Saturday, April 19, 2008

Tales From The 'Hood- The Endless Road?


This is the fifth and final story about growing up in the 1950’s, the childhood period of the generation of ’68 and of my own. This series got its start as a spin-off from a previous series in this space entitled History and Class Consciousness- A Working Class Saga that came from a look back at the trials and tribulations of a family from my old working class neighborhood where I came of political age. The stories here go back to an earlier time and different location to that of the housing project where my family first started out. They are motivated by a search to find out the whys and wherefores of how consciousness of being poor gets implanted early in life. The poor really are different from you the reader. The what to do about it part I discuss, ad infinitum, elsewhere in this space.

As I write this final piece a line from a song is going through my head, Jerry Garcia’s Ripple-“There is a road, no simple highway, between the dawn and the dark of night” That idea of the road, as I will discuss below, very neatly sums up the situation here. Some of this tale is meant as obvious metaphor, other parts are the real deal. In any case here is the central axis of this story line. We are in series talking about growing up 1950’s. This is quintessentially the 'golden age' of the automobile in America. You know the vast possibilities of the open highway – the road-and the promise of adventure-fast and effortless.

The hard fact for the Markin family was that through most of this period we did not have that automobile to break out with. When we did this writer remembers mainly ‘clunkers’ with their inevitable breakdowns in odd and foreboding locations. But, mostly, we had no car. Even in a housing project there was a social dividing line between those with automobiles who could get out and those who were stuck. We were, forever it seems, dependent on the kindnesses of neighbors. Or, ususally, walking, public transportation in that isolated location then, as now, being haphazard. I learned to dread the weekly walk to get groceries, etc. Ouch, I can still feel those hot summer roads.

Okay, so you can now say that walking is good for you. Fair enough. But here is where the tale gets weird. I have mentioned on several other occasions another wealthy peninsula (detailed in the first tale – A Story of Two Peninsulas) that abutted the peninsula where my housing project was located. I have also mentioned that I had been stopped, young as I was, in that locale by the local constabulary who asked where I was from and what was my purpose in being there. Hell,all I wanted to do was to walk along the streets that paralleled the ocean there. The tip-off for the police, apparently, was that I had entered the area on foot (as opposed to having been driven there like ‘normal’ people, I suppose) and they took it from there. When cops start infringing on your right to walk in public space wherever and whenever you feel like then you know that you are in a very class bound society-at least in these neighborhoods. In short, I was guilty of walking while poor. Enough said.

What have I tried to present here? Clearly, not all class struggles are limited to the visible ones of the picket line or the barricade. Certainly the working class struggles that I have noted here fall well below the radar but they also point some hard facts about why we have so little working class political class-consciousness. Putting up with their class hatred of us, their social humiliation of us, the mere fact of being poor, of being constantly on the edge of violence, and of facing the hazards of life in a dysfunctional family that detailed in these stories are all impediments to political class consciousness. And that is before we even get to the streets. Remember though ‘there is a road, no simply highway’-the class struggle road.

Tales From The 'Hood- Growing Up Absurd


This is the fourth of a short series of stories about growing up in the 1950’s, the childhood period of the generation of ’68 and of my own. This series got its start as a spin-off from a previous series in this space entitled History and Class Consciousness- A Working Class Saga that came from a look back at the trials and tribulations of a family from my old working class neighborhood where I came of political age. The stories here go back to an earlier time and different location to that of the housing project where my family first started out. They are motivated by a search to find out the whys and wherefores of how consciousness of being poor gets implanted early. That the poor are really different from you the reader. The what to do about it part I discuss, ad infinitum, elsewhere in the blogosphere.

The previous tale in this series, A Piece of Cloth, about my less than heroic misadventures as an up and coming square dancer (apparently in preparation for an career on the Grand Ole Opry) sets the tone for this story. In that tale I was subjected to a poor working class mother’s rage for cutting up one of my precious few pairs of pants in order to impress a girl. I learned then, if more painfully than necessary, the hard lesson that the Markin family was poor, dirt poor, in this world.

