Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 26, 2016

The “We Can” Moment in Vijayawada, South India

Filed under: india,racism,repression,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

A guest post by Vijaya Kumar Marla

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 Kanhaiya Kumar, President of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union. 

Usually any charged atmosphere with a large number of people can metamorphose in to a frenzy and mob violence. But in Vijayawada (capital city of the state of Andhra Pradesh), on the evening of 24th March 2016, a large number of people had gathered in anticipation of hearing Kanhaiya Kumar, the rage among youth and students of this country. His posters are on display everywhere, as we reached the city from the airport.

I was accompanying him on his trip from Hyderabad to Vijayawada. When he got down from the airport bus at the arrival lounge, the appreciative glances of the policemen deployed there towards Kanhaiya could not escape my attention. Is this the same Kanhaiya Kumar who had recounted his tête-à-tête with police while he was in Delhi’s Tihar Jail on trumped-up charges of shouting anti-India slogans in his university, in his now famous address at JNU on 3rd March? I think that conversation of Kanhaiya with a constable in the jail and the way he recounted it has an impact on policemen all over the country. After all, day-in and day-out we often come across politicians blaming police for brutality and atrocities, which are not entirely without substance. But an incisive analysis and comment by a young man just released from jail, saying that the police are also ordinary human beings like us and that they are helpless in many aspects when they had to practice their profession under heavy stress and the mention of their meager wages has had an impact on the police. Lo, here is a young man, charged with sedition and beaten up by goons in the presence of full police force and being hounded in the social media and the net, and now being accompanied by police escorts as if he is a top law maker, all the way from airport to his meeting place.

I have not seen so much love and hatred being displayed against one man in the Internet. The venomous hatred appears to be mostly manufactured in the IT office of the Hindutva (Rightist Hindu) brigade. There are no limits on indecency and anyone who objects to the foul language on display is immediately targeted. Sometimes, I wonder, all this spewing of venom and attacking everyone will not work against the Hindutva brigade? What about all the laws about decency on the net? Or do they not apply to the net-storm troopers of the ruling party? On our way to the meeting hall, we found hundreds of people lining up with garlands at many places to greet this young man. He had to stop at a few places to greet them and receive the flowers. TV cameras were hounding us throughout our journey, even as we signaled to them that Kanhaiya is not in our car. As we neared the meeting place, it was a thorough chaos. The whole traffic in the area is jammed with vehicles and we had to make our way by foot, snaking through bikes and parked cars. We heard a commotion, with two not so young men, in saffron scarves, being pushed out of the meeting hall.

By that time, Kanhaiya was safely escorted inside by a big team of red shirted volunteers. I have seen thousands of young people wearing white T-shirts with pictures of Rohit Vemula and Kanhaiya. The police were trying to halt the Leftist youth from charging on to the two BJP youth wing men, who tried to raise anti-Kanhaiya slogans. An obviously working class woman in her forties was seen shouting at the BJP men and urging the Leftist students to trash them. That was the general mood outside the hall. And such scenes are not uncommon in a politically active city of Vijayawada. As we were ushered in to the hall on the first floor, we found the huge hall jam-packed with students wearing Rohit-Kanhaiya T-shirts and redshirts. From the badges they were wearing, I could gather that they belong to various student organizations, AISF (CPI), SFI (CPIM), PDSU (CPI-ML) and a sprinkling of NSUI (Congress). There were many elderly and middle aged people, obviously from Leftist parties. The National Secretary of CPI, Dr. K. Narayana was seen standing near the wall.

I was seated near-by where he was standing and I had seen people offering him their seat. He politely refused and I had seen A.P State Secretaries of CPI and CPM sitting in the audience, as mere spectators. Then there was commotion again, as a lone BJP youth tried to shout some slogans, but he was quickly overpowered and I have seen him losing his shirt in the mêlée. He was picked up by the police and taken away. I have seen the large hall completely jam-packed, with almost half the people standing along the walls, as there were no seats. With soany thousands of people inside, he hall was hot and stuffy, with the mercury touching 43°C (110°F) outside. I am recounting this as a spectator to the event. The press had given undue coverage to the BJP youth who tried to shout slogans unsuccessfully. This sort of a political friction is not unusual at many places in India. Kanhaiya Kumar was the main speaker and as he was invited to speak, he asked whether he should speak in Hindi or English. The audience chose Hindi, which was surprising.

But from the response he got, I understood that Hindi films had their effect on the people of Vijayawada, where only Telugu is spoken, unlike in Hyderabad. He started with the attack on universities by the BJP government and charged that the upper class mindset could not tolerate poor students from backward regions and lower castes entering the portals of the hallowed institutions such as JNU and HCU and learning to question the prevalent inequalities and social discrimination. “Besides our subjects, we also learn and discuss issues that affect our lives and I believe this is a part of our process of enlightenment. We don’t want to go to the streets shouting slogans. Given a peaceful atmosphere, we would like to spend our time in class rooms and in the library. It is they who are preventing us from continuing our studies. They want to limit the intellectual space in the universities all across the country to the cage of Hindutva ideology and we are opposing this process of indoctrination.”

