Joe Biden arrived in Ukraine today, and to frame the moment Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is issuing blustery threats that seem intended not to advance diplomacy to calm the Ukraine crisis but to inflame it. Indeed, there are hawks on both sides who could foil diplomacy, but so far the Obama administration seems committed to a diplomatic solution. Still, responding to violence over the weekend in eastern Ukraine, where a Russian covert operation is underway to rile up pro-Russian elements there in defiance of the fledgling regime in Kiev, Lavrov noted that the violence—which, it appears, Russian agents have deliberately courted—could be a pretext for wider Russian military action. Here’s the quote from Lavrov:
There has been a surge in appeals to Russia to save them from this outrage. We are being put into an extremely complex position…. Those who are deliberately pursuing a civil war, in a possible attempt to start a big, serious bloody conflict, are pursuing a criminal policy. And we will not only condemn this policy but will also stop it.
Of course, Lavrov’s comments fit Vladimir Putin’s theme of late, namely, that Russia must act as the guarantor of ethnic Russians left outside Russia’s borders when the USSR collapsed. Reports Reuters:
The senior European mediator in eastern Ukraine held his first talks on Monday with the leader of pro-Russian separatists in the city of Slaviansk, a flashpoint of the crisis. Mark Etherington told reporters he met the self-declared, separatist mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, for two hours. He had asked whether Ponomaryov and his group would comply with last week’s Geneva accord under which Russia and Ukraine agreed that militants should disarm and vacate occupied public buildings. Etherington did not say how the separatist leader responded or give further details. He said he also asked about people who had been detained in Slaviansk, including the previous mayor, about reports of maltreatment of the Roma minority and about a gunfight on Sunday in which at least three men were killed.
The mayor and his cohorts have so far resisted compliance with the Geneva agreement, and it isn’t clear whether or not Russia is pressing them to stand down.
Biden has emerged as Obama’s point man on Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and earlier he visited Poland and Lithuania. He’s mostly avoided provocative rhetoric, although the United States has apparently agreed to send symbolic military units to rotate in and out of NATO countries in Eastern Europe. If such deployments remain symbolic—i.e., very small numbers of troops, as it appears, and only temporary—then they’re not likely to worsen the crisis. But if Obama and Biden go along with the ideas of various hawks to dispatch significant forces eastward, then Putin will almost certainly respond in kind.
So what is Obama doing? A troubling piece by Peter Baker in The New York Times on April 19 is headlined “In Cold War Echo, Obama Strategy Writes Off Putin.” In it, he writes:
Mr. Obama has concluded that even if there is a resolution to the current standoff over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he will never have a constructive relationship with Mr. Putin, aides said. As a result, Mr. Obama will spend his final two and a half years in office trying to minimize the disruption Mr. Putin can cause, preserve whatever marginal cooperation can be saved and otherwise ignore the master of the Kremlin in favor of other foreign policy areas where progress remains possible.
But there’s more going on. It appears that hawks inside the administration, as well as John McCain and other hawks outside, are putting a lot of pressure on Obama to take a tougher stand. According to the Times, the hawks are frustrated with the Obama-Biden decision to hold off:
The more hawkish faction in the State and Defense Departments has grown increasingly frustrated, privately worrying that Mr. Obama has come across as weak and unintentionally sent the message that he has written off Crimea after Russia’s annexation. They have pressed for faster and more expansive sanctions, only to wait while memos sit in the White House without action.
The Times adds:
The prevailing view in the West Wing, though, is that while Mr. Putin seems for now to be enjoying the glow of success, he will eventually discover how much economic harm he has brought on his country. Mr. Obama’s aides noted the fall of the Russian stock market and the ruble, capital flight from the country and the increasing reluctance of foreign investors to expand dealings in Russia.
So far, Obama and Biden seem committed to diplomacy, and they’ve secured the accord with Russia that includes the OSCE monitoring mission. But they have to resist the hawks both inside and outside. Meanwhile, what about the hawks on the other side—and what if, among those hawks, is Putin himself?
Read Next: William Greider on how under Putin, Russia is acting a lot like the US.
When someone dies of decidedly unnatural causes, two words come immediately to mind: “closure” and “accountability.” The idea is that by holding the perpetrators of a crime accountable, we can both provide a measure of closure for the family and friends of the deceased as well as limit the possibility of such a fate befalling our own loved ones too.
