Why A Third Party? The Case For A New Abolitionism

With more than 800,000 dead from COVID in the US alone, the questions are urgent: Who will represent us, who will provide for us, who will make sure our political representatives don’t destroy our ability to live on earth? Do we need to rely on the bumbling dunderheads who run the Democrats and the open fascists who control the Republicans?

Political parties are not inherent in the DNA of the United States. In fact, the leading writers of the Constitution wanted a government in which the “most capable” (meaning the wealthiest, white men as individuals) ran the country.  Madison and Hamilton, writing in The Federalist Papers, abhorred “factions.” The faction they abhorred the most, and feared would organize under a political party, was the poor.  This was one reason why neither the President nor the Senate was elected directly. Within the first few years, however, life asserted itself and ousted the ideological purity intended by the founders.

In the very first administration debates arose around the major themes that would plague the country throughout its existence.  What is the relation between the Federal government and the states (“states rights”); the power of the cities versus the rural areas; land-owning agriculture and industry and the power of the banks. Soon political representatives emerged to fight for these interests.  Under the Washington administration, Alexander Hamilton articulated a plan to support the fledgling industry of the North, open a national bank, raise a standing army.  Thomas Jefferson led the opposition faction, with position that the dependence of wage-labor on the employer was inherently inferior to the yeoman farmer.  The Hamilton faction won this round, conceding to the Jefferson faction that the capital would be moved from New York to the District of Columbia. Thus the Jeffersonian (Democratic) Republican Party consolidated around the Southern slavery-based agricultural ruling class, and the Federalist Party formed around the emerging manufacturing sector of the North.

From 1788 to 1836, the Southern states had a firm grip on the Presidency.  In those 48 years, four of the six presidents were Southerners – called “Republicans” — who controlled the White House for 40 of the 48 years.  Congressional battles were fought over whether the Federal government should fund such projects as the Erie Canal, called “internal improvements.”  Southerners opposed paying for the economic improvement of Northern states, arguing that if the states needed such investment, they should raise the money themselves.  There is no reason, they argued, that South Carolina taxes should be used for the exclusive benefit of New York. Implicit in this argument was the recognition that the expansion of Northern manufacturing and the route westward would amplify the political power of the North.  Increasing Northern population would improve its proportion of delegates to the House of Representatives. These dull battles over dollars and cents veiled the contradiction, dubbed the irrepressible conflict, between free and slave labor.

This conflict broke into the open in 1819 with the Congressional debates on admission of Missouri to the Union.  Political leaders understood that should more states be admitted as free states, the balance of political power in the Senate would shift away from the South. This debate, which was settled by the “Missouri Compromise,” allowed Maine in as a free state and Missouri as a slave state.  It also established a line of latitude, Missouri’s Southern boundary, that separated slave and free states, extending west into the Louisiana Purchase territory.  The most significant thing about this Compromise, for this discussion, is that it established a system of two parties that depended on each other to maintain the status quo.  Nominally, the Federalist Party disintegrated after 1819 and the Republicans split into Northern and Southern factions.  The Federalists of the Northeast as well as Republicans of the North united into the Whig Party; while Republicans North and South came together under the banner of the Democratic Party. Henry Clay, an architect of the Missouri Compromise, joined John Quincy Adams as founders of the Whigs. New Yorker Martin Van Buren engineered the foundation of the Democratic Party along with Andrew Jackson. In this gentleman’s agreement, both parties agreed to kick the can down the road.  Both parties recognized that this compromise would accept the slave power ruling in the South. This paradigm, where two sections of capital made a political agreement to preserve some form of the status quo relation between owners of private property, ruled the country for the next 40 years.  

Other battles took place between 1819 and 1850 to test and adjust the bonds of the agreements between the slave power and the growing manufacturing/industrial North.  Following the 1837 “Texas Revolt” and the declaration of the “Republic of Texas,” Southern expansionists argued for the annexation of Texas and conquest of Mexico, turning the territory conquered into slave states.  In the war with Mexico, the US stole one third of the Mexican territory, including California.  Southern politicians brought to Congress demands to annex Texas and turn it into five slave states. As Texas was beyond the territory of the Louisiana Purchase, once again the slavery question came before Congress. In 1846, Pennsylvania Congressman Daniel Wilmot proposed that slavery be prohibited in all territory acquired from Mexico. The Wilmot Proviso passed the House, where the more populous northerners (Democrats and Whigs) supported it. It failed in the Senate where there was equal representation, North and South. 

In response to the crisis presented by Texas admission, opponents of the expansion of slavery organized a new Party, the Free Soil Party, and ran former President Martin Van Buren in the 1848 election.  Senator William Seward of New York recognized this achievement: With free soil on a national, presidential platform,  “Antislavery is at length a respectable element in politics.” The appeal of the Free Soil movement was not a pure support of the cause of abolition; it was supported by people who saw their economic betterment only coming by homesteading what had been Native American land and what was now likely to become slaveholder plantations.  Some saw this as insulating themselves from having to compete with an inferior race.  It demonstrates the way in which the objective needs of social motion proceeds along a sometimes indirect path, a path that was nevertheless anathema to the South.

The Whigs won the 1848 election and the long delayed efforts to expand slavery to the lands stolen from Mexico came to the fore. California applied for admission as a free state, the South opposed it, and once again, in 1850, Henry Clay negotiated a compromise. Whig and Democrat again stabilized the slavery question.  The main elements of the compromise allowed California to enter as a free state, but all other territories were allowed to determine their status by the popular vote of white men. The Democrat and Whig political factions, had one main goal: keeping the union together, under the status quo of the increasingly tenuous control of the slave power. As if they had discovered democracy, the Congress called this new formula “popular sovereignty.”  

In 1854 Stephen A Douglas, Senator from Illinois, proposed that Kansas and Nebraska be admitted to the union.  Because these were part of the Louisiana Purchase, their status was governed by the Missouri Compromise, north of the Compromise line and hence necessarily part of free territory.  When the South opposed this, Douglas introduced legislation that would allow people in those states to choose their status – extending popular sovereignty to the Missouri Compromise area.  The Kansas Nebraska Act passed, but the debates on this subject shattered the party alignment that had been containing the slavery debate.

The Whig Party, unable to respond, collapsed, joining with Northern Democrats, who opposed the nullification of the Missouri Compromise, and Free Soilers to form the Republican Party.  Republicans were not abolitionists; they wanted to contain slavery in the territory it already occupied. The South became solidly Democratic. Another party emerged to play a role, the Know Nothings, whose basic outlook was anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic, but also anti-Kansas-Nebraska Act.  The 1856 election, resultd in a Democrat James Buchanan winning the presidency, capturing all but one of the Southern states and five Northern ones.  Nevertheless the Republican Party’s John Freemont won 11 Northern states and captured one-third of the popular vote. The Know Nothings ran Millard Fillmore, who won in Maryland alone.

In the short period from 1854 to 1856 the Republican party was born, solidified their position in the North, and grew into a legitimate contender in national elections.  The Supreme Court threw a gauntlet at the political system in 1857, deciding, in the Dred Scott case, that slavery was legal in all states. The Know Nothings fell apart, the anti slavery members joining the Republicans.  John Brown’s attempt to seize the armory and Harper’s Ferry and begin an insurrection against the slave power failed, but his execution in 1859 and the cause he represented galvanized the nation. The battle was on. Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the Presidency in 1860 with a platform stopping the expansion of slavery. Republicans won 18 Northern and Western states.  Southern Democrat John Breckinridge won the Southern 11 states.  Two other parties won the other four states. The South was convinced that they had lost the political battle.  The only way left, the Southerners understood, was the military subjugation of the North.

While there is a line of abolitionism that runs through this entire period, it should be understood that never, in the period leading up to the Civil War, was abolitionism the majority opinion.  At the time of the Missouri Compromise, only a small number of people carried on that propaganda war.  At the opening of the Civil War, many abolitionists refused to take part in the Republican Party debates, seeing the ‘free soil” party program as too bound by compromise.  Nevertheless, it was the Republican Party, in all its contradictory messiness, that shepherded the government through the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.  Unconscious of the necessity of abolition as late as 1861, practical reality forced them to that conclusion and to the conclusion that the Southern planter oligarchy would have to be subjugated. Militarily, the Northern armies and freed slaves broke the back of the slave-owners political control of South as well as North at Appomattox in 1865.  Politically, the Civil War continued in the period we call Reconstruction, until the election of 1876 and the Hayes Tilden Agreement of 1877. Once ready to swear allegiance to their Wall Street masters, the slaveocracy was restored to political power and the freedmen driven back into peonage.

