Sunday, April 24, 2016

C. L. R. James – Every Cook Can Govern

A study of Democracy in Ancient Greece – Its Meaning for Today

A review

Back in the 1970’s I had the opportunity of listening to C. L. R. James speak on three different occasions.  These events were held at the Militant Labor Forum sponsored by the Socialist Workers Party in Brooklyn, New York.  From what I recall, James impressed me as few other speakers I’ve heard in my lifetime. 

Brooklyn, if taken by itself, is one of the largest cities in the United States.  A large part of the Black population of this borough was born or has family from the Caribbean or Africa.  On the occasions when I listened to C. L. R. James speak, there was a large turnout of people who viewed him as an outstanding leader from the Caribbean.

James was born in Trinidad.  He worked for a time as a sports reporter for the Manchester Guardian in Britain.  He supported the idea of Marxist politics.  For a time, he gravitated to the Socialist Workers Party and met with Leon Trotsky in Mexico.
His book The Black Jacobins is a classic historical work.  The so-called history we learn in high school is a glorification of the history of the United States and Europe.  In The Black Jacobins, James explained how a revolution of slaves in Haiti defeated the British, Spanish, and French armed forces.  This book was one of the first that prompted my lifelong curiosity of history.

James’ article, Every Cook Can Govern is available on the internet in the Marxist Internet Archive.  While the article was written in 1956, it could have been written yesterday.  The article shows, from a historical point of view, what a democracy looks like.  The politicians who support the current political system in the United States argue that we have a democracy.  This argument falls apart when we look at the reality that existed in the city-state of Athens around 400 BC.

The pros and cons of Athenian democracy

Before I write about the benefits of Athenian democracy, I will mention its shortcomings that led in part to its demise.  The ancient city-state of Athens was a slave society.  There were also many people who lived in Athens who were not born there and did not have citizenship rights.  Women were also excluded from government.  During the period when Athens had a “democracy” the population was about 400,000, but no more than 43,000 were citizens.

In my readings of slavery, I’ve found that technological innovation was very difficult where slavery was the law.  In order for technology to advance there must be a climate where inventors are encouraged to create.  There must also be workers who have an incentive to transform inventions into useful commodities.

In slave societies, slaves have little interest in scientific innovation.  Slave owners have little or no interest in educating slaves.  The primary goal of the slave isn’t to develop new technologies, but to become free.  However, history has all kinds of exceptions and the facts are that the ancient city-state of Athens made some of the most important advances in human history.

Athens was also an imperial power that went to war to dominate the people of other nations.  There is no question that on occasions the Athenians were brutally repressive against the people they conquered.  Because Athens was not capable of sustaining itself, dominating other nations was the only way for their world to advance.  Because of the advances in technology, today the people of the world have the potential to advance together.  This means that under a truly democratic political system workers and farmers would be able to live in harmony. 

We might consider that C. L. R. James found no contradiction in writing about the democracy of the Athenian slave world and also writing about the slave revolution in Haiti.  Before democracy, Athens had experienced a number of repressive regimes.  According to Aristotle, the influence of the Greek Hill party was the basis for Athenian democracy.  This Hill party was made up of artisans, small shopkeepers, indigent peasants, miners, as well as the more progressive merchants and manufacturers.     

C. L. R. James gives the following summary of some of the most important Greek scholars:

“Epic poetry – Homer, Dramatic Poetry – Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, Comedy – Aristophanes, Lyric poetry – Pindar and Sappho, Statesmen – Solon, Themistocles, and Pericles, Sculpture – The Master of Olympia, and Phidias, Oratory – Dernosthenes, History – Thucydides and Herodotus, Philosophy – Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato, Science and mathematics – Pythagoras, and Archimedes, Medicine – Hippocrates.”

All these intellectuals flourished in an atmosphere the Greeks called isonomia.  This word translates to democracy, but for the Greeks this word also meant equality.  This meant that literally all Greek citizens participated in making decisions that affected everyone.  Those who chose not to participate in this process were labeled idiotes.  This is translated to the word idiot. 

Decisions in democratic Athens were made in public assemblies.  These assemblies appointed officials, generals, and decided on the questions of taxation and war.  Every year 6,000 people became the effective government.  They were divided into groups of 500.  These people were citizens who were chosen at random and made all decisions of government that included trials by juries of 500.  Judges were mere secretaries who took notes and followed the orders of the 500 who were charged with making the final decisions.

