A Few Words from Martin Luther King and Jamaal Bowman (Redux)

[Apologies for sending this again, but the video of King’s interview didn’t show up in the email that goes out to some of this blog’s vast public]

From an interview in May, 1967:

[The interview]

From Jamaal Bowman, who will now represent New York’s 16th District in Congress:

We can’t talk about the attacks against “Socialism” without talking about white backlash to demands for investment in communities of color.

Government programs, or what they call “Socialism,” is apparently fine for white people but no one else.

Was the GI Bill socialism?
Was the Works Progress Administration socialism?
Was the Homestead Act socialism?

These programs built the middle class and American wealth. But we’re letting ourselves get played by the GOP’s divide-and-conquer strategy if we don’t tell it like it is.

If we let Republicans and their billionaire friends on Fox News and corporate America divide us up, working people of all backgrounds can’t come together to fund our schools, demand millions of green jobs, and investment in ALL of our communities.

Let’s complete the work of our ancestors in this struggle.

For every step our nation takes forward on racial and economic justice, the forces of backlash will try to divide-and-conquer us all.

But we have to stay focused because I truly believe that we will win.

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“Antifa” Stands for Anti-Fascist

Until a few days ago, I’d never heard the term “antifa”. It’s a word that refers to the anti-fascists, anti-racists who believe in direct action against fascists and racists, including violence at times. From an article in The Washington Post by the historian Mark Bray:

Antifa are autonomous anti-racist groups that monitor and track the activities of local neo-Nazis. They expose them to their neighbors and employers, they conduct public education campaigns, they support migrants and refugees and they pressure venues to cancel white power events.

The vast majority of anti-fascist organizing is nonviolent. But their willingness to physically defend themselves and others from white supremacist violence and preemptively shut down fascist organizing efforts before they turn deadly distinguishes them from liberal anti-racists.

Antifascists argue that. after the horrors of chattel slavery and the Holocaust, physical violence against white supremacists is both ethically justifiable and strategically effective. We should not, they argue, abstractly assess the ethical status of violence in the absence of the values and context behind it. Instead, they put forth an ethically consistent, historically informed argument for fighting Nazis before it’s too late… The first antifascists fought Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts in the Italian countryside, exchanged fire with Adolf Hitler’s Brownshirts in the taverns and alleyways of Munich and defended Madrid from Francisco Franco’s insurgent nationalist army….

In the United States and Canada, activists of the Anti-Racist Action Network (ARA) doggedly pursued Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other assorted white supremacists from the late 1980s into the 2000s. Their motto was simple but bold: “We go where they go.” If Nazi skinheads handed out leaflets at a punk show in Indiana about how “Hitler was right,” ARA was there to show them the door. If fascists plastered downtown Alberta’s Edmonton with racist posters, ARA tore them down and replaced them with anti-racist slogans.

Responding to small fascist groups may seem trivial to some, but the rise of Hitler and Mussolini show that resistance is not a light switch that can simply be flipped on in a crisis. Once the Nazi and fascist parties gained control of government, it was too late to pull the emergency brake.

In retrospect, antifascists have concluded, it would have been much easier to stop Mussolini back in 1919 when his first fascist nucleus had 100 men. Or to stamp out the far-right German Workers’ Party, which had only 54 members when Hitler attended his first meeting, before he transformed it into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazi Party). Though the regimes that inspired their original protests are long dead, antifascists have devoted themselves to treating small fascist and Nazi groups as if they could be the nucleus of a murderous movement or regime of the future….

Years before the alt-right even had a name, antifascists were spending thankless hours scouring seedy message boards and researching clandestine neo-Nazi gatherings. They were tracking those who planted the seeds of the death that we all witnessed in Charlottesville….Behind the masks, antifa are nurses, teachers, neighbors, and relatives of all races and genders who do not hesitate to put themselves on the line to shut down fascism by any means necessary.

At The Atlantic, another professor, Peter Beinart, expresses concern about antifa’s occasional use of violence and threats of violence, but points out that there is no equivalence between the antifa movement and the neo-nazis they fight:

Antifa activists are sincere. They genuinely believe that their actions protect vulnerable people from harm. Cornel West claims they did so in Charlottesville. But for all of antifa’s supposed anti-authoritarianism, there’s something fundamentally authoritarian about its claim that its activists … can decide whose views are too odious to be publicly expressed. That kind of undemocratic, illegitimate power corrupts. It leads to what happened this April in Portland, Oregon, where antifa activists threatened to disrupt the city’s Rose Festival parade if people wearing “red MAGA hats” marched alongside the local Republican Party….

