Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 18, 2019

The New Republic climbs aboard the DSA bandwagon

Filed under: DSA — louisproyect @ 7:43 pm

The New Republic is the latest media powerhouse to get on the democratic socialist bandwagon, joining the NY Times, the Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Teen Vogue, Rolling Stone, Vox, NPR, The Atlantic, The Nation, Time Magazine, and The New Yorker. You’d have to go back to the 1930s to see such a romance between those calling for the overthrow of capitalism and such elite capitalist media outlets. In a way, history is repeating itself. After all, both the CPUSA of the 1930s and the DSA today are for pushing the Democratic Party to the left but not over a cliff. Indeed, Bernie Sanders, the politician who accounts for most of the DSA’s growth, describes himself as basically trying to replicate the New Deal. When asked by an anti-Communist Russian émigré at a CNN Town Meeting how he could “rectify” (she obviously meant reconcile) his notion of democratic socialism with the failures of socialism in nearly every country that has tried it, he replied that he stood by FDR’s 1944 State of the Union message.

Through social media, I imagine that most of my readers have become aware of Doug Henwood’s article in the New Republic titled “The Socialist Network: Inside DSA’s struggle to move into the political mainstream”. With all due respect to a friend for the better part of 30 years, that sounds to me like breaking down an open door. Unlike any other group that has claimed to be in the Marxist tradition, it has achieved marquee status for a media that generally regards socialism as a curse. All you need to do is read the Washington Post on Venezuela. Then again, when asked by the National Review if Nicholas Maduro was “legitimate”, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez replied, “I defer to caucus leadership on how we navigate this.” Of course, I understand why she would have to walk a tight-rope. Apparently, there are a number of Venezuelans in her congressional district that might vote against her if she did say he was legitimate. Electability has to be taken into account when you are trying to legislate socialism into existence.

Joining Doug is one Astra Taylor, whose article is titled “Reclaiming the Future: On the growing appeal of socialism in an age of inequality”. I’ve run into Taylor before, having reviewed her documentary “Examined Life: Philosophy is in the Streets” Her film consists of interviews with left-wing philosophers, including Slavoj Zizek who was the subject of an earlier film she directed. My review  of “Examined Life” concluded on this note:

Going from the ridiculous to the ridiculousest, we meet Slavoj Zizek in a garbage dump where he spends his 10 minutes blasting what he calls “ecology”, which is nothing but a straw man that he defines as an idea that Nature is Pure and that Man violates Nature through Hubris. For Zizek, nature is anything but pure. It is filled with catastrophes that happen without human involvement such as the ice age that led to mass extinctions. He advises that in the face of nature’s imperfections that we learn-using his words-to see “perfection in imperfection”. This kind of relationship between man and nature will be a kind of “love”, as our Lacanian puts it.

Unfortunately, Taylor did not see fit to challenge Zizek’s idiocy.

Let me turn now to Doug’s 5,645 word article that is written in his customarily limpid prose that is a joy to read, even if I depart from most of his analysis.

There’s not much to quibble with in the first thousand words or so of his article that is an accurate chronicle of the DSA’s formation as a product of Michael Harrington’s zeitgeist and its transition into a far more radical group in the years following the 2007 crash when a millennial precariat concluded that capitalism had little to offer them.

I do have to interrogate, however, the claim that “There’s no ideological or organizational line, unlike all the American left’s many Trotskyist sects of old.” It would be more accurate to say that the DSA does not operate on the basis of democratic centralism but there certainly is an ideological line that hews closely to The Jacobin, an unofficial voice of the DSA leadership. The line can be described as left social democratic as opposed to the typical party of the Socialist International that the DSA’ers had the good sense from which to withdraw. Specifically, most DSA leaders, who after all are more equal than the rank-and-file DSA’er, hew closely to the Sandernista strategy of launching a Swedish-style social democracy in the USA that would be the first stage in a total socialist transformation. This strategy has been enunciated by Bhaskar Sunkara, Eric Blanc and other Jacobin authors. Yes, of course, a grizzled ex-Trotskyist member of the DSA has every right to denounce this strategy on a blog or a branch meeting but in the long run such dissidents are nothing but a minor annoyance.

After spending another thousand words or so providing some interesting insights into the evolution of the Republican and Democratic Parties in the post-Reagan era, Doug considers the main issue that prevents me from writing the kind of encomium to the DSA you’ll find in Vogue or Rolling Stone, namely its relationship to the Democratic Party. As I have said on many occasions, I reject the organizational model of the “Leninist” left and regard something much closer to the DSA as appropriate to the current state of the class struggle. In fact, my model is even much closer to Debs’s party to which most “democratic socialists”, including Bernie Sanders, pay homage. However, Debs was as opposed to the Democratic Party on a principled basis as any number of the grizzled old ex-Trotskyists that most DSA’ers find annoying.

Doug writes:

Most DSA activists I talked to, ranging from executive director Maria Svart to local leaders to rank-and-filers, are uninterested in such a takeover. They look at the Democrats as a vehicle to borrow, not own. As Svart says, while DSA members have shown a diversity of attitudes toward the Democratic Party, they still regard it as a “capitalist party” and are determined to build “independent power.” Until such power blossoms into a historic force on the national political scene, however, there’s no substitute for the party’s automatic ballot line. Sanders would have been a marginal curiosity had he run as an independent.

What comrade Svart does not seem to understand is that Marxists have never taken such a “tactical” stance on the Democratic Party until 1934 when Georgi Dimitrov directed Communist Parties to adopt the Popular Front turn that led to coalitions between the CP and capitalist parties throughout Europe and the Western Hemisphere. In the USA, the Popular Front took the form of backing FDR to the hilt, even to the point of endorsing the internment of Japanese-Americans, a no-strike pledge during WWII, opposing A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington, and—most disgustingly—supporting the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Ironically, the Socialist Party that the DSA descended from never backed voting for Democrats. When Upton Sinclair decided to run for governor in California as a Democrat, his own son, who was a member of the SP just like him, threatened to disown him. When Norman Thomas learned that Sinclair was going to run as a Democrat, he wrote him a letter:

Words are symbols. You alone, or you with the help of a certain number of California voters, cannot make the word Democratic a symbol for Socialism. That word with its capital D is a symbol for the party which bitterly discriminates not only against Negroes but white workers in the South, for the party of Tammany Hall in New York, and Hague in New Jersey. There are not words enough in the dictionary for you to explain to the great masses of common folk who have looked to your books for leadership the different sense in which you are Democrat. Still less will you be able to explain your defection to the multitudes in Europe who have hailed you as prophet and spokesman of their hopes.

Doug obviously takes the same pragmatic view of the DP as Svart:

Among other things, the hard-line left’s demonizing view of Democratic-branded seductions of power exaggerates the coherence of the party. As the political scientist Adam Hilton says, both major parties are “hollow” organizations—and porous ones—that can’t effectively police the boundaries of their ideological or intellectual identities. As Sanders showed, people can call themselves Democrats even when they’re not and run in their primaries. We’ve seen much the same phenomenon in congressional, state, and municipal races as well.

I have another way of looking at this. Despite the obvious hostility that is directed at Ilhan Omar, it is essential to the DP to have a left flank that creates the illusion that progress can be made running on its primary line. Its inability to “police” itself is actually a very effective way of maintaining the hegemonic place it shares with the Republicans. In the 1960s, it was essential to have “peace candidates” who could help convince the counterparts of today’s millennials that there was no need to join the SWP. Electing peace candidates was more “practical”. People like George McGovern had the same exact politics as Bernie Sanders but did not call themselves socialists. Even though the party’s corporate-centrist faction was as bent on destroying McGovern as it is today with respect to Sanders, it would never go so far as to define ideological boundaries. It is this very “hollowness” that helps to stabilize the capitalist system in the USA by maintaining the umbilical cord that connects a Nancy Pelosi to an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In attempting to burnish the image of the DSA, which really shouldn’t be necessary given the adulation it receives from the Washington Post on one side and the erstwhile ISO on the other, Doug creates a straw-man:

American left, stepping into a DSA meeting—at least the ones I’ve been to in Brooklyn—is a strange and lovely thing. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a typical gathering of leftists consisted of seven weirdos meeting in a ramshackle space, often fighting ancient battles about whether the USSR was a failed state capitalist experiment or a degenerated workers’ state. Goals were maximalist—to overthrow capitalism and build socialism—but no one really had an idea of what that meant.

Well, I was very active in the Central America Solidarity movement for the entire 1980s and this sounds like nothing I experienced. Meetings were devoted to questions on how to organize tabling to get passers-by to sign a petition against contra funding, not to debate the class nature of the Soviet Union. Indeed, by the 1980s at least, most of the old line Trotskyist and Maoist groups were in their twilight and had little role to play in the living movements. SWPers who showed up at Nicaragua Network meetings calling for a “proletarian orientation” were held in contempt by just about everybody.

The next thousand pages or so of Doug’s article is devoted to a discussion of the rather lively internal caucus life of the DSA that I found pretty inspiring, to tell you the truth. Let a thousand flowers bloom. As a DSA member myself, I might give some thought to starting one based on the writings of Bukharin who I find much more savory than Karl Kautsky, who is worshipped at the Jacobin altar.

Let me turn now to Astra Taylor’s article, which is 1,200 words longer than Doug’s. (Does The New Republic pay by the word? Well, at least they pay.) It is not specifically in praise of the DSA but is clearly in sync with its general emphasis on democracy. She says she was commissioned by The New Republic to write about the growing popularity of socialism in America. With that as an agenda, her article is filled with the kind of free PR the DSA gets on regular basis:

After decades of exile from mainstream American political discourse, the word “socialism” is now emblazoned in headlines and getting serious (if not always respectful) hearings from politicians holding and seeking the highest offices of the land. Even people who are not fans of Vermont Senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders (though a surprising number are fans—he’s the most popular politician in the country) cheered the arrival of two democratic socialist powerhouses in Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx and Detroit Representative Rashida Tlaib. Their victories are higher profile, but no less significant, than those at the state and municipal level—from Houston, where a democratic socialist judge won his campaign, to Chicago, where six of 50 city council seats will soon be occupied by socialists.

Taylor’s article was based to a large extent on an appearance she made alongside Natasha Lennard at the closing panel for a conference on “Liberalism and Democracy: Past, Present, Prospects” at the New School. It appears they were invited to speak on behalf of democratic socialism as opposed to the organizers’ mainstream liberalism. This is something that did not sit well with the audience that might have thought that she and Lennard “had called for the reopening of work camps.” Taylor wrote that “Multiple respondents thought it fitting to mention that the German left had helped usher in Hitler, implying that Lennard and I were unwitting handmaidens of totalitarianism.”

For Taylor, the growth of the DSA might be explained by the willingness of its new members to rely on intuitions rather than the long and drawn-out process I went through in 1967 before joining the SWP. Before I would commit to a revolutionary organization, I really had to understand what it stood for. By contrast, “Youthful converts to left-wing politics may not know exactly what policies democratic socialism would consist of, from the nitty-gritty details of participatory decision-making structures to the role of markets in a world where capital no longer rules. But they do have a sense of what socialism would feel like. Socialism would feel like having a future.”

To Taylor’s credit, she worries if this kind of fuzziness can serve the movement’s needs. She alludes to people who tell pollsters they prefer socialism to capitalism or that Bernie Sanders is their favorite candidate. However, most of them also choose Joe Biden rather than Elizabeth Warren as their second choice, thus leaving their ideological coherence open to question.

For Taylor, the biggest concern is embodied in the title of the article “Reclaiming the Future”. In other words, there has to be a deep engagement with the problematic of how to do socialism right as opposed to the disasters of the 20th century:

A partial sampling of such questions would include, but are by no means limited to, the following: How much top-down planning will be required to create an ecologically sustainable economy or just a functional one? And how will markets, money, and finance be democratized and fit into the mix? How should we balance collective ownership of our natural common wealth with local and worker control—and how do we combine local and worker control with the ideal of international solidarity? How are the boundaries of decision-making communities to be determined and accountability to be enforced? When can democracy be direct, when must it be representative, and how could randomness or sortition—selecting people to serve as public officials instead of electing them, as we do with juries—be put to good use?

In my view, these questions are beside the point. When some catastrophe in the future shakes society to its foundations, class lines will be drawn in the sharpest terms with those still working inside the Democratic Party looking as tarnished as Syriza politicians after Tsipras caved in to the German bankers.

She asks “When can democracy be direct, when must it be representative, and how could randomness or sortition—selecting people to serve as public officials instead of electing them, as we do with juries—be put to good use?” I don’t think the average factory worker would find much use in thinking through these questions, especially since they—like me—have no idea what “sortition” means.

What will move workers into struggle is having insufficient water to drink or bathe in, or seeing their home destroyed by an out-of-control forest fire, or seeing their strike broken by private armies funded by the Koch brothers. Nicaraguans overthrew Somoza without having the faintest idea of how the FSLN government would operate. They simply got sick and tired of their children being thrown out of helicopters because they opposed the dictatorship.

As difficult as it is for many on the left to imagine, the USA is moving into a stage that will pose these sorts of sharp class battles that will impose the most exacting demands on the left. I hope that the DSA will become part of the powerful revolutionary movement that can help achieve victory but it will soon have to decide who to align with, the editorial board of Vogue Magazine or the men and women who live paycheck to paycheck.

May 17, 2019

Trotsky, Bukharin, and the Eco-Modernists

Filed under: Bukharin,Counterpunch,DSA,Ecology,Jacobin,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 17, 2019

Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.

– Leon Trotsky, “Literature and Revolution” (1924)

For some Trotskyist groups, these words have been interpreted as a green light to support all sorts of ecomodernist schemas. For those unfamiliar with the term, it simply means using technology, often of dubious value, to ward off environmental crisis.

For example, the Socialist Workers Party, when it was still tethered to the planet Earth, was a strong supporter of Green values but after becoming unmoored it began to publish articles that asserted: “Science and technology — which are developed and used by social labor — have established the knowledge and the means to lessen the burdens and dangers of work, to advance the quality of life, and to conserve and improve the earth’s patrimony.”  These abstractions have meant in the concrete supporting GMO: “The latest focus of middle-class hysteria in face of the progress of science and technology is the campaign against foods that have been cultivated from seeds that have undergone a transplant of a strand of genetic material, DNA, from a different plant species–so-called transgenic organisms, or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).”

A split from the SWP, the Spartacist League is just as gung-ho. In a diatribe against ecosocialist scholar and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, they position themselves as global warming skeptics: “Current climate change may or may not pose a sustained, long-term threat to human society.” Their answer is very much in the spirit of the Trotsky quote above: “Instead, the proletariat must expropriate capitalist industry and put it at the service of society as a whole.” It turns out that Indian Point et al would be put at the service of society based on an article titled “Greens’ Anti-Nuclear Hysteria Amnesties Capitalism”.

Of course, the granddaddy of this kind of crude productivism is the cult around Spiked Online that is correctly perceived today as a contrarian and libertarian outlet. But its roots are in the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain that defended GMO, nuclear power, DDT, etc. using Trotsky’s rhetoric. Today, there’s nothing to distinguish it from Donald Trump’s Department of Energy.

As it happens, Trotsky’s business about moving mountains through technology serves as the epigraph to Jacobin’s special issue on environmentalism that is permeated by ecomodernist themes. Among them is an article by Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski titled “Planning the Good Anthropocene” that shares an affection for nuclear energy with the nutty sects listed above. They reason: “From a system-wide perspective, nuclear power still represents the cheapest option thanks to its mammoth energy density. It also boasts the fewest deaths per terawatt-hour and a low carbon footprint.” Their techno-optimism rivals that of Steven Pinker’s: “We patched our deteriorating ozone layer; we returned wolf populations and the forests they inhabit to central Europe; we relegated the infamous London fog of Dickens, Holmes, and Hitchcock to fiction, though coal particulates still choke Beijing and Shanghai.” As it happens, China is reducing coal particulates by displacing them geographically. The IEEFA, an energy think-tank, reported that a quarter of coal plants in the planning stage or under construction outside China are backed by Chinese state-owned financial institutions and corporations.

Continue reading

May 14, 2019

Yomeddine; The Third Wife

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:35 pm

Under consideration are two films made by NYU film school graduates that are flawed but worth seeing. Opening at the IFC in NY and the Laemmle on May 31st, “Yomeddine” (Arabic for Judgement Day) is an Egyptian road movie made by Abu Shawky about the quest of Besha, a 40 year-old garbage dump recycler who lives in a leper colony, to find the father who abandoned him when he was 10 years old. Besha is played by Rady Gamal, a severely disfigured, non-professional leprosy survivor. Opening tomorrow at the Film Forum in NY, “The Third Wife” was made by Ash Mayfair, who, despite her name, grew up in Vietnam. It is based on the story of the arranged marriage of both her grandmother and great-grandmother and specifically the great-grandmother’s experience in a polygamous marriage in 19th century Vietnam.

“Yomeddine” can rightly be accused of sentimentality and the cheap exploitation of victimhood but I was moved by the film much more than any narrative film I have seen this  year. The fact that it gambled on featuring an actor who is the diametrical opposite of the eye candy men and women who sit on the couch next to Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon tends to make up for obvious flaws. Maybe, the film works for me since I see Egypt today as a country flawed by plutocracy and repression. With a lead character willing to confront prejudice on every front, it evokes the stubbornness that allowed millions to stand up to Mubarak.

We first meet Besha scrounging through the garbage trying to find odds and ends that he can sell for a pittance. One of the items he keeps to himself, an old-fashioned Walkman-style portable cassette player that he brings to his wife who is dying from some unspecified illness in a local hospital.

Several days later, she is dead. A Christian like him, her burial is attended by Besha’s Muslim friends who love him like a brother despite his constant gruffness, an understandable defense mechanism for someone whose affliction has a mythical quality reminiscent of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Despite the fact that medicine has eradicated the disease, his scars frighten everybody who sees him, except for his friends and fellow sufferers.

A few days later, his mother-in-law shows up and asks him to accompany her to the gravesite. Since his wife was a mental patient who had never mentioned her family or perhaps much of anything about her past, Besha wonders how her mother was notified about her death. It turns out that the Egyptian bureaucracy excelled at record-keeping, perhaps a legacy of colonialism. This leads him to successfully track down his own records and find the location of the family that abandoned him.

With that information in hand, he loads up all his belongings and puts them in the cart he uses to lug stuff from the junkyard to sell. With his beloved donkey forging ahead, he sets off on an odyssey that is about as unlikely as David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” that depicts the true story of Alvin Straight’s 1994 journey across Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawn mower. Like other road movies such as “Tom Sawyer”, “On the Road” or “Easy Rider”, Besha has a companion—someone just as much of an outcast as him. Known by his nickname Obama, he is a 10-year old Nubian orphan who is as much of a diametrical opposite of his namesake as Besha is of the Hollywood actors who go out on tours to promote some crappy film. Played by Ahmed Abdelhafiz, also a non-professional, he steals many scenes, including one when he does an inspired dance to a pop tune played on Besha’s salvaged Walkman.

On route to Besha’s home town, they run into both hostility and solidarity—just like in “Easy Rider”. The film is an affectionate look at Egypt’s underbelly and includes a cast of non-professionals just like the two co-stars, including a man with amputated legs who chases Besha away from begging on the street corner he claims as his own. The actor, like Rady Gamal, is an actual disabled person and an amazing talent. Good for Abu Shawky for having the courage of his convictions to make such a film.

If you liked “Roma”, there’s a good shot that you’ll also like “The Third Wife” since the film’s aesthetic and story are similar. Like the housekeeper in “Roma”, the 14-year old child-bride is utterly dependent on a wealthy family that takes her for granted. As May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) is the third wife of a wealthy farmer (thus the film’s title), she is barely beyond childhood and even becomes more like a daughter to the first wife rather than a rival. Throughout the film, she has very little dialogue just like the housekeeper in “Roma”.

In fact, there is very little dialogue at all in the film that seeks to extract drama from the physical interactions between characters that is mostly sexual in nature but curiously lacking in ardor. On their wedding night, the wealthy farmer sucks a raw egg off of May’s navel before he deflowers her. The scene has a ritualistic character but does not convey the sexual aggression that is left implicit. Indeed, despite the brutal patriarchy that permeates the social relationships on the farm, there is a languid and emotionally constrained quality to the drama that belies the director’s clear hatred for what women had to endure in Vietnam.

Ash Mayfair is very much a visually-oriented director just like Alfonso Cuarón. So there are many lovely shots of caterpillars, rivers, flowers, and other natural objects. Indeed, for the first 10 minutes or so of the film there was not a word of spoken dialogue. I almost thought that I had ended up watching a silent film. Perhaps it could have worked as one since the actions carried out by the characters speak for themselves. Ash Mayfair more or less conveys this approach in the film notes:

In terms of aesthetics, the visual choices of The Third Wife are largely informed by the landscape and cultural traditions of northern Vietnam, the birth place of my great- grandparents. Nature is a dominant symbolic force closely tied to spirituality and religion. People’s lives and habits were informed by the movement of the sun and the seasons. It was therefore important to portray this using as much natural light as possible. Our Director of Photography went through a lot of experiments using live fire for lighting during night time scenes because I did not want any artificial feeling to permeate the frame. Consequently, The Third Wife has a painterly approach to cinematography . The stillness of most of the composition comes from the desire to make every frame as close as possible to a watercolor painting.

Not exactly the aesthetics that register with me but if this sounds like it would with you, the film is definitely worth seeing.

May 13, 2019

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm

An excerpt from the introduction:

In this book, we show how the modern world has been made through seven cheap things: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. Every word in that sentence is difficult. Cheap is the opposite of a bargain—cheapening is a set of strategies to control a wider web of life. “Things” become things through armies and clerics and accountants and print. Most centrally, humans and nature don’t exist as giant seventeenth-century billiard balls crashing into each other. The pulse of life making is messy, contentious, and mutually sustaining. This book intro-duces a way to think about the complex relationships between humans and the web of life that helps make sense of the world we’re in and suggests what it might become.

