Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 2, 2020

Eric Blanc, Leo Panitch, and the Popular Front

Filed under: Biden,Fascism,Lenin,parliamentary cretinism,Popular Front,Spain — louisproyect @ 9:51 pm

Toward the end of the stellar Cosmonaut interview with August Nimtz on Lenin’s views about electoral politics, the principals try to relate it to the current day. They concur that there’s more than a whiff of Popular Front nostalgia in the air with support for Biden symbolizing the kind of class-collaborationism that Lenin spent his entire career opposing.

Just a day after listening to the podcast, I read an interview that probably would have had Lenin spinning in his tomb fast enough to supply electricity in Moscow for a year if a transformer had been attached to his toe. Eric Blanc, today’s leading exponent of neo-Kautskyism, interviewed Leo Panitch, a Canadian professor emeritus who has co-edited the prestigious Socialist Register journal since 1985.

Titled “How Can Socialists Help Stop Trump?”, the interview was Blanc’s attempt to get benediction from Panitch for supporting a vote for Biden. I have no idea what Blanc’s religious background is but Panitch is a Jew like me and in the world of Marxism amounting to something like a powerful rabbi. For orthodox Jews, there are always knotty problems on how to interpret Talmudic law. Can you push a baby stroller on the Sabbath, a young couple might ask the rabbi. Stroking his long white beard, he’d reply “Only within the eruv.” (The eruv is a rope strung around an orthodox Jewish neighborhood, where exceptions to strict Talmudic law are permitted.)

Like the young Jewish couple, Eric Blanc was asking for dispensation:

I would love to hear your take on the question of whether or not socialists should be voting and/or campaigning for Joe Biden.

For me, I’ve really had a hard time squaring the circle on this, because on the one hand, it seems clear to me that another Trump presidency would be a disaster for our side and, on the other hand, I don’t really clearly see how we can advocate a vote for Biden without going against the grain of our overall project of class formation, trying at all times to polarize and organize workers versus bosses. Maybe the best we can say is that this presidential moment is so exceptional that we should make an exception to our general socialist electoral strategy?

Going against the grain of our overall project, indeed. As a leading member of the DSA, Blanc was effectively ignoring the democratic decision at its last convention to only back Sanders. In the Nimtz interview, there’s a useful discussion of democratic centralism that reminds us of its original intent. It was to make sure that the Bolshevik parliamentarians complied with decisions made democratically by the rank-and-file. Afterward, Stalin ripped out the heart of democratic centralism and turned it into a formula for keeping the rank-and-file under his thumb. In the social democratic world, you didn’t have the same kind of repression. Socialist leaders were permitted to take whatever position they felt like, just as is the case with Eric Blanc’s support for Biden.

Panitch offers absolution in the form of a reference to the electoral formation that was hegemonic in the 1930s for the left:

For the time being, in every electoral cycle, you’ll face that dilemma. But right now, we are facing an increasingly dangerous development, which isn’t simply Trump, but also the explicitness and assertiveness of his supporters – his vanguard. And in this kind of moment, you do have to adopt a Popular Front position vis-à-vis the election.

That said, it doesn’t mean that you set aside or even need to apologize for taking this stance. To the contrary, it means you use the reasons you took that approach as a means to go on and organize the class as the Communists did in the 1930s under the Popular Front – more effectively actually than they were doing during their “Class Against Class” line in the beginning of the Depression. And the way you do that is to say, “look, the greatest danger of re-electing Trump is the closure of organizing space, the closure of political space” – which would significantly reduce our chances to do the class formation we need to.

It is highly revealing that Panitch sees the electoral choices adopted by the left as binary in nature. Either you used the “class against class” line of the CP or the Popular Front line that replaced it. The “class against class” line was a reference to Third Period Stalinism that helped Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. In the late 20s, the CP regarded the SP as “social fascists”, just as bad as the Nazis.

In 1931 the Nazis utilized a clause in the Weimar constitution to oust a coalition government in the state legislature of Prussia. Prussia was a Social Democratic stronghold.  The Communists at first opposed the referendum, but their opposition took a peculiar form. They demanded that the Social Democrats form a bloc with them at once. When the Social Democratic leaders refused, the Communists put their support behind the Nazi referendum, giving it a left cover by calling it a “red referendum”. They instructed the working class to vote for a Nazi referendum.  The referendum was defeated, but it was demoralizing to the German working-class to see Communists lining up with Nazis to drive the Social Democrats out of office.

A year later Hitler was in power and began rounding up Communists. This disaster forced the Kremlin to revise tactics. In May 1934, a Pravda article reversed Kremlin policy and urged cooperation between the SP and the CP. A year later, the reorientation was formalized at the Comintern Congress. The new policy was called the “The People’s Front Against Fascism and War”. It went further than the Pravda article. It endorsed electoral coalitions that included bourgeois parties as well. As long as they were antifascist, the Communists would unite with them in a government. The Second International was happy to join forces with the CP since they had been class-collaborationist all along. Indeed, it was their support for Paul Von Hindenburg, the Joe Biden of the Weimar Republic, that was responsible for Hitler becoming Der Fuhrer.

What’s absent from Panitch’s bird’s eye view of the period was acknowledgement of an alternative to both disastrous policies. In the early 20s, after a botched ultraleft attempt by the CP to take power in Germany, Lenin proposed a united front between the CP and the SP. He purloined this idea from Paul Levi whose proposals for such a policy effectively led to his ostracism in the German CP. When he took his complaints public, he was expelled with Lenin’s blessing—unfortunately.

Most of the Leninist left views the united front as a tactic that only allowed common actions between the two mass working-class parties, such as demonstrations. However, the Comintern also conceived of a workers and farmers government that while still ruling over capitalist property relations could begin moving forcefully to their overturn. Whatever the theory, a coalition government of the CP and SP in Germany in 1931 could have spared the lives of six million Jews and millions of other people enduring the barbarism of WWII. History dealt us a bad hand. Was the Popular Front an effective block against fascism, as Panitch unfortunately argues?

While this article is not the place to review the Popular Front in any detail, a few things are worth pointing out.

In Spain, a classic example of the Popular Front involving participation by two bourgeois parties, the government did not take steps to overturn capitalist property relations, largely because Stalin was trying to placate “antifascist” governments in France, the USA and England that would have objected.

After Franco began his counter-revolutionary war against the Spanish Republic, his army included Moroccan troops who resented the Popular Front’s refusal to grant their country national independence. George Padmore, an African-American Marxist who broke with the CP over the Comintern’s scuttling of support for colonized peoples in favor of alliances with liberal imperialist governments, wrote a scathing article titled “Why Moors Support Franco” in the May 20, 1938 New Leader that has some bearing on Joe Biden’s long-standing racist politics, especially his backing for the 1994 Crime Bill that led to the mass incarceration that has led to 34 percent of Blacks being behind bars in 2014 despite being 13 percent of the US population.

Why Moors Support Franco

Much has been written about the Moors in various sections of the Left-Wing Press in this and other countries. They have been called the “scum of the earth,” “black riff-raff,” “mercenaries,” and other such names.

It seems rather strange that the people who use these epithets conveniently forget that these unfortunate Africans are as much the victims of a social system as Europeans, who are forced by sheer economic necessity into the armed forces of the Capitalist States and used by the imperialists to shoot down unarmed and defenceless natives in the colonies in the name of “democracy” and “law and order.”

It is not the politically backward Moors who should be blamed for being used by the forces of reaction against the Spanish workers and peasants, but the leaders of the Popular Front, who, in attempting to continue the policy of Spanish Imperialism, made it possible for Franco to exploit the natives in the service of Fascism.

The British workers have much to learn from this tragic affair, which every revolutionary Socialist, regardless of race or nationality, must deplore.

No people have had to pay such a price for Empire as the Spanish workers. It should be a warning to the French and British workers whose ruling classes control the largest Empires.

Following the American war of 1898, Spain turned to Africa in the hope of recouping there the loss of her West Indian and Pacific colonies. But it was too late. Most of the Continent was already shared out. However, in 1912, France granted her a small strip of North-Eastern Morocco as a bribe for her support against Germany.

But it was not until after the World War that an attempt was made to establish control of the hinterland. In 1921, Abdel Krim organised a revolt of the Riffs against this penetration. The Spanish garrison at Anual was completely wiped out. The Riffs swept everything before them. The prestige of Spain suffered a terrible blow.

The Military High Command called for revenge. As a preliminary step, the military caste suppressed the Spanish constitution and set up a dictatorship under Primo de Rivera in 1923. Thus, in order to enslave the Moors, the yoke was first tightened around the necks of the Spaniards: which confirms what Lenin says, “No people oppressing other peoples can be free.”

In the following year Spain and France combined against the Moors. Abdel Krim surrendered in 1926 and was banished to Madagascar. In those days the Communist International, especially its French section, was in the vanguard of the struggle on behalf of the Riffs. Today not a voice is raised on behalf of Abdel Krim. But the Moors have not forgotten their valiant leader rotting on an island in the Indian Ocean.

Had the Popular Front Government, immediately it assumed office, issued decrees granting the colonial peoples economic and political reforms as a gesture towards self-government and appealed for their support against Franco, it would have been assured.

For the Moors have no particular ideological interest in Fascism. They, like most colonial peoples, are not concerned with the conflicting political conflicts going on in Europe. To them all whites are alike – a feeling which can hardly be otherwise when Labour and Popular Front Governments oppress and exploit them in the same way as Tory and other reactionary Capitalists. It is only the more politically advanced colonial workers who are able to make a distinction between the white oppressors and the white oppressed.

Not until the European workers’ movements, especially in countries with great empires like Britain and France show more solidarity in deeds and not words will this distrust and suspicion be removed.

Economic misery and starvation also made it possible for the Fascists to recruit natives. All of the most fertile regions of Morocco have been confiscated and given to Spanish colonists. The majority of the tribesmen eke out an existence tilling small lots of land in the most primitive fashion. Others are engaged in pastoral occupations. But they have no means of disposing of their livestock. Since Spain is the only market, preference is given to the Spanish settlers whenever there is a demand for cattle and eggs – the only two commodities exported. The result is that thousands of natives have drifted from their villages into the coastal settlements and towns, where they beg in the bazaars.

The industrial workers are engaged in the iron ore mines at Melilla, but their condition is hardly any better than the peasants. The average wage is about 6d. per day at the present rate of exchange!

With no industries to tax and a large army and bureaucracy to maintain, the Spanish authorities in Morocco endeavour to augment the annual subsidy provided by the home Government by saddling the natives with heavy taxes. Those unable to pay have their lands and cattle confiscated.

Commenting upon the economic situation, Senor Vicens, advisor to the Popular Front Government, in an interview with “Opportunity” (March, 1938), said that “Crops were very bad last year and the misery of the people has been terrible ever since. To many of them the war was a godsend: it meant an offer of work with a promise of pay.

“The first Moors brought into Spain for this war were already in the colonial military formations. They were regular soldiers, ordered by their commanding offers to serve in Spain. The chiefs and officers being Fascists, they were ordered out on the Fascist side.

“Though many of them had no particular desire to come to Spain at that time, they had no choice in the matter – any more than any other colonial troops have any choice as to when and where they are to fight.”

Asked to explain why the Popular Front Government failed to make some gesture of independence to the Moors, Senor Vicens replied:

“The Republicans would have granted autonomy to Morocco readily, long ago, except that France would not permit it. France was fearful of the effect on her adjoining African colonies. As soon as Morocco had become an independent State the French colonies would have demanded their liberation and independence. France was not ready to grant them this, and we were bound to France by a spirit of co-operation.”

It is the Spanish workers and peasants, on the one hand, and the Moors, on the other, who are paying with their lives for this treachery.

This is the price of Popular Front Government in Spain and in France! British workers beware!

October 28, 2020

August Nimtz on Lenin and “lesser evil” voting

Filed under: Lenin,liberalism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 9:51 pm

I can think of no other scholar who has written more about Lenin’s electoral strategy than August Nimtz, an ex-SWPer who has taught at the University of Minnesota for many years. I got in touch with him a while back when I first ran into the argument that Lenin was an advocate of “lesser evil” politics because he approved of a bloc with the Cadets in the second round of the Duma elections. It might have been prompted by Kasama Project’s Mike Ely reference to this tactic or somebody else trying to justify voting for a Democrat. The most recent use of Lenin’s articles was in Eric Blanc’s article in Socialist Worker newspaper advocating a vote for Sanders and now for Biden. August sent me a copy of his “Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905” that I highly recommend. According to Amazon, the paperback edition is out of print but fortunately you can buy a copy from Haymarket.

