Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 1, 2018

Not learning from the New Communist Movement

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,Maoism — louisproyect @ 3:51 pm

Max Elbaum, author of “Revolution in the Air”

Micah Uetricht, Jacobin assistant editor

There’s an interview with Max Elbaum on Jacobin today titled “Learning from the New Communist Movement” that is mostly unobjectionable. As I pointed out in a review of Max’s “Revolution in the Air” in 2002, “I strongly recommend this recently published Verso book to anybody trying to make sense of the state of the left today. While focused on the ‘New Communist Movement’ of the 70s and 80s (that I prefer to call Maoist), the lessons Elbaum draws are applicable to all vanguard party-building projects including those of the Trotskyist movement that I participated in.”

Clearly, there is an affinity between Jacobin/DSA and the Maoist movement that Elbaum belonged to and that is chronicled in this book. With both the DSA and the “New Communist Movement” of yore recycling the politics of the Popular Front, you might even wonder why it took so long for them to have a friendly chat. Max was a leader of the Line of March (LOM) in the 1970s, a Maoist group founded by Irwin Silber, the film critic of the now defunct American radical newsweekly The Guardian.

The LOM had a most peculiar political agenda. They wanted to either convince the CPUSA to return to its glorious past or carry out that task themselves. Whatever complaints they had about the CPUSA, being embedded in the Democratic Party was not one of them.

In the early 80s, I was active in the New York chapter of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) that was mostly made up of political independents like me but had some LOM and Communist Workers Party (CWP) members playing an important role as well. The CWP is best known for its ultraleft strategy in North Carolina that played into the hands of the KKK. As two important trends in the New Communist Movement, they both were very active in Democratic Party campaigns involving Black progressives who were the Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the day: Harold Washington, who would be elected mayor of Chicago, and Jesse Jackson.

In 1984, CISPES passed a motion that its members would work closely with Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Still allergic to anything connected to the Democratic Party, I began to wind my CISPES activism down. Micah Uetricht, the Jacobin assistant editor who conducted the interview with Elbaum, stigmatizes people like me: “Planting the banners and waiting in a left-wing stronghold for people to come to us will not cut it.” This almost sounds like a plagiarism of Hal Draper’s “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect” if you ignore the fact that Draper opposed the Democratic Party on a principled basis.

The full exchange appears below:

Micah Uetricht: In the book, you quote Vladimir Lenin: “Politics begin where the masses are, not where there are thousands, but where there are millions.”  Then you write that revolutionaries must not “accept marginal status as a permanent fact of life — much less a mindset that glorifies marginality as a sign of true revolutionary faith. … Planting the banners and waiting in a left-wing stronghold for people to come to us will not cut it.”

When I read that, I think of the critiques of mass campaigns like Medicare for All or for politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which have shown that they can bring the idea of socialism to mass numbers of people who have never heard this term before. Some of those critiques are valid, like the worry that engaging too heavily in electoral politics will water down DSA’s radical politics to the point that the organization ceases to advance a bold socialist vision. But most of them seem more rooted in people clinging to that “pure” marginality — at a moment when socialism has an opportunity to become a truly mass movement. The opportunity to reach the “millions” that Lenin references is here, but orienting a leftist organization in that direction involves ditching some of the habits of glorifying marginality.

Max Elbaum: I think the Bernie campaign, the insurgent campaigns, the way people are learning to speak to large numbers who are envisioning moving the country as a whole — all of that is extremely positive. Politics is a matter of looking at the balance of forces and where the masses are at and intervening in a way that moves the needle. We have to speak to the majority and build a majoritarian movement.

We’re obviously a long way from a majority of the United States not just supporting fundamental change and an alternative to capitalism but taking steps and risks to make that happen. That’s not going to come about by offering only a maximalist program and trying to move in one leap from where we are now to that maximalist program.

It’s certainly legitimate and necessary to realize there’s uneven development in society — you’re going to have an advanced guard, what Lenin called the “conscious element.” That’s the point of having a socialist organization where people are united on the long-range goal. But it works in different layers. It has its immediate base and its periphery, and it works in coalition with outside forces.

So, I think that the purist tendencies, the ones that are critical of anything that is less than their total vision of what a revolutionary socialist program would be, are self-defeating. Because you never break out of the margins.

The idea that you just plant the flag and everyone will come to you if you have the correct line has never worked. That’s not how politics works. Politics is addition — you need to get more people on your team.

The Left has been marginal for a long time in the United States. For some people, that’s their comfort zone. When you mix it up in broad mass politics, there’s always a danger that you compromise some key principle and fall down a slippery slope. Those are real dangers. But every successful movement for radical reform or revolution has to engage in those broad mass politics. There’s no other way to build a majoritarian movement from where we are now to a majoritarian movement for socialism.

With all due respect to Max and Micah, it appears that the words “Politics begin where the masses are” do not appear in the Marxist Internet Archives. It seems to have about the same provenance as “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” None. In fact, the words attributed to Lenin could justify practically anything, including urging a vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016, as Max did.

The exchange between the hardened social democrat (or democratic socialist, whatever) and the hardened Eurocommunist is notable for leaving the words “Democratic Party” out. Instead, it frames the differences between “glorifying marginality” by “purist tendencies” and those who are involved with “electoral politics” like the DSA, the Communist Party and the Committees of Correspondence. You might even say that articles written for the Jacobin and People’s World in support of working to elect Democrats are virtually indistinguishable except for the fact that Jacobin articles tend to use the language of the graduate school rather than the AFL-CIO media bureau.

If Jacobin had decided to ask tough questions rather than the kind that Charlie Rose would feed to Henry Kissinger or Bill Gates, they would have brought up Jesse Jackson’s campaigns. For all practical purposes, the Rainbow Coalition was the Sandernista movement of its day with volunteers being drawn from various Maoist sects rather than the social democracy, which was pretty marginal at the time.

Just as Jacobin authors kid themselves into believing that Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez et al might eventually break with the Democrats as Lincoln did with the Whigs, you heard the same thing in 1984 and 1988. Most leftists thought there was a realistic possibility that the Rainbow Coalition could turn into a new third party when Jackson had as much of an intention of leading such a break as Sanders does today. You can understand how even more unlikely this would be for Sanders since he enjoys the perks of being an elected Senator.

Thirty years ago, Joanna Misnik wrote a pamphlet for Solidarity titled “The Rainbow and the Democratic Party— New Politics or Old?: A Socialist Perspective” that I highly recommend. It is written from the perspective of Lenin’s electoral strategy that has nothing in common with the exchange between Uetricht and Elbaum above. Instead of quoting non-existent words, they might have tried to grapple with Lenin’s polemics against the Mensheviks who advocating blocs with the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets), the Democratic Party of Czarist Russia.

Here is Misnik on the “Inside-Outside” strategy defended by the DSA:

The Rainbow includes a number of socialist and left organizations that hope the Coalition can ultimately precipitate a break from the Democrats in favor of a new anticapitalist political party. Groups such as the National Committee for Independent Political Action (NCIPA) typify the “inside-outside” strategy of the not-really Democrats in the Rainbow. They hold the position that the way to break the Democratic Party apart is to join it. They are urging people to register and vote Democrat!

“Inside-out” Rainbow activists are concerned about the decline of the movements for change during the past decade. They mistakenly identified the shift to the right of establishment politics as a rightward drift in the population at large. Sectors of the movement, buying into the idea that Reagan had a mandate, became fearful and hesitant. This timidity was fed by the collapse of the Black movement into the Democratic Party and the failure of the labor movement to mount a defense against concessions, plant closings, unemployment and the general effects of the recessionary economy.

The difficult political climate led to conclusions of the type offered by Rainbow leader Sheila Collins in her recently published The Rain­bow Challenge: the Jackson Campaign and the Future of U. S. Politics. Collins explains:

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 shocked many left activists into discovering the dialectical relationship between social movements and electoral institutions…. Electoral politics was no longer seen as a substitute for movement-building, but as a necessary complement. Although it was difficult to do both simultaneously, there was a growing realization that the two forms of political activity were dialectically related. (105-108)

This new “dialectic” for the ’80s is a high-toned way of sounding a retreat from what history has already taught. There isn’t a shred of evidence to support the idea that the Democratic Party, in or out of power, offers fundamental concessions to the locked-out when they loyally lock-in their votes in massive numbers. All successes in shifting the social relation of forces—from the rise of the CIO to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war victories—have been the direct results of unruly mass movements playing outside the acceptable channels of U.S. two-party politics.

In the case of both labor in the 1930s and the social movements of the 1960s, it was precisely at the point when major sectors of these movements decided it was time to move “from protest to politics” and act as a pressure group within and around the Democratic Party than reforms began to slack off and eventually disappear. In fact, the brevity of these two periods of major change is due to this very co-optation. Unable to defeat capitalist control of the party from the inside and claim it as their own, the reformers were themselves beaten and became the reformed.

Left Rainbow advocates may argue that all this does not apply. After all, they have an organization separate and apart from the Democratic Party that enables them to resist absorption while they use the “tactic” of Jackson’s candidacy to build a new, integral progressive force. Unfortunately this is not the case.

The Rainbow has only one tactic, one focus that glues all its components together: Jackson’s race for the Democratic Party nomination. No other goals were established at the Raleigh convention. By definition, this subsumes the Rainbow into the Democratic Party and hands it over to those who want it to be nothing more than an army of foot soldiers for the Jackson Campaign Committee.

