Book review: Marcus, Ben, “The Flame Alphabet.” Vintage Books, New York, 2012




Treasures or Terrors?

Is raising children the most fulfilling thing we can do? Or is it the biggest disappointment? Do we love our children like crazy every minute, or do we just hang on because we feel guilty? Are our families draining away our will to live?

Ben Marcus wrote a book in which the downside of families tips the scale down far enough to call it a horror novel. Or you could call it sci-fi, or maybe fantasy, or maybe just stream-of-consciousness rumination on how the American family, once the pillar of stability, is becoming a madhouse of anguish.

In some stereotypes, we hear mothers, sometimes with the backs of their fingers on their foreheads, tell their children, “You con’t know how you hurt me when you talk like that.” But in Marcus’ book, the words of children literally kill their parents. All language is toxic. Only children can bear to talk at all. Adults die from language. All communication is cut off and only hermits, and then only the hermits who never think out loud, have any future.

And yet, people still want to be with each other, and with their children, even though it is sure death. There is a whole book about this. It’s all agony. To me, even reading it was agony. Marcus lambaste’s the very idea of language, but he uses some of the best writing I’ve ever endured to criticize language. If everybody in the world he creates is suffering, he makes sure the reader feels it, too.

Art is art because we interact with it and it changes us. It doesn’t owe us any pleasantries. I recommend this book because I can confirm it’s art, but certainly not because it’s going to make anybody feel good.

As I endured my way through the pages of examination of contemporary family life, I also wondered how well it would fit with the changing nature of all things. After all, the United States was primarily an agricultural country until World War II. Families were different then.

I also wondered if Marcus’ view would fit even today with all classes of people. I think his view was primarily a middle-class view. Rich people probably don’t suffer such total ambiguity toward their children. They know how to groom their assets and minimize their liabilities. Many working families nowadays don’t even have time to raise their children, let alone anguish over them.

Nevertheless, Marcus’ book treats an important contemporary development in the way modern people survive. Read “The Flame Alphabet” at your peril, but read it anyway!

–Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON radio’s “Workers Beat” program at 9AM every Saturday Central Time. If you may be curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site

Movie Review: “The Public” written, directed, and starring Emilio Estevez. 122 minutes



Estevez Does a Solid for Libraries and for homeless men

On a freezing cold night, a large group of homeless men organize a sit-in at the Cincinnati Public Library. The librarian who deals with them every day faces a quandary because he knows they may freeze to death if he helps throw them out. The police and the mayoral candidate don’t want to be seen as the bad guys.

My movie buddy and I thought the plot was a little bit unlikely, not because people don’t freeze to death every winter and not because keeping a library open might save them for at least one night; but because we don’t believe anybody today could organize that many homeless men. If the homeless were organized, they could get what they want and they wouldn’t be homeless. But we’re moviegoers, suspending credibility is our specialty!

We really liked the movie. We thought that libraries and libraries came out looking really good. We thought John Steinbeck, one of our favorite authors, and “Grapes of Wrath,” one of our favorite books, came out looking really good. I particularly liked the set design that included a big library sign with a picture of Poet Percy Shelley and one of my all-time favorite quotes:

“Rise like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number/Shake your chains to earth like dew/Which in sleep had fallen on you/Ye are many/they are few”

If you’re in favor of investigating the far-reaching problem of homelessness in America, you have to root for this movie. If you’re searching for a solution, maybe you won’t find it here, but at least you’ll be searching, and that’s a whole lot better than ignoring this gigantic American problem.

-Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON radio’s “Workers Beat” program every Saturday at 9AM Central Time. If you are curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site


I think we should do something about upcoming union contract negotiations. As I understand it, the contract between General Motors and the United Autoworkers Union elapses in mid September. It’s important.

Relatively speaking, the autoworkers have some of the best contracts in America. True, their contracts aren’t as good as they were; but everybody else’s pay and working conditions have been suffering about the same way, so the autoworkers are still ahead. Relatively speaking.

If things go along the way they have been going, the union leadership will take some concessions and sign a new contract early on. If things go along the way they have been going, the membership will grumble but stay on the job. The union will grow weaker.

Most of the time, things do go along the way they have been going. But not always. Sometimes the tiny steps of a trend begin to add up to a giant step, and some fundamental changes occur. In the case of General Motors, too many straws are already on the camel’s back. The announcement of five major plant closures this year was more than just a single straw! The UAW may be forced to strike, if things go along the way they have been going – against working people –, the strike could be disastrous for all of us, not just for the autoworkers.

That’s why we need to start thinking, now, about how we can help.

