Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 31, 2020

Marxism and looting: a response to Vicky Osterweil’s NPR interview

Filed under: rioting — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

Volunteers clean up fire damage at MIGIZI Communications in Minneapolis. (Photo-MIGIZI, Facebook)

The Marxist Internet Archive has over 180,000 articles but there are none favorable toward riots before the 1960s when they became commonplace in the USA and eventually inspired similar actions in Europe. The handful that were written post-1960s were hardly celebratory.

For example, in a long and interesting article by Chris Harman titled “The Summer of 1981: a post-riot analysis”, you get a justification of them as an inchoate response to racial oppression but with a caveat. They can never have the staying power and impact of a political strike organized by the workers movement, as was typical in the 1930s:

Riots, by contrast, cannot by their very nature last very long or result in the building of rooted, permanent organisation. They are characterised by clashes with the forces of the state on the streets. Yet a riot cannot hold the forces of the state back from a particular neighbourhood for more than a couple of days at most (unless of course, it develops into something more than a riot, into a revolution that destroys the ability of the state to concentrate its forces in one locality.) Once the police have retaken control of the locality, the crowds that provided people with a feeling of collective power are dispersed. People are driven back into the isolated homes, the segmented experiences, from which the riot drew them. Within days collective exhilaration, the festival of the oppressed, has been replaced by the old atomisation, powerlessness, apathy. The riot always rises like a rocket – and drops like a stick.

In the excerpt above, the notion that a riot turning into a revolution is simply advanced as a theoretical possibility but not one upheld by Harman who continues to make the point that riots are temporary rifts in capitalist society.

Given the low level of class struggle since the end of WWII, it is to be expected that some on the left would inflate the importance of riots. For example, poet and English professor Joshua Clover wrote a Verso book titled “Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings” that tries to make a virtue out of the poor conditions we operate under. Since the days of Minneapolis teamsters fighting to build a union are dead and gone, the next best thing is arson and looting since they destroy “the power of the police” and make “your neighborhood uninhabitable for people you don’t want there.” I deal with Clover here but recommend Socialist Alliance’s Ben Peterson’s article for a supreme take-down of Clover:

The book rightly goes to length to argue against reducing riots to mindless outbursts of mob violence. However, the formula suggested reduces both the strike and the riot to economic struggle. In both cases, this is insufficient. It plays down, and plainly doesn’t see the history of the political strike, which should be essential for those who want to see a revolutionary alternative.

It was political strikes which overthrew the Russian Tsarist monarchy 1917, and which dissolved the Cuban state with the flight of the dictator Batista in 1959. Both would fall outside of this definition of strike. In Australia, there is a long and important history of strikes for non-industrial reasons- such as the Green Bans to save the environment, and the refusal to send pig-Iron to Japan in support of the anti-colonial struggle in China. In 1969 one million workers took strike action to call for the release of a jailed Tramways Union leader, Clarrie O’Shea. For radicals and revolutionaries, it is actions like these that go beyond purely wage struggles which have an amazing emancipatory and revolutionary potential, but the book has nothing to say on these events.

Going much further than Clover, journalist Vicky Osterweil’s “In Defense of Looting” argues “that looting is a powerful tool to bring about real, lasting change in society”, according to her interviewer for NPR, Natalie Escobar. Given NRP’s flaccid liberalism, it is difficult to figure out what Escobar means by “real, lasting change”. In any case, her softball interview allows Osterweil to put forward some truly batty ideas.

When asked to define looting, she describes it as a subset of rioting:

…looting is more common among movements that are coming from below. It tends to be an attack on a business, a commercial space, maybe a government building—taking those things that would otherwise be commodified and controlled and sharing them for free.

I am not sure how looting a government building has much to do with commodification as if ripping off a photocopier was inspired by Bakunin. On the other hand, we all know what a “business” is. They are mainly big stores like Target that was hated by many rioters in Minneapolis but they are far out-numbered by the many shops typically run by the owner: clothing and liquor stores, etc. For Target, it’s no big deal to have a store looted with its 78 billion dollar valuation. If one store is valued at 10 million dollars, that represents only .000128 of Target’s total value. That’s equivalent to me finding a quarter under a sofa cushion. For the owner of a shoe store, the loss of his goods would throw him into poverty. That’s of little interest, of course, to someone walking off with a pair of Nike’s but it certainly doesn’t advance the cause of BLM.

Maybe having read but clearly misunderstanding Bakunin if she did, Osterweil sees looting as prefigurative of some decommodified future :

It also attacks the very way in which food and things are distributed. It attacks the idea of property, and it attacks the idea that in order for someone to have a roof over their head or have a meal ticket, they have to work for a boss, in order to buy things that people just like them somewhere else in the world had to make under the same conditions.

I don’t know to break it to her but you will have to work to produce the Nike sneakers or any other goods that are looted, even after capitalism is abolished. The difference between then and now is that they will be based on use value rather than exchange value. Most importantly, the decisions as to what is produced and how it is produced will be made by democratic working-class bodies, not by the individual. When someone loots, this is an individual act that most often is never repeated as the goods vanish after the riots are consummated. The possibility of a looter becoming involved with grass-roots organizing is almost nil.

In her concluding remarks, she states:

But looters and rioters don’t attack private homes. They don’t attack community centers. In Minneapolis, there was a small independent bookstore that was untouched. All the blocks around it were basically looted or even leveled, burned down. And that store just remained untouched through weeks of rioting.

