Goodbye 2017

December 31, 2017 at 8:26 pm (Uncategorized)

I’ve decided not to make resolutions this year. [Note to self – don’t make terrible joke about “making revolutions instead” ] Anyway,  here’s my annual list of things which made the year a little bit easier to take.

1 New York

My favourite city away from home. I hadn’t been to New York in a couple of years, but this spring spent what might have been the perfect weekend there. Art galleries, great walks and weather, fine food, and saw Cate Blanchett in The Present. Lovely.

2. Fogo Island, Newfoundland

A ferry ride from the mainland to an island of 2,000. The weather wasn’t great, but it was a marvellous expereience. Windswept vistas and a different pace. Did you know that according to the Flat Earth Society, Fogo Island is one of the corners?

3. Don’t call this a come-back

We all hope our favourite bands reform and produce great new music, but it’s never the same when they do. Usually the best you can home for its that they don’t totally suck. But this year saw terrific new records by the Dream Syndicate, Blondie, LCD Soundsystem and …Peter Perrett. It’s enough to make you believe again

4. The Chap

The magazine of anarcho-dandyism. Can’t quite get behind the smoking or the facial hair in the Chap Manifesto, but the magazine has lots of cool things in it, from fashion to politics.

5. The Superhero genre still has some life in it 

I’m a big fan of comics, and the movie adaptations, but the market does seem a little…bloated? Then came three simply terrific films:  Logan, Wonder Woman and Thor:Ragnarok. There’s still life in the genre. 

6. Shwarma Empire 

1823 Lawrence Avenue East, just east of Pharmacy. I don’t want to say this is the best falafal in the city, but it surely ranks up there.

7.  The New York Times

I like it so much I bought the t-shirt. Sundays wouldn’t be quite the same without it.

8. Guillermo del Tor0

I watched Pan’s Labyrinth with my son this fall. After it finished he said, “that was really sad.” and it was. But beautiful. Del toro’s exhibit “Bleak House” at the Art Gallery of Ontario was one of my favourite shows this year. And a few days back I saw The Shape of Water. Magical.

9. Monica Ali – Brick Lane

Goodness, this came out in 2003, and I’m only just reading it now. The first book I read during my vacation this year. Marvellous.

10.   Jeff Lemire 

When does this man sleep? He seems to be continually churning out new product. Scratch that, product sounds like assembly line stuff. Lemire’s work is quality. Responsible for three of my favourite books this year: Royal City, Black Hammer and A.D. (with Scott Snyder)

11.  Marvel on Netflix

I know some of these have been out for a while, but I didn’t sign up for Netflix until this year. Daredevil was great. Same with Luke Cage. Jessica Jones was my favourite. Iron Fist was a stumble, partially redeemed by  The Defenders. And the year ended with a pleasant surprise in The Punisher. I’m OK if I never see the Hand as the big bad again though.

12. The Sleaford Mods 

Discovered this band a couple of records ago, and they might be one of those things you either love or hate on sight. I’m with option A. Terrific album English Tapas and a great show at the Opera House in Toronto this spring.

13. The Bata Shoe Museum

My wife and I used to suggest this as a joke whenever relatives with kids came to visit, but you know, the joke was on us. It’s a really fascinating place, linking fashion with social development.

14. The Aga Khan Museum 

OK, I have a history degree. The Aga Khan Museum is relatively close to me, but I never went until the fall.  Great collection of Islamic art and artifacts arranged according to geography. Well worth a visit.

15. Harry Dean Stanton 

Harry Dean Stanton died this year aged 91. Roger Erbert once said that  “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or  M. Emmett Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad, ”  and it’s hard to argue otherwise. (But not impossible,. Erbert conceded Dream a Little Dream broke this rule). If Stanton had appeared in only Paris, Texas and Repo Man, it would be enough, but he appeared in countless others. And was a fine singer too, working with Ry Cooder among others (Check out the soundtrack to Harry Dean Stanton: Party Fiction). An era has ended.

16. Neil Gaiman

The man continues to delight. A wonderful retelling of Norse mythology, a TV adaptation of his novel American Gods and also a comic book version, and a compelling twitter feed.

17. My sister J., who got married this summer to a great guy.

See? If you wait long enough, you get what you deserve

18.  Jodie Whittaker is Dr. Who 

I did see some of the Patrick Troughton epsiodes of Dr. Who, but my first doctor was the third, Jon Pertwee, sometime in the early 1970s. So, for all those people whining about the doctor being a woman and political correctness as the reason for it, watch the show. If you don’t like it, watch something else. Me? I’m thrilled.

19. Politics 

It’s true that I still shake my head and think how could a bullying, racist, homophobic,  think-skinned, narcissistic,  sociopath be chosen president, but it has not gone unanswered.  It’s also true that much of the “resistance” is channelled into pro-Hillary, pro-Democratic Party Obama-nostalgia, but I have to believe that deeper, more fundamental critiques will emerge, that question the basis of this cruel system.

20. Sonnet 12 

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

See you in 2018.

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Russia: 100 Years Since the Revolution

December 31, 2017 at 8:24 pm (Uncategorized)

A month or so back was the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917. I had planned to write something, but I didn’t get around to it. It was no longer as important to me as it once was.

It’s been said that, once upon a time,  you could learn everything about a person’s politics by the answer to the question “When did the Russian Revolution degenerate?”  Everyone had their own theories and from that theory flowed a range of political positions.  And it was certainly sure true of me. I was a member of a couple of different Leninist (Trotskyist) groups in my day, and I certainly took it seriously. In my final group, there was a sense that by studying Russia, the party of Lenin and the analysis of Trotsky, we would be able to play a part in a future revolution.  Yes, that certain sounds like hubris, but as I recall, we were not quite as arrogant as that (although, some would surely disagree). The problem was that we were looking backward. Even in 1917, Russia was far, far behind the west, and the kind of politics that were successful there,  would not be successful again.  Even Lenin realized this, noting on the Manifesto of the Communist International that both its strength and weakness was it was too Russian. (I’ll also mention that the worldview of Trotskyism has it that every bad thing that happened in the revolution was either the fault of the Whites or later Stalin. )

I believe that a better world is possible. The Russian Revolution does have lessons for us, but they are mostly negative. Here is Internationalist Perspective’s statement on the centenary of the Russian Revolution.


The Greatest Promise, The Greatest Lie 

The centennial of the October Revolution has been a rather subdued affair. There were no parades in Red Square or Tiananmen, no demonstrations or festivities.  Even leftists gave it sparse attention, with the exception of those who dream that October will repeat itself, this time with themselves in the role of the Bolsheviks. To the minimal extent that the mass media mentioned the anniversary, it was to comment that communism had mercifully collapsed. Some gave it a bit more space.  The New York Times Book Review, in its edition of October 22, devoted seven articles related to the subject. Remarkably, for what was meant as a critique of totalitarianism, they all said the same thing. Communism is a failed experiment, we live in the best of all possible worlds. No debate. One of the authors was Francis Fukuyama, famous for his claim that the end of the “communist” regime in Russia heralded “the end of history”: inevitably the whole world would become capitalist and democratic. The alternative is gone.

Such scant attention is remarkable since, from any point of view, the October Revolution was an earthquake which left deep imprints on the course of history.  IP has published several articles about it in the past [1] but we don’t want to let this centennial pass without a few remarks on its relevance today.

Does the October Revolution teach us something about a post-capitalist, communist society and the problems it will encounter?  

No, it doesn’t. The foundation of capitalist society, the accumulation of value based on stolen labor time, remained intact. There are no lessons to draw from how the CP organized the reproduction of society, except negative ones. We can learn nothing from how the Bolsheviks managed exploitation and submission to the state.  But the revolution’s failure to go on and its subsequent rapid degeneration wasn’t simply the fault of the Bolsheviks. The state reasserted itself, in circumstances of international isolation, civil war, exhaustion from wars, famine and struggle, and the Bolshevik party became its agent.

