Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 13, 2017

The death agony of the Socialist Workers Party

Filed under: cults,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

barnes

Jack Barnes

As most of my regular readers know, I was in the SWP from 1967 to 1978. Three years after leaving, I came into contact with Peter Camejo, a former leader who had broken with the party. His article “Against Sectarianism” had a profound impact on my thinking and I have tried to incorporate its lessons in nearly everything I write about the problem of party-building.

In 1991 I went to work for Columbia University and soon began writing about the phenomenon of Marxist sectarianism on various mailing lists hosted by the Spoons Collective and later on for Marxmail that was launched in 1998. From 1991 to the early 2000s, there was a steady decline in the SWP’s influence, so much so that I became persuaded that discussing it any longer on Marxmail was a waste of bandwidth. Some ex-members on Marxmail, who remained obsessed with the group as bitter adversaries or devoted sympathizers, ignored my advice to put it behind them and periodically started some thread about a group whose numbers and influence had dwindled to the vanishing point.

I had no other recourse except to create a mailing list on Yahoo in 2005 devoted to discussing the SWP. The whole purpose of creating the list was to shunt conversation away from Marxmail where 90 percent of the subscribers had little interest in it one way or the other, including myself at that point. The Yahoo list has twice as many subscribers as there are SWP members although I have no plans to make them go out and sell a book door-to-door based on my thoughts.

In the recent past, there have been such shocking developments with this sect-cult of probably around a hundred members with an average age of 55 or so that I have decided to file this report. I don’t think there is much point in trying to connect its paroxysms with the tasks facing the left today except maybe to indicate that “Leninism” can produce some remarkable pathologies.

On December 16, 2016, the equally nutty and irrelevant Spartacist League wrote a typical scandal item concerning the SWP’s newspaper that I almost regarded as a spoof. The Militant had sent out a notice to its subscribers to throw away its November 28 issue because it had the wrong line on the Donald Trump presidency.

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I don’t remember any of Craine’s previous articles that anticipated the discarded November 28th item but I would guess that it was boilerplate analysis of the sort that had been run in the paper for a year or so, referring to itself as the true working class alternative to Sanders, Clinton and Trump. While any radical outside of the DSA orbit would likely see the need for a clean break with the Democrats, it was hard to take the SWP campaign seriously. But what would persuade Jack Barnes to authorize a letter to the Militant subscribers asking them to throw away the November 28 issue? Didn’t it enter his mind that this makes the group look rather batty? Apparently not.

This kind of instability has marked the party’s public record on a fairly consistent basis for the past decade or so and accelerated in the past few months. Poor Naomi Craine was once again taken to task in the issue dated February 13, 2017. In this instance, it was not about Trump but about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Recognition of Israel key for toilers in Mideast

 The article “Capitalist Rulers in Mideast Shift Allies While Toilers Face Catastrophe” in the Jan. 16 issue of the Militant concludes with a quote, with no comment, from former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki saying, “I tell you of the threat that surpasses terrorism which is the Zionist enemy. And we should all stand on one front against this threat.”

Any new reader would have to assume that Militant editors agree with the reactionary former Iraqi prime minister on “the Zionist enemy.”

Regular readers must have been surprised, since the quote is the opposite of the political line of previous Militant articles, the Socialist Workers Party’s program and its political course.

Al-Maliki’s statement fits with the view of the entire middle-class left in the United States, across Europe, and worldwide. Not to mention the Iraqi, Iranian, and many other bourgeois regimes across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South Asia — all of whom demagogically posture as defenders of the dispossessed Palestinian people to bolster their own class rule. All of whom oppress and exploit the workers and farmers in those countries.

That is the opposite of the internationalist working-class course of the Socialist Workers Party. As the global capitalist crisis intensifies, the resurgence of Jew-hatred and attacks on Jews and synagogues is a reminder that the Holocaust and what led to it are not matters of “history.” They are growing realities of the brutal imperialist world order today.

Revolutionaries must press for recognition of the state of Israel, and for the right of Jews who wish to go there for refuge to do so. That’s also a political precondition to rebuilding a movement capable of advancing a successful fight for a Palestinian state, and for a contiguous, viable homeland for the Palestinian people.

Of all the gyrations found in The Militant, none is more bizarre and more reactionary than the open support for Israel. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to describe the party as Zionist. Not that it would excuse having such positions, one might expect the sect to provide some sort of analysis on how it came to reverse previously held positions. When I joined in 1967 just after the Six Day war, I was eager to break with the Zionism of my mother and father if for no other reason than Israel supporting the Vietnam war, a litmus test for me. In numerous books and articles by Peter Buch and Jon Rothschild, the SWP advocated the same position that it now describes as that of “the entire middle-class left”.

In keeping with the instability of the SWP, it continues selling books through Pathfinder Press that it would condemn as “Jew-hatred”. This includes Maxime Rodinson’s “Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?” that it describes as examining “the historical roots of the Zionist movement and how the State of Israel was formed as a colonial-settler state dispossessing the Palestinian people.” Or Gus Horowitz’s “Israel and the Arab Revolution” that consists of resolutions adopted by the SWP from 1970-1971, including one by Horowitz that states:

Our program for the Palestinian revolution and the Arab revolution as a whole includes support of full civil, cultural and religious rights for all nationalities in the Mideast, including the Israeli Jews. But, while we support the right of the Israeli Jews to pursue their national culture within the frame-work of a democratic Palestine, we are opposed to the Israeli state.

