Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 17, 2019

Trotsky, Bukharin, and the Eco-Modernists

Filed under: Bukharin,Counterpunch,DSA,Ecology,Jacobin,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 17, 2019

Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.

– Leon Trotsky, “Literature and Revolution” (1924)

For some Trotskyist groups, these words have been interpreted as a green light to support all sorts of ecomodernist schemas. For those unfamiliar with the term, it simply means using technology, often of dubious value, to ward off environmental crisis.

For example, the Socialist Workers Party, when it was still tethered to the planet Earth, was a strong supporter of Green values but after becoming unmoored it began to publish articles that asserted: “Science and technology — which are developed and used by social labor — have established the knowledge and the means to lessen the burdens and dangers of work, to advance the quality of life, and to conserve and improve the earth’s patrimony.”  These abstractions have meant in the concrete supporting GMO: “The latest focus of middle-class hysteria in face of the progress of science and technology is the campaign against foods that have been cultivated from seeds that have undergone a transplant of a strand of genetic material, DNA, from a different plant species–so-called transgenic organisms, or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).”

A split from the SWP, the Spartacist League is just as gung-ho. In a diatribe against ecosocialist scholar and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, they position themselves as global warming skeptics: “Current climate change may or may not pose a sustained, long-term threat to human society.” Their answer is very much in the spirit of the Trotsky quote above: “Instead, the proletariat must expropriate capitalist industry and put it at the service of society as a whole.” It turns out that Indian Point et al would be put at the service of society based on an article titled “Greens’ Anti-Nuclear Hysteria Amnesties Capitalism”.

Of course, the granddaddy of this kind of crude productivism is the cult around Spiked Online that is correctly perceived today as a contrarian and libertarian outlet. But its roots are in the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain that defended GMO, nuclear power, DDT, etc. using Trotsky’s rhetoric. Today, there’s nothing to distinguish it from Donald Trump’s Department of Energy.

As it happens, Trotsky’s business about moving mountains through technology serves as the epigraph to Jacobin’s special issue on environmentalism that is permeated by ecomodernist themes. Among them is an article by Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski titled “Planning the Good Anthropocene” that shares an affection for nuclear energy with the nutty sects listed above. They reason: “From a system-wide perspective, nuclear power still represents the cheapest option thanks to its mammoth energy density. It also boasts the fewest deaths per terawatt-hour and a low carbon footprint.” Their techno-optimism rivals that of Steven Pinker’s: “We patched our deteriorating ozone layer; we returned wolf populations and the forests they inhabit to central Europe; we relegated the infamous London fog of Dickens, Holmes, and Hitchcock to fiction, though coal particulates still choke Beijing and Shanghai.” As it happens, China is reducing coal particulates by displacing them geographically. The IEEFA, an energy think-tank, reported that a quarter of coal plants in the planning stage or under construction outside China are backed by Chinese state-owned financial institutions and corporations.

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May 10, 2019

Bernie and the Sandernistas

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 2:45 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 10, 2019

As I gird my loins for a renewed ideological struggle against Bernie Sanders’s bid to become the Democratic Party’s nominee to run against Donald Trump, I thought it advisable to get up to speed by reading Jeffrey St. Clair’s “Bernie & The Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution” that was published in 2016. Since Sanders will be running the same kind of campaign he ran in 2016, I hoped to find material that might change the minds of millennials about Democratic Party politics. Back in 1968, when I was a zealous young Trotskyite, I used to love selling the party’s “Truth Kits” about Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. I may have changed my mind about the usefulness of Trotskyism but there will always be a need for holding Democratic Party politicians up for scrutiny even when it is someone like Bernie Sanders, who helped the SWP get on the ballot in Vermont in 1980 when he was about to become a third-party Mayor of Burlington. God knows that I would be a strong supporter if he ran as an independent next year. I even wrote a speech that he could have used if he had done so in 2016.

