Monday, August 31, 2015

Talking About the C Word—The Origins of the Communist Party in the U.S.

Anglo members of the Socialist Party Left Wing and dissident state parties found the CLP on August 31, 1919
On August 31, 1919 at a rump meeting in Chicago of Left Wing members of the fractured Socialist Party, the Communist Labor Party (CLP), a predecessor to the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), was founded.  The year was one of great turmoil.  Long time Socialist Party leader and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was in the Federal prison at Atlanta for giving a speech opposing World War I.  Many socialists and unionists were aflame with passion for the apparently successful Russian Revolution.  Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer with the enthusiastic assistance of the young leader of the Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, had launched his raids against aliens and radicals.  An unheard of era of government repression was sweeping the land. 

Earlier in the year the SP’s well established network of  language federations, each of which had its own publications and leadership, in cooperation with Left Wing state parties had captured a majority on the Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC).  Alarmed, the regulars of the outgoing NEC declared the election invalid charging the language federations with irregularities.  They expelled the leaders of several federations and suspended recognition of the Russian, Lithuanian, Polish, Lettish (Latvian), South Slavic, and Ukrainian federations and the entire state parties of Michigan, Massachusetts, and Ohio. The New York State Executive Committee suspended and reorganized Left Wing locals and branches representing nearly half the state's membership.  Needless to say, such high handed tactics led to an uproar in the Party.

Journalist Jack Reed was a key figure in the the founding of the Communist Labor Party.

The language federations joined by the Michigan state party responded with a call to a founding convention of the Communist Party of America (CPA) to be held in Chicago on September 1.  Many leading English speaking left wingers, including NEC members Alfred Wagenknecht and L.E. Katterfeld and the dashing journalist JohnJack Reed, lionized by the Party rank and file for his eye witness account of the Russian October Revolution in Ten Days That Shook the World, decided to stay in the SP and try to win control back from the regulars.  The Party called an Emergency National Convention in Chicago scheduled for Aug. 30.  But the regulars controlled the majority of State parties, suspended parties and federations were banned, and a credentials committee ruled against seating many other Left Wing delegates. 

John Reed and Benjamin Gitlow planned to crash the convention anyway, but officials were tipped off and called the police, who obligingly expelled the leftists from the hall. The remaining leftist delegates walked out. Meeting in a rented room directly below the official convention the expelled delegates formed the Communist Labor Party with Wagenknecht at its head. 

....A day later on September 1st Foreign Lannguage section of the Socialist Party founded another Communist Partmey.  Both claimed membership and support of Moscow and the Comintern.

Meanwhile the founding convention of the Communist Party of America went ahead as planned the next day.  Suddenly there were two competing Communist Parties, both claiming allegiance to the Russian Revolution and to the Communist International (Comintern), a situation that displeased V. I. Lenin. 
Both infant parties were soon victims of the expanding Palmer Raids and leaders of both were arrested or in hiding.  Both were forced to essentially go underground by December.
In January 1920 the Comintern ordered the two parties to merge as the United Communist Party, and to follow the party line established in Moscow.  .A faction of the CPA held out for a while but was forced into line by 1921. Many English language leftists, however, soon left the Party and it is estimated that less than 5% of the membership were native English speakers.  Through the decade the Party was beset with internal dissent and was frequently reined in by the Comintern.
Although the Communists were allowed to resume operations as a legal organization, the experience in the underground and the formation of cells and the like as well as stringent control from Moscow were stamped on the Party.  The Red Scare of 1919-1920 prevented the Communists from ever becoming a mass or popular party and helped create the secretive culture and fealty to the Soviets that made it the nightmare of post-World War II of conservatives.

Former IWW organizer William Z. Foster spent most of the '20's marginalized in the United Communist Party, the forced merger of the CLP and CPA.  But the Comintern put him at the head of re-incarnated Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) and endorsed his bore from within strategy of working inside the conservative business unions of the AFL instead of joining the IWW or organizing explicitly Marxist labor unions.

