Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 15, 2015

My days in Houston on assignment for the Socialist Workers Party

Filed under: Texas,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 4:34 pm

In the May 4th issue of the Militant, there’s a peculiar article but probably not that much more peculiar than many that have appeared there in recent years, as the tiny cult enters its death throes.

Titled “SWP’s 45 years of rich political history in Texas”, it gives the impression that the party is stronger than ever even though the article is basically a farewell to Texas:

“We can join in increasing labor resistance today,” Warshell said, “like the strike by Steelworkers in area oil refineries and widespread proletarian struggles against police brutality. There are new openings for communists today to build our movement and recruit.

“We’re leaving Houston and closing the branch here,” he said, “but as the class struggle deepens and the party grows, we will be back.”

Increasing labor resistance and leaving Houston? How do these two things go together? Who knows? Who cares?

The SWP once did have a remarkable presence in Houston and the rest of Texas that is referred to briefly:

The SWP and Young Socialist Alliance in Texas grew out of the fight against Washington’s war against Vietnam in the 1960s, said Joel Britton, an SWP leader from Oakland, California. Party branches were built in both Houston and Austin.

As a result of the party’s growing public presence, it became a target of the Ku Klux Klan, as were Black rights’ fighters, anti-war activists, and KPFT, the local Pacifica radio station.

“Houston’s KKK operated with true impunity, tied in with the police force, the sheriff’s department,” and other parts of the so-called justice system, Britton said.

“One of the high points in the fight against Klan attacks was when Debbie Leonard, SWP candidate for mayor in 1971, debated a top Klan leader — not once but twice,” Britton said.

But most of the article is the standard recitation of the party’s “turn to industry” that in fact has left it not only incapable of continuing in Texas but has sealed its doom everywhere else. In a normal organization, there would be feedback mechanisms to allow it to reverse course but in this bizarre cult that is led by someone more than a bit tetched, there is no turning back.

I arrived in Houston in the winter of 1973 in order to help organize a faction fight against a sizable minority in the branch that supported the Ernest Mandel-led wing of the Fourth International that supported guerrilla warfare in Latin America. After a year or so in Houston, the sixties radicalization began to disappear before our very eyes as we scrambled around for new sources of recruitment. It was around this time when I began to feel more and more alienated from the party and its stifling peer pressure both socially and politically that the thoughts of dropping out began to take shape. I only regret that I hung around for another four years.

In any case, you will see the pages from my unpublished memoir about the time I spent in Houston. As is always the case, I am free to post this material under the provisions of fair use legislation, plus rights afforded me as the copyrighted author of the text and the full permission of the artist to circulate the memoir.

Houston1 Houston2 Houston3 Houston4 Houston5 Houston6 Houston7 Houston8 Houston9 Houston10 Houston11 Houston12 Houston13 Houston14 Houston15 Houston16 Houston17 Houston18 Houston19 Houston20 Houston21 Houston22

March 29, 2015

On the SWP’s turn toward Israel

Filed under: cults,Trotskyism,zionism — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

SWP leader Norton Sandler: “There is no Zionist movement today”

I had quite a few misgivings about writing this article since the SWP of the USA is such a minor player. Yet its Zionist evolution is of such a shocking nature and because so many ex-members—including me—have been so perplexed by it that I finally decided to put something together.

I very rarely write about this group nowadays but at one time it mattered a lot more to me. I was a member from 1967 to 1978 and at the time I left it had about 1500 members. Now it has around a hundred or so mostly aging (like me) cadre. I maintain a mailing list on the group at Yahoo that was originally designed to shunt discussions about it from ex-members off of Marxmail that really didn’t need to be burdened by such trivia. Ninety percent of our subscribers have no idea what the SWP was, even if at one time it was the apple of Leon Trotsky’s eye.

The Militant newspaper article that prompted this response appeared in the April 6th edition that was posted to their website yesterday. Titled “Israel vote marks political openings for workers, Arabs”, it celebrates Bibi Netanyahu’s election:

A strong vote for the Likud Party in the March 17 Israeli elections ensures the next government will continue to be led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The results reflect concerns of working people there that U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy makes the threat of attacks from Iran and the reactionary Islamist Hamas forces that rule Gaza more likely.

If you read these sentences in isolation, you’d think you had stumbled across a NY Post or WSJ editorial except for the boilerplate reference to “working people”. A subsequent paragraph under the subheading “Views from the Left” is even more ghastly:

Virtually the entire U.S. and Israeli petty-bourgeois left holds the view that a Netanyahu victory proves working people in Israel are hopelessly reactionary. Some were dismayed, others overjoyed at the result.

Gideon Levy, a columnist for the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz, heaped scorn on working people, writing that the election showed “the nation must be replaced,” and called for “general elections to choose a new Israeli people — immediately.”

The Times published a column March 18 by Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which supports the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” campaign against Israel. “The biggest losers in this election were those who made the argument that change could come from within Israel,” Munayyer wrote. “It can’t and it won’t.”

He said he was glad, because if Netanyahu had lost, their boycott efforts would have been weakened.

Supporters of the boycott say it’s aimed at forcing Tel Aviv to end its control of the West Bank and its embargo of Gaza. But the campaign provides cover for Jew-hatred and calls to wipe Israel off the map.

Now there are some good people on the left who oppose the BDS campaign, like Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky but the SWP is coming from a different place altogether. The notion that the “campaign provides cover for Jew-hatred and calls to wipe Israel off the map” is not the sort of thing you’d hear from Norman Finkelstein. Rather it reeks of Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz and Abraham Foxman.

When I was a member, the SWP was probably the most consistent defender of Palestinian rights on the left, with former left-Zionist group member Peter Buch a tireless speaker and writer of books such as “Burning Issues of the Mideast Crisis”. You can still see some anti-Zionist books on sale at Pathfinder such as Dave Frankel and Will Reissner’s “War Against the Palestinian People” but their analysis is at odds—obviously–with the current line of this sect. What you would expect from a group that has changed its line by 180 degrees is some explanation but none has been forthcoming. Of course, this is the norm for Stalinist parties but not one founded to promote Trotskyism. The adoption of such bureaucratic norms was completed a long time ago in the SWP even as it continues to pay lip service to Leninist norms.

By some standards, the SWP is even more egregious in dumping long-hold positions sans explanation than the CPUSA. Only four years ago the Militant posted excerpts from a document written by cult leader Jack Barnes for the 2006 convention that stated:

What the Israeli rulers are seeking to impose in order to consolidate Israel within borders of their own choosing is not a “peace process,” as it’s dubbed by liberals in the big-business media. It’s the consolidation of an Israel still based on the forcible expulsion of the Palestinian majority, together with the “right of return” of those of Jewish parentage—and only those of such parentage.

Only four years later, the Militant defends that “right of return”:

The point of the Law of Return, a key aspect of Israeli law since its founding, is not to foster religion, but to guarantee a safe haven for those facing Jew-hatred around the world.

