Eugene Debs: The First Socialist Candidate for President

American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Debs

Directed by Yale Strom (2018)

Film Review

Many analysts on the left are comparing “socialist” Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign to that of social Eugene Debs 100 years ago. As portrayed in this film, Debs was very different than I imagined him to be. I had always pictured him as a bookish intellectual.  He was actually more of a populist like Donald Trump

Born in 1855, in 1893, he co-founded the American Railway Union (ARU) and was instrumental in the 1894 Pullman strike involving 250,000 workers across 27 states. In 1895, he was imprisoned for the first time for after the ARU violated a federal injunction ordering strikers back to work. It was during his first imprisonment that a friend introduced him to socialism by giving him a copy of Das Kapital to read.

Following his release, he co-founded the Socialist Party of America. He was their presidential candidate in 1900,1904, 1908, 1912, 1916, and 1920. Rather than focusing on theoretical socialist concepts, his campaigns preached a kind of “liberation theology,”*, focusing on the social precepts (love, cooperation, compassion for the poor) promoted in the New Testament.

In 1904, Debs’ campaign team held massive evangelical-style camp meetings highlighting the plight of Southern tenant farmers.

In 1912, Debs helped found the anarchist-leaning International Workers of the World (IWW), the only union representing women, blacks, tenant farmers, and other low income groups. Bill Haywood, an IWW co-founder, was also a member of the Socialist Party’s executive committee. In 1912, Debs got 1 million votes, which was 6% of the popular vote.

In 1917, there was a split in the Socialist Party, when Woodrow Wilson entered World War I by declaring war on Germany. Debs, who opposed the war, was arrested in 1918 for violating the Espionage Act.** In 1920, he became the first person to run for president from a prison cell, receiving 3.4% of the popular vote.

Inspired by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, by 1924 most of Debs’ socialist comrades had become communists. In that election, Debs campaigned for Progressive Party candidate Robert LaFollette, who received 5 million votes (17% of the popular vote).


*Liberation theology, prominent throughout Latin American during the 20th century, is a belief system combines Christianity’s social concern for the poor with a drive for oppressed people’s political liberation.

**Among other provisions, the Espionage Act makes it illegal to interfere with armed forced recruitment while the US is at war.

Anyone with a public library card can view this documentary free on Kanopy. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into your search engine to register.

 

 

 

Escaping the Cult of Consumerism

Shopping for Freedom: Escaping the Cult of Consumerism

United Natures Media (2019)

Film Review

Shopping for Freedom is best described as an illustrated podcast about the legacy of Edward Bernays, the father of the public relations industry. It’s intended to remind us of the subtle way public relations and propaganda influence our culture to the point we only imagine we have free choice in the items we purchase.

The film has no background narrative. The sound track is a casual conversation between the hosts of Ashes Ashes, a podcast about the “end of the world.” Meanwhile we are bombarded with priceless archival footage of early TV ads and the propaganda news reels shown in schools and movie theaters in the fifties and sixties.

The footage begins with the propaganda films Bernays produced in the early fifties to win popular support for the CIA-backed coup to overthrow Guatemala’s elected government – at the behest of United Fruit Company (to protect its monopoly control of the banana industry)

The film goes on to describe Bernays’ work under Woodrow Wilson promoting US entry into World War I, and the new science of psychological persuasion as described in the former’s 1928 book Propaganda.

The hosts go on to give illustrated examples of Bernays’ successful campaigns – to increase smoking among women and consumption of nutritionless breakfast cereals and to shame working class women who got married without diamond engagement rings or wore the same dress more than once a week.*

Intriguingly the filmmakers also insert several one second “subliminal” messages inserted into the video, which the hosts never comment on. I saw “You are enough” flashed twice, three one-second Coke ads, and “eco-capitalism” flashed once.

The film concludes by recommending viewers question all their choices. Most people claim not to be influenced by advertising. In most cases, however, many of us are unaware of habits (such as buying diamond engagement rings) the PR industry has elevated into cultural norms. In all their decisions, people need to ask themselves, “Is someone trying to sell me something?”


*Bernays was also hired by ALCOA in the mid-forties to run a campaign to dispose of toxic fluoride waste by persuading municipalities to add it to their public water systems. See Edward Bernays: Father of Water Fluoridation

 

 

The US Government Assault on World War I Veterans and Their Families

The March of the Bonus Army

PBS (2013)

Film Review

This documentary concerns the brutal 1932 massacre of World War I veterans and their families by Generals MacArthur, Eisenhower and Patton.

