All posts by Syd Fablo

Colin Gordon – Democracy’s Critics

Link to an article by Colin Gordon, discussing Nancy MacLean‘s book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (2017):

“Democracy’s Critics”

There seems to be no justification for inserting the word “modern” in the phrase “modern right” here — see also on political struggle.

Bonus links: “Historian: Republican Push to Replace Obamacare Reflects Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America” and The State and Revolution

Elvis – Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite

Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite

ElvisAloha From Hawaii Via Satellite RCA Victor R213736 (1973)


Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite is a landmark in Elvis’ career, even if on purely musical terms if falls a little short of other live recordings of the era.  His manager Col. Tom Parker arranged the concert for broadcast via satellite, a historical first made possible by recent space-age technological advances, allowing a worldwide audience to watch the show live.  Well, almost.  The concert took place at the same time as Superbowl VII, meaning it did not air live in the United States.  But that didn’t matter.  Elvis performed regularly live all across the United States.  The global broadcast, however, introduced him to Asia.  The event is often cited as a key reason for Elvis’ enduring popularity in Japan — a sitting Japanese Prime Minister (Junichiro Koizumi) even visited his Graceland home decades later.

As for the music, the songs track the standard Elvis set list for the time period.  The videotaped performance shows Elvis unnerved.  He seems to be chugging along in some form of drug stupor.  But which one?  Nevermind.  While he may have been a huge star, a show this big and unprecedented surely put even him under stress.  He sings well, though not at his best.  This is big, gaudy, bombastic stuff.  So the songs that lean most heavily on the surging orchestra behind him tend to work to the greatest effect.  This is another fine live offering from a time when Elvis still “had it.”  It’s long, covers a lot of different types of songs, and walks right up to the line in terms of its kitsch factor.  It’s a good album to listen to just about any time.

Due to the novelty of a live satellite broadcast, the possibility of technical difficulties was significant.  So Elvis pre-recorded an entire show (later released as The Alternate Aloha), to be used during the broadcast timeslot if needed.  It wasn’t needed though.  Everything went as planned.  There were, however, five songs recorded without an audience appended to the original TV broadcast omitted from this album (posthumously released on Mahalo From Elvis).

Johnny Cash – I Walk the Line

I Walk the Line

Johnny CashI Walk the Line Columbia S-30397 (1970)


As a somewhat forgotten soundtrack to a somewhat forgotten movie, I Walk the Line (not to be confused with Johnny Cash’s earlier album of the same name) is actually a fairly decent album that fits perfects into Cash’s aesthetic of the early 1970s.  After big success in the late 1960s with a more “rock” sound courtesy of Carl Perkins on guitar, and getting a national television program in mid-1969, he turned back to a more “folk” sound.  This sound was established with Hello, I’m Johnny Cash (1970).  With Cash at the absolute peak of his popularity, choosing him to record the soundtrack to I Walk the Line made sense.  The movie was kind of a bust, as director John Frankenheimer has said that the studio insisted on Gregory Peck for the lead but that Peck was cast against type and not the right choice.

As for the soundtrack itself, it opens with the magnificent “Flesh and Blood,” which would be Cash’s last #1 country hit single — the only time he ever came close to topping the pop singles charts was with “A Boy Named Sue” at #2 in 1969.  The song is grounded in a gentle acoustic guitar part set against a very mellow walking electric guitar rhythm part, with a romantic lyric and sweet, almost saccharine, string accompaniment typical of what was regularly featured on his TV show.   Next there is a new recording of his hit “I Walk the Line.”  It’s a fine version, perhaps unnecessary, but it’s hard to argue with having another performance of one of the man’s best compositions.  The rest of the album is made up of mostly spare acoustic numbers, a few being instrumental versions of songs also presented with vocals.  “Hungry,” “‘Cause I Love You,” “The World’s Gonna Fall on You” and “Face of Despair” are just Cash with an acoustic guitar, reminiscent of the urban folk on Orange Blossom Special (1965) and looking toward the bulk of Man in Black (1971) but also re-establishing the basic format used on Cash’s American Recordings comeback in the early 1990s.  But it concludes with the medley “Standing on the Promise / Amazing Grace” sung by The Carter Family.  The closing song stands in contrast to everything else on the album (much like “Amen” on Orange Blossom Special), but it’s also quite endearing in its homespun, country church stylings.  On balance, this album doesn’t deliver much in the way of songwriting, save for “Flesh and Blood.”  Yet Cash’s performances are steady, assured and impassioned.  If you like any of Cash’s material of the early 1970s, this is one to seek out at some point.

