Saturday, March 01, 2008

*A Country Torch Singer Is In The Room- The Music Of Patsy Cline


Patsy Cline Tribute, 2000

For those of us of a certain age (growing up in the early 1960’s) the timeless voice of Patsy Cline, whether we were aware of it or not, formed the backdrop to many a school dance or other romantic endeavor. I was not a fan of Cline’s, at least not consciously, growing up but have come to appreciate her talent and her amazing voice. In another review in this space I have called her the ‘country torch singer’ par excellence. And she does not fail here. At least musically. However, cinematically is another question. While it was interesting (and a little disconcerting) to see the old black and white television clips from the 1950's I do not believe that this compilation does justice to her work. Patsy, like many another torch singer like Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday, needs to grow on you. The best way to do that is grab a Greatest Hits album and sit back. You won’t want to turn the damn thing off. As for this film, if you have time watch it as an appetizer.


Written by willie nelson
(as performed by willie nelson)
Also performed by patsy cline and ray price*

Crazy for feeling so lonely
Im crazy
Crazy for feeling so blue

I knew
Youd love me as long as you wanted
And then someday
Youd leave me for somebody new

Why do I let myself worry
What in the world did I do

For thinking that my love could hold you
Im crazy for tryin
Crazy for cryin
And Im crazy
For lovin you

(repeat last verse)

Patsy Cline, She's Got You Lyrics

Artist: Cline Patsy
Song: She's Got You

“She's Got You”

I've got your picture that you gave to me
And it's signed "with love," just like it used to be
The only thing different, the only thing new
I've got your picture, she's got you

I've got the records that we used to share
And they still sound the same as when you were here
The only thing different, the only thing new,
I've got the records, she's got you

I've got your memory, or has it got me?
I really don't know, but I know it won't let me be

I've got your class ring; that proved you cared
And it still looks the same as when you gave it dear
The only thing different, the only thing new
I've got these little things, she's got you

Patsy Cline, Why Can't He Be You Lyrics

Artist: Cline Patsy
Song: Why Can't He Be You

“Why Can't He Be You”

He takes me to the places you and I used to go
He tells me over and over that he loves me so
He gives me love that I never got from you
He loves me too, his love is true
Why can't he be you

He never fails to call and tell me I'm on his mind
And I'm lucky to have such a guy; I hear it all the time
And he does all the things that you would never do
He loves me, too, his love is true
Why can't he be you

He's not the one who dominates my mind and soul
And I should love him so, 'cause he loves me, I know
But his kisses leave me cold

He sends me flowers, calls on the hour, just to prove his love
And my friends say when he's around, I'm all he speaks of
And he does all the things that you would never do
He loves me too, his love is true
Why can't he be you

Patsy Cline, Sweet Dreams Lyrics

Artist: Cline Patsy
Song: Sweet Dreams

“Sweet Dreams”

Sweet dreams of you
Every night I go through
Why can't I forget you and start my life anew
Instead of having sweet dreams about you

You don't love me, it's plain
I should know I'll never wear your ring
I should hate you the whole night through
Instead of having sweet dreams about you

Sweet dreams of you
Things I know can't come true
Why can't I forget the past, start loving someone new
Instead of having sweet dreams about you

The "First Wave" Folk Revival- In Honor Of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly


A Shared Vision:Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly Tribute, 1988

If any of the older generation needs an introduction to Woody Guthrie or Leadbelly then I ask what planet have you been on. Woody’s "This Land Is Your Land" is practically a national anthem (and is just that in some quarters). And Leadbelly’s "Goodnight, Irene" is in that same category. So to have the two highlighted on one program, as they had been in life on a number of occasions, is a treat. This tribute has the further virtue of highlighting both original performances by them and tribute performances by some of these who have been influenced by their work, individually or collectively.

Anytime you get Taj Mahal, Little Richard, Sweet Honey in the Rock (a real treat as I was not familiar with their work), Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and a host of others under one cinematic roof you are bound to have a good performance. And added attraction was the appearance of Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son and a folk legend in his own right, commenting on his father’s work. And, of course, an all too brief recorded performance by Bob Dylan, a man who probably did more to revive Woody’s work in the 1960’s than any other. For my money though, John Mellencamp and his ensemble band (including washboard player) stole the show at the end with their rendition of the afore-mentioned "This Land Is Your Land". Watch it.

The First Folk Wave- Woody Guthrie And Lead Belly

Folkways: The Original Vision-Songs Of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Smithsonian/Folkways, 2005

If any of the older generation, the “Generation of ‘68” needs an introduction to Woody Guthrie or Lead Belly then I ask what planet have you been on. Woody’s “This Land Is Your Land” is practically a national anthem (and in some quarters is just that). And Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene” is in that same category. So to have the two highlighted on one program, as they had been in life on a number of occasions is a treat. This tribute has the further virtue of highlighting original performances by them unlike a documentary and CD “A Shared Vision” reviewed earlier in this space that was composed of tribute performances by some of those who, like John Mellencamp, have been influenced by their work, individually or collectively.

As always with a Smithsonian/Folkways production the CD includes a booklet of copious liner notes that detail, for the folk historian or the novice alike, the history of each song and its genesis. I am always surprised by the insightful detail provided and as much as I know about this milieu always find something new in them. Moreover, the information here provided inevitably details the rather mundane genesis of some very famous songs. Here, for example, “Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie” is just what it says back in Lead Belly’s old family farm hand days.

I do not believe that I need to detail the work of these two artists but will finish with a note of what you should make sure to hear. “Goodnight, Irene” and “This Land Is Your Land”, of course. “Rock Island Line” has aged well, as has “Do-Re-Mi”. A Woody ‘talking blues’, “Talking Hard Work”, will strike your funny bone. Lead Belly’s “Midnight Special” is fine. All of this is rounded out by a Woody/Lead Belly duet on “We Shall Be Free” that has subsequently been covered by many folkies, young and old.

"Woman's Sphere" in the Rise of American Capitalism

Book Review

March is Women’s History Month

The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835, Nancy F. Cott, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1977

As I noted previously in a review of Paul E. Johnson’s A Shopkeeper’s Millennium, an account of the rise of the industrial capitalists of Rochester, New York in the 1830's, in any truly socialist understanding of history the role of the class struggle plays a central role. However, the uneven development of society throughout history has created other forms of oppression that need to be address. In America the question of the special oppression of blacks as a race clearly fits that demand. And everywhere the woman question cries out for solution.

