Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 29, 2013

Dianne Feinstein joins the staff of the Militant newspaper

Filed under: sectarianism,Trotskyism,ultraleftism — louisproyect @ 11:22 pm

But there is no push for Big Brother repression. Spying by the propertied rulers isn’t currently directed against the entire population, nor is it primarily aimed today at working-class militants. The data-mining programs Snowden leaked details on are aimed at Islamist-jihadist terrorists.

full: http://www.themilitant.com/2013/7726/772653.html

From 2006, before the SWP became unmoored from the planet earth:

Today, as before, the main targets of the FBI, NSA, and other “homeland security” cops are the unions, Black rights fighters, and other opponents of government policies. The billionaire families that rule the United States through the government and their twin parties—the Democrats and Republicans—know their profit system has entered today a turbulent period of economic depression and wars. They know that in the coming years they must resort to rougher methods against workers and farmers, who will resist the effects of this social crisis. At the same time, they do not face the explosive political conditions of the 1960s and ’70s, generated by the Black rights and related struggles, that imposed restraints on their political police operations.

full: http://www.themilitant.com/2006/7003/700320.html


June 25, 2013

Who were the Cochranites?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 5:34 pm

Harry Braverman

In the latest of an ongoing series of exchanges with Luke Cooper, a young British revolutionary whose critique of “Leninism” I share, Paul Le Blanc referred to some fairly ancient history that will likely be obscure to most on the left, even those who have been following this debate and others like it for the past decade or so.

In trying to paint James P. Cannon, the father of American Trotskyism, as someone open to the kinds of broad left unity taking place in Britain today, Le Blanc refers to the “regroupment” period of the mid-50s which had Cannon sounding sweet and reasonable at a 1958 public meeting:

Socialists of different tendencies have begun to think of each other as comrades. Free discussion and fraternization, and sentiment for united action and regroupment of all the scattered forces, are the order of the day for us now everywhere. I say that’s a good day for us and for our cause – the cause of American socialism.

This is part of a delicate balancing act being undertaken by the International Socialists Organization. They recognize that lip-service must be paid to the powerful historical tides are moving in the direction of broad left unity but are loath to give up the sectarian framework that has worked so well for them in the past. When you can build up an organization of more than a thousand committed activists in a relatively brief period based on the party-building methodology of people like Tony Cliff, James P. Cannon, Ted Grant et al, you feel vindicated. There is of course a need to speak in terms of becoming part of a broader vanguard party down the road but until history comes knocking on your door, why give up on the “market share” approach that has worked so well in the past?

In trying to burnish the image of Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party, Le Blanc offers a disparaging portrait of Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s Socialist Union, which existed from 1954 until 1960:

I was not recruited … by the group around Bert Cochran that left the SWP in the 1950s but had disappeared by the early 1960s. All of these had important things to say, offered compelling insights, contained admirable people, made genuine contributions. But none of them survived as an organized force, with revolutionary perspectives intact and some credibility, capable of recruiting and helping to political train the person that I was in the 1960s and 1970s. The SWP did survive as such a force, and it was able to grow and play a very positive role before succumbing to the contradictions that I have analyzed elsewhere.

There is of course a problem with the whole concept of recruitment that probably eludes Paul Le Blanc. If you go back to the early 1900s in Czarist Russia, the Social Democracy did not go out and recruit people. It was instead an organic outgrowth of a pre-existing socialist movement that had not yet cohered into an organization. Lenin wrote “What is to be Done” in order to accelerate such a cohesion.

This business about the “Cochranites” not having the same shelf life as the SWP is something I have heard before, including a crasser version made by a former member of the SWP who is a fan of the ISO. This was his comment on my blog:

And where are the Cochranites now? As they say, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”

Well, I suppose if the criterion is being “rich”, the Socialist Union was a loser. But I wouldn’t put much stock in longevity as a sign of wealth or health considering the fact that Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labor Party has the SWP beat by a mile.

The interesting thing for me is how incapable Paul Le Blanc was in understanding what Cochran and Braverman were up to. They had broken completely with the “recruitment” model of the SWP and were committed to a genuine regroupment of the sort that Cannon only paid lip service to.

In 1955, the radical weekly Guardian newspaper approached the SWP with a proposal to run a “united socialist” ticket, a hallmark of the regroupment period that often focused on electoral campaigns that could unite the left. Cannon wrote a letter to SWP leader Murray Weiss revealing what he thought of the Guardian, a paper that probably had 5 times as many readers than the Militant in the 1960s:

The American Guardian Monthly Review outfit, as far as I know … does not object to the general ideology of Stalinism on any important point. They are willing to endorse everything from the Moscow Trials to the Second World War and the pacifist ballyhoo for co-existence, if only they are allowed to do it as an independent party… The great bulk of these dissident Stalinists are worn-out people, incurably corrupted by Stalinist ideology, who haven’t the slightest intention or capacity to do anything but grumble at the official CP and to demand a stagnant little pond of their own to splash in.

When I joined the SWP in 1967, they organized a class on party history that featured the key leaders on all the famous fights and maneuvers calculated to convince us raw “recruits” that we had hooked up with the smartest people on earth. I can’t remember who gave a class on regroupment but I am damned sure that this was the consensus in 1967: regroupment was designed to recruit some of the best of the disillusioned CP’ers to the “vanguard party”, a rescue operation in effect. The highest-profile ex-CP’er to join the party was Clifton DeBerry, an African-American who ran for president on the SWP ticket in 1964.

Unlike the SWP, the Cochranites took the project seriously and no distinction could be made between their private and public utterances. Bert Cochran uttered these words to a meeting of 800 people in Chicago in November 1956 and you can be damned sure he meant them:

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 judgment, 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.

For those who are impressed with longevity, there’s not much that can be said about the Socialist Union that lasted half a decade. But it is important to remember that Karl Marx, the founder of our movement, was not always involved in building organizations. I urge you to look at an article on Democratic Centralism written by Joaquín Bustelo for Solidarity that might fault Marx as well for not being “rich” in the terms outlined above.

Now one very important thing to note about Marx and Engels’s conception of the Communist Party as a leading force in the working class struggle is that this did not in the slightest cause them to hesitate in dissolving the organized expression of that party, the Communist League, only a few weeks after having written those lines in the Manifesto, when a revolution broke out in Germany.

Engels explains it very straightforwardly in his article “On the History of the Communist League, “simply as a function of political tasks. The old propaganda league was not suitable for the new conditions of Germany in revolution, a newspaper was a much better political instrument, so they wound up the underground League and founded the daily Neue Rheinische Zeitung.

I want to conclude with a talk I presented on the Cochranites to a conference on American Trotskyism organized by Paul Le Blanc thirteen years ago. Although I was anxious to get out the word on a group I closely identified with and whose former members had become like family (particularly Cynthia Cochran who treated me like a son), there was a sense that my talk would fall on deaf ears. There was still a strong belief that “democratic centralism” was an organizational measure worth pursuing. Thank goodness we are in a new era.

The Cochran-Braverman Legacy

According to Al Hansen, who wrote the preface to “Speeches to the Party”, a mostly obscure collection of James P. Cannon’s anti-Cochranite rants from the late 1940s and early 1950s:

. . . Sol and Genora [Dollinger] expressed the following views. The party should not be trying to build branches, running election campaigns, or even trying to recruit members in this period. The country was facing the triumph of fascism and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it because of the conservatism of the workers and our party’s weakness. When fascism triumphed here, all known Trotskyists would be wiped out as had happened in Nazi Germany. Therefore the best thing that we could do as revolutionists was to spend as much time as we had writing down and printing our ideas, our program, and then hide this printed matter in attics, basements, etc., for future generations to discover.

So that’s the official version of the Cochranites: liquidationists panicked by McCarthyism. And then you mix this with Cannon’s crude sociological explanation of them as a privileged strata of the working class. These were UAW Joe Six-Packs tired of the class struggle and anxious to live the good life paid for by high union wages. When a raw recruit like me first heard about the Cochranites in a 1969 Frank Lovell lecture, I felt thankful that the good guys had won, just like they always did in the SWP. In revolutionary parties, as in politics in general, history is written by the victors.

In early 1970 I took an assignment to go up to Boston to fight against the Proletarian Orientation Tendency (POT). This workerist grouping around old timer Larry Trainor, included not only my friend Alan Wald then in Berkeley, but a number of party members my age. They numbered perhaps 5 to 10 percent of the SWP and YSA. The POT worried that the rapid influx of middle-class students would create alien class pressures on the proletarian party. The next thing you know we’d oppose the USSR’s invasion of Finland or something. I was never sure how I fit into all this because my father had been a truck-driver before he opened up a fruit store. As a computer programmer, I supposedly belonged to Ernest Mandel’s new working class. In any case, I never lost any sleep over this question.

