Saturday, January 10, 2009

*"Women Be Wise- Don't Advertise Your Man"- Blues Singer Sippy Wallace

DVD REVIEWS

Sippy Wallace, Volume 2, The Complete Works, 1925-1945, Sippy Wallace, Document Records, 1995


Women Be Wise, Sippy Wallace, Alligator Records, 1992

Okay, okay before we even start here let’s get something straight. I took more than my share of politically correct abuse from my feminist friends, including my companion, when I titled one of my reviews of the work of the legendary blues singer Skip James after the title of one of his songs- "I’d Rather Be The Devil Than Be That Woman’s Man". As penance I noted that the more contemporary blues singer/songwriter Rory Block covered that song and changed the words to "I’d Rather Be The Devil That Be A Woman To That Man". So here, for the politically pure of heart, or their wannabes, you can switch to suit your sexual or gender orientation.

But enough of that, for now because we have the serious business of discussing the blues, and an important component of that genre is the work of the "Texas Nightingale"- Sippy Wallace. Frankly, readers if you are going to discuss the blues you have to take the lyrics the way you find them and work around that. There is not a damn politically correct thing about them from male or female singers. Whiskey or dope. Mistreatin’ man or woman. Hard luck, bad luck or no luck. Anger, murderous intent, hostility. This is the language of the blues. If you want to clean it up go to the modern folk music section. But, my friends then you would be missing some very hard driving, evocative music from down at the base of society in Jim Crow days, especially when done by one of the classic blues singers.

Classic blues singers? Those are, mainly, the black female singers of the 1920’s, most famously the likes of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, who played mostly to black audiences in the South (although not solely, witness the career of Ethel Waters). Sippy fits right in there. You may not know her because her career was cut short (for a while) by a return to her Baptist gospel roots in order to get away from “the devil’s music”. This struggle has been a gnawing tension in the fate of more than one accomplished blues singer although usually, as in the case of Howlin’ Wolf and Son House among others, the devil 'wins'.

Sippy’s story has a nice ending though. She was “discovered” by the great folk/blues/country singer and songwriter Bonnie Raitt (who sat at the knee of Mississippi Fred McDowell to learn her craft) in the mid-1960s after covering the above-mentioned "Women Be Wise". Sippy then went on to have a successful revival until her death. That also allows this reviewer to kill two birds with one stone. This review is serving to comment on two Sippy CDs. One, "Sippy Wallace, Volume 2", The Complete Works, 1925-1945, Sippy Wallace, Document Records, 1995. The other, "Women Be Wise", Sippy Wallace, Alligator Records, 1992 so that one can compare quality of the two periods and the presentation of the same song in each period. I am more favorably impressed by her later work, partially because the technical quality of the recordings is better later but also partially because her voice is better later. But you decide. Check these out from Sippy Wallace- "Advise Blues", "Special Delivery Blues", "I’m A Mighty Tight Woman", "Lazy Man Blues", and "Bedroom Blues". Check these from "Women Be Wise"-"Women Be Wise", "Special Delivery Blues", "Caldonia Blues" (definitely), and "Up Country Blues".

Friday, January 09, 2009

*The Lessons Of Revolutionary History- English Style-Professor Christopher Hill's View

Click on the headline to link to a "Wikipedia" entry for Marxist historian, Christopher Hill.

The Lessons Of History- English Style

Some Intellectual Consequences Of The English Revolution, Christopher Hill, The University Of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1980


The first two paragraphs here have been used elsewhere in reviews of Professor Hill’s work.

The name and work of the late British Marxist historian Christopher Hill should be fairly well known to readers of this space who follow my reviews on the subject of the 17th century English Revolution that has legitimately been described as the first one of the modern era and that has had profound repercussions, especially on the American revolution and later events on this continent. Christopher Hill started his research in the 1930’s under the tremendous influence of Marx on the sociology of revolution, the actuality of the Soviet experience in Russia and world events such as the then Great Depression of that period and the lead up to World War II.

