Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 17, 2019

Why Jeremy Corbyn lost

Filed under: Britain,Corbyn,Labour Party — louisproyect @ 9:45 pm

In reviewing articles about Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn over the past two days, I was struck by the similarities between British and American politics. With all proportions guarded, Corbyn and Boris Johnson are the counterparts of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Since I regard the Labour Party as qualitatively different from the Democratic Party in class terms, I was much more open to Corbyn’s electoral ambitions than I am to Sanders’s. This would be apparent from the reviews I wrote of two books: Richard Seymour’s “Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics” and Simon Hannah’s “A Party With Socialists in It: a History of the Labour Left”. Hannah’s book helped me understand that despite Lenin’s business about the Communists supporting Labour like a rope supports a hanging man, it is still a working-class party. Or at least it was until Tony Blair got a hold of it. If it was still in New Labour’s clutches, there would be not a dime’s worth of differences between the DP and Labour.

Starting with New Labour, you can say that—dialectically speaking—it was responsible  for the emergence of Corbynism in the same way that Clinton/Obama were responsible for the Sandernistas. By the same token, New Labour’s neglect of working-class interests helped fuel the Brexit campaign and Johnson’s election in the same way that the post-LBJ Democratic Party paved the way for Donald Trump.

Beneath all these political convulsions was the economic transformation of the UK and the USA. With Reagan and Thatcher’s neoliberal turn, the class compromise between the capitalist class and the labor unions came to an end. Reagan’s crushing of the airline controllers strike and Thatcher’s of the miners marked an open season against not only the trade unions but everybody below the ruling and middle classes. Even when the two arch-reactionaries were replaced by “liberals”, the war against the working-class and the poor continued. Through trade agreements like the WTO and NAFTA, it became easier for corporations to take grow wings and take flight. In the case of the EU, open borders allowed labor to escape the misery of post-Communist Eastern Europe and enjoy a higher standard of living in the West. That was the main impetus behind Euromaidan. Ukrainian workers understood that being a plumber or an electrician in England could provide a wage denied in their homeland.

In both the UK and the USA, a rust belt developed in the decades after Thatcher and Reagan. The Midlands of England and the American cities, where steel and auto factories once thrived, now bled jobs. When you combine this long-term tendency with the financial crisis of 2007, you end up with a population looking for radical solutions, sometimes on the right. In the UK, this meant working people lining up behind the nativist Brexit campaign that offered the same kind of demagogic appeal as Donald Trump’s MAGA election campaign. There’s a big difference between the UK and the USA, however. In the UK workers did vote for the rightwing while in the USA they mostly stayed at home, finding Hilary Clinton’s campaign so devoid of incentives that would make a difference to them—the kind that Sanders and Corbyn offered. Does Corbyn’s defeat mean that Sanders faces the same fate? I certainly can conceive of him defeating Trump in the general election but his hands will be tied once in the White House, I’m afraid.

Despite the fact that the Tories were happy with the EU and its predecessors like the European Economic Community, there has always been a nationalist element that ran contrary to any sort of continent-wide political and economic integration. Enoch Powell, a Tory member of Parliament from 1950 to 1974, was dead-set against joining the EEC. He made a “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 that warned against immigrants flooding England. It resembled a Donald Trump speech, if on a 300 percent higher reading level:

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the century.

Eventually, Powell left the Conservative Party and moved to Northern Ireland where he became an Ulster Unionist party member and a bitter enemy of the Irish struggle. Unsurprisingly, the Ulster Unionists are major supporters of leaving the EU.

Nigel Farage considers Enoch Powell to be a major influence and even unsuccessfully requested his backing in 1994. Ukip later twice asked Powell to stand as a candidate for the party.. Farage was formerly a Tory but left in 1992 after the party signed the Maastricht Treaty that led to the formation of the EU. A year later he co-founded Ukip and remained one of its top leaders for well over a decade. As the leading voice of Euroskepticism, Ukip was responsible for placing the question of Brexit on a 2016 referendum. The same newspapers that told lies about Corbyn in last week’s election also helped to line up people for a “Leave” vote in 2016. Chief among them were two tabloids: the Daily Sun and the Daily Express. In March 2016, the Sun reported on Polish immigrants, who are to England as Mexicans are to the USA. The headline of an article was “How to Be a Pole on the Dole.” (The dole is a term for welfare benefits.) In enlightened London, someone surreptitiously posted leaflets with large letters: “Leave the EU/No more Polish vermin”.

Alan Sked, who was once the top leader of Ukip, regards his replacement Nigel Farage as a racist. In a 2014 Guardian article, he recounts a conversation the two once had:

But even if Farage’s recent statements about not wanting to live next door to Romanians suggest he is xenophobic, is there any proof he was racist when he and Sked worked together in the mid-1990s? Sked laughs at the question and recalls an incident from 1997 when the two men were arguing over the kind of candidates that Ukip should have standing at the looming general election. “He wanted ex-National Front candidates to run and I said, ‘I’m not sure about that,’ and he said, ‘There’s no need to worry about the nigger vote. The nig-nogs will never vote for us.'”

Like Steve Bannon and others who have broken with the old-school John McCain type of Republicanism, you can find people moving in the same direction in England besides the Ukip. One of them is the European Research Group that despite its innocuous name is quite toxic. Unlike think-tanks in the USA that get funded by Koch, the Coors Foundation, et al, the ERG relies on tax-payer funding as a result of its ties to the Conservative Party. It was headed by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who despite the P.G. Wodehouse name and upper-class mannerisms, is pretty scary. In 2006, Rees-Mogg opposed David Cameron’s attempt to increase the number of ethnic minorities running as Tories. Rees-Mogg argued, “Ninety-five per cent of this country is White. The list can’t be totally different from the country at large.”

This year, Steve Baker took over as ERG head. Despite the fact that both he and Rees-Mogg have worked in finance, they strongly opposed the pro-EU stance of other bankers. They may be opposed to “globalization” but they certainly aren’t opposed to capitalist profits. In addition to being a hard-core Brexit advocate, Baker is also a born-again Christian, gay marriage opponent and climate change skeptic. He is also a member of the Cornerstone Group that operates as a Tory party club. It considers the Church of England, the unitary British state and the family as its “cornerstones”. Alan Duncan, a Tory MP, has called it a “Taliban Tendency” inside their party.

Like Bannon, Trump, Stephen Miller, Billy Graham Jr. and company, the Brexit wing of the party has taken over and reshaped the Conservative agenda along the lines of right-populist parties everywhere, from Hungary to Austria. Gone are the commitments to Anglo-American hegemony based on the dollar and NATO. The emerging program has much more to do with racial purity, family values, deregulation, and fossil fuel dependency.

So what would make a former coal miner in the Midlands decide to vote for anything they favor?

The main explanation is that the Labour Party no longer has organic ties to its former social base. Like Hilary Clinton, Tony Blair and his successor Gordon Brown, they focused on getting votes from people living in large cities and who had decent-paying jobs in the technical, financial and health industries. Like most DP presidential candidates, they assumed that the people living in the rust belt would continue to vote for them as a “lesser evil”. That was until Jeremy Corbyn came along.