This problem is not something only those outside the Rainbow can perceive. The powerful New Jersey delegation to the Rainbow Con­vention led a well-received fight to democratize the notoriously top-down Rainbow structure. They were motivated by the fear that the Rainbow will be dictated to by official campaign structures, stunting its growth and threatening its ability to exist beyond `88. Some structural changes were made, such as adding state chairs to the all-powerful Board of Directors and halving the minimum number of members required to receive a local charter.

However, the Rainbow chartering system still requires a minimum membership in a third of a state’s congressional districts. Using the districts as its basic unit shapes the vote-getting operation. It is a foreign and unwieldy organizational structure for activists accustomed to city-wide mobilizing.

September 27, 2018

Jacobin Accused of Reneging on Wage Deal in British Takeover of Tribune Magazine

Filed under: capitalist pig,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 1:30 am

Jacobin Publisher Bhaskar Sunkara is being accused of reneging on a wage deal in his takeover of the British publication the Tribune. (CSPAN)

Payday Report
by Mike Elk

In his bid to take over the historic British left-wing magazine, The Tribune, Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara is being accused of reneging on wage deal by employees of the paper, who kept the publication alive during struggling times. Tribune was once the home of such greats as George Orwell and has since become the leading publication associated with the influential Momentum faction within the Labor Party.

The purchase of the paper seemed like an ideal takeover for Sunkara linking his viral socialist publication in America with the struggling legacy British paper.

This past weekend, Sunkara had a high-profile launch event attended by influential members of the Labor Party, including British member of Parliament Jon Trickett and Len McCluskey, General Secretary of 1.2 million member Unite the Union, the largest union in the UK. The Liverpool featured the French socialist leader Juan-Luc Melenchon as well as Julia Salazar, who despite falsely portraying herself as a working-class immigrant from Colombia, was successful in her bid to be the Democratic nominee for an influential State Senate seat based in Brooklyn. 

The event received much fanfare, however underneath the takeover of the storied British publication by the American publisher, media workers activists say that he’s done it by exploiting those, who produce content for socialist publications.

Workers say that Sunkara promised that if workers took a settlement of only 70% of the back wages that they were owed that he would bring them back as staffers after taking over the publication. However, Sunkara in a statement to Payday confirmed that he would not bring the staffers back.

The workers in a series of open letters have accused Sunkara of lying to them and simply taking over the publication to expand Jacobin’s content reach into European markets under the Tribune’s prestigious name.

“In the capitalist world someone who buys an ailing company and dumps its committed workers is known as an asset-stripper or robber baron, but at least they don’t claim to be socialists,” said former Tribune employee Ian Hernon.  

The dispute between the British magazine’s staff and its new publisher Bhaskar Sunkara, the 29-year-old son of a well-to-do family from the elite New York City suburbs of Westchester County, raises vital questions about how leftists publications treat the workers they employ.

The brash 29-year-old Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder and publisher of the Brooklyn based socialist magazine Jacobin, has proven to be one of the most controversial figures in the left press: known for increasing the reach of socialist writing while engaging in labor practices far less than socialist.

At a time when many speculated that print was dead, Sunkara built a socialist publication founded in 2011 that proudly boasts of publishing over a thousand articles a year, a print subscription of 30,000 and over one million page views a month online. In addition, the publication boasts of a specialized Jacobin book published by Verso press that has produced a dozen books, a separate academic journal “Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy of Strategy” launched last year, and dozens of Jacobin reading groups throughout the country that help the publication raise money.

However, Sunkara, has been accused of building his empire by underpaying his writers with many making on average $50-$100 a story.

For years, Sunkara and his allies have claimed that the socialist publication lacked the resources to pay its writers.

However, the purchase of the 80-year-old legacy British publication from the British football club Blackpool raised questions about what exactly Sunkara did with the money he saved by underpaying his writers at the Brooklyn-based Jacobin Magazine.

In the last year, the Tribune struggled with financial issues and discontinued print editions in January. In the interim period, a skeleton crew of writers and editors struggled to keep the publication afloat as a strictly online publication as they shopped for buyers of the storied publication. As part of his proposed takeover of the publication, Sunkara promised to pay the writers only 70% of the back wages they were owed and give them their jobs when they were returned.

Now, writers say that Sunkara has reneged on his promise to pay their workers their wages owed for the years they spent keeping the publication alive.

“All the pious, pseudo-academic waffle in the world doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans. Our actions are what count. How we treat others is what matters”wrote George Orsby in a letter protesting the move.

Reporters told Sunkara that they were outraged that he would renege on their deal and dismiss the workers from the publication. In an email responding to the disgruntled former staff, Sunkara and newly-appointed Tribune editor Ronan Burtenshaw, disputed the contributions of the editor who kept the publication alive during its financial stresses.

“While we appreciate all of those who have contributed to Tribune over many years, the claim in this instance that their stewardship of the project in the last three years ‘made it possible’ for Jacobin to take over the magazine is entirely false,” Burtenshaw told Payday Report in a statement.

However, the employees recently disposed of by Sunkara after they agreed to take a cut in back wages owed to them, have less than kind words to say about the jet-set Socialist publisher.

“You said you tried not to become the sort of editor/proprietor you despised. My advice to you is: try harder” wrote former Tribune employee Ian Hernon.

(Full Disclosure: Payday pays all of its part-time employees $32 an hour. Donate to help us pay them a fair wage

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September 1, 2018

Jacobin, air-conditioning, and productivist nonsense

Filed under: Ecology,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

An air-conditioner

Leigh Phillips, an air-conditioner salesman

About 10 years ago, two young radicals showed up on Marxmail and soon found themselves clashing with old fogies on the list. One of them was the 19 year old Bhaskar Sunkara who unsubbed from the list to get away from all the nasty digs against Barack Obama:

I’ll be in the DSA, in the cesspool of the Democratic Party, in the mainstream unions, where the working people are, until you comrades can prove me wrong and build a viable alternative for working people and then I’ll apologize and happily join you.

The other was Leigh Phillips, whose exact age I don’t know but he was most likely a Millennial based on the evidence of photos. Phillips began defending GMO on the list, a rather brave stance to take considering the animosity most of the Marxist dinosaurs on the list feel toward chemical/industrial agriculture.

Fast forward, to use a cliché I rather detest, a decade and now we see Phillips writing articles for Jacobin, the latest being one “In Defense of Air Conditioning”. Using Marxist formulations, he makes the kind of case you can read in Spiked Online. In 2006, during a heat wave in London like the kind that we have been suffering through this year, Spiked editor-in-chief Mick Hume wrote an op-ed piece for Rupert Murdoch’s London Times that stated:

Right, get your sun-addled brain around this vicious circle. Environmentalists and the authorities argue that the recent heat waves demonstrate the extent of man-made global warming. If that’s true, then we must need more air-conditioning to cope. But oh no, they tell us, that will cause -you’ve guessed it -man-made global warming.

Verily, they want us to suffer for our sins. The old puritans cautioned only that we would burn in Hell in the next life. The neo-puritans tell us we must burn on Earth in this one.

Air-conditioning and refrigeration do indeed account for a lot of energy. But then, they are technological cornerstones of modern civilisation. Much of the world as we know it would be uninhabitable without air-con. The booming growth of the American South in the past half-century, from the metropolis of Los Angeles to the space centre of Houston, has been possible only because air-con is ubiquitous there.

While Phillips does not quite have the sneering arrogance of Hume, he does say about the same thing:

In fact, if you think about it, the abstemious green options — lifestyle changes, anti-consumption, the retreat from material demands — seem rather compatible with austerity and neoliberalism’s four-decade-long march. If the liberal good guys are all telling us we already have too much, isn’t it that much easier for the bosses to tell us the same thing?

Well, they’re wrong. Nothing’s too good for the working class, including a nice, cool, air-conned bedroom on a blazing summer’s eve. To the tumbrels with the fans of ceiling fans!

You might ask yourself why Spiked, a libertarian cult around sociology professor Frank Furedi, and Jacobin would be making the same kind of arguments. I often wonder whether Bhaskar Sunkara might have a soft spot for the magazine they put out until it went bankrupt, the casualty of being on the losing end of a £375,000 libel case. A couple of TV reporters had sued LM for accusing them of fabricating a story about Bosnians being kept in concentration camp conditions.

The magazine, originally called Living Marxism and shortened to LM in the 1980s, was sold at a bookstore near Columbia. I used to glance at it from time to time, impressed by its state-of-the-art graphics as this photo would indicate. Could Jacobin be its heir, at least visually?

But when I got past the cover, the articles were a real turn-off. Defenses of GMO, fox-hunting, unprotected sex, fast cars, nuclear power plants, assimilation of native peoples, etc. It was enough to make you throw up.

Guess who once contributed an article to Spiked Online, the successor to LM? None other than our air-conditioning advocate Leigh Phillips. Titled “A Leftwing Case Against Environmentalism”, it repeats the standard libertarian horseshit found in Spiked and its American counterpart Reason Magazine but made more palatable by radical phraseology:

Today’s campaign against economic growth and overconsumption should have no place on the left. While its current austerity-ecology incarnation appears to many progressives as a fresh, new argument fit for the Anthropocene, it is in fact the descendent of a very old, dark and Malthusian set of ideas that the left historically did battle with. It is not that our species does not face profound environmental problems. Indeed, it is precisely because human society confronts such genuine ecological threats that the focus must be on the real systemic gremlins responsible for our predicament, not growth, let alone progress, industry or even civilisation itself.

Quite the opposite of all this misanthropy is what is imperative. There will need to be more growth, more progress and more industry, and, above all, we will need to become more civilised, if we are to solve the global biocrisis.

The air-conditioning article is now the eighth written for Jacobin by Phillips. They are universally in this vein, combining a gee-whiz attitude toward science and technology reminiscent of General Electric commercials on TV in the 1950s with the sort of crude productivist version of Marxism you will find in the Spartacist League and Furedi’s sect from 25 years or so ago before its libertarian turn.

