The Dream Café

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

8 February 2019
by skzb

A Blatant Commercial Moment, But Not For Me

Back In the Day when FullTilt Poker was going, I played on it a lot.  I miss those days. I built a $10 initial investment into about $1500 (and got fucktons of writing done at the same time; how cool is that?). Mostly, I played small “Sit and Go” tournaments.  I’m a long, long way from the best tournament poker player you’ll meet, but I am a consistent winner.  Because I was taught to be, mostly by two people: Adam Stemple and Chris “Pokerfox” Wallace–who, by the way, wrote an excellent book together that I can’t recommend too highly.

Okay, so, the commercial part of this:   Chris is teaching a master class in tournament poker.  Rack rate is $300, but you can get it down to $180 by using the code “foxdreamcafe”.  It is worthwhile if and only if you are serious about tournament poker.

Here is where to find it.

End of commercial.  I now return you to your regularly scheduled political rants and writing natter.


23 January 2019
by skzb

The Stalinist School of Internal Debate

It’s been a long time since the Communist Party has been a strong force within the American labor movement, so it seems worthwhile to review a few things that have been largely forgotten. As the influence of Stalin grew within the international movement (the Third International, or Comintern) beginning in 1924, the changes, though gradual, were profound: the interest of the working class began, more and more, to be subordinate to the interests of Stalin and the bureaucratic clique of which he stood at the head.

The prestige of the Communist Party came from its role in 1917 in leading the Russian working class to power, a tremendous inspiration to workers in, literally, every country in the world. Working against that tradition, while simultaneously attempting to keep the loyalty of millions upon millions of workers who were inspired by the party of Lenin, produced some remarkable pathologies.

The Left Opposition (later the Fourth International) worked to expose this contradiction, and to show where the activities and program and methods of the Stalinists worked against the interests of the working class. Over time, the best, the most intellectually honest members (I say with pride that this includes my father) were won over to the Left Opposition.

The arguments of the Trotskyists were necessarily reflected within the Communist Party itself, requiring that the arguments be answered.  These “answers” took the form of rote recitals (which changed quite drastically as the interests of the Kremlin changed: Trotskyism was officially denounced as “ultra-left” which changed to “fascist” literally overnight, then went through other changes). These rote recitals were followed by a system of suppressing dissent within the party.  In the Soviet Union itself, this suppression took the form of midnight visits from the Cheka followed by exile, prison, or murder.  Lacking state power, the other sections of the Comintern had to find other methods of keep party members in line, of using their commitment to equality, to the rights of the working class, to prevent any examination of how best to carry out those goals.

That is the origin of the Stalin School of Party debate, and, though the Communist Party in the US is, at this moment, isolated and largely ineffective, and though no longer directed specifically against Trotskyism, the method of “debate” of international Stalinism, still lingers.  That makes it worth a moment to review. It was present in the CP press, and in large conferences, but most often found expression in the meeting of local Party branches. It worked like this:

1) Someone is accused of the grievous crime of Trotskyism or being soft on Trotskyism, or perhaps saying something that indicates that there is something worse than Trotskyism or bringing up a point that sounds too much like one of the points Trotskyists bring up.

2) The accused is then permitted to speak and apologize for this crime.

3) Those in charge (usually whoever is the leader of that Party branch) then decide if this apology is acceptable, that is, if the individual is sufficiently contrite, and has apologized enough, and put his apology in the proper form.  There were various pieces of that, including praise for Stalin, denunciation of one’s self,  often going further than the original accusations in speaking of one’s own depravity, followed by the promise to do better.  If this apology and ritual self-humiliation is accepted, the accused receives some level of forgiveness, though, of course, he can never be fully trusted again.

4) If the apology is deemed insufficient, everyone present must dutifully attack the offender, speaking from a position of deep moral outrage. Any defense made by the accused is cause for still further, deeper, and more profound attacks, because your unwillingness to recognize the “Trotskyite” influence in yourself means you are deliberately attempting to “sabotage the Party” with these influences. Should anyone be so rash as to defend the accused, or attempt to soften the attacks on the accused, go to step 1 with this person as the accused.

5) Eventually, the accused is either sufficiently humiliated, or makes a sufficiently abject apology, to be forgiven, at least provisionally; or else, if not, is expelled from the Party and shunned by all loyal Party members, after which the remaining Party members congratulate themselves on a job well done.  Those who have doubts about what just happened keep these doubts to themselves, either because they still believe in the ultimate goal and accept that such methods are “necessary,” or simply out of fear of immense social pressure to conform.

Some discussion of this method can be found in the work of James P. Cannon, one of the founders of American Trotskyism (a quick google search of Cannon’s work didn’t bring up anything on line, but I’ve read about it in his work).

This method, to be clear, was neither invented by nor is it confined to the Stalinists: they simply brought it to new heights of formality and rigor.  But any movement defined by political bankruptcy on the one hand, and the sacrificing of the search for truth at the altar of social acceptance on the other, is likely to find itself using these methods, until what remains are quasi-political automatons repeating formulas and attempting to outdo each other in their protestations of loyalty to the Accepted Ideology. It is a good thing to be aware of.

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.