Thursday, April 22, 2010

‘All right, then, I’ll GO to hell’

One hundred years since the death of Mark Twain

By James Brookfield and David Walsh
22 April 2010

April 21 marked 100 years since the death of Mark Twain, one of the greatest American writers in history. Twain (1835-1910) was a brilliant satirist, a comic genius, and a master at capturing the sound and rhythm of American vernacular in so many of its nineteenth century varieties.

It is not possible in a single, relatively brief article to examine Twain’s life and writings in the manner they deserve. This is an enormous subject, full of complexities and contradictions. During his lifetime, the writer experienced great acclaim and success, along with financial bankruptcy and bouts of terrible personal tragedy.

One of the great comic writers of all time, one of the few who provoke the reader to laugh out loud, “what burned in him,” suggested the editor of his papers, Bernard De Voto, “was a hatred of cruelty and injustice,” as well as a “deep sense of human evil, and a recurrent accusation of himself. Like Swift he found himself despising man while loving Tom, Dick, and Harry so warmly that he had no proper defense against the anguish of human relations.”

Twain’s life spanned a remarkable period. He was born only 50 years after the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War—when many veterans of the independence struggle were still alive—in Missouri, at the time still frontier territory. Twain lived to see the US undergo a bitter Civil War, develop its industrial might and emerge full-blown as an imperialist power on the eve of World War I.

Whether restless by nature or necessity, Twain experienced every part of the country and encountered every social type early in life. De Voto noted that the author, in his formative years, “had seen more of the United States, met more kinds and castes and conditions of Americans, observed the American in more occupations and moods and tempers—in a word had intimately shared a greater variety of the characteristic experiences of his countrymen—than any other major American writer.”

Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Missouri in 1835, Clemens worked as a printer, journalist, and steamboat pilot on the Mississippi before gaining widespread recognition as a writer of travel letters, first on his trip to Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands) in 1866 and then to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East a year later.

The material from the latter trip was turned into The Innocents Abroad in 1869. This work made Twain—he had already adopted his famous pen name while working at a Nevada newspaper in 1863—both critically and financially successful. The book sold 85,000 copies in its first 16 months.

An aphorism from the conclusion of the text shows that Twain had already developed his socially acute sense of humor: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

Two critics comment that Twain’s own move East to New York City in 1866 “signaled the start of his remarkable synthesis of the elements of post-Civil War American writing as he undertook to link the local-color and Western tradition of his early work with the social, intellectual, commercial and industrial spirit of the decades he himself helped name the Gilded Age.” (From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature, Richard Buland and Malcolm Bradbury)

In his first novel, entitled The Gilded Age (1873), Twain (and co-author Charles Dudley Warner) looked at the period 1860-1868 as one that, in their own words, “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.” In sum, a revolution had taken place, which had an enormous subsequent influence on artistic and intellectual life.

Twain produced his greatest works between the early 1870s and 1890. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) clearly rank among them. Both works defy easy categorization: they offer comic scenes that generate tears of laughter interspersed with passages, for example, that depict the brutality of slavery as it existed in the antebellum South of Clemens’s childhood (and other disturbing facets of American life of the time).

Briefly in the Confederate ranks in the Civil War, Twain unquestionably accumulated a deep antipathy for slavery. “A True Story,” a remarkable short story published in 1874, is told from the point of view of a black woman, a former slave. “Aunt Rachel,” now a servant, informed by her complacent employer that she seems to have lived 60 years and “never had any trouble,” turns on him and recounts how, in fact, she was separated from her husband and children by a slave auction, and only united with one of her sons after 22 years. Novelist and editor William Dean Howells, who published it in the Atlantic, told Twain that he thought the story “extremely good and touching and with the best and reallest kind of black talk in it.” (Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, Justin Kaplan)

In Huckleberry Finn, one of the great achievements of nineteenth century American literature, the young title character (and narrator) recounts his adventures on the Mississippi River in the company of Jim, an escaping slave who is trying to get to a free state so he can buy his family’s freedom.

Throughout the book, Huck’s conscience is bothered by the fact that he is “stealing” someone’s property in helping Jim escape. At one point, he determines to turn the slave in, and writes a note to his old owner. The novel continues:

“I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

“It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“ ‘All right, then, I’ll GO to hell’—and tore it up.”

The profound humanity and sympathy of this passage hardly need to be emphasized.

Ernest Hemingway famously asserted that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Critic and commentator H.L Mencken suggested that the novel was “one of the great masterpieces of the world” and would “be read by human beings of all ages, not as a solemn duty but for the honest love of it, and over and over again.” Mencken, himself often consumed with misanthropy, noted that Twain in his writing laughed at people, “but not often with malice. What genuine indignation he was capable of was leveled at life itself and not its victims.”

Another fascinating work from this period is Life on the Mississippi (1883), a mostly non-fiction account, which Twain wrote in tandem with Huckleberry Finn. Life on the Mississippi cost its author great effort. “I never had such a fight over a book in my life before,” he wrote Howells in 1882. But the result is a beautifully written book, a detailed and emotionally intense account of life as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River in the years immediately prior to the Civil War.

The following passage may help explain why Twain poured such a depth of feeling into the book: “In my preceding chapters I have tried, by going into the minutiae of the science of piloting, to carry the reader step by step to a comprehension of what the science consists of; and at the same time I have tried to show him that it is a very curious and wonderful science, too, and very worthy of his attention. If I have seemed to love my subject, it is no surprising thing, for I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since, and I took a measureless pride in it. The reason is plain: a pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth. Kings are but the hampered servants of parliament and people; parliaments sit in chains forged by their constituency; the editor of a newspaper cannot be independent, but must work with one hand tied behind him by party and patrons, and be content to utter only half or two-thirds of his mind; no clergyman is a free man and may speak the whole truth, regardless of his parish’s opinions; writers of all kinds are manacled servants of the public. We write frankly and fearlessly, but then we ‘modify’ before we print. In truth, every man and woman and child has a master, and worries and frets in servitude; but in the day I write of, the Mississippi pilot had none.”

The darker aspects of American life treated in Huckleberry Finn are even more pronounced in the less celebrated, but also remarkable, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). The latter contains one of Twain’s few fully realized female characters, the light-skinned slave Roxana, so desperate to keep her child from being sold that she switches him in the cradle for her master’s child.

The former novel, about a nineteenth century American, Hank Morgan, a resident of Hartford, Connecticut (where Twain had set up residence), who finds himself transported back in time to medieval England at the time of King Arthur and his knights, was initially conceived of in 1884 as relatively light-hearted.