The ruling ideology of Hindutva wants to create binaries of ‘us vs. them’ in the name of Bharat Mata (Mother India). Whoever does not say, “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (Hail Mother India) is anti-national, they allege. But we say, our Bharat Mata is not the same as your Bharat Mata. Your Bharat Mata is a glamorous lady, bejeweled and wearing a saffron sari, symbolizing the rich. Our Bharat Mata is a Dalit  (untouchable caste) woman, emaciated, wearing rags and working in the fields under the hot sun, a mother who struggles to feed her children, a mother who works as a village social worker, a mother or sister who works in the factories, drives a bus, pilots an airplane.. This is out Bharat Mata.” He said that he had met Rohit Vemula’s mother (The Dalit scholar who had committed suicide unable to bear the brunt of social discrimination in Hyderabad Central University in January this year) and told her that he will continue the struggle until social discrimination ends. We want Left and Dalit voices to come together.

Besides this unity, we are struggling to build a broad rainbow coalition of all oppressed working people, who have to fight this communal and neo-liberal virus with all the might we could gather. This is a long fight, but the victory will be ours. He further said that India has 700 million young people and Modi had captured power promising Rs. 150 thousands in everyone’s bank account from recovered black money and 100 million jobs. This is a false promise and now he and his government have to face the ire of the youth for their deceit. Modi says that he will build a modern India with Hi-Tech industries and make India the world’s manufacturing hub, with the slogan of “Make-in-India.” I question him, when 75% of young job aspirants in this country have less than 5th standard qualification and they cannot get a job in any modern industry, how are you going to provide 100 million jobs.

The previous government under DR. Manmohan Singh and now Modi’s government are cutting expenditure on education, cutting down assistance to poor and lower caste students. Unable to bear the cost of private education, they are leaving schools. Unless the government spends a large amount of money on public education and health, it is questionable how you can prepare the youth to work in modern industry. He stressed the need for Left Parties to come together, putting aside their differences. He said young people of his generation, those who are born after 1985 could not understand why the communist movement had to split into so many splinter groups. “Let us come together, put aside the differences of the past and start talking to the people about their problems in a jargon which they understand.”

His appeal struck a chord with the thousands who were listening to him in rapt attention. There was a thunderous applause of approval. Having seen for the last 45 years how the various Left groups fought pitched battles among themselves, it was a pleasant feeling for me to see them sitting together and listening to a young man, young enough to be their son, urging them to bury the past differences and come together to fight the bigger enemy. I have seen leaders of various Left groups embracing each other and recalling the good old days when as young men, they fought together under one flag. At the end of his hour long speech, he recited the now famous song that he sang at a meeting immediately before his arrest on February 11, 2016 at Jawaharlal Nehru University. It goes like this:

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Aazadi (Hind/Urdu for freedom)

Aazadi from Hunger

Aazadi from poverty

Aazadi from unemployment

Aazadi from capitalism

Aazadi from Manuvad (BJP’s Hindu politics)

Aazadi from caste discrimination

We don’t want freedom FROM India, we want freedom IN India

There was a thunderous clapping and shouts of Aazadi (freedom) from the participants, young and old. It was electric movement, highly charged with enthusiasm, a markedly noticeable charged feeling that “WE CAN” fight together and defeat the bigger enemy, the fascist BJP.

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Kanhaiya Kumar addressing his fellow students at JNU, Deli on March 3rd 2016, immediately after his release from Jail on trumped up charges of sedition. The address was telecast live on all the TV channels till midnight and it is reported that it is the most viewed even in recent time. This speech had elevated him to national level politics and he had become a rage among youth.

Picture4

Kanhaiya Kumar singing his famous Aazadi (freedom song)

Picture5A student demonstration in Delhi demanding the release of Kanhaiya Kumar and his friends.

 

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Kanhaiya Kumar being roughed up by BJP goons in the presence of police in the Delhi Court premises on 15th February 2016.

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A BJP goon boasting about his group’s attack on Kanhaiya Kumar in the Indian Court in the presence of police. He was let off within hours of his being taken in to token police custody.

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 A BJP/RSS version of Mother India                   

 

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The Left’s image of Mother India (representative) 

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Kanhaiya Kumar addressing the Vijayawada Meet of united Left Students 

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 A section of the participants, with the leaders of various CPs in the foreground  

August 11, 2015

I was wrong on the Cochranites in 1971–dead wrong

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

In my article on “Why does the left suck so badly”, I referred to the Cochranites—a group organized as the Socialist Union that published a magazine from 1954 to 1959 called the American Socialist. The two main leaders were Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, who had left the Trotskyist movement in order to build a new non-sectarian organization that in many ways anticipated the development of groups like Solidarity in the USA or European parties such as Podemos or Syriza.

I became convinced that such an approach was necessary after reading Peter Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism” in the early 1980s and worked with him to build a new non-sectarian movement through the auspices of the North Star Network. Like the Socialist Union, the North Star Network was short-lived but the ideas it stood for lived on.

Justin Raimondo of antiwar.com posed a question to me after my article appeared:

I was very interested to read your contribution to an ancient issue of the SWP’s internal discussion bulletin a polemic aimed at the Cochranites: I’d provide the link but I’d have to wade through a ton of material and I just wanted to let you know it’s online. It would be equally interesting to read a commentary by you on your old self, as revealed in that yellowing document. (The SWP’s internal discussion bulletins are posted on the same site as the speech you link to in this post).

