Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 15, 2019

HM/Jacobin Conference 2019: Socialism in our Time

Filed under: Historical Materialism,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

The Socialism in Our Time conference that met this weekend was co-sponsored by Jacobin and Historical Materialism. This is a not an attempt at presenting an impartial report but simply my own reaction to the presentations.

  1. What Happened to the Pink Tide (Saturday 10:30am-12pm)

The speakers were Rene Rojas and Kenneth Roberts, with Roberts serving as a “discussant” (an academic conference convention) on Rojas’s article that appeared in the Summer 2018 Catalyst titled “The Latin American Left’s Shifting Tides”, which is not behind a paywall. It is a very long and very good article that I recommend thoroughly. Rojas’s analysis was not surprising:

When world commodity prices plummeted, the result was an unavoidable tightening of services and goods for their urban poor backers. Leftists in power could only think of tapping and squeezing as much as possible from their countries’ existing production and commercial circuits rather than developing new, alternative, and more reliable means to provide for their constituents. A recent Chavista voter could not have put it better, declaring that the government “just needs to find a way to make an economic revolution, so we can eat once again!” In short, poor urban voters abandoned the Pink Tide for its inability to break through the limits set by the neoliberal economy. Whereas elites beat back the classical left for going too far, the Pink Tide governments are falling to the very sectors that voted them into office, who are punishing left regimes for not going far enough.

He draws a contrast between the Pink Tide and what he calls the “classical left”, which meant, for example, the trade union movements in Brazil and Argentina of the 40s and 50s that exploited their social weight to gain concessions from a modernizing bourgeoisie:

Ironically, the rise of Latin America’s classical left was fueled by elite modernization projects. For the first time since the Mexican Revolution, the region’s popular sectors effectively threatened ruling-class power. Its foundation was the organized industrial working classes that emerged with the post-Depression industrial development in the region’s most economically advanced countries, along with the rebellious “peasantry” that was thrust into militancy with capitalist transformation of agriculture. Aided and often coordinated by an ancillary layer of students and low-level professional revolutionists, these effective left movements were built on radicalizing segments in unions and insurgent proletarianized rural communities and associations.

By contrast, the Central American revolutions of the 1970s and 80s relied on peasant movements and the informal sector:

The main impact of these rural-based insurgencies was to deliver real democratic reform and permanently dismantle the repressive labor system on which their agrarian oligarchies relied. The Sandinistas led a generalized insurrection that toppled the Somozas in 1979. In neighboring El Salvador, the FMLN twice attempted to replicate the former’s strategy. They came close, first in 1981, then again with the final 1989 offensive, occupying vast sections of the capital, each time fighting the oligarchic military regime to a standstill. The Guatemalan guerrillas built a less potent military apparatus that was essentially contained by the early 1980s, yet, punching above their weight and withstanding the regime’s genocidal response, they also forced a stalemate. The Salvadoran insurgency best illustrates the Left’s achievements: the mass armed insurgency of proletarianized rural communities was so costly to the traditional agrarian oligarchy that it reshaped their fundamental interests. By making the extra-economic forms of labor exploitation unviable, it forced ruling classes to shift to other commercial and manufacturing sectors.

Jeffrey Webber wrote a critique of Rojas in NACLA that is worth reading.

During the discussion, I pointed out that Rojas’s article failed to mention the constraints on Central and Latin American leftist governments, either of the “classical left” or Pink Tide varieties. In my experience carrying out solidarity work for the FSLN, it became obvious that the relationship of forces were making it impossible to move forward. Once the USSR went capitalist, the ability of anti-capitalist states to survive was severely limited. I didn’t have time to make an additional point that has some bearing on this but will mention it now. It was impossible, even under the best of circumstances, for Nicaragua or Venezuela to build socialism for the same reason it was impossible in the USSR. Socialism is a world system, just like capitalism. If there was to be a movement toward socialism in Latin and Central America, it would have to be continent-wide, just as it was in the 19th century against Spanish colonialism. Unfortunately, despite the lip-service given to Simon Bolivar by Hugo Chavez, there was never much attempt to apply the lessons of his struggle. In the 1960s, the Cubans formed OLAS as a way to unite revolutionary forces in Latin America but on a mistaken guerrilla warfare basis. When that failed, Cuba more or less gave up on such projects. With the exhaustion of the Pink Tide, it will be up to Marxist currents to carry the struggle forward. One hopes that they can abandon sectarianism and achieve the kind of mass support that Hugo Chavez or other Pink Tide leaders enjoyed.

  1. Brexit: WTF? (Saturday, 1pm-2:30pm)

This was a talk by Richard Seymour that was up to his usual high standards. Fortunately, he posted it to his Patreon account that I urge you to look at, as well as signing up for a monthly donation to his work.

https://www.patreon.com/posts/brexit-wtf-26090049

  1. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in the Middle East (Saturday 3pm-4:30pm)

Yasser Munif spoke about the regime’s success in overtaking Aleppo that relied on a combination of aerial bombardment and being able to exploit ethnic and religious divisions.

After Munif, Anand Gopal spoke about class divisions that have largely gone unreported, even by people who are considered experts on Syria. Ultimately, it was class divisions rather than ethnic or religious divisions that undermined the possibility of a democratic revolution. He recounted his experiences in Manjib, a city of about 100,000 that was one of the first to expel the Assadist government officials early and to come under the control of a Revolutionary Council that encouraged the full flowering of democratic rights. However, the Council was dominated by the local bourgeoisie that despite suffering under Assad was determined to maintain private property rights at all costs. This meant that when local working-class residents demanded price controls on bread and their supply being maintained collectively rather than privately, the Council resisted. This led to young activists based in the local college organizing protests against the Council that had no effect until Islamists moved into Manjib and used force against it in the name of serving the people according to Islamic principles. Once the Islamists gained control of the city, they absorbed it into ISIS’s bogus caliphate and operated as a dictatorship, with no regard for the hunger that persisted under their rule. In his last visit to Manjib, Gopal learned that young activists, including some who joined ISIS, are thinking through the lessons of what happened and are now opened to socialist politics.

The final speaker was Frieda Afary, an Iranian-American member of the Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists, who spoke about the emerging grass-roots resistance of trade unionists and women to the Islamic Republic. Her articles can be found on their website.

  1. Is there a Democratic Road to Socialism? A Debate. (Sunday 10:30am-12pm)

This was between Eric Blanc and Charles Post and largely forgettable. Blanc defended his neo-Kautskyite perspective, with several references to the importance of the “electoral arena”. If this was only about backing candidates as well as mass action, there wouldn’t have been much need for a debate. Perhaps sensing the leftist sensibility of the audience, Blanc did not mentioned the Democratic Party once but did, of course, talk about the need to back Sanders. Post, who is a congenital windbag, spent his time talking about working class power, the inevitably of a revolutionary struggle for power and other abstractions. If you were expecting the kind of debate that Peter Camejo had with Michael Harrington, you would have been disappointed. Since Charles Post is a humorless pedant, the debate was pretty much of a dud. It would have been far more interesting if Tim Horras had debated Blanc but he is not part of the charmed HM/Jacobin circle. However, I do urge you to read his article taking up all these questions here.

  1. How America Became Capitalist: Imperial Expansion and the Conquest of the West (Sunday, 1:00pm-2:30pm)

This was a presentation by James Parisot on his new book as titled above. I picked the book up on Saturday during lunch and can’t recommend it highly enough. Based on his PhD, it argues that slavery, capitalism and imperialism were intertwined. Rather than recapitulate his presentation, it would be best if I provided a brief excerpt from this intelligent and well-written Pluto book:

When Thomas R. Gray wrote Nat Turner’s “confessions” after interviewing him, he included in the introduction of his book, “Nat Turner, the leader of this ferocious band, whose name has resounded throughout Our widely extended empire, was captured.” For Gray, Turner’s rebellion was a challenge to empire. And in the south, empire could be seen as stretching from the household to the polity. As the Marquis de Chastellux put it, more critically, “I mean to speak of slavery; not that it is any mark of distinction, or peculiar privilege to possess negroes, but because the Empire men exercise over them cherishes vanity and sloth.” Thus, for some, the “empire” of slavery was not something to celebrate, but to criticize. Compared to the more prosperous and economical north, southern slavery tarnished human potential, encouraging arrogant behavior and idleness through the exercise of personal slave empires.

