Archive for the ‘Socialism’ Category

The Redgraves

May 23, 2011

When I heard that a book had come out about the Redgrave family, my curiosity was piqued. The Redgraves are interesting people, and an interesting book could certainly be written about them. However, judging from the extract that appears in the Daily Mail, Tim Adler’s House of Redgrave is shallow and mean-spirited. Here is a typical passage:

    Never a shrinking violet, Vanessa Redgrave knew exactly what to do when she found a listening device in an electrical socket at her home. She called a Press conference.

    It was common knowledge, she told the world in thrilling theatrical tones, that the internal security service MI5 had been bugging her conversations since she’d been a member of a Trotskyist organisation called the Workers Revolutionary Party.

    Well, she wasn’t going to stand for it. So she was making a formal complaint to the European Commission, claiming that MI5 had violated her human rights.

    Unfortunately, her grand gesture fell flat. Not only did the EU maintain that bugging radicals such as Vanessa Redgrave was ‘necessary in a democratic society’ — but it turned out that the bug had nothing to do with MI5 in the first place. It had been planted by a rival Left-wing faction.

    Anyone else might have been utterly humiliated at making a fool of themselves[sic], but not Vanessa. As her daughter Natasha once said, it never bothered her that she wasn’t liked — because being disliked gives her enormous freedom.

Now, in what sense did Vanessa Redgrave make a fool of herself? It was reasonable for her to assume that MI5 planted the bug. (MI5 does that sort of thing.) Of course, one could argue about whether this was worth holding a press conference, but there was nothing inherently foolish about that. Moreover, Adler seems strangely untroubled by the EU’s Orwellian argument that it’s necessary for a government to spy on its own citizens in a “democratic society”. As for the bug being placed by a rival left group, well, that’s just another example of the mindless sectarianism of the British Left. If Vanessa Redgrave is to be criticized for anything, it’s that she bought into that mindless sectarianism herself, though that’s not what concerns Adler here.

Elsewhere, Adler writes about Vanessa’s estrangement from her husband, Tony Richardson:

    Richardson’s betrayal, however, was hard to bear. Despite her best intentions, she felt as if she and her husband were separated by a wall of glass, each of them mouthing words the other was unable to understand.

Uh, and how does Adler know that she felt this way? He doesn’t say.

To me, an interesting question is why were Vanessa and Corin Redgrave, two intelligent people, attracted to such an obvious crank as Gerry Healy? Adler doesn’t even try to answer that.

An interesting book about the Redgraves remains to be written.

Chris Williams

February 4, 2011

Chris Williams, a professor at Pace University, spoke at the University of Oregon recently. He was promoting his new book, Ecology and Socialism. He began by talking about the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. He pointed out those uprisings were in part a reaction to the rising cost of food, due to the rising cost of oil (one calorie of food requires ten calories of oil), and in part a reaction to the revelations in Wikileaks, which revealed the corruption in U.S. policy in the Middle East. He then went on to point out that Wikileaks documents show that the U.S. is not serious about fighting climate change. He criticized the U.S.’s behavior at the recent climate conference, pressuring countries to accept the U.S.’s terms. He pointed out that climate change is making the weather more unpredictable. “If you can’t predict the climate, you can’t grown any food,” he said, since farmers have to know when to plant their crops.

He discussed Obama’s State of the Union speech. Obama said his goal is to have 80% clean energy by 2035. Unfortunately, Obama considers “clean” coal and nuclear energy to be “clean energy”. In effect, the U.S. elite want to continue down a 19th century road to energy use. He pointed out that the Obama administration has approved zero solar energy projects and only one offshore wind project. The reason for the U.S.’s reactionary position is that the U.S. economy is based on the continual flow of cheap oil. There are plans to double oil production from the tar sands in Canada. He also talked about hydro-cracking, and it’s deleterious effect on the environment.

Williams went on to argue that capitalism is inherently anti-ecological and unsustainable. First of all, capitalism is based on continual expansion. Grow or die. This is a problem because we live on a finite planet. Also, under capitalism, exchange value is more important than use value. It’s more important to create things to sell than to create things for use. Also, because of the need to keep profits high, there is an incentive to cut corners, to build things that pollute.

Williams sees market solutions, such as cap and trade as false solutions. He was also dismissive of some technological solutions as capturing carbon in the ground. He was also opposed to the “blame ourselves” approach. He pointed out that only 2.5% of pollution is by individuals. The rest is by corporations and by the government. The U.S. military is the world’s biggest polluter. It produces more wast then the top 5 chemical companies.

Williams argues that by 2030 the world could be powered by renewable energy. In order, to achieve that, however, we need a world system that is not based on profit.

