Friday, February 19, 2016

Naphtali "Tuli" Kupferberg 1923-2010

Tuli was a poet, anarchist pacifist, cartoonist, denizen of the East Village, and co-founder of the rock band The Fugs. This cartoon is from Was It Good For You Too? (copyleft 1983). In one of his last interviews he said, "Nobody who lived through the '50s thought the 60's could've existed. So there's always hope."

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Critical Theory for Beginners

Bronner, Stephen Eric. Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

The term critical theory is difficult to define. I would characterize it as a neo-Marxist school of philosophy founded by the Frankfurt School in Germany (aka Institute for Social Research, 1923-present) which criticized both Soviet communism and Western liberalism and social democracy. They embraced Marx's 11th These of Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point is to change it.” They were free thinkers. They were unaffiliated with any political parties or regimes, and inspired independent Marxists in the West.

Stephen Eric Bronner

My first unknowing exposure to the critical theory was reading Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse in the 60s, like many young New Leftists. A few years later, I started reading Paul Piccone's journal Telos which imported critical theory to the US wholesale. I was exposed to a rich current of Western Marxism. Some of it I found, and still find, unreadable; some was inspiring. Stephen Eric Bronner calls early Frankfurt works “an Aesopian form of convoluted writing that shielded their radical beliefs” from the German censors of its time.

Stephen Eric Bronner, Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction is a nice survey of Frankfurt School personalities and legacy. Bronner is a distinguished political philosopher at Rutgers University, a prolific author, member of Democratic Socialists of America, and regular panelist at the Left Forum in NYC every year. He has been involved with critical theory throughout his tenure. It appears in his earlier years he was more an enthusiast- studying with Ernst Bloch in Germany and collaborating with Douglas Kellner on Marcuse and critical theory. Bloch and Marcuse were both prominent members of the Frankfurt School for many years. In his later years Bronner identifies some of the limitations of critical theory. He is not a salon Marxist. He is an international human rights activist, biographer of Rosa Luxemburg, and defender of the Enlightenment traditions. His best known book Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement (2004) defends cosmopolitanism, secularism, science, civil liberties, and limits on state power. Bronner feels the Frankfurt School did not appreciate the virulence of the counter-Enlightenment we still face today- ie religious fundamentalism, bigotry, Tea Party, et al. These bear a disturbing resemblance to fascism in the 30s. Director of the Frankfurt School Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno blamed the rise of class society, racism, and the Holocaust on the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment. By the 50s Horkheimer was opposing the liberation struggles in Algeria and Vietnam, and later the student movement in the 60s. On the other hand Herbert Marcuse's Marxist humanism was embraced by parts of the New Left, and sees a revival today. My friend Arnold Farr, now philosophy professor at the University of Kentucky, founded the International Herbert Marcuse Society in 2005, leads the way. With the decline of the New Left, critical theory has retreated to academia, for now.

As a libertarian socialist, I am still most attracted to Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse's work although I haven't read either for many years. “So many books, so little time.” I am also interested in economist Henryk Grossman and philosopher Karl Korsch who were involved in the Frankfurt School in the 20s. Both participated in the workers' council movement 1918-1921 in Germany and Austria. Grossman argued the Marxian case for the declining rate of profit in the left communist press in the 30s. Korsch wrote essays What is Socialization? (1919) and Fundamentals of Socialization (1922) which describes basically a syndicalist blueprint for a socialist economy. The unsuccessful German revolution and the Russian Revolution are now almost 100 years old, ancient history. We have achieved a fragile welfare state in Europe and US in the last century. Socialism is still a utopian dream.

Korsch, Karl. Revolutionary Theory. Ed. by Douglas Kellner. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1974.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Urban Workers in Philadelphia 1815-1828

Egnal, Freda. The Urban Worker in Philadelphia: 1815-1828. Senior Thesis in American History, 1961. Madison: University of Wisconsin.

