Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 4, 2019

The Comintern, the Stalintern, and the Jacobin left

Filed under: Comintern,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 4:46 pm

When I was the age of most people writing for Jacobin today, support for Democratic Party candidates was mostly on the basis of a pragmatic, “lesser evil” philosophy that was disseminated by two key institutions, the Communist Party and Dissent Magazine. There was no illusion that voting for Hubert Humphrey had anything to do with socialism. Instead, the argument was that we had to prevent “fascism”. Despite the huge ideological differences between the CP’s Jarvis Tyner and former SDS leader and Dissent editorial board member Todd Gitlin, their orientation to the Democratic Party was based on the same arguments for “being practical”. Voting for Humphrey would prevent concentration camps, etc.

This is a far cry from the steady stream of Jacobin articles promoting work in the Democratic Party that are ostensibly grounded in Marxist theory, especially Kautsky’s writings. When Vox Magazine asked Bhaskar Sunkara to pick between Eduard Bernstein and Rosa Luxemburg in order to get a handle on his politics, he chose Karl Kautsky over the other two. You also get pretty much the same thing from Eric Blanc who I tend to regard as Lars Lih Jr. Lih, the elder, never made any pretensions about being a revolutionary but Blanc adapted Lih’s questionable historical research for the purposes of reviving Kautskyism for a new generation. Whatever Kautsky’s foibles, and they are many, he understood the need for class independence when it came to elections. Workers were urged to vote for Social Democratic candidates as a matter of principle. For Sunkara and Blanc, the Sandernista movement is an acceptable substitute. Unlike Hubert Humphrey, after all, Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist. So what’s not to like? The understanding is that by electing Sanders president, even if his socialism is synonymous with the Swedish welfare state, it lays the groundwork for a future truly socialist society where “the boxcars all are empty and the sun shines every day on the birds, the bees, and the cigarette trees.”

The latest example of Jacobin neo-Kautskyism is Loren Balhorn’s article titled “The World Revolution That Wasn’t” that makes the case for backing Sanders, A. O-C, et al within the context of a questionable history of the Comintern. One supposes that if you are lining up votes for the Democrats, you might as well try to come across as someone up to speed on the revolutionary movement. Knowing the ins and outs of the Comintern is a prerequisite for making the case for the Democratic Party, it would seem.

Balhorn  is a contributing editor at Jacobin who co-edited Jacobin: Die Anthologie with Sunkara. Steeped in Kautskyist lore, he penned an article for Jacobin in 2016 titled “A Very Kautsky Christmas” that begins: “Reading Karl Kautsky today is a peculiar undertaking. For starters, there is the burning question of ‘who actually reads Kautsky?’”. Well, I think the answer is obvious. Anybody interested in getting published in Jacobin.

Characteristically, Balhorn invokes Eric Blanc’s expertise with respect to the expectations Lenin and company had just after the Bolsheviks took power by linking to an article Blanc wrote for Historical Materialism titled “Did the Bolsheviks Advocate Socialist Revolution in 1917?”. For Blanc, “neither Lenin nor the Bolshevik current in 1917 equated Soviet power as such with workers’ power.” I guess if the goal is to persuade young people to ring doorbells for Bernie Sanders, step one is coming up with a revisionist history of the Russia Revolution that will have the biggest impact on those who have never read “State and Revolution”.

Balhorn’s account of the failed 1923 revolution in Germany places most of the blame on the German CP:

Things could not have played out in a more German way. Opponents of the insurrection moved that the resolution be delegated to a subcommittee, which in turn agonized and delayed until the Communists, outmaneuvered and unlikely to win a majority, revoked their plan.

Actually, the 1923 fiasco was predetermined by another fiasco that occurred in 1921 when Bela Kuhn, the Comintern’s emissary in Germany, combined with ultraleft elements in the German party to launch what amounted to a putsch. Paul Levi was so appalled by the results that he urged a new strategy based on a united front of the Socialists and Communists that fell on deaf ears from the ultralefts. Going over their heads, he wrote a public criticism of Kun and company that led to an expulsion blessed by Lenin. His departure left the party in the hands of mediocrities who were all too willing to be led around by the nose two years later. Trotsky, who should have known better, cajoled party leader Heinrich Brandler into picking a date for an insurrection timed with the date the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. In a nutshell, the German CP would have been better off if the Comintern had simply allowed it to make its own decisions.

Balhorn skims over the evolution of the Comintern in subsequent years, as Stalin consolidated his control over the Russian CP and its satellites worldwide: “As time wore on and Stalin eventually removed all of his opponents real and imagined, the Comintern was reduced to a tool of Soviet foreign policy, subject to Moscow’s central political direction.”

What’s swept under the rug is Comintern policy during the 1930s, which for all practical purposes is the same as the Jacobin left today. With Stalin in the driver’s seat, the Comintern became the Stalintern, an instrument of class-collaborationism that was consummated in the Popular Front. For the first time in socialist history, it became acceptable for Communists to vote for bourgeois politicians like FDR or become part of a coalition government alongside capitalist parties, as was the case in both Spain and France with disastrous results.

