Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 26, 2016

Ben Norton completes his Stalinist turn

Filed under: conservatism,Fascism,Spain,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Ben Norton

When someone posted a link to Ben Norton’s attack on George Orwell, my first reaction was to shrug it off. Ever since the lad got fired from Salon for what some speculate as violating their rules against writing for other publications, he has lost his bully pulpit for spreading Assadist lies. (Who really knows if he was canned for writing an article for Intercept? I doubt it was incompetence since Salon’s bar is set rather low in that regard.) Although I have my own problems with Orwell, I was more interested in Norton’s rather crude and reactionary take on Trotskyism that amounts to a defense of Stalin’s betrayal of the Spanish revolution. It has been quite some time since I have had to bother with writing about the Spanish Civil War. To kill two birds with one stone, I hope to demonstrate how Norton has capitulated to Stalinism as well as to make some points about how Franco achieved his victory. Considering the fact that Bashar al-Assad is today’s Generalissimo Franco, it is not surprising that Norton can get Spain so wrong.

Norton writes:

Apologists insist Orwell simply “sold out” later in life and became a cranky conservative, yet the story is more complex. Orwell had a consistent political thread throughout his life. This explains how he could go from fighting alongside a Spanish Trostkyist militia in a multi-tendency war against fascism to demonizing the Soviet Union as The Real Enemy — before returning home to imperial Britain, where he became a social democratic traitor who castigated capitalism while collaborating with the capitalist state against revolutionaries trying to create socialism.

If you take the trouble to clink the link for “a social democratic traitor”, you’ll discover an article written by Norton in 2014 that has not a word about betrayal. In fact, it is the sort of Dr. Jekyll politics he adhered to as a member of the ISO until he turned into Mr. Hyde at Salon. The article, titled “George Orwell, the Socialist” makes useful points, among them:

Schools prefer propagating binary ideological thinking: “Orwell was opposed to Soviet ‘totalitarianism,’ therefore he was not a ‘socialist,’ therefore he was a capitalist, therefore he supported the capitalist West,” the unspoken logic habitually goes. Orwell’s opposition to capitalism is almost never presented, nor is his advocacy of (democratic) socialism.

It is not only schools that prefer propagating binary ideological thinking. It is also the neo-Stalinist left that has rallied around Bashar al-Assad, including Norton, Max Blumenthal, Rania Khalek, Yoshie Furuhashi, the Socialist Action sect, John Rees et al. By reducing the war in Syria to a geopolitical chess game in which the USA is responsible for everything that has gone wrong, they let Putin and Assad off the hook.

Most of Norton’s article refers to “Animal Farm”, a work that was widely viewed as Cold War propaganda but that was primarily about the Stalinist counter-revolution seen in metaphorical terms. There are some on the left who view it this way, including John Newsinger who defended Orwell’s politics in a 1994 book. Norton characterizes the Orwell who wrote a “snitch” letter to British censors as “the first in a long line of Trots-turned-neocons”, including Christopher Hitchens, yet there is little evidence that either Orwell or even Hitchens had much in common ideologically with men like Paul Wolfowitz or Robert Kagan who were ferociously neoliberal.

For the most part, it was ex-Communists rather than ex-Trotskyists who helped to shape Cold War ideology, such as the six men whose “confessions” can be found in “The God that Failed”: Louis Fischer, André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, and Richard Wright. By comparison, Orwell never wrote anything like this in his later years unless you believe that “1984” and “Animal Farm” were ringing endorsements of Washington and London. In “1984”, the world was divided into hostile camps with London just as culpable of totalitarian control as Moscow. With respect to “Animal Farm”, let’s not forget that the farmers invaded their former realm in exactly the same manner as the 21 invading armies sought to destroy Soviet power.

I have my own problems with Orwell, especially his snitching, but he has much to offer the left. Just read “Homage to Catalonia”, a work far more useful than the Daily Worker articles from 1936 that Norton is channeling. I can say the same thing about Alexander Cockburn, who Norton cites in his article as an authority on this tarnished hero of “the non-Communist left”. I have learned a lot from Cockburn just I have learned a lot from Orwell. I can forgive Orwell for his snitching just as I can forgive Cockburn for allowing CounterPunch to turn into a haven for Islamophobes like Mike Whitney, Andre Vltchek and Pepe Escobar.

