Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 2, 2011

Communist Party USA on Obama debt ceiling deal

Filed under: Obama,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 4:27 pm

It is no doubt true that a Democratic president and Senate prevented a much worse outcome than the current deal. Many have criticized the president for being too soft and weak in negotiations with the Republicans. I had nearly 20 years’ experience in the labor movement which proved to me it’s hard to judge from the outside what is really possible, and what is not, in such bargaining. The balance of forces is hard to evaluate if you are not at the table. Maybe the president gave too much, maybe this is the best outcome possible to avert disaster for now.

But the point is: We the people are not at the table!

full: http://peoplesworld.org/debt-ceiling-disaster-postponed-but-not-for-long/

August 1, 2011


Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 6:58 pm


Filed under: music,Roma — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

Henry’s Demons: a review

Filed under: health and fitness,swans — louisproyect @ 3:06 pm

Henry’s Demons: A Review
by Louis Proyect

Book Review

Cockburn, Patrick, and Cockburn, Henry: Henry’s Demons: Living with Schizophrenia: a Father and Son’s Story, Scribner, 2011, ISBN 978-1-4391-5470-0, 238 pages.

(Swans – August 1, 2011)   Three weeks after Jared Loughner shot six people to death in Tucson, Arizona, and wounded another 14 including US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Henry’s Demons hit the bookstores. So dismayed was I at the time by the level of ignorance on the left about mental illness, including, I am afraid, an article by Sam Smith that appeared on Patrick’s brother Alexander’s CounterPunch, I only wished that every single subscriber to the “Tea-Party-made-him-do-it” theory could read Henry’s Demon. (Smith opined that Loughner drew “bizarre conclusions” from the books he read, a function of not developing “critical thinking” in school or college. This completely ignores the question of brain chemistry, as if sending Loughner to Philips Exeter and Yale would have made any difference.)

As someone who has studied this issue in some depth because of both a close friend’s and a relative’s struggle with schizophrenia, I can say that Henry’s Demons is a book that will go a long way in illuminating one of society’s most intractable public health problems. By making the personal political, Patrick Cockburn has made an enormous contribution to our knowledge about a disease that is subject to the most ignorant prejudices, unfortunately even from our most educated classes.

In Kabul on February 8, 2002, Patrick Cockburn received a phone call from his wife Jan informing him that a fisherman had pulled his twenty-one-year-old son Henry fully clothed from a freezing cold river in Brighton. Suffering from hypothermia and just one step ahead of death, the youth was taken to a local hospital and then shortly transferred to a mental hospital. This was the beginning of an ordeal that lasted for the better part of a decade. It is almost impossible to imagine how Cockburn continued to function as one of the world’s top foreign correspondents while coping with his son’s never-ending dalliance with death. Although many people associate psychosis with violence against others, the greatest risk for the mentally ill is that they will do harm to themselves.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art17/lproy72.html

Obamahood by Mr. Fish

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 1:51 am

July 30, 2011

Ron Daniels on Black politics

Filed under: african-american — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

Ron Daniels

In part four of a series of articles on ZNet urging the left to get behind Obama in 2012 based on hoary “lesser evil” logic, Ron Daniels refers to some key moments in the Black struggle and electoral politics but draws all the wrong conclusions.

Daniels refers to the National Black Political Convention in 1972, a conference I remember well from coverage in the Militant newspaper long before it lost its moorings to the planet Earth. For Daniels, the convention was important because it emphasized the need for “Black politics”:

Having laid out an analysis of the Black condition and the unreliability of the major parties in promoting Black interests, the document calls for a “new Black politics” to advance the interests and aspirations of Africans in America: “… The Black Politics of Gary must accept major responsibility for creating both the atmosphere and the program for fundamental, far-ranging change in America…It is the challenge to consolidate and organize our own Black role as the vanguard in the struggle for a new society.”

There were 8000 people in attendance, including some of the most powerful Black elected officials including John Conyers. There was widespread sentiment for a Black political party but the hostility to such a measure from the bourgeois politicians and their friends in the CPUSA kept the convention from adopting such a call. Instead what you ended up with was an amorphous call for “Black politics” that was obviously consistent with stumping for Barack Obama in Ron Daniel’s view.

At the time the SWP might have had 50 Black members but they were too small in number to have much of an impact on the convention. Furthermore, our “democratic centralist” notions drove a wedge between our Black members and even those who were sympathetic to the idea of a Black political party.

The Trotskyist movement decided that a Black political party could have had a catalytic effect on electoral politics by splitting off a component of the Democratic Party and forcing the labor movement to consider running its own candidates in a Labor Party, a strategy that had been part of the party’s arsenal since the 1930s but mostly gathering dust because of the ability of high wages and job security to keep workers placated.

