Morris Halle: The Soviet Debate on Literature (1917-1925), University of Chicago MA dissertation, 1948

Following his discharge from the Army,  my father Morris Halle enrolled as a Master’s student at the University of Chicago for the winter term of 1945.  Although Morris was by that time fluent in seven languages, his acquaintance with linguistics, the field which would become his primary academic focus would not be made at Chicago.

This was due to the marginal status of linguistics at UC.  Legendary President Robert Maynard Hutchins reportedly took a dim view of the field, making little attempt to hold on to Leonard Bloomfield and Edward Sapir, important linguists who would decamp to Yale well before Morris arrived.  The linguistics classes available to Morris were taught by the Sanskrit scholar George V. Bobrinskoy and these he told me he found relatively uninteresting. It was not until the summer visit to the University of the Princeton Professor Giuliano Bonfante that Morris’s interest in the field would be fully awakened.  In particular, it was Bonfante who would introduce Morris to the work of Roman Jakobson with whom Morris would go on to study.  By then,  Morris had apparently committed to receiving his degree in Russian Literature, completing his Master’s dissertation prior to his departure for Columbia in the fall of 1948.


The dissertation below will come as a surprise to those who remember Morris. None of his surviving friends I have spoken to had heard of it, and while his interest in Russian literature was apparent to all who knew him, none of us were aware of any writing he had done on it.  For seven decades, it inhabited the most distant point in his home office, the extreme far right of the top shelf just under the ceiling .  It is there where I came upon it following his death in April of 2018.

The discovery raised a minor mystery and some mild suspicions:  Morris’s career was never in any way impacted by his political leanings. He was generally regarded as relatively apolitical-particularly compared to his colleague and friend Chomsky.  Could this perception have been at least partly due to to efforts he made to obscure what had been an embrace of socialism and its core tenets typical of many of his generation?  The relatively even-handed treatment of Soviet Literature in the dissertation was not that of a fellow traveller, though it did indicate sympathy for the socialist project. This would have been unproblematic in the 40s.  But in the Red Scare decade that followed, as Ellen Schrecker has documented, even the mildest defenses of any aspect of Soviet life could attract unfavorable notice and worse.  It would not surprise me if Morris’s consignment of this to a location where it would not have been seen or asked about wasn’t entirely accidental.

Of course, the simplest explanation for its banishment is that  Morris regarded this as student work in a field he had moved on from.  But it’s highly competent student work, characteristically clear, logical, and even polished- not the slightest trace of Morris having picked up English as his sixth language only a few years before.  At the time, he was documenting events which were of considerable interest to him and to his circles, an interest which remains among those describing themselves as socialists. For this reason, it seemed appropriate to make this public, offering it not just to Morris’s remaining friends, family and former students but to those with an interest in the early Soviet period as it appeared to a perceptive and informed contemporary observer who would go on to make his mark in an unrelated field.

I would very much appreciate hearing any reactions to Morris’s text or corrections, amendments or additions to the story I have related above.


Download Morris’s thesis:

Morris UChicago Thesis


Not a Dime’s Worth of Difference?

The failure of Sanders’s $15 wage amendment to the Covid Stimulus bill unleashed a barrage of criticism directed at the eight Democratic Senators voting against it. Most came from activists who have worked closely with congressional progressives to establish the Fight for 15 firmly within the Democratic Party mainstream. But also included among the critics was a vocal minority who take as an article of faith that there is “not a dime’s worth of difference” between the two parties.

While the phrase was associated with legendary Dixiecrat George Wallace, over the years, the NADWOD (not a dime’s worth of difference) tendency, as I will refer to it, has been associated with an ultra left fringe.

Continue reading Not a Dime’s Worth of Difference?

The Road to Destruction: The Reagan Revolution Reconsidered

Last week, Jacobin and the New York Times published reviews of Matt Tyrnauer’s new documentary The Reagans. Both focus on a key factor enabling the Reagan Revolution, the capitulation and in many cases active complicity of the Democratic opposition. Neither, however, mentions what is perhaps the most revealing and consequential instance, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 which radically cut rates on corporations and upper income individuals.