As for Hitchens, despite Cockburn’s deep animus for him, the two had something in common with each other when it came to “jihadists”. The difference between them on Iraq in 2003 and Syria after 2011 is paper-thin, after all. Both of these journalists were all too ready to back outside intervention when it came to defeating “al Qaeda” even if it was being administered by a MIG rather than an F-16. In 1980, Cockburn wrote a Village Voice column that stated: “I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape it’s Afghanistan. Nothing but mountains filled with barbarous ethnics with views as medieval as their muskets. and unspeakably cruel too.”

Nobody’s perfect, not even Ben Norton whose musings on Syria—and worse his ghoulish tweets—are informed by the same Orientalism as Cockburn’s Voice article. I can say this, however. If Norton lived for a thousand years, he never would be capable of writing a single sentence that would rank with Orwell or Cockburn.

There are three paragraphs in Norton’s article that really stick out like a sore thumb, combining his more recent turn toward the Assad/Putin/Iran reactionary bloc with more traditional Stalinist ideology:

Sure, the USSR did a lot of objectionable things, but it was also the only large country in the entire world that supported the Spanish Republicans in their fight against fascism (excluding a bit of extra support from Mexico). The Soviet Union understood that one cannot have a revolution if one cannot even defeat the fascist counterrevolution first — a lesson many on the left still have not learned today.

Yet leftists like Orwell and his devoted followers continue to lament Kronstadt and revel in their ideological purity — while conveniently living relatively comfortable lives in Western imperialist countries that commit much more heinous crimes throughout the world every day.

Orwell’s politics are social chauvinist in the rawest sense. It is no coincidence that many of his avowed admirers today lionize and whitewash “revolutionary” extremist militias in Syria and Libya, while at the same moment violently condemning progressive revolutions in Cuba, Vietnam, and beyond as mere “Stalinist bureaucracies.”

Let’s start with the rather stupid observation: “The Soviet Union understood that one cannot have a revolution if one cannot even defeat the fascist counterrevolution first — a lesson many on the left still have not learned today.”

I have no idea whether Norton understood what happened in Spain when he was a properly educated ISO member and now rejects it or simply was too intellectually challenged to ever understand the material available to him from state capitalist sources. Or maybe he was just too shallow to ever bother reading something like Tony Cliff’s “Trotsky: The darker the night the brighter the star”.

As it happens, Norton’s business about defeating the fascist counterrevolution before making the revolution is virtually word for word the same as Spanish Popular Front Prime Minister Largo Caballero’s “First we must win the war and afterwards we can talk of revolution.”

Largo Caballero, who was supported by both the Communists and anarchists, sought to restore bourgeois normalcy in Spain as the first step in defeating Franco. This meant first and foremost eradicating all forms of “dual power” in Spain that were substantial.

Workers and peasant committees had to give way to the rule of the central government as Cliff reports:

IN THE WEEKS after 19 July 1936 struggle continued between proletarian power – in the form of factory and militia committees on the one hand, and the Republican government on the other. The latter won.

One further step to consolidating the power of the bourgeois state was taken on 27 October – a decree disarming the workers.

Steps were also taken to restore the bourgeois police.

In the first months after July 19, police duties were almost entirely in the hands of the workers’ patrols in Catalonia and the ‘militias of the rearguard’ in Madrid and Valencia … The most extraordinary step in reviving the bourgeois police was the mushroom growth of the hitherto small customs force, the Carabineros, under Finance Minister Negrín, into a heavily armed pretorian guard of 40,000.

On 28 February [1937] the Carabineros were forbidden to belong to a political party or a trade union or to attend their mass meetings. The same decree was extended to the Civil and Assault Guards thereafter. That meant quarantining the police against the working class …

By April the militias were finally pushed out of all police duties in Madrid and Valencia.

A comparison Franz Borkenau made of an impression of life in Spain between a first visit in August 1936 and a second in January-February 1937 is very instructive:

The troops were entirely different from the militia I had known in August. There was a clear distinction between officers and men, the former wearing better uniforms and stripes. The pre-revolutionary police force, asaltos and Guardia Civil (now ‘Guardia Nacional Republicana’), were very much in evidence … neither guardia nor asaltos made the least attempt to appear proletarian.

