Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 20, 2013

Catastrophism and the left: a response to Sasha Lilley

Sasha Lilley

Although I was aware that West Coast radio host Sasha Lilley, a kind of radical version of Terry Gross, had come out with a book on “Catastrophism”, I had no plans to read it or comment on it until I spied a review in Brooklyn Rail, a free monthly you can find at better bookstores.

Titled “The Bankruptcy of Doom and Gloom”, reviewer Robert S. Eshelman writes:

Lilley observes that while the New Deal did, in fact, originate in response to the Great Depression, the great American strike waves of 1898 to 1904 and 1916 to 1920 occurred during periods of relative economic prosperity.

I found so many things wrong with this that I decided to have a look at more of what comrade Lilley had to say. Fortunately, you can read her entire chapter in “Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth” on Google books. And I did. To start with, I have no idea which “great American strike wave” of 1898 to 1904 or 1916 to 1920 Lilley can possibly be referring to. I am fairly well versed in American labor history and have no idea what she is talking about.

Workers struck throughout the early 1960s for that matter. This was a time when the UAW, the Teamsters, and the railway unions went out on strike for substantial wage increases all the time. During the brief time I was a public school teacher in the late 60s, Albert Shanker was one of the most “militant” trade unionists in the U.S. if going out on strike is some kind of litmus test. This was the guy after all who resulted in civilization being destroyed after he got his hands on a nuclear weapon, as the Doctor told Woody Allen in “Sleeper” after he awoke. That’s pretty militant but I don’t think that’s the sort of thing Lilley had in mind.

But the kinds of strikes that capture our attention as Marxists are not the Samuel Gompers inspired affairs for higher wages. Instead we study what happened in Flint, Michigan in 1936 and 1937 when workers occupied factories and battled the cops and National Guard. This was a strike that began to educate workers about FDR back-stabbing the CIO. Like it and so many other major class battles of the 1930s, it eventually came to naught because the Communist or Social Democratic leadership (Victor and Walter Reuther in the case of the UAW) was determined to back FDR. If the trade union movement had broken with the Democrats and launched a labor party, American politics would look a lot different today. Trust me.

While most of Lilley’s barbs are aimed at the lunatic fringe, from the nuclear-war advocating Juan Posadas of the Fourth International to the Weathermen, she snares Henryk Grossman into her industrial-sized seine. She accuses Grossman of “collapsism” on the basis of his observation:

Despite the periodic interruptions that repeatedly defuse the tendency towards breakdown, the mechanism as a whole tends relentlessly towards its final end with the general process of accumulation… Once these countertendencies are themselves defused or simply cease to operate, the breakdown tendency gains the upper hand and asserts, itself in the absolute form as the final crisis.

Surely anybody with even a smattering of knowledge about Grossman’s theories of capital accumulation would understand that he posited the “escape valve” that the system used to postpone such a final crisis. Chapter 3 of Grossman’s 1929 “Law of the Accumulation and Breakdown” is titled “Modifying Countertendencies”. I don’t think it’s hard to figure out that any chapter with such a title will provide the evidence needed to clear Grossman of the charge of “collapsism”.

At the start of the chapter, Grossman identifies conditions that must be met in order for the “final crisis” to ensue. The first one is “that the capitalist system exists in isolation – that there is no foreign trade”. Fat chance of that, I’d say. As Grossman puts it:

Considering the gigantic increases in productivity and the enormous accumulation of capital of the last several decades the question arises —why has capitalism not already broken down? This is the problem that interests Marx:

the same influences which produce a tendency in the general rate of profit to fall, also call forth counter-effects, which hamper, retard, and partly paralyse this fall. The latter do not do away with the law, but impair its effect. Otherwise, it would not be the fall of the general rate of profit, but rather its relative slowness, that would be incomprehensible. Thus, the law acts only as a tendency. And it is only under certain circumstances and only after long periods that its effects become strikingly pronounced. (1959, p. 239)

Once these counteracting influences begin to operate, the valorisation of capital is reestablished and the accumulation of capital can resume on an expanded basis. In this case the breakdown tendency is interrupted and manifests itself in the form of a temporary crisis. Crisis is thus a tendency towards breakdown which has been interrupted and restrained from realising itself completely [emphasis added].