Although Hill was an ardent Stalinist, seemingly to the end, his works, since they were not as subjected to the conforming pressures of the Soviet political line that he adhered to are less influenced by that distorting pressure. More importantly, along the way Professor Hill almost single-handedly brought to life the under classes that formed the backbone of the plebeian efforts during that revolution. We would, surely know far less about, Ranters, panters, shakers and fakers without the sharp eye of the good professor. All to the tune of, and in the spirit of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, except instead of trying to explain the ways of god to man the Professor tried to explain ways of our earlier plebeian brothers and sisters to us.

This slender volume, first delivered as a series Merle Curti lectures at the University Of Wisconsin, is sort of Hill’s summing up of the experiences that survived, one way or another, the English revolutionary period from 1640-60 and, more importantly, the monarchical restoration. Elsewhere I will review a later book, "The Experience Of Defeat" by Hill that deals with the question of the defeat of the revolution and it effects on some of the participants, including, as always, some material on Hill’s muse, John Milton. Hill’s contention here and in that book is that although the immediate defeat of the revolution dashed the dreams of the revolutionaries at the time English society did not, in fact could not, go back completely to the old regime- a society based on divine rule of kings, an inflexible and exclusive nobility and an iron-disciplined state church.

To that end, Hill discusses the continued lively underground of the sects thrown up by the revolution, the continued capitalist rationalization of agriculture (enclosures and other improvements), and, yes, the increased naval fleet that won its spurs under Cromwell and would be the vanguard for the nearly two century rule of the late British Empire. Be forewarned, this volume does not do more than outline Hill’s thesis. To flesh this out the reader will have to go to his other volumes and to other sources in the rich scholarship that has developed on the English revolution over the past couple of generations.

*Once Again On Christopher Hill And The England Revolution- Collected Essays

Click on the headline to link to a "Wikipedia" entry for Marxist historian, Christopher Hill.

The Collected Essays of Christopher Hill, Volume 2: Religion and Politics In Seventeenth-Century England, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1986

The name and work of the late British Marxist historian Christopher Hill should be fairly well known to readers of this space who follow my reviews on the subject of the 17th century English Revolution that has legitimately been described as the first one of the modern era and that has had profound repercussions, especially on the American revolution and later events on this continent. Christopher Hill started his research in the 1930's under the tremendous influence of Marx on the sociology of revolution, the actuality of the Soviet experience in Russia and world events such as the then Great Depression of that period and the lead up to World War II.

Although Hill was an ardent Stalinist, seemingly to the end, his works, since they were not as subjected to the conforming pressures of the Soviet political line that he adhered to, are less influenced by that distorting pressure. More importantly, along the way Professor Hill almost single-handedly brought to life the under-classes that formed the backbone of the plebeian efforts during that English revolution. We would, surely know far less about, Fifth Monarchists, Brownists, Ranters, panters, shakers, fakers and Quakers who populated the social landscape without the sharp eye of the good professor. All to the tune of, and in the spirit of that famous line from John Milton's Paradise Lost, except instead of trying to explain the ways of god to man the Professor tried to explain ways of our earlier plebeian brothers and sisters to us.

This volume contains some specialized studies by Hill, some reviews by him of the work of his peers in his area of expertise and some updating of his earlier works in light of the new research that came cascading along after the tumult of the 1960's died down and some student radicals went back to the cloisters of academia to create "revolutions" of the mind rather than of the streets. A look at the selections here run the gamut of religiously-tinged topics, the language that the social struggles of the time took; a serious look at the struggle to create a national English Church and the place of dissenting clergy and laity almost from the beginning ; the various policies of the Archbishops of Canterbury in the formation of that church; my favorite article in this book a look at the history of dissent from the early days of the Lollards; an always informative piece on the religion of the primitive communist hero Gerrard Winstanley of the Diggers experiment on St. George's Hill (worthy of a separate review of its own; and, a rather nice appreciation of the religious/political doings of the Muggletonians and other sects and sectlets. This is just a good, solid look at religion. Without an understanding of this for the 17th century in England one is at a lost to understand the nature of that revolution (or even that a revolution occurred). Kudos (again), Professor.

*Once Again On Christopher Hill And The English Revolution

Click on the headline to link to a "Wikipedia" entry for Marxist historian, Christopher Hill.