The POT in Boston couldn’t wait for the rest of the party to wake up to the danger. They had begun to take jobs in hospitals and factories in order to transform themselves into workers. With its attention fixed on the factories, the Boston branch lagged behind the rest of the country in building the mass antiwar movement. Branch organizer Peter Camejo’s job was to destroy the Trainorites politically and reorient the branch toward the student movement. I was his one of his right-hand men in the faction fight.

As justification for this crackdown, the Cochranite heresy proved useful. In my remarks to the branch during the 1971 pre-convention discussion, I said that it was useless to take jobs in factories. After all, it had made no difference for the Cochranites. Even autoworkers were not above selling out the revolution.

Although the party apparatus was successful in destroying the POT, it turned around and adopted virtually its entire agenda only 7 years later. The “turn” toward industry was just another misguided attempt at colonization, not much more sophisticated than the one mounted by the Boston SDS Worker-Student Alliance in 1970 that had served as a model for the Boston branch.

Despite the turn, Peter Camejo remained a 1960s holdout. After spending time in Nicaragua witnessing a living revolution, he became convinced that the SWP was on a sectarian dead-end. He not only defended the 1960s orientation, he believed it necessary to work more closely with non-Trotskyist groups like the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. Basically, he was trying to work out a Cuban or Central American type orientation for the United States.

Questioning the “turn” got him thrown out of the party in 1980. That year I began wondering why the SWP was doing so little to organize protests against US intervention in Central America. Although I had been out of the party for two years, I read the Militant from cover to cover each week. If there was any deep concern with US imperialism’s designs in the region, I couldn’t see it. A chance encounter with Ray Markey, who was still in the party and who always seemed level-headed to me, prompted me to ask what was wrong the SWP. Had they turned into a workerist sect? He gave me a copy of Peter Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism” which said yes to that question. As I began reading it, I found myself in agreement with every word.

About 7 years ago J. Plant, who works with the excellent British journal “Revolutionary History,” raised a question on an Internet mailing list that led me to begin writing about party building questions. He asked people for their assessment of Trotskyism. I replied that Trotsky’s basic ideas on permanent revolution, fascism, the popular front, etc. remained sound. But we had to come to terms with the problem that his movement had a tendency to generate sectarian formations. I said that this was caused by a misreading of Lenin and the Bolsheviks and announced that I would write about these problems in some depth. So I wrote about the CP, the Trotskyists. and newer formations like the Cuban July 26th movement and the FSLN in Nicaragua. All of it is archived on the Marxism list website, along with links to material on the Cochranites.

I found myself questioning not only official versions of what it meant to build Marxist-Leninist parties, but the particular Cannonite version handed down in the SWP. Part of this re-investigation meant taking a new look at all of our various renegades. Since I was in a forgiving mood, I began handing out absolutions to everybody. Oehlerites, Shachtmanites, Cochranites–it didn’t matter. I no longer had any use for reading people out of the movement. Look where it had led.

At the time I had neither the motivation nor the resources to actually study what the Cochranites stood for in any great detail, especially since there was a paucity of documentation available to the general public. All that changed after Sol Dollinger showed up on a Marxism list I had launched in May of 1998. Over the past year or so, we have had discussions on the list about the legacy of the Trotskyist movement that have benefited from the insights of a living and breathing–and sometimes blunt–Cochranite. One of the first things we learned from Sol was that the charge of “privileged” Cochranite factory workers was absurd. He wrote:

Three decades later, I am amused by the explanations made by Frank Lovell that you heard as a new member of the SWP. He contended that the members of the auto faction had become embourgeoisified by high wages in the industry. My position as a Chevrolet worker is not much different than other auto worker members of the party. We rented in Flint and when I quit after seven years my wages were under five thousand dollars a year. When Genora’s father died of a heart attack in front of the Buick gate where he worked as a janitor, he left his four children $700 each. Genora rushed out to make a down payment on a house with a $3800 dollar mortgage with monthly payments of $35.

Keeping in mind that my criticisms of Trotskyism flow from a Cuban or Sandinista type perspective like Camejo’s, I found that Sol’s basic approach coincided with my own. That led me to look into the whole question of the Cochran legacy. Contrary to Al Hansen, this group did not liquidate itself in 1954. It made an audacious attempt to start a new Marxist left. Their organization was called the Socialist Union. Their journal the American Socialist began that year as well, only to cease publication at the end of 1959. Edited by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, it is not only one of the best Marxist journals ever published, it is also a guide to understanding the kind of revolutionary movement that we need today.

Over the past year or so, I have been scanning in articles from American Socialist, courtesy of Cynthia Cochran who lives here in NYC and making them available in electronic archives. Eventually I hope to have this published as an American Socialist Reader.

To start with, it does not make sense to speak of Cochran or Braverman in the same terms as CLR James or any other figure around whom disciples gathered. That being said, there is still a “Cochranite” approach to politics that revolved around overlapping concerns. Let’s take a look at them.

To begin with, the American Socialist rejected the “vanguard” model that James P. Cannon had promoted. Although the magazine never mentioned Cannon or the SWP after the first issue, there was no mistake that they were for a complete break with the sectarian model.

Unlike the Trotskyists, they believed that a genuine regroupment was necessary on the American left. I want to emphasize the word genuine because the SWP went through a regroupment period themselves in the late 1950s that can only be characterized as a fishing expedition to gain new members, particularly disaffected ex-CP’ers. Activists in the Socialist Union saw their work with other groups as a means to an end. They sought to build a broad-based socialist movement and not just another sect.

In October 1956 the Socialist Union organized a regroupment meeting in Chicago that drew 800 people. Besides Bert Cochran, the speakers included A.J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Sidney Lens, a writer and trade union official. Cochran told the audience:

Practically since its inception, the American Socialist has declared that a regroupment was necessary on the American scene, that the old movements had knocked each other out, and what remained of them had either succumbed to the slough of sectarianism, or had outlived their usefulness as vehicles of American radicalism. At first we were a lone voice, but today this idea is accepted by many. Nevertheless, as a result of many private conferences and conversations that we have been engaged in over these past months, we are convinced that the regroupment and the setting up of something new will necessarily involve a more or less protracted process of discussion, debate, and re-examination of many of the Left’s premises and solutions, before the ground is sufficiently prepared for the next organizational ventures.

Not only was the American Socialist immersed in the regroupment process, it also explained the importance of similar efforts underway in Europe that they characterized as the unfolding of a “new left”. This term, by the way, is used frequently in the pages of American Socialist to describe not the sorry mess we ended up with in the 1960s but something more in the way of a new Marxist left. It is unfortunate that objective circumstances militated against the Socialist Union’s best efforts to make such a new movement possible.

For example, in 1958 the American Socialist covered developments in Great Britain around the journals New Reasoner, which included E.P. Thompson as an editor, and Universities and Left Review. They eventually merged and became New Left Review. Here is Cochran sizing up the New Reasoner:

The weakness of the New Reasoner appears to be that most of its writers are still unduly pre-occupied with the world from which they have so recently broken, as evidenced in the subject matter which claims their attention, the problems that continue to dominate their thoughts, and the people to whom they are primarily addressing their writings. Moreover, trying to continue to rest on the Communist tradition by restoring it to its original pre-Stalinist pristine purity strikes me as a quixotic venture. Communism is bound by historical associations of a quarter of a century that neither god nor man can eradicate. To try to restore Communism to the meaning that it possessed in 1917 or 1848 is like trying to take Christianity away from the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist churches of today and restore it to the simple virtues of the Biblical Apostles. It is a subject matter for literary exercises. It has no use as a workable tradition for the Left in Britain, much less, in the United States.

The American Socialist also sought to ground itself in earlier radical traditions in the United States, before Bolshevik cloning became mandatory. This meant taking a fresh look at the Debs legacy. Not only did the editorial board of American Socialist include octogenarian George H. Shoaf, who had worked closely with Debs, it also published a special issue on the Socialist Party in which Cochran drew a contrast between Debs’ party and what had followed it:

PECULIARLY enough, the Communist movement that followed Debs, and became the mainstream of American radicalism in the thirties and forties, lost this trait all over again, and became too much of a Russian movement; not in the sense that most of its members were of Russian extraction (they were not), but because their thought was so largely concentrated on Russia. Their leaders uncritically tried to copy Russian patterns of behavior, and misconstrued socialist internationalism to mean loss of independence for one’s own party. A reawakened socialist movement will undoubtedly have to re-create much of the earlier Debs model in this respect.

