Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 1, 2014

Abraham Lincoln Brigades Archive 2014 Human Rights Documentary Film Festival

Filed under: Film,Stalinism,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

Last night I saw “Red Father” and “You’re the Enemy – Welcome Back!” at the Institute Cervantes in New York, two of the entries in “Impugning Impunity”, theAbraham Lincoln Brigades Archive (ALBA) Human Rights Documentary Film Festival that ends today. Based on the quality of what I saw yesterday, you might want to take advantage of today’s screening of documentaries on the impact of Israeli occupation on Bedouins and on the activist break-in at FBI offices in Pennsylvania in 1971 that led to the exposure of the Cointelpro. Scheduling information is here: http://www.alba-valb.org/programs/human-rights-film-festival/

It is no secret that the  ALBA, like most projects with such a provenance, has a solid base of support in the Communist Party and its periphery. As I gazed about the audience waiting for “Red Father” to begin, I felt young again by comparison. The average age appeared to be about 75 and most probably went through the experience at one time or another of selling the Daily Worker.

Despite this, Tova Beck-Friedman’s film was a searching examination of what it meant to be a life-long Communist and not at all an exercise in feel-good nostalgia like the documentaries “Seeing Red” or “The Good Fight” that featured Spanish Civil War veterans like Bill Bailey. As much as I loved those films, I was glad to see the CP rendered accurately, warts and all.

“Red Father”, however, did not demonize the CP. In its portrait of Bernard Ades (pronounced ay-dis), a Jew from a wealthy family who grew up in Baltimore and joined the party shortly after the Great Depression began, was simultaneously the best and the worst of his generation. A man of extraordinary principle and courage, he became an attorney dedicated to defending the African-American poor against a racist judicial system, including its ultimate weapon, the lynch mob.

This article from the November 28, 1931 newsweekly “The African-American” documents the case that is at the heart of “Red Father” and shows him demonstrating the mettle that convinced many Black Americans that the CP was their best friend in the struggle against racism.

Screen shot 2014-10-01 at 1.43.52 PM

Seven years later he ended up fighting in Spain against Franco’s counter-revolutionary army, once again showing great courage and dedication to the cause.

Throughout the 1930s, the party was at its height. If you didn’t bother paying close attention to the Trotskyist press, the USSR and its allies could easily be seen as the saviors of humanity. Indeed, it was exactly such a messianic belief that led party members like Bernard Ades to stick with the party until the bitter end, even after it became common knowledge that Jews were victims of discrimination in Russia and that the “socialism” being built had little to do with the democratic aspirations of the communist movement through most of its history.

As a sympathizer of the CP and a member of a youth group in its periphery, Ben Ades’s daughter Janet, who is featured prominently in the film and who spoke during a Q&A after its screening, had the misfortune to get romantically entwined with a comrade who had visited Hungary shortly after the Soviet invasion in 1956 and was shocked to see elementary socialist principles trampled underfoot. When Janet began repeating what she heard from her boyfriend, her father was chagrined enough to enroll her in a study group that was meant to cure her of bad ideas.

In the Q&A, Janet Ades was crystal-clear about her respect for her father’s dedication and for the need for social justice. What she would not accept, however, was the CP’s military like discipline that forced its members to go along with every twist and turn, always accepting the Kremlin’s word as if it were the Vatican. Indeed, like all members of religious sects, the practice of shunning was used to enforce a monolithic culture.

She added that it was not just the CP that had such a suffocating atmosphere. She alluded to a young man she met in a hospital once whose first name was Karl. Out of curiosity, she asked if he was named after Karl Marx. He laughed and said yes, proceeding to tell her his life story. His father was a member of the Trotskyist movement in Utah who had made a mistake like hers taking up the cause of Hungarian workers. She did not mention what got Karl’s father shunned, but eventually he left the movement in disgust. I commented from the floor that I probably knew his father since he was one of hundreds who had to put up with shunning in the SWP, a party that was created as an alternative to the “bad” CP.

I am not sure where or when this eye-opening documentary will be shown again but will make sure to let you know about it in advance. Educational institutions can purchase it from Dark Hollow films for the customarily prohibitive price. http://www.darkhollowfilms.com/our-films

Finally, I recommend Dan La Botz’s article on the film that appeared on New Politics.  Dan concludes and I concur:

This well-done documentary will be of particular interest to those who want to better understand the history of the Communist Party of the United States and international Communism, as well as to those interested in American Jewry. As a teacher of college courses in American History, I would certainly use it in my upper division classes. The film which is being independently distributed will be shown in the fall at the University of Minnesota Law School and to the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers and in the week of November 10 at Baruch College of Performing Arts.

Pankaja Brooke’s “You’re the Enemy – Welcome Back!” also deserves the widest viewing. Brooke went to Vietnam and interviewed a group of Vietnam veterans to returned there to atone for their misdeeds by getting involved in various projects that benefit a country still feeling the lingering effects of a genocidal war.

I was shocked to discover that over 100,000 people died as a result of stepping on unexploded landmines and bombs left over from a brutal war, also that over 3 million have suffered birth defects or illnesses caused by exposure to Agent Orange. To her credit, Brooke spent time visiting clinics and orphanages devoted to caring for Agent Orange victims, whose care and treatment costs an economically devastated nation millions of dollars each year. If there was any justice, the USA should have paid reparations for the damage it did to people and to precious resources.

Fortunately, Brooke’s documentary can be seen on Vimeo and I recommend it strongly:

https://vimeo.com/88987769

As a group, the Vietnam veterans—all about my age—show America at its best, just as Bernard Ades’s service in the cause of the Spanish Republic did. Next year I will be posting an announcement about the next ALBA film festival. The people who put it together should be commended for fighting the good fight as well. My recommendation is to visit their website (http://www.alba-valb.org/) and stay informed about this excellent resource for human rights and social justice.

 

September 30, 2014

John Holloway’s hippie Marxism

Filed under: autonomism — louisproyect @ 4:39 pm

John Holloway

For me, one of the more fascinating aspects of the autonomist left is its failure to critically examine its own record. Even the anarchists, whose rejection of state power overlaps with the autonomists, can be quite astute in coming to terms with their mistakes. Some of the best critiques of the black block can be found on anarchist websites, for example.