I don’t know if Osterweil was aware of it or not, but in Minneapolis rioters torched the local post office. Weren’t they aware that they were in a united front with Donald Trump when they threw their Molotov cocktails? Just last week, there were fifty people protesting Trump’s attack in front of the post office just beneath my high-rise. Didn’t rioters have the slightest notion that poor people rely on the post office for a welfare or unemployment check? Or a medical report? Or a letter from a relative? In “State and Revolution” Lenin describes the postal service as furnishing the example for a socialist economic system: “To organize the whole economy on the lines of the postal service . .. this is our immediate aim.” Along with the public library, the post office is the prime example of the efficiency and value of publicly-owned institutions. Oh, I forgot about libraries and rioters:

The East Lake Library after rioters “liberated” it from commodity production

From the June 2, 2020 Minneapolis StarTribune:

Among the buildings extensively damaged was Hennepin County Library’s East Lake branch in south Minneapolis, near the heavily damaged Third Police Precinct and a little more than 2 miles from the corner where police officers fatally pinned George Floyd to the street last week.

Geffen displayed two photos showing that locals had posted cardboard over the library’s broken windows and written, “Respect this community-owned library.”

Other damaged buildings provide an array of services to residents and are relatively new as part of the county’s recent move to decentralize outside downtown Minneapolis.

At the county’s South Minneapolis Regional Service Center, at Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue, every window was broken and the building was flooded with water from fire sprinklers.

As for Regional Service Centers, they are described on the county’s website as providing “access to the full range of financial, social and public health services the county offers, such as access to medical, emergency, child care and food assistance, child support and homeless services.” Sure, a perfect symbol of capitalist exploitation. Let’s trash it.

Not only was the post office destroyed, another building on the same block went down with it as the flame spread, namely the Migizi Communications building, a nonprofit that served the needs of impoverished American Indians in Minneapolis. Indian Country reported:

Migizi provides training in media arts such as radio, film and social media. It is the home of First Person Productions and also provides training for “green” jobs, such as solar energy.

Around 400 youth a year receive job training at Migizi, which employs eight people, Drummer said.

Drummer, 46, (Executive Director Kelly Drummer, Oglala Sioux) said Migizi — “eagle” in Ojibwe — was the only minority-owned building on the block as other enterprises are leasing.

All these buildings, including the Third Precinct whose burning Osterweil lauded in The Nation can easily be replaced—just like Starbucks replaced broken windows during anarchist “actions”. What can’t be easily replaced are revolutionary ideas. When I was won over to socialism in 1967, the ideas that moved me back then are the same that move me to write in defense of socialism today. But it wasn’t just a classmate at the New School who helped me reject capitalism, it was taking part in antiwar demonstrations that gave me a sense of the power of mass actions. When are marching with 250,000 people chanting “Out Now!”, you get a feel for what the masses can do when they are ready to challenge the ruling class.

My good friend Ernie Tate, who is dealing with terminal cancer right now, once explained to me how he became a socialist. He was vacationing in Paris in the summer of 1954 and stepped out on the street in the morning, when he heard some kind of parade taking place a block away. When he got there, he saw hundreds of thousands of CGT and CP workers marching under huge red banners with hammers and sickles celebrating the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu. For him, it was like a Road to Damascus conversion that led him to begin reading socialist literature and then joining the Trotskyist movement.

This is the kind of actions I identify with. If others, even in the name of Marxism, remain intoxicated by the sight of arson and looting, there’s not much I can do. In the epochal struggles facing us, we will have to deal with both reformism and ultraleftism. It is no surprise that Osterweil basks in the glow of NPR and The Nation, two primary outlets of liberal politics. They prefer futile acts of impotent rebellion to any attempts at building a revolutionary movement in the USA. The only advantage to maintaining a mass action perspective is that history is moving in an inexorable direction toward working-class resistance. When American workers begin marching down the street under revolutionary banners, bystanders will be drawn to them in the same way I was drawn to antiwar demonstrations in the 60s. Time is on our side.

August 29, 2020

Made in Bangladesh

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,trade unions — louisproyect @ 9:26 pm

Yesterday, “Made in Bangladesh” opened as Virtual Cinema and on Amazon Prime. It is a gritty neo-realist tale of an attempt to form a union in a small garment shop in Dakha, the capital of Bangladesh. Like “Norma Rae”, the film has a plucky woman challenging the boss and the leadfooted government agency that certifies trade unions.

The film is set in an actual sweatshop in Dakha and shows the super-exploitation and personal humiliation the 68 female women operating sewing machines and irons have to put up with. Written and directed by a woman–Rubaiyat Hossain—it depicts how patriarchy oppresses women both as workers and as wives. The lead character is named Shimu (Rikita Nandini Shimu), a 23-year old who ran off to Dakha in her teens to escape being married off to a 40-year old man. To help her make it through the first few days in Dakha, she steals her father’s wallet. This is a woman with little regard for patriarchal norms.

Shimu is married to  Sohel (Mostafa Monwar), an observant, unemployed Muslim, who despite being reliant on his wife’s meager wages, lords it over her—or at least tries to. When she takes on the role of getting co-workers to sign up for the union, she gains self-confidence in herself and finally the nerve to act independently of Sohel’s dictates.

The final scene consists of Shimu in a stand-off with the bureaucrat who has been sitting on the papers she has submitted for approving the union. It is truly inspiring. Three years ago I reviewed a documentary about Indian textile workers titled “Machines”. My strong advice is to see the two films in tandem. (“Machines” is available on Amazon Prime.) What I said about “Machines” applies to “Made in Bangladesh” as well:

Filmed almost entirely in a vast dungeon of a textile mill in Gujarat, it is hard not to see the workers as being an extension of the machines they operate. Marx described such factory life in Chapter 10 of V. 1 of Capital, titled “The Working Day”:

It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It higgles over a meal-time, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is given to the labourer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery.

