Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 27, 2021

8 Billion Angels; The Land of Azaba

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

In his review of “Seaspiracy”, a Netflix documentary about the threat commercial fishing poses to the survival of ocean life, Joshua Frank refers to the role of population growth:

Not surprisingly, as the human population exploded over the past 100 years, industrialized fishing increased right along with it. In many communities around the world, fish still provide essential nutrients. In the U.S. and Europe, eating fish may be a luxury, but for many of the world’s impoverished nations, fish are a necessity. Tabrizi does not even attempt to face this fact, perhaps because it’s overly complex, or perhaps because it creeps into neo-Malthusianism territory, which has haunted the environmental movement for decades. Either way, any important analysis of the over-fishing of our world’s oceans, as uncomfortable as it may be, must broach the topic.

When I first began writing about ecological limits on Internet mailing lists, the charge of neo-Malthusianism was raised against me especially by James Heartfield, a member of the self-described Marxist collective led by Frank Furedi. Furedi gave up on Marxism in the early 2000s and his followers went along with a libertarian turn that convinced the Koch brothers to fund Spiked Online, the new voice of these ex-Marxists.

While raising the problem of population growth has prompted the charge of being “Malthusian”, there is little support for this amalgam in his writings according to Giorgos Kallis, the author of “Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care”. In his discussion of Malthus’s “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, Kallis corrects the record:

Despite his reputation, Malthus opposed “artificial modes of checking population…for their tendency to remove a necessary stimulus to growth.” Also, unlike Paul Erlich, who famously bet Julian Simon that resources like metal would grow scarcer, Malthus claimed that “for commodities, the raw materials are in great plenty.” He added that “a demand for these will not fail to create them in as great a quantity as they are wanted.”

Generally, the critics of Malthusianism, a made up term having little to do with his actual beliefs, the focus is on food since that is the most immediate requirement for human survival. Pointing to the chemical-dependent Green Revolution, they claim that it made worries about overpopulation unwarranted. While I had my own objections to the Green Revolution based on its deleterious impact on biodiversity, I posed the question to Heartfield on whether there were enough tuna in the sea to satisfy an ever-growing population. You can add chemical fertilizer to the soil but no amount of chemicals could spur an explosion of tuna schools to keep up with 10 billion people, the number projected by the end of the 21st century.

These questions are taken up in a crucial new documentary titled “8 Billion Angels” in which director Terry Spahr confronts overpopulation without mincing words on the film’s website: “All of our efforts, up until now, have amounted to stop-gap measures that distract us from the fact that we add 80 million more people every year to the earth, who together consume more resources faster than the world can replenish, and emit more waste than the earth can naturally absorb.”

Up until recently, overpopulation was generally identified with the Club of Rome and other think-tanks funded by Nelson Rockefeller and other “liberal” politicians and capitalists who thought that China, India and other such “backward” countries could provide a better life for their people if they controlled population growth. A leading Chinese scientist named Song Jian was so persuaded by these reactionary ideas that he convinced the government to adopt and strictly enforce a one-child only law that caused enormous suffering as pointed out in the documentary “One-Child Nation” that I reviewed in 2019.

“8 Billion Angels” is adamantly opposed both to such forced measures as well as the sense of complacency that allows the ruling class to accept a status quo that threatens a Sixth Extinction not only threatening marine life as depicted in “Seaspiracy” but just about every form of life on the planet. Both homo sapiens and our animal co-dwellers on this planet rely on biodiversity but a dubious economic and demographic growth under capitalism (unlike “Planet of the Humans, the economic system is only implicit in the film) is undermining biodiversity at a frightening speed.

If the film refrains from directly referring to the system eco-socialists target, there is a clear orientation to radical alternatives, even if they operate within the confines of private property. A segment filmed in India offers up a society that seems bent on destroying itself. The Ganges River is an open sewer for exactly the same reasons the Thames was in the days of Karl Marx. The much-heralded Green Revolution created class inequalities in the countryside that forced impoverished farmers to flock into Delhi just like the peasants who came to London after losing their farms under the Enclosure Acts. Without proper infrastructure support, the river became vulnerable to both corporate polluters and poor people finding no other way of disposing of their waste.

If Delhi and the Ganges are the fate we must avoid, the director points to Kerala as a possibility for a better future not only for Indians but the entire planet. In the early 19th century, education for both boys and girls became mandatory, largely through efforts of missionaries to promote mass education, one of the few good things they ever carried out. In the 20th century, these reforms were deepened by both the Congress Party and the Communist Party that in 1957 was the first such party to win an electoral contest. The CP encouraged equality between men and women and made contraception easily available. This combination made it possible for women to be happy with smaller families, unlike China where repression governed. The film makes the eminently logical point that the solution to the stranglehold population growth has on our future revolves around persuading humanity to reduce family growth in exchange for enjoying a higher standard of living, including a beautiful world where the loss of biodiversity is no longer threatened.

While this was an urgently needed film, it fails to come to terms with the nature of the economic system that is for unconstrained growth, not only in terms of commodity production, but in the consumer market for the commodities. Just by coincidence, today’s NY Times reported on the slowest decade of population growth in the USA since the 1930s. This is not a good sign for those who live by the values of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. The Times quotes Ronald Lee, a demographer who said  “This is a big deal. If it stays lower like this, it means the end of American exceptionalism in this regard.” Guess what American exceptionalism means. The right to have five kids and a car for each one.

The film website has a Screening Toolkit & Discussion Guide that is very much worth reading. But the section on the “Financial System” needs a lot of work. It states:

Under any existing financial system it is very difficult to personally reduce one’s consumption. If you choose to stop driving a car, you consume fewer of the resources needed to build and operate it. Without car payments, insurance and gas costs the average American can save approximately $6000 in savings a year. What happens to these savings? It typically gets shifted to other economic or consumptive activities such as taking a vacation by airplane, renting a larger apartment, turning your heat up in the winter or your A/C down in the summer, or just buying more stuff.