As it turns out, Justin was referring to my article that was a contribution to the 1971 preconvention discussion in the Socialist Workers Party. The irony is that both Peter and I considered the Cochranites to be rightwing renegades from Trotskyism at the time, even though we would later adopt positions 180 degrees in the other direction. To my knowledge Peter never wrote anything about the Cochranites (he was much more of a speaker and an organizer than a writer) but I am quite sure he would have agreed with me. Peter did mention the Cochranites in his memoir but there is little evidence that he understood their importance:

At fourteen I told my mom I was now a socialist. She told me to go out and play. I asked permission to go from our home in Great Neck on Long Island to New York City to attend a meeting of the Socialist Union. To my amazement, as I look back, my mother said it was okay but that I had to be back by 10:00 p.m. I traveled alone on the Long Island Rail Road to my first meeting. I’d imagined that it would be in a huge hall with thousands of workers with red banners or something along those lines. As it turned out I was the first person to show up, so I sat and waited. Only about fifteen people came. I later learned that the Socialist Union, led by Bert Cochran, had broken off from the Socialist Workers Party in 1953. They were very nice to me. I couldn’t understand anything they were talking about but I could tell they supported the poor and were in favor of equality. The small size of the meeting didn’t turn me off. On the contrary, I thought, I need to find a way to help because the socialists are so outnumbered.

My own conversion to what amounted to neo-Cochranism took place shortly after I launched the Marxism list in 1998 when I noticed that someone named Sol Dollinger had become a subscriber. I sent him a note asking if he was related to Genora Dollinger, who was best known as Genora Johnson, the leader of the Women’s Auxiliary to the UAW in Flint, Michigan. It turns out that Genora was his late wife and that both of them were members of the Socialist Union. Sol put me in touch with Cynthia Cochran in New York, who was Bert’s widow. That led to my frequent visits to her apartment on the West Side to discuss the Cochranite legacy and to pick up copies of the American Socialist magazine to post to the Internet.

Before I turn my attention to the piece I wrote on the Cochranites 44 years ago, it would be worth putting the 1971 convention into context. This convention was both an endorsement of the “new radicalization” analysis of the SWP and a fairly brutal attack on the Proletarian Orientation Tendency that was not happy with it. I was in the Boston branch of the SWP at the time, where Peter Camejo was assigned to do battle with the POT that constituted probably around 40 percent of the branch. They were a majority at one point but the national office had taken the bureaucratic liberty to transfer in people like me to make sure that they were stifled.

The SWP argued that the new radicalization was going to be different from that of the 1930s that was based in the unions. In a nutshell, it considered the social movements to be as important as the trade union struggle. For the POT, the main complaint was not so much orienting to the Black struggle et al but the failure of the SWP to assign any serious forces to the union movement—which was true. At the time any challenge to the party apparatus was considered disloyal and eventually all of the POT members were either expelled or left in disgust. The irony, of course, is that within a decade after this fight in the party, the SWP leadership would not only adopt the POT line but take it in the most extreme direction arguing that any new upsurge in the social movements would take place strictly through the trade unions. As an indication of how stupid this line was, the party went from nearly 2000 members in 1981 to what it is today—a hundred or so men and women in their 60s and 70s utterly disconnected not only from the mass movements but from the planet earth.

Turning to my article, I am not sure why I referred to the POT misrepresenting the Cochranites but I suspect that it might have been their members making an analogy between the “new radicalization” analysis and the approach of the Socialist Union, which was one of breaking with Trotskyist orthodoxy. Frankly, except for the brief period between 1965 and 1975 or so, the SWP never thought outside the box. It was always a party that had a deep workerist dynamic, always hoping against hope that the 1930s would return.

In any case, the purpose of my article was to prove that having a working class composition was no guarantee that you would remain revolutionary. I wrote:

The Cochranites in Detroit were primarily industrial workers, especially auto workers with deep roots in the trade unions. Many of them had been leaders in previous union struggles. Also in the Cochranite faction were some supporters in New York who had more of a middle class type background and composition.

Within the Cochran faction there were two groupings. One was led by Mike Bartell in New York. Bartell, the least important leader of the Cochran group, was adapting to Stalinism. After the victory of the Chinese CP and the Yugoslav CP and the growing fear of a third world war because of the cold war some Trotskyists thought Stalinism would be forced to play a revolutionary role or was already playing a progressive role. Bartell wanted to concentrate on maneuvering within the CP periphery. Cochran’s base was in industrial cities like Detroit. Cochran reflected an adaptation to the trade union bureaucracy. He was primarily interested in maneuvering within the trade union bureaucracy.

Bartell and Cochran had one thing in common. They were opposed to continuing as a Trotskyist party. They were opposed to Leninism. They were liquidationists who no longer believed the revolution needed a party. Both wings of the Cochranites were hostile to doing political party building work such as holding forums, running election campaigns, selling The Militant. The basic question of the 1953 split with Cochran was over whether we need or do not need a Leninist party.

