Aldous Huxley, Dying of Cancer, Left This World Tripping on LSD (1963)

Aldous Huxley put himself forever on the intellectual map when he wrote the dystopian sci-fi novel Brave New World in 1931. (Listen to Huxley narrating a dramatized version here.) The British-born writer was living in Italy at the time, a continental intellectual par excellence.

Then, six years later, Huxley turned all of this upside down. He headed West, to Hollywood, the newest of the New World, where he took a stab at writing screenplays (with not much luck) and started experimenting with mysticism and psychedelics — first mescaline in 1953, then LSD in 1955. This put Huxley at the forefront of the counterculture’s experimentation with psychedelic drugs, something he documented in his 1954 book, The Doors of Perception.

Huxley’s experimentation continued right through his death in November 1963. When cancer brought him to his death bed, he asked his wife to inject him with “LSD, 100 µg, intramuscular.” He died later that day, just hours after Kennedy’s assassination. Three years later, LSD was officially banned in California.

By way of footnote, it’s worth mentioning that the American medical establishment is now giving hallucinogens a second look, conducting controlled studies of how psilocybin and other psychedelics can help treat patients dealing with cancer, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug/alcohol addiction and end-of-life anxiety. The New York Times has more on this story.

For a look at the history of LSD, we recommend the 2002 film Hofmann’s Potion(2002) by Canadian filmmaker Connie Littlefield. You can watch it here, or find it listed in our collection of Free Movies Online.

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Insightful Nuggets from Leonard Cohen’s Songs

Wisdom for Troubled Times

Empathy, clear eyes, vision and more for troubled times.

Photo Credit: http://www.leonardcohen.com

Just before Donald Trump became our reality TV star president-elect, songwriter-bard Leonard Cohen died, leaving an incomparable legacy.

Releasing his last album weeks before his death at 82, Cohen charted courses for survival and redemption. And he pulled no punches. To the end, he deftly interwove themes of darkness and light that were political and personal, erotic and sacred. More than entertaining his listeners, Cohen intimately engaged them. He called on fellow travelers to take heart, make change, laugh, pray, dance, and act with courage, dignity and love.

Insights from a dozen Cohen songs are relevant to today’s unsettling realities.

1. Achieving democratic ideals is an ongoing challenge. Cohen’s prescient “Democracy” (1992) recounts the governmental system’s challenges and shortcomings. “It’s coming to America first, the cradle of the best and the worst…from the brave, the bold, the battered heart of Chevrolet…It’s coming from the sorrow in the streets, from the holy places where the races meet…Democracy is coming to the USA.”

Cohen told Paul Zollo in Songwriters on Songwriting in 1992: “It’s not an ironic song. It’s a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country…This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another.”

How to navigate all this complexity? The song admonishes: “The heart has got to open in a fundamental way.” Cohen sends godspeed for America’s precarious journey: “Sail on, sail on, O mighty ship of state! To the shores of need, past the reefs of greed, through the squalls of hate…”

2. Stare down desolation with grit and grace. In “Steer Your Way” (2016), released on his final album, Cohen’s sings: “Steer your way past the ruins of the altar and the mall…/Steer your way past the pain that is far more real than you/That’s smashed the Cosmic Model/That blinded every view.”

He calls for unflinching self-review and humility: “Steer your way past the Truth that you believed in yesterday/…And say the mea culpa which you gradually forgot/Year by year, month by month, day by day/Thought by thought.”

As Cohen prepared to bid farewell, he surveyed the natural world and a coarsened culture with trademark irony: “They whisper still, the struggling stones/The blunted mountains weep/As he died to make men holy/Let us die to make things cheap.”

3. Yes, the system is rigged—now what? Decades before Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren railed against oligarchs and plutocrats controlling America, Cohen pronounced, “Everybody knows the deal is rotten/Old Black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton/For your ribbons and bows.”

“Everybody Knows” (1988, with Sharon Robinson) is a caustic litany: “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded/Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed/Everybody knows the war is over/Everybody knows the good guys lost/Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich/That’s how it goes/Everybody knows.”

Both bleak and droll, it can be heard as a fatalistic accounting of corruption or an urgent plea to clean things up.

4. Hold onto an inner guiding compass. “In My Secret Life” (2001, with Sharon Robinson) celebrates quiet subversiveness. “I do what I have to do/to get by/But I know what is wrong/And I know what is right/And I’d die for the truth/in my secret life.”

The song recounts the strain of facing ever-present horrors: “Looked through the paper/Makes you want to cry/nobody cares if the people/live or die/And the dealer wants you thinking/That it’s either black or white/thank God it’s not that simple/ in my secret life.”

5. Take care of body and spirit. “Come Healing” (2012, with Patrick Leonard) is reverent, transcendent: “O see the darkness yielding/That tore the light apart/Come healing of the reason/Come healing of the heart.”

A devout Jew, Cohen also often referenced other spiritual traditions: “Behold the gates of mercy/In arbitrary space/And none of us deserving/The cruelty or the grace/O solitude of longing/Where love has been confined/Come healing of the body/Come healing of the mind.”

6. Tough times call for clear-eyed vision and empathy. “The Future (1992) is prophetically stark: “Give me back the Berlin Wall/give me Stalin and St. Paul/Give me Christ/or give me Hiroshima…I’ve seen the future, baby: it is murder.”

Cohen explained to Rolling Stone in 2009 that “The Future” and “Democracy” were on his concert set list, “because their apocalyptic vision seems truer now than when they were recorded. People really thought I needed help back then,” Cohen told the reporter, laughing.

The song warns: “Things are going to slide, slide in all directions/…the blizzard of the world/has crossed the threshold/And it has overturned/the order of the soul.” Nevertheless, he offers a way out: “I’ve seen the nations rise and fall/I’ve heard their stories, heard them all/But love’s the only engine of survival.”

7. Embrace imperfection. “Anthem” (1992) starts as a solemn serenity prayer, “The birds, they sang/At the break of day/Start again/ I heard them say/Don’t dwell on what/Has passed away/Or what is yet to be.”

Then it urges action and acceptance, despite all: “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

The narrator defiantly prepares for mythic battle: “I can’t run no more/With that lawless crowd/While the killers in high places/Say their prayers out loud/But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up/A thundercloud/And they’re going to hear from me.”

Rebecca De Mornay, who co-produced the song, told Uncut about the verse: “That ‘I’—that’s the soul of Leonard Cohen.”

8. Invoke a higher power. The incantatory tone of “If It Be Your Will” (1984) reflects Cohen’s fervent mysticism. “From this broken hill/All your praises they shall ring/If it be your will/To let me sing.”

It’s a plea for global as well as personal salvation: “If there is a choice/Let the rivers fill/Let the hills rejoice/Let your mercy spill/On all these burning hearts in Hell/If it be your will/To make us well.”

9. Comfort others and do what you can to sleep well. Cohen told Rolling Stone about a song he was working on in 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession: “I thought that ‘Lullaby’ was just what everyone needs to get to sleep in these troubled times,” he said.

Released in 2012, it’s beautifully simple: “Sleep baby sleep/The day’s on the run/The wind in the trees/Is talking in tongues…If your heart is torn/I don’t wonder why/If the night is long/Here’s my lullaby.” Cohen reassures the listener: “There’s a morning to come.”

10. Live passionately. A popular standard, “Dance Me to the End of Love” (1992) honors deep love and the protection it can provide. “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin/Dance me through the panic ‘til I’m gathered safely in/Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove/And dance me to the end of love.” Even as passion gets spent, it shields: “Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn/Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn.”

Cohen told an interviewer the “burning violin” image “came from just hearing or reading or knowing that in the death camps, beside the crematoria, in certain of the death camps, a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on.” He added that “It’s not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity.”

11. Celebrate paradox (and cultivate patience). “Hallelujah” (1984), Cohen’s exultant and erotic anthem has been covered some 300 times. He drafted 80 verses over five years before its release, sometimes singing alternate lyrics in concert, such as: “There’s a blaze of light/In every word/It doesn’t matter which you heard/The holy or the broken Hallelujah.”

It took 15 years for “Hallelujah” to become a massive hit. Cohen told the CBC radio show Q in 2009 that after it was released on Various Positions in 1984 in Canada and Europe, Sony decided not to release the album in the U.S.: “The only person who seemed to recognize the song was Dylan. He was doing it in concert,” Cohen said.

More than a decade later, “Hallelujah” recordings by John Cale and Jeff Buckley began building an audience. Rufus Wainwright’s version in the 2001 film Shrekbrought it into the mainstream.

12. Take positive action, however you can. In “You Got Me Singing” (2014, with Patrick Leonard) Cohen’s deep-throated delivery conveys triumphant optimism (accompanied by a violin and country-tinged vocals). He makes a winking nod to his signature song: “You got me singing/Even tho’ the news is bad/You got me singing/The only song I ever had…You got me singing/Even tho’ it all looks grim/You got me singing/The Hallelujah hymn.”

His tone is matter-of-fact and resilient, even lighthearted: “Even though the world is gone/You got me thinking/I’d like to carry on.”

Virginia Small is a freelance journalist in Milwaukee who has followed the work of Leonard Cohen since his first album was released in 1967.

http://www.alternet.org/12-insightful-nuggets-leonard-cohens-songs-wisdom-troubled-times?akid=14925.265072.AMykVi&rd=1&src=newsletter1067922&t=26

KARL MARX, YESTERDAY AND TODAY

The nineteenth-century philosopher’s ideas may help us to understand the economic and political inequality of our time.

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On or about February 24, 1848, a twenty-three-page pamphlet was published in London. Modern industry, it proclaimed, had revolutionized the world. It surpassed, in its accomplishments, all the great civilizations of the past—the Egyptian pyramids, the Roman aqueducts, the Gothic cathedrals. Its innovations—the railroad, the steamship, the telegraph—had unleashed fantastic productive forces. In the name of free trade, it had knocked down national boundaries, lowered prices, made the planet interdependent and cosmopolitan. Goods and ideas now circulated everywhere.

Just as important, it swept away all the old hierarchies and mystifications. People no longer believed that ancestry or religion determined their status in life. Everyone was the same as everyone else. For the first time in history, men and women could see, without illusions, where they stood in their relations with others.

The new modes of production, communication, and distribution had also created enormous wealth. But there was a problem. The wealth was not equally distributed. Ten per cent of the population possessed virtually all of the property; the other ninety per cent owned nothing. As cities and towns industrialized, as wealth became more concentrated, and as the rich got richer, the middle class began sinking to the level of the working class.

Soon, in fact, there would be just two types of people in the world: the people who owned property and the people who sold their labor to them. As ideologies disappeared which had once made inequality appear natural and ordained, it was inevitable that workers everywhere would see the system for what it was, and would rise up and overthrow it. The writer who made this prediction was, of course, Karl Marx, and the pamphlet was “The Communist Manifesto.” He is not wrong yet.

Considering his rather glaring relevance to contemporary politics, it’s striking that two important recent books about Marx are committed to returning him to his own century. “Marx was not our contemporary,” Jonathan Sperber insists, in “Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life” (Liveright), which came out in 2013; he is “more a figure of the past than a prophet of the present.” And Gareth Stedman Jones explains that the aim of his new book, “Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion” (Harvard), is “to put Marx back in his nineteenth-century surroundings.”

The mission is worthy. Historicizing—correcting for the tendency to presentize the past—is what scholars do. Sperber, who teaches at the University of Missouri, and Stedman Jones, who teaches at Queen Mary University of London and co-directs the Centre for History and Economics at the University of Cambridge, both bring exceptional learning to the business of rooting Marx in the intellectual and political life of nineteenth-century Europe.

Marx was one of the great infighters of all time, and a lot of his writing was topical and ad hominem—no-holds-barred disputes with thinkers now obscure and intricate interpretations of events largely forgotten. Sperber and Stedman Jones both show that if you read Marx in that context, as a man engaged in endless internecine political and philosophical warfare, then the import of some familiar passages in his writings can shrink a little. The stakes seem more parochial. In the end, their Marx isn’t radically different from the received Marx, but he is more Victorian. Interestingly, given the similarity of their approaches, there is not much overlap.

Still, Marx was also what Michel Foucault called the founder of a discourse. An enormous body of thought is named after him. “I am not a Marxist,” Marx is said to have said, and it’s appropriate to distinguish what he intended from the uses other people made of his writings. But a lot of the significance of the work lies in its downstream effects. However he managed it, and despite the fact that, as Sperber and Stedman Jones demonstrate, he can look, on some level, like just one more nineteenth-century system-builder who was convinced he knew how it was all going to turn out, Marx produced works that retained their intellectual firepower over time. Even today, “The Communist Manifesto” is like a bomb about to go off in your hands.

And, unlike many nineteenth-century critics of industrial capitalism—and there were a lot of them—Marx was a true revolutionary. All of his work was written in the service of the revolution that he predicted in “The Communist Manifesto” and that he was certain would come to pass. After his death, communist revolutions did come to pass—not exactly where or how he imagined they would but, nevertheless, in his name. By the middle of the twentieth century, more than a third of the people in the world were living under regimes that called themselves, and genuinely believed themselves to be, Marxist.

This matters because one of Marx’s key principles was that theory must always be united with practice. That’s the point of the famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Marx was not saying that philosophy is irrelevant; he was saying that philosophical problems arise out of real-life conditions, and they can be solved only by changing those conditions—by remaking the world. And Marx’s ideas were used to remake the world, or a big portion of it. Although no one would hold him responsible, in a juridical sense, for the outcome, on Marx’s own principle the outcome tells us something about the ideas.