How can you take a group seriously that still sells literature that its newspaper would consider guilty of anti-Semitism? The answer is that you can’t. Compare what Horowitz wrote in 1971 with a report from the SWP convention held between January 14-16, 2017:

Revolutionaries must push for recognition of the right of Israel to exist, Clark said, including the right of return for Jews looking for refuge from persecution, as well as for recognition of a state for the dispossessed Palestinian people. This is the only way to open the space for working people who are Arab and Jewish to build solidarity and fight together against capitalist exploitation and imperialist oppression throughout the region.

You must ask yourself what sort of person would join a group that defends the “right of return” for Israel during a dramatic expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Or whose main activity consists of members going door-to-door peddling a book titled “Are They Rich Because They’re Smart?” that consists of transcriptions of speeches given by cult leader Jack Barnes between 1993 and 2009. This is a leader who humiliates Naomi Craine for writing articles that deviate 3 degrees from his own potted notion of the party line but who hasn’t written an article for the Militant in over 20 years or so.

The interesting question is whether Jack Barnes was nuts back in 1967 when I joined or became nuts in the same way that Gerry Healy or any number of other Trotskyist geniuses became crazy. When you see yourself as the avatar of Lenin or Trotsky destined to lead the world proletarian revolution, there are enormous gravitational forces that propel you in a megalomaniac direction.

I have heard an uncorroborated report from a former member that a national leader of the party was touring the country, talking to “Organized Supporters” in cities where they don’t have branches about the dire straits they find themselves in – shrinking membership, circulation of The Militant down, etc.

With the cash they have on hand from the multimillion dollar sale of the West Street headquarters, they should sputter along for some time. Then again, so did the Socialist Labor Party that closed its national office on September 1, 2008 after more than a century. The more likely cutoff date for the SWP will be when the last member dies of some geriatric illness like cancer or heart disease. That will happen sooner or later, just like the sun sets in the evening.

December 22, 2016

Arash Azizi: After Trotskyism, what? Some personal thoughts

Filed under: sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 12:12 am

(Posted on Facebook originally)

ARASH AZIZI·WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 21, 2016

“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” — Karl Marx

A few months ago, I left the International Marxist Tendency, an organization of which I had been a member for more than seven years. Many friends and comrades wrote to ask me to outline the reasons for this decision. I write these lines primarily for them. As someone who had recruited many to the ranks of the IMT, I felt responsible to explain why I had left it and what path do I see ahead in the fight for socialism. I don’t claim to have found a magical formula or the answer to all my questions but hope that these humble lines will be of interest to some.

I should start by saying that the sad ultra-left turn that IMT has taken in the last few years surely did accelerate my decision. Abandoning of the fundamental orientation to the Labour Party in Britain (signaled by the change in the paper’s masthead) which happened to come only months before the historic election of Jeremy Corbyn; similar distancing from the traditional organizations of the working class in other countries; advocating abstention in the Brexit referendum; and the refusal to endorse Bernie Sanders’s campaign are just some examples. But it would be dishonest if I pretended that this turn was my ultimate reason and that all I long for is a pre-turn IMT or a similar Trotskyist organization. It is true that by reflection on my years of political activity, and by taking into account the developments of the last few years, I have come to the conclusion that orthodox “Trotskyism”, as we know it, is no longer the path forward for the working class and for the cause of a better world. We need new political strategies for the epoch we are in.

My Trotskyist Experience

When I joined the IMT in late 2008, few months after I had left my native Iran for Canada, this wasn’t out of a whim. For about five years I had been a member of WPI, an Iranian organization that could be described as belonging to the Left Communist and Council Communist tradition. I had joined it at the age of 15 for the simple reason that it was the only Marxist organization I knew that dared to organize under the authoritarian Islamist regime that reigns in Iran. As I had started a process of questioning the WPI, and as I needed a political home in Canada, I embarked on a study of international left from the times of Marx and Engels down to the currently existing international organizations and their branches in Canada. I chose IMT because it stood on unapologetic socialist politics (of much importance to me, it didn’t follow much of the international left by supporting the Tehran regime), because the Trotskyist Anti-Stalinism appealed to me, because its political strategy of working inside the NDP to win a majority for Marxist ideas in the country’s main working-class party seemed plausible and because it boasted many hard-working people who took their politics seriously.

I haven’t changed my mind on any of those reasons but it is only after a sustained period that you start finding holes and problems; you can try to fix some of those problems and tolerate others (since I never believed that membership in an organization should be tantamount to agreeing with every single thing about it) but you then recognize that some of the problems are in the DNA of the group. It has inherited them from a political tradition and, unless there is a commitment on part of a significant number of its leaders, they are not going to change.

What are these problems, where do they come from and how can we overcome them?

Basis of unity — the problem of sectarianism

Any political group has a criteria for its membership, a basis of unity that brings people together as they strive for a goal. Getting such a basis right is a difficult task and easier said than done, especially for a Marxist organization. How do you gather around the largest possible number of people possible while making sure that your group is not diluted in the goals it pursues? How can you ensure the maximum amount of discipline and seriousness in work while also letting people who can’t commit as much time or resources participate?

I have always believed that this basis of unity needs to be political and around the goals that we all strive for. If people share the fundamental socialist goal (a world free of classes where production is organized on the basis of need not profit) and basic strategies and stances of a political group in any given period, they should be encouraged to join.

As members of IMT would concede this isn’t the real basis of unity for this organization. To be a member of the IMT, you’d need to share in an article of faith that I’ll try to honestly summarize as such: “IMT [with a membership that is today probably around 2000 worldwide, at most] is the only genuine Marxist organization on the planet. It alone has the “correct ideas” [an astonishing term that even the Catholic Church doesn’t use with such certitude], which are encapsulated in the ideas of Marx, Lenin, Engels and Trotsky [maybe, a book or two by Rosa Luxembourg] and those continued by Ted Grant and the IMT. It alone can offer the workers the revolutionary leadership that is needed to win power and build socialism.”

