Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 9, 2012

Alexander Cockburn throws a spitball at Occupy–and misses

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

Ever the contrarian, Alexander Cockburn threw a spitball at the Occupy movement on Counterpunch last Saturday that made me wonder if he ever had any enthusiasm for it despite the friendly articles that appeared there from the beginning.

The one thing that struck me as egregiously wrong was this:

Where was the knowledge of, let along the respect for the past? We had the non-violent resistors of the Forties organising against the war with enormous courage. The Fifties saw leftists took McCarthyism full on the chin. With the Sixties we were making efforts at revolutionary organisation and resistance.
 Yet when one raised this history with someone from Occupy, I encountered total indifference.

Maybe I am missing something but I got reports on almost a daily basis about some “old leftist” or another getting an enthusiastic response when they spoke to the occupiers, from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz to the ISO’s Anthony Arnove. And speaking of the sixties, the New Left was infamous for its lack of “respect for the past”. And, finally, I am a bit puzzled by Alexander’s reference to us “making efforts at revolutionary organization and resistance”. I am almost tempted to repeat Tonto’s reminder to the Lone Ranger, “What do you mean by ‘us’, white man?” Alexander, unlike Christopher Hitchens, is and was a political virgin. He does not know what it means to roll up his sleeves and actually go out and organize people. I think he is a very fine journalist, one of the best on the left on his better days, but he really doesn’t know anything about building organizations.

Most of Alexander’s hostility to the Occupy movement is based on an article by Thomas Naylor that appeared on Counterpunch on March 27th, 2012. Titled “Occupy Wall Street Revisited, Who is Occupying Whom?“, it poses the interesting question (without a question mark unfortunately): “Is it possible that the real purpose of Occupy Wall Street has little to do with either the 99 percent or the 1 percent but rather everything to do with keeping the political left in America decentralized, widely dispersed, very busy, and completely impotent to deal with the collapse of the American Empire”. Well, at least Naylor does not blame the CIA or other nefarious state agencies for this turn of events, as the ineffable Michel Chossudovsky did.

Naylor also objects to the appearance of the protestors, reminding me of Al Capp and George Jessel’s fulminations against hippie protestors on the Tonight Show during the Vietnam War:

Although Bill O’Reilly’s mean-spirited portrayal of OWS is grossly unfair, some of the TV images of OWS protestors do not instill confidence in their ability to change the world. Many of them come across as stereotypical radical, disgruntled, hippie malcontents. The problem lies when they become the defining image of a fledgling political movement.

It is hard for me to conjure up an image of a stereotypical radical/hippie malcontent. What does this mean? Wearing a black beret and a tie-dyed t-shirt? Somehow it doesn’t compute. At any rate, here’s a reminder of what a typical protestor looked like, from my visit down to Occupy Wall Street:

click image to play video

Alexander had another beef with the Occupy movement: “Where the hell’s the plan?” I wonder if his endorsement of Naylor’s critique includes an endorsement of the plan that he has long been associated with, namely Vermont seceding from the United States. Naylor is founder of the Second Vermont Republic, a group described on its website as follows:

The Second Vermont Republic is a nonviolent citizens’ network and think tank committed to: (1) the peaceful breakup of meganations such as the United States, Russia, and China; (2) the political independence of breakaway states such as Quebec, Scotland, and Vermont; and (3) a strategic alliance with other small, democratic, nonviolent, affluent, socially responsible, cooperative, egalitarian, sustainable, ecofriendly nations such as Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland which share a high degree of environmental integrity and a strong sense of community.

All I can say is that the young people who occupied Wall Street were vindicated by provoking the wrath of this 76 year old Professor Emeritus from Duke University, for this “plan” is about as batty as they come. I got a big kick out of the description of Austria as being “democratic” and “nonviolent”. Does Naylor read a newspaper?

The Guardian, Saturday 18 October 2008

Kate Connolly

‘Haider is our Lady Di’

As the leaders of Europe’s far-right parties gather for today’s state funeral of Austria’s most controversial politician, is European fascism once again on the rise?

“Official Austrian state doctrine after the war was that the Allies liberated Austria from Nazi Germany in 1945 and that Austria had been a victim of the Nazis in 1938,” says Pelinka. “This overlooks the fact that the percentage of Austrians who participated in the Nazi regime was the same as in Germany. In contrast, Germany was forced to confront its past directly and did so. Austria was not and didn’t.”

In Germany, Haider – famous for his outbursts lauding SS veterans, his description of Austria as an “ideological miscarriage”, his labelling of Nazi death camps as “punishment camps” and admiration for the Third Reich’s “sensible employment policies” – could never have achieved the same success.

Haider himself was frustrated in his attempts to form a pan-European far-right club, though he was successful at least in his intention of provoking European leaders after they slapped sanctions on Austria following the electoral success of his Freedom party (FPO) in 2000.

Nonetheless he is credited with having injected new life into far-right politics. “He was one of the first in Europe to grasp that it’s not about issues or a rational discourse, but about emotion,” says Brem. “He understood that politics was about marketing and you need to be marketing savvy to succeed.”

“What Haider did was to bring Austria’s SS and Nazi history out of the past and put it in the present and because he was such a charismatic politician he got away with it,” says Rauscher. “But his lasting legacy is the way that he poisoned the political atmosphere in Austria in the process.”

Now I am not trying to connect Thomas Naylor with someone like Haider but there are worrisome signs that the Vermont secessionists have been a bit undiscriminating in their relations with Americans who are. In trying to build a nationwide network, Naylor approached an outfit called The League of the South that describes itself as “distinct from, and in opposition to, the corrupt mainstream American culture.” They “stand for our own sublime cultural inheritance and seek to separate ourselves from the cultural rot that is American culture.” This is a bumper sticker they sell from their website:

Under pressure from the Vermont left, Naylor broke with the racists. The Green Mountain Daily, a liberal Vermont website, questioned Naylor’s motivations:

The famous Thomas “Don’t Call Me a Racist” Naylor has published a letter called (I’m not making this up)

To The League of the South From Vermont With Love

Yes, you read that right: “With Love”. That’s only the first reason to question the sincerity of this “break”, however. If you read the letter, you will see that, far from acknowledging the racism of the League of the South, Naylor treats it as no more than a PR problem.

Naylor thinks racism is no more than a problem of perception. Naylor covers some history, and then begins with the racist aroma surrounding secession movements: “Secession is often equated with Southern, redneck, Christian fundamentalist racism. Anyone who is a secessionist is considered a likely racist, but a Southern secessionist is a racist a priori. Since the LOS is a Southern secessionist group, it’s hardly surprising that there is a widespread perception that it is racist”. Get it? There’s nothing racist about LOS, but for some bizarre reason, people think that southern secessionists have some racist ideas. According to Naylor, this idea is no more than a “knee-jerk reaction” on the part of most Americans. It’s not that there actually is any racism involved in secessionists, it’s just “equated with” southern racism. The problem isn’t the racist ideas, it’s that people can’t stop thinking about them. There’s nothing wrong with it except those unfortunate associations with “images of the Civil War, slavery, racism, violence, and preservation of the Southern way of life.”

This unfortunate perception even infects the cultural symbols of the South. For instance, here’s Naylor on the Confederate flag: Whether justifiably or not, most Southern blacks view the Confederate flag as an overt racist symbol aimed at rubbing salt in their 400-year wounds.

Returning again to Alexander, I do have to wonder who he is referring to when he writes: “Leninists threw aside their Marxist primers on party organisation and drained the full anarchist cocktail.” This snappy bit of prose is classic Cockburn, incorporating everything except what journalism schools harp on: who, what, where, when and why.

Is a Leninist somebody who has nice things to say about Lenin, like the irrepressible Slavoj Zizek? I kind of doubt it. Lacan, not Lenin, seems more to the point. To me, Leninist means somebody who is actively involved in building a “Leninist” party like the ISO, the SWP, and the rest of the alphabet soup. Somehow, I don’t think that they ever “drained the full anarchist cocktail”. Mostly, they had some nice things to say about the movement but were never organically part of it. As is too often the case, they came to the movement with their own agenda and sought ways to exploit it. The one thing that the movement was resistant to was this kind of cadre intervention.

