Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 8, 2015

Naomi Klein, Jodi Dean and the debate over “Green Keynesianism”

Filed under: economics,Global Warming,Green Party,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

this changes everything

Despite its obvious intention to challenge the corporate-dominated status quo, some Marxists fault Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything” for supposedly straddling two opposing and mutually exclusive systems: capitalism and socialism. For every criticism, there has been a defense of “This Changes Everything” from other Marxists, including those who have had long-standing affinities with the critics–thus demonstrating that deep divisions do not have to stand in the way of a unified movement. As such, the debate is a reminder that as long as our primary focus is on challenging capitalist rule, there is no reason why we cannot air out our differences in the public arena without the schisms that have harmed out movement in the past.

In a December 30, 2014 Jacobin article, Sam Gindin praises Klein for attacking capitalism as the source of climate change but faults her for leaving too much “wriggle room” for capitalist reform. By hammering away at “villains” such as the Koch brothers et al, the left can effectively let the system off the hook. While Gindin does not identify her as a Keynesian—the term that is widely identified with the leftwing policy studies base of the Democratic Party—he leaves the impression that she is not much different than Bill McKibben. When he writes that “It is one thing to ask how we can organize ourselves better to register our dissatisfaction and to pressure or lobby corporations and states to modify some of their ways within capitalism”, it is clearly a warning that Klein’s agenda is one of capitalist reform.

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March 12, 2015

Roger Burbach ¡Presente!

Filed under: obituary,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 12:51 pm

Roger Burbach

I just learned that Roger Burbach died. I never met Roger but kept up an email conversation with him over the years. About five years ago he told me that he was dealing with multiple myeloma, the likely cause of his death.

Federico Fuentes, a member of the Socialist Alliance in Australian group who co-authored “Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism” (http://www.zedbooks.co.uk/node/20723) paid tribute to Roger yesterday on Facebook:

Saddened to hear that, two years to the day of the passing away of Hugo Chavez and almost exactly one year after the killing of Ali Mustafa, my friend and colleague Roger Burbach has also left us.

I had the privilege of working with Roger and Michael Fox on our book Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions. Without a doubt, despite being almost double our age, he was the driving force that keep me and Mike inline and ensured we completed what turned out to be the last book he published while alive.

Roger was truly a remarkable man who never let adversity hold him back. He had been in a wheelchair since 1989 after a terrible swimming accident, and lived most of the last decade with multiple myeloma and constant medical treatment. Despite these hurdles that life threw at him he accomplished so much in his life. Although completely inadequate in describing all that he did, i am posting his bio from our book to give you some idea:

“Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written extensively on Latin America and US foreign policy for over four decades. His first book, Agribusiness in the Americas (1980), co-authored with Patricia Flynn, is regarded as a classic in the research of transnational agribusiness corporations and their exploitative role in Latin America. His most notable book is Fire in the Americas (1987), co-authored with Orlando Núñez, which is an informal manifesto of the Nicaraguan revolution during the 1980s. With the collapse of twentieth-century socialism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe he began to study the emergent system of globalization and to write about the new Latin American social movements and the renewed quest for socialism in the twenty-first century.”

Rest in power Roger. You may have left us, but your work and example will live on.

I also received email this morning announcing a memorial service:

Dear Friends,

Please join us in commemorating the life and work of ROGER BURBACH who passed away on March 5, 2015.

A memorial will be held:

Sunday, March 15, 2015
2:30 p.m.
Berkeley City Club
2315 Durant Avenue
Berkeley, CA

We also invite you to join us afterwards for a celebration in honor of Roger at the garden patio of Gather Restaurant, 2200 Oxford Street, Berkeley.

There will be opportunities for you to share at the memorial. If you cannot attend but have anything you would like to share at the memorial or with the family, please feel free to email Roger’s son Matthew at salvadorburbach@gmail.com

We look forward to seeing you.

The Burbach Family

I want to add a few words in remembrance of Roger that I would have said if I had the opportunity to be at the memorial meeting.

In 1988 I picked up a copy of “Fire in the Americas” alluded to above and was so impressed with its analysis that I bought 10 copies and sent them to friends around the country who had left the SWP in disgust. This was before the days of email so I told them over the phone that I was sending them a book that applied the lessons of the Sandinista revolution to the United States. Unlike the misguided attempts of the 1920s to adopt “Bolshevist” norms, “Fire in the Americas” was simply a call for a socialist movement that abandoned those norms. About twenty years ago, I wrote an article titled “Lenin in Context” that was strongly influenced by “Fire in the Americas”, an analysis that has a lot more traction today given the exhaustion of the “Leninist” project.

Fortunately you can now read this book that is as timely and relevant today as it was when it was written on Open Library (https://openlibrary.org/books/OL2393527M/Fire_in_the_Americas), a project initiated by the martyred Aaron Swartz. It certainly is a fitting tribute to both Roger and Aaron that the book found a home there.

