What we read this summer, part two

September 26, 2011

They may not have all enjoyed umbrella drinks on the beachfront, but the writers for SocialistWorker.org did get the opportunity to do some reading this summer. In this second of two installments, they provide a few recommendations.

Phil Gasper

I READ two books this summer that deal with different aspects of the devastation that our capitalist economic system is inflicting on the world.

The first was David McNally's Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance. McNally's book stands out as the best account of the economic crisis that has engulfed countries around the world for the past three years and which now threatens to get even worse.

McNally offers an analysis of how the world economy has been transformed over the past 40 years, why it went into crisis in the 1970s, how it recovered, and why it has now gone into an even bigger crisis after 25 years of what he calls the neoliberal boom.

What McNally persuasively shows is that this crisis is that this crisis is unlike any in the recent past, when the economy was able to recover relatively quickly. Instead, we’re now in a protracted period of economic downtown from which there is no easy escape.

The financial meltdown of 2008 threatened to throw the global economy into a new depression. Western governments, particularly the U.S., responded with "the largest coordinated bailout in world history" and stimulus packages designed to restart their economies.

Worries return to the trading floors of international financial markets
Worries return to the trading floors of international financial markets

But while the bailouts prevented total collapse, the economic recovery that followed has been anemic. Governments bailed out the banks and in doing so transferred private debt into public hands. This has set the stage for massive austerity programs that transfer the cost of the crisis from the financial institutions and wealthy speculators who caused it to working people who did not.

But austerity has resulted in a further decline in demand, causing economies to shrink or stagnate, and intensifying government debt crises as tax revenues fall. The ultimate purpose of these programs, as McNally notes, "is to preserve capitalism and the wealth and power of its elites. And so far, the bailouts and their aftermath have decidedly served that end."

However, Global Slump is not just a guide to the economic crisis, it also catalogs some of the many inspiring ways in which workers, students and members of oppressed groups are fighting back, and offers ideas about the way in which the struggle can move forward, with the eventual goal of a socialist society.

Global Slump had particular resonance for me because I read part of it while visiting friends in Athens, Greece. The schoolteacher friend I stayed with had seen her pay cut by 30 percent in the previous school year and was anticipating another 15 percent cut when the new school year began.

But Greece has also been the scene of some of the biggest mobilizations against neoliberalism and austerity, including 14 general strikes and the occupation of city squares and universities around the country by a new generation of activists.

I didn’t visit Alaska this summer, but that state is the focus of my second book, Kivalina: A Climate Change Story by Christine Shearer.

Capitalism has not only created an intractable economic crisis, it is also bringing about an environmental catastrophe. Kivalina is a tiny island town just off the Alaskan coast that is threatened with destruction as a result of global warming. Rising temperatures have melted sea ice and exposed the island to ocean storms that are beginning to destroy it.

Kivalina tells the story of a lawsuit launched by the town's residents against 24 major energy companies, charging them with "contributing to the village's erosion through large greenhouse gas emissions" and with a "coordinated conspiracy" to deceive the public about climate change.

While the legal system is not exactly the ideal terrain for oppressed groups to fight for justice, corporate law firms have called the Kivalina lawsuit "the most dangerous litigation in America." But after more than three years, they have failed to derail it, and it is still winding its way through the courts.

Kivalina exposes the way in which some of the world's biggest corporations have both created the environmental crisis and tried to cover it up. At the same time, it puts a human face on the consequences of climate change and shows how ordinary people can stand up to corporate power.


Joe Allen

DURING THIS summer, political dissent and free speech issues have been on my mind, so I took the opportunity to reread Shirley and Wayne Wiegand's Books on Trial: Red Scare in the Heartland about a notorious but largely forgotten case of political persecution known as the "Oklahoma Book Trials" of 1940-41.

Books on Trial tells the story of a small group of young Communist Party (CP) members who moved to in Oklahoma City, Okla., in the 1930s to organize sharecroppers and the unemployed. In 1938, Bob Wood, the son of Jewish immigrants, opened a storefront office for the CP and the Progressive Bookstore, which was stocked with left-wing books, pamphlets, newspapers and posters. Wood's partner Ina and fellow New Yorkers Eli Jaffe and Alan Shaw joined him, and threw themselves into organizing.

Their activities didn't go unnoticed. They stirred up opposition from the reactionary, anti-Roosevelt Democrats who controlled the city and state. Vigilantes like the American Legion and the KKK regularly broke up their meetings. Things got much worse on the eve of the Second World War, when the country experienced what many historians consider "a dress rehearsal for McCarthyism."

In July 1940, Oklahoma City detective John Webb entered the Progressive Bookstore and purchased an array of literature by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Three weeks later, police raided the bookstore, the CP's office and the homes of Woods, Jaffe and Shaw. All of the defendants were terrorized while in custody as the jailers called them "Christ killers and "Jew bastards."

Assistant district attorney John Eberle charged them with violating Oklahoma's 1919 criminal syndicalism law and membership in the CP, declaring that "by writings, books, pamphlets and papers," the defendants were guilty of advocating but not committing revolutionary actions. Each defendant faced the possibility of a 10-year prison term and a $5,000 fine.

The book follows the two-and-a-half-year nationwide campaign by the CP's political defense arm, the International Labor Defense, to free the Oklahoma book trial defendants.

