Saturday, October 19, 2013

***Out In The Be-bop 1930s Crime Noir Night- Dashiell Hammett’s Ur-“Maltese Falcon”-A Film Review

DVD Review

The Maltese Falcon, starring Bebe Daniels, Richard Cortez, Warner Brothers, 1931

Well it is possible for even a devoted actor Humphrey Bogart and crime novelist Dashiell Hammett aficionado to learn something new. For many years I had assumed that the 1941 hard-nosed Bogie as Sam Spade version of The Maltese Falcon was the original screen version of Hammett’s crime noir classic. Then an acquaintance, the old time radical journalist Josh Breslin whose by-line for half the progressive press and alternate vision journals in this country for the past forty years that some readers may know, informed me that an older version (or rather versions existed). That discovery however had to go unchecked until the age of the Internet. Now I have found the film via a very helpful lead from Wikipedia. Kudos.

Of course after reading Hammett’s crime novel countless times (if for no other reason than that great dialogue even after the plot line wore thin) and viewing the 1941 Bogie version almost as many times certain prejudices were bound to show up. The key is the role of Sam Spade as the world weary scrappy avenger of his partner’s murder while “in the line of duty”. If for no other reason than for professional pride. And the well-known plot line, basically murder and mayhem by parties known and unknown searching for a bid, “the stuff of dreams,” is what let’s Sam save the day, his professional pride, and his rough-hewn sense of justice.

The 1931 Spade (played by handsome Richard Cortez) is less concerned with those gritty issues, more brazenly cynical, and much more of a womanizer than Bogie’s Spade (although he is not immune, temporality at least, to femme fatale charms). That as I found out was a result of the change in what was deemed acceptable to the general audience (the so-called Production Code). In the 1931 version it is clear, very clear, why Spade is ready to chase after windmills for the femme fatale (played Bebe Daniels). Sexual tension and adventure were rife. In the 1941 version I was always wondering what there was about Mary Astor (after all she didn’t seem Bogie’s type on the face of it) that made him all that intrepid. It was never spelled out. Now I know. No question though, despite that new information, that Bogie’s Spade is the cinematic standard and Hammett would agree.
***Out In The Be-Bop 1960s Night- When Butterfly Swirl Swirled

YouTube film clip of the Kinks performing their classic rock number, You Really Got Me.

CD Review

Classic Rock: 1964, various artists, Time-Life Music, 1987

Scene brought to mind by the cover art that graces this CD. Said cover art showing in the background a motley foursome from some post- British invasion invasion group all with de rigueur Nehru jackets and getting little long in the back and on the sides better get to the barber boys reminds dear old moms. But that is some much fluff. Because in the foreground is the object our, ah, inspection, one female, dangling earring bejeweled, but more importantly day-glo, or if not day-glo then some non-toxic paint celebration, painted flower. No tattoo, not permanent not in those days, although more than few young women has an off the back of the shoulder flower and some even had, well that is a story for another time. A time when the snooping grandchildren are safely out of sight.

The whole effect, as if in a flashback, no not that kind, immediately brought to my memory’s eye one Kathleen Callahan, a. k. a. Butterfly Swirl, Carlsbad (California, that’s important) High School Class of 1968 and Josh Breslin’s old flame from the summer of love, 1967 version, circa San Francisco in the merry prankster, yellow brick road night. Of course, as always in the interest of full disclosure, Ms. Swirl was my girl. Very much my girl, until old Josh, Olde Saco High School Class of 1967 (that’s up in Maine, although that is not important to the story, or just a little) showed up in a Russian Hill park one day.

[That, by the way, is Joshua Lawrence Breslin, the radical journalist whose by-line has appeared in half the unread back hall recycle bin radical newspapers and public good alternative vision journals in the country over the past forty years. And here is the beauty of it. Since he is legally a “public figure” (I looked it up before starting), although he is right now holed in some podunk Maine log cabin holding off the winter chills in solitude, he had better not even think of the word “defamation.” I know where the bodies are buried and while I am not usually a “snitch” I do have a long, very long memory.]

This was a day when we, our whole merry prankster crew, Butterfly Swirl included, were taking in the view (read: smoking dope, fine stuff I can still smell now from Panama I think, and actually inhaling don’t let anyone, including amnesiac Josh, tell you otherwise. Yes, I said that with the full knowledge that the statute of limitations has run out on that. I checked that up too just to make sure). And that one fine day was, well, when “stole” her from me. That too is not important to the story, except maybe to explain, a little, the kind of magnetic gal Kathleen was. What is important is how she came to be, not even out of high school yet, Butterfly Swirl.

No question in 1957 or 1977 Kathleen Callahan, brown hair, bright smile, good figure, great legs, and an irksomely sunny disposition would have been just Kathleen Callahan, maybe the head cheerleader at some suburban school, some seaside suburban school like Carlsbad just norte of San Diego. Or, more realistically given that locale, some dippy surfer joe girl watching while they, some impossibly blond surfer joes, were hanging five or ten or whatever they did to those LaJolla, Malibu, Carlsbad waves that weren’t harming anybody as they slipped tepidly to shore. And, as she later confessed to Josh, she actually had been a surfer joe girl, although the guy’s name was Spin Curley, nice right.

Then the 1964 British invasion came, and she, all of thirteen, although fully formed in lots of ways as she also told Josh was swept away, swept away from the silly little surfer girl life, small seaside everybody adobe-housed Spanish fandango and the inevitably inevitable Spin. She told Josh it was really the Kinks that got her off-center. Not the Beatles or Rolling Stones as you might think. She said she was mad for their You Really Got Me, it kind of turned her on, turned her on a lot. A lot more than Spin could deal with what with his having to hang five or ten out in mother nature wave land. So naturally she headed to Los Angeles to check things out for a few days. Her and another girl from school a year ahead of her but about one hundred years ahead in everything else, whose story can be summed up in one word-bonkers. Heavy petal to the metal drug bonkers.

But she, that girl, get this, already had a moniker, Serendipity Swan, and knew some real cool people that she had met down at LaJolla where they were taking care of some rich guy’s estate (they are all estates in that zip code, then known as postal zones, look it up in Wikipedia, alright). This rich guy got rich, got very rich by “inventing” acid (LSD), or something like that. Or knew guys who invented it, or something like that. Old Serendipity wasn’t much on facts, straight or crooked. But in any case, the guys taking care of the estate, Captain Crunch and his confederates were always high, were always on the move with their merry prankster yellow brick road bus and were always welcoming to lost lambs, and ex-surfer girls.

That was how, a couple of years, before Kathleen, who had not then metamorphosized into Butterfly Swirl, kind of at wit’s end, eventually came up further north. And that is how I met her, when she got “on the bus” around Big Sur, I think, somewhere north of Xanadu. And became the Swirl (my pet name for her, for obvious reasons, obvious between us and like I said before relatable when the grandkids are not around). Complete with some tempera design on her face most of the time. Nothing elaborate but sometimes in a certain light she looked like something out of Botticelli. Here’s the funny part though, as things got weird on the bus, or too weird for her and her embedded suburban girl manner (when she wasn’t high, high she was like a Buddha or Siva or whatever those divines are called) she hankered (my word) for home, and for her Spin and his hanging five or ten, or whatever he did to those waves. Like I said in 1957 or 1977 she wouldn’t have even been “on the bus.” But just for that 1967 minute, driven by those wicked Brits she broke free. Josh, after his theft of her from me and after she slipped away one night, looked for her later but never caught up to her again.
***The Girl With The Bette Davis Eyes- Somerset Maugham’s “The Letter”-A Film Review

DVD Review

The Letter, starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, directed by William Wyler, based on a play by Somerset Maugham, Warner Brothers, 1940

Not every black and white film is a noir and not every crime noir has a femme fatale although in both cases many are. Nor are all films based on the work of world literature figures like Somerset Maugham (although his reputation has been eclipsed somewhat since his 1920s-1930s heyday when he produced classics like The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage). But the film under review, The Letter, is all of them, kind of. Sure the black and white crime noir is present although with a more than usual amount of melodramatic moments, and as noted so is the world literature authorship.

The real question is the femme fatale aspect. Now Bette Davis was an extremely fine actress during her 1940s and 1950s heyday (and earlier as well in such beauties as The Petrified Forest) but she never struck me as a femme fatale like Lana Turner, Lauren Bacall and Rita Hayworth. You know leaving the guys gasping for breath, and asking for more. No question in this role as the put-upon and isolated wife of a owner of a rubber plantation in pre-war (pre-World War II war to be precise) in colonial British Malaysia scorned by a wayward lover she matches any femme fatale with a quick, too quick, trigger finger when things don’t go her way. She certainly could use her wiles, feminine or otherwise, to get out from under the law, British colonial style. And she was just psycho enough to stand one’s hair on edge. But a lot of her actions (and frankly Davis’ performance) are just too mawkish to root for.

