Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 17, 2020

Homage to Kevin Coogan

Filed under: Kevin Coogan,obituary — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

I couldn’t locate a photo of Kevin but since he posted on my blog as Hylozoic Hedgehog, this might suffice

Within the past five months, I have lost two of my closest political co-thinkers. On November 9, 2019 Noel Ignatiev died somewhat unexpectedly even though he had been dealing with serious illnesses for a number of years. On March 6th, I learned that Kevin Coogan had died. By a strange coincidence, I only met Noel and Kevin just once in person and each time at lunch, over hamburgers. We spent hours in conversation. With Noel, it was about the 1960s and being Jewish. With Kevin, it was mostly about Lyndon LaRouche. Notwithstanding the brief time I spent with the two, there were long-standing email and FB exchanges that made me feel as close to them as people I knew in the Trotskyist movement. What we three had in common was old soldiers tales about life in the “vanguard”. We traded stories about battles we fought and laughed at ourselves for having participated in them.

Before speaking about my experiences online with Kevin, I should share a couple of important posts that help put him into context.

The first was a series of Tweets about Kevin from Craig Fowlie, who is the Editorial Director for Routledge’s social sciences division. He leads an editorial team of 120 that included Kevin, a free-lancer. If you have a Twitter account, you can read them here. It begins: “Kevin was a brilliant & extremely knowledgeable researcher whose 1999 book Dreamer of the Day  is one of most important works on post-war fascism.”

In addition, there’s a bibliography of his writings, both in print and online, at Beyond the Fringe Politics, a blog that “features contributions from several researchers, academics and activists who investigate the far right.”

Most importantly, an obituary that appeared as an announcement in the NY Times has appeared at Legacy.com. I urge you to read the whole obit that starts:

Kevin J. Coogan of Queens, New York died unexpectedly on February 27, 2020 at the age of 67. Kevin was an investigative journalist and author. His 1998 book, Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey & The Postwar Fascist International, remains one of the most important works on post-war fascism.

Kevin grew up in a loving family in Philadelphia. His parents were both writers. Kevin easily gravitated to books and to writing.

As a high school student, Kevin joined an American New Left faction, Students for a Democratic Society. After matriculating at Sarah Lawrence College, Kevin joined the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC). He left school and drove a cab three nights a week to keep financially afloat. As he put it, after a while, “driving a cab in the middle of the night in 1970s New York was in a way a paid vacation” from what he came to view as a “pretty nasty cult.” In 1979 Kevin quit the NCLC. He wrote critical essays and published several books online about the NCLC’s leader, Lyndon LaRouche.

My first encounter with Kevin took place on August 1, 2017 when he posted the first of 118 comments on my blog. It was in response to the first of a series of articles on Lyndon LaRouche under the title “This is what American fascism looks like: the Lyndon LaRouche story”. Since my intention was to establish LaRouche’s status as a Marxist theoretician and how his current-day movement made points that overlapped leftist websites like Consortium News, Kevin was clearly honing in on the same phenomenon:

I’m writing to call attention to my two studies on LaRouche and the early Labor Committee: Smiling Man from a Dead Planet: The Mystery of Lyndon LaRouche (available at http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.UnityNow) and How It All Began: The Origins and History of the National Caucus of Labor Committees in New York and Philadelphia (available at http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.HIAB).

These studies appear on a website entitled LaRouche Planet and run by ex-members and aimed at debunking the cult. You can access the home page at http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Main.HomePage. LaRouche Planet has just published extremely rare photos of “L. Marcus” on the Columbia campus in 1968 if that interests anyone.

At the time, I had no idea who Kevin was. He posted as Hylozoic Hedgehog, a nom de guerre intended to protect him from LaRouche’s cult. I never asked him what Hylozoic Hedgehog meant but feel confident that it incorporated his worldview. Wikipedia states that “Hylozoism is the philosophical point of view that matter is in some sense alive.” I suppose that Kevin found hylozoism relevant to his own experience since it has an affinity with the ancient Greek philosophers like Democritus whose materialism was analyzed in Marx’s Ph.D. As for the hedgehog, I suppose that is a reference to Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”. Berlin tried to draw a distinction between hedgehogs, who view the world through a single defining idea and foxes, who draw upon multiple experiences irreducible to a single idea. Berlin did not mention Marx, but clearly he was much more of a hedgehog than a fox. Who knows? Maybe Kevin had an entirely different idea. I only wish he had lived long enough to discuss it with him.

Kevin stuck around after my LaRouche series was finished. He was as knowledgeable about culture as he was about politics. His take on a documentary about the underground filmmaker Barbara Rubin demonstrated his erudition:

It’s really a tremendous film with an amazing sound track among other things. Fans of the Velvet Underground owe it to see the film as do fans of Dylan. But mostly it’s so well edited and the narrative flows beautifully. Because Jonas Mekas was a pack rat, their letters are great, and his reading of his memorial obit for her is particularly touching. It’s a minor masterpiece in its way and it does capture quite well the sense of burn out (a lot of it self-inflicted through drugs — speed in particular) that took over large sections of the counter-culture movement. The scenes at the farm, which was supposed to be the great escape, are especially telling.

Same thing with music. He shared my enthusiasm for the Ken Burns Country Music series on PBS:

I watched almost the whole series on PBS and it’s all great IMO. I can’t say I’ve become a fan of country music in general just as I’m not going to become a fan of rap or heavy metal, but within all these genres there are brilliant songs and artists. I don’t like “rap” but Nas’s Illmatic is one of the greatest albums ever made. I don’t like heavy metal but AC/DC can do no wrong.

I now feel the same way about Hank Williams after watching the series. (I always like Johnny Cash, who really centers the entire Burns’ film.) I got to understand why Kris Kristofferson is the Bob Dylan of country music and why Willie Nelson is such an interesting artist. I still don’t quite get George Jones but it’s my fault, not his.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Burns series is the bond between Bob Dylan and the “folk scene” revival and its overlap into country music. Burns shows this through Dylan and Cash’s friendship. He also shows that bluegrass was dying before it got revived again on college campuses, in part based on “Dueling Banjos.”

I was so excited that I listened again to “Nashville Highway,” which I remember really hating when it first came out.

Listened again and it still sucked.

As for Haggard, there is a great scene in the series where someone says about the line about “we don’t smoke dope in Muskogee” that Haggard when he wrote that line was a huge pot smoker.

The Burns series is really great and minus the sappiness that can weigh him down. The line writing is phenomenal and Coyote’s narration is perfect as always. For me, it’s the best thing he has ever done by far. I learned so much from it.

Like me, Kevin went through a traumatic experience as a LaRouche cult member, just as I was left with practically a case of PTSD after 11 years in the SWP. He was a highly adroit analyst of the “Leninist” illness as this comment on the dissolution of the ISO bears out:

It strikes me that a lot of these sects, like the Labor Committee, were held together by the delusional belief that the members were some morally superior vanguard out to save the world and enlighten the masses with their profound wisdom. In that sense, I don’t see much of a difference sociologically between these vanguard sects and messianic church fundamentalists who created their own little churches with their own “correct” interpretation of sacred texts, by they from Marx or the Book of Mormon.

I can’t help but think that Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity view of religion was reborn in a secular form in the countless cult/sects. The difference in them is that some of them are very nasty (LaRouche/Healy), some of them are bureaucrat nasty (Barnes), some of them are boringly benign and then turn nasty (ISO), and some of them are really off the wall (LaRouche taking first prize honors on that one at least among the Trotsky line).

Decades ago Janja Lalich wrote a very interesting study of the cult/sect she was trapped in for years called the Democratic Workers Party led by Marlene Dixon that is well worth reading in this context. Also Alexandria Stein’s book Inside Out on her really unreal life in a Maoist sect in Minnesota. Her book is truly astonishing in its mix of Kafka and Orwell and Mao.