In short, you can put Marx back into the nineteenth century, but you can’t keep him there. He wasted a ridiculous amount of his time feuding with rivals and putting out sectarian brush fires, and he did not even come close to completing the work he intended as his magnum opus, “Capital.” But, for better or for worse, it just is not the case that his thought is obsolete. He saw that modern free-market economies, left to their own devices, produce gross inequalities, and he transformed a mode of analysis that goes all the way back to Socrates—turning concepts that we think we understand and take for granted inside out—into a resource for grasping the social and economic conditions of our own lives.

CONTINUED:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/10/karl-marx-yesterday-and-today?mbid=social_facebook_aud_dev_kwjunsub-karl-marx-yesterday-and-today&kwp_0=252969

Capitalism Is Doomed — Without Alternatives, So Are We

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‘Though it appears as if rumors of capitalism’s imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated,’ writes Johnson, ‘there is good reason to believe that its remarkable ability to adapt and evolve in the face of frequent (self-induced) shocks has reached a breaking point.’ (Image: OpenClipArt)

In 1946, George Orwell pondered the fragility of the capitalist order.

Reviewing the work of the influential theorist James Burnham, Orwell presaged several concepts that would later form the groundwork for his best-known novel, 1984.

“Not only is the best of capitalism behind us, but the worst of it may lie just ahead.”

In his book The Managerial Revolution, Burnham envisioned, as Orwell put it, “a new kind of planned, centralised society which will be neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic. The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production.”

“The real question,” Orwell adds, “is not whether the people who wipe their boots on us during the next fifty years are to be called managers, bureaucrats, or politicians: the question is whether capitalism, now obviously doomed, is to give way to oligarchy or to true democracy.”

While Orwell was wary of Burnham’s worldview and of his more specific predictions, he agreed that the relationship between capitalism and democracy has always been, and always will be, a precarious one.

“For quite fifty years past,” Orwell noted, “the general drift has almost certainly been towards oligarchy.”

 

Pointing to the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the few and acknowledging “the weakness of the proletariat against the centralised state,” Orwell was far from optimistic about the future — but he was quite certain that the economic status quo would eventually give way.

Recent events, and the material circumstances of much of the world’s population, have prompted serious examinations of the same questions Orwell was considering seven decades ago. And though it appears as if rumors of capitalism’s imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated, there is good reason to believe that its remarkable ability to adapt and evolve in the face of frequent (self-induced) shocks has reached a breaking point.

Widespread discontent over stagnant incomes and the uneven prosperity brought about by neoliberal globalization has, in 2016, come to a head in striking fashion; Donald Trump, Brexit, and the rise of far-right parties in Europe have many questioning previously sacred assumptions.

“Is the marriage between liberal democracy and global capitalism an enduring one?” asked Martin Wolf, a formidable commentator in one of the world’s leading business papers, the Financial Times.

This was no rhetorical softball; Wolf is genuinely concerned that the winners of globalization have grown complacent, that they have “taken for granted” a couple that was only tenuously compatible to begin with. He also worries, rightly, that they have downplayed the concerns of the “losers.”

Wolf concludes that “if the legitimacy of our democratic political systems is to be maintained, economic policy must be orientated towards promoting the interests of the many not the few; in the first place would be the citizenry, to whom the politicians are accountable.”

Not all members of the commentariat share Wolf’s willingness to engage with these cherished assumptions, however. Indeed, many analysts have reserved their ire not for failing institutions or policies but for the public, reviving Walter Lippmann’s characterization of the masses as a “bewildered herd” that, if left to its own devices, is sure to usher in a regime of chaos.

“It’s time,” declared Foreign Policy‘s James Traub, channeling the sentiments of Josh Barro, “for the elites to rise up against the ignorant masses.”

Apologists like Traub and Barro — just two among many — speak and write as if the leash previously restraining the “herd” has been loosened, and that the resulting freedom has laid bare what elitists have long believed to be the case: To use Barro’s infamous words, “Elites are usually elite for good reason, and tend to have better judgment than the average person.” They point to the rise of Donald Trump as evidence of an intolerable democratic surplus — evidence, in short, of what the masses will do if granted a loud enough voice.

Aside from being conveniently self-serving, this narrative is also false.

Far from loosening the leash, elites have consolidated power to an unprecedented extent, and they have used their influence to undercut democratic movements and hijack public institutions. The resulting concentration of wealth and political power is jarring, and it puts the lie to the farcical notion that elites are a persecuted minority.

But, in the midst of these anti-democratic diatribes, fascinating and important critiques of a rather different nature have emerged.

“Far from loosening the leash, elites have consolidated power to anunprecedented extent, and they have used their influence to undercut democratic movements and hijack public institutions.”

Instead of urging us to align Against Democracy, to use the name of a recent book by the libertarian political philosopher Jason Brennan, many are arguing that it is capitalism, and not the excesses of the democratic process, that has provided figures like Trump a launching pad.

In his book Postcapitalism, Paul Mason argues that the rapid emergence of information technology has corroded the boundaries of the market; “capitalism,” he insists, “has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt.” And its attempts to reach beyond these limits have fostered an economic environment defined by instability, crippling austerity for the many, and rapid accumulation of wealth for the few.

According to Oxfam, the global 1 percent now owns as much wealth as the bottom 99 percent. CEO pay has continued to soar. And though post-crisis reforms have carried soaring promises of stability, the financial sector is still far too large, and many of the banks harmed by the crash they created are back and nearly as powerful as ever.

Mason summarizes: “According to the OECD, growth in the developed world will be ‘weak’ for the next fifty years. Inequality will rise by 40 per cent. Even in the developing countries, the current dynamism will be exhausted by 2060.”

“The OECD’s economists were too polite to say it,” he adds, “so let’s spell it out: for the developed world the best of capitalism is behind us, and for the rest it will be over in our lifetime.”

Sociologist Peter Frase, in his new book Four Futures, implicitly agrees with many of Mason’s key points, but he then takes up the task of looking further ahead, of contemplating possible futures that hinge largely upon how we respond to the crises we are likely to face in the coming years.

For Frase, not only is the best of capitalism behind us, but the worst of it may lie just ahead.

Central to Four Futures are what Frase calls the “[t]wo specters…haunting Earth in the twenty-first century” — “the specters of environmental catastrophe and automation.”

Rather than attempting to predict the future, Frase — guided by Rosa Luxemburg’s famous words, “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism” — lays out potential, contingent scenarios. And while Mason’s book exudes optimism about the advancement of information technology and automation, Frase is more cautious.

“To the extent that the rich are able to maintain their power,” Frase writes, “we will live in a world where they enjoy the benefits of automated production, while the rest of us pay the costs of ecological destruction—if we can survive at all.” And, “To the extent that we can move toward a world of greater equality, then the future will be characterized by some combination of shared sacrifice and shared prosperity, depending on where we are on the other, ecological dimension.”

It comes down, in short, to who wins the class struggle. “I am a very old-fashioned Marxist in that way,” Frase remarked in a recent interview.