As a teaser, let’s return to those chicken bones in the geological record, a capitalist trace of the relation between humans and the world’s most common bird, Gallus gallus domesticus. The chickens we eat today are very different from those consumed a century ago. Today’s birds are the result of intensive post—World War II efforts drawing on genetic material sourced freely from Asian jungles, which humans decided to recombine to produce the most profitable fowl. That bird can barely walk, reaches maturity in weeks, has an oversize breast, and is reared and slaughtered in geologically significant quantities (more than sixty billion birds a year). Think of this relationship as a sign of Cheap Nature. Already the most popular meat in the United States, chicken is projected to be the planet’s most popular flesh for human consumption by 2020. That will require a great deal of labor. Poultry workers are paid very little: in the United States, two cents for every dollar spent on a fast-food chicken goes to workers, and some chicken operators use prison labor, paid twenty-five cents per hour. Think of this as Cheap Work. In the US poultry industry, 86 percent of workers who cut wings are in pain because of the repetitive hacking and twisting on the line. Some employers mock their workers for reporting injury, and the denial of injury claims is common. The result for workers is a 15 percent decline in income for the ten years after injury. While recovering, workers will depend on their families and support networks, a factor outside the circuits of production but central to their continued participation in the workforce. Think of this as Cheap Care. The food produced by this industry ends up keeping bellies full and discontent down through low prices at the checkout and drive-through. That’s a strategy of Cheap Food. Chickens themselves are relatively minor contributors to climate change—they’ve only one stomach each and don’t burp out methane like cows do—but they’re bred in large lots that use a great deal of fuel to keep warm. This is the biggest contributor to the US poultry industry’s carbon footprint!’ You can’t have low-cost chicken without abundant propane: Cheap Energy. There is some risk in the commercial sale of these processed birds, but through franchising and subsidies, everything from easy financial and physical access to the land on which the soy feed for chickens is grown—mainly in China, Brazil, and the United States—to small business loans, that risk is mitigated through public expense for private profit. This is one aspect of Cheap Money. Finally, persistent and frequent acts of chauvinism against categories of animal and human life—such as women, the colonized, the poor, people of color, and immigrants—have made each of these six cheap things possible. Fixing this ecology in place requires a final element—the rule of Cheap Lives. Yet at every step of this process, humans resist—from the Indigenous Peoples whose flocks provide the source of genetic material for breeding through poultry and care workers demanding recognition and relief to those fighting against climate change and Wall Street. The social struggles over nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives that attend the Capitalocene’s poultry bones amount to a case for why the most iconic symbol of the modern era isn’t the automobile or the smartphone but the Chicken McNugget.

All this is forgotten in the act of dipping the chicken-and-soy product into a plastic pot of barbeque sauce. Yet the fossilized trace of a trillion birds will outlast—and mark the passage of—the humans who made them. That’s why we present the story of humans, nature, and the system that changed the planet as a short history of the modern world: as an antidote to forgetting. This short book isn’t, however, a history of the whole world. It’s the .history of processes that can explain why the world looks the way it does today. The story of these seven cheap things illustrates how capitalism expanded to yield maps like the one below, showing how small a portion of the earth has lain outside the scope of European colonial power. We’ll explain precisely what we mean by cheap below. First we need to make the case that it’s not just some natural human behavior but rather a specific interaction between humans and the biological and physical world that has brought us to this point.

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and defending the Cuban, Algerian and Vietnamese Revolutions Against Imperialism

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 1:40 pm

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and defending the Cuban, Algerian and Vietnamese Revolutions Against Imperialism

 by Ernest Tate, May 6th-8th, 2019

(Remarks prepared for the Havana Conference, May 6th-8th, on the occasion of the centennial of the founding of the Third International, on the topic of “Leon Trotsky and Trotskyism”.)

Any discussion that has Trotsky’s ideas as a subject, and which at the same time commemorates the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Third International, must of necessity, I believe, deal with his Theory of Permanent Revolution, what is now regarded by many scholars as his extraordinary and unique contribution to Marxist political economy, one of the most important since Marx.  I wish to discuss here how he arrived at this concept, the political and economic context in Russia at the time he was working it out in 1905 (1) and how it was fundamentally based upon his insights into what role the peasantry would play in a revolutionary upheaval against Czarism. This will not be a fully comprehensive treatment of Trotsky’s, but I think it provides an insight into how the colonial revolution has unfolded since 1917 and how in the future the countries of the colonial world will realize their self-determination and throw of the yoke of imperialism.  These ideas provided much of the theoretical framework for Trotsky’s thinking when he was struggling to found the Fourth International and when he wrote its programme for its first congress in 1938. (2) It is a concept that has distinguished Trotskyism from all other left political tendencies and it helps us understand why most Trotskyist groups – especially in the advanced capitalist countries – have been at the forefront of organizing solidarity with the counties of the third world in their struggle for self-determination and resistance to imperialism.

As is now well known, early Marxists, from the time of Marx and Engels, adhered to the idea that socialism would first develop in the advanced capitalist countries where feudalism had been overthrown by bourgeois revolutions that required struggles often lasting hundreds of years, and where now as a result, a dominant proportion of their economies were comprised of manufacturing and heavy industry with a large working-class of sufficient size and political maturity, it now could contest the capitalist ruling-class and overthrow it to seize state power.  As Trotsky observed, “industrialization is the driving force of the whole of modern culture, and by this token, is the only conceivable basis for socialism.”(3)

Marx’s conclusion, as he stated in his Communist Manifesto, was that the workers make up a universal class, integral to capitalist development, and that its historic destiny was to liberate itself, and thus all of mankind, from oppression and in the process emancipate all of humanity to build a new society that would be based on satisfying human need, rather than human greed, through revolution and the seizure of state power under a programme of expanded democratic rights, which would allow a new kind of state, a workers’ state to come into existence, to overcome scarcity and hunger and the immediate implementation of the eight-hour day. It would be a European revolution, an uninterrupted single process, it was believed, a common illusion on the part of many socialists at that time. In its broad outline, Trotsky’s theory begins with Marx and Engels’ fundamental premise, with which all wings of Russian Social Democracy in the early twentieth century were in agreement: that the working class, although a minority in feudal Russia, was part of a universal class with a specific historic role, that of its own liberation and the building of a new socialist order.

From 1904 and after, the Russian Social Democratic Party had been divided into two main ideological tendencies on the question of the character of the coming revolution.  The Mensheviks believed it would be bourgeois and that this class would overthrow the feudal aristocracy that would create the conditions for a parliamentary democracy that would allow for the emergence and growth of a mature capitalist economy, similar to what existed in the advanced capitalist countries. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, while recognizing the bourgeois character of a future revolution, advocated that the central task of such a revolution would be the setting up of democratic republic by means of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. Trotsky, who as a young man, first entered politics as a member of the Narodniki, a semi-anarchist organization which had attempted to represent the interests of the peasantry against the Czar, had been associated with the Menshevik faction, but in reality, organizationally stood between these groupings, looking for ways to get them to cooperate with each other in common endeavours.

Where Trotsky’s thinking departed from that of both these tendencies, was in in his conclusion that Russian feudalism in reality was already ripe for socialist revolution, precisely because of its late development and inherent weaknesses, exacerbated by the penetration of the economy by foreign capital.  Capitalism in Russia, he believed, unlike that of the developed capitalist countries, would no longer able to fulfill its historic mission of introducing democratic reforms such as constitutional changes, the right to vote and a constituent assembly, the raising of wages, the introduction of the eight-hour day and a higher standard of living.  Once begun, he believed the Russian revolution would be an organic historic process of necessity and would have to move forward under the leadership of the working class, and not stop half way. In that sense, it would be uninterrupted, and if that was likely to happen in Russia because it was so backward, Trotsky concluded, the same would be true for all third world countries because their economies had developed under the similar heavy influence of western imperialism, what we call today, the American empire.

Trotsky first postulated how this would come about in his major writing from that time, “Results and Prospects, the Moving Forces of the Revolution”, when he was only twenty-six years of age.  In it, according to his biographer, Isaac Deutscher, he gave “an almost mathematically succinct formulation of his theory.”(4), written in his prison cell during his incarceration after the Tsar’s crushing of the Council of Workers’ Deputies in 1905, otherwise known as the Petrograd Soviet, (5) and for which he had become its main spokes-man and leading spirit  He was President of its Executive Council.  The 1905 Soviet would later be seen to have been dress-rehearsal for mighty victory in 1917.

Taking advantage of his time in jail to fully concentrate on the matter, Trotsky devoted his time to reading and writing and thinking through his ideas about Russian history and its unique features, a prodigious effort to deepen his understanding of what would be the role of medieval Russia’s various classes in any future upheaval, a discussion  he had been involved in with other Marxists long before he had ended up in a Czarist prison. Quoting Marx, and adding a touch of sarcasm, he reminded them that “Marxism is above all a method of analysis—not an analysis of texts but an analysis of social relations.” (6)

The role of the peasantry in a future Russian revolution had long been  debated among Russian Social Democrats (which unlike today, considered themselves to be revolutionary), with the Mensheviks advocating some kind of joint coalition of the working class and the peasantry to take control of the state, they said, but only in preparation for eventually relinquishing that power to the rising bourgeoise to allow capitalism to fully expand, therefore increasing the productive capacity of the economy.  Earlier that year, in the summer, in a foreword to one of Ferdinand Lasalle’s speeches, Trotsky had already dismissed that notion, with words specifically directed at that Menshevik outlook. “It is self-evident,” he wrote, “that the proletariat, as in its time the bourgeoisie, fulfils its mission supported by the peasantry and the urban petty bourgeoise.  The proletariat leads the countryside, draws it into the movement, gives it an interest in the success of its plans.  The proletariat, however, unavoidably remains the leader.  This is not ‘the dictatorship of the peasantry and proletariat’ but the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry,” he wrote. (His emphasis) (7)

In prison, he took the time to examine the Czarist empire’s history and its singular system of social relations, writing that Russia, a vast land stretching from Europe to the China, with extremely severe winters that covered much of its territory, had entered the twentieth century with a middle class strikingly feeble. Capitalism had “intruded from the West with the direct co-operation of absolutism”, he wrote.(8) With a small urban population, only 13% of the total and modern towns that were the centres of commercial and industrial life, but with older towns hardly playing any economic role in the society, being mainly military and administrative centres for the state’s services, such as tax collecting.

Compared to England and France in previous centuries, Trotsky noted, where prior to their bourgeois revolutions, large parts of their populations had been engaged in urban crafts that had helped provide social support for a rising bourgeoisie in its battles with serfdom, in Czarist Russia, only a relatively small part of the population was involved in such activities and capitalism there had “appeared as a child of the state”.  Its few factories, had mainly been fostered by foreign investment but were more concentrated and much larger than those in Western Europe, and, moreover, were owned by largely impersonal shareholding companies. Because of that — and especially when the feebleness of the Russian bourgeois was taken into consideration — he saw the need for an alliance between the Russian proletariat and the peasantry, that would lead to the establishment of “a dictatorship of the proletariat that would rely on the peasantry” but which could come to power earlier than in countries where capitalism had already been established.(9)

For fifty years, Trotsky wrote, Russia had been a laboratory for the creation of every kind of peasant party, but all of them had gone nowhere. In this he differed sharply with the Mensheviks and to a lesser extent with Lenin, who in his slogans, had left that question open.  Trotsky conceded that in every-day normal life, a peasant party could possibly have some kind of existence, but such a political formation, because of the Russian peasantry’s many links to its feudal masters, and the sharp social division in the countryside between rich and poor peasants, would always, when confronted with the chaos of a revolutionary crisis, cast its lot in with ruling feudal regime, against the working class, making the idea of “a proletarian and peasant dictatorship”, unrealizable. In those circumstance, he wrote, the petit-bourgeois peasant parties would become tools of the bourgeoise against the working class.  Historical experience shows, he wrote, that the Russian peasantry as a class, because of its amorphousness and scattered location throughout the country, is incapable of playing an independent political role in the struggle for power at the level of the state. (10)

Written during the short life of the Petrograd Soviet, where he had remained aloof from the Bolshevik faction, Trotsky had begun to draw close to them in the sharp debates with the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, to the extent that the Bolshevik Central Committee reciprocated by throwing its support behind him.  And after the crushing of the Soviet, while he was awaiting trial in the Peter-Paul fortress, Deutsher reports that according to a fellow inmate, who was a friend of Trotsky in the prison, his “words were full of warm sympathy for the Bolsheviks, to whom he was spiritually akin, and hardly suppressed antipathy for the Mensheviks, with whom he was associated.” (11)  But on the question of the role of the peasantry and whether it could ever form a political party that was capable of taking take power in a future upheaval, there remained important differences. Lenin argued for a position that called for a “dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” and saw the future revolution in Russia as being bourgeois democratic in character, a view that Trotsky did not share.