Owing to insufficient volunteers (the army paid $1.25 a day), the US government was forced to initiate a draft when they first entered World War I in April 1917. When the war ended, veterans agitated for lost wages, leading Congress to authorize payment of a $1.25 bonus, to be paid in 1938.

With the 1929 Depression, unemployment rates for veterans were especially high, and an ex-GI from Portland organized a veterans march on Washington to demand immediate payment of their bonus.

After dozens of veterans occupied every Congressman’s office, the House passed the Bonus Bill.

As the Senate took up the bill, the veterans and their families set up an enormous tent and shack city in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington DC. They passed the time preparing communal meals, boxing, making music, preparing and visiting a library set up by the Salvation Army. One of the most remarkable features of the Anacostia tent city was the natural integration of black and white veterans in all aspects of daily life. During the war, black troops weren’t allowed to fight alongside white Americans, leading 100,000 African Americans to fight under the French flag.

The the Senate overwhelming defeated the Bonus Bill, Congress adjourned and Hoover ordered the evacuation of the 45,000 Bonus Army veterans from downtown Washington DC. After a battle broke out between city police and veterans, Hoover ordered and attack by 400 infantry, accompanied by tanks and armored vehicles to attack. General MacArthur ignored his order not to cross the Anacostia River, and he and his men burned the shacks and tents filled with the wives and children of Bonus Army members.

Congress ultimately passed the Bonus Bill in 1933. I was very surprised to learn that Roosevelt vetoed it and that the House and Senate overrode his veto.

 

The World War I Conspiracy

The World War I Conspiracy

James Corbett (2018)

Film Review

This remarkable documentary tells hidden history of a secret British round table started in 1891 by diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes that instigated both the 1898-1902 Boer War (instigated to safeguard the Rhodes-Rothschild conglomerates monopoly over South African gold and diamonds) and World War I. The Society of the Elect, as it was called, had the stated goals of imposing the Anglo-Saxon agenda on the entire world and restoring the US colonies to British control.

The main focus of this three-part documentary is an exploration of how this secret society deliberately instigated war with Germany in 1914, with the specific goal of crushing the Germans politically, militarily and economically.

Part 1 explores Germany’s rapid economic and military expansion rise after the 1871 unification of its member under Kaiser Wilhelm I. Fearful that this expansion would threaten Britain’s colonial ambitions (and their personal fortunes), the Society of the Elect quietly plotted a war against Germany from the time of Rhodes’s death in 1902.

Lord Alfred Milner, who replaced Rhodes as leader of the secret group, established control of the British press, military, foreign office and diplomatic corps by placing cronies in key positions of power.

Whereas Germany was a long time ally of the British Crown (Kaiser Wilhelm II and King George V were first cousins), Milner and his cronies maneuvered his cronies in the Foreign Office into a secret alliance with France and Russia – without knowledge of either Parliament or Cabinet.


Part 2 concerns the secret plot to embroil the US in World War I (in 1917) by engineering a German submarine attack (in 1915) on an auxiliary warship disguised as an ocean liner known as the Lusitania; * by engaging in a conspiracy with US banker JP Morgan to deny anti-war President William Howard Taft a second term in 1912; ** and by instigating a massive propaganda campaign in the US press portraying the Kaiser and the German army as inhuman monsters.


Part 3 discusses the fabulous wealth JP Morgan, the Society of the Elect and their cronies acquired as a direct result of World War I. Between them, the US and Britain created 21,000 millionaires and billionaires out of war profitsI. Retired general Smedley Butler was the first to expose the unprecedented war profiteering that occurred between 1914-1918 in in famous pamphlet War is a Racket.

 


*The Lusitania, officially classified as an auxiliary warship, had twelve 6-inch guns and was heavily loaded with ammunition and gunpowder (information that only became available when the records were unsealed in 2014). In view of the aggressive German U-boat campaign, Britain clearly had no business using a British warship to transport 1,128 passengers. The German submarine campaign was largely directed against the illegal British naval blockade blocking all food shipments to Germany – a violation of the 1909 Declaration of London and a crime against humanity. As a result of the blockade, which continued into 1919, German civilians were restricted to 1,000 calories a day and more than 753,000 died of starvation.The death of 128 US passengers on the Lusitania was ultimately used to justify the US entry into the war in 2017.

