Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 7, 2018

The excuses some Marxists make for voting Democratic (part two)

Filed under: DSA,electoral strategy,Lenin — louisproyect @ 5:58 pm

Ramsay McDonald, reformist politician and the illegitimate son of a farm laborer and housemaid

As I stated in my article on young Marxist intellectuals and the Democratic Party, the level of sophistication is far in advance of the “lesser evil” arguments I used to hear from the Communist Party. While I referred to the academic contributors to Jacobin as exemplifying this trend, others outside the academy have shown the same kind of erudition, even if steeped in casuistry.

In a Marxmail discussion touched off by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Joe Crowley, I made the point that socialists have no business supporting bourgeois parties and that this practice dates back to the Popular Front. When an Australian Socialist Alliance member and A. O-C supporter asked why it would be acceptable to vote for a Labour Party candidate in Australia that has positions worse than the Democrats on some questions, I replied that the “The key difference between a reformist Labor Party and the Democratic Party is based on class.”

This prompted a very well-read young DSA member (isn’t that a redundancy?) to correct me:

There is a shibboleth in the Trotskyist movement that this is from Lenin, but it’s not actually what Lenin argued. He said “the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party” (https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/2nd-congress/ch13.htm — and this is just one example). There’s a history to arguing that a “bourgeois labor party” is a party based on the workers but with bourgeois leadership and that that was Lenin’s concept. However, as one can see reading this https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/oct/x01.htm, in context the term Lenin used was “bourgeois Labor Party”, i.e. “the Labor Party is a bourgeois party” (note the capitalization–which can be inconsistent in various editions but again, in context this becomes clear).

One can make an argument for this idea of voting or working with based solely on the class-basis of parties and ignoring everything else, but it should at least be made with the awareness that this isn’t what Lenin argued and I haven’t seen anyone do that: he was for the CP working in and voting for the British Labor Party and he thought that party was a bourgeois party. For Lenin, the class-basis did matter in that that was why he urged the building of a separate working-class political organization, but it did not tie down his thinking from considering a range of tactical and strategic options–including working within and voting for–in relationship to other parties, including bourgeois ones.

After reading Richard Seymour and Simon Hannah’s books on British Labour, I was left with the conclusion that any resemblance between Labour and the Democratic Party is purely coincidental. While analogies between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are fairly obvious, subjecting Labour and the DP to a historical materialist analysis reveals massive differences. Above all, the entire history of Labour has revolved around bitter struggles between the leftist and working class base against the party’s elite. But that elite has little in common with the Democratic Party’s elite. For example, Ramsay McDonald, a notoriously rightwing leader who betrayed the 1926 General Strike, was the illegitimate son of a farm laborer and a housemaid. When McDonald served a brief term as Prime Minister in 1923, his colonial minister promised that there would be “no mucking about with the British Empire”. His name was J.H. Thomas, a man who was the son of a young unmarried mother. Raised by his grandmother, he began working when he was 12, soon starting a career as a railway worker and eventually becoming the head of their trade union. This reflected the social base of Labour that was not only overwhelmingly proletarian but had institutional ties to the unions, even if their leaders—like Thomas—were the Samuel Gompers of their day.

Now you certainly cannot deny that Lenin described Labour as “bourgeois” but I am not exactly the sort of person who follows Lenin’s writings as if he were infallible. Nor Trotsky, for that matter. These men and some women like Rosa Luxemburg who have been deified deserve better than to be cited by us as if we were Christian fundamentalists citing scripture.

Unlike his much more analytical analysis of Russian political parties, Lenin’s references to Labour were polemical and designed in the heat of the moment to shepherd ultraleft Communists into Labour—like putting a candy coating on a bitter pill.

Before he turned his attention to weaning his comrades off of ultraleftism, Lenin offered a more dispassionate appraisal in 1913: “The British Labour Party, which exists side by side with the opportunist Independent Labour Party and the Social-Democratic British Socialist Party, is something in the nature of a broad labour party. It is a compromise between a socialist party and non-socialist trade unions.” That sounds about right. We should only be so lucky to have such a party in the USA today.

If I was alive when Lenin was writing “Left Wing Communism, an infantile disorder”, I would have sat him down and urged him to use the term “petty-bourgeois” rather than bourgeois to describe Labour. Although that term left a bad taste in my mouth after 11 years in the SWP, I do think that if applied in strict class terms does have its uses. For Lenin, alliances between the proletarian Russian Social Democracy and middle-layer parties based on the peasantry were permissible but not with the bourgeois Cadets, the party that the Mensheviks adapted to just as the DSA adapts to the Democratic Party today.