Circumstances today are radically different. While the stakes are essentially the same for a  revolutionary society in our times, both the potential at its disposal and the kind of problems it would encounter would bear little resemblance to those of revolutionary Russia a century ago.

Does the revolution teach us something about the revolutionary potential of the working class?

Yes, it does. It is essential to see the events in Russia not as an isolated occurrence but as part of a tidal wave that swept over the world. The ferment was rising all over Europe already in the early years of the century.   As England’s King George V allegedly said, “Thank God for the war! It saved us from the revolution.” The struggle went the furthest in Russia in 1905–07, during which workers invented new forms of organizing, in factory committees, workers’ councils and soviets, unforeseen by any theoretician.

The wave of working class struggles which forced world war I to an end and found echoes all over the globe, again went the furthest in Russia. Those who reduce the events there to a Bolshevik coup d’état deform what really happened. The overthrow, first of the Tsarist state, then of its bourgeois successor, was the result of massive class struggle and self-organization, of what Trotsky called “the violent irruption of the masses into the domain in which their own fate would be determined”.

Why did the revolutionary wave go further in Russia than elsewhere?

Certainly, the fact that people like Lenin and Trotsky were great strategists was a factor in the revolution’s success. But “if it went all the way in the seizure of power, that was because of exceptional historical circumstances which do not exist today, and on which we cannot count tomorrow […] The temporary victory of the proletarian revolution in Russia owed less to the greater clarity of the proletariat and of the Bolsheviks in that country, than to an intrinsically more favorable situation.”[2]  Capitalist development had been held back by atavistic Tsarism, the bourgeoisie was very weak. Russia was “the weak link” in capitalism’s rule, most easily broken.

Today, there are no weak links. Capitalism is more than ever a global system. If a revolution succeeds only in a ‘weak link’, it will be crushed, much more quickly than in Russia. More than ever, the rapport des forces between the classes and between the practices and perspectives to which their situations give rise, is global.

We’ll win together, or we’ll fail together.

Why did the revolutionary wave not go further in Russia?

Why did the revolutionary proletariat, after overthrowing the Tsarist state and the bourgeois state, accept the Bolshevik state?

There are the factors that we mentioned earlier: international isolation, war, famine, exhaustion… Especially the defeat of the revolutionary movement in Germany was a death blow. Those and other factors, including the violent repression of dissident revolutionaries by the Bolsheviks, combined to turn the tide.

And so, the greatest promise of the 20th century turned into its greatest lie. The lie that communism equals the kind of society created by the triumph of the counter-revolution in Russia. A lie that created immeasurable damage, that poisoned the collective imagination.

The Bolsheviks did more harm than in Russia alone.  They used the Communist International as an instrument of the imperialist foreign policy of the Russian state. They were “an active factor in the defeat of the revolution in other countries, by virtue of the “model” that they represented at the time”. [3] This false model obscured and continues to obscure the visibility of a real way out of capitalism.

No doubt that most Bolsheviks genuinely wanted to end capitalist exploitation. But they believed this could be accomplished by defeating the ruling class politically and then using the state to redirect the economy towards socialist aims. This was the strategy of the broad social democratic movement they were coming from; the differences among them was on whether the political victory could be achieved  through gradual democratic reform or only through revolution. But defeating capitalists is not the same as defeating capitalism.  Capitalism is a system that requires a working class that produces surplus value and a capitalist class that organizes the accumulation of that value. But that class is an agency, rather than a sociological category. That agency does not have to filled by the private bourgeois; that much the Bolsheviks have proven. They manipulated the law of value in many ways, but in the end, it was the necessity of value to expand which dictated their policies.