This leads me to my final point. Wherever this movement goes next, it pointed to the possibility of building massive anti-capitalist protests without the dubious support from the Leninist left. It is entirely possible that Alexander was referring not to Leninists, but ex-Leninists like Pham Binh who worked tirelessly on behalf of the movement and spoke about its possibilities for the future.

As American capitalism continues to hand out the shitty end of the stick to working people and the poor, there will be an impetus for a grass roots movement that challenges the ruling class. It will be incumbent on the “old left” to find a way to relate to such a development in a positive way and to learn from it. The Occupy movement has made mistakes, black bloc-ism the worst of it in my opinion, but it has also had a capacity to adjust and to move forward.

I suspect that in its next upward surge, whether in the name of Occupy or some other permutation, it will inspire millions, including the founder of Counterpunch who is not too old—one hopes—to be inspired by a genuine insurrectionary movement.

June 19, 2012

Our dying corporate class is the guarantee that the mass movement will expand and flourish

Filed under: immigration,Occupy Wall Street,racism — louisproyect @ 5:29 pm

Over the past few days, I have noticed a couple of articles sizing up the Occupy movement’s status. One comes from the left, and the other from an inside-the-beltway liberal pundit. Let me dispense with the last one first.

Although he is obviously at the Washington Post because his opinions jibe with his employer’s, I always find Dana Milbank worth reading, if for no other reason than he avoids the circumlocutions typical of the op-ed writer. In a piece titled Occupy Wall Street movement has hit a wall, Milbank makes an amalgam between Van Jones and Robert Borosage’s Take Back the American Dream Conference and the sans culottes movement that raised hell on Wall Street and dozens of other cities last year. It is understandable why he would confuse the two, since in his eyes Van Jones is “far left”. When I noticed that, I dashed off a letter to Milbank:

Dana, you have to get out more. Jones is an old-fashioned liberal, like George McGovern. I, on the other hand, am a far leftist. I would like to see the publishers of the Washington Post stripped of their assets and put in prison for their role in backing George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. You should be spared, of course, after undergoing ideological rectification.

Borosage, like Jones, has attempted to co-opt the Occupy movement as this excerpt from Milbank’s article makes clear:

Robert Borosage, whose Campaign for America’s Future puts on the annual conference, encouraged the activists to take the long view, likening their position to that of progressives in the late 19th century. “Now we are back to that same kind of inequality, that same kind of robber-baron money politics,” Borosage said from a stage festooned with the words “99% Power” and other slogans. “And what’s exciting is we’ve seen the first stirrings in Wisconsin and Ohio and Occupy Wall Street, which spread across the country like wildfire.”

The Wisconsin drubbing was a “stirring”? And Occupy Wall Street? It did spread — but the fire quickly died.

Nelini Stamp, an Occupy leader, spoke at one of the sessions about how the movement went from a day in September when “all of a sudden something happened” to the “dismantling of the parks, city by city.” Stamp described the events of the fall as “a moment in time, and that moment sparked a movement.”

One imagines that Stamp felt an affinity with Van Jones and Robert Borosage based on her affiliation with the Working Families Party in NY that is 3rd party in name only. In the last election, it unfortunately used its ballot line for the dreadful Andrew Cuomo, who can best be described as Scott Walker Lite.

Milbank is something of a cynic so it is difficult to figure out whether he is lamenting over the ostensible collapse of Occupy or gloating over it. Despite his past employment in the bourgeois press, or perhaps because of it, Chris Hedges is just the opposite of Milbank. He wears his heart on his sleeve nowadays and we are all the better for it.

Hedges is a regular contributor to Truthdig.com, a website founded by Robert Scheer, who like Hedges, was once employed by the bourgeois media—in his case the LA Times. Hedges’s article is titled “Occupy Will Be Back” and uses his own words to approximate what Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” Here’s Hedges:

Our dying corporate class, corrupt, engorged on obscene profits and indifferent to human suffering, is the guarantee that the mass movement will expand and flourish. No one knows when. No one knows how. The future movement may not resemble Occupy. It may not even bear the name Occupy. But it will come. I have seen this before. And we should use this time to prepare, to educate ourselves about the best ways to fight back, to learn from our mistakes, as many Occupiers are doing in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and other cities. There are dark and turbulent days ahead. There are powerful and frightening forces of hate, backed by corporate money, that will seek to hijack public rage and frustration to create a culture of fear. It is not certain we will win. But it is certain this is not over.

I couldn’t agree more with this assessment. Having lived through the 1950s and 60s, when the American economy was expanding at an unprecedented rate, I saw the ability of the American ruling class to maintain its hegemonic status. There were challenges from African-Americans but a combination of repression and crumbs from the table appeared to remove that threat, just as an end to the war in Vietnam and the Supreme Court ruling in favor of a woman’s right to an abortion acted as a pressure valve to release steam from the system.

Things are different now. Today’s NY Times reported on the desperation that many long-term unemployed are facing:

Sam Chea, 38, who lives in Oakland and works nights delivering pizzas for Domino’s, said that he had been feeling the pinch at grocery stores, and worried that his lack of a college education was making it harder for him to find decent work. The other day he went to the nearby city of El Cerrito to apply for a second job at Nation’s Giant Hamburgers, a regional chain.

“I’ll be more secure with another job,” he said. “It’s scary. I don’t have an education, and I’m worried about my rent.”

“Everything’s gone up. Rent went up, gas went up, food went up, milk went up, cheeseburgers went up, even cigarettes went up,” said Mr. Chea, who had stopped at the barbershop to spiff up before his job interview. “I’m used to getting a haircut for $6 or $7, but they charged me $9. Even haircuts have gone up.”

In my recent post on the rascally Walter Russell Mead, someone commented that the left is too old to make an impact. I understand that if I am typical of the left (at the age of 67), this is a real problem. But another commenter wrote a rejoinder that is in line with Hedges’s piece and Marx’s before him:

You are obviously not in touch with the contemporary US revolutionary left, made up almost entirely of people under 35 — in other words, the generation subjected to one of the most radical periods of transferring social costs onto the backs of the working class. Our generation faces a situation of despair, ruin, indebtedness, political nihilism, old-folks-cynicism, mainstream political cretinism, and no future. You would benefit greatly by contacting the student, youth, people of color, and young working class movement in your local city. What you might find is in fact a vibrant undercurrent of dignity facing a situation that your generation, weaned on the massive capitalist high growth of the 50s, did not have to contend with. The “humble folks of the working class” are the young black, brown, yellow, red, and white youth on your streets today. Go meet them – they’re everywhere.

In my view, the Occupy movement has played a most useful role whatever its current status. At a moment when the Obama White House had much of the soft left in a state of suspended animation, they burst on the scene and demonstrated through their action that there had been no change and that they, to paraphrase Dante, had seen the words written large: “Abandon all hope all ye who live in the U.S. and are not hedge fund managers.”

Like the Zapatistas, who also defied the neoliberal “end of history” consensus like a lightning bolt out of the blue, these scruffy and more often than not organized anarchists (yes, I know, that is a paradox) raised such a ruckus that politics in America went through a sea change. They raised awareness that working people were being screwed and inspired hundreds of thousands to join them in protests against an unjust system.

I thought of the Occupy movement when I attended the Silent March against Stop and Frisk on Fifth Avenue last Sunday. This was a demonstration that really captured the militancy and spirit of unity that could be seen during the best of the Occupy protests.

You can get a flavor of the demonstration from this brief clip taken on my brand-new JVC professional camcorder whose myriad buttons and menus confuses even a geek like me. Look in particular for the women marching in the name of their beautician’s school!

For a report on the march that I couldn’t begin to top, I recommend Gary Lapon’s article  in Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the International Socialist Organization (not to be confused with the moribund sect of the same name led by Jack Barnes.)