Since the Civil War the two party system has maintained the status quo very well.  And what is that status quo? At the end of Reconstruction, the Northern financial-industrial capitalists had established their supremacy. This victory unleashed the “robber barons” of steel, the railroads, oil, and Wall Street itself. The wars of extermination against Native Americans accelerated, in some cases using the same troops that had been stationed in the South to guarantee the civil rights of the freed slaves. Troops from the South were redeployed to suppress labor insurgency across the country. By the beginning of the 20th century, the system organized itself around the maintenance of political control by the corporate masters of private property. 

Opposing wings of private property have used the party system to fight each other, often with significant differences. Sometimes those differences were so severe as to call into question their common interests. But at no time were their conflicts so severe as to make the parties abandon the rule of private property.  Now, 145 years after the end of reconstruction we are approaching a severe political crisis that makes us look carefully at what is at stake.

A new form of abolitionism is in the air.  For as long as people have looked to the Communist Manifesto as a beacon of future emancipation, we have talked about the abolition of private property. Marx explained the strategy of the working class in this way: “Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’” [Value, Price and Profit]. In 1865 that was an ideological current in the movement.  Changes in the movement have forced this abolition question to the forefront. Various stages in the development of mechanical automation have produced predictions about the end of work and the distribution of the abundance that automation can produce according to need. The introduction of the microchip, the development of robotics, and the expansion of AI have brought something qualitatively new to the equation. We are actually witnessing the beginning of the end of labor power as a commodity, and hence the end of value.  We are beginning to see the capacity to organize society around production for use, not for exchange. And none too soon, as the rapacious advance of technological change under the dominance private property threatens to end nature’s basis of providing abundance for all. 

Unlike previous periods, when political battles were waged around the dominance of one form of private property or another, today we are beginning to see battles over whether or not private property should dominate at all.  This is the meaning of demands for housing and health care as rights independent of the market.  The abolition of the rule of private property is now the practical answer to the fight for basic needs.

One important way that abolitionism has been introduced into the contemporary conversation is the abolition of the prison-industrial complex. Similar to the earlier abolitionists, today’s fighters started as a small group ideologically and morally convinced of their cause.  In the wake of the George Floyd murder, this abolition has entered the mainstream debate. Some of the leading theorists of this abolition talk about it in terms of ending the domination of private property over the conditions of life that make prisons the answer to the practical problems people face in the community.  For so many years we have talked about abolition as a good idea to win people over to.  No longer. Today abolition is being proposed as the only practical way to achieve what are the basic needs of the people.

Similarly, when Jeremy Rifkin wrote his book, The End Of Work, not many people paid attention to his prediction.  That’s not the case any more.  Guy Standing’s advance of the term “precariat” has been followed by Andrew Yang running for president on the political position of the end of work.  In a way, Yang is the Martin Van Buren of our time (of course Yang was never president, but he is the first to elevate the qualitative importance of robotics to a presidential campaign).

How will this abolition thing come about?

The historical framework we come from is that the contending forces battle it out through the political arena, at first in the electoral arena through representative political parties.  It is a truism that capital has two political parties.  It is becoming better and better understood, and our history leading up to the Civil War confirms, that the system of party politics is keeping us enthralled, that neither party represents us. At the advent of the Civil War, the agreement between two sections of capital no longer could hold, because one section of capital was holding back the revolutionary development of the other.  The great “democrat,” Thomas Jefferson, became (along with Madison and Monroe and Jackson), the leader of the agricultural section of capital that depended on slavery.  The great aristocrat, Alexander Hamilton, at the outset of the country became the political leader of the fight for industry and banking (and hence for wage-labor).  The development of machinery and modern industry created the possibility for abolishing private property in human beings.  It did not make that abolition inevitable, but it established the possibility, and a war was fought to bring that into reality. Because the contending political parties still represented two wings of capital, another form of private property emerged triumphant, championed by its political party, the Republicans.

So how do we get a party to represent us?

A similar but different dynamic is happening around us. What’s different is that no section of capital can be relied on to advance the revolution, as the Republican Party could by representing industrial capital and free labor. What is similar?  Today’s Republicans represent the rural areas and Southern states. Defections from the Republicans show just how reactionary they have become.  In advance of the November election, a number of former members of the current administration declared that they cannot vote for Trump.  Some even pledged to vote for a Democrat.  On the other hand, John Bolton said that he will write in a “conservative Republican,” whom he will name later.  The Lincoln Project also aimed at a section of the conservative Republicans to win them away from Trump.

Today’s Democrats are splitting as well. The Democratic National Committee has a difficult time controlling who gets elected to Congress.  In the 2018 Congressional elections, New York’s Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Boston’s Ayanna Pressley defeated powerful, long time Democratic “liberals.” Jamal Bowman challenged and defeated the DNC backed candidate Elliott Engel in New York in the 2020 election primary, and joined the “squad” in his general election victory. Charles Booker barely lost to Amy McGrath in the fight to challenge Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell. In the Chicago suburbs in 2018, Loren Underwood ousted a long term Republican while campaigning on a program of expanded health care; and in 2020 Marie Newman ousted conservative incumbent Democrat Dan Lipinski in the primary, on a program including Medicare for All.  Over the past 10 years, the composition of the Chicago City Council has changed to reflect some of these changes as well. 

As with the Whigs and Democrats of 150 years ago, where one party could not contain pro- and anti-slavery positions, there is not room in one party for the advocates of expanding public property (like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal) and those wanting to maintain the status quo. This reflects the fact that there is no room any more for capital to grant the demands for basic needs that the 40 million newly unemployed are adding to those being made by the already dispossessed. The most recent example of this is the passage in House and Senate of an infrastructure bill and a defense bill that provide plenty of grist for the corporate profit mill.  Meanwhile a bill, dubbed “Build Back Better” has been cut in quarters, and the quarter left languishes in the Senate and won’t be passed unless it is further gutted.

What seems clear is that the Republicans are turning into the equivalent of the Democrats of 1860, a party based in the South and dedicated to the utmost reaction. The Democrats are looking like the Whigs of 1848. While Biden won the presidency in November, 2020, Democrats arrived in Washington in January ready to do battle on how to control or respond to the demands of the people.  Just as the Whigs of 1848 splintered over the question of slavery and its abolition, Democrats today are splitting. No one will say it out loud.  It’s not even necessarily conscious.  The issue today is abolition as well, and the subject is public or private property.  Will we have a public health system or one subjected to private corporate greed?  Will housing be a human right, or will we watch increasing numbers of people in tent cities while real estate speculation runs rampant?  Will the public take control of “policing” in America, or will we be further murdered and subjugated by private militias and militarized police forces? Will what happens to the earth be decided by the people, or will corporate/technological profiteers be allowed to place bets on how quickly the arctic ice sheets will melt?

It’s impossible to say how long it will take for this to mature.  The Working Family’s Party can provide sort of a thermometer of how far along this process has gone, as it tries to balance its “fusion” politics with its stated declaration of the need for a third party.  In different parts of the country, grass roots leaders are vying for political office;  in most cases they estimate that they cannot win without the label of a major party (even when that party does not back them).  Paula Swearingen, who tried to unseat Joe Manchin in the West Virginia Democratic primary, has declared her independence.

Of course there are various other political parties running candidates with varying degrees of success at this time, the Green Party and the Justice Democrats being perhaps the most prominent.  As did smaller political parties in the political motion in advance of the Civil War, these parties will play a role. It is likely that a bourgeois third party will emerge first, then a workers’ party. Ultimately a political expression that represents the new, dispossessed class, an abolitionist class, created by the new means of production will emerge. And because it will represent people who cannot survive except by distribution according to need, it will be a practical communist party representing a practical communist class. It’s not likely to be as clean as that; but the process is well underway, and is likely to proceed from the splintering of the major parties and the accumulation of independent forces not affiliated with parties today.

To Whom It May Concern — Groceries and Friendship Shall Never Be Forgotten

by W Susan Berek

Susan, my mother-in-law, would have turned 100 on Feb. 4, 2022. It’s a tossup whether it would have been more appropriate to post this on her birthday, or on International Women’s Day. It was bittersweet combing through the scraps of paper mentioned in the introduction — the sweet part being the many discoveries I made along the way, gaining more insight into her curiosity, inquisitiveness, and defiance.