These worries are based on the idea that personal choices drive the economic system rather than a 500-year old economic system that is based on the need to generate profits on an ever-expanding basis. It is not the family unit that is the problem. Instead, it is the ability of the bourgeoisie to extract surplus value from workers that limits us from the kind of transformation the filmmakers hope for. If the competition between blocs of capital and nation-states became superseded in the same way feudalism was superseded 500 years ago, the possibilities are endless. For the first time in human history, we will be able to create a world in which every living thing can fulfill its destiny in a real-world version of the Garden of Eden. If not, we will surely perish.

You can find a virtual screening for “8 Billion Angels” here.

While not exactly a Garden of Eden, the biodiversity experiment in Azaba, Spain comes damned close. This village on Spain’s western border is home to an experiment that tries to reverse the long-term despoliation of the land produced by commercial ranching. Nestled among dozens of such ranches, the Campanarios de Azaba Biologica Reserve tries to replicate the rich variety of animals, trees and plants that thrived there about a thousand years ago. About the closest analogy to such a project was the Blackfoot Indian rancher I visited in Montana about 20 years ago, where bison were allowed to roam freely within his property. There was a fence surrounding the land but only meant to keep the animals from wandering onto a road where they might be struck by a car. Additionally, the native grasses of the high plains were allowed to grow once again, the natural food for the bison and that were wall-adapted to the windy and arid conditions.

In Azaba, this approach is taken as well but on a grander scale. Deer were reintroduced into the reserve in order to attract predators like the lynxes and the wolves that kept them from overpopulating the land. Trees once native to the region were also grown in order to attract the birds that disappeared once the land was denuded in order to allow pigs to become a crash crop. Once a natural balance was established, Azaba even attracted buzzards that hadn’t been seen in many years. A dead deer was irresistible to nature’s garbage disposal unit. Regular visits to the reserve by local ranchers has resulted in a rethinking of how they interact with nature. It is obvious that they are Spain’s version of regenerative agriculture.

The documentary was directed by Greta Schiller, best known for “Before Stonewall”. Showing a natural affinity for a film about restoring natural balance, Philip Glass supplied the music. In 1982, he wrote the film score for a documentary titled “Koyaanisqatsi”, which means “life out of balance” in the Hopi language. In the film, three Hopi prophecies are sung by a choral ensemble:

  • If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.
  • Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.
  • A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.

The “qatsi” trilogy that Glass supplied music for are augurs of our doom. “The Land of Azaba” is a prophesy of a better world but one that is only possible through political struggle.

The film is now available as VOD at Kino Now

April 22, 2021

Canadian trade unionists pay tribute to Ernie Tate’s leadership

Filed under: trade unions — louisproyect @ 10:00 pm

April 20, 2021

Looking past the plant-gate to understand white supremacy

Filed under: Adolph Reed Jr.,Jacobin,New Deal,workers — louisproyect @ 10:52 pm
Inside a Russian factory before the revolution

In a recent Jacobin article titled “Jim Clyburn Is Wrong About FDR and the New Deal,” Paul Heideman made the case that despite FDR’s failure to use his presidency to take on Jim Crow and the KKK, he was good for Black America. The article was prompted by Clyburn’s quip that that “if [Biden’s] going to have credibility, [he] must be much closer to Harry Truman than to Franklin Roosevelt. . . . I hear people talking about Joe Biden all the time comparing him to FDR. FDR’s legacy was not good for black people.” For Clyburn, Truman was a marked contrast to FDR since he was the first Democrat in the 20th century to begin to challenge white supremacy, even if in a cautious manner.

As I pointed out in a 2008 article that relied on Kenneth O’Reilly’s “Nixon’s Piano,” it was not just that FDR tried to placate the Dixiecrats to maintain an electoral edge against the Republicans; it was also how his patrician racist attitudes might have made this north-south bloc other than practical politics. I quoted O’Reilly to this effect:

At the advice of Howe, Farley, and other members of the palace guard, especially appointments secretary Marvin Mclntyre and press secretary Stephen Early, [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt initially closed off the White House. Black newspaper editors and NAACP officials could not get in, let alone an International Labor Defense delegation whose members wanted the president to meet with the mothers of the Scottsboro boys-the nine Alabama teenagers sentenced to death for the alleged rape of two white women. Mclntyre and Early either referred everyone to Howe, who looked at communist involvement in the Scottsboro boys’ legal defense as a convenient excuse for refusing White House involvement, or turned them back in the waiting room. The president’s men would ask black visitors, whether newspaper editors or NAACP officials, “What do you boys want?”

To further avoid offending white southerners, Roosevelt banned black reporters from his first press conference in 1933 and every other press conference for the next eleven years. His idea of communicating with blacks, concluded John H. Sengstacke, publisher of the Chicago Defender and founder of the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association, was to tell Walter White and “Walter would tell everybody else.” When Attorney General Francis Biddle “suggested that the President admit Johnson of the Associated Negro Press … he said I should take it up with Early, but I rejoined that Steven certainly would be against it. He has in mind that this might run into unfavorable congressional opinion as they have excluded Negroes from the Press Gallery.”

Heideman cannot deny that FDR did little to challenge racist terror and segregation since that would be impossible. He writes, “Before discussing the New Deal’s importance for racial equality, however, it’s important to acknowledge some of the real points its critics have made. Many New Deal programs did deepen racial inequality by offering a hand to white workers while denying one to black workers.”

Once that disclaimer is out of the way, Heideman proceeds to list all the gains Blacks made as workers in programs that were nominally race-neutral. One, for example, was the Public Works Administration that employed black workers proportionally more than white workers. Wow! Affirmative action before its time.

While nobody would gainsay the value of making sure that Black workers were first on line for a PWA job, you also have to take into account what the jobs were for. Basically, housing created under the PWA were segregated. White housing projects could only be built in officially designated white neighborhoods, and black projects in officially designated black neighborhoods. In the past, many lower-middle-class neighborhoods were integrated, something the PWA did not recognize. Under its watch, integrated neighborhoods were razed to the ground. In an interview with the Smithsonian Magazine , Richard Rothstein, the author of “In The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” details what took place:

In the Great Depression, many lower-middle class and working-class families lost their home. They couldn’t keep up with their payments. So the Public Works Administration constructed the first civilian public housing ever in this country. Initially, it was primarily for white families in segregated white projects, but at some point, a few projects were built for African-Americans in segregated African-American projects. This practice often segregated neighborhoods that hadn’t previously been that way.

In Langston Hughes’ autobiography, he describes how he lived in an integrated neighborhood in Cleveland. His best friend in high school was Polish. He dated a Jewish girl. That neighborhood in Cleveland was razed by the WPA, which built two segregated [ones], one for African-Americans, one for whites. The Depression gave the stimulus for the first civilian public housing to be built. Were it not for that policy, many of these cities might have developed with a different residential pattern.

Adding my own disclaimer at this point, I do have to give credit to FDR’s Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) that banned discrimination in the defense industry, something Heideman describes as “soliciting complaints about discrimination, holding public hearings into particularly recalcitrant employers, and working behind the scenes with employers, unions, and black workers to find ways to integrate the latter into the defense workforce.” That was real and reflected Black pressure on the White House.

As I was reading Heideman’s balance sheet on FDR, the one thing that struck me how the ultimate acid test was whether Black people got jobs or not. It is understandable why one might find the trek north from the Deep South into northern industrial cities, where former sharecroppers got well-paying union jobs, sufficient grounds for calling the New Deal a “overall hugely egalitarian impact on workers of all races, including black workers.”

However, “egalitarianism” does not go very far when Black people continued to lag behind whites on matters of police brutality, redlining their neighborhoods, being subject to factory and refinery toxins, exclusion from prestigious colleges, and a thousand other ways in which white supremacy rules. This could not be more relevant as the killer cop Derek Chauvin was found guilty of all charges today.

Although it might not seem immediately relevant to the Heideman-Clyburn clash, it is useful to remember what Lenin wrote in “What is to be Done,” a polemic against the “Economists” who had little interest outside of what took place inside the plant gate—the fight over wages, working conditions and the length of the working day. Lenin wrote:

The overwhelming majority of Russian Social-Democrats have of late been almost entirely absorbed by this work of organising the exposure of factory conditions. Suffice it to recall Rabochaya Mysl to see the extent to which they have been absorbed by it — so much so, indeed, that they have lost sight of the fact that this, taken by itself, is in essence still not Social-Democratic work, but merely trade union work. As a matter of fact, the exposures merely dealt with the relations between the workers in a given trade and their employers, and all they achieved was that the sellers of labour power learned to sell their “commodity” on better terms and to fight the purchasers over a purely commercial deal.

To sell their commodity on better terms and to fight the purchasers over a purely commercial deal? Isn’t it possible that Heideman is a latter-day Economist? After he became part of the ex-ISO conversion to Sandernismo politics, the focus of his articles have been exclusively about bread-and-butter issues of the sort that are unfortunately equated with socialism.

As a Jacobin contributor, who is as “economical” as Dustin Guastella, Heideman clearly reflects the magazine’s close ties to the academic clique around retired professor Adolph Reed Jr., who basically wrote the same article as Heideman in 2019 for The New Republic titled “The New Deal Wasn’t Intrinsically Racist.” There’s the same disclaimer about the “bad” New Deal, followed by all the “good” aspects that tipped the scales into seeing FDR as some sort of rough analog to European social democratic leaders. He even touts the WPA without mentioning its role in destroying integrated middle-class neighborhoods.

Before Heideman drank the Sandernista Kool-Aid, he was able to see what was wrong with Reed’s combination of class-essentialism and neo-Economism. In a 2016 article co-written with ISO comrade Jonah Birch titled “The Trouble With Anti-Antiracism,” they cite CLR James, who along with Cedric Robinson, Robin DG Kelley, and WEB Dubois, saw the relationship between race and class dialectically. Heideman and Birch were far more clear-headed when they were in the ISO but there must be a powerful attraction to join a group with 90,000 members even if it is wrong on the most urgent question of the day—the need to break with the Democratic Party. CLR James:

Nearly seventy years ago, the Trinidadian Marxist C. L. R. James wrote that “the independent Negro movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation, despite the fact that it is waged under the banner of democratic rights.” James was referring to the declared aims of many of the movements for black equality of his time, which were mobilized on behalf of basic, apparently non-radical goals of equal citizenship.

Yet what James saw in these struggles was that the course of their development tended to take them well beyond the bounds of their seemingly moderate goals. Then as now, the struggle for the basic rights promised by the nation’s official ideology brought the black movement into conflict with the forces of American capitalism.

Adolph Reed’s recent analysis, unfortunately, stops where James begins, with the apparent political moderation of demands for black equality. Because such demands are, at least in principle, compatible with a system of vicious class exploitation, Reed believes that movements based on these demands are destined to do little more than shore up the basic system of class inequality.

