Saturday, April 14, 2007






Can we all, please, take time out from the new growth sport of bashing the singularly unattractive Don Imus and return to the central issue of the day-the bloody war in Iraq. While there has been much gnashing of teeth over Imus as the media falls all over itself on one side or the other for one of its fallen comrades some genuinely weird things have happened on the Iraq front here in America and there, as well. Here’s some commentary in a nutshell about the week of April 9th 2007.

• Secretary of War Robert Gates announces an immediate, all-inclusive extension of tours of duty in Iraq. The rationale given is that now the troops will know for sure how long they really have to stay rather than the old policy of surprise extensions. That policy naturally will go over well with the troops and their families, especially those close to coming home. I would think that it would also be a lovely recruitment tool to drum up a few inductees knowing that if deployed they will have to spend 15 months in that hellhole. Moreover, the real upshot of all this news is that the Pentagon, at least, is planning for a very, very long stay in Iraq, win or lose. If there was ever a time when we should be pushing hard for those anti-war soldier and sailor solidarity committees that I have been propagandizing for over the last year it is now. Let us do it.

• After several weeks in operation now it is clear that the much-touted Bush Administration military strategy to secure Baghdad is working. No, this is not a typo. It is working for the insurgents, sectarians and others who one way or another oppose the United States presence in Iraq. How? While the military strategy is to tamp down the situation in Baghdad those oppositional forces have stood down or moved out of Baghdad. The sectarian civil war has been moved, at least temporarily, to the suburbs. Speaking from a strictly military viewpoint it is obvious that many, many thousands more troops would be needed for the current military strategy to even get to square one. If I recall a member of the Army General Staff was booted into oblivion for even attempting to make such an evaluation before the war started. What is more important, however, is the arrogance behind the strategy. That is a belief that the various Iraqi oppositionists would stay in place to be wiped out by the American forces. As demonstrated in Vietnam and is again apparent here the military has vastly underestimated the enemy. And is reaping the windfall for its errors. I guess the millions of dollars that it takes to educate each West Point graduate do not buy what they use to. Oh, well.

• In something out of Catch-22, the satirical book by Joseph Heller about the misadventures of some soldiers and the inanities of the military bureaucracy in World War II, a military spokesperson this week used an anti-American demonstration led by Al-Sadr and his Madhi Army in civilian guise calling for an end to the American presence as apparently the latest rationale for the Iraq War. With no sense of irony he pointed out that four years ago such a demonstration under the Saddam regime would not have been permitted. So, in the final analysis, the reason for the war is to allow potential insurgents against the American presence to yell their lungs out for the U.S. to get the hell of their country.

• While on the subject of Al-Sadr it is apparent that he is starting to feel his oats with this successful mobilization mentioned above. From this geographical and political distance I make no presence to predict what the radical Shiite cleric is up to. But Sadr has powerful Shiite friends in Iran. He seems to be tiring of being the water boy for the current puppet government in Iraq. He has what is seemingly a reasonably disciplined force and he has been bloodied by the Americans when he was in a weaker military position. Most importantly, he has a mass base in Sadr City and its environs that will soon tire of having their doors kicked down by every ugly American who passes by. This situation bears watching.

• I have on more than one occasion mentioned that politics many times is a matter of timing. With a look in the direction of American presidential electoral politics I note that, beyond any rational calculation, Arizona Senator John McCain this week went out of his way in a speech at the Virginia Military Institute to not only support the Bush doctrine in Iraq but take credit for initiating it. Has anyone else noticed that when ANYONE, including President Bush, defends the war it is done in some isolated military outpost or other pro-military gathering like the VFW? I would hope they are afraid to go any other place. But I digress. Why any candidate, even a war supporter, in the year 2007 would go out of his or her way to claim credit for this disaster is beyond me. Perhaps, there is some truth to that ‘Manchurian Candidate’ charge due to McCain’s years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. But wait, maybe McCain is just a sincere patriot for the American Way? On a recent trip to a Baghdad market he stated that he saw some real progress there toward the secure democratic solution that he fervently desires. Of course, he was escorted by half the American troop ‘surge’ on his journey. Obama the “Charma” had some well earned fun commenting on that one. Let me just say this. I recently went down to my local farmers’ market and I found no need for a military escort. That is a democratic norm in my book. McCain, however, is presumably privy to more inside ‘dope’ than I am so I will just let Obama have the day on that one.