Of course the Cochranites were right. We do not need a “Leninist party”, at least understood in terms of what James P. Cannon stood for. The whole purpose of the Socialist Union was to serve as a catalyst for regroupment rather than to position itself as the nucleus of a Leninist party. Indeed, one of the major activities of the Socialist Union was to organize forums to address this need. For example, in 1956 the Socialist Union organized a regroupment forum in Chicago that drew 800 people. Among the featured speakers were Sidney Lens and A.J. Muste who would become key leaders of the antiwar movement about ten years later. Cochran’s speech to that gathering is on the American Socialist archives. His words seem as pertinent as ever:

What we have to ask ourselves, I think, is this: Is it possible now in the light of the dolorous experience of American radicalism, and the greater knowledge we possess today of the Russian experiment, is it possible to look at Russia from higher vantage ground, and from the viewpoint of our own American needs even if we have some differences in our precise appreciations? Can the Left free itself from unthinking idolatry and the whitewashing of Russian crimes against socialism; and, on the other extreme, from the embittered hostility which misses the epic movement of historic progress, and can see in the Soviet bloc only the anti-Christ of our time.

IN other words, I am making a plea for sanity, for more mature judgement, for deeper historical insight, for an end to Left bigotry and Babbittry, for a cease-fire in our own cold war, for an effort at cooperation, and where possible, reconciliation.

If we do not regroup our effectives, if we cannot integrate our work, then it may be that the present radical movement in this country, from one end of the spectrum to the other, will go under in the flood, and a new generation will have to build a socialist organization from the ground up.

If we can find the inner resources to unravel this knotty riddle of our lifetime, then we have the chance to reconstruct the movement on sturdier foundations and along more mature lines, and the challenge of democratic socialism, compelling and clear, can again be flung into the market place—where it has unnecessarily been absent far too long.

August 9, 2015

Why does ‘the left’ suck so badly?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

This week a person I have had some contact with as a result of my participation in Yves Smith’s Naked Capitalism website posed this question to me: “Why does ‘the left’ suck so badly?”

He went on to say:

Saying right off the bat that “the left,” “progressives,” “liberals”, along with the Greens and the Sanders people and some of #BlackLives matter seem to be such a gigantic mish-mash that “the left” doesn’t even seem like a good name, like maybe there shouldn’t even BE a name. And that’s before we get to other kinds of organizers for the unions and the environment, and then the Marxist groupuscles, and the anarchists, and the co-op people… Anyhow, I’ll use “the left” as a shorthand for the seething mish mash.

I’m asking because of the ridiculousness of the comments we had on Greece; you saw them. So many pom pom wavers, so few analysts, and even fewer people who took action. (I mean, any sort of action at all, like organizing a small relief effort.) So many people saying “it’s easy,” if only we — by which they mean others — had the will! (Granted, I’m not a doer either, but I am an excellent blogger, and I am doing what I am good at.)

It’s the same deal with the Greens, who given a golden opportunity to sit outside every Sanders rally with a sign-up table and leaflets, seem to have collectively decided that the ticket to winning is saying how evil Democrats are (true, but irrelevant) and how inferior Sanders is (also true, also irrelevant). Then again, Sanders saw the ball, picked it up, and ran with it… And they did not. So perhaps that is the problem for them. Anyhow, they’re still smarting over Nader in 2000. 15 years ago. Not kidding!

This is an ancien regime, fin de siecle moment if ever I saw one, and virtually nobody on “the left” seems prepared to take advantage of it. Of course, there are powerful forces arrayed against “the left,” but then there always are, aren’t they? Until there aren’t…

Is it that so many on “the left” are academics, and the fights are so vicious because the stakes are so small? Or that too many of them have hostages to fortune, as families and possessions they think twice about losing? Is it that TINA applies in the world of ideology, as well? That (for example) we don’t think of — and we saw this in Greece — of the ATM machine as a tool of political domination, or even as a tool at all? (More like a natural resource or a mechanical device.) Is it that identity politics divides many, many people who ought — on “class” (wage vs. owner) interests — to be united? Could it be medical, in that we are literally too fat and too depressed and fucked up because of our horrible diet? Successful corruption, in that the elites still have the power and the money to co-opt the leaders? All of the above? What, what?

And then of course we look to Europe, where if “the left” was a thing in Europe, Syriza would had some assistance.

I can’t think of a historical precedent for things being this fucked with no alternative presented….

Like I said, I can’t formulate the question properly….

Thanks for any analytical tools you have to offer!

It probably makes sense for me to limit my answer to the part of the left I am most familiar with, namely the socialist left that I have been connected with organizationally or ideologically for nearly a half-century.

If you look at the broad historical record, you will see a steady decline from the early 1900s when Eugene V. Debs received six percent of the vote in 1912. Back then there was obviously no such thing as a Communist movement since the Russian Revolution had not taken place. But within five years, the Communist movement would supplant the Debs-type parties that existed everywhere. If you’ve never seen Warren Beatty in “Reds”, I recommend the film for its pretty accurate description of what happened in the 1920s as “Leninist” type parties sprouted up everywhere.

In my view, despite all the good that these parties did in fighting for much needed reforms such as the right to form trade unions and opposing Jim Crow, they undermined the authority of the left by functioning as cheerleaders for Joseph Stalin. In the late 1930s the CPUSA had close to a hundred thousand members and was a powerful presence in the trade unions, civil rights movement, and even elected member Benjamin Davis to the NY City Council. But after the Khrushchev revelations, the party lost the bulk of its members. Of course this mass exodus was facilitated by the McCarthyite witch-hunt that made membership in the CP a risk to your livelihood if not your freedom.

