Saturday, February 15, 2020

I Accuse-Unmasking The Sherlock Holmes Legend, Part IV-“Bumbling Across The Pond”-Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce’s “Sherlock Holmes In Washington” (1943)-A Film Review

I Accuse-Unmasking The Sherlock Holmes Legend, Part IV-“Bumbling Across The Pond”-Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce’s “Sherlock Holmes In Washington” (1943)-A Film Review

DVD Review

By Danny Moriarty

(Frankly in this my fourth debunking of the so-called legend of punk amateur detective Sherlock Holmes and his paramour, yes, paramour more on that below the bumbler-in-chief Doctor “Doc” Watson Sherlock Holmes In Washington  I am tired, tired beyond endurance, of having to once again tell a candid world that Danny Moriarty is not my real name, is instead my moniker to protect me against some very real threats from a bunch of dope-addled Holmes aficionados, no, worse cultists known far and wide as the Baker Street Irregulars. Known to the police, to the see no evil hear no evil London peelers, the Bobby Peel guys so named after the guy who put together the first real police force in London but which has gone way downhill since then who have ignored my pleas for protection, have dismissed the threats against me as child’s play, kid’s stuff. What passes for the law, the coppers have gone back to their tea and crumpets as usual routine while half of the toddling town gets ransacked by these Baker Street hooligans who have sworn vengeance unto the seventh generation against me and my progeny for exposing their boyfriend hero for the fake snoop that he is, was.

I stand here again today despite my need to hide my identity, my whereabouts, my voice and features and having had to send my family into private hands hiding stating I will not wilt like some silly schoolgirl under the blare of their evil deeds. This motley of criminals, junkies, and cutthroats is being protected by high society personages. The peerage I think they call it in Mother England, you know the House of Lords holy goofs with the cheapjack woolen wigs sliding all over the place and made in Bangladesh sweated labor textile factory robes who spend endless hours talking about the good old days when everything was simpler, the mob knew its place or it better had under Charles I, monarchs like that. 

These Irregulars in case I don’t survive the onslaught to number twelve in this series of films, a series which has done more to create an “alternate facts” Holmes world than anything any dastardly British monarch could ever do to keep the masses at bay I am told have very stylized rituals involving exotic illegal drugs and human blood. Are the bane of the London Bobbies and maybe not so strangely corruption-infested Scotland Yard has not lifted a finger in the matter. Moreover these Irregular cretins have been connected with the disappearance of many people, high born and low, who have questioned the Sherlock myth, and not a few unsolved murders of people who have washed up on the Thames over the years. I know I am on borrowed time, I am a “dead man walking” but maybe someone will pick up the cudgels if I have to lay down my head for the cause.  

I don’t want to frighten the audience, the reader but this need for an alias, for cover, is no joke since that first review and the subsequent second and third ones I have been threatened, threatened with I won’t death, death threats, but some nasty actions edging up in that direction which necessitate my keeping very close tabs on my security apparatus as I attempt to deflate this miserable excuse for a detective, a parlor detective at that who even Agatha Christie dismissed out of hand as a rank amateur. From my sources, serious sources under the circumstances, of ex-Irregulars who have left the organization as its attacks have become more bizarre and its blood rituals more gruesome including allegations of human sacrifice I have been told I am on their “watch list.” 

I know and can prove that I have been the subject of cyber-bullying without end including a campaign to discredit me by calling me Raymond Chandler’s “poodle” and Dashiell Hammett’s “toadie” for mentioning the undisputable fact that these hard- knock, hard-working professionals like Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe were as likely to grab some wayward young woman as kick ass on some bad guys and still have time for lunch. Sherlock was much to dainty for that kind of heading to the danger work. I am willing to show an impartial commission my accusations with documents and affidavits. Believe me it is getting worse and once I get a grip on who is who in that nefarious organization I will be taking names and numbers.  These twelve films have been nothing but propaganda vehicles for the Holmes legend so I have plenty more work cut out for me. Until done I will not be stopped by hoodlums, your lordships and ladyships, and blood-splattered junkies. D.M.)
Sherlock Holmes Goes To Washington, starring Basil Rathbone (I have mentioned previously my doubts that this was his real name since unlike myself he had never been transparent enough to say that he had been using an alias. I have since uncovered information that I was right and that his real name is Lytton Strachey a known felon who spent a few years in Dartmoor Prison on weapons and drug trafficking charges. It turns out that I was either in error or the victim of a cyber-attack since then it has come out that his real name is not Strachey but Lanny Lament, who worked the wharfs and water-side dive taverns where the rough trade mentioned by Jean Genet in his classic rough trade expose Our Lady of the Flowers did hard-edged tricks), Nigel Bruce (a name which upon further investigation has been confirmed as a British National named “Doc” Watson who also did time at Dartmoor for not having a medical license and peddling dope to minors in the 1930s and 1940s where I had assumed they had met up. Again a cyber-attack error they had met at the Whip and Chain tavern at dockside Thames while Lanny was doing his business on the sailor boys), 1943 
As I have mentioned previously and nothing recently has changed my view we live in an age of debunking. An age perhaps borne aloft by cynicism, hubris, sarcasm and above all “fake news,” not the fake news denying some reality that you hear so much about these days, but by the elaborate strategy of public relations cranks and flacks who will put out any swill as long as they are paid and not a minute longer. That phenomenon hardly started today but has a long pedigree, a pedigree which has included the target of today’s debunking one James Sherlock Holmes, aka Lytton Strachey, aka Lanny Lamont out of London, out of the Baker Street section of that town. From the cutesy “elementary my dear Watson” to that condescending attitude toward everybody he encounters, friend or foe, including the hapless Doctor “Doc” Watson, aka Nigel Bruce, an inmate at notorious Dartmoor Prison in the early 1930s this guy Holmes, or whatever his real name is nothing but a pure creation of the public relations industrial complex, the PRIC. As I have noted above I have paid the price for exposing this chameleon, this so-called master detective, this dead end junkie, with a barrage of hate mail and threats from his insidious devotees. I have been cyber-bullied up to my eyeballs but the truth will out.

Maybe I better refresh for those who may not have read the first three reviews, may be shocked to find their paragon of a private detective has feet of clay, and an addiction problem no twelve step program could curtail in a million years. Here are some excerpts of what I said in that first review which I stand by this day no matter the consequences:      

“Today is the day. Today is the day I have been waiting for since I was a kid. Today we tear off the veneer, tear off the mask of the reputation of one Sherlock Holmes as a master detective. Funny how things happen. Greg Green assigned me this film out of the blue, at random he said when I asked him. However this assignment after viewing this film, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (of course he doesn’t face, hadn’t been anywhere near any danger that would put death in his way but that can wait until I finish out defanging the legend) set off many bells, many memories of my childhood when I first instinctively discovered this guy was a fraud, a con artist.

Back then my grandparents and parents hushed me up about the matter when I told them what I thought of the mighty Sherlock. They went nutty and told me never to speak of it again when I mentioned that a hard-boiled real private detective, a guy who did this kind of work for a living, a guy named Sam Spade who worked out in San Francisco and solved, really solved, the case of the missing black bird which people in the profession still talk about, which is still taught in those correspondence course private detection in ten easy lesson things you used to see advertised on matchbook covers when smoking cigarettes was okay, who could run circles around a parlor so-called detective like Mr. Holmes. 

[Even Sam Spade has come in for some debunking of late right here in this space as Phil Larkin and Kenny Jacobs have gone round and round about how little Spade deserved his “rep,” his classic rep for a guy who was picked by some bimbo out of the phone book and who couldn’t even keep his partner alive against that same femme he was skirt-addled over. Kept digging that low-shelf whiskey bottle in the bottom desk drawer out too much when the deal went down. The only guy who is safe is Phillip Marlowe since nobody can call him a “one solved murder wonder” after the string of cold as ice, maybe colder, cases he wrapped up with a bow over the years. They still talk about the Sherwood case out on the Coast even today where he rapped the knuckles of a big time gangster like Eddie Mars, and his goons, to help an old man going to the great beyond no believing that he had raised a couple of monster daughters without working up a serious sweat. Talked in hushed tones too. You notice nobody has tried to go after him, not even close. D.M.]            

That was then. Now after some serious research as a result of this film’s impact on my memory I have proof to back up my childhood smothered assertions. Sherlock Holmes (if that is his name which is doubtful since I went to the London telephone directories going back the first ones in the late 1800s and found no such name on Baker Street-ever) was nothing but a stone-cold junkie, cocaine, morphine, landudum and other exotic concoctions which is the reason that he had a doctor at his side at all times in case he needed “scripts” written up. A doctor who a guy like Sam Spade would have sat on his ass a long time before as so much dead weight.

That junkie business would not amount to much if it did not mean that high and mighty Sherlock didn’t have to run his own gang of pimps, hookers, con men, fellow junkies, drag queens, rough trade sailors and the flotsam and jetsam of London, high society and low, to keep him in dough for that nasty set of habits that kept him high as a kite. There are sworn statements (suppressed at the time) by the few felons whom the Bobbies were able to pick up that Sherlock was the guy behind half the burglaries, heists and kidnappings in London. And you wonder why the Baker Street Irregulars want to silence me, show me the silence of the grave….

Of course the Bobbies, looking to wrap up a few cold file cases which Sherlock handed them to keep them off the trail, looked the other way and/or took the graft so who really knows how extensive the whole operation was. In a great sleight of hand he gave them Doctor Moriarty who as it turned out dear Sherlock had framed when one wave of police heat was on and who only got out of prison after Holmes died and one of Holmes’ flunkies told the real story about how Holmes needed a “fall guy” and the wily Doctor took the fall.”             
Apparently this Sherlock madness knows no borders, could not be contained with the four walls of the British Isles, hell, even the bloody cockeyed Empire since the film under review Lanny Lamont, no, Sherlock Holmes In Washington has him crossing the pond to the “colonies” like this was 1774 or something to solve a little espionage problem the British government has. Seems that one of their agents got waylaid by an ambiguous “international spy ring” (remember this is 1943 so I hope you can guess what nation that so-called spy ring might emanate from) when they were looking for a secret cache he was carrying. Enter Sherlock. Stop. This agent, this guy who got his clock rung and sent to the great beyond was an MI5 agent, you know a Bond, James Bond, and Le Carre’s George Smiley-type  operation. No way was any secret agency, much less M of MI5 was going to let an ex-felon, a rough trade mauler, a mommy’s boy, handle that kind of work. Kim Philby would have that secret cache out of the hands of that international cartel and to his handler in Moscow before nightfall if anybody let Sherlock anywhere near this action.      