None of the futures Frase maps out are inevitable, the result of historical forces that are beyond our control. He is contemptuous of those who cling to “secular eschatology”; capitalism’s collapse, he notes, will not likely be the result of a single, revolutionary moment.

In expressing this view he aligns with Wolfgang Streeck, who has argued that capitalism is “a social system in chronic disrepair,” and that while “we cannot know when and how exactly capitalism will disappear and what will succeed it,” we can know that a system that depends on endless growth and the elimination of all restraints will eventually self-destruct.

The disappearance of capitalism, though, as Orwell understood, does not necessarily imply the emergence of an egalitarian society, one in which resources are shared for the benefit of the many. But while few agree on precisely how to establish the framework for such a society, there are, Mason and Frase argue, policies that can move us in the right direction.

Both, for instance, support the idea of a universal basic income, which, in Frase’s words, would “create a situation in which it possible to survive without depending on selling your labor to anyone who will pay for it,” making automation a path to liberation, not destitution. And Mason rightly argues that, in order to avert catastrophic warming, we must radically reduce carbon emissions.

But the usual political obstacles remain, as does the fact that the “winners” are not likely to hand over their gains, or their positions of power and influence, without a fight. We cannot, then, passively rely on amoral forces like technology to bring about the necessary change.

“Technological developments give a context for social transformations,” Frase writes, “but they never determine them directly; change is always mediated by the power struggles between organized masses of people.”

_____

The future is necessarily disobedient; it rarely conforms to even the most meticulous theoretical anticipations, to say nothing of our deepest desires or fears.

But one thing is clear: The future of capitalism and the future of the planet are intertwined. The health of the latter depends on our ability to dismantle the former, and on our ability to construct an alternative that radically alters our course, which is at present leading us toward catastrophe.

“One thing is clear: The future of capitalism and the future of the planet are intertwined.”

Whether the path to which we are ultimately confined is one that leads to a utopian dream or a dystopian nightmare is contingent upon our ability to connect the struggles that currently occupy the left — those fighting for the right to organize are confronting, at bottom, the same forces as those working to prevent the plunder of sacred land.

There are reasons to be both hopeful and pessimistic about the prospects of these struggles.

The campaign of Bernie Sanders, and the movements that emerged before it and alongside it, revealed that there is a large base of support for social democratic changes that, if enacted, would move us in the right direction.

The obstacles, however, are immense, as is the arithmetic: As Bill McKibben has noted, “The future of humanity depends on math,” and the climate math we face is “ominous.”

But, as Noam Chomsky has argued, the debate over the choice between pessimism and optimism is really no debate at all.

“We have two choices,” he concludes. “We can be pessimistic, give up and help ensure that the worst will happen. Or we can be optimistic, grasp the opportunities that surely exist and maybe help make the world a better place. Not much of a choice.”

Jake Johnson is an independent writer. Follow him on Twitter: @wordsofdissent

It’s the 50th Anniversary of the Black Power Movement

The year 2016 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Black Power, one of the least understood and most criminalized and vilified movements in American history.

The raised fist symbolizes revolution and defiance, it is used by various movements including black power and occupy.
Photo Credit: Stefanina Hill

The following is an excerpt from the new book Black Power 50 edited by Sylviane A. Diouf & Komozi Woodward (The New Press, 2016): 

June 1966, Greenwood, Mississippi: Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) introduced “Black Power” as a slogan. His fellow SNCC organizer, Willie Ricks, had tested the phrase at rallies earlier. Like no other ideology before, the heterogeneous and ideologically diverse movement that gave the powerful rallying cry its strength and depth shaped black consciousness and built an immense legacy that continues to resonate in the contemporary American landscape. If the exact chronology of the movement is controversial, it is clear that a decade of struggle, including the ferocious repression against it, has had a tremendous impact on issues of not only race and citizenship in the United States but also identity, politics, criminal justice, culture, art, and education globally. Indeed, Black Power’s successes and weaknesses have largely molded the past half century.

The defense campaign became increasingly important as the FBI and local police sought to destroy the Black Panther Party. Rallies to free all political prisoners mobilized large crowds. Oakland.1968 © Stephen Shames.

The year 2016 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Black Power, one of the least understood and most criminalized and vilified movements in American history. Too often presented or remembered primarily as the violent, villainous urban northern counterpoint to the nonviolent, virtuous rural southern civil rights movement, the Black Power movement has been eclipsed in the general public’s memory. That blinding binary is an obstacle to our understanding of a more complicated past. Recent scholarship suggests that the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow North preceded the one in the Jim Crow South; and that Black Power emerged in the Jim Crow South simultaneously with its ascent in the Jim Crow North and the Jim Crow West. But everywhere, young adults and teenagers led the Black Power movement. Whether they were in Boston, Chicago, or Los Angeles the activists were often the sons and daughters of southern migrants or Caribbean immigrants. Between 1966 and 1976, they developed countless cultural, political, social, and economic programs under the banner of the Black Power ideology. Those programs and organizations, and the art, literature, drama, and music they created, galvanized millions of people in the broadest movement in African American history.

This new generation had become impatient with the civil rights’ leadership and limited goals. They were suspicious of official declarations and legislation that suggested an official end to segregation, when they could see that the walls of employment, housing, and school segregation were becoming newly fortified from New York to California. Indeed, the 1964 Civil Rights Act specifically excluded any attack of segregation in the Jim Crow North. Thus, a heated debate developed in the civil rights movement between leaders who declared the struggle for desegregation was over and those who argued it had to continue. Even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was attacked by the more conservative leadership, including Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who insisted the time for protest was over after the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Kathleen Cleaver and fellow Black Panthers sporting Afros. Oakland. 1968 © Stephen Shames.

Of course, the movement, just like the concept of Black Power itself, was never monolithic. Black Power was heterogeneous, fusing together a number of ideologies and programs, including not only cultural nationalism, socialism, Marxism, and Islam, but also revolutionary nationalism, welfare rights, tenant rights, student voices, revolutionary union movements, Pan-Africanism and so forth—not to mention the rise of black elected officials. The crowded field of organizations included a bewildering spectrum of groups as diverse as SNCC, the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), the National Welfare  Rights Organization (NWRO), the Black Panther Party (BPP), the African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC), Us Organization, the Congress of African People (CAP), Third World Women Alliance (TWWA), the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), the Young Lords Organization (YLO), the Black Students Unions (BSU), and the Black Arts Movement (BAM). All of those voices came under the Black Power umbrella.

If Black Power was heterogeneous, it was also fluid. Some activists moved from one organization to the other or belonged to several at the same time. Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown were members of SNCC before joining the Panthers. Carmichael then moved on to the All African People’s Revolutionary Party, influenced by Kwame Nkrumah, the deposed former president of Ghana. Muhammad Ahmad, a co-founder of the Revolutionary Action Movement, was also a founder of the African Liberation Support Committee and the African Peoples Party (APP). Robert Williams, formerly of the NAACP, and Queen Mother Moore, once a Communist Party member, were leaders of the Republic of New Afrika and RAM. Some activists belonged to the BPP and the Young Lords. Japanese American Richard Aoki, a field marshal for the BPP, was also the spokesperson for the Asian American Political Alliance (though recent evidence suggests he might have worked for the FBI).