According to the NAACP, the march was silent “as an illustration of both the tragedy and serious threat that stop-and-frisk and other forms of racial profiling present to our society. The silent march was first used in 1917 by the NAACP–then just eight years old–to draw attention to race riots that tore through communities in East St. Louis, Illinois, and build national opposition to lynching.”

Participants in the demonstration explained how this has become a civil rights issue of today. “I’ve been stopped and frisked for a case of mistaken identity,” said Justin, a high school senior in Brooklyn. “The cops stopped and searched me without a warrant, without anything–and they just said, ‘Mistaken identity.'” As Justin continued:

It’s getting crazy. My little brother just got stopped the other day for no reason…He’s only 11, but he’s a big kid, so they thought he was older, and they searched him. He was scared, he went home crying to my mother. People are scared to come out of their home thinking they’ll be searched by the cops. It shouldn’t be like that.

Dina Adams of the legal aid group Bronx Defenders said she had a lot of personal experience with stop-and-frisk. “I have three teenage sons, and so this is a battle that I go through three times as hard,” she said. “It impacted [my middle son] so much that where his schooling and everything–his whole life, seemed to have gone upside down.”

“The NYPD has too much power,” Adams said. “They need to stop focusing on Blacks and Latinos, stop focusing on our youth, stop screwing their lives up.”

As I have said in the past, it would be useful if socialist groups rethink what it means to have a “program”, too often an assemblage of doctrinal tenets held on disputed points going back at least a hundred years and calculated to distinguish the group’s “brand” from others on the left. Why not adopt a much simpler program based on Dina Adams’s words: “Stop screwing up our lives”.

Yes, youth will be heard.

While Obama has gotten pats on the back from the liberal left on his decision to allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the country, it would be more accurate to say that he made this decision more on the basis of stopping the blows raining down on his back, head, and shoulders from young activists tired of dealing with the immigration cops that he had sent after them.

The NY Times reported on June 17:

In recent weeks, the White House faced intense pressure from some of its closest allies — their voices often raised in frustration — to provide some relief for immigrant communities. The urging came from Harry Reid of Nevada and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the top two Democrats in the Senate, and the Hispanic caucus in the House of Representatives, as well as Latino and immigrant leaders across the country.

Bleak figures reported early this month by the Department of Homeland Security showed that a yearlong program designed to shift enforcement away from illegal immigrants who pose no security risk was not producing results, with only about 500 young students nationwide spared from deportation.

And last week, students without immigration papers started a campaign of sit-ins and hunger strikes at Obama campaign offices in more than a dozen cities, saying that despite his promises, the president was continuing to deport immigrants like them.

I’d like to think that those sit-ins and hunger strikes were ignited not only by Obama’s reactionary nativist policies but by the example last year of young people putting their bodies on the line.

Here’s a good look at what they were doing:

May 17, 2012

The Hardt-Negri declaration

Filed under: anarchism,autonomism,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Michael Hardt

Antonio Negri

It was to be expected that Toni Negri and Michael Hardt would eventually weigh in on the protests sweeping the world, from Tahrir Square to Wall Street. Their Declaration can be read on http://www.scribd.com/doc/93152857/Hardt-Negri-Declaration-2012 and is well worth the trouble. (I found it impossible to print but that might have just been a problem on my own computer.) Even if you disagree with much of it (as I do), it is necessary reading because of their influence. Furthermore, I detect a positive evolution in their thinking—especially a willingness to reconsider the merits of state power, albeit in a highly qualified manner. Like someone saying that though broccoli tastes like shit, it might be good for you.

Published in 2000, their “Empire” was widely seen as a generalized expression of the nascent anti-globalization movement that had a preponderantly anarchist leadership (an oxymoron?) Although Hardt and Negri come out of the autonomist tradition, there is enough of an affinity between the two movements that it was possible for them to serve as spokesmen. Now, just over a decade later, the anarchist movement has new winds blowing in its sails. While David Graeber is rightfully seen as a kind of patron saint to the Occupy movement, I am sure—well, mostly sure–that he would not resent Hardt and Negri playing the role of elder statesmen. (Did I say statesmen? No insult intended…)

To start off, I was very pleased to see that Hardt and Negri take note of the particular dynamics of debt today, something that I have written about recently.  In my view, debt tends to isolate us and make struggle more difficult. Instead of confronting a boss as a unified group of employees, such as sit-down strikers in Flint, Michigan in 1938, the battle is between the individual and the bank or collection agency. (In their words, “No longer is the typical scene of exploitation the capitalist overseeing the factory, directing and disciplining the worker in order to generate a profit.”)

Turning to chapter one, I found these words particularly illuminating:

Whereas the work ethic is born within the subject, debt begins as an external constraint but soon worms its way inside. Debt wields a moral power whose primary’ weapons are responsibility and guilt, which can quickly become objects of obsession. You are responsible for your debts and guilty for the difficulties they create in your life. The indebted is an unhappy consciousness that makes guilt a form of life. Little by little, the pleasures of activity and creation are transformed into a nightmare for those who do not possess the means to enjoy their lives. Life has been sold to the enemy.

Another feature of life today that Hardt and Negri get right is how much it is defined through security, such as cameras, cops and prisons:

You are not only the object of security but also the subject. You answer the call to be vigilant, constantly on watch for suspicious activity on the subway, devious designs of your seatmate on the airplane, malicious motives of your neighbors. Fear justifies volunteering your pair of eyes and your alert attention to a seemingly universal security machine.

The sections on debt and what they call “the securitized” are much better than the one that follows, titled “The Represented”. Like Zizek, another celebrity, they are utterly disdainful of bourgeois democracy:

So many of the movements of 2011 direct their critiques against political structures and forms of representation, then, because they recognize clearly that representation, even when it is effective, blocks democracy rather than fosters it. Where, they ask, has the project for democracy gone?

They hail the Spanish protestors for not getting involved in electoral politics:

The indignados did not participate in the 2011 elections, then, in part because they refused to reward a socialist party that had continued neoliberal policies and betrayed them during its years in office, but also and more importantly because they now have larger battles to fight, in particular one aimed at the structures of representation and the constitutional order itself—a fight whose Spanish roots reach back to the tradition of antifascist struggles and throw a new and critical light on the so-called transition to democracy that followed the end of the Franco regime. The indignados think of this as a destituent rather than a constituent process, a kind of exodus from the existing political structures, but it is necessary’ to prepare the basis for a new constituent power.

One is not sure why participating in the 2011 elections was identical to supporting the Social Democrats. While I am no expert in Spanish politics, it would seem to me that there is some use in challenging the ideological status quo through the kinds of campaigns that Syriza ran since 2004. Who knows? Such a party might be capable of getting elected if the people get “indignado” enough.

For Hardt and Negri, just as was the case in 2000 when they wrote “Empire”, politics is only effective when it is local, in a kind of post-Marxist tip of the hat to the late ward-heeling Congressman Tip O’Neill. And no other group exemplifies this purer approach to social change than the EZLN in Chiapas:

The clearest contemporary example of the communicative capacity of an encampment is perhaps the decades-long experiment of the Zapatista self-rule in Chiapas, Mexico. The EZLN was renowned early in its existence for its novel use of the media, including electronic communiques and Internet postings from the Lacandon jungle. Even more important and innovative, though, are the communicative networks and political truths created in the Zapatista community practices of collective self-government.

The allure of Zapatismo, at least for me, wore off quite time ago. While the struggle was instrumental in helping the anti-globalization movement to get off the ground, it has failed to materially change the conditions of life for the poor in Chiapas. As I stated in a critique of John Holloway’s “How to Change the World without Taking Power”:

In a February 3, 2003 Newsday article titled “Infant Deaths Plague Mexico”, we learn that the Comitan hospital serves nearly 500,000 people in Chiapas. Burdened by inadequate staffing and supplies, babies die at twice the national rate. Meanwhile, the February 21, 2001 Financial Times reported on a study conducted by the Association for the Health of Indigenous Children in Mexico in the village of Las Canadas, Chiapas. It found that not one girl had adequate nutritional levels compared with 39.4 per cent of boys. Female malnutrition has actually led to physical shrinking over the last decade from an average height of 1.42 meters to 1.32 meters. At the same time, more than half of women who speak an indigenous language are illiterate – five times the national average.

