Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 22, 2014

Who’s Afraid of Democracy?

Filed under: democracy,Iran,Lenin — louisproyect @ 5:44 pm

Who’s Afraid of Democracy?

A guest post by Reza Fiyouzat

The engineers know better, but the common story about Edison finally finding the one filament that did work suggests that it took more than a thousand tries. The social project of building a socialist society must surely be more complicated than that, and therefore will require many tries. So, let’s not be disheartened. We do know what does not work. That is a good continuing point; not a starting-from-scratch point, but a point of progress.

In the Manifesto, Marx draws a comparison between the transitions from feudalism to capitalism to the epoch of the transition from capitalism to socialism. In other words, for Marx, there would not be one major event that would bring about world socialism, but a series of events and a long period of class struggles that would eventually overthrow capitalism as the dominant mode of production and social relations.

Looking at it as a historical process, we must then assign characteristics to this process, so that we can determine at what stage of the historical process we stand today, and where to go from here. Traditionally, it has come to a few choices; one way to look at the transition to socialism is as a two-stage revolution with two historically distinguishable stages, the first ‘democratic’ and then ‘socialist’, with strict rules to be followed at each stage, in some prescriptions with experts at the helm of a revolutionary command center directing the revolution, deciding all the important decisions. Or, we can see it as a dynamic historical process with ups and downs for both sides of the class struggle, yet a process that can be influenced by the wise tactical and strategic interventions of revolutionaries, yet a process that has to be moved from below. Or, you can just characterize it as an uninterrupted process (as some do), or as the Trotskyist school suggests, a permanent revolution. If I were a Trotskyist, I would propose a reformulation in favor of a permanent revolution/counterrevolution.

All these different formulations point to the same basic historical fact: the fact that class struggle does not take a break. You’re either winning tactically or strategically, or you’re losing tactically/strategically. So perhaps too much energy is expended in some socialist quarters in the debate over ‘how many stages’ we should have. All sides agree that it is a historical process, not a one-step event.

For this reason it is important to take into consideration Gramsci’s insightful concepts of ‘war of maneuvers’ (as in, what we should do during revolutionary periods) as contrasted to ‘war of positions’ (characterized by spontaneous mass struggles that arise in non-revolutionary conditions, and what socialists should do in those fights). This conceptualization is much more productive than the simplistic and ultimately mistaken dichotomy, ‘reform v. revolution’.

For both Marx and Lenin, the transition to socialism was a dynamic historical process with ups and downs. In these ups and downs, the task of the socialists and revolutionaries is to find ways to intervene in spontaneous movements that arise and infuse them with the revolutionary input that would shape and elevate these spontaneous struggles to higher levels of self-consciousness, with wider outlooks, and help turn them into movements that could lead to the popularization of socialist answers to capitalist contradictions, thus creating the conditions to take a revolutionary leap as a society.

That is why for Lenin it had become clear that the most conscious and committed communists and socialist workers and intellectuals needed to organize themselves in a political party exactly because they are supposed to intervene in every struggle caused by the never-ending contradictions that capitalism throws up periodically. Your intervention is likely to be a lot more effective when you have an organizational capability for analyzing, planning and acting when you need to do so. This is just elementary politics.

Now, a political party based on ideas of Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries, at a particular time and in a particular place, should not be reduced to an organizational fetishism, attempting to replicate the Bolshevik party. The principle we need to take into account is far more basic, and is the antithesis of fetishistic. The basic principle is simple: Be Organized! For the obvious reasons that the other side is highly organized and a very violent and effective fighter.

The organizational form itself cannot be the main problematic; the form can and does vary and nobody can eliminate the possibility that, besides the old forms that have proven effective, newer forms of organization are possible and even necessary. Some will work, and some will not work, like the Occupy Movement’s ‘lack of structure’ structure. But the reason Occupy Movement fizzled out quickly had less to do with a ‘lack of organized structure’. ‘Lack of structure’ went along with a more fundamental lack. There actually was a structure, I went to regular peoples assemblies: the hand gestures and the people’s mike, as you remember, even came in handy for the late night comedians to get easy laughs. The structure, however, did not allow for a clear articulation of what concretely it was fighting for. It became the hallmark of the movement to declare even (and proudly so) that they must not explicitly state demands! Which, if you think about it, is the antithesis of a movement, in a way.

So, the main problematic is not lack of ‘proper organization’. Our most real concerns should be to engage with and intervene in reality, and while doing so let’s not forget to pay attention to how we’re doing it, ergo, the need for being organized and self-critical, always learning from our own practices and mistakes, always looking for more effective means of achieving political goals that actually have an effect in the real world.

That is where we can win the battle of democracy. Not just in struggles that come out with declared socialist aims. No such mass movements ever happen anywhere spontaneously. People come out onto the streets for very concrete demands. They don’t come out shouting, “We Want Socialism!” Most people come out shouting, “We Want Water! We Want Bread! We Want No More Wars! We demand equal rights! We demand safety from the random violence of the State! We want water sources that don’t burn up when you light a match to ‘em!”

Democracy is not just some nicety or luxury, as some socialists are prone to think. It is not reducible to elections. Democracy is the essence of pushing capital to its limits and then pushing some more till it cracks wide open. This means that, as socialists, we don’t sit back and grade whatever movement arises in the society, giving it a ‘Pass’ or ‘Fail’ before we decide whether or not it should be supported. Supported, as in, just in words even (not to denigrate the value of verbal support when that is all you can give). Notice the mentality though:  the movement hits the streets; we wait some time to give ourselves enough time to give it a grade; then what we mostly do is announce support or no support. The mentality is that of a reactive mode, not a proactive mode; not a mentality that tries to shape and change reality, but one that takes directions from social reality.

This mentality does nothing to intervene and affect the movements that arise spontaneously; to find, in the array of forces present, close allies and build them up and change the internal dynamics of the movement; to infuse good ideas into those movements, to facilitate their organizing, to bring them resources, etc. To intervene in all struggles thrown up by capitalism’s never-ending crisis-inducing nature, that is the duty of the socialists. Sometimes we get defeated, and sometimes we win and elevate the social discussion around particular issues, and make clear the universal elements in those localized struggles. And by so doing, we elevate the conditions to our benefit for the next struggle that is sure to come up. And only by doing all that can we shorten the timeline for creating conditions that would support a revolutionary leap. Revolutionary conditions don’t just materialize out of the blue all by themselves. They must be brought about.

Aside: This is why one can easily find fault with some socialists and Marxists who denigrate environmental issues as ‘liberal’ or ‘middle class’. Such arguments are erroneous on two counts because environmental issues negatively impact the working classes doubly. On one level, environmental degradations that lead to loss of quality of life are invariably targeted at working class and poor communities. Are socialists and Marxists justified in ridiculing as ‘liberal’, for example, the Appalachian poor working class residents, whose mountaintops are being obliterated, for demanding that their tap water should not be a fuel source as well?

On another level, environmental damages brought about by industrial capital must be looked at in terms of externalization of costs for particular capitalists (and capital is always concrete, not an abstract economic category), and therefore about maximization of profit margins. To externalize the environmental costs to the society (again, always targeted carefully) is an indication of the inherently anti-democratic nature of capital, something that should be exposed by socialists as such, and used to draw attention to the inability of capital to protect the environment, which belongs to all. On the flip side, by forcing environmental regulations on polluting industries, we reduce their profit margins, and place limitations on how freely they can exploit resources. For socialists to consider environmental issues as something to be denigrated as subsidiary, unworthy, below-me-so-blow-me, is to abdicate responsibility as socialists. End of aside.

Looked at in this framework, for Marx and Lenin (see his State and Revolution as well as his debates regarding the necessity for the independence of the labor unions from both party and state structures in post-revolutionary Russia, particularly debates starting in 1918 and continuing to early 1920s, before his death) the battle for democracy means exactly to push into the cracks (contradictions) in capitalist social contract and to force them wide open. As well, capitalist accumulation, by nature, will present us with an infinite reserve of spontaneous social movements sure to arise as capital develops, expands and consumes more spheres of social life globally.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx presents the now-well-known formulation, “winning the battle of democracy”. Elsewhere, Marx explains in detail how bourgeoisie presents an appearance of fairness when it presents the market as a place where equals meet and agree on a contract. According to the bourgeois ideologues, the market creates an equal playing field in which the two sides (labor and capital) come to a mutually agreed upon price for the labor hours to be purchased by the capitalist and provided by the laborer.