It has by now been mostly forgotten that “the real hero of tax reform,” according to the Washington Post,  was a Democrat, New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley.

Dollar Bill and Neoliberalism 1.0

Widely seen as representing the liberal center of the party and a likely nominee for president, it should now be apparent that Bradley was not at at all a liberal. Rather, he and other centrist Democrats of the time referred to themselves as *neo* liberals committed, like Reagan, to undermining the social welfare programs of the New Deal and Great Society.

Continue reading The Road to Destruction: The Reagan Revolution Reconsidered

On Feeling Good and Doing Good: Chomsky Turns 92

Here’s a suggestion for admirers of Noam Chomsky.

The best way to celebrate his 92nd birthday would be to pay attention to what he has to say.

A case in point came up a couple of days ago with Barack Obama’s criticism of the slogan “Defund the police.” Those promoting it are, according to Obama, often more concerned with “feel(ing) good among the people (they) already agree with.” What they should be concerned with is “get(ting) something done.”

The left was universal in its disdain, denunciations flowing from Jacobin, Current Affairs as well as AOC and all of the members of the squad.

Chomsky’s reaction? “He’s basically right.”

Racing to the Abyss Continue reading On Feeling Good and Doing Good: Chomsky Turns 92

Leo Panitch and Steven Colatrella on Neoliberalism, Race and Solidarity

Leo Panitch, Emeritus Professor at York University, on barriers to  the formation of a new popular front, appearing on Paul Jay’s The Analysis podcast. (Transcribed remarks.)

Do we have the discipline to unify?

“One has to ask whether the protest movements which have reignitied this year so impressively and have been so biracial in their composition, whether they will have the discipline in the current critical moment to unify in such a way so that the protests be of a kind that does not invite the kind of repression that Trump is pointing to.

On the discourse of white supremacy

And especially I’d like to ask whether the discourse of white supremacy, which is partly intended, and rightfully so, to remind people of the history that the US was built on as a faux democratic capitalist society, whether that discourse of white supremacy does not undermine the ability to create the popular front we need.  Because people resent, and people fear, especially working class communities, resent being guilted by this.

Anti racism and practical politics: Lessons from Weimar

Of course they shouldn’t.  But they do.  And I do think we have to face in a very different context from 1932 in Germany whether the divisions that exist around this question of class versus race, which should not be divisive since it is a racialized capitlaism, whether this will not replicate the same divisions between the social democrats and the communists in 1932. These are serious questions which it is not a matter of dealing with morally, it is a matter of dealing with practically in the weeks to come.

Steven Colatrella, Professor of Politics at the University of Padua, on the reactionary nihilism of the New York Times 1619 series from which the Times is now (understandably) distancing itself.  (See here.)

Our shared history and traditions: tools against, not of, repression

“A problem with the 1619 Project is that it comes just as we are desperately trying to preserve and defend American values and institutions from Trump and the danger of dictatorship, as well as from a growing neo-Nazi threat allied with him. Saying, as the project does, that the country is not founded on the values of 1776, but on racism, whiteness, and slavery means that there is nothing to defend or worth defending, and no tools from our history to use in such a battle. (See Marco Rubio’s speech yesterday in the Senate.) This project leaves us – the left, the center-left, democracy and the republic – open to exactly this kind of criticism and attack from the right. As if there were only continuity between 1619 and today.

Racism: As North American as Apple Pie

And by the way, why 1619 and not 1565 when St. Augustine, Florida was founded, the real first settlement in what became the United States? Because only English-speakers count? And that exclusion of the Latino history of the country which came before the Mayflower or Jamestown is itself not racism how? So, we either start the country when the landbridge allowed passage across the Bering Straight during the last Ice Age, or we start in 1776 when we actually found a nation and not just settlements of varying cultures, degrees of injustice, religiosity, and multiculturalism. And we defend that legacy against and try to make the country live up to it, as Dr. King, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, Eugene Debs, Cesar Chavez, Abraham Lincoln, and so many others did.