By contrast, Cuba’s medical system allowed its people to live longer than other Spanish-speaking nation in the Western Hemisphere, including Puerto Rico. Infant mortality in Cuba was seven deaths per 1,000 live births, much lower than the rest of Latin America.

Back in 2000, Hardt and Negri were so deep into their anti-statism that they would have seen no benefit from Hugo Chavez or any other state leader attempting to devote the nation’s resources to the benefit of the people. The “national liberation” project was dead from the start:

The perils of national liberation are even clear when viewed externally, in terms of the world economic system in which the ‘liberated’ nation finds itself. Indeed, the equation nationalism equals political and economic modernization, which has been heralded by leaders of numerous anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggles from Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh to Nelson Mandela, really ends up being a perverse trick…The very concept of a liberatory national sovereignty is ambiguous if not completely contradictory. While this nationalism seeks to liberate the multitude from foreign domination, it erects domestic structures of domination that are equally severe.

I was pleased to see that they now see some benefits in what they call progressive governments in Latin America. From the section titled “Progressive governments and social movements in Latin America” in chapter 3:

From the 1990s to the first decade of this century, governments in some of the largest countries in Latin America won elections and came to power on the backs of powerful social movements against neoliberalism and for the democratic self-management of the common. These elected, progressive governments have in many cases made great social advances, helping significant numbers of people to rise out of poverty’, transforming entrenched racial hierarchies regarding indigenous and Afro-descendant populations, opening avenues for democratic participation, and breaking long-standing external relations of dependency, in both economic and political terms, in relation to global economic powers, the world market, and US imperialism. When these governments are in power, however, and particularly when they repeat the practices of the old regimes, the social movements continue the struggle, now directed against the governments that claim to represent them.

So the basic approach outlined here amounts to critical support. In Bolivia, for example, one assumes that Hardt and Negri would find some merit in the election of Evo Morales while identifying with the protestors who “continue the struggle”. The only question, of course, is whether it makes sense for Bolivians to follow the example of the EZLN and Spain’s indignados, who tend to abstain from electoral politics.

These questions take on some urgency in light of the recent election results in Greece that prompted many leading Spanish leftists to write an open letter to Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras:

We want you, the members of your organization and the Greek citizens who, as political activists, trade unionists or participants in broad social movements, share the project of creating a common life truly based on freedom and solidarity, to know the hope with which we throughout Europe anticipate the possibility that, soon, a new Greek government of popular unity will confront the dictatorship of the financiers and bureaucrats who have hijacked Europe.

We see the current conjuncture in Greece as a turning point which could lead to a radical transformation of the European political and economic order. We need a new Europe, a Europe of and for its citizens and all its inhabitants, free of the brutal austerity policies that prioritize the payment of an odious, illegal and illegitimate debt, which prevents the human development of our communities. This is the call heard today throughout the squares of Europe, from Puerta del Sol in Madrid to Syntagma Square in Athens, squares scattered all over the European geography, liberated places that are the seeds and the constituent basis of the real democracy that women and men in Europe want to build together.

Would it make sense for the Greek left to hold Syriza at arm’s length? I think not. No matter the weakness of the leadership on one point or another, the election of Syriza holds out the promise that the Greek people will finally begin to turn back the monstrous austerity drive being imposed on it by Germany and its international allies in the big bourgeoisie. Class society will not be abolished in the ballot box, but we should never stand on the sidelines when issues of whether or not pensions should be slashed in half are at stake.

If Hardt and Negri remain hostile to what they call “socialist governments”, they do—for the first time, I believe—hold out hope for what Marx (and Lenin) described as the building blocks of true democracy, the Paris Commune or Soviet type formation:

Several twentieth-century’ socialist initiatives, for example, sought to spread power in a federalist manner by putting power in the hands of workers and constructing the means for workers to make political decisions themselves. Workers’ councils constituted the central proposition of all streams of socialism that, contrary to the authoritarian currents, consider the primary’ objective of revolution to be democracy, that is, the rule of all by all. At least since the Paris Commune, the workers’ council in its many variants, such as the German rat or the Russian soviet, has been imagined as the basis for a federalist legislative power. Such councils and the forms of delegation they institute serve not so much to represent workers but instead to allow workers directly to participate in political decision making. In many historical instances, of course, these councils functioned in a constituent way only for a brief period.

Of course, the Paris Commune is the gold standard for practically everybody on the hard left, from Marxists to autonomists to anarchists. Like the classless society, how can anybody object to it? The big difference appears to be over transitional formations like the “progressive governments” in Latin America or the USSR, even before Stalin’s rise.

There are also differences over coordinated political action through the medium of a revolutionary organization. Since Leninism has become so compromised, there is a tendency for some on the left to make a principle out of “localism” or what has been called “horizontalism”.

In a politically backward country like the USA, it matters little if you are a “horizontalist” or a dyed-in-the-wool Leninist. We are not in the ninth month of a pregnancy so your ideological affinities with Bakunin or Marx could matter less. What matters most is being effective and on this score the anarchists were a credible force early on.

However, in Greece such questions have a bit more urgency whether or not the country is in the fifth month or the ninth. By the time you get to the fifth month of a pregnancy, you have to be damned careful or else you will end up with a de facto abortion if you don’t take care of yourself.

Politics, especially electoral politics, does matter in such conditions. It matters that the KKE has taken such a suicidally sectarian position. It is, with all proportions guarded, akin to the position that the German CP took during the rise of Hitler, when it opposed the social democracy as “social fascist”. Leftists in Greece have an obligation to counter the bourgeoisie on all fronts, including the electoral front.

On May 13, the NY Times wrote about the support that Greeks gave Syriza. For some, the election was a chance to put a “progressive government” in power of the kind that Hardt and Negri gave critical support to:

But it is Europe, fearful of encouraging more policy slippage by Greece, that has been pushing the austerity line. And the danger of such an approach is growing by the day, he said.

“For whatever reason, the hard-liners in Europe are saying that we deserve it,” Mr. Hardouvelis said. “They have destroyed the political center here, and the possibility of creating another Hugo Chavez is not zero.”

For the moment, it seems unlikely that Greece will get the chance to see if Mr. Tsipras — with his talk of repudiating the country’s debt and opposing privatization — will become as radicalized as Mr. Chavez, the Venezuelan leader.

But his message that Greece can stay in the euro and reject Europe’s budget-cutting terms has struck a chord, however contradictory that may seem.

While everybody can understand the need for the revolutionary movement in Greece to apply pressure to a Syriza government from the left, in accord with the formulations in the Hardt-Negri article, it should be obvious to all that such an outcome hinges on Syriza taking power. In revolutionary politics, the final outcome—communism—rests on the outcome of many, many skirmishes and battles along the road to the final conflict. As such, keeping an open mind about electoral politics and every other medium of struggle is imperative.

May 2, 2012


Filed under: anti-capitalism,Film,media,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

Tomorrow there will be special screenings of the documentary #ReGENERATION around the country, including New York. Go to the #ReGENERATION website for a schedule and screening information, including how to watch it on Itunes. Ironically, despite much of the opprobrium heaped on the Internet in this challenging film, the men and women behind it are exploiting social networks and email to get the word out. Despite the tendency for the Internet to isolate people, there can be no argument against its ability to publicize events, especially when you can’t afford $20,000 for an ad in the NY Times.

Despite the inclusion of interviewees like Andrew Bacevich, John Bellamy Foster, Howard Zinn (footage taken before his death but very relevant to the film’s theme), Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert, the documentary is not so much an attempt to educate people about the evils of the system. Instead, it is an unsparing examination of knowing about the evil so few are willing to take a stand.

