I would never use myself, is a dirty word in their lexicon. It is one thing to believe that a “social democratic” program based on Medicare for All is what the country needs but that’s only the start. The left must recognize that today’s racism is based on hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow and de facto segregation that requires an anti-racist socialist movement, not warmed over Bayard Rustin.

New York Magazine, best known for its restaurant reviews and celebrity puff pieces, is even more attuned to new realities than the Sandernista left. In a piece titled “6 Teens Organized a Protest. 10,000 People Showed Up”, it sounds out what young activists in the BLM protests think about electoral routinism. This stuck out:

New York Magazine: Have you faced any backlash since the protest? And what does it mean to you three to be doing this work in the South?

Kennedy: I was actually surprised that we had a lot of support, because we do live in the South, and I’ve encountered various types of racism from people in the South. We did get backlash from a lot of people saying we’re brainwashed or that we’re being paid to do this or that we’re secret people the Democrats are using to win.

Emma Rose: We’re not even Democrats.

Kennedy: I’m not even a Democrat. I’m a radical.

If you look at the last sixty years of the left in the USA, you’ll see the broad contours of a movement trying to keep up with shifting social and economic changes. Between 1970 and 1990, the “Leninist” left was a pole of attraction for young people, including me. It was based on the notion that the sixties radicalization was the opening salvo in a march toward proletarian revolution. Since the whole idea was a repeat of 1917, the left adopted a mechanical understanding of Lenin’s party that led to sectarianism and ultimately collapse. The ISO was the last hurrah of this trend that ironically got started after such experiments were way past their shelf life.

Starting in 1999 with the Seattle anti-WTO protest, the left abandoned Leninist illusions and unfortunately adopted a new set of illusions based on half-baked anarchist theories. These included the idea that busting Starbucks windows was a litmus test for a successful protest. It also fetishized occupations such as those that occurred around the Occupy movement as a result of “prefigurative” fantasies. As if camping out in Zuccotti Park was the embryonic form of a future classless society.

Although the George Floyd protests started off with a mixture of anarchist adventurism and mass actions, within a week or so, the tide had turned. Young people, like those interviewed by New York Magazine, decided that political power rested in the masses, not in “bold” tactics.

In 1968, the novelist and art historian John Berger wrote an article titled “The Nature of Mass Demonstrations” that these young activists seem to understand instinctively. He wrote:

The demonstration, an irregular event created by the demonstrators, nevertheless takes place near the city centre, intended for very different uses. The demonstrators interrupt the regular life of the streets they march through or of the open spaces they fill. They ‘cut off these areas, and, not yet having the power to occupy them permanently, they transform them into a temporary stage on which they dramatise the power they still lack.

The demonstrators’ view of the city surrounding their stage also changes. By demonstrating, they manifest a greater freedom and independence – a greater creativity, even although the product is only symbolic – than they can ever achieve individually or collectively when pursuing their regular lives. In their regular pursuits they only modify circumstances; by demonstrating they symbolically oppose their very existence to circumstances.

Increasingly, people will be “voting with their feet” because the Democratic Party has become so hostile to change. With the Jacobin/DSA left pirouetting around the question of its support for a Biden vote, the radicals, including the young woman cited above, will have no other option except to reach out to like-minded young people, working class, black and immigrants, in search of a national organization that can be used to coordinate their struggles. Ultimately, this is what Lenin was up to when he wrote “What is to be Done”, even if he admitted that it was obsolete only five years after he wrote it.

Despite its size (70,000 members), the DSA will eventually be bypassed by a new movement that corresponds to the urgency of the tasks we face. When I joined the SWP in 1967, SDS had 100,000 members and it was easy to cower before it as if our “old left” notions were somehow woefully behind the times. Within 3 years, SDS had collapsed and the SWP had become the most powerful group on the left and the largest after the CPUSA. Like SDS, the SWP collapsed because it failed to adjust to the realities of post-1975 America.

There is considerable intellectual and theoretical ferment to the left of the DSA. Despite my reservations about their old-school Leninism, I consider the people who write for Left Voice to be among the most astute analysts of the current state of the capitalist system and how to challenge it. I also appreciate the group blog The International Socialism Project that is the voice of some of the former ISO leaders that were ousted by a new group that obviously intended to dissolve the ISO and take as many people into the DSA as possible. Unfortunately, a cover-up of a rape discredited the old leadership to the point that it was vulnerable to a Sandernista leveraged buyout. In thinking through these incidents that have wreaked havoc with both the ISO and the British SWP, I sometimes wonder that the only thing that makes sense is for female (or male) members to go straight to the police when a sexual assault takes place. Trying to adjudicate these crimes within a left group tends to be self-defeating.