However, Justin Kaplan, in his biography of Twain, contends, “[O]ver the years this comic idea changed its course and headed away from burlesque and toward an apocalyptic conclusion in which chivalric England and Hank Morgan’s American technology—failures both, as the author had come to see them—destroy each other.”

Twain wrote The United States of Lyncherdom, a significant essay published posthumously (in 1923), in outrage over the 1901 lynching of three black men in Pierce City, Missouri. In the piece, the author counters the claim that the people constituting the lynch mob approved and enjoyed the torturous killings. Rather, the crowds acquiesced for fear of scorn by their peers. In a plaintive suggestion to end these killings—then totaling more than a hundred per year in the US—Twain wrote: “[P]erhaps the remedy for lynchings comes to this: station a brave man in each affected community to encourage, support, and bring to light the deep disapproval of lynching hidden in the secret places of its heart—for it is there, beyond question.”

Throughout his adult life, Twain was scathing about American political life and its practitioners. Who could look on the self-important and thieving corporate toadies collectively known as the US Congress with the same eyes after a dose of Twain’s wit? For example, he once noted, “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” In What is Man? the novelist observed that “Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.” A personal favorite: “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”

Several significant episodes in Twain’s life have received relatively scant attention in tributes this week. One of these is Twain’s critical role in the publication of the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had been the US Civil War general most responsible for the military defeat of the Southern slavocracy, and later became US president. The memoirs, with their singular political and literary value, would not likely have seen the light of day without Twain publishing them himself. And he did so with considerable generosity towards their author. Grant finished the memoirs five days before his death in 1885. Twain awarded 75 percent of the proceeds to Grant’s estate, allowing his widow to escape the poverty in which Grant had been left after being swindled out of the last of his money.

Another fascinating episode in Twain’s life was his sojourn in Vienna from September 1897 to May 1899. It is not possible to do justice here to this period in the author’s life (which is the subject of an excellent book, Our Famous Guest: Mark Twain in Vienna by Carl Dolmetsch). But it should be briefly noted that from Vienna, Twain wrote articles for the American press denouncing the anti-Semitism of the ruling party and articulating a warm sympathy for and appreciation of the Jews who were the subject of widespread persecution.

Twain had no shortage of personal tragedy, which, one suspects, helped shape his literary and personal sympathies. Three of Twain’s six siblings died in childhood. One of those who survived, his brother Henry, died in riverboat accident in 1858 while only 19 years old. Much later, in 1872, Twain was to lose his year-old son Langdon to diphtheria, an event for which he largely blamed himself. One of his three daughters, Susy Clemens, died of meningitis in 1896. His wife, Olivia, 10 years his junior and to whom Twain was very devoted, died in 1904. His youngest daughter, Jean, died on Christmas Eve, 1909. Jean’s death followed by only seven months that of his close friend, the oil baron Henry Rogers.

Rogers had been instrumental in helping Twain extricate himself from financial ruin in 1893. Following his declaration of bankruptcy, Twain undertook a worldwide lecture tour to repay his debtors. Approaching his seventh decade and under no legal obligation to do so, Twain undertook considerable efforts to pay back his creditors in full.

If there is a misanthropic vein in Twain’s humor, especially his later humor, it should be seen in the context of these personal difficulties and tragedies, as well as his growing disillusionment with the political and social trajectory of the United States.

Believing initially in the mission of the US government to “spread democracy,” Twain first supported American military intervention in the Philippines during the Spanish-American war. By 1901, however, Twain wrote that he had changed his view diametrically and concluded that the whole campaign had been waged “to conquer, not to redeem.” He went on to become the vice-president of the American Anti-Imperialist League.

Most media treatments of Twain’s life and career shy away from his increasingly critical and radical pronouncements on American society and political life toward the end of his life. Twain had witnessed the transformation of the young American bourgeois democracy into a modern power. Revolted by US imperialism at its birth, Twain became an outspoken critic. The bourgeois press of today does not wish to be reminded, nor to remind anyone else, of this critical element of Twain’s life.

A similar process shows itself at work in regard to Twain’s anti-religious writings.

Initially inclined towards a form of deism, Twain essentially rejected all organized religion and subjected religious conceptions to withering criticisms, especially in his later work. Even his relatively early writings like Innocents Abroad and Tom Sawyer take a fairly irreverent and humorous view of theological matters. But his later writings, especially Letters from Earth (written in 1909, but not published until 1962 owing to his surviving daughter’s apprehension), take a bold and combative turn. In the Letters, Twain has Satan describe with great amusement the self-satisfaction of mankind who “thinks he is the Creator’s pet” even though the reality is that, “[w]hen he is at his very very best he is a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel; at is worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable….”

God is not spared any criticism here either. “Will you examine the Deity’s morals and disposition and conduct a little further? And will you remember that in the Sunday school the little children are urged to…make him their model and try to be as like him as they can?” Twain then lists Biblical injunctions for the ancient Israelites to exterminate the inhabitants of the “Promised Land.” With such a model for moral teaching, Twain says, it is no wonder that society perpetuates violent human conflict. It was Twain’s revulsion at such conflict, particularly in its brutal colonial forms, that impelled him to attack the religious conceptions that defended or apologized for it.

In the closing sentence of My Mark Twain, his friend, critic and fellow author William Dean Howells said famously: “Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes—I knew them all and all the rest of our sages, poets, seers, critics, humorists; they were like one another and like other literary men; but Clemens was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature.” With this statement we can certainly agree.

No less true, although less often cited, is the preceding sentence in which Howells described Twain’s appearance at the funeral: “I looked a moment at the face I knew so well; and it was patient with the patience I had so often seen in it; something of the puzzle, a great silent dignity, an assent to what must be from the depths of a nature whose tragical seriousness broke in the laughter which the unwise took for the whole of him.” How fitting are these words that point to the complexity of the great author.

When considering Mark Twain a hundred years after the fact, one cannot help wondering what he would have to say about the America of 2010. One can only imagine his shock and dismay at the way in which the malignant social and political tendencies that he had observed in their relative infancy had metastasized.

What an abundance of targets present themselves! The well-heeled hypocrites and liars in the White House and Congress, the relentlessly avaricious corporate aristocrats, the patriotic editors justifying a resurgence of colonialism, the millionaire preachers with their put-on piety, the fake, smiling face of television anchors, the charlatanry of the “self-help” experts and all the other fleecers of the population’s pockets—all of it ripe for, in Twain’s phrase, “a pen warmed up in hell”! Where are his heirs today?

