Sunday, August 30, 2015

‘Force is the Supreme Arbiter in Human Affairs’ – Louis Lyngg

"The Bomb – by Frank Harris, 1909-1996.  (The Classic Novel of Anarchist Violence)

This is the fictionalized story of the 1886 Chicago Haymarket events, told from the inside.  Using fiction, the book allows us to go back in a lively, living way.  It is told from the point of view of the alleged ‘bomber’ – Rudolph Schnaubelt.  It was rumored that the actual Schnaubelt was one of the people who threw the bomb that killed police on that day.  The cops were attacking a radical workers protest meeting on Des Plaines Street in Chicago on May 4th, 1886.  The workers were upset over the police killing of strikers at the McCormick factory a few days before. 

Frank Harris, the author, was a well-known anarchist with varying views.  He dedicated this book to the Princess of Monaco, which gives you an idea of his oddness, and also wrote “My Life and Loves,” a romantic remembrance.  John Dos Passos, writing the introduction as a newly-minted Goldwater Republican, hardly mentions the events and instead concentrates on running down Harris as a person.  It is somewhat odd that Harris identifies the bomber as an anarchist sympathizer, as the real bomber was never really identified, but it makes some sense.

1st rally flier, last line removed in 2nd.
The bomb killed 7cops and injured more of them, along with some civilians.  The police responded by killing 4 workers and injuring 70 more.  It is somewhat of a stretch to believe agents-provocateurs would go to the length of killing that many cops.   Given the standard brutality meted out by the Chicago police against strikers and foreign-born workers during this period – attacking peaceful-legal rallies and pickets with clubs and ending with shooting workers to death – it is not hard to believe that some worker might retaliate.  Chicago in those days was a prison-house of labor – workers were unemployed, freezing to death in the winter, brutalized, poorly paid, injured and spit-upon.  The book has sections describing the filthy conditions in the pork packinghouses which work as a fitting prequel to “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair – another tale of working-class Chicago misery and slaughter-house filth.

Louis Lyngg, the heroic German immigrant and focus of this book, claimed at the Haymarket trial that he believed the Chicago cops got what they deserved - that violence should be met by violence. The narrator Schnaubelt indicates that Lyngg made the advanced bomb that did the damage, and also used one to kill himself in jail.  Lyngg was the only one of the 8 defendants who for all practical purposes pleaded guilty. The rest were railroaded for being radical labor agitators.  4 were later hung – Parson, Spies, Engel & Fischer; 2 – Schwab and Fielden - commuted to ‘life’ in prison and 1 – Neebe – jailed for 15 years.  Of these, only Parsons was born in the U.S.  Parsons had turned himself in and refused an offer of clemency, seeing it as a betrayal of his comrades.  He believed he would get justice – an idea somewhat naïve for a socialist/anarchist radical.

The bourgeois media of the day played a great role in howling for the death of labor agitators and strikers.  One Chicago Tribune editorial called for giving strikers ‘strychnine.’  This encouraged the police to split heads at a moments notice - not that much different than today.  The rich man's press later consistently lied about events surrounding Haymarket. After the bombing, thousands of mostly foreign workers in Chicago were arrested on no evidence.  At the trial of the Haymarket 8, evidence was planted, witnesses and cops lied, the jury was packed and the judge broke every legal rule promoting the prosecution.  The jury decision to execute the 7 innocent defendants was later upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court.  As Parson’s pointed out in his speech in the dock, “There is evidently in America one justice for the rich and one for the poor.”  Again, today, not much has changed.  Ultimately the prosecution could not find enough evidence regarding the actual bombing, so their fall-back position was that the defendants ‘encouraged’ the bombing by their actions and words.  No one indicted and hung the editors and journalists of the Chicago Tribune or other newspapers for their words however.  The standard of ‘opposing violence’ is only operational when the violence is carried out by enemies of capital and its state, not in the reverse. 

To this day this court decision is a judicial crime that has never been admitted by the capitalist ‘justice’ machine.

As reflected in this book, of greatest significance is how the press and the capitalists split foreign-born workers from American-born workers to weaken the whole class.  Harris even goes so far as to call the different nationalities different ‘races’ – i.e. Polish, German or Croatians were another ‘race’ from “Americans.”  This reflects how much minor differences' were emphasized.  Again, not that much different from today, given the propaganda against Latinos or other recent immigrants.  Capital does not change its spots – it just re-sends the same message another day. 

