The Motorcycle Diaries is a book based on a diary that Ernesto “Che” Guevara kept while on a lengthy journey through South American in 1951 and 1952 with his friend Alberto Granado. Guevara was 23 when he began the more than six-month trip, and was still in medical school (in his native Argentina) at the time. These aren’t raw diary entries, but are eloquently re-written vignettes based on the diary notes. The prose is excellent, poetic even. Guevara comes across as a more compelling version of beat writer Jack Kerouac, with more of a sense of purpose and minus the narcissism of Kerouac. There are a few comments here and there about politics and political economy, but for the most part this is just an engaging coming-of-age travelogue about two bohemian vagabonds getting to know a wider world and its people. Tennessee Williams‘ character Blanche duBois has the famous line in A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” That more or less perfectly describes Guevara and Granado’s approach to their expedition, as they lacked sufficient funds and provisions and therefore begged, connived, and (sometimes) worked for food, shelter, rides, and other provisions much of the time. Guevara has a keen eye for character and motivations as he describes the people he encounters. He also acknowledges the undercurrent of decadence in the trip. Some editions of the book reprint part of a 1960 speech Guevara gave that nicely adds context to how the expedition shaped his own character, and also contextualizing how such experiences are the sort of thing that are socially necessary in shedding goals that involve striving for individual recognition in favor of advancing common dignity. After his assassination, Jean-Paul Sartre would famously describe Guevara as “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age.” And as Thomas Sankara said about Che in a speech October 8, 1987 commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Che’s assassination, a week before Sankara too was assassinated, that Che “turned his back on the easy road in order, on the contrary, to assert himself as a man of the people, a man who makes common cause with the people, a man who makes common cause with the suffering of others.” He added, “Finally, let us remember Che simply as an embodiment of eternal romanticism, of fresh and invigorating youth, and at the same time of the clear-sightedness, wisdom, and devotion that only profound men, men with heart, can possess.” One can get a glimpse of why Sartre and Sankara, and so many others, said these things by starting with The Motorcycle Diaries, which sounds out a portrait of an imperfect human being trying to be better.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire is a founding document of the the “critical pedagogy” school of educational theory. In a nutshell, this school of thought takes Marxist–Leninist politics and combines it with the classic Socratic method. Along the way, it adds post-Leninist insights drawn from Fromm, Mao, Guevara, Fanon, and more. Freire doesn’t really ever mention it, but he approach is founded on the real Socratic method, not the bastardized anti-socratic thing called “The Socratic Method” in schools, especially western law schools. He also remains consistent with Leninist aims, citing What Is to Be Done? extensively, but really drawing from The State and Revolution principally. The most basic insights of “critical pedagogy” is this:
“Cultural action either serves domination (consciously or unconsciously) or it serves the liberation of men and women.”
This flows directly from the Leninist view that everything is political.
“Lenin’s famous statement: ‘Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement’ [What Is to Be Done?] means that a revolution is achieved with neither verbalism nor activism, but rather with praxis, that is, with reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed. The revolutionary effort to transform these structures radically cannot designate its leaders as its thinkers and the oppressed as mere doers.”
Freire is immanently practical. And just as Lenin routinely denounces “reformists” and “opportunists”, Freire picks apart the flaws of accommodations to elites and minor reforms.
“It would be naïve to expect oppressor elites to denounce the myth which absolutizes the ignorance of the people; it would be a contradiction in terms if revolutionary leaders were not to do so, and more contradictory still were they to act in accordance with that myth.”
But he also is great at pointing out common tactical errors of the political left:
“the Left is almost always tempted by a ‘quick return to poer,’ forgets the necessity of joining with the oppressed to forge an organization, and strays into an impossible ‘dialogue’ with the dominant elites. It ends by being manipulated by these elites, and not infrequently itself falls into an elitist game, which it calls ‘realism.'”
Sound like Alexis Tsipras and Syriza in Greece, no?
This is an excellent book, just as relevant today as when it was written. It is meant to be readable by general audiences. One flaw, however, is Freire’s repeated argument that humans are different from animals. This is basically hypocritical, in that he repeatedly argues that all humans are equal, but tries to convince readers of that point by arguing that humans are superior to other animals. Aside from the flimsiness of Freire’s argument here, it is one that ecological crisis has conclusively rendered untenable. As one latter-day Leninist put it, alluding to R. Buckminster Fuller‘s “Spaceship Earth” metaphor:
“We have to accept that we live on a ‘Spaceship Earth’, responsible and accountable for its conditions. At the very moment when we become powerful enough to affect the most basic conditions of our life, we have to accept that we are just another animal species on a small planet.”
