The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

5 January 2019
by skzb

Liberalism Then and Now

Classical liberalism, in the sense of the liberalism of the 18th and 19th Centuries, was a powerfully progressive force. It was the ideological expression of the need of the bourgeoisie to put paid to the social-political vestiges of kings and aristocrats and to create a society in it’s own image, and one in which the repressive power of the state could be reduced to the minimum necessary. Thus liberals fought, often with great success, for universal suffrage, formal equality before the law, freedom of expression, improvements in the status of women, a military under civilian control, and limitation of police powers. All good things, compared to what had gone before.
A progressive ideology that basis itself on a progressive economic system becomes reactionary when that system has exhausted itself.  Compare the progressive role of Christianity in the fight against the Roman slave system to Catholicism’s reactionary role during the downfall of the feudal monarchies.  In the same way, when capitalism itself became reactionary—that is, when it could no longer maintain itself without massive wars and destruction of infrastructure and ever-increasing measures of repression to defend its ever-greater difficulties in distributing human wants (wealth inequality)—liberalism transformed from a progressive ideology to one that simply provided a cover for the worst crimes of capitalism. 
We could look at the criminal role of liberalism in the Russian revolution, or its craven role Germany in the 30s, but really, we don’t have to look any further than the US. From the massive labor battles of the 1930s to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, liberalism in the form of its official spokesmen (politicians and journalists) has specialized in fighting tooth-and-nail against any moves toward equality, and, insofar as their efforts failed, loudly claiming credit for instituting them.  It’s like. after being robbed at gunpoint, you bragged about your generous donation.  When the US ruling elite needs to take a repressive step but fears that its “right-wing” elements will generate too much popular outrage, it turns to its “left-wing” side to carry it out.  We all remember how it turned to Obama to cut SNAP benefits, protect Wall Street gangsters, launch new wars, and begin a massive assault on immigrants.  Going further back, it was the “New Deal” Roosevelt who asked congress for the right to draft striking workers and force them to labor.  The “Fair Deal” Truman invoked Taft-Hartley 12 times within the first year of its passage.  Permit me to quote from Labor’s Giant Step by Art Preis:
“It is an irrefutable fact that the New Deal-Fair Deal liberals were the chief authors and sponsors of the first federal laws to (1) make mere opinion a crime (the Smith Act of 1940, rushed through by a Democratic Congress and signed by President Roosevelt); (2) establish concentration (detention) camps in America where political dissenters can be imprisoned without trial during “national emergency” (McCaarran-Kilgore Internal Security Act of 1950); and (3) outlaw a political party (Communist Control Act of 1954).”
The last, by the way, was sponsored by Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, who “won his spurs” by collaborating with the Stalinists to destroy the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party.
In the end, the first and third of these acts were used (with, it must be admitted, the cooperation of the union bureaucrats) to essentially neuter the American union movement and leave it helpless in the face of the massive, direct attacks on the unions that began under Reagan.
Today, what goes under the name of liberalism directs its energy toward preventing independent action of the working class, spreading ignorance, sowing division, and, above all, trying to convince us that the hollow shell of liberalism is the only alternative to the even more reactionary elements.
Heads up: it isn’t.

31 December 2018
by skzb

Another Way We Commodify Art

This is, in many ways, an especially difficult time to be an artist. That, by itself, makes it important not only to continue creating, but to carefully consider some of the things that make it difficult, and how to respond to them.

There are a number of issues related to the current trend of scolding, boycotting, and gathering hate against any comedian, writer, actor, or artist who has been accused of being sexually inappropriate. But there is one piece of it in particular that’s been nagging at me.

I heard it most clearly expressed in response to a comrade’s post about Ezra Pound.  The post pointed out that Pound was virulently antisemitic, essentially a fascist, and yet a brilliant poet, whose work could reach the sublime, could deeply affect lives. It is a profound contradiction, and yet, there it is.  In the comments to this observation was a remark to the effect of, “There are plenty of other poets.”