Schnaubelt is the center of the story.  A middle-class German fellow schooled in Latin and journalism, he emigrates to New York and then travels to Chicago to write news stories for a leftist New York paper.  In Chicago he meets the various characters in the struggle, including Lingg and his girlfriend Ida.  Somewhat ignorant of politics, Ling schools him and oddly there is something of a ‘bromance’ between the two.  Schnaubelt points out that Spies and Parsons were both advocates of peaceful change – Spies being primarily a reformist.  The most painful part of the book is Schnaubelt’s frustrating romance with Elsie, a bewitching, lithe woman who has no time for politics but who he finds sexually attractive.  Basically they prudishly refrain from having sex in scene after scene to the point where you skip the pages.  Ultimately Schnaubelt’s double-life can go on no longer. 

The narrator points out that after the Haymarket police riot and bombing, police violence against strikers in Chicago subsided.  Chicago labor agitators, socialists and anarchists continued to fight for the 8-hour day, child labor rules, unions, higher pay and for free speech.  A year later the First of May was chosen by the 1st International to be the official labor holiday world-wide.  This became labor’s May Day tradition, one observed by nearly every working class in the world.  Yet here in the U.S., the home of May Day, it is a marginal event not even celebrated by the official labor movement leadership. 

The martyrs to the 8-hour day struggle against capital are buried in Chicago’s Forest Park cemetery, where a monument has been erected to their memory.  Every working person who works a 40-hour week – a group fewer and fewer each day – owes a debt to these labor radicals.  Given the deterioration of working conditions, it is time for a new '8-hour movement' to combat capital.  Poverty wages, ‘independent contractor’ status, long hours, illegality, temp and part-time jobs, peddling, gigs – in effect the casual precariat economy - is now nearly global.  A serious struggle against it might overwhelm capital, as it can no longer deliver for the majority, even in the central capitalist countries. 

(Other books about Chicago – “The Dill-Pickle Club,”, “Embedded in Organized Labor,” and “The Jungle,” reviewed below.)

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
August 30, 2015

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Capital is the Real Dinosaur

"Jurassic World,” 2015

Nearly every film-goer is familiar with this film series based on the books written by right-winger Michael Crichton.  But like the Bourne series written by another right-winger, Robert Ludlum, which was turned into an anti-CIA screed, this series has also turned the politics on its head.  Even the last Bond film, “Quantum of Solace’ nailed oil corporations polluting jungles.  What gives with the writers in Hollywood?

Theme Park Bucks
Corporate greed, private military contractors, war, genetically-modified organisms, the fantasy of ‘de-extinction,’ cell phones, up-tight & wired corporate executives, CEO egotism, treatment of animals as sources of profit or as ‘things’, Sea World, theme parks and zoos in general – all take hits in this film.  Ostensibly another sci-fi horror show, it actually functions as a social critique of U.S. society, though how many viewers see it that way is debatable.  It’s a popcorn movie with a sub-text, but most won’t get past the corn.

Many events in the film are unreal, but that is normal for American films.  Escaping children do not follow watercourses to the ocean but wander back into the jungle; velociraptors somehow regain affinity for their human trainer in a fight-to-the-death battle sequence; corporate executives shed their high heels and kill; no one can shoot the giant eyes out of a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex hybrid with all those guns.  OK.

But the delight is in the details.  “De-extinction” – which is now Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand’s “TED” talk interest - shows itself to be just a gimmick.  After all, thousands of species are dying presently in a ‘6th Extinction’ so who is going to waste time recreating a wooly mammoth except some capitalist corporation?  Not a word about those present species going down from the ‘de-extinctionists.’  A laughably large swimming dinosaur eats a giant shark while being watched by thousands in a re-creation of the giant Sea World aquarium.  This should put the punch-line on the decline of Sea World attendance and its stock price due to its mistreatment of sea life like Orca whales.  Many cell phones were initially bought for emergencies.  Here the sound quality is so bad on one that its useless, which is familiar to anyone with a cell phone. Several key people in the film point out that the dinosaurs (read animals) and humans are in a ‘relationship’ – not something on a spreadsheet.  Or that the dinosaurs are independent entities, not machines or things.  A raging overweight private military contractor wants to use the velociraptors as combat accessories to take out military enemies – an absurd idea that he pursues to the end.  Then there is the efficient Asian scientist cooking up a strange combination of genes to create a new monster with ‘bigger teeth’ to increase corporate profits and goose park attendance.  Read Dr. Frankenstein.  And there is the billionaire know-it-all CEO who confidently tries to pilot a copter he has just learned how to fly into the thick of things. 