BOOK REVIEW

The Collected Essays of Christopher Hill, Volume 3: People and Ideas In Seventeenth-Century England, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1986


The name and work of the late British Marxist historian Christopher Hill should be fairly well known to readers of this space who follow my reviews on the subject of the 17th century English Revolution that has legitimately been described as the first one of the modern era and that has had profound repercussions, especially on the American revolution and later events on this continent. Christopher Hill started his research in the 1930’s under the tremendous influence of Marx on the sociology of revolution, the actuality of the Soviet experience in Russia and world events such as the then Great Depression of that period and the lead up to World War II.

Although Hill was an ardent Stalinist, seemingly to the end, his works, since they were not as subjected to the conforming pressures of the Soviet political line that he adhered to are less influenced by that distorting pressure. More importantly, along the way Professor Hill almost single-handedly brought to life the under classes that formed the backbone of the plebeian efforts during that revolution. We would, surely know far less about, Ranters, panters, shakers and fakers without the sharp eye of the good professor. All to the tune of, and in the spirit of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, except instead of trying to explain the ways of god to man the Professor tried to explain ways of our earlier plebeian brothers and sisters to us.

This volume contains some specialized studies by Hill, some reviews by him of the work of his peers in his area of expertise and some updating of his earlier works in light of the new research that came cascading along after the tumult of the 1960’s died down and some student radicals went back to the cloisters of academia to create “revolutions” of the mind rather than the streets. A short list of the topics covered here is illuminating: an update of the relationship between the Parliament and the people in the 17th century; a quick overview of the role of the great man, here Oliver Cromwell, in a revolution; the always nagging question of whether that revolution was bourgeois or not and various controversies over the role of the state in the new social order.

Furthermore there is a very interesting review of the Lisle letters that are very informative (and gossipy) about household conditions during this period. And a rather speculative piece on the “communism” of the various West Indian pirate communities. I should also mention a interesting article about Karl Marx’s acclimation to British life as an exile; an early review of the then “new” topic of homosexuality in the 17th century and the rudiments of a subculture; and, an arresting article on the methodological disputes in the academia over the use of 17th century parish registers to make generalizations about lower class sexual mores, traditions and attitudes as the modern world emerges.

This last piece is worthy of a separate commentary but for now just read the thing and learn something about the problems that we all have to face when dealing with a period that is remote enough in time for us to be clueless in many regards about what these people were about. Finally, there is a nice little intriguing tidbit about the relationship between science and magic, or rather the brewing controversy between those two ways of looking at the world. I think old muse John Milton was looking over his shoulder when Hill wrote that one. Read on.

Karl Marx On The 17th Century English Revolution, Circa 1850

Guest Commentary

Marx and Engels in Neue Rheinische Zeitung Politisch-ökonomische Revue 1850

England’s 17th Century Revolution
A Review of Francois Guizot’s 1850 pamphlet
Pourquoi la revolution d'Angleterre a-t-elle reussi?

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Written: February 1850;
First Published: in Politisch-Ă–konomische Revue, No. 2, February 1850;
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In this pamphlet, M. Guizot [1784-1874, French historian; one-time head of government] intends to prove that Louis Philippe and the politics pursued by M. Guizot should not really have been overthrown on February 24, 1848, and that only the wicked character of the French is to be blamed for the fact that the July Monarchy of 1830, after an existence of 18 troublesome years, collapsed so ignominiously and did not acquire the endurance that the English monarchy has enjoyed since 1688.

Reading this pamphlet, one realized that even the ablest men of the ancien regime, as well as men who cannot be denied certain historical talents, have become so confused by the fateful events of that February that they have lost all sense of history and, indeed, no longer understand their previous actions. Instead of gaining, from the experience of the February Revolution, some insight into the totally different historical situation and into the entirely different position that the classes occupy in society under the French Monarchy of 1830 and under the English Monarchy of 1688, M. Guizot dissolves these difference with a few moralistic phrases and asserts in conclusion that the policy overthrown on February 24 was “only one that could master the revolution, in the same way that it had controlled the state”.

Specifically formulated, the question M. Guizot sets out to answer is: Why did bourgeois society in England develop as a constitutional monarchy longer than it did in France?