1776 vs. 1610

There is something almost Christian about the 1619 project and not in a good way – the world begins with a sin, not with a paradise, with the Fall of Man, not with the Declaration of Independence, with the slave ship and not with Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Yet, it is BECAUSE  the founding document said “All Men are Created Equal” that a long struggle erupted to make that a reality. Nothing like that effort, not like abolition, ever happened in the history of Rome in all its centuries. Treasure that, and see 1776 as a first salvo in the long war AGAINST and to overthrow 1619.

A Teachable Moment: Notes on the Jessica Krug Affair

In coming to terms with the Jessica Krug affair, it’s probably best to accept the verdict of her former students that Krug “created and compounded traumatic lived experiences for the members of the communities with which she interacted and claimed to represent . . damag[ing] the ability for scholars to build trust among communities that are largely ignored or misrepresented in scholarship.”

Moreover, we should have no problem agreeing with them, at least for the sake of argument, that Krug’s “appropriation of Blackness emboldened white supremacists to deny race, racism, and the value of diversity even as they use race to plunder and oppress.”

Given these are serious charges the question then becomes what kind of sanctions/punishment should be imposed if they are true. Should we join the students in demanding that Krug be terminated from her tenured position? Perhaps. But to determine what is appropriate raises a related question: What have been the consequences for others committing similar or worse transgressions of academic community standards?

How Bad is Jessica Krug? 

For this purpose, I’ll suggest a person P whose career offers a useful basis for comparison. P, while not now employed as a professor, has held academic positions in the past, and could very well hold one in the future (more on that later). Most importantly, P’s offenses are comparable to Krug’s in that they surely did a great deal to “create and compound traumatic lived experiences. ” That applies in particular to those in the Middle East still mourning hundreds of thousands of husbands, wives, mothers and fathers whose deaths were a direct consquence of P’s actions.

Then there are the traumatic lived experiences of millions of African Americans P denigrated as “super-predators,” subjecting them to a racially discriminatory criminal justice regime P enthusiastically championed.

Added to these are millions of workers whose economic and social immiseration and declining life expectancy are directly tied to job-destroying trade agreements P played a key role in pushing through a recalcitrant Congress. Finally, P has been entirely unapologetic about her past conduct, manifesting a stunning, indeed pathological state of denial of her crimes, cackling with laughter when her role in mass murder is brought to her attention.

Pathologies of Power and Privilege

By this point, it should be obvious that P is former New York Senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton–and while the comparison might seem distant, it is by no means unimaginable that it could become relevant. Former top-level politicians are hot properties in academic programs and it is certainly possible that Clinton will become a tenured professor at a prestigious academic program, even at George Washington University itself. Once there she will have a status roughly equivalent to Krug’s.

This raises additional questions. Would the GWU administration condemn her clearly demonstrated history of social pathology and moral turpitude? Would her students denounce her moral turpitude?

The answers to these questions are painfully obvious: Of course they wouldn’t. The administration would congratulate itself on having landed an authentic star, its board and donor network sure to be enhanced. There would be intense competition among students for limited seats in a Clinton “tough choices for American leadership in a globalized economy” seminar. Rather than shunning her, former students would strenuously aim to maintain themselves in her good graces, recognizing that a single phone call or email could result in a highly coveted first step into an NGO position, congressional office or media outlet, providing a point of entry into the elite political class.

Is it fully understandable that students would avert their eyes to Clinton’s disgraceful career? Of course. Is it in any way ethically defensible? Hard to see how.

Race, Racists and Racial Authenticity

The comparison should provide us with some direction on how the Krug affair should be negotiated, and I’ll return to this below. But before doing so it’s worth performing a similar thought experiment, this time with Clinton’s 2008 opponent, Barack Hussein Obama.

