Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 5, 2010

Letter to John Weeks

Filed under: nicaragua — louisproyect @ 2:18 pm

John Weeks

Hello, John

I don’t know if you remember me but I chaired the debate between you and  Paul Berman just after the Sandinistas were voted out of office.  Originally Michael Moore had agreed to debate Berman but I was persuaded  that you would be a better choice because you were an “expert”. Worst  decision of my life, I am afraid.

I just took a look at your website (http://jweeks.org) that was  announced on Jerry Levy’s mailing list, a gathering place for Marxist  economists. Out of curiosity, I went there and found a paper that you  and your wife wrote in 1992 making the discovery that the FSLN was not  really “revolutionary socialist”, like you–a professor emeritus–I  suppose. It was the same argument I heard from James Petras around that  time. One imagines that if you or him had been president of Nicaragua,  then the country would have been saved.

But leaving aside your politics, which someone described to me as Maoist  (unfortunately after the event), the real question I have always had is  why you were so unprepared. You winged it for 20 minutes or so, while  the filthy Paul Berman had a well-prepared presentation. I remember it  like yesterday, you informing an audience of solidarity activists that  the FSLN was just like the PRI in Mexico–something in clear distinction  to the cozy relationship the USA enjoyed with Mexico.

Anyhow, I hope you are enjoying your professor emeritus status. My  advice is to take up gardening or basket-weaving and turn down any  invitations to speak at such debates in the future for the sake of the  radicals who might mistakenly invite you.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect

January 18, 2008

A sectarian version of the lessons of Nicaragua

Filed under: Latin America,nicaragua — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Typical Nicaraguan home: Permanent Revolution
could have brought peace and prosperity, however

As somebody who was very involved with Nicaragua solidarity in the 1980s, I was curious to see what Claudio Villas had to say in an article titled “Nicaragua: Lessons of a country that did not finish its revolution” that appears on the In Defense of Marxism website. For those who are not familiar with the Internationalist Marxist Tendency (IMT) that produces this website, a word or two of introduction might be necessary.

The IMT is a fairly orthodox Trotskyist grouping that is the result of a split by the late Ted Grant and Alan Woods from the so-called Militant Tendency now led by Peter Taaffe. Both groups project themselves as the core members of a Fourth International that will supposedly vindicate Leon Trotsky’s political legacy. Neither group has shown the slightest interest in rethinking what the Bolshevik experience might mean in a context other than turn-of-the-century Czarist Russia, but the Grant-Woods tendency has demonstrated an enthusiasm for the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela that does not fit exactly into the October 1917 template.

Villas states that his article studies “the lessons of the Nicaraguan Revolution” in order to help “understand the ongoing processes in Venezuela today.” As becomes obvious in no time at all, Nicaragua becomes one of those negative examples that the Trotskyist movement dotes on. Forever wagging its finger at the mass movement, it assumes that calling attention to a betrayal is conducive to correct revolutionary practice. This is what I call the subway preacher school of Marxism. Once a week or so, I get stuck on the number one train going up to Columbia University with a free-lance preacher who lectures the subway car about the perils of sin. Let me put it this way, preaching against sin or reformist betrayal might make the preacher feel good but it hardly changes people’s behavior.

I was struck by the similarities between Villas’s article and those I have read about Cuba in the Trotskyist press, which revolve around the incapacity and unwillingness of the guerrillas to link up to the working class. As one example, he writes, “For the first time, the workers in the cities mobilised in a massive and independent manner with their own political slogans. But because there was no revolutionary leadership of the workers’ movement this meant that all the attention and expectations of the working class became focused on the FSLN, in spite of the fact that the Sandinistas only had 500 armed guerrillas.”

Keeping in mind that the total population of Nicaragua in the 1970s was about 3 million, an army of 500 combatants would amount to something like 50,000 in a country the size of the USA. What are the chances that a rebel army this size could be put together without a massive and powerful movement in the cities? Next to zero, I would say.