But let’s allow the so-called master deductive reasoning detective have his minute just for kicks although I will never tire of letting everybody know that Sherlock made his name after he beat down some poor mistreated dog who should have been reported as abused to whatever they call the humane animal treatment society in merry old England. Also that he worked overtime to keep his name in the public prints through his friendship with the editor of the London Times despite the fact that he had no gainful employment, no source of income except whatever his thug cronies delivered to him from their various escapades and that he had the goods on that editor as they used to say since he was “light on his feet,’’ gay.

It is hard to believe that Holmes and his lapdog pill-pusher Watson would be let out of the country, let out of jail, unless they had protectors in high places but that is the case here.
Once on the ground in D.C. after the usual tourist run through the National Mall he is on the case (and never forget that net drag Watson who made the number one mistake of a trafficker-don’t taste the merchandise while providing Sherlock his high-end dope so was always looking for some fixer man on dark street corners once his hidden stash ran out after about a day in D.C.). Blows it from the beginning since this secret document is on microfilm hidden in a package of matches. In an unbelievable comedy of errors the matches wind up in the possession of a young Washington debutante and she is therefore the hunted partridge before getting into the hands of that nefarious German agent who did not know what he had right in front of him. The head of that international spy ring, Heinrich Hinkel not hard to figure who he is working for in 1943 Europe, has the young woman kidnapped. Holmes finds out where she was being held and got waylaid himself before the mumbling Watson showed up with ten thousand coppers, not peelers that is London, and after some gunplay Sherlock and the young dame are freed. The Hitlerite escaped with matchbook in hand but Sherlock caught up to him and forced him into a couple of unforced errors which let the police grab him. Sherlock grabbed the matchbook and that was that. Kim Philby came by and the whole secret document was in Uncle Joe Stalin’s hands before midnight. Nice work Kim.

[This is probably as good a place as any to discuss the elephant in the room. The whole sexual preference business that was always until the last couple of decades only inferred on film, in books, in society, if at all. I wouldn’t have though much about the matter, about the “sin that dare not speak its name,” you know, sodomy, about catamites if I hadn’t noticed in the film above that when Sherlock and the Partridge twist were being held by Hinkel he never even looked at her and she was a dish to look at. That started bells ringing my head that there was a reason, a real reason why Sherlock couldn’t shot straight, had no lady-friend like Spade and Marlowe who would eaten her up in a minute, and had stuck it out through thick and thin with giddy, bubbly Doc Watson. Yes, a Nancy, a mommy’s boy, a fag to use the old time neighborhood term from my growing days in, no I had better not say where which might give aid and comfort to the thugs at Baker Street explains a lot of things about the dope, the tell-tale scorn of women and why he and Doc were an item, in the closet.

Nowadays, recently, the whole sexual preference would not even be a subject for discussion except for what I have heard from an ex-Irregular who broke hard with the organization who told me that there was a big division in the club between those who wanted to “out” Sherlock and claim him from the mythical Homintern and those who wanted to not attract attention to their various nefarious activities and crimes by such a scheme. Back then though when Sherlock was roaming the world pissing off that candid world with his fake fortune-teller madness the example of poor Oscar Wilde and his catamite and as recently as the Durning case in the 1950s it was not safe, was criminal to “come out.”

Of course the English public schools, our private schools, were hotbeds of gay activity so it no wonder an odd-ball like Holmes got flighty and never looked back. Here is the problem everybody knows that no way a gay guy, a gay couple if you included Watson could then juggle dealing with hardened criminals the coppers couldn’t cope with and survive if it were known they were lovers, even platonic lovers. The pair would be in Reading Gaol themselves. Just remember what they did to Wilde and Durning. The next few films should put paid to that notion of mine that Sherlock was nothing more than a parlor plotter.]        

Like I said the last three times, a fake, fake all the way. Unless that Irregular crowd of thugs and blood-stained aficionados get to me, find my hideout, this is not the last you will hear about this campaign of mine to dethrone this pompous junked-up imposter. I am just getting into high gear now.      

*Poets' Corner- Langston Hughes' John Brown Tribute- "October 16"

*Poets' Corner- Langston Hughes' John Brown Tribute- "October 16"

Click on the title to link to an article about the relationship between Langston Hughes' forbears and Captain John Brown, late of Kansas on the anniversary of the Harpers Ferry raid.

October 16-Langston Hughes

You will remember
John Brown.

John Brown
Who took his gun,
Took twenty-one companions
White and black,
Went to shoot your way to freedom
Where two rivers meet
And the hills of the
And the hills of the
Look slow at one another-
And died
For your sake.

Now that you are
Many years free,
And the echo of the Civil War
Has passed away,
And Brown himself
Has long been tried at law,
Hanged by the neck,
And buried in the ground-
Since Harpers Ferry
Is alive with ghost today,
Immortal raiders
Come again to town-

You will recall
John Brown.

Poets' Corner- Langston Hughes- “Freedom’s Plow”

Poets' Corner- Langston Hughes- “Freedom’s Plow”

… he, call him Chester Moore, to give him a name, although in the end he was nameless, or maybe too many names to name and so stick with Chester, Chester of the thousand dreams, Chester of the ten generations in the Mississippi night, the Mississippi goddam night, if that helps. Chester now several generations removed from Mister’s slavery, now a couple of generations removed from the plow, having opened up a nice little radio and television repair shop (mostly radios) just outside of Hattiesburg, that damn plow and forget all that talk about freedom’s plow, forget all that “talented tenth”talk about hands joined together, white, black, indentured, adventurous, pushing that plow, that plow that kept his daddy and his daddy before him still under Mister’s thumb and Mister’s strange book of etiquette, his Mister James Crow (or call it Miss Jane Crow for his womenfolk were as obsessed and thrilled as old Mister with the forms of the, ah, etiquette and the great black fear-the great miscegenation –damn race-mixing ). Chester all citified now, all book-learned, a little anyway, a little more worldly than daddy and granddaddy who never, ever left the delta for one day, after having done his American, hah, duty to fight off old white bread Hitler in all the crevices of countrified Europe. Chester a little less enamored of Mister Thomas Jefferson and Mister George Washington than daddy or granddaddy (although still enthrall to Father Abraham, and that silky smooth mad monk John Brown) and ready, black hands and all, and only black hands if that is what it took to fire old Mister James Crow (or maybe ravage Miss Jane Crow, if that was what it took) to seize the moment (long before Bobby called his tune- seize the time) and to break out of that fetid Mississippi muck, that cold steel Alabama, and maybe shave that peach fuzz off old stinking gentile new south Georgia.

So Chester gathered Booker, all greasy hands and dank uniform, from the auto shop, gathered Uncle Bill, grizzled by too much processed beef, from the barbecue stand, gathered Edward, head and back bent from ancient seedings, from his hard-scrabble low-down no account dirt share-crop, gathered Robert, full of book knowledge on the sly, from his janitorial duties over at the court house , hell, even gathered Reverend Sims, fat with Miss this or Miss that’s home cooking, from his Lord’s Worship Baptist Church sanctuary from the world, gathered Miss Betsy, an old time love before she took up with Johnny Grey while he was overseas, from her Madame Walker beauty salon (a very strategic move as it turned out since Miss Betsy knew everybody, everybody that Chester needed to turn that silly freedom plow talk into kick ass freedom talk ), gathered Miss Millie from her maidly duties at Mister John Connor’s house, and even gathered (although not without controversy, not by a long shot, mostly from Reverend Sims) Miss Emily Jones, habitué (see he learned something in Uncle Sam’s Army) of Jimmy Jack’s juke joint, hell, just call her good time girl, okay. All others, reverends, bootleggers, juke joint owners, northern liberals, white and black, shoe-shine boys, newspaper shouters, streetwalkers (yes, those streetwalkers), bus-riders (front or back), walkers of indeterminate reason (along Highway 61 dusty roads ready to make an arrangement with the devil if need be), Johnny-come-lately boys (brave too, despite the late hour, brave after the first jail night, the first blooded street fight) , children, high school be-boppers, you name it fill in the rear, because daddy and granddaddy Mister Whitey’s judgment day is here, here and now.
Freedom’s Plow
When a man starts out with nothing,
When a man starts out with his hands
Empty, but clean,
When a man starts to build a world,
He starts first with himself
And the faith that is in his heart-
The strength there,
The will there to build.

First in the heart is the dream-
Then the mind starts seeking a way.
His eyes look out on the world,
On the great wooded world,
On the rich soil of the world,
On the rivers of the world.

The eyes see there materials for building,
See the difficulties, too, and the obstacles.
The mind seeks a way to overcome these obstacles.
The hand seeks tools to cut the wood,
To till the soil, and harness the power of the waters.
Then the hand seeks other hands to help,
A community of hands to help-
Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone,
But a community dream.
Not my dream alone, but our dream.
Not my world alone,
But your world and my world,
Belonging to all the hands who build.

A long time ago, but not too long ago,
Ships came from across the sea
Bringing the Pilgrims and prayer-makers,
Adventurers and booty seekers,
Free men and indentured servants,
Slave men and slave masters, all new-
To a new world, America!

With billowing sails the galleons came
Bringing men and dreams, women and dreams.
In little bands together,
Heart reaching out to heart,
Hand reaching out to hand,
They began to build our land.
Some were free hands
Seeking a greater freedom,
Some were indentured hands
Hoping to find their freedom,
Some were slave hands
Guarding in their hearts the seed of freedom,
But the word was there always:

Down into the earth went the plow
In the free hands and the slave hands,
In indentured hands and adventurous hands,
Turning the rich soil went the plow in many hands
That planted and harvested the food that fed
And the cotton that clothed America.
Clang against the trees went the ax into many hands
That hewed and shaped the rooftops of America.
Splash into the rivers and the seas went the boat-hulls
That moved and transported America.
Crack went the whips that drove the horses
Across the plains of America.
Free hands and slave hands,
Indentured hands, adventurous hands,
White hands and black hands
Held the plow handles,
Ax handles, hammer handles,
Launched the boats and whipped the horses
That fed and housed and moved America.
Thus together through labor,
All these hands made America.