It is difficult to imagine a death more “unnatural” than that of NFL player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman, shot down in Afghanistan by his fellow troops in an incident classified as “friendly fire” ten years ago. Yet, despite the high-profile nature of his demise, those two words, “closure” and “accountability,” have been in incredibly short supply for the Tillman family. This is not just a tragedy for the Tillmans; it is a tragedy for anyone who thinks that government should not exist above the law.
The questions surrounding both the death of Pat Tillman, as well the response by the United States government to the news, has simply never been answered. This is not about conjuring conspiracy theories or raising the bizarre timing of Tillman’s being shot during a time when he was outspoken to fellow soldiers about his belief that the war in Iraq was “illegal.” This is not about Gen. Wesley Clark’s saying he believed it was “very possible” that Tillman was murdered. This is about extremely basic questions that the George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Gen. John Abizaid and Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal have simply not been compelled to answer. Let’s go through them:
1) Why did the US Congressional Oversight Committee, after coming to the conclusion in April 2007 that the circumstances surrounding Tillman’s death demanded investigation, stop investigating? Why did it accept, in its own words, that “the investigation was frustrated by a near universal lack of recall”? Why, instead of pursuing the matter, did it move on to investigating steroids in baseball?
2) Why were Tillman’s uniform, his military notebook and his effects burned on the scene immediately after his shooting? In the words of a source of mine close to the events that day, “Every military protocol was ignored regarding the handling of Pat’s body and his equipment.”
3) Why did the coroner refuse for months to sign off on Pat’s autopsy?
4) Why were soldiers on the scene ordered not to tell the truth about the circumstances of the shooting?
5) Why has General John Abizaid never had to answer for the devastating San Francisco Chronicle investigation that shows he repeatedly misrepresented what he knew—and where he was—after Tillman’s death? He said he was in Iraq, which makes sense given that April 2004 was the bloodiest, most chaotic month of the war. Yet records show he was in Afghanistan talking to Tillman’s platoon leader. Why? And why lie about it?
6) Why does Lt. Gen McChrystal get to skate by with saying that there were “mistakes, missteps and errors” that occurred after Tillman was killed? Pat’s father described McChrystal’s actions as a “falsified homicide investigation.” If McChrystal did falsify the investigation, he belongs behind bars.
7) How do we understand the actions of Senator John McCain? By all accounts, McCain was furious that, because of the Bush administration, he eulogized Pat Tillman at his nationally televised funeral as if he had died at the hands of the Taliban. He pledged to the Tillmans that he would get to the truth. For a while, McCain was their ally. Then he ran for president in 2008 and stopped helping them. As Mary Tillman said to me, “The investigation that he helped us get actually caused us to have more questions and at that point he started backing off. I think he thought that we were becoming sort of a political encumbrance to him, or could be.” John McCain should have to explain why he stopped helping the Tillman family.
These are only some of the questions. Peter King of Sports Illustrated, perhaps the most-read football writer in the United States, wrote on Monday, “The circumstances around the death [of Tillman], which took place in a firefight with enemy forces near the Pakistan border in eastern Afghanistan, remain a mystery.”
They shouldn’t have to “remain a mystery.” The family is entitled to answers, and we collectively are entitled to the truth. The family has the right to closure, and we have the right to see those who broke the law held accountable. Our need to demand the truth is rooted less in solidarity with the Tillman family, and more in our desire to not have a government that believes covering up a killing is a part of its constitutional duties. We all suffer as long as the truth of Pat Tillman’s death remains hidden. This should be a criminal investigation. It is past time to pull George W. Bush away from his paintbrushes, to tell Stanley McChrystal to stop hawking his book, and to get their hands on some Bibles to swear to tell, at long last, the damnable truth.
Read Next: On the death and life’s work of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter.
I’ve never thought of myself of a pioneer in warning about climate change, but maybe, just a little.
Back in 1984, Viking published a book I wrote with Pascal J. Imperato, titled Acceptable Risks, which examined how regulators, and individuals, choose to ignore certain hazards—such as smoking or living in earthquake-prone California—while taking action against others, often in a highly irrational way. The penultimate chapter explored an emerging danger we called “The Ultimate Risk: The Greenhouse Effect.”
This is what it was called before it was referred to as “global warming” and then more accurately and broadly, “climate change.” Back in the good old days we figured we still had plenty of time to address it. In that period, the nuclear threat was the prime concern.
On the eve of another Earth Day, I decided to check back on that chapter, which I penned myself, for the first time in a few years. What I found: there’s not much new under the ever-hotter sun. The “inconvenient truth” of global warming has been told for decades—Dr. James Hansen was even featured in our chapter—to little avail. Ironically, I had interviewed the young congressman Al Gore for my previous book on whistleblowers, related to toxic dump sites.