In the first and the second volumes of Capital, however, Marx clarifies how this ‘fair’ contract is in fact based on a history of forced expropriation of means of independent production for the workers, a historical process that stripped an entire class of the society, a vast majority, of all means of making an independent living, forcing that class to the position of having to sell itself, its labor power, in order to survive.

“The capitalist system pre-supposes the complete separation of the laborers from all property and the means by which they can realize their labor. As soon as capitalist production is once on its own legs, it not only maintains this separation, but reproduces it on a continually expanding scale” (Capital, Vol. 1, Part 8, Chapter 26).

Part eight of the first volume of Capital then goes on to chronicle a short history of that process of expropriations: forced land expropriations driving peasants off their lands, through to anti-vagabondage laws, maximum wage laws, “forcing down of wages by acts of parliament”, as Marx describes it. Further, the original accumulation of capital was infused plentifully with the wealth stolen from the colonies, explicitly enumerated by Marx in part eight of the first volume. In the second volume, Marx reminds the reader that money should not be mistaken for capital since money cannot become capital unless under social relations in which the complete expropriation of all independent means of living has already stricken the vast majority; just as money can only be exchanged for slaves under social relations that allow slavery.

However, exactly because there is a gigantic historical theft hidden behind bourgeois presentation of the marketplace contract as fair, Marx could call the historical bluff. More specifically, throughout his seminal work, Capital, he shows the workers the exact mechanisms through which the employer extracts surplus value from them, and how capital enriches itself while spreading misery among the workers and property-less classes.

This fundamental contradiction in the social contract presented by bourgeoisie opens a crack in the system. By exposing the mechanisms through which surplus value is created and extracted by capital, Marx in effect shows the workers how to fight back, how to intervene in the cycle of capitalist production and accumulation, how to minimize (to start with) the surplus extracted from them; and how through a protracted struggle in a historical process, working classes will eventually be able to expropriate back all the surplus value.

So, to answer the question in the title, it is clear that capital is definitely afraid of real democracy. That is why it has had to distort and twist the concept beyond recognition, reducing it to mere elections, and it has had to work hard and tirelessly at this task, with the aid of millions of organic intellectuals it trains and retains in its educational institutions, mass media, the culture industry, its think thanks, industrial associations, financial cartels, etc.

But even while distorting the meaning of democracy in the public mind, selling it as cyclical elections of representatives, capital never forgets to fight back against, and attempt to repeal and reverse, all the real democratic gains of previous fights by the working classes. Why else the 30-some-year long attack by the right wing in the U.S. on women’s rights such as reproductive rights, or attacks on laws protecting collective bargaining by unions, attacks on public education? The list can go on.

This brings us back to the false dichotomy opposing reform to revolution, and to some others who are afraid of democracy, in very unexpected quarters: some socialists. In this unfortunately posed dichotomy, reform is the all-negative, as contrasted to revolution. I believe that the error arises from the assumption that we are always in revolutionary conditions. Under revolutionary conditions, of course, it would be folly to advocate reforms, when in fact the ground is well suited for a revolutionary leap. However, revolutionary conditions do not persist at all times. They are rare. So, what do we do when conditions are not revolutionary? Pack it in and wait?

Socialists who truly believe that reforms are bad, to be consistent, must join the Republican politicians and fight for the repeal of all laws protecting the environment, all child labor laws, maximum hours-in-a-workday laws, workplace health and safety laws, equal rights legislations banning racial and other discriminations, women’s rights legislations, and so on.

Of course, no socialist would do such a thing. Why then hold such dichotomies as if they were true?

Any past democratic gain by our side is a limitation we have been able to force on capital, a limitation on how freely capital can act, and is therefore a positive. It is a platform from which we can deploy a more effective fight, something to be cherished and appreciated and not denigrated. For capital will not rest until it has snatched back every single one of those platforms.

However, there are other indications that some Western socialists do not really understand the importance of democracy and democratic movements that arise spontaneously all over the world, all of which movements are pooh-poohed by these kind comrades, who are adept at missing opportunity after opportunity to be actually effective for the right side of the battle.

A case in point is the massive popular movement that filled the Iranian streets by the millions, in the aftermath of the too-obviously stolen elections of June 2009. Now, let me clarify that normally everybody in Iran knows the elections are a farce as a matter of routine. But in 2009, people came out agreeing to go along with the farce, and asked only that state functionaries at least follow the script they themselves had written; as in, allow the real votes for the two candidates to be counted fairly, since the state had allowed the two to run., So, when the functionaries suddenly did switch scripts in mid-process, then people had every right to take to peaceful massive protests to declare they were pissed off.

Let’s look at that historical moment, just for two more seconds. In Tehran alone, in a matter of three days after the hasty announcement of the results in favor of Ahmadinejad, in a highly irregular manner, more than three million people occupied the streets of the capital city. By contrast, if any political organization in the U.S. could bring three million people onto the streets (less than one percent of the U.S. population), they would announce it as a revolution in itself. Now, when that happened in Iran (a country of 70 million at the time), in just one city (and there were massive street protests in many major cities), some leftist writers and activists in the west argued that the whole thing was an imperialist conspiracy, the work of CIA. These socialists concluded that the movement as a whole was engineered in the west to destabilize the Iranian regime, and therefore the movement had to be condemned.

The enormous absurdities in that explanation are so numerous that will go way beyond the scope of this piece. Still. That is quite a conclusion coming from socialists, but believe it or not some were actually publishing articles arguing exactly that. Iranian socialists, of course, were shocked and awed, not so much by the sheer ignorance of such statements, in themselves enough to cause extreme alarm, but mostly because it sounded exactly like the propaganda by the theocracy that was busy shooting at peaceful demonstrators, imprisoning them by the thousands, torturing them at will, raping them, or threatening them with rape in their dungeons. So, yes, we were truly shocked by the depth of antipathy toward just plain human decency displayed by socialists.

How can CIA have such superpowers as to bring people onto the streets of Iran, in millions, at will? Really? I am sure CIA analysts get a good laugh when they hear of these superpowers they are supposed to have. It seems amazing that all the enormous and very real internal social contradictions, the suffocating puritanical social rules dictated by a theocracy of a minority, the massive economic pressures of mass unemployment and huge inflationary rates, all these obvious sociological factors figure not at all in the political explanations of these socialists. One would have hoped that socialists would have, by now, left the bizarro land of conspiracies and returned to the firm terrain of scientific historical materialism.

All kinds of social demands started percolating up to the surface as a result of that mass movement in Iran, a movement that initially took to the streets asking merely: “Where is my vote?” That movement very rapidly graduated onto more general demands regarding governmental accountability, political rights of free speech, free association and free assembly rights, just to name the obvious ones. Even the legitimacy of the theocratic state apparatuses came under open and loudly expressed social questioning. This was a huge move forward, and if it had been helped and supported, it could have led to better places and could have provided some breathing space for the Iranian working classes. Which section of the working classes would not benefit form the advantage of being able to organize freely and protected by law? Who would gain the most from legal equality between men and women? And who would lose the most? Who would gain the most from limitations put on state security forces so that they are not able to torture political prisoners at will?

How a big segment of the western left behaved toward the massive spontaneous movement of the Iranian people in June-December 2009 is indicative of a fundamental malaise that runs deep and far too widely in the global left: misunderstanding the importance and the meaning of democracy.

It is time for socialists, and leftists in general, to stop being afraid of democratic movements that arise spontaneously. It is time to expose capitalist development as inherently anti-democratic and to fight to win the battle of democracy anywhere we can.

Reza Fiyouzat may be contacted at: rfiyouzat@yahoo.com

October 6, 2014

Socialism and democracy

Filed under: democracy,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

Karl Marx in the offices of The Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Organ der Demokratie (“New Rhenish Newspaper: Organ of Democracy“), a German daily newspaper he published between June 1, 1848 and May 19 1849.

Four days ago I received a query from a Latin American journalist:

Dear Louis:

I am an editor at a leading newspaper in Quito, Ecuador, and I will like to make a you one question (if you agree of course) for an article I am trying to write, after the international leftist meeting that was held this week here in this city.