As one of the most visible of the autonomist theorists, John Holloway has never mentioned a single shortcoming of the movement he speaks for. In the sappy romantic film “Love Story”, there’s a phrase that sort of evokes the autonomist stance: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”. Just substitute the word autonomism for love and you’re good to go.

Hollaway held court recently at roar.org. Despite the website’s commitment to the autonomist cause, the interviewer asks some tough questions even though it starts off relatively easy by allowing Holloway to make the basic case for “liberation” amounting to a kind of counter-culture:

In the last twenty or thirty years we find a great many movements that claim something else: it is possible to emancipate human activity from alienated labor by opening up cracks where one is able to do things differently, to do something that seems useful, necessary, and worthwhile to us; an activity that is not subordinated to the logic of profit.

These cracks can be spatial (places where other social relations are generated), temporal (“Here, in this event, for the time that we are together, we are going to do things differently. We are going to open windows onto another world.”), or related to particular activities or resources (for example, cooperatives or activities that pursue a non-market logic with regard to water, software, education, etc.). The world, and each one of us, is full of these cracks.

I’d love to probe him on the question of water, something that is in many ways a far more critical resource than oil. What would autonomism bring to the table in Detroit, where poor people are having the water cut off? Distributing buckets to the victims of austerity so that they can collect raindrops for future use? Ultimately the only way that water can begin flowing again as a public utility is if there is a political struggle to reverse the austerity drive that makes the poor and working people pay for the city’s economic woes. In the most extreme example of water exploitation, you need only look at the West Bank where the Palestinians are being robbed of water as well as their land. The problem, one among many, is that the Palestinian Authority is a tool of the Palestinian elites that makes concession after concession. Would anybody advise the people of Hebron to “to open windows onto another world” when they are surrounded by the walls of separation and Israeli border guards?

When pressed to define himself in relationship to new leftwing parties like Podemos and Syriza, Holloway at least makes the concession of saying that he would vote for them even though they would ultimately disappoint:

Any government of this kind entails channeling aspirations and struggles into institutional conduits that, by necessity, force one to seek a conciliation between the anger that these movements express and the reproduction of capital. Because the existence of any government involves promoting the reproduction of capital (by attracting foreign investment, or through some other means), there is no way around it. This inevitably means taking part in the aggression that is capital. It’s what has already happened in Bolivia and Venezuela, and it will also be the problem in Greece or Spain.

This is really a fantastically ultraleft outlook, reminiscent in some ways of the DeLeonist Socialist Labor Party that used to lecture the left on the futility of marching against the war in Vietnam or women gaining the right to abortions. Short of communism, everything involves what he calls a “conciliation” with capital, even the Paris Commune. Given a choice between a leftist government in Mexico that would confront the USA around a host of questions, including the miserable free trade agreements that have led to mass emigration, and the Zapatista localized self-help projects, he apparently would opt for the latter. I guess he doesn’t want Mexicans to dirty their hands with a state power that enforced laws that distributed land to the landless as Emiliano Zapata fought for. I’ll take the original Zapatista movement, thank you very much.

In reply to the final question about combining initiatives from below and the use of state power to benefit the poor (a perspective the interviewer appears to defend), Holloway reveals how utopian and foolish he is:

Right now the rage against banks is spreading throughout the world. However, I don’t think banks are the problem, but rather the existence of money as a social relation. How should we think about rage against money? I believe this necessarily entails building non-monetized, non-commodified social relations.

To start with, there is no rage against money. Instead there is rage about not having any. People can’t pay medical bills, their kid’s education or their mortgage and this guy is focused on non-commodified social relations? I think there is a class bias in Holloway’s bogus Marxism. It would certainly appeal to a white 25 year old college graduate who is living in a squat and working in a tattoo parlor or selling marijuana until he or she settles into a respectable job as we all do at one time or another. There is something quite romantic about the “change the world without taking power” business even if it is limited to the far left fringes of today’s hipsterdom. At least in my days, we knew what to call it—being a hippy.

“Goodbye, Dear Mum”: Iran Executes Rayhaneh Jabbari

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:16 pm

Originally posted on JONATHAN TURLEY:

eg2vZynW_400x400Over international protests, Iran has reportedly executed Rayhaneh Jabbari, 26. Jabbari claimed that a former Iranian Intelligence Ministry employee tried to rape her and that she stabbed in him the shoulder to escape. Despite the fact that a drink given to her was found to contain a date rape drug, the Iranian officials still wanted her hanged and they have now carried out their intent. As she was being led away to be hanged, a guard showed mercy and gave her his phone to type a final message to her mother. Her reported message below is poignant and tragic as a final goodbye to her mother.

View original 220 more words

September 29, 2014

Comments on “Strategy and Tactics in a Revolutionary Period: U. S. Trotskyism and the European Revolution, 1943–1946″

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 10:39 pm

Albert Goldman

James P. Cannon and Felix Morrow

I looked forward to Daniel Gaido and Velia Luparello’s article “Strategy and Tactics in a Revolutionary Period: U. S. Trotskyism and the European Revolution, 1943–1946″ in the latest “Science and Society” for a couple of reasons. To start with, I thoroughly relished Gaido’s dismantling of Charles Post’s “The American Road to Capitalism” in the April 2013 “Science and Society”, so much so that I read Gaido’s “The Formative Period of American Capitalism” as a follow-up. (Despite being Argentinian, Gaido has an excellent grasp of the complexities of American history.) I was also very interested in any discussion of the Goldman-Morrow tendency in the SWP since I had written an article about 15 years ago defending their analysis of how European politics would evolve following the collapse of fascism. Gaido and Luparello’s article is also sympathetic to Goldman and Morrow but from a somewhat different perspective than mine.

I was interested in holding up James P. Cannon’s catastrophism to scrutiny in my article. I wrote:

In 1943 and 1944 the world Trotskyist movement expected the end of WWII to usher in the same types of revolutionary cataclysms as WWI. The International Resolution under consideration by the FI stated categorically that the allies would impose military dictatorships. It considered American capitalism to have begun an “absolute decline” in 1929. This decadent system said the resolution “has no programme for Europe other than its further dismemberment and degradation, and the propping up of the capitalist system with American bayonets”.