Finally, there is Cosmonaut. The people who write for this online magazine are among the sharpest I’ve seen in the newly emerging Marxist left. I have it bookmarked and make sure to read and crosspost every article that appears there. The latest article, titled “Structuring the Party: The Case of the DSA” and written by Diego AM, “explores the organization conundrums of the modern left, looking at the Democratic Socialists of America and the alternatives proposed by base-builders and Maoists.”

He begins by identifying two organizational forms. One is made up of “centralizing” groups like the SWP and the ISO that have a leadership with “a stronghold on the party, and can barely be challenged.” Been there, done that. The other approach is “horizontalism”, which obviously describes the anarchist milieu. Although they never lead to the kind of stultifying internal life of the Leninist left, “they cannot hope to significantly challenge the established order with their numbers and the organization.”

This leads to an examination of the DSA that has allowed people to join on their own terms. This, plus the strong identification with the Bernie Sanders campaign, has led to its explosive growth. Although the DSA is a welcome alternative to the sect form, its loosey-goosey organizational norms make it ineffective when presented by the challenges we face today:

[The] DSA in effect functions more like a horizontal collective than a socialist party. This comes with all the problems known as the tyranny of structurelessness: the lack of structure on paper just means that there is an unacknowledged structure and unacknowledged channels for leveraging influence in the shape of passing resolutions or directing chapter money towards certain projects. And while anarchist affinity groups almost never exceed dozens of people, DSA members are faced with this problem in an organization that operates at a very different scale, in the tens of thousands of members nationally, and within chapters which are composed of thousands of members.

Of course, DSA has a national organization that provides vertical integration through dues, newspapers, national mailing lists and even a forum. But this is not what is important. To understand how the center operates, we must answer the question: if DSA is multi-tendency and in practice functions closer to a horizontal quasi-anarchist collective than a socialist party, why does it seem so wrapped up in electoral and reformist approaches? Why is it seen from the outside as a platform for progressive Democrats to be elected, even if the actual work on the ground is much broader? The answer to this question is that the most important of the vertical integrators are the electoral campaigns, especially those at the national level. This is what determines how the organization as a whole is seen from the outside, regardless of the work done at the local level.

In a section titled “Fighting for a socialist center: The Maoist and the base-building critiques”, Diego points to an alternative. Although I am not sure what Maoist groups he is referring to, it sounds to me like he has the comrades of the Marxist Center in mind. As a long-time supporter of the Philly Socialists, which was a prime mover of the Marxist Center, his endorsement was most welcome:

[It] is worth taking seriously the base-building critique. In my interpretation, this critique says that the left needs to consciously change its composition by choosing work that will bring in the dispossessed. This will help change its character by making it more tied to day-to-day struggles, and at the same time provide us with worker power which can actually stop the capitalist gears.

Concretely, this has meant organizing classes in English for immigrants in Philadelphia, action to block evictions, etc. I think these types of activities are essential but, to some extent, they are susceptible to the “horizontalism” that prevents groups affiliated with the Marxist Center to act in a coordinated and disciplined nation-wide fashion.

In a very real sense, this was the reason Lenin wrote “What is to be Done”: to unite a scattered left into a powerful force that could topple the Czarist system. For Lenin, a newspaper was essential. It was a way for local workers circles to coordinate their activities. Under “Leninist” organizational norms, the newspaper became fetishized to the point of becoming an obstacle to future growth. Its “line” served as a litmus test to see if you were capable of joining the purified ranks of the future vanguard party. Lenin had a different idea entirely. The newspaper was a place where socialists could exchange ideas and even debate with each other. The Left Voice comrades rightfully give credit to Lenin for conceiving of a newspaper as something far less of a “brand” than most sectarians associate with the party press:

Revolutionary press plays a different role from bourgeois press. It is the most suitable means to influence events and organize the militant and revolutionary base of a workers’ party.

Lenin’s political intransigence would not keep him from discussing with the great leaders of the international social democratic movement. Lenin invited Rosa Luxemburg and Kautsky, among others, to write in Iskra (despite their political differences) in order to fuel debate and critical spirit. This was central in his idea of journalism, debunking historical falsifications that portray Lenin as an “authoritarian leader.”

Frankly, I have not been keeping up with the Marxist Center in the past three years or so. I had high hopes that it could have tapped into the growing ferment of the BLM protests today and maybe even become part of the support network for Howie Hawkins campaign. This would require an adjustment to their customary practices that might go against the grain. In any case, what they had been doing was of great value even if it falls short of catalyzing the kind of mass revolutionary party that is so badly needed.

The last section of Diego’s article is titled “Where to go from here?”, which obviously evokes Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet. He is to be congratulated for striking such a note since it is so appropriate for the period we are entering. With so many on the left burdened by old habits, it is necessary for smart young people such as those writing for Cosmonaut to speak out forcefully.