But saying it’s a problem is vastly different than implying … that it’s a problem equal to white supremacism. Using the phrase “alt-left” suggests a moral equivalence that simply doesn’t exist.

For starters, while antifa perpetrates violence, it doesn’t perpetrate it on anything like the scale that white nationalists do. It’s no coincidence that it was a Nazi sympathizer—and not an antifa activist—who committed murder in Charlottesville. According to the Anti-Defamation League, right-wing extremists committed 74 percent of the 372 politically motivated murders recorded in the United States between 2007 and 2016. Left-wing extremists committed less than 2 percent.

Second, antifa activists don’t wield anything like the alt-right’s power. White, Christian supremacy has been government policy in the United States for much of American history. Anarchism has not. That’s why there are no statues of Mikhail Bakunin in America’s parks and government buildings. Antifa boasts no equivalent to Steve Bannon [or] to Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, who bears the middle name of a Confederate general and the first name of the Confederacy’s president, and who allegedly called the NAACP “un-American.” It boasts no equivalent to Alex Jones, who Donald Trump praised as “amazing.” Even if antifa’s vision of society were as noxious as the “alt-right’s,” it has vastly less power to make that vision a reality.

And antifa’s vision is not as noxious. Antifa activists do not celebrate regimes that committed genocide and enforced slavery. They’re mostly anarchists. Anarchism may not be a particularly practical ideology. But it’s not an ideology that depicts the members of a particular race or religion as subhuman.

CNN has an article with a brief video. The video includes a reporter talking to a group of masked antifa people in Oregon. It’s CNN, and I didn’t read the whole article, but their treatment of the movement seems even-handed. Democracy Now! has an extended interview with Mark Bray, who I quoted above. Part 1 is here. The second part is here.

The New York Times has an article too:

Last weekend, when a 27-year-old bike messenger showed up at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., he came ready for battle. He joined a human chain that stretched in front of Emancipation Park and linked his arms with others, blocking waves of white supremacists — some of them in full Nazi regalia — from entering.

“As soon as they got close,” said the young man, who declined to give his real name and goes by Frank Sabaté after the famous Spanish anarchist, “they started swinging clubs, fists, shields. I’m not embarrassed to say that we were not shy in defending ourselves”….

The closest thing antifa may have to a guiding principle is that ideologies it identifies as fascistic or based on a belief in genetic inferiority cannot be reasoned with and must be physically resisted. Its adherents express disdain for mainstream liberal politics, seeing it as inadequately muscular, and tend to fight the right through what they call “direct actions” rather than relying on government authorities.

“When you look at this grave and dangerous threat — and the violence it has already caused — is it more dangerous to do nothing and tolerate it, or should we confront it?” Frank Sabaté said. “Their existence itself is violent and dangerous, so I don’t think using force or violence to oppose them is unethical.”

By the way, ThinkProgress reports that, despite the widespread violence in Charlottesville last weekend, only eight people were arrested in connection with the white supremacist rally. That’s two more than were arrested for public drunkenness. A member of the antifa movement would almost certainly argue that those numbers show why we can’t rely on the authorities to fight fascism. 

Moe Should Have Watched “The Wire”

David Simon, the creator of The Wire, spoke recently at a conference in Australia. The Guardian has an edited transcript of his talk here. Some selected paragraphs:

You know if you’ve read Capital or if you’ve got the Cliff Notes, you know that [Marx’s] imaginings of how classical Marxism – of how his logic would work when applied – kind of devolve into such nonsense as the withering away of the state and platitudes like that. But he was really sharp about what goes wrong when capital wins unequivocally, when it gets everything it asks for.

That may be the ultimate tragedy of capitalism in our time, that it has achieved its dominance without regard to a social compact, without being connected to any other metric for human progress.

From this moment forward unless we reverse course, the average human being is worth less on planet Earth. Unless we take stock of the fact that maybe socialism and the socialist impulse has to be addressed again; it has to be married as it was married in the 1930s, the 1940s and even into the 1950s, to the engine that is capitalism.

Mistaking capitalism for a blueprint as to how to build a society strikes me as a really dangerous idea in a bad way. Capitalism is a remarkable engine again for producing wealth. It’s a great tool to have in your toolbox if you’re trying to build a society and have that society advance. You wouldn’t want to go forward at this point without it. But it’s not a blueprint for how to build the just society. There are other metrics besides that quarterly profit report.