The choice for the worker’s movement was stark. Unless they made socialist revolutions, they would face “savage dictatorship of the capitalists consequent upon the victory of the counter-revolution.” The workers would rise to the task since it was “in a revolutionary mood” continent-wide.

This analysis of the world situation was strongly influenced by Trotsky’s conceptions from the start of the second world war which were of a “catastrophist nature”. He could not anticipate any new upturn in the world capitalist economy based on Keynesianism and arms spending. Trotsky’s catastrophism can be traced back to the early days of the Comintern. I recommend Nicos Poulantzas’s “Fascism and the Third International” as a critique of this tendency in the early Communist movement. No Bolshevik leader was immune from this tendency to see capitalism as being in its death throes. Stalin and Zinoviev incorporated this thinking into their “third period” strategy. Stalin eventually lurched back and adopted a right-opportunist policy. What is not commonly appreciated is the degree to which Trotskyism has a lineal descent to the ultraleftism of the early 1920s Comintern.

This ultraleftism stared Felix Morrow in the face, who like a small boy declaring that the emperor has no clothes, ventured to state that American imperialism might not have been on its last legs in 1945. He argued forcefully that the most likely outcome of allied victory was an extended period of bourgeois democracy and not capitalist dictatorship. Therefore it is necessary for revolutionists, Morrow advised, to be sensitive to democratic demands:

…if one recognizes the probability of a slower tempo for the development of the European revolution, and in it a period of bourgeois-democratic regimes — unstable, short-lived, but existing nevertheless for a period — then the importance of the role of democratic and transitional demands becomes obvious. For the revolutionary answer to bourgeois democracy is the first instance more democracy — the demand for real democracy as against the pseudo-democracy of the bourgeoisie. For bourgeois-democracy can exist only thanks to the democratic illusions of the masses; and those can be dispelled first of all only by mobilizing the masses for the democracy they want and need.

My interest was more in the economics than the politics. As someone who went through the painful consequences of being in the SWP in the late 70s when the party leaders had adopted a similar kind of catastrophism (we had to be in basic industry in order to lead the workers in a fight against a new Great Depression), I was gratified to discover that I was not the only Marxist who could conceive of capitalism restabilizing itself.

It is the importance of fighting for bourgeois democracy that Gaido and Luparello want to emphasize. They write:

The following section of Morrow’s amendments drove home this point by reference to the recent Italian events: “Tomorrow, if necessary, the Badoglio regime [post-Mussolini but authoritarian] will concede general elections just as it had to con- cede factory committees.” It was of course the masses who had wrested these democratic rights from their oppressors. “but the oppressors understand also the necessity of sanctioning these democratic rights when they have no alternative” (Morrow, 1944b, 15). Morrow concluded: “The Italian events indicate that after the collapse of fascism the bourgeoisie is prepared to evolve in the direction of a bourgeois– democratic government.” In all likelihood, the collapse of Nazism would likewise result in “an attempt by the German bourgeoisie to save its rule by hiding behind bourgeois–democratic forms” (Morrow, 1943d, 15). This stratagem of the European bourgeoisie, in collusion with American imperialism, would be aided at the beginning by the inevitable revival of democratic illusions among considerable sections of the masses, due to the “intensification of national feeling in Europe as the result of the struggle against Nazi occupation,” the lack of direct experience with bourgeois democracy by the younger generation, and the willingness of both Social Democracy and Stalinism — which the Italian experience indicated would emerge as “the principal parties of the first period after the collapse of the Nazis and their collaborators” — to divert the revolutionary energy of the mass in that direction through the application of the policy of class collaboration known as Popular Front, in which the workers’ parties renounced the application of the socialist program (Morrow, 1944b, 15).

I am not sure whether the authors had any intention of relating this to differences on the left today but Cannon’s fight with the minority has a remarkable similarity to debates over Ukraine. For Cannon, the primary agency of change in Europe would be the Red Army rather than workers’ struggles for democracy and the basic freedoms they associated with the United States, even if based on illusions of the kind EuroMaidan manifested.

If you want to see how extreme Cannon’s position was, it is best to look at what a party leader associated with Cannonite orthodoxy said. This was reflected in a letter from Farrell Dobbs protesting an editorial in the Militant. Dobbs found himself in agreement with Natalia Sedova who was upset with the Militant’s concessions to Stalinism:

By November 1944 it was obvious that the resolution of the October 1943 Plenum had failed to foresee the course of events in Europe and to orient the Trotskyist cadres in the tactics required by the political moment. Yet despite the insistence of the Minority report to the Convention on “the importance of a democratic interlude,”16 the resolution adopted by the Sixth Convention of the SwP in November 1944 started by stating that “the events of the past nine months have served to underline the validity of our previous analysis of the world situation” (Sixth Convention of the SWP, 1944, 361).17

Nevertheless, the majority was forced to make one concession in the resolution adopted by the November 1944 Convention of the SWP, under pressure from Trotsky’s widow, Natalia Sedova. One of Cannon’s collaborators, Farrell Dobbs, then serving time with him at Sandstone penitentiary, had sent a letter sharply criticizing the August 19, 1944 Militant editorial “Warsaw Betrayed,” arguing that it had not taken up the question of

the duty of guerrilla forces — and in the circumstances that is what the Warsaw detachments are — to subordinate themselves to the high command of the main army, the Red Army, in timing of such an important battle as the siege of Warsaw. On the contrary, the editorial appears to take as its point of departure the assumption that a full-scale proletarian uprising occurred in Warsaw and that Stalin deliberately maneuvered to permit Hitler to crush the revolt. . . . we are deeply concerned about this carelessness in writing about such a crucial question. (Letter from Dobbs dated August 23, 1944, quoted in Jacobs, 1944, 34.)

