Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 28, 2020

John Brown’s Puritanical roots

Filed under: Film,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:16 pm

When I discovered that Showtime had scheduled a series devoted to John Brown, my first reaction was positive. With so much of public opinion moving against white supremacy, it was about time that the abolitionist got a favorable fictional treatment, especially since he had been treated as a destructive fanatic by Hollywood. The 1940 “Santa Fe Trail” was typical. In my 2012 review, I noted:

Blacks are portrayed in the film in the same way as they are portrayed in “Gone with the Wind”, as bamboozled victims of Northern do-gooders. John Brown is depicted as a manipulative fanatic who cares little about their fate, once he has freed them from their owners. At one point, a male ex-slave tells Stuart that all he wants is to go back to Texas and live a normal life once again. That, of course, can only mean a return to slavery.

After watching a trailer for the Showtime series titled “The Good Lord Bird”, I felt cheated once again. Unlike the 1940 film in which Brown is depicted as a fanatical terrorist, this time he is much more of a tragicomic buffoon. Watch the trailer and you’ll see Ethan Hawke chewing the scenery.

To my dismay, I saw that Jacobin’s film critic Eileen Jones described it as “good as you hoped”. Despite being a Berkeley professor (or maybe because of), I find her judgements questionable at best. In this case, it was wretched. This is how she saw it:

The series seems to have been designed for me personally, so of course I love it — from the spaghetti Western–style animated opening credit sequence to the gospel music-filled score to every last spittle fleck flying out of John Brown’s mouth as he calls upon the might of the Lord to help him smite the slavers. But I’m not sure where that leaves the rest of you.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but it leaves me sick to my stomach.

Totally enraged by the left consensus on this trash, I resolved to read the novel it was based on and a newish biography by David S. Reynolds titled “John Brown: Abolitionist”. The novel was written by an African-American named James McBride that won a National Book Award in 2013. I’ll have much more to say about it later on but suffice it to say that it depicts Frederick Douglass as a drunken pedophile.

I am now reading Reynolds’s biography and can recommend it highly. He describes it as a “cultural biography”, which is a term he coined to describe a methodology in which the subject is placed in a historical context. To get an idea of the richness of his understanding of John Brown and his cultural context, let me cite the first few pages of chapter two, which deals with Brown’s roots in Puritanism.

A Southern political cartoon of 1863 spoke volumes about the paranoia John Brown had aroused in the Confederacy. The cartoon, titled “Worship of the North,” pictures an altar with the word PURITANISM blazoned across its base and FREE-LOVE, SPIRIT RAPPING, ATHEISM, and NEGRO WORSHIP on the bricks above it. On the altar sits an ugly Lincoln, beside whom lies the dying American Union. Flanking the altar are antislavery leaders of the Republican Party, including Charles Sumner and William Henry Seward. An African in tribal dress looms at the side of the group holding an odd-looking spear. Hovering over all are Satan and a statue of John Brown, both also holding spears.

The cartoon illustrates the often-neglected fact that the Civil War was far more than a struggle between the North and the South over social issues such as slavery, economics, and states rights. These social issues were intensified by profound cultural differences, real and perceived. John Brown was at the epicenter of this conflict.

The South’s view of him as a demonic Northerner is made clear in the cartoon, where his statue stands like an idol above the altar on the same level as Satan. From the South’s perspective, the “Worship of the North” was devil worship, and John Brown was Satan’s main accomplice.

The spears held by the statue, Satan, and the African represent the pikes John Brown had distributed at Harpers Ferry among the blacks he temporarily freed from slavery. He had designed the pikes, made of bowie knives attached to poles, to be used as weapons by the blacks against white pursuers. For Southerners, the John Brown pike epitomized the twin horrors of Northern aggression and slave revolts.

The other images in the cartoon were also linked with the satanic Brown. Lincoln and his antislavery cronies, from this Southern perspective, were Brown’s worshipers. The moribund American Union was his victim. The armed African was the product of his raid, as was the North’s sympathy for blacks, parodied in the racist phrase NEGRO WORSHIP.

The remaining words on the altar indicated the depth of the South’s hostility. SPIRIT RAPPING and FREE-LOVE were two of the countless “isms” the South associated with Northern society. Movements such as spiritualism, free love, Fourierism, Transcendentalism, and women’s rights had, in fact, sprouted prolifically in the antebellum North, a society caught in the throes of reform and creative ferment. These Northern movements prompted both disgust and smugness in the South. For Southerners, Northern society was wild and anarchic, given to ever-shifting fads that were essentially godless (hence the ATHEISM on the cartoon altar). Abolitionism was an especially wicked example of Northern fanaticism. The South, which considered itself a stable society supported by the “civilizing” institution of slavery, regarded the North as a chaos of homegrown theories rooted in that Ur-source of subversiveness: New England Puritanism.

The PURITANISM at the base of the cartoon was as telling as was the Brown statue at the top. From the South’s perspective, seventeenth-century Puritanism had contributed to the Northern cultural evils that found their culmination in Brown.

Normally, Puritanism does not factor in histories of the Civil War. A widely held view is that Puritanism, far from stirring up warlike emotions, had by the nineteenth century softened into a benign faith in America’s millennial promise. Supposedly, it buttressed mainstream cultural values, fostering consensus and conformity.

For many in the Civil War era, however, Puritanism meant radical individualism and subversive social agitation. In 1863, the Democratic congressman Samuel Cox typically blamed the Civil War on disruptive New England reform movements that he said were rooted in Puritanism. He insisted that fanatical Abolitionism caused the war, and, in his words, “Abolition is the offspring of Puritanism. . . . Puritanism is a reptile which has been boring into the mound, which is the Constitution, and this civil war comes in like a devouring sea!” Charles Chauncey Burr, another defender of the South, bewailed “this terrible Puritan war.” Burr painted the history of the North as a dark drama of aggressive Puritanism:

The nature of Puritanism is to tolerate nothing that it dislikes, and to fight every thing that dislikes it. . . . Nothing escapes it. About a third of a century ago it drove at slavery—swore that it would either break up slavery, or break up the Union. . . . It organized, sent forth agents and lecturers, printed tracts and newspapers, to fill the Northern mind full of its own fanaticism, and to teach the slaves how to poison or murder their masters. . . . On, on, this implacable Puritanism drove, destroying social unity, and sowing the seeds of anarchy, despotism and war, until its harvest of death was ready to be gathered.

This demonization of Puritanism made its way into Southern war songs, such as “The Southern Cross,” which painted the South as peaceful and free until ruined by the “Puritan” North:

How peaceful and blest was America’s soil,
‘Till betrayed by the guile of the Puritan demon,
Which lurks under virtue, and springs from its coil,
To fasten its fangs in the life blood of freemen.

What linked Puritanism with Northern reform was its powerful heritage of antinomianism—the breaking of human law in the name of God. Antinomian rebels from Anne Hutchinson onward put divine grace above social codes. In the nineteenth century this spirit fostered a law-flouting individualism that appeared variously in militant Abolitionism, Transcendentalist self-reliance, and the “individual sovereignty” championed by anarchists and free-love activists—a pervasive individualism parodied in “Worship of the North” by the word EGO that beams from two suns in the top corners of the cartoon.

Northerners, like Southerners, associated these movements with radical Puritanism, but often from a positive perspective. In his 1844 lecture “New England Reformers,” Emerson declared that the “fertile forms of antinomianism among the elder puritans seemed to have their match in the plenty of the new harvest of reform.” Emerson admired the self-reliant spirit behind the reforms. “In each of these movements,” he said, “emerged a good result, an assertion of the sufficiency of the private man.” A Northern journalist went so far as to say: “Puritanism and nothing else can save this nation. . . . The Puritan element, which demands religious freedom, as the birthright of Heaven, in matters spiritual, is the nourisher of that civil liberty which releases the body from secular despotism in matters temporal.”

Northern soldiers were proud to accept the sobriquet “Puritan.” A Union marching song, “My Northern Boy to the War Has Gone!” pictured a Union soldier at Antietam carrying his grandfather’s sword, which linked him to the Puritan past:

His Puritan Grandsire’s sword gleamed bright
Where hosts were in strife engaging;
And many a Rebel eye clos’d in night,
While the contest fierce was raging!

November 27, 2020


Filed under: Black nationalism,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:57 pm


With striking parallels to the story Aaron Sorkin told—very problematically—in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Steve McQueen’s “Mangrove” brings to life a much more obscure historical struggle against judicial injustice. This is the first in a series of five films McQueen made for the BBC about Black life in England. The Mangrove was a restaurant Trinidad immigrant Frank Crichlow opened in Notting Hill in west London in 1968, home to many other Caribbean immigrants who took advantage of coming from a former colony to start a new life. With no other aspirations except to serve up curry dishes and a congenial social gathering for fellow Blacks, Crichlow soon found the British cops bent on destroying his business and making life miserable for people of color. McQueen dedicated the film to George Floyd in open recognition of the black struggle internationally.

