The Rustbelt Radical has been around since 2008, with a couple of years of slower activity. I never set out to promote the blog or have ambitions other than to have a place to occasionally write, communicate, rant or share. Even though the blog has been dormant off and on, I am proud of the well over 500 posts that I have produced. I am not proud of each post; of course, many – most – weren’t my best. But some of them I am quite proud of. Coincidentally, many of those I am most proud of are also those that have been most popular on the blog over the years.
On the occasion of getting 250,000 hits (admittedly small potatoes), and returning from a longish absence, I thought I would share the top posts, in order of popularity, on the Rustbelt over the years with readers. I hope comrades will indulge me. I am omitting some of that were simply announcements, or photo spreads or the rebroadcast of talks and the like.
Since I have done a bunch of different types of posts, I thought I’d divide it into those that I have written entirely (or mainly) and those that are mostly an introduction by me to a text I find important or intriguing from an author, usually from Marxism’s classical canon. Many of these I have sought to ‘repackage’ with images, videos and other additions at moments when I thought debates in the world or the left warranted a rereading these old contributions. A few, like the one on Marx and Engels’ drinking habits and the Red 48ers are original; assembling different old texts together for the first time to tell a story.
Why some are popular and others not is mostly a mystery to me. I have a feeling a good number of the posts of classical authors, like Marx on the Civil War, were found in the process of undergrads writing papers. Others like the one from Connolly, because they continue to strike a chord and remain touchstones for the present. Others, that I thought were my very best, came nowhere near the top popular posts, which was a little disconcerting. Perhaps I’ll do my personal favorites at another time.
So here are the top pieces posted on the Rustbelt that come from other authors, sometimes for the first time on the internet and often introduced or assembled by me, that I have tried to present in ways that underline why I think them important.Click on any link to open the original.
1) Karl Marx: The North American Civil War
The second most popular post on the blog. In this I present Marx’s October, 1861 overview of the landscape at the beginning of the Civil War. Marx brilliantly looks at the debates over slavery’s expansion and the slave power’s economic and political control. A must read for all students of the period or of the US in general.
“The whole movement was and is based, as one sees, on the slave question. Not in the sense of whether the slaves within the existing slave states should be emancipated outright or not, but whether the twenty million free men of the North should submit any longer to an oligarchy of three hundred thousand slaveholders; whether the vast Territories of the republic should be nurseries for free states or for slavery; finally, whether the national policy of the Union should take armed spreading of slavery in Mexico, Central and South America as its device.”
2) Detroit Remembers John Brown
I am glad that this post became so widely read (though its appeal is a bit of a mystery), I transcribed for the first time on the internet a report from a December 2, 1859 memorial service in Detroit’s black Second Baptist church for the martyred John Brown led by the indomitable William Lambert.
‘Resolved, That, as the long-lost rights and liberties of an oppressed people are only gained in proportion as they act in their own cause, therefore are now loudly called upon to arouse to our own interest, and to concentrate our efforts in keeping the Old Brown Liberty-ball in motion and thereby continue to kindle the fires of liberty upon the altar of every determined heart among men and continue to fan the same until the proper time, when a revolutionary blast from liberty’s trump shall summon them simultaneously to unite for victorious and triumphant battle.’
3) Marx and Engels: Give me a bowl of wine/ In this I bury all unkindness
This is one of my personal favorites. This post is a collection of a host of references from the letters of the Marx-Engels clan to their love of the good life and its accompanying wine, beer and spirits. Throughout their lives the Marx and Engels families enjoyed the company of family, friends and comrades which invariably meant sharing drinks over long discussions. Whether pub crawls or Christmas cheer, the value Marx and Engels placed on their social lives and the drinks they held up in toast is found in abundant detail in their letters.
