Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 17, 2010

The USSR, Mustafa Kemal and “reactionary anti-imperialism”, part 2

Filed under: cuba,Mexico,Stalinism,Turkey,ussr — louisproyect @ 4:53 pm

(Part one is here.)

Lazaro Cardenas: the Mexican Kemal

Perhaps no other incident in history better illustrates the old cliché that politics makes strange bedfellows than the Soviet-Turkish ties in the early 1920s.

This relationship had two phases. In the first that occurred during War Communism, the USSR made common cause with Turkey because they both were anxious to fend off British imperialism. 40,000 British troops were part of a 13 nation expeditionary force that was determined to overthrow Bolshevism.

Meanwhile, Britain used Greece as a surrogate invading power to control what would become Turkey in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Mustafa Kemal relied heavily on Soviet arms and material during 1920.

Within a couple of years, the policy of War Communism had been abandoned in favor of the NEP. This meant that the Soviet Union would put a high priority on establishing peaceful relationships with any and all countries, including Britain. This was also the period in which the Comintern looked Eastward in the hope that Asia would rise up against imperialism. It viewed national liberation movements as progressive, even when they were led by someone like Mustafa Kemal. Given this turn, it would make sense that the USSR would bend over backwards trying to link up with Turkey.

The definitive statement on Soviet-Turkish relations came from Karl Radek, whose articles England and the East and The Winding-Up of the Versailles Treaty, a report to the fourth Comintern congress are must reading. It is a shame that Goldner made no attempt to evaluate such material since it would at least have given the reader the assurance that he was considering all sides of the debate. In the second article, Radek zeroed in on the Treaty of Sevres that put the WWI victors in charge of the Ottoman finances and extracted other concessions. It was analogous to the Brest-Litovsk treaty that punished the infant Soviet Republic for having the temerity to withdraw from the WWI bloodbath. Radek wrote:

Whatever may be the result of the Near Eastern crisis, one thing is quite patent: the Sevres Treaty has been smashed by Turkish cannon. The popular masses of the Near East, who in the eyes of the Allies are not only a quantité négligeable, but simply the scum of the earth, have been set in motion against no less a thing than the Versailles Treaty. They are at present beginning to play their part. Among the diplomats who think to be able to control the course of history through clever formulae and secret conferences, there is disunity. Great Britain has experienced one of her deepest humiliations in her long history, when after the defeat of her Greek vassal, she durst not come in shining armour to his assistance, and after having pronounced a sentence of death upon Turkey, had now to flatter her and even to offer her a place in the League of Nations. This fact is the irrefutable proof of the break-up of the Sevres Treaty. Popular masses on a low level of civilisation can only be kept in subjection as long as there is unity among the slaveholders, but not when these come to loggerheads. As soon as the slaves perceive that the oppressors are trembling, they begin to rebel. The East of to-day which sees Great Britain trembling, is no more the East of the days of the Sevres Treaty. The Turkish victory finds an echo in India and the whole Islamic world. This echo is the best proof that we have to do with an important episode in the growth of the world revolution, with a success of the world revolution, though the organisers of the victory are far from being revolutionary in the modern sense of the term.

What is missing entirely from Goldner’s analysis is any sense of how important Kemal’s victory was in pushing Greece and Britain out of Turkish lands. This was not only important for the defense of the USSR, it was also a genuine anti-imperialist victory on a par with Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal or the British being forced to leave India. It does not matter that Nasser or Gandhi were bourgeois nationalists simply interested in capitalist development. Marxists, at least those not addled by philosophical idealism, have always considered colonial struggles as worthy of support even if they are not being led by communists.

In 1882, Engels wrote a letter to Karl Kautsky that was very much in the spirit of what Radek wrote. You will notice that he does not make communism some kind of litmus test. He is for the independence of oppressed nations even under bourgeois leadership:

One of the real tasks of the 1848 Revolution (and the real, not illusory tasks of a revolution are always solved as a result of that revolution) was the restoration of the oppressed and dispersed nationalities of Central Europe, insofar as these were at all viable and, especially, ripe for independence. This task was solved for Italy, Hungary and Germany, according to the then prevailing conditions, by the executors of the revolution’s will, Bonaparte, Cavour and Bismarck. Ireland and Poland remained. Ireland can be disregarded here, she affects the conditions of the Continent only very indirectly. But Poland lies in the middle of the Continent and the conservation of her division is precisely the link that has constantly held the Holy Alliance together, and therefore, Poland is of great interest to us….

I therefore hold the view that two nations in Europe have not only the right but even the duty to be nationalistic before they become internationalistic: the Irish and the Poles. They are most internationalistic when they are genuinely nationalistic. The Poles understood this during all crises and have proved it on all the battlefields of the revolution. Deprive them of the prospect of restoring Poland or convince them that the new Poland will soon drop into their lap by herself, and it is all over with their interest in the European revolution.

Maybe Goldner does not consider Engels to be a real communist, only one of those people promoting “reactionary anti-imperialism” but Engels is good enough for me.

All that being said, the question remains: was the USSR correct to try to maintain a close relationship with Turkey after Kemal unleashed his repression against the Communists? In some ways, this is a difficult question to answer since time was drawing near when it would become moot. By 1923, when Kemal was mopping up the Communists, the USSR was on the verge of isolating Leon Trotsky and other critical-minded Marxists who objected to what was becoming a policy of accommodation to the national bourgeoisie. In four short years, the disastrous policy in China would unfold prompting Trotsky to open a full-scale assault on Stalin’s class collaborationist politics. Under directions from Stalin, the Chinese CP had subordinated itself completely to the Kuomintang, leading to the slaughter of far more many working class militants than was the case in Turkey.

If the USSR was no longer able to serve as an example of how a revolutionary society relates to governments such as Kemal’s, there is one that is close at hand facing almost identical paradoxes and contradictions, namely Cuba. As I have already pointed out, Goldner is completely hostile to the Cuban government, linking it with North Korea in one of his articles:

Fewer still look to surviving relics such as North Korea or Cuba. The most radical elements of the 1960’s and 1970’s upsurge, from Socialism or Barbarism in France, Eastern European “Marxist humanism” (Kolakowski, the Yugoslav Praxis group), the Situationists, or the Italian workerists mainly rejected these regimes as viscerally as they rejected the (Keynesian) Labour and Social Democratic welfare states of the 1945-1975 period.