Still, that unfortunate argument can be largely ignored. Given the importance of education to Leninist political philosophy (through the October revolution, Lenin was finally able to institute educational programs that his parents had been blocked from doing under the tsarist autocracy, this being one of his most lasting concrete political achievements), Freire’s views are crucial in expanding upon the the overall organization of education, primarily at a more adult level.
More than 15 years ago, Elaine Brown wrote a wonderful book named The Condemnation of Little B. It is both a sympathetic tale of Michel Lewis, known as “Little B,” who — when he was barely a teenager — was tried as an adult and convicted for a murder he most certainly did not commit, and a larger story of “New Age Racism” that explains why Little B’s individual story is, unfortunately, not all that unique.
The thrust of Brown’s analysis is conveyed by the way she recounts the prosecutor’s closing statement in Little B’s trial, which she says ended “with a dramatic flourish that revealed what the case against Little B was really about, about accommodating a powerful racist political socioeconomic agenda that at once invented and condemned black boys as superpredators.” (p. 336). This is part of the “New Age Racism” she describes, which is but an extension of old-fashioned racism:
“More than a century after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, more than 130 years since the legal end of slavery, the black communities of the United States effectively formed a third world enclave of subcitizens within the confines of this richest nation in the world. Indeed, among the richest nations in the world, the United States, as the richest, maintained the highest poverty rate, with blacks at the bottom.” (p. 355).
Brown’s scope is sweeping. She manages to balance a sort of fast-paced “true crime” courtroom drama with a broader social science analysis of societal tends, as well as injecting the story of her own involvement investigating the case — while making that merely a framework to tell the story in an engaging way, without being a distraction from the real substance of the book. The book opens with a tale of how Brown became aware of Little B and the dominant media narrative about him, which leads into an explanation of how her research ended up debunking that narrative. She returns to Little B’s trial at the end of the book. Throughout, it is as if she repeatedly asks, “Qui bono? [to whose benefit?],” in analyzing Little B’s situation and the actions of all the players involved.
In the middle part of the book, she covers the politicians who grandstand about being “tough on crime” while being fully aware of the racially discriminatory purpose and effect of the policies they enact behind a wall of public denial and feigned ignorance. She covers the police and prison functionaries who viciously enforce degrading policies, careful not to question their own moral culpability in the process. She discusses how courts have failed to uphold principles of universal justice, for instance, ruling that plea bargains for witnesses are shielded from laws against bribing witnesses that on on their face would make such prosecutors felons. She discusses prosecutors repaying political supporters by engaging in witch hunts and duplicitous prosecutions — she even tells about called a prosecutor duplicitous to his face. She critiques journalists of the so-called “fourth estate” who act as “an extension of the powerful” (p. 37) and who promote narratives that are contrary to fact but bolster the policies of ruling elites — others have called this a “propaganda model”. She calls out many who benefited from past affirmative action programs only to now kick the ladder away and deny others the benefits they themselves received. She also discusses how the United States’ “founding fathers” were unrepentant slave owners. In short, she portrays the larger context for how Little B’s story is the natural and intended consequence of the interrelated institutions of government, law enforcement, and society that today make up the politically dominant neoliberal program, itself a product of a top-down reassertion of power. And she names names. She never blinks in calling out by name the particular actors in Little B’s saga, or those on a regional or national level, even historical figures, who have acted to maintain systems of (racial) oppression.
The person who comes in her sights for the most criticism is undoubtedly former President Bill Clinton. There is a wealth of information here about Clinton’s duplicity, not only betraying campaign promises but ushering in the “New Age Racism” that Brown describes as a return to the Plessy v. Ferguson era. Central to this is the Clinton crime bill of 1994, which greatly expanded incarceration rates, predominantly among blacks, introduced severe mandatory sentencing, increased prison and law enforcement spending, and was an ignoble model for similarly severe state laws, combined with Clinton and Al Gore‘s legislative push (again an inspiration to states) to “end welfare as we know it.” Michelle Alexander‘s bestseller The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) basically just repeated points Brown had earlier made here. For that matter this trend was just a continuing part of what Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers called a “Right Turn” in American politics. It is summed up well by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu‘s metaphor of “the left hand and the right hand of the state” — with the “left hand” social welfare programs starved of funds and the “right hand” (really, more of a right fist) coercive police and military institutions expanded.