Maybe a little sketch of the plot will illustrate the point. As the film opens Ms. Davis is firing away with that old root-a-toot-toot like crazy at that scornful lover (Hammond by name) mentioned above. No question she is a classic murder one case, and let’s just wrap it up and ship her off to some English prison. Right. But she has a story; a fantastic story on its face about a known intruder making sexual advances to her while her husband is away. Moreover this is the 1930s colonial outback of the Empire and Bette is the proper wife of a stand-up rubber plantation owner (played by Herbert Marshall).

Needless to say, outback or not, murder is murder and the wheels of justice must grind along. A mere formality if her story holds up, a quick trial and she will be free. Except a certain letter, and hence the title of the piece, shows up in mid-plot from her to the intruder. Seems they were lovers, that she had been scorned, and that moreover he had picked up an inconvenient wife, a Eurasian wife to boot. Said letter was in possession of the wife who had her own ax to grind after Bette put six in her husband. A deal between Bette’s compromised lawyer and the wife suppressed this piece of key evidence that would convict Bette.

Bette thereafter was acquitted. Legally acquitted. But you know how those Eurasian women are. That was not to be the end of it. Naturally between a woman scorned and a woman bereft of her companion-lover something has to give. And instead of getting the hell out of town on the first boat, canoe or raft like any real femme fatale our Bette just steps into her fatal fate. See what I mean.
***Films To While Away The Class Struggle By- American Civil War General And President  U.S. Grant- A PBS Documentary

This year marks the 152nd anniversary of the commencement of the American Civil War-and the beginning of the end of chattel slavery in the United States.

DVD Review

U.S. Grant: American Experience , PBS Productions, New York, 2003

Recently in celebrating , rightly, the military exploits of General William Tecumseh Sherman and his “bummers’ who wreaked havoc all through the Confederacy in the waning days of the American Civil War I, perhaps, slighted the organizational and strategic battle plans of his superior, the commanding general of all the Union armies, General U.S. Grant. I attempt to make amends here as we mark the 152nd anniversary of the commencement of that war.

This three hour plus PBS “American Experience” documentary tells the average viewer probably much more than they would ever want to know about the career, with all its successes and failures, of one Ulysses S. Grant. As always in a PBS production there are the “talking heads”, mainly historians here, who try to flesh the meaning of Grant’s career, the fistful of attributes that led him to successful military achievements and also helped shed light on his less than stellar presidency. And as always there is plenty of still photography, much of it not previously familiar to this reviewer, and re-enactments of the major events in Grant’s life.

There are few surprises here, although to my surprise a number of commentators noted that Grant, not Lincoln was the most popular American figure of the 19th century. As the recent bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth demonstrated that is clearly not verdict of history, at least for later centuries. That said, there is a compelling argument to make, and that is made by some of the commentators here, that Grant was the prototype for the successful modern warfare commanding general once the increase in industrial production provided the massive resources necessary to wage such war and create widespread devastation. I would only add that only in the context of the sacred Union cause and its adjunct, the abolition of slavery does his rise make sense.

The documentary painstakingly takes us through Grant’s rough and tumble childhood; his early not very glamorous military career, including service in the Mexican War a touchstone for all later military leadership on both sides of the Civil war; his various business failures prior to the war; his slow emergence as the decisive military leader and strategist in the Western campaign culminating in the massive Union victory at Vicksburg; his subsequent elevation by an admiring Lincoln to commander of all the Union armies, including the decisive and costly final marches, like Cold Harbor, that haunted him and later historians and that marred his overall achievement particularly when the Southern school of Civil War historical interpretation was in its ascendancy; his post-Civil War actions as a military commander which tried to recreate a single nation; his two- term presidency, including the various financial scandals that are forever attached to his terms of office; his earnest, and unsuccessful, attempts to integrate the newly liberated freedman into the Southern society, including his forthright actions against the Klan in the early 1870s; and, finally, his post-presidential life including a worldwide grand tour and the writing of his memoirs.

Nothing here will contribute to an argument for his outstripping of Lincoln as the decisive figure of the American 19th century. But know this: all labor militants and other progressives honor General Grant, and his subordinate General Sherman, for their military leadership in ending chattel slavery in this country. That was no mean task as this documentary amply demonstrates.
***Poet’s Corner-Young America’s Walt Whitman’s “Leaves Of Grass”

DVD Review

American Experience: Walt Whitman, Walt Whitman and various modern commentators, PBS Productions, 2008

Sure, it is always appropriate to thumb through the pages of the 19th century poet laureate of democracy Walt Whitman’s “Leaves Of Grass”. After wading through Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier and the other Brahmin and Brahmin wannabe poets who dominated the 19th century ‘aristocratic’ European-influenced American poetic academy old white-bearded Walt is like a breath of fresh air. And let’s put it this way, while everyone has, and should, take a peek at those other 19th century poets, if no other reason that to compare work, it is old Walt that those of us in the 21st century WANT to read. Therefore, it is appropriate that PBS’s “American Experience" in 2008 produce a documentary that is, while filled with biographic information, centered on Whitman’s long struggle to produce his masterpiece, “Leaves Of Grass”.

This documentary does yeoman’s service in setting the context in which Walt Whitman had to work, including the trials and tribulations of his long suffering over his troubled working class family affairs; his free-wheeling experiences in breaking out of the family and establishing himself as a newspaper writer in New York City in the pre-Civil War period; his invention of himself as a 'proto-hippie' in that city’s bohemian milieu: his various, mainly homosexual, romantic experiences that eventually find themselves noted heavily throughout his master work; his dramatic and traumatic Civil War time nursing services to the Union wounded; the shock of Lincoln’s death; and, his post-war struggles to expand and deepen his poetic works. That sets the pace for the many ‘talking head’ academic commentaries about the meaning of Whitman’s work, his place as the poetic, warts and all, 19th century democratic champion of the fragile American republican experience, and the breakthrough nature of the more or less explicit sexual, erotic and homoerotic passages in his work.

Finally, poets like other types of writers, run through period of fashion and neglect. My recent road back to an appreciation of Whitman is a case in point. I have been running through (for the nth time) and reviewing the work of the 1950s “beat” writer Jack Kerouac (himself the subject of the vicissitudes of fashion) in this space. Kerouac makes clear (as do many other writers and poets) that Whitman’s poems, his lifestyle and his championship of the “common man” deeply influenced him in his early formative days as he struggled to write. That is a very common story when the name Walt Whitman comes up. So if you need a little refresher on Whitman this well-done documentary fills the bill. But, really, go read some of his poems

Walt Whitman - One’s-Self I Sing.

ONE’S-SELF I sing—a simple, separate Person;
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-masse.

Of Physiology from top to toe I sing;
Not physiognomy alone, nor brain alone, is worthy for the muse—I say the
Form complete is worthier far;
The Female equally with the male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful—for freest action form’d, under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.

Walt Whitman - To a Historian.

YOU who celebrate bygones!
Who have explored the outward, the surfaces of the races—the life that has
exhibited itself;
Who have treated of man as the creature of politics, aggregates, rulers and
I, habitan of the Alleghanies, treating of him as he is in himself, in his own
Pressing the pulse of the life that has seldom exhibited itself, (the great
pride of man in himself;)
Chanter of Personality, outlining what is yet to be,
I project the history of the future.

Walt Whitman - Pioneers! O Pioneers!

COME, my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready;
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp edged axes? Pioneers! O pioneers!

For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We, the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend, Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you youths, western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you, western youths, see you tramping with the foremost, Pioneers! O

Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied, over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden, and the lesson, Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the past we leave behind;
We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march, Pioneers! O pioneers!

We detachments steady throwing,
Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,
Conquering, holding, daring, venturing, as we go, the unknown ways, Pioneers! O pioneers!

We primeval forests felling,
We the rivers stemming, vexing we, and piercing deep the mines within;
We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving, Pioneers! O pioneers!

Colorado men are we,
From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus,
From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come, Pioneers! O pioneers!

From Nebraska, from Arkansas,
Central inland race are we, from Missouri, with the continental blood intervein’d;
All the hands of comrades clasping, all the Southern, all the Northern, Pioneers! O

O resistless, restless race!
O beloved race in all! O my breast aches with tender love for all!
O I mourn and yet exult—I am rapt with love for all, Pioneers! O pioneers!

Raise the mighty mother mistress,
Waving high the delicate mistress, over all the starry mistress, (bend your heads all,)
Raise the fang’d and warlike mistress, stern, impassive, weapon’d mistress, Pioneers! O

See, my children, resolute children,
By those swarms upon our rear, we must never yield or falter,
Ages back in ghostly millions, frowning there behind us urging, Pioneers! O pioneers!

On and on, the compact ranks,
With accessions ever waiting, with the places of the dead quickly fill’d,
Through the battle, through defeat, moving yet and never stopping, Pioneers! O pioneers!

O to die advancing on!
Are there some of us to droop and die? has the hour come?
Then upon the march we fittest die, soon and sure the gap is fill’d, Pioneers! O

All the pulses of the world,
Falling in, they beat for us, with the western movement beat;
Holding single or together, steady moving, to the front, all for us, Pioneers! O

Life’s involv’d and varied pageants,
All the forms and shows, all the workmen at their work,
All the seamen and the landsmen, all the masters with their slaves, Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the hapless silent lovers,
All the prisoners in the prisons, all the righteous and the wicked,
All the joyous, all the sorrowing, all the living, all the dying, Pioneers! O pioneers!

