Saturday, February 22, 2020

Fighting For The Brass Ring- Kate Hudson’s “Almost Famous” (2000)- A Film Review

Fighting For The Brass Ring- Kate Hudson’s “Almost Famous” (2000)- A Film Review

DVD Review

By Alden Riley

[As of December 1, 2017 under the new regime of Greg Green, formerly of the on-line American Film Gazette website, brought in to shake things up here a bit after a vote of no confidence in the previous site administrator Allan Jackman (using the moniker Peter Paul Markin in honor of fallen comrade from high school days) some organizational norms have changed. That vote was taken among all the writers at the request of some of the younger writers abetted by one key older writer, Sam Lowell, and in the aftermath the habit of previous site manager of assigning writers to specific topics like film,  books, political commentary, and culture is over. Also over is the designation of writers in this space, young or old, by job title like senior or associate. After a short-lived experiment designating everybody as “writer” seemingly in emulation of the French Revolution’s “citizen” or the Bolshevik Revolution’s “comrade” all posts will be “signed” with given names only. The Editorial Board]

Almost Famous, starring Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup, Patrick Fugit some of the story is based on real events in the young life of director Cameron Crowe, 2000  

[If any reader has read the announcement from the Editorial Board below my name above or has been following the developing situation around the change in leadership at this site they know that there has been a certain amount of fall-out around the question of whether the old site administrator, Peter Paul Markin (not his real name but a moniker he has used for the past decade of more of his leadership I will get to a bit later in this introduction) had retired or been purged. The “official” stance is that he has retired to parts unknown making that “purge” rumor only stick faster especially among the older writers, Markin’s contemporaries from the 1960s, their growing up and coming of age days which was, is, one of the issues which caused Markin’s tumble from grace. This “disappearance” a stinging remind to those guys who graphically remember the Cold War Stalinist habit of sending deposed opponents out to Siberia some place for “rest” or from their own personal experiences in the latter part of the 1960s, toward the ebb part, when among radicals the “politically incorrect” of that time were banished never to be heard from again although that was more shunning that sending them to outer Utah or someplace like that.

In an attempt to clear the air and give the readership a better understanding about what has happened over the past several months to cause the shake-up the new site administrator, Greg Green, who held a similar position at the American Film Gazette and who I knew there from the time I worked as a stringer, has allowed us free reign to tell our take on what has happened and why after Markin was deposed when he lost a vote of no confidence among the collection of writers who write for this site. In the interest of transparency I was among the “Young Turks” who led the revolt and was also a key person in bringing Greg into the fold. 

Others like my former “boss” Sandy Salmon whom I also knew at the Gazette and who brought me in to be his associate film critic after he replaced the now retired Sam Lowell another key “coup” member have given their take so I will not burden the reader with too much detail about the actual events which led up to Markin’s ouster except to broadly outline what triggered everything. (That “former boss” reference reflects as noted above the new policy of only using surnames to identify writers in an effort by Greg to break down the barriers between younger and older writers.) 

A few years ago Markin, in what at the time seemed like a good move to “pass the torch” according to the older writers who had been with him for a long time (and some whom he had known from his hometown growing up days or from his wild and wooly 1960s hippie days) and widen what was increasingly a nostalgia trip tied to the turbulent 1960s experiences which formed most of their worldviews brought in some younger writers. (Don’t make as much out of the “younger writers” designation since most of us are pushing fifty very gingerly and the only really younger writers, twenty somethings, were free-lance stringers.) That perspective was honored more in the breech that the observance as increasing the younger writers were assigned projects relating to that same period, that turbulent 1960s era,  which for the most part were not events that we were that familiar with or gave a fuck about. So some of this stuff had been simmering for a while, for a couple of years anyway.

This summer, the summer of 2017, everything came to a head when Markin after being coaxed by his old growing up neighborhood friends and a couple of the older writers whom I will not name since they have survived the tumult just as they had survived every regime change when they were younger and into radical politics he “force marched” everybody into writing about the Summer of Love, 1967 after an old friend Alex, Zack James’ brother, told him about how San Francisco was commemorating the 50th anniversary of that experience. That started the mad rush. Someone called those older turncoat writers who should be handled in the same manner as deadly snakes as ready to change their principles with the new wind blowing as their shirts and that seems about right. They had no trouble leaving Markin in the lurch wherever he is and moving on without a ripple. Whatever they thought of the project everybody was forced to reference some aspect of the 1960s fun and foolishness whatever they were writing about even if it was not germane to their subject or whether they gave a damn about it.

I will give my personal “awakening” which led me to join the “Young Turks,” join with a vengeance if you must know. Sandy to appease Markin had taken it upon himself to write a film review of the well-known documentary by D.A. Pennebaker on the first Monterey Pops Festival also held in fateful 1967 which is where the big belting blues singer from Texas Janis Joplin made her big breakthrough to stardom. As was his wont during the few years I have known him (he worked at American Film Gazette when I was a stringer there but I did not know him since I was a stringer and would submit my articles via FedEx or later e-mail attachments) he mentioned how well the documentary had held up unlike many others from that time and how Janis “stole the show.” That is when I made what would be my fatal error and told him that I did not know who Janis Joplin was. He laughed and let it pass.

Somehow though Markin got wind of the fact of my ignorance and “ordered” over Sandy’s head and without his knowledge me to “do penance” (Markin’s words) by reviewing a bio/pic on Janis entitled Little Girl Blues. If that sleigh-of-hand was not enough Markin almost went apoplectic when I mentioned in some detail that after my viewing of the Pennebaker documentary for my article that I thought that Otis Redding equally “stole the show” that year. Since this year is also the 50th anniversary of his death and of his signature song Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay released shortly before his death I gave that perspective amble space in the piece. Markin red-pencilled most of it and in a rage told me (in front) of several senior writers that while he appreciated Redding’s contribution to soulful music the piece was supposed to be a homage to Joplin’s effect on he and his growing up hometown friends who went West partially to see the “acid” rock scene emerging in the Bay Area during that decisive year.

I nursed my “wounds” over that slight and frankly Markn’s misjudgment about not putting Redding in the picture as part of the turbulent and fateful 1960s mix from the perspective of a guy who was looking at the times from the outside, a guy who didn’t go weak-kneed any time the number 60 came up. Then Sandy, who was, is, roughly Markin’s, wherever he is, contemporary and who knew his close growing up hometown friend Sam Lowell from their Gazette days and who brought Sandy in when he, Sam, decided to retire, in early September assigned me the review below, Almost Famous. Like others have said the original intent of this site was to cover all aspects of the American political, social and cultural history through commentary about events, movements, books, films, music and the like.

But when Sandy went to check with Markin on assignment and told him I was expected to do this review he again went apoplectic not against me personally, I don’t think, but about the idea that a review of music and the trials and tribulations of bands getting a leg up not from the 1960s, the subject of the film, was being covered. That heavy-handed maneuver along with other smoldering grievances led to the “Young Turks” uprising. Led me to join in if for no other reason that while I appreciated what Markin and the others had done in the 1960s I didn’t want to be trapped in a time machine stuck in that era.  So until Markin was “deposed,” sent to Siberia, or whatever happened to him after that vote of no confidence this review was put on hold. Now it can see the light of day.

I assume that director Cameron Crowe had a field day directing this little gem of a film Almost Famous about the coming of age of a teenage rock journalist based on his own rock journal experiences and the trials and tribulations of a band, a set of personalities and varying degrees of musical showmanship, trying to break out of the garage or wherever they hung out and practiced. This film had a special appeal to me since it featured an up and coming rock group that was situated in the thick of the 1970s and 1980s a time when I came of musical age, the Peter Frampton, Heart, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and the “heavy metal” rock scene.

Young musical beat writer whiz kid William Miller (the character based in part on director Crowe’s youthful experiences), played by Patrick Fugit, is adrift in the world, a world where he doesn’t fit in except he has an ear for music and a big steady hand to write with (in the days when a pencil and notebook of not blessed memory were the tools of the writing trade). He works his way, despite his over-bearing mother’s attempts to thwart him at every turn from beginning to end it seemed, into the scene, the 1970s music scene of blessed memory by getting a free-lance assignment to review a Black Sabbath concert for Rolling Stone magazine despite his tender age of fifteen. Although that famous rock group does not play into the story the fictional front group band, the Stillwaters, led by William Hammond, played by Bill Crudup, does as he latches onto the idea of promoting them as the next big thing in heavy metal rock.