Nevertheless, Deutscher tells us, Lenin continued in his efforts to win Trotsky over to the Bolsheviks and two years later, 1907, at a special Russian Social Democratic conference in London, England, organized in that city to avoid the Czarist repression in Russia, “Lenin twice emphatically acknowledged that in advocating an alliance of workers and peasants, Trotsky was on common ground with the Bolsheviks.” (12) But by the end of the conference, which lasted three weeks, that rapprochement came to an end because of bickering over other issues and it was life itself that would decide the issue, with the victory in1917, generally confirming the correctness of the position Trotsky had long advocated.

But after the death of Lenin in 1924 and with the increasing domination of the conservative bureaucracy over the new workers’ state, the issue of the Theory of Permanent Revolution became front and centre in Stalin’s drive to undermine support for Trotsky’s ideas.  Using his control of the state’s apparatus to target his political enemy, Stalin, launched an extensive propaganda campaign against the Theory of Permanent Revolution, which, according to the Stalinists, was the original sin of Trotskyism, counterposing to it a system of ideas that expressed the needs of a conservative Soviet bureaucracy, formalized in concept of socialism in one country, ideas that Trotsky vigorously denounced.  “To aim to build a nationally isolated socialist society,” he argued, “means, in spite of all passing success, to pull the productive forces backward even as compared with capitalism.” (13)  As we all now know, that campaign would reach a peak in 1936-38 with the slaughter and imprisonment of all Trotskyists in the USSR and culminated with Trotsky’s targeted murder in Mexico in 1940 at the hands of a Stalin’s assassin.

It is clear that in the run-up to the 1917 October Revolution, Trotsky had seen the future better than any of his contemporaries, and as a consequence in the immediate years following that colossal historic event, the issue of what role the peasantry would play in pre-capitalist economy was no longer debated much.  One result of his analysis, was to heighten the understanding among Marxists for the need for international solidarity by the working class of the advanced capitalist countries with the struggles for liberation of the countries of the colonial and semi-colonial world.

Marxists since Marx, had always understood the pressing need for solidarity with the oppressed of the world, a conviction that the workers of the various countries have more in common with each other than their immediate bosses and that workers’ organizations, especially revolutionary ones, should devote some of their resources to building international revolutionary organizations to carry out that task. And as the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, had declared, “In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another is put to an end, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put to an end.  In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.” (14)  In 1864, Marx and Fredrick Engels took the lead in founding the International Working Men’s Association, the First International.  It had a short life that lasted until 1876.  Because of its support for the Paris Commune of 1871, it became the object for the hate of the of the ruling classes, contributing to its isolation.  In addition, because of internal sectarian divisions and the destructive influence of the anarchists around Mikhail Bakunin, who had set up a secret organization within it to try and capture power, effectively it was dissolved.  Bakunin was expelled and the First International came to an end when, under Marx’s guidance, its General Council was moved to New York. (15)

The Second International was much larger than the First and this time based upon the mass working class parties, mainly in the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe. It was founded in 1889 during the Centenary Celebrations for the French Revolution, but it ended in a terrible disaster, however, for the European working class when with the rise of social patriotism and jingoism that accompanied the outbreak of the 1914 First World War, its constituent parties, abandoning their principles and any pretence of internationalism, threw their support behind their respective ruling classes, going as far as voting in their legislatures for war credits in pursuit of the war.

This betrayal was opposed by the left-wing of the Second International and it organized itself to fight it.  Meeting in secret in Zimmerwald, a small village outside Berne in Switzerland on September 5th, 1915, with Lenin and Trotsky among them, forty-two delegates, representing eleven countries, proclaimed the need for a new International, with Lenin urging the working classes of the belligerent and neutral nations to “turn the imperialist war into civil war.”  Trotsky, who was elected to the new grouping’s International Committee, wrote its statement of principles, and the now well-known, Zimmerwald Manifesto. (16))  By the first week of March, 1919, barely eighteen months since the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, Lenin organized a meeting of approximately twenty delegates from a few comparatively weak socialist organizations, to proclaim the founding of the Third International –or to make preliminary arrangements for it — in effect constituting itself as the new Communist International, or Comintern as it came to be known. Trotsky, who at the time was commanding the Red Army in fighting the foreign armies of intervention, made a brief appearance, giving a short speech. He wrote its manifesto to introduce it to the world, calling for the freeing of the colonial nations.  “Colonial slaves of Africa and Asia!” the manifesto proclaimed, “the hour of proletarian dictatorship in Europe will strike for you at the hour of your own emancipation.”  The following year he wrote the manifesto for its second congress, including the twenty-one points establishing the criteria for membership, and was active in its work over the next three Congresses, until in Stalin’s hands, with Trotsky and the Left Opposition expelled, it became mainly an instrument in the foreign policy of the Soviet state. Despite this dreadful turn of events, Trotsky and the Left Opposition nevertheless, still saw themselves as a loyal opposition inside the Comintern, working for its reform, and characterizing its component parties, despite their many flaws and wrong policies, as still representing the militant vanguard of the working classes world wide. (17)

All that changed, however, with the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the victory of German fascism in 1933, an historic calamity for the German working class and humanity as a whole, Trotsky wrote, and a tragic consequence of the failure of the Communist Party to combat it due to the Comintern’s ultra-left policies.  Up until then the loyal oppositionist had been firm in resisting calls from within his own ranks for the creation of a new International. But by October of that year, giving up all hope of reforming the Comintern, he proclaimed the need for the founding of a new International that would continue with the revolutionary policies of the first four congresses  of the Comintern, policies that were deeply imbued with his Theory of Permanent Revolution, adopted when he and Lenin and the new revolutionary Soviet government had had a major influence upon it.

The Fourth International’s (F.I.) first congress took place in October, 1938.  Like the first four congresses of the Comintern, its programme also was written in the spirit of the Theory of Permanent Revolution.  Trotsky’s, “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Working Class”, otherwise known, especially in Trotskyist circles, as “The Transitional Programme”, states: “But not all countries of the world are imperialist countries.  On the contrary, the majority are victims of imperialism.  Some of the colonial or semi-colonial countries will undoubtedly attempt to cast off the yoke of slavery. Their war will not be imperialist, but liberating.  It will be the duty of the international proletariat to aid the oppressed countries in war against oppressors.”  (18) This helps us understand why the Fourth International during the course of its existence, would concentrate so much of its forces in defending the colonial revolution against imperialism, which reached a new intensity after the Second World War with the rise in those years of the colonies against the yoke of imperialism.

In the 1950s, for example it put considerable effort into supporting Algeria’s fight for freedom from France.  French colonialism, in a savage war to try and smash the independence struggle, declared its North African colony was “a department” of France, just like any other of the departments that make up that country, a position with which, it should be noted, the French Communist Party was in agreement.  But after a long war in which tens of thousands of Algerians were massacred at the hands of the French military, France conceded defeat to the National Liberation Front (N.L.F.) in 1962.  All Trotskyist groupings backed the N.L.F.  And some suffered repression because of it.  Two leading members of the International Secretariat, Michel Pablo and Sal Santen, for example, were given fifteen-month prison sentences in Holland for counterfeiting and running guns to the N.L.F.  Pablo later became advisor on the staff of the new government of Ahmed Ben Bella, a self-proclaimed Marxist and revolutionary.

Canadian Trotskyists were also active in that campaign.  For example, two leading Canadian Trotskyists, Ross Dowson and Art Young travelled to Algeria on a fact-finding-mission and to attend an international solidarity conference in support of the new socialist regime.  When they returned to Canada, they toured the country and spoke to several well-attended Algeria solidarity meetings on university campuses to provide information about what was going on in Algeria and the need for the Canadian labour movement to actively support the Ben Bella government.  But by June 1965, this all came to an end when the Algerian military, under the leadership of General Houari Boumediene, staged a coup d’etat against Ben Bella, shifting the country sharply to the right.  The coup also confronted the Cuban government with a crisis because when Ben Bella had issued his appealed for international support, the government of revolutionary Cuba had been one of the first to respond, sending material aid and military equipment and mobilizing many of its citizens to travel to that poor North African nation to provide assistance in the fields of health-care and agriculture.  Cuba was forced to immediately divert its passenger planes to Algeria to bring its people home, at a time when American imperialism was increasing its efforts to over-throw Fidel Castro and putting enormous pressure on the Cuban economy to realize that aim.

However, it was the Cuban Revolution that had the greatest impact on North American Trotskyists in the early sixties and it provides an admirable example of how the F.I. was front and centre in mobilizing support for it.  In the United States, the lead in this campaign was taken up by the Socialist Workers Party (S.W.P.).  Two of its central leaders, Farrell Dobbs and Joe Hansen, had toured Cuba shortly after the victory  in 1959, in order to obtain a first-hand assessment of the progress the Cuban people were making under the new government.   That they were able to travel to Cuba at that time was a bit of a miracle because their passports had been taken away from them during the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunt period and had only been returned after a long legal battle. The trip to Cuba was one of the first on their new legal documents.  Dobbs, who had been the leader of the Minneapolis Teamsters’ Union in its militant strikes in the 1930s, was the Party’s Secretary; Hansen was its main political theorist and editor of its journal, International Socialist Review.  He was the Party’s main intermediary with the Fourth International’s centre in Brussels. (Because of U.S. law, the S.W.P. was officially barred from membership in the F.I.)  During Trotsky’s exile in Coyoacan, Mexico, Hansen had been assigned by the SWP to live there and assist him in his work.  Part of a ten-member team, he was there when Trotsky was assassinated in 1940.

After the two S.W.P. leaders returned from Cuba and reported what they had experienced, the party immediately began preparing the membership for a campaign with the objective of making defending Cuba against the American empire its central political priority. To that end both Dobbs and Hansen toured the U.S. and Canada to report to Party branches and activists on the changes they had witnessed directly and up close. Happily, his came at a time when support among the American people for Cuba was growing.  A full-page advertisement soon appeared in the New York Times, signed by many prominent writers, intellectuals and personalities, defending Cuba’s right to self-determination and demanding that the American government cease interfering in Cuban affairs  After the ad’s appearance, a new defense organization in support of Cuba’s right to self-determination, came into existence, the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (F.P.C.C.), organized by some of those whose names had been featured in the advertisement.

One of the Committee’s main functions was to try and cut across the malevolent distortions about Cuba that were regularly appearing in a hostile U.S. media, and tell the truth to the American people about what was going on there.  Members of the American Communist Party and the S.W.P., historically opposed to each other, were the main organized radical forces within it. Soon it was sponsoring tours of Cuba, sometimes lasting several weeks, made up of writers, prominent intellectuals and artists, to witness the gains of the Revolution so that the participants could report to the public the truth of what they had seen.  It organized many public meetings and picket-lines in support of Cuba – several thousand outside the United Nations, for example and at a time when Cuban leaders such as Fidel and Che Guevara were there.  It also published many pamphlets and brochures to provide information to the American public about the progress Cuba was making in such areas and health and education.  These circulated widely, an attempt to tell the American people the truth about the Revolution’s many successes.

The American F.P.C.C., it has to be mentioned, while doing very good work, unfortunately had a very short life.  Targeted by American security forces for repression, the U.S. State Department summoned its representatives to appear before a special Senate committee for questioning and formally classifying the F.P.C.C. as “representing a foreign government”, along with the threat of forcing it to hand over its membership lists to the government. To avoid this fate and protect its members from the spying eyes of the F.B.I., the F.P.C.C. swiftly dissolved itself, a severe blow to the growing solidarity movement.

But it was a different story in Canada.  The Trotskyists there, especially after the visit of Dobbs and Hansen to Cuba, were keen to go there. Verne Olson, a long-time Canadian revolutionary socialist and leader of the Socialist Educational League (S.E.L.), the F.I.’s official section in Canada, had the good fortune of being included on an early American F.P.C.C. sponsored tour.  On his return, he addressed many large meetings across Canada, some with several hundred in attendance.  As luck would have it, in Canada, there was a lot more popular sympathy for Cuba than in the United States. Many Canadians, resenting their southern neighbour’s interference in their own affairs, were against the bullying of Cuba, a sentiment that continues to this day, with almost a million Canadian visiting Cuba each year. That was when the Canadian equivalent of the F.P.C.C. was organized.  It had a much longer life than American Committee, and in one of the most successful campaigns of its kind in the English speaking world, its members and supporters were active in trade unions and the New Democratic Party (N.D.P.), (Canada’s version of a Labour Party) to resist the efforts of the American government in pressuring the Conservative government of John Diefenbaker, to restrict trade and tourism with Cuba and to isolate it so that it would not be an inspiration to all colonial people. It turned out to have a very productive life that lasted ten years.

The organization and work of the F.P.C.C.– a broadly based organization, comprised of members representing different view points,  in a single-issue campaign to defend the national rights and self-determination of a small Third World country such as Cuba — was entirely in the spirit of Trotsky’s Theory of the Permanent Revolution and became the template later in the decades of the sixties and seventies for organizing support for third world peoples, especially in Asia in 1965, in their resistance to imperialism, the year the United States massively escalated its military presence in South Vietnam and launched a barbarous war on the North, with hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers thrown into the battle against Vietnam’s struggle for independence, accompanied by a savage bombing campaign that covered the entire country waged from the air, in which tens of thousands of Vietnamese were killed.  The defeat of the American forces in Vietnam became a major campaign objective for the Fourth International, as outlined in a major resolution, adopted at its 1965 Congress that concluded with a special discussion about how to organize against the war.

In the United States, as the war escalated, the S.W.P. sought to mobilize as many people as possible against the war, around the slogan of “Bring the Troops Home Now!” Making full use of the tactic of building single-issue coalitions that had been so effective in defending Cuba, it was able to play a critical role in leading a movement that grew steadily and massively as the war escalated with the U.S. sending hundreds of thousands of troops there, so well described by Fred Halstead, in his very important book about  those events, “Out Now! A Participants Account of the Movement in the U.S. against the Vietnam War”, (19)

The same was true in Britain.  Using similar tactics as those utilized by the North Americans, a grouping of Trotskyists of the Fourth International, the International Marxist Group (I.M.G.), took the lead in organizing the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (V.S.C.), which over the course of a relatively short period of time, working in a broad coalition, called the Ad Hoc Committee Against the War, organized a series of demonstrations outside the American Embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square, each becoming increasing violent and massive as the war progressed. One the largest in the history of Britain, a demonstration of well over a hundred thousand protestors, mobilized in central London, on October, 1968, directed against the Harold Wilson Labour Government to help persuade it to resist American pressure to become more active in support of the war, including the sending of British troops.  Such was the anti-war mood in Britain at the time, which the V.S.C. had helped foment, it would have been political suicide for Wilson to have acquiesced to the U.S. demands.

The V.S.C. was greatly helped in this work by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation (B.P.R.F.), it should be noted.  It played an important part in bringing the V.S.C. into existence.  Organized by the well-known British philosopher, Bertrand Russell and his secretary, Ralph Schoenman to cast a bright light on the crimes being committed by imperialism against the colonial people, the B.R.P.F. was a tireless opponent of American imperialism.   To this end, and as the American actions in Vietnam became increasing savage,  Russell, who over the years had won enormous respect in the Third World for his various well-publicized campaigns against the crimes of colonialism, issued an international appeal, directed at the consciousness of the world, appealing for the setting up of an international war-crimes tribunal made up of leading writers, thinkers and personalities to come together to examine the American actions in Vietnam.  What came to be known as the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal, attracted some of the worlds leading intellectuals and thinkers of that time, such as Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Laurent Schwarz, Isaac Deutscher and many others.  It was also publicly supported by Fidel Castro. (He threatened to organize a Cuban sponsored a public session of the Tribunal in New York).  Melba Hernandez, Fidel’s comrade-in-arms from the 26th of July Movement and the attack on the Moncada fortress, became a member  and an important influencer in its the work.

The Trotskyists of the I.M.G. in Britain, recognizing its significant propaganda value against the war, committed itself to doing all it could to make sure the Russell Tribunal would be a success and meet its objectives.  It provided the day-to-day staff to carry out its work, such as the organizing of press conferences and meetings, the publishing of its bulletins and brochures, all the work such a project required, including t making the arrangements for sending its many investigative teams to Vietnam – sometimes of long duration –to collect evidence of the cruel and catastrophic effects of the American military actions against the people there. The Tribunal’s conclusions, adopted in its sessions in Sweden and Denmark — after being officially banned from meeting in France and Britain — about the criminality of the American actions, circulated widely around the world and helped to convince many of the need to end that cruel war.

These three campaigns – the Algerian, the Cuban and the Vietnamese – which activists of the F.I. committed themselves to in the period of the sixties and seventies – and which I have outlined here — show that the idea of international solidarity was not an abstract idea for them.  It was a central part of its political programme. It led it to call for actions to which it assigned resources and members, setting a powerful example for others about what could be achieved if left wing forces would unite to resist imperialism.  For example, and more recently, the massive opposition in Britain against the invasion of Iraq in 2005, was organized and led by the Socialist Workers Party there, who regard themselves as Trotskyist but are not part of the Fourth International.  It seems, they remembered very well their history of fighting against the war in Vietnam and how that was carried out.  The same was true in Canada, where the International Socialists, who also consider themselves to be Trotskyists, organized some of the largest demonstrations ever seen in the country, against that war.  In this sense, Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution, ever since it was written in 1905 in Petrograd in a Czarist prison, has stood the test of time and maintains its validity, even today.  Hopefully, it will inspire a new generation of activists in  various countries, especially in North America, to build solidarity with Cuba as it now faces increasing disruption at the hands of the American empire

Notes:   

  1. It was the year when the Russian tsarist empire had entered a profound, social and political crisis. The previous year, in 1904, in a total surprise to the world powers at that time– and to the Russian autocracy — Japan had declared war on Russia, defeating it and destroying its navy in the Far East, a great humiliation for the absolutist regime, leading to a deep crisis of confidence in it. It was the beginning of a radicalization that had never been seen before. Early in 1905, protests swept the empire over shortages and high food prices.  Workers in the massive Putilov engineering works in Petrograd walked off the job and soon other factories were at a standstill.  That’s when the notorious Father Gapon, who in cooperation with the Czarist authorities, set up his Workers Assembly and led over 20,000 workers in a peaceful protest to deliver a petition to the Czar at the Winter Palace, only to be met by his Imperial troops who opened fire on the assembled crowd.  In Russian history, it became known as “Bloody Sunday”. Hundreds, if not thousands were slaughtered and in the outrage that swept the country following it – which included a mutiny on the battleship Potemkin – the Grand Duke Sergei, the Governor General of Moscow was assassinated.
  2. Section: “Aiding Non-Imperialist Countries” in “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Working Class”, by Leon Trotsky, otherwise known, especially in Trotskyist circles as, “The Transitional Programme”.
  3. P 21, “Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects” by Leon Trotsky, Pioneer Publishers, 254pp, 1965.
  4. P 150, “The Prophet Armed”, Volume 1, by Isaac Deutscher, Oxford University Press.
  5. The Petrograd Soviet came into existence in the midst of a general strike, in October, 1905, which had erupted when the city’s printers suddenly hit the streets demanding higher wages, shorter working hours and constitutional freedom. Rapidly spreading beyond the printing trades to other industries and then into the provinces, the strike grew into a massive general-strike which spread throughout Russia, shaking the Czarist regime to its foundations, taking the Russian Social Democratic Party (with its two factions, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks) and Social Revolutionaries, completely by surprise, most of whose leaderships had been in exile in Western Europe. It was the first appearance in feudal Russia of a Soviet and lasted only fifty days before being liquidated by the Tsarist state.
  6. P196, Trotsky, “Results and Prospects.”
  7. P202, Op. cit.
  8. P183, Op. cit.
  9. P65, Op. cit.
  10. P156, Deutscher, vol 1,
  11. P146, Op. cit.
  12. P178, Op. cit.
  13. p22, Op. cit.
  14. P 340, “Capital, The Communist Manifesto and other Writings, by Karl Marx,” edited by Max Eastman, Modern Library Books, New York, 1932.
  15. Chris Hagsberg, Socialist Review September, 2014.
  16. P226, Deutscher, Volume 1.
  17. P43, Deutscher, Volume 2.
  18. Trotsky, “Death Agony of Capitalism”.
  19. “Out Now! A Participants Account of the Movement in the U.S. against the Vietnam War” by Fred Halstead, Merit Publishers.

 

May 12, 2019

Why a factory farm and a car factory should not be confused

Filed under: Ecology,farming — louisproyect @ 7:52 pm

Do we want this under socialism?

Recently I commented briefly in two different blog posts about an article in the DSA magazine written by Matt Huber and titled “Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific” that was very close to the sort of thing that Leigh Phillips has written. In a nutshell, Phillips and Huber are “productivists” who tend to see the good in GMO, nuclear power, chemicals for agriculture, DDT, etc.

In a May 1st piece titled “Ecosocialist Debates”, I summed up Huber’s approach:

There’s not much else to say about Huber’s article except that it reads like Living Marxism circa 1985. He believes that nuclear power can be a part of the GND, just like Leigh Phillips who he quotes favorably: “Let’s take over the machine, not turn it off!”

Then, two days ago, I referred to him again along the same lines in a review of a film titled “The Serengeti Rules” hailing it as a strong statement in favor of biodiversity and the preservation of “keystone species”. Since his article came out against re-wilding, I saw it as inimical to the UN report that warned: “Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed. This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

For some reason, Huber replied to my posts on a FB group called Marxism, Science, the Anthropocene where I posted a brief response to him in my customarily frank and sarcastic manner. This the group administrator found “uncomradely”. Guilty as charged. I will be referring to Huber’s post, which can be found at the bottom of this article. Since I don’t find FB useful for debates, prefer to use the same no-holds barred style I have been using for the past 28 years on the Internet, and seek to involve readers who are not on FB in this debate, I will be responding here instead.

To start off, I had the impression that Huber was new to Marxism and an undergraduate. I was probably right on the first impression but far off on the second. Huber is an Associate Professor of Geography at Syracuse University who got his Ph.D. in 2009. This would likely make him about 45 years old or so. His specialties are “Political economy, historical geography, energy and capitalism, climate politics, resource governance and social theory”. Quite the universal scholar. The articles on his university website are divided into “Public Writing” and “Peer Reviewed Journal Articles and Book Chapters”. Among the first, there is one for the Verso blog titled Building a “Green New Deal”: Lessons From the Original New Deal that hints at his unfamiliarity with key issues in environmentalism. Gazing worshipfully at FDR as most DSA’ers do, he writes:

They built dams to deliver cheap electricity to entire regions. Amazingly, they even hired Woody Guthrie to sing songs about Columbia River doing work for the people (“‘Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea, But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”) Can we imagine Bob Dylan singing such a song about the carbon fee and dividend?