When I came around the left in 1967, the CP was a hollowed out shell with an aging membership. For young people like myself, the party was not an option. Some of us became Trotskyists and others joined Maoist groups since their militancy seemed appropriate to the period, which was one marked by massive opposition to the Vietnam War and ghetto rebellions. It was fairly easy to believe back then that the USA would have had a revolution long before 2015.

What we had not properly analyzed, however, was the sea change that had taken place since the heyday of Debs’s party and the dominance of the Communist Party in the 1930s. Workers in basic industry such as auto, steel and rail were enjoying a high standard of living and job security. There was almost no reason for them to become revolutionary, even those who were most oppressed like the Black and Latinos. For workers, the overwhelming need was to get a good union contract that kept pace with inflation, not to join a tiny group that had as its goal a repeat of 1917. The deeper the identification with 1917 of such groups, the more difficult it was to grow. Those that have relative success today tend to avoid the mumbo-jumbo. Kshama Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative group, got elected to City Council in Seattle not by pledging to organize a Soviet but by promising to fight for a $15 minimum wage.

Given the worsening economic conditions in the USA that weigh most heavily on Blacks and Latinos, there are signs of motion—the large crowds for Bernie Sanders among them. Unfortunately, the Sanders campaign—even though he made a record of Debs’s speeches in 1979—is tied by an umbilical cord to the Democratic Party. The burning need is for a third political party to the left of the Democrats that can bring together everybody who feels the need for fundamental change even if they are by no means convinced that a socialist revolution is necessary. That is why I have argued for the need for something like Syriza or Podemos in the USA even though Syriza is widely seen as a failure today, especially by those living as if it were still 1917. In essence, you have to be able to make a distinction between the decisions the leaderships of such parties make in the heat of battle, especially when they are facing much more powerful enemies such as the ECB and the IMF, and how they are organized.

Organizationally, a group like Syriza had the advantage over the “1917” left because it did not impose an ideological straightjacket on its membership. The same thing is true of Podemos whose leader Pablo Iglesias urged the left to engage with people on their own terms:

When the 15-M movement [the anti-austerity movement in Spain] first started, at the Puerta del Sol, some students from my department, the department of political science, very political students — they had read Marx, they had read Lenin — they participated for the first time in their lives with normal people.

They despaired: “They don’t understand anything! We tell them, you are a worker, even if you don’t know it!” People would look at them as if they were from another planet. And the students went home very depressed, saying, “They don’t understand anything.”

[I’d reply to them], “Can’t you see that the problem is you? That politics has nothing to do with being right, that politics is about succeeding?” One can have the best analysis, understand the keys to political developments since the sixteenth century, know that historical materialism is the key to understanding social processes. And what are you going to do — scream that to people? “You are workers and you don’t even know it!”

The enemy wants nothing more than to laugh at you. You can wear a T-shirt with the hammer and sickle. You can even carry a huge flag, and then go back home with your flag, all while the enemy laughs at you. Because the people, the workers, they prefer the enemy to you. They believe him. They understand him when he speaks. They don’t understand you. And maybe you are right! Maybe you can ask your children to write that on your tombstone: “He was always right — but no one ever knew.”

In your query you mention the Green Party. They are certainly not without their problems but I don’t think it would be fair to say that they “suck”. I think that they are running very principled and effective campaigns that relate to the concerns of the average person such as the right to drink clean water and be spared the horrors of global warming. In some ways they are a throwback to the Debs campaigns of the early 20th century.

The weakness of the Greens and the left in general is not exclusively their own fault. We are living in a period that is hostile to social change. The difficulties in finding a job—the conditions that face the “precariat” or contingent labor force—does not translate into class solidarity since people tend to seek individual solutions. If you’ve ever seen Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me”, you’ll remember that laid off workers in Flint were not thinking in terms of mass action to reopen the plants under workers control. One man told Moore that he was moving to Texas where supposedly there were more jobs while a jobless woman raised rabbits for sale as meat. The only recent sign that people were ready to move collectively was Occupy Wall Street, which lost momentum after public spaces were finally cleared of youthful protesters. So you can say that there are contradictory tendencies today, one propitious for the left and one that breeds indifference and retreating into personal salvation.

You can expect this state of affairs to continue for some time to come. But when it begins to change, it can take place rapidly. In 1929, an economic disaster led millions to move collectively to change society. In 1965, the war in Vietnam and ghetto rebellions transformed the lives of many thousands of young people, including me. I doubt that there is anything that will happen on that scale until after I am dead and gone. But when it does, the pace of events can often find the left desperately trying to catch up. In 1909 Karl Kautsky, the leader of the Socialist Party in Germany, described how the tempo cam change almost overnight:

But the rate of progress increases with a leap when the revolutionary spirit is abroad. It is almost inconceivable with what rapidity the mass of the people reach a clear consciousness of their class interests at such a time. Not alone their courage and their belligerency but their political interest as well, is spurred on in the highest degree through the consciousness that the hour has at last come for them to burst out of the darkness of night into the glory of the full glare of the sun. Even the laziest becomes industrious, even the most cowardly becomes brave, and even the most narrow gains a wider view. In such times a single year will accomplish an education of the masses that would otherwise have required a generation.

My only purpose today is to convince young people today on the left to avoid the mistakes of the past, which ultimately boil down to mechanically applying the “lessons of 1917” to the USA or any other revolution for that matter. We have to learn to speak in the language of American society and relate to the deepest felt needs of the average person. Frankly, it might be more useful to study the sermons of the new Pope than V.I. Lenin.

From 1954 to 1959 a group led by Bert Cochran and Harry Braveman put out a magazine called the American Socialist that I am trying to emulate in my own modest way. Bert and Harry (not to be mistaken with the Piels brothers) were a bit ahead of their time in advocating a similar approach. The fact that they dissolved the group in 1959 is not an indictment of their approach, any more than Alexis Tsipras buckling under to the German bankers. Conditions often favor the rich and the powerful after all.

Long after they were gone, their words remain relevant. In trying to create a movement of the left that was rooted in the American experience, they were the continuators of Eugene V. Debs and Karl Marx for that matter who was immersed in the reality of working class life. In 1955 Bert Cochran gave a speech introducing the American Socialist magazine. They still ring true:

I AM convinced, in the light of this reading of the American scene, that there is a real need for genuine American radicalism. By that I mean a movement that understands this country, that is sensitive to the feelings and aspirations of its people, that knows how to establish communication with them and how to make itself heard, that has the ability to come up with drastic structural solutions which recommend themselves to significant bodies of people as meaningful and realistic. I don’t mean by radicalism, the pettifogging, the quotation-mongering, the pseudo-Marxian profundities, the dogmatics, the circle bickerings and soul-destroying factionalism which have distinguished, I am afraid, all of us on the Left for the past years, and which carry a heavy onus of the responsibility for our ineffectiveness and disintegration. I know that a new important radicalism will arise in this country in response to the needs that exist and are due to become more pressing as time goes on. Whether the existing radical circles will play any role in this coming development is another question.

The past year hasn’t shown any progress but there has been a lot of churning and soul-searching. That’s a good sign. It shows there is still some life in the old carcass. When the time comes that you don’t even react to disaster, than you know that rigor mortis has set in. I don’t see that the discussion has produced a comprehensive meeting of the minds as yet, or that any new key ideas have been produced, and some have shown themselves to be remarkably impervious to floods, fires, famines and earthquakes. But there has definitely been, so far as I can observe, a sorting-out process, and, for many, a limited consensus of thought established.

If I may be permitted to draw my own design of the consensus that I believe has been achieved, I would state as the first proposition that the day of organizing a radical movement in this country as a branch office of the Russian concern—is over; and thank God! And that is true whether it is a branch office that gets its instructions from Stalin or Khrushchev or Lenin or Trotsky. This country is too big, too diversified, too self-sufficient and self-confident, it has too many people, it has too powerful a tradition of its own to tolerate a radicalism whose source of inspiration or whose hidden allegiances reside abroad. We can be friends of socialist achievements wherever they take place, and we can practice international labor solidarity on behalf of a common cause without surrendering the dignity of our independence and without losing our bearings that socialism in this country, as in all major countries, will only be won as a manifestation of its own national will.

July 10, 2015

The Lives of American Communists After Communism

Filed under: Counterpunch,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 11:34 am

causeatheart

The Lives of American Communists After Communism

When history moved beyond the Cold War, it became possible for historians to develop a more nuanced understanding of the role of the Communist Party in American society. Books such as Mark Naison’sCommunists in Harlem during the Depression and Maurice Isserman’s Which Side Were You On?: The American Communist Party during the Second World War treated party activists as men and women organically linked to the great conflicts of the 20th century in which they played major roles. There were of course scholars like Harvey Klehr who continued to insist that they were automatons serving almost as foreign agents but it was difficult to square that view with the evidence found in the new historiography or in films like “Seeing Red” or “The Good Fight: Story of The Abraham Lincoln Brigade” in which people like Bill Bailey talked about their experiences in the party, including the time he tore down the Swastika flag from the mast of a German luxury liner in 1935—anticipating the young woman who recently tore down a Confederate flag in South Carolina.

As a former member of the Trotskyist movement I found myself identifying very strongly with the experiences of these dedicated veterans of the CP left even though I had a much different ideological background. When I read Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism not long after dropping out of the Socialist Workers Party, I was struck by how similar my own experience was to that of ex-CP’ers, particularly those who took factory jobs in the hope of converting workers to the socialist cause. Gornick’s book combines her own reflections with oral histories, mostly those of rank-and-filers, including Karl Millens who recollects “Going into Industry” (a term we used as well) in brutally frank terms:

What can I tell you about the years in industry? They were, for me, slow, imperceptible, pointless death. I spent seventeen years working beside men I never had any intimacy or shared experience with, doing work which numbed my mind and for which I had no physical facility. Its sole purpose was to allow me to grow close to the men and be ready to move when a radically pregnant situation arose. Well, I was never close to the men and no situation arose, at least none I would ever know how to move into.

I looked up this passage in Gornick’s book a few days after I read what the late Gladys Scales had to say in A Red Family: Junius, Gladys & Barbara Scales,  an oral history collected by Mickey Friedman that is an essential contribution to understanding the Communist experience.

The Party knew they had talented people and used their talents, yet many stupid things were done with people. One was a period of “industrial concentration,” where intellectuals and students were taken out of school and put into factory work. They were going to organize the workers. First of all, they stuck out like sore thumbs. You can’t take an intellectual and put blue jeans on him and make him look like a worker. The workers didn’t particularly trust him. They weren’t really at ease and neglected their own talents. It was like putting a square peg into a round hole.

