Saturday April 25th, 2015, 9:17 pm (EDT)


Book reviews and essays

Wealth Gap Woes

Chuck Collins, Betsy Leondar-Wright and Holly Sklar, Shifting Fortunes: The Perils of the Growing American Wealth Gap (Boston: United for a Fair Economy, 1999), 94 pp., $6.95 paper.

It is a telling historical fact that during both the lean times of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the boom times of the 1990s, one thing has remained relatively constant: economic inequality in the United States has been increasing. During recessions it is workers who are asked to tighten their belts and who have to cope with falling wages, shrinking fringe benefits, or even massive layoffs, while everything possible is done to preserve corporate profits and income that is derived through ownership. During times of expansion one might expect the incomes of both owners and workers to increase. However, in the boom of the 1990s, while income derived through ownership increased, wages for most workers continued to stagnate and fringe benefits continued to be whittled down. About the only thing that kept the poverty rate at a respectably low level was the low unemployment rate. The boom now seems to have ended without workers ever making substantial gains… | more |

Sixties Lessons and Lore

Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (Oxford University Press, 2000), 368 pages, $25.95 paper.

The sixties were risky, frisky, shattering, chaotic, moral, exhilarating, riotous, international, destructive, communitarian, divisive, vivid, anarchistic, dogmatic, and liberating. Relentlessly commodified in subsequent years, the sixties became a boxed set: music, culture, clothing, academic professions, mythology, and de-fanged pabulum. It takes courage to undertake an interpretive survey of a turbulent recent decade; historians Isserman and Kazin’s achievement provokes, reminds, and informs. They have produced a valuable reference book, a genre where their uncertain perspective does little damage. Their brilliant opening set piece describes the 1961 Civil War Centennial Commission—which decided explicitly to exclude the words “Negro,” “slavery,” and “Emancipation,” from their re-enactment pageantry of white regional rivalry. When a black New Jersey delegate, arriving to participate in the opening Fort Sumter commemoration, was denied a room at the Commission’s segregated South Carolina hotel, all hell broke loose. Eventually, in a resolution that foreshadows the 1995 Hiroshima exhibition at the Smithsonian,“two separate observances were held, an integrated one on federal property, and a segregated one in downtown Charleston.” What a sensational narrative to open an exploration of race, history, and the war to explain the war… | more |

A Collective Past Within Us

Hadassa Kosak, Cultures of Opposition: Jewish Immigrant Workers, New York City, 1881-1905 (SUNY Press, 2000), 163 pages, $50.50 cloth, $17.95 paper.

The scholarly (and popular) subject of American Jewish involvement in the labor movement and the political left is old and familiar, but due for renewal in every generation. And for good political as well as scholarly reasons: every new generation of conservatives (or what we might call Imperial Liberals) seeks to make the radical connections into an immigrant hangover at best, while on the other side scholars dig deeper into the archives for fresh evidence of socialism as a founding faith of the Lower East Side ghetto … | more |

Radicals Known and Unknown

Jeffrey B. Perry, editor, A Hubert Harrison Reader (Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 505 pages, $70 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Somewhere on the road to becoming a Marxist during the 1970s, I heard about Hubert Harrison. A black radical from the early part of the century, his name was mentioned as an almost mythical character. Little was said about him, except that he was important and had been on the Harlem political stage. And then, almost like a ship disappearing into a fog bank, any further references vanished from view… | more |

On Walking the Walk

Anne Braden, The Wall Between (2nd edition, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999), 348 pages, $40 cloth, $20 paper.

Perhaps you, like me, tend to greet reissues in general and memoirs in particular, with a polite ho–hum. Why a reissue now, I ask, and who benefits from this republication? Does anyone lose? But when I read Anne Braden’s analytical memoir, I concluded that we all gain by The Wall Between now becoming available to a wider audience… | more |

Questioning Globalization

Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson, Globalization in Question: The International Economy and the Possibilities of Governance(2nd edition, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), 310 pages, $29.95, paper.

Where, and how, one distinguishes between continuity and change goes to the heart of methodological differences in the social sciences, and in intellectual endeavors more broadly. In the case of globalization, there are those who stress the underlying continuity, while others claim there has been a profound disjuncture in the historical development of capitalism as a mode of production. Political implications always follow from theorization of the social world. But even when there is agreement on the dimensions of a situation there may still be profound differences over what is to be done, and where individual and organizational efforts are best directed. In the case of the overlapping conversations concerning globalization, the topic of the book under review here, this is all certainly true… | more |

Refusing to Cooperate

Morton Sobell, On Doing Time (San Francisco: Golden Gate National Parks Association, 2001), 416 pages and CD-ROM, $15.95 paper.