• Finally, I cannot resist saying a little something about one Don Imus. I cannot say that I have ever listened to his radio show although I have heard plenty of others that are as bilious as his appears to have been. I cannot say that I have any interest in basketball, collegiate or professional, except to note that the Rutgers women’s basketball team was something of a rag to riches story that everyone can appreciate. I, however, can make a couple of observations. If the words used by Imus on the public airwaves are indicative then you can imagine how deeply racist and sexist the talk is around the water cooler. That itself would come as no surprise. However, reportedly, his audience of an estimated two million listeners is at its core composed of young and affluence listeners. An advertiser's dream, to be sure. A nightmare for those of us trying to reach the youth in our fight for socialism. Every time one of these ‘incidents’ occurs there is much discussion about the aberrant behavior of the individual involved. True enough. But, underneath that commonplace is a hard fact. This is a deeply racially segregated society with enough sexism to drive the sane crazy. The hard truth is that until we change the material social basis for every day existence these ‘incidents’ will continue unabated. That fight continues. In the meantime-Rutgers women’s basketball team well done, on and off the court.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007





And while we are at it let us fight to make May Day the recognized labor holiday here in America as it is in most of the world.

Over the past couple of months the desperate struggle of both legal and illegal immigrants in this country to stay here has reached epic proportions, highlighted by the dramatic and ruthless actions of the Immigration Service against mainly women factory workers in New Bedford, Massachusetts. If one needed visually to capture the domestic side of the arrogance the American imperialists have exhibited in Iraq that event did so in a nutshell. More importantly, the lesson militant workers should take from New Bedford and elsewhere is that, hell, we could be next and it could be almost anyone who gets in the crosshairs of some governmental agency. What in the old days we used to kiddingly laugh off as ‘paranoia’ when someone talked about Big Brother watching us seemingly comes closer to the truth as events unfold in the ‘belly of the beast’.

The American government, its Republican and Democratic agents alike, has targeted the most vulnerable part of the working class, the ‘illegal’ immigrants, in their efforts to tighten up the ‘security’ of their capitalist system. However, working people native born or otherwise, have no objective reason to fear so-called ‘illegal’ immigrants. These hard working, woefully underpaid and inadequately serviced workers take on the jobs, let us face it, that American born and raised workers of all colors have learned turn their noses up at. Such are the ‘benefits’ of living under the number one imperialist power. Thus, the simple, decent minimally democratic call for full citizenship rights for all immigrants in the headline above is one that trade unionists in particular should raise and support.

Despite the reasonableness of this demand bourgeois politicians in both camps and their labor bureaucracy hangers-on in the AFL-CIO and Change to Win toy around with all kinds of propositions from the now internationally fashionable one of walling the borders to various ‘guest worker’ (really indentured service) programs. What is needed, although it is not being seriously raised at this time, is a full amnesty program for all immigrants who are here. Militants should wholeheartedly support such a demand. We should be propagandizing for such an amnesty at union meetings and among our fellow workers.

In the meantime May Day (May 1st) is just around the corner and everyone should answer the call put out by many organizations in support of immigrant rights by going out to the various demonstrations and meetings in your area. Last year on May Day 2006 there were tremulous demonstrations, particularly in the West, driven by the huge Hispanic populations there in support of doing something. Unfortunately, since that time not much has been done except the inevitable roundups and deportations. The government has its policy. We have seen what that looks like. We best have ours. FULL CITIZENSHIP RIGHTS NOW FOR ALL WHO HAVE MADE IT HERE.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

*A BLACK VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS-The Life And Times Of Paul Robeson

Click on title to link to Wikipedia's entry for Paul Robeson.


ROBESON, MARTIN B. DUBERMAN, Adoph Knopf, New York, 1988

The great black singer, actor and political figure Paul Robeson as presented in Mr. Duberman’s comprehensive biography is a prime example of what the black scholar W.E.B. Dubois called the "talented tenth", that is, those who would lead the black race out of bondage. That essentially elitist concept has since Dubois’ time thankfully fallen out of favor. Despite my severe political disagreements with Robeson's later Stalinist politics, his life deserves careful study. Moreover, Robeson’s life can and should be viewed as a struggle against that earlier personalist concept outlined by Dubois in favor of a latter more communal class- based effort to use his great authority for social change. Under either standard he has earned his proper place as an important figure in the black liberation struggle. A previous generation of Trotskyists could certainly have used his talents to advantage.

Without seeming to do Robeson an injustice it is fair to roughly compartmentalize his life into the two categories described above, although one can find traces of both throughout his career. I would argue that one cannot understand his life without this compartmentalization for that approximates his own conception of how he changed from the view that his personal success would act as a catalyst for black advancement to his latter view that he needed to use the authority won by his stellar career as a wedge to fight for his political positions in the black liberation struggle. This internal struggle both informs the book and divides it into it proper components.

Obviously this reviewer seeks to highlight the lessons of Robeson’s latter political career as a spokesperson for many causes associated with the Communist Party, the Soviet Union and with the black liberation struggle. However, it is also necessary to acknowledge that other cultural component as a professional entertainer made Paul Robeson undoubtedly the most well-known American black figure of the first half of the 20th century.

Apparently Mr. Duberman attempted in his research for the book to compile every bit of known data about Robeson and to interview every source possible. These sources are cited and footnoted at the back of the book and almost form a book in themselves. This is one of the most comprehensive biographies I have read lately that, at the same time, does not suffer excessively from the author’s heavy-handed take on the quirks of his subject’s life. In a sense it is also a general social history of the American and English theater in the period from about 1920 to 1960, for its seems that Robeson acted or sang with most of the important figures of the time from Eugene O’Neill at the beginning to Tony Richardson at the end of his career. There is more than enough material on his career, including the usual gossip, to fill the many pages of this book.

And what of the personal Robeson that emerged with a splash in the early 1920’s? That he was an outstanding athlete and student only begins to tell the story. After that there are the attempts at law school, the struggle to become a stage actor under O’Neill’s tutelage and the development of his talents as a singer. But not just any kind of singer. Robeson's was an attempt to sing the songs of his people, black people, as they came out of slavery and out of the black church in America. Interestingly, latter when he tried to move beyond that material to other forms of musical expression he was not nearly so successful.

Of course no biography of a man as a charismatic and physically attractive as Robeson is complete without a little romance. The life-long, if trying (on both sides), up and down romance with his wife Essie- the proverbial ‘brains’ of the operation gets more than its fair share of space here. As does the more ambivalent one of Robeson’s ‘womanizing’- among others, seemingly every important female actress or hanger-on in the cultural field who crossed his path, white or black, was at his call. That in the end, his own intensely private personality pushed them away symbolized the lesser place these conquests held in his life’s scheme.

Nagging at Robeson, a very proud man, throughout his career were the petty (and some not so petty) discriminations he faced both professionally and socially despite his acclaim. Understanding that he could not run away from his blackness and that personal self-fulfillment had its limits he turned, I would say, naturally to politics. Characteristically, he charged full speed ahead and began in the 1930’s a life-long association with the American Communist Party and Soviet-style socialism.

By far the more interesting aspect of Paul Robeson’s career is the part where he, beginning in the mid-1930’s, became a left-wing political advocate very closely associated with the American Communist Party. Mr. Duberman makes an extremely well-formed analysis of the events in Mr. Robeson’s career that made him eager to break out of the cultural straight jacket of the entertainment industry and use his authority derived there as a ‘bully’ pulpit in order to express his political beliefs. As a result Robeson faced the same kind of questioning then, as politicized entertainers do today, when the combination of politics and cultural expression attack the main stream. Bruce Springsteen today could have been speaking for Robeson when asked why he mixed politics and music. Springsteen replied -Do you want to leave politics to the likes of Anne Coulter, Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove? I would add that politics is far too important to be left to the hacks. Enough said

Although Mr. Robeson was never a disciplined member of the American Communist Party (as much as the FBI and others doggedly tried to portray him as one) he nevertheless toed the party line, at least publicly, through thick and thin from Spain to the Hitler-Stalin Pact through the World War II Western Alliance and its no strike pledge to the post-war Cold War. Know this then, Mr. Robeson was a stalwart in defense of Soviet Stalinism, socialism as he saw, and thus a direct opponent of my political forbears. A river of blood stands between us, not the least the murder of Leon Trotsky by a Stalinist agent in 1940.

Yes, anyone who defended Republican Spain in the 1930’s is a kindred spirit. Yes, the defense of the Soviet Union was a central concern, not the least for Trostsky himself. However, Mr. Robeson, an intelligent man by any measure and no simple toady, never critically assessed his general defense of the Soviet Union as it was under Stalin and his epigones. Apparently Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s murderous policies were not a reason for a serious reevaluation of his political position. Robeson’s 1956 defense of the Soviet actions in Hungary says volumes about his politics, as does his attitude during the ‘red scare’ of period in denying political defense help to the American Trotskyists.

That said, it is nevertheless true, despite great personal harm to his professional career epitomized by his passport troubles making him literally a prisoner in his own country, that he stood by the Communist Party as it was taking a beating from the American government. That at a time when many fellow travellers were slinking away from the party or turning governmental informer. This dual quality I believe catches the central contradiction in Robeson's life. The manic desire for black liberation in America and elsewhere and his desire to commit his powerful personality to it along with a rather studied lack of attention to political theory. And political program. Nevertheless read this book for more insights into one of the most important men of the first half of the 20th century.