January 31, 2013
When I first began getting invitations to press screenings for Sony Picture Classics’ “The Gatekeepers”, my first reaction was to assume that it was similar to “The Law in These Parts”, the Israeli documentary that is based on interviews with the military judges responsible for creating Nuremberg type legal codes that made the Palestinians the modern equivalent of Jews under Nazi rule.. That film allowed the judges to hang themselves on their own petards as they offered self-vindicating rationales for bending the law to suit the needs of the settlers. It was all about combating “terrorism”.
I probably should have figured out that Sony was not likely to be distributing anything like that. The CEO of Sony Entertainment is one Michael Lynton who is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Furthermore, Sony produced “Zero Dark Thirty”, a film that is related to “The Gatekeepers” after a fashion.
But the closest relative to “The Gatekeepers” is Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”, which allows the war criminal to shed crocodile tears over his “mistakes” in Vietnam. Surely, if the U.S. were able to stabilize a puppet government in South Vietnam, Morris would have not had material to work with. By the same token, if Israel did not have to contend with continuing Palestinian resistance, the Shin Bet chiefs whose interviews form the substance of Israeli director Dror Moreh’s film, would have had no reason to take part in a film that reflects Israeli “dove” nervousness about the settler state’s future.
The Shin Bet is Hebrew for the Israel Security Agency, founded in 1948. It is responsible for controlling the Arabs internally while the Mossad has the same kind of job externally. They are analogous to the FBI and the CIA respectively.
The men interviewed by Moreh agonize not so much about the Zionist project (who would expect them to) but about its difficulties, something they blame on both the unruly Palestinians and the Israeli ultraright. Terrorism of both the Hamas variety and Israeli ultrarightists of the sort who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin are obstacles to a “solution” of the Palestinian problem.
Moreh is content to allow these men to pontificate about their career with hardly any effort made to put them on the spot for illegal detention, torture, or murder. For example, in one interview, the matter of a handcuffed Palestinian being beaten to death in the aftermath of a bus hijacking is raised with Avraham Shalom, who ran Shin Bet from 1980 to 1986. When Shalom defends this obvious criminal act, Moreh does little to follow up with additional questions about what this says about Israeli “democracy”. One can hardly escape feeling that while obviously being appalled by IDF war crimes Moreh attributes them to a state of affairs forced upon a peace-loving but besieged people.
In a very shrewd review of “Zero Dark Thirty”, Israeli film reviewer Noam Sheizaf describes the changing character of his country’s film industry in recent years in words that are just as applicable to a documentary like “The Gatekeepers” as it is to narrative films:
Sometime in the late 1960s, Israeli cinema stopped producing heroic war stories – the kind of action or drama movies where the protagonist serves his country, noble against a powerful and cruel enemy. The quantity of other such works of fiction – in literature, for example – dropped as well. Which, when you think about it, is kind of weird for a country that has a war every few years and needs to reinforce its own ethos. Instead, Israeli popular culture started producing a different genre – that of the confessions. Here, the protagonists or story-tellers were usually trying to come to terms with the terrible things they were forced to do to – by their COs, by politicians or by circumstances, but never of their own choice. The genre even earned a name: “shooting and crying. “ It all seemed brave – but it wasn’t, since our heroes never assumed responsibility for their actions. The real perpetrators were others: generals, right-wing radicals, fools – and sometimes it was simply the Arab’s fault. And sure enough, all those groups didn’t make movies. It was the lefty cultural elites that needed absolution, or at least explanation for the things they did (with much enthusiasm) – usually while continuing to do them. Today I would rather have a right wing that is proud of the occupation than an agonized lefty. You don’t want to do something, don’t do it. In the left-wing protests in recent years you can often hear chants of, “don’t shoot, don’t cry – get out of the territories now,” urging people to take responsibility for their actions.
Moreh appeared on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now on January 29th to promote his film that opens tomorrow at the Lincoln Plaza in New York and at the Film Forum on February 20th.
She asks Moreh to respond to this:
In this clip, former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter discusses an Israeli bombing of a home in Gaza in July 2002. The attack killed Salah Shehadeh, the head of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza, but also 14 innocent civilians, including Shehadeh’s wife and daughter and a family of seven living next door. Dozens were also wounded. The attack occurred just as Shehadeh was reportedly preparing to sign onto a ceasefire halting attacks on Israelis not in the Occupied Territories.
This is what he said:
Well, look, I—I have to say that I a little bit feel uncomfortable in the way that you present the things here, because you portray the things as if Israel is the brutal, aggressive all the time, with the Palestinians, that they are like doves. There is reason why the Shin Bet is doing what it’s doing there. And the fact of the matter is that you cannot say—in a way, portray Israel as the aggressive and the Palestinians are the innocent bystander who are always being killed by those aggressive forces. It’s not the case at all, and I think that this is misleading the people that are watching that.
NY Times January 29, 2013
Butch Morris Dies at 65; Creator of ‘Conduction’
By BEN RATLIFF
Butch Morris, who created a distinctive form of large-ensemble music built on collective improvisation that he single-handedly directed and shaped, died on Tuesday in Brooklyn. He was 65.
The cause was cancer, said Kim Smith, his publicist and friend. Mr. Morris, who lived in the East Village, died at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Fort Hamilton.
Mr. Morris referred to his method as “conduction,” short for “conducted improvisation.” He defined the word, which he trademarked, as “an improvised duet for ensemble and conductor.”
He would often begin a performance by setting a tempo with his baton and having his musicians develop a theme spontaneously and then seize on the musical ideas he wanted to work with, directing the ensemble with a vocabulary of gestures and signals. An outstretched upward palm, up or down to indicate volume, meant sustain; a U shape formed with thumb and forefinger meant repeat; a finger to the forehead meant to remember a melodic phrase or a rhythm that he would summon again later.
He introduced this concept in 1985 and at first met resistance from musicians who were not willing to learn the vocabulary and respond to the signals; he was often in a position of asking artists to reorient themselves to his imagination and make something new out of familiar materials. But he demanded to be taken seriously, and he was. After 10 years he had made enough recordings to release “Testament,” a well-received 10-disc set of his work. After 20, he had become an internationally admired creative force, presenting conductions at concert halls worldwide and maintaining regular workshops and performances at the East Village spaces Nublu, Lucky Cheng’s and the Stone.