My piece is about, how is it that the new and modern left is so tolerant with authoritarian regimes. Castro, Chávez and even Correa have been very sympathetic with leaders such as Lukashenko, Mugabe and Kaddafi.

So my question is if you think that this is part of a stalinist legacy that has not been thrown away by the left, despise all the horrors that the stalinist regime was responsible for?

All the best

Since others might have the same sorts of questions, I am posting a public response as follows.

This is a very complex question. To start with, Hugo Chavez is something of a paradox on the question of democracy. Keep in mind that the entire premise of “21st Century Socialism” rested on the assumption that Stalinism tainted the 20th century version. In a speech to the World Social Forum in 2005, Chavez stated that “We have to re-invent socialism. It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union, but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition.” On the other hand, in the very same speech he said, “Today’s Russia is not Yeltsin’s… there is new Russian nationalism, and I have seen it in the streets of Moscow… there is a good president, Mr. Putin, at the wheel.”

That, in a nutshell, is the contradiction we see on the left. There is acknowledgement, at least verbally, that Stalinism was unviable. If you keep people repressed there is always a tendency for them to do as little as possible to keep the system going and to look for ways to game it. Stalinist societies rot from within. Even if there is pressure from imperialism, the bigger threat is always the spiritual and psychological disaffection of workers and farmers.

But what good does it do for Chavez to make this observation while at the same time nodding in approval of Vladimir Putin? It is obvious that there would be an affinity with Putin since he superficially had the same agenda as Chavez, namely to use the revenue from petro-exports to improve the conditions of life for the average citizen. Keep in mind that toward the end of his life, Chavez had moved away from the notion of building socialism entirely. His model was less and less based on what are commonly referred to as “communist” states but Western European social democracies, which are simply welfare states resting on capitalist property relations. So naturally he would tend to see all petroleum exporting states with a populist but repressive regime and enemies of his own enemy—the USA—as partners. This meant that Russia, Iran, Libya and Syria were hailed in the Venezuelan press as forward-looking societies even though their jails were filled with political prisoners.

You are absolutely right to understand this as rooted in Stalinism. The belief that socialism could be built in a single country was in contradiction to the core Marxist belief that socialism had to be built on a global scale, just as was the case with the social system that preceded it: capitalism. Despite the fact that the USSR was an enormous country with all of the resources advanced industry would require, Leon Trotsky warned that the system would collapse unless revolutions triumphed in Western Europe: “But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty–that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship.” (I should add that Trotsky used the term “dictatorship” in the technical Marxist sense of a particular class dominating the state rather than what exists in Zimbabwe et al.)

With Trotsky’s defeat, the USSR tended to see other countries less as candidates for social transformation and more as potential allies for “socialist development”. If there was a clash between the workers in a capitalist country and their rulers who were seen as favoring Soviet interests, the workers got short shrift. When Greek workers took up arms against a fascist dictatorship, Stalin decided to sell the workers out rather than jeopardize the friendly relations he had with FDR, who was amenable to allowing Eastern Europe to become a “buffer” against invasion. This was not a socialist foreign policy but a global chess game in which a struggling people were sacrificed as a pawn.

This is the same thing that is happening today even though capitalism has returned to Russia. It would probably make more sense to speak of neo-Stalinism since Vladimir Putin would be the last person on earth to favor a socialist Russia. If Stalin saw Ukraine as a kind of outpost dedicated to the defense of the USSR, not much has changed under Putin, except that the social relations being defended are based on private property rather than state ownership. Hitler invaded Russia in order to smash collective ownership while the West never had any such intentions. Why would it if Exxon is invited in as a partner in some of the biggest oil exploration deals in history, including drilling in the most ecologically sensitive areas?

It is understandable why some on the left would be anxious to smear every protest movement in the Russia/China orbit as an imperialist plot. There is ample evidence that Washington will exploit every movement to see its own agenda advanced. When I was involved with Nicaragua solidarity in the 1980s, I was incensed about reports that the NED was funding parties opposed to the FSLN. That explains why some are so anxious to write off the Hong Kong protesters as tools of the USA. But revolutionary politics is not based on algebraic formulas. You have to be able to understand that sometimes X can be equal to Y and not equal at the same time. In other words, Hegel is a better guide to social reality than Aristotle, the father of formal logic.

In places like Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Zimbabwe, Iran and Russia, the protest movements have both progressive and reactionary tendencies. To some extent, this is a function of the socialist left having lost its moral authority. In Ukraine, with the CP being an unabashed supporter of Russian domination, is it any wonder that ordinary people topple Lenin statues? Those statues, I should add, never had much to do with defending socialism. They were like George Washington statues in American parks, empty symbols of national sovereignty.

Very often when people begin fighting for freedom, they bring certain prejudices along with them. Although it would be best if a social movement had a crystal-clear agenda based on a combination of Enlightenment and socialist values, there is often a mixture of past, present and future that can be confusing to the onlooker. For example, there are many Syrians who have fought against the Baathist dictatorship who are for Sharia courts, a symbol to many on the left of a feudal past. But when you keep in mind that the judicial system in Syria was rigged to favor the Baathists, the temptations of Sharia law become more understandable. When the Irish rose up against British colonialism during WWI, the same kind of confusion cropped up on the Marxist left. Why support a movement that seemed to be tainted by Catholic dogma? Lenin tried to answer this question in an article titled “The Irish Rebellion of 1916″:

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie without all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.–to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.

It is regrettable that so few on the left can understand many grass roots movement today in the same light.

In order for the left to regain its moral authority, it has to once and for all stop functioning like the CP did in the 1930s, least of all when Russia and its allies lack even the economic justification that once existed for that type of “border guard” stance. Unless socialism and socialist politics are once again synonymous with democracy, the left will have nothing to say to young people fighting for social change.

When you stop and think about, Marx and Engels entered politics in the same spirit as the Syrians who marched in the streets of Homs and Aleppo in early 2011 for an end to a system that used torture and murder to enforce neoliberal rule. They were deeply involved with the movements for democracy in 1848 that challenged the old feudal order, the counterpart to Baathist rule in those days.

August Nimtz, an American scholar, wrote a book titled “Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough” that reaffirmed their commitment to democracy that has unfortunately been forgotten by much of the left. In an interview with Socialist Project this year, Nimtz explained what his goals were in writing such a book:

As you probably know from my writings, I prefer to let Marx and Engels speak for themselves. And for this question there’s no better place to begin with than their Manifesto of the Communist Party, a document that sharply distinguished itself from the programmatic stances of other socialist tendencies in its position that the prerequisite for the socialist revolution was the democratic revolution—the necessity “to win the battle for democracy.” In related pronouncements clarifying their views they wrote that, like the Chartists in England, the German proletariat “can and must accept the bourgeois revolution as a precondition for the workers’ revolution. However, they cannot for a moment accept it as their ultimate goal.” And in no uncertain terms the Manifesto, in four successive locations, made clear that it would take “force” to “overthrow the bourgeoisie” in order to reach the “ultimate goal”. Nevertheless, they maintained to the end that the means to that goal was the conquest of the “bourgeois revolution.” When a critic charged in 1892 that they ignored forms of democratic governance, Engels demurred: “Marx and I, for forty years, repeated ad nauseam that for us the democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class can first be universalized and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat.”

Ultimately, this statement might serve as a litmus test for the left. Although I am too old to get involved with organizing a movement, this pro-democracy orientation would be at its core. I have not only seen the USSR collapse because of dictatorship, I have also seen the socialist organization I belonged to for more than a decade collapse as well. The right to speak freely and act freely is as natural as breathing. When it is taken away, we suffocate, as does society. Ultimately, as Nimtz points out, democracy is a means to an end: the creation of a new world based on a just and rational economic order. Anything that stands in the way has to be rejected. It is not even a problem if this is a minority viewpoint today because in the long run it is the only one that can succeed.