Despite their diversity and, for some, antagonism, all Black Power organizations shared a few fundamental features: they saw themselves as heirs of Malcolm X, defined Black America as an internal colony of the United States, and demanded self-determination.

The awareness of forming a “black nationality,” a nation within a nation, and of being subjected to systemic racism, became central to the vibrant, self-confident expression of the new black urban experience that marked the era.

While the movement organized countless peaceful demonstrations, the exacerbation of racial conflicts and police brutality led also to increasingly violent confrontations. In the early 1960s, over 320 major rebellions erupted in 257 cities. Following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, 200 uprisings shook 172 cities. A year later, 500 racial clashes electrified young people, reshaping black consciousness and reinforcing the quest for autonomy.

In line with Malcolm X’s emphasis on the model of the 1955 Bandung Conference that united African and Asian newly independent countries, Black Power also inspired a “Bandung West” of antiracist movements organized by communities of Puerto Ricans, American Indians, Chicanos, Asian Americans, and impoverished working-class whites. Coalitions beyond race, ethnicity, geography, and social origin emerged to fight injustice, discrimination, and economic inequality. Organizations supported each other’s struggles, and together their members and sympathizers attended rallies to demand the release of political prisoners. In Chicago, under the leadership of Illinois Black Panther Party deputy chairman Fred Hampton, black, Puerto Rican, and white activists founded the Rainbow Coalition. The 1970 Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention organized by the BPP in Philadelphia gathered ten thousand to fifteen thousand people with, among others, delegates from the American Indian Movement, the Chicano Brown Berets, the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the Asian American I Wor Kuen, and the mostly white Students for a Democratic Society. Similarly, in the Newark Black Power experiment, the United Brothers—who wanted to achieve Black Power through the electoral process—and the Young Lords signed a mutual defense pact against white terror. They joined together in the 1969 Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention, running candidates on a Rainbow political slate. Los Angeles SNCC’s Ralph Featherstone and Us’s Maulana Karenga established an alliance at the Alianzasummit in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with Chicano leader Reies Lopez Tijerina and Hopi chief Tomas Ben Yacya.

In addition to unifying various segments of the American population, the Black Power movement also resonated abroad. Black Power became a global phenomenon, capturing the imagination of anticolonial and other freedom struggles. From Great Britain to the Caribbean and from India to Israel, colonized or marginalized young people rallied around slogans fashioned after “Black Power,” and organizations were modeled or named after the Black Panther Party. Young Samoans, Tongans, Cook Islanders, and Maoris founded the Polynesian Panther Movement in New Zealand in 1971, which later became the Polynesian Panther Party. In Israel, Mizrahi, mostly immigrant Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, called themselves Black Panthers and demanded equality with the European Jews. Dalits, who belong to the lower echelon of society and are outside of the rigid Indian caste system, formed the Dalit Panthers in Bombay. Globally, where youth were denied full citizenship or where governments questioned their very humanity, activists claimed the language of Black Power in the fight for their human rights. Ironically, this suggests the rarely understood paradox that ultimately Black Power was not racial but rather a movementagainst racism.

The radicals in the Black Power movement believed that their antiwar, anticolonial, anti-imperialist, revolutionary stance made the movement a natural ally of the countries that were part of the Soviet bloc during the Cold War: Cuba, Vietnam, China, Ghana, North Korea, Algeria, Tanzania, and Guinea; and of the liberation movements of the Portuguese colonies of Africa as well as of South-West Africa (Namibia) and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Whereas few African Americans had actively supported or even been aware of the decolonization movement in Africa in the early 1960s, by 1970 the efforts by Black Power nationalists to support  African liberation reflected the sentiments of millions of African Americans.

Copyright © 2016 by The Schomburg Cernter for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library. This excerpt originally appeared in Black Power 50 by Sylviane A. Diouf and Komozi Woodard, published by The New Press Reprinted here with permission.

http://www.alternet.org/books/its-50th-anniversary-black-power-movement?akid=14749.265072.ACW9Gf&rd=1&src=newsletter1065107&t=26

American playwright Edward Albee: The character of his opposition to the status quo

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By David Walsh
22 September 2016

Edward Albee, one of the most prominent figures in the postwar American theater, died at his home in Montauk, New York on September 16. He was 88 years old.

Albee is best remembered for works he wrote a half century ago or more, including The Zoo Story (1959), The Death of Bessie Smith (1960), The Sandbox (1960), The American Dream (1961), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) and A Delicate Balance (1966). Out of critical and popular favor for decades, Albee experienced a degree of renewed success with Three Tall Women (1991) and The Goat or Who is Sylvia? (2000). During his lengthy career, Albee won numerous awards, including three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and two Tony Awards for Best Play.

Albee was an immensely gifted and articulate writer, with a genuine feeling for the rhythm of language and an obvious flair for the dramatic. His early works, including The Zoo Story, a one-act play, and, most especially, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a full-length work, made a strong impression on the public when they were first performed. In these works, and others of the time, Albee launched fierce attacks on middle-class complacency and hypocrisy, and the moral failure of American society.

The playwright described himself on many occasions as an enemy of the status quo. This was entirely to his credit. However, if Albee’s conception of this enmity remained quite limited, as we shall discuss, this was bound up with the social-cultural environment in which he matured in Cold War America and the milieu in which he circulated.

Albee’s family background is a singular one. He was born in Washington, DC in March, 1928 to a woman who could not support a child. The father had “deserted and abandoned both the mother and child,” according to the subsequent adoption papers. When he was 18 days old, the child was adopted by Reed A. Albee and Frances C. Albee, a wealthy, childless couple. Reed Albee’s money came from his father, the head of the Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville theaters. The Albees lived in luxury in Larchmont, New York on the Long Island Sound.

The writer later claimed that he always felt like an interloper in the household. “They bought me. They paid $133.30”—i.e., the cost of the adoption services. His “outsider” status in his own family and his discovery of his homosexuality at an early age no doubt helped distance Albee from the American mainstream. He had a difficult time in school, being expelled or dismissed from several high schools and colleges. He left home for good in his late teens. Toward the end of his life, Albee told an interviewer he had been “thrown out” of the family home because he refused to become the “corporate thug” his parents desired him to be.

During the 1950s, Albee lived in Greenwich Village in New York City and worked at numerous odd jobs. He also received money from a trust fund. He wrote poems, plays and novels that were not published.

Albee wrote The Zoo Story in three weeks in 1958. It was first performed in West Berlin in 1959 on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.