Continue reading

November 25, 2020

Reflections on the passing of David Dinkins

Filed under: New York — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

David Dinkins, 1927-2020

There’s a bromide-filled tribute to David Dinkins in Jacobin that might have been expected given his long-time membership in the DSA. At the time, nobody had any illusions that the DSA would lead a revolution in the USA, least of all people like David Dinkins, Major Owens and Ruth Messinger, who all occupied high-level political positions in New York. They would refer to themselves as “progressives” and—truth to tell—there’s not much difference between them and the “squad” politically. If you look at Major Owens’s voting record as a Brooklyn Congressman, there’s not much to distinguish it from Ocasio-Cortez’s.

Like Bill DeBlasio, Dinkins came into office with relatively high expectations but failed to live up to them. As a cautious clubhouse politician, there was little reason to think that he would take on the real estate industry or the cops, the two most retrograde players in the city. Michael Tomasky, a long-time DP liberal, was not expecting much from Dinkins when he was the Mayor in 1993. When a gay contingent was banned from the St. Patrick’s Day parade that year, Dinkins refused to march in it. But when the Salute to Israel parade organizers pulled the same homophobic stunt, Dinkins still marched. Tomasky wrote in the June 21, 1993 Nation Magazine:

The papers never came right out and said it, but the obvious reason for the double standard is as follows: Dinkins figures the Irish vote is lost, but the Jews are another matter. So politically, it’s smart to offend the Irish and stand up for gays and lesbians (even though, in inimitable Dinkins style, he ended up offending them too, after police arrested 218 demonstrators who held a countermarch). But to a Democrat who’ll need every vote he can get this November, Jews are several positions ahead of gays on the vote charts.

Dinkins was elected in 1986, to a large extent the beneficiary of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition that had sunk roots both in Chicago and NY. Back then, people had high expectations of its possibilities just as they have had over Bernie Sanders’s two presidential campaigns.

Dinkins was a protégé of Raymond Jones, a powerful Tammany Hall godfather of the black political class. Along with Dinkins, he trained Percy Sutton, Basil Patterson, and Charlie Rangel who all became powerful machine politicians. It was only Dinkins who adopted the veneer of progressivism.

Just before the election in 1989, a Black youth named Yusuf Hawkins was murdered by a mob of racist whites in Bensonhurst. Just like the outrage over the murder of George Floyd, this incident stirred passions in the Black community and helped Dinkins triumph over his DP rival Ed Koch in the primary, who was becoming despised for his racism.

He also triumphed over Rudy Giuliani who was his Republican rival in the general election. Voters didn’t go for Giuliani’s abrasive style and preferred Dinkins’s calm demeanor that was expected to unite the city, in the same manner as Biden is expected to unite the country. To succeed as mayor, Dinkins had to strike a balance between the city’s progressive-minded voters and Black community on one side and on the other the city’s real estate industry, the cops and the ethnic whites in the outer boroughs where white supremacy ran deep.

Tomasky warned Nation Magazine readers that Dinkins was backed by “the army of real estate barons, lawyers, lobbyists, and fixers who really run this city.” In 1990, NYC was in the midst of one of its periodic fiscal crises. After taking office, it was not surprising that he would choose fiscal austerity just as we expect from a Biden presidency. To keep FIRE (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) businesses from relocating to New Jersey, Dinkins offered substantial tax abatements as an incentive to remain. Like Koch, Dinkins gave Morgan Stanley a tax package worth more than $30 million to keep its 4000 jobs in the city.

Like de Blasio, Dinkins faced immense problems trying to redress the city’s homeless problem. He created shelters that while benefiting indigent families often antagonized the residents who harbored NIMBY resentment toward the very poor.

Ultimately, Dinkins was the victim of a racist backlash triggered by the accusation that he took the side of Black rioters in Brooklyn against the Hasidim in 1991. A caravan of Lubavitchers was returning from a visit to the gravesite of the head Rabbi’s wife when a car ran over Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old Black boy. In retaliation, a Black youth stabbed rabbinical student Yankel Rosenbaum to death in a melee. When the youth was acquitted, Dinkins lost much of his Jewish support and lost to Giuliani in the next election.

What would a genuinely socialist mayor do to set New York in new, radical directions. Like Dinkins, there were high expectations that Nicaragua activist Bill de Blasio would make a difference. There’s not much in the realm of possibilities given the transformation of the city over the past fifty years as its manufacturing base has dwindled away. Even if they were willing to take on the FIRE ruling class, they lacked the social base that could have made the city much more like the egalitarian example it once was. Keep in mind that the city was once a place where public housing was generous. I live in a Mitchell-Lama building, one of the few relics of a bygone era.

Robert Fitch described this descent in a book titled “The Assassination of New York”. In 1994, he wrote an article for NLR titled “Explaining New York City’s Aberrant Economy” that contained the seeds of the ideas found in the book. Let me quote it liberally so that you can get an idea of the sorry state of a once-great metropolis:

A generation ago, New York’s poverty and unemployment rates ranked substantially below those of the rest of the country. The labour-force participation of its Harlem residents was roughly comparable to the national average. Now the Harlem and central Brooklyn rates are twenty points below the national average, while youth labour-force participation for all races has fallen by more than half.

Altogether from the 1890s to the mid 1950s, the city boasted the most stable and diversified economy in urban America. It could plausibly claim to be the richest city in the world. Now it is arguably the poorest in North America, as well as the least diversified. Since the late fifties, New York has been transformed essentially into a one-crop economy—office and luxury construction based chiefly on tenants in ‘FIRE’—finance, insurance and real estate.

New York’s FIRE Storm

The aberrant performance of New York’s economy ought not to be disassociated from this headlong structural transformation. No us city has changed its industrial structure as dramatically as New York. In the 1950s, New York had two workers in manufacturing for every job in finance, insurance and real estate. Now, New York has nearly reversed the ratio: with one and a half jobs in FIRE for every job in manufacturing.

Chiefly because fire jobs failed to keep pace with force-fed, state-planned and highly subsidized office construction, New York has experienced a real-estate collapse of 1930s proportions. Going into 1994, seven years after the great October crash, giant developers continue to file for bankruptcy. The fall in commercial real-estate prices persists as old leases at high rents continue to expire. Nearly 65 million square feet of space still remain empty.

What is chiefly significant about this total is not just that it is space equivalent to thirty Empire State Buildings. It’s rather that during the entire decade of the eighties, developers built only 53 million square feet. Not only did the city build too much space, it didn’t need the space it had. Nor do prospects for filling up the space seem bright. In the early 1990s, brokers said, ‘Stay alive till ’95’. Now they say, ‘Find something to do until 2002’.

(The article is behind a paywall. Contact me privately for a copy.)

November 24, 2020

Matt Huber, nuclear power, and the socialist beachhead

Filed under: Ecology,Jacobin,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 9:30 pm

This is a companion piece to the one I just wrote about Vivek Chibber calling upon DSA’ers to create beachheads in the working class. It too is based on a podcast interview, this time with Matt Huber, who has published a long article in Chibber’s magazine titled “Ecological Politics for the Working Class” that dismisses the need for ecological limits. Like Chibber, this Syracuse professor looks askance at the social class he belongs to: “The environmental movement in its current form is dominated by middle-class professionals.” So, his advice boils down to another version of Chibber’s—the environmental movement has to create beachheads in the trade union movement.

Since I don’t blame anybody for not wanting to plow through 10,500 words of Hubert’s prose, my advice is to watch the podcast above to get a handle on the sort of politics being purveyed in Bhaskar Sunkara’s publishing empire.

Huber’s environmental ideas flow from a rather dogmatic understanding of Marxism that revolves around the point of production. His beef with today’s environmental movement is that it is focused on consumption rather than production. He wonders why the left can’t understand something so simple. The capitalist class owns the means of production, like factories, mines, transportation, and power plants. If the working-class uses its class power against the owners to force it to stop burning greenhouse gases and polluting the air, water and soil, you are likely to see the kinds of changes that are so necessary. Implicit in this rather simplistic proposal is that DSA’ers would get union jobs in the most critical industries to persuade fellow workers to take direct action.

Specifically, Huber views the heavily unionized (relatively speaking) electricity-supplying sector of power plants as a place where a beachhead should be established. He names the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers as a target for such an implantation. Now, if you got a job through someone you knew through the IBEW, it just might be in a nuclear power plant, where the union generally holds sway. What possibility would there be for the workers in such a plant, like Homer Simpson, taking militant action to shut it down? Zero.

But that’s no problem for Huber since he agrees with the IBEW that nuclear power is a key part of the Green New Deal. Here’s something from their media center:

In an age of shrinking bipartisanship and climbing global temperatures, the Nuclear Powers America Act might just be the bipartisan legislation the country needs to cleanly and reliably power future generations.

”The challenges we face in terms of the climate and the security and reliability of our energy grid go beyond political persuasions because they will impact us all, and the Nuclear Powers America Act is a strong example of finding a common sense solution that works for Democrats, Republicans, environmentalists and everyone else who cares about clean energy production,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson.