I too with my soul and body,
We, a curious trio, picking, wandering on our way,
Through these shores, amid the shadows, with the apparitions pressing, Pioneers! O


Lo! the darting bowling orb!
Lo! the brother orbs around! all the clustering suns and planets,
All the dazzling days, all the mystic nights with dreams, Pioneers! O pioneers!

These are of us, they are with us,
All for primal needed work, while the followers there in embryo wait behind,
We to-day’s procession heading, we the route for travel clearing, Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you daughters of the west!
O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and you wives!
Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united, Pioneers! O pioneers!

Minstrels latent on the prairies!
(Shrouded bards of other lands! you may sleep—you have done your work;)
Soon I hear you coming warbling, soon you rise and tramp amid us, Pioneers! O pioneers!

Not for delectations sweet;
Not the cushion and the slipper, not the peaceful and the studious;
Not the riches safe and palling, not for us the tame enjoyment, Pioneers! O pioneers!

Do the feasters gluttonous feast?
Do the corpulent sleepers sleep? have they lock’d and bolted doors?
Still be ours the diet hard, and the blanket on the ground, Pioneers! O pioneers!

Has the night descended?
Was the road of late so toilsome? did we stop discouraged, nodding on our way?
Yet a passing hour I yield you, in your tracks to pause oblivious, Pioneers! O pioneers!

Till with sound of trumpet,
Far, far off the day-break call—hark! how loud and clear I hear it wind;
Swift! to the head of the army!—swift! spring to your places, Pioneers! O pioneers.
***Starlight On The Rails, Indeed-In Honor Of The Hobo King Utah Phillips  


American Experience: Riding The Rails, PBS Productions, 1998

Growing up in the 1950’s I had a somewhat tenuous connection with trains. My grandparents lived close to a commuter rail that before my teenage years went out of service, due to the decline of ridership as the goal of two (or three) car garages gripped the American imagination in an age when gas was cheap and plentiful. In my teens though, many a time I walked those above-mentioned abandoned tracks to take the short route to the center of town. As an adult I have frequently ridden the rails, including a cross-continental trip that actually converted me to the virtues of air travel. Of course, my ‘adventures’ riding the rails is quite different than that being looked at in this American Experience documentary about a very, very common way for the youth of America to travel in the Depression-ridden 1930’s, the youth of my parents’ generation. My own experiences were merely as a paying passenger. Theirs was anything but. The only common thread between them and me is the desire expressed by many interviewees to not be HERE but to be THERE.

This tale of a significant number of youth in the 1930’s is held together by film footage of the time, some nice background music from the likes of Jimmy Rodgers and Doc Watson that evokes the ‘romance of the rails’ and ‘talking head’ interviews with the itinerant travelers, male and female. Despite various motives, from the desire to leave the parents’ house to being thrown out during those tough times, the stories they tell are of cold nights in open box cars, overcrowded jails, beatings by the ever present railroad "bulls" and the struggle to find a little work in order to be able to move on to the next locale and maybe some ‘peace’. Mainly this was the eternal heading West of the famous Professor Frederick Turner Jackson thesis- with this proviso- by then the land had run out and maybe the possibility of the dreams. A few interviewed are still driven by the lore of the rails, many had no regrets but mainly this is a very interesting trip down memory lane in a time before the automobile became readily accessible to teenagers.

No review of the life of the rails can omit the special jargon developed by those on the road, the ‘class distinctions' (hobo, bum, and tramp) between them and the rough and ready ‘code of honor’ of the rails (honored more in the breach than in the practice from what I can gather). This tradition has survived best in song by the likes of Woody Guthrie in any number of his songs written in the 1930’s, the classic Elizabeth Cotton song "Freight Train" and the work, including a song with the same title as the headline to this piece, of the recently deceased old Wobblie, folksinger, writer and rail rat extraordinaire Utah Phillips. Starlight On The Rails, indeed!

Daddy What's A Train? Utah Phillips

Daddy what's a train? Is it something I can ride?
Does it carry lots of grown-up folks and little kids inside?
Is it bigger than our house? Well how can I explain
When my little boy and girl ask me "Daddy what's a train?"

When I was just a boy and living by the track
Us kids would gather up the coal in big 'ole gunnysacks
Then we heard the warning sound as the train pulled into view
The engineer would smile and wave as she went rolling through

She blew so loud and clear, we had to cover up our ears
And we counted cars just as high as we could go
I can almost hear the steam those big old drivers scream
A sound my little kids will never know

Daddy what's a train? Is it something I can ride?
Does it carry lots of grown-up folks and little kids inside?
Is it bigger than our house? Well how can I explain
When my little boy and girl ask me "Daddy what's a train?"

I guess the times have changed, kids are different now
'Cause some don't even seem to know the milk comes from a cow
My little boy can tell the names of all the baseball stars
I remember how we memorized the names on railroad cars

The Wabash and the TP, Lackawanna, the IC
The Nickel-Plate and the good old Santa Fe
Just names out of the past, I guess they're fading fast
Every time I hear my little boy say

Daddy what's a train? Is it something I can ride?
Does it carry lots of grown-up folks and little kids inside?
Is it bigger than our house? Well how can I explain
When my little boy and girl ask me "Daddy what's a train?"

We climbed into the car, drove down into town
Right out the depot house, but no one was around
We searched the yard togheter for something I could show
But I knew there hadn't been a train for a dozen years or so

All the things I did when I was just a kid
How far away those memories appear
I guess it's plain to see they still mean a lot to me
'Cause my ambition was to be an engineer

Daddy what's a train? Is it something I can ride?
Does it carry lots of grown-up folks and little kids inside?
Is it bigger than our house? Well how can I explain
When my little boy and girl ask me "Daddy what's a train?"

Starlight On The Rails

This comes from reading Thomas Wolfe. He had a very deep understanding of the music in language. Every now and then he wrote something that stuck in my ear and would practically demand to be made into a song.
I think that if you talk to railroad bums, or any kind of bum, you'll see that what affects them the most is homelessness, not necessarily rootlessness. Traveling is all right if you have a place to go from and a place to go to. It's when you don't have any place that it becomes more difficult. There's nothing you can count on in the world, except yourself. And if you're an old blown bum, you can't even do that very well. I guess this is a home song as much as anything else.
We walked along a road in Cumberland and stooped, because the sky hung down so low; and when we ran away from London, we went by little rivers in a land just big enough. And nowhere that we went was far: the earth and the sky were close and near. And the old hunger returned - the terrible and obscure hunger that haunts and hurts Americans, and makes us exiles at home and strangers wherever we go.

Oh, I will go up and down the country and back and forth across the country. I will go out West where the states are square. I will go to Boise and Helena, Albuquerque and the two Dakotas and all the unknown places. Say brother, have you heard the roar of the fast express? Have you seen starlight on the rails?

I think about a wife and family,
My home and all the things it means;
The black smoke trailing out behind me
Is like a string of broken dreams.

A man who lives out on the highway
Is like a clock that can't tell time;
A man who spends his life just ramblin'
Is like a song without a rhyme.

Copyright ©1973, 2000 Bruce Phillips

(c) 1957 by Elizabeth Cotten. Sanga Music

Freight train, Freight train, run so fast

Please don't tell what train I'm on
They won't know what route I've gone

When I am dead and in my grave
No more good times here I crave
Place the stones at my head and feet
Tell them all that I've gone to sleep.

When I die, Lorde, bury me deep
Way down on old Chestnut street
Then I can hear old Number 9
As she comes rolling by.



AMONG EMPIRES: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors, Charles S Maier, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Ma. 2006

With the demise of the former Soviet Union in 19991-92 and the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq in the post-9/11 period there has been an inordinate among of ink spilled in academic circles over the question of whether the United States has become the latest empire. In fact, this question has created something of a cottage industry. Professor Maier’s book is a contribution, and not the worst, to this controversy. Militants of this generation who understand what is wrong with the drift of American society must confront the question of the imperialistic nature of the United States head-on. For my generation, the generation of 68, the imperialistic nature of the United States was a given. The question then really centered on what to do about it. For a variety of reasons we were not successful in taming the monster. Each generation must come to an understanding of the nature of imperialist society in its own way. And fight it. Thus, this book is a good place to start to understand that question.

A lot of the current controversy in academic circles (government and military circles have no such difficulties) about whether there is an American Empire gets tangled up in comparisons with past empires. True, the American Empire does not look like previous empires. The real problem is trying to pigeonhole the contours of empire based on past experiences. As if the builders of each empire doe not learn something from the mistakes of previous empires. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin long ago analyzed the basis contours of modern imperialism in his seminal work Imperialism- The Highest Stage of Capitalism. That outline, although in need of updating to reflect various, mainly technological, in the global capitalist structure remains an important document for militants today. By his or virtually any other definition the United States gets the nod.

