Thursday, October 02, 2008

The USA Trilogy- The Work Of John Dos Passos In His Prime

BOOK REVIEW

USA Trilogy: The 42nd Parallel; 1919; The Big Money, John Dos Passos, Library of America, 1997


I believe that the USA trilogy presented here (thankfully, under one roof- when I first read it in my youth I had to scrounge around for the third book) was the first time that I had read a novel than used the literary devices that the author John Dos Passos employed here. Vignettes, bits of poetry, snap biographies, headline banners all are employed here to great effect to both set up the drama of the narrative (such as it is) and the interplay between the various characters. Today we are all very familiar with the device; as the modern reader has E.L. Doctorow to rely on to continue this tradition as he has done in such works as Ragtime and The Book of Daniel. But back then this was rather an unusual format and one that today’s academic literary scholars have taken apart piece by piece in their efforts discount this work as a worthy insight into a slice of Americana in the first third of the 20th century. However, back in his day he was rated right up there with old Hemingway. That was rarefied air indeed.

The stories here cross between the exploits of the rich (and their wannabes) and the exploitation of poor (and their gonnabes). As is natural in a novel, modern or otherwise, we also have the search for love, the trauma of lost love, the inevitable longings and the occasional betrayals of that condition. We have hustlers (in high and low places), drifters, grifters and midnight shifters. In short, a regular cross-section of the white native and immigrant populations of that period. We see these characters in America and the other noted spots of the period, such as Mexico, Europe and Russia. We see them as political, anti-political, non-political and clueless, wise or broken. In some 1300 pages we get a companion as much as a novel. For those of certain generations, including this writer’s generation of '68, these characters- designers, high powered executives, labor organizers, scabs, revolutionaries were types we were at least familiar with from stories in childhood. Well, friends they are back here in this edition. So take your time and get re-introduced to a slice of America that is long gone and ain’t coming back.

A short comment on the author's politics- at this period in his life (the 1920’s) he was an ardent leftist of some persuasion. (I have asked around but nobody believes that he was actually in the American Communist Party (any help here?). In Spain in the 1936-37 period he was, according to my sources, close to some of the Americans in the International Brigade (Abraham Lincoln Battalion) and wrote some good articles on their exploits and their trials and tribulations. All this is by way of saying that I think that Dos Passos' youthful leftist political slant helped fuel the book and gave it a vitality lacking in some of his latter work when he got old, cranky and right-wing about politics.

Friday, September 26, 2008

*From The Pages Of "Workers Vanguard"- The Fight For School Integration In Boston -A Guest Commentary

Click on the headline to link to a "Workers Vanguard" article, dated September 26, 2008, concerning the historic struggle to achieve school integration in America, and in Boston in particular.

Markin comment:

I will defer to the commentator in the linked article for now. I have my own memories and comments on this subject which I will place in this space when I get a chance. Overall though, as to the tasks necessary for the defense of the black school children in Boston, and the responses of most of the left to those tasks, it is pretty accurate.

Another Walk On The Wild Side with Nelson Algren

BOOK REVIEW

A Walk on the Wild Side, Nelson Algren, The Noonday Press, 1984


As I have mentioned in other reviews of Nelson Algren's work, such as The Man With The Golden Arm and The Neon Wilderness, I am personally very familiar with the social milieu that he is working. Growing up in a post-World War II built housing project this reviewer knew first hand the so-called `romance' of drugs, the gun, the ne'er do well hustler and the fallen sister. And I also learned the complex mechanisms one needed to develop in order to survive at that place where the urban working poor meet and mix with the lumpen proletariat- the con men, dopesters, grifters, drifters and gamblers who feed on the downtrodden. This is definitely not the mix that Damon Runyon celebrated in his Guys and Dolls-type stories. Far from it.

Nelson Algren has once again, through hanging around Chicago police stations (does anyone describe that milieu, cops and criminals, better?), other nefarious locales and the sheer ability to observe, gotten that sense of foreboding, despair and the just plain oblivion of America's mean streets down pat. In this, probably his best literary endeavor in that vein, Algren has gotten down to the core of existence for the would be world-beater hustler Dove Linkhorn a character who symbolizes a certain aspect of American life in his way, as say, Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby or Hemingway's Robert Jordan do in theirs.

Several factors make this an exceptional work. Not the least is the beginning section’s description of the antecedents of the "white trash" phenomena, as exemplified by Dove, that as always been something of a hidden secret about the American experience. In short, what happens when the land runs out, or in Professor Frederick Jackson Turner's thesis-the frontier ends. Nobody has put this in literature better than Algren, even Steinbeck. Furthermore, he has moved the story line here back in time from his usual 1940's and 1950's to the 1930's when some cosmic shifts were occurring in American life.

Algren has also moved the geography from Chicago to New Orleans and integrated some of his short story characters and story lines found in his collection Neon Wilderness into this project. Changes in time, place and characters there may be but that raw struggle for survival for those down almost below the base of society is still the same. The only objection that I have is that the portrait of Linkhorn, as described here by Algren, gives me an impression that old Dove could never ever make it in his `chosen' world unlike, say, Frankie Machine who has that urban grit almost genetically build into him in order to survive. Frankly, I do not believe that Dove could have survived in my old housing project. Frankie Machine would have been the `king of the hill'. Read this valuable book about an America that, then and now, is hidden in the shadows.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

*From The Archives Of "Women And Revolution"-"Silkwood"-A Film Review

Click on the headline to link to a "Wikipedia" entry for Karen Silkwood

Markin comment:

The following is an article from the Spring 1984 issue of "Women and Revolution" that may have some historical interest for old "new leftists", perhaps, and well as for younger militants interested in various cultural and social questions that intersect the class struggle. Or for those just interested in a Marxist position on a series of social questions that are thrust upon us by the vagaries of bourgeois society. I will be posting more such articles from the back issues of "Women and Revolution" during Women's History Month and periodically throughout the year.

**********

Silkwood. Directed by Mike Nichols. Written by
Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen. ABC Motion Pictures.
A Twentieth Century-Fox release, 1984.


By Amy Rath

The long-standing controversy over the death of Karen Silkwood is being debated yet again, as the release of the movie Silkwood brings the case into the public eye. Silkwood has long been embraced by feminist and ecology groups as a heroine and martyr to the atomic power industry—the "no-nuke" Norma Rae; many believe she was deliberately poisoned with radioactive material and murdered to shut her up. Now, the movie, starring Meryl Streep and directed by Mike Nichols, has been seized upon by such bourgeois mouthpieces as the New York Times and the Washington Post to propagandize for the nuclear energy industry and smear her name.

"Fact and Legend Clash in "Silkwood'," cired the Times' science writer William J. broad, masquerading as a movie critic in the Sunday Arts and Leisure section. "Chicanery," "meretricious," "a perversion of the reporter's craft," blasts a Times (25 December 1983) editorial. That same day the Washington Post printed a piece by one Nick Thimmesch, a free-lance journalist with ties to Silkwood's employer, the Kerr-McGee corporation, charging "glaring discrepancies between the known record and the film's representations."

These are lies. In fact, Silkwood sticks remarkably close to the documentary record. If anything, it is surprisingly devoid of politics for such an alleged propaganda tract. Frankly, it's a little dull. It includes a lot of material (some of it made up, presumably for dramatic interest) about Karen Silkwood's unremarkable personal life. Like most people, she had problems with her lovers and roommates, didn't get along with her ex-spouse, was often troubled, and drank and took drugs. The bulk of the movie is a retelling of the last few weeks of her life, and raises more questions than it answers. How were Karen Silkwood's body and home contaminated with plutonium? Was Kerr-McGee deliberately covering up faulty fuel rods, which could lead to a disastrous accident at the breeder-reactor in Washington state where the rods were to be shipped? What happened on that Oklahoma highway on 13 November 1974, when Karen Silkwood was killed in a car crash, en route to an interview with a New York Times reporter?

The ending of the movie shows Silkwood blinded by the headlights of a truck on the highway, then her mangled body and car, seeming to imply that she was run off the road, as indeed independent investigators have concluded from an examination of her car and the tire tracks on the road and grass. Then a written message on the screen reports that Oklahoma police ruled her death a one-car accident and found traces of methaqualone (Quaalude) and alcohol in her blood¬stream. The conclusion is left for the viewer to decide We may never know the answers to these questions. As we noted in Workers Vanguard (No. 146,25 February 1977) in an article titled "Conspiracy and Cover-Up in Atomic Industry: FBI Drops Inquiry in Karen Silkwood Death":

"The abrupt cancellation of the second Congressional investigation into FBI handling of the case of Karen Silkwood has added to a widespread belief that the facts surrounding the death of the young trade unionist two years ago are being covered up at the highest levels of industry and government.

