Last Sunday the NY Times Book Review section featured Frank Rich’s glowing review of Rick Perlstein’s “The Invisible Bridge” on the front page, a sure sign that you have made it. The bridge in the title is a reference to the period between 1973 and 1976, when the Republican Party was transitioning from Gerald Ford (who was far to the left of Barack Obama) to Ronald Reagan.
Now only two days later Perlstein is embroiled in a plagiarism controversy that pits him against Craig Shirley, the author of the 2004 “The Reagan Revolution”. Once again, from the NY Times:
In two letters to Mr. Perlstein’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, Mr. Shirley’s lawyer, Chris Ashby, cited 19 instances of duplicated language and inadequate attribution, and demanded $25 million in damages, a public apology, revised digital editions and the destruction of all physical copies of the book. Mr. Shirley said he has since tallied close to 50 instances where his work was used without credit.
The basic line of defense by Simon and Shuster, Perlstein’s publisher, is that he only paraphrased Shirley; moreover, he cited Shirley 125 times in the books’ endnotes that departing from tradition appears only on Perlstein’s website and not in print. This observation from Frank Rich might indicate the source of Perlstein’s problems: “Perlstein is an obsessive researcher who often relies (and fully credits) the writers who did the investigative spade work before him. He doesn’t break news.”
They claim that putting the endnotes online was designed to keep the book’s length within reasonable limits. Even now, it is 856 pages long. Perlstein says, ““My notion is that people will read this book with their iPhones open.” I must confess that there is about as much possibility that I will buy this book as an IPhone. Frank Rich writes:
True to form, Perlstein doesn’t condescend to this conservative icon but seeks to understand him. He does as good a job as anyone at working through the psychological and intellectual puzzles attending a charismatic public figure whose own family often found the private man opaque.
Seeking to understand Reagan? Working through the intellectual puzzles? Really? I’d think there’s about as much of a challenge there as analyzing a Hallmark greeting card.
This is Perlstein’s 3rd book on the rise of modern conservatism. His first was on the Young Americans for Freedom, a group I belonged to briefly in high school mostly as a way of annoying my classmates who were all for JFK. My cousin Louis R. (we were both named after our grandfather) and I formed a chapter that like other YAF chapters supported Goldwater rather than Nixon in 1960. My cousin remained conservative over the years while I bolted from the conservative ranks in 1961 as a Bard freshman when I learned that all the cool kids were liberals. Peer pressure also seems to work in reducing crack addiction as well, they say.
Perstein interviewed Doug Henwood and me for the first book titled “Before the Storm”. Doug went through a brief conservative stint at Yale where I assume that being on the right was more acceptable than at Bard, the “little red whorehouse on the Hudson” as Walter Winchell put it. I succumbed to peer pressure while Doug succumbed to the objective reality that capitalism sucked.
I met Perlstein once around 15 years ago when he had started writing “Before the Storm” through Scott McLemee who I was friendly with at the time. He struck me as a very bright but cynical young man, not the sort that would have made the mistake of getting involved with revolutionary politics.
I generally don’t pay much attention to what Perlstein writes since it falls more in the category of MSNBC/Salon.com punditry than the articles I differ with on the hard left. What is the point, after all, of slamming MSNBC for not covering Israel’s brutality in Gaza? (Then again, they are covering it after a fashion.)
I did have a go at him ten years ago after he wrote an exceedingly longwinded article for the Boston Review titled “How Can the Democrats Win?”, a question that he answered: “it must tend to the work of economic equality.” Maybe if Perlstein had spent some time in a revolutionary movement like McLemee, he would have understood what a utopian notion that was. Economic inequality has deepened under successive Democratic Party administrations. That is not a function of them hating the poor or not worrying enough about losing votes. It is a function of the iron laws of capital accumulation. Less time reading Karl Rove and more time reading Karl Mark would have helped Perlstein understand that.
My reply to Perlstein, which can be read in full here, offered an alternative reading of American history, one that tried to put the Democratic Party into context:
Turning now to your recommendations to the Democratic Party leadership:
Any marketing executive will tell you that you can’t build a brand out of stuff the people say they don’t want. And what do Americans say they want? According to the pollsters, exactly what the Democratic Party was once famous for giving them: economic populism.
All I can say is that this not quite the Democratic Party I am familiar with, at least in broad historical terms. Keep in mind that the Democratic Party was originally the party of the Southern Bourbons. While Arthur Schlesinger Jr. portrays Andrew Jackson as some kind of plebian democrat, he owned slaves and saw his role as promoting the interest of the same class he belonged to. The Republican Party emerged as a revolutionary opposition to the Democrats and only withdrew from the task of uprooting racial supremacy in the South when Northern liberals, particularly those grouped around Godkin’s Nation Magazine, persuaded party bosses that they were encouraging developments in the USA that might turn out like the Paris Commune. David Montgomery details all this in “The Death of Reconstruction”.