Corbyn and his chief adviser John McDonnell were elderly members of the Labour Party who never bought into New Labour politics. They identified with Tony Benn who, like them, was a leftwing stalwart. It was only as a result of a procedural change that loosened up Labour Party membership that Corbyn came into prominence.

In 2015, Ed Miliband, the Labour MP with Tony Blair type politics, proposed that the party adopt new membership rules. Instead of trade union officials having the right to use bloc voting on behalf of its powerless rank-and-file, there would be “one member one vote” with the public allowed to take part for a £3 fee. In hoping to weaken the trade union officials, Miliband did not anticipate that this measure would open the door to millions of young people with non-union jobs and radical politics. In essence, it was the same kind of demographic that provided the backbone of support for Bernie Sanders.

For Corbyn, the hope was that by running on a program that would reverse the neoliberal policies of both Tory and New Labour he would be able to become the Prime Minister in last week’s election. Considering the dismal state of those parts of England where coal mines, steel mills and auto manufacturing had disappeared, his hopes seemed reasonable.

Considering the fact that the 2016 Brexit referendum favored the “leavers”, there had to be worries that this would not be a guaranteed victory especially when well over a third of Labour Party members voted to leave. Indeed, the line-up on Brexit did not coincide with predictable party affiliations. The most ardent supporters of “remain” were New Labour politicians who found themselves agreeing with Tory MP David Cameron, a financial industry insider. It was mainly Ukip that pushed for leaving with many rank-and-file Labour Party members lead astray by rightwing demagogy. A July 5, 2016 NY Times article titled “Wigan’s Road to ‘Brexit’: Anger, Loss and Class Resentments” captured the mood:

After jobs as a garbage man, a bakery worker and now a packer at a canned food factory, Colin Hewlett, like most people in Wigan, a gritty northern English town, takes great pride in his working-class credentials. He plays snooker and drinks pints at the Working Men’s Club across the road from his red brick rowhouse, and at every election that he can remember, he has voted, like his father before him, for the Labour Party.

The governing Conservative Party, which last won a parliamentary election in Wigan in 1910, is “for rich sods and second raters on the make,” he explained.

On June 23, however, Mr. Hewlett broke with the habits of a lifetime and bucked the Labour Party line. Ignoring its stand that the European Union is good for Britain, he voted to bolt from the European bloc, along with 64 percent of the population in a town that, according to Will Patterson, a local Green Party activist, would normally “vote for a cow if Labour put one up for election.”

The overwhelming vote here in favor of “Brexit” — much higher than the 52 percent who voted to leave nationwide — delivered a stinging rebuke not only to the Labour Party leadership in London but also to the party’s local politicians. They hold 65 of the 75 seats on the Borough Council and campaigned, albeit with little zeal, for the Remain camp.

The Conservative Party, whose leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, also campaigned for Britain to stay in Europe, got kicked in the teeth, too, as did President Obama and legions of other prominent figures in Britain and abroad who urged voters like Mr. Hewlett not to rock the boat.

But rocking the boat, no matter what the risks, was precisely what he and millions of other Britons — who, regardless of their real economic situation, see themselves as members of a downtrodden “working class” — wanted to do. To them, it was a last, desperate effort to restore a lost world of secure jobs and communities that was far harsher in reality than it is in recollection.

Their votes were stark evidence of how working-class resentments, driven by feelings of being ignored and left unmoored in a rapidly changing world, are feeding nationalism and other efforts to reclaim a sense of identity, upending ideological assumptions and straining ties to political parties and other institutions.

With such sentiments lingering on, Corbyn had an uphill battle that was made even steeper by a concentrated attack from the Tories, the tabloids, the nominally-independent BBC, the rightwing Zionists obviously tied in to the Israeli state, and his own failure to respond effectively.

Even before the election, there were signs that Corbyn was not up to the task. In the July-August 2019 New Left Review, Daniel Finn alluded to some worries in an article titled “Crosscurrents: Corbyn, Labour and the Brexit Crisis” that is both critically important and not behind a paywall:

The Labour Party itself is far from being a reliable instrument in Corbyn’s hands: while the leader and his allies have strengthened their position since the electoral breakthrough of 2017, they still face unremitting hostility from the party’s right wing, to supplement that of their Tory opponents and the mainstream media. Labour’s programme of social-democratic reform may be modest in historical perspective, but it represents enough of a departure from established orthodoxy to provoke fierce resistance from business and the state machine—especially if Corbyn also tries to recalibrate British foreign policy after taking office. Before it can reach that point, Labour has to navigate an issue—Britain’s departure from the eu—that cuts through the heart of its electoral coalition and has no precedent in post-war British experience. Brexit has thrown the whole political field into confusion, and Labour will struggle to achieve a majority in parliament after the next election, even if it emerges as the largest party. The conditions of its likely coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, could include the extinction of any distinctive Corbyn project.

Just as crucial a read but behind a paywall (contact me for a copy), Colin Leys’s article in the 2019 Socialist Register titled “Corbyn And Brexit Britain: Is There A Way Forward For The Left?” has the same mixture of enthusiasm for Corbyn’s uphill battle and wariness about its success. Leys, like fellow SR editorial board members Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, is skeptical about social democracy’s viability. However, he at least sees Corbynism as a current worth supporting, if for no other reasons that it can galvanize a leftwing opposition movement into a force capable of resisting a deepening of inequality—either from Boris Johnson or from a resurgent New Labour.

Leys describes the tensions between the two wings of the Labour Party, one traditional and trade union-based; the other, urban, young and often either student or professional:

A final problem is Brexit. In opposition Corbyn was able to avoid taking a very clear position, but Labour was no less divided on the issue than the Conservatives. Any eventual agreement with the EU that permitted continued unlimited immigration of EU workers to the UK would likely cost seats in Labour’s old heartlands, which had voted massively ‘leave’, while the young voters whose support had been so important in 2017, and educated middle-class Labour voters in general, were predominantly ‘remainers’. Fashioning a policy on Brexit, above all on immigration, that would not cost votes with both groups of supporters looked extremely difficult. The prospects for socialist advance through the post-EU thicket were, to say the least, hard to envisage.

In addition to this thorny dilemma, Leys pointed out other deficits in Corbyn’s program. Despite his personal opposition to nuclear arms and power, Corbyn could not include any anti-nuclear planks in his otherwise commendable program. This was a result of the UK’s largest trade union, Unite, hoping to maintain its members’ jobs in the nuclear industry. Also missing was any kind of deep engagement with ecological issues. As Jeremy Gilbert has pointed out, his manifesto does not recognize that “what is required to avoid ecological catastrophe is a radical reorientation of economic priorities away from the industrial capitalist obsession with economic growth”. In many ways, fudging the nuclear and ecology questions is a sign that this updated version of the Labour Party still had ties to its productivist past.