Labor! Out of labor came villages
And the towns that grew cities.
Labor! Out of labor came the rowboats
And the sailboats and the steamboats,
Came the wagons, and the coaches,
Covered wagons, stage coaches,
Out of labor came the factories,
Came the foundries, came the railroads.
Came the marts and markets, shops and stores,
Came the mighty products moulded, manufactured,
Sold in shops, piled in warehouses,
Shipped the wide world over:
Out of labor-white hands and black hands-
Came the dream, the strength, the will,
And the way to build America.
Now it is Me here, and You there.
Now it’s Manhattan, Chicago,
Seattle, New Orleans,
Boston and El Paso-
Now it’s the U.S.A.

A long time ago, but not too long ago, a man said:
His name was Jefferson. There were slaves then,
But in their hearts the slaves believed him, too,
And silently too for granted
That what he said was also meant for them.
It was a long time ago,
But not so long ago at that, Lincoln said:
There were slaves then, too,
But in their hearts the slaves knew
What he said must be meant for every human being-
Else it had no meaning for anyone.
Then a man said:
He was a colored man who had been a slave
But had run away to freedom.
And the slaves knew
What Frederick Douglass said was true.

With John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, Negroes died.
John Brown was hung.
Before the Civil War, days were dark,
And nobody knew for sure
When freedom would triumph
"Or if it would," thought some.
But others new it had to triumph.
In those dark days of slavery,
Guarding in their hearts the seed of freedom,
The slaves made up a song:
Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
That song meant just what it said: Hold On!
Freedom will come!
Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
Out of war it came, bloody and terrible!
But it came!
Some there were, as always,
Who doubted that the war would end right,
That the slaves would be free,
Or that the union would stand,
But now we know how it all came out.
Out of the darkest days for people and a nation,
We know now how it came out.
There was light when the battle clouds rolled away.
There was a great wooded land,
And men united as a nation.

America is a dream.
The poet says it was promises.
The people say it is promises-that will come true.
The people do not always say things out loud,
Nor write them down on paper.
The people often hold
Great thoughts in their deepest hearts
And sometimes only blunderingly express them,
Haltingly and stumblingly say them,
And faultily put them into practice.
The people do not always understand each other.
But there is, somewhere there,
Always the trying to understand,
And the trying to say,
"You are a man. Together we are building our land."

Land created in common,
Dream nourished in common,
Keep your hand on the plow! Hold on!
If the house is not yet finished,
Don’t be discouraged, builder!
If the fight is not yet won,
Don’t be weary, soldier!
The plan and the pattern is here,
Woven from the beginning
Into the warp and woof of America:
Who said those things? Americans!
Who owns those words? America!
Who is America? You, me!
We are America!
To the enemy who would conquer us from without,
We say, NO!
To the enemy who would divide
And conquer us from within,
We say, NO!
To all the enemies of these great words:
We say, NO!

A long time ago,
An enslaved people heading toward freedom
Made up a song:
Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
The plow plowed a new furrow
Across the field of history.
Into that furrow the freedom seed was dropped.
From that seed a tree grew, is growing, will ever grow.
That tree is for everybody,
For all America, for all the world.
May its branches spread and shelter grow
Until all races and all peoples know its shade.

Langston Hughes

When The Thin Man Got Thinner-With “The Thin Man Goes Home” Film Adaptation Of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man In Mind

When The Thin Man Got Thinner-With “The Thin Man Goes Home” Film Adaptation Of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man In Mind   

By Film Critic Sam Lowell

[Take the following as something of a disclaimer since I have decided to embark of a look at several of the Thin Man films that came out in the 1940s. These days now that I am, well, let’s call the situation semi-retired from reviewing films I made no pretense to viewing film series like the famous 1940s The Thin Man film series under discussion here in chronological order. Now I go by happenstance. That happenstance got worked out this way on this series. I happened to see a DVD copy of Shadow Of The Thin Man highlighted at my local library for some reason. Since I have spent a fair amount of time recently reviewing black and white films I grabbed this one. I loved to watch such films in my younger days, my teenage days,  when I would go to the Majestic Theater box of popcorn in hand in Riverdale some distance from Boston where I would spent many Saturday afternoons watching double features. That is the genesis of this out of order series of reviews for which I take full responsibility. S.L.]     

Recently in a review of the fourth in the famous Myrna Loy-William Powell seemingly never-ending The Thin Man series, Shadow Of The Thin Man and again later commenting on the original film adaptationI mentioned that a long time ago, or it now seems a long time ago, I had a running argument with the late film critic Henry Dowd about the alleged decline in manly film detectives after the time of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe in the 1940s. By that Henry meant tough guy, no holds barred, non-filter cigarette smoking, Luckies or Camels, bottom of the desk drawer hard shell whiskey neat drinking, who didn’t mind taking or giving a punch, or taking or giving a  random slug for the cause detectives. He had based his opinion strictly on viewing the films of the famous detective couple Nick and Nora Charles.           

Henry Dowd believed that with the rise of The Thin Man series that previous characterization of a model detective, his previous characterization Henry was given to the imperative tone, switched from the hard whiskey drinking guy to a soft martini swigging suave guy with a soft manner and an aversion to taking risks, certainly to taking punches or slugs. Hell, in that film under review at the time not only had Nick been married to Nora but they had a kid, not to mention that damn dog Asta, a regular entourage to weigh a guy down. Back in the day what had surprised Henry in our public prints argument had been when I told him that the same guy, Dashiell Hammett, who had written the heroic tough guy detective Sam Spade had also written the dapper Nick and charming Nora characters. Henry did not believe me until I produced my tattered copy of Hammett’s The Thin Man which had started the whole film series. Thereafter he kept up the same argument except placing The Thin Man as an aberration probably do to Hammett’s known heavy drinking or that he was trying to soften his own Stalinist-etched persona with such an obvious bourgeois couple. Jesus.       

My objection to Henry’s “decline of the manly” detective theory back then had not been so much about the social manners or the social class of the couple in the series, a reversion to the parlor detective genre before Hammett and Chandler brought the genre out of the closet and onto the streets, as the thinness of the plots as they rolled out each new product. I continue to tout the original film in series The Thin Man as the one everybody should view and take in the rest if you have restless hour and one half or so to whittle away.  

I had held my viewing of Shadow up as a case in point. And the same is true of the film being reviewed here The Thin Man Goes Home. The story line is basically Nicks’ revenge for his doctor father’s disapproval of his choice of a career in law enforcement and private detection rather than the gentile medical profession. And his drinking-centered urban lifestyle as well. He and Nora travel to the quiet oasis from crime Podunk town where he had grown up for a vacation. Apparently in Podunk the mere appearance of a famous ex-private detective was enough to bring local society down with a bang. Make that bang-bang since a murder of a young factory worker cum artist is what drives Nick to beat everybody including the public coppers to the punch-to finding the murderer and the reason for his death and well as ultimately the death of his Apple Annie mother who was trying to protect him. The usual cast of characters show up with their own grab bag of motives to do the rotten deed.    

In the end the town, probably like a million other towns had its fair share of the jealous, of the crooked and those who craved hard cash. Without giving too much of the not too much to give away the struggle for the hard cash centered on grabbing plans for a new style propeller from the local defense factory and sell them to the highest bidder-meaning foreign interests. Naturally such unpatriotic behavior had to be stopped. And Nick proved his medal (Nora pretty much stood around and looked beautiful in his one) to his father who coughed up a “good work” comment at the end. So you can see even every ready Hollywood was running out of serious work for our fair couple to feast on.      

Enough said except that I also mentioned that if one had just one film in the series then you had to opt for the original one based far more closely on that tattered copy of Hammett’s crime novel. Those were the days when Nick, still besotted by Nora, but not knocked over by her could work up the energy to do more than mix martinis. (Or to revive the old Dowd argument before Hammett let the bottle get to him or while working under the umbrella of Popular Front days directed from red Moscow).    

Murder, Murder Most Foul-Maybe-Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy Of A Murder” (1959)-A Film Review

Murder, Murder Most Foul-Maybe-Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy Of A Murder” (1959)-A Film Review

DVD Review

By Film Critic Sam Lowell

Anatomy of a Murder, starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, directed by Otto Preminger, 1959

Having been in a few court rooms in my time (I won’t say in what capacity although not as a defendant) where the main motion is “hurry up and wait” it was rather refreshing to see a drama based on a real live case that despite knowing who had committed the crime, murder, murder one, murder most foul, held me in its grip for most of the long film, although the not courtroom scenes were mainly filler. That was the effect that the 1959 black and white film under review Anatomy of a Murder had on me and I am sure as well the audiences.

Here ‘s why. So-called good old boy country lawyer Paul Biegler, played by James Stewart, had been approached by the wife, Laura played by Lee Remick, of the alleged murderer Army Officer Fred Manion played by Ben Gazzara, to defend him in a UP Michigan court on the charge of murder. After some preliminaries Biegler decided to take the case figuring that there might be a basis of temporary insanity to get the soldier off. The reason for that possibility is that Fred had reacted in a frenzy when Laura had come home to their trailer late one night claiming that she had been raped by the owner of an inn in town, Bernard Quill, where she had gone alone after Fred had fallen asleep after supper. Fred, something of a known hothead and jealous of his wife’s good looks and flirty ways reacted to that charge by going to the inn and shooting Quill and asking questions later.

The legal play in this one was a rather unusual one-temporary insanity based on an “irresistible impulse,” a defense recognized under Michigan law but not used in a long time as a defense. Of course the prosecution in the inevitable “battle of shrinks” claimed that Fred was a cold calculated murderer whatever he might have felt about his wife’s rape charges. The long film goes back and forth between the clever Biegler and the equally clever Assistant AG Dancer played by George C. Scott, brought in from Lansing to bolster the county DA’s case. Frankly, and I can give a wide leeway for cinematic dramatic license since even the proceedings of a real life murder trial are rather pedestrian, the conduct of the prosecution would seem to warrant an appealable issue of prosecutorial misconduct and if Fred had been convicted he could have justly charged that Biegler had provided  ineffective assistance of counsel. Not to worry though our Paul got the soldier off although by all measures, except legal ones Fred was not one of nature’s noblemen-no way but that “irresistible impulse” defense worked. Worked too when Fred with Laura in tow took off when it came time to pay the lawyers. Although it is long and slow in places watch this one.                 

