Tag Archives: Non-Fiction

Ernesto “Che” Guevara – The Motorcycle Diaries

The Motorcycle Diaries

Ernesto “Che” GuevaraThe Motorcycle Diaries (Verso 1995)

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.

Elaine Brown – The Condemnation of Little B

The Condemnation of Little B

Elaine BrownThe Condemnation of Little B (Beacon Press 2002)

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/

David King – Red Star Over Russia

Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History Of The Soviet Union From 1917 To The Death Of Stalin Posters Photographs And Graphics From The David King Collection

David KingRed Star Over Russia: A Visual History Of The Soviet Union From 1917 To The Death Of Stalin Posters Photographs And Graphics From The David King Collection (Abrams 2009)

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.

Maria Lafont – Soviet Posters: The Sergo Grigorian Collection

Soviet Posters: The Sergo Grigorian Collection

Maria LafontSoviet Posters: The Sergo Grigorian Collection (Prestel Publishing 2007)

An interesting book reproducing poster art from the Soviet Union from 1917 to the 1980s.  All of the reproduced posters come from the private collection of Sergo Grigorian.  While many are rare posters — the Soviet government did not value preservation of posters as “art” — this is a somewhat arbitrary and partial representation of what Soviet poster art encompassed.  It specifically leans toward posters mass-produced using lithographic techniques.  Fortunately, there are numerous other books (in English) on Soviet art that can be consulted to gain a wider perspective, including catalogs of individual artists like Aleksandr Zhitomirsky, Aleksandr Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Gustav Klutsis, Viktor Koretsky — not to mention in-depth treatments of photography, photomontage, constructivism and socialist realism in general.  David King‘s Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History Of The Soviet Union From 1917 To The Death Of Stalin Posters Photographs And Graphics From The David King Collection is also a more comprehensive multi-media collection of Soviet historical and artistic materials, with explanatory text that greatly aids in contextualizing the materials.  While Soviet Posters may be a very second-tier book on Soviet art, it is reasonably-priced, widely available, and still full of interesting images.

There are a few particular things worth noting about this book, pro and con.  The book has a short introduction, which is highly general and rather short, but deserves to be commended for avoiding the anti-communist editorializing that is endemic to so many English-language books about the Soviet Union — by way of comparison, Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-1945 has much more detailed text but contains many irrelevant anti-communist editorial comments.  On the negative side, the lack of text makes contextualizing these posters more difficult, and the identifications of the titles and other background information is printed sideways and partially in a back index, which increases the difficulty in finding and reading such information.  The editor does not translate all of the posters’ text to English, usually only the titles.  Only a select few posters have additional explanatory text.  That added text is helpful, and one wishes there was (much) more of it.  Then again, better to have no text and let the posters stand on their own than to have merely anti-communist exhortations.

The book is organized chronologically, which presents a fascinating look at some of the changes in the poster art form across Soviet history.  The early years feature interesting innovations.  The Stalin years, and during the Great Patriotic War (WWII), the posters start to lack ingenuity and become drab and bleak — that holds for those posters selected for this book, but not for all Soviet art of the era.  But then during the Khrushchev era there are again more interesting posters presented.

It is common to identify these as “propaganda” posters.  While that is fair, the excessive emphasis on “propaganda” content by commentators is usually hypocritical.  These Soviet posters were explicitly and overtly political and ideological.  Look to any capitalist (or monarchist) country, by way of comparison, and the art is just as propagandistic.  Take, for instance, the film The Pursuit of Happyness, which is conservative, neoliberal capitalist propaganda.  So often, that other art simply denies its ideological content — it is ideology masquerading as post-ideological neutrality, much akin to “end of history” theory of the conservative political scientist Francis Fukuyama.  It is refreshing to see artworks that openly admit their propagandistic content.

I visited the Art Institute of Chicago recently and was struck by how the entire collection on display focused on artwork from capitalist, feudal, and related cultures.  There was an almost complete lack of any artwork from communist/socialist/anarchist/etc. societies.  The museum had featured temporary exhibitions on such art in the past, and their gift shops had commemorative books on the subject.  But it is good that this sort of art is being widely published, though there is still a ways to go to overcome anti-communist biases that still suppress it and relegate it to an inferior status.  This sort of artwork deserves, at a minimum, a place in the permanent collections of major museums and to be placed on regular display.

