Against the Current, No. 166, September/October 2013

Against the Current, No. 166, September/October 2013

Heroism Against the Machine

— The Editors

Editorial Postscript – August 27, 2013

VERY SHORTLY AFTER Against the Current went to press, the judge in the court-martial trial of Bradley Edward Manning handed down a sentence of 35 years – less than the 60 or more years demanded by the prosecution, but shockingly harsh for Manning’s “crime” of exposing U.S. war atrocities in Iraq, none of which have been punished. Soon afterward, as everyone now knows, Manning announced that she wishes to be known as Chelsea Elizabeth Manning and to be recognized as a woman.

What hasn’t changed, of course, is the heroism and extraordinary courage that Manning showed in maintaining a moral compass when so many military personnel....

Suited Vandals Pillage Detroit

— The Editors

THE PILLAGING OF Detroit by vandals in business suits and judicial robes is underway. The city’s “creditors,” including retired city workers who stand to lose their pension benefits, received a few days’ public notice that any objections to the bankruptcy proceedings had to be filed in federal court by Monday, August 19. Any actions in state courts against the bankruptcy or the Emergency Manager have been frozen.

Although the Michigan legislature has no constitutional authority over state public employees, the appeals court ruled they are covered under “right to work” legislation rammed through by the rightwing lawmakers last year.

Toxic “petcoke” waste....

Two Americas -- Where Racism Lives

— Malik Miah

IN CASE YOU thought we now live in a “colorblind country” where justice is equal and fair for all — the view of the 5-4 Supreme Court majority that gutted the Voting Rights Act — the Black and white responses to the murder of Trayvon Martin should put that delusion to rest.

His killer, George Zimmerman, racially profiled 17-year-old Martin, then claimed self-defense when Martin challenged him. The Florida jury, five white women and one Puerto Rican woman, acquitted him after discussion of race — the central issue — was excluded from the trial. It became Zimmerman’s word against the dead teenager’s short life....

"Calm Reflection" or Justice?

— Meleiza Figueroa

THE FRIDAY NIGHT before George Zimmerman was acquitted, some friends and I went to see the movie “Fruitvale Station.” “Fruitvale Station,” if you don’t already know, is an amazing film that chronicles the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Black man from Oakland, CA — a bit of a screwup like a lot of guys are at that age, but at heart a devoted son and father — who was handcuffed and fatally shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer on New Years’ Day 2009.

As the credits rolled on the film, and my friends and I sat there, stunned, crying and heartbroken, I tried, through all the visceral pain and anger, to process what I had just seen.

What struck me most about Ryan Coogler’s remarkable film was the everydayness of it all....

East St. Louis As Detroit's Mirror

— Jennifer F. Hamer

DETROIT’S GOVERNOR-APPOINTED Financial Manager, bankruptcy attorney Kevyn Orr, told the Wall Street Journal that the cash-strapped municipality was “for a long time…dumb, lazy, happy, and rich.”

Detroit is frequently in the news. The former industrial center has suffered financial distress for much of its modern past. The state’s newest response to the city’s woes was to seize control of the municipal budget and related decision-making.

Orr’s blithe comments capture not only his historical ignorance, but also the contempt policymakers often display towards workers and families in poor urban places....

Immigration "Reform"

— The Editors

ON ONE LEVEL, even discussing the U.S. Senate’s tortuous immigration reform bill may seem pointless, given that anything that might be passed by the current chamber of horrors known as the House of Representatives will unquestionably be even worse, and absolutely unsupportable for any supporter of immigrant rights — or basic human rights for that matter.

Nonetheless, the discussion matters because this legislation, or the lack of it, heavily impacts the real lives of millions of people in this country — people who live in permanent insecurity but are becoming increasingly vocal about their rights and their families’ futures. That’s why we present, in the following three contributions,...

A View from the Base

— Joaquín Bustelo

HERE IN ATLANTA, there was a very serious discussion both in meetings and on the Spanish-language talk radio station beginning a week ago over whether we should continue to call on the Senators to vote yes. And at least for the Senate, we stuck with calling for a yes vote.

That’s not based on some cost-benefit analysis by the leaders, but on community sentiment. The community is desperate for legalization, even one bought at a very high price. To understand why, look at the daily list of roadblocks and similar police activity, aimed mainly at catching undocumented people driving without licenses, either to feed the ICE deportation machine or simply to fleece them with fines (which the police departments keep)....

The Case for Critical Support

— Milton Fisk

WHILE I NEVER approved of the for-profit health insurance industry, I eventually supported the Affordable Care Act. Nor do I now support buying 400 miles of border fencing or the long waits for legal status which the recently passed Senate immigration bill requires, even though I would now support that bill. Not all support need be unqualified, and mine in these cases is critical support.