If you believe in this Article One, it would follow that since the only organization that is capable of leading the workers to power is yours, and since it is currently minuscule, your strategy is simple: Build your own organization, around that very narrow basis of unity, even if it means recruiting only a handful of people every month. You are building a “cadre organization” which means you’ll only wants as members those who are ready to commit themselves to the article of faith in its entirety.

From such self-applause, bizarre conclusion will follow: In IMT, you’d often hear that if a revolutionary movement happens while IMT is still a small organization this is a bad thing since “we need time to prepare”. It also follows that work of no Marxist writer or theoretician after Trotsky’s death in 1940 is worth considering, except for the few fellows that have had the honor of working with the IMT. I remember asking a leading member of the Italian section if he could he recommend any good Italian Marxist writers? Surely, with such a strong communist party with millions of members and the allegiance of the majority of the country’s intelligentsia, there should be some bright names. The response was shocking: None. No one. He jokingly said: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky!

This is Sectarianism 101. Instead of defining your political identity and basis of unity around goals and ideals in which others can share, you define it in a way that is akin to a narrow religious organization. Every organization will have some traditions and some historical identity of which it is proud. Every organization should believe in its own unique ability to do grand tasks and great things (otherwise, why bother?) But it is all a matter of degree. Are you flexible enough to concede that not all the truth might rest with you? Will you keep yourself current by taking in the developments in the world around you? Are you ready to grow and change, while keeping true to your basic goals, by embracing the new membership that each generation brings? Are you able to keep yourself intact after you reach a certain number?

2) A history of failure

This last question is one that few Trotskyist groups have ever been forced to ask. Being scattered into small groups of usually no more than a few dozen individuals is the curse that has followed Trotskyism since the founding of the Fourth International in 1938. At its foundation, the FI didn’t have many more members than IMT does today and same is basically true for all of a dozen or so international Trotskyist organizations during their entire history, with minor exceptions.

Now, for much of this period, this smallness was due to a brutal policy of oppression. Trotsky and his followers were some of the most persecuted people on the planet in the post-war period. Imagine being active in a situation in which, in addition to the usual animosity of the state and the capital, you’d have to battle large socialist states and massive communist parties around the world who, at times, would even go to the length of physically exterminating you. This wasn’t only political competition!

But it is perhaps precisely because of this that Trotskyism ended up developing a strange martyrdom complex where you take solace in being ‘correct’ (as your founder was, after all, one of the most brilliant Marxists and revolutionaries to have ever lived) and don’t mind your small size much.

It is unlikely that Trotsky himself, who only saw two years of FI’s activity before being brutally murdered on the orders of Stalin, would have ever agreed that, in the long-term, such a perspective (of maintaining small organizations at any rate) makes sense.

When FI was founded in 1938, Trotsky believed that within a decade, it would come to encompass millions of workers and surpass both the second and third internationals. It was perhaps obvious falsification of such a perspective by history that confused the founding leaders of the FI and led into split after split in the organization, leaving it with the often-comical legacy of many grand sounding names and a few members.

Should FI have ever been founded as a separate organization or should Trotsky’s supporters have organized differently? What would have been the correct strategy in the post-war period? These are questions of history and I don’t intend to pursue them here. I also don’t want to pretend there are any easy answers. But the question we must ask ourselves is not for 1945 but for 2016.

If the policy of building a small cadre “Bolshevik” organization from three members up has consistently failed, why continue it? Why spend all your energy on maintaining for your group a political identity that has never been successful and that belonged to a specific period? Why maintaining a Bolshevik reenactment group instead of an organization that seeks to unite the highest number of people in fight for a socialist world?

3) McDonald Internationalism

A corollary of the belief that only your organization has the “correct ideas” is the belief that if you are not present in a country, the correct way to advance there is to build a new group. Instead of taking into account the traditions of leftist organizing in other countries and attempting to learn from it, you’ll operate around what I’ve termed the McDonald Internationalism. This isn’t a perspective of internationalist proletarian solidarity but a mentality of a franchise restaurant, like the McDs, which is trying to raid other markets and open up shop in new places.

In the case of Iran, I have seen the tragic results of such ‘internationalism’. Along with a couple of other Iranian comrades, I was tasked with building an Iranian group for the IMT. One of these comrades was a full-time worker for the IMT with no political past in Iran since he had lived abroad almost his entire life. Any attempt to build a group that was independent, able to stand on its own feet, develop its own thought and strategies and be steeped in the political traditions of the Iranian left was stymied. “There are no Marxists in Iran other than us,” he’d often say. The Iranian communist movement goes back to 1920 and it has had all sorts of experiences, including that of state power in short periods. According to the IMT, this rich tradition offered nothing and all we had to do was translating the articles of the international to Persian.

This sort of McDonald internationalism, when coupled with the IMT’s sectarianism, makes a mockery out of the real process of international relations between socialist organizations in different countries.

4) Basic questions of strategy

But what of the central question of the strategy? What is the basic IMT strategy and what do I see wrong with it?

The founding document of the Trotskyist movement, the Transitional Program (1938), is known for a bold claim: “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.”

As it happens, I still agree with this basic sentence. As much as Anarchists or other lovers of “from below” processes might not want to believe, the role of political leadership (which I see as a political party or, to use Marta Harneceker’s term, a political instrument) is indispensable to historical change. In Trotsky’s lasting image, the political party is like a piston box that guides the steam-like energy of the masses.