Characteristic of M. Guizot’s knowledge of the course of bourgeois development in England is the following passage:

“Under George I and George II, the public spirit took a different direction: Foreign policy ceased to be the major interest; internal administration, the maintenance of peace, financial, colonial, and commercial questions, and the development and struggle for parliamentary government became the major issues occupying the government and the public.”

M. Guizot finds in the reign of William III only two points worth mentioning: the preservation of the balance of power between Parliament and crown, and the preservation of the European balance of power through the wars against Louis XIV. Under the Hanoverian dynasty, “public opinion suddenly takes a “different direction”, nobody knows how or why. Here one sees how M. Guizot superimposes the most commonplace phrases of French parliamentary debates on English history, believing he has thereby explained it. In the same way, Guizot also imagines that, as French Prime Minister, he carried on his shoulders the responsibility of preserving the proper equilibrium between Parliament and crown, as well as the European balance of power, and in reality he did nothing but huckster French society away piecemeal to the moneyed Jews of the Paris

M. Guizot does not think it worth mentioning that the struggle against Louis XIV was simply a war of competition aimed at the destruction of French naval power and commerce; nor does he mention the rule of the finance bourgeoisie through the establishment of the Bank of England under William III, nor the introduction of the public debt which then received its first sanction, nor that the manufacturing bourgeoisie received a new impetus by the consistent application of a system of protective tariffs. For Guizot, only political phrases are meaningful. He does not even mention that under Queen Anne the ruling parties could preserve themselves, as well as the constitutional monarchy, only by forcibly extending the term of Parliament to seven years, thus all but destroying any influence the people might have had on government.

Under the Hanoverian dynasty, England had already reached a stage of development where it could fight its wars of competition against France with modern means. England herself challenged France directly only in America and the East Indies, whereas on the Continent she contended herself with paying foreign sovereigns, such as Frederick II, to wage war against France. And while foreign policy assumed such a new form, M. Guizot has this to say: “Foreign policy ceased to be the major interest”, being replaced by “the maintenance of peace”. Regarding the statement that the “development and struggle for parliamentary government” became a major concern, one may recall the incidents of corruption under the Walpole Ministry, which, indeed, resemble very closely the scandals that became daily events under M. Guizot.

The fact that the English Revolution developed more successfully than the French can be attributed, according to M. Guizot, to two factors: first, that the English Revolution had a thoroughly religious character, and hence in mo way broke with all past traditions; and second, that from the very beginning it was not destructive but constructive, Parliament defending the old existing laws against encroachment by the crown.

In regard to the first point, M. Guizot seems to have forgotten that the free-thinking philosophy which makes him shudder so terribly when he sees it in the French Revolution was imported to France from no other country than England. Its father was Locke, and in Shaftesbury and Bolingbroke it had already achieved that ingenious form which later found such a brilliant development in France, We thus arrive at the strange conclusion that the same free-thinking philosophy which, according to M. Guizot, wrecked the French Revolution, was one of the most essential products of the religious English Revolution.

In regard to the second point, Guizot completely forgets that the French Revolution, equally conservative, began even more conservatively than the English. Absolutism, particularly as it finally appeared in France, was an innovation there too, and it was against this innovation that the parlements [French Diets] revolted to defend the old laws, the us et coutumes [usages and customs] of the old monarchy with its Estates General. And whereas the French Revolution was to revive the old Estates General that had quietly died since Henry IV and Louis XIV, the English Revolution, on the contrary, could show no comparable classical-conservative element.

According to M. Guizot, the main result of the English Revolution was that it made it impossible for the king to rule against the will of Parliament and the House of Commons. Thus, to him, the whole revolution consists only of this: that in the beginning both sides, crown and Parliament, overstep their bounds and go too far, until they finally find their proper equilibrium under William III and neutralize each other. M. Guizot finds it superfluous to mention that the subjection of the crown to Parliament meant subjection to the rule of a class. Nor does he think it necessary to deal with the fact that this class won the necessary power in order finally to make the crown its servant. According to him, the whole struggle between Charles I and Parliament was merely over purely political privileges. Not a word is said about why the Parliament, and the class represented in it, needed these privileges. Nor does Guizot talk about Charles I’s interference with free competition, which made England’s commerce and industry increasingly impossible; nor about the dependence on Parliament into which Charles I, in his continuous need for money, feel the more deeply the more he tried to defy it. Consequently, M. Guizot explains the revolution as being merely due to the ill will and religious fanaticism of a few troublemakers who would not rest content with moderate freedom. Guizot is just as little able to explain the interrelationship between the religious movement and the development of bourgeois society. To him, of course, the Republic [Crowmwell’s] is likewise the work of a mere handful of ambitious and malicious fanatics. Nowhere does he mention the attempts made to establish republics in Lisbon, Naples, and Messina at that time — attempts following the Dutch example, as England did.