 

June 15, 2014

Left Forum panel discussion on Lenin and democracy

Filed under: democracy,Left Forum,Lenin — louisproyect @ 8:08 pm

This is the first in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

Even though I was reconciled to making some points about Lenin and democracy within the sixty seconds allotted me during the Q&A after the presentations above, I was not ready to limit myself to a question. After 30 seconds (I timed myself) of making some points about the Bolsheviks opposing democracy in the Ukraine after 1917, someone in the audience interrupted me, telling me that I could only ask a question. I gave up at that point and walked out in disgust. If I knew who the nitwit was, I would have written an open letter warning him that if he ever did it again, he’d regret it–dagnabit.

Now that I am back in my ‘hood—the Internet—I don’t have to show anybody my stinking badge as the Mexican bandit told Humphrey Bogart in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”. I will have my say on these questions now and that’s that.

As might be expected from a panel organized by Paul Le Blanc, there was effusive praise for Lenin as a democrat. Nimtz just wrote a book titled “Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets – or Both” that can be yours for a mere $85. An educated consumer can listen to him and decide whether to pony up the cash. Ty Law focused most of his talk on the election campaigns being run by Socialist Alternative, including his own in Minneapolis.

If you go strictly by what Lenin wrote, there’s not much to disagree with. Of course, we know from experience that Marxists reading the same Lenin texts can draw violently opposed conclusions, as is the case with the works of Marx and Engels as well.

With Lenin, this becomes even more of a problem when considering the actions of the Soviet state in the period following the October 1917 revolution when the survival of the state required sacrificing socialist principles in the interests of national security. What becomes even more confusing is that the sacrifice was often defended as serving socialist principles when they were in fact violating them. In a way, it was analogous to the character in “Manuscripts Don’t Burn”, the very powerful Iranian film, who insisted that he was serving God by killing agents of the “Cultural NATO”.

We are used to cynical defenses of indefensible actions after Stalin took power but there is ample evidence that the Soviet Union was ready to apply realpolitik in the same fashion. The tragedy was that the application of realpolitik backfired as the Soviet victims came to the conclusion that when it came to their own interests and that of the Soviet state, they came in a distant second.

Let me review a few examples:

1. Turkey:

The USSR welcomed the new Kemalist government in Turkey as an anti-imperialist partner, which it was. Just as the Red Army drove back the Whites, Mustafa Kemal defeated the imperialist-backed Greek army. But in addition to being anti-imperialist, the Kemalists were also anti-Communist. In volume 3 of his history of the infant Soviet republic, E.H. Carr describes the willingness of the USSR to look the other way when it came to the democratic rights of the Turkish Communists:

The suppression of Edhem [a Makhno type figure] was immediately followed by drastic steps against the Turkish communists. Suphi was seized by unknown agents at Erzerum, and on January 28, 1921, together with sixteen other leading Turkish communists, thrown into the sea off Trebizond — the traditional Turkish method of discreet execution. It was some time before their fate was discovered. Chicherin is said to have addressed enquiries about them to the Kemalist government and to have received the reply that they might have succumbed to an accident at sea. But this unfortunate affair was not allowed to affect the broader considerations on which the growing amity between Kemal and Moscow was founded. For the first, though not for the last, time it was demonstrated that governments could deal drastically with their national communist parties without forfeiting the goodwill of the Soviet Government, if that were earned on other grounds.

2. Poland:

Thanks to Paul Kellogg, we are now privy to the USSR’s violation of Polish democratic rights when Lenin was alive and kicking. To put it in a nutshell, there was a tendency in the early 20s to consider the use of the Red Army as being roughly equivalent to Napoleon Bonaparte’s peasant army. Where Napoleon used the army to extend bourgeois-democratic social relations, the Red Army would serve to extend socialism where it did not exist beforehand as well as defend the USSR.

In giving the green light to an invasion of Poland in 1920, Lenin overruled Trotsky’s objections. Here is Kellogg’s explanation of the differences between Russia and Poland:

But Poland was not Russia. True, the Polish peasants were oppressed by a rich and corrupt landlord class, just as were the Russian peasants,. But they were also oppressed by Russia, through a long history of invasions and occupations. The relation of Poland to Russia was analogous to that of Ireland to Great Britain, Quebec to English Canada, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) to the United States. The Polish people were an oppressed nation within the prison‐house of nations that had been Tsarist Russia. An army of Russian peasants was not going to be greeted as a liberation army any more than would be a British army in Ireland, an English Canadian army in Quebec, or an 18th‐century U.S. army in Haudenosaunee territory in what is today New York state.

The Russian invasion was a disaster, not just for the Red Army that was routed but for Polish Jews who fell victim to the Red Army’s demoralized deserters as Lenin noted:

A new wave of pogroms has swept over the district. The exact number of those killed cannot be established, and the details cannot be established (because of the lack of communication), but certain facts can be established definitively. Retreating units of the First Cavalry Army (Fourth and Sixth Divisions) have been destroying the Jewish population in their path, looting and murdering … Emergency aid is vital. A large sum of money and food must be sent.

3. Ukraine

This was the most glaring example. I find it singularly depressing that much of the left is either unaware of the painful realities of early Soviet history are—even worse—prefers to sweep it under the rug. I can only recommend once again the article titled “For the independence of Soviet Ukraine” (written when the Ukraine had not gained its independence) by Polish Trotskyist Zbigniew Kowalewski.

It will not only show how little interest the Bolsheviks had in the democratic rights of the Ukraine but the degree to which today’s problems have their origins in the Soviet state arrogating to itself the right of sovereignty over a “lesser nationality”:

Skrypnyk, a personal friend of Lenin, and a realist always studying the relationship of forces, was seeking a minimum of Ukrainian federation with Russia and a maximum of national independence. In his opinion, it was the international extension of the revolution which would make it possible to resist in the most effective fashion the centralising Greater Russian pressure. At the head of the first Bolshevik government in the Ukraine he had had some very bitter experiences: the chauvinist behaviour of Muraviev, the commander of the Red Army who took Kiev, the refusal to recognize his government and the sabotage of his work by another commander, Antonov-Ovseyenko, for whom the existence of such a government was the product of fantasies about an Ukrainian nationality. In addition, Skrypnyk was obliged to fight bitterly for Ukrainian unity against the Russian Bolsheviks who, in several regions, proclaimed Soviet republics, fragmenting the country. The integration of Galicia into the Ukraine did not interest them either. The national aspiration to sobornist’, the unity of the country, was thus openly flouted. It was with the “Katerynoslavian” right wing of the party that there was the most serious confrontation. It formed a Soviet republic in the mining and industrial region of Donetsk-Kryvyi Rih, including the Donbas, with the aim of incorporating it into Russia. This republic, its leaders proclaimed, was that of, a Russian proletariat “which does not want to hear anything about some so-called Ukraine and has nothing in common with it”. This attempted secession could count on some support in Moscow. The Skrypnyk government had to fight against these tendencies of its Russian comrades, for the sobornist’ of the Soviet Ukraine within the national borders set, through the Central Rada, by the national movement of the masses.

What all these violations of democracy have in common is their belief in the special role of the USSR. As a cradle of socialism, it had the right to run roughshod over the democratic rights of other nationalities as part of a larger effort to defend socialism and by extension the worldwide revolution.

As should be obvious from the tendency of people like John Rees and Tariq Ali to line up with Putin against Obama, the same disregard for “lesser nationalities” never went away. What is bizarre, however, is the application of this Red Realpolitik to states that have nothing to do with socialism. A simple algebraic formula is applied. You take the position that any struggle that emerges against client states of Russia is ipso facto pro-imperialist. Since the world is divided between the “imperialist” bloc and the “non-imperialist” bloc, all you need to do is locate a struggle within the two camps. Any effort to understand or even sympathize with a Syrian or a Ukrainian sick and tired of oligarchic rule is excluded.

Of even greater concern is how this methodology feeds reactionary tendencies even as it is deployed on “anti-imperialist” grounds. As has been pretty well established, the European ultraright, including Golden Dawn that now sings Nazi anthems at its rallies, has thrown in its lot with Russia, which they see as a brake on European Union ambitions. The emerging alliance between ultraright parties and Russia also rests on social questions, such as the need to support “traditional values” such as Christianity and the nuclear family, as well as nativist opposition to immigrants. I sometimes wonder how in the world such people can fail to see the handwriting on the wall but then again I remember how blind the CP was in another period of a protracted economic downturn. If Marxism is to have any value in this period, it will be on the basis of drawing clear class lines. The time for building multiclass alliances in the name of questionable “anti-imperialism” is long gone.