But if we are to go beyond this level of abstraction and this ‘basic truth’, what are the specific strategies that are needed today in fighting for improvement in the lives of the working people and for the ultimate overthrowing of capitalism and building of socialism? Linked with this question is our conception of socialism. How is it going to look like? And how do we move from A (today’s world) to B (the post-capitalist, socialist world)?

Since a healthy democratic socialist society that could last more than a short period has never been built in human history, much of this remains ground for fresh thinking and contribution. IMT’s answers, however, are rather simple. The model of successful organization and strategy is that of the Russian Bolshevik Party and conception of socialism that of the early Soviet regime.

Before even attempting to criticize such notions, I’d ask you to think of this: Isn’t it shocking that in 2016, our conception of a political instrument should be based on a political party that had to operate in a vastly different environment? And based on a regime that, ultimately, led to the nightmare of Stalinism? (To say that the Bolshevik regime ‘led’ to the Stalinist nightmare is not to repeat the bourgeois assertion that Leninism would have inevitably led to Stalinism. But it is to acknowledge that there were probably some flaws in the system that made the victory of Stalinism possible and for the ‘river of blood’ to flow and separate the early genuine revolutionary state from Stalinism).

But such questions are not even asked in most Trotskyist organizations. Elections are dismissed as ‘bourgeois democracy’ and civil and political rights decried as ‘bourgeois formality’. All experiences of 20th century socialism, from China and Tanzania to Italy and Japan, are decried as “Stalinism”. And there is a pretense that there are easy answers to questions of building a successful socialist economy, polity and judicial system. If only the men with “correct ideas” were at the helm!

The last thing the revolutionary left of the 21st century needs is such stymied thinking that bases itself only on the writing of a few men. We need to instead face reality and offer strategies, different ones in different countries, that are meant for 2016 not nostalgias of the past. This would also be in true spirit of the great giants of the past like Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, not upholding of everything they’ve ever said as unchangeable dogma.

What is to be done?

The above doesn’t amount to anything like a coherent criticism of the IMT and its Trotskyist model and it didn’t intend to. As I said at the outset, these are merely some humble personal thoughts.

And what of the way forward?

Without pretending to have easy, thorough answers, these are, again, some personal thoughts:

Marxists and those (like myself) who have an affinity for the 1917 tradition need to unite with others around the political and practical double goals of A, improving the lives of the working people and the oppressed here and now, B, striving at a radical transformation of society and building of a socialist alternative to capitalism.

The strategies toward these goals will differ in different countries, based on their political conditions, the balance of classes and the existing organizations and traditions. In general, however, there is a basic fact that the revolutionary left needs to come to peace with: It needs to win power by convincing a majority of a population to support its vision. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean basically turning into an electoral machine. To slightly paraphrase Eugene Debs, elections are to socialism what menu is to a meal. It is a fact, however, that the liberal democratic order, a system in which the government of the day is elected on the basis of universal suffrage, is now dominant across much of the globe (it is worth remembering that in Lenin’s time, it was almost entirely non-existent, hence a long Marxist struggle for universal suffrage) and wherever it isn’t, it is probably an imperative for us to unite with liberals for democratic goals. Democratic conditions can actually offer an excellent opportunity for socialists: Build support for our vision; convince a majority that we can offer a workable, real socialist alternative; and come to power and start implementing it! Of course, there would be resistant from the capitalist class and, of course, our strategy needs to take that into account too. But to move against a democratically elected government is not an easy task, especially if it is based on an active support of millions of workers.

This might seem very mundane at the first glance but, ask yourself, how many socialists and revolutionaries are asking themselves: How can we build an organization that is ready to win support of the majority and form a government? How many are telling themselves: “The test of socialist politics is how I can win over large numbers of people, which is possible by meeting them where they are at, not by trying to be the most left-wing guy in the room”?

In asking such questions, we’d need to be forward-looking and accept that not all differences need to be solved for leftist to unite in an organization. It is silly for socialists not to be organizationally united in pursuit of goals today because they disagree over the class nature of the Soviet Union or because they have a slightly different take on the Palestinian struggle.

Building of leftist institutions that are something beyond their name, real organizations that can represent a significant portion of a country’s politics, is a very difficult task but it is rewarding at the end. It will influence the lives of the working people here and now, it will consolidate our power and it will offer a clear route to power. It will also create a space that could help blossom the kind of thinking that is needed to address the massive questions that we will face if we are to actually conduct the mammoth task of transition to socialism.

Needless to say, in building such vehicles we should never abandon the organizations that the working class has already built which, almost all over the world, means the parties that historically belong to the second or third internationals. One of the mistakes of the left has been prematurely abandoning these organizations whereas the recent victory of Corbyn in the UK shows that even if your organization is led by the likes of Tony Blair, there is a chance that the left could come to power in them and start their transformation.

What we need more than ever is an end to the mentality of small circles and an audacity to prepare for real socialist change in our own lifetimes. It is time to offer the working people, our people, the political instrument that it deserves.

November 8, 2016

June 19, 2016

Notes on the demise of the Kasama Project

Filed under: Maoism,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:43 pm

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I had been suspecting for some time now that the Kasama Project was finished but finally got confirmation of that yesterday from a FB friend named Ben Stevens who I had contact with as Ben Seattle during the early days of Marxmail. The RCP alluded to below in Ben’s post is Bob Avakian’s cult (I use the word advisedly), the Revolutionary Communist Party.

Whatever happened to the Kasama Project?

The Kasama project emerged at a time when the internet was making it possible to bring together many scattered and isolated activists who had been around the RCP, but who had problems with the RCP’s cult-like nature. Kasama emerged boldly proclaiming that it would organize in a more open way, and be accountable to the movement.