The break with the SWP not only involved questions of the appropriateness of the ‘vanguard’ party-building model, it also challenged the sort of ‘catastrophism’ that marked the party’s post-WWII outlook. While Cannon predicted a new depression and working class radicalization, the Cochranites urged a more cautious and objective view of the American economy and society. As is obvious today, the Cochranite assessment was far more accurate.

Cochran’s co-editor Harry Braverman focused on the American economy’s strengths and weaknesses. In article after article, he examined the nature of the post-WWII prosperity. While first showing residual influences of the kind of ‘catastrophism’ found in the post-WWII SWP, he eventually found himself coming to terms with what would turn out to be the longest and deepest capitalist expansion in history. In a May 1958 article, written as a reply to British ex-Marxist John Strachey who believed capitalism had resolved its basic contradictions, Braverman openly and courageously dealt with the question of ‘immiseration’ which had been central to the concerns of 1930s radical movement:

All the above difficulties in Marxism obviously stem from the fact that the capitalist system has persisted, and restabilized itself repeatedly, over a much longer period than had been expected. The great expansion in labor productivity which has created such new and different conditions was not unexpected in the Marxian economic structure, a structure which, as no other before or since, focused on the technological revolutions which capitalism is forced to work continuously as a condition of its existence. What was unexpected was capitalism’s length of life and its ability to expand. Marx and the movement he shaped operated on the basis of imminent crisis. If he never gave thought to the kind of living standard inherent in a capitalism that would continue to revolutionize science and industry for another hundred years, that was because he thought he was dealing with a system that was rapidly approaching its Armageddon.

The capitalist expansion of the 1950s was not the only thing that was unexpected. It also saw the beginning of the automation revolution. In an effort to understand what was different from the 1930s, you could not ignore something this major. In October 1954, Cochran wrote:

Everyone has heard of ‘automation’ by now and knows it is a new giant stride in the elimination of human labor in production by the use of automatic machinery, electronic computers and feedback controls. Few factories are as yet built on complete ‘automation’ lines, which in its strict scientific definition describes electronic or magnetic-tape control of complete sequence operations. Partial use of the new technology, however, is already becoming common. In continuous-flow-process industries, such as petrochemicals, many plants are on the verge of complete automation. Fortune magazine analysts believe even more startling changes may come in the white collar field with the introduction of high speed ‘memory’ and computing machines such as ‘Univac’ or IBM’s No. 702.

So if Univac rather than Armageddon was on the agenda, what would be the best hope for social change? As we know, the civil rights movement was starting up. The American Socialist provided some of the best coverage of this new movement, including dispatches from Carl Braden and Albert Maund, the author of “The Big Boxcar” who is in his mid-80s now and living in New Orleans. The great civil rights attorney Conrad Lynn served on the editorial board. WEB DuBois was also an occasional contributor.

It also examined some of the social contradictions that would eventually give birth to the environmental movement. Reuben Borough, who had been the editor of Upton Sinclair’s EPIC (End Poverty in California) campaign in 1934, served on the editorial board of American Socialist as well. In September, 1957, long before the publication of Rachel Carsons “Silent Spring,” Borough began writing about the environment from a Marxist perspective.

The problem of the conversion of power from these various non-depletable sources has never been under sustained and organized inquiry in the United States. This is a job beyond the immediate capacities of the isolated laboratories of the private enterprisers—they cannot solve the problem in time. Public enterprise can and must solve it. The loyal citizen of the Earth Planet must marshal the political forces necessary to that end. The long and ruthless raid of Greed upon the basic wealth of Nature must be stopped. Loving care must take the place of the befoulment and destruction of man’s environment. This is the inescapable task and responsibility of the religion of conservation.

Let me conclude. There was no such thing as “Cochranism.” It neither added nor subtracted anything to Marxist thought. Instead the Cochranites represent one of the most advanced and sustained efforts to apply a classical Marxist analysis to American society in the mid 20th century. The fact that they failed to build a new Marxist left is not an indictment of their methodology nor their analyses. They were just ahead of their time. If a new Marxist left in the United States is to succeed today, it will be along the lines set down by Socialist Union. You can bet on that.

Solidarity represents an effort to move in the direction set down by the Cochranites. I would invite these comrades to study the archives of the American Socialist to see how an earlier generation confronted the task of building a non-sectarian socialist movement based on Marxist principles.

As Bert Cochran said to a gathering of the Socialist Union at its inception in May 1954:

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

May 10, 2013

SWP madness

Filed under: housing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 11:23 pm

No, I am not talking about the British group but the Americans who are far nuttier and far more peripheral. I generally don’t pay any attention to them, but in this instance the nuttiness is so transcendental that it demands commentary. In an article in the latest Militant newspaper, something I used to sell avidly and that Malcolm X hailed, there’s a warning that the government is up to no good by seducing workers, particularly African-Americans, into buying houses. It points to the following:

According to recent articles on the WND.com website and in the Investor’s Business Daily, the Justice Department has:

— Threatened banks with lawsuits if they don’t push loans in “minority communities” and demanded lenders open branches in working-class neighborhoods of cities hard-hit by foreclosures like Detroit and St. Louis.

— Forced big mortgage lenders like Wells Fargo and Bank of America to provide 30-year loans to what banks refer to as “high-risk” borrowers under threat of prosecution.

— Issued orders mandating lenders advertise in “minority media” and offer loans to people on public assistance.

— Resurrected a Clinton-era regulation that warns lenders they must be more flexible with minority home buyers with weak credit to make up for “past discrimination.”

To start with, it is of some interest that they cite wnd.com. This, for those who don’t follow the American ultraright, is World News Daily. On their home page, you can find a reader’s poll that asks: “What do you think of U.S. government inviting Muslim cleric who disparaged dead Navy SEALs at their own funeral?” The website was founded by Joseph Farah, a rightwing nut who was deeply involved in the campaign to prove that Obama was not born in Hawaii. Apparently he also believes that soybeans cause homosexuality, although no amount of tofu over the past 11 years of marriage have diminished my desire for my wife.

Now 9 years ago, when the SWP was still clinging to sanity, it featured an article on housing that stated:  “In the 1970s numerous cases of redlining—where banks would not grant mortgages to renovate or build new apartments, especially in Black or Puerto Rican neighborhoods—were challenged and some lending terms were improved. While many of the most blatant practices were ended, banks and insurance companies continue to use discriminatory methods.”

As is so often the case, this nutty cult reverses positions without bothering to provide readers with an explanation.

They do invoke Engels, as they have in the past:  “In his booklet The Housing Question, written in 1872-73, communist leader Frederick Engels described how the bosses use home ownership to tie workers to the capitalist system, entangling us in debt that conservatizes us and makes us less mobile.”

Unless of course you are the leader of the SWP who lives in a snazzy West Village loft:

If bow-tied, cigar-mouthed Republicans can have nice seven-digit, six-room co-ops, don’t a few old Manhattan communists deserve multi-million-dollar real estate, too?

A two-bedroom loft at 380 West 12th Street, a 109-year-old building on a cobblestone block by the Hudson River, was sold by American socialist leaders Jack Barnes and Mary-Alice Waters. Their buyers, Sony BMG Music Entertainment vice president Ole Obermann and his fiancée, Stephanie Jakubiak, paid $1,872,500.

“I don’t want to hurt the sellers’ feelings at all, but they definitely had a funky style in terms of how they did the apartment,” said Mr. Obermann. That means there are sliding stained-glass doors, plus a wall of bookshelves. (Ms. Waters is the president of publishing house Pathfinder Press, which publishes Marx and Trotsky, and Mr. Barnes, too.)

“Personally, our tastes are different and we’ll probably do something different,” the buyer said. “It will be open, airy, simple, whereas when it was done 15 years ago there was a lot of light-colored wood shelving.” He’s adding six or so wireless speakers, “a nice music system.”

full: http://observer.com/2007/07/communists-capitalize-on-village-saleget-187-m-for-loft/

March 22, 2013

A critique of Alex Callinicos’s Marxism

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 2:31 pm

On The Two Souls of Socialism

by Joaquín Bustelo on March 22, 2013

Originally posted on the Marxism List in August of 2005, this article takes up the arguments presented by British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) leader Alex Callinicos in a debate with John Holloway on “Can we change the world without taking power?” The debate was held at the World Social Forum in January of 2005 and the transcript was presented in issue 106 of International Socialism, which is available online.

My contention is that the argument presented by Callinicos, centered on the “two souls of socialism” meme, is quite distant from a rigorous Marxist analysis. Useful as the “two souls” idea and especially “socialism from below” may be in explaining certain concepts in a popular way, trying to use these as fundamental analytical categories, as Callinicos does, following the example of Hal Draper’s famous 1960′s article, is a mistake. It creates a catchall category of “socialism for above” that doesn’t really tell you anything because it is so broad, and sets up impossibly high barriers to any revolutionary process being blessed with the “from below” label.