But the biggest problem in Leys’s eyes was the failure of the Corbyn’s socialist project to deal with the most pressing issue facing British society, namely how to democratize the state.

There was no suggestion that there should be a written constitution, to make the electoral system more democratic, or to end the exercise of unaccountable executive power through the ‘royal prerogative’ and other archaic institutions. There was nothing on ending the corporate capture of the state – the downsizing of the civil service, the rampant influence of unregulated corporate lobbying, the ‘revolving door’ between the senior civil service and private corporations, or the corporate-style ‘executive boards’ that had been set up for each government department, largely filled with private sector personnel. There was no proposal to end government reliance on management consultancies whose main clients are corporations, or on the undemocratic nature of the BBC, nominally a politically neutral public service but in practice a key component of the capitalist state system. There was no suggestion of ending subsidies to private schools through which the rich constantly renew their dominant positions in the state and corporate elites.

Unlike the self-assured leader of the SWP sect in England Alex Callinicos who took advantage of Corbyn’s defeat to remind his readers of the dead-end of social democratic politics, Finn and Leys (and I) saw value in a Corbyn victory. That being said, the left is caught on the horns of a dilemma that goes back to the 1920s.

Looking at the record of Labour and Social Democratic Parties, there is not much hope that socialism can develop out of their electoral methods. Either they will be thwarted from being elected by dirty tricks as is now the case with Corbyn or once in power thwarted from moving ahead with a redistributionist program, as was the case with Mitterand in France.

So what are we left with? Join Alex Callinicos and sell copies of Socialist Worker to college students? Because of the sectarian character of “Leninist” groups, they will never be afforded the opportunity to make good on their goals. Standing aside from the mass movement, they act as its pedagogues. This might be useful in peeling off some activists into the ranks of the sect but it will never reach the critical mass necessary to overthrow the capitalist system. What’s needed is a party that can reach people on the basis of changing the world but not on the basis of when the USSR became capitalist. Come to think of it, if the Bolsheviks had made taking a position on the Girondist/Jacobin differences an ideological litmus test, there never would have been a revolution in Russia.


July 15, 2018

Richard Seymour on how “Project Fear” failed against Jeremy Corbyn

Filed under: Britain,electoral strategy — louisproyect @ 8:43 pm

(This is the latest installment of excerpts from Richard Seymour’s book on Corbyn. I plan to review the book for CounterPunch next week since it is such an extraordinary combination of brilliant analysis and prose mastery that suggests Alexander Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens in their prime. It is criminal that this young man does not have a job writing for the Guardian or the Independent rather than the fossils they employ.)

The class valence of Corbyn’s supposed unelectabil-ity varied, depending on whom one was listening to. According to an opinion piece in the Telegraph, Corbyn’s `sub-Marxist drivel’ showed that he had ‘no understanding of the British people’,” whose great middle class had no need of the types of Leftist reforms he proposed. A simi-larly splenetic piece in the Guardian held that Corbyn’s Labour was so `poncified’ [effeminate] that working-class voters had turned off in droves.” These claims reached a comical zenith during an otherwise unremarkable by-election. The Times had insisted that Labour was ‘counting the cost’ of Corbyn’s peacenik antics in Oldham, where a UKIP challenge was ready to reduce Labour’s majority to a margin of error. John Harris, in a video report from Oldham for the Guardian, held that `Corbynmania’ was about to collide with `reality’.’ Corbyn’s leadership was ‘looking increasingly fragile’, Harris averred, and cited an encounter with an anti-Corbyn Labour voter to suggest that perhaps the only remaining Labour voters would be the hardened tribalists who put the party first. There being no polling in this by-election, journalists relied on a combination of anecdotes, vox pops and their own prejudices. In the end, Labour held the seat not only with a sizeable majority of over ten thousand, but increased its share of the vote with a 7.5 per cent swing in its favour. The anti-climax was palpable, and the Telegraph wondered whether `Muslims worried about war’ might not be to blame for the victory.’

Other hit pieces strained for effect. For example, a story Telegraph — a paper that, more than any other, has been out for Corbyn’s blood — referred to claims that n had a consensual relationship with Diane Abbot in the 1970s as `damaging’. Janet Daley of the Telegraph cited a horror story from Haringey in the seventies in which Jeremy Corbyn, as a local councillor, may or may not have been indifferent to the squatters residing in a house next to hers. Anne Perkins of the Guardian, with a tone so stiff as to be almost beyond satire, complained that Corbyn would not sang the national anthem at a commemoration service: ‘it was his job to sing’. The Sun published a false story alleging that Jeremy Corbyn was a ‘hypocrite’ since, as a republican, he was willing to bend his knee and kiss the Queen’s hand in order to secure state funds for Labour. This was complemented by another Sun ‘scoop’, claiming, again falsely, that Corbyn ‘refused to bow’ to the Queen, in apparently trivial defiance of protocol. Such contradictory characterisations suggested something of an internal conflict in the smear department: was Corbyn an inflexibly, excessively principled left-winger, or a conniving opportunist? This dreary sequence of contrived stories reached absurdity with the media’s extraordinary attention to Corbyn’s precise comportment in the laying of a wreath at the Cenotaph [war monument], with piece after piece suggesting that his solemn nod of the head was not quite solemn enough.

July 9, 2018

Richard Seymour on Momentum

Filed under: Britain,electoral strategy — louisproyect @ 5:30 pm

(As part of a project to help me write about the differences between the Democratic Party in the USA and Labour in the United Kingdom, I started reading Richard Seymour’s book on Corbyn that was written in 2016. Having grown frustrated with his Lacanian drift over the past 5 years or so, I am relishing every page of this book that is both politically astute and lively reading. Highest recommendation.)

In an effort to capitalise on the energy of Labour’s ranks of new, radical members, some of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters set up the campaigning group Momentum. The idea was positive: members who had mobilised in the heat of a campaign should not just be ignored and left to their own devices once the election was concluded. While Labour has never been a socialist party and is unlikely to become one, activists can at least create a durable space for themselves. Yet it has produced a chorus of condemnation from the Labour Right and their allies in the media for its supposed bullying of Labour MPs. Even Deputy Leader Watson, a seasoned and nuanced warrior of the Labour Right who tends to pick his fights carefully, denounced it as ‘a rabble’.”

In truth, there is little evidence for this, and it is not absolutely clear what Momentum will become. The group has encouraged members to participate in classic forms of street activism and protest, but it has also sought to make advances on Labour’s internal bodies — with some modest success thus far. It could be a genuinely democratic grass-roots movement, or a left-wing equivalent of pressure groups such as the New Labour-backing Progress and the soft-left Compass, or a machinery for the furthering of the influence of seasoned hard-left operators in Labour’s committees. As with any such fragile new organisation, it is betraying a propensity to attract various groupuscules, factions and office-seekers, which could end quite badly. If members of proscribed groups decide to join Labour in order to work within Momentum, they could hand the party machine an opportunity to disrupt its efforts by using i the Compliance Unit to purge the interlopers. Irrespective of the fairness of such proscriptions, misguided entryism merely legitimises such crackdowns and makes life harder for Labour activists.’ Some members also complain of the excessive dominance within the group of factions like the Livingstone-aligned Socialist Alternative, or specific individuals. It is difficult to parse these claims, which others members dismiss as paranoia or a right-wing hobby horse, but it would be a shame if the first steps in organising a fragile new Left were to be bogged down in the minutiae of individual careers, jockeying for influence and the back-ward tendencies of Britain’s old, exhausted, fractal Left.

