For four years following the 2008 mortgage crisis, I worked as a cotton merchant for one of the “big four” trading firms—ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus. These shadowy giants, two of them privately held, maintain oligopoly control of agricultural commodity markets. From desks in Memphis, my colleagues and I purchased mountains of cotton in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, warehoused it, speculated on it, and sold it back to mills on those same continents.… We sat at the pinnacle of a web of political and economic forces that funneled cotton into facilities we owned and cash into our accounts, but nowhere in the office was there a visible sign of the violence that made it all possible.… Too often liberal histories focus on a single period, territory, or class perspective, and end up obscuring the truth, severing the threads that tie a moment to its historical roots. Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is different. Although a liberal historian, Beckert refuses to limit his scope in the traditional way. Instead, he follows the movement of cotton across time, space, and class, bringing forward the threads that bind the objects of an otherwise distorted past.
For an estimated hundreds of thousands of people, including some 60,000 workers who had served notice to their bosses, April 15, 2015, was strike day—reportedly the largest mobilization of low-wage workers since May Day of 1886, when a half million workers and their families (10 percent of the population at the time) struck for the eight-hour work day. Hundreds of us from here in Tennessee joined fast food workers, adjuncts, and home and child-care workers in the morning for strike actions, and many of us boarded buses to St. Louis and Ferguson, Missouri, for a Black Lives Matter protest that brought together strikers and supporters from all across the region. It was an intense and exact showcase of the irrevocable knot of violent and permanent racism in this country, and its broadening (and racialized) wealth and income gap and the deepening, permanent poverty of working-class life.… There is no legitimate history of this nation’s past and present that can deny the twin realities of extreme economic exploitation of people of color, especially African Americans, and the incredible violence perpetrated against them. Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told draws these two realities together in his contribution to the new set of histories of U.S. capitalism, slavery, and cotton, which include Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams.
Forthcoming in October 2015
Maroons, self-organized communities of runaway slaves, existed wherever slavery was present. One of the most vital and persistent maroon communities was tucked away in the mountainous rainforests on the Caribbean island of Dominica, at the time a British colony. This “state within a state,” as the colonial authorities tellingly described it, posed a direct challenge to the slavery system, and before long, the Dominican Maroons rose up to challenge the British Empire. Ultimately, they were captured and put on trial. Here, for the first time, are primary documents, carefully edited and contextualized, that richly present the voices and experiences of the Maroons—in resistance and defeat.
Forthcoming in September 2015
In early 1917, as Britain was bogged down in a war it feared would never end, Alice Wheeldon, her two daughters, and her son were brought to trial and imprisoned for plotting the assassination of Prime Minister Lloyd George, who they believed had betrayed the suffrage movement. In this highly evocative and haunting play, British historian and feminist Sheila Rowbotham illuminates the lives and struggles of those who opposed the war. The Wheeldons’ controversial trial became something of a cause célèbre—a show trial at the height of the First World War—based on fabricated evidence from a criminally insane fantasist, “Alex Gordon,” who was working for an undercover intelligence agency. It was a travesty of justice. Friends of Alice Wheeldon is combined here with Rowbotham’s extended essay, “Rebel Networks in the First World War,” that gives a historical overview of the political and social forces that converged upon the Wheeldon family and friends.
When international media were broadcasting live video footage of Tunisians gathering in hundreds of thousands in front of the central office in Tunis of the long-terrifying ministry of home security, chanting in one voice “the people want to bring down the regime,” something had already changed: ordinary people realized they could make huge changes. Weeks later, the Egyptian uprising removed the Mubarak regime that had been entrenched in power for over thirty years…. The neoliberal forms of imperial rule that had destroyed the hopes of the liberation movements were under attack. In order to counter the possibilities for a massive breakthrough at the popular level, the Western forces mounted an invasion of Libya using the mantra of humanitarianism to disrupt, militarily, political and economic life in Africa. Later in collusion with the counter-revolutionary forces in the Egyptian military, Western imperialism sought to roll back the gains of people in the streets of Tunis and Cairo.
Soviet ecology presents us with an extraordinary set of historical ironies. On the one hand, the USSR in the 1930s and ’40s violently purged many of its leading ecological thinkers and seriously degraded its environment in the quest for rapid industrial expansion. The end result has often been described as a kind of “ecocide,” symbolized by the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the assault on Lake Baikal, and the drying up of the Aral Sea, as well as extremely high levels of air and water pollution. On the other hand, the Soviet Union developed some of the world’s most dialectical contributions to ecology, revolutionizing science in fields such as climatology, while also introducing pioneering forms of conservation. Aside from its famous zapovedniki, or nature reserves for scientific research, it sought to preserve and even to expand its forests.
