San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



December 1966

London Traffic
Making the Rounds in Way-Out London
The Big Issue in Britain
Wandering the Streets of London
Amsterdam Is Jumping
The Provos
More on the Provos
Revaluing Modern Art
Yet More on the Provos
Too Much Public Spending?
A Critique of German Painting
The Mystery of East Germany
Bolshevism as State Capitalism




London Traffic

LONDON. — The first thing that strikes you as you come into London after five years is the incredible increase in automobile traffic. Not only are the main thoroughfares jam-packed bumper to bumper all day long and most of the night, but the side streets, most of them now one-way, are completely taken up with the overflow.

Streets that seem to go nowhere, as do most London side streets, nevertheless have been organized into interconnecting systems of one-way subthoroughfares, and even little streets like Bedford Place, which goes only one block from Bloomsbury Square to Russell Square and in the middle of which cats used to sun themselves undisturbed, are now crowded with cars trying to briefly bypass the congestion.

As we arrived, Barbara Castle (what a cinematic name for a minister of transport! but she’s one of the world’s smartest girls) chose a New York newspaper interview to announce that she was hoping to solve London’s traffic problem with some radical surgery.

This threw the English press into a terrible flap — even the Labor press, which agreed with her, felt it was most unpatriotic of a government spokesman to let the Yanks scoop the home papers.

She is thinking of adopting the road pricing system, based on the findings of the Smeed Committee, which recently completed an exhaustive and objective survey of the whole problem.

Drivers would be taxed as they drive, like cabs. London would be divided into zones, from the center to the suburbs, with the classification changing according to the time of day.

The driver would pay not by distance, but by time, the rate varying between two-tenths of a penny and tuppence a minute. This rate would be recorded on a kind of taximeter, with a light to show when it is working. It is quite possible to work the entire zoning and metering system automatically and electronically.

It sounds terribly complicated, but the Smeed Report, which our own city authorities should read, and which goes into the matter with great thoroughness and discusses all the technical possibilities at length, is in the end convincing.

Such a system is rationing by price, but so are gasoline, rubber and cars themselves. “Rationing by price,” they aren’t free.

Any system of permits, with categories of unessential, essential, absolutely essential, would be too rigid, with no provision for emergencies, and would be open to the abuses of an immense bureaucracy.

The Smeed Report is obtainable from either the Ministry of Transport, or, I think, Her Majesty’s Stationers Office — ask the British Consulate.

Everybody interested in the problem and certainly everybody in authority in San Francisco should study it.

Footnote: I stood on Southampton Row at 5:15 p.m. and observed the crawling cars, worse even than on Fell and Oak Streets in San Francisco. Between one car in eight and one in nine had more than the single occupant-driver. Khrushchev was so right!

[December 1, 1966]



Making the Rounds in Way-Out London

LONDON. — How good it is to be in London again. The terrible congestion, the new skyscrapers, the hamburger joints, all the other awful things that have happened since I was here last can’t spoil it . . . as similar aggiornamento has come pretty close to destroying Paris.

One thing, the national and local governments have embarked on a smoke and smog abatement program which has already made the difference. I guess if they hadn’t everybody would have died.

Most startling, we went first off, after a visit to the British Museum, to the Museum Tavern for lunch. The mixed grill, one of the best in London, was gone from the menu, as were other concoctions like shepherd’s pie. So I had a grilled chop and a pint of bitter. Mary asked for tea. “We don’t serve tea, only coffee,” say they. No cheeseburgers, anyway — though they’re readily obtainable in Wimpy Shops. Actually, they were invented in Cologne, where they’ve been called “half a hen” for all my lifetime.

Next to my tailor’s on Southampton Row, what should we discover but Indica, a sort of City Lights bookshop abroad, and the clearing house for Way-Out London. Prominently displayed, what were there but the works of Kenneth Rexroth — along with Ferlinghetti, McClure, Lamantia, Duncan, and most of the publications of the Free Poetry Movement and the IWW Poets’ Local. It was just like Haight-Ashbury.

Went to see Loot at the Cochran Theater down the street — things seem to be moving back to Bloomsbury from Chelsea, Notting Hill and other seacoasts of Bohemia — actually, those places are now full up with Way-Out and the overflow is washing back to the haunts of Middleton Murray, Nina Hamnet, Augustus Johns, and Wyndham Lewis.

Anyway, if Loot is avant-garde theater I’ve lost track somewhere. It is a straight situation comedy that might have been written by Dion Boucicault, or Plautus for that matter. Funny with a savage mockery of all British virtues — but the British have been making fun of themselves this way since the 16th century and it has done them little good.

Next, a big bash for the new paper, the International Times — “IT.” The editors announce themselves as part of the Underground Press Syndicate, along with the East Village Other, the Los Angeles Free Press, Peace News, the Berkeley Barb, The Paper. As Indica is a physical clearing house for Way-Out London, so “IT” plans to be a printed one, with news of “what’s happening” in Bob Dylan’s sense.