A further vivid description of life in Barcelona at the end of April 1937 comes from the pen of George Orwell:

Now things were returning to normal. The smart restaurants and hotels were full of rich people wolfing expensive meals, while for the working-class population food prices had jumped enormously without any corresponding rise in wages. Apart from the expensiveness of everything, there were recurrent shortages of this and that, which, of course, always hit the poor rather than the rich. The restaurants and hotels seemed to have little difficulty in getting whatever they wanted, but in the working-class quarters the queues for bread, olive oil, and other necessaries were hundreds of yards long. Previously in Barcelona I had been struck by the absence of beggars; now there were quantities of them. Outside the delicatessen shops at the top of the Ramblas gangs of bare-footed children were always waiting to swarm round anyone who came out and clamour for scraps of food. The ‘revolutionary’ forms of speech were dropping out of use. Strangers seldom addressed you as  and camarada nowadays; it was usually señor and UstedBuenos días was beginning to replace salud. The waiters were back in their boiled shirts and the shop workers were cringing in their familiar manner … In a furtive indirect way the practice of tipping was coming back … cabaret shows and high-class brothels, many of which had been closed by the workers’ patrols, had promptly reopened.

I strongly recommend reading Cliff’s entire chapter on Trotsky and the Spanish Revolution to get the whole story on how Franco achieved victory over a self-destructive Spanish Republic leadership as well as reviewing the Marxism Internet Archive’s very fine resource page  on the Spanish Civil War that include articles by Leon Trotsky and Felix Morrow whose “Revolution and Counterrevolution in Spain” can be read in its entirety there as well.

I am struck by Orwell’s description of how things were returning to normal. “The smart restaurants and hotels were full of rich people wolfing expensive meals, while for the working-class population food prices had jumped enormously without any corresponding rise in wages.”

Isn’t this exactly how some reporters describe life in Damascus except for those like Vanessa Beeley or Eva Bartlett for whom the working-class does not exist? As outright supporters of Syria’s Franco, this is understandable but what is more difficult to understand is how people like Norton, who at least demonstrates an affinity for the Popular Front’s desire for bourgeois democratic normalcy, would end up as a kind of fascist apologist.

What accounts for someone educated in Marxist politics (speaking charitably) such as Norton ending up adopting the anti-Marxist sentiments of Largo Caballero, whose opposition to socialist revolution was primarily responsible for Franco’s victory?

I would say that the left is dealing with neo-Stalinist tendencies today that share many of the same impulses as those demonstrated by the original. Norton writes:

Yet leftists like Orwell and his devoted followers continue to lament Kronstadt and revel in their ideological purity — while conveniently living relatively comfortable lives in Western imperialist countries that commit much more heinous crimes throughout the world every day.

This business about living comfortable lives in imperialist countries is pure demagogy as if Norton, who apparently comes from wealth himself, ever had to duck barrel bombs in hipster Brooklyn. With respect to “ideological purity”, this is a very telling complaint. What Norton is trying to say is that Marxism does not serve his goals. When class politics interfere with a career in journalism, why remain committed to them? The journals that he aspires to write for have little use for the sort of class rigor found in Leon Trotsky, whose ideas would only appeal to those who have made up their mind that socialism is the only alternative to barbarism, not the renewed Democratic Party called for in countless Salon, Huffington Post, Alternet, CommonDreams and Nation Magazine articles

Norton finally connects the dots between his Assadism and Popular Front Stalinism in the third paragraph cited above, issuing questionable statements such as this:

It is no coincidence that many of his avowed admirers today lionize and whitewash “revolutionary” extremist militias in Syria and Libya, while at the same moment violently condemning progressive revolutions in Cuba, Vietnam, and beyond as mere “Stalinist bureaucracies.”

One assumes that he is referring to the ISO here since it is the only group on the left of any significance that has opposed both Assad and the late Fidel Castro. But what evidence is there that the ISO admires Orwell? The only reference to Orwell in the entire ISO website is this: “As George Orwell said in Why I Write, good prose is like a window pane. He meant good writing doesn’t draw attention to itself, but to the ideas, facts and events that the writing is about.”

I believe that this makes perfect sense, even if the man who wrote the words was capable of exercising poor judgement in “naming names”. I only wish that Norton would have stumbled across this during the time he spent in the ISO since he is so flawed when it comes to drawing attention to ideas, facts and events in his sad attempt at professional journalism.