In fact, the chapter in Acceptable Risks opens with a warning about the Antarctic ice sheet melting, and a rising of the sea level likely to “submerge” coastal cities. The paragraph that followed could have come directly from the famous Al Gore film (without the slide show) twenty years on: “There have been warming trends before, but never one so rapid as this—virtually overnight on the geological clock. Rather than having several hundreds years to cope with the changes it may bring, humankind will have to adjust in little more than half a century.”
Of course, we are now thirty years into that half-century.
“More than a severe disruption of the world economy is at stake,” I wrote. “The very survival of Earth’s highest forms of life may be on the line.” But, I advised, “Something can be done to prevent—or at least mitigate—this threat. On a global basis, humankind can cut down its burning of fossil fuels, stabilizing the excessive accumulation of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere that creates the hazard known as the Greenhouse Effect.
“There is no sign, however, that we have the slightest interest in doing this.”
Back then, scientists felt sure the warming would soon come—they accurately projected a one degree global rise in twenty years—but that normal temperature cycles were probably masking the trend, and “the lack of clear-cut evidence for a major warming effect may have terrible consequences, for it has already undermined efforts at getting governments of the world’s nationals to deal with the threat of such an effect.”
So what was our own Congress doing about it then? About as much as it is now. But there was sort of an excuse. Climate change, as noted, was still somewhat speculative. One top scientist told me, “To really know anything you'll have to wait another thirty years, so we won’t be able to convince Congress of anything until 2010.”
As it turned out, we came to know a lot long before thirty years passed. As Leonard Cohen once put it, “We asked for signs/and signs were sent.” But about that 2010 deadline…
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: ‘New York Times’ Admits It Agreed to ‘Gag Orders’ in Israel.
“They can incarcerate my body but never my mind” —Rubin “Hurricane” Carter
For a man who spent nearly four decades of his seventy-six years under the restrictive eye of the US correctional system, few have ever touched as many lives as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. The world-class boxer turned wrongfully accused prisoner, turned advocate for the rights of the unjustly incarcerated, has succumbed to cancer, but his memory and work will endure as long as there are people outside and inside the prisons of the world fighting for justice.
It is difficult to think of more than a handful of prisoners in history who have had their story memorialized in popular culture quite like Rubin Carter. After his own infamous homicide conviction, Carter’s case inspired an international human rights movement. There were rallies, marches and all-star musical concerts in his name. He was even the subject of a Bob Dylan Top 40 hit, the frenzied fiddle anthem Hurricane. Carter also wrote, while behind bars, the bestselling book The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472. Finally after his release, he was the subject of the Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington film The Hurricane.
Yet despite the overturning of his murder conviction as well as a Hollywood canonization, Rubin Carter never rested. After decades behind bars, no one would have blinked if he had coasted on his celebrity for the remainder of his days. Instead, Mr. Carter started a nonprofit organization in his adopted home of Toronto in 2004 called Innocence International, aimed at shedding light on the cases of the wrongly convicted. Rubin Carter believed that the only thing exceptional about his conviction was the fact that people were aware and outraged that it had happened. In a country with the highest prison rate on the planet, where quality legal representation is more privilege than right, Rubin Carter knew that he had left an untold number of sisters and brothers behind. He had lived the racism of the criminal justice system and he had lived among the poor and mentally ill behind bars. Following his release, he was determined to be their advocate. Carter wrote in February, as he lay dying, that he “lived in hell for the first forty-nine years, and have been in heaven for the past twenty-eight years.” For him, heaven was doing this kind of work and struggle was the secret of joy.
I had many an interaction with Rubin Carter, never revolving around boxing or his near-miss in 1964 to win the middleweight championship. Our shared work existed in the context of campaigns for prisoners' rights. Rubin Carter never refused any of my requests, no matter how obscure the case, to lend his name to a campaign. Like Denzel Washington said when he took Rubin Carter on stage with him when accepting the Golden Globe for best actor for The Hurricane, “He’s all love.”
Sure enough, during the last days of his life and in terrible pain, Rubin Carter was attempting to bring light to yet another prisoner he believed was being denied justice. On February 21, 2014, Carter published “Hurricane Carter’s Dying Wish,” in the New York Daily News. It detailed the case of David McCallum, who has been jailed for murder for almost thirty years, convicted at the age of 16. As Carter wrote, “McCallum was incarcerated two weeks after I was released, reborn into the miracle of this world. Now I’m looking death straight in the eye; he’s got me on the ropes, but I won’t back down…. My aim in helping this fine man is to pay it forward, to give the help that I received as a wrongly convicted man to another who needs such help now.”