What is more, many of the newer members are as yet ideologically unformed and politically indeterminate, while the older Bennite and Militant-style leftovers are, in general, too ideologically formed and too politically inflex-ible to be effective. Frenzied stories about Trots taking over branch meetings aside, the new Labour Left is more potential than reality, its organisation is nascent, and it is roughly divided between those who lack experience and those whose experience is one of trauma. The cultural schism between those who still sing the Red Flag at parties, and those who emerged from the more modern-day milieux of Climate Camp, the student movement and Occupy, is a palpable obstacle. The younger are more culturally fluent, know how to use Twitter, aren’t obsessed with setting up street stalls on a Saturday morning, and are capable of expressing the Left’s arguments in an idiom that is accessible — but they do not, as yet, have the confidence to lead. It is also not yet clear what kind of party they will want Labour to be, how they want it to relate to the wider organisational and social stream of the Left, or what their attitude to trade unions will be. The various left-wing groupings within Labour — be they Momentum, the Labour Representation Committee or Red Labour — are as yet underdeveloped, and hardly any match for the immense, lordly dominion of the parliamentary party and the electoral-professional caste running daily party life.


April 10, 2013

Glenda Jackson on Thatcher

Filed under: Britain — louisproyect @ 10:58 pm

April 8, 2013

Tramp the dirt down

Filed under: Britain — louisproyect @ 1:53 pm

January 10, 2013

Lord Dunmore and the Ethiopian Regiment

Filed under: bourgeois revolutions,Britain,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:10 pm

Lord Dunmore: the great emancipator

Yesterday I posted a link to an article titled 10 Things You Should Know About Slavery and Won’t Learn at ‘Django’ to the Marxism mailing list written by Imara Jones, who has a BA in political science from Columbia University and an MA in economics from the London School of Economics.

Item 5 in Jones’s list (“Defense of slavery, more than taxes, was pivotal to America’s declaration of independence”) might have not sit well with some of our subscribers. Most are veteran Marxists and partial to the classical definition of 1776 as a bourgeois revolution, or what is sometimes referred to as “the first American revolution” that would be fulfilled—like Jesus’s second coming—by Lincoln’s Civil War.

One old hand said this:

I think this is a very questionable essay on the “Things” the essay lays out. I would proceed with caution on some of this stuff, especially on the economics and the ‘reason’ the colonies pushed for independence.

As it so happens, I keep a copy of Gary B. Nash’s “The Unknown American Revolution”, a “revisionist” study of the type I am particularly keen on in reserve for occasions like this. For those who have been following my analysis of the bourgeois revolution over the years, I am more than a bit skeptical of the “revolutionary” bourgeoisie—particularly when it comes to slavery. When the Communist Party was in the giddying heights of its pro-America populism during the New Deal, I wonder why nobody with both feet on the ground and a grasp of American history would have advised against the idea of naming the party’s school in New York after the slave-master Thomas Jefferson. But, hey, that’s just me.

Here are Nash’s credentials, while we are at it:

Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (1974-Present); Associate Professor (1968-1974), Assistant Professor (1966-1968)

Co-chaired the National History Standards Project from 1992-1996.

Past positions include: Dean of Undergraduate and Intercollege Curricular Development; University of California, Los Angeles; President, Organization of American Historians; Dean, Council on Educational Development, University of California, Los Angeles.

Complete CV is at http://www.history.ucla.edu/people/faculty?lid=953

What you see below is an excerpt from Chapter Four of Nash’s history, most of which deals with Lord Dunmore’s raising of the Ethiopian Regiment, something far scarier than the Nat Turner revolt since it was backed by British muscle. Immediately following it is Lord Dunmore’s emancipation proclamation of 1775. (Long live feudalism?) I encourage you to read the two in their entirety, but want to make sure that you don’t miss the last two paragraphs that substantiate Imara Jones’s point:

Regardless of the horrible death toll at the hands of smallpox, Dunmore’s Proclamation reverberated throughout the colonies and became a major factor in convincing white colonists that reconciliation with the mother country was impossible. Dunmore’s Proclamation, wrote South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge, was more effectual in working “an eternal separation between Great Britain and the Colonies … than any other expedient.”

Among African Americans, Dunmore remained the “African Hero,” as Richard Henry Lee, destined to be one of Washington’s generals, derisively put it. Indeed, Dunmore did seem like a biblical Moses to slaves. As far north as Philadelphia, where the Second Continental Congress was sitting, news of the “African Hero” galvanized blacks. Encountering a white “gentlewoman” on the street, a black Philadelphian insulted her. When she reprimanded him, he shot back, “Stay you d[amne]d white bitch ’till Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come, and then we will see who is to take the wall.” “Hell itself,” wrote one Philadelphian, “could not have vomited anything more black than his design of emancipating our slaves… . The flame runs like wild fire through the slaves.”

* * * * *

Gary B. Nash full excerpt:

A few weeks after the Second Continental Congress authorized a Continental army, white Carolinians uncovered the insurrectionary slave plot they anticipated. The leader was not a slave but a free black man. Jeremiah, a fisherman and boat pilot who knew the shallow waters of Charleston’s harbor, hoped to be the agent of deliverance for thousands of slaves. Several months earlier, he had spread the word that “there is a great war coming soon” and that the British would “come to help the poor negroes.” After arresting him, white authorities charged Jeremiah with plotting an insurrection and intending to pilot the Royal Navy over the treacherous sandbar that blocked the entrance to Charleston’s harbor. On August 18, 1775, white authorities hanged Jeremiah and burned him at the stake, despite the efforts of  William Campbell, the newly arrived royal governor, to save his life. Believing that the evidence against Jeremiah was very thin, the governor wrote home that “my blood ran cold when I read what ground they had doomed a low creature to death.” His efforts to save Jeremiah “raised such a clamor amongst the people, as is incredible,” wrote Campbell, “and they openly and loudly declared, if I granted the man a pardon they would hang him at my door.” Executions and burnings at the stake were acts of terror to keep rebellion-minded slaves intimidated. But reducing Jeremiah to ashes or cropping the ears of slaves did not hold back the waves of slave unrest in the summer of 1775.

The wave crested in late fall when Virginia’s governor, Lord Dunmore, made official what everyone had known he intended for months. On November 7, 1775, aboard the William, anchored in Norfolk harbor, he drafted a royal proclamation declaring martial law and labeling as traitors to the king any colonist who refused “to resort to his Majesty’s standard.” The proclamation included the dreaded words: “I do hereby further declare all indented servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to Rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing the Colony to a proper sense of their duty, to His Majesty’s crown and dignity.”