If they were the most radical elements of the 60s and 70s, I am glad that I went my own way. Frankly, there was about as much chance of me hooking up with the Situationists as there was with the yippies. I don’t begrudge someone like Guy Debord having a grand old time at the expense of middle-class propriety but I was far more interested in organizing mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

Now Cuba faces many of the same problems as the infant Soviet republic but with the added complication of having a much smaller resource base, a narrower geographical space that is additionally vulnerable due to its proximity to the USA, and—more recently—without socialist allies internationally.

Cuba faced a similar quandary in 1968 when the Mexican government unleashed a terrible repression against the student movement, many of whose leaders were likely Fidelistas politically. Although this is not quite the same situation as took place in Turkey in the 1920s, the Cuban government was as low-key as the Soviets were when the 15 Turkish Communists were drowned.

As I have pointed out myself to uncritical Fidelistas on Marxmail, there was no response from the Cuban government. If you go to the Castro speech database and do a search on Mexico during 1968, you will not find a word of protest.

Now it is no accident that Turkey and Mexico are connected in this fashion since both exemplify the paradoxes of national liberation movements led by the bourgeoisie and governments that have become calcified after it takes power. The Mexican PRI and Kemal’s Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican Peoples Party) were both political leaderships of arguably the last hurrah of the bourgeois revolution.

And, interestingly enough, both republics gave asylum to Leon Trotsky. For all of Mustafa Kemal’s hostility to Communism, he was willing to host Trotsky in the first leg of his exile. While Trotsky does not exactly sing Kemal’s praises in “My Life”, there are some accounts that he enjoyed his stay in Turkey immensely on a personal level. I recommend the documentary Exile in Buyukuda for the modern Turkish take on his stay in their homeland.

Despite Mexico’s more democratic functioning during Trotsky’s stay there, not much differentiated it from Turkey in economic terms. Both Kemal and Cardenas were committed to national development and considered labor and capital to be co-equal partners in a bid to modernize the respective countries. Of course, this was just propaganda. The way it worked out in practice, as it does everywhere in the world, is to the benefit of the bourgeoisie. In both the case of Turkey and Mexico, the lip-service paid to labor and the actual benefits it received declined the longer the two hegemonic bourgeois parties remained in the driver’s seat.

No matter how degraded the Mexican PRI had become, there was still a residual spark that motivated it to stand up to imperialism when it came to Castro’s Cuba. In a paper titled Capitalizing on Castro: Mexico’s Foreign Relations with Cuba, 1959-1969, Renata Keller makes clear how important Mexico was to Cuba. The article begins:

In the decade immediately following Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, Mexican leaders consistently distinguished themselves from their Latin American counterparts by acting as outspoken defenders of the Cuban people’s right to self-determination. Influential politicians such as Lázaro Cárdenas threw their support behind Castro, and in 1960 Mexican president Adolfo López Mateos welcomed Cuban president Osvaldo Dorticós in a lavish state visit. At the July 1964 meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, D.C., Mexico was the only Latin American country that refused to adopt the resolution to break diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba and impose economic sanctions. Mexico thereafter maintained diplomatic relations with Cuba, which effectively established Mexico as the sole link between Castro and the rest of the hemisphere because none of the other Latin American governments recognized Cuba’s revolutionary regime until after 1970.

So in order to fend off American economic pressure and to find an ally, sincere or not, in diplomatic initiatives against the counter-revolutionary OAS, Cuba found itself in bed with Mexico.

While it is difficult to quantify what this relationship meant to Cuba, it very likely helped Fidel Castro to survive. No matter how politically bankrupt Mexico and the USSR were, they were necessary allies against imperialism. If Castro refused to denounce Mexico in 1968 or the USSR for invading Czechoslovakia in the same year, he more than made up for this in assisting liberation movements in Africa and Latin America.

In the real world, politics can be very messy. My advice to my anarchist, situationist, left, council and libertarian communist friends who want to keep their hands clean is to stay out of politics altogether.

A parable on left unity

Filed under: sectarianism — louisproyect @ 3:28 pm

(This originated on http://bristolred.wordpress.com/2010/05/16/on-left-unity/)

An old revolutionary, Sam, is walking across the Brooklyn Bridge one day when he sees a man of a similar age standing on the edge, about to jump. He runs over and says:

“Stop. Don’t do it.”

“Why shouldn’t I?” the other guy asks.

“Well, there’s so much to live for!” explains Sam.

“I’m just so depressed, I’ve been a communist all my life and the revolution seems as far away as ever”

“You’re a communist?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“I am as well! Were you in the Communist Party USA?”

“Yeah.”

“Me too! Did you join the pro-Trotsky Communist League of America in 1928, which later merged with the American Workers Party to form the Workers Party of America in 1934?”

“Yeah.”

“Spooky, me too! After the WPA was expelled from the Socialist Party of America in 1936 did you go on to join the Socialist Workers Party USA and the Fourth International?”

“I did actually…”

“Me too! In the 1940 dispute did you side with Cannon or Shachtman?”

“Cannon.”

“Me too! In 1962 did you join Robertson’s opposition caucus, the Revolutionary Tendency?”

“Yep.”

” Holy shit! And I bet that like me you were expelled and went on to join the International Communist League (Spartacist)?”

“Well … that goes without saying!”

“In 1985 did you join the International Bolshevik Tendency who claimed that the Sparts had degenerated into an ‘obedience cult’?”

“No way!”

“Nah, me neither. In 1998 did you join the Internationalist Group after the Permanent Revolution Faction were expelled from the ICL?”

“Yes! I can’t believe this! Maybe I won’t …”

“Die, counterrevolutionary scum!”  shouts Sam, and pushes him off the bridge.

May 16, 2010

The USSR, Mustafa Kemal and “reactionary anti-imperialism”, part 1

Filed under: Stalinism,Turkey,ussr — louisproyect @ 10:00 pm

(part two is here.)

Loren Goldner’s “Socialism in One Country” Before Stalin, and the Origins of Reactionary “Anti-Imperialism”: The Case of Turkey, 1917-1925 interested me for several reasons. Not only do my in-laws have strong Kemalist credentials, I have developed a strong affection for Turkish culture, enough so that I studied Turkish at Columbia University for a couple of years until I ran into the brick wall of the advanced class.

Beyond the personal connection, I felt challenged by Goldner’s assertion that the Soviet Union’s turning a blind eye to the murder of 15 leading Turkish Communists in 1921 constitutes a kind of original sin that is manifested today in the following manner:

The “anti-imperialist” ideology of the 1960’s and early 1970’s died a hard death by the late 1970’s. Western leftist cheerleaders for “Ho- Ho- Ho Chi Minh” in London, Paris, Berlin and New York fell silent as Vietnam invaded Cambodia, and China invaded Vietnam, and the Soviet Union threatened China. China allied with the U.S. against the Soviets in the new Cold War, and the other “national liberation movements” that had taken power in Algeria, and later in Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau…disappointed.

Today, a vague mood of “anti-imperialism” is back, led by Venezuela’s Chavez and his Latin American allies (Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia), more or less (with the exception of Stalinist Cuba) classical bourgeois-nationalist regimes. But Chavez in turn is allied, at least verbally and often practically, with the Iran of the ayatollahs, and Hezbollah, and Hamas, as well as newly-emergent China, which no one any longer dares call “socialist”. The British SWP allies with Islamic fundamentalists in local elections in the UK, and participates in mass demonstations [sic] (during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, summer 2007) chanting “We are all Hezbollah”. Somehow Hezbollah, whose statutes affirm the truth of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is now part of the “left”; when will it be “We are all Taliban”? Why not, indeed?

Such a climate compels us to turn back to the history of such a profoundly reactionary ideology, deeply anti-working class both in the “advanced” and “underdeveloped” countries, by which any force, no matter how retrograde, that turns a gun against a Western power becomes “progressive” and worthy of “critical” or “military” support, or for the less subtle, simply “support”.

At first blush, the hostility toward Hugo Chavez and the SWP might strike one as coming from the same place as Harry’s but Goldner is no New Labourite or Eustonite for that matter. He is a self-proclaimed “left communist” who identifies with Bordiga, Pannekoek and Paul Mattick. I honestly have not studied this current in any kind of depth but from what I have seen from Toni Negri and Harry Cleaver, two other “left communists” from the contemporary period, there’s little incentive to read further. To Goldner’s credit, he lacks the preciousness of these two and has a powerful writing style—leaving the politics aside.

As someone who has been very critical of the “anti-imperialism” of James Petras and MRZine, especially on the question of Ahmadinejad, I understood Goldner’s complaint. But I have a different assessment of Hugo Chavez than him. Despite my criticisms of Chavez’s overly positive characterizations of Ahmadinejad, I would not dismiss him as a “bourgeois nationalist”.

Goldner’s blanket condemnation of Chavez and all those who identify with him politically as “profoundly reactionary” and “deeply anti-working class” is the sort of thing one expects to hear from a “left communist” or anarchist seduced by philosophical idealism. From these quarters, there have been no real socialist revolutions in the twentieth century only the “class struggle” that never seems to culminate in a victory. In some ways these purists remind me of my late mother’s Irish Setter who we could not train out of chasing cars down our country road. I always told my mom that if Rusty ever caught up with a car, he wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Turning to Goldner’s article, almost a book at 67 pages, much of the substance appears to rely on Paul Dumont’s 500 page Du socialisme ottoman a l’internationalisme anatolien. Since I don’t read French, there would have been no point in tracking this book down. However, I did read George Harris’s The Origins of Communism in Turkey and two by Bulent Gokay, a leftist scholar: Soviet Eastern Policy and A Clash of empires: Turkey between Russian Bolshevism and British Imperialism 1918-1923. There is little difference between Goldner’s version based on Dumont and what I read in these books.

Harris and Gokay, as well as Dumont, add much detail to a story that I was already familiar with from reading volume 3 of E.H. Carr’s The Bolshevik Revolution that covers the period from 1917 to 1923. Two pages from Carr pretty much tell the entire story although I certainly encourage others to read Goldner’s article:

The indigenous Turkish movement of sympathy for communism which grew up in 1919 was mainly of peasant origin and was rooted in agrarian discontents. Its overt expression was the creation of a multitude of local Soviets which became for a time the effective organs of local government. The movement was fostered by Kemal, partly because its loyalty to the nationalist cause was fervent and unquestioned, and partly because an outlet was required for the real social and agrarian discontent represented by it. In the spring of 1920 it took organized shape in the creation of a Green Army which, recruited from the small and landless peasants, formed a major part of the national forces. The principal sponsors of the movement at this time, Hakki Behic and Hikmet, were ” easterners ” in respect of Turkish foreign policy and are both said to have been convinced Marxists. A somewhat farcical sequel of these proceedings was an officially sponsored Turkish communist party bearing the name of the ” Green Apple “. Hakki Behic was its leader; and according to a subsequent statement of a Turkish delegate to Comintern it was composed mainly of ” high officials and intellectuals “. Meanwhile the most successful leader of the Green Army was Edhem, a soldier of fortune who, while professing allegiance to Kemal, threatened to become a Turkish Makhno. The Green Army  reached the summit of its success in the summer of 1920. But in September 1920 — the same month in which action against Armenia was decided on — Kemal felt strong enough to put his house in order by removing a potential source of rivalry or insubordination, and issued a decree dissolving it. The order was not obeyed, and Kemal temporized. In November he appointed as Turkish representative in Moscow Ali Fuad, an army commander whom he wanted to get out of the way, and made an offer to Edhem to accompany the mission. Edhem refused; and in December, when the campaign against Armenia had been success­fully concluded, Kemal finally decided to take action against the Green Army. On January 6, 1921, Edhem was routed and fled to the Greeks, and what was left of his movement was then quickly mopped up.

The suppression of Edhem was immediately followed by drastic steps against the Turkish communists. Suphi was seized by unknown agents at Erzerum, and on January 28, 1921, together with sixteen other leading Turkish communists, thrown into the sea off Trebizond — the traditional Turkish method of discreet execution. It was some time before their fate was discovered. Chicherin is said to have addressed enquiries about them to the Kemalist government and to have received the reply that they might have succumbed to an accident at sea. But this unfortunate affair was not allowed to affect the broader considerations on which the growing amity between Kemal and Moscow was founded. For the first, though not for the last, time it was demonstrated that governments could deal drastically with their national communist parties without forfeiting the goodwill of the Soviet Government, if that were earned on other grounds.

So for Goldner, the real problem lies in Carr’s last sentence: “For the first, though not for the last, time it was demonstrated that governments could deal drastically with their national communist parties without forfeiting the goodwill of the Soviet Government, if that were earned on other grounds.” In Goldner’s words:

Only on Nov. 15 did long articles on the repression in Turkey appear on the front pages of Izvestia and Pravda. In the interim two weeks, the Kemalists had continued various anti-communist harassments. The Soviet embassy in Ankara had been forced to close its commercial outlet and a Soviet courrier’s diplomatic pouch had been confiscated. In Paul Dumont’s estimate, these harassments, combined with the preoccupation over the Lausanne conference, were the pinpricks that brought about the change in tone.

A new silence on the repression descended on the international communist press in late November. The Lausanne Conference opened on November 20 with Soviet participation, and the settlement of the status of the Straits loomed large in the offing. On November 22, a major article by Karl Radek in Pravda asserted that the Soviet Union would “support the legitimate demands of Turkey” at Lausanne and that critics in the West of the inconsistencies of Soviet policy

did not understand that, at bottom, our position is absolutely independent of tactical maneuvers or the internal policy of the Turkish government…But in spite of all deviations and zigzags, Soviet Russia is following the great historical road on which the international industrial proletariat can march together with the liberation movements of the peoples of the East in the struggle against international capital.

So in his eyes, there was always “socialism in one country”, even before Stalin. In dealing with Kemal, the USSR had the same realpolitik that would typify the Comintern after Stalin consolidated his grip on power. Just to drive home that point, Goldner opens his article with a quote from a memo by Trotsky to Lenin written in 1920 that sounds positively Stalinesque:

All information on the situation in Khiva, in Persia, in Bukhara and in Afghanistan confirm the fact that a Soviet revolution in these countries is going to cause us major difficulties at the present time…Until the situation in the West is stabilized and until our industries and transport systems have improved, a Soviet expansion in the east could prove to be no less dangerous than a war in the West…a potential Soviet revolution in the east is today to our advantage principally as an important element in diplomatic relations with England. From this I conclude that: 1) in the east we should devote ourselves to political and educational work…and at the same time advise all possible caution in actions calculated to require our military support, or which might require it; 2) we have to continue by all possible channels at our disposal to arrive at an understanding with England about the east.

In the interests of scholarship, I probably should have tracked down the quote especially since the words “a potential Soviet revolution in the east is today to our advantage principally as an important element in diplomatic relations with England” condemn Trotsky as a kind of Bolshevik Metternich. But I finally decided that this was pointless. There are many criticisms that can be made about Trotsky, but turning revolutions on and off like a spigot is not one of them. Trotsky sacrificed his life in the interests of world revolution and if Loren Goldner wants to make the case that he was no different from Stalin, I’d eagerly await such a specious argument in order to take it apart with relish.

In my next article, I want to take up the question of how the foreign policy of a revolutionary society cannot be reduced to simple black-and-white moralistic dichotomies, especially as this relates to Cuba, a country designated unsurprisingly as Stalinist by Goldner.

May 14, 2010

Creative Destruction

Filed under: economics,media,war — louisproyect @ 8:18 pm

Catherine Rampell: thinks that creative destruction has its uses

Two days ago the New York Times ran an article by economics editor Catherine Rampell titled The New Poor: In Job Market Shift, Some Workers Are Left Behind that focused on the largely middle-aged unemployed who will probably never work again. For example, 52 year old administrative assistant Cynthia Norton has been working part-time at Walmart while sending resumes everywhere but nobody gets back to her. She is part of a much bigger picture:

Ms. Norton is one of 1.7 million Americans who were employed in clerical and administrative positions when the recession began, but were no longer working in that occupation by the end of last year. There have also been outsize job losses in other occupation categories that seem unlikely to be revived during the economic recovery. The number of printing machine operators, for example, was nearly halved from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2009. The number of people employed as travel agents fell by 40 percent.

But Ms. Rampell finds the silver lining in this dark cloud:

This “creative destruction” in the job market can benefit the economy.

Pruning relatively less-efficient employees like clerks and travel agents, whose work can be done more cheaply by computers or workers abroad, makes American businesses more efficient. Year over year, productivity growth was at its highest level in over 50 years last quarter, pushing corporate profits to record highs and helping the economy grow.

The term “creative destruction” might ring a bell. It was coined by Werner Sombart in his 1913 book “War and Capitalism”. When he was young, Sombart considered himself a Marxist. His notion of creative destruction was obviously drawn from Karl Marx, who, according to some, saw capitalism in terms of the business cycle. With busts following booms, like night follows day, a new round of capital accumulation can begin. This interpretation is particularly associated with Volume Two of Capital that examines this process in great detail. Looking at this material, some Marxists like Eduard Bernstein drew the conclusion that capitalism is an infinitely self-sustaining system.

By 1913, Sombart had dumped the Marxist commitment to social revolution but still retained the idea that there was a basis in Karl Marx for upholding the need for “creative destruction”, a view buttressed by an overly positive interpretation of this passage in the Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind. The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe.

By the 1930s, Sombart had adapted himself fairly well to the Nazi system although he was not gung-ho  like Martin Heidegger or Carl Schmitt. The wiki on Sombart notes:

In 1934 he published Deutscher Sozialismus where he claimed a “new spirit” was beginning to “rule mankind”. The age of capitalism and proletarian socialism was over and with “German socialism” (National-Socialism) taking over.

But despite this, he remained critical. In 1938 he wrote an anthropology text that found fault with the Nazi system and many of his Jewish students remained fond of him.

I suspect, however, that Ms. Rampell is familiar with Joseph Schumpeter’s use of the term rather than Sombart since Schumpeter was an economist, her chosen discipline. In 1942, he wrote a book titled Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy that, like Sombart, retained much of Karl Marx’s methodology but without the political imperative to destroy the system that utilized “creative destruction”. He wrote:

The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation–if I may use that biological term–that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in. . . .

The wiki on Schumpeter claims that this theory is wedded to Nikolai Kondratiev’s “long wave” hypothesis that rests on the idea that there are 50 year cycles in which capitalism grows, decays and enters a crisis until a new round of capital accumulation opens up. Not only was the idea attractive to Schumpeter, it was a key part of Ernest Mandel’s economic theories. Unlike Schumpeter, Mandel was on the lookout for social agencies that could break the cycle and put development on a new footing, one based on human need rather than private profit.

Returning to Ms. Rampell’s article, there is one dimension entirely missing. She assumes that “creative destruction” will operate once again in order to foster a new upswing in the capitalist business cycle. But how exactly will that manifest itself? All the signs point to a general decline in business activity unless there is some kind of technological breakthrough equivalent to the computer revolution that fueled growth for decades. Does anybody believe that “green manufacturing” will play the same role? I don’t myself.