So no revolution was needed when Russia officially rejected ‘communism’  in 1992.  The ruling class metamorphosed, modernized its management, and the working sap remained the working sap.

‘Bolshevik’ may no longer be a popular brand but the left today basically adheres to the same strategy: achieve a political victory, then use the state to tweak the economy for just, humane, progressive, purposes.  The main lesson of the Russian revolution is that this strategy dooms the revolution to fail. So long as the underlying premises of the law of value — a working class exchanging its labor power for a wage and a class that appropriates the surplus value and directs the accumulation of value —  remain intact, all the rest follows. No democratic cloak can hide this. In Russia, the soviets, in theory all powerful, quickly became mere instruments of the capitalist state once the necessities of value accumulation imposed themselves.  The “irruption of the masses”, Trotsky talked about, had to end. He himself put a bloody stop to it in the same place where the revolution had started: Kronstadt.

There are many lessons to draw from what occurred a hundred years ago.

One surely is that a revolution that ends capitalism must be global or fail. Its defeats elsewhere imposed impossible conditions on the revolution in Russia. Today, it would be even less possible for a revolutionary island to survive in a capitalist ocean. No single country can ignore what value accumulation requires. Therefore, any nation-based strategy is, already for this reason alone, inherently capitalist. The differences between them are about how to manage the value accumulation of the national capital, but in the end, the need to feed the beast with profit dictates the policies.

Another lesson is that delegation of power is extremely dangerous.  The revolutionary movement is indeed “the violent irruption of the masses into the domain in which their own fate would be determined,” but that domain is much larger than what Trotsky had in mind. This “violent irruption of the masses” is what empowers the revolution. It does so, because the revolution transforms their lives, and empowers them over their own lives. A global revolution requires global communication and decision-making (and in that aspect, the infrastructural conditions are much better than back then), but remains driven by the revolution of daily life. When that power over daily life is delegated away, to a single party, or to democratically elected state-organs, what were originally expressions of self-organization of the exploited (soviets, etc.), die off or become empty shells, absorbed by the state.

A third lesson is not to focus exclusively on the moment. The revolution in Russia has clearly shown that the outlook can change on a dime. One day, there seems to be only confusion, fear and fatalistic acceptance. The next, a fever of resistance, of saying no, spreads like wildfire. And the awareness of the class power grows with the spread of the ferment and fires the imagination. What seemed impossible, becomes real.

Another lesson is that revolution requires at crucial moments decisive, rapid, bold action. One obstacle to that can be the fetishization of democratic forms, waiting too long while deliberation or voting goes on… another pitfall is leaving the decision making to a specialized minority, a substitutionist party like the Bolsheviks.

A fifth lesson: beware of productivism. It is the ideology that justifies the reassertion of capitalism. For the Bolsheviks the growth of the productive forces, increasing productivity, was the paramount priority for which all other concerns had to give way. This not only because of the specific conditions in Russia but also because the Bolsheviks faithfully adhered to the “orthodox” Marxist dogma that claimed that revolution results from capitalism’s incapacity to develop the productive forces further, that the latter push to revolution and are liberated by it.  But it’s quite clear now that capitalism has continued to be able to develop its productive forces, even with increasing speed: indeed, this development itself has become a grave danger for the human species. Not the growth of the productive forces, but the liberation of social relations from the value-form must be the priority. Human needs and pleasure must replace value as the foundation of work and all other activities.

So, the final lesson, implied by all the others, is that the revolution must destroy capitalism at its roots. It cannot be a process by which different managers of capital come to power and institute better policies, it must be a process in which production, consumption, social life and private life are transformed by the people themselves on a continuous base. This is what fuels the revolution. Without it, it will die. 