The short play takes place in Central Park in New York. There are two characters. Peter, a middle-aged man, an executive with a small publishing house, who “wears tweeds, smokes a pipe, carries horn-rimmed glasses.” We eventually learn that he has a wife, two daughters, two cats and two parakeets, the perfect, contented American family. Peter is peacefully reading his newspaper on a park bench on a Sunday afternoon when Jerry enters into conversation with him. The latter is younger, poorer and suffering, according to Albee’s description, from “great weariness.”

The conversation begins innocently, if oddly, enough, with Jerry’s now-famous line: “I’ve been to the zoo. (PETER doesn’t notice) I said, I’ve been to the zoo. MISTER, I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!” Peter responds politely enough, but Jerry becomes more and more intrusive, asking personal questions and revealing the character of his own lonely existence. When Peter has had enough and tries to leave, Jerry becomes aggressive and pulls out a knife. He drops it and tells Peter, “There you go. Pick it up.” The other man does so and Jerry eventually impales himself on the blade. In his final, dying words, he thanks Peter.

Something about the coldness and isolation, and inequality, of modern urban life emerges. Jerry lives in a rooming house, with a “few clothes, a hot plate that I’m not supposed to have, a can opener.” His neighbors are the marginalized. His closest relationship, aside from those with prostitutes, is with his landlady’s dog, about whom he speaks in a lengthy monologue.

Years later, Albee would explain, “Jerry is a man who has not closed down, … who during the course of the play is trying to persuade Peter that closing down is dangerous and that life for all its problems, all of its miseries, is worth participating in, absolutely fully.”

Albee was attacked for his play in establishment circles. On the floor of the US Senate, Prescott Bush (father and grandfather of two US presidents) denounced The Zoo Story as “filthy.”

The influence of Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and the “theater of the absurd” is evident in The Zoo Story, which is to say, Albee was under the influence of some of the same social and intellectual tendencies as those writers. British playwright Harold Pinter, born in 1930, was an almost exact contemporary. Pinter’s first play, The Room, was written and performed in 1957.

The intellectuals of the time, or the more sensitive ones, were appalled by contemporary society, by the giant corporations and institutions that had emerged in the aftermath of World War II, by the Cold War, by the threat of nuclear destruction, by the officially sponsored conformism and pursuit of material wealth.

On the other hand, for the most part they saw no way out of the situation. Stalinism and its crimes, widely identified with communism and socialism, seemed to many to have closed off the possibility of revolutionary change. The various counterrevolutionary “labor” bureaucracies suppressed the working class politically. Existentialism and other forms of irrationalism suggested that the human condition was absurd, but that one had to endure and find some meaning in what was perhaps a meaningless existence. Abstract expressionism in painting and the “Beat” movement emerged from these general ideological conditions.

In The Death of Bessie Smith Albee paid oblique tribute to the civil rights movement and the suffering of African Americans. The short play takes place in Memphis, Tennessee in 1937, in a hospital. An overworked white nurse, a white intern and a black orderly feature prominently. The premise of the play is that Bessie Smith, the great blues singer (who never appears in the play), dies following a car crash because she is refused admittance to a whites-only hospital. This was generally believed at the time. In fact, Smith was taken directly to a hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi where she died seven hours after the accident. But Albee’s play concerns itself with race and class relations in America, and retains much of its power. The character of the Nurse stands out in particular.

Albee reserved much of his venom for the American upper-middle-class, nuclear family. In The American Dream, an absurdist satire, the central characters are Mommy, Daddy and Grandma. The couple, we discover, had once adopted a son. Unhappy with it, they mutilated the child and ultimately killed it. As Grandma, a sympathetic character, explains, “Well, for the last straw, it finally up and died; and you can imagine how that made them feel, their having paid for it and all. … They wanted satisfaction; they wanted their money back.”

A Young Man shows up, whom Grandma names “The American Dream,” who turns out to be the original boy’s twin. The old woman moves out and the psychologically damaged Young Man moves in. He will take the place of the original adopted child. The dialogue consists largely of a series of clichés and banalities. In typical Albee fashion, a well-to-do family conceals all the brutal realities.

Albee later asserted that the play “is an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation, and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen. Is the play offensive? I certainly hope so.”

The work for which Albee is best known, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (made into a film with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, released in 1966)opened in October 1962, only a few days before the eruption of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the confrontation between the US and the USSR over the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The often intangible and even unnamable psychological menace and paranoia generated by the threat of nuclear annihilation are woven into Albee’s early plays, as they are in many writers’ and filmmakers’ work of the time.

In its framework and episodes, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (borrowed from a bit of “intellectual’s” graffiti found on a wall) is more naturalistic than Albee’s previous efforts. George is a middle-aged associate professor of history at a small New England College; his wife, Martha, six years his senior, is the daughter of the college president. They return home late at night after a party, where they have already had a good deal to drink. Two guests arrive, a younger couple: Nick, a biology professor, and his wife, Honey.

For the rest of the night, George and Martha engage in furious, non-stop and occasionally amusing abuse of one another in front of the younger pair. Martha relentlessly taunts George and humiliates him. She dismisses her husband as “a FLOP! A great … big … fat FLOP!” In response, George breaks a bottle and holds the remains, like a weapon. Martha remarks, “I hope that was an empty bottle, George. You don’t want to waste good liquor … not on your salary.” It goes on like this.

At one point he pretends to shoot her. “GEORGE: Did you really think I was going to kill you, Martha? MARTHA (Dripping with contempt): You? … Kill me? … That’s a laugh. GEORGE: Well, now, I might … some day.”

The hosts play various vicious games, some on each other, some on their guests. When one of his games turns cruel, George explains calmly, “I hate hypocrisy.” George and Martha also claim to have a son, who is coming home that day. In the end, it turns out that they have no child and the fantasy that they do is one of the great lies sustaining their lives and marriage.

The play, above all, suggests America’s decline into something miserable, sick and full of self-deception. Again, the fear and selfishness under the surface of middle class existence come out, along with that social layer’s hypocrisy and servility. Success and stature, the jockeying for position, on this wretched, unimportant little campus absorb much of the time and thought of all four characters. Whatever was promising about America and the American Dream (and George and Martha, of course, are the names of the first president of the US and his wife) has somehow come down to this: stupid, petty and sterile infighting, an endless drunken, malicious quarrel in the middle of the night. All this expenditure of energy … for what?

The characters are not so much hateful, as pitiful. Toward the end of the play, Martha laments, “I do not wish to be happy, and yes I do wish to be happy. George and Martha, sad, sad, sad.”

In A Delicate Balance, a well-to-do couple, Agnes and Tobias live with Agnes’s alcoholic sister, Claire. Their daughter Julia is expected to arrive home soon, fleeing her fourth unsuccessful marriage. Friends of Agnes and Tobias’s, Harry and Edna, arrive and ask if they can stay. A terrible, intangible fear has overtaken them.