One thing does occur to me. Sombart’s book was written in 1913, one year before WWI and was even titled eerily enough “War and Capitalism”. One wonders if the Great War would be seen as part and parcel of “creative destruction”. War, after all, does have a knack for clearing the playing field with even more finality than layoffs. Schumpeter wrote his in 1942, one year into WWII. My guess is that he did not theorize war as the ultimate (and necessary?) instrument of creative destruction but history will record that WWII did introduce a whole rafter of new technology, including aluminum, radar, nuclear power, etc., while bombing old modes of production into oblivion. What a great opportunity it was for capitalism to rebuild Japan, especially after firebombing and atomic bombs did their lovely work.

In my view, there’s something disgusting about this “creative destruction” business especially when it is articulated by a young, snot-nosed Princeton graduate like Catherine Rampell who wrote for Slate, the Village Voice and other such b-list publications before crawling her way up into an editorial job at the NYT. She clearly has learned how to cater her reporting to the ideological needs of the newspaper of record, growing more and more reactionary as the crisis of capitalism deepens.

The Obama wit

Filed under: Obama,pakistan,war — louisproyect @ 2:16 pm

Victim of a Predator drone attack

May 13, 2010

David Bromwich on Obama

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 6:30 pm

From a brilliant dissection in the London Review.

Once again, Obama is choosing to leave behind the popular base of the Democratic Party and build an ecumenical consensus which starts in his head. The process seems to be intuitive, and to explain it one can only fall back on psychology. Obama sees himself as the establishment president. If a populist insurgency on the right presses hard against his legitimacy, if disappointed supporters stop giving money or knocking on doors, still he has the confidence of a leader whose standing is buoyed up by corporate leaders, by a famous general and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, by a decent preponderance of Wall Street, and by the mainstream media, whose resources he deploys and channels with a relentlessness no other president has approached. Barack Obama, in the first 392 days of his presidency, put himself on public view for photographs, interviews, ceremonies, or mingling with the public in one way or another on all but 27 days. He gave more interviews in his first year than Bill Clinton and George W. Bush combined. His approval rating, which stood at 70 per cent a year ago, now hovers around 45 per cent, but it is possible for a president of doubtful popularity to win re-election if the mainstream voices rally to his side and the opposition lacks credible talent. Many people who voted for Obama in 2008 were voting against McCain and Palin. The same people are capable of voting that way again.

Obama’s calculations, then, are plausible and may pay off; yet he has made mistakes nobody would have predicted. The truth is that he did not come into office a fully equipped politician. He was new to the national elite and enjoyed his membership palpably. This came out in debates and town meetings where he often mentioned that the profits from his books had lodged him in the highest tax bracket. It would emerge later in his comment on Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon, the CEOs of Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan: ‘I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen.’ One can’t imagine Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy saying such a thing, or wanting to say it. They had known ‘those guys’ all their lives and felt no tingle of reflected glory. Obama has not yet recognised that his conspicuous relish of his place among the elite does him two kinds of harm: it spurs resentment in people lower down the ladder; and it diminishes his stature among the grandees by showing that he needs them.

Zizek as shock jock

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 5:10 pm

Slavoj Zizek’s article Joe Public v the volcano that appeared in the April 29 2010 New Statesman illustrates once again the perils of being the shock jock of academic Marxism. One can imagine him stroking his beard and saying to himself after writing such an article: “Hah, that will get ’em talking”. Yes, it might get people talking but the goal is to raise their awareness, not just get them talking.

I am afraid that Zizek gets sidetracked in these sorts of intellectual dead ends because he, like many big-time “theorists”, operates pretty much as a lone wolf. In the rarefied world of plenary sessions and featured articles in the New Left Review, the professional intellectual operates like a novelist or a composer. They have to make a big impression and that means carving out some turf that cannot be confused with some other second-rate talent. Unfortunately, when it comes to Marxism, you really need to be part of some kind of collective discussion or else you end up veering off in odd directions. Of course, within that framework you have to have the ability to think for yourself. Ironically, the crisis of Marxism today is largely a function of people like Zizek operating in their own hermetically sealed intellectual space on one hand, and on the other hand “Marxist-Leninists” functioning like the Borg in Star Trek. You need both the collective framework and the freedom to speak your mind.

Zizek’s article was inspired by the volcanic eruption in Iceland:

We are living in an age when we are both able to change nature and more at its mercy than ever –– as the Icelandic volcano has proved.

Many of those who have a fear of flying are haunted by a particular thought: that is, how many parts of such a complicated machine as a modern plane have to function smoothly in order for it to stay in the air? One small lever breaks somewhere, and the plane may spiral downwards . . . When you start to think how many things could go wrong, you cannot help but panic.

The people of Europe have experienced something similar in the past few weeks. That a cloud from a minor volcanic eruption in Iceland – a small disturbance in the complex mechanism of life on earth – can bring to a standstill the air traffic over almost an entire continent is a reminder of how humankind, for all its power to transform nature, remains just another living species on the planet.

Starting from a major event taking place in nature outside of society, Zizek spins off into some questionable musings on ecology that by its very definition involves human agency. His main problem is that he lacks a class analysis. Note carefully in the following excerpt how freely he uses the words “we” and “our” as in the following: “our best hope of understanding those threats, and the means through which we may find a way of coping with them”. Between someone like myself and a shrimp swimming around in the Gulf of Mexico on one hand and BP and the Obama administration on the other, there’s not much “we” going on.

Most of the threats we face today are not external (or “natural”), but generated by human activity shaped by science (the ecological consequences of our industry, say, or the psychic consequences of uncontrolled genetic engineering), so that the sciences are simultaneously the source of such threats, our best hope of understanding those threats, and the means through which we may find a way of coping with them.

Even if we blame scientific-technological civilisation for global warming, we need the same science not only to define the scope of the threat, but also, often, to perceive it in the first place. The “ozone hole”, for example, can be “seen” in the sky only by scientists. That line from Wagner’s Parsifal – “Die Wunde schliest der Speer nur, der Sie schlug” (“The wound can only be healed by the spear that made it”) – acquires a new relevance here.

How much can we “safely” pollute our environment? How many fossil fuels can we burn? How much of a poisonous substance does not threaten our health? That our knowledge has limitations does not mean we shouldn’t exaggerate the ecological threat. On the contrary, we should be even more careful about it, given that the situation is extremely unpredictable. The recent uncertainties about global warming signal not that things are not too serious, but that they are even more chaotic than we thought, and that natural and social factors are inextricably linked.