The consciousness of the Greek citizen in these societies was completely different from what it is today in the United States.  Greek citizens didn’t think of themselves as individuals, but as people who were a part of society as a whole.  This meant that everyone’s rights were respected.  Those who felt they were in any way better than anyone else were ridiculed harshly.

Materialism vs. idealism

The Marxist George Novack also wrote about Athenian democracy in his books Origins of Materialism and Democracy and Revolution.  Novack argued that the two principal schools of philosophy are materialism, vs. idealism.  Materialism argues that all thought comes from the material world.  Idealism argues that the mind operates independently from material reality.  Therefore idealists argue that God exists even though there is no physical evidence of this. 

The debate between idealism and materialism took place in ancient Athens.  Materialists were able to make scientific innovations because of their study of science.  Materialists also studied the events of their times without any preconceived ideas of what should or should not be reported. 

Idealists also made legitimate criticisms of the materialists.  Clearly the Athenians did not have the knowledge we have today which led the materialists to make errors.  However, the Athenian materialists were the ones who first recognized that all matter was made up of tiny particles.  Centuries later Albert Einstein confirmed this theory and labeled these tiny particles atoms.

We should also recognize that the Greeks of this time were deeply religious.  However, the religions of those days attempted to explain the world as it was and not to argue that a supernatural being was responsible for all creation.  The Greeks rotated their religious clerics as they rotated their government officials.  This idea that everyone participated in government and religion led C. L. R. James to title his article, Every Cook Can Govern.

Democracy before the Athenians

In my readings of history I’ve found that many aspects of Athenian democracy were not new.  What was new was the fact that the Greeks of that era made a somewhat thorough written record of their world.  Of the developed societies of their era, the Athenians were ones who best utilized democratic norms.

Throughout most history human beings lived in communal societies.  We know of these societies from the writers who studied tribal people from all over the world.  In these societies decisions were made through discussions and leaders were chosen and removed through these discussions. 

Unlike Greek democracy, we know that women experienced much more equality in these societies.  Lewis Henry Morgan wrote about the real political power women had in his studies of the Iroquois who lived in what is now the state of New York.

The opportunity to establish a true democracy

Looking at history from this perspective we can appreciate George Novack’s statement about the reality of the so-called “democracy” in the United States.  Novack argued:

“A system in which the people do not control the most important decisions and actions of the government, their economy, their welfare or the course of their lives can hardly be considered genuinely democratic.  It can be more precisely defined as a plutocracy dressed in democratic disguise.”  A plutocracy is a government that serves the interests of the affluent.

Looking at history from this perspective, we can see how working people have the potential to transform the nations of the world into a genuine democracy.          


Saturday, April 9, 2016

What does community control mean?

In 1944 Woody Guthrie first performed his song This Land is Your Land.  Guthrie wrote this song as an alternative to Irving Berlin’s song God Bless America.  Guthrie lived with working people and frequently saw many who didn’t have enough food to eat.  He argued: “I stood wondering if God blessed America for me.”

The original lyrics for This Land is Your Land included the words, “There was a big wall that tried to stop me.  The sign was painted ‘Private Property.’”  These words illustrate that Guthrie fully understood that the land in this country did not belong to the people.

In the year 1848 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote another famous piece of literature titled, The Communist Manifesto.  This manifesto concludes with the words, “Workers have nothing to loose but their chains.  They have the world to win.  Workers of the world unite.”

Nothing to loose but our chains?

Today, there are workers who own homes and cars and might argue with this statement.  There are also workers who had jobs and provided for their families.  Then, corporations eliminated these jobs and left the workers with essentially nothing.  This happened to me more than once.

In the year 2008 the financial system had a near collapse.  The government postponed this catastrophe by using literally trillions of dollars to purchase loans that banks gave up on.  The government chose to cover up this operation by using the innocuous term quantitative easing to describe it.  This is why the argument of Marx and Engels that, “workers have nothing to loose but your chains,” continues to be relevant.

We might also ask the question: Why did Marx and Engels argue that we have nothing to loose but our “chains?”  Clearly, we aren’t chained to our jobs the way slaves wore chains on the plantations or slave labor camps.  However, I believe we are chained to corporate power through what might be called invisible chains.