Mr. Morris, who also played cornet, began his career as a jazz musician in Los Angeles. After settling in New York in the early 1980s, he took his place among both the downtown improvising musicians of the Kitchen and the Knitting Factory and the purveyors of multidisciplinary, mixed-media art flourishing in the city.
Though the bulk of his conductions were with those trained in jazz or new music, many different kinds of performers could take part, as long as they had learned his method. (Five days of rehearsal was his preference.) Conduction No. 1, “Current Trends in Racism in Modern America,” was performed in 1985, at the Kitchen, with a 10-piece ensemble including the saxophonists John Zorn and Frank Lowe, the turntablist Christian Marclay and the composer Yasunao Tone. Others were for full classical orchestras; electronic instruments and music boxes; dancers, actors and visual artists; and gatherings of 19 poets (No. 27) or 15 trumpets (No. 134).
Mr. Morris occasionally used written music or texts, by himself or others — he did this with the saxophonist David Murray’s big band and octet in the early 1990s, and in more recent years with the group Burnt Sugar, an ensemble influenced by his methods, for which he conducted a version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” — but most often he used no written material at all.
In decades of workshops around the world, and for a stretch, from 1998 to 2001, at Bilgi University in Istanbul, he taught his signals and gestures. Some of these were common to all conductors; some were adapted from the California jazz bandleaders Horace Tapscott and Charles Moffett, whom he had known early in his career (he also cited Sun Ra, Lukas Foss and Larry Austin’s “Improvisations for Orchestra and Jazz Soloists’’ as influences); many were his own.
He said he didn’t care whether people thought his music was jazz or not, although he himself saw it as derived from jazz but not beholden to it. “As long as I’m a black man playing a cornet,” he reasoned, “I’ll be a jazz musician in other people’s eyes. That’s good enough for me. There’s nothing wrong with being called a jazz musician.”
Lawrence Douglas Morris was born in Long Beach, Calif., on Feb. 10, 1947, and grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The son of a career Navy man, he played trumpet in school orchestra, and after high school copied big-band arrangements for a Los Angeles music studio. In 1966 he served in the Army, as a medic in Germany, Vietnam and Japan. Once back home, he joined Mr. Tapscott’s big band, a creative and social hub in the Los Angeles experimental-jazz scene.
After studying music at Grove Street College in Oakland, Calif., he briefly moved to New York. In 1976 he left to play and teach music in France and the Netherlands. In 1981 he relocated permanently to New York, not long after his brother Wilber, the bassist through the 1980s and early ’90s in David Murray’s octet, did.
Wilber Morris died in 2002. Mr. Morris is survived by a son, Alexandre; a brother Michael; and a sister, Marceline. His marriage to Therese Christophe ended in divorce last year.
Conduction, with all its logistical complications and no institutional system to support it, was never a steady source of income. Mr. Morris also taught and sought commissions; he wrote music for dancers, including Min Tanaka, Diane McIntyre and Yoshiko Chuma; he worked as musical director for the short-lived ABC crime series “A Man Called Hawk”; he wrote original music for Ntozake Shange’s play “Spell #7” and for the Wooster Group and the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington.
One of his projects, in the early 1990s, was writing music for windup music boxes, for which he asked visual artists he knew — including David Hammons, A. R. Penck, Betye and Alison Saar, and Michael Hafftka — to create the outer shells. But he insisted that the artists not think of them as music boxes. “I tell them, ‘I don’t want to think in terms of boxes,’ ” he explained. “I want to think of them as resonating containers.”
January 30, 2013
From the liner notes of Moby’s “Everything is Wrong” CD recorded in 2000:
- in the past 20 years approximately 1 million species have disappeared from the world’s tropical forests.
- from 1960-1985 over 40% of the Central American rainforests were destroyed to create grazing land for cattle.
- the United States imports over 100,000 tons of beef from Central America each year.
- it takes 23 gallons of water to produce a pound of tomatoes, it takes 5,214 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef.
- one acre of land can produce 20,000 pounds of potatoes. one acre of land can produce 165 pounds of beef.
- the U.S. cattle industry produces 158 million tons of waste per year.
- livestock production is the #1 cause of water pollution in the U.S.
- 22 million acres of land have become unusable due to desertification.
- 85% of the topsoil loss in the U.S. is the result of livestock production.
- in the U.S. 33% of ALL raw material consumption is used solely in the production of meat, egg, and dairy products.
- it takes 1 pound of grain to make 1 pound of bread.
- it takes 20 pounds of grain to make 1 pound of beef.
- 75% of the grain sent to 3rd world nations goes to livestock production.
- the countries with the highest in animal products are also the countries with the highest rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, etc. 50 percent of men who eat meat regularly die of heart disease.
- 4 percent of men who eat no animal products die of heart disease.
- 80% of USDA chicken inspectors no longer eat chicken.
- if the average commuter passenger load in the U.S. were increased by just 1 person per day we would save 33 million gallons of gas each day. Americans spend over 1 billion hours stuck in traffic each year.
- 30% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from cars.
- air is sold in Mexico city for $1.15 a minute by sidewalk vendors.
- what Greenpeace spends in a year general motors spends in 4 hours.
- 3.5 million children under the age of 6 suffer from lead poisoning.
- in Europe 50% of the cars still use leaded gas.
- 2 million gallons of motor oil are dumped in American waterways each year.
- over 8 million tons of oil are spilled into the world’s oceans every year.
- 5 billion gallons of water are flushed each day in the united states
- sewage treatment facilities in the U.S. discharge 5.9 trillion gallons of sewage wastewater into coastal waters every year.
- U.S. tuna fishermen are permitted to kill over 20,000 dolphins every year.
- 2 million sharks die in driftnets in the north pacific every year.
- only 1 in 10 baby chimpanzees survive the trip from the jungle to the zoo.
- 1 billion animals are killed each year in experiments.
- 17 million animals are trapped in the U.S. each year for fur.
- many traps are so painful that animals chew through their own limbs to escape.
- for every fur animal trapped two other animals (dogs, cats, deer, etc.) are trapped and killed.
- in 1987 450,000 minks died on fur farms from heat exhaustion. 1 ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees, 7,000 gallons of water, & enough energy to heat the average home for 6 months.
- six times more jobs are created by recycling as opposed to landfill operations.
- the amount of money spent on trash disposal in American schools is equal to that spent on new textbooks.