"...her documentation of company negligence and falsification of safety records was damning to powerful interests and as long as the bourgeois courts and commissions are running the investigations of her death, the only results will be successive cover-ups of the cover-ups."

In the fall of 1974 Karen Silkwood had been working for two years as a laboratory technician at the Cimarron, Oklahoma plutonium processing facility owned by Kerr-McGee, one of the largest energy conglomerates in the U.S. She became interested in health and safety issues at the plant. She brought her worries to the union, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), and was elected as a union safety inspector, the movie makes this appear to be her first interest in the union. In fact, she had been one of the few die-hards in a defeated strike the previous year; she never crossed the picket line and she remained in the union even when its membership went down to 20. Along with fellow unionists, she traveled to union headquarters in Washington, D.C., where officials assigned her to gather documentation of company cover-ups of faulty fuel rods, as well as other safety violations.

Early in November 1974, Silkwood was repeatedly contaminated with plutonium, one of the deadliest materials known to man, in circumstances which have never been fully explained. In the Hollywood movie Meryl Streep ends up with raw pink patches over her face from decontamination scrubdowns. Her panicked expression when she knows she has to face a second one imparts the horror of it. Yet it is only a pale image of the reality. Silkwood's first scrubdown was with Tide and Clorox; the two others which, occurred over the next two days employed a sandpaper-like paste of potassium permanganate and sodium bisulfate. De¬spite this chemical torture (try scrubbing yourself with Ajax sometime), her skin still registered high levels of radiation. Worse yet, three days of nasal smears (to monitor inhaled radioactive contamination) increased to over 40,000 disintegrations per minute (dpm)— normal background radiation from cosmic rays and naturally occurring isotopes is roughly 30 dpm.

Silkwood's house was contaminated as well; it was stripped and her belongings were sealed and buried— one scene poignantly portrayed in the movie. An examination conducted at the medical facility at Los Alamos showed that she had received internal contami¬nation possibly as high as 24 nanocuries of plutonium (about 50,000 dpm). The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC, now Nuclear Regulatory Commission) has set a lifetime limit of 16 nanocuries; many specialists consider this hundreds of times too high. The fact is that plutonium is an extremely potent carcinogen, inhalation of which is virtually certain to induce lung cancer at levels where other radioactive nuclides can be tolerat¬ed. And Silkwood was particularly susceptible—she was female, had lung problems (asthma) and was small, under 100 pounds. In short, the plutonium she received chained her to cancer and a painful, slow death.

It is for this contamination, which an Oklahoma jury ruled the responsibility of Kerr-McGee, that $10.5 million in punitive damages was assessed against the company for the Silkwood estate. On January 11 the Supreme Court ruled the court had a legitimate right to assess this penalty; however, the case has been returned to a Jower court where Kerr-McGee may challenge the award on new grounds. Kerr-McGee has held that the contamination was "by her own hand," as a plot to discredit the company, a contention repeated by the New York Times in its editorial, which doesn't even mention that a jury had ruled this imputation not proved.

Since then, theories about Silkwood's contamination have included such slanderous tales as that put forth by alleged FBI informer Jacque Srouji, who claimed that Silkwood was deliberately contaminated by the union, to create a martyr. This is a telling indication of how far the capitalists will go to discredit the only thing that stands between the workers and total disregard for any safety. In the movie the International union representatives are made to appear as a bunch of slick bureaucrats who push Silkwood way out front without anywhere near sufficient backup. Certainly the OCAW is as craven before the capitalists as any other union in the U.S. But it has fought, however partially, for safer conditions for the workers it represents.

In the movie, Silkwood posits that someone purposely contaminated her urine-specimen jar with plutonium while it was in her locker room, a jar she later accidentally broke in her bathroom at home. This explanation is plausible, but we can't know for certain. We do know that Silkwood had been a straight A student in school, the only girl in her high school chemistry class, a member of the National Honor Society. She had studied medical technology. She knew that tampering with plutonium was death. The idea that she would deliberately contaminate herself could originate only in the sick and vicious minds of a profit-mad industry like Kerr-McGee.

Even the New York Times had to admit that Kerr-McGee was "a hellish place to work." Between 1970 and 1974 there were 574 reported exposures to plutonium. Dr. Karl Morgan, formerly a health physicist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, testified at a Congressional investigation that he had never seen a facility so poorly run. The plant was constructed in a tornado alley; the tornado warnings were so frequent that the company never bothered to remove the plutonium to a safe place. Yet the hazards of the plant get barely a nod in the film. Only one other instance of contamination is shown, Silkwood's friend Thelma. But when Silkwood is shown leaving off her urine sample at the lab for analysis, the audience sees many such samples lined up, thus many more contaminations.

Yes, nuclear power is dangerous. An accident such as almost happened at Three Mile Island could kill thousands of people. But the only "solution" to this problem provided by the movie Silkwood—and shared in real life by the OCAW union tops—is, ironically enough, the New York Times! Get the Times to publish the damning evidence, and the AEC will make Kerr-McGee straighten things out. The crusading press will save America by publicly exposing wrong, and the government will step in and perform justice. Sure. This is a liberal pipedream: the AEC serves the interests of power conglomerates like Kerr-McGee, and the New York Times worships money, not justice.

The "no-nukers" hail the name of Silkwood in their campaign to abolish nuclear power. But the problem is that you have to replace it with something, and in this capitalist society there is no such thing as a danger-free source of energy. For generations workers have died miserably in coal mines and suffocated to death with black lung disease. Like any technology, nuclear power can be used and abused. It is not so much a question of a special technology, but the irrationality of the capitalist economy which makes all industry in the U.S., including the nuclear industry, hazardous. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan threatens to blow up the world hundreds of times over to save American profits. Over 90 percent of the nuclear waste in this country is military. And that's nothing compared to the global nuclear holocaust plotted in the Pentagon. That is the real danger of nuclear power.

The no-nuke movement is part of a middle-class ecological concern that the disastrous conditions which workers have faced for generations might spread to the suburbs, perhaps even onto a college campus. Anti-nuke groups actively publicize and collect funds for the Silkwood lawsuit but not a peep is heard in protest against the murder of Gregory Goobic during a two-week strike by OCAW Local 1-326 in Rodeo, California last January. Goobic, a 20-year-old union member, was run down by a scab truck while picketing a Union 76 oil refinery. A company boss, with arms folded, stood in the dead striker's blood as cops kept the other picketers away. The capitalists and their government are not interested in the lives of their employees, particularly when adequate wages, work¬ing conditions and safety precautions stand in the way of profits. Obviously one thing militants in unions such as OCAW must do is fight for safety committees with the power to close down plants. But equally necessarily is the struggle to replace the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy with a leadership that will break with both bourgeois parties and build a workers party. The world will be safe to live in when the ruling class has been expropriated by a workers government that runs society for the benefit of all, not the profits of a few.

Silkwood has been denounced by corporate spokesmen at the New York Times for portraying Karen Silkwood as "a nuclear Joan of Arc" when she was really "a victim of her own infatuation with drugs"; it has been denounced by anti-nuke fan Anna Mayo of the Village Voice for portraying her as a dope-smoking "bad girl" when she was really "beloved daughter, sister, friend, union martyr and heroine of the largest, most viable grass-roots force in the U.S. and Western Europe, the anti-nuclear movement."

Actually, Karen Silkwood was simply a union militant fighting the best she could for a better life for herself and her coworkers against one of the least safe, most powerful, biggest price-gouging capitalist enterprises in the country. And we think the movie did a nice job showing it."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Let Them Eat Cake- No To Government Bailout of Financial Institutions

Short Note

Build a Workers Party That Fight For A Workers Government!


Centralized planning, anyone? Yes, that fundamental principle of the socialist transformation of society should look pretty good right now, even in its old threadbare Stalinist bureaucratic form, as the height of rationality now even to hardcore plebeian anti-communists. Those old grey Soviet bureaucrats (and today’s Chinese bureaucrats) had at least to mouth some phrases about the interests of the working class. No such need here in the heart of imperial society as the capitalists have just taken the money and run- and now are back for a hand-out. The world financial markets have exploded as a result of their own overweening hubris, to speak nothing of garden variety greed, but they are nevertheless looking to be bailed out by their respective governments, in the first instance the American government.

