Against the Current, No. 160, September/October 2012

Against the Current, No. 160, September/October 2012

Supreme Court Storm Clouds

— The Editors

RIGHT-WING HOWLS OF outrage over the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling to uphold the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act soon faded into the general background noise. “Repeal Obamacare” is the Republican mantra for the November election, but an actual legislative reversal of ACA is highly unlikely. What’s actually on the agenda — and more ominous not only for health care, but as a signal of the Supreme Court’s direction on a wide range of issues — is the opportunity the Court has given states to reject the expansion of Medicaid to cover millions of the near-poor. (Milton Fisk’s article in this issue of Against the Current explores the continuing health care reform struggle.)

If right-wingers miscalculated in assuming that the Supreme Court’s majority would strike down the “individual mandate” to buy insurance,...

Notes in Memoriam

— The Editors

ALEXANDER COCKBURN, WHO died in July at age 71, was perhaps the best-known columnist and essayist on the U.S. as well as British left. His passing is a loss to all of us who were enlightened, entertained and sometimes enraged by his politics as well as his polemical wit.

We also mourn the loss of James D. Young, the revolutionary Scottish historian, who died on June 24 at age 81.

Why Race Matters in the 2012 Elections

— Malik Miah

WE SOMETIMES HEAR that the drive by the Repub­lican Party and the far right to “suppress the vote” — attempting to ensure the election of a Republican president and win control of the Congress — is just hardball politics, not about race or racism.

Yet the primary target is people of color. Not since the days of Jim Crow segregation in the Deep South, where poll taxes were used to prevent African Americans from voting, has such an orchestrated effort taken place across the country....

Health Care Reform or Ruin?

— Milton Fisk

FAR FROM LAYING the health care debate to rest, the June 28 Supreme Court decision on Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) put life back into it. Calling the individual health insurance mandate a “tax” aroused anger on the right, but the court’s ruling on federal Medicaid money is what really puts a new dimension into the fight.

The Court ruled that the federal government cannot deny a state all its Medicaid money for refusing only that part earmarked for expanding the program. That means a state governor can now risk less politically by refusing federal money to cover those at 100-133% of poverty-level, while federal money for those below 100% would still flow into the state....

Chicago Teachers' Strike Looms

— Rob Bartlett

WHETHER OR NOT the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) will strike this September is an open question. But the issues they raise are gaining national attention. Although the CTU has not been out on strike since 1987, 23,780 out of 26,502 union members voted to authorize a strike last June if an agreement cannot be reached. There were only 482 no votes. Almost 90% of the entire membership approved the action, easily surpassing the required 75% set by a new state law Senate Bill 7, which was intended to block Chicago teachers’ right to strike.

As the attack on teachers has escalated over the past two years, CTU members felt “We had no choice” but to vote to strike....

The Green Party Campaign

— Michael Rubin and Linda Thompson

THE STAKES IN the 2012 presidential election are high: global warming manifesting itself in the hottest summer ever, wreaking havoc on agriculture and weather patterns; the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline all but approved; and the unmitigated effects of the BP oil spill and plans for drilling for oil in the Artic proceeding apace.

Yet these, along with other key issues of war, civil liberties and racism aren’t even part of the Democratic-Republican debate. When addressing issues of the economy, the two major parties present competing versions of austerity for the working class....

General Strikes, Mass Strikes

— Kim Moody

INSPIRED BY THE boldness of the movement, activists of Occupy Oakland issued a “call for a general strike” in that city for November 2 — a sign of the movement’s radicalism and its sense of where social power lies.

One criticism of the Occupy activists was that they had not consulted the unions. Had they done so, however, it is very unlikely that very many union leaders would have agreed to jointly “call” such an action. But what’s more important, as I will argue, is that general strikes or mass strikes are seldom simply “called” from above, if at all, or until they are well underway — and those that are “called” tend to be called off just as easily....

Letter to the Editors

— Clifford J. Straehley, M.D.


DURING THE YEARS when I received my surgical training at Massachusetts General Hospital, the specialty of emergency room medicine had not yet emerged. At teaching hospitals in the United States, the surgical service provided first-echelon care in the ER.

In 1948 I slept in the ER to be awakened by the nurse whenever a new patient arrived. There came to the ER a woman in profound shock. Her story: She had five children and when she became pregnant once again, her husband abandoned her....