Two things aid him in getting on the inside of this group’s network. First Hammond liked him, likes the young kid although that relationship would have its fair share of ups and downs when the mercurial Hammond questions William’s motives and what he expected to get out of the whole thing. Then William along the way meets what is inevitable in rock circles, maybe all musical circles, the lead “groupie” Penny Lane, played by Kate Hudson, who befriends him and gets him the inside track on the group. Gets him a seat on the touring bus with Stillwater as they claw their way to what they hope will be the brass ring-that coveted cover on Rolling Stone which in those days if not now signified that you had arrived. William was there at the creation to chronicle all of that. Naturally along the way he has all the coming of age experiences of friendship, betrayal, misunderstandings, fun and frolic, and losing that virginity his mother fretted about when he went on the road. Not the best story line on the emergence of a rock group but very well done, very well done indeed. (And now I can say not about a rock group emerging from the pack in the 1950s and early 1960s age of what is name classical rock, praise be.)                                                    

How The West Was Won-The Coen Brothers Remake Of “True Grit” (2010)-A Film Review

How The West Was Won-The Coen Brothers Remake Of “True Grit” (2010)-A Film Review

DVD Review

By Sandy Salmon

[As of December 1, 2017 under the new regime of Greg Green, formerly of the on-line American Film Gazette website, brought in to shake things up here a bit after a vote of no confidence in the previous site administrator Allan Jackman (using the moniker Peter Paul Markin in honor of fallen comrade from high school days) some organizational norms have changed. That vote was taken among all the writers at the request of some of the younger writers abetted by one key older writer, Sam Lowell, and in the aftermath the habit of previous site manager of assigning writers to specific topics like film,  books, political commentary, and culture is over. Also over is the designation of writers in this space, young or old, by job title like senior or associate. After a short-lived experiment designating everybody as “writer” seemingly in emulation of the French Revolution’s “citizen” or the Bolshevik Revolution’s “comrade” all posts will be “signed” with given names only. The Editorial Board]

True Grit, starring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, Haillee Steinfeld as Mattie, Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LeBoeuf, from the novel by Charles Portis, directed and produced by the Coen Brothers as a remake of the 1969 version of the film which starred John Wayne, 2010

[Apparently the fall-out from the change of leadership of this site from the now seemingly disgraced and exiled Allan Jackson out  to the wilds of Utah where he is reportedly by rumor said to be hustling copy for the Mormons although that sounds improbable on its face since he went out of his way to skewer the most well-known Mormon Mitt Romney for disowning his great grandfather’s astounding feat of juggling five wives at one time back in the day Allan Jackson to Greg Green brought in from a similar position that he held at American Film Gazette is not over. The basic issue which the reader should know about was Jackson’s heavy-handed manner of assigning projects tilted heavily toward the turbulent times of the 1960s when he and a number of the older writers including a few he had known since high school had come of age. That emphasis despite the well-known proposition stated in the masthead that the whole of American history (albeit from a decidedly leftist perspective), culture, society, mores and all were within its purview. He had brought in a slew of younger writers, not kids out of journalism school or English dissertations but younger.

They, according to younger writer and “Young Turks” leader Lance Lawrence, were to broaden the outlook, widen the time frame and range of subjects. Instead Allan used them as “cannon fodder” (Eliot Francis’ term) for a continued expansion of that 1960s perspective. The whole thing came to a head this past summer when he unilaterally decided that everything of importance was to be thrown through the prism of the Summer of Love, 1967 which was being commemorated mainly in the Bay Area on its 50th anniversary. The younger writers balked sensing that this was merely the first shot in another total immersion in various 50th anniversary commemorations to come over the next few years. In a heated debate and contentious procedure in early fall the younger writers aided by the decisive vote of Sam Lowell one of Allan’s old high school friends who saw the writing on the wall he received a vote of no confidence.

Subsequently Jackson announced his retirement through a third party to the assembled audience. That so-called retirement versus what has been whispered about that he had been “purged” never to be heard from again like in the time of Stalin in Russia or among New Left fanatics in late 1960s radical circles seeking purity is what the fall-out is all about. Nobody quite has the whole story, or at least I have not heard anything that sounds like the whole story but younger writer Brad Fox in a recent review of Goya’s Ghosts went way out of his way to inform the reading public that something closer to being purged had been the previously missing Jackson’s fate. And Brad would know since he owes his job to his father’s friendship with Allan going back to their high school days.           

Here is some of what Brad mentioned with a little comment by me in places as we try to consolidate the new regime and provide a wider perspective for the reader to imbibe.

Brad thought it ironic, and I do too, that one of the first assignments that our new site administrator Greg Green has handed out, handed out to him especially knowing his father relationship with Allan, Goya’s Ghosts, dealt with the turmoil of the French Revolution through the prism of the Spanish occupation in Napoleon’s time by French troops aided by a bureaucracy of both imported French bureaucrats and Spaniards looking for the main chance. What Brad called guys who change their allegiances as easily as their shirts. 
Sometimes apparently, and this may have been Greg Green’s point in assigning the review life mirrors art. The staff at American Left History were, are as ardent as any Bolshevik was in his or her time to draw whatever lessons they can from the experiences of the French Revolution. Including many a hot “debate” over whiskeys at Jimmy Jake’s Tavern near the Seaport in Boston.     

Seemingly, at least to Brad and I buy some of his argument since I do believe that Green was trying to promote a literary cautionary tale in the guises of a harmless hapless film review a parallel example existed between rabid Inquisitor turned French Revolution devotee Lorenzo’s topsy-turvy career and fate and that of Jackson. I have already mentioned the main reason given but it bears repeating was Allan’s obsessive tilting of the coverage of subjects in this space toward events from the turbulent 1960s when most of the older writers came of age exemplified by the over-the-top coverage of the Summer of Love, 1967 he ordered the writers, young and old, familiar with the period or not to cover. There has been, and here the parallel with Francisco who would go to his execution under the Inquisition once the French were defeated and swept out of Spain by the British with the aid of Spanish guerillas, a persistent rumor that Allan was purged and that the retirement ploy was just that a cover for the more aggressive removal mainly through the efforts of the younger writers. On the heels of what Brad has said I will try to track this down as I get more information. Information that I believe will implicate Allan’s his old friend Sam Lowell who may have been used by the younger writers as a stalking horse once they knew he was anxious to show his old time “revolutionary turn the world upside down” credentials or maybe the mastermind behind a plan to ease Allan out for other reasons. For now if you heard that one Allan Jackson has fallen under the wheels of a modern day Inquisition don’t be surprised. Don’t be surprised at all.]
Here is the real deal though:

For those more interested in old time Old West, Old Revisionist West than the internal struggle for a new direction at this site you are now home. Old Revisionist West meaning not the stuff that guys and gals like many of the older writers and me who grew in the 1950s had to swallow on television where the guys in white hats were pure good and fast on the trigger if they needed to be and black hats signifying pure evil and somehow very bad trigger action which makes one wonder today how they survived to be bad boys, but the dirt under the fingernails, didn’t wash for a week, put that trigger quick and ask questions later. For that desire here is a film, a remake of a classic Old West western, True Grit which won John Wayne an Oscar for his performance as lead character Rooster Cogburn by the bloody thirsty Coen Brothers last seen in this space as the producers of the remake of the bloody 1955 British film The Lady Killers where an old widowed woman held off a horde of ruffians ready to do her in praise the Lord.

Recently Sam Lowell who use to do the film reviews here all by his lonesome before he retired and persuaded me to take over before I retire made some commentary about the 1961 film The Misfits, the film adaptation of playwright Arthur Miller’s story. He mentioned that the characters in that film, male and female alike, born in the West, born in the saddle really, or transported from other parts, were just then at the crossroads where the Old West and its individualistic values was fast fading in the modern industrial skyline. That the strip malls, suburban ranches, golf courses, and tourist traps were heading west. That is not the case in True Grit. Here we have all the bloodshed, the fast triggers, the fatal triggers the lawlessness needing to be tamed, the lost boys, the losers in the Civil War, the raw emotions and rawer whisky that made up a big part of the lifeblood of the Old West, the West that those who could not for one reason or another make it in the East headed for to start anew-or keep on doing the same thing in new quarters.

In a funny way, just like the plotlines from Zane Grey on, this one is simplicity itself “the age of vengeance is mine saith the Lord. Young Mattie, all of 14, played by Hailee Steinfeld, feisty as hell even if only 14, is out to avenge the death of her father by a no account bastard who just shot him down in cold blood named Tom Clancy. Little did he know his days were numbered with Mattie on the case no matter that he headed out to desolate Indian country (Native American or indigenous peoples now).

But even a feisty precocious 14 year old needs some help against a bad man desperado and so she hires for a bounty a U.S. Marshall to bring old Tom in to face justice, to face the big step-off which Mattie makes very plain is her goal-no anti-death penalty advocate she. So she hires the toughest of them all, the one with, hey, true grit, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn played by Jeff Bridges like he was born for the role, and maybe he was. Mattie had a choice, could have and maybe should have picked Texas Ranger LaBouef, played by Matt Damon, who had been after bandito Clancy for crimes in Texas which would also require a hangman’s noose. But she took Rooster instead. 

Eventually after much banter they, all three, head out to that Indian country (remember think Native American) and before long all kind of calumny, false leads, a few confrontations and the like impede their progress. Also some internal bickering which would lead that LaBoeuf to head out on his own periodically. Not to worry though after a few rounds of rooty-toot-toot that Tom Clancy is gone to the great beyond-no one to mourn him. Along the way though Mattie and the Rooster bond, bond enough that when that Rooster went to his own great beyond he was buried in Mattie’s family plot. Yeah, wasn’t that a time boys, wasn’t that a time.