How The West Was Won-Again-The Film Adaptation Of Cormac McCarthy’s “All The Pretty Horses” (2000)-A Review

How The West Was Won-Again-The Film Adaptation Of Cormac McCarthy’s “All The Pretty Horses” (2000)-A Review

DVD Review

By Film Critic Sam Lowell

All The Pretty Horses, starring Matt Damon, Henry Thomas, Penelope Cruz, directed by Billy Bob Thornton, based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy   

Unlike another tale, a coming of age tale if you like, of the modern American West, of the Texas west,  The Last Picture Show, where I read the novel by Larry McMurtry first then the film I have seen the film under review the adaptation of Cormac Mc Carthy’s All The Pretty Horses without having read the novel. But after watching the film I will make it my business to read the novel which deals with a different aspect of the West, the cowboy West when ranch life goes south on its main characters and they are left to fend for themselves. A task which in true Western fashion has them groping to stay alive, although that was a close thing.   

John Grady Cole (hey that is the way he introduced himself to one and all), played by Matt Damon, was career-less, cowboy career-less after his grandfather died and his mother decided to sell the ranch leaving this young cowboy with horses in his blood with no place to go. No place but to go looking for work south of the Rio Grande, south of the border down  Mexico way with his longtime fellow cowboy Lacey played by Henry Thomas.     

Whatever adventure, whatever expectations they had about making a living as ranch hands down in Mexico were disturbed along the way when they met a vagabond Blevens who was strange to say the least.  Along the way Blevens loses his horse and then finds it again at a ranch. This brings in the factor of horse-stealing which will drive a lot of the action in the film, and which is as heinous a crime in modern day Mexico (and Texas too) as in the old days when horse thieves were strung up in an age when to take a man’s horse was to take away his livelihood, his means of travel and his manhood. Along the way because John Grady and Lacey are tarred with the same brush as Blevens they will see just what that meant. They were able to get work at a huge ranchero where John Grady got special recognition by the owner for his keen eye for horse flesh. Along the way as well they wind up because of Bleven’s actions in custody and eventually in the “you don’t want to go there” penitentiary after a corrupt Mexican cop wasted the unfortunate Blevens while John Grady and Lacey watched helplessly. They survive the prison ordeal somehow and Lacey decides to head home. John Grady decided he had some unfinished business and was staying to pursue that.       

That unfinished business was as to be expected getting his girlfriend to go back to Texas with him. This girlfriend Alejandra, played by fetching Penelope Cruz, a firebrand and well worth taking some grief for was unfortunately for John Grady the daughter of the ranchero owner and so they were fated to part, fated in part because the price of getting John Grady and Lacey out of that “you don’t want to go there” prison was that she would not see him again, certainly would not go away with him. That was that.

On his way back home across the border with his horse, Lacey’s and the late Bleven’s in tow as some sort of symbol of the experiences he had down south of the border he is stopped in Texas and essentially accused of that same horse-stealing charge. He got out of trouble  once he told his story to a judge and then meandered back to Lacey’s place with those three damn horses. Yeah, the modern West is a tough dollar for a cowboy loving man just like in the Old West. See this one for the pretty horses, pretty scenery and pretty Cruz.        

Friday, February 14, 2020

In Honor Of The 100th Anniversary Of The Founding of The Communist International-From The Archives- Iraq Redux In Afghanistan-The Missing Guns?


One of the nice things about these modern information technologies like word processors and data retrieval systems is that one can have easy access to his or her earlier work and therefore avoid starting from scratch on every commentary. That is the case with this comment. I have reposted an entry in this space from August 11, 2007. It concerns the question of missing weapons and their fate in that old, almost forgotten, Iraq war posed by the General Accounting Office (GAO) at that time. Recently I picked up a news item from “The Boston Globe” (via “Baltimore Sun”), dated February 13, 2009, concerning this same question posed by this same agency. Except the question is directed to missing guns in Afghanistan in the lead up to the Obama policy that is set to escalate the war there with an increased American troop presence. So, as I said previously, in the interest of “saving” cyberspace I have reposted the old comment. Just put in Afghanistan where I have Iraq and you’ll get the gist of the recent story. As to the numbers, well, the Afghanistan numbers are about 90,000 but who’s worried about the real numbers? Not the GAO, and not Obama. Read on.

August 11, 2007

“Where Did Those AK-47’s Go?

Apparently the American military juggernaut is arming both sides in the Iraqi conflict. What? Well, news has recently come out from the General Accounting Office (GAO) that something like 200, 000 AK-47 assault rifles- the most popular (and useful) weapon in the world for the common soldier- are missing along with plenty of other war material. Now a few thousand rifles mislaid in a war is just ‘breakage’ as they say in the shipping business. 200, 000 missing rifles (enough for several divisions in conventional military terms) that are suppose to be in the hands of the Iraqi security forces , however, is quite another matter. The Pollyanna-ish GAO is worried that such quantities might fall into the wrong hands, that is, the various insurgency groups operating in Iraq. Hello! One can be damn well sure that one way or another, through the black market, stealing or by being given them by those selfsame Iraqi security forces that a significant number have found, or will find, their way into insurgent hands. If we needed one more reason to call for immediate withdrawal from Iraq here it is, in living color.”

Needless to say, Immediate Unconditional Withdrawal Of All U.S./Allied Troops From Iraq AND Afghanistan!

Thursday, February 13, 2020

One More Johnny Rocco, Hell, One More Pete Morgan, More Or Less Isn’t Worth Dying Over-With Edward G. Robinson’s “The Red House” (1947) In Mind-A Meta-Film Review

One More Johnny Rocco, Hell, One More Pete Morgan, More Or Less Isn’t Worth Dying Over-With Edward G. Robinson’s “The Red House” (1947) In Mind-A Meta-Film Review  

By Bartlett Webber 

The Red House, starring Johnny Rocco, oops, ugly Edward G. Robinson, hot Julie London, and pretty boy Rory Calhoun, 1947

Nobody in all of Albany County cried one single tear when they heard that local farmer Pete Morgan had cashed his check, had gone down in the mud over his own hubris. And rightly so since nobody should cry any kind of tears even those crocodile ones over a guy who turned out to be a serial killer and many other things that will get an airing below. Naturally the story line on this guy cried out for a cinematic treatment and the film under review starring ugly as sin Edward G. Robinson The Red House was the result.

Before I say another word though let me say right now that Edward G Robinson, the famed 1930s gangster hero to millions of young kids, guys mostly, who knocked over more banks and armored trucks than you could believe possible was totally miscast as the early version of American psycho. As a holy goof as my friend Seth Garth who got the term from Jack Kerouac whom he met down in Miami in the late 1960s before his early death when Jack was living with his mother down there and drinking himself into a stupor trying to relieve that writers’ block he had keeping him recycling the same basic story line he had been using since his post-breakthrough Big Sur caused a stir about a decade before. Back to Edward G as a local yokel kill-crazy farmer in upstate New York though required a huge extension of the theory of the suspension of disbelief most films require. This was a long way from his role as the legendary gangster Johnny Rocco who caused one ex-soldier who had seen it all in the European Theater during World War II to throw up his hands and declare that the world would still survive with one more Johnny Rocco or one less.    

Yeah Johnny was a hard case, was made of hard stuff from the tough Division Streets of Chicago. Had worked his way up what Sam Lowell always and correctly has called the criminal enterprise food chain until he got to the top, no quarter give and no questions asked. Then the government lowered the boom on him, deported him since he was an illegal immigrant and that was the end of it. Wait a minute Johnny Rocco did rise to the top letting governments push him around anymore rival mobsters. Hell no, not Johnny Rocco, no way was he going to let some punk government crimp his style, so he blew the gaskets in Cuba basking in sunny Havana with guys like Meyer Lansky and Jimmy Rizzo doing his go-fer work back in the States. But in the end he was itching  to get stateside and make his big comeback. That is where that ex-soldier an average Joe named David made his remarks about why should he give a damn one way or another about the Johnny Roccos of the world. That would not stop a guy like David under certain conditions from taking a big swipe at Johnny and his fleet of gunsels when Johnny blew into Key Largo to make a deal that would start him back to being king of the hill on dry land.      

The condition that would move David, move that unmoored soldier-boy, messing with his woman, some good-looking frill named Laura, Lauren something like that after Johnny tried to mar her up after she slapped the bastard silly one night when he, Johnny, tried to get her under the silky sheets. A guy like Johnny though is hard on women, runs through then like water, had brought some old boozer torch-singer with him for company but ditched her in about two seconds flat when he eyed the young Laura. Laura though had some big brown eyes for this David despite his sour stance on Johnny and his fate. Not to worry a guy like Johnny will always want more and when Laura would not give him a tumble he balked, got nasty and that is when soldier boy got rum brave enough to take Johnny and his ungainly entourage on. Result; the last time we saw Johnny he was holding up the floorboard on a fishing boat heading back to sunny Havana having underestimated David’s valor when his hackles were up.

You can see now that Eddy G. was totally miscast as some country bumpkin farmer whose demented demeanor would haunt many a country girl, and did. Eddy was Johnny Rocco no question but this silly holy goof American country psycho gave the community, the profession, gave guys like Norman Bates a bad name. Pete probably is prime example number one why urbanization, getting people the hell off the isolated farms, was a historically beneficial trend. You know the story if you are a certain age, it was in all the newspapers back in the 1940s or maybe I should run it by you and you figure it out.    

Pete, variously called Peg-Leg Pete, Crippled-up Pete since he had a wooden leg as a result of some serious accident related to what happened to the poor bugger in the days when it was okay to say Peg-Leg and cripple and not disabled (or maybe now it is not okay to even say disabled letting able-ists flaunt their good fortune). Pete used to laugh about it said it gave him a certain cache until his ward, Meg, more on her in a minute, broke her leg and old Doc Barnes, an average country doctor, said it was okay for Pete to be a peg-leg but a girl, a woman needed two well-formed legs working to do whatever girls, women with well-formed legs do. (I asked Laura Perkins, the resident well-formed legs woman around her although Leslie Dumont and maybe even young Sarah Le Moyne might give her a run for her money if that needing both legs in good working order was true and she affirmed what old Doc Barnes said.).         
This Meg, a good-looking if coyly shy high school student was the ward, I guess he and his sister Ellen actually adopted here, of the Morgan household. The story was that Meg’s parents, a woman named Jenny and her husband Herb, had left Meg with Pete and Ellen to go start a farm down in the southern part of New York and had been killed in some undefined accident. Baloney, pure bull. That was Pete’s first action, the first step in what would become the Albany County Pete psycho legend. (I also asked Laura who grew up in upstate New York whether she had heard of the legend. When I asked she froze, froze solid saying that she remembered that her own parents refused to let her go into the woods that adjoined their farm for fear that some copycat killer was on the loose after Pete went down in the mud.)

