Thursday, March 21, 2013

Rosa, Vladimir and Mimi

Rosa Luxemburg, in an April 1911 letter to Konstantin Zetkin, wrote the following about her cat, Mimi:
She impressed Lenin tremendously, he said that only in Siberia had he seen such a magnificent creature, that she was a barskii kot--a majestic cat. She also flirted with him, rolled on her back and behaved enticingly toward him, but when he tried to approach her she whacked him with a paw and snarled like a tiger.

Needless to say, this little anecdote, so minor that it could easily be dispensed with in an adult biography, is going to get a page of its own in the kids' biography, if only so that I can have the pleasure of putting the illustrator to work on depicting Lenin getting whacked by a majestic cat.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Our Heroes

Our heroes are small men, pasty-faced and fat.

--from David Harsent, "1972," in In Secret: Versions of Yannis Ritsos

Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, leader of the Greek fascist party "Golden Dawn"

Harsent's book is well-timed.

In the brief period between my move to Maine and the start of my current main job, one of the wilder projects I conceived to fill my time (but perhaps not my wallet) was to improve my Greek and start translating some of the many unknown or underappreciated poets of modern Greece. I contrived to arrange with my father and my cousin for the purchase of volumes hard or impossible to find on this side of the Atlantic, thereby putting a few extra Euros in my cousin's pocket while saving me a few of my scarce dollars. By the time I was offered the job and had to set certain projects aside, I had compiled a long list of poets, and was ready to ask for their assistance. Ritsos was at the very top.

The subtitle "Versions of..." absolves Harsent of the burden of fidelity to the original text, and thus frees him to versify in Ritsos' spirit, without tripping over his words and cadences. Unfortunately for me, it also absolves the publisher of the added cost of typesetting the Greek in a bilingual edition, my preferred way of reading poetry in translation. Yet I think that will serve as a better introduction to Ritsos for most readers. Consider the poem from which the line above is taken. For anyone with personal ties to Greece, it carries a whiff of history on a grand scale. One feels the urge to encase it in a ponderous apparatus of footnotes, lest any reader fail to understand. And thus one would guarantee that no reader will understand.

A single line of Ritsos can blow up social relationships better than any Molotov hurled against a Starbucks window. My hope is that Harsent's poetic renderings will clear the path for more comprehensive and scholarly translation efforts. (Efforts that it is unlikely I would participate in: Work, fiction and now juvenile non-fiction have pushed translation far down on the queue, and of the demotic tongues of my ancestors, Yiddish exerts the stronger pull right now.) Read it now, and see which lines explode for you.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Stalkers, Abusers, and Depression

I somehow managed to write my way through the Lenin-Luxemburg polemics in a way that my first reader (i.e., my daughter) claims to find intelligible. Now I am researching my way through the period from the 1905 Russian Revolution to the start of the World War, and what I am finding more troubling than any aspect of her politics is Luxemburg's relationship with Leo Jogiches. Consider, for example, this passage from a letter she wrote to Konstantin Zetkin (son of her dear friend Clara Zetkin, and her lover after she ended the romantic relationship with Jogiches):
Yesterday [Leo Jogiches was here], and this much is clear, that he wants to accompany me on my trip, in order to, in the event that I meet you, shoot you and himself. Can I make the trip under such circumstances? I can’t get away from him here, but also everything in me rebels against sneaking away like some sort of slave. The state of mind he’s in is no joke any longer, his inner self is shattered, he’s become abnormal, and he lives only with this idea fixed in his sight. And so once again I’m beside myself. Even if I were to sneak way by some luck, he would surely come to where you are immediately, and don’t imagine that anyone could persuade him not to carry out his plan.

This was written a full year after she had ended the romantic relationship, though their political relationship remained active, mediated by the SDKPiL--and provided the alibi for Jogiches' ready access to her. They are both well into their thirties, and Jogiches is acting like the protagonist of a Dostoevsky novel. Like a stalker. Like no man I ever want my daughter to have to deal with. Like "Karl" in this post about the British SWP.