Any thoughtful socialist wants to, in fact needs to, know how the various classes in society were formed, and transformed, over time. I have mentioned previously that a lot of useful work in this area has been done by socialist scholars. One thinks of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, for example. One needs to have a sense about the evolution of the forms of woman’s oppression, as well. One does not, however, need to be a socialist to do such research in order to provide us with plenty of ammunition in our fight for a better world. One of the great developments of the past thirty or forty years is the dramatic increase in research, led by the feminist resurgence, on woman’s history. The book under review here Nancy Cott’s study of the role of women in early capitalist America, The Bonds of Womanhood, is an early such addition.

I have mentioned in other reviews of this period in American history that the changes from an agrarian/mercantile society as found at the time of the American Revolution to the contours of an industrial society in the Age of Jackson were dramatic and longstanding. This was also the case with the role of women. Women, due to their biological function, have always been central to the cohesion of the family throughout class history. The form that has taken however has varied with changes in the economic superstructure. Thus such occurrences, due to the nature of industrial development, as the decrease in extended families, the dividing of work from the home, the putting out system, the dominance of the male as ‘breadwinner’ and the domestication of women as center of family life had profound changes in the way the family related to the world, the way children were socialized and the way woman subordinated their desires and creativity to the tasks at hand. Sound familiar?

Professor Cott makes her case for this observable change by looking at changes of various types of New England families from self-sufficient farmers to producers for the market, etc. She also relies heavily, as all historians of necessity must, on the record left behind by women mainly through their diaries. There are certain methodological problems inherent in that approach and a tendency to generalize off of the relatively small numbers for whom a record survives but nevertheless her early work is the starting place for a better understanding of the crisis in the family that occurred with the rise of capitalism in America.

I would note as a sidelight that her digging up various self-help manuals of the time for child-rearing and other domestic responsibilities was quite interesting. Dr. Spock, in the last generation, and today Oprah and Doctor Phil and their ilk thus come from a long pedigree of those who had something to say about the correct raising of YOUR children. Read on.

Bruce Springsteen Comes Back Home- The Pete Seeger Sessions


Bruce Springsteen: The Pete Seeger Sessions, 2006

Frankly, I had never been a strong fan of Bruce Springsteen’s during his more raucous Rock & Roll career. I like Rock & Roll very much but most of his work seemed, to my ear, a little off kilter. However, with an acoustic recording in 2005 (and an earlier one from from 1996 that I will review separately) and now an American tradition folk recording of some works made famous by the legendary folksinger and ardent folk traditionalist Pete Seeger Springsteen has come back home. This session produced interesting versions of some common American songs like "Eire Canal", "John Henry", Mary Don't You Weep" and "Shenendoah" that are done with so much retexturing (Springsteen’s term) that Bruce has now created a niche for himself in the folk pantheon. Who would have thought?

This is a short documentary about the making of the sessions album but it gives real insight into the way Springsteen ‘feels’ the song, gears up, and then goes out and performs it in that gravelly voice that I like in male singers. For my money his version of "Shenandoah" is one of the most hauntingly moving I have ever heard (partially as a result of great back up on instruments and vocals, including a strong performance by Bruce's wife Patty). And I do not usually even like the song. All this, plus his gang of musicians were obviously having a good time. And it shows from start to finish. I am going out to buy the album, pronto. (There are some DVD/CD reverse side combinations available on this one).

Note: The reference to Bruce coming home is from the DVD. One of the back up musicians' father was a well-known folkie in the 1960's who taught Bruce his acoustic guitar back then. What goes around comes around.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cowboy Angel Meets Pack Rat-Cadillac Jack Rides Again

Book Review

Cadillac Jack, Larry McMurtry,Touchstone Books, New York, 1982

With the exception of reviews of both the book and movie versions of The Last Picture Show in this space the usual reference I make to Larry McMurtry concerns his thoughtful reviews of the history of the Old West in the New York Review of Books (most recently on General Custer, March 6, 2008). Despite that merely nodding acquaintance I know three things about Mr. McMurtry from those articles. McMurtry loves books, I mean he really loves them. I understand that he is the consummate bookseller/pack rat. He loves, as mentioned above, the Old West; a place where he grew up (deep in the heart of Texas) and from the themes of his books formed a huge imprint on his character. And he loves to talk about swap meets and the vagaries of pack ratdom. That last point is important here because this seemingly bedraggled, scorned and misunderstood profession is central to the story that he tells here.

The plot line is pretty straightforward. Cadillac Jack is an ex-professional cowboy turned (to be kind) second-hand entrepreneur riding far and wide throughout the country in search of El Dorado- that elusive million-dollar treasure to be found at a flea market stall. At least that is his cover for this story. But we know from McMurtry’s coming of age book The Last Picture Show that this is really about a man in search of himself and where he stands in the world. Especially with women. In other words the real eternal quest.

The major action of the story is centered in the secondary power lanes of Washington, D.C. Now we all know what one can expect will happen to an old cowboy when he gets messed up with that crowd. They make bull riding or auction cruising seem like a day in the park. But, Cadillac could handle that all and have time for lunch if he could solve what ails him and that is the above-mentioned woman question (surprise, surprise) although he seems to have had more than his fair share of interesting experiences with them. What ties the whole story together, as in my limited experience with McMurtry’s s work he seems always able to do, are the doings (and undoings) of a strong secondary set of characters (some displaced Texans, some not) who are either buying or selling something, not always legally. Needless to say I need to investigate Mr. McMurtry’s work further. But, dear reader, this is not a bad place to start.

The Heyday of Mountain Music- The Carter Family


The Carter Family, PBS, 2005

I have reviewed the various CD’d put out by the Carter Family, that is work of the original grouping of A.P., Sara and Maybelle, elsewhere in this space. Many of the thoughts expressed there apply here, as well. The recent, now somewhat eclipsed, interest in the mountain music of the 1920’s and 30’s highlighted in such films as The Song Catcher and Brother, Where Art Thou, of necessity, had to create a renewed interest in the Carter Family. Why? Not taking the influence of that family’s musical shaping of mountain music is like neglecting the influence of Bob Dylan on the folk music revival of the 1960’s. I suppose it can be done but a big hole is left in the landscape.