April 17, 2021

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts

Filed under: african-american,art,Film — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

Yesterday, “Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts” opened at the Film Forum in New York, the Laemmle in Los Angeles, and through Kino-Lorber’s Virtual Cinema network across the country. Traylor was a self-taught Black artist born on a small-scale slave plantation in Alabama in 1853 who did not make his first drawing until 1939, when at the age of 86, he produced over a thousand in just over three years. He died in 1948. Unlike a young artist professionally trained who comes to New York or Los Angeles in their early 20s to “make it”, Traylor only created such works out of some deep longing in his soul and arguably to make sense out of a life that was that of the prototypical southern slave and then sharecropper. Like William Blake or Vincent Van Gogh, the drawings he created were tantamount to being dictated to him by some divine presence.

In telling Traylor’s story, director Jeffrey Wolf and writer Fred Barron also tell the story of the Deep South. If not for his art, Traylor would have died in obscurity. By bringing his story to life, Wolf and Barron bring to life the pains and joy of Alabamans who suffered through slavery, Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow. Despite it all, they found ways to express themselves through religion, art and political solidarity. Although obliquely, Traylor’s drawings chronicle that dark history, with many insights into how Black people managed to make the most out of meager circumstances.

The film amounts to a visit to a gallery with Traylor’s art and expert commentary by a deeply informed board of experts, both Black and white. In keeping with the burgeoning cultural renaissance that maps closely to the resistance mounted by Black Lives Matter, Traylor is lauded as a symbol of the refusal to be defined by white society. For the three years he sat on a chair on Monroe Street, the heart of Montgomery, Alabama’s Black neighborhood, where he drew pictures of farm animals, cats, dogs, people dancing, people drinking—never with the intention of making money from them. Homeless at the time, he was taken in by the Monroe Street community and slept on a mattress on the floor of a funeral parlor alongside other homeless men. His daily meals were supplied from a kosher grocery store owned by the Katz family

His work only became known outside of this small world when a white artist named Charles Shannon discovered Traylor on his customary seat outside a fish market. Stunned by the beauty and soul of his work, Shannon not only supplied Traylor with the tools he needed to create his drawings but went on a one-man mission to make the art world in New York recognize Traylor as a unique talent. While grateful to Shannon for his support, Traylor preferred to draw on cardboard that he picked up around the neighborhood. If there was a semi-circular slit in the cardboard, he might have turned that into a smile on the face of one of his subjects.

At the time, a Traylor drawing might have gone for a dollar or two. Now recognized as one of America’s top Black artists, his work is collected by the very wealthy, including William Louis-Dreyfus, Julia’ father. Dreyfus’s foundation has sold Traylor’s work at auctions. In January 2019, “Woman Pointing at Man With Cane” went for a surprising $396,500 at Christie’s. According to her, he “likened Traylor to the greats — the Giacomettis, the Kandinskys.” As for me, I see a similarity to Matisse. Ironically, the image below comes from the cover of a Matisse book called “Jazz”, which of course is just one of Black America’s gift to our nation.

Since so much of the art world is commodified, it is hard to take this sort of business seriously. Perhaps the greatest value that comes out of his recognition was a scene at the conclusion of the film when all of his ancestors come to the erection of a headstone at his unmarked grave in Montgomery. The NY Times’s Roberta Smith paid tribute to him at the ceremony. Smith, who once called Traylor one of America’s greatest artists, told his gathered relatives: “It is not an overstatement to state that Bill Traylor was an American original and that his body of artwork that he left behind will remain an American treasure.”

April 16, 2021

WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,VOD/Streaming — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm


In the late 70s, I worked for a consulting company in New York called Automated Concepts Inc., mostly known in the industry as ACI. The CEO was a guy named Fred Harris who was well-liked by the staff, including me. It was also common knowledge that Fred used to attend EST workshops, where he supposedly learned the skills he needed to become a successful businessman.

EST stood for Erhard Seminars Training that was a mixture of founder Werner Erhard’s ersatz Eastern religious mysticism and Dale Carnegie type lessons on how to become a “success” in business. While certainly cultish, it was by no means as bad as Scientology. Fred used to take me out to dinner from time to time, mostly to be able to chat with someone who didn’t fit the mold of the propellor-heads who worked for him.

Even as the 60s/70s radicalization was dying out, the New Age lingered on in the corporate world as the idea of leveraging economic success with spiritualism proved seductive. With some leftists like Rennie Davis jumping the radical ship, it was the perfect place for them to land. You could simultaneously “make it” and feel superior to the grubbiness of American society. After becoming a disciple of Guru Maharaj Ji, Davis created the Foundation for a New Humanity, a technology development and venture capital company specializing in new technology.

Continue reading

April 13, 2021

Literature and Revolution

Filed under: literature,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 10:55 pm
Albert Maltz: Where art is a weapon, it is only so when it is art.

On March 21, the NY Times profiled John R. “Rick” MacArthur, a trust fund magnate who is the publisher of Harper’s, a magazine that dates back to June 1850. Like its liberal cohorts, The Nation, The New Republic and Atlantic Monthly that are all over a century old as well, it was at the mercy of deep-pocketed men whose commitment to the left can prove mercurial.