This is exactly what you see in “Machines”, a process in which workers are slaves to the machine. It is what Charlie Chaplin depicted comically in “Modern Times” and Fritz Lang depicted more darkly in “Metropolis”. As long as capitalism exists, this is the fate of the working class. In the USA, many workers wax nostalgic for the $20-40 jobs that prevailed in the 60s but for the Gujarat textile workers, the hope is for an 8-hour day and a wage that enables them to send a bit home to their family, some living thousands of miles away. Most of them appear to be ex-farmers who have been crushed by debt and drought. In the decades before Marx was born, it was the Enclosure Acts that accomplished the same results. Peasants were robbed of their means of self-subsistence and forced into the textile mills of Birmingham and Manchester that William Blake referred to as dark and satanic.




August 28, 2020

Epicentro; Enter the Forbidden City

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

Around fifty years ago I saw “I am Cuba”, a documentary made by a Russian director. Nothing I ever saw since then came close to it except a new film titled “Epicentro” that is now available as Virtual Cinema through Kino Marquee starting today.

Directed by Hubert Sauper, it allows the Cuban people to speak for themselves and boy do they do. The stars of the film are various 10 to 14 year old Afro-Cuban girls who hold forth on the bombing of the battleship Maine, Teddy Roosevelt, imperialism and why they have self-esteem despite being poor. When I used to visit Nicaragua in the late 80s, I was struck by the things I heard from teens who had a better grasp of American politics than 90 percent of the idiots that live in this country.

The word utopia gets discussed quite a bit in the film. It has dual meanings, both as a perfect world and as no place. Cuba is utopian in a dual sense. As the world’s remaining socialist society, it embodies the hopes of a better world despite the poverty. It is also no place since its enemies regard it as a country that does not deserve to exist.

Sauper is a poet with a camera. Watching pastel-colored American cars from the 1950s brings back fond memories. They are reason enough to visit Cuba even though the best reason is to help bring foreign currency to the country.

It is impossible to describe the film since it has such a kaleidoscopic quality with characters, street scenes, the ocean crashing on the beach near Malecón, and daily life in Havana apartments cycling throughout the film.

The last Sauper film I saw was “We Come as Friends” that highlighted the “vulturistic” assault on the newly formed state of South Sudan by both the West and China in search of oil, cheap land and any other wealth that can be extracted in a 21st century version of what Karl Marx called primitive accumulation. In my review, I noted:

In a scene that will remind you of how Manhattan was “sold” to the Dutch, an elderly tribesman shows Sauper a contract he signed without understanding what it meant. It allows a Texas company to have a lease in perpetuity on hundreds of thousands of acres that belonged to a group of native villages in order to “develop” the land and extract any minerals therein. Meanwhile villagers here and everywhere else that he visits are being evicted from land they lived on for a thousand years in some cases.

Not only is Sauper a committed anti-imperialist, he is a film-making genius. Don’t miss this one if you know what is good for you. If you need any further motivation, read this Q&A with the director in the film notes:

Q: Domination and the colonial mindset are always under scrutiny in your films. They offer windows into history. How does EPICENTRO reflect on our current world politics, and more specifically, American geo-politics?

A: EPICENTRO is Cuba. This beautiful island is the epicenter of the Americas, in many ways. Geographically, it’s in the very center between north and south. Politically, it’s at the crossroads of capitalism and communism. Historically, it’s been the epicenter of Spanish America as well as the nucleus of US-American expansionism. The first U.S. flag to be raised overseas was in February 1898 on a hill overlooking Guantánamo Bay. To me this explains why Guantánamo will never be given back to Cuba. It’s symbolically too important for the empire. Havana itself is a living indictment of American history, a window into time. It is not surprising that Americans are so charmed and hypnotized by the beauty of Havana [with] its billboards from the 1950s and the amazing American architecture and old cars, which have been on the road 80-plus years. Some people dream about “making Cuba great again.” A famous American real estate tycoon has long planned a tower with his name on it. It’s the “T-word”… I don’t want to spell it. When you think that most of the hotel towers on the Malecon sea promenade were made by the Mafia kings in the 50’s, when you think that their “religion” was abuse of power, luxury, gambling, prostitution … history seems like a dirty running gag.

Now available on Amazon and Vimeo, “Enter the Forbidden City” is a touching film that recreates the fortunes of a Chinese opera cast in the Qing Dynasty of the seventeenth century

period before the art form became legitimized through the Peking Opera. Directed by Hu Mei, it stars Jinghan Ma as Runsheng, an up-and-coming star of the Chuntai Opera company and Dalong Fu as Yue Jiu, the current superstar who plays the female leads in their works.

Both men are dealing with crises brought on by their work in what the Emperor deems as vulgar. Runsheng wants to marry Chunrong, but her parents forbid it because they consider him to be riff-raff. Meanwhile, Yue Jiu has been exiled from the Forbidden City (Beijing) for the same reason. The film revolves around their respective quests, one to marry the woman he loves and the other to be accepted in China’s capital city.

Much of the film consists of Chinese opera performances, which could not be more remote for Western audiences. For me, that’s reason enough to see the film since I crave to experience different cultures unlike the average yahoo in the U.S.A. that prefers Lawrence Welk or marching bands during college football half-times. That’s one benefit of the pandemic—putting the kibosh on Division One football games.

Director Hu Mei is one of China’s leading female filmmakers and a leading member of the Fifth Generation, the constellation of artists that began to make some of the great art films of the past 30 years.

The press notes describe Hu’s aspirations for the film:

She hopes that the movie creates a bridge for Western audiences. Peking opera is similar in many ways to Western opera, Hu said.

“Chinese opera, from singing and playing, to the vocalization production method, to the structure of lines and story, is similar to Western operas. It’s also a comprehensive performance system,” Hu said.

She said the film also brings viewers into the lives of Peking Opera artists, who didn’t enjoy a high status in society as entertainers during the Qing Dynasty.

“In Chinese history, Chinese operas, including Peking Opera, play an important role in passing down the heritage of China from generations to generations,” Hu said.

“Peking Opera is not as popular as before, especially to the younger audiences, but its artistic value is very high. We hope that we can bring Peking Opera into thousands of households through our film creation, and bring it to the people around the world,” Hu added.

Class-reductionism’s blind-spot: environmental racism

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch,Ecology,racism — louisproyect @ 2:06 pm

Screen Shot 2020-08-28 at 10.08.17 AM

Image by Wake Forest University with caption “The fight for environmental justice is a fight for your life.”


On August 14th, the N.Y. Times reported on the clash between Adolph Reed Jr. and the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus in DSA over an event scheduled back in May by the LES and Philadelphia branches. The caucus advocates stepped up support for BLM protests while Reed views them as tools of corporate America. Naturally, when the event organizers scheduled a Zoom lecture for Reed, the caucus demanded a debate, surely expecting to be ignored. When Reed grew wary over the possibility that the upstarts might crash his talk, he canceled himself.

The Times article summarized the Reed position as shared by a class of historians, political scientists and intellectuals who argue against overstating race as a construct. Even if they accept the existence of racism in the U.S., they reject the need for an anti-racist movement. Instead, the goal is to create class unity around programs like Medicare for All since poor whites would benefit as well. When you “fixate” on race, you risk dividing a potentially powerful coalition and play into conservatives’ hands.

Of course, this vulgar Marxism seems even more outlandish than ever in the face of the massive resistance to the status quo now underway. After the George Floyd murder, anti-racist protests became the largest in American history. Without skipping a beat, the NBA has gone on strike to protest the cops who left Jacob Blake permanently paralyzed. To counterpose Medicare for All to these struggles is foolish, if not outright reactionary.

Continue reading

August 26, 2020

Marxist alternatives to Jacobin

Filed under: Jacobin,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 7:46 pm

I felt a real sense of loss after the ISO dissolved. Although political differences over Cuba and Venezuela (as well as old age) prevented me from joining, I highly valued their newspaper and magazine that consistently defended a class line on electoral politics. When I discovered that a significant layer of their membership had joined the DSA and become Bernie Sanders supporters, the sense of loss became keener. When long-time revolutionary socialist Paul Le Blanc began sounding indistinguishable from the Jacobin writers, who all sounded alike on Sanders for that matter, I began to look for alternatives. To some extent, the principled left positions could still be found in “Against the Current” and “New Politics”. As for “Against the Current”, it will most likely continue even after Solidarity folds. You can also rely on “New Politics” to have many years ahead of it.

The alternatives under consideration here, except for Left Voice and Spectre, are strictly online publications, thus making them accessible to people not willing to spend hard-earned money during a time of complete financial collapse. I have contributed to a couple of them (Left Voice, Regeneration) and encourage you to be generous when they request donations. So, without further ado:

Left Voice

This magazine first came to my attention when it began publishing truly brilliant critiques of the neo-Kautskyism promoted by Jacobin. It is put out by a small pre-party formation of mostly young people who identify with the Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas in Argentina, a split from the Moreno current in Argentina.

I obviously have differences with them on the organizational questions, just as I did with the ISO, but I feel closer to them politically than I ever did with the ISO.

Some of the best arguments against work in the Democratic Party can be found in Left Voice, including Juan Cruz Ferre’s “If There Is to Be Any Future for the U.S. Left, We Must Break with Sanders and the Democrats”. I met Ferre, a CUNY dissertation student, once and was very impressed with his erudition. His Argentinian roots and erudition came into play in this article:

The role Sanders is now called to play for the 2020 elections is to infuse enthusiasm and young blood into Biden’s anemic campaign. The game is clear. You can almost hear Sanders telling Biden “I’ll be your left man, just give me something to show, go along with me.” The six joint policy working groups they formed at the moment Sanders endorsed Biden is an obvious example. What other purpose could these task forces have? Is Biden going to concede on Medicare for All, or any other policies that characterize Sanders’s campaign? Biden keeps repeating to this day that he opposes Medicare for All, and he isn’t budging on any other significant policy proposals, like tuition-free college, the cancellation of student debt, or the Green New Deal. Juan Domingo Perón, the bourgeois populist leader of Argentina, is credited with having said, “If you want something to get stalled, create a commission.”


This is the magazine of the Marxist Network that Philly Socialists helped to found in early 2019. Unlike people coming from a more traditional Marxist background, they eschew electoral politics altogether. Their activism involves a lot of mutual aid and experiments with “dual power”, a term that has a different meaning than found in the classical Marxist literature. Although my theoretical background is quite a bit different, I deeply respect their work.

Like Left Voice, Marxist center comrades are young. However, not exclusively so. In a recent article “Letter to the Socialists, Old and New” written by long-time activist and Marxist Center at-large member Chris Townsend, you’ll see why geezers like and Townsend are sympathetic to this new generation (or regeneration):

  1. Throw out once and for all your reverence for the old order, and dare to dream about what its replacement will look like. We want and deserve something new and better. Chattel slavery and subjugation were replaced by wage slavery, and we fight for freedom from this last slavery which holds a tight grip on billions of fellow workers worldwide. As socialists we are optimists. Our movement follows the high road of history.
  2. Spend time with the old Socialists and old Bolsheviks when you can, before they are gone; talk to them, get to know them, ask them questions and pull them into your work. Learn what can be learned from them, and insist that they support the movement fully, including financially. Many have led prosperous lives and they can – and should – be generous in their support of the new socialist generation. Ask them for the money and resources to fund the movement today; many have it.

I couldn’t have put it better.