A Tale of Two Earthquakes

A Tale of Two Earthquakes

Lew Rosenbaum

February 9, 1971 – 50 years ago – barely after 6:00 AM I awoke. For a second I thought I might be in a nightmare. In the next second I realized that the house I lived in really was shaking. My bed was shaking.  The brick and board bookcase perched on my desk swayed back and forth, threatening to spill toward me.  In the third and fourth seconds I remembered that I lived in the fourth, flimsy wooden house up the side of a hill, 86 stairs from the street. It took me about another second to calculate that before I got up and out of the house (without clothes on), the house could go tumbling down the hill; and I had no idea of what manner of peril awaited me if I even got to the door.

I then wrapped myself up in my blankets.  I told myself that if I were going to die on that day, I might as well die comfortably, or as comfortably as I could.  And, curled in that fetal position, I waited through the next five or six seconds of the 12 seconds that the earthquake lasted, the most powerful earthquake in the Los Angeles area in nearly the century preceding it. It’s remarkable how many thoughts can pass through one’s mind in 12 seconds.

That was the Sylmar earthquake or the San Fernando Valley Earthquake of 1971. It played havoc with steel structures, demolished large sections of the Olive View Hospital in Sylmar, upended large sections of major highways, and collapsed a section of the Van Norman dam, which held 3 billion gallons of drinking water for the city. The city forced evacuation of some 80,000 people for several days because of the flooding risk, until the dam was repaired. No flood took place, but after all casualties were counted, 64 died that day. I lived about 20 miles from the fault on which the earthquake erupted that day. The story of the earthquake is remembered in today’s Los Angeles Times.

The 12 seconds ended, I breathed a sigh of relief, recognized the aftershocks as they continued over the next few minutes.  Soon I realized I could not get back to sleep. Got up, got dressed, got breakfast, listened to the radio (KFWB – give us 27 minutes and we’ll give you the world) to understand what was going on, and figured I should go explore.  I was due in at work in a couple of hours, but had no idea whether L.A. County had closed the welfare office where I worked.  I don’t remember whether I worked that day.  But I do remember driving along the streets the long way round to get from Cypress Park to Pasadena, normally a 15 minute drive on the Pasadena Freeway.  I think instead I drove up along San Fernando Road, heading north to Glendale, and then approaching Pasadena from the West.  I don’t think I saw anything as bad as the twisted steel poles of Sylmar, but I did see many storefronts with broken glass windows, plenty of small and unstable structures in disarray, a lot of businesses that would not open that day. 

That was a natural disaster, a force of nature. A different earthquake is roiling society today, a specter is haunting the world. While not a force of nature, it threatens to upend the structures, which humans have built to govern the way we live. Every technological advance today encroaches upon the labor market, more and more people are thrown out of the ability to earn wages sufficient for them to survive.  A fault line has developed and widened: just in the last year as millions are de-employed while corporations rake in trillions of dollars. The political structure of our country is at least as twisted as the steel columns holding the 210 freeway in 1971. 

Today, Feb. 9 2021, begins the impeachment of Donald Trump on charges of inciting insurrection, a charge which reflects the turmoil wracking the country.  Rep. Cori Bush gave the most accurate analysis of why impeachment and conviction is necessary. This is not a question of semantics or whether or not impeachment of a former president is possible. This is not even a battle around insurrection.  This is the question: will the United States finally move beyond a government based on white supremacy as the tool to batter the working class into submission.

What is destroying society today is not the same as the earthquake as 50 years ago.

The battles around the changes at the economic base of society always take place in what is known as the superstructure, i.e. the cultural, social and the political arenas. Here the combatants wage the battle of ideas. Democrat leaders and Republican leaders alike are trying to contain the battle of ideas.  What is the main idea, which is being fought out?  On the surface, in the Congress, it’s whether Trump is guilty.  The fundamental question, which is not being debated, is: Are we going to be a society in which everyone enjoys the fruits of the abundance that is being produced?  Or will we continue to exacerbate the inequity of society and condemn the billions of worldwide poor to death by poverty?  Will corporations strengthen their dictatorship over us, will we allow them to shore up the dam to keep us at bay? Or will we breach the wall of that dam and attain the power to reconstruct society in the interests of all?

There is a specter haunting the world – a real possibility to abolish private property, corporate property.  In 1848 Marx said communism was haunting Europe.  With capitalism expanding, it’s taken almost two centuries to get to the point that capitalism is contracting.   Contraction means many are expelled from having any market relationship to capital. They cannot find work, they cannot buy the necessaries of life.  What can be done, except reorganize society? A century and a half ago abolitionists led a battle to end slavery and thus the practice of holding people as private property. Their demand, resting on the legacy of Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and John Brown, was that Black lives matter. That war ended legal slavery; but it also elevated industrial and financial private property, a corporate structure which has continued to this day. Conditions have changed. In the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike, pickets carried signs saying “I Am A Man!” Black lives matter. In 2020 some 26 million people demonstrated against the murder of George Floyd, many carrying signs saying Black lives matter. The only thing left for this class of people who have nothing to lose but their chains of poverty and police terror, this world wide new abolitionist class, is to abolish corporate private property and distribute the goods and services of society according to the needs of the people.  That time has come and the outcome of this quake is up to today’s revolutionary class.    

The Presence of Memories

In late November I often think of this picture, an advertisement that appeared in Family Circle magazine, available at checkout counters in every grocery store in the country. That’s my mother, Anna, the matriarch of the picture, and although it’s a pot roast, not a turkey, it’s always Thanksgiving that brings it to mind. She was now a bona fide celebrity.

Anna, ever a presence, presiding in her close encounter with celebrity

My parents became an item in the 1920s — I’d say they got married then, but they never did go through the formal paperwork. I was born in 1942, after they’d been together almost 20 years, and 14 1/2 years after my sister, my only sibling, was born. They celebrated their anniversary at Thanksgiving, because it was a chance to get family and friends together. My father’s brother, Abe, and at least two of his children who lived close to New Haven (Herman and Milly) and their families might be there. My mother was close to two of her brothers, but only one, Lou, lived near by and would stop by with family and also their father, Aaron, (before he came to live with us). My mother ruled the kitchen, she prepared a family feast, and her presence was immanent. That’s the other reason I am now thinking of the photograph: in a conversation with my friend Kathleen, she reminded me of the time I introduced her to my mother, probably 1968. She told me the other day that my mother “was a presence.” The words have been rolling around in my brain since she said them.

In 1960 I moved to Los Angeles from New Haven, Connecticut. I moved to get as far away from home as I could, and to be near my sister. One year later, home moved to Los Angeles: my parents settled in an apartment near Olympic and Fairfax on Hi Point. My sister, Greta, and her husband, Leon, lived in the hills above Hollywood, on Outpost Drive. It seemed to me like a mansion, with its huge living room with 14 foot ceilings, its large kitchen, dining room, breakfast nook, and three bedrooms. And the magnificent tiled bathroom next to the master bedroom, that had a stall shower, a bathtub, and a toilet separated in such a way that three people could be using the bathroom and would not see each other.

When Greta and Leon moved to the Outpost house, Leon had been an aspiring lawyer for the Alden Construction Co. since the early 1950s. That is how they had gotten a choice home in a tract built by Alden in Buena Park, not far from Disneyland in Orange County. But Leon decided to start his own firm, based in Los Angeles, and the commute from their home in Buena Park was expensive and prohibitive in terms of time. The move to Hollywood meant finding a school for their children, and Greta found the Hollywood public elementary school severely lacking. They found Oakwood, a school begun by other parents dissatisfied with overcrowding and what educational opportunities they found. The school began in 1951 in the back yard of Robert and Jessica Ryan, and by the time Greta and Leon moved into the Outpost house, the school had a real building and the school community included a number of families in the film and other arts industries.

One of the parents was a commercial photographer — someone whose name I have long forgotten. Although by 1969 Robin, Randy and Ronni — Greta and Leon’s children — had outgrown Oakwood, Leon’s law practice kept him in contact with that artistic community. The commercial photographer was shooting a magazine advertisement for Hunt’s. He was looking for a grandmother-type person; perhaps he had even met Anna at Greta’s for dinner. That I don’t know, any more than I remember who the photographer was. In my fantasy, it might have been Haskell Wexler (whose son went to Oakwood) and whom I met at the time. I just can’t imagine the filmmaker having to make money by shooting advertisements.