Hedonistic voyeurism at the human control of these prehistoric beasts is turned into its opposite - a bloody chaos created by capital's hubris. The hybrid monster dinosaur is the logical conclusion of capital's inability to think about anything but profits. It is the dialectic turned. 

The most negative aspect of the film is the over-controlling operations executive, played by a power-suited redhead with an always-ringing cell phone.  A woman was chosen for this role, only to be straightened out by the courageous ‘man’s man’ raptor trainer with the Triumph motorcycle.  This is a conventional ‘delicate weak woman in the woods’ narrative and the most stupid thing about the film.   And no, she doesn’t get dirt on her outfit, her face, nor is her hair mussed or her delicate necklace even torn off in the midst of all the chaos.  The award for most obvious product placement goes to Mercedes – every vehicle on this island is a Mercedes Benz except the Triumph motorcycle, which only aficionados will recognize.  Evidently Triumph did not pay the filmmakers any money.  Capital makes money while skewering itself.  What did Lenin say about ropes? And is this even a rope? 

What is implicit but not commented on is the throng of well-heeled and clueless people (us, the viewers or tourists evidently…) who paid money to come to this isolated island and participate in this monstrosity.  The film is a virtual zoo for the viewers too, but only virtual.  Yet more and more people are seeing that real zoos, circuses and aquariums or their more covert cousins, ‘nature centers’ for wolves and bears, are just jails for animals.  It’s almost the same principle as taking a tour of a maximum security prison for humans. 

And I saw it at the Riverview Theater
Red Frog
August 26, 2015

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Literature Today, Cabron

"All the Pretty Horses," by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy is best known for penning “No Country for Old Men,” adapted by the Coen brothers into a film and later, “The Road,” a great post-apocalyptic story also turned into a film.  He’s a modern western writer – like Larry McMurtry, Edward Abbey or an occasional Barbara Kingsolver book.  McCarthy focuses on extremely marginal white people – outcasts of various kinds and the violence they run into or cause.  In this book, the first in the ‘Border Trilogy,’ some teenage boys leave Texas, cross the Rio Grande and ride their horses into Mexico.  The period might be the 1960s / 1970s.  They are for some reason sick of life on their ranches and decide to seek adventure by horseback. 

Horse Lovers, Horse Thieves
They are young cowboys and horse people.  One, John Grady, is an excellent horse trainer and chess player, fluent in Spanish, never misses a shot, a great fighter and along with his friend Rawlins, a survivor.  He is also successful with the beautiful rich Mexican girl on the hacienda.  Yeah, he’s not real.  Sort of a 17-year-old teenage “man with no name” - a typical masculine stereotype hiding behind the ‘alternative western’ trope.  Lone heroes are still a staple of western literature, and McCarthy is no different. 

Yet McCarthy is probably one of the best prose writers in the U.S. His stories are always either riveting or at least interesting.  (Prior reviews of “The Road” and “Suttree,” below.)  His prose is unique, sort of an adaptation of Joycean word play and sentence structure to a more spare and realistic narrative.  In this first of his ‘border’ series, McCarthy illuminates the desert in all its barren glory.  The desert is not like other places – it is immediately unforgiving.  Mountain, prairie, seaside and woods have life and water and mostly closer horizons.  The desert has little water and the biggest horizon.  The northern Mexican desert and mountains of this story play a role just like a character. 

Why should leftists care?  Few present mainstream writers write about the working class, which is the problem.  McCarthy, Russell Banks, John Sayles, Dennis Lehane, TC Boyle, Alice Walker, Tony Morrison and a few others sometimes or occasionally do, but rarely in a political way.  Mostly they write descriptive stories, with Banks and Sayles the most consistent. (Sample title: "Trailer Park," by Banks.) American literature is now dominated by people like Jonathan Franzen and the dead David Foster Wallace.  Franzen is a writer who concentrates on middle-class life.  He is the inheritor of Updike and Roth but without the chauvinism and sexual infantilism.  Wallace was a post-modernist who attempted to become ‘modern’ and failed. Most present books and TV shows about working class life paint us as buffoons or in unreal situations.  Or as bums or drunks or violent – i.e. anything by Charles Bukowski.

In the earlier part of the 20th century in the U.S. this was not so.  A large strain of writers mined working-class life for stories, including political ones.  As the academics say, proletarians had ‘agency.’  Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Richard Wright, Theodore Dreiser, Mike Gold, John Steinbeck, James Farrell and others covered political and social topics with ease.  The MFA was unknown.  While many cite the dreadful “Great Gatsby” as the great American novel, it is really the great American rich person’s novel.  Every high school English teacher loved the progressive “To Kill a Mockingbird” until Harper Lee’s actual first novel “Go Set A Watchman” came out recently and undermined it.  The educated white man who saved a black boy was still a segregationist. Yet these books are the standard.  In the process the writers from the 1900s-1940s and the class they illuminated became invisible.  In the same process, actual work also became invisible.  Ralph Ellison is not the only one to describe invisible people and invisible things. 