Gladys was married to Junius Scales, a man I met in 1997 at his mountaintop home in Pine Bush, NY about a half-hour’s drive from Woodridge, the tiny village where I grew up. Not long after I interviewed him, I read his memoir Cause at Heart: a Former Communist Remembers, a book that I consider to be the finest ever written about the Communist Party experience. Reading “A Red Family” reminded me of why Junius has remained a hero of mine ever since reading his memoir. Born into a blueblood family in North Carolina with a thirty-six room mansion, and with a grandfather who was a “big slaveowner”, Junius Scales seemed like the last person in the world to join the CP but as Karl Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto, capitalist crisis can often lead some to betray the class they were born into.

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May 20, 2015

Call for Papers: Toward a Mass Party, Bernie Sanders

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,third parties — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

sanders

How will we achieve a mass socialist party, or mass left party, in the USA?  If we have a special opportunity to do so in this specific era, how will we manifest those possibilities?

Electoralism is a particular theme here at North Star.  However, we are happy to entertain alternative routes to a mass party, especially in response to this call.  But instead of just rejecting or critiquing the electoral path, we would prefer pieces that outline your path, your model, articulated in detail!

This is also an opportunity to discuss the 2016 elections broadly — how should we interact with the recent Electoral Action Conference’s network?  Could we get some report-backs on that?  Should we contend the 2016 elections?  Local, Congressional, Presidential, both/any?  Jill Stein?  Vermin Supreme?  What kind of politics?  Let it rip.

And that guy Bernie Sanders.  He talks about class war, he’s running for President.  He has a huge following, he openly identifies as socialist, he is all but a veritable Ron Paul of socialism, and then he has to kick us in the groin by running as a Democrat.  Not that this is a surprise, but as the meme goes, It’s Happening.

Support/oppose?  Join the campaign?  Condemn it?  Engage the conversation without giving support?  Why/why not?

Send submissions to: submissions.northstar@gmail.com

May 8, 2015

A report on The Future of Left/Independent Electoral Action in the United States conference

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,third parties — louisproyect @ 4:30 pm

Gayle

Two time Mayor of Richmond and member of he North Star Network in the early 80s

For those of us involved with the North Star project, last weekend’s conference on “The Future of Left/Independent Electoral Action in the United States” could only be seen as an important step forward for left unity. With 200 people in attendance, it was a harbinger of future developments moving us closer to the birth of a new anti-capitalist party that can finally express the yearnings of protest movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the fight for a $15 minimum wage for social change.

Half of the editorial board of North Star was in attendance at the conference, including me (I was not able to attend the Sunday sessions unfortunately). In addition Mark Lause gave a tremendous talk comparing the Progressive Party of Robert La Follette to Debs’s Socialist Party and Matt Hoke handled the online streaming of the event.

full: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=12264

April 8, 2015

Naomi Klein, Jodi Dean and the debate over “Green Keynesianism”

Filed under: economics,Global Warming,Green Party,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

this changes everything

Despite its obvious intention to challenge the corporate-dominated status quo, some Marxists fault Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything” for supposedly straddling two opposing and mutually exclusive systems: capitalism and socialism. For every criticism, there has been a defense of “This Changes Everything” from other Marxists, including those who have had long-standing affinities with the critics–thus demonstrating that deep divisions do not have to stand in the way of a unified movement. As such, the debate is a reminder that as long as our primary focus is on challenging capitalist rule, there is no reason why we cannot air out our differences in the public arena without the schisms that have harmed out movement in the past.

In a December 30, 2014 Jacobin article, Sam Gindin praises Klein for attacking capitalism as the source of climate change but faults her for leaving too much “wriggle room” for capitalist reform. By hammering away at “villains” such as the Koch brothers et al, the left can effectively let the system off the hook. While Gindin does not identify her as a Keynesian—the term that is widely identified with the leftwing policy studies base of the Democratic Party—he leaves the impression that she is not much different than Bill McKibben. When he writes that “It is one thing to ask how we can organize ourselves better to register our dissatisfaction and to pressure or lobby corporations and states to modify some of their ways within capitalism”, it is clearly a warning that Klein’s agenda is one of capitalist reform.

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March 12, 2015

Roger Burbach ¡Presente!

Filed under: obituary,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 12:51 pm

Roger Burbach

I just learned that Roger Burbach died. I never met Roger but kept up an email conversation with him over the years. About five years ago he told me that he was dealing with multiple myeloma, the likely cause of his death.

Federico Fuentes, a member of the Socialist Alliance in Australian group who co-authored “Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism” (http://www.zedbooks.co.uk/node/20723) paid tribute to Roger yesterday on Facebook:

Saddened to hear that, two years to the day of the passing away of Hugo Chavez and almost exactly one year after the killing of Ali Mustafa, my friend and colleague Roger Burbach has also left us.

I had the privilege of working with Roger and Michael Fox on our book Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions. Without a doubt, despite being almost double our age, he was the driving force that keep me and Mike inline and ensured we completed what turned out to be the last book he published while alive.