Slavery was, of course, not only racialized, but gendered. American slavery was unique in that it developed into a self-reproducing system, so that, even with the formal abolition of the slave trade, slavery could continue to expand south and west. Often slave women worked in the fields, the same as men, although in some cases their gender was preferred for household tasks. And, as recorded in the story of Harriet Jacobs, female slaves were also regularly raped. The result of this, along with the fact that free blacks and whites did occasionally copulate on consensual terms, led to years of debate over who, exactly, was “black.” Milton Clarke’s narrative, for example, reveals he was called a “white nigger.” And one record of racial categories in New Orleans shows a complexity of racial categories:

Sacatra: griffe and negress.
Griffe: negro and mulatto.
Marabon: mulatto and griffe.
Mulatto: white and negro.
Quarteron: white and mulatto.
Metif: white and quarteron.
Meamelouc: white and motif.
Quarteron: white and meamelouc.
Sang-mele: white and quarteron.

Charles Post and John Clegg were discussants in this panel discussion. Clegg, who agrees with Parisot that slave plantations were capitalist, offered useful points of agreements as well as criticisms, especially on what he thought were imprecise formulations on empire. Parisot, who has a refreshingly modest manner for an academic, thought that Clegg had a point.

As for Post, who was invited to be a discussant by Parisot, repeated his well-trodden arguments about why you can’t have capitalism without wage labor. Yawn.

  1. Leninism, Social Democracy, and the State (Sunday, 3:00pm-4:30pm)

This was an odd panel discussion with two of the speakers from the Socialist Project in Canada who declared Leninism extinct. In doing so, they were not repeating the arguments I have made but much more in line with Eric Blanc’s neo-Kautskyism. The other speaker was Nathaniel Flakin, an editorial board member of Left Voice who took up the cudgels against Kautskyism. If you go to the Left Voice website and do a search on Kautsky, you’ll find a number of interesting articles by Flakin as well as Doug Greene, who has begun to write for it as a guest columnist. Doug Greene, of course, is always worth reading.

April 14, 2019

Fact-checking Max Blumenthal

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:04 am

clown blumenthal

UPDATE

I have discovered that the quotation is annotated but, unlike any book I’ve ever seen from a reputable publisher, it is not indicated by a number that can be tied back to the footnote or endnote. Instead you go to the end of the book and you get something like this:

Screen Shot 2019-04-17 at 7.18.55 PM

The quotation in question is at p. 160 and references a Kevork Almasian who Blumenthal describes as someone not making a secret of his support for the Syrian government, the understatement of the century. I probably underestimated the depths to which Blumenthal had stooped since Almasian’s Youtube channel is filled with links to Vanessa Beeley et al. This is a sample video:

By comparison, Stephen Gowans is the gold standard of Syrian analysis since at least his references are to the NY Times and other established outlets–even if they are out of context. It is impossible to establish how much of a base Anas al-Ayrout had in Baniyas since you cannot gauge the number of people listening to his speech. I imagine that every town in Syria that rose up against the government had Islamists but the only indication that can be found describing it as under an Islamist pall stems from Almasian’s obviously pro-regime video editing.


Earlier this evening I received a bootleg copy of Max Blumenthal’s new Verso book “The Management of Savagery” and turned immediately to chapter six, which is about the Syrian revolution. Without wasting any time, Blumenthal smears the revolution as a Salafist assault on religious tolerance on the first page:

On March 18, 2011, in the town of Baniyas, an area with a mixed population of Sunnis and Alawites near the loyalist city of Tartous, within wider protests, a Sunni crowd gathered to make their demands clear. From a balcony atop a mosque, Anas al-Ayrout, a hard-line Salafist cleric, belted out the list of dictates: “We demand, first, banning [gender] mixed schools!” Ayrout bellowed into a megaphone, sending gales of applause through the all-male crowd. After calling for improving local electricity, the preacher demanded that the government “re-allow women wearing niqab [full face covering] to teach in schools.” The ultra-conservative religious demands were followed by calls that were familiar to reformist demonstrations: release political prisoners and cease arresting protesters.

The first question I had was the provenance of the quote. Since it was not footnoted, I had to spend some time trying to track down where and when Anas al-Ayrout “belted out” a list of dictates. The first step was to Google the words being quoted.

No luck. Try for yourself.

The next step was to consult Nexis-Uni. As a Columbia University retiree, I have access to this global database of newspapers. Nothing remotely resembling this quote turned up.

Obviously, if you are intent on making a serious case that the revolt against Assad was Salafist from the get-go rather than a clown show, you’d make an effort to either footnote the quote or to at least indicate where it can be found. But Blumenthal obviously had something else on his agenda, namely to defame a movement that in its infancy was all about democracy rather than theocracy.

This is the kind of journalism I would expect from Stephen Gowans or Tim Anderson but I would not expect Verso to publish their garbage. Evidently, it is Blumenthal’s garbage that they want to foist on the market. Does Verso have a fact-checker? I would think that a publisher that aspires to be the first place a serious left scholar would seek out might take more care in vetting the text that comes their way. Now, it is true that Tariq Ali puts forth the same kind of shoddy, fact-free statements on Syria but isn’t there anybody at Verso that has some scruples?

Maybe they wanted to make a fast buck because Blumenthal has a reputation on the left, even if it is mostly tarnished beyond repair at this point. Perhaps word will get out to the Verso management that this new book has hardly taken the USA by storm as indicated by the attendance at a recent Blumenthal reading. (I believe the gentleman in the pink shirt asleep in the back row is Ron Unz.)

 

April 12, 2019

DeGrowth, the Green New Deal and This Island Earth

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 2:11 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, APRIL 12, 2019

Back in the early 1970s, the Socialist Workers Party was well on its way to becoming the largest group on the left in the USA. To a large part, Peter Camejo’s speeches were responsible for this. He was not only good at explaining why you should become a socialist but doing so in an entertaining manner. One of the jokes that never failed to get a laugh was his description of an abundant life under socialism. Money wouldn’t be necessary. You’d go to a state-owned grocery store and be able to walk out with a shopping cart overflowing with filet mignons. This would not prompt an arrest but a referral to a psychiatrist because who in the world would do such a thing.

Although Peter would eventually adopt an ecosocialist outlook that would have made such a joke obsolete, he was reflecting a certain kind of techno-optimism that characterized our movement. Its prophet Leon Trotsky wrote an article in 1926 titled “Radio, Science, Technique and Society” that exclaimed: “The atom contains within itself a mighty hidden energy, and the greatest task of physics consists in pumping out this energy, pulling out the cork so that this hidden energy may burst forth in a fountain. Then the possibility will be opened up of replacing coal and oil by atomic energy, which will also become the basic motive power.”

Continue reading

April 11, 2019

The deck was stacked against East Germany

Filed under: economics,Germany — louisproyect @ 10:13 pm

I will be posting a review of Victor Grossman’s “A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee” to CounterPunch a week from tomorrow but couldn’t resist sharing this brief excerpt now since it is about as useful a summary of the disadvantages East Germany faced in trying to compete with West Germany. Perhaps compete is the wrong word since the goal was more modest, namely to offer its citizens what its leaders regarded as socialism. Yes, the country was burdened by secret police, bureaucracy and all the rest but there were many decent aspects that shine through in Grossman’s account. Even if Tony Cliff or Farrell Dobbs were the Prime Minister of East Germany, I doubt that they could have done much better with the cards they were dealt, including from the USSR.