This is the relevant section:

“SPLITTING THE VOTE” AND THE “BLACK HUNDRED DANGER”: THE LESSER OF EVILS CONUNDRUM

In his pamphlet Lenin addressed for the first time an issue that has bedeviled many a working-class party in multiparty elections—the “danger of splitting the vote.” Marx and Engels first raised the issue in their Address. In calling for the proletariat to put forward its own candidates in elections, even though “there is no prospect whatever of their being elected . . . they must not allow themselves to be bribed by such arguments of the democrats . . . that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and giving the reactionaries the possibility of victory. The ultimate purpose of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. The advance which the proletarian party is bound to make by such independent action is infinitely more important than the advantage that might be incurred by the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.” To these kernels of wisdom, Lenin added the necessary body.

The “few reactionaries” Lenin had to deal with were the fascist-like “pogrom mongers,” the Black Hundreds. And for that reason the issue of vote splitting had to be taken “seriously”: “It cannot be denied,” he admitted, that in the absence of a “bloc of the Lefts,” “Black-Hundred electors may be elected . . . And there is no doubt that the general public will take this [possibility] . . . into account; they will be afraid of splitting the vote, and because of that will be inclined to cast their votes for the most moderate of the opposition candidates.”

The first thing that had to be taken into account, he said, was “the present electoral system in Russia.” Elections were held in two to four rounds in four curia or electoral colleges, for landowners, urban dwellers, peasants, and workers. In the initial rounds the voting was for electors who eventually elected the deputies to the Duma. (The following figures make clear that due to the law of December 11, 1905, there was nothing representative about the elections: “one elector to every 2,000 voters in the landowner curia, one to each 7,000 in the urban curia, one to 30,000 in the peasant curia and one to 90,000 in the worker curia.”11 In the first round, Lenin argued, when the mass of “primary voters go to the poll,” the conundrum of vote splitting was most pronounced. In the subsequent rounds “when the elected representatives [or electors] vote, the general engagement is over; all that remains is to distribute the seats by partial agreements among the parties, which know the exact number of their candidates and their votes.” The Black Hundreds were likely only to be elected from the cities, which contributed less than 10 percent of the seats to the Duma; in the countryside the electoral process was generally nonpartisan.

So should social democracy enter into electoral agreements in the first rounds—that is, have joint lists of candidates with other parties, especially Cadets, to block the election of the Black Hundreds? For Lenin that would be a mistake: “We would undermine the principles and the general revolutionary significance of our campaign for the sake of gaining a seat in the Duma for a liberal! We would be subordinating class policy to parliamentarism instead of subordinating parliamentarism to class policy. We would deprive ourselves of the opportunity to gain an estimate of our forces. We would lose what is lasting and durable in all elections—the development of the class-consciousness and solidarity of the socialist proletariat. We would gain what is transient, relative and untrue—superiority of the Cadet over the Octobrist.”12 Furthermore, the “arithmetic possibility of splitting the vote,” he argued, based on an analysis of the returns for the First Duma, was minimal. But in later rounds, again, electoral agreements were not only permissible but necessary to block the Black Hundreds. That meant, more specifically, blocs with the Trudoviks to defeat the Cadets and blocs with the Cadets to defeat the Black Hundreds. This was Lenin’s ranking of the evils, from lesser to greater.

Given the Mensheviks’ orientation toward the Cadets—on full display in the First Duma—it is not surprising that they objected to Lenin’s call for a prohibition on electoral agreements in the first rounds of voting. Such a policy, in their view, would be an obstacle to their pas de deux with the liberals. At a party conference in Tammerfors (Tampere), Finland, November 3–7, the Menshevik-dominated Central Committee had enough delegates to adopt a resolution that allowed for electoral agreements with the Cadets in the first rounds. Because it was a conference, the decisions, as Lenin pointed out later, were only “advisory.” The Bolsheviks submitted, for discussion in local organizations, a “dissenting opinion” that reiterated their call for a ban on electoral agreements in the first rounds, but with a qualification: “Exceptions to this rule are permissible only in cases of extreme necessity and only in relation to parties that fully accept the main slogans of our immediate political struggle, i.e., those which recognize the necessity of an armed uprising and are fighting for a democratic republic. Such agreements, however, may only extend to the nomination of a joint list of candidates, without in any way restricting the independence of the political agitation carried on by the Social-Democrats.” But there was an exception to this exception: “In the workers’ curia the Social-Democratic Party must come out absolutely independently and refrain from entering into agreements with any other party.”13 If Lenin was willing to be a bit flexible on the general stricture on blocs in the first rounds of elections, that didn’t apply to the arena devoted exclusively to the proletariat—the one place where social democracy had to be pure and unadulterated in order to accurately assess its support. More than anything to date, the differences at Tammerfors revealed the collision course the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were on.

The “Black-Hundred danger,” the Mensheviks insisted, justified first-round electoral agreements with the liberal Cadets—a claim that has a very familiar ring to it for anyone acquainted with Left politics in advanced capitalist countries since the Second World War. Lenin took this head-on in “Blocs with the Cadets,” his first major writing after Tammerfors.

There were three basic “flaws” with the Menshevik argument. The first is that it assumed an alliance with the Cadets would actually lessen the Black Hundred danger. But there was nothing, he pointed out, in the track record of the Cadets that warranted such a claim. Look, he said, at their behavior in the First Duma. As a liberal-monarchist party, the Cadets were apologists for the Czar—“the known leader of the Black Hundreds. Therefore, by helping to elect Cadets to the Duma, the Mensheviks are not only failing to combat the Black-Hundred danger, but are hoodwinking the people, are obscuring the real significance of the Black-Hundred danger. Combating the Black-Hundred danger by helping to elect the Cadets to the Duma is like combating pogroms by means of the speech delivered by the lackey [Cadet] Rodichev: ‘It is presumption to hold the monarch responsible for the pogrom.’”

“The second flaw . . . is that . . . the Social-Democrats tacitly surrender hegemony in the democratic struggle to the Cadets. In the event of a split vote that secures the victory of a Black Hundred, why should we be blamed for not having voted for the Cadet, and not the Cadets for not having voted for us?” Social democrats “must not allow themselves to be bribed”—as Marx and Engels counseled in their Address—by what had always happened whenever they embarked on independent working-class political action in the electoral arena, “the howling and barking of the liberals, accusing the socialists of wanting to let the Black Hundreds in.” Why should the Cadets be allowed to pose as democrats? To the contrary, they had to be fought: “Now or later, unless you cease to be socialists, you will have to fight independently, in spite of the Black-Hundred danger. And it is easier and more necessary to take the right step now than it will be later on . . . But the real Black-Hundred danger, we repeat, lies not in the Black Hundreds obtaining seats in the Duma, but in pogroms and [field] military courts; and you are making it more difficult for the people to fight this real danger by putting Cadet blinkers on their eyes.” Ceding “hegemony in the democratic struggle to the Cadets” was to miseducate the masses and therefore disarm them in waging the “real” fight.

The “third flaw” was related to the second—“its inaccurate appraisal of the Duma and its role.” Implicit in the Mensheviks’ “tactics of partial agreement,” as they called them, was the assumption that what transpired within the elegant walls of Tauride Palace was decisive in the class struggle. Trying to utilize the “Duma as a whole, i.e. the Duma majority”— again, in their own words—was the best way for “fighting the autocratic regime.” It was just the opposite for Lenin and the Bolsheviks: “We think it is childish to imagine that the elimination of the Black Hundreds from the Duma means the elimination of the Black-Hundred danger.” The Black Hundred danger, he argued, would be overcome in the only place it could—in the streets. The Mensheviks, Lenin charged, had succumbed to “parliamentary cretinism”—not the first and not the last well-intentioned revolutionaries to have met such a fate.

Although Lenin’s answer to the vote-splitting/lesser-evil conundrum took into account the then existent electoral rules in Russia, there is nothing to suggest that it would have been qualitatively different for a different set of rules. At the heart of his position was a cost-benefit calculation informed by the assumption that what took place outside the parliamentary arena was decisive in politics. To the extent that participation in the electoral arena advanced independent working-class political action then it was worth taking part. If, however, such involvement interfered with that course, then the costs outweighed the benefits. Forming a bloc with the Cadets in the first round of elections incurred, in his view, an unjustifiable cost—the miseducation of the working class and its allies. It would be better to abstain—as the Bolsheviks did with the Bulygin Duma proposal—than to risk such an outcome. Even in the likelihood of the Black Hundreds obtaining a majority in the Duma, Lenin would have had the same answer; the Third and Fourth Dumas bear that out. However frightening that prospect might have been to some, Lenin knew that in the final analysis the “real” fight with the Black Hundreds had to take place outside Tauride Palace. “Everywhere we have a single policy: in the election fight, in the fight in the Duma, and in the fight in the streets—the policy of armed struggle. Everywhere our policy is: the Social-Democrats with the revolutionary bourgeoisie”—that is, the peasantry—“against the Cadet traitors.”14 Nothing distinguished the Bolsheviks more from the Mensheviks than that stance.

February 26, 2020

Thoughts triggered by ex-ISOers seeing the light

Filed under: electoral strategy,Lenin,reformism,Russia,two-party system — louisproyect @ 10:40 pm

On January 31st, ex-ISOer Alan Maass posted a nearly 9,500 word article on Medium that offered “a retrospective assessment of the politics of the former ISO on elections and some thoughts on socialist organization.” It boiled down to a self-criticism for his past belief that revolutionary socialists must oppose the Democratic Party on principle. Only a year and a half ago, Maass wrote an article for the ISO newspaper arguing the exact opposite. I guess a lot can change in 18 months. Must be something wrong with me, I suppose. After voting for LBJ in 1964, who promised that he would not “send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves,” that was it for me. Fifty-six years ago and I am still pissed.

Like Alan Maass, fellow born-again democratic socialist Paul Heideman also argued against supporting the DP four years ago, when he wrote an article for Jacobin titled “It’s Their Party.” It told the story of how SDS supported LBJ in 1964 as part of a realignment strategy to purge the DP of its segregationist Congressmen. He credits Max Shachtman with the realignment strategy that he described as representing “one of the high points of the struggle for social democracy in the United States.” That sounds like a pretty low bar but what do I know? This long article finally gets around to the essential point:

Any political action comes with opportunity costs, and the costs of a strategic focus on electing Democrats have been grave — from the labor movement’s inability to defend itself against attacks from “their” party to antiwar movements that disappear when a Democrat comes to office.

Unlike Maass, Heideman never came out with a mea culpa. Instead, without any fanfare, he resurfaced in 2019 as a full-blooded Sandernista, indistinguishable from any other Jacobin author. He even goes further. He advises Sanders against defining himself as a “good socialist” as opposed to a bad socialist like Maduro or Castro. It is best to avoid those divisive questions about what capitalism or socialism from some pedantic standpoint as if it really mattered. Instead, just equate socialism with all the great things that have sprung up under Democratic Party rule:

He should point to the long line of policies that have been denounced as socialist and are now bedrock institutions of American life. Social Security? They called it socialist. Unions? A socialist project. Medicare? A socialist takeover of health care.

Yeah, sure. Who would want to get into such boring and irrelevant matters such as the right of American companies to have more money than entire countries. Walmart, for example, had revenue of $486 billion in 2017, out-earning the sixth-largest economy in the euro zone – Belgium, with a GDP of $468 billion. If it were a country, Walmart would be ranked 24th in the world by GDP. Has Bernie Sanders ever questioned the right of the Walton family to own 11,503 stores and clubs in 27 countries? Not unless he wanted to be called a communist or something.

Ex-ISOer Danny Katch is another fellow traveler on the Road to Damascus. Understanding that brevity is the soul of wit, Katch takes only 1,225 words to let Indypendent readers know that even though the Democratic Party is undemocratic, the path to making it democratic runs through the trail blazed by Bernie Sanders and “the squad”.

If Sanders becomes president, he would have to try to democratize the Democrats as part of the fight to enact his agenda without disastrous compromises. If these efforts fail to redeem an irredeemable party, they could at least start a national conversation about the long-overdue creation of a legitimate U.S. socialist party.

Even more emphatic than Maass and Heideman, Katch wrote an article in 2016 titled “Why I Won’t Be Voting For Bernie” that gave me hope that the ISO would become the badly needed pole of attraction needed for a mass socialist movement. As should be obvious by now, the comrades wilted under the pressure generated by the DSA. It makes me wonder how committed the comrades ever were to the task of strengthening the class independence of the left.

Katch’s article makes points identical to those I have been making in recent weeks on Facebook where it seems like 75 percent of my “friends” are gung-ho over Bernie Sanders:

I have enthusiastically felt the Bern this past week, without ever questioning my decision to not vote for him (or Clinton) in the Democratic primary tomorrow.

Not because Sanders’s isn’t “radical enough” for me–although I do consider his version of socialism to be more like old-fashioned liberalism, especially his unquestioning support for the right of the U.S. to bomb and invade other countries.

But if a candidate with Sanders’ platform were running as an independent, I would strongly consider supporting the campaign and working within it to try to push it further to the left. Bernie is running as a Democrat, however, and like other members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), I don’t vote for the Democratic Party (or the Republicans) as a matter of principle.