Christopher Read – 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 this book.  There are other books that treat Lenin’s final years more fully.  For instance, Moeshe Lewin‘s Lenin’s Last Struggle is a short and readable summary of how Lenin fought against despotism during his last years, despite crippling health problems, and sought to block the rise of Stalin.  Read clearly disagrees with that characterization, arguing that Lenin had only minor and mostly personal qualms with Stalin near the end of his life.  Though in The Soviet Century Lewin notes that the opening of the Soviet archives added further support for the Lenin’s Last Struggle thesis and against Read’s position.

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 are palatable to 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.  Moreover, Read spends much time on Lenin’s period of exile, when he was endlessly arguing over matters of theory and party organization — precisely the sort of endless debate that is the centerpiece of Liberalism — while frowning upon Lenin’s period of revolutionary action toward the end of his life.

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 on substantive political theory 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 as if it is self-evident.  Yet one could easily have argued this was Lenin’s greatest virtue.  Though really what Read implicitly 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 pure market logic.  Surely no one would disagree that Lenin’s goal was precisely the opposite?  Read may not be a full-fledged 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”]

Marc Woodworth & Ally-Jane Grossan – How to Write About Music

 How to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers

Marc Woodworth & Ally-Jane Grossan, EditorsHow to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers (Bloomsbury 2015)

The implicit premise of the book is really “how to get paid to write about popular music in a journalistic setting“.  This is not a book that talks about how to publish a book about music (biography, academic text, etc.).  It does not deal with getting a job writing the text for programs to euro-classical orchestral concerts, as just one more example.  While much of the book admirably tries to offer tips on the mechanics of writing for newspapers, magazines and large web sites, readers should bear in mind the underlying assumptions of the editors who put this together.

It is inevitable that all critics write from a certain cultural perspective.  Readers either share (or aspire to) that cultural perspective, or they don’t.  But more than that, professional critics for newspapers and magazines tend to get caught up in the economics of a popular music industry that, as a whole, makes money hyping one fad after another, covering the release of new recordings in order to generate demand for live performances.  The biggest problem this cultivates in critics is a tendency to foster a kind of privileged clique of insiders who are “up to date” on the latest fads.  Their writing accordingly spends as much — or more — effort developing and maintaining that sense of insider elitism as it does explaining and contextualizing the music that is ostensibly the focus of their written pieces.  A few contributors here acknowledge this and describe it as reasonable and inevitable.  But of course, it is neither of those things.  Yet writers do need to either choose the path of “professional” writing laid out in this book, or reject it, and only by overcoming the underlying assumptions and dictates of “capital”, that is, the large media businesses that pay professional music writers, can writers actively reject such dictates.  Of course, some writers are just shills who will say just about anything for a sufficiently large paycheck, or too dim-witted to comprehend what is going on.  But more insidious are those who simply internalize the dictates of their industry, constrained by dependence on their salary to not say anything against industry interests.  That can fairly be called “drinking the Kool-Aid.”  On the other hand, it is worth remembering that most critics who eschew remuneration do what they do to advocate for certain music against the commercial marketplace.  Critics often want to praise was has yet to or may never garner commercial success, which doesn’t necessarily reject elitism but merely shifts focus from an economic sphere toward a cultural/symbolic sphere.  So they don’t get off the hook so easily either.

