September 3, 2014
August 26, 2014
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:
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
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.
August 17, 2014
In the late 1990s Nelson Blackstock, a former member of the Socialist Workers Party and author of “Cointelpro”, began interviewing members of the party who had been active in the 40s and 50s as part of an oral history project, the final shape of which was to be determined.
Not long after he began the project, he drafted me to make contact with some of the Cochranites I had met through Sol Dollinger, a Marxmail subscriber who died in 2001. The purpose of the interviews with these comrades was not so much to rehash the 1953 split but to get an idea of how they got involved with the party and what their experiences in a radical labor movement were like. We managed to set up interviews with Sol, Cynthia Cochran who died in 2006, and with Irwin Baur who is still alive and in his 90s.
In this first interview we speak with Cynthia Cochran who was married to Bert Cochran, the co-leader with Harry Braverman of the American Union that put out the American Socialist magazine from 1954 to 1959, when the group disbanded. Bert co-edited the magazine with Braverman, who went on to work for Grove Press and then finally with Monthly Review.
I became very close with Cynthia in the course of visits to her apartment on West 94th Street to pick up copies of the American Socialist that I began scanning for upload to the Marxist Internet Archives. The good news is that MIA has now made the entire American Socialist available to a new generation that will find the articles of great interest, both as reflections of thinking on the left in that period and as one of the first attempts to regroup the left on a non-sectarian basis.
As you will see from the interview, Cynthia was an outspoken and altogether charming woman who was a real member of the “greatest generation”, the men and women who stood up to American capitalism when its interests were being guarded by arguably the only liberal president of the 20th century.
I would refer you to what I wrote about Cynthia on the occasion of her memorial meeting in 2006, including these words:
Cynthia belonged to a generation that is now dying out, namely people in their 80s and older who had direct experience in a radicalized workers movement. Eventually I videotaped an interview with her in which she recounted her time in aircraft plants during WWII. Like Sol’s wife Genora, she was like Rosie the Riveter but with Marxist politics.
In the official version put forward by SWP party historians, the Cochranites turned tail in the 1950s and hid under their beds. When they came out, they all became solid middle-class citizens putting their radical past behind them. Nothing could be further from the truth.
During an entire lifetime, Cynthia was politically engaged until macular degeneration began to prevent her from getting around as freely as she would have liked. As a professional nurse, she felt an immediate connection with the ACT-UP activists and took part in militant demonstrations well into her late 1960s. She also took part in antiwar demonstrations until the last minute. Indeed, her latest trip took her to some of the more interesting places in the world politically. She started off in China and then to Vietnam. From Vietnam she sailed to South Africa. Speaking as somebody who is plagued by jet lag for at least 10 days after arriving in Turkey, I am in awe of any 82 year old that can get around like that, with a compromised circulatory system and 75 percent blindness to boot.
The subject of the next video in this series will be Sol Dollinger.
August 13, 2014
Qatar: the heart of darkness?
Yesterday I received email from a Bard College graduate:
Could this be Gaza and the West Bank under Hamas?
The Vice article was about IS brutality. So the implication was that Hamas constituted the same kind of threat as IS. Now it should be said that the Old Bardian, as we like to refer to ourselves, votes Democrat and oscillates wildly between support for Palestinian rights and fear of Hamas.
But he does raise an interesting question. If Qatar and Turkey are behind both Hamas and IS, at least according to some pundits, how can you not oppose both? Indeed, if your methodology is based on formal logic, that is a foregone conclusion. Since Seymour Hersh is the source for many of the Qatar and company as an orchestrator of jihadist terror in the Middle East reports, it is worth reminding ourselves of his latest LRB article:
The full extent of US co-operation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in assisting the rebel opposition in Syria has yet to come to light. The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a ‘rat line’, a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida.
