Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.

Screen Shot 2017-12-14 at 6.45.43 PM

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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