What this PBS production has done, and done well, is put the music of the Carters in perspective as it relates to their time, their religious sentiments and their roots in the seemingly simple mountain lifestyle. Is there any simpler harmony than Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Nevertheless, these gentle mountain folk were as driven to success, especially A.P, as any urbanite of the time. Moreover, they seem, and here again A.P. is the example, to have had as many interpersonal problems (in short, marital difficulties) as us city folk.

I have mentioned elsewhere, and it bears repeating here, that this fundamentalist religious sentiment expressed throughout their work does not have that same razor-edged feel that we find with today’s evangelicals. This is a very personal kind of religious expression. These people took their beating during the Scopes Trial era and turned inward. Fair enough. That they also produced some very simple and interesting music is the product of that withdrawal. Listen.

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of, Part III


California Split, Directed by Robert Altman, Starring Elliott Gould, George Segal 1972

Okay, to keep things straight Dashiell Hammet’s Maltese Falcon was Part I, John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre was Part II, and here with Robert Altman's California Split we have Part III of the age old dream of humankind to get rich without having to work, or do much of it. Or is there something else that also holds life (and these films together)? The business at hand in each case is the quest- for the damn bird in Maltese, the damn pot of gold in Treasure or the damn gambling jackpot for our two friends here. The end of this film, fittingly in its own way, tells it all.

After finishing up on a winning streak to end all winning streaks our duo when it is time to divvy up the cash finds there is no closure. That is the message; still it is nice to think of getting the payoff without having to work for it. After all, humankind has spend many millennia organizing itself and creating labor –saving devices for just such a condition. Except someone forgot to tell the few greed heads that this social product should be for the benefit of every one.

The early to mid 1970’s was the heyday of the male ‘buddy’ film out of Hollywood. The films of Robert Redford done with Paul Newman like The Sting and Butch Cassidy come to mind. Here Elliot Gould (as Charley) and George Segal (as Bill) two compulsive gamblers who will bet on anything at any time make a run for the roses in Reno. Along the way they get beat up, taken, and every other imaginable scenario before they get their stake for the run. Today such a scenario would include some time in a twelve step program but that is neither here nor there.

These two certainly have some chemistry working off each other roles. Segal is the moody, enigmatic one; Gould is the classic hustler of the literary imagination. He would find congenial company in a Damon Runyon story. I might add that the so-called romance of gambling for a livelihood certainly gets a workout here. My experience at race tracks and betting parlors has not included these wholesome types. Usually, one is either desperately waiting to get the next bet down or the next stake. Not pretty in either case. But enough, see this movie.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

*A Short Note of Cuban Developments

Click on title to link to Wikipedia's entry for the Cuban Revolution. This link is placed here with the understanding that although for my generation, the generation of '68, defense of the Cuban revolution was a touchstone issue that may not apply to later activists who came to political life under others impetuses. I also do not vouch for the accuracy of all the information in the Wikipedia entry.


Defend the Cuban Revolution! U.S. End the Embargoes!

Recently I have been asked by a political colleague, in person not by e-mail or blog comment if one can believe such a phenomena in the digital age, what I made of the situation in Cuba. She had noticed last week, the week of February 18, 2007, that I had not commented on Fidel’s stepping down from most of his political offices, including the presidency. Well, the short answer is that I am waiting for the dust to settle a little before I comment fully on such an event. Moreover, I feel under no compulsion to run out and yell in the streets every time that there is a Stalinist musical chairs change up in the world (although granted, there are fewer occasions for that now).

Apparently, the ‘exiles’ are not dancing in the streets of Little Havana, oops, I mean Miami so that tells one in a very empirical way what this latest turnover is about from that quarter. The changeover from Fidel to Raul Castro, and the apparent ‘revolutionary’ hard line, is on the order of a mini-turn for them, and all of one piece. Strangely, that is the general take on the situation for anti-Stalinist leftists, as well.

The fundamental problem from our leftist perspective in Cuba is, as Leon Trotsky posited long ago, one cannot fully develop a socialist society in isolation- in short, 'socialism in one country' does not work. That is even truer in a small island country that now has no lifeline from other non-capitalist countries, like the ex-Soviet Union. Thus, in the long haul the Cuban situation is dictated by the prospects, or lack of them, for international socialism. But, in the short haul, and this is really my message today, we must gear up to defend the Cuban Revolution, as we have since 1959, tooth and nail, against the imperialists at the door and their agents in Cuba, regardless of which Castro is in charge. More on these developments as we get closer to celebrating the Moncada anniversary in July. Defend the Cuban Revolution!

Monday, February 25, 2008

*From The Archives Of "Women And Revolution"-Angela Davis Peddles Liberal Myths

Click on the headline to link to a "Wikipedia" entry for black activist Angela Davis.

Markin comment:

The following is an article from the Winter 1982-83 issue of "Women and Revolution" that may have some historical interest for old "new leftists", perhaps, and well as for younger militants interested in various cultural and social questions that intersect the class struggle. Or for those just interested in a Marxist position on a series of social questions that are thrust upon us by the vagaries of bourgeois society. I will be posting more such articles from the back issues of "Women and Revolution" during Women's History Month and periodically throughout the year.


Angela Davis Peddles Liberal Myths
Women, Blacks and Class Struggle

Women, Race and Class
by Angela Y. Davis Random House, Inc., New York 1981

The most striking thing about Angela Davis' book, Women, Race and Class, is what's not in it. Davis, a philosophy professor and member of the central committee of the reformist Communist Party (CP), achieved an international reputation as a black radical associated with the Black Panther Party. Framed up in 1970 as part of the massive cop/FBI vendetta against the Panthers, Davis spent over a year in prison before being acquitted. Her relationship with Panther martyr George Jackson was even featured in a slick Hollywood movie. To those not blinded by the celluloid, Davis remains a living symbol of the reconciliation of the militant, eclectic Panthers with the mainstream Stalinist reformism of the CP. Yet in this set of liberal-oriented essays, Davis doesn't even mention the Black Panther Party. The explosive '60s of militant black nationalism, the New Left women's movement, etc. is sunk without a trace.