But the apple did not fall far from the tree.

Now the project appears to have collapsed–with no accountability whatsoever to the movement concerning what happened and why. Of course, being around for a while, I can guess at the likely scenarios.

Kasama, like most cargo cults, was based on the principle of attempting, as an organization, to keep its political contradictions “secret from the class enemy”. By some strange coincidence, this principle is also useful in concealing the incompetence, hypocrisy, deception and manipulation common to cargo cults.

In practice, this principle requires attempting to keep political contradictions secret from the movement. And, as this happens, the true nature of these contradictions is inevitably concealed from members and supporters–and they cannot be resolved. Eventually there is nothing but gridlock, paralysis, demoralization and depolitization. This is often followed by collapse into (1) passivity, (2) social democracy or (3) sectarianism.

Kasama Project founder Mike Ely showed up on Marxmail in 2007 after Bob Avakian’s name came up in a thread on Maoist critiques of the RCP. In a way, Ely was never able to transcend that approach even though he always claimed that the goal of left unity was uppermost. I don’t think he had a secret agenda only that he was incapable of rising to the occasion. You can even get an idea of the limitations from the very name that is explained on their website: “The name Kasama: In Tagalog, a language of the Philippines, Kasama is the word for the companions who travel the road together — in this case, the revolutionary road.” This sounds nice but it hardly addresses the state of class consciousness in the USA that is so different from the Philippines that has had revolutionary guerrilla movements going back to the Theodore Roosevelt period.

Ely posted excerpts from a critique of Avakian that struck a chord with those of us who had left the American SWP:

Problems of dogmatism, self-isolation and political fantasy — that have always plagued the RCP — are now in command to a new degree. The heart of this is how the RCP’s central leader, Bob Avakian, is seen and promoted.

In place of the mass line, there is a one-sided stress on telling — in patronizing ways. The fetish of the word morphs into the fetish of the leader and tries to “vault over” the complicated processes by which people really decide what to think and how to act.

Leaders dream up grand schemes out of whole cloth — without forming alliances, constituencies or trained networks over time. They don’t have their own base to bring to the process. They “plan” to reach millions without actually organizing thousands. We should be suspicious of such contrivances and “get rich quick” schemes.

So given that kind of analysis, which was reminiscent of what Max Elbaum wrote about the “New Communist Movement” (ie., Maoism) in “Revolution in the Air”, I wondered if Ely might eventually play a role in steering the left out of the sectarian ditch that had made it so ineffective for decades. It was never possible unfortunately. Let me try to explain why:

  1. An inability to fully theorize the “Leninism” question:

Since the Kasama website has fallen into disrepair, some of the key documents there are no longer downloadable. Fortunately, they can be read on the “Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line” section in MIA, including articles by Max Elbaum. That is where you will find Ely’s “Nine Letters to Our Comrades” from which he excerpted passages for Marxmail.

In this 72-page pamphlet, the words “democratic centralism” appear only once and only in a comment that the RCP had a militarized version of what Lenin advocated. Furthermore, the term “Leninism” only comes up as part of the label “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism”, a sign that Ely had not quite gotten to the bottom of what was destroying the left. The term “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism” is nonsensical. Throughout the 9 letters, it is mentioned continuously without once considering the main lesson of Elbaum’s book, namely that a new approach was necessary.

  1. Ultraleftism

Despite his on-target critique of the RCP, Ely carried a lot of its baggage with him, particularly a fetish over militancy. For him, revolution was synonymous with violent protests. He romanticized guns, particularly the urban guerrilla mystique of the Black Panther Party. Oddly enough, he reminded me a bit of Farrell Dobbs, the leader of the SWP who was largely responsible for the “turn toward industry”. Peter Camejo once told me that Dobbs could never get over the idea that the radicalization that would finally culminate in the overthrow of American capitalism would largely have the characteristics of the 1930s CIO organizing drives in which he played a key role as Teamsters organizer.

When Ely would reminisce about the Panthers, SDS street battles, etc., he struck me as embodying 1960s nostalgia in the same way Dobbs related to the 1930s. I would say that unless you are open to the specific characteristics of the class struggle in the period you live in, you will inevitably go wrong.

  1. Clandestine norms

Five years ago Ely and fellow Kasama Project notable Eric Ribellarsi were giving a talk at the now defunct Brecht Forum in NYC, a victim of rising real estate prices rather than dogmatism, that was meant to introduce the project to a broader audience. I took the trouble to bring my video camera down there with me to record the event and help publicize it but Ely nixed it because it might be used by the cops. The idea that the FBI had no idea what Ely and Ribellarsi were up to was nonsense. Furthermore, they were not like Syrians or Iranians whose identity had to be protected. Instead it was just a silly acting out of notions of what it meant to “go up against the man”. Ely also could have given me the green light to record the audio but probably preferred to sustain the illusion that they were operating in Czarist Russia in 1902 or something.

I should add that Ely’s talk betrayed the ultraleftism that would keep the Kasama Project from reaching its potential. He talked about how the Greek left was “getting things done”, which meant how some guy drove a car through the front door of a bank. Considering the horrible disunity in Greece that makes effective action against the austerity regime so difficult, the last thing that is needed is tactical militancy. Instead it is figuring out how to create a united front of the ex-members of Syriza still committed to socialism, the KKE, Antarsya and the anarchists so that the social power of the masses can be effective. For that you need a mastery of Marxism and a subtle understanding of strategy and tactics, not driving a car into a bank.