Brown’s research is astute and reliable. As one example, she even mentions government involvement in promoting drug trafficking in a way that acknowledges the still under-publicized history of such activities. She also peers into the so-called “prison-industrial complex” to explain how private for-profit prisons need a supply of prisoners, and how manufacturing companies exploit forced convict labor. She peppers statistics throughout the book to support her arguments, without ever becoming bogged down in them. This is how readers know that during the 1990s, there was a 465.5% increase in the number of blacks imprisoned for drugs! (p. 352). And, at that, mostly for victimless nonviolent drug charges.
While much of her general historical analysis relies on Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States, a central part of her discussion of the “New Age Racism” of the people directly and indirectly involved in Little B’s case leans on Malcolm X‘s parable about the “field negro” and the “house negro”. (See pp. 209-212). Brown adopts the parallel terminology “New Age House Negros” — the contemporary version of Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s “Uncle Tom” character. This is very much the same concept that political economist Ruy Mauro Marini noted (the same year Malcolm X was assassinated) in relation to a “sub-imperialism” that involved peripheral economies (like the Brazilian junta) collaborating actively with the imperialist expansion of core economies (like the United States), assuming in that expansion the position of a key nation. It is also something Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso, mentioned in his speech at the United Nations on October 4, 1984. For these “New Age House Negros” — Brown names people like Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, William Julius Wilson, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and others in this ignoble role — they are accepting personal benefits in exchange for betraying the larger cause of racial justice on a society-wide basis. It is worth quoting Brown at length here:
“More than merely advocating and sanctioning government policies that contributed to and maintained the wretched state of ghettoized and millions of other poor blacks, there had now come to be a new crop of Negros who, positioned to actually influence the outcome of government activity, were actively undermining the cause of improving the lot of blacks in America. Although their positions had been purchased with black blood in more than one hundred years of struggle, these new Negroes had become collaborators in a scheme that was imprisoning and further impoverishing more and more blacks. Given the moribund state of independent efforts by blacks for freedom, government policies and programs still represented the sole resort of blacks for redress and remedy for past harm, the sole relief and hope for the millions of Little Bs.” (p. 220).
These aren’t just blanket accusations. Brown goes into sufficient depth to identify precisely the positions publicly advocated, the benefits obtained, as well as contrasting examples for context. The people she criticizes generally deny these things, naturally, but Brown’s evidence in each case is more than adequate to convincingly show that these individuals got ahead by participating — as privileged collaborators and exceptions — to social systems of (racial) oppression. And she does that without leaning merely on a “Beautiful Soul” contradiction or the inadequate description of “tokenism”.
A useful critique she offers in passing is of rapper Sean “P-Diddy” (formerly “Puff Daddy”) Combs, and the way his music’s message revolves around “a presumed conflict between the ‘player’ — a ghetto black who has gotten rich — and the resentment of the ‘player-hater’ — the black still stuck in the ghetto.” (p. 240). As a contrast, the TV show Good Times had a season two episode in 1975 called “The Debutante Ball” in which the protagonist Evans family, living in a public housing project, is confronted by the Robinson family, led by a father who became rich, left the ghetto, and wishes to sever all ties and connections to it — and hence does not want his daughter to attend a debutante ball with J.J. Evans, who is from the ghetto. Unlike Puff Daddy/P. Diddy, who sides with the “player”, the Good Times episode has sympathies in the other direction, accusing the rich man (“player”) of forgetting where he came from and suggesting that he is being anti-social and betraying necessary black solidarity. This regression is precisely the point Brown makes so well about “New Age Racism.”
When it comes to the discussion of Little B’s trial, Brown is critical of mistakes that his own lawyer made. Actually, she felt that the senior defense attorney was ineffective and Little B would have been better served by his less experienced but more competent co-defense counsel. In some instances, Brown has the benefit of hindsight. Yet there were still some rather glaring errors and oversights made. Those were compounded by a disinterested judge droning on in a monotone voice — something all too typical in criminal cases. But Brown spends ample time on the prosecutor, who used “emotionalism to cover the barrenness of facts” in the state’s case. (p. 327). In other words, she calls her out for doing something that lowers public opinion of lawyers in general: like a magician using distraction to perform a sleight of hand illusion, the prosecutor makes an emotionally manipulative case that distracts from the cold impersonal evidence that leads to a different conclusion. Partly for this reason, some other countries use professional jurors, who can become more familiar with both courtroom procedure and tenth rate lawyer tricks, to perhaps see beyond them. For those interested, Brown does point a finger at the mostly likely murderer, a neighborhood drug dealer known as “Big E”, who avoided a life sentence on other charges as part of a deal with prosecutors to testify against Little B.