I myself stumbled across this sordid tale while preparing a critical review of the Nation around the time that Hitchens had become a turncoat and Marc Cooper was perfecting his own redbaiting skills. I learned that hostility to radicalism was not an invention of Katrina vanden Heuvel, but something rooted in the magazine’s hoary past. On December 5th 1867, the Nation wrote:
It must now be confessed those who were of this way of thinking [namely that the Radical Republicans were going too far], and they were many, have proved to be not very far wrong. It is not yet too late for the majority in Congress to retrace its steps and turn to serious things. The work before it is to bring the South back to the Union on the basis-of equal rights, and not to punish the President or provide farms for negroes or remodel the American Government.
After the “great compromise” that ended Reconstruction, challenges to the big bourgeoisie were mounted not from within the Republican or Democratic Parties but from 3rd party efforts like the Populists. Then, as today, efforts were mounted to either co-opt or destroy these movements. If you compare the programs of the Democratic and Republican Parties from the period of the end of Reconstruction to FDR’s election as a *balanced budget* realist, you’ll find about as much to choose between as George W. Bush and John Kerry. (I must say that for all your eagerness to assert that “beating George W. Bush at the ballot box in November…is imperative to the future health of the United States”, you don’t seem at all that interested in explaining why. That is, unless you think that “staying the course” in Iraq is part of that future health. But what can I say, I am one of those unrepentant 1960s radicals who never would have voted for Humphrey, to the everlasting dismay of Todd Gitlin I suppose.)
After FDR’s election, New Deal legislation was enacted not because he was a populist or even wanted to win elections. Change came because workers sat-in at factories, marched on Washington and generally raised hell. I guess you might say that that describes my attitude in general. I am for raising the more hell the better.
From what I can gather, the charges against Perlstein are bogus just as they were against Chris Hedges. Craig Shirley is not happy that his book is being cited against his hero Reagan. That was the same kind of vendetta mounted by the New Republic against Hedges, who they regarded—rightly—as an enemy of the DLC politics they package under new ownership.
In terms of his latest book, I doubt that I will ever read it, especially since given the time to read an 850 page book, there are tomes on the history of Ukraine and at least a dozen others that take precedence. But I will offer some brief thoughts on how to understand the march to the right that preoccupies Perlstein.
Referring to traumas that began taking place as the Vietnam War wound down, Perlstein writes “One of my favorites, lost to everyday historical memory, was the near doubling of meat prices in the spring of 1973, when the president’s consumer advisor went on TV and informed viewers that “liver, kidney, brains, and heart can be made into gourmet meals with seasoning, imagination, and more cooking time.” I remember this vividly since I organized a Militant Forum in Houston for the housewives who were involved in the local meat boycott. The Supreme Court had decided to legalize abortion in January 1973 and a ceasefire had been signed that same month, even though the Vietnam War would continue until the North Vietnam liberated Saigon. The winding down of the woman’s liberation movement, at least the part of it that was fighting for abortion rights, and the antiwar movement left the SWP in a confused and rudderless state. We had assumed that the sixties radicalization would continue unabated until the workers would enter the fray with their heavy battalions.
That is not the way things turned out. Instead of responding to objective reality, the SWP flailed around looking for the next new thing that would lead to increasing its influence and size. At the time, it struck me that the meat boycott had very limited possibilities but who was I to tell the Emperor that he was naked?
It took me nearly 10 years to figure out where the SWP had gone wrong. If its leader Jack Barnes had broken with sectarianism and moved toward a more open and transparent party-building approach that would have resulted in a different kind of left, it is very likely that the march to the right would have been slowed down considerably and that the ruling class rather than the left would have been on the defensive.
I am not exactly sure when I wrote this, but it was my attempt to go back to nearly the beginning of “The Invisible Bridge” to propose a different way of organizing the left. Nobody can be sure if it would have made a decisive difference but we know now that the “Marxism-Leninism” of the SWP and its Maoist competition led to a total collapse of the left that has resulted largely in an unchallenged two-party assault on the American people and third world societies across the planet.