And here’s Huber making the same case in the DSA magazine:

There is evidence advanced reactors and recycling can solve many of the environmental worries of waste and meltdowns. The most credible objection to nuclear is cost, but this should not be the main criteria under a socialist program whose aim is decarbonization and production for social needs (and, like renewables, once nuclear plants are built the cost is very low).

It is remarkable that an energy expert like Matt Huber can recommend nuclear power with so little in his scholarly background to show for it. If you go to his Syracuse University website, you will find 41 peer-reviewed articles. Not a single one delves into nuclear power.

As it happens, nuclear power plants create radioactive waste material that remains toxic for 250,000 years. Since power plants generate 2000 tons of it a year, where to put it is a big problem. It might come as a big surprise that it is foisted on poor people, especially American Indians. However, the bulk of it remains inside the power plant where it is subject to deus ex machina events like earthquakes. The Diablo Canyon power plant is half-way down the California coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles ringed by a dozen earthquake faults. You know who owns it? None other than the Pacific Gas and Electric Company that has been partly responsible for the disastrous forest fires of the past few years.

Now, one might presume that none of this would be a problem if we overthrow capitalism and start building a communist world. The utmost standards of safety would be adopted with the vanguard of the working class led by Bhaskar Sunkara, Vivek Chibber and Matt Huber overseeing the alternative-energy grid from their offices in Washington. However, given the beachhead mindset of these guys, one doubts that they would urge militant protests to shut down such plants since they would alienate the Homer Simpsons who work there.

One doubts that someone guided by Matt Huber’s pearls of wisdom would cause any kind of ruckus in a power plant given the solicitous concern shown toward workers in his Catalyst article:

Whereas a class politics was always about offering a vision of increased overall welfare, ecological politics became a politics of less. André Gorz developed an explicitly eco-socialist standpoint centered on less: “The only way to live better is to produce less, to consume less, to work less, to live differently.” Over the years class and environmental politics were constantly at odds in the “jobs versus environment” debate. It was working-class loggers who opposed the protection of the spotted owl or the restoration of salmon runs in the Columbia River. As Richard White recounts, the bumper sticker “Are you an Environmentalist or do you Work for a Living?” became popular among rural working-class communities.

I don’t quite know to put this but even if workers have the power to bring capitalist production to a grinding halt, their consciousness has to change before hand. Perhaps comrade Huber has not read Lenin’s “What is to be Done”. It makes the case that revolutionary class consciousness is not something that arises spontaneously. It has to come from outside the workplace by conscious socialists:

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.[2] The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia.

Much of Huber’s podcast is a diatribe against the professional management class (PMC) that is outside the working-class, just as Marx and Engels were. The idea that DSA’ers are going to get jobs working in a nuclear power plant and persuade workers to take militant actions against an employer who is paying them $65,000 per year is absurd. Of course, given his partiality toward nuclear energy, that will never be a problem.

It is, on the other hand, our problem that we have such bilge being promoted by the Jacobin/DSA in the name of socialism.

November 23, 2020

Vivek Chibber and the turn to the working-class

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 8:36 pm

Although he is a relatively obscure figure on the American left, NYU Sociology professor Vivek Chibber can be accurately described as the éminence grise of DSA/Jacobin. I conjoin DSA and Jacobin as a way of honing in on the overlap between DSA’s top leaders and their role as editors or contributors to Jacobin, which is the de facto voice of the DSA just as much as the Daily Worker was once that of the CPUSA.

I was especially interested in hearing what he had to say in a Jacobin podcast interview he gave to Ariella Thornhill titled “What’s Next for the Left”. (Thornhill, an African-American, was a member of the editorial board of Jacobin but is no longer—now leaving it totally white.) Since DSA/Jacobin had invested so much in the Sanders campaign, which was understood to be the first stage in a rocket launch that would lead to a Swedish-style welfare state in maybe 20 years from now and culminating in a genuine socialist country, if not world, there had to be some soul-searching after Biden’s nomination and his repudiation of the Sanders wing of the party.

According to Chibber, the neo-Kautskyian formulas that had led to such illusions now lie in a smoldering heap of rubble. The Democratic Party has found a winning formula that makes Sanders’s brand of neo-New Deal politics unnecessary. In a nutshell, the DP has its eyes on a coalition between the top 35 percentile of suburban American wage earners and the Black and Latino population that will obediently follow the instructions of establishment figures like Jim Clyburn and Tom Perez. Even if they lose an election to another rightwing bastard like Trump, that would be preferable to having someone like Sanders in the White House.

Chibber also disparaged the importance of “democratic socialists” winning local or state offices that he described as a swamp. Unlike Sanders’s campaigns, there’s little opportunity for using them as a bully pulpit to address profound policy issues of war and peace. Furthermore, those who have the most to gain from even a mildly social democratic president—the young people in the gig economy—do not vote as heavily as the older and more conservative constituents like, for example, the “Tejanos” who voted for Trump in south Texas.

Despite the monomaniacal devotion to electoral politics that characterize the DSA, Chibber has a rather striking alternative that seems hardly consistent with his professorial privileges. He advocates that the DSA and the left immerse itself in the working class both physically and politically in order to build a base that can transform American society. In a 2017 Jacobin interview, Chibber was not exactly clear about how to go about bringing the typical DSA member and someone who stocks shelves at a Walmart:

It is absolutely true that the union movement today shows no interest in doing this. It shows no interest in fighting. It shows no interest in pursuing the kinds of goals that the labor movement in the past had. To me, that just means you build a better one, that’s all. It’s like saying a cure for this disease is not doing as well as it could, but until you find a different cure, you’ve got to keep working on that one.

It’s harder making this case today in left settings because there are very few workers who come to left settings. It’s harder to make the case that workers are important, because a lot of people on the Left are students and academics, and they want to talk about exotic things. But I don’t know any other way around it.

Maybe Chibber can set an example for the DSA and quit his NYU job and go to work in a factory himself. I tried that one morning in 1978 and called it quits.

DSA has 100,000 members but it is not a serious, disciplined revolutionary organization that can generate the momentum to get its members to make life-changing choices such as the kind revolutionary groups made in the 60s and 70s. Furthermore, they often end up as exercises in futility as workers fail to make the connection between their day-to-day lives and socialist propaganda.

Toward the end of the interview (1:02), Chibber is asked specifically what the left should do. To start with, it has to break out of the milieu it inhabits, which is a small, cloistered professional milieu that is largely unconnected to the lives of working people. He says that the gains of the DSA are real but they will not go very far if it continues to follow the electoral road. It is possible to use the electoral gains the DSA made to establish beachheads in working-class neighborhoods and workplaces to build a real and permanent physical presence, not just for six months to ring doorbells for “woke” candidates. You have to integrate yourselves into the lives of such people. However, one wonders why Chibber would use the term “beachhead” to describe the relationship of socialist activists and the working class. Doesn’t it summon up images of the Normandy invasion and Iwo Jima rather than a natural affinity?

Going even further, Chibber accuses the left of living in the same cultural, moral, political universe as the people it criticizes, both the liberal and conservatives. There’s a turf war between liberals and conservatives at the top 20 percent of society but the left is part of that battlefield. The only way forward is to break out of it. If it doesn’t, it will only end up as a service organization (like replacing broken taillights, I guess) or a rump of the Democratic Party. An NGO that knocks on the door for Democratic “progressives” or “socialists”.


Can the DSA make such a “turn” when its most charismatic figure is someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who led Vogue magazine through her skin-care and signature-red-lip routine? Or Bhaskar Sunkara who used to regale his Twitter followers with his jet-setting itineraries?

Some of the people who might be expected to carry out such a turn are those who have been grad students in Chibber’s department like Paul Heideman who lashed out at a left that was subject to anti-electoral movementism?

The path forward for the DSA is guarded at best. It is simply too loosely knit and politically amorphous to make the kind of turn that Chibber outlines. It is also too comfortable in the cocoon it occupies, with its semi-bohemian culture, its Chapo Trap House affinities, its predominantly youthful make-up, its preference for semi-gentrified urban neighborhoods and all the rest.

All of this is the natural outcome of a left that destroyed itself with “Leninist” illusions fifty years ago. A vacuum was created that was filled by a reborn social democracy. There is something almost Viconian about the return of a movement that exhausted itself in the 1960s when its leadership aligned itself with LBJ’s war in Vietnam. What will help generate a new cyclical return to a mass revolutionary movement? God only knows.

November 21, 2020


Filed under: Film,Soros — louisproyect @ 7:40 pm

Opening yesterday as Virtual Cinema, “Soros” is a flabby, toothless documentary that I can still recommend as a clinical study of the self-deception of one of the most powerful political philanthropists of the past half-century. I use the term political to distinguish him from the average billionaire philanthropist like Bill Gates who has little direct interest in toppling governments that don’t conform to his ideological predispositions.