This invisibility is part of neo-liberal tenets.  We are merely consumers now – consumers of images, of technology, of clichés, of products, of politicians.   There is no majority anymore, just many individuals with various life-style choices pursuing 'passionate' interests. The dirty work is done behind the scenes and best not talked about except in euphemisms.  The majority must know they are not a majority.  They must know that their concerns are peripheral to crime or English professor’s love stories or various addictions - or to very important people. 

In this book, McCarthy describes a somewhat old-fashioned life on a ranchero in Mexico, with its brace of vaqueros and tasks – branding, breaking wild horses, gathering cattle.  Yet the poison in this idyllic world is a very young white drifter, Blevins, who crazily kills 3 men trying to get his handsome horse back – found and then hidden by a rich Mexican.  This is not about class in the end - it is about individual pride, possession, honor, the ‘west.’  Ultimately, marginal and extreme people are more interesting than common people for McCarthy.  That is the real theme of this book and several others by him.  It is common to much literature in the U.S.

What to do? 

Political work also requires a cultural side and when more working-class stories get told, the 'worm' will turn. Given the present economic situation, it is none too soon.

(Banks’ “Rule of the Bone,” and “Affliction,” Boyle’s “Budding Prospects, “Franzen’s “Freedom,” Wallace’s “Pale King” and “Consider the Lobster” Lehane’s “The Given Day,” Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” “Oil,” and “The Fliver King,” Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman,” Abbey's "The Monkey-Wrench Gang", "Good News" and "Desert Solitaire," all reviewed below). 

Red Frog
August 23, 2015

Monday, August 10, 2015

The FBI Works to Prevent Unity Among Leftists

"Heavy Radicals:  The FBI’s Secret War on America’s Maoists – The Revolutionary Union / Revolutionary Communist Party, 1968-1980," by Aaron J Leonard and Conor A Gallagher, 2015

If you lived through this period and were part of the communist movement, this book will be interesting to you even if you were not a partisan of Mao.  Revolutionary Union’s (RU) allegiance to Mao’s China led the FBI to impact RU by using highly-placed informants and encouraging splits or disunity with other parts of the left. Because of this, the book has broader insights for the whole left.  It is also something of a paen to the RU, even though the authors now understand many of its weaknesses. Leonard was a member of the RU/RCP but left for obvious reasons. He is off the frame of the somewhat ridiculous cover photo, a picture of the RCP fighting police in a demonstration against the ‘capitalist-roader’ Deng Xioaping in 1979. 
Like most left groups, the RU had its strengths – when it didn’t have its weaknesses.   The biggest lesson from this book is that the FBI and the government do not want unity among leftists, and they will do everything they can to promote sectarianism and disunity. 

RCP Anti-Deng Demo in 1979
The authors focus on key figures in the RU, especially Leibel Bergman, an old communist who came out of the CP, then visited China and helped found the RU in San Francisco.  They consider him one of the key U.S. leftists of this whole period.  Other well-known figures include Bob Avakian, the present ‘exiled’ leader of the RCP who was radicalized by Eldridge Cleaver; H Bruce Franklin, who led a ‘guerilla war’ split from the RU and edited the works of Stalin; Steve Hamilton, an activist out of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and William Hinton, who wrote the famous laudatory description of the rural revolution in China – “Fanshen.” 

RU got its start by attacking Progressive Labor, (“PL”) a well-organized pro-Mao split from the CP led by labor activists from Buffalo, New York.  Some RU members like Bergman had passed through PL but rejected it partly due to its perceived line on black nationalism.  In a climatic scene in 1969 members of RU, then called the Revolutionary Youth Movement – RYM - blocked with the “National Office” of SDS - future members of the Weathermen - to ‘expel” PL from SDS.  SDS was the mass organization of U.S. students.   This happened even though the majority at the 1969 SDS conference in Chicago was led by PL.  (In essence the minority expelled the majority…) 

In their meticulous research, the authors discovered an FBI memo that encouraged their informants to take the side of the National Office in the SDS voting.   The memo states:  “All REDACTED informants were instructed to support the National Office faction in SDS against the PLP faction.” It continued: “PLP control of SDS would transform a shapeless and fractionalized group into a militant and disciplined organization.”  All former PL members can stop laughing now. 