Although M. Guizot never loses sight of the French Revolution, he does not even reach the simple conclusion that the transition from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy can take place only after violent struggles and passing through a republican stage, and that even then the old dynasty, having become useless, must make way for a usurpatory side line. Hence, Guizot can say only the most trivial commonplaces about the overthrow of the English Restoration monarchy. He does not even cite the most immediate causes: the fear on the part of the great new landowners, who had acquired property before the restoration of Catholicism — property robbed from the church — which they would have to change hands; the aversion of the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie to Catholicism, a religion in now way suitable for its commerce; the nonchalance with which the Stuarts, for their own and their courtier’s benefit, sold all of England’s industry and commerce to the French government, that is, to the only country then in a position to offer England dangerous and often successful competition, etc. Since M. Guizot omits the most momentous points, there is nothing left for him but the highly unsatisfactory and banal narration of mere political events.

For M. Guizot, the great mystery is the conservative nature of the English Revolution, which he can ascribe only to the superior intelligence of the English, whereas in fact it can be found in the enduring alliance between the bourgeoisie and a great part of the landowners, an alliance that constitutes the major difference between it and the French Revolution, which destroyed the great landholdings with its parcelization policy. The English class of great landowners, allied with the bourgeoisie — which, incidentally, had already developed under Henry VIII — did not find itself in opposition — as did the French feudal landowners in 1789 — but rather in complete harmony with the vital requirements of the bourgeoisie. In fact, their lands were not feudal but bourgeois property. On the one hand, there were able to provide the industrial bourgeoisie with the manpower necessary for manufacturing, and on the other they were able to develop agriculture to the standards consonant with industry and commerce. Thus their common interests with the bourgeoisie, thus their alliance with it.

For Guizot, English history ends with the consolidation of the constitutional monarchy. For him, everything that follows is limited to a pleasant alternating game between Tories and Whigs, that is, to the great debate between M. Guizot and M. Thiers. In reality, however, the consolidation of the constitutional monarchy is only the beginning of the magnificent development and transformation of bourgeois society in England. Where M. Guizot sees only gentle calm and idyllic peace, in reality the most violent conflicts and the most penetrating revolutions are taking place. Under the constitutional monarchy, manufacturing at first expands to an extent hitherto unknown, only to make way for heavy industry, the steam engine, and the colossal factories. Whole classes of the population disappear, to be replaced by new ones, with new living conditions and new requirements. A new, more gigantic bourgeoisie comes into existence; while the old bourgeoisie fights with the French Revolution, the new one conquers the world market. It becomes so all-powerful that even before the Reform Bill gives it direct political power, it forces its opponents to enact legislation entirely in conformity with its interest and its needs. It wins direct representation in Parliament and uses it for the destruction of the last remnants of real power left to the landowners. It is, finally, at the present moment engaged in a thorough demolition of the beautiful codes of the English Constitution, which M. Guizot so admires.

And while M. Guizot compliments the English for the fact that the reprehensible excesses of French social life, republicanism and socialism, have not destroyed the foundations of their sanctified monarchy, the class antagonisms of English society have actually reached a height not found anywhere else, and the bourgeoisie, with its incomparable wealth and productive powers, confronts a proletariat which likewise has incomparable power and concentration. The respect that M. Guizot offers to England finally adds up to the fact that, under the protection of the constitutional monarchy, more, and more radical, elements of social revolutions have developed than in all other countries of the world together.