In the last paragraph, Daniels repeats the need for backing Obama in 2012, as he has been doing throughout these series of articles:

As Africans in America prepare for the 2012 elections, we must be clear that President Barack Hussein Obama is the firewall thwarting the virus of radical conservatism from decisively turning back the clock on Black progress and the march toward a more perfect union by the progressive forces for change. Therefore, while we offer constructive critiques of his performance on issues of vital concern to Blacks and other similarly situated constituencies, it is in our best interest to turn back the conservative tide by supporting Obama’s reelection for President.

If you look through the Militant newspaper archives that only include issues after the “turn”, all the discussion of a Black political party is tainted by the workerism that infected the SWP from 1979 onward. For example, a 1996 article is titled “Black Party Charted Course For Workers”, as if an alternative title “Black Party Charted Course For Black community” would have been insufficiently Bolshevik. While the title was a bit “off”, the article made some useful points:

Pathfinder is reprinting two Education for Socialists bulletins on the struggle to chart a course in the fight for Black rights and against racist discrimination, one that relies on the independent mobilization and organized struggles of the oppressed and exploited toilers.

These publications-Independent Black Political Action, 1954- 78: The Struggle to Break with the Democratic and Republican Parties and The National Black Independent Political Party: An Important Step Forward for Working People-will be particularly useful in sorting through the claims today by various individuals and organizations to offer a road forward for working people in the 1996 U.S. elections.

On July 18, for example, Benjamin Chavis announced plans for an African-American Leadership Summit in August. “What comes out of the hearing will be our national agenda, and we aim at pushing it at all parties-Republican, Democratic, and Reform,” Chavis said. The summit is also expected to call a national convention to be held September 20-22 in St. Louis, Missouri.

And in June, Labor Party Advocates sponsored a founding convention of the Labor Party. The new party aims to pressure the Democratic and Republican parties. It will not run candidates of its own. “If we are a unified voice, maybe one of those other parties would listen to us,” one participant said.

Break with the capitalist parties

The articles, resolutions, and other documents reprinted in these two publications take on such a class-collaborationist approach and put forward the need for independent working-class political action. They are drawn from the pages of the Militant and from resolutions of the Socialist Workers Party from the beginning of the civil rights movement in 1954 to 1980.

“The Socialist Workers Party contends that racism, like unemployment, exploitation and war, can be abolished in this country only by independent political action aimed at taking control of the government out of the hands of the capitalists and their parties,” a 1963 resolution reprinted in Independent Black Political Action states. “As a step in this direction, we have advocated that the unions break from the Democratic Party and form an independent labor party that would seek to politically unite workers, farmers, and Negroes and elect their representatives to office. In addition, and for the same reason, we have also endorsed and supported representatives of the Negro community whenever they have run for office independently of and in opposition to the old parties.”

“The job of the militant Negroes and their white allies is to break with the capitalist parties, not to infiltrate those parties in the illusion they can be reformed,” the Militant emphasized in another article on the 1954 fight to get Harry Hazelwood, an independent Black candidate, elected as councilman-at-large in Newark, New Jersey. The Stalinist Communist Party, fearing the prospect of Blacks deciding “to go it alone,” had urged an alliance with the Democratic Party. A break by Blacks with the capitalist parties would, in fact, “have thoroughly progressive consequences” for all working people,” the article added.

Farrell Dobbs explains in a 1959 discussion that independent political action is not the same as supporting any candidate who runs outside one of the two capitalist parties. The Los Angeles branch of the party had decided to offer critical support to Edward Atkinson, a Black candidate in the non-partisan election for city council. Dobbs, writing for the SWP Political Committee, noted that Atkinson was associated with internal factional squabbles within a wing of the Democratic Party.”

We must be careful, Dobbs said, “about rushing to characterize as independent a campaign where there is evidence it may in fact represent an attempt to play a greater role within a capitalist party…. Our aim is to lead the fight for independent political action. For us two criteria are paramount: the nature of a given movement; and the direction in which it is going.”

Nearly 20 years later, SWP National Secretary Jack Barnes made a similar point in reference Charles Evers, who ran for U.S. Senate in Mississippi against the Democratic and Republican candidates. Evers’s campaign, Barnes explains in the final selection in Independent Black Political Action, “reveals the decisiveness of program on the electoral front. Independence is a programmatic question…. As the pressure mounts to break out of the framework of capitalist politics, the rulers are going to make more and more of an effort to come up with safety valves that keep the exploited and oppressed stuck in lesser-evilism.”

Could you imagine the impact if someone with a mass following like Al Sharpton woke up one morning and said, ”God damn. Enough already. I am going to run for mayor as a candidate of the New York African-American Party. Even if I don’t win, I will raise all kinds of hell.” Of course, the tragedy of Black politics in the U.S. is that the highest-profile leaders like Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are wedded to the Democratic Party. If they weren’t, there’s always the same measure waiting in the wings that awaited Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. Malcolm referred to the bullet or the ballot. Little did he realize that the bullet might come from the revolver of a cop who was charged with the responsibility of killing people using the ballot effectively.

July 29, 2011

Alexander Cockburn responds on Lind/Bleivik

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn — louisproyect @ 9:19 pm

From http://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn07292011.html

Incidentally, on the topic of Breivik, we have had an enquiry from a reader noting that Breivik’s “Manifesto” has plagiarized material from William Lind, erstwhile Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation, and asking that since CounterPunch published material by Lind, what is our precise relationship to this contributor. The inference seems to be that we published racist neo-Nazi propaganda which helped inflame Breivik. God knows what he would say about our contributor William Blum, considering the late Osama bin Laden famously cited Bill as one of his favorite writers.

As any CounterPuncher can quickly establish by reviewing Lind’s contributions  through our “Search” function at the top of this home page, we published columns on the conduct of America’s wars by  Lind between 2003 and 2007, in the Bush years because, from a conservative position,  he was a trenchant and knowledgeable military analyst and critic of the US onslaughts on Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. Lind had been a participant of the military reform group, trenchant critics of the Pentagon.

His column was distributed by the Center and we would pick it up if it was on themes we cared for, which did not include Lind’s commentaries on many other matters, the cultural downslide of America and so forth.

CounterPunchers should know that its editors stand responsible for pieces CounterPunch publishes – though we obviously don’t agree with every word in the roughly 3,000 pieces we put up on this site every year. We publish and where necessary edit articles for  the edification of a large and intelligent regular readership. We don’t publish anti-Semitic or Nazi propaganda, as assessed by any rational person. I add this because many people eager to throw these terms around are irrational and usually malevolent. If you read our website with any frequency you will know where we’re at, as a left, radical enterprise.   We’ve always held it as part of our brief – stemming from political appreciation of the actual prospects here in the USA – that we should acknowledge positive political work and insights on the libertarian front and the right and from original viewpoints. Every once in a while some Trotskyite purist like Louis Proyect will hoist his skirts  and jump up on the kitchen table, aghast at the sight of an “incorrect” thought or assault by CounterPunch, often specifically me, on the canons of political and cultural PC as sedulously observed by this politically and intellectually demure old Trot. Then, when I say something he likes he’ll dispense a grateful bouquet.

We  don’t hold ourselves responsible for articles our contributors publish elsewhere. We have neither the time nor inclination to dredge through their lifetime archive on the internet to scrutinize articles they may have written one, five, ten or twenty years ago.  These days we get regular requests from contributors to purge our archives of their seditious thoughts because they are up for a job, or are in a tenure battle. A new search site has just been launched to enable the internet bloodhounds to person their blacklisting tasks more efficiently. That’s not our world.

 * * * *

Unfortunately, Alexander does not engage with what I wrote. I specifically said that Lind’s articles were not objectionable except one. I guess he still stands pat on this one unfortunately:

4GW theory warns that we now face a world of cultures in conflict, that we must defend Western culture and that many, perhaps most, other cultures are threats, especially when they flood Western countries with immigrants. Cultural Marxism welcomes immigrants who will not acculturate precisely because they are threats to Western culture.

Rather sad, really.

Did Qaddafi’s demand for reparations lead to war?

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 5:00 pm

Last Wednesday an article titled “Lies of the Libyan War” by Thomas Mountain appeared on Counterpunch. My first reaction, even before reading it, was to wonder if Mountain was involved with a little bit of Freudian projection since most of what he writes about Libya is bullshit. But I was not prepared for this tidbit:

What seem to have finally tipped the balance in favor of direct western military intervention was the reported demand by Gadaffi that the USA oil companies who have long been major players in the Libyan petroleum industry were going to have to compensate Libya to the tune of tens of billions of dollars for the damage done to the Libyan economy by the USA instigated “Lockerbie Bombing” sanctions imposed by the UN inSecurity Council throughout the 1990’s into early 2000’s. This is based on the unearthing of evidence that the CIA paid millions of dollars to witnesses in the Lockerbie Bombing trial to change their stories to implicate Libya which was used as the basis for the very damaging UN sanctions against Libya. The government of the USA lied and damaged Libya so the USA oil companies were going to have to pay up to cover the cost of their governments [sic] actions. Not hard to see why Gadaffi had to go isn’t it?

My first reaction upon reading this was to ask myself where the “demand” was first “reported” because past experience has taught me that Mountain is not averse to making things up just like Jon Lovitz.