He has exactly the right idea about the need for a program but not in the same sense of the Leninist sects that see it in the same way that Catholics see a catechism:

For the first, I would propose a unifying center of programmatic cohesion rather than commitment to this or that branch of revolutionary Marxism. A program should be understood in the sense of something you can accept for the basic conditions under which you would take power. This is different from historical or theoretical agreement, or a current strategy such as “get union jobs” or ”support Bernie Sanders for president”. Accepting the program means you may disagree with some or many points but are willing to put yourself behind it as the overall expression of the movement’s aims. A program should direct the elemental energy of the masses, recently seen in the protests around the killing of George Floyd, into a purpose. Otherwise, this energy is dissipated like steam, failing to turn the engine of revolution.

I tried to make the same points in a 2011 article titled “Rethinking the question of a revolutionary program”:

It should be clear what I am leading up to. I believe that a new left movement or party has to return to these roots. It is a big mistake to think in terms of program as the accretion of doctrinal statements made by a particular aspiring “nucleus of a vanguard party”.

Socialism, or anti-capitalism, has to be reconstituted on a much broader basis. Without a doubt, a program similar in spirit could be reconstituted from all of the points that the myriad of sects in the U.S. agrees on. I doubt that you will find the ISO and the Workers World fighting over, for example, the need to provide free medical care or the need to ban “fracking”. But in their fight to the finish line—the proletarian revolution of the distant future—they seek to protect their intellectual property, the sum total of all the resolutions voted on at all their conventions and all the newspaper articles, books and pamphlets churned out by their party press.

Diego ostensibly makes recommendations to the DSA even though he is “unsure whether the DSA with its current form and class composition would be able to provide an adequate minimum/maximum communist program in the Macnairist model.” The Manairist model is a reference to the writings of Mike Macnair, a leader of the CPGB in England who is best known for defending Karl Kautsky’s party-building precepts but understood much differently than the Jacobin intellectuals who find Kautsky’s writings amenable to supporting DP candidates.

In any case, his article ends on a very good note:

These prescriptions are very general and open to debate. The organizational ones will require constant evaluation to check if they are solving the problems designed to solve. But I believe that they point in the direction of what is needed to construct a proper vehicle for fighting. The final idea I believe must be digested is an understanding that we are comrades and not friends. We have responsibilities to each other because we committed to a larger movement, not because we like each other. It is fine to disagree on the details, and this should not be taken personally. We stand together because we accept the broader goals of the movement. We do not have to share hobbies or feel affinity towards each other. We have to trust each other and know that we play on the same team. In that spirit, I provide this piece as a good faith attempt to solve some of the problems I see around me.

June 20, 2020

2020 Socially Relevant Film Festival–the Virtual Cinema reboot

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

On Friday, March 13th, CounterPunch published my survey of films appearing at the 2020 Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York. On the following Monday, I received word that all of the festival theaters were shutting down because of the pandemic. I am reposting my article to give you an idea of what will now be available as part of the Virtual Cinema reboot of the festival. At six dollars per film, you will be able to see some leading edge narrative and documentary films.

Click the image above or the festival home page to get scheduling information for the screenings that begin next Tuesday. I have been covering the festival since its inception in 2013 and feel that this is the best one in a series of really great alternatives to the mindless, violent and commercially-driven Hollywood products.

My CounterPunch review:

Feature films

Good Morning

In 1981, Louis Malle made a film titled “My Dinner With Andre” that had a cast of two: Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. They wrote the screenplay and played semi-fictional versions of themselves. During the entire 111 minutes, the cameras were trained on the two as they sat eating and chatting at Café Des Artistes, a luxurious restaurant on the upper west side. Despite defying Hollywood film conventions across the board, the film impressed Roger Ebert enough to name it best of the year.

“Good Morning,” a Lebanese film, is this year’s “My Dinner With Andre.” Every morning an 80-year-old former General in the Lebanese army and an 84-year-old military doctor meet at a coffee shop in Beirut to spend time working on crossword puzzles together. They, like me (I am a bit younger), enjoy doing such puzzles both intellectually and therapeutically. They hope that by exercising the brain, they will stave off dementia just as jogging or bicycling will stave off heart disease.

Unlike “My Dinner With Andre,” which featured Andre Gregory as a flamboyant raconteur and Shawn as his timid interlocutor, the dialog between the General and the doctor is far more mundane. The drama, however, flows from their uphill battle against declining cognitive and physical abilities that puts their long-time friendship into bold relief. They become Everymen facing the inevitability of death just Max Von Sydow’s Knight faced off Death, the hooded chess master in “The Seventh Seal.”