Phillips recognizes that climate change is for real, even as Spiked finally does. To understand how he differs from the revolutionary left, it is crucial to hone in on this statement: “As the climate changes, we have to place as much emphasis on adapting to the warming that is already locked in as we do in mitigating its causes. And as part of this adaptation, we should view air-conditioning in most locations as a right.”

Adapting? Mitigating its causes? Maybe the right course of action is building a mass movement that can force the corporations to stop creating greenhouse gases as part of an overall movement to expropriate the expropriators. But don’t expect Phillips to have anything to do with doom-sayers like John Bellamy Foster or Naomi Klein. His affiliations should make it clear that his solutions are within the capitalist system.

Phillips is involved with the Breakthrough Institute, a think-tank founded in 2003 by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. On their website you can find articles hailing fracking as a model for alternative energy development and nuclear power. The board of directors includes Reihan Salam of the National Review and Rachel Pritzker, from the Chicago billionaire clan that was one of the main backers of both the Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns. So, you can see the six degrees of separation without trying too hard. Jacobin>Phillips>Pritzker>Democratic Party>Jacobin.

Phillips sees air-conditioning as a basic human right that the state should guarantee, something equivalent to health care, housing and education under socialism. Unfortunately, air-conditioning requires a different infrastructure than supplying aspirins or antibiotics. It is based on energy consumption that is creating the greenhouse gases that are heating up the world. Most people would understand that as a contradiction unless you are a latter-day Doctor Pangloss like Leigh Phillips.

He castigates a Washington Post reporter for questioning the wisdom of “Las Vegas, football in Phoenix” and other attempts to build unsustainable cities in the desert. He also defends the use of air-conditioning in shopping malls that Pope Francis included as one of the “harmful habits of consumption.”

After acknowledging the drawbacks to air-conditioning, including its huge appetite for electricity, Phillips believes that it is sustainable when alternative energy sources like nuclear power and hydroelectric dams are used. Of course, you might expect someone like Phillips to be a supporter of nuclear power but what about hydroelectric dams? Aren’t they okay? After all, “Ontario, British Columbia, and Québec have grids that are almost entirely fossil-fuel free (91 percent, 95 percent, and 99 percent clean, respectively), primarily from hydroelectric or nuclear power.”

My guess is that someone like Phillips is just as dismissive of indigenous peoples as his pals at Spiked are. For productivist freaks like Mick Hume and Leigh Phillips, what’s the point of living in “primitive” conditions. Tch-tch. So barbarian when you can move to a city in Ontario and live in an electrically heated apartment rather than in a seal-hunting village near the Arctic Circle.

In 2013, I wrote an article for CounterPunch titled “The Inuit in a Melting World” that described the environmental impact on both cities and countryside by these massive dams. I cited the press notes for a documentary about Inuits living on the Belcher Islands in Canada:

Hydroelectric mega-projects near Hudson Bay send power to many cities in North America. Spring runoff from wild rivers is held behind dams and released into the bays in the winter months when energy demand is highest.

This reversal of spring runoff disrupts ocean currents and influences the dynamics of sea ice ecosystems in the bay, reversing the seasonality of the hydrological cycle. Belcher Islands residents have noticed the effects for many years, but many concerns continue to go unaddressed.

Due to winter input of freshwater from reservoirs, sea ice freezes and breaks up differently. The dynamics of these critical sea ice habitats for eiders and other wildlife, such as polar bears, are now less predictable. A number of winter die-offs of eiders have been documented, while the larger scale effects are poorly understood.

Indigenous peoples living near the dams are also in danger of being exposed to mercury, a poison that is accumulated in large bodies of water impounded behind dams as the article “Future Impacts of Hydroelectric Power Development on Methylmercury Exposures of Canadian Indigenous Communities” points out.

Finally, hydroelectric dams are a major producer of greenhouse gases, a function of the vegetation at the bottom that accumulates just like mercury before being converted into methane. The Guardian reported that a billion tons of carbon emissions are produced each year. The critical literature on hydroelectric dams is extensive. I recommend Donald Worster’s books, most of all “Rivers of Empire”.

Worster takes aim at the mega-projects associated with the New Deal, a model for the kind of socialism Jacobin contributor Corey Robin identifies with. Most of all, Worster examines the unsustainability of cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix whose air-conditioners are powered by the electricity generated by the Hoover Dam. Author of a biography of John Wesley Powell, a 19th century explorer who was the first to look closely at the Southwest, Worster describes the way in which such cities were made possible against all ecological wisdom:

In 1878, Powell published his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region, which laid out a concrete strategy for settling the West without fighting over scarce water. Powell wanted to stall the waves of homesteaders moving across the plains and mountains. Instead, he wanted to plan settlement based in part on the cooperative model practiced in Utah by Mormon settlers, who tapped mountain snowmelt and the streams, lakes and rivers it created with irrigation ditches leading to crops. Powell wanted to organize settlements around water and watersheds, which would force water users to conserve the scarce resource, because overuse or pollution would hurt everyone in the watershed. Powell believed this arrangement would also make communities better prepared to deal with attempts to usurp their water.

“Any city — Los Angeles, for example — would have had to deal with these local watershed groups and meet their terms,” Worster says. “For Powell, the water would not be taken out of the watershed or out of the basin and transferred across mountains … hundreds of miles away to allow urban growth to take place. So L.A., if it existed at all, would have been a much, much smaller entity. Salt Lake City would be smaller. Phoenix would probably not even exist.”

Powell’s utopian vision also focused on self-reliance. Farmers would spend their own money, not government funds, on the dams and canals needed to get water to them, and their use of water would be tied to their land. They wouldn’t be able to sell their water separately to cities or syndicates. But that was all too much for a nation desperate to expand, says Worster.

“A number of Western congressmen said, ‘Oh wait, whoa, this is too radical. There’s too much planning in this. There’s too much regulation. There’s too much community control. This is not the American way.’ It would interfere with rapid development. It would interfere with free enterprise.”

John Wesley Powell was a prophet. That’s the kind of people our environmentalist movement of today needs, not people shilling for the nuclear power and hydroelectric dam industries.

 

February 26, 2018

Vivek Chibber’s Apolitical Marxism

Filed under: Jacobin,Political Marxism — louisproyect @ 11:39 pm

As part of Jacobin’s regrettable last issue on the Russian Revolution, there was an article by Vivek Chibber that I took a detour around for the simple reason that the edgy graphics would have been too much of a burden on my cataract-ravaged eyes.

Eventually, a typographically correct version of the article appeared that I was in no rush to read but decided to give it a gander since it was critiqued on Jacobin by Charlie Post, who up till now would have been regarded as indistinguishable politically from Chibber. Both men are disciples of Robert Brenner, the UCLA historian who alongside the late Ellen Meiksins Wood was the founder of an academic sect called Political Marxism. The term was coined by Guy Bois, a critic of the Brenner thesis who wrote in the May 1978 issue of Past and Present: “Professor Brenner’s Marxism is ‘political Marxism’ in reaction to the wave of economist tendencies in contemporary historiography. As the role of the class struggle is widely underestimated, so he injects strong doses of it into historical explanation”. Early on, the Brennerites resented the term but nowadays have no problem using it to describe themselves.

Chibber’s article is titled “Our Road to Power” and can best be described as reformist pablum. It starts off with the customary equation of Lenin and Stalin:

The defenders of the Leninist party are right that in its early history it was remarkably open and dynamic. But at the same time, the fact is that its global experience since the 1930s veers much closer to its later, undemocratic form. So while Lenin’s party was very democratic, the Leninist party has not been. And we can’t lay the blame solely on Stalin, Zinoviev, or whoever your favorite villain is. A party model with strong and resilient democratic structures should have generated a more diverse set of experiences, not a uniform history of ossification.

You’ll notice that there is no attempt to provide a historical materialist analysis of how the Soviet Communist Party became undemocratic. That would entail a close examination of the economic disasters of the civil war that opened the door to the bureaucratization of the government and the CP. But if Bois is right in faulting the Political Marxists for ignoring “economist tendencies” in historiography, then it is perfectly logical that Chibber would ignore the objective causes of Stalinism.

Chibber seems ready to accept the Bolshevik model—warts and all—since it worked in Russia. For him, the lesson to be drawn from Lenin’s party is that it “fought alongside the base every day, in the workplace and in the neighborhood.” Oddly enough, the link contained in the sentence above does not take you to an article about Bolshevik practice but to a Jacobin article that offers critical support to the Italian Communist Party under Togliatti. It is hard to get into the head of a hustler like Bhaskar Sunkara or other members of his editorial board but for some reason their magazine has a soft spot for Togliatti, including two other articles that flatter the CP leader–one by Stathis Kouvelakis and the other by Peter D. Thomas who wrote that “The theoretical and political culture that Togliatti helped to shape in the Italian Communist Party, and in Italy more generally as this massive party’s sphere of influence radiated across the entire spectrum of the Left, was the example to which other leftists in Europe and around the world looked for inspiration.”

You don’t have to read the Trotskyist press to understand what a bunch of crap this is. Paul Ginsborg’s “A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988” will serve as a powerful antidote to such feverish thought. It not only details the class collaborationist policies that were largely indistinguishable from that of the Italian social democracy but also shows how devoted the party was to the Soviet dictator who they described as “a scholar of genius who analyses political and historical problems in the light of Marxist principles”.