Comrades, 1974 is a year which in some ways marks the end of an era. The recent victory of the Vietnamese people against imperialism and of women seeking the right to safe and legal abortion are culminations of a decade of struggle. That struggle has proved decisive in increasing both the size and influence of the Trotskyist movement as our cadre threw their energy into building the antiwar and feminist movements. Now that we are close to 2,000 in number and have branches in every major city in the US, it is necessary to take stock of our role within the left and our prospects for the future.
In this report I want to lay out some radical new departures for the party that take into account both our growing influence and the changing political framework. Since they represent such a change from the way we have seen ourselves historically, I am not asking that we take a vote at this convention but urge all branches to convene special discussions throughout the year until the next convention when a vote will be taken. I am also proposing in line with the spirit of this new orientation that non-party individuals and organizations be invited to participate in them.
A) THE TRADE UNION MOVEMENT
While our political work of the 1960s was a necessary “detour” from the historical main highway of the socialist movement, it is high time that we began to reorient ourselves. There are increasing signs that the labor movement is beginning to reject the class collaborationist practices of the Meany years. For example, just 4 short years ago in 1970, various Teamsters locals rejected a contract settlement agreed to by their president Frank Fitzsimmons and the trucking industry. They expected a $3.00 per hour raise but the contract settled for only $1.10. The rank and file went out on a wildcat strike that Fitzsimmons and the mainstream press denounced. Fitzsimmons probably had the student revolt on his mind, since he claimed that “Communists” were behind the teamster wild-cat strike. Nobody took this sort of red-baiting to heart anymore. The burly truck-drivers involved in the strike were the unlikeliest “Communists” one could imagine. The trucking industry prevailed upon President Richard Nixon to intercede in the strike at the beginning of May, but the student rebellion against the invasion of Cambodia intervened. The antiwar movement and the war itself had stretched the US military thin. National guardsmen who had been protecting scab truck- drivers occupied the Kent State campuses where they shot five students protesting the war. In clear defiance of the stereotype of American workers, wildcat strikers in Los Angeles regarded student antiwar protesters as allies and invited them to join teamster picket lines. The wildcat strikes eventually wound down, but angry rank and file teamsters started the first national reform organization called Teamsters United Rank and File (TURF).
It is very important for every branch to investigate opportunities such as these and to invite comrades to look into the possibility of taking jobs in those industries where such political opportunities exist. What will not happen, however, is a general turn toward industry that many small Marxist groups made in the 1960s in an effort to purify themselves. Our work in the trade unions is not an attempt to “cleanse” the party but rather to participate in the class struggle which takes many different forms. We are quite sure that when comrades who have begun to do this kind of exciting work and report back to the branches that we will see others anxious to join in.
B) THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT
We simply have to stop observing this movement from the sidelines. There is a tendency on the left to judge it by the traditional middle-class organizations such as the Audubon Club. There are already signs of a radicalization among many of the younger activists who believe that capitalism is at the root of air and water pollution, etc. Since the father of the modern environmental movement is an outspoken Marxist, there is no reason why we should feel like outsiders. Our cadre have to join the various groups that are springing up everywhere and pitch in to build them, just as we built the antiwar and feminist groups. If activists have problems with the record of socialism on the environment based on the mixed record of the USSR, we have to explain that there were alternatives. We should point to initiatives in the early Soviet Union when Lenin endorsed vast nature preserves on a scale never seen in industrialized societies before. In general we have to be the best builders of a new ecosocialist movement and not succumb to the sort of sectarian sneering that characterizes other left groups who regard green activists as the enemy.
C) THE ANTI-IMPERIALIST MOVEMENT
This will strike many comrades as controversial, but I want to propose that we probably were mistaken when stood apart from all the various pro-NLF committees that were doing material aid and educational work. We characterized them as ultraleft, whereas in reality those activists who decided to actually identify with the Vietnamese liberation movement were exactly the kind that we want to hook up with. In the United States today there are thousands of activists organized in committees around the country who are campaigning on a similar basis for freedom for the Portuguese colonies in Africa, against neo-colonialism in Latin America, etc. Nearly all of them are Marxist. Their goals and ours are identical. While we have had a tendency to look down our noses at them because many of the insurgencies they were supporting were not Trotskyist, we have to get over that. For us to continue to regard the revolutionary movement in a Manichean fashion where the Trotskyists are the good forces and everybody else is evil is an obstacle not only to our own growth, but the success of the revolutionary movement overall. This leads me to the next point.