Johnny Cash – Blood, Sweat and Tears

Blood, Sweat and Tears

Johnny CashBlood, Sweat and Tears Columbia CS 8730 (1963)


Blood, Sweat & Tears is a prime example of the great possibilities and nagging limitations of Johnny Cash’s string of concept albums of the 1960s.  First off, the album is a bit unwieldy and uneven.  That would be an almost universal characteristic of these concept albums organized around a particular theme.  Many of the songs, the opener “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer” especially, mix actual singing with what amount to skits.  Cash is often doing theatrical interludes, which are woven throughout the song in a way that prevents skipping over them entirely on subsequent listens.  So as much as his singing sounds great, it always seems like that enjoyment is broken up by a switch to narration and other theatrical radio-drama segments.  It’s not that these transitions are poorly executed as much as the premise behind them gets a bit tedious quickly and doesn’t bear out repeated listening well, especially when it drags on a bit too long as with the more than eight-minute opener.  Yet, on the plus side, the thematic premise of the album makes the whole something greater than just the sum of its parts.  It would be hard to call any songs here classics of the Cash cannon on their own, but they fit together well.  Lastly, it’s pretty apparent that this collection of work songs, railroad songs and folk standards was designed to appeal less to country fans than to listeners interested in the still-burgeoning urban folk movement, whose well-known names included Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, and others.  It makes the enterprise seem a bit forced at times.  So, honestly, Cash has done better concept albums, though this one is still decent.

Christopher Read – Lenin

Lenin

Christopher Read Lenin (Routledge 2005)


Read offers what might be called a generous liberal account of the life of Vladimir Ulyanov — better known by one of his pseudonymns, Lenin.  As others have pointed out, it is impossible to write an “objective” biography of Lenin.  On the one hand, it could be said that objectivity is impossible under any circumstance, regardless of the biographical subject.  But for Lenin, the problem of objectivity is more of a concern than ever.  Read dismisses most of the official Soviet Lenin biographies as hopeless, ridiculous hagiography.  He doesn’t bother to quote any of them to support that conclusion — as we will see, that problem recurs throughout the bio — but those Soviet-era biographies are available for free online and even quickly skimming them does reveal them as rank hagiography just as Read claims.  On the other side of the spectrum, many English-language Lenin biographies written in the West are tainted by overt anti-communist ideology.  Read repeatedly calls out Richard Pipes as one of the most biased writers on that front.  Read notes how such writers have an axe to grind and are interested in little else than dragging Lenin through the mud, usually by seeking anything (no matter how tenuous) they can use to support a narrative of Lenin as an inhuman monster of epic proportions, with a willingness to take events and statements out of context and ignore countervailing evidence.  Even Robert Service — Read says only positive things about his work — has been accused by many of anti-communist bias.  On the question of political perspective, Read is most definitely looking at Lenin from a liberal perspective, and that shows in places.  But the editorial comments from that political perspective don’t swallow the whole book.  This is the only English-language Lenin bio that the independent leftist scholar (if still to the political right of the Bolsheviks) Lars Lih recommends in Lenin (Critical Lives).

What Read does most admirably is to free up Lenin from what came later.  This is to say he spends little time trying to explain the policies of the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin and other leaders through reference to Lenin’s statements and writings.  He mostly avoids historical determinism and tries not to attribute posthumous events in the Soviet Union back to Lenin — a favorite tactic of anti-communist writers (even if those same writers wouldn’t think of saying that the practices of Andrew Jackson or Richard Nixon were the inevitable outcomes of the politics of Thomas Jefferson or James Madison).

This is a traditional biography, in that it is organized chronologically and focuses on being a repository of factual circumstances about Lenin’s life from birth through death.  It is not primarily an account of Lenin’s political ideas, though some of those are introduced.  Yet simply stating the facts of Lenin’s life in an accurate way is a challenge all by itself.  After Lenin’s death — and directly contrary to his wishes — Stalin built up a cult of personality around Lenin and the Soviet government went so far as to retroactively distort historical facts to suit whatever official government position prevailed at a given time.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the opening of previously secret Soviet archives has allowed for a much more complete and accurate biographic picture than would have been possible for much of the Twentieth Century.  And yet, a large number of English-language biographies (like Richard Pipes’) have used the archives for nefarious purposes, such as scapegoating Lenin and taking his positions out of context, usually to try to blame Lenin for being some kind of “root cause” for the crimes of Stalin and others long after Lenin’s death.