Now it should be said that the evil trio has been reduced to an evil duo ever since Saudi Arabia ended up on the side of the angels against IS. According to Business Insider, Saudi Arabia has asked Egypt and Pakistan to help patrol its borders against incursions from IS. The article cited The London Times: “The kingdom is calling in favors from Egypt and Pakistan. No one is certain what ISIS has planned, but it’s clear a group like this will target Mecca if it can. We expect them to run out of steam, but no one is taking any chances.” Adding to the abject failure of reality to live up to “anti-imperialist” projections, Saudi Arabia never had much use for Hamas. Along with Egypt and Jordan, it is the strongest supporter of IDF terror in Gaza next to AIPAC and Mayor Bill de Blasio.
It is not precluded that Qatar will also call upon Egypt and Pakistan for military assistance if ISIS is still around 9 years from now. Its deranged leader has warned FIFA that it would attack the 2022 World Cup games because soccer was “a deviation from Islam.”
Even more confusing is the newly announced pact between Iran and “the Great Satan” over the naming of a new prime minister in Iraq, who will be more effective against the IS threat. Enjoying a military embarrassment of riches, Iraq’s skies are now dotted with drones from the two nations only six months ago described by a thousand “anti-imperialist” websites as mortal enemies.
If Qatar is an archfiend threatening secular values and benign “national development” in Syria through its proxy war, what do we make of its willingness to back Hamas? Does that conform to “anti-imperialist” guidelines or are we dealing with a profound formal logic problem equal in its complexity to the Poincaré conjecture?
The evil duo—Qatar and Turkey—are not only the targets of daily Orwellian two minutes of hate organized by the “anti-imperialist” left but also Israel’s increasingly fascist state as the Times of Israel reported:
Qatar’s recently attempted to transfer funds for the salaries of Hamas civil servants in Gaza, following the formation of a Palestinian unity government, but was blocked by the United States, which pressured the Arab Bank not to process them. But former national security adviser Maj. Gen. (res) Yaakov Amidror told The Times of Israel that the emirate’s funding for the organization’s terror apparatus, including tunnel diggers and rocket launchers, has continued unabated.
“Hamas currently has two ‘true friends’ in the world: Qatar and Turkey,” Amidror said. The small Gulf state is currently Hamas’s closest ally in the Arab world, after the movement’s relations with Egypt soured following the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi in June 2013. Qatar, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction and infrastructure projects in Gaza, is also home to the movement’s political leader Khaled Mashaal in Doha.
This is not to speak of Qatar’s role in funding al-Jazeera, the sole source of pro-Palestinian television coverage as well as some very good reporting on domestic and international news. Just go to their website and you fill find a hard-hitting article on Ferguson, Missouri that points out that “in 2013 nearly 90 percent of vehicles pulled over by Ferguson police were driven by African-Americans. The arrest rate was of those drivers was more than 10%, nearly double that of white drivers who were pulled over.” But if you evaluate Qatar solely based on which side it supports in Syria, then you will be forced to treat it as a mortal enemy as MRZine did.
Turkey’s Prime Minister, of course, is everybody’s favorite villain with his suppression of the Gezi park rebellion and his allowing jihadists to infiltrate Syria, not to speak of his corruption and attacks on journalism, either print or electronic.
But there are those times when he has the kind of backbone every other politician lacks. It was Erdoğan after all who put the power of the Turkish state at the disposal of the flotilla sent to Gaza. He has also threatened to send Turkish warships to defend the next flotilla, although I suspect that this is bluster more than anything. But if he did, what would we make of that? How can someone be on the side of the angels (Hamas) and the devil (IS) at the same time—leaving aside the question of whether he ever had much to do with that gang?
On August 22, 2013 the Financial Times printed a letter that served as a cautionary note against oversimplifying the Middle East:
A short guide to the Middle East
Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad!
Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi.
But Gulf states are pro Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood!
Iran is pro Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood!
Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the US!
Gulf states are pro US. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!
Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.