I am republishing it at The North Star because I believe crises like the one in the SWP involve more than organizational practices. Also involved is an idealist approach that turns preservation of a doctrine into a central task and the very reason for being of a revolutionary organization. I follow it with another post in that discussion thread where I expand on some points.

It is really quite striking how much of Callinicos’s theoretical arsenal is derived from what is a transparently idealist, not Marxist analysis. In his debate with Holloway, Callinicos, a leader of the British SWP says:

I absolutely sympathise with one of the impulses behind the slogan ‘Change the world without taking power’. Among a lot of the traditions on the left worldwide there has been what has been called ‘socialism from above’. Whether it is a Communist party with Stalinist traditions or a social democratic party like the Workers Party in Brazil today, it involves the idea that the party changes things for you and everyone else remains passive.

The political tradition I stand in is a very different one. It is that of socialism from below summed up in Marx’s definition of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class. Socialism is about the oppressed and exploited of the world effectively liberating themselves.

My fundamental difference with John is that I believe this process of self-emancipation requires us to confront and overthrow the existing state and replacing it with a radically different form of state power.

This will immediately be recognized by many as a line of argument derived from the idea that there have been historically two “souls” of socialism — socialism from above versus socialism from below. Now, this may have some propaganda utility in the same sense that Lenin said that the phrase “socialism is my religion” might be a permissible pedagogical adaptation by a Marxist to make certain ideas more accessible. But I believe if one delves deeply in the source text of this theses, Hal Draper’s 1960′s article, “The two souls of socialism,” one will find rather less than meets the eye.

read full article: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=8036#comment-42936

March 14, 2013

Lenin was not a Leninist

Filed under: Lenin,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 11:40 pm

by Joaquín Bustelo on March 13, 2013

in analysis

A comment on Paul LeBlanc’s Leninism is Unfinished — The crisis in the British SWP over the handling of rape allegations against a leading member has led to a new and wide-ranging debate on the issue of “Leninist” parties. This happened because the party’s response to critics was that it had only upheld Leninist organizational norms. I don’t think I have much to say about the rape allegations except that the comrades who have complained seem to have a very strong case, and I believe them. But I’m thousands of miles away.

I do very much have an opinion on the idea that the SWP leadership was just defending Leninism. And that opinion can be summarized in one word: Bullshit! 

At least if by “Leninism” what is meant is what Lenin believed, advocated and practiced. Quite simply, I don’t think Lenin was a “Leninist.” And I think it is baby-simple to demonstrate.

read full article: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=7727

March 12, 2013

A Tale of Two Parties: The British and American SWPs

Filed under: Lenin,sectarianism,separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 7:56 pm

Jack Barnes, American SWP leader

Charlie Kimber, British SWP leader

by Pham Binh on March 12, 2013

in analysis

The SWP Spring is over, and it has gone the way of Prague instead of Tahrir. The SWP’s opposition demanded the downfall of the regime; they fought vainly and valiantly, and now over 70 members, including the party’s future brain trust, Richard Seymour and China Miéville, have issued a collective resignation statement after the opposition’s defeat at a rigged special conference.

The house that Tony Cliff built (on faulty foundations) has cracked irreparably. The husk that remains is destined to endure in a state of permanent decay only because no one cares enough to front the money for the bulldozing it deserves for systematically covering up rapes and sexual assaults by its higher-ups for many years.

The American SWP’s present is the British SWP’s future.

And what of the opposition? Freed from “Leninist” party discipline, the International Socialist Network (ISN) will use their blog, a new email list, and other 21st century methods to publicly debate, discuss, theorize, and organize supporters of the Cliff tradition in a recapitulation of the SWP’s predecessor, the International Socialists (IS).

It seems that the apple never falls far from the tree.

Read full article

February 1, 2013

A reply to Paul Le Blanc

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

Paul Le Blanc

Paul Le Blanc of the International Socialist Organization just wrote an article titled “Leninism is Unfinished” that tries to circumnavigate the differences between my approach, that of Alex Callinicos, and his own.

I will turn to Paul’s article but only after providing some background. I have been debating these questions with him since 1998 when he still shared the perspectives of The Fourth Internationalist Tendency, a small group that had recently disbanded and entered Solidarity as a group. The FIT had operated as an expelled faction trying to persuade the SWP of the United States to return to its gloried past. I certainly hope that the British comrades don’t get any silly ideas in the course of reading back issues of the FIT’s magazine about wooing their own leadership back to Planet Earth.

Unlike me, Paul viewed the American SWP’s collapse as a function of a radicalization that had run out of steam combined with Jack Barnes’s abnormal psychology. Although I put little stock in the psychological angle, I did get a smile when reading this:

The impact of Barnes in the SWP is a reflection not of Leninist principles or the tradition of Cannon, but of basic human psychological dynamics. The functioning of some SWP members, responding to the powerful personality and tremendous authority that Barnes assumed, brings to mind Freud’s insights on group psychology: ‘the individual gives up his ego-ideal [i.e., individual sense of right and wrong, duty, and guilt] and substitutes for it the group-ideal as embodied in the leader.’ The authority of the leader (in the minds of at least many members) becomes essential for the cohesion of the group, and the approval of the leader, or a sense of oneness with the leader, becomes a deep-felt need that is bound up with one’s own sense of self- worth.

But why do we have so many crazy Trotskyist leaders? Were they crazy to start with or does the burden of being “the Lenin of today” make people crazy? When you get Pablo, Posadas, Moreno in Latin America, and Gerry Healy, Jack Barnes, and now Charlie Kimber in the English-speaking world carrying on like the cast of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, you have to wonder if it is something in the way these organizations are structured rather than their qualification to be listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual.

I want to start off with a clarification. Paul states my article contains a contradiction, namely that I defend Lenin’s approach even though I blame “the Zinovievist Comintern of the 1920s, which Trotsky adopted as a model” for the British SWP’s problems, as well as the American group of the same name that is virtually extinct. He wonders if a more appropriate title for my essay would have been: “Cominternism is Dead, Long Live Genuine Leninism!” and drives the point home with this: “Among the many problems…is the fact that the 1920s Communist International of Zinoviev and Trotsky was also the Comintern of Lenin himself.” So how can I be critical of Lenin when he launched the Comintern, not Zinoviev?

I don’t expect Paul to be familiar with my thinking on Lenin’s role in all this, but I have written:

There are no shortcuts in building revolutionary parties, but the overwhelming tendency in “Marxism-Leninism” is to do things in the name of expediency… Unfortunately, this type of behavior is deeply ingrained in the Communist movement and got its start in the very early days of the Comintern, even when Lenin was in charge.

This is an excerpt from my article on The Comintern and German Communism that takes pretty strenuous exception to how Lenin treated Paul Levi, despite being applied in the name of “democratic centralism”. If Lenin’s organizational principles of the early 1920s represent the fruition of some sort of breach with the Kautskyite orthodoxy of “What is to Be Done”, then I’ll stick with the old soft drink rather than the new and improved formula.

What the Communist Party of the Soviet Union tried to do immediately after taking power was to create a model that other parties could follow. The first clear statement on organizational guidelines appeared in July of 1921. They stipulate: “to carry out daily party work every member should as a rule belong to a small working group, a committee, a commission, a fraction, or a cell. Only in this way can party work be distributed, conducted, and carried out in an orderly fashion.” It is not hard to understand where this kind of mechanical application of the Bolshevik experience was coming from. When you have a successful revolution, there is a tendency to write cookbooks with recipes for every occasion. That happened with the Cuban Revolution as well, the sad evidence being Che’s ill-fated venture in Bolivia based on Regis Debray’s “Revolution in the Revolution”.

Lenin was uneasy with these guidelines, writing “At the third congress in 1921 we adopted a resolution on the structure of communist parties and the methods and content of their activities. It is an excellent resolution, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is taken from Russian conditions.” I think if he had lived longer, he might have dumped them altogether. Indeed, the fact that he was considering moving the Comintern to another country showed his grasp of problems that would only deepen.

The remainder of Paul’s article gets into the minutiae of how democratic centralism was understood variously by Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. I would prefer to deal with a question that is not addressed in the article but one that is essential to the tasks that face us today. Ironically, they are very much bound up with the opening words of Leon Trotsky’s “Transitional Program” that are embraced by some of the worst sectarians on the planet: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” The sectarians feel that forging a revolutionary program and recruiting cadre around it can resolve the crisis. This is how James P. Cannon, Tony Cliff and every other Trotskyist of note started out.

But I don’t think that Trotsky really understood how the crisis could be resolved. It was not by launching small propaganda groups that competed with each other, like small businesses each advertising its unique product line. Instead it requires building a framework that will allow the natural leadership of the working class to come together in a common framework.