I first encountered some of Thomas Mountain’s bullshit artistry on Counterpunch back in March when he alleged that a Benghazi “mafia” was “employing thousands in various capacities and corrupting Libyan police and government officials.” When I asked him to substantiate this claim, he said that his “investigations” in Benghazi confirmed this. Great, just what we needed. A leftist version of Judith Miller.

This time I didn’t waste my time asking Mountain to back up his claim that a “demand” for reparations was “reported”. I went directly to Nexis and spent a good half-hour on the outside chance that something like this really happened. Searches using a combination of keywords like “reimburse”, “damages”, “compensation”, “oil companies”, “Libya”, etc. turned up absolutely nothing, as I expected they wouldn’t.

My next step was to use the same keywords on google. This time something did show up. On April 12th an article by Susan Lindauer titled “Putting Out Fire With Gasoline in Libya” appeared on Veterans Today. She wrote: “Gadhaffi challenged U.S. (and probably British) oil companies to reimburse Libya for the economic damage caused by U.N. sanctions tied to the Lockerbie bombing, which Libya had nothing to do with.”

So being the nuisance I am prone to be, I wrote Lindauer asking for a citation on this claim. She wrote back:

I’m actually speaking from my own direct knowledge. Last summer I heard all about this while I was finishing my book. I learned it from spooks, and we joked about how the U.S. would not be amused, and how Gadhaffi was playing with fire. Nobody expected a war though. We expected Gadhaffi to throw a tantrum and the U.S. to offer a substitute.

So once again we have some Internet investigative reporter telling us that there are no independent sources to back up their story. Mountain tells me that he should be believed about a Benghazi mafia because he’s been “investigating” the story and Lindauer tells me that she “learned it from spooks”. All I can say is that I am beginning to understand the plea in certain quarters to keep print journalism alive. With people like Thomas Mountain and Susan Lindauer, you almost feel nostalgia for Judith Miller.

I should add that Lindauer is a “truther”. On the website for her book “Extreme Prejudice”, she states in light of the disappearance of 911 eyewitnesses in JFK assassination style that “If in the future I should die under mysterious circumstances, my supporters can trust with certainty that nothing could ever compel me to commit suicide. Suggestions to the contrary should be scorned.” In 2001, Lindauer was charged with acting as a spy for Iraq but during the trial the judge ruled her mentally incompetent and allowed her to go free.

A retrial convinced the judge to let her off again, as the NY Times reported:

He cited findings that she had paranoia and delusions of grandeur; he also questioned the strength of the government’s case, saying, “There is no indication that Lindauer ever came close to influencing anyone, or could have.”

Judge Preska, in her ruling, said that Ms. Lindauer generally understood the roles of jurors, prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges, but did not seem to have a “rational understanding of the roles” they played in her case.

The judge cited the testimony of a government psychiatrist who said that Ms. Lindauer claimed to have special powers and that she had indicated she once met with Osama bin Laden, who disclosed to her the location of a bomb. The judge said that demonstrated “a lack of connection with reality.”

There is little doubt that her “reported claim” about Qaddafi seeking reparations was the basis for Mountain’s reporting. Talk about the blind leading the blind.

Turning from the ridiculous to the nearly ridiculous, a recent WSWS article also looks for a “smoking gun” that would explain why NATO went to war. In this instance, it relies more credibly—at least on first blush—on Wikileaks:

The scramble by dozens of international oil and gas companies to cash in on the lifting of sanctions, however, soon produced two major problems for the US government. Firstly, in the words of a November 2007 cable, “Libyan resource nationalism”—policies designed to increase the Libyan government’s “control over and share of revenue from hydrocarbon resources.” The cable ominously concludes that the US should demonstrate “the clear downsides” to the Libyan regime of such an approach.

Well, if a Wikileaks cable states that “Libyan resource nationalism” was what led to war, then it must be true even if dozens of articles in leading newspapers made the case for Libya being a jackpot for oil companies. One understands why WSWS, Counterpunch and other voices of the pro-Qaddafi left would be so invested in looking for proof that Qaddafi was some kind of revolutionary nationalist since it is required to make the story of a repeat of the war on the Serbs plausible. It doesn’t matter if the bourgeois press painted a picture of Qaddafi as a willing accomplice of the CIA and more than happy to collaborate with Berlusconi on keeping “illegals” out of Europe, they had to portray him as a heroic anti-imperialist fighter no matter how much cherry-picking of the facts was required.