The best possible tribute to Rubin Carter would not be to listen to some Bob Dylan or read a few obits. It would be to contact new Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson—his “action line” phone number is 718-250-2340—and ask him to fulfill Hurricane’s request to reopen the case of David McCallum. After all, this was the dying wish of the Hurricane.
Read Next: We built this country on inequality.
“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.”
So wrote Pope Francis in his first apostolic exhortation. Released last fall, the pope’s Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), is a nuanced yet urgent document. And it makes for good reading at a point when Americans are wrestling with the social, political and practical implications of income inequality, poverty and the failed austerity agenda of the trickle-down fabulists.
As Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby, explains it, the pope’s exhortation is rooted in an understanding “that reality—read, real people’s lives—is more important than any theoretical construct.”
To that end, Network, the group that sent Nuns on the Bus to congressional districts across the country in 2012, has launched a year-long project that used the pope’s message to encourage new thinking and new organizing to address inequality and injustice.
The key is the thinking. The United States is a secular nation, founded with respect for a diversity of religious belief and disbelief, and regard for Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church & State.”
Sister Simone and her allies understand that, just as Jefferson took counsel from the texts and teachings of the various religious traditions, contemporary Americans can be encouraged to consider the moral implications of poverty amid plenty. And to consider the reality of what inequality means for those who former Vice President Hubert Humphrey referred to as “those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
Sister Simone argues that this consideration can, in turn, “cause us to grow in a way that a federal budget battle or a Congressional Budget Office report never will.”
What Network is inviting is a rethink that could discomfort elected officials who have spent their careers neglecting a duty to the poor.
The exhortation from Pope Francis does not mince words in order to comfort those who are ill at ease with an economic-justice gospel. Nor does he dodge questions regarding the fundamental responsibility of those in power: from President Obama to Paul Ryan.
“It is the responsibility of the State to safeguard and promote the common good of society,” writes the pope. “Based on the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, and fully committed to political dialogue and consensus building, it plays a fundamental role, one which cannot be delegated, in working for the integral development of all.”
The pope, as a spiritual leader, a Jesuit scholar and an increasingly influential voice in global economic debates, rejects the notion that government cannot, or should not, play a vital role in addressing the inequality that translates as poverty amid plenty.
“I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots—and not simply the appearances—of the evils in our world! Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.”
The pope is a good deal more specific with regard to the definition of “the common good” than most American politicians—be they Republicans or Democrats. “We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a ‘dignified sustenance’ for all people, but also their ‘general temporal welfare and prosperity,’” he writes. “This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labor that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives.”
The translation of a common-good agenda into reality—getting beyond dialogue to action, as the pope suggests—will not, for the most part, be done by the politicians. Americans, religious and secular, motivated by morality and practicality, will have to do most of the work.
That is why Network, in much the same way that it did with the Nuns on the Bus project, is focusing on popular education and organizing.
Against the pressures of a money-drenched politics and a money-driven governance, Network is asking people to think and to feel and to act on behalf of the common good. It is probably fair to call the project a leap of faith. But in an age on damaging inequality, surely, this is a necessary leap.
Read Next: We built this country on inequality.
The Onion News Network was always the best place to look for an honest review of George W. Bush’s post-presidential painting hobby, and here it is at last—including an analysis of the “ghost of an Iraqi child that follows him everywhere” that should be in every painting but, sadly, is usually replaced by a puppy dog or an impersonal caricature of some foreign leader’s Google photo.
It’s hard to tell which is funnier: the paintings themselves (the Onion artist who copied Bush’s primitive style captures his flat planes and between-the-lines coloring practice), or the upbeat chit-chat of the Onion News host and correspondent, who perfectly mimic the mainstream media’s happy-talk accounts of Bush’s surprising hobby.
Showing one morbid painting after another, the host says, “You can see that Bush’s art is improving over time. At first he could barely draw the Iraqi child’s transparent hands, but now they look much more realistic!” George and Laura are shown smiling in one work, and seem not to notice that W is holding the bleeding, dead Iraqi child in his arms.