See also:

Ken Burns’ Mark Twain: a not quite unflinching portrait

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"I am always on the side of the revolutionists"

100 years ago: Mark Twain dies

Mark  TwainMark Twain

Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, died on April 21, 1910, bringing to a close the life of one of the most important US writers and an entire epoch of American literature. As a novelist, humorist, and essayist, Twain gave to American literature a fully distinctive voice, building on the likes of Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman.

Twain’s works were suffused with an intimate knowledge of the racial, regional, and class complexities of US life, yet were characterized by simple, direct language rich in irony. No doubt this had much to do with the breadth of Twain’s own experiences.

Born in 1835 in Missouri, then a slave state, Twain worked as a union typesetter, a newspaperman, a miner, and a steamboat pilot, and lived at various times in St. Louis, Cincinnati, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Buffalo, Connecticut, the “wild west” of 1860s Nevada, and, of course, up and down the Mississippi River in the years before the Civil War, experiences that informed his masterwork, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Twain moved freely in different social worlds as well, gaining knowledge of slaves, artisans, pioneers, prospectors, socialists, European aristocrats, robber barons, scientists, and the best writers of the day. Both as writer and public figure, Twain was a critic of the existing order, declaring, “I am said to be a revolutionist in my sympathies, by birth, by breeding and by principle. I am always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolt.” Late in life he emerged as the foremost opponent of US imperialism and its atrocities in the Philippines.

"Anybody's Son Will Do"


http://www.countercurrents.org/willers200410.htm

In 1983, the National Film Board of Canada produced a 57-minute film, "Anybody's Son Will Do". Arguably the best anti-war film ever made, and tailored for public television, it scared the hell out of the U.S. military machine, which has done its best to "disappear" it. For years it has been nearly impossible to find a copy, but some kind soul has posted it on YouTube where it can be seen in six segments.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DShDaJXK5q

Video: Terry Eagleton

The Death of Criticism --

Terry Eagleton

(From Spoken English Example Videos for Language Study)

Prolific author and literary critic Terry Eagleton speaks at UC Berkely on "the death of criticm." Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster, and Visiting Professor at the National University of Ireland, Galway, Dr. Eagleton is probably best known for his "Literary Theory: An Introduction".

During this hour, Professor Eagleton demonstrates how unscripted speech may rival in its sophistication practically any highly polished and edited prose. Listening to lectures such as this will do more for your proficiency with English language that any quantity of grammar or vocabulary study.

Difficulty level: 8/10

Dialect: British (RP) English

Points to look for: one use of "criterion" which should be "criteria".

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tea Party counter-demo success

Boston protesters disrupt Palin’s Tea-Party rant

Banner says: “Union jobs & healthcare for all! Stop the pro-war, racist, sexist, anti-LGBT Palin/Tea Party attack!”

Published Apr 14, 2010 9:43 PM

April 14 — The corporate media may give it a different spin, but for Palin and Wall Street’s Tea Party, Boston was a bust.

Boston,  Arpil 14.

Boston, Arpil 14.
WW photo: Maureen Skehan

The day started with immediate tension as Bail Out the People Movement activists and the mostly Haitian-origin staff of Steelworkers Local 8751 unfurled their banner in the middle of the Tea Party’s rally here today.

The banner read: “Union jobs & healthcare for all! Stop the pro-war, racist, sexist, anti-LGBT Palin/Tea Party attack!” At Boston’s Park Street subway station on Boston Common in the heart of downtown, the anti-racists were immediately surrounded by screaming white men, some wearing hardhats and carrying U.S. flags. Police dressed for battle looked on, smiling at the Tea Party gang.

Steelworkers Local 8751 school bus drivers.

Steelworkers Local 8751 school bus drivers.

Overcoming their hesitation, the anti-racists got out the bullhorns and took the racist forces on politically. They said that unions are in favor of free healthcare for all people and want a government-sponsored jobs program for all of our millions of unemployed sisters and brothers.

Within minutes, passersby were stopping to say, “Right on!” Some asked for signs and joined us for awhile. The red-faced white guys with signs reading something about “Tread on me” gradually took off, muttering profanities.

For 20 minutes the anti-racists took turns talking into the loudspeakers, telling the truth about the corporate-sponsored Tea Party. They told how Tea Party followers had spit on the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago, hurling racist epithets at Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the Civil Rights Movement. They told how Tea Party members vomited anti-gay invectives at Rep. Barney Frank.

Class program wins support

The anti-racists made it clear that what the union movement supports is government-sponsored healthcare for all people. It wants a massive program of job creation for public projects to put all people back to productive work to support their families. By then, their ranks had tripled.

A young woman who’s been leading Friday night cypher youth discussions at the BOPM office showed up and took over the banner. Veterans for Peace activists joined with their flags. Some college students came with signs denouncing homophobia and Tea Party bigotry. It was hugs all around when a transgendered activist stopped on his way to the statehouse to demand transgender inclusion in anti-discrimination legislation. Thousands of thumbs-up and vocal support from folks on the street emboldened the group to march in the line of Tea Party dupes toward the stage.

The multimillion-dollar, multimedia outdoor stage was surrounded by TV trucks and a police cordon. When the nearly 100 protesters reached the stage perimeter, anti-racist organizers hooked up a more powerful mobile sound unit and started a program of speakers and chanting.

Special Operations police forces soon shut it down, with threats of arrests for permit violations and complaints that the Tea Party speakers couldn’t be heard over the noise. A young Asian woman activist from the Coalition for Equal, Quality Education urged protesters to march. They began moving through the outskirts of the crowd, discovering hundreds of people who had come to oppose the racists.

The bullhorns went back on. The march began snaking through the lemonade and pretzel stands where people were selling hate literature, buttons and T-shirts at tables paid for by Wall Street contributions. Plenty of middle fingers, spittle-covered curses, shoves, blocks, taunts and ear-splitting whistles from red-faced haters greeted the anti-racists, whose numbers continued to swell.

There were a few thousand in the Tea Party crowd, not the 10,000 to 20,000 predicted by Fox, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the front page of the Boston Herald. Still, many Tea Party opponents stayed on the sidelines in silent protest, perhaps fearing the increasingly agitated and violent reactions of the Sarah Palin-inspired haters. The master of ceremonies announced Palin’s entrance for what was to be a vicious anti-immigrant speech.

Action disrupts Palin’s delivery

Just then, the marching protesters reached a critical, determined mass, and took a left into the crowd, pick-and-rolling around the police line, directly toward stage right. As Palin opened her vitriol, the people on the move chanted, “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Palin/Tea Party go away!” while fending off punches, kicks, body blocks and other violence.