That’s from another abysmal article titled “Debate flares in Israel over bill to set exclusive national rights for Jews” that appeared in the January 26, 2015 issue, one that also claims that Israel is “the most secular country in the Middle East”, a formulation that is associated with the Israel lobby. Israel is also flattered as the most democratic:

The 1948 declaration also promised Arab residents “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” While Israel was created through the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the rights enshrined in the country’s Basic Laws are widely used today by Arab citizens to fight discrimination in jobs, housing and government services, and for the exercise of political rights.

Palestinians see it differently. In a document titled “History of the Palestinians in Israel” published by Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the authors state:

Israel never sought to assimilate or integrate the Palestinian population, treating them as second-class citizens and excluding them from public life and the public sphere. The state practiced systematic and institutionalized discrimination in all areas, such as land dispossession and allocation, education, language, economics, culture, and political participation. Successive Israeli governments maintained tight control over the community, attempting to suppress Palestinian/Arab identity and to divide the community within itself. To that end, Palestinians are not defined by the state as a national minority despite UN Resolution 181 calling for such; rather they are referred to as “Israeli Arabs,” “non-Jews,” or by religious affiliation.

In light of this, it is most telling that the Militant article refers to Arab citizens rather than Palestinians.

So what do we make of all this, a question more pressing for ex-members like me who not only spoke numerous times on Israel and the Palestinians at public meetings (my family was very pro-Zionist) but devoted time and money to an organization that we saw as principled and fearless on the Middle East.

The turn toward Israel seems to have begun with a spate of articles in 2006 that took up the question of “Jew-hatred”, a term the sect prefers to anti-Semitism even if it has no currency outside their circles. It was linked with some accuracy to a number of articles that had begun to appear blaming the Israel lobby for promoting a foreign policy that was inimical to American interests—the kind of article associated with realpolitik academics like Mearsheimer and Walt. Needless to say, such articles don’t constitute an ‘existential threat’ to Jews as if they could lead to concentration camps and all the rest. But you wouldn’t know that from hysterical articles such as “More middle-class radicals promote Jew-hatred”  that appeared in the May 15, 2006 Militant:

The dangerous logic of such arguments peddling Jew hatred (to say “anti-Semitism” would be putting it mildly) should not be lost on working people. Such conspiracy theories have been the stock-in-trade of ultrarightists and fascists—mortal enemies of the working class and its allies. Petras’s arguments also point to the political evolution of many middle-class “socialists” like him.

But this was just the opening act in the farce that would follow. In 2009 a startling article appeared under the title “’Zionism,’ its use today, not in 1948” by Norton Sandler. He blithely assures his readers that Zionism existed once upon a time but no longer:

The Palestinian population in the West Bank and in Gaza is approaching 4 million. Faced with these demographic trends, the majority of the Israeli ruling class has given up the dream of a “Greater Israel.” They are forced to opt for what they consider the only pragmatic solution—maintaining a majority Jewish state within borders of their own choosing. This is hardly the Zionist movement’s dream of an Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

This is really atrocious given the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Since the Jordan River is the eastern border of the West Bank, does anybody doubt that Israel’s goal is to expand settlements throughout the West Bank until it is effectively part of Greater Israel or whatever it is called? Sandler’s article serves as Zionist propaganda. Make no mistake about it.

Just a little background on Sandler’s article. He first used the formulation of Zionism not existing today in a talk he gave to a gathering of the SWP’s co-religionists in London. This prompted a letter to the paper by Joaquin Bustelo, a former member:

I think the position expressed by Norton Sandler in the Militant that “There is no Zionist movement today” is mistaken. This reactionary European colonial-settler national movement still exists, and has as its maximum expression the state of Israel, as well as organized expressions in other countries in the form of groups to organize or lobby for aid to Israel and so on.

Unfortunately, Sandler’s statement leads him to further say that Zionism “has become an epithet … a synonym for ‘Jew’ that helps fuel Jew-hatred.” This is a completely unwarranted concession to those who say any criticism or opposition to the state of Israel is automatically anti-Semitic.

Finally, while the Militant projects a “perspective” of a united struggle by all working people in the region for a democratic, secular Palestine, that cannot be a substitute for expressing unconditional solidarity with and support to the just national struggle of the Palestinian people, something which unfortunately is not mentioned in the article.

Joaquín Bustelo
Atlanta, Georgia

Of course, the Militant dropped the demand for a democratic, secular Palestine not too long after this letter appeared.

So how did this all happen? Is Israel paying off Jack Barnes, the cult leader? I doubt that any sensible state power would waste its money, especially on a bizarre sect that exists on the fringes of American politics.

The explanation is social in nature—or to put it another way, the lack of a social foundation. Groups on the left to one extent or another reflect social pressures. For example, the French Trotskyist movement in 1968 adapted to the ultraleft student movement. The CP in the USA adapts to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. It is through social interaction with a broader milieu that such parties formulate strategy and tactics. When a party’s social base is progressive, such as the Bolshevik’s in 1917, the results are salutary. When, however, it rests on a questionable social base such was the case of the Second International and the trade union bureaucracy in 1914, the results are disastrous.

Apart from such considerations there is the world of tiny sects that have no social base such as the SWP or the Socialist Equity Party or the Spartacist League. They tend to have a relationship to a great genius whose ideas are fairly unpredictable. It is worth mentioning that the SWP’s politics are far more capricious than the other two groups for the simple reason that its leader seems more unmoored from a stable base such as was the case with Sandra Bullock in “Gravity”.

Extending the flight metaphor a bit further, the membership of the SWP put itself in the hands of a pilot who was as mad in his own way as Andreas Lubitz. While nobody has died as a result of their membership in the SWP, it is hard to argue with the proposition that the party’s wreckage is strewn across the ground as a result of the megalomania and flawed analyses of its potentate.

January 24, 2015

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

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

A Revolutionary Joy Ride Through History


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

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

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January 11, 2015

Pat Grogan, the SWP and the Hoboken waterfront

Filed under: obituary,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

Ever since the Militant went online, I’ve made a point of skimming through it looking for obits. I have zero interest in the group’s politics but have remained curious about what happened to people I knew in the sixties, especially since our generation is increasingly vulnerable to the sorts of geriatric illnesses that take you down for good. Of course, the law of diminishing returns applies here since the group has shrunk to such an alarming degree. Even when it was larger, it was likely that the people I really cared about would never get an obit since they had become unpersons like Peter Camejo. The only way an ex-member could rate an obit was if they were number one not an “enemy” of the party, and number two someone who had contributed time and money to keep the sect-cult afloat.

Pat Grogan was one of those people.

Her obit was typical. Stripped of anything that might have touched on her personality, it was a virtual CV of her deeds on behalf of the party, making sure to emphasize her commitment to the “turn”. It makes perfect sense for the SWP to publish such a bloodless summary of a person’s life since they expect robotic behavior from the few people still ready to be moved about like a piece on a chessboard.

