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10
Sep

Higher education has historically been a bulwark against authoritarianism — or its pawn. What’ll it be this time?

By Jason Stanley

The Chronicle Review 

Sept 02, 2018  – In recent years, several countries across the world have been overtaken by a certain kind of far-right nationalism; the list includes Russia, Hungary, Poland, India, Turkey, and the United States. The task of generalizing about such phenomena is always vexing. But such generalization is necessary now, when patterns have emerged that suggest the resurgence of fascist politics globally. Increasingly, attacks on universities and conflicts over their policies are a symptom of this phenomenon.

I use the label "fascism" to describe any ultranationalism — ethnic, religious, or cultural — in which the nation is represented by an authoritarian leader who claims to speak for the people. As Donald J. Trump declared in his Republican National Convention speech in July 2016, "I am your voice." In particular, my interest is in fascist politics as a mechanism to achieve power. Once those who employ such tactics come to power, the regimes they enact are in large part determined by particular historical conditions. What occurred in Germany was different from what occurred in Italy. Fascist politics does not necessarily lead to an explicitly fascist state, but it is dangerous nonetheless.

Honest politics needs intelligent debate. One of the clearest signs of fascist politics, then, is attacks on universities and expertise — the support systems of discussion and the sources of knowledge and facts. Intelligent debate is impossible without access to different perspectives, a respect for expertise when one’s own knowledge gives out, and a rich enough language to precisely describe reality. When education is undermined, only power and tribal identity remain.

This does not mean that there is no role for universities in fascist politics. In fascist ideology, only one viewpoint is legitimate. Colleges are meant to introduce students to the dominant culture and its mythic past. Education therefore either poses a grave threat to fascism or becomes a pillar of support for the mythical nation. It’s no wonder, then, that cultural clashes on campuses represent a true political battleground and receive national attention. The stakes are high.

For at least the past 50 years, universities have been the epicenter of protest against injustice and authoritarian overreach. Consider, for example, their unique role in the antiwar movement of the 1960s. Where speech is a right, propagandists cannot attack dissent head-on; instead they must represent it as something violent and oppressive (a protest therefore becomes a "riot"). In 2015 the Black Lives Matter movement spread to university campuses. Given that Black Lives Matter gained strength after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo., it is no surprise that the first campus it touched was the University of Missouri at Columbia. The Missouri student movement was named Concerned Student 1950, after the year in which the University of Missouri was desegregated. Among its aims was to address the incidents of racial abuse faced by black students on a regular basis, as well as to change curricula that represented culture and civilization as the product solely of white men. The media largely ignored those motivations, and, representing protesting black students as an angry mob, used the situation as an opportunity to foment rage against the supposed liberal excesses of the university.

Fascist politics seeks to undermine the credibility of institutions that harbor independent voices of dissent. One typical method is to level accusations of hypocrisy. Right now, a contemporary right-wing campaign is charging universities with hypocrisy on the issue of free speech. Universities, it says, claim to hold free speech in the highest regard but suppress any voices that don’t lean left. Critics of campus social-justice movements have found an effective method of turning themselves into the victims of protest. They contend that protesters mean to deny them their own free speech.

These accusations also extend into the classroom. David Horowitz is a far-right activist who has been targeting universities since the 1980s. In 2006 he published a book, The Professors, naming the "101 most dangerous professors in America," a list of leftist and liberal professors, many of whom were supporters of Palestinian rights. In 2009 he published another book, One Party Classroom, with a list of the "150 most dangerous courses in America."

In fascist politics, universities are debased in public discourse, and academics are undermined as legitimate sources of knowledge and expertise.

Horowitz has started numerous organizations to promote his ideas. In the 1990s, he created the Individual Rights Foundation, which, according to the conservative Young America’s Foundation, "led the battle against speech codes on college campuses." In 1992 he founded the monthly tabloid Heterodoxy, which, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, "targeted university students whom Horowitz viewed as being indoctrinated by the entrenched Left in American academia." Horowitz is also responsible for Students for Academic Freedom, which was called the Campaign for Fairness and Inclusion in Higher Education when it was introduced in 2003. The goal of Students for Academic Freedom is to promote the hiring of professors with conservative worldviews, an effort marketed as promoting "intellectual diversity and academic freedom at America’s colleges and universities," according to Young America’s Foundation.

Some will argue that a university must have representatives of all positions. Such an argument suggests that being justified in our own positions requires regularly grappling with opposing ones (and that there was no room for those views in the first place). Anyone who has taught philosophy knows that it is often useful to confront cogent defenses of opposing positions, and universities unquestionably benefit from intelligent and sophisticated proponents of positions along the political spectrum. Nevertheless, the general principle, upon reflection, is not particularly plausible.