Lord Dunmore did not publish the proclamation for another week. But the timing and place of the public proclamation were poignant. On November 14, a contingent of British soldiers under Dunmore’s command, supplemented by escaped slaves, thrashed a Virginia militia unit at Kemp’s Landing, on the Elizabeth River south of Norfolk. Dunmore’s force killed several militiamen, captured both militia colonels, and put the rest of the Virginians to flight. One of the colonels, Joseph Hutchings, was captured by two of his own escaped slaves. Flush with this victory, Dunmore issued his proclamation.

Among the first to flee to Dunmore were eight of the twenty-seven slaves who toiled at the stately Williamsburg dwelling of Peyton Randolph, Speaker of Virginia’s House of Burgesses and one of Virginia’s delegates to the Continental Congress. Hearing almost simultaneously of Randolph’s sudden death in Philadelphia and Dunmore’s Proclamation, Aggy, Billy, Eve, Sam, Lucy, George, Henry, and Peter slipped away from Randolph’s house. Eluding the slave patrols walking Williamsburg’s streets, they reached the British forces not far from town. Three weeks after Dunmore issued his proclamation, Lund Washington, manager of his cousin George’s Mount Vernon estate, warned the general that among the slaves “there is not a man of them but would leave us, if they could make their escape. . . . Liberty is sweet.”

Within several months, between eight hundred and one thousand slaves had flocked to Dunmore, and many hundreds more were captured while trying. Many of them, perhaps one-third, were women and children. Mustered into what Dunmore named the Ethiopian Regiment, some of the men were uniformed with sashes bearing the inscription LIBERTY TO SLAVES. The slaves of many of Virginia’s leading white revolutionary figures now became black revolutionary Virginians themselves. They soon formed the majority of Dunmore’s Loyalist troops. Commanding the Ethiopian Regiment was the British officer Thomas Byrd, the son of patriot William Byrd III, one of Virginia’s wealthiest land and slave owners.

Dunmore retreated to Norfolk and ventured out on December 9, 1775, with six hundred troops, half of them escaped slaves, to take on the Virginians at Great Bridge on the Elizabeth River. The Ethiopian Regiment fought “‘with the intrepidity of lions,” according to one observer; but the Americans vanquished Dunmore’s forces, convincing the governor to withdraw from Norfolk and board his contingent on ships in the harbor.20 Slaves seeking sanctuary now had to commandeer boats and slip down the rivers emptying into Chesapeake Bay in order to clamber aboard the British ships. Cruising the Chesapeake Bay on Dunmore’s ships, they went out in foraging parties to procure provisions for the British.

Escaping slaves augmented Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment day by day. But an outbreak of smallpox soon reversed these gains. Crowded together on small ships, black men and women who had tasted freedom only briefly contracted the infection rapidly. By June 1776, Dunmore admitted that the killer disease had “carried off an incredible number of our people, especially blacks.” Dunmore briefly occupied Gwynn’s Island, near the mouth of the Piankatank River, but here, too, smallpox tore through his ranks. By July, he withdrew his disease-riddled forces, sending part of them to Saint Augustine and the Bermudas and others, including three hundred of the strongest and healthiest black soldiers, northward to New York City, then to be sent south-ward a year later for a land assault through Maryland to Pennsylvania.

The dread of slave insurrection that swept South Carolina and Virginia in 1775—76 also engulfed North Carolina. Especially in the coastal towns of Edenton, New Bern, and Wilmington, patrols searched slave huts for hidden weapons. In the Cape Fear region, where slavery was extensive, white officials nipped a slave insurrection in the bud just before July 8, 1775, when slave leaders, according to the Pitt County Safety Committee chairman, planned “to fall on and destroy the family where they lived, then proceed from house to house (burning as they went) until they arrived in the back country where they were to be received with open arms by a number of persons there appointed and armed by government for their protection, and as a further reward they were to be settled in a free government of their own.” “Armed by government” meant that Governor Josiah Martin, who had recently deplored the military force used by his predecessor to crush the Regulators, was the instigator of this slave insurrection. About forty slaves who had fled their plantations were found with arms and arrested. Many were whipped and had their ears severed; one was executed. Governor Martin fled to Fort Johnston, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, and tried to recruit Loyalists to strengthen the small royal garrison there. Unwilling to keep this serpent in their nest, the Wilmington Committee of Safety, infuriated by the governor’s “base encouragement of slaves eloped from their masters, feeding and employing them, and his atrocious and horrid declaration that he would incite them to an insurrection,” raised a militia to attack Fort Johnston on July 17, 1775.

Destroying the fort was easy enough, since Governor Martin and his small contingent withdrew without a fight to a Royal Navy ship in the Cape Fear River. When Martin recruited immigrant Scottish Highlanders, especially those who had just arrived in North Carolina and whose land grants depended upon their willingness to uphold the king’s authority, the patriot cause became more difficult. But in a pitched battle at Moore’s Creek on March 27, 1776, the Americans routed the charging Loyalist Scots and dashed the slaves’ hopes for a British victory. However, a powerful British fleet arrived at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in the spring of 1776. This opened the door of opportunity for Cape Fear slaves once again.

One such slave, who has been forgotten in the fog of historical amnesia, was Thomas Peters. Captured in what is now Nigeria in about 1760, he had been brought to New Orleans on a French slave ship. Shortly thereafter, this Egba African of the Yoruba tribe started his own revolution in America, be-cause he had been deprived of what he considered to be his natural rights. He needed neither a written language nor constitutional treatises to convince himself of that. And no amount of harsh treatment persuaded him to accept his lot meekly. This personal rebellion was to span three decades, cover five countries, and entail three more transatlantic voyages.

Peters never adapted well to slavery. He may have been put to work in the sugarcane fields in Louisiana, where heavy labor drained life away from plantation laborers almost as fast as in the Caribbean sugar islands. Whatever his work role, he tried to escape three times from the grasp of bondage. Three times, legend has it, he paid the price of being an unsuccessful black rebel: First he was whipped severely, then branded, and finally fitted with ankle shackles. But his French master could not snuff out his yearning for freedom and seems to have eventually given up on trying to pacify the resistant slave. Sometime after 1760, he sold Peters north. By 1770, Peters was the property of William Campbell, an immigrant Scotsman who had settled in Wilmington, North Carolina, on the Cape Fear River.

In all likelihood, it was in Wilmington that Peters learned his trade as millwright. Three-fifths of the slaves in the Cape Fear region worked in the production of timber products and naval stores—pine planking, turpentine, tar, and pitch. As sawyers, tar burners, stevedores, carters, and carpenters, they were essential to the regional economy’s mainstay. The details of Peters’s life in Wilmington are obscure because nobody recorded the turning points m the lives of slaves, but he appears to have found a wife and to have begun a family at this time. His wife, Sally, gave birth to a daughter in 1771. Peters may have gained a measure of autonomy because slaves in urban areas were not supervised so strictly as on plantations. Working on the docks, hauling pine trees from the forests outside town to the lumber mills, ferrying boats and rafts along the intricate waterways, and marketing various goods in the town, they achieved a degree of mobility, a knowledge of the terrain, and a taste of freedom.