This is, of course, the opposite of what Bush’s paintings really do, as they tend to hide things about the ex-POTUS rather than reveal them. Just as his self-portraits in the shower cover up his private parts, Bush would rather paint Putin or a Saudi noble than one of his own controversial lieutenants, like Cheney or Rumsfeld. That would be getting too close to home.
The Onion paintings get grislier and grislier. One depicts Bush’s bedroom at the Crawford ranch splattered in blood with Manson-like zeal. “Laura Bush says he’s more focused than ever, locks himself away for hours at a time and won’t talk to anyone while he’s painting,” the host says.
It’s more or less what many of us have imagined: that George Bush is going quietly bonkers after years of repressing the reality of what he’s done. In real life, however, Bush paints to forget, not to expose.
Watch the Onion video below (and a similarly themed video from cartoonist Mark Fiore here):
Read Next: Florida wants to drug-test all its government employees.
Forty years after breaking Babe Ruth’s long-standing record of 714 career home runs, Hank Aaron is still receiving racist hate mail—and he keeps it all. After some of Aaron’s comments in an interview with USA Today, he received a whole new batch of derogatory mail. In the interview, Aaron defended President Obama, who he said “is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated.” “The bigger difference,” he went on to say, “is back then [racists] had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.” Appearing on Al Jazeera America’s Consider This with host Antonio Mora, Nation sports editor Dave Zirin came to Aaron’s defense, saying that, “For someone like Henry Aaron, who’s 80 years old and has already endured so much, I imagine he has far less patience” for the “tidal wave of vitriol” that was inevitably unleashed on the first president of color in the United States.
What is Vladimir Putin’s plan in Ukraine? This key question has reverberated around newsrooms in the weeks since Russia officially annexed Crimea in late March. According to Nation contributor and Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen, appearing on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Putin’s political thinking is profoundly influenced by “the moment he came to power, with Russia in collapse and disintegration and his self-perceived mission…to save Russia.” For Putin, reclaiming influence in former Soviet territories is a reflexive reaction against the encroaching power of the West, led by the United States. “No matter all of the good things we say about democracy and sovereignty and prosperity, American military, economic and political power has been coming at Russia for twenty years.”
Each day, an estimated 1,100 undocumented immigrants are deported, leaving spouses, siblings and even children behind. The policy has devastating effects on families; between 2010 and 2012, 200,000 parents of US-born children were deported. As a result, at least 5,000 children are in foster care. Although President Obama has claimed to focus deportation efforts on serious criminals, a New York Times study released this April found that two-thirds of the 3.2 million people deported over ten years had committed only minor infractions, such as a traffic violation.
Now, activists are fighting back. Immigrants’ rights advocates have staged a hunger strike outside the White House and have been calling attention to the individual stories of the families who have been separated.
While Congress drags its feet, President Obama could make a real difference in the lives of millions of immigrants and their families. Sign our open letter with Daily Kos calling on the president to listen to immigrants’ rights activists and use executive actions to end mass deportations.
As The Nation’s editors point out, executive action by the president could spur reform by galvanizing electoral support from immigrant communities and by driving a wedge between mainstream Republicans supportive of reform and anti-immigrant hardliners.
Activists from the Not1More Deportation campaign organized by the National Day Laborers Organizing Network explain why they decided to join the White House hunger strike: “Mr. President, we have come to your front door because your agents have come to ours.”
In this week’s issue of The Nation, Timothy Shenk discusses the revival of Marxism since the financial collapse of 2008. For many who achieved political consciousness and intellectual maturity only after the heralded “end of history” in 1989, Marxism is often seen as offering an important analysis of the causes and consequences of the unprecedented upward redistribution of wealth and power, in this country and throughout the world, which began several decades ago and, despite the crash, continues apace today. Unburdened by the intellectual psychodramas of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, disappointed by President Obama, and galvanized by Occupy Wall Street’s scathing moral critique of inequality, millennials, Shenk writes, comprise “an audience primed for lectures on the contradictions of capitalism.”
Shenk’s essay is a review of the socialist quarterly Jacobin, Thomas Piketty’s magisterial bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century and new books by editors of n+1, but it begins with a sweeping history of capitalism and socialism since the early days of what eventually became known as the Industrial Revolution. Another way to map the rises and falls in the popularity and promise of revolutionary socialism is to take a tour of The Nation’s writings on Marx and Marxism, the substance and tone of which tended to shift with the larger political, cultural and economic tides.