December 20, 2011

Vaclav Havel and the struggle for socialism in Czechoslovakia

Filed under: Czechoslovakia,democracy,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

Somehow I find the unctuous outpouring over Vaclav Havel far more off-putting than anything said about Christopher Hitchens. With Hitchens, you at least got the impression that he enjoyed being a prick. With Havel, you got the same kind of overpowering sanctimoniousness you get with religious figures. Keeping that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Havel was close to the Dalai Lama, another snake-oil salesman.

To understand Havel, you have to go back to the beginning of Czech socialism that is a bit more complicated than is usually portrayed in the bourgeois press. While the general consensus among the anti-Stalinist left is that Eastern Europe was turned into “satellite states” of the USSR after WWII, Czech reality is far more complex.

After British imperialism decided to sell out Czechoslovakia through Neville Chamberlain’s infamous deal, respect for the Western “democracies” declined precipitously and admiration for the USSR grew rapidly. Under Nazi occupation, the CP underground fought heroically as well. Unlike the situation in France, this occupation was unimaginably brutal resulting in the death of up to 55,000 Czechs in concentration camps or through execution. Last August I reviewed Protektor, a very good film dramatizing the assassination of Reinhold Heydrich and the repression that followed. Now available from Netflix, the film captures the period well.

So it is no surprise that Edvard Benes, the left social democrat Prime Minister who was ousted by the Communists in 1948, amounted to a “friend of the Soviet Union”. In a 1943 visit to the USSR, Benes found himself “amazed at the tremendous progress that he found and saw in it confirmation of his belief that the Soviet system, having successfully withstood the difficult test of a massive invasion, was now passing through a gradual transformation to a liberalized form of socialism.” In a nutshell, Benes can be compared politically to fellow travelers of the USSR found in the USA during the New Deal.

Additionally, Czechoslovakia had the largest indigenous Communist movement anywhere in Europe before WWII. In free parliamentary elections held on May 26, 1946, the CP won 38 percent of the vote nationwide and the Social Democrats received an additional 13 percent. So we are not exactly talking about socialism imposed at the point of a bayonet.

While signing a decree to nationalize land and factories, Benes also sought to placate the west as a buttress against Soviet power. He didn’t understand that a rising anticommunist mood in Washington would effectively preclude this. Benes was perceived as being too friendly to the USSR and too radical. Hence the decision by Secretary of State James Byrnes to annul a $50 million credit to Czechoslovakia in 1945. Even after a poor harvest in 1947, the US Embassy in Prague maintained a policy of “no food and no loans” to Czechoslovakia. In essence, the country would either have to align itself with the United States or the Soviet Union.

The model of a restive population seeking to break the chains of socialism and opening the doors to multinational corporations has little to do with Czech realities. In fact, the first open revolt against the Stalinist bureaucracy was mounted in the name of “socialism with a human face”.

In the late 60s, the opposition to Soviet-style repression was not inspired by Hayek or Ayn Rand. The students and intellectuals who provided an informal vanguard were more likely to be readers of Ernest Mandel or Herbert Marcuse. In Yugoslavia, students occupied the universities raising the banner of “For a Red University”. In Czechoslovakia, the slogan was not quite so bold but it certainly expressed a desire to create a system that retained popular control over the economy.

Under Alexander Dubcek, there was a Prague Spring in 1968 that was very much in sync with the student movements of the West. In 1967 a group of writers, including Milan Kundera, threw their support behind members of the Communist Party who were ready to challenge the old way of doing things. In April of 1968, Dubcek announced an Action Programme that would have transformed the country. Politically, it stressed democratic rights of the sort that were once understood as consistent with socialism. Economically, it advocated a more market-driven approach not that different from what existed during the NEP.

Ironically, when Fidel Castro made his speech in 1968 describing Russian intervention as a necessary evil to stamp out an imperialist plot, the very “liberal” measures he was condemning in Czechoslovakia were exactly the same that he and his brother would be pursuing today.

Despite widespread support for socialism early on, the ruling CP did everything it could to dampen the people’s spirit. Even when other Eastern European CP’s were loosening their grip after Stalin’s death, the Czechoslovak CP stuck to its hidebound ways. It was committed economically and culturally to the worst abuses of the Stalin era. As is usually the case, the intelligentsia was the first segment of the population to grow restive.

Another film is useful in understanding the vise-like grip with which the CP held society captive, namely Costa-Gravas’s “The Confession” which dramatizes the Slansky trial of 1952. Rudolf Slansky was a Jewish CP’er who was put on trial for thought crimes in the same manner as the Moscow trials of the 1930s. Charged as “Trotskyist-Zionist-Titoist-bourgeois nationalist traitors, spies, and saboteurs, enemies of the Czechoslovak nation, of its People’s Democratic order, and of Socialism”, Slansky and other victims of Stalinist injustice were executed.

The purpose of these trials was exactly the same as it was under Stalin, to cower the population into silence. Even the intelligentsia, especially the writers who would later on rebel against such madness, was pressured into supporting the regime. Dusan Hamsik, a leader of of Writer’s Union that was in the vanguard of the Prague Spring, wrote: “In those days it was the writers themselves who were their own best censors; the few who thought differently never offered their words for publication — indeed never committed them to paper in most cases. For it was unthinkable that any discordant voice should raise itself.”

A bit of a thaw took place in 1962, largely as a result of economic difficulties. As is so often the case, when a Stalinist government finds it difficult to deliver the goods, it will ease up a bit in order to allow the population to blow off steam. But to make sure that his subjects did not go too far, the dictator Novotny warned:

We will not allow this decadent capitalist culture to be propagated in our society, and we will not allow the socialist system, won in hard struggles, to be attacked in various ambiguous terms in the television and often also in the theatre … we need criticism … but let no one dare touch our Communist Party, its program, or our socialist system. This must be sacred, and it must stay sacred for all … the Party maintains the right to direct cultural activity, the same as it directs and manages the entire life of the country.

Novotny was also deeply concerned about the decadent cultural influences that the West was having on Czechoslovak youth, sounding very much like the preachers denouncing Elvis in the USA: “all right, let them dance, but we will not permit these modern dances to degenerate into vulgarisms and thus actually cultivate dark lusts in our people.”

Unlike any other country in Eastern Europe, the Czech intelligentsia was disproportionately represented in the CP. This meant that when the reform-oriented faction in the party led by Dubcek sought to renovate the system, the program was a mixture of political liberalization that everybody could support and economic measures geared to the market. The working class embraced the former and held an open mind about the latter.

In December 2008, Andy Kilmister wrote an article for International Viewpoint, the magazine of the Mandelista Fourth International, titled “The `Prague Spring’ and the `Prague Autumn’” that is a must-read for understanding what happened.  It reveals that although the workers might have been sitting on the fence in the economic debate between Novotny supporters and the new government, they swung sharply against the Soviet invasion in a revolutionary manner:

Between 1 October and the end of 1968, 260 further workers councils were created, with the trade unions playing a leading role in initiating this development 17. In January 1969 a national meeting in Plzeň of councils and preparatory committees representing 890,000 employees (over a sixth of the workers in the country) took place and `thereafter, the workers’ movement sheltered the political left as the ČKD-Vysočany plant had sheltered the secret August congress’.

The agreement with the metal workers on 19 December was followed by agreements in January 1969 between the students and construction workers, mineralogical, geological and gas workers and print workers and later by collaboration with power-station workers, designer and civil engineers, lumber workers and railway workers. Galia Golan reports that `by and large these alliances held throughout 1968-9 though they were much criticized (and feared) by the conservatives in the regime. In concrete terms, they led to the formation of worker-student action committees which coordinated efforts designed to salvage what was possible of the post-January policies’. Petr Cerny describes `Prague radicals who, for a brief moment, achieved what the western left had only dreamed of in 1968: a worker-student alliance’.

While the most famous Czechoslovak writers were solidly behind the Dubcek initiatives, including Milan Kundera and Jeri Pelikan, one decided that he had no interest in reforming socialism. The whole system had to go as the NY Times obituary on Vaclav Havel makes clear:

Mr. Havel, a child of bourgeois privilege whose family lost its wealth when the Communists came to power in 1948, first became active in the Writers Union in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s, when his chief target was not Communism so much as it was the “reform Communism” that many were seeking.