Initially many rank and file members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were enthusiastic for the new party and some leaders, like William Z. Foster jumped to the new organization.  But the defection of William D. “Big Bill” Haywood to Moscow after the conviction of 101 IWW leaders for sedition in 1919 left a bitter taste in many mouths.  When reports by Emma Goldman and others exiled to Russia exposed the authoritarian underside of the Lenin regime, support dwindled further.  The Party began to demand that the IWW submit itself to Party leadership—a demand that was rudely rejected by the union. When party members meddled in important IWW strikes of the ‘20’s the rift became pronounced.  By the end of the decade the IWW was firmly anti-Communist.
In 1929 the Party was renamed the CPUSA.  Foster, after being frozen out at the demand of Kremlin leaders through most of the ‘20’s emerged as the new Party leader and instituted the directed policy of boring from within the conservative labor movement and shunning the independent IWW.  CP militants helped form and establish the Congress of Industrial Organization in heavy industry during the ‘30’s.
Many well-meaning idealists entered the Party in the Depression years and did heroic work in the labor movement and elsewhere.  But the fickle dictates of Moscow took a toll.  A joke around IWW circles years later was that you could tell just how naïve a leftist was by when they finally got disgusted and abandoned the CP—the 1936-38 Stalinist Purge Trials in Russia, the Hitler/Stalin Pact, the roughshod imposition of Soviet style government over Eastern Europe in the post war years, or the final straw for many, the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956.
When the next great upsurge of the left occurred during the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War, the CPUSA found itself mainly on the sidelines, distrusted by the New Left and ignored as irrelevant.  Self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninists split among a bewildering profusion of new parties and organizations.
With the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union the CPUSA was left a virtual orphan.  It numbers continue to dwindle to a hard core of aging militants, many of them from the decedents from those old ethnic federations and from the needle trades in New York.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Molly Ivins—We Could Use Her Now

Young Molly Ivins raising hell and eyebrows at the Texas Observer.

Molly Ivins, the extraordinary newspaper columnist, wit, and the enemy of foolishness, vanity, and avarice at every level of government was born on August 30, 1944 in Monterey, California.  But she was raised in and around Houston, Texas and was a passionate Texan all her life from the tip of her hair to the paint on her toenails.  
Her father was an autocratic oil company executive and she grew up in privileged circumstances.  At her tony private prep school she wrote for the school paper and enjoyed performing in stage productions.  Whatever she tried her hand at was pursued with the ardor of her admittedly big personality. 
After an unhappy freshman year at Scripts College, she transferred to Smith, a Seven Sisters college that brought her close to the love of her life, Yale student Henry “Hank” Holland, Jr.  When he was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1964, Ivins was crushed.  She never found anyone who would measure up to his memory and stayed single the rest of her life, dedicating herself to her studies and career.  After a year of study in Paris, she graduated in 1966 and went on to earn a master’s degree at Columbia Journalism School the next year. 
Her first job was with Minneapolis Tribune.  After a stint as the first female police reporter in the city, she covered a beat called Movements for Social Change, where she notes that she wrote about “militant blacks, angry Indians, radical students, uppity women and a motley assortment of other misfits and troublemakers.”  She had met her people.  
In 1970 she left a perfectly good job to return to Texas to write for The Texas Observer, a progressive bi-weekly and burr under the saddle to the Austin establishment.  She became co-editor of the paper and the chief political writer, specializing in the doings of the legislature.  Before long her pithy accounts of that colorful body were being re-printed nationally and Ivins was soon contributing op-ed pieces to the New York Times and Washington Post and becoming a popular speaker on college campuses.
A square peg in a round hole at the staid New York Times;
In 1976 the Times hired her, supposedly to loosen up their staid writing style.  She certainly did that, often clashing with editors over her colorful, salty language.  She was made Rocky Mountain Bureau Chief, which would have been quite an honor if she was not also the entire bureau covering 9 states—states that the editors hardly seemed to know existed or cared to know much about.  Her clashes with editor Abe Rosenthal were legendary. 
She was delighted when the Dallas Times Herald offered her a position as a columnist.  She became such an irritation to Dallas city authorities and others with lots of wealth and influence that the paper sent her to Austin.  After the Herald folded, Ivins moved to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram where she continued her Austin based column and her relentless attacks on cupidity.  From her seat in Austin she chronicled he rise of George W. Bush, who she referred to as the Shrub.  When he was elected President, Ivins ended her 19 year run at the Star-Telegram and wrote a nationally syndicated column carried in more the 400 papers. 
Indefatigable to the end.
In 1999 she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, she battled the disease with typical ferocity and good humor, twice being declared cancer free only to have the tumors return.  In December 2006 she took leave from her column to again undergo treatment. She wrote two columns in January 2007, but returned to the hospital for further treatment then died at her Austin home on January 31, 2007, at age 62.
Here is what I wrote in a blog entry the next day:
Flags at half mast, folks. Molly Ivins, a true American hero has died.  When we can least afford to lose her.  She was just about the only major liberal voice in the press who did not sound like, at least occasionally, a prig, twit, or snob.  She never forgot ordinary working people and their lives and they knew it
With keen insight, shrewd wit, and unparalleled Texas charm she belled the fat cats of politics.  From ordinary petty grafters in the state legislature all the way up to George W. “Shrub” Bush himself, no miscreant escaped her attention.
She fought up to the end.  Knowing she was dying she filed her last column in mid-January.  It ended, “We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to stop this war. Raise hell! Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous. Make our troops know we’re for them and trying to get them out of there. Hit the streets to protest Bush’s proposed surge [to the Iraq War]...We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, ‘STOP IT NOW!’”
Amen, sister!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Sadly, Angrily Remembering Hurricane Katrina Redux