Each day, the General habitually approaches total strangers in the coffee shop to ask them if they’d like to hear a joke. For most of the film, we don’t make too much of this since we accept this as the attempt of an elderly man to enjoy interaction with younger people, even if fleetingly. Toward the end, he begins to overstay his welcome at tables to the point that the doctor warns them that it has become a sickness with him. The look of consternation on the hapless General’s face is enough to bring tears to your eyes.

Against the human drama taking place within the four walls of the coffee shop, Lebanon is sinking into the regional crisis. Suicide bombers attack every so often while Syrian refugees beg on the street beneath them. Like most old-timers, they are nostalgic for the Lebanon of their youth. When they are not working on crossword puzzles or sharing their latest medical complaint with each other, they sing classic Arabic songs.

Considering the likelihood that the director Bahij Hojeij used an actual coffee shop and modest technical gear to make “Good Morning,” this film would educate aspiring filmmakers that a work of art does not require a $10 million budget. It requires instead deep humanist instincts and a flair for storytelling, traits that remain priceless.


With a Russian director (Alexey Zlobin) and a mixed Russian and Armenian cast, “Lorik” tells the story of a middle-aged actor in Yerevan that Freud would have diagnosed as a case of extreme narcissistic disorder. He cares nothing about the people around him and only expects them to cater to his needs. When a makeup artist is a bit late supplying him with the fake nose he needs to play Cyrano de Bergerac, he throws a tantrum. Upon further reflection, you might say that in the world of actors and actresses, he is fairly normal.

His world is turned upside down when he learns that the local government has decided to renovate his beloved theater. Robbed of a stage where he is in complete control, he makes the mistake of ordering the construction crew to cease and desist. Unaware that goons from the local government are providing security at the site, he gets the heave-ho and lands on his head on the pavement below the theater. When he regains consciousness, he is shocked to discover that people no longer see him as Lorik the famous actor. In their eyes, he has become Johnik, a parking garage attendant his neighbors regard as the village idiot.

Through some sort of supernatural process, Lorik—so used to playing larger-than-life characters like Cyrano—is now transforming into real-life characters who represent the social contradictions of Armenian society, both male and female, young and old. Among the youngest is a bed-ridden girl who requires costly surgery to recover from a serious illness. Not long after he sheds her “role,” he turns into the crooked politician who ordered the closing of the theater. He plans to turn into headquarters for his nationalist party.

Whether or not the screenwriter Michael Poghosian, who also plays Lorik, intended it or not, the film has a strong affinity with Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Lorik is Scrooge and the sickly girl is Tiny Tim. In the course of stepping into the roles of Yerevan’s divided society that overthrew a nationalist oligarchy last year, Lorik experiences redemption. Poghosian is excellent as Lorik. Despite my impatience with magical realism in other films, I found “Lorik” altogether enchanting.


Microplastic Madness

Like Greta Thunberg taking on the fossil fuel energy producers, the fifth graders in PS15 in Red Hook, Brooklyn are taking on the fossil fuel plastic manufacturers threatening marine life.

Like most kids, they love whales and other creatures living in the ocean. When their teacher takes them on a field trip to Jamaica Bay, they are disgusted to see all the plastic garbage strewn across the beach and in nearby bushes. They are even more disgusted to learn that the plastic stiffens under years of sunlight and then fragments into tiny particles. Swept up by the tides and into the ocean’s depth, the fish cannot distinguish them from food. Consequently, they eat them and perish. All in the name of a corporation’s bottom line.

Seeing the interaction between the students, mostly black and Latino, and their dedicated teacher, you wonder why can’t every school in the USA be following their example. They examine plastic fibers under a microscope connected to an Apple laptop. Imagine the most exciting science project that ever took place in your school and you’ll get an idea of the intellectual and political energy taking place at PS15. I taught fifth grade for a week in 1968 and would have stuck with it if I had the training to teach science to kids like these.

In addition to chronicling the intellectual odyssey of these youngsters, the film is also a primer on plastic pollution in the oceans. The website has information on the movement to reduce plastics in New York City that resulted in the elimination of Styrofoam in their school and plastic shopping bags in local grocery stores. The task of building a sustainable society will require a crusade against petrochemical energy and plastics companies. We are fortunate to have kids like Greta Thunberg and these fifth graders on the front lines.

Undermined: Tales form the Kimberley

The Kimberley is the northernmost of the nine regions of Western Australia. Bordered on the west by the Indian Ocean, Aboriginals make up forty percent of the population. The documentary describes their efforts to defend their homeland against mining companies and corporate agriculture. For those who have been following the struggles of the Lakota in the U.S.A. and the Wet’suwe’en in Canada against energy company incursions, seeing this film will help you understand that they are global in character.

