Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 1, 2008

Marxmail is 10 years old today

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 2:41 pm

This is the tenth anniversary of the Marxism mailing list (also known as Marxmail, the name of the accompanying website) that was launched on May 1, 2008. It started off with about sixty subscribers who were fleeing the Marxism list that preceded it, which had been hijacked by supporters of the Shining Path in Peru, including one Adolfo Olaechea. Adolfo and his co-thinkers soon lost interest in the mailing list and went on to other projects. Adolfo, bless his soul, successfully defended himself recently against trumped up charges of terrorism in Peru and continues to rally people around the Maoist banner.

With all due respect to the Maoist left, it was not the kind of political culture that lent itself to a free and open exchange of ideas. After the Maoist comrades had seized the moderator’s reins, they began expelling people left and right-yours truly was the first to go. Ironically, I had written a defense of the Shining Path a few months before I was booted.

That did not save me from being punished as a “Trotskyite”. Those stormy days of 1998 seem like a century ago, while my genuine Trotskyist past from 1967 to 1978 now seems like a millennium ago. History marches on, to use a cliché.

The Marxism list now has 1103 subscribers. I serve as moderator and Les Schaffer serves as technical moderator. I have had a long and fruitful collaboration with Les whose solid grasp of subscribers’ psychologies, including my own, helps to keep the list on an even keel. To a large extent, my ideas about how to build a non-sectarian and non-dogmatic left are reflected in the way I moderate the list. Most of all, this involves a firm hand when it comes to any attempts to divide the list between ‘Bolsheviks’ and ‘Mensheviks’. Since Internet mailing lists tend to operate as pressure cookers to begin with, the worst thing for a Marxism mailing list would be to artificially raise the temperature. Labeling people as “revisionists” or “reformists” is an invitation to the kinds of flame wars that destroyed the mailing lists that preceded Marxmail.

While the list does not have nearly as many female subscribers that it needs, the global representation is pretty good-including many subscribers from the Third World. On a typical day, there will be posts from subscribers in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Colombia, Germany, and Great Britain. The political representation is also pretty good, with subscribers reflecting Trotskyist, Communist, state capitalist, and syndicalist traditions.

The mailing list has grown by about 100 new subscribers per year and I expect that it will continue at this rate unless there is a qualitative change in the political situation. If there was a radicalization as deep as that of 1968 (another anniversary now being celebrated) I can easily imagine adding 3 or 4 hundred subscribers per year. Given the economic crisis we are now entering, as well as the prospect of continuing imperialist war and environmental degradation, that could be in the cards.

Nearly 40 years ago, the Trotskyist sect that I belonged to embarked on a major infrastructure expansion campaign in anticipation of the same kind of future radicalization. Members gave millions of dollars to purchase an office building near the Hudson River and an expensive Web Press, which prints on continuous rolls of paper. The offices were seen as necessary to administer an explosive growth in membership and the Web Press would allow the massive circulation of party organs as the radicalization deepened. Although there were opportunities for the group after the 60s radicalization came to an end, they did not understand how to take advantage of them. Instead of growing, they shrank. The building and all the contents, including the Web Press, were sold a couple of years ago.

Although there will obviously always be a need for “dead tree” media such as books and newspapers, the Internet-which is a Web Press after a fashion-is as geared to our epoch as the Gutenberg press was geared to the epoch of peasant revolts. I like to think of the Marxism mailing list as the same kind of investment in infrastructure as the SWP’s office building and Web Press, even though it costs very little. In the coming years and decades, even after my ashes have been scattered in the Hudson River, Marxmail will enable revolutionaries worldwide to exchange information and debate ideas, all through the auspices of a technology that originated in the American military’s research into how state power could be maintained after a nuclear war! Talk about contradictions…

The Marxism list remains grateful to the support of Professor Hans Ehrbar of the University of Utah Economics department, one of the few schools in the country that allows scholarly critiques of the capitalist system to be mounted. Our mailing list operates on a computer that Hans donated and his technical support, along with Les’s, allows our communications to run smoothly.

I would also wish our comrade Doug Henwood well, whose LBO-Talk mailing list was launched on the very same day as Marxmail. Doug was a survivor of the early wild and woolly days of Marxism mailing lists on the Internet as well as senseless provocations from your moderator before I (and Doug) had reached our current Zen-like state of equanimity.


  1. Happy Birthday to you,
    happy birthday to you,
    happy birthday dear data transmissions
    of the proletariat
    Happy Birthday to you

    Comment by Marc — May 4, 2008 @ 3:17 pm

  2. Congrats.

    I’ve been a subscriber for some years now, lurking rather than commenting most of the time, it’s been a good education so far.

    Comment by Martin Wisse — May 5, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

  3. Further Winter Musings

    I find this discussion equally fascinating and disappointing. It is fascinating to hear SWPers looking back and sharing their personal reminiscences with us. That is important. There is no substitute for eyewitness accounts.

    It is disappointing in that they all miss the mark as to: Barnes’s biggest crime was not the expulsion of the older cadre, but the wanton destruction of the SWP’s revolutionary program; How he was able to get control of the SWP apparatus and why he engaged in his bureaucratic thuggery. The evil genius theory affords us no materialist answers at all.

    A brief historical glance backward is very much in order here. The chief problem facing the SWP from its inception until the rise of the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 60s was its isolation. In the 30s it was very overshadowed by the CPUSA. It was THAT organization that most Americans saw as the voice of Marxism. So recruits to the SWP were microscopically incremental. And this was true despite its leadership in the Flint, Michigan strike.

    In the first half of the 40s, not only was the SWP overshadowed by the CPUSA, but the country was engulfed in the super-patriotic war-fever of WWII. More isolation for the SWP….