At the point where the threads of English history come together in a knot, when M. Guizot cannot even pretend to cut with mere political phrases, he takes refuge in religious catchwork, in God’s armed intervention. Thus, for example, the holy spirit suddenly descends on the army and prevents Cromwell from declaring himself king. Before his conscience, Guizot saves himself through God, before his profane public, he does so through his style.

In reality, not only do les rois s'en vont [the kings depart] but also les capacites de la bourgeoisie s'en vont [the capacities of the bourgeoisie disappear].

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A Larry McMurtry Potpourri- Part Two

BOOK REVIEWS

Loop Group, Larry McMurtry, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2004


To readers of this space it is no surprise that I am reviewing a Larry McMurtry novel. I have “discovered” this little Texas gem of an author recently (although I knew of him and some of his work earlier). Naturally, once I get “high” on an author I tend to read everything that I can get my hands on. A partial reason for that is that the number of fiction writers who hold my attention is rather limited, but mainly I like to see the high and low sides of the writer’s career so that I can revel in the reflected glory of my very good choice in picking the author to comment on. I also tend to read an author’s output as I lay my hands on his or her work rather than any particular order. Thus, at present I am reviewing this late work (2004) and an early work Leaving Cheyenne (1962) at the same time. "Loop Group" definitely suffers in comparison to that earlier work.

If I tried to put my finger on what is the outstanding attribute of a good Larry McMurtry read that would most probably be that he is a thoughtful and credible storyteller. The structure of such a story permits one to sift through life’s issues whether it is the vagaries of coming of age, the trauma of a mid-life crisis or the grimness of the struggle against mortality. This, moreover, has nothing to with locale or occupation. As a die-hard older urban Northerner Western stories, modern or from the Old West, would not usually be my natural choice of reading. However, when McMurtry is in his “high” story telling mode and he develops incidents that are believable and has characters do things that seem within the realm of human experience -and that permit one to care about and reflect upon the fates of the characters if only for the length of the story- then he is a premier American writer. That, unfortunately, is not the case here. Why?

From page one of Loop Group McMurtry gave no reason for this reviewer to delve into the characters, their lives, their problems or for that matter their solutions to those problems. Here a couple of long time, native middle level female denizens of the Hollywood film wars, Maggie and Connie, who have known each other forever, and have competed with each other for men, among other things, are struggling with their mortality. That is the unkind fate of all sixty somethings although it is not clear whether that fact alone is worthy of literary attention, at least to this sixty-something reviewer. Moreover, Mr. McMurtry has, at least in some of his 21st century writing, been bitten by the “magical realism” bug that has become a fashion among the literati of late. His plot here, such as it is, has the pair working through interminable problems in order to go on a trip to Texas so they can find some lost 'fountain of youth' there in order to fortify themselves for the last period of their lives. Along the way they encounter a series of misadventures that defy description. Hence the magical realism tag.

Moreover, interspersed throughout, to further plague Maggie and Connie are the problems confronting Maggie’s three married adult daughters with children and Connie’s unmarried, recovering drug-addicted son. The sum total of these problems is a quick sociological look at every contemporary problem of American family life not excluding the sexual ones- in the space of a few weeks. Needless to say we are today also in the “new age” when everyone must have a sexual identity and therefore a crisis of sexual identity. This little trope is also on display in McMurtry’s "When the Light Goes Out" (2007) - the “final” segment of "The Last Picture Show’s" Duane Moore story as he hits his mid-sixties.

In retrospect "Loop Group" is the preparation for "When The Lights Goes Out" except from the female perspective. That, in a nutshell, is the real problem here. As will be apparent in my review of "Leaving Cheyenne" that will follow this one McMurtry is not particularly good with individual female character development when women are in the “starring role” by themselves. I had virtually no empathy for either Maggie or Connie. Nor did I have it for Harmony in "Desert Rose", another female-centered saga . Molly, an extremely rich and independent character, of "Leaving Cheyenne" and Karla and Jacy of "The Last Picture Show" series are very different stories. A further problem along that same line is that when McMurtry leaves his Texas locale he tends to lose his way. That happened here with the Hollywood setting, it happened in "Desert Rose" set in Las Vegas and "All My Friend Are Going To Be Stranger" set mainly in Northern California. Give me Karla, Jacy, Molly, give me Texas but Mr. McMurtry please put out the light on these “magically realistic” efforts. Enough said.

