Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 16, 2008

Left Forum 2008

Filed under: pakistan,revolutionary organizing,socialism,Turkey — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Time constraints prevented me from attending today’s sessions of the Left Forum in New York, but I do want report back on what I saw yesterday. As a point of introduction, the Left Forum used to be called the Socialist Scholars Conference but was renamed as a consequence of a power struggle within the organizing committee. Rightwing social democrats sought to purge the conference of its more radical members including the conference organizer Eric Canepa who they viewed as insufficiently Serbophobic. You can read more about this here.

On Saturday morning I went to a panel on “Understanding Turkey Today: Class Dynamics, State Restructuring and Political Alternatives”. A paper was read by its three co-authors who were college professors from Turkey (Fuat Ercan, Marmara University; Selime Guzelsari, Abant Izzet Baysal University; Sebnem Oguz, Trent University in Canada) and judging by their youthful appearance, part of a new generation of Turkish Marxism.

My first exposure to Turkish Marxism at the Socialist Scholars Conference was perhaps 10 years ago when I heard Halil Berktay speak about the implosion of the sectarian left in Turkey that had left him utterly demoralized. Berktay was two years younger than me and part of the 60s generation of radicals that included Ahmet Tonak who used to be subbed to the Marxism list and PEN-L until returning to Turkey. You can read my comments on Berktay’s rather dispirited presentation here.

It is entirely possible that the crisis of the Turkish revolutionary movement of the 1960s is partially responsible for Turkey’s political situation today. A stronger movement might have created an alternative to both the Kemalists and the AKP but as things stand today the Turkish left is divided between nationalist and liberal components, who respectively support these two bourgeois parties.

The presentation seemed heavily influenced by Althusserian theory and focused on the struggle over control of the state between two sectors of the capitalist class. It began by making the point that political change in Turkey is not primarily driven by international factors such as the IMF but by internal class dynamics.

Specifically, the first generation of capitalists in Turkey, which arose in the 50s and 60s, were Kemalist and Istanbul-based. They used their connections to the state to accumulate capital in the form of holding companies. The new generation arose in Anatolia, the eastern and more backward section of the country, and sought international support for their mid-sized enterprises, which often relied on family employees. The new generation sought to differentiate itself from the older generation by stressing Islamic identity.

In reply to an idiotic intervention during the discussion period from the Spartacist League about the need to forge a Trotskyist party, Fuat Ercan pointed out that it is difficult to pose the task of a proletarian revolution in Turkey when the question of who the proletariat is has not been answered adequately. Throughout the country, the work force is in a constant state of flux and the informal sector is pervasive.

Although I had some problems with the Althusserian jargon, I was impressed with the seriousness of the presentation and their obvious grasp of the difficulties facing the Turkish left. It is impossible to build a revolutionary movement without looking hard realities in the face.

I have made available an April 2007 Science and Society article by Ercan and Oguz on “Rethinking Anti-Neoliberal Strategies through the Perspective of Value Theory: Insights from the Turkish Case” here.

* * * *

At 3pm I attended a panel on “Lenin’s Return” that I was very much looking forward to since it included a presentation by Lars Lih, the author of “Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? in Context”, a scholarly work that essentially makes the point I have been making for years, namely that Lenin was not inventing a new type of “Leninist” party but simply trying to build a social democratic party in the mode of Kautsky’s party in Germany.

In addition to Lars, there was a presentation by Paul Le Blanc, the author of “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party”, a work that I value highly even though I disagreed with Paul’s notion that such a party can be built along the lines of James P. Cannon. As will be obvious in a moment or two, it is possible that Paul no longer believes that himself nowadays. Although I am not quite sure whether her presentation was exactly germane to the discussion, Helen Scott of the University of Vermont spoke on Rosa Luxemburg and stressed Luxemburg’s affinities with Lenin, despite the efforts of left anti-Communists to turn her into a kind of Kautsky figure. Finally, parts of a paper written by August Nimtz were read by Paul. August’s mother had died two days earlier, thus preventing his attendance.