Take a look backward


The sit-in at GM made history

The successful strike against General Motors in Flint, Michigan, in 1937 was a gigantic breakthrough for America’s working families. The old craft union mold, organizing only the most skilled workers, was broken forever. Unions starting industrial organizing. In other words, everybody in a given industry joined the same union. It didn’t matter if they were skilled or unskilled, black, brown, or white. Women were welcomed. Everybody joined the same union, and, in 1937, that union was the UAW!

Almost immediately, the low-paid and exploited assembly line workers in the auto industry shot to the top of the pay scale. Detroit became the richest per-capita city in America. Other unions followed the example, and economic inequality took a nose dive for the first and only time in capitalist history!

So it matters what happens to the UAW.

Take a look forward

Despite the careful camouflage of the pundits, there is only one reason for the weakening of America’s unions. It isn’t outsourcing because we could be bringing up the wages and living conditions of foreign workers. It isn’t automation because we could be shortening the work week every time productivity climbs. It isn’t some psychological problem.

American unions have been on the decline since government policy turned against us. If government policy were organized around the idea of benefitting Americans, working people would prosper. Instead, they have been cutting us at every opportunity and they intend to continue.

Take a look around

Many progressive activists are involved in a myriad of causes. But one of them should be, must be, support for union contract negotiations. It’s the bosses or us. Which side are you on?

Fortunately for us, the school employees are showing us how to win. Major victories for working families are being won by teachers and other school workers. The reason is simple: they have friends everywhere. Teacher can barely announce a concerted action before students, parents, churches, and community groups swoop in to help them.

Sure, it’s not like that in manufacturing. People don’t see the autoworkers as their community pals the way they see the school workers. They don’t see any stake for themselves in whether or not the autoworkers prevail over General Motors. That’s what we need to overcome.

Starting now, let’s start building support for every union in every contract negotiation. Let’s pay particular attention to the big national contracts that have far-reaching effects. Remember the Teamsters in their UPS contract back around 2006? The Teamsters won big time because they started early and they developed wide support for their contract negotiations.

Let’s do it for the autoworkers in September, starting now!

–Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON’s “Workers Beat” program at 9 AM Central Time every Saturday. If you want to know what I really think, check out my personal web site

Does anybody know what they want?

Progressive activists chase after first one golden cause after another. One day it’s immigrant rights, and the next day it’s something else. All of us are like that because there are so many challenges and opportunities, and they come at us from different angles almost every day.

But, ultimately, what do we actually want? What would meet all the challenges and fulfill all the opportunities?

I’ve been trying to answer that question for some time. I’ve written three short novels about what people might do once a major transition of power had taken place. All my long anguishing boils down to this:

We want a world where all concerned people are organized and in charge. Afterward, we want them to remain organized and in charge while they do their best to end suffering and meet human needs.

What would that look like?

There are two fundamental organizing patterns: workplace and community. Through the past century, our unions were responsible for most of the uplifting that took place. Community groups have also made contributions, but they have tended to be more transitory. If everybody belonged to a workplace organization or to a community group, or to both, then everybody would be organized. Their taking power from the plutocrats would follow almost automatically. That’s what we want.

How do we get there?

Today, we organize ourselves into hundreds of progressive organizations. Most of them are transitory, but every experience in a mass organization is a learning experience. Hardly any of them even intends to take ultimate power, they simply are trying to affect the situation in the here and how. But people within them, and even people who are watching them without participating, are learning.

I often say that it doesn’t make much difference which progressive cause first activates an individual. If they stick to it, they all will eventually reach the same conclusion and tend to join the larger cause.

One of the biggest problems is that they don’t stick to it. A lot of people get discouraged and quit. Hardly anything is as pathetic as listening to older people say, “When I was young and bullet proof I used to believe in causes, but I’ve learned since then that you just can’t fight city hall,” or words to that effect.

So, overcoming discouragement is critical. Right now, people need more inspiration than information. They need to courage to try, and to go on trying.

So here’s the eternal question: “What do I do now?” and here’s the answer: “Promote mass activities that have the potential to bring information and inspiration to working people.” And keep at it!

Netflix has an 8-part Russian-language mini-series purporting to portray the life of Leon Trotsky. Wikipedia has a short description at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trotsky_(TV_series). They say that it won a bunch of awards: “The Association of Film and Television Producers in Russia awarded the series in the categories Best Sound, Best Editing Best Makeup, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Special Effects, Best Actress (Olga Sutulova), Best Actor (Konstantin Khabensky), Best TV series.” It was released on the anniversary of the Russian revolution and, understandably, drew a lot of watchers. I don’t think that Russians, even old Russians from the Soviet days, have ever heard much about the man, so they’re bound to be curious.