I’ve heard this same thing a number of times in a number of forms, and it keeps eating at me: In order to hold this opinion, one most consider art a commodity. “Well, heck, there’s plenty of tomato sauce out there, why should I buy from a reactionary like Hunt? There are plenty of poets out there, why should I read a reactionary like Pound?”  It disturbs me that the answer isn’t obvious: because Pound is giving us something we can’t get from anyone else.   The things I’ve taken from Patrick O’Brien are entirely different from what I’ve taken from either C. S. Forester or Jane Austen; my life has been enriched by all three, and my understanding of human personality has been enriched by at least two of them.

And here’s another thing: What would happen if it were revealed that, for example, Shakespeare had done certain things, or had certain personality traits, that were foul and disgusting? Would that mean those who understood the world better, those who understood what it means to be human more deeply through his work would have those experiences wiped away? Or, let me put it in more concrete terms related to our own field: has the recent controversy about Joss Wheton destroyed the sense of power, the feeling of, “I can do anything I chose to!” that so many girls took from “Buffy”?

This post is not attempting to argue that individuals, by virtue of being artists, ought not to be held responsible for their actions. What I am asking you to consider are the consequences of treating works of art (in the broadest sense) as interchangeable commodities. As that idea spreads, what does it do to those trying to create art, trying to find a way to express in images and in moments something lasting, powerful, revelatory? Those who profit from art (in the narrow, scientific sense of profit), will of course always judge art by its bottom line. Do creators of artistic works really want to accept that method? Do you honestly think the world will be better if we start looking at books, at film, at comedy, as simply “product?”  And yet, “Why would I read Ezra Pound?  There are plenty of other poets” does exactly that.

I understand and sympathize with those who feel, “This person is slimy and disgusting and I’m not comfortable giving him my money.” We live in a society in which wealth is accepted as the final arbiter of quality, and none of us live outside of that society, so it is impossible to be unaffected by it. It is natural to see “giving the person money” as an important aspect of how we address art and artists. But maybe it isn’t the most important aspect? Maybe in your intense desire to “punish” someone who has done, or been accused of doing, something reprehensible, you are contributing to making this a society in which art, instead of a means to uplift us all, becomes just another product, of no more significance than a can of tomato sauce? If this attitude spreads among those who read, can those who write be immune? I do not believe so.

You say you cannot separate the art from the artist.  Maybe it’s worth trying a little harder.  I agree with art critic David Walsh: “To become whole, human beings require the truth about the world, and about themselves, that art offers.”  I am asking you to consider what will happen if these things become unimportant compared to our opinion of the personality of the creator. I beg to submit that this will be, in the long run, terribly destructive to art and artists.


28 December 2018
by skzb

A quick note on the elections of 1952

The US elections in 1948 were a full sweep victory for the Democratic Party—the presidency and both houses—running on a strong pro-labor stance.  Upon election, of course, Truman and the Democratic controlled congress turned against the unions, breaking them up and suppressing them and making sure they were led by people who fully supported the Korean “police action” (that was opposed by the majority of Americans, and the overwhelming majority of workers).  The attacks on the union movement were continuous and powerful, although, in fairness to Truman, he never went as far as FDR, who pushed for a law permitting striking workers to be drafted into military service and forced to labor.

The primary technique Truman used in this was to raise hysteria against “Russian spies” and “Russian influence.”  While it is worth discussing how the actions of the Stalinists in the 30s and 40s permitted this to work, that isn’t the point I’m making now.  What I want to say is, this campaign was very successful, in that he was able, with the help of AFL and CIO bureaucrats, to break up some of the more militant unions and significantly weaken others.  It is not going too far to say that Reagan was able to launch such a successful attack on the unions in the 1980s because of the action of Truman and the Democrats 30 years earlier.

In 1952, the Republican Party ran on a platform that the Democrats were “soft on Communism” and won the presidency and control of Congress and unleashed McCarthy.

In other words, “Hey, thanks for going out and finding that nice stick.  Now we’re going to beat you to death with it.”  When you abandon principle (not that the Democrats had any) for short-term political gain, you’re stropping the razor that will be used to cut your throat.

Here endeth the lesson.