Those kinds of incidents involving my mother and I (and my brothers, as well), although generally more severe and less amiably subject to public treatment than that bittersweet tale, were standard fare in the Markin household. Their type is, moreover, well documented in literature and the media and would be merely cumulative if discussed here. Only the reality is grimmer than anything portrayed in book or film. Not physically, there was thankfully little of that, but the psychological warfare was almost as devastating. Let me nevertheless try to put this thing in some perspective now, although Lord knows I was incapable of that as I was going through it.

I have mentioned elsewhere in this space some of the small details of my parent’s struggle for survival. (See archives for Hard Times In Babylon). I have also mentioned that their life profiles fit into a familiar pattern similar to others who survived the Great Depression of the 1930’s and fought or endured World War II. I still feel no need to go into great detail about that here. I however find that I need to mention that my mother married my serviceman father just out of high school and quickly became a teenage mother. Moreover, she had great difficulties with the births of my brothers and I. The bunch of us furthermore were only separated by a year or so each. In short, a handful.

Those facts along with my father’s continual and constant difficulties in holding onto the unskilled jobs that he was forced into meant a very, very tough existence for a woman who was something a princess (a working class one, to be sure-there is a different but a princess nevertheless) to her parents and brothers. The woman’s respond to her conditions was to be in a constant rage. It was not pleasant. We called it, among us boys, the Irish shaming routine. In short, what is apparent here is that the nuclear family structure was far too narrow a basis for her and us to survive under the circumstances. I survived. My brothers did not.

Sherry my invaluable ‘hood historian has related some of the same kind of stories to me about her family life except her family was larger, her mother died when she was a teenager and she found herself as the oldest girl taking care of the household. Others survivors of ‘the projects’ have related very similar stories, almost monotonously so. We need not even speak here of such things as the effects of alcoholism, and later drugs and other social maladies on this fragile nuclear family structure.

To be sure, even under socialism, it will take a massive reallocation of funds to right these kinds of situations. Moreover, and here is the hard part for many to understand today, rich or poor, the nuclear family structure is just too narrow a setting to free up the potential energies of humankind. It needs be replaced. Despite all the pains of growing up poor, despite all the dislocations of psyche that I have dealt with over lifetime to fight the good fight for socialism it has still been worthwhile if only for the promise that some future generation will not have to go through my childhood experiences. Although I will not live long enough to see the replacement of the nuclear family with something better and more attuned to human potentialities I am satisfied with that. On reviewing this piece I find that it was not really a story after all but one of my political screeds. However, remember that mother’s impotent rage against her fate. That is the story.

Tales From The 'Hood- A Piece of Cloth

This is the third of a short series of stories about growing up in the 1950’s, the childhood period of the generation of ’68 and of my own. This series got its start as a spin-off from a previous series in this space entitled History and Class Consciousness- A Working Class Saga that came from a look back at the trials and tribulations of a family from my old working class neighborhood where I came of political age. The stories here go back to an earlier time and different location to that of the housing project where my family first started out. They are motivated by a search to find out the whys and wherefores of how consciousness of being poor gets implanted early. The what to do about it part I discuss, ad infinitum, elsewhere in the blogosphere.

The question posed above concerning how working class consciousness gets instilled is important to know, especially for ‘politicos’ trying to organize working people so that labor can rule. So, how does one become conscious that one is poor, comes from a poor family, and lives in poor housing in a poor neighborhood when one is, say, ten years old, the time frame for the story I want to tell here? This requires some reflection because, without exterior prompts, it is not immediately obvious to a ten year old; at least it was not to this ten year old.

Is it the run down school that one goes to? Is it the garbage-strewn unkempt yards? Is it the constant screaming of kids, parents, or anyone who has a voice and wants someone in this sorry world to listen? Is it your father home on a workday because he has no work? Or is it that very much smaller portion of Christmas presents under the tree than one had wished for? Well, all of those things are certainly candidates but follow me here and I will tell you exactly how this writer learned the elemental social facts of life. Moreover, Sherry, my invaluable ‘hood historian for this series was there to witness my baptism of fire.