The heading says it all: “Pat Grogan: 45 years in building communist party”. You get a sense of how much the group has shrunk from this:

A nearly five-decade builder of the communist movement, Grogan died in San Diego Dec. 1 after a battle with cancer. Fifty people attended the celebration, organized by party supporters in the Los Angeles area, drawing participants from Seattle, San Francisco and San Diego.

I imagine that half the attendees were ex-members. If so, it means that an event that had been announced weeks ago in the Militant drew only a couple of dozen members.

Not that it makes much of a difference, but the paper got her early history wrong:

Pat met Young Socialist Alliance members selling the Militant newspaper when she was a 21-year-old student at Columbia University. She joined the YSA and soon after the SWP, and never looked back,” Sandler said. He pointed participants to attractive displays reflecting different events in Grogan’s political life and the nearly 30 messages sent to the meeting from around the world.

In fact, she was a Barnard student. Columbia University did not become co-educational until 1983. I have a pretty good recollection of the period since I was a member of the YSA when she joined and became friendly with Pat almost immediately. What I am going to recount now is my own memory of Pat that is obviously coming from a different angle than the SWP’s. Her story about joining the party was an exceptional one and deserves to be told.

Pat was the daughter of John J. Grogan, the former mayor of Hoboken and before that president of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America. The IUMSWA was a typical craft union that included the Brooklyn Navy Yard within its bargaining control. After WWII ended, the shipbuilding industry collapsed thus taking away the power base of bureaucrats like Grogan. Here’s a photo of him and union members protesting the lack of government funding for new shipbuilding projects:

Screen shot 2015-01-11 at 2.17.07 PM

In a September 17, 1968 NY Times obituary for John J. Grogan, there’s an excerpt from a speech he gave to the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists in 1951: “We’ve adopted new tactics against the Communists. Now we treat them rough, and we don’t seem to have so many problems with them.”

I know for a fact that Pat regarded his death that month as an outcome of her joining the Trotskyist movement because she told me so at the time. Pat was distraught about losing her father but nothing would have stopped her from joining, not even a call from Jay Lovestone. Over a beer she told me that her dad had pulled out all the stops to prevent her from becoming a commie, including recruiting a classic “god that failed” labor official to the cause.

Pat threw herself into party activities with a vengeance after joining. I remember how she and the two other Barnard students who were comrades (Cindy Jacquith and Paula Reimers) had their hands filled with trying to connect the antiwar movement we were building with the student strike. Believe me, it was a tough time to be a Trot when SDS was the only show in town—with Mark Rudd marching at the head of the parade.

I lost touch with Pat after moving up to Boston in late 1969 but was always happy to see her at national gatherings. She was a tall woman, maybe 5’10”, and big-boned. She had a great sense of humor and was sharp as a tack. It is sad that her talents went wasted in a group that hardly knew how to use them.

This was not my last encounter with the Grogan brand name. In 1975 I returned to NY from Houston, Texas in order to work with a team of programmers automating the Militant subscriptions and Pathfinder’s finances. After starting a job at Salomon Brothers, I found an apartment in Hoboken in a new high-rise called Grogan Towers. Guess who it was named after.

Last year I went out to Hoboken with my Istanbul in-laws to do some sightseeing. Grogan Towers was gone, its place taken by a newer generation high-rise. My first residence in Hoboken was back in 1966 when the town had not begun to be gentrified. It was the Hoboken of John G. Grogan, Frank Sinatra and Marlin Brando, not that of hedge fund managers, brick-wall exposed restaurants and boutiques.

The 60s have definitively passed from the scene. Like the 30s, this was one of those periods when the magnitude of events could change one’s life. Pat and I joined a movement because of a war. The commies that her dad and Jay Lovestone would persecute joined a movement because the capitalist system was failing to provide livelihoods to millions of people. Now as we move deeper into the 21st century, the same circumstances will likely drive a new generation into making the sorts of choices we made, with the added dimension of environmental crisis.

What will happen to the people living along the Hudson River in Hoboken when the next Hurricane Sandy hits? The global warming that has threatened the survival of people living on Pacific Ocean island nations will pose the same dangers to city dwellers as ClimateProgress reported on October 24, 2013:

But Hoboken residents and city officials are less eager to talk about one annoying detail: Much of the rapidly gentrifying old industrial port city, where apartment prices can rival those found across the Hudson in Manhattan, is built on a swamp.

For Jon Miller, an ocean engineering professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, the fact that the floodwaters essentially made an island out of the city is not at all surprising.

“Historically, the area of land we now call Hoboken was an island.” said Miller. “All those new apartment buildings on the west side of town are built on marshland. Superstorm Sandy just returned the city to its natural state – a thin strip of land between a river and a tidal marshland.”

Even Mayor Dawn Zimmer, always eager to advertise the city’s nightlife, shopping and restaurants, referred to the city as a bathtub in a New York Times’ article in the days following the storm. While reluctant to voice a position on the causes of climate change, calling the issue “politically charged,” she has been resolute as to the need for Hoboken to prepare for rising waters.

Politically charged. Words to live by.

December 26, 2014

Reading Trotsky While Watching Kurosawa

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Kurosawa,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 8:28 pm
In Search of a Marxist Method for Film Criticism

Reading Trotsky While Watching Kurosawa


A couple of weeks ago an Australian friend and fellow Marxist raised some interesting questions about film:

I have just moved to the capital city of the state and attended my first film festival. I have always enjoyed movies but in the past have been living in regional centers.

It got me thinking about what constitutes a “good movie” and yourself and David Walsh are the only two Marxist movie critics I can think of. David never seems to like anything very much and his discussion of culture – which is interesting- relies heavily on Trotsky’s ‘Literature and Revolution’.

I know you have written in passing about the sort of movies you like but wondered if you’d written more systematic about Marxism movie criticism.

Despite having written over nine hundred film reviews in the past twenty years or so, I have never really given much thought to the question of “Marxist movie criticism”.

Unfortunately Walsh has stopped writing film reviews for the World Socialist Website, which for my money was the only thing worth reading there. It’s a dirty little secret but most of the material that appears on wsws.org is extracted from the bourgeois press and then spiked with Marxist rhetoric about how evil the capitalist system is, as if we needed any reminding. I’d rather read the NY Times and make such observations myself.

Unlike Walsh, I stay away from Hollywood films except for the end of the year when I am obligated to watch a sufficient number of films like “Gravity” or “Zero Dark Thirty” to make sense out of the nominations my colleagues in New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) put forward at our annual awards meeting. Most of what I review is either documentaries or gritty neorealist films from “foreign” countries (nothing is more foreign to me than Hollywood) so I have a much lighter burden than Walsh.

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November 21, 2014

Who Is Behind the Trotskyist Conspiracy?