I wonder if this geography professor has been exposed to books written by the environmental historian Donald Worster whose “Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West” is a cautionary tale about mega-dams of the kind that the New Deal fostered. After referring to Woody Guthrie’s song that he found much more impressive than the dam itself, he debunked the New Deal mystique that so many DSA’ers swallow hook, line and sinker:

Dust-bowlers and tenement dwellers were, it must said, only a small fraction of the intended beneficiaries of the remade Columbia River, not important enough in themselves to justify the effort and expense, particularly in light of the parallel development going on to the east of the Rockies, which aimed at keeping many of them at home. No, the principal goal in the Northwest was something else, something not so very different from what it was in the southern latitudes, in California, Arizona, and Texas: to repeat from the Bureau’s own mouth, total use for greater wealth. According to that agency, “we have not yet produced enough . . . to sustain a desirable and reasonable standard of living, even if goods were equitably distributed; and . . . there is no limit to the human appetite for the products of industry.”

Let me now turn to Huber’s response. To start with, it appears that everything revolves around the ability of industrial farms to replace human labor with machinery:

I’m only making a much more narrow point that industrial agriculture has employed massive labor-saving technologies so that very few actual people/workers are needed to grow the food many of us consume. And, consequently, developing an agroecological system must take the question of labor very seriously – especially if one assumes it will take more labor to grow food than under the industrial system.

He does pay lip-service to the idea that industrial agriculture has “awful ecological effects” but it is not clear what accounts for them. I suppose that if I go through some of his JSTOR articles that touch on nitrogen fertilizer, I could get a better idea of whether or not he understands industrial farming deficits but perhaps it is sufficient to take him at his word that with chemicals doing the “work” of weeding, killing bugs, and fertilizing the soil, we are able to enjoy “abundance”. In fact, the words “abundant” or “abundance” appears no less than seventeen times in his article. In itself, this does not provide much of a handle to determine whether this is good or bad. For example, the USA produces abundant amounts of corn and soybeans but this is mostly used in junk food.

But more to the point, there is a fundamental inability in his article to distinguish between factories that produce cars and factory farms. In the industrial revolution, you had the replacement of human labor by machinery that made the mass production of clothing possible. But are there environmental consequences in producing a cotton shirt other than the greenhouse gases produced by coal-driven electricity to power the looms?

Economies of scale, division of labor and technology combined together to create consumer goods that became “abundant”. However, factory farms come at an environmental cost that dwarfs Ford’s factories beyond all measure. Let’s enumerate a few of them:

(1) Factory farms are based on monoculture. By growing wheat, cotton, corn, soybeans, exclusively, you are robbing the soil of the nutrients that come naturally when a farm has a mixture of crops. This is why chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides have become a plague in the Midwest. As Ben Watts observed in an article titled “The Dangers of Monoculture Farming”:

Chemicals leave traces on plants intended for consumption and are also regularly overused. Excessive use means that a large quantity of synthetic material is left in the soil after harvest. As the material is not organic it can cause great harm to the soil. Rather than being processed into organic matter by microorganisms, it will weave its way through soil polluting groundwater supplies. Pollution of groundwater will negatively alter neighboring ecosystems and even those at a great distance from the chemicals. Chemical substances will kill and deplete all manner of plants, and diversity of surrounding ecosystems.

(2) Factory farms producing chicken, pork and beef for the market are classic example of “economies of scale” but at what cost? You can certainly blame capitalism for how pig factory farms in South Carolina use lakes and rivers as a cesspool but if this came to an end under socialism, would we still want to eat meat that was far inferior to that produced on a traditional farm? The other question is probably not one that matters too much to “productivists” like Huber but as socialists do we abide the cruelty to hens, pigs and cattle that is by necessity associated with factory farms? That’s not going to be in any revolutionary program I would support.

(3) Factory farms are impossible to integrate with cities. As I pointed out in a brief reply to Huber on FB, the Communist Manifesto includes this in its goals: “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.” Marx called for this in order to overcome the “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism” in V. 3 of Capital. The 1981 edition is quite clear in helping us make the connection to the Communist Manifesto: “Large landed property … produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.” This is a reference to the rift between natural fertilizer and agriculture.

As for Huber’s paragraph baiting me about wanting to see 7 billion people perish as if I were Pol Pot’s grandson, I will simply quote my friend Kamran Nayeri’s response to Huber on FB:

Fred Murphy suggested in a note above for me to comment on Matt Huber’s criticism of Troy Vettese’s “half-earth proposal taken from E.O. Wilson as the proper solution for the biodiversity crisis.” First, both of Huber’s points are misguided. Had he read Wilson’s Half-Earth he would have known that Wilson devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 10: The Best Place in the Biosphere) of his book to name the regions of the planet that he proposed should be set aside for wildlife. What is notable about these regions of the planet is that they are very sparsely, if at all, populated by humans.

Wilson explicitly emphasizes that in these small pockets of humanity, almost all indigenous people are part of the ecosystem and should remain there. What he is calling for is to declare these regions as wildlife preserves not open to “development.” Huber can immediately see that of both his criticisms are not warranted. There is no need to displace anybody and declaring these regions out of reach for development would not change the current status quo for the rest of the planet. Huber also criticizes Vettese’s call for “austerity” and his seemingly proposed “compulsory” veganism. I raised these concerns with Vettese in email communications while congratulating him for his original essay. He admitted that the use of the term “austerity” was a mistake–he meant scaling down of present day conspicuous consumption. He also advocates veganism as necessary for maintaining biodiversity.

He does not mean vegaism must become a law punishable by the state! Now, having disposed of Hubert’s concerns, let me say a few words about the framing of his critique of Vettese and his essay. In my reading of the essay, which I suggest deserves a detailed response, I find it at fault in some fundamental ways. First, the reading of Marx and Engels is questionable. Reducing their methodology (historical materialism) to “socialism given what exists” is not convincing, given the richness of Marx’s own employment of the method say in his writing on the French revolution or in his Capital and associated texts.

To be sure, there are strands of M&E thought that support a reading like Hubert’s. But there is far more in them than what Hubert makes of their method and their vision of socialism. For example, on the question of “population” Marx did not hold that “the more the better” or that there can never be “too many people” from an ecological point of view. In fact, in Grundrisse, he argues population is conditioned by the mode of production. Thus, our 7+ billion world population is not just a “given” that should shape the ecosocialist future. I have argued a number of times that human population can and should be reduced dramatically in the process of transition to ecosocialism through democratic family planning led by empowered women. Or take the present day food system based on industrial farming.

It is entirely the result of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist world economy in which cheap food is essential for cheap labor force, hence higher profits. Another example, the idea of “free time” in Marx does not preclude creative work including growing our own food. To call it drudgery shows how work in Hubert’s view is equated with alienated labor. The problem in Marx is not working but doing alienated labor. I can go on. But to me Hubert’s essay represents an anthropocentric, productivist argument, with affinity to ecomodernism. In contrast we need an ecocentric socialism. Here is my own proposal to contrast with that of Hubert.

https://knayeri.blogspot.com/2018/10/the-civilization-crisis-and-how-to.html

Let me conclude with some observations on where this “productivism” comes from. To some extent, I have seen it among sects with a far too orthodox understanding of Trotsky’s writings, which is typified by his “If America Should Go Communist” that sounds like it might have inspired Huber:

Here is where the American soviets can produce real miracles. “Technocracy” can come true only under communism, when the dead hands of private property rights and private profits are lifted from your industrial system. The most daring proposals of the Hoover commission on standardization and rationalization will seem childish compared to the new possibilities let loose by American communism.

National industry will be organized along the line of the conveyor belt in your modern continuous-production automotive factories. Scientific planning can be lifted out of the individual factory and applied to your entire economic system. The results will be stupendous.

Costs of production will be cut to 20 percent, or less, of their present figure. This, in turn, would rapidly increase your farmers’ purchasing power.

To be sure, the American soviets would establish their own gigantic farm enterprises, as schools of voluntary collectivization. Your farmers could easily calculate whether it was to their individual advantage to remain as isolated links or to join the public chain.

Although I remain strongly influenced by Trotsky, when it comes to “the dialectics of nature”, I find Bukharin’s approach far more convincing:

“We are a part of everything that is beneath us, and around us. Our past is our present, our present is our future, and our future is seven generations past and present.”

–Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) teaching

“No system, including that of human society, can exist in empty space; it is surrounded by an ‘environment,’ on which all is conditions ultimately depend. If human society is not adapted to its environment, it is not meant for this world.”

–Nikolai Bukharin, “Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology”, 1925


Huber’s FB Post

Louis N. Proyect has posted two blog posts here that criticize my piece (linked here again) – and I wanted to try to clarify a couple things (I hope this is an OK venue to do so).

First, he twice draws from this quote from my piece “Today, virtually every ‘input’ into industrialized agriculture is one that saves labor. Tractors plow and plant and chemicals do the ‘work’ of weeding, killing bugs, and fertilizing the soil.” In his first post, he says this quote shows I don’t understand the “metabolic rift.” In the second he claims it reads like a Monsanto commercial. He seems to think I’m fully endorsing industrial agriculture. But, I am not saying industrial agriculture is 100% good or ecologically unproblematic (I understand its awful ecological effects). I’m only making a much more narrow point that industrial agriculture has employed massive labor-saving technologies so that very few actual people/workers are needed to grow the food many of us consume. And, consequently, developing an agroecological system must take the question of labor very seriously – especially if one assumes it will take more labor to grow food than under the industrial system. Who is going to do that work? Under what conditions?

Second, in his latest, Louis claims my article, “dismisses the importance of biodiversity.” Nowhere in my article do I do this. Like any ecologically aware person (this week only confirming what we already knew), I think the biodiversity crisis is severe. What I do is criticize Troy Vettese’s “half earth” proposal taken from E.O. Wilson as the proper solution for the biodiversity crisis. Can we be clear on what this proposal means? One first could legitimately ask how 7 plus billion could survive if literally half of the earth must be “set aside” for nonhumans. (if you think that’s fine, I would ask which of the 7 billion you think should be allowed to perish?) Moreover, since most biodiversity exists in the tropical zones, this would require a massive (and likely neocolonial) “wilderness” preservation regime in the Global South. Given the already documented violence toward peasants and indigenous peoples across the globe to enforce existing parks and wilderness territories, this would entail massive displacement and dispossession of rural peoples in already impoverished countries.

Any ecosocialist program should not be based on “setting aside” nature to save it, but has to deal with the root of the problem: how we produce the material basis of our existence (this is what historical materialism is about right?!?). And, how we use land in the production process. We are not going to save biodiversity by “setting it aside.” We need to actually develop productive systems that don’t destroy it in the first place.

 

May 10, 2019

The presentation Paul LeBlanc gave at the Trotsky conference in Havana

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 10:26 pm

THE DARKER THE NIGHT, THE BRIGHTER THE STAR: TROTSKY AND THE STRUGGLE AGAINST STALINISM

“The darker the night, the brighter the star,” the title of the final volume of Tony Cliff’s biography of Leon Trotsky, was taken from another book – The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars by Friedrich Schlotterbeck, a young working-class Communist in Germany when Adolf Hitler took power in 1933. His 1947 memoir on resistance to Nazi tyranny recounts the heroism and horrific destruction of comrades, friends, and family members who remained committed to socialist and communist ideals.