In my view what makes all these sect/cults chug along is the narcissism of the members who elect to stay year after dreadful year and who believe that by being in the sect/cult (the boundaries are fuzzy and one can bleed into the other) they are members of the “elect” and that ego puff makes them stay when it is clear that they are just treading water at best. At worst, they contribute decades of unpaid “surplus labor” to the group to keep “leadership” in top rate booze as with Dixon or they serve as a vanity press for the likes of a LaRouche or a Healy. They do so because somehow they believe their very “sacrifice” for “the struggle” makes them better than everyone else. There is definitely a symbiotic relationship. Again, I am sure you could find parallels in different Christian sects. Both derive psychological benefits even if it it all emotional junk food.

In a relatively benign sect, who cares? I am guessing that News and Letters will go on forever and a day rather like the last followers of Daniel De Leon whom I met in NYC in the 1980s. But when they turn nasty, they can become a real problem. However in 99.99% of the time they turn nasty towards their own followers and none of this has any impact in the world outside the cult. So no one notices. Of course, as the sects/cults with a “Leninist” frame have a far easier time suppressing dissent. I would say the key difference between a sect and a cult is the degree of internal democracy and transparency (including financial transparency). Sects are transparent and operate more democratically; cults do not. Hence you can start out a sect and morph into a cult but it is almost never the case that it works the other way round.

In any case, there is an obvious sociology/psychology of all these groups that has nothing to do with “correct” or “incorrect” interpretations of Marxist or Christian scripture and a lot to do with issues of personal identity. Over time, most people in these sects wise up and get out but some of them simply transfer their loyalty to a different sect to find the same mental reward. Or they go from serf in one sect to boss in another.

The last comment posted by Kevin appeared on February 22nd, just 12 days before he died.

However, I did hear from him through email on February 14th since he wanted to share some chapters for a book he had worked on years ago about Karl Marx and racism but abandoned. He had the same take as me on Friedrich Sorge’s racism that I analyzed in a CounterPunch article:

Hi Louis,

Some years ago, I began a huge project on Marx and the 19th century. Although my main interest was in the “Great Game” involving England, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire (Marx was a Turkophile), I did get diverted into the Marx/race issue. One reason is that one centerpiece of my study was Marx’s totally obscure book Herr Vogt. Karl Vogt was a leading scientific racist as well as an 1848 revolutionary.

In a way, this project ironically mimicked Capital, which Marx basically gave up after Volume One. I gave up for a lot of reasons, including my belief that I was writing for a Left that no longer existed. The deeper I got, the more I felt this stuff was simply too esoteric for a movement whose intellectual depth was like an inch deep. It just became too big and too depressing.

In any case, here are three draft sections from the book. The first is on Marx and the South and the debates over slavery. I think Marx is awful, but he does evolve a bit from the nadir which is in the 1840s-1850s. But he is terrible.

I also began research into Engels and I spent a bit of time in Manchester. I was trying to find out more about his firm Ermen and Engels. They were a cotton textile firm and Engels was supported in a way by black slave labor as the firm got its cotton from the South. At one point, Engels was even supposed to visit New Orleans.

The second section is on the 1848 radicals and how some of them backed the South. It goes to my investigation of Karl Vogt, a key ideologue of scientific racism and a mentor of Agassiz if I can even remember what I wrote. IN my book, I write as a historian and not a cheerleader. Nor did I find much to cheer about. I entered the project inspired by Hal Draper. At the end, I was amazed at how Draper could write five books and Marx comes out as the hero every time. It felt preposterous.

Section three is on a weird French racial writer who believed geography is destiny that Marx liked and Engels rightly thought was crazy.

Anyway, it’s been over a decade since I abandoned the project as it had grown so massive that it was crushing me for no real purpose that I could see except bringing me down while further isolating me. But I’m sending you these excerpts. If nothing else, I have a lot of great sources in the footnotes.

Again, I have not looked at all this for over a decade. I have no idea if I can defend everything I wrote and I’m also sending you first drafts. Don’t read it as an argument; just read it for background. Frankly, when I was copying sections of it, I could not even remember writing some of them. But I can see from your interest in this topic that there may be leads or suggestions that you might find worthwhile.



I am sure that you will find these three chapters as interesting as everything else Kevin ever wrote.

1) Marx Racism 2) Marx Racism 3) Marx Racism

Finally, I have gone through all of the posts that Kevin commented on and categorized them as Kevin Coogan. They all make for great reading, Kevin’s comments and not necessarily my posts!

He will sorely be missed.

February 21, 2020

Encountering Malcolm X

Filed under: Black nationalism,Counterpunch,Kevin Coogan,socialism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm


Watching the six-part documentary “Who Killed Malcolm X?” on Netflix stirred up powerful memories of how important he was to my political evolution. While the documentary is focused on exploring the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) role in his murder, it also sheds light on Malcolm’s post-NOI political odyssey. By creating a rival movement to the pseudo-Islamist sect, he risked a fatal encounter with four assassins on this date fifty-five years ago at the Audubon Ballroom in New York.

Just six weeks before his death, I heard Malcolm X speak at the Palm Gardens in New York. I went with my girlfriend Dian, who was on midterm break from Bard College, just like me. I remember taking a seat about ten rows from the podium and being perplexed by the five or so leaflets on the chair that advertised rallies or meetings geared to radicals. Although I was much more of an existentialist liberal a la Camus in 1965, I was eager to hear Malcolm speak. Little did I know at the time that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a sect I would join two years later, organized the meeting. The Trotskyists placed leaflets on the chairs to draw people closer to the party, an approach that the Internet would supersede just as Facebook would supersede the mimeograph machine.

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November 29, 2019

The Irishman

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,Film,Kevin Coogan,trade unions — louisproyect @ 3:51 pm


Two days ago, I received a DVD for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” that lets me off the hook. I will be nominating it for best film of 2019, with it even edging out some of the foreign language films I prefer. (The overhyped Korean film “Parasite” does not make the grade.) The title refers to Frank Sheeran, an Irish-American Teamster official with mob connections who confessed to killing Jimmy Hoffa. Robert De Niro plays Sheeran and Al Pacino plays Hoffa. Rounding out the major roles is Joe Pesci, who retired from acting in 1999. Scorsese and De Niro persuaded him to play Russ Bufalino, the mob boss whose brother Bill was the lead attorney for the Teamster’s union. These characters and just about every other featured in the film were historical figures. As is generally the case with Scorsese’s flicks about real people such as Jake LaMotta, Howard Hughes, et al., you’ll find few major fictional characters.

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November 21, 2019

Dining on the Impossible Burger

Filed under: Ecology,food,Kevin Coogan,socialism — louisproyect @ 10:01 pm

Fake meat about to be enjoyed by real people

This week I picked up a couple of 12 ounce packages of Impossible Burger from Fairway in order to see what fake meat tastes like. I was motivated not just out of curiosity as a food lover but to gauge its potential role in resolving the ecological crisis caused by cattle ranching. There’s a certain irony in buying “Green” products from a grocery chain owned by Blackstone. According to The Intercept, its CEO Stephen Schwarzman is a driving force behind deforestation:

Two Brazilian firms owned by a top donor to President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are significantly responsible for the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest, carnage that has developed into raging fires that have captivated global attention.

The companies have wrested control of land, deforested it, and helped build a controversial highway to their new terminal in the one-time jungle, all to facilitate the cultivation and export of grain and soybeans. The shipping terminal at Miritituba, deep in the Amazon in the Brazilian state of Pará, allows growers to load soybeans on barges, which will then sail to a larger port before the cargo is shipped around the world.

The Amazon terminal is run by Hidrovias do Brasil, a company that is owned in large part by Blackstone, a major U.S. investment firm. Another Blackstone company, Pátria Investimentos, owns more than 50 percent of Hidrovias, while Blackstone itself directly owns an additional roughly 10 percent stake. Blackstone co-founder and CEO Stephen Schwarzman is a close ally of Trump and has donated millions of dollars to McConnell in recent years.