**Taft was far more popular (and politically savvy) than Woodrow Wilson, an obscure professor with limited political experience. JP Morgan and his fellow bankers propelled Wilson (a Democrat) into the presidency by backing third party candidate (and former president) Teddy Roosevelt and splitting the Republican vote. Owing, in large part to Wilson’s political inexperience, he was under the direct control of Texas politician Colonel Edward M House, who was conspiring with Milner and his colleagues in the British foreign office.

Plutocracy III: Class War

Plutocracy III: Class War

Scott Noble (2017)

Film Review

Part 2 of Scott Noble’s Plutocracy series addresses the rise of a US manufacturing elite aristocracy far more vicious and brutal than any hereditary European aristocracy. One hundred years after America’s War of Independence, Wall Street’s robber barons were effectively controlling both state and federal government. They have done so ever since.

The Brutal Repression of Unions

Workers, organized by fledgling labor unions and worker-based political parties (covered extensively in Plutocracy Part II – see Plutocracy II Solidarity Forever), launched massive strikes to fight back against their starvation wages and working conditions. Company bosses fought worker organizing by hiring mercenary armies, such as Pinkertons, to harass, torture and kill organizers. The US was the only industrialized country to allow private corporations to form their own private armies.

It was also common for state National Guard units and federal troops to intervene in strikes and kill striking workers and their families. The documentary highlights the 1914 Ludlow massacre, in which National Guardsmen deliberately shot into and set fire to a strikers’ tent colony, killing two dozen people (including miners’ wives and children).

The film goes on to describe the rise of International Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) a revolutionary union that was the first to represent unskilled workers, women and people of color.

Using a combination of trumped up charges and government-linked vigilante groups, corporate controlled state and federal entities brutally repressed the IWW, both before and after World War I.

How Elites Used World War I to Suppress Worker Organizing

Most of the film focuses on the enormous setback in US worker organizing that occurred during World War I. In part the filmmakers blame the massive pro-war propaganda and indoctrination apparatus Woodrow Wilson created and in part the repressive measures he enacted to suppress popular opposition to the compulsory draft he introduced.

These included the 1917 Espionage Act (which was never repealed – both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden were charged under this law), the 1916 Selective Service Act (never repealed), the 1918 Sedition Act (repealed in 1920) and the 1917 Immigration Act (allowing for arrest and deportation of dissidents without due process).

In 1919, Wilson created the General Intelligence Division (GID), headed by J Edgar Hoover, who created 200,000 crossed indexed cards on 60,000 so-called “dissidents,” including NAACP and Negro Improvement Association members, pacifists, suffragettes, union leaders and progressive politicians like Robert LaFollette. Hoover took his index cards with him when the GID shut down and Roosevelt appointed him to head the Bureau of Investigation, renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935.

Links to Plutocracy II Solidarity Forever and Plutocracy I A history of Political Repression in the US

 

The Rise and Fall of Britain’s Working Class

the-people

The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010

By Selina Todd

John Murray Publishers (2015)

Book Review

The People is about the rise of the British working class during World War I and its systematic erosion during the seventies as the Thatcher government systematically dismantled Britain’s manufacturing base.

British workers first began to see themselves as a cohesive force during 1914-18 as hundreds of thousands left domestic service (where most were employed) for the war industry. Working class consciousness reached its zenith during World War II, in part due to discriminatory treatment by the Churchill government. Working class women were often forced to leave well-paying jobs to be conscripted into the munitions industry. In contrast, middle and upper class women were exempted from conscription because they did “voluntary” work. Middle and upper class families also found it easier to be exempted from the mandatory evacuation scheme. The latter required rural families were required to accept child evacuees from urban centers without compensation.

The Churchill government provided virtually no funding for the mandatory evacuation scheme (which was organized mainly by schools and charitable groups), nor for benefits for families who lost housing, jobs and breadwinners due to German bombing, nor for proper air raid shelters. Government provided shelters were so wet and filthy, Londoners spontaneously seized and occupied the subway system, and there was nothing the government could do to stop them.

According to Todd, the austerity cuts that have turned Britain into a low wage economy actually started in 1976 (three years before Thatcher was elected prime minister) with public spending cuts imposed on the UK as a condition of an IMF loan. For the most part, this “free market” attitude continued under Blair and New Labour.

In her Afterward, Todd sees evidence of a growing popular discontent over inequality in the rise of UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party) and the Scottish independence referendum. The latter, she maintains, was actually more about inequality. More recently, this discontent has manifested in the election of left wing Jeremy Corbyn to run the Labour Party and the successful Brexit referendum.