For example, when Martin Peretz owned The New Republic by virtue of his wife’s largess (a heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune), he turned it into a Zionist propaganda machine. When magazine publisher and DP funder Win McCormack bought The New Republic in 2016, many on the left—including me—were delighted to see Chris Lehmann named editor. Lehmann left the bad memories of Peretz behind and turned the magazine sharply to the left, even outflanking The Nation. Only last month it was announced that McCormack had replaced Lehmann with Michael Tomasky, a self-described Tough-Minded Liberal (TLM) who wrote venomous attacks on Ralph Nader’s presidential campaigns. So, you are left with McCormack’s whims or that of any other of these rich bastards. As A.J. Liebling once put it, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

I’ve been a Harper’s subscriber for about 40 years now and have generally been satisfied by the content. It has only been recently that I have felt like I’ve been stabbed in the back again. The Harper’s Open Letter stuck in my craw. Even though it did not mention anybody involved with the “cancel culture” by name, it was obviously directed at the left. With signatures from Thomas Chatterton Williams, Bari Weiss and J.K. Rowling, it was clearly aimed at BLM activists, anti-Zionists, transgender rights and any other leftist causes that were supposedly trampling on the rights of people with bully pulpits at the NY Times. Signatories like Bari Weiss, David Brooks, and Michelle Goldberg evidently needed protection from vicious Tweets.

Williams, a biracial contributing editor to Harper’s, and MacArthur worked closely together on this project as was reported in the March 28 NY Times:

And so last July, when another American expatriate in Paris, Thomas Chatterton Williams, was looking for a place to publish a broadside against the “intolerant climate” to which some of the most famous writers in the world — Salman Rushdie, J.K. Rowling and Margaret Atwood, among others — had signed their names, he emailed Mr. Beha. The letter was already finished and approved, but Mr. MacArthur liked it enough to add his name, and Mr. Beha published it in full online.

I should add that despite being editor, Beha would never dare to challenge MacArthur. His boss’s reputation for firing impudent editors is legendary.

Long before the Harper’s Open Letter had appeared, I wrote a brief email to Beha about a Williams column from January 2020 that irked me. Tobi Haslett, a Book Forum contributor, had written a brutal take-down of Williams’s latest memoir that included this barb:

What he cannot grasp is that any effective challenge to white hegemony would have to take place not in the perfumed realm of private choices and elective affinities, but on the harsh terrain of real life: where collective struggle is waged, and wealth is made and spread. Apart from a single glancing mention (in parentheses) of the social democrat Bernie Sanders, there is no serious and explicit treatment of the gap between rich and poor.

In keeping with his steady attacks on the left, Williams reminded Haslett that “Regardless of what progressives would like to think, by this ostensibly commonsensical measure, most black and Latino Americans can be safely defined as conservative.” Now, remind me what it was that Freud said about projection, especially since Williams joined the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) as a visiting fellow about a year after he answered Haslett. There he joins Charles Murray, the F. A. Hayek Emeritus Chair in Cultural Studies at AEI, who is best known for writing “The Bell Curve”, a book arguing that since Blacks are genetically hobbled by lower IQ’s, it is a waste of money to fund social programs that benefit them.

Every Harper’s op-ed I’ve seen by Williams since first encountering that one has been a repetition of his basic talking points that are distilled from gaseous 20th century liberalism, not much better than a Max Lerner op-ed from a 1965 NY Post. Mostly, I have ignored them except for my brief complaint to the editor but Williams’s latest in the current issue provoked me into writing something in reply.

Titled “Campaign Literature” and targeting a NY Times op-ed by Viet Thanh Nguyen for calling out poets and fiction writers for avoiding the big political questions of the age, particularly white supremacy, Williams’s goal is to defend art against the propaganda that outrages him. Viet Thanh does not mince words:

My problem with “craft” is not only that it’s not even art, but also that it’s espoused by writers who speak of the labor of craft and the workshop but who generally have no theory of labor, its exploitation or the writer as worker. No surprise that writers without such a theory have little to say about politics, and why the norm for writing workshops is not to deal with politics.

“Colonizers write about flowers,” Ms. Hindi writes. “I want to be like those poets who care about the moon. Palestinians don’t see the moon from jail cells and prisons.”

This is my kind of poem.

“I know I’m American because when I walk into a room something dies,” Ms. Hindi writes. “When I die, I promise to haunt you forever.”

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Viet Thanh Nguyen, which was of zero interest to Williams, was his background. He was the son of  Vietnamese parents who fled to the USA in 1975 to escape Communism. As a youngster, he became curious about the war that shook up his family’s life and began reading as much as he could, particularly from the Vietnamese perspective. That led to an anti-colonial politics that remains key to his own fiction.

As is customary, Williams creates a straw man out of a more complex person to his left. He reduces Viet Thanh to demanding that “all writers will have to take up overt activism” when in fact, he simply praises those who take a stand in their writing. He singles out the crime novel for its ability to diagnose the American malaise. “So-called genre literature has been better than so-called literary fiction and poetry when it comes to the kind of critical and political work that unsettles whiteness and reveals the legacies of colonialism. Smart crime writers, for example, are often political because they know that an individual crime is a manifestation of a society that has committed wholesale crimes.”

While not exactly upholding “art for art’s sake”, Williams identifies with writers who write from their own experience such as Ralph Ellison, the African-American author of “The Invisible Man” and his patron saint. In 1963, Irving Howe, a former Trotskyist, took Ellison to task in Dissent Magazine in terms reminiscent of Viet Thanh: “How could a Negro put pen to paper, how could he so much as think or breathe, without some impulsion to protest, be it harsh or mild, political or private, released or buried?” Williams obviously sees Ellison’s rebuttal to Howe as equally applicable to Viet Thanh Nguyen:

In Ralph Ellison’s coruscating 1964 rebuttal to this well-meaning but condescending account, which unfavorably contrasted both Baldwin and Ellison himself with Richard Wright, he argued against denying, “in the interest of revolutionary posture,” that nonrevolutionary, non-political possibilities of “human richness” also exist, even in terrible circumstances and among seemingly oppressed demographics. To do so, he wrote, is “not only to deny us our humanity but to betray the critic’s commitment to social reality. Critics who do so should abandon literature for politics.”