Roger was truly a remarkable man who never let adversity hold him back. He had been in a wheelchair since 1989 after a terrible swimming accident, and lived most of the last decade with multiple myeloma and constant medical treatment. Despite these hurdles that life threw at him he accomplished so much in his life. Although completely inadequate in describing all that he did, i am posting his bio from our book to give you some idea:

“Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written extensively on Latin America and US foreign policy for over four decades. His first book, Agribusiness in the Americas (1980), co-authored with Patricia Flynn, is regarded as a classic in the research of transnational agribusiness corporations and their exploitative role in Latin America. His most notable book is Fire in the Americas (1987), co-authored with Orlando Núñez, which is an informal manifesto of the Nicaraguan revolution during the 1980s. With the collapse of twentieth-century socialism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe he began to study the emergent system of globalization and to write about the new Latin American social movements and the renewed quest for socialism in the twenty-first century.”

Rest in power Roger. You may have left us, but your work and example will live on.

I also received email this morning announcing a memorial service:

Dear Friends,

Please join us in commemorating the life and work of ROGER BURBACH who passed away on March 5, 2015.

A memorial will be held:

Sunday, March 15, 2015
2:30 p.m.
Berkeley City Club
2315 Durant Avenue
Berkeley, CA

We also invite you to join us afterwards for a celebration in honor of Roger at the garden patio of Gather Restaurant, 2200 Oxford Street, Berkeley.

There will be opportunities for you to share at the memorial. If you cannot attend but have anything you would like to share at the memorial or with the family, please feel free to email Roger’s son Matthew at salvadorburbach@gmail.com

We look forward to seeing you.

The Burbach Family

I want to add a few words in remembrance of Roger that I would have said if I had the opportunity to be at the memorial meeting.

In 1988 I picked up a copy of “Fire in the Americas” alluded to above and was so impressed with its analysis that I bought 10 copies and sent them to friends around the country who had left the SWP in disgust. This was before the days of email so I told them over the phone that I was sending them a book that applied the lessons of the Sandinista revolution to the United States. Unlike the misguided attempts of the 1920s to adopt “Bolshevist” norms, “Fire in the Americas” was simply a call for a socialist movement that abandoned those norms. About twenty years ago, I wrote an article titled “Lenin in Context” that was strongly influenced by “Fire in the Americas”, an analysis that has a lot more traction today given the exhaustion of the “Leninist” project.

Fortunately you can now read this book that is as timely and relevant today as it was when it was written on Open Library (https://openlibrary.org/books/OL2393527M/Fire_in_the_Americas), a project initiated by the martyred Aaron Swartz. It certainly is a fitting tribute to both Roger and Aaron that the book found a home there.

Just in case you don’t have the time to read “Fire in the Americas” right now, here’s a brief excerpt starting with “Pluralism in the Revolution” to give you a feel for its analysis:

Screen shot 2015-03-12 at 8.14.47 AM

xx

Screen shot 2015-03-12 at 8.15.05 AM

January 24, 2015

Ernie Tate’s “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s”

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:33 pm

A Revolutionary Joy Ride Through History

by LOUIS PROYECT

Exactly four years ago, as my wife and I were in the final week of our vacation in South Beach, we were pleasantly surprised to hear a female voice with a distinctly Scottish burr piping up just behind us on the sidewalk as we were going out for breakfast. “Is that Lou?” The voice belonged to Jess MacKenzie, the long-time partner of Ernie Tate, a veteran of the Trotskyist movement who had the audacity like me to vacation in a spot that in our youth would have been regarded as a decadent bourgeois swamp.

It turned out that Ernie and Jess were staying in a hotel right next to the apartment building where we had paid for a month-long sublet. I had run into Ernie and Jess at Left Forums once or twice and knew him as a Marxmail subscriber but beyond that mostly by reputation. In 1967, not long after I had joined the Socialist Workers Party in New York, members were still buzzing about how Ernie had been beaten up by Gerry Healy’s goons in London while selling a pamphlet critical of the cult leader outside one of their meetings. Since that incident loomed large in my mind even after decades had passed, I introduced my wife to him as the guy who Gerry Healy’s goons had beaten up. This prompted Ernie to remark genially but firmly that he preferred to be described as a leader of the British antiwar movement.

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December 24, 2014

What is a Marxist organization?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

What is a Marxist organization?

by SCOTT JAY on DECEMBER 24, 2014

joincp

It is a commonplace on the Marxist Left that revolutionary organizations need to be rooted in the working class, so much so that “middle-class” is just as common an insult as “sectarian” or “opportunist.” Middle-class dominated socialist groups are generally aware of their class basis and strive to overcome it—noting that an organization tends to be middle-class does not tell anybody anything they did not already know. Therefore, we will look at the problem of the base of an organization from a different angle.

A fundamental weakness of the organizations of the socialist Left is that their members do not have a material stake in their organizations.

Members of Leninist organizations join largely because they believe in the ideas. This is certainly how they are recruited. For the groups that are able to grow larger than an irrelevant sect, the members may even join because they believe in the actions of the organization. But very few of these actions actually have a material impact on the lives and livelihoods of their members and Leninists rarely even consider that this might be a problem.

For decades, Leninists of various stripes have distinguished themselves by their unique analyses of the Soviet Union, recruiting members to their theoretical model and, in some of the better cases, engaging in mass movements and even trade union activism as well. These groups could debate on end their different analyses of whether the the Soviet Union was state capitalist, or a degenerated workers state, or whether they included China, Cuba, Serbia, Albania, or North Korea among their canon.

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