Filed under: Russia,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 1:42 pm

(This appeared originally on http://therussianreader.wordpress.com/, an invaluable source of analysis on Russian society and politics.)

Ilya Budraitskis: The Perpetual “Trotskyist” Conspiracy

Who Is Behind the Trotskyist Conspiracy?
Ilya Budraitskis
November 21, 2014

Speaking at a meeting of his United People’s Front a couple days ago, Vladimir Putin said, “Trotsky had this [saying]: the movement is everything, the ultimate aim is nothing. We need an ultimate aim.” Eduard Bernstein’s proposition, misquoted and attributed for some reason to Leon Trotsky, is probably the Russian president’s most common rhetorical standby. He has repeated it for many years to audiences of journalists and functionaries while discussing social policy, construction delays at Olympics sites or the dissatisfaction of the so-called creative class. “Democracy is not anarchism and not Trotskyism,” Putin warnedalmost two years ago.

Putin’s anti-Trotskyist invectives do not depend on the context nor are they influenced by his audience, and much less are they veiled threats to the small political groups in Russia today who claim to be heirs of the Fourth International. Putin’s Trotskyism is of a different kind. Its causes are found not in the present but in the past, buried deep in the political unconscious of the last generation of the Soviet nomenklatura.

The strange myth of the Trotskyist conspiracy, which emerged decades ago, in another age and a different country, has experienced a rebirth throughout Putin’s rule. Sensing, apparently, the president’s personal weakness for “Trotskyism,” obliging media and corrupted experts have turned this Trotskyism into an integral part of the grand propaganda style. Until he died, the indefatigable “Trotskyist” Boris Berezovsky spun his nasty web from London. Until he turned into a conservative patriot, the incendiary “Trotskyist” Eduard Limonov seduced young people with extremism. Camouflaged “Trotskyists” from the Bush and, later, the Obama administrations have continued to sow war and color revolutions. Unmasking “Trotskyists” has become such an important ritual that for good luck, as it were, the famous Dmitry Kiselyov decided to launch a new media resource by invoking it. So what is the history of this conspiracy? And what do Trotskyists have to do with it?

Conspiracy theories are always conservative by nature. They do not offer an alternative assessment of events but, constantly tardy, chase behind them, inscribing them after the fact into their own pessimistic reading of history. Thus, in his Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (1797), the Jesuit priest Augustin Barruel, a pioneer of modern conspiracy theory, situated the French Revolution, which had already taken place, in the catastrophic finale of a grand conspiracy of the Knights Templar against the Church and the Capetian dynasty. Masonic conspiracy theories became truly powerful in the late nineteenth century, when the peak of the Masons’ power had already passed. Finally, the idea of a Jewish conspiracy acquired its final shape in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, fabricated by the tsarist secret police at the turn of the twentieth century, when the power of Jewish finance capital had already been undermined by the rising power of industrial capital. Conspiracy theories have always drawn energy from this distorted link with reality, because the fewer conspirators one could observe in the real world, the more boldly one could endow them with incredible magical powers in the imaginary world.

In keeping with the reactive, belated nature of conspiracy theories, the myth of the Trotskyist conspiracy emerged in the Soviet Union when the Left Opposition, Trotsky’s actual supporters, had long ago been destroyed. Unlike, however, the conspiracies of the past, generated by secret agents and mad men of letters, the foundations of the Trotskyist conspiracy were tidily laid by NKVD investigators. The distorting mirror logic of the Great Terror dictated that, although the “Trotskyists” skillfully concealed themselves, and any person could prove to be one, the conspiracy must necessarily be exposed. An unwritten law of Stalinist socialism was that the truth will out, and this, of course, deprived the conspiracy theory of its telltale aura of mystery.

After Stalin’s death, when the Purges were a thing of the past, and Soviet society had begun to become inhibited and conservative, the conspiracy myth took on more familiar features. The stagnation period, with its general apathy, distrust, and societal depression, was an ideal breeding ground for the conspiracy theory. No one had seen any live Trotskyists long ago, and it was seemingly silly to denounce them, but everyone was well informed about the dangers of Trotskyism.

10486371_10205372588653614_1077162896_nDuring meaningless classes on “Party history,” millions of Soviet university students learned about the enemies of socialism, the Trotskyists, who had been vanquished long ago in a showdown. Millions of copies of anti-Trotskyist books were published; by the 1970s, this literature had become a distinct genre with its own canon. Its distinguishing feature was a free-form Trotskyism completely emancipated from any connection with actual, historical Trotskyism.

In fact, the Trotskyism of Soviet propaganda was structurelessness incarnate, a misunderstanding. It was“lifeless schema, sophistry and metaphysics, unprincipled eclecticism, […] crude subjectivism, exaggerated individualism and voluntarism.” Unlike the classic monsters of conspiracy theory, the Masons and the Elders of Zion, the Trotskyists did not run the world. They were failed conspirators: they were always exposed, unless, through their own haste and impulsiveness, they did not manage to expose themselves. In keeping with Stalinist socialist realism, their inept evil deeds caused seizures of Homeric laughter among the people and the Party. And yet, recovering from each shameful defeat, they kept on trying. The Trotskyists had no clear plan for establishing global domination, but without a clear purpose, they were dangerous in their passionate desire to instill chaos in places where harmony, predictability, and order reigned.

In their work, these Trotskyists were guided by the crazed “theory of permanent revolution” (which had nothing in common, substantially, with Trotsky’s theory except the name). Its essence is that the revolution should not have any geographical or time constraints. It has no aims, no end, and no meaning. It raises questions where all questions have long been solved. It instills doubt where all doubts have been resolved long ago. A normal person would never be able to understand anything about this theory except one thing: it was invented to ruin his life.

Mikhail Basmanov, author of the cult book In the Train of Reaction: Trotskyism from the 1930s to the 1970s, quoted above, noted, “Unlike many other political movements that had the opportunity to confirm their ideological and political doctrines through the practice of state-building, Trotskyism has not put forward a positive program of action in any country in all the years of its existence.” It is so destructive, that “with its cosmopolitanism, carried to the point of absurdity, which excludes the possibility of developing national programs, Trotskyism undermines the stances even of its own ‘parties’ in certain countries. […] Trotskyism is entangled in the nets of its own theories.”

It is important that the idea of the Trotskyist conspiracy against practical reason, reality, and stability was never popular in late-Soviet society: it did not grow, like the “blood libel,” from the dark superstitions of the mob. It remained a nightmare for only one segment, the ruling bureaucracy, which transmitted the myth of the senseless and merciless “permanent revolution” to future generations in Party training courses and KGB schools.

The Soviet theory of the Trotskyist conspiracy reflected the subconscious fear of ungovernability on the part of the governing class.  Devoid of any personalities, the legend of Trotskyism was something like the “black swan” of “actually existing socialism.”