I happened to land in a new republic where the factories, mines, and landed estates of those mighty guilt-ridden men had become public property and a barrier against their powerful rule as job-givers and decision makers. Their refusal to accept these losses in this divided country and city and their active hatred of the GDR demanded a choice. While socialism and capitalism were fairly abstract issues in the United States in the 1960s, chewed over in many theoretical variations, here, in my new home, the dividing line was far sharper, with echoes of fateful events in 1919, 1933, 1938, 1939, and 1945 resounding in almost every street we trod. “Which side are you on?” was not just a good union song but an almost daily decision. Until the Wall was built in August 1961, that other side was only one stop away on the subway, one step away on unchecked street borders. Many sought to evade a choice in some agreeable, unpolitical niche. But for a “political animal” like myself, this was never an option. And how in hell could I ever accept the rule of an Adenauer, Globke, Krupp, or Thyssen?

Yet how should I look upon this alternative Germany? How was it developing? What doubts and burning problems were present?

From the start, all cards were stacked against little East Germany. About the size of Ohio or Virginia, far smaller than the three zones forming the Federal Republic, close to California in size, it had neither the iron and steel industry of its Ruhr Valley nor endless tons of high-quality coal under its surface, but had to start off with one steel plant, hardly any natural resources except potassium salt mines, a little copper, and huge amounts of low-quality, damp, stinky lignite coal, its weak basis for electricity, fuel, and chemicals. Yet it was saddled with almost 95 percent of reparation costs. France, Britain, and the Benelux countries soon absolved West Germany from most payments. But Poland and the USSR, immensely demolished, desperately needed their share of reparations, which came almost exclusively from the Soviet-occupied zone. Whole factory complexes, machinery, rail tracks, and a good share of emerging new production were removed. To make matters worse, most industries in the East, like machine tools or textiles, depended on raw materials from West t Germany, supplied in varying quantities or not supplied, depending on how much pressure Bonn wished to exert in a changing political situation. Meanwhile, after 1947, West Germany was getting big investments through the Marshall Plan, a key factor in its “economic miracle.”

There was another serious drawback. Large numbers of engineering and managerial personnel, those most strongly infected with the Nazi bacillus and fearful of punishment under Soviet occupation or left-wing rule, and hating nationalization with its ousting of their beloved industry leaders, disappeared westward, before the Red Army arrived if possible but also, in later years, often at crucial moments. Many took plans, patents, and documents with them plus their know-how on running factories. Their change of address involved no new language to learn and no risk. Their former employers, soon an integral part of the “economic miracle,” were glad to offer them far higher pay than in the poorer, more egalitarian East. The young GDR economy thus faced not only wreckage, reparations (until 1953), and a cutoff from former resources but also had to rely on the thin ranks of engineers and managers willing to remain plus a new generation being trained in colleges that lacked professors and researchers who, having eagerly supported the Nazis, also had moved westward. Such luring of experts, including newly trained ones, was assiduously maintained through the years, even after the Wall made it far more difficult to “disappear.” A former manager of a big GDR shipyard told me how half of his pre-1961 class of skilled machinist apprentices were regularly lured away by West German companies, but only after they had completed their expensive training. That meant big losses in the East and big savings in West German costs.

And yet, despite myriad difficulties and highly skeptical, even cynical sectors of the population, the economy had started up again, and here and there with genuine, new enthusiasm.

April 8, 2019

Left Voice impressions

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

On Saturday night I descended from my mancave on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to make the trek out to Bushwick in Brooklyn to attend the launch of issue 4 of Left Voice magazine at a place called the Starr Bar, whose website states that “We Celebrate and Support Movements for Social Justice”. With Manhattan being stripped of anything resembling a left counter-culture, this one-hour trip on the subway was necessary.

I had found out about the event from my old friend James Hoff, who will be joining the editorial board of the magazine. James is a CUNY professor who is unlike most tenure-track professors. Whether or not his pro-adjunct activism can jeopardize his bid for tenure next year is a secondary consideration. Solidarity evidently trumps career, bless his heart. In my view (and his, obviously), the fight for a living wage in academia is one of the most important facing the labor movement today. Like the auto industry in the 1990s, a two-tier pay structure was adopted by the bosses and the union bureaucrats who were willing to keep entry-level workers underpaid as long as the older base of the UAW could be mollified. If there is anything the capitalist class has learned over the past 300 years, it is how to keep the exploited divided. Fortunately, there are some people on the left who understand the need for a united working class in order to defend its own interests and in the long run create a society in which workers rule.

Left Voice has been on my radar for a couple of years at least. A supporter of the magazine has been posting links to articles on Marxmail, most of which end up on Facebook as well. Like Jacobin and CounterPunch, it has both a website and a print edition. Issue 4 can be purchased here. It has the theme of “Beyond Resistance: a Left that Fights to Win” that the speakers at the event reinforced through their experiences in the labor movement. This was a spirited meeting with about 75 people in attendance, with only a handful over 50. (In the interests of transparency, this includes me.) It is clear that the website is intended to gather together supporters around the magazine who can then help launch a new organization. While I have no idea whether the ISO’s excellent analyses of American and international politics will continue after their newspaper has stopped publishing, I have no doubt that Left Voice will be around for the foreseeable future.

I just plunked down $6 for a digital subscription today and encourage my readers to follow suit since the articles take the same tack I have been banging away at for the longest time and especially since Jacobin has gone full-tilt neo-Kautskyite. Articles like “Revolution or Attrition: Reading Kautsky Between the Lines”, “From Debs to the DSA? Rescuing America’s Revolutionary Tradition”, “A Green New Deal Can’t Save Us. A Planned Economy Can” and “A Socialist Case Against Bernie 2020” couldn’t be more timely given the Jacobin/DSA megaphone. (The last two are not behind a paywall and can give you a good idea of what the magazine is about.)

To get a clear idea of the difference between Jacobin and Left Voice, you can see how they deal with City University of New York issues. Two of the speakers at the event were CUNY adjuncts who spoke about the 7K or Strike Struggle that James Hoff is active in. Once you get on a tenure track like James, it is tempting to keep a low profile. CUNY is a very liberal institution but that kind of liberalism doesn’t mesh easily with working class militancy.

The adjunct struggle is close to my heart since my wife started out as an adjunct before she got on a tenure track at Lehman College, where she faced an uphill struggle. If she had been denied tenure, she would have been plunged back into the adjunct world with dire consequences for us economically. In 2017, I reported on the CUNY adjunct struggle that was the subject of an HM panel discussion. To my surprise, the ISO had lined up with a caucus in the PSC (the professor’s business union) that tried to strike a middle ground between CUNY Struggle (the adjunct’s caucus) and the administration.

If the ISO had tried to straddle the class divide, the same thing could not be said about Jacobin that landed foursquare in the PSC bureaucracy’s lap. One of the two adjuncts who spoke at the event mentioned how Barbara Bowen, the president of the PSC, had been interviewed by Jacobin at the same time Left Voice was providing a platform for CUNY Struggle. On March 23rd, James Hoff penned an article on 7K or Strike that is exemplary labor reporting:

As PSC President Barbara Bowen said in a recent Jacobin interview: “Whether the PSC will need to take [a strike authorization vote] again depends on the assessment made by the bargaining team and the union’s leadership bodies. If the union reaches a point in the current campaign where a strike authorization could be necessary, we will have an open discussion and a vote in our largest leadership body, the Delegate Assembly.” In other words, don’t worry: the leadership will tell the members when they’re ready for a strike. This top-down approach has been one of the key weaknesses of labor unions since their inception.  Indeed, creating a strict line between “leadership” (tasked with making all of the decisions) and the “rank and file” (whom are supposed to patiently wait to be mobilized when told) is one of the primary ways that union bureaucrats maintain power and control expectations and thus one of the main ways that unions have been absorbed into the very systems of exploitation they were designed to struggle against.

Because Left Voice stands with the rank and file union members and not the union bureaucracy, we are reprinting the response to the leadership’s letter below. If you would like to read the original letter, you may find a copy on the PSC’s website.

The class divide between Jacobin and Left Voice could not be more obvious.

As I was writing this article, my PDF of issue 4 just arrived in my mailbox. The graphics are as snazzy as Jacobin’s and the articles are quintessentially anti-Jacobin—not in the sense of the landed gentry but much more in the spirit of the sans culottes. I hungrily turned to the article on Kautsky because I remain so riled up by Eric Blanc’s idiotic defense of neo-Kautskyism in Jacobin. This will give you a flavor of the kind of analysis you can read in Left Voice (reminder, it is behind a paywall):

What was Luxemburg’s answer to Kautsky’s claim that there was no need to push for a general strike because the situation was not revolutionary? That his response was abstract, because one cannot consider whether the revolutionary elements of the situation are advancing without considering the action of the Social Democracy it- self. And she was right. The elections finally came in 1912, and the Social Democratic Party did spectacularly well. It received the most votes, more than twice as many as the second-placed party, and it gained 110 seats (fewer than the number it would have gained if the distribution had been proportional). But shortly afterward, World War I broke out, and the enormous strength that the Social Democratic Party had gained in Parliament was of no use, because the party had shifted its center of gravity away from class struggle.

Left Voice is a journal and nascent left group that is part of a Trotskyist international based in Argentina. I had originally intended to offer some thoughts on the problematics of such an organizational form in this post but decided not to include it in this post because it requires both more research and some careful consideration of its dynamics. I will say this, this current is on the ascendancy unlike Trotskyism in the USA as the utter collapse of the SWP would indicate as well as the dissolution of the semi-Trotskyist ISO. In a couple of days I will be posting a follow-up that will reflect my careful (hopefully) assessment of the Left Voice’s international network.

 

April 5, 2019

The Eco-Fascist Canard

Filed under: Ecology,Fascism — louisproyect @ 5:50 pm

From the latest New Statesman: a photo of Eva Braun exercising by a pristine lake as if that has something to do with Barry Commoner or Rachel Carson

Recently, a New Statesman article titled Nature writing’s fascist roots has been making the rounds on Facebook. It seeks to explain the troubling statement made by the New Zealand neo-Nazi mass murderer Brenton Tarrant that he was an “eco-fascist”.

One of the main problems with the article is that it blurs the lines between naturalists and ecologists. For example, it refers to a 1927 “nature book” titled Tarka the Otter that was written by Henry Williamson, a Nazi sympathizer. There’s also a confusion between ecology and “back to nature” movements that romanticized rural life in England, with the cities being regarded as overrun by immigrants and other “subhumans”. The same phenomenon existed in Germany.

“Nature, with all its violence and beauty, was the primary model for conceiving German history and identity in the Third Reich,” the scholars Robert G Lee and Sabine Wilke have argued. The anti-industrial German Romanticism of the 19th century fed a surge of feeling for the notion of German soil and German forest: “There was no escaping the imagery, and there still isn’t,” Paul Scraton writes in his book Ghosts on the Shore. “The German word for beech forest, a very normal descriptive word… now carries the weight of a very different meaning: Buchenwald. The name of the extermination camp at Auschwitz? Birkenau. Birch meadow.”

Over the years, I have seen repeated references to this sort of thing. My first exposure to this was 22 years ago when people connected to Frank Furedi’s Living Marxism sect produced a TV show called “Against Nature” that included this observation by Furedi:

What we today call “environmentalism” is … based on a fear of change. It’s based upon a fear of the outcome of human action. And therefore it’s not surprising that when you look at the more xenophobic right-wing movements in Europe in the 19th century, including German fascism, it quite often had a very strong environmentalist dynamic to it. The most notorious environmentalists in history were the German Nazis. The Nazis ordered soldiers to plant more trees. They were the first Europeans to establish nature reserves and order the protection of hedgerows and other wildlife habitats. And they were horrified at the idea of hydroelectric dams on the Rhine. Adolf Hitler and other leading Nazis were vegetarian and they passed numerous laws on animal rights.

I replied to this nonsense in an article titled “Nazi “Ecology” that offered a different take on Hitler’s actions. I argued they  had nothing to do with Green values. I wrote:

The Nazis promoted the view that the class-struggle in the city could be overcome by returning to the villages and developing artisan and agricultural economies based on cooperation. Aryans needed to get back to the soil and simple life.

The core of Nazi rural socialism was the idea that land-use must be planned. Gottfried Feder was a leading Nazi charged with the duty of formulating such policy. He made a speech in Berlin in 1934 in which he stated that the right to build homes or factories or to use land according to the personal interests of owners was to be abolished. The government instead would dictate how land was to be used and what would be constructed on it. Feder next began to build up elaborate administrative machinery to carry out his plans.

Not surprisingly, Feder earned the wrath of the construction industry. This segment of heavy industry had no tolerance for any kind of socialism, even if it was of the fake, nutty Nazi variety. Hitler had promised the captains of heavy industry that the “rabble-rousers” in his party would be curbed and Feder certainly fell into that category.

Hjalmar Schacht was a more reliable Nazi functionary who agreed with the need to curb Feder’s excesses. After Hitler named Schacht Minister of Economics on November 26, 1934, he gave Feder the boot and assured the construction magnates that business would be run as usual.

Consider also Walter Schoenichen, an aide to Herman Goering who in his capacity as Minister of the German Forests supervised the “Germanization” of forests in conquered territories. In 1941, the Nazis took control of the Bialowieza forest in Lithuania and they resolved to turn it into a hunting reserve for top officers. Open season was declared on the Jews, who made up 12 percent of the population in this region and who violated the ethnic purity of the proposed game farm. Five hundred and fifty Jews were rounded up and shot in the courtyard of a hunting palace operated by Battalion 332 of Von Bock’s army division. Goring decided that the purified forest should be altered into an extension of the East Prussian forests. An SS team led by Konrad Mayer, who had been Minister of Agriculture at Berlin University, planned a colonization program that would “Germanize” the forest. Poles, and any remaining Jews, were reduced to the status of barnyard animals to be penned up or slaughtered.

Schoenichen jumped at the opportunity to administer this program. This “total landscape plan” would first empty villages and then the unpopulated forest would be stocked with purely “Teutonic” species, including eagles, elk, and wolves. Since there was a painting of a bison on Goring’s wall, it was crucial to include this beast in the menagerie.

Read full article (http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/ecology/nazi_ecology.htm)

At the same time “Against Nature” aired, David Harvey came out with a book titled Justice, Nature & the Geography of Difference that warned against the idea of the “ecological Indian” and the susceptibility to eco-fascism in terms not that distant from Frank Furedi. The danger existed that well-meaning Green activists and Indians fighting for preservation of community rights can foster “nationalistic, exclusionary, and some cases violently fascistic” elements.

Harvey frets that things can go from bad to worse when the American Indian or their supporters abuse “militant particularism.” The next step, if one is not careful, is down the slippery slope into “nationalistic, exclusionary, and some cases violently fascistic” behavior. While it is very difficult to make the case that American Indian activists have actually ever joined skinheads or other fascist gangs, Luc Ferry does point out that the Nazis were enthusiastic about American Indian rights in “The New Ecological Order.” Ferry’s book, which Harvey cites uncritically, is a general assault on the environmental movement, which tries to draw out every reactionary tendency and place it in the foreground. An affinity between Nazis and the American Indian would be a very serious business indeed. Ferry states:

We have to be ignorant or prejudiced not to see it: Nazism contains within it, for reasons that are in no way accidental, the beginnings of an authentic concern for preserving “natural,” which is to say, here again, “original” peoples.

Turning Nazis into pro-ecology and pro-indigenous rights spokesman takes quite a bit of gumption on Luc Ferry’s part and a certain amount of fecklessness from Harvey to endorse his findings, especially in light of what John Toland wrote in his Adolf Hitler biography:

Hitler’s concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history. He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the Wild West; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination–by starvation and uneven combat–of the ‘Red Savages’ who could not be tamed by captivity.