Of course the Communist Party, then, was generally written off by the New Left and the best of the black radicals as rotten old reformist hacks irrevelant to the struggle. But the New Left's rejection of CP-style "coalitionism" with the Democrats was falsely equated with a rejection of working-class politics in general. The New Left's "answer" to CP sellouts was not revolutionary Marxist program, but eclectic Maoist/Third World-ist ideology and mindless militancy: "direct action," often physical confrontation with the state, passive enthusing over ghetto outbursts, "Off the Pig" rhetoric. When the inevitable capitalist reaction hit, the New Left either splintered or made its peace with the reformist status quo—and there was the CP, waiting with awful inertia to sell young militants its shopworn "strategy" of maneuvering within the capitalist system.

A watershed in the degeneration of the Panthers' militant impulse was the 1969 "United Front Against Fascism" conference in Oakland. Explicitly embracing the class-collaborationist formula of popular-front "theoretician" Dimitrov, the Panthers made a sharp right turn towards alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie, brokered by the CP. The CP had money and lawyers, which the Panthers, facing massive repression, desperately needed. The price was returning to the fold of Democratic Party "reform" politics (indeed Huey Newton became a Democratic politician a few years later). Groups to the left of the CP were kicked out of the conference, particularly Progressive Labor and the Spartacist League. The SL argued that the road to black liberation must lie through revolutionary alliance with the working class, through building an integretated vanguard party with black leadership to fight for socialist revolution. Women at the conference who objected to the Panthers' gross male chauvinism were also harassed.
Angela Davis, in the CP's orbit at least since her high school days, should have been delighted with the "rectification" of Panther politics in the direction of mainstream Stalinist reformism. But Women, Race and Class does not deal at all with the Panthers.

In fact it makes no real attempt to come to grips with the searing reality of black America today—the explosive contradiction of ghetto misery and potential proletarian power. Nor can Davis suggest a solution to women's oppression, which is rooted in the institution of the monogamous family, linked inextricably to private property and thus insoluble without a revolution overthrowing capitalist property relations. Then what is Women, Race and Class about? It is basically an attempt to find historical antecedents for the CP's eternal search for the "anti-monopoly coalition": an alliance of workers, women, blacks, youth, etc. with right-thinking imperialists, Democrats of good will, progressive Republicans, anti-racist bankers and so on.

In the CP's view, the only obstacle to unity is... divisiveness. Never mind the brutal, racist, imperialist system that sets black against white, employed against jobless, skilled against unskilled, everywhere you look. For Davis, all that's needed is for the various sectors to be more receptive to each other. Thus, central to the book is the appeal to middle-class feminists to be more sensitive to race and class. "Today's feminists are repeating the failures of the women's movement of a hundred years ago.... Clearly, race and class can no longer be ignored [I] if the women's movement is to be resurrected" as the book's dust-jacket puts it. The solution? In the classic words of Alva Buxenbaum, reviewing Davis' book in the CP's own Political Affairs (March 1982), we must develop a "deeper understanding of and commitment to alliances based on unity." As opposed to disunity, we guess. Of course this inane language serves a purpose; it's CPese for support to the Democrats.

Davis also leaves out of Women, Race and Class all mention of international communism and the Bolshevik Revolution, which on the woman question and especially the black question in America had a decisive impact on radicals. This would certainly offend those bourgeois liberals the CP chases after today, as all wings of the bourgeoisie are united in hostility to the USSR and the gains of the October Revolution which remain despite Stalinist bureaucratic deformation. The history of American Marxism, its early counterposition to late 19th century feminism, even the aggressive work of the CP itself in the late '20s and '30s in winning blacks to a proletarian perspective, is all buried—and necessarily; it would expose too starkly the total bankruptcy and betrayals of the Communist Party today.

The Myth of the "Progressive Black Family"

So what is in the book? Davis opens with a discussion of black women under slavery. She points out that black women were full-time workers in the fields and other heavy labor, thus excluded from the 19th century ideology of "femininity" which relegated "many white women," as she puts it, to positions of useless, sentimentalized inferiority inside the home. Davis neglects to mention in this section that early Northern industrialization relied heavily on the intense exploita¬tion of "free" female labor, especially in textiles. Moreover, the large majority of white women in pre-Civil War America were the hard-working wives and daughters of farmers.

Her main point, however, is that the bitter experience of slavery created strong black women who "passed on to their nominally free female descendents a legacy of hard work...resistance and insistence on sexual equality—in short, a legacy spelling out stand¬ards for a new womanhood." Arguing against Daniel P. Moynihan's notorious 1965 "black matriarchy" thesis that the problem with blacks is that black women are running things too much, creating a "tangle of pathology," Davis contends that slavery, rather than destroying black families, actually promoted sexual equality within black family and community life, which has come down essentially unchanged to this day: "Black people—transformed that negative equality which emanated from the equal oppression they suffered as slaves into a positive quality: the equalitari-anism characterizing their social relations." This cheery Stalinist vision of some progressive black family emerging from slavery is absolutely grotesque!

In 1975 we pointed out that Moynihan's "The Negro Family: The Case for National Actions' a U.S. labor department study, sought to "shift the blame for the social problems of blacks from the capitalist system to blacks themselves, particuparly black women.... The so-called 'black matriarch' is, in fact, the most oppressed of all. She is paid the least and relegated to the lowest-paying jobs with no opportunity for advancement" ("Black Women Against Triple Oppres¬sion," W&R No. 9, Summer 1975). Where she even has a job, that is. "Equalitarian" black families? No way. Michelle Wallace, in her overall pretty despicable trashing of the "Black Power" era, the steamy Cosmopolitan-style confessional Black Macho and the Myth of the Super-Female, at least had the guts to cast a very cold eye on such liberal mythologizing:

"I remember once I was watching a news show with a black male friend of mine who had a Ph.D. in psychology We were looking at some footage of a black woman who seemed barely able to speak English, though at least six generations of her family before her had certainly claimed it as their first language. She was in bed wrapped in blankets, her numerous small, poorly clothed children huddled around her. Her apartment looked rat-infested, cramped, and dirty. She had not, she said, had heat and hot water for days. My friend, a solid member of the middle class now but surely no stranger to poverty in his childhood, felt obliged to comment—in order to assuage his guilt, I can think of no other reason— 'That's a strong sister as he bowed his head in reverence."