I had a sense of déjà vu reading Thomas Chatterton Williams versus Viet Thanh Nguyen. When I first began to become radicalized in 1967, I carried a lot of ideological baggage from the Cold War about the West’s cultural superiority. Their artists painted tractors; ours were abstract expressionists. Their writers wrote proletarian novels; ours wrote about the human spirit. It was only the spectacle of B-52s bombing peasant villages that helped me get past my anti-Communism. I’d be okay with the proletarian novel even if it meant achieving peace and self-determination in Vietnam.

It was only after meeting with George Novack in 1967, shortly after joining the SWP, that I began to see that you can have your cake and eat it too. It was the Trotskyists who respected the writer’s integrity, while at the same time leading the fight against imperialist war. George filled me in on the writers of Partisan Review, who had broken with the CP and championed both literary modernism such as the novels of James Joyce and world revolution. Among the most prominent of them were James T. Farrell, the Irish-American novelist who wrote the trilogy “Studs Lonigan”. Unlike the typical proletarian novel that had square-jawed workers fighting the good fight against the bosses, Farrell’s eponymous hero is seen in the final page cursing a May Day parade for the commotion that disturbed the peace he sought on his death bed.

The other was Edmund Wilson, the literary critic that I had some familiarity with from high school days. The school librarian, a one-time leftist herself, urged me to read “Axel’s Castle”, Wilson’s survey of modernist poets and novelists since it had a chapter on James Joyce, whose “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” had become my favorite novel. At the time, I had no idea that in 1931, when “Axel’s Castle” appeared, Wilson had already begun to question the introspective symbolist aesthetic it championed. After two years of the Great Depression, he once remarked to his friends how selfish it was “to find ourselves still carrying on while the bankers are taking a beating.” In other words, he was responding to the same kinds of urgency as indicated in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s op-ed.

By 1938, Wilson had hooked up with James T. Farrell and the luminaries at Partisan Review who identified with Leon Trotsky both as a revolutionary leader and as someone who had a dialectical understanding of the relationship between literature and revolution. In the early days of the USSR, Trotsky warned against trying to create a “proletarian” culture. You might even say that he sounded a bit like Thomas Chatterton Williams in a 1923 article titled “Communist Policy Toward Art”:

It is childish to think that bourgeois belles lettres can make a breach in class solidarity. What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoyevsky will be a more complex idea of human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and profounder understanding of its psychic forces and of the role of the subconscious, etc. In the final analysis, the worker will become richer.

That dovetailed perfectly with the high modernism that reigned at the Partisan Review. This was not to speak of Leon Trotsky’s authority as a leader of the Russian Revolution. Furthermore, at least one of the writers championed in “Axel’s Castle” saw himself a proletarian novelist, even if it didn’t correspond to the CP’s definition. When James Joyce heard about his being disparaged at the Writers’ Congress in Moscow chaired by Karl Radek, he rose to his own defense. In conversation with his friend Eugene Jolas, he pointed out that all his characters, from Dubliners to Finnegan’s Wake, belonged to “the lower middle classes, and even the working class, and they are all quite poor.”

Published in 1938, Edmund Wilson’s “The Triple Thinkers: Twelve Essays on Literary Subject” was the first major attempt at achieving a grand synthesis. In the chapter on “Literature and Marxism”, he defined the aesthetic that would define Partisan Review:

Trotsky is a literary man as Lenin never was, and he published in 1924 a most remarkable little study called Literature and Revolution. In this book he tried to illuminate the problems which were arising for Russian writers with the new society of the Revolution. And he was obliged to come to grips with a question with which Marx and Engels had not been much concerned — the question of what Mr. James T. Farrell in his book, A Note on Literary Criticism, one of the few sensible recent writings on this subject, calls ‘the carry-over value’ of literature. Marx had assumed the value of Shakespeare and the Greeks and more or less left it at that. But what, the writers in Russia were now asking, was to be the value of the literature and art of the ages of barbarism and oppression in the dawn of socialist freedom?

What in particular was to be the status of the culture of that bourgeois society from which socialism had just emerged and of which it still bore the unforgotten scars? Would there be a new proletarian literature, with new language, new style, new form, to give expression to the emotions and ideas of the new proletarian dictatorship?

There had been in Russia a group called the Proletcult, which aimed at monopolizing the control of Soviet literature; but Lenin had discouraged and opposed it, insisting that proletarian culture was not something which could be produced synthetically and by official dictation of policy, but only by natural evolution as a ‘development of those reserves of knowledge which society worked for under the oppression of capitalism, of the landlords, of the officials.

Now, in Literature and Revolution, Trotsky asserted that such terms as “proletarian literature” and “proletarian culture” are dangerous, because they erroneously compress the culture of the future into the narrow limits of the present day.’ In a position to observe from his Marxist point of view the effects on a national literature of the dispossession of a dominant class, he was able to see the unexpected ways in which the presentments of life of the novelists, the feelings and images of the poets, the standards themselves of the critics, were turning out to be determined by their attitudes toward the social-economic crises. But he did not believe in a proletarian culture which would displace the bourgeois one.

Given Ralph Ellison’s sharp rebuttal to Irving Howe, one might assume that he would be part of the Partisan Review crowd. Ironically, all of his fiction appeared in “New Masses” in the 1930s, the literary voice of the Communist Party edited by Mike Gold, the author of the 1929 “Go Left, Young Writers”, which upheld the “proletarian literature” prevailing in Stalin’s USSR. Gold would have no use for namby-pambies like James Joyce. He was for the 1930s equivalent of Joe Sixpack:

The old Masses was a more brilliant but a more upper class affair. The New Masses is working in a different field. It goes after a kind of flesh and blood reality, however crude, instead of the smooth perfect thing that is found in books. The America of the working class is practically undiscovered. It is like a lost continent. Bits of it come above the surface in our literature occasionally and everyone is amazed…The young writer can find all the…material he needs working as a wage slave around the cities and prairies of America.