Hell, these Wall Street guys and their hangers-on (and their international compatriots in the London Exchange, the French Bourse and elsewhere) obviously missed that class at the Harvard Business School about the relationship between actual capital on hand in a business and borrowing the bejesus out of someone else’s money. That is called, in other than polite society, larceny by fraud- grand larceny in this instance. The lowliest Soviet bureaucrat had more understanding, if less scope for his or her actions, than that. In fact, I recently read an article where some American high school business class students had, a couple of years ago, called this meltdown as it was forming- without an MBA. Go, figure. I have never aspired to be a financial officer but I do believe that I could have done as well in screening out the creditworthiness of the applicants that flowed in these institutions. Being able to breath in order to receive a big loan doesn’t seem all that difficult to figure out. Heck, sign me up for one. Oops, too late.

That is the nut here. Many commentators have waggled their fingers at those who were forced to face foreclosure on their homes and other credit instruments when pay-up time came. Yes, it is always easier to blame the guy or gal down at the bottom of the chain for the in-your-face greed exhibited by financial institutions and their expert staffs over the last decade or so. Look though, even in my poor bedraggled family the desire to have one’s own home in the 1950’s drove my parents’ imagination to distraction. That the house we lived in was not as good as the apartment in the public housing project where we had previously resided is beside the point. The dream, one way or another, was single family home ownership for that generation. Why should it, all things being equal, be different now? The wisdom of the struggle for that dream to the exclusion of other dreams is a debatable point, as Friedrich Engels the old socialist and companion of Karl Marx pointed out long ago in his essay On The Housing Question. But we need not get into that here as I will address that later in a longer commentary when the dust settles over this whole episode.

Here is the bottom line for now. The “invisible hand” of the market has been exposed for all to see. The relationship between the capitalists on Wall Street and elsewhere and THEIR government has been exposed for all to see. The usually do-nothing and lethargic Congress has stepped all over itself to do the masters’ bidding. Obviously their time to run society in some rational form is objectively over and has been for a very long time. Capitalists, financiers, their agents, sycophants and hangers-on- move over. Let working people run this society to fit their needs. And from the look of things it better be sooner rather than later. Build a workers party that fights for a workers government!

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Adventures of Augie March- Saul Bellow's Chicago

BOOK REVIEW

The Adventure of Augie March, Saul Bellows, Penquin Press, New York, 2002


These seem to be Chicago days for this reviewer. He has just done some reviews of Chicago’s Chess Records that essentially defined the sound of the electrified blues in what would be old Augie’s old neighborhood. Furthermore, I have reviewed the work of Chicago’s Nelson Algren who takes more than one look at the downside of Chicago life in the raw - what happens to the Augies when they do not break out of that place between the working poor and the lumpen proletariat. And this is a good place to set up the fundamental difference in Bellow’s take on life as compared to Algrens’s. Both describe lives and milieus that can expose the nasty, short and brutish side of life but unlike Algren’s Frankie Machine in The Man With the Golden Arm Augie is smart (and clean enough) to make the break.

To that extent Bellow’s Augie, his pals and his town are a celebration of the possibilities that the immigrants to this country believed was possible (and on too many occasions were dashed to pieces). A nice little devise that Bellow uses to highlight this contrast is the tension between the career paths of Augie and his brother. Both face the existential crisis of being left to one’s own devices in the world but the brother survives by creating wealth for himself and forgets, in fact scorns, the idea of intellectual reflections about man’s fate. Poor Augie though wants to know the meaning of life once he has finally broken out of the working class milieu- but travel, a rich lady friend and a whole different set of adventures do not satisfy that hunger to know that meaning.

I would argue, and here I go back to Augie’s days as a Trotskyist, that he might have cut against the grain of that modern day sense of self-isolation in a heartless world if he had organized others to create an alternative society where that alienation from productive labor could have been diminished. But, that is just this reviewer pontificating against Bellow’s facile early literary Trotskyism. Although I read this book initially about 25 years ago the first half still is gripping. The second half meanders a little more than I recall from the first reading. This is an early work though. Bellow gets better as a writer later, if not better in resolving humankind’s existential crisis.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

From The Archives- The Struggle Against The Iraq War At The Base

Commentary

From The Archives- on the struggle in the lead up to the Iraq War in 2002

IT IS DESPERATELY NECESSARY TO WIN THIS BATTLE AGAINST BUSH’S WAR DRIVE….AND THE FIGHT BEYOND


Make no mistake Bush intends to go to war in Iraq despite the rational objection of the anti-war peoples of the world. We have, however, in rather short order been able to build an anti-war movement of massive proportions through shear determination. Now is the time to draw the lessons from the past about how to continue build this movement and lead it to political power so that we can end war once and for all. If we fail we may not soon have another chance. The following program can serve as a basis for such a change.


FOUR POINT PROGRAM FOR AN EFFECTIVE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT

1. .TURN THE ANTIWAR MOVEMENT INTO AN ANTI-IMPERIALIST MOVEMENT- THE MAIN ENEMY IS AT HOME


One of the lessons drawn from the Vietnam anti-war movement was to demonstrate that the actions of the American government were not just a result of bad policies but were endemic to the nature of capitalism in the modern era. If we do not draw that same analysis now and bring it to those who can at least see that something is desperately wrong with this system then we never will. The pacifist mood of the masses while commendable is mainly unformed and directionless. We must draw the lessons of history. In that regard the lessons of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the only successful anti-war movement in history, must be absorbed. We must make our own the slogans stated by Karl Liebknecht the German socialist in voting against war credits to the German government in World War I. The main enemy is at home. Not one penny, not one person for this war.

2. STAND IN SOLIDARITY WITH THE IRAQI PEOPLE. DEFEND IRAQ AGAINST IMPERIALIST ATTACK.

The disparity between the mightiest military power the world has ever known and semi-colonial Iraq is apparent. It is the duty of every internationalist to understand that in the coming war we must stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people. The main danger to the peoples of the world today is not Saddam but the American government and its allies. We give no political support to Saddam and call for the people of Iraq to overthrow him. However, when war starts we must defend the Iraqi people DESPITE Saddam.

3. SUPPORT AND INITIATE ACTIONS THAT UNDERMINE U.S. AGGRESSION AGAINST IRAQ.

All actions to now, mainly demonstrations, against an invasion are helpful, However, as the anti-war movement against Vietnam demonstrated these actions are not enough. It is necessary in your schools, labor unions, workplaces and in your activist groups to raise the question of concretely stopping the war. Call for student strikes, political strikes, labor strikes and other actions such as “hot-cargoing" military goods. Develop actions that undermine the government’s ability to carry out their war plans. Speak to soldiers and their families about actions to stop their participation in the war effort.

4. BREAK WITH THE DEMOCRATIC AND REPUBLICAN PARTIES. FIGHT FOR A WORKERS PARTY.

The essential unity of the traditional parties in this country the Republicans and Democrats on the question of Iraq and other social questions makes it clear that they do not represent the fundamental interests of working people and minorities in this country. We must build our own party centered on the workers and minorities of this country to fight against imperialism abroad and for a workers government at home

BRING THESE IDEAS TO YOUR SCHOOL, YOUR WORKPLACE, YOUR UNION AND YOUR ACTIVIST GROUPS-------FORWARD

CONTACT: THE BOSTON COMMITTEE FOR AN ANTI-IMPERIALIST UNITED FRONT

LABOR DONATED

*Preserving The Roots Anyway We Can- The Saga Of Roots Music Preservationist Joe Bussard

Click on title to link to YouTube's film clip of the trailer for "Desperate Man's Blues".

DVD Review

Desperate Man's Blues: Discovering The Roots Of American Music, Jose Bussard and a cast of thousands of old 78 speed records, Cubic Media, 2006


Recently I went to great lengths, and rightly so, to tout the “Antone’s: House Of The Blues” DVD that was about the trials and tribulations of the late Austin, Texas blues club owner Clifford Antone in order to keep the blues tradition alive by keeping old time Chicago blues legends like Hubert Sumlin, Eddie Taylor, Sunnyland Slim and Jimmy Reed gainfully employed. Also his remarkable sense of talent-spotting in showcasing the new talent of the likes of Sarah Brown, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and most famously the Vaughn brothers, Jimmie and later Stevie Ray. Well, apparently running music clubs is not the only way to go in preserving American roots music, as this ‘reality’ film documentary of the saga of a fifty plus years journey by record collector Joe Bussard rather strikingly points out.