“Dear Mr. Engels,
How can you imagine that I would have been angry with you over that little drinking spree? I was very sorry not to have seen you again before you left, for that would have enabled you to see for yourself that I was only somewhat sulky in respect of my liege lord. Besides, such interludes often have quite salutary effects, but this time père Marx must have caught a bad chill during his nocturnal philosophic excursion with ‘the archbishop’s nephew’ [i.e. Engels], for he fell seriously ill and has up till now stayed quietly in bed.
Jenny Marx, 31 July 1857″
Here is presented a truly classic debate: Dave Dellinger and Isaac Deutscher debating violence, pacifism and their world views during the May, 1966 Vietnam Day teach-in at Berkeley. Both Deutscher and Dellinger are illuminating, Deutscher particularly is someone who’s “Marxism is true to itself” in ways that remain refreshing decades after his passing. I am pleased that this post has become one of the most popular on the Rustbelt; it deserves to be read, contemplated and discussed still. I write a lengthy introduction of my take on the question of violence.
By the way, somewhere out there is an audio record of this event. To hear Deutscher’s voice (and Dellinger) in this debate is a real treat
“The fact that the new society we wish to create will be resolutely non-violent, because it aims to be classless, does not change our present situation. Where we are now, power; the control of our own collective and individual destinies, is decided by force and only if we abstain from the question of power would we be able to abstain from violence, from force. And still violence would continue to exist. And still all would yearn for peace.”
5) “He Saw the Evil Through No Mist Or Haze” Frederick Douglass on John Brown
This is a long talk given by Douglass at Harper’s Ferry from 1881 on Brown and his companions. I posted it on the 150th anniversary of Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry. Throughout the piece I present photos of each of Brown’s comrades who fought with him that day and their fate. Again, probably so popular as a reference for school projects, but if you are going to write a paper for US History 123, why not include this marvelous speech.
Douglass at his most explanatory and eloquent here; fearless and expansive with truth even in his advancing age.
“Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises. When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was gone – the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union – and the clash of arms was at hand.”
6) Socialism and Democracy: A Talk by James Cannon
Cannon was always at his considerable best when he was, in the Kansas drawl of his, giving popular talks on the nature of American capitalism or the role of power in society. It comes from his years as a stump speaker for the IWW and other union struggles. In my mind, Cannon was a far better popular than party leader; and he helped to keep alive many of the emancipatory and democratic notions of classical Marxism in the face of their often violent negation in the 20th century.
This talk from 1957, given in the aftermath of McCarthyism and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, looks at the attitude of workers and the left to ‘democracy under capitalism’ and the combined role of the democratic and for socialist struggle.
“In the old days, the agitators of the Socialist Party and the IWW—who were real democrats—used to give a shorthand definition of socialism as “industrial democracy”. I don’t know how many of you have heard that. It was a common expression: “industrial democracy”, the extension of democracy to industry, the democratic control of industry by the workers themselves, with private ownership eliminated. That socialist demand for real democracy was taken for granted in the time of Debs and Haywood, when the American socialist movement was still young and uncorrupted.”
7) Recollections of Engels: Lafargue
For some reason I don’t quite understand, probably because of my age, a certain generation of leftists decided that the problems beset by Marxism throughout the 20th century; dogmatism, crude materialism, euro-centrism, schematicism, sectarianism, even sexism and bureaucracy could be placed at the feet of Marx’s lessor. What crap. Engels, with any number of faults admitted, was a truly estimable guardian and exponent of the collaborative work he and his friend (the word seems so inadequate when describing their relationship) did. More than Marx, Engels is responsible for the acceptance of many of Marx’s ideas. And he did so with a personality equally determined and playful; a true bon vivant without a hint of the dilettante.
Here, the husband of Marx’s daughter Laura, Paul Lafargue recollects the character of Engels and his role in the workers movement on the occasion of a decade passing since Engels’ death in 1905. It is impossible for me not to love the General, as many who were in his circle did with exuberance.
“Engels was friendly with the whole family; the daughters of Marx looked upon Engels as their second father, and his friendship lasted beyond the grave. After Marx’s death it was his duty to look through his manuscripts and to prepare for the press his unpublished works. Engels put on one side all that he had prepared relating to his universal philosophy of knowledge, at which he had been working for more than ten years, and for which he had made a survey of all sciences and their latest progress in order to devote himself to the preparation of the two last volumes of “Capital.”