You literally would not know from reading Davis' book that such a thing as the miserable, rotting big city black ghetto even exists, with its poisonous, violent currents of humiliation and despair and hatred.

The Ghetto and the Factory: Disintegration and Power

The huge migrations of blacks to industrial centers out of the rural South—peaking during World Wars I and II, periods of capitalist boom, as well as after the Second World War when mechanization of Southern agriculture forced more blacks into the cities of the North and South—resulted in the integration of blacks into the American capitalist economy, albeit at the bottom. That fact has been the key shaping factor in black experience in contemporary America—and that integration into the industrial proletariat is the key to black liberation today. At the same time, this wrenching integration into urban life took place under conditions of growing racist segregation socially. Blacks formed the central native component of that huge "surplus population" necessary to the capitalist "free labor" system. Thus the resulting crowded, desperately poor black ghettos with their inevitable "social disintegration"—a fancy phrase for broken homes, abandoned women and children, a permanent welfare population, illiteracy, crime and violence, drugs and squalor. Richard Wright's Black Boy, pioneering urban studies like St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton's Black Metropolis, Malcolm X, James Baldwin—they spoke of this bitter reality. Today the statistics are overwhelming on the hideous condition of the black ghetto popula¬tion, and especially of black women. Three-quarters of all poor black families are headed by women alone, while 47 percent of all black families with children under 18 are headed by women, according to 1980 statistics (Department of Health and Human Services' National Center for Health' Statistics). Almost 55 percent of births to black women are "illegitimate." The fashionable phrase "feminization of poverty" expresses a terrible reality.

But Davis doesn't even mention it exists, because she can't. A world so crushing is not going to be touched by electing a few more "progressive" black Democrats, the CP's line. It's going to take a massive social upheaval—revolution—to break out of the black ghettos. Davis, however, confines herself to a series of hollow, eclectic essays on various "social uplift" causes. One whole chapter on the black clubwomen's movement, for example! Does Davis really believe that the personal rivalries between Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell in this cultured and ladylike milieu have anything significant to do with black or woman's liberation? As for black labor, there is but one chapter: on black women's long history of work as domestic servants. It's easy for liberals to weep over this humiliating labor, but it's hardly a source of black proletarian power. Blacks.integrated into the industrial working class at the point of production are the key to black leadership. And precisely because black workers may typically have a mother on welfare or a younger brother in prison, and are confronted in a thousand ways with evidence that the racist, capitalist "American dream" doesn't include blacks, they will be the most militant fighters for the entire working class, least tied to illusions that anything short of a fundamental social restructuring of this country through socialist revolution will liberate blacks.

Abolition and Suffrage:The Limits of Bourgeois Radical Idealism

Almost half of Women, Race and Class is devoted to the relationships between the abolitionist movement of the 1830s and '40s, the fight for women's rights and the post-Civil War suffragette movement, which developed in often explicitly hostile counterposition to continued demands for black political and civil rights. These chapters are the most interesting in the book, although here too Davis' reformist CP ideology deforms the past.

She has a hard time explaining the early and active participation of many prominent upper- and middle-class women in the abolitionist movement. "In 1833 many of these middle-class women had probably begun to realize that something had gone terribly awry in their lives. As 'housewives' in the new era of industrial capitalism, they had lost their economic importance in the home," Davis guesses. She contends that these women's identification with the slaves was essentially the result of "unfulfilling domestic lives." This projection of a Betty Friedanesque "feminine mystique" back into history not only fails to explain the fact that far more Northern men (e.g., William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the fiery abolitionist journal The Liberator; Thaddeus Stevens, head of the radical Republicans in Congress) took up the abolitionist cause, but actually is rather insulting to such powerful orators and theoreticians as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Utopian socialists like Frances Wright, or the transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, who went to Italy to participate in the revolutionary upsurge of 1848.

In fact, rather than the "alliance of oppressed housewives and slaves" Davis evokes, the abolitionist movement in America was ideologically influenced bythe radical petty-bourgeois currents sweeping Europe,which reached their highest expression (and defeat) in the revolutions of 1848. As Kenneth B. Stampp pointed out in The Era of Reconstruction 1865-1877, the abolitionists, women as well as men, represented the:
"...heirs of the Enlightenment.... As nineteenth- century liberals, they believed in the autonomous individual—his right to control his own destiny—and therefore regarded slavery as the ultimate abomination In fact, radical reconstruction ought to be
viewed in part as the last great crusade of the nineteenth-century romantic reformers."
Both demands for the abolition of slavery and for women's rights were seen by their advocates as inseparable parts of the same progressive bourgeois struggle for "liberty, equality, fraternity." At the founding conference of the Women's Loyal League in 1861, organized by Stanton and Anthony to draw women into support for the North in the Civil War and press for the immediate enfranchisement of the slaves, Angela Grimke's "Address to the Soldiers of Our Second Revolution" expressed this radical spirit:

"The war is not, as the South falsely pretends, a war of races, nor of sections, nor of political parties, but a war of Principles, a war upon the working classes, whether white or black.... In this war, the black man was the first victim, the workingman of whatever color the next; and now all who contend for the rights of labor, for free speech, free schools, free suffrage, and a free government... are driven to do battle in defense of these or to fall with them.... The nation is in a death-struggle. It must become either one vast slaveocracy of petty tyrants, or wholly the land of the free."

Grimke undoubtedly represented the high point of this radical equalitarianism. Davis' ahistorical refusal to admit that this movement represented the limits of bourgeois radicalism is no accident. The CP today pretends that the American bourgeoisie from Reagan to Kennedy is potentially capable of fulfilling the same progressive role that the bourgeoisie of Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison and Thaddeus Stevens • played. But in pre-Civil War America, the industrial proletariat was not a class-conscious and decisive factor. Certainly the workers of the North were in no sense prepared to begin to wage a struggle for power in their owh name: given this, and the fundamental block to the expansion of modern, industrial capitalism represented by the agrarian slave society of the South, it was left to the liberal Northern bourgeoisie, in alliance with the "free soil" petty-bourgeois farmers of the West, to fulfill one of the unfinished tasks of the American bourgeois revolution: the abolition of slavery.