When the Rosenbergs received the death penalty for what J. Edgar Hoover called “the crime of the century,” Morton Sobell was sentenced to a term of thirty years. A second edition of On Doing Time, his memoir of one of the most controversial cases in U.S. legal history, is now published in paperback by the Golden Gate National Parks Association. Included with this new edition is an exciting CD-ROM containing selections from Sobell’s partially released FBI file, as well as a new preface and additional photographs. His lawyer, the late Marshall Perlin, fought over the course of more than twenty-five years to obtain the files under the Freedom of Information Act. They provide important supplementation to the book.… | more |

U.S. Militarism and Imperialism and the Japanese “Miracle”

Aaron Forsberg, America and the Japanese Miracle: The Cold War Context of Japan’s Postwar Economic Revival, 1950-1960(Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 332 pages, $45.

Historical research on postwar Japan and East Asia has produced a number of high quality studies that have contributed to the formation of a political and economic perspective not too distant from the Monthly Review conception of the transformation of modern capitalism. These works point out that the conditions for Japanese economic recovery were found not only in the willingness of Japan’s capitalist elites to reignite the process of industrial accumulation, but also in the propulsive role played by military spending and by actual wars.… | more |

Telling the Story of Our America

Juan Gonzalez, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America(New York:Viking Penguin, 2000), 346 pp., $27.95 cloth, $15 paper.

With passion and eloquence, Juan Gonzalez presents a devastating perspective on U.S. history rarely found in mainstream publishing aimed at a popular audience. The United States emerged in just two hundred years, he points out, as the world’s superpower and richest nation. “No empire, whether in ancient or modern times, ever saw its influence spread so far or determined the thoughts and actions of so many people around the world as our nation does today.” The majority of U.S. people don’t like to think of their country as an empire… | more |

Neoliberalism from Reagan to Clinton

Michael Meeropol, Surrender: How the Clinton Administration Completed the Reagan Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 377 pages, cloth $34.50, paper $19.95.

Recent presidential elections in the United States have obfuscated, more than clarified, the social divisions of American society. While the Democrats project a well-worn image of protecting working Americans the Republicans declare the need to defend traditional American values. In reality, the consensus between the two parties on the superiority of American government and the beneficence of capitalism rules any challenge to the status quo politically out of bounds (even the candidacy of longtime policy activist Ralph Nader was seen as beyond the pale). The contest between Albert Gore and George W. Bush—a contest between patrician familial dynasties that could only occur in the United States—was no exception… | more |

Subverting A Model

Vijay Prashad,The Karma of Brown Folk(University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 248 pages, $25 hardcover.

The Karma of Brown Folk is essentially addressed to two audiences and is surprisingly successful in being readable by both. Its primary audience is the “desi”—men and women of South Asian descent living in the United States. This widely dispersed group of some fifteen million first and second generation immigrants is often referred to as a model minority—untroublesome, hardworking, entrepreneurial, conservative, clannish, and family oriented. In approaching these countrymen the author’s freely avowed purpose is a subversive one. He wants to destroy the image by re-forming the fact behind it… | more |

Capitalism and Crisis

Creating a Jailhouse Nation

Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in The Age of Crisis by Christian Parenti.

By the time I was captured in 1981, the prologue to a life sentence, I had twenty years of movement experience—both above and underground—under my belt. So I thought I had a good understanding of the race and class basis of prisons. But once actually inside that reality, I was stunned by just how thoroughly racist the criminal justice system is and also by the incessant petty hassles of humiliation and degradation. As political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal aptly noted in Live From Death Row, there is a “profound horror…in the day-to-day banal occurrences…[the] second-by-second assault on the soul.” The 1980s became the intense midpoint of an unprecedented explosion of imprisonment. Since 1972, the number of inmates in this country, on any given day, has multiplied six-fold to the two million human beings behind bars today. Another four million are being supervised on parole or probation. The U.S. is the world leader in both death sentences and incarcerations. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, we hold 25 percent of the prisoners.… | more |

The Myth of the Middle-Class Society

Michael Zweig, The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret (Cornell University Press, 2000), 192 pages, $25 cloth, $14.95 paper.