This, by the way, is its fundamental difference from the version of the Trotskyist conspiracy popular among some American conservatives. In America, it is merely one of many varieties of the “minority conspiracy,” a small group of people who have, allegedly, seized power and are implementing their anti-Christian, globalist ideas from the top down. The fact that the anti-Trotskyist conspiracy theory of the so-called paleoconservatives has become popular in recent years among Kremlin experts and political scientists only goes to show that the old Soviet “Trotskyist conspiracy” has suffered a deficit in terms of its reproduction.

When he confuses Bernstein and Bronstein, Vladimir Putin, however, is not unfaithful to the Soviet anti-Trotskyist legend. Yes, “the goal is nothing, the movement is everything.” The chaos generated by the movement is inevitable, as inevitable as time itself. It moves inexorably toward “permanent revolution,” which cannot be completed and with which one cannot negotiate.

In a recent interview, former Kremlin spinmeister Gleb Pavlovsky, while skillfully avoiding the issue of “Trotskyism,” nevertheless had this to say about Putin:

“He has frightened himself. Where should go next? What next? This is a terrible problem in politics, the problem of the second step. He stepped beyond what he was ready for and got lost: where to go now?  […] The gap between [the annexation of] Crimea and subsequent actions is quite noticeable. It is obvious that everything afterwards was an improvisation or reaction to other people’s actions. People who are afraid of the future forbid themselves to think about which path to choose. When you have not set achievable goals, you begin to oscillate between two poles: either you do nothing or you get sucked into a colossal conflict.”

The worst thing is that the specter of Trotskyism, as has happened with many other specters in history, is quite capable of materializing. The post-Soviet system has entered a period of crisis, in which the ruling elite has fewer and fewer chances to manage processes “manually.” For the Trotskyist nightmare of the elites to become a reality, there is no need for live Trotskyists. The need for them arises only when hitherto silent and long-suffering forces come to their senses and raise the question of their own aims. But that is a different story.

Ilya Budraitskis is a historian, researcher, and writer.

September 29, 2014

Comments on “Strategy and Tactics in a Revolutionary Period: U. S. Trotskyism and the European Revolution, 1943–1946”

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 10:39 pm

Albert Goldman

James P. Cannon and Felix Morrow

I looked forward to Daniel Gaido and Velia Luparello’s article “Strategy and Tactics in a Revolutionary Period: U. S. Trotskyism and the European Revolution, 1943–1946” in the latest “Science and Society” for a couple of reasons. To start with, I thoroughly relished Gaido’s dismantling of Charles Post’s “The American Road to Capitalism” in the April 2013 “Science and Society”, so much so that I read Gaido’s “The Formative Period of American Capitalism” as a follow-up. (Despite being Argentinian, Gaido has an excellent grasp of the complexities of American history.) I was also very interested in any discussion of the Goldman-Morrow tendency in the SWP since I had written an article about 15 years ago defending their analysis of how European politics would evolve following the collapse of fascism. Gaido and Luparello’s article is also sympathetic to Goldman and Morrow but from a somewhat different perspective than mine.

I was interested in holding up James P. Cannon’s catastrophism to scrutiny in my article. I wrote:

In 1943 and 1944 the world Trotskyist movement expected the end of WWII to usher in the same types of revolutionary cataclysms as WWI. The International Resolution under consideration by the FI stated categorically that the allies would impose military dictatorships. It considered American capitalism to have begun an “absolute decline” in 1929. This decadent system said the resolution “has no programme for Europe other than its further dismemberment and degradation, and the propping up of the capitalist system with American bayonets”.

The choice for the worker’s movement was stark. Unless they made socialist revolutions, they would face “savage dictatorship of the capitalists consequent upon the victory of the counter-revolution.” The workers would rise to the task since it was “in a revolutionary mood” continent-wide.

This analysis of the world situation was strongly influenced by Trotsky’s conceptions from the start of the second world war which were of a “catastrophist nature”. He could not anticipate any new upturn in the world capitalist economy based on Keynesianism and arms spending. Trotsky’s catastrophism can be traced back to the early days of the Comintern. I recommend Nicos Poulantzas’s “Fascism and the Third International” as a critique of this tendency in the early Communist movement. No Bolshevik leader was immune from this tendency to see capitalism as being in its death throes. Stalin and Zinoviev incorporated this thinking into their “third period” strategy. Stalin eventually lurched back and adopted a right-opportunist policy. What is not commonly appreciated is the degree to which Trotskyism has a lineal descent to the ultraleftism of the early 1920s Comintern.

This ultraleftism stared Felix Morrow in the face, who like a small boy declaring that the emperor has no clothes, ventured to state that American imperialism might not have been on its last legs in 1945. He argued forcefully that the most likely outcome of allied victory was an extended period of bourgeois democracy and not capitalist dictatorship. Therefore it is necessary for revolutionists, Morrow advised, to be sensitive to democratic demands:

…if one recognizes the probability of a slower tempo for the development of the European revolution, and in it a period of bourgeois-democratic regimes — unstable, short-lived, but existing nevertheless for a period — then the importance of the role of democratic and transitional demands becomes obvious. For the revolutionary answer to bourgeois democracy is the first instance more democracy — the demand for real democracy as against the pseudo-democracy of the bourgeoisie. For bourgeois-democracy can exist only thanks to the democratic illusions of the masses; and those can be dispelled first of all only by mobilizing the masses for the democracy they want and need.

My interest was more in the economics than the politics. As someone who went through the painful consequences of being in the SWP in the late 70s when the party leaders had adopted a similar kind of catastrophism (we had to be in basic industry in order to lead the workers in a fight against a new Great Depression), I was gratified to discover that I was not the only Marxist who could conceive of capitalism restabilizing itself.

It is the importance of fighting for bourgeois democracy that Gaido and Luparello want to emphasize. They write:

The following section of Morrow’s amendments drove home this point by reference to the recent Italian events: “Tomorrow, if necessary, the Badoglio regime [post-Mussolini but authoritarian] will concede general elections just as it had to con- cede factory committees.” It was of course the masses who had wrested these democratic rights from their oppressors. “but the oppressors understand also the necessity of sanctioning these democratic rights when they have no alternative” (Morrow, 1944b, 15). Morrow concluded: “The Italian events indicate that after the collapse of fascism the bourgeoisie is prepared to evolve in the direction of a bourgeois– democratic government.” In all likelihood, the collapse of Nazism would likewise result in “an attempt by the German bourgeoisie to save its rule by hiding behind bourgeois–democratic forms” (Morrow, 1943d, 15). This stratagem of the European bourgeoisie, in collusion with American imperialism, would be aided at the beginning by the inevitable revival of democratic illusions among considerable sections of the masses, due to the “intensification of national feeling in Europe as the result of the struggle against Nazi occupation,” the lack of direct experience with bourgeois democracy by the younger generation, and the willingness of both Social Democracy and Stalinism — which the Italian experience indicated would emerge as “the principal parties of the first period after the collapse of the Nazis and their collaborators” — to divert the revolutionary energy of the mass in that direction through the application of the policy of class collaboration known as Popular Front, in which the workers’ parties renounced the application of the socialist program (Morrow, 1944b, 15).