But let’s get down to brass tasks. Hell, the American Empire, is the mightiest military machine the world has ever known defending a nationally-based global economic infrastructure. Previous empires, like the Roman and British, are punk bush league operations in comparison. Academics can afford to have an agnostic view about whether an empire exists or the effects of imperial power. However, when one’s door is kicked in by a foreign, heavily armed soldier in some god forsaken village in Iraq or Vietnam, or your city is flattened in order to ‘save’ it a ready definition of imperialism comes to mind. And a good one.

One of the issues that cloud the question of the American Empire is that there is no readily apparent imperialist ideology. In fact, it is argued, for historical reasons, that there is some kind of popular anti-imperialist ideology in America that has always countered the trend toward empire. I take exception to that notion. While there has always been a section of the chattering classes that has held this position it has never really taken popular root. What is really the dominating popular theme is more like-don’t tread on me. That is a very different proposition. And it can be seen most unequivocally when a war, any war, comes along and virtually everyone- from the groves of academia to the local barroom- gets on board. Then the imperialist fist is bared for all to see.

With that caveat, this writer recommends this book. Agnostism on the question of empire in acceptable in the academy. It is the nature of such an institution. Unless that heavily-armed soldier mentioned about comes kicking down those doors.

***THE DREAMS COMETH-Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh"



The dreams (and illusions) of the very wretched of the earth are different from those of you and me. Or are they? This is the true subject matter of Eugene O’Neill fine play. Very little action, lots of drinking, lots of dreaming, lots philosophizing by the bedraggled cast of characters in a low- down gin mill do not sound like the makings of a great American play. But they are. The narrowly focused story line turns into a microcosm of the underside of American society in the early part of the 20th century. These are not the ‘robber barons’ of historic fame but the jetsam of the early stages of industrial society. These are the ones that cannot cope, for one reason or another, with the new ways and seek solace and comfort in the back streets of urban society. For lack of a better word these are what Karl Marx called the lumpen proletariat. Not Jean Genet’s hardened rough and ready sailors, pimps and male prostitutes but on the margins nevertheless. In neither case will they make the revolution. But they have their dreams too and O’Neill is there to chronicle them.

Between shots of whiskey the denizens of this small world exhibit all the emotions, contradictions, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of life that the rest of us ‘normals’ have to face. Except, for dramatic effect, these flophouse devotees get their noses rubbed in it by one Harry Hickey- traveling salesman and sport- formerly chief denizen of the ‘resort’ who now has gotten ‘religion’ and wants to spread his newfound ‘glad tidings’. Spare us from the Hickeys of the world-a little dreaminess and a couple of illusions never hurt anyone. Did they. Although in O’Neill’s hands the dialogue is a little stilted and the characters are a little stereotyped and wooden(the seemingly obligatory house philosopher, renegade anarchist, token immigrant, day workers, runaway with a hidden past, Irish cop and floosies) the point he is trying to make gets across just fine. This is a must read on your American drama list.
***Playwright's Corner- Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones"

Click below to link to a Wikipedia entry for American playwright Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones.

Markin comment:

This entry provides a little background information for the play (and movie) that helped, along with Othello, define Paul Robeson as the epitome of the strong black man, a man for every racist, and every Uncle Tom, to fear. Period.
***Playwright's Corner- Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour

Click below to link to a Wikipedia entry for American playwright Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour.

Markin comment:

Yes, I know that Lillian Hellman (along with long-time lover, novelist Dashiell Hammett) was nothing but a Stalinist hack in her political life but some of her plays, including The Children's Hour which deals with the subject of lesbianism and witch trials-type hysteria forthrightly for the 1930s, are nevertheless worth reading. And immediately after that reading then go back to blast her for her defense of the Moscow Trials, and all the rest. Author Mary McCarthy (The Group), whatever her own political sins, had Hellman's Stalinist hack number on that score.
In Honor Of The 64th Anniversary Year Of The Chinese Revolution of 1949- From The Pen Of Leon Trotsky-Problems Of The Chinese Revolution (1927) –The Canton Insurrection-July 1928- Alma Ata

Click on link below to read on-line all of Leon Trotsky's book, Problems Of The Chinesee Revolution

Markin comment (repost from 2012):

On a day when we are honoring the 63rd anniversary of the Chinese revolution of 1949 the article posted in this entry and the comment below take on added meaning. In the old days, in the days when I had broken from many of my previously held left social-democratic political views and had begun to embrace Marxism with a distinct tilt toward Trotskyism, I ran into an old revolutionary in Boston who had been deeply involved (although I did not learn the extend of that involvement until later) in the pre-World War II socialist struggles in Eastern Europe. The details of that involvement will not detain us here now but the import of what he had to impart to me about the defense of revolutionary gains has stuck with me until this day. And, moreover, is germane to the subject of this article from the pen of Leon Trotsky -the defense of the Chinese revolution and the later gains of that third revolution (1949) however currently attenuated.

This old comrade, by the circumstances of his life, had escaped that pre-war scene in fascist-wracked Europe and found himself toward the end of the 1930s in New York working with the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in the period when that organization was going through intense turmoil over the question of defense of the Soviet Union. In the history of American (and international) Trotskyism this is the famous Max Shachtman-James Burnham led opposition that declared, under one theory or another, that the previously defendable Soviet Union had changed dramatically enough in the course of a few months to be no longer worth defending by revolutionaries.

What struck him from the start about this dispute was the cavalier attitude of the anti-Soviet opposition, especially among the wet-behind-the-ears youth, on the question of that defense and consequently about the role that workers states, healthy, deformed or degenerated, as we use the terms of art in our movement, as part of the greater revolutionary strategy. Needless to say most of those who abandoned defense of the Soviet Union when there was even a smidgeon of a reason to defend it left politics and peddled their wares in academia or business. Or if they remained in politics lovingly embraced the virtues of world imperialism.

That said, the current question of defense of the Chinese Revolution hinges on those same premises that animated that old Socialist Workers Party dispute. And strangely enough (or maybe not so strangely) on the question of whether China is now irrevocably on the capitalist road, or is capitalist already (despite some very un-capitalistic economic developments over the past few years), I find that many of those who oppose that position have that same cavalier attitude the old comrade warned me against back when I was first starting out. There may come a time when we, as we had to with the Soviet Union and other workers states, say that China is no longer a workers state. But today is not that day. In the meantime study the issue, read the posted article, and more importantly, defend the gains of the Chinese Revolution.