What to do with Harry and Edna, whether to ask them to leave or accept them and accept responsibility for them in their plight, becomes a central question in the play. The strongest element of A Delicate Balance, once again, is the contrast between the well-established rules of conduct of these polite, educated people and the painful, contradictory realities of life.

Albee wrote many other plays, including adaptations of works by Carson McCullers (The Ballad of the Sad Café) and Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), but these early works contain the most compelling expression of his artistic ideas and social concerns.

Albee insisted until the end of his life that he was an enemy of existing conditions. In his introduction to Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (1968), Albee argued that one of the chief obligations of the playwright was to “try to alter his society,” since, as he explained, “very few serious plays are written to glorify the status quo.” In an interview in 2009, he told a journalist, along the same lines, that “A play should be an act of aggression against the status quo.”

Nor did Albee have much use for fashionable and marketable “identity politics.” Defending his decision to write about a host of characters, he told an interviewer, fellow playwright Craig Lucas, in 1992, “After all, there are a number of things we have not been, you and I. We’ve not been women, we’ve not been 80 years old, we’ve not been black. A lot of things we haven’t been. But its our responsibility to be able to be them, isn’t it?”

Albee attracted criticism for rejecting the term “gay writer.” In a May 2011 speech, he commented, “A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay. … Any definition which limits us is deplorable.” After his comments were attacked, he told National Public Radio, “Maybe I’m being a little troublesome about this, but so many writers who are gay are expected to behave like gay writers and I find that is such a limitation and such a prejudicial thing that I fight against it whenever I can.”

Albee’s criticism of the “status quo” could be quite fierce. He was quoted in 1980 as saying, “I think television is the destruction of the United States. I mean, that and the Republican Party … And the Democratic Party, for that matter, come to think of it.”

In Everything in the Garden (1967), Albee’s American adaptation of a black comedy by British playwright Giles Cooper, a group of respectable suburban housewives turn to prostitution en masse (although unbeknownst to one another) to supplement their husbands’ incomes. When one of the wives is caught out, she turns on her husband and decries the corrupt, even criminal manner in which each of the men earns a living. She sums it up: “You all stink, you’re all killers and whores.”

Albee’s sincerity was unquestionable. However, when the playwright spoke of opposition to the status quo, he meant primarily the moral, sexual and psychological status quo. To many intellectuals and artists in the US, and this view was encouraged by the various academic left tendencies (the Frankfurt School and so forth), capitalism had resolved its economic contradictions. What remained were the problems of alienation, aloneness, conformism and sexual repression.

Continuing to engage exclusively with these issues and ignoring the explosive questions that emerged in the 1970s and beyond, including the growing impoverishment of masses of Americans and the overall economic-cultural decline of the US, meant that Albee’s work failed to treat much of what was new and challenging, and urgently in need of artistic description, in American life.

Many of Albee’s later plays, and even some of the early ones, are not strong or convincing. Plays like Tiny Alice (1964), Malcolm (1966), Seascape (1975),Counting the Ways (1976), The Man Who Had Three Arms (1982) and others are not particularly engaging. The self-conscious “absurdism” often wears thin. There is a great deal of repetition, between and even within plays. The ideas are often murky and secondary, or commonplace.

Albee was at war with hostile critics for many years, and the critics were often obtuse, but the lack of success of many of his plays with the general public was not principally due to the reviewers’ shortcomings. He wrote numerous tedious and almost pointless plays. He seemed to have run out of important things to say at a relatively young age.

Albee returned time and time again to his early family relations. The ineffectual, “castrated” father, the domineering mother, the victimized son … There are only so many times one can cover the same ground. Did Albee have a childhood that was so excruciating, or that was of such world-historical significance that it needed to be treated over and over again, from different angles, during the course of 40 years?

No, that is not the case. It is rather that there are social and political conditions in which the artist’s individual psychological problems and traumas take on “world-historical” importance to him or her. There are periods when one’s family life dominates, when what one’s mother and father did or didn’t do years ago continues to be a central obsession in later life. This was the type of historical period in which Albee matured, when the class struggle apparently receded into the background.

Albee was no Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright, but some of the comments that Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov made on the subject of Ibsen in a 1908 essay (“Ibsen, Petty Bourgeois Revolutionist”) seem appropriate. Plekhanov noted that at the time when “Ibsen’s opinions and ideals were being formulated, a working class, in the present sense of the term, had not yet developed … and was, therefore, nowhere evident in public life.” This encouraged in Ibsen, “individual protests against the hypocrisy and vulgarity which surrounds him.” His was “the revolt of the modern spirit.”

Plekhanov goes on, “Now if a man teaches revolt simply because it is revolt, not knowing himself to what end it should lead, then his teaching will take on a rather nebulous character. If he is an artist, and thinks in terms of images and forms, then the vagueness of his thinking will necessarily result in vague artistic images. An abstract and schematic element will creep into his creative work. … The ‘revolution of the spirit of man’ leaves everything unchanged. The pregnant mountain has again given birth to a tiny mouse.”

Unhappily, for much of his later career, as a result of the nebulousness of his ideas and the formlessness of his opposition to the status quo, Albee gave birth to nothing but “tiny mice.”

Robert Brustein, the distinguished critic, producer and academic, once referred to Albee “as one who sympathized profoundly with the oppressed of the world.” One has no reason to doubt this, but it is not distinctly and sharply present in his work or public utterances. It is worth noting that in Mel Gussow’s biography,Edward Albee: A Singular Journey (1999), there is a single reference to the Vietnam War in the index. According to an August 1968 New York Timesarticle, Albee did lend his name as a sponsor of the anti-war “Summer of Support,” aimed at US servicemen, along with Pete Seeger, Dustin Hoffman, Phil Ochs and others.

Overall, however, as one commentator notes, Albee’s plays in the 1970s spoke to “personal” rather than “social” disillusionment.

One has to look to the general features of Albee’s time, the postwar economic expansion and the Cold War, for the conditions that shaped his thinking. He traveled to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and certainly distinguished himself from the extreme right confrontationists, but his comments on the USSR do not rise above the level of garden variety anticommunist liberalism. His facile use of selections from Mao’s “Little Red Book” in Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, either wooden truisms or Stalinist falsifications, gives some sense of his attitude toward what he took to be “Marxism” and “revolutionary theory.”

The “abstract and schematic element” in Albee’s work also manifests itself in the ahistorical character of his plays, and the often nameless characters: Mommy and Daddy, Young Man and Grandma, He and She, A B and C. He once told an interviewer, “Most of my plays are not tied to time, particularly.” He didn’t care for having the phrase “timeless” applied to his work, he explained, “but I don’t think they [the plays] are beholden to specific dates.”

Unfortunately, there is nothing that becomes dated more rapidly than the “dateless.” Abstract psychological characterizations and speculations and, frankly, the obsession with oneself do not generally lead to the most rewarding, enriching art. “We all wish to devour ourselves, enter ourselves, be the subject and object all at once,” asserts a character in Albee’s Listening (1976). But the artist seriously attuned to the world and life has more compelling things to do.