No one thinks that the demands of free inquiry require adding researchers to university faculties who seek to demonstrate that the earth is flat. Similarly, I can safely and justifiably reject ISIS ideology without having to confront its advocates in the classroom or faculty lounge. I do not need to have a colleague who defends the view that Jewish people are genetically predisposed to greed in order to justifiably reject such anti-Semitic nonsense. Nor is it even remotely plausible that bringing such voices to campus would aid arguments against such toxic ideologies. More likely, it would undermine intelligent debate by leading to breakdowns of communication and shouting matches.

Universities should supply the intellectual tools to allow an understanding of all perspectives. But the best way to achieve that is to hire the most academically qualified professors. No method of adjudicating academic quality will be free from controversy. But trying to evade that difficulty by forcing universities to hire representatives of every ideological position is a particularly implausible fix, one that can perhaps be justified only by a widespread conspiracy theory about academic standards being hijacked by, say, a supposed epidemic of "political correctness."

For decades, Horowitz was a fringe figure. Now his tactics and aims, and even his rhetoric, have moved into the mainstream, where attacks on "political correctness" on campuses have become commonplace. Jesse Panuccio, acting U.S. associate attorney general, began his remarks at Northwestern University in January by declaring campus free speech "a vitally important topic, and, as you are probably aware, one that Attorney General Sessions has made a priority for the Department of Justice. It is a priority because, in our view, many campuses across the country are failing to protect and promote free speech." Since then the Department of Justice has filed suits against universities for their alleged failure to protect the free-speech rights of right-wing speakers. Top officials, including the attorney general and the secretary of education, have appeared as featured speakers at a Turning Point USA conference, an organization that keeps "watch lists" of supposedly dangerous leftist professors, hardly a hallmark of free-speech advocacy.

continue

Category : Uncategorized | Blog
25
Jul

By Bill Gallegos

Over the last several weeks, the Trump Administration has ramped up its ethnic cleansing campaign aimed at the forced removal of more than 11 million undocumented workers in the US. While the overwhelming majority of this population is Mexican@, it also includes significant numbers of Centro American@s, Asian, and African peoples. It even includes about 500,000 undocumented European immigrants.

But what especially outraged the souls of most people in the US and the world is the humanitarian crisis caused by the kidnapping and incarceration of 3000 children from Latin@ families seeking refugee asylum, fleeing the danger of criminal violence or domestic violence. Jeff Sessions, the outrageously racist US Attorney General, has instructed the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to no longer honor asylum requests based on such violence. With no planning, children ended up in holding centers on the other side of the country sometimes in dog-kennel like facilities, where no one spoke their language (many spoke indigenous languages) or, in the case of babies, they could not talk at all, only cry. There was no plan as to how to re-match these children with parents after the indefinite incarceration period as if that was not important.

After several months of separation, a federal court ordered the Administration to restore the children to their families post haste. But even after the July 10 deadline for children under 5, many are still misplaced, or their parents already deported. Trump’s avowed aim with this cruel policy was to discourage Latin@s from seeking refuge in the US. This is state political terror: threatening to harm a child if the adult does not cooperate. The imprisoned children are held hostage to Trump’s demands for a border wall, greater militarization of the border, and massive reduction of legal immigration. The Party of Christian and “family values,” like the slave owners of the past, do not believe non-white families are fully human.

These horrendous violations of human rights have inspired broad and sustained resistance throughout the US., spearheaded by Chican@-Mexican@s and Latin@s, but including a broad cross-section of the US population, from Black Lives Matter, to elected officials, to media personalities, to labor unions, Indigenous networks, and even the Prime Minister of Canada, who has said that Canada would accept these refugees. Literally, thousands of resistance actions have taken place throughout the US since the kidnapping began.

But while this is just the most egregious of immigration policies, and while xenophobia has found open expression and action in Trump’s administration, the detention and deportation of immigrants, often causing family separation, is not new. The Left must fight for an end not just to the kidnapping of children, but all of the injustices embedded in our immigration and refugee policies. At bottom, it is a fight against hatred, fear, and selfishness. We will win through unity, courage, and acting on our knowledge that an injury to one is an injury to all.

10 Points of Analysis

1. White supremacy is “in,” vociferous, open, encouraged, rewarded. New- Confederate ideology is dominant; that is, a belief that this is a white country, that Black and Brown lives don’t matter, and that everything and anything must be done to keep America white and unequal. This includes repression of citizens of color, making it lengthy, difficult, and expensive for legal immigrants to gain citizenship, tracking and deporting all without papers, using harsh measures such as the snatching of the children to make immigration as terrible as the situations in the home country, and stopping the entry of people seeking asylum due to documentable threats of violence from political or social oppression. continue

Category : Uncategorized | Blog
22
Jul

“All revolutions go down in history, yet history does not fill up; the rivers of revolution return to whence they came, only to flow again.” – Guy Debord1

By Paul Saba

July 19th, 2018

Will the ongoing revival of American socialism stimulate interest in one of its lesser known antecedents? Verso Books certainly hopes so. That’s why they’ve reissued Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air, originally published in 2002, now with a new foreword by Alicia Garza, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter. The book chronicles the history of the US “new communist movement” (NCM) from the late 1960s through the 1980s, when thousands of young activists, radicalized by the Vietnam War, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and liberation movements in communities of color at home and abroad, embraced Marxism-Leninism and committed themselves to changing the world.
When Revolution in the Air was written, George W. Bush was President and 9/11 and the “war on terror” were still in the future. The American left was in disarray and on the defensive. Behind it were a long series of defeats – the neo-liberal transformations inaugurated by Reagan and Thatcher, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allied regimes, China and Vietnam’s increasing adoption of capitalist forms of economic development, the retreat of liberation movements across the Third World.