For Communists in the USA, the Popular Front was a chance to bask in glory. Unlike the 1920s, the CP was almost as “in” as the DSA today. It had tens of thousands of members who were doing all sorts of good things, just like the DSA today. Voting for the New Deal was seen as a necessary stage in the long struggle for socialism, just as voting for Bernie Sanders is today even if the Marxist authority to justify crossing class lines was Dimitrov rather than Kautsky.

For the Jacobin left, 1930s Stalinism is just as necessary for justifying their orientation to the Democratic Party, even if Stalin is still a bête noire in their circles. Instead, their go-to guy is Palmiro Togliatti, the long-time leader of the Italian CP. In a telling article by David Broder (a historian and translator just like Loren Balhorn) titled “Assessing Togliatti”,  there is an attempt to put the best possible face on the Italian Popular Front. Besides Broder, you also get praise of Togliatti from Stathis Kouvelakis and Peter D. Thomas that I discuss here. Thomas was particularly effusive: “In addition to his own theoretical writings — of much greater value than is often supposed today — Togliatti was also a theoretician of politics engaged in creating a hegemonic apparatus that encouraged a profound and real dialectic and real critique of the politics of his period.”

My take on Togliatti is based on my experience seeing the Italian CP in action (or inaction) in the 1960s when it denounced the student movement as “adventuristic” and reading Paul Ginsborg’s history of modern Italy that is exceptionally sharp on the CP:

As well as elevating Stalin into a father-figure of superhuman proportions, the party portrayed the Soviet Union as a society where the problems of democracy and social justice had been definitively resolved. In L’ Unitet of 2 February 1952 Mario Alicata wrote from Russia that “this is the first country in the history of the world in which all men are finally free”. As late as March 1956 we find Luigi Longo insisting that unemployment had been completely abolished in all the socialist countries, that wages and living conditions were constantly improving and that the ordinary working day was being reduced to seven or even six hours.

However, the most insidious elements of Stalinism were not the aberrant judgements on Stalin himself or the Soviet Union, but the attitudes that permeated the life and activity of the party at home. The tradition of uncritical adulation of leaders was only too easily transferred to Italy, where Togliatti seemed happy to allow absurd tributes to be paid to him by lesser comrades and exaggerated stories of his role in the early history of the PCI to be published in the party press. The habit developed, and even the finest brains in the PCI like Amendola and Ingrao indulged in it, of citing the writings of the historic leaders of the party, Gramsci and Togliatti, as if they were biblical texts to serve as sermons of the day.

After his spurious account of the Comintern draws to a conclusion, Balhorn gets to the real point of his article, which is to drum up support for the leftwing of the Democratic Party:

Today the distinction between revolution and reform appears less immediately relevant. With overall levels of class struggle and organization still at historic lows, and insurgent politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jeremy Corbyn popularizing socialism in a way not seen in decades, it seems obvious where the action is. Some socialists argue we should refrain from involving ourselves in these developments but rather “pull them to the Left” by “engaging in real struggles” outside the institutional sphere.

This argument might sound nice, and certainly more radical. But in fact, it represents a hangover from the Comintern days when reformist and revolutionary socialism both represented real mass movements and the choice between the two actually meant something. The problem is that no revolutionary left of any significance exists. To abstain from the breathtaking developments in electoral politics will ensure only that nobody notices that socialists are trying to pull them to the left at all.

Reading over these two paragraphs, you are struck by one obfuscation after another. For example, what is “outside the institutional sphere”? Why can’t Balhorn simply say “outside of the Democratic Party” since that is really what he means? Furthermore, in making an amalgam between Ocasio-Cortez and Corbyn, he blurs the difference between voting for Labour and voting for Democrats. Whatever failings Labour has,  this is a party that has roots in the Second International and the labor movement. If it is ruled out that Corbyn can put an end to capitalism in England, even to the point of his disavowing that as an aim, at least it can be said that there is a real social movement with heavy and active working-class support behind him. The Sandernistas, by contrast, have absolutely no ties to the working class and pin all their hopes on getting Democrats elected.

If abstaining from “the breathtaking developments in electoral politics” leads to nobody noticing socialists “trying to pull them to the left”, there’s really no reply. But if this is the purpose of the Jacobin left and the DSA, that certainly leaves a vacuum that will remain empty until a revolutionary movement begins to take shape and begin filling it up. Balhorn warns against a “hangover” from the Comintern days when reformist and revolutionary socialism both represented real mass movements and the choice between the two actually meant something.