The fast-reviving South African left is urgently coming to grips with the most acute national crises of structure and agency the country has experienced since the historic freeing of Nelson Mandela in February 1990 and the shift of the entire body politic in favor of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).… The subsequent rise in unemployment, inequality, poverty, and environmental degradation soon reached some of the worst levels in the contemporary world. The consequent social unrest is now so high that President Jacob Zuma…promised increased “public order policing” personnel and the purchase of a new generation of technologically advanced weapons, including sonar canons…. In this conflagration, what survived of the left is now growing by leaps and bounds. Within a decade, it may become a force capable of an electoral challenge to the ANC for state power. But much will depend upon how it regroups amidst shards of splintered radical projects, with myriad questions hotly debated in the movement.
When in March 2012, Barack Obama paused briefly from approving orders for drone killings of Pakistani and Yemeni villagers, in order to reassure the attendees at the annual gala of the AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) that, “when there are efforts to boycott or divest from Israel, we will stand against them,” the real target of his declaration was elsewhere: the myriad grassroots organizers across the world who have made the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns unignorable. Their mounting influence has provoked efforts to declare them anti-Semitic or illegal from London to Long Beach. In fact, the series of victories across the University of California system has so annoyed its managers that they have hauled in the Caesar of domestic repression, Janet Napolitano, to deal with campus activists. Obama’s declaration of support for Israeli colonialism had a simple message to those many activists: back down, because Washington will not.
The 70th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War will be commemorated the day after tomorrow, May 9. Given the time difference, while I write these lines, the soldiers and officials of the Army of the Russian Federation, full of pride, will be parading through Moscow’s Red Square with their characteristic quick, military steps.… Lenin was a brilliant revolutionary strategist who did not hesitate in assuming the ideas of Marx and implementing them in an immense and only partly industrialized country, whose proletariat party became the most radical and courageous on the planet in the wake of the greatest slaughter that capitalism had caused in the world, where for the first time tanks, automatic weapons, aviation and poison gases made an appearance in wars, and even a legendary cannon capable of launching a heavy projectile more than 100 kilometers made its presence felt in the bloody conflict.
As we write these notes in March 2015, the Pentagon’s official Vietnam War Commemoration, conducted in cooperation with the U.S. media, is highlighting the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. ground war in Vietnam, marked by the arrival of two Marine battalions in De Nang on March 8, 1965. This date, however, was far from constituting the beginning of the war. The first American to die of military causes in Vietnam, killed in 1945, was a member of the Office of Strategic Services (a precursor of the CIA). U.S. intelligence officers were there in support of the French war to recolonize Vietnam, following the end of the Japanese occupation in the Second World War and Vietnam’s declaration of national independence as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The French recolonization effort is sometimes called the First Indochina War in order to distinguish it from the Second Indochina War, initiated by the United States. In reality, it was all one war against the Viet Minh (Vietnamese Independence League). By the time that the Vietnamese defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the United States was paying for 80–90 percent of the cost of the war.
In a letter to Vietnam War veteran Charles McDuff, Major General Franklin Davis, Jr. said, “The United States Army has never condoned wanton killing or disregard for human life.” McDuff had written a letter to President Richard Nixon in January 1971, telling him that he had witnessed U.S. soldiers abusing and killing Vietnamese civilians and informing him that many My Lais had taken place during the war. He pleaded with Nixon to bring the killing to an end. The White House sent the letter to the general, and this was his reply.… McDuff’s letter and Davis’s response are quoted in Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, the most recent book to demonstrate beyond doubt that the general’s words were a lie.… In what follows, I use Turse’s work, along with several other books, articles, and films, as scaffolds from which to construct an analysis of how the war was conducted, what its consequences have been for the Vietnamese, how the nature of the war generated ferocious opposition to it (not least by a brave core of U.S. soldiers), how the war’s history has been whitewashed, and why it is important to both know what happened in Vietnam and why we should not forget it.
The International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), nowadays better known as the First International, was founded in London in September 1864. Despite the importance of the event, there has not been much attention to its 150th anniversary. To an extent, this reflects the situation of the present day, with the hegemony of neoliberal politics and, conversely, the weakness of the left, that does not seem to be interested in its own history and the lessons that might be extracted from past experiences.… Luckily, there are exceptions. Marcello Musto, an assistant professor of sociology at York University in Toronto, has contributed to two important presentations of the experience of the First International… The International after 150 Years: Labour Versus Capital, Then and Now …[and] the first English-language anthology on the IWMA, Workers Unite! The International 150 Years Later.