Nearly two decades later, the international balance of forces still favors the right, but the prospects of the US left appear to have significantly improved. Bernie Sanders’ electoral campaign saw millions of Americans voting for a candidate who openly called himself a socialist. Thousands of young people have swelled the ranks of DSA. Workers are organizing and striking. Class struggle is back on the agenda.

Elbaum wrote Revolution in the Air in 2001 to reclaim the lessons of the new communist movement for contemporary militants who, like their early sixties’ predecessors, became activists when the radical left was fragmented and weak. How relevant is this history and the lessons he draws for us now, in this new period of left upsurge?

I. Revolution in the Air’s Strength: A Clear Chronological Narrative

The greatest strength of Revolution in the Air is its compelling chronological narrative of the origins, rise and proliferation of various NCM groups and their subsequent crises and decline. Elbaum carefully tracks the arc of NCM history from the initial burst of energy that birthed the first organizations, to the stillborn unity initiatives of the early 1970s, to the growing difficulties and splits of the mid- and late-1970s, to the decline/collapse of many groups and the movement as a whole in the 1980s.

Elbaum does a good job of identifying the NCM’s strong points:

The movement’s strengths centered on three crucial issues that – albeit in altered form – remain pivotal to any future attempt at left renewal: commitment to internationalism and anti-imperialism; the centrality of the fight against racism; and the urgency of developing cadre and creating organizations capable of mobilizing working people and the oppressed.2

The NCM combined ‘60s moral fervor with a degree of ‘30s political realism. Its anti-imperialism “led to practical activity that materially and politically aided popular movements in other lands and that benefited oppressed people in the US by weakening the common enemy.” It “put the fight for equality at the center of its politics,” “insisted that challenging the oppression of peoples of color lay at the heart of the revolutionary project,” and “stressed the importance of winning whites to self-conscious opposition to racism.” The NCM demonstrated a dogged commitment to developing cadre and forming disciplined organizations. Emphasis on the vanguard nature of its organizational forms “encouraged activists to think in broad, long-range terms; to ponder all dimensions of the class struggle; to take their work and themselves seriously; to assume a great deal of responsibility and push themselves to their limits.3

These strengths enabled the NCM to both significantly influence the broader left milieu of its time and to “maintain a militant, anti-capitalist current for longer than most other tendencies that came out of the upheavals of the 1960s.”4

But Elbaum is alert to the movement’s weaknesses as well – its ultra-leftism, dogmatism and sectarianism – and its fragility. The NCM was continuously buffeted by centripetal and centrifugal tendencies. Organizations sought to come together in unifying party-building initiatives and were driven apart by numerous political and ideological differences, with many smaller groups resisting the pull of both dynamics. Of necessity in a book of this length, the focus is on the major NCM formations and their initiatives. However, something of the genuine breadth and diversity of the movement as a whole is lost in the absence of more attention to the less well known, out-of-the-way groups.

The NCM preached the importance of building multi-national organizations. Yet for much of its history, groups of white communists and communists of color evolved on separate but parallel tracks – the first primarily emerging out of student, anti-war and anti-draft movements; the second out of liberation movements in the Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican and Asian American communities. The very different origins of the movement’s two components had profound repercussions for their long-term prospects.

For all groups, the challenge was to create and maintain stable and growing organizations while implanting themselves in the working class and/or local communities. Often these tasks were summed up in the slogans “unite Marxist-Leninists; win the advanced to communism.” Both tasks proved to be extremely difficult, in no small part due to the ways militants undertook to implement them.

Every serious group, no matter how small, considered itself a new communist party in embryo (or at least a part thereof). Hence the need to formulate positions on all important issues. But the more issues a group had a position on, the more opportunities existed for differences and disagreements to arise over them – internally, in relation to other groups, and in relation to the “advanced” they were trying to recruit. Elbaum puts much of the blame for the resulting disputatiousness on the NCM’s Maoism but this is a problem that has plagued every branch of the communist movement, as anyone familiar with the fissiparous history of Trotskyism can attest.