What an odd formulation. My reading of the 1920s and 30s differs sharply from his. In fact, the mass movements of that time were sadly devoid of revolutionary politics. By 1923, the Communist Party in Russia had become hostile to Marxism, even as it was defending a bureaucratic regime in the name of Marxism. The first indication of where things were going was  the Shanghai disaster of 1927. The Comintern insisted that the Chinese CP soft-pedal criticisms of the Kuomintang and to operate only as a disciplined bloc within the nationalist organization. The net result was the arrest of a 1,000 Communists, the execution of 300, and another 5,000 gone missing.

From 1927 until the most recent past, Stalin and his successors were gravediggers of revolutions. What is necessary today is a new international of revolutionary socialists that Balhorn writes off because there is no mass revolutionary movement in the USA. I don’t think this the proper stance of an internationalist. There are important insurgent movements that began to take shape after 2011, which demanded solidarity from the left, especially its most advanced contingent in Syria that had a strong anti-capitalist dynamic early on as reported by Anand Gopal in Harpers.

Instead, Jacobin slandered the Syrian revolution as a counter-revolution, relying on the analysis of Assadists like Greg Shupak, Patrick Higgins, and Asa Winstanley rather than the Syrian or Arab left. Finally, after 4 years of publishing reactionary garbage of the sort that appears on Consortium News or Global Research, the magazine changed gears. Did Bhaskar Sunkara have a change of heart or did he finally decide that Assadism was not a marketable product? Marx advocated the “ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” Let’s adopt that as our guiding star, even if it is not marketable.

4 Comments »

  1. I hate to say this but IMHO one reason why those inclined to actual socialism might fall into Sanders-ism is that the phrase “social democracy,” especially when coupled with “Sweden,” acts like a cross on a vampire when waved at those who start wittering about Stalin and concentration camps the minute the “s” bomb is dropped. Swedish “socialism” is miraculously unthreatening–hell, even Donald Trump thinks the Swedes are wonderful and not “shithole.” How white can you get, after all?

    I don’t doubt for a minute that some of these people really want common ownership of the means of production and the elimination of capitalism once and for all–even a world socialist economy with open borders–they just don’t know how to say it without, as they see it, causing a riot. “Socialism” has been sanitized, but socialism is still tabu.

    The problem, as always, isn’t the adoption of a temporary line and a platform–everything Sanders says he wants is jake with me as far as it goes, and would be a big relief to some of my family who are languishing on disability pittances that took over a year to get while they were undergoing major surgery on Medicare with Medicaid (also taking years to get). This is one reason why I’m still working full-time at the age of 71, though in the precarious and far-from-above-board world of (very) low-level Washington consulting.

    The problem is that the muscular underlying organization through which working people can act across the board–and, I keep saying this–protect themselves when Sanders fails, as he inevitably will sooner or later (probably sooner) is not coalescing while a new generation of cleanshaven and civic-minded young people get ready to chase the “socialist” rabbit around the electoral racecourse (“clean for Gene,” anyone?)

    A way needs to be found to make Americans feel safe with real socialism–and part of that is an organization that is a presence in people’s lives, that will back labor actions and organize mutual aid no matter who’s in the White House, quite apart from elections at any level. “Socialists,” must somehow come to mean “our party who fight with us,” not some televised new gimmick for sale in the eternal neoliberal Marketplace of Ideas.

    An organization like that could get away with being international in scope as long as it acted locally for its members–it might conceivably back a Sanders, faute de mieux, but would still be there fighting even if some future Mad Dog Mattis decided that Trump II was bad for generals and staged a coup.

    Let’s not forget that the re-election of Trump may be guaranteed by the failure of attempts to get him impeached, which the Democrats are pushing because it gives them an excuse to avoid mounting a truly political opposition.

    But what would this kind of Trump failure bring us? The failure of Buchanan brought us the Civil War. The failure of Harding gave us Coolidge. The failure of Nixon brought us Reagan. Why should this end any better–Hoover and FDR (warts and all) = the exceptional case.

    A large part of the problem is the illusion of safety offered by “normal” U.S. politics–for everyday people, one of the most dangerous games on the planet.

    This IMHO may be what really scares people the most and makes them yearn for noblesse-oblige fantasies like Swedish “socialism” with a Kennedy/Roosevelt face. Scared people seeking safety.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 4, 2019 @ 5:44 pm

  2. Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

    Comment by jamesbradfordpate — March 4, 2019 @ 5:46 pm

  3. Sorry this kind of fell apart, but OK. Worth pointing out that the failure of Hoover brought us World War II, the cold war, and McCarthy …. So if Trump succeeds–as well he may–disaster; and if he fails and we get Master Beto or equiv.–also disaster in the long run unless the people join together for safety.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 4, 2019 @ 5:49 pm

  4. I salute Eric Blanc’s balanced approach to Kautsky in his historical works. Unfortunately, regarding his activism, I don’t know if it is informed by Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary Strategy or not, truly an effort at popularizing *Orthodox Marxism* for a new generation.

    Comment by Jacob Richter — March 17, 2019 @ 12:15 am


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