Like Montana, Wyoming, and other rugged western states, Kimberley is a magnet for billionaires who buy land by the thousands of acres and build luxurious ranch estates. Ted Turner owns two million acres and fifteen ranches in 10 different states. Australian versions of Ted Turner have also moved in on Kimberley. Worth $15 billion, mining company owner Gina Rinehart is at the forefront of “developing” Western Australia. She was involved with a secessionist movement that would allow capitalists to exploit the region’s valuable natural resources at a faster rate than the government in Canberra would allow.

Besides her, the Aboriginals also have to contend with Kerry Stokes, who has major investments in mining and media companies. He is also a big-time rancher like Ted Turner. Stokes bought 1,563 square miles of land in the Kimberley and then stocked it with 20,000 head of Red Brahman cattle worth up to 40 million Australian dollars. To give you an idea of his commitment to environmental values, Stokes is on record as stating that the fires that raged last year in Australia do not have much to do with climate change.

Gratefully, the film does not pay much attention to such characters. It mostly allows Aboriginals, some of whom are small ranchers devoted to a pastoral lifestyle, to make the case for keeping predatory big businessmen out. If memory serves me correctly, this film gives Australia’s indigenous people the biggest opportunity to speak for their culture than any I have ever seen in a film.

Speaking most eloquently for the Aboriginal cause, Albert Wiggan seemed to be poised to enjoy the benefits of urban life as a college graduate and a professional. Instead, he returned to Kimberley and became a tribune of a struggle to maintain a civilization that goes back thousands of years. He belongs to the Bardi-Kija-Nyul Nyul people who live near Cygnet Bay on the Dampier Peninsula. When the government tried to build the world’s largest LNG plant at James Price Point, he lobbied the Supreme Court and led a blockade until the developer withdrew from the project. He now works as an environmental consultant with the Nyul Nyul Rangers and is Deputy Chair of the Kimberley Indigenous Saltwater Science Project. Like the fifth graders in Red Hook, Brooklyn, he is on the front lines of the struggle to make this planet livable for thousands of years into the future. Like “Microplastic Madness,” “Undermined” is a powerful tool on its behalf.

Stonewall With A ‘T’

Directed by Samy Nemir Olivares, a gay Puerto Rican immigrant and media activist, this film examines the rift between transgender people and the gay movement in the years following the Stonewall riot. While you are accustomed to seeing the case for LGBT rights today, for a number of years the T was absent.

Despite being sympathetic to transgender rights, gay men in leadership positions felt that legislators in both Albany and Washington would not pass a bill that included gender identity. The irony, as the film points out, is that it was transgender women who finally stood up and resisted the cops back in 1969.

Stonewall was not a club patronized by closeted stockbrokers or lawyers. Owned by the Mafia, it was popular with the poorest and most marginalized people in the gay community. They were up-front about their identity: butch lesbians, effeminate young men, drag queens, male prostitutes, transgender people, and homeless youth.

The film celebrates the leading roles played by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, black and Latina transgender activists who were to the transgender movement that Harvey Milk was to the gay movement. To get an idea of the oceanic gulf between a Tim Cook and such people, I recommend a Washington Post article that celebrates Stonewall :

Sylvia Rivera even credited Johnson with saving her life — a life marked by hellish trials from the beginning. Her father abandoned her at birth, and her mother killed herself when she was 3. As a child, Rivera would try on her grandmother’s clothes and makeup, and was beaten when caught. By 11, she was a runaway and child prostitute.

She met Johnson on the streets in 1963, when she was still a preteen.

“She was like a mother to me,” Rivera said later. Johnson gave Rivera a measure of stability and love she had never experienced.

There are many stories about what Johnson and Rivera did in the early-morning hours of June 28, 1969, when the Stonewall riots erupted. Almost everyone agrees they were there. One legend has Johnson throwing the first “shot glass heard around the world”; another has her throwing the first brick. Stonewall historian David Carter concluded it was “extremely likely” that Johnson was among the first people to resist the police.

June 19, 2020

Icelandic Noir

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iceland,television — louisproyect @ 5:10 pm


Over the past couple of months, I have been bingeing on Netflix like most house-bound CounterPunchers. In case you haven’t seen them yet, I highly recommend two series that originated on Iceland television: The Valhalla Murders and Trapped. Both are close relatives to the Swedish Marxist detective stories that I reviewed on CounterPunch in 2014. They succeed both as social commentary and art.

What’s surprising is that a tiny nation (364,134, a population smaller than Wichita, Kansas) can produce the type of television drama that not only competes with Sweden’s but leaves HBO and Showtime in the dust. After reviewing the two TV series and a couple of Icelandic films that also merit watching during these pandemic social isolation days, I’ll conclude with some thoughts about Iceland that CounterPunch author and Iceland citizen José Tirado helped stimulate.