8) James Connolly: July The 12th, 1913
An absolutely bbrilliant socialist, working class and internationalist take down, by simply recounting historic facts of Protestant history, of Orange reaction in the north of Ireland on the occasional of the triumphalism July 12 marches of the Orange Order from a the Forward, 12 July, 1913 issue of Forward. Honestly, this article could read at every year’s marching season in Ireland.
“The reader should remember what is generally slurred over in narrating this part of Irish history, that when we are told that Ulster was planted by Scottish Presbyterians, it does not mean that the land was given to them. On the contrary, the vital fact was, and is, that the land was given to the English noblemen and to certain London companies of merchants who had lent money to the Crown, and that the Scottish planters were only introduced as tenants of these landlords. The condition of their tenancy virtually was that they should keep Ireland for the English Crown, and till the land of Ireland for the benefit of the English landlord.”
Another personal favorite that I am glad to see has found an audience. A good friend of mine, knowing I am a bit of an Engelphile (not to be confused with Anglophile), gave me a gift of a huge International Publishers photo book on the life of Engels. Yes, it suffers a little from the Sovietisms about the chiseled teacher of the proletarian, but it is full of visuals accompanying the life of the great thinker, educator, revolutionary and Mensch. I used the book as a springboard to showcase some of those Red 48ers, friends of Marx and Engels who shook the world of mid-19th century Europe.
These comrades of Marx and Engels are infinitely interesting in their own right and entirely recognizable as people for anyone who has spent time in the left. Taking the words of Marx and Engels as a basis, I reconstructed their appreciation for and the contributions of these progenitors of our movement.
“Engels on Johann Becker: ‘Becker was a man of rare character. A single word gives a complete description of him; that word is healthy: he was healthy in both body and mind to the very last. A handsome man of powerful build and tremendous physical strength, thanks to his happy disposition and healthy activity he developed his unschooled but in no way uncultured mind just as harmoniously as his body. He was one of the few men who need only follow their own natural instincts to go the right way. This is why it was so easy for him to keep step with each development of the revolutionary movement and to stand just as keenly in the front ranks in his seventy-eighth year as in his eighteenth… Nor was he a gloomy, high-principled ignoramus like the majority of “serious” republicans of 1848, but a true son of the cheerful Pfalz, a man with a zest for life who loved wine, women and song like anyone…he appeared even in his latter years like a character from our old epic poem: cheerfully and mockingly hailing the enemy between sword thrusts and composing folk songs when there was nothing to hit — thus and only thus must he have appeared, Volker the Fiddler!’”
On the occasion of the mass student revolt against the introduction of new fees by England’s Tory-led government in 2010, I was brought to think of another young rebel who spoke of a rising multitude; Percy Bysshe Shelley. I could so easily have imagine Shelley in the throng of London youth that day and it brought me to Paul Foot’s marvelous 1992 essay on Red Shelley. Foot was an exceptional radical journalist, historian (in his way) and cultural commentator. Nowhere is this more evident than in his entitled Poetry of Protest. A talk by Foot on Shelley is a pleasure and thankfully can be listened to on the internet.
“Seven bloodhounds, the seven countries which signed the Treaty of Vienna which carved up Europe after the counter-revolutionary victory of Waterloo, follow him, fed by their master with human hearts. One by one they glide past ‘in this ghastly masquerade
All disguised, even to the eyes/As bishops, lawyers, peers and spies.’
Shelley hated them all. They represented the chaos of the hideous class society of the time. This Chaos comes last in the parade, ‘on a white horse, splashed with blood.’ He is Anarchy. In more recent times anarchy has come to be used as a word of the left. But in Shelley’s day the word had no such progressive meaning. It meant horror, chaos, violence. To Shelley it meant what the poem says is written on the brow of the ghastly skeletal figure on the white horse: ‘I am God and King and Law.”