What exactly did Katch mean by “principle”? What do Marxists regard as principles? Every so often, these questions come to the fore. In 2017, the DSA had a bit of a scandal on its hands when it was discovered that Danny Fetonte, a newly elected member of their National Political Committee, was a longtime organizer for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT)—the largest organization representing Texas cops. He stepped down subsequently.

Crossing a picket line is also a matter of principle. Under no circumstances should socialists cross a picket line. This question divided the left in 1968 when both the Trotskyist SWP and the Maoist PLP took the side of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville administrators in New York who were trying to purge racist teachers from their schools. When Albert Shanker organized a strike to keep them in place, it was necessary to side with those fighting for community control.

Socialists have also opposed on principle settling disputes in the capitalist courts. Even when one group libels another, it is very rare for the aggrieved party to file a suit. Closely related to this is the principle that you should not use violence within the movement. Back in the 60s, this was a major problem since the Maoist groups and Larouche arrogated to themselves the right to use violence since their adversaries were supposedly outside the movement.

When it comes to voting for bourgeois parties, it becomes a bit more complicated. To start with, those on the left looking for an escape clause from the burdensome task of swimming against the stream. After all, it takes a lot of backbone, if not stubbornness, to resist the seductive popularity of an FDR or a Bernie Sanders. There’s always the precedent of the IWA, the first socialist international, sending congratulations to Abraham Lincoln for his electoral victory. If opposing capitalist parties is a principle, how could Marx and Engels endorse Lincoln? Keep in mind that they were on record of calling for workers to run their own candidates in 1850 in an address to an early communist group:

Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled.

As I have said, Marx and Engels were on solid grounds congratulating Lincoln but were far from grasping the complex relationship of class and racial forces during the Civil War. They saw Lincoln as completing what amounted to a bourgeois revolution that would put the workers of the north in a better position to build a socialist movement. When the abolitionists lined up with Victoria Woodhull, Marx and Engels threw their considerable weight behind her rival Friedrich Sorge who saw the Irish immigrant worker as more crucial to the revolutionary movement than the emancipated blacks. Suffice it to say that Marx and Engels were not close enough to the situation to anticipate how convenient it was for Republicans to abandon black people by 1877. In any case, by the time Reconstruction ended, it should have been obvious that the two-party system was well on its way to maintaining its stranglehold on American politics.

That is why Engels saw any challenge to the two-party system as critical, even when it came to the election campaign of Henry George who clearly had no clue about the abc’s of socialism. In a letter to the clueless Friedrich Sorge in 1886, Engels made the case for backing a “confused and highly deficient” party set up under the banner of Henry George:

The rottenest side of the K. of L. [Knights of Labor] was their political neutrality, which resulted in sheer trickery on the part of the Powderlys, etc. [Terrence Powderly was the head of the Knights of Labor]; but this has had its edge taken off by the behaviour of the masses at the November elections, especially in New York. The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organisation of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party. And this step has been taken, far more rapidly than we had a right to hope, and that is the main thing. That the first programme of this party is still confused and highly deficient, that it has set up the banner of Henry George, these are inevitable evils but also only transitory ones. The masses must have time and opportunity to develop and they can only have the opportunity when they have their own movement–no matter in what form so long as it is only their own movement–in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn wisdom by hurting themselves.

You’ll note that Engels speaks of “The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organisation of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party.” This, in other words, is a restatement of what he and Marx advised in 1850. It might even be said that the endorsement of Lincoln was something of an outlier, but hardly equivalent to backing any other Republican following his death.

I’d make the case that it took the German and Russian socialist movements to fully come to terms with a principled basis for electoral politics. In Germany, the socialists were divided between Marxists and Lassalleans. The Marxists advocated a revolutionary struggle against the capitalist state, while Lassalle’s followers (he died in a duel in 1864) sought concessions from the state, especially when it was led by an enlightened politician like Otto Von Bismarck. While most leftists today, including Bernie Sanders, regard the New Deal as virtually synonymous with socialism, it might be argued that Bismarck was as progressive as FDR, if not more so. In volume four of Hal Draper’s “Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution”, you can see how willing Bismarck was to support progressive measures as a way of undermining the revolutionary left:

In 1883 a Sickness Insurance Act was passed, with the workers contributing only a third of the cost. In 1884 an Accident Insurance Law followed, with costs borne by employers alone. In 1889 an Old Age and Disability measure was adopted. In 1903 came a code of factory legislation, with a system of labor exchanges to promote employment. Many of these measures were the first of their kind in the world; by the time of the world war Germany had become the model land of advanced social legislation, under the pressure of the absolutist state, not the bourgeoisie.

Perhaps if Bismarck had not been so determined to crush the Socialist Party, Lassalle’s ideas would have gotten a bigger foothold. Leaving aside Kautsky’s problematic understanding of how a revolution might be possible, you at least have to give him credit for seeing the need for class independence. In chapter five of “The Erfurt Program”, his call for independent political action on a principled class basis can hardly be mistaken for the “dirty break” policies advanced in his name:

The interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie are of so contrary a nature that in the long run they cannot be harmonized. Sooner or later in every capitalist country the participation of the working-class in politics must lead to the formation of an independent party, a labor party.

At what moment in its history the proletariat of any particular country will reach the point at which it is ready to take this step, depends chiefly upon its economic development. In some degree, also, it depends upon two other conditions, the insight of the working-class into the political and economic situation and the attitude of the bourgeois parties toward one another.

When you keep in mind that Lenin’s chief goal was to build a party in Czarist Russia that lived up to the example of the German social democracy, you can easily understand why he would be so adamantly opposed to forming blocs with the Cadets as advocated by the Mensheviks. Certainly, the Erfurt Program was uppermost in Lenin’s mind when he proposed a program for the Russian movement in 1899 that openly stated, “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 want to understand the differences between those on the left today who see the question of support for a bourgeois party on a principled rather than a tactical basis, the best place to start is with Lenin’s polemics against the Mensheviks. With all proportions guarded, the Cadets were the Democratic Party of Czarist Russia consisting of a liberal, modernizing section of the bourgeoisie that hoped to see an end to the monarchy but without the resolve needed to lead a bourgeois revolution. Lenin hoped to push the Cadets aside and lead such a revolution (it turned out to require a working-class leadership) but had to deal with the Mensheviks who saw the Cadets as allies.

The Mensheviks considered Lenin to be impractical and obstinate. Like Jacobin today that views a Nordic model as the only feasible socialism for a country in which revolution is no longer possible, the Mensheviks set their sights low. It would take an extended period of enlightened bourgeois rule to allow the working-class movement to gather the strength it needed to gain power.

While undoubtedly the ex-ISOers would never accept the idea that they are the counterparts of the Russian Mensheviks, their rallying around the Sandernista banner leads this observer to believe that they find it much easier to swim with the current. In a 1906 polemic against the Mensheviks, Lenin refers to the possibility that they are wilting under the pressure of a much larger, wealthier and legally unfettered capitalist party: “But what about the bourgeois opportunists? They own a press ten times larger than that of the Social-Democrats and the Socialist-Revolutionaries put together.” I imagine if Lenin were alive today, he would coolly appraise the democratic socialist wing of the Democratic Party, with the massive coverage it gets in the bourgeois press, and still insist that we stick to our principles.

Just as 1914 threw socialism into a crisis across Europe, you can expect a convergence of late capitalist decrepitude and political routinism on the left to create a fertile ground for the kind of revolutionary socialism that is no longer fashionable. My recommendation is to stick to your principles, comrades, since they are the only way you will be able to be effective in a period when the walls start caving in around us.

November 28, 2019

Notes on the International Socialism Project

Filed under: democratic centralism,ISO,Lenin — louisproyect @ 10:01 pm

Today I had a chance to review the International Socialism Project website that was launched primarily by former ISO members associated with the old guard: Paul D’Amato, Patrick Gallagher, Sharon Smith, Ahmed Shawki, Bridget Broderick, Lance Selfa, and Carole Ramsden. In addition to this group, there are two former members of Socialist Action—Adam Shils and Carrie Hewitt—that agree with their “socialism from below” perspective. While the ISO voted to liquidate itself this year, SA instead suffered a split, largely it appears over the “tankie” perspective associated with its Grand Poobah Jeff Mackler. At the time of the ISO liquidation, I had high hopes that a new network of revolutionary socialists might be born under the leadership of people like Todd Chretien. I had no idea at the time that Chretien was about to become a DSAer and not even a critical one. His breathless paean to Bernie Sanders on FB might have even been rejected by Jacobin for going overboard.

As it happens, the International Socialism Project website was close to what I expected to come out of the ISO wreckage. Despite Sharon Smith’s convoluted attempt to absolve the old guard’s handling of the rapes that Chretien’s faction took a proper stance on, it is her politics that I identify with. Given the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” seed-pod that seems to have replaced the Todd Chretien I once admired with a glassy-eyed Sandernista, I have to give critical support to this new attempt to reconstitute a revolutionary socialist movement. As is also the case with Left Voice, an attempt to build a Morenoite party in the USA, there are questions about whether they have a grasp of the organizational norms that are appropriate for the period. That being said, they have the Democratic Party question right.

Two articles reminded me of why I always valued the ISO despite the Sam Farber hogwash. Lance Selfa wrote a reply to Paul Le Blanc’s autopsy on the ISO titled “What happened to the International Socialist Organization?: A political assessment” that demonstrates the old guard’s commitment to socialist principles even if it still fails to come to terms with the “Leninist” baggage that helped to deepen the crisis in the ISO. The same mixture of wisdom and confusion exists in Paul D’Amato’s “Principles, strategy, culture, and revolutionary organization” that, like Selfa’s article, steps gingerly around the “revolutionary organization” question despite its title.

Turning first to Paul D’Amato’s article, it originated as an ISO convention document that explained the role of “socialists” in the Democratic Party. For many on the left, the idea of “radical” Democrats is a novelty. Having lived through the sixties, I saw many DP politicians with credentials as solid as A. O-C’s even if they didn’t bother to call themselves socialists. In NYC, Ted Weiss and Bella Abzug were outstanding. They could always be called upon to speak at an antiwar rally or to raise hell in Congress against Republican or Democrat war-maker alike.

A lot younger than me, D’Amato looks at a more recent example of this Democratic Party leftism:

While many seem to think the election of Tlaib and AOC represents something entirely new, this isn’t true. The path from participation in radical social movements to Democratic Party politics has been tread many times and in many eras of US history. Those who have done it don’t see this path as selling out, but as a logical step in a process of trying to make a difference.

Take one example, Luis Gutierrez, who served as a US representative for US 4th Congressional district for Illinois from 1993 to 2019. As his Wikepedia entry states:

Of Puerto Rican descent, he is a former supporter of Puerto Rican independence, and the Vieques movement. Gutiérrez is also an outspoken advocate of workers’ rights, LGBT rights, gender equality, and other liberal and progressive causes.

I have personally seen Luis Guttierez deliver speeches that are every bit as radical as Tlaib or Ocasio-Cortez. Some comrades seem to think that AOC’s attendance at rallies and sit-ins is something new. It is not. Progressive and liberal Democrats have been doing it for a long time. Jesse Jackson has been attending protests, and getting arrested at them, for decades. Luis Gutierrez was arrested several times in protests and civil disobediences—in protests on the island of Vieques, PR, in protests and marches for amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and in defense of the Dream Act and other immigrant rights issues. His most recent arrests were in August and September of 2017 at the White House and at Trump Tower in Chicago.

That of course didn’t prevent him from being a strong backer of Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel and Hilary Clinton in her 2016 election bid. Being the consummate political maneuverer, his last act being an end of the wire announcement of his retirement in order to ensure a quick succession without challenge to allow Jesus Chuy Garcia to take his place.

Referring to pod person Todd Chretien obviously, D’Amato also makes another important point:

As a long-standing member, Todd C. knows well that the reason the ISO has not supported Sanders is not based on our criticisms of his support for building a fighter jet in his home state, or because his radicalism doesn’t reach very far beyond support for a stronger welfare system, but because he is running as a Democrat and is helping to increase the electoral fortunes of that party. It is therefore indicative of a political shift that he can write in an October 18 FB post that, “I campaigned for Ralph Nader twice, and he was far more objectionable than AOC in all sorts of ways.” That may be true, but our position on Democrats is not conditioned by their political positions, but on the party they represent.

This is a crucial point. When Henry Wallace ran for President in 1948, there was plenty to take issue with, especially his adaptation to the CP on the USSR. Also, Ralph Nader had plenty of fucked up positions when he ran for President especially his Jeffersonian illusions in the value of small businesses. However, going up against the two-party system makes up for any programmatic flaws. It sets an example for independent political action that might spur workers into running their own candidates. Proof of both Wallace and Nader’s value was the absolutely vicious attacks on them by the DP that made Barack Obama’s opposition to Bernie Sanders’s candidacy look tame by comparison. The two-party system is a fundamental prop of the capitalist state in the USA and any attempt to make the DP look salvageable only serves to legitimize that state in the same way that the Cadet Party in Russia propped up absolutism.