Our first reference to Karl Marx was in a series of special dispatches published in August 1878. Friedrich Kapp, a German jurist and journalist who emigrated to the United States in 1850, was a frequent contributor to The Nation on German politics beginning in 1865, the year of our founding. In his three-part 1878 series, “Socialism in Germany,” Kapp expressed admiration for Marx’s intellectual gravitas: “Remarkable by his indefatigable industry and the thoroughness of his studies as well as by the wide range of his researches and the philosophical and critical turn of his mind, he ranks among the first scholars of the time.”
For Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, Kapp had more ambiguous praise.
His work distinguished itself as well by the fullness of its details and the boldness of its reasoning as by its bitter attacks on the manufacturing classes, and made a deep impression in Germany. The brilliant qualities of this man, however, are overshadowed by a reckless, domineering spirit, an insatiable ambition, and an intolerant character which blackens, vilifies, and, if possible, destroys everything and everybody in its way.
With many conservative commentators then and since, Kapp believed he saw the seeds of totalitarianism in the bud of the communist ideal.
He who does not believe implicitly in Marx, or who dares to have an opinion of his own, is doomed, driven out of the church, and denounced to the Philistines as a “bourgeois,” as a spy, as an “agent-provocateur”…Like all founders of new creeds, Marx knows only obedient tools and blind admirers, and has but few friends.
Kapp then summarizes for Nation readers “the gist of the first volume of Marx’s work”:
The enormous power of accumulated capital cannot be done away with, the world cannot return to a patriarchal state of things; but, nevertheless, the misery of the working-classes can no longer continue. Marx proposes as a remedy that all means and tools of production, ground and soil as well as raw materials, should be handed over to society at large, that all trades and professions should be carried on by it for the benefit of all—or, in others words, that private property be abolished.
Kapp, for the record, disagreed: “In my opinion, he is wrong in calling all labor the sole source of the value of a thing, while in fact it is only that labor which satisfies the human wants, and I will add that in order to perform such useful labor capital in some shape or other is required.” Without the profit motive all industry ceases: then as now, a common enough refrain.
The Nation more or less lost sight of Marxism—if not socialism more generally—for several decades, under the influence of conservative editors like the literary critic Paul Elmer More. “Those who have kept in touch with the Socialistic literature of the past ten or fifteen years,” wrote the once and future Wall Street Journal editor T.F. Woodlock in October 1913, “are familiar with the extent of the destruction wrought in the Marxian structure by the irresistible logic of hostile facts.” The book under review, Woodlock suggested, “almost gives one the impression of slaying the dead: fairer, perhaps would it be to say that it, decently and in order, inters the corpse.”
The Russian Revolution, of course, was less than four years away.
* * *
By the 1920s, The Nation was under the editorship of Oswald Garrison Villard, who, though not a socialist, was the embodiment of principled left-liberalism in his day and welcomed contributions from socialists and communists in the magazine. (Norman Thomas, later the six-time Socialist candidate for president, was briefly its associate editor early in the decade.) In May 1929, the labor journalist Benjamin Stolberg reviewed Otto Ruhle’s biography of Karl Marx, just months before the stock market crash that would breathe new life into American Marxism. Stolberg wrote that socialism had already had a much deeper impact in the United States than it was generally credited with. “Without the Marxian base the social metabolism even of American labor would be unthinkable,” he wrote. “Think away social democratic doctrine and only a fabulist could write the story of American labor or even the tale of the simplest strike.” Of Marx himself, Stolberg wrote that “in the minds of even intelligent Americans Marx is a sort of economic Dr. Caligari, a fantastic German savant.” His influence was as undeniable as it was misunderstood: “The shadow of Marx on the American scene is phantastically transmogrified, but to deny its darkness is insensitive.”
In 1932, the same year his Depression travelogue The American Jitters was published, the literary critic Edmund Wilson contributed an essay to The Nation’s ongoing series, “What I Believe.” (Other contributors to the series included Bertrand Russell, Beatrice Webb and Conrad Aiken.) “So far as I can see,” Wilson’s essay vividly began, “Karl Marx’s predictions are in process of coming true.”