Ironically, a supporter of the PSL on Marxmail who agrees with the Counterpunch-type analysis of Libya warned against taking Wikileaks literally (of course, in this case a cable describing how Qaddafi kept the eastern part of the country impoverished):

This kind of “analysis” reflects a common problem with Wikileaks. People think Wikileaks is some kind of secret source of the “truth.” It isn’t. It’s a secret source of U.S. Government documents. This isn’t a secret Libyan government document revealing “deliberate Libyan government policy,” it is the opinion of some U.S. Diplomat, based on who-knows-what source of information (for all we know, some of those who would become rebels).

Need I remind people of the famous Michael Moore incident, where a Wikileaks cable claimed that the Cuban government was so offended by Moore’s “Sicko” that it had banned it, whereas in actual fact it had been shown on Cuban TV?

Just because something is “Wikileaked” doesn’t make it true.

Well, as long as people are dipping into the Wikileaks database, I might as well cite a cable that should make you think twice about the level of “resource nationalism” that Qaddafi was committed to. The WSWS article informs us that oil companies were alarmed by statements made at a Georgetown University conference in 2009, so much so that it led to war presumably.

The oil giants and the US government were alarmed by threats Gaddafi made, in a January 2009 video-conference to Georgetown University students, to nationalise the oil and gas industry. A January 2010 cable recounts that “regime rhetoric in early 2009 involving the possible nationalization of the oil sector … has brought the issue back to the fore.”

But if you take a look at another cable, there seems to be much less concern:

During a recent video conference with Georgetown University students, Muammar al-Qadhafi suggested that Libya and other oil exporting states could nationalize their oil production in view of sharply plummeting petroleum prices. Several days later, however, a senior MFA official assured the visiting Spanish King’s delegation that Libya does not intend to do so.

Famous for saying the unexpected (a favorite local saying is “from Libya comes the new”), al-Qadhafi did not disappoint with his threat to nationalize Libya’s oil production. As with similar dramatic, headline-grabbing statements on various other subjects in the past, though, much of what he says and does represents tactical maneuvering rather than a sincere expression of intent. While it is never wise to rule out the possibility of seemingly irrational decisions by the GOL, we are not inclined to believe that nationalization is being seriously considered.

I want to conclude with a statement to my more intellectually-challenged readers. This blog is not endorsing NATO’s murderous attack on Libya when it criticizes sloppy, ideologically-loaded reporting about Qaddafi’s “anti-imperialist” credentials. Furthermore, it does not try to “demonize” Qaddafi. There has never been a single instance of my giving credibility to stories about government troops using Viagra during mass rapes, etc. My writings on Libya have a very specific goal, which is namely to debunk the sort of article that Thomas Mountain writes and that never should have appeared on Counterpunch, DissidentVoice or other websites that know damned well how to conduct a close reading of the N.Y. Times to expose some lies. I maintain that if the left is to have any credibility, it must maintain higher standards than the bourgeois press. It is really too bad that the people running Counterpunch appear to disagree.

A response to Paul LeBlanc’s “Marxism and Organization”

Filed under: Pham Binh,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

(A guest post by Pham Binh)

Although the following was written in response to Paul Le Blanc’s “ Marxism and Organisation ” essay, it is not a line-for-line response, nor do I believe that he personally subscribes to all of the positions I attribute to “Leninists” in general. I have nothing but respect for him and his life’s work (changing the world for the better); I have re-read his “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party” many times and referenced it occasionally as I wrote the following response. My hope is that it leads to comradely but sharp debate, something that is sorely lacking on the far left where insults, epithets, and name-calling are all too common.

“Leninists” project their conceptions of organization back in time onto the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) to the point that the actual historical development of the RSDLP becomes incomprehensible. There is a tendency to see the ultimate outcomes of the RSDLP’s disputes as foredained and inevitable; this mistake is compounded when revolutionaries believe that we must form our own organizations based on those outcomes. What Lenin did or pushed for at any given time was determined not only by his own political preferences, but also by the actions of his opponents. For example, it was the refusal of the Mensheviks to abide by majority votes they lost on at the 1903 congress even though Lenin dutifully yielded on issues he lost votes on that compelled him to call for a third party congress.

Both the Menshevik and the Bolshevik wings of the RSDLP supported the same “revolutionary Marxist program” up until spring of 1917: overthrowing the Tsar and establishing a capitalist democracy. Their differences concerned strategy, which, of course, had organizational ramifications (Lenin later correctly characterized the 1903 split as “an anticipation”). What divided the two factions? The Bolsheviks believed the working class should play the leading role in overthrowing the Tsar and establishing a capitalist democracy; the Mensheviks argued (logically) that only the capitalist class could play the leading role in establishing their rule via a capitalist democracy (the Bolshevik idea of a worker-led revolution voluntarily handing power to their exploiters and enemies didn’t make any sense to them).

The point is that the “revolutionary Marxist program” did not separate the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks for most of the RSDLP’s history. What separated them was the actual class struggle and their practical orientation to it. When the program they shared with the Menshviks became an impediment to fighting for the interests of the working class, the Bolsheviks modified it.