In a section of his article subtitled “Implications for our organizational forms”, D’Amato correctly defines opposition to the DP as a sine qua non for the ISO and any other revolutionary organization. While I agree with that, I am afraid that he really hasn’t thought through the “Leninism” problem. He writes: “The point being made here is not that there haven’t been cases where members have stifled discussion or read too much into questions, even if inadvertently, by aggressively asserting a position—this has happened more often than all of us would like.”

Well, “aggressively asserting a position” is not exactly the problem. Rather, it is the whole idea of defining state capitalism as the basis for Marxist rectitude. As much as I admired the ISO, I could never join an organization that made a position on the “Russian question” so central. Even when Paul Le Blanc claimed that this was no longer a defining part of the ISO program, it was still obvious that those who disagreed with Sam Farber’s critique of “the Stalinist Castro” would never feel at home in such a group. Furthermore, even on other questions peer pressure came into play just as it did in all such “Leninist” organizations. In Stalinist parties, administrative measures ensured a homogenous organization. In Trotskyist or post-Trotskyist groups like the ISO, it was always peer pressure that maintained ideological uniformity.

Following up on this line of reasoning, D’Amato wrote: “The ISO, for example, need not have a line on intersectionality, or a line on Political Marxism, or whether or not there is a tendency for the rate of profit to fall, and many other questions.” That’s pretty clear, given the lively debates on the Brenner thesis in the ISR, a magazine I sorely miss. But what about Cuba? In my view, there’s room for Sam Farber’s views and there is also room for someone coming from a Monthly Review tradition. The best thing is to unite around specific policy questions such as opposing the embargo but allow debates of more theoretical questions to take place in a party’s journal. The Cubans themselves are open to that, in fact. In the conference on Trotskyism that took place this year, there were papers given that were much closer to the ISO than to the Cuban Communist Party. It is interesting that there is more ideological diversity in Cuba than there is in these “socialism from below” groups so proud of their openness.

Turning now to Lance Selfa’s “What happened to the International Socialist Organization?: A political assessment”, it was written as a reply to Paul Le Blanc’s article of the same title. (My own commentary on Le Blanc’s article is here.)

It reveals that there was three groups in the ISO defined on their relationship to the Democratic Party. Selfa and the other people who have launched the International Socialism Project saw opposition to the DP as a bedrock basis of unity. On the opposite side was a tendency called the Socialist Tide that was gung-ho for Bernie Sanders. In the center was a grouping led by Todd Chretien that tried to mediate between the two poles. It was shortly after the ISO dissolved that Chretien revealed himself to be no different than the Socialist Tide.

In the last year of ISO’s existence, Selfa and his co-thinkers had become a minority on the ISO Steering Committee and Chretien a majority. It is clear that by pushing for liquidation, Chretien facilitated the mass entry into the DSA by just about everybody in the ISO who considered opposition to the DP an ideological straight-jacket. (It does strike me as odd that Selfa does not take note of Paul Le Blanc’s conversion into a Sandernista. Maybe Todd Chretien snuck into his bedroom when he was fast asleep and put a seed-pod at the foot of the bed.)

While I wholeheartedly support the creation of a revolutionary organization that makes class independence of the DP at its core, I do have some issues once again on the organizational question. Selfa alludes to opposition to the “Leninist” organizational methods that Paul Le Blanc has defended in numerous articles and at least one book:

The critique of the ISO’s “culture” was introduced in the pre-convention period as a rejection of the ISO’s so-called “unity of thought” in regard to questions like support for the Democratic Party. The SCMaj’s proposals for “retooling” the ISO, which were widely accepted, envisioned an organization that would grow rapidly because it would require less of individual members, including limiting branch meeting requirements to once a month, while specialized “working groups” would carry out most of the organization’s activities. This plan to adopt many of the DSA’s organizational practices promised rapid growth—as if only the ISO’s organizational “culture,” rather than the general political environment—explained DSA’s growth and revolutionaries’ difficulties during today’s “social democratic moment.” Soon, this developed into a critique of the ISO’s organizational norms that leading members—including members of the SCMaj—described as “undemocratic,” “toy Bolshevik” and reflective of marginalization in the “Trotskyist ghetto.” “Culture” became an all-things-to-all-people critique of the existing ISO that unified a Steering Committee majority bloc, and the other currents, when they were divided on other questions.

Granted that Todd Chretien’s faction was more interested in ideological retooling than anything else, it sounds to me that any new revolutionary group that Selfa et al would like to see built has to take up this question of organizational norms. This charge of “toy Bolshevik” and “Trotskyist ghetto” has to be taken seriously. Any attempt to preserve the organizational norms that Paul Le Blanc defended will lead to grief. The ISO’s politics are my politics but so are the Left Voice’s in many ways, as is the split from Socialist Action. However, all of these comrades are kidding themselves if they think mechanical applications of Bolshevism  have a future.

The truth is that despite its shitty opportunism, the DSA’s organizational norms are much more suited to the tempo of the class struggle today. There is absolutely no question in my mind that a new organization to the left of the DSA can attract tens of thousands of working class people but it has to be on a basis much more like Debs’s party or, for that matter, Lenin’s party that was not even “Leninist”. The SWP that I belonged to for 11 years and the ISO adopted norms that were introduced by Zinoviev at the 1924 “Bolshevization” Comintern conference. It is high time to retire them.

July 3, 2019

John Molyneux, Hal Draper and the organizational question

Filed under: British SWP,Lenin,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:45 pm

John Molyneux

In the July 1, 2019 edition of International Socialism, a quarterly journal of the SWP in Britain, there is a nearly 9,000 word article by John Molyneux titled “In Defense of Party Building” that defends “Leninist” norms by taking apart an article by David McNally that was posted to the ISO website as it was going through the process of dissolution. I have the impression that Molyneux’s article was meant to dissuade ISOers from building a non-sectarian network such as Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century that was formed by ex-SWPers who had left the sect in droves after a rape cover-up.

Since the ISO was going through the same kind of paroxysms as the SWP, the English group that spawned it, Molyneux likely expected a similar non-sectarian experiment in the USA. Instead, the ex-ISOers, at least those that I have been exposed to, have attached themselves to the DSA and the Sanders campaign with the same kind of zeal they used to exhibit in defense of state capitalism. Unlike the USA, Britain has a Labour Party that many on the left, including RS21 members, have become active in. It is unfortunate that within the Jacobin/DSA/ex-ISO milieu, there is a mistaken idea that Sanders has something in common with Corbyn. While it is true that both are social democrats, the Democratic Party is not a social democratic party. It is instead the world’s longest-functioning capitalist party and a graveyard for radicals trying to make a home within its bowels.

Molyneux takes issue with David McNally’s article “The Period, the Party and the Next Left” that was originally a letter written to the ISO in 2009, when the group was virtually unchallenged on the US left. Essentially, McNally urges a course that I have been advocating since I hooked up with Peter Camejo’s North Star in the early 80s. McNally draws from Hal Draper’s writings but Peter Camejo’s articles such as “Against Sectarianism” were influenced much more by the Central American left, particularly the FSLN. While Camejo remains my main influence, I have also drawn from Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s attempt to develop a non-sectarian approach in the 1950s that is still very relevant, especially Cochran’s May 1954 “Our Orientation”:

We approach all these strata, however, in the spirit of Marx’s Communist Manifesto which proclaimed that the revolutionists had no interests separate and apart from the working class, that we are not a special sect, cult, or church, which seeks to draw people out of the broad currents into its backwater, but rather as American Marxists, we seek to join with others in advancing the existing struggles to a higher stage and on a broader front. We are convinced that out of these struggles and experiences, even before big mass forces take to the field, Left currents will arise with which we shall be able to cooperate and fuse; that the American Marxist tendency, as a stronger formation than at present, will thus be able to discharge its role as a left wing in the big movement—as part and parcel of the struggle to create the mass revolutionary party in the United States. That is our perspective.

Just compare that to Hal Draper and you’ll see how a one-time Shachtmanite drew the same kind of conclusions:

The sect establishes itself on a HIGH level (far above that of the working class) and on a thin base which is ideologically selective (usually necessarily outside working class). Its working-class character is claimed on the basis of its aspiration and orientation, not its composition or its life. It then sets out to haul the working class up to its level, or calls on the working class to climb up the grade. From behind its organizational walls, it sends out scouting parties to contact the working class, and missionaries to convert two here and three there. It sees itself becoming, one day, a mass revolutionary party by a process of accretion; or by eventual unity with two or three other sects; or perhaps by some process of entry.

Marx, on the other, saw the vanguard elements as avoiding above all the creation of organizational walls between themselves and the class-in-motion. The task was not to lift up two workers here and three there to the level of the Full Program (let alone two students here and three intellectuals there!) but to go after the levers that could get the class, or sections or the class, moving as a mass onto higher levels of action and politics.

When I first got wind of the ISO’s decision to dissolve, I had high hopes that some would take McNally’s advice from 2009 about dropping the “Leninist” crap. After expressing this on FB, somebody clued me in that it didn’t work for McNally who had tried to start something based on Draper’s ideas in Canada but it folded, just as Cochran and Braverman’s Socialist Union had folded in 1959. Since such efforts are far more modest that those that are typical of “vanguard” formations, it is difficult to see them as if it were the Titanic crashing into an iceberg or the Hindenburg blowing up–apt metaphors for the SWP, both American and British.

For Molyneux, the failure of McNally or Bert Cochran to build a mass revolutionary party was vindication of his own approach, which boiled down to Zinovievism. This schematic version of Lenin’s party was always capable of consolidating a group of 1 to 2,000 members—or even more, as was the case with the British SWP until the rape crisis. What Molyneux obviously does not understand is that such groups have been around since the 1930s and fail to do very much for the simple reason that they operate under a glass ceiling. History teaches us that groups like the British SWP or the American SWP that I belonged to can consolidate around a fully articulated “program” that a zealous membership defends like Jehovah’s Witnesses but that are never embraced by the masses. For argument’s sake, as compelling as the ideas of Tony Cliff are, they can never be the foundation of a revolutionary movement since they are operate in such a narrow spectrum ideologically.

Molyneux regards much of McNally’s critique of sectarianism as based on straw-men. For example, he denies that the SWP ever believed that it was “the custodian of the authentic revolutionary tradition”, a typical sectarian nostrum. He writes:

A revolutionary Marxist organisation—group or party—will obviously try, as best it can, to embody the “authentic revolutionary tradition”, but this is entirely different from imagining that it is the “custodian” of that tradition as if it could somehow be copyrighted or deposited in the group’s bank account.

He misses the point. We are not talking about revolutionary traditions but ideology. The British SWP has made Tony Cliff’s state capitalist theory a litmus test that sets it apart from its rivals on the left. This means, for example, publishing Mike Gonzalez articles on Cuba that would make most people on the left balk at the idea of ever becoming a member. In a way, it is a reverse litmus test since it puts an obstacle in the way of convincing many radicalizing people to join. For those on the left who have not already been indoctrinated into Cliff-think, they would likely find the notion of Fidel Castro building capitalism rather nutty. Whatever the merit of such ideas, I think it is important to debate out questions such as the class nature of Cuba but only in the back pages of a theoretical journal open to a diversity of opinion.

To elevate the question of whether Che Guevara was a Stalinist to the same level as whether to support Brexit demonstrates an inability to keep your eyes on the prize. In reality, this state capitalism stuff is just a way to distinguish the SWP brand from other left groups, like detergents or soft drink advertisements. As Peter Camejo told me back in the early 80s, we have to put historical and international questions on the back burner. I should add that even when there are sharp differences on something like Syria or Ukraine, this does not mean that should be split questions. I have no problem defending my ideas on Syria in CounterPunch even though there are articles that defend Assad. Back in 1992, the National Guardian, the American radical newsweekly that no connection to the British newspaper, opened its back pages to contending analyses of the war in Bosnia. This is a model that can certainly work if we keep our eyes on the prize.

Referencing the British SWP’s various party-building experiments since its inception that ranged from its work in the Socialist Alliance to its creation of small branches that might facilitate more rapid growth, Molyneux scoffs at the idea that it was a “one-trick pony”. He writes:

Cliff in particular was always very conscious of the fact that the IS/SWP and any other would-be mass revolutionary workers’ party would have repeatedly to transform itself, its methods of work, its structures etc, in interaction with the working class in struggle, in order to get anywhere near its goal.

That might be true but what exactly was its goal other than becoming a mass Leninist party? Tony Cliff came out of Leon Trotsky’s Fourth International and absorbed all of the subterfuges that his followers perfected in pursuit of Zinovievist goals. For example, if you read James P. Cannon’s “History of American Trotskyism”, you’ll find out that he carried out an “entryist” tactic in the Socialist Party inspired by Trotsky’s “French Turn”. Other party-building tactics in later years had nothing in common with that but all of these tactics were subordinated to the goal of becoming hegemonic on the left. Cliff carried out the same kind of maneuvers himself, even taking part in an entryist project in the Labour Party of the sort that his contemporary Ted Grant carried out for decades. In my view, all such tactics are a sectarian mistake and should be abandoned once and for all.

Molyneux’s article concludes with comparisons between the SWP and other groups on the left, as well as Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, that never considers the possibility that the Zinovievist principles that he and Ted Grant or James P. Cannon were operating on entailed completely different understandings of how to build a vanguard party:

I want to stress that I’m not citing these examples to criticise the CWI, the SWP or the ISO (still less to suggest that if everybody had adopted the correct model all errors would have been avoided). Indeed, I would say it is literally impossible to engage in party building for any length of time without falling victim, in one way or another, to these opposing pressures. The Bolshevik Party itself, let us remember, was sectarian in its initial response to the Soviets in 1905, ultra-left over participation in the Duma in 1906-7 and opportunist in the first phase of the revolution in 1917. Simply getting bigger, while obviously desirable, is not in itself a protection as it may well increase the pressure of reformism. Staying small and “pure” is not a solution since the “purity” increases the likelihood of the sect mentality taking over.

He also assumes that Lenin’s “democratic centralism” operated on the same basis as the SWP:

In fact democratic centralism, though not a guarantee or panacea (there isn’t one), is the best available method of ensuring party leaders are subject to democratic control. This does not mean that in all stages of an organisation’s development and in all conditions democratic centralism should be applied in the same way. Organisational forms have to change according to changing circumstances.

He doesn’t seem to grasp the sharp differences between the Bolsheviks and all these other groups led by Tony Cliff, Peter Taaffe, Alan Woods, et al over democratic centralism. The Bolsheviks applied democratic centralism to action rather than ideas. For example, a Bolshevik deputy in the duma was expected to vote on the basis of what the party membership mandated. Also, when a strike was approved by Lenin’s party, its trade union membership was expected to throw themselves into carrying out the strike. In Zinovievist groups, it applies just as much to ideas as it does to action. It was strictly enforced in the American SWP, especially in the 1980s when it was determined to get rid of all the older cadres that still adhered to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Telling someone at a Militant Labor Forum that an article in the Militant supporting Lenin’s “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” was a mistake could get you expelled, even if you had been in the party for 30 years. This kind of thing actually happened.

In Lenin’s party, debates were carried out in public. In fact there were numerous Bolshevik newspapers, all with their own independent editorial boards that saw things their own way and wrote about them with their own perspective. Not only that, the Bolsheviks occasionally put out newspapers jointly with their supposedly worst enemies, the Mensheviks. One such newspaper was Severny Golos (Voice of the North) that called for a general strike and insurrection in 1905. Around that time the Bolsheviks were grappling with the significance of 1905. Nachalo, an official Bolshevik paper, called for a dictatorship of the proletariat while another paper Novaya Zhizn advocated a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. Now we all understand that such doctrinal differences have led to numerous splits in the Trotskyist movement, but back in the good old days it did not seem to bother Lenin very much who wrote, “But have not disagreements of this kind been observed at every socialist party in Europe.”

If public disagreements of this sort were standard in Lenin’s day, imagine how impossible it is today to keep debates bottled up internally as is the customary practice of groups like the SWP. The internal documents of the ISO and the British SWP during pre-convention always get circulated on the Internet. Maybe the only way to implement the kind of strict democratic centralism of yore is to do what the SWP did in one pre-convention discussion that involved some questions under hot dispute when I was a new, young member. They handed out numbered print copies at the beginning of the meeting and collected them at the end of the meeting. Any copy that was missing would be tracked down and that was that.

All of these measures were designed to keep the prying eyes of the rest of the left from seeing our top secrets. It was a kind of behavior that made no sense in a bourgeois democracy where conventions were frequently hosts of sharp debates over race, war, and other questions that deeply affected the citizenry. What’s needed now more than ever is transparency and accountability. Who knows? Maybe if these principles had guided the ISO and the SWP, those rape cases would have not led to wholesale defection and dissolution. Of course, the question of why groups committed to woman’s liberation were prone to sexual assaults in the first place remains unanswered.

July 1, 2019

Lars Lih versus Eric Blanc

Filed under: Jacobin,Kautsky,Lenin — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

Lars Lih, the master disowns his disciple

In what practically amounts to self-plagiarism, Lars Lih has written now what seems like the tenth article elevating Karl Kautsky’s reputation to heights not seen since the early 20th century before it was permanently damaged by his ideological scabbing on the Russian Revolution. Jacobin, the go-to place for neo-Kautskyism, has just published Lih’s “Karl Kautsky as Architect of the October Revolution”, which is meant as a corrective to his acolyte Eric Blanc’s attempt to consign Bolshevik-type revolutions to the ashbin of history. Ironically, Lih views October 1917 as a vindication of Kautsky’s writings while his disciple Blanc views those same writings as a disinfectant against the unreconstructed Leninism that stubbornly refuses to accept Bernie Sanders as the greatest revolutionary since Eugene V. Debs. In essence, Kautsky serves as a Rorschach test for the two Jacobin authors. Lih sees the image resembling Lenin and Blanc sees it as the anti-Lenin. Of course, before Blanc became so gung-ho on Democratic Party politics, his take might have been closer to Lih’s but why expect him to be consistent? After all, consistency is the hobgoblin of foolish minds.

While Lih himself has never said a word about post-1920s politics, he implicitly takes issue with Blanc’s attempt to replace Lenin with Kautsky as supreme helmsman for the revolution DSA will lead in the glorious future. Very few DSA’ers have ever read Karl Kautsky, let alone Eric Blanc, but among the Jacobin/DSA mandarins Kautsky plays the kind of role that Trotsky played for the sect I belonged to in the 1960s and 70s. If you need an excuse to re-register as a Democrat and pass out campaign brochures for Bernie Sanders, nothing tops citing Kautsky who at least never set up gulags or outlawed abortion.

Blanc’s Jacobin article “Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)” implicitly endorses Kautsky’s 1918 condemnation of the Bolshevik seizure of power in “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat”:

Following Lenin’s arguments in his 1917 pamphlet The State and Revolution, Leninists for decades have hinged their strategy on the need for an insurrection to overthrow the entire parliamentary state and to place all power into the hands of workers’ councils. In contrast, Kautsky argued that the path to anticapitalist rupture in conditions of political democracy passed through the election of a workers’ party to government.

You’ll note how similar this is to what Kautsky wrote in the early 1930s that was collected into a book titled “Social Democracy versus Communism”, long after his anti-Bolshevik stance had calcified into something resembling a Dissent Magazine article by Irving Howe:

There are people who believe that even under a democratic order Labor should utilize the methods of “revolution,” insurrection, the general strike, because, in their opinion, such methods will lead to Socialism more quickly than the casting of ballots, and that in the final analysis the opponents of Socialism in the democratic states will yield only to insurrection and the general strike.

In rejecting democracy, they go so far as to believe that a Socialist minority could achieve power by force in a democratic state. And, finally, they assert that Socialists cannot hope to attain an electoral majority even in countries where Labor represents the greatest number as long as the opponents of Socialism retain control over the economic and intellectual instruments of power.

How odd it is that a young radical like Eric Blanc can mutate ideologically into the Kautsky of the 1930s, probably without even being aware of it. One hopes that he does not lurch even further to the right. Over the past 50 years, I have seen many leftists lose their revolutionary fiber, an occupational hazard of living in the most brutally reactionary state in world history.

The word insurrection occurs repeatedly throughout Blanc’s article, a dirty word that summons up those Trotskyist Neanderthals that are as detached from reality as the eponymous hero of “Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment”, a failed artist who spends most of his day either fantasizing about being the leader of a Red Army detachment or a gorilla stomping through the rainforest.

This business about October 1917 being an “insurrection” does not fit into Lih’s schema, namely that Kautsky’s revolutionary tactics guided those of Lenin and all the other Bolshevik leaders toward the seizure of power in a massive socialist revolution based on Soviet democracy. He has made that argument many times in the past and repeats his talking points once again:

Bolshevik hegemony was not the only piece of tactical advice by Kautsky that proved crucial in 1917. In 1909, Kautsky published a small book entitled Road to Power. The Bolsheviks reacted with by now typical enthusiasm. In a glowing book review, Lenin’s closest lieutenant, Grigorii Zinoviev, brought out the book’s wide range of topics as well as its significance as a weapon of the “orthodox” against the “revisionists” — or, in Russia, the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks.

Obviously, this does not take into account Lenin’s April Theses that broke with the Second International “stagism” found not only in Kautsky’s writings but Lenin’s as well prior to 1917. As I have pointed out a number of times, Lih does not consider the April Theses a breach with Lenin’s earlier writings that advocated a democratic-bourgeois revolution but instead just another example of Kautsky’s deep influence on the Bolsheviks. That Lenin complained about “Kautskyism” seeping into Pravda articles on April 12, 1917 somehow escaped Lih’s attention. What could have prompted Lenin to take up this matter in a letter to J.S. Hanecki and Karl Radek? Alexander Rabinowitch, one of the most authoritative historians of the Russian Revolution, filled in the details:

Beginning with the March 14 issue the central Bolshevik organ swung sharply to the right. Henceforth articles by Kamenev and Stalin advocated limited support for the Provisional Government, rejection of the slogan, “Down with the war,” and an end to disorganizing activities at the front. “While there is no peace,” wrote Kamenev in Pravda on March 15, “the people must remain steadfastly at their posts, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell.” “The slogan, ‘Down with the war,’ is useless,” echoed Stalin the next day.

If Lih erred in granting Kautsky authority he did not deserve, at least he understood that the word “insurrection” was misplaced when it came to Bolshevism:

In his Jacobin article, Eric Blanc states the following: “Following Lenin’s arguments in his 1917 pamphlet State and Revolution, Leninists for decades have hinged their strategy on the need for an insurrection to overthrow the entire parliamentary state and to place all power into the hands of workers’ councils.” This remark brings together not one, but two, deep-rooted misconceptions about 1917: first, that a clash between two types of democracy — parliamentary vs. soviet — as found in the pages of State and Revolution, had anything to do with the October victory or the politics of the revolutionary year. (State and Revolution was drafted in 1917 but only published in 1918 and it is irrelevant to the events of the previous year.) Second, that the Bolsheviks took power by means of an “insurrection,” “armed uprising,” or whatever.

So, it looks like master and disciple have parted ways. I suspect that Lih had no interest in disassociating himself from Eric Blanc’s Democratic Party politics but in only fending off attempts to drive a wedge between Kautsky and Lenin. For all I know, the fact that Lih worked in Ron Dellums’s office for 6 years might have indicated that he could be just as flexible as Blanc. In an interview conducted by Dario Cankovic in the defunct North Star website, Lih hardly sounded predisposed to the kind of militancy found in the 1970s left: “My own politics—well, I don’t spend too much time thinking about them, because I’m too busy thinking about the early 20th century, you know, so I just characterise my views as vaguely left. Which I think is OK, because that means I’m sort of automatically not partisan and I think that’s good for everybody.” Vaguely left? I quite agree. In fact, the only thing he even begins to sound dead-set on is minimizing Leon Trotsky’s role in the Russian Revolution.

 

 

June 12, 2019

Charles Post, Left Voice, and the question of a labor aristocracy

Filed under: Lenin,two-party system,workers — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

Rodrigo Carrillo, a farmer in Hoja Blanca, Guatemala, says falling coffee prices mean he can no longer make a profit on the once-lucrative crop. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

On May 25th, Left Voice published an article by an Argentine Trotskyist named Matías Maiello on “Social Democracy and Imperialism: The Problem with Kautsky” that was the latest in a series of critiques of Eric Blanc, a DSA/Jacobin figure who has justified backing Democratic Party candidates on the basis of Karl Kautsky’s pre-1910 writings.

On June 5th, Charles Post responded to Maiello’s article in Left Voice, which to its credit has opened its pages to criticisms. Despite the magazine’s professions of Leninist orthodoxy, this is a departure from the norms of the American SWP that I belonged to from 1967 to 1978. Then again, the norms of the SWP might have been in violation of Bolshevik practice, given Iskra being published to further debate among socialists.

Like Maiello, Post is a critic of Jacobin’s neo-Kautskyism, even going so far as to refer to Eric Blanc as a “left reformist”. In the world occupied by Post and Maiello, the “left” that qualifies “reformist” might be regarded as damning with faint praise.

Most of Maiello’s article is an attempt to demonstrate the affinity of the German Social Democracy with the leftwing of the Democratic Party, personified by figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In either case, you are dealing with self-described socialists adapting to imperialism. This is obviously manifested by the German socialist parliamentarians voting for war credits in 1914 and Sanders voting in favor of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which called for removing “the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power.” I should note that Maiello cites my editor Jeff St. Clair of CounterPunch on Sanders’s voting record. I commend the Argentinian for his ability to keep on top of the truly radical press in the USA. This sets an example for the kind of proletarian internationalism so necessary in a “globalized” world (please excuse the tautology.)

After stating his agreement with the main thrust of the Left Voice article, Post parts company with Maiello for his alleged support for the theory of “labor aristocracy”:

We differ, however, in our analysis of the material roots of the bureaucratization of the workers movement. Maiello relies on Lenin’s notion of “labor aristocracy” to explain working-class reformism. According to Lenin, the export of productive capital from the Global North to the South since the late 19th century allowed large, “monopoly” capitalists to accrue “superprofits,” which were used to “bribe” a sector of the working class and create a labor officialdom. Thus, reformist bureaucrats defend their national imperialism in order to maintain the social basis for their relatively privileged position in the working class.

You’ll note that Post refers to Lenin’s “notion” but in the next paragraph refers to a “theory”: “Unfortunately, the theory of the labor aristocracy, in all its variants, is without factual-empirical basis and rests on questionable theoretical assumptions.” This is an important distinction and one that he neglects to clarify. In Lenin’s copious writings, there are not many references to the labor aristocracy. Probably the best known of them was his 1916 “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism”  that only refers to some letters by Engels that express his dismay over the state of the British working class: “…The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable.” Not only did Engels write this letter prior to the mature imperialism examined in Lenin’s writings but as an off-the-cuff remark without much of a “theorizing” ambition.

Once he is finished quoting from Engels and Marx’s letters, Lenin adds his own thoughts that add up to a “notion” rather than a theory:

Formerly a “bourgeois labour party”, to use Engels’s remarkably profound expression, could arise only in one country, because it alone enjoyed a monopoly, but, on the other hand, it could exist for a long time. Now a “bourgeois labour party” is inevitable and typical in all imperialist countries; but in view of the desperate struggle they are waging for the division of spoils it is improbable that such a party can prevail for long in a number of countries. For the trusts, the financial oligarchy, high prices, etc., while enabling the bribery of a handful in the top layers, are increasingly oppressing, crushing, ruining and torturing the mass of the proletariat and the semi-proletariat.

Other than this article, the only other attempt by Lenin to present his own understanding of the labor aristocracy is in the preface to the French and German edition of “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” that only contains a couple of paragraphs similar to the one above. There are several other articles that offer up a line or two but are hardly worth mentioning. My advice is to consult the Marxist Internet Archives (MIA), an invaluable resource for researching such matters.

The MIA reveals that in the entire “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, as opposed to the preface, there is not a single reference to the term. There’s a good reason for that. That 1914 work was an attempt to explain the economic basis for WWI as a conflict between monopoly capitalist powers, using J.A. Hobson as a primary source. If you are looking for a class analysis of the trade union bureaucracy and its base of support among skilled tradesmen, you won’t find it in Lenin. You only can find “notions”, to use Post’s word, but that’s about it.

If you are looking for a fully developed theory, you can find it in a 1982 pamphlet by Max Elbaum and Robert Seltzer titled “The Labour Aristocracy The Material Basis for Opportunism in the Labour Movement” that tries to bridge the gap between Lenin’s theory of imperialism and his scattered and rather minimal references to the upper layers of the working class being bribed, etc.

Elbaum and Seltzer were members of Line of March, a Maoist sect that was founded by Irwin Silber, the film critic of the defunct but essential Guardian Newsweekly. Line of March was part of a significant Maoist current in the USA that existed from 1968 or so to the mid-80s. The Maoist press wrote about “white skin privilege” and Third World revolution swamping the imperialist strongholds after a protracted People’s War, etc.

For Elbaum and Seltzer, the aristocracy is not just the workers you’d expect to be singled out, like the white construction workers who beat up antiwar protesters in 1970. It is the entire American working class that benefits from imperial bribery:

Certainly relative to the masses in the colonies and semicolonies, the entire working class in the advanced capitalist countries possesses political, economic, and cultural advantages. Just as monopoly capital consolidated the split between the labour aristocracy and the lower strata of the proletariat, it accentuated the division between workers in imperialist countries and the masses in the oppressed nations. Indeed, this latter division has often served to moderate (and obscure) the tensions between the labour aristocracy and the lower strata in imperialist countries, as both have benefited somewhat from imperialist exploitation of workers in the colonies and neocolonies. Lenin observed this phenomenon and didn’t mince words about its meaning: “To a certain degree the workers of the oppressor nations are partners of their own bourgeoisie in plundering the workers (and the mass of the population) of the oppressed nations.”

Post does not refer to this pamphlet in his Left Voice article but in 2006, he wrote a two-part article in Solidarity on “The Myth of the Labor Aristocracy” that took aim at the Elbaum/Seltzer pamphlet as well as articles written by a member of the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia that endorsed their findings. What makes this linkage interesting is the Trotskyist heritage of the DSP, which despite the name had little to do with the DSA politically. For Post, it might have seemed odd for people with the same ideological background as his to be defending nominally Maoist beliefs but not so strange in light of what Leon Trotsky had written over the years. For example, in “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay”, a 1940 sketch for an article that was never written due to his assassination, he wrote:

Hence flows the need of the trade unions – insofar as they remain on reformist positions, ie., on positions of adapting themselves to private property – to adapt themselves to the capitalist state and to contend for its cooperation. In the eyes of the bureaucracy of the trade union movement the chief task lies in “freeing” the state from the embrace of capitalism, in weakening its dependence on trusts, in pulling it over to their side. This position is in complete harmony with the social position of the labor aristocracy and the labor bureaucracy, who fight for a crumb in the share of superprofits of imperialist capitalism.

Part of the problem, of course, is the failure of Lenin or Trotsky to flesh out what they meant by a “labor aristocracy”. Is it the same as the labor bureaucracy? Evidently not, or else they wouldn’t have used two different terms.

Ironically, Post and Elbaum/Seltzer agree on the existence of a class-wide privileged layer in the imperialist heartland but draw different conclusions. Post writes:

Higher profits result in more investment across the board in the industrialized countries. More investment eventually brings a growing demand for labor (within limits set by investment in newer, more capital intensive technology), falling unemployment and rising wages for all workers in the industrialized capitalist countries.

Put simply, this means that imperialist investment in the global South benefits all workers in the global North – both highly paid and poorly paid workers. Higher profits and increased investment mean not only more employment and rising wages for “aristocratic” steel, automobile, machine-making, trucking and construction workers, but also for lowly paid clerical, janitorial, garment and food processing workers. As Ernest Mandel put it, “the real ‘labor aristocracy’ is no longer constituted inside the proletariat of an imperialist country but rather by the proletariat of the imperialist countries as a whole.” That “real ‘labor aristocracy’” includes poorly paid immigrant janitors and garment workers, African-American and Latino poultry workers, as well as the multi-racial workforce in auto and trucking.

For Post, the “bribe” is distributed across the board almost like Social Security and as such it would refute the notion that it was only hard hats with their fishing boats and 6,000 square foot houses in Suffolk County that are “aristocrats”. It would also include the janitors and garment workers, et al. This is his way of discounting the viability of this theory. On the other hand, it might explain the willingness of African-Americans to vote for Joe Biden by 46 percent as opposed to Bernie Sander’s 10 percent approval rating in the Black community.

It is always necessary to remind ourselves that Lenin wrote articles and books in the heat of the moment. Within 5 years, he referred to “What is to Be Done” as a work that was obsolete. To regard “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” as a work that can explain today’s world is a useless exercise but often taken to dismiss the idea that imperialism exists since definitionally it was next to useless. Those committed to formal logic rather than Marxist dialectics were the loudest in questioning its applicability.

In Post’s Against the Current article, he scoffs at the idea that the imperialist nations were in any way reliant on superprofits extracted from the Third World:

Imperialist investment, particularly in the global South, represents a tiny portion of global capitalist investment. Foreign direct investment makes up only 5% of total world investment – that is to say, 95% of total capitalist investment takes place within the boundaries of each industrialized country.

Of that five percent of total global investment that is foreign direct investment, nearly three-quarters flow from one industrialized country – one part of the global North – to another. Thus only 1.25% of total world investment flows from the global North to the global South. It is not surprising that the global South accounts for only 20% of global manufacturing output, mostly in labor-intensive industries such as clothing, shoes, auto parts and simple electronics.

Data for profits earned by U.S. companies overseas do not distinguish between investments in the global North and global South. For purposes of approximation, we will assume that the 25% of U.S. foreign direct investment in labor-intensive manufacturing in Africa, Asia and Latin America produces profits above those earned on the 75% of U.S. foreign direct investment in more capital-intensive production in western Europe, Canada and Japan. It is unlikely, however, that more than half of the profits earned abroad by US companies are earned in the global South.

This, of course, is consistent with his dismissal of the idea that capitalism relied on slavery in its early stages. You have to understand that his aversion to theories tainted by the Monthly Review dependency theorists and other neo-Smithians was strongly influenced by Robert Brenner whose 1977 NLR article warned against theories that called attention to how imperialism was “squeezing dry the ‘third world’”. Instead of nonsense about the core versus periphery, the cities versus the countryside, etc. the answer was in the international proletariat allying itself with the oppressed people of all countries against the bourgeoisie. Who can be opposed to that? The idea of American workers organizing a general strike against Trump’s anti-immigrant racism is inspiring, even if it is a fantasy.

Part of the problem in reducing the core-periphery relationship to one of a bribery extracted from superprofits is that it does not account for the entire ensemble of economic relationships that condemn a country like Guatemala to the desperation that drives its citizens to risk drowning in the Rio Grande or dying of thirst in the Mexican desert.

Today’s Washington Post reports that “The migration problem is a coffee problem”. It seems that falling coffee prices have driven growers into dire poverty, even when they are the owners of their own land. Now, if the USA had not intervened in Central America in the 1970s and 80s, perhaps all of Central America could have been liberated from dependency and formed socialist cartels to support prices for coffee exports that advantaged the farmers rather than Fair Trade hustlers like Starbucks, et al. This might have meant that American workers, who were addicted to coffee like me because it was the only way to take a proper shit in the morning, might have to pay $6 for a cup of coffee rather than $2. When the global South became master of its own commodities, it would have forced the American working class to decide where their loyalties should be placed. It might be possible to enjoy a cup of coffee or a banana without going broke but only if that entailed reducing the funding for the American military until it reached Costa Rica’s, namely zero.

Based on Charles Post’s analysis immediately above, you might conclude that Guatemala’s problem is one of malign neglect since American FDI in Guatemala ($1.1 billion) is dwarfed by the capital poured into Canada ($392 billion). However, this does not take into account the American support for rightwing dictators in Guatemala that have been armed and supported by both the USA and Israel for the past 60 years at least. To see American imperialism exclusively in terms of where banks finance capitalist expansion is a narrow way of understanding class relationships. Although Brenner scoffs at the notion of Andre Gunder Frank’s “the development of underdevelopment”, that is exactly the malady Guatemala and most of Latin America suffers from. I should add that it is no accident that Argentine Trotskyists writing in Left Voice have a better handle on that than him.

Finally, on the question of the reformist tendencies of the working class, aristocrats or plebeians, this is a question that has been at the heart of American politics going back to Werner Sombart’s 1904 “Why There is No Socialism in the United States” that states: “For the average American being successful means first and foremost becoming rich.” I rather have my doubts about this but after 52 years advocating socialism, I tend to accept Marx’s verdict in “The German Ideology” that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

I suspect that my take on the pace of revolutionary struggles in the USA are much more restrained than those of the Left Voice editorial board but am glad that it at least can draw clear class lines in a period when the entire capitalist press is solidly behind “democratic socialism”, whatever that is.

Most workers simply can’t be reached by revolutionary ideas today, even if their life is being torn apart by capitalist contradictions. Reaching the average worker will take something like the Ralph Nader campaign in 2000. I have vivid recollections of returning from a trip from seeing my girlfriend at the time, who was a graduate student in Albany. On the Amtrak, sitting on the opposite side of the train from me, were three UPS workers who spent the entire 2 hours discussing Nader’s ideas. Nader was not a socialist but he was a leftist who had the guts to run as a Green Party candidate. Was he a reformist? I guess by Left Voice’s standards, he was.

At some point in American history, someone like Ralph Nader will be a reformist block to socialist revolution but that will only be a result of UPS workers discussing Karl Marx rather than Ralph Nader. That might take decades to unfold but acting as if this was Russia in 1910 might be a serious error in tempo. I should add that even if it is a mistake, it is one that I would prefer to see people make, just as I made in 1970, then see them ringing doorbells for Democratic Party candidates.