Not 20 yards from the stage, completely surrounded by and face to face with screaming, violent Tea Partiers, the anti-racists were able to keep their formation moving and message blaring, with the people’s union security fending off the blows and pushing forward, until the bigots erupted with whistles and unison booing.

Palin appeared dumbfounded, standing there for the longest time speechless and wide-eyed in front of the corporate media, perhaps gazing over the horizon to see Russia.

The protestors fought their way back to the perimeter. There were hundreds of young women and lesbian, gay, bi and trans anti-Tea Party people in that part of the crowd. They cheered the marchers, who then started their own rally. People took turns on the bullhorns, supporting a woman’s right to choose, denouncing U.S. wars and occupations, and declaring homophobia a crime. Others carried placards against the Afghan war, and a large blue banner reading “Tea Party = Racism” was on display. Protesters, who numbered in the hundreds, were visible throughout the crowd.

The protest was a step forward for people ready to fight the capitalist system’s tricks, diversions and violent organizational maneuvers to maintain its dominance over the vast majority of the world’s working and oppressed peoples.


Articles copyright 1995-2010 Workers World. Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved.

Tea Party re-branding



....The repackaging of the Tea Parties as tolerant and inclusive political organizations is happening as we speak. It will continue from its own momentum regardless of the facts on the ground. In much the same way that Dr. King has been reimagined by conservatives to be a Republican (notice how Glenn Beck, the Pied Piper for the Tea Parties, is increasingly appropriating both the language and symbolism of The Civil Rights Movement), the tea baggers will be depicted as forces of American virtue and pluralism. As this false flag operation continues to develop, here are a few things to watch for in the upcoming weeks:

  1. More coverage of the "racial diversity" of the Tea Parties. Expect to see the same talking heads and black and brown apologists trotted out on the major networks;
  2. The discussion of agent provocateurs will take on the weight of fact as opposed to speculation;
  3. There will be more videos of white supremacists, nativists, and overt "Birthers" being thrown out of Tea Party rallies;
  4. Simultaneously, there will be a great deal of attention paid to "incidents" where Palin supporters and tea baggers are assaulted by "anti-Tea Party" forces and "agents of the Obama regime";
  5. The Right wing media frame will continue to emphasize their long standing narrative that Conservatives and "real Americans" are "victims" of the Left and Progressives;
  6. Similar to what happened with the ACORN pimp and prostitute scandal (a fraud staged by Breitbart and company), the efforts to "infiltrate" the Tea Parties will be exposed as events planned by the Right;
  7. Loose lips sink ships: one of the "white supremacist" or other "agent provocateurs" will give up the fact that they are on the payroll of someone semi-connected (for reasons of plausible deniability) to the Right wing media and/or political establishment.

US Black struggle and liberation


Place of Black workers
in coming revolution

Leon Trotsky’s 1933 discussion with
American communists about Black struggle

The following is the 14th in a series of excerpts the Militant is running from Pathfinder Press’s latest book, Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. We encourage our readers to study, discuss, and help sell the book. This excerpt is from the chapter “Black Liberation and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” The footnotes used here are added by the Militant, based on facts provided in the book. Copyright © 2009 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

It was [Leon] Trotsky,1 basing himself on the political conquests of the Communist International, who first explained to us scientifically that it was awakening Black working people to their self-worth, not to their oppression, that would open new prospects for revolutionary struggle in the United States.

In response to questions the party leadership had asked [Arne] Swabeck2 to discuss with Trotsky in 1933, the Bolshevik leader explained:

The Negroes will, through their awakening, through their demand for autonomy, and through the democratic mobilization of their forces, be pushed on toward a class basis. The petty bourgeoisie will take up the demand for equal rights and for self-determination but will prove absolutely incapable in the struggle; the Negro proletariat will march over the petty bourgeoisie in the direction toward the proletarian revolution.

The meaning comes through loud and clear, even translated into English from the German-language notes taken by Arne, whose first language was Danish!

Twice in this country in the twentieth century, we’ve seen in practice how the Black proletariat had to “march over the petty bourgeoisie”—white and Black, including the trade union officialdom, with all their limitations and hesitations—in order to advance the struggle against Jim Crow segregation and other institutions of racist discrimination.

The first time was during the political radicalization that developed under the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution and the spreading capitalist crisis in the decades following World War I. Struggles by exploited farmers and other working people in the 1920s laid the foundation for the labor battles and social movement of the 1930s centered on building mass CIO industrial unions. Workers regardless of skin color more and more fought shoulder to shoulder for union rights and other social goals. These interconnected working-class struggles gave such momentum to the fight to bring down Jim Crow that the impetus outlasted the broad retreat of the labor movement during and after World War II.

As for the second time, some of the people in this room lived through the Black rights battles of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s and took an active part in them….

Trotsky’s starting point in the discussions with Swabeck was the fact that racist oppression and anti-Black prejudice in the United States were the largest obstacle to revolutionary unity of the working class. As a result of such oppression, Trotsky pointed out, few “common actions [take] place involving white and Black workers,” there is no “class fraternization.” “The American worker is indescribably reactionary,” Trotsky said. “This can be seen now in the fact that he has not yet even been won to the idea of social insurance.” And, Trotsky added, “The Negroes have not yet awakened, and they are not yet united with the white workers. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the American workers are chauvinists; in relation to the Negroes they are hangmen as they are also toward the Chinese, etc. It is necessary to make them [white workers] understand that the American state is not their state and that they do not have to be the guardians of this state.”

Those conditions, of course, have changed substantially since 1933 as a result of class battles. They began shifting in the mid-1930s as a product of the labor struggles that built the CIO, growing opposition to fascism and the spreading imperialist world war, and motion toward a labor party independent of the Democrats and Republicans. These changes accelerated in the 1950s with the conquests of the mass civil rights movement and Black liberation struggles, which had their roots in the massive urbanization, migration to the North, and shifts in the composition of the industrial workforce that began prior to World War II. As a consequence of these struggles, and as a component of them, workers in the United States did fight for an important form of social insurance: Social Security. And as a result of the labor battles of the 1930s and civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s, they came to see an expanded version of that Social Security, including Medicare, Medicaid, and related programs, as rights.

With the rise of industrial unions, more and more workers who are Black, white, Asian, and Latino—native-born and immigrant—today do work alongside each other in many workplaces, often doing the same jobs. They do engage in common actions and class fraternization. But the fight to combat multiple forms of segregation and racism, and to overcome national divisions in the working class—through mutual solidarity and uncompromising struggles using any means necessary—remains the single biggest task in forging the proletarian vanguard in this country.