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May 3, 2019

Angels and Demons

Filed under: art,Counterpunch,literature — louisproyect @ 3:15 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 3, 2019

Newly released by Zero Books, Tony McKenna’s aptly titled “Angels and Demons” is a collection of profiles of some very good and some very bad people in the past and present. It is the kind of book that is hard to find nowadays and a throwback in some ways to Lytton Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians” or Edmund Wilson’s “Axel’s Castle”. Like Strachey and Wilson, he evaluates prominent individuals against their social backdrop and from a decidedly radical perspective. It is a book that has the author’s customary psychological insight and literary grace. As we shall see, it demonstrates a remarkable breadth of knowledge about disparate cultural, political and intellectual strands that is seldom seen today in an age of specialization.

Your natural tendency is to think of human nature when people are categorized as either angels like Jeremy Corbyn or demons like Donald Trump. However, it is instead powerful historical forces that act on individuals and bring out their worst and their best, especially during periods of acute class tensions. In today’s polarized world, it is easy to understand why we end up with either a Corbyn or a Trump. As William Butler Yeats put it, the center cannot hold.

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April 26, 2019

The Biggest Little Farm; Lobster War

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,farming,Film,water — louisproyect @ 12:50 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, APRIL 26, 2019

Two new documentaries tackle the all-important question of our age, namely how humanity and nature can co-exist in a period of insurmountable capitalist contradiction, especially when humanity takes the form of small businesspeople hoping to exploit natural resources under duress.

Opening at The Landmark at 57 West on May 10th, “The Biggest Little Farm” is a stunningly dramatic portrait of a husband and wife trying to create an ecotopian Garden of Eden forty miles north of Los Angeles. (Nationwide screening info is here.)

Idealist to a fault but utterly inexperienced as farmers, they encounter one obstacle after another in the hope of doing well by doing good. Essentially, they discover that by creating a bounteous yield of edibles destined for the organic foods market, they also attract a plague of gophers, coyotes, starlings and snails that see their farm as a dinner plate. Trying to balance their ecotopian values with the appetites of the animal kingdom becomes an ordeal they never anticipated.

Utterly indifferent to ecological values, the lobster fishermen depicted in Bullfrog Film’s “Lobster War: The Fight Over the World’s Richest Fishing Grounds” are family and village-oriented. As long as they can haul in the valuable crustaceans and keep themselves and their respective towns in Maine and Canada prosperous, nothing much else matters. Not being able to see outside the box, they symbolize the short-term mindset of the ruling class. If lobsters become extinct because of unsustainable practices, the fishermen might turn to other profitable marine life. But when all animals become extinct except for rodents, pigeons and cockroaches, homo sapiens will be next in line.

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April 19, 2019

A Socialist Defector

Filed under: Counterpunch,Germany — louisproyect @ 2:21 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, APRIL 19, 2019

There are men who struggle for a day and they are good.
There are men who struggle for a year and they are better.
There are men who struggle many years, and they are better still.
But there are those who struggle all their lives:
These are the indispensable ones.

– Bertolt Brecht, “In Praise of the Fighters” (song)

Arriving on a book tour for his newly published “A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee” on April 23rd, Victor Grossman is a testament to Bertolt Brecht’s oft-quoted lyrics. At the age of 91, he has never ceded an inch to capitalism and imperialism. Indeed, the sense of outrage over the way in which East Germany was “liberated” pervades throughout this most necessary personal history is a reminder that “youthful rebellion” can be overrated. For that matter, his 68 articles for CounterPunch over the years are a testament to his undying revolutionary spirit as well as to CounterPunch’s age as well as political diversity. Unlike other periodicals on the left oozing youthful rebelliousness, the editors have a keen sense of the importance of contributions from our leftwing tribal elders from Ralph Nader to those who have passed on, like Uri Avnery. With a profound radicalization on the horizon in the USA, there is no substitute for relying on the insights of people who have gained hard-earned experience from earlier historical periods. As someone who was organizing anti-racist protests at Harvard University in 1947 as a Communist Party member, Grossman’s experience is essential for young people involved with Black Lives Matter today. The struggle against capitalism, racism, and imperialism is an epochal one and connecting the strands between fighters from different generations cannot be overestimated.