Here is the problem. Ever since I have been involved with the left, there have been exceptional individuals who have emerged in the mass movement with socialist politics but who belong to no group. For example, many of the left wing leaders in the trade union movement are unaffiliated. The same thing is true with the Black, Latino, women’s and gay movements. I estimate that the layer of revolutionary leaders steeled in the struggle numbers in the tens of thousands.

The same situation confronted Lenin in 1903. He proposed that a newspaper be created that could provide a framework for the already existing working-class leadership that had no party. When there was a massive social democratic consciousness in Czarist Russia that had spread like a wildfire from Western Europe, the primary task was to help link up people like Kamenev, Bukharin, Trotsky, Plekhanov and Martov.

For example, Bukharin’s political life began at the age of 16 when he and his friend Ilya Ehrenburg built support for the 1905 revolution in student circles. The leadership of the Russian social democracy was men and women who had proven themselves in battle long before a party existed.

The problem with groups like the British SWP, the American SWP, the ISO et al is that they can never hope to attract the broad layers of such a leadership even though occasionally someone as talented as a Peter Camejo or a Richard Seymour is drawn into their ranks.

If you had visited Nicaragua in the 1980s, you would have met FSLN members who were neighborhood leaders of the fight against Somoza. They were leaders before they joined the FSLN. All the FSLN did was give the natural leadership of the Nicaraguan working class a vehicle for their aspirations. The same thing was true of the July 26th movement in Cuba. Ironically, despite the hatred directed against Stalinism from the Trotskyist movement, the Vietnamese CP was far more like the Bolsheviks than any section of the F.I. in this regard. I opposed the repression of the Trotskyists in Vietnam after WWII but like most of their co-thinkers they had no possibility of ever reaching the masses. Ho Chi Minh understood better.

In the final analysis, I don’t have any problem with the ISO being constituted as it is at present. They have little interest in the kind of approach I am laying out and know that if anybody spoke this way to me in 1969 when I was in the SWP I would have denounced them as petty bourgeois centrists, swamp dwellers, talk shop kibitzers, etc.

My appeal is really to independent-minded young people (and even some old fogies) in the tens of thousands who are sick and tired of the capitalist system and have learned to fight. They—we—need our own organization that can allow everybody to thrive within it and to draw upon each others’ abilities to move the struggle forward. I have seen encouraging signs of movement toward such a new approach and am sure that by the time my life is over a new period of revolutionary history will have begun.

I want to conclude with an article I wrote about a decade ago. I have posted it before but feel it is worth posting again since I have attracted many new readers since the last time it was posted. Instead of dealing in abstractions about how reach the workers, etc., it is a pretty specific set of proposals. I am no Lenin but I think the SWP would have been a lot better off if it had followed them.

The Speech that Jack Barnes Should Have Given in 1974

Comrades, 1974 is a year that in some ways marks the end of an era. The recent victory of the Vietnamese people against imperialism and of women seeking the right to safe and legal abortion are culminations of a decade of struggle. That struggle has proved decisive in increasing both the size and influence of the Trotskyist movement as our cadre threw their energy into building the antiwar and feminist movements. Now that we are close to 2,000 in number and have branches in every major city in the US, it is necessary to take stock of our role within the left and our prospects for the future.

In this report I want to lay out some radical new departures for the party that take into account both our growing influence and the changing political framework. Since they represent such a change from the way we have seen ourselves historically, I am not asking that we take a vote at this convention but urge all branches to convene special discussions throughout the year until the next convention when a vote will be taken. I am also proposing in line with the spirit of this new orientation that non-party individuals and organizations be invited to participate in them.


While our political work of the 1960s was a necessary “detour” from the historical main highway of the socialist movement, it is high time that we began to reorient ourselves. There are increasing signs that the labor movement is beginning to reject the class collaborationist practices of the Meany years. For example, just 4 short years ago in 1970, various Teamsters locals rejected a contract settlement agreed to by their president Frank Fitzsimmons and the trucking industry. They expected a $3.00 per hour raise but the contract settled for only $1.10. The rank and file went out on a wildcat strike that Fitzsimmons and the mainstream press denounced. Fitzsimmons probably had the student revolt on his mind, since he claimed that “Communists” were behind the teamster wild-cat strike. Nobody took this sort of red-baiting to heart anymore. The burly truck-drivers involved in the strike were the unlikeliest “Communists” one could imagine. The trucking industry prevailed upon President Richard Nixon to intercede in the strike at the beginning of May, but the student rebellion against the invasion of Cambodia intervened. The antiwar movement and the war itself had stretched the US military thin. National guardsmen who had been protecting scab truck- drivers occupied the Kent State campuses where they shot five students protesting the war. In clear defiance of the stereotype of American workers, wildcat strikers in Los Angeles regarded student antiwar protesters as allies and invited them to join teamster picket lines. The wildcat strikes eventually wound down, but angry rank and file teamsters started the first national reform organization called Teamsters United Rank and File (TURF).

It is very important for every branch to investigate opportunities such as these and to invite comrades to look into the possibility of taking jobs in those industries where such political opportunities exist. What will not happen, however, is a general turn toward industry that many small Marxist groups made in the 1960s in an effort to purify themselves. Our work in the trade unions is not an attempt to “cleanse” the party but rather to participate in the class struggle which takes many different forms. We are quite sure that when comrades who have begun to do this kind of exciting work and report back to the branches that we will see others anxious to join in.


We simply have to stop observing this movement from the sidelines. There is a tendency on the left to judge it by the traditional middle-class organizations such as the Audubon Club. There are already signs of a radicalization among many of the younger activists who believe that capitalism is at the root of air and water pollution, etc. Since the father of the modern environmental movement is an outspoken Marxist, there is no reason why we should feel like outsiders. Our cadre have to join the various groups that are springing up everywhere and pitch in to build them, just as we built the antiwar and feminist groups. If activists have problems with the record of socialism on the environment based on the mixed record of the USSR, we have to explain that there were alternatives. We should point to initiatives in the early Soviet Union when Lenin endorsed vast nature preserves on a scale never seen in industrialized societies before. In general we have to be the best builders of a new ecosocialist movement and not succumb to the sort of sectarian sneering that characterizes other left groups who regard green activists as the enemy.


This will strike many comrades as controversial, but I want to propose that we probably were mistaken when stood apart from all the various pro-NLF committees that were doing material aid and educational work. We characterized them as ultraleft, whereas in reality those activists who decided to actually identify with the Vietnamese liberation movement were exactly the kind that we want to hook up with. In the United States today there are thousands of activists organized in committees around the country who are campaigning on a similar basis for freedom for the Portuguese colonies in Africa, against neo-colonialism in Latin America, etc. Nearly all of them are Marxist. Their goals and ours are identical. While we have had a tendency to look down our noses at them because many of the insurgencies they were supporting were not Trotskyist, we have to get over that. For us to continue to regard the revolutionary movement in a Manichean fashion where the Trotskyists are the good forces and everybody else is evil is an obstacle not only to our own growth, but the success of the revolutionary movement overall. This leads me to the next point.


One of the things I hope never to hear again in our ranks is the reference to other socialists as our “opponents”. Let’s reflect on what that kind of terminology means. It says two things, both of which are equally harmful. On one hand, it means that they are our enemies on a permanent basis. When you categorize another left group in this fashion, it eliminates the possibility that they can change. This obviously is not Marxist, since no political group–including ourselves–is immune from objective conditions. Groups can shift to the left or to the right, depending on the relationship of class forces. The SWP emerged out of a merger with other left-moving forces during the 1930s and we should be open to that possibility today.

The other thing that this reflects is that somehow the SWP is like a small business that competes for market share with other small businesses, except that we are selling revolution rather than air conditioners or aluminum siding. We have to get that idea out of our heads. We are all struggling for the same goal, which is to change American society. We only disagree on the best way to achieve that.

Unfortunately we have tended to exaggerate our differences with other small groups in such a way as to suggest we had a different product. This goes back for many years as indicated in this quote from a James P. Cannon speech to the SWP convention nearly 25 years ago. “We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.”

Comrades, we have to conduct an open and sharp struggle against this kind of attitude. The differences between the SWP and many other left groups is not that great and we have to figure out ways to work with them on a much more cooperative basis. For example, La Raza Unida Party in Texas shares many of our assumptions about the 2-party system and they are open to socialist ideas, largely through the influence of the left-wing of the party which has been increasingly friendly to the Cuban Revolution. We should think about the possibilities of co-sponsoring meetings with them around the question of Chicano Liberation and socialism. The same thing would be true of the Puerto Rican Independence movement in the United States, which shares with us a positive attitude toward the Cuban revolution. In terms of the Marxist movement per se, we have to find ways to work more closely with the activists around the Guardian newspaper. While many of them continue to have Maoist prejudices, there are others who have been friendly to our work in the antiwar movement. The idea is to open discussion and a sure way to cut discussion off is to regard them as “opponents”. Our only true opponents are in Washington, DC.