In August 1945, the CP held a conference on post-war economic problems. Ginsborg indicates that Togliatti spoke against nationalizations while stressing the primary role of private industry. He deemed a national economic plan as “Utopian” and put forward a plan as bland as Obama’s—the rich had to pay their fair share of taxes. Togliatti said that the CP’s struggle was “not against capitalism in general but against particular forms of theft, of speculation, and of corruption.” Silvio Daneo, an Italian diplomat and by no means (obviously) a radical, criticized Togliatti’s speech to the conference as “a call for a daily Realpolitik in which reconstruction was reduced to the prudent democratic administration of the economy on nineteenth-century liberal lines.”

Unlike the Italian Communist Party that was immersed in the working class (even as it was selling it out), Chibber finds today’s left nothing but “a haven for a kind of lifestyle politics for morally committed students and professionals.” Now I am not privy to the kind of activism a sociology professor like Chibber is involved with but a search on his name and “Abu Dhabi”, where workers from East Asia virtually slave away building NYU’s satellite campus, turns up nothing. You’d think that someone complaining about middle-class politics would set an example but Chibber’s main activity seems to be speaking at HM conferences or writing for its journal.

Chibber has little use for the Russian Revolution as a model, a conclusion shared by Jacobin’s editorial board that put together a special issue that reads like it was written by YPDML. (Young Peoples Dissent Magazine League). For him, the “strategic perspective has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture and navigate a more gradualist approach.”

The word “gradualist” links to an article endorsing the Meidner Plan in Sweden (one in which the trade unions owned shares of Saab, et al) as one that can be adapted to the USA as if something that failed in a country ruled by social democrats could ever work in the USA, where the Democratic Party is to the right of Sweden’s party of big business. And the word “approach” links to an article by Eric Olin Wright that proposes “Real Utopias”, which boils down to worker-owned firms like Mondragon or free labor projects like Wikipedia that “destroyed a three-hundred-year-old market in encyclopedias.” I guess this is Utopia but whether it is Real is another question.

Moving right along, we discover that Political Marxist extraordinaire Vivek Chibber is a market socialist after the fashion of Alec Nove. He writes that “we have to seriously consider the possibility that planning as envisioned by Marx might not be a real option.” One really has to wonder how much of Marx Chibber has read. A search on the Marxism Internet Archives reveals not a single article by Marx on how to build socialism, either through markets or through planning. In the afterword to the 1873 edition of Capital, Marx wrote: “Thus the Paris Revue Positiviste reproaches me in that, on the one hand, I treat economics metaphysically, and on the other hand — imagine! — confine myself to the mere critical analysis of actual facts, instead of writing receipts (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future.” The word receipt was used in the 19th century interchangeably with recipe so you understand what Marx was driving at. You also have to engage with Marx’s writings that unlike Eric Olin Wright’s were focused more on revolution than what to do after it occurs. His study of the Paris Commune had little do with whether planning or markets were needed but on what a free society looked like:

The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par decret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant. In the full consciousness of their historic mission, and with the heroic resolve to act up to it, the working class can afford to smile at the coarse invective of the gentlemen’s gentlemen with pen and inkhorn, and at the didactic patronage of well-wishing bourgeois-doctrinaires, pouring forth their ignorant platitudes and sectarian crotchets in the oracular tone of scientific infallibility.

Neither ready-made utopias nor Eric Olin Wright’s Real Utopias can be extrapolated from anything that Marx ever wrote.

Now, turning to the problems of socialist construction in the 20th century, there is ample evidence that it was tried in every single post-capitalist society from the NEP in the USSR to Cuba’s small, privately owned businesses today. The key challenge, however, is resolving the problem market socialism has with a key commodity–namely labor power. It is one thing to have a market in consumer goods, where citizens have the choice between shoes made in one firm or another but what if the market preference for firm A is so much greater than firm B that its workers have to accept lower wages or else lose their jobs? In September, 1986 Ernest Mandel wrote a critique of Alec Nove for the NLR titled “In Defence of Socialist Planning” that can be read at the MIA. Mandel points out that Nove overemphasizes consumption, which was certainly what you’d expect during the period of a crisis in the USSR when the masses felt resentment over poor consumer goods and a lack of choice. Mandel writes:

So far we have followed Alec Nove – and other critics of Marxian socialism – in focusing on problems of consumption. But this concern is, of course, in itself a one-sided one. For the average citizens of an advanced industrial country are not only and not even mainly – that is, for the greater part of their adult lives – consumers. They are still first of all producers. They still spend an average of at least nine to ten hours a day, five days a week, working or travelling to and from work. If most people sleep eight hours a night, that leaves six hours for consumption, recreation, repose, sexual relations, social intercourse, all taken together.

Here a double constraint arises, with which the champions of ‘consumer freedom’ hardly deal. For the more you multiply the number of needs to be satisfied within a given population, the greater the work-load you demand from the producers at a given level of technology and organization of the labour process. If decisions about this work-load are not taken consciously and democratically by the producers themselves, they are dictatorially imposed on them – whether by Stalin’s inhuman labour legislation or by the ruthless laws of the labour market, with its millions of unemployed today. Surely any advocate of a juster and more humane society should feel as deeply repelled by this tyranny as by that over consumer needs? For the system of ‘rewards and punishments’ through the market, ingenuously extolled by so many on the Left nowadays, is nothing but a thinly disguised despotism over the producers’ time and efforts, and therewith their lives as a whole.

Such rewards and punishments imply not only higher and lower incomes, ‘better’ and ‘worse’ jobs. They also imply periodic lay-offs, the misery of unemployment (including the moral misery of feeling useless as a social being), speed-up, subjection to the stop-watch and the assembly-line, the authoritarian discipline of production squads, nervous and physical health hazards, noise bombardment, alienation from any knowledge of the production process as a whole, the transformation of human beings into mere appendices of machines or computers.

The conclusion to Chibber’s article has a distinctly social democratic ring and even more specifically that of the DSA’s old guard. He advocates: “Any viable left has to also embrace electoral politics as the other node of a two-pronged strategy, in which power at the base is combined with a parliamentary wing, each feeding the other.”

So you have to wonder what that parliamentary wing entails. In the USA, it can only mean one thing—backing the Sanderista movement. In October 21, 2015, Verso published a statement by leading academics calling for support for the Bernie Sanders campaign, which in their words was “committed to a clear and emphatic reassertion of the importance of public goods and the public sector that provides them, including public higher education in particular.”

The signatories constitute a kind of who’s who of the academic left including Vivek Chibber and Walter Benn Michaels, another high priest of Marxist orthodoxy who like Chibber can’t stand the middle-class left with its obsessions over (quoting Chibber) “language, individual identity, body language, consumption habits, and the like.” Back in the 60s and 70s, there were professors who went into industry if they were serious about connecting with the working class, including Hans Ehrbar, the retired U. of Utah economist who makes Marxmail possible. Do you think that people like Chibber would ever take a factory job like Ehrbar did? Nah, the guy is all talk.

Now, this is some bundle of middle-class politics–like a full diaper. For all of Chibber’s Marxist bluster, this guy is an echo chamber for the kind of politics you can find in the rightwing of the DSA, Dissent Magazine, In These Times, et al. I can’t say that I am totally surprised but it must have been a real surprise to Charlie Post who has maintained an ideological bromance with Chibber for over a decade at least.

In Post’s critique of Chibber’s article, he makes sure to lavish praise on this steaming pile of horse manure even if he makes some useful points. But you can see how lame the critique is with the opening words: “Chibber’s call for a ‘cadre party’ rooted in the working class is most welcome.” I suppose so, but when Chibber links to a puff piece on Togliatti in support of such a call, you have to wonder whether Post bothered to check the links. Very poor scholarship, indeed. But when you are in the business of having to offer a serious critique of some really crappy politics but only with kid gloves, you are left with an unenviable task.

Chibber defended himself as only an arrogant don would: “Much of Post’s essay agrees with and repeats what was in mine. But some of it is tendentious, representing claims that aren’t implied in ‘Our Road to Power,’ much less advocated.”

I’ll leave these two to their own devices. These dueling, huffing and puffing, preening male academic peacocks deserve each other.

January 27, 2018

Blocked by Bhaskar Sunkara on Twitter

Filed under: Jacobin — louisproyect @ 11:56 pm

Most celebrities—major and minor—use Twitter as a way of letting their followers know what they are up to. Bhaskar, a major Marxist but only a minor celebrity in American politics, was a past master of letting us know what city he had just landed in, how the NY Knicks could improve, and very occasionally some banal political observation, at least one that can be made in 140 characters. I would also be loath to say he never had much to say in 1,400 words because that would be unkind. Forget I just said that.

I have almost never written a critical reply to one of his Tweets, mostly because it takes me 1,400 words just to get a full head of steam, but he got the old dander up with this:

Now, I have been exposed to Bhaskar-thought for more than a decade and remember vividly his interventions on the Marxism mailing list, especially this:

I’ll be in the DSA, in the cesspool of the Democratic Party, in the mainstream unions, where the working people are, until you comrades can prove me wrong and build a viable alternative for working people and then I’ll apologize and happily join you.

Being of a certain age, I have become rather inured to Marxist special pleading for work in the Democratic Party. This was clearly a sign that the 19-year old had figured out that Marxmail was a waste of his time, filled as it was with toothless old folks who had little interest in diving into the cesspool with him. “Come on in, comrades, the water’s fine. Just remember to bathe with lysol and take penicillin later.”

Greener pastures loomed for the enterprising 19-year old. Writing for Dissent Magazine, launching an edgy new Marxist magazine, fawning profiles in the Washington Post, the N.Y. Times, and the New Yorker Magazine. Who can top that? Who wants to hang around a bunch of loser 60s radicals when you can be in the fast lane making appearances on MSNBC? Yes, there were people in their teens and twenties on the Marxism list but they were likely infected with the sectarian notion that socialist revolution and joining the Democratic Party were incompatible.

What galled me about Bhaskar’s tweet was the faux radicalism. The notion that “the most honorable figures on the left offer a class struggle back to social democracy” struck me as posturing of the worst sort especially in light of Jacobin publishing an article by Vivek Chibber that the honorable, even if a bit on the senior side, Dan La Botz described it in the following terms :

We have arrived it seems at classical social democracy. Or if we haven’t, then what does Chibber actually have in mind? What differentiates his position from social democracy? Nothing in this article would suggest that there is any difference.

I would love to read this article myself since I find Chibber’s preening as the arbiter of true Marxism from the barricades of the NYU Sociology Department unspeakably arrogant. However, the snazzy graphics posed too much of a hurdle for my cataract-encrusted eyes so I took a pass.

Instead, I just dashed off this tweet:

This must have gotten under his skin because—god knows—he must be working all sorts of hours under incredible pressure to turn out what he likely thinks is the Iskra of our day and deserves our everlasting gratitude. Being so mistreated by a resentful old coot like me, he displayed a high dudgeon I’ve never seen from him before:

I don’t know quite how to put this but in the hundreds of articles I have written about Libya and Syria, there is not a single word about supporting American bombing. I know that this is confusing for someone like Bhaskar since in his mind criticizing Seymour Hersh or Patrick Cockburn is tantamount to backing American bombing. After all, correcting Hersh on the chemistry of sarin gas is objectively the same as cheering for NATO, as they used to say in sectarian Leninist politics.

Reacting to this in my customary ill-tempered manner risked getting me blocked but I had to get this off my chest even if it meant missing some tweet about Bhaskar’s impressions of Amsterdam restaurants and the like:

 

December 20, 2017

What can we learn from the Russian Revolution? A reply to Jacobin

Filed under: Jacobin,Russian Revolution — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

Among the 7 million orphaned children on the streets during the Russian Civil War

In this the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, you can now read about how the Bolsheviks prepared the way for Stalin in Dissent and Jacobin, the flagship publications of rightwing and leftwing social democracy respectively. Eerily enough, they sound like they could have been written by Karl Kautsky if he were alive today.

In Dissent, you can read Mitchell Cohen’s “What Lenin’s Critics Got Right” that is mostly a defense of Julius Martov, the Menshevik leader. Its curdled prose is steeped in historical minutiae that could be of less interest to young radicals trying to figure out a strategy for overthrowing the capitalist system. Besides trying to bury the October Revolution for the millionth time since 1917, Cohen makes a laughable attempt at debunking Marx whose critique of “social democracy” in the 18th Brumaire supposedly gave far too much authority to the working class as a universalizing revolutionary agency.

Reading this, I scratched my head and wondered what the hell he was talking about since the Second International was formed a full 37 years after the 18th Brumaire was written. What “social democracy” was Marx referring to? That was news to me.

It turns out he was referring to a party best known as the Mountain (Montagne) that had both small proprietors and working class members just like the Democratic Party in the USA but hardly resembling the party led by Karl Kautsky. It was instead a party led by  Alexandre Ledru-Rollin that backed Louis Bonaparte’s 1851 coup. So much for “democracy”. As for the “socialism” part, the Mountain opposed the June Days uprising in 1848 that was triggered by the Second Republic’s decision to shut down the National Workshops, a measure enacted to create jobs for the unemployed. The National Guard was called out to suppress the uprising, leaving 10,000 dead workers in its wake and another 4,000 deported to Algeria. Why am I not surprised that Mitchell Cohen defends the Mountain against Karl Marx who had these pithy words for the counter-revolutionary party: “a nightmare on the brains of the living”?

In 2003, Cohen wrote that “Unless there is a coup, force will eventually be needed to defang Saddam’s regime. The only real questions are when, how much force, and what aftermath.” So that’s Dissent Magazine’s co-editor for you.

We turn now to Sunkara’s 7,500 word article on the Russian Revolution titled “The Few Who Won” that strikes a literary pose at the outset, referring to Cheka chief Felix Dzerzhinsky as if he stepped out of a Len Deighton novel: “By age forty, he was clad in black leather, designing a bloody terror as head of the young Soviet Union’s secret police.” Funny about that black leather thing. There are lots of pictures of Dzerzhinsky on the net but none in black leather. I guess the idea was to get the reader prepped to read something along the lines of “Darkness at Noon”.

The first 5,500 words or so are relatively favorable to Lenin’s party, even going so far as to describe the Russians as “freed from generations of oppression” in 1917. But in the last 2,000 words, Sunkara adopts the pose of prosecuting attorney, starting with the section titled “Terrorism and Communism” that evokes Karl Kautsky’s attack on the Soviet state in a 1919 book with exactly the same title. Was Sunkara consciously trying to recycle Kautsky’s polemics? I am afraid so.

All you really need to know from Kautsky’s book is this:

Those who defend Bolshevism do so by pointing out that their opponents, the White Guards of the Finns, the Baltic barons, the counter-revolutionary Tsarist generals and admirals have not done any better. But is it a justification of theft to show that others steal?

The lack of a class perspective here is shocking only if you are not familiar with the steep decline of the German socialist leader as the 20th century trudged forward. This is how Karl Kautsky described the social democratic government that had Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht’s blood on its hands in a 1934 book titled “Hitlerism and Social Democracy”. Congratulating his party for not sinking to the level of the Bolsheviks, he viewed its peaceful, parliamentary behavior as beyond reproach even if Hitler used it to his advantage:

Attempts to bring about the establishment of an anti-Bolshevist reign of terror under a Social Democratic regime were not lacking, as was evidenced by the assassination of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, an assassination perpetrated by a group of reactionary army officers. But the Social Democrats must consider it fortunate that the Social Democratic government of that time repelled with horror every effort of the frenzied army officers to force it to adopt terroristic measures.

Sunkara compares Lincoln’s draconian measures during the Civil War to those imposed by Lenin in 1918. Unlike Lenin, Lincoln’s suspension of civil liberties was a temporary measure but in the USSR they persisted under Stalin. This comparison is specious. To make a real comparison, imagine if both Mexico and Canada were slave states that intervened on behalf of the South. Additionally, what if England and France were also slave states that had joined in? A pincer movement of all four states seizes large parts of the North, sweeping up freed Blacks and returning them to the South. It also strikes deadly blows at the infant industrial capitalism of the North based on free wage labor. All the textile factories of the New England states are burned to the ground and their workers lined up and killed by counter-revolutionary firing squads.

After four years of bloody civil war, the North finally drives out the invaders and—licking its wounds—tries to return to normal. But not being satisfied with their defeat by the largely working-class Union army, the four invading slave states begin amassing armies on the North’s borders and issuing threats once again about the need to overthrow the Radical Republicans. Under these conditions, the NY Times, the NY Herald and other newspapers begin to echo slave state propaganda while the pro-slavery Democratic Party inside the North begins to organize mass demonstrations calling for reunification with the South but under its socio-economic umbrella. How long would the Radical Republicans put up with this? You can bet that Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman would have been even a much bigger bad-ass than Felix Dzerzhinsky.

Of course, some would argue that this is the kind of excuse Stalin used when he cracked down on dissent, jailed protesters, ruled by fiat, etc. That is best answered using the tools of historical materialism. When the social democrats argue that there is no difference between Red Terror and Stalin’s Gulags, they inevitably paper over crucial class distinctions. In the Russian civil war, the terror was directed against those who wanted to restore the status quo ante while in the 1930s the Gulags were filled with ordinary working people and peasants fed up with bureaucratic privilege and repression. The class differences were crucial.

Sunkara reviews Bolshevik policy during War Communism and finds it lacking. The peasants were forced to supply grain to the cities at gunpoint, thus turning them against the government. To satisfy the peasants, it would have required a return to market relations in the countryside as occurred under the NEP but in 1918 those same market relations would have caused mass starvation in the cities. The logical conclusion but one only hinted at by Sunkara is that Kautsky was right. A country that was so steeped in backward agrarian relations had no business trying to bypass capitalism. That, in fact, was also what Lenin believed until 1917 when four years of war and austerity drove the masses to such a boiling point that they cast aside all the “moderate socialists” and, taking the July Days into account, the Bolsheviks as well if they could not relieve their suffering. Sometimes, history had a dynamic that is impossible to overcome. One should not blame the Bolsheviks for making the peasants angry. You really need to put the blame on the industrialists and financiers that launched WWI, with the full support of social democratic parliamentarians.

Those looking for a full-bodied assessment of civil war economic realities will have to go somewhere else besides Sunkara’s article that was only capable of this bland observation: “The Soviet state’s political base was decimated, too. Some industrial workers died in the Civil War, while others left starving cities and tried their chances in the countryside.” That’s 28 words to cover one of the greatest disasters of the 20th century.

To really get a feel for the destruction wrought by counter-revolution in the USSR, you have to turn to John Rees’s 1991 article “In Defense of October” that was mostly a polemic against Samuel Farber. (Unfortunately, Rees was incapable of applying the same dialectical analysis to Cuba back then or to Syria today.)

So what were the conditions facing the Bolsheviks? The civil war broke over a country already decimated by the First World War. By 1918 Russia was producing just 12 percent of the steel it had produced in 1913. More or less the same story emerged from every industry: iron ore had slumped to 12.3 percent of its 1913 figure; tobacco to 19 percent; sugar to 24 percent; coal to 42 percent; linen to 75 percent. The country was producing just one fortieth of the railway track it had manufactured in 1913. And by January 1918 some 48 percent of the locomotives in the country were out of action. Factories closed, leaving Petrograd with just a third of its former workforce by autumn 1918. Hyperinflation raged at levels only later matched in the Weimar Republic. The amount of workers’ income that came from sources other than wages rose from 3.5 percent in 1913 to 38 percent in 1918 – in many cases desperation drove workers to simple theft. The workers’ state was as destitute as the workers: the state budget for 1918 showed income at less than half of expenditure.

Starvation came hard on the heels of economic devastation. In the spring of 1918 the food ration in Moscow and Petrograd sank to just 10 percent of that needed to sustain a manual worker. Now it was Chicherin, the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, who ironically repeated the threat first made by the millionaire Ryabushynski: ‘The bony hand of hunger may throttle the Russian Revolution’. Disease necessarily walked hand in hand with starvation, claiming perhaps 7 million lives during the civil war, the same number of deaths as that suffered by Russians in the First World War. The tone of this cry from Lenin testifies to the seriousness of the crisis in 1918:

For God’s sake, use the most energetic and revolutionary measures to send grain, grain and more grain!!! Otherwise, Piter [Petrograd] may perish.

I urge you to read Rees’s entire article as well as one written by his comrade Megan Trudell titled “The Russian civil war: a Marxist analysis”. She explains why the Red Army eventually prevailed even though its requisitioning of grain drove many peasants into the counter-revolutionary army:

The White regimes returned the land to the landowners and the factories to the owners, denied trade union rights to workers, and were characterised by corruption, decadence, speculation and bitter repression of the population. The class in whose name the Whites fought was weak and crumbling, and was savagely lashing out in its decay. Within industrial centres controlled by Whites a reign of terror against workers was routine. In the Donbass, one in ten workers were shot if coal production fell, and ‘some workers were shot for simply being workers under the slogan, ‘Death to callused hands’.

Characterised by one of Kolchak’s generals as, ‘In the army, decay; in the staff, ignorance and incompetence; in the government, moral rot, disagreement and intrigues of ambitious egotists; in the country, uprising and anarchy; in public life, panic, selfishness, bribes and all sorts of scoundrelism’, the White regime at Omsk was a brutal and arbitrary dictatorship. It liquidated the trade unions and meted out savage reprisals against peasants who sheltered partisans–reprisals which inflamed the population and pushed many towards Bolshevism. When Omsk was taken by the Red Army in November 1919, it was with the willing participation of large numbers of peasant recruits. In many Siberian towns workers overthrew the Kolchak government before the Red troops arrived. In Irkutsk a Political Centre was established to govern in place of the Whites, which in turn was replaced by a mainly Bolshevik revolutionary committee installed by the workers in January 1920, to whom Kolchak was delivered after his capture.

Let me conclude with some comments on the final words of Sunkara’s article:

For a century, socialists have looked back at the October Revolution — sometimes with rose-colored glasses, sometimes to play at simplistic counterfactuals. But sometimes for good reason. Exploitation and inequality are still alive and well amid plenty. Even knowing how their story ended, we can learn from those who dared to fight for something better.

Yet both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks were wrong in 1917. The Mensheviks’ faith in Russian liberals was misplaced, as were the Bolsheviks’ hopes for world revolution and an easy leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom. The Bolsheviks, having seen over ten million killed in a capitalist war, and living in an era of upheaval, can be forgiven. We can also forgive them because they were first.

What is less forgivable is that a model built from errors and excesses, forged in the worst of conditions, came to dominate a left living in an unrecognizable world.

Does the word model really apply to the USSR? Unless you were in a Maoist sect or the CP, the word model was the last one you’d choose to describe your outlook on the former Soviet Union. Except for the arts in the 1920s, there was not much to admire if you thought of the USSR as a kind of balance sheet with credits on one side and debits on the other. For my generation, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela were much more in keeping with socialist ideals but they too were vulnerable to the same kinds of pressures that were put on the Bolsheviks. Despite the best intentions of the revolutionaries, the need to function in a largely capitalist world, even more so in the aftermath of the end of the USSR, forced the state to make painful adjustments.

Were any of these countries modeled on the Soviet Union? Except for the occasional display of the hammer-and-sickle, there’s not much evidence of that. Cuba, in particular, owed a lot more to José Marti than to V.I. Lenin. For the American left, the need is to build a movement that draws from native grounds, in the words of Alfred Kazin. Just like the Cubans referred back to José Marti and the Nicaraguans to Augusto Sandino, we need to connect with our own revolutionary traditions. That is why a group of us are involved with the North Star, a website that is named after Frederick Douglass’s newspaper.

Perhaps the main lesson to be drawn from the Bolsheviks is not about statecraft but how to struggle. Lenin’s main contribution, building upon those of Marx and Engels, is to draw class distinctions. If there’s anything to be gleaned from his writings, it is the need to make sharp class distinctions with the capitalist parties. In his day, this meant the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) while today it means opposing the Democratic Party.

As was the urgent task in Lenin’s day and just as much today, it is to build a revolutionary party. Unfortunately, the conditions that made it possible to jump-start such a party in the early 1900s no longer exist. Largely through the guidance of Frederick Engels, it was possible to build a Second International that provided a kind of template for party-building, including the Russian social democracy. Once that movement collapsed as a result of its support for WWI, the Comintern stepped into the breach. It was a movement much too reliant on the Kremlin, even before Stalin’s rise to power. In the same way that the Second International turned into an obstacle for world revolution, so did the Third International.

Today, the revolutionary left is in a very weak position but freed from the constraints of the epoch of Second and Third International domination when, for example, the reformist politicians in France could derail the May-June Events of 1968. We are living in a period when neither the Stalinist parties nor the social democrats have mass followings. However, the same economic tendencies that caused their decline are also eroding the social base of the revolutionary movement. With traditional blue-collar jobs disappearing, the trade unions no longer have the kind of weight they once had.

To figure out where to go next in a world that is “unrecognizable” in terms of October 1917, as Sunkara put it, we need to engage with the new social terrain using the same kind of analytical tools Lenin brought to bear when he wrote about the growth of capitalist property relations in the Russian countryside. What are the social forces gathering momentum that can begin to cohere as a conscious opponent of a capitalist class in decline?

Despite my criticisms of Jacobin, it does provide much-needed political analysis about the changes taking place in the USA today. My hope is that it will begin to abandon the orientation to the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party that offers false hopes. The best thing it can do is provide some leadership to the DSA that has the potential of serving as a linchpin for a new radical movement that can set the bourgeoisie back on its heels. With 25,000 members, it has the capability of providing the leadership that was on display in the early days of the Trump administration when bodies were put on the line to oppose his immigration bans. This means transforming the DSA into something much more like a serious and disciplined organization that knows how to kick ass and take names. If it instead prioritizes ringing doorbells for the Democratic Party, something else will have to take its place.

December 14, 2017

New Communists? A reply to Jacobin Magazine

Filed under: Jacobin,Lenin,Russian Revolution,two-party system — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

Adaner Usmani

Connor Kilpatrick

In the latest issue of Jacobin devoted to commentary on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, there’s an article co-written by Adaner Usmani, a postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute of Brown University, and Jacobin editor Conner Kilpatrick titled “The New Communists” that basically urges the left to put that revolution stuff behind us or, more exactly, the far left, which I most certainly belong to as an “unrepentant Marxist”. The two young political scientists advise: “And yet the far left today embraces the Soviet obsession like a vampire hunter wields garlic. The problem is that garlic repels far more than just monsters — it makes you stink.”

Although Jacobin prides itself on being stylistically polished, I am not sure whether the words “embraces the Soviet obsession” is in keeping with its lofty aspirations. What does it mean to embrace an obsession, which almost sounds like obsessing over an obsession? If I were editing the smart magazine with its even smarter graphics, I might have changed that to “embraces the memory of the Soviet Union” or better yet to drop all the circumlocutions about “new communism” and simply say “And yet the far left today embraces Marxism like a vampire hunter wields garlic” because buried beneath all the clever prose is an agenda that might have not sat well with Jacobin subscribers. In keeping with the vampire-hunting analogy, the true goal of Usmani and Kilpatrick is to plunge a wooden stake into the heart of Marxism.

Since the article is behind a paywall, I will quote more liberally from the article than I do ordinarily in posts to this blog. So please forgive me in advance. To understand the dodgy approach of the authors, you have to begin with the fact that the word Marxism appears only 3 times in the article and only as a referent to states that have little to do with Marxist politics. For example, they write:

At its peak, some variation of the USSR’s flag flew over 20 percent of the Earth’s habitable landmass. But while McDonald’s has now spread to over 120 countries, today only three of the four ruling Communist parties left fly the hammer and sickle. Of the five nations that claim Marxism-Leninism, the hammer and sickle appears on the state flags of none. Once the symbol of the struggle for a better world, today the hammer and sickle is a sign of little more than single-party sclerosis.

But what does it mean to claim “Marxism-Leninism”? Is the presence of a hammer and sickle supposed to be some kind of genealogical marker indicating that the carrier has something to do with Karl Marx’s ideas? Missing from the article is any engagement with Stalin’s legacy, a dictator who made the hammer and sickle a symptom of sclerosis at least 85 years ago. The only reference to Stalin in the article is this:

Counterfactuals have become the stuff of lifelong sectarian debates for the socialist left: “if only Germany had gone the right way, if only Lenin had lived, if only Stalin had been isolated, if only, if only . . .” In almost every instance of mass revolt they find the Bolshevik’s October — Germany in 1918–20, France in 1968, Egypt in 2011, and everything in between — revolutions made mere “revolutionary rehearsals” by conniving bureaucrats or naive cadre.

This is quite a mouthful. Although it would take far too many words to unpack the sophistry embedded in this paragraph, suffice it to say that the mass revolt in France nearly 50 years ago came to an end because the French Communist Party had the numbers and the influence in the working class to break the back of the resistance and help Charles De Gaulle restore order. It is not a question of being “naïve”. Rather, it is one of being too small. It is also one of being disunited. In 1968, France’s far left was divided into many Trotskyist and Maoist sects. If it had learned to overcome its differences and constitute a united revolutionary front, it would have been much more difficult for the CP and the Gaullists to seize control. If there is one thing that Jacobin can contribute to now, it is serving as a catalyst for left revolutionary unity. Unfortunately, it appears to be far more interested in functioning as the ideological mouthpiece of the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.

Usmani and Kilpatrick want to cleanse the left of its self-righteous sectarians who insist on ideological purity:

At its worst, in this crowd, isolation is proof of revolutionary virtue, rather than political calamity. Particularly in a country like ours, the politics of “Yay revolution! Boo reform!” has led to a rhetorical arms race in which the most virtuous, maximalist positions are the most progressive.

I wonder if the two understand how Marxists have used the term “maximalist” in the past. Generally (and most certainly prevalent in Maoist circles), this is the outlook of groups like Avakian’s RCP or the Spartacist League that are in the habit of reminding their readers that socialism is the answer to whatever problem confronts the working class. Maximalism tended to appear in its purist form on May Day demonstrations years ago, when CP-led parades would carry banners calling for a Communist America.

If the authors were more forthright and less bent on fighting straw men, they would simply come out and say that they are sick and tired of people making work inside the Democratic Party a litmus test. The far left is not really opposed to reforms as might be indicated by Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant’s tireless advocacy of a $15 minimum wage. Speaking as a former member of another Trotskyist group, I have no memory of ever saying anything like “Yay, revolution”. I do confess to joining the rest of the comrades in singing “The Internationale” but that was in another country, and besides the wench is dead.

The real divide is not over the need for reforms but how to fight for them. It has become clear that DSA’ers have begun to identify with the “sewer socialism” of elected Socialist Party members such as Victor Berger as illustrated by the election of DSA members in Somerville, Massachusetts. An article in CommonWealth made the comparison:

Somerville now has an opportunity to build a new kind of 21st century sewer socialism: getting the basics right while attending to the core distributional questions of municipal governance. The election showed that Somerville voters want to see their aldermen focus on issues of legislative policy. This is, of course, their primary task. The informal alliance of Our Revolution and the Democratic Socialists of America in Somerville has coalesced around the politics of development: affordable housing and the rights of tenants, workers, and immigrants.

What’s missing from the CommonWealth article and 9 out 10 written about the Somerville election is the fact that the DSA’ers ran on the Democratic Party ticket. In Victor Berger’s day, this never happened. Upton Sinclair’s 1934 End Poverty In California (EPIC) gubernatorial run marked the first time an SP’er ever ran as a Democrat. So upsetting was this to SP members that his own son broke ties with him.

Perhaps I have a different idea of what kind of reforms are needed. While one understands completely why someone running for alderman in Somerville might want to make an issue out of garbage collection, my idea of a reform would be something much more like what I was involved with in 1970, when I lived not far from Somerville. We tragically unhip Trotskyists got behind the Shea Bill, sponsored by state legislator James Shea. Jr. that authorized Massachusetts residents to refuse combat duty in wars Congress has not declared. It also instructed Massachusetts Attorney General Robert Quinn to defend and assist servicemen who refused to fight on such grounds.

Furthermore, whenever the Trotskyists got involved with any reform, whether for antiwar demands or abortion rights, it always stressed mass action such as rallies, petition drives, etc. If there is anything worth preserving from the long-lost Russian Revolution, it is the need for what we used to call “proletarian methods of struggle”. At the risk of sounding like a moldy fig, let me quote from Trotsky’s Transitional Program: “Self-reliance and proletarian methods of struggle. Only the workers themselves, organized to make full use of their massive numbers and social weight, can solve their problems. No wing of the ruling class is our ally. Strikes and other forms of mass action, which demonstrate the power of the workers’ movement in life, are the most effective.”

Usmani and Kilpatrick are anxious to remind us that even the Communists were “practical-minded” just like them:

The uncomfortable truth for both liberals and die-hard revolutionaries is that whenever and wherever Western Communist parties were strongest, it was because they were the most effective reformers, not revolutionaries. They won when they bested the social democrats at their own stated aims. It was not starry-eyed dreaming but everyday material victories that led 1.5 million people to attend Italian Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer’s 1984 funeral. The flip side of this fact is that in the pre–World War II period, European Communism was feeble and ineffective — with the telling exception of the French Communist Party during the Popular Front and the Spanish one during the Civil War.

When I read this, I spit the coffee out of my mouth that I was drinking. This is most shocking statement in the entire article. So, if in the rest of Europe Communism was “feeble and ineffective”, we can at least look back at the Spanish Civil War as an exception to that rule? Are these two brilliant political scientists for real? The goddamned Communist Party was one of the main reasons Franco triumphed. Unlike France in 1968, this was not just a victory of the right facilitated by the CP’s hegemony. In Spain, it was a victory made possible by the CP’s willingness to murder revolutionaries, including Andres Nin. Nin and many others on the left were trying to overthrow capitalism, while the CP was dead-set on keeping the capitalist Spanish Republic intact even if that meant opposing worker control of the telephone building in Barcelona. When the largely anarchist workers refused to surrender, the CP-led security forces laid siege to the building, which provoked a general uprising. As might be obvious from what is going on in Spain today, Catalans were not only seeking national independence but also class independence. It was the CP’s “effective” control over the Popular Front that gave them the power to tame the unruly Catalan working class. Surely, Usmani and Kilpatrick are aware of this history. Why they would apply Stalinist varnish to it is a mystery.

Following the above citation, the authors get down to brass tacks:

The unprecedented success of Bernie Sanders’s run and his enduring popularity should have been a wake-up call to much of Leftworld: the country is ready for working-class politics, and even for the s-word, as long as we talk about it in everyday, tangible terms.

If you click the link in the paragraph above, you are directed to an interview with Adolph Reed from the August 8, 2016 Jacobin. If Usmani and Kilpatrick were half as open about their beliefs as Reed, the debate on the left that this article has provoked already on Facebook would have a lot more clarity. We have to assume that they agree with Reed who says:

Some who are eager to pronounce the campaign a failure are motivated by other ideological objectives. For example, Trotskyists and others who fetishize association with Democrats as the greatest sin in politics want to argue that Sanders would have been more successful if he’d run as an independent.

That’s a delusional position. In the first place, an independent candidacy outside the Democrat and Republican primaries would have received no attention at all to this point, which means we’d have wasted the last year, and almost none of the unions or other entities would have endorsed it.

Left out of these considerations is the big question about class independence. Until the CP’s Popular Front turn, Marxists never backed bourgeois parties. Maybe the irritation that Jacobin (at this point, we can probably assume that the article expresses the editorial board’s thinking) feels over the Russian Revolution is its connection to Lenin’s obdurate refusal to bloc with or vote for capitalist parties, which in Czarist Russia meant the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets). This is not the Lenin they want to have anything to do with.

Today, the relevant Lenin is not Lenin the indefatigable revolutionary, but Lenin the disconsolate strategist — the man who in 1920 chastised Communists “to convince the backward elements, to work among them, and not to fence themselves off from them with artificial and childishly ‘Left’ slogans.”

What astonishing disregard for Lenin’s views. They are quoting “’Ultraleftism’: an Infantile Disorder”, which most people remember as a qualified endorsement of voting for Labour Party candidates (even if the qualification is along the lines of supporting them like a rope supports a hanging man.) So, if you are enthusiastic about Jeremy Corbyn and view Bernie Sanders as the American Corbyn, why not? Maybe it fudges over important theoretical questions to liken the Democrats to Labour but let’s put that aside momentarily. It is far more important to take another look at what Lenin actually said.

He is mostly trying to wean young CP leaders off of the ultraleftism that sounds a lot like the “yay, revolution” straw man Usmani and Kilpatrick were tilting at, especially Sylvia Pankhurst who wrote “The Communist Party must not compromise. . . . The Communist Party must keep its doctrine pure, and its independence of reformism inviolate, its mission is to lead the way, without stopping or turning, by the direct road to the communist revolution.”

Lenin’s advice to Pankhurst and other impatient young revolutionaries is not anything like that of Usmani and Kilpatrick’s despite their predictable exploitation of a stance that mimics his like a funhouse mirror. There is nothing about becoming the leftwing of the Labour Party or that would sanction what DSA is doing today running as Democrats and stumping for Bernie Sanders’s next bid for President.

In my opinion, the British Communists should unite their four parties and groups (all very weak, and some of them very, very weak) into a single Communist Party on the basis of the principles of the Third International and of obligatory participation in parliament. The Communist Party should propose the following “compromise” election agreement to the Hendersons and Snowdens: let us jointly fight against the alliance between Lloyd George and the Conservatives; let us share parliamentary seats in proportion to the number of workers’ votes polled for the Labour Party and for the Communist Party (not in elections, but in a special ballot), and let us retain complete freedom of agitation, propaganda and political activity. Of course, without this latter condition, we cannot agree to a bloc, for that would be treachery; the British Communists must demand and get complete freedom to expose the Hendersons and the Snowdens in the same way as (for fifteen years—1903–17) the Russian Bolsheviks demanded and got it in respect of the Russian Hendersons and Snowdens, i.e., the Mensheviks.

I don’t mind particularly that Jacobin has decided to breathe new life into the Fabian Society, which evidently is more to their liking than Bolshevism. I suspect that most young people today are waiting with bated breath for the next big confrontation with capitalism as occurred during the Occupy movement and will have little interest in ringing doorbells for some Democrat, DSA member or not.

I only wish that if they are going to recruit V.I. Lenin to their sorry project, they’d at least respect what he actually wrote rather than jamming words into his mouth. He deserves better.

UPDATE:

In a comment below, Dave Grosser denied that Ben Ewen-Campen ran as a Democrat. I guess this was photoshopped or something.

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December 9, 2017

Ben Norton throws a tantrum at Jacobin magazine

Filed under: Germany,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 9:19 pm

Last Wednesday someone on a pro-Syrian FB group posted a link to a vitriol-filled blog post by Ben Norton from November 30th titled “Jacobin, leading neo-Kautskyite magazine, whitewashes SPD, erasing murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht”. I hadn’t given much thought to Norton since the Trump presidency began since it was apparent that the ultraright president had provided much less fodder to professional Assadists like Norton and Blumenthal. It was a bit difficult to write Gray Zone articles about the danger of regime change in Syria when there was every indication that there was a commonality of interests between the White House and these two knuckleheads over the need to destroy ISIS, al-Qaeda and any bearded man with the temerity to shout “Allahu Akbar” after taking out a Baathist tank.

The fellow who posted a link to Norton’s post prefaced it with:

Ben Norton being a weird Leninist Polemicist. It appears his beef with Jacobin has to do with it publishing pro-Syrian-revolution stuff. It’s funny he accuses them of having this Kautskyist editorial line, when actually they pay $50 for articles and take stuff mostly from freelancers.

I’m not exactly sure what being paid $50 and Kautskyism has to do with each other but I heartily concur with the “weird polemicist” characterization. Leninist? Well, only in the sense that he sounds like ten thousand other Internet Bolsheviks who maintain Twitter accounts festooned with pictures of Stalin, hammers and sickles, and any other regalia from the 1930s. Such people are unlikely to get FBI visits as I did in the 1960s when being a Leninist meant going out and building demonstrations. Since Norton’s chief involvement with the left is writing for AlterNet, a magazine that is two centimeters to the left of MSNBC, I doubt that he has much to worry about.

To be a proper Leninist, even in the degraded sense of sects like the Spartacist League, you have to be a disciplined, dues-paying member with responsibilities. This describes Ben Norton about as much as the term virginal describes Harvey Weinstein. When you begin throwing around terms like Kautskyist, it is like going to a Halloween Ball disguised as Lenin. More to the point, Lenin’s polemics against Kautsky have to be seen in context. In Norton’s case, the only context appears to be Jacobin’s new line on Syria that closed the door on him and his Assadist pals, so much so that after Norton attacked an anti-Assad article in the Jacobin Facebook group, he was blocked.

Turning to the article itself, it is a broadside against “the pro-imperialist, social chauvinist, and historical revisionist editorial line of Jacobin”. One wonders why Norton didn’t throw in “petty bourgeois” while he was at it, the cherished term of all those who strike Leninist poses. It seems that the AlterNet staff member had gotten himself into a proper tizzy over a November 6th item titled “When Social Democracy Was Vibrant” that looked back fondly at the German Social Democracy of the late 1800s when it formed gymnastics associations and cycling clubs, choir societies and chess clubs. I can understand the spirit in which the article was written since I had the same feelings about the CPUSA of the Popular Front era when it was providing support for Orson Wells’s Mercury Theater and drawing composers like Aaron Copland into its orbit. You can make a distinction between such contributions like these and voting for Democrats unless you are incapable of dialectical thinking (hint, that is Norton’s Achilles Heel).

The article, written by Adam J. Sacks, includes this judgment on the SPD toward the very end of the article:

World War I ended all of that. Succumbing to the militarism sweeping the continent, SPD parliamentarians voted for war credits to fund the barbaric conflict. Though they initially tried to justify the war as an act of humanitarian intervention on behalf of the oppressed peoples of the tsarist regime — and an antiwar faction soon declared independence from the party — the decision signaled the death knell of the Second International. The leading light of socialism had turned its back on the bedrock principle of proletarian internationalism.

You’d think this would be enough to protect the author and Jacobin from Norton’s curses but anybody who has been following his deceitful, Judith Miller-type reporting over the past two years should be used to this by now. No, it wasn’t enough to denounce the SPD parliamentarians voting for war credits in 1914. You also had to take a position on choirs, gyms, chess clubs and the like. Unless you took the correct position on the Ruy Lopez opening, you were providing cover for the SPD sending “millions of workers to die for capitalist empire in World War I.”

Since Sacks’s article begins by extolling an SPD rally from 1889, a date by which it had become beyond the pale of revolutionary socialism, you’d think that Norton might have taken the trouble to explain how the Erfurt Program adopted by the party just two years later could have had such a profound effect on Lenin. In 1899, Lenin wrote a draft program for the Russian Social Democracy that demonstrated him falling short of Norton’s lofty standards:

Here a few words are in order on our attitude to the Erfurt Programme. From what has been said above it is clear to everyone that we consider it necessary to make changes in the draft of the Emancipation of Labour group that will bring the programme of the Russian Social-Democrats closer to that of the German. We are not in the least afraid to say that we want to imitate the Erfurt Programme: there is nothing bad in imitating what is good, and precisely to day, when we so often hear opportunist and equivocal criticism of that programme, we consider it our duty to speak openly in its favour.

If you’ve read Lars Lih, you’re probably aware that Kautsky was the main inspiration for Lenin’s Bolshevik Party and that Lenin continued to consider himself a disciple of Kautsky until the differences over the October revolution produced Lenin’s excoriating polemics. However, there are also indications that when it came to the debate between Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky in the German Social Democracy, Lenin found himself on Kautsky’s side occasionally as pointed out by Leon Trotsky in a 1932 article titled “Hands off Rosa Luxemburg”:

In Rosa Luxemburg’s struggle against Kautsky, especially in 1910–1914, an important, place was occupied by the questions of war, militarism and pacifism. Kautsky defended the reformist program, limitations of armaments, international court, etc. Rosa Luxemburg fought decisively against this program as illusory. On this question, Lenin was in some doubt, but at a certain period he stood closer to Kautsky than to Rosa Luxemburg. From conversations at the time with Lenin I recall that the following argument of Kautsky made a great impression upon him: just as in domestic questions, reforms are products of the revolutionary class struggle, so in international relationship it is possible to fight for and to gain certain guarantees (“reforms”) by means of the International class struggle. Lenin considered it entirely possible to support this position of Kautsky, provided that he, after the polemic with Rosa Luxemburg, turned upon the Rights (Noske and Co.).

Norton clearly has an inability to grasp things dialectically. He is much more comfortable seeing things in black and white. Not only was the Bolshevik Party a direct descendant of the German Social Democracy, the German Social Democracy itself had its own divisions in which Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg were on the same side against Eduard Bernstein, the father of the “revisionism” that is manifest today in the Swedish social democracy et al. Yet this same Eduard Bernstein was one of the authors of the Erfurt Program that Lenin imitated by his own admission.

In general, I find terms such as “Kautskyist”, “reformist” “revisionist”, “petty bourgeois” and “treacherous” a dead giveaway that those using them have an inability to develop a substantive critique of their opponents in a debate. Blanket characterizations generally reflect a preference for the cleaver–the preferred tool of the politically feebleminded–over the scalpel.

The question of German social democracy is complex. While those unfamiliar with German social democratic history like Norton tend to fixate on the assassination of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, there were indications that the party was by no means as compromised as Norton would have you believe. In fact, his knee-jerk dismissal of the German social democracy is what was prevalent in the German Communist Party at the time when Lenin sought to bring the ultraleft back down to earth through the united front tactic.

In the Fall of 1923, Germany had entered a pre-Revolutionary situation. French occupation of the Ruhr, unemployment, declining wages, hyperinflation and fascist provocations all added up to an explosive situation. The crisis was deepest in the heavily industrialized state of Saxony where a left-wing social democrat named Erich Zeigner headed the government. He called for expropriation of the capitalist class, arming of the workers and a proletarian dictatorship. This man, like thousands of others in the German workers movement, had a revolutionary socialist outlook but was condemned as a “Menshevik” in the German Communist press.

After he took office on October 10, 1923, Zeigner brought two members of the Communist Party into his government. Because of this, he was deposed 19 days later by Germany’s social democratic president Friedrich Ebert, the man Norton equates to Bhaskar Sunkara.

The Russians intervened in Germany to get the Communists to overcome their hatred of the social democracy and join with Zeigner’s forces to overthrow Ebert. Unfortunately, the workers were not so eager to join an offensive that was ill-prepared. It was over basically before it began. The German Communists, the Comintern, and the Social Democrats pretty much share equal blame. Today, there is a new accounting for this historic defeat that was an important part of Hitler’s rise. For those seeking to understand it, I strongly recommend Pierre Broué’s “The German Revolution, 1917-1923”, available from Haymarket.

It was the failure of the left to become unified in Germany in the 1920s that led to the eventual triumph of Nazism. We are dealing with terrible divisions today that must be overcome if we are to provide an alternative to the two-party system. Despite my criticisms of the Jacobin/DSA “inside-outside” electoral strategy, I regard the growth of a leftwing party made up of young people to be one of the most hopeful signs of an emerging revolutionary movement. I have no problems with criticizing the DSA or Jacobin but Ben Norton’s tantrum serves nothing else but his own fragile ego.

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