Things go from bad to worse when Zizek invokes Donald Rumsfeld as a kind of epistemological authority in a clear bid to be outrageous—expecting his readers to email their friends: “Did you read Zizek’s piece in the New Statesman where he cites Rumsfeld? Wow!”

When it comes to the risk of ecological catastrophe, we are dealing with “unknown unknowns”, to use the terms of the Rumsfeldian theory of knowledge. Donald Rumsfeld set out this theory in a bit of amateur philosophising in February 2002, when he was still George W Bush’s defence secretary. He said:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

What Rumsfeld forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns”, things we don’t know that we know – which is the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself”, as Lacan put it. To the assertion that the main dangers in the Iraq war were the “unknown unknowns” – the threats that we did not even suspect existed – we should reply that the main dangers are, on the contrary, the “unknown knowns”, the disavowed beliefs and suppositions to which we are not even aware we adhere.

So, dear reader, you might find yourself asking what the fuck does this have to do with the environment. Well, at least, that’s what I would ask. Here’s how Zizek answers that question:

Humankind should get ready to live in a more nomadic way: local or global changes in environment may demand unprecedented large-scale social transformations. Let’s say that a huge volcanic eruption makes the whole of Iceland uninhabitable: where will the people of Iceland move? Under what conditions? Should they be given a piece of land, or just dispersed around the world? What if northern Siberia becomes more inhabitable and appropriate for agriculture, while great swaths of sub-Saharan Africa become too dry for a large population to live there – how will the exchange of population be organised? When similar things happened in the past, the social changes occurred in a wild, spontaneous way, with violence and destruction. Such a prospect is catastrophic in a world in which many nations have access to weapons of mass destruction.

Well, Slavoj, there is a precedent for moving people around but not in the way that you envision. One of the most significant achievements of the Cuban revolution has been its ability to evacuate its citizens from the path of an oncoming hurricane, as seen in this AP dispatch:

HAVANA, Cuba – When Hurricane Ike struck Cuba, Ronald Matos didn’t think twice about fleeing his one-room wooden house for a government shelter.

The 34-year-old construction worker and his wife, Emma Jean, got soft beds, free meals, the attention of a doctor and solicitous social workers — and the companionship of other friendly Cubans.

“We passed the night talking and telling stories, because Cubans never lose their smiles or their sense of humor,” he said. “There is no electricity, but we are better protected than in our homes.”

With an inefficient centralized economy and a U.S. embargo that has stifled trade, Cuba doesn’t have resources to build new, hurricane-proof buildings. It doesn’t have fleets of Humvees to charge through the floodwaters. Few of its people have cars to flee in, and fewer still can check on loved ones by cellphone.

But if there’s one thing the communist island does right, it’s evacuations. And in the end, that saves more lives than anything else.

One imagines that despite being a “Leninist”, Zizek would be not that impressed with such measures in light of his general displeasure with the island’s “stagnation”, something I commented on in a prior post:

It appears that our Lacanian theorist took a trip to Cuba a while back and didn’t like what he saw very much, to put it mildly. He was struck by all the “poverty”, “stagnation” and “inefficiency” that he interpreted as the Cuban leadership’s attempt to prove its “authenticity”.

Well, I don’t know. Those evacuations sound pretty efficient to me.

Then, of course, there’s the question of what this has to do with “great swaths of sub-Saharan Africa” becoming “too dry for a large population to live there”. I would say there are two problems with this. First of all, it puts climate change on the same plane as volcanoes. To my knowledge, the first is a problem associated with untrammeled capitalist production while the second is a product of nature. To confuse the two is mischievous, to say the least. The other problem is that it assumes that the population of sub-Saharan Africa can be picked up and moved somewhere else. This would be a daunting task even under socialism. It is much better in fact to draw a line in the sand and say that the great majority of humanity (i.e., the workers and the peasants) will not stand for such a catastrophe brought on by the ruling class’s disregard for elementary ecological principles. What would strike any normal, class-conscious person is that Zizek’s recommendations are utterly fatalistic and defeatist at the core, so at odds with his “Leninist” pretensions.

Best Worst Movie

Filed under: Film,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:52 pm

Doubt I will get around to seeing the documentary about “Troll 2” in the theater (it opens this week) but it sounds like a lot of fun, especially in light of the trailer above.

Best Worst Movie ***

by Simon Abrams on May 9, 2010


Best Worst Movie is the populist doc to beat this year, following in the footsteps of last year’s Anvil! The Story of Anvil and summarily outdistancing that self-serving and unchallenging crowd-pleaser. It doesn’t hurt that Best Worst Movie was made two decades after Troll 2, one of the worst Z-grade horror movies you’re likely to see. That amount of time has given actor-turned-director Michael Stephenson and his fellow cast members the luxury of hindsight and made their post-production story all the more funny, tender, and engaging for it.

Best Worst Movie is about what happened when the cast of Claudio Fragasso’s notoriously inept fantasy-cum-kiddie flick discover that their movie has been embraced by a thriving cult audience and celebrated as an experience unto itself. During Best Worst Movie‘s first half, viewers are allowed to bask in the warm glow of diehard fans’ enjoyment of Troll 2. Even without having seen Fragasso’s abomination or its predecessor (Troll 2 has nothing narratively or even thematically to do with Troll), viewers of Best Worst Movie can get vicariously high off of the ebullience of the crazies Stephenson observes eagerly queuing up to see grandpa Seth dispense some more advice from beyond the grave or any of the handful of YouTube-friendly scenes of abysmal acting. After that, Stephenson focuses on the rise and fall of actor-turned-dentist George Hardy’s short-lived ambition to take advantage of his newfound D-grade celebrity. If the way-past-their-prime members of Anvil can move on from their semi-celebrity status with half the grace that Hardy does, they’ll be that much better off for it.

At its best, Best Worst Movie is a sharp celebration of the community that cult movies foster. This isn’t a movie about appreciating Troll 2‘s cult as being exceptional or outstanding in any way but, rather, showing viewers what fans and the actors see when they talk about their fixation of choice. Thankfully, by intercutting talking-head interviews from the crowds that line up to midnight screenings with lowlights from Troll 2, Stephenson invites the viewer to laugh with the film’s fans and not necessarily at their zealotry. This is the cult experience distilled, a process of coming together that cannot be manufactured. It materializes spontaneously for whatever reasons, and if you can get into whatever scene is at hand, the effect approaches cosmic proportions on a very intimate scale. You feel that kind of joyful appreciation firsthand in Best Worst Movie thanks to Stephenson’s thorough and even modestly artful direction and editing.