Here are the original pieces written entirely, or mainly, by me that have been popular on the blog in order of number of hits.
1) Mark Twain, Cats and Communism
By a long shot, the most popular post on the Rustbelt in any class. Easily the most shared and read post on the blog; which, incidentally, says nothing about the writing and everything about cats on the internet.
Written quickly and without any thought before I went to work one morning, this is a short, light attempt at some humor on Mark Twain, Cats and Communism. In the article I make the dubiously and unfounded assertion that Maoists like dogs and Trotskyists like cats. Taking Mark Twain as an inspiration, I point to Lenin’s fondness of feline companions both as his immense humanity and a sign of his humility; no one exercises power over a cat.
“What is indisputable is that Lenin was a fan of the pussy cat and both Trotskyists and Maoists claim Lenin as their own. It is also indisputable that Lenin rejected the Democratic Dictatorship for the Proletarian one. His appreciation of cats, while this is not proven, may have helped him to this conclusion. During his final convalescence a little purr ball was often curled up on his lap, giving him great comfort, we are sure, even as both his life and the Proletarian Dictatorship slipped away (Stalin, I am confident, was a dog man).”
2) The Rustbelt’s Tips for Weathering the Recession
I am entirely unschooled in writing, I read a lot and if I have learned anything it is from that. The last thing I would think of is somebody who could or would write humor. I have two kinds of humor, to be reductionist about it, that I like; brutal social satire à la Dr. Strangelove or sketch comedy (not sit-coms) that often descend into slapstick, I’m thinking the Carol Burnett show. Most comrades would probably not define me as overly humorous; though in elementary school Mrs. Norris thought I would end up on Saturday Night Live. She was wrong. In any case, comedy, if not humor, is out of my comfort zone and to see the two most popular things I have written being the most absurd strikes me as, well, absurd.
I wrote these eight ways that we poor might weather the Great Recession when the floodgates opened in the fall of 2008.
“Second- If you can’t live without booze, coffee or herb (and we all need whatever little pleasure we can get these days) try giving up one of your other addictions. Like washing your clothes. It may be harder to get a date, but there will be a few extra quarters in your pocket at the end of the week. And what does a 40 of Steel Reserve cost these days anyway? One round with the dryer given up and you’ll be singing sweet malted songs. Needless to say if you smoke you’ll need to give that up. Or alternatively you can hang around the art school. They always stub the best butts there. You are guaranteed to find American Spirits or some clove cigarettes. The only problem is the possibility of black lipstick smudging the end. Sacrifices comrades, we all have to make them (well not all of us).”
3) Wounded Knee and the Bloody Birth of Empire
Another short piece I am proud of, written on the 120th anniversary of the massacre of Miniconjou, Hunkpapa and Lakota Sioux in 1890 at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I try and place the closing of the west and the end of independent Indian polities with the final victory of the capitalist transformation of the land itself. At least that was my intention.
“What would justice, genuine justice, be to the native peoples of this continent? From my perspective as the descendant of some of those settlers and citizen of the state that now strides this land whose birthright was dependent on the historic denial of another’s, the only justice possible is a death sentence on the Empire, whose epitaph will surely contain the words ‘Wounded Knee’, as well as a restoration of collective ownership. An irrevocable removal of those fences, those divisions that the geometry of capitalist expansion knifed into a blood-stained earth.”
4) Egypt: Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié ne font que se creuser un tombeau
Tahir Square will ever be a part of the lexicon of struggle and of hope; no matter the current terrible, and in some ways too predictable reversals that have befallen those headiest of days. Written in the first week of February, 2011, in the midst of great violence in the defense of the liberated square and a week before the fall of Mubarak, I found the spiritual resemblance to the Communards of Paris, 1871 undeniable and write this short piece, both exalting the promise of the revolution and frightened at its achievements while still in its infancy.