The advertisement was published, my mother was a presence at every grocery checkout counter in America and we were properly impressed by our association with fame.

A decade later Leon and Greta were divorced and their children scattered away from Los Angeles. Anna had declined into early stages of dementia — she was no longer capable of living independently, but I would pick her up from her nursing home residence and take her to the Midnight Special Bookstore, then in Venice, where she presided at the checkout counter, greeting customers and regaling them with her favorite story of the family hiding from the Tsar’s Cossacks at her grandmother’s home in Vilnius, Lithuania. Radical students from all different political stripes would attribute their own ideology to whatever she said and walk out of the store reaffirmed by their perception of her steadfastness. In 1979 the Bookstore gave her an 83rd birthday party barbecue in a park in Mar Vista. She was still a presence, although the light in her eyes did not burn as brightly. She was pleased that the party raised $125 to support the organizing work of the Texas Farmworkers Union, where coincidentally granddaughter Robin was involved.

Anna died in 1983 at 87 years of age. We held a celebration of her life in the backyard of friends Kathryn and Brad Stevens in Cudahy. I left Los Angeles four years later.

I keep the presence of memories with me though.

Matt Sedillo interviews Lew Rosenbaum

I, Like You, Am Made of Stars

I, Like You, Am Made of Stars: Matt Sedillo’s Mowing Leaves of Grass

a review essay by Lew Rosenbaum

Anyone listening to Matt Sedillo spit his poems across a crowded room will be mesmerized. It’s the rapid fire of his delivery, the plain speaking, the cadence and rhythm, the word play.  The content.  Yes, it is the content.  After all, none other than Greg Palast calls him the best political poet in America. It’s an important book to read in the midst of a season of uprisings. A new poetics and a new way of seeing the world are needed in a time of rebellion. Having a chance to examine the poems in his book shows that the form you hear in the delivery is there, on the page, too. 

Matt Sedillo. Photos on the wall are from the 1970 Chicano Moratorium. Journalist Ruben Salazar, whose image appears in a poster behind Sedillo’s right shoulder, was killed in the Silver Dollar Cafe by LA Sheriffs on that day.

Take “Once.”  “Once upon a dream” the poem begins, evoking mythic origins.  “I had this dream once,” he continues a few lines later in the poem. ‘”son/There live the rich/And though you and I/ May never get to see it/One day this hill will run red with their blood.” Much of the rest of the poem reviews dialectical pairs of why the hill will run red – “Mendez and Lemon Grove” refer to the Mendez family’s fight against segregation in Lemon Grove, California. “Rodriguez vs. San Antonio” alludes to the 1971 racial and class equity fight of the School Improvement Association in Texas.  “Saul Castro and the blowouts” is actually Sal Castro, and the reference is to the 1968 high school student walkouts for ethnic studies programs, where the opposition was the LA Unified School District and, in particular at the beginning, Lincoln Park High. These class and racial conflicts fuel the rage that will lead to what the poet’s father predicts. If you’ve not heard of these incidents, that’s part of Sedillo’s poetic strategy.  He wants you to find something with which you are familiar, but he wants you to ask questions about what you don’t know, do a little work, realize that there is more to the poem than lies on the surface.  He is challenging you to inquire.

From the same poem, “I head east/ Toward clinics of cruelty/ All humanity stripped from a system/Sadism posed as social work.”  Clinics of cruelty and sadism posed as social work are two of my favorite metaphors in the book and they jump right off the line.  But this is a setup for Sedillo’s third dream.  “I have this dream/Every so often/Of people/ Beyond borders and prisons/Gathered in the distance/Telling tales of time/When women feared the evening/When communities were punished by color/And grown men hunted children/Hardly able to believe/People once lived this way.”  Three dreams and three outcomes.  Origins, retribution, and the world we want to live in. You can’t leave clinics of cruelty unless you can envision the kind of world you want to inhabit. And that is what Sedillo is giving you here.

“The Servant’s Song” goes one step further – the title first makes me think of Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales are filled with the tales of ordinary folk.  But by the end I see it as an allusion to Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht –Pirate Jenny’s song. At first it is a song of “Captains of industry/Lords of limited liability,” and a celebration of their power.  But in the servants quarters people are dreaming and singing songs of blood and conquest. This hill too will run red with blood. Just like in Brecht’s poem, where hotel maid Jenny welcomes the pirates bombarding the hotel and the capitalists. Definitely songs for our times.

In “Oh Say,” Sedillo riffs on the lines of “Star Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful,” writing not only that he never saw any purple mountain’s majesty, but mixes in a refrain from “Strange Fruit” and hits the reader with the contrast – “black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.”  How can you square one vision of America with another, he is asking, without questioning the blood at the root? Deep within this poem are references to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the ironic “Oh captain, my captain” and “Oh pioneer.” “The myths/ The hymns/ The bitterness/Of fairy tales/Best woven into song,” he says, including myths of Lincoln and the Civil War.  Words tumble over each other to reach the end of a poem of slashing ironies, of “amber waves of chains.”

The title of the book and the title poem demand that the reader come to terms with Walt Whitman.  The title is a challenge:  cut Whitman down to size, perhaps.

I bought my copy of Leaves of Grass somewhere around 1989 or 1990, after listening to Luis Rodriguez comment about how so many of the talented poets writing in Chicago had not studied the masters, like Whitman, didn’t realize how much we owe to him.  In a 2015 interview, Rodriguez said something similar:  “[Poetry] is not at the center of [our] culture. It’s pushed to the side. And yet we have some of the best, from Walt Whitman to Emily Dickinson all the way to the present.” I confess I’ve still not been able to read all of Leaves of Grass, though I recognize what Whitman meant to the poetic canon. At the time Leaves of Grass was published, it was condemned and admired for its sensuality. Some refer to him as the father of free verse. Most don’t realize that the title, Leaves of Grass, was a pun.  Grass was a term used at the time to describe trash literature, and a leaf is a page of a book. Grass, of course, is also a plant, and Whitman, in part 6 of “Song of Myself,” defines and describes grass.

None of that is Matt Sedillo’s contention.  Whitman, in Sedillo’s view, was a racist who deserves no respect.

George Hutchinson and David Drews, in an essay in the Whitman archive, begin as follows:

“Whitman has commonly been perceived as one of the few white American writers who transcended the racial attitudes of his time, a great prophet celebrating ethnic and racial diversity and embodying egalitarian ideals. He has been adopted as a poetic father by poets of Native American, Asian, African, European, and Chicano descent. Nonetheless, the truth is that Whitman in person largely, though confusedly and idiosyncratically, internalized typical white racial attitudes of his time, place, and class.” 

Some are saying, in the context of taking down statues of slaveholders and confederates, that statues memorializing Whitman should be removed as well. Hutchinson and Drews describe Whitman’s inconsistent racial attitudes that more or less mimic the different views of the time, views inconsistent with the “democratic spirit” of his poetry.  They conclude their essay thus:

Because of the radically democratic and egalitarian aspects of his poetry, readers generally expect, and desire for, Whitman to be among the literary heroes that transcended the racist pressures that abounded in all spheres of public discourse during the nineteenth century. He did not, at least not consistently; nonetheless his poetry has been a model for democratic poets of all nations and races, right up to our own day. How Whitman could have been so prejudiced, and yet so effective in conveying an egalitarian and antiracist sensibility in his poetry, is a puzzle yet to be adequately addressed.

But this is about Matt Sedillo’s Mowing Leaves of Grass, so what does Matt Sedillo say?  The title poem is, in a way, Matt Sedillo’s own “Song of Myself.”  Beginning “I am the as yet written vengeance of Elvira Valdez,” the poet leads us through a litany of Southwestern cities drawing connections to the Chicano past and present on a path through miseducation and misrepresentation and punishment unless we accept the canonic political and literary leaders.  These include Chaucer and Shakespeare and of course Whitman.  “If we let you in/What will become/ Of the canon?” The voice becomes that of the oppressor: “I will show you/ Who you are/ In a book/ And you will believe it/ ‘Cause I said it.”  But the poet seizes control again, says check out my poetry — “The universe/ Is a muralist/ The Cosmos/ Our self-portrait,”  and here comes Joaquin,  “Triumphant/ Marching/ Through the halls of Tucson/Mowing down leaves of grass/Fuck Walt Whitman.”  There it is:  the punch line, followed by the affirmation of what it means to be alive,  “all that we are and all that we have been.”