This new sense of openness to other groups on the left has organizational consequences that I will now outline.


Much of our understanding of “democratic centralism” has been shaped by James P. Cannon’s writings. Although the notion of 500 to 1500 people united ideologically around a homogenous program has a lot to recommend itself, it can only go so far in building a revolutionary party. This was Cannon’s contribution. He showed how a small band of cadre dedicated to Trotsky’s critique of Stalin could emerge as a serious force on the American left.

Although this will sound like heresy to most of you, I want to propose that Cannon’s writings are a roadblock to further growth, especially in a period when Stalinism is not a hegemonic force. In reality, Lenin’s goal was to unite Russian Marxism, which existed in scattered circles. Our goal should be identical. Despite our commitment to Trotsky’s theories, we are not interested in constructing a mass Trotskyist movement. That would be self-defeating. Many people who are committed to Marxism are not necessarily committed to Trotsky’s analysis of the Spanish Civil War, WWII, etc. We should take the same attitude that Lenin took toward the Russian left at the turn of the century. We should serve as a catalyst for uniting Marxists on a national basis.

Are we afraid to function in a common organization with Castroists, partisans of the Chinese Revolution, independent Marxists of one sort or another? Not at all. We should not put a barrier in the way of unity with the tens of thousands of Marxists in the United States, many who hold leading positions in the trade union and other mass movements. The only unity that interests us is the broad unity of the working people and their allies around class struggle principles. Our disagreements over historical and international questions can be worked out in a leisurely fashion in the party press. In fact we would encourage public debates over how to interpret such questions in our press, since they can make us even more attractive to people investigating which group to join. It is natural that you would want to join a group with a lively internal life.

This question of ‘democratic centralism’ has to be thoroughly reviewed. Although the Militant will be running a series of articles on “Lenin in Context” this year, which explores the ways in which this term was understood by the Bolsheviks and then transformed by his epigones, we can state with some assuredness right now that it was intended to govern the actions of party members and not their thoughts. The Bolshevik Party, once it voted on a strike, demonstration, etc., expected party members to function under the discipline of the party to build such actions. It never intended to discipline party members to defend the same political analysis in public. We know, for example, that there are different interpretations of Vietnamese Communism in our party. We should not expect party members to keep their views secret if they are in the minority. This is not only unnatural–it leads to cult thinking.


As many of these proposals seem radically different from the principles we’ve operated on in the past, I want to make sure that all disagreements–especially from older cadre who worked side by side with James P. Cannon–are given proper consideration. The last thing we want is to railroad the party into accepting this new orientation. Since a revolution can only be made by the conscious intervention of the exploited and oppressed masses into the historical process, its party must encourage the greatest expression of conscious political decision-making. There are no shortcuts to a revolution. And there are no shortcuts to building a revolutionary party.

January 30, 2013

Mangling the Issues: Callinicos, “Leninism,” and Austerity

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 5:05 pm

by Pham Binh on January 30, 2013

Before dealing with what passes for substance in Callinicos’ defense of “Leninism,” one thing needs to be made clear: the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) does not “organise the way the Bolsheviks organised under Lenin’s leadership in the years leading up to the October Revolution.”

The Bolsheviks were a continuously existing faction of a broader multi-tendency Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) for nearly 20 years until factions were banned at the 10th party congress in 1921. The SWP bans factions during 9 out of 12 months of the year on pain of expulsion.

In the Bolsheviks’ party,1 the RSDLP, which changed its name to the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) in 1918, branches enjoyed local autonomy not just over when and where to hold paper sales but over political decisions like election tactics. Not so for the SWP.

full: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=5319

January 29, 2013

Is Zinovievism finished?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 4:04 pm

(The article is unsigned but presumably from an SWP member.)

Jan 29

Is Zinovievism finished? A reply to Alex Callinicos

Alex Callinicos’ article on the crisis in the SWP purports to be a defence of Leninism in the face of a ‘flood of attacks’ – by which Alex means the crisis that has engulfed the party over the mishandled investigation of allegations of rape and sexual harassment against a Central Committee member.

The piece does nothing of the sort, but is rather an encapsulation of the flaws that have brought us to this pass. It is clearly intended as an opening salvo in the CC’s response to the growing opposition within the party. In particular it draws on the long tradition of dealing with dissent over particular issues by means of the absurd implication that that dissent is an attack on the heritage of the October revolution, accompanied by an airy dismissal of the actual facts. This maneouvre assumes the following equivalences: that ‘revolutionary party’ means the model of democratic centralism adopted by the SWP in the 1970s, that this model replicates that of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the decisions of the current leadership therefore embody the legitimacy of that revolution, which we can expect to be replicated in the conditions of the UK in the 21st century. This is pure substitutionalism – and on its own measure of providing ‘strong interventionist leadership’ is a complete failure.

First of all, take note that this is the first public intervention by a CC member, with the exception of the re-posting of an internal Party Notes statement. Alex’s article is clearly similarly aimed at an internal audience: no one could use these arguments in their workplace to defend the SWP, for which the ‘strong interventionist’ leadership is supposed to provide the means.  If members doubt this, they might test it in practice.  When asked about allegations of a rape cover up in the SWP, by a workmate or fellow student or union activist, give Alex Callinicos’s answer: euphemise about a ‘difficult disciplinary case’ and then mention that Owen Jones is a Labour supporter.  See if that works.  See if the Party still has their respect next time it launches an initiative.  Then consider that the CC, having brought about this situation by their decisions, expect you to do what they will not, which is defend it in public.

Of course, it may be possible that your activist or trade unionist comrade has simply been misled by the gossip and half-truths of the ‘dark side of the internet’. Incidentally, this blimpish insult is a disgrace: it implies that comrades concerned about the treatment of an allegation of rape and sexual harassment within the SWP are equivalent to child pornographers and 401 scammers. Alex brushes aside the offline ‘real world’ motions calling for an emergency conference passed (at the time of writing) at  8 SWP branches, the motions critical of the CC passed at a further 8 and the statements of opposition issued by 13 SWSS groups. But what are the internet lies and half-truths? Alex does not tell us, but instead attempts to introduce into circulation an evasive euphemism by referring only to a ‘disciplinary case’. Everyone knows this is an allegation of rape and sexual harassment. What are the ‘lies’ circulating about it? Are they:

1) That a complaint was made in July 2010 against comrade Delta? Alex may rely on the bureaucratic claim that no formal complaint was made to the Disputes Commission: this contradicts basic common sense as well as the introduction given by the DC member who opened the 2013 conference session, who referred to an  ‘informal complaint’ in July 2010 and mentioned ‘how the complaint was handled in 2010.’

2) That the nature of this complaint was obfuscated and the impression given that it was merely a case of unhappiness in a failed relationship? If so, why did the CC use conference time on a personal matter?

3) That the disputes commission into the complaint issued in September 2012 contained 5 close colleagues and associates of comrade Delta, and 2 members of the Central Committee on which he sat?

4) That one member of the DC found that it was likely that Comrade Delta had committed sexual harassment and that the rest found the case ‘not proven’ not  that Delta was exonerated as a ‘member in good standing’? The DC ruled ‘not guilty’ on the charge of rape: they therefore distinguished between ‘not guilty’ and ‘not proven’. This implies that the CC believe that a member whom the DC consider may be a sexual harasser – to a degree significant enough not to be given the protection of a ‘not guilty’ decision – is still ‘in good standing.’

5) That the complainant was denied the right to put her side of the case to conference in 2013?

6) That a second woman, having complained of sexual harassment by Delta, did not have confidence in the DC to deal with her complaint because of the way in which it had dealt with the first case?

7) That the women involved were asked questions about their drinking and relationship habits? They claim to have been: if Alex denies this, he is saying they are liars, not the internet.

Which of these are lies? If they are not lies, how on earth are comrades meant to defend these points to the class? Perhaps we are to rely on the notion that SWP members possess a ‘political morality’ that ensures they adjudicate correctly whether their comrades have raped someone. Try that also –there is no way it would be accepted by anyone outside the SWP, and hopefully not by many within it. Would you accept that argument of any other organization? It cannot withstand scrutiny from our own comrades in the (avowedly Leninist) sister organisations of the International Socialist Tendency, leading members of which are now participating in a boycott of SWP events and publications – let alone the wider layers of the class and its organisations which we formerly called ‘our periphery’ but to which Alex now refers as ‘Owen Jones and his like’.