I am not sure whether the authors had any intention of relating this to differences on the left today but Cannon’s fight with the minority has a remarkable similarity to debates over Ukraine. For Cannon, the primary agency of change in Europe would be the Red Army rather than workers’ struggles for democracy and the basic freedoms they associated with the United States, even if based on illusions of the kind EuroMaidan manifested.

If you want to see how extreme Cannon’s position was, it is best to look at what a party leader associated with Cannonite orthodoxy said. This was reflected in a letter from Farrell Dobbs protesting an editorial in the Militant. Dobbs found himself in agreement with Natalia Sedova who was upset with the Militant’s concessions to Stalinism:

By November 1944 it was obvious that the resolution of the October 1943 Plenum had failed to foresee the course of events in Europe and to orient the Trotskyist cadres in the tactics required by the political moment. Yet despite the insistence of the Minority report to the Convention on “the importance of a democratic interlude,”16 the resolution adopted by the Sixth Convention of the SwP in November 1944 started by stating that “the events of the past nine months have served to underline the validity of our previous analysis of the world situation” (Sixth Convention of the SWP, 1944, 361).17

Nevertheless, the majority was forced to make one concession in the resolution adopted by the November 1944 Convention of the SWP, under pressure from Trotsky’s widow, Natalia Sedova. One of Cannon’s collaborators, Farrell Dobbs, then serving time with him at Sandstone penitentiary, had sent a letter sharply criticizing the August 19, 1944 Militant editorial “Warsaw Betrayed,” arguing that it had not taken up the question of

the duty of guerrilla forces — and in the circumstances that is what the Warsaw detachments are — to subordinate themselves to the high command of the main army, the Red Army, in timing of such an important battle as the siege of Warsaw. On the contrary, the editorial appears to take as its point of departure the assumption that a full-scale proletarian uprising occurred in Warsaw and that Stalin deliberately maneuvered to permit Hitler to crush the revolt. . . . we are deeply concerned about this carelessness in writing about such a crucial question. (Letter from Dobbs dated August 23, 1944, quoted in Jacobs, 1944, 34.)

This apology for Stalin’s delivery of the Warsaw Commune into Hitler’s hands, and the call for Polish guerrillas “to subordinate themselves” to Stalin’s generals, drew an immediate response from Trotsky’s widow. In a letter dated September 23, 1944, she argued: “I do not propose that we take off the slogan ‘defense of the USSr’ but I find that it must be pushed back to the second or third rank.” The slogan of the military defense of the USSR “withdraws to the background in the face of new events” — namely the victories of the red Army and the heightened prestige of Stalinism. The only alternatives for the USSR, Natalia Sedova insisted, were “socialism or the restoration of capitalism”:

A mortal danger is threatening the Soviet land, and the source of this danger is the Soviet bureaucracy (the internal enemy). The war is not ended; the external enemy still exists. But at the beginning of the war we viewed it as the most dangerous one and the struggle against the bureaucratic regime ceded its place to the military struggle; at the present time matters must be put just the other way. (Sedova, 1944a, 24–25; cf. the emphasis on this idea in Sedova, 1944b.)

Cannon hastened to agree with her analysis, in a letter published in the same issue of the SWP Internal Bulletin of October 1944 (Cannon, 1944, 29). The part of the resolution adopted by the November 1944 Convention of the SWP dealing with the Soviet Union therefore reads:

Throughout the period when the Nazi military machine threatened the destruction of the Soviet Union, we pushed to the fore the slogan: Uncondi- tional defense of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack. Today the fight for the defense of the Soviet Union against the military forces of Nazi Germany has essentially been won. Hitler’s “New Order in Europe” has already collapsed.

The present reality is the beginning of the European revolution, the military occupation of the continent by the Anglo-American and red Army troops, and the conspiracy of the imperialists and the Kremlin bureaucracy to strangle the revolution. we therefore push to the fore and emphasize today that section of our program embodied in the slogan: Defense of the European Revolution against all its enemies. The defense of the European revolution coincides with the genuine revolutionary defense of the USSR. (Sixth Convention of the SWP, 1944, 367.)

I wouldn’t begin to attempt an analysis of the problems that the left faces today based on tendencies that have existed since the 1930s but I have often wondered to what extent Boris Kagarlitsky’s shilling for the Kremlin is simply an extreme version of the “Defend the USSR” orientation that was at the heart of the fight between Cannon and Shachtman. Morrow and Goldman advocated unification of Cannon’s SWP with Shachtman’s Workers Party based on their agreement with the Workers Party’s support for democracy, even if it was undermined by Shachtman’s continued adherence to bureaucratic collectivism. As it turned out, Goldman joined Shachtman’s group after being expelled, while Morrow took his leave from revolutionary politics altogether (he went into publishing, first with Schocken Press and then with Beacon Press).

The Cannon-Shachtman fight revolved around Ukraine to a large degree, just as is the case today. In a letter to Shachtman written on November 6, 1939, Trotsky referred to a period that I have become much more familiar with since exploring Ukrainian history:

You quote the march of the Red Army in 1920 into Poland and into Georgia and you continue: “Now, if there is nothing new in the situation, why does not the majority propose to hail the advance of the Red Army into Poland, into the Baltic countries, into Finland … (Page 20) In this decisive part of your speech you establish that something is “new in the situation” between 1920 and 1939. Of course! This newness in the situation is the bankruptcy of the Third International, the degeneracy of the Soviet state, the development of the Left Opposition, and the creation of the Fourth International. This “concreteness of events” occurred precisely between 1920 and 1939. And these events explain sufficiently why we have radically changed our position toward the politics of the Kremlin, including its military politics.

It seems that you forget somewhat that in 1920 we supported not only the deeds of the Red Army but also the deeds of the GPU.

To start with, I am no longer willing to accept Trotsky or Cannon’s side of the argument uncritically. Shachtman is quoted in the letter but I don’t have the foggiest idea of what he was arguing in its totality. It is the same thing I ran into when I was being indoctrinated against Bert Cochran. In the SWP, you got to read Cannon’s attacks on Cochran but never the rebuttal. This kind of one-sided presentation is inimical to the kind of theoretical exploration that would benefit any serious cadre.

Despite Leon Trotsky, the Red Army screwed up royally in both Poland and Ukraine. We have a much better idea of what happened back then, thanks to the research of Paul Kellogg on the Red Army’s disastrous intervention in Poland in 1920 and the work of people like Chris Ford on Ukraine. It is understandable why Trotsky would subscribe to the “heroic Comintern” narrative given his role in the Bolshevik triumph but why someone would take this approach and apply it to a degraded experiment to reconstitute the Czarist Empire under the banner of the Russian Orthodoxy and the BMW is simply beyond me.