Even so it took a bloody four-year Civil War to crush the slaveocracy, while the following attempt at "radical Reconstruction" in the South was sold out, revealing the ultimate incapacity of bourgeois radicalism to finally "liberate" any sector of the oppressed. Instead of the "land of the free," America became the land of the robber barons, unleashed capitalist expansion and exploitation, while Ku Klux Klan terror, lynchings and Jim Crow segregation became the blacks' lot in the South. By the end of the nineteenth century the U.S. emerged as a rapacious imperialist power. As happened after 1848 in Europe, following the Civil War in America "the component elements of early nineteenth century radicalism (liberal democracy and socialism, trade unionism, women's equality and national libera¬tion) separated and began to compete and conflict with one another... it seemed that bourgeois society would continue for some time and that the interests of the oppressed, be they workers, women or nations [or the black population in the U.S.], would have to be realized within its framework It was Marx who cut the Gordian knot and provided a coherent, realistic analysis of the social basis for the socialist movement within bourgeois society" ("Feminism vs. Marxism: Origins of the Conflict," W&R No. 5, Spring 1974).

Revolutionary Marxism insisted on the need for working-class revolution to open the way to further human progress. In America, the main historic obstacle to the creation of a revolutionary workers party has been the divided ethnic consciousness of the working class, built upon waves of immigration, with black-white polarization underlying that. The ability of the Democratic Party in the 20th century, expressed in Roosevelt's "New Deal" coalition of labor, liberals and ethnic minorities, to successfully manipulate these divisions and absorb petty-bourgeois movements reflects the political backwardness of American labor— and the bitter fruit of decades of betrayal by so-called "socialists" like the CPand social-democrats. The New Left, too, with its sectoralist belief that every oppressed sector must "liberate itself" also accepted as unchangeable the racist, divided status quo. For the Communist Party, the Democrats are the only possible "coalition of the oppressed" within capitalist society. Thus in 1964 they greeted the election of Lyndon B. Johnson—mad bomber of Vietnam—as a "People's Victory"!

Feminism and Racism

The remainder of Davis' historical chapters are choppy and chock-full of "unfortunately"s—the telltale reformist throat-clearing device employed preparatory to leaping over some gross betrayal or crushing defeat. Accepting the grim capitalist frame¬work as immutable, Davis' detailing of the split between the suffragettes and black civil rights fighters is full of passive hand-wringing. She quotes Stanton's racist cry of alarm in 1865 when it appeared black men, but not women, would get the vote:

"The representative women of the nation have done their uttermost for the last thirty years to secure freedom for the negro...but now, as the celestial gate to civil rights is slowly moving on its hinges, it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see 'Sambo' walk into the kingdom first Are we sure that
he, once entrenched in all his inalienable rights, may not be an added power to hold us at bay?... In fact, it is better to be the slave of an educated white man, than of a degraded, ignorant black one."

—New York Standard, 26 December 1865 letter.

Davis nails the women's suffrage leaders for their racism and support to American imperialism. She quotes Susan B. Anthony's admission, when preparing a Suffrage Association meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, that "knowing the feeling of the South with regard to Negro participation on equality with whites, I myself asked Mr. Douglass [Frederick Douglass, black abolitionist leader and early supporter of women's suffrage] not to come. I did not want to subject him to humiliation, and I did not want anything to get in the way of bringing the southern white women into our suffrage association." Anthony and Stanton allied with notorious racist Southern Democrats who argued for the enfranchisement of white women on the grounds that it would maintain white supremacy in the South after blacks got the vote. Davis gives a thorough account of rising racism in the women's suffrage movement, of the segregation of organizations and actions such as the 1913 suffrage parade, where an official attempt was made to exclude black activist Ida B. Wells from the Illinois contingent in favor of a segregated bloc. She quotes Stanton's insistence that "the worst enemies of Woman Suffrage will ever be the laboring classes of men" and records that Anthony urged women printers to scab on male printers' strikes.

Any serious reader must conclude that the pioneer feminist movement, preaching "unity of all women," essentially sought to advance the interests of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois white women, as against those of blacks and the working class. The icons of today's feminist movement are shown to be more than a little tarnished. Of course the opportunist Davis never challenges the ideology of "sisterhood," necessarily a screen for the subordination of working-class interests to bourgeois interests. Feminism, which seeks the reactionary splitting of the working class along sex lines and the collaboration of women of all classes, is a barrier to women's liberation, which can be won only through the revolutionary struggle of the working class—women and men, black and white—against their common exploiter, the capitalist class. The suffragettes' "unfortunate" racism and "capitulation to imperialism" flowed from their conscious identification with the interests of their own class.

American Communism

Davis' only chapter on the Communist Party, consisting solely of potted biographies of prominent CP women, opens with a gross omission. Davis asserts that when "Weydemeyer founded the Proletarian League jn 1852, no women appear to have been associated with the group. If indeed there were any women involved, they have long since faded into historical anonymity... to all intents and purposes, they appear to have been absent from the ranks of the Marxist socialist movement." Sliding over the Working-men's National Association and Communist Club as "utterly dominated by men," she manages neatly to avoid the major faction fight that took place in the American section of the First International over the question^of feminism. That flamboyant and notorious "free love" advocate, presidential candidate and early feminist Victoria Woodhull must be spinning in her grave. She was undoubtedly the most famous American to join the First International, organizing her own section (Section 12), which was a radical liberal faction, counterposing women's rights, "free love," and an electoralist strategy to proletarian socialism. Marx himself personally intervened to suspend Section 12, asserting the communist principle that the end to all kinds of oppression must run through the victory of the working class over capitalism.