- out of every $10 that Americans spend on food, $1 pays for packaging.
- 65% of garbage in the U.S. is packaging.
- 50% of all trash thrown away could be recycled into new products.
- 500 new dumps are built each year in the united states.
- over 1 billion trees are used to make disposable diapers every year.
- Americans throw away 20 billion disposable diapers each year.
- Americans dump the equivalent of 21 million shopping bags full of food into landfills every year.
- 2.5 billion batteries are thrown away each year by Americans.
- over 700,000 tons of hazardous waste is produced in the U.S. every day.
- Americans throw away 10 million cigarette lighters every week.
- 500,000 people die of cigarette related diseases in the U.S. each year.
- pesticides that are banned in the U.S. (such as ddt) are regularly sold to third world countries.
- 90% of all food borne pesticides are found in meat and dairy products.
- 10% of nursing mothers who were vegetarians had ddt in their breast milk.
- 90% of nursing mothers who were meat eaters had ddt in their breast milk.
- in 1945, before widespread pesticides were use, U.S. corn growers lost 3% of their crops to insects, last year they lost over 12%.
- 74 different kinds of pesticides have been found in drinking water.
- over 100 chemical contaminants have been found in the breast milk of nursing mothers in the U.S.
- of the 34 chemicals most widely used on lawns, 25% are widely believed to cause birth defects, genetic mutation, and cancer.
- Americans spend 6 billion dollars on their lawns each year.
- 25% of U.S. nuclear reactors would not be able to contain a core breach meltdown.
- a 1985 study predicted a 45% chance of core breach meltdown in the U.S. before 2005. in 1992, 430,000 people in the world died from cancers resulting from nuclear testing radiation.
- more money is spent in the U.S. on nuclear weaponry in one year than was spent on housing from 1980-1992.
- to date, cleaning up storage facilities for nuclear debris has cost taxpayers 200 billion dollars.
- in 1989 the U.S. military used 200 billion barrels of oil, enough to keep all American public transit systems running for 22 years.
- 1 ton of toxic waste is produced by the U.S. military every minute.
by Pham Binh on January 30, 2013
Before dealing with what passes for substance in Callinicos’ defense of “Leninism,” one thing needs to be made clear: the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) does not “organise the way the Bolsheviks organised under Lenin’s leadership in the years leading up to the October Revolution.”
The Bolsheviks were a continuously existing faction of a broader multi-tendency Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) for nearly 20 years until factions were banned at the 10th party congress in 1921. The SWP bans factions during 9 out of 12 months of the year on pain of expulsion.
In the Bolsheviks’ party,1 the RSDLP, which changed its name to the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) in 1918, branches enjoyed local autonomy not just over when and where to hold paper sales but over political decisions like election tactics. Not so for the SWP.
January 29, 2013
(The article is unsigned but presumably from an SWP member.)
Is Zinovievism finished? A reply to Alex Callinicos
Alex Callinicos’ article on the crisis in the SWP purports to be a defence of Leninism in the face of a ‘flood of attacks’ – by which Alex means the crisis that has engulfed the party over the mishandled investigation of allegations of rape and sexual harassment against a Central Committee member.
The piece does nothing of the sort, but is rather an encapsulation of the flaws that have brought us to this pass. It is clearly intended as an opening salvo in the CC’s response to the growing opposition within the party. In particular it draws on the long tradition of dealing with dissent over particular issues by means of the absurd implication that that dissent is an attack on the heritage of the October revolution, accompanied by an airy dismissal of the actual facts. This maneouvre assumes the following equivalences: that ‘revolutionary party’ means the model of democratic centralism adopted by the SWP in the 1970s, that this model replicates that of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the decisions of the current leadership therefore embody the legitimacy of that revolution, which we can expect to be replicated in the conditions of the UK in the 21st century. This is pure substitutionalism – and on its own measure of providing ‘strong interventionist leadership’ is a complete failure.
First of all, take note that this is the first public intervention by a CC member, with the exception of the re-posting of an internal Party Notes statement. Alex’s article is clearly similarly aimed at an internal audience: no one could use these arguments in their workplace to defend the SWP, for which the ‘strong interventionist’ leadership is supposed to provide the means. If members doubt this, they might test it in practice. When asked about allegations of a rape cover up in the SWP, by a workmate or fellow student or union activist, give Alex Callinicos’s answer: euphemise about a ‘difficult disciplinary case’ and then mention that Owen Jones is a Labour supporter. See if that works. See if the Party still has their respect next time it launches an initiative. Then consider that the CC, having brought about this situation by their decisions, expect you to do what they will not, which is defend it in public.
Of course, it may be possible that your activist or trade unionist comrade has simply been misled by the gossip and half-truths of the ‘dark side of the internet’. Incidentally, this blimpish insult is a disgrace: it implies that comrades concerned about the treatment of an allegation of rape and sexual harassment within the SWP are equivalent to child pornographers and 401 scammers. Alex brushes aside the offline ‘real world’ motions calling for an emergency conference passed (at the time of writing) at 8 SWP branches, the motions critical of the CC passed at a further 8 and the statements of opposition issued by 13 SWSS groups. But what are the internet lies and half-truths? Alex does not tell us, but instead attempts to introduce into circulation an evasive euphemism by referring only to a ‘disciplinary case’. Everyone knows this is an allegation of rape and sexual harassment. What are the ‘lies’ circulating about it? Are they:
1) That a complaint was made in July 2010 against comrade Delta? Alex may rely on the bureaucratic claim that no formal complaint was made to the Disputes Commission: this contradicts basic common sense as well as the introduction given by the DC member who opened the 2013 conference session, who referred to an ‘informal complaint’ in July 2010 and mentioned ‘how the complaint was handled in 2010.’
2) That the nature of this complaint was obfuscated and the impression given that it was merely a case of unhappiness in a failed relationship? If so, why did the CC use conference time on a personal matter?
3) That the disputes commission into the complaint issued in September 2012 contained 5 close colleagues and associates of comrade Delta, and 2 members of the Central Committee on which he sat?
4) That one member of the DC found that it was likely that Comrade Delta had committed sexual harassment and that the rest found the case ‘not proven’ not that Delta was exonerated as a ‘member in good standing’? The DC ruled ‘not guilty’ on the charge of rape: they therefore distinguished between ‘not guilty’ and ‘not proven’. This implies that the CC believe that a member whom the DC consider may be a sexual harasser – to a degree significant enough not to be given the protection of a ‘not guilty’ decision – is still ‘in good standing.’