Leon Trotsky

Problems of the Chinese Revolution

The Canton Insurrection-July 1928
Alma Ata

1) Stages of the Chinese Revolution

The first stage of the Guomindang was the period of domination by the national bourgeoisie, under the apologetic banner of the “bloc of four classes”. The second period, after the Chiang Kai-shek coup d’état, was an experiment in parallel and “independent” domination by Chinese Kerenskyism. While the Russian Populists, together with the Mensheviks, openly gave their short-lived “dictatorship” the form of dual power, the Chinese “revolutionary democracy” did not reach even that stage. And inasmuch as history in general does not work to order, there is nothing left for us but to understand that there is not and that there will not be any other “democratic” dictatorship than the one exercised by the Guomindang since 1925. This remains true regardless of whether the semi-unification of China accomplished by the Guomindang is maintained in the coming period or whether the country is again dismembered. But precisely when the class dialectics of the revolution, having spent all its other resources, put on the order of the day the dictatorship of the proletariat, with the numberless millions of oppressed and downtrodden of town and country on its side, the ECCI advanced the slogan of the democratic dictatorship (that is, bourgeois democracy) of the workers and peasants. The reply to this formula was the Canton insurrection which, lifted the curtain over a new stage, or, more correctly, over with all its prematurity, with all the adventurism of its leaders, the coming, the third Chinese revolution. This must be emphasized.
Trying to insure themselves against the sins of the past, the leaders criminally forced the trend of events at the end of last year and brought about the Canton miscarriage. However, even a miscarriage can teach us a good deal concerning the organism of the mother and the process of birth. The tremendous theoretical and even decisive significance of the Canton events for the fundamental problems of the Chinese revolution is due precisely to the fact that we have here what happens so rarely in history and in politics: a laboratory experiment on a gigantic scale. We paid for it dearly, but that makes it all the more imperative for us to digest the lessons.
One of the fighting slogans of the Canton insurrection, as Pravda (no.31) relates, was the watchword: “Down with the Guomindang!” The Guomindang banners and signs were torn and trampled upon. But it was already after the “betrayal” of Chiang Kai-shek and that of Wang Jingwei (not a betrayal of his class, but of our illusions) that the ECCI pompously declared: “We will not give up the Guomindang banner.” The workers of Canton prohibited the Guomindang, proclaiming all its tendencies illegal. This means that to solve the basic national tasks, not only the big bourgeoisie but also the small bourgeoisie failed to advance a political power, a party, a faction, in conjunction with which the proletarian party might be able to solve the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution. The key to the position lies in the fact that the problem of winning the movement of the poor peasants already fell entirely on the shoulders of the proletariat, and the Communist Party directly; the approach to a real solution of the bourgeois-democratic tasks of the revolution necessitated the concentration of all the power in the hands of the proletariat.
As to the short-lived Canton Soviet government, Pravda reports:
“In the interests of the workers, the decrees of the Canton Soviet proclaimed workers’ control of production through factory Committees, the nationalization of big industry, transportation and the banks.”
Then, measures are mentioned such as the “confiscation of all dwellings of the big bourgeoisie for the benefit of the labourers ...”
Thus, it was the Canton workers who were in power and what is more, the government was actually in the hands of the Communist Party. The program of the new government included not only the confiscation of the feudal lands, in so far as such exist in Guangdong at all, and workers’ control of production, but also the nationalization of big industry, the banks and transportation and even the confiscation of the dwellings of the bourgeoisie and all their property for the benefit of the workers. The question arises: If these are the methods of a bourgeois revolution what will the proletarian revolution in China look like?
Notwithstanding the fact that the instructions of the ECCI said nothing about the proletarian dictatorship and socialist measures; notwithstanding the fact that Canton, when compared with Shanghai, Hankow and other industrial centres of the country, has more of a petty-bourgeois character, the revolutionary upheaval effected against the Guomindang led automatically to the proletarian dictatorship which, at its very first steps, found itself compelled by the entire situation to take more radical measures than those with which the October revolution began. And this fact, in spite of its paradoxical appearance, is quite a normal outcome of the social relations of China as well as of the whole development of the revolution.
Large- and middle-scale landownership (as it exists in China) is most closely intertwined with urban, including foreign capitalism. There is no landowning caste in China in opposition to the bourgeoisie. The most widespread, generally-hated exploiter in the village is the usurious wealthy peasant, the agent of urban banking capital. The agrarian revolution has therefore just as much of an anti-bourgeois as it has of an anti-feudal character in China. The first stage of our October revolution, in which the wealthy peasant marched hand in hand with the middle and poor peasant, and frequently at their head, against the landlord, will not, or will hardly at all, take place in China. The agrarian revolution there will be from the very beginning, and also later on, an uprising not only against the few landlords and bureaucrats, but also against the wealthy peasants and usurers. Whereas in Russia the poor peasant committees acted only in the second stage of the October revolution, towards the middle of 1918, in China they will appear on the scene, in one form or another, as soon as the agrarian movement revives. The breaking-up of the rich peasants will be the first and not the second step in the Chinese October.
The agrarian revolution, however, does not constitute the only basis of the present historical struggle in China. The most radical agrarian revolution, the general division of land (the Communist Party will naturally support it to the very end), will not by itself be a way out of the economic blind alley. It is now essential for China to have national unity and economic sovereignty, that is, customs autonomy, or more correctly, a monopoly of foreign trade; this means: emancipation from world imperialism, for which China remains the most important source not only of enrichment but also of existence, constituting a safety valve against internal explosions of capitalism, today in Europe and tomorrow in America.
This is what determines in advance the gigantic scope and monstrous sharpness of the struggle through which the masses of China must pass, the more so now, when the depth of the stream of the struggle has already been measured and felt by all or its participants.
The enormous role of foreign capitalism in Chinese industry, its habit of relying directly on its own “national” bayonets in order to defend its rapacity, makes the program of workers’ control in China even less realizable than it was in Russia. The direct expropriation of the foreign capitalist enterprises, and later also the Chinese capitalist enterprises, will most likely be made imperative by the struggle, on the very morrow of the victorious insurrection.
The same objective social and historical causes which determined the “October” outcome of the Russian Revolution rise before us in China in a still more accentuated form. The bourgeois and the proletarian poles of the Chinese nation are opposed to each other even more intransigently, if this is possible, than they were in Russia, inasmuch as, on the one hand, the Chinese bourgeoisie is directly bound up with foreign imperialism and its military machine and, on the other hand, the Chinese proletariat has from the very beginning established relations with the Comintern and the Soviet Union. Numerically, the Chinese peasantry constitutes an even more overwhelming mass than the Russian peasants; but, crushed in the vice of world contradictions upon the solution of which in one way or another its fate depends, the Chinese peasantry is even less capable than the Russian of playing a leading role. This is now no longer a theoretical forecast; it is a fact tested through and through and from all sides.
These fundamental and incontrovertible social and political prerequisites of the third Chinese revolution show not only that the formula of a democratic dictatorship has hopelessly outlived its usefulness, but also that the third Chinese revolution, in spite of the extreme backwardness of China or more correctly, because of this great backwardness, as compared with Russia, will not have a “democratic” period, be it even for six months, as was the case in the October revolution (November 1917 to July 1918); it will be compelled from the very beginning to effect the most decisive shake-up and abolition of bourgeois property in town and country.
True, this prospect does not harmonize with the pedantic and schematic conception concerning the relationships between economics and politics. But the responsibility for this harmony which disturbs the newly adopted prejudices to which the October revolution already dealt a serious blow, does not devolve upon “Trotskyism” but upon the law of uneven development. In the given case, it is exactly in place.
It would be pedantry to contend that the Chinese Communist Party, had it pursued a Bolshevik policy in the revolution of 1925-27, would certainly have come to power. But it is pitiful philistinism to contend that this possibility was entirely out of the question. The mass movement of workers and peasants was absolutely sufficient for it, as was also the collapse of the ruling classes. The national bourgeoisie sent its Chiang Kai-sheks and Wang Jingweis to Moscow; through its Hu Hanmins it knocked on the door of the Comintern, precisely because it felt itself hopelessly weak in the face of the revolutionary masses; it realized its weakness and sought to insure itself in advance. Neither the workers nor the peasants would have followed the national bourgeoisie if we ourselves had not drawn them behind it with a lasso. Had the Comintern pursued a more or less correct policy, the outcome of the struggle of the Communist Party for the masses would have been determined in advance: the Chinese proletariat would have supported the Communists, while the peasants’ war would have supported the revolutionary proletariat.
If, at the beginning of the northern campaign, we had begun to organize soviets in the “liberated” districts (and the masses were instinctively fighting for that) we would have rallied to our side the agrarian uprisings, we would have built our own army; we would have undermined the opposing armies and – notwithstanding the youthfulness of the Communist Party of China – it would have been able, with a judicious Comintern guidance, to mature in these years of stress and to come to power, if not in the whole of China at once, then at least in a considerable part of it. And above all, we would have had a party.
But precisely in the sphere of leadership something absolutely monstrous occurred, a veritable historical catastrophe: the authority of the Soviet Union, of the Bolshevik Party and of the Comintern went entirely to the support, first of Chiang Kai-shek, against an independent policy of the Communist Party, and then to the support of Wang Jingwei, as the leader of the agrarian revolution. After having trampled underfoot the very basis of Lenin’s policy and paralysed the young Chinese Communist Party, the ECCI determined in advance the victory of Chinese Kerenskyism over Bolshevism, of the Chinese Milyukovs over the Kerenskys, and of Japanese and British imperialism over the Chinese Milyukovs.
In this and in this alone lies the meaning of what happened in China in the course of 1925-27.

Democratic Dictatorship or Dictatorship of the Proletariat?

