Revolution #229, April 10, 2011

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune—reflections on the documentary

Editors' note: Phil Ochs (1940–1976) wrote and sang hundreds of songs in the 1960s, including the bitingly ironic "Love Me I'm a Liberal."

For those enraged at the putrid and revolting culture of present day USA: with its white American supremacy and never-ending wars for empire; its ugly consumer parasitism side by side with much of humanity barely surviving; and the unending onslaught of degradation of women in society and the world—to you out there on the front lines of struggling to revolt against all of this ideologically, politically and culturally; to those deeply disturbed by the world "as it is" but wondering can there be something different, the feature length documentary Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune will inspire a vision of what a truly liberating political and cultural revolt can look like and provide a lot of raw material to sort through and reflect on.

The filmmaker Kenneth Brower has created something which is very moving and which in many ways is very insightful on the life and times of Phil Ochs. Brower examines Ochs and his music as it evolved and grew in relation to and within the contradictions of the social turmoil and struggle of the 1960s. Using archival footage of the times, footage of Ochs and a lot of his music, interspersed with commentary from those who lived through the times and knew Phil Ochs, Brower has brought to life a time where so many people together, in their schools, their homes, in the cafés and concerts, and on the streets—everywhere—were fighting the power while at the same time struggling among themselves to figure out what kind of world we could create which would be a better place for humanity. Phil Ochs was very much in the middle of so much of this. Ochs was a uniquely talented artist inspired by and engaged with the many struggles of the 1960s. Ochs' music and lyrics combined a passionate outrage at the news of the day and satirical and often polemical insights into the contending political ideas being fought out.

While this film is really poignant in how it upholds and celebrates Phil Ochs and the times of the 1960s, to me, this documentary also stands out in the angle from which it explores the trajectory of the '60s and how this impacted on Ochs as a person and artist. He was an artist who threw his life, heart and soul into the times, and his heart was broken and his soul shaken as much of the movement (and his own illusions) ran up against limitations in the politics and ideology upon which much of the movement was based. There is a lot of raw material to reflect on and try to further understand in this—but while the "conventional" narrative on the movement of the '60s is some variation on the themes that the people and movements of the '60s could not live up to its idealism or that sections of the movement took things "too far" and were too radical, this movie does not do this. Instead, in looking at the limitations of much of the movement of the '60s, the film actually explores the significant strains of the mass movement of the 1960s which to a large part, even in much of its most radical expressions, was based on really believing that justice and equality could be struggled for and won within the political structures of the USA. At a certain point it became clear that the system—even confronted with the radical and revolutionary struggles of the times—was not going to change its color, was not going to reform itself. The film shows how excruciating a time this was for Ochs, and puts this directly in the context of the period where many people began to realize that no matter how deeply the crimes and lies of imperialism were exposed, how many people took to the streets to fight these crimes, how much of a truly liberating culture was brought forward by social relations and artistic creativity—the system in the U.S. was not going to fundamentally change. This was a "crossroads" period, which was confronted by and responded to differently by the various political forces and movements of the times. While this movie does not examine in any detail the various roads different radical political and cultural forces took in response to this realization, it does directly and sharply pose the question—the system's refusal to change—that people were confronting, and does follow the trajectory Phil Ochs took in response to this.

I think this film provides a lot of positive things to celebrate and learn from those times; and there is also a lot of food for thought and reflection in terms of why the movement was not able to confront and move forward through the realization that the system really was not reformable. While all the reasons the movement of the '60s ebbed, lost the political initiative in the struggle against the system, cannot be reduced to this one question, this was an important one and in significant ways still confronts many people who really do not like what this system does in the world, but in different ways do not resist it (or resist it in the ways necessary).

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As I sat in this movie, and even more afterwards, what really struck me was how confusing and disorienting that "crossroads" period was for so many people. Many in the movement felt they were hitting their heads against the wall in fighting the system and could not find the answer of what to do when it became clear that the system (the basic political and economic institutions and leaders) was not going to transform its oppressive and exploitive ways in the world at large or within the U.S. Many just felt "burnt out," as the answer of "what to do next" in terms of mobilizing the people and how to continue fighting the power was not easily understandable. It was not at all clear, and from the movie one gets the sense that this was a real burden on Phil Ochs, that anything of lasting and sustainable value was going to come out of the radical political and social movements of the 1960s. There was a lot of contention around how to go forward, what were the goals and objectives and how to give leadership to carry forward. There certainly was not in the broadest movement and culture a spontaneous move towards building a revolutionary party; and in fact among the more radical sections of the movement there were sharp differences on what to do and how to lead. As the movements and rebellions of the 1960s were ebbing it was not at all clear that any kind of leadership would emerge which would constitute a radical and revolutionary force which would continue to fundamentally challenge the system, continue to attempt to revolutionize society and fundamentally transform the system and the world.

While many people took many different paths away from the revolutionary road broadly represented by the 1960s, there were forces within the movement which were struggling to understand the limitations of the movement up to that time, why the movement was ebbing in some crucial respects, recognizing that even as things were ebbing there was the necessity and basis to move forward and form a vanguard revolutionary party. Within the broad movement of the 1960s there had developed a revolutionary and communist trend (which is not touched on in this documentary) and in different ways these forces were influenced by the same illusions and strains the movement as a whole was facing. In fact, there was a crossroads period in the early-mid '70s where these forces also were struggling among themselves as to what kind of party it should be; or whether it was even right for such a party to form and take responsibility to lead a communist revolution in the U.S.

Even for someone like myself who lived through those times and that process, it brought home the wrenching and rupturing wrangling we went through to form this party (RCP). It was no sure thing, there was a very protracted process, which included theoretical debate around the critical issues of what kind of revolution is needed, issues of revolutionary strategy, and very closely linked to these issues, the question of what comprises revolutionary leadership. Organizations and people you had worked with closely (and in some cases with whom you had deep personal ties) were locked in tense debate and conflict; there was polarization and people you had learned from and always thought would be with you were struggling sharply for different roads and different lines. How to sort out someone's intent, their reasoned arguments and strategic thesis was not so easy. Many people became disoriented and dropped out of the process. In all of this the leadership of Bob Avakian was decisive. On one level his basic stand stood out: yes, this is very hard, we have been fighting for many years and it is true, the system is not going to reform itself—but the system is still committing the same crimes all over the world; humanity still needs to be emancipated, so we have to figure things out. And it really stood out that he was scientific about it—in his polemics and arguments there were no cheap shots against individuals or organizations; there were no emotional plays directed to appease this or that group. He was very materialist in trying to figure out a revolutionary strategy, he looked at things on a world scale for all of humanity, not just for this country or for this or that group within this country; and he tirelessly sorted through contradictions to try to develop a political line and revolutionary strategy to lead. I really would encourage you to read or re-read the chapters in Bob Avakian's memoir [From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist. A Memoir by Bob Avakian] about this period to get a living sense of all that was involved and to gain a deeper appreciation of his leadership and what it took to form this Party. the end of the movie Phil's daughter, Meegan, says Phil would be happy that people were celebrating his life with this movie; but he would also be angry that the things he fought against in the world have not changed. Well, Phil, we are also still angry and we are still here fighting, exactly because the world cannot be left "as it is"—there is still a need for revolution and a revolutionary transformation of this world.

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From Ike to Mao and Beyond