Does this sound anything like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s op-ed? Certainly not. Although Thomas Chatterton Williams would have you believe that it was some sort of “cancel culture” exercise that would result in any novelist or poet being expelled from some literary society for touting J.K. Rowling, Viet Thanh has very little power in the publishing world that churns out 25 novels about family dramas in the suburbs  for every one that aims to plunge a stake through the heart of imperialism. The men and women who make decisions about what gets published or not belong to an elite that comes out of the Ivy League and that relies on an old boy’s network. Rick MacArthur decides to hire Thomas Chatterton Williams as a contributing editor since his “color-blind” politics meshes with his own sense of privilege and sanctity (sanctimoniousness might be more accurate.) The same kind of self-selection goes on routinely in publishing. I ran into it at Random House, even if they relied on Joyce Brabner to shit-can the memoir I did with Harvey Pekar.

This is not to speak of the academic training most writers get today in places like the University of Iowa or NYU. Do you think that writer’s workshops are breeding grounds for Bolshevism? Instead, they are largely responsible for convincing the young aspiring novelist to write about what they know best, like their father’s alcoholism or their first romance, either heterosexual or homosexual. Not something so irrelevant as trying to get a union going at Amazon.

Returning to the Partisan Review, its trajectory after 1940 was to the right. Like some of intellectuals under Max Shachtman’s influence, the editors saw the USSR as a new type of society that was as bad in its own way as capitalism. Once the patriotic fervor over Pearl Harbor kicked in, many of them naturally came to the conclusion that the USA was a model for the rest of the world, a conclusion Shachtman reached in the 1950s himself. So sharp was the Partisan Review’s turn to the right that contributor Dwight Macdonald decided a new leftist alternative to both it and the Stalinist New Masses. He created a magazine called “Politics” that attracted a number of the old Partisan Review crowd that had no stomach for the Cold War. Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson were unrepentant leftists who joined up but James T. Farrell, like Jon Dos Passos, became a raving right-winger.

Eventually, Partisan Review found its métier. Like other literary magazines such as Encounter and the Paris Review, it accepted funding from the CIA in order to promote the Cold War mythologies that had my brain twisted like a pretzel when I entered Bard College as a freshman in 1961. I am not sure when I read it, but I am certain I read Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” at Bard. I was curious to see what the former Bard professor had to say in the highly regarded novel. All I knew about Ellison’s time there is that he used to get drunk at Adolph’s Tavern (as did I) and pick fights with the townies.

I might even find time to read it again just to get a handle on a political current within Black America that has a high-profile character like Thomas Chatterton Williams taking a position with the American Enterprise Institute. Surely, something toxic is at work. But wouldn’t it be more productive to engage with his adversary Viet Thanh Nguyen, who might at least give me an idea of what new writers are about? It has been ages since I have read fiction, after all.

His website offers up samples of his work. I opened a short story titled “Look at Me” that convinced me that Viet Thanh is a writer for our epoch. Son of Vietnamese parents who fled Communism, his story is about an American army veteran sick with cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange during the war in Vietnam about to take revenge on the executive responsible. It is the best short story I have read in years and proof that literature and revolution are not only compatible but necessary. Never forget, however, what Hollywood 10’s Albert Maltz once said, “Where art is a weapon, it is only so when it is art.”

April 12, 2021

Human Solidarity and Nature Conservation

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:10 pm

“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” Carl Gustav Jung [1]

Life is the actualization of potentialities embedded within the biochemical processes that form the mechanisms of genetics and evolution. Does life have a purpose, or is it entirely a statistically random fluke made possible by the astronomical number of possibilities available for the expression of molecular chemistry in the wide array of physical conditions interspersed throughout the vastness of space? To believe that life has a consciously intended purpose is to believe that life is an intentional creation by a conscious supernatural entity or entities. If so, what is that purpose?


April 10, 2021

Exterminate All The Brutes Q&A

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:50 pm

Film at Lincoln Center

The past has a future we never expect. Exterminate All the Brutes is a four-part HBO documentary series from filmmaker Raoul Peck that challenges how history is being written. Exterminate All the Brutes is currently airing on HBO Max. Q&A with Raoul Peck, Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz, and Mahmood Mamdani, moderated by Eugene Hernandez.

April 9, 2021

Exterminate All the Brutes

Filed under: colonialism,Counterpunch,genocide,television,white supremacy — louisproyect @ 3:53 pm

“Where art is a weapon, it is only so when it is art”

–Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten

Last night, HBO launched “Exterminate All the Brutes”, a four-part docudrama by Raoul Peck that is both art and weapon. As a director of the great narrative film “The Young Karl Marx” and the equally great James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro”, Peck includes staged performances by professional actors to highlight the cruelties visited on native peoples in the Americas and in Africa. In the first episode, we see a scripted reenactment of a massacre American soldiers carried out against Seminoles and their escaped slave allies in 1836 who dared resist ethnic cleansing.

We also see a savage attack on the Congolese people in 1892, during King Leopold’s reign. In this reenactment, a Catholic mission founded by the Swedish priest Edward Sjoblom witnesses a white rubber plantation owner storming into the modest church, gun in hand, and forcing a Black parishioner from his pew. As everyone gathers outside the church, the colonist fires a bullet into the man’s head and then forces a young parishioner to cut off his hand to be proof to the authorities that law and order was being upheld, just as white settlers often took Indian scalps in the USA.

Continue reading

April 5, 2021

Did China use a sock puppet to bolster support for its forced assimilation of the Uighurs?