Finally, I would urge Gaido and Luparello to consider writing for open access journals like Ron Cox’s “Class, Race and Corporate Power”.  The issues they are addressing are of deep concern to Marxist activists, among whom “Science and Society” subscribers would number about as many as could fit into a phone booth, if phone booths still existed.

September 3, 2014

Hanging out in Coyoacan

Filed under: art,bohemia,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 1:30 am

August 26, 2014

Outside agitators in Ferguson, Missouri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Kendzior knows her competition when she sees it.

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

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

Screen shot 2014-08-26 at 9.30.24 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 22, 2014

Lynn Henderson on Nat Weinstein’s political legacy

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 1:57 am

Nat Weinstein 1924 – 2014
His Political Legacy
By Lynn Henderson

I’ve known Nat a long time and I get the feeling that a lot of people here today also knew Nat a long time. I was trying to think back when Nat recruited me to the Socialist Workers Party. It was in 1960, 53-54 years ago. To tell the truth it’s a little scary when I think about how long ago that was.

I was in New York City as a graduate student at the New School for Social Research. I went there because I had the impression that it was a progressive, kind of liberal, even radical institution. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was staffed by professorial types who had been reactionary social democrats in their flaming youths and their politics had continuously gone south since then. While there, I quickly developed a stomach ulcer and every class I went to my ulcer got worse. As bad as their politics were and even though I considered my self some kind of socialist and Marxist, I just didn’t have the political and intellectual tools at the time to take these people on. It drove me crazy.

My wife at the time, Mary Henderson and I, just by dumb luck, had gotten a rent-controlled apartment right in the heart of Greenwich Village on 8th Street between 5th and 6th avenues, a short half a block north of Washington Square. I think we paid $87.50 a month rent. It was a top floor, four-story walk up but we were young so we didn’t mind that. One day I’m sitting in the apartment, nursing my ulcer, being more frustrated than ever and I hear something and look out the window and across the street, where if you know New York was the old 8th Street Bookstore on the corner of MacDougal St. was a socialist street corner meeting taking place. I looked down and there were about 20-25 people gathered around it listening to the speaker so I scurried down there and there were about five or six members of the Socialist Workers Party, some of them were selling the Militant, others were talking to people in the crowd and the speaker standing on a ladder for a platform was Nat Weinstein. I was enthralled with this thing.

I had never heard of the Socialist Workers Party; never saw anybody ever holding a street corner meeting on socialist ideas. There were questions and answers going on with the audience too, and there was one guy there that I could tell immediately was a exact clone of the professorial types I was dealing with at the New School. He had a tweed jacket on, with suede patches on the elbows and was puffing on a pipe. Nat was making remarks on the role of U.S. imperialism at the time and this guy comments, “Well, you know, colonialism wasn’t all bad” he says, “The British empire introduced a modern educational system into India, they introduced parliamentary democracy into India and all this was very helpful in India’s subsequence independence, blah – blah – blah. Well, Nat took him on and just politically devastated him, not in a mean way, but he was able to answer him and make him look ridiculous. And not only did he make this guy look ridiculous, but I could tell that he was winning over numbers of the people in the crowd, he was having an impact on them. I thought, “Wow”, these are people that have the political tools to answer phonies like this guy. I could feel, or at least I thought I could feel, a sharp reduction in the acid that was usually flowing down onto my stomach ulcer. I thought, I’ve got to know more about this. I was really kind of torn. I wanted the meeting to go on so I could learn more from the speakers and I also wanted it to end so I could buttonhole them and learn more about them, who they were and how I could learn from the things they were talking about and acquire the political skills they were demonstrating.

Well, needless to say, within weeks I was a member of the Socialist Workers Party. I never went back to the New School for Social Research, as a matter of fact I ended up in the next weeks going to meetings that Nat organized in Brooklyn where he lived, I think it was called the Brooklyn Educational League. It was a meeting of a small number of Black workers, kind of a socialist discussion club the core of which were the Franklin brothers who if you were around the New York SWP at that time you might remember. One of the Franklin brothers was an ex-prize fighter who was a member of the SWP. I learned more in those four or five meetings that I attended every week for a month or so than I learned in my whole previous political education. So that’s how Nat Weinstein recruited me to the Socialist Workers Party.

Nat, even at that time, was a leading worker activist in the SWP; I think he was already on the National Committee. He was part of a thin layer of workers that were recruited toward the end of World War II, really the last layer to be recruited to the SWP directly out of the working class. He was a merchant seaman and was recruited by an SWP shipmate while working a ship to Venezuela. As a worker activist he was a leader and an activist in all the events that were going on and would continue to develop in the emerging civil rights movement. He was a defender of Robert Williams and Malcolm X, and was a defender of Black Nationalism. He was instrumental in having Malcolm speak at an SWP forum at the New York branch headquarters. The SWP was the only organization on the left that had an appreciation of Black Nationalism. Trotsky in meetings with SWP leaders during his exile in Mexico had educated the party on the revolutionary nature of the Black Nationalist movement and had predicted its re-emergence.

Nat was also a defender of the Cuban Revolution and a union activist in the painters union in New York City. That’s how he ended up in San Francisco. He came out here because there was a fight in the painters union in San Francisco against the conservative bureaucracy and Nat came out to participate in that.

As significant as Nat’s role was as a leading worker activist in all these areas, Nat’s most important historical contribution, in my opinion, was later on. It was leading the fight against the political and programmatic degeneration in the SWP that was subsequently and surreptitiously organized by Jack Barnes. Nat emerged as the principal leader in that fight. In some ways this is surprising. There were others in the Fourth International and the SWP that certainly seemed to have more impressive intellectual and theoretical credentials for leading that fight, but they did not. It was this worker activist, Nat Weinstein, who recognized, analyzed and consciously organized against the break with the SWP’s political program and the core programmatic acquisitions that Barnes was determined to jettison. These included abandoning Trotsky’s concept of Permanent Revolution; abandoning the transitional program, as embodied in the founding document of the Fourth International; and rejecting the 1928 Program of the Left Opposition that launched the fight against the Stalinist bureaucracy. Barnes had come to the conclusion that all of these fundamental positions of the Fourth International and SWP were fatally flawed and from their inception anti-Leninist. He didn’t present his ideas for democratic discussion in the party but rather kept quiet about them until he could prepare an organizational terror campaign after which they would be unilaterally imposed.

It was Nat Weinstein then who authored the key programmatic and theoretical documents answering the new Barnes politics, and defending the program of revolutionary socialism. He played the key role. Barry Sheppard, who is here, not too long ago wrote a two volume work documenting his time in the SWP and the history he went through. I believe it’s a valuable two volumes and anybody here who hasn’t read it and wants to know about the history of this period, I encourage you to read it. The first volume dealt with the SWP before the organizational degeneration and in general is an excellent account reminding us of how valuable the healthy SWP was in intervening in the class struggle and moving it forward.