At some point in elementary school a boy is inevitably suppose to learn to do two intertwined socially-oriented skills- the basics of some kind of dancing and be paired off with, dare I say it, a girl in that activity. I can already hear your gasps, dear reader, as I present that scenario. In my case the dancing part turned out to be the basics of square dancing (go figure, for a city boy, right?). Not only did this clumsy young boy have to do the basic 'swing your partner’ but I also had to do it while I was paired, for this occasion, with a girl that I had a ‘crush’ on. That girl, moreover, was not from the ‘hood but from that other peninsula, the rich one, that formed the backdrop for the first story in this series- A Story of Two Peninsulas. I will not describe her, although I could do so even today, but let us leave it that her name was Rosalind. Enchanting name, right? Nothing special about the story so far though, right? Just your average one of the stages of coming of age story. I wish.

Well, the long and short of it was that we were practicing this square dancing to demonstrate our prowess before our parents in the school gym. Nothing unusual there either. After all there is no sense in doing this type of activity unless one can impress one’s parents. I forget all the details of the setup of the space for demonstration day and things like that but it was a big deal. To honor the occasion, as this was my big moment to impress Rosalind, I had, earlier in the day , cut up my dungarees to give myself an authentic square dancer look.

I thought I looked pretty good. That is until my mother saw what I had done to the pants. In a second she got up from her seat, marched over to me and started yelling about my disrespect for my father’s and her efforts to clothe me and about the fact that since I only had a couple of pairs of pants how could I do such a thing. In short, airing the family troubles in public for all to hear. That went on for what seemed like an eternity. Thereafter I was unceremoniously taken home and placed on restriction for a week. Needless to say my father heard about it when he got home, and I heard about it for weeks afterward. Needless to say I also blew my ‘chances’ with dear, sweet Rosalind.

Now is this a tale of the hard lessons of the class struggle that I am always more than willing to put in a word about? Surely, not. Is this a sad tale of young love thwarted by the vagaries of fate? Maybe. Is this a tale about respect for the little we had in my family? Perhaps. Was my mother, despite her rage, right? Well, yes. Did I learn something about being poor in the world? Damn right. That is the point. But, ah, Rosalind…

Tales From The 'Hood- "The Romance of the Gun"


This is the second of a short series of stories about growing up in the 1950’s, the childhood period of the generation of ’68 and of my own. I spent my early childhood in an all-white public housing project that is the locale for the stories that form this series. My later childhood was spent in a poor all-white working class neighborhood filled with small, cramped single-family homes packed in closely together with little yards and few amenities. Places where one could almost hear one neighbor snoring in the night or another screaming, usually at anyone at anytime. And those were the good days.

In adulthood I have lived in poor white neighborhoods, mixed student neighborhoods, the black enclaves of Oakland, Detroit and Washington, D.C., and, back in the days, in an integrated urban commune (for those who do not know, that is a bunch of unrelated people living on the same premises by design). I have even, during the few times that I have had rich girlfriends, lived in the leafy suburbs. I now live in a middling working class neighborhood. In short, I have been all around the housing question. Today’s story from the ‘hood deals with the relationship between where you live and crime. More particularly the tolerance for the culture of crime, really, the 'romance' of crime, if you will, that is inherent in living down at the bottom of society. Make no mistake, my friends, that is indeed a dangerous place.

More than one sociological survey has noted the correlation between low income and high crime rates, although I note that they tend to come up short, very short on what to do about it. That is, however, a point for another time. More importantly now is this question-where, dear reader, is that correlation closer than in the housing projects- down there in the mean streets of America, the streets of busted dreams, or no dreams? My housing project did not start out as a haven for hoodlums. As I have mentioned it initially was a way station, due to the extreme housing shortage, for returning World War II veteran like my father. But, in the nature of things, as those who were going to make it in post-war society moved on and the rest of us were left behind that is the reputation that it started to develop well before it was converted to a subsidized low-income housing project in the 1960's. We had left by that point, but not without the scars.