Joe Bussard‘s trial and tribulations are of a different order than Clifford Antone’s. Joe had taken on the task of traveling many a mile to find rare old roots music wherever he could find it. In short, he has some of the same obsessive, traits that we saw in the ‘Antone” film. And that is to the good. Plus old Joe has an engaging, if definitely old-fashioned, sense of collecting. Nevertheless when he ‘played the platters’ of Clarence Ashley, Robert Johnson, Son House , Uncle Dave Mason, and a few I really didn’t from some obscure parts of the American songbook I was right there with him. That may say more about me than about him.

The only problem I have, a big problem I must confess, is old Joe’s dismissal of “rock and roll” music. Part of that is generational, to be sure. But part is a different understanding of the nature of American roots music. Jerry Lee Lewis when he was in high jump jitterbug form, Elvis when young and hungry, Carl Perkins and on and on in the rockabilly and rhythm and blues traditions that served as the foundation of the best of rock. No, I do not agree with Joe that that was all junk. For the rest though, Joe I am right with you.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Down The Mean Streets With Nelson Algren

BOOK REVIEW

The Man With The Golden Arm, Nelson Algren, Penquin Books, New York, 1949


Growing up in a post World War II built housing project this reviewer knew first hand the so-called ‘romance’ of drugs, the gun and the ne’er do well hustler. And also the mechanisms one needed to develop to survive at that place where the urban working poor meet and mix with the lumpen proletariat- the con men, dopesters, grifters drifters and gamblers who feed on the downtrodden. This is definitely not the mix that Damon Runyon celebrated in his Guys and Dolls-type stories. Far from it.

Nelson Algren has gotten, through hanging around Chicago police stations and sheer ability to observe, that sense of foreboding, despair and the just plain oblivion of America’s mean streets down pat in a number of works, including this one. Here the plot revolves around Frankie Machine an urban hustler with a jones (and more than just the dope jones, his whole life is twisted by the vagaries of his fate). Alone the way we meet an array of stoolies, cranks, crackpots and nasty brutish people who are more than willing to put obstacles in the way of our anti-hero. And we have, at this point, not even mentioned his ‘home’ life with his ‘ever-loving’ disabled wife (or so he thinks). She might make anyone reach for the needle.

We, of late, have become rather inured to dope stories either of the death and destruction type or of the rehabilitative kind but at the time that this story was put together in the late 1940’s this was something of an eye-opener for those who were not familiar with the seamy side of urban life. The dead end jobs, the constant run-ins with the ‘authorities’ in the person of the police, many times corrupt as well. The dread of going to work, the dread of not going to work, the fear of being victimized and the glee of victimizing. The whole jumbled mix of people with few prospects and fewer dreams.

Algren has put it down in writing for all that care to read. These are not pretty stories. And he has centered his story on the trials and tribulations of a dope addict trying to get clean, to boot. That fight is a near thing. Damn, as much as I knew about the kind of things that Algren was describing this is still one gripping story. And, the truth be told, you know as well as I do that unfortunately this story could still be written today. Read Algren if you want to walk on the wild side.

In the movie version of this film that unfortunately cannot capture the pathos of the mean urban streets Frank Sinatra plays the lead role of the junkie in a very understated way. He gives an extremely strong performance, especially in those scenes when he is going ‘cold turkey’. Probably overrated as a singer he nevertheless was underrated as an actor, especially in his early career (think From Here to Eternity, Some Came Running and Suddenly). Kudos Frank.

Friday, September 12, 2008

*From The Marxist Archives- The Anti-Vietnam War Struggle, The Struggle Within, Warts And All- A Guest Commentary

Click on the headline to link to a "Workers Vanguard" article, dated September 12, 2008, concerning the internal struggle to create a real anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist anti-Vietnam war movement.


Markin comment:

This blog has spend many postings trying pose the lessons on how to fight to build an effective anti-Iraq and Afghan wars movement in light of the old anti-Vietnam war experiences. If you want to learn how NOT to create such movements then read this article about the Socialist Workers Party's (U.S.) and American Communist Party's struggle for organization control of their respective popular front operations. Oh, the struggle to defend the Vietnamese Revolution here in a America. Don't be silly. That was secondary to the organizational manipulations. Believe me, I was there. Fortunately the Vietnamese took matters into their own hands. Defend the Vietnamese Revolution!

In Defense Of John Lennon

DVD REVIEW

The U.S. vs. John Lennon, directed by David Leaf, 2006


In a recent DVD review of A Tribute to John Lennon, a film that chronicled a concert held in New York City in early October, 2001 in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, I started the review with the following paragraph:

“I am here to rain on this tribute to the work of John Lennon in New York City in early October 2001 on two counts- musically and politically. As to the music. I make no bones about the fact that, as a product of the Generation of ’68, I grew to adulthood with this music, however, in any choice between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, in my book The Stones win hands down. The same applies to comparisons to Lennon as an individual artist. John Lennon could write lyrics with the best of them, no question, but here is the real question- which song, for example, better expresses the sense of working class alienation and, more importantly, what to do about it- Lennon’s Working Class Hero or The Stones’ Street Fighting Man?"

I then went on to detail my militant leftist political differences with Lennon’s essentially pacific, almost childishly na├»ve politics. I stand by those remarks here. Nevertheless, as my headline indicates, in this documentary we are dealing with a different issue that traces the American government’s (with who knows what other governments’complicity) nefarious persecution of Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono for their brand of radical political activities. In their efforts to avoid deportation all our sympathies are with the Lennons (as they would be for anyone in that situation, cultural icon or not). We do not have to agree on Lennon’s “music is the revolution” ideas or anything else to know this simple fact- Against one Richard M. Nixon and his cohorts (as represented here by J. Edgar Hoover, various INS officials and, seemingly, G. Gordon Liddy) we are comrades in arms.

This somewhat choppily-segmented documentary that is moreover top heavy with ‘talking heads’ nevertheless does a good job of presenting the progress of John Lennon from the moppet Beatle to somewhat angry working class youth to a Gandhi-like prophet to something like America’s Public Enemy Number something as opposition to the Vietnam war escalated. And the American government reacted to Lennon, as it to others, in its pathological fear of anything left of Billy Graham in the spiritual field (or any field for that matter). This film traces the illegal harassment of the Lennons and their co-workers, their forthright long drawn out legal fight with immigration authorities to avoid deportation and their vindication after several years with the award of permanent resident status.

Along the way we get a glimpse back at the various be-in activities conducted by the Lennons, their various attempts at making political connections with other well-known political radicals and their essential political retreat in the face of the American governmental onslaught over their visa status. Add in an all-star cast of those, mainly repentant, radicals on both sides of the Atlantic like Tariq Ali and John Sinclair and you indeed have a trip down memory lane. But here is the kicker- yes, remember John Lennon’s visa fight- yes, remember when you take on the American state be ready for any madness, and I mean any madness and, no- do not for a minute believe "music is the revolution” or other notions presented here. That is the lesson we ultimately learn from this film.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

*An Inside Look At The Great Gastonia Textile Strike Of 1929-From The Pen Of Communist Organizer Vera Weisbord

Click on title to link to article from the Albert and Vera Weisbord Internet Archives by then American Communist Party organizer Vera Weisbord about the heroic Gastonia textile strike of 1929. This, my friends, was the class war at its rawest in the anti-labor America "Jim Crow" South of the late 1920s. As the 1973 "Norma Rae" film about organizing in the late 1960s and today's struggles to organize places like Smithfield in the South testify to things are not that much changed for labor now.

Monday, September 08, 2008

*Labor's Untold Story- The Capitalist Anti-Labor Offensive,Part One, The Post-World War I "Red Scare"

Click on title to link to Wikipedia's entry for the post World War I "red scare" during the administration of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson and led by his Attorney-General Palmer.

Every Month Is Labor History Month

This Commentary is part of a series under the following general title: Labor’s Untold Story- Reclaiming Our Labor History In Order To Fight Another Day-And Win!

As a first run through, and in some cases until I can get enough other sources in order to make a decent presentation, I will start with short entries on each topic that I will eventually go into greater detail about. Or, better yet, take my suggested topic and run with it yourself.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Victory To The Boeing Strikers!!

Commentary

These were signs that a big strike was brewing up in Seattle. Interviews that I had heard earlier in the week, via various media outlets, indicated that Boeing was really off-the-wall in its give backs, puny wage offer, etc. These are skilled jobs that require skilled workers who should be paid accordingly. Boeing, not for the first time, wants to pay like these were Macjobs. Nothing new there. Victory to the Boeing Strike. More later.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Intellectuals Or The Jocks?

Commentary

This is one of a seemingly never-ending series of questions posed by my high school Class of 1964 committee. It is probably relevant to some readers here, as well.


Now that school is starting back into session here is a germane question.

What group(s) did you hang around with in high school?


This question is meant to be generic and more expansive that the two categories listed in the headline. These were hardly the only social groupings that existed at our high school (or any public high school, then or now, for that matter) but the ones that I am interested in personally for the purpose of this commentary. You, fellow alumni, can feel free to present your own categories. However, for this writer, and perhaps some of you here were the choices? The intellectuals (formerly known as the “smart kids”, you know, the ones that your mother was always, usually unfavorably, comparing you to come report card time) or the jocks (you know, mainly, the Goliaths of the gridiron, their hangers-on, wannabes and "slaves")?

Frankly, although I was drawn to both groupings in high school I was, as has been discussed by this writer in other commentaries in this space, mainly a “loner” for reasons that are beyond what I want to discuss here. Nevertheless, in recent perusals of my class yearbook I have been drawn continually to the page where the description of the Great Books Club was located. I believe that I was hardly aware of this club at the time but, apparently, it met after school and discussed Plato, John Stuart Mill, Max Weber, Karl Marx and others. Hell that sounded like fun. One of the defining characteristics of my life has been, not always to my benefit, an overweening attachment to books and ideas. So what was the problem? What didn’t I hang with that group?

Well, uh..., you know, they were, uh, nerds, dweebs, squares, not cool (although we did not use those exact terms in those days). That, at least, was the public reason, but here are some other more valid possibilities. Coming from my 'shanty’ background, where the “hoods” had a certain cachet, I was somewhat afraid of mixing with the "smart kids”. I, moreover, feared that I wouldn’t measure up, that they seemed more virtuous somehow. I might also add that a little religiously-driven plebeian Irish Catholic anti-intellectualism (you, know, be 'street' smart but not 'book' smart) might have entered into the mix as well.

But, damn, I sure could have used the discussions and fighting for ideas that such groups would have provided. I had to do it the hard way later. As for the jocks one should notice, by the way, that after four paragraphs that I have not mentioned a thing about their virtues. And, in the scheme of things, that is about right. So now you know my choice, except to steal a phrase from an earlier commentary that I posted in this space honoring my senior English teacher- Literature matters. Words matter. I would only add here that ideas matter, as well. All honor to the Class of 1964 intellectuals.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Republican National Convention- Drop The Charges Against The Protestors

Commentary

The following is a report from the Twin Cities (that's Minneapolis/St. Paul, the site of the Republican National Convention)Indy Media. Needless to say the lock down of these cities during these 'events' by the police puts a severe crimp in the democratic facade the ruling oligarchy likes to portray. As an equal opportunity commentator on the vagaries of bourgeois politics I note that in Denver, the site of the Democratic National Convention 100 or so protesters were arrested. Nice work, DNC, RNC.

300 Arrested in Protests


Two days into the Republican National Convention (RNC),more than 300 people have been arrested, including at least 120 people for felonies -- mostly the notoriously vague charge, 'conspiracy to riot.' With no provocation, police have indiscriminately used rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and chemical irritants to disperse crowds and incapacitate protesters. Police appear to be specifically targeting videographers documenting these police abuses. In response, lawyers have
filed a federal restraining order against such conduct.

By the end of the day today, only 12 people had been arraigned. Many arrestees are refusing to provide identification, in order to call attention to what they consider trumped-up charges and to collectively bargain. 'These tactics are designed to protect the most vulnerable people in jail, and take a page from the history of labor solidarity,' said Rick Kelley of Coldsnap Legal Collective, an activist-based legal collective supporting the arrestees. 'Based on the vagueness of their
charges and the program of police intimidation currently underway, these
individuals understand how they will fare if they don't stick together.'
The court has been imposing the maximum bail of $2,000 for misdemeanor
defendants.

In an unusual court decision, Ramsey County Judge Paulette K. Flynn today convicted two minors of criminal contempt for refusing to provide their identity. The two minors were then sentenced to 30 days in an adult jail facility. 'This decision undermines one of the most fundamental human rights concepts in the justice system, to protect the rights and safety of children,' said Jordan Kushner, Mass Defense
Committee Chair of the National Lawyers Guild's Minnesota chapter, and an attorney for one of the minors. 'This shows the willingness of the courts to go to any length, including sacrificing the most important due process rights, to answer to the political pressure to persecute activists.'

Many arrestees are also being denied medical attention. One arrestee with hemophilia and another with asthma are being denied their prescription medication. An arrestee with a broken finger is being refused medical care, as is a person who has been coughing up blood. An anemic woman reported to Coldsnap today that she passed out for 20 to 30 minutes due to iron deficiency and was told that she could not receive iron because it was a prescription medication, and because she refused to identify herself.

Iron is in fact an over-the-counter supplement. The same anemic woman reported seeing a Sheriff knock another woman to the ground and drag her out of the room by her hair. 'Just because people have been jailed does not mean their health should be put in jeopardy,' said Kelley. This is a matter of compassion and basic human rights.

Under Minnesota law, detainees must be released after 36 hours if the court fails to review and affirm probable cause for their charges. This 36-hour period will expire at noon on Wednesday.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

*From The Archives Of "Women And Revolution"-British Miners Fight for All the Oppressed

Click on the headline to link to a"LibCom" website entry for the British miners' strike of 1984-85. This link is provided to give some "color" to the story at the local level from a different political prospective from mine.

Markin comment:

The following is an article from the Spring 1985 issue of "Women and Revolution" that may have some historical interest for old "new leftists", perhaps, and well as for younger militants interested in various cultural and social questions that intersect the class struggle. Or for those just interested in a Marxist position on a series of social questions that are thrust upon us by the vagaries of bourgeois society. I will be posting more such articles from the back issues of "Women and Revolution" during Women's History Month and periodically throughout the year.

**********

British Miners Fight for All the Oppressed

The British coal miners' strike now in its eleventh month is a crucial class battle whose outcome will shape the social and political climate of the country for years to come. Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is seeking with unrestrained savagery to bludgeon and starve the miners into submission. If the miners lose, they and the whole British working class will be dealt with in the same spirit of limitless vindictiveness that Thatcher unleashed on the helpless young Argentine sailors of the Belgrano during the Falklands/Malvinas war. Thatcher personally supervised this gratuitous war crime when the ship, miles from the war zone, was dispatched to the bottom of the icy Atlantic.

But the British miners do not intend to lose. Standing alone thanks to the treachery of the Labour Party/ Trades Union Congress tops, they have held out against everything that bloody Thatcher and her cops could throw against them. They have endured thousands of arrests and countless injuries and they are still fighting. And their courageous defiance of the vicious "Iron Lady" has won to their side the most oppressed layers of
British society. The heat of sharp class struggle has tended to forge a spirit of solidarity between the miners and oppressed sectors such as blacks, Asians and Irish.

This political point was emphasized by comrade Eibhlin McDonald, a leader of the Spartacist League of Britain, during her recent visit to the U.S. We reprint below comrade Eibhlin's remarks at a public Spartacist forum in New York last November 16 (originally published in Workers Vanguard No. 367,23 November 1984) and her speech to a national internal meeting of the Spartacus Youth League (WV No. 368, 7 December 1984).

Women have played an active role in the miners' strike. Although women do not work in the British mines, being barred by law from doing so since 1942, the miners' wives have taken their place alongside their men. And they have made their presence felt since the beginning. When one week into the strike Thatcher deployed 10,000 cops in a martial law operation, Kent women beat back a police blockade at the Dartford Tunnel aimed at sealing the Kent strikers off, and went on through to join a demonstration in Leicestershire. In addition to organizing collections of food and money for the strikers' families, the women have been active strike militants. Their participation on picket lines has been especially important given the awesome scope of police attacks, where sometimes hundreds of miners are arrested in a single swoop. When 20,000 coal field women and supporters marched through London last August 11, one prominent slogan was "No surrender!" Here in the United States, the Spartacist League and Partisan Defense Committee have been campaigning to win political support among American unionists for the embattled British miners, and to raise desperately needed funds for the miners and their families. As of February 16, a total of $16,905.63 had been raised. W&R appeals to our readers to generously support this effort. Please make checks payable to: Aid to Striking British Miners'Families; mail to: Partisan Defense Committee, Box 99, Canal Street Station, New York, NY 10013.