Pete had been sweet on this Jenny, had wanted to marry her, offered her the steady life of a successful farmer, but she would not shake the deadbeat Herb. So Pete, in a rage, smothered her, he said by accident and if it had been a sole event well maybe but no that was a lot of crap. Killed Herb too and put their bodies down the old mill, the red house mill, okay. Ellen, in on the killings as an after the fact accomplice covered Pete’s ass for years. This Ellen seemed according to Laura whose own religious upbringing was basically Brethren of the Common Life, Anabaptists, from the Second Great Awakening that burned over upstate New York in the early 1800s to be Primitive Baptist meaning she believed that all was forgiven come End Times, everybody was saved so Pete had not really sinned, sinned against God anyway and that justified whatever actions she took for she would be saved too. (Laura said the Primitives had a pecking order even though everybody would be saved come judgment day with the righteous saved a couple of minutes ahead of guys like Pete. Laura’s own upbringing was that nobody was saved who had not done anything but pray their asses off al their lives.)       

This is where things get confusing, not for Pete but for Meg. There was a real question about whether Pete or that Herb was Meg’s real father it could have gone either way, but my take was that Pete was firing blanks which caused his rages and his longtime reign of terror. When Pete, peg-leg slowing him down as he aged, hired a young guy Ned who was a classmate of Meg’s things started going awry. This Ned, not a wise guy but kind of a chump around women, girls, had a girlfriend named Julie, a looker, but somebody who was leading him around by the nose (and fooling around with every guy who made a pass at her which was every guy). Meg wanted to be the one leading him by that nose. That idea, the mere idea of it drove Pete crazy since, well we might as well face it although the word never showed up in the film, had incestuous feelings for young Meg, started seeing in her that thwarted love of Jenny and her whorish ways. Pete hired this young guy, this high school dropout, Rory to harass Ned, to get him out of Meg’s system. This Rory was rumored to be Pete’s son but from the photographs that the DA’s office released after all was over he looked more like Herb’s son. Adding fuel to my contention that Pete, my man Peg-Leg was firing blanks.       

Pete went so crazy that he ordered this Rory who was hustling Ned’s girlfriend Julie right under Ned’s nose to shoot near Ned to scare him. Unfortunately, Rory wound up shooting and mortally wounding Ellen who was going to the Red House, don’t forget the red house with the red mill although this film was strictly black and white, to burn the damn thing down. With good reason. Everything was crowding in on Peg-Leg once Ned and then Meg started to realize what an American psycho Pete really was. Ellen was just trying to cover up the many murders over the years which Pete had committed when he got in a rage, got to thinking about why that damn Jenny didn’t take up with him and leave Herb. Strangely all the girls that Pete entrapped (and it got very weird because Ellen who kept a diary which later was made public was the one who would lure the girls to the woods, to that goddam red house) looked almost exactly like this Jenny, looked like Meg who looked like Jenny. Weird stuff but Pete did the county, hell, the state a favor by finally realizing that the gig was up, that he would never make Meg his wife or concubine and that the kill crazy bastard would not stop until somebody or something stopped him. He went down in the red barn mill without a whimper. Johnny Rocco would rather do a million years in stir than go down in that ooze Pete let himself fall down in and that ain’t no lie. That was the real Eddy G role.          

See why though nobody cried tear number one when old Peg-Leg cashed his check, caught the westbound freight.

In Honor of John Brown Late Of Harpers Ferry -1859

In Honor of John Brown Late Of Harpers Ferry -1859 

Workers Vanguard No. 1139

 September 2018

In Honor of John Brown
Part One

We print below the first part of a presentation, edited for publication, given by Spartacist League Central Committee member Don Alexander at a February 24 Black History Month forum in New York City.

I was just handed a piece of paper with a quote by James P. Cannon, founder of American Trotskyism, that I want to start with. It’s from his speech on the way to prison in 1943, when 18 Trotskyist and Minneapolis Teamsters union leaders were jailed for opposing imperialist World War II. Cannon said, “The grandest figure in the whole history of America was John Brown” (printed in Speeches for Socialism [1971]). Over the years, a number of comrades have paid tribute to John Brown in North Elba, New York, where he is buried, and have given talks on different aspects of the Civil War and Reconstruction. We raise the slogans “Finish the Civil War!” and “For black liberation through socialist revolution!” to express the historic tasks that fall to the revolutionary party. Acting as the tribune of the people, a revolutionary workers party will fight for the interests of all the oppressed—black people, Latinos, women, Asians, immigrants and others. It will lead the working class to carry out a third American revolution, a proletarian revolution, the only road to the full integration of black people into an egalitarian socialist society.

The existence of black chattel slavery in the United States had a peculiar character. “Chattel” means personal property; it meant to own people like cattle to trade or kill. Comrades and friends will recall that veteran Trotskyist Richard S. Fraser underscored in his writings some 60 years ago how the concept of race was central to the development of American capitalism. He outlined how the material basis of black oppression drew upon a precapitalist system of production. Slavery played an important role in the development of British industrial capitalism and U.S. capitalism. British textile owners received Southern cotton, which was shipped by powerful New York merchants. New York merchants used some of this money to send manufactured goods to the South. Although slavery and capitalism were intertwined, they were different economic systems. There is an excellent presentation by comrade Jacob Zorn called “Slavery and the Origins of American Capitalism” (printed in WV Nos. 942, 943 and 944, 11 and 25 September and 9 October 2009).

I will add that the conflation of slaves with skin color didn’t exist in ancient slavery. But with regard to the U.S., the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it well: “We are then a persecuted people not because we are colored, but simply because this color has for a series of years been coupled in the public mind with the degradation of slavery and servitude.” Black people constitute a race-color caste, with their color defining their so-called inferior status. In the majority, black people are forcibly segregated at the bottom of this racist, capitalist system, deemed pariahs and outcasts. Anti-black racism is ruthlessly promoted by the ruling class to keep the working class divided and to conceal the common class interests of working people against their exploiters.

Today, the filthy rich capitalists’ huge profits rest upon the backs of working people—black, immigrant and white. The rulers’ system of “checks and balances” has been and always will be that they get the checks while they balance their bone-crushing, anti-worker, anti-poor budgets on our backs! The multiracial working class, with a strategic black component, has the social power and the interest to champion the fight not only for black freedom, but of all the oppressed and to break the chains of wage slavery. Whether or not this is understood at the moment, the fight for black freedom is an inseparable part of the struggle for the emancipation of the entire working class from capitalist exploitation. The working class cannot take power without confronting and defeating centuries of black oppression. We say that those who labor must rule!

The Road to Harpers Ferry

In reflecting on John Brown, fellow abolitionist Harriet Tubman once said: We didn’t call him John Brown, we called him our “savior” because he died for our people. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, military veteran Robert F. Williams, who organized armed self-defense against the Klan and was driven out of the country on trumped-up kidnapping charges, carried around with him a copy of A Plea for Captain John Brown, an 1859 speech in defense of Brown by Henry David Thoreau. Malcolm X also praised John Brown.

The notion that John Brown was crazy, an insane mass murderer and a fanatic, is still peddled in bourgeois academia and cinema. The truth is that John Brown was a revolutionary who saw deeper than any other abolitionist that it would take a revolution, a bloody war to uproot slavery. John Brown did not dread that war. He did not deprecate it. He did not seek to avert it. And that is one reason why the bourgeoisie still looks at him with disdain and hatred.

Along with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, John Brown was part of the revolutionary wing of the abolitionist movement who saw the outlines of what was coming in the struggle to destroy chattel slavery. Abraham Lincoln was a good leader during the Civil War who, under pressure, did eventually make it an official war against slavery. John Brown’s final push against slavery had been to lead a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. For this, he and several of his followers were publicly executed by the State of Virginia in December 1859.

Summing up for the world his last thoughts before his hanging, John Brown hurled a bolt of lightning toward his captors and executioners, proclaiming that this land must be purged with blood—there needed to be revolution. He was almost 60 years old, which is quite amazing. How did John Brown become a revolutionary abolitionist dedicated to the destruction of slavery through force? From where did he think he would get the forces to accomplish his goals? What is the significance today of his struggle for black freedom?

John Brown was born in 1800. He was a generation removed from the first American Revolution which, while getting rid of British colonial oppression, left slavery intact and in most states gave suffrage only to propertied white males. He was deeply religious and raised by parents who hated slavery. His father Owen Brown, who had a significant influence on John, was a pacifist and a Calvinist as well as an active abolitionist, a stationmaster and conductor on the Underground Railroad. Fueled by Protestant beliefs, his family was tough and resourceful.

Owen subscribed to abolitionist papers like The Liberator, which John grew up reading. John Brown worked with his father on the Underground Railroad, gaining valuable experience for his future revolutionary activities. While herding cattle when he was 12 years old, John witnessed a young slave boy being pummeled mercilessly by a slaveholder with an iron shovel. This incident shook him to the core. John picked up on the fact that in contrast to the slave boy, he himself was treated very well by the slaveowner. This only infuriated John more. He knew that the slave boy was horribly oppressed and had nothing, not a mother and not a father. From that point on, John Brown declared eternal war on slavery.

Brown fervently believed in the “divine authenticity of the Bible.” His prayers were combined with a call to deliver the slaves from bondage. But he was not sitting back and waiting for his pie in the sky. As black historian Benjamin Quarles put it in Allies for Freedom: Blacks and John Brown (1974): “Prayer to Brown was a prelude to action, not a release from further involvement.” In his last days, he cursed hypocritical preachers and their offers of consolation, saying they should be praying for themselves.

John Brown and Abolitionism

I would like to briefly touch on the abolitionist movement. The U.S. abolitionist movement was part of the broader bourgeois radicalism in the 19th century, developing from radical elements of the Protestant Reformation and the 18th-century Enlightenment. It was also a product of the limitations of the first American Revolution, which continued the enslavement of half a million people. By John Brown’s time, the number of slaves had grown to four million.