The early NCM groups strongly identified with the Chinese revolution and the Chinese Communist Party (CPC), just as the first communist parties at the dawn of the twentieth century had strongly identified with the Bolshevik revolution and the new Soviet state – and for the same reasons. The Chinese line seemed to offer the best chance of defeating imperialism and promoting world revolution, and China’s prestige and attractiveness to revolutionaries worldwide was expected to rub off on its American supporters.

Had the NCM seriously studied the lessons of the first communist parties’ unwavering adherence to Soviet policy they might have avoided the pitfalls of this model. In the early 1930s, particularly in the depths of the Great Depression, capitalism seemed to be faltering while the USSR’s economy was taking off. The Soviet example drew many Americans to communism (“I have seen the future and it works” – Lincoln Steffens) and to the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). Likewise, the Soviet Union’s militant anti-fascist policies attracted opponents of developments in Italy and Germany who might otherwise have shown little interest in the communist experiment.

But as the 1930s wore on, Soviet prestige began to wane under the impact of internal purges and great power politics. The low point was reached in the 1939 with the Soviet-German non-aggression pact and the concomitant demand that the Communist International abandon its anti-fascist priorities. A close association with the Soviet Union now turned from an asset into a liability. Soviet prestige was briefly restored during the war years, but, with the onset of the Cold War, the CPUSA’s ties to the USSR became an enormous millstone around the Party’s neck, one that almost finished it off when Khrushchev’s 1956 secret speech on the Stalin period became public.

A similar process occurred over the life of the NCM. China’s championing of world revolution in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and the example of the Red Guards – millions of Chinese young people taking history into their own hands – initially thrilled American leftists, many of whom were being radicalized in the fight against US imperialism in Vietnam. Here, unlike the post-Stalin Soviet Union, was a country ready and willing to confront the “main enemy of the peoples of the world.”

But all too soon, things began to change. In 1974, when China first put forward its “Theory of Three Worlds,” few recognized the implications for Chinese foreign policy or the impact it would have on the NCM. Step one was elevating the USSR to a “social-imperialist superpower” on the same level as US Imperialism. From there it was only another small step to characterizing the USSR as the “more dangerous” of the two superpowers, the one against whom the main fire of revolutionaries had to be concentrated. The consequences of these formulations were profound. China, whose prestige had been tied to its anti-imperialist, revolutionary stance, was now backing reactionary regimes and movements around the world if they took up anti-Soviet positions and moving toward a de facto alliance with the United States.

These policy changes, together with the fall of the “Gang of Four” after Mao’s death and the CPC’s subsequent repudiation of the Cultural Revolution, tarnished China’s revolutionary credentials internationally and sparked an increasingly acrimonious debate, not only within the broader American left milieu, but within the ranks of the NCM itself. At issue was the extent to which the movement could continue to describe itself as Maoist or maintain its allegiance to CPC positions.

What began as debate soon became a crisis, manifesting itself in different ways in different organizations. One of the largest groups – the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) – underwent a debilitating split. Other groups, forsaking the CPC, looked for an alternative leading center for the world communist movement. When China and Albania had a falling out, some found it in Tirana. Still others, identified as “anti-dogmatist/anti-revisionists,” seized on the crisis to challenge the NCM to rethink its basic allegiances and its theoretical foundations. Line of March, Elbaum’s own former group, progressively abandoned its anti-revisionist identity and moved toward openly pro-Soviet positions. Other organizations, like the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) (CPML), remained loyal to China and tried to carry on as if no crisis existed.

Had this crisis erupted at a time when NCM groups were otherwise enjoying successes in recruitment and base building its impact might have been less severe. However, in this realm, too, many organizations were beginning to experience a crisis of a different character. This one was generated by the cumulative effects of their own organizational weaknesses and isolation. Disillusionment with a lack of progress was setting in, memberships were falling, and confidence in old certainties was beginning to wane.

These twin crises hit the predominantly white NCM organizations harder than those groups composed primarily of people of color. As noted earlier, white communists in the main came out of the student, anti-war, and anti-draft struggles. These were all conjunctural struggles, born of a particular moment in history and largely disappearing once that moment had passed. By the late 1970s the two main predominantly white groups – the CPML and the RCP – were feeling the combined effects of the melting away of the mass base from which they had emerged and their lack of real successes in building a new one in the working class.

The CPML, which, of all the Maoist groups, had secured the “China franchise” from CPC leaders, was most affected by the crises.5 In 1980 it entered a terminal decline and expired the following year. The RCP, already much weakened as a result of the 1977 split, pinned its hopes on championing Mao’s legacy and defending the Gang of Four against the post-Mao Chinese leadership. But, forsaking the working class for youth and lumpen elements, its practice quickly degenerated into a series of ultra-left campaigns and media-events. Membership declined, and a growing focus on the writings of Chairman Bob Avakian pointed toward the leader-cult groupuscule the RCP would soon become. continue

Category : Uncategorized | Blog
16
Jun

The Communist Manifesto foresaw the predatory and polarised global capitalism of the 21st century. But Marx and Engels also showed us that we have the power to create a better world.