  1. There is a twitter account @Ned Borton that satirises the hideous politics of Ben Norton. Personally I think the ‘error’ of Orwell’s ‘snitching’ is exaggerated by his enemies. Clive James put it well, ‘suggestions that he had conspired in a witch-hunt carried little force…. most of those named on the list were already glad to have it known that they had aligned their prayer mats in the direction of the Kremlin. But if he lapsed from his own standards by tittle-tattling in school the most likely reason was that his Foreign Office contact was a noted beauty. He was sending her a bouquet.’ One of the names on the list was ‘Peter Smollett’, a man recruited in 1933 by the NKVD. Orwell knew what he was warning against. To me its like making a list of whose words to take with a huge grain of salt and has things like ‘George Galloway’, and ‘RT’ on it. No one on the list suffered in any way from Orwell’s snitching anyhow, unlike those who crossed the NKVD, or todays Franco.

    Comment by Matthew Jackson — December 26, 2016 @ 9:07 pm

  2. There’s no excuse for Orwell on this. But it hardly compares to what CP’ers did to Trotskyists in England or the USA. Let’s never forget that the CPUSA endorsed the Smith Act convictions of SWP leaders in 1941.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 26, 2016 @ 9:11 pm

  3. Loren Goldner once wrote “In 35 years in leftist politics, I have met many ex-Stalinists and Maoists who became Trotskyists and council communists; I have never met anyone who went in the opposite direction. Once you have played grand master chess, you rarely go back to checkers.”

    I guess Norton decided he preferred checkers after all.

    Comment by jschulman — December 26, 2016 @ 9:31 pm

  4. Not to denigrate Alex Cockburn, but for me and numerous Iranian socialists his unforgivable shortcoming started with his turn on the mullah’s regime in Iran.

    In 2009, when millions of people took to the streets in Iran, he was publishing articles that repeated verbatim the propaganda line of the Iranian regime, to the effect that those millions of demonstrators were CIA stooges. At the time, the Iranian regime was mowing down peaceful demonstrators, arresting them by the thousands, torturing them and “making an example” of the tortured and the detained. I was shocked and could not believe what I was seeing: western socialists, leftists and people who espoused social justice, were siding with a theocracy despite the obvious clash of values between people who were voicing their pain and frustrations regarding a suffocating social life on the one hand, and the forces of reactionary mullahs on the other. It was beyond shocking for me. How could such leftist people’s values be turned upside down so quickly and so easily? Some were even calling me a CIA agent because of my support for the people who were protesting a brutal theocracy!!

    For me that was the turning point that made me realize despite all the wealth of literature (theoretical texts, news analysis, detailed reports, etc.) openly available to western leftists, they can far too easily fall pray to conspiracy theories that only highly uneducated folk are prone to falling for.

    This is not to condemn Alex Cockburn, but to point to the fact that if a luminary as bright as Alex Cockburn could fall for BS, there is every likelihood that large masses of the left can also fall for BS.

    Comment by Reza — December 27, 2016 @ 12:21 am

  5. Well…to denigrate Alex C. a bit…and ironically…is that Cockburn’s position on Span was congregant with our young Ben Norton than Louis lets on. In that Cockburn on Spain was pretty much an unreconstructed Stalinist…his father having been a participate in the British International Brigades contingent as a journalist under the name of Frank Pitcairn fighting for the Republicans. He never failed, it seems, to want to slam “The Trotskyites” for their actions in Spain, confusing either through ignorance or on purpose Trotskyists with that of the POUM (whom Orwell joined in order to fight the Fascists). Like father, like son here, I’m afraid.

    Comment by David Walters — December 27, 2016 @ 12:54 am

  6. Many years ago I talked to NataliiaTrotsky. She mentioned to me she had broken all relations with Ruth Fischer, who had denounced to HUAC members of the GPU in the U.S. She understood that she would fink even on her stalinist enemies.

    Comment by Earl Gilman — December 27, 2016 @ 12:59 am

  7. Great piece!
    If I’m not mistaken,Spain was not aided
    by Stalin out of ,proletarian internationalism,
    but a rather hefty sum (in gold) that drained
    Spain’s coffers making it nearly impossible
    to buy arms from the ‘neutral’ west.