Here the comparison is even more direct in that Krug and Obama are similar in a key respect: both claim African American identity and have exploited it to advance their respective careers. Even so, the difference would appear to be stark: one’s claims are based on fraudulence the other’s based on fact.

But this distinction relies on a patently false assumption. There is no such fact. Race has no objective, scientific basis. It is an entirely subjective social construct. There are those who believe that there is an underlying essence which can validate claims of racial identity. They are entirely wrong and there is a name for those that do hold this belief: racists.

Even if we were to adopt the classically racist conception of white or black authenticity, Obama’s performance of race is highly suspect. He was, after all, raised mainly by his white mother in Indonesia and his white Republican grandparents, who, like Krug, hail from from Kansas. The main difference in their respective performances is in the degree of harm each caused.

Here the comparison is grimly revealing. While Krug’s antics inflicted some damage on her field the audiences for this toxically idiotic diatribe

are relatively small and so is the corresponding harm.

Meanwhile, the African American victims of Obama’s policies include the millions who lost their homes due to fraudulent subprime mortgages marketed predominantly in low-income urban neighborhoods.  The result was the largest drop in aggregate African American wealth in at least a century, plunging many into homelessness and destitution. In comparison, Jessica Krug’s offenses against academic norms would seem to recede into near insignificance.

Learning From Jessica Krug

To return to the question posed above, this conclusion might be interpreted as arguing for comparatively lenient treatment for Krug. But focussing on it distracts the crucial lesson we should derive from what Toure Reed has called Krug’s “minstrel act.” The real problem, as Reed pointed out, is “the demand for this kind of performance in some liberal academic circles” one which “fulfill(s) their fantasies about the forever unknowable, forever exotic black other.”

I would go further and argue that the problem is our having become conditioned to actively or passively accept our role in these and other sorts of absurdist spectacles. Our participation is sometimes as spectators and more rarely as actors. In either case, our doing so has little to do with a reality defined by millions dying of an infectious disease, an economy increasingly incapable of providing even a subsistence standard of living for tens of millions, while anthropogenic global warming renders large areas of the planet incapable uninhabitable.

Insofar as political and academic theater does have a function, it is to distract. Those with real power and privilege surely recognize its value in allowing them to wreak destruction with virtually no meaningful opposition from a left content with its role in idiotic charades such as this one.


The Prophecies of Adolph Reed

Obamamania Redux

A recent Times profile of Adolph Reed includes what is now understood to be his oracular characterization of Barack Obama “as a man of ‘vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics.’”

A few of us will recall making strenuous efforts to lodge that now undeniable truth within the left consciousness but few listened in a climate then dominated by what was called Obamamania. So potent were the effects of Obamamania that it was heretical to think such thoughts let alone express them.

Obamamania, the product of an award winning public relations campaign financed by massive Wall Street donations, succeeded in its goal of electing Barack Obama. Its most profoundly tragic consequence would come shortly after when what should have been a huge protest movement opposing the continuous stream of right wing cabinet appointments, bank bailouts, get out of jail free cards for Wall Street felons and grotesque violations of international law never emerged.

Because we sat on our hands at best or at worst genuflected before the altar of the first African American president, the neoliberal juggernaut pushed on unimpeded by us.

Reed warned us. We didn’t listen and we should have.

And so some of the blame for the eight years of neoliberalism leading inevitably to the rise of Donald Trump needs to be on ourselves.

A Habit of Being Right

Reed’s habit of being right is a source of considerable annoyance to his many detractors. Another notable instance not mentioned in the Times piece was his 2016 attempt to convince leftists that it was “important” to “vote for the lying neoliberal warmonger” Ms. Clinton.

With global temperatures spiking and covid statistics accosting us with death every morning-if we are lucky enough not to be one of them, it is now grimly obvious to all but the most delusional why this was important.

Those who read Reed’s piece will recall not only the common sense recommendation issued there but also the intense hostility it provoked from much of the left.