Whitman worked on a New Orleans newspaper for three months.  Having witnessed slave auctions with revulsion (also described in “Song of Myself”), he returned to Brooklyn, New York and founded a free-soil newspaper.  Free-soilers were not abolitionists, but they played a role in demanding the end of the expansion of slave-owner controlled territory and in opening the fight for the end of slavery.  The leadership of the fight to break the back of the slave power was industrial capital in the north.  Wall Street brought Reconstruction to an end when it reached an accommodation with the slave power and returned the planter aristocracy back to control, now under the domination of northern interests. The freedmen lost what they had gained and were driven back into peonage. This is the context in which all the transcendental poets and writers worked.  A group of New England abolitionists, dubbed the “Secret Six” and connected to the transcendentalists, raised money for John Brown and the raid on Harpers Ferry.  Whitman attended John Brown’s hanging, and joined Thoreau, Melville, and Emerson in condemning the execution. 

Today’s cause is also a form of abolition – a form that strikes deeper into what divides American society than ever before.  When we hear today the call for prison abolition or for abolishing the police, and we engage some of these abolitionists in conversation, we find that they are talking about restructuring society entirely. A secure and safe society is one in which human beings have all their needs met and in which they thrive, not just survive.  If 150 years ago the battle was to end chattel slavery, today increasing permanent unemployment demands why wages are necessary to obtain the abundance available today. Poets have been modernizing the democracy of 150 years ago, taking their verse into the streets with the demonstrators, taking the open mic to the people’s mic.  If free verse liberated poets to write in a more democratic form, contemporary spoken word has dragged poetry into the battle for today’s new world democracy – the democracy of distribution according to need. 

Sal Castro, a teacher at Lincoln High School, one of five high schools who took part in the “blowouts,” a coordinated school walkout in 1968. In the wake of the blowouts, Castro was arrested and charged with 15 counts of conspiracy to disrupt public schools and 15 counts of conspiracy to disturb the peace. The charges were dropped in 1972.

That, in my view, is Matt Sedillo’s genius.  I don’t disagree with Greg Palast, when he assessed Sedillo as America’s most important political poet.  But our new generation comes out of a cauldron that is producing – can’t help but produce – an army of brilliant writers with a vision of a new world.  I think Sedillo himself says this in “El Sereno.”

 “El Sereno” is one of my favorites in this collection, perhaps because the poet so concretely and vividly describes an area of Los Angeles I know well.  He speaks of the “industrial petrified forest,” and the people who worked there.  “As a child/ I could never quite/ Make the connection/Between the broken/ And empty bottles/ Across the steps/ And the broken and empty men/ Poured out the rust factories/From across the tracks,” he writes.  And there’s another, related  connection he could not make. His father “A prince among men/In a backward kingdom,”  Sedillo couldn’t make the connection “Between/ His fingers around my throat/And the anguish/In his chest.” It’s the same anguish he has explored in many of these poems, the same as the black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.  In the face of all this, and perhaps because of all this, the poet is defiant, but more than defiant. He evokes the communist poet Roque Dalton’s “Como Tu” when he writes “I like You/Am made of stars/ You like me/So full of pain/Are brimming with genius/Listen to no one/Who would make you feel different.” 

Listen to no one who would make you feel different.

Two Poems on Independence Day

[I wrote these two poems over the last couple of years and included them in my chapbook, Time’s Arrow. The book is available for $5 plus shipping.  Send me a message if you are interested — Lew Rosenbaum]

Independence Day

i don’t know what to tell you

Cover Time's Arrow

The cover art for the chapbook Time’s Arrow is from a denim construction by Diana Berek

about independence day

here in the you ess of A

my blue-eyed boy

my green haired girl,

independent from whom and for what

surely not from the corporations

for which we slave

or from the overseers who

happily expelled us from our

gainful employment

so we can dance forever

in the graveyard of jobfullness

gnawing on bones scraped

from the dumpster where we

dive and drink the contents of

half empty coke cans

and catch a few winks

before the copper taps us

on the toes and tells us to move on

or chokes us for selling loose squares

what can I tell you about sitting

hat in hand in front of the food emporium

i want to give you good counsel

but all i can think of is to

urge you to take what you need

but I know that while capital

takes what it wants

without a thought

you will wind up in solitary

for dreaming of the steak in the cold case

or even a bag of chicharrones

to munch on

with a cold old English gurgling down the throat

on a hot, windless summer day

the aroma of the barbecue

pulled pork or ribs

smothered in sweet baby ray

streaming from the park

on cool lake breezes

drives you to a frenzy

 

so what can you be independent of

my green eyed boy

my blue haired girl

without taking over the

whole mother fucker

and making it ours

 

Cooperation Day

 

I’m not sure about this independence thing any more.

Independence is overrated.

National or individual I mean.

It’s what I was told I needed to be ever since I was very young.

I wanted to be independent of my parents

I ran away from home as far away as I could get

And now my children, as they too struggle for independence

Come back and back again

And only part of it is because the safety net has shredded

But this independence thing doesn’t even work for nations any more.

You can Brexit as much as you want but you can’t disentangle yourself

From your neighbors

Those who struggled for independence in the hallowed 1960s

Find the tentacles of imperialism bind tighter

Even if they are coated with sugar

And while I sit alone in my apartment

Eating my salad and drinking Dos Equis

I tip my cap to the farm workers of Sinaloa

The Cuauhtemoc brewery workers in Monterrey

The timber workers of the Pacific Northwest,

Maybe they were Wobblies from Everett or Centralia,

Who cut the wood that made my table,

And even more these days

The silicon valley upstarts whose robotics produce everything

Including the Japanese car I drive

The shirt all the way from Cambodia clinging to my back

The lettuce from Salinas

Obliterating jobs, but not the need for real, creative work.

 

Don’t we need a new holiday that celebrates our

Interconnectedness, interdependence?

The way we relate to each other

The way we could take care of each other

Call the day “everybody eats day,”

Call it “Big Rock Candy Mountain Day,”

Call it the day we abolish money and jobs

And celebrate work and contribution

Call it cooperation day.

Book Covers 1.” They Got Us On A Rack”

Book Covers 1. John Edgar Wideman and “They Got Us On A Rack”

In 1984 John Edgar Wideman published Brothers and Keepers, a bestseller memoir and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for best book of non-fiction that year.  The book explores how he became an award winning novelist, while his brother wound up serving a life sentence convicted of murder.  I was working at the Midnight Special

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Cover of the first (Avon) edition of Sent For You Yesterday

Bookstore in Santa Monica.  I didn’t read Brothers and Keepers, but I did pick up his novel, published the year before, the third of what is called his “Homewood Books.”  Wideman is known for his experimental writing techniques, and perhaps that is what drew me into Sent For You Yesterday. The use of language, its color and rhythm and musicality.  But what really hit me hard was this passage, early on, when John French waits on a street corner in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, early on a chilly, damp morning, to be picked up for day labor. I wrote this four years ago about my daughter Courtney, her kids, and Diana and me, how we experience the life we lead mirrors what Wideman wrote many years ago:

How do you write about a life lived intensely, from crisis to crisis. Persistent, determined, bright, Courtney struggled as a single parent with three kids, still struggles. Mostly employed, but never employed enough to get out of debt, pay rent, buy enough food, afford health care.  Mirroring the irregularity of her precarious existence, Courtney shows the heights of creativity necessary to pick her way through the mine-field of poverty, falling into the depths of depression when circumstances gang up around her and block her way.  We’ve been lucky enough to be in a position to help when the depths were deepest; after all part of the joys of family is to alleviate the pain of those close to us.  But the other part that we have had to come to grips with is that we are living the life of a new section of society that is being born.  Yes even us, the old ones, Diana and I.

John Edgar Wideman wrote about it in a novel called Sent For You Yesterday. This is an image which has stayed with me for more than 30 years

wideman-autograph

“They used to put people on wheels and pull them apart. Pull the arms and legs out of the sockets just like a kid do a bug. Boiling people in oil and slamming their heads in a helmet full of spikes, and horses tearing men into four pieces and that wheel with ropes and pulleys stretch a man inch by inch to death. The rack, Albert said . . . They got us on a rack, John French.  They’re gon keep turning till ain’t nothing connected where its supposed to be. Ain’t even gon recognize our ownselves in the mirror.”