In 1900, Lenin wrote “An Attempt at a Classification of the Political Parties of Russia” that can serve as a useful guideline. He described the Social-Democratic Party as a distinct type. “In Russia it is the only workers’ party, the party of the proletariat, both in composition and in its strictly consistent proletarian point of view.” Moving to the right, the next type was illustrated by the Trudoviks that he described as “petty-bourgeois” and whose ideological confusion reflected the extremely precarious position of the small producer in present-day society. Finally, there were the parties of the bourgeoisie with the Black Hundreds and Cadets corresponding roughly to the Republicans and Democrats of today.

Cadet politicians were typical bourgeois intellectuals and sometimes even a liberal landlord, according to Lenin. As for the Black Hundreds, “It is in their interests to perpetuate the filth, ignorance and corruption that flourish under the sceptre of the adored monarch”. Sounds rather like Fox News, doesn’t it?

Parties corresponding to the Cadets and the Black Hundreds exist all across Europe with Germany being a prime example. Angela Merkel is a typical Cadet politician while she is under pressure from the latter-day Black Hundreds. So is Macron and Hillary Clinton.

In the first years of Bolshevik power, there was an understandable triumphalism that tended to paper over the differences between true bourgeois parties and those of the Second International. When this led to the disastrous March 1921 Action in Germany in which semi-lumpen CP members treated SP workers as the enemy, Lenin reversed direction under the influence of Paul Levi’s critique. Levi had advocated a united front between revolutionary and reformist workers parties. This served as Communist strategy until Stalin’s disastrous “Third Period” turn that marked a return to the March 1921 insanity. Under the “Third Period”, the German CP backed a Nazi referendum that would have ousted a Socialist governor in Saxony and other kinds of madness.

These united front policies were adopted formally at the 1922 Comintern Congress that legitimized Levi’s critique even if it foolishly decided to expel him for breaking discipline. If the united front was geared to specific actions such as demonstrations, there was also a call for a “workers government” that considered power-sharing between Communists and Socialists (and presumably Labour as well) as in the interests of class unity. John Riddell, the translator and editor of the proceedings of the 1922 Comintern gathering, has a number of articles categorized as “workers government” on his blog that are very helpful in understanding this part of the Comintern’s new approach. The one titled “The Comintern’s unknown decision on workers’ governments” contains the resolution itself, which states: “Instead of a bourgeois-Social-Democratic coalition, whether open or disguised, Communists propose the united front of all workers and a coalition of all workers’ parties, in both the economic and political arena, to struggle against the power of the bourgeoisie and ultimately to overthrow it.”

Is there any doubt what was meant by all “workers’ parties”? What would that mean in Germany except the SP and the CP? Or Labour and the CP in England?

If you follow the DSA’er’s logic, there would be no difference between the workers government advocated in 1922 and the 1934 Popular Front turn that was not only a sharp reversal from the “Third Period” but an overcorrection that effectively revived the Menshevik orientation to the Cadets. In Spain, France and the USA, you had the CPs either participating in coalition governments with capitalist parties or supporting them from outside the government. Obviously, this is what happened under Roosevelt but it also took place in Cuba. At its congress in 1939 the Cuban Communists promised to “adopt a more positive  attitude towards Colonel Batista”, who had relied on the CP-led trade unions for support. Batista was no longer “…the focal point of reaction; but the focal point of democracy”. (New York Daily Worker, October 1, 1939). The Comintern stated in its journal: “Batista…no longer represents the  center of reaction…the people who are working for the overthrow of Batista are no longer acting in the interests of the Cuban people.” (World News and Views, No 60 1938). Historian Hugh Thomas once commented that the Catholic laity had more conflicts with Batista’s dictatorship than the Cuban Communists did.

The role of Social Democracy (including its rejuvenated offspring in the DSA) and Stalinism historically has been to mediate between the two main classes in society, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Even when leaders like Leon Trotsky and V.I. Lenin come from privileged families, they devote themselves fully to the working class movement.

Today, there are few opportunities for young people to follow in their path since the working class is so quiescent. In the decline of manufacturing in the USA, blue-collar wage workers, either unionized or not, make up a smaller percentage of the population. Instead, the economy has shifted to the services such as hospital employees, fast food, information technology, etc. The last significant presence of socialists in the working class movement was in the early 70s when veterans of the state capitalist tendency helped to form Teamsters for a Democratic Union. As valuable as their work was, it came to naught because of terrible mistakes made by TDU leader Ron Carey.

For DSA’ers, the attraction to the Democratic Party is oddly enough related to the ultraleftism Lenin fought in 1922. Young radicals have little patience for the sort of long haul required for building a revolutionary movement in the USA. Unlike Colombia or Pakistan, where Marxist activism can earn you a bullet in the head, our biggest obstacle is indifference. When A. O-C can get on Meet the Press, why defend the Communist Manifesto, a stance that can only produce derision or hostility? Unless you are a miserable old cuss like me that refuses to bow down to bourgeois authority.

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