This apology for Stalin’s delivery of the Warsaw Commune into Hitler’s hands, and the call for Polish guerrillas “to subordinate themselves” to Stalin’s generals, drew an immediate response from Trotsky’s widow. In a letter dated September 23, 1944, she argued: “I do not propose that we take off the slogan ‘defense of the USSr’ but I find that it must be pushed back to the second or third rank.” The slogan of the military defense of the USSR “withdraws to the background in the face of new events” — namely the victories of the red Army and the heightened prestige of Stalinism. The only alternatives for the USSR, Natalia Sedova insisted, were “socialism or the restoration of capitalism”:

A mortal danger is threatening the Soviet land, and the source of this danger is the Soviet bureaucracy (the internal enemy). The war is not ended; the external enemy still exists. But at the beginning of the war we viewed it as the most dangerous one and the struggle against the bureaucratic regime ceded its place to the military struggle; at the present time matters must be put just the other way. (Sedova, 1944a, 24–25; cf. the emphasis on this idea in Sedova, 1944b.)

Cannon hastened to agree with her analysis, in a letter published in the same issue of the SWP Internal Bulletin of October 1944 (Cannon, 1944, 29). The part of the resolution adopted by the November 1944 Convention of the SWP dealing with the Soviet Union therefore reads:

Throughout the period when the Nazi military machine threatened the destruction of the Soviet Union, we pushed to the fore the slogan: Uncondi- tional defense of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack. Today the fight for the defense of the Soviet Union against the military forces of Nazi Germany has essentially been won. Hitler’s “New Order in Europe” has already collapsed.

The present reality is the beginning of the European revolution, the military occupation of the continent by the Anglo-American and red Army troops, and the conspiracy of the imperialists and the Kremlin bureaucracy to strangle the revolution. we therefore push to the fore and emphasize today that section of our program embodied in the slogan: Defense of the European Revolution against all its enemies. The defense of the European revolution coincides with the genuine revolutionary defense of the USSR. (Sixth Convention of the SWP, 1944, 367.)

I wouldn’t begin to attempt an analysis of the problems that the left faces today based on tendencies that have existed since the 1930s but I have often wondered to what extent Boris Kagarlitsky’s shilling for the Kremlin is simply an extreme version of the “Defend the USSR” orientation that was at the heart of the fight between Cannon and Shachtman. Morrow and Goldman advocated unification of Cannon’s SWP with Shachtman’s Workers Party based on their agreement with the Workers Party’s support for democracy, even if it was undermined by Shachtman’s continued adherence to bureaucratic collectivism. As it turned out, Goldman joined Shachtman’s group after being expelled, while Morrow took his leave from revolutionary politics altogether (he went into publishing, first with Schocken Press and then with Beacon Press).

The Cannon-Shachtman fight revolved around Ukraine to a large degree, just as is the case today. In a letter to Shachtman written on November 6, 1939, Trotsky referred to a period that I have become much more familiar with since exploring Ukrainian history:

You quote the march of the Red Army in 1920 into Poland and into Georgia and you continue: “Now, if there is nothing new in the situation, why does not the majority propose to hail the advance of the Red Army into Poland, into the Baltic countries, into Finland … (Page 20) In this decisive part of your speech you establish that something is “new in the situation” between 1920 and 1939. Of course! This newness in the situation is the bankruptcy of the Third International, the degeneracy of the Soviet state, the development of the Left Opposition, and the creation of the Fourth International. This “concreteness of events” occurred precisely between 1920 and 1939. And these events explain sufficiently why we have radically changed our position toward the politics of the Kremlin, including its military politics.

It seems that you forget somewhat that in 1920 we supported not only the deeds of the Red Army but also the deeds of the GPU.

To start with, I am no longer willing to accept Trotsky or Cannon’s side of the argument uncritically. Shachtman is quoted in the letter but I don’t have the foggiest idea of what he was arguing in its totality. It is the same thing I ran into when I was being indoctrinated against Bert Cochran. In the SWP, you got to read Cannon’s attacks on Cochran but never the rebuttal. This kind of one-sided presentation is inimical to the kind of theoretical exploration that would benefit any serious cadre.

Despite Leon Trotsky, the Red Army screwed up royally in both Poland and Ukraine. We have a much better idea of what happened back then, thanks to the research of Paul Kellogg on the Red Army’s disastrous intervention in Poland in 1920 and the work of people like Chris Ford on Ukraine. It is understandable why Trotsky would subscribe to the “heroic Comintern” narrative given his role in the Bolshevik triumph but why someone would take this approach and apply it to a degraded experiment to reconstitute the Czarist Empire under the banner of the Russian Orthodoxy and the BMW is simply beyond me.

Finally, I would urge Gaido and Luparello to consider writing for open access journals like Ron Cox’s “Class, Race and Corporate Power”.  The issues they are addressing are of deep concern to Marxist activists, among whom “Science and Society” subscribers would number about as many as could fit into a phone booth, if phone booths still existed.

Obama’s self-unravelling strategy in Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

Obama’s self-unravelling strategy in Syria.

American intervention in Syria: I told you so

Filed under: mechanical anti-imperialism,Syria — louisproyect @ 1:09 pm

Well, I hate saying that I told you so but I did tell you so: When the USA finally intervenes in Syria on a serious basis, it will be against exactly those forces that the “anti-imperialist” left claim are his proxies.

On August 8, 2013 I posted from two articles that anticipated to Marxmail what is happening now.

From the March 15, 2013 LA Times:

“The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, according to current and former U.S. officials.”

From the August 8, 2013 NY Times:

“As foreign fighters pour into Syria at an increasing clip, extremist groups are carving out pockets of territory that are becoming havens for Islamist militants, posing what United States and Western intelligence officials say may be developing into one of the biggest terrorist threats in the world today.”

All those comparisons with Reagan backing the Afghan jihadists turned to be complete and utter bullshit. Reagan not only put the red carpet down for them in the White House, he armed them with Stinger missiles. The “anti-imperialist” left embarrassed itself by even making such a comparison in the first place, but then again they are so cynical and so lacking in principle that it would hardly matter.

* * * *

From last night’s interview:

KROFT (voice-over): Syria is more challenging because the U.S. has few viable allies on the ground there. The regime of Bashar al- Assad is fighting ISIS, but the U.S. wants Assad deposed for committing horrific crimes against his own people, and other opposition groups like the Al-Nusra front and a terrorist cell called Khorasan, which was plotting attacks against Europe and the U.S., are both affiliated with Al Qaida. The coalition is hoping to train 5,000 moderate Syrian fighters in Saudi Arabia.

