Monday, September 29, 2008

Book Reviews: Upton Sinclair Lewis Books

Book Reviews: The “Two Sinclairs”
The (uncensored) Jungle, by Upton Sinclair and

“It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis

Odd how many leftist fiction writers there were back in the ‘old’ days. We’ve certainly grown up, haven’t we? Why, we can now choose a wide array of books about deep personal problems, addictions, mental illness and criminal behavior. Or, for the high-brow audience, perhaps a delightful and intricate, oh so erudite, mousetrap mediation on individual or historical curiosities. It can’t get any better than that!

I exaggerate about the state of modern 'recognized' literature, but not much.

These two books were written at different times in history – “The Jungle” in 1906 and “It Can’t Happen Here” in 1935. However, both reflect periods of immense working class activism, which is probably why they became subjects of literature, and what links them together today.


“The Jungle” is the most well known. It has been referenced as THE source for Teddy Roosevelt-era regulation in the meat and food industries to protect consumers from tainted or inaccurately labeled food. However, the thin version of The Jungle that ‘might’ have been read in high school was actually a censored version, missing almost 5 chapters, or 1/3rd of the book. The publisher Macmillan demanded the cuts of Sinclair, a Socialist, as they wanted a muckraking book on the meat industry, not a muckraking book on treating workers like meat. Because, of course, the ‘jungle’ is the society created by capitalism, in which the packinghouse and slaughterhouse workers work. As Sinclair says, “The jungle is not the packing house or Chicago … it is Civilization.”

The unexpurgated edition was first discovered by Gene DeGruson of Pittsburg State in Kansas in 1980. DeGruson’s work was based on versions serially published in the Socialist “Appeal to Reason,” newspaper, which were found molding in a basement in Girard, Kansas. In the introduction, an analysis of the texts by Kathleen De Grave, also of Pittsburg State, shows most of the cuts were related to removing explicitly Socialist and working-class problems from the book. This Sharp Press edition is the first time the uncut version has appeared in paperback.

This book stands as one of the preeminent Socialist novels in American history, or perhaps THE preeminent one. It has recently inspired Eric Schlosser to write “Fast Food Nation,” an update of The Jungle, though without the specifically Socialist analysis. Schlosser shows conditions, especially in the slaughterhouses of factory meat, haven't improved much. Sick cows are routinely turned into food. Full of corn and antibiotics, they are the 'normal' fodder of the modern slaughterhouse. Schlosser also shows the lives of the undocumented and low-paid non-union workers, where overtime, accidents and abuse are common. Since the defeat of the packinghouse workers unions in the 80s during the P-9 strike in Austin, conditions in the factory meat industry have only grown worse.

This is the hardest book I have ever had to read, because of the amount of human misery contained within. Sinclair takes a giant Lithuanian immigrant farm boy, Jurgis, and throws at him everything capitalism can throw – poverty, prejudice, hunger, injuries, death, prostitution, the abuse of children, jail, homelessness, alcoholism, crime and a corrupt political system. It is clear that the brutality shown to the animals in the slaughterhouse is the same brutality shown to the workers. Gruesome scenes on the kill floor - where you have to eat your lunch as splashing blood gets in your food - don't take a back seat to shivering vagrants, crippled children, crooked bartenders, brutal police and sly real estate agents.

Jurgis, of course, eventually becomes part of the mass Debsian Socialist movement in Chicago, which was leading strikes and winning votes during that period across the United States. In that, it has an 'uplifting' ending - though he has to watch his wife and son die in the process. As such, you realize there really is no such thing as a 'happy' ending.


Sinclair Lewis was a different kind of Sinclair – a mild reformist or socialistic liberal, but an honest observer at that. He, of course, gently ridicules Upton Sinclair in this book, but also shows great affinity for the Grange and the Farmer Labor Party. Lewis is most famous for his novels making fun of small town boosterism and insularity like Babbitt and Main Street – Lewis was sort of a an inspiration to Garrison Keillor. However, the novel “It Can’t Happen Here” is rarely taught or mentioned in regard to Lewis, because it is far more radical.

“It Can’t Happen Here” is about the coming of fascism to the United States, and is far better regarding detail than Jack London’s “The Iron Heel.” The title, of course, refers to the clueless liberal that can’t imagine really bad things going on in this country. Sinclair is hilarious in his depiction of the different types of political animals in this small town in New England, Fort Belulah … people that eventually have to choose sides, and become either fascists or resistors. Lewis’ version of fascism is not foreign or "Germanic" at all – it is part religious, part patriotic, part conformist, part greedy and part a longing for a ‘strong man.’ And behind it all, all corporate. These people are recognizable Americans. It is nothing different than the instincts we see now among Republicans or the religious Right. The instincts are compounded in his depiction of a classic fascist formation - rabid armed force in the form of a brown-shirt militia, ironically called the “Minute Men." In the book, the descent into fascism is a gradual process, not a sudden shift. The head of the U.S. fascist movement – Berzelius Windrip - is brought to power by a ‘vote’ of the population – just as Hitler was voted into office in German. And then things start to change drastically.