The bash was something else. It was held in the Roundhouse by the Chalk Farm tube station, and was another of those long-distance reconstructions of the Fillmore Auditorium.

The bands didn’t show, so there was a large pickup band of assorted instruments on a small central platform. Sometimes they were making rhythmic sounds, sometimes not.

The place is literally an old roundhouse, with the doors for the locomotives all boarded up and the tracks and turntable gone, but still with a dirt floor (or was it just very dirty?). The only lights were three spotlights. The single entrance and exit was through a little wooden door about three feet wide, up a narrow wooden stair, turning two corners, and along an aisle about 2-1/2 feet wide made by nailing down a long table.

Eventually about 3500 people crowded past this series of inflammable obstacles.

I felt exactly like I was on the Titanic. Far be it from me to holler copper, but I was dumfounded that the London police and fire authorities permitted even a dozen people to congregate in such a trap. Mary and I left as early as we politely could.

Next, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of US, a play about Vietnam on which they had been working for months. It managed to anger almost everybody. Time magazine considered it anti-American, the British Far Left, or at least the Maoist contingent, considered in pro-American; the ordinary Left and Liberal critics considered it equivocal and disappointing. The squares considered it incomprehensible.

Actually, though it is certainly anti-Johnson, anti-napalm, anti-hypocrisy and sadism, it is not anti-American. The pun, “U.S.-us” is intended to bring home the direct personal involvement of each individual Englishman — or any other member of the audience — in an international tragedy of uncontrollable proportions.

Only the theatrically innocent “take sides” when witnessing Hamlet or Oedipus, but although war is essential a tragedy of man’s predisposition to evil choices, the most lethal manifestation of original sin, it is doubtful if the stage can de-politicize a current war to the extent that we are purged of pity and terror.

They certainly tried. The cast and staff went into a kind of retreat for months. Yet the results seemed to satisfy none of the critics. Due to some failure to sharpen the moral focus, all the immense amount of theatrical ingenuity fell apart into a series of gimmicks.

However, I prophesy that US will come to the U.S. and be immensely popular — in America. It will seem a forthright yet ultramodern indictment of Johnson the Second’s East Asia policy and enough people share that attitude to make up large audiences.

[December 4, 1966]



The Big Issue in Britain

LONDON. — The Issue of Issues in Britain at this moment and likely to be for many moments to come is the new wages, incomes and prices policy. If properly organized and implemented, this will be a long stride into the unknown regions of a controlled capitalist economy, something unknown in peace time.

However, that is not the real, practical, bread-and-butter reason for the October wage and price freeze or for the insistence of the government on controls for at least a year. The real reason is the White House and those old bugaboos, the international bankers. As the American economy heats up more and more every day, fired not only by the Vietnam war, but by the inflationary heat of an ever-growing gross national product, wage rate and rate of profit, it throws all other economies out of kilter.

It is not misgovernment alone that accounts for the fiscal chaos that has overwhelmed nations like Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina, it is the disruption of the local economy by the American market.

You would think that the place to apply therapeutic measures of freeze, controlled deflation, or at least caution, would be at the source of the trouble, the United States itself.

On the contrary, the White House has so far been committed to a policy of forced deflation abroad and inflation at home, controlled only by the gentle taps of the Federal Reserve System.

Most interesting is the response of the intellectuals and white-collar classes in the Labor Party — the Fabian Left best represented by the weekly, the New Statesman. They welcome the freeze and the wage policy as a chance to introduce what they call socialism, but which sounds suspiciously like economic totalitarianism, the “national syndicalism” about which Mussolini’s theoreticians were always writing, but which in fact Fascism was never able to put into effect.

This should occasion no surprise to anyone familiar with the Fabian Society from its inception. The university-educated salariat in the ranks of Labor has always been at cross-purposes with the trades unions and the working class.

Shaw was a passionate admirer of Stalin, Mussolini, and, until he became unfashionable, Hitler. As for Beatrice and Sydney Webb, Fabianism’s leading theoreticians — “two typewriters that beat as one” as somebody called them — they wrote perhaps the silliest book ever written, The Soviet Constitution in two volumes, an enthusiastic approval and detailed analysis of a document which was never intended by Stalin to be anything but a “diversion” — to use his language.

This does not mean that the New Statesman and its parliamentary followers are Communists — it means they share with Lenin a profound distrust of the working class, a conviction that “we know best” and a schoolmasterish emotional predisposition to authoritarianism.

Believe me — arm-twisting by the White House, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is not the socialist revolution, nor anything remotely like it.

[December 6, 1966]



Wandering the Streets of London

LONDON. — Certain cities are great for aimless wandering. Best of all is Venice.

The poorer faubourgs of Paris still keep a little of their ancient village character and their proletarian bohemianism, but every year there’s less, and whole neighborhoods have been overwhelmed with Algerians and other immigrants who have come to France to do the dirty work the French will no longer do. This has resulted in a ghettoization worse than that of the Negro ghettos in America. Districts like Clignancourt and La Chapelle are closed to the wanderer by violence and disorder.

London remains one of the places for the person with nothing to do but stroll “for to observe and for to see.” I don’t mean just romantic ambles along the Thames Embankment or in the East End along the docks. The latter is pretty well taken over by warehouses and the Limehouse of Dr. Fu Manchu is gone under the bombs.

I mean just wandering — in unlikely places, the wastes of Southwark or the moil of Shepherds Bush. To judge from their books, knowing London was the favorite sport of the Late Victorian and Edwardian writers — Stevenson, and his romantic followers like Arthur Machen, but H.G. Wells and the realists as well, and of course the man who wrote the Iliad and Odyssey of London at the turn of the century, Conan Doyle.

Smog, noise, confusion, an endless, merciless avalanche of cars roars through the streets of London today, yet still behind modernity is the old life, lurking in nooks and crannies.

Tiny shops, out of the way pubs, and dreary rooming houses still harbor the strange supernumeraries of the dramas of Sherlock Holmes. Yet it has long ceased to be fashionable amongst writers to “know London” and I am considered an oddity by my London colleagues, whose circulation is limited to the West End and the literary faubourgs — Bloomsbury, Chelsea, Hampstead, Notting Hill, each the domain of a different generation.

Anyway, after visiting the museums I spent my time in peregrination. Mary did the shops and decided Way Out London was not as good as Way Out San Francisco and went back to the museums. Carol did a thorough church-crawl and managed to see all but a very few of the great City churches, Wren and otherwise.

I’ve done the same, not once but several times, and I must say, the massive impact of a hundred London churches leaves you absolutely convinced that architecture at its best is the undisputed queen of the arts. I know of no comparable experience in music or painting, not even Raphael’s Stanze or Tintoretto’s Scuola di San Rocco — the best comparison is Ravenna, the purest concentration of great architecture there is.

Carol was disappointed in All-Hallows-Barking-at-the-Tower, which doesn’t live up to the promise of its name, but she was enraptured by the white and gold splendor of Magnus Martyr, made famous by T.S. Eliot.

St. Clement Danes is on an island in the middle of the Strand and she was never able to discover how you get through the traffic. Later, friends said the only way to get to it was to take a taxi.

The traffic may be a nightmare and the food nauseating, but London is my city and if San Francisco continues to degenerate as it has the past 10 years, that’s where I’m going to go.

[December 8, 1966]



Amsterdam Is Jumping

AMSTERDAM. — I forgot to mention that it rained all the time we were in London — because I forgot to notice it. It’s far from being that famous unnoticeable Seattle dry rain the Seattleites assure you isn’t really there — but if you notice the weather or the food in the British Isles, you’re sunk. Only meteorological Christian Scientists need apply.

But when we got to Amsterdam, winter struck and the weather became inescapable. After a tour of the sights and a day at the Rijksmuseum and the modern museum we were prostrated by colds.

Also, we thought we’d fool ’em and eat mostly Indian food in London and Indonesian food in Amsterdam. I don’t think this is wise. Unless you pay a lot for it I suspect it is no safer than in Madras or Jakarta.

Anyway, we came down doubly.

I should mention that for the benefit of all you eager readers of modest means. We are trying to better Frommer’s Europe on $5 a Day. This is a great work — but it’s hard to live any cheaper and stay well.

The people of Amsterdam are as ebullient as the Italians or Greeks and more talkative than the French and as friendly as the English.

Since we couldn’t come to Amsterdam, Amsterdam came to us, and we had visitors from the Provos and the older (like over 23) generation of Way-Out Amsterdam. Also, we watched the regular Saturday night Provo Happening go off through the rain to happen — hundreds of Haight-Ashbury type kids, followed by Our Friendly Police on horses and in paddy wagons. The rain increased, the happening declined and the police were not provoked.

The Provos are a big subject and I think I will leave them for another column. Not so spectacular nor so momently notorious, contemporary Dutch arts and literature are amongst the world’s best — but few other people know much about them.

What is wrong with the Dutch, as the Dutch are first to tell you, is Dutch. Fewer people speak it than live in Greater New York and many of them are Flemish — that is, Belgian nationals, not Dutchmen.

One of the finest modern poets and dramatists is my good friend, the Flemish Hugo Claus, but although a play and a novel have been translated, he is unknown in America and I have never been able to persuade any off-Broadway theater to take a chance on one of his plays. They prefer to stick to the now utterly standardized Eric Bentley repertory.

Claus had just finished and produced a modern version of the ancient legend of Thyestes, who ate his own children, but it had come and gone before we arrived in Amsterdam — though we keep hearing about it from theater people all over Europe.

If you’d like a sample of contemporary Dutch literature, including some very heated love poems by Claus, get the Busy Bee Review’s New Dutch Writing and Art, which you should be able to find at City Lights and such-like bookstores. Harry Mulisch, one of the Netherlands’ best novelists, is interviewed in it. He is now, I believe, somewhere in California.

And there’s Simon Vinkenoog — who besides being the novelist of the Dutch “subculture of secession” is also one of those catalytic people who leads a generation simply by being a certain kind of directly honest personality — as well as something of a universal man.

If they are not artists or writers themselves, such people are usually forgotten — like A.R. Orage, who was a power in London in the twenties — but if they are creators themselves, like Marcel Duchamp, they become heroes of an ever-growing legend.

Such, I prophesy, is the future of Simon (everybody calls him by his first name). He is already the subject of innumerable stories, most of them modern moral fables, all over Europe. I wish San Francisco State College would hire him for a year. We need him.

We wandered around the nightbound, fogbound streets of Amsterdam with the poet Oliver Boelen, a nomad in his own city, as Simon called him.

One of our best visitors was Louis Lehman, archeologist and poet and critic — who, when he discovered I knew something about prehistoric archeology, forgot poetry and talked excitedly of stone circles and painted caves and broken pots. He is another person we could use, teaching in San Francisco.

Yes, Amsterdam is a very jumping place — “that toddlin’ town” as the song called 1925 Chicago.

[December 11, 1966]



The Provos

AMSTERDAM. — This is the first column about the famous Provos of Amsterdam. The New Youth and their capers have achieved their greatest world press coverage in, first, Berkeley, second, Haight-Ashbury, third, Amsterdam.

The Provos of Amsterdam have replaced windmills, tulips and wooden shoes as the leading tourist stereotype of Dutch life.

Outside the San Francisco Bay Area there is certainly no organized movement of youth as significant. The Provos are most significant for precisely their organization — which, in comparison with the snake-dancing Left Social Democratic youth organization of Japan [the Zengakuren], much less with any neo-Bolshevik group, is no organization at all, but a self-controlled spontaneous continuous eruption.

Why should this have occurred in the Netherlands and first in Amsterdam? There are two principal kinds of reasons — remote and proximate, to talk jargon, or historical and contemporary, the traditions of the past and the problems of the present.

In the history of radical thought and action, the Netherlands have been as unconventional and balky as the Pacific coast. When the Comintern was formed, a delegate said, “Comrade Lenin, we shouldn’t call this the Communist International, because there are already Communists in existence.” Lenin replied, “Nobody ever heard of them, and when we get through with them, nobody ever will.”

These were the people against whom he wrote Leftism, an Infantile Disorder, but in that diatribe there is no mention that his opponents had been leaders of the Rotterdam Soviet, which had held power very efficiently for a few days and then dissolved itself as premature and without the support of the people — the most successful and efficient of the temporary seizures of power in the postwar wave of revolts.

Nor would you know that these leaders were not cranks and ragamuffins from the bohemian underworld, but Herman Gorter, Holland’s leading poet, Anton Pannekoek, her leading astronomer, Heinrik Grossman, her leading economist.

From that day to this, Dutch radicals have been different. They have not only been more independent and more intelligent, they have been men who could easily be and often were successful in other walks of life, mature adults, not the unemployable over-self-educated lumpen intelligentsia from which most revolutionary movements recruit their leaders.

Like the radicals of the Pacific coast with their strong individualism inherited from the IWW, the Dutch, even sometimes Trotskyites like Sneevliet, who was a far better theoretician than the “Old Man” [Trotsky], have always had a tendency to anarchism and syndicalism and a disgust with politics as usual, Left or Right. This means emphasis on spontaneity, grass roots or shop-roots workers’ democracy, organization at the point of production, and a distrust of their own party and parliamentary bureaucracy.

Why? I don’t know. Such attitudes usually grow up in the personal freedom and economic chaos of a frontier economy. No place could be less a frontier than the Netherlands. Perhaps this is an instance of opposites producing the same results.

[December 13, 1966]



More on the Provos

AMSTERDAM. — This is the second column about the Provos, the Amsterdam youth movement.

The first thing to understand about the Provos is that they are not political at all in the sense that term is used by the American left.

Like their San Francisco counterparts, they are anti-political. They are opposed to the Vietnam war, but they are also opposed to the Cominform and the Chinintern, to Ho as well as LBJ, and they have developed a remarkable immunity to Maoist infiltration.

Most of the objectives of Bolshevik and neo-Bolshevik action and propaganda are simply the objectives of the Foreign Office, the Narkomindel, of Russia or the Chinese Foreign Ministry. If actions cannot be tied to these objectives they are suppressed.