While Brown’s book is about as thorough and well grounded as could be hoped, there are a few minor points where it might be improved. Brown frequently reproduces quotes using “[sic]” to highlight supposed errors. In at least a few cases there are no errors to be found, and Brown comes across as trying to shame the quoted speakers/writers in an exceptionally petty way. Cornell West gets dissed here, which may have been fair at the time of publication, but since Brown’s book was published West has changed his public positions in ways that would seemingly satisfy Brown. She also comes close to taking a very reductionist stance on racism, nearly divorcing it from other factors like economics, though she always pulls back from falling into that trap — resoundingly so with an MLK quote that closes the book. Still, much of her analysis of political ideology comes up a bit short in general, left mostly to implication, and might have been bolstered by citing to some other authors who have already developed similar lines of thinking. Adolph Reed, Jr. comes to mind. It also would have been interesting, if a digression, to have read Brown’s views on the argument that race is a social construct not supported by scientific genetics. Anyway, back on point, in the middle part of the book Brown criticizes “Enlightenment” era thinkers in a somewhat slipshod way. She lists many of the big names, and then criticizes most of them. But, for instance, she never gets around to debunking Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which is curious because most of the framework of her book rests on concepts that run through Rousseau one way or another. It isn’t so much that her political/philosophical analysis is wrong as much as it is vague (arguably, symptomatic of her involvement in Green Party politics). Domenico Losurdo‘s Liberalism: A Counter-History was published after Brown’s book, which is too bad because it fills in the holes in Brown’s analysis in a perfectly complementary way. Losurdo argued that Liberalism is and always has been premised on the exclusion of some from enjoyment of its loudly self-professed support of freedoms and civil rights. He details at length how Liberalism has always advocated freedom while seeing no contradiction in supporting slavery at the same time — this being an essential aspect of Liberalism and not a deviation from it. Rather, Liberalism always places the maintenance of some form of social hierarchy, however softened or limited, above rights and freedoms. That is why the freedom that Liberalism promotes most strongly is ultimately only that of the unimpeded movement of economic capital. Brown is advocating for the universal applicability of personal freedom, seemingly free from the limits of hierarchy. This underscores something that is never explicitly stated in Brown’s book: she is really criticizing neoliberalism (the dominant strain of Liberalism at the time) from the left through the lens of one particular person’s story and the context behind it.
In this light, Brown’s book presents Little B’s case as a situation not terribly unlike the so-called “Dreyfus Affair” in Third Republic France a hundred years previous (1894-1906), in which an article by Émile Zola run under the iconic headline, “J’accuse!” publicized how the Jewish military captain Alfred Dreyfus was framed by military commanders. That case illustrates a political divide manifested through law enforcement and judicial proceedings. The basic split is between, on the one hand, those who believe that every person is equally entitled to a fair trial and that the innocent should never be punished for crimes they did not commit, and, on the other hand, those who believe in maintaining social institutions and traditions even at the cost of throwing a few innocent people in prison once and a while. The latter tend to evoke Plato‘s idea of a “noble lie” used by elites to sustain a society of their own design, and Kant‘s position that such lies must never be questioned or exposed or else the legal foundation of society will collapse. In this way, the people who throw innocents in prison often sincerely believe that they are doing good, even if they lie, plant evidence, deny access to an attorney, etc., because they are preserving a system that is necessary in their eyes — denying or concealing the essentially political choice involved in selecting a particular system in the first instance that puts some in power over others. Elaine Brown is of course on the former side, decrying the imprisonment and punishment of any innocent person, and, by extension, seeing corresponding change to existing social systems to equalize power relations as desperately needed and long overdue. Another reviewer put it well by writing, “She is witheringly good at exposing the myths that allow power groups, both black and white, to exploit and crush the weak with a comparatively untroubled conscience — all more or less veiled versions of racism, ranging from Jefferson‘s theories on why blacks can’t write poetry to today’s trumpeted ‘new phenomenon’ of young, black male ‘Superpredators’ sprouting in our midst.” Taking Losurdo’s analysis as a reference, this amounts to saying that the centrist neoliberals are, at a very fundamental level, actually more aligned with the conservative/reactionary right than they admit.
Brown does inject herself into the narrative, particularly in the very beginning and very end of the book. It is clear she rejects the so-called journalistic “ethics” of “non-involvement”, which can be questioned on moral grounds as being far too convenient for journalists. But her perspective adds to the story, and orients readers to the author’s perspective.