Just in case you don’t have the time to read “Fire in the Americas” right now, here’s a brief excerpt starting with “Pluralism in the Revolution” to give you a feel for its analysis:

Screen shot 2015-03-12 at 8.14.47 AM

xx

Screen shot 2015-03-12 at 8.15.05 AM

January 24, 2015

Ernie Tate’s “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s”

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:33 pm

A Revolutionary Joy Ride Through History

by LOUIS PROYECT

Exactly four years ago, as my wife and I were in the final week of our vacation in South Beach, we were pleasantly surprised to hear a female voice with a distinctly Scottish burr piping up just behind us on the sidewalk as we were going out for breakfast. “Is that Lou?” The voice belonged to Jess MacKenzie, the long-time partner of Ernie Tate, a veteran of the Trotskyist movement who had the audacity like me to vacation in a spot that in our youth would have been regarded as a decadent bourgeois swamp.

It turned out that Ernie and Jess were staying in a hotel right next to the apartment building where we had paid for a month-long sublet. I had run into Ernie and Jess at Left Forums once or twice and knew him as a Marxmail subscriber but beyond that mostly by reputation. In 1967, not long after I had joined the Socialist Workers Party in New York, members were still buzzing about how Ernie had been beaten up by Gerry Healy’s goons in London while selling a pamphlet critical of the cult leader outside one of their meetings. Since that incident loomed large in my mind even after decades had passed, I introduced my wife to him as the guy who Gerry Healy’s goons had beaten up. This prompted Ernie to remark genially but firmly that he preferred to be described as a leader of the British antiwar movement.

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December 24, 2014

What is a Marxist organization?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

What is a Marxist organization?

by SCOTT JAY on DECEMBER 24, 2014

joincp

It is a commonplace on the Marxist Left that revolutionary organizations need to be rooted in the working class, so much so that “middle-class” is just as common an insult as “sectarian” or “opportunist.” Middle-class dominated socialist groups are generally aware of their class basis and strive to overcome it—noting that an organization tends to be middle-class does not tell anybody anything they did not already know. Therefore, we will look at the problem of the base of an organization from a different angle.

A fundamental weakness of the organizations of the socialist Left is that their members do not have a material stake in their organizations.

Members of Leninist organizations join largely because they believe in the ideas. This is certainly how they are recruited. For the groups that are able to grow larger than an irrelevant sect, the members may even join because they believe in the actions of the organization. But very few of these actions actually have a material impact on the lives and livelihoods of their members and Leninists rarely even consider that this might be a problem.

For decades, Leninists of various stripes have distinguished themselves by their unique analyses of the Soviet Union, recruiting members to their theoretical model and, in some of the better cases, engaging in mass movements and even trade union activism as well. These groups could debate on end their different analyses of whether the the Soviet Union was state capitalist, or a degenerated workers state, or whether they included China, Cuba, Serbia, Albania, or North Korea among their canon.

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December 14, 2014

Parlez vous Francais?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 1:25 pm

Screen shot 2014-12-14 at 8.22.14 AM

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November 14, 2014

Goodbye Leninism

Filed under: Lenin,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm
When the Books Don’t Cook

Goodbye Leninism

by LOUIS PROYECT

On August 2nd Ian Birchall wrote an article titled “Lenin: Yes! Leninism: No?” for the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (RS21) website that has touched off an ongoing debate. For those trying to create an effective anticapitalist movement, Birchall’s article makes plenty of sense since it goes a long way toward putting the icons of October 1917 where they belong, into the historical archives. For those, however, who want to trace their lineage back to the Bolshevik revolution, like the connection that the Catholic Church makes between Pope Francis (a pretty good guy by the evidence) and Saint Peter, there is a need to uphold the sanctity of “Leninism”. Yet nobody outside the ranks of a Leninist party or the Catholic Church takes the lineage claims very seriously, especially people like me who went through such a painful experience (Leninism, not Catholicism.)

Ian Birchall, like many of the people involved with the RS21 website, was a long-time member of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. This group lost many members after it failed to take action against a top leader who allegedly raped a young member, a failure that led to an ongoing crisis that I discussed in an earlier CounterPunch article. SWP leader Alex Callinicos warned members that the revolt was less about the rape charge than it was about defending the party from an attack on “Leninism”, a ploy that probably accelerated the rush to the nearest door.

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November 11, 2014

A relaunch of North Star

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 9:15 pm

Forerunners

 Frederick_Douglass_c1860sFrederick Douglass

 

Bert Cochran

Peter Camejo

The North Star website was named in honor of Peter Camejo who launched the North Star Network in 1981 as part of an effort to regroup the left around a non-sectarian and non-dogmatic approach. He chose that name in honor of Frederick Douglass who published North Star, an abolitionist newspaper, from December 1847 until June 1851.

As someone who worked closely with Peter Camejo on the North Star Network, I had hopes that a website would carry on in that tradition. Because competing demands made on a series of editors rendered that task impossible, the website became dormant. I hope to resurrect it and help reorient it to its original mandate, which like the network of the early 80s, was to regroup the left around a non-sectarian and non-dogmatic approach.

The idea of something like North Star came to me about four years ago as I was nearing retirement at Columbia University. It would not be promoting a “party line” but instead provide a platform for socialists to report on the struggles they are involved with as well as facilitate debates about how to move such struggles forward.

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August 26, 2014

Outside agitators in Ferguson, Missouri

Filed under: african-american,revolutionary organizing,Trotskyism,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:16 pm

A week ago the popular news and gossip website Gawker published an article titled “Who Are the ‘Revolutionary Communists’ Allegedly Agitating in Ferguson?” by Michelle Deane, the author of illuminating pieces such as “Your End-of-August Cocktail Is A Lemon Rosemary Vodka Fizz”.

Since I confess to not being a regular Gawker reader, I thought I’d take a quick look at its provenance through the generally reliable Wikipedia. A Brit named Nick Denton, whose politics are rather hard to pin down, launched it in 2003. His main ambition seems to be making money. For some odd reason, he decided to launch a website inspired by the sorry career of Tina Brown, the former editor of “Vanity Fair”, the obvious inspiration for Gawker.

I was intrigued to see that Choire Sicha spent a couple of years as editor there. Sicha launched The Awl, a website covering pretty much the same terrain as Gawker. I have it bookmarked and spend about 15 seconds there each day in a futile attempt to find something worth reading.

N+1, a Marxist literary and political print magazine I read from cover to cover, published an article on Gawker that sums it up fairly well:

Gawker had always sold itself as mean but it now became, actually, very mean. Sicha, who liked to pretend to be a news organization, had sent “correspondents” and “interns” to official media events. Coen found more of them, and she sent them not only to launches and readings but also to private parties, where they took embarrassing party photos. This was the important development: the decision to treat every subject, known or unknown, in public or private situations, with the fascinated ill will that tabloid magazines have for their subjects.

It makes some sense that if you are following in the footsteps of Tina Brown, you are likely to cross paths. Brown founded The Daily Beast in 2008 and was largely responsible for the vast financial losses that Newsweek suffered after an ill-advised merger with her dubious project. Although the Beast no longer has no connections to Brown, her spirit lingers on.

At the Daily Beast you can find the same sort of article on Ferguson that Michelle Deane wrote. Titled “The Communist Agitators Trying to Ignite Ferguson”, it is the sort of thing that was once popular in the 1950s when communism was a force to be reckoned with. The article has a glaring typo in the second paragraph, a dead giveaway as to the Beast’s editorial standards:

The Revolution Club of Chicago took to the streets Monday, busy “working with people.” After darkness fell and while the crowd of protesters grew larger and more boisterous, Carl Dix walked along West Florissant Avenue with Joey Johnson and Lou Downey, members of the Chicago club. It was clear that Nix—a leader in the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP)—was the point man in this small operation, with Johnson, Downey and several others following him as committed political disciples.

Is it Dix or is it Nix? (It is Dix.)

Gawker’s coverage at least had the merit of being written with the obligatory “sassy” style that pervades the magazine:

According to a website called the Missouri Torch, the man French is referring to is one Greg “Joey” Johnson, of Chicago. They have a variety of other images and videos of Johnson and assorted “commie” — their word — friends being shown around Ferguson. It’s pretty plain they’ve identified him correctly.

Johnson has been kicking around the paranoid end of American politics for some time. (To be utterly clear to any conservatives getting excited just reading this, that paranoid end is a 360 degree circle, really, comprising members of all stripes of political thought.) But he hasn’t been wholly ineffective, as an activist. For one example: those of you who went to law school, might recognize him as the same Gregory Johnson who was the defendant in Texas v. Johnson, the case which held that flag-burning is a protected activity under the First Amendment.

The group with which Johnson is affiliated, the Revolutionary Communist Party, is nowadays largely regarded as crank-ish even by many self-identified Communists. It is routinely referred to as a “cult of personality” for its leader Bob Avakian. Avakian, who lives in self-imposed exile… somewhere, still believes that Communist revolution is possible and writes long tracts to that end, identifying the end of racial oppression as key to the eventual overthrow of capitalism. He is also the sort of fellow who writes like this:

One important aspect of boldly spreading revolution and communism everywhere is the work of building what we have characterized as a culture of appreciation, promotion, and popularization around the leadership, the body of work and the method and approach of Bob Avakian. Now, I recognize that some people (especially among the middle strata, frankly) may find it “immodest” (and perhaps, to some, strangely disturbing) for me to speak about this (and, for god’s sake, to refer to myself in the third person!). But, first of all and fundamentally, “modesty” (or “immodesty”) is not the essential issue, not the heart of the matter.

Unfortunately Deane relied heavily on the video coverage of Ferguson that appeared in the Missouri Torch, a far-right website that is published by the Missouri Alliance for Freedom, a group that seeks to:

  • Reduce taxes and decrease the size of government.
  • Protect parental and children’s rights while encouraging the traditional family unit.

Apparently Sarah Kenzidor, a contributor to al-Jazeera and other nominally progressive outlets, has been tapping the Missouri Torch as well to “expose” outside agitators.

Jacobin Magazine, which has been linked with N+! as the voice of the Marxist Young Turks, published an article by Richard Seymour that took issue with the “outside agitator” narrative without naming any of the culprits. In addition to Gawker and The Daily Beast, the same sort of article appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, CNN and the Wall Street Journal. Richard wrote:

The metaphor of exteriority, of being outside, has two important connotations. First, one is transgressing the spatial ordering of the state. States constitute social spaces like districts, wards, and counties — a process that is historically far from racially innocent in the US.

Second, is that one’s political being is “outside,” and thus traitorous and disloyal. It is not just that one traveled from one city to another — that’s fine, provided the political agenda one brings is benign for the system — but that one brought ideas that are not only not native to the destination, but actually foreign to the nation, the free world, civilization itself.

While I am in total agreement with Richard’s analysis, I do want to take a few moments to look at the RCP intervention that some on the left view somewhat more benignly than I do. Blogger Stanley W. Rogouski wrote in conclusion to an article on Ferguson and outside agitators:

The RCP got it right with World Can’t Wait. Radicals had to take over liberal outrage against the Republicans or watch the “Bush Regime” become the new normal. That they proposed, and with a very straight face, that the alternative to George W. Bush could be Bob Avakian was hilariously delusional. But they were onto something. Perhaps that’s why, now, they’ve become the face of the “outside agitator” in Ferguson.

Sarah Kendzior knows her competition when she sees it.

With so much attention riveted on Avakian’s group, I thought I’d go pay their website a visit. The last time I had any contact with them was back in the 1980s and early 90s when I used to visit their well-stocked bookstore in Chelsea.

The home page of Revolution, their newspaper, made clear who was their main man:

Screen shot 2014-08-26 at 9.30.24 AM

As I trawled through their coverage of Ferguson, I found plenty of militant rhetoric:

We stand with the defiant ones. We stand with the angry ones, the rebellious ones, the ones who will not take it, the ones who tell the truth—and the ones they lie about. Without defiance, without rage, without righteous rebellion, without people insisting on their rights and defending those rights in the street—very few people would even know about Michael Brown and how he was shot over and over with his hands up, murdered by pigs and then left to lie there in the streets, as if he were an animal. Very few people would have shared the grief of his parents for the terrible loss of this young man, at the very beginning of his life. Without the rebellion, this terrible state-done murder would just be another rerun of the same old all-too-familiar story, the same murderous stuff that happens to Black and Latino youth over and over again.

But because of the defiance and rebellion, the whole world knows the story. Now everybody has to deal with this. And people all over the country and all over the world support this fight. You, the defiant ones, are changing the thinking of millions and millions of people… you are calling out to everyone NOT TO TAKE IT… you are making history—in the way it badly needs to be made.

So, yes we stand with the defiant ones—and we will defend them and stand with them in deed as well as word.

But it was not exactly clear what this meant in terms of strategy and tactics. This is not surprising since the RCP is what might be called a “maximalist” organization. Their preoccupation is with REVOLUTION, not any mealy-mouthed intermediate steps that can move the struggle forward. Although I have very little use for James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, I live by his observation that the art of politics is knowing what to do next.

In 1938 Trotsky wrote the Transitional Program in an effort to address the task of knowing what to do next. He described it as an alternative to the minimum/maximum divide that existed in the social democracy:

Classical Social Democracy, functioning in an epoch of progressive capitalism, divided its program into two parts independent of each other: the minimum program which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum program which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future. Between the minimum and the maximum program no bridge existed.

Although Trotsky does not delve into this, the two programs effectively became the banner of the Second International and Third Period Stalinism before the two movements began to overlap through the Popular Front period. In the late 20s and the early 30s, the CP would organize foolish adventures along “maximalist” lines that backfired against the workers movement. In Germany, they united with the Nazis to unseat a socialist party politician embodying their belief: “After Hitler, Us”.

If you want to understand the RCP politically, their primary influence was Third Period Stalinism, which in the USA was expressed through the period in which William Z. Foster led the CP.

Trotsky proposed the Transitional Program as a way of circumnavigating the treacherous waters dominated by the CP and the social democracy in the late 1930s, two massive movements that had little to fear from the Fourth International that was based on a sectarian model even if its emphasis on “transition” was perfectly lin line with Marxist theory.

When I first came across the Transitional Program in 1967, I was struck by Trotsky’s very first sentence: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” That is just as true today as it was when I read it 47 years ago. Just look at the Middle East and North Africa.

It is also true of Black America that many analysts have begun to compare to oppressed people in MENA, particularly the residents of Gaza who carried signs hailing the struggle in Ferguson.

I was struck by the anger and distrust directed against the official Black leadership in Ferguson, even expressed by some Black elected officials. Back in 1967 the SWP was propagandizing for an independent Black political party, one that could begin to organize and generalize struggles such as those occurring around cop killings now. It had hopes that the Panthers could become that party but they succumbed to Maoist maximalism unfortunately.

As the Black membership of the SWP grew in the 1970s, it became capable of helping to move toward such a party. There were national conferences to launch such a party that withered on the vine, partly out of the participation of Black CP’ers who wanted to squelch any potential challenges to the Democratic Party. The same thing happened with efforts to build a Labor Party, with officials lacking the guts to organize election campaigns that would antagonize their allies in the labor movement.

In the 1970s and 80s, efforts to build such parties was undermined by both the generally more sanguine state of the economy and by the sectarian madness of the organized left, including the SWP. Now that the economy has turned to shit and the sectarians—including the SWP and the RCP—have been reduced to cults around a believe leader, the time is ripe for moving once again to build class struggle alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans in the electoral arena.

August 5, 2014

Rick Perlstein accused of plagiarism

Filed under: conservatism,liberalism,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 3:47 pm

Rick Perlstein

Last Sunday the NY Times Book Review section featured Frank Rich’s glowing review of Rick Perlstein’s “The Invisible Bridge” on the front page, a sure sign that you have made it. The bridge in the title is a reference to the period between 1973 and 1976, when the Republican Party was transitioning from Gerald Ford (who was far to the left of Barack Obama) to Ronald Reagan.

Now only two days later Perlstein is embroiled in a plagiarism controversy that pits him against Craig Shirley, the author of the 2004 “The Reagan Revolution”. Once again, from the NY Times:

In two letters to Mr. Perlstein’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, Mr. Shirley’s lawyer, Chris Ashby, cited 19 instances of duplicated language and inadequate attribution, and demanded $25 million in damages, a public apology, revised digital editions and the destruction of all physical copies of the book. Mr. Shirley said he has since tallied close to 50 instances where his work was used without credit.

The basic line of defense by Simon and Shuster, Perlstein’s publisher, is that he only paraphrased Shirley; moreover, he cited Shirley 125 times in the books’ endnotes that departing from tradition appears only on Perlstein’s website and not in print. This observation from Frank Rich might indicate the source of Perlstein’s problems: “Perlstein is an obsessive researcher who often relies (and fully credits) the writers who did the investigative spade work before him. He doesn’t break news.”

They claim that putting the endnotes online was designed to keep the book’s length within reasonable limits. Even now, it is 856 pages long. Perlstein says, ““My notion is that people will read this book with their iPhones open.” I must confess that there is about as much possibility that I will buy this book as an IPhone. Frank Rich writes:

True to form, Perlstein doesn’t condescend to this conservative icon but seeks to understand him. He does as good a job as anyone at working through the psychological and intellectual puzzles attending a charismatic public figure whose own family often found the private man opaque.

Seeking to understand Reagan? Working through the intellectual puzzles? Really? I’d think there’s about as much of a challenge there as analyzing a Hallmark greeting card.

This is Perlstein’s 3rd book on the rise of modern conservatism. His first was on the Young Americans for Freedom, a group I belonged to briefly in high school mostly as a way of annoying my classmates who were all for JFK. My cousin Louis R. (we were both named after our grandfather) and I formed a chapter that like other YAF chapters supported Goldwater rather than Nixon in 1960. My cousin remained conservative over the years while I bolted from the conservative ranks in 1961 as a Bard freshman when I learned that all the cool kids were liberals. Peer pressure also seems to work in reducing crack addiction as well, they say.

Perstein interviewed Doug Henwood and me for the first book titled “Before the Storm”. Doug went through a brief conservative stint at Yale where I assume that being on the right was more acceptable than at Bard, the “little red whorehouse on the Hudson” as Walter Winchell put it. I succumbed to peer pressure while Doug succumbed to the objective reality that capitalism sucked.

I met Perlstein once around 15 years ago when he had started writing “Before the Storm” through Scott McLemee who I was friendly with at the time. He struck me as a very bright but cynical young man, not the sort that would have made the mistake of getting involved with revolutionary politics.

I generally don’t pay much attention to what Perlstein writes since it falls more in the category of MSNBC/Salon.com punditry than the articles I differ with on the hard left. What is the point, after all, of slamming MSNBC for not covering Israel’s brutality in Gaza? (Then again, they are covering it after a fashion.)

I did have a go at him ten years ago after he wrote an exceedingly longwinded article for the Boston Review titled “How Can the Democrats Win?”, a question that he answered: “it must tend to the work of economic equality.” Maybe if Perlstein had spent some time in a revolutionary movement like McLemee, he would have understood what a utopian notion that was. Economic inequality has deepened under successive Democratic Party administrations. That is not a function of them hating the poor or not worrying enough about losing votes. It is a function of the iron laws of capital accumulation. Less time reading Karl Rove and more time reading Karl Mark would have helped Perlstein understand that.

My reply to Perlstein, which can be read in full here, offered an alternative reading of American history, one that tried to put the Democratic Party into context:

Turning now to your recommendations to the Democratic Party leadership:

Any marketing executive will tell you that you can’t build a brand out of stuff the people say they don’t want. And what do Americans say they want? According to the pollsters, exactly what the Democratic Party was once famous for giving them: economic populism.

All I can say is that this not quite the Democratic Party I am familiar with, at least in broad historical terms. Keep in mind that the Democratic Party was originally the party of the Southern Bourbons. While Arthur Schlesinger Jr. portrays Andrew Jackson as some kind of plebian democrat, he owned slaves and saw his role as promoting the interest of the same class he belonged to. The Republican Party emerged as a revolutionary opposition to the Democrats and only withdrew from the task of uprooting racial supremacy in the South when Northern liberals, particularly those grouped around Godkin’s Nation Magazine, persuaded party bosses that they were encouraging developments in the USA that might turn out like the Paris Commune. David Montgomery details all this in “The Death of Reconstruction”.

I myself stumbled across this sordid tale while preparing a critical review of the Nation around the time that Hitchens had become a turncoat and Marc Cooper was perfecting his own redbaiting skills. I learned that hostility to radicalism was not an invention of Katrina vanden Heuvel, but something rooted in the magazine’s hoary past. On December 5th 1867, the Nation wrote:

It must now be confessed those who were of this way of thinking [namely that the Radical Republicans were going too far], and they were many, have proved to be not very far wrong. It is not yet too late for the majority in Congress to retrace its steps and turn to serious things. The work before it is to bring the South back to the Union on the basis-of equal rights, and not to punish the President or provide farms for negroes or remodel the American Government.

After the “great compromise” that ended Reconstruction, challenges to the big bourgeoisie were mounted not from within the Republican or Democratic Parties but from 3rd party efforts like the Populists. Then, as today, efforts were mounted to either co-opt or destroy these movements. If you compare the programs of the Democratic and Republican Parties from the period of the end of Reconstruction to FDR’s election as a *balanced budget* realist, you’ll find about as much to choose between as George W. Bush and John Kerry. (I must say that for all your eagerness to assert that “beating George W. Bush at the ballot box in November…is imperative to the future health of the United States”, you don’t seem at all that interested in explaining why. That is, unless you think that “staying the course” in Iraq is part of that future health. But what can I say, I am one of those unrepentant 1960s radicals who never would have voted for Humphrey, to the everlasting dismay of Todd Gitlin I suppose.)

After FDR’s election, New Deal legislation was enacted not because he was a populist or even wanted to win elections. Change came because workers sat-in at factories, marched on Washington and generally raised hell. I guess you might say that that describes my attitude in general. I am for raising the more hell the better.

From what I can gather, the charges against Perlstein are bogus just as they were against Chris Hedges. Craig Shirley is not happy that his book is being cited against his hero Reagan. That was the same kind of vendetta mounted by the New Republic against Hedges, who they regarded—rightly—as an enemy of the DLC politics they package under new ownership.

In terms of his latest book, I doubt that I will ever read it, especially since given the time to read an 850 page book, there are tomes on the history of Ukraine and at least a dozen others that take precedence. But I will offer some brief thoughts on how to understand the march to the right that preoccupies Perlstein.

Referring to traumas that began taking place as the Vietnam War wound down, Perlstein writes “One of my favorites, lost to everyday historical memory, was the near doubling of meat prices in the spring of 1973, when the president’s consumer advisor went on TV and informed viewers that “liver, kidney, brains, and heart can be made into gourmet meals with seasoning, imagination, and more cooking time.” I remember this vividly since I organized a Militant Forum in Houston for the housewives who were involved in the local meat boycott. The Supreme Court had decided to legalize abortion in January 1973 and a ceasefire had been signed that same month, even though the Vietnam War would continue until the North Vietnam liberated Saigon. The winding down of the woman’s liberation movement, at least the part of it that was fighting for abortion rights, and the antiwar movement left the SWP in a confused and rudderless state. We had assumed that the sixties radicalization would continue unabated until the workers would enter the fray with their heavy battalions.

That is not the way things turned out. Instead of responding to objective reality, the SWP flailed around looking for the next new thing that would lead to increasing its influence and size. At the time, it struck me that the meat boycott had very limited possibilities but who was I to tell the Emperor that he was naked?

It took me nearly 10 years to figure out where the SWP had gone wrong. If its leader Jack Barnes had broken with sectarianism and moved toward a more open and transparent party-building approach that would have resulted in a different kind of left, it is very likely that the march to the right would have been slowed down considerably and that the ruling class rather than the left would have been on the defensive.

I am not exactly sure when I wrote this, but it was my attempt to go back to nearly the beginning of “The Invisible Bridge” to propose a different way of organizing the left. Nobody can be sure if it would have made a decisive difference but we know now that the “Marxism-Leninism” of the SWP and its Maoist competition led to a total collapse of the left that has resulted largely in an unchallenged two-party assault on the American people and third world societies across the planet.

The Speech that Jack Barnes Should Have Given in 1974

Comrades, 1974 is a year which in some ways marks the end of an era. The recent victory of the Vietnamese people against imperialism and of women seeking the right to safe and legal abortion are culminations of a decade of struggle. That struggle has proved decisive in increasing both the size and influence of the Trotskyist movement as our cadre threw their energy into building the antiwar and feminist movements. Now that we are close to 2,000 in number and have branches in every major city in the US, it is necessary to take stock of our role within the left and our prospects for the future.

In this report I want to lay out some radical new departures for the party that take into account both our growing influence and the changing political framework. Since they represent such a change from the way we have seen ourselves historically, I am not asking that we take a vote at this convention but urge all branches to convene special discussions throughout the year until the next convention when a vote will be taken. I am also proposing in line with the spirit of this new orientation that non-party individuals and organizations be invited to participate in them.

A) THE TRADE UNION MOVEMENT

While our political work of the 1960s was a necessary “detour” from the historical main highway of the socialist movement, it is high time that we began to reorient ourselves. There are increasing signs that the labor movement is beginning to reject the class collaborationist practices of the Meany years. For example, just 4 short years ago in 1970, various Teamsters locals rejected a contract settlement agreed to by their president Frank Fitzsimmons and the trucking industry. They expected a $3.00 per hour raise but the contract settled for only $1.10. The rank and file went out on a wildcat strike that Fitzsimmons and the mainstream press denounced. Fitzsimmons probably had the student revolt on his mind, since he claimed that “Communists” were behind the teamster wild-cat strike. Nobody took this sort of red-baiting to heart anymore. The burly truck-drivers involved in the strike were the unlikeliest “Communists” one could imagine. The trucking industry prevailed upon President Richard Nixon to intercede in the strike at the beginning of May, but the student rebellion against the invasion of Cambodia intervened. The antiwar movement and the war itself had stretched the US military thin. National guardsmen who had been protecting scab truck- drivers occupied the Kent State campuses where they shot five students protesting the war. In clear defiance of the stereotype of American workers, wildcat strikers in Los Angeles regarded student antiwar protesters as allies and invited them to join teamster picket lines. The wildcat strikes eventually wound down, but angry rank and file teamsters started the first national reform organization called Teamsters United Rank and File (TURF).

It is very important for every branch to investigate opportunities such as these and to invite comrades to look into the possibility of taking jobs in those industries where such political opportunities exist. What will not happen, however, is a general turn toward industry that many small Marxist groups made in the 1960s in an effort to purify themselves. Our work in the trade unions is not an attempt to “cleanse” the party but rather to participate in the class struggle which takes many different forms. We are quite sure that when comrades who have begun to do this kind of exciting work and report back to the branches that we will see others anxious to join in.

B) THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT

We simply have to stop observing this movement from the sidelines. There is a tendency on the left to judge it by the traditional middle-class organizations such as the Audubon Club. There are already signs of a radicalization among many of the younger activists who believe that capitalism is at the root of air and water pollution, etc. Since the father of the modern environmental movement is an outspoken Marxist, there is no reason why we should feel like outsiders. Our cadre have to join the various groups that are springing up everywhere and pitch in to build them, just as we built the antiwar and feminist groups. If activists have problems with the record of socialism on the environment based on the mixed record of the USSR, we have to explain that there were alternatives. We should point to initiatives in the early Soviet Union when Lenin endorsed vast nature preserves on a scale never seen in industrialized societies before. In general we have to be the best builders of a new ecosocialist movement and not succumb to the sort of sectarian sneering that characterizes other left groups who regard green activists as the enemy.

C) THE ANTI-IMPERIALIST MOVEMENT

This will strike many comrades as controversial, but I want to propose that we probably were mistaken when stood apart from all the various pro-NLF committees that were doing material aid and educational work. We characterized them as ultraleft, whereas in reality those activists who decided to actually identify with the Vietnamese liberation movement were exactly the kind that we want to hook up with. In the United States today there are thousands of activists organized in committees around the country who are campaigning on a similar basis for freedom for the Portuguese colonies in Africa, against neo-colonialism in Latin America, etc. Nearly all of them are Marxist. Their goals and ours are identical. While we have had a tendency to look down our noses at them because many of the insurgencies they were supporting were not Trotskyist, we have to get over that. For us to continue to regard the revolutionary movement in a Manichean fashion where the Trotskyists are the good forces and everybody else is evil is an obstacle not only to our own growth, but the success of the revolutionary movement overall. This leads me to the next point.

D) RELATIONS WITH THE REST OF THE LEFT

One of the things I hope never to hear again in our ranks is the reference to other socialists as our “opponents”. Let’s reflect on what that kind of terminology means. It says two things, both of which are equally harmful. On one hand, it means that they are our enemies on a permanent basis. When you categorize another left group in this fashion, it eliminates the possibility that they can change. This obviously is not Marxist, since no political group–including ourselves–is immune from objective conditions. Groups can shift to the left or to the right, depending on the relationship of class forces. The SWP emerged out of a merger with other left-moving forces during the 1930s and we should be open to that possibility today.

The other thing that this reflects is that somehow the SWP is like a small business that competes for market share with other small businesses, except that we are selling revolution rather than air conditioners or aluminum siding. We have to get that idea out of our heads. We are all struggling for the same goal, which is to change American society. We only disagree on the best way to achieve that.

Unfortunately we have tended to exaggerate our differences with other small groups in such a way as to suggest we had a different product. This goes back for many years as indicated in this quote from a James P. Cannon speech to the SWP convention nearly 25 years ago. “We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.”

Comrades, we have to conduct an open and sharp struggle against this kind of attitude. The differences between the SWP and many other left groups is not that great and we have to figure out ways to work with them on a much more cooperative basis. For example, La Raza Unida Party in Texas shares many of our assumptions about the 2-party system and they are open to socialist ideas, largely through the influence of the left-wing of the party which has been increasingly friendly to the Cuban Revolution. We should think about the possibilities of co-sponsoring meetings with them around the question of Chicano Liberation and socialism. The same thing would be true of the Puerto Rican Independence movement in the United States, which shares with us a positive attitude toward the Cuban revolution. In terms of the Marxist movement per se, we have to find ways to work more closely with the activists around the Guardian newspaper. While many of them continue to have Maoist prejudices, there are others who have been friendly to our work in the antiwar movement. The idea is to open discussion and a sure way to cut discussion off is to regard them as “opponents”. Our only true opponents are in Washington, DC.

This new sense of openness to other groups on the left has organizational consequences that I will now outline.

E) REDEFINING OUR ORGANIZATIONAL PRINCIPLES

Much of our understanding of “democratic centralism” has been shaped by James P. Cannon’s writings. Although the notion of 500 to 1500 people united ideologically around a homogenous program has a lot to recommend itself, it can only go so far in building a revolutionary party. This was Cannon’s contribution. He showed how a small band of cadre dedicated to Trotsky’s critique of Stalin could emerge as a serious force on the American left.

Although this will sound like heresy to most of you, I want to propose that Cannon’s writings are a roadblock to further growth, especially in a period when Stalinism is not a hegemonic force. In reality, Lenin’s goal was to unite Russian Marxism, which existed in scattered circles. Our goal should be identical. Despite our commitment to Trotsky’s theories, we are not interested in constructing a mass Trotskyist movement. That would be self-defeating. Many people who are committed to Marxism are not necessarily committed to Trotsky’s analysis of the Spanish Civil War, WWII, etc. We should take the same attitude that Lenin took toward the Russian left at the turn of the century. We should serve as a catalyst for uniting Marxists on a national basis.

Are we afraid to function in a common organization with Castroists, partisans of the Chinese Revolution, independent Marxists of one sort or another? Not at all. We should not put a barrier in the way of unity with the tens of thousands of Marxists in the United States, many who hold leading positions in the trade union and other mass movements. The only unity that interests us is the broad unity of the working people and their allies around class struggle principles. Our disagreements over historical and international questions can be worked out in a leisurely fashion in the party press. In fact we would encourage public debates over how to interpret such questions in our press, since they can make us even more attractive to people investigating which group to join. It is natural that you would want to join a group with a lively internal life.

This question of ‘democratic centralism’ has to be thoroughly reviewed. Although the Militant will be running a series of articles on “Lenin in Context” this year, which explores the ways in which this term was understood by the Bolsheviks and then transformed by his epigones, we can state with some assuredness right now that it was intended to govern the actions of party members and not their thoughts. The Bolshevik Party, once it voted on a strike, demonstration, etc., expected party members to function under the discipline of the party to build such actions. It never intended to discipline party members to defend the same political analysis in public. We know, for example, that there are different interpretations of Vietnamese Communism in our party. We should not expect party members to keep their views secret if they are in the minority. This is not only unnatural–it leads to cult thinking.

F) CONCLUSION

As many of these proposals seem radically different from the principles we’ve operated on in the past, I want to make sure that all disagreements–especially from older cadre who worked side by side with James P. Cannon–are given proper consideration. The last thing we want is to railroad the party into accepting this new orientation. Since a revolution can only be made by the conscious intervention of the exploited and oppressed masses into the historical process, its party must encourage the greatest expression of conscious political decision-making. There are no shortcuts to a revolution. And there are no shortcuts to building a revolutionary party.

June 13, 2014

Goodbye, Lenin

Goodbye Lenin

by LOUIS PROYECT

I hope that CounterPunch readers will forgive me for taking valuable time away from my film reviews of neglected treasures while I answer one of my critics from the “Leninist” left. As it happens, Paul Le Blanc, the International Socialist Organization’s avuncular scholar of Bolshevik history, devoted pretty much of a whole chapter to me in his latest book “Unfinished Leninism” (the chapter has the same title) and I would like the opportunity to use CounterPunch for my reply.

I am not accustomed to answering points made in a book but since many of the arguments about what Lenin stood for and whether he has any relevance for today’s left take place in books and in Historical Materialism, a high-toned print journal behind a paywall, I really have no choice. As a strong believer in the Internet, I would prefer to debate there since I see it as the modern counterpart of the Gutenberg press, the primary means of communication of our rebel forerunners. My guess is that if the quarrelsome Lenin were alive today, he would be conducting his debates on the Internet as well.

As a history professor, Le Blanc is obviously much more comfortable holding forth from a lectern or the printed page. That’s true for the rest of the ISO as well that sees the Internet as a necessary evil. As a handy tool to distribute an electronic version of their print publications, it would be much better if it weren’t a breeding ground for bilious critics and those who circulate their top-secret internal bulletins.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/06/13/goodbye-lenin/

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