(on-screen): Is there a moderate Syrian opposition?

OBAMA: There is. But right now, it doesn’t control much territory. It has been squeezed between ISIL on the one hand and the Assad regime on the other.

KROFT: These are the people that you said — the farmers, the doctors, the pharmacists — who stood no chance of overthrowing the government.

OBAMA: Well, keep in mind, two years ago, that was absolutely true. This is in response to the mythology that’s evolved that somehow if we had given those folks some guns two-and-a-half years ago, that Syria would be fine.

And the point that I made then, which is absolutely true, is that for us to just start arming inexperienced fighters who we hadn’t vetted — so we didn’t know and couldn’t sort out very well who’s potentially ISIL or Al-Nusra member and who is somebody that we’re going to work with. For us to just go blind on that would have been counterproductive and would not have helped the situation, but also would have committed us to a much more significant role inside of Syria.

KROFT: You said that we need to get rid of Assad. And while we’re saying we have to get rid of Assad, we are also bombing and trying to take out some of the — his most threatening opponents and — and the…

OBAMA: I recognize the — I recognize…

KROFT: And the beneficiary of this is Assad.

OBAMA: I recognize the contradiction in a contradictory land and a contradictory circumstance. We are — we are not going to stabilize Syria under the rule of Assad, because the Sunni areas inside of Syria view Assad as having carried out terrible atrocities. The world has seen them.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. Millions have been displaced. So for a long-term political settlement, for Syria to remain unified, it is not possible that Assad presides over that entire process. On the other hand, in terms of immediate threats to the United States, ISIL, Khorasan group, those folks could kill Americans. And so…

KROFT: They’re more important than Assad at this point. That’s what you’re saying.

OBAMA: What I’m saying is that they’re all connected, but there’s a more immediate concern that has to be dealt with.

 

September 28, 2014

When the Nation Magazine grew weary of Reconstruction

Filed under: african-american,liberalism,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

A few days ago I had been consulting Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery by Another Name”, a very fine history of post-Civil War forced labor, as part of a long-term research project to rebut Charles Post’s thesis on slavery as “precapitalist” when I came across a revealing reference to the Nation Magazine. As I have pointed out in the past, the magazine was a primary source of arguments on behalf of winding down Reconstruction. I had completely forgotten about the passage but was reminded of it today when a Facebook thread on Eric Alterman’s opposition to BDS prompted the query why the magazine puts up with him. In my view, the Nation has been problematic from its inception, lurching from abolitionism to articles attacking moves to make the KKK illegal. For a fuller discussion, I’d refer you to a piece I wrote in 2003: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/american_left/tainted_nation.htm

Douglas Blackmon:

A new national white consensus began to coalesce against African Americans with shocking force and speed. The general white public, the national leadership of the Republican Party, and the federal government on every level were arriving at the conclusion that African-Americans did not merit citizenship and that their freedom was not able enough to justify the conflicts they engendered among whites. A growing body of whites across the nation concluded that blacks were not worth the cost of imposing a racial morality that few in any region genuinely shared. As early as 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union army of liberation, conceded to members of his cabinet that the Fifteenth Amendment, giving freed slaves the right to vote, had been a mistake: “It had done the Negro no good, and had been a hindrance to the South, and by no means a political advantage to the North.” “The long controversy over the black man seems to have reached a finality,” wrote the Chicago Tribune, approvingly. Added The Nation: “The Negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth, the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him.” That the parent had once sacrificed enormously to rescue the less favored child only made its abandonment deeply more bitter.

September 27, 2014

Pride

Filed under: Film,workers — louisproyect @ 5:13 pm

Opening yesterday at three multiplex theaters in New York rather than in the art house circuit, “Pride” is calculated to appeal to a broader audience than one might expect given its theme: the alliance between a gay liberation group and the coal miners on strike against Margaret Thatcher in 1984.

This makes perfect sense since the art house venue would be the classic case of preaching to the choir.

As I sat through the press screening on Thursday night, I was impressed with director Matthew Warchus and screenwriter Stephen Beresford’s popular culture instincts. Basically, they put together a kind of musical comedy along the lines of “Footloose” in which a transgressive outsider from the big city breaks down the prejudices of a backward rural village. “Footloose”, made in 1984 when British gays and strikers were bonding with each other, is about the uphill battle a teenage boy has in overturning a local preacher’s ban on rock music and dancing. In “Pride”, the struggle is to gain acceptance from the miners and their families even when the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) have raised more money than any other support group.

There’s a key scene in “Pride” that not only evokes “Footloose” but two other icons of pop culture as well. The LGSM’ers have come to the miner’s village to drop off the weekly collections and to join in the festivities at a dance in the local union hall. As has been the case since they first began showing up, the miners stay as far from the gays as they can. They appreciate the solidarity but deeply rooted prejudices keep them at a distance.

In a flash of inspiration, one of the gay men has the DJ play a wailing disco tune that brings the women out on the floor. He joins them in a bravura performance that starts off mimicking John Travolta’s in “Saturday Night Fever” and comes to a climax with him dancing across the union hall’s bar like Pee-Wee Herman did in a biker’s bar in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”. In all instances, a smoking hot dancer breaks down the stiffest resistance. Even if Pee-Wee and Travolta were not explicitly gay, those in the know always knew they were.

In a way, it doesn’t matter that the film fails to point out that the miners went back to work because Thatcher broke the strike. The film ends with a Gay Pride parade with three busloads of miners joining in under the banner of the LGSM, as happened historically. While not a documentary by any stretch of the imagination, the film does not exaggerate the importance of the alliance between two groups shunned by bourgeois society. When the Murdoch press tried to drive a wedge between the two by publishing an “exposé” about “perverts” infiltrating the miner’s support movement, the LGSM came up with the brilliant idea of organizing a fundraising dance under the title “Pits and Perverts” that raised record sums. The lead group was the Bronski Beat, a fabulous band led by Jimmy Somerville, a gay man with a falsetto that would make an angel cry.