The second volume deals with the organizational degeneration of the SWP. Sheppard gives us an insider’s look, often in horrific detail, of the organizational degeneration carried out under Barnes direction. In this he is uniquely qualified, functioning for most of the period as Barnes chief organizational enforcer. Expressing what I believe is sincere regret, he details the pressure that led him personally, step by step, into playing this role. Many devoted and talented political activists went through the trauma of the SWP’s degeneration. Some were expelled, some became demoralized and resigned, others just drifted away. Many were completely disoriented by the experience. For many, what happened and how it happened remains a political mystery. To his credit Barry Sheppard survived that experience still defending today the founding program of the Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International – that is defending Marxism-Leninism.

Where Sheppard’s account comes up short is explaining the political degeneration of Barnes and subsequently the SWP. One thing that we were always taught in the healthy SWP was that political questions come first; organizational questions are secondary and flow from the more fundamental political questions. Sheppard’s narrative implies that the primary factor in the SWP’s degeneration was a sudden (and essentially unexplained) personality change in Jack Barnes. Barnes inexplicably began functioning as a “star”, as a “one man band” and morphed into a cult leader.
The rise of the so-called “Barnes cult” was not the result of some new personality shift, rather it was the result of a fundamental shift in his political views Having secretly reached sweeping political conclusions, which in reality represented a rejection of the historic program of the SWP and the Fourth International, Barnes concluded, not illogically, that he had little chance of reshaping the party in this completely new political direction by openly presenting his views and engaging in a democratic political discussion of them. He consciously chose a different course. Barnes deliberately avoided openly expressing or debating his new views in the party but instead opted for changing the party through organizational intimidation and expulsions.

One of the first manifestations of Barnes’ new politics was his announcement for a turn to industry, which in its initial presentation sounded pretty good. But very quickly this turn to industry morphed into an absolutely bazaar policy called “talking socialism”. One thing the SWP had a long and successful history at was doing trade union work. In the 1930’s they had an influence in the Auto-Lite strike in Toledo and in the San Francisco general strike, and played the key leadership role in the Minneapolis Teamsters strike by applying the transitional program in a revolutionary way in the union movement. All of that was rejected by Barnes, who proposed instead a policy of going into the unions but not engaging in the struggles of the unions, not engaging in a struggle against the conservative class collaborationist bureaucracies, but going in as kind of socialist missionaries to “talk socialism”. It was a disastrous policy. It isolated those members who actually carried the line out and made them appear, in the eyes of healthy union members, like some kind of Jehovah Witness weirdoes. Other members, who maybe were a little more perceptive, went in and while they continued to support the line and vote for the line and even attack anyone who criticized the “talk socialism” line didn’t actually carry it out in their unions because they knew it would make them look like jerks.

This had a devastating effect on the membership. You see, there is nothing more demoralizing then to play-act at politics, to say and vote for one thing and do another thing. And we challenged that, Nat challenged that in the 1981 convention. At that convention, Nat and I as the two minority NC member’s, presented two documents. I presented (written jointly by Nat and myself) the Minority Trade Union Report and Nat presented the other document, The Transitional Program, The Road Forward. And we took on the “talk socialism” policy. Nat also at that convention, because we could foresee Barnes move toward denouncing and breaking with Permanent Revolution — so Nat posed to the Barnes steering committee the question, do you still support Permanent Revolution? Well you know the whole Presiding Committee got up and said, Oh yeah. As a matter of fact I think they were honest in this because Barnes had not yet told them that Permanent Revolution was not going to be any longer a part of the program of the Socialist Workers Party. And when Barnes, not very long after that, did reveal that Permanent Revolution was anti-Leninist from top to bottom, none of these people raised any objections, and from taking the position of saying that it was silly to say they were breaking with Permanent Revolution they flipped over completely.
What then followed was a long series of trials and expulsions of members, and not just people who had minority views. Most of the people that eventually were expelled in these trials didn’t directly express any minority views; they were expelled for completely arbitrary and sometimes silly reasons. Barnes was doing that because he wanted to create an atmosphere in which you could be expelled at any time for all kinds of reasons, if you showed any kind of opposition to the Barnes regime, no matter what it was.

The most sweeping organizational move Barnes made was then in 1983, as the 1983 pre-convention discussion period was to begin, he canceled the party convention. This was a direct violation of the SWP constitution which required a convention of the party every two years. I think he did this for two reasons. One, even though the minorities had been expelled and even though he had carried out this suppression of any workers democracy in the party, he was still afraid to have a convention in which any of the political questions could come up for a discussion and a vote. So that was one reason, but there was another reason. I think Barnes wanted to test the membership that was left in the party. Would they accept this blatantly illegal organizational move without any opposition? The test proved positive for him. Not one person got up and objected to the cancellation of the 1983 party convention which was in direct violation of the SWP constitution. Barnes then finally felt free to reveal his new political positions which ipso facto would be the party’s new political program. Even then these were not presented to the party for a vote by the party but rather published as two articles in a public magazine the New International — Their Trotsky and Ours: Communist Continuity Today, in the Fall 1983 issue; under Jack Barnes’ name, and The Workers and Farmers’ Government: A Popular Revolutionary Dictatorship, in the Spring 1984 issue; under Mary-Alice Waters’ name.

You know, the pace and timing of historical events are almost impossible to predict. Marx and Engels, with all their political skills, thought there was a good possibility of decisive socialist revolutions in 1848 in Europe. But they were wrong. While the pace of events and how they actually unfold are very difficult to predict, the re-emergence of a working class radicalization cannot and will not be postponed indefinitely. You can be sure that at some point, we don’t know when, we don’t know how it will emerge, but there will be a reaction in the United States and other countries to what is happening and a working class radicalization in response to that. When that occurs, the ideas that were expressed by Barnes in his rejection of the revolutionary program will play no role, they will be irrelevant, they will be largely forgotten. But Nat’s programmatic and theoretical defense of the revolutionary program will not be irrelevant, will not be forgotten. It will be a part of the rich Marxist heritage available to guide the working class in coming revolutionary struggles. In leading a defense against the Barnes programmatic degeneration, Nat, in my opinion, proved himself to be the most significant worker intellectual of his era. It was not the people who had written big theoretical works on economics and Marxist theory that led this fight. It was this worker activist who took on and wrote the theoretical documents and the political analysis that became the basis of the fight, not just in the United States, but throughout the whole Fourth International against the Barnes attack on the revolutionary program.

So when we celebrate Nat’s life, we are also celebrating how this worker activist magnificently rose to the challenge of a sweeping petty-bourgeois attack on the program of revolutionary socialism and led the fight against it. That is Nat Weinstein’s giant political legacy and it will live on to the benefit of future class struggles for a more humane and truly democratic socialist society.

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