5) That the complainant was denied the right to put her side of the case to conference in 2013?
6) That a second woman, having complained of sexual harassment by Delta, did not have confidence in the DC to deal with her complaint because of the way in which it had dealt with the first case?
7) That the women involved were asked questions about their drinking and relationship habits? They claim to have been: if Alex denies this, he is saying they are liars, not the internet.
Which of these are lies? If they are not lies, how on earth are comrades meant to defend these points to the class? Perhaps we are to rely on the notion that SWP members possess a ‘political morality’ that ensures they adjudicate correctly whether their comrades have raped someone. Try that also –there is no way it would be accepted by anyone outside the SWP, and hopefully not by many within it. Would you accept that argument of any other organization? It cannot withstand scrutiny from our own comrades in the (avowedly Leninist) sister organisations of the International Socialist Tendency, leading members of which are now participating in a boycott of SWP events and publications – let alone the wider layers of the class and its organisations which we formerly called ‘our periphery’ but to which Alex now refers as ‘Owen Jones and his like’.
What has this to do with the defence of Leninism? It is linked, although not in the way that Alex imagines: that because the conference voted for (by a handful of votes and not a majority of the delegates) the DC report, the matter is now closed. Alex simply makes a banal statement about majority votes being binding (as they are in Trade Unions, rugby clubs, Parliament, corporate AGMs…) without specifying the actual debate that is currently going on. It is the current model of party organization in the SWP that leads to the disconnection from reality behind the defence of Comrade Delta and the paralytic response to the crisis it has engendered. Alex suggests that this model bears the legitimacy of the October revolution and that those who depart from it have abandoned the project of working-class revolution. Let us state clearly: this claim is false. The Bolshevik leadership of 1917 was elected individually. There was no ban on factions. On the eve of the October Revolution, Zinoviev and Kamenev publicly opposed the insurrection in Maxim Gorky’s newspaper (the ‘dark side’ of the printing press, perhaps) and resigned from the Bolshevik Central Committee. They were not expelled from the Party.
The model operated currently by the SWP is not that of the Bolshevik revolution. It is a version of the Zinovievite model adopted during the period of “Bolshevisation” in the mid-1920s and then honed by ever smaller and more marginal groups. When Alex implies that somehow we have developed a ‘distilled’ version of Bolshevik democratic centralism he is not holding to the tradition of October: it is asking us to choose the model that has led to three of the most serious crises in the SWP’s history in quick succession over the model that actually did lead the October revolution.
Alex concedes in passing that there are different models of democratic centralism, but ends by effectively arguing that there is really only one: the model which currently exists in the SWP. But merely invoking the term “democratic centralism” does not tell you anything about which level of decision get made by which people, how frequently decisions are made or what mechanisms should exist for review, let alone how to elect a Central Committee or of whom it should be consist. Two examples will show how our current model is weighted towards centralism at the expense of democracy.
The first is in relation to decision making. According to the theory, conference discusses and decides (democracy) and then comrades, including those who opposed the agreed position, carry out the decisions (centralism). Fine: but what does conference actually decide? It is presented with a series of general perspective documents which are usually so bland and platitudinous that it is virtually impossible to disagree with them: the economic crisis is not going to be resolved, times are hard but there are also opportunities, we must not be complacent over the threat of fascism, and so on. To agree with this kind of statement is not to make a decision over strategy or tactics, or anything specific enough for the CC to be held to account. The real decisions about actual policy – to establish united fronts, to join electoral coalitions – are almost always made by the CC itself between conferences, with conference asked to ratify them after the event.
The second is in relation to the composition of the CC. The CC self-selects: it has an agreed political perspective; when someone dies or resigns it chooses as replacements comrades who agree – or who are thought to agree – with that perspective; at no point is the chain ever broken by open political debate. And if the perspective is wrong? The problems extend to the membership of the CC. What are the requirements of a potential CC member? There are apparently two: that they should live in or around London and that – with a handful of exceptions – they are full-time employees of the party. So – the comrades who are eligible for membership of the CC are those who until their selection have been paid to carry out the decisions of the previous CC and who, because they tend to have been students beforehand, rarely have any direct experience of the class struggle. How can a leadership this narrow be capable of forming an accurate perspective?
To deal with one diversionary objection: to complain about the composition of the CC is not to demand that ‘federalist’ structure. We do not want a CC in which its members represent trade unionists, or community activists or students – but we do want a CC which embodies the actual experience of these groups. Some roles on the CC can only ever be carried out by full-timers, notably the editor of Socialist Worker and the national Secretary, but the balance should always be towards those for whom the experience of the “real world” is inescapable.
After the catastrophes of the last five years a measure of humility would also be welcome. Alex is part of the ‘strong, interventionist’ leadership that has presided over this disaster with no effective response, following on from a period of near permanent crisis that began with the failure of the Respect adventure – for which Alex surely also bears some collective responsibility, as a member of the CC at the time. When will this strong, interventionist leadership ever hold itself responsible for what happens on its watch? What do they think has gone wrong? If they can’t manage this, how will they cope in a revolution?
We agree with Alex that the SWP is the best hope for developing a revolutionary party in in Britain. It has at least two great historic achievements to its credit in the Anti-Nazi League and its successors, and the Stop the War Coalition – movements which actually helped to change aspects of British society for the better, particularly in relation to racism. They are among the reasons why have remained members in spite of the obstacles which successive leaderships have thrown up to democracy in the party. But if the SWP is ever to achieve its full potential the current situation cannot be allowed to continue.
Alex reiterates that if the SWP did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. We agree – and that for the party to continue to exist, it is necessary to reinvent it. This is not alien to our tradition: perhaps it is best to leave the last word to one of its brightest lights, David Widgery in his review of the third volume of Cliff’s biography of Lenin:
“The blossoming-blighting process which Cliff documents froze over Leninism and only mass revolutionary working-class action is able to melt it from its icy limbo. Lenin is therefore trapped in his moment, surrounded by a thicket and awaiting political rescue: ‘An old communist conceives an embryo of longing’. One day, his Modern Prince will come. Until he is woken with the proletarian kiss, the problem is not that Leninism has failed, but that it has not been tried.”
The time for Leninism to be tried is now long overdue.