How did the last Plenum of the ECCI evaluate the experiences acquired in the Chinese revolution, including the experiences of the Canton insurrection? What prospect did it outline for the future? The resolution of the February (1928) Plenum, the key to the corresponding parts of the draft program of the Sixth Congress, says concerning the Chinese revolution:
“It is wrong to characterize it as a ‘permanent’ revolution [the position of the representative of ECCI]. The tendency to skip [?] over the bourgeois-democratic phase of the revolution with a simultaneous [?] appraisal of the revolution as a ‘permanent revolution’ is a mistake similar to that which Trotsky made in 1905 [?].”
The ideological life of the Comintern since Lenin’s departure from its leadership, that is, since 1923, has consisted primarily of a struggle against so-called “Trotskyism” and particularly against the “permanent revolution”. How then could it happen that on the fundamental question of the Chinese revolution, not only the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, but even the official representative of the Comintern, that is, the leader who was especially instructed for the job, should have fallen into the same “error” for which hundreds of people are now exiled to Siberia and put in prison? The struggle around the Chinese problem has raged for about two and a half years. When the Opposition declared that the old Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (Chen Duxiu), under the influence of wrong instructions from the Comintern, conducted an opportunist policy, this was declared to be a “slander”. The leadership of the Communist Party or China was declared flawless. The well-known Tang Pingshan clamoured, with the general approval of the Seventh Plenum of the ECCI, that
“... as soon as the first manifestations of Trotskyism made their appearance, the Communist Party of China and the Young Communist League immediately adopted a unanimous resolution against Trotskyism.” <[1]
However, notwithstanding all these “achievements”, when events unfolded their tragic logic, which led to the first, and later on to the second, even more terrific débâcle of the revolution, the leaders of the Communist Party of China, from having been a model, were re-christened in twenty-four hours as Mensheviks, and turned out. At the same time, it was declared that the new leaders fully represented the line of the Comintern. But as soon as another serious phase came, the new Central Committee of the Communist Party of China was accused of having passed over (as we have always seen, not in words, but in deeds), to the position of the so-called “permanent revolution”. This was the path chosen also by the representative of the Comintern. This striking and unbelievable fact can be explained only by the glaring “scissors” between the instructions of the ECCI and the real dynamics of the revolution.
We will not dwell here upon the myth of the “permanent revolution” of 1905 which was put forward in 1924 in order to sow confusion and bewilderment. We will confine ourselves to an analysis of how this myth broke down on the question of the Chinese revolution.
The first paragraph of the February resolution, from which we have taken the above passage, motivates its negative attitude towards the so-called “permanent revolution” as follows:
“The present period of the Chinese revolution is a period of the bourgeois-democratic revolution which has not been completed either from the economic viewpoint (the agrarian revolution and the abolition of feudal relations) or from the viewpoint of the national struggle against imperialism (the unification of China and the establishment of national independence), or from the viewpoint of the class nature of the government (the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry).”
This motivation is an unbroken chain of blunders and contradictions.
The ECCI taught that the Chinese revolution must guarantee China an opportunity to develop along the path of socialism. This object could be attained only if the revolution did not stop merely at the solution of the bourgeois-democratic tasks, but by growing over from one stage into another, that is, by constantly (or permanently) developing, led China towards socialist development. This is precisely what Marx understood by the term “permanent revolution”. How then can one speak of a non-capitalist path of development of China on the one hand, and on the other, deny the permanent character of the revolution in general?
But – objects the resolution of the ECCI – the revolution has not been completed, either from the viewpoint of the agrarian revolution or from the viewpoint of the national struggle against imperialism. Hence the conclusion about the bourgeois-democratic nature of the “present period of the Chinese revolution”. In reality, the “present period” is a period of counter-revolution. The ECCI apparently wants to say that the new rise of the Chinese revolution, or more correctly, the third Chinese revolution, will have a bourgeois-democratic character, in view of the fact that the second Chinese revolution of 1925-27 solved neither the agrarian problem nor the national problem. However, even with this correction, the argumentation rests upon a complete failure to understand the experiences and lessons of the Chinese as well as of the Russian Revolution.
The revolution of February 1917 in Russia left unsolved all the internal and international problems which led to the revolution – feudalism in the villages, the old bureaucracy, the war and the economic ruin. Based upon this, not only the SRs and the Mensheviks, but also a considerable section of the leaders of our own party, tried to show Lenin that the “present period of the revolution is a period of the bourgeois-democratic revolution”. On this essential point, the resolution of the ECCI merely copies the objections made to Lenin in 1917 by the opportunists, against the struggle for the proletarian dictatorship.
Furthermore, the bourgeois-democratic revolution proves to be uncompleted not only from the economic and national standpoints, but also from the “viewpoint of the class nature of the government (the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry)”. This can only mean one thing: the Chinese proletariat has been forbidden to fight for power so long as there is no “real” democratic government at the helm in China. Unfortunately, it is not pointed out where this is to come from.
The confusion is further increased by the fact that the slogan of soviets was rejected for China in the course of two years on the sole ground that soviets can be organized only during the transition towards the proletarian revolution (Stalin’s “theory”). But when the soviet revolution broke out in Canton and its participants arrived at the conclusion that this is the transition to the proletarian revolution, they were accused of “Trotskyism”. Can a party be trained in such a way and can it be helped in this manner to solve the greatest tasks?
To save a hopeless situation, the resolution of the ECCI (breaking with the entire trend of its thought), hastily advances its last argument – from imperialism. We find that the tendency to skip over the bourgeois-democratic phase:
“... is all [!] the more harmful because such a formulation of the question excludes [?] the greatest national peculiarity of the Chinese revolution, which is a semicolonial revolution.”
The only meaning that these senseless words can have is that the imperialist yoke will be overthrown by some sort of dictatorship other than the proletarian. But this means that the “greatest national peculiarity” has been dragged in at the last moment only in order to present in bright colours the Chinese national-bourgeois or the Chinese petty-bourgeois “democracy”. They can have no other meaning. But we have sufficiently examined this only “meaning” in our chapter concerning the “nature of the colonial bourgeoisie”. There is no need to return to this subject.
China is still confronted with an enormous, terrific, bloody and prolonged struggle for such elementary aims as the liquidation of the most “Asiatic” forms of slavery, the national emancipation and unification of the country. But it is precisely from here, as the march of events has shown, that further petty-bourgeois leadership or even half leadership in the revolution is impossible. The unification and emancipation of China is now an international task. It is no less international than the existence of the USSR. This task can be solved only by means of a desperate struggle of the suppressed, hungry and downtrodden masses under the direct leadership of the proletarian vanguard, a struggle not only against world imperialism, but also against its economic and political agency in China – the bourgeoisie, including also the “national” and democratic bourgeois flunkeys. And that is the road, leading towards the proletarian dictatorship.
Beginning with April 1917, Lenin explained to his opponents who accused him of having adopted the position of the “permanent revolution”, that the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry was partly realized in the epoch of dual government. He explained later that it was further realized during the first period of soviet power, from November 1917 until July 1918, when the peasants, together with the workers, effected the agrarian revolution, while the working class had not yet proceeded with the confiscation of the factories and plants, but experimented with workers’ control. As to the “class nature of the government”, the SR-Menshevik “dictatorship” gave all that it could give – the dual-government miscarriage. As to the agrarian revolution, it gave birth to a healthy and strong child; only, the proletarian dictatorship acted as the midwife. In other words, that which the theoretical formula of “the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” sought to unite was disunited in the course of the actual class struggle.
The empty shell of the half government was provisionally entrusted to Kerensky and Tsereteli; the real kernel of the agrarian-democratic revolution fell to the lot of the victorious working class. This is the dialectical dissociation of the democratic dictatorship which the leaders of the ECCI failed to understand. They have landed in a political blind alley, mechanically condemning any “skipping over the bourgeois-democratic stage” and endeavouring to guide the historical process by means of circular letters. If we are to understand by the bourgeois-democratic stage the completion of the agrarian revolution by means of a “democratic dictatorship”, then it was none other than the October revolution which boldly “skipped over” the bourgeois-democratic stage. Should it not be condemned for having done so?
Why is it that what was historically inevitable and the highest expression of Bolshevism in Russia, proves to be “Trotskyism” in China? Apparently in accordance with the same logic which proclaims that the theory of the Martynovs, branded for twenty years by Bolshevism in Russia, was suitable for China.
But can such a comparison be made with Russia at all? The slogan of a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry – we reply – was built up by the leaders of the ECCI exclusively and entirely by the method of analogy, but of a formal and literal analogy and not a material and historical analogy. An analogy between China and Russia is absolutely admissible if one finds the proper key to it; this analogy was used excellently by Lenin, and not after the fact but beforehand, as if he had foreseen the future blunders of the epigones. Lenin had hundreds of times to defend the October proletarian revolution which dared to capture power, notwithstanding the fact that the bourgeois-democratic problems had not yet been solved. Precisely because of that, precisely for that purpose, replied Lenin.
On January 16, 1923, Lenin wrote in answer to the pedants who, in their arguments against the capture of power, referred to the economic immaturity of Russia for socialism which was “incontestable” for Lenin [2]:
“For instance, it does not even occur to them that Russia – standing as she does on the borderline between the civilized countries and the countries which this war had for the first time definitely brought into the orbit of civilization, that is, all the Oriental, non-European countries – might therefore and was indeed bound to reveal certain peculiar features which, while of course in keeping with the general line of world development, distinguish her revolution from all previous revolutions in West-European countries, and which introduce certain partial innovations in passing to the Oriental countries.” [3]
The “peculiar feature” which brings Russia closer to the Eastern countries was seen by Lenin in the fact that the young proletariat, at the very dawn of the movement, had to take hold of the broom so as to sweep from its road to socialism all feudal barbarism and every other kind of rubbish.
Consequently, if we are to proceed from Lenin’s analogy between China and Russia, we must say: from the standpoint of the “political nature of the power”, all that could have been obtained through the democratic dictatorship was tried out in China: first in Sun Yat Sen’s Canton, then on the road from Canton to Shanghai which was crowned by the Shanghai coup d’état, and finally in Wuhan, where the Left Guomindang appeared in its chemically pure aspect, that is, according to the instructions of the ECCI, as an organizer of the agrarian revolution, but in reality as its hangman. The social content of the bourgeois-democratic revolution will have to be completed by the first period of the coming dictatorship of the Chinese proletariat and the rural poor. To advance at present the slogan of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, when the role not only of the Chinese bourgeoisie but also of “democracy” has already been tested through and through, when it has become absolutely certain that “democracy” will, in the coming struggles, play its role of hangman even more than in the past, simply means to create the means of covering up the new forms of Guomindangism and to set a trap for the proletariat.
For the sake of completeness, let us recall here what Lenin said briefly about those Bolsheviks who continued to counterpose to the Socialist-Revolutionary/Menshevik experience, the slogan of a “genuine” democratic dictatorship:
“Whoever speaks only of a ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ is behind the times, and has passed over to the side of the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle. He should be relegated to the archives of pre-revolutionary ‘Bolshevik’ relics (we might call them the archives of the ‘old’ Bolsheviks).” [4]
These words have a timely ring even today.
Of course, it is by no means a question of calling the Communist Party of China immediately to revolt to capture power. The tempo depends entirely upon the circumstances. The consequences of a defeat cannot be eliminated simply by revising one’s tactics. The revolution is now subsiding. The verbiage, half concealed by the resolution of the ECCI, about an imminent revolutionary resurgence, because numberless people are being executed in China and a terrific commercial and industrial crisis is raging in the country, is criminal light-mindedness and nothing else. After three overwhelming defeats, an economic crisis does not rouse, but on the contrary depresses the proletariat, which, as it is, has already been bled white; the executions only destroy the politically weakened Party. We are in a period of ebb-tide in China and consequently in a period of theoretical deepening, of the critical self-education of the Party, of the creation and strengthening of firm points of support in all the spheres of the labour movement, of the organization of rural nuclei of the leadership and unification of partial, at first defensive and later offensive, battles of the workers and rural poor.
How will a new mass movement begin? What circumstances will give the proletarian vanguard, at the head of the multitudinous millions, the necessary revolutionary impulse? This cannot be foretold. Whether internal processes alone will be sufficient or whether an impulse from without will come to the fore the future will show.
There are enough reasons to assume that the crushing of the Chinese revolution, conditioned directly by the false leadership, will permit the Chinese and foreign bourgeoisie to overcome, in some measure, the terrific economic crisis which exists in the country at the present time; naturally, this will be accomplished upon the backs of the workers and peasants. This phase of “stabilization” will again group together the workers, give them cohesion, imbue them with a class confidence in themselves so as later on to set them up against the enemy more sharply, but upon a higher historical plane. It is only with a new rising wave of the proletarian movement that one will be able to speak seriously about the prospect of an agrarian revolution.
It is not excluded that the first period of the coming third revolution may repeat, in a greatly abridged and modified form, the stages which have already been gone through, for example, by presenting some new parody of the “common national front”. But this first period will probably suffice to permit the Communist Party to put before the popular masses its “April theses”, that is, its program and tactics for the capture of power. But what does the draft of the program of the Comintern say on this subject?
“The transition to the proletarian dictatorship is possible here [in China] only after a series of preparatory stages [?], only as a result of a whole period of the growing over [?] of the bourgeois-democratic revolution into the socialist revolution.”
In other words, all the “stages” that have already been gone through are not taken into account. What has been left behind, the draft program still sees ahead. This is exactly what is meant by dragging behind the tail. It leaves gates wide open for new experiments in the spirit of the Guomindang course. Thus, the concealment of the old blunders inevitably prepares the road for new errors.
If we enter the new rise, which will develop at an incomparably more rapid rate than the last one, with the outlived plan of “democratic dictatorship”, there can be no doubt that the third revolution will be lost just as the second one was.