In 1971 PL denounced Mao for blocking with Nixon and the U.S. and the coast was clear for RU to take on the Maoist mantle.  The authors claim that PL ‘stagnated’ after that, but they seem unfamiliar with the continuing efforts of PL or other organizations.  In 1971 PL led the Mack Avenue sit-down strike in Detroit and in 1975 it led a summer project in Boston that opposed the racist anti-busing ROAR organization, holding a May Day march of 2,500 in Boston.  This at a time when the authors point out that the RU OPPOSED busing in Boston, as did ROAR.  It was common on the left of that period that almost everyone was too sectarian to notice the strengths of other organizations.  RU’s long-term efforts in the coal fields or their role in the Attica Brigade and VVAW were also unknown to many.  Those efforts are detailed here.  For the most part this is still true.  Little has been learned by those who fancy history. 

At any rate, this FBI pattern of working for the disunity and weakness of the left continued throughout the history of the RU, mostly due to its significant Chinese connection.  Another FBI memo details the assignment of informant/FBI agent James Burton. “The major purpose of my assignment from 1972 to 1974 was to develop a position of contact and trust within other left-wing political groups in this country, to prevent their cooperative action, specifically the merger of Revolutionary Union (“RU”) and the October League (“OL”). 

RU later dropped their position that they should be a nearly all-white organization and also began to orient towards the working-class, similar to PL.  They embarked on a promising unification effort through the “National Liaison Committee” in 1972.  The RU’s effort at ‘party-building’ led to joint efforts with the Black Workers Congress, the October League, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party/Young Lords and I-Wor-Kuen, a group of Asian Maoists.  However, a key RU central committee individual in charge of this effort, D.H. Wright, took a different line on the national question than the RU – and the NLC fell apart.  Bergman suspected that Wright was an ‘agent’ for the FBI, working for the defeat of the effort.  The authors provide some back-up evidence that might confirm that.  To complicate the matter, the RU was changing its line about the national question re the ‘black belt’ and black leadership of the revolutionary movement at the same time.

After the NLC effort collapsed, RU went on to attack all these groups in 1974, proclaiming itself as the one and only ‘correct’ Maoists in the U.S., even as China’s path to the right increased.  This cheerleading for the Chinese ultimately undermined their fate. The RCP itself formed in 1975 after the collapse of the NLC and it following this with a series of ‘actions.’  It pulled out of union working-class sites and tried to base itself on the poorest workers – prisoners, gang members, welfare recipients.   RCP led a 4,000 strong demonstration in 1976 against the Bi-Centennial orgy in Philadelphia, though outside a larger anti-Bi-Centennial protest of 30,000. 

Events in China brought forth a massive debate within the ‘new’ Communist movement on Mao’s ‘Three Worlds Theory,” which ultimately stated that the USSR was the main enemy of the people of the world.  Given China had blocked with the U.S. on events around the world like the Angolan civil war, this could not help but impact American radicals. This was followed by a subsequent split in RU in 1978 when Avakian supported Lin Piao and the ‘Gang of Four” while about a third of the RCP supported Den Xiaoaping in the form of the “Revolutionary Headquarters” and were subsequently expelled, among much typical sectarian acrimony. 

According to the authors, Avakian left the U.S. in 1979 after the anti-Deng demonstration to avoid criminal charges and later quite consciously built a Mao-like ‘cult’ around himself, a cult which continues to this day. Looking back, RU/RCP was always dependent on the Chinese franchise.  The authors understand this too.  When that ended, RCP had no more reason for existence than any other left group, whether based on Trotskyism or other independent brands of Marxism.  The clarity and truth of their positions, their roots in actual class struggle and the sanity of their organization was all they had left - and that was quite diminished.  At the same time the ultra-left and sectarian collapse of PL into a “more Mao than Mao” ‘straight-to- communism’ group mirrored RCP’s path, so both ‘enemies’ went down together.

For further reading, this is one of a series of in-depth histories on the ostensible “new” Communist movement in the late 1960s and through the 1970s.  (It was not ‘new’ because it basically followed what it considered to be Lenin, Stalin and Mao.)  Max Elbaum’s “Revolution in the Air” (reviewed below) and Dan Georgakis and Marvin Surkin's study of the Detroit Black Workers Congress, “I Do Mind Dying” are two others.  There are also various histories of the Black Panther Party, which embraced an eclectic mix of Maoism, black nationalism and African socialism.  These books are also available at May Day Books.  

And I bought it at May Day Books at the excellent author’s talk.
Red Frog
August 10, 2015