South Africa After Apartheid

The Left and South Africa's Crisis

— an interview with Brian Ashley

BRIAN ASHLEY IS the editor of the South African journal AMANDLA! He was interviewed for Against the Current by David Finkel and Dianne Feeley.

Against the Current: Please tell us about the magazine Amandla! — what’s your orientation and perspective, and what’s your audience in the overall framework of the South African left?

Brian Ashley: Amandla! was initiated in 2006 as the crisis in the country was deepening, as neoliberal policies exacerbated the divisions of apartheid and as the crisis in the African National Congress (ANC, the governing party — ed.) and its alliance partners (South African Communist Party and trade union federation COSATU) deepened....

Social Movements in South Africa

— Zachary Levenson

A MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN continued stuffing an old tire with bits of straw, refusing to stop as two younger men pleaded with her not to ignite it. She didn’t seem to take them seriously, presumably because one of them was wearing a Democratic Alliance (DA) shirt, the reigning party in the Western Cape and largely despised by black voters. It was hard to hear the substance of the debate over the chanting of struggle songs and vigorous toyi-toyiing, not to mention the crowd shouting down officers in an SUV marked “Anti-Land Invasion Unit.”(1)

It was only after a well-known leader of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign told her that a fire would provoke arrests that she relinquished the kindling....

The Brutal Tragedy at Marikana

— Amandla!

THE FOLLOWING STATEMENT, “A Brutal Tragedy that Never Should Have Happened,” was issued by the editors of Amandla! immediately following the August 16 shooting of striking miners. It appears at

NO EVENT SINCE the end of apartheid sums up the shallowness of the transformation in this country like the Marikana massacre. What occurred will be debated for years. It is already clear the mineworkers will be blamed for being violent. The mineworkers will be painted as savages. Yet, the fact is that heavily armed police with live ammunition brutally shot and killed over 35 mineworkers....

A "Tunisia Moment" Coming?

— Niall Reddy

A PROMINENT COMMENTATOR and a brother of the former president, Moeletsi Mbeki caused a major stir last year when he announced that South Africa is headed for a “Tunisia Moment.” The vociferous denial that the comment elicited from local elites was itself evidence of a growing consensus, now encompassing much more than the odd Marxist analyst, that South Africa is headed towards total social crisis.

As the eurozone crisis and signs of fatigue in Asian economies seem likely to arrest the already anemic global recovery, that conclusion seems ever more unavoidable....

Further on Marikana Miners

— David Finkel, for the ATC Editors

The background material on South Africa in our new issue (ATC 160) –- an interview with Brian Ashley, Zachary Levenson on social movements and Niall Reddy on the economic and social background to the crisis -– was planned and compiled over a period of several months before publication. We could not imagine, of course, that the “Tunisia moment” foretold in Niall Reddy’s essay would explode just as we were going to press, in the shocking form of the police massacre of striking platinum miners.

The circumstances surrounding this mass murder, and the political wildfire it unleashed for the African National Congress and the trade union movement, are the subject of an ongoing discussion within the South African and international left. We’d like to refer our readers to a few particularly informative contributions:...

Culture and Politcs

The SP's Roots and Legacy: In the American Grain

— Benjamin Balthaser

American Socialist Triptych:
The Literary-Political Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman,
Upton Sinclair, and W.E.B. Du Bois
By Mark W. Van Wienen
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012, 390 pages, $80 cloth.

IT SEEMS HARD to believe that in parts of the country where Democrats today are viewed as radical socialists, actual self-described Socialists once won upwards of 20% of the vote, elected two members of Congress, and in locales such as Minot, Kansas and Oklahoma City held mayoral office and sent dozens of members to the state legislature.

American Poetry's "Labor Problem"

— Sarah Ehlers

Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys:
Poverty, Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry
By John Marsh
University of Michigan Press, 2011, 280 pages, $80 cloth, $35 paper.

IN 1925, WHILE clearing tables at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., Langston Hughes (then relatively unknown in the literary world) noticed famed poet Vachel Lindsay dining alone. Even though busboys weren’t permitted to talk to guests, he took a chance and recited three poems from his forthcoming The Weary Blues to Lindsay’s table....

