Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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/

November 8, 2013

Make a contribution to Counterpunch

Filed under: Counterpunch,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 7:46 pm

Screen shot 2013-11-08 at 2.44.42 PM
I just donated $100 to the Counterpunch fund-drive (http://store.counterpunch.org/) and strongly urge you to do so as well. At the risk of sounding like one of those annoying NPR or PBS people during their fund-drive, let me show you how little this would cost you in comparison to the reward: keeping the most important “hard left” website afloat.

$100 per year comes to about 28 cents a day, the amount of small change that you would barely notice if it fell out of your pocket behind a sofa cushion. I pay $2.50 per day to read the N.Y. Times but if I had a choice between Counterpunch and the Gray Lady, I would not hesitate. You could always switch to the Washington Post but there is only one Counterpunch.

On the Counterpunch home page, the editors remind us that it’s celebrating its 20th anniversary. Although most people associate Counterpunch with the web and the editorial team of Alexander Cockburn and Jeff St. Clair, it actually was launched in 1994 by Ken Silverstein as a print newsletter in the same format as Doug Henwood’s LBO. I took out a sub to Counterpunch just as soon as I learned of it from an ad in the back pages of the Nation Magazine. In the first year of Counterpunch, there’s an article based on an interview Ken did with me about the mass layoffs of IT managers at Goldman-Sachs.

After Counterpunch devolved into the capable hands of Alexander Cockburn, Ken went on to a series of jobs with different newspapers and magazines, and is now ensconced at Harper’s, a magazine that I have been subbed to since the early 80s. In fact, my staples—periodicals that I rely on—are Harper’s, Counterpunch, LBO and the NY Times.

Harper’s has a real connection to the fundraising appeal I am making here. As you probably know, the publisher John MacArthur hates the Internet, viewing it as a threat to journalism and to humanity in general. Like Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier, he views it as a plot by people like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg to turn us into slaves of the Big Machine a la Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. When I put a Harper’s article (a Terry Eagleton review of Sperber’s Karl Marx biography) on the Marxmail website, I got email from Harper’s demanding that I take it down. It probably did not occur to them that the people who read the article might have been enticed to take out a subscription to the magazine on the basis of the theft of their precious intellectual property.

MacArthur’s big complaint is that the Internet will destroy serious journalism by removing it from the commodity chain. While it is true that an article on the Louisiana oil company depredations by Ken Silverstein requires a serious outlay in terms of transportation and housing costs, not to speak of his salary, there are articles in Counterpunch that are just as vital as Ken’s. They, however, are not behind a paywall.

That is where you come in, dear readers. We need a mainstream liberal magazine like Harper’s but we need Counterpunch even more. Where else are you going to get quality articles written by a wide range of authors five days a week? The content of the Counterpunch archives are an amazing resource for any leftie doing research on some topic. For example, if you Google “fracking” using the Counterpunch domain, you will get 6,100 hits—all of them relevant to the research project of exposing the corporate polluters. This is certainly worth 28 cents a day.

Finally, I want to deal with the question of some of the static Counterpunch has generated this year, particularly with the ISO attack on “sexism”. It is very important to understand that Counterpunch—at least the way I see it—is not a party newspaper like the ISO’s. Jeff and Joshua Frank do not sit down and plot out an agenda for 2014 with the aim of establishing cells of disciplined cadre everywhere determined to win the masses to the St. Clair/Frank programme for communist revolution.

In fact it is the very undisciplined character of Counterpunch that makes it unique. What better symbol of that was the Cockburn—St. Clair partnership that persisted even when they were miles apart on global warming? I began writing for Counterpunch on the invitation of Jeff St. Clair after he read my tirade about an article supporting the jailing of Pussy Riot that had appeared on Counterpunch. Also, you may have noticed the publication of a piece about Syria I had written recently. It went against what regularly appears on Counterpunch. If the vanguard party newspapers were 1/100th as inclusive as Counterpunch, we’d all be a lot better off. If you study the real history of the Russian revolutionary movement, you will learn that Counterpunch has much more in common with Iskra or Pravda than any of these “party line” newspapers.

At any rate, in a period of deepening social and economic crisis, a publication like Counterpunch is more necessary than ever. I created the Marxism mailing list in order to allow revolutionary socialists worldwide to communicate. Not more than a day or so goes by without me linking to a Counterpunch article, totaling 3,490 at this point. That speaks volumes for its importance. I urge you to donate $100 like me or $50, or whatever you can afford. As they say, “from each according to their ability…” Then, of course, everybody needs Counterpunch equally.

October 10, 2013

A Letter to Comrades in the International Socialist Organization (ISO)

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

Dear Comrades:

We are a group of former ISO members from the Chicago district.

We left the organization over the past two to five years (at different points) but remain loyal to the ISO and the politics of International Socialism.

We estimate we have one hundred years combined experience in the ISO.

We have developed, or have on reflection developed, some serious concerns about organizational practice within the ISO and its approach to its membership and political perspectives.

Some of us were dealt with in a uncomradely and undemocratic manner upon raising political disagreements. Some of us were forced out of the organization.

Some of us were part of leadership teams that acted (at times) in an uncomradely and undemocratic manner towards comrades who raised dissenting viewpoints; such actions were not individual aberrations at the level of district or branch committees but were directed from the highest ranks of the ISO.

All of us began to ask questions about the underlying causes of these problems and, while we are not in agreement on everything, we have come to a few conclusions.

full: A Letter to Comrades in the International Socialist Organization (ISO)

August 30, 2013

Whither North Star?

Filed under: Pham Binh,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 8:24 pm

varnC. Derick Varn, North Star’s new editor

This morning when I checked in on the North Star website, I spotted a Youtube clip of George Galloway’s speech to parliament opposing British intervention in Syria. As much as I enjoyed Galloway’s debate with Christopher Hitchens and as much as I am opposed to Obama launching missiles against Syria (or anywhere else in the world), my reaction was similar to the one I would have had if after turning on my favorite classical radio station, I heard the strains of Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” instead. What the fuck? George Galloway? The guy who gets paid 80,000 pounds a year by the Syrians and the Iranians to make their case?

As some of you may know, Pham Binh resigned from the North Star editorial board three days ago, stating that he was “retiring from political writing to take care of long-neglected problems and people in my personal life”. This leaves C. Derick Varn and Pavel Dubrovsky as co-editors in chief. Despite lip-service they are paying to the idea of continuing with the mission of North Star, I doubt that this will be possible even if that is their stated opinion. I know nothing about Dubrovsky but Varn’s political past sets off all sorts of warning bells even if I cannot regard him as politically retrograde. In fact, it is hard to get any kind of fix on his political views, something that obviously was not the case with Pham Binh. I will be returning to the question of North Star’s future but will now take a look at its past—starting with its birth.

I can’t remember exactly when I wrote it, but about a year before I retired I alluded to some projects that would be possible after I retired. One of them was an online newspaper that would be in the spirit of Lenin’s Iskra, a place where socialists could post articles, interviews, Youtube videos, etc. as well as debate with each other.

In late 2011 Pham Binh broached the subject of launching a website along these lines but focused on the Occupy movement. Since I was impressed with Binh’s writings and since we had agreement about the “party” question, I gave it the green light. As far as I was concerned, this was Binh’s baby. I put up the three or four hundred dollars for the WordPress template and the hosting. I also provided technical support early on. That was my total involvement.