About a decade after “Against Nature” and Harvey’s book came out, the CPGB sect in England came up with the same warnings about eco-fascism in a series of articles in Weekly Worker by Jack Conrad.

A piece titled “Darker Shades of Green” had the following lead: “Jack Conrad questions the romantic images presented by green primitives and cautions against the seductive lures of ecofascism.” Like the New Statesman article, Conrad singles out Jorian Jenks as a prime example of eco-fascism:

The Soil Association in Britain counted Jorian Jenks amongst it founding members. He edited its journal Mother Earth till his death in 1963. In the 1930s he was the agricultural advisor to the British Union of Fascists and remained throughout his life a close associate and disciple of Oswald Mosley.

Now Jorian Jenks did oppose the use of chemical fertilizers and urged organic farming. This makes perfect sense, of course. The fact that he hooked up with Mosley should not serve as a warning, however. Agronomists with exactly the same sort of outlook have worked with left parties as well. Indeed, the Mosley website states:

His “Green” views were not all fully shared by all his old comrades, understandably perhaps, at a time after the war when the pressing need was for food in greater quantities. The Editor of “Union” and Secretary of Union Movement once told him wittily “people can forgive one eccentricity, but not two.”

And, also like the New Statesman article, Conrad next turns his attention to Germany, which in the eyes of anti-environmentalists like Anna Bramwell and Luc Ferry, is the spawning ground of eco-fascism. Indeed, I was somewhat dismayed to discover a reference to Bramwell in Conrad’s footnotes. Her work and Ferry’s has had a confusing effect on some very well-meaning Marxists besides Jack Conrad, not the least of which is David Harvey who eventually backed off from an analysis that Conrad’s echoes.

Conrad made much of the Wandervögel movement of the late 19th century which was a revolt of sorts against industrialization and called for a return to nature. There was also, according to Conrad, “a strong undercurrent of homoeroticism.” For Conrad, this might lead to fascism in the same way that marijuana leads to heroin. You start off on nature walks, graduate to gay sex and the next thing you know, you are beating up pawnbrokers.

 

April 4, 2019

Review of Allen Young’s “Left, Gay, and Green: a Writer’s Life”

Filed under: Catskills,Ecology,farming,Gay,SDS — louisproyect @ 4:51 pm
The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture
Volume 11, 2018
A New Dawn for the New Left: Liberation News Service, Montague Farm, and the Long Sixties
By John McMillian,

For many years – when I was in college, graduate school, and even for some time after that – I used to envy those Baby Boomers who had immersed themselves in the American left during the 1960s and 1970s. They had been righteous in their support of civil rights, outraged about the Vietnam War, and they got to enjoy the era’s great music, as well as various exciting cultural events, like Woodstock and the Moon landing. I always figured it must have been exciting to come of age during such dramatic and compelling times. The Portuguese have a fine word for that kind of melancholy longing I’m describing: saudade.

In recent years, however, that feeling has largely dissipated. I’m no longer sure I’d have enjoyed the Sixties. Part of the reason may be that I’ve been studying that era for about twenty years (so maybe I’ve finally maxed out on the topic). Meanwhile, my thoughts about the desirability of almost any kind of “revolution” have changed. (I now think it’s usually best when social change unfolds gradually.) Furthermore, it turns out that we are currently living through an uncommonly tumultuous time, and I don’t find it too enjoyable. I’m apprehensive about the future, and the social justice left that prevails on American campuses nowadays frequently offends me.

It is in some ways surprising, then, that I have such a fond appreciation for Allen Young’s memoir, Left, Gay & Green: A Writer’s Life. (The title alludes to the fact that Young was a red diaper baby, and then a journalist who was active in the New Left, gay rights, and environmental movements.)

Let me say upfront that I have known Young, from a distance, for many years. Back in the mid-2000s, when I was researching my book, Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, I visited the Allen Young Papers at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, and I interviewed Young over the telephone. Since then, we have occasionally exchanged cordial emails. We have only met once, however, and that was just for a few moments, by pure chance, many years ago. (He was walking out of Columbia University’s Fayerweather Hall, and I was walking in.) Put another way, if it had turned out that I had significant criticisms of Left, Gay & Green, I would not have been particularly hesitant to say so.

But mostly I have compliments. Young calls his book an “autobiography,” rather than a “memoir,” because it encompasses his entire life, rather than just the years when he was most intensively engaged in leftwing activism. His amiable, conversational prose style makes for quick reading, but Left, Gay & Green resists easy summary. It is not a didactic autobiography, meant to impart a lesson, or develop a theme. And although it is a longish book (480 pages) each of its twenty-four chapters is subdivided into short, discrete sections. Frequently, Young will pause his narrative in order to share various musings, ponder conundrums, or poke gently at people’s foibles and eccentricities – sort of like a hip Andy Rooney. Some readers may find these digressions excessive, but I found them delightful. Young also occasionally includes excerpts from his writings long ago, which he analyzes from his perspective today.

Young grew up on a Jewish farm in the Catskill Mountains. For years, his main daily chore was to collect eggs from his family’s chickens, clean them, and pack them for shipping. His parents were secretly members of the American Communist Party, which of course put the family at risk during the Red Scare. Unlike some communists who resided in big cities, however, Young’s parents were not bohemians. They were hard-working, straight-laced, and stoic. That posed a problem for Young, because he knew from an early age that he was gay. He lived in “the closet” – and repeatedly tried dating women, while also having secret liaisons with men – from his adolescence until about age twenty-five.

Young was thrilled to matriculate at Columbia University in 1958, and at the time, he was certain he was leaving rural life behind for good. Academically and socially, he thrived, and eventually he became the Daily Spectator’s editor-in-chief. Meanwhile, he began demonstrating his enviable knack for meeting or befriending various successful, well-known, or otherwise interesting people. One of the lifelong friends he made at Columbia was the great historian Eric Foner; another is Michael Meeropol (who was orphaned after the United States government executed his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg). Other notable names appear in this book, too, and he includes some entertaining yarns about his friendship with Abbie Hoffman.

During his undergraduate years, Young grew appalled by the crimes of the Soviet Union, but he continued working on the same issues his parents had taught him to care about, mostly around racial justice, war, and peace. He did graduate study at Columbia’s School of Journalism, traveled extensively in South America, and at age twenty-six, took a job at the Washington Post. (Young was hired by Ben Bradlee, who would later become famous for publishing the Pentagon Papers, and for overseeing the Post’s Watergate coverage. Young sketches a brief but memorable portrait of this gruff and no-nonsense newsman.)

Young did not last long at the Post, however. Instead, he became increasingly committed to building the antiwar movement, which was in turn supported by the fast-growing American underground press. In the fall of 1967, Young made what he says “was probably the biggest single decision” of his life and defected from the Post to Liberation News Service (LNS). Often described as a radical version of the Associated Press (AP), LNS produced hundreds of news packets full of reporting, commentaries, graphics, and illustrations, and this material regularly made its way into underground newspapers across the country.

Some of the most edifying and analytical passages in Left, Gay & Green concern the topic (applied anachronistically) of “political correctness.” Young acknowledges that, like others in his cohort, he could be aggressively hostile to opposing viewpoints. By the late ’60s, New Leftists had grown dismissive of voting and non-violent civil disobedience. Most white radicals tended to zealously support the Black Panthers (despite that group’s obvious flaws), and they were prone to dogmatically making snap judgements about who had “good politics” (and who did not). New Leftists frequently dehumanized their political opponents with words and images that, especially from today’s vantage, seem scurrilous and grotesque. Young went along with some of this, but not always comfortably, and only to a degree. After the Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society turned to political violence, for instance, Young strongly criticized the group, even as he maintained friendships with some of its members.