D) RELATIONS WITH THE REST OF THE LEFT
One of the things I hope never to hear again in our ranks is the reference to other socialists as our “opponents”. Let’s reflect on what that kind of terminology means. It says two things, both of which are equally harmful. On one hand, it means that they are our enemies on a permanent basis. When you categorize another left group in this fashion, it eliminates the possibility that they can change. This obviously is not Marxist, since no political group–including ourselves–is immune from objective conditions. Groups can shift to the left or to the right, depending on the relationship of class forces. The SWP emerged out of a merger with other left-moving forces during the 1930s and we should be open to that possibility today.
The other thing that this reflects is that somehow the SWP is like a small business that competes for market share with other small businesses, except that we are selling revolution rather than air conditioners or aluminum siding. We have to get that idea out of our heads. We are all struggling for the same goal, which is to change American society. We only disagree on the best way to achieve that.
Unfortunately we have tended to exaggerate our differences with other small groups in such a way as to suggest we had a different product. This goes back for many years as indicated in this quote from a James P. Cannon speech to the SWP convention nearly 25 years ago. “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.”
Comrades, we have to conduct an open and sharp struggle against this kind of attitude. The differences between the SWP and many other left groups is not that great and we have to figure out ways to work with them on a much more cooperative basis. For example, La Raza Unida Party in Texas shares many of our assumptions about the 2-party system and they are open to socialist ideas, largely through the influence of the left-wing of the party which has been increasingly friendly to the Cuban Revolution. We should think about the possibilities of co-sponsoring meetings with them around the question of Chicano Liberation and socialism. The same thing would be true of the Puerto Rican Independence movement in the United States, which shares with us a positive attitude toward the Cuban revolution. In terms of the Marxist movement per se, we have to find ways to work more closely with the activists around the Guardian newspaper. While many of them continue to have Maoist prejudices, there are others who have been friendly to our work in the antiwar movement. The idea is to open discussion and a sure way to cut discussion off is to regard them as “opponents”. Our only true opponents are in Washington, DC.
This new sense of openness to other groups on the left has organizational consequences that I will now outline.
E) REDEFINING OUR ORGANIZATIONAL PRINCIPLES
Much of our understanding of “democratic centralism” has been shaped by James P. Cannon’s writings. Although the notion of 500 to 1500 people united ideologically around a homogenous program has a lot to recommend itself, it can only go so far in building a revolutionary party. This was Cannon’s contribution. He showed how a small band of cadre dedicated to Trotsky’s critique of Stalin could emerge as a serious force on the American left.
Although this will sound like heresy to most of you, I want to propose that Cannon’s writings are a roadblock to further growth, especially in a period when Stalinism is not a hegemonic force. In reality, Lenin’s goal was to unite Russian Marxism, which existed in scattered circles. Our goal should be identical. Despite our commitment to Trotsky’s theories, we are not interested in constructing a mass Trotskyist movement. That would be self-defeating. Many people who are committed to Marxism are not necessarily committed to Trotsky’s analysis of the Spanish Civil War, WWII, etc. We should take the same attitude that Lenin took toward the Russian left at the turn of the century. We should serve as a catalyst for uniting Marxists on a national basis.
Are we afraid to function in a common organization with Castroists, partisans of the Chinese Revolution, independent Marxists of one sort or another? Not at all. We should not put a barrier in the way of unity with the tens of thousands of Marxists in the United States, many who hold leading positions in the trade union and other mass movements. The only unity that interests us is the broad unity of the working people and their allies around class struggle principles. Our disagreements over historical and international questions can be worked out in a leisurely fashion in the party press. In fact we would encourage public debates over how to interpret such questions in our press, since they can make us even more attractive to people investigating which group to join. It is natural that you would want to join a group with a lively internal life.
This question of ‘democratic centralism’ has to be thoroughly reviewed. Although the Militant will be running a series of articles on “Lenin in Context” this year, which explores the ways in which this term was understood by the Bolsheviks and then transformed by his epigones, we can state with some assuredness right now that it was intended to govern the actions of party members and not their thoughts. The Bolshevik Party, once it voted on a strike, demonstration, etc., expected party members to function under the discipline of the party to build such actions. It never intended to discipline party members to defend the same political analysis in public. We know, for example, that there are different interpretations of Vietnamese Communism in our party. We should not expect party members to keep their views secret if they are in the minority. This is not only unnatural–it leads to cult thinking.
As many of these proposals seem radically different from the principles we’ve operated on in the past, I want to make sure that all disagreements–especially from older cadre who worked side by side with James P. Cannon–are given proper consideration. The last thing we want is to railroad the party into accepting this new orientation. Since a revolution can only be made by the conscious intervention of the exploited and oppressed masses into the historical process, its party must encourage the greatest expression of conscious political decision-making. There are no shortcuts to a revolution. And there are no shortcuts to building a revolutionary party.