International Socialism Project

This is essentially the leadership of the ISO that was overturned just before the group dissolved. You’ll recognize the names: Ahmed Shawki, Sharon Smith, Lance Selfa, and Paul D’Amato. I had mixed feelings about recommending this website because of the charges made against the ISO leadership that failed to respond to multiple rapes. The crisis led to its dissolution, just as the same dereliction of duty in the British SWP led to whole sale resignations. On the other hand, both the International Socialism Project and the British SWP continue to publish important material that Marxists would benefit from. For example, Paul D’Amato wrote an article titled “The struggle has moved far ‘Beyond Bernie’” that correctly exposes how the Sandernista enthusiasts at Jacobin have shifted toward support for Biden. Even if there are articles on Jacobin blasting Biden, there are still signs that it gives it benediction to a Biden vote as D’Amato writes:

Both Heideman and Sunkara’s pieces assure Democratic Party liberals that the DSA won’t get in the way of a Biden victory in November. Sunkara explains that “88 percent” of Sanders supporters voted for Hillary Clinton, and that he expects the same thing to happen in the fall. What this shows is that there isn’t an effective barrier between supporting Sanders and supporting Biden. Sunkara then explains how he thinks DSA fits into the picture:

The small but resurgent socialist movement in this country is developing a political approach that can speak to millions of alienated Americans. Like center-left liberals and progressives, during the coming presidential election and beyond we aim to defeat right-wing populism. The difference is that we refuse to do so on the centrist terms that we believe helped create it in the first place.

Spectre: a Marxist Journal

This seems to be a joint venture of ex-ISO’ers and long-time socialists, all of whom were fairly typical Jacobin contributors in the past, when Jacobin was more open to revolutionary socialists. Tithi Bhattacharya, an editorial board member, and managing editor Ashley Smith are both ex-ISOers. Also on the editorial board are Charles Post and David McNally, who have a long background in non-sectarian Marxist politics.

The articles in Spectre are first-rate. I particularly appreciated Kim Moody’s critique of the kind of class-reductionism that Jacobin favors, from Adolph Reed Jr. to Cedric Johnson. In the article, titled “The Roots of Racist Policing”, Moody focuses on articles written by Cedric Johnson in New Politics and Catalyst that contest the idea that race and racism is at the heart of mass incarceration. He adds that much of Johnson’s argument is drawn from James Forman, Jr.’s account of the role of Black communities and officials in supporting the escalation of “tough-on-crime” policies in the 1970s and a similar argument made by John Clegg and Adaner Usmani. (Clegg is an economist who argues that slavery held back the development of American capitalism; Usmani is an editorial board member of Catalyst, the theoretical magazine published by Jacobin.)

Moody points out that they base themselves on a one-sided interpretation of Foreman’s work:

Given the weight that Johnson gives to Forman’s arguments in diminishing the importance of race, it is worth quoting Forman’s own caveat to his readers:

But in focusing on the actions of black officials, I do not minimize the role of whites or racism in the development of mass incarceration. To the contrary: racism shaped the political, economic, and legal context in which the black community and its elected representatives made their choices.

I also recommend Kim Moody’s “Cedric Johnson and the Other Sixties’ Nostalgia” that appeared in New Politics. It pointed out how Johnson, like Adolph Reed Jr., base themselves on an uncritical view of Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph.

Tempest: a revolutionary socialist organizing project

No editors are identified in the “about” page, so it is a little difficult to determine the provenance of this, the newest of the Marxist alternatives to Jacobin. However, an article co-written by Ashley Smith and Charlie Post suggests that its lineage is in the cadre of writers who no longer appeared in Jacobin after its Sandernista mutation.

All I know about Tempest contributor Andy Sernatinger is that he is a member of DSA and a rank-and-file Teamster union member. Unlike most younger DSA members (I am guessing that Sernatinger has been around the block given the savvy displayed in “At a Crossroads: DSA in the COVID age”), he is much more capable of seeing its shortcomings. It has become apparent since March that it is ill-equipped to face up to the massive crisis we are facing, as Sernatinger displays so masterfully:

This political time crashed headlong into the George Floyd uprising. The revived Black Lives Matter movement operated on a very immediate, daily timing while DSA had built its infrastructure on a routinized weekly and monthly timing without mechanisms for rapid response. What’s more, the emphasis on electoral activity trained DSA members in a type of politics that was substantially different from militant protest, and organizationally left DSA without direction for the moment. DSA approached the semi-spontaneous uprising based on its previous experience with short-term demonstrations and ended up disoriented by the continuous actions confronting the state.

I would suggest bookmarking these websites to keep abreast of revolutionary journalism in a time when it is so badly needed.

August 24, 2020

Thoughts triggered by the 80th anniversary of Leon Trotsky’s assassination

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

This week a number of links to tributes to Leon Trotsky showed up on my Facebook timeline. Most came from groups still dreaming about the possibility of a new Trotskyist international. They were occasioned by the eightieth anniversary of his assassination on August 21, 2020.

In a New Politics article inspired by the anniversary, Dan La Botz posed the question “On the 80th Anniversary of Trotsky’s Assassination—What If He Had Lived?” Since Dan has just published a novel “Trotsky in Tijuana” was his “attempt to understand Trotsky the man and the political leader by projecting his life into a future he did not live to see.” These are the sorts of questions La Botz said he grappled with in the novel:

In my novel, I ask more particular questions both political and personal: What would have become of Trotsky if he had survived and lived in Tijuana for the next thirteen years? How would he have analyzed the Second World War and how would he have explained the Soviet Union’s victory over Hitler’s Germany? What would he have thought of the expansion of the Communist system to Eastern Europe? Seeing the stress he was under, might his wife Natalia have sought a Freudian, Reichian psychoanalyst to work with him? Might Trotsky have had another love affair like his earlier affair with the artist Frida Kahlo? What would have happened to his project, the creation of a Fourth International and its fractious national sections and strong-willed leaders? How would he deal with aging?