I'm a member of the British section of the Spartacist tendency, and I'd like to take a few moments to describe to people particularly the British miners' strike which has been going on now for about nine months, I believe. In fact, we had a demonstration recently in London organized by the Spartacist League on the question of South Africa, where a number of miners attended. And we raised the slogan, "African Gold Miners, British Coal Miners— Same Enemy, Same Fight, Workers of the World Unite!" [Applause.] And this slogan had a really powerful resonance—one which is very deeply felt in Britain, primarily as a result of the experience of these miners after nine months on strike. Because you have to understand, two miners have been killed on picket lines; several others have died on the way to picket lines; and most recently people have been killed trying to salvage coal from rubbish tips in order to heat their homes. If you imagine what it's like to have been without money for your family for nine months—no money for food, they have no heating, t nothing like that.

However, they're pretty solid. They're not going back. Because they know that to go back means 20,000 jobs will be lost, and whole communities will be devastated. And, in fact, several thousand of them have been arrested, just simply for picketing. Thatcher has learned a few lessons from Botha's South Africa. They've recently adopted the tactic, instead of throwing people in prison—you obviously can't throw eight, nine, ten thousand miners in prison, because the prisons will overflow—so what they've started to do is to deport them within the country. People are sent off from English coal mines to the north of Scotland, and are not allowed to return home until after the strike.
So there was a certain identification with some of the stuff that was described recently in South Africa among the British miners. There is, of course, a scabbing operation, pretty well funded, we believe probably by the Vatican. Although if you listen to the news reports, then you could very easily be misled. Because as one miner told us recently in one of our meetings— according to the news reports there are now 3,500 scabs in his pit, which he finds very hard to believe, since only 500 people work there [laughter].

Now, there are two things that I want to draw out from the British miners' strike. One is that such a hard-fought class battle against the Thatcher government has inspired whole sections of the population in support for the miners. It's particularly noticeable among the black and Asian community. Something that is very new in Britain—you have a situation where miners, when they come into the city of London from their areas in order to collect money, of course the cops hound them throughout London, and arrest them for trying to collect money and so forth. They go along to a pub in the black ghetto, and the cops come into the pub— "Where are these miners?"—they want to arrest them. But the word had gone out that the cops were arriving, so of course the local people had hidden them. You know: "What miners? There are no miners here." Now, this kind of thing never would have happened before, because capitalism fosters those kind of divisions, and given that the miners union is predominantly white, this solidarity is a direct result of the struggle against Thatcher.

Another aspect of it is that women, mainly miners' wives and families, who'd come from pretty isolated communities, have in fact become political and taken on a leadership role in the strike and have organized themselves into strike committees.

And the other thing that I want to draw out of it is on the Russian question. It comes up most concretely and revolves around the question of Polish Solidarnosc', in Britain, and it's very sharply felt. Because the background to this miners' strike was in fact—the leader of the British miners, Arthur Scargill, happened to mention before a trade-union conference a year ago that Solidarnosc' was an anti-socialist organization. For this he was witchhunted and hounded by not only the capitalist class, the Tory party and so forth, but by a whole section of the trade-union leadership. And it has now become very clear, the people who were most outraged by Scargill's statement are today urging their union members to cross miners' picket lines quite openly. The leader of the Solidarnosc' movement in Poland has sent a message of solidarity... to the scabs. And so Solidarnosc is hated and despised, not just among the British miners, but among whole sections of the population. Which is actually quite a good thing, because it doesn't bode well for Thatcher's war preparations against the Soviet Union.

They do the same kind of thing there. Talking about the "evil empire" in Russia. Except that in Britain a lot of the population now doesn't believe it, because they have seen miners go off to the Soviet Union and have very nice holidays on the Black Sea, you know, for their families and so forth. And they see this on television, and say, well, this is "totalitarian Russia"...it really doesn't look so bad looking at it from Britain [laughter].

Now, just in conclusion. One of the things that is patently obviously missing from the situation is a revolutionary party with a policy directed to the overthrow of capitalism. Because in order to cohere together the struggle, particularly in a situation where old frameworks are breaking down within the country, to cohere and direct that struggle requires a program for the overthrow of capitalism. And that's what the existing trade-union leadership and the Labour Party in Britain doesn't have. For example, twice in the course of the miners' strike, the dockers were out on strike, and were sent back, having gained absolutely nothing. Because these leaders understand that in order to go all out and do what is necessary in order to win the strike, you must be prepared to at least play around with the question of power. And that's what they're not prepared to do.

That in a nutshell is the strategy and program that the Spartacist League has been fighting for there. Because simply in order to win this strike, it's necessary to spread it to other sections of the working class. We hope as the outcome of that kind of successful class battle that you will have the basis for building a revolutionary party. Because in Britain, in South Africa, in fact in the U.S., you can have very hard-fought class battles which may lose or in fact may be frittered away, if you're not prepared to go all the way and address the question of power, for the working class in power, like they did in Russia in 1917.

The Red Avengers [see article, page 24] is kind of a hard act to follow, but let me make one point that one comrade made in the forum in Toronto the other night: the British miners would really love the Red Avengers.

What I want to try to do is give you a flavor of the political situation in Britain, because it really is in marked contrast with Reagan's America right now. But there's something that I would like to underline, which is that the Thatcher government is in the second term of office and went in with a pretty big majority in the election in 1983, not quite as big as Reagan's. The first real opposition they ran into came from the British miners. And it's important to have the understanding and the hope that Reagan will run into the same kind of trouble, because it really does alter the political contours in the country.

You'll have noticed in the press here recently a lot of ballyhoo about a big "back-to-work" movement. And you could very easily be misled, because if you really added up the figures for people that have gone back to work then you probably would get more than is actually in the miners union, in the NUM itself. However, it is true that there has been a certain erosion within the strike recently. (Unlike what the bourgeois press tells you, it's not because of the Qaddafi connection. Miners think that it's really wonderful if they get money from anywhere, and one of them has said recently, in a meeting where someone mentioned the Qaddafi connection, "Well, you know, if we can't get money from Qaddafi, maybe we can get guns. We can use them." And it's not because of getting money from the Soviet Union—they'd love it.) But as of now, there's not much prospect of industrial struggle alongside the miners, and so they're basically now having to dig in to try and survive through the winter pretty much on their own against all the forces of the capitalist state. And that does have an effect on certain elements in the union.

Now, some of the things that are most striking about the course of the struggle. First of all, the way in which whole sections of the population who are normally deeply divided have rallied behind the miners and have seen in the miners' strike a possible solution to what they suffer under Thatcher. This is particularly true for the racially oppressed minorities. The blacks and Asians in Britain have become some of the most solid supporters of the miners. If you understand that the miners union is predominantly white, and pretty elitist in its political attitudes, for them to find allies in the black and Asian population is really quite a change in British politics. The reason for the identification is that the kind of treatment that's being dished out to the miners in the course of the strike is something that has been dished out to the black and Asian population in the inner cities in Britain for quite a long time.

And there's also the fact that the racial minorities tend to do the dirtiest, most dangerous and worst paid jobs in Britain. In actual fact British mining almost falls into that category, because you have to understand that miners or craftsmen in the British mines might take home, at the end of having worked 40 hours, less than $100 a week. And that's someone who's gone through an apprenticeship. And it's really dangerous and there's a lot of accidents. So there's that reason for identification as well.

It's also true of the Irish population. Previously if you had an IRA bombing in the mainland of Britain, regardless of what the target was, it was always followed by a wave of anti-Irish hysteria. You know, a pretty bad period. Whereas recently when the IRA bombed the hotel where a lot of Tories were staying during their conference the response was everybody cheered because one of the people who suffered most was the employment minister, Norman Tebbit. They showed these pictures on television of this guy lying under four or five floors of rubble and then being dragged out by his feet, and everybody cheered and clapped and thought it was wonderful. And someone had the response, whoever did this should be shot—for missing the target. They're really sorry they missed Thatcher.