All the evidence seems to suggest that the combination of Jogiches' treatment of her, and the shock she experienced returning from the revolutionary upheaval of Warsaw to the staid placidity of the German movement, put Rosa into a state of depression in which she could accomplish no significant political work. Another of her letters from this period, address to Clara, admits to thoughts of suicide and says, "You know that state of mind from your own experience."

What a sad waste. And how do I convey even a fraction of it to the mind of a child?

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Uncanny and the Douchey

Impressively polite, Ronnie amuses grownups with his seriousness, yet he laughs without comprehension at their jokes at his expense. A little boy who mimics maturity. Having failed to keep Ronnie childish, swaddled in paternal safety, I wonder how my own insecurities may have passed to him. Through blood? Through example? What fears and uncertainties have induced him to adopt grownup airs of self-discipline? It strikes me as unnatural, perhaps even dangerous, that his grade school teachers love him; the parents of his playmates love him; distant relatives love him. That is, adult strangers love him. Sometimes I wish he were less cooperative, more rebellious, so he could release frustration incrementally and minimize the risk of explosion.

Alan Elyshevitz, "Father Figure" from The Widows and Orphans Fund

That quote was uncanny for me. Change names and gender markers, and it becomes a precise description of my anxieties for my daughter.

Read further into the story and the uncanniness deepens, for the narrator reminisces and reflects upon his selfish, absent father, and the ways that he has successfully encased his own rage in order to be able to function as a better parent. That very encasing leaves its traces, and thus the child's preternatural maturity appears instead as a kind of reaction-formation.

Did you know that it was possible for a parent to peevishly resent his own child for having a better parent than he had? It happens. It also shows up in stories, like this one, or a few of the Elizabeth Ellen pieces in her Fast Machine collection.

If I am to find, however, a common thread among the various quotes I have pulled in recent entries to this blog, it is that they point beyond the story and the work that those sentences do within the story. This quote leads me to reflect upon why it is that it is so common, in the U.S., to presume that children ought to be rebellious. This is not a human universal, but a trope of this particular culture in a historical period going back roughly fifty years, that will end... who knows when?

The Will Self quote encapsulates class differences in the formation of political subjects with reference to their position in production relations... and does so much more elegantly than that last clause, or than most clauses that have ever been written on that topic.

And that beautifully beastly sentence by Elizabeth Ellen? Well, that takes us beyond the scope of the narrator's obsession with Dave Eggers, into the problems of taste formation, showing how social exchange can lead not only to the acquisition of upwardly aspirational social capital, but reinforce resistance to elite norms as well. Because elitist tastes are so often douchey. Take that, Pierre Bourdieu.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Middle Class and Proletariat

You must, Adeline sobs, forgive me, I do miss him so awfully badly ... She takes a handkerchief from her sleeve, presses it to one coon eye, then the other, staunching her uselessness, her passivity. Audrey, whose own hands fret with the myriad shocks following on from her work, has at least this consolation: that she is a part of the giant - an infinitesimally small part, perhaps a hair twisting on the muscled expanse of his back, but for all that, a part - whereas this fine lady is nothing at all.

--Will Self, Umbrella

Just finished the book above. I'm too tired to write a review longer than, "worth reading." Which it is.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

And the Award for "Best Use of Dave Eggers in an Undiagrammable Sentence" Goes to:

Dave and I will have a big wedding and Toph will be his best man and my daughter will be my maid of honor and at the reception we'll dance to songs by Journey and Big Country and Loverboy (three of the bands Dave mentions in his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; maybe you've heard of it. maybe you've seen it on the shelves at Target between Me Talk Pretty One Day and Running With Scissors and all the other books your mother reads with her book club and which you probably read as well, secretly, alone in your room where no one can see you or judge you or say, "Dude, seriously? A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, dude? Dude, that dude's a total douche. Have you seen his hair, dude? Dude, no.") and then we'll go back to our hotel room and Dave will take off his shirt and I will try hard not to stare at his unusually large, protruding nipples.

--Elizabeth Ellen, "How I Stopped Loving Dave Eggers and Stole Your MFA"

Friday, March 8, 2013

...but a step

The Internationalist Socialist League of Israel / Occupied Palestine is an organization whose statements are worth following, if for no other reason than that they are a rare example of Israelis consistently opposed to Zionism. The occasion for the letter below is the ISL's announcement that they were breaking off their lengthy discussions with the League for the Revolutionary Party in the U.S. (an announcement to which I can't directly link as it is on a Facebook page). The LRP's response (for a change, a timely one) suggests that the ISL has not been fully forthcoming in explicating the political substance of the dispute. However much ultimately is disclosed by either party, the dispute strikes me as being firmly in the realm of the tragicomic, befitting the outdated spirit of secret diplomacy marking the discussion to date.

On one point we are agreed: The question of how to organize is a political question. I might even venture to say that it is the key political question for those opposed to capitalism at this point in time. Given that capitalism is already in the process of destroying the productive forces necessary, not only for its own continuation but for the emergence of socialism, I think it is fair to say that the historic tribunals of future generations will judge individuals and groupings according to the question: did they improve the organization of those opposed to the persistence of capital, or did they diminish it?

I pose it this way, being not at all sure of the verdict that would be rendered on me. There are more important matters at stake than personal prestige.

But the question, though it can be asked in much the same way as it was a century ago, cannot plausibly be answered in the same way. It is this--and not its application to the LRP--that I object to in the use of the word "centrism". Consider, for example, one of Trotsky's several attempts to define this term. In it he says, among other things, "Between the opportunist and the Marxist the centrist occupies a position which is, up to a certain point, analogous to that occupied by the petty bourgeoisie between the capitalist and the proletariat; he courts the approbation of the first and despises the second."

In the time at which this was written [in 1934], it was a very precise description. To attempt to transpose it to the present, however, poses more than a few difficulties. If centrism is to be defined as that which takes a certain attitude between the separate poles of opportunism and Marxism, then what can we describe as the material incarnation of Marxism today? Another definition I have seen attributed to Trotsky (though I can't find an original citation) is "revolutionary in words, reformist in deeds."

There are plenty who are revolutionary in words and who, if they are not openly reformist in their deeds, it is only because their deeds are so paltry, so hard to distinguish from their more or less ample words, that there is nothing by which to judge. The sad fact is that, at present, if a grouping of whatever size proclaims itself to be Marxist, "centrism" in its classical definition is the best that can be hoped for from it. In effect, we are all centrists. In Adam's fall we sinned all, as the Puritan primers used to say.

Being not only a Marxist but one from a Jewish background, however, the metaphysics of original sin never made much sense to me. I am more inclined to judge by present deeds. In a situation where there is no revolutionary pole against which to hold the centrists accountable, the question then becomes, what kind of practical challenges are objectively posed by our political situation which, if taken up earnest, will enable the fallible and mistrained human material which has come down to us through several generations of ideological stagnation and regression to begin to stand up as revolutionaries? Denouncing the LRP as centrist does nothing to clarify, either to those who remain within that organization or to others who may be in your audience, what those concrete tasks might be.

Your status as a small organization in a colonial-settler state puts you in a paradoxical and exceptional situation. The social basis for a revolutionary program in the country in which you live is one from which you are at least partially cut off by language, culture, geography and police action. That you have arrived at a unique understanding of the key questions of Zionism and the necessity of socialist revolution led by the working class of the region, and have sought means of actively putting that understanding forward in such an unfavorable situation, is testimony to your exceptional individual qualities. The separate existence of the ISL as a propaganda group is thus not an atavistic remainder of prior stages of struggle but a commendable outcome of an ideological advance.