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April 12, 2019

DeGrowth, the Green New Deal and This Island Earth

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 2:11 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, APRIL 12, 2019

Back in the early 1970s, the Socialist Workers Party was well on its way to becoming the largest group on the left in the USA. To a large part, Peter Camejo’s speeches were responsible for this. He was not only good at explaining why you should become a socialist but doing so in an entertaining manner. One of the jokes that never failed to get a laugh was his description of an abundant life under socialism. Money wouldn’t be necessary. You’d go to a state-owned grocery store and be able to walk out with a shopping cart overflowing with filet mignons. This would not prompt an arrest but a referral to a psychiatrist because who in the world would do such a thing.

Although Peter would eventually adopt an ecosocialist outlook that would have made such a joke obsolete, he was reflecting a certain kind of techno-optimism that characterized our movement. Its prophet Leon Trotsky wrote an article in 1926 titled “Radio, Science, Technique and Society” that exclaimed: “The atom contains within itself a mighty hidden energy, and the greatest task of physics consists in pumping out this energy, pulling out the cork so that this hidden energy may burst forth in a fountain. Then the possibility will be opened up of replacing coal and oil by atomic energy, which will also become the basic motive power.”

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April 4, 2019

Notes on the Dissolution of the ISO

Filed under: Counterpunch,ISO — louisproyect @ 12:53 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, APRIL 4, 2019

During 2013 and 2014, a rift opened up in the International Socialist Organization (ISO) over the results of a rape investigation that some members found to be little more than a cover-up. The Socialist Workers Party in England, which had played a major role in the formation of the ISO, was also convulsed over a sexual attack and cover-up around the same time. Both groups suffered defections but the British fared much worse, with perhaps half the membership jumping ship. In the USA, the ISO had fewer losses but the cover-up resurfaced again this year when a letter to their 2019 convention precipitated a new investigation into the events of six years ago. This time, the members voted to remove those who had covered up for the perpetrator in the name of “due process” and begin a soul-searching self-examination that led to a startling conclusion. The ISO, which is the largest group in the USA that defines itself as “Leninist”, has just voted to dissolve itself. To get a handle on this turn of events, I urge you to see the items posted to their website.

In both the case of the ISO and the SWP, the sexual attack triggered a discussion over whether the “Leninism” that both groups swore by might have led to a cover-up. SWP leader Alex Callinicos, who only referred euphemistically to a “difficult disciplinary case” in a February 2013 article titled “Is Leninism Finished”, argued that it was their model of democratic centralism that allowed the SWP “to concentrate our forces on key objectives, and thereby to build so effectively the various united fronts we have supported.” Instead, the combination of a cover-up and fetishized Bolshevik norms have cost the SWP both members and influence as it staggers along just like the American SWP that has a much more advanced case of political dementia.

Richard Seymour, who was one of the best known and best respected SWP members, would have none of Callinicos’s hooey. In an reply titled “Is Zinovievism Finished”, Richard wrote:

The model operated currently by the SWP is not that of the Bolshevik revolution. It is a version of the Zinovievite model adopted during the period of “Bolshevisation” in the mid-1920s and then honed by ever smaller and more marginal groups. When Alex implies that somehow we have developed a ‘distilled’ version of Bolshevik democratic centralism he is not holding to the tradition of October: it is asking us to choose the model that has led to three of the most serious crises in the SWP’s history in quick succession over the model that actually did lead the October revolution.

I had my own reply to Callinicos in an article titled “Leninism is finished: a reply to Alex Callinicos” that made essentially the same points as Richard Seymour except with some added observations on how such an organizational method leads to intellectual and political monolithism:

Discipline has meant enforcing ideological conformity. For example, it would be virtually impossible for SWP members in Britain to take a position on Cuba identical to the American SWP’s and vice versa. As it turns out, this is a moot point since most members become indoctrinated through lectures and classes after joining the groups and tend to toe the line, often responding to peer pressure and the faith that their party leaders must know what is right.

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March 29, 2019

Me and the Maoists

Filed under: Counterpunch,Maoism — louisproyect @ 1:03 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 29, 2019

As I was reading through You Say You Want a Revolution: SDS, PL, and Adventures in Building a Worker-Student Alliance for a review in last week’s CounterPunch, I kept emailing co-author John Levin about my connections to a number of the 23 mini-memoir contributors to this essential volume. It got to the point when John asked me jocularly if I was a member of the Progressive Labor Party rather than the Socialist Workers Party.