In the beginning of his political awakening, John Brown admired the anti-slavery Quakers and also closely read The Liberator, which was put out by the most famous abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison of Boston. Some of the first abolitionists like Garrison had belonged to the American Colonization Society that formed in 1816. The Colonization Society was a racist alliance between abolitionists and slaveholders promoting the settlement of black Americans in Africa. The underlying purpose of the colonization scheme was to drive free blacks out of the country. Free blacks were viewed with suspicion that they might stir up slave rebellions. Black abolitionists, who saw the organization as anathema, bitterly and vigorously resisted colonization because it told black people that they should leave the land of their birth.

Starting in 1817, a series of black abolitionist conventions was organized in various cities in order to defeat this racist program, in what came to be known as the Negro Convention Movement. After attending the 1831 National Negro Convention, William Lloyd Garrison became radicalized and eventually sharply repudiated colonization. This gained him respect, admiration and support among abolitionists—especially black abolitionists.

There was considerable racism in the abolitionist movement. However, radical abolitionists had a wider vision for human emancipation. As we stated in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 5 (February 1988): “Although slavery was their preeminent concern, these radical bourgeois egalitarians also fought for many other pressing political issues of the time, such as free education, religious tolerance and workers’ rights.” The women’s suffrage movement first began as a fight within abolitionism over the role of women anti-slavery activists. Women’s rights leaders such as Angelina Grimké and her sister Sarah, who came from a slaveholding family, were staunch fighters for black freedom. They were clear on the connection between black and women’s oppression. Angelina said: “I want to be identified with the negro; until he gets his rights, we shall never have ours.” The radical egalitarianism embodied in this principled position also animated John Brown’s hatred of all oppression.

The beginning of the formation of white abolitionist organizations was the establishment of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. Formed in 1832, it was galvanized by Nat Turner’s slave revolt a year prior, which killed some 60 white people. The revolt was followed by the execution of Nat Turner and his followers, and the massacre of a considerable number of black people.

William Lloyd Garrison represented the “moral suasion” wing of the abolitionists. Garrison also thought that the North should secede from the South, which objectively meant leaving the slaves helpless and defenseless. Although he sincerely hated slavery and wanted to see it destroyed, he stood for passive resistance. He rejected political action and instead put forward a futile program to appeal to the conscience of slaveowners to liberate their slaves. Garrison’s slogan of “No Union with Slaveholders” placed the struggle against slavery on the level of particular evils of individual slaveholders.

Frederick Douglass, who started out as a Garrisonian, strenuously objected to this slogan, recognizing that behind it was a defeatist strategy. He counterposed an aggressive fight against slavery. He instead raised in its place the slogan, “No Union with Slaveholding.” This was not a word play, but a different program and outlook. Douglass understood that the slaveholding system had to be destroyed, mainly through political means.

John Brown followed the debates and struggles of the abolitionists closely, especially those of the militant black abolitionists such as the young minister Henry Highland Garnet and David Walker, who advocated that the slaves rise up against their hated oppressors. According to social historian Robert Allen in his book Reluctant Reformers (1975), David Walker “was a free black who operated a small business in Boston, and in his spare time acted as a local agent for Freedom’s Journal, a black anti-slavery newspaper.” Walker argued that a “God of justice and armies” would destroy the whole system. His pamphlet, the Appeal, called for the immediate abolition of slavery.

But Walker was contradictory. He combined a militant stance of resistance to slaveholders with a call for the masters to repent and to voluntarily relinquish the slave system. He had explicit instructions on what the slaves must do when they rose up for their freedom: “Make sure work—do not trifle, for they will not trifle with you—they want us for their slaves, and think nothing of murdering us in order to subject us to that wretched condition—therefore, if there is an attempt made by us, kill or be killed.” The Southern planters wanted him captured dead or alive and enacted state bans on anti-slavery literature. Reportedly, both Walker’s Appeal and Henry Highland Garnet’s address to the 1843 National Negro Convention appeared together in a pamphlet that John Brown paid to produce. Brown would incorporate the spirit of Walker’s Appeal in his attempt to win black people to his revolutionary plans.

Transforming into a Revolutionary

As I mentioned earlier, as a young man, John Brown was an Underground Railroad operator. The Underground Railroad was bringing to the fore the most conscious elements of anti-slavery black radicalism. The great significance of the Underground Railroad, an interracial network of activists who were willing to risk their lives, was not the number of slaves it freed—which was perhaps 1,000 slaves per year out of a population of four million slaves. Its importance in the long run was that it crystallized a black abolitionist vanguard in the North. As the historian W.E.B. DuBois wrote, it “more and more secured the cooperation of men like John Brown, and of others less radical but just as sympathetic.”

In pursuing his growing commitment to black freedom, at age 34, John Brown wrote a letter to his brother about his aspiration to establish a school for black people. He understood the revolutionary implications of this: “If the young blacks of our country could once become enlightened, it would most assuredly operate on slavery like firing powder confined in rock, and all the slaveholders know it well.”

In the 1830s and ’40s, John Brown moved around a lot to earn a living and support his family. He went to Springfield, Massachusetts, and became more familiar with the lives and struggles of black people. Brown moved to North Elba in upstate New York, where well-known and wealthy radical abolitionist Gerrit Smith had donated land to be used by black people for farming. Brown forged ties with Smith as well as with radical black New York abolitionists like James McCune Smith and the Gloucester family of Brooklyn. He had many unsuccessful business pursuits, as a tanner, a land surveyor, a wool merchant. His travels while doing business enabled him to gain indispensable knowledge of the different strands of abolitionism in the Midwest and Northeast. From what he observed, he wasn’t impressed with the talkathons of abolitionist meetings. He never joined them because he disdained mere talk.

Brown was never able to set up a school, but he pressed on with teaching black people history and how to farm and carry out self-defense against slave catchers. His belief in social equality was clear. He shocked one white visitor to his home, who observed that black people were eating at the same table with the Brown family. The Browns showed respect to the black people there by addressing them as Mister and Missus.

John Brown kept his ear close to the ground, the better to follow and assimilate the thoughts of free and fugitive black people. Under the guise of a black writer, he wrote to a black abolitionist paper, the Ram’s Horn, to offer his frank opinions on how best to push forward black self-improvement. He didn’t hide his observations or criticisms of what he considered to be negative behaviors of some black people, ranging from flashy dressing to smoking—surely in accordance with his strict Calvinist morality. At the same time, he struggled to win them to the understanding that they should not meekly bow down to white racist aggression, but should resist it.

There was one major development that accelerated his transformation into a professional revolutionary. It was the 1837 violent killing of Elijah Lovejoy, the editor of an anti-slavery newspaper in Alton, Illinois. Lovejoy was attacked by a pro-slavery mob, which also hurled his printing press into the river. His murder shocked the abolitionist movement. Lovejoy was the first abolitionist martyr—and it could happen to any of them.

John Brown’s developing revolutionary social consciousness cost him some racist “anti-slavery” friends. As the biographer Tony Horwitz noted: “The Browns believed in full equality for blacks and were determined to fight for it” (Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War [2011]). The family’s resistance to segregation came to a head when they fought for integration in a Congregational church they attended. During a revival meeting, black people in attendance were seated in the rear of the church. At the next church service, Brown and his family gave up their seats and led the black worshippers to sit in theirs, located in the family pew. The deacons of the church were outraged and later wrote to them that they should find somewhere else to worship. This vile racism led John to distance himself from the institution of the church.

Preparing for Battle

Consciously wanting to link up with militant black abolitionists, John Brown put Frederick Douglass high on his list. Douglass and Brown had their first meeting in 1847 in Springfield, Massachusetts. Brown had avidly read Douglass’s abolitionist paper, The North Star (later Frederick DouglassPaper), and went on to share his developing plans. According to Horwitz:

“Brown pointed to a map of the Allegheny Mountains, which run diagonally from Pennsylvania into Maryland and Virginia and deep into the South. Filled with natural forts and caves, these mountains, Brown said, had been placed by God ‘for the emancipation of the negro race’.”

This meeting was a turning point in Douglass’s evolution from a protégé of Garrison into a revolutionary abolitionist. Brown fought to convince him of the futility of non-resistance to the slaveholders. He told him that the only thing the slaveowners appreciated was sticks upside their heads—something like that. Five years later, Douglass would abandon his naive faith in pacifist non-resistance. He began to openly state that slavery could be destroyed only through bloodshed, which shocked his former comrades.

Going forward, several challenges loomed for both revolutionary abolitionists, Douglass and Brown: the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the further expansion of slavery to the Western territories like Kansas, and the Dred Scott decision of 1857. The last involved a slave named Dred Scott who sued for his freedom on the basis that he had resided in a free state for many years. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled against Scott and went on to assert that black people, free or slave, were not U.S. citizens. In the words of Taney, which are echoed by today’s modern-day slaveholders—the ruling class in this country—black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Let me say a few things about the continued expansion of slavery. The South’s cotton production was booming in the 1840s and ’50s. It supplied most of the world’s demand, outstripping other American exports combined. Northerners wanted slavery to stay put where it was.

Many white laborers were primarily concerned with having to compete with black people for jobs, not with the inherent brutality against and degradation of slaves. Some Northern states, such as Ohio and Illinois, had long enacted “Black Laws” that set controls on freed blacks and deterred black people from migrating there. Meanwhile, there were bloody land grabs under way, such as during the 1846-48 Mexican-American War, when the United States seized about half of Mexico’s territory. The appetites of slaveowners and prospective ones were whetted. The question was sharply posed: Could Southerners carry “their” property into new territories? Would those territories be free or slave?

The Compromise of 1850, which was contentious in Congress, concluded that California would be a free state, while the question of Utah and New Mexico was left to the white settlers to decide. Along with this, the new Fugitive Slave Act (the first was enacted in 1793) now mandated that ordinary citizens were required to aid in the capture and return of runaway slaves, even forming posses to do so. Northerners in effect became deputized slave catchers.

Douglass had plenty to say about the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. In 1852 he remarked: “The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter is to make half a dozen or more dead kidnappers. A half dozen or more dead kidnappers carried down South would cool the ardor of Southern gentlemen, and keep their rapacity in check.” Anti-slavery fury was swelling in the North, and in places like Boston, slave catchers were set upon and fugitives freed. However, because the full power of the federal government lay behind the enforcement of the law, militant abolitionists were not always successful.