Courtney has her own image, a personal one, that comes from the character in the Lil Abner comic strip.  Joe Btfsplk, the world’s worst jinx, the well-meaning character who walks around with a rain cloud over his head.  Ever since I wrote [my poem to Courtney when she turned 21]  “Twenty-one Is,” we’ve been coming to grips with how one’s personal luck fits in the context of the relations of society.  The dialectic of taking responsibility for what is in your power to control, but not accepting guilt for what cards class society deals you.

That’s what John French is trying to negotiate that early morning when he waits on the corner to get a day-labor job as a paper hanger, feeling all the joints in his body aching, and trying to explain that to himself.  It’s the social relations that force him into the back breaking work.  And it’s the social relations that force Courtney into having to move every year or two, to struggle to get adequate care and counseling

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Cover art for this edition is by Romare Bearden

for the kids, to get food stamps when out of work, to avoid on pain of starvation and eviction, going to apply for welfare .  It’s the social relations that bring Diana and me to look at our social security to figure out if we have enough to pay rent this month, or pay the medicare premium.

“They’re gon keep turning till ain’t nothing connected to where it’s supposed to be.” This image split my brain 30 years ago.  How is it that such an image that is so horrible is at the same time so beautiful?  It is a Goya painting in words.  It fascinates. Your eyes keep returning to it.  Your fingers want to touch the blood to see if it is fresh, if it is real.  But it is real, because it captures the essence of what I am feeling each time I pay rent, each time Courtney loses a job. And each time I dream of diamonds out of broken glass, pearls growing around sand grains.

A pandemic makes you look at things differently.  Everything, even the rack they’ve got us on.  Wideman wrote about that too, first in a collection of his short stories. I wrote this four years ago:

In the spring of 1989 John Edgar Wideman read from his short story collection, Fever, at Guild Books. He read from the last story, the title story, held me spellbound. He told us that it would be part of a new novel he was writing, and the fever was a famous plague year in Philadelphia. I have this underlined in my copy of the book: “To explain the fever we need no boatloads of refugees, ragged and wracked with killing fevers, bringing death to our shores. We have bred the affliction within our breasts. . . Fever grows in the secret places of our hearts, planted there when one of us decided to sell one of us to another. The drum must pound ten thousand thousand years to drive that evil away.” It’s an allegorical fever that riddled Philadelphia as the 18th century drew to a close; but one that still stalks our streets.

The novel Wideman was referring to came out a few years later, entitled The Cattle Killing. The plague fever was smallpox. Black Philadelphians in the late 18th century were both accused of being the origin of the disease and being immune to it, and thus were charged with caring for the ill.  Unlike today’s plague of COVID 19, the smallpox is spread by a mosquito.  There is no person to person way to spread the illness.  Like the Philadelphia plague, rumors spread early that Blacks were immune to the disease; however, today’s plague strikes hardest among the poorest, most congested populations, especially Black and Latinx.  That underlined passage rings truer even than it did when I first read it.

By 1990, when he published his Philadelphia Fire I was a certifiable John Edgar WidemanScreen Shot 2020-05-24 at 12.42.13 AM groupie.  His autograph in my copy reads “You’re a warrior in a good fight. Stay strong.” If the fight he was talking about was spreading new ideas, then Philadelphia Fire is the novel of a warrior in that good fight. My copy of the book is heavily annotated and underlined.  The inside boards of the cover are filled with page numbers — references to themes and concepts that struck me as I was reading.  Here’s what I wrote about the book a few years ago:

The novel is in three parts, each of which has a distinct musical style to the language. The middle section, also, is an autobiographical riff on when the author taught Shakespeare to Black students in the parks in the summer, and the particular play is The Tempest. Who Caliban really is plays an important part of this section and in some way inhabits the rest of the novel.

[After Wideman’s reading at Columbia College] I joined a few Columbia faculty and grad students at dinner with Wideman. One student asked a question about Shakespeare and about Wideman’s use of language, which reminded me of the question asked at Guild. Why Shakespeare in a novel of Black Philadelphia? The answers to both questions broke the boundaries that separates one genre from another and stretched the complaints about cultural appropriation. English, Wideman pointed out, is his language and he has the obligation to make the most of all his heritage, whether it is the language of the streets or the language of the Bard. It’s all his, and his responsibility to stretch that to its limits. I still find Philadelphia Fire the most exciting of John Edgar Wideman’s work because of this use of Shakespeare [and how rap interpenetrates that section] and because of the rhythmic cadences that mark each section – and because of the way his own biography sneaks into places of the novel, not just the teaching segment, but also basketball and his relationship with some of the political forces in Philadelphia. One of the most artful political novels I’ve read.

The fire in Philadelphia that this novel remembers is not the historical Philadelphia of The Cattle Killing.  It is contemporary Philadelphia, just five years from the date of publication, the five year anniversary of when the city fathers dropped a bomb of C4 explosives on the roof of a row house on Osage Avenue, setting a fire that killed 11 of the 13 people living inside and burned an entire neighborhood to the ground. The residents of the building belonged to a group variously described as radical, anarchist, Black, environmentalist, back to nature activists.  May 10, 2020 was the 35th anniversary of an event that is little known outside Philadelphia, but continues to be traumatic in the city.  ‘We have bred the affliction within our breasts,”  Wideman said in The Cattle Killing. You can see it even deeper in this story. A Guardian article brings some of the history up to date.  Some MOVE activists who had been arrested and imprisoned before the attack on Osage Avenue remained incarcerated for over 40 years.  Ramona Africa, the only adult to escape the holocaust alive, was imprisoned.  Five children were incinerated in the blast and the ensuing fire. One child escaped, running naked through a wall of fire into an alley and away. Or so the story of the novel goes.

Birdie_africa-move-bombing-philadelphia

Iconic photo of Birdie Africa, taken by Michael Mally of the Philadelphia Inquirer as the van took the boy to the hospital.

In a sense, the main character of the novel could be the child that got away.  The novelist himself is a main character as well, under the name of Cudjoe (the historical antecedent of this name stems from a leader of the Maroons, enslaved West Africans who escaped into the hills of Jamaica and for more than a century resisted British colonization). Interviewing a woman who had been a MOVE member, Cudjoe searches for the child who escaped.  The name the woman gives him is Simbha Muntu, or “Lion Man.” In real life he was known as Birdie Africa, 13 years old when he got away. The mystery of his getting away is more important than the history, which is recounted in this Philadelphia Inquirer article. A police officer took the boy to a nearby van, which then took him to a hospital, where he stayed while his burns were being treated. His father, Andino Ward, not a member of the MOVE group, reclaimed his son and renamed him Michael Moses Ward. Birdie/Michael died in 2013 on a cruise ship in the Caribbean at 41 years old.

What is it that survived from the wreckage on Osage Avenue?  How did it come about? What are people thinking?  How does it reconcile with the author’s very comfortable life?  Or with his past life in this very city of Philadelphia?  How can we escape our past,

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Rhodes scholar and basketball star John Edgar Wideman on the cover of Look magazine

how do we beat the drums to recover our humanity?  Wideman poses no answers to questions.  Cudjoe has a dream.  He’s at Clark Park near Osage Avenue. “I’m also a witness, upright, floating, somehow staring down at the basketball court, screaming because a boy is lynched from the rim. A kid hanging there with his neck broken and drawers droopy and caked with shit and piss. It’s me and every black boy I’ve ever seen running up and own playing ball . . .”  Wideman was an All Ivy League team basketball player and leading scorer and captain of his University of Pennsylvania basketball team. Could the kid hanging there have been Simbha?

A howl ends the book:  “A mob howling [Cudjoe’s] name. Screaming for blood. Words come to him, cool him, stop him in his tracks. He’d known them all his life.  Never again. Never again. He turns to face whatever it is rumbling across the stones of Independence Square.”