Lewis’ small town newspaper editor Doremus Jessup eventually joins the underground resistance, which, it becomes clear, is the only way to fight fascism. He goes from town to town and safe house to safe house, organizing across the northern part of the country. Canada plays a role in this book - as it did as an escape hatch for anti-government native Americans prior to the Civil War; in the anti-slavery fight in the 1860s, and the anti-war movement in the 1960s - as a rear base for the opposition to U.S. fascism. He ends the book with Jessup holed up in a cabin in northern Minnesota, on the run from the brownshirts. Jessup is kind of a picture of Lewis – truly a middle-class individualist liberal, antagonistic to communists and other radicals, but understanding that only underground work and armed defense will suffice to oppose fascism. He does not join the fascists, nor does he collapse in fear. The key working class character in this book, however, is shown as prone to fascism. The leader of the Minute Men in Fort Beluah, Shad Ledue, is Jessups’ former gardener and handyman – his ‘hired’ man and an “Irish-Canuck.” Other workers, socialist and communist, are not so highly profiled, except as they bicker endlessly about who’s right.

This book wears well even now, and continues to address the problems the U.S. population faces. Some people on the left, of course, are always howling about fascism being 'here', because they do not have a scientific analysis of fascism. It is the unrestricted rule of capital – and I stress the word ‘unrestricted’ – unimpeded by court, law, ethics or force of arms. Presently, we are losing more and more legal rights, so the gradual slide towards authoritarian rule is already somewhat advanced.

The news that Bush has recently called for deployment of the battle-ready 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, to put down ‘civil unrest,’ including using ‘non-lethal means,’ should make anyone pause. It has been illegal under The Posse Comitatus Act since the end of the Civil War for troops to be posted as a standing force of law enforcement inside U.S. borders. However, this deployment is supposed to be permanent! It was authorized by the Defense Authorization Act of 2006 – a law supported by the Republican Party and many liberals like Kennedy, Warner and Levin. Only a small minority of Democrats like Patrick Leahy warned against it. The preparation for possible fascism or repression is already bi-partisan.

Red Frog
… and I bought them at May Day books!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Book Review: Take the Streets

Book Review: “Take the Streets” by Ed Felien, 2008. (See advertisement below review.)

According to reports, Eddie wrote this short chronicle of the local anti-war uprising at the University of Minnesota in May 1972 right after the events. The uprising was in response to Nixon’s escalation of the air war in North Vietnam, and the mining of Hai Phong harbor. It might have been sitting in a shoe box every since, but we’re glad he finally published it. It is on sale at May Day books, and Eddie will give an ‘author talk’ on Sunday, Sept. 28 at 3:00 p.m. at May Day. Be there!

Millions participated in the events of 1972 – they were the largest demonstrations against the war in the U.S. If you were here locally in 1972, or even if you weren’t, and you want to compare events then and perhaps events at the RNC in August, this is a useful book. While liberals and even some radicals pooh-pooh barricades and confrontations between protesters and police, events like this are actually crucial tests of power between opposing sides. Most people don’t think taking and holding an intersection or street is ‘much’ or should be valued, but it is actually a small form of ‘dual’ power – just as a factory, building, neighborhood and land occupations can be forms of ‘dual power.’ Blocking traffic is a small thing, but it nevertheless calls into question the PHYSICAL control of the society by the armed forces, starting with the police. At bottom, when everything else breaks down – bribery, propaganda, gradualism, inertia, etc. – physical control is all that is left to the ruling powers.

Felien and the radicals at the U in 1972 understood this instinctually. The anti-war movement took and held Washington and University Avenues for several days, ultimately using barricades. Felien details each confrontation - the throwing out of the Army recruiters in Dinkytown; the attack on Romney and the new Cedar Square towers on the West Bank; the occupation of Interstate 94 at rush hour; and the back and forth between the police, Guard and protesters over control of University and Washington Avenues, including the key building, the ROTC building. The most interesting event to me (I was a participant in SDS at the time) is the stopping by students of a delivery of crates of M16s intended for the Guard! After some confrontation and discussion, the truck turned around. The book ends with the large march of 12,000 to the State Capital, which included a sizeable SDS breakaway march, and then the occupation of Johnston Hall by the Attica Brigade, the last ‘action’ of the uprising. I hesitate to call it an insurrection, as Felien does, as that seems to be hyperbole. It was a ‘non-violent’ insurrection if you will, and certainly, like the RNC, the main sources of violence were the police and Guard.

Eventually the Tactical Squad and the bulldozers removed the barricades. However, anyone who was there saw a local police department and local political leadership which was over-matched for a time. And that is something you do not forget.

