Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 11, 2015

I was wrong on the Cochranites in 1971–dead wrong

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

In my article on “Why does the left suck so badly”, I referred to the Cochranites—a group organized as the Socialist Union that published a magazine from 1954 to 1959 called the American Socialist. The two main leaders were Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, who had left the Trotskyist movement in order to build a new non-sectarian organization that in many ways anticipated the development of groups like Solidarity in the USA or European parties such as Podemos or Syriza.

I became convinced that such an approach was necessary after reading Peter Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism” in the early 1980s and worked with him to build a new non-sectarian movement through the auspices of the North Star Network. Like the Socialist Union, the North Star Network was short-lived but the ideas it stood for lived on.

Justin Raimondo of antiwar.com posed a question to me after my article appeared:

I was very interested to read your contribution to an ancient issue of the SWP’s internal discussion bulletin a polemic aimed at the Cochranites: I’d provide the link but I’d have to wade through a ton of material and I just wanted to let you know it’s online. It would be equally interesting to read a commentary by you on your old self, as revealed in that yellowing document. (The SWP’s internal discussion bulletins are posted on the same site as the speech you link to in this post).

As it turns out, Justin was referring to my article that was a contribution to the 1971 preconvention discussion in the Socialist Workers Party. The irony is that both Peter and I considered the Cochranites to be rightwing renegades from Trotskyism at the time, even though we would later adopt positions 180 degrees in the other direction. To my knowledge Peter never wrote anything about the Cochranites (he was much more of a speaker and an organizer than a writer) but I am quite sure he would have agreed with me. Peter did mention the Cochranites in his memoir but there is little evidence that he understood their importance:

At fourteen I told my mom I was now a socialist. She told me to go out and play. I asked permission to go from our home in Great Neck on Long Island to New York City to attend a meeting of the Socialist Union. To my amazement, as I look back, my mother said it was okay but that I had to be back by 10:00 p.m. I traveled alone on the Long Island Rail Road to my first meeting. I’d imagined that it would be in a huge hall with thousands of workers with red banners or something along those lines. As it turned out I was the first person to show up, so I sat and waited. Only about fifteen people came. I later learned that the Socialist Union, led by Bert Cochran, had broken off from the Socialist Workers Party in 1953. They were very nice to me. I couldn’t understand anything they were talking about but I could tell they supported the poor and were in favor of equality. The small size of the meeting didn’t turn me off. On the contrary, I thought, I need to find a way to help because the socialists are so outnumbered.

My own conversion to what amounted to neo-Cochranism took place shortly after I launched the Marxism list in 1998 when I noticed that someone named Sol Dollinger had become a subscriber. I sent him a note asking if he was related to Genora Dollinger, who was best known as Genora Johnson, the leader of the Women’s Auxiliary to the UAW in Flint, Michigan. It turns out that Genora was his late wife and that both of them were members of the Socialist Union. Sol put me in touch with Cynthia Cochran in New York, who was Bert’s widow. That led to my frequent visits to her apartment on the West Side to discuss the Cochranite legacy and to pick up copies of the American Socialist magazine to post to the Internet.

Before I turn my attention to the piece I wrote on the Cochranites 44 years ago, it would be worth putting the 1971 convention into context. This convention was both an endorsement of the “new radicalization” analysis of the SWP and a fairly brutal attack on the Proletarian Orientation Tendency that was not happy with it. I was in the Boston branch of the SWP at the time, where Peter Camejo was assigned to do battle with the POT that constituted probably around 40 percent of the branch. They were a majority at one point but the national office had taken the bureaucratic liberty to transfer in people like me to make sure that they were stifled.

The SWP argued that the new radicalization was going to be different from that of the 1930s that was based in the unions. In a nutshell, it considered the social movements to be as important as the trade union struggle. For the POT, the main complaint was not so much orienting to the Black struggle et al but the failure of the SWP to assign any serious forces to the union movement—which was true. At the time any challenge to the party apparatus was considered disloyal and eventually all of the POT members were either expelled or left in disgust. The irony, of course, is that within a decade after this fight in the party, the SWP leadership would not only adopt the POT line but take it in the most extreme direction arguing that any new upsurge in the social movements would take place strictly through the trade unions. As an indication of how stupid this line was, the party went from nearly 2000 members in 1981 to what it is today—a hundred or so men and women in their 60s and 70s utterly disconnected not only from the mass movements but from the planet earth.

Turning to my article, I am not sure why I referred to the POT misrepresenting the Cochranites but I suspect that it might have been their members making an analogy between the “new radicalization” analysis and the approach of the Socialist Union, which was one of breaking with Trotskyist orthodoxy. Frankly, except for the brief period between 1965 and 1975 or so, the SWP never thought outside the box. It was always a party that had a deep workerist dynamic, always hoping against hope that the 1930s would return.

In any case, the purpose of my article was to prove that having a working class composition was no guarantee that you would remain revolutionary. I wrote:

The Cochranites in Detroit were primarily industrial workers, especially auto workers with deep roots in the trade unions. Many of them had been leaders in previous union struggles. Also in the Cochranite faction were some supporters in New York who had more of a middle class type background and composition.

Within the Cochran faction there were two groupings. One was led by Mike Bartell in New York. Bartell, the least important leader of the Cochran group, was adapting to Stalinism. After the victory of the Chinese CP and the Yugoslav CP and the growing fear of a third world war because of the cold war some Trotskyists thought Stalinism would be forced to play a revolutionary role or was already playing a progressive role. Bartell wanted to concentrate on maneuvering within the CP periphery. Cochran’s base was in industrial cities like Detroit. Cochran reflected an adaptation to the trade union bureaucracy. He was primarily interested in maneuvering within the trade union bureaucracy.

Bartell and Cochran had one thing in common. They were opposed to continuing as a Trotskyist party. They were opposed to Leninism. They were liquidationists who no longer believed the revolution needed a party. Both wings of the Cochranites were hostile to doing political party building work such as holding forums, running election campaigns, selling The Militant. The basic question of the 1953 split with Cochran was over whether we need or do not need a Leninist party.

Of course the Cochranites were right. We do not need a “Leninist party”, at least understood in terms of what James P. Cannon stood for. The whole purpose of the Socialist Union was to serve as a catalyst for regroupment rather than to position itself as the nucleus of a Leninist party. Indeed, one of the major activities of the Socialist Union was to organize forums to address this need. For example, in 1956 the Socialist Union organized a regroupment forum in Chicago that drew 800 people. Among the featured speakers were Sidney Lens and A.J. Muste who would become key leaders of the antiwar movement about ten years later. Cochran’s speech to that gathering is on the American Socialist archives. His words seem as pertinent as ever:

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 judgement, 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.

If we do not regroup our effectives, if we cannot integrate our work, then it may be that the present radical movement in this country, from one end of the spectrum to the other, will go under in the flood, and a new generation will have to build a socialist organization from the ground up.

If we can find the inner resources to unravel this knotty riddle of our lifetime, then we have the chance to reconstruct the movement on sturdier foundations and along more mature lines, and the challenge of democratic socialism, compelling and clear, can again be flung into the market place—where it has unnecessarily been absent far too long.

August 9, 2015

Why does ‘the left’ suck so badly?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

This week a person I have had some contact with as a result of my participation in Yves Smith’s Naked Capitalism website posed this question to me: “Why does ‘the left’ suck so badly?”

He went on to say:

Saying right off the bat that “the left,” “progressives,” “liberals”, along with the Greens and the Sanders people and some of #BlackLives matter seem to be such a gigantic mish-mash that “the left” doesn’t even seem like a good name, like maybe there shouldn’t even BE a name. And that’s before we get to other kinds of organizers for the unions and the environment, and then the Marxist groupuscles, and the anarchists, and the co-op people… Anyhow, I’ll use “the left” as a shorthand for the seething mish mash.

I’m asking because of the ridiculousness of the comments we had on Greece; you saw them. So many pom pom wavers, so few analysts, and even fewer people who took action. (I mean, any sort of action at all, like organizing a small relief effort.) So many people saying “it’s easy,” if only we — by which they mean others — had the will! (Granted, I’m not a doer either, but I am an excellent blogger, and I am doing what I am good at.)

It’s the same deal with the Greens, who given a golden opportunity to sit outside every Sanders rally with a sign-up table and leaflets, seem to have collectively decided that the ticket to winning is saying how evil Democrats are (true, but irrelevant) and how inferior Sanders is (also true, also irrelevant). Then again, Sanders saw the ball, picked it up, and ran with it… And they did not. So perhaps that is the problem for them. Anyhow, they’re still smarting over Nader in 2000. 15 years ago. Not kidding!

This is an ancien regime, fin de siecle moment if ever I saw one, and virtually nobody on “the left” seems prepared to take advantage of it. Of course, there are powerful forces arrayed against “the left,” but then there always are, aren’t they? Until there aren’t…

Is it that so many on “the left” are academics, and the fights are so vicious because the stakes are so small? Or that too many of them have hostages to fortune, as families and possessions they think twice about losing? Is it that TINA applies in the world of ideology, as well? That (for example) we don’t think of — and we saw this in Greece — of the ATM machine as a tool of political domination, or even as a tool at all? (More like a natural resource or a mechanical device.) Is it that identity politics divides many, many people who ought — on “class” (wage vs. owner) interests — to be united? Could it be medical, in that we are literally too fat and too depressed and fucked up because of our horrible diet? Successful corruption, in that the elites still have the power and the money to co-opt the leaders? All of the above? What, what?

And then of course we look to Europe, where if “the left” was a thing in Europe, Syriza would had some assistance.

I can’t think of a historical precedent for things being this fucked with no alternative presented….

Like I said, I can’t formulate the question properly….

Thanks for any analytical tools you have to offer!

It probably makes sense for me to limit my answer to the part of the left I am most familiar with, namely the socialist left that I have been connected with organizationally or ideologically for nearly a half-century.

If you look at the broad historical record, you will see a steady decline from the early 1900s when Eugene V. Debs received six percent of the vote in 1912. Back then there was obviously no such thing as a Communist movement since the Russian Revolution had not taken place. But within five years, the Communist movement would supplant the Debs-type parties that existed everywhere. If you’ve never seen Warren Beatty in “Reds”, I recommend the film for its pretty accurate description of what happened in the 1920s as “Leninist” type parties sprouted up everywhere.

In my view, despite all the good that these parties did in fighting for much needed reforms such as the right to form trade unions and opposing Jim Crow, they undermined the authority of the left by functioning as cheerleaders for Joseph Stalin. In the late 1930s the CPUSA had close to a hundred thousand members and was a powerful presence in the trade unions, civil rights movement, and even elected member Benjamin Davis to the NY City Council. But after the Khrushchev revelations, the party lost the bulk of its members. Of course this mass exodus was facilitated by the McCarthyite witch-hunt that made membership in the CP a risk to your livelihood if not your freedom.

When I came around the left in 1967, the CP was a hollowed out shell with an aging membership. For young people like myself, the party was not an option. Some of us became Trotskyists and others joined Maoist groups since their militancy seemed appropriate to the period, which was one marked by massive opposition to the Vietnam War and ghetto rebellions. It was fairly easy to believe back then that the USA would have had a revolution long before 2015.

What we had not properly analyzed, however, was the sea change that had taken place since the heyday of Debs’s party and the dominance of the Communist Party in the 1930s. Workers in basic industry such as auto, steel and rail were enjoying a high standard of living and job security. There was almost no reason for them to become revolutionary, even those who were most oppressed like the Black and Latinos. For workers, the overwhelming need was to get a good union contract that kept pace with inflation, not to join a tiny group that had as its goal a repeat of 1917. The deeper the identification with 1917 of such groups, the more difficult it was to grow. Those that have relative success today tend to avoid the mumbo-jumbo. Kshama Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative group, got elected to City Council in Seattle not by pledging to organize a Soviet but by promising to fight for a $15 minimum wage.

Given the worsening economic conditions in the USA that weigh most heavily on Blacks and Latinos, there are signs of motion—the large crowds for Bernie Sanders among them. Unfortunately, the Sanders campaign—even though he made a record of Debs’s speeches in 1979—is tied by an umbilical cord to the Democratic Party. The burning need is for a third political party to the left of the Democrats that can bring together everybody who feels the need for fundamental change even if they are by no means convinced that a socialist revolution is necessary. That is why I have argued for the need for something like Syriza or Podemos in the USA even though Syriza is widely seen as a failure today, especially by those living as if it were still 1917. In essence, you have to be able to make a distinction between the decisions the leaderships of such parties make in the heat of battle, especially when they are facing much more powerful enemies such as the ECB and the IMF, and how they are organized.

Organizationally, a group like Syriza had the advantage over the “1917” left because it did not impose an ideological straightjacket on its membership. The same thing is true of Podemos whose leader Pablo Iglesias urged the left to engage with people on their own terms:

When the 15-M movement [the anti-austerity movement in Spain] first started, at the Puerta del Sol, some students from my department, the department of political science, very political students — they had read Marx, they had read Lenin — they participated for the first time in their lives with normal people.

They despaired: “They don’t understand anything! We tell them, you are a worker, even if you don’t know it!” People would look at them as if they were from another planet. And the students went home very depressed, saying, “They don’t understand anything.”

[I’d reply to them], “Can’t you see that the problem is you? That politics has nothing to do with being right, that politics is about succeeding?” One can have the best analysis, understand the keys to political developments since the sixteenth century, know that historical materialism is the key to understanding social processes. And what are you going to do — scream that to people? “You are workers and you don’t even know it!”

The enemy wants nothing more than to laugh at you. You can wear a T-shirt with the hammer and sickle. You can even carry a huge flag, and then go back home with your flag, all while the enemy laughs at you. Because the people, the workers, they prefer the enemy to you. They believe him. They understand him when he speaks. They don’t understand you. And maybe you are right! Maybe you can ask your children to write that on your tombstone: “He was always right — but no one ever knew.”

In your query you mention the Green Party. They are certainly not without their problems but I don’t think it would be fair to say that they “suck”. I think that they are running very principled and effective campaigns that relate to the concerns of the average person such as the right to drink clean water and be spared the horrors of global warming. In some ways they are a throwback to the Debs campaigns of the early 20th century.

The weakness of the Greens and the left in general is not exclusively their own fault. We are living in a period that is hostile to social change. The difficulties in finding a job—the conditions that face the “precariat” or contingent labor force—does not translate into class solidarity since people tend to seek individual solutions. If you’ve ever seen Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me”, you’ll remember that laid off workers in Flint were not thinking in terms of mass action to reopen the plants under workers control. One man told Moore that he was moving to Texas where supposedly there were more jobs while a jobless woman raised rabbits for sale as meat. The only recent sign that people were ready to move collectively was Occupy Wall Street, which lost momentum after public spaces were finally cleared of youthful protesters. So you can say that there are contradictory tendencies today, one propitious for the left and one that breeds indifference and retreating into personal salvation.

You can expect this state of affairs to continue for some time to come. But when it begins to change, it can take place rapidly. In 1929, an economic disaster led millions to move collectively to change society. In 1965, the war in Vietnam and ghetto rebellions transformed the lives of many thousands of young people, including me. I doubt that there is anything that will happen on that scale until after I am dead and gone. But when it does, the pace of events can often find the left desperately trying to catch up. In 1909 Karl Kautsky, the leader of the Socialist Party in Germany, described how the tempo cam change almost overnight:

But the rate of progress increases with a leap when the revolutionary spirit is abroad. It is almost inconceivable with what rapidity the mass of the people reach a clear consciousness of their class interests at such a time. Not alone their courage and their belligerency but their political interest as well, is spurred on in the highest degree through the consciousness that the hour has at last come for them to burst out of the darkness of night into the glory of the full glare of the sun. Even the laziest becomes industrious, even the most cowardly becomes brave, and even the most narrow gains a wider view. In such times a single year will accomplish an education of the masses that would otherwise have required a generation.

My only purpose today is to convince young people today on the left to avoid the mistakes of the past, which ultimately boil down to mechanically applying the “lessons of 1917” to the USA or any other revolution for that matter. We have to learn to speak in the language of American society and relate to the deepest felt needs of the average person. Frankly, it might be more useful to study the sermons of the new Pope than V.I. Lenin.

From 1954 to 1959 a group led by Bert Cochran and Harry Braveman put out a magazine called the American Socialist that I am trying to emulate in my own modest way. Bert and Harry (not to be mistaken with the Piels brothers) were a bit ahead of their time in advocating a similar approach. The fact that they dissolved the group in 1959 is not an indictment of their approach, any more than Alexis Tsipras buckling under to the German bankers. Conditions often favor the rich and the powerful after all.

Long after they were gone, their words remain relevant. In trying to create a movement of the left that was rooted in the American experience, they were the continuators of Eugene V. Debs and Karl Marx for that matter who was immersed in the reality of working class life. In 1955 Bert Cochran gave a speech introducing the American Socialist magazine. They still ring true:

I AM convinced, in the light of this reading of the American scene, that there is a real need for genuine American radicalism. By that I mean a movement that understands this country, that is sensitive to the feelings and aspirations of its people, that knows how to establish communication with them and how to make itself heard, that has the ability to come up with drastic structural solutions which recommend themselves to significant bodies of people as meaningful and realistic. I don’t mean by radicalism, the pettifogging, the quotation-mongering, the pseudo-Marxian profundities, the dogmatics, the circle bickerings and soul-destroying factionalism which have distinguished, I am afraid, all of us on the Left for the past years, and which carry a heavy onus of the responsibility for our ineffectiveness and disintegration. I know that a new important radicalism will arise in this country in response to the needs that exist and are due to become more pressing as time goes on. Whether the existing radical circles will play any role in this coming development is another question.

The past year hasn’t shown any progress but there has been a lot of churning and soul-searching. That’s a good sign. It shows there is still some life in the old carcass. When the time comes that you don’t even react to disaster, than you know that rigor mortis has set in. I don’t see that the discussion has produced a comprehensive meeting of the minds as yet, or that any new key ideas have been produced, and some have shown themselves to be remarkably impervious to floods, fires, famines and earthquakes. But there has definitely been, so far as I can observe, a sorting-out process, and, for many, a limited consensus of thought established.

If I may be permitted to draw my own design of the consensus that I believe has been achieved, I would state as the first proposition that the day of organizing a radical movement in this country as a branch office of the Russian concern—is over; and thank God! And that is true whether it is a branch office that gets its instructions from Stalin or Khrushchev or Lenin or Trotsky. This country is too big, too diversified, too self-sufficient and self-confident, it has too many people, it has too powerful a tradition of its own to tolerate a radicalism whose source of inspiration or whose hidden allegiances reside abroad. We can be friends of socialist achievements wherever they take place, and we can practice international labor solidarity on behalf of a common cause without surrendering the dignity of our independence and without losing our bearings that socialism in this country, as in all major countries, will only be won as a manifestation of its own national will.

June 10, 2015

The latest data on my blog versus the Militant

Filed under: cults,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 12:50 am

Screen shot 2015-06-09 at 8.43.58 PM Screen shot 2015-06-09 at 8.44.23 PM

November 14, 2014

Goodbye Leninism

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

Goodbye Leninism


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

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

Read full article

July 4, 2014

Alex Callinicos: take a look in the mirror

Filed under: British SWP,Lenin,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

Alex Callinicos

Alex Callinicos’s nearly 12,500-word article in the latest International Socialism (Thunder on the Left) reminds me quite a bit of the kind of explanation I heard from former members of the SWP in the USA over the years about the group’s collapse. It was not the fault of the leaders but of objective conditions that the SWP went from nearly 2000 members in 1978 to just over a hundred today. It was almost inevitable given the decline of the trade union movement that supposedly would have nourished the sect’s growth. That decline was in turn an inevitable outcome of a hollowing out of the industrial sector and the loss of blue-collar jobs. It should be noted that the SWP leadership itself never bothered to provide much of an explanation for the loss of 95 percent of its members. In their eyes the party was always poised to take advantage of great opportunities looming on the horizon. Indeed, if you do a search on “opportunities” on the Militant newspaper website, you will find links to 982 articles. This was typical:

In the months ahead, the party will reach out to get an expanded hearing among working people on the roots of the world economic crisis and a fighting road forward for our class; take advantage of possibilities to advance the campaign to free the Cuban Five and defend the Cuban Revolution; and opportunities to join strikes and social struggles of workers against attacks by the rulers and their government.

To Callinicos’s credit, he avoids this kind of cockeyed optimism even though, like Jack Barnes, he refuses to acknowledge his own role in a torrential loss of members. Like the sympathizers of the American SWP, he relates his sect’s trouble to objective conditions:

This decline is a consequence of two processes, one long term, the other more short term. In the first place, the general tendency in advanced capitalist societies towards the greater fragmentation and individualisation of social life erodes the bases of many mass organisations—not just political parties, but mainstream churches and many of the other institutions that helped to impose a degree of order and security during the early chaotic phases of capitalist development. This phenomenon was already visible during the post-war boom, when it was diagnosed as “apathy”, a disease of “affluence”.

Secondly, neoliberalism—a result of the ruling class response to this insurgency—has accelerated the tendency to fragmentation and individualism and weakened working class organisation. But it has also reshaped bourgeois politics as the mainstream parties have converged on acceptance of neoliberalism. What in France is called la pensée unique (the “sole thought”) ideologically integrates the political elite with media bosses, big capital more generally, and much of the academy in acceptance of market capitalism and bourgeois democracy as defining the horizons of rational social life.

My explanation differs from ex-members of the SWP in the USA and Callinicos’s. It paraphrases what Cassius said in Shakespeare’s play: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are hemorrhaging members.”

What they fail to grasp is the primary obstacle such groups face in becoming massive. Tens of thousands of socialist-minded workers, students and even middle-class professionals are not willing to join a group that imposes an ideological straitjacket on its membership. The “program” of both SWP’s was always understood to be virtual encyclopedia of positions on historical and international questions that it was almost impossible to support unless you had gone through an apprenticeship in the organization that included indoctrination in new members classes, etc. It was the kind of training a Jesuit would receive.

Despite such self-imposed constraints, groups such as the American and British SWP’s can enjoy relative success. At its high point, my sect was the largest group on the left just as was the case with the British SWP. Taking into account the revolving door tendencies of both groups to lose burned out members, they could have stayed close to the top of their game.

But both crashed on the reefs as a result of an inability to change course. If it was a single-mindedness of purpose and ideological homogeneity that allowed such groups to enjoy rapid growth, it was exactly the same tendencies that made it impossible to avoid a disaster. Although such “Leninist” groups have formal guarantees for the democratic rights of the membership, the leadership will always dig in its heels when it has a big stake in the outcome of a debate. In the American SWP, the top leader had become fanatically committed to the “turn toward industry”, to the point of likening party members who disagreed as “Marielitos”, the counter-revolutionary Cubans who arrived in Florida on boats. In the British SWP, the dividing line was not over policy but over the refusal of the leadership to take action against one of its own who had raped a younger female member. As I said, the American SWP lost 95 percent of its membership but so far the British SWP’s losses have been somewhat smaller—only 700 according to Callinicos. Of course, there is no doubt that as long as the current stonewalling tendencies of the leadership group remain intact, those numbers will grow.

While there is not much point in covering all of the points made in Callinicos’s gargantuan article, there are a few worth honing in on.

In reviewing the tendencies of broad parties like Syriza to suffer “organizational implosion”, Callinicos puts the blame on the aforementioned economic tendencies. Leaving aside the question of whether Syriza has imploded, I was struck by his reference to a broad-based party that included the SWP as a constituent:

Disarray set in among the radical left before the onset of the economic crisis: thus George Galloway launched his attack on the role of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) within Respect in August 2007, just as the credit crunch was beginning to develop.

What a strange analysis. As if the collapse of Lehman Brothers would have been a green light for Galloway to launch his attack. Leaving aside Galloway’s mercurial personality and Labour Party bad habits, the real cause of the crisis in Respect was the SWP’s unaccountability. Whenever you have a “democratic centralist” entity operating in a larger mass movement or a broad party, there will be friction since decisions will be made at caucus meetings beforehand. I should know. That’s how the American SWP operated. We called ourselves “The Big Red Machine” and that’s why people outside our ranks hated us.

For those who bothered to read Callinicos’s attacks on the party members who fought against the rape cover-up, you will remember that he said that the real disagreement was over “reform versus revolution”. SWP members like Richard Seymour were renegades from Marxism, pinning their hopes on Syriza type formations rather than tried and true Leninist formations like the SWP. Feeling vindicated now that Greece is still a capitalist country, Callinicos says “I told you so.”

The proof of Syriza’s failure was its support for “the shopworn centre-right architect of austerity Jean-Claude Juncker for president of the European commission.” It turns out that Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras’s support for Juncker was highly qualified. Le Monde reported:

“If Europe doesn’t democratize soon, it will suffer a major cohesion” he said and when asked whether or not he supports the candidacy of Juncker for the president of the European Commission he explained that “although he’s a tough opponent of his policy”, he recognizes the right to preside, as long as his party won the largest number of seats.

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

Apparently this is not good enough for Callinicos. The leftists who are now in Syriza would be better advised to join Callinicos’s co-thinkers in Antarsya that got 20,389 votes in the 2012 elections as opposed to Syriza’s 1,655,022. You have to remember that the Bolsheviks started off small. As long as you have a correct program, victory is assured. That is why it was so necessary to hound Richard Seymour and friends out of the SWP. They were a scratch that could have turned into gangrene, don’t you know?

As might be expected, Callinicos returns once again to a defense of “Leninism”, the last refuge of a scoundrel. As might be expected, Callinicos feels the need repudiate Lars Lih’s argument that Lenin sought nothing more than to build a party in Russia modeled after Kautsky’s party in Germany since that comes uncomfortably close to an endorsement of the “left reformism” of Syriza. For Callinicos, Paul Le Blanc and Mick Armstrong of the Socialist Alternative in Australia, there is this thing called “Leninism” that was implicit as far back as 1903 but became fully manifested at the Prague Conference of 1912.

I will probably have more to say on this since Paul Blackledge, a case-hardened Callinicos lieutenant, attempts to refute Lars Lih in the same issue of International Socialism but will offer some thoughts on what Callinicos says here:

While a welcome corrective to the standard bourgeois caricature of Lenin as a demonic totalitarian, this interpretation has subsequently been used by Lih and others to argue that Lenin had no distinctive or original approach to revolutionary politics in general or party organisation in particular. This would have come as a surprise to Lenin himself, who after all wrote “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder in 1920 in order to introduce Western revolutionaries to the specific political experiences of the Bolsheviks, but also to contemporaries such as Georg Lukács, who, through the debates in the early Communist International, developed a hard-won understanding of Lenin’s originality.

Callinicos is right but that’s the problem unfortunately. There’s a lack of clarity in the above quote but basically it makes an amalgam of two separate questions. Lih’s contribution was less about “revolutionary politics” than it was about organizational questions. Keep in mind that Lih’s key work was an 888-page examination of “What is to be Done”, a work focused on questions such as the role of a newspaper, democratic centralism, etc. That being said, by 1920 Lenin had certainly come to the conclusion that an “original approach” to party organization distinguished the Comintern parties from the Second International. The 21 Conditions was the most obvious sign of that but even more obviously was the application of “democratic centralism” to the German Communist Party when Paul Levi was expelled with Lenin’s endorsement over his public attack on the ultraleftism that was jeopardizing the German revolution. It was the sort of narrow understanding of democratic centralism that would become enshrined at the Bolshevization Comintern conference three years later under Zinoviev’s command.

Displaying a shamelessness on the order of a Washington bourgeois politician, Callinicos spends a thousands words or so defending his party’s understanding of the “woman question” against Sharon Smith of the ISO who views Tony Cliff’s analysis as lacking to say the least. If Callinicos can’t make the connection between a certain theoretical deficiency in the SWP and the commission of inquiry that asked the female rape victim about her drinking habits, then he is beyond help.

In his conclusion, Callinicos writes:

The present crisis is much more diffuse, but in some ways more threatening, because the revolutionary left is much weaker than it was in 1979. This makes the attempts to split and even to destroy organisations such as the NPA and the SWP so irresponsible.

Now I have no idea what is going on in the French NPA since the comrades are not particularly engaged with the English-speaking left (who can blame them?) but I doubt it has anything to do with a rape investigation that had more in common with those conducted in the American military than what we would expect from a Marxist party. In terms of attempts to destroy an organization, my suggestion to Alex Callinicos is that he takes a look in the mirror at his earliest convenience. There he will find the miscreant most responsible.


The ISO versus Socialist Alternative

Filed under: Counterpunch,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 12:57 pm
Todd Chretien
CounterPunch WEEKEND EDITION JULY 4-6, 2014
The ISO Versus Socialist Alternative

Sectarian Delusions on the American Left


Another International Socialist Organization Internal Bulletin has been leaked to the public over on the External Bulletin website, home to a group of former members. It contains an article written by long-time leader Todd Chretien that targets Socialist Alternative (SAlt)—the group that is rightfully proud of their comrade Kshama Sawant being elected to the Seattle City Council and for her role in the passing of a $15 minimum wage.

I have been partial to Chretien in the past because of his close ties to the late Peter Camejo, whose gubernatorial campaign in California he helped organize in 2003. I worked closely with Camejo in the early 80s and confess to having stolen all my best ideas from him.

The ISO’s chief criticism of Socialist Alternative’s electoral strategy is that it is “triumphalist”, a musty term from the Marxist lexicon. Specifically, Chretien regards SAlt’s call for a hundred independent candidates to run in the 2014-midterm elections as an “overblown perspective”. In his view, her victory did not necessarily mean that political conditions had ripened to the point where such a large number of candidates would be forthcoming. Such “triumphalism” might even be catching–to the point where ISO’ers would be seduced into believing that it was feasible to form a new “broad” party in the near term, or that regroupment of the far left was the order of the day. Heaven forefend.

read full

June 13, 2014

Goodbye, Lenin

Goodbye Lenin


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/

March 28, 2014

The ISO’s secrecy fetish

Filed under: Counterpunch,Lenin,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 1:25 pm
It’s Time for an Open and Transparent Left

The ISO’s Secrecy Fetish


The International Socialist Organization published an article on March 6th by Tim Koch titled “Openness” and the left that opposed making their internal documents public either voluntarily or involuntarily as was the case recently when digital versions of the bulletins from their most recent convention were circulated on the Internet. I can understand why this aspiring Leninist group was aggravated over this violation of their confidentiality because there were some rather embarrassing revelations about the ISO’s stagnation, as well as what some regarded as a damningly inadequate response to a party member’s sexual attack on a non-party member.

I dealt with the stagnation question in an earlier article for CounterPunch and will now turn to the questions raised by Tim Koch since they go to the heart of what kind of left needs to be built in 2014. As a general rule, I do not think that modeling yourself on the Russian Social Democracy is a very good idea, but that being the case maybe the ISO should reflect on how “internal” the discussions were in the party they are supposedly emulating.

In 1905 Lenin wrote an article blasting the Russian liberals for making their party documents secret:

We Social-Democrats resort to secrecy from the tsar and his blood hounds, while taking pains that the people should know every thing about our Party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its programme and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party congress delegate said at the congress in question. The enlightened bourgeois of the Osvobozhdeniye fraternity surround themselves with secrecy… from the people, who know nothing definite about the much-talked-of “Constitutional-Democratic” Party; but they make up for this by taking the tsar and his sleuths into their confidence. Who can say they are not democrats?

Tim Koch and his comrades are used to thinking that Lenin’s faction—the Bolsheviks—was the real party in Czarist Russia as opposed to the fake socialists. However, its own members did not regard the Russian social democracy in such purist fashion, particularly Lenin who viewed the right-leaning Mensheviks and the centrists grouped around Leon Trotsky as part of the same plucky but unhappy family. From 1903, the time when factional divisions began to emerge, to 1917 when a definitive (and harmful, in my view) break occurred between the left and the right internationally, debates took place in the party newspapers on an ongoing basis, resembling a Marxist version of the food fight in “Animal House”. To get a flavor of the acrimony, just consider the title of Lenin’s 1911 article Judas Trotsky’s Blush of Shame. It was an ongoing flame war in full view of all Russian social democratic members, just the sort of thing that would give our present-day “Leninist” leaders nightmares.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/03/28/the-isos-secrecy-fetish/

February 18, 2014

Notes on a staggering ISO

Filed under: aging,Counterpunch,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 11:03 am

Counterpunch February 18, 2014

The Slow Death of “Leninism”

Notes on a Staggering ISO


It might be obvious from articles appearing on CounterPunch (“A Response to Our Socialist Worker Critics”, to name just one) that former members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) have decided to subject the self-described “Leninist” group to a withering critique.

In a recent development, current members constituted as the Renewal Faction have joined the chorus of critics as well, something that will obviously irk a leadership accustomed to fawning approval from the ranks. Indicating the general movement toward web-based debate and discussion and away from the print-based medium favored by small propaganda groups operating in the “Leninist” tradition, the faction launched a website titled “External Bulletin”, a term that very likely challenges the notion of the “Internal Bulletin”, the members-only medium that allows such groups to conduct their discussions without the prying eyes of non-members.

Unfortunately for the ISO, the internal bulletin might have become a relic of the Leninist past after a disgruntled member or members decided to forward PDF’s of 30 (at last count) documents to selected critics of the ISO, including me. Over the past few days, I have read maybe 100 pages worth of internal discussion articles and want to offer my analysis of what is happening with the largest “Leninist” organization in the United States (I exclude the CP, which operates more as a wing of the Democratic Party.) As someone who spent nearly 12 years in the American Socialist Workers Party from 1967 to 1978 (now there’s a screenplay begging to be written: “12 Years a Sectarian”), I can recognize the pressures operating on the ISO that will inevitably generate discontent.

read full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/02/18/notes-on-a-staggering-iso/

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)

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,607 other followers