Like many other slaves in the 1770s, Peters got caught up in the anticipation of what the colonial resistance movement might mean for enslaved Africans. His own master had become a leading member of Wilmington’s Sons of Liberty in 1770 and later the Committee of Safety. Peters heard much about the rhetoric of white patriots attempting to secure for themselves and dieir posterity those natural rights that they called unalienable. In a town of only about 250, it was impossible to keep anything a secret. By summer 1775, Peters was keenly aware of the rumors of British intentions to inspire a slave insurrection that would bring the cheeky white colonists to account. In that month, the town’s Committee of Safety ordered all blacks disarmed and declared martial law when they heard that Governor Martin was “collecting men, provisions, warlike stores of every kind, spiriting up the back counties and perhaps the slaves.” The visiting Janet Schaw wrote that white Carolinians in the Cape Fear region believed that the Crown had promised “every Negro that would murder his master and family that he should have his master s plantation…. The Negroes have got it amongst them and believe it to be true. Tis ten to one they may try the experiment. . . .”

When Dunmore’s Proclamation reached the ears of Thomas Peters and other slaves in Wilmington in November 1775, a buzz of excitement must surely have washed over them. But the time for self-liberation was not yet ripe, because hundreds of miles of pine barrens, swamps, and inland waterways separated Wilmington from Norfolk, where Lord Dunmore’s British forces were concentrated, and slaves knew that white patrols were on watch throughout the tidewater area from Cape Fear to the Chesapeake Bay. The opportune moment for Peters arrived four months later. On February 9, 1776, white Wilmingtonians evacuated the town as word arrived that the British sloop Cruizer was tacking up the Cape Fear River to bombard the town. A month later, four British ships arrived from Boston, including several troop transports under Sir Henry Clinton. For the next two months, the British controlled the river, plundered the countryside, and set off a wave of slave desertions. Seizing the moment, Peters and his family made their escape. Captain George Martin, an officer under Sir Henry Clinton, organized the escaped slaves from the Cape Fear region into the company of Black Pioneers, as Peters testified seven years later at the end of the war. Now, in the spring of 1776, the days of an uncertain freedom began for Peters’s family.

Regardless of the horrible death toll at the hands of smallpox, Dunmore’s Proclamation reverberated throughout the colonies and became a major factor in convincing white colonists that reconciliation with the mother country was impossible. Dunmore’s Proclamation, wrote South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge, was more effectual in working “an eternal separation between Great Britain and the Colonies … than any other expedient.”

Among African Americans, Dunmore remained the “African Hero,” as Richard Henry Lee, destined to be one of Washington’s generals, derisively put it. Indeed, Dunmore did seem like a biblical Moses to slaves. As far north as Philadelphia, where the Second Continental Congress was sitting, news of the “African Hero” galvanized blacks. Encountering a white “gentlewoman” on the street, a black Philadelphian insulted her. When she reprimanded him, he shot back, “Stay you d[amne]d white bitch ’till Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come, and then we will see who is to take the wall.” “Hell itself,” wrote one Philadelphian, “could not have vomited anything more black than his design of emancipating our slaves… . The flame runs like wild fire through the slaves.”

* * * * *

November 7, 1775

Proclamation of Lord Dunmore Offering Freedom to the Slaves Belonging to the Rebels in Virginia, November 7, 1775

“As I have ever entertained hopes that an accommodation might have taken place between Great Britain and this colony, without being compelled by my duty to do this most disagreeable, but now absolutely necessary duty, rendered so by a body of men, unlawfully assembled, firing on his majesty’s tenders, and the formation of an army, and an army now on its march to attack his majesty’s troops, and destroy the well disposed subjects of this colony. To defeat such treasonable purposes, and that all such traitors, and their abettors may be brought to justice, and that the peace and good order of this colony may be again restored, which the ordinary course of the civil law us unable to effect, I have thought fit to issue this my proclamation, hereby declaring that until the aforesaid good purposes can be obtained, I do, in virtue of the power and authority to me given, by his majesty, determine to execute martial law, and cause the same to be executed throughout this colony; and to the end that peace and good order may the sooner be restored, I do require every person capable of bearing arms to resort to his majesty’s standard, or be looked upon as traitors to his majesty’s crown and government, and thereby become liable to the penalty the law inflicts upon such offences; such as forfeiture of life, confiscation of lands, etc., etc. And I do hereby further declare all indented servants, negroes, or others (appertaining to rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining his majesty’s troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing his colony to a proper sense of their duty to his majesty’s crown and dignity. I do further order and require all his majesty’s liege subjects, to retain their quit-rents or other taxes due, or that may become due in their own custody, till such time may again be restored to this at present most unhappy country, or demanded of them for their former salutary purposes, by officers properly authorized to receive the same.

“Given under my hand on board the ship William, off Norfolk, the 7th day of November in the 16th year of his majesty’s reign.


"God save the KING."

December 21, 2012

Why not nuke Canada?

Filed under: antiwar,Britain — louisproyect @ 10:24 pm

  • Emerging world power feared British reaction to its ambitions
  • Plan Red was code for massive war with British Empire
  • Top-secret document once regarded as ‘most sensitive on Earth’
  • $57m allocated for building secret airfields on Canadian border – to launch attack on British land forces based there

Details of an amazing American military plan for an attack to wipe out a major part of the British Army  are today revealed for the first time.

In 1930, a mere nine years before the outbreak of World War Two, America drew up proposals specifically aimed at eliminating all British land forces in Canada and the North Atlantic, thus destroying Britain’s trading ability and bringing the country to its knees.

Previously unparalleled troop movements were launched as an overture to an invasion of Canada, which was to include massive bombing raids on key industrial targets and the use of chemical weapons, the latter signed off at the highest level by none other than the legendary General Douglas MacArthur.

The plans, revealed in a Channel 5 documentary, were one of a number of military contingency plans drawn up against a number of potential enemies, including the Caribbean islands and China. There was even one to combat an internal uprising within the United States.

read full article

July 3, 2012

What is the Anticapitalist Initiative and where is it going?

Filed under: Britain,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 11:09 pm


What is the Anticapitalist Initiative and where is it going?
Simon Hardy | July 3, 2012 | 0 Comments

Has the left woken up?

Anyone who thinks the British left is in a good state needs to take a reality check. Despite the biggest capitalist crisis for a generation, there is a desperate lack of new thinking and a failure to reappraise old assumptions. We need to use the next few months to get take stock of where we are going and reflect upon how we might build a stronger, more united, left.