What has this to do with the defence of Leninism? It is linked, although not in the way that Alex imagines: that because the conference voted for (by a handful of votes and not a majority of the delegates) the DC report, the matter is now closed.  Alex simply makes a banal statement about majority votes being binding (as they are in Trade Unions, rugby clubs, Parliament, corporate AGMs…) without specifying the actual debate that is currently going on. It is the current model of party organization in the SWP that leads to the disconnection from reality behind the defence of Comrade Delta and the paralytic response to the crisis it has engendered. Alex suggests that this model bears the legitimacy of the October revolution and that those who depart from it have abandoned the project of working-class revolution. Let us state clearly: this claim is false. The Bolshevik leadership of 1917 was elected individually. There was no ban on factions. On the eve of the October Revolution, Zinoviev and Kamenev publicly opposed the insurrection in Maxim Gorky’s newspaper (the ‘dark side’ of the printing press, perhaps) and resigned from the Bolshevik Central Committee. They were not expelled from the Party.

The model operated currently by the SWP is not that of the Bolshevik revolution. It is a version of the Zinovievite model adopted during the period of “Bolshevisation” in the mid-1920s and then honed by ever smaller and more marginal groups. When Alex implies that somehow we have developed a ‘distilled’ version of Bolshevik democratic centralism he is not holding to the tradition of October: it is asking us to choose the model that has led to three of the most serious crises in the SWP’s history in quick succession over the model that actually did lead the October revolution.

Alex concedes in passing that there are different models of democratic centralism, but ends by effectively arguing that there is really only one: the model which currently exists in the SWP. But merely invoking the term “democratic centralism” does not tell you anything about which level of decision get made by which people, how frequently decisions are made or what mechanisms should exist for review, let alone how to elect a Central Committee or of whom it should be consist. Two examples will show how our current model is weighted towards centralism at the expense of democracy.

The first is in relation to decision making. According to the theory, conference discusses and decides (democracy) and then comrades, including those who opposed the agreed position, carry out the decisions (centralism). Fine: but what does conference actually decide? It is presented with a series of general perspective documents which are usually so bland and platitudinous that it is virtually impossible to disagree with them: the economic crisis is not going to be resolved, times are hard but there are also opportunities, we must not be complacent over the threat of fascism, and so on. To agree with this kind of statement is not to make a decision over strategy or tactics, or anything specific enough for the CC to be held to account. The real decisions about actual policy – to establish united fronts, to join electoral coalitions – are almost always made by the CC itself between conferences, with conference asked to ratify them after the event.

The second is in relation to the composition of the CC. The CC self-selects: it has an agreed political perspective; when someone dies or resigns it chooses as replacements comrades who agree – or who are thought to agree – with that perspective; at no point is the chain ever broken by open political debate. And if the perspective is wrong? The problems extend to the membership of the CC. What are the requirements of a potential CC member? There are apparently two: that they should live in or around London and that – with a handful of exceptions – they are full-time employees of the party. So – the comrades who are eligible for membership of the CC are those who until their selection have been paid to carry out the decisions of the previous CC and who, because they tend to have been students beforehand, rarely have any direct experience of the class struggle. How can a leadership this narrow be capable of forming an accurate perspective?

To deal with one diversionary objection: to complain about the composition of the CC is not to demand that ‘federalist’ structure. We do not want a CC in which its members represent trade unionists, or community activists or students – but we do want a CC which embodies the actual experience of these groups. Some roles on the CC can only ever be carried out by full-timers, notably the editor of Socialist Worker and the national Secretary, but the balance should always be towards those for whom the experience of the “real world” is inescapable.

After the catastrophes of the last five years a measure of humility would also be welcome. Alex is part of the ‘strong, interventionist’ leadership that has presided over this disaster with no effective response, following on from a period of near permanent crisis that began with the failure of the Respect adventure – for which Alex surely also bears some collective responsibility, as a member of the CC at the time. When will this strong, interventionist leadership ever hold itself responsible for what happens on its watch? What do they think has gone wrong? If they can’t manage this, how will they cope in a revolution?

We agree with Alex that the SWP is the best hope for developing a revolutionary party in in Britain. It has at least two great historic achievements to its credit in the Anti-Nazi League and its successors, and the Stop the War Coalition – movements which actually helped to change aspects of British society for the better, particularly in relation to racism. They are among the reasons why have remained members in spite of the obstacles which successive leaderships have thrown up to democracy in the party. But if the SWP is ever to achieve its full potential the current situation cannot be allowed to continue.

Alex reiterates that if the SWP did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. We agree – and that for the party to continue to exist, it is necessary to reinvent it. This is not alien to our tradition: perhaps it is best to leave the last word to one of its brightest lights, David Widgery in his review of the third volume of Cliff’s biography of Lenin:

“The blossoming-blighting process which Cliff documents froze over Leninism and only mass revolutionary working-class action is able to melt it from its icy limbo. Lenin is therefore trapped in his moment, surrounded by a thicket and awaiting political rescue: ‘An old communist conceives an embryo of longing’. One day, his Modern Prince will come. Until he is woken with the proletarian kiss, the problem is not that Leninism has failed, but that it has not been tried.”

The time for Leninism to be tried is now long overdue.

January 28, 2013

Leninism is finished: a reply to Alex Callinicos

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 9:24 pm

Alex Callinicos

After a month’s worth of attack on the SWP leadership, including from its own members, Alex Callinicos has taken to the pages of Socialist Review (“Is Leninism Finished?”) to frame the fight in terms of a defense of Leninist orthodoxy. I think this is useful since it helps to crystallize the broader issues facing this fairly important group in Britain and the socialist movement internationally: is the “democratic centralist” model that is the hallmark of aspiring “vanguard” parties appropriate to our tasks today?

Just over 30 years ago the American SWP was going through a profound crisis involving the democratic rights of its membership. The Barnes leadership had decided to dump Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution overboard in a bid to make itself more acceptable to what it saw as an emerging new revolutionary international with Havana functioning as a pole of attraction. When many long-time members, including those who had worked closely with Trotsky, fought to have a debate over this change, Barnes decided to forgo a constitutionally mandated party convention and began expelling members on trumped-up charges.

I had left the SWP by this point but was so disturbed by these developments that I began calling comrades I respected. Les Evans was a member of a group of expelled members who hoped to resurrect the “good, old SWP”, a task tantamount to reassembling Humpty-Dumpty.

My next phone call was to Peter Camejo, who had been expelled mostly because he was an independent thinker popular with the membership–a terrible threat to the SWP’s leader. After he began figuring out that the party he had belonged to for decades was on a suicidal sectarian path, he took a leave of absence to go to Venezuela and read Lenin with fresh eyes. This was one of the first things he told me over the phone: “Louis, we have to drop the democratic centralism stuff”. That is what he got out of reading Lenin. I was convinced that he was right and spent the better part of the thirty years following our phone conversation spreading that message to the left.

In the early 80s it was a tougher sale to make. Back then orthodox Trotskyist parties, and ideologically heterodox parties like the British SWP, did little investigation into the actual history of the Russian social democracy and were content to follow organizational guidelines based on what someone like James P. Cannon filtered down to them through books such as “Struggle for a Proletarian Party” or Tony Cliff’s Lenin biography.

Largely through the efforts of Lars Lih, it has become more and more difficult to ignore the historical record. The publication of his 808 page Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context was like Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door in 1517, except in this case it was the door of the Marxist-Leninist church. Unlike Peter Camejo or me, Lih was not interested in building a new left. He was mainly interested in correcting the record. As a serious scholar with a deep command of the Russian language, he was quite capable of defending his thesis, namely that Lenin sought nothing more than to create a party based on the German social democracy in Russia. There was never any intention to build a new kind of party, even during the most furious battles with the Mensheviks who after all (as Lih convincingly makes the case) were simply a faction of the same broad party that Lenin belonged to.

The British SWP has been deferential to Lih, whose scholarship was beyond reproach, but at pains to dismiss its implications. The September 2010 issue of Historical Materialism organized a symposium on Lih’s research in which they made the case for “Leninism” as they understood it. While HM is largely inaccessible to the unwashed masses (where was Aaron Swartz when we needed him?), you can read SWP’er Paul Blackledge’s contribution at http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=218. We can assume that he was speaking for Callinicos and the SWP leadership when he wrote:

The novelty of this form of organisation was less than obvious in the early part of the last century, and Lih is right to point out that Lenin was attempting to build something like the German SPD in Russia. Nonetheless, it is also true that Lenin did succeed in building something different, and better, than the SPD. It is in this respect, I think that Lih is wrong to reject Georg Lukács’s interpretation of Lenin, upon which many of the activists have based their analyses.