Friday, February 21, 2020

"Good Morning, Vietnam"-Indeed-The Trials And Tribulations Of One Adrian Cronauer

"Good Morning, Vietnam"-Indeed-The Trials And Tribulations Of One Adrian Cronauer

By Si Lannon     

I knew from the minute I picked up this guy Adrian Cronauer from the airport that no way was he going to last in our outfit. You can take it from me Eddie Garlick that he had a “misfit” target written all over him. Our outfit if you could call it that was producing, well, hell, producing propaganda and glad tidings to the increasing number of troops coming in-country and in need of some easy listening on the Armed Forces Radio Station-Vietnam edition. First of all Cronauer, nobody called him Adrian (and he told me once we got to know each other that nobody but his mother called him that and he would usually not answer to the name even from her. I wouldn’t answer to Edward either except to my own mother after she twisted my ear a few times when I faked not hearing her) came over from some good awful place, Crete, or some place like that and was Air Force whereas the rest of us were strictly Army, Regular Army. Second of all from minute one he had me both splitting a gut laughing and looking at him sideways like he was some guy from outer space.

But see the General, General Timothy Taylor, a tough guy street general as we would call a guy like him in the old neighborhood, back in Philly, back in the Acre housing project where I grew up and where we had our own General Baker and General Pratt although not with any stars on their shoulders, didn’t need them, had heard of him when he was in Europe. He was old school, bless his soul, who won his star going through the European Theater in World War II. He, the general, must have ruffled some feathers though, annoyed some General Staff guy because he had seen Cronhuaer as he was leaving some cushy job there and transfer to hellish Vietnam as the American troops on the ground expanded like crazy in 1965 once the shit hit the fan. The general though landed on his feet though since instead of throwing him out in the boonies with the 7th Air Calvary they put him in charge of propaganda work, the radio station being one of his projects to supervise.    

The real reason though, and I proved right in the end even although I did everything in my power to try to save him including getting the grunts, you know the guys who were going in and out of the boonies looking for Mister Charlie to send fan mail to get him back on the air was Sergeant Major Dickerson, the “Dick” as we called him behind his back. (I didn’t do any fighting although I did face gun fire and bomb explosions in my tour of Vietnam like a lot of guys not on the line, it was that kind of war, but I had nothing but respect for the enemy and would not call him the derogatory Charlie but always prefaced it with the honorific Mister to show my respects). He was all spit and polish, all rules and regulations, all-lifer, the bad kind of lifer who lived to count the days until retirement but in the meantime raise seven kinds of hell, the only good commie is dead commie so you knew, I knew the minute I saw Cronauer half out of uniform, hair too long and with a laugh a minute that he wasn’t going to go the distance, would fuck up somehow and made hash out of everything. (Then I didn’t know I would wind-up being a lifer too but that was after I left the Army after my enlistment was up, seeing nothing around the Acre that I could do without winding up in stir so I re-upped. I just hope some of the guys that were under me don’t call be lifer the way I just did about the “Dick.”)

While he was riding high one Airman Cronauer was beautiful was like a breath of fresh air in the Black Hole of Calcutta. Would make a lot of guys who are making a good living doing comedy routines take up another profession, maybe lawyering or something, maybe learn to crochet. Yes, Cronauer was the avenging angel and the worst nightmare for guys like the Dick, a loose cannon. The only thing I didn’t like in the few months that Cronauer was around was that he would always kid me about my turning the key to start the engine of the jeep that I used to transport him around to his various doings when it was already running. Being around him made me nervous and forgetful. I admit I was trying to protect my stripes, maybe grab another one if I could control this force of nature. See General Taylor had personally assigned me to “look after” Cronauer since even the General knew he was loosely put together. I guess the general didn’t know in the end how big a can of worms Cronauer would be after the Dick got through with him. 

You have to know something about Armed Forces Radio back in ’65, maybe any time but mostly the thing was about presenting “happy” news, maybe cover a press conference of some important figure who was in-country to see what was really going on (and never taking the blinders off to find out, never leaving MAC-V headquarters and definitely never asking the soldiers, the grunts, what the hell was going on while they were doing their whirlwind tours) and play music like Ray Conniff, Percy Faith, I don’t know Guy Lombardo stuff our parents would dig, would find appealing. And the guys, good guys really, who took their shifts, usually four hours unless they were covering for somebody, and gave what the Dick and Army regulations dictated to him to read and play. They even had two donkeys, two brothers who must have been orphans because no mother could love them (or have carried them in her womb) who red-penciled everything especially the number of KIAs, and the lack of progress against Mister Charlie that was apparent to anybody except those idiot VIPs who had come in-country for more than five minutes. The worst lie though was the body count. The number of VC killed. The numbers just didn’t add up. Some guy during my second tour of Vietnam figured it out one time in 1968 I think that if you added all the numbers together from the body counts then to you would have more dead than were in the whole freaking country.

From day one, no, minute one, Cronauer blew all of that away. Started off at six o’clock in the morning with his signature call-“Good Morning, Vietnam” but he would stretch those three words out for what seemed like an hour. Guys would imitate him, guys on in the boonies too. Then he would do “mock” news reports, total bullshit of total bullshit, and then play something like James Brown, can you believe it, Brother James Brown. Needless to say the Dick blew his top, complained to General Taylor who told him to “fuck off” then because the men liked hearing Cronauer, and he did have a big breath of fresh air following. Like I said the General was what you would call a soldiers’ General if you know what I mean (unlike those General Staff guys who never came out of the bunker over at MAC-V).          

What did Cronauer in, what did a lot of guys stuck in Vietnam then before there were too many guys hanging around in Saigon and everything got to be a whorish merry-go-round was a girl, a beautiful Vietnamese girl who I told him was off-limits, was a no go. But Cronauer wouldn’t listen, spent every waking hour trying to figure out how to get next to this beauty, this Trinh. Including getting close to her brother Tran something I forget his full name, and it doesn’t matter since that was not his real name, his real Mister Charlie name as it turned out. Although Cronauer didn’t see it that way he was basically asking this Tran to pimp for his sister. Nothing good could come of that, and nothing did despite the extensive wooing that Cronauer did.

When push came to shove though nothing could save Cronauer. He had been too friendly with the natives as they say and the natives had bitten him, had used his as a cover to blow up a famous Saigon gin mill where GIs hung out. Not good, not good at all. Got me mixed up in it and almost ruined my career except the General had the Dick’s number and it was him that was hung out to dry not me. Cronauer, well, bad boy Cronauer got kicked out of the service for the good of the service as they say. Never did get too far with that Trinh before he became persona non grata in-country. Sent his young ass back to the States quick as a jack rabbit. End of story.   
Not quite. Some nights I still wake up thinking about some antic that mad clown did on the air or out in the streets of Saigon. Always think even though I am a Sergeant Major myself here at Fort Meade about that last gift he left me. His farewell tape to the troops which I delivered. Got to do my own version of Good Morning, Vietnam, and got to feel for just one moment what it was like to have the world in your hands. Yeah, Cronauer was one hell of a guy, was a piece of work no question.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Significance of the 1914 Christmas Truce by S. Brian Willson

Significance of the 1914 Christmas Truce by S. Brian Willson

"Thus, humans desperately need to re-discover and nourish examples of disobedience to political authority systems which have created 14,600 wars since the advent of civilization some 5,500 years ago. Over the past 3,500 years there have been nearly 8,500 treaties signed in efforts to end warfare, to no avail because the vertical structures of power have remained intact which demand obedience in their efforts to expand territory, power or resource base. The future of the species, and lives of most other species, are at stake, as we wait for humans to come to our right mind, both individually and collectively.
The 1914 Christmas Truce of one hundred years ago was an extraordinary example of how wars can only continue if soldiers agree to fight. It needs to be honored and celebrated, even if it was only a flash of a moment in time. It represents the potential of human disobedience to insane policies. As German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht proclaimed, 'General, your tank is a powerful vehicle. It smashes down forests, and crushes a Hundred men. But it has one defect: it needs a driver."15 If commoners refused en masse to drive the tank of war, the leaders would be left to fight their own battles. They would be brief."

“Shoot Pools ‘Fast Eddie,’ Shoot Pools”-With Paul Newman’s “The Hustler” In Mind

“Shoot Pools ‘Fast Eddie,’ Shoot Pools”-With Paul Newman’s “The Hustler” In Mind

By Lance Lawrence

“Fast Eddie” Felson was the greatest pool player to ever chalk up a stick and you had better believe that because I know from where I speak because in most quarters, among the serious followers of the game, I, Jackie “Big Man” Gleason think that title belongs to me. Maybe you never heard of “Fast Eddie,” never knew the story behind the story of how for a couple of years anyhow, maybe three he ruled the roost, he was the king of the hill. All I know is from the first moment Eddie entered Sharkey’s Pool Hall, the place where my manager, Bart, and I hustled all comers at the sport of kings, down on 12th Avenue in the teeming city of New York I was afraid to play him. Afraid he would damage my reputation as the king of the hill. I had never played game one against him but still I sensed something in his swagger, in his bravado that made my hands shake. Shaking hands the kiss of death in our profession.               