Part one of Villas’s article is filled with idealist errors that are hardly worth commenting on. He analyzes everything that went wrong in Nicaragua as a function of an incorrect theory, namely a belief in the progressive bourgeoisie that the FSLN picked up from the CP. It includes a patronizing swipe at both Augusto Sandino and Carlos Fonseca, who launched the FSLN in a bid to consummate Sandino’s struggle against imperialism in the 1920s. Both men, unlike the Grant-Woods tendency, believed in collaborating with the “national-colonial bourgeoisie”. For his part, Villas understands the way forward even though the misguided reformists will not listen:

The extinguishing of capitalism in Russia in 1917, in China in 1949 and in Cuba in 1960 demonstrated that social and economic development in the underdeveloped countries could only be achieved on a non-capitalist economic basis, in other words, on a socialist economic basis that involved a break with private property and the taking over of the means of production and finance. There are no exceptions to this law.

When you reduce this paragraph to its essence, you will discover that it contains a tautology that can be reduced to a few words: “Socialism can only be achieved through socialist revolution”. Keeping in mind that everybody on the socialist left, from Alan Woods to the late Gus Hall, agrees that socialism is the goal, the only real difference would be about the need for revolution and for resolute struggle against the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, the intellectual recognition of such a task does not translate easily into practical politics.

For its over 75 year existence in Latin America (not to speak of the world), Trotskyism has remained a very marginal force, including in Nicaragua itself where voices similar to Villas’s were heard. Why did the FSLN gain the allegiance of the masses and why did the Trotskyists stay small and irrelevant? I would suggest that the appeal of both Sandino’s movement and the FSLN would be lost on the comrades of the In Defense of Marxism website, who have a mechanical understanding of Bolshevism. Leaving aside the question of the FSLN’s “reformism”, there is something quite different about the way that they got started and the way that Villas believes revolutionary parties should be built.

Unlike the IMT, the FSLN rooted its program and language in the Nicaraguan framework. By utilizing Augusto Sandino as a symbol of their revolution, they tapped into the psyche of the Nicaraguan people. They also eschewed the iconography of the Russian Revolution, which is a dead giveaway for a sectarian mindset. For example, the IMT home page has images of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky on the left and a hammer-and-sickle on the right. These images might appeal to those “in the know” but not to the average Nicaraguan peasant who went to church every Sunday. Whatever mistakes the FSLN made (and they were plenty), they did not make the mistake of such sectarianism. As we look back at the wreckage of the 20th century revolutionary movement, we have to come to terms with sins of commission and sins of omission–to return once again to the example of the subway preacher. Everybody knows that the CP’s have sins of commission to repent for, but what about the Trotskyists? By maintaining sectarian habits that keep them small and marginal, don’t they have a responsibility for the failures of revolutions to succeed in countries where they have a toehold? These “sins of omission” will prevent you from getting into communist heaven.

Part two of Villas’s article consists mainly of a lecture derived from Lenin’s “State and Revolution”, whose sage advice the FSLN refused to pay attention to. Instead of setting up Soviets, creating militias, nationalizing Nicaraguan industry, dividing up the land and extending the socialist revolution beyond their borders, they were content to operate what amounted to a Nicaraguan version of Kerensky’s government, which soon fell apart because of its inner contradictions. He writes:

The Sandinista leadership ruled the country together with the treacherous national bourgeoisie during the first months of the revolution. However, the economic crisis continued to get worse. But the bourgeoisie, by now reassured that the FSLN leadership had halted the revolution, left the economic problems for the Sandinistas to sort out. The first move of the FSLN in the National Reconstruction government (made up of just 5 people) was to install a State Council. This was a bourgeois-democratic body made up of 33 members in which all the social, political and trade union forces that accepted the Sandinista leadership were represented. In 1984, this parliament was transformed into the Nicaraguan National Assembly, by now a bourgeois parliament with a leftwing majority.

In this manner, the FSLN leadership preserved the traditional parliament and government structures of the capitalist state. Executive power was concentrated in the hands of the National Directorate which was chaired by the President of the Republic. In 1984 in a few days more than 80% of the population over the age of 16 registered on the electoral register. The election results revealed the huge support of the masses for the FSLN.

One of the most remarkable things about this entire exercise is the almost entirely absent reference to American imperialism and the terrorist army it funded and organized. The word “contra” is mentioned infrequently and not assigned its proper weight. Villas even blames the FSLN for giving backhanded support for the terrorists: “While the government was subsidising the private sector through tax cuts to get its support and collaboration, the capitalists boycotted the economy and supported the Contras!” He also thought that it was not really responsible for the collapse of the revolution: “Despite their treacherous role, it was not the fascist Contra paramilitaries that defeated the revolution. Popular resistance had demoralised the Contra and they had been cornered by the mid-1980s.” Unfortunately, the Nicaraguan people were so demoralized after a decade of war that they gave their vote to a candidate supported by the USA who promised an end to the war if and only if she was elected.

Most people in touch with reality understand that nothing can stop a country that is 100 times the size of a country it wants to destroy from its goal, including the correct application of the Permanent Revolution. In 2006, the GDP of Nicaragua was 5 billion dollars, while that of the USA was 13 trillion, or 13,000 billion. Try to imagine what an economy that is nearly 3000 times as large as the economy of its victim can do. Apparently, the IMT cannot. Even if the FSLN had carried out the strictures set down by Villas, the revolution was doomed from the beginning. It occurred at the very moment that the USSR was transforming itself into a capitalist society and had no interest in lining up with an enemy of its new friends in Washington, DC.

Villas’s solution to Nicaragua’s economic woes are laughable: “The narrowness of the productive base of a country as small as Nicaragua, which had fewer inhabitants than Caracas or Havana, meant that to stimulate genuine development what was required was a truly revolutionary initiative such as the expulsion of the bourgeoisie, and the establishment of a Socialist Federation with Cuba.” A Socialist Federation with Cuba? Good grief. It was just around this period that the socialist foundations of the Russian economy were being dismantled and support for Cuba cut off. This led to an “emergency period” that most commentators viewed as coming close to destroying Cuba as well as Nicaragua. Talk of a “socialist federation” is simply empty rhetoric. Words are cheap for a sectarian group that has never had responsibility anywhere in the world–and never will–for putting food on a worker’s table.

I have my own analysis of why the Sandinista revolution collapsed and would recommend that people read it in its entirety here.

I would only like to conclude with this excerpt:

Trotsky sharpened his insights as a participant and leader of the uprising of 1905, which in many ways was a dress-rehearsal for the 1917 revolution. He wrote “Results and Prospects” to draw the lessons of 1905. Virtually alone among leading Russian socialists, he rejected the idea that workers holding state power would protect private property:

“The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution, can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie.”

Does not this accurately describe the events following the Bolshevik revolution in October, 1917? The workers took the socialist path almost immediately. If this alone defined the shape of revolutions to come, then Trotsky would appear as a prophet of the first magnitude.

Before leaping to this conclusion, we should consider Trotsky’s entire argument. Not only would the workers adopt socialist policies once in power, their ability to maintain these policies depended on the class-struggle outside of Russia, not within it. He is emphatic:

“But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty–that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship.”

While there is disagreement between Lenin and Trotsky on the exact character of the Russian revolution, there is none over the grim prospects for socialism in an isolated Russia. We must keep this uppermost in our mind when we consider the case of Nicaragua. Well-meaning Trotskyist comrades who castigate the Sandinistas for not carrying out permanent revolution should remind themselves of the full dimensions of Trotsky’s theory. According to this theory, Russia was a beachhead for future socialist advances. If these advances did not occur, Russia would perish. Was Nicaragua a beachhead also? If socialism could not survive in a vast nation as Russia endowed with immense resources, what were Nicaragua’s prospects, a nation smaller than Brooklyn, New York?

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