Trotsky, in his exchange of views with Swabeck, went on to point out that during a major rise of revolutionary struggle and proletarian class consciousness in the United States,

it is then possible that the Negroes will become the most advanced section… . It is very possible that the Negroes will proceed through self-determination to the proletarian dictatorship in a couple of gigantic strides, ahead of the great bloc of white workers. They will then be the vanguard. I am absolutely sure that they will in any case fight better than the white workers.

But this can only happen, Trotsky emphasized, “provided the communist party carries on an uncompromising, merciless struggle not against the supposed national prepossessions of the Negroes but against the colossal prejudices of the white workers”—prejudices brought into the working class by the bourgeoisie and the imperialist masters, through their petty-bourgeois agents—“and makes no concession to them whatsoever.”

This is what Trotsky had learned from Lenin, the central leader of the Bolshevik Party and Communist International, and from his own long revolutionary experience in the tsarist prison house of nations. Trotsky had deepened this understanding through his discussions with delegates from the United States to the first four congresses of the Communist International from 1919 through 1922. And this is what he worked with the Socialist Workers Party leadership and the rest of the world communist movement, from 1929 until his death, to apply in practice.


1. Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) was a central leader of the October 1917 revolution in Russia and of the Bolshevik Party and Communist International in the early years of the Soviet republic. From the mid-1920s, he was the principal leader of the fight to continue the communist course charted under the leadership of V.I. Lenin against its reversal by a counterrevolutionary privileged caste headed by Joseph Stalin. Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929 and later assassinated by Stalin’s agents in Mexico.

2. Arne Swabeck (1890-1986) was a founding leader of the Communist Party in the United States in 1919. He was expelled for supporting the political fight led by Trotsky. He was the national secretary of the Communist League of America in the early 1930s.

Interview with Eastern European Marxists

The Left and Marxism in Eastern Europe
Gáspár Miklós Tamás Interviewed by Imre Szeman

You now describe yourself as a Marxist, with plans for a Marxist theory group in Hungary in addition to your ongoing work as a writer and political commentator from the Left. Why Marx now? In Central and Eastern Europe after 1989, Marxist ideas and theories were hard-pressed to survive their connection to state socialism and the elimination of courses in Marxist-Leninism in universities. Even though the economic collapse has discredited neoliberal ideology -- at least its most extreme variants -- Marxism in the region is still linked with totalitarianism.

Indeed, as you know, there are ongoing attempts to formalize the connection between communism and fascism as little more than variations on the same totalitarian theme. Budapest's Terror House Museum makes no distinction between Bela Kun's 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic, Admiral Horthy's regency, fascism, and post-War communism -- it's all just "terror" by comparison to liberal capitalism. The "Prague Declaration" announced by the Czech Senate in June 2008 calls for the European Parliament to recognize communism and Nazism as aspects of Europe's totalitarian legacy. In Hungary, the Supreme Court has recently rescinded the sentence of one of the police officers who shot and killed communist and anti-fascist Endre Ságvári in 1944 -- a purely symbolic move whose implications for the Left are chilling.

What work do you hope that Marx and Marxism can do in this context?

To all this we may add that the Romanian Parliament has promulgated a solemn statement, based on a report by a committee appointed by the Romanian president, chaired by Vladimir Tismăneanu, professor of government at the University of Maryland, which states that communism is a crime against humanity or some such thing. (Professor Tismăneanu -- witness his articles and interviews in the Romanian press -- believes that people such as Slavoj Žižek or myself are a major danger to human freedom.) Similar decisions by the Polish Supreme Court are forthcoming. In Hungary, the hammer and sickle, the red star, the swastika, and the arrow-cross (the coat-of-arms of the Hungarian Nazis) are all banned as "totalitarian symbols." The European Court of Human Rights has exempted the red star and the hammer and sickle from the Hungarian ban, but the Hungarian state refused to comply.

Still, after all this, when a few of us have announced our allegiance -- which, of course, includes a repudiation of "real socialism" of all stripes -- our audiences weren't on the whole upset, but rather incredulous! Not so much for the apparent reason of the folly of joining the defeated (I, for one, feel defeated in my former avatar of an Old Whig, but certainly not as a revolutionary socialist) or of confessing to a belief compromised by the terrible things done in its name, but for the mere implausibility of having social and political principles of any kind at all! Most people don't regard Marxism as criminal, but as naïve. But this is people's opinion of liberalism or Christianity as well. Any view seemingly contradicting individual or collective selfishness or self-regard seems incredible. As I personally cannot be accused of any collusion with the former regime (except, rarely and absurdly, by very young Nazi slanderers who cannot spell "Capital") and as I have no reason for apologia in this respect, critics are content to call me out of date, as they fail to follow intellectual fashions that have reverted to the pre-1989 normality in the West: radical chic is on the left again. All this does not prevent the radical right to bay for my blood, but they have been doing this since I was a rather conservative liberal. This has nothing to do with my substantive view; nobody who is not an ethnicist can be exempt. It is even a smidgen nicer to be a Marxist than a liberal: at least I am not considered to be sold out to foreign capital, although I can still be slandered as being soft on Jews.

Which traditions of Marxism are you drawing on? Are there any contemporary writers or theories which you find especially useful, compelling, or relevant?

Several. Even when I was ideologically very remote from Marxism, I did not stop reading some of its literature. I was quite influenced by the early and middle work of Cornelius Castoriadis -- I also knew him, an astonishing man -- and Karl Korsch. Although I was personally close at one time to many people from the Lukács School, it is only now that I have read him with sustained attention. (His pupils have gone in the opposite direction, e.g., my erstwhile friend Agnes Heller has become a conservative with an increasingly strong Judaic interest, and a cold warrior après coup, who is bizarrely accusing her old friend and colleague, István Mészáros, author of Beyond Capital and guru to Hugo Chávez, of having been expelled from Canada as a Soviet agent -- Mészáros is an 1956 political émigré, an emeritus professor at Sussex University with impeccable anti-Stalinist credentials.) I am an avid reader of operaismo and of pre-Empire Negri, and also at the opposite end, the Wertkritik school, in my view the best heirs to Critical Theory (Hans-Georg Backhaus, Helmut Reichelt, Michael Heinrich, but also the unruly genius, Robert Kurz, and the "cult" periodicals of this tendency, Krisis, Streifzüge, Exit!) as well as authors like Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiksins Wood, David Harvey, Michael Lebowitz, and various Marxists working in England too numerous to mention. The greatest impact came, however, from Moishe Postone's magnum opus. These choices may seem eclectic, but I don't belong to any of these currents. I am working on my own stuff and I am learning from all of them.