Most of Paul’s talk can be described as a general defense of Lenin’s importance and avoided the sorts of controversy that might have been expected at an event such as this. Rather than getting into his ideas about how to rebuild a revolutionary party in the U.S., a topic that was very much on the front burner 10 years ago for him, Paul focused more on what all revolutionaries accept, namely Lenin’s commitment to socialist revolution and his hatred of injustice of all sorts. As a sign of Lenin’s reemergence as a figure to be contended with, Paul referred to “Lenin Reloaded”, a collection of talks from a Historical Materialism conference in London a few years ago that included a number of academic superstars like Slavoj Zizek and Fredric Jameson.

August Nimtz’s paper took aim both at Zizek’s talk and at Lars Lih’s book. Nimtz rejects Zizek’s claim that Lenin represented some kind of “departure” in Marxism. He also rejects Lih’s notion that Lenin was a kind of Russian version of Kautsky. For Nimtz, the key to understanding Lenin is his close ties to Marx and Engels and not in any “departure”, nor in any affinity with German social democracy. Although it is hard to argue with the idea that Lenin was very much in the tradition of Marx and Engels, I was somewhat perplexed with Nimtz’s apparent avoidance of the main issue stressed by Lars Lih, namely the heavy stamp of the German social democracy in “What is to be Done”. Here’s just one of my favorite quotes, which has to do with the question of defining the “vanguard”:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

When you stop and think about this, it seems that there still is a lot to be gained from studying the German socialist movement. Clearly, the party’s parliamentarians and trade union officials had adapted to the German capitalist class, but there’s something to be said for “championing every protest against tyranny”.

Perhaps Nimtz, a former member of the SWP like Paul Le Blanc, still has illusions that “democratic centralism” in the style of James P. Cannon has a future. Since he was not able to attend and since his paper is probably not available on the Internet, I have no way of knowing.

Lars Lih reacted to Nimtz’s challenge with remarkable aplomb and an elfin sense of humor. He gave a presentation that sought to demonstrate that Lenin remained committed to Kautsky’s Marxism even after he broke with him over WWI. Time after time, Lenin referred to the correct ideas of Kautsky in works such as “The Agrarian Question” and expressed disappointment that the German Marxist leader no longer held to his earlier views. In hearing this I was reminded of how George Galloway quoted some of Christopher Hitchens’s earlier antiwar views to him during that infamous debate in N.Y. a few years ago. (I suppose comparing Hitchens to Kautsky is a bit like farce following tragedy but then again Galloway is no Lenin.) I will not try to communicate any more of Lih’s presentation since I will be getting the full paper from him shortly and making it available to you.

One of the more encouraging things about this panel was the presence of a large number of young people in the audience (some of whom who seemed to be members of the ISO). During the discussion period, they were distinguished by the seriousness of their comments and their ability to transcend the narrow sectarianism of the Spartacist League contingent that gave its customary gaseous remarks. One young woman made an excellent point that living up to the spirit of Lenin today means participating in the mass movement rather than constructing “purist” propaganda sects. A young Latino said that although the abuses carried out in the name of “Leninism” should be avoided; there is no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater. My general perception is that these young people (and the ISO’ers in particular) are wrestling with the problems of sectarianism in the name of building a party like Lenin’s and are seeking to transform it, even if they are hobbled by some “vanguardist” conceptions built into their party’s constitution.

At 5pm I attended an interview on Pakistan given by Tariq Ali to David Barsamian who has been doing this sort of thing for years and is quite good at it, including a 2005 session with Tariq that is available from amazon.com.

Tariq made a number of fascinating points, including some that debunked the notion of an Islamic fundamentalist tidal wave sweeping Pakistan. He noted that no more than 10 percent of the population has voted for Islamic fundamentalist candidates in free elections. He also noted that the spread of madrassas in Pakistan is to be understood more in terms of the lack of public education than any enthusiasm for political Islam. One other bit of evidence of an absence of zealotry is the collaboration of Christian and Muslim farmers who are in a struggle to retain control over public lands that the army is trying to privatize. If which god you prayed to was all that important, these farmers would have never found a way to struggle against their common enemy.