“This slogan was wheat pasted all over the Left Bank in those heady days of Paris, May 68. Those moments with millions on the street, a revolution in the air and when everything seemed possible. That slogan was:
Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié ne font que se creuser un tombeau.
Those who make revolutions half way only dig their own graves.
The revolution in ’68 touched the halfway mark, perhaps. But no further. There are many kinds of graves in life, and in the life of politics even more. The graves waiting for the Cairo Communards are much different from the ones faced by France’s failed 68ers. Another generation in the darkness. Or compromises, made in the midst of great possibility, that damn the task to another revolution to another generation.
Long Live The Egyptian Revolution! Forward!”
5) Some Strange Communists I Have Known
Another piece more humorous than serious, but entirely based on fact so though it may read like a satire, sadly it is not. I am not one to spend a lot of time slagging off the left, not that I don’t have face-planting episodes reading or seeing the left in action. I can in all honestly say that the smartest, most critical and open-minded, the best read and most empathetic, the most giving and erudite people I ever met have all been communists.
On the other hand, I know that a full 10% of the movement, in Dog Days when we remain relatively isolated at least, are odd balls you would cross the street than walk past on the same sidewalk, let alone spend months of your life in the excruciatingly close proximity of activist meetings. Every one of these is true.
“The comrade who makes uncomfortable reference to bestiality when outlining his tactics in the union election, then makes additional uncomfortable references to bestiality when discussing tactics in the anti-war movement. A theme has developed and sensing comrade’s twitching of discomfort as chuckles of laughter continues with said references for length of discussion.”
6) Geographica Ohia Part I: Mounds and Morgan’s Raiders
Among my favorite pieces to write, if I could call anything about what I find to be a difficult process of writing as “favorite”, are travel pieces looking at the histories and landscapes of places I visit. I plan to do many more of these for the Rustbelt; in the future; a happy coinciding of interest.
While I damn the automobile with carrying much of the responsibility for the destruction of cities, the growth of segregation, the creation of mass individual consciousness, the rise of suicidal energy oligarchies, not to mention the incredible waste and ecological damage associated with the diaboli apparati, I make a complete exception for the road trip, which I regard as the greatest of pleasures. Mark Twain once wrote about a particularly satisfying episode hurtling through the plains on the top of a stagecoach watching the country going by while smoking a pipe, “It is what all the ages have struggled for.”
I this piece, again happy to see having found an audience, I write about a road trip through the landscape of southeastern Ohio, the place from where many of my people come and I feel most at home. A place of strip mined coal fields, rich labor history, monumental Indian earthworks and antebellum free black refuges tucked into the hills. .
“We’ll start here at one of my favorite spots. The mound above, called Seip, was the central feature of a large Hopewell work on the Paint Creek off route 41. Very little of the nearly two miles of embankments remain. Seip is special. From the vantage point of its summit the valley spreads around you with terraces on either side. At 30 feet high it belongs to the second tier of mounds in the Ohio in terms of height. It was extensively excavated and some pretty remarkable pieces of material culture unearthed. The Paint Creek valley has over 950 archaeological sites. The confluence of the Paint and Scioto rivers mark the epicenter of Ohio Hopewell culture.”
The title is self-explanatory. I tried to sum up how I felt about the word and the history of communism; the necessity to lay claim to that language and that tradition again, but on the basis of a history and an outlook that, while not dismissing or downplaying the Soviet experience, places communism firmly in the liberatory and egalitarian tradition that is so parcel to our eons of history as to only be considered a part of our human nature. That human nature is still within us today, despite the patent on our genes. It is not an imagined future that needs to be constructed, but an actual present that needs to be transformed; making the Marxist notion of communism the most contemporary of alternatives.
“…isn’t this is just as true of words like ‘democracy’ (what, pray tell, does THAT mean anymore?) or ‘feminism’ or ‘environmentalism’ or any other term that I positively use all the time. It is no accident, however, that each of those words has been positively appropriated by the ruling classes for their own ends (even as we struggle to appropriate them for ours), but the term ‘communism’ (with a good deal of assistance from the Stalinist debacle) has only been vilified and damned. It is because that word, in its essence, cannot belong to them. They cannot appropriate it, for it would stick in their throats and choke them to death. So it is ours, let us treat it so.”