Directed by Jesse Dylan, it comes across as a puff piece made to order for commemorating George Soros’s noble deeds. Nobody could be better suited to this task than Bob Dylan’s son Jesse, who did video production work for George Soros’s Open Society at one point. You can get an idea of where he is coming from by his earlier work, including a music video titled “Yes We Can,” inspired by Barack Obama’s campaign for President.

The film is most useful as an overview of George Soros’s life and career that by necessity must account for the hatred toward him from anti-Semites and fascists across the planet. As a speculator, a Jew and a political powerhouse, he naturally conforms to the stereotypes found throughout right-wing social media. To allow the right to make its case against Soros, Dylan calls upon Tucker Carlson whose complaint is that nobody should be allowed to interfere in other country’s affairs through the leverage billions of dollars afford him. Against Carlson’s rather hypocritical indictment, the scale tips in the favor of at least a dozen Open Society staff members and other NGO heavyweights who pour out their hearts on behalf of the ninety-year old potentate. Missing entirely is a single voice from the left that could flesh out the grievances briefly alluded to in the film.

For example, Viktor Orban is trotted out as a typical crypto-fascist, anti-Semitic figure who expelled Soros’s Central European University from Budapest. There is a brief mention of Soros’s sponsorship of Orban during the time Soros was cultivating a network of intellectuals and disillusioned ex-Communists as part of an effort to restore private property in the country of his birth. However, there is no explanation of why so many Hungarians turned against its benefactor. One of Soros’s fans seemed perplexed by the failure of a nation that despised Communism to appreciate someone who was key to its overthrow.

To understand the emergence of the rightwing boomerang against Soros, you have understand how he helped spawn the fascist tendencies himself doing what he does best: making money. The Hungarians probably had no idea what they were getting into when they gave Soros carte blanche to restructure their society. In 2010, Soros’s firm was fined $2.5 million for illegal trades in Hungary’s largest bank, the OTP. Through short sales, Soros made a fortune even if Hungarians got the shitty end of the stick. On April 2, 2009, the NY Times reported:

In a small walk-up apartment on the outskirts of Budapest, George Ivanyi, a founder of the Association of Bank Loan Victims, does his best to cope with an unceasing flow of Hungarians who have come to seek advice because they can no longer pay their mortgages after the forint’s collapse. Volunteer law students sip Red Bull while they counsel couples, and amid the buzz of activity a perpetually ringing phone goes unanswered.

“I feel the desperation of the people,” Mr. Ivanyi said. “The banks are responsible – but so is the government. They should not have approved these loans.”

One woman, he recounts, was so overwhelmed when the monthly mortgage bill on her Japanese yen-denominated loan from OTP suddenly soared 50 percent that she ingested a dose of rat poison and narrowly escaped death.

I first became interested in Soros around the time I began opposing how Western banks were attempting to break apart Yugoslavia. At the time, liberals everywhere were demonizing Milosevic, who I never put on the same level as Assad. Whatever his flaws, and they certainly were ample, he—unlike Donald Trump—never refused to resign after he lost an election in 2000.

Soros was trying to transform Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Russia into “Open Societies”, a fancy word for constitutional democracies that could save humanity from the evils of Nazism and Communism. Inspired by Karl Popper’s 1945 “The Open Society and Its Enemies”, Soros dedicated himself to overthrowing Communism since, after all, B-29s had already taken out Nazism.

After narrowly escaping the Judeocide, George Soros was encouraged by his father to enroll in the London School of Economics after emigrating to London in 1945. Failing the admission exams, he was not dissuaded. He snuck into LSE lectures over a two year period and absorbed the ideas of a school that was founded by the Fabian Society and had close ties to the Labour Party in its early days.

However, by the time Soros got there, the LSE had evolved to the right, largely under the influence of Friedrich Hayek who held roost there. Frankfurt School refugees were never considered for the faculty and headed straight to the USA where they were more welcome. Under Hayek’s stewardship, the LSE had become similar to the U. of Chicago economics department and an ideological foe of the Cambridge school that was committed to Keynesian orthodoxy. Karl Popper’s seminars were the main influence on Soros. Karl Popper was a close friend of Hayek and an ideological soulmate. Both men were traumatized by the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary upheavals of their youth and were predisposed to blame fascism and socialism equally. In a letter to Hayek in 1944, Popper stated, “I think I have learnt more from you than from any other living thinker, except perhaps Alfred Tarski.” (Tarski was a logician and mathematician.)

Like Francis Fukuyama, the author of “The End of History and the Last Man”, Popper exploited the victory of Western democracies over both fascism and Communism. They predicted a new age of political democracies where the right to assemble peacefully and vote in multi-party democracies would be sacrosanct. They didn’t think too much about the emergence of groups like Golden Dawn or other fascist parties in Europe since the economy was still expanding and jobs were relatively easy to come by. When one financial crisis after another in the past three decades began to depress the wages and welfare state benefits of both the USA and Western Europe, the liberal bourgeoisie had no answers. The 70+ million votes for Donald Trump should illustrate that.

Ironically, Jesse Dylan neglected to pay attention to Soros’s own worries about the failing economic system that he had done so much to create. In 1999, he wrote a book titled “The Crisis of Global Capitalism”, in which he wrote that what he calls “market fundamentalism” may be “a greater threat to open society than totalitarian government today.” Jeff Madrick, a liberal economist, interviewed Soros that year in the NY Review of Books. This exchange has an eerie resonance to our problems today:

JM: You call the current faith in free-market ideology “market fundamentalism.” That has overtones of religiosity, absolutism, coercion.

GS: Because we are disappointed with the policies of governments—and with plenty of justification—we tend to idealize the market as something that can take care of everything. And just as Marx claimed communism was based on a scientific theory of history, market fundamentalism relies on an allegedly scientific economic theory. Basically, I think it was Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who were the main movers in adopting a vulgarized version of laissez-faire economics, turning it into a kind of fundamentalist position.

Neither Soros nor Madrick have a clue as to why governments everywhere are gravitating toward “market fundamentalism”. It also makes you wonder what Soros would disparage this tendency since his guru Karl Popper was a Hayek acolyte, after all. Some say that it is a function of greed. In the good old days, the bourgeoisie was kinder and more generous toward the people it ruled, a combination of noblesse oblige and tactical wisdom. Who, after all, would want to antagonize workers to the point that they vote for Donald Trump. It is not greed, however, that is driving class inequality. It is rather the logic of capital that dictates runaway shops, deregulation, union-busting and all the other characteristics of the neoliberal economy. The capitalist class is riven with contradictions. It cannot provide well-playing jobs that put it at a disadvantage with its rivals. It might have been Trump’s major “accomplishment” to push through deregulation measures that have left Americans subject to toxic air, water and food. However, it was Ted Kennedy who was the architect of the deregulation of the airline industry that serves as model for all that followed.

Poor George Soros must have trouble sleeping overnight seeing the rise of fascist tendencies everywhere. After spending billions on building “open societies”, he sees them closing everywhere. Now, as the scapegoat of the alt-right, Soros is blamed for funding BLM and antifa. While he certainly has not funded antifa, there is evidence that he has given money to BLM. So have other deep-pocketed liberal foundations. Even though it is only apocryphal, it is still worth paraphrasing what Lenin said. “The foundations will give us the money we will use to buy the rope with which we will hang them.’

November 18, 2020

The Last Vermeer; Born to Be

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

“The Last Vermeer” is based on the actual history of a Dutchman Han van Meegeren, the greatest art swindler who ever lived. If you’ve seen Orson Welles’s “F is for Fake”, you’ll understand why art forgery remains such a compelling theme. Welles’s film deals with Clifford Irving, who penned a Howard Hughes biography out of whole cloth. It also profiles an art forger Elmyr De Hory, who was Irving’s subject in an earlier book. When I reviewed Welles’s movie in 2007, I read Irving’s book for background.

Basically Irving argues, in sympathy with the outlook of his subject, that it was market demand that assured De Hory’s success, just as the publishing industry would salivate a few years later over the prospects of a blockbuster Howard Hughes autobiography. He writes:

Really, it’s just incredible that someone like a Picasso, a living artist—between two cigarettes he makes a little drawing and that is transferred immediately into gold. John Paul Getty is supposed to be the richest man in the world, but in a given year, if he wanted to, Picasso could make more money than Getty. He can make a line and sign his name to it and get cash for it in five seconds by just picking up the telephone. Fantastic! It’s a situation unparalleled in the history of art or commerce. I heard a story from [his henchman] Fernand Legros that he sent one of my Picassos to Picasso for an authentication, and Picasso, who wasn’t quite sure, asked the man who brought it, ‘How much did the dealer pay for it?’ The man mentioned a huge amount, maybe $100,000, and Picasso said, “Well, if he paid that much, it must be real.”

Born in 1889, Han van Meegeren became an artist out of love for the paintings of the Old Dutch masters (Hals, Vermeer, et al). Starting out, he emulated their style without caring whether his work was marketable or not. After they trashed him for being unoriginal, he sought revenge by creating “lost” masterpieces that fooled the critics and earned him millions.