If you stop and think about it, this is not that much different from what David Harvey has said about  “spatial fix” or Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of primitive accumulation that Harvey has endorsed.

Speaking of which, despite accepting Rosa Luxemburg’s proviso that capitalism can forestall collapse through colonization, whether formally or informally, the stern judge Lilley still refuses to excuse her from the charge of “collapsism”. Parenthetically, while one cannot expect Lilley to have offered up a counter-analysis on the current stage of capitalism, isn’t it obligatory to take the collapse of the USSR, the Eastern European states, China, and Vietnam into account when offering blithe reassurances about the vitality of the capitalist system? One would never consider the possibility that capitalism will collapse of its own internal mechanisms, but hasn’t the opening up of huge markets and supplies of cheap labor given the system a new lease on life? Of course, Lilley might respond that this is what she has been talking about all along. That being the case, she owes Grossman and Luxemburg an apology for transforming them into “catastrophists” when her own analysis and theirs differs so little. Oh well, I’ll do it for her. “Henryk and Rosa, Sasha says she’s sorry.”

All this being said, I do agree that catastrophism is a problem in the Marxist movement (as opposed to the freak show on parade in her chapter.) Towards the end of WWII the American Trotskyist movement had a debate over the leadership’s catastrophist notion that the end of WWII would result in economic collapse and proletarian revolution. Felix Morrow challenged that view as I reported in an article I wrote about 17 years ago:

One of the main areas of contention between Morrow and the leaders of the FI was how these differences in policy would play out against the background of German politics. The SWP was convinced that the German working-class would lead the rest of Europe in the fight for socialism. A document states: “the German revolution constitutes the essential base of the European revolution, that it alone can provide the indispensable, genuinely harmonious political and economic organization for the Socialist United States of Europe.”

Morrow disagreed completely with these projections. He stated that the document contains not “a single reference to the fact that the German proletariat would begin its life after Nazi defeat under military occupation and without a revolutionary party.”

What was the source of these false projections? “To put it bluntly: all the phrases in its prediction about the German revolution — that the proletariat would from the first play a decisive role, soldiers’ committees, workers’ and peasants’ soviets, etc. — were copied down once again in January 1945 by the European Secretariat from the 1938 program of the Fourth International. Seven years, and such years, had passed by but the European Secretariat did not change a comma. Exactly the same piece of copying had been done by the SWP majority in its October 1943 Plenum resolution in spite of the criticisms of the minority.” Evidently dogmatism is not a recent trend in the Trotskyist movement.

Morrow stood his ground against all attacks. He appeared as a heretic. One of the charges against him made by Pierre Frank contained an interesting thought. If Morrow was right, what implications would this have for the world Trotskyist movement? Frank seemed to be thinking out loud when he said:

The false perspective of Morrow has a farther implication if it is really drawn to its logical end. If American imperialism has such inexhaustible powers that it can, as he thinks, improve the standard of living in Europe, then of course there exists a certain basis, on however low a foundation, for the establishment of bourgeois-democracy in the immediate period ahead. From that we must assume the softening of class conflicts for a period that the class struggle will be very largely refracted through the parliamentary struggle, that for a time the parliamentary arena will dominate the stage. If that were true, we would have to revise our conception of American imperialism. And of course the Trotskyist movement would have to attune its work to these new conditions — conditions for a while of slow painful growth, propaganda, election campaigns, etc., etc.

Frank’s fears were of course grounded in reality. This would be the fate of the Trotskyist movement and the rest of the left. The 1950s were not even a period of slow, painful growth, however. They were a period of decline. The FI only woke up to new realities when it shifted toward the student movement in the early 1960s. After a period of sustained growth, it returned to its “catastrophist” roots and proclaimed in 1975 that the workers were ready to launch an attack on capitalist power in the United States and the other industrialized countries. SWP leader Jack Barnes not only led this return to Comintern ultraleftism, he did the early communists one better and predicted war, fascism and proletarian revolution nearly every year or so for the last 20.

Contrary to James P. Cannon’s expectations, the post-war period through the early 70s was marked by rapid expansion of American capitalism and a period of relative prosperity for the working class. Lilley does not think that these objective conditions had much to do with the mostly white working class supporting the war in Vietnam, the racial status quo, sexism in the workplace, or the behavior stereotyped in “All in the Family”. I wish it wasn’t so but my memory of construction workers beating up antiwar students is too vivid. It may be vulgar Marxism to assert that worsening economic conditions makes it easier to persuade workers of socialist ideas but as Robert Fitch once put it, “Vulgar Marxism explains 90 percent of what’s going on in the world.”

Finally, on the question of “catastrophism” and the left. As I am thirty years older than Ms. Lilley, I have a somewhat different take on millenarianism and the left. When I used to drive around with my mom when I was 5 or 6 years old, I’d ask her if a big cumulus nimbus was a mushroom cloud. This was at a time when television was laden with doomsday messages about Russian nukes. A couple of years later I would be taking part in air raid drills at school, “ducking and covering” under my desk. It does not get much more apocalyptic than this. When I got to Bard College in 1961, I joined some upperclassmen in organizing a Welcome the Bomb Committee, a satirical jab at Governor Rockefeller who was pushing for an expansion of nuclear war shelters.

While I was still too apolitical to do anything about my fears, other students joined he Student Peace Union, a first sign of opposition to Cold War madness. Many of the people who joined the Young Socialist Alliance in the early 60s were SPU activists. They had come to the conclusion that the capitalist system threatened the survival of the human race and acted on that decision.

My turn came 6 years later as I faced being drafted to fight in Vietnam. When a Marxist student at the New School convinced me that such wars were inevitable in the capitalist system, I had no alternative but to join the Trotskyist movement. Does that make me a catastrophist? Guilty as charged, I suppose, and likely to remain one until I die.


  1. A good essay. The full discussion in the SWP through 1945 is now up. All the Internal Bulletins from 1938 through 1945 are available here:
    http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/swp-us/idb/swp-1938-45/index.htm This was actually completed today.

    The discussion you are referring to with Morrow *seems* to kick off in 1944, but perhaps in reaction to the October 1943 Plenum you noted. It’s quite educational to read through the entire discussion and get a real feel for this debate. Unfortunately, we won’t have the 1946 discussion, where this debate really takes off, available for some time. Stay tuned.

    There were a lot of facets and implications to this discussion besides the one eluded to by Pierre Frank. Namely, the “American Thesis” which basically set about the post-WWII “catastrophic” world view of the SWP and what it would mean in the United States. Also notable are Morrow’s push to fuse with the Workers Party (which was actually closer to the SWP on all this than Morrow himself) as well as something often overlooked, but which I find insightful: Morrow’s elevation of the question of “democracy” to post-war Europe as a political demand to combat Stalinism.


    Comment by David Walters — March 20, 2013 @ 9:12 pm

  2. Fucking brilliant retort but does this sentence: “It does get much more apocalyptic than this. When I got to Bard College in 1961…” mean to read: “It does NOT get much more…”?


    Comment by iskraagent — March 21, 2013 @ 12:55 am

  3. Nice reply to Lilley. In the same book, the essay by Eddie Yuen on environmentalism is just as bad — with the added problem that its proposals for the environmental movement are a recipe for defeat. I really am shocked at the positive reviews this book has received in otherwise intelligent left journals. See my letter in the coming issue of International Socialist Review.
    Ian Angus

    Comment by Ian Angus — March 21, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

  4. Capitalism has been socially and environmentally catastrophic, and the damage has accelerated in recent decades. One need only look around to see it. Perhaps, Lilley confuses our adapability to these changes with the notion that things really aren’t that bad. It is urgent that we find a way to communicate the severity of the situation with an optimism that we can still save ourselves.

    Comment by Richard Estes — March 21, 2013 @ 5:38 pm

  5. […] capitulates to the politics of catastrophism, as was argued by Eddy Yuen in Sasha Lilley’s new book.  Yuen’s logic and agenda was effectively demolished by Ian Angus at the Climate and […]

    Pingback by Focusing the Left Mind: Climate Catastrophe and the Neo-Marxian Resurrection — May 1, 2013 @ 6:01 pm

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