Freda Egnal
My comrade Freda Egnal from our monthly Philadelphia LeftBook discussion group kindly shared her unpublished Senior Thesis with me, which I enjoyed, and will recount. Her advisor/professor was a young historian Leon F. Litwack, who later won the Pulitzer Prize in History and National Book Award for Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery in 1979. His specialty is the history of African-Americans since slavery. Freda did remarkable detective work at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the University of Wisconsin unearthing the early days of organized labor in Philadelphia. Her thesis was written 20 years before Phillip Foner, William Heighton: Pioneer Labor Leader of Jacksonian Philadelphia, With Selections from Heighton's Writings, and Bruce Laurie, Working People of Philadelphia, 1800-1850 addressed the same subject at length. “Philadelphia has a strong claim to be the center of the early labor movement,” she says.

Philadelphia has always been regarded as a center for small manufacturing (now sadly much diminished), and it began during this period. The first American factory is generally considered Lowell's textile mill in Waltham MA in 1817. The period between 1815 and 1830 marked the introduction of machinery and the factory system in Philadelphia. Prior to mills and factories, manufacture was done in homes and small workshops. Sometimes the apprentice even lived in the master's home. Goods were made to order, or bespoke goods. Often half the wages were paid in groceries or credits. Ambitious apprentices would establish their own workshops, or acquire land and become freeholders.

Capitalism was being born. Manufacturers began to produce for market, on speculation. An expanded market was made possible by the revolution in transportation. New roads and canals suddenly made shipping possible and affordable. The state was investing in infrastructure big time. Merchant-capitalists borrowed money, and introduced mass production, creating a division of labor, and the devaluation of artisan labor. Urban workers were a mix of skilled and unskilled: artisans in the building trades and crafts; manual laborers building roads or canals, hauling; service workers, servants, shopkeepers; and, of course, child labor. Freda reports on wages and the cost of living during this period. She cites labor historian John R. Commons, “the American worker received higher wages than his counterpart in Europe and England, yet worked harder and longer hours.” Twelve hours a day, six days a week constituted the norm in 1820. In summer daylight hours often extended the workday to 15 hours.

There were early efforts at labor organizing in Philadelphia. The first recorded strike, or turn-out, was in 1786 by the printers for a minimum six dollars a week wage.  Carpenters and cordwainers (shoemakers) also conducted early organizing. The Philadelphia Typographical Union organized in 1802 may be the first identifiable trade union. They not only fought for better wages and working conditions, but also established benevolent features for sickness and funeral expenses, and a strike fund. It seems printers have always been labor aristocrats. Perhaps they were better educated, or more skilled, and felt they could make bolder demands on business owners. Unions were not legally protected, of course. They are hardly protected today, 200 years hence. Sometimes workers won their demands; other times they were prosecuted under English common law for conspiring to raise their wages.

In 1819 the US experienced it first depression creating widespread unemployment. This put an end to the early trade societies and trade unions. The labor movement had to recreate itself in the 1820s as the economy recovered. Workers at the Navy Yard, millwrights, and machine workers began to agitate for the ten hour day. The growing industrial activity ultimately led to the formation of the first trade union which transcended craft lines, the Mechanics Union of Trade Associations in fall 1827. Many historians mark this as the beginning of the labor movement in the US. Fifteen unions in Philadelphia, learning from their earlier failures, joined together. They declared, “We the Journeymen Mechanics of the City and County of Philadelphia, conscious that our condition in society is lower than justice demands it should be, and feeling our inability, individually, to ward off from ourselves and families those numerous evils which result from an unequal and excessive accumulation of wealth and power into the hands of a few, are desirous of forming an Association, which shall avert as much as possible those evils which poverty and incessant toil have already inflicted and which threaten ultimately to overwhelm and destroy us.” Sounds very contemporary. The language was influenced by William Heighton and Ricardian socialist ideas, recounted in Phillip Foner's later book William Heighton: Pioneer Labor in Jacksonian Philadelphia. The Mechanics Union published its own newspaper, organized a workingman's library, and ran its own independent candidates for elected office in 1828, which was unsuccessful. This was the high watermark for class consciousness in the early 19th century Philadelphia. Unions would again recede in the 1830s.