But Trotsky has told us: “No one, not excluding Hitler, has dealt socialism such deadly blows as Stalin. This is hardly astonishing since Hitler has attacked the working class organizations from without, while Stalin does it from within. Hitler assaults Marxism. Stalin not only assaults but prostitutes it. Not a single principle has remained unpolluted, not a single idea unsullied. The very names of socialism and communism have been cruelly compromised … Socialism signifies a pure and limpid social system which is accommodated to the self-government of the toilers. Stalin’s regime is based on a conspiracy of the rulers against the ruled. Socialism implies an uninterrupted growth of universal equality. Stalin has erected a system of revolting privileges. Socialism has as its goal the all-sided flowering of individual personality. When and where has man’s personality been so degraded as in the U.S.S.R.? Socialism would have no value apart from the unselfish, honest and humane relations between human beings. The Stalin regime has permeated social and personal relationships with lies, careerism and treachery.” So wrote Trotsky in 1937. And those animated by such beliefs in Soviet Russia were repressed no less ruthlessly than the German Communists had been.

The Left Oppositionists that Trotsky led persisted in their struggle after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, and they were rounded up and sent to Siberian prison camps. “When you can no longer serve the cause to which you have dedicated your life – you should give it your death.” These were the words of Adolf Joffe, one of Trotsky’s close comrades who had committed suicide as a protest against Stalinism in 1927. His young wife Maria was arrested in 1929. As the situation of the condemned Oppositionists worsened by degrees, she held out, and when it became the horrific “one long night” that she describes in her memoir, she was one of the few who somehow survived to tell what happened. She was sustained by the core belief: “It is possible to sacrifice your life, but the honor of a person, of a revolutionary – never.”

Pressures to give in were intense, when capitulation could mean freedom, while remaining in Opposition meant never-ending jail and exile. By 1934, Trotsky’s close comrade Christian Rakovsky himself was ready to capitulate, his views later recounted by Maria’s step-daughter, Nadezhda Joffe, in whom he confided and whom he won over: “His basic thoughts were that we had to return to the party in any way possible. He felt that there was undoubtedly a layer in the party which shared our views at heart, but had not decided to voice their agreement. And we could become a kind of common sense core and be able to accomplish something. Left in isolation, he said, they would strangle us like chickens.”

Some imprisoned male Oppositionists who rejected this logic made three toasts on New Year’s Day: “The first toast was to our courageous and long-suffering wives and women comrades, who were sharing our fate. We drank our second toast to the world proletarian revolution. Our third was to our people’s freedom and our own liberation from prison.”
Instead, they would soon be transferred to the deadly Siberian labor camps into which hundreds of thousands of victims of the 1935-39 purges were sent as Stalinist repression tightened throughout the country. Arrested while in Moscow in 1936, Secretary of the Palestinian Communist Party Joseph Berger later remembered the Left Oppositionists he met during his own ordeal: “While the great majority had ‘capitulated,’ there remained a hard core of uncompromising Trotskyists, most of them in prisons and camps. They and their families had all been rounded up in the preceding months and concentrated in three large camps — Kolyma, Vorkuta, and Norilsk…. The majority were experienced revolutionaries who had … joined the Opposition in the early twenties…. Purists, they feared contamination of their doctrine above all else in the world…. When I accused the Trotskyists of sectarianism, they said what mattered was ‘to keep the banner unsullied.’”

Another survivor’s account recalls “the Orthodox Trotskyists” of the Vorkuta labor camp who “were determined to remain faithful to their platform and their leaders. … Even though they were in prison, they continued to consider themselves Communists; as for Stalin and his supporters, ‘the apparatus men,’ they were characterized as renegades from communism.” Along with their supporters and sympathizers, they numbered in the thousands in this area. As word spread of Stalin’s show trials designed to frame and execute the Old Bolshevik leaders, and as conditions at the camp deteriorated, “the entire group of ‘Orthodox’ Trotskyists” came together. The eyewitness remembers the speech of Socrates Gevorkian: “It is now evident that the group of Stalinist adventurers have completed their counter-revolutionary coup d’etat in our country. All the progressive conquests of our revolution are in mortal danger. Not twilight shadows but those of the deep black night envelop our country. . . . No compromise is possible with the Stalinist traitors and hangmen of the revolution. But before destroying us, Stalin will try to humiliate us as much as he can. . . . We are left with only one means of struggle in this unequal battle: the hunger strike. . . .’ The great majority of prisoners, regardless of political orientation, followed this lead.”

Lasting from October 1936 to March 1937, the 132-day hunger strike was powerfully effective and forced the camp officials to give in to the strikers’ demands. But then, Maria Joffe was told by an Oppositionist who had survived, “everything suddenly came to an end.” In 1938 the Trotskyists of Vorkuta were marched out in batches – men, women, children over the age of twelve – into the surrounding arctic wasteland. “Their names were checked against a list and then, group by group, they were called out and machine-gunned,” writes Joseph Berger. “Some struggled, shouted slogans and fought the guards to the last.” According to a witness, as one group of about a hundred was led out of the camp to be shot, “the condemned sang the ‘Internationale’ joined by the voices of hundreds of prisoners remaining in camp.”

This expanded into what Maria Joffe calls “the complete destruction of the October and Civil War generation, ‘infected by Trotskyist heresy …’” The so-called “Trotskyist heresy” analyzed how a profoundly democratic workers and peasants revolution, inspired by the deepest socialist idealism, could turn into one of the worst tyrannies in human history. Trotsky’s analysis clearly emerges from the fundamental analysis of Karl Marx eighty years earlier. It is also inseparable from the basics of Trotsky’s own theory of permanent revolution.

[In the presentation I was going to give, I intended to discuss Trotsky’s analysis of the USSR, his theory of permanent revolution, and the program of the Left Opposition. But this has already been discussed in the presentation by Eric Toussaint and can be found in the longer version of this talk that I’ve already handed out to you. In the interest of saving time, given the extra time it is taking to translate, I will cut that out of these remarks. I want to conclude with a comment about the meaning of it all – the so-called “heresy” and the program for which these wonderful comrades struggled and gave their lives.]

The relevance of this for today brings us back to this talk’s title. When we look up at night, the blackness of the universe is vividly punctuated by the stars, whose glow has traveled light-years for us to see. Even though some of those stars no longer exist, we see them shining from where we are. And their wondrous illumination may help us find our way in the dark terrain of our own times.

The Serengeti Rules

Filed under: Ecology,extinction,Film — louisproyect @ 8:45 pm

It would be difficult to imagine a more timely film than “The Serengeti Rules”, which arrived at the Quad Cinema in NY today and opens at the Laemmle in L.A. next Friday. Last Monday the UN released a report that made front page news everywhere. The Guardian led with these paragraphs:

Human society is in jeopardy from the accelerating decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems, the world’s leading scientists have warned, as they announced the results of the most thorough planetary health check ever undertaken.

From coral reefs flickering out beneath the oceans to rainforests desiccating into savannahs, nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10m years, according to the UN global assessment report.

The biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82%, natural ecosystems have lost about half their area and a million species are at risk of extinction – all largely as a result of human actions, said the study, compiled over three years by more than 450 scientists and diplomats.

“The Serengeti Rules” is a profile of a group of scientists that could be described as the most renowned of those who helped create the momentum behind the UN Report. Now in their seventies by all appearance, they were focused on researching biodiversity and formulating methods that could be used to preserve it. They sought to prevent species extinctions that was a sine qua non for preventing the extinction of the biggest threat to biodiversity on the planet today—us. It is a deep irony that homo sapiens can either destroy the planet or save it, all a function of its ability to grasp the need for a socialist victory over the ruling class that threatens every living thing.

The ecosystems being impinged upon today have been with us for millions of years. In each instance, there are animals that the scientists in “The Serengeti Rules” describe as a keystone species. Remove any one of them and life all around them can die. Bob Paine, a U. of Washington ecologist, is widely credited as the discoverer of their role in ecosystems. In a 1966 paper, he presented evidence that when a starfish is removed from a tide-pool, it rapidly becomes a dead zone of the kind that the Great Barrier Reef is turning into. When a starfish disappears, the mussels that are part of the ecosystem soon devour all the kelp and thus make it impossible for other marine life to feed and to reproduce.

Following in his footsteps, other scientists identified keystone species that tend to be predators. In the past, scientists looked at the creatures at the top of the food-chain as being dependent on life beneath it. At the bottom level, there was vegetation. At the middle level, smaller animals such as deer ate the vegetation. The lions, tigers and cougars at the top then ate the deer, and so on. Paine and the other ecologists we hear from in the film conducted experiments revealing that it was the other way around. Remove the predator at the top and everything beneath it dies. Since the predator at the top is most susceptible to human interference, the threat to biodiversity must be reduced by reducing in turn the murderous footprint of farmers, ranchers, miners, and logging companies in places like the Amazon rainforest.

On another topical note, the NY Times reported 4 days ago that one of the most emblematic predators in the world is in danger of extinction:

The Sundarbans, 4,000 square miles of marshy land in Bangladesh and India, hosts the world’s largest mangrove forest and a rich ecosystem supporting several hundred animal species, including the endangered Bengal tiger.

But 70 percent of the land is just a few feet above sea level, and grave changes are in store for the region, Australian and Bangladeshi researchers reported in the journal Science of The Total Environment. Changes wrought by a warming planet will be “enough to decimate” the few hundred or so Bengal tigers remaining there.

Toward the end of the film, one of the profiled scientists described the explosive, uncontrolled and largely counter-productive growth of algae and other plants or animals resulting from a keystone species absence as a “cancer”. I have no idea whether he was influenced by Joel Kovel’s writings but when I heard him draw this analogy at the Brecht Forum 30 years ago or so, it was an epiphany. Capitalism produces tumors, in effect. Fracking, pesticides, industrial fishing trawlers, plastics in the ocean, pig waste in the rivers of the Carolinas, palm oil plantations in Indonesia, and greenhouse gases. All this stuff that is associated with late capitalism will end up killing us by killing the biodiversity we ultimately rely on.

The Winter 2019 edition of Socialist Forum, the magazine of the DSA, is a special issue on ecology. Among the articles is one titled “Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific” by Matt Huber, which dismisses the importance of biodiversity. Since it is the only one that is so obviously alien to Green thought, it might be regarded as an outlier. However, Jacobin saw fit to publish an article in their special issue on ecology by Leigh Phillips that has the same “productivist” abuse of Marxism. Invoking Frederick Engels as his inspiration, Huber writes:

Last year in the New Left Review, Troy Vettese argued for austerity (or what he called “egalitarian eco-austerity”): the program includes energy rationing, compulsory veganism and turning over half the planet to wild nature (a proposal he takes from reactionary sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson).

I would urge you to read Vettese’s article, which thankfully is not behind a paywall. It is in the spirit of “The Serengeti Rules” and must-reading in order to understand the crisis we face. Here is the reference to Wilson. Despite the fact that his sociobiology is toxic, Vettese’s use of his research seems incontrovertible:

The principal cause of extinction is habitat loss, as underlined by the recent work of E. O. Wilson. Though notorious in the Reagan era as the genetic-determinist author of Sociobiology, Wilson is first and foremost a naturalist and conservationist. He estimates that, with a decrease of habitat, the sustainable number of species in it drops by roughly the fourth root of the habitable area. If half the habitat is lost, approximately a tenth of species will disappear, but if 85 per cent is destroyed, then half the species would be extinguished. Humanity is closely tracking this equation’s deadly curve: half of all species are expected to disappear by 2100. The only way to prevent this is to leave enough land for other living beings to flourish, which has led Wilson to call for a utopian programme of creating a ‘half Earth’, where 50 per cent of the world would be left as nature’s domain. Even though much has been lost, he argues that thirty especially rich biomes, ranging from the Brazilian cerrado to the Polish-Belarussian Białowieża Forest, could provide the core of a biodiverse, interconnected mosaic extending over half the globe.footnote10 Yet, at present only 15 per cent of the world’s land-area has some measure of legal protection, while the fraction of protected areas in the oceans is even smaller—less than 4 per cent.