The Condemnation of Little B is a landmark. Unlike trashy, novelistic “true crime” books like Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood, which epitomize an emotionalism that sidesteps the deeper moral questions about social constructs and institutions, Brown dissects and critiques those overlooked questions with surgical precision. It is remarkably comprehensive, always defends the moral high ground, and is relentless in questioning the legitimacy of social power structures. Hats off to Brown.
Michael Lewis, “Little B”, remains in prison: http://freelittleb.com/
Link to a book review by Matthew Stevenson of Joan Brady‘s Alger Hiss: Framed – A New Look at the Case That Made Nixon Famous (2017) (previously published in 2015 as America’s Dreyfus: The Case Nixon Rigged):
“There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes ‘the practice of freedom,’ the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
Link to an article by Radhika Desai:
Walter Scheidel – The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press 2017)
Ah, more liberal-conservative historical drivel. Scheidel’s book follows in the ignoble footsteps of Steven Pinker‘s moronic The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff‘s discredited This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. That is to say it sidesteps and obscures crucial philosophical and ideological (and moral) questions in favor of lots and lots of quantitative data, analyzed with dubious methodologies.
I didn’t actually read this book. What I did do is a litmus test. I looked up anything about the Bolshevik revolution in the index, and read those pages. Scheidel cites Niall Ferguson (!!!!) primarily, and, in much the same way soviet history scholar Moshe Lewin has eloquently described regarding similar writings, engages in the lowest kind of anti-communist propaganda by singling out isolated incidents stripped of context and presenting them as representative.
Fortunately there is a book that already existed to (premptively) rebut Scheidel’s: War and Revolution: Rethinking the 20th Century, by Domenico Losurdo, which aimed to offer a “vigorous riposte” to “imperial revivalists”. The aim of Scheidel and his ilk is to assert that “there is no alternative” to inequality, and anything that redresses inequality (i.e., relvoution) cannot be contemplated. But why can’t it be contemplated? Scheidel does not engage this question in any serious way. But that is his aim: to bracket that question out of consideration and normalize the “structural violence” of actually-existing inequality, by lamenting it from a distance but taking any pragmatic solutions to it off the table. He is not concerned with the horrors of the status quo, only the alleged horrors that accompany any change of the status quo. To put it more bluntly, The Great Leveler is nothing but an apology for the status quo.
Take the opportunity to make a hard pass on Scheidel’s book and perhaps instead look to something by Losurdo.
Red Star Over Russia is one of the best English-language overviews of the birth and early decades of the Soviet Union. This is primarily a collection of visual materials, presented in large format with high-quality printing/reproduction. There are extensive annotations to contextualize the images, which increases the value of the book tremendously. This is really an essential collection. It is a very nearly necessary supplement to written histories and biographies of the era in question. For instance, the war photographs from the Great Patriotic War (WWII) are quite indescribable, and are, alone, the sorts of things every human being should be exposed to as part of a historical education.
There are, however, a few things to note about this book. King is a Trotskyist. So there is a disproportionate amount of material on Lev (Leon) Trotsky, and essentially no criticisms of Trotsky (such as of his well-documented arrogance). There is also a staunchly anti-Stalinist perspective. While documenting Stalin’s crimes is necessary, readers should be aware that the book is tilted against Stalin (and others) in a typical Troskyist way — without, say, the acknowledgment that many Troskytists have made in recent years that elements of Stalinism were inevitable in the USSR. Anyway, as a book that focuses on visual art, with tangential discussions of the text on propaganda posters and such, readers will have to look elsewhere to lean more about the music and writing over the early Soviet era — like the great writers Andrei Platonov and Mikhail Bulgakov. Moreover, there are a few misleading comments in the book. Take for instance an indication on page 308 that TASS window posters were “an-painted”. As detailed in Windows on the War, the TASS news agency did release a few window paintings that were free-hand painted on easel, in the manner King implies, but there were very limited. More common were (small-scale) reproduced stenciled posters with painterly effects (what today might be called “artisinal” in the West). although maquettes may have been initially hand-painted, these stencil posters were not free-hand painted. The images pages 308 and 309 of King’s book are stenciled reproductions (evident by the individual sheets glued together to form the overall image).
The criticisms of this book are all ultimately minor. King’s Trotskyist slant should, however, be noted by readers. Yet King certainly does not hide his outlook, which is commendable. Everyone has an outlook — there is no such thing as “objectivity” in these matters.