Various characters make an appearance in the book. Paula Giese, a professor at the U and a key activist, was constantly armed with facts to throw at the U administration. She played a leadership role at many key times. Malcolm Moos, the ‘liberal’ president of the University, who nevertheless allowed ROTC, military recruiters and secret military research on campus, and tried to pretend that he was against the war, but did not support ‘radical’ methods. Charles Stenvig, the right-wing Daley/Rizzo type mayor of Minneapolis, staked his fame, much like Fletcher, on his rough handling of protesters. However, his TAC squad finally got tired and had to retreat. Marv Davidov was involved in events, leading a march against Honeywell, manufacturer of weapons for Vietnam. The Clery and Laity Concerned also appear, mostly as advocates of abandoning the barricades. The YSA/Mobe, who Felien calls in typical Maoist terminology, “Trots,”, appear as the advocates of only one tactic – large peace marches to remote locations. SDS and folks like KK Washington are mostly praised, as are the VVAW and what Felien likes to call the “Richter Red Devils” – street kids who hung around the old Richter’s drugstore on the West Bank. He praises them for being at the heart of erecting and defending the barricades. Interlarded between the text are pictures from the Minneapolis papers, the Daily, old leaflets and photocopies of odd SDS stuff like “Moos Money” – which you could use to get a sip of Moos' own whiskey.

Felien also has a section on events that lead up to the agitation on campus, including left opposition to a U corporate agenda called “Toward 1985 and Beyond” proposed by the U administration. The plums of this plan? Increased tuition, liquidation of the Humanities department, cutting of staff, raising the bus fare – it was a forerunner to the land grant institution becoming a phony “Harvard of the Midwest.” This document would be familiar to anyone who goes to the U today.

This is a valuable and local history that could have been lost, except in our memories, and Felien is to be congratulated for finally publishing it. I only have one beef – Felien should learn how to spell the term Trotskyist. In a way, the national left was bifurcated by skills – the YSA/SWP knew how to have large peace marches, SDS/PL knew how to engage in more militant direct action, and organize unions, and groups like NAM had a more intimate, organizational approach that lead to things like the Constituent Assembly – the democratic organization that grew out of the student strike events. An actual revolutionary party would be able to carry out all these activities, and more. And that was, perhaps, one of the missing ingredients.

Participants in the events at the RNC will notice how polite and sometimes calm the Guard, administrators and even police could be in 1972. You might also notice that the numbers of protesters in 1972 were larger than the numbers at the RNC. Participants will also notice how the police and Guard in 1972 were nowhere near as well armed or numerous as they are now. 36 years and millions of dollars later, and our forces of repression are far … more … repressive. That is what the study of even local history teaches us.

--Red Frog, and I bought it at MayDay Books!

Monday, September 22, 2008

This Sunday!

Please join us to welcome a new book by local long-time activist Ed Felein:

TakeTheStreets - Photo Hosted at Buzznet

Monday, September 8, 2008

Warning, Warning, Mr. Robinson

As you may already know, our main Mayday Site was taken down right before the RNC due to a destructive virus discovered, or ostensibly discovered, by Google. We are preparing a new expanded site, using a new program, hosted by a new computer, and will try to get it cleared by Google.

We do not know if this was 'cyber-war' by the government, but the assumption is probably accurate. Anyway, the blog is still running, as you can see.

On another note, congratulations to Minneapolis, as the most literate city in the United States, based on various records by Jack Miller and the NEA. Congratulations to St. Paul, now number three most literate city. Seattle fell to number two. So we are also the most literate metropolitan area... And you wondered why a bookstore would try to survive in this two-horse town? The south had one city, Atlanta, on the list, at #8. The rest were on the coasts, or in the northern states.

RNC Again

... or rubber 'bullocks', bean bag electric chairs, Cossacks, motorcycle lice, bike copperheads, very large white tie-wraps for ankles and wrists, 3 foot wooden luncheons, Sheriff Thug Fetcher, snow-pows, the Department of Homeland Insecurity, the Very Secret Out of Service, 8 foot wire mesh protest and detention chicken cages, pulling the plug several times to protect and serve the ruling class, or really rage against the machine.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Summer Vacation ends with a ... Bang

After the longest week most of us have had in a long time, 'fall' is upon us. The summer 'vacation' is over, and book reviews will be starting again.

Let us know what you did at the end of your summer vacation - i.e. the week in hell that was the RNC. Mini-police state donuts? Tear gas on a stick? Patriot Act II. 3,500 thugs. Detention hell. Report this!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Georgia forum

Sara Flouders speaking

Sara Flounders, of the Troops Out Now Coalition, is in town to participate in antiwar protests during the RNC. She is also going to speak on the recent events at Georgia at Mayday Books. Open to the public!

08 09 03 08 Georgia - Photo Hosted at Buzznet