The Origins of American Empire – What They Didn’t Teach You in School

Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States – Prequel A

Directed by Oliver Stone (2014)

Film Review

Owing to the series’ great success, Oliver Stone has produced two prequels to his  Untold History of the United States. The first traces the origins of America’s present empire-building spree at the end of the 19th Century.

Stone credits Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward (1861-69) for the launch of America’s imperialist ambitions. Following the US conquest of half of Mexico in 1848, Seward sought to expand US empire even further by conquering Alaska, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Canada, Columbia, the Virgin Islands, Hawaii and Midway.The US would eventually succeed in annexing all of these territories, except for Canada, Haiti and the Dominican Republic – although they only formally possessed the northern section of Columbia, which they renamed Panama.

Then, as now, the US undertook these military adventures at the behest of Rockefeller, JP Morgan, William Randolph Hearst and other Wall Street robber barons. After the severe depression of 1893 (which caused 20% unemployment), they were convinced the only way to prevent further economic instability was to conquer foreign countries for their resources, cheap labor and markets for surplus US products.

During this period, US troops also invaded Cuba, the Philippines, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and China for the benefit of Standard Oil, United Fruit and other US corporations. Stone quotes extensively from General Smedley Butler’s War is a Racket. Butler participated in nearly all of these invasions.

Stone goes on to trace the British, French, US and czarist designs on Middle Eastern oil that were the true basis for World War I and the invasion of Russia by British, French, US and Japanese troops following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. I was unaware the US refused to recognize the Soviet Union until 1933, when Roosevelt took office.

My favorite parts of this film concern the brave rebels who opposed this US imperialist aggression despite a brutal federal crackdown on all protest activity: Mark Twain and other in the Anti-Imperialist League, Eugene Debs, Bill Haywood and International Workers of the World, Emma Goldman and Mother Jones (Mary Harris Jones).

The Hidden History of Big Oil

How Big Oil Conquered the World

Corbett Report (2016)

Film Review

This is an extremely gripping documentary about the hidden history of John D Rockefeller and the global oil cartel. Much of this history, including Rockefeller’s early background, the role of the “oilagarchy” in instigating World War I, Prohibition and their total domination of education, medicine, agriculture and finance has been systematically erased from US history books.

I found the beginning of the film, in which James Corbett talks about JD’s father William Avery Rockefeller, most revealing. Rockefeller senior was a notorious snake oil salesman (and cunning sociopath) who changed his name to Dr Bill Livingston to escape the clutches of the law for fraud, bigamy, rape and various other crimes.

The film traces Rockefeller junior’s entry into the oil drilling business in the 1850s with the formation of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. From the very beginning of his career, JD demonstrated the same knack for treachery, deceit and fraud as his father – in dealings with both business partners and competitors.*

The invention of the internal combustion engine in the 1870s put Rockefeller in direct competition with the electric vehicle industry. Even the first electric cars (built in 1884) had a number of advantages over gas-powered cars. In 1900, they made up 28% of the US market. Thanks to the discovery of plentiful oil in Texas, Rockefeller easily flooded the market with cheap gasoline and put electric car makers out of business.

After World War I, he faced similar competition from ethanol-fueled cars (Henry Ford designed the Model T to run on either gasoline or alcohol produced from agricultural waste). Here Rockefeller and his corporate allies demolished their competition by conspiring to instigate a national anti-alcohol movement. The latter resulted in the enactment of Prohibition in 1919 and a total ban on alcohol. In a similar vein, after World War II the “oilagarchy” conspired with General Motors to acquire and shut down electrified public transport systems in at least a dozen cities.

Rockefeller’s transformation of medicine (by funding and acquiring control of medical schools) into a field dominated by synthetic petroleum-based pharmaceuticals is fairly well known. There is less public awareness that he played a similar role in shaping public education (especially the teaching of history) and the replacement of organic-based farming with industrial agriculture reliant on petrochemicals. Rockefeller played a similar role in secret meetings that resulted in the creation of the Federal Reserve, as did Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan Bank in the creation of the World Bank and IMF.

Corbett also traces the creation of parallel oil monopolies in Europe by the Rothchilds, the Nobel family and the British and Dutch royal families. Germany posed a major threat to this global oil cartel with a treaty they signed with the Ottoman Empire to acquire a controlling interest in Iraqi oil development. The threatened competition with established European oil interests set wheels in motion for a British-led war against Germany (ie World War I).


* JD’s favorite motto: “Competition is a sin.”

 

A Novel About Jim Crow

some singSome Sing, Some Cry

By Ntozake Shangi and Ifa Bayeza

St Martin’s Press (2010)

Book Review

Some Sing, Some Cry is a novel tracing seven generations of a fictional African American family from slavery to the election of Barack Obama. The authors are sisters and the first half of the book is based on family oral history.

The novel’s matriarch originates from on an island off the coast of South Carolina and takes the name of a prominent plantation owner who has fathered children by both her mother and herself. The family are forced off their land when Reconstruction ends, migrating to Charleston.

The first half of the book is the strongest, with its poignant depiction of family members being stripped of their newly won freedoms as Jim Crow laws ban them from most occupations. To a large extent, the plot revolves around complex prejudices within the African American community against family members with darker skin. In one instance, the plantation owner kidnaps an light-complected male child and raises him as his heir. In another a “bright-skinned” uncle passes as Irish to evade trade union rules that ban Negroes.

The novel’s main focus is the role newly freed slaves played in the development of modern American music. The reader gets the strong sense that many Mayfield family members turned to working in minstrel shows, music halls and clubs when Jim Crow laws banned them from other occupations.

The sections dealing with the great northern migration, Harlem renaissance and birth of ragtime and jazz are also quite riveting. I came away with a totally new insight into the African American origin of the dance crazes of the “roaring twenties,” eg the “Charleston” and the “Black Bottom.”

This was also my first exposure to the extreme discrimination African American soldiers faced during World War I. Unlike white troops, they weren’t issued gas masks. Forced to improvise, they covered their faces with urine soaked rags to protect themselves against mustard gas.

World War I through Arab Eyes

Essential history I should have learned in high school but didn’t. I must have been absent that day. This documentary gives me a new understanding of how European colonial powers totally wrecked the Arab world – a process that continues to the current day.

World War I through Arab Eyes

Al Jazeera (2014)

Film Review

This is a three part documentary in which Tunisian journalist Malke Triki interviews European, Turkish and Arab journalists and surviving families about the role of Arab forces – on both sides – in World War I.

Part 1 concerns the forcible conscription of Muslim troops by both the Ottoman Empire and the Allies. Two-thirds of the soldiers who defeated England, Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli weren’t Turkish, but Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Iraqi and Palestinian. As these countries were still part of the Ottoman Empire, they were subject to a mandatory draft.

I was unaware that England and France, who had occupied large swathes of North Africa since the end of the 19th century, also forcibly conscripted Muslim troops. England forced more than 1.2 million Egyptians to fight for the Allied cause, while France forcibly drafted 100,000 Algerians, 80,000 Tunisians and 45,000 Moroccans.

The French were widely accused of using these colonial forces as cannon fodder to protect French soldiers.

Many colonial troops rebelled against being compelled to kill fellow Muslims. This, as well as their abominable treatment by Europeans, was the spark that inflamed the North African independence movements that arose after World War I.

Part 2 tells the story of the decline of the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century and the Ottoman-German relationship which led to their Treaty of Alliance in August 1914.

In 1830 the Ottoman Empire stretched from Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) to the Red Sea and encompassed most of North Africa and the Balkans. It was under continual attack by European colonial powers. In the late 1800s, the British military seized Egypt and the French military Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. In 1912, Italy seized Libya. In the 1912-13 Balkan Wars, the Empire lost its European territories.

This episode also describes the Ottoman leadership’s brutal suppression of Arab nationalism in the Middle East, particularly in Syria/Lebanon. In 1915, one third of the Lebanese population died of starvation and another third were permanently displaced when their villages were decimated.

It also provides important background on the Armenian genocide carried out by the Ottoman leadership in 1915-17.

Part 3 covers the secret Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France and the way the two imperial powers carved up the former Ottoman Empire between them, regardless of promises made to nationalist movements across the Arab world.

Despite the Egyptian Revolution and the Iraq Uprising, Arab subservience to Ottoman rule was replaced by a series of mandates across the region in which Britain and France seized control of the areas they prized most – to satisfy their own ambitions, interests and ultimately to gain access to region’s valuable oil resources.

World War I gave birth to the Turkish nationalist movement, which led to the founding of the modern Turkish state; and to Zionism, aided greatly by the Balfour Declaration of 1917.