Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 20, 2012

Syria, imperialism and revolution

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 3:39 pm

July 19, 2012

The economic contradictions of Syrian Baathism

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:18 pm

One can’t help but feel that the pro-Assad left is in some kind of time-warp. They see Syria as it was in 1969, when it was on the leading edge of economic change in the Middle East—or so it would seem. You get the same thing with the Qaddafi or Mugabe fan club, mostly involving the same people. Of course, there are pro forma acknowledgements that such governments have adopted neoliberal measures, but you are left with the impression that if not for them, things would only get worse. In many ways, this is the same “lesser evil” politics that leads to supporting Obama over Romney, but transposed to the “anti-imperialist” realm. It is necessary to back Bashar al-Assad because his foes would be worse. The same line has been applied to Zimbabwe and Qaddafi’s Libya. Mostly, it is inspired by a kind of bastardized version of “Defend the USSR”, making no effort to really come to grips with the nature of the Syrian economy.

Part of the problem is the tendency for figures such as al-Assad senior and junior, Mugabe, and Qaddafi to use the term socialism in describing their governments. Baathist Socialism has ruled in Syria for over 50 years while Qaddafi’s “Green Socialism” was around for over 30. Mugabe, of course, had the authority of a successful Marxist guerrilla struggle behind him, even though his economic policies were not that different from what could be seen throughout the continent under the rubric of “African Socialism”.

What marked these experiments apart from Marx’s original vision was the utter lack of democracy. When Marx wrote about socialism, he referred to the Paris Commune as an example of the type of system he sought. You always must keep in mind that not much changed economically under working class rule in Paris. Marx was far more interested in workers taking control of the state and making decisions democratically than in any particular measure carried out, which in retrospect appear quite modest.

Baath ideology was conceived by Michel Aflaq in the 1930s as an alternative to communism, just as Qaddafi developed “Green Socialism”, a kindred ideology. Aflaq started out as a member of the Lebanese CP but broke with the party after seeing it support French colonial rule. In coming to reject Marxism, Aflaq developed some curious tendencies. Among them was an admiration for the works of Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg. He also attacked Marxism as a “Western ideology, foreign to everything that is Arab” into which its founder “breathed something of his vengeful Jewish spirit.”

In a September-October 1967 New Left Review article on Baathism, Eric Rouleau summed up the movement’s class basis:

The founders of the Baath, whether of Arsouzi’s or Aflak’s current, addressed themselves exclusively to an elite: students, professors, intellectuals and country teachers, who were expected in their turn to carry the good tidings to the people. In effect, the great majority of recruits to the Baath belonged to the small and middle bourgeoisie. Their natural milieu was that which produced the leaders of nationalism throughout the Arab world.

Despite MRZine’s devotion to the al-Assad cult, the magazine that spawned it in bad seed fashion was quite hostile once upon a time. In 1963, not long after a successful Baathist coup in Syria, the magazine published an article by Tabitha Petran that stated:

The recent coups in Iraq and Syria realize the six-year-old Eisenhower Doctrine’s goal of anti-Communist “Arab unity” under United States protection. The coups’ authors are the international oil interests, the U.S., and their local placemen—the Baath and Arab Nationalist (Nasserist) parties, assorted militarists and feudal left over from Hashemite rule in Iraq, and in Syria elements from the right-wing of the Moslem Brotherhood.

If MRZine bends the stick too far in one direction (if not having fully snapped sometime ago), this article errs in the opposite direction. In fact, the Baathist state took some bold economic actions not long after Petran’s article appeared as Rouleau pointed out:

The authenticity of their radicalism need not be doubted. In the past three years, Syria has undergone a major social upheaval. The Baath government has decreed an agrarian reform with ceilings of 15 to 55 hectares for irrigated, and 50 to 300 hectares for unirrigated land. Uncultivated estates have been expropriated without further ado. In a country where as late as 1958, 45 per cent of all irrigated land and 30 per cent of non-irrigated land was owned by only 2 per cent of the population, while 70 per cent of the population owned no land at all, this is a very drastic change. The reform has not yet been fully implemented, although the Baath claimed to have redistributed 2,500,000 hectares out of the national total of 6,000,000 by early 1967. Simultaneously, the signing of an agreement with the ussr for the construction of the Euphrates Dam ultimately promises a huge leap forward for agriculture: the Dam will double the area of irrigated soil in Syria. In the industrial sector, the Neo-Baathists have been no less intransigent. The lightning decrees of January 1965 nationalized 80 per cent of Syrian industry. Foreign trade was effectively made a state monopoly. The scope of these measures can be gauged from the fact that they instantly led to a general strike and shut-down of all business and trade in the great urban centres and bazaars, while mullahs preached open revolt against the government from their muezzins. In an armed social conflict, the Baath régime, aided by workers’ militias, trade-unions and Communist militants, succeeding in crushing bourgeois resistance to the new order. This unfolding of a mass social crisis and violent armed clashes distinguishes the Syrian experience sharply from the tranquilly bureaucratic Egyptian nationalizations of 1958. It led to wave of emigrations among the once prosperous Syrian bourgeoisie: there are now 200,000 exiles in the Lebanon. Beirut has become the Miami of this class.

Starting in the mid-80s, Syria began to suffer economic stagnation. Mainly this was a function of declining oil prices but also bureaucratic mismanagement of the sort seen in the USSR and Eastern Europe. And just like the “workers states”, it began a kind of Arab perestroika in 1990 that included typical neoliberal measures that did lead to improvements. However, coinciding with a kind of modest boom was stepped up corruption and backroom deals. If Baathism could be characterized by hostility to private enterprise in the conventional sense, there was still lots of opportunities for well-connected businessmen who exercised monopolies under the protection of the Syrian state.

By the late 90s, the economy began to stagnate again. In a 1999 article in MERIP, Bassam Haddad, the editor of Jadaliyya.com, noted:

Virtually every imaginable consumer item is available in Syrian stores today. But most of these items are beyond the reach of the average civil servant earning a paltry 3,000-4,000 Syrian pounds each month (the equivalent of $60 to $80) — which is not enough to cover the most basic living expenses.

Side by side with diminished buying power was increased corruption, a function of Syrian society’s reliance on old-boy Baathist economic connections as Haddad described:

Private interests’ penetration of decision-making bodies, and the ensuing rent-seeking networks that have developed, have blurred the boundaries between state and society. The result is widespread corruption: the compromise of public office for private benefit. Syrian public discourse emphasizes the moral and economic dimensions of corruption more than its bureaucratic and administrative ramifications. The solution to corruption, and to administrative incapacity generally, is not just a matter of putting a morally upright person in the right place. Over the years, the rulers and regulations that bind various bureaucracies, agencies and administrative bodies, horizontally as well as vertically, have been so profoundly compromised that not even the best person or team could ameliorate the state’s administrative capacity in the short run. Serious bureaucratic renovation is required if Syria is to make ample use of its considerable human and natural resources. Rent-seeking networks exacerbate administrative incapacity and hinder the restoration of integrity to the relatively legal-rational framework informing Syria’s bureaucracy. It is important to note that Syria’s experience in this regard echoes that of many lower middle level income late developing countries.

As long as the Syrian economy could continue to expand, even if fitfully, the social and political contradictions did not become insurmountable. Of course, the existence of a powerful repressive police force and a tightly controlled media helped keep things manageable. All that, of course, began to unravel after the Arab Spring began.

Reese Erlich, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor who started out as an antiwar radical in the 1960s, described the shifting loyalties in Syria as the struggle deepened:

Conflicting attitudes towards the Assad government date back to economic changes that began in 2004, when Syria shifted from a centrally managed economy to a more privatized one. The business elite benefited as the government allowed creation of private banks, insurance companies, and an airline.

The growth of large corporations in turn spurred creation of small- and medium-sized companies such as the marketing firm owned by Rana Issa. Government policies created economic growth and loyalty among business leaders.

But the new liberalization policy also amplified Syria’s system of crony capitalism, leading to charges of widespread corruption.

Demonstrators have singled out Rami Makhlouf, for example, a cousin of President Assad and owner of the country’s largest cell phone company. Critics say he’s made tens of millions of dollars due to family connections.

Bouthaina Shaaban, a top adviser to the president, admits that corruption remains a serious problem in Syria. “Rami Makhlouf isn’t the only one who made money in the past period,” she says in an interview at the presidential palace. “There are many people, big capitalists, who made a lot of money.”

But, she argues, the government has taken steps to reform. “This crisis has made us 1,000 more times more aware,” Ms. Shaaban says.

In what can only be described as the classic instance of “too little, too late”, the Baathist system looks like it is on its last legs. While some on the left wring their hands over the possibility that Baathist “socialism” will be replaced by some terrible disaster cooked up by the Koch brothers, the only measures that will prove capable of resisting such an eventuality is the organized power of the Syrian working class and its allies.

For all of the hatred that the “anti-imperialist” left has directed against the common people who overthrew Qaddafi, there are signs that workers are more emboldened in Libya than any time under “Green Socialism”. Marxist.com’s Jorge Martin reported on October 21, 2011:

Workers at Waha Oil company have been on strike and holding protests for 7 weeks now. Their main demand is the purge of the top management of the company from directors whom they accuse of being stooges of the old regime. It is an example of class issues coming to the fore once the old regime has been put to one side.

Waha Oil workers demonstrate demanding management to resignWaha Oil workers demonstrate demanding management to resign Field workers say they have documental evidence that Waha Oil directors collaborated with Gaddafi’s troops by giving them food, shelter and equipment worth millions. Workers have vowed never to work for them again. “This management committee gave 60 four-wheel drive land cruisers to [ousted leader Moammar] Qaddafi’s forces in March. These cars helped the Qaddafi forces kill some Libyan people and commit other crimes,” said Riad, an organization supervisor and he added: “We are demanding that the management committee of Waha quit… After the February 17 revolution, we want to get rid of these figures of corruption.”

Could this be contagious? One hopes so.

July 18, 2012

Pham Binh responds to ISO attack

Filed under: Libya,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

The Anti-Imperialism of Fools and the Syrian Spring

by Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp on July 18, 2012

in analysis, debate

Leave no tyrant behind, from Tripoli to Tehran.

Fresh off of arguing that North Korea is a live issue for American socialist organizing in the context of Occupy, Paul D’amato takes issue with my argument that the Western left puts itself at odds with revolutionary Syrians by opposing U.S. intervention full stop – no ifs, ands, or buts. Siding with revolutionary Syrians and Libyans regardless of their calls for foreign airstrikes since they do not have an air forces of their own to protect themselves hardly adds up to cheering the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” the United States military.

I side with the Arab Spring, no matter what country it spreads to, no matter what dictatorship comes under threat, and no matter what side the U.S. government eventually decides to back. As Clay Claiborne said elsewhere, I did not side with U.S. imperialism on the Libyan revolution, U.S. imperialism sided with me.

The International Socialist Organization (ISO), by contrast, quietly abandoned its support for the Libyan revolution once the going got tough and NATO’s F-16s got going and even went so far to argue that Ghadafi’s overthrow was a “blow to the Arab Spring.” Yes, you read that right! National elections, workers organizing and going on strike (in the oil industry, no less), people launching political parties and organizing protests in Libya are a huge, tremendous, staggering blow to the Arab Spring. Why? Because NATO did not follow the Western left’s example by standing meekly on the sidelines, twiddling its thumbs, while the conflict between revolution and counter-revolution raged.

continue reading

Trotsky, Kahlo and Rivera

Filed under: art,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 5:33 pm

July 17, 2012


Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 2:52 pm

Are any of my readers in Syria or who have contacts in Syria on the Internet? If so contact me privately at lnp3@panix.com.

July 16, 2012

Is the 60s counterculture to blame for today’s banksters?

Filed under: journalism,literature,media — louisproyect @ 7:04 pm

Kurt Andersen

David Brooks

Recent op-ed articles in the N.Y. Times by Kurt Andersen and David Brooks have both blamed the counterculture for the rise of the banksters.

On July 3rd, Andersen wrote that “do your own thing” explains Lloyd Blankfein and company:

But then came the late 1960s, and over the next two decades American individualism was fully unleashed. A kind of tacit grand bargain was forged between the counterculture and the establishment, between the forever-young and the moneyed.

Going forward, the youthful masses of every age would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes or social opprobrium.

“Do your own thing” is not so different than “every man for himself.” If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie, retiring at 50 with a six-figure public pension and refusing modest gun regulation, or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators. The self-absorbed “Me” Decade, having expanded during the ’80s and ’90s from personal life to encompass the political economy, will soon be the “Me” Half-Century.

There is a certain amount of what Freud called projection in Andersen’s analysis. Andersen, now 58, co-founded Spy Magazine in 1986 with E. Grayson Carter. Spy was an irreverent attack on the pretensions of the ruling class, especially those who were featured in gossip columns. But after Spy folded, they hooked up with magazines that flattered the figures they once satirized. Andersen became the editor of New York, a magazine devoted to the tastes of the upper middle-class with feature articles on where to buy the best chocolates or the inside scoop on Tom Cruise’s breakup with Katie Holmes. He was fired after publishing an article that was not sufficiently deferential to a big investor who was friends with Henry Kravis, a major investor in New York Magazine.

His next publishing venture was Inside.com, a short-lived attempt to make the media business interesting. Carter has been the editor of Vanity Fair since 1992. Despite the presence of the irrepressible and often irreverent James Woolcott, who has linked to yours truly from time to time, the magazine is an Establishment outlet that tries to make the lives of Hollywood celebrities, investment bankers and polo-playing Eurotrash interesting to the plebes.

In an article describing the metamorphosis of Andersen and Carter, Howard Kurtz, the usually boneheaded media critic at the Washington Post, hit the nail on the head:

One sign of the times: While Spy frequently ridiculed zillionaire Donald Trump as a “thick-fingered vulgarian,” Carter was among the glitterati at Trump’s wedding to Marla Maples — and put the newlyweds on the cover of Vanity Fair’s March issue.

I found this quote going back through my archives, trying to find something I might have written about Andersen in the past. As it turns out, back in 2006 I had something to say about a New York Magazine piece he had written about Iraq that included this howler: “In Iraq, we really are fighting on the side of the majority of the people (and their not-so-bad-guy leaders) against bad guys,” an assumption that the U.S. has the right to police the world, something that 60s radicals challenged. I summed up his perspective as follows:

For Mr. Andersen, the basic difference between the 1960s and now has a lot to do with the American people, and students in particular, becoming more apathetic, a theme that Time Magazine revisited all through the 1980s and 90s. Our former Spy opines, “And in a way that the sixties were precisely not, this is also an Age of Whatever. Thus the Iraq war, even if it ends badly, will cause no great disillusionment about America’s heroic white-hat nobility–you can’t lose your virginity twice.”

I imagine that Mr. Andersen is quite the expert on losing one’s virginity, given his peregrinations throughout the rather mercenary world of commercial media. As it turns out, he was fired from New York Magazine in 1994 for being, according to Mr. Andersen’s blog, “too annoying in its coverage of the then-owner’s business and social and political associates.” Knowing full well how expensive NY can be and what it means to be out of a job, I can certainly understand Mr. Andersen’s decision to no longer annoy anybody else in positions of power.

Apparently Kurt Andersen has not finished pontificating on 60s radicals, using “True Believers”, his latest novel, as a peg for more of the same. The main character is a 64 year old lawyer named Karen Hollander who removes herself from consideration for a Supreme Court appointment because of some dark secret from her radical past in 1968. I was curious enough about what Anderson had to say that I plunked down $23 of my hard earned (well, maybe hardly earned) money to see what the fellow had to say. Here’s the “message” Andersen seeks to impart:

Imagine if a random New Left kid could be fetched from 1968 to the twenty-first century. Wouldn’t she look around and think the revolution had succeeded? The draft ended, the Vietcong won. Communist China isn’t just in the UN but on its way to becoming the most powerful nation on earth. Socialists run Venezuela and Nicaragua as well as Cuba. Since Vietnam, the biggest U.S. wars have been tiny by comparison. Apartheid ended in South Africa, and a billion fewer Asians are poor. All sensible people take ecology seriously. Feminism triumphed—most new doctors and lawyers are women, and so is a majority of the American workforce. Abortion is mainly legal and marijuana practically so. On television, people curse and have sex, and there’s a twenty-four-hour leftist news channel. Respectable grown-ups wear blue jeans and sneakers and listen to rock music and get high. A black man who did drugs and admired Malcolm X was elected president. And Henry Kissinger and other old conservatives formed an organization promoting total nuclear disarmament.

Well, what else could you have expected from somebody who spent his youth carving out a career in journalism rather than trying to overthrow the capitalist system? I should add that the main character was an SDS weatherperson, which is typical for such novels that try to take on the 1960s. I suppose that setting off bombs is more dramatic than handing out leaflets to build a mass demonstration but more to the point Andersen would not begin to have a clue about the Marxist left that took its patient, movement-building strategies seriously.

I see that Random House is the publisher of this dubious interpretation of what the “movement” was about. I can’t say that I am surprised, nor am I surprised that Kurt Andersen is an “editor-at-large” there. This is exactly the sort of book that will sell millions even if the buyers don’t have any idea what the radical movement was about. There’s a blurb from a Vanity Fair review on the book’s back cover, describing it as “a joyful, wild gallup through a joyful, wild time to be an American”. Somehow those are not the words that come to mind when I think of all the fights we went through to have a slogan like immediate withdrawal rather than negotiate with the NLF.

Now Random House did get a story that was faithful to the history of the 60s left but will never publish it. I am of course talking about the comic book memoir I did in collaboration with the late Harvey Pekar. I can say at this point that I will be serializing the book but without the artwork. The artist told me that she would prefer to see her work in print rather than on my blog. I replied that so would I except that I didn’t expect to live until the 22nd century.

Moving ahead from Andersen’s feckless attempts to amalgamate the 1960s with his own sordid ambitions and those of the investment bankers he spends summers at the Hamptons with, we turn to the truly awful David Brooks who responded to Chris Hayes’s “Twilight of the Elites” in a July 12th column titled “Why Our Elites Stink“:

The corruption that has now crept into the world of finance and the other professions is not endemic to meritocracy but to the specific culture of our meritocracy. The problem is that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.

Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else. This attitude prevails in the Ivy League, in the corporate boardrooms and even at television studios where hosts from Harvard, Stanford and Brown rail against the establishment.

As a result, today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess. If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged. You were taught how morally precarious privilege was and how much responsibility it entailed. You were housed in a spartan 6-foot-by-9-foot cubicle to prepare you for the rigors of leadership.

The most glaring example of elite decline might have eluded Brooks, namely his own ridiculous attempt to make an amalgam between the 60s counterculture and people like Jamie Diamond or Lloyd Blankfein. People who make such outrageous claims on the op-ed pages of the NY Times, a preserve of the intellectually challenged from Thomas Friedman to the late and unlamented A.M. Rosenthal, are just not in the business of defending their ideas. They get paid millions of dollars to write stupid columns that serve to justify the status quo. The real analogy is not between the counterculture and the hedge fund sharks. It is rather between them and their paid propagandists like David Brooks. The banksters create fictitious capital, while people like Brooks create fictitious columns.

Now there is a sharp contrast between the old-line Wasp establishment and the new class of billionaires that Brooks, like Andersen, blames the 60s for. But it has little to do with LSD or Trout Fishing in America. People like FDR or even Nelson Rockefeller had much more of a sense of noblesse oblige because the people they ruled over belonged to a class that had much more muscle than it does today. Coal miners, steelworkers, autoworkers, truckdrivers, et al understood that militant trade union actions could put the bosses on the defensive if not lead to the transformation of the capitalist mode of production itself. Furthermore, the existence of the USSR always posed a threat to a system in which massive unemployment might break the social contract between rulers and ruled if it passed a certain threshold of pain.

Those days are long gone. The flight of manufacturing jobs to China and elsewhere has eroded the social base of the only class that had the power to take Big Capital on. Furthermore, when your wealth is generated through financial speculation, there is no need to worry about alienating workers—at least directly. Hedge fund offices on Wall Street and in Connecticut might be ultimately responsible for millions of foreclosures but there is not the same kind of head-on confrontation that was seen, for example, in 1938 when auto workers occupied the factories in Flint, Michigan.

We are beginning to see the earliest stages of a fightback. The Occupy movement, while put on the defensive, continues to strike a chord with those under attack by the 1 percent. This video makes clear that the movement understands how to relate to the problems of those forced to live in substandard housing, one of the deepest ongoing crises in the United States affecting families on the most basic level. As the attacks continue under the second term of a President who Andersen elevates to demigod status because he did drugs and admired Malcolm X (as if that compensates for being a tool of Goldman-Sachs), it will be up to the left to build solidarity with the ruled and help focus their anger against the rulers, whether they took LSD or not. Some things matter more than whether you are “hip” or not, especially what side of the barricades you are on.

July 14, 2012

Republican Democrats

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 10:13 pm


An article written for Overland Magazine in Australia:

Republican Democrats
The real Barack Obama

by Louis Proyect

Ruling out unforeseen catastrophes, it is likely that Barack Obama will enjoy a second term. The scenario playing out is fairly close to the two-term Clinton presidency, another centre-clinging project that – in the fashion of Nixon’s famous trip to China – achieved traditional Republican goals as only a Democrat could. While Clinton could be ‘credited’ for a welfare reform that left single mothers vulnerable to marketplace vicissitudes, Obama’s ambitions are far greater: he is laying the groundwork for abandoning the New Deal-type safety net in the name of ‘reform’, even if his most ardent and self-deceiving supporters continue to hold out hope that he will live up to his promises.

The liberal establishment in the United States is having a tough time rallying the troops in this election cycle, however. In 2008 there were fond hopes that Obama could usher in a new New Deal to put the unemployed millions back to work, revive the American economy through a massive investment in green energy sources, and re-regulate an out-of-control financial industry.

It did not take long for these illusions to be smashed by the appointment of a number of former Goldman Sachs employees as economic advisors. Of course, those who studied the New Deal, rather than relying on the myths about it, understood that FDR started out by accommodating the rich. One of his first major pieces of legislation was the Economy Act of 1933, which cut federal spending by $243 million (equal to $4.2 billion today). When First World War veterans learned that their benefits had been sacrificed at the altar of fiscal responsibility, they rallied in Washington in the same spirit as those who occupy Wall Street today. Roosevelt only sponsored genuine reforms after the working class threatened to go beyond the boundaries of private property.

full: http://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-207/feature-louis-proyect/

July 13, 2012

Family Portrait in Black and White

Filed under: Film,racism,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

“Family Portrait in Black and White” opens today at the AMC 25 Theater on West 42nd St., a typical Cineplex featuring “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection” and other such junk. My recommendation to New Yorkers is to not hold its venue against it since this oddly compelling film has many interesting things to say about racism in a dysfunctional Ukraine and the efforts of a foster mother of 23 children, all but 7 of whom are biracial and tend to have male African exchange students and Ukrainian women as birth parents.

They are being raised by Olga Nenya in Sumy, a farming town. She is loved by all of her foster children even if she runs the ramshackle house without steam heat and indoor toilets as a tyrant. Kiril, a sixteen year old studying music and wise beyond his years, likens Olga to the old Soviet Union and the children—he especially—as repressed but cared for citizens.

The film eschews facile political commentary but one thing it is very clear about. Ukraine is infested by neo-Nazi skinheads who are interviewed throughout the film. They brag about beating up or killing their victims, who tend to be immigrants. Nenya’s children were all born and raised in Ukraine but that does not prevent them from being bullied in school as “niggers” or “black asses”.

One of the benefits of living with Olga Nenya, despite her heavy-handedness, is that having 16 brothers and sisters with a similar background creates a bond of solidarity that makes the racial animosity of Sumy easier to put up with. Oddly enough, there are signs that the children have absorbed some of the same prejudices shared by backward Ukrainians. When we see two of the brood walking down the main street of Sumy, they begin railing against Arabs who have no business living among “us Ukrainians” and trying to take “our women”. A mischievous grin on one of the boy’s faces suggests, however, that he is trying more to be outrageous for the benefit of the film-makers than anything else.

The main tension in the film, and what gives its dramatic drive, is between Olga Nenya’s determination to rule the roost and the children’s struggle to define themselves as independent human beings, reflected most of all by their efforts to be adopted by the wealthier Western European families that take them in over Christmas and the summer vacation. In many respects, the struggle is not that much different than what other “more normal” families experience.

Oddly enough, the film makes no effort to find out what makes Olga Nenya tick. The interviews are mostly with the children who are very comfortable speaking on camera and to maximum effect. Perhaps this was a bid to keep her as something of a mystery. Is she sympathetic to the former Soviet Union in ostalgie fashion? What made her decide to take in so many foster children to begin with?

Perhaps the fact that these questions linger in my mind three days after watching this poignant drama is what the film-makers intended.


July 12, 2012

Hey Ya!

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 5:09 pm

July 11, 2012

Trotskyist postmortems on a dead party

Filed under: sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 5:28 pm

From its height of influence and membership in the mid-70s to its long steady decline into a workerist cult of around a hundred aging members, the American SWP—regarded by Leon Trotsky as the flagship of his movement—is worthy of study in the same manner as a dead body on CSI or Quincy, ME, two television shows that appeal to those of a morbid personality. In my role as forensic pathologist of the Marxist dead, I have rendered my own findings on many occasions.

Despite having said pretty much all that I wanted to say about this political equivalent of the Hindenburg crash, I will add a few words now prompted by contributions from Gus Horowitz, a former leader of the SWP, and John Riddell, a Canadian whose party (League for Socialist Action/League Socialiste Ouvrière) tailed the SWP into oblivion.

Gus started blogging at http://gushorowitz.wordpress.com/ in February of this year and I will be commenting on his June 24th article On the Formation of the Jack Barnes Cult in the SWP. John began blogging at http://johnriddell.wordpress.com/ in June 2008. His 2-part discussion (part 1, part 2) of the recently published volume 2 of Barry Sheppard’s memoir also provides food for thought. Another resource worth bookmarking is SWP History: 1960-1988, a joint project of Barry Sheppard and Gus Horowitz.

As should be no surprise to those who have been following my articles on the SWP over the years, I am partial to Peter Camejo’s analysis contained in Against Sectarianism. After reading it in 1983, I immediately joined Peter in trying to forge a new left based on his approach, which departed from “Leninist” norms (Barry Sheppard believed that Peter eventually departed from Marxism as well, a topic I’ve discussed elsewhere.)

I should add that my perspective differs not only from Riddell, Horowitz and Sheppard’s methodologically; I had a different existential relationship to the party as well. I was never on full-time and always had a day job as a computer programmer that put me in close proximity with people who had very little interest in politics. This meant, for better or for worse, that I was less likely to dive headfirst into the “turn toward industry”, if for no other reasons than self-interest. After a decade or so of developing a career (such as it was), I was not that eager to start all over as a machinist or welder, etc. The SWP helped me resolve that contradiction in late 1978 when it announced that members should eschew such skilled trades since they isolated us from the most oppressed workers. As someone who had spent a morning as a very unskilled spot welder, this was a road I decided not to travel.

Turning to Gus’s article on cult formation first, there is an emphasis on group psychology, a focus that is shared by Paul LeBlanc, another ex-member who has written extensively on the collapse of the SWP. Gus writes:

A leader, once he or she accepts the sense of mission that Jack spoke of, also bears the same kind of self-imposed psychological burden. Yet the leader is compelled to accept that responsibility, to take it upon his or her shoulders. The leader who “totally absorbs” that “fateful responsibility” must surely live with the keen feeling that he or she is a special person, a person on whom the fate of humanity at least partially depends. No wonder, then, that there is a serious risk of megalomania in such circumstances, a feeling that one is indispensable, a feeling that everything one does has special, fateful importance.

It is worth mentioning that megalomania is a fairly common feature of both Trotskyist and Maoist sects, as anybody familiar with Bob Avakian’s RCP can attest. It stems from the conviction that the group somehow possesses a “program” that has “revolutionary continuity” going back to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Unlike parties that are rooted in the mass movement where leadership is earned on the basis of successful struggles (like Fidel Castro or Ho Chi Minh, for example), small propaganda groups like the SWP and the RCP have a different criterion. The leader is someone who has such a brilliant mind that they can interpret social reality through the prism of Marxism unerringly. They become much more like clerical authorities who issue edicts rather than active agents of social change.

The SWP was not always like that. Barnes’s predecessors were veterans of the mass movement who became leaders based on what they could do. For example, James P. Cannon made his mark defending victims of repression, especially the Wobblies. His successor Farrell Dobbs was a leader of the Teamsters when it was a militant union. Barnes, unlike Cannon or Dobbs, had a much more modest record in the mass movement. Furthermore, when the mass movements of the 1960s went into a steep decline, Barnes’s role as defender of the faith became more and more pronounced. As a symptom of the changes the party was going through, hundreds were expelled because they refused to accept the party leader’s rejection of Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. This was of course just the excuse. The main reason for the expulsions was that the mostly veteran dissidents stood in the way of consolidating a cult around Jack Barnes.

I thought that Gus’s description of the party was useful, if a bit limited in perspective:

There was another factor compounding this personal dynamic. It was the group dynamic and our peculiar life style. As a general rule, the leaders and most of the members of the SWP were extraordinarily active, many spending six or seven days per week in one project or another. Few of us had our own families, careers or professions. We thought of ourselves as footloose rebels, for the most part, tied neither to job nor location. Our entire lives revolved around the party. Our friends, our manners, our speech, our way of doing things were all shaped by our way of life in the group. The group dynamic was part of an all-encompassing atmosphere.

The “we” and “our” mentioned above, of course, tended to be the full-timers who socialized with each other and whose “lives revolved around the party”. Speaking for myself and many of the ordinary rank-and-filers I knew over the years, this was not the case for us at all. We had a lot invested in the party but we had our own careers and personal lives. Frankly, the SWP would have been a lot better off if it had fewer full-timers in the 60s and 70s and made them take jobs from time to time just to put them in touch with regular folks. I would have loved to see Jack Barnes working at Met Life in the 1960s. If there is anything to cure megalomania, it was working at such a place.

My attitude toward the “brass” in the SWP could best be described as tolerance. Except for Peter Camejo, I found them cold and imperious almost without exception. I should add that the women were far more approachable. I always had a soft spot for Caroline Lund (Sheppard’s partner who died tragically of Lou Gehrig’s disease a few years ago) and Kipp Dawson. As long as the brass made the right political decisions, I could put up with them. But when they began to err in a stupid sectarian direction in the late 70s, I found it pretty easy to jump ship. Who needed assholes barking orders at you to do something that made no sense? Not me. Man overboard.

I must state at this point that I am not quite sure where Sheppard, Horowitz, and Riddell stand on the party-building methodology questions that I have written about over the years. I was a bit disappointed that Barry did not spend more time dealing with how a new movement can be built today but I am certainly grateful to him for chronicling the SWP’s history from the early 60s until his departure.

The first part of John Riddell’s reaction to Barry’s book is titled “The U.S. SWP attempts an outward turn (1976–83)”. As opposed to Barry and Lynn Henderson, who regard the break with Trotskyism as key to the SWP’s degeneration, John thinks that this was a necessary first step even if carried out incorrectly:

Regardless of one’s views on Cuba and its Communist leadership, there is a problem with Sheppard’s analysis. The SWP’s efforts at convergence with the Cuban Communist current represented a turn outwards, toward linking up with revolutionaries outside the party and building an organization broader than the historic SWP. By contrast, the party’s actual trajectory under Barnes has been in the opposite direction, toward narrowness, isolation, and self-absorption.

There is something to be said for this, I suppose. Camejo was gung-ho for becoming “more Cuban” but when he advocated a joint mayoral campaign with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party in New York (a true Fidelista current) against Koch in 1981, he was hammered by Jack Barnes and his lieutenants. It was one thing for the Militant to flatter the Cuban  leadership; it was another for the SWP to actually become more like the Cuban Communist Party in terms of being less sectarian.

I tend to disagree, however, with Riddell’s championing of Fidel Castro’s take on Allende’s Popular Unity government:

The authors [a reference to a Camejo/Les Evens article in 1972] compare the Allende regime to that of F.D. Roosevelt in the U.S. – that is, to an instrument of the capitalist class in taming and blocking the workers’ struggle. They also liken it to Stalinist popular frontism after 1935, which subordinated workers’ struggles to “alliances with ‘peace-loving’ imperialists.”

Inevitably, the SWP’s opposition to the UP government hindered efforts to defend it against the impending U.S.-sponsored coup. The Cuban government’s approach of critical support, by contrast, enabled its government to take energetic measures to defend Chile, while making suggestions on how Chilean workers should prepare for the coming confrontation.

In my own study of Allende’s record, I regard many of his measures to be quite audacious but in the final analysis considered him to be an obstacle to a revolution in Chile. Riddell believes that having the correct position on Allende is essential for appreciating  Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution and those modeled on it in Bolivia and Ecuador.

In September 2007, I wrote a review of Patricio Guzmán’s documentary on the Chilean socialist martyr that was premiering that month. Just by coincidence, I took up the Allende-Chavez analogy:

Despite both coming to power through the ballot, there are significant differences between Allende and Hugo Chavéz. First of all, Chavéz was a military officer himself with broad connections to leftist officers, perhaps the most striking characteristic of Venezuelan politics where an Air Force general is described by Richard Gott in “Shadow of the Liberator” as having “Trotskyist” politics. By contrast, Air Force officers in the US tend to be followers of the Christian Right.

But more importantly, the primary ideological inspiration for Chavéz’s movement is revolutionary socialism rather than 1930s style popular frontism. According to Gott, a number of Chavéz’s primary influences were Marxists to the left of the CP. In declaring for a 21st century socialism, Chavéz has made repeated references to the failure of Soviet socialism in terms that reflect the influences of the Trotskyist movement. Of course, as is always the case with Chavéz, he makes up his own mind based on what he thinks is right. This includes his willingness to stand up to the bourgeois parties in Venezuela, unlike Allende who kept making concession after concession to the Christian Democrats who were plotting his overthrow. To show that he was deferential to their interests, he kept bringing military men into his cabinet and even put Pinochet in charge of public security not 6 months before Pinochet overthrew his government.


Within an hour of posting this article, I came across a Greg Grandin review of a new book on Allende  that is unfortunately behind the London Review’s paywall. I submit the final paragraph:

In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez drew a different lesson from the defeat of the Popular Unity government. Soon after he was elected president in 1998, before coming out as a confrontationalist, indeed before he even identified himself as a socialist, Chávez began to compare himself to Allende. Wealthy Venezuelans were mobilising against even the mildest economic reforms, as their Chilean predecessors had done, taking to the streets, banging their pots and pans, attacking the government through their family-owned TV stations and newspapers, beating a path to the US embassy to complain, and taking money from Washington to fund their anti-government activities. In response, Chávez began to talk about 1973. ‘Like Allende, we are pacifists,’ he said of his supporters, including those in the military. ‘And like Allende, we are democrats. Unlike Allende, we are armed.’ The situation got worse and worse, culminating in the coup of April 2002 which, though unsuccessful, looked very like the coup against Allende. Chávez found himself trapped in the national palace speaking to Castro on the phone, telling him he was ready to die for the cause. Ever the pragmatist, Castro urged him to live to fight another day: ‘Don’t do what Allende did!’


Riddell’s second part is titled Causes of a socialist collapse: The U.S. SWP 1976–83. Most of it makes sense, as far as it goes. Like Sheppard and Horowitz, there is an implicit thesis in the article that the problems of the SWP coincide with the emergence of Barnes as a central leader:

Previous generations of the party leadership, under James P. Cannon (1928–53) and Farrell Dobbs (1953–72), had indeed been diverse in outlook and experience. The Barnes generation, however, was much more uniform in outlook – in part, because the leadership had been trained mostly as full-time staffers in the party apparatus rather than in the field of struggle.

In its prime, the SWP was distinguished from other Marxist currents by its commitment to working-class and social movements and its capacity to learn and improvise on the basis of experience in action. During the last three decades, these special features have faded from view, and the party now resembles much more closely the general run of small inward-turned Marxist groups.

Although it is difficult to argue with the proposition that Barnes destroyed the SWP, I tend to differ from Sheppard, Horowitz and Riddell in rejecting the notion of some kind of Golden Age in which James P. Cannon or Farrell Dobbs held dominion. I believe that the methodology of the SWP was flawed from the outset. In its less lethal permutations, such as the Tony Cliff or Ted Grant variety or the SWP of the early 1970s, you end up with a “healthy” group but one that is destined to hit a glass ceiling because of its self-imposed “vanguardist” assumptions. In a nutshell, the group sees itself as the nucleus of the future revolutionary party no matter how much lip-service is given to fusing with other groups during a prerevolutionary period, etc. In its more lethal versions, you end up with Gerry Healy or Jack Barnes where megalomania rules supreme.

Although I have referred to my analysis of “Zinovievist” party-building conceptions accepted at face value by James P. Cannon to the point of becoming a crushing bore, I would like to conclude with an excerpt from the article  where I first laid out this thesis:

The process of transforming the American movement into a caricature of Lenin’s party took a number of years and it was the authority of the Comintern that made this transformation possible. After all, if the Russians tell us to have “democratic centralism”, they must know what they’re talking about. They do have state power.

The first organizational expression of the American Communist movement showed its roots in the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs. The party was organized on the basis of branches rather than cells, as the Comintern dictated. Another feature of the American Communist movement that was distinct from what is commonly known as “democratic centralism” was the open debates that various factions took part in. While it is beyond the scope of this article to trace all the divisions within the American movement, suffice it to say that they tended to reflect very real differences about the character of the movement–whether it should orient to the more radicalized foreign language speaking workers, or develop roots in the English speaking sector of the class. The Comintern, needless to say, used all of its power to shape the direction of American revolutionary politics despite Zinoviev’s open admission in 1924 that “We know England so little, almost as little as America.”

The Fourth National Convention of the Communist Party was held in Chicago, Illinois in August, 1925. This convention was inspired by the Bolshevization World Congress of the Comintern that was held in 1924. The American delegates came to the United States with the understanding that their party would adopt more stringent organizational norms in line with Zinoviev’s directives. To give you a sense of the importance of the language question, the proceedings of the convention report that there were 6,410 Finnish members as opposed to 2,282 English speaking members.

The American party had its own dissident minority that the new “Bolshevization” policy could be used as a cudgel against. This minority was led by one Ludwig Lore, who was the main demon of the American movement as Leon Trotsky was in the Soviet movement. The Majority Resolution laid down the law against Lore:

“We also endorse fully and pledge our most active support to the Comintern and Parity Commission decisions providing for the liquidation of Loreism in our Party. We demand that the Party be united in a uncompromising struggle against this dangerous right wing tendency. We pledge our fullest support to the whole Comintern program for Bolshevizing our Party, including a militant fight against the right wing, the organization of the Party on the basis of shop nuclei, and the raising of the theoretical level of our membership.”

This is quite a mouthful. They are going to liquidate a dangerous right wing tendency and reconstitute the party on the basis of factory cells all in one fell swoop. And “the raising of the theoretical level of our membership” can mean only one thing. They are going to get politically indoctrinated by the Zinoviev-Kamenev-Stalin faction in order to destroy all of its opponents wherever they appear.

Poor Ludwig Lore was in a political fight with other leading Communists about how to relate to the Lafollette Farmer-Labor Party. This third party was an expression of American populism and it was not clear which direction it was going. The disagreements over how to approach it are similar to the sorts of disagreements that crop up today about how to regard, for example, the Nader presidential campaign.

So Lore found himself in a bitter dispute about a purely American political question. What he didn’t figure out, however, was that he had no business being open-minded about Trotsky while this dispute was going on. Lore had befriended Trotsky during a visit to the USSR in 1917 and retained warm feelings toward him, just as the French Communist Boris Souvarine did. Not surprisingly, Lore had very little use for Zinoviev. On one occasion, according to Theodore Draper, Lore told Zinoviev to his face that his information about the American labor movement was questionable. Considering Zinoviev’s track record in Germany, this hardly comes as a surprise.

What really got his name in the Comintern’s little black book, however, was his caustic observations about the infamous “Bolshevization” World Congress of March, 1924:

“The Third International changes its tactics, nay, even its methods, every day, and if need be, even oftener. It utterly disregards its own guiding principles, crushes today the these it adopted only yesterday, and adapts itself in every country to new situations which may offer themselves. The Communist International is, therefore, opportunistic in its methods to the most extreme degree, but since it keeps in its mind the one and only revolutionary aim, the reformist method works for the revolution and thus loses its opportunistic character.”

This was just what the Comintern would not tolerate at this point, an independent thinker. Lore was doomed.

The “Resolution on Bolshevization of the Party” spells out how the American Communists would turn over a new leaf and get tough with all the right-wing elements in the party. “…the task of Bolshevization presents itself concretely to our Party as the task of completely overwhelming the organizational and ideological remnants of our social-democratic inheritance, of eradicating Loreism, of making out of the Party a functioning organism of revolutionary proletarian leadership.” And so Lore was expelled at this convention.

The party was re-organized on the basis of factory cells and a rigid set of organizational principles were adopted. For example, it stipulated that “Wherever three or more members, regardless of their nationality or present federation membership, are found to be working in the same shop, they shall be organized into a shop nucleus. The nucleus collects the Party dues and takes over all the functions of a Party unit.” What strikes one immediately is that there is absolutely no consideration in the resolution about whether or not a factory-based party unit makes political sense. It is simply a mechanical transposition of Comintern rules, which in themselves are based on an undialectical understanding of Lenin’s party.

The expulsion of Lore and the new organizational guidelines was adopted unanimously by the delegates, including two men who would go on to found American Trotskyism: James P. Cannon and Vincent Ray Dunne. Cannon and Dunne are regarded as saints by all of the Trotskyist sects, but nobody has ever tried to explain why Cannon and Dunne could have cast their votes for such abysmal resolutions. There really is only one explanation: their understanding of Bolshevism came from Zinoviev rather than Lenin.

Cannon’s myopia on these sorts of questions stayed with him through his entire life. In his “First Ten Years of American Communism”, he describes Lore as someone who never “felt really at home in the Comintern” and who never became an “all-out communist in the sense that the rest of us did.” That says more about Cannon than it does about Lore. Who could really feel at home in the Comintern? This bureaucratic monstrosity had replaced the heads of the German Communist Party 3 times in 3 years. It had intruded in the affairs of the German Communist Party as well, coming up with the wrong strategy on a consistent basis. Those who “felt at home” in the Comintern after 1924, as James P. Cannon did, would never really be able to get to the bottom of the problem. Furthermore, Cannon himself took the organizational principles of the 1925 Communist Party convention and used them as the basis for American Trotskyism as well.

Zinoviev was responsible for not only ostracizing Trotsky in the Russian party, but Lore in the American party as well. Zinoviev was a master of casting people into Menshevik hell. Cannon himself was plenty good at this as well. Over and over again in American Trotskyist history, there were others who were to face ostracism just like Lore. Schachtman in the 1930s, Cochran in the 1950s and Camejo in the 1980s. In every case, the current party leadership was defending the long-term historical interests of the proletariat while the dissident were reflecting petty-bourgeois Menshevik influences. What garbage.

Cannon’s views on Zinoviev were those of a student toward a influential professor. In “The First Ten Years of American Communism”, Cannon pays tribute to the dreadful Zinoviev: “As far as I know, Zinoviev did not have any special favorites in the American party. The lasting personal memory I have of him is of his patient and friendly efforts in 1925 to convince both factions of the necessity of party peace and cooperation, summed up in his words to Foster which I have mentioned before: ‘Frieden ist besser.’ (‘Peace is Better’).”

What a stunning misunderstanding of the events of 1924-1925. Zinoviev had broken the back of the German Communist Party and the Soviet party and now was doing everything he could to destroy any independent voices in the American party. Zinoviev himself would soon be a victim of the same process. Yesterday’s Bolshevik would become the Menshevik of 1926 and 1927.

The sectarian and rigidity of the Comintern party-building model are still upheld by the Trotskyists and other “Marxist-Leninists” of today. If these groups were as critical of their own history and ideas as they were of the ruling class, much improvement could obtain. This is not something to be hoped for. Those of us who prefer to think for ourselves must create our own organizational and political solutions, just as Lenin did in turn-of-the-century Russian. Any effort which falls short of this will not produce the outcome we so desperately need: the abolition of the capitalist system and the development of socialism.

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