His biggest con was trading a fake Vermeer titled “Christ with the Adulteress” for 173 genuine masterpieces that Herman Göring had stashed away in a salt mine in Austria. When the film begins, a Dutch military officer named Joseph Piller takes van Meegeren into custody on the basis that he had traded away one of Holland’s greatest cultural artifacts. It is only in the course of his interrogation of van Meegeren that he discovers the truth. He swindled the Nazi in order to preserve his country’s most treasured possessions. What gives the film its edge is the artist’s ambivalent character. Was he a one-man Resistance fighter taking great risks in conning the Germans or was he just a con man out for personal gain?

Piller is played by Claes Bang, who has now starred in three films about the “fictitious capital” embodied in the art market. In “Burnt Orange Heresy” that opened in March, he plays a a chain-smoking, pill-popping art critic named James Figueras who tracks down the legendary artist Jerome Debney, who shocked the art world by setting fire to his studio out of weariness with the art world and its critics. Since all his paintings were destroyed, Figueras hopes to persuade Debney to do one last painting so as to cash in on its rarity—and hence its value. In a 2017 film titled “The Square”, Bang played the director of a Swedish museum resembling the Whitney, where the excesses—both financial and artistic—are satirized brilliantly. In one scene, a famous artist clad in pajamas lectures an audience with a pompous and meaningless explanation of his work. The character is based on Julian Schnabel.

As near as I can tell, “The Last Vermeer” opens on November 20th in physical theaters around the country. You can check Fandango for the locations. I would also advise checking the VOD websites (Amazon, iTunes, Hulu, etc.) to see if is available as well. As for the other two films about the art market that the great Claes Bang stars in, you can rent “Burnt Orange Heresy” on Amazon or from AMC. “The Square” is on Amazon for only $2.99, a bargain at twice the price.

Opening today at Film Forum’s Virtual Cinema, “Born to Be” profiles Dr. Jess Ting of Mount Sinai’s Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery (CTMS). Ting, who is also a Julliard trained bass player, was the first doctor to join the department, mostly as a result of being the only one on staff willing to take a chance on performing surgical procedures generally shunned by his colleagues.

After having reviewed at least five films about the transgender community since 2017, this is the first one that hones in on the so-called “transition surgery” that turns a biological man into a woman and vice versa. Almost a cinéma vérité, it follows Ting, a Chinese-American, on his daily rounds meeting with or performing surgery on a number of his patients.

They are a cross-section of the community that is arguably the most despised of all those falling outside the alt-right cocoon of Trumpworld. In passing, Dr. Ting reflects on the tragedy of 44 percent of all such people attempting suicide at one point or another in their lives.

He gains enormous satisfaction out of seeing the smiles on the faces of a biological woman who wakes up in the possession of a quasi-penis capable of an erection or that of a biological woman with a quasi-vagina. Dr. Ting engages easily with his patients and his compassion for them is saintly. Even when a “transition” is complete, the results can be tragic. A transgender woman meets a man on a blind date but is crushed when the man rushes away after discovering the truth. We see Dr. Ting consoling her after she attempts suicide.

Given the unfair dismissal of transgender identity from J.K Rowling and some even on the left, this film is a compelling argument for accepting people on their own terms. Imagine how you would feel if tomorrow you woke up and your body magically became transformed into that of the opposite sex but your mind remained that of your sexual identity at birth, a plot of some comedies. In reality, it would be no joke as the plight of Dr. Ting’s patients make so clear.

November 15, 2020

Readings on race and class

Filed under: Black nationalism — louisproyect @ 9:19 pm

The magazine of the African Blood Brotherhood, a nationalist caucus of the early Communist Party

Ten days ago, I received a query:

As I’ve started to dig more into socialism and leftist theory, I have started to take a closer look at Marxism and as I am just scratching the surface of Marx having read articles and seen intro presentations (still need to dig into his books), but I’m struggling with what many marxists seem to view as only looking at class without taking into account the importance of anti racism and that racism and its history, including its unique US history, also needs to also be centered in these discussions with a history of its own.

As I searched for “answers” regarding how to reconcile these forces, I saw two of your articles in Counterpunch: class reductionism and environmental racism; and Marx, Lincoln and the 1619 project. You used the term “vulgar Marxism” I believe to describe the consternation I’ve had with Marxism. Seeing those articles made me want to reach out to you with the hope that – since you seem to have studied Marxism for decades while also having some of these feelings – what you would suggest for me in terms of what other prominent thinkers may share these views as I’d really like to continue learning, but with the knowledge that you can be a Marxist needing to adhere to its orthodoxy necessarily. Being someone who speaks out against racism, stands with the Black Lives Matter protests, and is married to a Latina who is on the left but not steeped in theory, it’s important that as I develop an outlook on the left, that race not be discounted completely.

In my search so far I’ve seen some books in the black radical tradition, such as Racial Capitalism, and Black Marxism by the same author [Cedric Robinson]. I’m hoping those provide somewhat of a pathway into understanding how Marxist theory can be coupled with anti racism.

As is generally the case when I get this kind of email, I like to answer it on my blog since others might find my reply useful.

To start off, I’d recommend the minutes of the meetings that Leon Trotsky had with CLR James and other Trotskyists in 1939 in Coyoacan that are grouped under the heading “Leon Trotsky and Black Nationalism” on the Marxist Internet Archives (MIA). There’s also minutes from a discussion Trotsky had with Arnie Swabeck in 1933, when he was still living in Prinkipo, Turkey. Trotsky, arguably the most powerful Marxist thinker and revolutionary of the 20th century after Lenin, viewed Blacks as an oppressed nation and urged Americans to see them the same way that Lenin saw the Georgians, Ukrainians and other captive nations of the Czarist Empire.

I am not sure whether the Socialist Workers Party paid much attention to them throughout the forties and fifties but when Malcolm X began to popularize Black nationalist ideas in the 1960s, there was at least one SWP leader—George Breitman—who tried to connect Malcolm to the strategy Trotsky laid out in these earlier meetings. If you read his introduction to the articles grouped under Black Nationalism mentioned above, you’ll see how clear he was about the continuity between Lenin/Trotsky and Malcolm X, even when he was still in the Nation of Islam:

In 1923, Trotsky wrote a letter answering certain questions asked of him by the revolutionary Negro poet, Claude McKay. It appeared first in International Press Correspondence and may be found in Trotsky’s The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 1. Here, for the first of many times, Trotsky placed heavy stress on the racial prejudices of the labor bureaucracy and backward white workers, about which he never minced any words; he emphasized this because he realized it has crucial effects on what the Negro masses think and do. In addition, almost in passing, he showed he understood that only Negroes can lead the Negro struggle. The last part of his letter said:

“…it is of the utmost importance, today, immediately, to have a number of enlightened, young, self-sacrificing Negroes, however small their number, filled with enthusiasm for the raising of the material and moral level of the great mass of Negroes, and at the same time mentally capable of grasping the identity of interests and destiny of the Negro masses, with those of the masses of the whole world…”

In addition to the MIA section discussed above, I recommend reading other articles by George Breitman that are categorized under his own name there. Plus, have a look at the CLR James archive at MIA for many useful articles written for both the SWP press and later in Max Schactman’s party press.

Keep in mind that the socialist and communist left of the 1920s had much different ideas about class and race than Leon Trotsky. It was even more class-reductionist than Adolph Reed Jr. and his hangers-on. Without any connection to Lenin or Trotsky, however, African-American members of the Communist Party developed ideas that were akin to theirs. All this is documented in Mark Solomon’s “The Cry was Unity: Communists and African Americans 1917-1936” that was published in 1998. In my review, I noted:

What is significant, however, is that Solomon understands the progressive character of black nationalism as well, sparing no effort to show how the Communist Party at various points in its history embraced such initiatives. I want to focus in one particular moment in party history, which is highly revealing for the affinity black party members had for nationalism, namely the African Blood Brotherhood. Despite the separatist name, this group was the instrument of Communist Party involvement in the black struggle in the early 1920s.

Cyril Briggs was the founder of the African Black Brotherhood. Born in 1888 on the Caribbean island of Nevis, he always considered himself a “race man”. His father was a white plantation overseer and this accounted for Briggs’s light complexion, which earned him the description of the “Angry Blond Negro” later in life, just as Malcolm X was dubbed “Detroit Red” before becoming a nationalist for similar reasons. Briggs moved to Harlem in 1905 and launched a writing career, finally landing a job with the Amsterdam News in 1912.

I recommend Solomon’s book that can be purchased used on Amazon for $18.50 plus a small archive of articles written for Cyril Brigg’s magazine on MIA.

Coming from an entirely different ideological tradition, Ted Allen, Noel Ignatiev, and David Roediger echoed Trotsky and Briggs. Allen and Ignatiev came out of the CPUSA but were drawn to the New Left in the 1960s. As far as I know, Roediger was not a revolutionary activist like the other two but his ideas meshed with theirs. Allen’s best known work was the two-volume “The Invention of the White Race”. I’d recommend it but you can also read an article titled “Class Struggle and the Origin Of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race” that summarizes his ideas. You can also find other articles by Allen in the Cultural Logic archives.

