Friday, May 16, 2014

Nat Weinstein's Project

I owe my friends at Socialist Viewpoint some attention. The last few issues have not caught my fancy, but the May/June edition contains much of interest. So I clicked over there to prepare this post, and discovered that the paper's founder, Nat Weinstein, has just passed away. He was 89 years old.

There is a well-written and remarkably generous obituary in Socialist Action, here, authored by Jeff Mackler. Louis Proyect also publishes some thoughts on Nat's passing.

I never met Mr. Weinstein, something I now regret. Among other things, he loved political discussion. I imagine that he and I could have spent a few enjoyable hours over coffee in conversation. I don't know if that would be true--it may be he'd never talk to a Republican--but I can hope. Now there's no way to ever know.

I don't agree with my Trotskyist friends, but I do respect them. Mr. Weinstein is very much worthy of respect. He was skilled as a painter. Mr. Mackler tells a funny story:
Highly skilled, Nat could paint a pine board to look like any kind of quality wood or stone. He was fond of telling the story of his experience in marbleizing several dozen giant wooden pillars in a huge downtown San Francisco commercial building. While high on a scaffold, Nat remembered, he had been denounced by a woman below, who was outraged that he appeared to be painting over the building’s beautiful “marble” pillars. He recalled that the woman was astonished to learn that the opposite was the case!
That passion extended to politics. Nat spent the WWII years in the Merchant Marine. Mr. Proyect quotes from Nat's wife, Sylvia Weinstein, who wrote
My husband had become a socialist while sailing on a ship to Venezuela. It was a three month trip, and he was a captive audience to a Trotskyist shipmate. I still have the letters he wrote me—three v-mail letters which started off with, “At last I have found the truth.” I thought he had become a Jehovah Witness.
The religious reference is revealing. I don't want to get into philosophical differences between Marxism and religion, but surely all passionate people have a religious-like impulse. Theirs is a moral cause, not just a pragmatic one. Nat's shipboard conversion led to a life-long passion that he carried to the day he died. I say that not with condescension, but rather with admiration. We who are without passion accomplish nothing.

In this spirit I now pay homage to Nat Weinstein by taking his newspaper seriously.

The May/June headliner is written by Gregg Shotwell.  The article is a deeply personal description of the Marxist theory of alienation. He started his career as a machine operator in Widdicomb’s furniture factory.
I loved the feel of wood in my hands. The smell of cherry, mahogany, and ash. Walnut was the most aromatic. It was intoxicating like roasting coffee. Sawdust is a fragrance that provokes memories as ancient and arousing as tools made by hands deep in the forest of our collective memory. Wood, even kiln-dried wood, feels and looks alive. I studied the grain of each piece before I cut, shaped, bored, or mitered it to fit. The work was satisfying and the job was integrated.
To support his growing family, he moved to the higher-paying but soul-deadening job at General Motors.
The first day I walked through the doors of GM, my body cringed. Every day for the next thirty years, my body cringed when I walked through the doors of GM. My senses felt assaulted by the noise and toxic vapors. A cloud of oil and coolant hung in the air. The concussion of mechanical clamor penetrated my body and hammered my eardrums. Everyone shouted. Curses were a natural response to the environment.  
At Widdicomb’s I considered eighty-eight pieces high volume. The production rate on my first job at GM was 88,000 pieces for eight hours of work.  
Eleven thousand pieces-per-hour is 183.33 parts-per-minute, more than three parts-per-second, and we had to accelerate the rate if we wanted to take any breaks. And we did.  
At Widdicomb’s there was only one shift. We never worked more than eight hours a day. If we had to work on Saturday, we only worked until noon. At GM ten hours was mandatory. All three shifts worked every Saturday. Sixty hours a week on top of a big hourly raise meant I was in the money. It also meant that I was paying for the money with my life. I was grinding 660,000 valve lifters a week.  
I didn’t like the job. I promised myself it was temporary, but I didn’t foresee what old timers called, “the golden handcuffs”—overtime, pension, benefits—or what pundits called, “the social contract.” Pundits didn’t understand that our work experience was dis-integrated and the so-called “social contract” bound us to a dehumanized system of labor. It was in effect an anti-social contract. 
Mr. Shotwell does us a service with his vivid description of a 20th Century automobile plant. He should then be doubly happy that such jobs first moved overseas, and are now rapidly disappearing altogether, replaced by robots. But I don't think he is. He wants future generations to enjoy the "benefits" of golden handcuffs. Unionism was founded to protect the interests of the proletariat, but when there is no proletariat, the benefits of a union disappear.

If it is any consolation, I believe the craft work that both Mr. Shotwell so enjoyed early in his career, and that Nat pursued for his entire working life, is making a comeback. Commodities like cars, houses, and furniture will be made by machine. But it is human nature to want something personalized and created--that luxury manufacture is where the jobs will be.

Zoltan Grossman writes a superb article about Ukraine, among the best I've read anywhere. The piece echos what I have written here, except that Mr. Grossman knows much more than I do. His essay has actual facts.

A regular feature of Socialist Viewpoint is Incarceration Nation. This features articles by and about prominent prisoners, including especially Mumia abu Jamal. An encounter with NYC's transit police is recited here. I think there's probably another side to the story, though I don't know what it is.

It is here where passion and reality don't mix very well. No doubt we have too many people in jail--approximately 1% of the male population. And no doubt some of them are innocent, more are mistreated, and most of them are miserable. It is a scandal. But also, a large fraction are psychopaths, including, I believe, Mumia. Perhaps not a majority, but a much higher fraction than in the general population. These people need to be in jail.

The Libertarian economist, David Henderson, writes about the Leftist author, Barbara Ehrenreich. He quotes her:
Stop all the ways that money is being taken from the poor. I mean, you can just spiral down so fast into poverty. You have a broken headlight, you get stopped. That fine is going to be greater than the cost of a new headlight. You don't have money to pay the fine, you're looking at an arrest warrant--and down you go.
Ms. Ehrenreich, Mr. Henderson, and I all agree that this is an injustice. So many piddly regulations benefit the middle class at the expense of the poor.

Nat Weinstein knew whereof we speak. His Trotskyist passion sometimes put him on the side of angels. May he rest in peace.

Further Reading:


  1. Are there any Trotskyist groups in Greece and in particular any spits from the party once heades by Alphonos Pangas?

    1. I'm not expert on Greek politics, so I can't answer your question in detail. All I can say is "Antarsya," which is a grouping to the Left of Syriza, and which includes Trotskyists.

      Louis Proyect has written extensively about Greece. You may want to check out his blog.