I left it up to my sister-in-law to use the Impossible Burger in a Turkish dish. Originally, she was going to make kofte (Turkish hamburger) but it turned out to be too fragile, falling apart in her hands when she was making paddies. Instead, she made something that amounted to a flat meatloaf that she never cooked before. To my surprise, it was delicious.

Up until about five years ago, I used to eat Amy’s Veggie Burgers 2 or 3 times a week for lunch. I cut it out for health reasons. How can a veggie burger be unhealthy, you must be asking. Well, it wasn’t the burger but the two slices of bread that surrounded it. Dealing with a prediabetic condition at the time, I resolved to cut down on the amount of carbohydrates I took in and this was a good place to start. As for Amy’s, I didn’t have any problems with the taste but nobody could possibly confuse it with meat.

In a 23-page article in The New Yorker on Pat Brown, the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods (he has plans to replicate chicken and fish down the road), we learn that the special ingredient that makes his laboratory beef taste like the real thing is something called heme. Tad Friend, the author of the article, explains why:

Brown assembled a team of scientists, who approached simulating a hamburger as if it were the Apollo program. They made their burger sustainable: the Impossible Burger requires eighty-seven per cent less water and ninety-six per cent less land than a cowburger, and its production generates eighty-nine per cent less G.H.G. emissions. They made it nutritionally equal to or superior to beef. And they made it look, smell, and taste very different from the customary veggie replacement. Impossible’s breakthrough involves a molecule called heme, which the company produces in tanks of genetically modified yeast. Heme helps an Impossible Burger remain pink in the middle as it cooks, and it replicates how heme in cow muscle catalyzes the conversion of simple nutrients into the molecules that give beef its yeasty, bloody, savory flavor.

Brown’s main competitor is a company called Beyond Meat that does not use heme, which is based on genetically modified yeast. Both Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group have attacked the use of heme due to their stance against GMO. Beyond Meat does not use heme but that does not prevent it from running a close second behind Impossible in a taste test:

If you pass by a Dunkin’ Donuts, you’ll notice that they are selling a hamburger using Beyond Meat, as does Carl’s Jr. and A&W. When an old friend noticed that it was being sold in Dunkin’ Donuts, he bought a fair amount of shares since he saw this as the wave of the future. My friend took advantage of Beyond’s I.P.O. in May, which was the most successful of the year. The stock skyrocketed up by more than five hundred per cent. All in all, this is a real magnet for venture capitalists who have noticed that sales of plant-based meat in restaurants nearly quadrupled last year.

This year Verso published a book by Aaron Bastani titled “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” that took an almost Panglossian view of the future based on the idea that technology will virtually make capitalism outmoded. Among his tech-fixes is fake meat. In a NYT op-ed timed to the release of his book, he sung its praises:

The first “cultured beef” burgers are likely to enter the market next year, at approximately $50 each. But that won’t last long. Within a decade they will probably be more affordable than even the cheapest barbecue staples of today — all for a product that uses fewer resources, produces negligible greenhouse gases and, remarkably, requires no animals to die.

Actually, the young optimist is being a bit pessimistic. I paid $18 for a pound and a half of Impossible Burger and it was enough to feed 5 people.

He does have a point about the ecological implications of real beef versus what we ate. Farming uses more water than any other human activity, with a third of that devoted to cattle. Tad Friend writes, “One-third of the world’s arable land is used to grow feed for livestock, which are responsible for 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Razing forests to graze cattle—an area larger than South America has been cleared in the past quarter century—turns a carbon sink into a carbon spigot.”

By comparison, the Impossible Burger needs eighty-seven per cent less water and ninety-six per cent less land than the real thing, mostly devoted to growing soybeans, a key ingredient. It also generates eighty-nine per cent less greenhouse gas emissions. Cows produce huge amounts of methane, which traps 25 times more heat than carbon. (It is not the product of farting but burping.)

It is also important to consider the role of real meat in your personal health as opposed to the health of the planet. It is associated with heart disease and cancer. According to Friend, a recent Finnish study found that, across a twenty-two-year span, devoted meat-eaters were twenty-three per cent more likely to die. Even more frightening, “Because antibiotics are routinely mixed into pig and cattle and poultry feed to protect and fatten the animals, animal ag promotes antibiotic resistance, which is projected to cause ten million deaths a year by 2050.” That’s not to speak of avian and swine flus that pass easily to humans via the aerosolized feces ubiquitous to slaughterhouses. University of Minnesota researchers found fecal matter in sixty-nine per cent of pork and ninety-two per cent of poultry, while Consumer Reports found it in a hundred per cent of ground beef. Nice.

Of course, it is hard to make the case that Impossible Burgers made from soybeans are particularly good for you. If Beyond Meat comes in a close second, it does come in first in healthiness since it is made of peas, mung beans, and brown rice. You’re probably better off eating broccoli and lentils for dinner but you might grow weary of that kind of diet after a while. Been there, done that.

Tad Friend mentions another technology that is animal based but not agricultural in nature. Thirty-three companies are working on a substitute for beef by using animal cells to grow meat in vats. He writes:

The cell-based approach may eventually provide meat using a tiny fraction of the land and water that livestock use. And, if companies can figure out how to grow cells on a scaffolding of mushroom or celery, or arrange them using a 3-D printer (and also surmount issues with vascularization and oxygen diffusion), they’ll have solved the defining challenge for meat replacements: building a sturdy approximation of muscle, fat, and connective tissue to produce full cuts of meat and fish. Mike Selden, of Finless Foods, told me, “Where Impossible stops is where Finless starts. They’re limited to ground products, and we’ll be able to make sashimi and fillets.”

All of this is very intriguing but I am left with the same old question that also applies to the Green New Deal. What good do these “alternative” energy or food sources do when the capitalist system is militating against their adoption. Pat Brown told the New Yorker that he hopes to see cattle-ranching become obsolete by 2050. That would be nice but with everything else falling apart by then, we’d still be facing ruin. It is not just cattle that is impinging on rainforests. It is farming as well, including the production of soybeans that are essential to Impossible Burger.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx called for the reintegration of the city and the countryside so as to overcome the “metabolic rift”. Something like that will ultimately be necessary for a sustainable agriculture. To make that happen will require an all-out assault on the capitalist system. Who knows? By the time we reach 2050, the conditions for worldwide socialist revolution will ripen to the point of making such dreams possible.

October 12, 2019

Country Music

Filed under: Film,Kevin Coogan,music — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

Many people associate country music with those whom Hillary Clinton called “deplorables” or those Obama characterized as clinging to their guns and religion. I felt that way myself until I got to Houston in 1973 and began listening to country music driving to work each day. This was before the two country stations had become commercialized and unlistenable just as is the case with NYC’s WNSH (as in Nashville). You could hear Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, and even classics from Hank Williams in each and every hour. It also helped that my best friend in Houston, the late Nelson Blackstock, was an avid country music fan with a large collection. The two of us used to go hear Asleep at the Wheel whenever they were in town. This was a Western Swing band that played in the style of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. It was led by Ray Benson, a Jew from Philadelphia who Nelson adored.

Recently I had the opportunity to watch three different documentaries on country music. Two are films opening in N.Y. this week and the other was an episode from Ken Burns’s Country Music series on PBS that is being streamed for the benefit of people not living in the USA. All are a pleasure to watch and will help you get some perspective on a type of music that, like jazz, can be regarded as a national treasure.

If you’ve seen “Walk the Line”, the very good biopic about Johnny Cash, you’ll be familiar with the broad outlines of “The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash”, especially since his story is so well-known. His drug problems, his meteoric rise to fame, his marriage to June Carter, and his identification with the underdog are no secret. But what makes this documentary so special is the extraordinary range of figures in the music world who were close to Cash, including Rick Rubin, the record producer responsible for his last albums, including the one with his heart-rending version of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt”.

The biopic glosses over an important part of Cash’s struggles, namely his inability to line up record contracts in the 2000s as a result of his drug-induced unreliability and changing tastes. The records Rubin produced made Cash a star once again and helped him go out on a high note with young fans embracing him.

The technique of the film is interesting. Director Thom Zimny, who has a long history making shorts with Bruce Springsteen, got his hands on an audio recording of Cash towards the end of his life and uses it as a voice-over for most of the scenes depicted in the film. Without that voice-over, it would still be a very good movie but having it makes it great.

A lot of Zimny’s film will be a revelation for most of us. It turns out that Cash was a strong supporter of indigenous rights and defied prejudices in the industry in a struggle to make sure that the songs got heard on country stations. When he ran into resistance, he paid for a full-page ad in Billboard explaining why the issue was so important to him. Two years ago, after the fascists marched in Charlottesville, Cash’s children were horrified to learn that one of them was seen a news clip wearing a Johnny Cash t-shirt. Billboard covered the story in an article titled “Johnny Cash’s Family Condemns White Supremacist: Read Cash’s 1964 Letter to Radio Stations” that will give a good idea of how important Cash was in using popular culture to change minds.

The children of late country legend Johnny Cash remember their father as a peaceful social justice advocate. So when video footage of the neo-Nazi rallies that broke out in Charlottesville over the weekend captured one white supremacist in a Johnny Cash t-shirt, the singer’s daughter, Roseanne Cash, spoke out.

“[Johnny Cash] would be horrified at even a casual use of his name or image for an idea or a cause founded in persecution and hatred. The white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville are poison in our society, and an insult to every American hero who wore a uniform to fight the Nazis in WWII,” Roseanne wrote in an emotional Facebook post also signed by Kathy, Cindy and Tara Cash.

“The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash” opened yesterday at Cinema Village in NY and will open at the Laemmle in LA on October 25th.

“Fiddlin’” opens at the Cinema Village on October 18th and at the Laemmle in LA on the same day. Directed by Julie Simone and produced by her sister Vicki Vlasic, the film consists of performances by and interviews with some of the best “old timey” musicians in the USA. Perhaps the term “old timey” may not ring a bell with you. In a nutshell, it is the guitar, banjo and fiddle based music that the settlers of the Appalachian mountains developed in the 19th century, bringing their traditions from the British isles with them. Since the banjo originated in Africa, there is little question about old timey music being the first to bring Black and whites together culturally.

We hear from the musicians at a yearly fiddler’s competition in Galax, Virginia. The film has a seamless transition between performance and background on the musicians through interviews. One of the things we learn from them is that bluegrass evolved out of old timey music in the same way that bebop evolved out of swing bands. Old timey music is basically ensemble music while bluegrass, which was pioneered by Bill Monroe in the 1940s, allowed for virtuoso performances by soloists. There is little doubt that bluegrass had a lot more commercial possibilities as Monroe and other stars signed lucrative record deals with RCA et al. It seems like at least 3 out 4 of the performers at Galax had day jobs as welders, carpenters, guitar makers, housewives, etc. They play the music because they love it. After you’ve seen this very appealing film, you’ll understand why.

Some of you might remember Tony Thomas, an African-Leader of the SWP. After leaving the party, he began devoting most of his time to playing the banjo and studying the African-American role in making this instrument part of the old timey heritage. This video should be of interest:

So should this one:

I am sure Tony would disagree with me but I think this endeavor will count for a lot more than his sectarian political career.

Ken Burns’s “Country Music” follows the same formula as the series he did on jazz but is much better since it does not rely on the questionable input of Black neoconservative Stanley Crouch. The research on this new series was done by Dayton Duncan, a longtime collaborator. Whatever qualms I had about Burns in the past were abandoned because of his work on the documentary “The Central Park Five” alongside his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon. This film was more than social commentary. Like the HBO documentaries on the West Memphis Three who were falsely accused of Satanic ritual murders of cub scouts, Ken and his team helped to build the movement to free the young men who were victims of the same kind of hysteria.

I saw episode 5, titled “The Sons and Daughters of America (1964 – 1968)”, of “Country Music” that can be seen for free here.  (Episodes 1 through 3 are behind a paywall.)

Like the Johnny Cash documentary, it is graced by a terrific array of musicologists and musicians who know the history well. Special mention must be made of Dwight Yoakam, the country and western singer who has also acted in a number of films, including being cast as a true “deplorable” in Billie Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade”.

When he started out, Yoakam insisted on playing “honky tonk” music rather than the horrible commercialized Nashville sound you hear on country stations today. This is the kind of music Hank Williams made and is to the white working-class of the 40s and 50s what the blues were to their Black co-workers. Of course, what makes is all so interesting is the interaction between black and white in the early stages of the music, just as was the case with Appalachia’s old timey sounds.

Episode 1 of the series begins with Jimmy Rodgers, the white railroad worker born in 1897 who virtually invented country music in the same way that Louis Armstrong invented jazz. Rodgers used a guitar to back up his blues yodeling. Rodgers influenced African-American blues musicians but he likely never would have developed his unique style without being open to the Black sounds all around him growing up in the Deep South.

Episode 5 is set against the turmoil of the sixties and shows how in addition to Johnny Cash taking up the cause of native Americans, women performers began to confront the sexist conventions of the industry that allowed male stars to always refer to someone like strong women like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn as “little girls” on the Grand Old Opry and other shows.

The best part is devoted to Merle Haggard, who raised the hackles of antiwar activists because of his pro-war hit “Okee from Muskogee” that begins:

We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our trips on LSD
We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street
We like livin’ right, and bein’ free

Years later, Haggard said, “It was the photograph that I took of the way things looked through the eyes of a fool… and most of America was under the same assumptions I was. As it’s stayed around now for 40 years, I sing the song now with a different attitude onstage. … I’ve become educated. I play it now with a different projection. It’s a different song now. I’m different now.”

Politically, Haggard is just as estimable as Johnny Cash. He will go down in musical history as the bard of the American working-class. Born in a railroad car and penniless for his entire youth, Haggard decided to try to make a life in music since he saw that a life of crime was leading him to an early death. At San Quentin, he became a model prisoner and just after his parole became a superstar in short order.

This is Haggard at his best.


October 1, 2019

Follow the Money

Filed under: Kevin Coogan,Syria — louisproyect @ 12:14 am

A shadowy group that supports Syrian dictator Bashar-al Assad is giving thousands of dollars to far-right activists, conspiracy websites, YouTube personalities, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — all under the guise of an award for “uncompromised integrity in journalism.”

The Association for Investment in Popular Action Committees, an umbrella nonprofit based in the San Francisco Bay area, ostensibly exists to raise awareness of “social justice issues that are key to sustainable world peace.” In practice, that has meant bolstering public support for the Assad regime, which has rewarded the group and one of its main fronts, the Syria Solidarity Movement, with visas and access to top officials in Damascus.

The association is now rewarding its fellow travelers, a number of whom joined its treasurer at a state-sponsored conference this month, addressed personally by Bashar al-Assad, to promote “solidarity with the workers and people of Syria.”

“The Serena Shim Award for Uncompromised Integrity in Journalism honors non-mainstream journalists who continue to tell challenging truths in difficult times,” states a website the group set up. The award is named after a U.S. woman who worked for Press TV, an Iranian government television outlet, and died in a 2014 car accident while reporting from Turkey. “The funds provided by this Award enable these courageous journalists to continue their work in an environment that penalizes them for their clarity of vision and willingness to expose the powerful,” the award website states.

While obscure, and not to be confused with the “AIPAC” that supports the state of Israel, the association behind this latest journalism award made headlines for their generosity just last year, when former Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich disclosed that he’d been paid $20,000 to speak at a 2017 pro-Assad conference in the United Kingdom. Kucinich was running for governor at the time of the admission, which helped cost him the race.