In case you don’t know, and maybe some readers might not having decided to read my homage to “Fast Eddie” based on the “hook” that this was about Paul Newman the movie actor shooting big-time pool, hustling pool in the old days before Vegas, Atlantic City, Carson City started putting up money to have high dollar championships was about more that learning technique, having a vision of where the fucking balls would enter the pockets like your mother’s womb. A lot more. It was about having heart, about something that they would call Zen today but which we called “from hunger” in my day. Eddie’s too. That’s what Eddie had, that is what I sensed, what brought me to cold sweats when that swaggering son of a bitch came looking for me like I was somebody’s crippled up grandfather. It took a while, Eddie took his beatings before he understood what drove his art but he got it, got it so good that I left the game for a couple of years and went out West to hustler wealthy Hollywood moguls who loved the idea of “beating” “Big Man” Gleason at ten thousand a showing.             

But forget about me and my troubles once Fast Eddie came through that long ago door after all this is about how the best man who ever handled a stick got to earn that title in my book. Like a lot of guys after the war, after World War II, after seeing the world in one way Eddie was ready to ditch his old life, was ready to take some chances and say “fuck you” to the nine to five world that would be death to a free spirit like him (that “free spirit” would put a few daggers in his heart before he was done but that is for later). Eddie, against my doughty frame, my big man languid frame, was a rangy kid, kind of tall, wiry, good built and Hollywood bedroom eyes like, well, like Paul Newman when he was a matinee idol making all the women, girls too, wet. Strictly “from hunger” just like in my time, the Great Depression, I had been the same before I left Minnesota for the great big lights of the city and “action.” Like I said raw and untamed but I could tell that very first time he put the stick to the green clothe he had the magic, had that something that cannot be learned but only come to the saints and those headed for the sky.           

So Eddie came in with a few thousand ready to take on the “Big Man.” While I feared this young pup I sensed that I could teach him a lesson, maybe a lesson that would hold him in good stead, maybe not, but which would at least give me enough breathing room to figure out what I would do when Eddie claimed his crown. His first mistake, a rookie error that I myself had committed was not having a partner, a manager to rein him in, to hold him back in tough times. He had some old rum dum, Charley, Billy, something like that, who cares except this rum dum was a timid bastard who couldn’t hold up his end. His end being strictly to estimate his opponent and rein the kid in when he was off his game like we all get sometimes. Me, like I said after I wised up, teamed up with Bart, Bart who knew exactly who and who was not a “loser” and who didn’t lose my money by making bad matches or bad side bets (those side bets were the cushion money that got us through hard times and many times were more than whatever we won at straight up games).      

All I am saying is that this kid’s manager did Fast Eddie wrong, let him go wild that first night when he was all gassed up to beat the Big Man. You already know that I whipped his ass or you haven’t been paying close enough attention. But that was all a ruse like I said, all kid bravado and swagger added in so it was like taking candy from a baby that first night. But I knew I was beat, beat bad in a straight up contest. What saved me that night was two things, no three. First, Fast Eddie like lots of kids figured that he could beat an old man with his hands tied behind his back and so he started his “victory lap” drinking, drinking hard high-end scotch even before the match had started. Second, he was cocky enough to declare that the only way to determine the winner was who cried “uncle” first (Bart smiled and whispered “loser” in my ear at hearing that). Third and last he had picked up this broad, some boozer and maybe a hooker named, Sandy, Susie, no, Sarah whom he was trying to impress somehow. She looked like a lost kitten but I didn’t give a damn about that just that Fast Eddie’s mind would be half on getting her down under the sheets, maybe had dreams of getting a blow job for his efforts she looked the type who was into some kinky stuff just for kicks. At least that was the way it looked at the time. As I will tell you later it was very different and I was totally wrong about the dame.          

It took almost twenty-eight hours in that dark dank smelly booze-strewn Sharkey pool hall which looked like something out of the movies’ idea of what a low rent pool hall should look like complete with low-lifes but eventually between the booze, the bravado, and the broad I took Eddie down, left him about two hundred bucks “walking around” money. Left him to cry “uncle.” Cry it for the last time. Between grabbing Fast Eddie’s money and the side bets Bart made I, we were able to lay off for a couple of months (usually after a big score that was standard practice since the one-time suckers who want to brag to the hometown folks that they played hard and fast with the Big Man and almost won scatter to the winds for a while before they inevitably come back for their well-deserved beatings). Bart said, no crowed, that he had had Fast Eddie’s number, a “loser.” Was another gone guy, forget him.  But I had seen some moves, some moves especially before the booze got the better of the kid that I could only dream of trying without looking like a rube.         

This part of the story coming up I pieced together from what Bart told me, what Sharkey had heard, and what little Fast Eddie let on when he came back at me in earnest, in that Zen state or whatever the fuck you want to call it when a guy is “walking with the king.” Eddie went into “hiding,” went licking his wounds, which in the pool world meant that he was trying to put a stake together hustling at pool halls in bowling alleys, places like that where the rubes are dying to lose a fin or double sawbuck and not cry about it. A player at the kid’s level though would have a hard time of making much scratch with the carnival-wheelers so unbeknownst to me Eddie got in touch with Bart who staked him to some dough for a big cut of the proceedings. They made money, a fair amount, but Bart, at least this is what he told me later after I pistol-whipped him before I left for Hollywood and the big beautiful suckers there figured that would just come back to me in the end because Bart still had the kid down as a loser, a big bad loser.         

This part is murkier still. Along the way on this trip that Bart and Fast Eddie took to fleece the rubes this Sarah started to get religion, started wanted to settle down with Eddie, make Eddie settle down. After I had beaten him when he was laying low he moved in with her, they got along okay until Eddie connected with Bart whom Sarah definitely did not like, I guess she was off the bottle for a while but started in again once she saw that Eddie wouldn’t give up his dream, his dream of beating the Big Man. This part is even murkier but one night Eddie was hustling some Bourbon king and Bart and Sarah were left behind to drink the night away. Somehow Bart, who except when negotiating bets and matches was a pretty smooth talker, conned Sarah who was miffed at Eddie like I said into bed. Got her to either take him around the world or let him take her anally (or he forced the issue figuring she was just a bent whore anyway he had odd sexual desires from what I was able to figure out after a few years with him). The boozy haze, the rough sex, being unfaithful to Eddie, maybe her whole fucking life marching before her left her with who knows what angry feelings. In any case that night before Eddie got home she had slit her wrists.     

This last part is not murky, not murky at all. After beating the hell out of Bart he took the bus back to New York and one night he came through Sharkey’s door and I knew I was roasted (Bart had telegrammed about what had happened and told me that he would put up fifty thousand dollars against Fast Eddie’s luck). I had no choice but to play the play out. After Fast Eddie took that fifty thousand and another twenty-five that I had put up I cried “uncle.” Cried uncle and left for Hollywood and the bright lights. Left Fast Eddie to play out his string, left Eddie to “shoot pools, ‘Fast Eddie’, shoot pools.”     

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Black Liberation Struggle: The Key to American Socialist Revolution Part Two In observance of Black History Month, we are pleased to publish the conclusion of an educational presented in December by comrade Jacob Zorn at a gathering of the Spartacist League in New York. Part One appeared in WV No. 1148 (8 February).

[American Left History publishes or re-publishes articles and notices of events that might be of interest to the liberal, left-liberal and radical public. That has been the policy generally since the publication due to financial constraints went solely on-line in the early 2000s as the Internet has allowed new and simply outlets for all kinds of material that were almost impossible to publish when it was solely hard copy going back to the early 1970s.

Over the past couple of months American Left History has received many comments about our policy of publishing materials and notices of events without comment. More than a few comments wondered aloud whether the publication agreed with all, or most of what has been published. Obviously given that we will republish material from sources like the ACLU, the movement for nuclear disarmament and established if small left-wing organizations formally outside the main party system in America unless we were mere by-standers to the political movements many of the positions are too contrary to agree with all of them.   

Policy: unless there is a signed statement of agreement by one of our writers, me or the Editorial Board assume that the article or notice is what we think might be of interest of the Left-wing public and does not constitute and endorsement. Greg Green, site manager]    


[American Left History publishes or re-publishes articles and notices of events that might be of interest to the liberal, left-liberal and radical public. That has been the policy generally since the publication due to financial constraints went solely on-line in the early 2000s as the Internet has allowed new and simply outlets for all kinds of material that were almost impossible to publish when it was solely hard copy going back to the early 1970s.

Over the past couple of months American Left History has received many comments about our policy of publishing materials and notices of events without comment. More than a few comments wondered aloud whether the publication agreed with all, or most of what has been published. Obviously given that we will republish material from sources like the ACLU, the movement for nuclear disarmament and established if small left-wing organizations formally outside the main party system in America unless we were mere by-standers to the political movements many of the positions are too contrary to agree with all of them.   