At the same time, Stephenson’s approach to some of his fellow cast members is more than a little bit exploitative. It’s very funny to watch egomaniac Claudio Fragasso eat his own petty words and be presented as the best Zero Mostel character that Zero Mostel never played. But it’s painful to watch shut-in Margo Prey, also known as the frail mother in Troll 2, callously made to look like as a batty cat lady that sacrificed her meager career to take care of her elderly mother. Equally manipulative is the way Stephenson portrays Robert Ormsby, who is especially memorable as Grandpa Seth, as a projection of what Hardy is afraid of becoming: a never-was that never allowed himself to pursue his dreams of stardom. Ormsby lives alone in Salt Lake City, has no children, and didn’t go on to have much of a career after Troll 2 because he refused to move to L.A. or New York. Comparing Ormsby to Hardy makes for a better story but it’s far from a fair treatment of any of the actors involved, especially not Prey (footage of her rambling incoherently about weird noises in the night is just flat-out ghoulish and verges on character assassination).

And yet, in light of where the story ends up, with all parties content to be remembered and not trying to capitalize any further on their nonexistent reputations (save for Fragasso, who now wants to make a sequel to Troll 2), Stephenson’s more reprehensible creative decisions are almost justifiable. It’s hard to blame Stephenson for doing whatever he thought he needed to in order to position his subjects’ lives into a narrative. He’s molded their post-Troll 2 lives into a very entertaining and almost incisive story about fringe stardom. With a little luck, it too will find its audience.

May 11, 2010

Nordwand

Filed under: Fascism,Film,sports,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:01 pm

While not quite as frontal an assault on Nazism as Before the Fall, a 2005 movie about a young German boxer rejecting the system, the 2008 Nordwand (German for North Face, like the outerwear company) also uses athletics as a kind of portal into the twisted world of the Third Reich.

The athletics in this case is mountain-climbing. Based on actual events, this superb fictional film tells the story of Toni Schultz (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas, the star of Goodbye Lenin), two soldiers who tried to climb the north face of Mount Eiger in the Alps in 1936. For the Nazis, this attempt to “solve the problem of the Alps” became part of the national zeitgeist in the same fashion as the politicized Olympics that year. The two German climbers are eventually joined by a pair of Austrians, who are understood to be symbols of the coming Anschluss, or incorporation of Austria into the Third Reich. None of the climbers has the least bit of interest in politics. When in uniform, Toni and Andreas always respond to “Heil Hitler” with a simple “hello”. Like most German youth, they just got caught up in the totalitarian web. Their first love is mountain climbing, not fuehrer worship.

Most of the film is taken up with their incredibly daring venture and is filmed on location. Although movies about mountain climbing are not exactly my métier, I would say that no other movie has ever conveyed the terror of such a climb. In some respects, it has the tension of a horror movie with the mountain itself standing in for a killer. At one point a climber says that an evil spirit lurks in the mountain. This rings so true.

The other two major characters help to put the movie into a social and political context. One is a young reporter and erstwhile lover of Toni named Luise Fellner, played by Johanna Wokalek, who starred in The Baader Meinhof Complex. She joins her boss at the newspaper, a cynical Nazi supporter named Henry Arau, as correspondents at the base of Mount Eiger. They stay in a luxurious hotel that becomes an ironic counterpoint to the depredations occurring on the north face. Arau is played by Urich Tukur, the villainous baron in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. At one point he comments to Luise that the climbers will only make the front pages if they make it successfully to the top or if they die on the way up. If they decide to abort the mission midway up, they will only earn a brief mention on page three. This kind of reporting is obviously common to both the Nazi and the “free” press. In the course of her first reporting assignment, Luise becomes disillusioned with Nazi values and eventually leaves the country. In the final scene, we see her photographing a Black jazz musician in the USA, an apt commentary on her evolution.

Nordwand is now available from Netflix and is highly recommended.

May 10, 2010

Why are there so many socialist groups?

Filed under: Australia,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

Two years ago there was a split in the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) in Australia. Without getting into the questions of who was at fault, I would say that the minority that went on to form the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) was true to the traditions of James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, while the majority was moving away from those traditions whether they would admit it or not.  Cannon’s ideas on party-building have achieved a kind of cult status in the English-speaking Trotskyist world that is lost on me.

The other day an article by RSP member Allen Myers caught my eye. Titled Why are there so many socialist groups?, it encapsulates many of the ideas associated with Cannonite (Canonite?) orthodoxy. It is a polemic against the former members of the DSP who have thrown such orthodoxy overboard and are emulating the bold new initiative of the French Trotskyists of the LCR reconstituted as the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), a group shorn of vanguardist pretensions. In Australia this meant building the Socialist Alliance (SA) rather than the DSP. While the SA might not be guaranteed of success in the long run, this much can be said: the old model is guaranteed to fail. Over 70 years of the Fourth International and its various fissures is proof of that.

For those of us reared in American Trotskyism, the French were always seen as anti-Leninist liquidationists. In my view, the French were a lot closer to the Bolsheviks on at least one basis. The Bolsheviks were constituted on the basis of a revolutionary socialism that had little in common with the rather encyclopedic “program” advanced by the typical English-speaking Trotskyist group. Such a program amounted to a kind of catechism that pivoted around a correct understanding of the “Russian questions”. To my knowledge, Lenin never asked people to become Bolsheviks on the basis of how they understood the Jacobins.

In some ways, Myers has exactly the right credentials to defend a Cannonite perspective since he was a member of the American Socialist Workers Party around the same time as me. Myers earned some fame as an antiwar GI who was court-martialed for distributing leaflets at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Eventually he relocated to Australia for personal reasons where he worked to build the Australian party along the same lines as the SWP. Jim Percy (who died in 1992) and his brother John founded the group that would eventually become known as the DSP.

One can understand why the Percy’s would want to build a party along Cannonite lines since the SWP was growing rapidly around the time that they visited the United States to learn about the group first-hand. Eventually, to their credit, they broke with the SWP when it began to dispense Comintern-like advice about what they should and not be doing. It would seem that they did not make the connection between that kind of interference and the SWP’s adherence to the Comintern model. As I have explained elsewhere, the resolutions of the 1924 “Bolshivization” conference of the Comintern that set the pattern for this kind of hyper-centralism was supported by James P. Cannon who always considered himself as a disciple of Zinoviev, the fountainhead of these bad organizational methods.

Myers’s article was prompted by a leaflet put out by the SA in Victoria promoting left unity. Myers says this is a mistake because:

The fundamental reason that there are many socialist organisations is that there are many different ideas about how to achieve socialism. At first glance, it might seem a reasonable idea that everyone who shares the goal of socialism should unite in a single organisation. But what could such an organisation do in a united way? Some members would think that socialism only requires electing a majority of socialists to parliament while others might think that socialists should run in parliamentary elections only to propagandise their ideas of the need for socialist revolution. Some members would consider the ACTU and other union chiefs potential allies; other members would regard them as part of the problem. Such an organisation would contain all sorts of ideas even about what the organisation itself should try to be — does it seek to build a leadership for the working class, or is its aim only to unite various existing struggles as much as it can?

This is a much less offensive way of putting things than did Morris Stein, one of James P. Cannon’s top lieutenants,  at the 1944 SWP convention:

We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery. We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.

When I joined the SWP in 1967, I was puzzled by all the groups representing themselves as Trotskyist to one degree or another. What was up with that, I asked a more experienced member—probably Les Evans, the ex-member turned Zionist/Eustonite. He recounted an anecdote that impressed a new member since it originated with someone like Lenin or Trotsky (I can’t remember who.) He said that the experience of observing the left from afar is a little bit like looking a man in the distance whose image is cloaked by fire and sparks and the violent strokes he is applying to an unseen object that result in harsh clanging sounds. From afar, he looks like a madman engaged in some bizarre activity. But when you come close, you can see that he is the village blacksmith simply doing productive work. That is exactly what polemical struggle on the left looks like to the neophyte. Frankly, I am at the point in life where the neophyte seems to have gotten it right.

In contrast to the SA, the RSP will stick to tried-and-true Leninist principles:

The task for socialists today is not to pursue imagined short cuts to mass influence, but to gather the cadres and political resources that will be needed when objective circumstances push masses of working people into struggle. As history has shown repeatedly, such upsurges can occur very quickly.

This is what I would call the “nucleus” theory of party-building. You develop a case-hardened “cadre” that is like the nucleus of some element, like carbon or uranium. When a catalyst is applied, like heat or the class struggle, the masses will accumulate around the nucleus just like electrons. That’s the theory anyhow.

It has been tested time and time again and revealed to be false. Genuine mass revolutionary parties have never been built this way. Instead, they grow out of a mass movement that is rooted in the experience of the given country. The Bolsheviks, for example, emerged out the Russian social democracy—a current that was a reflection of widespread support for the Second International throughout Europe and that was primarily fueled by a desire to rid the country of Czarist absolutism. It followed very few of the “principles” of Zinoviev or James P. Cannon who thought that Bolshevism could be turned into a template for parties everywhere. The chief goal of Australians, or Americans for that matter, would be to look to the real history of Lenin’s party rather than latter-day versions of that history that superimpose schemas of small groups trying to vindicate themselves as truly “Leninist”.

To start with, the Bolsheviks were not at all ideologically homogeneous as is the case of most “Leninist” groups today. To cite just one example, Bukharin had a totally different analysis of imperialism and the national question than Lenin and was not shy about defending it in a newspaper he edited. This did not prevent the two leaders from collaborating closely. In the “Leninist” world of today, such analyses constitute a kind of intellectual property that the party jealously protects against all rivals, like the formula for coca-cola.

As might be expected, the RSP is just as determined to stake out its turf on international questions as it is on the historical questions of the 1920s and 30s such as when the Soviet Union became (you fill in the blanks). Myers views Cuba as a kind of acid test for the left:

According to the Victorian leaflet, the SA believes that “the differences which do exist [among socialist groups] can be contained within a single organisation”. This ignores reality. For example, the Socialist Alternative (SAlt) group while formally opposed to US threats against Cuba, considers Cuba to be a capitalist state and advocates a mass armed uprising to overthrow the Cuban government. The SA has policy of solidarity with Cuba against US threats, but it hasn’t adopted a position on supporting Cuba’s socialist revolution. Perhaps, therefore, the SA could co-exist with SAlt in a united organisation in regard to its policy toward Cuba. But how could the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), which regards the Cuban Revolution as an inspiring example to the working people of the world of socialist politics in action, get along in the same party with socialists who advocate the overthrow of the Cuban government?

This debating point seems utterly academic considering the fact that the Socialist Alternative (SAlt) has about as much interest in left unity as the RSP itself. In fact, despite its origins in Tony Cliff’s state capitalist dogma, the SAlt has the very same “nucleus” theory as the RSP. Sometime back, I wrote a critique of SAlt leader Mick Armstrong’s party-building ideas that are virtually the same as Allen Myers’s. Here’s an excerpt:

The key to success is building “cadre”, a term that Bruce Landau (now known as the Civil War historian and tenured professor Bruce Levine) once told a gathering of the SWP in the 1970s comes out of the military. A cadre is like an officer who can lead the masses when the time is ripe. SWP leader Tom Kerry used to pronounce this word as “codder” which only enhanced its in-group mystique for a rank-and-filer like me. Here’s Armstrong describing the cadre-building process:

This cadre, this “solid core”, is just as important in times of retreat, when workers suffer setbacks. In order to hold a revolutionary organisation together in times of defeat theory is even more paramount. When the going is tough a much higher level of theoretical agreement is necessary to hold a propaganda group together because a small group without roots in the working class is inherently more unstable than a mass party. You can’t survive on the basis of a few slogans, you need a more sophisticated analysis. The cadre has to be steeled.

I just love the way that Armstrong uses the term “steeled”. It is just so evocative, like one of those New Yorker cartoons of a bunch of Bolsheviks or anarchists gathered around a candle in the sewers. Only those who are truly “steeled” have the ability to lead the masses to socialism unlike the flaccid, unsteeled elements who will turn into Karl Kautsky the first chance they get.

As I said before, the Socialist Alliance is not guaranteed of success. In revolutionary politics, you have to take a somewhat pragmatic approach even though the science underlying the party-building effort is Marxism. I genuinely hope that the comrades stay on the current course since it is truly in the spirit of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, no matter what their detractors say. These are the same detractors who tend to look at “What is to be Done” as a holy writ when Lenin himself said only five years after it was written that it was obsolete.

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