Your writing over the past decade has perceptively examined the rise of right-wing populism in Eastern Europe and Hungary. This is a development that has been relatively under-reported in the West; it has taken Berlusconi's anti-Roma policies to raise greater awareness about the rise in violence towards Roma throughout Europe and in the post-Soviet region in particular. The most obvious form of right-wing populism lies in the revival of xenophobia and ultranationalism in the region (for instance, it is now common to see t-shirts and bumper stickers with maps of Hungary prior to the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, even around Budapest). But you've pointed to other, somewhat subtler forms, too: Gyurcsány's proposal in 2008 for a "work test" for the unemployed, which was intended to establish who is competent to work, and which is just the tip of the iceberg of an ongoing withdrawal of the rights of citizenships and the rise of fascism in the region.

What accounts for this right-wing populism? In what ways do the failed promise of post-Soviet democratic renewal and the twenty-year drama of neoliberal economics contribute to its rise? (That is: in what important ways is this populism different than early forms in the region?) How and where do you see it expressing itself? What needs to be done to arrest it?

What you call right-wing populism, I think, erroneously, I call post-fascism (see my "On Post-Fascism" in Boston Review, Summer 2000). There are, of course, important differences between post-fascism and "classical" national socialism -- the former is not militaristic, it is not "totalitarian," and so on -- but the parallels are striking, too. That the enemy is both bourgeois liberalism and Marxism (which for the far Right means all varieties of the Left, from social democrats to anarcho-syndicalists, a usage inherited by the North American mainstream press which is in the habit of calling "Marxist" any peasant Jacquerie in the Himalayas if they're hoisting a red flag) is certainly telling, i.e., they are still romantically (and insincerely) opposed to all forms of modernity and are daydreaming about caste society, sacred kingdoms, the superiority of the warrior to "his" woman, racial purity, the cleansing properties of mother earth, and the like. As I am writing these responses, the phone rang, and a friend reported that posters with the likeness of Socialist Party candidates have been decorated with Stars of David of the prescribed (by the Gestapo) "canary yellow" hue, but then my own posters were so decorated in 1990 -- I was elected, however. This time, the affair is much more serious. The common element between "communism" and "liberalism" is the fantasy figure of the Jew (the candidates in question are reliable Gentiles) embodying mediation and universalism. Jews as physical persons are less threatened, though, than the Roma who are victims of racial killings and open discriminatory practices everywhere in Europe. (Also the Canadian government is restricting travel -- demanding visas -- from countries that the Roma are trying to flee.)

The reasons for this are crystal clear.

With the development of technology and the participation of the new industrial powers (China, India, and Brazil) in the international division of labor, with the increasing intensity and speed of work, with the lengthening of labor time in the global rust belt, the workforce is everywhere becoming "precarious" and unemployment is a universal fact of life for huge masses of people. Concomitantly, improving health stretches life expectancy to unprecedented heights. Health insurance, social services, and central state redistribution of resources are becoming ever more important, frequently the only reasonable source of livelihood for entire regions, social strata, and various populations and generations. There is a grim competition for state resources.

Mainly, the competing groups are the struggling and endangered middle class and the poorest underclass or, in global terms, the crisis-ridden North and the famished South. No capitalist state can afford to satisfy both. In keeping with the fundamental character of liberal societies, the transformation of Western liberal societies into white middle-class fortresses needs legitimation.

This legitimation is offered by various stratagems of "re-moralizing" politics, that is, of stigmatizing underclass, precarious, immigrant, and other ethnic minority populations as "undeserving poor," people abusing the social welfare system, work-shy, criminal, etc. Contemporary racism and "welfare chauvinism" is everywhere. The latter is typified by the Tea Party movement in the United States, where middle-class audiences and opinion groups are vociferously rejecting help for those (including other middle-class subgroups) that are outside the health benefit/insurance system. These are tacitly acknowledged as being black or Latino/a, allegedly protected in a partisan manner by a black president. Ronald Reagan's white working-class and lower-middle-class voters may be back. According to Karl Kautsky -- in a brilliant essay unearthed by the London periodical Historical Materialism (easily a competitor to Grünberg's Archiv) -- the answer to Werner Sombart's famous question as to why there is no socialism in the United States is blacks. This situation is now extended to the whole white world. The class struggle is foiled by the ethnic conflict, clearly exacerbated by deliberate and well-aimed political action -- in Western Europe chiefly against Muslim immigrants, in Eastern Europe against the Roma plus Northern Caucasus ethnics and Kosovar Albanian migrants. Nor are traditional enmities neglected: ethnic Hungarian minorities in Slovakia and the Ukraine are prevented from freely using their mother tongue in shameless violation of their constitutions and of international and European law.

The Left is everywhere faced with an intractable dilemma: how to achieve a political situation wherein the blue-collar workers of the global rust belt, the precarious sub-proletarians, the civil servants of various kinds, the students, and the ethnic minorities (including the migrants) are able to make common cause and turn against the system instead of turning against one another? This recipe has not been found. The post-Trotskyite Socialist Workers' Party in Britain and the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (ex-Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire) in France are forging alliances with Muslims -- but with those attacked by the other members of the Left for neglecting the plight of oppressed Muslim women and so on. Basically, the mainstream Left is increasingly using veiled racist (properly speaking) ethnicist/culturalist arguments. One of the two co-sponsors of the draft bill banning the Islamic veil in public places at the National Assembly in France is a communist. The other is, of course, a Gaullist. The far Left, though, is increasingly identified with ethnic issues and it is gradually slipping towards the ineffectual liberal rhetoric of human rights. The result is naturally the triumph of the likes of Sarkozy and Berlusconi and some of their even worse colleagues in Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, and everywhere in Eastern Europe.

The social/ethnic discrimination has its secondary uses as well. It legitimizes a return to the police state that was hardly a real danger for majorities in the West. But it is now. Prisons chock-a-block with mainly ethnic sub-proletarians are not any longer a peculiarity of the United States. Left-wing radicalism is beaten by the wave of social and racial exclusion (and in some places by fascist activism) and so is the hope of egalitarian or socialist transformation.

The necessary fusion of the various sectors of the oppressed is -- again or, if you wish, eternally -- the problem of emancipation and, what is the same thing, of anti-capitalist combat, and this need a renewal of radical political philosophy -- beyond the already quite considerable results it has achieved, but which have failed to help to overcome this largest of obstacles.

What comes next for you -- politically and theoretically?