Yet you also occupy a position within a region that is now in the throes of a revolutionary situation, albeit within the one state therein that is largely immune. The character of the ISL as a revolutionary organization is therefore being put to an active test. Since there were no genuinely revolutionary organizations in place in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, etc. at the outset of the ongoing uprisings, the minimum outcome to be hoped for from such a situation would be the emergence of such an organization in one or more such countries, battle-tested and ready, like the Bolsheviks of 1906, for the next such outbreak. (And that is only the minimum.) If the existence of the ISL serves in some way as a catalyst to such a development, so much the better.

Hence the import of the first question I asked [B] when he announced your break in discussions with the LRP: What are your plans for international work? I don't expect you to disclose anything to me that you would not feel comfortable discussing publicly--in fact I would urge you not to. But what sort of strategy would you like to see socialists in other countries pursuing, and what would be your basis for deciding on discussions and/or joint work with them? If the only outcome of your announced break with the LRP is to give "another cause for the demoralization of the LRP leadership and members," that hardly strikes me as constructive. Rather, it contributes to the cynical denigration of internationalism that is already rife in the international far left.

I find your concluding remarks about the LRP and pragmatism similarly perplexing. Rarely can they be accused to varying their tactics in search of what works. If anything, the accusation of pragmatism, that is, of judging the truth value of propositions by the utility of the practical actions they encourage, might fit better against certain of my formulations. Past attempts to elevate matters of philosophical outlook into points of political principle hardly commend it as an approach, and my hope is that you will collectively resist that temptation. If there are aspects of your engagement with the LRP that you believe have given you a better insight into the Marxist method than you had before, by all means share that publicly.

One last point: In the document by Trotsky which I cited earlier, he also says that centrism "inclines to substituting, in the place of political principles, personal combinations and petty organizational diplomacy." In the spirit of avoidance of petty diplomacy, I have not said anything in this letter that I would not be comfortable putting my name to publicly. Therefore, with some slight edits for the sake of public comprehensibility and to avoid "naming names," I will be posting this on my website later today.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Propositions, Postulates and Hypotheses toward Socialist Political Organization in the U.S.

Explanation: Propositions are statements for which I have evidence, but have not yet marshaled that evidence in order to prove it. Thus they may serve as jumping off points for future essays. Postulates are statements for which I believe I’ve already made an adequate case, or for which the evidence for them is widely available, though they can certainly be discussed further as needed or desired. Hypotheses are statements about future events that, while they may appear to follow logically from the Propositions and Postulates, can be tested only through active intervention.

Proposition: The long-term decline of organized labor in the U.S. has reached a tipping point of irreversibility under the present leadership.

Hypothesis: Regeneration of working-class organization in the U.S., if it happens, will take the form of political organization before it takes the form of industrial or economic organization—as was the case in 1930s, though for different reasons than in the 1930s.

Postulate: For better or worse, most Americans, including many radically-minded Americans, think of politics as "that pertaining to or taking place at the ballot box."

Proposition: Therefore, any organization not capable of making an impact at the ballot box at all levels of government will be regarded by most Americans, even those who are radically-minded, as non- or sub-political.

Proposition: The best-case scenario for a non-political organization that aspires to function as a political organization is to persist as a propaganda group. (Worse cases being those of sects, cults, etc.)

Postulate: Any hope there may once have been for the transformation of a propaganda group into a political party by way of the gradual accretion of members is now definitely closed off. Previous examples in U.S. history (Abolitionist movement giving rise to the Republican Party; the Populists; coherence of socialist groupings into the Socialist Party and the split-off of the Communist Party) belong to a historical period which is now over.

Postulate: The U.S. not only has a large population: It is geographically, economically, and culturally diverse. No political tendency that is confined to a small number of urban metropolitan areas or certain regions/states can aspire to the type of national impact proper to a political party. Because of this, the numerical threshold for an organization to have a national impact is fairly high, even if it consists entirely of highly dedicated activists.