If the film gave short shrift to the outcome of the strike for obvious reasons, it was perhaps an even bigger failing that it neglected to identify the political orientation of Mark Ashton, the young man who came up with the idea for LGSM and who died of AIDS in 1987. The film alludes to him as getting involved because he was from Northern Ireland but there was more to it than that as the Guardian reported on September 20th:

But while many of those who inspired the film attended its recent premiere, Mark Ashton was absent. He died in 1987 of an Aids-related illness at the age of just 26. But now the film has sparked a surge of interest in his political activism. A memorial fund in his memory has received donations of more than £10,000 since the film’s release this month.

“He was an everything person,” said his friend Chris Birch. “He was an Irishman, a communist, an agitator, a lapsed Catholic who still went to mass very occasionally. He was very charismatic. His communism governed everything he did. He spent a couple of months in Bangladesh in ’82 and the poverty really politicised him. I miss him terribly. People tell me I didn’t smile for three months after he died.”

The Communist connection was always there, even if it was missing from the film. The Guardian article continues:

“We sought to broaden the struggle beyond the picket lines to what we called an anti-Thatcher broad democratic alliance,” recalled Hywel Francis, MP for Aberavon, and a former member of the Communist party, who helped forge links between the gay community and Welsh miners. “That is why our support group also set up the South Wales Striking Miners’ Choir and the South Wales Striking Miners’ Rugby Team.”

I can’t recommend this film highly enough for your friends and relatives who were too young to have lived through a period when the class struggle was still in the ascendancy. As the “sixties” began to wane, there was still enough of the lingering spirit of rebellion and solidarity that British miners and gays could make common cause.

Heading back home from the movie on Thursday, I reflected on how many years had passed when such things were possible. It was thirty years ago when LGSM was in the vanguard. When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, I had no idea what it meant to see the labor movement in action as was the case in 1937. I only wish someone had made a film about the auto workers in Flint that would convey what was possible long before I was born.

While the labor movement was not that much of a movement when I became an activist, there were still some signs that a broader mass movement could bring together disparate elements here just as would happen in Britain. This is a report on how truck-drivers, the American equivalent of the British miners, sought out student antiwar protesters to support their strike in 1970. David McDonald, who was a member of the student support group, is the author:

The Student Worker Action Collective got its start on the Monday after the Kent State killings. The UCLA Student Union building had been thoroughly trashed and its main assembly room was emptied of earlier stuff which had been replaced by over one hundred tables staffed by various organizations of do-gooders, radicals of all stripes, people handing out peanut butter sandwiches, you name it.

Up walks Steve __________ (God help me, I’ve forgotten his last name). He worked in the office of a trucking company. The week before the 1970 Master Freight Agreement had come up for a vote in Teamster Local #208, representing local delivery drivers. The membership had rebelled, because their prior local contract, like a few others around the country, had better provisions than the proposed contract. So it was a giveback contract, pretty unheard of in those days. This occurred because Hoffa wanted all the Teamster across the country to have the same contract (a worthwhile idea, of course). Anyway, just as the rebelling local drivers were about to vote down the MFA and go on strike the meeting was gavelled closed by the local leadership. The rump body voted to strike anyway, but of course their vote was technically illegal and the bosses instantly got the courts to limit their picketting to two people per terminal by injunction.

So Steve ________ came over to UCLA and said something like, you kids are on strike, we’re on strike, but we can’t walk our own picket lines, so what if you organized a bunch of kids to come out and walk the lines for us? It was absolutely the coolest proposition anyone had ever made to any of us, so we got started on it right away. There was nothing, absolutely nothing to organizing a turnout of 2-300 kids every day to go wherever the Teamsters wanted us. Our biggest problem was always finding the barns, tucked away in corners of south LA none of us was familiar with, but we got over that. There were lots of fights with cops and pretty soon the cops began bringing giant black and white buses to cart us off in. So the Teamsters adapted and started having us show up at different places each day. Once they sent us to one barn to draw away the cops, and set off a bomb at another. That got some attention. There was a kid named Attila who had one of the first video cameras I’d ever seen, and he got the Auto workers to pay him to do a documentary of the whole thing. I never saw it. It was a very cool introduction to working class politics.

Several strike leaders went to jail for reasonably short times because they would go up in the mountains and take pot shots at scabbing truckers. We went to their trial and supported them with our little newspaper. These efforts were appreciated and when they got sprung we were invited to the out of jail party, at which I order a Coors (scab, unknown to me) beer and got unmercifully kidded about it and had to drink it with about 50 guys watching me, laughing their asses off at my newbyness at union movement stuff. SWAC boiled down to about 25-30 regulars after the Teamster strike ended (in defeat, of course) who then got lost in search of more strikes to support. Meanwhile, lots of us graduated (or so we thought) to the IS, which with WWP was the only tendency to consistently view the radicals in SWAC as recruitment material. Through people we met in the strike we later got wind of a pension reform group called $500 at 50, whose initial meeting in Grover E.(Curly) Best’s garage Steve Kindred and I attended. They had no trouble spotting us for ringers, but they didn’t care, we were good kids as far as they were concerned, and they took us along to a national rank-and-file gathering in Toledo, Ohio where we were the only ones with a mimeo machine, which Kindred and I transported from LA in a 45-hour non-stop (except to pee) drive. This little grouping blew up in no time at all, but it was the direct precursor to Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and Ken Paff, its longtime organizer, was a Bay Area ISer who, in my view at the time, vamped on our group to do his own thing. It’s all pretty boring after that.

Those days will return. Trust me. You can’t keep kicking someone while they are down, especially when they number in the tens of millions and the people doing the kicking are in the thousands. If “Pride” succeeds in reminding a mass audience of how such things come about, it will be making a great contribution—not to speak of the wonderful music and dancing.

 

September 26, 2014

Two Days, One Night

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 12:38 pm

The Existential Crisis of Work

by LOUIS PROYECT

Yesterday I attended a press screening for “Two Days, One Night”, the latest Dardenne brothers movie that plays on October 5th and 6th at the New York Film Festival and that should open eventually at better theaters everywhere. The Belgians are blessed to have such talents at their disposal while we are stuck with the Coens.