Policy: unless there is a signed statement of agreement by one of our writers, me or the Editorial Board assume that the article or notice is what we think might be of interest of the Left-wing public and does not constitute and endorsement. Greg Green, site manager]    


Workers Vanguard No. 1148
8 February 2019
Black Liberation Struggle: The Key to American Socialist Revolution
(Part One)
In observance of Black History month, we are pleased to publish an educational presented in December by comrade Jacob Zorn at a gathering of the Spartacist League in New York.
When I was asked to give a class on the black question, I was somewhat taken aback. The black question covers much ground and is central to both American society as a whole and our own history. I am not going to even pretend to cover the entirety of the history of black oppression in North America, much less the entire world. I want to underscore that being a cadre requires constant political study, and part of this is studying the black question. No class can teach you everything you need to know about the black question.
What do we mean by the “centrality of the black question”? Black oppression is still central to almost everything about culture and society in the United States. Discussions about health care, education, religion, sports, music, food, sex are usually at bottom discussions about race. Much of what makes the United States different from other advanced capitalist countries—the extreme religiosity and superstition, the lack of health care, the weakness of unions—is directly or indirectly due to black oppression. Black oppression hits you in the face a million ways each day.
As Marxists, our goal is to build a party that will lead the multiracial working class in struggle to take power through workers revolution. Racial divisions allow the capitalists to derail class struggle and class consciousness. This is the main reason that the United States is one of the few imperialist countries that does not have a party that speaks, even in a distorted and reformist way, in the name of the working class. In the United States, it is common among black people and white leftists to believe that some sort of ahistorical, metaphysical “white supremacy” applies to all white people, who are seen as irredeemably racist. In the New Left, this took the form of arguing that white workers were “bought off” and enjoyed “white skin privilege,” a notion that is once again in vogue. This is not Marxist: if true, socialist revolution would be impossible in the United States.
It is certainly true that many white people in the United States have held and still hold some form of racist ideas. But there is a difference between the racism of the ruling class, which depends on black oppression to maintain its power, and the racism of white workers, which is an obstacle to their class interests. At several times during U.S. history, white working people have fought alongside black working people for their common interests. It is the task of Leninists in the United States to build a party, with a heavily black and Latino leadership, that mobilizes white workers to fight black oppression. This points to the “subjective factor”: communist leadership and interracial class struggle can break down racial (and ethnic) divisions within the working class, raising the consciousness of the proletariat.
Any party which sets out to lead a workers revolution in the United States but which does not fight for black liberation will fail. The struggle against black oppression has proven its ability, time and again, to shake American capitalism to its core. Since the U.S. is at the moment the most powerful imperialist country in the world, the fight for black liberation here is an integral part of the struggle for the liberation of the masses throughout the world. This may appear obvious to us today, but it took the intervention of the Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky in the 1920s to bring this idea to the Communist movement in this country.
The black question is also key to the development of the fight by our political founders of the Revolutionary Tendency against the degeneration of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the early 1960s, and hence for the survival of authentic Trotskyism in the world. It is impossible to be a cadre of the International Communist League for the long term, no matter where you are stationed, without having at least a rudimentary understanding of the black question in the United States. The black question is so important for the working class in the U.S. and throughout the world that it cannot be left to communists just in the United States.
Special Oppression
When we say that black Americans constitute a race-color caste, we mean something quite particular. Caste is not just another way of saying special oppression. Among academics and reformists of all sorts, a common criticism of Marxism has been that it is “class reductionist,” that is, Marxists don’t understand that there are forms of oppression besides class exploitation. This is false. Just to read Marx and Engels shows that they recognized national oppression and women’s oppression.
The current academic vogue of “intersectionality” obscures an understanding of special oppression. The key insight, as it were, of “intersectionality” is that there are various forms of oppression that intersect each other in different ways and at different angles. In looking at any individual, this is surely true. But from a political standpoint it dissolves each person into a mosaic of personal attributes while denying that any of these actually have anything to do with how society is structured. “Intersectionality” either empties any sense of political struggle into the need for mass therapy, or ends up in the old New Left dead end of sectoralism: black people fight for black people, gays fight for gays, women for women, etc.
Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? (1902) explains:
“In a word, every trade-union secretary conducts and helps to conduct ‘the economic struggle against the employers and the government’. It cannot be too strongly maintained that this is still not Social-Democracy [as revolutionary Marxists called themselves at the time], that the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade-union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”
Academic critics and pseudo-socialists deny just this: that the multiracial and multiethnic working class can struggle not just for its own benefit but for the liberation of society from all oppression. The working class includes white workers, who also have an interest in overthrowing this racist capitalist system, contrary to the ideology of “white skin privilege.” Lenin understood, however, that the working class would not struggle to overthrow capitalism except under the leadership of revolutionary Marxists. Part of providing this leadership is to stress the need for unity of the working class, and for all workers to champion the fight for black liberation.
Much of this presentation is based on the writings of Richard Fraser, the veteran Trotskyist and scholar of the black question who was a mentor to our founding cadre. He pioneered our analysis and program on this question. But one of the differences that Fraser had with us is our analysis of black oppression as race-color caste oppression. In a 21 April 1984 letter, Fraser wrote, “I have searched in vain in your literature for any theoretical analysis of the Black question which demonstrates that blacks are a caste.” This is a fair statement, and I think that it is worth going into the question a bit.
At the July 1963 SWP National Convention, the Revolutionary Tendency (RT) supported Fraser’s resolution against George Breitman’s view that the black question was a national question. But the RT submitted a statement that we had some important criticisms of Fraser, in which we stated: “The Negro people are not a nation; rather they are an oppressed race-color caste, in the main comprising the most exploited layer of the American working class.” More than 20 years later, in his polemical letter to us, Fraser claimed that our first use of the concept “race-color caste” came in a passage from a 1969 SDS position paper:
“Are Black people simply working-class, in their vast majority? No. They represent a specially oppressed color caste within the U.S. working class. There are other such specially oppressed strata, or ‘castes,’ within the working class, and within the petty bourgeoisie as well. The special oppression of Blacks is qualitatively similar to that endured by women, youth, many American Indians (some of whom would qualify for a national status in the Marxist sense), and white ethnic minority groups. These examples, too, are predominantly working-class in composition, though sometimes less overwhelmingly so than Blacks. Each of these groups suffers special oppression in addition to the fundamental oppression of the working class under capitalism.”
— “The Secret War Between Brother Klonsky and Stalin (And Who Won),” Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 13, August/September 1969
Comrade Fraser seized upon this formulation (which appeared in a signed article, and which we never repeated) because it wrongly equates black oppression with other forms of special oppression and argues that all forms of special oppression are at bottom caste oppression. He rightly understood this as wrong.
Consider particularly the case of American Indians, some of whom are wrongly considered nations in the above quote. As Leninists, we fight against all forms of oppression. But not every form of special oppression is strategic to the workers revolution. A strategic question really has two aspects. First, that the working class cannot come to power without fighting against that particular form of oppression. Second, that it is impossible for capitalism in a particular country to continue to exist without that type of oppression—in other words, this form of oppression is a central prop of bourgeois rule. Without a fight against black oppression, the revolutionary unity of the working class is impossible; without black oppression, the rule of the bourgeoisie in the United States could not exist.
In the United States, black and white people are essentially culturally the same. This is different from Québécois and English Canadians, for example, who despite having lived under the same state power for more than 250 years still have distinct cultures because they are different nations—unlike black people and white people in the United States. In 1963, Fraser wrote in an unpublished article titled “Revolutionary Integration!”:
“Among the oldest non-native inhabitants of this country, the Negro has contributed a huge share to its wealth, progress and world pre-eminence. He has played heroic and sometimes decisive roles in all of the historically important events. His life is inextricably involved with whites. Precisely because this is his homeland, prejudice and discrimination are infuriating. He has no other home. His Afro-Americanism doesn’t indicate a previous nationality, for a continent is not a nation, and his culture and customs are not those of any African nations. Indeed, he knows not where in Africa his ancestors lived, and often feels strange with Africans (and vice-versa). His affinity for Africa is racial and internationalist.”
In a Los Angeles lecture in 1953, Fraser pointed out: “In spite of the stigma of the black skin...the mutual assimilation of Negro and Anglo-American appears as an overriding law of American historical development which defies the laws of segregation, the prejudice of skin color, and the customs and social relations of the Jim Crow system” (printed in “In Memoriam—Richard S. Fraser,” Prometheus Research Series No. 3, August 1990). Four hundred years after the first people of African descent arrived in Virginia in 1619, two things are clear: their descendants are as American as their white counterparts, and they are still subject to racial oppression.
Despite centuries-long integration of the black population into the American political economy, black people remain forcibly segregated at the bottom of society. They are “the outcast[s] and the untouchable[s]...the pariah[s] at the bottom of the social structure,” as Max Shachtman put it in Communism and the Negro (1933). As comrade Jim Robertson underlined, “In caste-ridden countries...the invariant criteria for caste is a sexual line of division drawn in blood.” This is what anthropologists call “endogamy.” Alongside everyday police violence and extralegal terror, the prevention of interracial marriage is a central aspect of forced segregation.