“On the campaign trail Dennis has refused to condemn Assad,” former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat, said at the time. “What we now know goes further. Dennis wasn’t just defending Assad out of conviction, he was also being paid by a group that has been a vocal cheerleader for this murderous dictator.

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September 7, 2019

The Unrepentant Marxist’s years at Bard College

Filed under: bard college,Kevin Coogan — louisproyect @ 3:44 pm

This is from the unpublished comic book I did with Harvey Pekar intended for a “Bard in the 60s and 70s” Facebook group I belong to. It is being posted according to Fair Use laws that permit brief excerpts of copyright material to be quoted verbatim for purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching, and research, without the need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder.

August 20, 2019

Quentin Tarantino, Eileen Jones, and the perils of film school theorizing

Filed under: Academia,Film,Kevin Coogan — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Eileen Jones

The first inkling I got that Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was grist for the university film department mill was a comment by FB friend Greg Burris:

So I was thinking about the film. DiCaprio’s character is the linchpin. He’s a mess, full of doubt and loathing and insecurity. But he has two doubles full of confidence and alpha-white male security. The first double is his screen persona, and we clearly see the difference between his pathetic self and his macho alter-ego in the scene where he keeps forgetting his lines. When he is in character, he is bold and strong, but when he breaks character, his nervous stutter returns. DiCaprio’s second double is Brad Pitt’s character–the working class hero. Nothing fazes him. Not even Bruce Lee! Pitt is like a 1969 version of his character from FIGHT CLUB. He is the macho, suave, uncomplicated, masculine ideal–a mythic image required by both films’ neurotic protagonists (Norton in one, DiCaprio in the other).

It continues in this vein, top-heavy with interpretation but very little effort made in judging the film as either art or entertainment. When I read his post four days ago, I made a mental note to myself that he must be either a film student or a film professor. Going back just now to retrieve his post, I discovered that I guessed right. He teaches at the American University in Lebanon, with his web page stating that he “a film and cultural theorist whose work focuses on race, media, and emancipatory politics, particularly in the context of the U.S. Black freedom movement and the Palestinian liberation struggle.”

I had no plans to mention him in this post but when I spotted a FB link to Eileen Jones’s article on Tarantino’s film on Jacobin in the same vein, I decided to offer some thoughts on the kind of approach both film professors take (she is a lecturer at UC Berkeley) especially when some potshots I took at her this morning aggravated Ron Cox, a political science professor who must have felt defensive about my admittedly rude remark about academic film theory:

Another reason to hate Jacobin. What its resident film critic Eileen Jones has to say about the Sharon Tate character in Tarantino’s latest. The ecstatic representation of utopian possibility? You can only write such bullshit when you have a job as a lecturer on film at UC Berkeley:

She’s the ecstatic representation of utopian possibility that Tarantino depicts opening up both American films and American life as a result of social upheaval. She’s the magical being in the fairy tale Tarantino underscores with the “Once Upon a Time . . .” title, which is also an homage to Sergio Leone’s cinematically groundbreaking Spaghetti Westerns.

Ron remonstrated with me:

A lot of people I know, who live and work far away from the university, love this film, for many of the same reasons expressed by the critic. I tend to agree with her, though I liked David Edelstein’s review better. With all due respect to you, Louis, not every one who disagrees with you is a shill or tool of institutional conformity. I like a lot of what you write, but disagree with just about everything you said about this film. I judge a film based on how I feel when I watch it. That means: am I “into it” or not, and then I try to strip out everything else, including what other people said about it. I was “into this” all the way through. Loved it.

I told Ron that he is entitled to be “into” Tarantino’s film. As I tried to make clear in my review, I was “into” “Inglourious Bastards” and every other film he made up to that point. My reviews are not intended to warn people off from Hollywood films, for that matter. I usually go the entire year ignoring them until November when I get a batch of screeners from publicists to influence my vote in the NYFCO awards meeting in December. Up until that point, my reviews are heavily focused on documentaries, foreign-language films and American indie films that tend to be neglected.

Let me now turn to Jones’s article that will allow me to make some basic points about film journalism. To start with, it has to be said that Jacobin is an academic journal in many ways even though it is not behind a JSTOR paywall. Like Jones, most of its contributors are either professors or grad students. Of the five featured articles on the Jacobin website right now, four have been written by academics and the fifth is by Meagan Day, a Jacobin staff writer. (That does not included Jones’s article that appeared on August 6th.)

Titled “Go Ahead, Take the Adventure of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood”, Jones’s article is a defense of Tarantino’s film against the attack made by people on the left, including The New Yorker Magazine’s Richard Brody who Jones quotes: “If only the old-line Hollywood people of the fifties and sixties had maintained their pride of place — if only the times hadn’t changed, if only the keys to the kingdom hadn’t been handed over to the freethinkers and decadents of the sixties—-then both Hollywood and the world would be a better, safer, happier place.”

In my own review, I did not try to judge the film’s politics since that is a fool’s errand when it comes to Tarantino. Brody’s review was not nearly as vitriolic as that of the unnamed critic cited at the beginning of her review who reviled it as “just another white man’s nostalgia film.” As it happens, that’s just a made-up quote by Jones. You can’t find any review with such a formulation. In fact, of the 15 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes who deemed the film “rotten”, not a single one attacked it from the left, including mine. For example, Gary Kramer of the left-leaning Salon (even if slightly) complained mostly about the violent ending that was “more graphic and over-the-top than it needs to be.”

One can understand why Burris and Jones would find so much grist to chew over in this film since the subject matter is film itself. It draws a distinction between the classic Hollywood westerns and a new era that is marked by the arrival of Roman Polanski, who lives next door to the has-been actor Rick Dalton, played by Leo DiCaprio. Here’s Jones sinking her teeth into the film metanarrative:

The same turmoil that’s diminishing Rick’s fame is creating opportunities for upcoming stars like his next-door neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and European new wave talent like her husband, Polish director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), whose hit film Rosemary’s Baby has taken Hollywood by storm. There’s a certain controversy about the way Tarantino conceived the third lead role of Sharon Tate, with its relative lack of dialogue. But the character of Sharon is key to the impact of the film. She’s the ecstatic representation of utopian possibility that Tarantino depicts opening up both American films and American life as a result of social upheaval. She’s the magical being in the fairy tale Tarantino underscores with the “Once Upon a Time . . .” title, which is also an homage to Sergio Leone’s cinematically groundbreaking Spaghetti Westerns.

Since Tarantino was six years old in 1969, I am not sure he understood the period well enough to represent his Sharon Tate character as “the ecstatic representation of utopian possibility…opening up both American films and American life as a result of social upheaval.” That sounds much more like Jones’s projection of her own analysis on a inkblot test of a movie that most critics regard as more ambiguous than Tarantino’s usual fare. As for Jones, who was probably born after 1969, you have to wonder what gave her the idea that “social upheaval” had anything to do with Sharon Tate. I am reasonably confident in describing Tate as the typical Hollywood starlet who would end up seated next to Johnny Carson talking about her next film as opposed, for example, to Jane Fonda or Jean Seberg who took courageous stands in favor of peace and Black liberation that very year.

For that matter, Tarantino has a squirm-inducing scene in which Tate shows up at a theater showing her latest film and inveigling free admission from the ticket clerk and manager since she is in the film. She sits in the audience enthralled with her scene in the movie. If you extracted this 10 minute portion of the film and showed it to people who knew nothing about Tarantino, they’d probably conclude that they were watching a complete airhead.

It is difficult to pin down what Tarantino was trying to say about American society or film, a function of his knack for writing screenplays that come from the gut rather than the brain. Given the ambiguity of this latest film and its filmic subject matter, it will likely be discussed in film departments all across the country when the fall term begins.