By Yanis Varoufakis

The Guardian

April 20, 2018 -For a manifesto to succeed, it must speak to our hearts like a poem while infecting the mind with images and ideas that are dazzlingly new. It needs to open our eyes to the true causes of the bewildering, disturbing, exciting changes occurring around us, exposing the possibilities with which our current reality is pregnant. It should make us feel hopelessly inadequate for not having recognised these truths ourselves, and it must lift the curtain on the unsettling realisation that we have been acting as petty accomplices, reproducing a dead-end past. Lastly, it needs to have the power of a Beethoven symphony, urging us to become agents of a future that ends unnecessary mass suffering and to inspire humanity to realise its potential for authentic freedom.

No manifesto has better succeeded in doing all this than the one published in February 1848 at 46 Liverpool Street, London. Commissioned by English revolutionaries, The Communist Manifesto (or the Manifesto of the Communist Party, as it was first published) was authored by two young Germans – Karl Marx, a 29-year-old philosopher with a taste for epicurean hedonism and Hegelian rationality, and Friedrich Engels, a 28-year-old heir to a Manchester mill.

As a work of political literature, the manifesto remains unsurpassed. Its most infamous lines, including the opening one (“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”), have a Shakespearean quality. Like Hamlet confronted by the ghost of his slain father, the reader is compelled to wonder: “Should I conform to the prevailing order, suffering the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune bestowed upon me by history’s irresistible forces? Or should I join these forces, taking up arms against the status quo and, by opposing it, usher in a brave new world?”

For Marx and Engels’ immediate readership, this was not an academic dilemma, debated in the salons of Europe. Their manifesto was a call to action, and heeding this spectre’s invocation often meant persecution, or, in some cases, lengthy imprisonment. Today, a similar dilemma faces young people: conform to an established order that is crumbling and incapable of reproducing itself, or oppose it, at considerable personal cost, in search of new ways of working, playing and living together? Even though communist parties have disappeared almost entirely from the political scene, the spirit of communism driving the manifesto is proving hard to silence.

To see beyond the horizon is any manifesto’s ambition. But to succeed as Marx and Engels did in accurately describing an era that would arrive a century-and-a-half in the future, as well as to analyse the contradictions and choices we face today, is truly astounding. In the late 1840s, capitalism was foundering, local, fragmented and timid. And yet Marx and Engels took one long look at it and foresaw our globalised, financialised, iron-clad, all-singing-all-dancing capitalism. This was the creature that came into being after 1991, at the very same moment the establishment was proclaiming the death of Marxism and the end of history.

Of course, the predictive failure of The Communist Manifesto has long been exaggerated. I remember how even leftwing economists in the early 1970s challenged the pivotal manifesto prediction that capital would “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere”. Drawing upon the sad reality of what were then called third world countries, they argued that capital had lost its fizz well before expanding beyond its “metropolis” in Europe, America and Japan. continue

Category : Uncategorized | Blog
1
Jul

It’s a standard assumption in the West: As a society progresses, it eventually becomes a capitalist, multi-party democracy. Right? Eric X. Li, a Chinese investor and political scientist, begs to differ. In this provocative, boundary-pushing talk, he asks his audience to consider that there’s more than one way to run a successful modern nation. A rising public intellectual, Eric X Li argues that the universality claim of Western democratic systems is going to be “morally challenged” by China.

Category : Uncategorized | Blog
4
May

 

Adorno and Horkheimer wrote this key text during their wartime exile, arriving at a pessimistic view of our place in a false system

Theodor W Adorno and Max Horkheimer

Theodor W Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightment is ‘perhaps the central text of the Frankfurt school’. Photographs: Getty Images

By Peter Thompson

The Guardian, UK

April 8, 2013 – The Frankfurt school came together and developed its theories in a world left shattered by the first world war. The Weimar Republic was essentially a shell-shocked society in which many of the old certainties had been smashed to pieces. Worse than that, nothing had arisen from the ruins to give anyone any hope for the future.

As liberal democracy failed and Weimar spiralled down into Nazism, this school of almost entirely Jewish-Marxist intellectuals were forced to flee a country which had turned against them for reasons of both race and politics. One of their most cherished members, Walter Benjamin, killed himself in 1940 on the French-Spanish border, an act which threw many of the remaining members into even greater depression.

Changing their country more often than they changed their shoes, as Bertolt Brecht put it, they ended up in the US during the Hitler years and although this was a refuge for them, it was not a society they felt had anything to offer humanity. Ernst Bloch described the US as "a cul-de-sac lit by neon lights" – almost a template for a David Lynch film – and they felt that a society obligated to the pursuit of individualised happiness was the epitome of a world of shallow and inauthentic surfaces and insincerity. In one of the most famous aphorisms from Minima Moralia, published in 1951, philosopher Theodor W Adorno says that it is not possible to live a true life in a false system.

Most important in this context, the thinkers of the Frankfurt school did not draw a great distinction between various forms of capitalism, be they consumerist democracies or fascist dictatorships. Although the surface appearance of oppressive mechanisms were obviously different, for them, the underlying rule of capital was the same.

Dialectic of Enlightenment, perhaps the central text of the Frankfurt school, was written by Adorno and Max Horkheimer during these years in exile. It arrives at a pessimistic view of what can be done against a false system which, through the "culture industry", constantly creates a false consciousness about the world around us based on myths and distortions deliberately spread in order to benefit the ruling class.

continue

Category : Uncategorized | Blog
10
Jan

Sylvia Thompson, 1924-2012, Presente!

Sylvia H. Thompson, who spent her life fighting for the poor and oppressed and championing the legacy of the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, died of cancer in December in New York City.

Thompson was born Sylvia Bernard in 1924 in San Antonio, Texas. As a young woman, she joined the Communist Party and helped launch the Civil Rights Congress in Texas. In 1947, she traveled to North Carolina where she spent more than a year organizing electrical workers to join the union. It was there that she met her first husband, Sam Hall, a district organizer for the Party. The young couple moved to Birmingham, Alabama where, as open communists, they endured constant surveillance, threats and break-ins.

After Hall’s death, Sylvia moved to New York City where she went to work for the state Party office and met her second husband, Robert G. Thompson in late 1957. Bob Thompson had been a battalion commander with the Lincoln Brigade in Spain, and went on to receive one of the highest medals for valor – the Distinguished Service Cross – for his heroic actions in the Pacific Theater in World War II.

When he died in 1965, Sylvia sought and received permission from the Army to have his ashes interred in Arlington National Cemetery. However, when publicity about Bob’s previous imprisonment as a Smith Act defendant surfaced, the Army reversed itself and denied the widow’s request.

Sylvia took the matter to court as well as to the American people, coordinating a campaign to expose the Army’s shameful actions. In 1968, a federal appeals court ordered the Army to inter Bob Thompson’s ashes.

In subsequent years, Sylvia became a mainstay in the New York office of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, working with veterans and organizing the annual reunions.

Category : Uncategorized | Blog
30
Dec

Spaghetti Communism? The Politics of the Italian Western

Franco Nero in Sergio Corbucci’s Django 1966

Sept 1, 2011 – If Westerns allegorize a mythical space of gradual resolution and order, the western all’italiana explodes the American dream of stabilizing prosperity with excessive violence and explicit anti-colonial themes. Benjamin Noys argues for a deeper analysis of an intensely political cinematic genre

By Benjamin Noys
Mute Magazine

Cleaning up the Whole World

Gilberto Perez remarks that ‘the Western doesn’t just tell violent stories, it tells stories about the meaning, the management of violence, the establishment of social order and political authority’.1 Perez elsewhere concedes that the Western runs ‘a gamut of political persuasions’,2but is keen to emphasise that in the classical American Western this ‘management of violence’ takes the form of a ‘vital dialectic’3 in which is synthesised a ‘civilized violence’.4 Serving his deliberately provocative re-imagination of the ‘frontier’ as equivocal site of liberty, Perez regards the Western as the romance of the birth of a new political order through the, often literal, marriage of East and West, in which violence plays the role of a ‘vanishing mediator’. Such an argument hardly seems to hold for the Italian Western of the 1960s and 1970s, often known affectionately or derogatorily as ‘Spaghetti Westerns’, in which the excessive hyper-violence associated with the form makes it difficult to see how it might be pressed into service for a ‘vital dialectic’ of ‘civilised violence’. The very excess of the violence on display, as well as its displacement from the ‘mythological’ place of America, fragments any dialectical sublation of violence within a national or political order.

This suggests a very different ‘political persuasion’, and very different questions concerning the ‘management of violence’. In fact, objections to Spaghetti Westerns, often by critics enamoured of classic American Westerns (or ‘Hamburger Westerns’5, in Christopher Frayling’s mischievous suggestion), were usually founded on their ‘excess’ of violence. Philip French, writing in 1972, describes a filmography of continental Westerns as ‘to me read[ing] like a brochure for a season in hell.’6A surprisingly apposite comment as we will see. Spaghetti Westerns, in fact, constructed a form of violence that carried a rather different and more intense charge. Franco Nero, who played the eponymous ‘Django’ in the seminal Spaghetti Western, remarked:

Spaghetti Westerns were for a certain kind of audience – the workers, I think. Mainly workers, boys… yes, all kinds of workers – and the workers they fantasize a lot, and they would like to go to the boss in the office and be the hero and say ‘Sir, from today, something’s going to happen.’ And then – bam, bam! they want to clean up the whole world.7

A rather extreme example of the refusal of work, although if one considers the strategies and intensity of conflict in Italy between 1968-1977 – ‘Our Comrade P.38′ as one anonymous tract had it – ‘clean[ing] up the whole world’, gains a prescient resonance.8 continue

Category : Uncategorized | Blog
23
Dec

By Ben Campbell
The North Star

Dec 15, 2012 – While today’s left has frayed into many strands, there was a time when the left presented, or at least aspired to present, a coherent Weltanschauung. This was Marxism, founded on Karl Marx’s brilliant synthesis of materialism and the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel, which led him and his collaborator Friedrich Engels to an unprecedented coalescence of existing human knowledge.

Today’s crisis of capitalism has, unsurprisingly, led to a renewed interest in Marxism. Yet any “return to Marx” will not be found in an exegesis of ancient texts but in grounding Marx’s materialist dialectic in the present. Just as Marx critiqued 19th-century advances by incorporating them into his thought, so too must the most promising developments of the last century be synthesized into a radical understanding for the present. Unfortunately, today’s left has for too long been relegated to social and cultural studies, ceding the “hard” discourse in economics and science to a new generation of vulgar scientistic “quants”. The resulting left has too often neglected a dialectical critique, in favor of a dichotomous relation to science.

It was not always so. In an attempt to recover some of the lost spirit of the scientific left, I will be interviewing subjects at the interface of science and the left. I begin today with Helena Sheehan, Professor Emerita at Dublin City University. Her research interests include science studies and the history of Marxism, and she is the author of Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History (available on her website).

Ben Campbell: The advances of 19th-century science were inseparable from the rise of “materialist” philosophy. While Marx certainly belongs to this tradition, he was also strongly influenced by German idealism, specifically the dialectical system of G.W.F. Hegel. What did a “dialectical” materialism mean for Marx, and how did he see it as an advance over the materialism of his day?

Helena Sheehan: The materialist philosophy of the 19th century was tending in a positivist direction. It was inclined to stress induction and to get stuck in a play of particulars. Marxism pulled this in the direction of a more historicist and more holistic materialism. It was an approach that overcame myopia, one that looked to the whole and didn’t get lost in the parts.

BC: You’ve written, “It is no accident that Marxism made its entry onto the historical stage at the same historical moment as Darwinism.” What do you mean by this, and what do you see as the connection between these two monumental figures?

HS: The idea of evolution was an idea whose time had come. It was in the air. Historical conditions ripen and set the intellectual agenda. Great thinkers are those who are awake to the historical process, those who gather up what is struggling for expression. Marx and Darwin were both great thinkers in this sense, although others were also coming to the same conclusions. Marx and Engels were far bolder than Darwin, carrying forward the realization of a naturalistic and developmental process beyond the origin of biological species into the realm of socio-historical institutions and human thought.

BC: Engels also wrote extensively on science, particularly in his manuscript Dialectics of Nature, unfinished and unpublished during his lifetime. What is it about this document, and Engels more generally, that has been so controversial in the history of Marxism’s relation to science?

HS: There is a tension in Marxist philosophy between its roots in the history of philosophy and its commitment to empirical knowledge. For the best Marxist thinkers, certainly for Marx and Engels themselves, it has been a creative interaction. However, some of those pulling toward German idealist philosophy, particularly that of Kant and Hegel, have brought into Marxism a hostility to the natural sciences, influenced by the Methodenstreit, an antagonistic conceptualization of the humanities versus the sciences, which has played out in various forms over the decades.

The critique of positivism has been bloated to an anti-science stance. The tendency of some to counterpose a humanistic Marx to a positivist Engels is not supported by historical evidence, as I have demonstrated at some length in my book.

BC: It seems to me that this synthesis of dialectical philosophy with materialism has always been contentious. On one hand, as you say, there is the danger of reducing an anti-positivist stance to an anti-scientific stance. On the other hand, there is the threat of “the dialectic” being reduced to a mere rhetorical flourish for an otherwise bare scientism. Other writers, like John Bellamy Foster, have argued that Marxism after Marx and Engels split along these lines. Do you agree with this assessment? After Marx and Engels, what or who best demonstrated the potential of a “dialectical” science to transcend this divide?

HS: No, I don’t agree with it. There have always been those who synthesized these two streams. Most familiar to me is the 1930s British Marxism of Bernal, Haldane, Caudwell, and others, and post-war Eastern European Marxism. Regarding the latter, it suffered from the orthodoxy of parties in power, but it wasn’t all catechetical dogmatism. In the United States, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin. This would still characterize my own position today.

BC: Yet despite the ability of some to transcend it, there does seem to have historically been much ambiguity concerning what a “materialist dialectic” would really entail. Some, like philosopher David Bakhurst, have traced some of this ambiguity back to the philosophical writings of Lenin. Bakhurst argues that while Lenin appeared at times to advocate a “radical Hegelian realism”, at other times his philosophy failed to transcend a rather vulgar materialism. How did any such ambiguities in Lenin’s own writings contribute to subsequent debates in Soviet science?

HS: Yes, I would agree with that. Lenin could be very philosophically and politically sophisticated, but I never thought his philosophical position quite gelled. Some of his texts on reflection theory were epistemologically crude. As to the effect on Soviet debates, these were beset by the tendency to deal with writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin as sacred texts. This rigidified further after the Bolshevization of all academic discipline, when there had to be one and only one legitimate Marxist position on every question. A quote from Lenin stopped any further debate.

BC: Such talk about the rigidity of Soviet science inevitably leads to the specter of T.D. Lysenko. For readers who may not be familiar, could you briefly describe Lysenko’s work? How would you respond to those who use Lysenko as a cautionary tale about the danger posed by Marxism or dialectical thinking to biology?

HS: T.D. Lysenko (1898–1976) was a Ukrainian agronomist who came to prominence in the U.S.S.R. in 1927 when his experiments in winter planting of peas were sensationalized by Pravda. He became lionized as a scientist close to his peasant roots who could serve the needs of Soviet agriculture in the spirit of the first Five-Year Plan. He then advanced the technique of vernalization to a theory of the phasic development of plants and then to a whole alternative approach to biology. This was in the context of wider debates in international science about genetics and evolution, about heredity and environment, about inheritance of acquired characteristics. It was also in the context of the Bolshevization of academic disciplines and the search for a proletarian biology and the purges of academic institutions.

The issues were many and complex. There has been a tendency to flatten them all out into Lysenkoism as a cautionary tale against philosophical or political “interference” in science. However, I believe that philosophy and politics are relevant to the theory and practice of science. Lysenkoism is a cautionary tale in the perils and pitfalls of certain approaches to that.

BC: If we turn from the Soviet philosophy of science to that of the non-Marxist West, you see a greater reluctance to mix philosophy with the content of science. Instead, a lot of canonical  “philosophy of science” (e.g., Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend) has more to do with scientific method. What does Marxism, with its emphasis on contradiction, have to say about the scientific method? I wonder specifically about Lakatos’ background in Hegelian Marxism and whether there are affinities there.

HS: One big difference between these two traditions in philosophy of science is that Marxism pursued questions of worldview, exploring the philosophical implications of the empirical sciences, setting it apart from the narrow methodologism of the other tradition.

However, Marxism also addressed questions of scientific method. There is an elaborate literature dealing with epistemological questions from a Marxist point of view. There have been many debates, but the mainstream position would be critical realism. What is distinctive about Marxism in this sphere is how it cuts through the dualism of realism versus social constructivism. Marxism has made the strongest claims of any intellectual tradition before or since about the socio-historical character of science, yet always affirmed its cognitive achievements.

The fact that Lakatos had a background in Marxism made him inclined to take a wider view than his later colleagues, but I find that he left a lot to be desired in that respect. Nevertheless, contra Feyerabend, I think that the project of specifying demarcation criteria, so central to the neo-positivist project, is a crucially important task.

BC: Karl Popper famously invoked a “falsifiability” criterion as a means of solving the demarcation problem, which refers to the question of how to distinguish science from non-science (or if that is even possible). Popper’s solution has influenced many scientists but has been strongly critiqued in philosophical circles. How does a Marxist approach inform this demarcation problem?

HS: There is a need for criteria to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims to knowledge. The positivist and neo-positivist traditions contributed much to the formulation of such criteria. They did so, however, from a base that was too narrow, employing criteria that were too restricted, leaving out of the picture too much that was all too real, excluding historical, psychological, sociological, metaphysical dimensions as irrelevant. Marxism agrees with the emphasis on empirical evidence and logical coherence, but brings the broader context to bear. It synthesizes the best of other epistemological positions: logical empiricism, rationalism, social constructivism.

BC: Today, Marxism stands at its weakest historically, right as the global economic crash seems to have most vindicated it. Similarly, Marxism has almost no direct influence on 21st-century science, yet discoveries and perspectives seem increasingly “dialectical” (e.g., biological emphases on complex systems, emergence, and circular causality). What do you make of the situation at present? Would it be possible to develop a “dialectical” or even “Marxist” science without Marxism as a political force? Or will science always be fragmented and one-sided so long as there remains no significant political challenge to capital?

HS: Yes, Marxism is at a low ebb as far as overt influence is concerned, precisely at a time when its analysis is most relevant and even most vindicated.

I think that people can come to many of the same realizations and conclusions as Marxists without calling themselves Marxists. However, I don’t think there can be any fully meaningful analysis of science that does not analyze it in relation to the dominant mode of production. Such an analysis shows how the capitalist mode of production brings about intellectual fragmentation as well as economic exploitation and social disintegration.

I don’t think that left parties having any chance of taking power in the future will be Marxist parties in the old sense, although Marxism will likely be a force within them. I am thinking particularly of SYRIZA, with whom I’ve been intensively engaged lately. One of the leading thinkers in SYRIZA is Aristides Baltas, a Marxist and a philosopher of science.

Thank you, Helena.

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