And that’s what The Wire was about basically, it was about people who were worth less and who were no longer necessary, as maybe 10 or 15% of my country is no longer necessary to the operation of the economy. It was about them trying to solve, for lack of a better term, an existential crisis. In their irrelevance, their economic irrelevance, they were nonetheless still on the ground occupying this place called Baltimore and they were going to have to endure somehow.

Moe really should have watched The Wire.

Karl Marx: His Life and Environment by Isaiah Berlin

Karl Marx was a monumental figure. I knew that he spent years doing research in the library of the British Museum and wrote several dense volumes, as well as the Communist Manifesto. I didn’t realize that he was personally involved in left-wing politics. He was the leading revolutionary of his time, moving from country to country, attending meetings, writing letters, advising other communists and socialists throughout Europe, Russia and even the United States (he was even a regular contributor to a New York newspaper).

This is the 4th edition of Isaiah Berlin’s well-written biography of Marx, first published in 1939. Berlin, the famous British philosopher and historian of ideas, presents Marx as a brilliant thinker but a difficult person who devoted his life to bringing about the downfall of capitalism.

What is especially striking is that Marx strongly believed in gathering mountains of evidence in support of his political and economic theories. In that regard, he was a social scientist and an empiricist. Yet he labored in support of an idealistic vision of a future after capitalism that seems terribly unrealistic.

It was conceivable that the proletariat would rise up against the capitalists and the bourgeoisie, especially if a group of revolutionaries could seize power, as they surprisingly did in Russia (of all places). But it was a tremendous leap to think that the state would eventually wither away and the workers would create a functioning communist society. “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need” is an ideal that sounds rational and even practical, but Marx doesn’t seem to have given enough thought to how such an ideal would be implemented. At least, Berlin never gives the impression that Marx spent much time thinking about the communist future. He was much too busy trying to overcome the capitalist present.

Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton

The only Marx I’ve ever read is The Communist Manifesto. Given capitalism’s recent problems, I thought it might be a good idea to learn more about him. This book by English academic and literary critic Terry Eagleton was probably a good place to start.

Why Marx Was Right is a chapter by chapter set of responses to common objections to Marx’s thought. In each case, Marx seems to come out on top: “This book had its origin in a single, striking thought: What if all the most familiar objections to Marx’s work are mistaken? Or at least, if not totally wrongheaded, mostly so?” It’s a well-written, rather breezy book. Eagleton suggests that Karl Marx was a brilliant social theorist, far ahead of his time, although I’m not sure how accurate Eagleton’s portrayal of Marx is. 

The Marx described by Eagleton sounds like a democratic socialist, a 19th century progressive and proto-environmentalist who understood the world more clearly and was a better person than the Communists who achieved power in the 20th century, claiming to be “Marxists” or “Marxist-Leninists”.

The biggest question I had after reading Why Marx Was Right is how Marx’s ideas would work out in practice. At one point, Eagleton describes what would apparently be a Marxist form of government:

It is not a state we ourselves would easily recognize as such. It is as though someone were to point to a decentralised network of self-governing communities, flexibly regulated by a democratically elected central administration, and announce “There is the state!”, when we were expecting something altogether more inspiring and monumental.

That is the clearest description of a Marxist state in the book (as best I remember). According to Eagleton, Marx “defended the great bourgeois ideals of freedom, reason and progress, but wanted to know why they tended to betray themselves whenever they were put into practice”. Likewise, once socialism takes advantage of the infrastructure created by capitalism and evolves into communism, would that infrastructure tend to wither away, since the profit motive would no longer be in full force?

Eagleton argues that Marx would not eliminate the profit motive entirely, but it’s not clear how a truly Marxist state would function. Communism as instituted in the real world has never resembled the seriously democratic system Marx apparently proposed. Nor have communist governments been established in countries with advanced capitalist infrastructure. Marxism is one of those social experiments that have never been performed.

Yet some of what Marx argued for, especially as expressed by Eagleton, would be desirable correctives to the system we’ve got now. In particular, we in America would benefit from more democracy, more socialism and more environmentalism. In Eagleton’s words: 

Capitalism is the sorcerer’s apprentice: it has summoned up powers which have spun wildly out of control and now threaten to destroy us. The task of socialism is not to spur on those powers but to bring them under rational human control.

Not complete control, but certainly more control.