During the Prague Spring of 1968, the brief period when reform Communists, led by Mr. Dubcek, believed that “socialism with a human face” was possible, Mr. Havel argued that Communism could never be tamed.

Moving ahead to 1989, when Stalinism entered its death-knell, Czechoslovakia was given the opportunity to pick up where the Prague Spring had left off, not having to worry about Soviet tanks. Among the politicians deemed suitable for leading a new society, Dubcek and Havel stood out—representing two different solutions to the problems that had faced for decades.

In a review of John Keane’s critical biography of Vaclav Havel, a biography that Slavoj Zizek used as a peg to attack Havel’s legacy in the London Review, Laura Secor wrote:

In 1989, five years after Havel’s release, popular demonstrations brought down the Czechoslovak government. Dubcek, Keane contends, was the obvious choice for the country’s transitional presidency — but Havel manipulated Dubcek into stepping aside, by promising to support him in the upcoming free elections. According to Keane, Havel broke that promise, betraying Dubcek and retaining the presidency for himself. Not long afterward, Czechoslovakia split.

Once in power, Havel set about the task to dismantle Czech socialism and create a new state according to the formulas established in George Soros’s Open Society Foundation and elsewhere. A section from Michael Parenti’s “Blackshirts and Reds” has been circulating widely on the Internet, including my posting to the Marxism mailing list. Written not long after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, it knocks Havel off his pedestal rather deftly:

Havel called for efforts to preserve the Christian family in the Christian nation. Presenting himself as a man of peace and stating that he would never sell arms to oppressive regimes, he sold weapons to the Philippines and the fascist regime in Thailand. In June 1994, General Pinochet, the man who butchered Chilean democracy, was reported to be arms shopping in Czechoslovakia–with no audible objections from Havel.

Havel joined wholeheartedly in George Bush’s Gulf War, an enterprise that killed over 100,000 Iraqi civilians. In 1991, along with other Eastern European pro-capitalist leaders, Havel voted with the United States to condemn human rights violations in Cuba. But he has never uttered a word of condemnation of rights violations in El Salvador, Colombia, Indonesia, or any other U.S. client state.

In 1992, while president of Czechoslovakia, Havel, the great democrat, demanded that parliament be suspended and he be allowed to rule by edict, the better to ram through free-market “reforms.” That same year, he signed a law that made the advocacy of communism a felony with a penalty of up to eight years imprisonment. He claimed the Czech constitution required him to sign it. In fact, as he knew, the law violated the Charter of Human Rights which is incorporated into the Czech constitution. In any case, it did not require his signature to become law. In 1995, he supported and signed another undemocratic law barring communists and former communists from employment in public agencies.

Now I have no way of knowing what Parenti would have been saying about the Prague Spring in 1968, but I strongly suspect that he would have agreed with Fidel Castro. For the section of the left that believes that the Soviet intervention was a “necessary evil”, there’s actually a strong affinity with liberals who have urged a vote for Gore, Kerry and Obama in recent elections. If the choice is between someone like Obama and Newt Gingrich, you have to vote for Obama. Along the same lines, a Czechoslovakia under Dubcek might have led down the slippery road to what it would become under Havel so it was necessary to back the Soviet invasion.

The possibility that an alternative to both liberalizing technocrats and open supporters of Western imperialism does not really exist in the mind of someone like a Michael Parenti or many who think this way, like Alexander Cockburn or Michel Chossudovsky. The drama in a place like Iran or Libya is always between two players, and no possibility exists for the masses to make history on their own terms.

This is the terrible political legacy that 70 years of Stalinism has left us. After WWII, a powerful constellation of nominally socialist states existed around the world, either conforming to the Soviet model or to some Bonapartist variant best expressed by Nasser’s Egypt. In such states, the authoritarianism was necessary—we were led to understand—because political freedoms would open the door to CIA subversion. It was never considered that such repression was mainly designed to enforce class distinctions that were the same in spirit or in substance like those in capitalist societies.

Social inequalities and repression of the sort symbolized by Novotny or Qaddafi’s show trials were rationalized as blemishes in a system that was historically “progressive”. When the disgruntled masses took it upon themselves to resist their rulers, the “anti-imperialist” left took the side of the rulers if there was the slightest hint of Western support. Given the realities of geopolitics, it was almost impossible to find a situation in which the CIA was not intervening. In Egypt, the contradictions were most acute as the West backed the Tahrir Square protesters and the Mubarak regime simultaneously.

If there was ever a time to break with this “lesser evil” mentality, it is now. With the deepening crisis of world capitalism, an urgent task confronts us. A revolutionary movement has to be built worldwide that makes no concessions to the paternal rule of a Qaddafi or a Novotny. There will always be the possibility that in a revolt against such rulers, things might not follow a straight and narrow path toward socialist victory but deferring to the status quo in the name of “anti-imperialism” is unacceptable.

Arise ye pris’ners of starvation
Arise ye wretched of the earth
For justice thunders condemnation
A better world’s in birth!
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us
Arise, ye slaves, no more in thrall;
The earth shall rise on new foundations
We have been naught we shall be all.

November 3, 2011

Zizek’s Lenin and Ours

Filed under: democracy,Lenin,Zizek — louisproyect @ 2:12 pm

For reasons I don’t quite understand, anytime I write anything about Zizek, it generates exceptional traffic here. This may be because there is a lot of interest in Zizek or because he brings out the best (worst?) in me. I confess that Binh was probably right when he described Zizek as a troll not worth feeding, but I do look forward to increased traffic on my blog in the hope that new readers will find other articles useful as well. The one below was written before I began blogging. You can find all my articles, both from that period and afterwards, at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mypage.htm.

Zizek’s Lenin and Ours

Posted to http://www.marxmail.org on January 31, 2004

An “In These Times” article by cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek titled “What Is To Be Done (With Lenin)?” has been circulating on the Internet. Today, a link to it popped up on neoconservative Denis Dutton’s “Arts and Letters” website, obviously a sign that Zizek was doing the left no favors when he wrote this article. Dutton is like a vacuum cleaner sweeping up every hostile reference to Marxism that can be found in the major media and academic journals. Despite his obligatory genuflection to Lenin, Zizek’s Lenin serves more as a token of ‘epater le bourgeois’ rebelliousness rather than a serious attempt to make him relevant in the year 2004.

Zizek’s article is a discourse on freedom, having more to do with Philosophy 101 than historical materialism. In defending the idea of relative freedom versus absolute freedom, he cites some remarks by Lenin in 1922:

Indeed, the sermons which…the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries preach express their true nature: ‘The revolution has gone too far. What you are saying now we have been saying all the time, permit us to say it again.’ But we say in reply: ‘Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that. Either you refrain from expressing your views, or, if you insist on expressing your political views publicly in the present circumstances, when our position is far more difficult than it was when the white guards were directly attacking us, then you will have only yourselves to blame if we treat you as the worst and most pernicious white guard elements.’

These rather blood-curdling words are interpreted by Zizek as a willingness on the part of the Soviet government to suppress criticisms that would undermine the workers’ and peasants’ government on behalf of the counterrevolution. In other words, Zizek’s Lenin favors shooting people who have ideological differences over how to build socialism, or so it would seem.

Without skipping a beat, Zizek amalgamates the execution of Mensheviks and SR’s found guilty of thought-crimes with the tendency in liberal societies to be offered meaningless choices between Coke and Pepsi or “Close Door” buttons in elevators that are not connected to anything. He concludes by saying:

This is why we tend to avoid Lenin today: not because he was an “enemy of freedom,” but because he reminds us of the fatal limitation of our freedoms; not because he offers us no choice, but because he reminds us that our “society of choices” precludes any true choice.

Although it seems implausible at best that Soviet firing squads in 1922 have anything remotely to do with choosing soft drinks, it might be useful to review exactly what Lenin was talking about in his speech–even though it might subvert the postmodernist exercise that Zizek is engaged in.