May 29, 2019

Paul Le Blanc’s lamentations

Filed under: ISO,Lenin,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:56 pm

paulleblancphotobyalexbainbridge
Paul Le Blanc

Despite being highly critical of Paul Le Blanc’s dead-end support for “Leninism”, I found something poignant about his 6,100 word attempt to provide an answer to “What happened to the International Socialist Organization?” This is now his third attempt at constructing or reconstructing a Leninist party in the USA. In the first go-round, he was one of the many long-time members of the SWP who was expelled for opposing Jack Barnes’s ideological assault on Trotskyism that was carried out bureaucratically. He then became part of a group led by Frank Lovell and George Breitman that published the Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, a futile attempt to persuade the SWP membership to return to the party’s roots. His next stop was Solidarity, a group that wisely eschewed “Leninist” norms but was never able to become much more than a network of people around the magazine Against the Current. His final stop was the International Socialist Organization, a group he joined a decade ago and that has just disbanded. My guess is that this will be his last hurrah as far as Leninism is concerned unless in the next decade or so there is a massive radicalization in the USA that will help to foment a revolutionary socialist organization that is the counterpart of Lenin’s party. If that happens, you can be assured that such an organization will look nothing like the myriad of groups that sought to construct one from scratch. As a rule of thumb, revolutionary organizations can only emerge out of a mass movement and all such attempts to create an embryo of one according to some ideological construct will either implode like the SWP or ISO, or muddle along like the British SWP, Lutte Ouvriere or others too obscure to mention.

Paul states that the analytical framework he uses in trying to make sense of what happened “can be found in various writings (particularly the essays in Unfinished Leninism published by Haymarket Books in 2014).” Since there are arguments against my critique of Leninism in that book, I was obviously motivated to compare his analytical framework to mine on the passing of the ISO.

Paul subheads the section that deals with the ISO’s failed attempt to live up to his Leninist ideals Avoiding sterile ‘vanguardism’, which leads me to pose the question whether ‘vanguardism’ can ever be anything but sterile. For Paul, this is an opportunity to find a silver lining in the SWP’s dark cloud. He writes that George Breitman and Frank Lovell were quite open and non-dogmatic in their approach, as opposed to the younger leadership loyal to Barnes. I didn’t know Breitman and Lovell all that well but since they gave their blessing to Jack Barnes’s “turn to industry”, I have my doubts. In fact, just before I left NY to save my soul in a Kansas City factory, I challenged Lovell’s assertion at a city-wide meeting that in 1978 the American working class was more radical than ever. It was only in the hermetically sealed environment of American Trotskyism that such a workerist dogma could be expressed.

Paul saw the ISO as better and more open than this, which I would describe as setting the bar about an inch off the ground. He assures us that by the time he joined, there were no delusions of grandeur about it being the revolutionary vanguard party or even the nucleus of the future mass revolutionary party. Unfortunately, this concession to reality made little difference since the group dynamics were pretty close to that of the SWP or any other “Leninist” group. As a rule of thumb, any group that publishes a magazine and newspaper, which for its entire history hosts not a single debate by party members, is willy-nilly creating a homogenous political culture that fosters “sterile dogmatism”. In contrast to Lenin’s party that used Iskra to provide a platform for debates, the Socialist Worker newspaper has never reflected the diversity of opinion that exists on the left. It was always seen as the voice of an ideological current associated with Tony Cliff seeking to preserve market share on the left. Who knows how they envisioned a future revolutionary party? Would it be something like a holding company that had different brands, with state capitalists being offered to consumers alongside Maoism and old-school Trotskyists like those in Alan Woods’s orbit? That has been tried both in England and Australia with meager results. When a true Leninist party emerges in the USA, it will likely be focused on contemporary American issues rather than when Russia became state capitalist. That, of course, pretty much describes the DSA and what would be exactly what is needed right now if it stopped functioning as the leftwing of the Democratic Party.

Some of what Paul writes strikes me as buyer’s remorse. He extols the practical activism in social movements that was essential for SWP branches but not the norm for the ISO. Practically sneering, he describes this as a deficiency all-too-often justified by what struck him as pseudo-revolutionary strictures against “movementism.” Now I have no idea what ISO norms were like but I would guess that given the low ebb of social movements in the past 30  years or so it reflected a more realistic expectation of membership. After 1973, I saw the “activism” of the SWP as artificially generated, an attempt by the party tops to provide “busy work” to keep us from drifting away. By 1977, this was superseded by the “turn to industry” with its absurd job committees meeting 3 times a week to figure out how to place members in factories or, failing that, at least getting them to go out six in the morning to sell the Militant at plant gates to bleary-eyed workers speeding by en route to the parking lot.

Missing from Paul’s analysis is any engagement with the obvious growing resistance to “democratic centralist” norms suffocating the ISO. Sometimes I wonder whether Paul bothered to reply to a crank like me when he wrote Unfinished Leninism on the outside chance that ISO’ers were being seduced by my anti-Leninist notions. Among the documents submitted to the most recent convention of the ISO was one titled “For building a new model of revolutionary socialism” that was signed by 133 members. Here is a relevant paragraph:

Since our break with the British Socialist Workers Party, the ISO has asserted that it is not the nucleus of a revolutionary party. While we understood this in the most vague and long term of ways, the seeds of that conception remained, as reflected in the distorted way that building the ISO as the ISO became an end in and of itself. Democratic centralism meant two people holding the information and building based on what ended up being unwarranted trust. [emphasis added]

In the concluding paragraphs of his article, Paul writes:

How should revolutionaries organize themselves today in order to do what must be done?

We are not starting from scratch. There are residual elements from the ISO itself – formally independent entities that it helped bring into being and sustain: the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC), connected with both the immensely valuable publishing operation of Haymarket Books and the yearly Socialism conferences. Former ISO members can connect with these and various other publications and conferences. There are also other socialist organizations, some avoiding the pseudo-Leninist trap of “vanguardism” – and former ISO members are considering options and possibilities. Realities are fluid, and other structures might be developed to facilitate networking and collaboration, as we seek to transform this defeat into a luminous victory.

In my view, there are some encouraging signs on the left. Despite my sharp disagreements with the hopes of the people around Left Voice to breathe life into the Leninist project, they at least have the courage of their convictions to challenge the “democratic socialist” circumlocutions of the Jacobin/DSA. They have not yet cohered into a cadre organization and might yet be convinced that a united revolutionary organization around basic core agreements on the environment, class struggle unionism, anti-imperialism is still possible. You also have the Marxist Center that has brought together groups like the Philly Socialists. What they might lack in numbers as compared to the DSA, they certainly make up for with class struggle principles and rootedness in communities of those fucked over by capitalism. I also have hopes that Howie Hawkins’s campaign for President will help generate some momentum back into the Green Party. There was a time when the ISO made up the activist core for Peter Camejo’s campaign for governor in California and perhaps the ex-members can see the wisdom of helping Howie’s campaign serve as an alternative to whatever the Democrats offer up, even—dare I say it?—if it Bernie Sanders.

Speaking of Peter Camejo, the last time I saw him before he died, he was a guest speaker at an ISO regional conference at CCNY. We briefly spoke about the prospects of the ISO that he regarded as the best thing happening on the left. That was something I also heard from Sol Dollinger who was a member of Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s Socialist Union in the 1950s, a group I strongly identify with.

Although I obviously had much less of a commitment to the ISO than either of these two old friends and comrades, I—like Paul—was sorry to see it fold. I had been sustained for the past 7 years by the courageous and principled articles about Syria in Socialist Worker, as well as the uncompromising resistance to joining the leftwing of the Democratic Party.

I plan to be at the Socialism 2019 conference in Chicago between July 4—July 7, the first ISO conference I have ever attended. Ironically, I am still looking forward to it even if it is now being co-sponsored by Jacobin/DSA. There is intense interest in how to move the left forward in a period of deepening social and political crisis and I would hope that others make plans to attend this conference since it will surely draw the lessons of the passing of the ISO and enhance the prospects of something rising Phoenix-like from its ashes.

March 27, 2019

A reply to Paul Le Blanc on the ISO crisis

Filed under: democratic centralism,ISO,Lenin,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 4:53 pm

Paul Le Blanc

Rumor has it that the ISO is all set to dissolve itself, a consequence of the membership’s wholesale rejection of a leadership that had covered up the rape carried out by a leading member. He has been expelled and the old guard leadership, including Sharon Smith, Ahmed Shawki, Lance Selfa, Paul D’Amato and Joel Geier, have all resigned. Some speculate that the ISO membership will join DSA en masse. If that takes place, it will be a tragedy. In my view, the best of all possibilities would be for them to reconstitute themselves organizationally in the spirit of their Canadian comrades, whose March 21 communication can be read on the ISO website:

We’re concerned that some people will respond to the ISO’s crisis by jettisoning revolutionary socialist politics and/or the effort to politically organize around them in some way. This letter doesn’t address the range of challenges with which you are grappling at this difficult moment. We write at this time to argue a single point that we think is important: the tendency to jettison socialism from below politics and organizing is increased when people mistakenly believe that the “Leninist” way the ISO has long organized itself — using what we call the micro-party model — is an essential part of revolutionary socialism.

A day later, the ISO posted a letter they received from David McNally, a leader of the Canadian group, that had been sent to them in 2009. It advised them to break with “Leninism”:

As I see it, the necessity of “a new left for a new era” forces all of us to confront — and break with — the legacy of the micro-party approach. At its heart the micro-party perspective consists in believing that building a small revolutionary group is in essence the same thing as constructing a revolutionary party. Fundamentally, then, this perspective involves a simple syllogism:

    • There can be no socialist revolution without an authentically revolutionary party;
    • Our group is the custodian of the authentic revolutionary tradition;
    • Therefore, there can be no socialist revolution without our group (i.e., building our organization is the key to constructing a mass revolutionary party)

Rather than address the really crucial questions — how is the left to rebuild practices, organizations and cultures of working class self-mobilization so that a working class vanguard might actually be re-created, and a meaningful party built in its ranks — real social-historical problems get reduced to questions of building the small group: recruiting more members, selling more papers, creating new branches.

Essentially, the Canadians were making the same recommendation I had made here on March 20th. Of course, I doubt that my article would appear on the ISO website even though it makes exactly the same points: “One of the side-effects of the rape crisis in the British SWP was a re-examination of Leninism, the poorly understood organizational model embraced not only by the ISO, the British SWP but just about every other group on the left that has a schematic understanding of the Bolshevik Party.”

In 2011 or 2012, I began funding a website called The North Star in honor of the network that Peter Camejo founded in the early 80s. Edited by someone who preferred to remain anonymous (although his identity was an open secret), it became a pole of attraction for ex-members of the ISO who were advocating the same organizational principles as the Canadians. In addition, some of them were trying to cleanse the ISO of sexual abusers. The disgraced ex-leader Sharon Smith characterized their efforts as slander.

Perhaps if the editor at the time had been more stable politically (now he is an anonymous Sandernista), he would have been able to create a pole of attraction for people leaving the ISO. You can get a feel for the affinities between North Star and the ISO’ers at the time from a blogpost on Red Atlanta that had been started by an ex-ISO’er from the Renewal faction whose criticisms have now been adopted by the new ISO leadership.

To summarize my story in very brief, I was booted out of the ISO in February alongside my comrades in the (now officially disbanded) ISO Renewal Faction. During the course of our hard-fought factional struggle within the ISO, members of the Renewal Faction discussed a number of articles critical of “Leninism” and socialist sects. To mention a few pieces in particular, at the height of the factional fight, we passed around and debated Hal Draper’s “Toward a New Beginning” (1971) and “Anatomy of the Micro-sect” (1973), as well as a number of more recent documents, including Scott Jay’s “On Leninism and anti-Leninism.”[2] Naturally, these pieces helped us make sense of the stultifying, undemocratic environment within the ISO and our experience of being ostracized and defamed by the leadership and their loyalist followers. Notably, since being purged from the ISO, members of the Renewal Faction appear to have adopted differing views on the subject of Leninism – and, for that matter, Trotskyism, as well. Nonetheless, it’s safe to say that our experience has led us all to develop profound critiques of the party-building approaches adhered to by socialist sects like the ISO.

Unfortunately, the North Star was just too weak organizationally and politically to have served the kind of regroupment efforts seen during the breakup of the SWP in England that went through the same kind of crisis. Perhaps the most viable remnant of the large-scale exodus is Revolution in the 21st Century that has been superseded to some degree by the Corbynista movement. I suspect that if the ISO transforms itself into a model similar to the Canadians, it will be under the same kind of pressures from the Sandernistas.

When I noticed that Paul Le Blanc had written a long article titled “Reflections On Coherence And Comradeship” on the crisis in the ISO that did not go too deeply into the specifics, I decided to write this reply. Since Paul and I were both members of the American Socialist Workers Party, we were both used to the experience of a party imploding. After being expelled in the early 80s, he became part of the Bulletin In Defense of Marxism group (BIDOM) that hoped to persuade the SWP to return to the road of Cannonism. At the same time, I became part of Peter Camejo’s North Star Network that shared David McNally’s perspectives.

I am not sure when Paul became an ISO member but it did not take him long to become a leading spokesperson on Lenin within the group. As a member of BIDOM, Paul wrote a very good book in 1990 titled “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party” that made effective criticisms of the sectarian approach of groups like the SWP but that remained wedded to the Cannonist model. In fact, leading SWPer George Breitman advised Paul to write such a book since it would help to make sense out of “what went wrong”.