When President Andrew Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Bill in March 1866, he asked, “If Congress can abrogate all State laws of discrimination between the two races, in the matter of real estate, of suits, and of contracts generally, Congress may not also repeal the State laws as to the contract of marriage between the races?” This emphasizes that any struggle for social equality raises the specter of interracial marriage. Opposing interracial marriage remains the war cry of reactionaries and fascists to this day.
There is another mechanism for enforcing the caste nature of black oppression: the one-drop rule, or what anthropologists call “hypodescent.” This is the race-color aspect of caste oppression. In the United States, race really isn’t about skin color; it is about ancestry, and anybody who has any black ancestry is considered black, even if he or she looks white. Accompanied by violence, this prevents intermarriage. In the same 1953 lecture previously cited, Fraser observed, “It is not the purpose of the law to keep a visibly white person of one-sixty-fourth Negro ancestry in the ghetto in segregation with dark people, but to prevent social contact between white and black in the beginning of such a family descent by stigmatizing the offspring of mixed marriages as black.” Race has no biological basis; its basis is in society. Race in the United States is a permanent and hereditary status that is maintained through hypodescent and forced endogamy.
If one were to develop capitalism in a laboratory, one probably would not think of mixing caste into it, since in an abstract sense, caste cuts against the class-centered basis of capitalist society. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote, “Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses...this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms.... Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” Logically, this process should have destroyed all castes, just as it destroyed the medieval guilds. But this did not happen.
The three examples of caste oppressions that I am familiar with—in India, in Japan and in the United States—all originated in pre-capitalist forms of oppression that the bourgeoisie in each country made use of to bolster its own position as the ruling class. The rise of capitalism led to legal emancipation and equality in each country, but in each case, rather than being swept away, caste oppression became an integral part of the capitalist system. In all three countries, the capitalist class came to power in a belated, non-“classical” way: in India through British imperialism; in Japan through what we’ve termed a “bourgeois non-democratic revolution” (the 1867-68 Meiji Restoration); and in the U.S. through a belated Civil War (which brought the bourgeoisie to power on a national level). This points to a key aspect of the Marxist approach to caste oppression: since the mechanism of caste oppression is built into the fabric of capitalist society itself, the destruction of the caste system requires the working class to overthrow capitalist rule and take power in its own name. Applied to America, this is the program of revolutionary integrationism: the fight for the full integration of black people into an egalitarian socialist society.
In writing this class, I searched our website for the term “race-color caste” in Workers Vanguard over the past dozen years. We have tried in several articles to give a sense of when race-color caste oppression began. We have given conflicting explanations of its origins and the consolidation of black people as a race-color caste: in the period after Bacon’s Rebellion (in 1676); in the existence of slavery generally; the defeat of Reconstruction; the establishment of legalized segregation with the Plessy Supreme Court decision in 1896; the defeat of the Populist movement around the same time; and the Great Migration during World War I. Many of these are signed articles or forums. Truth be known, many of these are found in signed articles or forums by me.
There are three key junctures in the formation of race-color caste oppression in the United States. The first was the consolidation of chattel slavery in the late 1600s and early 1700s, when the American concept of race as we know it originated. The second was the consolidation of the black population in the South as a race-color caste after the Civil War destroyed slavery and in the aftermath of the failure of Radical Reconstruction in the late 1800s. Finally, the third key period was the establishment of a national system of race-color caste oppression with the mass migration of black people to the urban North and their integration into the industrial working class, in the early/​middle part of the 1900s. The legal abolition of Jim Crow segregation in the 1950s and 1960s did not change the nature of black oppression, but it did change some of its outward forms.
Slavery and the Origins of Capitalism...and Race
Ancient slavery was not race-based. Slavery had largely disappeared during the Middle Ages, but as capitalism developed, it resurrected slavery. Slavery was an integral part of what Marx labeled “primitive capital accumulation.” This included the slave trade itself, as well as the production of commodities—especially sugar—in the Americas. Africa was an important market for products that were manufactured in Europe. In the U.S., slavery was the bedrock of capitalism, with the wealth of cotton and other slave-produced products helping the capitalist system get started. To give two examples: Brooks Brothers profited from selling clothing to slaves, while the investment bank Brown Brothers and Co. owned slave plantations.
Race in the United States has always been inseparable from laborBefore the slave trade, the English had no concept of race as we understand it. As Fraser put it in an unfinished manuscript from the 1980s called “The Race Concept”: “The fact that slaves were black and masters were white was an accident of history.... Skin color was a fact of life that differed between these two people. That difference had an ancient and interesting origin, but it did not have anything to do with the ability of Europeans to enslave Africans.” The first Europeans to use enslaved Africans as a labor force were most likely the Portuguese, who developed sugar plantations in their colonies off the coast of Africa—for example, the Azores and Madeira—in the mid 1400s.
The English came to use slavery later. The first English slave colonies in the Americas were Barbados and Virginia, but English planters there did not use African slaves at first; they used indentured servants—poor people, criminals, Catholics, Irish, Scotsmen and others not seen as fully human. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, planters in both Barbados and Virginia transitioned to a workforce of black slaves. While the number of Europeans willing to be indentured servants was declining, there was a steady supply of Africans since there was a growing slave trade. Life expectancies were also increasing, which meant that slaves would provide more years of labor, and that indentured servants would survive their indentures and demand the land they had been promised.
In the 1600s, according to one estimate, at least 100,000 indentured servants became free in British North America (Charles Beard, A Basic History of the United States [1944]). For the planters, this posed a danger. Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 underlined that colonial Virginia was a tinderbox ready to explode. Before the American Revolution, Bacon’s Rebellion was the largest popular rising in the colonies. Under the leadership of Nathaniel Bacon, thousands of Virginians—including indentured servants and slaves—rose up against Governor William Berkeley, accusing him of being too friendly with the Indians. This shook the planter elite, and they wanted to drive a wedge between white servants and black slaves. In the decades after Bacon’s Rebellion, black slaves became the dominant labor force in Virginia and skin color became a way of telling one’s place in society. Without glorifying Bacon, this episode underlines that race has always played a role in dividing the working people and stabilizing the rule of a small ruling class.
The consolidation of slavery gave rise to the concept of what was known as the “Negro” and “white” races. This was part of what Fraser referred to as the process of “how a social difference got transformed into a biological difference.” This color line became permanent and hereditary. Black slaves remained black slaves, as did their children and grandchildren. Unlike in ancient Rome, when an enslaved woman had a child, that child was also enslaved. Robert Beverley, a Virginia planter, published a book in 1705 that contains a chapter called “Of the Servants and Slaves in Virginia.” This chapter is a useful guide to the difference between indentured servants and slaves. It begins: “Their Servants, they distinguish by the Names of Slaves for Life, and Servants for a time. Slaves are the Negroes, and their Posterity, following the condition of the Mother.... They are call’d Slaves...because it is for Life.”
Black skin became a mark of permanent servitude, and was reflected as such in law. Black people were essentially cast out of the human race as pariahs. They became a race apart. The concept of race was created to justify slavery: slaves had black skin, and slaves were inferior; therefore, black skin was a sign of inferiority. This was the origin of the creation of race, but not yet caste.
Workers Vanguard No. 1149
22 February 2019
Black Liberation Struggle: The Key to American Socialist Revolution
Part Two
In observance of Black History Month, we are pleased to publish the conclusion of an educational presented in December by comrade Jacob Zorn at a gathering of the Spartacist League in New York. Part One appeared in WV No. 1148 (8 February).
It is important to contrast how the race concept in the U.S. incorporated the “one-drop rule,” which was not the case elsewhere in the Americas. In Puerto Rico, there is a famous poem by Fortunato Vizcarrondo, “¿Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá?” whose title translates as, “Where is your grandmother?” In it, a black Puerto Rican responds to racist taunts by a white Puerto Rican, pointing out that both of them have black grandmothers, but his is a proud part of the family while the other’s is hidden. The poem is powerful because many “white” Puerto Ricans have black ancestors whom they deny. But such a poem wouldn’t work in the United States. Anybody in the U.S. with a black grandparent—or great-grandparent—is black, no matter his or her physical appearance.
For the overwhelming majority of slaves in the U.S., slavery was a permanent condition. Manumission was much less common than in other countries, so there was a much smaller population of free black people. There was at the same time a much larger white population than in much of the Caribbean.
Here it is important to keep in mind that about 500,000 African slaves ended up in the U.S.—out of 12.5 million enslaved Africans who were brought to the Americas between 1525 and 1866. More than a third of all these slaves ended up in Brazil—about ten times the number who ended up in the U.S. In Brazil by the time of abolition in 1888, there was a significant non-slave black population. According to the 1872 census, at least three-quarters of all black and mixed-race Brazilians—some 4.25 million people—were free. They constituted 40 percent of the entire population in Brazil.
Thus, the neat equation of black skin and being a slave broke down in Brazil in a way that it did not in the American South. I would argue that unlike in the United States, black people in Brazil do not form a caste. In fact, the term “black Brazilian” means something different in Brazil than it would to an American, since the “one-drop rule” does not exist in Brazil. Racial mixing is much more common—and accepted—in Brazil. There is a saying in Brazil, “money whitens.” This means that wealth and status can to some degree offset racial discrimination. In the U.S. it is usually the opposite: the caste nature of black oppression means that even the most distinguished black person is still subject to racist abuse.