In conversation with Sherry (my invaluable ‘hood historian for this series and elementary school classmate) I asked about the fate of a number of our classmates, mainly boys that I had hung around with. Without exaggerating their numbers to buttress my point here, it appears to me, from her very detailed knowledge of their fates that an extraordinary number of boyhood friends wound up serving prison sentences for aggravated crimes, or died from unnatural causes early as a result of that life. Sherry related a number of such cases in her own family, including one younger brother still imprisoned, through several generations, not without a sense of embarrassment. Down among the desperate working poor the line between respectability and the lure of the lumpen lifestyle is, indeed, a very, very close thing.

I further note that this is true, if a little less so, for the neighborhood where I came of political age. (See my History and Class Consciousness series for details of the fate of one such other family). I will, moreover, confess here that one of my own brothers spent considerable time in state prison for a laundry list of offenses, and another was in and out the county jails for many years for a host of petty crimes (mainly against property). My own brushes with the law have been for political offenses (except for one silly hitchhiking offense in Connecticut way back when, but you know how that state is) so those do not count. I guess that makes me the ‘good’ son just like Sherry was the good survivor. What gives here?

Part of the headline of this piece is titled “Romance of the Gun”, and with reason. The gun, whether I am using this term here as a metaphor for toughness and a lumpen existence or actual guns, was central to ‘the projects’ culture. Not that we young boys ever had one (as far as I know) but we knew older boys and men who did and did things with them. Things like gas station stickups, robbing taxis or the like. Those who were capable of that or, at least, had that reputation we looked up to, if not idolized (with a little fear thrown in). These things did not occur every day nor did they include police shoot-outs, drive-bys or anything dramatic but the thrill of learning about such exploits was palpable. It was like the air we breathed.

If imitation is a form of flattery then the lumpen existence of the older boys and men set the standard. The main thing was that they seemed to always have money in contrast to, let us say, my poor father who lived from check to check with hungry young mouths to feed and who constantly feared been laid off from the little work that he was able to obtain. No hero there for young boys, right? My brothers could not resist the draw of the lumpen life style and eventually were drawn into that life, as a way of life. But that is not where lumpen influence ended. Even for a ‘good’ boy like myself and some of the boys that I hung around with there were certain rituals to prove our ‘manhood’. This, inevitably entailed stealing things, at first from grocery stores, then department stores, and ultimately jewelry stores. I did it for a while but the glamour wore off soon enough and I retreated to the library and adventures of the mind. Some others, however, took it seriously and form part of the statistic of the ‘hood mentioned above but for me it was just too much work. But I was in the minority and took more than one physical beating for my nerdishness from the ‘boyos’. Still, those ‘hard boys’ were something to wonder at.

Well, I can end this story by trying to draw a few conclusions. One of the things that drew me to working to defend the Black Panthers (at the times when they would cooperate with white leftists) and later the Irish Republican Army (Provos) in the old days were the simple facts that they, as least the street cadre, were from their own ‘hoods like mine, knew the busted dream scheme of life by heart just as I did, and were not afraid to pick up the gun to defend themselves, if necessary. I did not need to glorify the lumpen proletariat as the vanguard. I did not need to read Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth to theorize about the purifying nature of violence against the oppressor. I did not need to justify every idiotic criminal act as a revolutionary act. All I needed to do was remember those ‘hard boys’, including my brothers, from my youth and what happened to them without a political perspective. So much for the “romance of the gun”.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Tales From The 'Hood- A Story of Two Peninsulas

This a repost of the first story of this series that I have decided to run in consecutive order rather than as occasional commentaries.


This is the first of a series of stories that I have previously introduced in this space (See Tales From the 'Hood- An Introduction)about growing up in the 1950’s, the childhood period of the generation of ’68 and of my own. This series got its start as a spin-off from a previous series in this space entitled History and Class Consciousness- A Working Class Saga (hereafter H&C) that came from a look back at the trials and tribulations of a family from my old working class neighborhood.

For the benefit of the two or three people in the blogosphere who do not know by now 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 nirvana of the newly emerging outer suburbs. The housing project that I grew up in was originally meant to serve as a way station for returning veterans from World War II caught up in the post war housing shortage. Thus, we were actually the first tenants in our unit, although it did not take long for the place to seem old. Perhaps, needless to say as well this project was all white, reflecting the population of city at the time where it is located. Now it is about 20% minority, mainly Asian-American, reflecting the city's population change.