Like most of the youth of the world (outside China) the Provos couldn’t care less. They are interested in humane immediate demands, not in geopolitics. They are interested in changing the quality of life, not in the power of far-off bureaucrats nor even in economic, wages and hours, or political objectives in the Netherlands.

The Dutch love life. They in no way resemble the stereotype of the staid Dutchman. For 600 years they have worked hard at making and keeping a very good life indeed, there in their sea marshes.

It was a life that worked surprisingly well, a masterpiece of what Toynbee calls meeting the challenge of hard conditions. Those hard conditions were imposed by nature.

Suddenly this life has been struck a series of violent blows by new hard conditions, man-made this time.

Society may be affluent but in few cities has the man-made environment deteriorated as badly as in Amsterdam. It is structurally not a city which can cope with the uncontrolled technology of the new society because it is structurally so perfectly adjusted to the old. It is the old story of the new order struggling for birth in the womb of the old.

What are the principal demands of the Provos? Control all automobile traffic and get the autos out of the old city altogether. Restore all the canals as traffic ways. Stop the pollution of both air and water now, by immediately effective drastic measures. Make birth control information and devices freely available to everybody.

What’s wrong with this? I’m for it all in San Francisco. The remarkable thing is that so is almost everybody in Amsterdam, including the Dutch Catholic leaders. The Provos have become not just the voice of youth, but the irrepressible spokesmen for everybody — everybody with any sort of social conscience or sense of what makes for a decent humane community life.

So much for the overall picture — the external relations of the Provo movement. One more column soon on the internal, subjective life — what are the Provos amongst themselves?

[December 15, 1966]



Revaluing Modern Art

BERLIN. —Whenever I have spent a season museum crawling in Europe I have emerged with the feeling, “Art is a failure.” Not only are there miles and miles of walls lined with mediocre paintings which are the old-time analogs of our fugitive commercial illustration, but there are hundreds of painters of reputation who really aren’t any good.

More important, there are inordinately ambitious painters, like Michelangelo, who try to force painting to do things it can’t and whose failures are catastrophic.

Leonardo knew he was too much for art, which is why he never finished his most ambitious paintings and is greatest when solving purely technical problems, as in The Virgin of the Rocks.

Only Tintoretto ever managed to combine great intellectual power and a command of all the resources of painting in a way that permitted him to completely express himself.

I thought of this the other day when I came away from a visit to Nefertiti in Berlin’s Dahlem Museum and noticed that my eyes were full of tears. I know all about it — that it is decadent; that it is not truly sculptural but linear — so linear in fact that it was perhaps the principal influence on Aubrey Beardsley; that it is only a workshop studio model, a formula to be used for other sculpture; that this formula is as extreme an example of the sentimentalization of female beauty as Bronzino’s Mannerist portraits of the chic world of declining Florence.

Yet it is a perfect example of the achievement of a completely satisfying and deeply moving work of art by someone who was not trying for a world-shaking masterpiece.

Marcel Proust said that the little yellowish rectangle on the wall in Vermeer’s street scene was the greatest achievement in all painting. This is very precious and very Proust, but it is certainly true that what makes Vermeer so great, so profound if you will, is his transparent modesty. True, there is nothing in Mondrian that isn’t first in Vermeer. Structurally he is perhaps the purest and most subtle of all painters. But structure isn’t everything, which is why the creaking architecture of Poussin is such a bore.

Vermeer, De Hooch, Terborch (who, I was taught, was just a painter of velvet), Sandredaam’s crystalline church interiors, how much more successful these painters are than Rembrandt or Rubens!

And who stands head and shoulders above all other French painters prior to the 19th century? Chardin, who doubtless couldn’t spell gloire and who confined himself to the kitchen and to good children doing quiet things.

As you come in the modern museum in Amsterdam there is a ground floor gallery off to the side which you might miss. It contains the work of the Dutch Der Stijl group — Mondrian, Van Doesberg, Vantangerloo and their friends, and the largest collection of the Russian Suprematist, Malevich, known to exist.

Upstairs there are rooms full of Van Gogh, who, for all his violent spiritual ambitions, the years have shown to be primarily a decorator. There are examples of all the standard modernists, and then rooms full of simply dreadful noisy “contemporary” art, Pop, Op and Slop.

Besides being so much more successful than contemporary abstract painting, Mondrian’s colored tiles and Malevich’s White on White are so much more moral. Here, you feel, are painters who simply tried hard to do what they had to do and never deluded themselves or others.

Contemporary art can be simply defined as painting by painters who believe the nonsense written by their dealers’ publicity men.

One of the curious things about Dutch painting is the big gap, almost 200 years, in modern times. Probably there is a 19th and early 20th century collection somewhere in Amsterdam which shows more Dutch painting than does the Stadlijkmuseum, but we were ill with flu and trots and it was raining and bitterly cold, so we never found it.

I remember half a lifetime of seeing Dutch painters in international annuals like the Carnegie. What happened to all these people? The only one left is Campendonk, very well represented in the Stadlijkmuseum.

I wonder about those big eyes he was so fond of. Can we lay Walter Keane at the doors of Campendonk and Marie Laurencin?

I have been rambling on like this because I believe that the art of the last hundred years is due, overdue, for a total revaluation.

[December 18, 1966]



Yet More on the Provos

AMSTERDAM. — This is another column about the Provos in Amsterdam.

As the first generation to grow up in a world of nuclear reactors, computers and automation, the Provos are concerned with harnessing this new technology and preventing it from dehumanizing the environment and destroying the great virtues inherent or potential in the community of Amsterdam. After all — they are the people who will be operating the technological society for the rest of the century, and as they enter upon adulthood, their first demand is that this technology be harnessed so they can ride it. At present it has yet to be broken to bit and saddle.

In their relations with one another, in their lives as Provos together, what are they like?

They are very like the permanent residents of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury community. Like that community, they have their bums and lunatic fringe, but though they are most conspicuous they are least important.

What long ago I called the movement to optional dress has spread far beyond the Provos to most Dutch youth and people go about in flowered trousers, long hair or shaved heads, 19th-century army dress tunics, everything except togas.

The actual Provos, perhaps to distinguish themselves, tend to be more conservatively dressed — in white jeans and white T-shirts or other simple and usually very clean garb. Although like the rebel youth of most of the world, the Provos have discarded alcohol for marijuana as a mild social intoxicant, they aren’t very obsessive about it, and still less are they hung up on pills and acid. They are militantly anti-cigarettes. They may use LSD betimes, but unlike the American psychedellies, they don’t bore you to death talking about it. However, they do share with the LSD cult and with Allen Ginsberg a vociferous “I love everybody” approach to, well, everybody. That includes “support your friendly Amsterdam police” — with a relentless campaign of nonviolent teasing which seems to have the fuzz beside itself.

Every Saturday night there is a “happening” — they use the English word, as they use English and American songs and often speak English among themselves. These happenings are a kind of dadaist mass demonstration against, each time, some patent community evil.

The fuzz go on filling the paddy wagons with kids who have just laid 100 fried eggs and 100 rotten oranges on the steps of the Royal Palace, and the Amsterdamers stand around and cheer. They want the Royal House of Orange to give up the Palace and turn it into a cultural center.

Personal — or interpersonal — intimate life among the Provos is remarkably free — free of tensions, obsessions, guilt and emotional exploitation. Their ethic of philosophical anarchism obviously works. Just as Quakers seem to have less trouble practicing the “impossibilist ethic” of Christianity, so the Provos practice mutual aid, mutual respect, total freedom, inviolable integrity, just by doing what comes naturally.

What is this new society in the shell of the old they have created? It is the society of the technological age — when naked exploitation of labor power is no longer the necessary basis of the economy and when man needs no longer be wolf to man. They have simply walked into it without asking permission. In 2000 AD we’ll all be in it or we’ll all be dead.

[December 20, 1966]

For a more critical view of the Provos, see the second chapter of the situationist pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life.



Too Much Public Spending?

WEST BERLIN. — One week last month the British, then the German, then the Brazilian, then the Japanese, then the American, heads of state or the fiscal authorities, took their constituents to task for spending too much money on city expenses. They said if such goings on continued to go on, there’d be inflation for sure.

What goes on? Does Walt Rostow sit in some secret den in the White House, think these things up, pass them on to the Great White Father, who in turn shoots them out to all his vassals by Telstar?

This is the kind of nonsense for which the accepted term is egregious. Honest now, Walt, do you really think you’re kidding anybody?

What do local authorities spend money on? Aircraft carriers? Proven boondoggles like the CIA? Crop subsidies?

Indeed not. Most all municipal money goes directly to the necessary services of city life, to capital structures or to wages for concrete services.

What is causing the American inflation that is endangering the entire economy of the post-War II boom, all over the world? Is it too high wages for school teachers? Is it too many sewers? Maybe it is too many policemen? Too much high-priced tar in the asphalt?

If the Chinese make steel in their back yards, why can’t we dispose of our garbage in ours? A compost heap in every home and save the dollar, the mark, the yen and the cruzeiro, say I.

Of course local authority housing is pure galloping communism, and fortunately we don’t have much of it. But the British and the Germans have got to stop it, or the pound and mark won’t be worth tinkers’ dams.

