Against the Current, No. 179, November/December 2015

Against the Current, No. 179, November/December 2015

Global Lessons of A Catastrophe

— The Editors

THE CATASTROPHE THAT Syria has become, and the unfathomable refugee crisis it has unleashed, is a stark mirror reflection of the real condition of a failed world system. We have stated in previous editorials that “imperialism creates problems that it cannot solve,” which in these circumstances is a major understatement. It has figuratively — and literally — planted bombs all over the Middle East and elsewhere, blowing whole societies apart, overwhelming neighboring countries and casting refugees onto the borders of Europe and North America.

Two grimly coincidental events symbolize today’s reality. At the same time that Russia launched its air campaign in Syria in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime, the United States bombed Doctors Without Borders’ hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing medical staff and patients and wiping out the only trauma treatment facility serving the desperate local population....

BLM: A Movement and Its Critics

— Malik Miah

THE BLACK LIVES Matter Movement (BLM) is the most significant political challenge in decades to institutional racism and the status quo. Along with the pro-immigrant Dreamers Movement, the Black Lives Matter Movement is not beholden to any established organization, political leader or party.

The usual suspects on the racist and far right — including Black conservatives — attack the Movement for allegedly causing “divisions” in society. Their attacks center on defending the police and ignoring white privileges (the empty phrase “All Lives Matter” is their retort to BLM). These forces, led by FOX News and talk radio, make arguments that are fact-free, blaming racism on those fighting it....

Can Chicago Teachers Win Again?

— Robert Bartlett

THREE YEARS AGO Chicago teachers defied the corporate-led attack on public education and went on a successful strike, widely supported by the public and parents, to support public education in all neighborhoods of the city.

The context of that fight was the takeover of the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) leadership by the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), with their goal of fighting the privatization of public schools and defunding of neighborhood schools through building alliances with parents and community organizations and mobilizing the union membership.

The first years of the CORE leadership were preparation for a showdown with the city and a series of escalating actions by the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Rahm Emanuel designed to weaken the CTU....

Teachers in the Crosshairs

— Marian Swerdlow

The Teacher Wars:
A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession
By Dana Goldstein
Doubleday, 2014, 349 pages, $26.95 paperback.

JOURNALIST DANA GOLD­STEIN’S Teacher Wars is an account of the history of teaching in the United States. Its early chapters are about how women came to dominate the teaching profession in this country. It moves on to tell how Black pioneers struggled to educate the freed people after the Civil War. It recounts the origins of teacher unionism in Chicago around the Progressive Era.

A subsequent chapter discusses political repression against radical teachers, mainly during World War I and the post-World War II McCarthyite “red scare.” The Great Society and the 1968 New York City teachers’ strike against Black community control....

Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015)

WHEN GRACE LEE Boggs died October 5 in her beloved adopted city of Detroit, she was well into her eighth decade of activism. A brilliant philosophy student who found decent-paying opportunities blocked by discrimination against Chinese Americans, by her mid-twenties Grace Lee was a socialist militant and contributor to the revolutionary Marxist journal New International. Under the party name Ria Stone, her essays there included analyses of the history of World War I and the anti-imperialist opposition, the rising importance of China, and particularly powerful pieces on the March on Washington Movement against racial segregation in the U.S. military.

As a prominent supporter of the tendency led by C.L.R. James, Grace’s political odyssey led through the Workers Party and Socialist Workers Party of the 1940s to the Correspondence group of the 1950s. Having moved to Detroit,...

U.S. Workers & Puerto Rico's Crisis

— Rafael Bernabe

PUERTO RICO HAS been in the news lately, particularly the financial news. The possibility that its government may default on part of its $73 billion public debt has drawn the attention of Wall Street analysts. The New York Times has deemed the situation worthy of several editorials.

More often than not, the island is offered as a yet another lesson on the consequences of “big government” and of too generous social provisions. Other factors are rarely mentioned — such as the tax privileges of U.S. corporations, or the potential consequences for working people of the austerity measures under consideration.

Working people in the United States need their own analysis of Puerto Rico’s crisis, not the least because the austerity measures under discussion here are similar to those ruling sectors would like to impose there. Our fight in Puerto Rico and the United States should be a joint struggle....

When Radicals Beat the Two-Party System

— Mark A. Lause

WHILE IT’S BECOME commonplace in discussing the Civil War years to say that the slaves freed themselves, we need to understand that this process had been going on for generations before the advent of the war. In the most fundamental way, the first antislavery movement was that of a slave laboring diligently in the master’s field and calculating the chances of reaching the nearest treeline before being stopped.

That kind of movement at “the point of production” is what gave significance to the Bible-reading Quaker, or the lawyer making a strong case on behalf of a fugitive slave.

Abolition aspired to free all slaves and dismantle the entire institution of African slavery. This became innately political, regardless of its electoral expression — because it involved destroying the institutional support for slavery in the U.S. Constitution and the laws....

Moral Combat: The Right to Vote

— Katie O'Reilly

IN A WHITE House ceremony on November 24, 2014, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights activists slain by Mississippi Klansmen on June 21, 1964 — the first day of “Freedom Summer.”

When asked for comment on the medal, Rita Bender, Schwerner’s widow — and the woman who in 1964 gained notoriety for telling President Lyndon B. Johnson “This is not a social call,” when she met with him to demand federal investigation into the Mississippi murders — just noted that the “very best honor” Congress could bestow upon her late husband and others killed or injured in the struggle for voting rights would be “the reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and its aggressive enforcement....”