Black oppression is central to Brazilian society, and black and mixed-race people are specially oppressed—but it takes a different form than in the United States. The prevalence of racial mixture—sometimes referred to as “racial democracy”—is used to obscure black oppression in Brazil. Of course, a revolutionary party in Brazil would crucially need to take up the banner of black liberation.
In the U.S., the free black population was much smaller. According to the census of 1860, there were slightly less than 500,000 free black people in the United States—mostly in the Mid-Atlantic region or the Upper South—compared to almost four million slaves. In the U.S., people of mixed race were considered black, and the free black population was much more marginal. Southern states tried to force free blacks to leave, and many Northern states passed laws trying to prevent them from settling there. Some whites who opposed slavery supported the colonization movement, which held that free blacks could not live alongside whites and that former slaves would have to “colonize” places in Africa or Central America.
The largest number of free blacks in the country before the Civil War lived in the North, and as C. Vann Woodward observed, Jim Crow segregation “was born in the North and reached an advanced age before moving South in force” (The Strange Career of Jim Crow [1974]). The Democratic Party in the North was dedicated to segregation. During the Civil War, a Democratic Party propagandist even invented a word, “miscegenation,” to describe the rampant race-mixing that was sure to follow if black people achieved equality.
This treatment of free black people was the “prototype” of caste subjugation: that a population, officially free and not slave, could be segregated, discriminated against, and at times violently attacked for no reason other than their skin color. The first use of the term “caste” that I am aware of was in the front page of the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator in 1831, referring to free black people in Washington, D.C., as “continuing, even as free men an unenlightened and degraded caste.” In 1850, Frederick Douglass referred to “the malign feeling which passes under the name of prejudice against color” as a “mean spirit of caste.” He added: “Properly speaking, prejudice against color does not exist in this country.” Douglass then gave a pretty good description of race-color caste oppression of black people who were not slaves:
“We are then a persecuted people; not because we are colored, but simply because that color has for a series of years been coupled in the public mind with the degradation of slavery and servitude. In these conditions, we are thought to be in our place; and to aspire to anything above them, is to contradict the established views of the community—to get out of our sphere, and commit the provoking sin of impudence.”
— “Prejudice Against Color” (1850), in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 2, ed. Philip S. Foner (1950)
After the recent furor over Trump’s appointment of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, I read one of its classic decisions, Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). The immediate importance of the case was whether Dred Scott should be free because he had lived in Illinois, a free state. The historic importance of this decision is that it invalidated the Missouri Compromise (1820), destroying the balance between slave and free states and paving the way for the Civil War. Most of the decision deals with whether black people who were not slaves were citizens of the United States. As Chief Justice Taney put it:
“The question is simply this: can a negro whose ancestors were imported into this country and sold as slaves become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen, one of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution?”
And Taney’s response was clear: Black people “had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” In other words, black people in the United States would forever be marked as inferior because their ancestors had been slaves. In a sense, the Dred Scott decision is an early defense of what would become race-color caste oppression.
The Civil War
This does not mean there was a straight line from the Supreme Court ruling in 1857 to black oppression today. One of the greatest periods of social struggle comes between the two: the Civil War and Reconstruction, which destroyed the entire slave system and opened the possibility of creating an interracial bourgeois democracy. Many academics, including several who are on the left side of the political spectrum, claim that there was no fundamental class difference between the slave South and the capitalist North.
Various leftists echo this. The crown of idiocy must go to Progressive Labor (PL). A 9 March 2018 Challenge article called Lincoln “a lifelong and committed racist,” a “white supremacist” and “ethnic cleanser.” Another PL article (16 June 2016) argues that “Juneteenth Hides Truth of Lincoln’s Racist Union ‘Victory’.” It seems pointless to polemicize against people who cannot tell the difference between Sherman’s march to the sea and Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union. To deny the progressive nature of the Civil War is to abandon historical materialism; it also takes capitalist society—and racist ideology—as everlasting. At bottom, it evinces a profound historical pessimism and liberal moralism.
But it is not just PL. Comrade Don Alexander brought to my attention a pamphlet that the Internationalist Group (IG) put out in 2009, “Marx on Slavery and the U.S. Civil War.” In it there is a polemic against my forum on the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 (reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 22, July 2012). The IG says that we “have lost sight of the capitalist character of slavery.” Referring to my article, they state:
“Here the slavocracy and the slave system are counterposed to the bourgeoisie and the capitalist system, as if they were two different ruling classes and two different modes of production, rather than two sections of the bourgeois ruling class whose interests clashed, and where defeat of the slave masters was necessary for industrial capitalism to flourish.”
If there was no class difference between the bourgeoisie in the North and the slavocracy in the South, but merely a squabble within the bourgeoisie as the IG states, then the Civil War was not necessary, and there is no reason to support one side of the bourgeoisie or the other. To be sure, the IG supports the North in the Civil War. In fact, in this same pamphlet there is a polemic against PL. But nowhere in the article does the IG disprove PL’s analysis—because they share the same point of view.
The IG pamphlet contains one of my favorite articles by Marx, the two-part “The Civil War in the United States,” published in October and November 1861. This is a polemic against the British bourgeoisie, who claimed that slavery was not the central issue in the Civil War. Marx shows how the Civil War was a social revolution and that the North would need to destroy slavery in order to win. In the second part, Marx asserted:
“The present struggle between the South and North is, therefore, nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labour. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side by side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.”
This contradicts the IG’s own view that there was no question of “two different ruling classes and two different modes of production” in the Civil War. Marx and Engels never wavered in their support to the North. Marx’s emphasis on the central role of slavery in the war was part of his effort to build support among British workers for a Northern victory, even though the shortage of cotton had devastated the British textile industry. The IG cynically reprints this article by Marx, which actually refutes their anti-Marxist position.
The IG’s argument dovetails with a growing trend among historians. On the one hand, this trend is useful because it highlights the connections between the slave system and early capitalism. But it also flattens out the development of slavery and capitalism. If slavery were just some variant of capitalism, there is no class difference between the North and South, and there is no reason to support the North in the Civil War. For that matter, then there is no difference between the Roman Empire and capitalism. And while they don’t write about it, it is safe to assume that most of these historians would think that China today is also a capitalist country.
They turn capitalism into a general abstraction—all of these systems have some form of market in which profit played a role—and remove the issue of class from capitalism. In that sense, they remove class strugglewhich is the only way that history progresses. But if history is really just different gradations of capitalism, there really isn’t any chance of fundamental social change. By denying that the Civil War was a revolution fought out between counterposed social systems, and that slavery was the central issue, this perspective despairs of white workers ever being won to the fight for black rights.
The Civil War was a great bourgeois revolution because it smashed slavery and meant the victory of the capitalist order, based on “free labor” as it was called, over the system of slave labor. It was also part of a whole series of wars for national unity. But it also came very late in the epoch of bourgeois revolutions. The most progressive period of American capitalism was compressed into a few years, and almost immediately after the end of the Civil War, the U.S. started becoming an imperialist power. In the 1870s, the progressive aspects and the reactionary aspects of capitalism are almost simultaneous.
Reconstruction and Its Defeat
Seeking to defend black oppression, bourgeois historians and politicians buried Reconstruction under a pile of racist lies to “prove” racial equality was impossible. W.E.B. Du Bois demolished this as early as 1910 in an article published in the American Historical Review, but it was not until the civil rights movement that white historians began to tell the truth about Reconstruction. It was during Reconstruction that two visions of black people in capitalist America were posed: full and equal citizens, or an oppressed caste. Again, at bottom this was a conflict over labor.
In Charleston, South Carolina, on 21 March 1865, 4,000 black people celebrated the Union occupation of their city. Among the banners were “We Know No Masters But Ourselves,” and “We Know No Caste or Color.” Former slaves and their allies fought for the ability to control their own labor, without being dominated by white planters. Above all, this meant that the former slaves wanted landthe main productive resource in the South—land that they and their ancestors had worked without compensation for almost 200 years.
On the other hand, after the Confederacy’s surrender in early April, the remnants of the defeated Southern planter class wanted former slaves to continue to work in the cotton fields as a cheap, steady supply of labor. Forced to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, Southern politicians after the Civil War passed laws known as “Black Codes” that were designed to make sure black people were terrorized into being a reliable, docile, cheap labor force on the Southern plantations.
In 1865, ex-Confederate brigadier general Benjamin G. Humphreys was elected governor of Mississippi. In urging that Mississippi pass its Black Codes, he asserted: “The Negro is free, whether we like it or not. To be free, however, does not make him a citizen, or entitle him to political or social equality with the white race.” Crucially, these laws applied to all black people—including those few who had been free before the Civil War. The Black Codes were an attempt to decree that all black people in the South formed a subordinate caste, whose members might be free, but they still had no rights a white man had to respect.