  1. Grandiosity

It was rather telling that the Kasama Project started to sink into oblivion at the very moment it was issuing proclamations that had all the sorry pretensions of all past attempts at launching a new Leninist party. Timed with a new version of the website, it was filled with embarrassing bombast:

Organization, Regroupment, and Strategic Conceptions

The oppressed and exploited majority of humanity cannot win liberation, the communist future cannot be conquered, without revolutionary communist organization. The kinds of organization that we will need will vary depending on the tasks and the time. We draw on the rich and varied organizational experiences of previous generations of revolutionaries but also understand that the forms we develop must answer to the new and radically changed conditions that confront us in the 21st century.

We are committed to building a country-wide and multi-national organization of communist revolutionaries within the U.S. that is both serious and flexible, disciplined and anti-dogmatic, grounded in history and alive to what is new in this world. We do not believe that we are that organization yet or even that we necessarily constitute its nucleus. But we are seeking to help bring it into existence. We seek to regroup scattered revolutionary communist forces, not just the remnants of previous efforts but also, and more importantly, the new ones propelled forward by new struggles, and to forge along with them the organization that we need.

Serve the people, power to the people

We are guided by love for the people. We seek to embody a different way of living, the possibility of a different future. Communists should promote a style and aesthetic of humility, caring, militancy, universalism, a living radicalism, critical thinking, a deep practicality, and a respect for the planet’s life — its people, its many species and its biosphere generally. We should make a movement for total human emancipation seem like the most practical, radical, and loving thing in the world.

Only the people in their millions can make a socialist revolution in the United States. The organization we need will require the fusion of presently scattered conscious revolutionaries with whole sections of the oppressed in a process of mutual transformation to constitute a revolutionary people. We strive to identify the faultlines in this society along which struggles that have the potential to facilitate such a fusion are likely to break out and, as our forces permit, to support and initiate organizing projects to begin that process.

Groan.

I have a complete different take on the tasks facing the left. To start with, we have to drop the term communism once and for all no matter how much that will disappoint Jodi Dean.

We have to speak to people in terms that make sense to them. Socialism does not have the connotations that communism does even though for Marx and Engels they are interchangeable. But even if socialism is a more viable way of describing your goals, it is much better to articulate a program that focuses on the failure of the capitalist system to provide for our needs—in other words the kind of proposal just adopted by the Green Party.

We also have to recognize that organizational initiatives have to be based on objective conditions. The most urgent need right now is a broad left party that can begin to draw in the millions of people that have grown sick of the two-party system. If nothing else, the Sanders campaign indicated the dynamics at work that make such a goal realizable. It takes a committed core of a thousand or so people to move that process forward. It is the goal that the North Star website tries to promote and that is consistent with the state of class consciousness in the USA.

My recommendation for those who agree with that perspective is to check out the Socialist Convergence conference in Philadelphia being organized by the Philly Socialists, a group that is in the vanguard of political organizing today—in the genuine sense of the word.

 

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.

June 10, 2015

The latest data on my blog versus the Militant

Filed under: cults,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 12:50 am

Screen shot 2015-06-09 at 8.43.58 PM Screen shot 2015-06-09 at 8.44.23 PM

November 14, 2014

Goodbye Leninism

Filed under: Lenin,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm
When the Books Don’t Cook

Goodbye Leninism

by LOUIS PROYECT

On August 2nd Ian Birchall wrote an article titled “Lenin: Yes! Leninism: No?” for the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (RS21) website that has touched off an ongoing debate. For those trying to create an effective anticapitalist movement, Birchall’s article makes plenty of sense since it goes a long way toward putting the icons of October 1917 where they belong, into the historical archives. For those, however, who want to trace their lineage back to the Bolshevik revolution, like the connection that the Catholic Church makes between Pope Francis (a pretty good guy by the evidence) and Saint Peter, there is a need to uphold the sanctity of “Leninism”. Yet nobody outside the ranks of a Leninist party or the Catholic Church takes the lineage claims very seriously, especially people like me who went through such a painful experience (Leninism, not Catholicism.)

Ian Birchall, like many of the people involved with the RS21 website, was a long-time member of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. This group lost many members after it failed to take action against a top leader who allegedly raped a young member, a failure that led to an ongoing crisis that I discussed in an earlier CounterPunch article. SWP leader Alex Callinicos warned members that the revolt was less about the rape charge than it was about defending the party from an attack on “Leninism”, a ploy that probably accelerated the rush to the nearest door.

Read full article

July 4, 2014

Alex Callinicos: take a look in the mirror

Filed under: British SWP,Lenin,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

Alex Callinicos

Alex Callinicos’s nearly 12,500-word article in the latest International Socialism (Thunder on the Left) reminds me quite a bit of the kind of explanation I heard from former members of the SWP in the USA over the years about the group’s collapse. It was not the fault of the leaders but of objective conditions that the SWP went from nearly 2000 members in 1978 to just over a hundred today. It was almost inevitable given the decline of the trade union movement that supposedly would have nourished the sect’s growth. That decline was in turn an inevitable outcome of a hollowing out of the industrial sector and the loss of blue-collar jobs. It should be noted that the SWP leadership itself never bothered to provide much of an explanation for the loss of 95 percent of its members. In their eyes the party was always poised to take advantage of great opportunities looming on the horizon. Indeed, if you do a search on “opportunities” on the Militant newspaper website, you will find links to 982 articles. This was typical:

In the months ahead, the party will reach out to get an expanded hearing among working people on the roots of the world economic crisis and a fighting road forward for our class; take advantage of possibilities to advance the campaign to free the Cuban Five and defend the Cuban Revolution; and opportunities to join strikes and social struggles of workers against attacks by the rulers and their government.