There's also another example of the way in which the social divisions have broken down. There's an organization in London called Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners, and they have regular weekly meetings. Miners come along and address their meetings and express their solidarity with them, and they collect money and they give it to the miners. This is previously inconceivable in Britain.

And this seems true in other unions. There's a lot of workers in other unions who really desperately want to strike alongside the miners and to support them, but their leadership really doesn't want to take on that question.

The other thing that's really striking is on the Russian question— It's really clear that the miners' strike has done more to thwart Thatcher's war plans against the Soviet Union than all the peace demonstrations—and there have been a lot of them in Britain. You know, there's a big CND organization, you've had Greenham Common women, and so forth. And I tell you, the Greenharn Common women have become really insignificant by comparison with the miners' wives, who are out there organizing and fighting for support of the strike. And in more ways than one they really are the backbone of the strike.

The third thing is that, given that so much depends on the outcome of this strike, unless you're prepared to address the question of power, then you cannot even bring this strike to the conclusion that is possible. What I mean is that this strike could have been won several months ago. You had the dockers out on strike twice, and Britain is an island economy so the docks are pretty important. The dockers are a militant union. And you have this situation where the leadership of the trade-union movement and of the Labour Party itself are actually divided. The right wing of both the Labour Party and the trade-union bureaucracy—they're openly anti-Russian, anti-Communist; they were the people who really witchhunted [NUM leader] Arthur Scargill when he denounced Polish Solidarnosc'. And it's really clear today, they just tell their members to cross miners' picket lines, ignore the strike and don't give them any money.
On the other hand you've got the left wing of the trade-union bureaucracy and of the Labour Party that are not openly anti-Russian. But they simply will not call their members out on strike action. So you have a situation like when the dockers were out on strike, or the railwaymen. Several hundred members of the railway unions have been victimized, locked out and sent home, for refusing to handle scab coal on the trains. And their union is doing absolutely nothing to defend them, having originally instructed them to not handle the scab coal.

Now, the Labour Party. I believe that never before in its history has the Labour Party been more discredited. And this was as a result of the miners' strike. There's this character Denis Healey in the British Labour Party who's well known to have connections with the CIA and there's a clot of people around him, and we raised the slogan that this guy should be driven out of the Labour Party because the sort of dislocation that it would cause would be really interesting and would break the mold of British social democracy. And Tony Benn came here to New York and various other places and argued that well, of course, the last thing in the world the miners want is to see the Labour Party splitting right now. Well, I'll tell you this is a lie. Most of the miners could see these guys in hell, never mind driven out of the Labour Party. The general secretary of the TUC appeared in a meeting recently and the miners hung up a noose for him in the back of the room. Because you know, they have declared their open animosity to the miners' strike.

We're going to do this fund drive in the U.S. And there's a lot of miners that are really keen to come and meet the Spartacist League and the SYL in the U.S. They're really excited to come here and they desperately need the money. So I think that this will be really important for the international tendency. And it'll be important for the miners.

*Labor’s Untold Story- Reclaiming Our Labor History In Order To Fight Another Day-And Win!:An Introduction For 2008

Click On Title To Link To Site With Information About The Book Used In This Commentary. This Link Is Placed Here By The Writer Merely For Informational Purposes To Assist Those Who Wish To Get A Copy Of The Book.

Every Month Is Labor History Month

Book Review

Labor’s Untold Story, Richard O. Boyer and Herbert Morais, United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers Of America (UE), New York, 1976,


As I have often noted this space is dedicated to the struggles of the American (and international) working class and their allies. Part of understanding those struggles is to know where we have been in order to have a better grasp of where we need to head in order to create a more just, socially inclined world. In my travels over the past few years I have noted, even among those who proclaim themselves progressives, radicals and revolutionaries, a woeful, and in some cases willful, lack of knowledge about the history and traditions of the American labor movement. In order to help rectify that lack I will, occasionally, post entries relating to various events, places and personalities that have helped form what was a very militant if, frustratingly, apolitical (or not purely anti-political, especially against its left-wing) labor history.

In order to provide a starting point for these snapshots in time I am using what I think is a very useful book, “Labor’s Untold Story”, Richard O. Boyer and Herbert Morais, United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers Of America (UE), New York, 1976, that I can recommend to all those militants interested in getting at least a first taste of what the once mighty organized American labor movement was all about. For those unfamiliar with labor history the UE, cited here as the publisher, was a left-wing union that was split by the main labor federations during the “red scare” of the 1950’s for being “under Communist influence” and refusing to expel its Communist Party supporters. The other organization created at the time was the International Brotherhood Of Electrical Workers (IBEW). The history of that split and its timing that caused a wasteful break in the struggle for a single industry-wide union that has been the goal of all thoughtful labor militants will, of course, be the subject of one of these entries at a later date.

That UE imprimatur, for this writer at least, is something of a plus but you know upfront that this is a pro-labor history. That said, this 400 page book is chock full of events, large and small, complete with very helpful footnotes giving greater detail (mercifully placed at the bottom of the page where the subject is mentioned), that helped turned the American labor movement from an atomized, motley group of conflicting racial, ethnic and political tendencies in the last part of the 19th century to something like a very powerful and somewhat self-confident organized force by the 1940’s. After that period there is a long term decline that, for the book, ends with the period of the “red scare” noted above and for the rest of us continues until today.

In any case here you will learn about the embryonic stages of the modern labor movement after the American Civil War with its urgent industrial demands to provide goods for a pent-up market war-ravaged market and creation of a transportation and information system adequate to meet those needs. Needless to say labor received short shrift in the bargain, especially at first before it was even minimally organized. The story here it should be made clear, the story anytime labor is the subject of discourse, is organized labor. The atomized working class as a whole minus this organization does not exist as a historical force. That, my friends, is a great lesson for today as well.

As such, it important to note the establishment in the 1870s of the National Labor Union and its offshoots, later the Knights of Labor and the role of its class collaborationist leaders. Also noted is the fight in the coal mines of the East and the legendary saga of the “Molly McGuires” in Pennsylvania our first well-know labor martyrs. Then the fight moves west to the lead, copper, silver and gold mines. That push west can only mean the establishment of the Western Federation of Miners, the emergence of the paragon of an American labor leader Big Bill Haywood, his frame-up for murder in 1905 and the subsequent rise of the Industrial Workers of The World. Wobblies (IWW). Along the way there are various attempts to form a workers party, the most promising, if amorphous, being the Tom Watson-led Populist Party in 1892 before the somewhat more class-based Socialist Party took hold.

Of course no political study of the American working class is complete without a big tip o f the hat to the tireless work of Eugene V. Debs, his labor organizing and his various presidential campaigns up through 1920. While today Debs’ efforts have to be seen in different way in light of the fact that our attitude toward labor militants running for executive offices in the capitalist state and his ‘soft’ attitude on the question of the political organization of the working class with an undifferentiated party of the whole class, he stands head and shoulders above most of the other political labor leaders of the day, especially that early renegade from Marxism, Samuel Gompers.

The first “red scare” (immediately after World War I) and its effect on the formation of the first American communist organizations responding to the creation of the first workers state in Russian ( and of the establishment of the internationally-oriented Communist International), the quiescent of the American labor movement in the 1920s (a position not unlike the state of the American working class today), the rise of the organized labor movement into a mass industrial organization in response to the ups and downs of the Great Depression, the ‘labor peace’ hiatus of World War II, the labor upsurge in the immediate post-World War II period and the “night of the long knives” of the anti-communist “red scare” of the 1950s brings the story up to the time of first publication of the book. As to be expected of a book that pre-dates the rise of the black civil right movement, the women’s liberation movement and the struggle for gay and lesbian rights there is much less about the role of race and gender the history of the American labor movement. Not to worry, the black, feminist and gender scholars have been hard at work rectifying those omissions. And I have been busy reviewing that work elsewhere in this space. But here is your start.

As a first run through, and in some cases until I can get enough other sources in order to make a decent presentation, I will start with short entries on each topic that I will eventually go into greater detail about. Or, better yet, take my suggested topic and run with it yourself.

A Short Note On The Pro-Stalinist Perspective Of "Labor's Untold Story"

Commentary

Okay, okay before I get ripped apart for being some kind of Pollyanna in my review of today’s book “Labor’s Untold Story” let me make a preemptive strike. I am, painfully, aware, that, at least back in the days when such things counted, the United Electrical Workers union was dominated by supporters of the Stalinist American Communist Party. The reason that I am painfully aware of this fact was that, back in that same day, I organized the unorganized under the auspices of that union. On more than one occasion various middle level figures in that union took me up short every time I tried to “step on the toes” (that is a quote from a real conversation, by the way) of some member of their vaunted “anti-monopolist” coalition. That coalition, my friends, was (and is for any unrepentant Stalinist still around) code for various politicos associated with the American Democratic Party. That, I hope, will tell the tale.