Socialism 2010

July 8, 2010

This last weekend I went to the ISO’s Socialism 2010 in Oakland. I went with four friends of mine, in one person’s car. Two sat in front, and three of us crammed into the back seat. It takes about seven hours to drive from Eugene to Oakland. This experience taught me a lesson I will always remember: never cram three people into a car seat for a seven-hour drive. It didn’t help that we drove through California’s broiling hot Central Valley. (We could have gone down the coast, but it would have taken a lot longer.) Even with the air conditioner on, we were sweating.

I’ve driven through Oakland many times, but I’d never really looked at the place before. I found it to be a very charming and pleasant city, one that has been unfairly overshadowed by its neighbor, San Francisco. The convention center was right on the edge of the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. Only a couple of blocks away from my (over-priced) hotel was a Vietnamese restaurant that served delicious sandwiches for $2.75 each. (I swear, I’m not making this up.)

One of the speakers I saw was Chris Hedges. I was surprised when I first learned that Hedges would be speaking at this event. I recall him making disparaging remarks about Trotsky in one of his books. (I guess this just shows that we shouldn’t immediately dismiss people just because they have some disagreements with us.) He attracted a larger audience than anyone else at this event. (Poor Josh Frank was scheduled to speak at the same time as Hedges. Boy, he must have been pissed.) Hedges’s talk was mostly good. He gave an absolutely devastating criticism of capitalism. (And this guy used to work for the New York Times!) However, he ended his talk by basically saying that revolution is impossible and there’s nothing we can do. (As Jerry Garcia famously said, “Bummer”.) Not surprisingly, during the discussion section, the speakers all took him to task for this. In his wrap-up, Hedges’s response to this was very interesting. He said he had been a reporter in war zones, and that he had learned that in a war zone it makes no difference whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.

One other thing I didn’t like about Hedges’s talk is that he spent a lot of time talking about Michael Jackson’s funeral. Hedges apparently regards this event as a metaphor for all the false values in our society. Perhaps so, but did he need to spend almost 15 minutes talking about it?

I also saw the environmentalist, Heather Rogers, speak. She criticized the idea that it’s enough to have people making “green” choices. This is an idea that’s quite popular in Eugene, so it was interesting to hear a critique of it. Rogers emphasized the fact that it is capitalism and the need for profit that ultimately decide what choices we are allowed to make.

Wallace Shawn also spoke. He read an essay titled “Why I Became a Socialist”. It is a simple, non-political argument for socialism. It was also rather poignant. He talked about how our current society wastes people’s potential. I think this shows we can talk to people about socialism without having to quote Marx and Lenin.

After his talk, Shawn signed books for people. A friend of mine wanted to get Shawn’s autograph, so he grabbed a book that was one of Shawn’s earlier works and brought it to the table. Shawn looked at the book and said, “God help you if you read this. It’s such a depressing book.”

On the drive back, I immediately fell asleep, because I had gotten no sleep the night before. (I was coming down with a cold.) I woke up suddenly and found that we had left the highway. We were in a town that was nestled in those amazingly beautiful rolling hills that surround San Francisco Bay. My friends had decided that they wanted to sample free wine at a wine cooperative. The man who waited on us at the counter owned one of the local wineries. He told us that his great-grandfather had started making wine in the nineteenth century. The wine was very good. My friends bought some bottles, but, since my financial situation is tight right now, I declined to do so.

Next to the cooperative was a trailer, where a Black family sold barbecue. Their only sign was a board that had “Bar-B-Q” written in magic marker on it. It looked a little incongruous sitting next to this upscale wine place. After buying wine, my friends and I went over there to order some food. They advertised their barbecue as “Alabama style”. I don’t know enough about regional barbecue styles to be able to say whether or not that was simply a gimmick. It was quite good though. So there I was with my friends, sitting at a picnic table under a warm late afternoon sun, eating good barbecue and drinking good wine, surrounded by a beautiful landscape. I have to admit, there are times when I do miss living in California.

Chris Harman (1942-2009)

November 10, 2009

Chris Harman

I was at an ISO meeting in Seattle on Saturday, when Lee Sustar got up and announced that Chris Harman had died the day before. Harman was a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party of Britain and an influential figure on the British Left. He wrote a number of important books on Marxist economics and on history. I highly recommend his A People’s History of the World. Alas, I lent my copy to someone and never saw it again. (I also lent my copy of Harman’s How Marxism Works to someone and never saw it again. I guess it’s just as well. His writings deserve to be widely circulated.)

I never met Harman, but I did hear him speak once. It was in Chicago in 1996. I’m afraid I don’t remember much about it except that Harman had the most intense gaze I have ever seen in my life. There were several hundred people in the auditorium, and I was sitting all the way in the back. Yet, throughout his entire talk I had the distinct impression that he was looking directly at me. My sense of this was so vivid that it actually made me feel uncomfortable. I can’t recall ever having a similar experience. Looking at some pictures of him on the Internet lately, I could see how I was able to get that impression.