I never thought much about these questions before, partly because “alternate history” type fiction along the lines of “If Hitler Had Won WWII” don’t interest me that much. I passed on Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle”, which imagines a world in which a victorious Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan rule the world. My focus is exclusively on the past and the present. My only concern about the future is whether we will make it to the year 3,000 given the insanity of the capitalist system in what Trotsky accurately described as the “death agony of capitalism”, the original title of The Transitional Program.

If Trotsky had trouble enough in trying to get a Fourth International off the ground in the thirties, he would have had even bigger problems in the forties and fifties, if he lived that long. Soviet Russia came out the war cloaked in glory after having been instrumental in defeating the German war-machine. For an embattled and isolated Trotskyist movement, hopes tend to be pinned on some cataclysmic event that will push the masses in the direction of a group, no matter how small, that has the “correct” analysis and strategy.

That kind of apocalyptic mentality existed in every Trotskyist group, even in the Socialist Workers Party that had a more secure mooring in reality than others that had less contact with the “Old Man”.

In 1943 and 1944 the world Trotskyist movement expected the end of WWII to usher in the same types of revolutionary cataclysms as WWI. The International Resolution under consideration by the FI stated categorically that the allies would impose military dictatorships. It considered American capitalism to have begun an “absolute decline” in 1929. This decadent system said the resolution “has no programme for Europe other than its further dismemberment and degradation, and the propping up of the capitalist system with American bayonets”.

The choice for the worker’s movement was stark. Unless they made socialist revolutions, they would face “savage dictatorship of the capitalists consequent upon the victory of the counter-revolution.” The workers would rise to the task since it was “in a revolutionary mood” continent-wide.

This analysis of the world situation was strongly influenced by Trotsky’s conceptions from the start of the second world war which were of a “catastrophist nature”. He could not anticipate any new upturn in the world capitalist economy based on Keynesianism and arms spending. Trotsky’s catastrophism can be traced back to the early days of the Comintern. I recommend Nicos Poulantzas’s “Fascism and the Third International” as a critique of this tendency in the early Communist movement. No Bolshevik leader was immune from this tendency to see capitalism as being in its death throes. Stalin and Zinoviev incorporated this thinking into their “third period” strategy. Stalin eventually lurched back and adopted a right-opportunist policy. What is not commonly appreciated is the degree to which Trotskyism has a lineal descent to the ultraleftism of the early 1920s Comintern.

This ultraleftism stared Felix Morrow in the face, who like a small boy declaring that the emperor has no clothes, ventured to state that American imperialism might not have been on its last legs in 1945. He argued forcefully that the most likely outcome of allied victory was an extended period of bourgeois democracy and not capitalist dictatorship. Therefore it is necessary for revolutionists, Morrow advised, to be sensitive to democratic demands:

…if one recognizes the probability of a slower tempo for the development of the European revolution, and in it a period of bourgeois-democratic regimes — unstable, short-lived, but existing nevertheless for a period — then the importance of the role of democratic and transitional demands becomes obvious. For the revolutionary answer to bourgeois democracy is the first instance more democracy — the demand for real democracy as against the pseudo-democracy of the bourgeoisie. For bourgeois-democracy can exist only thanks to the democratic illusions of the masses; and those can be dispelled first of all only by mobilizing the masses for the democracy they want and need.

One of the main areas of contention between Morrow and the leaders of the FI was how these differences in policy would play out against the background of German politics. The SWP was convinced that the German working-class would lead the rest of Europe in the fight for socialism. A document states that “the German revolution constitutes the essential base of the European revolution, that it alone can provide the indispensable, genuinely harmonious political and economic organization for the Socialist United States of Europe.”

Morrow disagreed completely with these projections. He stated that the document contains not “a single reference to the fact that the German proletariat would begin its life after Nazi defeat under military occupation and without a revolutionary party.”

What was the source of these false projections? “To put it bluntly: all the phrases in its prediction about the German revolution — that the proletariat would from the first play a decisive role, soldiers’ committees, workers’ and peasants’ soviets, etc. — were copied down once again in January 1945 by the European Secretariat from the 1938 program of the Fourth International. Seven years, and such years, had passed by but the European Secretariat did not change a comma. Exactly the same piece of copying had been done by the SWP majority in its October 1943 Plenum resolution in spite of the criticisms of the minority.” Evidently dogmatism is not a recent trend in the Trotskyist movement.

Morrow stood his ground against all attacks. He appeared as a heretic. One of the charges against him made by Pierre Frank contained an interesting thought. If Morrow was right, what implications would this have for the world Trotskyist movement? Frank seemed to be thinking out loud when he said:

The false perspective of Morrow has a farther implication if it is really drawn to its logical end. If American imperialism has such inexhaustible powers that it can, as he thinks, improve the standard of living in Europe, then of course there exists a certain basis, on however low a foundation, for the establishment of bourgeois-democracy in the immediate period ahead. From that we must assume the softening of class conflicts for a period that the class struggle will be very largely refracted through the parliamentary struggle, that for a time the parliamentary arena will dominate the stage. If that were true, we would have to revise our conception of American imperialism. And of course the Trotskyist movement would have to attune its work to these new conditions — conditions for a while of slow painful growth, propaganda, election campaigns, etc., etc.