This brings me to my second point.

“Democratic centralism” is not a special principle/mechanism practiced by the Bolsheviks. Lenin believed in organizing the party in a thoroughly democratic way. That, more than anything else, is what motivated Lenin in his struggle against the Mensheviks in 1903/1904. The Mensheviks expected Lenin and the Bolsheviks to respect the decisions of the party congress that they disagreed with; at the same time, the Mensheviks flouted the congress decisions they disagreed with politically. For Lenin, this was an intolerable situation that made a mockery of the very idea of a party, much less one where majority rule prevailed.

Lenin’s commitment to democratic organizing meant that the central committees of both the RSDLP and of the Bolshevik faction were elected as individuals by secret ballot, not the slate system (that was introduced in 1921 at the 10th party congress where they banned factions ending the democratic norms that characterized the pre-revolutionary Bolsheviks) that to my knowledge all “Leninist” groups use today.

Electing the central committee in this way did something important. Party members elected and were led by the party’s most outstanding and popular leaders, making it far more likely members would voluntarily implement decisions by their leaders. As individuals, these leaders had different approaches, different experiences, and different temperaments; this heterogeneity gave rise to sharp debates and clear differences of opinion that taught the entire organization how to work through them in a comradely, productive, and practical way. It created a culture of debate, dissension, majority voting, and collective implementation to resolve contentious issues, many of which did not have a clear-cut “right” answer. This culture came straight from the top of the organization and filtered down into every branch, every cell, and involved every member.

A slate system, by contrast, encourages political conformity at the top (only “team players” need apply), which filters downward, robbing the party of its dynamism. “Leadership” becomes based on who is the loudest/most enthusiastic proponent of the line coming from the top, rather than a process of initiative, trial, error, learning, reassessment, and moving forward. Discipline ends up being a question of rote, obedience, and passive-but-non-believing submission; where those fail, administrative measures are applied. All of these are mental and moral poisons for revolutionaries; no organization can flourish in the long run in this manner.

Furthermore, if you can elect a slate of 12 Lenins prior to a revolution, great; but what if you elect 12 Zinovievs? Then what?

The thoroughly democratic practices and habits of the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP were decisive in 1917. It was only on the basis of this thorough democracy that the erroneous parts of the party’s strategy could be modified and an outsider like Trotsky elected to the party’s highest body, despite Lenin’s uninterrupted political attacks on him for almost a decade and a half prior. An organization without democracy can’t fix its program or be changed from below. Even if said organization’s program is 110% correct, it is doomed to fail the test of revolution because only by fully airing differences within its ranks can it have a chance (not a guarantee) of coming to the right decision about what to do in the heat of the moment.

An organization with a faulty program that has the capacity to change and learn from its mistakes is in a much better position than one that has the right program but no capacity for critical self-reflection. I keep returning to this point because one of the single most damaging problems within the revolutionary wing of the socialist movement post-1917 has been an obsession with “defending the program.” This obsession has led to ferreting out “renegades” i.e. dissidents and elevating secondary political issues or tactical disagreements into all-out wars to “defend the revolutionary Marxist program.” This is especially absurd when tiny, uninfluential socialist organizations in one country split over strategy and tactics adopted by socialists in another country.

If we are going to be “obsessed” with anything, it should be with leading our side to victory in struggles, big and small, by any means necessary. Our measure of success should be the gains and reforms won by our initiatives, however small or fleeting. Only by accumulating those victories will our side rebuild its confidence, providing the basis for a revolution.

So if democracy and not a formally correct program is key, what about the Mensheviks? Why couldn’t they just modify their program and march lockstep with Lenin and Trotsky to October?

By the time of the 1917 revolution, their faction had ossified around their orientation towards pressuring/encouraging/cheerleading Russia’s capitalists to play a stronger role in the fight to overthrow Tsarism. This was particularly true after the defeat of the 1905 revolution (during 1905 the two wings of the RSDLP nearly united, giving lie to the notion that Lenin made up his mind to not unite with the Mensheviks prior to 1912 as part of his life’s mission to create a “party of a new type”). Menshevik organizers tended to be middle class intellectuals or older, more conservative workers who renounced the “foolishness” of their 1905 days in favor of “realism”. Bolshevik organizers tended to be younger and involved with militant actions (illegal strikes, underground organization) because their faction stressed that the working class could only get anything by its own strength and organization, whereas the Menshevik faction tended to downplay militant worker activism since it would scare big business into deserting the revolutionary cause.