Leon Trotsky had, and still has, a worldwide revolutionary following

I’m no expert, but I’ve studied Trotsky’s works, and some histories of the Soviet Union, so I know that the mini-series plays very loose with the truth. The people who actually know something about the Russian revolution and about Leon Trotsky are furious. Check out the World Socialist Web Site commentary at https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/12/19/tele-n25.html.

Here’s the short version of what actually happened. Trotsky was a leading figure in the unsuccessful 1905 revolution that took place when the Russian Empire suffered an ignominious defeat by the Japanese. He was well known, especially as an agitator. In the late summer of 1917, Trotsky joined Lenin’s Bolsheviks and was taken into their central leadership just a few months before they took power. He was entrusted with negotiating a peace settlement with the Germans. The leadership then put him in charge of the Red Army in the extremely important civil war that quickly followed. Lenin died in 1924 and Trotsky was exiled in 1928. Trotsky then started organizing his worldwide following into a new anti-Stalin “Fourth International.” He was murdered in Mexico in 1940, but his followers continue to this day.

TV Trotsky is portrayed as an oversexed megalomaniac who spends his days killing people, screwing around, and scheming. Stalin’s sex life is left out. He just robs people and schemes. Lenin is kind of a weak buffoon that the evil Trotsky manipulates. In this version, Lenin didn’t even lead the Russian Revolution: Trotsky carried it out as a putsch, then manipulated the feeble-minded Lenin into taking credit.

I ought to mention that there’s a tremendous amount of anti-semitism in this new Russian version. Women are just sex machines drooling over the power-mad title role. Actually, it would be really hard to find anything good about any of the characters in this version of the Russian revolution and its aftermath.

One may conclude then, that the misleading series is not a good way to understand the Russian revolution or its aftermath. But the TV mockumentary has value for trying to understand the current mindset in Russia. I think they want to be seen as open minded, because they talked about someone whose name and reputation were repressed in the Soviet days. I also think they want to discredit the revolutionaries and what they built.

The effect on the few Americans who find everything else in their world so boring that they are willing to sit through this repetitious collections of scraps, is that it may make them want to learn some real history from somewhere else. We Americans, like the people who made this TV series, don’t know much about Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and the Soviets, either.

Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON’s “Workers Beat” program at 9 AM Central Time every Saturday. If you are curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site

Book Review:

Taylor,F. Jay, “The United States and the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939,” Introduction by Claude G Bowers, United Printing Services, New Haven, Connecticut, 1956.



Fascist General Franco had a lot of help from his friends

The parents of monsters are not usually examined. Thus it is with the progenitors of World War II, who were in Spain. But if the fascist monster persists, and threatens world havoc again, such an examination is in order. I set out then, to read about the Spanish Republic, Mussolini, and Hitler in the few years leading up to the fascist holocaust.

Historians like to present unassailable facts and feign objectivity. Thus, this author reports only that the Spanish Republic attempted to assert democracy after centuries of monarchy and dictatorship. They were set upon by General Franco and his Moorish troops from Morocco while the “great powers” sat on their hands.





The Abraham Lincoln Brigade is still celebrated with their U.S. magazine

A few thousand untrained internationalists, as many as 3,000 from the United States, joined the fight for democracy. Fascist Italy and Germany supplied tens of thousands of trained soldiers along with modern tanks and aircraft to defeat them. England, France, and the United States went to great lengths to pretend neutrality. Thus, fascism found its military and psychological advantage in its first great step toward taking over all of Europe. The great war became inevitable.

Author F. Jay Taylor cannot completely avoid the same conclusion. On page 189, he says: “In any event, although Roosevelt had some misgivings concerning American Spanish policy, he refused to act and so must share responsibility with Britain and France in contributing to the advent of the Second World War by appeasing Fascist aggressors in Spain.”

The books’ introduction is by the American Ambassador during the period.

Claude G. Bowers is more generous with conclusions. He says that the purpose of the Spanish Republic was “aimed at wiping out the lingering feudalism in the land and the raising of the status of the workers to that of human dignity.” He also says, ““It is a sad commentary on human weakness that while the totalitarians made no secret of their purpose, we democrats did our best to cover it up.”

Having read the book 70 years after its publication, and having read other important sources about the fascist invasion of Spain, I am explicit in my conclusion: The great capitalist powers, including the United States, nurtured European fascism in its infancy because the fascists offered to destroy the socialist bogeyman for them.

They embraced fascism over democracy then and have done it since. Examples include Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Congo, Their current target is Venezuela.

Can one conclude anything else?

-Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON radio’s “Workers Beat” program at 9 AM Central Time every Saturday. If you want to know what I really think, check out my personal web site

I don’t tend to believe the mainstream media about Venezuela because the only people they quote are Trump Administration and a few former state department employees. I also received a few statements with a totally different take on what’s going on.