Foster, who is one of the country’s leading experts on financial crisis, does not talk about how the crisis emerged. Rather he addresses the question of why young people feel like they cannot have an impact on the system (that’s Foster at the start of the trailer). The general consensus among all the polled experts is that a combination of financial insecurity, a surfeit of television and the Internet, hedonism, and a sense of despair conspire to keep people from taking action. The contrast is continually drawn with the sixties, including remarks from Michael Albert who for some peculiar reason wears dark glasses throughout. I hope he is not suffering from eye diseases like me. My guess is that he wanted to look “cool”. Uncool.

One of the more informed commentators is Sut Jhally, a professor of Communications at U. Mass. Even if you don’t get around to seeing #ReGENERATION (but surely you must!), a visit to Jhally’s website is very useful for understanding the film’s concerns. In an article titled “Advertising at the edge of Apocalypse,” Jhally writes:

A culture dominated by commercial messages that tells individuals that the way to happiness is through consuming objects bought in the marketplace gives a very particular answer to the question of “what is society?” what is it that binds us together in some kind of collective way, what concerns or interests do we share? In fact, Margaret Thatcher, the former conservative British Prime Minister, gave the most succinct answer to this question from the viewpoint of the market. In perhaps her most (in)famous quote she announced: “There is no such thing as ‘society’. There are just individuals and their families.” According to Mrs. Thatcher, there is nothing solid we can call society no group values, no collective interests society is just a bunch of individuals acting on their own.

The film also benefits greatly from the insights of Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters and arguably the founder of Occupy Wall Street as well since it was first proposed in his magazine. (He always stresses, however, that he deserves no credit.) Born in 1942, Lasn has obviously been shaped by the 60s radicalization. Like many others from this generation, he is a trenchant critic of “consumer capitalism”. Despite the sense of alienation and futility that permeates much of the commentary heard throughout the film, it concludes on an optimistic note as it shows young people occupying Wall Street.

The film frets over television addiction, stating the average American spends four hours a day in front of the boob tube. It adds that young people are particularly distracted, often using a laptop, watching TV and texting their friends on a cell phone all at the same time. As someone with a deep hatred for cell phones, or talking on the phone at all, I felt somewhat less enchained by the communications nexus. That being said, I am sure that I have the television on at least those many hours but it usually just background noise while I read or surf the Internet. Someone once described color television as having the same charm of a fish tank and that always rang true with me, especially if I have the National Geographic channel on.

On a deeper level, however, I think the basic problem is over the failure of the “heavy battalions” of American society to challenge the status quo. While the film makes much of the student rebellion of the 1960s, the example of 10 years of civil rights protests set the stage for the first big antiwar demonstrations. The idea of coming out into the streets was entirely natural by 1965, the date of the first protest.

The Black movement went into retreat in the 1970s because of an adroit combination of repression and cooptation by the ruling class. With Black Panthers being shot down left and right and hustlers like Al Sharpton getting a seat at the table, a crisis of leadership developed. It was even worse for the AFL-CIO with leaders that happily made one concession after another as the rank-and-file worker got the shaft. If the minor trade union bureaucrats who launched the Labor Party in the 1970s had the courage of their convictions to actually run candidates, fewer people would have become TV addicts, I’m sure. There is nothing like the power of a mass movement to shake people out of their doldrums.

Thank goodness that the May Day action in NYC yesterday showed signs that the old mole is on the move again.

John Halle report on Occupy May Day

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 2:16 pm

So it looks like the corporate media has declared a blackout on reporting the huge Occupy May Day rally in New York yesterday. That means we’ll need to supply our own reports to find out what went on. Unfortunately, I’m buried under school work so this will have to be short and unedited-so with than in mind here goes. I decided to take my six year old Ben figuring this would be a much better education than anything he would be likely to get in his first grade class-no disrespect to his excellent teacher Mrs. Bell. Having Ben limited my options a bit.

We got there at around 12:45. At Grand Central there were large numbers of cops stationed at the subway turnstiles with signs itemizing the charges which turnstile hoppers would face. So that quashed one possible form of CD which had been discussed.

My plan was to go to a few of the Open University sessions at Madison Park on 23rd st. but these seemed to be winding down. Also, while Parents for Occupy Wall Street had set themselves up in the playground, Ben was the only big kid there. (It seems I was among a relatively small number of parents encouraging their kids to boycott their classes!). They told us that Parents for Occupy had set up a Hogwarth’s academy in Bryant Park. Harry Potter. Cool! So we got in a cab and headed 18 blocks North. The cab driver-possibly in a show of solidarity-didn’t start the meter. We had a nice chat about Mayday.

Bryant Park when we got there was crowded with what seemed to be a throng of about 2-3000 people at least and which swelled larger after feeder marches from other demonstrations ended up there. After checking out some of the Hogwarth academy classes, including Defense against the Dark Arts (Capitalism), we went over to the rehearsal for the Guitarmy which was to start its march to Union Square at 2 PM. Ben sat on the shoulders of the Gertrude Stein statue and listened intently taking pictures on my I phone of his new favorite rock star Tom Morello. After a bit of milling around we headed south on sixth avenue. It was hard to get a sense of the size of the crowd though clearly enough to create a traffic problem (other reports indicated something like 20-30,000). Ben sat on my shoulders most of the way (oh my aching back!) taking videos and joined in with the chants including an excellent new one “One-we are the people. Two-we are united. Three-the occupation is not leaving.”

At around 28th st. (?) after the demonstration had spilled into the streets, blocking traffic, the cops managed to separate the crowd into at least two groups. We were right at the separation point and it appeared that a physical confrontation might be in the offing so we kept walking downtown, pretending we were normal pedestrians. Not sure if there were any arrests of demonstrators trying to break through the police lines. What we did see was a procession of probably sixty to seventy police cars come down Broadway on the now vacant street ending up, as we were to discover, at Union Square.

By the time Ben and I got to Union Square, we were hungry so we slid into a coffee shop on the west side of the park, sitting at a booth next to two cops, and getting two excellent though overpriced cheeseburgers. After a brief lesson on radical history, Ben was appropriately prepared to attend his first major demonstration. His reading lesson for the day consisted of various signs denouncing capitalism functioning as his “See Jane run.” primers. Hope that’s OK, Mrs. Bell!

We managed to set ourselves up on stairs about 100 feet from the stage but Ben insisted on getting closer to the stage to see his new friend Tom Morello (who had given us a thumbs up when we were next to him during the march down). So, at the cost of what remains of my hearing, we moved to to the front of the stage, in the midst of a throng of mostly 20 something fans of the various bands who would appear. And so began the main lesson for the day turned out to be, of all things, a music lesson-for me and Ben. The speeches from the stage turned out to be for the most part boiler plate union and immigrant rights blather. (Incidentally, did it occur to anyone that Wall Street, for the most part, is in favor of unlimited immigration? Goldman Sachs, for example, spends millions of dollars in legal fees attempting to secure O visas for Bengalore Institute of Technology grads to work on their trading algorithms, but let’s let that pass).

What was absolutely awesome were the musical acts. Tom Morello, who I had high hopes for, was pretty good at getting the crowd going in a post Guthrie-Seeger singalong. But he was overshadowed by the other acts. Percussionist Bobby Sanabria of Local 802, after a rather peculiar and incoherent rant about the Grammies having withdrawn the “latin jazz” category with a surprisingly engaging salsa arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s now three quarter century old anthem “Be-bop”. The saxophonist (who I didn’t know-I guess this means I’m finally off that scene) managed to breath new life into now age old Coltrane licks.

Next came Das Racist, who I of course, had never heard of, but everyone else had, as most of the crowd somehow managed to recite along with them quasi dadaist, rhythmicized texts-this is what the youngsters call “rap” or “hip-hop” I’m told. (That’s a joke, but not so much of one.)