The great advantage, the great superiority, of Marx over other economists was due not to his being more learned or more expert and managing statistics, but to his psychological insight. People talk about economics as if it were a science of the behavior of money, and as if dollars and cents were entities which had an independent existence and obeyed laws of their own, like electrons. The truth is that economics is merely the study of how people behave about money, and Marx, though he possessed the true scholar’s temperament and had all the statistics at his fingertips, never lost sight of this fact. His great strength lay in his imaginative grasp of human history; and the real “laws of capitalist production” of which he writes are merely the instinctive workings of human acquisitiveness, selfishness, and self-deception—the all but universal instinct to sweat, bleed, and keep down other people whom we happen to have at our mercy, and either to rationalize our predatory acts as policies adopted for the public good or to manage not to know about them at all. This is the kind of idea that one comes by, not by mathematical calculations, but by looking steadily and deeply into one’s heart; and this is something that few are able to do and remain to tell the tale. But Marx, like the other great Jewish prophets, was one of those who were able to do it, and it is to this that he owes his great authority. And the place to study the present crisis and its causes and probable consequences is not in the charts of the compilers of statistics but in oneself and in the people one sees.
* * *
It is a testament to the openness of The Nation’s pages as well as to the turmoil of the times that in the magazine’s archives one can find odes to Marxism and attacks on Marxism written by the same author only a few years apart. Thus in 1933, the philosopher Sidney Hook proclaims in “Marxism—Dogma or Method?” that it is “the first truly international movement in culture and politics.” But Hook, even before his subsequent turn to strident anti-communism, was an internally dissident Marxist. He wrote in the 1933 essay:
Unfortunately some American intellectuals going leftward have fallen over each other in their efforts to be “orthodox” Marxists. They have swallowed the jumble of mysticism and mechanism which is called “objective science” without stopping to settle the intellectual difficulties which they themselves raised only yesterday. This is unworthy both of Marxists and intellectuals. To be a Marxist demands a long and critical discipline; and to be an intellectual means to judge a conclusion by the quality of the arguments advanced in its behalf. The subject matter of Marxism is not the whole universe, and its method is not the method of authority. Nor does it profess to have the final truth about what it does concern itself with—the theory and practice of social revolution. It is neither dogma, myth, nor objective science, but a realistic method of class action.
The following year, one of those intellectuals Hook was referring to, Max Eastman, reviewing a book by the libertarian socialist G.D.H. Cole called What Marx Really Meant, quipped that he had thought Sidney Hook “went as far as a sense of humor would permit in pouring new wine into the old Marxian bottles.” Cole, Eastman thought, had managed to go even further. But by 1940, in a review of Hook’s book Reason, Social Myths, and Democracy, the great theologian and Nation contributing editor Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that Hook “extends previous criticisms [of Marxism] so far beyond their earliest proportions that the progress of his thought may be described as moving from heresy to apostasy.” Interestingly, by the 1950s Eastman, Hook, and Niehbuhr were all members of the CIA-funded American Committee for Cultural Freedom, an anti-communist advocacy organization.
One of the most dramatic specimens of the type was Lewis Fraina, who helped found the American Communist Party in 1919 before falling out with its leaders. He re-emerged in the 1920s as Lewis Corey, a non-communist socialist writer, but in the Depression, like so many other left-wing intellectuals, grew closer again to the Party. In a three-part series in The Nation in 1935, “The Crisis of the Middle Class,” Corey devoted an essay each to capitalism, fascism and socialism. In the final installment, Corey wrote, regarding fascism, that “the answer to the new barbarism must be a new Enlightenment, whose elements are provided by Marxism: the perceiver a new world and its creator.”
But in the late 1930s, and especially after the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, Corey—again, like many leftists—undertook a painful re-evaluation of his former deeply held beliefs. In another three-part series, “Marxism Reconsidered,” Corey attempted to reconcile his recent disillusionment with his prior ideals: “History has played one of her stupefying tricks: for it is now clear that democracy is on the defensive as much against the totalitarianism of Russian communism as against that of fascism. And since socialism without democracy is a monstrosity, socialism too is on the defensive.”
The bitter admission must be made that all variants of Marxism, “revolutionary” and “reformist,” meeting the pragmatic test of history, have revealed fatal shortcomings. Diehard sectarians will argue that Marxism never had a chance because it was always distorted or betrayed, just as diehard liberals argue that capitalism never had a chance; but the sectarian argument is self-answering since it means that all Marxists are distorters or betrayers except the newest crop of simon pures, and that is exegetical madness. Yes, all variants of Marxism are a failure….
We must accept and reject, unlearn, relearn, and learn anew regardless of vested interests in old activity and ideas. A new language and a new approach are necessary: the abandonment of ideas, phrases, procedures which are now meaningless or have come to mean the opposite of what we thought they meant. All this means a cooperative job of charting new departures and directions in the struggle for a desirable social order.