Finally, with respect to Frederick Engels, Huber describes him as a likely supporter of his understanding of farming that might have been picked up by watching Monsanto commercials:

Today, virtually every “input” into industrialized agriculture is one that saves labor. Tractors plow and plant and chemicals do the “work” of weeding, killing bugs, and fertilizing the soil.

One supposes that Huber has never read Engels’s “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” but those of us who have will understand the need for a film like “The Serengeti Rules”, the need to see it, and finally the need to become part of a movement to prevent the Sixth Extinction:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

Visit https://www.theserengetirules.com/ for resources on biodiversity.

 

Bernie and the Sandernistas

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 2:45 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 10, 2019

As I gird my loins for a renewed ideological struggle against Bernie Sanders’s bid to become the Democratic Party’s nominee to run against Donald Trump, I thought it advisable to get up to speed by reading Jeffrey St. Clair’s “Bernie & The Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution” that was published in 2016. Since Sanders will be running the same kind of campaign he ran in 2016, I hoped to find material that might change the minds of millennials about Democratic Party politics. Back in 1968, when I was a zealous young Trotskyite, I used to love selling the party’s “Truth Kits” about Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. I may have changed my mind about the usefulness of Trotskyism but there will always be a need for holding Democratic Party politicians up for scrutiny even when it is someone like Bernie Sanders, who helped the SWP get on the ballot in Vermont in 1980 when he was about to become a third-party Mayor of Burlington. God knows that I would be a strong supporter if he ran as an independent next year. I even wrote a speech that he could have used if he had done so in 2016.

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May 8, 2019

Thomas Cole, William Cullen Bryant, and the American Indian

Filed under: art,indigenous,literature — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

In the past couple of months, I have begun to work intensively on a film titled “Utopia in the Catskills” that is inspired by an article in the leftist PM newspaper from 1947 with the same title. It celebrated Woodridge, NY, my hometown that had a thriving co-op movement inspired by the Rochdale principles and a Communist Party cadre that was based in the poultry farms in the next village.

Originally, I had intended only to focus on the southern Catskills that was the home of Woodridge and the mostly Jewish resort industry. I decided to include some material on the northern Catskills in order to put Woodridge into context but soon figured out that the Utopia theme was just as appropriate to the northern Catskills, where the mountains can actually be found. By the time you get to Woodridge, the only mountains to be seen are those of the Shawangunk Ridge that is connected to a range in Pennsylvania.

The segment on the northern Catskills will deal with the mountain lions and their extinction since the question of species extinction looms so large today. It was the mountain lion that the Catskills are named for, after all. The word for cats in Dutch is Kaaters and for river is Kill. When Henry Hudson’s crew explored the mountains when the Half Moon was docked near Bard College, my alma mater, they saw mountain lions in profusion. By 1900, they had been hunted to extinction. It will also deal with the ethnic cleansing of the Lenape Indians who made the Catskills their home—the Mohicans and the Munsees.

I also decided to include something about the Hudson River School artists since I had fond memories of Olana, the castle at the top of the mountain overlooking the Rip Van Winkle Bridge that I visited in 1962 with a classmate. About 5 minutes after walking around, we were approached by a caretaker who asked us politely to leave since uninvited visitors upset Mrs. Church. This was Frederick Church’s daughter-in-law who still lived in Olana and was in her 90s by then.

Somewhere along the line, I discovered that Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, was a better match to the theme of Utopia since he was an early 19th century Romantic who believed that wilderness was the salvation of the world. Now that de-growth has become a major issue dividing the left, it made sense to see Cole in the same terms as re-wilding the Catskills, a project that would re-introduce the mountain lion.

In the course of researching Cole, I discovered that his best friend was William Cullen Bryant, a poet, journalist and a key figure in the Democratic Party that first came to power with the Andrew Jackson presidency between 1829-1837. Both Bryant and Cole were preoccupied by the major changes in American society under Jackson. They were ambivalent about the growing commercialization of the country that threatened the wilderness depicted in Cole’s paintings. To give you an idea of his work, compare his painting of Kaaterskill Falls with the drone video immediately beneath it.

Born in Lancashire, England, Cole developed a great animus toward the industrial revolution for what it was doing to traditional life and to nature. He read poetry in great depth and identified with Oliver Goldsmith whose “The Deserted Village” that contained the lines “But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride, When once destroyed, can never be supplied.” He also loved Wordsworth who had the same love of nature and hostility toward a “progress” that was turning England into a collection of “satanic mills”, to use William  Blake’s immortal words.

In his “Essay on American Scenery”, Cole expressed his unease with the direction the USA had taken:

It was my intention to attempt a description of several districts remarkable for their picturesqueness and truly American character; but I fear to trespass longer on your time and patience. Yet I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away–the ravages of the axe are daily increasing–the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation. The wayside is becoming shadeless, and another generation will behold spots, now rife with beauty, desecrated by what is called improvement; which, as yet, generally destroys Nature’s beauty without substituting that of Art. This is a regret rather than a complaint; such is the road society has to travel; it may lead to refinement in the end, but the traveller who sees the place of rest close at hand, dislikes the road that has so many unnecessary windings.

In the same essay, Cole celebrates “primitive” nature but shows a certain wariness about the primitive peoples who called it home:

A very few generations have passed away since this vast tract of the American continent, now the United States, rested in the shadow of primeval forests, whose gloom was peopled by savage beasts, and scarcely less savage men; or lay in those wide grassy plains called prairies.

At the time, there was widespread support for imposing “civilization” on the wilderness. As a leading Democrat, William Cullen Bryant gave his support for Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy that forced the Cherokees to embark on a “Trail of Tears”. Despite both Bryant and Cole’s adaptation to the colonizing system, they still admired the American Indian to a large extent because their Romantic aesthetic and ethical values made them partial to the “Noble Savage” mythology that can be found in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper who loved the Catskills as much as them.

Cole was an admirer of Cooper’s novels, so much so that he drew upon “Last of the Mohicans” for several of his paintings. Below is “Landscape Scene From the Last of the Mohicans; The Death of Cora”:

In keeping with the sense of inexorability of Indian decline that prevailed under Jackson’s exterminationist presidency, “Last of the Mohicans” ends with these words:

Chingachgook grasped the hand that, in the warmth of feeling, the scout had stretched across the fresh earth, and in an attitude of friendship these two sturdy and intrepid woodsmen bowed their heads together, while scalding tears fell to their feet, watering the grave of Uncas like drops of falling rain.

In the midst of the awful stillness with which such a burst of feeling, coming as it did, from the two most renowned warriors of that region, was received, Tamenund lifted his voice to disperse the multitude.

“It is enough,” he said. “Go, children of the Lenape, the anger of the Manitou is not done. Why should Tamenund stay? The pale faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the red men has not yet come again. My day has been too long. In the morning I saw the sons of Unamis happy and strong; and yet, before the night has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans.”

You get the same sense of the inevitability of Indian removal in William Cullen Bryant’s “The Prairies”, written in 1832:

The red man came—
The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce,
And the mound-builders vanished from the earth.
The solitude of centuries untold
Has settled where they dwelt.

A decade later, Bryant wrote “The Fountain” that seems to approve Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act even though it contains lines that are consistent with the “Noble Savage” stereotype found in Cooper as well as many other 19th century authors:

I look again–a hunter’s lodge is built,
With poles and boughs, beside thy crystal well,
While the meek autumn stains the woods with gold,
And sheds his golden sunshine. To the door
The red man slowly drags the enormous bear
Slain in the chestnut thicket, or flings down
The deer from his strong shoulders. Shaggy fells
Of wolf and cougar hang upon the walls,
And loud the black-eyed Indian maidens laugh,
That gather, from the rustling heaps of leaves,
The hickory’s white nuts, and the dark fruit
That falls from the gray butternut’s long boughs.

But this hunting and gathering society is soon leapfrogged by the more productive farmers that conquered the Catskills and the prairies:

So centuries passed by, and still the woods
Blossomed in spring, and reddened when the year
Grew chill, and glistened in the frozen rains
Of winter, till the white man swung the axe
Beside thee–signal of a mighty change.
Then all around was heard the crash of trees,
Trembling awhile and rushing to the ground,
The low of ox, and shouts of men who fired
The brushwood, or who tore the earth with ploughs.
The grain sprang thick and tall, and hid in green
The blackened hill-side; ranks of spiky maize
Rose like a host embattled; the buckwheat
Whitened broad acres, sweetening with its flowers
The August wind. White cottages were seen
With rose-trees at the windows; barns from which
Came loud and shrill the crowing of the cock;
Pastures where rolled and neighed the lordly horse,
And white flocks browsed and bleated. A rich turf
Of grasses brought from far o’ercrept thy bank,
Spotted with the white clover. Blue-eyed girls
Brought pails, and dipped them in thy crystal pool;
And children, ruddy-cheeked and flaxen-haired,
Gathered the glistening cowslip from thy edge.

However, this is not the final verdict of history. Growing alienated from the mammon-worshipping Jacksonian presidency that had cost the lives of countless Cherokees and encouraged the expansion of slavery that would convince Bryant to join Lincoln’s party, he ends “The Fountain” with a rueful note:

Is there no other change for thee, that lurks
Among the future ages? Will not man
Seek out strange arts to wither and deform
The pleasant landscape which thou makest green?
Or shall the veins that feed thy constant stream
Be choked in middle earth, and flow no more
For ever, that the water-plants along
Thy channel perish, and the bird in vain
Alight to drink? Haply shall these green hills
Sink, with the lapse of years, into the gulf
Of ocean waters, and thy source be lost
Amidst the bitter brine? Or shall they rise,
Upheaved in broken cliffs and airy peaks,
Haunts of the eagle and the snake, and thou
Gush midway from the bare and barren steep?

Will not man seek out strange arts to wither and deform the pleasant landscape which thou makest green? That’s a question his best friend answered in the affirmative when he painted “River in the Catskills” a year after “The Fountain” was written.

 

It is the first landscape that depicts a railroad train. If  you look carefully,  you will spot it just above the man in the red coat. While not exactly agitprop, the painting was a commentary on the threat to the Catskills posed by capitalist development, especially the tanning and lumber industries that were the counterpart of Bolsonaro’s declaration of an open season on the Amazon rainforest for ranchers and miners.

As editor of the New York Evening Post, the newspaper founded by Alexander Hamilton and now a propaganda outlet for Rupert Murdoch, Bryant defended the values that most of us associate with the American Revolution until we had a chance to read Howard Zinn. Growing increasingly disgusted with the direction the country had taken, Bryant wrote an essay in 1837 that warned against the annexation of Texas—and implicitly slavery:

The question how long an empire so widely extended as ours  can be kept together by means of our form of government is  yet to be decided. That this form of government is admirably  calculated for a large territory and a numerous population we  have no doubt, but there is a probable limit to this advantage.  Extended beyond a certain distance, and a certain number of  states it would become inconvenient and undesirable, and a  tendency would be felt to break up into smaller nations. If the  Union of these states is destined to be broken by such a  cause, the annexation of Texas to the Union would precipitate  the event, perhaps, by a whole century. It is better to carry out  the experiment with the territory we now possess.

We don’t know exactly what Thomas Cole thought of Bryant’s poem but it moved him sufficiently to make a sketch that would be part of a series of paintings based on “The Fountain”. I tend to agree with the blurb that the Metropolitan Museum attached to a page on the sketch:

The poem evokes several eras of American civilization through incidents that occur at a forest stream. In this scene, a wounded brave (modeled after the Hellenistic sculpture known as the “Dying Gaul,” which Cole had seen in Rome) symbolizes the plight of many American Indians in an era of forced relocation.

 

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