Read breezes through Lenin’s early life.  He is clearly less interested in that period.  Still, all the basic facts are there and Read doesn’t waste ink on pointless factoids.  The middle period of Lenin’s life, spent mostly in exile, is where Read really shines.  He does a good job condensing the period down without grave distortions, and manages to convey some feeling of what it was like to be there.  Though readers wanting to gain an understanding of Lenin’s political objectives in this period should look elsewhere. Lars Lih‘s Lenin (Critical Lives) is a good choice as a follow-up — it is not a conventionally biography but rather is a sketch of Lenin’s political ideas, with an emphasis on historically contextualizing them.  Lih makes clear that Lenin’s political outlook was centered on the use of the “heroic” narrative, and leadership by example.  Read’s book also includes a generous amount of information about Lenin’s relationship with his family, from the motivation that arose after his brother’s execution to the support that his mother and sisters gave him.

In the last part of the book, from the February (1917) revolution through Lenin’s death, the book is a little skimpy.  Read’s political biases are a bit more problematic here.  Read is clearly opposed to most of Lenin’s mature political ideas, and can’t bring himself to discuss them in any sort of sympathetic way, that is to say, without a distasteful sneer.  It is partly a problem of concision.  Read simply does not allot enough space to the crucial revolutionary period from 1917 on to contextualize Lenin’s views and so instead resorts to conclusory, unsupported generalizations.  Read’s book is understandably meant to be a compact and accessible biography, but readers should be warned that Lenin’s political views get short shrift in the last part of the book.

In the introduction, Read states that he will mostly cite to Lenin’s own writings when possible.  This later proves disappointing in that Read directly quotes Lenin rather sparingly, and more often relies on conclusory summaries (then again, more quotations would make this a much longer and very different book).  This creates a problem compounded somewhat by the (unhelpful) tradition of historians of not using footnotes to precisely identify the support for each statement.  For instance, Lenin famously argued (in The State and Revolution) against “bourgeois democracy” in favor of the Marxist concept of “smashing the [bourgeois] state” in order to rebuild it under the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, followed by a gradual “withering away of the state”.  Read does nothing to contextualize or explain these points.  He instead raises concern about Lenin’s critiques of (bourgeois) democracy.  But many academics have studied the question and there is considerable evidence a hundred years later to empirically support Lenin’s theoretical position.  C. Wright Mills is one, but also the liberal political scientists Martin Gilens & Benjamin Page recently showed (admittedly, after Read’s bio was published) that voting in the United States does not allow most people any significant influence on government policy, etc.  In other words, there is empirical evidence that Lenin’s points about bourgeois democracy being a fraud are well taken — Read’s criticisms are therefore counterfactual and principally ideological.

The book recounts Lenin’s public achievements as filtered through a liberal lens — only those that coincide with liberal views are discussed as being actual achievements, while Marxist/proletariat objectives that oppose liberal views are mostly treated unsympathetically if not in an openly disdainful manner.  For example, in the last part of the book, the crucial question of the Russian peasants and their central role in food shortages and famines is glossed over.  This is a tremendous omission.

And yet, Read does portray Lenin’s personal life as admirable.  The portrait of a personal character ideally suited to the role of statesman and the most prominent philosopher king (Read’s term) of the Twentieth Century is wonderfully drawn.  How many other world leaders published books while in office? — during a civil war and simultaneously under foreign invasion no less!  Read mentions that Lenin became angry when a bureaucrat gave him a modest raise.  Though unmentioned are other details that would contextualize Lenin’s years in political office, such as how he mostly ate cream of wheat and thin vegetable soup.  A minor detail, yes, but also one that emphasizes how profoundly different Lenin was from just about any major political leader then or now.

Another issue throughout the book regards Read’s occasional editorial comments.  For instance, he concludes that Lenin’s refusal to compromise was a personality defect.  He doesn’t really draw out that argument.  It is offered in a purely conclusory manner.  One could easily have argued this was Lenin’s greatest virtue.  Though really what Read means is that Lenin refused to compromise with bourgeois liberals, which is a sign that this is ultimately an unsympathetic biography.  Lenin was arguably more willing than most world leaders to change his position; only he remained dedicated to the egalitarian principles of Marxism.  He never succumbed to the liberal idea of endless debate to always put off the decisive bloody battle (to paraphrase Carl Schmitt‘s characterization of liberalism).  Lenin argued for the need to take things to the end.  In the neoliberal era (the period in which Read’s book was published), the essence of the dominant political ideology is destroying collective structures which may impede the pure market logic.  Surely no one would disagree that Lenin’s goal was precisely the opposite?  Read may not be a pure neoliberal, but he gravitates toward merely softening the ill effects of (neo)liberal ideology rather than resolving the underlying class-based contradictions the way Lenin advocated.  On the other hand, it could be argued that Lenin made numerous compromises, many of which are documented in Read’s book: adoption of the Menshevik agrarian land reform program, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (surrender to Imperial Prussia), the New Economic Program (NEP), etc.  Of course, all these represent strategic economic/political concessions to avoid compromises to liberal ideology.  But aren’t liberals just as insistent on the absolutism of their own process over substance ideology?