A recent trip back there in order to do research for this series revealed that the place is in something of a time warp. The original plot plan consisted of a few hundred four-unit two-floor apartment complexes, a departure from the ubiquitous later high-rise hellholes at least. It looks, structurally, almost the same as in the 1950’s except that it is dirtier, much less kept-up and I believe that the asphalt sidewalks and streets have not been repaved since our family left in the late 1950’s. A very visible police substation is the only apparent addition to the scene. That tells the tale.

This housing project is located on what was an isolated, abandoned piece of farmland on a peninsula that juts out into a bay and is across from various sea-going industrial activities. This complex of industrial sites and ocean-related activity mars the effect of being near the ocean here. Certainly no Arcadian scenes come to mind. Moreover, I recall that the smells and sounds from those activities were nauseating and annoying at times. A particularly pungent smell of some soap product filled the air on many a summer’s evening. Ships unloading provided the sound effects.

A narrow two-lane, now deeply pot-holed, road is the only way in or out of this location. Over fifty years later the nearest shopping center or even convenient store is still several miles away requiring an automobile or reliance on haphazard and apparently infrequent public transportation. In short, and I have asked people about this, one could live within shouting distance of the place and not know where it is. Does that sound like a familiar concept of public welfare social planning-out of sight, out of mind?

This is, in any case, where I passed my early childhood, including elementary school. The elementary school was, however, located not in the project but up that narrow road some distance away at the beginning of another peninsula. That other peninsula, with its unobstructed views of the open ocean and freedom from the sight and sound of those previously mentioned industrial complexes, had many sought after old money, old fashioned Victorian houses and a number of then recently constructed upscale colonial-type houses favored by the up and coming middle class of the fifties. The place might as well have been in another world. The school nevertheless, at least in the 1950’s, serviced the children of both peninsulas.

I might add here that I never had one friend from that other peninsula. Conversations with others, who also grew up in the housing project, concur with my observation. I can also relate a couple of stories of being stopped by the local constabulary, even at that young age, and asked where I was from and what I was doing there but the details of those episodes will wait for another time. You can see what is coming though, right?

This is as good a place as any to introduce my ‘hood historian Sherry. As part of my research for H&C I connected, by use of various resources including the Internet, with a number of people. One of them is Sherry who is the real narrator of these tales and is the source for many of the observations and physical details that fill out this series. Sherry and I went to elementary school together and she and her family, after my family left, stayed in the projects for almost thirty years so that she saw the place as it evolved from that previously mentioned way station to the classic ‘projects’ of media notoriety. She knows 'the projects'. Moreover, from what I have gathered so far, although she does not have a political bone in her body she wears her working class background on her face, in her personality and her whole manner. Not in abject defeat, however, but as a survivor. That too tells a tale.

As we reconnected the obvious place to start was a little trip down memory lane to old school days. Naturally, since I had an ulterior motive and have a fierce sense of class society, I wanted her opinion on the kids from the other peninsula. Sherry then related, in some detail, what she had to tell about her life in elementary school, not without a tear in her eyes even at this remove. She spend her whole time in that school being snubbed, insulted and, apparently, on more than one occasion physically threatened by the prissy girls from the other peninsula for her poor clothing, her poor manners and for being from 'the projects’. I will spare you the details here, although if you have seen any of the problematic working class ‘coming of age’ movies or suburban teenage cultural spoofs the episodes she related to me are the grim real life underlying premises behind those efforts. Moreover, she faced this barrage all the way through to high school graduation.

It was painful for her to retell her story, and as I said, not without a few tears. Moreover, it was hard for me to hear because, although I did not face that barrage then, I faced it later when my family moved to the other side of town and kids taunted me when they knew I was from ‘the projects’. Now were the snubs and hurts due to Sherry’s personality? Maybe. Is this a mere example of childhood’s gratuitous cruelty? Perhaps. Is this story the equivalent of the working class battles at their nastiest on the picket lines of a strike? Hell, no. But the next time someone tells you that there are no classes in this society remember this story. Then remember Sherry’s tears. Damn.