The other book I read this summer was the newly published The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial by former Los Angeles Times reporter Scott Martelle, which follows the 1949 trial of 11 leading members of the American CP charged with violating the Smith Act.

According to the act, anyone who "prints, publishes, edits, issues, circulates, sells, distributes or publicly displays any written or printed matter advocating, advising, or teaching the duty, necessity, desirability or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the U.S. by force or violence, or attempts to do so" could be charged and, if convicted, heavily fined and sent to prison for many years.

The great liberal President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Smith Act into law. But it was left to the "man of the people," Harry Truman, to give his Justice Department the go-ahead to indict the CP leaders in the summer of 1948.

Eleven leaders of the CP--including general secretary Eugene Dennis, chairman William Foster and Chicago organizer Gil Green--were arrested and charged with "advocating the overthrow of the United States government." A campaign in support of the defendants was organized the Civil Rights Congress, the legal defense arm of the CP and successor to the ILD.

The American CP leaders were vilified in the media with being "traitors" and a potential "fifth column" in the expected war with Russia. The atmosphere inside the courtroom was just as bad. The trial last nine months, in which time prosecutors presented CP literature and put on the stand a series of undercover FBI agents, rats and turncoats.

Louis Budenz, the former editor of CP's Daily Worker, was the government's star witness. The defense counsel argued that the First Amendment protected what they were being charged with. It was a useless effort by the defense. The jury took less than seven hours to find them guilty on all charges. The Supreme Court upheld their convictions, opening a floodgate of prosecutions. The CP was effectively destroyed.

Few people today remember either of these trials, but they highlight one of the great contradictions of the U.S., a country that proclaims its commitment to free speech and regularly represses it. Both of these books should be read by anyone concerned with the deterioration of civil liberties in this country.


Leia Petty

I BOUGHT Manning Marable's new biography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention , immediately following a meeting where the book was discussed in a room filled with hundreds of activists, socialists and antiracists of all stripes. Many of them spoke about how the Autobiography of Malcolm X changed their lives.

In many ways, the autobiography inspired Manning Marable as well. He discovered from teaching the book the many inaccuracies that existed upon closer reading, leading Marable to delve deeper into the life of one of the most important figures in history.

For anyone who continues to be inspired by Malcolm X, this is a must-read. Marable tells the story of his life from the framework of reinvention and chronicles the changes in Malcolm's life--alongside the many changes that are happening in society.

The research alone is remarkable. Alongside detailed accounts of Malcolm's prison life, through letters written and received from family members recruiting him to the Nation of Islam (NOI), Marable devotes considerable time to the history of the NOI itself. Much of the research was also obtained through government records (infiltration, wiretapping, surveillance), a chilling reminder of what the government is willing to do to end militant movements against racism.

For many of us who have only learned about the civil rights movements through drab history textbooks, Marable's account of Malcolm's life brings together a story of a man with many contradictions--a man who fought for some of the most radical ideas in a profoundly conservative organization; who battled to empower young women to become civil rights leaders, but also held sexist ideas about the role women should play in the home; and who packed halls with multiracial audiences on the basis of a platform of racial separatism.

Such contradictions meant that Malcolm was in a constant state of reinvention, and perhaps this is what is so inspiring about him--that through struggle and interaction with different kinds of people, we are all capable of change.

Unfortunately, Marable paints Malcolm's last "reinvention" as one toward electoralism. The "mature" Malcolm, he writes, began to see the Black electorate as an important component to challenging racism. While it's clear that Malcolm, through his experiences in a broadening and deepening civil rights movement, left the NOI and began to move away from Black separatism, this does not necessarily imply a shift toward liberalism.

In fact, his departure from the NOI and belief that a mass, global movement was both possible and necessary opened Malcolm up to a much more radical understanding of society, not a more conservative or "pragmatic" one.

The tragic murder of Malcolm X, one Marable recounts with potential new evidence of the real assassins, ended a life that likely would go through many more reinventions.

Continuing with my summer of struggle reading list was Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca, a book I had the good fortune of reading while traveling through Oaxaca.

Only five years ago, a teachers' strike in Oaxaca that was met with severe police brutality, inspired an occupation of the city lasting months. A coalition of various unions, collectives and organizations formed to try and pose an alternative governing structure.

Each chapter gives voice to a participant in this movement, who is interviewed by American activists who also took part, providing firsthand accounts by students, teachers, artists, grandmothers, priests and radicals.

What is most remarkable for me, as a member of the teachers' union in New York City, is the way in which a strike called by a relatively small section of the population could inspire such a mass movement, including a three-week takeover by women of the radio station, blockades of neighborhoods, mass marches, a permanent encampment of the city center and delegations from throughout the state of Oaxaca to the city center to raise indigenous demands around land, food and dignity.

Missing from the book, according to socialist teachers I met there, is a sense of the role political organization played throughout. The book almost gives the sense that it all happened spontaneously, leaving untold the story of the interplay between the uprising and the political organizations that existed prior.

While the movement is still recovering from the repression that eventually ended the struggle, its memory is not very distant. The lobby of the teachers union is still covered with posters from the strike. And for those of us who have not had the opportunity to take part in such a movement, the book's primary accounts opens an important window into one that's not so far away.

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