Review Essay

Review Essay: Reaching for Revolution

— Alan Wald

Radicals in America:
The U.S. Left Since the Second World War
By Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps
New York: Cambridge University Press: 2015, 355 pages, $24.99 paperback.

SOMETHING MAGICAL HAPPENED when Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps joined forces to craft this enthralling account of the U.S. Left from its upsurge after World War II to the near present. The two activist scholars, noted for distinguished books of their own, orchestrate stunning erudition, rigorous argumentation, lucid language, and a cohesive narrative to address a serious and taxing topic.(1)

Radicals in America is a learned volume, unsurpassed for a supreme command of the facts, yet is also a political breakthrough in the battle over memory of the postwar Left....


A System That Makes You Breakable

— Leighton Stein

Between the World and Me
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Spiegel and Grau,152 pages, $24 hardcover.

IN A POPULAR downtown Detroit coffee shop, I had a brief exchange with an elderly white man, whom we can call Joe, both of us perched on stools, awash in hard sunshine, life emanating from the streets. We quickly exhausted our stock of common referents: small talk ran dry.

I fidgeted on my stool, my gaze falling to my coffee cup, a black ring staining white porcelain. So I asked him what he thought of the developments around the city. He was overjoyed, shared freely his memories of Detroit.

Clasping my hands together, I asked if the city’s resurgence would help poor folk....

Incarceration & Resistance

— Brad Duncan

Captive Nation:
Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era
By Dan Berger
University of North Carolina Press, 2014, 424 pages, $34.95 cloth.

The Struggle Within:
Prisons, Political Prisoners, and Mass Movements in the United States
By Dan Berger
PM Press/Kersplebedeb, 2014, 128 pages, $12.95 paperback.

CAPTIVE NATION IS a bold reconsideration of the role of prisons and African-American prisoners spanning the southern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, Black Power and the New Left, and the Black Nationalist renaissance of the 1970s....

Anti-Capitalism & Queer Liberation

— Alan Sears

Warped: Gay Normality and Queer Anti-Capitalism
By Peter Drucker
Brill/Haymarket 2015, 446 pages, $38 paperback.

FOR MANY, PRIDE Day 2015 turned into a celebration of the June 26 announcement that the U.S. Supreme Court had recognized lesbian and gay marriage rights. This decision marks an important step towards the elimination of legal discrimination against lesbians and gays. The Supreme Court decision served as a gift to mark the 46th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot that launched the contemporary lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement.

Peter Drucker’s new book Warped is an essential resource for those who seek to understand how a liberation movement born out of a riot came to focus on marriage rights....

When Marxism Is Kids' Stuff

— Julia L. Mickenberg

Little Red Readings:
Historical Materialist Approaches to Children’s Literature
Edited by Angela Hubler
University Press of Mississippi, 276 pages, $60 hardcover.

REVIEWING EDITED COLLECTIONS always seems so daunting — and here is no exception: 13 chapters, plus an introduction, making it almost impossible to do justice to the essays. But in this case I felt like I couldn’t refuse to do it, not just because I knew I wanted to read the book but also because I felt a kind of professional responsibility to be able to say something about it.

Luckily the collection is very good, and consistently so: a testimony not just to the book’s contributors, but also to Angela Hubler’s efforts as an editor....

The Art of Carnage

— Dianne Feeley

Nothing but the Clouds Unchanged
Artists in World War I
Edited by Gordon Hughes and Philipp Blom
Los Angeles, CA: The Getty Research Institute, 2014, Illustrated,
198 pages, $40 hardback.

FOR THE WORLD War I centenary, The Getty Research Institute organized an exhibit — “World War I: War of Images, Images of War.” It comprised propaganda posters and magazine covers as well as works that recorded the horror of a war that claimed 20 million military and civilian deaths.

While 27 plates from the exhibit are reproduced in Nothing but the Clouds Unchanged, the book’s focus is actually on artists who fought in the war — and survived....

A Memoir of Life in Struggle

— Barry Sheppard

Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s & ’60s,
A Memoir, Volume One, Canada 1955-1965
By Ernest Tate
London: Resistance Books, 2014, 268 pages, $15 paperback.

EUROPEAN TROTSKYISTS, IN recent writings about the movement, tend to give short shrift to Trotskyism in North America. (An example is An Impatient Life by the late French leader Daniel Bensaid.)

While the U.S. Socialist Workers Party has been covered in books published by the SWP before its degeneration, and more recently in my own political memoir about my time in the SWP from 1960 through 1988, the Canadian movement has not received the attention it deserves.

This book by Ernie Tate sheds light on an important decade of Canadian Trotskyism....

A Reponse on Trotsky

— Paul Le Blanc

Paul Le Blanc is the author of Leon Trotsky (London: Reaktion, 2015). Alan Wald’s review appeared in our previous issue, ATC 178 (Between the Power and the Dream).

MY THANKS TO Alan Wald for his generous and thoughtful review of Leon Trotsky. He raises important questions about violence, terror and authoritarianism in the period (1918-1921) that followed the heroic and inspiring Russian workers’ revolution of 1917. Trotsky played a central role in both periods, and Alan asks “whether or not Trotsky’s behavior in power aided or undercut his goal of achieving the socialist objective.”

The obvious answer is that much of what Trotsky did aided the goal, but some things he did undercut the goal....