Tariq also had some rather scathing comments on Benazir Bhutto, who he had a number of conversations with when she was in power. When he urged that she adopt some reforms that were rather limited in nature, she pleaded poverty. He then replied that she could do something that did not cost a penny but that could establish her as a groundbreaking reformer. She simply could push through legislation that repealed the emergency laws enacted under military rule. Since her party held a parliamentary majority, such repeal was feasible. She failed to take his advice. Tariq also proposed that if there was one thing that could make her mark in history, it was to establish a girl’s school in every village in Pakistan. Again, she ignored her advice.

Tariq Ali is very eloquent and very informed on his native country. One hopes that a book comes out of it since Pakistan is obviously being drawn into the “war on terror”. He feels that Pakistan has become a crucial element of this imperialist adventure since it is critical to eliminating the challenge to the Afghan government. In his opinion, Afghanistan has become a disaster for the occupiers, even more so than Iraq. But in a period of rising challenges to U.S. hegemony, the resource-poor land has taken on more and more value as a geopolitical asset, including its proximity to China. One top U.S. military official has said something to the effect that we are in Afghanistan because of the threat China poses. Ironically, this does not sound all that different from what I heard in 1965 when the U.S. was first getting involved in Vietnam in a major way.

6 Comments »

  1. A similar kind of discussion might be happening on Columbia University’s campus between April 24 and April 27, 2008. To mark the 40th anniversary of the 1968 Columbia Anti-War Student Revolt against Columbia University’s complicity with U.S. imperialism, veterans of the 1968 Columbia Student Strike will be gathering at Columbia’s School of Journalism. See the following link for the schedule of commemoration events:

    http://www.columbia1968.info

    Comment by bob f. — March 21, 2008 @ 5:41 pm

  2. Ah, that was you that made the comment at the Lenin discussion right after Carl Dix. I was sitting in a corner near the door.

    Anyway, on a website called “Particracy”, they have a “random quote” at the bottom of the page. One that recently appeared: “The answer to global warming is in the abolition of private property and production for human need. A socialist world would place an enormous priority on alternative energy sources. This is what ecologically-minded socialists have been exploring for quite some time now.” – Louis Proyect

    Apparently you’re famous enough to be included in this quote reel 🙂

    Comment by Zeus the Moose — March 22, 2008 @ 1:14 am

  3. Thanks for the report back on the conference, Louis. Man, do I miss New York. Out here, it’s a struggle to even move people past the Obama cult and pay attention to the actual makeup of his campaign or the realitites of what it means to figure so largely in the prospects of the other party of the elite. Even as I typed those last few words, part of me is wondering if I’ve transgressed the acceptable perimeters of discourse. All anyone does in Seattle anymore is keep their heads down. It was always a problem, I mean, look at John Reed’s caustic remarks about Seattle a century ago and you’ll see a description of the town pretty much how it is now. But the prosperity of the region- comparatively speaking, of course- has reduced most political and cultural discourse out this way to some pretty pathetic milquetoast stuff. Ah well, one day the real world will begin to assert itself again here.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — March 25, 2008 @ 1:02 pm

  4. Mr. Proyect,

    I read your text on Turkey and “Turkish” Marxists and just wanted say a couple of things as a criticism. I guess that, as a Marxist, you are open for fair criticisms.

    Let’s start from the beginning…
    First of all, one thing we the Marxists in Turkey avoid to say is “Turkish Marxism”. Because all the revolutionary organizations in Turkey accept that Turkey is not only composed of Turkish but also Kurdish people who are fighting for more than 30 years for their independence. Although this fight turned into an armed revisionism, their existence makes the phrase “Turkish Marxism” a nationalist argument. Also, It cannot be claimed that, there’s a pure **Turkish** or **Kurdish** revolutionary (PKK became somewhat revisionist) movement in Turkey, for all of the revolutionary organizations include both Turkish & Kurdish people (we have Armenian, Laz, Cherkes comrades also) both as militants and as theoreticians. Many of them struggle for the emancipation of both nation’s proleteriat. One must keep in mind that extremely important point when talking about a “Turkish Marxism”. Because some of the movements can neither be labelled as Turkish nor Kurdish. It’s not surprising that our academicians totally ignored this point, and are still complaining the nationalism of the Turkey’s left.