The claim that the U.S. is a “middle-class country”—which goes back at least to the eighteenth century—has set apart (white) yeoman farmers from the rural or urban poor, and notably from nonwhites. Thomas Jefferson envisioned his ideal nation as the land of, and for, hard-working property holders, free of the turmoil and corruption inevitable in Europe’s aristocratic fixed-class system… | more |

Refuting the Big Lie

Hugh Stretton, Economics: A New Introduction (Pluto Press, 1999), 864 pages, $90 hardcover, 35 paper.

Capitalism was first firmly established in Britain in the eighteenth century and it was then and there that economics was born, in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776). Economists have served capitalism ever since, but only in the past quarter-century has capitalism needed—and gotten—so much from them… | more |

About the Workers and For the Workers

Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling, The Working Class Movement in America, edited by Paul Le Blanc (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2000), $55, 231 pp.; Paul Le Blanc, A Short History of the US Working Class (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999), $30 (cloth), $20 (paper), 205 pp.

1886 was a momentous year in United States labor history. The great eight-hours movement had swept across the nation, and the Knights of Labor were in full flower. Working class politicial parties were forming, and the American Federation of Labor had been founded. In that year, Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, and her partner, Edward Aveling, toured the United States, giving lectures and meeting comrades as guests of the Socialist Labor Party. They then returned to England and wrote about their trip. The first book under review is a timely reprint of the original. In addition to the reprint, it includes a useful introduction by Paul Le Blanc (including a fine annotated labor history bibliography) and interesting essays by historian Lisa Frank on Eleanor Marx and by writer and labor activist Kim Moody on aspects of working class life the two visitors failed to see… | more |

“Saving” Social Security

A Neoliberal Recapitulation of Primitive Accumulation

Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot, Social Security: The Phony Crisis (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 175 pp., $22.

The pronounced insecurity that inevitably attends capitalism’s historic tendency to commodify, and hence privatize, everything that can be commodified and privatized has been met with two major forms of resistance. The first is revolutionary communism, which emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the second is social democracy, which developed in its strongest form in Europe after the Second World War. A defining feature of our present situation is that neither of these forms of resistance to capitalist hegemony is currently a major historical force.… | more |

The Levittown Legacy

Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen, Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 352 pp., $27.50, cloth. (Due out in paperback in January 2001.)

Judging by the number of column inches now devoted to the subject in the national press, suburban sprawl has at last come of age. The sudden popularity of the topic may reflect the fact that suburbanites now constitute a majority of Americans. The impact of 132 million Americans on the landscape is hard to ignore. If, as environmentalists claim, more than four thousand acres of farmland are being devoured by suburban sprawl every day, then the prospect of a countryside bereft of open space can no longer be dismissed as alarmist. Sprawl is so pervasive and its predations so disturbing that its dynamics appear as almost a force of nature, inevitable and uncontrollable. So it is good to be reminded, as we are in the pages of Picture Windows, that the origins of large-scale suburbs were, in fact, anything but accidental and that the prime mover behind their massive postwar expansion was the federal government itself … | more |

Ecological Roots

Which Go Deepest?

Foster, John Bellamy, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 300pp., $18, paperback

“Oh no, not another great, thick, fat book on Marx!” thought Richard Lewontin when he saw this new book by John Bellamy Foster. I have to confess (despite the fact that I, too, have written a big book on Marxism) to a similar reaction. However, as he goes on to say in the book’s blurb, “as soon as I started to read, I found it hard to put down.” With this, too, I concur … | more |

Setting the Record Straight on the Korean War

Deane, Hugh, The Korean War, 1945-1953 (San Francisco: China Books and Periodicals, Inc., 1999), 246 pp., $14.95, paperback.

Hugh Deane has written a concise, political, and engaging history of the Korean war. One reason this book is special is that Deane was in southern Korea during the late 1940s as a reporter, and his experiences there enable him to provide a more immediate and personal perspective on events than one normally finds in histories of the Korean war … | more |

Marx’s Ecological Value Analysis

Paul Burkett, Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 312 pp., $45, hardcover.

If there is a single charge that has served to unify all criticism of Marx in recent decades, it is the charge of “Prometheanism.” Although Marx’s admiration for Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and his attraction to Prometheus as a revolutionary figure of Greek mythology has long been known, the accusation that Marx’s work contained at its heart a “Promethean motif,” and that this constituted the principal weakness of his entire analysis, seems to have derived its contemporary influence mainly from Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism. The first volume of this work was drafted in Polish in 1968 and appeared in English in 1978. For Kolakowski: … | more |