The Bolshevik party emerged as an organic part of Russia’s workers’ movement and had a role in a huge array of workers’ activities — strikes, protests, demonstrations, social insurance societies, unions, student organizations, war industry committees (despite their hostility to WWI), and managed to win seats in Russia’s sham legislature despite unfavorable electoral laws; it was part of the class from the party’s inception; its program was derived from and a response to Russian conditions and problems; when conditions changed, so did the party’s program. It succeeded as a revolutionary workers’ party because it was rooted in the class it sought to lead and thoroughly democratic from top to bottom.

This is the key to understanding why the attempt to export conclusions drawn after almost two decades of trial and error in Russia in the early 20th century and impose them “from above” or a priori in the West via the Third/Fourth Internationals has led to complete failure on the part of all “Leninist” groups to lead working-class revolutions.

The early Comintern is often hailed as the high point in the international revolutionary workers’ movement, and it was, but the reality is that the Comintern’s practical influence on the course of the class struggle in other countries was decidedly, almost totally, negative during its “golden years”. The Communist Party of Germany’s (KPD) policies, actions, and slogans became subject to the decisions of an executive thousands of miles away from the front lines; that’s putting aside the unprincipled, apolitical, and bureaucratic nonsense that went on before anybody knew who Stalin was.

Why anyone would look to a model that put the communist movement’s Zinovievs and Bela Kuns in charge of mass workers parties that were being ably led by experienced revolutionaries of the caliber of Rosa Luxemburg (RIP), Paul Levi, Clara Zetkin, Antonio Gramsci, and Angelo Tasca is really beyond me. Louis Proyect wrote a piece that should be read carefully and absorbed by everyone who is a Marxist and wants a workers’ revolution: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/organization/comintern_and_germany.htm

Is it any wonder the KPD leadership failed to learn how to think for itself and became ever-more dependent on Moscow’s directives when the Comintern’s executive continually decapitated the KPD leadership? This occurred at least three times before Lenin’s death: Paul Levi was expelled in 1921 (with Lenin’s approval), leaving the party in the hands of the ultra-lefts who were partly responsible for the “March Action”; Reuter-Friesland was expelled in 1922 for protesting against mistaken Comintern directives concerning Germany’s union movement; and Brandler was removed from the KPD’s leadership in 1923 after he failed to conjure up a German October at Moscow’s behest.

These expulsions, coming on the heels of the murders of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknict, and Eugen Levine, meant that the KPD was finished as an independent force able to draw conclusions from its own experience and to respond with quick changes to its political “line” necessitated by rapid shifts in the balance of class forces. By 1923, the KPD was led by the leftovers of leftovers of leftovers; this was the fault of the Comintern and no one else. The development of self-confident national parties was crippled by the Comintern experiment, which deepend Russia’s isolation. Trying to replicate this flawed model is the height of folly.

So what does all of the above mean? Is there nothing we can learn from the experience of the RSDLP (Bolsheviks) or the early Comintern?

It means a few things:

1) We have to analyze the Bolshevik party historically rather than project our (mis)conceptions about “Leninism” backwards in time by reading into debates that took place in 1903-1917 things that became clear later and after much struggle, the outcomes of which were not inevitable. Trying to implement Comintern resolutions from 1919-1921 (or worse yet, Lenin’s prescriptions from 1902/1903) instead of finding our own path will only create sects, not a party of working class fighters and organizers capable of winning socialism. “Leninism” and “party-building” have been tried in dozens of countries in many, many different circumstances for the last 90 years, and not once has there been a success! Refusing to acknowledge the inherent flaws of the model we’ve inherited as the last/first word in how to organize and what to do by continually blaming unfavorable “objective conditions” isn’t going to help.

2) There are no cut-and-dried organizational/practical schemas that can serve as templates how revolutionaries should organize, everywhere and always.

What has come to be known as “Leninism” — setting up a disciplined “democratic centralist” organization with a “revolutionary Marxist program,” a newspaper modeled on and motivated by Lenin’s 1902 article “Where to Begin?” and his 1903 book “What Is To Be Done?”, an excessive focus on selling said paper (the result of elevating the newspaper to a matter of principle and revolutionary duty rather than using it as one expedient among many), and creating a miniature caricature of the Bolshevik party, complete with a dozen full-time salaried central committee members, many of whom occupy the same posts for decades(!), all in anticipation of a revolution even though working-class militancy has been at historic lows for two or three decades now — needs to be discarded.

3) Our reality and modern-day conditions have to be our starting point for any discussion of how to organize and where/how to “draw boundaries.” We are materialists, after all. We need to figure out the way forward for our class without relying (mechanically) on what Lenin and his contemporaries said and did. There’s no use importing solutions from a bygone era when we are operating in a radically different context. We should use what we find useful in the experience of others but not copy anything wholesale. Above all else, we have to find ways to be rooted in the class struggle today, such as it exists, if we hope to actually influence its direction, rather than comment/lament on it from the outside.