To Callinicos’s credit, he avoids this kind of cockeyed optimism even though, like Jack Barnes, he refuses to acknowledge his own role in a torrential loss of members. Like the sympathizers of the American SWP, he relates his sect’s trouble to objective conditions:

This decline is a consequence of two processes, one long term, the other more short term. In the first place, the general tendency in advanced capitalist societies towards the greater fragmentation and individualisation of social life erodes the bases of many mass organisations—not just political parties, but mainstream churches and many of the other institutions that helped to impose a degree of order and security during the early chaotic phases of capitalist development. This phenomenon was already visible during the post-war boom, when it was diagnosed as “apathy”, a disease of “affluence”.

Secondly, neoliberalism—a result of the ruling class response to this insurgency—has accelerated the tendency to fragmentation and individualism and weakened working class organisation. But it has also reshaped bourgeois politics as the mainstream parties have converged on acceptance of neoliberalism. What in France is called la pensée unique (the “sole thought”) ideologically integrates the political elite with media bosses, big capital more generally, and much of the academy in acceptance of market capitalism and bourgeois democracy as defining the horizons of rational social life.

My explanation differs from ex-members of the SWP in the USA and Callinicos’s. It paraphrases what Cassius said in Shakespeare’s play: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are hemorrhaging members.”

What they fail to grasp is the primary obstacle such groups face in becoming massive. Tens of thousands of socialist-minded workers, students and even middle-class professionals are not willing to join a group that imposes an ideological straitjacket on its membership. The “program” of both SWP’s was always understood to be virtual encyclopedia of positions on historical and international questions that it was almost impossible to support unless you had gone through an apprenticeship in the organization that included indoctrination in new members classes, etc. It was the kind of training a Jesuit would receive.

Despite such self-imposed constraints, groups such as the American and British SWP’s can enjoy relative success. At its high point, my sect was the largest group on the left just as was the case with the British SWP. Taking into account the revolving door tendencies of both groups to lose burned out members, they could have stayed close to the top of their game.

But both crashed on the reefs as a result of an inability to change course. If it was a single-mindedness of purpose and ideological homogeneity that allowed such groups to enjoy rapid growth, it was exactly the same tendencies that made it impossible to avoid a disaster. Although such “Leninist” groups have formal guarantees for the democratic rights of the membership, the leadership will always dig in its heels when it has a big stake in the outcome of a debate. In the American SWP, the top leader had become fanatically committed to the “turn toward industry”, to the point of likening party members who disagreed as “Marielitos”, the counter-revolutionary Cubans who arrived in Florida on boats. In the British SWP, the dividing line was not over policy but over the refusal of the leadership to take action against one of its own who had raped a younger female member. As I said, the American SWP lost 95 percent of its membership but so far the British SWP’s losses have been somewhat smaller—only 700 according to Callinicos. Of course, there is no doubt that as long as the current stonewalling tendencies of the leadership group remain intact, those numbers will grow.

While there is not much point in covering all of the points made in Callinicos’s gargantuan article, there are a few worth honing in on.

In reviewing the tendencies of broad parties like Syriza to suffer “organizational implosion”, Callinicos puts the blame on the aforementioned economic tendencies. Leaving aside the question of whether Syriza has imploded, I was struck by his reference to a broad-based party that included the SWP as a constituent:

Disarray set in among the radical left before the onset of the economic crisis: thus George Galloway launched his attack on the role of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) within Respect in August 2007, just as the credit crunch was beginning to develop.

What a strange analysis. As if the collapse of Lehman Brothers would have been a green light for Galloway to launch his attack. Leaving aside Galloway’s mercurial personality and Labour Party bad habits, the real cause of the crisis in Respect was the SWP’s unaccountability. Whenever you have a “democratic centralist” entity operating in a larger mass movement or a broad party, there will be friction since decisions will be made at caucus meetings beforehand. I should know. That’s how the American SWP operated. We called ourselves “The Big Red Machine” and that’s why people outside our ranks hated us.

For those who bothered to read Callinicos’s attacks on the party members who fought against the rape cover-up, you will remember that he said that the real disagreement was over “reform versus revolution”. SWP members like Richard Seymour were renegades from Marxism, pinning their hopes on Syriza type formations rather than tried and true Leninist formations like the SWP. Feeling vindicated now that Greece is still a capitalist country, Callinicos says “I told you so.”

The proof of Syriza’s failure was its support for “the shopworn centre-right architect of austerity Jean-Claude Juncker for president of the European commission.” It turns out that Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras’s support for Juncker was highly qualified. Le Monde reported:

“If Europe doesn’t democratize soon, it will suffer a major cohesion” he said and when asked whether or not he supports the candidacy of Juncker for the president of the European Commission he explained that “although he’s a tough opponent of his policy”, he recognizes the right to preside, as long as his party won the largest number of seats.

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

Apparently this is not good enough for Callinicos. The leftists who are now in Syriza would be better advised to join Callinicos’s co-thinkers in Antarsya that got 20,389 votes in the 2012 elections as opposed to Syriza’s 1,655,022. You have to remember that the Bolsheviks started off small. As long as you have a correct program, victory is assured. That is why it was so necessary to hound Richard Seymour and friends out of the SWP. They were a scratch that could have turned into gangrene, don’t you know?

As might be expected, Callinicos returns once again to a defense of “Leninism”, the last refuge of a scoundrel. As might be expected, Callinicos feels the need repudiate Lars Lih’s argument that Lenin sought nothing more than to build a party in Russia modeled after Kautsky’s party in Germany since that comes uncomfortably close to an endorsement of the “left reformism” of Syriza. For Callinicos, Paul Le Blanc and Mick Armstrong of the Socialist Alternative in Australia, there is this thing called “Leninism” that was implicit as far back as 1903 but became fully manifested at the Prague Conference of 1912.