    Secondly Mr. Proyect, and that’s my personal suggestion, please think twice when you are taking information from academicians in Turkey about the Left. Even they are leftists in some sense, many of them avoid taking part in the class struggle. Especially after the military coup in 1980, the Marxist academicians were driven from the academies, some of them had been killed, and left their positions to their petit-bourgeois equivalents.

    In this Turkey example, the left’s split between the Kemalists and AKP, namely the split between the nationalists and the liberals is something valid only for social democratic movements which are merely struggling to win the parliamentary elections. Now yes, our academicians only considering the social-democratic part of the struggle, because of their point of view; but it’s my responsibility to say that, there are movements and parties in Turkey, which stood against these discussions and are continuing their struggle. I can comfortably argue that, the real left has no doubts that both the nationalists and the Islamo-liberals are bourgeois, and hence, our enemy in essence.

    But I know what do they mean by this split. We have some bourgeois scholars, journalists and parties which held the centre-left position before 1997. But they compelled to choose their side between two conflicting capitalist groups during the process and some became nationalist, many became liberals. But the revolutionary organizations in Turkey were constantly repeating that, since the beginnings of the process, this split was and is an artificial one. I have to say that, the analysis carried out by Ercan, Guzelsari and Oguz, as far as I read here, is a very shallow one, in terms of understanding the dynamics of Turkey’s left which is still actively struggling against the fascist militants and liberals in the country. Their analysis is “trapped”, in one word, inside the moderate leftist positions in Turkey.

    Best wishes.

    p.s. I also sent this text to you via e-mail, Mr. Proyect…

    Comment by tolsto — May 6, 2008 @ 3:17 pm

  5. I’m the only one in this world. Can please someone join me in this life? Or maybe death…

    Comment by Dioxclila — April 24, 2009 @ 12:46 am

  6. I don’t take Tariq Ali too seriously. He openly supports Hezbollah, and has a bias against non-Muslims and even Shi’as (he was raised Sunni). For someone who claims to be critical of his country’s mentality, he’s still a fan of Muhammad Iqbal, the Muslim-supremacist ideologue who truly popularized the whole idea of partition.

    As for the 10% of congress bit, this is a moot point considering that in some regions of Pakistan, particularly the north, the fundamentalists are in power and have majority support. Further, 25-30% of the military support the Taliban, and top generals and members of the ISI (whom Ali admits have a grip on the country) have proven links not only to the Taliban, but also Al Qaeda. Is this not a cause for alarm?

    He claims that cooperating Christian and Muslim farmers represent “an absence of zealotry.” Really? Then why all the trumped charges of “blasphemy” (which in this non-zealous country brings a death sentence!) against poor Christian farmers in villages? Why the bombings of churches, and killings of Christians? Why are Christians systematically shut out of the socio-economic system? For that matter, how are Ahmedis treated?

    Really, Pakistan was not so much “drawn into the war on terrorism,” as the government and military-mullah hegemony has put the country in this position due to their own policies. In the name of “freedom fighting” in Kashmir they’ve tried to annex it for themselves, starting three wars with India in the process. They have also treated Afghanistan as their backyard, seeing it as “strategic depth” in case they feel the need to attack India again. And never mind the designs of Pakistan’s military (it is documented that they believe in the right to take over “temporarily occupied Muslim land” in areas with a Muslim minority).

    The “fundamentalists” have always been more influential and had more support than the CPPAK, and the only convergence I see is in mutual hatred of the U.S. He scores points in Pakistan on the latter, but his renown in the global justice movement is hardly representative of any large scale desire in Pakistan for full equality for its minorities or for peace with its neighbors. It’s strange that Ali, a critic of Islam, and religion in general, seems to think that only America and the West, and not Islamic hegemony (a civilization which he apparently believes would’ve eventually evolved into something like a non-theocratic communism were it not for western imperialism) are to blame for all of Pakistan’s woes.

    Comment by ~ T — September 1, 2009 @ 11:26 pm


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