The website was called “The North Star” in honor of Peter Camejo’s network that I was part of in the early 80s, and ultimately in honor of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper whose name Peter had adopted. He was committed to the idea that American socialists had to dump the icons of the Russian (or Chinese past) like the hammer-and-sickle and utilize images and themes that resonated with our own history.

Binh and I had high hopes that the Occupy movement could develop into something long-lasting and powerful but a combination of factors led to its demise. After the repression that Obama helped to organize wrested the activists from the public spaces, they had trouble refocusing their energy. Despite some successes around opposing evictions and aid to Hurricane Sandy victims, the movement wound down. This meant that the North Star would have to change focus. Binh made the decision to take up party-building questions more directly, as well as the dynamics of the Arab Spring. The articles he wrote about “Leninism” for North Star were extremely valuable, especially the one that made the case rather convincingly that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were never separate parties but factions of the same party—an analysis that Lars Lih came to support.

With respect to the Arab Spring, Binh and the North Star became lightning rods after his articles defending the right of the Libyans to call for a no-fly zone put him in the same category as Christopher Hitchens for the “anti-imperialist” wing of the left. To his credit, Binh defended his views against all comers. His willingness to debate anybody who dared to cross swords with him reminded me of the viral Youtube video of the honey badger, the one that shows the beast sticking his snout into a beehive with the narrator saying, “Honey badger gets bit but he doesn’t give a shit. He wants his honey.”

In the course of participating in Occupy Wall Street, not far from his workplace, Binh came in contact with Ben Campbell, a Canadian neuroscience PhD student who had become radicalized in the struggle and had begun studying Marxism in earnest. Ben, like Binh, was both brilliant and a quick learner. Unfortunately, like Binh, he had personal problems that would eventually make it impossible for him to continue with North Star.

In his naiveté, Ben joined the Platypus Society, a group that consists of highly educated graduate students and professors who are self-avowed enemies of the left today in the name of rescuing Marxism from itself. It is a curious mixture of the philosophy of Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt school doyen, and the Spartacist League. The founder of the Platypus group, an art historian named Chris Cutrone, was a member of the Spartacist League and has never gotten over their kibitzing style. The approach is to sit on the sidelines castigating the left for its failures. Back when it was still on the left, Frank Furedi’s sect in Britain had the same illness.

Since I had become detached from the internal workings of the North Star, I can’t be sure about this but I have a strong suspicion that it was through Ben Campbell that connections with Platypus members was made, including C. Derick Varn—a former member. Here’s an interview of Ben Campbell by Varn in February 2013, when he was still a member, on the blog of Ross Wolfe, another Platypus member.

Just around the time that Varn became an editor along with Binh, Binh’s personal situation began to deteriorate. I can’t be sure when Varn came on board, but my impression is that Binh was so deluged by personal woes that having any kind of support was welcomed even if Varn’s provenance had little to do with the North Star’s mission. I think perhaps in Varn’s mind, there was a connection between the two projects since they both involved sweeping attacks on the existing left. The key difference, however, was that Binh had an activist orientation and sought more than anything to lay the groundwork for a new left, in the same manner as Peter Camejo in the early 80s and Bert Cochran in the early 50s. In a way, it is unfortunate that just at the time that the conditions are most propitious for such a development, Binh’s personal situation has forced him to retire from writing.

Turning back to the North Star website, I really have no idea what Varn and company intend. The sad fact is that not a single one of the editors has ever written an article there. Varn and fellow editor Dario Cankovich have posted interviews there from time to time but unlike Binh have never written a single article. Of course, a preemptory search turned nothing up and I accept the possibility that I might have missed something but to be sure their views were not dominant.

Frankly, I would not have a problem with them using the North Star for their own ends, even if they were opposite Binh’s. If I can get something out of Crooked Timber, I can surely get something out of a rival band of well-educated grad students. Maybe Varn will tire of this venture and move on to other things. As he put it once:I have the nasty habit of flirting with various ideological tendencies, going through a myriad of variations of each, and seemingly changing colors with each of them like a demented chameleon.”

Abraham Marx article about the North Star website

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 3:51 pm

(I plan to write my own commentary today.)

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

-Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

 I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. … I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD. …

-William Lloyd Garrison

For millennia, brave navigators of sea and land would reckon their position, distance, and direction by the stars above. One of the most reliable for reckoning was the North Star. It had many names. Polaris was one. Few held as constant a place in the sky; nearly all the other stars and constellations wobbled in parallax. The night sky was a sure map and a calming expanse to untold numbers of humans caught up in strife, enduring the evils of wicked kings, lost at sea or far from home; it was the very presence of the divine, revealing secrets of the harvest, hints of the future.

In human affairs, there are few such constants. One of these is the enduring threat of slavery, one human in undisputed legal and psychological mastery over another. A slave put in the carriage of every Roman Emperor leading a triumph, an incarnated reminder of this threat. Another constant, dialectic-diametric, is opposing slavery for what it is, an unmitigated evil allowing every other possible cruelty and injustice. The lengths to which a master must go to ensure the submission and obedience of the slave, and the lengths to which a slave will go to win his freedom, are competing parallels of will.

Slavery is a wicked darkness, a night sky without starlight; freedom’s glimmer as steady a light in darkness as the North Star. This must have been the basic thinking behind Fredrick Douglass’ creation of an abolitionist newspaper called the North Star. His paper was small and struggled on for a few years. It tried to avoid attacking the reputation or sway of larger abolitionist papers like The Liberator. It later merged with another small abolitionist paper, and continued publication up until the Civil War.

The masthead of its first issue is unequivocal:

“The object of the North Star will be to attack slavery in all its forms and aspects; advocate universal emancipation; exalt the standard of public morality; promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the colored people; and hasten the day of freedom to the three millions of our enslaved fellow countrymen.”

What the North Star can teach the North Star I leave to the proprietors and supporters of the North Star. I infer that this name was chosen to move past sectarianism and scholasticism, and point the way toward a broader movement. The about page of the website says sort of the same thing, though it chooses to lead with Camejo (who?) instead of Douglass…

A paper that takes up the abolitionist mantle is striving to earn and exercise the authority of a distinctly American radicalism. What would that mean?

It might mean cleaning house –purging the American left of the fetish jargons and hobbyhorses of Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Gramsci, Hardt and Negri, et al.  Extinguishing instead of fueling an endless quibble over sects, Camejo and Schachtman, SWP, ISO WSWS, etc etc etc etc.

It might consider narrowing its focus, covering only the United States of America, and its domestic and foreign policies. Striving to do so in a way that is competitive and threatening to mainstream outlets. This narrow focus would incubate constructive and cohesive coverage. And it would invite similarly disciplined outlets to carve into different niches. The earliest waves of articles (February 2012-a little past May Day 2012) the North Star published were reports of local Occupy movements and debates over future strategy. Trying to serve as ‘catch-all’ for grievances and radicalism (similar to Counterpunch or Truthout) is light pollution making navigation by stars more difficult.

It might consider going over to the offensive, engaging hostile blogospheres and news outlets, chronicling the movement and debates of genuine enemies. Enemies like the officer class, like the Republican fringe, like the neoreactionaries. There is just as much diversity and factionalism on the other side of the barricade; only they know how to march in lockstep against anything to their left, which often includes people like Romney. Engaging them, either to provoke further division among them, to fight hand to hand, or merely to understand the enemy, would focus the Marxist mind and bring clear consensus.

It might consider that publishing articles confirming stereotypes of the left can’t help, further embroiling it in a circular logic it needs to escape. For example, the animal question, or revisiting old slogans like democratic centralism, Leninism, anti-imperialism et al. Then there are the oh so clever academic flavored canards like anti-philosophy, and anti-politics. Eschewing high theory, debates over left liturgy, actively ignoring sectarian nonsense, and staying out of problems it can have no influence over, like Syria, would lead to editorial focus, longer-sighted strategy, and practical goals.

I may yet write a devil’s advocate criticism of the Left. It would be withering. Perhaps that is the only way to bring faults to light. But for now it suffices to say that many of the subjects of the merciless criticism of radicals are hobbyhorses – outgrowths of academic interests from college, emotional responses to a social-engineered divisiveness over cultural values, an intellectualized form of venting steam or of transposing personality politics onto ideological hairsplitting. The name-calling the left resorts to among itself exemplifies this: someone is racist or sexist or homophobic or imperialist or conservative or reactionary or –ist as soon as disagreements arise.

Make no mistake, the North Star could outdo the North Star. Given a clearer self-concept, functional alliances with other left outlets, and acquiring the taste for drawing blood from real opponents.

It could simply sneak into the powerful arsenal that is American history and arm the slaves with knowledge of their unfreedom. Abolitionism is powerful precisely because of its simplicity.

The basic framing of Abolitionism basically writes its own ticket, its own messaging. It dispenses with the need for Europhilic-Marxical language. Marx makes use of the two key terms ‘emancipate’ and ‘abolish’ in exactly the same sense as abolitionists did. This is no accident, it is how to smuggle Marx into the country by hiding his accent. Abolitionism brings the instincts and aims of political radicalism into the mainstream of American discourse. Furthermore, it outflanks the naïve hagiography of the Civil Rights Era, takes MLK off his pedestal, and leads him and his cohorts into the larger pantheon of heroes who fought for emancipation in the broadest possible sense.

Slavery is evil. Every form of support for slavery, especially the passive or implicit support, must be revealed and destroyed. There is no grey area, no middle ground, when it comes to slavery. Abolitionists are the only force strong enough to tear down every single legalistic, institutional, or patriotic argument that slaveowners or their mouthpieces could offer forth. Bolsheviks were the only force strong enough to dismantle Tsarism, refuse castration by liberal loyalties and apologia, and crush White forces.

Here we hit onto both the problem and its solution. Capitalism has revealed itself to be merely a slightly abstracted form of slavery. Whatever progressive content it had died in World War One, and was only propped up by the postwar Golden Age of welfare statism. We now have the worst of all possible worlds; neo-feudalism for the poor, communist solidarity among the wealthy, and we call it capitalism. Our bondage has become less abstract as it has become more and more concrete as mortgage, student, and medical debt-slavery.  Chains have become heavier and heavier in the form of wage-slavery, a wage slavery without even the illusion of savings, growth, or progress. Ashworth argues that budding capitalism and slave-labor could one coexist in America, but became incompatible as the republic expanded. We are now reaching an era in which capitalism and democracy are becoming increasingly incompatible.

Boiling it down to this, debt slavery or wage slavery, the country a company store or a debtor’s prison, means we don’t need to bring in anything other than a demand for emancipation. We must abolish slavery. (This is of course overlooking the ‘invention of capitalism’ that Perelman chronicles, that Marx called ‘primitive accumulation, that Harvey calls ‘accumulation by dispossession. If we wrap capital, dripping blood from every pore, up in the finery of neoclassical economics, it still has no manners and begins ordering us about as if we were its slaves, because we willingly and freely decided to enter the workforce and get onto its payroll.)

In Freehling’s book on secessionists, he devotes the opening chapters to portraying the day-to-day struggle balancing the status of the slave, tricky, deceitful, or de facto independent, with how masters endlessly refined methods to ensure maximum compliance, and the appearance of consent. Every social and institutional aid was necessary to ensure that the slave-owner’s will was sovereign. “Guns and books must never reach slave hands.” (61) The amount of rules, regulations, protocols, and ‘suggestions’ a slave had to abide by were innumerable. As Tacitus says, “The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government.” Who among us is not caught between juggling which (immigration, narcotic, sexual, labor) laws we violate, how often and when? Is that not the status of someone who is legally unfree?

If we are all slaves to pieces of paper called money or debt (or stocks or treasuries) then who are the slaveowners and how do we characterize them? They are the ultra-rich, a ruling class composed of people like Bloomberg and Soros and Murdoch and the Koch brothers. These are the owners of the United States, a plantation-state at best. They gladly suffer a coterie of fools in the media to think that they are free by making sure they have more money than they could reasonably spend (but not enough to build up a power base). Reporters, actors, popstars and the like.

And then of course there are the house slaves, the cops and bureaucrats and officers of the armed forces, the administrators of hospitals and schools. They fiercely uphold their cherished place in the house and vent all their rage and fear on the slaves out in the field. That is, those of us without a state sinecure, excess wealth, or raw power. Malcolm X made much hay with society as a plantation.

If it isn’t clear enough to anyone. Liberals have lost their way. They are very lame. They are stuck in a weird obsessive relationship with their masters – conservatives. As such they are by turns seeking the approval of these slaveowners, who will never give their approval, will never admit slavery is ‘wrong,’ and so liberals will never win its everlasting ‘argument’ or ‘debate’ with the slaveowning elite (who see this ‘argument’/’debate’ for what it really is – a ‘fight’ for their survival – and so have no limit to their ruthlessness). Perhaps more could be said about this in a different article, reminding us how liberals behaved in 1848, 1917, 1933.

The antebellum era has other useful insights. A government held in perpetual crisis, in large part because an elite class uses all its clout to muddle every other issue, as thin edge of the wedge or as bargaining chip to entrench and perpetuate its dominance.

The basic principle behind the Homestead Act, cheap housing which encourages social and geographical mobility AND individual initiative, is antithetical to what housing policy has been since at least Herbert Hoover, a debt-chain of obligation discouraging socialistic politics. The basic purpose of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and its remarkable effectiveness in the face of Congressional hostility and miniscule funding, could point the way to what a 21st century Reconstruction would be like. There is more too, if you care to look for it: protectionism, state funding for infrastructure projects, strong Federal intervention in critical spheres.

Abolitionism also has the benefit of revealing what lies behind the arguments for ‘State’s Rights,’ continued Southern dominance over American politics. Volume 3 of Robert Caro’s LBJ should make this point clear enough. The Senate is “‘the South’s unending revenge upon the North for Gettysburg’ not just revenge, unending revenge.” (xxiii) The South rules through state-houses, the Senate, and through party unity. (HEY! Abolitionists were some of the founding fathers of the GOP, and some of its strongest supporters and backers in the run-up to the Civil War; this threads the needle of what I said in my first article.)

To stand against a slaveowning elite requires a hard and uncompromising strength. It requires unbending principles that cannot be diluted, bought off, or misdirected. The Bolshevik stands against the Tsar because he cannot bend the knee. The Abolitionist stands against the Slaveowner because he will not become a slave.

The last and greatest benefit to the abolitionist frame is that emancipation is the goal. Every single individual who begins the process of self-emancipation is a victory. Self-expression is not the goal. Self-discipline and willpower grow, and become means to still greater ends. The slave who flees captivity, across the field or in his mind, becomes an example to other slaves, and a greater threat to the slaveowners. Enough of them go free, and a revolution occurs.

The North Star has given itself big shoes to fill simply by virtue of aligning itself with a name from the past. Can it live up to its name? Or will it meet Marx’s dictum about things that happen twice in history?

July 22, 2013

Recent debates in the British SWP over Leninism

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 8:19 pm

Martin Smith, aka “Comrade Delta” and formerly the national chairman of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, just resigned from the organization undoubtedly to relieve pressure on the party leadership that colluded to clear Smith of charges of raping a 19-year-old party member. As an irritant to the party minority (or looming majority), nobody could top Martin Smith even if they tried. When this young party member brought charges against Smith, the investigating committee asked about her drinking habits. Who could put up with such an affront except Smith’s cronies and party members who had surrendered their independence of mind? If this reminds you of how the Catholic Church, corporations, the military, and other bourgeois institutions deal with sexist behavior, you’d be right.

For me the interesting question has always been whether the party would have been roiled by mass resignations and open factional warfare if this incident had not taken place. Clearly the party was fragmenting along one political line or another for some time. The first significant split occurred in 2010 when John Rees and Lindsay German left the party to create a group around the website Counterfire mostly around differences over strategy for the mass movement.

In the more recent defections and drawing of factional lines by members still within the party, there have been debates over policy but also over the fundamental question of how to build a revolutionary organization. The members most publicly committed to the “Leninist” status quo, such as Alex Callinicos and John Molyneux, have had to put up with challenges from a range of party members including long-time Cuba “expert” Mike Gonzalez. If Gonzalez was only half as sharp on Cuba as he was on “Leninism”, I for one would be most grateful. Sam Farber, of course, is a lost cause.

After Callinicos wrote a piece for the January 2013 Socialist Review titled “Is Leninism finished?” that brazened out the sectarian status quo, he was answered by Gonzalez in an internal article titled “Who will teach the teachers” that has been circulated widely on the Internet, that dastardly petite-bourgeois medium. I liked the final paragraph best:

We should stop trading quotes from Lenin. Not that he has not much to teach us, but that the first lesson he will offer is that the forms and methods of organization of revolutionaries will be shaped by the historical circumstance, and will change constantly as those circumstances change. There are no rules to be applied, no constitutions to obey. There is a revolutionary method – one part of which acknowledges that the teachers must themselves be taught by those they set out to instruct.

While Gonzalez’s article was only for the eyes of party members, recent issues of Socialist Review reveal the debate spilling over into the public sphere. In the June issue, Ian Birchall wrote a piece titled “What does it mean to be a Leninist?” that echoed Gonzalez. This sentence pretty much encapsulated Birchall’s view and hopefully that of the faction that is challenging Callinicos:

There is no such thing as the “Leninist party”, outlined in What Is To Be Done? or any other instruction manual.

I was also pleased to see Birchall’s reference to Lenin’s worries over the organizational proposal of Wilhelm Koenen that exhibited a schematic approach to “Bolshevik” norms.

In his final speech to the Communist International in 1922 Lenin insisted: “The resolution [on organisation] is too Russian; it reflects Russian experience. That is why it is quite unintelligible to foreigners… They must assimilate part of the Russian experience. Just how that will be done, I do not know.”

I referred to Lenin’s remarks when I wrote an article titled “The Comintern and German Communism” back in 2000 or so. Now I am not so sure whether Lenin should get off the hook completely. Despite his uneasiness with Koenen’s resolution, he voted for it. More worryingly, he was adamantly for the 21 Conditions that represented a departure from the more 2nd Internationalist conceptions of party-building. Despite Lars Lih’s contention that Lenin remained a Kautskyist to the end, I am afraid that a “new party” did emerge under his stewardship. However, I am not referring to the Prague Conference of 1912 that people like Paul Le Blanc regard as a definitive break with Menshevism and the ratification of a “revolutionary” party-building model that groups like the SWP (and the ISO arguably) identify with. Instead I am talking about the efforts to impose rigid guidelines in the early 1920s under the hothouse conditions of the victorious revolution and the hatred for the Second International bred by its support for World War One.

Probably the worst part of Koenen’s resolution is item #46: “The party as a whole is under the leadership of the Communist International.” [emphasis in the original]. This, of course, is the conception fully embraced by Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev alike that led to a disaster in Germany. The best thing for Germany would have been for the Comintern to butt out.

Callinicos gets in the last word in an article in the latest issue of Socialist Review titled “What sort of party do we need?“ As might have been expected, he reduces the differences to one over “reform” versus “revolution”, as if belonging to a revolutionary party is some kind of condom that protects you against counter-revolutionary practice. Without adequate protection, you open the door to the nasty germs of reformism. One foolish act can haunt you for the rest of your life. This Platonic understanding of “revolutionary” has little in common with the way that the Bolsheviks functioned. It has more to do with sacraments taken in the Catholic Church that protect you from Satan.

Unfortunately Callinicos has nothing to say on the more interesting question, namely how the organizational principles of the SWP developed. To make a long story short, Tony Cliff embraced the more conventional understandings of democratic centralism that were handed down from Trotsky to his next generation of followers even if he decided that the “workers state” ideology was to be discarded. I doubt that any of the groups based on these precepts, from Cliff’s to Ted Grant’s, really gave much thought to the question of why you would form a group based on a given analysis of the “Russian question”. Did Lenin ever consider the position one takes on when the French revolution became degenerated a litmus test? Nor has Alex Callinicos ever considered why the norm of “internal documents” has some special hallowed importance in “Leninist” organizations. The truth is that none were published in Lenin’s day prior to the seizure of power in 1917. If it was a practice never carried out in the days of the printing press, how much more irrelevant does it seem today when everything is either digitized or easily converted from print to electronic format?

To conclude, it seems obvious that things are very fluid on the far left in terms of the “Leninism” question. There are three approaches that appear to be crystallizing, largely out of discussions prompted by Lars Lih’s book on “What is to be Done”, initiatives being taken in Australia and France by groups committed in the past to one degree or another to Zinovievist practices, and perhaps most powerfully by the crisis in the SWP. One approach is supported by Callinicos and other Trotskyist groups such as those led by Alan Woods and Peter Taaffe. Basically, nothing has changed for them. There is a clear line that connects them to Wilhelm Koenen’s organizational guidelines presented to the Comintern in 1921, even if not carried out to the letter. These guidelines were absorbed and deepened in the 1924 “Bolshevization” Comintern presided over by Zinoviev.

The second approach is embodied by groups like the Socialist Alliance in Australia and the NPA in France that have moved radically to drop the Zinovievist baggage. Groups moving in this direction are the ISO in the USA and the Socialist Alternative in Australia that understand that something was wrong in the way that the SWP conducted itself but are reluctant to go so far as to break with some key “Leninist” norms, most particularly being organized around a program that is fairly tightly circumscribed. This leads to a party that is homogeneous and by necessity subject to a glass ceiling on future growth.

The third approach was first developed by Solidarity in the USA, a group launched in 1986 as a multi-current formation dispensing with Leninist norms. Unfortunately inertia and aging cadres have served to limit its usefulness. Today, I look forward to multiple initiatives taking place in Britain to break with “democratic centralism”, at least in the way it is understood by groups like the SWP. I am very encouraged by the example being set by the comrades who resigned en masse from the SWP now known as the International Socialism Network. They are iconoclasts organizationally in exactly the fashion that is needed. By, for example, publishing their steering committee minutes on the Internet, they are clearly thinking outside the box. More power to them.

Finally, there are the young people associated with the North Star website who are becoming a pole of attraction for others in the USA who want to lay the groundwork for a new left committed to socialism and the right of every member of an organization that emerges out of a long and necessary process to be treated with respect. Revolutionary organizations operating in capitalist society are not some kind of coming attraction of the socialist world we all seek, but we can certainly hope that they can at least operate on the basis of genuine equality. In my time in the American SWP, I always felt that there was a hierarchy in some ways worse than the banks and insurance companies that employed me. This was a complaint I heard repeatedly about the British SWP’s central committee that in its own way was as unaccountable as a corporate board.

Those days must come to an end, not just from the standpoint of respect for the individual, but out of a need for collective thinking—the only way to make an organization powerful. If the American SWP had paid more attention to the concerns that the ordinary member had over the “turn to industry”, perhaps the group might have not imploded (this leaves aside the question of course whether it could have ever developed into a mass party.) If the British SWP had not taken the word of a top leader like Martin Smith automatically over the word of a 19-year-old female, the crisis would have not happened.

In any case, without ceding any ground to some of the lamer conceptions that go along with the word favored so much in autonomist circles, a whole lot more “horizontalism” is needed—the sooner the better.

July 7, 2013

The ISO’s multiple personalities

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

In the 1950s pop culture was obsessed with multiple personality disorder, an illness that was often confused with schizophrenia. Someone who had multiple personalities was “schizoid”; in other words they were split into two or more identities (the term schizo is Greek for split). For example, the film “The Three Faces of Eve” starred Joanne Woodward as a woman with three personalities. You can see the specific amalgam between the two diseases in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” where Anthony Perkins was himself as well as his dead mom.

Ahmed Shawki

Now you might ask yourself what in the hell this has to do with Marxism. Okay, let me explain. I see the ISO as suffering from multiple personality disorder. I just finished listening to their long-time leader Ahmed Shawki address their recently held conference in Chicago on “Perspectives for the Left”. The talk went about as far as you can go in calling for a break with Zinovievism at the same time as Paul Le Blanc, their resident expert on “Leninism”, is going around giving speeches on why the 21 Conditions and Morris Lewitt’s rant to the American SWP’s 1945 convention about being “monopolists” in the sphere of politics made sense in their day. I would only say that even if these sectarian initiatives made sense in their day, it is a big mistake to bring them up now. It is like taking the skeletons out of your closet, putting them in formal wear, and making them the guests of honor at a dinner party. The best place for these skeletons right now is six feet under.

It strikes me that the American ISO and the people who departed the British SWP are on the same wavelength in terms of political analysis but obviously in an existentially different place when it comes to Zinovievism. In contrast to Callinicos’s group, Shawki and Richard Seymour see eye to eye on SYRIZA. That’s progress! After all, once you are outside of a group like the SWP and convinced that trying to recreate a “healthy” one is a task not worth undertaking, then you become driven by that logic to explore new opportunities such as Ken Loach’s Left Unity or whatever else comes your way. Clearly, the British left is much further ahead than the American left in shedding the dead skin of “Leninism”.

Most of Shawki’s talk was devoted to an examination of the “catastrophism” that the 1960s left operated under. Most of us assumed that the radicalization that had sunk deep roots into the student, Black, women’s, and gay movements would eventually reach the working class even as this outlook was less pronounced in the American SWP. Shawki describes a split in the IS group that led to the formation of the ISO that reflected this “revolution is just around the corner” urgency. His faction was skeptical of the “turn” toward the industrial working class that the American SWP would itself embark upon just a few years later. That, in my opinion, is the main reason the ISO has grown. Instead of sending its cadres into coalmines and meat-packing plants, it allowed them (or directed them—I have no way of knowing) to work as teachers or social workers. That is why the SWP, which had close to 2000 members in 1972, now numbers 100 while the ISO that started out with 100 is probably at least 1500 members strong.

Speaking of numbers, Shawki addressed the “glass ceiling” question that I have referred to on many occasions. In my view the “Zinovievist” model is very good at going from 100 to 1000 members (and vice versa of course.) What is not good at is getting to 10,000 or—better yet—100,000. Shawki does not use the term “glass ceiling” but refers to a “plateau”. He asks why the NYC local of the ISO cannot get past the 150 mark and move to 2-300.

He answers his own question by saying that the group has to find ways to accept people who do not agree with every dotted I and crossed T of the ISO. Of course, the main obstacle to turning this into a reality is the very culture that has been created in the ISO over the past 30 years or so. In the entire time I have interacted with ISO’ers on the Internet over the past 15 years or so, I have yet to run into a single member who departs from the groupthink that inevitably determines their interaction with other leftists—the kneejerk tendency to defend the party line on every single question. In the SWP we used to call this “loyalty”. It virtually makes independent thinking an impossible task. In groups such as these, there is a kind of division of labor. The full-timers who write for the magazine or those who serve on the national committee do the thinking while the “Jimmy Higgins” go out and sell the newspaper. In the American SWP, whenever we “recruited” a new member who had a long history of thinking and writing for themselves, we always felt better when they abandoned one of their “old” positions that we were uncomfortable with. It was like antibodies reacting to an infection.

I should add that the only ISO’er who departed from the norm was Todd Chretien who emailed a few times about 10 years ago expressing some doubts about the ISO’s position on Nicaragua and asking me for some references. About a year later I stopped hearing from him. It was not clear to me whether his comrades had laid down the law about consorting with Satan or whether my own obnoxious personality had done the trick.

Shawki said that the ISO would be taking some new initiatives to facilitate this more open (or less Zinoviest) approach that in the future might help to incubate an American SYRIZA. First and foremost is the relaunching of the International Socialist Review, which is described as a “new web site and a new print format”. I don’t know. If it was up to me, the ISR should have gone whole hog and followed the format of Links, the publication of the Socialist Alliance in Australia. Links is truly diverse and begins to satisfy the needs addressed in Lenin’s “What is to be Done”—a journal that can unite socialists and facilitate debate. For example, there is a fawning interview in the ISR with Vivek Chibber by Jason Farbman but no place to offer a comment. I would have loved to give the so-and-so a piece of my mind. You would think that an earlier fawning interview conducted by ISO member and Chibber dissertation student Jonah Birch would have sufficed.

The truth is that the ISO probably shares to a significant degree Alex Callinicos’s aversion to the Internet, where all sorts of riffraff hang out. It is too bad that there is a lingering hostility (albeit veiled) to a means of communication as important to the 21st century as the Gutenberg press was to the epoch of the bourgeois revolution. One wonders if the ISO is capable of spawning a single member who had the smarts and the backbone to begin a blog as audacious as Richard Seymour’s Lenin’s Tomb. I think that would go a long way in helping to transform the ISO, even though it might risk letting the genie out of the bottle.

In any case, despite my obvious skepticism about whether the ISO can make such a turn, I offer them a probably unsought “good luck”. Nothing would make me happier than to see a 10,000 strong ISO and me eating my words. Such a group could really begin to make a difference politically in the USA and god knows we need that.

I want to conclude with an article I wrote about a decade ago. It was written as an ex post facto declaration of a new way of doing business for the SWP—obviously something that never would have happened in an outfit that allowed Morris Lewitt to rant about being “monopolists” in the sphere of politics. I invite Ahmed to plagiarize large portions of it. Nothing in fact would make me happier.

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 25, 2013

Who were the Cochranites?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 5:34 pm

Harry Braverman

In the latest of an ongoing series of exchanges with Luke Cooper, a young British revolutionary whose critique of “Leninism” I share, Paul Le Blanc referred to some fairly ancient history that will likely be obscure to most on the left, even those who have been following this debate and others like it for the past decade or so.

In trying to paint James P. Cannon, the father of American Trotskyism, as someone open to the kinds of broad left unity taking place in Britain today, Le Blanc refers to the “regroupment” period of the mid-50s which had Cannon sounding sweet and reasonable at a 1958 public meeting:

Socialists of different tendencies have begun to think of each other as comrades. Free discussion and fraternization, and sentiment for united action and regroupment of all the scattered forces, are the order of the day for us now everywhere. I say that’s a good day for us and for our cause – the cause of American socialism.

This is part of a delicate balancing act being undertaken by the International Socialists Organization. They recognize that lip-service must be paid to the powerful historical tides are moving in the direction of broad left unity but are loath to give up the sectarian framework that has worked so well for them in the past. When you can build up an organization of more than a thousand committed activists in a relatively brief period based on the party-building methodology of people like Tony Cliff, James P. Cannon, Ted Grant et al, you feel vindicated. There is of course a need to speak in terms of becoming part of a broader vanguard party down the road but until history comes knocking on your door, why give up on the “market share” approach that has worked so well in the past?

In trying to burnish the image of Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party, Le Blanc offers a disparaging portrait of Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s Socialist Union, which existed from 1954 until 1960:

I was not recruited … by the group around Bert Cochran that left the SWP in the 1950s but had disappeared by the early 1960s. All of these had important things to say, offered compelling insights, contained admirable people, made genuine contributions. But none of them survived as an organized force, with revolutionary perspectives intact and some credibility, capable of recruiting and helping to political train the person that I was in the 1960s and 1970s. The SWP did survive as such a force, and it was able to grow and play a very positive role before succumbing to the contradictions that I have analyzed elsewhere.

There is of course a problem with the whole concept of recruitment that probably eludes Paul Le Blanc. If you go back to the early 1900s in Czarist Russia, the Social Democracy did not go out and recruit people. It was instead an organic outgrowth of a pre-existing socialist movement that had not yet cohered into an organization. Lenin wrote “What is to be Done” in order to accelerate such a cohesion.

This business about the “Cochranites” not having the same shelf life as the SWP is something I have heard before, including a crasser version made by a former member of the SWP who is a fan of the ISO. This was his comment on my blog:

And where are the Cochranites now? As they say, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”

Well, I suppose if the criterion is being “rich”, the Socialist Union was a loser. But I wouldn’t put much stock in longevity as a sign of wealth or health considering the fact that Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labor Party has the SWP beat by a mile.

The interesting thing for me is how incapable Paul Le Blanc was in understanding what Cochran and Braverman were up to. They had broken completely with the “recruitment” model of the SWP and were committed to a genuine regroupment of the sort that Cannon only paid lip service to.

In 1955, the radical weekly Guardian newspaper approached the SWP with a proposal to run a “united socialist” ticket, a hallmark of the regroupment period that often focused on electoral campaigns that could unite the left. Cannon wrote a letter to SWP leader Murray Weiss revealing what he thought of the Guardian, a paper that probably had 5 times as many readers than the Militant in the 1960s:

The American Guardian Monthly Review outfit, as far as I know … does not object to the general ideology of Stalinism on any important point. They are willing to endorse everything from the Moscow Trials to the Second World War and the pacifist ballyhoo for co-existence, if only they are allowed to do it as an independent party… The great bulk of these dissident Stalinists are worn-out people, incurably corrupted by Stalinist ideology, who haven’t the slightest intention or capacity to do anything but grumble at the official CP and to demand a stagnant little pond of their own to splash in.

When I joined the SWP in 1967, they organized a class on party history that featured the key leaders on all the famous fights and maneuvers calculated to convince us raw “recruits” that we had hooked up with the smartest people on earth. I can’t remember who gave a class on regroupment but I am damned sure that this was the consensus in 1967: regroupment was designed to recruit some of the best of the disillusioned CP’ers to the “vanguard party”, a rescue operation in effect. The highest-profile ex-CP’er to join the party was Clifton DeBerry, an African-American who ran for president on the SWP ticket in 1964.

Unlike the SWP, the Cochranites took the project seriously and no distinction could be made between their private and public utterances. Bert Cochran uttered these words to a meeting of 800 people in Chicago in November 1956 and you can be damned sure he meant them:

What we have to ask ourselves, I think, is this: Is it possible now in the light of the dolorous experience of American radicalism, and the greater knowledge we possess today of the Russian experiment, is it possible to look at Russia from higher vantage ground, and from the viewpoint of our own American needs even if we have some differences in our precise appreciations? Can the Left free itself from unthinking idolatry and the whitewashing of Russian crimes against socialism; and, on the other extreme, from the embittered hostility which misses the epic movement of historic progress, and can see in the Soviet bloc only the anti-Christ of our time.

IN other words, I am making a plea for sanity, for more mature judgment, for deeper historical insight, for an end to Left bigotry and Babbittry, for a cease-fire in our own cold war, for an effort at cooperation, and where possible, reconciliation.

For those who are impressed with longevity, there’s not much that can be said about the Socialist Union that lasted half a decade. But it is important to remember that Karl Marx, the founder of our movement, was not always involved in building organizations. I urge you to look at an article on Democratic Centralism written by Joaquín Bustelo for Solidarity that might fault Marx as well for not being “rich” in the terms outlined above.

Now one very important thing to note about Marx and Engels’s conception of the Communist Party as a leading force in the working class struggle is that this did not in the slightest cause them to hesitate in dissolving the organized expression of that party, the Communist League, only a few weeks after having written those lines in the Manifesto, when a revolution broke out in Germany.

Engels explains it very straightforwardly in his article “On the History of the Communist League, “simply as a function of political tasks. The old propaganda league was not suitable for the new conditions of Germany in revolution, a newspaper was a much better political instrument, so they wound up the underground League and founded the daily Neue Rheinische Zeitung.

I want to conclude with a talk I presented on the Cochranites to a conference on American Trotskyism organized by Paul Le Blanc thirteen years ago. Although I was anxious to get out the word on a group I closely identified with and whose former members had become like family (particularly Cynthia Cochran who treated me like a son), there was a sense that my talk would fall on deaf ears. There was still a strong belief that “democratic centralism” was an organizational measure worth pursuing. Thank goodness we are in a new era.

The Cochran-Braverman Legacy

According to Al Hansen, who wrote the preface to “Speeches to the Party”, a mostly obscure collection of James P. Cannon’s anti-Cochranite rants from the late 1940s and early 1950s:

. . . Sol and Genora [Dollinger] expressed the following views. The party should not be trying to build branches, running election campaigns, or even trying to recruit members in this period. The country was facing the triumph of fascism and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it because of the conservatism of the workers and our party’s weakness. When fascism triumphed here, all known Trotskyists would be wiped out as had happened in Nazi Germany. Therefore the best thing that we could do as revolutionists was to spend as much time as we had writing down and printing our ideas, our program, and then hide this printed matter in attics, basements, etc., for future generations to discover.

So that’s the official version of the Cochranites: liquidationists panicked by McCarthyism. And then you mix this with Cannon’s crude sociological explanation of them as a privileged strata of the working class. These were UAW Joe Six-Packs tired of the class struggle and anxious to live the good life paid for by high union wages. When a raw recruit like me first heard about the Cochranites in a 1969 Frank Lovell lecture, I felt thankful that the good guys had won, just like they always did in the SWP. In revolutionary parties, as in politics in general, history is written by the victors.

In early 1970 I took an assignment to go up to Boston to fight against the Proletarian Orientation Tendency (POT). This workerist grouping around old timer Larry Trainor, included not only my friend Alan Wald then in Berkeley, but a number of party members my age. They numbered perhaps 5 to 10 percent of the SWP and YSA. The POT worried that the rapid influx of middle-class students would create alien class pressures on the proletarian party. The next thing you know we’d oppose the USSR’s invasion of Finland or something. I was never sure how I fit into all this because my father had been a truck-driver before he opened up a fruit store. As a computer programmer, I supposedly belonged to Ernest Mandel’s new working class. In any case, I never lost any sleep over this question.

The POT in Boston couldn’t wait for the rest of the party to wake up to the danger. They had begun to take jobs in hospitals and factories in order to transform themselves into workers. With its attention fixed on the factories, the Boston branch lagged behind the rest of the country in building the mass antiwar movement. Branch organizer Peter Camejo’s job was to destroy the Trainorites politically and reorient the branch toward the student movement. I was his one of his right-hand men in the faction fight.

As justification for this crackdown, the Cochranite heresy proved useful. In my remarks to the branch during the 1971 pre-convention discussion, I said that it was useless to take jobs in factories. After all, it had made no difference for the Cochranites. Even autoworkers were not above selling out the revolution.

Although the party apparatus was successful in destroying the POT, it turned around and adopted virtually its entire agenda only 7 years later. The “turn” toward industry was just another misguided attempt at colonization, not much more sophisticated than the one mounted by the Boston SDS Worker-Student Alliance in 1970 that had served as a model for the Boston branch.

Despite the turn, Peter Camejo remained a 1960s holdout. After spending time in Nicaragua witnessing a living revolution, he became convinced that the SWP was on a sectarian dead-end. He not only defended the 1960s orientation, he believed it necessary to work more closely with non-Trotskyist groups like the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. Basically, he was trying to work out a Cuban or Central American type orientation for the United States.

Questioning the “turn” got him thrown out of the party in 1980. That year I began wondering why the SWP was doing so little to organize protests against US intervention in Central America. Although I had been out of the party for two years, I read the Militant from cover to cover each week. If there was any deep concern with US imperialism’s designs in the region, I couldn’t see it. A chance encounter with Ray Markey, who was still in the party and who always seemed level-headed to me, prompted me to ask what was wrong the SWP. Had they turned into a workerist sect? He gave me a copy of Peter Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism” which said yes to that question. As I began reading it, I found myself in agreement with every word.

About 7 years ago J. Plant, who works with the excellent British journal “Revolutionary History,” raised a question on an Internet mailing list that led me to begin writing about party building questions. He asked people for their assessment of Trotskyism. I replied that Trotsky’s basic ideas on permanent revolution, fascism, the popular front, etc. remained sound. But we had to come to terms with the problem that his movement had a tendency to generate sectarian formations. I said that this was caused by a misreading of Lenin and the Bolsheviks and announced that I would write about these problems in some depth. So I wrote about the CP, the Trotskyists. and newer formations like the Cuban July 26th movement and the FSLN in Nicaragua. All of it is archived on the Marxism list website, along with links to material on the Cochranites.

I found myself questioning not only official versions of what it meant to build Marxist-Leninist parties, but the particular Cannonite version handed down in the SWP. Part of this re-investigation meant taking a new look at all of our various renegades. Since I was in a forgiving mood, I began handing out absolutions to everybody. Oehlerites, Shachtmanites, Cochranites–it didn’t matter. I no longer had any use for reading people out of the movement. Look where it had led.

At the time I had neither the motivation nor the resources to actually study what the Cochranites stood for in any great detail, especially since there was a paucity of documentation available to the general public. All that changed after Sol Dollinger showed up on a Marxism list I had launched in May of 1998. Over the past year or so, we have had discussions on the list about the legacy of the Trotskyist movement that have benefited from the insights of a living and breathing–and sometimes blunt–Cochranite. One of the first things we learned from Sol was that the charge of “privileged” Cochranite factory workers was absurd. He wrote:

Three decades later, I am amused by the explanations made by Frank Lovell that you heard as a new member of the SWP. He contended that the members of the auto faction had become embourgeoisified by high wages in the industry. My position as a Chevrolet worker is not much different than other auto worker members of the party. We rented in Flint and when I quit after seven years my wages were under five thousand dollars a year. When Genora’s father died of a heart attack in front of the Buick gate where he worked as a janitor, he left his four children $700 each. Genora rushed out to make a down payment on a house with a $3800 dollar mortgage with monthly payments of $35.

Keeping in mind that my criticisms of Trotskyism flow from a Cuban or Sandinista type perspective like Camejo’s, I found that Sol’s basic approach coincided with my own. That led me to look into the whole question of the Cochran legacy. Contrary to Al Hansen, this group did not liquidate itself in 1954. It made an audacious attempt to start a new Marxist left. Their organization was called the Socialist Union. Their journal the American Socialist began that year as well, only to cease publication at the end of 1959. Edited by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, it is not only one of the best Marxist journals ever published, it is also a guide to understanding the kind of revolutionary movement that we need today.

Over the past year or so, I have been scanning in articles from American Socialist, courtesy of Cynthia Cochran who lives here in NYC and making them available in electronic archives. Eventually I hope to have this published as an American Socialist Reader.

To start with, it does not make sense to speak of Cochran or Braverman in the same terms as CLR James or any other figure around whom disciples gathered. That being said, there is still a “Cochranite” approach to politics that revolved around overlapping concerns. Let’s take a look at them.

To begin with, the American Socialist rejected the “vanguard” model that James P. Cannon had promoted. Although the magazine never mentioned Cannon or the SWP after the first issue, there was no mistake that they were for a complete break with the sectarian model.

Unlike the Trotskyists, they believed that a genuine regroupment was necessary on the American left. I want to emphasize the word genuine because the SWP went through a regroupment period themselves in the late 1950s that can only be characterized as a fishing expedition to gain new members, particularly disaffected ex-CP’ers. Activists in the Socialist Union saw their work with other groups as a means to an end. They sought to build a broad-based socialist movement and not just another sect.

In October 1956 the Socialist Union organized a regroupment meeting in Chicago that drew 800 people. Besides Bert Cochran, the speakers included A.J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Sidney Lens, a writer and trade union official. Cochran told the audience:

Practically since its inception, the American Socialist has declared that a regroupment was necessary on the American scene, that the old movements had knocked each other out, and what remained of them had either succumbed to the slough of sectarianism, or had outlived their usefulness as vehicles of American radicalism. At first we were a lone voice, but today this idea is accepted by many. Nevertheless, as a result of many private conferences and conversations that we have been engaged in over these past months, we are convinced that the regroupment and the setting up of something new will necessarily involve a more or less protracted process of discussion, debate, and re-examination of many of the Left’s premises and solutions, before the ground is sufficiently prepared for the next organizational ventures.

Not only was the American Socialist immersed in the regroupment process, it also explained the importance of similar efforts underway in Europe that they characterized as the unfolding of a “new left”. This term, by the way, is used frequently in the pages of American Socialist to describe not the sorry mess we ended up with in the 1960s but something more in the way of a new Marxist left. It is unfortunate that objective circumstances militated against the Socialist Union’s best efforts to make such a new movement possible.

For example, in 1958 the American Socialist covered developments in Great Britain around the journals New Reasoner, which included E.P. Thompson as an editor, and Universities and Left Review. They eventually merged and became New Left Review. Here is Cochran sizing up the New Reasoner:

The weakness of the New Reasoner appears to be that most of its writers are still unduly pre-occupied with the world from which they have so recently broken, as evidenced in the subject matter which claims their attention, the problems that continue to dominate their thoughts, and the people to whom they are primarily addressing their writings. Moreover, trying to continue to rest on the Communist tradition by restoring it to its original pre-Stalinist pristine purity strikes me as a quixotic venture. Communism is bound by historical associations of a quarter of a century that neither god nor man can eradicate. To try to restore Communism to the meaning that it possessed in 1917 or 1848 is like trying to take Christianity away from the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist churches of today and restore it to the simple virtues of the Biblical Apostles. It is a subject matter for literary exercises. It has no use as a workable tradition for the Left in Britain, much less, in the United States.

The American Socialist also sought to ground itself in earlier radical traditions in the United States, before Bolshevik cloning became mandatory. This meant taking a fresh look at the Debs legacy. Not only did the editorial board of American Socialist include octogenarian George H. Shoaf, who had worked closely with Debs, it also published a special issue on the Socialist Party in which Cochran drew a contrast between Debs’ party and what had followed it:

PECULIARLY enough, the Communist movement that followed Debs, and became the mainstream of American radicalism in the thirties and forties, lost this trait all over again, and became too much of a Russian movement; not in the sense that most of its members were of Russian extraction (they were not), but because their thought was so largely concentrated on Russia. Their leaders uncritically tried to copy Russian patterns of behavior, and misconstrued socialist internationalism to mean loss of independence for one’s own party. A reawakened socialist movement will undoubtedly have to re-create much of the earlier Debs model in this respect.

The break with the SWP not only involved questions of the appropriateness of the ‘vanguard’ party-building model, it also challenged the sort of ‘catastrophism’ that marked the party’s post-WWII outlook. While Cannon predicted a new depression and working class radicalization, the Cochranites urged a more cautious and objective view of the American economy and society. As is obvious today, the Cochranite assessment was far more accurate.

Cochran’s co-editor Harry Braverman focused on the American economy’s strengths and weaknesses. In article after article, he examined the nature of the post-WWII prosperity. While first showing residual influences of the kind of ‘catastrophism’ found in the post-WWII SWP, he eventually found himself coming to terms with what would turn out to be the longest and deepest capitalist expansion in history. In a May 1958 article, written as a reply to British ex-Marxist John Strachey who believed capitalism had resolved its basic contradictions, Braverman openly and courageously dealt with the question of ‘immiseration’ which had been central to the concerns of 1930s radical movement:

All the above difficulties in Marxism obviously stem from the fact that the capitalist system has persisted, and restabilized itself repeatedly, over a much longer period than had been expected. The great expansion in labor productivity which has created such new and different conditions was not unexpected in the Marxian economic structure, a structure which, as no other before or since, focused on the technological revolutions which capitalism is forced to work continuously as a condition of its existence. What was unexpected was capitalism’s length of life and its ability to expand. Marx and the movement he shaped operated on the basis of imminent crisis. If he never gave thought to the kind of living standard inherent in a capitalism that would continue to revolutionize science and industry for another hundred years, that was because he thought he was dealing with a system that was rapidly approaching its Armageddon.

The capitalist expansion of the 1950s was not the only thing that was unexpected. It also saw the beginning of the automation revolution. In an effort to understand what was different from the 1930s, you could not ignore something this major. In October 1954, Cochran wrote:

Everyone has heard of ‘automation’ by now and knows it is a new giant stride in the elimination of human labor in production by the use of automatic machinery, electronic computers and feedback controls. Few factories are as yet built on complete ‘automation’ lines, which in its strict scientific definition describes electronic or magnetic-tape control of complete sequence operations. Partial use of the new technology, however, is already becoming common. In continuous-flow-process industries, such as petrochemicals, many plants are on the verge of complete automation. Fortune magazine analysts believe even more startling changes may come in the white collar field with the introduction of high speed ‘memory’ and computing machines such as ‘Univac’ or IBM’s No. 702.

So if Univac rather than Armageddon was on the agenda, what would be the best hope for social change? As we know, the civil rights movement was starting up. The American Socialist provided some of the best coverage of this new movement, including dispatches from Carl Braden and Albert Maund, the author of “The Big Boxcar” who is in his mid-80s now and living in New Orleans. The great civil rights attorney Conrad Lynn served on the editorial board. WEB DuBois was also an occasional contributor.

It also examined some of the social contradictions that would eventually give birth to the environmental movement. Reuben Borough, who had been the editor of Upton Sinclair’s EPIC (End Poverty in California) campaign in 1934, served on the editorial board of American Socialist as well. In September, 1957, long before the publication of Rachel Carsons “Silent Spring,” Borough began writing about the environment from a Marxist perspective.

The problem of the conversion of power from these various non-depletable sources has never been under sustained and organized inquiry in the United States. This is a job beyond the immediate capacities of the isolated laboratories of the private enterprisers—they cannot solve the problem in time. Public enterprise can and must solve it. The loyal citizen of the Earth Planet must marshal the political forces necessary to that end. The long and ruthless raid of Greed upon the basic wealth of Nature must be stopped. Loving care must take the place of the befoulment and destruction of man’s environment. This is the inescapable task and responsibility of the religion of conservation.

Let me conclude. There was no such thing as “Cochranism.” It neither added nor subtracted anything to Marxist thought. Instead the Cochranites represent one of the most advanced and sustained efforts to apply a classical Marxist analysis to American society in the mid 20th century. The fact that they failed to build a new Marxist left is not an indictment of their methodology nor their analyses. They were just ahead of their time. If a new Marxist left in the United States is to succeed today, it will be along the lines set down by Socialist Union. You can bet on that.

Solidarity represents an effort to move in the direction set down by the Cochranites. I would invite these comrades to study the archives of the American Socialist to see how an earlier generation confronted the task of building a non-sectarian socialist movement based on Marxist principles.

As Bert Cochran said to a gathering of the Socialist Union at its inception in May 1954:

We approach all these strata, however, in the spirit of Marx’s Communist Manifesto which proclaimed that the revolutionists had no interests separate and apart from the working class, that we are not a special sect, cult, or church, which seeks to draw people out of the broad currents into its backwater, but rather as American Marxists, we seek to join with others in advancing the existing struggles to a higher stage and on a broader front. We are convinced that out of these struggles and experiences, even before big mass forces take to the field, Left currents will arise with which we shall be able to cooperate and fuse; that the American Marxist tendency, as a stronger formation than at present, will thus be able to discharge its role as a left wing in the big movement-as part and parcel of the struggle to create the mass revolutionary party in the United States. That is our perspective.

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