Davis' omission of the tremendously important work of the early Communist Party among blacks is even more egregious. Her sole comment on that work as such is one bland statement, following a rather mysterious quote from William Z. Foster that the CP neglected Negro women factory workers in the 1920s, that "Over the next decade, however, Communists came to recognize the centrality of racism in U.S. society. They developed a serious theory of Black liberation and forged a consistent activist record—

Obviously it's impossible to go into detail in a review of this scope, but a few fundamental points are vital. First, there was the decisive impact of international Communism. As James P. Cannon, an early CP leader and founder of American Trotskyism, put it:

"The influence of Lenin and the Russian Revolution, even debased and distorted as it later was by Stalin, and then filtered through the activities of the Communist Party in the United States, contributed more than any other influence from any other source to the recogni¬tion, and more or less general acceptance, of the Negro question as a spec/a/ problem of American society—a problem which cannot be simply subsumed under the general heading of the conflict between capital and labor, as it was in the pre-communist radical movement." —The First Ten Years of American Communism The Russian Revolution also affected blacks' attitude toward the Communist Party well through the 1930s, as Drake and Cayton's Black Metropolis makes clear: "...widespread approval of 'the Reds' was not only associated with the fight of American Communists; it was also grounded upon admiration for the Soviet Union which, to thousands of Negroes, was the one 'white' nation that 'treated darker folks right'."

Despite the CP's sectarian "Third Period" excesses in the 1930s and its erroneous "Black Belt" theory (for Negro "self-determination" in the impoverished, segregated South, which was never actually raised agitationally), the CP's early work among blacks combined a proletarian orientation with the recogni¬tion that it was strategically necessary to fight racial oppression throughout America, especially addressing the problems of poor and unemployed blacks.

The CP made the first serious efforts to organize black workers and to attack the American Federation of Labor's conservative Jim Crow trade unions since the days of the Wobblies (IWW). In the South, there were heroic CP attempts to organize poor black share¬croppers, including a series of hard-fought strikes for better wages. Their most famous Depression-era work was their defense of the "Scottsboro boys," nine black youth framed up on charges of raping two white girls they were travelling with and sentenced to life imprisonment (this Davis does mention, but only in the context of appealing to the feminist "anti-rape" anti-porn movement—which she sees as essentially progressive—to avoid vigilante-type frameups of blacks). The CP won thousands of black members in this period, though few ultimately stayed.

By the mid-'30s the Communist Party had broken from the radicalism of the "Third Period" and was firmly wedded to the "Popular Front" line of open class collaboration in support of FDR. By 1941 the CP became Roosevelt's most slavish sycophant, instituting the no-strike pledge on behalf of U.S. capitalism's war to preserve and expand its empire. The CP made an open bloc with racism. When the "progressive" Earl Warren, acting on FDR's orders, interned the Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, stealing their property, the Stalinists not only refused to protest this racist atrocity, but told their own Japanese-American members to get lost. In 1945 the CP hailed the A-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki! While the Jim Crow U.S. was fighting its "war for democracy" with a segregated army and navy, the CP opposed every struggle for black rights on the grounds that it would "disrupt the war effort."

The Trotskyists in the then-revolutionary Socialist Workers Party opposed the bosses' imperialist war, while defending the Soviet Union and fighting to continue the class struggle, including militant support to black rights. While black soldiers and sailors were segregated and assigned the most humiliating, dirty and dangerous tasks, their wives and sisters were among those who suffered at home from the pro-imperialist betrayals of the labor tops and Communist Party. Brought into heavy industry in large numbers during the war, at war's end they were unceremoniously dumped back into low-paying service jobs or unemployment. Needless to say, the labor bureaucracy and the CP—which called for making the no-strike pledge permanent—took no effective action to save their jobs. The CP's "reward" for its class collaboration was the 1950s Cold War witchhunt, which shattered what was left of its mass influence.

It'll Take a Socialist Revolution to Finish the Civil War

Today the Spartacist League continues the fight for an American workers party, in opposition to those like the CP who tell workers and blacks to be passive and rely on "good" capitalist politicians. The CP cynically uses the history of the Civil War to cover its alliance with the liberal imperialist bourgeoisie today. We say it's going to take a socialist revolution to finish what the Civil War started! For the CP, women, blacks and the working class are simply three "constituencies" within capital¬ism, whom they tell to petition the racist, bourgeois state to ameliorate their oppressed condition. But exploitation of the working class is the motor force of capitalism. And capitalist society can never replace the family unit, the main social institution oppressing women. For blacks, the deeply embedded racism of American society, their forced segregation into miserable, rotting ghettos cannot be overcome short of ripping up this institutionalized oppression in socialist revolution. Our strategy is to build a women's section of a revolutionary vanguard party, to link the fight against the particular oppression of women to the power of the working class. A vital component of black leadership will be key to the second American revolution; we have fought since our inception for black Trotskyist cadre and leadership of an integrated mass workers party, like Lenin's Bolsheviks, that can lead all the oppressed against their common enemy, the capitalist class, in battle for the American socialist revolution."

*Markin Takes A Turn As Neighborhood Historian-A Working Class Saga

Click on title to link to the Leon Trotsky Internet Archive's copy of his 1923 article "habit And Custom" that, I think,helps to under the way forward in trying to develop the class consciousness necessary to bring that socialist future that humankind so desperately needs.


Despite the somewhat academic- sounding title of this commentary this is really a part of the very prosaic working class story that I have written about previously in several earlier commentaries in this space. As I mentioned in them, this space is usually devoted to ‘high’ politics and the personal is usually limited to some experience of mine that has a direct political point. Sometimes, however, a story is so compelling and makes the point in such a poignant manner that no political palaver is necessary. This is the fourth part of what, as I will explain in the next paragraph, now has now turned into a five part saga of the fate of a family from the old working class neighborhood that I grew up in. Let me continue that tale.

In part three of this story, History and Class Consciousness (hereafter, History), about the fate of my childhood friend Kenny’s father I mentioned that if I had time I would try to find out the fates of his two long missing older brothers, James, Jr. and Francis, who had not been heard from by the family in over thirty years. My invaluable neighborhood historian had related to me that Kenny’s recently deceased mother, Margaret, had assumed they were dead, or that is what she told my historian. I have become so intrigued by this family’s story that I have made time to dig deeper into it. Now I know, or will soon know, both their fates. They, in any case, are not dead.

In detecting information about the whereabouts of the two brothers did I need to be a super sleuth? No. Did I need to spend hours poring over documents? No. I have in this space, on more than one occasion, railed against the information superhighway as a substitute for political organizing but for finding public records that lead one to missing people it cannot be beat. That source, and using the old telephone did yeoman’s service here. I have thus now found the brothers, or at least the whereabouts of the oldest one James, Jr. whom I have already interviewed and who has promised me in his cryptic way to lead me to his younger brother Francis. Francis’s story will be detailed in a separate commentary after I interview him.