You know what a tinker’s dam is, don’t you? Everybody who ever listened to a quiz show knows that. It’s a little piece of lead the tinker puts around a hole to hold in the solder. If you go on paying schoolteachers and public health nurses those outrageous salaries, the solder will all run away and there’ll be nothing left but the hole.

Or is it all a plot? Do you really suppose J. Edgar Hoover is going to take over all the police departments in the U.S.A. and in that ingenious way save us from another 1929? Gee, he’s a smart fellow. Who ever would have thought of so simple a solution to the mysteries of capitalism? Simpler, but much like Karl Marx’s

No more parks, no more sewers, no more sidewalks, no more streets, no new schools, no new hospitals, and the economy will deflate by Christmas. Contracts for such things are set years in advance. Well, there must be something in it, if Walt Rostow told Johnson the Second and he told all those other important people.

I don’t know very much about economics. I’m going to have to go back and read those epoch-making books of Walt’s — really study them this time.

[December 22, 1966]



A Critique of German Painting

WEST BERLIN. — For a couple of months now I have been promising myself I would do a summation of my experiences visiting practically every important museum in Germany, my own revaluation of 20th-century German painting.

All you have to do is visit a comprehensive collection of pre-20th-century German painting, like the one in Schloss Charlottenberg in Berlin, to be convinced that the Germans hate the human eye.

They simply can’t see, or if they can, they do it in some fashion unknown to any of the humans who have made the great tradition of painting and sculpture — whether Chinese, Africans, Egyptians, Italians, Frenchmen.

Of course there is Durer, but for centuries Durer is all there is. His watercolors and drawings are great, but compare him with someone like Rogier Van Der Weyden and you see that there is still in him much of the otherwise universal error of German plastic perception. German painting is good only when it recognizes this defect, attacks it and overcomes it.

Munich and Düsseldorf were major centers of art education throughout the 19th century. That is what is wrong with much, especially American, 19th-century painting. But it is obvious, once you return to the sources, the room of that period in those cities, that unlike subtle wines, this stuff was greatly improved by traveling. The American students are better than their German masters. There are few paintings to be found in Germany as good as the Hudson River School.

Even more startling is the improvement that America wrought in the Germans themselves. Half the painters of the Old West were Germans, and they did uniformly better work in the States than they did at home. Nowhere in the Old Country will you find a painting to compare with Yosemite with Man Killing Grizzly, much less with The Talking Wire, one of the greatest anecdotal paintings of the 19th century — almost as good as The Last of England.

Just now, with the overwhelming demand of the affluent society, dealers are combing through the storerooms they have inherited from their grandfathers and launching discoveries, usually after they have cornered all available paintings by the discovered painter.

Recent examples have been the Klimpt and Scheele revivals — both certainly painters worth reviving. Few artists of the Renaissance were as sumptuous as Klimpt and no one will ever paint again the beautiful, overcivilized very free and very rich women of Vienna’s Jewish aristocracy.

Egon Scheele is more successfully erotic than Boucher or Aubrey Beardsley, Félicien Rops or Fuselli. The painters who surpass Scheele, like Tintoretto and Tiepolo, sought a different, more noble eroticism.

Just now there is a Lovis Corinth revival under way, and there was a comparable show of his work in San Francisco last year. I think this is pure merchandising, for I think he is just awful.

On the other hand, there is a painter who has become very hard to find even in Germany, who as recently as 50 years ago was still considered Germany’s leading modern artist, and who is badly in need of reviving. This is Hans Thoma.

His landscapes resemble our Inness, but are more substantial, and his portraits are somewhat like the better pre-Raphaelites, particularly Ford Madox Brown — who was no mean painter. He stands at the far end of Jugenstil, Art Nouveau, in some work, his later landscapes especially.

I was glad to read that there was a show of the work of Christian Rohlfs in San Francisco. This is a painter, even more a draftsman, of great delicacy and pathos, only now beginning to be properly appreciated in Germany. He is their analog of the French intimistes Bonnard and Vuillard, and his paintings are always rectangles of lucidity in the midst of his turgid contemporaries.

Another painter I greatly like is August Macke, killed in youth in the First World War. Macke is exquisitely sensitive and his color organization in space owes much to Seurat, the later Renoir and Robert Delaunay, but it is always unmistakably his own.

It is Macke’s highly individual sensibility that makes him, however. The fluent colors and prismatic volumes may be unmistakable as far as you can see the canvas, but more telling is his ability to capture the exact grace of refined femininity as it came to flower in the days just before the lights went out over Europe.

Think — born in 1887, dead in 1914, under the first guns. He might well be alive today, and he would have made all the difference in German art. Only he and Klee are completely civilized men.

The mistake was made when Augustus decided not to push the Roman line to the Elbe. The later years produce little. Only Baumeister and Winter stand up against Paris, and, after the war, against New York or San Francisco or Seattle.