A Bend in the Labyrinth

— Alan Wald

The Century’s Midnight:
Dissenting European and American Writers in the Era of the Second World War
by Clive Bush
Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010, 608 pages, $77.95 cloth.

NON-COMMUNIST RADICAL CULTURE of the anti-fascist years has long been a subject in search of a critic who can boldly embrace the enigmatic. That quest is now ended with the publication of the furiously intelligent The Century’s Midnight.

In the sure hands of Clive Bush, biography and cultural history combine to create a quietly agonized study of the transatlantic literary and political relationships among “a loosely knit transnational intelligentsia” (8)....

Mapping the African-American Literary Left

— Konstantina M. Karageorgos

The Indignant Generation:
A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960
By Lawrence Jackson
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011, 579 pages, $37.50 cloth.

LAWRENCE P. JACKSON’S The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960 is the most recent study, and to date perhaps the most thorough, of the mid-20th century African-American literary Left. It provides a powerful countermand to leading African American critic Kenneth Warren’s provocative claim that African-American literature is no longer a vital (or vibrant) category for literary and especially textual analysis....

The Common Language of Adrienne Rich

— Julie R. Enszer

“I refuse these givens the splitting/between love and action”

EMININENT POET, ESSAYIST, lesbian and feminist Adrienne Cecile Rich died on March 27, 2012. Rich was born on May 16, 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1951, when Rich was a student at Radcliffe College, W. H. Auden selected her first collection of poetry, A Change of World, for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. In the introduction, Auden said that Rich “displays a modesty not so common at that age,” and described her poems as “neatly and modestly dressed.” He continued, Rich’s poems “speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs.”...

The Life and Memory of Elizabeth Catlett

— Kelli Morgan

IN JANUARY 2011 The Bronx Museum presented “Stargazers: Elizabeth Catlett in Conversation with 21 Contemporary Artists” to explore what art historian Isolde Brielmaier describes as the “beauty, aesthetic excellence, conceptual strength, and inventive stance of Catlett’s work throughout time.”

This exhibition was one of the more recent celebrations of Catlett’s fascinating oeuvre and long-standing career.  For 70 years Elizabeth Catlett’s elegant sculpture and energetic print work penetrated and transformed the American art world, illustrating art’s crucial function as a catalyst for social and political change.

On April 2, 2012 Elizabeth Catlett passed away in her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico,...

Faruq Z. Bey, 1942-2012

— Kim D. Hunter

FARUQ Z. BEY, the recently deceased saxophonist, poet and visionary, was at the heart of a tremendous ensemble in the 1970s and ’80s called Griot Galaxy. They were also called “the best band that never left Detroit.” That may seem faint, even damning praise unless you take stock of Detroit’s disproportionate influence on the nation’s music scene. Strictly speaking, it also wasn’t true as the band and its members were travelers of the European festival circuit and had fans around the world.

Born Jesse Davis in February 1942, Bey described himself as being “ruined” in 1967 after hearing a John Coltrane recording. By the mid-’70s when I heard him, he had all but mastered the advanced speed and tonal aspects of the jazz avant-garde....


SWP: Long March to Oblivion

— David Finkel

The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988.
A Political Memoir. Volume 2: Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, 1973-1988
by Barry Sheppard
London: Resistance Books, 2012, 336 pages + index. $18 paperback.

THE GENERAL POLITICAL and organizational principles of the “revolutionary vanguard” (so-called “Leninist”) party, it seems to me, are easily stated: a party deeply rooted in the struggles and communities of working people, committed to the destruction of capitalism and to leading the working class to take power for itself, organized such that the members and units of the party, at all levels, are mutually and democratically responsible to and for each other....

Invaluable History and Important Lessons

— Malik Miah

The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988.
A Political Memoir. Volume 2: Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, 1973-1988
by Barry Sheppard
London: Resistance Books, 2012, 336 pages + index. $18 paperback.

I’VE KNOWN BARRY Sheppard as a comrade and friend for more than 40 years. I joined the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) in 1969 as a high school student in Detroit. I joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1970 and met Barry at the SWP’s national conference that year. I later moved to New York in 1971 to join the staff of the YSA’s National Office, and soon became head of the YSA’s work among Black youth....