In contrast to the suppressed history of Obamamania, on this point the facts are not so easily obscured. Clicking on the link will reveal more than 500 comments almost universal in their disparagement of Reed’s view.

Drearily familiar both in their high dudgeon as well as their logical incoherence, they are characteristic of what the late Michael Brooks referred to as the “dum-dum left.”

Reed has a more decorous description of this element in the Times piece, defining them with respect to their “militant objection to thinking analytically.”

The Dum Dum Left Lives

That brings up the proximate subject of the Times piece, Reed having become the latest victim of what has finally been understood as the left’s variant of cancel culture.

Those who engineered Reed’s cancellation have objected, noting that it was Reed’s decision not to move forward with the planned event.

But Reed’s decision was comparable to that of a mugging victim’s decision to “donate” her wallet,  made necessary by the demands for the event format to be converted to a “debate.”

As anyone who has advocated positions similar those Reed has been associated with can attest, this would almost certainly degenerate into a circus dominated by smears and innuendos denouncing Reed as an apologist for racism and white supremacy.

Given the widespread opposition to free speech rights on the left, many of Reed’s opponents will chalk this up as a victory in their efforts to “no platform” views they do not believe should be heard at all.

But this episode only constitutes a victory for sectarianism. It is a defeat for those understanding that the only chance to advance socialism and defeat barbarism hinges on mobilizing all victims of capitalist system in the 99%.

Listen, Leftist

Reed’s long history of being right about the strategies deployed by elites to divide and undermine working class solidarity lead to one of two conclusions:

We either listen to him or continue down the path of failure.

On Tonal Stability and White Fragility: Music Theory’s Gift to the Right


1. Introduction:  Who is Heinrich Schenker?

I’ve been asked by a few people to say something about Phillip Ewell’s article which is roiling the field of Music Theory-nominally my field, something I’ll say something more about later.

Of course, the overwhelming majority who read this blog will have no idea about any of this or have even heard of the major figure in the field against whom Ewell is directing his attacks, Heinrich Schenker. To give you an idea, the folllowing passage Ewell cites in his text should be taken as extreme but by no means unrepresentative of Schenker’s views.

“Hitler’s historical service, of having got rid of Marxism, is something that posterity (including the French, English, and all those who have profited from transgressing against Germany) will celebrate with no less gratitude than the great deeds of the greatest Germans! If only the man were born to music who would similarly get rid of the musical Marxists; that would require that the masses were more in touch with our intrinsically eccentric art, which is something that, however, is and must remain a contradiction in terms. ‘Art’ and ‘the masses’ have never belonged together and never will belong together. And where would one find the huge numbers of musical ‘brownshirts’ that would be needed to hunt down the musical Marxists?”

Continue reading On Tonal Stability and White Fragility: Music Theory’s Gift to the Right

Burnishing the John Lewis Legend

Here’s something that will probably surprise those who responded with the most hostility to the twitter poll above:

I agree with them. Upon reflection.

The two words are key. As the relatively small 56%-44% margin indicates, reasonable, informed people have differing opinions on the question.

An answer requires reflection and discussion among those who care enough about saving our wreck of a planet to take politics seriously.

Not all of us do, however. Most conspicuous among those who don’t are those who supported “smearing the most principled and effective figures challenging (the Democratic Party’s) capitulation to the corporate right.”

Continue reading Burnishing the John Lewis Legend

Taibbi: How Weaponized Identity Politics Destroyed Sanders

Matt Taibbi/Will Menaker, Chapo Trap House 435

Matt Taibbi: So this politician who has a long history of courting the white, middle of the road voter and doing the Sister Souljah moment, now suddenly when Sanders comes along and he starts talking about breaking up the banks, what’s Hillary’s response? “Oh, if we broke up the banks tomorrow would that end racism?” And people Continue reading Taibbi: How Weaponized Identity Politics Destroyed Sanders

Essays on politics, music and culture.