Romare Bearden’s work explodes from the cover of Sent For You Yesterday (see illustration above). In 2018, Wideman published a collection of short stories, American Histories. I wrote this (you can read the whole essay in this blog) about the lens through which to read American Histories last year: “You can discover the key to American Histories, the profoundly dialectical collection of what purports to be short stories by master craftsman John Wideman, on page 206.  ‘Well, Basquiat asks, how does the artist resolve this dilemma, Maestro? This perpetual losing battle, this shifting back and forth, this absence, gap, this oblivion between a reality the senses seize and a reality the imagination seizes.’”  Basquiat, the young and brash artist, interrogates the old master

240px-John-Edgar-Wideman

John Edgar Wideman

Bearden in an imagined conversation.  They lived a few blocks from each other in Harlem and, as far as anyone knows, never met. That conflict, though, between what is real and what is imagined pulses through American Histories and through all his work; more politically stated, that conflict between what exists and what is possible. I can’t read American Histories without being haunted by the picture of every boy lynched from the rim of the basketball hoop; by the plague that needs no importation of refugees to spread its contagion; by the rack tearing us apart.

“They got us on a rack, John French.  They’re gon keep turning till ain’t nothing connected where its supposed to be.”  That’s still how I experience the world. If there is anything the current plague has shown us, it is that this statement is real.  They don’t care about us.  It remains for us, those whom the system has discarded, mutilated, wiped out of history — it remains for us to imagine and to build what is possible. “The drum must pound ten thousand thousand years to drive that evil away.”  We need to find that howl. We need to pound that drum.  We haven’t got 10,000 years.

Album Covers #1: “Just You Wait!”

Danny Alexander kind of challenged me to write about records which have influenced me — using the record covers.

I want to start with the very first album I got — it was 1957, I was visiting my sister, Greta, in Buena Park, Southern California, for the summer. That was the year that I helped her “fix up” the house she and her husband had just purchased in the Hollywood hills — sand and paint cabinets, clean, clean and clean some more. In Buena Park, though, I had made some friends from neighborhood kids my age: Jeff Jones from the family next door, Pinky and Jim Wilcox from the house down the street, Alan Wiggins also living on that street. We played in the street in front of the houses, went to the boys club together, went together with my sister’s family to Knott’s Berry farm, the alligator farm across the street from Knott’s, and of course to Disneyland which had recently opened up. The summer came to an end, I had to go back to school in New Haven, Connecticut, and given that my sister was moving, the chances of my seeing my new-made friends again was practically nil. The families were not well off in this complex of tract homes — working class folks who were from somewhere in middle America where they had been unable to make a 20140815_165252living. But the kids were sad to see me leave, and in a startling gesture I had no way to anticipate, and even today makes me want to reach out and thank them for their kindness again — they gave me my first LP record, “My Fair Lady.”

It was undoubtedly a record my sister had, undoubtedly one I played over and over again while I was there, knew all the words, copied the accents and dialects as best I could. She most likely suggested this album when they asked what they should get for me. But I couldn’t play it. I did not have a record player at home that would play LPs. We had an old record player that only took 78s. I didn’t tell them that though.

When I moved to southern California in 1960, I moved to go to the University of Southern California. When I moved into the dormitory that fall (Trojan Hall, with a room overlooking Figueroa St. at 36th St.), my sister gave me a table top record player. I set it on my desk, where I did my homework, the desk set into the wall under the window overlooking Figueroa. And of course the first record I played was “My Fair Lady.”

My father had been a used book dealer back in the early 1930s. As a child I watched my father build bookcases out of oak for the books that remained from the shop that had closed as the depression hit its depth. There was something seriously valuable about these old books is the message that wafted across these musty volumes. Wanting to be like my father, I sought out used book stores from my first visit to Los Angeles in 1953. I don’t know what it was that attracted me to George Bernard Shaw — I don’t remember any volumes of Shaw in his collection — but going into downtown LA and searching the shelves of the Goodwill and the Salvation Army stores, I found old GBS titles which I brought home. Even more, I actually read them. I don’t know if Pygmaiion was one of the plays I read then; but I do know that I knew the myth from my reading of Greek mythology, the fantasy stories that I loved. So I was just ready for loving “My Fair Lady” when it hit the musical stage.

In these years my mother encouraged my interest in the theater by taking me to plays in the local Schubert theater. New Haven was a major place shows on their way to Broadway to “try out.” I don’t remember much, except I saw some amazing actors in plays by . . . Shaw and Bertolt Brecht. And by the time I got to college, I had come to understand that both Shaw and Brecht represented artists who fused their politics with their art. Neither of them were satisfied with the status quo, both wanted a new society. While I didn’t understand the differences between them, I understood that one thing that united them was an understanding of class.

george-bernard-shaw

George Bernard Shaw

No matter what Lerner and Loewe did to transform “My Fair Lady” into a simple love story, for me the question of “other” was always the most important thing in the story. The class representation in language, the idea that the upper class had the right to mold the people of the lower classes the way they wanted, the concept that workers could not think for themselves — all of this was very prominent for me in this play and even the musical. And the idea of Eliza standing up for herself, not just an object of these two wealthy men! And isn’t that what we are struggling with today, in a much more exaggerated form, perhaps even a qualitatively different form? In the 1950s, Lerner and Loewe could satirize the British caste system implying it didn’t exist in the US. In 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, and despite reports that the virus does not discriminate, we know that it ravages “othered” communities; we know that the well heeled have better access to necessary health care. We know that COVID is spreading rapidly among communities where the poorer dialects of English are spoken. The class character of who gets hit by the virus most is clearer and clearer. And the resistance to a system that allows this is growing too. Because unlike the 1950s, those of us in that class have no choice any more. We have learned that the Henry Higginses of our world do not care about us.

So I would like to join Eliza in a chorus that I think is what our own ruling class is most afraid of: “Just you wait Henry Higgins, just you wait. You’ll be sorry but your tears will be too late.”

Earth Day at 50 — Lenin at 150

“He gave imagination to the writers
His every word became poetry”

by Lew Rosenbaum

On this day, April 22, 2020, perhaps millions of people are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day.  In 1969 then Senator Gaylord Nelson, an environmentalist, called for a national day of teach-ins on the environment for the spring of the following year.  He proposed April 22 as a day when most students would be most likely to participate.  An advertising man suggested that “Earth Day” might be a more broadly appealing name than a day of teach-ins.  And so “Earth Day” was born.  Nelson himself repudiated the idea that the choice of April 22 was a communist plot.  The John Birch Society, among others, had insinuated that the choice of April 22 was driven by the fact that date in 1970 coincided with the 100th anniversary of Vladimir Ilich Ulianov’s (Lenin) birthday.  Nelson quipped that the Birch Society knew more about Lenin than he did;  nevertheless, young people of 1970 knew more about Lenin than he did too.

At the time of the first Earth Day I was 27 and had come rather late to reading the works of the great Bolshevik.  Just a few years later, talking with my niece Ronni, a high school activist organizer working on Earth Day, I asked with a wry smile whether she knew that April 22 was also Lenin’s birthday.  She replied, with the characteristic twinkle in her eye, that was why the date was chosen.

Lenin lives

“Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin shall live forever” V. Mayakovsky

So maybe both stories are true.  Maybe Lenin’s birthday had nothing to do with the choice of April 22; maybe it had everything to do with that choice.  A Talmudic fight about that is really not the point.  The point is the perseverance of Lenin’s influence, even though now, in 2020, when everyone is talking about the 50th Earth Day, little attention is being paid to Lenin’s 150th birthday, which is today.  Here is evidence of that perseverance:  “Lenin in Urdu: His Every Word Became Poetry.” This is one of a number of essays intended to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth.  It is a short review essay of writers in Urdu who have celebrated Lenin.  People who saw him as the embodiment of revolution.  In no small part is this due to the fact that, after the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in 1917, Lenin was the main force within the Russian Communist Party who understood and fought for at first a minority position:  that what was then called the “national question” was the main form that the fight for socialism was taking, the liberation of the colonial countries from imperialism.