Tales From The 'Hood- An Introduction


I am reposting this introduction here as the start to a consecutive presentation of the stories that I will to tell. Originally I intended to make them occasional pieces but I think they work better as a consecutive series.

This entry announces what promises to be the start of another short series of commentaries like my recently completed History and Class Consciousness- A Working Class Saga (hereafter H&C). Those who followed that story (see archives) know that I have been, for a whole number of reasons both personal and political, on the trail of my roots, including trips to the old working class neighborhood where I came of political age. There through various methods, including extensive use of the Internet, I was able to track down a couple of guys from the old neighborhood whose family story had gripped me and whose personal stories I presented as part of that series.

As an unintended result of that research I have also come in contact with some helpful old high school classmates. One such helpful person, a class officer, asked me to answer some questions that her committee is putting together for our class, the Class of 1964. have posted some of the more pertinent answers here, although this is getting to be a seemingly endless task as the more questions I answer the more they keep sending me. Such is life. But, now I have uncovered more information about my roots coming from an earlier period.

I mentioned in H&C that my family had started life in a housing project with all that implied, then and now. By the beauties of the Internet I have now come in contact with someone who remembers me (or rather my brother- she was sweet on him in elementary school), lived in that housing project during our stay there and for many, many year after my family left, and saw its transformation from a way station for returning World War II veterans to a classic ‘den of iniquity’ as portrayed in media accounts, She has agreed to be my ‘hood historian for this series. Moreover she has brothers, sisters, children and grandchildren who have memories from that place.

If thing work out this could very well be a slice of life series on the trials and tribulations of members of the marginally working poor, a section of the working class with which I am very familiar. And from my vantage point can produce a study, with all its inherent limitations, of the decline and disintegration of working class political consciousness in America since World War II. In H&C that played out one way with a section of the class that is slightly above the one that will be featured here. That saga did not paint a pretty political picture. Nor will, I fear, this one. But, damn, why shouldn’t these people have their stories told, warts and all.

Again, like H&C, this series will really narrate a very prosaic working class set of stories. I will, however, organize these stories differently because now I know what I am looking for and each story will be able to stand on its own. In H&C the story as it unfolded piecemeal, frankly, got out of control and I do not believe that when I put all the parts together at the end that it had the power that I wanted it to have, and that it did have as it unfolded.

That said, if this time last year somebody asked me if I would be doing a series like I would have said they were crazy. I then wanted to discuss the finer theoretical points of organizing for withdrawal from Iraq or building a workers party. But now this is like finding the philosopher’s stone. This is the real deal down at the base of society.

I am now preparing the first story that will deal with how this poor woman Sherry, my ‘hood historian, was humiliated by other students at our elementary school for the mere fact of being from ‘the projects’. This writer is painfully aware of that type of humiliation as he faced the same thing later when he moved to the neighborhood featured in H&C. Again, will there be political lessons to be learned? I do not believe so, directly. However, real stories about the fate of the working class down at the base can help explain the very real retardants to working class political consciousness that we face as we try to organize here in America. I can quote socialist principles, chapter and verse, elsewhere in this space. These stories desperately need to be told here.

Thursday, April 17, 2008




The United States Supreme Court has just handed down (on April 16, 2008) it latest death penalty-related decision, in this case concerning the mechanics of its application. In a 7-2 decision (with reasoning being all over the place as seven different opinions have been reported) the Court held that the three-stage lethal injection used by Kentucky (and other states) is not cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution. No real surprise there because, as I have noted before, this court, filled as it is with original intent constitutional theorists, still has not decided whether drawing and quartering is unconstitutional. I am sure that they do not believe that it is torturous.

In another piece of news on the death penalty front the court also heard arguments that same day on whether child rape is a capital offense and therefore can constitutionally be subject to the death penalty. I would be surprised (but only a little) if the court expanded the number of crimes legitimately subject to the death penalty at this point.