Giving critical support is not an outcome of summing up our evaluations of what we think are the positive and negative features of a proposal. We get a more reliable sense of the outcome of a proposal by asking how its various features are likely to interact. A key element in the immigration reform interaction will be the struggles sparked in implementing the proposal....

Organizations & Leaders' Critique of S.744

— a statement by the Mexican American Political Association

[This statement, dated July 18, 2013, appears on the website of the Mexican American Political Association,]

AFTER MUCH REFLECTION, we have concluded that S.744 does more harm than good to the cause of fair and humane immigration reform.

What follows is a more complete explanation of our major concerns about S. 744:

S.744’s Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) program will exclude and/or disqualify over time 5 million undocumented persons from adjustment of status....

On Egypt

— an interview with Gilbert Achcar

[Following the August 14 crackdown on supporters of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, we asked Gilbert Achcar a followup on the explosive turn of events. His response, sent August 19, follows. The confrontation continues as we go to press, with consequences still to be seen — ed.]

ATC: You had said that forcibly suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood “would be very costly for Egyptian economy and society.” After the massacre of August 14 and the events that have followed, what’s the hope for a democratic revolutionary process continuing in Egypt? What should be the response of the Egyptian and international left to this escalating and deadly crisis?

GA: The repression of the Muslim Brotherhood proved very costly indeed, both in human lives and for its impact....

Can People Get What They Want?

— an interview with Gilbert Achcar

GILBERT ACHCAR IS the author of the newly published The People Want. A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (University of California Press, September 2013). His previous books include The Arabs and the Holocaust. The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives (2010). He was interviewed by phone on August 6, 2013 by David Finkel of the ATC editorial board.

Against the Current: To begin, we’d like to know something about your new book. Since you’ve been writing it in the midst of these amazing upheavals, in what ways has your perspective perhaps changed or developed during this time?

Gilbert Achcar: I can’t say that my views changed while working on the book. I’ve been researching and working on the region for a long time, as you know....

Austerity American Style, Part 2

— Jack Rasmus

[The first part of this article appeared in our previous issue, ATC 165. Jack Rasmus is the author of Obama’s Economy: Re­covery for the Few (2012), which provides a history of deficit cutting in the United States and predicts its impact. His blog is]

IN SIGNING THE “fiscal cliff” deal on January 2, Obama declared that more tax revenue hikes would have to be negotiated in future deals. No doubt he and Democrats believed that the March 1 date would put pressure on the Teapublicans to compromise on more tax hikes in exchange for avoiding the approximate $500 billion in defense spending cuts that were part of the sequestered $1.2 trillion.

There was also the March 27, 2013 date when the Federal government would run out of money to pay its bills....

Wadada's Suite of Liberation

— Mark Mendoza

Ten Freedom Summers
a 4-CD box set by Leo Wadada Smith
Cuneiform, 2012, $26.

IF YOU BUY one jazz album this year, make it this one. This is not merely a moving testament to the contributions of African Americans to a free creative folk music of the Americas. It is y/our music. Savor it, and pass it down.

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, the American trumpeter, multi-instrumentalist, composer and teacher, has spent more than three decades composing the four-hour-twenty-minutes of music on this set. Premiered in October 2011 and recorded in Los Angeles a month later, Ten Freedom Summers is not strictly speaking a suite;...

Remembering E.P. Thompson

Commemorating a Classic of History

— The Editors

THE YEAR 1963 was momentous on many levels. In our previous issue (#165) we commemorated the assassination of civil rights organizer Medgar Evers, one among many martyrs of the bloody racist response to the growing civil rights movement. It was also the year of the military overthrow and assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, the ruler of South Vietnam, in a coup approved by the administration of U.S. president John F. Kennedy, who would himself be assassinated in November.

Less noted but of great importance in the writing of working class history was the appearance of the classic work of Edward P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 1780-1832,...

Recovering the Centrality of Class

— Ellen Meiksins Wood

WHEN E.P. THOMPSON’S The Making of the English Working Class came out in 1963, there still existed a vibrant anti-capitalist culture on the intellectual left, which flourished with a special vigor among the British Marxist historians, a remarkable group to which Thompson belonged. Within little more than a decade, despite (or maybe because of?) the militant eruptions of 1968 and various dramatic workers’ struggles in the following few years, the intellectual life of the left in the West was being shaped by a surrender to capitalism and a “retreat from class.”

The leading academic fashions on the left, beginning with “post-Marxism” and culminating in postmodernism, seemed now to operate on the principle that, for better or worse, capitalism was the only viable option and class struggle was no longer on the agenda....

Remembering E.P. Thompson

— Paul Buhle

A YOUTUBE VIDEO dating to 1982 surfaced some months ago, with E.P. Thompson and C.L.R. James discussing the exciting developments of the day.