I will probably have more to say on this since Paul Blackledge, a case-hardened Callinicos lieutenant, attempts to refute Lars Lih in the same issue of International Socialism but will offer some thoughts on what Callinicos says here:

While a welcome corrective to the standard bourgeois caricature of Lenin as a demonic totalitarian, this interpretation has subsequently been used by Lih and others to argue that Lenin had no distinctive or original approach to revolutionary politics in general or party organisation in particular. This would have come as a surprise to Lenin himself, who after all wrote “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder in 1920 in order to introduce Western revolutionaries to the specific political experiences of the Bolsheviks, but also to contemporaries such as Georg Lukács, who, through the debates in the early Communist International, developed a hard-won understanding of Lenin’s originality.

Callinicos is right but that’s the problem unfortunately. There’s a lack of clarity in the above quote but basically it makes an amalgam of two separate questions. Lih’s contribution was less about “revolutionary politics” than it was about organizational questions. Keep in mind that Lih’s key work was an 888-page examination of “What is to be Done”, a work focused on questions such as the role of a newspaper, democratic centralism, etc. That being said, by 1920 Lenin had certainly come to the conclusion that an “original approach” to party organization distinguished the Comintern parties from the Second International. The 21 Conditions was the most obvious sign of that but even more obviously was the application of “democratic centralism” to the German Communist Party when Paul Levi was expelled with Lenin’s endorsement over his public attack on the ultraleftism that was jeopardizing the German revolution. It was the sort of narrow understanding of democratic centralism that would become enshrined at the Bolshevization Comintern conference three years later under Zinoviev’s command.

Displaying a shamelessness on the order of a Washington bourgeois politician, Callinicos spends a thousands words or so defending his party’s understanding of the “woman question” against Sharon Smith of the ISO who views Tony Cliff’s analysis as lacking to say the least. If Callinicos can’t make the connection between a certain theoretical deficiency in the SWP and the commission of inquiry that asked the female rape victim about her drinking habits, then he is beyond help.

In his conclusion, Callinicos writes:

The present crisis is much more diffuse, but in some ways more threatening, because the revolutionary left is much weaker than it was in 1979. This makes the attempts to split and even to destroy organisations such as the NPA and the SWP so irresponsible.

Now I have no idea what is going on in the French NPA since the comrades are not particularly engaged with the English-speaking left (who can blame them?) but I doubt it has anything to do with a rape investigation that had more in common with those conducted in the American military than what we would expect from a Marxist party. In terms of attempts to destroy an organization, my suggestion to Alex Callinicos is that he takes a look in the mirror at his earliest convenience. There he will find the miscreant most responsible.

 

The ISO versus Socialist Alternative

Filed under: Counterpunch,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 12:57 pm
Todd Chretien
CounterPunch WEEKEND EDITION JULY 4-6, 2014
The ISO Versus Socialist Alternative

Sectarian Delusions on the American Left

by LOUIS PROYECT

Another International Socialist Organization Internal Bulletin has been leaked to the public over on the External Bulletin website, home to a group of former members. It contains an article written by long-time leader Todd Chretien that targets Socialist Alternative (SAlt)—the group that is rightfully proud of their comrade Kshama Sawant being elected to the Seattle City Council and for her role in the passing of a $15 minimum wage.

I have been partial to Chretien in the past because of his close ties to the late Peter Camejo, whose gubernatorial campaign in California he helped organize in 2003. I worked closely with Camejo in the early 80s and confess to having stolen all my best ideas from him.

The ISO’s chief criticism of Socialist Alternative’s electoral strategy is that it is “triumphalist”, a musty term from the Marxist lexicon. Specifically, Chretien regards SAlt’s call for a hundred independent candidates to run in the 2014-midterm elections as an “overblown perspective”. In his view, her victory did not necessarily mean that political conditions had ripened to the point where such a large number of candidates would be forthcoming. Such “triumphalism” might even be catching–to the point where ISO’ers would be seduced into believing that it was feasible to form a new “broad” party in the near term, or that regroupment of the far left was the order of the day. Heaven forefend.

read full

June 13, 2014

Goodbye, Lenin

Goodbye Lenin

by LOUIS PROYECT

I hope that CounterPunch readers will forgive me for taking valuable time away from my film reviews of neglected treasures while I answer one of my critics from the “Leninist” left. As it happens, Paul Le Blanc, the International Socialist Organization’s avuncular scholar of Bolshevik history, devoted pretty much of a whole chapter to me in his latest book “Unfinished Leninism” (the chapter has the same title) and I would like the opportunity to use CounterPunch for my reply.

I am not accustomed to answering points made in a book but since many of the arguments about what Lenin stood for and whether he has any relevance for today’s left take place in books and in Historical Materialism, a high-toned print journal behind a paywall, I really have no choice. As a strong believer in the Internet, I would prefer to debate there since I see it as the modern counterpart of the Gutenberg press, the primary means of communication of our rebel forerunners. My guess is that if the quarrelsome Lenin were alive today, he would be conducting his debates on the Internet as well.

As a history professor, Le Blanc is obviously much more comfortable holding forth from a lectern or the printed page. That’s true for the rest of the ISO as well that sees the Internet as a necessary evil. As a handy tool to distribute an electronic version of their print publications, it would be much better if it weren’t a breeding ground for bilious critics and those who circulate their top-secret internal bulletins.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/06/13/goodbye-lenin/

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