    In the late 40s there was an up tick in labor militancy and the SWP began to break out of its isolation and recruited many workers. But this was short-lived. The HUAC hearings (pre-McCarthy) began (I think) in 1948. The workers that the SWP recruited left fearfully in droves.

    The 50s were characterized by the McCarthyite witch hunts. I’ve heard older members tell of coming to branch meetings back then and wondering whose seat would be empty that week. The SWP shrank and lived in isolation.

    The early 60s saw a real opening for the SWP to recruit and expand its influence with the formation of the anti-war movement. It was at this time that Barnes arose. The old Dobbs-Kerry leadership were relieved that a youth who showed some leadership traits came to the fore . No longer would it be the gray-heads, thinning out by death, who would shepherd the SWP into the future. Dobbs & Kerry were happy to step aside and let Barnes who was only in his 20s take over.

    Barnes took the reins of power into his hands. As he did so other movements arose; black nationalism, feminism, and Chicano nationalism. The industrial proletariat on the other hand was very quiescent.

    The remaining SWP old-timers were tired and pessimistic, especially with the on-going proletarian dormancy. So when Barnes held out to them the prospect of rapidly growing the SWP based on these noisy petty-bourgeois movements, the old-timers breathed a collective sigh of relief. Here was their Moses who would lead them out of the desert of isolation and into the Promised Land of mass influence. This was the reason they accepted Barnes and his new-fangled pseudo-Marxism. Whatever orthodox Trotskyist misgivings the old-timers had were stifled as they gazed with hope on Barnes and his shortcuts promising the SWP’s growing political influence on the radicalizing students.

    Barnes, and his coterie of sycophants, became captives of their own reformist get-rich-quick schemes. “Consistent feminists are socialists,” they proclaimed loudly. Pointing to the black nationalists they swore, “consistent nationalism leads to socialism!” How utterly pathetic and puerile do these idiotic and rubbishy slogans sound today! But upon these delusional prognostications Barnes was going to build a mass party!

    This was Barnes’s REAL crime, his original sin. He watered down Trotskyism and Marxism until ultimately they were no longer recognizable. Expelling Breitman, Kutcher, Weinstein, et. al. was vile. But that pales in comparison to the mockery Barnes made of the Trotskyist program. He turned Trotskyism into a namby-pamby narodnism (people power with some socialist flavoring) in the eyes radical students and thus lost them to the revolutionary cause.

    Mike, Ralph, and Alan correctly sketch the bureaucratically thuggish character of Barnes and the mindlessness of his hand-raising idiotic robotic rank and file. But they fail in their analysis by ignoring what Barnes did to Trotskyism.

    Gus is even further removed from a grounded analysis of what Barnes did, why he did it, and how he was able to “get away with it.” Gus was in the leading layer of the Barnes clique. So he views Barnes more favorably than Ralph, Mike and Alan. For Gus, even today, Barnes did some good until he went mysteriously bad. Gus cannot see why this happened. But, coincidentally, this happened at the time Gus left the SWP.

    Gus can apologize all he wants to for helping Barnes to expel some of the old-timers. I don’t doubt his sincerity here. But not only did Gus go along with these expulsions, but worse, he eagerly went along with the Barnes leadership as it watered down and gutted Trotskyism. It’s tough to replace older cadre, Gus. But it’s far tougher to reconstitute the genuinely revolutionary program that became a doormat under Barnes’s feet.

    Barnes was able to get away with what he did because Dobbs/Kerry/Breitman et. al. were dog-tired of living in the SWP’s isolation for decades. They eagerly followed this Pied Piper of eccentric reformism in the vain hope that their years of hanging on by their fingernails to Trotskyist orthodoxy would suddenly bear fruit under Barnes’s grandiose and delusional schemes.

    So that’s what Barnes did and represents. Barnes personifies the watering down and eventual jettisoning of Trotskyism in the hopes of short-circuiting the infuriatingly slow historical process of building a revolutionary party. He was able to get away with it because the older cadres of the SWP were tired and desperate for some modicum of success via his get-rich-quick reformism. They gave him the reins of leadership, but Barnes drove their wagon into the ditch of history.

    Barnes repaid their trust in him with his bureaucratic thuggery. Why? It eventually dawned on Barnes that he had to jettison the Trotskyist label in order to carry out his reformist pipe dreams. Just ditching the program was not enough to enable him to cozy up to Kim Jung Il or the Castroite leadership who were visceral Trotsky-haters. So Barnes had one more obstacle to tackle. He had to rid “his” party of all the old cadre who had some memory, however foggy and faded, of genuine Trotskyism. On the one hand, he couldn’t allow the possibility that one of these “old timers” might write a document comparing genuine Trotskyism to Barnesism, with the latter coming up the loser. On the other hand, he could not risk an older cadre waving the flag of Trotskyism as Barnes looked longingly at the Trotsky-haters. So Barnes unceremoniously booted the old cadres out of the party they had literally given their lives to. That enabled him to rid himself of the Trotskyist label without fear of opposition.

    So you see, Gus, Mike, Ralph, and Alan, Barnes’s bureaucratic thuggery directly flows from his destruction of the SWP’s Trotskyist program. The thuggery was the natural and inevitable consequence of his abandonment of Trotskyism. If you hate the Trotskyist program you must hate the Trotskyist cadres.

    That’s why I stated at the beginning of this analysis that what Banes did to the program was worse than what he did to the older cadre. The destruction of the Trotskyist program was the original sin that blossomed into the destruction of the SWP! If Stalin was the gravedigger of the revolution, Barnes was the gravedigger of Trotskyism.

    Comment by Alexander Gorse — February 10, 2013 @ 8:04 am

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