October shows us that when the proletariat rises up together, nothing can stop it. The state, with all its violent means, cannot stop it. Only itself can stop it. Only its acceptance of a return to normal -to the old relations of capitalist-worker, seller-buyer, leader-follower and so on – can put a halt to it.  Today, that normal is still strong. Disillusion and distrust in the various ideologies of the ruling class is growing but communism seems no alternative, in no small part thanks to the Bolcheviks and the many others who abused the name. There are class struggles, especially in East-Asia, but there is mostly a lot of confusion. It’s as if the world is waiting for something to happen to clear it up. No-one can predict what that would be, what could trigger it, or what the impact of the next recession (or depression) will be.  The potential to refuse normalcy is still there. The will to live, the capacity to think and act together feeds it. We think that in the struggles to which it will give rise, communism will be rediscovered, not as an ideology but as a real, material movement.


[1] Internationalist Perspective 8: The timeliness of the Russian Revolution

Internationalist Perspective 8:  On the nature of the Russian Revolution

Internationalist Perspective 13: Why the Russian Revolution is not a model for tomorrow

Internationalist Perspective 28: Debate: The economy in the Russian Revolution

Internationalist Perspective 41: The Bolsheviks, the Civil War, and “Red Fascism”.

[2] Internationalist Perspective 13: “Why the Russian Revolution is not a model for tomorrow”.p. 17


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Music Notes December 2017

December 23, 2017 at 11:05 pm (Uncategorized)

Well then. The December music edition is always a little early

1 Johnny Thunders – So Alone

Thunders first solo album, and arguable his finest work. A great ramshackle rock and roll record with terrific originals, cover of T-Rex and the Shangri-Las) and help from friends like Steve and Paul from the Sex Pistols, Phil Lynott, Peter Perrett and Steve Marriot. And there, Thunders greatest song “You can’t put your arms around a memory” is here too.

2. The Clash – Cut the Crap 

Despite the Clash being one of my all-time favourite bands, I had never listened to this album until last week. Perhaps because it’s not really the Clash. It’s Joe and Paul, three guys no one (perhaps unfairly) remembers and…Bernie Rhodes. It’s the kind of record you should hear once, just so you can say you did, btu the forgettable songs and lackluster performances mean it will never be included on any Clash comps. Ever.

3. The Golliwogs-  Fight Fire: The Complete Recordings 

As with any “their first band”  sets, John Fogerty’s pre-Creedence band has a few missteps and hesitations, (leaving aside the unfortunate name for now)  but overall it’s a pretty solid bluesy garage rock set. Worth repeated listens.

4. The Minus 5 – Dear December 

I like to buy one new Christmas album a year. So here’s Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows and friends making their Christmas one. Manic pop thrills one might say. Not only is it a great record, but it’s a nice investment as McCaughey recovers from the stroke he suffered last month.

5. the Oxford American music issue

One of the treats this time of year is the Oxford American‘s music issue which comes with a free CD focusing on one southern state (Kentucky this time out), and essays about the artists and their music. Curl up with a copy and a glass of wine.

6. The Rolling Stones – On Air

Ooh, this is very good. If you know a Stones fan, here’s their Christmas present. Trouble is, they already ran out to buy it. Mono from the BBC. Very fresh sounding. Get the version with the bonus material. It’s more expensive, but it’s worth it.

7. Nadine Shah – Holiday Destination

Yes, yes, any woman who plays guitar and write powerful, moody music gets compared to Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and Anna Calvi, btu this really is worth seeking out.

8. The Smiths – The Queen is Dead (Deluxe Boxset)

OK, I’ll admit the packaging leaves a little to be desired. How about a few essays or some decent pictures along with the rest of it? But yeah, the music is simply outstanding. Remastered editions, a bonus album of demos and B-sides, a live album that while it’s not essential has some great stuff and a film. Maybe it’s only for the collector. But still.

9. Tacocat – “Crimson Wave”

Yeah. My favourite song for a week this year. Infectious and cleverly subversive


10.  Louder Than War, Mojo, and Uncut all have best of the year editions on the stands right now. I always enjoy these lists, and no doubt you’ll find something you’ve missed.

And back in January for another round up.

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