Tuesday, October 30, 2007

New York Stories

Catching Up (I)

I can't believe it. My last two posts have given direct reference to New York. That must be a first for the blog. It almost gives off the impression that I'm actually living in New York.

Why bail out now when I'm on a roll? A few more New York links, but this time of a semi-political nature:

  • Cathy Wilkerson at Bluestockings I missed this talk and I regret it. I've only popped into Bluestockings four or five times - one time to hear Gary Younge speak, and it was worth it - since I've been in NYC.
    It's probably just me but I can't help but feel that Bluestockings does have that whiff of exclusivity and 'sneeriness' about it that is one of the worst aspects of left politics. You feel underdressed if you don't have a copy of Empire sticking out of your back pocket when you walk through its doors.

    What with the documentary film about the WU a few years back, and the current raft of memoirs from former participants doing the rounds, obviously there has been a recent reappraisal and reflection of that period in American 'radical' history. I've placed 'radical' in inverted commas 'cos I think it's very much open to debate whether the explosion in violence borne out of a frustration of what wasn't going on at that time can truly be viewed as radical or progressive.

    What's interesting about the link to the Wilkerson talk is that it both challenges my instinctive SPGBism on such issues, and that Wilkerson hasn't gone down the nostalgia route with the rose-tinted spectacles about the good old days, and how they were simply misunderstood.
  • Doris Lessing - One Nobel Prize I Don’t Mind A post from Richard over at the Commie Curmudgeon that is a few weeks old but is none the worse because of it.
    Written in response to the news that Doris Lessing had won this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, Richard writes about - and has a much higher opinion of - Lessing's 1985 novel, 'The Good Terrorist' than I ever did. It's the only work by Lessing I've ever read, and I hated it.

    Lessing is a writer I only knew of in passing - mainly because of 'The Golden Notebook', and how it partly related to her experience as a member of the CPGB in the 50s - but when I read 'The Good Terrorist' about ten years ago it came across as overblown and frankly far-fetched.

    It depicted a pocket of time and a group of people that I simply couldn't recognise. They rampaged across the page like a rogue branch of the RCG who had swapped the writings of David Yaafe for a xeroxed copy of The Anarchist Cookbook, and I remembered being irritated at the time with the thought that Lessing was being given a free pass with this book because of her membership of the CP thirty years previously; Lessing supposedly knowing the psychology, motivations and dynamics of the left because she was once part of it.

    That's where Richard's post comes in.

    Despite the fact that the novel is set in Britain and relates to a ficticious Leninist group, Richard could see parallels with the scene that he was a part of in Philadelphia in th early eighties, and more recently with the anarchist circles he was moving in a few years back in New York. Those self-same circles that Richard moved in had a low opinion of the novel, and Richard's take is that: " . . . . part of the reason for their [his political friends] dislike of this novel was that its satirical depiction of dysfunctional leftists hit a little too close to home. Moreover, her character study obviously applied across sectarian divides . . . "

    I'm still not totally convinced by that line of argument, but I've never moved in the same sort of political circles as Richard. I should give the novel another try sometime. [Adding it to the ever-increasing 'to re-read' pile.] Maybe my mistake was taking the novel at its word, seeing it as a contemporary commentary and rooting it too closely and literally in the period in which it was set [1985].

    Perhaps it would be better to approach it again as a satire that could equally apply to the secular political extremism of the 60s and 70s (see above with Cathy Wilkerson) or even today where in some small quarters a religious political extremism has taken grip.
  • Bryan Palmer speaks at NYU Louis Proyect carries a report of a meeting that I attended at the Tamiment library a few weeks back. I did take some notes at the meeting but being the lazy bastard that I am, I never got round to writing them up. In truth, the notes were more for my personal use, as it's not a period or political tradition I pretend to know a lot about.
    Bryan Palmer, a Canadian Labor Historian, has recently published the first volume in what will be a major biography of James P. Cannon, the father of American Trotskyism. Speaking with ease before an audience of about 160/170 people, Palmer's central point for Trotskyist activists today was that Cannon was at his best when he engaged in broad work and the Leninist left in America that is covered in this volume [the book finishes in 1928 when Cannon was expelled from the American CP and the CI for his siding with Trotsky] was at its most productive when undertaking labor defence work in the mid to late twenties that allowed itself to break out of the self-imposed ghetto that the American Comminust movement had placed itself because of the warring factions disagreeing on the question of an open versus an underground party in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the Palmer raids.

    As I say there was an impressive turnout of about 160/170 people at the meeting on what was a cold Friday night. The majority of the audience could be loosely termed as being part of the '68 generation and, believe it or not, I was one of the younger ones in attendance.

    Naturally being a meeting on Cannon in the labor history library at NYU it was anything but a dry academic lecture. The meeting had been sponsored by - I think - five different Leninist organizations, ranging from the Sparts to the Freedom Socialist Party to the International Bolshevik Tendency through to Socialist Action (I will have missed someone out), and after Palmer's talk part of the meeting was made up of prepared statements from those groups sponsoring the meeting on why they alone were the true Trotskyist organization in the room *cough, I'm saying nothing*, and why all the other groups were attending under false pretences. These contributions were quickly followed by prepared speeches from the floor delivered in an equally acerbic fashion from those groups and individuals who hadn't got around to co-sponsoring the event.

    It actually didn't get as bitter or as acrimonious as I was expecting [they were pussycats in comparison to the current political punch up between Galloway and the SWP], but that's perhaps because the Sparts were actually the most heavily represented in the audience and were therefore on their best behaviour during the course of the meeting, and because - as Louis mentions - the audience fell in love with the contribution from 91 year old Lillian Pollak.

    Pollak joined the Trotskyist movement in the early thirties and worked alongside Cannon, Bert Cochran and other 'names' from the early movement. You just knew that if she had wanted to she could have taken the meeting over with her stories of the movement from that period.

    This half-baked Menshevik enjoyed the meeting for all its denunciations and vanguardist verbiage, and it was nice that it ended on the warm fuzzy feeling of the IBT, the Sparts and Jan Norden's Internationalist Group briefly reuniting around the warm glow of the political memories of someone from the thirties, talking of a period untainted by Third Campism and Pabloism.

    One final thought, though: what was with the six busts of Eugene Debs in the library? Did the library not get the memo with that quote* from Debs?
  • *" . . . if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition." [Spoken to a Utah audience, 1910.]

    No comments: