Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 26, 2011

Left Forum 2011 — part one

Filed under: Left Forum,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 9:58 pm

Over the next few days I will be blogging about the 2011 Left Forum in New York, including full and in one case nearly full video recordings of the presentations. I will be starting off with talks by Lars Lih and Paul Le Blanc today but will now include some prefatory remarks on the event.

I have been going to these things for a number of years now, starting around the time I dropped out of the SWP. They gave me a chance to learn about ideas that were never taken up in the SWP, although this in itself is not necessarily a recommendation.

If you go to http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/american_left.htm, you will find reports on past events.

Left Forum 2005

Left Forum 2006

Left Forum 2008

Left Forum 2009 (Saturday)

Left Forum 2009 (Sunday)

Left Forum 2010 (Saturday)

Left Forum 2010 (Sunday)

In 2005, the Left Forum had its premier. It grew out of a split in the Socialist Scholars Conference leadership over Yugoslavia, with Bogdan Denitch deciding that conference organizer Eric Canepa was soft on Milosevic. You can read a skewed account of the split on the website of the N.Y. Sun, an arch-reactionary newspaper that went out of business some time back. Here’s a snippet:

American socialists, in Mr. Denitch’s view, can learn something from President da Silva of Brazil, who “was elected by the largest electorate in Latin America,” but not from President Castro of Cuba, who “has never faced an election.”

Perhaps because people who do not take their marching orders from Denitch now control the Left Forum, it has gone from strength to strength. While the group around Denitch were not particularly associated with post-modernist trends in the academy, you will now find very few panel discussions of the sort that smack of Modern Language Association conferences with their scrutiny of Madonna videos in the 1980s and Lady Gaga today as expressive of “transgressive” politics.

In fact, the discussions were very much like the ones that take place on Marxmail although I suspect that Left Forum organizers might not consider that a compliment. There were extremely relevant discussions of Islamophobia, the labor movement, and the Black struggle drawing upon as many activists (like our own Jon Flanders) as academics.

The other thing that struck me was the broad participation of young people. This was the first conference I attended where there were as many people under 30 as there were over 60. This was truly inspiring to me.

Lars and Paul spoke at a workshop on “Lenin’s Marxism” organized by the Platypus group. As many of you know, I regard the Platypus group as American Eustonites (https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/04/25/q-what-is-a-platypus-a-an-american-eustonite/) so it will not surprise you that I did not record Chris Cutrone’s talk on “Lenin’s Liberalism”. Despite the obvious provocative character of the title, the talk was enough to put me into a coma.

I came to the session a bit late so I missed the start of Lars’s talk, which dealt with Lenin’s debates with Bukharin. Perhaps it will show up on the net at some point. If so, I will send along a link. Mostly, Lars made the same points he has made before, namely that Lenin was trying to build a party in Russia that was modeled on Kautsky’s in Germany.

Paul’s response to Lars covered the same points he made in the Historical Materialism symposium on Lars’s book on Lenin’s “What is to be Done” and accepts the idea that Lenin started out as a Kautskyist but turned into the architect of a “party of a new type” after 1914,

As I have stated on other occasions, I find the debate between Lars, Paul and the British SWP to be unfortunately disengaged with what I regard the most important question, namely the tendency of parties built on the “Leninist” model to turn into sects and cults.

When I raised the question of “democratic centralism” during the discussion period, Lars interpreted it as falling within the rubric of Soviet-style dictatorship when my real interest was in the failure of groups like the SWP (either American or British) to ever reach the critical mass necessary to become a bureaucratic state. Frankly, I would be willing to put up with bureaucratic distortions if Alex Callicos ever figured out a way to toss the David Camerons and Tony Blairs of the world into the ashbin of history.

19 Comments »

  1. I find the comments made by Marta Harnecker in her 2007 book “Rebuilding the Left” to be of more use than poring over the lineage of ideas traced back to Lenin and Marx. She does look at the relationship between Lenin’s and Kautsky’s ideas, not as convincingly as Lih, but unlike these historians she is writing about the problems parties face now, today, and based on extensive research of the modern Left.

    I think what she advocates is entirely within the spirit of the Lenin that LeBlanc talks about in your video. But it’s related practically to the situation today. The composition of the working class and its experience is not all the same as it was in Tsarist Russia; ways to build a “political instrument” (her term for a mass revolutionary party) should therefore be updated also. Her own recommendations, as well as her criticims of the Left’s failings, are quite creative and thought provoking.

    I can’t recommend her book more. Everyone concerned with the question that Louis finishes on here, should read it.

    Comment by Ben Courtice — March 26, 2011 @ 11:48 pm

  2. I will just say quickly that is quite funny that the “inspiration” you found in the attendants under 30 were actually mostly Platypus members.

    Comment by Chris Mansour — March 28, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

  3. I will just say quickly that is quite funny that the “inspiration” you found in the attendants under 30 were actually mostly Platypus members.

    How would you know this? By their webbed feet? That might have been a birth defect.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 28, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

  4. [ I will just say quickly that is quite funny that the “inspiration” you found in the attendants under 30 were actually mostly Platypus members.]

    How would you know this? By their webbed feet? That might have been a birth defect.]

    We know because we organized the attendance of platypus members from Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, L.A., Canada, and Germany. Oh, yeah because there are only 6 platypus members over 30.

    Too bad you haven’t woken up from your coma, we could have had an interesting discussion.

    Comment by Laurie Rojas — March 28, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

  5. We know because we organized the attendance of platypus members from Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, L.A., Canada, and Germany.

    Well, it is completely crazy to claim that this is evidence that “the attendants under 30 were actually mostly Platypus members” but not much crazier than your politics.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 28, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

  6. We in Platypus brought a group of about 45 young people from our chapters around the country. There was about 20 of us in the audience at the Lenin panel, which we co-organized. You were surrounded (and inspired) by “Eustonites” and above you are sharing a video of one of our events. Thanks for spreading the word.

    Comment by Marco — March 28, 2011 @ 8:08 pm

  7. We in Platypus brought a group of about 45 young people from our chapters around the country.

    Finally, we know the facts.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 28, 2011 @ 8:10 pm

  8. Good comeback!

    Comment by Marco — March 28, 2011 @ 8:16 pm

  9. For anyone interested in the talk I gave on the panel with Lars Lih and Paul LeBlanc on “Lenin’s Marxism,” my prepared remarks can be found at:

    http://chriscutrone.platypus1917.org/?p=1138

    Comment by Chris Cutrone — March 28, 2011 @ 8:41 pm

  10. From this bemused onlooker’s point of view, most of the participants were indeed Platypus people, clearly identified by their big pins bearing the logo of their semi-aquatic mascot. When Proyect asked his question and identified himself, Cutrone, face to face with his nemesis, turned a shade vermilion. But when Proyect made his point about the problem of sects and cults, Cutrone shook his head vigorously in agreement (do doubt informed by his years as Spart). So at least there is some agreement on that. The disagreement, it seems, centers on whether we should refound the Marxist left by throwing off an obsolete, sectarian organizing model (Proyect), or … what? Study Adorno (Platypus)?

    Comment by Ismael — March 29, 2011 @ 1:12 am

  11. I did give Adorno my attention once, admittedly briefly:

    http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/modernism/adorno.htm

    Comment by louisproyect — March 29, 2011 @ 1:26 am

  12. Yes, I agreed with Proyect about the undigested and problematic character of the “party of a new type” in the history of Marxism, whether that is understood as Kautskyan, or, as LeBlanc put, the Leninist one, “of another/different type.” Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom has an interesting analysis of the pre-WWI German and Austrian SPDs as prototypes for fascism. A kernel of truth, there. And a better way of explaining the similarities of Stalinized Communist Parties with fascism and the Nazis than describing them as “totalitarian.” I think, like Luxemburg’s biographer J.P. Nettl, who I cited in my Lenin presentation, that Stalinism owed to this undigested history of SPD-2nd Internationalism. The break Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky effected from this Kautskyan political model was incomplete and not well understood. And certainly not followed. I think that not only Trotsky’s 4th International, but also the 3rd International of Lenin and Trotsky was unfortunately stillborn. Lenin wrote in the Organizational Guidelines of the 3rd Intl. that the Russian Bolshevik Party should not serve as a model; Trotsky wrote many times how the Russian experience could and should have been outstripped by the development of Marxist politics in places like the U.S. But to no avail. I think there are important lessons about modern politics and social transformation to be learned from Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky as historical figures (and in terms of their own self-understandings), but not the ones usually promulgated by the sectarian “Left.”

    On Adorno, I would just say that the 1960s-70s New Left couldn’t digest Adorno’s politics very well, but this was because of how much Adorno took for granted from the earlier political history that was buried under the counterrevolution, fascism and Stalinism. This forced Adorno et al. to adopt somewhat Aesopian language and write “messages in a bottle” given to misinterpretation, but in hopes that one day this history could be redeemed. Adorno was well aware of Trotsky and praised him often in his private correspondence, and made favorable reference to Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, a great influence on Adorno, in his last, posthumously published work Aesthetic Theory.

    Adorno’s adherence to Lenin was also long-standing. A recent publication of an English translation of a conversation between Adorno and Horkheimer in 1956 makes clear, however, their continued commitment to an earlier Marxist politics: they considered re-writing the Communist Manifesto, but this time, as Adorno put it, making it “strictly Leninist:”

    http://www.newleftreview.org/?view=2860

    Comment by Chris Cutrone — March 29, 2011 @ 3:05 am

  13. I think some of the Platypus people in this thread have misunderstood Louis. He wrote: “This was the first conference I attended where there were as many people under 30 as there were over 60. This was truly inspiring to me.”

    He was referring to the conference itself, not just the above meeting.

    Cheers

    Comment by Darren — March 29, 2011 @ 5:26 am

  14. It’s true that there are problems associated with the “cults and sects” (what I would refer to in a more comradely manner as small propagandist organizations who, since the late 1960’s to the very early 1970’s — up until the past six months — have lived a largely semi-sectarian existance). But it’s also true that it’s precisely these organizations that do most of the work when it comes to the entry of socialist ideas into the season of discontent. Thus the U.S. Socialist Workers Party has just published an edition of the Communist Manefesto in Arabic and has begun the task of distributing it. And I use the example of the SWP because that’s the party I generally support and am most familiar with, but I could list like-wise, worthwhile projects from Socialist Action, the ISO, the WWP and others as well. I never knew Louis Proyect or his like-minded comrades until a couple of years ago, and though I am now more attuned to his thinking and have learned quite a bit from him and have quite enjoyed a large part of his writing (much of which could have appeared in any edition of the Militant in the 1970’s), I am still no closer to understanding what he and his comrades have in mind when it comes to launching an organization (or if one is even needed) than I was when we first met.

    Comment by dave r — March 29, 2011 @ 11:56 am

  15. I have little patience for the Platypus crowd, but given the utter drivel that Proyect wrote on Adorno and then linked in this thread, maybe he should attend one of their reading groups after all.

    Comment by blather — March 30, 2011 @ 1:54 am

  16. I guess I will have gone through life having written nothing but drivel about Adorno. That, and not learning the Latin Hustle in the 1980s when it was really popular, will be two of my greatest regrets.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 30, 2011 @ 2:02 am

  17. Drivel my ass. Besides being bourgeois culture factories the most profound thing I learned in over 8 years immersed in the university milieu was the incredibly reactionary conclusions articulated by Deep Ecologists — always presenting papers invariably with the word “Sustainable” in the title. Intellectually they were utterly devoid of class analysis and politically they were hostile towards Marxism in general and Lenin in particular.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 2, 2011 @ 6:26 am

  18. “Frankly, I would be willing to put up with bureaucratic distortions if Alex Callicos ever figured out a way to toss the David Camerons and Tony Blairs of the world into the ashbin of history.”

    Yeah, but their names are Ferdinand Lassalle and Jean-Baptista Von Schweitzer, with their “vertical power” charisma and class independence, but going beyond them towards institutional organization.

    Comment by Jacob Richter — April 10, 2011 @ 7:30 am

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    Comment by gautmipt — July 31, 2011 @ 7:49 am


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