Dear Ms. Sullivan,
After reading the hatchet job on Hugo Chavez by Alberto Barrera Tyszka and Cristina Marcano in last Tuesday’s op-ed page, I decided to check the paper’s archives (I am a subscriber) to see if there is a general trend.
I was shocked to discover that a certain Francisco Toro blogs at http://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/. He can best be described as having the same relationship to Venezuela that someone like the Miami expatriate community has to Cuba: frothing-at-the-mouth hostility. I suppose that the paper might excuse itself for offering him a blog to spout his propaganda if it didn’t have such a terrible record in its Venezuela reportage.
In doing a bit of digging on Mr. Toro, who received an MSc from the London School of Economics, I discovered that he resigned his from his reporting job in January 2003. Frankly, he should have never been hired in the first place. This is the letter he sent to his editor Patrick J. Lyons:
“After much careful consideration, I’ve decided I can’t continue reporting for the New York Times. As I examine the problem, I realize it would take much more than just pulling down my blog to address your conflict of interests concerns. Too much of my lifestyle is bound up with opposition activism at the moment, from participating in several NGOs, to organizing events and attending protest marches. But even if I gave all of that up, I don’t think I could muster the level of emotional detachment from the story that the New York Times demands. For better or for worse, my country’s democracy is in peril now, and I can’t possibly be neutral about that.”
I don’t know. It seems to me that any newspaper trying to persuade the world that it is impartial would have questioned Mr. Toro’s credentials from the get-go. But then again, hiring him was not the first instance of assigning someone to cover Venezuela with a clear animus toward Hugo Chavez.
In 2003 Al Giordano of Narco News provided this background (http://www.narconews.com/Issue30/article584.html) on Juan Forero, Mr. Toro’s predecessor:
• Also last April, New York Times reporter Juan Forero reported that President Chávez had “resigned” when, in fact, Chávez had been kidnapped at gunpoint. Forero did not source his knowingly false claim. Forero, on April 13, wrote a puff piece on dictator-for-a-day Pedro Carmona – installed by a military coup – as Carmona disbanded Congress, the Supreme Court, the Constitution and sent his shocktroops house to house in a round-up of political leaders in which sixty supporters of Chávez were assassinated. Later that day, after the Venezuelan masses took back their country block by block, Carmona fled the national palace and Chávez, the elected president, was restored to office.
• Forero – who, Narco News reported in 2001, allowed US Embassy officials to monitor his interviews with mercenary pilots in Colombia, without disclosing that fact in his article – was caught again last month in his unethical pro-coup activities in Venezuela. Narco News Associate Publisher Dan Feder revealed that Forero and LA Times reporter T. Christian Miller had written essentially the same story, interviewing the same two shopkeepers in a wealthy suburb of Caracas, and the same academic “expert” in a story meant to convince readers that a “general strike” was occurring in Venezuela. The LA Times Readers Representative later revealed that Forero and Miller interviewed the shopkeepers together. Neither disclosed that fact.
Now I understand that the NYT hires people like Toro and Forero for a reason. It has the same relationship to the U.S. State Department that Pravda had to the Kremlin. I suppose that the only solution to such incestuous ties is to work for the transformation of an economic system that allows—as A.J. Liebling once put it— freedom of the press to be guaranteed only to those who own one.
January 28, 2013
After a month’s worth of attack on the SWP leadership, including from its own members, Alex Callinicos has taken to the pages of Socialist Review (“Is Leninism Finished?”) to frame the fight in terms of a defense of Leninist orthodoxy. I think this is useful since it helps to crystallize the broader issues facing this fairly important group in Britain and the socialist movement internationally: is the “democratic centralist” model that is the hallmark of aspiring “vanguard” parties appropriate to our tasks today?
Just over 30 years ago the American SWP was going through a profound crisis involving the democratic rights of its membership. The Barnes leadership had decided to dump Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution overboard in a bid to make itself more acceptable to what it saw as an emerging new revolutionary international with Havana functioning as a pole of attraction. When many long-time members, including those who had worked closely with Trotsky, fought to have a debate over this change, Barnes decided to forgo a constitutionally mandated party convention and began expelling members on trumped-up charges.
I had left the SWP by this point but was so disturbed by these developments that I began calling comrades I respected. Les Evans was a member of a group of expelled members who hoped to resurrect the “good, old SWP”, a task tantamount to reassembling Humpty-Dumpty.
My next phone call was to Peter Camejo, who had been expelled mostly because he was an independent thinker popular with the membership–a terrible threat to the SWP’s leader. After he began figuring out that the party he had belonged to for decades was on a suicidal sectarian path, he took a leave of absence to go to Venezuela and read Lenin with fresh eyes. This was one of the first things he told me over the phone: “Louis, we have to drop the democratic centralism stuff”. That is what he got out of reading Lenin. I was convinced that he was right and spent the better part of the thirty years following our phone conversation spreading that message to the left.
In the early 80s it was a tougher sale to make. Back then orthodox Trotskyist parties, and ideologically heterodox parties like the British SWP, did little investigation into the actual history of the Russian social democracy and were content to follow organizational guidelines based on what someone like James P. Cannon filtered down to them through books such as “Struggle for a Proletarian Party” or Tony Cliff’s Lenin biography.
Largely through the efforts of Lars Lih, it has become more and more difficult to ignore the historical record. The publication of his 808 page Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context was like Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door in 1517, except in this case it was the door of the Marxist-Leninist church. Unlike Peter Camejo or me, Lih was not interested in building a new left. He was mainly interested in correcting the record. As a serious scholar with a deep command of the Russian language, he was quite capable of defending his thesis, namely that Lenin sought nothing more than to create a party based on the German social democracy in Russia. There was never any intention to build a new kind of party, even during the most furious battles with the Mensheviks who after all (as Lih convincingly makes the case) were simply a faction of the same broad party that Lenin belonged to.
The British SWP has been deferential to Lih, whose scholarship was beyond reproach, but at pains to dismiss its implications. The September 2010 issue of Historical Materialism organized a symposium on Lih’s research in which they made the case for “Leninism” as they understood it. While HM is largely inaccessible to the unwashed masses (where was Aaron Swartz when we needed him?), you can read SWP’er Paul Blackledge’s contribution at http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=218. We can assume that he was speaking for Callinicos and the SWP leadership when he wrote:
The novelty of this form of organisation was less than obvious in the early part of the last century, and Lih is right to point out that Lenin was attempting to build something like the German SPD in Russia. Nonetheless, it is also true that Lenin did succeed in building something different, and better, than the SPD. It is in this respect, I think that Lih is wrong to reject Georg Lukács’s interpretation of Lenin, upon which many of the activists have based their analyses.