The potential for the left is certainly very real. We have a series of historic opportunities; to build a mass movement against austerity, to build a strong revolutionary alternative to Labour, to revitalise the union movement, and to forge new organisations and movements in defence of the oppressed. But front-building and lack of a critical mass (in the sense of a united fightback) to deliver victories against the austerity offensive obstruct our collective ability to advance and fritter away these crucial opportunities.

I would go so far as to say that we risk losing much of what has been gained in the last decade of struggle. The left has proven it can help mobilise the numbers, but if we can’t score some victories that capture new ground then why should more people get involved? A radical departure from the way the left normally works is required.

If we seize this opportunity then the gains could be phenomenal.

But this will not be an easy task, and will require a flexibility and tolerance not regularly seen on the British left, but is an absolutely necessity, if we are to overcome the isolation and marginalisation that has plagued us for decades.

This is why some organisations and activists got together to launch the Anticapitalist Initiative.

We want to change the culture on the left and introduce some “common sense” thinking into the equation. As such, although we are only just starting out, I think we have made excellent progress.

Some people are asking what direction is the ACI heading in?

That is a very good question and people involved in the initiative have different ideas. At the moment the ACI is a space for discussion and organisation: a place for people to gather and think about how we can do things differently.

Some critics have argued that it won’t be possible to build a common organisation given the differences that exist amongst the socialists, anarchists, libertarians, and anti-cuts campaigners who have joined the project. Others have said that unity can only be successful if a Marxist programme is adopted at the outset. Meanwhile others still, who are involved in the initiative, see it as a step towards a Leninist-Trotskyist organisation and a new working class party.

These are important debates and I don’t intend here to give a lengthy reply to these positions, but merely state my position, and how I think the Anticapitalist Initiative should develop in the future.

Ultimately, I believe that a political organisation is necessary, not yet another micro-socialist grouping on the left, of which there are obviously many, but a large, broad-based revolutionary grouping: a genuine realignment of the left.

I know this won’t be easy and I don’t naively believe everyone and anyone can unite in the same organisation. Neither do I want to trivialise the important differences we have about the strategy we need to transcend capitalism.

But, in the first instance, I believe we can bring together organisations and individuals who want to build democratic campaigns, rather than the fronts that litter the British left, that fight bureaucracy in the unions and overcome sect divisions by building a plural, dynamic organisation.

Does this mean people should leave their existing groups? No, no one has to give up their existing organisation, all can remain in their groups, but, we believe they and their organisations should join the ACI. This does not mean that the ACI is merely a regroupment initiative, neither is it only a united front. But it is trying to provide a space, for discussion, for practical collaboration, that can clarify our differences, and carefully move towards political unity where we agree.

If our aim is to actually work towards unity in a serious and practical way, then it’s foolish to think that we should rush to try and impose a Marxist programme (and there are many differences on what exactly such a programme would look like) in the first instance. A programme worthy of the name, could not emerge fully formed from day one, but has to be a product of dialogue, of collective discussion, among much wider layers of activists, about the challenges we face.

I want the ACI to provide a space for that discussion to take place. That’s why we shouldn’t be worried at this stage about whether the differences within the ACI on strategy are so great it makes a common organisation impossible. We want to build the ACI in such a way as those differences can co-exist and be subject to continual fraternal debate and argument.

It would be a mistake for anyone to write off this new initiative, it is still in the process of being formed and deciding what its political line is. I think there is a lot of room for people from the libertarian tradition as well as people who are closer to Bolshevism or Trotskyism, and there is certainly room for people who are on the left but do not consider themselves in either category. The ACI is what people want to make of it as a democratic forum of debate and discussion. People who write such an initiative off before it has even got off the ground are displaying a terribly pessimistic and cynical view.

The fact of the matter is that the successes for the left in recent times have occurred because there has been a serious attempt to overcome divisions and create a more credible united force.Examples include Syriza, Antarsya, P-Sol, NPA, Front de Gauche, Die Linke, Left Bloc, United Left (Spain).

Naturally, we can and should debate the weaknesses and strengths of each separate organisation and why some suceeded and others failed, but they all point to shared experience of the left in recent years, that if we are to make any headway in the national arena then we must forge a credible and united organisation.

Will we all agree on every policy and bullet point of any future organisation or network? No, but I am sure we can all agree that we are weaker divided – and the welfare state is being torn down around our ears.

So if you want to be part of the alternative then come to Rebellion on the 14 July at Nailour hall in North London.

There will be plenty of space there to discuss key issues facing us today and how we can go forward.

We cannot promise any spectacular breakthroughs but we can promise a decent, honest debate about what to do next. If you are looking for an alternative and feel that the left needs a new way of doing things, then I hope to see you there.

About the Author (Author Profile)
Simon Hardy is a supporter of the Anticapitalist Initiative and was a spokesperson for the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts during the student movement of 2010-11. He is one of the contributors of ‘It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest’ (Verso 2012). You can follow him on twitter @Simon_Hardy1

March 30, 2012

George Galloway victory speech

Filed under: Britain — louisproyect @ 3:32 pm

January 15, 2012

Lula: Son of Brazil; The Robinson Trilogy

Filed under: Brazil,Britain,Film — louisproyect @ 12:00 am

In the press notes for “Lula: Son of Brazil”, screenwriter Denise Paraná, upon whose biography (originally a PhD dissertation) the script is based, advises: “This is not a political film but a human story about overcoming great odds.” Just so everybody gets the picture, director Fabio Barreto replies as follows to the question of why the film ends in 1980, long before Lula becomes president: “Because everybody knows the political life of Lula, but few know his personal life—and that is our focus and what interested us when deciding to tell this story.

In a way the absence of politics goes hand in hand with the creative team’s understanding of Lula’s legacy. With someone so resolutely beyond politics, how could anybody possibly make a political film, as Luiz Barreto states: “I followed Lula’s trajectory since the ‘70’s. I always thought he represented a new alternative in Brazilian political scene, without the left or right ideology, communism or not.”

Essentially, “Lula: Son of Brazil” is the same kind of rags-to-riches story as “Ray”, about Ray Charles, or “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, about Loretta Lynn. Instead of growing up to be a Grammy winner, Lula grew up to be the leader of a major trade union. As the director put it, “This movie is for people to see that even under the worst conditions, we can achieve great things. Lula is a migrant from the Northeast, a former laborer, one of our equals, who persisted, and worked hard, and became President.”

Ironically, despite their best (or worst) intentions, the end product is very much political since it depicts Lula very much as a careerist and an opportunist. He only gets involved with his trade union when his wife dies in childbirth, leaving him at his wit’s end. He tells his mother that he is keeping himself busy with the union just to get his personal tragedy off his mind.

The film creates an interesting tension between Lula and forces to his left and right. Like walking a tightrope, Lula always makes sure to stay on his feet. The right is symbolized by Claudio Feitosa, the piggish bureaucrat who runs the metalworkers union and who co-opts Lula on his re-election slate in order to bring “fresh blood” into the union.