Continue reading

June 17, 2020

Seadrift; The Pollinators

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

In 1979, the village of Seadrift, Texas, about 3 ½ hours south of Houston, became a major focus of TV and newspaper coverage when clashes between Vietnamese and native-born fishermen climaxed with Sau Van Nguyen shooting Billy Joe Aplin to death. This in itself was enough to make the headlines but when a jury found Sau not guilty, the shit really hit the fan. Seadrift, already a magnet for the KKK because of earlier violent but non-fatal clashes, became a battleground between two camps that superficially had the same goals, to become wealthy fishing for crabs and shrimp just like Gary Sinise’s character in “Forrest Gump”.

Directed by Tim Tsai, a Chinese-American, it relies on interviews with surviving members of both camps, including Billy Joe Aplin’s daughter who in the closing moments of the film states that none of this would have happened if the US never invaded Vietnam in the first place. Since the Vietnamese fishermen in Seadrift were fleeing Vietnam, you might think that they’d have a lot in common with their Texas counterparts who must have been just as anti-Communist as them, including several who were Vietnam veterans.

However, the search for profit tends to trump ideology—in this case access to fishing grounds. Unlike farming or ranching, there is no such thing as property rights. You go out in the water and throw your nets wherever you please. The native-born fishermen would have resented the newcomers just for competing over a limited resource but all the more so when they began casting their traps in the same location as they regarded as their own turf. At first the crab traps owned by the Vietnamese were trashed behind their backs. When they began to show up en masse to defend what they saw as their private property, the fight escalated to the point of bullets fired into each others’ hulls.

To the credit of the native-born, they eventually repudiated the KKK in a remarkable town meeting. Now in their sixties and seventies, they look back on this period as escalating out of control largely because of an inability to respect each other’s identity and rights.

In an interview with the Madison, Wisconsin Cap Times, Tsai draws parallels with today’s problems. “As I was editing the film, it was just surreal to see that what the KKK was saying back then was almost word for word what the alt right is saying today against immigrants and refugees. It’s just a different group (being targeted).” I had the same reaction.

(“Seadrift” is currently available as a DVD. Check First Run Features for word on its availability as VOD).

As the title implies, “The Pollinators” is all about the threat of extinction facing honey bees, which in turn threatens our own survival since one-third of all fruits and vegetables rely on their pollination.

Although I have been reading any number of articles about the honey bee decline in recent years, this deeply informative and politically urgent documentary contained many new revelations, starting with the fact that most pollination taking place today is not done by “free range” honey bees but by commercial firms that transport truckloads of hives to customers, mostly in California, who pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure that their almonds, apples, apricots, etc. can bear fruit.

However, since fruit orchards tend to face any number of threats to the trees even reaching the point of bearing flowers, including insects and fungus, they rely on chemicals to ward them off. If you’ve been following reports on the demise of honey bees, you are probably aware that neonicotinoids, a class of insecticide, are seen as likely cause. What the film reveals is that they replaced organophosphates that were so harmful to farmworkers. Unfortunately, they are much worse for the bees since they only begin to degrade after a couple of years while organophosphates degrade within days.

In addition, despite the loving care that professional beekeepers provide for their “workers”, they are not as hardy as “free range” bees that grow robust from being near wild foliage such as clover, etc. The film reveals that most of the U.S.A. bread basket interior has been turned into a vast monocrop source of soybeans and corn that might be of commercial value but of none to the reproduction of hives.

The last half-hour of the film is devoted to the coverage of regenerative farming that seeks to reconnect the main pillars of pre-capitalist farming, including a diverse combination of crops, the restoration of native grasses, livestock, and bees all working together to create healthy food.

As someone who has seen and reviewed well over 25 documentaries on ecology for the past twenty years, I would put “The Pollinators” at the top of those I consider essential. It can be rented from all the usual sources. Just Google/Video “The Pollinators” and the links will appear.

June 16, 2020

Global Warming After 1.5°C Without Emissions

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:56 am

via Global Warming After 1.5°C Without Emissions

June 15, 2020

The Killing Floor

Filed under: african-american,Black Lives Matter,Film,trade unions — louisproyect @ 6:42 pm

Now showing as part of Film Forum’s pandemic-induced virtual cinema program, “The Killing Floor” is a striking illustration of the need to synthesize class and race. Based on the experience of trying to build a trade union in Chicago’s stockyards during WWI, it is an object lesson on the need to abandon “white privilege”.

“The Killing Floor” was a 1984 TV movie directed by Bill Duke that I had heard about over the years but never seen. Not without its limitations, it belongs alongside “Salt of the Earth” and “Matewan” as truly engaged, working-class cinema. The teleplay was written by Leslie Lee, an African-American playwright who worked with the Negro Ensemble Company, and is based on a story by Elsa Rassbach. Rassbach lives and works in Berlin, where she heads the “GIs & US Bases” project for the German affiliate of the War Resisters International. She is also active in Code Pink, No to NATO, and the anti-drone campaign in Germany.