Ambiguity is made to order for film theorists. In 1930, William Empson wrote a book titled “Seven Types of Ambiguity” that became a handbook of New Criticism. Poems were not studied to see what made them work as art but what hidden message they concealed. New Criticism was made to order for modernist poetry with TS Eliot, WB Yeats and Ezra Pound offering up works that defied easy explanations of the sort offered for Samuel Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Even if New Criticism no longer enjoys the hegemony it once had in the literary world, its precepts seem to have been adopted wholesale by film theorists.

Pop Culture is especially made to order for the leftwing film theorist since its hidden meanings might be excavated in order to raise social consciousness about the class struggle dagger concealed in the velvet glove. With millions eventually going to see “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, just imagine the impact the film will have on the uninitiated if the buried meaning Jones mines from it is true:

Such lively film history do-overs have had a pop kinship with left-wing cinema since the 1920s, when Soviet filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov sought to demonstrate as kinetically as possible how films could imaginatively manipulate representations of contemporary as well as historical reality, in part to show its malleability and embolden a revolutionary vision of the world. This new take on 1969 in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, which emphasizes the opening up of radical possibilities instead of closing them down, helps us reflect on the way we’ve received that landmark bit of history through media up to now. And it evokes our own discouraging state of affairs in 2019, also a time of stubborn stasis resisting immense turmoil in the culture, as well as what looks like bad prospects for the survival of the movie industry.

Grouping Tarantino with revolutionary Russian filmmakers of the 1920s is utter nonsense. Eisenstein and Vertov made films that championed socialism. They never would have worked for someone like Harvey Weinstein. Jones says that “this new take on 1969” opened up radical possibilities rather than closing them down. Really? In the final scene, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) takes a woman in Manson’s gang and bashes her head against a brick wall until her brains spill out while Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio) uses a flame-thrower on another. Is this supposed to represent “radical possibilities”?

In Bhaskar Sunkara’s “The Socialist Manifesto”, the radical movement of the 1960s is covered in a single page out of 400. The idea that a contributor to Jacobin can extract some sort of radicalism out of a Tarantino film that is a mixture of nostalgia and hyper-violence is another sign of the magazine’s myopia. I can’t imagine what these people think about 1969. At least when I was their age, I was fortunate enough to listen carefully to what people like Farrell Dobbs and George Novack said about the 30s. They, after all, lived through it.

All I was expecting out of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was a good time. Judging by the 90 percent empty seats in the Cineplex I attended, I suspect the word-of-mouth is not that great.

Let me be brief about my own approach to film journalism. For me, the screenplay is essential. I hearken back to Aristotle’s “Poetics”: “The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place.” What is the plot in Tarantino’s film? For the better part of two hours, a couple of Hollywood professionals sit around reminiscing about the good old days. Afterward, one of them runs into a member of Manson’s cult who takes him out to the ranch where they are based. Suspicious of the “hippies”, he checks in on the old man who it belongs to that he knows from the days when he worked as a stunt man on films made there. In the final fifteen minutes of the film, he smokes an LSD-laced joint and gets stoned. In such a state, he still manages to get the best of 3 Mansonites who have barged into Rick Dalton’s house rather than Polanski’s next door. That’s about it.

As for Aristotle’s emphasis on character, there’s virtually none of it outside his two leading men. Maybe there was more of it in the offing in the original script. According to the actor who played Charles Manson, “He did cut quite a lot out of the film. The stuff I got to do in that was lighter and more of a fun tone…” Manson? Fun tone? Maybe it was just as well it was left out.

As I said in my CounterPunch review, not a single character other than the two male leads has any kind of substance. The Manson cult is lacking in character development, except for the under-age nymphet that the stunt man drives out to the ranch. Even in her case, she is monotonically offering up her body to him like a sex robot they use in Japan.

Jones is not bothered by the insubstantiality of Manson’s character: “Tarantino’s Manson makes only the briefest appearance early on near the Tate-Polanski house, looking for Terry Melcher, but he haunts the film via the periodic reappearances of his followers acting on his instructions as they thread their own dark way through the narrative.” This is deeply problematic. In “Inglourious Basterds”, the counterpart to Manson is a Nazi officer played by Christof Waltz who is essential to the film. His sneering, self-justifying but always captivating manner is the perfect foil for the band of heroes who, unlike Cliff Booth, know exactly what their goal is—to save humanity, not just drive off hippie home invaders.

Once Tarantino decided on this plot, he might have found himself out of his depth. To turn the Manson cult into flesh-and-blood human beings rather than grotesque monsters would be a real challenge. If I had written the screenplay, I would have spent a lot less time with the camera trained on the nearly homoerotic bonding between Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The film would have gained a lot from showing exactly how Manson was able to turn women into his willing slaves through his warped charisma. By elevating him into a more significant figure, the final showdown might have had more power. But that’s just me. I’m not a Hollywood screenwriter, only a blogger. I prefer it that way since I would never want to make the kind of films The Weinstein Company produced, no matter the pay.

August 16, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Kevin Coogan — louisproyect @ 4:11 pm


After being sorely disappointed by Quentin Tarantino’s last two films— “The Hateful Eight” and “Django Unchained” —I decided to wait for a studio screener of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” in November. This is when I customarily get freebies from studio publicists hoping to influence my vote in NYFCO’s awards meeting in early December. But when I discovered that the film had antagonized some people on the left, I decided to get a senior’s ticket to see for myself what was going on.

Tarantino has the distinction of being the only filmmaker whose entire corpus I have seen. Since he has made only 8 films in the past 27 years, that’s a relatively easy task. Unlike Woody Allen, who churns films out like they were made on an assembly line, Tarantino takes his time. As for time itself, you can say that it erodes the talents of even the greatest artists. In the case of Hollywood legends like Woody and Quentin, the erosion process combines with their control of every aspect of film production to degrade the quality of the product. Who would dare say anything about the Emperor’s New Clothes?

After Tarantino left The Weinstein Company in the aftermath of #MeToo’s spotlight on Harvey Weinstein and joined the Sony Corporation, he was guaranteed full control over “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. That’s too bad because someone might have vetoed the film’s co-star Brad Pitt playing a stunt man whose claim to fame (or infamy) was killing his wife and then being found not guilty in OJ Simpson style. Why was he cleared, you ask? You won’t find the answer in Tarantino’s film. Maybe he lost the pages of his script answering this question one morning on the way to the studio and forgot all about it.

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July 13, 2019

Stanley Aronowitz: the father of the “dirty break”?

Filed under: DSA,electoral strategy,Kevin Coogan,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 6:49 pm

Stanley Aronowitz

Just a few days ago, I got a copy of “The Lesser Evil”, a Pathfinder book that has the debate between Peter Camejo and Michael Harrington that unfortunately never got posted online, mostly because of the tight control the SWP has over its “intellectual property”. While browsing through the book, I noticed that there was also a debate between cult leader Jack Barnes and Stanley Aronowitz from 1965 over the same questions.

I was startled to see how close Aronowitz’s tactical support for running in Democratic Party primaries was to the Jacobin and DSA articles of today. Aronowitz, unlike Harrington, was a serious Marxist thinker who was 32 at the time, not that far in age from Bhaskar Sunkara, Eric Blanc and all the other Jacobin/DSA theorists who favor a “dirty break”. Indeed, after reading Aronowitz’s answers to questions from the floor at a conference held on October 30, 1965, you almost feel that nothing much has changed.

Simply put, the dirty break was a term coined by Eric Blanc for socialists running in Democratic Party primaries as opposed to the “clean break” that people like me advocate, ie., running independently of the two capitalist parties. Blanc’s Jacobin article on the dirty break is here.