Filed under: Uyghur — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Until this week, I had never heard of the China Global Television Network (CGTN). Essentially, this is the Chinese version of RT.com that has a presence globally with each unit broadcasting in the local language. An old friend emailed me about a controversy that had developed in the French outlet of CGTN over its publication of a March 28 article by one Laurène Beaumond titled “’My’ Xinjiang: stop the tyranny of fake news” that defended the Chinese government against charges of the forced assimilation of the Uighur people in Xinjiang. The article was par for the course propaganda making the case that China had been the Uighur’s best friend, delivering all sorts of benefits in keeping with the government’s respect for national minorities. This snippet will give you a sense of the article’s shamelessness:

In Xinjiang, all signage and shop signs are in Mandarin and the Turkic language spoken by Uyghurs. Administrative documents are also in both languages. Having been the victim of a health problem that forced me to stay hospitalized for a week in Urumqi in 2016, I was treated by a team of Uyghur doctors at a facility right next to one of the city’s largest mosques. Every morning, I was awakened by the song of the muezzin who called the faithful to prayer and the hospital canteen was 100% halal [conforming to Muslim dietary laws].

An editor’s note preceding the article stated:

Freelance journalist based in France, with a double degree in art history and archeology at the University of Sorbonne-IV and holder of a master’s degree in journalism, Laurène Beaumond has worked in various editorial offices in Paris before settling down in Beijing, where she lived for almost 7 years.

Apparently, someone at Le Monde was suspicious enough about her journalism bona fides to do some digging into her past. The result was an article that charged China with creating a sock puppet to spread government propaganda. Wikipedia’s definition is as good as any: “A sock puppet or sockpuppet is an online identity used for purposes of deception. The term, a reference to the manipulation of a simple hand puppet made from a sock, originally referred to a false identity assumed by a member of an Internet community who spoke to, or about, themselves while pretending to be another person.”

Titled “Controversy over Chinese state TV propaganda article on Uighurs”, Nathalie Guibert’s March 31 article stated flatly: “The problem is that Laurène Beaumond does not exist as the state media wants to present it. Unknown, officially, to the French press battalion. Le Monde was able to verify that no person of this pseudonym appears in the file of the Commission of the identity card of French professional journalists.”

Stung by this report, CGTV tried to cover its tracks in an April Fool’s Day article titled “China and ‘fake news’: this Manichaeism which will lose some French intellectuals”. It stood by the authenticity of the article but refuted the sock puppet charge by referring to Laurène Beaumond as a pseudonym. In my view, this is just a crock of shit since editors customarily indicate when a pseudonym is being used:

The journalist from Le Monde used the term “invent” in her title. We are stunned by this total lack of professionalism. How could she not have thought of someone writing under a pseudonym? This shows that his judgment is biased from the start. Using a pen name is common. Today, French public opinion – and Western public in general – is particularly hostile to China, it is no secret to anyone. Laurène Beaumond wished to use a pseudonym and we respected her choice, because we know the risk that this represents for certain French journalists to express their opinion in favor of China.

We’ll never know whether Laurène Beaumond  was a sock puppet or not but it is worth taking a look at her article to see how cynical and duplicitous it is. As was the case with Ukraine, another colonized nation that expected a socialist revolution to provide rights that had been denied under dynastic rule, language rights are key. Beaumond obviously understands how this serves as a litmus test for a nominally socialist government: “In Xinjiang, all signage and shop signs are in Mandarin and the Turkic language spoken by Uyghurs. Administrative documents are also in both languages.” If you’ll recall, Euromaidan protests involved many exchanges over whether Russian speakers were going to be persecuted by a Kiev victory over the separatists. Freud would call this projection based on the Kremlin’s long-standing hostility toward Ukrainian self-determination. Taking Beaumond at her word, no such conflict existed in Xinjiang.

With its 12 million Uighur citizens, you’d think it would be important not only to have a newspaper written in their native language but one upheld its aspirations as a people. Once there was one. Titled the Xinjiang Daily, it was the voice of the Communist Party but apparently not so determined to squelch the voices of the colonized people. In September 2018, Ilham Weli, Xinjiang Daily’s deputy editor-in-chief, Memtimin Obul and Juret Haji, directors at the newspaper, and Mirkamil Ablimit, the head of the newspaper’s subsidiary Xinjiang Farmer’s Daily, were arrested. The charge? Being “two-faced”, a typically Orwellian term that is broad enough to cover any act or opinion that defied Xi Jinping’s priorities.

Ironically, there were no articles that appeared in the Xinjiang Daily that could be offered as evidence of being “two-faced”, even in a kangaroo court. The crime these editors committed was supporting secret nationalist goals, kept to themselves. Likely, their crime was simply discussing articles that could be written that challenged Beijing’s colonizing agenda.

While Ms. Beaumond might be assuaged by shop signs being in both Chinese and Uighur, one might expect 12 million Uighur-speaking people to be served by a newspaper that was uncompromisingly devoted to their national aspirations and in their own language. There was a time when Communists would have identified with and supported such an initiative as I pointed out in a CounterPunch article. Even under Stalin, a bureaucrat condemned by Lenin for his Great Russian Chauvinism, there was respect for Uighur national aspirations:

In October 1944, the Soviets helped the Uighurs mount a revolt across Xinjiang that led to a major step forward. Armed with Soviet weapons, they were able to secure a victory that led to the formation of the East Turkistan Republic (ETR).

Through the rest of the 1940s, the ETR adopted all of the features of a modern state with Soviet aid. It published literature in the Uighur language, had its own uniformed army, school system, national flag and even a national anthem. Stalin was even able to persuade the Kuomintang to adjust to new realities. It accommodated itself to Uighur power and even mandated that the Uighur language have the same official status as Mandarin in government departments.

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