When I first ran across the British SWP on the Internet back in the early 90s, I never would have dreamed that they would have ended up with such a horrible scandal on their hands. I was impressed with both their theoretical prowess and with their work in the British antiwar movement. My only caveat was that their organizational model would prevent them from breaking through a glass ceiling imposed by their sectarian habits. I put it this way:
I believe that the methodology of the [American] SWP was flawed from the outset. In its less lethal permutations, such as the Tony Cliff or Ted Grant variety or the SWP of the early 1970s, you end up with a “healthy” group but one that is destined to hit a glass ceiling because of its self-imposed “vanguardist” assumptions. In a nutshell, the group sees itself as the nucleus of the future revolutionary party no matter how much lip service is given to fusing with other groups during a prerevolutionary period, etc. In its more lethal versions, you end up with Gerry Healy or Jack Barnes where megalomania rules supreme.
Apparently some SWP members were grappling with the same problem as I discovered from a document written by Neil Davidson for their 2008 convention (it can be read on a blog devoted to a discussion of the SWP crisis. Davidson writes:
The problem is rather that there seems to be a limit beyond which the Party is unable to grow. In 1977, shortly after International Socialism (IS) had transformed itself into the SWP, Hallas wrote in The Socialist Register that “the SWP is ‘something approaching a small party’. But a small party has no merit unless it can become a much bigger party”.
I imagine that if Martin Smith had not been such a sexist pig, the SWP would have meandered along in this fashion for a number of years. Like a match thrown into a room filled with gasoline fumes, the rape incident and the Central Committee’s role in covering it up has provoked a crisis threatening the very existence of the party.
Returning to Callinicos’s article, I was struck by his exasperation over how “internal” party matters have spilled over into the Internet:
One thing the entire business has reminded us of is the dark side of the Internet. Enormously liberating though the net is, it has long been known that it allows salacious gossip to be spread and perpetuated – unless the victim has the money and the lawyers to stop it. Unlike celebrities, small revolutionary organisations don’t have these resources, and their principles stop them from trying to settle political arguments in the bourgeois courts.
In a nutshell, this is the same mindset that is on display at MIT, the elite institution that insisted on prosecuting Aaron Swartz for purloining JSTOR documents. Like the Gutenberg printing press that made possible generations of revolutionary-minded print publications like Iskra, the Internet is the communications medium for 21st century socialism. If anything has become clear, the “internal” documents of the SWP cannot be bottled up behind a firewall. In the same way that a Madonna video will make its way into Pirate’s Bay, some controversial SWP document will get leaked to the wretched Andy Newman’s Socialist Unity website. I am not even taking a position on whether this is reflecting the “dark side” of the Internet–only that this is the reality we operate under.
But more to the point, there really is no basis for revolutionary socialist organizations to keep their business internal. This was not the case in Lenin’s day, nor should it be the case today whether we are communicating through the printed page or on the Internet. This idea that we discuss our differences behind closed doors every couple of years during preconvention discussion was alien to the way that the Russian social democracy operated. They debated in public. We are obviously more familiar with Lenin’s open polemics with the Mensheviks that some might interpret as permissible given that a cold split had taken place (a false interpretation as Pham Binh and Lars Lih have pointed out.) But even within the Bolsheviks, there was public debate as demonstrated over their differences on whether the bourgeois press should be shut down.
In John Reed’s “10 Days that Shook the World”, there is a reference to divided votes among party members over key questions such as whether to expropriate the bourgeois press. At a November 17th 1917 mass meeting, Lenin called for the confiscation of capitalist newspapers. Reed quotes him: “If the first revolution had the right to suppress the Monarchist papers, then we have the right to suppress the bourgeois press.” He continues: “Then the vote. The resolution of Larin and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries was defeated by 31 to 22; the Lenin motion was carried by 34 to 24. Among the minority were the Bolsheviki Riazanov and Lozovsky, who declared that it was impossible for them to vote against any restriction on the freedom of the press.”
Get it? Lenin and Riazanov debated at a mass meeting and then voted against each other. This was normal Bolshevik functioning. All discipline meant was a deputy voting according to instructions from the party’s central committee, etc. For example, if Alex Callinicos was elected to Parliament and instructed to vote against funding the war in Iraq, and then voted for funding, the party would be entitled to expel him.
Instead, democratic centralism in the Fourth International parties, and in parties following such a model like Callinicos’s International Socialist Tendency, has meant something entirely different. Discipline has meant enforcing ideological conformity. For example, it would be virtually impossible for SWP members in Britain to take a position on Cuba identical to the American SWP’s and vice versa. As it turns out, this is a moot point since most members become indoctrinated through lectures and classes after joining the groups and tend to toe the line, often responding to peer pressure and the faith that their party leaders must know what is right.
Keeping watch on the ideological purity of the group leads to the formation of a priesthood that is in the best position to interpret the holy writings, whether of Trotsky, Tony Cliff, Ted Grant, or whoever. When they are also full-time functionaries, their power is magnified. For a rank-and-file member of such parties to raise a stink over some questionable strategy or tactic is almost unheard of. It takes something like a rape to get people mobilized apparently.
Virtually none of the latest thinking on the problematic of “democratic centralism” is reflected in Callinicos’s article. Instead he uses the term “Leninism” as a kind of shorthand for revolutionary politics that the SWP is defending against what he views as Owen Jones’s Labourite opportunism. Callinicos describes Jones as a “an increasingly high profile member of the Labour Party.” This is the same party that rests on a trade union leadership that “is a conservative force within the workers’ movement.” To cap it off, Callinicos draws from the same poisoned well that goes back to the Soviet Union of the 1920s:
Despite his radical rhetoric and the excellent stance he takes in the media on specific issues, Jones is defending an essentially conservative position, lining up with Labour and the trade union leaders.
In other words, Callinicos is resorting to the “scratch to gangrene” method of attack that is the hallmark of the Trotskyist movement going back to the late 1930s and to the Zinovievist Comintern of the 1920s, which Trotsky adopted as a model. It is basically a way of stigmatizing your adversary as reflecting “alien class forces”. To protect the integrity of the party, you must ward off the disease-carrying agents of the ruling class.