Albee’s great strength lay in his ability to represent his upper-middle-class figures, to reveal their inner lives. He helped demystify and discredit the affluent layers who thought themselves fully in control. Moreover, his rejection of corruption and cowardice, his insistence on unpleasant truths about American society in the late 1950s and early 1960s unquestionably contributed to the mood of radicalism and opposition that emerged later in the decade.

To paraphrase Plekhanov, drab, postwar American reality showed Albee what had to be opposed, but it could not by itself show him which road to pursue.

WSWS

Che Guevara: A flawed revolutionary icon

Mike Gonzalez looks at the important lessons to be drawn from Samuel Farber’s new book, The Politics of Che Guevara, in a review first published at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.

Che Guevara in 1959 (Museo Che Guevara)

Che Guevara in 1959 (Museo Che Guevara)

FOR TWO generations of activists, Ernesto Che Guevara has symbolized a kind of selfless heroism. His relative youth at his death in 1967 (he was 38) conserved his air of rebelliousness and the image of a man interested only in the struggle, rather than in power.

Yet Sam Farber who acknowledges these qualities, describes him early in his new book, The Politics of Che Guevara, as “irremediably undemocratic.” The contradiction is striking and central to Farber’s critical analysis of Che’s life as a revolutionary.

Farber’s starting point is the understanding of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working classes, with the emphasis on self. In other words, revolution is, as Marx says (in his Theses on Feuerbach) the “coincidence of the changing of self and the changing of circumstances.” It is in acting collectively in the world that the majority come to recognize their own power and become subjects of history rather than merely its objects. That is the central idea of Marxism.

Yet Che Guevara’s politics and his practice were based on a very different idea–that it is revolutionaries who make the revolution. And they do so irrespective of the circumstances in which they operate, because it is the will of the revolutionary vanguard that is the key.

This voluntarist view is not just misguided; it is alien to the revolutionary tradition to which Farber (and myself) belong. The substitution of the leaders for the mass movement, points ahead to a very different future prefigured in the guerrilla method.

Farber explains that Edward Bellamy’s 19th century utopian novel Looking Backward was one of Guevara’s inspirations. Interestingly the future state that Bellamy imagines was modeled on an army.

Farber reminds us that revolutions do not automatically lead either to dictatorship or democracy; their outcome will depend on the “leading politics” of the movement. In the case of Cuba after 1959, the state was shaped around the command model–a pyramid of orders delivered from above and accepted without question–in which democracy appeared as a risk to the authority of leadership.

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IT SEEMS curious at first that someone with Guevara’s background should have come not just to accept, but to vigorously advocate that inescapably Stalinist project–to dismiss the right to strike and the independent organization of workers as mere obstacles on the road to revolution and to scorn the “false prophets of mass democracy”.

Born in Argentina to left wing parents influenced by the especially Stalinist Argentine communist party, Guevara grew up as a radical Bohemian, a life-style rebel who spurned what he saw as bourgeois habits, from cleanliness to ostentatious consumption. His protest against that culture took the form of a kind of a puritanical asceticism.

The politics would come later, though he was a visceral anti-imperialist from early on. And by the time he reached Mexico, where he met the Cuban rebels for the first time, he had begun to steep himself in Marxism. But it was a Marxism in the abstract, not linked to activism of any kind.

The members of the 26th July Movement with whom Che landed in Cuba in December 1956 to launch the guerrilla campaign were, as Farber describes them, rightly in my view, “déclassé”–political rebels from mainly middle class backgrounds with few roots in the mass movement. Guevara shared that dislocation.

With the victory of the revolution in January 1959, Che joined the Castro brothers in its leadership. It may surprise many readers that Che was–and Farber marshals a powerful body of evidence to prove his case–together with Raúl, the architect of the new state, though ultimately the political skills of Fidel carried him to the top of the pyramid.

It was not a search for personal power that made Che the unconditional supporter of a one-party state–unlike Fidel, for whom it was his driving impulse. But it reflected an admiration for the Stalinist state in its most sectarian and undemocratic manifestations–the state as the exclusive vanguard.

That model drove Che’s critically important interventions in the economy in the early years, based on rapid industrialization, but taking no account of the realities of the Cuban economy. By 1962, Che acknowledged how mistaken those economic policies were, but by then it was too late to turn the clock back.

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WHAT THIS “economic voluntarism”, as Farber calls it, illustrated was not just the single-minded dedication to the immediate creation of a communist state along Stalinist lines, but also a central feature of Guevara’s politics that Farber calls his “political tone-deafness” or his “schematism”.

It was already implicit in his early (1960) manual on Guerrilla Warfare, and definitive especially in his later activities in the Congo and Bolivia. For Guevara, political strategy was not shaped by the specific circumstances in which it unfolded.

So in a Bolivia with an extraordinary tradition of working-class militancy, and which was in the throes of a bitter strike wave when he arrived in 1966, he was insistent on creating a rural guerrilla force and paid no attention to the working-class movement except to call on its militants to join the guerrillas (which no more than a handful did). A year later Che was dead, together with most of his comrades.

In the Congo the failure of the movement there was attributed by Guevara to the lack of a vanguard leadership. And in his arguments with the French agronomist Rene Dumont over the right to strike, Guevara angrily rejected Dumont’s insistence that it was fundamental to a socialist democracy, just as he did in his famous essay Socialism and man in Cuba, insisting that “a mass party was only possible when the masses have attained vanguard consciousness”.

By the mid-sixties Che was increasingly critical of the Soviet economy’s drift towards capitalism, but at no point did that lead him to a criticism of the bureaucratic state. How could it, after all, when he had been an architect of the one-party state in Cuba?

What impresses in Farber’s book is the way in which he interweaves a critical assessment of Guevara’s politics with general arguments about the meaning of socialism. And at its heart, that socialism is democracy of the most radical and profound kind.

The one-party state that Che forged with Raúl Castro continues in Cuba today, overseeing the restoration of a capitalist economy. The lack of resistance to its inevitable effects are a product of a one-party regime that denied the diversity of working-class politics and imposed a system in which the majority had no freedom to act, criticize or generate alternative socialist projects.

Would Che have been happy with the outcome, and the corruption and manipulation of power it has produced? His role in creating the system suggests that he would, albeit perhaps with some misgivings. And he would have despised the yearning for a materially better life among the majority as the unacceptable infiltration of capitalist values.

So what should we do with this flawed revolutionary icon? Recognize that his high moral standards, his resolute internationalism, and his egalitarianism were qualities to cherish. But the one-party state he favored and its repression of democracy consigned the subjects of revolution to a position in which self-emancipation became impossible, as the self-proclaimed vanguard usurped their role, at first in the name of revolution but soon, and in the absence of any possibility of control from below, in their own self-interest.

First published at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.

https://socialistworker.org/2016/09/08/a-flawed-revolutionary-icon