Noel Ignatiev, who died last year, was the author of “How the Irish Became White”, his Ph.D. dissertation from Harvard. You can find articles by both Noel and Ted Allen in the Sojourner Truth Organization’s archives. Sojourner Truth was a group that Noel led in the 1960s that incorporates a lot of their ideas.

As for David Roediger, his 1991 “The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class” is clearly tied to Allen and Ignatiev’s work, as indicated by the title. Fortunately, the book is online. He has also been interviewed three times on KPFA, recordings of which can be heard here. Also, look for videos featuring his talks on YouTube.

Jeffrey Perry was one of the members of the Sojourner Truth Organization. Over the past 10 years or so, he has been crusading to make known the work of Hubert Harrison, an African-American who was part of the same generation as Cyril Briggs. In a communication from Jeffrey I received recently, he had news of the second volume of his biography of Harrison:

The forthcoming (November 2020) Columbia University Press publication of “Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918-1927” (https://cup.columbia.edu/book/hubert-harrison/9780231182638 ) follows “Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918” ( https://cup.columbia.edu/book/hubert-harrison/9780231139113 ). This two-volume biography by Jeffrey B. Perry (www.jeffreybperry.net ) is based on extensive use of the Hubert H. Harrison Papers and Diary, which the author placed with Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Born to a Barbadian mother and Crucian father in St. Croix, Harlem-based Hubert Harrison (1883-1927) was a brilliant writer, orator, editor, educator, critic, and activist. He combined class consciousness and anti-white-supremacist race consciousness, internationalism, and struggle for equality into a potent political radicalism. Harrison’s ideas profoundly influenced “New Negro” militants, including A. Philip Randolph and Marcus Garvey, and his work is a key link in the two great strands of the Civil Rights/Black Liberation struggle: the labor- and civil-rights movement associated with Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr. and the race and nationalist movement associated with Garvey and Malcolm X.

I have not read Jeffrey’s biography but in a fairly long talk I had with him at a Left Forum in NY a few years ago, he assured me that I would find a strong affinity with both Ted Allen’s book (that is on my bookshelf) and Hubert Harrison. You can read a 117-page article by Jeffrey Perry titled “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight against White Supremacy” online.

Finally, I strongly recommend Robin D.G. Kelley’s Boston Review article titled “Births of a Nation, Redux: Surveying Trumpland with Cedric Robinson” that is both a tribute to Robinson as well as a savvy take on the current struggle against white supremacy as exemplified by BLM. For my money, Kelley is today’s leading African-American Marxist scholar who is making the same kind of contribution WEB DuBois made a century ago. I’d look for any articles by him that can be found online and any book he written without qualification.

November 13, 2020

Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance

Filed under: cops/agent provocateurs,Great Britain,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:39 pm

Ernie Tate, putting undercover cops in the witness stand

A few weeks ago, my old friend and comrade Ernie Tate sent me a link to an article titled “Shag another” by Katrina Forrester that appeared in the November 7, 2013 London Review of Books. Since it is behind a paywall, I will include the article below.

Forrester reviews a book titled “Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police” by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis. Ironically, the undercover cops belonged to a unit called SDS. In this case, it wasn’t Students for a Democratic Society but the Special Demonstration Squad that was charged with the duty of infiltrating the British left that, unlike the American SDS, was deeply involved in mass actions against the war.

Maybe it would be better to say that the British left was a hybrid of our SDS and the Vietnam antiwar coalitions that the SWP helped build. They combined a focus on immediate withdrawal but was not averse to the kind of street-fighting that Tariq Ali celebrated in his pretty good memoir “Street Fighting Man”.

Forrester’s article beings:

The Grosvenor Square demonstration against the Vietnam War in March 1968 caught the Metropolitan Police by surprise. After a rally in Trafalgar Square and a march to the US Embassy, the protest turned into a street battle; stones, smoke bombs and firecrackers were thrown, and mounted police charged the crowd. More than two hundred protesters were arrested. In the months that followed, alarm seemed to grip the police, who felt they were on the back foot. Special Branch – the covert unit of the Met which gathered intelligence on perceived state-subversives – began sending weekly reports to the Home Office predicting what protesters would do next. In one report, a Special Branch chief inspector, Conrad Hepworth Dixon, claimed that the city faced the threat of demonstrators carrying ‘ball-bearings, fireworks, hat pins and banner poles for use as weapons’.

To get intelligence on such demonstrations and on the left in general, Dixon established a squad of ten SDS officers that would go into deep undercover over a period of years. Unlike FBI agents in the USA operated under Cointelpro, the cops would become deeply embedded in the milieu they were penetrating even to the point of developing long-term relationships with the women activists. The authors’ primary source is former undercover agent Peter Francis, who spied on minor anti-fascist and anti-racist groups in North London in the early 1990s. While undercover, he lived alone in Highbury, drove a van and got a day job working in a school for children with special needs. Hard to imagine an FBI agent going to such lengths. When I was in the Houston branch of the SWP, there were a couple of guys who struck me as being on the FBI payroll but hardly amounted to undercover agents. They just sat there at branch meetings, saying nothing.

The only FBI agent who immersed himself totally in party life was a railroad worker named Ed Heisler who ended up on the National Committee. He was our Malinovsky, so to speak.

Currently, there has been a tribunal to investigate the British spying operation convened as the Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance (COPS). Ernie sent me links to two of their weekly reports, one dated November 5th and the other dated November 12th. The November 12th release included testimony from Ernie and from Tariq Ali, who were two of the leaders of the British antiwar movement and members of the International Marxist Group, the British section of the Fourth International.

Look for Ernie’s statement that begins:

Tate was born in Belfast in 1934. He emigrated to Canada at the age of 21 and worked in mechanical engineering.

Politically active all his life, Tate has written a memoir of his activism in the 1950s and 1960s, relating to his time in the International Group (a section of the Fourth International, as founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938) which, in Britain, became in the International Marxist Group (IMG).

Tate was in Britain for almost five years between 1965 and 1969, and in that time was heavily involved in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC), which was set up in 1966.

Returning to Canada in 1969, he became involved in the trade unions and for many years was Chief Steward and Vice President of a major local of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. He is now retired, and living in Toronto.

London Review of Books, Vol. 35 No. 21, 7 November 2013
Shag another
By Katrina Forrester

Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police
by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis.
Faber and Guardian Books, 346 pp., £12.99, June 2013, 978 0 571 30217 8

The Grosvenor Square demonstration against the Vietnam War in March 1968 caught the Metropolitan Police by surprise. After a rally in Trafalgar Square and a march to the US Embassy, the protest turned into a street battle; stones, smoke bombs and firecrackers were thrown, and mounted police charged the crowd. More than two hundred protesters were arrested. In the months that followed, alarm seemed to grip the police, who felt they were on the back foot. Special Branch – the covert unit of the Met which gathered intelligence on perceived state-subversives – began sending weekly reports to the Home Office predicting what protesters would do next. In one report, a Special Branch chief inspector, Conrad Hepworth Dixon, claimed that the city faced the threat of demonstrators carrying ‘ball-bearings, fireworks, hat pins and banner poles for use as weapons’. Ministers considered deploying the army. Senior police officers assured the government they were in control, but it was clear that a radical change in tactics was needed. Dixon proposed the formation of a new covert unit called the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which would operate differently from previous undercover police, who infiltrated criminal gangs with the aim of making targeted arrests within a few weeks. Instead, a squad of ten SDS officers, drawn from the ranks of Special Branch and borrowing strategies from MI5, would go deep undercover over a period of years, with the sole aim of gathering intelligence on the activities of political groups. The idea was to prevent outbreaks of disorder like the one in Grosvenor Square, and to catch anyone intent on ‘engineering a breakdown of our present system of government’. Harold Wilson’s government approved Dixon’s plan and agreed to fund the SDS directly from the Treasury.

Just as the state overestimated the threat of disorder after Grosvenor Square (the next demonstration, on 27 October, was an anti-climax), it continued to overplay the dangers of dissent in subsequent decades. Over the years, the remit of Special Branch and the SDS expanded along with the definition of ‘subversives’. In 1963 the term was used to describe individuals who ‘would contemplate the overthrow of government by unlawful means’; by the 1970s, it referred to anyone whose actions would ‘threaten the safety or wellbeing of the state, and are intended to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means’. Special Branch had long concerned itself with counter-espionage, the ‘communist threat’ and the IRA. The focus of the SDS was more specifically on public order policing, and its list of targets was long: socialists, anarchists, environmentalists, animal rights groups, anti-Nazi, anti-racist and anti-apartheid campaigners, Labour Party activists. A report on the policing of protest issued by the Inspectorate of Constabulary in 2012 stated that the point of undercover intelligence is to differentiate between those ‘intent on causing crime and disruption’ and those ‘who wish to protest peacefully’. But by exaggerating the threat of the former, the state justifies constant surveillance of the latter. The implications have long been recognised, even at the highest levels of official oversight. It is now nearly thirty years since a Home Affairs Committee reported that Special Branch had acquired a ‘sinister reputation’. ‘Accountable to no one’, it represented ‘a threat to civil liberties’.