To begin with, it took a little bit of digging to find out where Lenin said these words. In poking around in Google (the MIA archives used a different translation so an exact match could not be found), I discovered that Zizek was not the only one lending credence to this version of Lenin as the High Executioner. The super-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party dotes on these words as well. In a book on their website titled “Another view of Stalin” by Ludo Martens, we discover that Lenin’s threats against his opponents demonstrate that he “vehemently dealt with counter-revolutionaries attacking the so-called `bureaucracy’ to overthrow the socialist régime.” In other words, Zizek’s Lenin and that of the PLP is a precursor to Stalin, implicitly and explicitly respectively.

At least I did learn from the PLP article the source of Lenin’s words, which was a Political Report of The Central Committee of the Communist Party at the Eleventh Congress on March 27, 1922. It can be read in its entirety at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/mar/27.htm

If you do, you will discover nothing in Lenin’s speech to support the interpretation of Zizek or the Progressive Labor Party. To begin with, the report is a defense of the turn away from War Communism toward the New Economic Policy, which most historians view as an end to economic, political and legal regimentation–including the use of the death penalty. Immediately upon taking power in 1917, the Bolsheviks did away with the death penalty. It was only restored during the civil war when White terror was unleashed on the civilian population. As soon as the White armies were defeated, there was no use for the firing squad. A January 17, 1920 decree of the Soviet government stated that since the counter-revolution had been defeated, there was no need for executions. Since this occurred more than two years before Lenin’s speech, it is a little difficult to figure out what Lenin was talking about.

As it turns out, Lenin was referring not to an actual firing-squad, but a figurative one as should be obvious from the paragraphs that immediately precede Zizek’s citation:

When a whole army (I speak in the figurative sense)  [emphasis added] is in retreat, it cannot have the same morale as when it is advancing. At every step you find a certain mood of depression. We even had poets who wrote that people were cold and starving in Moscow, that “everything before was bright and beautiful, but now trade and profiteering abound”. We have had quite a number of poetic effusions of this sort.

Of course, retreat breeds all this. That is where the serious danger lies; it is terribly difficult to retreat after a great victorious advance, for the relations are entirely different. During a victorious advance, even if discipline is relaxed, everybody presses forward on his own accord. During a retreat, however, discipline must be more conscious and is a hundred times more necessary, because, when the entire army is in retreat, it does not know or see where it should halt. It sees only retreat; under such circumstances a few panic-stricken voices are, at times, enough to cause a stampede. The danger here is enormous. When a real army is in retreat, machine-guns are kept ready, and when an orderly retreat degenerates into a disorderly one, the command to fire is given, and quite rightly, too.

If, during an incredibly difficult retreat, when everything depends on preserving proper order, anyone spreads panic-even from the best of motives-the slightest breach of discipline must be punished severely, sternly, ruthlessly; and this applies not only to certain of our internal Party affairs, but also, and to a greater extent, to such gentry as the Mensheviks, and to all the gentry of the Two-and-a-Half International.

So Lenin’s words, taken literally by Zizek and the PLP, were specifically regarded by him as a figurative exercise. Lenin was talking about figurative armies, figurative retreats, figurative machine guns and figurative firing squads.

More to the point, there were no SR’s or Mensheviks in the USSR to brandish such threats against by 1922. They were no longer part of the political equation inside Russia and were left to issuing condemnations of the revolution from afar. Of course, the question would certainly arise as to why they were no longer inside the country. Had the Bolsheviks exiled their political adversaries in the same fashion that Lincoln arrested and deported a sitting Congressman to Canada who opposed the Civil War? Or in the fashion that FDR had imprisoned the leaders of the Trotskyist movement for criticizing the motives of the war with Germany and Japan?

In reality, repression of the SR’s and the Mensheviks had little to do with ideas about building socialism. In John Rees’s valuable “In Defense of October”, we learn that the infant Soviet republic faced the same kinds of threats as Cuba has faced since 1959. At the very time the White Army was slaughtering Soviet citizens and torching villages, foreign diplomats were organizing the nominally socialist opposition. R H Bruce Lockhart, the British diplomatic representative in Moscow, was instrumental in ensuring that Kerensky escaped from Russia after his unsuccessful military attempt to unseat the Bolsheviks. Rees writes:

Sidney Reilly, a British intelligence agent, was trying, unsuccessfully, to convince Lockhart that he ‘might be able to stage a counter-revolution in Moscow. But, according to Reilly, one part of his plan was prematurely put into effect in August 1918: Socialist Revolutionary Fanny Kaplan shot Lenin twice at point blank range, bringing him close to death. Earlier Reilly had managed to establish himself as a Soviet official with access to documents from Trotsky’s Foreign Ministry. And another British agent, George Hill, became a military adviser to Trotsky.

So the concrete application of the death penalty during the civil war has more to do with preventing assassination attempts by people like Fanny Kaplan rather than preventing alternative ideas about constructing socialism from reaching the Soviet people, just as the execution of hijackers in Cuba recently had more to do with preventing innocent lives being taken by desperate criminals than enforcing monolithism. Of course, in the early 1920s such defensive measures were interpreted by liberals as exercises in thought control and social repression just as they are today in the case of Cuba. It is singularly depressing, however, to see Zizek–a self-proclaimed fan of Lenin (in the same sense really as a fan of David Lynch movies)–giving credence to such an interpretation while nominally defending Lenin.

October 31, 2011

Is democracy the enemy? A reply to Zizek

Filed under: democracy,Lenin,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

Although the content of Slavoj Žižek’s blog post in the London Review (Democracy is the enemy) is not so nearly as bad as the title, it still betrays the same kind of misunderstanding of the relationship between democracy and socialism that I addressed in my critique of “The Idea of Communism” conference held a couple of weeks ago in NY:

Indeed, part of Zizek’s talk this morning dealt with exactly this question, scoffing at those leftists who care about which judge will be elected. He reminded the audience that Marx believed that it was only through seizing state power and abolishing capitalist property relations that true freedom could be achieved. That of course would be news to Marx scholars like August Nimtz, whose “Marx and Engels: their contribution to the democratic breakthrough” revealed their commitment to what Zizek writes off. The book includes this epigraph that obviously Zizek would regard as liberal mush:

The movement of the proletarians has developed itself with such astonishing rapidity, that in another year or two we shall be able to muster a glorious array of working Democrats and Communists — for in this country Democracy and Communism are, as far as the working classes are concerned, quite synonymous.

–Frederick Engels, “The Late Butchery at Leipzig.-The German Working Men’s Movement

To start with, the title is an obvious attempt to jar the liberal sensibilities of the London Review’s readers. As a perennial Katzenjammer Kid of academic Marxism, Zizek relishes these types of formulations. It goes hand in hand with his embrace of Lenin, who unlike Gramsci or Walter Benjamin et al, will never be invoked at a Modern Language Association keynote address.

The first part of Zizek’s article actually makes some good points at the expense of the atrocious Anne Applebaum, a neoconservative at the Washington Post:

The protests on Wall Street and at St Paul’s Cathedral are similar, Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post, ‘in their lack of focus, in their inchoate nature, and above all in their refusal to engage with existing democratic institutions’. ‘Unlike the Egyptians in Tahrir Square,’ she went on, ‘to whom the London and New York protesters openly (and ridiculously) compare themselves, we have democratic institutions.’

‘Global’ activists, if they are not careful, will accelerate that decline. Protesters in London shout: ‘We need to have a process!’ Well, they already have a process: it’s called the British political system. And if they don’t figure out how to use it, they’ll simply weaken it further.

So, Applebaum’s argument appears to be that since the global economy is outside the scope of democratic politics, any attempt to expand democracy to manage it will accelerate the decline of democracy. What, then, are we supposed to do? Continue engaging, it seems, in a political system which, according to her own account, cannot do the job.

Back in 2003 I had an occasion to write Ms. Applebaum one of my patented Lazlo Toth type letters:

My dear Anne Applebaum,

I realize that you have a lot invested career-path-wise in flogging Communism and might get carried away on occasion like a bull at the sight of a red cape. However, your review of Robert Harvey’s “Comrades: the Rise and Fall of World Communism” in the London Telegraph seems to detach itself from the planet and fly off into the stratosphere. You start off:

“Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Ceausescu, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Salvador Allende, Mengistu, Castro, Kim Il-sung: the list of murderous communist leaders is long, diverse and profoundly multicultural.”

I wasn’t aware that Salvador Allende was a murderer, or a communist. Is this your own heterodox interpretation or something that the neo-McCarthyite movement has cooked up while I wasn’t paying attention? I honestly can’t keep track of all the nutty things coming out of the Weekly Standard, the NY Post editorial page and David Horowitz’s website nowadays. It is like trying to keep track of car commercials during a football game. Can you refer me to an article that makes the case that Allende was rounding up free-market ideologues and throwing them into concentration camps or cutting off their noses? In sorry times such as these, a good laugh always helps.

I remember her rising to the bait and replying to me, but I can’t exactly remember what she said. Anyhow, I’m happy that Zizek took her on.

However, I am not so happy with his take on Marxism and democracy:

Here, Marx’s key insight remains as pertinent today as it ever was: the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere – i.e. in such things as free elections, an independent judiciary, a free press, respect for human rights. Real freedom resides in the ‘apolitical’ network of social relations, from the market to the family, where the change needed in order to make improvements is not political reform, but a change in the social relations of production. We do not vote concerning who owns what, or about the relations between workers in a factory. Such things are left to processes outside the sphere of the political, and it is an illusion that one can change them by ‘extending’ democracy: say, by setting up ‘democratic’ banks under the people’s control. Radical changes in this domain should be made outside the sphere of such democratic devices as legal rights etc. They have a positive role to play, of course, but it must be borne in mind that democratic mechanisms are part of a bourgeois-state apparatus that is designed to ensure the undisturbed functioning of capitalist reproduction. Badiou was right to say that the name of the ultimate enemy today is not capitalism, empire, exploitation or anything of the kind, but democracy: it is the ‘democratic illusion’, the acceptance of democratic mechanisms as the only legitimate means of change, which prevents a genuine transformation in capitalist relations.

The thing that bothers me the most is that for all of Zizek’s constant references to himself as a kind of diehard Marxist-Leninist, as well as all of his academic credentials, you can never find him referencing what Marx or Lenin ever wrote about democracy. I am especially troubled by his claim that “Radical changes in this domain should be made outside the sphere of such democratic devices as legal rights etc.”

Did you ever consider why Lenin decided to get a law degree? It was in order to discover loopholes in the Czarist legal codes to help workers win the right to strike or to organize. Back in 1970 when I was in the Boston branch of the Socialist Workers Party, a debate broke out in the branch between the majority led by Peter Camejo and a minority led by Larry Trainor, an old-timer from the James P. Cannon generation, over whether we should support the Shea Bill, described at the time by the Harvard Crimson:

The law, often known as the Shea Bill after its sponsor in the Massachusetts legislature, Rep. H. James Shea. Jr. (D-Newton), authorizes Massachusetts residents to refuse combat duty in wars Congress has not declared. Furthermore, it instructs Massachusetts Attorney General Robert Quinn to defend and assist servicemen who refuse to fight on these constitutional grounds.

The minority made arguments similar to Zizek’s, accusing the majority of fostering “a democratic illusion” in a parliamentary system stacked against the working class. By urging a vote for the Shea Bill, we were supposedly building confidence in the capitalist state and undermining the anti-war movement, as if we urged a vote for Gene McCarthy or George McGovern. I have vivid memories of Peter getting up to explain how Lenin used to study the Czarist legal codes late into the evening to figure out a way to use the laws against the system. That was the way most of us in the SWP thought about such matters in the days before the group turned into something similar to the De Leonite Socialist Labor Party that like Zizek is all too fond of drawing distinctions between the communist goal of the future and just about every reform that is worth struggling for.

You can get a good idea of Lenin’s approach to these matters in his 1899 article “Factory Courts” that urged the creation of joint employer-worker bodies that would “examine cases and disputes arising in connection with the terms of hire, with the fixing of rates of pay for ordinary work and overtime, with the discharge of workers in violation of rules, with payments for damage to material, with unfair imposition of fines, etc., etc.” Such bodies were fairly common in Western Europe at the time and would obviously never affect what Zizek called “the social relations of production”. That being the case, why did Lenin urge their introduction into Russia? He explained:

The first advantage of the factory court is that it is much more accessible to the workers. To present a petition to an ordinary court, one has to submit it in writing (which often requires the employment of a solicitor); stamp duty has to be paid; there are long waiting periods; the plaintiff has to appear in court, which takes him and the witnesses away from their work; then comes a further period of waiting until the case goes to a higher court to be retried after an appeal by dissatisfied litigants. Is it any wonder that workers do not willingly resort to the ordinary courts? Factory courts, on the contrary, consist of employers and workers elected as judges. It is not at all difficult for a worker to make a verbal complaint to one of his fellow workers whom he has himself elected. Sessions of factory courts are usually   held on holidays or, in general, at times when the workers are free and do not have to interrupt their work. Cases are handled much more expeditiously by factory courts.

After enumerating other advantages, Lenin concludes with the most salient point:

Finally, there is one other benefit accruing from factory courts that must be mentioned: they get factory owners, directors, and foremen into the habit of treating workers decently, of treating them as equal citizens and not as slaves. Every worker knows that factory owners and foremen all too often permit themselves to treat workers in a disgracefully insulting manner, to rail at them, etc. It is difficult for a worker to complain against this attitude; it can be rebuffed only when the workers are sufficiently developed and are able to give support to their comrade.

The above paragraph is about as “Leninist” as you can get. Unlike Zizek’s Lenin, who comes across as a podium-pounding preacher for “communism”, Lenin’s focus was on organizing workers so that they gain self-confidence in struggle, achieving victory by victory until they have enough of a sense of their own right to become a ruling class. When that day arrives, you will see the greatest flowering of democracy possible.

That being said, Lenin also believed in the need to expand bourgeois democracy. Why? It was a way for workers to press their own demands within the system. To sneer at workers running their own candidates, etc. is not only a slap in the face to what Lenin stood for, but Marx and Engels as well.

In 1847 Engels wrote an article titled “The Principles of Communism” that, among other things, answered the question “What is the attitude of the communists to the other political parties of our time?” It stated:

In England, France, and Belgium, where the bourgeoisie rules, the communists still have a common interest with the various democratic parties, an interest which is all the greater the more closely the socialistic measures they champion approach the aims of the communists – that is, the more clearly and definitely they represent the interests of the proletariat and the more they depend on the proletariat for support. In England, for example, the working-class Chartists are infinitely closer to the communists than the democratic petty bourgeoisie or the so-called Radicals.

I was also intrigued to see Engels urge communists to “continually support the radical liberal party, taking care to avoid the self-deceptions of the bourgeoisie and not fall for the enticing promises of benefits which a victory for the bourgeoisie would allegedly bring to the proletariat.”

One can only assume that Engels probably would have urged leftists in the U.S. to support our own “radical liberal party”—the Greens before the Democrats took over, or the Nader-Camejo campaign in 2004. Given the lack of motion in the working class, such formations are the only instruments existing today that can pose an alternative to the two-party system and even elect men and women to local office. Furthermore, if the Green Party hadn’t been sabotaged by the Demogreens, it is conceivable that as it gathered more and more momentum, it might have even elected people to Congress.

Can you imagine the impact Peter Camejo would have had if he had been elected to Congress? With only a Bernie Sanders there to pose as an “independent” critic of capitalist misrule, there’s not much of an alternative to conventional liberal politics.

Someone like Camejo would have used every opportunity to denounce the system from within, in the spirit of what Lenin urged “left Communists” (Zizek’s forerunners) in his famous article on Left-Wing Communism, the Infantile Disorder:

Even if only a fairly large minority of the industrial workers, and not “millions” and “legions”, follow the lead of the Catholic clergy—and a similar minority of rural workers follow the landowners and kulaks (Grossbauern)—it undoubtedly signifies that parliamentarianism in Germany has not yet politically outlived itself, that participation in parliamentary elections and in the struggle on the parliamentary rostrum is obligatory on the party of the revolutionary proletariat specifically for the purpose of educating the backward strata of its own class, and for the purpose of awakening and enlightening the undeveloped, downtrodden and ignorant rural masses. Whilst you lack the strength to do away with bourgeois parliaments and every other type of reactionary institution, you must work within them because it is there that you will still find workers who are duped by the priests and stultified by the conditions of rural life; otherwise you risk turning into nothing but windbags.

Windbags, indeed.

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,025 other followers