Harman’s death is a great loss for the international Left. My sincere condolences to his family and to his friends.

Socialism 2009

July 8, 2009

The Women's Building, San Francisco

This past Fourth of July, instead of watching fireworks, I listened to verbal fireworks at the ISO’s Socialism 2009 in San Francisco. It was held at the Women’s Building in the Mission District. This is a charming old structure with a beautiful mural painted on the outside. However, it quickly became embarrassingly obvious that it was not designed for an event the size of the one we were having. The problem was over-cautious thinking on the part of the organizers. They expected between 400 and 450 people to turn up. Instead, there were over 900 people. Clearly, there is an audience for socialist ideas out there.

In spite of the logistical problems, this was the strongest of all the Socialisms that I have been to. Of all the talks I went to, not a single one was a disappointment. Each one had something interesting and thought-provoking about it. Just as good were the discussions that took place. People made well-informed arguments and asked challenging questions. Too often at previous events, some people would just get up and ramble. It was as if they were picking their brains to show how much they knew about a particular topic. I didn’t see much of that this year. This may have been due to aggressive chairing, but I think it may be because the economic crisis has forced people to be more politically serious.

Some of the discussions were so good, that they seemed too short. At a number of the talks I went to, the discussion list had to be cut because time was running out. One discussion that I found particularly interesting was after a talk on Iran by Barry Sheppard and Lee Sustar. There were a number of Iranians in the audience who had taken part in the 1979 revolution. During the discussion it became clear that there were sharp disagreements between them on some issues (such as whether or not the ’79 revolution was “reactionary”.) I was interested to see how these arguments would play out, but unfortunately the discussion had to be cut short, because time was running out.

I saw Michael Yates speak at a panel on the future of the labor movement. He was harshly critical of the labor unions in this country. He argued that what we need to build are not traditional unions, but more broad-based organizations that address a whole host of issues that affect the working class. I would have liked to hear him discuss this idea in more detail, but again, time did not permit it.

I also liked a talk by Christian Parenti on Afghanistan. He managed to go into a lot of detail about that nation’s history. He predicted that Obama is going to try to destroy the Taliban in the next couple of years. If that fails, he will wind down the war in time for the next election. His main thesis, though, was that the war is already lost. Prolonging it will only cause needless suffering.

Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage and which was passed last fall in California, was a big topic at the conference. Friday night there was a panel discussion on this. I was impressed by the positive and upbeat tone of what people said. They feel confident that they can overturn this ban. This is so much different from the mood of the left only a few years ago. All you could hear then was about how helpless we were and about how the right was getting everything it wanted.

There was also a lot of talk about California’s fiscal crisis. At the Haymarket bookstore, they were selling T-shirts that read “Tax the Rich”, a demand that we all can get behind. (I might have bought one of these, but I didn’t like the font that they used. That’s what happens when you work as a graphic designer.)

There were some Sparts on the sidewalk outside, grimly selling their newspapers. One of these poor souls made the mistake of telling Sherry Wolf that the ISO is “sexist” and “homophobic”. You can imagine the earful that person must have gotten.

I was so busy that I had no time to see the city, except for a four block area of the Mission District. I remember that I talked a couple of young friends of mine from Eugene into going to an informational meeting on joining the ISO. Afterwards, when I asked them about it, they sheepishly admitted that they had instead gone to Haight-Ashbury to check out the head shops. (One of them expressed indignation at finding a McDonald’s there.) Well, I guess there’s a little bit of a tourist in all of us.

My friends and I stayed with two comrades, Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, in Berkeley. (You may recall that back in 2005 they wrote an eyewitness account of the destruction of New Orleans that was widely disseminated on the Internet and caused some controversy. You can find it here.) They were both very friendly and hospitable, and they made our stay a pleasant one. We had to take the subway out to their house. I must say, I was impressed by the Bay Area’s transit system. It only took us half an hour to go from the Mission District to Berkeley, even though they are on opposite sides of the bay. I also liked the fact that the stations had LED signs announcing how long it would take for the next trains to arrive. (The thing that always drove me crazy about subways in the past was that one never knew how long one would have to wait for the next train.) However, I didn’t like the ticket machines, which I found confusing and inconvenient. I ended up paying more money for tickets than I needed to. (Do you think maybe they designed the machines to make that happen?) I also didn’t like the fact that the trains stop running shortly after midnight.

There are some images from this conference that will alway be with me – such as the expression on Mark Steel’s face as almost half the audience showed up late for his talk on Che Guevara. What made the greatest impression on me, however, was the energy and enthusiasm of the people who came. There are people out there who want radical change, and we must reach them somehow.