K N Al-Sabah, London EC4, UK
That letter prompted the blogger Big Pharaoh to diagram the relationships:
If anything, the letter and the diagram are out of date. To keep track of the latest developments, you’d need a super-computer of the sort that the NSA uses to snoop on our email. But this matters little to people who are bent on dividing the world into two spheres, which are not only mutually exclusive but a taxonomic guide to determining where a government or armed movement fall in terms of their historical role.
For much of the left, there is a driving compulsion to reduce world politics to a binary opposition between Good and Evil. It is understandable why they would do this since the Cold War shaped our consciousness for 45 years until the end of the Soviet bloc and even continues to do so in a rather problematic way. In 1971, when I was a member of the Trotskyist movement, we condemned the Kremlin for doling out aid to the Vietnamese as from an eyedropper as we used to put it but at the same time understood that Soviet aid was critical.
Now in 2014 the left carries on as if Putin was Brezhnev and Assad was Ho Chi Minh. Just as long as the USA is still the “evil empire”, syllogistic reasoning will prevail. 1) The United States is the evil empire; 2) The United States supports the Syrian rebels (whether or not that is true); 3) Therefore, the Syrian rebels are part of the evil empire.
So what’s going on here? I have been critical of Trotsky’s adoption of Zinovievist organizational principles that have had a baleful effect on the revolutionary movement even to the current day, but I find myself coming back to his writings when it comes to the question of dialectics.
Oddly enough, the failure to see world politics dialectically was a failing of both James Burnham and the “anti-imperialist” left today. Marx transformed Hegelian dialectics into an instrument of revolutionary analysis. In almost every major watershed debate on the left, there has been a need to return to dialectics in order for the debate to receive a proper resolution. In Trotsky’s day, the fundamental difference was over the Soviet Union that Trotsky ultimately refused to identify as “socialist”. Whenever I ran into syllogistic attempts to define the USSR over the years, I always came back to how Trotsky put it when challenged to subsume it under fixed categories: “Doctrinaires will doubtless not be satisfied with this hypothetical definition. They would like categorical formulae: yes – yes, and no – no. Sociological problems would certainly be simpler, if social phenomena had always a finished character. There is nothing more dangerous, however, than to throw out of reality, for the sake of logical completeness, elements which today violate your scheme and tomorrow may wholly overturn it.”
That would certainly apply to the Middle East today: “There is nothing more dangerous, however, than to throw out of reality, for the sake of logical completeness, elements which today violate your scheme and tomorrow may wholly overturn it.” Trotsky was referring to the Soviet Union, a society that incorporated some of the most retrograde political aspects that on the surface resembled fascism with some of the most progressive, including a planned economy. For the foreseeable future, the Middle East will have many contradictory aspects that will make the USSR look like a grade school exercise by comparison. It will continue to perplex some for being a backdrop for a religious zealotry that can cut both ways. It can serve rulers who seek to reinforce their rule through the authoritarian use of the Qur’an as it also serves the fighting spirit of men and women determined to put an end to authoritarian rule. It would be best in some ways that religion played less of a rule, thus allowing class divisions to become more transparent. But we have to start with reality, not wishes—at least if we want to influence the course of historical events.
August 12, 2014
Literature and Revolution
Its Bohemian Origin – The Break with the Past – The Component Elements of Russian Futurism. – Mayakovsky and the Revolution – Futurism, a Line Between the Creative Intelligentsia and the People.
FUTURISM is a European phenomenon, and it is interesting because, in spite of the teachings of the Russian Formalist school, it did not shut itself in within the confines of art, but from the first, especially in Italy, it connected itself with political and social events.
Futurism reflected in art the historic development which began in the middle of the ’nineties, and which became merged in the World War. Capitalist society passed through two decades of unparalleled economic prosperity which destroyed the old concepts of wealth and power, and elaborated new standards, new criteria of the possible and of the impossible, and urged people towards new exploits.