Hypothesis: The threshold may be as low as in the range of 5-10,000 highly dedicated activists, but certainly no less.

Postulate: There are at least that many people who consider themselves socialists or communists in the U.S., most of whom are not at present members of any organization that calls itself such.

Proposition: The anti-democratic mechanisms of the U.S. Constitution render any serious socialist or democratic reform proposal impossible of realization except through a revolutionary undertaking.

Proposition: The key dividing line among those who consider themselves socialists or communists is not what they call themselves. Nor is it whether they consider "reform" or "revolution" to be the means toward their desired aim, since the events of the 20th century and the poorly theorized understandings developed of them have rendered the term "revolution" largely vacuous. The key dividing line whether they consider the U.S. Democratic Party to be worthy of some level of support, however critical, on the part of those who seek to transform the system.

Proposition: Therefore we must subtract from the estimate those who are ideologues (i.e. false leaders) of a strategic or tactical orientation toward the Democratic Party apparatus and/or liberal public opinion (e.g.: cadres of the DSA, CoC, CPUSA, FRSO; editors and writers of the Jacobin magazine).

Proposition: Beyond that distinction, further historical distinctions (democratic socialist, however many varieties of Trotskyism, Maoism, left communism, etc.) are artifacts of past periods of struggle and distractions from the critical tasks of the moment.

Proposition: Confusion over other political expressions of the capitalist class (e.g. the Green Party) is lamentable, but capable of being overcome through the formation of a genuine political pole for the socialist- or communist-minded.

Hypothesis: Even with the necessary subtractions, if no further distinctions are insisted upon unnecessarily, there may well be enough socialist- or communist-minded individuals to serve as the basis for a national political organization of sufficient weight to have an impact at all levels of government and activism, i.e. a political party.

Proposition: It is therefore incumbent upon unaffiliated socialists to identify—not the political formation with which they presently agree on the greatest number of propositions—but the political formation most likely to serve as a nexus or point of convergence for socialist-minded individuals in political upheavals to come.

Proposition: In the age of social media, names matter.

Postulate: The Socialist Party and the Communist Party each have legacy rights to the most memorable names left for our political tradition—and the Communist Party, by acting as an adjunct of the Democratic Party, is unlikely be attractive for those disgusted e.g. with President Obama’s role in promoting austerity measures against public workers, or enabling drone assassination, warrantless wiretapping, and the maintenance of U.S. military power around the globe.

Hypothesis: From the outside at least, the Socialist Party, under the aegis of "radical democracy," appears to have developed flexible modes of organizing better adapted to our present political, social and technological realities than the various pseudo-Leninist propaganda groups—who in turn are well on the way to discrediting themselves, whether through rank opportunism, personal scandal, or ideological sclerosis and inactivity.

Proposition: All unaffiliated socialists, regardless of their political pasts or present constellation of views, should join the Socialist Party.

Hypothesis: The Socialist Party will likely need to make adjustments to itself in order to accommodate the prospect of such growth through regroupment: e.g. reviving or creating anew state and local organizations in areas where they have been dormant or absent; enlargement of the women’s commission; creation of new commissions composed of members of distinct oppressed groups facing their own modalities of oppression under capitalist rule in the U.S. (e.g. Blacks, Latinos, LGBT people, immigrants); increased emphasis in the platform on the demands now framed under the heading "environment," to reflect the degree to which the urgency of a socialist reconstruction of society derives from the ecological precipice onto which capital has been allowed to drag humanity.

Hypothesis: As part of such a process, the Socialist Party would be positioned to open negotiations with existing socialist and communist organizations, regardless of size or background, on whether and how to join forces.

As a consequence of the above considerations, I have applied for membership in the Socialist Party of the USA. If you are in the United States and consider yourself a socialist, you should too. Please visit the page for their Spring Organizing Drive.