Jones has it right. This kind of disgusting “Leninist” politics belongs not only to the twentieth century but a socialist politics debased by the USSR’s “dark side”. We need a new way of functioning, one that is free from the sectarian “us versus them”, small proprietor mentality of groups like the SWP as currently constituted.
In Jones’s Independent article—as opposed to the straw man that Callinicos erected–he called for the following:
What is missing in British politics is a broad network that unites progressive opponents of the Coalition. That means those in Labour who want a proper alternative to Tory austerity, Greens, independent lefties, but also those who would not otherwise identify as political, but who are furious and frustrated. In the past two years of traipsing around the country, speaking to students, workers, unemployed and disabled people, I’ve met thousands who want to do something with their anger. Until now, I have struggled with an answer.
This is simply another way of stating that something like a British SYRIZA is necessary. Perhaps anticipating the struggle that has broken out now, Richard Seymour defended the Greek multi-tendency electoral formation in an open challenge to the SWP leadership.
I have no idea how the fight in the SWP will be resolved but I have a strong feeling that if the current gang is removed from the leadership, the party can be a powerful catalyst in moving Britain in the direction that Owen Jones outlined and that the revolutionary left contingent of SYRIZA in Greece is working toward. And if they are defeated, I would only hope that the comrades consider becoming part of a broad initiative that aims to unite the left on a nonsectarian basis.
In a post I wrote on the debate over SYRIZA on the left, I offered this conclusion. I think it is worth repeating:
Finally, I want to suggest that SYRIZA has much more in common with traditional Marxist concepts of a “revolutionary program” than many on the left realize. (I will be elaborating on this at some length in a pending article.) Our tendency is to mistake doctrine with program. For example, not long after I joined the SWP of the United States in 1967, I asked an old-timer up in party headquarters what our program was. (A Maoist friend had challenged me about our bona fides.) He waved his hand in the direction of our bookstore and replied, “It’s all there.” This meant having positions on everything from WWII to Kronstadt. Becoming a “cadre” meant learning the positions embodied in over a hundred pamphlets and books and defending them in public. Of course, this had much more in common with church doctrine than what Karl Marx had in mind when his Communist program sought, for example:
- Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
- Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.
When you stop and think about it, this is sort of the thing you can find in SYRIZA’s program. Maybe it is time for the left to rethink the question of how we demarcate parties? Instead of demanding that new members learn the catechism on controversial questions going back to the 1920s, they instead would be required to defend a class orientation in their respective arenas, like the trade union movement or the student movement, etc. That would make us a lot stronger than we are today. We need millions united in struggle, especially since the death rattle coming out of capitalism’s throat grows louder day-by-day.
American Marxists have always been ambivalent about electoral formations arising to the left of the Democrats and Republicans. On one hand they would view such third parties as a necessary alternative to the two-party system; on the other, they inevitably regard them as rivals. Even when Lenin urged support for reformist electoral parties, he couched this in terms of the way a rope supports a hanging man. Needless to say, this outlook would almost condemn Marxists to irrelevancy when a genuine electoral initiative like the Nader campaign emerges. Unless revolutionaries are committed in their heart and soul to grass roots movements, electoral or non-electoral, such begrudging tokens of support are bound to lead to missteps.
The Nader campaign was not the first such opportunity in the 20th century. In the early years of the Comintern, the Communists faced similar phenomena in the form of the Farmer-Labor Party and Robert La Follette’s third party bid in 1924. Since the Comintern influence was almost always negative, it is no surprise that mistakes were repeatedly made under the “guidance” of the Kremlin leaders. At the Comintern’s Fifth Congress in 1924, Zinoviev admitted, “We know England so little, almost as little as America.” Despite this, advice was given freely to the American party which was in no position to judge it critically. William Z. Foster, one of the American leaders, was typical. He wrote in his autobiography: “I am convinced that the Communist International, even though they were five thousand miles away from here, or even six thousand, understood the American situation far better than we did. They were able to teach us with regard to the American situation.”
In the economic collapse that followed WWI, militant trade unionists began to form labor party chapters in industrial cities. A machinists strike in Bridgeport led to formation of the labor party in 5 Connecticut towns in 1918. John Fitzpatrick and Edward Nockels of the Chicago Federation of Labor called for a national labor party in that year. Such grass-roots radicalism would normally be embraced by Marxists, but unfortunately a deeply sectarian tendency was at work in the early Communist movement.
Although the Farmer-Labor Party movement was loosely socialist in orientation, it retained a populist character as well. This could be expected in the context of a worsening situation in the farmland since the turn of the century. The party received a major boost from the railway unions in 1922, after a half-million workers went on strike against wage cuts. They took the lead in calling for a Conference for Progressive Political Action (CPPA) in February, 1922, shortly before the walkout. The SP, the Farmer-Labor Party and the largest farmers organizations in the country came to the conference and declared their intention to elect candidates based on the principles of “genuine democracy”. In the case of the Farmer-Labor delegates, this meant nationalization of basic industry and worker participation in their management.
The CP was not invited, but even if they had been invited, it is doubtful that they would have accepted. In 1919 the CP described the labor party movement as a “minor phase of proletarian unrest” which the trade unions had fomented in order to “conserve what they had secured as a privileged caste.” It concluded bombastically, “There can be no compromise either with Laborism or reactionary Socialism.”
In 1921 Lenin and the Comintern had come to the conclusion that the chances for success in an immediate bid for power had begun to subside, as the European capitalist states had begun to regain some social and economic stability. In such a changed situation, a united front between Communists and Socialists would be advisable. This opened up the possibility for American Communists to work with the new Labor Party movement, especially since Farmer-Labor leader Parley Christensen had visited Moscow and given Lenin a glowing report on party prospects.
Unfortunately, the gap between a united front in theory and the united front in practice was colossal. The Communists saw themselves as the true vanguard, so any alliance with reformists would have to based on the tacit understanding that the ultimate goal was political defeat of their socialist allies. Such Machiavellian understandings were obviously inimical to the building of a genuine leadership that could be embraced by the entire working class. The reason for this is obvious. The differentiations in the working class, based on income and skill, will tend to be reflected in their political institutions. They can not be abolished by imprimatur. The notion of a pure Bolshevik party made up only of the most oppressed and exploited workers unified around a ideologically coherent program is the stuff of sectarian daydreams and bears little resemblance in fact to the Russian reality.