Today’s newspaper says the usual: “people in Venezuela are in revolt because their failed socialist system has wrecked the economy and, as of now, destroyed their power grid. The United States is for democracy.”

I tend to believe the interview in “Democracy Now,” which says that people on Trump’s side actually burned trucks full of humanitarian aid so they could blame it on the Venezuelan government. Here’s a quote from Pulitzer-Prize winner Glenn Greenwald: “Every time the U.S. wants to start a new war, it does it the same way, which is, it invents some really inflammatory, emotionally wrenching lie that gets people to hate the government they want to topple so much that they set their rationality aside and support the war. So, they claimed North Korea—or, North Vietnam attacked U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, which was a lie to start the Vietnam War. They claimed that Saddam had been ripping babies out of incubators in Kuwait, to start the Gulf War, which was a lie. They claimed weapons of mass destruction, which was a lie, to start the Iraq War.”

I like the anti-interventionist statement of the Dallas Peace and Justice Center. https://www.dpjc.org/our-messages/178-position-statement-no-u-s-intervention-in-venezuela

Veterans for Peace says, “Veterans For Peace is outraged at the unfolding coup d’etat in Venezuela, which is clearly being orchestrated by the U.S. government.”

Code Pink writes, “The U.S. is orchestrating a coup in Venezuela that is likely to lead to bloodshed — even civil war and U.S. liberal media are willing participants in the “humanitarian aid” PR stunt to make it happen.”

Seventy scholars and experts agreed on a statement calling for negotiations instead of intervention.

The Cuban government made a strong statement about the Venezuelan power failure. “The Revolutionary Government strongly condemns the sabotage perpetrated against the power supply system in Venezuela, which is a terrorist action intended to harm the defenseless population of an entire nation and turn it into a hostage of the non-conventional war launched by the government of the United States…” I wish it didn’t, but it makes sense to me.

As an American trade unionist, I’m most impressed by the long resolution that came from the Chicago Teachers Union. These are the brave and smart people who started today’s round of great labor successes for school workers. They point to the U.S. involvement, specifically Elliott Abrams, President Trump’s current Special Envoy to Venezuela, in the 2002 coup attempt. They continue: “WHEREAS, the U.S. has recently attempted to provoke a border incident with the Maduro government by moving $20 million worth of “aid” to Venezuela after it has frozen the foreign assets of that country, discouraged other countries from doing business with Venezuela, and imposed sanctions that increase the poverty and misery of the general population by costing the Venezuelan government billions  ever year; and

‘WHEREAS, the United Nations, the International Red Cross, and other international relief organizations refused to work with the U.S. on delivering this “aid” to Venezuela, which they say is politically motivated; and the Venezuelan government considers a Trojan Horse for an eventual military invasion’; and

‘WHEREAS, U.S. President Donald Trump, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolden, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have all explicitly stated that U.S. corporations should control the oil resources in Venezuela, which implies that this will be a war for oil; and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the elected Venezuelan President, Nicolas Maduro’s “days in office are numbered”; and

‘WHEREAS, the world is still reeling from the war for oil in Iraq, which has left that country in shambles and continues to destabilize the middle east to this day; therefore, be it

‘RESOLVED, that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) publicly states its opposition to any military invasion of the sovereign state of Venezuela, and insists on dialogue, diplomacy, and negotiation as the means to resolve this crisis; and

‘RESOLVED, that the CTU advocate for the suspension of the current sanctions against Venezuela, and for the U.S. to cease all threats, military mobilization, and interference in the economic and internal politics and affairs of the Venezuelan people; and respect the right of self-determination of this sovereign nation in accordance with U.S. stated commitment to the rule of law; and be it finally

‘RESOLVED, the CTU stands in solidarity with the Venezuelan labor organizations Sindicato Nacional Fuerza Magisterial (SINAFUM)i , Colectivo Clasista de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras de la Educación.ii “Carmen Conzoño” y al Frente Nacional de Lucha de la Clase Trabajadora (FNLCT)iii , and other organizations that oppose the interference in Venezuela’s sovereign affairs and the consequent threat of military intervention.”

Will Democracy Result?

If and when the U.S. takeover is completed, does anybody really expect democracy? Did the Chileans get democracy when the U.S. overthrew their government? Did the Iranians get democracy when the CIA installed the Shah? If the present government of Venezuela is overthrown, you can expect a bloodbath. The way it’s looking right now, it may be a bloodbath either way. Unless we do something!

Take a Stand Before It’s Too Late

–Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON radio’s “Workers Beat” program every Saturday at 9 AM Central Time. If you want to know what I really think, check out my personal web site