[December 15, 1966]



The Mystery of East Germany

WEST BERLIN. — As everybody who reads the papers must know by now, the contrast between East and West Germany, and most especially East and West Berlin, is more than startling or shocking.

It is hard to believe that these were once parts of the same country with the same traditions, economic history, social development. It is a difference in kind, not in degree, like the difference between Mexico and the United States.

In that last statement is concealed the answer to the question that bothered me for months, “Where does the surplus value go?” “What happens to the profits from East German enterprises?”

It is easy to say that it is all drained off to Russia through forced manipulation of the market relations between the ruling and the vassal country.

That was true in the years after the war when Russia itself was rebuilding from the ruins and exploiting an East Germany forced to work for the conqueror amidst its own ruins.

This was a period something like War Communism in Russia in the days of the shattered economic structure and social chaos of the Civil War — in 1919-1924.

Western Europe, aided by the Marshall Plan, was recovering by 1949; it took the Iron Curtain countries another five years or so. That puts the end of a dragooned economy back almost half a generation.

Why has East German recapitalization lagged so shockingly behind the “miracle” of West Germany? All you have to do is look at the factories, and the “infrastructure” — the capitalization of public life, roads, housing, schools, hospitals, that go to make for an efficiently productive social mechanism — to see that the profits to be expected from what was once the most productive country on earth short of the U.S.A. did not go to the plant — to capitalization, even to the degree that they have in Russia, Poland, or Czechoslovakia.

Where did they go? They just as obviously didn’t go to the workers. Clothing is poor and expensive. Simple foods are cheap, but imported luxuries like coffee are very dear. There are paid vacations, social security, medical care, theater tickets, sports and gymnastics for everybody — the Scout Camp cultural amenities that are part of life under Bolshevik regimes.

Housing is still in short supply, although recently East Berlin has been filling up the old devastated areas with standardized public housing at very low rents.

Yet perhaps the majority of the working class live in the prewar flats, in the old working class districts, still with inadequate plumbing and poor heating. The best housing goes to the technical workers and the intellectuals and the bureaucracy.

Even so — labor is in such short supply that the future tenants work on their time off on the apartments they are going to occupy.

Only in the last two or three years has East Germany loosened up and begun to overtake the great economic surge forward of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Even more recently the revolution in planning, factory organization, accounting, and technical economics that has been shaking even Bulgaria and Rumania, has at last come to East Germany.

What was going on in the meantime? What held the country back so long? I will try to give you my ideas of an answer in the next column.

[December 27, 1966]



Bolshevism as State Capitalism

WEST BERLIN. — The best way to understand what has occurred in the Iron Curtain countries in the last 20 years is to start off with a clear definition of Bolshevism.

Bolshevism is not communism or even socialism in any sense in which those words were understood before 1918. It is a very primitive form of state capitalism. It is a method of forcing a backward, semi-colonial country through the period of capital accumulation which the major capitalist nations went through in the early years of the 19th century.

To “accumulate” an industrial capital structure from within an agricultural economy requires such a degree of exploitation of the peasantry and working class that no modern people is prepared to accept it without wholesale coercion.

Bolshevism is not a social system which occurs after the society described in Marx’s Capital has passed away; it is an artificially constructed resurrection of the society described at the beginning of that book.

The Bolsheviks have established themselves in common opinion as great Left theoreticians. They were not. They were reactionary right wingers in all the disputes of the pre-War I socialist movement.

Their real contribution was a theory of power, how to prepare for it, how to seize it, how to hold it, all ideologies and principles regardless.

It is important to understand this background or it is impossible to understand what happened in the Iron Curtain countries after the Second War.

Due to its theoretical poverty, and the vulgarity of its leaders, Bolshevism had proven itself an extremely inefficient method of “primitive accumulation” by the time the Second War broke out.

But if Bolshevism didn’t work well in the semi-colonial country where it was evolved, what happened when it was applied to what had been in many ways the most highly developed economy on earth — to Dresden, Leipzig and East Berlin?

The industrial complex may have been shattered, but it was far from destroyed, and in detail it was superior to anything elsewhere on the continent.

True, in the first years, the Russians hauled away everything that could be moved, especially machine tools. But proportionately this damage has been greatly exaggerated.

For 15 years an inefficient system for ruling a very backward economy, standing at the beginning of capitalism, was superimposed on one of the most advanced economies. This led to hopeless, incurable, constantly nagging contradictions all along the line.

Where did the surplus value that should have gone into recapitalization go? It didn’t go anywhere, it didn’t come into existence. The economy of a Stalinized East Germany simply ran at a dead loss. The milking of German production by Russian trade agreements was not determinative. After all, the German economy was milked by the victors, especially the French, under the Versailles reparations, but this did not prevent Weimar Germany from outstripping both France and England in rate of growth, and that in an atmosphere of continuous financial crisis.

[December 29, 1966]



“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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