“We must make an approach to Marx that freely accepts or rejects his ideas, regardless of the systematic strait-jacket, fit the accepted ideas into today’s climate of opinion and needs, and go beyond Marx to new explorations and syntheses,” Corey concluded. It is a strikingly similar point to that which Shenk makes in his review essay this week:
Reflexive grasping at the language of the past, vividly displayed in the Marxist resurgence, brings a sense of order to what would seem like chaos. But a more promising alternative might be on the way. Marxism is one kind of socialism, but history suggests a much richer set of possibilities, along with same grounds for hope. So does a work like Capital in the Twenty-First Century—a sign that another lost tradition, the postcapitalist visions in abeyance since the 1970s, could be poised for a return; or, even better, that we might put aside old pieties and chart our own path.
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The Nation’s interest in Marx and Marxism again ebbed for several decades after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, when Cold War–era debates rendered theoretical discussion somewhat beside the point. By the early 1970s, however, the impact of the New Left and a growing academic interest in Marxism brought discussion of the man and his theory back to The Nation’s pages. It is undoubtedly significant that two separate book reviews—one from 1971, by Michael Harrington, and one from 1975, by Bernard Johnpoll—were published with exactly the same headline: “I Am Not a Marxist, I Am Marx.” (The 1975 review has a dash instead of a comma.) The phrase, adapted from a letter Marx wrote to two French socialists he accused of “revolutionary phrase-mongering,” obviously struck a chord in the United States of the 1970s. As Johnpoll wrote:
Because Marxism has become significant in our time, Marx—the man and his ideas—has become obscure. As Marxism has become more operative, Marx has become less understood. He was at bottom a philosopher who dabbled in economics and politics; his primary interest was analytical, not prescriptive. Marxism, on the contrary, has been from the start purely economic and political. It purports to be rooted in Marx’s analysis and methodology, but by the nature of its interests it is virtually precluded from having an integral relationship with the ideas of its patron saint: politics and economics are institutionally pragmatic; philosophy necessarily directs itself to broader considerations. Thus all that is left of the philosophy of Marx, in this era of Marxism, is myth.
Among the most astute interpreters of Marx in recent decades was the late Marshall Berman, professor of political theory and urban studies at the City University of New York, who began contributing to The Nation in the late 1970s. In a book review from January 27, 1979, “Marx: The Dancer and the Dance,” Berman wrote of “an apparition [that] floated by me on Upper Broadway not long ago: a girl in a red T-shirt that displayed, on and around her breasts, a group of Karl Marxes, about four or five of them, in a semicircle, arms linked, smiling broadly, kicking their legs high in a rousing dance.” Intrigued, Berman concluded that “today’s Marxes have kept in touch with their youthful romantic visions of politics as dancing.”
We should be able to see, now, how absurd it would have been for Marx to finish his great work: how can Capital end while capital lives on? To stop simply and abruptly, rather than create an ending, preserves far more of the truth that Capital has to tell: circling, spiraling, plunging one way and another, turning in upon himself, seeking endlessly for new axes to turn on, Marx kept his thought and his work as open-ended, and hence as resilient and long-lived, as the capitalist system itself. This is why we are still only beginning to explore the depths of Marx’s thought: why he speaks to us in a voice fresher than ever today; why he will be dancing up Broadway when we are all dead…. Once we can feel the depths of Marx’s solitude and his need for connections with people and life, we will appreciate his achievement in creating real bonds between man and man. In the depths of Marx’s spirit, we can nourish our own.
Almost twenty years later, in a review of Verso’s republication of The Communist Manifesto on the occasion of its 150th anniversary, Berman assessed the state of Marxism after the fall of the Soviet Union:
What happened to Marx after 1917 was a disaster: A thinker needs beatification like a hole in the head. So we should welcome his descent from the pedestal as a fortunate fall. Maybe we can learn what Marx has to teach if we confront him at ground level, the level on which we ourselves are trying to stand….
The nineties began with the mass destruction of Marx effigies. It was the “post-modern” age: We weren’t supposed to need big ideas. As the nineties end, we find ourselves in a dynamic global society ever more unified by downsizing, de-skilling and dread—just like the old man said. All of a sudden, the iconic looks more convincing than the ironic; that classic bearded presence, the atheist as biblical prophet, is back just in time for the millennium. At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were workers who were ready to die with the Communist Manifesto. At the dawn of the twenty-first, there may be even more who are ready to live with it.
Those, indeed, are prophetic words.
Read Next: Tom Hayden: “Is This the Moment to Normalize US Relations With Cuba?”
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Researched by and written with Richard Kreitner.