But these laws met tremendous resistance among black people in the South. The Black Codes helped spur Northern Republicans to begin what became known as Radical Reconstruction, when Republicans in Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 over President Andrew Johnson’s veto. In 1868, Congress removed Governor Humphreys and replaced him with Union general Adelbert Ames. For a period, the national government, and crucially the military, pushed an egalitarian vision. The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868; this stated that everybody born in the United States was a citizen, invalidating the Dred Scott decision. In 1870, Congress ratified the Fifteenth Amendment which protected the right to vote for all male citizens.
Reconstruction was the first attempt to create a society in which black and white people were equal citizens—which flew in the face of the entire history of the U.S. since the 1670s. While Reconstruction is usually viewed as an issue of black and white, the defeat of the slavocracy also accentuated the class differences among Southern whites. Democratic Party appeals to white supremacy were a way to block unity between poor whites and blacks.
In less than a decade, people who had formerly been legal property, with no rights that whites were bound to respect, assumed key roles in society: attending schools, voting, running for office and demanding their rights. But despite the best efforts of a few courageous white Radical Republicans like Charles Sumner and his House colleague Thaddeus Stevens, as well as black leaders like Frederick Douglass, Reconstruction failed.
This raises the question: Could Reconstruction have succeeded? There is a tendency among some historians to pose the defeat of Reconstruction as a military question. To be sure, during Reconstruction, black Southerners and their white Republican allies faced tremendous violence by the Democratic Party and its military wing, the Ku Klux Klan. There is no military reason why the Union Army, that had already defeated the Confederacy, could not have put paid to Southern racists.
But the Republicans—the main party of the Northern bourgeoisie—did not do so, not because they were unable to do so, but because they decided this would not have been in their class interests. In order for Reconstruction to have worked, it would have needed to destroy the slavocracy, emancipate the slave population, break the former masters’ grip on the land, and distribute the productive resources of the South, the land, to the now-free population. This would likely have broken the dependency of the South on plantation monoculture and could have paved the way for the development of a modern, industrial South.
This is exactly what did not happen. This was not for lack of awareness. Black people during Reconstruction consistently and insistently demanded land. Sometimes, the Republicans and the bourgeoisie have been accused of “betraying” Reconstruction by not redistributing land. Certainly, they betrayed the hopes of the black population, but they did not betray their own class interests. As capitalists, the Northern bourgeoisie looked to the South not as a site for social transformation but as a place to make money. And making money required getting cotton production up and running on a large scale, not diversified agriculture on small holdings. They didn’t distribute the land to the former slaves because they wanted it themselves, which meant getting black people back to work.
The second reason is ideological. The Reconstruction era is a period of growth for Northern industry and we see the birth of a combative labor movement, along with the attempts of the U.S. capitalist class to smash the workers. The capitalist class, in the main, feared anything that could be seen as a threat to private property. The New York Times spelled this out when it warned in June 1867 that “confiscation as proposed by Stevens and [Wendell] Phillips, or a division of land as suggested by Senator Wade, is a war upon property, which, once begun, would not be confined to the South.” The Paris Commune of 1871, which saw the working class seize power for the first time, frightened the bourgeoisie even more.
As we wrote in “Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom” (1966, reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 9):
“Capitalist and slave alike stood to gain from the suppression of the planter aristocracy but beyond that had no further common interests. In fact, it was the Negroes themselves who, within the protective framework provided by the Reconstruction Acts and the military dictatorship of the occupying Union army, carried through the social revolution and destruction of the older planter class.”
The bourgeoisie was not going to do what was necessary to finish the historic tasks of the Civil War. The black population lacked the strength to do so (which is not to say that the freedmen and their allies did not fight bravely for their rights, as was clear in their fights for public education and against school segregation). And the working class was too immature—focused on its own struggles and tied to the Democratic Party in the North—to take up these tasks in the 1870s.
The First International, founded by Karl Marx, did have followers in the U.S., but they were not strong enough to win over black militants and workers to a common working-class party. Instead of forming a mass workers party, white workers remained loyal to the Democratic Party and black people remained loyal to the Republicans. The defeat of Reconstruction set the stage for the consolidation of the black population in the South into a race-color caste.
This brings up another slogan that we use: Finish the Civil War! This means that the tasks first posed by Reconstruction—the integration of black people into American society on the basis of full social, political and economic equality—remain outstanding 150 years later. And they can only be accomplished through workers revolution.
Black Oppression and the Rise of U.S. Imperialism
Everybody is familiar with Marx’s famous saying, in Capital, Vol. 1 (1867), that “labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” This was more than a moral appeal against slavery. It was a statement of fact: Marx recognized that so long as half the country was dominated by slavery, workers would never be able to fight for even basic trade-union rights. The Civil War paved the way for the growth of American capitalism and the labor movement.
This was shown most clearly by the 1877 railroad strike, the first nationwide strike. The number of production workers in the U.S. rose from 1.3 million before the Civil War to over 5 million at the end of the 1800s. The consolidation of the black population as an oppressed race-color caste took place at the same time the working class was growing; black oppression was imprinted upon the labor movement. This period saw the development of the Populist movement of farmers against their oppression by the banks, railroads, etc. This is covered in comrade Brian Manning’s forum in March 2017 (“Race, Class and American Populism,” reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 26, August 2018), so I won’t go into detail.
The Populist movement was not a working-class movement, but it did raise the specter of joint black-white struggle in the South. In order to undercut Populism, the bourgeoisie co-opted a section of the white leadership of the Populists into the Democratic Party, and passed a series of laws throughout the South that disenfranchised black voters and consolidated Jim Crow segregation. This is what Mike Goldfield called “the system of 1896” in The Color of Politics (1997).
Black oppression also left its indelible imprint on U.S. imperialism, which developed at the same time. U.S. foreign policy has always been racist, reflecting America’s genocide against American Indians and the domination of U.S. politics by the slavocracy. Nevertheless, there was a big change between the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 and the Spanish-American War of 1898. When the U.S. invaded Mexico, it took over only the section of Mexico that was the most sparsely populated in order to avoid having to incorporate non-white, non-English-speaking non-Protestants. In 1869, there was a plan to annex Santo Domingo, which failed in part because of racist opposition.
But in 1898, after the Plessy decision, the U.S. seized Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. By this time, racism no longer served as an obstacle to expansion, but as a justification for imperialism. The U.S. occupation of Cuba, which was a former slave society, reinforced the oppression of black Cubans. A few years later, the U.S. imperialists imposed strict segregation between black West Indian workers and white Americans in the Panama Canal Zone.
From 1870 to about 1900, only about 3 percent of Southern-born black people lived in the North. Then in the first half of the 20th century came the Great Migration, when millions of black people moved from the rural South to the urban North. This merits an entire class in itself, but I want to highlight two developments. First, the black question ceased to be a Southern question and became a nationwide question. Since black oppression in the North was not mainly a question of law, the conditions that black people faced in the North—residential segregation, police violence, poverty—underlined that black oppression was built into the base of American capitalism, not just its legal superstructure.
Second, black people became integrated into the industrial working class, albeit in the worst jobs and as the last hired and first fired. Religious and ethnic divisions between white workers of different backgrounds over time became subordinated to black-white divisions as the means to keep the working class down. This underscores the importance of the entire working class taking up the fight against black oppression, while also highlighting the role that black workers will play in the destruction of capitalism itself.
Race-Color Caste Analysis Complements Fraser
I want to conclude on the question of Richard Fraser and caste. Many comrades have observed that Fraser in his 1953 two-part lecture describes perfectly the mechanisms of race-color caste oppression. At the same time, Fraser opposed the term “caste” to describe the black question in the U.S. In his 1984 letter to us, Fraser notes that most of his ideas were based on black intellectuals, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier and Oliver Cromwell Cox. Later in the letter, he acknowledges an “original thought”: that racial oppression “will be overthrown with the overthrow of the capitalist class, and only by that.” The greatness of Fraser’s contribution to Marxism is just that: not only that he synthesized the disparate strands of black intellectual thought (which is a monumental task in itself) but he did so in the service of a revolutionary program to lead the working class to victory.
Rather than contradicting Fraser’s broader analysis of black oppression, the concept of color-caste oppression complements it. One of Fraser’s most insistent points is (as he put in his letter) “that the racial structure and race relations in the U.S. are historically unique. That no society has ever been founded upon a division based exclusively upon superficial characteristics.” To be honest, I long stumbled over this argument. The historical uniqueness of the American black question is obvious, but in my travels throughout the world, particularly Latin America, I have seen countries with a history of black chattel slavery in which black oppression today plays an important role in maintaining capitalism. As I hope I explained here, the historical evolution of race-color caste explains the fundamental difference between, say, black oppression in Cuba and Brazil, on the one hand, and in the United States on the other.
Fraser emphasized how the entire weight of American capitalism rests upon black oppression. This means that the bourgeoisie uses its arsenal of state repression to maintain black oppression. But it also means that the entire edifice of U.S. imperialism is built on an unstable foundation, since the struggle against black oppression shakes capitalist America to its core. This is even more true today, as the decaying bourgeoisie spits on its own heritage, defending the Confederacy and attacking the Fourteenth Amendment. This makes even more crucial our task of building a revolutionary workers party, 70 percent black, Latino and other minority, that can “clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”