Adventurism as a Product of Opportunism

The second paragraph of the same resolution of the February Plenum of the ECCI says:
“The first wave of the broad revolutionary movement of the workers and peasants which, in the main, proceeded under the slogans and to a considerable extent under the leadership of the Communist Party, is over. It ended in a number of centres of the revolutionary movement with heavy defeats for the workers and peasants, with the physical extermination of the Communists and of the revolutionary cadres of the labour and peasant movement in general.” [Our emphasis.]
When the “wave” was surging high, the ECCI said that the movement was entirely under the blue banner and leadership of the Guomindang which even took the place of soviets. It is precisely on that ground that the Communist Party was subordinated to the Guomindang. But that is exactly why the revolutionary movement ended with “heavy defeats”. Now, when these defeats have been recognized, an attempt is being made to delete the Guomindang from the past as if it had never existed, as if the ECCI had not proclaimed the blue banner its own.
Formerly we were told that there were no defeats either in Shanghai or in Wuhan, there were merely transitions of the revolution “into a higher phase”. That is what we were taught. Now the sum total of these transitions is suddenly declared to be “heavy defeats for the workers and peasants”. However, in order to mask to some extent this unprecedented political bankruptcy of perspective and judgement, the concluding paragraph of the resolution says:
The ECCI makes it the duty of all sections of the Comintern to fight against the Social-Democratic and Trotskyist slander to the effect that the Chinese revolution has been liquidated [?].
In the first paragraph of the resolution we were told that “Trotskyism” consisted of estimating the Chinese revolution as permanent, that is, a revolution which is now growing over from the bourgeois to the socialist phase. From the last paragraph, we learn that according to the “Trotskyists”, “the Chinese revolution has been liquidated”. How can a liquidated revolution be a permanent revolution? This is Bukharin all the way through. Only complete and reckless irresponsibility permits of such contradictions which undermine all revolutionary thought at its roots.
If we are to understand by the “liquidation” of the revolution the fact that the offensive of the workers and the peasants has been set back and drowned in blood, that the masses are in a state of retreat, that before another onslaught there must be, apart from many other things, a molecular process at work among the masses which requires a certain period of time the duration of which cannot be determined beforehand; if “liquidation” is to be understood in this way, it does not in any way differ from the “heavy defeats” which the ECCI has at last been compelled to recognize.
Or are we to understand the term liquidation literally, as the actual elimination of the Chinese revolution, that is, of the very possibility and inevitability of its revival at a new stage? One can speak of such a perspective seriously only in two cases: if China were doomed to dismemberment and complete ruin – an assumption for which there is not the slightest reason; or else, if the Chinese bourgeoisie were to prove capable of solving the basic problems of Chinese life in its own non-revolutionary way. Is it not this last variant which the theoreticians of the “bloc of four classes”, who forced the Communist Party under the yoke of the bourgeoisie, seek to ascribe to us now?
History repeats itself. The blind who could not grasp the extent of the defeat of 1923, accused us for a year and a half of looking at the German revolution as “liquidators”. Yet even this lesson, which cost the International so dearly, did them no good. At the present time, picking up their old formulas, they simply apply them no longer to Germany, but to China. It is true that the need of finding “liquidators” is far more acute than it was four years ago; for at the present time, it is too obvious that if anybody did “liquidate” the second Chinese revolution, it was the authors of the course towards the Guomindang.
The strength of Marxism lies in its ability to foretell. In this sense, the Opposition can point to a complete confirmation of its prognoses by experience: first, concerning the Guomindang as a whole, then concerning the “Left” Guomindang and the Wuhan government, and finally, concerning the “deposit” made on the third revolution, that is, on the Canton insurrection. What other confirmation could there be of a correct theoretical standpoint?
The very same opportunist line which, by the policy of capitulation to the bourgeoisie, already brought the revolution, at its first two phases, the heaviest defeats, “grew over” in the third phase, into a policy of adventurous attacks upon the bourgeoisie, and made the defeat final.
If the leadership had not been in such a hurry yesterday to skip over the defeats which it had brought about, it would have begun by explaining to the Communist Party of China that victory is not gained at one blow, that on the road to insurrection there is still a period of intense, constant and fierce struggles for political influence on the workers and peasants.
On September 17, 1927, we said to the Presidium of the ECCI:
“Today’s papers report that the revolutionary army has taken Swatow. The armies of Ho Lung and Ye Ting have now been marching for a few weeks. Pravda calls these armies revolutionary armies. But the question I ask is: what prospects does the movement of the revolutionary army which captured Swatow open up before the Chinese revolution? What are the slogans of the movement? What is its program? What should be its organizational forms? What has become of the slogan of soviets, which Pravda suddenly put forward (for a day) in July?”
Without first organizing the Communist Party against the Guomindang in its entirety, without agitation among the masses for soviets and a soviet government, without an independent mobilization of the masses under the slogan of the agrarian revolution and national emancipation, without the creation, extension and strengthening of the local soviets of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies, the uprising of Ho Lung and Ye Ting, even leaving aside their opportunist policy, could not fail to be an isolated adventure, a pseudo-Communist Makhno feat; it could not but clash against its own isolation, and it has clashed.
The Canton insurrection was a broader and deeper rehearsal of Ho Lung’s and Ye Ting’s adventure, only with infinitely more tragic consequences.
The February resolution of the ECCI combats certain putschistic tendencies in the Communist Party of China, that is, the tendencies towards armed skirmishes. It does not say, however, that these tendencies are a reaction to the entire opportunist policy of 1925-27, and an unavoidable consequence of the purely military orders, handed down from above, to “change step” without appraising all that had been done, without an open revaluation of the basis of the tactics, without a clear prospect. Ho Lung’s march and the Canton insurrection were (and under such circumstances, had to be) outbursts of putschism.
A real antidote to putschism, as well as to opportunism, cannot be had without a clear understanding of the truth that, from now on, it devolves entirely upon the Communist Party of China to guide the armed insurrection of the workers and the poor peasants, to capture power and to institute a revolutionary dictatorship. If it thoroughly assimilates an understanding of this, it will be little inclined to improvise military attacks on towns, or armed insurrections in traps, or to chase humbly after the enemy’s banner.
The resolution of the ECCI condemns itself to sterility by the fact alone that while arguing most abstractly concerning the inadmissibility of skipping over stages and the harmfulness of putschism, it ignores entirely the class content of the Canton insurrection and the short-lived soviet régime which it brought into existence. We Oppositionists hold that this insurrection was an adventure of the leadership in an effort to “save its prestige”. But it is clear to us that even an adventure develops according to certain definite laws which are determined by the structure of the social environment. That is why we seek to discover in the Canton insurrection the features of the coming stage of the Chinese revolution. These features correspond fully with our theoretical analysis of the Canton uprising. But how much more imperative is it for the ECCI, which holds that the Canton rising was a correct and proper link in the chain of struggle, to give a clear class characterization of the Canton insurrection. Yet, there is not a word about this in the resolution of the ECCI, although the Plenum met immediately after the Canton events. Is this not the most convincing proof that the present leadership of the Comintern, stubbornly pursuing a false policy, is compelled to play on alleged errors of 1905 and other years, without daring to approach the Canton insurrection of 1927, the significance of which completely upsets the schema of the revolution in the East which is outlined in the draft program?