Well, not exactly, but my fifty-two-year career on the left has brought me into contact with Maoists (and eventually ex-Maoists) on numerous occasions. As such, I thought it would be worth CounterPunch readers’ time to join me in a trip down memory lane to learn about our generation’s mostly misspent youth and subsequent attempts over the long haul to build a stronger left.

In late 1966, when I was a graduate student in philosophy at the New School and radicalizing as a result of the war in Vietnam and seeing poverty with my own eyes as a welfare caseworker in Harlem, I began to consider joining a revolutionary organization. As it happened, the Socialist Workers Party made the most sense to me since it was spearheading the mass antiwar demonstrations. I had been involved in long discussions with and moving closer politically to an SWP member and fellow philosophy student named Arthur Maglin even though I was initially put off by his description of himself as a Marxist-Leninist. For me, that was as outlandish as someone calling himself a Seventh Day Adventist. Although the SWP had the inside track, I was also open to the Progressive Labor Party since Victor Marrow, a Bard College classmate and fellow New School philosophy student, was a sympathizer. When Victor told me that I’d get a lot out of a talk on socialist revolution at PL leader Jake Rosen’s apartment, I said why not. Back then, the only thing that sounded outlandish to me besides Seventh Day Adventism was liberal acceptance of the status quo.

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March 22, 2019

You Say You Want a Revolution: SDS, PL, and Adventures in Building a Worker-Student Alliance

Filed under: Counterpunch,Maoism,SDS — louisproyect @ 2:04 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 22, 2019

On a number of different levels, John Levin and Earl Silbar’s “You Say You Want a Revolution: SDS, PL, and Adventures in Building a Worker-Student Alliance” is a must-read book. To start with, it represents an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle known as SDS. For many, SDS meant either the New Left of the Port Huron Statement or the organization that imploded in 1970, leaving behind the wreckage strewn behind it, including the Weathermen and the various Maoist sects such as Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party that came out of RYM and RYM2. Missing until now from this puzzle was arguably SDS’s most disciplined and serious component, the Worker-Student Alliance (WSA) that was well-represented in the landmark student strikes at San Francisco State and Harvard University.

In addition, it is a close look at the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), a group that was the backbone of the WSA as well as the group that had the official blessing of Beijing in the 1960s until the party leadership broke with China over its “revisionism”.

While being essential for professional historians and those simply trying to understand what was happening on the left 50 years ago, it is also a breathtakingly dramatic story of how people from my generation burned their bridges in order to become revolutionaries. As someone who has read and written about a number of Trotskyist memoirs, none of them comes close to the story-telling power of the 23 people included in this 362-page collection that you will find impossible to put down.

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March 15, 2019

Ben is Back; Beautiful Boy

Filed under: Counterpunch,drugs,Film — louisproyect @ 12:51 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 15, 2019

Given the enormity of the drug crisis in the USA, particularly centered on opioid overdoses that are the largest cause of death of people under the age of 50, it was inevitable that Hollywood would begin to produce “problem” movies such as “Ben is Back” and “Beautiful Boy”. It also just as inevitable that such films would be based on the suffering of well-to-do families and suffused with clichés.

“Ben is Back” stars Julia Roberts as Holly Burns, the matriarch of a generally happy family eagerly awaiting Christmas day, the happiest time of the year, especially if you live in the suburbs and have lots of money to lavish on presents. Pulling into her driveway with a carload of gifts to place under the Christmas tree, she sees the ghost of Christmas past, namely her college-aged son Ben (Lucas Hedges) who has cut short his stay in a drug rehabilitation facility to return home from the holidays.

The entire family treats Ben as if he was the scariest ghost showing up in Scrooge’s bedroom. He is there not to remind them of their lifetime of sins but the pain he has visited on them in the past as an opioid addict. Hoping to enjoy a happy time with the family, he is put on the defensive by his mom’s insistence that he take a drug test in the upstairs bathroom right off the bat. As he pees into a bottle, she stands behind him with her arms folded to make sure he is not turning in a fake sample.

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