I think this flows from my previous response. It is increasingly necessary to create a theory that can overcome the perennial temptation of Rousseauian egalitarianism with its ineluctable aporias around the General Will, but which is nevertheless able to offer a normative view of communist society without utopianism. In the absence of that, the Left will be necessarily led back to a political practice aimed at a homogeneous society created against personal autonomy in order to get rid of the mortal sin of exclusion, humiliation, and injustice. If we have learned one thing from the twentieth century, it is that this is neither feasible nor desirable.

Nor is it tolerable that we should acquiesce in what I have called in a Paris conference (Puissance[s] du communisme, in the memory of our friend, recently deceased, Daniel Bensaïd, theoretician of the LCR/NPA and many other lives besides, at the Université de Paris-8, Vincennes Saint-Denis) une civilisation de merde. This is not to be borne any more.

For this, I feel we need a renewed interpretation of the state and of law, of labor and money, of justice and legitimacy. Most of the prevailing theories concerning these are tailored to suit the needs of liberal class societies that clearly are in a deep -- and by no means only economic -- crisis. This is work enough. I'll try at least to start it, and of course I am not the only one (far from it!) to be willing to engage in it. The results will have to come, since they are sorely needed.


Gáspár Miklós Tamás, a prominent dissident in the 1980s and a parliamentarian in the first years of the Hungarian government following the end of Communism, is a political philosopher. Imre Szeman is Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies and Professor of English, Film Studies, and Sociology at the University of Alberta. The text above is a brief excerpt from Imre Szeman, "The Left and Marxism in Eastern Europe: An Interview with Gáspár Miklós Tamás" (Mediations 24.2, Spring 2010); it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes. Click here to read the full text of the interview.

One in four Black workers are without full-time jobs

For Black workers, it’s
a ‘Great Depression’


BY BRIAN WILLIAMS
It has been “a Great Recession for whites,” writes Kevin Hassett recently in the conservative magazine National Review, but for Blacks “it has been a Great Depression.” No matter how economists try to explain it, Hassett concludes, the simplest explanation is that “discrimination is alive and well.”

Black workers have been among those hardest hit not only by rising unemployment, but by foreclosures on houses and cutbacks in social services.

“African Americans are the caboose,” Marc Morial, president of the Urban League, told the media March 24 upon release of the group’s State of Black America report. Last year Black families made 62 percent as much as white families, a decline of 3 percent from 2008 as the economic crisis deepened.

The official unemployment rate for Blacks in March rose by 0.7 percent from the previous month, to 16.5 percent, nearly double the figure for white workers. In some states Blacks’ jobless rate is higher, like in Michigan, where it is 21 percent.

Black workers are also having a much harder time getting another job after they are laid off. They face “longer stretches of unemployment than the general population,” says a congressional Joint Economic Committee report released last month.

The report notes “the overall unemployment rate for the United States has masked the depth of the unemployment problem within the African American community.” One in four Black workers are without full-time jobs, being either unemployed or underemployed, according to this study. For teenagers who are Black more than 40 percent are without work, compared to the overall teen jobless rate of 26 percent.

According to the Labor Department, the overall unemployment rate for March was 9.7 percent, unchanged from the previous two months. “U.S. Economy Added 162,000 Jobs in March, Most in 3 Years,” headlined the New York Times, pitching the report as a sign that the “still-sputtering recovery was gaining traction.”

The hiring of temporary census workers for a few months accounts for almost one-third of these jobs. Hundreds of thousands more census takers are being hired over the next several months.

Barack Obama administration officials have made clear that despite this increased hiring, the jobless rate will remain steady or actually rise since “discouraged” workers—those the government doesn’t count as unemployed or being part of the workforce—are rejoining the jobs search in hopes of finding work. An additional 200,000 people were looking for jobs last month, according to the Economic Policy Institute. One million workers were still considered “discouraged” by the Labor Department in March.

Meanwhile, those facing long-term unemployment grew to 6.5 million without work for at least six months, an increase of more than 400,000 from February.

Texas textbooks: no historians, sociologists or economists consulted

The Texas school of falsification

Nicole Colson looks at the Stalin-style revision of historical events carried out by right-wing Republicans on the Board of Education in Texas.

New education standards in Texas present a glowing view of  conservatism, Christianity, capitalism and U.S. military mightNew education standards in Texas present a glowing view of conservatism, Christianity, capitalism and U.S. military might

POP QUIZ: What do you get when you allow Texas right-wingers to rewrite social studies textbooks?

A) A defense of McCarthyism
B) Excision of important Latino and African American cultural figures like Cesar Chavez, Thurgood Marshall and Harriet Tubman
C) Removal of key events in the fight for women's suffrage and African American history
D) Poorly educated kids and a bigoted view of history
E) All of the above

If you guessed E, give yourself a gold star.

Last month, the Texas Board of Education approved a host of curriculum changes to history and economics textbooks that are the stuff conservative dreams are made of.

By a 10-to-5 vote, the board voted for curriculum changes "stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers' commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light," according to the New York Times.

And, surprise surprise, the 10 board members who voted in favor of the changes are all Republicans.

"We are adding balance," Dr. Don McLeroy, the leader of the conservative faction on the board, told the Times after the vote. "History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left."

McLeroy's day job? He's not an educator or an historian--he's a dentist.

Despite the fact that people like McLeroy might consider themselves experts, the Times noted that, "There were no historians, sociologists or economists consulted at the meetings."

So, exactly what are some of the changes that these self-styled experts made to "correct" the curriculum--which will remain in place for the next 10 years? Among other things, they are making sure students learn more about the heyday of U.S. conservatism by adding a plank about the importance of "the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association."

As historian Eric Foner noted in The Nation, there's nothing wrong with students learning about the conservative movement. But the new historical "standards" are a thinly veiled excuse to expose students to right-wing propaganda--and a worldview that glorifies capitalism, social conservatism, American military might, nationalism and any number of other pet causes of the right.

As Foner wrote:

Judging from the updated social studies curriculum, conservatives want students to come away from a Texas education with a favorable impression of: women who adhere to traditional gender roles, the Confederacy, some parts of the Constitution, capitalism, the military and religion. They do not think students should learn about women who demanded greater equality; other parts of the Constitution; slavery, Reconstruction and the unequal treatment of nonwhites generally; environmentalists; labor unions; federal economic regulation; or foreigners...

The changes seek to reduce or elide discussion of slavery, mentioned mainly for its "impact" on different regions and the coming of the Civil War. A reference to the Atlantic slave trade is dropped in favor of "triangular trade." Jefferson Davis's inaugural address as president of the Confederacy will now be studied alongside Abraham Lincoln's speeches.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

YET THE Republicans on the board are not only attempting to indoctrinate students with an interpretation of historical events that are in many cases patently false. They're also out to polish the image of social conservatism by taking credit where credit is most certainly not due.