A Texas Love Story

Leaving Cheyenne, Larry McMurtry, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas, 1962


The first two paragraphs were used above in reviewing "Loop Group"

To readers of this space it is no surprise that I am reviewing a Larry McMurtry novel. I have "discovered" this little Texas gem of an author recently (although I knew of him and some of his work earlier). Naturally, once I get "high" on an author I tend to read everything that I can get my hands on. A partial reason for that is that the number of fiction writers who hold my attention is rather limited, but mainly I like to see the high and low sides of the writer's career so that I can revel in the reflected glory of my very good choice in picking the author to comment on. I also tend to read an author's output as I lay my hands on his or her work rather than any particular order. Thus, at present I am reviewing this late work (2004) and an early work Leaving Cheyenne (1962) at the same time. Loop Group definitely suffers in comparison to that earlier work.

If I tried to put my finger on what is the outstanding attribute of a good Larry McMurtry read that would most probably be that he is a thoughtful and credible storyteller. The structure of such a story permits one to sift through life's issues whether it is the vagaries of coming of age, the trauma of a mid-life crisis or the grimness of the struggle against mortality. This, moreover, has nothing to with locale or occupation. As a die-hard older urban Northerner Western stories, modern or from the Old West, would not usually be my natural choice of reading. However, when McMurtry is in his "high" story telling mode and he develops incidents that are believable and has characters do things that seem within the realm of human experience -and that permit one to care about and reflect upon the fates of the characters if only for the length of the story- then he is a premier American writer. That, fortunately, is the case here. Here we have "high" McMurtry. Why?

There are many ways to tell a love story. There are many ways to conceive of a love triangle, as here with the saga of the lives of Gid, Johnny and Molly out in West Texas, just 'East of Eden' in Thalia by McMurtry's lights, in roughly the middle third of the 20th century. There are many ways to put obstacles in the way of a satisfactory resolution of a love triangle in puritanically-driven America. McMurtry has come up with a very innovative method of doing this. In the first section we get the all the tensions of young love, hindered by a father-inspired driven sense of responsibility, as told by Gid. In the second section we get the mixed fruits of that puritan sense of responsibility on Gid's part, the lack of it on Johnny's part and also of girlish indecision as told by Molly, with the proviso that as she tells her tale she is a mother who has lost two sons to war and paid a pretty high price for that earlier indecision. In the final segment we get the inevitable struggle against the vicissitudes of mortality, as told humorously and with a little pathos by Johnny.

This is nicely done and the individual stories are woven together almost seamlessly so that the first event concerning Gid's and Johnny's rivalry for Molly described by Gid in Chapter One gets a very different look as told by Johnny at the end forty years later. Moreover, with some other nice humorous touches added alone the way concerning some of the minor characters like Molly's father and an old goat herder, including animals, as well as exploration of the necessary hardships of running a ranch, a labor-intensive business operation subject to all the randomness of nature. But, better than that we are given an emotional roller coaster ride as these three West Texas characters try to make sense of life, their previous histories and their entanglements together. If "Loop Group" was a low in the literary marathon McMurtry is running then "Leaving Cheyenne" is prima facie evidence for his honored place in the American literary pantheon. Kudos.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

*The Politcal Evolution of James P. Cannon-A Parable

Click on title to link to the James P. Cannon Internet Archive's copy of his late thinking (he died in 1974) on the role of the revolutionary party in the struggle for socialism. This is at some distance from his early adherent to the vanguard party formulations of the early American Communist Party and Socialist Workers Party.

BOOK REVIEW

James P. Cannon: A Political Tribute, Education For Socialists, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1974


To set the tone for this review here is a little parable, of sorts:

At the beginning of my conscious political career, back in the mist of time, which started out as a youthful liberal Americans For Democratic Action (ADA)-type activist in the early 1960’s I distinctly remember an older liberal politician at some event pointing out someone to me as an American Communist Party member. Apparently that information was passed on to me in order to make me shudder at the mere thought of it. Just as distinctly I remember, despite the continuing residue of the McCarthyite “red scare” at that time, merely shrugging my shoulders as if to say “so what”. Later, as I moved leftward toward a more social-democratic type political stance I was actively seeking out communists in order to form an anti-imperialist united front on Vietnam (although that is putting my politics in that situation in far too sophisticated a manner). Finding a publicly identifiable one then, however, was as scarce as hen’s teeth (if one was looking outside their friendly roost inside, deep inside, the Democratic Party). Finally, as I moved farther left and became radicalized whenever I ran into a Communist Party member at an event I would think- “oh, no there goes our radical edge”, or words to that effect.