Feitosa would never mistake Lula for his brother Ziza, who is a member of the Communist Party and the metalworkers union. Lula clearly regards his brother as a hothead and impractical but sticks with him through thick and thin. Their close ties are tested during a factory occupation in the 1960s in which a foreman is thrown to his death from a tall parapet in retaliation for the death of a striking worker. Lula recoils in horror, telling his brother that this is not what he believes in.

In another scene, once again involving a militant strike but this time with Lula in command, the workers are urged by him to go back to work. While such a decision is often made after a democratic discussion weighing the pros and cons, the movie depicts Lula as basically making the decision for the workers who are then asked to ratify it. When they accuse him of being a traitor to the cause, he calls a general meeting in which they are asked to vote in favor of his removal if they are unhappy. With absolutely no motivation other than hero worship, one supposes, they decide to keep him on as their Great Leader, chanting “Lula, Lula, Lula”.

The film ends with pictures of the real Lula shaking hands with Thabo Mbeki, Bill Gates and Bono—a perfect image to cap off what we have seen for over two hours.

That being said, I can still recommend the film since it contains some very dramatic depictions of the class struggle in Brazil, no matter the commitment of its makers not to stray in that direction. One scene in particular will be overwhelming. Lula is addressing the workers in a soccer stadium where there is no sound system. Guess how his words make it throughout the stadium? Guess what! He uses the mic check method of Occupy Wall Street long before the technique became so closely identified with the new movement.

You can see “Lula: Son of Brazil” either at the Quad Cinema or at the Lincoln Plaza theater. For all its flaws, it is clearly superior to the currently playing biopic on J. Edgar Hoover–to be sure.

Back in the early 90s, I attempted to come to grips with the problems of “Marxism-Leninism”, the organizational form that had led to sect and cult formations, particularly in the Maoist and Trotskyist movement. I wrote an article titled “Lenin in Context” that looked at alternatives to that model, including the Workers Party in Brazil that had not yet taken power. I first learned about the Workers Party when I was in the Trotskyist movement in the mid-70s when it held out promise for becoming a genuine mass revolutionary party. My disappointment with what it became led me to excise the portion of my article dealing with Lula and the Workers Party. I include it below to give you an idea of the kinds of hope I had at the time. I should add that if there’s anything I have learn in politics over the years, it is the power of big capital to corrupt our movement:

One of the first fresh, new formations to emerge in this generally reactionary period was the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), or Workers Party, of Brazil. Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, a worker and a trade union activist, was part of number of workers, intellectuals, Catholic Church priest-activists who saw the need for a new socialist party in Brazil. They thought the CP and SP of Brazil were too ready to compromise with whichever politician on the scene who best represented the forces of the “progressive” wing of the capitalist class. Another ingredient in the formation of the Workers Party was the conscious leadership of ex-Trotskyists who gave the new group badly needed organizational knowledge. This is the best role for Trotskyists around the world today: to dissolve their parties and help to form broader, non-sectarian formations like the Workers Party of Brazil.

Lula was born in 1945 in the poor northeastern town of Garanhuns, Pernambuco. He was the youngest of 8 children born to Aristides and Euridice da Silva, subsistence farmers. In 1956, the family moved to Sao Paulo, where they dwelled in one room at the back of a bar. They shared the bathroom with bar customers.

At the age of thirteen Lula went to work in a factory that manufactured nuts and bolts. There were 12-hour work shifts at the plant and very little attention paid to the safety and health of the workers. Consequently young Lula lost the little finger of his left hand.

Lula, whose older brother was a CP’er, became a union activist in the early 1970’s. In 1972, he won election to the Metalworker’s Union directory board of Sao Bernando. Three years later, he became president of the union. He won with 92 percent of the vote from the 140,000 members.

In the late 1970’s, a wave of labor militancy swept Brazil under the impact of IMF-imposed austerity. Lula’s union struck the Saab-Scania truck company in May of 1978. It was the first large-scale strike in a decade. Lula spoke to a strike assembly for the first time there. On day one of the strike, workers showed up but refused to operate their machines. The struggle spread to other multinational automobile companies. At the end of the second week, some 80,000 workers were on a sit-down strike. Their strength caught the government by surprise and it could not mobilize the army in time. The strikers won a 24.5 pay increase.

This was the background of the formation of the Workers Party. A founding convention on February 10, 1980 launched the party. Lula addressed the 750 attendees, “It’s time to finish with the ideological rustiness of those who sit at home reading Marx and Lenin. It’s time to move from theory to practice. The Workers Party is not the result of any theory but the result of twenty-four hours of practice.”

At the Seventh National Conference of the Workers Party in May 1990, the party defended socialism without qualifications. The collapse of bureaucratic socialism throughout the Soviet bloc inspired the document appropriately called “Our Socialism”. The party upheld democratic socialism everywhere. The document said, “We denounce the premeditated assassination of hundreds of rural workers in Brazil and the crimes against humanity committed in Bucharest or in Tiananmen Square with the same indignation. Socialism, for the PT, will either be radically or it will not be socialism.”

In section seven of the document, the Workers Party explained its conception of how to build a revolutionary party. “We wanted to avoid both ideological abstraction, the elitist offense of the traditional Brazilian left, and the frazzled pragmatism of so many other parties. A purely ideological profundity at the summit would serve no purpose unless it corresponded to the real political culture of our party and social rank-and-file. Besides, the leadership also lacked experience that only the patient, continuous, democratic mass struggle could provide.”

Compare this with James P. Cannon’s declaration that his minuscule Trotskyist faction was the “vanguard of the vanguard” in 1930. The Workers Party leadership had already led mass strikes against the bosses, broad struggles for democratic liberties and peasant movements, including the one that took the life of Chico Mendoza, a party member. Yet it says that it lacked experience. This type of modesty coming from forces obviously so capable of leading millions in struggle is truly inspiring.

* * * *

If “Lula: Son of Brazil” is an exercise in avoiding politics, then the “Robinson Trilogy” now showing at the Anthology Film Archives until the 18th is an example of what a committed radical filmmaker is capable of given the social and economic crisis of Great Britain for the past seventeen years. Back in 1994, director Patrick Keiller made “London”, a lacerating look at the decay Tory rule left in its wake in the capital city. This first installment in the trilogy was followed three years later by “Robinson in Space”, which despite its title is all about the same kind of decay occurring throughout the country. The Anthology is pairing these two works with Keiller’s latest, “Robinson in Ruins”, that was made in November 2010.

The eponymous Robinson is a fictional character used as a device to structure these sui generis documentaries that owe as much to the written essay as they do to film. In the first two films, the late Paul Scofield narrates along the lines of describing what Robinson saw and did in his travels around the country. The unnamed narrator is a friend of the fictional character Robinson who symbolizes the country’s political and ethical soul. He wanders about taking in the contemporary rot, trying to place it in historical context making reference, for example, to the enclosure acts.

In the last film, Vanessa Redgrave is the narrator, once again giving voice to the fictional Robinson. Rather than trying to describe these unique documentaries, I invite you to look at “London”, the first film in the series. If this strikes you as worthy, then do not waste time. Go to the Anthology and catch all three.

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