They were followed by Dan Deacon, who I had heard of since he had just collaborated on a piece for the group the Now Ensemble (on whose board I sit). This was truly weird and truly wonderful-I suppose this is what is called electronica and consisted of two uptempo happy pieces being channeled through the sound system as someone named Greg (I think) was dispatched to the crowd to lead us all (including Ben who is normally hugely resistant to this kind of thing) in a kind of Grateful Dead style interpretive dance. Now that sounds absolutely horrible but it was truly wonderful-a triumph of nerd musical populism. If there’s any aesthetic I can get behind, its that. And to top it off, Deacon was able to make it relevant to Occupy in his introduction-maybe even mentioning (though I’m not sure) the recent A.P. report on 53% unemployment among recent college grads. Lord knows they need this ultra-optimist, soothing and crowd friendly music desperately. Post-Webern atonalism was perhaps the appropriate music for the affluent society, come to think of it.

Next came the now geriatric New York labor chorus and my heart sank expecting the worst-and out of tune rendition of some old labor chestnut which would have no meaning or resonance to the demographic assembled in front of the stage. But you can’t imagine my joy and relief when they pulled of a spectacular gospel version of Solidarity Forever with a black church lady soloing in the classic Mahalia Jackson style. We all sang along-I’ll be damned.

The best came last: Immortal Technique. I don’t know anything about this guy, of course. All I know is that this was utterly compelling on all of the levels on which it was operating: rhetorical, musical and political. Again, as with das Racist, hundreds of audience members reciting the words in unison, seemingly page after page of direct, passionate and uncompromising class politics. So everything that was lacking in the political content of the speeches was there in spades in the music. If this movement takes off, just as was the case in the sixties, its foundation will be not in this or that ideological tract produced by some dissident intellectual, its foundation will, apparently be in the music it has spawned and which is giving rise to it.

The bottom line was that this felt like a new Woodstock-with the difference being that the New York Times sent its reporters to Woodstock. Times readers, and those whose reality is defined by it, are now completely unable to see a reality which is taken shape under their noses.

Finally, Immortal Technique left the stage to those who were responsible for the whole thing to begin with-the core organizers from the New York General Assembly and who had set up the infrastructure which would become Occupy Wall Street last September. I had tagged along with my friend David Graeber to the organizing meeting where what they would say on stage how they would say it was being discussed last Friday. I was a bit apprehensive that they would be able to pull something together that would both engage the crowd and would provide the right kind of direction for the march downtown to Wall Street which would materialize immediately after. But again, I’ll be damned if they pulled it off, introducing the lexicon of CD techniques which the crowd could make use of in the march to follow and leading the crowd in some of what are now the defining chants of the movement.

I would have loved to be a part of the march which followed which was supposed to go straight down Broadway, terminating at 2 Broadway, wherever that was. The cops, apparently, blocked the march, preventing it from getting started, bottling up a throng of what must have been at least 50,000 people, some of whom were plenty capable of doing what was necessary to break through the police lines-a potentially tense scene was starting to materialize.

At this point, however, Ben was completely burned out, and told me so. And so, we got on the subway, headed to Grand Central and got on the 6:12 express train back home.

Thanks for reading what is, I’m sure, a complete mess. I’ve got to go grade harmony exams!

April 20, 2012

High school students back Mayday protest

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 3:06 pm

Read accompanying article.

April 19, 2012

Socialists of America, Unite!

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 2:41 pm

Socialists of America, Unite! on May 1, 2012

Occupy spread like wildfire, setting America ablaze. From large cities like New York City and Los Angeles to small towns like Martinsburg, Virginia and Mobile, Alabama, occupiers are consistently organizing, planning, discussing, and taking direct action for the 99%.

Not since the 1960s and 1930s have so many people taken militant action against the state and capital.

No matter what we think of Occupy’s calls for a general strike on May 1, the important thing is that those calls are resonating on a scale not seen since the days of the free speech fights and the call for “One Big Union” by the Industrial Workers of the World.

It is with this in mind that we, the undersigned, call on all socialists, regardless of organizational affiliation or lack thereof, to unite in joint action on May 1, 2012.

In places where there will be large permitted May Day marches like New York City, there will be a multi-tendency contingent with socialists from a variety of organizations and independent socialists as well. In places without May 1 marches, mass meetings or socials to celebrate May Day might be more appropriate.

Regardless what form it takes, on May 1, 2012 we should act together.

To be clear, we are not saying that socialists who are in unions, campus groups, or other organizations leave or separate from the contingents/actions those organizations are planning.

We are saying that whatever locally based action socialists take on May 1 should be united in order to maximize our visibility, impact, and influence.

Any individual or organization may sign this call by emailing may1socialistunity@gmail.com and/or “liking” our Facebook page.

For more information on how to link up with this initiative or organize a joint action in your area, contact may1socialistunity@gmail.com.


Ben Campbell, Occupy Wall Street

Bhaskar Sunkara, Editor, Jacobin magazine

Billy Wharton, Socialist Party USA

Bob Turansky, Solidarity

Clay Claiborne, Venice filmmaker and The North Star

Chris Cutrone, Platypus Society

Chris Maisano, Democratic Socialists of America

Carl Davidson, Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism

Dan La Botz, Solidarity

Jason Schulman, New Politics magazine, Democratic Socialists of America

Fernando Gapasin, Freedom Road Socialist Organization

Manuel Barrera, independent revolutionary socialist

Michael Hirsch, New Politics magazine

Steve Early, Labor journalist, organizer, and member of Newspaper Guild/CWA

Zak, Occupy Wall Street Class War Camp


*Organizations listed for identification purposes only.

Organizational endorsements: John Reed Society; Platypus Affiliated Society

April 13, 2012

Occupy Wall Street – for Real This Time

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 3:45 pm

Occupy Wall Street – for Real This Time

by Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street on April 13, 2012

Armed with nothing more than sleeping bags and revolutionary spirit, dozens of occupiers have slept on Wall Street for the past few days. Under a recently uncovered 2000 federal court ruling, protesters have a right to sleep on the sidewalk in New York City provided they only take up half of it and do not engage in disorderly conduct.

full: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=516

April 4, 2012

The Republican Prayer

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 7:59 pm

March 27, 2012

Over a Cliff and Into Occupy With Lenin

Filed under: Lenin,Occupy Wall Street,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 2:04 pm

Over a Cliff and Into Occupy With Lenin

by Pham Binh

Pink Scare’s (PS) response  to the debate ignited by my review  of Tony Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party affords me the opportunity to clarify issues of secondary importance like timing, judgments, method, and implications that did not fit with the content of my responses to the Cliff book’s two defenders, Paul Le Blanc and Paul D’Amato. In addition, I will discuss the role of Lars Lih in this little firestorm.

PS is appreciative but ultimately dissatisfied with Lih’s contribution because he does not spell out the practical implications of his research for revolutionary Marxists today and instead adopts a “non-political posture” of “scholarly neutrality.” Le Blanc and D’Amato also tried to fault my book review for similar reasons, namely, that it did not situate Cliff’s book in today’s context, although my views on party building today were made abundantly clear in two different articles prior to the Cliff debate and one article after it.

It seems no one is allowed to examine the historical record surrounding Lenin or challenge anyone else’s presentation of Lenin’s work without including a detailed how-to manual for today’s revolutionary.

This line of criticism fails to address a very basic point: why should a book review of Cliff’s Lenin (written in 1975) include a discussion of how what Lenin did is applicable today when Cliff’s book contains no such discussion of how its content should be applied by Cliff’s group, the International Socialists (successor to the British Socialist Workers Party) in their political context of the mid-to-late 1970s? Surely what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

I mirrored Cliff’s narrow focus on Lenin and the history of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). If my book review or Lih’s contribution suffered because neither of us drew up a balance sheet of applicable lessons for today, the same is equally true of Cliff’s book, although our contributions have not been shown to contain the kind of errors that marred Cliff’s Lenin.


So the question remains: why did I review Cliff’s book in early 2012?

Why re-litigate battles from a century ago as battles today rage in the streets of New York City, Athens, and Homs?