Exemplifying the maxim “the personal is political,” in 1970, Young became an early member of the Gay Liberation Front. He participated in the world’s first gay pride march, and he promoted gay equality in numerous periodicals. Meanwhile, Young started collecting personal essays and manifestos from other radical homosexual writers that he admired. In 1972, he published (with Karla Jay), Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, a classic compilation.

In 1973 – defying the expectations he formed when he started at Columbia in 1958 – Young moved to Butterworth Farm, an intentional community in Royalston, Massachusetts. Young calls Butterworth Farm “the love child of two unique and consequential movements … back-to-the-land, and gay liberation” (303). Perhaps surprisingly, given the frenetic pace of the first half of his life, Young has continued to reside there ever since. He has been an avid gardener, a valuable participant in local institutions, and in 1980 he got busted for growing marijuana. (The chapter describing the marijuana bust is amusingly titled “Reefer Madness, or, The Sacred Herb and Me.” Fortunately, Young largely escaped punishment for what he now refers to as his “so-called crime.”) In the 1980s and 1990s, Young worked at the Athol Daily News and did public relations for a local hospital. After living frugally this whole time, he was able to retire in 1999, at age fifty-eight. Today, Young lives in an octagonal house that he helped build many years ago

Even when Young is not writing directly about movement issues, Left, Gay & Green offers salutary lessons about how to engage politics wisely. He thoughtfully ponders arguments and counterarguments; he does not assume bad faith or bad character from those with whom he disagrees; and he easily admits when he was wrong. I’ve no idea whether Allen Young is familiar with Walt Whitman’s famous directive (“be radical – be radical – be not too damned radical!”) but that quote came to mind numerous times while reading Left, Gay & Green. Young spent a big part of his life deeply immersed in revolutionary politics, but one gathers, while reading this charming autobiography, that the cut and thrust of his personality has changed substantially since the vertiginous Sixties. “Nuance,” Young says at one point, “has now become one of my favorite words”.

Notes on the Dissolution of the ISO

Filed under: Counterpunch,ISO — louisproyect @ 12:53 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, APRIL 4, 2019

During 2013 and 2014, a rift opened up in the International Socialist Organization (ISO) over the results of a rape investigation that some members found to be little more than a cover-up. The Socialist Workers Party in England, which had played a major role in the formation of the ISO, was also convulsed over a sexual attack and cover-up around the same time. Both groups suffered defections but the British fared much worse, with perhaps half the membership jumping ship. In the USA, the ISO had fewer losses but the cover-up resurfaced again this year when a letter to their 2019 convention precipitated a new investigation into the events of six years ago. This time, the members voted to remove those who had covered up for the perpetrator in the name of “due process” and begin a soul-searching self-examination that led to a startling conclusion. The ISO, which is the largest group in the USA that defines itself as “Leninist”, has just voted to dissolve itself. To get a handle on this turn of events, I urge you to see the items posted to their website.

In both the case of the ISO and the SWP, the sexual attack triggered a discussion over whether the “Leninism” that both groups swore by might have led to a cover-up. SWP leader Alex Callinicos, who only referred euphemistically to a “difficult disciplinary case” in a February 2013 article titled “Is Leninism Finished”, argued that it was their model of democratic centralism that allowed the SWP “to concentrate our forces on key objectives, and thereby to build so effectively the various united fronts we have supported.” Instead, the combination of a cover-up and fetishized Bolshevik norms have cost the SWP both members and influence as it staggers along just like the American SWP that has a much more advanced case of political dementia.

Richard Seymour, who was one of the best known and best respected SWP members, would have none of Callinicos’s hooey. In an reply titled “Is Zinovievism Finished”, Richard wrote:

The model operated currently by the SWP is not that of the Bolshevik revolution. It is a version of the Zinovievite model adopted during the period of “Bolshevisation” in the mid-1920s and then honed by ever smaller and more marginal groups. When Alex implies that somehow we have developed a ‘distilled’ version of Bolshevik democratic centralism he is not holding to the tradition of October: it is asking us to choose the model that has led to three of the most serious crises in the SWP’s history in quick succession over the model that actually did lead the October revolution.

I had my own reply to Callinicos in an article titled “Leninism is finished: a reply to Alex Callinicos” that made essentially the same points as Richard Seymour except with some added observations on how such an organizational method leads to intellectual and political monolithism:

Discipline has meant enforcing ideological conformity. For example, it would be virtually impossible for SWP members in Britain to take a position on Cuba identical to the American SWP’s and vice versa. As it turns out, this is a moot point since most members become indoctrinated through lectures and classes after joining the groups and tend to toe the line, often responding to peer pressure and the faith that their party leaders must know what is right.

Continue reading

April 3, 2019

Down with neo-Kautskyism

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,Kautsky — louisproyect @ 5:43 pm

Karl Kautsky

Five years ago Jacobin was a big happy family with the ISO and Solidarity members basking in the spotlight alongside the DSA intellectuals. Despite the obvious cleavage between the Trotskyist origins of the former group and the Michael Harrington orientation of Bhaskar Sunkara, everybody could benefit from the exposure afforded by the magazine’s vast readership.

Eventually, the differences became too pronounced to ignore. Probably the first manifestation of this was Charles Post’s gentle reprimand of Vivek Chibber in the February 2018 issue that took issue with an earlier article by Chibber targeting the “ruptural” strategy associated with the early Communist International and the revolutionary left. Despite Chibber’s reputation as a high priest of orthodox Marxism (bolstered by Post and Jacobin, it should be added), there was no denying that he had much more in common with Michael Harrington than Leon Trotsky.

Establishing the orthodoxy of the Jacobin left took much more than citing Michael Harrington. To maintain its left cover, it had to search for a Marxist authority who could be invoked when dealing with a bunch of old fogies like Charles Post or Robert Brenner who could not see the wisdom in ringing doorbells for a Democratic Party candidate. Of course, one cannot be sure that Brenner was purged from the Catalyst editorial board by Sunkara and Chibber for political reasons but I’d bet a bottle of Glenlivet scotch that it was a factor.

Eric Blanc was Johnny-on-the-spot. This young Marxist scholar had an impressive track record of articles that were notable for their erudition even when some of their conclusions were questionable. Perhaps the most questionable of them were those that endorsed Lars Lih’s pro-“Old Bolshevik” analysis that there was a continuum between Karl Kautsky and Lenin. It was only a matter of time that Blanc’s political trajectory could be discerned. His interest in Kautsky was not just historical. He saw in Kautsky the missing link that could establish the revolutionary continuity between Karl Kautsky and the DSA’s inside-outside electoral strategy.

In January 2019, John Muldoon published an article in Jacobin titled Reclaiming the Best of Karl Kautsky that described him as the original “democratic socialist”. In my rebuttal to Muldoon, I wrote:

Kautsky’s basic message is don’t rock the boat with all that socialist revolution stuff. No wonder it would appeal to people smitten with Bernie Sanders, who is all for his home state serving as a base for F-35s, a $1.5 trillion boondoggle, or Jeremy Corbyn, whose chief economic adviser John McDonnell warns against nationalizing industry, something that would hearken back to 1945—god forbid.

Post had his own response to Mullin last month in an article titled The “Best” of Karl Kautsky Isn’t Good Enough that was critical but not so nearly as mine. Unlike Post, I don’t care about burning bridges and rather enjoy blowing up the smoldering remains with dynamite while I am at it. He wrote:

On the other hand, there are the electoral breakthroughs by self-proclaimed socialists and radicals such as Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib in the United States. The rising electoral profile of open critics of neoliberalism give the renewed struggles outside the electoral arena a political voice — a voice which could stimulate new and broader struggles.

If you take this seriously, then why not ring doorbells for the Democrats? After all, it might lead to workers councils and general strikes someday.

As gentle as Post’s critique was, Eric Blanc felt the need to defend Kautsky against him. (He even criticized Mullin for not giving Kautsky his due.) In an article titled Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care), Blanc comes out full-tilt-boogie for Kautsky, a man that Karl Marx described as “a member of the philistine tribe”.