Frank’s fears were of course grounded in reality. This would be the fate of the Trotskyist movement and the rest of the left. The 1950s were not even a period of slow, painful growth, however. They were a period of decline. The FI only woke up to new realities when it shifted toward the student movement in the early 1960s. After a period of sustained growth, it returned to its “catastrophist” roots and proclaimed in 1975 that the workers were ready to launch an attack on capitalist power in the United States and the other industrialized countries. SWP leader Jack Barnes not only led this return to Comintern ultraleftism, he did the early communists one better and predicted war, fascism and proletarian revolution nearly every year or so for the last 45.

The “catastrophism” of the Trotskyist movement is built into the manifesto that created it, the Transitional Program. This is the political legacy of Trotsky’s uncritical acceptance of the perfect wisdom of the early Comintern. How could it be otherwise, since at that time Trotsky itself was one of the key leaders. He made it his business to straighten out any wayward Communists, like the French, who stepped out of line. The organizational legacy of the Trotskyist movement is in Zinoviev’s schematic “Marxist-Leninist” model. The ultraleftism of the political roots and the sectarianism of the organizational roots make for a powerful inhibition to growth. As we struggle to create new political and organizational paradigms, it will be important to shed ourselves of such counterproductive models.

August 22, 2020

How Marxmail 1.0 got cancelled

Filed under: Marxmail — louisproyect @ 8:55 pm

On August 14th, I wrote an article on CounterPunch about the new Marxism list titled “Marxmail 2.0”. This move was forced on us when, for some mysterious reason, the U. of Utah server stopped sending out mail and attempts to reach websites associated with Marxmail at the school could not be reached.

Attempts to find out from U. of Utah why this happened yielded no replies, not from IT nor from academic administrators. In my article, I raised the possibility that something political might be going on but went on to dismiss it: “Since the server crash impacted mailing lists having nothing to do with Marxism, I suspect that the real problem was a security breach that was serious enough for the university to pull the plug on the economics department server.”

Yesterday, we finally discovered what happened, as reported by The Salt Lake Tribune:

The University of Utah paid extortionists almost half a million dollars after a ransomware attack on some of its computer servers, and is now telling students, staff and faculty to change their university passwords.

According to a statement issued by the university, it paid $457,059.24 to an “unknown entity” that hacked the College of Social and Behavioral Science servers on July 19, rendering them “temporarily inaccessible.”

The cyber criminals encrypted about 0.02% of the data stored there before the U.‘s Information Security Office detected the attack. The university did not specify the threat, but ransomware attacks involve criminal groups that hack into and steal data; encrypt it so that its owners cannot access it; and demand payment to release the data — often threatening to release sensitive information if their demands are not met.

The police were contacted and the university engaged “an outside consultant with expertise in handling these types of situations.”

The affected servers were “immediately isolated from the rest of the university and the internet.” The servers were “cleaned, and college data was reinstalled from system backups.” But because it included employee and student information — and after “careful consideration” — the ransom was paid “as a proactive and preventive step to ensure information was not released on the internet.”

According to the statement, the U.‘s cyber insurance policy paid “part of” the $457,059.24 ransom, and “the university covered the remainder.” The U. did not specify the breakdown, but added that “no tuition, grant, donation, state or taxpayer funds were used to pay the ransom.”

Ten days after the attack, students, staff and faculty were told to change their university passwords. According to the university, the delay was because there had to be “a full understanding of what information may have been stolen and how access was gained” as it worked “with law enforcement to determine what steps” should be taken.

Even now, the server at the U. of Utah is still unresponsive at least to services once supplied such as ours. Furthermore, even if services are ever restored, we are in a better position at Marxmail 2.0 because it gives me and Marxmail technical coordinator Les Schaffer far more control.

In only a week, Marxmail 2.0 has grown to 541 subscribers, about half of whom are subscribers from Marxmail 1.0, plus those of you who have joined us as a result of my CounterPunch article or my mention of the new site on Facebook.

I can say that the new location suits our needs perfectly and that there has been a robust discussion now going on there. You can read the messages there to get an idea of the kind of exchanges taking place. If you find it meets your needs, sent mail to marxmail+subscribe@groups.io to become a subscriber.

August 21, 2020

Virtual Cinema Potpourri

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 9:39 pm

Mindless but great entertainment reviewed below

AMC has announced that its theaters will be opening soon with Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet”, a typical summer blockbuster. Social distancing will be followed with no more than 30 percent of the seats filled and the staff wearing masks. I suppose that Nolan will be a magnet for fans of his movies, an experience roughly equivalent to playing a video game while on methamphetamine. Every one that I have seen has left me cold, especially “Interstellar” that inspired this faux trailer.

I’ll probably get a studio freebie for “Tenet” in time for our yearly NYFCO awards meeting but I doubt it will be a hundredth as good as the films that have come my way as virtual cinema, a fancy name for VOD. Indeed, I have received more screeners this year than in recent memory. As it happens, the documentaries, the foreign-language films, and the off-beat indie films I cover never faced the same obstacles as the big studios. Film Forum, Laemmle, et al have simply gone virtual, all to the benefit of the filmmakers and their audiences for whose tastes I cater.

Although the films reviewed below vary in quality and interest, I am sure that CounterPunch readers will find something worth seeing. The price of a rental is generally lower than a physical theater ticket and should encourage to take a chance on some off-beat and even entertaining films, all of which open today.

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Great documentaries from Socially Relevant films, see them for free tomorrow and Saturday

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 12:17 am

Tomorrow and Saturday, Socially Relevant Films will be showing Black Voices documentaries for free. I reviewed two of them for CounterPunch. “Isaac Pope: the Spirit of an American Century” appeared as part of the 2019 festival, about which I wrote:

Grandson of slaves, and a child of Garveyite sharecropping parents, he joined the army in the 1930s like many men, including my father, for gainful employment. Pope ended up in the all-Black 969th Artillery Battalion, the first black battalion to fight in World War II and in the Battle of the Bulge. The battalion was commanded by a Jewish captain whose daughter produced the film. The 969th Battalion was critical for the survival of the American GIs under siege at Bastogne, where my father earned a Bronze Star delivering food and water to the men of the 101stAirborne.