In fact, I began my review of Cliff’s Lenin began around the time I wrote The Bolshevik Experience and the ‘Leninist’ Model  in summer of 2011, before Occupy Wall Street (OWS) broke out almost literally on my doorstep. The lull in OWS activity following the November 15 eviction allowed me to complete this project, since I had far more important things to do during the encampment than re-read Cliff.

This explains the “odd” timing of the book review. What prompted me in the first place to look at Cliff’s book carefully, chapter by chapter, in summer of 2011 was Lars Lih’s response to Chris Harman and Paul Le Blanc in Historical Materialism 18. Here, Lih mentioned some of Building the Party’s factual errors. I was curious to see if there were any errors that Lih had not brought to light. The rest, as they say, is history.


Does it follow then, as PS claims, that, “Pham thinks Cliff’s book is of zero value and should be thrown in the dustbin of history. He makes it sound as if the most important debate right now is, in some sweeping sense: ‘Tony Cliff: Yay or Nay?’”

My book review never claimed that Cliff’s Lenin has “zero value and should be thrown in the dustbin of history.” I was much more careful and specific, arguing that the book was “useless as a historical study of Lenin’s actions and thoughts.” Believe it or not, plenty of books have value even if they are not historical studies of Lenin’s thoughts and actions. Cliff’s Lenin is no exception.

The value of Cliff’s Lenin is a separate issue from any sort of sweeping judgment of Tony Cliff as a man, writer, or revolutionary. He wrote about a huge range of subjects during the almost 90 years of his life. One book, no matter how awful or problematic, is an insufficient basis for making a “yay or nay” judgment on someone’s life and work. Anyone who read my book review and thought that my goal was to “get Tony Cliff” or make such a judgment has probably spent too much time in the marginal and unhealthy environment known as the socialist movement where strawmen, sweeping personalistic condemnations, and sweeping yays and nays have become the rule rather than the exception.


PS says that the body of my review consisted of “quibbling complaints about this or that error made by Tony Cliff.” Getting the meaning of democratic centralism wrong, distorting Lenin’s attitude towards party rules, failing to represent Lenin’s view of the famous 1903 Menshevik-Bolshevik dispute as expressed in painstaking detail in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, and ignoring the fact that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks did not become separate, independent parties until 1917 hardly constitutes quibbling for any serious student of Bolshevism.

If all of the above is quibbling, it begs the question of what exactly for PS would constitute significant distortions, inaccuracies, flaws, or factual errors? Should we rest content that the moral of the story – we must build a revolutionary party! – is the correct one? If so, why bother being accurate at all?

The Value of Accuracy

Historical accuracy is paramount if we are trying to use history as a guide to action.

We cannot learn from what happened unless we actually know (and acknowledge) what happened. History, like the present, will always be contested to some degree, but intelligent debate over what happened, when, and why is not possible when those involved in such disputes maintain their views despite a growing body of evidence that contradicts the factual basis for their particular interpretation. Paul Le Blanc’s insistence that the Bolsheviks became a separate party from the Mensheviks in 1912 at the Prague Conference falls into this category because, to adhere to this interpretation, one must ignore or downplay the testimonies of conference participants such as Lenin and Zinoviev as well as a slew of documentary evidence from the period since all of it points in the opposite direction. Why the 1912 issue is important I will examine later in this piece.

Cliff’s Lenin has value – as a cautionary tale of how not to approach the work of others (Lenin’s primarily, but also that of scholars) and how not to handle historical documents and complex issues. (Building the Party’s Russian-language citations are copied from secondary sources without proper attribution, making it almost impossible for anyone else to look at the material he used to write his book.)

The single most important lesson we can learn from Cliff’s Lenin is the necessity of putting the work of Lenin and the Bolsheviks back into its proper historical context, which is the international social democratic movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. This Cliff did not do in his zeal to “prove” this or that point about the nature of the revolutionary party (a loaded concept that deserves to be unpacked), the nature of said party’s internal regime, and its alleged leadership style. By contrast, Lih’s work will withstand the test of time and the harshest of critical examinations because he seeks to understand Lenin historically, as he was, as he evolved over time, regardless of the implications for revolutionary organizers today.

Lih has no dog in our fight, nor should he. Claiming that he “position[s] himself as a mere scholar—rather than activist—[who] repeatedly invokes his expertise and specific role as a ‘historian’” and, as a result of such so-called positioning, “offers little insight into the questions that really matter here” as PS does is ridiculous for the following reason: no matter how wonderful Lih’s scholarship on Lenin is, he is not going to do our thinking for us. Drawing out the implications of his work is our job, not his.

Any student of that era, those issues, or the man (Lenin) would do well to imitate Lih’s method in approaching the history of Bolshevism if they really want to mine that experience for the valuable lessons it undoubtedly contains.

When studying history we should focus on precisely that – history. Engaging in historical study focused on “advancing our understanding of the contemporary conjuncture and struggles within it” as PS suggests will inevitably distort what we get out of looking at events that occurred yesterday, yesteryear, and a century ago, especially when they happened in foreign countries whose cultures, languages, and traditions are not readily comparable to our own. Approaching the past with a “what do I get out of it in the here and now?” or a “what in this is immediately applicable to my situation?” mentality is to blind ourselves to history’s rich contradictions and nuances in favor of something simplistic and readily digestible.


The dedication of my book review “to anyone and everyone [who] has sacrificed in the name of ‘building the revolutionary party,’” has nothing to do with declaring that project to be a “bankrupt political goal,” despite what PS seems to think. If that is what I thought I would just come out and say it.

I don’t mince words.

The dedication is a reference to the fact that generations of socialists all over the world have made personal sacrifices of one sort or another in the name of the title of Cliff’s book, Building the Party under the assumption that their efforts would contribute in some way to the creation of a Bolshevik-type party. I have no problem with people choosing to make such sacrifices, but choosing to do so based on severe distortions or a nonexistent historical precedent is a different story.

PS’s concluding words compel me to clarify where I don’t stand on some questions as well:

If there is one relatively clear political implication of Pham’s intervention, it seems to be that Lenin was “an orthodox Kautsykist” and that the distinction between Second International reformism (associated with Kautsky and the SPD) and early Third International revolutionary politics (associated with Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Lenin) is historically inaccurate.

I am mystified how anyone could read my book review of Cliff’s Lenin and my replies to Paul Le Blanc and Paul D’Amato and write that Cliff getting Lenin wrong has “one relatively clear political implication” on issues such as Lenin’s relationship to Karl Kautsky or the Third International’s relationship to the Second. Cliff’s book did not delve into those topics at all and neither did I. Perhaps I am somehow being confused or conflated with Lih since he has actually done work on Lenin’s take on Kautsky?

Whatever the case, I would never be so stupid to think that the distinction between the Second and Third Internationals “is historically inaccurate.” I do believe that the character of those distinctions has been profoundly misunderstood by “Leninists.” That topic, along with “Leninism” and whether the Bolsheviks really constituted a “party of a new type,” will be addressed in a future piece that I began before OWS.

Stay tuned.

The Importance of 1912

To be candid, these debates have zero importance beyond the ranks of historians like Lih and those who continue to find inspiration in or lessons to be learned from the Bolsheviks. But the issue of 1912 looms large for those of us in the latter milieu because of statements like this from D’Amato:

The outcome of the period 1912-1917 was that two independent political parties entered the arena of struggle in 1917. The irreconcilable differences between these two parties, which led one to support soviet power and the other to oppose it, led to a Bolshevik victory over the opposition of the Mensheviks, and later to the founding of a new international that was based upon soviet power and the need for revolutionary Marxists to organisationally separate themselves from social-democratic reformism. Can a debate over the exact date when the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks split shed any more light in these critical developments in the history of the socialist movement?

My answer to his closing question is unequivocally “yes!”, although the evidence indicates that there is no single “exact date” in 1917 when this separation took place. It was a process, more like balding than a divorce.

The reason I say yes is because the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were part of the same broad multi-tendency party from 1903 until 1917 that “Leninists” today strenuously reject as a bankrupt model doomed to fail.