In the first paragraph, Blanc describes Kautsky as “the world’s preeminent Marxist theorist from the late 1880s through 1914.” I’d make the case for Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky having those qualifications but do consider the possibility that Blanc uses the word “preeminent” in the same way that it applies to Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as socialists. After all, with all their appearances on cable TV, the term “preeminent” describes them much more than obscure figures like David Harvey or John Bellamy Foster.

According to Blanc, the fan boy James Muldoon and the critic Post were both wrong in characterizing him as opposed to a “ruptural” break with capitalism. They didn’t realize that Kautsky was a big-time rupture guy. (I’ll never get used to that word being used in this context. When I was young, the word always meant hernia, like when a kid told me in 7th grade that our social studies teacher wore a special belt for his rupture.)

Blanc’s basic position is that “The difference between Kautsky’s approach and that of Leninists like Post is not over whether a revolution was necessary, but how to get there.” To close the deal ideologically, Blanc uses the word insurrection as a way to make revolutionaries sound hopelessly blind to modern-day realities:

Following Lenin’s arguments in his 1917 pamphlet The State and Revolution, Leninists for decades have hinged their strategy on the need for an insurrection to overthrow the entire parliamentary state and to place all power into the hands of workers’ councils. In contrast, Kautsky argued that the path to anticapitalist rupture in conditions of political democracy passed through the election of a workers’ party to government.

That the term “insurrection” does not appear once in The State and Revolution does not appear to perturb Blanc. I mean, after all, if it takes putting words in peoples’ mouth to win an argument… Blanc does admit that Kautsky did move toward the center after 1910 but up until that point, “Kautsky was the leading light of the far left in Germany, Russia, and across the world.” Not only that, he was not to blame for the SPD’s reactionary politics after 1910, with its support for WWI and its murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. That was the responsibility of an “unexpected rise of a caste of party and union bureaucrats who were dismissive of Marxist principles in general and Kautsky’s ‘intransigent’ class strategy in particular.”

Judging Kautsky’s pre-1910 writings as beyond reproach strikes me as the predictable outcome of Blanc connecting the dots between Kautsky and Lenin. Instead of seeing Trotsky’s writings on combined and uneven development as key, Lih and Blanc are much more inclined to see Lenin’s Bolshevism as resting on a stodgy and understandably neglected work like The Social Revolution, written in 1902. It contains pearls of wisdom like “For example, in all modern civilization the direction of capitalist development during the last century has been the same, but in every one of them the form and the velocity was very different. Geographical peculiarities, racial individualities, favor and disfavor of the neighbor, the restraint or assistance of great individualities, all these and many ether things have had their influence.” Yes, we can’t forget about those racial individualities, can we? Who would want to bother with Trotsky’s discussion of the 1905 revolution when there are such profundities awaiting us.

Toward the middle of the article, Blanc stops beating around the bush and gets to the real purpose of his article, which is to say it is okay to use the Democratic Party ballot line as he did in his dodgy “dirty break” article. It is high time we got over these Bolshevik “insurrectionary” illusions. Blanc writes:

Even at his most radical, Kautsky rejected the relevance of an insurrectionary strategy within capitalist democracies. His case was simple: the majority of workers in parliamentary countries would generally seek to use legal mass movements and the existing democratic channels to advance their interests. Technological advances, in any case, had made modern armies too strong to be overthrown through uprisings on the old nineteenth-century model of barricade street fighting. For these reasons, democratically elected governments had too much legitimacy among working people and too much armed strength for an insurrectionary approach to be realistic.

If this is not the stupidest thing I have read from a preeminent Marxist, I can’t imagine anything surpassing it. I am afraid that Blanc has Marx confused with Blanqui because what he describes above is Blanquism pure and simple. Louis Auguste Blanqui was a 19th century socialist who was a fearless opponent of both the bourgeoisie and the landed gentry but, unlike Marx, did not believe in mass action. He was an advocate of small, armed groups acting on behalf of the working class, a strategy that became known as Blanquism.

Insurrection is a loaded term, especially when applied to October, 1917. Keep in mind that there was zero barricade fighting in the weeks prior to the assault on the Winter Palace. Of course, the Mensheviks described the seizure of power as a coup since they considered the Constituent Assembly as the proper vehicle of working class struggle rather than the Soviets. Clearly, the logic of Blanc’s neo-Kautskyism would be to look back at the orientation to the Soviets rather than the Constituent Assembly as an act that legitimized the “old nineteenth century model of barricade street fighting”.

What existed in Russia in 1917 was rival governing powers. The Constituent Assembly insisted on prolonging the war and ignoring the pleas of the masses for “Peace, Bread and Land”. The Soviets, on the other hand, had become made up in their majority by Bolsheviks and as such were determined to carry out a revolution in order to satisfy their yearnings. If the Bolsheviks had not seized power, the counter-revolution would have prevailed just as it did in Chile under Allende. No matter how committed the Mensheviks and the Chilean left were to capitalist reform, the bourgeoisie was working overtime to make such reform impossible. At a certain point, the working class becomes exhausted and the reactionaries take the offensive.

That about says it all for theorizing revolutionary change but in reality these issues have a rather abstract character. The USA is far from having to decide whether Kautsky’s strategy is the key to unlocking the socialist door.

The real issue today is class independence. In a very real sense, the debate in the movement is not that different than the one that confronted the Russian left: how to regard the country’s capitalist reform party known as the Constitutional Democrats or Cadets. The debate between Jacobin/DSA and people like Charles Post is over how to relate to the Democratic Party, our version of the Cadets. Street-fighting and barricades have nothing to do with our present-day realities but voting for Democrats is.

In one of the most egregious misuses of revolutionary history in Blanc’s article, we are told that Kautsky’s parliamentarian approach was embraced by the sharpest minds in the Communist movement:

History has confirmed Kautsky’s predictions. Not only has there never been a victorious insurrectionary socialist movement under a capitalist democracy, but only a tiny minority of workers have ever even nominally supported the idea of an insurrection. For this reason, the most perceptive elements of the early Communist International began briefly moving back towards Kautsky’s approach in 1922–23 by advocating the parliamentary election of “workers’ governments” as a first step towards rupture.

To start with, the term “workers’ government” had nothing to do with DSA’s electoralism, the goal of which—rather unrealistically—is to see someone like Bernie Sanders turning into the second coming of Olaf Palme. In fact, Sweden won’t see the second coming of Olaf Palme, either. Capitalism has left the Fordist building. It is in the middle of a long depression, as Michael Roberts puts it, and hopes of a generous welfare state are as utopian as anything Robert Owen ever wrote.

When the Communists wrote about a workers government, they had something in mind like Germany in the early 20s when the Communists and many social democrats were revolutionary-minded. Unfortunately, the Communists were sectarian ultraleftists who would have considered such a bloc unprincipled.

But what might have been possible in Germany was not what Eric Blanc has in mind. Indeed, it had an insurrectionary character for much of the time. Germany had definitely entered a pre-Revolutionary situation in 1923. French occupation of the Ruhr, unemployment, declining wages, hyperinflation and fascist provocations all added up to an explosive situation.

The crisis was deepest in the heavily industrialized state of Saxony where a left-wing Socialist named Erich Zeigner headed the government. He was friendly with the Communists and made common cause with them. He called for expropriation of the capitalist class, arming of the workers and a proletarian dictatorship. This man, like thousands of others in the German workers movement, had a revolutionary socialist outlook but was condemned as a “Menshevik” in the Communist press. The united front overtures to Zeigner mostly consisted of escalating pressure to force him to accommodate to the maximum Communist program.

What if instead the Communists broached the possibility of a common electoral front with Zeigner, whose working-class comrades in Saxony had been carrying out pitched street-fighting battles with the cops and with the emerging fascist movement? This would have been a real “workers government”, not the impotent and useless coalition governments of post-WWII Europe that have been socialist in name only.