11 December 2018
by skzb

Mass Struggle, Workers Councils, and “Vanguardism”

The “Yellow Vest” protests in Commercy are calling for the building of popular committees to guide the struggle.  This tells us, if we didn’t already know, that they’re serious.

In a Facebook discussion, I got into a mild disagreement with someone who opposed “vangurdism.” I’ve been thinking about it ever since, so I want to get my thoughts down. Between those who already know more about the subject than I do and those who don’t care, I figure maybe three people might be interested, but, since I’m one, here we go.

The issue of building a revolutionary leadership within the working class is often (including by me, I’m afraid) posed as a complete abstraction. There is this thing called “the leadership” and somehow it gains leadership of “the masses” and when considering this, people concerned with revolutionary politics argue about is this a good thing or a bad thing and what are the possible problems and so on, and none of it has anything to do with reality.

When large sections of the working class begin to move, whether in mass protests such as we’re seeing in France, or a general strike such as we saw in Minneapolis and San Francisco in the 30s, or a revolutionary struggle (often emerging from one of the others) such as in Russia, one of the first things that happens is the creation of steering committees in some form. These are democratically elected representatives of the working classes that have the job of making tactical decisions that can’t wait for mass votes, and strategic recommendations. These organs occur spontaneously. because it quickly becomes obvious to those involved in such mass actions that without them a serious struggle is impossible. We’re already seeing the seeds of this in France, as I mentioned above.   The exact forms vary, but they usually feature immediate recall for any representative who fails to represent, a vital feature in a social struggle where both objective circumstances and the the consciousness of the masses change so quickly.

In the Russian Revolution of 1905, these spontaneous organizations were called “workers councils,” or “councils,” the Russian word being “soviet.” These same organs occurred in Germany in 1918, in Spain, in Italy, and even appeared in Hungary in 1956, and many other places. When an insurrection takes place (Russia 1917, Germany 1918, &c) these fighting organs quickly and naturally become organs of government.

Above, I made mention of tactical decisions and strategic recommendations (two things that aren’t as distinct as I’m making them sound). Those are the key. These leadership organs negotiate with the enemy as appropriate, consider offers, compromises, decide when a protest should and should not take place, and where, and if it should be armed, when to advance, when to retreat, how to approach winning over the army, and so on. These organs are trusted by the workers, because they were created by the workers.

A bad decision can be catastrophic to the entire struggle. And making good decisions is very difficult—it requires a solid understanding of the mood of the masses at any given moment, the ability to evaluate the strength of the enemy, a deep commitment to the cause, and a clear understanding of the goal to be achieved (even if, in the inevitable confusion of such struggles, the steps to reach that goal are unclear).

For those of us who believe such struggles are inevitable, the question is how to prepare for them. Marxism is not, the opinions of thousands of academics to the contrary, a set of precepts to be used in making passive criticisms of the status quo.  Marxism is the science of revolution; that is, the science that provides the tools to evaluate the questions posed during a revolutionary struggle. The revolutionary party is the laboratory of revolution, where those who understand the inevitability of such conflicts test ideas and prepare. The revolutionary party enters working class struggles with a program and a clear idea of the goal. It is constantly fighting within the working class for its ideas, to spread its understanding, to find the most advanced, class conscious workers and work with them to prepare for what will happen.

As the mass struggle erupts, the revolutionary party then fights to win these leadership positions, having built a solid base within the working class. The October Revolution of 1917 happened when the Bolshevik Party won a majority in the Soviet. The Minneapolis General Drivers strike was successful because it was Marxists, Trotskyists, who were elected to leadership positions. The German Revolution of 1918 was defeated because the infant Communist Party was unable to win the leadership of the soviets from the rotten Social Democrats, who handed power back to the bourgeoisie.

Thus, what some call “vanguardism” is nothing more than preparing within the working class for the conflicts to come, and attempting to win broader and broader sections of workers to the party, and fighting for socialist consciousness against the coming upsurge, so it will be carried to a successful conclusion. There is nothing in the least undemocratic about it, on the contrary, it takes place in the most democratic, most truly representative political form yet devised.