At the same time, the social movement lived on officially in the automatism of yesterday. The armed peace, with its patches of diplomacy, the hollow parliamentary systems, the external and internal politics based on the system of Safety valves and brakes, all this weighed heavily on poetry at a time when the air, charged with accumulated electricity, gave sign of impending great explosions. Futurism was the “foreboding” of all this in art.
A phenomenon was observed which has been repeated in history more than once, namely, that the backward countries which were without any special degree of spiritual culture, reflected in their ideology the achievements of the advanced countries more brilliantly and strongly. In this way, German thought of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries reflected the economic achievements of England and the political achievements of France. In the same way, Futurism obtained its most brilliant expression, not in America and not in Germany, but in Italy and in Russia.
With the exception of architecture, art is based on technique only in its last analysis, that is, only to the extent to which technique is the basis of all cultural superstructures. The practical dependence of art, especially of the art of words, upon material technique, is insignificant. A poem which sings the skyscrapers, the dirigibles and the submarines can be written in a faraway corner of some Russian province on yellow paper and with a broken stub of a pencil. In order to inflame the bright imagination of that province, it is quite enough if the skyscrapers, the dirigibles and the submarines are in America. The human word is the most portable of all materials.
Futurism originated in an eddy of bourgeois art, and could not have originated otherwise. Its violent oppositional character does not contradict this in the least.
This is a chapter in “Literature and Revolution”. Read full here
May 11, 2014
The young Sylvia and Nat Weinstein
Two days ago the Marxism list learned of the death of Nat Weinstein at the age of 90 from Carol Seligman, who worked with Nat on the magazine Socialist Viewpoint:
Nat Weinstein died early this morning. He was my main teacher in the socialist movement–mainly because he understood to the marrow of his bones the class structure of society and the class struggle; and he taught this to me among many, many people. He came to the socialist movement as a worker (in the Merchant Marines) and stayed a worker for his whole life.
One of his great contributions to the socialist movement was his early appreciation of and association with, Malcolm X. That association brought Malcolm’s ideas and militancy (and the ideas of self-defense and rejection of the ruling class political parties) to perhaps hundred of thousands of people with the SWP’s publications of Malcolm’s speeches and interviews.
He lead the struggle in the SWP to stay true to the revolutionary program of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and James P. Cannon–a struggle which was lost, but carried out in a principled way that helped to preserve the revolutionary program for future generations of workers who will take up this struggle. He was imbued with revolutionary optimism for his whole life.
In trying to piece together some biographical information on Nat, I couldn’t even find a photo. Much more was available on his late wife Sylvia who was a public figure as candidate and activist in the woman’s movement. Ten years ago someone from Nat’s small group asked me to review Sylvia’s collections of articles titled “Fightback”–I can’t even remember whom. Despite the fact that I was fairly hostile to James P. Cannon (mostly for his party-building ideas rather than his often very useful primers such as “Socialism on Trial”) and that Socialist Viewpoint remained committed to resuscitating the Cannonite project, they thought I would do a good job. I think I did.
If you take a look at “Fightback”, you can find bits and pieces about Nat such as this from page 10:
My husband was in the Merchant Marine. We got married when he was 20 and I was 18. In Elkton, Maryland, in 1944, in fact. We had to live with my mother, because we could not afford our own apartment. Like millions of other working class young people, we always leaped before we looked. Of course, I immediately got pregnant. But both me and my husband thought this was really great. My husband had become a socialist while sailing on a ship to Venezuela. It was a three month trip, and he was a captive audience to a Trotskyist shipmate. I still have the letters he wrote me—three v-mail letters which started off with, “At last I have found the truth.” I thought he had become a Jehovah Witness.