Under the conditions of capitalist austerity that will prevail for the foreseeable future in the USA and elsewhere, there will be rising discontent that can conceivably open workers up to the socialist alternative. The last thing we need are Marxists advocating on behalf of the Democratic Party, the oldest continuously functioning capitalist party in the world. The lines have been drawn and the left has to make up its mind. The future is at stake.

April 2, 2019

How class mattered in the Ukrainian and Turkish elections

Filed under: Turkey,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 4:05 pm

Volodymyr Zelensky: the Jewish comedian likely to be Ukraine’s next President

In the 1930s, when fascism was on the march everywhere, it was fueled by both nationalism and medieval-like religious fanaticism. Germany and Italy obviously represented the first trend while Spain and Portugal’s mixture of fascism and Catholicism the second. Now, 80 years later, we are seeing the same kind of toxic brew. All across Europe, nationalism has fueled the rise of fascist-like regimes while as you head eastward, it is political Islam that has helped prop up reactionary rulers. While elections are not generally an reliable barometer of mass consciousness, those that took place this week in Ukraine and Turkey indicate that nationalism and religion will not suffice in keeping the working class quiescent.

For the past couple of years, I have seen constant references to Ukraine being the closest thing we have today to a fascist regime. We are continuously reminded that the government has officially recognized Stephen Bandera as a national hero and that the military is riddled with neo-Nazi Azov Battalion members. To a large extent, this narrative has gained traction on the left because of the tireless efforts of websites like Consortium News, Grayzone and what Jeff St. Clair calls the Sputnik Left.

If anti-Semitism is the hallmark of neo-Nazism today, it certainly did not figure in the calculations of Ukrainians who cast twice as many votes for the Jewish comedian Volodymyr Zelensky then they did for the incumbent Petro Poroshenko in the first round of Presidential elections. Since neither candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote, there will be a second round on April 21. With Zelensky receiving 30 percent of the vote over Poroshenko’s 16 percent, it seems likely that he will be the next president.

Zelensky played Ukraine’s president in a hugely popular TV series in 2015 titled “Servant of the People”. Kiev political strategist Olexiy Golobutskiy said: “People imagine what they want in Zelensky. Liberals think he is a liberal, patriots think he is a patriot, leftists think he is a leftist. This amorphousness is really helping him at this point.” In other words, he sounds like a typical politician. There’s not much information on “Servant of the People” online but a Foreign Policy article describes a show that can hardly sit well with Bandera admirers:

In the third season, crazed Ukrainian nationalists (with the slogan “Freedom, Surname, Country”) stage a coup that leads to his arrest. As one of the usurpers says while asking prison inmates to reveal their last names (and, hence, their nationality), “Ukraine is not for everybody”—so much so, apparently, that even “Ukrainian prisons will only hold patriots.”

The Foreign Policy article was written by Alexander J. Motyl, a Rutgers historian who feels that “Servant of the People” was insufficiently critical of the Russians. Zelensky probably yearns for an end to the war that a politician like Poroshenko kept going because it helped to unite the people around his nationalist agenda. Accusations that Zelensky is a secret Kremlin asset fail to engage with his political practice. Wikipedia states: “After the Ukrainian media had reported that during the War in Donbass Zelensky’s Kvartal 95 [his comedy troupe] had donated 1 million hryvnias to the Ukrainian army, Russian politicians and artists petitioned for a ban on his works in Russia. Unlike them, Zelensky spoke out against the intention of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture to ban Russian artists from Ukraine.”

My expectations for Zelensky are minimal. Probably the best thing that can be said about him is his distance from the Ukrainian oligarchic business class. Poroshenko is worth close to a billion dollars while the Donbass rebels have close ties to the bourgeoisie whose wealth is derived from mining and manufacturing companies in the east. If nothing else, Zelensky’s presidency is about as close to the original promise of Euromaidan that is possible right now. That is certainly a step forward.

On Sunday, my wife and her sister were glued to online TV reporting from Turkey. By mid-afternoon, it had become apparent that the municipal elections had resulted in a clear repudiation of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP (The Justice and Development Party; in Turkish Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi). The capital city Ankara voted for the opposition Kemalist candidate as did Izmir. While the votes had not been finalized in Istanbul, the Kemalist lead was insurmountable.

The loss of Istanbul would be especially painful for Erdoğan since his initial electoral success was becoming its mayor in 1994. The AKP is similar to Christian Democratic parties in Europe except that its ideological base is drawn from Islam rather than Christianity. It had ties to a rising bourgeoisie in Anatolia, especially in the textile industry, that did not share the secularism of the traditional Kemalist bourgeoisie and its bureaucratic and military officialdom.

In the early years of AKP rule, it was able to win over many Kemalist voters because it benefited from a relatively flourishing economy and its generous social measures, especially in health care. It also seemed willing to bury the hatchet with the Kurdish population and to move toward integration with the EU, just as was the case in Ukraine.

On January 6, 2017, CounterPunch published an article of mine titled “What Turkey Has Become” that might be a useful introduction to AKP rule. I wrote, in part:

By the 1950s, the progressive aspects of Kemalism had long disappeared. Except for the Kurds and the beleaguered socialist groups in Turkey, there was not much resistance until the Islamists began to emerge as a bourgeois power with its own agenda. Largely based in the Anatolian region and in the textile industry, they began asserting themselves in the 1980s.

For many Turks who had little sympathy for Islamism as an ideology, the AKP was a welcome alternative to decades of Kemalist misrule. In the early 2000s, I took Turkish language classes with Etem Erol at Columbia University, who died much too young exactly a year ago from a heart attack. Like many progressive-minded Turks, Erol voted for the AKP in the 2002 elections and again in 2007. For him, the charitable work of the Islamists and their seeming willingness to bring the Kurds in out of the cold was reason enough to vote for the party.

Now a ferocious critic of the AKP that he would now have you believe is responsible for much of Syria’s miseries, Stephen Kinzer was of a different mind in 2006 when he praised Turkey’s bid to join the EU and the government’s relaxation of tensions with the Kurds. In a New York Review of Books article dated January 12th, Kinzer quoted a Kurdish writer named Lutfi Baski: “Before, we were afraid to speak out. The government was insisting that there were no Kurds, that there was no Kurdish language or culture. They arrested us and closed our organizations. Now, so much has changed, especially in the last few months. Our problems haven’t been solved, not at all, but at least we can talk about them honestly. It’s a huge difference.”

Not only did much of the left admire Erdoğan for a more enlightened stance toward the Kurds, he appeared to be on our side when it came to the Palestinians. In 2010 the Gaza Freedom Flotilla was an important initiative that had the full support of the AKP. That was the same year as the infamous “low sofa” interview he gave to Israeli television, one in which he was seated far below his interviewer—a sign of disrespect.

Between the time of the article’s publication and today, Turkey’s economy has gone into a steep decline. My friend Ahmet Tonak, who I have interviewed twice on Turkish political developments, had an article “The Turkish economy: worse than a recession” published on MR Online just a couple of weeks ago that confirms that the Turkish voters were in such economic distress that their Islamic beliefs were not deep enough to keep the wedded to the Islamic party. One hopes that this pattern might be repeated in other MENA states as the contradictions that produced the Arab Spring continue to mount.

During the final quarter of 2018, consumption fell by 8.9%. How significant is this? A comparison with corresponding figures reported for the United States during the economic crisis of 2007–2008 is quite revealing. At its worst, American household consumption declined by 3% and 3.7%, respectively, during the third and fourth quarters of 2008. In Turkey, by contrast, the drop during the fourth quarter of 2018 alone was nearly three times as bad as each quarter in the U.S., and more significant than even the two quarters combined. This testifies to the depth of the crisis in Turkey, and the tangible ways in which ordinary people are affected by it. The situation is fast becoming intolerable.

The situation is becoming intolerable? Except for what Bernie Sanders calls the billionaire class, that is true for most of humanity. Hold on to your hats, comrades. The ride will be rocky.

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