Probably, after I finish the fifth part of the saga I will rewrite this whole thing as one story to avoid the repetitions inherent in presenting each part in piecemeal fashion. For now though, dear reader, bear with me. To refresh the story for those who make have not read the previous parts let me summarize. In previous commentaries I have mentioned that I had recently (in May 2007) returned to the old working class neighborhood where I grew up after a very long absence. I have gone back a few times since last May to hear more of what had happened to those in the old neighborhood from a woman who continues to live there and had related the above stories to me. The first story was about the fate of my childhood friend Kenny. A second in January 2008 recounted the fate of Kenny’s mother, Margaret, and History, written in February 2008, mentioned above, presented the story of Kenny’s father, James. (Check the archives for these three stories.)

My own family started life in the housing projects, at that time not the notorious hell holes of crime and deprivation that they later became but still a mark of being low, very low, on the social ladder at a time when others were heading to the Valhalla of the newly emerging suburbs. By clawing and scratching my parents saved enough money to buy an extremely modest single-family house. The house was in a neighborhood that was, and is, one of those old working class neighborhoods where the houses are small, cramped and seedy, the leavings of those who have moved on to bigger and better things. The neighborhood nevertheless reflected the desire of the working poor in the 1950’s, my parents and others including Kenny’s parents, to own their own homes and not be shunted off to decrepit apartments or dilapidated housing projects, the fate of those just below them on the social ladder. That is where I met Kenny and through him his family, including his mother Margaret, his father James and his two brothers, James, Jr. and Francis.

In my teens I had lost track of Kenny who as he reached maturity took the death of a friend who died in Vietnam very hard. The early details of his behavior changes are rather sketchy but they may have involved illegal drug use. Apparently, with drugs and therapy, there were periods of calm but for over three decades poor Kenny struggled with his inner demons. In the end the demons won and he died a few years ago while in a mental hospital.

Needless to say Kenny’s problems were well beyond his mother and father’s ability to comprehend or control. His father, like mine, had a limited education, few marketable skills and meager work prospects. Thus, there were no private resources for Kenny and he and they were thus consigned to public institutionalization schemes. The shame of this, among other things, led to his father’s early death many, many years ago in the mid-1980’s.

Kenny’s woes, as I found out this January, were only part of this sad story about the fate of Margaret and James' sons. The two older brothers were in and out of trouble of one sort or another and were not around the neighborhood much. James Jr.’s story now comes into focus.

I found James, Jr. (hereafter, just James) living alone in a seedy, rundown rooming house in a transitional Boston neighborhood. Strangely, he was more than willing to talk to me about his life and family although he was only vaguely aware of my family, except that he remembered that I was somewhat political. His story, in general outline, is not an unfamiliar one, at least not to me.

Early on James got into petty crime and then more serious crime. As a teenager during the early part of the Vietnam War era, after dropping out of school despite having previously been something of an honors student, he got into enough trouble that he was given a choice by the court system to ‘volunteer’ for military duty or go to jail. He took the military service, for a while. Given orders to Vietnam, he went AWOL not for any political reason but just, as he said, “because”. Later, after time in a military stockade and a civilian jail (for other, unrelated acts) James got ‘religion’-that is he figured the percentages of keeping up his then current ‘lifestyle’ did not add up to a long and happy life.

Based on that street wisdom James became a drifter, grifter and midnight sifter (his words) but stayed on the legal side of the line. The inevitable failed marriages, lost jobs and financial problems as a result of such a lifestyle followed, in their seemingly monotonously natural course. This harsh lifestyle, moreover, ultimately wore down his psychological capacities and at some point he was diagnosed as clinically depressed, unable to hold a steady job and was put on welfare. He has subsisted at various times on day labor wages , welfare of one sort or another, and handouts ever since. That pretty much sums up the balance of his life for our purposes here.

Now, about the question that must be on the reader’s mind, as it surely was on mine. What in James’s biography warrants going underground from one’s family for over thirty years? The answer James gave-shame. James just flat out got tired of taking a psychological beating every time his mother Margaret berated him in his early youth for some seemingly trivial mistake. To not have to deal with that, as he started to get into real trouble, James just walked away from his family. His rationale was that if they did not know about it then he was doing them a favor. Strange reasoning, perhaps. However, I too know, and perhaps you do also, the wrath of an Irish mother when she gets into the shaming ritual. I faced that more than one time myself. It is not pretty. And I considered my mother something of a saint! James may have stayed away too long and, in the end, broke his father’s heart, but I found nothing inherently absurd about his response. We all face our demons in our own particular ways.

I make no claims that James is a typical working class story, it is not. Nor is this a typical working class family saga. But there are just enough of the pathologies that I have over a lifetime of observation noted about working class existence to make the story serve my purpose. It can serve as a descriptive, if not, cautionary tale about the plight of working people in modern American society. Think about it that way, if you will.

I commented, off-handedly, in History that at a point where I had been successful in locating the two older brothers I would I will surely need the literary talents of someone like James T. Farrell in his Studs Lonigan trilogy for guidance. That has proven, thus far, to not be necessary as this is a most ordinary story. What this story really calls for is the skills of someone like the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, or better yet a Lenin, to try to analyze and to generalize how a couple of fairly smart working class kids like James and his brother turned the wrong way and in the end turned inward rather than become class fighters. It needs an appraisal of how the transmission belt of working class political consciousness that broke down in our fathers’ generation (the so-called “greatest generation” that survived the Great Depression and fought World War II) remained broken in the baby-boomer generation (our generation, the generation of ’68). There is thus something of a ‘lost’ political generation after ours that is not there to give guidance now that today’s youth look like they, at least some of them, are ready to ‘storm heaven’.

As I have said in the previous commentaries on this story I am a working class politician. That is the great legacy that my parents left me, intentionally or not. As I have asked previously in relating the other parts of the story -are there any great political lessons to be learned here? No, I do not think so but this family’s saga of turning in on itself in the absence of some greater purpose and solution goes a long way to explaining why down at the base of society we have never had as much as nibble of independent working class political consciousness expressed in this country. Think about that.