Notwithstanding that experience, I still think that “Labor’s Untold Story” is a very good secondary source for trying to link together the various pieces of our common American labor history. The period before World War I, that is, the period before the creation of the American Communist Party and its subsequent Stalinization, is fairly honestly covered since there is no particular political reason not to do so. The authors begin their “soft-soap” when we get to the 1920s and the Lafollette presidential campaign of 1924 and then really get a up a head of steam when discussing the role of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the labor struggles of the 1930s in the interest of the Popular Front (read: the 1930s version of that “anti-monopolist” coalition mentioned above) up until about 1939.

Then, please do not forget, the authors make the ‘turn’ in the party line during the short period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact there was nothing that a good right-wing American First Committee member could not have applauded. Of course, once the Soviet Union was invaded the authors went all out in their version of defense of that country (a correct position) when World War II heated up by supporting wholesale the “no strike” pledge and assorted other anti-labor actions (incorrect positions). Then when the Cold War descended in the aftermath of the war and the “red scare” hit the unions big time they cried foul when the capitalists circled the wagons against the Soviet Union and its supporters. Yes, well I knew all that before I re-read the book and wrote the review. Still this is one of the few books which gives you, in one place, virtually every important labor issue from the post Civil War period to the 1960s (when the book ends). Be forewarned then, and get this little book and learn about our common labor history.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

*Once Again, She’ll Be Coming Around The Mountain- The Work Of Mountain Music Singer Gillian Welch

Click on title to link to YouTube's film clip of Gillian Welch performing "Miner's Refrain".

CD Review

Hell Among The Yearlings, Gillian Welch, Acony Records, 1998


The Carter Family, Maybelle and Sara Carter, June Carter Cash, Jean Ritchie and so on. What they all have in common is that they form part of the line of our common mountain musical heritage. I am sure that there are others who I could have included without doing an injustice but I wanted to make this point. Just as the folk revivalists of the 1960’s searched for roots musicians (once they knew they were still alive and kicking and waiting, just waiting, for a second chance) to emulate ad then extend those musical traditions today there is a need for develop a new generation of mountain music singers. That task has been made infinitely easier by the emergence over the past decade or so of Gilliam Welch to keep this mournful mountain music alive. This CD under review, “Revival”, from 1996 is my prima facie case for that last statement.

I did not, honestly, know the details of this singer’s background although I have heard that she is from some upscale background in California. And that is the rub here. Before I hear that information I would have sworn on that proverbial stack of bibles that she was from the hills and hollows of Harlan County, Kentucky or somewhere nearby. That gives her plenty of credibility in my circles. What gives more, much more is her voice and her song selection as she goes through the mountain women’s litany of troubles, not enough money, two many kids, a hard-drinking, two- fisted man who tales out his frustrations on … well you know the rest. And then there are the songs of lost like “Orphan Girl” (the first song of Ms. Welch’s that I ever heard) longing and, of course out in those longing hills facing an inscrutable god, death. Stand outs here include the gruesome “Caleb Meyer” and the soulful “Miner’s Refrain”. Welcome to the mountain music tradition.


"Caleb Meyer"

Caleb Meyer, he lived alone
In them hollarin' pines
Then he made a little whiskey for himself
Said it helped pass the time

Long one evening in back of my house,
Caleb come around
And he called my name 'til I went out
with no one else around

Caleb Meyer, your ghost is gonna
wear them rattlin' chains.
but when I go to sleep at night,
Don't you call my name

Where's your husband, Nellie Kane
Where's your darlin gone?
Did he go down off the mountain side
and leave you all alone?

Yes, my husband's gone to Bowlin' Green
to do some business there.
Then Caleb threw that bottle down
and grabbed me by my hair.

Caleb Meyer, your ghost is gonna
wear them rattlin' chains.
but when I go to sleep at night,
Don't you call my name


He threw me in the needle bed,
across my dress he lay
then he pinned my hands above my head
and I commenced to pray.

I cried My God, I am your child
send your angels down
Then feelin' with my fingertips,
the bottle neck I found

I drew that glass across his neck
as fine as any blade,
and I felt his blood pour fast and hot
around me where I laid.

Caleb Meyer, your ghost is gonna
wear them rattlin' chains.
But when I go to sleep at night,
Don't you call my name

Caleb Meyer, your ghost is gonna
wear them rattlin' chains.
But when I go to sleep at night,
Don't you call my name

"Miner's Refrain"

In the black dust towns of east Tennessee
All the work's about the same
And you may not go to the job in the ground
But you learn the miner's refrain

I'm down in a hole, I'm down in a hole,
Down in a deep, dark hole
I'm down in a hole, I'm down in a hole,
Down in a deep, dark hole

When you search the rain for the silver cloud
And you wait on days of gold
When you pitch to the bottom
And the dirt comes down
You cry so cold, so cold

I'm down in a hole, I'm down in a hole,
Down in a deep, dark hole
I'm down in a hole, I'm down in a hole,
Down in a deep, dark hole

Now there's something good in a worried song
For the trouble in your soul
'Cause a worried man who's been a long way down
Down in a deep dark hole

I'm down in a hole, I'm down in a hole,
Down in a deep, dark hole
I'm down in a hole, I'm down in a hole,
Down in a deep, dark hole

I'm down in a deep, dark hole

*She’ll Be Coming Around The Mountain- The Work Of Traditional Mountain Singer Gillian Welch

Click on title to link to YouTube's film clip of Gillian Welch performing "Orphan Girl".

CD Review

Revival, Gillian Welch, Almo Records, 2001

The Carter Family, Maybelle and Sara Carter, June Carter Cash, Jean Ritchie and so on. What they all have in common is that they form part of the line of our common mountain music heritage. I am sure that there are others whom I could have included without doing an injustice but I wanted to make this point. Just as the folk revivalists of the 1960’s searched for roots musicians (once they knew they were still alive and kicking and waiting, just waiting, for a second chance) to emulate and then extend those musical traditions today there is a need for develop a new generation of mountain music singers. That task has been made infinitely easier by the emergence over the past decade or so of Gilliam Welch in order to keep this mournful mountain music alive. This CD under review, “Revival”, from 1996 is my prima facie case for that last statement.

I do not, honestly, know the details of this singer’s background although I have heard that she is from some upscale background in California. And that is the rub here. Before I knew that information, whether it is true or not, I would have sworn on that proverbial stack of bibles that she was from the hills and hollows of Harlan County, Kentucky or somewhere nearby. That gives her plenty of credibility in my circles. What gives her more, much more is her voice and her song selection as she goes through the mountain women’s litany of troubles: not enough money, two many kids, a hard-drinking, two- fisted man who takes out his frustrations on … well you know the rest. And then there are the songs of lost, like “Orphan Girl” (the first song of Ms. Welch’s that I ever heard), longing and, of course, out in those lonely hills facing an inscrutable god, death. Welcome to the mountain music tradition.



Gillian Welch, Orphan Girl Lyrics

I am an orphan on God's highway
But I'll share my troubles if you go my way
I have no mother no father
No sister no brother
I am an orphan girl

I have had friendships pure and golden
But the ties of kinship I have not known them
I know no mother no father
No sister no brother
I am an orphan girl

But when He calls me I will be able
To meet my family at God's table
I'll meet my mother my father
My sister my brother
No more orphan girl

Blessed Savior make me willing
And walk beside me until I'm with them
Be my mother my father
My sister my brother
I am an orphan girl



Gillian Welch, Annabelle Lyrics

I lease twenty acres and one Jenny mule
From the Alabama trust
Half of the cotton, a third of the corn
Ya get a handful of dust

Chorus:
And we can not have all things to please us
No matter how we try
Until we've all gone to Jesus
We can only wonder why

I had a daughter called her Annabelle
She's the apple of my eye
Tried to give her something like I never had
I didn't want to ever hear her cry

Chorus

When I'm dead and buried I'll take a hard life of tears
For every day I've ever known
Anna's in the churchyard, she's got no life at all
She's only got these words on a stone

Chorus
Until we've all gone to Jesus
We only wonder why