That said, what I really want to discuss here is Associate Supreme Court Justice John Paul Steven’s commentary (and that is all it is legally because it was not germane to the decision in the case) in his separate opinion (in which he supported the constitutionality of the lethal injection application) that he believed that the death penalty itself is unconstitutional. This is the first time in a long time that a sitting justice of the Supreme Court has taken such a position. And that, my friends, is to the good. Here, however, is my problem with all this. What is he going to do about it?

I remember several years ago liberal anti-death penalty advocates fell all over themselves in honoring former Associate Justice Harry Blackmon when he came out against the death penalty. Of course, that was after he had retired so it did not do one death row inmate one damn bit of good. Is this the case here with Stevens? It does make a legal/technical different for the possible fates of current individual inmates. More to the point this development permits me a chance to restate what we should be fighting for-not in the courts (or not solely in the courts) but in the streets. We do not recognize the state’s right to take a life, for the guilty or the innocent. Abolish the death penalty now!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

*The Russian Revolution in Red and Black- Once Again on Kronstadt

Click on title to link to YouTube footage of the Russian Revolution. Click on from there for other examples.


The Russian Revolution in Color, 2007

The sailors of the Baltic Fleet stationed at Kronstadt on the entrance way to Petrograd played a vanguard and heroic role in the various stages leading up to, and including, the October revolution in Russia in 1917. The sailors of the Baltic Fleet played a vanguard and heroic role in defending that revolution on the many fronts of the three-year Civil War against the Whites. According to the premise of this docudrama, tinged as it is in anarchist and anti-communist colors, the Kronstadt sailors also played a vanguard role in defending the premises of that revolution in their uprising against the seemingly power-crazed Bolsheviks in 1921.

That is where Bolshevik sympathizers, including this writer, part company with the creators of this work on the virtues, especially the political virtues, of the sailors. And it is, whether viewed tragically or not, also the point of departure for those who saw the necessity of defending the Bolshevik experiment, arms in hand, as it lay prostrate after years of civil war and those who later, mainly from their cozy armchairs, made this the definitive point of the degeneration of the revolution of 1917. Moreover, apparently until the end of times someone, somewhere, in some cozy armchair, is going to pose the question of the Kronstadt uprising of 1921 as the defining moment in the process of degeneration of the Russian revolution. I, like the exiled Bolshevik Left-Oppositionist Leon Trotsky, ask the simple question- why? For what purpose? (See archives article entitled Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt, written by Trotsky in 1938).

This two-part docudrama (The Fight For Freedom and Civil War) adequately highlights the social facts that made the Baltic sailors play an important role in the various stages of the revolution during 1917. Their skill levels, their camaraderie and their ties to the peasantry and working class back home made them a lynch pin for all kinds of actions planned by the Bolsheviks once the sailors were won to the need for decisive actions. In fact, as the docudrama points out, at a couple of points-the April and July Days they were ahead of the curve of the revolution. Moreover, the sailors played a decisive role in the actual physical overthrow of the Provisional Government in October and later the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly. Throughout the period, however, one should recognize that they did not act as an independent revolutionary factor but acted, for the most part, as agents of a civilian revolutionary party- Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

Needless to say when the storm cloud of civil war raised its head with the uprising of the Czech Legion and the intervention of the united imperialist powers the Kronstadt sailors were at their posts, especially at the critical moments in front of Kazan. They laid down their heads on all the civil war fronts, as well. I should note here that the pen name that I use in this space, Markin, is to honor one of those heroic sailors who laid down his head on one of the many fronts being contested by the Red and White Armies. It is also rather germane to note here that the bulk of the cadre sailors from 1917 either shared Markin’s fate, took administrative jobs with the Bolshevik government of otherwise provided service to the revolution. The upshot, of all this, is to point out, as Trotsky did, that those sailors who rose against the Bolsheviks in 1921 were not the same cadre that performed heroic service earlier.

That view has been contested, and is contested here by some of the inevitable ‘talking heads’ that are interspersed between various action segments. And that is the rub. As pointed out up above the creators of this film have their own axes to grind. So we get the inevitable diabolical Lenin and the Bolsheviks as the personification of evil, all hungry bureaucrats ready to pounce on any political opposition. In short, the traditional anarchist/anti-communist litany that we have heard for the past 90 years. Here, however, beyond the specific chronology of the Kronstadt uprising itself (and the point Trotsky was trying to make in his 1938 article mentioned above) is the key question of when the revolution degenerated (the whys and what to do about it we will leave for another time).