“Two Days, One Night” refers to the time frame in which Sandra (Marion Cotillard) must convince a majority of her sixteen fellow workers to forgo a bonus of 1000 Euro so that she will be able to continue working at Solwal, a small solar panel manufacturer that is part of the new alternative energy sector that is the leading edge of a Third Industrial Revolution if you believe the hype. For the poorly paid and unorganized workers at SolWal, it is much more like the situation Engels described in “Conditions of the Working Class in England”, an 1844 work that was the first to describe a life of insecurity and want. Although the SolWal workers live in pleasant looking apartments or detached houses and drive around in recent model cars, every one of them tells Sandra the same tale of woe. They are counting on the bonus to pay doctor bills, rent, or other necessities, not to buy a Missoni suit or Manolo Blahnik shoes.

 

read full article

September 25, 2014

Thoughts on a Bernie Sanders campaign

Filed under: electoral strategy — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

 

Yesterday someone emailed me with this query:

I hope you don’t mind me writing to ask you your opinion of this:

http://www.socialistalternative.org/2014/04/16/bernie-sanders-for-president-in-2016-2/

For myself, I didn’t see anything wrong with it; I’m aware that Bernie Sanders is not actually a socialist, but I think it’s important for there to be some kind of left opposition in electoral politics, even if (at the moment) it comes from social democrats. And if Socialist Alternative wants to lend him critical support, so much the better, because it opens up further left perspectives.

At least, that’s how my thinking went. I was roundly criticized by some comrades, and now I’m not sure what I think. Is Bernie Sanders the kind of compromise/opportunism that is detrimental to a working-class movement?

Since others might have the same sort of questions, I will be replying publicly.

Although I doubt there is much of a chance that Bernie Sanders would ever run as an Independent, I agree with the article in Socialist Alternative newspaper urging him to do so. The comrades make their case this way:

Bernie Sanders has stated that he wants a dialogue with progressive activists before deciding on whether to run for president and on whether he should stand as an independent or within the framework of the Democratic Party. As a first step, we would urge Bernie to organize a genuinely representative national conference of progressive, community, and labor organizations to discuss the way forward in late 2014 or early 2015. This conference could become the focus to galvanize all those who want to build a new authentic working-class politics in America. Such momentum would, we hope, persuade Bernie Sanders to take the historic step of running as an independent left candidate for the presidency in 2016.

My view is that the shortcomings of a Bernie Sanders or a Ralph Nader are more than compensated for by their willingness to challenge the Democrats and Republicans that retain a vice-like grip on American electoral politics. When you make the “program” of a candidate the litmus test, there will no doubt be grounds for finding fault with someone like Nader whose vision of a future society boils down to a kind of Capraesque Jeffersonian democracy. Sanders at least speaks of socialism but it is in reality a Scandinavian welfare state that he has in mind. But at least it has the possibility of getting the average person to get past the austerity logic of the two major capitalist parties.

There’s a tendency for some on the left to dismiss third party campaigns if the candidate has a background as a more or less conventional elected official. When I joined the SWP in 1967, I learned that the party treated Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party presidential bid as a diversion. They derided it as “middle class” and pointed out that Wallace was a member of FDR’s cabinet. How could the left support a candidate that was a member of a government that had dropped A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? You get some of the same objections to Sanders who backed NATO intervention in Yugoslavia. Despite the many articles I wrote opposing that intervention, I’d have no problem backing Sanders.

Your query reminded me that I had a blog post I meant to write that touches on some of the same issues. Eric Blanc wrote an article titled “Defying the democrats: Marxists and the lost labor party of 1923” that appears on John Riddell’s website. It is a fascinating study of how an earlier generation of socialists dealt with the same issues. I agree with much of what Blanc writes but have a different assessment of the La Follette campaign of 1924 that anticipates both the Henry Wallace and Ralph Nader campaigns, and one that might be run by Bernie Sanders if the stars align properly.

The first paragraph of Eric’s article shows that he has made the same kinds of connections:

Discussions on how to break working people from the hold of the Democratic Party have acquired a new immediacy as a result of the recent electoral victories of independent working-class candidates in Seattle, Washington, and Lorraine, Ohio, as well as the campaign for Chicago union leader Karen Lewis to run as an independent for mayor. Those interested in promoting independent politics today may benefit from studying the rich experience of the labor party movement of the early 1920s.

Despite the readiness of a labor leader by the name of Frank Fitzgerald to form a Labor Party, American Communists initially rejected such a proposal because it did not go far enough. They reflected the ultraleftism that Lenin polemicized against in his 1920 article. After being convinced by Lenin that a more patient approach was necessary, the CP endorsed and participated in a 1923 conference organized by Fitzgerald.

Unfortunately a rival faction in the Communist movement known as the Workers Party led by John Pepper that was incurably ultraleft. It engineered a split that amounted to what we in the SWP used to call “capturing yourself”. The Workers Party pushed through a resolution forming a Farmer-Labor Party but its use of organizational muscle alienated labor unions and SP’ers who walked out.

The energy behind Fitzgerald’s initial proposal eventually fed into the La Follette campaign. It is clear that Eric agrees with much of the left that it was not worth supporting, even if it initially received the blessing of the Comintern and the CP itself. Eric writes:

In reaction to the adventures of Pepper, and under pressure from the new Comintern leadership headed by Grigory Zinoviev, the Communists dropped their labor party orientation and gave their support to La Follette. Cannon recalled: “The cold fact is that the party … became, for period in 1924, the advocate of a ´third party´ of capitalism, and offered to support, under certain conditions, the presidential candidacy of the petty-bourgeois candidate La Follette .… The bewildered party disgraced itself in this affair.”

Trotsky sharply criticized the U.S. party and the Comintern leadership, arguing that they were bending to La Follette and cross-class politics: “For a young and weak Communist Party, lacking in revolutionary temper, to play the role of solicitor and gatherer of ‘progressive voters’ for the Republican Senator Lafollette is to head toward the political dissolution of the party in the petty-bourgeoisie.… The inspirers of this monstrous opportunism … are thoroughly imbued with skepticism concerning the American proletariat.”