The 1917 Russian revolution proves that this model is anything but bankrupt or doomed in advance. The differences between the two factions were not always irreconcilable. To insist otherwise would be ahistorical (or undialectical, if you prefer). Lenin’s writings up until 1917 are filled with rejections of the notion that there could or should be two “organisationally separate” RSDLPs, one Menshevik, the other Bolshevik.

(Interesting fact: the phrase “Bolshevik Party” never occurs in Lenin’s Collected Works during the 1912-1916 period except as explanatory editorial notes written by people other than Lenin. Only in 1917 does Lenin himself speak and write of the Bolsheviks as a party.)

Conflating the liquidationists, the Mensheviks, and social-democratic reformists (Bernsteinists) with one another as D’Amato does makes all of this impossible to understand or even acknowledge. Neither Lenin nor the Bolsheviks were what we call “Leninists,” nor did they who build a “party of a new type” totally unlike and superior to their international social democratic brethren. The historical evidence indicates that they were revolutionary social democrats who defended what they considered to be orthodoxy from the likes of Eduard Bernstein and later, the man who did more than anyone else to create that orthodoxy, Kautsky.

All of this goes to show how history’s rich complexities and ironies clash with the simplistic and distorted accounts of the Bolsheviks and Lenin put forward by detractors and would-be imitators alike. What (if anything) this means for us today is a matter of debate, but historical falsehoods and fictions (when we know better!) should not be part of that debate.

Lenin and Occupy

Many socialists have cheered Lih’s demolition of the textbook interpretation of Lenin’s work without examining how many of our own preconceptions on the subject are now part of the same pile of rubble.

The fact that Occupy has functioned in practice like the much-sought-after but never replicated vanguard party that Lenin helped create in early 20th century Russia has also escaped much of the Marxist left. These two developments are not coincidental.

Leon Trotsky’s description of the party as “a lever for enhancing the activity of the advanced workingmen” captures exactly how Occupy has functioned. In the space of four weeks, OWS mobilized more workers and oppressed people than the entire U.S. socialist left combined has in four decades. OWS did not begin with a program or a series of demands but with an action that inspired tens of thousands of others to act, speak, march, occupy, and rise up in an elemental awakening (or stikhiinyi in Russian).

Inspirational leadership is the core theme of Lih’s Lenin biography and underpins Lenin’s writings as well. Consider his words from Left-Wing Communism explaining why and how the Bolsheviks triumphed against all odds during the 1917  revolution and the brutal civil war that followed:

[T]he Bolsheviks could not have retained power for two and a half months, let alone two and a half years, without the most rigorous and truly iron discipline in our Party, or without the fullest and unreserved support from the entire mass of the working class, that is, from all thinking, honest, devoted and influential elements in it, capable of leading the backward strata or carrying the latter along with them. … I repeat: the experience of the victorious dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia has clearly shown even to those who are incapable of thinking or have had no occasion to give thought to the matter that absolute centralisation and rigorous discipline of the proletariat are an essential condition of victory over the bourgeoisie. … This is often dwelt on. However, not nearly enough thought is given to what it means, and under what conditions it is possible.

It should go without saying that Occupy at six months does not resemble a disciplined, centralized organization steeled over two decades of battles. That is not the important part of the comparison. It’s what lies underneath the discipline that Lenin described as “an essential condition of the Bolsheviks’ success” that is the key:

The first questions to arise are: how is the discipline of the proletariat’s revolutionary party maintained? How is it tested? How is it reinforced? First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism. Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people—primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people. Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct.

If there any words to describe the thousands of occupiers who continually defy cops in riot gear, risking beatings, arrests, and wanton brutality simply to maintain a presence in an ostensibly public space, they are tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism.

That same tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism led four college students to sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in the South, sparking a new phase of the civil rights movement as thousands launched similar sit-ins. That same tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism led a small band of Black activists to don leather jackets and berets and carry shotguns in one hand and law books in the other in 1966. Calling themselves the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, they succeeded at winning mass support in the Black community in short order. The tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism of the Industrial Workers of the World (or Wobblies) is the stuff of legend.

It was OWS’s tenacity, self-sacrifice, and heroism in the face of New York Police Department (NYPD) Inspector Anthony Bologna’s pepper spray  rampage on September 24, 2011 that ended the isolation that marked week one  of the occupation and allowed it to link up, maintain close contact, and merge with the masses in weeks two  and three. NYPD repression did for OWS what Bloody Sunday did for the Russian revolution in 1905 (although thankfully no one was killed).

The correctness of Occupy’s tactics and political strategy is deeply felt by huge numbers of people because both have proven to be unmatched in effectiveness. This mass feeling explains why the ideas, values, and methods that animated OWS such as General Assemblies, modified consensus, autonomy, horizontalism, direct action, and direct democracy dominate all corners of Occupy. All of this has become the uprising’s common sense, its animus.

Huge numbers of people look to Occupy for “how to live and how to die.”

The excitement over Occupy’s calls for a May 1 general strike and the anticipation felt by almost everyone about the prospect of an American Spring are a symptom of Occupy’s vanguard role. Occupy has also assumed another aspect of what is typically associated with Lenin and the vanguard party:

[T]he Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation.

OWS played this role from its inception, marching against the execution of Troy Davis. Solidarity was automatic. Shortly after Davis was murdered by the state of Georgia on September 21, 2011, signs appeared at OWS that read: “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one!” A “single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation” indeed.

By standing up to tyranny, oppression, and police brutality directed against people of color, Occupy has won enduring respect and created alliances  with a variety of racial and religious minority communities. It has gone from being for the 99% to being by the 99%, which brings us to the next compelling overlap between Occupy and Lenin’s ideas.

Derided by the Marxist left for being vague, populist, blurry, or class collaborationist, the 99% is in fact synonymous with Lenin’s vision of a revolution accomplished by the narod, which Lih rightly notes has an emotional punch in Russian that the English version (the people) lacks. Add the peasantry, students, and all of Russia’s oppressed peoples together with the working class and it would probably be numerically close to the 99% espoused by Occupy.

Lenin’s vision of revolution was fundamentally inclusive, not exclusive, and the same is true of Occupy’s vision. So where does all of this leave the socialist movement in the United States? Does that mean (try not to cringe) that Lenin is no longer relevant? The answer to these questions depends on what you take from the Bolshevik experience.

At one point in his career, Lenin set out to unify scattered local informal groups of intellectuals and workers known as circles into something resembling the German Social Democratic Party. Six months into the greatest explosion of mass struggle in almost half a century, today’s socialist left is much smaller numerically than the Socialist Labor Party was at its low point (6,000 in 1898) and growing at a snail’s pace, if that. Today, socialist groups generally do not have contact with, much less productive, ongoing, working relationships with one another nationally, or even locally.

Imagine the Russian circles that Lenin sought to unite all declaring that political differences with their counterparts across town or in other parts of Russia were too great  to be in the same organization. Instead of uniting, they formed separate membership organizations, published rival newspapers, and competed with one another for individual adherents. Do this and you get some idea of how the problems Lenin faced stack up to the problems we face.

Since we don’t have Tsarist repression to deal with, since we have the “air and light” Kautsky said  we needed for a successful political workers’ movement, the only people to blame for this sorry state of affairs is ourselves (and our predecessors). Any observer who looks at our movement will not feel inspired to join up and make sacrifices for a great cause; they are more likely to feel despair, frustration, and bewilderment at the foolish, needless, endless, and counterproductive divisions that are keeping us weak despite the greatest opening in a generation (or three).

Unless we start doing something different, we are not going to end up with anything different than what we have now, no matter how badly we want it or how hard we work. When you’re stuck in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.

If there’s anything we can learn from Lenin and apply now, it’s that if we rise to the tasks before us and get our act together, we can turn our movement around and make it a factor of the first order in American politics again.

Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Occupied Wall Street Journal and The Indypendent. Check out thenorthstar.info, the first national collaborative blog by and for occupiers.

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