Duke, an African-American, is probably best known to most people as a hulking, action film actor who was part of the team Arnold Schwarzenegger led in “Predator”. He has also directed blaxploitation films like “A Rage in Harlem” and, unfortunately, directed his black cast members in “The Killing Floor” to use the exaggerated rhetorical style of such films. That directorial misstep and the inability of the film to represent the large-scale violence that took place in 1919 between whites and blacks due to budget constraints are its only drawbacks. However, if you are looking for an accurate and thought-provoking dramatization of the class/race contradictions that must be overcome in order to make a revolution in the USA, no other film comes close.

Nearly all of the characters in “The Killing Floor” are drawn from history, including the lead Frank Custer (Damien Leake), a black man from Mississippi who “freighthops” a boxcar to Chicago with his best friend Thomas Joshua (Ernest Rayford) in search of work.

Jobs were plentiful in the stockyards since so many able-bodied men had enlisted in the army. Like other blacks fleeing the misery of sharecropping, Frank and Thomas head directly to the YMCA on Chicago’s south side, the home of recently transplanted blacks. There they are told that they should go directly to the stockyards the next morning and expect to be hired on the spot. The YMCA’s role in funneling black men into the stockyards is just one of the many historically accurate details of the film.

Frank learned that a job in the stockyards paid well ($1.50 a day!) but in the most miserable conditions possible. With his experience slaughtering hogs on the farm back home, he was a natural for butchering cattle on the killing floor. However, he could not start right away since he didn’t have the knife necessary for the job. It took him days to put the money together. Unlike Frank, Thomas had neither the stomach for slaughtering cattle nor the willingness to put up with white worker racism. The Irish and eastern European immigrants who preceded them were spat upon in the old country. Now, in the U.S.A., they took every opportunity to spit upon those in a lower caste. Thomas, a “new Negro” who would not put up with such indignities, joins the army to leave all that behind.

Not all of the whites are racist. Some, like trade union organizer John Fitzpatrick (James O’Reilly), believe in black-white unity and bend every effort toward getting someone like Frank Custer to join the union. Like most of the newly arrived blacks, Frank is skeptical but eventually sees the wisdom of working-class unity and strength. My friend and fellow CounterPunch contributor Paul Street wrote about the role of people like Frank Custer in his 1996 Journal of Social History article “The Logic and Limits of ‘Plant Loyalty’: Black Workers, White Labor, and Corporate Racial Paternalism in Chicago’s Stockyards, 1916-1940” (the SYLC referred to below was the Stockyard Labor Council):

“Northern” Black workers joined unions in roughly the same proportion as white workers. Ninety percent signed up by early 1918. Barrett notes that they “created the type of institutions commonly associated with stable working-class communities-unions, cooperatives, fraternal groups, and an independent political organization [the Colored Club of the Cook County Labor Party].” They provided a “nucleus of Black union activity, serving on [SYLC] floor committees and recruiting for the SYLC.” Within that nucleus were such individuals as Robert Bedford and Frank Custer, both long-service packinghouse workers and elective SYLC floor committeemen on the Wilson plant’s cattle-killing floor. While they possessed a strong consciousness of race, Bedford, Custer, and other Black SYLC militants braved the scorn of anti-union Blacks (one of whom called them “a lot of white folks’ niggers”) to advocate labor unity “irrespective of race, creed, color, nationality or sex.” Their struggle reminds us that there were individuals within the Black working class striving for industrial unionism prior to the 1930s. It also suggests that Black workers’ race consciousness was not completely or inherently opposed to working-class solidarity.

Inside the plant, Moses Gunn plays Heavy Williams, a black worker deeply hostile to the union. When Thomas returns from Europe, he is forced to work in the stockyards and just as resentful of white racists as he was when he left. He takes Williams’s side against the union. No matter how often Frank tries to sell Thomas on the need for class unity, he sees few differences between white workers and their white boss.

Paul Street attributes this distrust to real factors that had to be overcome before a strong and lasting union could be built.

Black workers’ “loyalty” to the packers, then, was no simple, undiluted expression of docile Black paternalization. It was mediated by a proud “race consciousness” and by a realistic calculation of Black self-interest. It reflected both t core, self-active Black impulses behind the Great Migration and the influence a race-conscious Black middle-class leadership. It was offered because the packers (for all their racism) were especially favorable to Black workers, because labor movement and the working-class community in and around the stockyard were tinged by racism, because stockyards employment was a ticket to the relative racial freedoms of the North and (though this is the most difficult to gauge because of the dream of an independent Black metropolis built on wages earned in white-owned industries. It was contingent, and therefore reversible when if—as occurred during the 1930s—employers came to be seen as working against “the race,” northern opportunities waned, and a new unionism could emerge meet “the race’s” needs.