    Comment by Rick Sprout — December 27, 2016 @ 1:17 am

  8. The reason I emphasize the Islamic Republic as the key deciding criteria — for where the western left started going off the rails in this century — is that the Iranian mullahs are the original ‘jihadis’, the OG of the jihadis, along with the Taliban. The Iranian mullahs predate all the other post-cold war theocrat-jihadists, who stone women to death and advocate medieval values.

    This, in turn, adds to my puzzlement over the large number of western leftists siding with the genocidal Assad and not realizing that they are siding, at the same time, with the reactionary forces of ‘jihad against west’ initiated by the Ayatollhas’ phony anti-imperialism. I seriously cannot see what huge chasm separates the Islamic Republic regime and the Islamic State, in terms of ideology. There are some differences, of course. But the differences are as significant as the differences between the Democrats and Republicans in the sphere of political parties in the U.S. for example.

    As far as I am concerned, if you cannot have an unambiguous stance against a self-declared theocracy in the 21st century, your evaluative criteria are soooooooooo off that you need to fundamentally re-evaluate your criteria.

    Comment by Reza — December 27, 2016 @ 2:54 am

  9. To his credit though, Ben Norton did support the uprising of the Iranian people in 2009. Which is not to denigrate Louis’s analysis here of Ben Norton’s turn regarding the Assad regime. Just to credit Mr. Norton with having held onto the truth for longer than did Alex Cockburn regarding things Middle Eastern.

    Comment by Reza — December 27, 2016 @ 4:03 am

  10. The vast majority of anarchists (CNT-FAI) did not support Caballero. After all, the CNT was the primary force behind the workers’ and revolutionary committees—which had done most of the fighting against Franco, winning early battles, etc.—that the Spanish government was ordered by Moscow to destroy. Somewhat missing from your post is how the USSR deliberately subverted the revolution and enabled Franco’s takeover. Norton brags about USSR intervention without having the wit to appreciate the specifically counter-revolutionary role it played.

    For more on this, read Chomsky’s essay Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship, which is the best analysis of the Spanish Civil War from the anarchist perspective. Chomsky argues if the successful revolutionary projects of widespread collectivization hadn’t been suffocated (by the Communist-controlled Spanish government) and if the war against Franco had proceeded along the lines of a revolutionary war—as initiated by anarchists/workers/peasants in the early months—then the anti-fascist struggle could’ve been won. One significant implication here is that if the war had been won, then the social revolution in Spain and anarchist collectivization would’ve been sustained for at least a longer period of time. Emphasis on how the Communists were the major force behind the suppression of the revolution is a key part of Chomsky’s argument.

    Chomsky discusses how many anarchists (such as Berneri) saw a need to extend the revolution by way of stirring up rebellion in North Africa, which may also have been necessary for the social revolution to succeed—via undermining Franco’s forces in the rear. The promotion of a transnational ‘revolutionary war’ was the anarchists’ counter-argument on how the war against Franco could have been fought differently and won—and a view that Chomsky believes had considerable merit.

    And for a fascinating look at how well developed the revolutionary collectives were, see the Anarchist Collectives, edited by Bookchin & Dolgoff, available online.

    Louis, a couple years ago on Twitter you ridiculed me for spending so much time tweeting about tankies, given how supposedly irrelevant they were. Now that Stalinism has clearly and once again gone mainstream on the left, it seems like you’ve had a change of heart.

    Comment by Voline (@pyotr_kropotkin) — December 27, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

  11. Having discussed the Spanish Civil War with POUMists who were there, they said one obstacle they faced was the burning of churches by anarchists. At one point the POUM set up an armed guard to protect the cathedral in Barcelona to prevent it from being burnt. Franco and the Falange promised “reforms” similar to the liberals on the Republican side to take place after the Civil War. Of course,on winning Franco did not carry out any reforms. But for many illiterate peasants, the Civil War was between atheists and Catholics since both sides promised the same reforms.

    Comment by Earl Gilman — December 27, 2016 @ 5:55 pm

  12. This is heavy stuff and I wonder if it has any relevance … all the people you write about are dead… it’s all history. What if… and this is how you see it.
    See things you cannot… have a look. Onya mate.

    Comment by oracleofeerwah — December 28, 2016 @ 5:48 am

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