When I first ran across the British SWP on the Internet back in the early 90s, I never would have dreamed that they would have ended up with such a horrible scandal on their hands. I was impressed with both their theoretical prowess and with their work in the British antiwar movement. My only caveat was that their organizational model would prevent them from breaking through a glass ceiling imposed by their sectarian habits. I put it this way:

I believe that the methodology of the [American] SWP was flawed from the outset. In its less lethal permutations, such as the Tony Cliff or Ted Grant variety or the SWP of the early 1970s, you end up with a “healthy” group but one that is destined to hit a glass ceiling because of its self-imposed “vanguardist” assumptions. In a nutshell, the group sees itself as the nucleus of the future revolutionary party no matter how much lip service is given to fusing with other groups during a prerevolutionary period, etc. In its more lethal versions, you end up with Gerry Healy or Jack Barnes where megalomania rules supreme.

Apparently some SWP members were grappling with the same problem as I discovered from a document written by Neil Davidson for their 2008 convention (it can be read on a blog devoted to a discussion of the SWP crisis. Davidson writes:

The problem is rather that there seems to be a limit beyond which the Party is unable to grow. In 1977, shortly after International Socialism (IS) had transformed itself into the SWP, Hallas wrote in The Socialist Register that “the SWP is ‘something approaching a small party’. But a small party has no merit unless it can become a much bigger party”.

I imagine that if Martin Smith had not been such a sexist pig, the SWP would have meandered along in this fashion for a number of years. Like a match thrown into a room filled with gasoline fumes, the rape incident and the Central Committee’s role in covering it up has provoked a crisis threatening the very existence of the party.

Returning to Callinicos’s article, I was struck by his exasperation over how “internal” party matters have spilled over into the Internet:

One thing the entire business has reminded us of is the dark side of the Internet. Enormously liberating though the net is, it has long been known that it allows salacious gossip to be spread and perpetuated – unless the victim has the money and the lawyers to stop it. Unlike celebrities, small revolutionary organisations don’t have these resources, and their principles stop them from trying to settle political arguments in the bourgeois courts.

In a nutshell, this is the same mindset that is on display at MIT, the elite institution that insisted on prosecuting Aaron Swartz for purloining JSTOR documents. Like the Gutenberg printing press that made possible generations of revolutionary-minded print publications like Iskra, the Internet is the communications medium for 21st century socialism. If anything has become clear, the “internal” documents of the SWP cannot be bottled up behind a firewall. In the same way that a Madonna video will make its way into Pirate’s Bay, some controversial SWP document will get leaked to the wretched Andy Newman’s Socialist Unity website. I am not even taking a position on whether this is reflecting the “dark side” of the Internet–only that this is the reality we operate under.

But more to the point, there really is no basis for revolutionary socialist organizations to keep their business internal. This was not the case in Lenin’s day, nor should it be the case today whether we are communicating through the printed page or on the Internet. This idea that we discuss our differences behind closed doors every couple of years during preconvention discussion was alien to the way that the Russian social democracy operated. They debated in public. We are obviously more familiar with Lenin’s open polemics with the Mensheviks that some might interpret as permissible given that a cold split had taken place (a false interpretation as Pham Binh and Lars Lih have pointed out.) But even within the Bolsheviks, there was public debate as demonstrated over their differences on whether the bourgeois press should be shut down.

In John Reed’s “10 Days that Shook the World”, there is a reference to divided votes among party members over key questions such as whether to expropriate the bourgeois press. At a November 17th 1917 mass meeting, Lenin called for the confiscation of capitalist newspapers. Reed quotes him: “If the first revolution had the right to suppress the Monarchist papers, then we have the right to suppress the bourgeois press.” He continues: “Then the vote. The resolution of Larin and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries was defeated by 31 to 22; the Lenin motion was carried by 34 to 24. Among the minority were the Bolsheviki Riazanov and Lozovsky, who declared that it was impossible for them to vote against any restriction on the freedom of the press.”

Get it? Lenin and Riazanov debated at a mass meeting and then voted against each other. This was normal Bolshevik functioning. All discipline meant was a deputy voting according to instructions from the party’s central committee, etc. For example, if Alex Callinicos was elected to Parliament and instructed to vote against funding the war in Iraq, and then voted for funding, the party would be entitled to expel him.

Instead, democratic centralism in the Fourth International parties, and in parties following such a model like Callinicos’s International Socialist Tendency, has meant something entirely different. Discipline has meant enforcing  ideological conformity. For example, it would be virtually impossible for SWP members in Britain to take a position on Cuba identical to the American SWP’s and vice versa. As it turns out, this is a moot point since most members become indoctrinated through lectures and classes after joining the groups and tend to toe the line, often responding to peer pressure and the faith that their party leaders must know what is right.

Keeping watch on the ideological purity of the group leads to the formation of a priesthood that is in the best position to interpret the holy writings, whether of Trotsky, Tony Cliff, Ted Grant, or whoever. When they are also full-time functionaries, their power is magnified. For a rank-and-file member of such parties to raise a stink over some questionable strategy or tactic is almost unheard of. It takes something like a rape to get people mobilized apparently.

Virtually none of the latest thinking on the problematic of “democratic centralism” is reflected in Callinicos’s article. Instead he uses the term “Leninism” as a kind of shorthand for revolutionary politics that the SWP is defending against what he views as Owen Jones’s Labourite opportunism. Callinicos describes Jones as a “an increasingly high profile member of the Labour Party.” This is the same party that rests on a trade union leadership that “is a conservative force within the workers’ movement.” To cap it off, Callinicos draws from the same poisoned well that goes back to the Soviet Union of the 1920s:

Despite his radical rhetoric and the excellent stance he takes in the media on specific issues, Jones is defending an essentially conservative position, lining up with Labour and the trade union leaders.

In other words, Callinicos is resorting to the “scratch to gangrene” method of attack that is the hallmark of the Trotskyist movement going back to the late 1930s and to the Zinovievist Comintern of the 1920s, which Trotsky adopted as a model. It is basically a way of stigmatizing your adversary as reflecting “alien class forces”. To protect the integrity of the party, you must ward off the disease-carrying agents of the ruling class.

Jones has it right. This kind of disgusting “Leninist” politics belongs not only to the twentieth century but a socialist politics debased by the USSR’s “dark side”. We need a new way of functioning, one that is free from the sectarian “us versus them”, small proprietor mentality of groups like the SWP as currently constituted.

In Jones’s Independent article—as opposed to the straw man that Callinicos erected–he called for the following:

What is missing in British politics is a broad network that unites progressive opponents of the Coalition. That means those in Labour who want a proper alternative to Tory austerity, Greens, independent lefties, but also those who would not otherwise identify as political, but who are furious and frustrated. In the past two years of traipsing around the country, speaking to students, workers, unemployed and disabled people, I’ve met thousands who want to do something with their anger. Until now, I have struggled with an answer.

This is simply another way of stating that something like a British SYRIZA is necessary. Perhaps anticipating the struggle that has broken out now, Richard Seymour defended the Greek multi-tendency electoral formation in an open challenge to the SWP leadership.

I have no idea how the fight in the SWP will be resolved but I have a strong feeling that if the current gang is removed from the leadership, the party can be a powerful catalyst in moving Britain in the direction that Owen Jones outlined and that the revolutionary left contingent of SYRIZA in Greece is working toward. And if they are defeated, I would only hope that the comrades consider becoming part of a broad initiative that aims to unite the left on a nonsectarian basis.

In a post I wrote on the debate over SYRIZA on the left, I offered this conclusion. I think it is worth repeating:

Finally, I want to suggest that SYRIZA has much more in common with traditional Marxist concepts of a “revolutionary program” than many on the left realize. (I will be elaborating on this at some length in a pending article.) Our tendency is to mistake doctrine with program. For example, not long after I joined the SWP of the United States in 1967, I asked an old-timer up in party headquarters what our program was. (A Maoist friend had challenged me about our bona fides.) He waved his hand in the direction of our bookstore and replied, “It’s all there.” This meant having positions on everything from WWII to Kronstadt. Becoming a “cadre” meant learning the positions embodied in over a hundred pamphlets and books and defending them in public. Of course, this had much more in common with church doctrine than what Karl Marx had in mind when his Communist program sought, for example:

  • Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
  • Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.

When you stop and think about it, this is sort of the thing you can find in SYRIZA’s program. Maybe it is time for the left to rethink the question of how we demarcate parties? Instead of demanding that new members learn the catechism on controversial questions going back to the 1920s, they instead would be required to defend a class orientation in their respective arenas, like the trade union movement or the student movement, etc. That would make us a lot stronger than we are today. We need millions united in struggle, especially since the death rattle coming out of capitalism’s throat grows louder day-by-day.

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