The workings of the SDS, which became known as ‘The 27 Club’ after the date it was founded, were until very recently well concealed. It operated on a ‘need to know’ basis: intelligence gathered by its officers would be distributed to other police departments but they would not know how the intelligence was obtained. It had few rules and little oversight; quite how little is still unclear. Until it was shut down in 2008, it deployed only ten officers at any one time. Its replacement, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, founded in 1999, had more like seventy. In October 2010, a group of activists announced on the alternative news site Indymedia that Mark Kennedy, an undercover officer working with the NPOIU, had infiltrated them. Since then, a good deal of detail about the tactics of the NPOIU and SDS, the double lives its officers led and the people they exploited and betrayed, has been brought to light. The official police response has been to stress that the majority of undercover officers did and continue to do their job well, providing intelligence that allows the state to monitor subversives. The fault, they claim, lies with a number of rogue officers.

In Undercover, Rob Evans and Paul Lewis draw on the testimonies of activists and whistleblowers to chart the history of secret policing. Their prize source is the former undercover officer Peter Francis, who spied on minor anti-fascist and anti-racist groups in North London in the early 1990s before infiltrating his target group, Anti-Fascist Action. While undercover, he lived alone in Highbury, drove a van and got a day job working in a school for children with special needs. (His new friends thought he was the school handyman, which fitted with his tough-guy persona, but in reality he volunteered at the school in exchange for free ‘dyslexia lessons’, though he wasn’t dyslexic.) He spent the rest of his time gathering intelligence on anti-racist groups. Spying on campaigners across Europe, he became so good at his job that he even caught out an unconvincing MI5 agent. It is thanks to Francis – who initially gave interviews to Evans and Lewis as an anonymous whistleblower, but has since revealed his identity – that the way the SDS operated is now known in some detail.

An officer would begin his or her deployment (one woman, Lynn Watson, is known to have been a police spy) by borrowing the identity of a dead child, a routine called the ‘jackal run’ after Frederick Forsyth’s novel, in which the assassin does just that. The trick was to find a child born around the same time, with the same first name as the officer, so that he could carry on using it. The idea was to make his real identity harder to track. He would go to the place the child was born, explore the area, learn the street names, get to know the local attractions and bus routes – usually, he would also visit the child’s grave. In SDS slang, he was creating his ‘legend’. A good legend would account for every aspect of the character’s story and personality, and would make it possible for a spy to be a ‘deep swimmer’ rather than a ‘shallow paddler’. Francis’s legend included an abusive, alcoholic father to explain why he could fight so well, and a mother dying of cancer abroad to explain his trips to visit his actual family (undercover for years at a time, officers couldn’t go home regularly). When an officer had prepared his legend, he exchanged his warrant cards for identity papers – driving licence, birth certificate, passport, even a fake criminal record on the police database, where the role required it. Once in the field, handlers aside, they were on their own. The unofficial SDS motto was ‘By Any Means Necessary’. Twice a week they would meet the other SDS officers in a safehouse, where they remained in character, exchanging stories, smoking roll-ups, drinking cans of lager.

Of all the undercover police whose secret lives have been exposed, none lived up to the SDS motto quite so completely as Bob Lambert. Francis refers to Lambert’s as the ‘best SDS tour of duty ever’. He was famous within SDS ranks long before the details of his tour were made public – by the activists whose lives Lambert temporarily shared. Known to them as Mark (‘Bob’) Robinson, he went undercover in 1983. He got a girlfriend, went to Glastonbury and became involved in the squatting and free party scene, campaigning with animal rights groups and London Greenpeace. He had a hand in writing the leaflet that formed the basis of the McLibel case in the 1990s, produced propaganda for the Animal Liberation Front and is alleged to have been one of three activists who planted incendiary devices at branches of Debenhams in Luton, Romford and Harrow in 1987. The plan was to place the devices during the day, timed so that they would go off in the middle of the night, causing just enough of a fire to set off the sprinklers, flood the stores and ruin the fur stocks. In the event, rather more damage was caused to the stores in Luton and Harrow than they intended. The other two men were convicted of arson and given custodial sentences; Lambert mysteriously walked away. Special Branch officers have said that Lambert must have acted alone; that even if the allegations are true, it is inconceivable that he had permission to do what he did. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000, covert policing requires advance authorisation from senior officers. In the 1980s the rules were more vague. SDS officers commonly sought ‘retrospective authorisation’ for crimes committed in the field – usually trespass, criminal damage or a breach of the Public Order Act. Arson is a different matter. It’s hard to believe that such a serious crime could have been authorised, retrospectively or otherwise. But it’s harder still to believe that Lambert’s actions were unknown to senior officers, his handler at the very least.

Lambert led two lives. In one, he was a policeman with a wife and children in suburban Herefordshire. In the other, he was an activist in London involved in multiple long-term sexual relationships. Lambert met Charlotte in the first year of his deployment; their relationship gave him the cover he needed to gain the trust of his target groups. When their child was born in 1985, Lambert was there at the hospital, seemingly awed by the birth of his ‘first’. He disappeared when it was time to sign the birth register. The new parents made numerous appointments to visit the registrar’s office together. Each time Lambert let Charlotte down. Charlotte put it down to his radical politics: he’d said that he didn’t think people should own each other. By 1987, when Lambert was reaching the end of his stint, he began to engineer problems with their relationship: there wasn’t a lot of money (Charlotte had taken work, allowing Lambert to ‘dedicate his time to politics’, but it wasn’t enough) and he became distant. Complaining that they weren’t having enough sex, Lambert looked elsewhere; in all, he had four sexual relationships while undercover. In May 1987, just before the Debenhams action, he met Karen.

It was standard SDS practice for officers to begin by infiltrating less radical groups in order to get to their real targets. Charlotte was Lambert’s way in. But Karen wasn’t an activist, and she gave him no access to intelligence. His purpose with her was different. It appears that splitting his time between the two women was part of Lambert’s exit strategy: feigning fears that the police were catching up with him after the firebombing, he told both of them that he had to flee to Spain, and that they could join him there. And then he vanished. Charlotte searched for him for years, enlisting the help of social services and the Child Support Agency. All the while he was working in his new job as the SDS’s spymaster, in an office just a few miles away from the child he abandoned. Whoever promoted Lambert apparently didn’t think he had broken the rules. Instead, his time in the field was treated as a model for others to follow; he took on the job of monitoring future officers and made sure they did as he would have done. Since leaving the police in 2008, he has been teaching terrorism studies at St Andrews and has become known as a campaigner against racism and Islamophobia. It is a strikingly public life for a man with so much to hide.

The experiences of Karen and Charlotte were not exceptional. Of the ten undercover operatives identified so far, nine had sex with their targets. Helen Steel, one of the activists sued by McDonald’s for the pamphlet cowritten by Lambert, discovered after ten years searching for her ex-partner John Dines that he was not the man she thought he was. Steel found the death certificate of the child whose identity Dines had stolen, discovered that he was married and that he had been a police officer. The SDS monitored the search and, worried that Steel was getting too close, relocated Dines to New Zealand. Perhaps the most disturbing story is that of Laura, whose partner, Jim Boyling, infiltrated the environmental movement in the 1990s. When he disappeared, she believed he had gone to South Africa, and followed him there. The fruitless search drained her savings and affected her health. Back in London and weighing less than seven stone, she spent the next few months in and out of hostels. Thanks to Boyling’s inability to let her go entirely (he kept in occasional contact with her by email) she was eventually able to track him down. After a series of confessions and promises – that he would leave the police, that they would have a new life – she stayed with him. Boyling persuaded her to cut ties with her activist friends and made her change her name by deed poll. They had two children and got married, but in 2007 Laura left him and went to a women’s refuge.

Lambert wasn’t the first officer to advocate ‘using the tool of sex to maintain your cover’, or the first to father a child in the field (at least one other SDS officer did so in the early 1980s; like Lambert, he was later promoted). But Lambert’s strategies proved especially influential. Since the SDS had no field manual, officers looked to success stories like Lambert’s for tactical tips. Peter Francis remembers his advice. How should a new undercover cop gain the trust of the group? Find a woman. How should he stop a woman getting attached, interfering with his work or blowing his cover? ‘Shag somebody else … It’s amazing how women don’t like you going to bed with someone else.’ How should he end his deployment? Shag another. Just remember always to use a condom.