Aronowitz was speaking on behalf of the Committee for Independent Political Action, a group that he helped to found with Jimmy Weinstein, the publisher of “In These Times” that has been the informal voice of the DSA, long before Jacobin. The two men were closely linked to SDS and saw CIPA as a sister project of the New Left’s rapidly growing student-based movement. It is no exaggeration to state that SDS was the DSA of its day, its growth fueled by the Vietnam antiwar movement. If you study SDS history, you’ll learn that it backed LBJ for President in 1964, raising the slogan “Part of the Way with LBJ”. When LBJ began escalating the war, the New Left rejected the Democratic Party but never really theorized the question of independent political action. Its most notable achievement was building the Peace and Freedom Party that achieved ballot status in California and attracted widespread grass roots support. It succumbed, however, to sectarian disruption in latter years that it was ill-prepared to fend off. Below you can read a transcript of the Q&A with Aronowitz with my commentary in italics as well.

QUESTION: I want to ask a question about the concrete tactics that Stanley proposed. I understand that Stanley is one of the signers of a statement or proposal for a local New York political organization in one of the congressional districts. I was talking to Jimmy Weinstein the other night, who is also a signer, I believe, and he said that you intended to take part in the Democratic primary as a functional operation. I just wondered if you would comment on that and explain why you want to do that.

ARONOWITZ: First, it is not a proposal for a party, it is a proposal for a political committee. It’s called the Committee for Independent Political Action, and it exists. The idea of the committee is, as Barnes so correctly said, to build a movement around a program and not to build a movement around a constituency. That is, not to say we want to win people in this community, therefore we are going to have a program. In this sense it differs from the Communist Party, but not from the Socialist Party from 1900 to 1920, because they had a program: it was called socialism. [Aronowitz fails to mention the frequent denunciations of the Republican and Democratic Party parties by Eugene V. Debs. Today, you get countless tributes paid to Debs from Sandernistas, including Sanders himself, but they all sidestep what Debs said: “The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.”]

Our program is what we consider to be the central reason that we are an independent and radical political movement. The program is that the cold war and its Vietnams are what set the tone and pace for all other questions in this country, that the racism that is inherent in our society and in our foreign policy not only limits what kind of domestic issues we can have, what kind of domestic struggles we can carry on—because you can’t get any money for anything, including a poverty program—but it also determines the fact that there can be no political democracy in this country as long as the inheritors of the corporate system are in control of our policies. And that is stated openly and publicly.

Now the reason we raise the idea of possibly running in the Democratic primary—and we are not wedded to the idea—is because we regard the form as being a practical question, just as politicians from radical political organizations work in the antiwar movement, even in liberal movements sometimes. All you need is 1,000 signatures and you can enter the Democratic primary. Now in New York City, where most people participate in electoral politics through the primary and not through the general election, we see that it might be possible to run in the primary and then go on and run in the general election.

This is analogous to the view that the Freedom Democratic Party took in Mississippi. That is, the political question in Mississippi was not whether you ran in the Democratic primary, whether you called yourself Democratic or not, but what your program was. Whether you were opposed to the racists in Mississippi or not. [The Freedom Democratic Party got royally screwed at the 1964 Convention when New Deal stalwarts LBJ and Hubert Humphrey refused to seat them. To beat Goldwater, the Democrats saw the Dixiecrat delegations being seated as crucial to their “electability”. It is this tradition that Joe Biden is keeping up.]

The thing that we want to prevent is setting a sterile limit on the number of arenas that we can participate in. To a large degree, the Republican and Democratic parties in this country represent the same class. And yet they are arenas in which all kinds of opposition can take place, because they are not parties that nominate at the convention. Before Carmine DeSapio made the Democratic primary an open primary, there was no question that third party politics was the only way in which independent politics could be played in this country. Now we are saying that we need an independent political movement that will evolve into a third party. We will attack the Democratic Party, we will attack the Johnson administration, but we will at the same time not shut the door to what we consider to be a meaningful forum. [Very dialectical.] We think that there is a possibility of entering a primary in order to educate people. It’s like revolutionaries entering elections because they want to educate people; they don’t necessarily believe they are going to win in the elections, or that elections are the way in which people can gain power, but they believe that there is a possibility that there will be people who will listen through such a forum.

We are not calling ourselves the Reform Democratic Party Club, we are not going to run for party leadership within the Democratic Party; we are going to run, whether the reformers run or not. We have another problem which determines that: We want to put reform Democrats who are radicals programmatically on the spot. We want to tell them: You run in the Democratic Party because you thought that the Democratic Party, and its reform movement, which is a liberal coalition, was the only place where you could function. We will not invite into our political association activists who do not agree with our program. Here is a place where you can get active, here is a place where you fight out your program, not within an internal, narrow, sectarian group of Reform Democrats, where you lose every time, but within your own political association. If we can, we hope that we will utilize this educational forum to talk to radicals within the reform movement to pull them out, or at least to exercise them in their own consciousness about what they are doing. The process by which people are moved is not in terms of setting up, in an abstract sense, a political campaign or a political party, but in terms of the real struggles that people have participated in.

ARONOWITZ (responding to Barnes on the same question above): I would like to correct a couple of ideas that you have about it. We deliberately proceeded on the basis that we had to have a real ideological basis for activists to come in. Not civil rights, not peace, not minimum issues, but we had to have a statement. When you sign “I’m interested in joining CIPA” here, you get back this statement which, I think, pretty much explains where we are at.

It begins: “Most Americans have been cut off and excluded from the process of making the basic decisions that affect their lives. Partisan politics in the United States operates to sustain and extend the immediate and long-range interests of a relative handful of giant corporations and their institutional supporters, but the material and strategic interests and commitments of these corporations and their leaders, and the social values that flow from these interests, differ essentially from those of the poor, the workers, and most middle class Americans. In the determination of both domestic and foreign policy concern with the protection and extension of private property and profits takes priority over the personal and social needs of ordinary people. Domination of American politics by giant corporations has brought the United States to international crisis and to the organization of our lives around the ideological, political and material necessities of the cold war.”

That’s what we mean by independent politics. What we mean is that the political questions that we raise are not the kind of questions that could ever be raised in the reform movement of the Democratic Party or within the Johnson wing of the Democratic Party, by Buckley, by Bayard Rustin, or others, because we have made a political judgment about American politics which relates to the whole question of who controls.

[In fact, those questions were being raised loudly by DP candidates within a year or so as the “peace candidates” became the counterpart of the “democratic socialist” candidates of today. At least one Jacobin author sees the direct connection. Read “Bernie and the Search for New Politics” by Adam Hilton and you will see the connection. Referring to the McGovern-inspired “New Politics” movement inside the Democratic Party, Hilton writes: “By thinking institutionally and conceiving the Democratic Party as a terrain of struggle, it is evident that engagement with that party (or actors inside it) will sometimes be a valuable strategic move, depending on the particular political moment.”] 

Now the reason we regard the whole question of the Democratic Party, in New York City—not in Minnesota, Wisconsin, or any other place necessarily—as a tactical question is because of the history of political struggles in New York City. The reform movement of the Democratic Party is not an arena in which we can really develop a radical politics. And so we cut people off from that. There were many people who were involved in the California Democratic clubs who learned a lesson out of their experience—real sensuous, concrete experiences. [Sensuous? You mean like silk pajamas?] And so they went into organizations like the VDC [Vietnam Day Committee]. And we built a radicalism. Tom Hayden, Todd Gitlin, Paul Potter, Paul Booth—every last one of the organizers of SDS, which is the real key organization of the antiwar movement, began in liberal study groups of the National Student Association.

The real problem is not whether Tom and the other people in SDS have rejected or accepted the Democratic Party as an arena of political action. We know they are radicals. And the reason we know they are radicals is because SDS organized the best goddamned march on the Vietnam issue, which is the crux of the whole question of politics in this country today, and nobody else organized it. [In fact, the SWP was critical in getting that demonstration off the ground. The SDS leadership was wilting under the pressure of the League for Industrial Democracy and the Trots helped stiffen their back.] And what made them organize it was the fact that they had gone through a process of political experience. Not a process of liberalism reinforced by liberalism, which is the old SP-CP pattern. Not that kind of situation, but where they began to recognize where control was.