One of the most divisive aspects of Lenin’s political career is the Machiavellian nature of much of it.  Machiavelli’s work The Prince is often oversimplified as suggesting that “the ends justify the means”.  But that is an unfair characterization, in that Machiavelli was really arguing that a particular end — the founding of a republic — justified engaging in means that would otherwise be unacceptable.  Lenin deployed somewhat similar logic, but in a narrower way, namely, that eliminating class conflict to create a state based on egalitarian communist principles justified fighting back against class oppressors.  Lenin was very clear that the bourgeoisie were already fighting a class war against the working class — they simply obscure, conceal and deny the harms they inflict on the poor and the proletariat.  Some of that might today be termed “structural violence”.  Lenin wagered (accurately, in the case of Russia) that the ruling class would not voluntarily surrender any meaningful amount of power to the proletariat.  This concept that, in the general sense, violence is necessary for radical emancipatory projects, predated Lenin.  Far from being a hypocrite, Lenin simply discarded the liberal utopianism that avoids outright political struggle.  It took the French revolution to institute the metric system, and the October revolution to move Russia to the same (Gregorian) calendar as most of the rest of the world.  The belief that these seemingly “simple” things can be instituted merely through parliamentary debate is usually naive!

This book certainly won’t be the last word on Lenin and his life.  But, for English-language biographies, this keeps the anti-communist bias to a relative minimum, without getting past it entirely.  Readers looking for a more sympathetic treatment of Lenin’s ideas and actions as a public figure should look, first and foremost, to the writings of Slavoj Žižek (Revolution at the Gates, various short articles, and the forthcoming Lenin 2017), but Lars Lih also provides useful historical context (Lih is ultimately opposed to many of Lenin’s political ideas, though less so than Read).

[For a much better review of Read’s book that this one, and an unparalleled summary of other available English-language Lenin biographies, see Paul Le Blanc‘s “Lenin and His Biographers”]

Robert Wyatt – Cuckooland

Cuckooland

Robert WyattCuckooland Hannibal HNCD 1468 (2003)


Maybe the comparison might seem strange, but Robert Wyatt’s Cuckooland is something of a latter-day counterpart to Van Morrison‘s Astral Weeks.  The latter embodied the hope and optimism of the late 1960s.  Cuckooland, on the other hand, embodies the sense of caution and pensiveness, and the limited opportunities for the same sort of agenda 35 years later.  (The political agenda is [new] leftist, as is clear form the liner notes if nothing else).  Wyatt’s album is like a series of vignettes that evoke particular times and places of the past, good and bad, in order to preserve them and carve out some sort of respite from the onslaught of forces trying to erase them — and the possibilities they represent.   While there is a slight sense of resignation in this approach, Wyatt also brings each song vignette to life, as a kind of underground safehouse for those in the know.  As such, most of this leans toward exaggerated theatricality.  It is an appropriate way to make music like this, given that the forces that were at their peak in 1968 (when Astral Weeks was released) were at their nadir when Cuckooland was released.

I do find I have to be in just the right mood to hear this.  It doesn’t garner a lot of repeat listens for me, because that particular mood just doesn’t come along often.  But I love Wyatt’s solo piano rendition of “Raining in My Heart” under any circumstance — it is probably my most favorite recorded version of the song.

The Endtables – The Endtables

The Endtables

The EndtablesThe Endtables [AKA Process of Elimination] Tuesday 40983/4 (1979)


Forgotten Louisville, Kentucky punk band.  This was their only release during their existence.  Deserves reevaluation.  That singer might be the epitome of a disaffected punk.  He could hardly sound more disengaged and uninterested he’s so far behind the beat.  Yet the irony is if he really wasn’t paying attention he would probably end up on the beat at some point, by accident at least.  Good guitar too.

Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changin’

The Times They Are A-Changin'

Bob DylanThe Times They Are A-Changin’ Columbia CS 8905 (1964)


Easily my favorite Dylan record.  I can respect lots of his albums, but I have to be in just the right mood to ever want to listen to Blonde on Blonde, and even Highway 61 Revisited, great though it may be, isn’t something I listen to much all the way through.  But I always come back to this one.  It’s got some of Dylan’s best songs, including some that are unfairly neglected in his catalog (I can overlook the fact that “Boots of Spanish Leather” recycles “Girl from the North Country”).  He plays and sings with a kind of dedication that you might say is lacking on other albums, and his performances are much more effective than on his sometimes sloppy other early albums.  I know some people accuse Dylan of being too serious or militant on this disc, but I have a hard time respecting anything less than that.