When I got on the Internet in the same year that Paul’s book came out, I began writing a series of articles inspired by Peter Camejo’s North Star orientation but that were much more grounded in a reading of early Soviet history and the emergence of “Zinovievism” as an organizational model shared by virtually every “Leninist” group in existence, including the ISO.

Before long, my articles must have attracted some interest in the ISO since Paul spent virtually an entire chapter in his 2014 “Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine” answering me. The book is a collection of articles written by Paul to shore up the Leninist foundations of the ISO, including one similar to the one responding to me in the book that can be read online. I can’t be sure how close it is to what appeared in the book but for what it’s worth I respond to what’s in the book here.

Needless to say, I was curious to see if Paul’s latest article contained the same old defense of Leninism as the group he belonged to appears ready to leave it behind.

Unfortunately, Paul seems wedded to the past:

Focusing on the matter of organizational structures for a moment, it occurs to me that the old and much-maligned and sometimes grotesquely distorted term democratic centralism continues to make a considerable amount of sense.

I am absolutely opposed to the follow-the-leader interpretation which tells us that some central authority (the wise leader, the top cadres, the central committee or whatever) should be the brain that does the thinking and gives the orders — after which we should “democratically” discuss it all and then carry it all out as disciplined little soldiers. That is the opposite of the actual democratic centralism I believe in — a phony “Leninism” associated with pretentious clowning and the organization falling flat on its face (to paraphrase Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder).

All this is well and good but it does not really address the dynamic that exists in such organizations. The “wise leader, the top cadres, the central committee or whatever” emerge out of the subsoil of groups that are constituted on the basis of the organizational model that goes back to the Bolshevization Comintern of 1924 in which Zinoviev’s schemas were ordained as “Bolshevism”. It had the unintended consequence of turning such parties’ key leader into a demigod, whether it was Jack Barnes or Bob Avakian. Even in the case of groups that were fairly sane, it meant that an Ahmed Shawki or a Alex Callinicos had enough unchallenged power to cover up a rape.

I should add that democratic centralism does not lead to sexual attacks but it does facilitate cover-ups when and if they occur.

Paul continues:

If the organization has a full, democratic discussion regarding actions to be taken and makes a decision (determined by majority vote) — then the organization carries out the decision that was democratically decided upon. If the decision is to support a strike action, or an antiwar action, or an antiracist action, then no comrade is to work against the action.

On the other hand, if a majority of comrades in the organization have a specific position regarding a philosophical question, or an understanding of history, or a specific political analysis, there is no reason why dissident comrades cannot openly, publicly state their own views, if they have them. Nor are they prohibited from expressing disagreements with the leadership or with majority decisions on other matters as well, even publicly.

Once again, this sounds reasonable but in practice it goes by the wayside. Groups such as the ISO, the American SWP, Progressive Labor, the CPUSA are all characterized by ideological homogeneity. A new member will tend to hold the teachings of the masters close to his breast. I say that from experience going through indoctrination in the SWP back in 1967. You read something like “In Defense of Marxism” early on, which defends Trotsky and Cannon against Shachtman, Burnham and Abern. For a young, new member to say in a study group that such debates have little bearing on current society takes more nerve than anyone can muster, including someone like me. I only began to think for myself after leaving the SWP in 1978.

In order for true democratic centralism to work, a party has to have what might be considered a minimal program today. Instead of wrangling over when the USSR became capitalist or remained a “workers state”, it should focus on the basics such as ecosocialism, building militant trade unions, free speech rights such as the kind that the IWW fought for, abortion rights, GLBT rights, Black liberation, etc. Marxist principles should underpin the party’s campaign around such issues rather than tailing after the Democratic Party. If a group of 4 to 5 hundred Marxists staked out such an approach, who knows how far it can go?

Other than Paul’s attempt to revive the dying patient called democratic centralism, the rest of his article makes many good points and is worth reading.

 

 

November 23, 2018

On the ISO’s refusal to endorse Howie Hawkin’s campaign

Filed under: Green Party,Lenin — louisproyect @ 10:09 pm

Howie Hawkins

Recently a series of exchanges between Howie Hawkins and the ISO that were published in the Socialist Worker newspaper reflect a big problem on the left for the past 7 years, namely how to maintain unity in the face of deep divisions over the war in Syria.

The first article in this series appeared on November 17th, titled The Independent Left Must Oppose Islamophobia, delivered an ultimatum to Howie. Unless he would disavow the endorsement of comedian Jimmy Dore publicly, they would withdraw their endorsement of his campaign. They wrote:

A subsequent campaign email described Dore as “one of the most courageous and funniest political voices we have today.” In fact, he is a vocal supporter of the worst variety of Assadist and Islamophobic conspiracy theories on the Syrian conflict.

In fact, that would describe about 90 percent of the left today, including Noam Chomsky, Bhaskar Sunkara, and other well-known figures to one degree or another. Dore, who might be described as a funny version of Max Blumenthal, happens to be a trenchant critic of the Democratic Party. So are the people who write for Black Agenda Report. For that matter, probably 90 percent of the people who have written for CounterPunch since 2011 line up with Jimmy Dore. Many believe that this reflects the editorial outlook of editors Jeff St. Clair and Joshua Frank but in reality it simply indicates the dominance of pro-Assad support of those those who submit articles. What is the possibility that a united revolutionary left can be built in the years to come in a deepening capitalist crisis that is based on a litmus test of something like the Syrian revolution?

What about a litmus test on Cuba? I say this as someone who has grown very sympathetic to the ISO’s drawing a class line on the question of lesser evil politics. Although far more diplomatic than me, they have provided a running commentary on the DSA and Jacobin that has been so inspiring to me that if I were 20 years younger, I might even consider joining. Given my age and my frailty, the only thing I would consider joining today is my wife in bed to watch old episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”.

Yet, even then, the reliance on Sam Farber articles about Cuba would have probably been a show stopper even if I was 20 years younger. Does the ISO believe that a party capable of leading a socialist revolution in the USA will adhere to their line on Cuba? Granted, the group is on record as stating that members can hold different views on Cuba than those of Sam Farber but what good is that if the newspaper never reflects that?

Back in 1980, when I began discussions with Peter Camejo on the kind of left we need in the USA, he emphasized putting historical and international questions on the back burner. Why split over the class nature of the USSR or which leftist faction to support in Angola? If you studied Lenin’s articles you’d understand that Russian questions were key. Can you imagine the Bolsheviks splitting over the exact year when Thermidor started in France over a hundred years earlier?

I always had this in mind when I began writing articles about the kind of non-sectarian movement we need in the USA. Despite my deep commitment to the Syrian revolution, which is now pretty much a dying ember, I never would have broken with those who understood the need to challenge capitalism in the USA, particularly the two parties that prop it up, whatever they thought of Assad. This is why I continued writing for CounterPunch. It is also why I supported Jill Stein in 2016.

On November 20th, Howie responded to the ISO in an article titled A Missed Chance to Support a Real Alternative. Most of his article is a commentary on the sorry state of the DSA and the lesser-evil left that preferred Cynthia Nixon to Howie’s anti-capitalist campaign. When DSA member Dan La Botz put forward a motion to back Howie, abstentions were considered as no votes and so he lost. Howie noted that counting abstentions in this fashion is how Jimmy Hoffa Jr. forced the latest UPS contract down the throat of his union. (Strange to see “Democratic” Socialists behaving like Jimmy Hoffa Jr., or maybe not so strange.) Just when the DSA was shafting Howie, the NYC ISO was acting on their Jimmy Dore ultimatum.

Howie’s take on all this struck me as making perfect sense:

But I had no time for picking a fight with Dore over Syria in the last weeks of the campaign. I think most New Yorkers following my campaign would have asked, “Who the hell is Jimmy Dore?” and “What does Syria have to do with the problems we face in New York?”

I know from experience on the Syria question that making a statement about the reality of the Syrian revolution brings a torrent of responses from the pro-Assad “anti-imperialists,” who will lie and put words into my mouth, such as saying I support U.S. military intervention for regime change in Syria. The responses come from around the world, from “peace” activists in the U.S. to East European acolytes of the Russian fascist Aleksandr Dugin. One has to respond to set the record straight.

Then there would be Jimmy Dore fans asking me why I was picking on him. I didn’t have time for all that. My campaign decided we would pick our own fights and focus on the pressing problems the people of New York face under Cuomo’s rule.

Three days later, Jen Roesch, the ISO organizer in NYC, defended her party’s decision. Her article referred in turn to an article by ISO leader Danny Katch that urged support for Hawkins. Such public debate about Hawkin’s campaign in Socialist Worker along with the earlier one about whether to support Ocasio-Cortez gives you hope that the ISO will continue to dump “democratic centralist” norms overboard, where they belong.

Roesch pointed to factors that might have tipped the scales in the direction of not endorsing Howie even before Dore became an issue. Apparently there were ISO members that had been influenced by pro-DP arguments made by the Eric Blanc wing of the DSA. They may be described as erudite treatises steeped in Marxist scholarship justifying a vote for Ocasio-Cortez, Julia Salazar and other DSA-backed campaigns. With the massive positive publicity for these campaigns, the explosive growth of the DSA, and the failure of the Green Party to have met the expectations placed in it when Ralph Nader got 2,882,955 votes in 2000, you can understand the misgivings Roesch described:

Those arguments included: the campaign wouldn’t build the left; campaigns that can’t actually win are nonstarters in an era of victorious left Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez; and the Green Party has a serious problem of Assadism and Islamophobia. Our rushed discussion and vote resulted in the conflation of these and other arguments, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t.

It was apparent that many members would not have decided to endorse the campaign if they had the chance again, whether it was because of the original arguments or experiencing the campaign’s interactions with Dore. I still think there were good reasons to support the campaign despite its weaknesses, but clearly this was the full discussion we should have had initially.

Well, at least that refreshing admission was not the sort of thing we ever saw in the Militant back in my days in the SWP. I will say that.

Finally, Roesch draws closer to the concerns I articulated at the start of the article by asking how the ISO can build united fronts and electoral campaigns alongside people with whom they have major disagreements. Actually, it is a much bigger question than that. A united front can involve revolutionary and reformist parties, as Lenin made clear in the 1920s but does the ISO think that a mass revolutionary party will have a newspaper that has the slightest resemblance to Socialist Worker? Even though it is a breath of fresh air to see Danny Katch disagreeing with ISO majority positions in the paper, this is a far cry from the American Iskra that will be necessary to serve as the voice of the vanguard in years to come.

At the risk of sounding outlandish to ISO members so used to the comfort zone of ideological homogeneity, an American Iskra will probably read a lot more like CounterPunch. I should add that I only ended up writing for it in 2012 after Jeff St. Clair invited me to write an answer to CounterPunch attacks on Pussy Riot based on what I had already written on my blog. In many ways, CounterPunch is the continuation of the Guardian newsweekly that stopped publishing in 1992. After it evolved away from Maoism, it regularly opened its pages to debates on the left. Come to think of it, that is what Lenin thought that Iskra should be when he wrote “What is to be Done” between 1901 and 1902.

Lenin only saw Iskra as a pole of attraction for socialists operating in different cities across Russia who worked in isolation from each other. It was not a “line” newspaper in any sense of the word. On October 19th, during the CounterPunch fund drive, Jeff St. Clair described the role it played on the left. Substitute “party line” for “company line” and it will make even more sense:

Unlike many political sites, CounterPunch doesn’t a have company line. The online edition of CounterPunch has always been a venue where different voices, on what can loosely be described as the “left,” can freely engage in fierce debates about politics, economics, war, movies, racism, music and political movements. We’ve tried to make CounterPunch free from dogma and cant, but to keep it open for writers with fresh points of view and vivid writing styles. The experience can perplex readers who are used to grazing in the usual media feedlots of processed prose and artificially-colored opinions.

Compare this to how Lenin ended the final chapter of “What is to be Done”, titled The “Plan” For an All-Russia Political Newspaper, and you will get an idea of the kind of approach that is needed today:

Every outbreak, every demonstration, would be weighed and, discussed in its every aspect in all parts of Russia and would thus stimulate a desire to keep up with, and even surpass, the others (we socialists do not by any means flatly reject all emulation or all “competition”!) and consciously prepare that which at first, as it were, sprang up spontaneously, a desire to take advantage of the favourable conditions in a given district or at a given moment for modifying the plan of attack, etc. At the same time, this revival of local work would obviate that desperate, “convulsive” exertion of all efforts and risking of all forces which every single demonstration or the publication of every single issue of a local newspaper now frequently entails.

I have always warned about mechanically following the example of Lenin’s party but there is something about this citation that convinces me that the true spirit of Lenin’s party has yet to be understood fully to this day. As grievous as the collapse of the USSR was, it at least had the value of undermining the institutional foundations of “Leninist” parties whether Stalinist or Trotskyist. Now is the time, more than ever, to build new foundations for the monumental class battles of the future.

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