This effort includes new standards on teaching the civil rights movement. Under the new rules, "textbooks would mention the votes in Congress on civil rights legislation, which Republicans supported."

"Republicans need a little credit for that," McLeroy commented to the Times. "I think it's going to surprise some students."

Sure, the Republicans can be proud of their party's history on civil rights--back when it was the party of Abe Lincoln. But that's not what the board members had in mind. And it's a good bet that Republican "achievements" in civil rights won't include discussion of prominent civil rights opponents like Barry Goldwater or, whoops, George H.W. Bush, who campaigned against the 1964 Civil Rights Act when he was running for the Senate. They likely won't be mentioning that, while running for governor in 1966, Ronald Reagan encouraged the repeal of the Fair Housing Act. He explained why: "If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so."

In addition, Texas school kids will now be learning history that's even whiter than before.

According to the Dallas Morning News, Peter Marshall--an evangelical minister who was one of six handpicked "experts" who advised the board on the changes--spoke out last year against inclusion of both United Farm Workers organizer Cesar Chavez and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American justice on the Court.

Hispanic board members were largely defeated on proposals to include more Latino role models. According to the New York Times, one member of the board, Mary Helen Berlanga, left the meeting in protest, saying of her fellow board members: "They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don't exist...They are going overboard, they are not experts, they are not historians. They are rewriting history, not only of Texas but of the United States and the world."

Another change--this one personally pushed by McLeroy would, in the words of the New York Times, "ensure that students study the violent philosophy of the Black Panthers in addition to the nonviolent approach of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."

Abolitionist Harriet Tubman has been removed as an example of "good citizenship" for third graders in favor of Red Cross founder Clara Barton. (Although the board did include Helen Keller--presumably only because they were unaware that Keller was a dedicated socialist and anti-imperialist.)

Progressives are, naturally, targets for the new standards. One of the newly approved changes mandates that students study "the unintended consequences" (presumably negative) of the Great Society legislation, affirmative action and Title IX legislation.

And socialists and communists are particularly vilified in an amendment that requires that the history of McCarthyism now include "how the later release of the Venona papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government."

There you go...the Red Scare and McCarthysm were entirely justified. Why? Because a dentist and other members of the Texas Board of Education say so.

The benefits of capitalism as an economic system are also to be reinforced. The revisions add Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek to the usual list of economists to be studied. And, because of its "negative connotation," the term "capitalism" is being replaced with "free-enterprise system." (One imagines that a few too many members of the board might have been called "capitalist pigs" in their time.)

Even poor Thomas Jefferson didn't pass muster for the Texas board. He was cut from a list of people whose writings inspired 18th and 19th century revolutions--and replaced with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone.

The reason? Conservatives didn't want to emphasize Jefferson's pesky belief in the necessity of a wall of separation between church and state.

In another of the more ridiculous amendments, Republican board member Cynthia Dunbar unsuccessfully tried to strike from the standards any reference to the Scopes "monkey trial" that put teaching about evolution on trial. Dunbar also sought to eliminate the famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow as well as the Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

AS MAVIS Knight, a Democrat on the Texas Board of Education, told the New York Times, "The social conservatives have perverted accurate history to fulfill their own agenda."

But the new conservative history "standards" on Texas are hardly an anomaly. Witness Virginia, for example, where Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell recently declared April to be "Confederate history month." In his proclamation "honoring" soldiers who fought on the side of the South, however, McDonnell made one small omission: he neglected to say a word the institution of slavery or about the millions of slaves who lives and labor built the South. According to the Washington Post, McDonnell justified his omission by claiming that "there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia."

Funny that McDonnell didn't realize that slavery might be significant to the African Americans who can trace their roots to human chattel brought to plantations in Virginia.

Unfortunately, it's not just Texas kids who may suffer the consequences of their new curriculum. Texas is one of the largest buyers of textbooks in the country--which means that the curriculum changes could be forced into other states' textbooks, since larger-selling books are generally cheaper, an attractive feature to cash-strapped school districts.

"The books that are altered to fit the standards become the bestselling books, and therefore within the next two years they'll end up in other classrooms," Fritz Fischer, chairman of the National Council for History Education, told the Washington Post. "It's not a partisan issue, it's a good history issue."

The irony, of course, is that while the right wing harps endlessly about how leftists "indoctrinate" children with left-wing ideas through liberal education "biases," the revisions to the Texas curriculum are a blatant ideological attack designed to reach the minds of kids and teens. With right-wing social conservatism largely discredited, and poll after poll showing young people to be more liberal than previous generations on a host of social issues, it's not surprising why conservatives might be desperate to push back in whatever way they can.

But just because conservative ideas are enshrined in textbooks doesn't guarantee that their ideas will gain more currency. As Howard Zinn put it in a 2005 essay "Changing minds, one at a time," presenting a people's history requires breaking down the barriers that keep ordinary people from feeling as though we can not only study history, but make it:

It is a challenge not just for the teachers of the young to give them information they will not get in the standard textbooks, but for everyone else who has an opportunity to speak to friends and neighbors and work associates, to write letters to newspapers, to call in on talk shows.

The history is powerful: the story of the lies and massacres that accompanied our national expansion, first across the continent victimizing Native Americans, then overseas as we left death and destruction in our wake in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and especially the Philippines. The long occupations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the repeated dispatch of Marines into Central America, the deaths of millions of Koreans and Vietnamese, none of them resulting in democracy and liberty for those people.

Add to all that the toll of the American young, especially the poor, Black and white, a toll measured not only by the corpses and the amputated limbs, but the damaged minds and corrupted sensibilities that result from war.

Those truths make their way, against all obstacles, and break down the credibility of the warmakers, juxtaposing what reality teaches against the rhetoric of inaugural addresses and White House briefings. The work of a movement is to enhance that learning, make clear the disconnect between the rhetoric of "liberty" and the photo of a bloodied little girl, weeping.

And also to go beyond the depiction of past and present, and suggest an alternative to the paths of greed and violence. All through history, people working for change have been inspired by visions of a different world. It is possible, here in the United States, to point to our enormous wealth and suggest how, once not wasted on war or siphoned off to the super-rich, that wealth can make possible a truly just society.

The juxtapositions wait to be made...The false promises of the rich and powerful about "spreading liberty" can be fulfilled, not by them, but by the concerted effort of us all, as the truth comes out, and our numbers grow.

And that's a fact that even the Texas Board of Education can't write out of history.