8) Crisis in the left: a modest proposal
Written in the aftermath of the 2013 explosion of the British SWP over serious allegations concerning sexual assault, cover-up and a bureaucratic boys club all intertwined with generations of learned “Party Building” practice, I wanted to get at the problem as I saw it; the left sees its task in terms of “what is good for the left” (or the particular small part of the left one considers authentic, usually meaning their own – small –group) when it should be organizing on the basis of “what is good for the working class”. I always thought that shift in perspective opened up a world of organizational possibilities, but not necessarily possibilities for your own organization.
My ‘modest proposal’ of all the left groups dissolving and getting together in a few years after working in the social movement to then discuss what kind of party might be necessary to actuate and generalize those movements was met with accusation of liquidationism. As if the end of some small left-wing outfit (with uniquely unique traditions, no doubt) spells the end of the left any more than all the now defunct and equally unique traditions have. The proposal being modestly offered was lost on nearly all. Oh, that the left found a sense of humor; it would go longer than almost anything in getting through the past and into the future.
“…there are ways of looking at history. One is to look at history backwards, looking over your shoulder at the past to see how you got to where you are. This view of the past tends to see inevitabilities and not contingencies as the past progressed to the present. It’s a crap way of looking at how we got here and tells us far more about our current state of mind than it does anything about the past. It’s lazy and often leads us to place our current selves in the past and lecture its inhabitants with what they should or should not do; the view of what to do conveniently illuminate by the knowledge of the consequences of what is already done. It leads us to assert things like: the ‘Bolsheviks should not have banned factions at the 10th Party Congress in 1921.’ I have lots more ‘should haves’ and ‘should not haves’ to apply to history. For example, if I were in Hernando De Soto’s position, I would not have invaded native North America. That understanding and two dollars and fifty cents will buy me a decent cup of fair trade coffee and a clear conscience.”
Written in the run-up to the vapid 2012 race for the Imperial throne between the “more effective evil” (to quote Glen Ford) in Barack Obama and whatever Romney was; but it surely combines banality with evil. The midst of a massive recession and economic dislocation, exponential wealth disparities, continued disenfranchisement and impoverishment of whole black communists, wars abroad, erosion of civil liberties , the climate crisis, and the hollowing out of whatever remained of republican institutions and it was the most boring, vapid and ill-informed election, I have ever lived through. An awful election indeed; perhaps the post’s popularity proved that I was not alone in feeling that way.
“Obama and the Democrats offer only to finish the job they have been engaged in through the first term; of triangulating every last bit of political space left in the country. Where racist Republicans at convention boo Latinas of their own party, the Democrats showcase an undocumented student and then deport tens of thousands of her country folk. If the Republicans are the party of white reaction, than the Dems are the party of banal, multi-cultural reaction. The politics of a branding campaign with the morality of an advertising executive.”
10) 2011 and the Distant Shore
Written in the midst of 2011 when it looked as revolt in Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, Yemen, and elsewhere were giving hope to millions around the world; from Madison, Wisconsin to Jakarta of the possibility of intervening and writing history themselves. Of course, things have turned out to be far more complicated, bloody and, this is the greatest defeat, hopeless. But hopeful it was because it hinted at the possibility of radical change made by the people themselves and for a while gave real testimony to the power of that possibility.
That possibility still exists, despite all.
“If we are lucky as well as skilled enough we might, surfer like, ride the waves of history, whose ebb and flow is as sure as its form is unpredictable, with our feet still on the board, controlling our response to the roil we ride that we might not drown, that we might reach the shore, that land where we might make ‘conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, [our] human nature…’ That we might carry others with us, though too many are destined to drown along the way.”
Thank you to all who have read over the years and who have continued to return even after my occasional absence.