Whither Proletarian Cinema?

by Andrew Stewart on January 10, 2016

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A tractor trailer, standing lonesome in the hinterlands, used as an advertisement for Donald Trump’s presidency has been vandalized. The ‘T’ has been turned into a ‘G’ and the famous Grumpy Cat meme has been stenciled on the tail end. While this is on the surface hilarious, one should also see it as a barometer. At a time when ‘socialism’ and ‘fascism’ are being used to describe candidates in both political parties (regardless of how problematic those definitions may be in application to the candidates when compared to Lenin or Mussolini), this trailer is what defines the certain effectiveness and limitations of anti-racist art. There certainly are artists who are far more politicized and create artwork that embraces a much more radical aesthetic. But if this tractor-trailer had been made to say ‘Bash the Fash’ or ‘Workers of the World, Unite’, the reaction would have been far different in this rural setting. It would have enraged and thereby strengthened Trump supporters. Yet by turning the Donald into a surly pussycat, his message is deflated.

This is where the anti-racist dialogue in the mainstream of America is now located. The most “radical” outliers of this trend, published by The Nation, would perhaps be Max Blumenthal, who frames his support for Palestinians as a type of anti-imperialism that seems more indebted to the liberal populist ideas of William J. Bryan, Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and the Anti-Imperialist League than Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. This sort of opposition to interventionism can be seen also today in some of the more liberal parts of the Libertarian movement, the element that is pro-choice, pro-decriminalization of victimless crime, anti-racist, and pro-same sex marriage. Yet both the Anti-Imperialist League then and the Libertarians or Progressive Democrats now are unable to go the full distance Lenin did in his analysis and see imperialism as the matured form of capitalism.

We see this also in the cinemas today. Michael Moore is releasing a new picture, WHERE TO INVADE NEXT, that is his field trip across the European Union, asking why Americans are unable to have the Keynesian social safety net created by the Marshall Plan. Yet Louis Proyect has already provided a foil to this in a decent review of the film:

What is missing from the film is any reference to counter-indications. For example, the words “austerity”, “immigrants” or “ultraright” are not mentioned once… How can you make a film that ignores such a development? I guess you’ll have to ask Michael Moore himself, a guy who begged Ralph Nader not to run in 2004. You would think that after making a film titled “Capitalism: a Love Story” he would have come to the point of thinking in systemic terms. Unfortunately, Moore has shown very little ability to understand why austerity exists or why it is utopian to expect the USA to adopt socialized medicine or prisons where the inmates have keys to their own cells.

Again, we have another barometer. The aforementioned CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY, while zany, was lacking any sort of intellectual depth, which can also be said of FAHRENHEIT 9/11. The irony of course, is that Charles Ferguson created two films, INSIDE JOB and NO END IN SIGHT, that, while politically mainstream in their own ways, dissected and exposed the neoliberal malfeasances behind two of the biggest catastrophes of American governance this century, the 2008 economic crash and the earlier invasion of Iraq. We should see Ferguson as another barometer. His career comes from him cashing in after a career in Silicon Valley and, while I do not doubt his earnest views and abilities, I doubt the former Brookings Institute fellow is going to be manning the barricades any time soon. Both Moore and Ferguson are left-leaning populists but from a perspective akin to when Irving Howe and Michael Harrington were turning the Democratic Socialists of America into a progressive caucus of the Democratic Party, encouraging Old and New Leftists to flood the membership rolls using a classic ‘boring in’ strategy that failed to account for the coming of Jimmy Carter’s neoliberalism and Ronald Reagan’s anti-Communism.

What we need is an honest dialogue about what the current limitations are of mainstream American cinema and how to push it further. There are films produced in Latin America, Europe, and Asia today that have a much more militant Marxist vision, most recently exemplified by the Argentinian series MARX IS BACK (https://youtu.be/eckwjxa0-w4). Yet as another barometer, consider the success of Steve Soderbergh’s massive two-part epic biopic CHE (2008). Released in the US mere months after the financial crisis, it bombed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being the fact a good deal of anti-Communism is still to be found in American culture. If American audiences were not flocking to the cinemas to see a Marxist war film in the weeks following a massive crisis of capitalism, one should see this as indicative of where things truly are. Another indicator should be a recent story in Time magazine, Meet the World’s Remaining Communists, which frames the discussion in a fashion to a report on American phonograph collectors or the few outliers who refuse to use wireless handset telephones, preferring instead the classic Ma Bell models with rotary dials. We do see in American independent and science fiction/fantasy films some stirrings of Left agitation, just as the post-World War II Western literary scene was defined by anti-Communist secular humanism (Asimov), Christianity (Tolkien or C.S. Lewis), or pre-Keynesian Classical Liberalism (Heinlein), but there is no major blockbuster opening this winter that is going to convince the masses of the labor theory of value. Indeed, STAR WARS has always been the story of a shambling capitalism filled with space pirates, black marketeers, gangsters, and a resistance movement not promoting a return to primitive communism but rather a state of affairs seen under a Rome-like republican government, with representative democracy and a regulated capitalist marketplace not unlike the Keynesian welfare states before the New Left challenged their imperial projects in Africa and Asia.

We should look to the early films of Soviet cinema for a template. Films like Eisenstein’s OCTOBER or Vertov’s MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA were truly proletarian because they were so different from classical Hollywood cinema. Most noticeably, they eschewed the idea of singular characters adhering to a three-act structure, instead presenting the audience with visions of whole classes of people coming into sometimes violent conflict with each other. There are sequences that do feature individuals acting out plot elements, but we do not follow them for the entirety of the story. Eisenstein’s classic books Film Form and The Film Sense provide us with essays about making film editing act as a literal representation of dialectics through his notions of montage. The reason the socialist realist films that began production under Stalin and continued to be released after he died fail is not because of the brutality of Stalin, they fail because they focus on single protagonists and antagonists. By creating character-based rebuttals to fascism, they ended up embracing elements of fascist ideology, namely the rejection of classes as the central engines of history as opposed Great Men. In this sense, we also see the failures of the various Cults of Personality.

But what should the material be about? We see many works that try to explain radical theories in creative ways, but I think that this fails also. Eisenstein tried at one point to make a film adaptation of Das Kapital, but this is doomed to failure also. Why? Look back to what Lenin said in his notes on Hegel:

[I]t is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!!

We see this point reiterated again by the Leftist philosophers who were the best kind of thinkers, such as Althusser, Dunayevskaya, and C.L.R. James. They understood very well that Marxism was not a unique philosophy as much as a unique inversion of the Hegelian dialectic. We see in Lenin’s post-Hegel writings a new type of thinking about Marxism that edges closer to Libertarian Marxism. It is also present in the writings of Rosa Luxemburg, who grasped Hegel before Lenin did. This is what a proletarian cinema must do, help workers understand Hegel’s Logic. Only then can there be a real chance of a proletarian cinema that will not be rejected as ideological trash.

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