Another aspect of this book is its liberalism.  Liberalism describes the political outlook of nearly all the contributors, and especially the editors.  There is a pervasive belief that the post-WWII golden years of the working class — the time when pop/rock journalism was first created — represents the norm.  Such an outlook is the embodiment of liberalism.  People on both the political left and right of liberalism see the post-WWII years in the global West as a historical anomaly — but with different subjective reactions.  On the Right, the post-WWII welfare state was a tragedy, and they make attempts to return to a new gilded age, or even to outright feudalism.  On the Left, there is a desire to re-attempt a Paris Commune or other egalitarian utopia, which the welfare state was an attempt to stave off.  While in places some contributors acknowledge that popular music criticism of the type the book emphasizes is a uniquely post-WWII creation, it definitely stops short of acknowledging any sort of coherent theory of why that is.  So questions like the following are outside its scope: is popular music largely a creation of the working class and, if so, wouldn’t bourgeois capital therefore want to suppress or undermine working class aspirations in the long-run by under-funding and co-opting musical criticism?  Before WWII, there was something known as the “Cultural Front” and the theories of “Cultural Hegemony” or a “Culture Industry,” or even of a “Leisure Class” that drew connections like this on the political left.  On the flip side, around WWII and the dawn of the welfare state, you have people on the political right like Ayn Rand writing The Fountainhead to advocate for toppling an existing aristocracy to (de facto) install another, with a firm insistence that the reasons for doing this cannot be questioned (because “A is A” and this is “objectivism”, among other nonsense retorts), followed after the war by the open attacks of the McCarthy witchhunts that eliminated almost all viewpoints to the left of centrist liberalism.  With the ascendancy of conservatism during the neoliberal “austerity” age, the working class base for music criticism has shrunk along with the sort of journalistic outlets that went along with it.  In short, the economy as a whole has shifted away from the one that for a brief window of time supported a robust middle and working class base interested in “legitimate” popular music criticism (i.e., from a working/middle class perspective), and critics and readers seeking to bolster it during its decline necessarily see the conservative shift as a negative, while still retaining the elements of professional elitism that largely keeps them at a distance from the political left whose militancy once arguably brought about the conditions for it in the first place.

Anyway, the contributors to How to Write About Music surely have the editor’s implicit assumptions in mind.  Numerous contributors, for instance, mention writing on an amateur basis for free on a web site of your own creation.  Some even go so far as to praise the “democratization” that web sites provide in that respect (other contributors are clearly threatened by it).  They mention these things as they chafe against the narrowness of the questions posed to them by the editors of this book.  It is to the credit of the editors that they leave these things in the book.

A number of contributors here make the same joke: in order to survive as a music writer, you should have a trust fund.  In other words, the means for making a living doing professional music criticism are limited at best.  Give up hoping against the odds!  But those jokes kind of avoid the larger implications.  Mostly, this book is about the mechanics of the current music industry: how to submit a successful proposal to an editor, how to take notes for a concert review, examples of the most common formats for the most common things editors publish.  And much of that discussion is pretty shallow.  Most writers will intuitively understand that you can prepare to write a concert review by bringing a notepad to the concert and scrawling some notes, expanding upon them later.  The more interesting of these discussions of industry mechanics describe the editorial process and the various defenses of the status quo offered by editors who retain a large degree of control in that arena.  The short take home message, once summarized obliquely by David Graeber, is that you only get to do what you want (write about music!) if before and above that you are a salesperson.  If you can’t “sell” (pitch) to editors effectively, you will be denied access to the largest mass-media publishing platforms.  End of story.  Those parts of the book resemble Chad Harbach‘s MFA Vs NYC The Two Cultures Of American Fiction, which detailed the two leading commercial hubs in the United States for fiction publishing (see also the companion e-book, Vanity Fair’s How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding by Keith Gessen).  The editorial pitch process is driven by emotional “gut” reactions, not rational decision-making, and there is absolutely nothing like a meritocracy in play.  The editors of How to Write About Music do not intend to make that topic the focus of this book, and certainly never question editors who go along with that regime, but at the edges this emerges and the occasional statements along these lines provide some of the most valuable information documented here.  Yet implicit in much of the book is a crude and tentative attempt to disabuse readers of the myth of a meritocracy in the world of published music writing.

The writing samples, culled from books, magazines, etc. are generally underwhelming. This reviewer has been largely unimpressed with the 33 1/3 book series, which seems to range from tedious drivel to the mediocre, with a few exceptions.  It is therefore unsurprising that a book by and about music writers this reviewer finds to be mostly bad or mediocre would have limited appeal.  Even excerpts drawn from places beyond the 33 1/3 book series are no better, and tend to be from the likes of Alex Ross and other writers working for urban liberal publications, especially a few web sites like The Quietus (which this reviewer has largely dismissed as uninteresting liberal multiculturalist blather).

So, on the one hand, readers who accept the basic premises of this book may actually find a lot they like.  On the other hand, readers should very much question the basic premise of the book and what it represents.