We all need to follow the rules as laid out by corporations.  They tell us what to do, when to do it, and how it needs to be done.  Clearly, we are free not to follow their orders, but then we can loose jobs and join the ranks of the unemployed who might not have enough food to eat.  These are the invisible chains Marx and Engels wanted us to discard. 

Why do we need to take control of our communities?

Understanding this argument, we might ask another question.  What would it mean to take control of our communities?  In order to even think about this idea, I believe we need to think about establishing a completely different kind of government.  Why is this necessary?

Today corporations spend hundreds of billions of dollars every year in an attempt to convince us that a particular product is the best.  They call this advertising.  With all this investment, we might think that the quality of commodities is the primary concern of corporations.  We know this is not true.  The law actually requires corporate officers to make the drive to maximize profits their primary concern.  These CEO’s could loose their jobs for failure to generate a sufficient profit.

While government officials argue that their first priority is to serve the people, they don’t mention which people they serve.  Literally all government policy is designed to serve the interests of corporations.  Government regulations usually are about squeezing out small corporations to make way for the big ones.

What is community control?

So, what am I talking about when I refer to true community control?  First, we need to establish a government where human needs are the priority over profits.  While this might appear to be unrealistic, given the current political climate, we might consider a few facts.

The most important consideration is the fact that working people, throughout the world, have a long history of struggle.  The United States became a nation because of a political revolution.  In order to abolish slavery there was a second revolution called The Civil War.  There have been political movements that advanced the interests of labor, women, black people, immigrants, Native Americans, as well as movements against wars.

We might also consider something that the universities in this country don’t teach.  The laws of the capitalist system drive the economy towards a complete collapse. 

Anyone with Internet access can Google the question: How much money is invested in derivatives?  The latest answer that I’ve seen was $1.2 quadrillion.  A quadrillion is a thousand trillion.  Derivatives have no real value and are basically bets on the future of the economy.  It is only a matter of time before these funds won’t be worth the paper they are printed on.

So, given the facts that the economy will collapse and working people have the capacity to transform the world, there is a real possibility that we can become a part of an international movement aimed at gaining control of our communities.

First, a workers government would advance a discussion aimed at determining the kind of world we want to live in.  This might mean that in the cities we might change from auto to rail transport.  We know that rail transport is much more fuel-efficient.  We know that a rail transportation system wouldn’t be subject to traffic jams, or parking issues, and we know that rail can be made much safer than auto.  In fact, if someone wanted to have a drink on their way home, taking the train wouldn’t endanger anyone’s life.            

If we organized society to make human needs the top priority, we wouldn’t need insurance companies, or banks, or advertising agencies, or corporate lawyers, or corporations.  This would mean that we wouldn’t need to work as many hours to purchase the things we need and want. 

I think it is worth thinking about what it would mean to have true control over the places where we work.  Jobs would provide the things we need working fewer hours.  We would elect leaders and the job of a boss would be eliminated.  We would democratically decide all the conditions we work in.  We would coordinate this work with all the enterprises in the world.

The idea of closing down a factory so a corporation would have better profits would only be mentioned in history courses.  Everyone would not only have the right to a job, but also the lifetime rights to; education, health care, a decent place to live, transportation, communication, clothes, food, as well as exposure to cultural activities.  The only reason why these rights might appear to be unrealistic is that we live in a capitalist system where the fruits of our labor go to a tiny minority.

Imagine what it would mean if all enterprises did their best to work in harmony with the environment.  The cities would be transformed into gardens with trees everywhere.  Enterprises would manufacture commodities that would be recycled eliminating the need for enormous amounts of garbage.  Homes would be properly insulated.  This would eliminate the need for substantial amounts of electrical power.

However, the biggest change would be in the way we think.  Today, we go to work every day to provide for ourselves and our family.  A workers government would make it their top priority to insure that the needs of literally everyone would be guaranteed.  This would mean that the motivation for working would be about making the world a better place for everyone.  This change in consciousness will be the foundation of how the world can be transformed.

Today the nation of Cuba doesn’t have many of the conveniences we have in this country.  However, every Cuban has the right to a lifetime of health care and education.  Cuban health care workers and educators have travelled the world to educate and care for people who have been deprived of these human necessities.  So, we can see that this kind of transformation in consciousness has already happened on an island of eleven million people.

Malcolm X understood that Black people in the United States have the potential to become a part of an international movement aimed at gaining real control of communities where they live.  This is only one reason why his speeches continue to be inspiring. 