 “Stonewall with a T” was scheduled for this year’s festival that had to be cancelled because of the pandemic. My CounterPunch review appeared only days before the festival was supposed to begin. Like the Isaac Pope film, I found it deeply informative as I stated in the review:

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.

Nora Armani, the founder of Socially Relevant films, contacted me about doing a “Meet the Filmmakers” session with the people who made the two films being shown. The discussions were really great. Paula Caplan, who produced the Isaac Pope documentary, is a Research Associate and Voices of Diversity Project Director at the DuBois Institute of Harvard University. We agreed to stay in touch after the session since a new film she is working on deserves wide-spread attention.

One of the great revelations in the discussion about “Stonewall with a T” was hearing about the state of the transgender justice movement right now. Tanya Walker, one of the transgender women who appeared in the film, is a remarkably powerful speaker for the cause with a ton of experience. If you are just getting up to speed on this vitally important social movement that the rightwing (and even people like JK Rowling) are trying to demonize, this is a good YouTube video to watch.


August 18, 2020

Ruth Weiss, the Beat Goddess; Hitchhiking to the Edge of Sanity

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:45 pm

The two films under review are valuable as social history. “Ruth Weiss, the Beat Goddess” premieres tonight at the Romford Film Festival in UK and will hopefully be available as VOD before long. Ruth Weiss is a 92-year old poet who was part of the San Francisco jazz and poetry scene but never achieved the fame of her friends like Jack Kerouac. As the film points out, there was a patriarchal element to the beat generation that prevented women writers from getting their due as both Hettie Jones (LeRoi Jones’s wife) and Joyce Johnson (Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend point out in “How I became Hettie Jones: A Memoir” and “Minor Characters”.

Available for rental on Amazon Prime for $3.99, “Hitchhiking to the Edge of Sanity” recounts the story told by the two principals about hitchhiking across the Sahara in February, 1971. Rather audaciously, the film consists mostly of the two men, now in their seventies, speaking into the camera while black-and-white photos from their trip are superimposed while they speak. It is the only film I have ever seen that defies documentary conventions like this except for Jonathan Demme’s filming of Spalding Gray behind a table as he performs “Swimming to Cambodia”. While Dick Russell, a journalist, and Steve Ewert, a photographer, are not performance artists, their tale is spell-binding and a reminder of how my generation lived on the edge.

When you first see Ruth Weiss, you are taken aback by her hair dyed green especially since she was in her late 80s when the film was being made. She didn’t get the idea from female punks in San Francisco, where she has lived since 1940. Instead, it was watching the film “The Boy With Green Hair” in 1948. Directed by Joseph Losey, a close associate of Bertolt Brecht, it is about a young war orphan whose hair mysteriously turns green. Everybody interprets this as a sign that war is evil. Considering the triumphal mood of the allies at the time, this was a bold statement.

Born in Berlin in 1928, Weiss fled Europe with her parents just one step ahead of the concentration camps. From a very early age, she decided that she wanted to be a poet and was drawn to cities that had a literary panache. The first was New Orleans, where she hung out with jazz musicians. One day, as she sat typing up a poem, a saxophonist spotted her typing away (she has continued to use a typewriter to this day) and grabbed the sheet of paper off the machine. As he began reading it, he found himself playing a melody to accompany the words.

When she got to San Francisco, Weiss began working as a waitress deep in the heart of beatnik territory close to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookstore. When poetry readings began to take place at the club where she worked, she decided to line up some musicians to play behind her. The rest is history. While by no means as important a poet as Allen Ginsberg, who was part of the circle she ran with, her work is considered important. What’s even more important is the example of the kind of life she led, which was part of a stream that fed into the great river of rebellion as the war in Vietnam began.

In “Single Out,” Weiss describes her family’s 1939 escape from Austria — on the last train permitted to cross the border — in words that evoke the terror of their flight, but that also reflect her lifelong interest in the music of words:

one woman slips in the mud . . .
shots singing above our heads
not really meant to hit us (the swiss sharpshooters) —
the warning real enough —
go back we can’t take any more.
we couldn’t either.
the three of us penniless in the Innsbruck trainstation —
obvious un-Aryan.

I should mention that Weiss died on July 31, just 18 days ago. This San Francisco Chronicle article is a good review of an extraordinary life.

Dick Russell and Steve Ewert were best friends back in 1971, who grew up in Kansas. Like most men and women born in the late 40s and early 50s like me, their life was plain-vanilla, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. However, the beat generation, the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam and drugs melded together to turn us into either cultural or political rebels.

Dick and Steve had feet in both worlds. As a young journalist, Dick offered his skills to the Black Panther Party in Kansas City. As for Steve, he comes across as more of a hippie but definitely tuned into politics as well.

Sometime in 1971, Dick got the idea for a story that could help the two of them make a breakthrough as writer and photographer. They would hitch across the Sahara and submit the story to the National Geographic. Back then, hitchhiking was much more common than it is today.

In the summer of 1965, I visited my ex-girlfriend in Dallas to explore the idea of getting back together. When she (rightly) said no deal, I asked her to drive me to the outskirts of the city where I could begin hitchhiking back to New York. My story about the trip is here. (https://louisproyect.org/2014/12/03/highway-80-revisited/). My risks pale in comparison to Dick and Steve’s. They lived to tell about it, so did I.

Both films have a lot to offer young people today trying to understand the 50s and 60s. Told by remarkable people, they might not inspire you to dye your hair green or hitchhike but they will strengthen your conviction that it is right to rebel.

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