For his part, John Brown responded to the Fugitive Slave Act by forming a secret self-defense organization to fight slave catchers. The organization was called the United States League of Gileadites, named after Gideon, a figure in the Old Testament who repelled the attacks of enemies who far outnumbered his forces. Brown drew up a fighting program for the League called “Words of Advice.” In the League’s manifesto, he offered such tactics as “when engaged do not work by halves, but make clean work with your enemies…. Never confess, never betray, never renounce the cause.”

With a plan slowly germinating in his mind, John Brown was gathering the forces for the raid on Harpers Ferry. As then-Trotskyist George Novack wrote about Brown in January 1938 (printed in the New International), “By establishing a stronghold in the mountains bordering Southern territory from which his men could raid the plantations, he planned to free the slaves, and run them off to Canada.” Accordingly, Brown did a serious investigation of the terrain, including circling on a map figures on slave concentrations throughout the South. This information was discovered after he was captured at Harpers Ferry.

John Brown also prepared through reading and travel. A number of his business pursuits enabled him to go to places outside the U.S. like England, for example, where in 1851 he went seeking better prices for his wool. A key part of his trip to Europe was to inspect military fortifications, like at Waterloo where Napoleon met defeat. He studied military tactics and especially guerrilla war in mountainous terrain. He read books on Nat Turner’s revolt, the Maroons—the runaway slaves in Jamaica and other places who waged guerrilla warfare—and Francisco Espoz y Mina, the guerrilla leader in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. He also had books on Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, and a biography of the leader of the English Revolution of 1640, Oliver Cromwell. Brown was familiar with and recited for his friends and followers the story of Spartacus, who led a slave rebellion against Roman rule.

His preparations for war meant that he didn’t spend a lot of time with the rest of his family in North Elba. They understood and agreed, knowing that while he was away, it was their duty to resist the slave catchers, even if it meant imprisonment or death. Brown cared deeply for his family’s welfare and tried to alleviate some of their brutal poverty. He did what he could to support them as they all endured incredible hardships and suffered many setbacks. For example, John himself fathered 20 children and lost nine of them before they reached age ten, including three on three consecutive days. The Brown family knew that the cause of the slaves’ emancipation transcended their personal lives and they stuck it out, together. For John Brown, slavery was the “sum of villanies,” the ultimate atrocity against human freedom. And the fight lay ahead.

Workers Vanguard No. 1140
21 September 2018

In Honor of John Brown
(Part Two)
We print below the second part of a presentation, edited for publication, given by Spartacist League Central Committee member Don Alexander at a February 24 Black History Month forum in New York City. The first part appeared in WV No. 1139 (7 September).

I’m sure that most of you have heard that what’s so terrible about the abolitionist John Brown was that he was a heartless, bloodthirsty killer. These are longstanding bourgeois lies. The real John Brown fought for armed slave rebellion and organized armed struggle against the slave system in “Bleeding Kansas” in the 1850s.

In 1855, John Brown joined his four oldest sons who had migrated to Kansas to fight against it becoming a slave state and win the territory for the “free-soilers.” The free-soilers had been associated with the short-lived Free Soil Party, whose platform called both for barring slavery from western territories and for the federal government to provide free homesteads to white settlers. In 1854, many of the Party’s former members had gone on to join the newly established Republican Party, which was born on the platform of “free soil” and “free labor.”

It was a period of turmoil. Congress had just passed a new law called the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the terms of the 1820 Missouri Compromise that was supposed to limit slavery’s expansion. Sponsored by a Northern Democrat, Stephen A. Douglas, the law allowed the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery within their borders. According to Karl Marx, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had “placed slavery and freedom on the same footing.” As he described it, “For the first time in the history of the United States, every geographical and legal limit to the extension of slavery in the Territories was removed” (“The North American Civil War” [1861]). The Kansas-Nebraska Act was nothing more than a signal for pro-slavery Missourians next door to invade and, through terror and violence, open Kansas to slavery.

At this point it was clear that there wouldn’t be, and couldn’t be, any lasting “compromises.” From the early days of the republic there evolved several sham “compromises” between the North and South. The first of these concessions, coming out of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, made slaves three-fifths of a person for the purposes of apportioning representatives to Congress; this gave the Southern slaveowners control of Washington. Now, the fundamental and irreconcilable class interests between the slavocracy and the Northern industrial bourgeoisie were coming to a head. One or the other would prevail. War was coming and Kansas was the next arena.

After some initial hesitation, Brown sought the approval of his black supporters and garnered the support of several radical abolitionists before joining his sons in Kansas. He decided that it was best to go there because it would be more important ultimately for the cause of freedom. From that point, his determination hardened and grew in the fight against slavery.

John Brown brought weapons and ammunition with him to Kansas to equip an anti-slavery militia where he was captain. He and his sons confronted a well-armed pro-slavery group of Missourians appropriately called the Border Ruffians, who were pouring into the state to terrorize free settlers. The free settlers needed an infusion of fresh blood to beat back a highly organized campaign of intimidation and murder. John Brown, his sons and supporters waged several successful battles in their defense. His militia retaliated for a number of murders of free settlers—in one night raid they killed five pro-slavery sympathizers near Pottawatomie Creek. Brown’s force struck fear into the hearts of the marauding pro-slavery bands.

Both the governor of Missouri and President James Buchanan, a Northern Democrat, offered rewards for Brown’s capture. Buchanan and other Northerners with Southern sympathies were called “doughfaces” because they were “half-baked and malleable.” Without John Brown’s intervention, which strengthened the free settlers’ morale and military defenses, a lot worse could have happened. It was not impossible that Kansas could have become a slave state.

Brown fought in Kansas throughout 1856. Toward the end of his stay, a Missouri slave crossed the border into Kansas, seeking help from anyone to keep him and his family from being sold. What do you think John Brown did? He led his militia to where the slaveholder was back in Missouri. His forces freed a number of slaves, eleven in all, including the family that was imperiled. A slaveowner was also killed. Brown’s militia seized horses and supplies to facilitate their escape and transport with the final destination being Canada. The local, state and federal authorities were outraged and over $3,000 was put on Brown’s head.

In the end, the slaves made it to Canada because of John Brown. In a frenzy, some of his abolitionist “friends” denounced him—not for seizing the slaves, but for the seizure of the slaveowners’ other personal property. And it’s not surprising, because some of these abolitionists were capitalists, for whom capitalist private property was sacred. For his part, John Brown had no trust in politicians from either political party. As author Stephen B. Oates noted in To Purge This Land With Blood (1970), Brown “hated the Democrats because he believed their party was dominated by the South and despised the Republicans because they were too ‘wishy-washy’ on the slavery issue.”

Roll Call for Harpers Ferry

The next arena for Brown was Chatham, Ontario. Chatham was a small town just east of Detroit and was a terminus on the Underground Railroad where thousands of fugitive slaves and free blacks resided. Living nearby in St. Catherines was Harriet Tubman. I’ll get back to her in a minute.

In Chatham in May 1858, John Brown convened a secret convention to debate the way forward and to finalize plans for the coming assault on and seizure of the federal armory and arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The primary aim of the convention was to seek recruits for this action. One of the more important parts of the convention was a programmatic document he submitted—the Provisional Constitution. It was no mere empty exercise, but the basis for a selection of an abolitionist vanguard for revolutionary war. John Brown was making plans for a future provisional egalitarian free-state government in the mountains.

Brown’s Provisional Constitution was seriously debated. Some delegates argued that the best time to have a coordinated attack somewhere in the South would be when the U.S. government was at war. But the argument to delay was defeated. There were delegates who rejected any reference to the flag of the United States as a symbol of freedom; they said, this is my oppression, the American flag. Brown argued that the flag was an expression of America’s early democratic ideals—a vote was taken and he won. It became the flag against slavery during the Civil War, but today it is the flag of imperialist plunder and mass murder, racial oppression and anti-immigrant bigotry.

When his business was finished in Chatham, he finalized his plans for Harpers Ferry. Brown tirelessly gave speeches to raise money for his war preparations, for the consummation of his life’s work to free the slaves. In need of more money for arms and supplies, he contacted a radical abolitionist group that he relied upon: the “Secret Six,” which included Franklin Sanborn and Gerrit Smith, who were animated by his Kansas exploits. However, he never revealed to them the specific target of his next strike.

Brown knew that in order to attract significant black support, it was vital to win over Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Tubman was key to recruiting followers among the many freedmen and fugitives who had settled in Canada beyond the reach of the Fugitive Slave Law. Through her courageous Underground Railroad work, Tubman had extensive knowledge of the planned Appalachian route. Showing deep appreciation of her leadership skills, Brown called her the “General” or “He.” Tubman fully embraced Brown’s plans. She was organizing people to go with her, but she fell ill and didn’t make it. Unceasing toil and hardships, on top of terrible spells of unconsciousness and injuries sustained from beatings by slaveowners, had taken their toll. John Brown was deeply disappointed.

John Brown was about to lead 21 men to what would be in effect the first battle of the Civil War. As the time for action arrived, Brown met one last time with Frederick Douglass. It didn’t go well. He revealed his plans for seizing the armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Douglass sharply disagreed and said that they were falling into a “perfect steel-trap” and would be crushed. They argued for several hours, and Douglass turned down the offer to go. However, at the meeting was a friend, an ex-slave named Shields Green, who was one tough fighter and became highly esteemed by John Brown and his associates. When questioned about going or staying, Green remarked: I think I’ll go with the Old Man. Four other black men went—Osborne Anderson, John Copeland, his uncle Lewis Leary and Dangerfield Newby (who in his 40s was the oldest black man to go). Newby was sturdy and immovable and joined to help get his wife and children out of slavery in Virginia.

Putting his plan into effect required meticulous preparation and sheer courage. To hide his forces from the eyes of the prying enemy, Brown required the assistance of trustworthy collaborators. His first pick was his wife Mary, for whom he had tremendous respect. It’s clear from his letters and correspondence that they shared and discussed the political news of the day. Brown’s 15-year-old daughter Annie and 16-year-old sister-in-law Martha were assigned to hold down the secret farmhouse five miles from Harpers Ferry, keeping watch and feeding soldiers. The men were John Brown men, so they knew how to help and keep the place clean. Though when they didn’t, they were set straight. The men were confined in a tiny place and stuffed in an attic. There they studied together, argued about the history of slavery and discussed Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason. They were nearly broken by tension and their discipline was weakened, but the courageous young women kept up their morale and cohesion.