Thompson, a leading figure in the Euro­pean anti-missile/antiwar movement directed against Reagan’s global madness but also closely in touch with East European dissidents, foresaw a potential radicalization on both sides of the Iron Curtain. James, in his last major initiative, hailed the achievement of Polish Solidarity, pushing against the very idea of representative government by demands for direct democracy from below.

These promising moments passed, of course, with the Cold War settled on very different terms:...

A Flawed Conception of Class

— Bruce Levine

I FIRST READ The Making of the English Working Class as a radical-minded college student in the late 1960s. Its focus on “anonymous” working people certainly did inspire me and help launch me on my own subsequent studies of labor and laboring classes.

I assume, though, that all these years later — and especially in a discussion like the present one — I needn’t elaborate on the book’s many strengths. Others will do that very well. I want instead to talk about an important weakness in that book, one that I believe offers poor guidance both to labor historians and socialist-minded labor activists.

I’m referring here to the book’s famous and much-praised Preface....

History as Argument

— Bryan D. Palmer

A GREAT DEAL could be said about E.P. Thompson’s tremendous book, The Making of the English Working Class, on the 50th anniversary of its publication. Yet I want to make only one rather simple point: argument animated Thompson for his entire life, and it figures centrally on almost every page of his evocative account of class formation.

This is not the minor point it might seem on the surface. There was a time when apprentice historians were schooled in history as argument. We thought the seminars we were in, and the books we would eventually write, would be about argument. That time, in my view, is long gone.

Young historians are now educated to think that argument is actually a bad thing, that polemic is to be avoided rather than cultivated....


Looking Inside the Education Crisis

— Robert Bartlett

The Future of our Schools:
Teachers Unions and Social Justice
By Lois Weiner
Haymarket Books 2012. 220 pages + index,
$16 paperback.

TEACHERS CONCERNED WITH the ongoing vilification of their profession and the worsening conditions under which they work will be interested in reading Lois Weiner’s new book. It’s written for a new generation of activist teachers who are being shaken into action by the attacks on them and public education, and perhaps inspired by the successes of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in forging a message that unites the interests of teachers and the communities they serve.

The book doesn’t flinch from putting the attack on....

The Troubled State of Labor

— Stephanie Luce

The State of Working America, 12th Edition
By Lawrence Mishel, Josh Bivens, Elise Gould and Heidi Sheirholz
Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute and Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 2012, $24.95 paper.

IN THE 1970s, conservative funders and thinkers began pouring money into think tanks designed to influence public opinion and Capitol Hill. By the 1980s groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Manhattan Institute were in full-bloom, making an impact from the media right down to actual legislation.

Into the fray stepped the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), formed in 1986 with support from the AFL-CIO, as a small effort to challenge the conservative onslaught....

A Focus of Anti-capitalist Struggle?

— Jan Cox

No Local:
Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World
By Greg Sharzer
Zero Books 2012, 189 pages, $19.95 paperback.

NO LOCAL, THE title of Greg Sharzer’s book, echoes Naomi Klein’s influential No Logo, which examined globalization’s impact and documented the rise of the global justice movement. No Local, in contrast, takes aim at aspects of the localist movements (which have grown up in parallel and in opposition to the effects of globalization), where many of the author’s potential activist readers might expect to find friends and allies.

Instead, Sharzer claims localism is a dead end — no outlet,...

The Roots of Academic Freedom

— Michael Steven Smith

Priests of Our Democracy:
The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti- Communist Purge
By Marjorie Heins
New York University Press, 2013, 384 pages, $35 hardback.

PRIESTS OF OUR Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge is a smart, well-crafted insightful book by an especially qualified author. Marjorie Heins is an unrepentant sixties radical out of SDS who went on to get a Harvard Law School degree and became a litigator, a law professor, an historian and a constitutional scholar.

 Academic freedom was not gained along with the Bill of Rights just after the American Revolution,...

Communist Writing in Anti-Communist Times

— Judith E. Smith

American Night:
The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War
By Alan Wald
Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2012,
412 pages, $45 hardback.

AMERICAN NIGHT is the third volume of Alan Wald’s capacious study of the Communist-led literary left from the 1930s through the 1950s. This trilogy, launched in 2002, follows his earlier books about Trotskyist and anti-Stalinist writers on the left. It makes the case for the significance of Communist writers and their literary production within 20th-century literary history, and as an important part of the cultural history of the Communist left in these important decades.

To this project Wald brings exhaustive knowledge....

Tony Cliff as a Socialist Leader

— Samuel Farber

Tony Cliff
A Marxist for His Time
By Ian Birchall
London, England: Bookmarks Publications, 2011, 648 pages,
Approx. $25 paperback (available from Amazon).

THE RECENT SCANDAL in the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), involving accusations of rape against one of its leaders and opening up a profound internal party crisis, not only exposed how grossly the SWP central leadership mishandled the charges, but also revealed its historic lack of internal democracy.

Covered by much of the international left-wing press and even in the British mainstream media,...