Now what does this little parable have to do with a review of a political tribute to an old revolutionary leader, James P. Cannon, at the time of his death in 1974 and about whom I have spilled much ink on in this space defending as a man who in his prime could have led an American socialist revolution. Well, when I went looking for serious revolutionaries to work in the early 1970’s I had the same opinion of the organization that he helped found and nurture, the Socialist Workers Party, as I did toward the Communist Party. In short, whatever virtues Cannon brought to that organization in his prime and whatever lingering loyalties he had to that party by the time of his death the torch had passed to others in other organizations to carry out his work. Such things happen all the time in politics.

Thus this document, put out by the organization that honored his name THEN if not his earlier political history other than in a formal sense, has more value as a slice of radical history than as a trustworthy account of the work of one James P. Cannon. There is a very big disconnect between the work that Cannon reminiscences about here and the actual practice of the SWP, except to use the authority of his name to cover their essentially liberal programmatic efforts. To put it simply the various interviews, conducted mainly in the last year of Cannon’s life, that make up the bulk of this pamphlet are the words of an eighty year old man who is to the LEFT of his party. He is still ever the party loyalist but it is to the history of his party.

There is a very important section in this short pamphlet that every radical should read that contains an interview with Cannon in 1973 about proper class struggle legal defense work. Cannon won his spurs, and solidified his position as a Communist Party leader, with his leadership of the party’s legal defense arm the International Labor Defense (ILD). Cannon has interesting comments about the role of that organization in the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, the key labor defense struggle of the 1920’s. The main point for today’s radicals to understand is the fundamental principle of left and labor politics codified in the old slogan- “an injury to one is an injury to all”. Moreover, the operational norm for such work is a non-sectarian united front. Everybody works together to win the case at hand while maintaining their own political independent. This, sadly, has been honored more in the breech than in the observance.

I would also note, to reinforce my statement about the aged Cannon above, that his reminiscences about the old labor defense days did not gibe with what was the main SWP political program in the early 1970’d after the demise of the anti-war movement. At that time, as the Nixon/Watergate issues were heating up, the SWP put forth a campaign exclusively centered on suing the federal government for various violation of its democratic rights throughout its history- the infamous “Watersuit”. While no one on the left denies the need to fight for our own political existence by challenging the government through the legal process when appropriate the whole thrust of the SWP’s work in this period was to continue to cater to the liberals with whom they had become very conformable working with in the anti-war movement. Cannon accepted this program as good coin, at least in the interview. We are not obliged to follow him in that commendation.

This pamphlet also contains a few other interviews of note about the history of the American left and labor movement in the first half of the 20th century. One deals with this various radical figures that Cannon ran across in his long political life, some as associates, and some as opponents. Another deals with the black liberation struggle although not fully enough to warrant comment here. The one I believe worthy of comment is “Youth and The Socialist Movement”, Cannon’s understanding of the role of youth in building the movement throughout his long career. This article makes points that should be useful for us to think about today as we entry the Obamian age, an age to a large extent created by the energies of youth looking for a way out of the long night of the Bush years.

Cannon noted that the radicalization of the 1930’s was spearheaded mainly by young workers. Students and other middle class youth then were more likely to be “scabs” or political conservatives than allies of the working class. In the radicalization of the 1960’s, aided by the surge in college enrollment, the movement was headed by non-working class youth. The impending radicalization of youth in this, the early part of the 21st century, may very well combine both those elements from the beginning. Wouldn’t that be a hell of a fight? That is the something the younger James P. Cannon could appreciate. Let me finish with this-at this late date the proper way to pay political tribute to James P. Cannon is to work to build a workers party that fights for a workers government. That would be a very fitting tribute.