Soviets and Revolution

In the February resolution of the ECCI, the representative of the Comintern, “comrade N. and others”, are made responsible for the “absence of an elected soviet in Canton as an organ of insurrection” (emphasis in the original). In this charge we have, in reality, an astounding admission.
The report in Pravda, written on the basis of first-hand documents (no.31), stated that there was a soviet government established in Canton. But it said nothing about the fact that the Canton Soviet was not an elected organ, that is, that it was not a soviet – for how can there be a soviet which has not been elected? We learn this for the first time from the resolution. Let us reflect for a moment on the significance of this fact. The ECCI tells us now that a soviet is necessary for an armed insurrection, but not before. But when the insurrection is decided upon, it appears that there is no soviet! To set up an elected soviet is not at all an easy matter: it is necessary that the masses should know from experience what a soviet is, that they should understand its form, that they should have accustomed themselves in the past to the election of soviets. Of this, there was not a sign in China, as the slogan of soviets was declared to be a Trotskyist slogan precisely in the period when it should have become the nerve centre of the entire movement. When, however, a date was fixed in all haste for an insurrection so as to skip over their own defeats, they simultaneously had to appoint a soviet. If we were not to expose the roots of this error to the very bottom, the slogan of soviets itself might be turned into a noose for strangling the revolution.
Lenin explained to the Mensheviks in his time that the basic historical task of the soviets is to organize, or to help to organize, the capture of power, so that on the morrow after the victory, it may become the machinery of that power. The epigones – not disciples, but epigones – draw from this the conclusion that soviets may be organized only when the twelfth hour of the insurrection has struck. On the basis of Lenin’s broad generalization they write, post factum, a short prescription which does not serve the interests of the revolution but acts to their detriment.
Before the Bolshevik soviets captured power in October 1917, the SR and Menshevik soviets had existed for nine months. Twelve years prior to that, the first revolutionary soviets existed in Petersburg and in Moscow and in many other towns. Before the soviet of 1905 embraced the factories and plants of the capital, there was a printers’ soviet in Moscow during the strike, and a few months prior to that, in 1905, a mass strike in Ivanovo-Voznesensk set up a leading committee which already presented all the principal features of a soviet of workers’ deputies. Between the first attempt at setting up a soviet of deputies and the gigantic experiment of setting up a soviet government, more than twelve years rolled by. Of course, such a period is not absolutely essential for all countries, China included. But to think that the Chinese workers are capable of organizing soviets on the basis of a short prescription which is substituted for Lenin’s broad generalization, means the replacement of the dialectics of revolutionary action by a pedant’s impotent and importunate decree. Soviets must be set up not on the eve of uprisings, with the slogan of the immediate capture of power – for if the matter has reached the point of the capture of power, if the masses are prepared for an armed insurrection without soviets, it means that there have been other organizational forms and methods which made possible the performance of the preparatory work to ensure the success of the uprising: the question of soviets then becomes of secondary importance and is reduced to a question of organizational technique, or still lower, to a question of name. The task of the soviets is not merely to issue the call for the insurrection or to carry out that insurrection, but to lead the masses toward the insurrection through the necessary stages. At first, the soviet does not rally the masses to the slogan of an armed insurrection, but to partial slogans; it is only later, step by step, that they are brought towards the insurrection without scattering them on the road and without allowing the vanguard to become isolated from the class as a whole. The soviet appears most frequently and primarily in connection with strikes which have before them the prospect of revolutionary development, but are, at the given moment, limited to economic demands. The masses must feel and understand, while in action, that the soviet is their organization, that it marshals their forces for the struggle, for resistance, for self-defence, and for the offensive. They can feel and understand this not through a one-day action and in general not through one act, but through the experience of several weeks, months and perhaps years, with intermissions or without. That is why only a bureaucratic leadership of epigones can restrain the rising and mutinous masses from the creation of soviets, under conditions when the country is passing through a period of revolutionary upheavals, and when the working class and the poor peasants see before them the prospect of capturing power, even if only in one of the later phases, and even if that prospect can be envisaged in the given phase only by a small minority. That was always our conception of the soviets. We valued the soviet as that broad and elastic organizational form which is grasped by the masses who have just awakened, in the very first phase of their revolutionary action, and which is capable of uniting the working class in its entirety, regardless of how large a section of it has, in the given phase, already matured to the point of understanding the task of capturing power.
Is any further documentary evidence necessary? Here, for instance, is what Lenin wrote about the soviets in the epoch of the first revolution:
“The Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party [that was then the name of the Party] has never refused, at moments of greater or lesser revolutionary unrest, to utilize certain non-party organizations, such as soviets of workers’ deputies, in order to strengthen the influence of the Social Democrats over the working class and to consolidate the Social-Democratic labour movement.” (Our emphasis) [5]
One could cite such historical quotations without number. But the question appears to be clear enough without that.
In contradiction to this, the epigones have converted the soviets into a parade uniform which the Party puts on the proletariat on the eve of the capture of power. But that is just when we find that soviets cannot be improvised in twenty-four hours, by order, with the direct object of an armed insurrection. Such experiments must inevitably assume a fictitious character and the absence of the conditions necessary for the capture of power be marked by the external ceremonial of the soviet system. That is what happened in Canton, where the soviet was simply appointed to pay respects to the ritual. That is where the epigones’ formulation of the question leads to.
In the polemics on the Chinese events, the Opposition was accused of the following alleged crying contradiction: whereas at the beginning of 1926 the Opposition came forward with the slogan of soviets for China, its representatives spoke against the slogan of soviets for Germany in the autumn of 1923. On no other point, perhaps, has the scholastic spirit in political thought been expressed so strikingly as on this. Yes, we demanded for China, at the right time, the creation of soviets as independent organizations of workers and peasants, when the wave ran high. The chief significance of the soviets was to be that of setting up the workers and peasants against the bourgeoisie of the Guomindang and its left-wing agency. The slogan of soviets in China meant, in the first place, the break-up of the suicidal, shameful “bloc of the four classes” and the withdrawal of the Communist Party from the Guomindang. The centre of gravity consequently lay not in a sterile organizational form, but in a class political line.
In the autumn of 1923 in Germany, on the contrary, it was a question of organizational form only. As a result of the extreme passivity, the backwardness, and the tardiness of the leadership of the Comintern and of the Communist Party of Germany, the favourable moment for a call for the organization of soviets was missed; under pressure from below, the factory Committees occupied in the labour movement of Germany, by the autumn of 1923, the place which, provided the Communist Party had followed a correct and daring policy, would no doubt have been occupied much more successfully by soviets.
The acuteness of the situation had in the meantime reached its highest degree. To lose further time would mean definitely to miss a revolutionary situation. The uprising was finally put on the agenda with very little time left. To advance the slogan of soviets under such conditions would have been the greatest doctrinaire stupidity conceivable. The soviet is not a talisman which has within itself the power of saving everything. In a situation such as had then developed, the creation of soviets in a hurry would only have duplicated the factory committees. It would have become necessary to deprive the latter of their revolutionary functions and to pass these over to the newly created soviets which enjoyed no authority as yet. And at what time? Under conditions when each day counted. This would have meant to substitute for revolutionary action a most injurious game of playing with trifles in the field of organization.
That the soviet organizational form can be of gigantic importance is irrefutable, provided, however, that it reflects a correct political line at the proper time. It can, on the other hand, be of no less negative importance if it is converted into a fiction, a talisman, an empty shell. German soviets, created at the very last moment in the autumn of 1923, would have added nothing politically, they would only have caused organizational confusion. What happened in Canton was even worse. The soviet which was created in a hurry, only so as to observe the ritual, was merely a camouflage for an adventurist putsch. That is why we found out, after it was all over, that the Canton Soviet was just one of those old Chinese dragons – it was simply drawn on paper. The policy of marionettes and paper dragons is not our policy. We were against improvising soviets by telegraph in Germany in September 1923. We were for the creation of soviets in China in 1926. We were against carnival soviets in Canton in December 1927. There are no contradictions there. On the contrary, we see in it a deep integral understanding of the dynamics of the revolutionary movement and of its organizational forms.
The question of the role and the significance of the soviets, which has been distorted, confused and obscured by the theory and practice of recent years, has not been illuminated in the least in the draft program.


1. Stenographic report, p.205.
2. On Revolution, Vol.18, Part 2, p.119.
3. ibid., p.118.
4. Letters on Tactics, Vol.XIV, Part 1, p.29.