Searching through the archives of the Marxism list and the SWP list on Yahoo for other material on Nat that could be used for an obit (let’s hope that his comrades can pull something together) I discovered this February 2007 post from Nat on the Yahoo group that explains why there is so little:
I really would love to write about my life in the SWP and how it changed me from someone who had been searching for something without knowing what it was. The fact that I found it is testified to by that letter I wrote Sylvia from Venezuela during the war after I was won to Trotskyism by a comrade whose name was Eddie Emery (Party name, Eddie Robinson.) that caused her to think I had become a Jehovah’s Witness or something like that.
There’s a very good reason why I have not, and I think you will agree that it is a very good reason. And that is the fact that I put in almost all my waking hours in helping put our little magazine together, witing letters like this, and trying my best to tell our readers what I have learned in my 38 years in the SWP thanks to the Socialist Workers Party and my 17 years in Socialist Action, the Socialist Workers Organization and Socialist Viewpoint that I, my dear old comrade and loving life-long companion Sylvia, my daughters and some of my best friends had joined-the Party of Cannon and all those wonderful old professional revolutionists and working class militants who were his comrades and close collaborators and who were damn good leaders and teachers in their own right.
I used to have a pretty good memory for ideas-I believe memory is like that, for my memory for generalized information was more or less average-but I can remember phrases spoken by old timers like Morris Stein, Farrell Dobbs, Tom Kerry, Joe Hansen and even Murray and Dave Weiss (who had cliquish tendencies and personal qualities that I found repellant but both these comrades were good teachers) and of course Jim Cannon.
If I find time, I might get around to at least write a little something on the insightful remarks that opened up a new way to think for me. I’ll give you just one. It was Morris Stein who had given a lecture at the Party’s Mountain Spring Camp on an aspect of Marxist philosophy (he was a working plumber, not a philosopher). To drive home his explanation of a complicated dialectical problem I can still remember him saying the words, “there are two ends to inevitability.” I don’t remember what he was explaining but I learned something very important and has served me well ever since; that there are, indeed, “two ends to inevitability” and that they are always opposites-like the famous dichotomy between Socialism and Barbarism!, which are the two ends of inevitability now faced by the human race.
A while back I wrote about the passing of Stu Singer, an SWP member I also had little personal knowledge about. One of the benefits of posting about him was that it spurred others to chime in who knew him better. I hope that this might spark some reminiscences about Nat as well.
Even though I never knew much about his life, I do feel qualified to say something about a man who was part of a generation, namely those who came just a few years into the party leadership after the first generation: James P. Cannon, Farrell Dobbs, George Novack et al.
Born in 1924, Nat was a bit young to have taken part in the CIO organizing drives like Farrell Dobbs or Bert Cochran for that matter. But he was not too young to take part in another epochal event of the sad 20th century: WWII. Nat, like Dick Garza, Sol Dollinger, and Tom Leonard, served in the Merchant Marines. When I get around to putting up a video interview with Sol that I did with Nelson Blackstock, you’ll hear about Sol’s ship being torpedoed on the way to Murmansk. It’s a shame that there are no such oral histories of Nat, as far as I know.
Nat, Sol, Dick, and Tom all knew what it meant to be poor and to be forced to work in a factory as opposed to those of my generation who went into a factory to do missionary work.
With Nat’s passing, this marks the end of the “greatest generation” of American Trotskyism, namely those men and women who knew and worked closely with James P. Cannon. Although I disagree with how they went about achieving the goals that have eluded humanity since the mid-19th century, the goals themselves will never disappear. It is too bad that Nat’s generation will not live long enough to see the working class radicalization they yearned for but I am absolutely convinced that when I reach Nat’s age, it will be a palpable reality.
March 1, 2014
We Social-Democrats resort to secrecy from the tsar and his blood hounds, while taking pains that the people should know every thing about our Party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its programme and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party congress delegate said at the congress in question. The enlightened bourgeois of the Osvobozhdeniye fraternity surround themselves with secrecy… from the people, who know nothing definite about the much-talked-of “Constitutional-Democratic” Party; but they make up for this by taking the tsar and his sleuths into their confidence. Who can say they are not democrats?