The whole thing could have been blown when one of the neighbors, who had a habit of showing up unannounced, caught a glimpse of a black man in the farmhouse. She suspected that Annie was helping runaways and challenged her to an explanation, but Annie denied it. Annie devised a plan to silence her neighbor by providing her and her children with food and helping them with other tasks as long as necessary.

In a very interesting biography of the women in John Brown’s family called The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown’s Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolitionism (2013), author Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz describes Annie’s “trial-by-fire inauguration into abolitionist activism.” Annie herself later described this as the most important period of her life. As Laughlin-Schultz remarked, “Though she did not march to Harpers Ferry in October 1859, Annie’s work in the Maryland countryside may have allowed Brown’s raiders to do so, and the work of Mary and Ruth [his wife and daughter] at North Elba helped smooth over the Brown men’s absences.”

The aim of John Brown was this: to procure arms, free slaves in the nearby area, lead his army into the mountains where they could establish a liberated area and, if need be, wage war against the slave masters. From a military point of view, Brown’s plan for Harpers Ferry was futile. His son Owen said it was like Napoleon trying to take Moscow. One of the reasons it failed was that Brown didn’t fully carry out his plans, which he admitted to afterwards. He also believed he was overly solicitous to his prisoners and relied on some of them to ward off the enemy’s blows. In the end, Brown’s forces killed five people but lost ten of their own. They held control for 36 hours, surrounded by gunmen from nearby towns and hamlets and eventually by federal troops. The troops were dispatched by President Buchanan, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, the future commander of Confederate forces during the Civil War (you know, the “honorable” man according to White House chief of staff John Kelly). Brown and most of his associates were rounded up and captured, though several managed to escape. Those who were not killed on the spot were railroaded and later hanged by the vindictive courts of Virginia.

The Aftermath

While they were defeated in the end, John Brown and his men certainly fought. The raid at Harpers Ferry was a bold but unsuccessful action staged by a small, determined, interracial revolutionary band. What soon followed was what abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison termed “the new reign of terror” against black people in the South and against any Northerner who dared raise his head. Southerners were conjuring up fears of more Nat Turner revolts.

Harpers Ferry also caused fright and panic among some of John Brown’s so-called radical abolitionist friends in the Secret Six—they burned their correspondence with him. Gerrit Smith claimed insanity and briefly checked into an asylum while others fled for Canada. Some of them had probably been, to put it mildly, surprised when they found out that the plan was an assault on a federal arsenal and armory. It was euphemistically described by Brown, referring to the Underground Railroad, as “Rail Road business on a somewhat extended scale.” Secret Six member Thomas Wentworth Higginson refused to capitulate. He had told Brown before the raid that he was “always ready to invest in treason,” and didn’t burn his papers or correspondence. He later led a black regiment in the Civil War.

Frederick Douglass solidarized with the raid in a piece called “Capt. John Brown Not Insane” (Douglass’ Monthly, November 1859):

“Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown...[for he] has attacked slavery with the weapons precisely adapted to bring it to the death.... Like Samson, he has laid his hands upon the pillars of this great national temple of cruelty and blood, and when he falls, that temple, will speedily crumble to its final doom, burying its denizens in its ruins.”

Douglass had a price placed on his head by the federal government and used a pre-planned trip to England to escape.

John Brown knew that the pro-slavery federal government and its State of Virginia hangmen were close to finishing him off. While imprisoned, Brown was unbowed and wrote and answered many letters to family, friends and supporters (who mostly endorsed his action only some time after the fact). Above all, he pushed very hard for financial help to his family. He said that had he interfered on behalf of the rich, the oppressors would have poured praise upon him. Instead, his whole life had been devoted to fighting for the liberation of the slaves, and now he was willing to pay the ultimate price.

As I said, John Brown despised the ruling-class politicians of his day. For their murderous, cruel and unjust laws, he denounced the government as being filled with “fiends in human shape.” Before his death, in a letter to the abolitionist wife of George L. Stearns, Brown stated his wishes to be escorted to the gallows not by some pro-slavery clergyman but by poor blacks, his people: “I have asked to be spared from having any mock; or hypocritical prayers made over me, when I am publicly murdered: & that my only religious attendants be poor little, dirty, ragged, bare headed, & barefooted Slave Boys; & Girls led by some old grey headed Slave Mother.”

Following his execution, there were memorial services of black and white abolitionists in several cities. There was international impact. French writer Victor Hugo had written a rousing appeal to stop his execution and that of his followers. (The British abolitionists sat on their hands.) Brown’s death was also keenly felt in Haiti, the country with the first and only successful slave revolution in the Western Hemisphere, which was against the French slaveholders in 1791. Haitians, who saw in John Brown the great revolutionary and liberator of black slaves, Toussaint L’Ouverture, organized gatherings and fundraisers for the Brown family in every corner of the country. In addition, there were German workers—the Red ’48ers—European refugees who came to the U.S. following the failure of the 1848 revolution, who ended up playing an important role in building up the Union Army. Alongside black people in Cincinnati, they marched to memorialize John Brown.

John Brown gave his all and championed the struggles of the oppressed worldwide, including the 19th-century Hungarian, Greek and Polish struggles against national oppression. And it was his revolutionary war that opened the road to the annihilation of slavery. As radical abolitionist Wendell Phillips noted: “History will date Virginia Emancipation from Harper’s Ferry. True, the slave is still there. So, when the tempest uproots a pine on your hill, it looks green for months—a year or two. Still, it is timber, not a tree. John Brown has loosened the roots of the slave system; it only breathes,—it does not live,—hereafter.”

George Novack wrote a tribute to John Brown, published in January 1938 in the New International, journal of the revolutionary Trotskyists at that time, the Socialist Workers Party. He captured the dialectical development of events, noting how a seemingly stable and eternal slavocracy contained the seeds of its own destruction: “Through John Brown the coming civil war entered into the nerves of the people in the many months before it was exhibited in their ideas and actions.”

His Body Moldering in the Grave —His Soul Marching On

The Civil War broke out less than two years after the execution of Brown and his comrades. The Civil War was the last great bourgeois revolution, the last progressive war of the U.S. bourgeoisie. Instead of a confederation of states, it consolidated a unified capitalist market under a United States of America.

In the fires of secessionist rebellion and total war, Douglass called for arming the slaves. For his part, Lincoln was reluctant to wage what he called a “remorseless revolutionary struggle” to crush the slaveholders. Facing ongoing military reverses, Lincoln changed in the course of the war. He was compelled to deploy powerful black arms—ultimately 200,000 black soldiers and sailors—who were critical in tipping the balance of forces against the slavocracy. At the war’s end more than 600,000 Americans lay dead.

We are told that slavery was a “stain” on this “great” capitalist democracy. This suggests it was an aberration, a deviation from an essential goodness. This is a perfumed lie. Slavery was a barbarous economic system built into the very foundations of U.S. capitalism. Its legacy stamps every aspect of social and economic life. The slaves were liberated through the Civil War. But with the undoing of subsequent Radical Reconstruction, the most democratic period in U.S. history for black people, the promise of black equality was crushed through Klan terror and defeated by political counterrevolution. This led to the consolidation of black people as an oppressed race-color caste toward the end of the 19th century.

John Brown considered himself to be an instrument of “God.” He believed that it was part of God’s will for him to liberate the slaves through force, unlike those preachers who pontificated about solace and consolation to the oppressed. We are atheists and dialectical materialists, and we base our revolutionary Marxist outlook firmly upon science. This means explaining the world from the world itself, not from some nonexistent “higher power.” In the face of natural occurrences, early human beings devised a system of mystical explanations for what they didn’t understand. Earthquakes, famines, sickness and death were not attributed to the workings of a material, physical world—a world that existed prior to and independent of human consciousness. In contrast to a materialist view, an idealist view maintains ideas, opinions and thoughts as primary and material reality as secondary. In his writings, Karl Marx asserts that “man makes religion, religion does not make man,” that “religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering,” and that religion is the “opium of the people.”

When the hour of action arrived, John Brown’s advice was to be quick, not to trifle. That is good advice. Importantly, he also struggled firmly to win revolutionary abolitionists to the fight for black freedom. He knew his foibles well and wrote about them. But what comes through from those who knew him was not a sense of superiority, but his kindness. Though we should proceed with historical care in analogies, one could say that there was a similarity he shared with Oliver Cromwell—the great 17th-century Puritan revolutionary of England. Brown would, as Trotsky noted of Cromwell, hesitate at nothing to smash oppression.

We of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) seek to build Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard parties that will hesitate at nothing in the fight to put the wealth of the world created by labor into the hands of labor itself through proletarian revolutions across the globe. Guided by a firm, revolutionary vanguard party, the workers will forge the class-struggle leadership of labor by ousting the agents of the bourgeoisie within the workers movement.

In racist capitalist America, we will remember those like John Brown and many others who waged war to throw off the shackles of the oppressed. Capitalism cannot be reformed—no ruling class ever has relinquished its power, its profits and accumulated wealth without a fight and it never will. This understanding is contrary to the illusions spread by the reformist socialists, such as the International Socialist Organization and Socialist Alternative, that you can pressure the Democrats to reform capitalism.

We understand that class struggle is the motor force of history. But this is not all. Even before Marx and Engels, bourgeois historians were writing about class struggle in France and elsewhere. We Marxists seek to extend this to recognizing the necessity for proletarian power, for proletarian dictatorship that will eliminate capitalism. We fight to end the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the capitalists, as part of a transition to a classless society of material abundance.

We stand for the full integration of black people into an egalitarian socialist order, for revolutionary integrationism. This means integrated class struggle, mobilizing the social power of the proletariat to lead the fight against all manifestations of racial oppression, against racist police terror, against segregated education, against the hated Confederate flag of slavery and finally, to victory over the exploiters.

We fight to win a new generation of conscious workers and militant youth to take up the banner of genuine Marxism: Trotskyism. As a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party acting as a tribune of the people, we have no interests separate from the working class and oppressed. We fight for a communist future. We say: Remember John Brown and all our revolutionary heroes and heroines! We say: Finish the Civil War! For a third American Revolution! For black liberation through socialist revolution!