When the American Communists finally made a turn toward the Farmer-Labor Party, it retained ideological baggage and sectarian habits from the preceding three years. These harmful tendencies were aggravated by the intervention of John Pepper (nee Joseph Pogany), whose ultraleftist authority was analogous to that enjoyed by Bela Kun in the German Communist movement in the same period. Unlike Kun, Pepper did not have the imprimatur of the Comintern even though he implied that he had. He relied on his ability to spout Marxist jargon to impress the raw American leaders. Foster describes the impression Pepper made on him: “It is true that I was somewhat inexperienced in communist tactics, but Pepper…allowed everyone to assume that he was representing the Comintern in America…those of us who [did] not enjoy an international reputation were disposed to accept as correct communist tactics everything to which Pepper said YES and AMEN.”
The Chicago Communists, including Arne Swabeck, were on the front lines of the orientation to the newly emerging Farmer-Labor movement, since the Chicago labor movement was providing many of the troops and much of the leadership. Arne Swabeck might be known to some of you as one of the “talking heads” who functioned as a Greek Chorus in Warren Beatty’s “Reds”. At my very first Socialist Workers branch meeting in 1967, I voted with the rest of the branch to expel Arne who had become converted to Maoism in his late 80s after a life-long career in the Trotskyist movement.
John Fitzpatrick, Edward Nockels and Jay G. Brown, three Chicago Farmer-Labor leaders, had decided to call a convention for July 1923. Three Communists–Swabeck, Earl Browder and Charles Krumbein–formed a committee to work with the Fitzpatrick group.
Fitzpatrick was typical of the previous generation of labor leaders of the old school. A blacksmith by trade, Irish in origin, he had opposed American involvement in WWI, had spoken out in favor of the Bolshevik revolution and defied steel company and AFL bureaucrats in militant strike actions. But he was not good enough for the Communists, who regarded him with suspicion. How could it be otherwise when John Pepper was writing articles for the party paper stuffed with nonsense like this: “In face of danger, we must not forget that a Communist Party is always an army corps surrounded by dangers on all sides–a Communist should not abandon his party, even if he thinks the Party is in the wrong. Every militant Communist should write on his shield: ‘My Party, right or wrong, my Party!’”
The Chicago Farmer-Labor party leaders were willing to work with the Communists, who had some influence in the labor movement as well as enjoying the backing of the world’s first workers state. All that they asked was for a little discretion since red-baiting was widespread in this period of the Palmer Raids. Farmer-Labor leader Anton Johanssen advised Browder, “If you keep your heads, go slow, don’t rock the boat, then the Chicago Federation will stand fast. But if you begin to throw your weight around too much, the game will be up.”
That’s not too much to ask, is it?
Fitzpatrick was stuck in the middle between some fearful Farmer-Labor Party leaders, who reflected anticommunist prejudices, and the NY Communist leaders under Pepper’s influence who regarded him as the enemy. Tensions between the camps was exacerbated by the Communists who entertained the possibility of taking over the new formation and turning it into a proper revolutionary instrument under their farsighted leadership. [Insert typographical symbol for sarcasm here.]
The tensions came to a head over the timing for a national conference, with Fitzpatrick opting for a later date and the Communists favoring a date as early as possible. The differences over scheduling reflected deeper concerns about the relationship of political forces. The Communists felt that an earlier date would enhance their ability to control events, while Fitzpatrick hoped that a delay would enable him to rally other leftwing forces outside the CP’s milieu.
>From his offices in NYC Pepper pushed for an earlier date and was successful. It was able to garner more votes than Fitzgerald on leadership bodies. Once the decision was made at the Political Committee level, the Chicago leaders closed ranks in a display of “democratic centralism” even though they felt that it was a mistake. When the national Farmer-Labor Party gathering was held on July 3, 1923, nearly 80 years ago this week, the CP ran roughshod over the opposition. Using their superior organizational skills and discipline, all major votes went the CP way. During the antiwar movement, the Trotskyists used to function the same way. We called ourselves without the slightest hint of self-awareness the “big Red machine.” No wonder independents hated us.
On the third day of the conference, John Fitzpatrick could not contain his dismay:
“I know Brother [William Z.] Foster and the others who are identified and connected with him, and if they think they can attract the attention of the rank and file of the working men and women of America to their organization, I say to them and to this organization, that is a helpless course, and they cannot do it.
“Then what have they done? They have killed the Farmer-Labor Party, and they have killed the possibility of uniting the forces of independent labor action in America; and they have broken the spirit of this whole thing so that we will not be able to rally the forces for the next twenty years!”
The CP had succeeded in capturing itself. After the conference ended, all of the independents left the Farmer-Labor Party and it functioned as a typical front group of the kind that vanguard formations–whether Stalinist, Maoist or Trotskyist–have succeeded in building over the years. A true mass movement will have contradictions and tensions based on class differentiation that will never remain bottled up in such front groups. The purpose of a genuine vanguard party, needless to say, is to help act as a midwife to such formations because they are the only vehicle that can express the complexity and hopes of a modern industrial nation numbering nearly 300 million.
The Communists had another opportunity before long in the form of the Robert La Follette third party campaign of 1924. They would screw this one up as well, and for the same sorts of reasons. Senator Robert La Follette was a Republican in the Progressivist tradition. For obvious reasons, the Nader campaign hearkens back to the 1924 effort. Nader, like La Follette, is running against corporate abuse but really lacks a systematic understanding of the cause of such abuse or how to end it. The anti-monopoly tradition is deeply engrained in the American consciousness and it is very likely that all mass movements in opposition to the two-party system will retain elements of this kind of thinking. Of course, one can always fantasize about an October 1917, keeping in mind that such fantasies miss the deeply populist cast of the Russian Revolution itself.
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 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.
Obviously it is best to start off with fresh slate, without any sectarian attitudes, when confronted by phenomena such as the Farmer-Labor Party or the La Follette campaign. It is within that spirit that my final post on the Nader campaign will be presented in the next week or so. In it I want to closely examine the social and economic forces that have given birth to the most extraordinary electoral project of the left since the Henry Wallace campaign of 1948.
Sources: Theodore Draper, “American Communism and Soviet Russia”; David Thelen, “Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit”