Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 24, 2014

Addendum to “Is Russia Imperialist” — what to make of state ownership of Gazprom

Filed under: corruption,oil,Russia,state capitalism — louisproyect @ 7:12 pm

In Roger Annis’s article there is a problematic reference to state ownership that I want to address:

It’s the state, not finance capital, which plays the overriding, directing role in Russia’s economy. The state happens to own much of the vaunted oil and gas industries; so too in finance and much of manufacturing. The CIA Factbook explains some of the consequences thusly: “The protection of property rights is still weak and the private sector remains subject to heavy state interference.

But before attending to that, there are a couple of other matters requiring attention. Annis claimed that since Russia’s GDP per capita is only about half of South Korea’s, it ruled out the possibility that it can be imperialist. I am not sure whether that statistic can in and of itself be used to establish a nation’s place in the capitalist food chain since Ireland ranks higher than Germany.

Consider the example of Czarist Russia, a nation that was both imperialist and underdeveloped according to Leon Trotsky, a thinker who had some influence on Annis in his youth. According to Vitali A. Meliantsev, a Russia economist, the GDP per capita in Russia on the eve of WWI was a third that of the West (page 13 of a paper linked here). Per capita GDP in Russia ran between 18-22 % that of the United States. Despite this, Lenin had no problem referring to Russia as imperialist in 1917, just before the Bolsheviks seized power.

The other thing that strikes the eye to anybody familiar with Ukrainian history is the image at the top of Annis’s article:

It has the caption “People’s Friendship Arch: This steel rainbow was erected in 1983 to commemorate the unification of Ukraine and Russia in 1653 and is meant to symbolize friendship and mutual respect between the two nations.”

I wonder if Annis has any inkling of what that “unification” means to Ukrainian nationalists. Ukraine and Czarist Russia signed an agreement in the town of Pereislav not on the basis of “mutual respect” but mostly on the basis of Ukraine’s need to find a military ally against Polish domination. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries Ukrainian Cossacks were locked in battles against the Poles, finally making an alliance with the Crimean Tatars in the 1650s that only achieved a stalemate. Led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the Cossacks viewed the Czar as a lesser evil.

Paul Robert Magosci sums up the treaty in his “History of Ukraine” as follows:

Aside from the debates among legal scholars and historians, Pereiaslav and its reputed architect, Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi, have taken on a symbolic force in the story of Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and have become the focus of either praise or blame. For instance, in the nineteenth century the Ukrainian national bard, Taras Shevchenko, designated Khmel’nyts’kyi the person responsible for his people’s ‘enslavement’ under Russia. The government of Tsar Alexander III (reigned 1881-1894), however, erected in the center of historic Kiev a large equestrian statue of Khmel’nyts’kyi, his outstreched arm pointing northward as an indication of Ukraine’s supposed desire to be linked with Russia. After World War II, the Pereiaslav myth was resurrected, this time by Soviet ideologists, who, on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the agreement in 1954, transformed the event into the ultimate symbol of Ukraine’s ‘reunification’ with Russia, from whom it had been forcibly separated by foreign occupation since the fall of Kievan Rus’.

Whatever writers subsequently have speculated about Pereiaslav, one thing is certain: after 1654, the tsardom of Muscovy — which within seventy-five years would be transformed into the Russian Empire — considered Malorossiia (Little Russia, i.e., Ukraine) its legal patrimony. Since the tsar considered Little Russia part of his Kievan Rus’ inheritance, whatever rights or liberties he granted the Cossacks at Pereiaslav were gifts he could take back whenever he wished.

From what I have seen from Roger Annis to this point, I am afraid that his intentions of using this photo was to help propagate the Pereiaslav myth favored by Soviet ideologues.

Let’s now take a look at Annis’s observation that “The state happens to own much of the vaunted oil and gas industries”, which is obviously a reference to Gazprom. One is not quite sure what state ownership has to do with whether a nation is imperialist or not, especially in light of Lenin’s references to German state-capitalism. In his 1921 article “Tax in Kind”, Lenin makes the case for state-capitalism but under the control of the working class:

To make things even clearer, let us first of all take the most concrete example of state capitalism. Everybody knows what this example is. It is Germany. Here we have “the last word” in modern large-scale capitalist engineering and planned organisationsubordinated to Junker-bourgeois imperialism. Cross out the words in italics, and in place of the militarist, Junker, bourgeois, imperialist state put also a state, but of a different social type, of a different class content—a Soviet state, that is, a proletarian state, and you will have the sum total of the conditions necessary for socialism.

However, it would seem that Lenin was referring more to state control than state ownership. After all, wasn’t it the case that monopoly capitalism is pretty much based on a kind of planning done in conjunction with the state? I reject Tony Cliff’s use of the term to describe the USSR but it seems useful as a way of understanding the “military-industrial complex” referred to by President Eisenhower.

What I think is more important is the usefulness of a phrase like “The state happens to own much of the vaunted oil and gas industries”. It is safe to say that I own the Macbook that I am typing this article with but is there the same relationship between the state and Gazprom?

According to Wikipedia, the largest shareholder in Gazprom as of the end of 2006 was Gazprombank at 41.235%, a chunk of stock that would ensure corporate control. You, of course, would wonder what was going on when Gazprombank, a subsidiary of Gazprom, is the largest shareholder. That is like saying that BP Bank (if there was such a thing) owned the biggest bloc of shares in BP.

Since the Wikipedia article contains no new information after 2006, you have to do a bit of digging around. A Financial Times article from November 30, 2011 brings things relatively up to date:

When Gazprom transferred control in 2007 of Gazprombank, its banking arm and the country’s third biggest lender, to Gazfond, the gas giant’s $6bn pension fund, the deal was seen as so incremental that the investor community barely noticed.

But Gazfond was closely linked to Bank Rossiya – which owned Lider Asset Management, the company that managed Gazfond’s assets and held most of the latter’s stake in Gazprombank as a nominee shareholder.

Keeping up with me? Gazprom spawned Gazprombank, which became the largest shareholder in Gazprom. But then Gazfond took over Gazprombank that was partnered with Bank Rossiya, which owned Lider Asset. Is your head spinning at this point? Try a little Dramamine.

While it is obviously difficult to penetrate through the interlocking directorships and ownerships of all these corporate entities, one thing is clear. Gazprom exists to make a group of men wealthy beyond comprehension. The NY Times reported on March 1 2012:

Arkady R. Rotenberg, a former judo coach, is now a billionaire industrialist, having made a fortune selling pipe to the state-owned gas monopoly, Gazprom.

Yuri V. Kovalchuk owned a minority stake in a small bank in St. Petersburg that in recent years won control of a number of Gazprom subsidiaries. He is now worth $1.5 billion.

Gennady N. Timchenko, once the little-known sales manager of a local oil refinery, is now one of the world’s richest men, co-owner of a commodity trading company that moves about $70 billion of crude oil a year, much of it through major contracts with Rosneft, the Russian national oil company.

What these men share, besides staggering wealth and roots in St. Petersburg, is a connection to Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who is poised to win a new six-year term as president in elections on Sunday. The three billionaires are members of a close circle of friends, relatives, associates, colleagues from the security services and longtime advisers who have grown fabulously wealthy during Mr. Putin’s 12 years as Russia’s paramount leader.

Critics say these relationships are evidence of deeply entrenched corruption, which they view as essentially government-sanctioned theft invariably connected to Russia’s abundant natural resources: gas, oil, minerals. This has become a persistent grievance of demonstrators who have staged four large street protests since December and are promising more after the election.

“The basic point is that these guys have benefited and made their fortunes through deals which involved state-controlled companies, which were operating under the direct control of government and the president,” said Vladimir S. Milov, a former deputy energy minister and now political opposition leader who has written several reports alleging corruption. “Certain personal close friends of Putin who were people of relatively moderate means before Putin came to power all of a sudden turned out to be billionaires.”

Those street protesters that Kagarlitsky derided as effete liberal yuppies had it right. What you are seeing is government-sanctioned theft. This was alluded to, after a fashion, in the CIA Handbook that Annis cited: “the private sector remains subject to heavy state interference.” For Annis, “heavy state interference” must smack of St. Petersburg 1917 when in fact it has more in common with crony capitalism everywhere in the world, starting with those Middle East and North African countries that so often get included in the “anti-imperialist” bloc.

On December 23, 2011 Reuters published “Special Report: The Gaddafi oil papers” that will give you a strong sense of why the Kremlin and the toppled dictator found such an affinity:

MISSING OIL, MISSING CASH

In a separate report published in 2010, Ben Amer’s ministry said almost five million barrels of oil worth around half a billion dollars had disappeared from a particular field in 2008.

That report said its investigation was triggered by information from Beshti. Ghanem, the oil minister and head of the NOC [the state-owed National Oil Company]  at the time, said he did not know about the missing oil; he depended on departmental heads for information and the NOC could not control the activities of its subsidiaries. He believes Beshti was motivated by a personal grudge.

“When you are in charge of 45,000 people you are going to make enemies,” Ghanem said, adding that in Libya’s current climate, witch hunts are inevitable as individuals struggle for power. “People will come up with rubbish stories just to tarnish others for personal revenge.”

The 2010 report also found millions of dollars in payments for oil had been erratic and difficult to trace. This was partly because multiple bank accounts had been opened in the NOC’s name. On top of that, deals had been cut by individuals without authorization.

“The Director of the Crude Oil Department used to sell instant shipments on his own and without referring to … even his own superior officer,” the report says. The crude oil manager at the time, Khaled Nashnoush, is also the signatory of at least one of the allegedly backdated contracts. He could not be reached for comment, and no one at the NOC could say where he is now.

Ghanem said it would be unreasonable to expect him to monitor the activities of all individuals. “Otherwise what is the point of having a head of department?”

April 19, 2014

What does state ownership have to do with socialism?

Filed under: economics,socialism,state capitalism — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

The other day I received an inquiry by email:

Hello, I am a young Marxist, and I have a question regarding production. In a Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Engels stated:

“The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of the productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage workers – proletarians. The capitalist relationship is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State ownership of productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.” –Engels.

From what I take from this, State Ownership was only advocated to further develop productive forces to make way for socialism. But in the Manifesto, it called for Nationalization of productive forces. However, this is now redundant because production is already built up.

So my question is this: if state ownership of industry is not socialist; what is? Would it be a decentralized planned economy run by the workers through worker councils? If so; how would this operate and how would planning go about? Without planning, we slip back into the chaotic production of capitalism; only this time it’s worker owned. Would the state own land and workers exercise workplace democracy on it?

As for communism (which obviously has no state to direct planning), can you also describe the economic system it would operate on?

I am very confused about this subject, and I’d like to understand it better.

Since many other people might have the same kinds of questions, I am going to reply publicly.

Essentially Engels is writing about trusts, joint-stock companies—the monopoly capitalism that Lenin wrote about in his “latest stage” pamphlet, prompted by the outbreak of WWI. One can imagine that it was possible to see only the plus side of monopolies in 1880, when Engels wrote Socialism, Utopian and Scientific. They were “transitional forms” that would lend themselves to socialist planning. In fact you can see the same kinds of enthusiasm in Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward”, written in 1889 and inspired by the early development of large-scale department stores and technological breakthroughs made possible by monopoly production. He even writes of “the nation” being “the sole employer and capitalist”.

I am not quite sure what exactly is the nature of the “state ownership” that Engels is referring to, however. To my knowledge, most of the big trusts were privately owned—such as Standard Oil or Carnegie steel works. There is a good chance that Engels was referring to developments in the future.

Later on the term “state capitalism” became more familiar in the lexicon of the Russian Communist Party. In Bukharin and Preobrazhensky’s The ABC of Communism, the term does not mean that the state has taken ownership of production but that the monopoly capitalists have taken over ownership of the government. They write:

Thus in the end we arrive at the following picture. The industry of the whole country is united into syndicates, trusts, and combined enterprises. All these are united by banks. At the head of the whole economic life there is a small group of great bankers who administer industry in its entirety. The governmental authority simply fulfils the will of these bankers and trust magnates.

In other words, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan never lost ownership of their empires. Instead they took over ownership of the state.

You also find a reference to state capitalism in Lenin’s writings on the NEP, where the Soviet government allowed a certain amount of market relations to help revive a war-ravaged economy. In 1922 you can find a section of an article on the NEP titled

State Capitalism In The Proletarian State And The Trade Unions that states:

The proletarian state may, without changing its own nature, permit freedom to trade and the development of capitalism only within certain bounds, and only on the condition that the state regulates (supervises, controls, determines the forms and methods of, etc.) private trade and private capitalism. The success of such regulation will depend not only on the state authorities but also, and to a larger extent, on the degree of maturity of the proletariat and of the masses of the working people generally, on their cultural level, etc. But even if this regulation is completely successful, the antagonism of class interests between labour and capital will certainly remain.

What Lenin was describing might be compared to the experiments that Cuba has been making with foreign-owned hotels, privately owned restaurants, etc. They can best be described as pockets of production for profit in a society that has broken with profit as the ruling principle of the economy. On the other hand, it has little to do with China where capitalism is so widespread that even the state-owned enterprises operate on the same basis as the factories owned by Apple, et al. For profit and only for profit.

Perhaps the best example of state-owned enterprises in the more recent past in the capitalist world are those that flourished under fascism. For example, Volkswagen was formed in 1937 by the Nazi trade union. You also have state ownership in a capitalist country when it is critical to the capitalist economy as a whole. Airlines and other transportations systems fall within this rubric. Finally, you see plenty of it in third world countries that have just liberated themselves from imperialism but have not had a chance to develop a native bourgeoisie. My Turkish professor at Columbia University once quipped that the state owned more companies under Mustafa Kemal than were owned in Stalin’s Russia. He was exaggerating but not by much.

You referred to the call for nationalization in the Communist Manifesto. I am not exactly sure what that is a reference to. By and large, Marx tended not to lay down rules for how socialism would be built. In chapter two of the CM, there are demands put forward, including one that calls for “Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.” That’s really about it. Keeping in mind that the CM was written in 1848, the main political concerns of Marx and Engels was how to rid Europe of the feudal restraints on production and to create the conditions for the emergence of working class power in a democratic framework—in other words, pretty much the same goals as Lenin in 1905 or so.

This leads me to the big questions you raise:

So my question is this: if state ownership of industry is not socialist; what is? Would it be a decentralized planned economy run by the workers through worker councils? If so; how would this operate and how would planning go about? Without planning, we slip back into the chaotic production of capitalism; only this time it’s worker owned. Would the state own land and workers exercise workplace democracy on it?

As for communism (which obviously has no state to direct planning), can you also describe the economic system it would operate on?

To get to the last question first, I don’t see any difference between socialism and communism. In fact, Marx and Engels used the terms interchangeably. Years later, and especially under the influence of Stalin, socialism became an intermediate stage between capitalism and communism but there is no basis for that in Marx’s writings.

As to how socialism would operate, I confess that I have not written much about that over the years. My emphasis is on how given post-capitalist societies function, with a particular emphasis on Cuba. I recommend this piece in particular: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/state_and_revolution/cuba.htm. It was written primarily to answer a member of the British SWP, a group that believes that the USSR was “state capitalist” but not even in the sense of what Lenin wrote above. It saw no particular connection between the Soviet economy and the Marxist project despite the lack of a profit motive in production.

I do strongly recommend that you look at the writings of Michael Lebowitz, an economist living in Venezuela, who has written many articles and a number of books on exactly the questions you posed. It was he, in fact, who convinced me that the distinction between socialism and communism was a bogus one. I have reviewed a couple of his books that you might find useful. Here’s an excerpt from my review of his “The Socialist Alternative”:

Although The Socialist Alternative is very much about conceiving how a future socialist system might function, it wisely avoids the neo-utopian parecon of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. As Marx said in an 1873 afterword to volume one of Capital, he was not interested in writing recipes for the cookbooks of the future. Given the catastrophic tendencies of global capitalism, however, a socialist alternative is clearly on the agenda.

For Lebowitz, the goal is what he has dubbed the “socialist triangle,” consisting of:

1. Social ownership of the means of production. It is, of course, not the same thing as state ownership since that has led to a kind of class differentiation exploited by bureaucrats in the Soviet model.

2. Social production organized by workers. This is an attempt to eradicate the distinction between intellectual and manual labor in the plants and offices of the capitalist system, a social relationship that tends to breed apathy and resentment.

3. Satisfaction of communal needs. This breaks with the paradigm of the individualist consumer and stresses the need for a collective definition of social needs. Without democracy, of course, this would be impossible.

In breaking with Leninist orthodoxy, Lebowitz rejects the distinction between socialism and communism. Lenin conceived of socialism as the first stage of communism, but Lebowitz finds no support for this in Marx. He also makes what I think is an essential point:

The term communism communicated something different when Marx wrote in the nineteenth century. Communism was the name Marx used to describe the society of free and associated producers — “an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force.” But very few people think of communism that way now. In fact, people hardly think of communism as an economic system, as a way in which producers organize to produce for the needs of all! Rather, as the result of the understanding of the experiences of the last century, communism is now viewed as a political system — in particular, as a state that stands over and above society and oppresses working people.

Finally, I recommend googling “Michael Lebowitz” and “socialism”. This will give you plenty of food for thought, including those gathered at the Monthly Review website: https://monthlyreview.org/author/michaelalebowitz. Here’s an excerpt from a 2011 interview titled “The Unifying Element in All Struggles Against Capital Is the Right of Everyone to Full Human Development”.

First of all, Capital is written from the perspective of an alternative society, the inverse situation in which the products of society serve what Marx called “the worker’s own need for development.” I think the struggle for human needs, for the satisfaction of needs is not simply giving people gifts, but it is a whole process of people having the power to work together in the communities to produce for communal needs and communal purposes. That is the revolutionary demand and struggle. For those people who say “well, that’s communism (a utopian society), but socialism has a different principle—to each according to their contribution,” I say that’s a distortion of Marx. Marx didn’t have two stages: socialism and communism. Marx had one society which comes on to the scene defective initially because it inherits all these defects from the old society. But developing that new society cannot be carried on by building on those defects. That argument goes back to Lenin, who argued that until people are highly developed, we have to have the state control where they work, how much they get, and the “socialist principle” is to each according to his contribution. But the tendency to want an equivalent for everything you do is the defect inherited from the old world. That’s what you have to struggle against, not build upon. And it obviously can’t happen overnight. Because people culturally don’t immediately accept it. But you have to say “this is the goal.” How will we proceed to build that goal? And you can’t put off this ideological and practical struggle until a distant stage. We have to build socialist human beings while developing new productive forces—a point that Che made so eloquently.

They didn’t do that in the Soviet Union. They had a focus there on self-interest (bonuses in that case), and the same was true in Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, the same pattern is emerging in Cuba—a growing emphasis on how “we can’t have distribution of subsidized food, we can’t have cheap electricity, we can’t have all this inefficiency, it’s waste, etc.” These are things that have been part of the revolution which are now being rejected. The perspective reflects in general the idea that these are things for a higher stage (and it is not the only thing put off to a later stage—e.g., there’s worker management). I think that is a very unfortunate tendency which is going along with a re-emphasis upon distribution according to contribution. However, the whole concept of a separate stage of socialism and a separate stage of communism has been the way in which a principle alien to Marxism was introduced. Building on selfishness which is what distribution in accordance with contribution is (“I will give you this only if you give me that”) is not building anything except building the basis of return to capitalism.

 

June 14, 2013

Inside the International Socialists Organization

Filed under: Counterpunch,revolutionary organizing,state capitalism — louisproyect @ 12:58 pm
Counterpunch Weekend Edition June 14-16, 2013
Putting the Sect Into Sectarian

Inside the International Socialist Organization

by LOUIS PROYECT

Whenever I reflect back on my decade-long experience in the American Socialist Workers Party during the Vietnam War epoch, I feel like I am auditioning for the lead role in Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape”:

Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that. Thank God that’s all done with anyway. (Pause.) The eyes she had! (Broods, realizes he is recording silence, switches off, broods. Finally.) Everything there, everything, all the– (Realizing this is not being recorded, switches on.) Everything there, everything on this old muckball, all the light and dark and famine and feasting of . . . (hesitates) . . . the ages! (In a shout.) Yes! (Pause.) Let that go! Jesus! Take his mind off his homework! Jesus (Pause. Weary.) Ah well, maybe he was right.

I suppose that the one benefit derived from my misspent youth was learning enough about “Marxist-Leninism” first-hand so that I could be credible to young people today about avoiding my mistakes. Fortunately, the weight of history makes it much more difficult for groups like the SWP to attract new members since the “Russian” paradigm that they are based on is extinct.

One of the more dynamic and attractive groups on the far left is the International Socialist Organization (ISO). The ISO’ers made a splash recently by going on a campaign to expose the editors of CounterPunch as a bunch of sexist frat boys in the “Animal House” vein with Jeff St. Clair and Joshua Frank reprising Bluto and Otter. My intention here is not to reopen the brouhaha but to take a look at the ISO from the perspective of Jeff St. Clair’s recent article on the Silent Death of the American Left. I will argue that there is a relationship between a left so badly in need of resurrection now and transcending the type of sectarian divisions associated with the “Russian” paradigm.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/06/14/inside-the-international-socialist-organization/

 

August 18, 2009

New Yahoo mailing list created

Filed under: socialism,state capitalism,Trotskyism,ussr — louisproyect @ 4:54 pm

This mailing list was created in order to debate the role and legacy of Stalin, Trotsky, Mao and other historic figures involved with the construction of socialism in the 20th century. The discussion will primarily be focused on the period lasting from 1917 to approximately 1990 but there will obviously be a need from time to time to relate it to current events.

Among the topics that are germane to this forum are:

–Socialism in one country versus permanent revolution

–The United Front versus the Popular Front

–The causes of the collapse of the USSR, internal or external?

–What was the best way to fight fascism in the 1920s and 30s?

–Was Soviet foreign policy revolutionary?

–What best described the Soviet economy: socialist; degenerated workers state; state capitalist?

These are obviously hotly disputed topics on the left but we expect to explore them with an absence of flaming. The list is moderated by Louis Proyect, who identifies with many of Trotsky’s criticisms of the USSR but no longer considers himself a Trotskyist.

Subscribe here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/soviet_legacy

January 16, 2009

Sam Farber, the ISO, and the Angolan Revolution

Filed under: Africa,cuba,state capitalism — louisproyect @ 6:18 pm

Nito Alves: the Bernard Coard of Angola

In the 1950s Tony Cliff developed an analysis of the USSR and the satellite states that while theoretically flawed at least had the merit of being engaged with a palpable reality, namely that Stalinism violated everything that socialists believed in. It was such an evil system that they applied a term to it that was intended to convey the ultimate form of opprobrium in our lexicon. It was “state capitalist”. By calling these countries “capitalist”-after a fashion-you draw a clear class line, whether or not of course it corresponds to reality.

Since Marx described capitalism as a social system that revolved around profit (“Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets”), it was rather hard to describe the plodding Soviet system that was by all evidence indifferent to profits in those terms. Leaving aside this key distinction, the main merit of the state capitalist ideology is that it allowed its defenders to feel superior to their Stalinist enemies and the old-school Trotskyists who still insisted that the USSR rested on collectivized property relations.

When the Cuban revolution took place, the state capitalists were thrown a curve. Since socialism could only be carried out from “below” by parties that had mastered the profundities of state capitalist theory, they had to make Cuba look as much as possible like the USSR. Workers had to be seen as being trampled underfoot inside Cuba and the foreign policy of the Cuban government had to be based on the same kind of narrow, nationalistic interests that guided the Kremlin. To shoehorn Cuban reality into a state capitalist schema required careful selection of facts that help to support the foregone conclusion. While historical materialism is understood by its practitioners as a method that bases itself on a scrupulous examination of social reality, its state capitalist adherents are not above changing the rules when it comes to something like the Cuban revolution which undermines their own, self-privileged “vanguard” status.

Of particular use to the state capitalists have been the books and articles of Sam Farber, a Cuban-American professor whose articles have appeared with some regularity in the International Socialist Organization’s press. The U.S.-based ISO is one of the more important state capitalist groups but has no connection to the equally important British SWP which expelled it from their international movement about a decade ago. I have quite a bit of respect for the ISO, particularly their work in the Green Party in years past, but find their reliance on Sam Farber to be most regrettable.

Despite (or perhaps because of) his academic credentials, Farber is not above making things up to support his judgments against Cuba. For example, in an interview with the Shachtmanite New Politics (a magazine with some affinity for the state capitalists politically, but differing on the exact class character of the former Soviet Union), Farber claimed that Cuba-just like the USSR-put political opponents in mental hospitals. There was only problem with this allegation. It was false as I demonstrated in a rebuttal written in September 2003.

Farber seems to be at it again. In an article titled “Contradictions of Cuba’s foreign policy” that appears in the ISO newspaper and that was originally published in Le Monde Diplomatique, Farber makes the case that Cuban foreign policy is self-serving even if most people on the left regard it as revolutionary internationalism of the highest order.

While Farber is on relatively solid footing by criticizing Castro’s support for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (of course leaving out the trenchant attack on Soviet bureaucracy that Castro’s speech was laced with), most of the focus is on Cuban involvement in Africa which Farber gives some grudging support to:

In the case of Angola, Cuba’s strategy, along with its alliance with the Soviet empire, allowed Cuba to play a very important role in the defense of that country against Western imperialism and its right-wing UNITA agents. Cuba delivered a heavy military and political blow against South African apartheid, which supported UNITA.

But as is typical of this “One hand giveth, the other taketh away” article, Farber applies a debit to this credit, hence yielding a zero balance in the Cuban account:

However, Cuban aid was not free of cost to the Angolan people. Thus, for example, Cuban troops actively intervened in internal disputes within the Angolan MPLA, like when they insured the victory of the faction led by Agostino Neto against the faction led by Nito Alves.

Now if were an editor at the ISO newspaper, I would have written Farber immediately after he submitted the article raising this question: “Sam, our readers might not know who Neto and Alves were. Could you expand on this since it seems crucial to your argument?” Alas, they never would have bothered since they have a stake in the ideological outcome of Farber’s article. At all costs, it is necessary to paint Cuban troops as bureaucratic meddlers even if it is not exactly clear what they did. Just say the words “actively intervened in internal disputes” and the damage is done. These words summon up images of the Kremlin engineering the ouster of Earl Browder, etc. and help to place the Cuban government beyond the pale of “socialism from below” principles.

Although I would like to dissect Farber’s entire article, space limitations force me to address the Neto-Alves dispute since Farber’s bad faith reference to it will hopefully alert the reader to take the rest of the article with a grain of salt.

You can read about the Neto-Alves conflict in Paul Fauvet’s article “The Rise and Fall of Nito Alves” that appeared in the May-August 1977 issue of “Review of African Political Economy” (contact me for a copy).

Nito Alves can best be described as an aspiring Bernard Coard for those who are familiar with the sad events in Grenada. Nito Alves was a leader of the MPLA who led a guerrilla unit in the Dembo forests that was cut off from the rest of the MPLA during intense fighting with Holden Roberto’s FNLA. Just around the time that the MPLA was poised to take power, Alves returned to Luanda and assumed leadership of the clandestine groups in the local prisons. It was also around the time that Alves began to demonstrate ultraleft and narrow nationalist tendencies that would put him on a collision course with other MPLA leaders.

For example, he developed a theory that equated the Angolan bourgeoisie as those of white and mixed ancestry, regardless of their relationship to the means of production. He proposed that whites should be stripped of their citizenship unless they had actively participated in the liberation movement. Mesticos (mixed ancestry) would have to apply for citizenship as well. This flew in the face of MPLA traditions in which the anti-imperialist struggle was based not on ethnic but on class divisions.

Despite his shaky theories, Alves’s work in the mass movement catapulted him into the post of Interior Minister. Colleagues and friends of Alves began to notice a megalomaniac streak that was only enhanced by his new duties. He was heard to say “history has reserved for me the heavy task of leading the working class to power.” In a brochure of military texts by Lenin edited by Alves, he included a reference to “the immortal Lenin, whose work I intend to continue.”

As Minister of the Interior, Alves wasted no time placing his co-thinkers in powerful positions in the new Angolan state. He was also in charge of the Luanda CPB’s (Popular Bairro Committees) that were modeled on the Cuban Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Meanwhile, Afonso “MBinda” Van-Dunem, one of Alves’s closest associates, used his position in the Angolan army to promote Alves supporters.

Besides the CPB’s and the army, the nitistas (as the followers of Nito Alves were called) had a base in the Ministry of Internal Trade where corruption was rampant. They began stockholding food as part of a plan to buy the support of the masses. In exchange for their loyalty, they would get something to eat.

Concern about nitista factionalism finally led to a decision at an October 1976 MPLA central committee meeting to abolish the Ministry of the Interior. Alves and his allies, including Van Dunem, remained on the central committee but were given notice that they would no longer be able to promote their faction against the interests of the Angolan revolution as a whole.

This led the nitistas to accelerate their plans to overthrow the MPLA through a coup d’etat. They planned to kill or exile President Agostino Neto and liquidate a number of top MPLA and government officials, all in the name of “preserving the Angolan revolution”. In the spring of 1976, there were ominous signs of the growing nitista threat. His supporters at the Luanda airport prevented white Portuguese technicians from getting off their airplane, even though they had come to Angola to volunteer their services-just like the Tecnica volunteers I placed in Africa 15 years later. Paul Fauvet reports:

A Portuguese engineer in the Public Works Ministry was savagely beaten up, and some Portuguese were even murdered, apparently in attempts to spread panic in what remained of Luanda’s Portuguese community.

Acts of insubordination and near-mutiny arose in the army and the MPLA worried that the country would soon become ungovernable. Finally, in May 1977, the MPLA central committee decided to take action against the nitistas. It took notice of the factionalism that was destabilizing the country and announced its intention to bring it to a halt. Alves’s response bordered on hysteria, accusing Angola’s daily newspaper Jornal de Angola, their Barricada in effect, of playing the same role in Angola that the right-wing press played in Chile before Pinochet’s coup. Nito Alves then demanded that everybody except he and his supporters step down from the Central Committee in order to allow him to form a new one that was truly revolutionary. When President Neto and the majority of the CC declined Alves’s offer, he decided to go ahead with a coup d’etat that he had been planning for some time.

Scheduled for late May 1976, the nitista CPB’s and loyalists in the military would form “Death Commandoes” to liquidate their enemies in the Central Committee and spearhead an assault on state power.

On May 27th the coup was set into motion. nitistas attacked a prison and released a dozen of their supporters as well as hundreds of common criminals. They also seized two radio stations and began broadcasting calls for a mass demonstration that would surround the Presidential Palace. Unfortunately for them, the people of Angola were totally unsympathetic and only 500 people gathered at the Presidential Palace.

On the military front, things were just as bleak for the nitistas. Paul Fauvet reports:

One barracks fell to the nitistas-that of the Ninth Armored Brigade. They also captured a fort on the outskirts of Luanda-but as soon as loyal troops appeared there, the rebel commanders fled and the soldiers laid down their arms, saying that they didn’t know what was going on, but had been told by nitista officers that they were ‘defending the revolution.’

In the next paragraph, Fauvet deals with the Cuban connection. Suffice it to day, it has nothing to do with Farber’s false charge about meddling in Angolan politics:

Confessions of nitista leaders soon after May 17 show that Alves believed that the Cuban forces in Angola would at least stay neutral in the conflict, if not rally to him. He was therefore shocked to discover that the Cubans had immediately put themselves at President Neto’s disposal. When questioning Veloso [a nitista] mid-morning on the situation in the centre of Luanda, Alves asked “And you even saw the Cuban comrades?”. When Veloso confirmed this, Alves remarked “Then I shall have to review my understanding of scientific communism”.

To this I would only add the observation that Sam Farber and the ISO should too review their “understanding of scientific communism”. To fault the Cubans for supporting a revolutionary government that obviously enjoyed the support of the country against a coup d’etat led by a crazed factionalist responsible for the murder of white Angolans whose only offense was being white is incontrovertible evidence that the comrades are simply not interested in the truth. In order to find Cuba guilty in the court of socialist public opinion, they have only indicted themselves.

November 29, 2007

Ultraleft counter-revolutionaries in Venezuela

Filed under: state capitalism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 4:49 pm

On November 24th the Wall Street Journal ran an article that was highly flattering to Stalin–Ivan Stalin González, that is. Stalin (he prefers being called by this name) is the leader of the privileged university students who are on the front-lines opposing the proposed constitutional reforms that would make the government more directly accountable to the people beginning with an end to term limits.

Stalin’s background would be familiar to those who run into his counterparts in the radical movement in their own countries:

Mr. Chávez’s description also hardly fits Mr. González. The 27-year-old, sixth-year law student grew up in a poor household that dreamed of a Communist Venezuela. His father, a print-machine operator, was a high-ranking member of the Bandera Roja, or Red Flag, a hard-line Marxist-Leninist party that maintained a guerrilla force until as recently as the mid-1990s. Its members revered Josef Stalin as well as Albania’s xenophobic Enver Hoxha. As a boy, Mr. González remembers packing off to marches with his sisters, Dolores Engels and Ilyich, named in honor of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

As a young man, Mr. González burnished his leftist credentials, joining Marxist youth groups and following his father into the Bandera Roja. He traveled to Socialist youth conferences in Latin America.

(The WSJ article can only be read in its entirety by googling “Ivan Stalin Gonzalez” from google/news.)

Hugo Chávez described Bandera Roja thusly:

Groups like them appear to have given themselves the holy mission of proclaiming themselves to be the only revolutionaries on the planet, or at any rate in this territory. And those who don’t follow their dogmas are not considered genuine revolutionaries.

Unlike the miserable ultraleft sectarians in Bandera Roja, the Marxists who have helped to elect Hugo Chávez do not see themselves on any such “holy mission.” Indeed, it is the absence of such self-aggrandizement that has so disoriented much of the left outside of Venezuela, at least those sectors of the left that still clutch to “vanguardist” illusions. While most of them are not nearly as bad as Bandera Roja, they still see Hugo Chávez as an impediment to the True Revolution that is gathering momentum at the grass roots level. In this scenario, the only thing that can save Venezuela is some kind of latter-day version of the Soviets in 1917 and a working-class revolutionary party to lead them toward a seizure of power. While Chávez’s government is a decent social democratic alternative to the neoliberal solution that the US would prefer, it falls short of their ideals–the operative word being ideal.

To his great credit, James Petras–a former ultraleft critic of Hugo Chavez–has a much better understanding of the true political stakes in Venezuela now and has repudiated the ultraleft in a Counterpunch article:

The CIA-Embassy reports internal division and recriminations among the opponents of the amendments including several defections from their ‘umbrella group’. The key and most dangerous threats to democracy raised by the Embassy memo point to their success in mobilizing the private university students (backed by top administrators) to attack key government buildings including the Presidential Palace, Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council. The Embassy is especially full of praise for the ex-Maoist ‘Red Flag’ group for its violent street fighting activity. Ironically, small Trotskyist sects and their trade unionists join the ex-Maoists in opposing the constitutional amendments. The Embassy, while discarding their ‘Marxist rhetoric’, perceives their opposition as fitting in with their overall strategy.

Unfortunately, the International Socialist Organization, a sizable state-capitalist group in the US, still retains the kind of ultraleft conceptions that Petras once held.

In the latest issue of their newspaper, there’s an article on the showdown in Venezuela which basically describes three camps in Venezuela: the rightwing that is getting its marching orders from the US, a center consisting of Hugo Chávez, many of his well-meaning radical supporters plus a status-quo minded elite getting rich off the oil exports, and a genuine working-class left that shares their ideals of “revolution from below.”

One of the most cited figures from this unblemished leftwing group in the pages of Socialist Worker is a self-described Trotskyist trade union leader named Orlando Chirino:

For Orlando Chirino, a national coordinator of the National Union of Workers (UNT) labor federation, Chávez’s reforms herald the “Stalinization” of the state and state control of the labor movement “along the lines of the Cuban CTC labor federation,” he said in an interview.

Chirino, a key leader of the C-CURA class-struggle current of the factionalized UNT, is among the most prominent figures on the left to oppose the reforms. He made waves on the left when he granted an interview with a leading opposition newspaper and appeared on the platform with leaders of the CTV, the corrupt old trade union federation implicated in the 2002 coup.

Today Chirino, along with an oil workers union official, José Bodas, is a founder of a new group calling for an independent workers party.

Well, what can one say? Despite his Trotskyist bona fides, Chirino opposes the reforms alongside comrade Stalin Gonzalez. He also is cozy with the rotten newspapers and trade union that tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the democratically elected government of Venezuela. Politics makes strange bedfellows, doesn’t it?

If you read the Socialist Workers newspaper, as I do, you will be familiar by now with their split personality. They are a source of excellent analysis and information on the class struggle in the US but when it comes to Cuba and Venezuela they are–how should I put it–full of shit. For them, Cuba occupies the same place as Dante’s Inferno while Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela is a purgatory that will be rescued by the likes of Orlando Chirino. But maybe not Chirino himself since the ISO still has a shred of good sense to support the constitutional reforms even if it is only grudgingly.

In the past Orlando Chirino has been a kind of North Star for them, a source of goodness and received wisdom. In August of 2005, they had a breathless article titled “Venezuela’s left comes together” that would leave the reader with the unmistakable impression that the cavalry was coming to the rescue in Venezuela. It reported on a July 9 meeting that included Orlando Chirino’s Opción de Izquierda Revolucionaria and a student collective from the Central University of Venezuela, a bastion of counter-revolutionary resistance to Hugo Chávez today and where Stalin Gonzalez is enrolled. One can only wonder if Comrade Stalin was at this meeting hyped by the Socialist Worker newspaper as a sign of hope for Venezuela. I bet that he was.

I imagine that the odyssey of Chirino and these students to the right probably did not pique the interest of the brain trust that runs the ISO too deeply.

They must have been totally smitten with a figure like Orlando Chirino who told them:

Therefore, I think that [Chávez’s] project has a short lifespan. I’m not talking in terms of years, but rather as a historic project of a way out of the crisis and misery that capitalism offers. That model doesn’t provide a way out, and today, there isn’t the space nor is there a sector of the capitalist class that wants a decisive confrontation with imperialism.

So in less than three years, Chirino discovered that the way to decisively confront imperialism was to make common cause with its chief supporters in Venezuela. As Larry David would say on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”: “Interesting, very interesting.”

Now, if I were the editor of “Socialist Worker,” I might want to try to reconcile two apparently contradictory positions. Is Chirino still a representative of the left? If so, maybe it is because he stills says that he is for a working-class revolution. But then again, so does Stalin Gonzalez. According to the WSJ:

For all his disappointment with Mr. Chávez’s brand of leftism, Mr. González still holds a candle for his revolutionary heroes. He has a signed copy of a seven-hour speech Fidel Castro delivered at the university several years ago. “I never got bored,” he says.

Apparently, being a member of the Fidel Castro fan club does not ensure that one will not lose one’s way politically.

Although it took me a while to get over my own initial skepticism toward Hugo Chávez, I never for a minute thought that ultraleftists like Orlando Chirino were some kind of revolutionary alternative. I had seen them in operation in Nicaragua in the 1980s and figured out that small groups posturing as Bolsheviks trying to wrest power from the Menshevik FSLN were more than a nuisance–they were doing the CIA’s work.

In George Black’s very fine chronicle on the Nicaraguan revolution titled “Triumph of the People”, there is a chapter on the counter-revolution that is mainly focused on the contras and their “peaceful” supporters. Within the chapter, there are also a few pages devoted to groups led by the Stalin Gonzalez’s of those times.

The most notorious of them was the Simon Bolivar Brigade, a guerrilla group composed of Latin Americans who fought alongside the FSLN. They regarded the FSLN in the same exact way that Orlando Chirino and Stalin Gonzalez regard Chavez today–as an obstacle to the full flowering of the revolution. The Brigade was led by the Socialist Workers Party in Colombia, a section of the Morenoite Fourth International that can best be described as virulently ultraleft. Considering the bad reputation of this group and a similarly named group in the US that used to be in an alliance with the Morenoites, my recommendation to aspiring Leninists worldwide is to not use this name. Of course, if you have already adopted it–like the group led by Alex Callinicos–you have my permission to continue using it.

Part of the problem dealing with the Brigade, which had embarked on a series of premature strikes and land occupations, was that it insisted on remaining armed and existing outside of the framework of the Sandinista military command.

When the FSLN sat down for a meeting with the Brigade on August 14, 1979, it found itself confronted with a demonstration of 1,000 workers who had been brought there by the Brigade in the belief that the meeting was about wages and trade union questions. After deciding that the Brigade was not serious about becoming part of the broader revolutionary process, the FSLN expelled sixty non-Nicaraguan members to Panama.

The Frente Obrero (FO) was not Trotskyist, but it posed the same kind of threat to the revolution as the Simon Bolivar Brigade. Originally a faction of the FSLN, the FO was expelled in 1972 after being implicated in a plot to assassinate the entire FSLN leadership. Fortunately, the plot failed because the FO could not recruit enough members to carry out the task. As George Black describes the FO, the kinship with Stalin Gonzalez’s Bandera Roja should be obvious:

From the early 1970s there were suspicions that the FO had close ties to Somoza’s Office of National Security (OSN). Although its ideology was not consistent, the FO’s basic orientation was towards Peking, and it held this line until the Chinese invasion of Vietnam, when it switched its allegiance to Enver Hoxha’s Albania. Towards the end of the decade, it managed to build a limited base in the working class, and had its own student movement, the Comites de Lucha Estudiantil Universitaria (University Students Fighting Committees: CLEUS).

In the early stages of the revolution, the FO proposed a government that would include bourgeois parties and themselves. Just like Stalin Gonzalez, they were adept at cloaking opportunist behavior in fire-breathing revolutionary rhetoric.

After the FSLN took power and began to concentrate on the immediate tasks of reviving an economy that had been devastated by earthquake and civil war, the FO’s newspaper demanded the ‘active sabotage of the economic plan in order to bring power back into the hands of the people’. To show that they meant business, the FO, which had far more members and influence than the Morenoites, launched a series of paralyzing strikes in the sugar refineries. In Chinandega the results were devastating. Stacked sugar cane rotted, causing the loss of a half-million cordobas per day–all in the name of socialist revolution.

Eventually the sugar refinery workers called off the strike in exchange for immediate social wage improvements, as well as government action on local health and housing problems.

The FO was determined to push on, however. When cane cutters returned to the fields, they were met by FO supporters who slashed their truck tires and threatened them with guns and machetes, just as Stalin Gonzalez’s goons did recently at the Social Work building in the Central Venezuelan University.

One cartoon in Barricada, the FSLN newspaper, depicted an FO activist floating on a cloud above a group of workers, with his head buried in a book. The caption read “Having seized political power, proceed to…” George Black said that the cartoon “summed the FO up nicely.” Too bad that it sums up some of our comrades today who decided to promote a wing of the radical movement in Venezuela that was on a collision course with the revolution.

November 18, 2007

Mike Gonzalez on Hugo Chávez

Filed under: state capitalism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:41 pm

Since Venezuela in 2007 does not seem following the same path as Russia in 1917, it is understandable that some socialists might feel a certain kind of frustration. They accept that a revolutionary process is taking place, but only at the grass roots level. Operating on a kind of parallel track to Hugo Chávez, the poor and the working classes are used as a kind of wedge by the president to drive forward his programs, laudable as they are. However laudable, they are at best a substitute for the real thing: revolution.

The International Socialist Tendency (IST), led by the British SWP, subscribes to this guarded support of Chávez as do many other socialist groups still in touch with reality. For an example of a group unmoored from reality, we can turn to the Morenoite Trotskyist Fraction/Fourth International which describes the new constitution in these terms:

It is important to emphasize that the constitutional reform has as one of its priorities, increasing the concentration of power in the figure of Chávez. If Venezuela has a system of government centered on the President, with the present reform it will reach a greater degree of Bonapartism.

For the latest thinking in the IST, it is worth watching a talk by Mike Gonzalez that can be seen on Lenin’s Tomb. It is an extraordinary exercise in tightrope walking. While Gonzalez takes great care not to use Morenoite formulations, one cannot help but conclude from his remarks that Hugo Chávez represents a kind of plaque in the arteries of the revolutionary process.

I found the second youtube clip, which covers the Q&A part of the meeting, most instructive in this regard. It laid out a series of “problems” that must be overcome in order for socialism to be achieved in Venezuela.

Gonzalez starts out by characterizing Venezuela as an advanced social democracy/welfare state that rests on oil revenues. Since this is obviously an advance over what the Venezuelan people had before, he proposes that it is worth defending.

Insofar as the welfare state rests on a foundation of oil exports, the prognosis is guarded at best. If the price of oil drops, Venezuela will be forced to make inroads on capitalist property relations in order to fund the social programs that Chávez launched. Implicitly, it will be up to forces to his left to make this assault. For the long-term economic development of Venezuela, it will be necessary to balance internal development against oil exports. While Tina Rosenberg’s politics are conventionally liberal, her critique of petrocracy in Venezuela amounts to the same thing as Gonzalez’s. In a November 4th NY Times Magazine article, Rosenberg warns:

Even if the price of oil stays high, it may not be able to sustain Venezuela if oil production continues to drop, subsidized domestic consumption keeps rising and government spending continues unmeasured and unchecked. While other oil producers, like Russia and Nigeria, are piling up surpluses, Venezuela is spending everything it gets. Venezuela once had a $6 billion oil fund to be saved for lean years; Chávez has spent all but $700 million of it. The vast majority of Chávez’s new missions and worker cooperatives are dependent on state handouts — unsustainable when government revenue falls. A devaluation of the currency would wipe out the income gains of the poor.

Not only is petrocracy a risky operation at best, it also has the effect of sustaining a national bourgeoisie that spends buckets of money on luxury goods imported from abroad and that benefits from the corruption typical of such countries, including Nigeria as the most egregious case. After listening carefully to Gonzalez’s remarks, one is left with the impression that Chávez is incapable of rooting out these abuses as long as he is content to remain within a social democratic/welfare state framework. For a solution to the country’s underlying problems, which the new welfare state can never resolve due to structural limitations, there must be a revolution from below. In order for that revolution to succeed, a vanguard must emerge in Venezuela that rests on the proletariat.

Gonzalez identifies the standing army as another problem to be surmounted. Singling out Marta Harnecker as somebody fostering illusions in the “special character” of the Venezuela army, he invites any officer who is genuinely for social change to resign from the military as Chávez did. Apparently, Gonzalez is not mollified by the evidence that Chávez has been purging the military systematically of rightist forces for the past few years. As a good student of Lenin, Gonzalez understands that the capitalist state rests on bodies of armed men and is terribly anxious to convey that message to the Venezuelan people who ultimately face a Pinochet-type threat until the military is replaced by the people in arms.

To summarize, Mike Gonzalez proposes that the solution to capitalism in Venezuela is socialism. It is hard to quibble with that.

Yesterday’s NY Times had an intriguing take on Hugo Chávez’s new constitution that has so provoked the reactionary classes:

“We are witnessing a seizure and redirection of power through legitimate means,” said Alberto Barrera Tyszka, co-author of a best-selling biography of Mr. Chávez. “This is not a dictatorship but something more complex: the tyranny of popularity.”

The tyranny of popularity is reminiscent of another formulation:

In 1847, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx’s answer to this question was as yet a purely abstract one; to be exact, it was an answer that indicated he tasks, but not the ways of accomplishing them. The answer given in the Communist Manifesto was that this machine was to be replaced by “the proletariat organized as the ruling class”, by the “winning of the battle of democracy”.

Marx did not indulge in utopias; he expected the experience of the mass movement to provide the reply to the question as to the specific forms this organisation of the proletariat as the ruling class would assume and as to the exact manner in which this organisation would be combined with the most complete, most consistent “winning of the battle of democracy.”

–Lenin, “State and Revolution”

You will note that for Lenin a “proletarian dictatorship,” the most advanced form of a “tyranny of popularity,” is something whose exact form would be a function of “the experience of the mass movement” and not some preordained formula.

The Times points out how this is taking shape in Venezuela:

One of the 69 amendments allows Mr. Chávez to create new administrative regions, governed by vice presidents chosen by him. Critics say the reforms would also shift funds from states and cities, where a handful of elected officials still oppose him, to communal councils, new local governing entities that are predominantly pro-Chávez.

Now, it would be a mistake to assume that the adoption of a new constitution would automatically transform Venezuela into a “proletarian dictatorship” but clearly this a country that is moving inexorably against the logic of private property. Despite Gonzalez’s dismissal of what Rosenberg calls petrocracy, it should never be forgotten that the struggle to purge the oil industry of bourgeois elements and to reallocate revenues for the benefit of social programs (including heating oil for poor people in the US) was accomplished through a revolutionary mobilization.

Ultimately, the tensions in Venezuelan society between can only be resolved by completing the revolutionary process. As is inevitably the case in such situations, that must be a function of the relationship of forces. By having a Hugo Chávez in power rather than a Salvador Allende, the relationship of forces are obviously much better. Time after time, Chávez has demonstrated a willingness to face down the enemies of progress within his borders and to the North.

Speaking only for myself, I have continuously been surprised by Hugo Chávez’s readiness to challenge the forces of reaction. Whether or not Venezuela will ultimately complete a socialist revolution is something that is impossible to predict. My reading of history is somewhat different than Mike Gonzalez’s. I don’t believe that revolutions are like works of art or scientific experiments that you plan out in advance. Instead they are projects that emerge out of a series of confrontations with the old order that involve a large degree of improvisation. They also have an element of conservatism in that they pose revolutionary tasks in terms of defending a hard-fought gain–like using oil revenues to fund social programs. Or put in another way:

People do not make revolutions eagerly any more than they do war. There is this difference, however, that in war compulsion plays the decisive role, in revolution there is no compulsion except that of circumstances. A revolution takes place only when there is no other way out. And the insurrection, which rises above a revolution like a peak in the mountain chain of its events, can be no more evoked at will than the revolution as a whole. The masses advance and retreat several times before they make up their minds to the final assault.

Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution

March 29, 2007

Nasser’s Egypt: a Marxist analysis

Filed under: socialism,state capitalism — louisproyect @ 3:14 pm

Although, as explained in a reply to the state capitalist Jonah in the Samuel Farber/Cuba comments section, I do not have time to take up the differences between Nasser’s Egypt and genuinely postcapitalist societies, I just remembered that Harry Braverman had a good analysis of Nasserism in the 1959 American Socialist. Most of you know Harry Braverman as the author of the Marxist masterpiece “Labor and Monopoly Capital”. He was also co-editor of a magazine called The American Socialist with Bert Cochran. It was the voice of the Socialist Union, a group that came out of the Socialist Workers Party in an effort to break with sectarianism and dogmatism. As many of you know, I identify strongly with the American Socialist and scanned in the article that appears below with many others from the American Socialist that can be read here.

American Socialist, January 1959

[Louis Proyect: This 1959 article reflects the same kind of dialectically nuanced analysis found in the American Socialist articles on Peron from the preceding year. Nasser, like Peron, was accused by liberals and some Marxists of being—as the article puts it—a ‘fascist-Hitlerite dictator.’ This was the ideological punishment meted out to a nationalist trying to eliminate over one hundred years of colonial exploitation. While obviously no Marxist, Nasser is depicted as an anti-imperialist fighter who deserved support from the broad Marxist movement against Anglo-American imperialism.]

When the smoke of the Egyptian revolution cleared away, it was easy to see who were the losers: the monarchy and the landed pashas. But who were the winners? What is the military regime doing inside the country, now that Egypt rules itself?

The Nasser Revolution

Harry Braverman

HOW Egypt, one of the world’s poorest and weakest countries, became a country of importance in half a decade is pretty well known. The army regime that deposed King Farouk had, at first, no other aim than to come to terms with the West in order to get arms—chiefly to threaten or use against Israel—and to get economic aid for industrializing the country. The protracted negotiations with Washington, however, always seemed to add up to one thing: Nothing but mouth-watering promises would be forthcoming until Egypt agreed to join the Western military bloc and to permit American bases and military missions on its soil. But the young officers in charge of the country were not disposed to imperil the independence they had just begun to establish. They thus started the triangular game of playing off the major cold-war antagonists against each other. In 1955, Nasser participated in the Bandung Conference, and later the same year announced the purchase of arms from the Soviet bloc. He negotiated with both sides for aid in building a high dam at Aswan, and while Washington reneged on its commitment, the Moscow string to Nasser’s bow is now bringing results. In the meanwhile, the new regime answered Western withdrawal from its earlier commitment on the Aswan Dam by taking over the Suez Canal, and saved itself from imperialist wrath with the help of the Russian counter-balance. More recently, Egypt has joined with Syria and Yemen to form the United Arab Republic, has won a battle in Iraq, and in general, by a policy of impudent independence and bold maneuvers, has raised its own strength on the Middle Eastern chessboard far above its former rating as despised and ignominious pawn.

All of this has been told in the headlines of the last five years. But far less information has been forthcoming about the state of affairs in Egypt itself. Hard as it is for Western readers to piece together an accurate picture from the scraps and fragments of the daily and periodical press, it becomes well-nigh impossible in the present state of our informational services. As in so many other fields, the cold war has driven truth into hiding: Nasser is a ‘fascist-Hitlerite dictator’ in pursuit of ‘foreign adventures’ to distract his people from their poverty; he is the chief  ‘aggressor’ in the Middle East. Or, on the other hand, he is a ‘peace-loving Nehruite’ and a ‘colonial revolutionary.’ These Hollywoodized stereotypes of ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ add very little to our knowledge of the complex forces at play in Egypt. We are thus fortunate in having a fine new book, Egypt in Transition, (Jean and Simonne Lacouture, Criterion Books, New York, 1958, $7.50) which gives an uncommonly complete and sensitive picture of the developments since the coup against the old regime in July 1952. The authors, a French couple, have supplemented their years of residence and observation in Egypt with exhaustive research, and have assembled the whole with careful objectivity, not to say skepticism. Although it carries the story up to as late as February 1958, it has already been published and’ acclaimed in France, and made available in this joint British-American edition. Anyone who can’t get the details, problems, and policies of the new regime straight has only himself to blame, now that this book is on the market.

POST-World War II Egypt was in the all-too-common position of a nation whose social classes find it impossible to muster the strength to get out of their impasse. Of the peasantry, which embraces the vast majority of the population, there is hardly any need to speak; it was, and still remains, almost entirely sunk in the immemorial poverty, disease, and debility of the Nile Valley, mustering barely enough energy to keep alive, and all hut dead to the national problems of Cairo and Alexandria. Even the hope of a solution to the land problem had been virtually extinguished by the peculiar Egyptian situation, in which the entire agricultural economy is concentrated in a thin strip of alluvial mud bordering the Nile, resulting in a rural overcrowding as bad as that to be found anywhere in the world. It was not the peasantry which took the lead for change; the ferment came chiefly among the city classes.

Both World Wars put huge Western armies on Egyptian soil, and at the same time sharply reduced the import of foreign goods. As would be expected, the result was a considerable growth in Egyptian industry to meet the new market and the curtailed supplies. Where, before the first World War, Egypt seemed nothing but an immense cotton plantation for the benefit of the textile trade and a fascinating playground for archaeologists, it now began to take on a Western appearance. Egyptian industry and commerce, even on a small scale, meant inevitably the undermining of the feudal orders and the encroachment of a new social arrangement, with a middle and upper class of trade and manufacture, and a city working class. Along with this came the usual accompaniment: nationalism, radicalism, strivings of independence and social reform. Revolts in the inter-war period won a measure of independence, including even the evacuation of British troops from Egyptian territory outside the Canal Zone, but Britain retained the final say in all major matters of foreign and domestic policy, both by formal agreement and informal pressures.

After the second World War, an increasing popular pressure, from the working class which had increased in size by 35-40 percent during the war, from the nationalistic capitalists, from the students, and from the vast miscellaneous throngs of the major cities—so hard to describe in social terms but so important to the popular politics of the Middle East—made the status quo ever harder to maintain. Demonstrations shook the regime, but even when relative calm prevailed, the internal rot, weakness, and loss of confidence of all the major forces in the ruling structure pointed to doom. The Wafd, an all-national party which ran the parliamentary system, managing to combine pashas and nationalist capitalists m one coalition, had lost much of its popular aura by its capitulation to the British during the war. The king, Farouk, had transformed his entourage into a Florentine hotbed of nepotism, sybaritism, and pimping. The British, the third element in the power structure, were on the defensive throughout their colonial empire, the object of universal detestation in Egypt, and badly weakened by the war.

THE outburst of the Cairo masses on January 26, 1952, which the entire center of the city was burned to the ground, including most of the foreign and fashionable structures, brought matters to a head. In October of the preceding year, Mustafa Nahas, head of the Wafd ministry, had submitted a project for abrogating the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, in order to satisfy the universal popular demand to be free of any form of occupation. Soon thereafter, Egyptian partisans began guerilla attacks on the British forces in the Canal Zone, attacks which culminated on January 19, 1952, in an almost frontal daylight assault on the garrison at Tel El Kebir, the largest British munitions depot in the Middle East. As the Egyptian auxiliary police were standing idly by or even siding with the insurgents, the British commander sought revenge by an attack on the police barracks, massacring about fifty in the process. It was this which brought on the rising excitement, the union boycotts, the student demonstrations, and finally the burning of Cairo. While the Lacoutures bring much evidence to bear of provocation by the monarchy, the fascist ‘Green Shirts,’ and the Moslem Brotherhood, there is little doubt that, whatever the forces at work behind the scenes, the explosion in Cairo on January 26 was the first day of a popular revolution. On July 26, Farouk was forced to abdicate.

With the burning of Cairo, the old regime went up in smoke, but it took six months for a new force to come forward. For the truth was that no social class had the strength, the leadership, or the organization to take over on its own. The capitalists were too few, too timid, too much tied up with the discredited Wafd and with the old regime itself, to constitute themselves as an independent political force. The peasantry—despite its four uprisings on several of the largest estates during 1951, put down with much bloodshed —-was completely without organization or political consciousness beyond the most rudimentary. Among the workers, while strikes flared throughout the preceding period and radicalism had been growing since the middle of the war, there were only weak unions and a Communist movement split into no fewer than ten competing grouplets, none of which had been able to find a clear star of policy to steer by in the fast-moving and complicated events. Besides, the working class itself is still an amorphous grouping, embracing a small number employed in the few huge vertical trusts and a large number of employees in tiny scattered shops. So recent is the class that it consists in considerable part of peasants whose families still live on the land, and who have hardly been assimilated to city life. For all these reasons, the infant working class could hardly have been expected to make the decisive challenge to the old government.

ALL of this goes to explain why Egypt is today ruled by a ‘party’ of some hundreds of army officers. The Bonapartist regime has been forced, by the absence of any decisive solution to the tensions, to straddle the contending social forces and provide an interim barracks order to a land that could no longer live in its old pit but hadn’t the strength to climb out of it.

The officers’ movement which was to furnish the new structure of government can be traced back two decades. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 which gave Egypt a limited political independence at the price of an indefinite]y prolonged British occupation, left many of the younger generation deeply dissatisfied; a dissatisfaction which was increased by repeated demonstrations of the weakness of the monarchy and the Wafd in the contests with the British. A Wafd government decree of 1936 had unwittingly sown a seed for the future by opening the Military Academy at Abbassieh to young men regardless of class or wealth. The young officers of the newly formed army were thus recruited in large measure from among the sons of the peasantry and of lower grade civil servants, a great many of whom chose the military profession as a way of seeking revenge against the British occupiers. The army thus had a peculiarly nineteenth-century, Garibaldiesqu appearance, staffed as it was by patriotic Julien Sorel who had chosen the wearing of the ‘red’ as their path from poverty to a career, by nationalist officers who devoured books by Laski, Marx, Engels, Nehru, Bevan— Hitler !—and who met on hilltops to swear oaths of revenge against the British and to make plans for recruiting other officers to the groups that started to form as soon as the first graduating class was posted to its assignments in 1938. The most prominent among these rebellious young lieutenants of the class of ‘38 was Gamal Abdel Nasser. By the late forties his connections extended throughout the army, and by 1950 he had founded a paper for the movement, The Voice of the Free Officers.

When the guerrilla-campaign for the Canal began in 1951, the officers’ movement became a seething hive of excitement, forming commandos, helping the partisans, and supplying arms. Up to this time the officers considered themselves little different from the Wafd nationalists, but after the burning of Cairo, and as it became obvious that the Wafd was neither willing nor able to take action, the officers’ ‘party,’ for that is what it in effect was, made plans for its long-prepared coup, which went off successfully at the end of July 1952. General Mohamed Neguib was selected as flag-bearer of the new regime, and for the first two years served as chief of state, after which he was ousted in an internal disagreement. But from the beginning the strongest man in the regime was the lieutenant-colonel who had founded the Free Officers’ Movement years before, Nasser.

THE losers are easy to name: the monarchy and the feudal pashas. But who had won? The khaki-colored regime, despite its early protestations of democracy and parliamentarianism, soon showed that it intended to impose its will on all sections of the population, and by balancing itself above the classes, carry out a national program that would presumably benefit all. Blows were dealt against Left and Right, against workers and landowners. Within a month, a strike at a big spinning mill owned by the major Egyptian trust, the Misr Company, broke out. When the police opened fire on the strikers, the enraged workers burned two of the factory buildings, shouting: ‘Long live the army’s revolution, the people’s revolution.’ But the ‘people’s revolution’ sent troops who killed eight workers and wounded 20, arrested 200 workers, and sentenced two of their leaders to death. These were the first victims of the revolution.

Then within a few months, a rich and powerful landowner who refused to bow to the new regime, firing on and setting his dogs upon the surveyors who had come to measure how much land he would have to hand out to his fellahs under the agrarian reform, was dragged to Cairo in chains, where he too was sentenced to die, a sentence which was in his case softened to life imprisonment. The officers could point to a blow against the Right to balance the blow against the Left. And so it continued. The military police arrested 43 worthies of the old regime, and at the same time suppressed all parties, including those of the Left, and created a ‘National Liberation Rally’ to supplant them. The aristocratic former Regent, Colonel Rashid Mehanna, was placed on trial as a counterrevolutionary with two dozen of his subalterns. At the same time, the long series of Communist trials, which processed radicals in groups of fifty, was begun, and the unions, deprived of the right to strike, were placed under government supervision. A careful boxscore might show that the large capitalists were hardly getting their share of lumps from the new regime and that the workers and the Left were getting more than their share. Yet even the big capitalists had been reduced in power, could no longer bribe and manipulate with the same ease, and waited impatiently for the army ‘wolves’ to slink back to their barracks. But the army kept a tight rein, and the country settled down to life under a council of a dozen officers, which rested upon a larger base, the Society of Free Officers of about 250 members, which rested in turn upon the 2,000 officers of the Egyptian Army.

NO matter how absolute their power, the officers could not conjure away the set of problems which had created their crisis regime in the first place. Like many dictators, they are themselves dictated to by circumstances and pressures, from the semi-colonial position of the country, from the growth of population, from the poverty of the exploited. Forced to take measures, they have earned a measure of right to the title of revolutionaries. The Lacoutures comment that ‘perhaps the military government’s most fundamental claim to be revolutionary is that at last, through them, Egypt was governed by Egyptians. In order to grasp the revolutionary importance of the changeover we have to remember that the old regime was led by a dynasty originating in Albania, with Turkish customs, French caprices, English interests, a Levantine notion of public morality, and an Italian background.’

‘A few months later men of an entirely different stamp were to be seen in the Abdin Palace. Broad-shouldered, heavy of gait, deeply bronzed, they trod gingerly across the carpets and knocked on the door before entering their own offices. At night they returned to their modest houses or their barracks at Helmieh or Manshiyat el Bakri. Thicknecked, in their khaki shirts, they spoke in ringing tones, and brought bean sandwiches with them which they ate in between their reading of the files, and which they kept hidden in the drawers of their Empire desks. They were Egyptians who for the first time since the Assyrian invasion, that is to say for twenty-seven centuries, were the real masters of the lower Nile Valley.’

Of the regime’s internal measures, the Agrarian Reform of 1952 is undoubtedly the most revolutionary. It limits the possession of land to 300 feddans (315 acres). In a land where only some three percent of the country is arable, this is quite large. Nevertheless, it made available 660,000 feddans of land for state purchase and distribution, apart from 180,000 feddans belonging to Farouk and 200 members of the royal family, which were confiscated outright. The transfer of estates involves about 13 percent of the arable land, and the beneficiaries constitute under ten percent of Egypt’s 18 million fellahs. A couple of hundred agricultural cooperative societies, compulsory by law in the re-distributed areas, organize production and marketing and try to combine the advantages of large-scale operations with small-scale ownership. Limited though the reform may be, it unquestionably has given new life and increased income to a portion of Egypt’s most exploited population. And, more important to the great mass of tenants, a compulsory decrease in land rents, which has cut the average rent approximately by half, has aided a far larger number of fellahs, about a third of the peasantry. Within a few years, according to the government’s statistics, the income of small farmers had been increased by £30 million a year ($84 million), enabling them to consume for the first time some of the poultry, eggs, and milk they produce.

But the most important result of the shakeup on the land is not economic but political. The age-old feudal rule of the landed pashas has been broken. The regional landowner-dominated principalities have given way to a central authority which, while jealously dictatorial, has no vested interest in the perpetuation of village poverty and miseries.

DESPITE this, little has been accomplished in meeting the basic economic problems of the country. The workers, agricultural and city, are probably worse off than in the past, in terms of standards of wages. Industrialization proceeds at a snail’s pace. No solution has been found to the desperate and growing over-population of the country in relation to its present productive resources.

The basic trouble is that which afflicts all colonial countries: for decades, as a result of imperialist domination and shaping of the economy, it has been a one-resource land, producing its major crop for export, in raw form, to the cotton mills of the capitalist nations. Cotton accounts for more than a third of the national revenue, and with rice, forms the speculative basis of the economy. Much of the effort of the peasantry is drained off in the form of wealth for the larger landowners and profits for the textile mills abroad. As in the other colonial countries, the nation is abjectly dependent upon the world market in its particular crop. In the years immediately following the officers’ revolution, this was emphatically brought home by a sharp drop in the world price of cotton, resulting in a severe depression on the countryside, and a fail of wages and incomes. The government fought hack by increasing the rice acreage at the expense of cotton, and by opening new markets in the Soviet bloc, but none of this has changed the fact that the country is chiefly dependent on the fortunes of one or two major crops.

Nasser and his economic planners had hoped that much agricultural capital, freed by the compulsory sale of large estates, would be siphoned into industrial investment. The hope proved vain. Landowners preferred to invest abroad, or in the quick-turnover luxury trades; they had no faith in industry. Meanwhile, the compulsory reductions in upper incomes reduced the market for manufactured goods without creating a sufficient demand to compensate among the lower income groups: the fellahs, as we have seen, are ‘splurging’ on food to supplement their bean diets, the workers are not gaining in income, arid the middle class is growing far too slowly.

IN the final analysis, Egypt cannot industrialize without massive foreign help unless it can increase the amount of arable land. The whole nation is crowded into the pathetically thin ribbon of Nile-watered and -irrigated land. The food supply for the growing population and export surpluses for financing industrialization cannot be ensured from this tiny area by itself. Only a program of desert reclamation will reinvigorate the agricultural economy and give the cities a surplus to invest in industry, and even then, it is doubtful that the automatic pull of the market would do the job; some form of government planning would be required to ensure that the added wealth is kept in the country and applied to constructive tasks.

The Aswan Dam project is seen by the regime as the basic answer. Forty-five percent of the Nile water is wasted. There are fat years and lean, drought and flood. The proposed High Dam announced by Nasser in 1954 would create a catch basin of 23,000 square miles, providing enough water to increase the arable lands by 30 percent. The entire agricultural setup would moreover be steadied, taken out of the Nile’s erratic mercies. By reducing the underground waters, drainage costs would be lowered by an estimated 24 percent. But the production of huge quantities of cheap electric power would he the most important consequence of the dam, making it possible to transform the face of Egypt. Egypt at present consumes only about a third of a million kilowatt hours, one of the lowest per capita supplies in the world. The Aswan Dam, fully electrified, would produce ten thousand million kilowatts an hour at a negligible cost. This in itself would provide the basis for an industrial revolution of great pro. portions. This project can raise the standard of living and end the disparity between the country’s resources and its growing population. Egypt has few natural resources apart from the Nile, but, when harnessed, the Nile can change the face of a large part of North Africa. The total building costs for the dam would reach some £400 million ($1,120 million) a sum which the nation, even with its revenues from the nationalized Suez Canal, cannot possibly raise without foreign aid. It is easy to see why for Egypt’s new foreign policy has taken precedence above all other of government.

Important as the Aswan project is, it is hard to see solution of the Egyptian problem by purely technical means. The hallmark of the present military regime is while sincerely seeking the industrialization and modernization of Egypt, it hopes to achieve that goal without breaking up the old social structure. Apart from the monarchy and the pashas, the power-structure remains intact. The dictatorship has little more authority over the direction of the economy than Nehru’s democracy, and for if the same reason: The economy is, by and large, still in if the hands of the same possessing classes. When the experience of China is set against that of all those colonial countries which have tried to make progress without a basic social revolution, it is easy to see that technical expedients are not enough; barriers which look insuperable to a regime that has its hands tied by old social relations may be leaped or circumvented by a regime that is free to make a fresh economic start.

GENERAL Neguib, when he was in office, told an Egyptian diplomat: ‘My dear ambassador, just explain to your friends that if we had not seized power, others would have overthrown the monarchy and by other means.’ The Lacoutures write:

‘In the collusion which was constantly offered by the British and Americans and which Nasser accepted) there was certainly an element of ideological understanding, a common determination to block the passage to a violent social revolution by offsetting it with technical reform (the idea being less to bar the road to an imaginary Soviet invasion, than to nip in the bud some Mao of the Nile Valley).’

These are insights into the motives of the military revolutionists, but as the Lacoutures point out, they by no means define the entire process. In its foreign relations, a regime which started out to make the most of its ties with imperialism soon found that it was offered little independence in return for its collaboration, and broke violently to carry out some of the most striking anti-imperialist coups of recent years. The limited technical reforms of its internal policy have grown in implication, not because the changes have been so great, but because the awakening of the people has been furthered, and because they sit in judgment on the regime’s actions, and make demands and exert pressures.

Nasser’s regime is certainly a dictatorship masquerading as a revolution, but it is also a dictatorship fulfilling some of the obligations of a revolution, and initiating the trends and processes which will make for more revolution in Egypt. So long as the military can effectively substitute itself for the social struggle, keep the pot boiling, and give at least the impression of forward motion, it can hold sway. If it falters, the dispossessed nobles and landowners are on hand to take over again, with imperialist help, unless the Egyptian working class and peasantry have in the meantime so matured as to be able to make the Nile Valley the scene of Africa’s first experiment in socialism.

March 28, 2007

Samuel Farber, the state capitalists and Cuba

Filed under: cuba,socialism,state capitalism — louisproyect @ 5:47 pm

(This is part of a continuing series on “Does Socialism Have a Future”. My next and concluding post will review Michael Lebowitz’s “Build it Now”)

 

Revolutionary from above?

For state capitalists or Shachtmanites, the notion of “socialism from below” serves as a kind of litmus test for revolutions. For example, David McNally, a Canadian state capitalist professor, wrote a pamphlet titled “Socialism from Below” in 1984 that condemns Trotskyist support for Cuba:

From this point onwards, the movement Trotsky had created fell victim to the ideology of socialism from above. No longer, for them, was socialism dependent upon the self-emancipation of the working class. Now any collection of guerrillas, technocrats or petty dictators who undertook to turn backward countries into modern empires by nationalising the means of wealth appeared as progressive movements. In China, Cuba, Algeria and dozens of other countries, such movements came to power. In no case were these regimes based on structures of workers’ power and workers’ democracy. Yet, more often than not, the Trotskyist movement greeted these brutally undemocratic state capitalist tyrannies as workers’ states.

In trying to understand the origins of this distinction between “above” and “below”, it is helpful to keep in mind that Lenin viewed the bourgeois revolution as having such opposed outcomes as well. In his 1899 “Development of Capitalism in Russia,” he said that the bourgeois revolution can proceed from above, such as the case of the Junkers in Germany, or from below, like the American Civil War against slavery. (Although it is not necessary to go into this here, it is certainly possible to interpret the post-Civil War period as having the same characteristics as Junkers Germany, namely a continuation of the plantation system under less feudal-like conditions.)

In a very important article on the bourgeois revolution that appeared in Vol 13., Issue 4 of “Historical Materialism” in 2005, British SWP’er Neil Davidson made a very convincing case for the need to detach the category ‘democratic’ from “bourgeois democratic revolutions.” Agreeing with Lenin, he sees the bourgeois revolution as being accomplished either from above or below. Ultimately, we are talking about qualitative changes in the mode of production and nothing else.

In the concluding pages of his article, Davidson takes exception to Isaac Deutscher who saw Stalin as a kind of socialist Junkers imposing socialism from above on Eastern Europe after WWII. Unlike the bourgeois revolution, the socialist revolution can only come from below. As he puts it in reckless disregard of dialectics, “the exploited class under capitalism will achieve the socialist revolution, or it will not be achieved at all.” I guess this illustrates Aristotle’s rule of the excluded middle, although it has been years since I was a philosophy student. Furthermore, state ownership of the economy is not sufficient to determine if a workers state exists. This can only be defined by whether “the working class is in political control of the state.” He adds that “democracy is not merely a desirable feature, but a necessity for socialism.”

Implicit in this analysis is the idea that all political tendencies outside the state capitalist movement are not up to the task of building socialism since they lack the theoretical insights of Tony Cliff and his followers that are a precondition for workers democracy. (It must be added, however, that these insights did not prevent the British SWP from unceremoniously booting the American ISO out of their movement.) Set up as a separate and distinct ideological tendency within Marxism, it sees its goal as creating an alternative to Stalinist state capitalism.

At the time of its founding, the state capitalist movement had a fairly easy job on its hands. With the USSR clearly controlled by a privileged and antidemocratic social layer, Tony Cliff and his followers sought to create untainted socialist leaderships everywhere in the world that could challenge the state capitalists for power. This was a black-and-white, almost Manichean, struggle that was mandated by the clear evidence of Soviet brutality in East Germany, Hungary and elsewhere.

In 1959, things got a bit more complicated.

A guerrilla group overthrew the Batista dictatorship with no help from the Cuban Communists and began to build a kind of socialism that had little in common with the USSR. That, at least, is how most independent-minded radicals saw it. However, if your goal is to maintain a kind of brand loyalty to a particular ideology, it is incumbent upon you to highlight everything that stinks about your competitor. If you are in the car rental business, you have to point out that the competition does not have locations near major airports. If you are in the laxative business, you have to point out that other brands take longer to kick in and you know how bad that can be. If you are in the revolutionary socialism business, it is necessary to point out that your rivals are not really proletarian and are hostile to democracy.

For many years now, Brooklyn College professor Samuel Farber has been providing talking points to the state capitalists for use against the competition. As an ostensible expert (he was born there), he has the kind of authority that others lack.

For example, ISO’er Paul D’Amato finds Farber’s musings on the class nature of the July 26th movement essential to his January–February 2007 International Socialist Review article titled “Cuba: Image and Reality.”

What was the class nature of the revolution? The July 26th Movement’s core around Castro consisted of men from different social classes, mostly from the cities, but even those from the working class had not been active in unions or other working-class organizations before joining Castro. Likewise, peasant guerrilla recruits, “typically had little or no history of previous organized peasant struggles,” notes Sam Farber. “This was very important in allowing Fidel Castro to mould these men into faithful followers of his caudillo leadership. In any case, an inner circle of ‘classless’ men unattached to the organizational life of any of the existing Cuban social classes became Fidel Castro’s political core.”

The footnote attached to this paragraph refers to Farber’s recently published “The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered,” an altogether worthless book that does more damage to the ISO’s reputation than to the Cuban revolutionary movement. I want to take up some of Farber’s major points and then conclude with some thoughts on the question of “socialism from below” and the Cuban revolution.

Chapter two of Farber’s hatchet job is titled “Fidel Castro and the Cuban Populist Tradition.” It is the kind of claptrap one would hear at an American Political Science Association (APSA) convention. After establishing the existence of a populist tradition in Cuba that José Martí supposedly belonged to, Farber then goes through a laborious exercise to prove that Fidel Castro was a populist as well. Apparently, what people think is more important than what they do. Citing a couple of “Marti scholars”, Pedro Gonzalez and Iván E. Schulman, Farber notes that “strong elements of stoicism and romanticism also featured prominently in Martí’s thinking and subsequently became fixtures in the Cuban populist tradition…” Well, so much for historical materialism.

To put it mildly, the term “populist” is next to useless in describing either José Martí or Fidel Castro. In drawing a distinction between the cross-class character of the Cuban liberation movement and the proletarian-oriented Communists, Farber shows that he has little understanding of Leninist politics. This, of course, should not come as any great surprise since he wrote a book that blamed Lenin for Stalin’s rise. Others of us, including the state capitalist comrades, would presumably have more use for Lenin–especially on the national question.

Karl A. Radek: like Farber, had no use for middle-class movements

On May 9, 1916, Lenin noted that Karl Radek had described the Irish rebellion as being a “putsch.” Since, according to Radek, “the Irish question was an agrarian one”, the peasants had been pacified by reforms, and the nationalist movement remained only a “purely urban, petty-bourgeois movement, which, notwithstanding the sensation it caused, had not much social backing…”, there was no need to back something that obviously was just as “romantic” as Marti’s populism. Lenin had no use for this kind of workerist sectarianism. He answered Radek as follows:

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

Oddly enough, despite his professions for the need for “socialism from below,” Farber has a weak spot for the Popular Socialist Party in Cuba (the dirty no-good Stalinists) whose working class orientation was in stark contrast to the wishy-washy populists and their amorphous “Cuban people.” A large part of Farber’s infatuation has to do with the high “theoretical level” of the Cuban Communists compared to their populist rivals in the Orthodoxo Party (Castro belonged to its youth wing) and elsewhere, as if being able to explain the Grundrisse could make up for horse-trading with Batista.

In comparison, the guerrillas were a bunch of romantics who went to the hills “for an ideal”, but as the fighter who uttered these words went on to say, he had no idea what the word “ideal” meant. Farber writes that “he had heard the expression and figured it was a good thing.” These are people who would appear to enjoy shooting just for the fun of it, like members of the National Rifle Association in the United States.

Even worse, the July 26th fighters were motivated more by a sense of honor rather than social justice, a quality that linked them to the Sicilian Mafia. Citing a rafter of Cuban “scholars,” Farber asserts that honor has been the “cornerstone of social consciousness” in Cuba for the entire 20th century, a trait they share not only with the Mafia but with southern slave owners and medieval lords as well. So unlike the proletarian and theoretically grounded Cuban Communists, the July 26th movement fought for ideals that it did not understand and had a taste for settling feuds like the American gangsters that Batista welcomed.

So far we have established that Fidel Castro’s movement was populist, gun crazy and consumed with notions of “honor” like the Mafia. If that wasn’t bad enough, we soon discover that it was racist as well. Unlike the Cuban Communists, who went out of their way to recruit Blacks, the populist movement “failed to recognize the special oppression of black Cubans.”

Although Richard Gott is not the hostile propagandist that Samuel Farber is, he does concur that the July 26th movement gave short shrift to Afro-Cubans. In his recently published “Cuba: a New History,” Gott writes:

The Revolution was to create avenues of economic progress for the great mass of the black population, but without a programme of US-style positive discrimination their social and political advance remained slow. By 1979 there were still only 5 black ministers out of 34, 4 (out of 14) black members of the politburo of the Cuban Communist Party, and 16 (out of 146) members of the Party’s central committee. No black generals served in Angola, although most of the troops were black.

Despite this, Gott does give credit to the Cuban government for ending Jim Crow shortly after taking power and for funneling urgently needed resources to the countryside, which had a high representation of Afro-Cubans. Part of the problem, of course, is figuring out what it means to be a Black in Cuba. Some scholars believe that 70 percent of the Cuban population is descended partially from African slaves. In the 1980s, I worked with a programmer named Gabriel whose father was a sergeant in Batista’s army. He had a coffee complexion and told me that his pipe-smoking grandmother who worshipped the Santeria gods was black as coal. Was Gabriel white? Certainly not in the eyes of the average New Yorker.

Chapter four of Farber’s book is titled “The Driving Force of the Cuban Revolution: From Above or From Below?” It begins with a categorical denial that “mass pressures from below played a critical role in determining the course followed by the revolutionary leadership.”

It is essential for Farber to make such an argument since the overall schema is one of a government carrying out structural reforms, often counterproductive ones, over the heads of a population that stood by with its arms folded and that eventually was ordered about like servants. In this scenario, the guerrillas shot their way into power against an army that was decaying from within, like a termite-ridden house, and then took the reins of government to carry out social experiments inspired by the state capitalist USSR.

Louis A. Pérez Jr. on Cuba in 1959:
“Pressure for immediate, deep, sweeping change was building from below

In his acknowledgements, Farber thanks Louis A. Pérez Jr. for his penetrating and useful criticisms but holds himself “solely responsible” for the views expressed in the book. One wonders if this might have something to do with the 180 degree difference between him and Perez over the question of mass pressure from below. In Perez’s “Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution,” we get quite a different view of the mood and activities of the Cuban people at the time of the revolution:

The rhetoric of revolution awakened the imagination of hundreds of thousands of Cubans, creating a vast constituency for radical change. It raised expectations of revolution, and not since 1933 had Cuban hopes for change reached such levels. Pressure for immediate, deep, sweeping change was building from below and the invocation of revolution encouraged it to rise to the top. Organized labor mobilized to press demands on a wide variety of issues. The Confederation de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC) demanded outright a flat 20 percent wage increase for all workers. Strikes increased in number and frequency. Six thousand workers of the Cuban Electric Company staged a slow-down strike to dramatize their demands for a wage increase. Unemployed electrical workers demonstrated at the presidential palace. Unemployed railway workers proclaimed a hunger strike, as did former employees of a Havana paper mill. Construction workers called a wildcat strike at the Moa Bay Mining Company. Restaurant workers threatened to strike. Cane cutters marched. Labor protests disrupted sugar production in twenty-one mills.

A March 9th 1959 Washington Post article was typical. Headlined “Workers Seize Radio in Cuba Labor Dispute,” it reported that it was the second such seizure in two days. Workers had already taken over the privately-owned equipment and studios of television Channel 12 in a similar labor dispute. The final paragraph states: “A Government labor representative said the workers at Cuban Wireless rejected a company offer to turn the management of the enterprise over to them.

Does this sound like a scenario in which the workers stood by passively while a bunch of middle class guerrillas went about the business of converting Cuba into a state capitalist dungeon? Unless you are totally committed to the state capitalist faith, it would seem that the events on the ground had more in common with France in May-June 1968 than with Stalinist Poland or East Germany.

Even Fidel Castro risked being bypassed by events. The October 25, 1959 NY Times reported that the Cuban president was under tremendous pressure from the counter-revolutionary right and from the workers and peasants on the left. The article concluded:

Dr. Castro’s austerity program [dictated by the economic chaos of the just concluded revolutionary war] has no enthusiastic support from the masses of people. At the same time, the workers expect the Government to see that they get the pay raises and other advantages despite the depressed conditions of business and industry, while the landless peasantry expects to be living well.

Like few other leaders that had taken power in Latin America, Central America or the Caribbean for the better part of 50 years, Fidel Castro decided to push the dynamics of the revolution against capitalism and imperialism. If one categorizes him as a populist, there is some difficulty in explaining his trajectory. Against all odds, Samuel Farber gives it a try. Basically, Farber interprets all of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary initiatives as clever ruses to maintain power. In other words, he acceded to popular demands for land reform, workers control of industry, reduction of rents, wage hikes, etc., just to stay in power. In two paragraphs that are a departure from the heavy fog of bourgeois social science that hovers over Farber’s text, we learn that Castro broke with his ostensibly populist past in the early years of the revolution:

The announcement early in the Castro regime that serious cases of misappropriation of funds by public officials might be punished with the death penalty might have sounded harsh to foreign observers, but it was music to the ears of most Cubans, who had despaired of and become cynical about the possibility of public officials ever being honest. Cubans of all classes, particularly the working class and the poor, were pleased by the brand-new revolutionary police force’s lack of abusive behavior. Many of these new police officers were politically aware revolutionaries and had had no time to develop the deformation of character common to members of all professional repressive institutions. Other early measures—for example, the opening of all beaches to the public early in 1959—met with widespread approval among workers and the poor, especially the black population, which had been the principal victim of the private appropriation of public facilities such as beaches and, in some provincial towns, parks. So, without explicitly appealing to specific class-warfare themes early in his regime, Castro obtained and consolidated an overwhelming amount of popular support.

Months later, however, Castro started to take measures that had sharper teeth and shattered the multiclass coalition of the 1956-58 period. Thus, for example, the drastic reduction of rents by as much as 50 percent in March 1959 shook up Cuban society. While this action alienated some sections of the upper and upper-middle classes, it cemented popular support and definitively established that the revolution was dedicated to the material improvement of the working class and the poor. The May 1959 agrarian reform law eliminated whatever doubt might have remained on this score. By this time, the revolutionary regime was clearly enjoying huge popular support materially based on the substantial redistribution of income that took place during its first year in power.

Farber adds that this kind of behavior “expressed a combative and aggressive attitude toward imperialist capitalism rather than a defensive and measured response to U.S. acts against Cuba.” Quite so, and also quite distinct from the behavior of any Communist Party since the early 1920s. The normal reaction for a radical would be to solidarize with such rebels rather than to condemn them as acting “from above.” That, I am afraid, would take a willingness to admit one’s errors that is simply beyond the capability of a self-declared vanguard.

To return to the question of “below” or “above”, let us accept the verdict that the Cuban government acted from above. If this is so, then perhaps it is time to reevaluate the usefulness of Davidson’s distinction. If the Cuban government, acting from above, could carry out the following according to Farber:

1. Eliminate corruption.

2. Eliminate police brutality.

3. Democratize the beaches and other public spaces.

4. Seize the land of the wealthy and turn it over to the landless

5. Stand up to U.S. imperialism.

Then, perhaps we should view it just as much of an advance over bourgeois property relations as bourgeois property relations were over serfdom. It is one thing to maintain one’s political distance from the Kremlin after Stalin’s rise; it is another to assert that there was no qualitative difference between Cuba and Haiti after 1960.

Unfortunately, the comrades have painted themselves into a corner. They have built an ideological edifice that is much more like a house of cards. Pull out one card and the whole thing comes tumbling down.

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