Well of course Lenin is remembered in many more places than in the Urdu language.  Bertolt Brecht wrote numerous poems that refer to Lenin.  One that is a bridge from the peoples of the East is this one:

The Carpet Weavers of Kuyan-Bulak Honour Lenin

Often he was honoured and profusely
The Comrade Lenin. Busts there are and statues.
Cities were named after him and children.
Speeches are made in numerous languages
Rallies there are and demonstrations
From Shanghai to Chicago, in honour of Lenin.
But thus they honoured him
The carpet weavers of Kuyan-Bulak
A small village in southern Turkistan:

Twenty carpet weavers stand there in the evening
Shivering with fever, in front of their humble loom.
Fever runs riot: the railway station
Teeming with buzzing mosquitoes – a thick cloud
Arising from the swamp behind the old camel cemetery.
But the train, which
Once in two weeks brings water and smoke, brings
Also the news one day
That the day for honouring Lenin lies ahead
And so decide the people of Kuyan-Bulak
Carpet weavers, poor folk
That for the Comrade Lenin also in their village

lenin-iqbal

Left – V. I. Lenin; Right – Urdu poet Mohammad Iqbal

A gypsum bust would be installed.
But as the money is collected for the bust
All of them stand
Trembling with fever and contribute
Their hard earned kopecks with wobbling hands.
And the Red Army soldier Stepa Jamal, who
Carefully counts and meticulously watches,
Sees the readiness, to honour Lenin, and is filled with joy.
But he also sees the uncertain hands.
And all of a sudden he makes a proposal
To buy petroleum with the money collected for the bust
In order to pour it on the swamp behind the camel cemetery
From where the mosquitoes come, which
Cause the fever
Thus to combat the fever in Kuyan-Bulak, and indeed
To honour the late, but
Not to be forgotten
Comrade Lenin.

This was agreed to. On the day of paying respect to
Lenin they carried
Their battered buckets, filled with black petroleum
One behind the other
Over there and spread it on the swamp.

So they benefited themselves, in paying homage to Lenin and
Paid homage to him, in that they benefited themselves and had
Therefore understood him well.

                        2

We have heard how the Kuyan-Bulak folk
Paid their respect to Lenin. As now in the evening
The petroleum had been bought and discharged over the swamp
Stood up a man in the assembly, and he demanded
That a commemoration stone be erected at the railway Station
Reporting these events, containing
The altered plan and the exchange
Instead of Lenin’s bust the fever eradicating petroleum barrel,
And all this in honour of Lenin
And they did that too
And mounted the slab.

(Note: Kuyan-Bulak is the railway station of Ferghana in Uzbekistan. The Slab had the text: ‘In this place there should have been a memorial to Lenin, but instead of the memorial, petroleum was brought and poured over the swamp. Thus Kuyan-Bulak, in memory of Lenin and in his Name smothered malaria’. Translator.)

The Jamaica Peace Council, an organization of Jamaicans at home and abroad, published in April 2019 this poem by Langston Hughes:

Lenin

Lenin walks around the world.

Frontiers cannot bar him.

Neither barracks nor barricades impede.

Nor does barbed wire scar him.

Lenin walks around the world.

Black, brown, and white receive him.

Language is no barrier.

The strangest tongues believe him.

Lenin walks around the world.

The sun sets like a scar.

Between the darkness and the dawn

There rises a red star.

As explanation, the author on the site writes:

The poem uses the figure of Vladimir Lenin as a stand-in for the march of social equality across the world, the hope of racial and economic harmony in the world.

Though Hughes didn’t identify as a communist and claimed to have never read Marxist texts at his congressional trial led by the infamous “Red Scare” Senator Joseph McCarthy, his poem describes an awakening in the world among oppressed people of the world for justice.

And of course there is the series of four poems, written from 1920 to 1924, by Vladimir

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V. Mayakovsky

Mayakovsky that celebrated the life of Lenin and commemorated his death. “The time has come,” Mayakovsky wrote:

I begin

the story of Lenin

Not

because the grief

is on the wane,

but because

the bitter anguish

of that moment

has become

a clear-cut,

weighed and fathomed pain.

Time,

speed on,

spread Lenin’s slogans in your whirl!

Not for us

to drown in tears

whatever happens.

There’s no one

more alive

than Lenin in the world,

our strength,

our wisdom,

surest of our weapons.

Poetry, then, is a way into understanding the international reverence for V. I. Lenin, and why he might have been on the minds of the young people in 1970, as perhaps they enjoyed a private joke behind the scenes at the expense of their elders who serendipitously chose April 22, 1970 to launch Earth Day.

Chances are, though, they didn’t know who Lenin really was.  They probably didn’t know that he was a Latin scholar, and that his first introduction to revolutionary writing was through the Russian novelist Chernyshevsky.  They probably had never read the essays he wrote about Tolstoy, a novelist whose writing he loved, but whose worship of Russian mysticism he detested: He could never understand how the revolutionary and the reactionary could coexist in one man.  He read widely in Russian literature (Pushkin, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Gogol).  All of this and more was reviewed in The Guardian (“How Lenin’s Love of Literature Shaped the Revolution”) in 2017, as a way into looking at Lenin’s contribution to the Russian revolution and to the thinking of revolutionaries generally.

Lenin spent two decades building the foundation for the revolutionary organization capable of toppling the czar and establishing socialism in Russia.  At numerous points in that two decades he found himself in the minority among the revolutionaries.  Often he found himself in a small organization of exiles.  What he did in that twenty years was write furiously.  He wrote about the kind of tasks that were necessary (revolutionaries did not agree on those tasks; they did not agree on what forces in society were revolutionary; they did not agree on what role they should play as World War I got underway). He wrote about the ideological, organizational, and tactical building blocks necessary for the kind of political party he thought was necessary.  Some of these contributed some ideas particular to the revolutionary situation in Russia, ideas that he began to formulate when exiled early in his career to Siberia; when he researched and wrote a book that chronicled the Development of Capitalism in Russia. Here he maintained that despite the minuscule size of the Russian industrial working class, capitalism was already developing in Russia. Despite the general consensus that the Russian peasants were a monolithic class, Lenin described the stratification of peasantry into a wealthy section, a middle section, and the great mass of the peasantry at the level of an agricultural working class and serf.

He wrote the fourth book about the foundation of the necessary political party in 1908, and it was published in Russia in 1909. Here he defended the philosophical principles or world view of dialectical and historical materialism (Materialism and Empiriocriticism). It’s really in this book that he expounds on his idea of Marxism as a method as well as a theory and a doctrine.

Lenin in Russia in 1897 to 1917 faced a situation unlike in Germany, England, or the United States.  In those other countries the industrial revolution was well underway, appeared even complete.  Russia was in the beginning throes of the industrial revolution, much of the country enthralled to the big banks of Europe.  Lenin needed to devise a theory of the Russian revolution.  He did that in his description of the relationship of the various classes in Russia, the role of the working class and the peasantry, and the development of the national question in the Russian empire and beyond.  He did that by describing the objective reality the revolutionary classes faced and the role of the revolutionary organizations.  What is most significant about Lenin is his capacity to describe the reality he faced and the new ideas necessary for the new situation of his time and place.  He was a scientist.

What can we learn from Lenin’s experience on his 150th birthday?  In the 1970s, when I read Lenin I read him as the ideologue that I was.  What is to be Done?, State and Revolution, Left Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder, and Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism were the four books of my Talmud. I do not intend here to dismiss them as unimportant.  No, there are important lessons to be learned from all of them.  But the way we read them is important, especially when we realize we are no longer dealing with a revolution in the midst of industrialization. The great Russian political revolution was part of the 19th to 20th century economic industrial revolution. In fact, the ensuing liberation struggles of the colonies, the struggles that Lenin foresaw as the great movement of the 20th century, pulled those peoples into the orbit of industry and a connection to the capitalist world order, either through a bourgeois or a socialist revolution.  But that era is over.

A new economic revolution is underway.  And there are new Lenins walking the streets of our world, applying their understanding of the real world to develop a theory of today’s revolutionary times.  In 1917 — and from 1917 through the 1960s and the first Earth Day — history has witnessed the completion of the replacement of agricultural private property by industrial-financial private property. Today we are witnessing the demise of capitalism that exists on the exploitation of labor.  That seems counterintuitive, when we see people living in the streets and workers unable to buy the basic necessities of life.  But the robotization of contemporary life points to the end of wage labor.  If labor is excluded from the production of the means of survival, then there is no longer a way to measure the value in exchange of the means of survival. As long as money is the means of exchange, those expelled from the employer-employee relationship have no way to purchase the means of survival. The Lenin’s of our day must be developing a theory of the revolution of the end of the market and the end of private property under new conditions, when the way to resolve the problems we face must mean distribution without money.

On this Earth Day and this 150th birthday of Lenin, it’s time to recognize that the inspiration that Lenin gave to the poets in Urdu, the Russian poets, to Langston Hughes is real and deserving of reverence. We need to cultivate the Lenins of our times. Without discounting his numerous contributions, what we need to revere is Lenin’s scientific outlook and his willingness to find new solutions to solve new problems.