4) “Party line” newspapers written by toy Leninist groups never have and never will command more than passing attention from workers, although they have managed to absorb a disproportionate amount of the time, energy, and attention of each generation of revolutionaries in the 90 years since the Russian revolution.

The American working class has a long history and tradition of humor, songs, icons, and much more we should be drawing from in our own media (see the disgruntled Whole Foods employee’s farewell letter, for example). In our day and age, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter inform people’s politics a lot more than “old” forms of propaganda like newspapers and pamphlets. We should be discussing how to best utilize the mediums people actually use to influence them politically, rather than figure out how to get them to conform to our preconceptions, especially when those preconceptions are largely erroneous or based on a flawed reading of history in the first place. The more we harp on Russia and the universality of Lenin’s glorious struggle against liquidators, economists, oztovists, and Mensheviks, the more remote we become from the concerns, interests, and lives of workers in the here and now who are desperate for a party that won’t sell them out or screw them over.

To sum up, we need to be flexible tactically and organizationally while remaining steadfast on our goals. Just as the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP developed answers and prescriptions to problems that arose in the course of leading workers in struggle, we must do the same. We would would do well to emulate the approach of Malcolm X who continually reinvented himself in the struggle to win black liberation, and shed the Nation of Islam’s conservative sectarianism in the process. If the socialist movement could do the same, we’d be in a much better position.

If this conclusion is vague and unsatisfying, we can always turn back to the sect with its ready-made and unchanging answers to all problems. Personally, I’d rather not.

July 28, 2011

Sleep Furiously

Filed under: farming,Film — louisproyect @ 4:09 pm

“Sleep Furiously”, a luminous documentary with music by Aphex Twin about life in Trefeurig, a tiny Welsh farming village, opens tomorrow at the Cinema Village in New York. It derives its title from the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” that was composed by Noam Chomsky in his 1957 Syntactic Structures as an example of a sentence that is grammatically correct but semantically nonsensical. Since “Sleep Furiously” is an exercise in cinéma vérité (but one that contains elements of magical realism), you don’t have a narrator explaining at the outset what Chomsky’s words have to do with the film, but it is not hard to figure out that Trefeurig is a place where logical expectations of how rural folks behave is discarded and lovingly so.

Before we see anything on the screen in “Sleep Furiously”, we hear a clanging bell. After a moment or two, we see its origin: a man in an 18th century red uniform walking down a country road ringing a bell, for what purpose we do not really know and which is never explained. The image and the sound are sufficient to delight the audience, including someone like me who is rational-minded to a fault.

Soon afterwards, we find ourselves in the back of what we used to call a Bookmobile when I was growing up in my own tiny rural village in the fifties with the librarian-driver advising a borrower about which books are worth taking out but all in the Welsh language. The film is subtitled when the subjects speak Welsh but when they use English, a language that is encroaching irresistibly, it is almost as difficult to follow. The obsolescence of Welsh like just about everything in this quaint village is something that will leave nobody impoverished materially but the spiritual and psychological loss would be immeasurable.

If you have seen “Babe”, you will get an idea of the kind of community that “Sleep Furiously” celebrates. Like the hero of this fictional film that teaches his pig to herd sheep, the residents of Trefeurig are not the kinds of people to embrace modernity for its own sake. They too use dogs to herd sheep, just the way it has been done for centuries. While it is not as well-known as “Pig”, the Korean documentary “Old Partner” is another affectionate treatment of resistance to modernization, in this case a husband and wife farming team who continue to use an ox for plowing and transportation.

In one of the most memorable scenes in “Sleep Furiously”, a man stands at a street sign by a crossroads in the village, reciting his own poem about how the wind often blows the steel signs about, making them useless. When they were wooden, they resisted the wind, leading him to wish that someone would “plant a nice old wooden one, at least it could be trusted.”

Trefeurig is located in the same general area as the villages celebrated by Dylan Thomas who surely would have appreciated the poem about the untrustworthy steel sign. When I was an undergraduate, I used to love to read Dylan Thomas who was much more fashionable than he is today. I especially loved “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” that not only evokes the charm of places like Trefeurig but my own village in the Catskill Mountains. Lines like this still send shivers down my back:

Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

If these words move you, then do make a point of going to see “Sleep Furiously”.

For those who are outside of New York, I invite you to watch it at Fandor.com starting at 12am ET on July 29th for 24 hours along with the online exclusive companion featurette, A Sketchbook for the Library Van, also by director Gideon Koppel, who grew up in Trefeurig as the son of Jewish parents who sought refuge from Nazism in Wales. The companion film is about the traveling librarian I wrote about above.

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