Once WWI came to an end, the veterans entered the job market once again and crowded out the blacks in a pattern aptly described as “last to be hired, first to be fired.” There had always been tensions between whites and blacks but as long as everybody had a job, they could be contained. With the post-WWI slump, class peace came to an end.

In the summer of 1919, the so-called Red Summer (named after blood, rather than communism) came to Chicago. That year and for a few years later, blacks were set upon by racist whites across the country, with the most devastating results in Tulsa, Oklahoma where Trump will visit soon in an obvious salute to white riots (good, rather than the bad black riots.) What makes Chicago exceptional was the willingness of returned black veterans like Thomas Joshua to use weapons in self-defense.

While the willingness of Chicago’s black community to defend itself against white pogroms was encouraging, it had the result of destroying any possibility of building a strong union. In the 1992 International Review of Social History, Rick Halpern deals with this sad failure to integrate race and class in an article titled  Race, Ethnicity, and Union in the Chicago Stockyards, 1917–1922”. He writes:

The most important force working to preserve order was the Stockyards Labor Council. Union leaders recognized how much was at stake. In a plea entitled “For White Men to Read”, the New Majority implored union members to use their influence in the community to shield blacks from the frenzy of race prejudice. Portraying the riot as their movement’s “acid test”, the article explained that a critical juncture had been reached: “Right now it is going to be decided whether the colored workers are to continue to come into the labor movement or whether they are going to feel that they have been abandoned by it and lose confidence in it.” This crucial question remained unresolved during the troubled days of early August. Anxious to preserve their strained ties with the black workforce, the SLC took the bold step of holding mass interracial meetings. Later, when it became impossible for blacks to reach the Yards safely, the Council organized relief for them and other victimized families.

These efforts proved insufficient. A week after the start of the riot, a new crisis arose which widened the gulf between black and white packinghouse workers. On 2 August, arsonists torched forty-nine homes in a Lithuanian’ enclave in Back-of-the-Yards. Although blame later was fixed upon the Irish gangs, rumors that revenge-seeking blacks committed the deed gained quick currency. While some spokesmen pointed out the absurd improbability of blacks sneaking undetected into the area, the moderation that prevailed in the neighborhood evaporated and was replaced with hatred and malice.

As it happens, the Irish gangs behind the raids were known as Rogan’s Colts, an “athletic club” sponsored by Democratic alderman Frank Rogan. Like the Irish race riots against the draft during the Civil War, the Democrats often show their true color: white.

Never that keen on white support during the best of times, black stockyard workers crossed the picket line and stayed on the job during these confrontations. The film ends with Frank Custer joining them in the plant with his union button concealed. In the locker room, he begins recruiting to the union once again—thus ending on a positive if not exactly convincing note.

In an interview with Time Out last year, Elsa Rassbach tells why she got interested in writing about a trade union struggle that took place a century ago but one that seems like it was torn off today’s front pages:

Though my family was neither left-wing nor union, I’ve been drawn to the struggle for social justice ever since high school, when we engaged in sit-ins at Woolworth’s in my hometown, Denver, in protest against the firm’s segregationist policies in the South. Following college in the U.S., I studied at the film academy in West Berlin, where people scoffed at the saying that “messages are for Western Union” and honored the work of politically committed artists like Berthold Brecht. My first short films were on feminist themes, but I soon developed a passionate interest in untold stories of history. I returned to the U.S. in 1972 and began reading more and more about the fascinating history of working people, who have played such an important role in our history, for which they have never been recognized. I found it astounding that I had never learned about these stories in school or college. Meanwhile I had been hired at the public television station in Boston, WGBH, to work on the first seasons of the NOVA series, and I received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a public television series on the history of the American labor movement. In William Tuttle’s book about the Chicago Race Riot I happened upon a footnote in which I discovered the two main characters in The Killing Floor: Frank Custer and Heavy Williams. These two black men, who both worked on the killing floor of a Chicago slaughterhouse, were testifying before a white federal judge, and the two were entirely at odds with each other in how they viewed the causes of the mounting racism from which they were both suffering. I was drawn to the complexity—the race riot was of course not just about black people vs. white people. So I ordered from the National Archives the entire transcript of the hearing in which the two testified. All of the characters who work on “the killing floor” in our film, both black and white, leapt out of the thousands of pages of testimony by a group of workers at the Wilson Meatpacking Company in June of 1919. I knew immediately that a film about them had to be made. I felt that the film needed not only to be dramatically compelling but also to be as accurate as possible—people should know this really happened. In the film the names of the main characters have remained the same as in the original testimony. And I founded a nonprofit production company to tell this story.



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