Just another "recalcitrant defier of evacuation orders" according to Fox News.

Note:  This first appeared two years ago and became the second most viewed entry since Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout first moved over to Blogger six years ago.  It gets hits recorded almost every day.  Yet it still trails a fluffy little piece identifying the people shown on the cover of the Beatles Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I think it may be attributed to the brutally powerful image that topped the post.  And that’s alright.  I want it to be impossible to look away from a natural disaster that was made cataclysmic by ideologically driven purposeful ineptitude, greed, cold political calculation, and more than a generous dollop of American-as-Apple-Pie racism.

As seen dispassionately from space, Hurricane Katrina makes landfall at New Orleans.
Some anniversaries are just too painful.  This is one of them.  On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast with the eye just east of New Orleans.  Winds had diminished and the storm had been downgraded from a Category 4 to a Category 3 and there was some hope that the city and surrounding Parishes might be spared the destruction predicted earlier in the week.  Although wind damage was severe, a lot of folks breathed deeply after the brunt of the storm moved passed.

But the storm surge sent as much as 15 feet of water inland flooding the low lying coast from the Texas border to nearly Pensacola.  It pushed up the Mississippi and into Lake Pontchartrain.  Within a few hours the levy system protecting the city broke in several places and water inundated most of the city.  Especially hard hit were the low lying neighborhoods along the canals and directly under the levies, including the largely Black and impoverished 8th and 9th Wards.  By 11 p.m. Mayor Ray Nagin described the loss of life as significant with reports of bodies floating on the water throughout the city.

As horrible as the situation was, it was only the beginning.  Evacuation orders had encouraged many of those with vehicles to flee north.  But the highways were soon clogged and those late to leave were trapped.  No plans had been made for the hundreds of thousands of city residents without transportation, or the aged and ill.  The poor were essentially trapped in the city.  And as they drowned talking heads on television scolded them for not heeding the evacuation orders. 
Many of those with cars clogged highways leaving New Orleans as advised--no provisions were made for those without.
The story of the immediate misery of the next few days has been told and retold, and is far too vast to be recounted here.  Suffice it to say the disaster unmasked incompetence at every level of government compounded by a blasé racism eager to blame the victims.  The response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), headed by political toadies and lickspittles, became a national scandal.  But it was the inevitable result of George W. Bush’s administration which had as its highest goal to prove that government is inherently incapable of managing things efficiently. 
The Super Dome became a sweltering nightmare of a refugee camp short on water, and food, medical services.  Those who died there were hauled outside and literally stacked in the parking lot.

The disaster created a diaspora.  Eighty percent of the New Orleans population fled.  Five years later less than half had returned.  And much of the city, particularly the Black Wards away from the restored tourist areas, remains a waste land.

The youth group of my church, then known as the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Woodstock spent a week there in July 2010, nearly five years after the storm, doing service projects.  They brought back video and photographic evidence of the distressing situation.  There will be work rebuilding and restoring homes in those districts for hundreds of youth groups for years to come.
The Black lower 9th Ward after the storm.  While tourist areas and white neighborhoods have made a recovery, much of this is still a wasteland and nearly half of dispossessed residents have been able to return to new or rebuilt homes.  A virtual ethnic cleansing.
When historians look back on the disaster and its long aftermath years from now, they may well conclude that this was the moment when the traditional cocky confidence of American exceptionalism bit the dust and the Empire began it precipitous decline.