Boyling seems to have taken the advice to heart. He told Laura that having sex with activists was a ‘necessary tool’, and besides, undercover police had ‘needs’ too. The rhetoric of necessity runs through all the justifications offered for undercover policing, which, on this view, is the defence of national security by other means. In practice, the ‘necessity’ here is not only state security, but what it takes to maintain a role. In June 2012, the minister for policing and criminal justice, Nick Herbert, justified undercover officers’ use of sex by arguing that ‘to ban such actions would provide a ready-made test for the targeted criminal group to find out whether an undercover officer was deployed among them.’ The targets are so dangerous, it seems, that anything and everything may be permitted in order to keep the mask in place. Yet, to take just one consequence of this way of thinking, if the individuals under surveillance are dangerous, and perhaps liable to retaliate should the officer be exposed, doesn’t an officer’s use of a dead child’s identity put the child’s family at risk? If it doesn’t, it is because so little threat is posed by the vast majority of the targets: the rhetoric of necessity is used to cloak the essential triviality of the whole endeavour.

There are psychological costs to leading a double life. Francis estimates that of the ten officers on the team during his time in the SDS, six sought help after their deployment was over. Mark Kennedy is only the most recent officer who had a hard time ‘coming off’. At the end of his deployment, he became a corporate spy, maybe because he couldn’t face leaving his other life. He had refused to leave on previous occasions. In 2006, when he was beaten up by the police at a protest, he was ordered to return to his real wife and children to rest; he refused, texting his handler to say he was ‘going to stay here for the time being, where people are actually going to take care of me’. Another officer, Mike Chitty, kept hold of a fake ID after his tour of duty ended, and by using it to renew his driving licence and passport, continued to lead a double life as both an activist and a spy for more than two years. He even asked an activist to marry him; how he thought that would work out is unclear. Rogue behaviour was not exceptional; some went native, refusing to come out of the field altogether. Duplicity had all sorts of consequences. Francis recalls infiltrating an anti-fascist gathering in Germany. Activists there slept in communal tents, so Francis kept himself awake all night for a whole week. Sleep was a risk: you might mumble something about your other life. Another officer found returning to normal life so difficult he ended up at relationship counselling twice – once with his real wife, once with his activist partner. Kennedy became obsessed with biomechanical body art: a tattoo was etched into his forearm that depicted his skin peeled back to reveal mechanical levers.

Not all the officers kept quiet about their grievances. Chitty was one. Unable to deal with his feelings of guilt at having betrayed the activists he infiltrated and facing disciplinary action for refusing to leave the field, he wrote a letter to Paul Condon, then commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, complaining about his mistreatment and threatening to go public about the whole operation. The threat was taken seriously, especially by the officer overseeing Chitty’s decline, Bob Lambert, who appears to have been more worried about the danger of publicity than anything else. In the report on Chitty’s case, Lambert claimed that going public would put officers and their families in danger – they should ‘expect at “the very least” postal bombs at their homes’. Chitty was persuaded not to go public; he began legal action, but settled out of court. Others were threatened with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act; Francis only went to the press after a long series of threats and counter-threats.

Only now that the activities of the SDS have been made public have the police been forced to consider changing the culture of undercover policing. The internal police reports produced in the aftermath of the Kennedy scandal have focused on the level of support given to officers. Their recommendations amount to a suggestion that officers should be better at drawing the line between their real identity and their activist personae. But success in the field often depends on blurring that line. From the outset, SDS officers were told not to feel ‘bound by their rank’ when discussing operations, and were expected to ‘approach problems in a creative way, eschewing the obedient, plodding mindset of a bobby’. They were meant to become precisely the sort of people who go rogue, to occupy their roles to such an extent that, as Francis puts it, ‘I could only just about find myself afterwards.’

It isn’t only the line between the officer and his persona that is deliberately blurred in this sort of operation; so is the distinction between the interests of the state and those of the police. The murder of Stephen Lawrence by a racist gang in 1993, and the subsequent failure to bring the killers to trial, produced a rise in anti-racist activism. The campaign for justice for Lawrence was soon joined by others against police corruption and brutality, and on behalf of families seeking justice for loved ones killed in police custody. The police, Francis recalls, began to have nervous ‘visions of Rodney King’. There was ‘huge pressure from the commissioner downwards’ to gather intelligence on the Lawrence campaign. In an attempt to protect themselves from charges of institutional racism and corruption, the police used dirty tricks to discredit the campaign, smearing Lawrence’s family and his friend Duwayne Brooks, who witnessed the murder. Francis admits inserting ‘total conjecture’ about the family into his reports. His crowning moment came when he successfully predicted clashes between protesters and police at Welling in South-East London in 1993. That earned the SDS a personal visit and a bottle of whisky from Paul Condon, which doesn’t do much to support the contention that the SDS was a rogue force whose actions were unknown to their superiors.

Francis was pulled out of the field in 1997, when the anti-racist movement was at its height, but found it hard to get out of role: ‘I had spent years hating the police and then suddenly I was one of them again. I just couldn’t deal with it … I had real sympathy for the “black justice” campaigns. I also witnessed numerous acts of appalling police brutality on protesters. I genuinely became anti-police.’ He couldn’t help but see his uniformed colleagues differently: ‘It was the simple reality that they were repeatedly in the wrong.’

Once the Macpherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence was set up in 1998, Francis felt it was time for the SDS to admit it had been spying on the black justice campaigns. He wanted his bosses to disclose details of his own deployment in the anti-racist movement. They refused, and instead sent Special Branch officers to the inquiry to monitor proceedings and gather intelligence. Now that Francis has spoken out, the official police response has been to condemn the cover-up and to promise that if the allegations of a plot to smear the Lawrences are true, there will be a public apology. There has been no acknowledgment – presumably there never will be – of the simple truth at the heart of it all: that although the police claim to have done what they did in defence of the state, they were, in the end, just defending themselves.

Who now should bring the police to account? In a recent book about how to monitor the secret-keeping arms of the state, Rahul Sagar has argued that the traditional forms of institutional oversight don’t work, and that whistleblowing is the best mechanism of accountability available.* Institutions are always at risk of being captured by special interests, but whistleblowers can be relied on to call out officials when they abuse state secrecy. Whistleblowers, Sagar believes, should be judged according to their intentions: they must make their disclosures openly, so that the public can decide whether they are acting in a disinterested, non-partisan way – in ‘good faith’. This is an argument that tends to work in the interests of the state: it is far easier for the US government to tar individuals – Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden – than it is to win the argument about state secrecy and the NSA. In any case, focusing on intentions is a distraction. Who cares if whistleblowers act in good faith? Francis’s motivations for coming forward are no doubt complicated: what matters is the story he has to tell. His evidence supports the claims made by the women who were used by police spies and who are currently taking legal action against the Met.

But even if they are successful in these actions, what chance is there that we will see significant reform of policing practices? The police will continue to argue that the SDS operations belong in the past, and that responsibility for them lies with a once (but no longer) institutionally racist police force. The NPOIU has made a similar attempt to distance itself from its now defunct parent squad, even though it has committed and concealed the same offences. Sagar isn’t wrong: the recent reviews of political policing that promise higher authorisation, more internal oversight and better exit plans for undercover officers read more like an attempt to prevent whistleblowing and publicity than anything else. Though they stress that the actions of officers must be ‘necessary’ and ‘proportionate’, and that attempts should be made to minimise ‘collateral intrusion’, they are also careful to point out that a ‘system of control … can only reduce the risks, not eradicate them completely.’ Sex is not discussed. Fifteen separate official inquiries into policing are currently underway. All of them are taking place behind closed doors, and the largest, Operation Herne, is being conducted by the Metropolitan Police itself. The Met has also separately referred Francis’s allegations to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Perhaps all this internal oversight will make a difference? Perhaps not. The women suing the Met have refused to co-operate with Operation Herne while the police remain in charge. So has Francis himself; and neither he nor they will be impressed by the referral to the IPCC, described in a recent Home Affairs Committee report as lacking ‘the investigative resources necessary to get to the truth’.

November 11, 2020

DOC NYC Film Festival 2020

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm


Launched 11 years ago, DOC NYC  is the preeminent documentary film festival in the USA, and perhaps the world. Hosted by the IFC Center in NY, it will last between November 11th and 19th. Like every other festival taking place in the city since the pandemic began, it is a Virtual Festival, with individual films available as VOD for $12. After reading my brief takes on seven of the films I had a chance to preview, you might even be enticed to get a festival-wide ticket for $199.

1. Acasa, My Home

Set in a network of lakes and islands not far from Bucharest, Romania, the documentary features a 9-member Roma family headed by Gica Enache who abandoned city life after the fashion of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”, except without the typically puritanical streak of the New England Yankee.

The best way to describe the Enache’s household is as a mixture of beasts and humanity that would make a Borat film look realistic by comparison. All 9 of the Enaches live in what must be labeled as a shack, while a variety of pigs, pigeons, chickens, dogs, and cats wander in and out.

Despite the lack of urban amenities, the family seems happy with an Edenic life. They get by on the fish that are plentiful in the water close to their home. Those that they do not eat, Vali, the eldest son, peddles from door to door in the city. When the film begins, we see Vali swimming with a beatific glow on his face in one of the lakes, as his younger brothers row a boat close by. When he catches a goose and begins to toy with it, his younger brothers admonish him to let the bird free. Respect for mother nature runs deep in a family that depends on her for their survival.

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