Understanding what real community control would be gives us insight to the idea that none of the candidates in the Democratic, Republican, or Green Parties advocate for a workers government.  240 years of history in this country gives us ample evidence that capitalism will not be reformed to meet the needs of the majority of the population.    

Today nearly a billion people in the world do not have enough food to eat.  The United Nations estimates that every day 30,000 children die of preventable diseases.  The United States has more people living in prison than any other country in the world.  Wars have needlessly decimated entire nations murdering millions.

Working people have the capacity to transform this world.  Yes, we can make this a world devoid of hunger, poverty, discrimination, as well as alienation.  With all the capitalist propaganda we’re continually exposed to, we need to remember that an injury to one is an injury to all.  There is no contradiction in supporting the rights of labor, Black people, women, Latinos, Indians, gays, or immigrants.

As Malcolm X once said: “Either we will all be free or no one will be free.”

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Logical Conclusion to All Jewish History - Palestine Lives

For thousands of years
Jewish and Palestinian people
have lived in a place
called the Middle East.

In ancient times the area was a commercial center
connecting all kinds of merchants
from Europe, Africa, and Asia.
And the people learned the skills of commerce.

The land was mainly suitable for farming
but many had no way of making a living,
so they to moved
to many places in the world.

The Roman Empire found the
commercial skills of the Jews useful
and allowed them to become
a merchant class for the empire.

A million Jews settled in
Alexandria, Egypt
where they traded goods
that the wealthy chose to buy.

While Jews became prominent merchants,
they were not the ones who held
the political power
in the Roman Empire.

When this empire crumbled,
Jewish people used their
mercantile skills to serve
kingdoms and emirates in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

During these years Jews
developed many languages
which helped them adapt to their
environment, yet maintain their identity.

Jewish communities were similar
to China Towns where people
came to buy or trade
for the things they wanted. 
When capitalism emerged
a transformation erupted
which transformed the way
Jewish people lived.

Factories replaced the craft guilds.
Entrepreneurs sold commodities for a profit.
Loans were made to finance corporations,
and not to save individuals who were in debt.

The Jewish merchant class was dying.
Kings who were in debt promoted hatred
against the Jewish moneylenders.
This is when anti-Semitism was born.

Jewish communities were thrown out of
England, France, and Spain.
Most Jews moved to the Turkish Empire
and worked under the protection of the Sultan.

As capitalism emerged in Eastern Europe
the hatred against Jews came with it.
Many went to Germany and the United States
where they attempted to become professionals.

But when capitalism fell apart in the depression,
many who supported the system
blamed the Jews
for their misery.

In the US Jews experienced discrimination.
In Germany the fascists came to power  
and murdered six million Jews
using them as scapegoats for the depression.

Then, a new political movement emerged
that rejected all of Jewish history.
Instead of promoting the rights of Jews where they lived,
Zionism argued that Jewish people needed to live in Israel.

One problem with Zionism was that
ninety percent of the population of Palestine
consisted of Arabs
whose ancestors lived on that land for thousands of years.

The other obvious problem was that
Jews lived in areas where their rights
needed to be defended, and Zionists
abandoned this struggle for the state of Israel. 

When President Franklyn Roosevelt
refused to accept Jews
who tried to escape from the holocaust,
Zionists refused to protest.

When synagogues were attacked
in Italy,
Prime Minister Sharon encouraged
Italian Jews to move to Israel.   

Another problem was that Jewish people
no longer had a cultural identity with the Middle East.
European Jews spoke Yiddish and had
newspapers, radio stations, and theatre in that language.

When the state of Israel was established
that cultural history was abandoned,
Jews needed to learn Hebrew
and Palestinians saw their homes taken away. 

But people like Nelson Mandela
and Martin Luther King demonstrated
that the worst forms of discrimination
can be overcome.

Many Jewish people supported those movements
because they found a common cause
in the fight against injustice.
But most continued to support Israel.

An injury to one is an injury to all.
It doesn’t matter
if the injured person is
African American, South African, or Palestinian.

In the words of Malcolm X:
Either we will all be free,
or no one will be free.
Zionism is a rejection of this basic truth.

When the Jewish and Palestinian people
have equal rights in one nation,
there will be peace in the Middle East.
So simple a solution for a seemingly unsolvable problem.