The revolutionary party and the revolutionary class are not separate and distinct entities, the way some people (as I said, including me) sometimes talk about them.  The revolutionary party is that section of the revolutionary class that has most consciously prepared for mass struggles.  The fight for leadership of the organs of struggle of the masses to carry them to a successful conclusion is the task of the revolutionary party.

27 November 2018
by corwin

On Defining Prejudice

This is Steve, even though it says posted by Corwin. WordPress is screwed up.
I’ve come across this before, but only recently have I seen it so perfectly expressed: “Only women can decide what is mysogeny, only people of color can decide what is racism, only Jews can decide what is antisemitism.”
Please take a moment to think about that.  Either it assumes a homogeneity of opinion among, for example, women, which is both nonsensical and offensive, or it is telling us that the very definitions of mysogeny (anyone remember when that word meant something?), racism, antisemitism (and presumably homophobia, &c) are purely subjective, are up to every member of the group in question to determine.  According to this approach, to ask the question, “what is racism” must be left up to individuals, and even a subset of individuals. This is how we end up in those absurd conversations that go, “That is racist.” “I don’t think so.” “People of color say it is.” “Not all of them.” “Do you expect them all to agree on everything?”  In short, the instant one hears conflicting definitions from two people in that group, anyone not in that group is effectively paralyzed.  
If we cannot define it, how can we fight it?  If it is individual, how can we subject it to scientific analysis?  And without scientific analysis, how can we fight such immensely powerful institutions as those that benefit from these forms of systemic prejudice?  To deny that there can be an objective understanding of these different forms of prejudice is to undercut the possibility of effective action against them. The result of such thinking is exactly what we have seen: efforts to “combat racism” for example become nothing but mental exercises, “calling out,” empty gestures, concentration on words without the least effort to change anything in the real world beyond increasing the privileges of certain already privileged layers of “marginalized” groups.  Such an obvious and straightforward subject as police violence against minorities has been turned, in practice, into farcical calls for “better training” and to elect Democrats–even in those very cities such as Oakland, Baltimore, and Detroit in which it is Democrats who are already in overseeing the murderous thugs in blue.
Prejudice in its many forms, antisemitism, racism, sexism, homophobia, are reflections in the human mind of objective, material interests. Racism provides us the clearest example; most of us are by now familiar with its origins in the late 18th Century and early 19th Century as a justification for the African slave trade, and its resurgence in the late 19th and early 20th Century in the American South as a means of driving down the wages of both white and black workers by insuring they didn’t work together.  Anti-immigrant prejudice (often flavored with an anti-Muslim tinge as it used to be flavored with an anti-Catholic tinge) is deliberately incited for much the same reason.  And so on.
If you are interested in combating prejudice and injustice, and I hope you are, is not the first step to attempt to fight for an objective, scientific understanding of the forces that not only created it, but continue to exploit it?  But instead of science we get magic: “Well, the powerful are white and male, therefore anyone who is white and male has a share of that power.”  That isn’t science, this is the magical principle of similarity, which makes for good fantastical fiction but lousy social action.
When the workers at the River Rouge plant in 1941 defeated Henry Ford’s efforts to pit black against white and won the first Union shop in Ford’s history along with tremendous gains in wages and conditions for all of those workers, that made a positive contribution (and, incidentally, struck a blow against racial prejudice among those workers).  Compare and contrast this action with Joe Superwoke “calling out” Aunt Mabel’s racist joke at Thanksgiving.  The latter, it seems to me, is something one does, to give it the most charitable explanation, because one is outraged at racial injustice and sees no other way to make a contribution to the fight.  I believe there are better, more powerful ways to make such a contribution: the fight for class unity that takes on all forms of backwardness as part of the struggle for our common needs, combined with a class-based fight against all forms of institutionalized systemic prejudice.
TL;dr: All forms of prejudice, in the harm they do both to those who directly suffer from their effects and to those whose conditions are hurt because they buy into them, are the result of objective social forces.  To limit the very definition to the subjective mood of individuals makes them impossible to fight effectively.