I would argue that if 1921 is the point of qualitative degeneration (and therefore the point that a third revolution is necessary) then the whole Bolshevik experiment was wrong from the beginning, including the heroic role of the Baltic sailors. That means, and here we have the benefit of hindsight such as it is, that the working class is organically incapable of making a working class revolution to implement socialism. I do not subscribe to that opinion but that should send those who are stuck intellectually imprisoned in Kronstadt 1921 cause for pause.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

*An Open Letter to Mumia Abu-Jamal Supporters-A Personal Commentary

Click on the title to link to the Partisan Defense Committee Web site.


The Partisan Defense Committee has passed "An Open Letter to All Supporters of Mumia‘s Freedom" to this writer. Check links to the right under Partisan Defense Committee to read the letter (or click on title). Those few who might not know of the torturous legal battles to free this innocent man can find further information at the above-mentioned Partisan Defense site. I make my own comments below.

Normally I pass information about the case of political prisoner Mumia abu-Jamal on without much comment because the case speaks for itself. The case has been front and center in international labor defense struggles for over two decades. However, in light of the adverse ruling by a majority of a federal Third Circuit Court of Appeal panel in March 2008 that affirmed Mumia’s 1982 conviction for first-degree murder of a police officer and left the only issue for decision that of resentencing to either reinstate his original death sentence or keep him imprisoned for life without parole I have some things to say about this fight.

Occasionally, in the heat of political battle some fights ensue around strategy that after the smoke has cleared, upon reflection, leave one with more sorrow than anger. Not so today. Today I am mad. Am I mad about the irrational decision by the majority of the Third Circuit panel in Mumia’s case? Yes, but when one has seen enough of these cases over a lifetime then one realizes that, as the late sardonic comic and social commentator Lenny Bruce was fond of saying, in the Hall of Justice the only justice is in the halls.

What has got me steamed is the obvious bankruptcy of the strategy, if one can use this term, of centering Mumia’s case on the question of a new trial in order to get the ‘masses’- meaning basically parliamentary liberal types interested in supporting the case. This by people who allegedly KNOW better. The bankruptcy of this strategy, its effects on Mumia’s case and the bewildered response of those who pedaled it as good coin is detailed in the above-mentioned Open Letter. Read it.

Today, in reaction to the Third Circuit court’s decision, everyone and their brother and sister are now calling for Mumia’s freedom. At a point where he is between a rock and a hard place. However, it did not have to be that way. Mumia was innocent in 1982 and he did not stop being innocent at any point along this long road. Freedom for Mumia was (and is) the correct slogan in the case. A long line of political criminal cases, starting in this country with that of the Haymarket Martyrs if not before, confirms that simple wisdom. Those who consciously pedaled this weak ‘new trial’ strategy as a get rich quick scheme now have seen the chickens come home to roost. And Mumia pays the price.

I would point out two factors that made a ‘retrial’ strategy in the case of an innocent man particularly Pollyanna-ish for those honest militants who really believed that Mumia’s case was merely a matter of the American justice system being abused and therefore some court would rectify this situation if enough legal resources were in place. First, it is illusory that somehow, as exemplified in this case, a higher court system would remedy this egregious wrong. Long ago I remember a lawyer, I believe that it might have been the late radical lawyer Conrad Lynn no stranger to political defense work, telling a group of us doing defense work for the Black Panthers, that all these judges belong to the same union. They do not upset each other’s work except under extreme duress.

Second, and this is where the ‘wisdom’ of the reformists about reaching the ‘masses’ by a stagest theory of defense work (fight for retrial first, then freedom) turns in on them. As witness the list of names of those who have signed the Partisan Defense Committee’s call for Mumia’s freedom, excepting professional liberals and their hangers –on, those interested in Mumia’s case (or any leftwing political defense case) will sign on just as easily for freedom as retrial. Thus, opportunism does not pay, even in the short haul. That said, Free Mumia- say it loud, say it proud.