Pepper was the leader of the Workers Party while Cannon was a leader of the rival Communist faction that agreed with Lenin that Fitzgerald’s Labor Party was worth supporting. However, he would not go along with supporting Senator La Follette, who was a long-time member of the Republican Party and even more objectionable than Henry Wallace, who was at least a liberal Democrat.

Eric Blanc has been strongly influenced against the La Follette campaign by a member of the Socialist Organizer group named Stan Phipps who wrote an article titled “The Labor Party Question in the U.S., 1828-1930: An Historical Perspective.” (www.socialistorganizer.org/labor-party-history-chapter-7/). It is basically a reaffirmation of Cannon’s critique. But Phipps goes the extra mile and dismisses Frank Fitzgerald’s efforts as well, basically dusting off the Worker Party’s sterile ultraleftism:

As a result of the cross-class make up of the invited delegates, the “call” for the Conference explicitly stated that the CPPA was not an attempt to form a new political party. Rather, the stated purpose was to bring together the “progressive elements in the industrial and political life of our nation” in order “to discuss and adopt a fundamental economic platform” (MacKay: 61). The CPPA’s so-called “Address to the American People” adopted at the end of the session, therefore, consisted of little more than a series of vague generalizations and platitudes. In addition to a rather routine indictment of “the invisible government of plutocracy and privilege,” the “Address” rather mildly stated the criticisms of existing conditions and proposed a “plan of action” that allowed each organization to do precisely what it would have done had the conference not met.

A word or two about Socialist Organizer might help put this into perspective. It is the American satellite of a self-styled Fourth International that was founded by the late Pierre Lambert. It can be described as ortho-Trotskyist and a group much given to labeling parties and movements as “petty bourgeois” if you gather my drift.

In an effort to understand what the La Follette campaign amounted to, I read James P. Cannon but also some scholarly material that focused more on the history than on well-worn Marxist categories. I found David Thelen’s “Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit” most useful. Here is something I wrote in 2000 based on my reading of Thelen. I hope you find it useful:

At first the Communists looked favorably on the La Follette initiative, couching it in sectarian phraseology: “The creation of a Third Party is a revolutionary fact,” John Pepper explained, “but it is a counter-revolutionary act to help such a Third Party to swallow a class Farmer-Labor party.” Translated from jargon into English, this was Pepper’s way of saying that the Communists favored La Follette’s bid but only as a means to an end: their own victory at the head of the legions of the working class. La Follette was seen as a Kerensky-like figure, who would be supported against a Czarist two-party system in an interim step toward American Bolshevik victory.

Despite the 1921 “united front” turn of the Comintern, a decision was made to instruct the Americans to break completely with La Follette. Not even critical support of the kind that Pepper put forward was allowed. It proposed that the CP run its own candidates or those of the rump Farmer-Labor party it now owned and controlled, lock, stock and barrel. Eight days after the CP opened up its guns on La Follette, he responded in kind and denounced Communism as “the mortal enemies of the progressive movement and democratic ideals.”

Looking back in retrospect, there is powerful evidence suggesting that the La Follette campaign had more in common with the working-class based Farmer-Labor Party that John Fitzpatrick had initiated than the kind of middle-class third party campaign a Republic Senator would be expected to mount.

La Follette first began to explore the possibility of running as an independent during the 1920 campaign, when a platform he submitted to Wisconsin delegates was reviled as “Bolshevik.” It included repeal of the Espionage and Sedition Acts, restoration of civil liberties, and abolition of the draft. On economic policy, it promised nationalization of the railroads, a key populist demand, and of natural resources and agricultural processing facilities. It also urged government sponsorship of farmer and worker organizations to achieve “collective bargaining” to control the products of their work. (They don’t make Republicans the way they used to.)

In 1921 radical farmer and labor organizations launched a common lobbying front in the People’s Legislative Service (PLS) and La Follette became its most prominent leader. The PLS received most of its funds from the railway unions. La Follette was convinced that taxation was the best way to remedy social inequality and his PLS speeches hammered away at this theme, in somewhat of the same manner that Nader’s stump speeches focus single-mindedly on corporate greed.

La Follette threw his hat in the ring in 1924 and attracted support from the same constellation of forces that had rallied to the railway union initiated CPPA (Conference for Progressive Political Action). They strongly identified with the British Labor Party and hoped that the La Follette campaign could lead in the same direction. At the July 4, 1924 CPPA convention, the labor and farmers organizations were joined by significant representation from the rising civil rights movement, especially the NAACP.

Soon afterwards, the Socialists formally endorsed the La Follette bid at their own convention on July 7. Intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois, Theodore Dreiser, Franz Boas, Thorstein Veblen, Margaret Sanger all endorsed La Follette. Unions supplied most of the organizational muscle for the campaign. Besides the rail unions, various Central Trades Councils threw themselves into the work. Charles Kutz, a machinists union official, became director of the La Follette campaign in Pennsylvania. NAACP support for La Follette was based on his opposition to “discrimination between races” and disavowal of the Ku Klux Klan that had been making inroads in the Democratic Party recently. His stance prompted the Grand Wizard of the KKK to declare La Follette as “the arch enemy of the nation.”

La Follette won 16.5 percent of the vote in 1924, as compared to 28.8 for the Democrat candidate John W. Davis and 54 percent for Coolidge. La Follette was old and sickly by the time the campaign began and its rigors took its toll. He died of a heart attack on June 18, 1925, four days after his seventieth birthday.

The La Follette campaign was the last significant third party effort in the United States until the 1948 Henry Wallace Progressive Party campaign. It is difficult to say whether it would have evolved into a fighting labor party, especially in light of the sectarian hostility of the CP. When Eugene V. Debs came out in support of La Follette, William Z. Foster blasted him for his “complete capitulation”. Debs fired back that he made his political decisions without having to rely on a “Vatican in Moscow.” The stung Foster replied, “We make no apology for accepting the guidance of the Third International. On the contrary, we glory in it.”

Perhaps a glimmer of reality would eventually creep into the Comintern’s thinking. The significant labor and black support for La Follette could not be ignored. In 1925, after taking a second look at the La Follette campaign, it decided that the 16.5 percent vote was “an important victory” for the American left, an implied rebuke to earlier sectarian attitudes.

 

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