February 28, 2014
Counterpunch Weekend Edition Feb 28-Mar 02, 2014
John Davidson’s “The Obedient Assassin”
Although the movement he created is on its last legs, Leon Trotsky is still a compelling figure for the artist based on the evidence of three novels focused on his sojourn in Coyoacan that have appeared in the last several years.
Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” came out in 2009. Like the 2002 film “Frida” (screenplay by CounterPunch regular Clancy Sigal), Kingsolver put Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo into the foreground. For her the two characters enabled her “to examine the modern American political psyche, using artists as a vehicle”, as she states on her website. The World Socialist Website frowned on the novel’s treatment of Trotsky and its deficiencies in the dialectical materialism department, which I suppose is reason enough to recommend it.
That very same year Leonardo Padura, a Cuban, wrote “The Man who Loved Dogs”, a nearly 600-page novel about Trotsky now available in English translation. Naturally the N.Y. Times reviewer, a Mexican novelist named Álvaro Enrique, saw it as a parable on Cuban society with the artist in mortal danger of being killed by a state inspired by the Moscow Trials: “Cuba may be the last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.” One must conclude that Enrique does not consider reporters to be writers since a hundred have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, with most of the cases being unsolved.
I imagine that I will get around to reading Kingsolver and Padura at some point, but I had a keener interest in what John P. Davidson had to say about Trotsky in the brand new “The Obedient Assassin”, a novel that turns Ramon Mercader—Trotsky’s killer—into the major character.
I was surprised if not shocked to discover that this was the same John P. Davidson who had written a supremely witty and thoughtful account about going to butler’s school in the January 2014 Harper’s titled You Rang?, where he writes:
For some time, becoming a servant had been one of those idle dropout fantasies I entertained, along with becoming a shepherd or joining a monastery. Now, having sold my house and spent ten years and a great deal of money writing a novel that my agent hadn’t been able to sell, I had a somewhat more urgent interest in the six-figure jobs the Starkey Institute dangles before prospective students.
Assuming that the unsellable novel is “The Obedient Assassin”, we can only thank our lucky stars that he was a washout as a butler and that his agent finally hit pay dirt. As someone who has been a professional journalist for thirty-five years for reputable outlets like Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, Davidson brings to the table an ability to write briskly and without a single superfluous word. Nor will you find the trendiness favored by MFA graduates. Sometimes it is easy to forget that some of the greatest novels were written by men and women who started out as journalists, first and foremost among them Ernest Hemingway.
February 18, 2014
Counterpunch February 18, 2014
It might be obvious from articles appearing on CounterPunch (“A Response to Our Socialist Worker Critics”, to name just one) that former members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) have decided to subject the self-described “Leninist” group to a withering critique.
In a recent development, current members constituted as the Renewal Faction have joined the chorus of critics as well, something that will obviously irk a leadership accustomed to fawning approval from the ranks. Indicating the general movement toward web-based debate and discussion and away from the print-based medium favored by small propaganda groups operating in the “Leninist” tradition, the faction launched a website titled “External Bulletin”, a term that very likely challenges the notion of the “Internal Bulletin”, the members-only medium that allows such groups to conduct their discussions without the prying eyes of non-members.
Unfortunately for the ISO, the internal bulletin might have become a relic of the Leninist past after a disgruntled member or members decided to forward PDF’s of 30 (at last count) documents to selected critics of the ISO, including me. Over the past few days, I have read maybe 100 pages worth of internal discussion articles and want to offer my analysis of what is happening with the largest “Leninist” organization in the United States (I exclude the CP, which operates more as a wing of the Democratic Party.) As someone who spent nearly 12 years in the American Socialist Workers Party from 1967 to 1978 (now there’s a screenplay begging to be written: “12 Years a Sectarian”), I can recognize the pressures operating on the ISO that will inevitably generate discontent.