When Paul Potter got up at the SDS march and said it is the corporations that are the enemy, and we have to name the enemy in this country, that was the most important, primary precondition for politics, that was the content, that was the principle, that was the dividing line. The dividing line is not where you choose your forum—the Democratic Party is a temporary, transient kind of tactical situation because it is a place which has permitted participation of different positions.

The Democratic Party primary says that we have to get 350 signatures in an assembly district and 1,500 signatures in a congressional district to get on the ballot. It does not tell us what to say, how to say it, or how to mobilize. And it’s not really the center of our movement. The center of our movement is to organize and educate around this concept. But not to organize and educate depending upon the TV and the radio and the press to give us publicity. Instead, to educate on the basis of canvassing, house-by-house canvassing and community organizing around the rent strikes.

How many radicals who have good programs have been involved in the rent strikes? I have. I have been with eighteen tenants at different times down to Mayor Wagner’s office, and all we were able to do was to get rid of Mayor Wagner, by our activity of the boycott and the sit-ins in the rent strikes.

We have never been able to develop any kind of political position that has been meaningful to tenants, that has been meaningful to workers. Now I think that the problem is how you find those forums to talk to people, not to talk to them in the way of finding the minimum common denominator, that’s not the problem, but to find the forums where you will be listened to, where you will have a forum, and if that forum happens to be within the Democratic primary—and not in the Democratic Party because the Democratic Party means you run in a party election, we are not going to run in any party elections—this primary gives us one forum. Then we go on and we run in November independently. [Jimmy Weinstein did end up running as an independent but that was the last hurrah of CIPA, largely made irrelevant by the peace candidates of the Democratic Party on both a national and local basis.] By the way, Governor Rockefeller has given us a way of doing this beautifully. He says that we are now going to have a Democratic primary in June and a general election in November. That means that if we run in June we have one chance of getting before people a program, an educational program. We ain’t going to win, don’t kid yourself, and we are not going to invite reformers into the political movement either. But then we can go ahead and get our independent petitions for the general election signed. And this is not an unusual practice.

The point is that we are ready to discuss what tactic is proper at any one time. And if we determine as a result of a serious discussion that we should not go into the Democratic primary, we will not go into the Democratic primary, because we are not wedded to the coalition concept. And when we say in this statement that coalitions are secondary, we don’t mean the coalition question as raised by Rustin, we mean coalitions with the Socialist Workers Party and coalitions with the Communist Party—that is a secondary question to our common need to go out and build a radical constituency, a radical base for a program.

I’m prepared to vote for any radical socialist candidate that runs for office. And I think that those candidates should be run. What I’m trying to do is not to develop radical politics on the old bases which divide the left. I’m for a coalition of the left. A coalition which is based on a program. And if we can discuss the question of tactics we will discuss the question of tactics. But if you get hung up on the question of whether you are in the Democratic primary, and not the Democratic Party, then I think you effectively exclude your-self from the opportunity of developing a radical program that has any meaning.

QUESTION: This is a brief question to Mr. Aronowitz, which can be answered briefly. While you are telling people what the ruling class’s role is and all of the things that they are against, and while you are running a candidate in the nineteenth congressional district, who do you tell them to vote for in the main elections?

ARONOWITZ: We are not Democrats asking people to support the Democratic ticket. We are not going to enter into a coalition with Mayor Wagner or with Abraham Beame. We would not enter into a coalition with [Congressman William F.] Ryan unless we saw that he was prepared to accept our position. We are not looking for that kind of electoral coalition. What we hope to have happen, very frankly, is not that this community organizing thing will be confined to this.

What we expect, or we hope, is that other people will take it up. Look at the seventh congressional district in Berkeley, where Jeffrey Cohelan is the best liberal Democrat that you can find, outside of a guy like Phil Burton, if you take issues. I understand that the antiwar movement is preparing to run against Phil Burton. Well, that has been the direct inspiration of the kind of movement that we’ve started here. What we hope to emerge is a confluence of a lot of local movements that experiment, that don’t have any real solid answers.

I wish I had this surety that Jack Barnes has and that some people have about where the direction is. We have to experiment, we have to grope. The only thing we have is our ideology. With that, there is no compromise. Maybe it’s a difference in experience. But we’re clear, I think it’s fairly clear what we mean. We mean that if you accept the view that the priorities of this country are developed out of the cold war context, that we have to end that context, by ending neocolonialism and American imperialism, then you belong in this movement. Therefore we are not reform, because reform believes that you work in coalitions around electoral alliances that do not understand the central question.

Now there is another difference. And I’ll just make that very brief. The difference is the old concept of the united front that was developed by the CP and the SP in the thirties and a new concept of what a united front could be now. In this country the application by a number of radicals of the idea of united action was that we organize for Roosevelt, and Jack did a brilliant job on that. [I have no idea what Aronowitz is talking about here. In the 1930s, the CP started out as sectarian mad dogs and then did a 180 degree turn backing Roosevelt as part of the implementation of the Popular Front in the USA. The SP had nothing to do with the SP except in united actions to support strikers in Flint, for example. When Aronowitz refers to “united action” for Roosevelt, which certainly did not include the SP that ran Norman Thomas against him consistently, you can only conclude that he is referring to the Popular Front, although erroneously.] I think that the only way we can prevent thousands of students and thousands of other people from falling back into the trap of organizing for lesser evils is if we develop a political alternative that is meaningful to them. And we think that this kind of thing can be meaningful to them, not because of the primary but because most of our concepts arise out of experience.

QUESTION: Mr. Aronowitz, in the Democratic primaries only registered Democrats can vote. In the Republican primaries only registered Republicans vote. I understand that you are going to go into the primary in order to convince the registered Democrats that you are against the Democrats. Do you exclude going into the Republican primaries to convince the Republicans that you are against the Republicans? And do you think this is an effective way of boring from within these parties to organize an independent party?

ARONOWITZ: Well, we’re back to the old saw. We are not going into the Democratic Party, we are going into the Democratic primary. You don’t see the difference, but there is a difference, and the difference is evident to anybody who knows about the operations of the Democratic Party. [I am sure that Eric Blank knows the difference. This is the dirty break.]

For one thing the situation in New York City is the following, and we’ve done a little study. More than 90 percent of Negroes and Puerto Ricans and workers happen to be registered Democrats or registered Liberals; there is only 10 percent of that group in the population that happens to be registered Republican, and that’s one factor. We are not looking at what party we are going into, we are looking at where the constituency is.

The second thing is, that the real vote that takes place, and the way in which politics operates in this city is that the big battles, what most people worry about, in terms of where the politics is, have been within the Democratic primary in the nineteenth congressional district. I know the nineteenth congressional district; in this district, the Republican gets 28 percent or 29 or sometimes 30 percent of the vote. Therefore, where the people vote significantly, where they make choices, is not in the general election. They tend to make choices in the Democratic primary. That’s where the action is, that’s where all the pressure and all of the activity and all of the debate takes place, in the nineteenth congressional district. [All the activity and all the debate? Are you kidding? Voting is a passive act. You watch a TV commercial or get a phone call from your union or church telling you who to vote for on election day. (This is pre-Internet days, remember. He makes it sound like the St. Petersburg Soviet, for chrissake.]

What we are going to say, if we go into that primary, not that party, is that neither of these men has anything to say about the problems of the people of this district that is different from what the administration has been promulgating. What we are going to say is that our needs in this district can only be met if we accept a whole different idea.

The point is that we expect that when other movements around the country develop a serious national political movement, the whole idea of going into the Democratic primary will become unnecessary, because then we’ll have a national program and a national movement that is able to project a real national struggle. We are not in that position now. We are in a position of starting locally because we think that it is not possible to do it on a mass basis nationally. [By 1967, CIPA was history. The tsunami of antiwar activism swept it away. Something tells me that before long, Sandernism will also be swept away by working-class activism. All we will need at that point is a political instrument that can help maximize its impact.]

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