William S. Burroughs – The Best of William Burroughs from Giorno Poetry Systems

The Best of William Burroughs From Giorno Poetry Systems

William S. BurroughsThe Best of William Burroughs from Giorno Poetry Systems Mercury 314 536 701-2 (1998)

Burroughs was the godfather of the Beats.  And yet, his extensive career giving spoken word recitations is, in a way, just as significant as his writings themselves (most of his readings were of his own writings) — setting aside entirely his sonic cut-up audio field recordings and mixed media visual artworks.  As a live performer, he worked his way through small venues, much like punk bands (and often in the same clubs that did punk shows).  His intonation, pacing and inflection did evolve though.  Listening to four CDs of material covering a long stretch of time reveals how he fine-tuned his delivery over time.  He mastered his sneering, nasal delivery, with certain words drawn out for effect, speaking often in a kind of deadpan but breaking from it regularly for emphasis.  And comparing these recordings from 1975 onward shows marked advancement over his 1960s recorded monologues.

Burroughs came from a fairly privileged upbringing and was highly educated.  He mostly used that background to more effectively mock rich elites and document what goes on in the world outside the realm of respectability.  He gets inside the self-important, smug and arrogant sense of entitlement in cutting, satirical narratives, which often explore basic countercultural themes and the realities of life for the poor.  His aloof, profane, magnificently unsentimental, and often scowling demeanor had a way of depicting vileness with an icy frankness that makes his accounts endearing, in their own startling and unexpected way, fostering a kind of cabal or union of outcasts and freaks who are onto the cons too.  As Barry Miles said about Burroughs in an interview, “His overall concern was always to confront control systems and attack them.  In literature it was usually done through humour . . . where he would take ideas to some absurd length which breaks through all the normal boundaries of good taste and decorum and it was often hilariously funny.”  No doubt, Burroughs exudes a kind of political libertarian populism, but it runs close anarchism.  At his best (and this Best of collection surely lives up to delivering the man at his best) he could hilariously depict the “country simple” wisdom of the underclasses as fully aware of the grim power struggles playing out under the guise of “neutral” politics that just so happen to prop up elites (something that was most explicit in his essays and Cities of the Red Night).  Burroughs was always on the look out for new techniques to disrupt the smooth functioning of oppressive social structures, taking particular glee in uncovering the overlooked (if not explicitly hidden) and elemental institutional mechanisms that maintain such relations between people.  He can be delightfully ruthless in exposing the vile motives of the self-satisfied “pillars of the community,” like doctors, journalists, police, and so on.  Burroughs’ characters are sometimes surprisingly conventional, even as he takes a very unconventional approach to developing and introducing those characters.  Burroughs also knows how to deliver an iconic catchphrase, taking colloquialisms to new heights by building so much around them to contextualize their lasting value.  He can also summon a sense of paranoia like few others.  And all this is not to mention his pervasive interest in fringe theories: UFOs, orgone accumulators, and that sort of thing.

Burroughs’ writings were often picaresque, heavily influenced by Céline, but also drawing on the influence of Denton Welch, Rimbaud, Genet, Conrad and others.  The picaresque style lends itself to short — and humorous — readings, the excerpts able to stand on their own.  But from Welch, Burroughs also drew on an ability to describe the ordinary in an uncommon way, and how to reveal with honesty that which is obscured.  Burroughs is able to summon and expand on those qualities in his readings.

As to the actual recordings here, they are mostly arranged chronologically by the date the underlying text was published — irrespective of when the audio was recorded, to some extent.  Then the last disc features a segment called “Nothing Here Now But the Recordings,” which are not based on any previously published text, but includes lectures and audio experiments, such as the “inching” technique Burroughs employed by manually moving magnetic audio tape through a recorder.

Burroughs actually made many, many commercially released recordings.  This set is exclusively material released on John Giorno‘s label Giorno Poetry Systems, often originally released on albums with contributions from many different performers (rather than exclusively from Burroughs).  There are many more Burroughs recordings out there, very few of which were ever sold in any quantity.  What is here focuses primarily on spoken word recitations, mostly readings of Burroughs’ own published writings.  The recordings not present here delve more fully into experimental sound collages (see Real English Tea Made Here) and collaborations with musical groups (see Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, The Black Rider).  But there are also various other spoken word albums Burroughs made that were simply made for other record labels (see Call Me Burroughs, Break Through in Grey Room, etc.).

Reading Burroughs is near mandatory.  But a complete picture of the man’s work requires exploring his other efforts, especially his audio recordings.  The Best of William Burroughs From Giorno Poetry Systems makes an ideal introduction to those audio recordings.  And just as to Burroughs’ outlook, a world that continues to lurch closer to a police state can stand to learn from Burroughs’ intelligent studies in ways to counteract those tendencies.